Saturday, August 27, 2016
Scorched Haven, Part 11: Some things are nonnegotiable
Rampant, Volume 1 and Rampant, Volume 2 are now available for pre-order from DSPP!
This is the fourth book of the Little Goddess, and the one with the big cliffhanger that has been waiting, omg, seven years! to finish up. So, Rampant means Quickening is coming out next year, after Jack & Teague, and that means I'm SO EXCITED.
Anyway, to celebrate, (and to answer a certain young lady on Twitter who never misses a blog, bless her!) I decided I needed to get back to Scorched Haven today.
Tomorrow? You'll get soccer opening day. Today? You'll get Zeb and Colton, hauling ass through Turlock. (Heh heh-- Kim Fielding, you are so welcome.)
* * *
They burst through the guard rail, missing an oncoming car by a fraction and joining traffic with a few wobbles of the wheel.
"Wow," Zeb muttered, stunned.
"You just did that!" Colton sounded so excited for him-- Zeb hated to break it to him.
"I did jack-- I'm not sure what Green's people did to the damned car, but it's like driving a magic carpet." Zeb accelerated about 5 mpg, and then grinned. The despair of his morning revelation forgotten, he felt the thrill of speed and a new toy thrum through his bloodstream. "How many miles to Sacramento?"
Colton glanced at a road sign just as they passed. "Says 120. Why?"
"Well, 120 plus forty to Auburn and Foresthill-- I'd say we're three hours from home." And like that, the sweetness of having Green's Hill sank into his chest. "I'd love for you to see home." The gardens, the shapeshifter's common room, the fey and the vampires wandering through in their time.
The care from the people he served.
The worry for his wellbeing.
Suddenly he had something to give Colton. It wasn't his per se, but he still--it was part of the world he'd opened up with the bite. It was a good place. Zeb found a tiny sliver of pride.
"Where will we stay there?"
Zeb swallowed. "Well, there's usually spare rooms." He cut around an old Jeep going criminally slow. He couldn't see any lights in his rearview, but he figured the further up the road he got the less likely it would happen. "Teague and his family just moved into an outbuilding-- that frees up a suite and another room, because Katy kept her room when Jack and Teague got together." And speed up, because he could, and swerve around a Toyota with a girl rocking out behind the wheel. She didn't even notice him. "So, probably Katy's room. Some of the darkling rooms are free-- Kyle is keeping Adrian's room, but I got the feeling Ellis was moving out of his, and Leah is joining the Avians out at the aerie--"
"Jesus!" Colton half laughed.
"What?" Zeb cut in front of a red Kia and gunned it into the great yawing gap between car clots.
"It's a good thing we heal, because damn, you drive like your head's on fire and your ass it was catching! And that's a lot of fucking people-- how big is this house?"
Oh. "I want to get home," he said, like that wasn't plenty clear enough. "And don't think of it like a house. Think of it like a college-- a small one, but a college. Because there's lots of common areas and everybody eats in the same five places, and you have to report to a higher authority-- a couple of them--but mostly there's a lot of people minding their own business and fucking around when they can get a free space."
For the first time, Colton frowned uncertainly. "Can we go to college for real?"
Zeb felt another bolt of relief. "Definitely. No worries. If we go on the Little Goddess days, though, we're expected to help with the detail--"
"The detail?" Confusion. Well, understandable.
"See, Cory-- she doesn't go alone. Ever. It's a rule."
"Why? Is she afraid of--"
Zeb scowled, remembering the times she'd led people into battle. The herb wash they used on iron and cold steel and silver to protect the creatures that were allergic to those metals had a very distinctive smell. Zeb remembered that smell from the night Adrian died, and he avoided the hell out of the common room when it permeated the hill forever after. Zeb wasn't a warrior. He never would be. Rescuing Colton was about the bravest thing he'd ever done, and most of that was running.
"Nothing," he said shortly. "She's afraid of nothing. But she's important-- she can lead a troop elves, vampires, and werewolves into battle without blinking an eye, but when she's forced to play by human rules, she's really vulnerable. She's getting like multiple degrees to help Green run the hill--but it means she has to go to school, and that means a security detail-- several of them. If you're going on one of her days, you may have to take a class with her, or be scheduled to be in the quad at the same time she is--they don't let her see nearly the number of people who are watching her. But we'd be expected to be that."
Colton grunted. "So... like this is a tiny island? Like a country within a country?"
Oh yes! He understood! "Yes," Zeb said soberly. "And with these werewolves--and all this bad fuckin' blood, her country's under siege." Hell. "This is what I"ve brought you into, Colton. I've been trying to tell you. I mean--the hill will probably be safe, but there's tough times ahead."
To his surprise, Colton grinned. "That's just fine," he said. "In fact, you know? That's better than fine. That's like... that's a cause. That's why people join the military right out of school. They want to do for something bigger than them. You saved my life, this guy Green's saving my bacon, the girl sounds like she's okay--"
"Stop it right there." Oh, he had to fix this. "The girl isn't just 'okay'. The girl is a fucking warrior. She's... she's bad ass. She's killed more people than lived in your pissant little town. You don't get to go to Green's if you don't respect the Lady Cory."
Zeb grunted. He saw lights, far behind them, and he stepped on the gas some more and kept up the bob and weave. the speedometer said 105, but it didn't feel fast enough. "Oh what?" he asked between gritted teeth.
"I just... I mean, I know you said there was a leadership thing--that there were three of them. I just really thought the two guys would have been leading mostly. I never thought woman in charge."
"Well you better get your brain around it right quick, because we do not want Bracken leading. That's her other lover. Teague's our alpha--but he looks to Lady Cory. The vampires are stronger than us in almost every way. And she leads them. Green's the leader of the hill--but he lives and breathes her safety. You don't blow her off, you don't ignore her, you don't interrupt her when she's speaking. You bow low and deep and you be fucking grateful she doesn't cook you like werewolf bacon."
"So some psycho --"
"Forget you ever heard that word!" Zeb shouted, and then, going 110, he swerved the car into the guard rail and through, ignoring the ripping sound of metal because he was pretty sure it was the guard rail and not the car that was ripping. He popped out on the frontage road barely controlled the skid.
"Jesus!" Colton was hanging onto the Oh-Shit-Bar. "You must really love this woman!"
"She's my queen, dammit! And if I bring you to the hill, she needs to be yours too! You have got to show some respect to this world, Colton-- if we survive this fucking day, it's because of these people!"
The car was running without a hitch, and Zeb made a mental note to send something special and awesome to Nibbles, who had apparently James-Bonded the car into complete indestructibility.
"Where are we?" he demanded, looking around. "I mean, there's a town nearby--this looks like old orchards, made residential. Whose guardrail did we just pop?"
"Turlock," Colton said, sounding subdued. He pulled something up on the phone Zeb had charged the night before."Turn a right and we'll run through town and then get back on the freeway. There's a college there, and--fuck!"
Fuck was right. Behind them in the rearview mirror, two police cars darted in quick succession. Too quick, apparently-- one of them peeled itself like a can opener and flipped out of view, but the other one was right on their ass.
"Okay," Zeb said, thinking fast. "We're going to pull into the college."
"And steal ourselves a car."
"How in the--"
"Quick-- call Green. He's in my presets."
"Why do you--"
"Just do it, Colton! I'm trying to keep us alive, okay? I've got a very basic trick used by a particularly wily woodland bird, and I'm going to use it."
Colton hit speed dial and speaker.
"Hello, Zeb. What can I do for you?"
Zeb almost cried. "We're in a college town, Green, and we've got cop cars all over us. I want to go to the university and steal a car."
"Very tricky with the new electronic ignition, Zebulon--but as it happens, I've got an ally there. Let me just send her a text... done!"
"So, are we stealing a car?"
"No, my boy, you're borrowing one. And you're leaving her the one you're driving in it's place."
Zeb grunted. "But Green, they're looking for this one!"
"They won't be by the time they find it." Green's voice lowered. "Trust me, Zeb. I know it's hard--but please. We want to get you both home."
Of course. "Thanks, Green. Give me directions."
Zeb wasn't sure what his sources were-- elves, other were creatures, friendly humans--but somehow he managed to guide the two of them through a series of shortcuts and into the campus parking area in such a way that Zeb lost their tail and he and Colton could breathe a little easier.
"Now what car am I looking for-- crap!"
"Oh, geez," Colton muttered. "Zeb, you hit a... wait. That guy's getting up and... he's not human!"
"Some dumb jerk with a goofy little hat and a deadhead goatee jumped right in front of the car," Zeb snarled. God, he could see the guy getting up and self-healing in the rearview. "He must be bad werewolf or something--but jumping in front of my car when I'm going forty miles an hour--dumbest fucker on the planet."
"Mm..." Green murmured. "Yes. My contact says he's the dean of her department." He chuckled. "She asks that you go back and run him over again, but I've assured her you don't have the time. now look for a cherry red mini with a skull and crossbones on top."
"That's the car we're going to hide in?" Zeb demanded.
"Yup. Now do you see--"
"Jesus!" Colton yelped. "God, you're terrifying."
"I'm going to miss this car," Zeb said sadly, yanking the hand brake and killing the motor. "You sure this one's good to go? Should we transfer any of our stuff into it?"
"No--just hurry up. Drive out at an average pace, and don't mind what you see when you look back. Some of Nibbles' brethren are going to be fixing Kim up a new ride for a bit, yes?"
Zeb slid behind the seat of the mini and turned the key that was set up in the ignition. "Mm... make sure it gets fixed up really good, Green. I have the feeling I'm going to like this one."
* * *
Oh, he did, and for a few miles of rather tame driving, the road-hugging suspension of the mini almost made up for Colton's thoughtful silence.
"What?" he asked after the sign announcing Sacramento in 20 miles popped into view. "Women's rights is a deal breaker?"
"No," Colton said, sounding young. "I just... I'm sorry I got defensive. And crude. You were right. I listened yesterday--but I didn't really hear. You were trying to tell me about where I was going to live, and what I needed to know to live there. I"m sorry. Lady Cory. I understand now."
That was too easy. "What do you mean, you understand now?"
"That guy on the phone--he calls his friend and we have a new car. You run over a guy, and he's got a kill order--"
"Well, if he hadn't have been a werewolf, I would have been suicidal, you know that right?"
"Yeah, I know that too. But in your world, he's going to be a werewolf. I..." For a moment Colton faltered, and a part of Zeb howled in angry triumph. This kid wasn't strong enough. He wasn't old enough. All those promises made had been crap, and Zeb had known it all along. Then his hand, warm and intimate, rested on Zeb's bicep. "This doesn't change you and me," Colton said, voice unyielding. "It just means I need to grow up so I'm worthy of you."
"Nonnegotiable," Zeb rasped, knowing he was risking everything. "Lady Cory--respect for her-- is nonnegotiable."
"Understood," Colton said, subdued. "What do you think the traffic's going to be like in Sacramento?"
"Heinous," Zeb said glumly. "It's always fucking heinous."
But at least he and Colton were on the same page. Hope. They'd awakened that morning and Zeb had been owned, body and soul, by the kid next to him--but he hadn't had hope.
Now, he did. The miles flew by under the mini. They were going home.