ONE TWENTY TWO
With a grim and weary resignation I recognised Borcaithna’s name. He was a very capable magician, but slapdash. He kept getting hired because most magicians who could do what he did were hired permanently—and exclusively—by powerbrokers and the nobility, and there was a much wider market for those particular skills, for any magician who liked to live dangerously. But Borcaithna also kept getting fired for screwing up. Flowerhair tried to run the other way any time she heard his name but didn’t always succeed. Doomblade hated him and was always trying to duck out of the scabbard and go for him, like a terrier with a grievance. One of Mom’s stud Ghastlies had hated anything in a blue uniform and it was a little-known wonder of the modern, legal-action prone world that he’d died of natural causes at a ripe old age. I didn’t know Tulamaro, but he might be the head of this ragtag band. Murac never stayed in one place or company long either, but in his case it was usually to do with who he picked a fight with.
I light-headedly considered asking him what he’d thought of the scenery on my side—of Merry, of tarmac, of barbed wire, of power lines, of that dubious feat of modern biological engineering, dairy cows—but I didn’t want to ask anything, you know, out loud, to this not-imaginary-enough thug which might remind me of the less than twenty-four hours between gaining a dog and losing the standard verities of time and space. No, wait, they’d proved Einstein wrong, hadn’t they? If I got out of this alive I’d google it. . . . I had to get out of it alive. I had a dog waiting for me. Not to mention six rose bushes. And a house. And maybe a hob. And Norah would miss me. Norah might even find a way to come after me. I could try thought waves. Including check in on Sid on your way, okay?
MacFarquhar, get a grip.
Watermelon Shoulders did not count on the list of who was waiting for me. I didn’t want him waiting for me. If he went away maybe all the—the goofy stuff—would go away too.
I heard myself fumbling out a question I didn’t want the answer to either: “Why were you—er—assigned to—er—Defender?”
I was trying to sound neutral, but Murac heard what I was saying. “Why giztimi, you mean, eh?” he said, and grinned his creepy grin again.
I didn’t know giztimi any more than I knew azogging but if I were going to guess I’d guess it meant something like klutz or moron. I nodded.
“Wanted someone no one would mourn, didn’t they, eh?” he said. “If plan goes amiss.”
Ah. I knew I shouldn’t’ve asked.
I made it worse. I asked another question. “Um—so what is the plan?”
“Tis no plan,” Murac replied, much too readily. “Tis word for Tulamaro to say: plan.”
No plan. No plan. And the noises I was hearing was a bunch of idiots forming up behind me? Didn’t they know a clueless modern urban middle-aged woman in a pink nightgown when they saw one?
“And them to believe,” he added, nodding over my shoulder.
He sounded almost cheerful. I doubted this was a good sign. I couldn’t remember if Murac was especially fond of lost causes, but I was pretty sure he had that old-soldier’s blithe-before-death thing. I did not feel at all blithe. Sore and aching—and foolish—and frightened—yes. Blithe, no. “We take tha toward Gate,” he said and stopped.
As his silence grew longer the sound of my blood banging in my ears got louder. “And—?” I said. It’s hard to sound strangled on one syllable but I managed.
He shrugged. “And,” he said. “Tha’s Defender.”
There was a chasm opening at my feet. Or at Monster’s feet. Dark. Deep. I thought it was probably a figment of my despair but in the circumstances I wasn’t sure. I jerked my head up and looked at Murac. Allowing for the fact that he was about as safe and trustworthy as a long-term meth head, he looked almost sympathetic. “Tha sword,” he said. “She’s good ’un. Tha grip her close.”
Someone else was telling me to grip my sword. I might have laughed, but all I could produce was a kind of croak. It was the kind of croak that reverberates, and my knee banged painfully against that twisted strap. I’d move it in a minute. But right now my hands were frozen on the reins.
The rustling noises around us were quieting. A few minutes ago I would have hoped this was a good thing. As Defender I was pretty sure it wasn’t. I thought the new silence had a primed and ready sort of feel to it. An anticipatory sort of feel.
Tis no plan.
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