"No," Susan said fiercely. "No. This isn't set up on Greenwich mean time, Harry. These creatures aren't performing their ceremony based on a clock. They're using the stars. We only know an approximate time. It could happen after midnight."
It could happen half an hour before midnight, I thought, but I didn't say that to Susan. Instead, I nodded. She was right. What she was saying just didn't feel right, but I knew, in my head, that she was on target. I forced myself to ignore that little whispering voice of defeat in my ear.
"Right," I said. "Keep going, maximum speed. We need to get back to St. Mary's and pick up everyone there."
Susan nodded and said, "Half an hour back if there's no traffic."
"And if you have a car," I said, "which we don't."
Susan's mouth twitched into a smile. "Good thing there's a whole parking lot full of them, then."
I opened the front door for Susan, followed her out onto the sidewalk, and nearly got run over by an emerald green stretch limousine, its tail fins, elongated hood, and shining chrome grille marking it as something created in the extravagant years subsequent to the Second World War. The limo screeched to a halt, and the driver, dressed in a no-nonsense black suit, got out and hurried around to the door nearest us. He was medium height, thin, young, and good-looking enough to be acting or modeling - so much so, in fact, that I decided immediately that he wasn't human.
Almost as soon as I had the thought, I suddenly saw the young Sidhe lord as he truly appeared - dressed in an emerald green tunic and tights, each with accents of deep violet. His sunny hair was bound back into a tight braid that fell past his waist, and his feline, cat-slitted amber eyes were piercing. He saw me staring and gave me a mocking little bow that only barely moved his head and chest, then opened the limo's door.
The Leanansidhe leaned over from the far side of the passenger compartment, an exasperated look on her face. "And here thou art at last, child. What madness possessed thee to pay a social call upon the Hunter? He has a grudge against thee. Know you not what that means?"
Susan tensed and took a step back from her. My godmother noticed it and favored her with a toothy smile. "Fear not, half child. I've no reason to restrain thee again - unless, of course, thou wouldst like to see where it leads." She glanced up at the night sky - mostly hidden behind all the light pollution - and said, "Granted, we would be forced to indulge such curiosity another time."
"Godmother," I said, staring. "What . . . a big car you have."
She shook a finger at me. "The better to take you to the House of the Weeping Mother so that we may embark upon our quest, child. Glenmael, help them in, if you please. We race against time."
The young Sidhe gestured gallantly toward the rear of the limo and offered me a supporting arm.
I scowled at him (provoking another smiling bow of his head) and helped Susan into the car. I got in without help of my own, and in short order we found ourselves seated facing the rear of the vehicle and my godmother as the young Sidhe pulled out of the lot and headed for I-55.
"Ridiculous," Lea said, staring at me in disapproval. "You look utterly ridiculous."
I blinked at her and then down at myself. Okay, well, granted. I'd been smeared with ichor and then rolled around in dirt and debris and I had a bleeding cut on one hand, which does not for neatness make. My jeans were a wreck, my T-shirt was beyond repair and going to get cut up for rags, and even my duster looked dirty and strained. Susan wasn't in much better condition.
"I'm not going to a state dinner, Godmother," I said.
Her voice turned wry. "That depends upon who wins the battle, me-thinks." She looked me up and down and shook her head. "No. No, it won't do at all. My queen has a certain reputation to maintain, after all. Your first engagement as the Winter Knight calls for something a bit less . . . postapocalyptic." She studied Susan with a critical expression. "Mmmm. And your concubine cannot be allowed to bring any shame upon you and, by extension, upon the queen."
Susan arched an eyebrow. "His concubine?"
"His lover, the mother of his child, yet to whom he is not wed? I believe the term applies, dear." She waved a hand. "Words. La. Let us see."
She rested a fingertip thoughtfully upon the end of her nose, staring at me. Then she said, "Let us begin with silk."
She murmured a word, passed her hand over me, and my clothes started writhing as if they'd been made out of a single, flat organism, and one that hadn't yet had the courtesy to expire. It was the damnedest feeling, and I hit my head on the roof of the limo as I jumped in surprise.
A few seconds later, clenching my head, I eyed my godmother and said, "I don't need any help."
"Harry," Susan said in a strangled voice. She was staring at me.
I looked down and found myself garbed in silken clothing. My shirt had become a billowing affair of deep grey silk, fitted close to my torso by a rather long vest of midnight black seeded in patterns of deep amethysts, green-blue opals, and pale, exquisite pearls. The tights were also made of silk, closely fit, and pure white, while the leather boots that came up to my knees were the same deep grey as the shirt.
I stared at me. Then at Susan.
"Wow," Susan said. "You . . . you really do have a fairy godmother."
"And I've never been able to indulge," Lea said, studying me absently. "This won't do." She waved her hand again. "Perhaps a bit more . . ."
My clothing writhed again, the sensation so odd and intrusive that I all but banged my head on the roof again.
We went through a dozen outfits in half as many minutes. A Victorian suit and coat, complete with tails, was nixed in favor of another silk outfit, this one inspired by imperial China. By then, Susan and Lea were actively engaged in the project, exchanging commentary with each other and ignoring absolutely every word that came out of my mouth. By the seventh outfit, I had given up trying to have any say whatsoever in how I was going to be dressed.
I was given outfits drawing inspiration from widely diverse cultures and periods of history. I lobbied for the return of my leather duster stridently, but Lea only shushed me and kept speaking to Susan.
"Which outfit is really going to get that bitch's goat?" Susan asked her.
Finally, Lea's mouth curled up into a smile, and she said, "Perfect."
My clothes writhed one more time and I found myself dressed in ornate Gothic armor of the style used in Western Europe in the fifteenth century. It was black and articulated, with decorated shoulder pauldrons and an absurdly ornate breastplate. Gold filigree was everywhere, and the thing looked like it should weigh six hundred pounds.
"Cort¨¦s wore armor in just this style," Lea murmured. She studied my head and said, "Though it needs . . ."
A weight suddenly enclosed my head. I sighed patiently and reached up to remove a conquistador's helmet decorated to match the armor. I put it down on the floor of the limo and said firmly, "I don't do hats."
"Poo," Lea said. "Arianna still hates the Europeans with a vengeance, you know. It was why she took a conquistador husband."
I blinked. "Ortega?"
"Of course, child," Lea said. "Love and hate are oft difficult to distinguish between. She won Ortega's heart, changed him, wed him, and spent the centuries after breaking his heart over and over again. Calling for him and then sending him away. Giving in to him and then reversing her course. She said it kept her hatred fresh and hot."
"Explains why he was working in bloody Brazil," I said.
"Indeed. Hmmm." She flicked a hand and added a Roman-style cloak of dark grey to my armor-broadened shoulders, its ties fastened to the front of the breastplate. Another flick changed the style of my boots slightly. She added a deep hood to the cloak. Then she thoughtfully wrought all the gold on the armor into a spectrum that changed from natural gold to a green that deepened along the color gradient to blue and then purple the farther it went from my face, giving the gold filigree a cold, eerily surreal look. She added front panels to the cloak, so that it fell like some kind of robe in the front, belted to my waist with a sash of deep, dark purple. A final adjustment made the armor over my shoulders a bit wider and thicker, giving me that football shoulder-pad profile I remembered from Friday nights in high school.
I looked down at myself and said, "This is ridiculous. I look like the Games Workshop version of a Jedi Knight."
Susan and Lea blinked at me, then at each other.
"I want my duster back, dammit," I clarified.
"That old rag?" Lea said. "You have an image to maintain."
"And I'm gonna maintain it in my duster," I said stubbornly.
"Harry," Susan said. "She might have a practical point here."
I eyed her. Then my outfit. "Practical?"
"Appearances and first impressions are powerful things," she said. "Used correctly, they're weapons in their own right. I don't know about you, but I want every weapon I can get."
Lea murmured, "Indeed."
"Okay. I don't see why my image can't wear my duster. We need to be quick, too. This getup is going to be binding and heavier than hell."
Lea's mouth curled up at one corner. "Oh?"
I scowled at her. Then I shook my shoulders and twisted about a bit. There was a kind of springy flexibility to the base material of the armor that steel would never match. More to the point, now that I was actually moving about, I couldn't feel its weight. At all. I might as well have been wearing comfortable pajamas.
"No mortal could cut through it by strength of mundane arms," she said calmly. "It will shed blows from even such creatures as the vampires of the Red Court - for a time, at least. And it should help you to shield your mind against the wills of the Lords of Outer Night."
"Should?" I asked. "What do you mean, 'should'?"
"They are an ancient power, godchild," Lea replied, and gave me her cat's smile again. "I have not had the opportunity to match my new strength against theirs." She looked me up and down one more time and nodded, satisfied. "You look presentable. Now, child," she said, turning to Susan. "Let us see what we might do for you."
Susan handled the whole thing a lot better than I had.
I got distracted while they were working. I looked out the window and saw us blowing past a highway patrol car as if it were standing still instead of racing down the highway with its bulbs flashing and its siren wailing. We had to be doing triple digits to have left him eating our dust so quickly.
The patrolman didn't react to our passage, and I realized that Glenmael must be hiding the car behind some kind of veil. He was also, I noticed, weaving and darting through the traffic with entirely impossible skill, missing other motorists' bumpers and fenders by inches, with them apparently none the wiser. Not only that, but I couldn't feel the motion at all within the passenger compartment. By all rights, we should have been bouncing off the windows and the roof, but it didn't feel as if the car were moving at all.
Long story short: He got us to St. Mary's in less than fifteen minutes, and gave me several dozen new grey hairs in the process.
We pulled up and Glenmael was opening the door to the rear compartment at seemingly the same instant that the car's weight settled back against its parking brakes. I got out, the dark grey cowl covering my head. My shadow, on the sidewalk in front of me, looked friggin' huge and scary. Irrationally, it made me feel a little better.
I turned to help Susan out and felt my mouth drop open a little.
Her outfit was . . . um, freaking hot.
The golden headdress was the first thing I noticed. It was decorated with feathers, with jade carved with sigils and symbols like those I had seen on the stone table, and with flickering gems of arctic green and blue. For a second, I thought her vampire nature had begun to rise again, because her face was covered in what I mistook for tattoos. A second glance showed me that they were some kind of precisely drawn design, sort of like henna markings, but far more primitive and savage-looking in appearance. They were also done in a variety of colors of black and deep, dark red. The designs around her dark brown eyes made them stand out sharply.
Under that, she wore a shift of some material that looked like simple, soft buckskin, split on the sides for ease of movement, and her feet were wrapped in shoes made of similar material, also decorated with feathers. The moccasins and shift both were pure white, and made a sharp contrast against the dark richness of her skin, and displayed the smooth, tight muscles of her arms and legs tremendously well.
A belt of white leather had an empty holster for a handgun on one of her hips, with a frog for hanging a scabbard upon it on the other. And over all of that, she wore a mantled cloak of feathers, not too terribly unlike the ones we had seen in Nevada - but the colors were all in the rich, cool tones of the Winter Court: glacial blue, deep sea green, and twilight purple.
She looked at me and said, "I'm waiting for you to say something about a Vegas showgirl."
It took me a moment to reconnect my mouth to my brain. "You look amazing," I said.
Her smile was slow and hot, with her dark eyes on mine.
"Um," I said. "But . . . it doesn't look very practical."
Lea accepted Glenmael's hand and exited the limo. She leaned over and murmured something into Susan's ear.
Susan arched an eyebrow, but then said, "Okaaay . . ." She closed her eyes briefly, frowning.
And she vanished. Like, completely. Not behind a hard-to-pierce veil. Just gone.
My godmother laughed and said, "The same as before, but red, child."
"Okay," said Susan's voice from empty air, and suddenly she was back again, smiling broadly. "Wow."
"The cloak will hide you from the eyes and other senses as well, child," my godmother said. "And while you wear those shoes, your steps will leave no tracks nor make the smallest sound."
"Um, right," I said. "But I'd feel better if she had some Kevlar along or something. Just in case."
"Glenmael," said my godmother.
The chauffeur calmly drew a nine-millimeter, pointed it at Susan's temples from point-blank range, and squeezed the trigger. The gun barked.
Susan jerked her head to one side and staggered, clapping one hand to her ear. "Ow!" she snarled, rising and turning on the young Sidhe. "You son of a bitch, those things are loud. That hurt. I ought to kick your ass up between your ears for you."
In answer, the Sidhe bent with consummate grace and plucked something from the ground. He stood and showed it to Susan, and then to me.
It was a bullet. The nose was smashed in flat, until it vaguely resembled a small mushroom.
Our eyes got kind of wide.
Lea spread her hands and said calmly, "Faerie godmother."
I shook my head, stunned. It had taken me years to design, create, and improve my leather duster's defensive spells, and even then, the protection extended only as far as the actual leather. Lea had whipped up a whole-body protective enchantment in minutes.
I suddenly felt a bit more humble. It was probably good for me.
But then I tilted my head, frowning. The power involved in my godmother's gifts was incredible - but the universe just doesn't seem to be willing to give you something for nothing. That was as true in magic as it was in physics. I could, with years of effort, probably duplicate what Lea's gifts could do. The Sidhe worked with the same magic I did, though admittedly they seemed to have a very different sort of relationship. Still, that much power all in one spot meant that the energy cost for it was being paid elsewhere.
Like maybe in longevity.
"Godmother," I asked, "how long will these gifts endure?"
Her smile turned a little sad. "Ah, child. I am a faerie godmother, am I not? Such things are not meant to last."
"Don't tell me midnight," I said.
"Of course not. I am not part of Summer." She sniffed, rather scornfully. "Noon."
And that made more sense. My duster's spells lasted for months, and I thought I'd worked out how to make them run for more than a year the next time I laid them down. Lea's gifts involved the same kind of power output, created seemingly without toil - but they wouldn't last like the things I created would. My self-image recovered a little.
"Lea," I asked, "did you bring my bag?"
Glenmael opened the trunk and brought it over to me. The Swords in their scabbards were still strapped to the bag's side. I picked it up and nodded. "Thanks."
He bowed, smiling. I was tempted to tip him, just to see what would happen, but then I remembered that my wallet had been in my blue jeans, and was now, presumably, part of the new outfit. Maybe it would reappear at noon tomorrow - assuming I was alive to need it, I mean.
"I will wait here," Lea said. "When you are ready to travel to the first Way, Glenmael will take us there."
"Right," I said. "Let's go, princess."
"Of course, Sir Knight," Susan said, her eyes sparkling, and we went into the church.