Sunshine, p.8
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       Sunshine, p.8

           Robin McKinley
 
Chapter 8

 

  I thought about what I could say. They'd just handed me all their careers on a platter. All I had to do was walk out of here and tell someone - say, Mr. Responsible Media - that Pat turned blue, three-eyed, and twelve-fingered if he held his breath, and that several of his closest colleagues including his partner knew about it, and they'd tie Pat to a chair, put a plastic bag over his head, and await developments. They'd have to. Even if the twenty-four-star bigwig supreme commander honcho of SOF was a fullblood demon him- or herself and knew the name of every partblood in the service, the public furor would make them do it. Being an unlicensed magic handler was a mouse turd in comparison.

  My brain slowly ground out the next necessary connection to be made. Oh. . .

  "You know about my dad?" I said.

  They all snorted. Pat sounded like the horn on something like a semi or a furniture van. Ooooongk. "Does the sun rise in the morning?" said Jesse.

  With or without the help of the guys from Antares? "Then probably you know that my mom raised me to be, er, not my father's daughter. "

  "Yeah," said Pat. "Made us real interested, if you want to know. "

  I stared at him. "You had better not be telling me you have been hanging around the coffeehouse for fifteen years on the off chance that you could catch me - turning blue. "

  It wouldn't be turning blue, of course. Unlike demon blood, magic handling was welcomed by both government and corporate bureaucracy in its employees - sort of. What they wanted was nice cooperative biddable magic handling. Somewhere between a third cousin who could do card tricks and a sorcerer. The problem is that as the magic handling rises on the prepotency scale, the magic handler sinks off the other end of the biddableness scale. But there probably had been biddable Blaises. And no one had ever proved my dad was a sorcerer. I didn't think.

  "We hang out at the coffeehouse because we're all addicted to your cinnamon rolls, Sunshine, and your lethal dessert specials, especially the ones with no redeeming social value," said Pat. "You didn't see us half so often before Charlie built the bakery. But your dad didn't hurt as an excuse on our expense accounts. "

  Another pause. I didn't say anything.

  "And your mom seemed kind of. . . well, extreme about it, you know?"

  And another pause. I seemed to be missing something they wanted me to catch on to. But I was so tired.

  "And the coffeehouse is a good place to keep an eye on a lot of people. Gat Donnor. " Poor old Gat. He was one of our hype heads. Sometimes when he got the mixture wrong - or right - he turned into a skinny orange eight-foot lizard (including tail) that would tell you your fortune, if you asked. The locals were used to him but tourists had been known to go off in the screaming ab-dabs if they came across him. SOF was interested because a slightly-above-the-odds number of the fortunes he told were accurate.

  I brought myself back to the present. Sitting in a SOF office with a blue demon SOF and a few friends.

  "I suppose you know your Mrs. Bialosky is a Were?"

  I did laugh then. "Everyone believes she is, but no one knows were-what. No - don't tell me. It would spoil it. Besides - Mrs. Bialosky is one of the good guys. I don't care what her blood has in it. " It is a violation of your personal rights to have blood taken by your doctor examined for anything but the disease or condition you signed a release form about before the lab tech got near you with the needle, but accidents happen. One of the other ways you could guess a Were or a demon is by their paranoia about doctors. Fortunately the lab coats perfected artificial human blood fifty years ago - or nearly perfected it: you need about one in ten of the real thing - so donating blood isn't so big a deal any more, and the nasty-minded don't necessarily get any ideas looking at blood donor lists about who isn't on them. Human magic handling doesn't pass through transfusions; demon blood won't make you a demon, and weak part-demon might not show at all, but strong part- or full-demon makes a fullblood human very sick, even if the blood type is right. And being a Were transfuses beautifully, every time.

  "I couldn't have said it better myself," said Jesse. "So, you grew up being your mom's daughter, with no higher ambitions than the best cinnamon rolls in the country. Did you know about your dad?"

  I hesitated, but not very long. "More or less. I knew he was a magic handler, and I knew he was a member of one of the important magic-handling families. Or I found that out once I was in school and some of the magic-handler kids mentioned the Blaises. I was using my mom's maiden name by the time I went to school, before she married Charlie. I knew that my dad being a magic handler was something to do with why my mom left him, and. . . at the time that was enough for me. " I thought about the "business associates" my mom hadn't liked. That was what she'd always called them. "Business associates. " It sounded a lot like "pond slime. " Or "sorcerer. " As I got a little older I realized that people like my mother mean "pond slime" when they say "sorcerer. " Lunatic toxic kali pond slime.

  "I felt like my mother's daughter, you know? And after we cleared off I never saw my dad again. " I'd never said this to anyone before: "My mom was so determined to have nothing whatever to do with my dad's family that I wanted to be as much like her as possible, didn't I? She was all I had left. " They all nodded. "So you didn't know anything about what your own heritage might be?"

  "I did know something. My gran - my dad's mother - showed up again a year after we geared off. I used to visit her - at our old cabin at the lake. She'd meet me there. My mom wasn't happy about it, but she let me go. My gran told me some - taught me some. "

  "Taught you," Jesse said sharply.

  "Yeah. Stuff changing mostly. Little stuff. Enough to know that I had something, but not so much that I - had to use it, you know?"

  They nodded again. Magic handling, like Other blood, often makes its presence known, whether you want to know or not. But if it wasn't too strong, it would also leave you alone, if you left it alone. Probably.

  "Then my gran disappeared. When I was about ten. Just before the Wars. And just when Charlie married my mom. Charlie didn't seem to mind having me around. He adopted me, let me get underfoot at the coffeehouse. And yeah. I was drawn to cooking. I've been cooking, or trying to cook, since I was like four. Pretty sad, huh? A Blaise with frosting on the end of her nose. And once I got to Charlie's I thought that was the end of the story. "

  "And then two months ago," said Jesse. Why did I feel there was something else going on with these guys? Like we were having two conversations, one of them silent. It seemed to me that this out-loud one was enough.

  I sighed. "All I did was drive out to the lake on my night off. I had a headache, I wanted some peace and quiet, you don't get that anywhere around my family, including away from the coffeehouse. I'd just had my car tuned, it was a nice night. There hasn't been any trouble at the lake that I know of since the Wars were over, so long as you stay away from the bad spots. I drove out to our old cabin, sat on the porch, looked at the water. . . "

  That was as much of the story as I had told before. I still wasn't expecting my heart rate to speed up, my stomach to hop back and forth like water on a hot griddle, and tears to start pricking the backs of my eyes at the prospect of telling even a little bit more. I looked down at my shapeless jersey kids' pajama lap, and then glanced at the table knife on Jesse's desk. The world started to turn faster and at a funny angle.

  Jesse reached into a bottom drawer and brought out a bottle of. . . oh, hey, single-malt scotch. Some SOFs did know how to live. Theo had turned the Prime Time bag upside down. There was an assortment of greasy-paper-wrapped bundles and they smelled. . . like food. Real human food. "Have a sandwich," said Theo. "Have some chips. Have - hey, Pat, you're living dangerously. Have a Prime Time brownie. "

  "No thanks," I said automatically. "Too much flour, too much raising agent, and the chocolate they use is only so-so. "

  "Your color's improving," said Jesse. "Tell us more about Prime Time's sins. I'm sure t
heir bread isn't as good as yours either. " It isn't. "Have some scotch. " I held out my (empty) tea mug.

  I had half a Swiss cheese and watercress sandwich (on mediocre anadama) to give my stomach something else to think about. The dark stains on the walls in the alley. The goblets among the cobble-stones. . . Stop that. Okay, I should maybe think about what Pat and Jesse and Theo were trying to give me space to say. To be afraid of? Something that had to do with, however good their cover, how they must be afraid of being found out as partbloods?

  . . . No.

  It hadn't occurred to me before. I didn't think there was a word for a human so sicko as to rescue a vampire, because no human had ever done it. Before.

  Dear gods and angels, no.

  It's not only paranoia and bureaucratic oppression that demands partbloods be registered. Human magic-handling genes and certain demon genes mix really, really badly. There are lots of minor charm-twisters who have a touch of both the human capacity for magic and the demonic, and there's a story that some of them can do stuff no one else can, although it tends to be more goofy than useful. But this is strictly trivial magic handling.

  Not all demons can do magic; some of them just are, although the areness of demons can seem magical when it isn't. A swallow demon - to take a rare but spectacular example - can fly less because of its hollow bones, although it has those too, than because something funny goes on with some of its atoms, which behave in certain ways as if they exist in some other universe. One of these ways is that they have no gravity in this one. So a swallow demon, despite being the size of anything from a large wardrobe up to and including a small barn, flies. It isn't magic. Swallow demons don't do magic. It only looks like magic. But a lot of demons also handle magic, some of them as powerfully as powerful humans do. And a drop of their blood into a strong human magic-handling gene pool is a disaster.

  Strong magic-handling genes and even a weak unmanifested-for-generations magic-operating demon gene in the same person gives you about a ninety percent chance of being criminally insane. It might be as high as ninety-five percent. There are asylums specially built to hold these people, who tend to be extremely hard to hold.

  Important magic-handling families for obvious reasons therefore become kind of inbred. Although this isn't an ideal solution either, because over the generations you start getting more. . . third cousins who can maybe write a ward sign that almost works. . . say. And usually fewer children total. In one way this is a relief. Someone whose human magic-handling DNA isn't up to more than a ward sign that almost works is in little if any danger from a big thor demon-blooded great-great-grandmother on the other side even if her magic genes have played very neat hopscotch over the intervening generations and come through nearly intact. (That's actually another tale. Yes, there are stories, at least one or two of them impressively documented, about strong doers in apparently on-the-skids magic-handling families whose magic turns out to be demonic in origin. But all of those stories - all the ones with happy endings anyway - are about families whose magic handling has been moribund for generations. People with fathers under even the suspicion of being sorcerers need not apply. ) On the other hand, important magic-handling families need to go on handling magic to remain important magic-handling families.

  The Blaises' name still casts a long shadow. But even I knew they'd hit their peak a while back, and that there weren't many of them - us - around any more. There didn't seem to be any at all left since the Wars. I hadn't thought about this. It might have been an issue if I had wanted to be a magic handler, but I didn't. It's pretty amazing what you can not think about. To the extent that I thought about it at all, I missed my gran, but it was a lot simpler to be Charlie Seddon's stepdaughter.

  Outcrosses in a magic-handling family on the decline. . . like me. . . are viewed with mixed feelings. We may be salvation. We may be catastrophe. It depends on the bloodline on the other side.

  Dubious outcrosses are often exiled or repudiated by the family. It's easier if the alien parent is the mother too, because then they can claim she was fooling around. Paternity tests applied to bad-magic crosses are notoriously unreliable.

  No. There was no whisper of demon blood in my mother's family.

  Would I know? My mother's sisters were both several sandwiches short of a picnic in terms of common sense. They were not the kind of people who would be entrusted with dark family secrets. And I didn't have to waste any time wondering if my mother would have told me. "Overprotective" is my mom's middle name. She wouldn't have told me.

  My mother's parents had been dead against the marriage. They hadn't spoken to her since she refused to give my dad up. She'd been very young, and in love, and I could guess that even in those days she didn't take direction well. Maybe they didn't tell her. Just booted her out: never darken our door again, etc. They'd never made any attempt to meet me, their first grandchild, either. Maybe my mother found out later, somehow, after I was born. Maybe it was my dad who'd found it out. . .

  I'd never seen my father again after my mother left him, nor any of the rest of his family. Only my gran. Who was maybe choosing to see me privately and alone not in deference to my mother's feelings but because her own family had ordered her to have nothing to do with me.

  Maybe my gran had some other reason for believing I was okay. Or maybe she didn't know why my mom had left. Maybe she thought it was my dad's business associates. Magic-handling families can be pretty conceited about their talent, and pretty offended by commoners feeling they have any rights to inconvenient opinions. Maybe my gran thought her family were just being arrogant.

  If you were in the ninety percent, it showed up early. Usually. If you weren't born with a precocious ability to hoist yourself out of your crib and get into really repulsive mischief, the next likeliest time for you to begin running amok was in the preteen years, when magic-handling kids are apprenticed for their first serious magic-handling training. When my gran taught me to transmute.

  The sane five or ten percent most often have personalities that are uninterested in magic. One of the recommendations, for someone who finds out they're in the high-risk category, is not to do magic, even the most inconsequential. My mother would never have let me have all those meetings with my gran if there'd been any chance. . .

  She might have. My mother makes Attila the Hun look namby-pamby. If she wanted me not to be a bad-magic cross, then I wouldn't be, by sheer force of will if necessary. But she might still have wanted to know what she was up against.

  I hadn't come home and started knifing old ladies or setting fire to stray dogs.

  I was kind of a loner though. A little paranoid about being close to people. A little too interested in the Others.

  My mother would have assumed that my gran had tried to teach me magic and that she hadn't been successful. So my mother would have assumed the Blaise magic genes were weak enough in me, or her own compromised heritage had missed me out.

  Maybe my mother could be forgiven for being a little over-controlling. Because she'd never be sure.

  Bad-magic crosses don't invariably show up early. Some of our worst and most inventive serial murderers have turned out to be bad-magic crosses, when someone finally caught up with them. Sometimes it turns out something set them off. Like doing magic. Like finding out they could.

  And I hadn't done any magic in fifteen years.

  No.

  I stopped chewing.

  Pat and Jesse assumed I'd thought of all this before. They were assuming that's why I hadn't been able to talk to them. Had been afraid to talk to them. The licensing thing was piffle. They would know that I knew that too. If it was just a question of not being a certified magic handler, hey, I could get my serial number and my license. The bureaucrats would snuffle a little about my not having done it before, but I was a model cinnamon-roll-baker citizen; they'd at least half believe me that I'd never done any magic before, they probably wouldn't even fine me. Licen
sing was a red herring. Pat wouldn't have turned blue over a question of late magic-handling certification. So I had to be afraid of something else.

  I was afraid of something else. They'd just guessed wrong about what it was and how I got there.

  They were, in fact, offering me a huge gesture of faith. They were telling me that they believed I wasn't a bad cross. They must really love my cinnamon rolls.

  What they didn't know was that I'd rescued a vampire. Which might be read as the polite, subtle version of becoming an axe murderer.

  "Have some more scotch," said Jesse.

  And now, of course, they only thought I was dreading telling them about what had happened two months ago.

  Okay. Let this dread be for the telling of the story. Nothing else. The story of how I rescued a vampire. Which I wasn't going to tell them.

  I put my mug down because my hands were beginning to shake. I crossed my arms over my breast and began rocking back and forth in my chair. Pat dragged his chair over next to mine, gently pulled my hands down, held them in his. They were a pale blue now, and not so knobbly. I couldn't see if he still had the sixth fingers.

  I said, speaking to Pat's pale blue hands, "I didn't hear them coming. " I spoke in a high, peculiar voice I didn't recognize as my own. "But you don't, do you, when they're vampires. "

  There was a growl from Theo - not what you could call a human growl.

  It was a creepy, chilling, menacing sound, even knowing that it was made on my behalf. Briefly, hysterically, I wanted to laugh. It occurred to me that maybe I hadn't been the one human in the room, a few minutes ago, when I'd felt like a rabbit in headlights.

  Jesse let the silence stretch out a little, and then he said softly, "How did you get away?"

  . . . There was another muddle leaning up against the wall in front of us. . . someone sitting cross-legged, head bowed, forearms on knees. I didn't realize till it raised its head with a liquid, inhuman motion that it was another vampire. . .

  I took a deep breath. "They had me shackled to the wall in - in what I guess was the ballroom in - in one of the really big old summer houses. At the lake. I - I was - some kind of prize, I think. They - they came in to look at me a couple of times. Left me food and water. The second day I - transmuted my jackknife into a shackle key. "

  "You transmuted worked metal?"

  I took another deep breath. "Yes. No, I shouldn't have been able to. I'd never done anything close. I hadn't done anything at all in fifteen years - since the last time I saw my gran. It almost. . . it almost didn't occur to me to try. " I shivered and closed my eyes. No: don't close your eyes. I opened my eyes. Pat squeezed my hands. "Hey. It's okay," he said. "You're here. " I looked at him. He was almost human again.

  I wondered what I was. Was I almost human?

  "Yeah," he said. "What you're thinking. "

  I tried to look like I might be thinking what he thought I was thinking. Whatever that was.

  "SOF is full of Others and partbloods because it's vampires that are our problem. Sure there are lousy stinking demons - "

  And bad-magic crosses.

  " - but there are lousy stinking humans too. We take care of the Others and the straight cops take care of the humans. If we got the suckers sorted the humans would calm down - sooner or later - let the rest of us live, you know? And then we'd be able to organize and really get rid of the 'ubis and the goblins and the ghouls and so on and we'd end up with a relatively safe world. "

  There was a story - I hoped it was no more than a myth - that the reason there still wasn't a reliable prenatal test for a bad-magic cross was the prejudice against partbloods.

  Jesse said patiently, "You transmuted worked metal. "

  I nodded.

  "Do you still have the knife?"

  I dragged my mind back to the present. I'd decided earlier that the light in the office was good enough, so I nodded again.

  "Can we see it?"

  Pat let go of my hands, and I pulled the knife out of my fuzzy pocket and leaned forward to lay it on a pile of paper on Jesse's desk. It lay there, looking perfectly ordinary. Jesse picked it up and looked at it. He passed it to Theo, who looked at it too, and offered it to Pat. Pat shook his head. "Not when I'm coming down. It might crank me right back up again, and we can't keep the door locked all night. "

  "What would happen if someone knocked?" I said. "You're still a little blue around the edges. "

  "Closet," said Pat. "Nice big one. Why we chose Jesse's office. "

  "And we would be so surprised that the door was locked," said Jesse. "Must be something wrong with the bolt. We'll get it checked tomorrow. Miss Seddon is all right, isn't she?"

  "Miss Seddon is fine," I lied. What was wrong with her was not their fault.

  "Rae - " said Jesse, and hesitated.

  I was holding myself here in the present, in this office, so I was pretty sure I knew what he wanted to ask.

  "I don't know," I said. "I haven't been back to the lake since. There's a really big bad spot behind the house, maybe that's part of why they chose it, and when - when I got out of there I just - followed the edge of the lake south. "

  "If we take you out there - let's say tomorrow - will you try to find it?"

  It had little to do with what I hadn't told them that made the silence last a long time before I answered. What I had told them was plenty for why I didn't want to go there again. "Yes," I said at last, heavily. "I'll try. There won't. . . be anything. "

  "I know," said Jesse. "But we still have to look. I'm sorry. "

 

 

 
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