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Great White Hunter
I wheezed for air, and managed to hold up my hands so he could see them empty.
“Conrad, dammit…” I had to stop and suck wind.
“Hellifino who you are.” He boomed, from close range. I was bent over trying not to throw up, and could only see the big boots as he walked up and stopped, boots wide, in front of me. “Do I know you?”
“Lom.” I got out. “I’m Lom.”
“Dammit, Boy!” I felt a big warm hand under my elbow, lifting me straight. The pain was starting to ease. I made a mental note to make the shield thicker, next time. I really didn’t need broken, or even cracked, ribs right now.
Conrad Ray looked just as he had the first time I’d met him, a century or so before. I’d been trying to identify a weird creature, and rumor had it the peculiar human was the man to see. Rumor, in a rare twist, was perfectly right. The Boer man had somehow stumbled through a gate to Underhill while out hunting, and he’d immediately cottoned on to being somewhere not-Earth. Rumor, which I trusted about as far as I could throw it, had that he’d traveled back and forth at first, until he feared that he’d age and die Above, having been told by Fae of the time differences.
So here he stayed. His monomania with animals of every description extended to the peoples of Underhill, which he’d learned quickly might look like animals to him, but weren’t. Somehow, I’d never learned how, he’d made allies of a Brownie sept, which was probably what made his independent existence Underhill possible.
He might know what it was that had killed Margot, then Georgio. It was a thin lead, and probably not worth getting shot in the chest over, but I’d had to try. It was a good thing I’d known to shield.
“So just how many people have you killed recently with that thing?” I asked, taking a slow, deep breath to test for broken ribs. No sharp twinges, just overall ache. Good.
He looked offended, his round face topped with a thin fringe of wispy gray hairs. “No one has been to visit me in so long…”
“Because they know you’ll shoot them!”
“Hey! My friends know to put up a shield. You did.” He pointed out, correctly.
I grunted. He was leading us toward his shack, hand still wrapped firmly around my arm. I let me think he could hold me, and went along with it. The interior was the same as it had been last time I’d been privileged to enjoy his hospitality. He hadn’t shot me back then, though. Conrad was getting more trigger happy and paranoid in his old age.
He pushed me down onto a bench at the long table, which was strewn with papers and books. With a grunt, I sat and watched him bustling in his kitchen area. The shack was pretty big, and although it looked a shambles outside, inside was all warm wood, gleaming white plaster, and rows of books covering two walls of the building. The Brownies were still with him, I could see, as only the table was a pool of chaos in the otherwise tidy dwelling.
In the corner, his curtained bed caught my eye with a slight movement, and I guessed where the house brownies were hiding. They wouldn’t come out while I was here. Conrad set a big mug of steaming coffee in front of me with a thud.
I sipped gratefully while he stacked some drawings off to the side where they weren’t in danger of a spill. He was a gifted watercolorist, and I could see he’d been doing a study of puça. The ghostly creatures were depicted nicely in their several forms, I could see a horse and a rabbit on top of the stack.
“You came for a reason, I’m thinking.” He sat heavily, and I looked more closely at him. He looked tired, and the lines around his eyes were much deeper than I recalled them.
“I need your help identifying, and maybe finding, a monster.” I pulled the folded sheet out of my shirt pocket and pushed it across the table to him.
He nodded silently and took it, then looked up at me before he unfolded it. “I have a price, this time.”
We locked gazes. He’d never asked anything of me before, and had reacted with boyish glee when I brought him some oddity I’d found on my travels. It had been an even exchange, over the years, but one we’d never verbalized or formalized. I’d known something was wrong with him, and this confirmed it.
“I might not be able to pay it.” I answered, feeling a chill of concern. I was vulnerable at the moment, and maybe that movement hadn’t been the shy Brownies. I let one hand fall off the table into my lap, inches from my holster. The other held the heavy mug of hot coffee. It would make a good distraction if thrown.
It’s not paranoid when they really are out to get you.
“I, um, hear you’re pretty connected at High Court.” He ducked his head like a shy little girl, and I watched this unexpected display with amazement.
“Might be. Depends.” I wanted to stay noncommittal, I had no idea what he knew, but I wanted him to talk more.
He rubbed the back of his neck with a meathook of a hand. I’d felt the power of it just a few minutes earlier. “Well, I was wondering. I mean, I know it’s a lot to ask. But…”
Now I just wanted him to spit it out instead of this slow searching for each word. “Yeah?”
“I’d like to get a pardon.” He blurted.
“Huh?” I blinked at him. “You want a what?”
“A pardon.” He repeated slowly, now looking up at me. I could see his eyes were full of unshed tears, reflecting the gray of his iris. The red rims told me he was seriously upset.
“You need a pardon?” I leaned back and took a swig of the coffee. I’d never heard of him doing anything that would run him afoul of the Hunt. There were very few laws Underhill, and justice was usually swift, and inexorable. Pardons were possible, but they came from the Huntsman, who might or might not listen to the King of High Court. Conrad had ahold of the wrong end of the stick.
“Not me. Someone… someone I care about.” And now I caught it. Just the faintest twitch of his eyes, toward the bed.
“Unh. This someone female? What’d she do?” I was watching the curtains with my peripheral vision, and there was a twitch, all right. I’d hit the mark, because the twitch was mirrored on Conrad’s fleshy face.
I didn’t look toward the bed. Wait and see what this was. Watching Conrad’s face, I could see his thoughts as his face fell, then brightened again.
“Yeah, Lom, is a girl. She’s good girl.” His voice was reverting to the accented English of his youth. “Yust needs a helping hand. Can you help?”
“I don’t know. I need to talk to her,” I wanted her out in plain sight. Angry females are more deadly than the males, Kipling wasn’t wrong about that. He’d not been wrong about many things, and I missed his cutting wit.
Conrad turned his head. “Mbwasho, coom forth.”
A lovely girl slid out from between the curtains, dressed in a simple shift, her feet bare. She had a sulky expression on her face, and she wagged her finger at Conrad as she walked toward us. Very tall, her regal bearing was borne out by her autocratic tone.
“You are too easy to sway!” She scolded him. “Now he has seen me, and can testify I am here.” She stopped and looked down her nose at me. “You do not look like a Duke.”
“You do not look like a fairy.” She was, in point of fact, lacking one very visible attribute shared by all Fae women that I had ever met. It wasn’t her dark skin and hair, or that she looked like she’d stepped out of a Masai thorn enkang into the room. It was the smooth shoulders and unbroken cloth over them. Mbwasho had no wings.