Kitsune froze. The words hardly seemed real. Knots formed in her stomach and her skin flushed as all of her guilt and shame returned.
“What do you mean? Oliver’s in Yucatazca. Ty’Lis has him in the king’s dungeon in Palenque.”
Corn husks twined together on Konigen’s face. “The roots bring the truth. Oliver escaped. He travels with his lover and a coterie of Borderkind. They came through the sandcastle that had stood for centuries just south of here, but once they left the place, the castle fell.”
Kitsune stared at him. “It fell?”
“Collapsed,” Konigen replied. “It is nothing but sand, now. And the roots bring whispers that the same thing has happened to all of the monster’s other castles—at least within the Two Kingdoms. They wait for us in the ruin of the Sandman’s castle, and from there we shall all march to war.”
“And he knows we’re coming?” Kitsune asked, mystified that Oliver would be waiting for her, but wondering, as well, if after all of the intervening months he could have forgiven her.
Konigen nodded. “He waits.”
Kitsune felt numb. She did not know how Oliver would greet her, what bitterness might have stayed with him during his time in Palenque’s dungeon. But how could she hesitate?
“Coyote,” she said, “hurry back to Bellona and the others. Tell the gods they have found allies amongst the Harvest.”
But even as he ran up the hill, five words echoed in her mind.
He travels with his lover.
Oliver sat on a huge stone on the side of the Truce Road and gazed southward at the trees that lined that road. When they broke camp and set off, they would pass the trees where he, Frost, and Kitsune had found a little Red Cap murdered and hung for display. It had been the first time he had seen a victim of the Sandman. Only four months had passed since then, and yet he found it difficult to recall the horror he knew he had felt in those moments. Since then, the awful things had piled upon one another until he could barely summon horror anymore. Disgust and fury, certainly. But horror had become almost a constant now, part of the fabric of his life, and he hardly recognized it within him.
The breeze carried a chill and he shuddered. He preferred this weather to the heat of Yucatazca, but a sweatshirt would have been welcome.
“Where are you drifting?”
Oliver turned to find Julianna walking toward him. He smiled at the question and slid over to give her room beside him on the rock.
“Forward and backward,” he said. “Wondering what the future holds, and remembering how we got to this point. Still hard to take it all in, even though we’ve lived it.”
Julianna slid her arm through his and leaned on his shoulder, her body forming perfectly to his as it always did. He loved the smell of her hair.
“That’s you, babe. Escaping in your brain.”
Julianna gave a soft laugh. “What else would you call it? I wish I could go into my head the way you do yours. Maybe I wouldn’t be so impatient.”
Oliver kissed her on the forehead and Julianna looked up at him. Instead of being lost in his own mind, he became lost in the space between them—and then he made it vanish, leaning down to brush his lips against hers. He kissed her again, more fully, and then they pressed their foreheads together.
“I’m not quite so impatient,” he said. “I’m not in any rush to make tomorrow come faster. Not when you’re here with me right now.”
She started to smile, but then a frown creased her brow. “Wait, tomorrow? We’re not breaking camp until—”
He laughed. “Just a figure of speech, Impatient Girl. As soon as the Harvest gods arrive, we’ll be heading south.”
She hung her head, her hair a curtain across her face. “So weird how you can just say that. ‘Harvest gods.’ Like it’s totally ordinary, everyday stuff. Even after what I’ve seen, it’s still hard for me to picture.”
Oliver did not reply. The comment did not require a response. No matter how much time he spent here, he knew he would always be adjusting to the amazements the world presented. Julianna was no different.
They sat for several minutes just listening to the breeze through the trees, watching the Truce Road to the south. He had told her the story of what had happened here and was glad she did not want to discuss it any further. Nightmares were best forgotten. Sometimes—too often—the task proved impossible.
With Julianna beside him, out in the world and away from the dungeon of Palenque, Oliver felt himself relax in a way that he had not managed since the night when Frost first intruded upon his life. He felt content and lucky. His sister, Collette, was off with the winter man in the ordinary world somewhere, and no matter how much he resented Frost, Oliver knew she would be safe with him. The two people in any world that he loved were out of harm’s way. He only wished they could go home now and leave the Two Kingdoms behind. But the war concerned them all. If this moment was all he could hope for—at least in the near future—it felt all the more precious to him.
He stiffened at the sound of a voice on the wind.
“What’s wrong?” Julianna asked.
But when it came a second time, she heard it as well. The two of them turned, twisting around on the rock, and saw the powerful, apelike figure of Leicester Grindylow barreling toward them.
“Grin?” Oliver ventured, still getting used to the water boggart’s nickname. “What’s going on?”
But even as he asked the question, he saw the dust rising from the Truce Road to the north, and he had his answer. Oliver slipped from the rock and stood. Julianna did the same, reaching for his hand. Their fingers twined and they started toward Grin.
“Right, you’ve seen ’em, then,” the boggart said. “Figured you’d want to know that the Harvest gods have arrived.”
“Thanks. We’re on our way.”
Grin nodded and turned around, hurrying back the way he’d come. Oliver had thought the boggart might fall into step beside them, but found himself relieved that Grin was in such a hurry to rejoin the others.
Blue Jay, Li, and Cheval stood at the edge of the road several hundred yards to the north, where the wind blew grains up from the ruins of the sandcastle, but all he could focus on was the bizarre parade of legends coming down the slope toward them. He recognized many of the gods of the Harvest, but others were unfamiliar to him. In addition to the men and women and beasts made of wood and leaves and wheat and cornstalks, several thick roots burst from the soil on the roadside and then plunged into the dirt again, moving like worms. Thick as fallen logs, they emerged and then burrowed down again.
Beyond the Harvest gods were legends he did not recognize. In his time on this side of the Veil, Oliver had seen many warriors, but none like these. Many legends were larger than ordinary humans, but this small cadre was somehow also grander. They were formidable and they strode along the Truce Road as though they were some royal family, gathering for the funeral of one of their own. Last of all came an ugly, lumbering giant who seemed at once ancient and childlike. His hands were so large Oliver thought he could probably crush a man’s bones to powder with one squeeze.
Yet even with that extraordinary sight, he only glanced at the approaching legends. His focus had begun with—and now returned to—the two figures at the front of that strange parade, a skulking trickster in a denim jacket with a cigarette clenched between his teeth and the familiar, petite form of Kitsune. The sunlight made her copper fur gleam red and orange, as though tiny pinpoints of fire burned on her cloak and hood.
“Did you know she was going to be with them?” Julianna asked.
Oliver turned and saw the hurt in her eyes.
“I had no idea.”
“And she just expects us to behave like nothing happened, like she didn’t run away and leave us to die?”
Oliver watched as the bizarre foot soldiers arrived at the ruin of the sandcastle. The roots that had been burrowing through the ground thrust up from the sand and became tree-creatures. One of them was the Appletree Man, whom Oliver knew. Cheval Bayard, Grin, and Li moved to meet them. Blue Jay slid past the first of the Harvest gods and went to his cousins—the tricksters. With a nod to Coyote, he took Kitsune in his arms in a tight embrace. From behind, all Oliver could see were the feathers in Blue Jay’s hair, dancing in the breeze.
“I guess she does,” he said. “The war’s on. She’s bringing a bunch of warrior legends to fight alongside Hunyadi’s soldiers. We’re all on the same side.”
Julianna stood rooted to the spot, the two of them halfway between the rock they’d been sitting on and the ruins of the sandcastle. “Maybe she doesn’t care if we’re here or not. Maybe she doesn’t think she did anything wrong.”
Oliver shook his head. He remembered all of the times Kitsune had looked at him with those jade eyes, the intimacy of her nearness, her lips brushing his own. Even though at the time he hadn’t known if he and Julianna would ever be together again, he had not followed through on those temptations. But he had wanted to. He and Kitsune had grown close in so many ways. Their friendship had been intense and passionate, even without the sexual tension that had developed. He would never have imagined her abandoning them to the dungeons of Palenque to save herself.
But that had been willful blindness. Had he given it any thought, he would have been able to predict it. Oliver wouldn’t flatter himself by believing that Kitsune truly had fallen in love with him, but the journey they’d gone through together had created a bond between them that Kitsune—a trickster, normally caring for no one but herself—would not willingly surrender or even share. Oliver should have seen her jealousy coming. At the very least, he should have understood it at the time.
Now he did. Not that he forgave Kitsune, but he knew that what happened was nothing more than her nature. Instinct.
“Oliver,” Julianna said.
Ahead, at the ruins, the three tricksters were talking even as the other Borderkind and legends began to gather on the road. The time for rest had passed. They were off to war.
Kitsune pulled back from Blue Jay, looking around. Her gaze fell upon Oliver and Julianna and even from a distance he could see the sadness etched upon her face.
“War’s like politics,” Oliver said. “It makes strange bedfellows.”
Julianna cupped one hand behind his head to get his attention and moved closer, locking eyes with him, tearing his focus away from Kitsune.
“It better not,” she said.
All along, she must have had her suspicions about what had gone on between him and Kitsune through that long journey. But she had said nothing until now. Oliver smiled softly, reminded how extraordinary a woman this was. Julianna had gauged the situation and put it aside as unimportant, particularly with Kitsune out of the picture. Now, as strong as she was, she wanted reassurance.
“We got very close. But never that close.”
He shook his head, reached out and touched her cheek. “All I want is to be with you. As for friendship with Kitsune, I could have forgiven her leaving us high and dry. I really could have. But she hurt you, Jules. Whatever bond we had before, she broke it.”
Julianna took a deep breath and some of the fire left her gaze. “War makes strange bedfellows.”
“Yeah. It does.”
“But I’m not going to play nice.”
Oliver had no reply to that. Julianna Whitney had never put on a false face in her entire life, except with some of the law firm’s clients, and then only under duress from the partners.
In silent agreement, they strode toward the ruins of the castle, which had spilled sand for hundreds of feet all around it as it collapsed. As if on cue, Kitsune extricated herself from Blue Jay and Coyote and walked out to meet them. Blue Jay watched with concern until Coyote said something to distract him, and then the two tricksters studiously attempted to mind their own business. The rest of the gods and legends were making introductions. How strange that in the midst of such wonders Oliver and Julianna should be focused on the personal and intangible.
The breeze blew Kitsune’s silken black hair across her face. She brushed it aside and then reached back, as if to raise her hood. As her fingers touched the copper fur, she hesitated and changed her mind, leaving it where it was. She would not hide in the shadows of her cloak, or in the fur of the fox that she was in her heart.
He saw no trace of mischief in her eyes, today. Only regret.
“Oliver,” the fox-woman said. Her gaze shifted. “Julianna.” She bowed her head in some combination of greeting and penitence and then looked up at them again, finally searching Oliver’s eyes. “You know that if I could take those moments back, I would. For a trickster, trust is a gift, whether given or received. I knew…I know that I ruined that trust. And I am deeply sorry.”
Slowly, Oliver nodded. “You did, Kit. And it means a lot to hear you say that. But you know it can’t be that simple.”
So much remained unsaid between them but to try to discuss it now would serve no purpose except to hurt Julianna.
Kitsune glanced at Julianna. “I could not have taken you through the Veil. You know that. But I should not have struck you.”
Julianna let out a breath that was almost a sigh. In her eyes, Oliver saw a sadness that reflected Kitsune’s, full of sympathy and frustration.
“I’d like to punch your lights out,” she said, as though the words surprised her. “But I don’t know how to be that kind of person. We’re going to travel together, I guess, but allies don’t have to be friends.”
The fox-woman glanced at Oliver and then back at Julianna, bristling at her words. Whatever sadness and shame she felt, it couldn’t be easy for her not to react. But instead she pulled her cloak around her like the day had suddenly turned cold.