My grandfather had taught me that magic wasn't something you used in a cavalier fashion, and it wasn't considered to be a seductive, corruptive force, the way black magic and the Winter Knight's mantle were. I had an instinct that the more I leaned on Mab's power, the more of an effect it would have on me. No sense flaunting it.
Once I was inside, I found myself in a setting of isolation that would be hard to duplicate anywhere else this close to the city. The gardens are the size of a moderate farm, more than three hundred acres. That wouldn't mean much to city mice, but to translate that into Chicago units, it was a couple of dozen city blocks' worth of garden. That's a lot of space to wander in. You could walk the various paths for hours and hours without ever visiting the same place.
Most of those paths were grey and empty. I passed a retiree near the entrance, and a groundskeeper hurrying out of the rain toward what looked like a concealed toolshed, and other than that it seemed like I had the whole place to myself.
There were seasonal decorations out here and there-a lot of pumpkins and cornstalks, where they'd been planning on Halloween festivities. Apparently they were going to be hosting some kind of trick-or-treating function that afternoon, but for the time being the place did not teem with costumed children and bedraggled parents. It was a little eerie, really. The place looked like it should have been crowded, and felt like it was meant to be crowded, but my soft footsteps were the only sound other than the whisper of rain.
Yet I did not feel as though I were alone. You hear the phrase "I felt like I was being watched" all the time. There's a good reason for that-it's a very real feeling, and it has nothing to do with magic. Developing an instinct for sensing when a predator might be studying you is a fundamental survival trait. If you're ever in a spooky situation and have a strong instinct that you are being watched, hunted, or followed, I advise you not to treat those instincts lightly. They're there for a reason.
I walked for about five minutes, and instinct converted into certainty. I was being followed. I couldn't spot who was doing it, exactly, and there were all kinds of plant cover to conceal whoever or whatever was pacing me, but I was confident that they were out there.
Maybe my brother's fears hadn't been entirely without merit.
Lily hadn't said where she intended to meet me, exactly-or rather, I chided myself, I hadn't badgered Cat Sith hard enough for the details. The furry jerk had calmly denied me that rather important piece of information, simply by never mentioning it, and I hadn't questioned him closely enough. My own fault. I'd played the malicious obedience card more than a couple of times in my life, but this was the first time I'd had it played against me.
Man. No wonder it drives people insane.
So I started walking the main paths systematically. The gardens are built on a series of islands in a little lake, joined by footbridges and grouped into themes.
I found Lily waiting on the covered bridge to the Japanese garden.
Her long, fine hair flowed in gentle waves to the small of her back. It was silver-white. Evidently the weather didn't bother her either. She was dressed in a simple green sundress that fell to her knees, the kind of thing you'd expect to see in July. She had a pastel green sweater folded over one arm for appearance's sake. Brown leather sandals wrapped her feet, and their ties crisscrossed around her ankles. She stood very still, her deep green eyes focused on the ripples the little raindrops sent up on the surface of the lake.
And if I hadn't known better, if I hadn't known Lily's features well enough to be sure it was her, I would have sworn that I was looking at Aurora, the Summer Lady I'd murdered at the stone table.
Before stepping onto the bridge, I paused for a moment to look around me, to truly focus my senses. There, in the bushes-something that moved with feline smoothness paced me in utter silence. More presences filled the water, stirring up more ripples than the rain could account for. And on the far side of the bridge, a number of presences lurked, veiled by magic that kept me from knowing anything about them beyond the fact of their existence.
I figured that there were at least twice as many guardians present, the ones I couldn't sense without really buckling down. They would probably be the most capable and powerful of Lily's escort, too.
If Lily meant to do me harm, walking out onto that bridge was a great way to trap myself, and an absolutely fantastic place in which to be shot. The railing on either side was of light, fine material, and would provide no real cover. There were an almost unlimited number of places where a rifleman could be lying in wait. If I went out there and Lily meant to hurt me, I'd have a hell of a time arguing with her.
But she'd given her word that she wouldn't. I tried to look at this from her point of view-after all, I hadn't given my word, and even if I had, I could always break it. Had I intended to attack Lily, the bridge presented her with an opportunity to block me in, to slow me down while she and her people escaped.
Screw this. I didn't have time to waffle.
I hunched my shoulders, hoped no one was about to shoot me again, and strode out onto the bridge.
Lily didn't give any indication that she'd noticed me until I got to within about ten feet of her. Then she simply lifted her eyes from the water, though she never looked at me.
I'd been the one to ask for this meeting. I stopped, gave her a bow, and said, "Thank you for meeting me, Lady Summer."
She inclined her head the slightest visible degree. "Sir Knight."
"Been a while," I said.
"Relative to what?" she asked.
"Life, I guess," I said.
"Much has happened," she agreed. "Wars have raged. Empires have fallen." She finally turned her head to regard me directly. "Friends have changed."
Lily had been gorgeous as a mortal woman. After becoming the Summer Lady, her beauty had been magnified into something that was only barely human, something so tangible and intense that it shone out from her like light flowing out of her skin. It was a different kind of beauty from Mab's or Maeve's. Their loveliness was an emptiness. Looking on them created nothing but desire, a need that cried out to be filled.
By contrast, Lily's beauty was a fire, a source of light and warmth, something that created a profound sense of satisfaction. Looking at Lily made the pains of my heart ease, and I suddenly felt like I could breathe freely for the first time in months.
And some other part of me abruptly filled my mind with a violent and explicit image-my fist tangled in Lily's hair, that soft gentle mouth under mine, her body writhing beneath my weight as I took her to the ground. It wasn't an idle thought, and it wasn't a daydream, and it wasn't a fantasy. It was a blueprint. If Lily was immortal, I couldn't kill her. That didn't mean I couldn't take her.