The knock on my door is so soft that I almost doubt I heard it.
I hesitate, pen poised. A moment of silence later, the knock comes again.
I have no appointments scheduled today—though tomorrow is quite full—so this is should be interesting. “You may enter.”
The door opens to reveal a young woman evidently trying for the role of Austrian shepherdess. She carries a messily hand-woven basket and wears a messily hand-sewn dress, and her messy braids bounce on her chest as she strides forcefully toward me, cheeks flushed, eyes gleaming with some as-yet unknown challenge.
She does not smile.
Perhaps interesting is too optimistic a word. “Good morning,” I say.
The basket sounds heavy as it lands upon my desk, knocking askew the box of tissues. “This is your test,” she says, and to my dismay, her voice carries the tinny echo of magic, a compelling power, and I steel myself and what protections I have to withstand whatever is coming.
“Bread of hearth, the home well-fed;
harp to sing the child to bed;
gold there is to shield thy head;
go now, or by day, be dead.”
Not the usual conversation one has upon entering a magical psychologist’s office.
We stare at one another for a moment. I clear my throat. “You are aware, madam, that I am not an adventurer?”
“I am aware, Doctor, that you are the descendant of Fafnir and the one I have chosen to do what must be done.”
Well, this is the first I’ve heard of that. “Pardon me?”
“The harp, the bread, the coil of gold. You have until tomorrow, twenty-four hours from now, to take these to their owners. If you do not succeed, reality will shatter. Good day.” And she turns to go.
Naturally, the spell she has woven holds me down long enough that I cannot stop her before she reaches the door.
Naturally, when I open the door immediately after she closed it, she is gone.
Naturally, from the basket comes a soft, choking, duck-like cry from an infant she failed to mention in her rhyme.
This is most inconvenient. I may have to take tomorrow off.
I am not an adventurer.
I have some skills, of course, or I would hardly have survived long enough to enjoy this blissfully technological century, but my talents lie in speech, in discernment, in a particular penchant for the many subtle ways people communicate without words. My raison d’etre is to help those of magical descent hide and adapt as well as I have. It is no easy task, and more than enough adventure for me.
If the errant shepherdess expects me to fight a gorgon or some such nonsense, she is bound to be disappointed.
How would I, I consider, tell one of my clients to handle this?
Step one: assess.
The infant is Fey, long ears neatly folded against its skull to avoid the painful grab of infant fists, and is currently preoccupied with its feet. It also seems healthy and produces no odor, so I will ignore it for now.
The bread—a peasant loaf, perfectly brown, slightly shiny and scored with a careful precision—is remarkable only in that it seems fresh, and thus redolent. It seems mouthwateringly tempting and therefore bespelled, so I dare not touch it with my bare skin.
The harp is inclined to play itself; it is also an older style, a lap harp, perhaps for a child. As it may be sentient, I leave it alone until I can test conversation and consent.
The coil of gold is something else entirely. Filaments of hair-fine metal weave thickening strands to create a dangerously fascinating motif, an intricate ribbon that never ends but draws the eye further and further in, toward deeper and stranger patterns that linger behind my closed eyes.
Well, this is obviously quite cursed. I lay a tissue over it to avoid distractions and consider my options.
The infant gurgles.
“I do not suppose you are capable of speech?” I ask it. “Perhaps a duchess trapped in an unfortunate package, or something?”
The infant ignores me entirely, preferring instead to watch the ceiling.
“Suit yourself,” I say.
Step two: alleviate risk.
Twenty-four hours, she said, to find their owners. Of course, reality will shatter is disturbing, but probably exaggerated. That kind of warning comes standard with all magical geasa. The world will end, or your descendants will be cursed, or you’ll go blind, etcetera and so forth. I must not let it rattle me.
Frustratingly, I did not observe her long enough to know if she believed this doom herself. What I did observe was her anger.
Were I to guess on such brief and insufficient interaction, I would even say she was angry with me.
As I have not met her previously, this smacks of an issue projected rather than earned. Most inconvenient.
Fafnir, she claimed. This is blatant nonsense; Fafnir, who first appears in Ever-Dying mythology near the thirteenth century, was a dragon—and occasionally either a dwarf or dark elf, according to the humans who failed to understand magical morphology.
Theoretically, Fafnir slew his father for the sake of cursed gold, was subsequently slain himself, and his heart was then eaten by the hero who did it. Fafnir had no children. Besides, my childhood took place in the early nineteenth century, and this safely circumvents her assumption.
It’s a clue, however. Perhaps she meant this basket for a dragon, or the mixed offspring of one. Logically, therefore, I must locate a dragon or dragon-Kin I can trust, seek aid, and proceed from there.
“There, you see?” I tell the infant. “All problems can be addressed rationally one step at a time.”
In response, the infant spits up.
The Dallas Ever-Dying would be very surprised to find a mountain in the middle of their city. They can neither see it nor climb it; its protective spells surpass even those keeping the Fey hidden in western Europe, but I would expect no less from Xu Kai’s grandson.
Justin is of the Jade lineage, and his grandfather is ruler of the People of the Sun, so it is safe to say he may live where he likes. He also chose who he likes for his wife, which surprised anyone who had not met Ahaana Aishwarya.
Ahaana is dragon-Kin. She came to me as a furiously brilliant and frightened young woman, drowning with power she could control but not identify, leery of her skill with fire and the way she could call it by name.
She is also one of my favorite clients—though I am not supposed to have favorites, of course.
Some people merely need to quantify things before they can enter into them fully. Once Ahaana knew what she was, knew who she was, she leaped into the weird and magical world of the Mythos with both feet.
Justin took her last name when they wed. That was another surprise for the older guard. I’m quite proud of them both.
I also trust them. If they cannot advise me, they will send me to someone who can.
My engine sounds strained. This little fuel-efficient vehicle is not designed for mountains. Just a little longer, old thing.
The mansion that sits atop Dallas’ hidden peak is a wonder of clean white marble and the delicate ornamentation of the Satavahana period. Fortunately for me, there is a simple half-moon drive in front so that I can safely park.
I do not bother to lock my door.
Ahaana answers at first knock, and she is furious.
She has also been crying. She is also very pregnant.
My internal struggle is brief but bitter; clearly, there is need here. I cannot simply dive into my request and present my problems when she is visibly distraught.
“Ahaana,” I say, leaning in, though of course, wise enough not to touch—she does not like it. “Are you all right?”
“Ranier?” she says, staring.
Her husband appears behind her with the slight pop of displaced air. “Dr. Blood?”
“It appears my timing is perhaps unfortunate?” I say delicately, giving them an out.
“No, you . . .” She stares again, looks over her shoulder at him, then back at me. “It can’t be you.”
I raise one eyebrow and wait. Silence is, and always will be, the greatest weapon of the therapist.
They stare at me. “Fafnir’s get?” says Justin.
Not again. “Fafnir’s—ah. There seems to be some misunderstanding—”
“What’s in the basket?” Ahaana demands.
“A difficulty which I had not intended to add to any burden,” I say.
“Show us,” commands Justin, the dragon in him seeping through, blazing through his almond eyes, somehow trembling the air around his slight form to hint at the gigantic thing he can become.
So naturally, I obey.
“In. Now, in!” commands Ahaana, and though she is only part dragon—and precisely which line, no one knows—her power and will wash his clean like turpentine over paint.
“Yes, of course,” I say as though I were being thoughtless, and I step inside.
Her unborn baby is unwelcome among the old guard.
Prejudice exists all the worlds over, among all the Peoples, and it seems Justin’s grandfather came to visit them moments before I arrived with dire words of warning.
“You just missed him,” said Justin, handing me milk for my tea. “He was on his way here already. He wanted us to know . . .” He sighs. “He wanted to warn us that no one would be coming. I mean . . .”
I nod my understanding. Children are rare among the dragon races, and normally celebrated communally. For this child to be ignored is . . . “Foolish.”
“Motherfuckers,” Ahaana snarls, her hands protectively over her belly.
Her child may not be very dragon, if it is fetus and not egg, but I do not ask. That is hardly my business.
“My family can be that way,” Justin said, giving her a quick look. “My grandfather already gave his blessing. But he said something so strange. He’d had a vision. And there were voices—”
You’re having an adventure, whispers my masochistic memory. I sigh. “Let me guess:
“Bread of hearth, the home well-fed;
harp to sing the child to bed;
gold there is to shield thy head;
go now, or by day, be dead.”
They stare at me again.
“How did you . . . He said the son of Fafnir would be coming to balance the injustice, whatever that means,” says Justin.
“Never in a million years would I think that was you,” says Ahaana, bouncing the just-fed Fey infant on her shoulder. “No offense, doctor.”
“Nor I. I am not the son of Fafnir.”
“Then why are you here?”
“Please forgive my frankness during such a trying time—I am in trouble. You see, I have this basket, a spell, and a time-crunch. The bread, the harp, and the coil of gold are all likely cursed, and the child was not even in the rhyme.”
“She was not even in the rhyme,” I say, dutifully. “I don’t suppose your father said anything else that I might find helpful?”
They look at one another. She nods.
“Yes,” says Justin, and he holds up a map. “This is for the child of Fafnir.”
Now comes one of those mad moments we must tolerate as the cost for drifting in magic’s wake: in a situation such as this, one must not accept gifts or give them, but one must trade.
I do not know why. For most of these magical rules, I have never divined the reason. Obviously, given the heavy-handed set-up, I am intended to trade something in the basket.
I should take this moment to mention that we sit before a blazing hearth.
I look into the basket and back, considering, cautious; I do not want to harm them. Is the bread too obvious? “Please forgive me if anything negative comes from this, for I bear no ill will,” I say, and reach into the basket.
It is amazing to touch, this bread.
Impossibly still warm, it crunches slightly as I lift it, wafting incredible smell enough to make anyone in the world hungry, and for one moment, I want to keep it.
I won’t, of course. It isn’t mine at all. But I would be lying if I pretended the desire wasn’t there.
With my own hand, I offer it, and we exchange bread for map.
This map is simple, old, a crinkly and faded thing left over from the days before smartphones, and it displays Arizona with a hastily drawn X north of Phoenix.
I am in Texas. This will not be a quick journey. My last hope of handing this mess off evaporates with a weak and pitiful wheeze. “I see I am to go to the desert,” I say.
“Oh, thank you,” says Ahaana, cradling the bread as if in lieu of her child, and her voice is choked. I look up.
“I can get you there quickly,” says Justin, staring at the bread. The two of them seem entranced by it.
I hope I have not just cursed my favorite client. “I would appreciate that help.”
“This is important,” says Justin, hesitates, looks at his wife, then at me. “The gift of bread before a birth is a momentous thing. It means fortune, plenty, and a happy home—if it comes from another dragon. You don’t know—you’ve blessed us. Nobody else is coming. This is important.”
I am not a dragon, but I believe reminding them at this juncture would be cruel. “May it bring you those blessings and more.”
They lean into each other, both of them holding the loaf now as though ready to break it with great ceremony.
Clearly, the time has come for me to leave. “Justin—I’m sorry to interrupt, but . . . ”
Justin blinks at me for a moment. “Of course. Let me see the map again.”
He studies it.
He raises his left hand, and his eyes change, and his skin shades green and mottled, and above his hand the air slices open sideways and smoke pours through. The line slides smoothly down like shades, flooding this comfortable, hearth-lit room with sudden sun.
The Fey child cries in my basket.
“There you go,” says Justin as though none of this were spectacular, and I cannot help wondering how much we have come to take for granted in this wondrous world.
“Thank you. Thank you both.”
Ahaana grips my arm—the first time she has ever touched me, and it is startling. “Be careful.”
“I do not know any other way to be,” I say.
She nods and lets me go, turning back to her husband and the bread, for I no longer matter, and that is quite all right.
Unhappy baby whimpering in the basket beside the harp and the gold, I step through the impossible door.
The brilliance of sun on sand makes my first steps blind.
I am not certain how precise that map was, but at least I did not waltz onto a busy highway or into true wilderness.
It is desert, most certainly, but the civilized kind; I see shops in the distance, not too far to reach in a desperate moment, for all they appear wavy in the heat of this day. Ahead of me are some rocks I suppose would be mountains in this region; vaguely, I recall some similar lump is called Camelback Mountain, though I do not believe I am that far east.
Behind me, however, is the last thing I expected, especially on a bright and sunny day.
The four of them freeze at my understandably startling entrance, one of whom I have counseled in the past, and one I would not be alone with in a room for all the money in the world.
“Doctor, thank you for coming,” says Jonathan, with whom I have spoken at great length, and who stands trembling in the hot sun, his normally tawny skin gone pale. Beside him stands another vampire, an over-average-tall Asian Night-Child whose katana seems quite at odds with his Savile Row.
Facing them is the Blood Queen.
She is shorter than I expected, but that changes nothing. Her pose—crouched as if to spring, fingers curved, fangs out—shocks against her neat pants suit and tightly bound hair, and some absurd part of my mind wonders if her kitten heels would survive the force of her lunge. Beside her is an actual child—a Night-Child as well, yet also a boy of approximately twelve, similarly staged for violence, and bleeding from his mouth as though he’d already had a go.
They all stare at me.
“Jonathan,” I greet him, because what else is one to do? “Was I expected?”
“Yes.” And his relief is so obvious, so clear, that one need not be trained in reading people to see it.
“What is this?” says the Blood Queen, her speech flawless in spite of her intimidating teeth. “Who are you?”
I could lie, but that would inevitably backfire. “Dr. Ranier Blood, madam.” I bow slightly from the waist. “Pardon me, but I was not expecting to find anyone here.”
“And what were you expecting, then?” demands the child in an accent I have not heard in so long that it takes me a moment to place it. It is positively Dickensian.
“Certainly not this.” The baby, I am pleased, has gone quiet. They know it—she—is there, but the less attention she draws to herself among predators, the better. “As unlikely as it sounds, someone’s vision sent me to this spot.”
“Someone else?” the Blood Queen eyes Jonathan, then me again.
She knows of his skill, but I do not know if the others do. I will pretend I do not, for his sake. “Yes. I’ve had rather a complicated day.”
The baby chooses this moment to whine.
“It’s about to get more complicated,” says the child, and steps toward me.
There is that moment—that terrible, breathless moment—when everything tips on the edge of a knife, when every leap or lunch or grasp feels like forever, even though in reality there simply is no time at all.
The harp stops him, or I would have died.
It plinks, all of a sudden and by itself, and then lifts in a merrily cheerful tune, lovely in spite of the muffling effect of the basket and whimpering child.
Now, everyone stares at the basket, and it occurs to me that apart from Jonathan, they’d paid it no mind before that. Of course they didn’t; Night-Children are immune to most things that could harm me, and so would disregard its presence.
“It can’t be,” whispers the boy, who has stopped a mere two feet from me, well within killing distance, for he had already crossed the space between us in the plink of a harp string.
The Blood Queen straightens, finally abandoning her crouched posture—not that it matters to the safety of anyone in proximity. “I suddenly suspect you are the reason my child asked us to meet in such a god-forsaken place. I don’t suppose you have a reason, as well?”
She means Jonathan, with his unique skill for prognostication, but that is not my concern. My heart is frenetically informing me that I nearly died, and my adrenal gland is busy.
I swallow around my fear. “I’m afraid not. An adventure fell into my lap this morning, and as of yet, I have been unable to rid myself of it.”
“That’s mine,” whispers the boy. “I’m sure of it. I’m sure! Where did you blag it from?” he snarls, and takes a another step toward me.
Perhaps my greatest accomplishment to date is I do not take a step back. I stand my ground, giving him one stern, raised eyebrow.
He stops again.
“Elijah,” warns the Blood Queen.
The boy bares his teeth at me. “Give it back!”
“Dr. Blood,” says the Blood Queen. “It seems you have something that belongs to my child.”
“I can neither verify nor deny this,” I say, and—willing my hand not to tremble—I lift the harp from the basket.
It vibrates through my hand and up my arm, pleasing, delightful, like the administration of a drug, and for the second time today, irrationally, I want to keep it.
What on earth would I even do with a cursed harp?
I dare not hesitate to experience it more. I hold it out, and he snatches it quickly enough that my fingers burn, friction-kissed. Then, like a goblin, he hunches back to the Blood Queen to stand behind her, wrapped around that harp as though it plays the strings of his heart.
“I told you,” speaks the Asian man I do not know. His voice is terrible, raspish and ruined. “I told you I no longer had it.”
I believe the boy just sobbed, but I cannot be sure.
Jonathan looks exhausted. “We can go now,” he says.
“You will go when I dismiss you,” says the Blood Queen with such venom that my poor heart returns to my throat.
Jonathan looks her in the eye with a courage I never would have believed of him. “We are free to go, Ravena, but you are not. You need something else from this good man, and you will take it. Farewell.” He grips the other man and they both vanish in a whirl of dust.
We remaining three stare where they stood, and then at each other.
The Blood Queen studies me. I feel like an interesting lizard, perhaps under glass and pinned. “Will you flee, too, before our conversation has properly finished?” she says so sweetly, her will pressing against the dome of my mind, searching for an entrance.
She will find one very soon. No one is immune to such strength of will.
“As I am uncertain what the current conversation is,” I say, “I am hardly qualified to end it.”
She smiles, and it punctures me.
I dislike that. Her smile brands my mind; it will appear in my dreams when I least wish, I know, and I dislike anything out of my control within my own head.
The Blood Queen glances back at the boy, who has sat down in the hot sand, cradling his harp. It still sings for him, sweetly, almost motherly.
“A rare gift, that,” she says, turning back to me. “Once upon a time, dead spirits spoke to him through that harp. I thought his skill would transfer after death, but alas, it did not. Only his mother speaks to him since he was made mine; no other spirits bother.”
You are in danger! clangs my subconscious warning system. “This strikes me as the type of thing one tells a person whom one does not intend to release.”
She laughs, and it marks me as well, cracks my fortitude, sends shards of glass twinkling down and temporarily blinding my thoughts. Her beauty is daggers.
The boy murmurs to the harp, which plays in response to him, and he wets it and the sand with his tears, but we both ignore him.
Steady, Ranier. I steel myself again.
“He called you ‘good,’” she says, tilting her head. “Jonathan has called no one good in my hearing, ever.”
“Perhaps Jonathan said that in order to redirect your attention to me and effect his escape.”
“Clever. Possibly he did, though he is hardly the type to hang another on his gallows,” she says. “You have pleased me with mild distraction and solved the minor conflict between my children. You have also returned to my child an object I took great care to remove from him. What do you make of that, Dr. Blood?”
I may be fucked, is what I make of it, but I continue to breathe evenly, to keep my gaze firmly away from her eyes but toward her face, to keep my shoulders relaxed. “I’d say I have been set up. I don’t suppose you know of a young Caucasian woman who prefers homespun shepherd-dress and delivers unwanted baskets to the unwary by day?”
She laughs again, and this time, that smile touches her entrancing green eyes (look away, Ranier, look away), and she claps girlishly. “Bertha chose you? But that shouldn’t have happened.”
“The shepherdess’ name is Bertha?”
She waves her hand. “Bertha. Mother Hulda. Die Weisse Frau. She has many names, but more to the point, she has little reason to confuse such a crucial point of identity.” The Blood Queen sniffs delicately, assumedly detecting me between samples of scorpion stench and long-dead civilizations. “Your scent is unusual. Yet you do not seem to be of dragon descent.”
“That is because I am not.”
“Oh, I think you must be,” says the Blood Queen. “I asked her not to hand that harp to anyone else.”
The boy gasps and stares up at her.
So he thought Jonathan’s companion had it, when she herself had given it to another. I begin to see the source of tension between them.
The Blood Queen smiles. “Regardless, I have been robbed of my planned afternoon. Perhaps you’ll make do with a fascinating mystery. So, Dr. Blood, most conveniently named, before I take you, is there anything else you’d like to tell me about your most unusual day?”
I cannot fight my prey instinct, my fear-response, my racing heart or my rising temperature. I cannot fight her desire, her unmeasurable pressure and unavoidable seduction, her long-documented ability to make stronger people than I kneel at her feet and beg.
I can choose how to respond until she breaks me.
“She gave me one further thing,” I say, my voice tight.
“The Fey infant. What do you think, Elijah? Would you like a chew toy?”
“No, the infant seems to have hitched a ride. She gave me something quite a bit shinier,” I quip, and reach into the basket.
The moment I touch the gold, I know I’ve made a mistake.
I should have used a handkerchief. I should have used my sleeve. I should have taken out the child then hurled the basket’s contents at the Queen like a cartoonish attempt to extinguish fire.
The coil of gold shivers power like electricity up my arm and clenches my hand upon it, leaving me unable to let it go, unwilling to give it away. I need this thing, crave this thing, with such intensity that I almost forget she’s standing there, deforming my mind, but I raise my arm anyway, gritting my teeth, holding it out because if I do nothing, Ravena will kill the infant for it is her way with living things, as if we only have the right to exist when we please her, and this gold (though I want to keep it with all my heart) is my only chance to save the child.
The coil of gold catches the sunlight and casts it back ten-fold.
And the Blood Queen, ancient and terrible perfection, gasps. “She gave you that?”
“I do not know what it is,” I try to say, though the words do not form properly with my mouth pulled back in a rictus. “Take it. In trade for life.”
She rips it from my fingers.
The loss . . . hurts.
Hurts so much that I have fallen to my knees, though I do not remember doing so, and clutched the basket high in one arm to keep its occupant from being crushed. My other hand will not obey me any longer, and I look down to make sure it is still there.
It is—though malformed and already swelling.
“It was lost,” she says, but not to me, not to anyone here, and—I cannot be seeing this correctly. Tears sparkle on her cheeks like lost diamonds. “It was lost and gone forever, sunk with the ancient lands, gone between the cracks of the world.” She looks at me again.
And I can see the young woman she was once, see the wide-eyed soul who once dwelled there, but the moment passes too soon.
“She knew I would spare you for this,” she says, low and angry. “Though why she should help his get, I do not know.”
It seems safest to say nothing. I am still on my knees; I am still painfully erect; I am still clutching the basket, hoping the baby’s fair skin does not burn; I am still in pain, and my fingers throb.
“Elijah. Up. We’re leaving,” she says, and looks at me again. “This will not be our last interaction, dear Dr. Blood. You’re interesting. Be flattered.”
“I am neither interesting nor flattered,” I manage, my breath returning along with the rising pain of my broken hand. “This is a case of mistaken identity.”
She clutches the coil of gold and looks at it the way Elijah looks at his harp. “Clearly, that is not so,” she pronounces, and vanishes in a whirl of ash.
The boy curls around his harp a moment more. “She’ll take it again. Or break it. She lied. She said Seishirou had it, but she lied.”
Long years of practice enable me to engage, in spite of pain. “Has she lied to you like this before?”
He can’t answer that, which is answer enough. “You like kids, right?”
Eh? “An assumption based upon very little.”
“Take it for me. Please. I’ll owe you.”
He has grieved his maker’s betrayal very quickly, and has already reaching denial. I must be cautious. “She may take that poorly.”
“She won’t give a damn as long as I hurry back. Please.”
Oh, I wish I could.
He is such a small and bloodthirsty creature, rendered vulnerable by a possibly haunted object, and I want to see more. I want him to talk to me, to reveal his weary secrets, let me see inside that Beast-ridden bloodied soul.
His secrets belong with him, and I cannot escape the suspicion that his maker still lurks here, watching. He may be truly desperate, but this is still a trap. “I believe she will be more likely to break it if I take it, as it will seem a thing you are hiding from her.”
He hunches, head down, defeat compressing him even smaller. “Yeah.”
His misery is a palpable thing, old and weighty and scarred. Trap or no, I must offer some hope. “She may let it stand,” I say. “It seems she’d already promised it back to you, yes? She seems to blame me for its return, not you—perhaps enough to leave you be if you are very well-behaved and draw no attention to yourself.”
He stares at me in awe.
“You’re crazy,” he says.
“Perhaps, nothing. You’re crackers, but maybe you’re on to something. Maybe she will blame you. She likes ’em smart and bonkers.”
I would not have used smart to describe any of this, but I am already committed. “There is only one way to find out.”
He looks at the harp, at its possible occupant, and sniffles. “Yeah.” And he leaves, gone to dust, abandoning me in the heat of the day in the Arizona desert, carrying an infant Fey in a basket and trying to move carefully because every jolt makes my hand feel worse.
There is a most unpleasant pulse in my hand.
Those stores seem much further away than they did before. Is my adventure even over? What on earth did I accomplish?
That shepherdess, Bertha . . . Was I even necessary for this task?
The bread, the harp, the coil of gold—all have been distributed. Yet why did she pick me? Even if I were Fafnir’s “get” (patently absurd), it should have made no difference in the—
“You have her? You have her!” And the basket is torn from my good hand, this time fortunately breaking nothing but my balance.
A young feyor—an adult male Fey—kneels beside me, sobbing into the basket, and the infant, recognizing him, giggles and reaches for his honey-brown hair.
Am I hallucinating? “Goodfellow?”
“You saved her. I can’t believe . . . you got her back,” he says, voice rough with possibly real emotion, though with Goodfellow, I can never tell.
Sweat trickles down my back. My hand throbs. I am done with this. “Goodfellow, as loathe as I am to do this, I must ask for help.” One does not casually ask a favor of Robin Goodfellow, but pain and fading adrenaline have impaired my judgment.
“Yeah, sure, whatever,” he says, and does not even ask for anything in return before transporting us back to my office with a wave of his hand.
This is the strangest event of the whole blasted day.
The Blood Queen broke my hand in four places. Three fingers were dislocated as well as fractured. If not for magical healing, I would be in need of multiple surgeries.
As it is, I sit at my desk with my hand between the petals of an wonderful and enormous lily, relaxing as pain ekes from my arm.
Robin Goodfellow sits across from me, cradling his child. “Did the mean Dr. Blood take you all over the country? Yes, he did, yes, he did, oogy-boogy,” he coos, his long ears relaxed and forward.
He has maintained this paternal behavior so long that I almost assume it is real. He has not requested anything of me in return, either. Perhaps I am off the hook.
That would be a first.
“I did not take her all over the country,” I say.
“Yes, yes, he did, so daddy couldn’t find her,” he says.
“Hardly. The blame falls with some pastoral goddess named Bertha.”
“Mother Hulda.” He takes a deep breath and sits up, meeting my eyes.
Robin Goodfellow is one of the only people on this planet capable of getting under my skin. His control of expression, posture, and tone rival mine. I cannot easily trust anything my eyes tell me here.
“Who is Mother Hulda?”
“She’s old. Real old. She cares for infants who died,” he says.
A psychopomp. This complicates things.
“My good sir, she brought your child to me. I think I am owed an explanation.”
Goodfellow smiles tightly, kisses his daughter on the forehead, then nods. “My baby girl died. Okay? She died. I won’t talk more about that.”
It’s more personal than anything he’s ever told me. I dare not break that spell with speech. I nod.
“I begged her to return my daughter. Mother Hulda. Percht, from the Alps. She catches the souls of dead infants, right? Catches them. I begged her to give her back. She wasn’t supposed to have died.”
I say nothing.
He settles the girl in his arms. “Don’t give me that look. Infants die all the time, but not this one. Fuck you. Anyway. I asked her, and she said yes because she owed me a favor.”
A favor from any psychopomp is tricky business. “That must have been some favor.”
“It was. When Fafnir got himself killed by Sigurd, I stole his egg and hid it safely away so the swashbuckling hero couldn’t eat its heart, too.”
Huh. “Fascinating as that is, what does this have to do with Mother Hulda?”
“Fafnir got one of her daughters pregnant, and they damn near killed each other over it centuries ago,” he says as if this should be common knowledge. “When old Faf went mad and murdered his father, he also killed the daughter rather than let her leave him. It was their egg. Mother Hulda’s grand-yolk, if you will.”
I rest my forehead on my good hand.
The implications are obvious. But this should be impossible. “Finer details aside, this lovely soap opera—conveniently missing from the Volsunga Saga, I must mention—does little to explain today’s events.”
Goodfellow’s dark gaze cuts me for a moment, a glimpse of his disturbing and keen intelligence. And then it hides, and he shrugs, his plaid dinner jacket rising, and adjusts his feather-topped trilby. He points at me; his fingernails are painted green. “You really don’t get it, do you? Today was your testing ground, buddy. You know how gods work. Your whole life doesn’t matter to them. It always comes down to one stupid moment when they’re paying attention, and today was your moment.”
The implications . . . “Goodfellow.” I must persist. “She was mistaken. I am not a dragon. I was not hatched.”
“Like you’d remember. The orphanage I stuck you in didn’t keep the shell like I asked.”
My throat tightens. “You . . . stuck me in?”
He says nothing now, and raises one eyebrow in perfect mimicry of my own.
“Are you actually trying to tell me I was in the egg you stole?”
The sound I make is unplanned. My throat tightens. “No. I was found, not placed. The orphanage found me in the streets, abandoned and crying. Surely someone would have told me if I’d been in an egg.” Unless he bewitched them. Damn it. “Why would you do something like that, anyway?”
He shrugs. “I thought it was funny.”
Funny. Kidnapping and species-displacement, funny.
That, at least, fits his character.
I know I am in denial, that I am being as unreasonable as the worst of my clients, but I cannot seem to stop. “This is nonsense!”
Perhaps his patience is strained, as well. Suddenly, full-on, I face the Hob, the Puck, the grim-dark trickster of unknown age who’s scampered and scammed his way through the years. He gives me no smile now, though he shows his teeth, and there is so much anger under his skin that if I touched him, I’d burn. “Are you stupid?” he says. “You think it isn’t true? Why do you think all your precious clients come to you? Eh? Why? Why do you think they trust you to probe their deepest secrets, their treasures? Why do you think they stay close to you after, eh? Why?”
He is clearly ranting, so I do not bother with the rational answer of education, experience, and availability, not to mention compassion.
Goodfellow points at me again. “They come because you have a psychopomp’s blood in you, which makes them feel safe. You keep them because you have dragon blood in you, and people are your hoard never meant to leave. But more than that: your damned father died when greed took him over, making him kill everyone he once loved. I saved you, but Mother Hulda didn’t know who you really were, not yet. Your choices told her that today, same as they’ve told me.”
If we both start ranting, this time will be wasted. Barely, I keep my tone from quavering. “And who, may I ask, do you believe I am?”
“A cold son of a bitch who has more self-control than either of his parents and willingly handed over precious treasures for the good of others instead of himself. You’re annoying and condescending, but you’re not your dear old dad. If you passed the bread to the needy and the harp to its owner—which it sounds like it was scheduled to happen today, regardless—then she made sure the Blood Queen wouldn’t kill you by including that funky gold. And she made sure the dragon community knows you exist now. She got you a family, dumbass.”
I exhale slowly, a careful time filler, and try to think how to respond. My hand is nearly healed; the plant—a pain lily—suckles gently, drawing more misery into itself and healing the source of anguish. “Goodfellow, this . . . is highly unlikely.”
“But it’s true.”
“Those magical objects were not the test you think. They were interesting enough, but hardly mind-altering.”
“They would’ve been for Fafnir.”
“Stop. Just stop.” A flash of dark fire in his eyes, a peek at the danger that lurks inside, and then it is gone, and he coos to the baby once more. “Dr. Blood is an idiot, yes he is, oh yes he is.”
On that, he may be right.
I shake my head. “Even if any of this were true, how does it involve giving your resurrected infant to me in the middle of whatever test this was?”
He shrugs and seems, for the moment, chagrined. “Mother Hulda didn’t find my little joke funny. I pissed her off by handing you to the Ever-Dying to raise. She saw today as fair, as only just deserts: if you turned out to be a good guy in spite of what I did, my baby would be safe. If not, then losing her again would be on me.”
And this is one of many reasons I do not deal with deities. “That is unnecessarily cruel to you both.”
He cradles his child. “Whatever. Your debt to me is repaid, far as I’m concerned.” He stands.
Does he mean returning me here and providing medical aid? I owed him a debt for theft and displacement? Magical rules, be damned.
“Will your daughter be all right?”
“She was snatched. But yeah, she’ll be fine, especially when I go kill some bastards,” he says. “Daddy’s gonna go kill the bad guys for snatching her, isn’t he? Yes he is, Emmy, yes, he is.” Still cooing, he walks out the door, his Birkenstocks silent, his menace trailing him like a cloud on a leash.
And then my office is quiet but for the soft suckling of the pain lily doing its job.
The room feels empty. I will admit that to myself, even as I analyze my fierce denial.
Goodfellow may have been telling the truth. He could just as easily have been lying.
I could chase down this Mother Hulda, but I have no desire to tangle with deities, especially one who is a potential psychopomp grandparent, and this one apparently carries grudges for generations.
Justin and Ahaana’s gratitude for the bread would certainly make more sense if this were true, not to mention Xu-Kai’s vision.
The Blood Queen’s interest would also make sense; psychopomp blood is very rare, as it may only flow in the veins of mixed offspring. Of course, being Kin, I could not be made into a Night-Child—but she could still keep me against my will if she wanted to.
I will have to solve that impossible problem sooner rather than later. I do not think she was bluffing. She will come after me.
I study my good hand. It is not particularly strong or interesting, though one knuckle is slightly larger where I clutch my pen as I write. It is pasty-white as any Caucasian male’s who spends his time indoors, not having adventures.
Why do I need to deny Goodfellow’s claim so strongly? Is it because my identity is threatened, my earned skills perhaps devalued for the sake of inborn power?
Is it because I wish no further adventures to follow me?
Is it because I am insulted it has taken this long for one to come my way?
I cannot answer these things tonight. No: tonight will be an evening for a hot bath, a bottle of wine, and silence.
The lily finishes and straightens, white petals gone a lovely veined pink, and lets out a contented sigh.
“Thank you,” I say to it, not that it can hear—it is a plant, after all—and pack up to go home.
Perhaps I will take tomorrow off, after all.