They reached the inn—or what was left of it—at midday.
“I smell burning,” said Glorious, when they were still a little way off.
Reginald took to the air, and when he returned, the little patch of skin at the bridge of his beak was pale.
“Bad business,” he said. “Bad. The Queen’s men—well. You’ll see.”
There was a large clearing in the woods, ringed with tree stumps. In the center stood the inn, or what was left of it.
The fire had been set quite a while ago, Summer thought. Maybe even the night before. The beams were charred black and most of the walls had fallen down.
She could see the outline of the building in blackened beams, and one standing wall.
Along each standing beam, their wings riding above their heads, hunched great black vultures. Summer counted fifteen of them. More drifted in circles overhead.
By the road stood a signpost. The sign had been torn down and lay in the dust—a golden pig with a comical expression.
A piece of metal—tin or something like it—had been nailed to the signpost. Words were stamped into the metal.
TREASON IS PUNISHED
IN THE NAME OF
“They’ve started the burnings again,” said Reginald distantly. “M’father told me about it. Before I was even an egg—when the Queen first came—they would ride and burn buildings if they suspected you of being an informer or just in their way.” He shook himself. “But they haven’t—not for years—not since the Queen pulled down the Tower of Dogs. It’s why Zultan’s called ‘Houndbreaker,’ you know.”
“I didn’t,” said Summer, watching the vultures circle.
“Sorry. Forget you’re not from here.” He shifted from foot to foot. “The dogs built things. M’father says you could trust a dog, even if you didn’t know him. But taking down the Tower took a lot out of them, and nobody’s seen the Queen in ages, so…” He trailed off.
“Can we do something about the vultures?” asked Summer. Her fingers were clenched very tightly in Glorious’s mane. She felt as if she were watching everything from a long way away.
Reginald shook his head. “They do their job. It’s what they’re for.” He scuffed at the dust. “The bargain, you know, in the old story—oh, maybe you don’t know. Can’t tell it too well m’self. But they promised they’d always show up at the end. It’s the world’s last little kindness.”
They show up at the end.
Vultures don’t show up for ruined buildings.
There’s dead people in that building. Real people.
The vultures are going to eat them.
It did not seem like a kindness to Summer.
Grub and Zultan Houndbreaker killed them.
And Grub is out here because—
“They burned the building looking for me, didn’t they?”
Glorious began trotting rapidly down the road, away from the building. His ears flicked backward toward her voice.
“Oh, surely not,” said Reginald, flapping along the side of the road. “They—surely not! Treason, they said. Probably a nest of smugglers or—or—”
“It is likely that they did, Summer-cub,” said Glorious, ignoring Reginald.
She took a deep breath. She thought she might be sick or fall off the wolf’s back, or both.
“Then it’s my fault.”
“No,” said Glorious. “You did not hold the knife or strike the match. They had never met you nor you them. Grub is responsible, and Zultan Houndbreaker. They are no pack of yours. We do not hold ourselves responsible for the acts of others.”
“But if I’d never come—” wailed Summer.
“If I kill you,” said Glorious. “I can claim that the moon made me do it, or the sun, or a man in another land whom I have never met. But it is my teeth that have blood on them.” He turned his head so that Summer had to meet his eyes. “Do you understand?”
“Yes,” said Summer. The smell of bodies were all mixed together in her head with the image of the fallen valet-bird. Her voice sounded very high in her own ears, and then she put her face down in Glorious’s ruff and sobbed.
The lock and the acorn and the turquoise stone clicked together in her pocket as the wolf walked very carefully down the road, away from the burnt-out inn.
Dinner that night was subdued. Glorious’s fire crackled in the hearth and the valet-birds fluttered from chairback to rafters, but no one felt like talking.
When Summer went to bed that night, Reginald hopped into the room after her and scuffed awkwardly at the floorboards.
“Look,” he said. “Wanted to say—look. Not your fault. Really not. Glorious was right. They’re mad—bad—shockingly loose in the haft. Been doing this sort of thing since before I chipped the egg.”
“But I came here looking for my heart’s desire,” said Summer miserably. “It wasn’t that anybody die.”
“Yes, but Baba Yaga sent you,” said Reginald. “Shouldn’t wonder if she had some reason. It’s got all the Queen’s nasty little termites squirming around in an uproar, hasn’t it?” He perched on her bedpost and managed a grin. “Wonder what it is they think you’re going to do?”
Under her left ear, the weasel snickered.
“Now that,” he said, “is a good question. And a much better one than asking who’s fault something is.”
“But I can’t do anything,” said Summer. “I’m—I’m not a hero. I’m scared of a lot of things. I almost didn’t want to help Glorious out of the cage. I’ve hidden every time Grub is around. I just want to help the poor Frog Tree and maybe find my heart’s desire, but I don’t know if I’m getting any closer to either of those things!”
Reginald considered this. “You know,” he said. “Just occurred to me. You could talk to a Forester. They know trees. One might know your tree.”
“Okay,” said Summer. It wasn’t much of a direction, but it was better than nothing. She couldn’t shake the feeling that she was supposed to help the Frog Tree—why else would Baba Yaga have sent her to that exact place, and why else would she have selected the frog-shaped candle. “Does your father know one?”
“Probably knows a dozen, but it doesn’t signify.” The hoopoe preened. “I know one. Marvelous old girl. Fierce as a dragon, but I can always turn her up sweet. Don’t know why I didn’t think of her before.”
“How do we find her, then?” asked Summer.
“We’ll pass near enough on the way to Almondsgrove. Just a quick flap off the road.” He considered. “Well, maybe a half-day’s flap, for you wingless folk.”
Summer rubbed her finger over the surface of the acorn, feeling the carved eyes of the tadpole. She felt a little better. Maybe she couldn’t do anything about Grub or Zultan, but at least she was still trying to help the Frog Tree.
That had to count for something.
Still, she thought, that’s twice now I’ve hidden while Grub threatened someone who was helping me. The next time, I’ll have to do something.
I hope it’s not already too late.
Summer was surprised when they reached the marsh.
You could not exactly accuse geography of sneaking up on you, but it felt like an ambush. One minute Glorious was trotting through dense trees, which were, if anything, getting denser—and then the trees stopped and the road was lined with short bushes and the horizon was many miles away.
The wolf stopped for a moment. Summer blinked, dazzled by the sunlight.
It was a desolate landscape. Grass rippled in the wind, cut by channels of gray-green water. It was hard to tell where grass stopped and water began. Little clumps of bushes, like the ones along the road, stood out from the marsh. They seemed to huddle together for support. The air smelled like salt and rotting vegetation.
A bird cried once, thin and sharp and a long way away. Then there was only the wind.
“Killdeer,” said Reginald, spiraling down for a landing. “They can talk, after a fashion, but it’s not worth listening to. All they ever say is, “Help, help, my wing is broken, don’t eat me.”
“Are their wings broken?” asked Summer.
“Not a bit of it. They just do it to get people away from their nests. You tell them a hundred times that you’re not the slightest bit interested in their nests, that there’s nothing more tedious than having to look after other people’s children, but they never listen.” Reginald shrugged.
“This seems like a lonely place,” said Summer, after they had been walking for a few minutes.
“Yes,” said Glorious. “Lonely and treacherous. There is little solid land.”
“The road seems solid enough,” said Summer.
“Dog-built,” said Reginald. “There’ll be wide spots for camping. They were always good about that. But I wouldn’t stray off it.”
Far across the marsh, a clump of trees stood up. They appeared to be rooted in the back of a giant turtle. The turtle lumbered to another channel of water and plopped itself down. The killdeer cried again. Other than that, nobody seemed to take any notice.
“There’s so many different landscapes,” said Summer, looking back over her shoulder at the forest. “All packed together so closely. I started in the woods and then it was desert and then it was farmland and a different kind of woods and now it’s a marsh. Things in my world aren’t so close together.”
Glorious stretched, and Summer had to grab for his ruff to keep from being dislodged. “Perhaps your world is larger. Orcus runs from the icewalls to the north down to the great sea. There is a continent to the south—the dragonfly riders go there—and the plains where the houses run stretch a long way to the east. North is many weeks of mountains, until you reach the ice. But here, we are very near the sea.”
“What’s on the other side of the sea?” asked Summer.
“There is no other side,” said Glorious.
“Are you sure?” Summer scratched the back of her neck. “In my world there’s two big oceans, but if you cross them, you get to other continents. And eventually back to where you started.”
“Really?” Reginald cocked his head. “You don’t get into the sun’s shadow?”
“Our sun doesn’t have a shadow,” said Summer.
“Everything has a shadow,” said Glorious. “Perhaps your sun simply keeps it somewhere else.”
“Here, if you go far across the sea, past the islands, you come under the sun’s shadow,” Reginald said. “The whale-speakers—odd chaps, to be sure—say that the water out there gets cold and dark and deep. There’s giant squid and worse things. You can’t go past that or you get eaten.” He scowled. “They say Zultan came from out that way, but I think that’s a load of foolishness. He was born in Orcus, same as the rest of us, he’s just trying to pass himself off as something scarier.”
“The great gray albatrosses talk to my people sometimes,” said Glorious. “They say that if you fly far enough, you come to a hole in the sky. It leads to another world.”
“Oh, well, albatrosses.” Reginald flipped his wing. “Prophets and poets, the lot of them. Not bad-hearted, but you ask one the time of day and he tells you time is an illusion, and how is that getting anything done?”
Glorious huffed with laughter.
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