Yet, even with his urging, they stood and watched him burn. Frost had begun to think that the black fire had been Jezi-Baba’s magic, but the moment the fire engulfed the Mazikeen’s face, the witch’s entire body disintegrated, crumbling to blue-black ash.
For a long moment he said nothing. At length he turned and surveyed the grim, mournful faces of his comrades, his kin.
“We must head for Palenque with all speed. Other Hunters will come soon.”
Cheval stared at him, shaking her head. “No. Can’t you see that you’re only leading us all to our deaths? This is madness. We cannot hope to succeed when so many stand against us.”
Her hands trembled and she cast her gaze downward, swiping at the tears that began to slip down her face. “You’re only killing us faster than the Hunters would have. There’s nothing left now. We should find somewhere to hide. Let someone else fight them—”
Frost did not take a step nearer or make a gesture. He only spoke one word.
Cheval flinched, raised her chin, and stared at him defiantly. Her features were taut with sorrow. “We cannot—”
“If not us, then who?” the winter man demanded. “I know you mourn, Cheval. Perhaps you do not have it within your heart to continue. You wish, now, to do nothing but crawl into a cave and hide, but I tell you this: the Hunters will not stop. You might live longer in hiding, but when the rest of us have fallen, they will come for you, too. And then Chorti will have died for nothing.”
Cheval glared at him.
Frost turned and strode toward the river, needing the cool water to sustain himself. It would not return him to his full strength, but it was the best he could hope for here.
One by one, the surviving Borderkind followed, their fallen comrades still burning on the battlefield behind them. Cheval Bayard came last, but then hurried to catch up to the others.
The bloodred birds descended.
The Borderkind did not look back.
Oliver could not breathe. The ambassador’s daughter slept on in her floral canopy bed. The two-year-old’s gentle breathing was the only sound in the room save for the eerie scratch of sand eddying across the floor in an unnatural breeze. Kitsune’s body stretched languorously against his, warm and pulsing with the beat of her heart, but he sensed that even she now held her breath.
In the center of the room stood a tall figure in a black bowler hat and a dark woven greatcoat with a high collar. Its hem nearly reached the floor. The figure had tombstone-gray flesh and a thick, drooping mustache. There was about him the sense that this was a man from another age, a time past. His hands were overlarge, the fingers long and slender and somehow wrong. When he moved them, as he did now, raising one to point a stern finger at them, grains of dust sifted off his hands, falling to the ground.
“You are trespassing,” the Dustman said, his voice deep and sonorous, with an edge of gravel.
Oliver swallowed, his throat dry and tight. “Yes, we know. But with good reason.”
He would have gone on, but Kitsune held up a hand to silence him. She turned, slowly pulling her legs beneath her, and bowed low in a manner more customary in the land of her own legend than in that of the Dustman. His English accent was clear.
“We beg your pardon, sir,” Kitsune said. “We do not wish to incur your wrath, only to have a few moments’ discourse.”
Beneath the rim of his bowler, the Dustman’s eyes glittered like stars; pinpoint white amidst deepest black. He raised both hands and dust sprinkled to the floor, where it began to swirl upward, raising a cloud that reached toward them as though he were a puppeteer holding its strings.
“Wait. Stop!” Oliver said, voice rasping in panic even as he tried not to wake the little girl. “Just talk to us. What harm will it do? The Borderkind are being slaughtered. She’s here as your kin, not your enemy. Do you really want to help the Hunters finish the job?”
The Dustman cocked his head to one side and regarded them both. Cold radiated from him, and Oliver shivered.
On her bed, the ambassador’s daughter began to stir. She reached a tiny hand up to rub the sleep grit from her yet unopened eyes. Oliver and Kitsune fell completely still, but the Dustman gestured toward her and a tendril of the dust that swirled around his feet reached out toward her, breezed past her face, and the girl’s arm slid down. She did not stir again, and her breathing grew deeper.
“Continue,” the Dustman said. He slid his hands into the pockets of his jacket, an oddly human gesture. But the more Oliver looked at him, the less human he seemed. The Dustman did not breathe. The air that he expelled with his words was a breeze through a hollow cavern, and when he turned his head, the substance of him, flesh and mustache and hat and coat, shifted like sand.
“May we rise?” Kitsune asked.
Oliver studied her. The subservient tone was quite unlike her, but he saw the spark of something in her gleaming jade eyes, a dark, calculating intelligence. It ought not have surprised him. She was a trickster and had a great deal at stake here—not only on Oliver’s behalf, but her own as well. When Collette had been rescued, the Dustman might make a powerful ally in the war against the Hunters.
The Dustman nodded, glittering eyes eclipsed for a moment by his hat brim. Oliver let out a tiny breath of relief to be spared his attention even for that moment.
“Tell me your tale,” he said in that gravel voice. “Whispers have reached me about the Hunters, but I would know more.”
So Kitsune and Oliver began, taking the story in turns. They told the Dustman of the conspiracy to murder the Borderkind, of Oliver’s first meeting with Frost and their flight from the Myth Hunters, of the losses and betrayals they had suffered on the road to Perinthia and later to Canna Island, of the death of Professor Koenig and the massacre there. Oliver touched the hilt of the Sword of Hunyadi to illustrate the tale, but he made no attempt to draw the blade for fear the Dustman would misinterpret the gesture.
They spoke of Twillig’s Gorge and the allies and enemies found there.
Most important, they spoke of the Sandman, the gruesome killing spree the creature had embarked upon, the murder of Oliver’s father, and the abduction of Collette. When the Dustman inquired as to why Oliver and his sister had been targeted, silence reigned. They had no answers, only overheard conversations and suspicions.
“The king of Euphrasia has given me a year to prove my worth,” Oliver whispered, glancing from time to time at the door, at the sleeping girl, at Kitsune, anything to avoid the narrow eyes of the Dustman. “I hope to convince the king of Yucatazca to do the same. But I can’t worry about saving my own life when I don’t know what’s become of my sister.”
Oliver paused. The Dustman stared at him with those eyes, that gray, shifting skin. Perhaps it was the bowler and the coat, or perhaps the mustache gave the disguise its success, but he realized now he had been speaking to the creature as though it were a man, a human being.
The embassy creaked. Radiator pipes ticked. Outside the windows, the Austrian night remained lit with the diffuse color of Christmas lights, but the darkness seemed to gather closer. In the small hours of the night, nothing moved.
He glanced at Kitsune, thinking she would continue, but the fox-woman only watched the Dustman, pulling her fur cloak more tightly around her as though she might at any moment disappear into the copper-red fur and run for the door.
The Dustman shifted again, took two steps toward them. He moved his shoulders and the high collar of his greatcoat seemed to hide much of his face.
“And somehow you believe I will help you?” he rasped, dust swirling around him, scratching the floor. “A human and a trickster, and you would ask me to ally myself with you against the Sandman, a facet of my own legend? My brother? You wish me to destroy my own brother?”
Kitsune sneered, lips curling back to reveal those small, sharp teeth. “He murders children, tears out their eyes. Were he a facet of my legend, it would shame me.”
The Dustman shuddered, the grains of sand and grit that made up his form shifting, and he slid his hands from his pockets, pointing at her.
“You dare much, fox.”
Oliver’s heart thundered in his chest, but on the outside he felt a strange calm settle over him. He stepped between Kitsune and the Dustman.
“The Hunters will come for you soon enough,” Oliver said, even as the dust eddied around his shoes, cold and rough as sandpaper. This creature could scour the flesh from his bones, but there was no turning back now. “You’re Borderkind. Do you really think they won’t come for you? They’ll kill you. And your brother is working with them. He’s already chosen, and he’s sided against you.”
The embassy continued to creak, but this time it seemed like more than the ordinary settling of time and weight and temperature and wind. Oliver glanced at Kitsune and saw that she had begun to sniff the air. After a moment, she turned to him, alarm lighting her eyes.
“We should go.”
Oliver silently refused. He stared at the Dustman, waiting. The figure regarded him in return, pinpoint-star eyes glittering. Then, with a sound like the hiss of sand through an hourglass, the Dustman smiled and reached up to touch the brim of his bowler, a gesture of courtesy and acceptance.
He strode to the little girl’s bed and ducked beneath the floral awning. Dust sifting around his feet, he slid long fingers inside the girl’s pillowcase and his hand moved around, searching for something there. In a moment he withdrew a single small white feather, goose down from the pillow.
The Dustman handed the pillow feather to Oliver.
“Hold this and call for me, and I shall come.”
Oliver took the feather, staring up at the imposing figure, entranced by the grain of his face, at the apparent reality of the fabric of his hat and coat. He wanted to ask for clarification, to be certain that the creature had truly agreed to help him.
But a strong breeze eddied across the floor again and the Dustman disintegrated before his eyes, slipping away, blowing beneath the bed and through the crack under the door. In seconds, he was gone.
For a moment, Oliver stared at the feather, then he put it into the right-hand pocket of his jeans with the single large seed he still had from his encounter with the gods of the Harvest.
“Oliver,” Kitsune whispered.
On the bed, the girl began to stir again.
“We must go.”
Gently, Kitsune opened the door and peered out into the hall. She glanced back at him and nodded, then the two of them moved quietly out of the girl’s bedroom, leaving the door open.
They had reached the top of the stairs when the girl called out in a sleepy voice for her mother. Oliver froze and looked at Kit, who nodded curtly, urging him to hurry. He started down the stairs, wishing his own tread was as silent as the fox-woman’s.
“Martina?” came a voice from the hall above. The ambassador’s wife, come to check on their little girl.
Oliver cursed to himself and slid his hand along the banister, stealth now far more important than speed. Kitsune reached the bottom of the stairs ahead of him and vanished.
At the bottom step, Oliver paused. The hair on the back of his neck prickled and he turned to look back up the way they’d come.
A woman in a long cotton nightdress stood at the top of the stairs, staring down at him with her mouth open in shock and fear. She said something in German, a question, then repeated it.
Then she began to shout.
Oliver bolted, no longer taking care to tread lightly. He barreled through the embassy, glancing ahead and over his shoulder with every step, waiting for a guard to appear and put a bullet in his head. The sword banged against his hip as he ran.
In the small office where they had entered the building, Kitsune waited. Voices shouted after him now—male voices—and as he swung himself into the office, holding on to the door frame, a gunshot punctured the air, echoing through the whole building. The sound alone made Oliver feel as though he were a target and he tried to shrink in on himself. Another shot came, and a bullet struck the open door behind him as he ran into the room.
Kitsune dove through the window, heedless of any injury that might await outside. Oliver had only a moment to debate attempting the same, and he knew that the fall was far less likely to kill him than a bullet.
He ran to the window, bent low, and slid his torso over the frame. At the last moment, even as his body careened out the window, he gripped the window frame and flipped forward, so that he did not fall into the alley headfirst. Oliver had gone over chain-link fences the same way as a boy, but boyhood was far behind him now, and the move was far from smooth. He sprawled onto the pavement, skinning his palms and scraping his right knee, the denim tearing. The metal scabbard clattered when it struck the ground, but the sword remained in place.
Adrenaline and terror propelled him forward, staggering to his feet even as he kept up his momentum. His hands were bright with pain, but it felt far away and unimportant.
Kitsune stepped from the shadows and grabbed his wrist. For a moment he’d thought she had left him behind. Now they raced down the alley together, behind the embassy and then between two other buildings. Oliver felt like an idiot. If he’d been running on his own he would have gone back the way they’d come, right past the front doors, and probably been shot dead in the street.
There were shouts and the staccato footfalls of their pursuers, but there were no more gunshots, and soon they had left even that behind in the narrow back alleys of Vienna. The police would be out in force soon, searching for them, but the guards at the British embassy had no jurisdiction to shoot people in the streets of the Austrian capital.
Oliver had long since lost track of their location when Kitsune led him around a corner and he saw the Danube churning by only a hundred yards away.
Slowly, catching her breath, she took his hand again and together they walked to the riverbank. The darkness still clung to the sky, but night would soon be over and Christmas day would dawn. The river raced by, the current powerful, but even so, it was cold enough that ice had formed along its edges, drifting and breaking and spinning on the water.