Summer thrashed and tried to pull away. But he was not trying to throw her off the cliff, he was falling backwards and determined to take her with him.
He weighed less than she expected, far less than Glorious, as if the wight-flukes had riddled his bones and left them hollow. Perhaps they had. For a moment, as she threw all her weight against him, they swayed, balanced, on the edge of the abyss.
She saw a brown blur of motion before she quite registered the feeling of something moving against her chest. The weasel exploded out of her pocket and launched himself down her arm.
He sank his teeth into Zultan’s exposed wrist.
The dog did not cry out but his fingers spasmed. Summer wriggled away, bent her hand back at an angle that only a nearly-twelve-year-old girl could manage—and slipped free.
Zultan and the weasel went over the edge without a sound.
She staggered backward, tripped, and sat down hard.
No! No! Weasel—!
Something flashed past her, orange and black, not even bothering to fly, just to fall.
“Reginald!” screamed Summer, throwing herself flat against the ground.
Ounk slammed down next to her. In other circumstances, the landing might have been comical, since she didn’t bother with her feet, just belly flopped onto the stone beside her. “Summer! Summer, are you hurt?”
Goose and girl peered over the edge of the bridge while long heartbeats passed.
Slowly, with labored wingbeats, the hoopoe flew back upward. His crest was flat against his head and his waistcoat was in tatters.
He landed beside them, took a deep breath, and said, “That was my last good cravat, you little devil!”
The weasel crawled out of the folds of his neckcloth. His fur stood up in all directions like an angry cat. He stalked over to Summer, plunked himself down on her knee, and began to groom himself furiously.
“You’re alive,” said Summer. “You’re alive!”
She picked him up and hugged him until he nipped her. “Yes, I am, but not if you don’t quit squeezing! And what in the name of Baba Yaga’s backside were you doing, taking his hand like that?”
“I thought he was dying,” said Summer.
“Dying! Feh! A proper weasel-war-dance he did on you, and you went for it like a rabbit.” He sniffed. “Could admire the artistry if I hadn’t just been snatched out of the air by a feathered fop who doesn’t trim his claws.”
“Bacon-brained cravat-worrier!” said Reginald. “Anyway, you’re welcome.”
“Hmmph. Yes, well.”
The weasel looked surly again, and Summer kissed him on top of his head, which made him scowl furiously through his whiskers.
“Where’s Glorious?” she asked.
“A little way back on the canyon rim,” said Ounk. “The antelope led us quite a chase, and then we found her sitting on a rock. He said we’d been played for fools and told us to come back to you on the instant. I only wish we’d made it sooner.”
“I wouldn’t look,” said Reginald. “It’s…well, I wouldn’t look. But he’s stuck his spoon so far in the wall that no amount of magic would get it back out, if you take my meaning.”
“No one ever takes your meaning,” groused the weasel.
“Good,” said Summer. “Good.”
“And the Queen-in-Chains?” asked Ounk.
Summer looked over her shoulder. The wasp nest hummed, but very softly. A buzz like a lullaby, like something winding down.
“She’s with friends now,” said Summer. “Let’s go find Glorious.”
They heard the antelope and the wolf long before they saw them. A thin, atonal music pierced the air, and when they arrived, they found the antelope woman sitting cross-legged on a rock, playing the flute.
Glorious was standing, staring at her, with his fur erect and a low growl in his chest.
“Don’t worry,” said the antelope, lowering the flute. “It’s not magic. It won’t put you to sleep.” She looked at Summer. “Hmm. I didn’t expect you to survive Zultan, I admit.”
“Zultan,” said Reginald, “did not survive her.”
Summer’s hands clenched into fists at her sides. Not for herself any longer—but for the Queen.
“It was you,” she said. “It was you who gave her the wish. The woman with a headdress with horns. That was you.”
The antelope woman laughed. “You give me far too much credit,” she said. “That was one of my grandmother’s sisters. Or perhaps one of my great-grandmother’s sisters. I’m not sure of the exact timing. But yes, it was an antelope. And she paid for that trick with her life, when the dragon burned the city down.” She blew a few thoughtful notes on the flute. “Entirely worth it. Giving something that powerful to the utterly powerless always causes chaos. We will dance in her honor at the end of the world.”
She put down the flute and slithered to her feet. “Yours too, perhaps, child.”
Summer’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t. Just…don’t.”
“Oh, that wasn’t a lie,” said the antelope woman. “We’ll do a dance for all the ones we’ve used. It’s the least we can do.”
She laughed then, and as much as Summer hated her, she could not help but feel a stab of admiration for someone who would laugh so freely with a wolf growling at her feet.
“Can we tie her up?” asked Summer. “Take her to…to somewhere?”
Ounk shook her head slowly. “I don’t think it’s safe,” she said. “For us, I mean.”
Summer knew what she meant. Even if they weighted her down in as many chains as the Queen, if the antelope woman could talk, she would be impossibly dangerous. What authority in Orcus could they turn her over to?
She thought briefly of the practical thrush, the Prime Minister of the Dawn Chorus. Perhaps she could handle an antelope woman…but Summer did not think that they could find a way to get her there.
“Glorious?” asked Summer.
“I could tear out her throat,” said Glorious.
“Go ahead,” said the antelope cheerfully. “The taste of my blood will give you dreams like no wolf has ever had. If you think being a house is bad, imagine being a house haunted by my ghost.”
“You’re lying again,” said Summer.
“Probably.” The antelope woman lifted the flute to her lips. “Go home, innocent,” she said. “This world is no place for you.” She began to play again.
Summer wanted to say something. She wanted to think of some unbelievably scathing thing that would tear the antelope woman’s heart the way her own was torn. She wanted to get the last word.
She turned and walked away. The thin, pulsing music of the flute chased her as she walked, and she was careful not to breathe in time with it. She did not want to give the antelope woman even that last small victory.
A little time later, there was hot breath on the back of her hand, and she stopped and put her leg over Glorious’s back. The weasel grumbled in her pocket. They rode out of the edge lands with Reginald and the goose-guard overhead.
It seemed to go faster coming back than it had taken going.
“It’s always the way,” said Reginald. “You’ve done it once, you know all the shortcuts.”
“Wolves say that your paws have already smoothed down the path,” said Glorious.
“Also, we’re going straight back to Almondgrove,” said Summer, feeling like the practical one for once, “and I’m not getting kidnapped at the Great Pipes.”
“Well, there’s that, too.”
They gave the Pipes a wide berth. They did stop at Arrowroot, a small town populated by birds and built on floating platforms in a marshy lake. Frogs sang from the cat-tails and hundreds of lanterns floated in the water. It was wonderful, but it was a small, person-sized wonder that the birds had built themselves. Summer was surprised at how cheering that was.
They stayed in Arrowroot for several days. Glorious left them at night, saying that he wanted to sit alone with moonlight on his eaves. Summer watched the lanterns in the evening and slept in a circular nest of blankets, and slowly her thoughts settled inside her.
Even so, she woke up on the third night with her heart pounding and the bluebottle buzz of the Grub-fly in her ears, and she thought, I want to go home.
The next morning, as they rode away from Arrowroot with the frogs singing madrigals in the marsh, she added, At least for a little while.
At Almondgrove Manor, they were ushered into Reginald’s father’s study—all of them, including Glorious—and they told the old hoopoe the story, all of them starting and stopping and stumbling over one another’s words.
He wept a little for Ankh. When Summer told him about Zultan’s face, he only bowed his head.
“They were a great people,” he said sadly. “I wish you could have known one other than Zultan. But that would have to be in another world than this. Perhaps their time is over in Orcus.”
In the end, he promised to speak to the Prime Minister about the wasp palace. “I’d set a guard,” he said, “but I am afraid that would only call attention. Perhaps it is better that the place passes out of memory forever.”
Summer woke again from nightmares that night, but this time it was Zultan’s face she saw, and his broken teeth smiling down at her.
She expected there to be a funeral for Ankh—something lavish and elaborate, the way the ball had been.
Instead, the Lord Almondgrove and Ounk and Reginald met her in a far corner of the fields, while Glorious watched from the trees. “No offense meant, you know,” said Reginald, “but we don’t want to scare them off. It’s bad manners.”
“None taken,” said the wolf.
They lit a very small fire and waited.
It did not take long. One by one, vultures appeared in the air, circling, and one by one they landed. They were very large, as large as the goose-guards, and their heads were dark gray, painted with thick charcoal lines. Their wings were unrelieved black.
One shuffled forward, hopping along on feet with claws like coffin-nails.
Ounk stepped forward to meet him. She held out the head of Ankh’s spear.
“There is no body,” she said.
The black vulture nodded.
He took three more hopping steps, with the spearhead tucked up against his body, and then he flew. The other vultures rose as well and began to spiral up into the air.
“We will leave a cow out for them tomorrow,” said Lord Almondgrove. “They will come for anyone—rich or poor, small or great. They do not require payment. It is the bargain. But we can give more, so we will.”
“If…if there was a body…” began Summer.
“They would take that instead.”
She asked no more questions.
It was hard to leave Almondgrove. It was harder still to leave Ounk, who was taking up her duties again.
“I’m sorry,” said Summer, burying her face in the goose-guard’s feathers. “I’m sorry! If you hadn’t…if she hadn’t…”
“It isn’t yours to apologize for,” said Ounk. “My sister was an Imperial Goose. It is what we do.” She draped her wing over Summer’s shoulders. “When you are as close as eggs in a nest, you cannot be separated merely by death. I must simply speak for her as well as myself. That’s all.”
In the end, it was the same group that went back through Fen-town that had passed through before: Reginald and Glorious, Summer and the weasel, the flock of valet-birds twittering around them. Had it only been weeks? It felt like centuries.
For the first time in a long while, it occurred to Summer to worry about time passing.
It can’t have been weeks in my world, thought Summer. Orcus must be like Narnia, where only a little time passes. Otherwise…
Don’t worry about things you can’t fix.
She rubbed her thumb over the acorn in her pocket. There was one last thing to be fixed, and then, perhaps, she could go home.
Summer was not entirely sure that they were on the right road until she saw the Wheystation ahead of them. It was dark inside, and there was a sign on the door saying, “Closed For The Season.”
She left the cheese-sword on the front step. Her mother would never let her keep it, and while there were some things she might hide in her room, a sword was not among them.
They waited until nightfall to cross the desert. The scorpion stars came out and they went single-file across the sand.
Boarskin met them in the shadow of the tallest hill. She looked from Summer to the wolf to Reginald, and her eyebrows climbed up her forehead.
“You lived,” she said. “And brought friends with you!”
Summer nodded. “We did it,” she said. “At least, I think we did it. Is…” She swallowed, almost afraid to ask now that it came to the end. “Is the Frog Tree still there?”
Boarskin bowed her head. “Come with me.”
They followed her. Glorious lifted his head once, looking around, and said, “I smell shapechanger.”
“My sisters,” said Boarskin. “Donkeyskin fears your teeth, and Bearskin stayed to guard her.”
“And you do not?”
Boarskin laughed. “I no longer fear anyone’s teeth,” she said, and Glorious laughed as well.
When they reached the Frog Tree, though, there was no more laughter.
The leafless crown had cracked and fallen. Now there was only a trunk, taller than Summer, with a great jagged gash in it.
“Lightning struck a few weeks ago,” said Boarskin quietly. “It might have survived even that, if it was healthy, but now…”
Summer slipped off the wolf’s back and walked forward.
Black, charred wood edged the gash. Inside, Summer smelled the familiar rot of the wasp’s poison. Tiny insects swirled around it, chewing at the tree’s dead heart.
“No,” she said, and she realized that she was weeping. “No.”
She dropped to her knees and put her arms over her head.
“Summer—” said Reginald, but Glorious said, “Wait.”
“Too late,” whispered Summer. “All this time, and it was too late. Ankh died and the people at the inn died and the valet-birds died, all so we could be too late?”
As soft as a breath, something touched her hair.
She lifted her head.
The Frog Tree’s dryad lay curled on its side next to her. It could only just lift its hand, but it gave her the faintest, most tremulous of smiles, and pointed at her pocket.
Summer pulled out the acorn and offered it to the dryad with trembling fingers.
The dryad touched the earth between them. Summer could see through its flesh as if it were made of glass.
“Here?” said Summer. “Do you want me to plant it?”
She scrabbled at the dirt with her hands, terrified that she would not dig deep enough. Reginald came in beside her and said, very quietly, “’Scuse me, your Tree-ness, but I think I’m better at this,” and raked at the dirt with his clawed feet.
The dryad smiled.
The smile was the last part of it to fade, but fade it did. By the time that the hole was three inches deep, there was only broken bark across the ground, in a pattern of light and shadow that looked a little like a face.
Summer dropped the acorn into the hole that Reginald dug. She started to pile earth over it, and paused.
The carved tadpole wiggled inside the hole and looked up and met Summer’s eyes.
It blinked at her, two or three times, and then its wide, froggy face stretched into a smile. It curled up in the hole and closed its eyes and Summer pulled the dirt up over it like a blanket.
The seedling that came out of the dirt seemed to grow like a jerky stop-motion film. It put out two flat pads, like tadpole tails, and then grew taller. A line of buds swelled, then erupted into a spray of true leaves.
Summer dropped back on her heels. Reginald let out a startled laugh.
The first two leaves, the flat round ones, fell off and drifted to the ground.
Summer held her breath.
They shimmered against the earth, and then two tiny green frogs hopped away together into the leaves.
And then, Summer knew, she could finally go home.