“I’m sorry if I got you in trouble with Miss Merope,” said Summer. (This was at least mostly true. She had been careful to phrase it that way, because in fact, she did not care in the least what Miss Merope thought, except insomuch as Reginald did.)
“Ah, not to worry.” Reginald seemed distracted, looking upward across the trees. “I’ll come around somehow…”
Summer followed his gaze and frowned. Birds were milling about in the air and there was a strange glow to the sky that she didn’t like.
“What’s going on?”
“I don’t know,” said Reginald. He fidgeted.
“Stay here, Master Reginald,” warned one of the goose-guards. “If there’s mischief afoot, you’re safer with us.”
“I smell smoke,” said Summer.
The geese glanced at her then away, not as if they were offended but as if they had nothing to add. Summer suddenly remembered Zultan on his eight-legged horse, saying to Grub that most birds had no sense of smell.
She shivered at the memory.
They came through the trees and were brought up short.
There was orange light blazing from the Almondgrove manor. Smoke filled the sky in dark billows, blotting out the stars.
“Devil’s yolk,” said Reginald. “The manor’s on fire!”
They ran toward the flames. Summer’s mind was a gibbering panic—it was Zultan it must have been Zultan it’s because of me I got Reginald’s house burned down—
And then a much worse thought occurred to her. Glorious was somewhere on the grounds, and Glorious was a house now and couldn’t run away and houses burn.
“Glorious!” she cried.
Reginald swore. “I’ll find him,” he said, and was away in the air in a moment. One of the geese honked a curse and followed.
Then it was only Summer and the goose-guard. The goose was waddling at high speed toward the house, and Summer ran after. “What can we do?” she said.
“Water from the lake,” said the goose shortly. “There’ll be a bucket brigade. We’ll see how bad it is.”
They spread their wings and flew. Summer ran with her head down, sneakers pounding on the grass, wishing she herself had wings.
Birds milled over the burning manor, the light flashing orange on their wings. One circled over Summer’s head. “Lord Almondgrove says to come!”
Summer breathed a sigh of relief. Lord Almondgrove was all right.
She ran after the bird, who flew low over the ground. She could make out nothing about the bird’s features, except that their outfit had gleaming buttons. The goose-guard followed in short hops, staying close.
They circled around the edges of the fire and reached a huddled knot of birds. Lord Almondgrove looked up from the center of the group. “Miss Summer!”
“I’m so sorry,” gasped Summer, holding her aching side. It felt like someone was stabbing her in the ribs. She dropped to her knees, partly from pain, partly because of a desperate desire to make Lord Almondgrove understand how sorry she was. “I’m sorry. It was Zultan—it must have been Zultan—”
“It was Zultan,” said Lord Almondgrove. He stretched out a wing around her shoulders. “And Zultan’s band of villains. They lit the fires, not you.”
“But they wouldn’t have come here if it wasn’t for me! And now your house is burning down!”
The old hoopoe snorted. “It’s doing nothing of the sort. The servants caught them before they’d done much more than set the straw in the outbuildings ablaze. You cannot sneak up on a house this size, even under cover of darkness. We’ve lost two barns and blackened some of the millwork, but Almondgrove Manor has stood through worse. It will take more than a man who styles himself a Houndbreaker to break us.”
He turned to the goose-guard. “You two will go with them. Protect my son, but use your own judgment. You are under my orders, not his. Be away as soon as the wolf-house can travel. Make for the Great Pipes. The wasps are striking there, I have no doubt, but I believe it still stands. Do you know the way?”
The goose nodded. “I will find it, lord.”
“Ask in Arrowroot if the way is unclear.” He turned back to Summer. “Miss Summer, it has been an honor to meet you. If you pass this way again, Almondgrove Manor will always be open to you.”
Summer wanted to cringe with the guilt of it all. Zultan had come and burned down their barns, and it certainly looked like a lot more than blackened millwork to her. And now Lord Almondgrove was telling her to come back and visit?
“My son is a bit of an idiot,” he said, cutting her off. “But travelling with you has done him no end of good. When I travelled with Stone Ear, I was no smarter, and it was the making of me.” He shifted from foot to foot, then leaned in so that his beak was near her cheek.
“Take care of him, if you can,” he whispered, too low for anyone else to hear him, and preened her hair back with his beak in an avian kiss.
Then he stepped back and a bird came up to say that the bucket brigade was starting on the north wing and the goose-guard was hustling her away.
Summer took a deep breath. The air smelled of burning, and she was the only one who could smell it. And Lord Almondgrove had asked her to take care of his son, as if she were a grown-up, or a wolf.
She straightened her back and followed the guard away, into the darkness, to find her friends.
It took them too long, working their way through the dark trees, to reach the cottage. Summer began to fret again—what if there had been a stray ember? What if Glorious was burning?
And then they came through the trees to a little pond and on the shore stood the cottage.
The door was open. Summer ran toward it.
She barely made a half dozen steps when the weasel came shooting out and leapt onto her pant leg. He climbed her as if she were a tree and burrowed himself under her chin. She could feel his small, hot body shaking.
“There was fire,” he said. “There was so much smoke. I thought it might come here and I couldn’t stop it. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t have put it out.”
“I smelled the smoke too,” said Summer. It seemed important. She had never felt quite so isolated among the birds as when none of them smelled the smoke.
The weasel’s sides heaved. “Yes. Yes. I didn’t know how far away it was.”
She rubbed his ears hesitantly, as if he were a very small cat. After a moment he quieted and moved to her shoulder. “Anyway,” he said gruffly. “I didn’t know if I could make it to the manor house and warn someone. But I didn’t need to, in the end.”
“They didn’t come here, then?” asked the goose-guard.
The weasel gave a small, hard laugh. “Oh, they came. Not that Grub fellow, but some of his flunkies. But they got here first.”
He jerked his head toward the roof, and for the first time, Summer looked up.
There were three shapes on the roof. One of them was Reginald. At either end of the peak of the roof, great black shadows turned their heads and blinked yellow eyes at Summer.
“Oof,” muttered the goose-guard. “Owls.”
“They stood the fellows off,” said the weasel. “One had some kind of hooded lantern—I saw it when he put it down, I thought I’d have to bite him, I didn’t know what else to do—but then an owl hit him. Talons like knives. Took his scalp all to pieces. He ran off yelling and they took the lantern away and dropped it in the lake.”
The geese glanced at each other, then up at the owls. They spread their wings and bowed.
The owls blinked down at them in silence. One nodded its head almost imperceptibly.
“Not chatty fellows,” said Reginald, landing, “but they like to be appreciated. Forester sent them, I’m guessing. Good woman.”
“You have seen the Forester?” asked the goose on the left.
“Oh, yes. We were just…I think we were just there…Summer, do you remember?”
“I think so,” said Summer. “There were owls and a dragon—no, not a dragon.” She remembered the Forester’s eyes, but it seemed like something in a dream, and when she tried to put words on the memory, it retreated just out of reach. “But we were somewhere in the woods, weren’t we? And she’s very tall.”
“That’s her, yes.” Reginald nodded. “Always a bit fuzzy, you know, when you leave. But the best sort of person. Not the least bit missish.”
The geese glanced at each other again.
“I suppose the advantage,” said the rightmost goose, “of not knowing when something is dreadfully dangerous is that you do it anyway.”
“Oh, bah,” said Reginald. “Lovely woman. Told m’father about her. He said to stay in her good graces, he didn’t say anything about danger.”
One of the geese said something under their breath that sounded like “Hoopoes.”
“Pardon me,” said Summer, “but are you going with us? Did I hear right?”
“Indeed,” said the rightmost goose.
“To the very end, if we must,” said the leftmost goose.
“Then what should I call you?” asked Summer.
The geese honked.
“…errr,” said Summer. “Can you repeat that?”
They chuckled. “It’s all right,” said the one on the left. “Humans have a hard time. I am Ankh.”
“And I am Ounk.”
When they said their names very slowly, Summer could just about hear the difference.
“It’s kind of you to come with us,” she said.
“Kindness has nothing to do with it,” said Ankh.
“Lord Almondgrove set us to guard you,” said Ounk. “We are Imperial Geese.”
“We are sword-sisters sworn to his service.”
“Sisters?” said Summer, startled. Both geese were baritones and she had assumed—well, apparently she had been wrong.
“Our eggs were side-by-side in the nest,” said Ankh.
“Mind you, so were a half-dozen others,” admitted Ounk. “But Ankh is the only one I could stand.”
“Oh, joy. They’ll be finishing each other’s sentences next,” muttered the weasel in Summer’s ear.
Ankh smiled. “And you are Miss Summer, and this cottage, in the morning, will be Master Glorious. Ah…I’m not sure I know your name, sir.”
She inclined her head to the weasel. The weasel grunted.
“Don’t have one. Though I’m going to have to get one, at this rate.”
“…Master Weasel, then.”
He dragged a paw down over his eyes.
“You should try to get some sleep,” said Ounk. “We will stand guard.”
“Sleep?” said Summer blankly. Sleep? Now? After—after everything—with the fires still burning somewhere in the woods?
“Sleep,” said Ounk gently.
Summer opened her mouth to say that she couldn’t imagine sleeping, and suddenly it turned into a jaw-cracking yawn. She had forgotten somehow that it was the middle of the night, and that she had been to an assembly, and then run through woods and grass, and now that she was standing around talking and didn’t have to panic right this minute…
She staggered through the open doorway into the cottage and collapsed into the bed without even taking off her shoes.
She woke in the morning with her head pillowed on Glorious’s flank and the weasel curled in a tight, unhappy ball under her chin. She picked the little carnivore up and put him on her shoulder.
“It’s all right,” she said to him. “It came out all right.”
He said nothing, but she felt two quick licks on her skin, there and gone.
The geese were still awake. They rousted Reginald and then they were on the way, the valet-flock twittering and grumbling and flying mouthfuls of food to them as they walked.
The valet-flock seemed bigger. Summer tried to count them—unsuccessfully—and finally gave up and asked Reginald.
“Oh, yes, added some fellows,” he said cheerfully. “Flock-minds get nervous when there’s too few, and of course we’re a much bigger group now.”
Two of the valet-birds brought a hard-boiled egg nearly as big as they were to Glorious. The wolf opened his mouth gravely and they set it inside. He did not close his jaws again until they were well away, and then gave a single chomp and swallowed.
“Trusting little beasts,” muttered the weasel.
“They know that they’re no more than a mouthful,” said the wolf, “and brave companions for all that. I would not eat one, except by mistake.”
Glorious had listened to the weasel’s tale of the arsonists and the owls who had saved him. He did not blink, and when the weasel had finished, he nodded once, sharply.
“I owe the forest a favor, then,” he said.
“The Forester, you mean?” asked Reginald, as the valet-flock packed away the remains of breakfast.
“They are the same,” said Glorious, and that seemed to be the end of that.
The lands around Almondgrove were highly civilized, according to Reginald, and that seemed to mean that it was a great deal of lawn and pasture and deep old woods. Perches lined the roads and they passed the entrances to numerous estates. The hoopoe called out the names as they passed—“Herringpelt! Nestfarthing! Achingroost!”—none of which meant anything to Summer, although she did enjoy the names.
After they left the lands controlled by the noble-birds, the scenery grew wilder. There were small cottages built on stilts for shepherd-birds, often side by side with houses that could have held humans. The trees grew shorter and scruffier. Ankh and Ounk looked down the road behind them often.
“You have drummed your fingers on my neck for the last hour,” said Glorious without turning his head. “Your thoughts are your own, Summer-cub, but if you need to speak them, I will listen.”
Summer heaved a sigh. “I’m confused,” she admitted. “I was thinking about Zultan, but he doesn’t make any sense.”
Glorious cocked an ear back at her. “Things act according to their natures,” he said. “But sometimes our natures are complicated.”
“Maybe.” Summer scowled. She didn’t know if the problem was that Zultan was strange, or if she just didn’t understand. She’d never been very good at knowing how people would act. It was as if she’d spent so much energy learning to predict her mother that she had very little left to spend on other people.
“I guess…” She trailed off, then started again. “What I don’t understand is why, if he’s got the Queen-in-Chains, who can smash a whole tower down and kill all the poor dogs…why is he just riding around the country with Grub and a couple of other people? Why isn’t he in charge?”
“It’s a fair question,” said Ankh, dropping back to waddle alongside Glorious. “If you have a weapon that powerful and you’ve already defeated the only enemy to stand against you, why do so little with it? Why isn’t he ruling us all now?”
Summer felt a vague relief that it hadn’t been a stupid question after all.
“Some of us cannot be ruled,” said Glorious. He glanced at Ankh. “I say that not to brag. Orcus would be a difficult pack to unite behind one leader, no matter how large your fangs.”
Ankh honked a laugh. “Actually, Lord Almondgrove agrees with you. The problem with an immense weapon is that you may take a place with it, but not hold it. Zultan is a man with a handful of troops and one single enormous power. If he wants—oh, food, say, or money—he can descend on a town and threaten to raze it, but that is a hostage system, not governance. And Orcus would be difficult to govern even if he had an army.”
She gestured with one wing at Ounk and Reginald. “There are simply too many people in Orcus, and we want too many things. Even the Dawn Chorus rules only the Upper Ten Thousand flocks of birdkind, and that only works because it is useful for everyone to have someone to handle trade regulations and to find a place to meet mates.”
Summer rubbed her forehead. “I wouldn’t want to be in charge of everyone,” she said. “Maybe Zultan doesn’t, either.”
“Sensible of you,” said Glorious. “And perhaps of Zultan as well.”
Ankh shook her head. “You hate to think of evil being sensible,” she admitted, “but Zultan’s not a stupid man. What he likely wants is to be feared and to be given what he wants. And he has that, more or less. I suppose the Tower of Dogs seemed the most likely thing to stand in the way of that.”
Summer rubbed her fingers through Glorious’s ruff, wondering if that was all that there was to it.
“The other problem,” said Ankh, “is that he dare not bring forth the Queen-in-Chains every time someone opposes him. No one is quite sure what she is, or what she does, but only because no one escaped the Tower. He cannot trust that he’ll be that lucky twice, or three times, or ten. Sooner or later someone will see the Queen and see a weakness, and then he is a man with a handful of troops who used to have a great weapon.”
Summer sighed. “So that’s all he wants now? To be feared?”
“Perhaps,” said Glorious. “Or perhaps he has simply been doing this for so long that he no longer knows any other way.”