Sunshine, p.28
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       Sunshine, p.28

           Robin McKinley
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Chapter 28


  He dealt in rare and valuable objects.

  She was hoping she'd got him, or soon would. What kind of rare and valuable objects?

  Con shrugged again, gently. Anything he could buy and sell. Jewelry, bric-a-brac, other ornaments. Small things mostly. Sometimes paintings, sculpture, larger furniture. He was very clever at it.

  I thought of his earth-place, and wondered if he was plugging in his master in the necessary role of human father. I wondered if his earth-place was anywhere near the lake. I wondered if vampires also felt that the best lies stick as near to the truth as possible, because it'll be easier remembering later what you said. I wondered if vampires really shrugged, or if this was verisimilitude, like having a father. He did it pretty well.

  The cross-examination went on. I wondered how much Con knew about human law; he could protest being held without explanation, he could protest the questioning. Perhaps he didn't want to. Perhaps staying human was enough of an effort, and he wasn't going to make waves. Perhaps he didn't mind. He certainly gave no impression of minding. I told myself that he was a vampire, and vampires don't give the impression of minding things, perhaps even when they are pretending to be human.

  It didn't occur to me that I might protest being held without explanation. I didn't want to encourage them to think about why they might want to hold me. It seemed to me they had too many good choices.

  But with a sudden cold drench of antidisintegration fear I wondered what time it was. How long had we been - occupied with Bo and his gang? It had still been deep dark when we'd run through those doors and straight into the SOF div waiting, presumably inadvertently, for us; but which end of the night was that deep dark? And how long had we been here?

  When was sunrise?

  When the goddess started asking me questions I had to come back a long way to focus on her words, to try to answer her. I was too shattered to be frightened at the same time as I was too shattered to be anything but frightened: to be able to think of a story to tell her, since I couldn't tell her the truth. In theory I had a lot less to lose than Con, but it didn't feel like it. I mean, all I'd done was destroy some vampires. Maybe I hadn't gone through the proper channels, but nailing vampires is always a plus. She should pin a medal on me. I didn't think she was going to.

  Watch your back, Sunshine.

  When Con and I had planned our confrontation with Bo, we hadn't thought about what happened after. Well, he may have, but if he had, he hadn't let me in on it. He wasn't a big talker. Also, after Bo, assuming that there was an after Bo, our reason for alliance was over; he probably hadn't thought there was anything to discuss.

  I sure hadn't thought about needing a good cover story. Who investigates the extermination of vampires? If we escaped, we'd've escaped, and it'd be over with. Of course we hadn't planned on blowing up No Town.

  The thought returned: after Bo, if there was an after Bo, there would be no reason for Con and me to have anything more to do with each other.

  The goddess was talking to me.

  Yes, Mr. Connor and I had met five months ago, during my - our - involuntary incarceration at the lake. No, I hadn't mentioned him before. Yes, perhaps I should have: but I had wanted to forget everything about that time, and I had not guessed I would meet him again. No, our meeting tonight was not planned, but no doubt it had something to do with our being drawn back, together, by the vampire we had escaped from those months ago.

  With crushing scorn the goddess declared, People don't escape from vampires.

  I had my one great moment then. I said that I guessed the vampire must have planned for us to escape, because it wanted to pull us back again later, after we thought we were safe.

  Even the goddess had to pause. I didn't think vampires played cat and mouse with their victims to such an extent as to let them run around loose for several months before putting a paw over them again, but vampires are indisputably unpredictable. And it maybe made a sort of teeny sense out of my com-system-exploding habits.

  Then how, she said between her teeth, do you explain how you escaped this time?

  All due respect, ma'am, said Pat, crisp and formal, not sounding like Pat at all, Some big sucker gang war, obviously. These two in the wrong place at the wrong time. Might explain how they got away last time too; some kind of sting, maybe.

  And why didn't we know about a gang war important enough to raze better than a third of No Town? snarled the goddess.

  Don't know, ma'am, said Pat, but we're going to find out.

  The goddess' next few questions to me were positively gentle. No, I couldn't remember how I - how we'd - escaped, five months ago. I didn't precisely remember that we'd escaped at all. The entire experience was very blurred in my memory. Shock no doubt. Ask Pat. I'd told him as much as I remembered. I guessed I remembered even less now.

  She didn't ask Pat. She'd read the file.

  She didn't mention the other night, and the circumstances under which I'd met her the first time. This should have felt like a respite. It didn't.

  She turned back to Con. What did he remember of the two days he'd spent chained up in the house by the lake? Or perhaps it had been more than two days in his case?

  No, he didn't remember it very well either. He thought it might have been longer than two days. He thought he remembered the young lady being brought in after him. He had been hiking, and had planned to be away from home for some time anyway. No, he didn't remember precisely how long he was gone. He had spent several days after he returned in something of a daze. He lived alone and had, thanks to his father's bequest, few responsibilities. No one had missed him. He had contacted no one after his ordeal. No, he apologized, it had not occurred to him to make a report to SOF either. He understood he should have. He would be happy to make a full report now, yes, but there wasn't much report to give. He remembered so little. No, it hadn't put him off living by the lake. He lived by a different part of the lake.

  And where was that again?

  On the southwest side.

  Near No Town.

  Not very near.

  The goddess let this pass, maybe because it was true. But then she began on this evening's events. Con was very sorry, but he didn't remember them clearly either. The notorious vampire glamour, he suggested, had confused him.

  He must remember something.

  He remembered standing at his front door, breathing the autumn-scented air, and watching the sun set.

  He must remember more than that.

  Con paused and looked thoughtful. He did this very well: understated but clear. Like the tone of his voice: not inscrutable vampire but reserved human male. Reticent as opposed to undead. He could have a great future in the theater, so long as no one expected him to do matinees.

  He remembered a great deal of confusion, and fear, and pain, and er - blood. He touched his blood-stiffened hair apologetically. And explosions. At some point he discovered Miss Seddon there with him amid the - er - uproar. He did not remember any other humans present, but he had not been looking for them. He had been looking for a way out, as had Miss Seddon. Naturally.

  Con closed his eyes momentarily at this point. I almost wanted to tell him not to overdo it.

  Naturally, said the goddess dryly. Mr. Connor, you seem to be taking all the uproar, as you put it, very calmly.

  Con spread his hands, and smiled faintly. He smiled. Really.

  It is over now, he said. What would you have me do?

  I would have you tell me the truth! she shouted.

  I jumped in my seat. I hadn't been watching her. I'd been watching Con, and the window blind. It was hard to see much; the blind was closed, the proofglass behind it would dull any light trying to come through it, and the goddess' office was brightly lit. But I was pretty sure the corners of the windows were a paler gray than they'd been when we came in.

  I looked at the goddess. I tried to look int
o the glaring shadows on her face, but I was very tired, and the shadows were layers thick. I could see nothing through them except more shadows. My head throbbed.

  But I could see her eyes. I didn't like what I saw. She couldn't have guessed, could she? She couldn't.

  What was there in some secret SOF archive? About vampires? About vampire-human alliances?

  Watch your back, Sunshine.

  Why would she be watching me? What was there in my file that had caught her eye? Something important enough to lay a fetch on me for?

  Something she had, after all, picked up during her illegal troll of me the night we met?

  Was she trolling me now? My head hurt so much I couldn't tell how much of it was her godsawful aura and how much was. . . just the way I was feeling. Had she tried to troll Con? If she had - no, wait, she couldn't've or he'd be staked and beheaded by now - okay, even if he had blocked her - what might the block tell her? Wouldn't a vampire block look - taste, smell, whatever - different than a human one? Or did Con's passing include the shape of his mind to a mind search?

  But being able to block a mind search was illegal too. Ordinary humans couldn't do it. Which meant anyone who did wasn't an ordinary human. And if you know something, you know it, even if you got that knowledge by proscribed means. Like by trolling without authority.

  It wasn't my back that needed watching at this moment. It was Con's. As well as his front, sides, top, bottom, and any other attached bits.

  I stared at the window. In the lower corner nearer me there was a tiny gap where the blind didn't fit true. I was sure I could see light coming in.

  The goddess had her back to the window. She had a huge desk - of course - that sprawled in front of it, but it was a big room, and there was plenty of space for her minions and Pat and his lot plus Con and me. Her desk was empty. Even her com gear was all shut away in a wall closet; I knew this because one of her vassals folded the doors back and sat down in front of it. There was a lot of it; it looked like it would take up the entire wall if the doors were pushed back all the way. I was glad I wasn't a techie. If I'd understood any of what I could see, I would have been even more jittery than I already was.

  There were now fifteen of us. She'd only had three flunkies when we entered, but when it turned out she wasn't going to be able to get rid of Pat one of them muttered into her wire and four more people had entered almost as soon as she'd finished speaking, marching nearly in lockstep. The goddess must keep them in a cupboard right outside her door for those moments when she needed to oppress a situation quickly. Maybe she chose people who wanted to spend their off-duty hours folded up in a drawer too, the better for rapid retrieval.

  We faced each other over her desk, them and us. Con and I sat in two chairs about six feet apart. Pat, keeping up the pretense that we were under defensive surveillance, had a pair of people behind each of our chairs. He leaned against the wall behind us, but off to one side, nearer Con; I could see him out of the corner of my eye without turning my head. His wire squeaked at him periodically; occasionally he muttered back. Once I saw him jerk his head up and stare at us - Con or me, I couldn't tell - after some very agitated squeaking. I wondered what his field people might be telling him about what they were finding in the remains of No Town. I wasn't used to seeing Pat wearing a wire. He hadn't any time I'd seen him at Charlie's. He hadn't when I visited his office downstairs here. He hadn't even when we drove out to the lake. The wire made him look a lot more threatening. More like a regular member of SOF, the huge national agency dedicated to protecting humans against the Other threat, which as one of its minor local operations had planted an illegal fetch on me.

  Even with a wire, Pat wasn't nearly as threatening as a vampire.

  Or as the goddess.

  Several of the flunkies' wires squeaked at them too. I saw them glancing at each other worriedly. Perhaps they always looked worried. Being the goddess' flunky can't have been an easy job, even if you have the personality for it.

  The goddess paraded up and down behind her desk, occasionally leaning on it for emphasis, occasionally coming round to the front to sit on the edge and stare at us. She ignored everyone else.

  I thought I saw her glance at the window too. Okay, I could make a dive for Con the moment she touched the blind, but that would give two things away simultaneously: what he was. And what I could do.

  The air in the room seemed to press against my skull like a tightening vise. Maybe it was just the goddess. I looked at my hands. I thought I could see tiny filaments of green or black running up the backs of them, running up my arms, like gangrene spreading from the site of infection. I couldn't see any sign of the golden web, even though the blanket wrapped around me had rubbed a lot of the blood off. I could see only green and black. Death as an infection. The infection had begun five months ago. Maybe I'd already died back at Bo's headquarters - perhaps when the scar on my breast reopened - and it hadn't quite caught up with me yet. Maybe Con had delayed the inevitable by making me - offering me his blood to drink. Undead blood was used to keeping dead people moving, after all. So maybe it didn't matter if I gave myself away. I was worm fodder as soon as the green and black filaments reached my beating heart.

  It did matter. I would be giving Con away too.

  I'm very sorry, Con was saying to the goddess. I know how thin my story sounds. But there is nothing else to tell you. It was all very baffling to me - to Miss Seddon and me - too.

  There was a little silence. I set my tea mug down on the floor, and groped in my pocket for my little knife, the knife that glowed with daylight even in the dark, the knife that burned Con if he touched it. I held it a moment before I pulled it out, wondering if I was dead - not undead, Con promised me I couldn't be turned, just dead, a new form of zombie perhaps, which would explain why my brain was refusing to work properly, why nothing seemed quite real, not even my fear. A zombie's brain always goes first, while sometimes their hearts go on beating. If I was dead, perhaps I couldn't save Con from the daylight any more either. The knife was warm in my hand. Body heat. But zombies are usually cool. Like all the undead. My knife was warm like the touch of a friend, against my gangrenous hand. Suddenly there were tears in my eyes. Do zombies weep?

  I pulled the knife out. I made all the effort I was capable of, to be here, to be present, in this room, with Con and Pat and the goddess of pain.

  "Pardon me," I said. "I want to return your knife before I - er - forget. " I should have said something about why I was remembering now rather than at some other moment, why I had Mr. Connor's knife in the first place, but I couldn't think of anything. I was at the end of my thinking. It was taking all my energy to be here.

  And I didn't know that it would work. It was merely the only thing I could imagine to try.

  Con turned toward me. He almost forgot to be human. When I tossed him the knife his hand moved toward where it was going to be. . . I felt him check himself. He plucked the knife out of the air a little too neatly, but not impossibly so. Not inhumanly. He caught it, and closed his fingers around it, rested his hand on his knee. The knife had disappeared. If there was anything to see as it burned him, if it burned him, if it was still full of daylight - of my sunshine - no one in the room would see. He set his tea mug down, so he still had one hand free. "Thank you," he said, and turned back to the goddess as if for her next question.

  We had our one bit of luck then. There was a wire-squeak so momentous, apparently, that one of the goddess' minions risked whispering it to her, and she was distracted, perhaps, from this curious business of Mr. Connor's knife. She wasn't very happy about whatever news the minion gave her, whatever it was.

  Then she sighed, elaborately, as if releasing tension. As if asking everyone in the room to relax. I didn't relax. Con didn't, but then he was never relaxed, any more than he was ever tense. He was just there. Pat didn't relax. I couldn't see any of the rest of us. The minions didn't relax. I'm sure there is a regulat
ion in their contract that forbids them to relax. The goddess looked around at us and smiled. It wasn't a very good smile. If I had to choose, I would say Con did it better.

  "Well," she said. "It has been a long night and everyone will be better for a rest. And you two warriors" - she tried to make this sound unironical, but she failed - "according to the latest report, have been a part of the destruction of a major vampire sanctum - perhaps an instrumental part of that destruction. You must forgive what may appear to be my excessive zeal here tonight; but occurrences like this are rare, and SOF must know as much as possible about any event concerning the Others, especially the darkest of the Others, to be as effective as we can be. And we have found, over and over again, that the sooner we speak to any and all witnesses, the better.

  "I would appreciate it if you would return, later, when you are rested, and fill out formal statements, which we can keep on file. I would also appreciate it if you would make yourselves available for further discussion, at some future time. Occasionally it has happened that witnesses do remember later what they were too shaken to comprehend at the time; perhaps as we learn more about what happened, some detail we can describe to you will loosen something in your memories, something we can use.

  "You must see that to the extent it is possible you had a crucial role in tonight's events we must discover what that role was.

  "And in the meanwhile, perhaps" - she was moving as she spoke - "after the night that has passed, the light of morning will make us all feel better. "

  With better she pulled the blind. Daylight, filtered by proofglass but unmistakably, undeniably daylight, fell full on Con.

  How long after sunlight touches him before a vampire burns? The stories say immediately, but what is immediately? One second? Ten? I sat still, rigidly still, my nerves shrieking. Con, of course, looked as he always looked: neither tense nor calm. Twenty seconds. Thirty. Surely thirty seconds was longer than immediately?

  What is the algebra of how long one live person with an affinity can protect one vampire from the effects of sunlight as compared to one small inanimate daylight-charged pocketknife? Supposing that the person is still alive and the affinity is still functioning, the pocketknife still charged, and the fact that the vampire was presently passing for human didn't morph the process so that Con was about to collapse in a little heap of cold ashes with no gruesome intermediate stages.

  Forty seconds. Fifty.


  That's good enough.

  I burst into tears, and Con was up off his chair at once - as immediately as the fire that hadn't come - and kneeling beside mine, one hand on my shoulder. My blanket had fallen off. I felt my affinity yank itself from wherever it lived - somewhere around my heart apparently - and throw itself toward the shoulder he was touching. It was still there. Still live. I heard a rustle, like a sigh of leaves.

  Trees are impervious to dark magic.

  The hand that held my knife still hung by his side.

  It seemed to me that as a performance it wasn't too unlikely that he'd put his hand on my shoulder, after whatever it was that we'd been through together. Maybe we were calling each other Mr. Connor and Miss Seddon, but we'd come out of whatever it was holding hands. I turned my head and stared at him, into his leaf-green eyes, into the face of the monster I had saved, and been saved by, probably too many times to count, now, any more, even by what he had called that which binds. Perhaps that was why I could feel my affinity working its way through his body, through the vessels that carried his blood, a special little squad of it racing down to his burned hand. I put both my hands - my contaminated hands - on his shoulders, and leaned my head against him, and wept and wept, and the warmth, the human-seeming warmth of his body through the tattered, filthy shirt against the palms of my hands felt the way my knife had felt: like the touch of a friend. The healing touch of a friend.

  I had meant to burst into tears, to break the scene, to give Con a chance to move, and to put up his sun parasol sitting in the next chair, but it had been easy - too easy, and it was hard to stop crying, once I'd begun. It took me several minutes to get to the gulping and hiccupping stage, by which time all of Pat's people were rushing around holding boxes of tissues and bringing damp towels to wipe my face with and brandishing fresh cups of tea. The goddess and her people hadn't moved at all. She looked like a naturalist observing faulty ritual behavior: not at all what she had been led to believe was the norm for this species, but was therefore interesting precisely for that reason, and how could she turn it to her advantage? I didn't like it, but I'd worry about it later.

  Her people stood and sat around looking stuffed. Working for the goddess didn't encourage the acquisition of damp-towel-fetching skills.

  I would worry about it all later. I was getting used to the idea that I might have a later to worry about it in. Maybe. I was so tired.

  I had dropped my hands from Con's shoulders to juggle tea and towels and tissues. I looked at them, my hands, going about their usual business of grasping and manipulating. I couldn't see the green and the black any more. But I couldn't see the gold either. I knew the seal was gone forever, and the chain - I couldn't feel the chain against my breast any more, although the reopened wound had stopped aching. Had I heard the rustle of leaves when Con touched my shoulder? Sun-self, tree-self, deer-self. Don't they outweigh the dark self? Not any more. I would worry about me later too. About my hands. I would ask Con. . . I hoped I would have a chance to ask Con. Because after I got him out of this daylight, our alliance was over.

  Con. He still knelt beside me. An ordinary man might have looked silly, doing nothing, but even as a relatively successful human-facsimile he looked so. . . unconventional? Unsomething. Silly didn't come into it. Or maybe that was just how I saw him. It was day again, and Con was my responsibility, and we were surrounded by people who must continue to believe he was human. I looked at him. He'd dropped the yellow blanket when he left his chair. He looked better without it, even blood-mottled and with his clothes hanging off him in sodden-and-dried-stiff rags.

  "Pardon me, Miss Seddon, but I think I must beg you to keep my knife for me a little longer. I don't believe any of my pockets have survived the night's encounters. " He held it out to me, turning and opening his hand: the palm was unmarked. I felt that my affinity emergency-squad was dancing around in some little-used synapse somewhere, giving each other teeny microscopic high-fives.

  I put down a towel and accepted the knife, slipping it awkwardly back into the pocket it had come out of. I was careful not to look at the goddess as I did this: as if it was just a little jackknife. I wondered if vampire clothing had pockets. What would vampires keep in pockets? Handkerchiefs? House keys? Charms against being grilled (so to speak) by angry, high-ranking SOF officers?

  I'd managed to move my chair a little during the commotion after I burst into tears. Con was safe for the moment, in shadow. I stood up and looked at the goddess. She was taller than I was, of course. There are spells to make you appear taller than whoever you are talking to, but they are expensive, and all but the best have a nasty habit of revealing you as your real height the minute you turn your attention to someone else. I guessed the goddess was just tall. "I apologize for making a fuss," I said, as respectfully as I could. Maybe she was so accustomed to reeking hostility from most of her colleagues and interviewees that she didn't register it any more. Maybe she would assume I didn't like her because she'd intimidated me successfully. Well, she had.

  "May we leave now, please?" I continued, holding my poisonous hands out placatingly, palms up. "I will come back whenever you like, but I'm so tired I can't think. And I want a bath. " Several baths. And what I was wearing - the remains of what I was wearing - would so into the trash. No, the bonfire. I would start running out of clothing soon if I wasn't careful. If I had a future it would have to include some shopping.

  She made gracious-cooperation noises that were about as sincere as my respect
fulness, and we were allowed to leave - Con and I, and Pat and John and Theo and Kate and Mike. In the windowless hallway Con and I drifted nonchalantly apart. I was trying to remember if there were any unexpected windows around blind corners. I hadn't been at my best when we'd come through the first time. I wasn't at my best now, but against all odds, I was improving.



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