Nathan turned and gripped her arms. "Kai. I didn't know – I never guessed... let me hold you. Let me hold you a moment." But he didn't wait for permission, just wrapped himself around her. Gradually his ragged breathing eased.
So did hers. "Okay," she said into his shoulder. She dragged in one more long, uncertain breath and lifted her head to look at him. "Okay. What is a binder, and why does everyone think I am one?"
"They see your energy, your Gift. I don't have that vision, so I can't say what they are seeing, but... the chameleon, Kai. You tied her to you. She asked. You didn't force her, but you... it didn't occur to me because you're so whole, but this is a thing a binder does."
She swallowed. He thought she was a binder, too. He just didn't want to. "So what is a binder?"
"A rare type of telepath who tampers with others' thoughts, binds their will. They are terribly dangerous, because so few can guard against them. Queens' law calls for... it is death to be a binder."
Kai had heard of blood running cold. She'd never experienced it until that moment, and didn't like it at all. When in fugue she could tamper with thoughts. She even wanted to, because some patterns were so sad and wrong...
"No, Kai," he said firmly, as if he were the telepath, not her. "Binders are warped. They are moral infants who understand only their own needs, their own wants. You aren't like that."
"I'm not like a regular telepath, either." Not that there was much regular about telepathy, but – oh, God. These people wanted to kill her – not for anything she'd done, but for what she might do.
She had to think. Kai squeezed her eyes closed and tried. "This examination she wants to give me... it's not a true-false quiz."
"No. It can be – almost surely will be – painful. She has entry to me because of our bond, but to find the truth of you she'll have to force her way in. If..." He ran his hands down her arms to take her hands. "If she finds what I know is true, Kai – that you don't tamper with others' will – she might not kill you."
Kai licked her lips. "I was hoping for something more certain, like she won't kill me."
"She won't," the Huntsman said matter-of-factly. "I will." He squatted beside Dell, scratching behind her ears. The big cat purred for him. "Nadrellian – no, it's Nathan now. I need to remember that. Did you know Dell was a mage's familiar?" He snorted. "Illegal in several realms, to take a chameleon for a familiar, but not a violation of Queens' law. But that's why Dell needed the connection, the communication, so much. Why she knew how to find it, too. When the power winds blew, her master... who seems to have been an idiot," he added, giving Dell's chin a good rub, "wasn't he, girl? He was killed, and she was blown here."
"The power wind blew in Dell's realm, too?" Kai asked, startled.
His eyebrows jumped in astonishment. "Everywhere, girl. The realms all shifted, so the winds blew everywhere." His voice softened in what sounded like sympathy. "I kill much cleaner than Winter does, you know."
If he meant that for comfort, he failed. She looked up at Nathan. "You said few beings can kill a hellhound. I'm guessing we've got at least two here who could manage it."
Reluctantly he nodded.
"All right, then." She straightened. "You are not to throw your life away – No, listen to me." She gripped his shoulders. "I always knew I had you for only a time. Maybe that time will turn out to be the rest of my life." The joke fell fiat. Her fingers tightened. "I don't want you dead, you hear me?"
"I hear." This smile was so sad it brought tears to her eyes. "But love doesn't give you the right to be making my decisions."
Love. This was the second time he'd spoken the word, and neither moment had been ripe for declarations. But... "I do love you. I think you know that, but just in case... I love you." She blinked quickly. Dammit, she would not cry. She didn't have time for it. "My choices seem to lie between death now and a chance that maybe none of us will die. So yes," she said, turning to the queen who waited with the stillness of ice. "Yes, you have my consent."
The queen glided up to her. "Hold her, Nathan."
"I don't need to be restrained."
"It's for your comfort, child. And his." In those silver eyes Kai saw a sadness eerily like she'd seen in Nathan's a moment ago. "I offered you a choice, but Winter's choices are always hard."
Nathan moved behind her and wrapped his arms around her. The queen placed her hands on Kai's face, one on each side, and Kai had a moment to think how normal they felt – dry and a little cooler than human, but they were just hands.
Then a scream of white sliced her open.
Kai came back to herself slowly, her head splitting, her mind wholly befuddled. Beneath her aching head, softness... ah, her mother's lap, and her mother was humming an old lullaby, one she hadn't heard in so long...
No. Not her mother. Kai's eyes opened.
She lay on the ground with her head pillowed on warm fur that rose and fell in a slow, sleeping rhythm. Dell. It was the Queen of Winter who was humming the wordless tune Sitsi Tallman Michalski used to croon to her daughter when Kai was ill or troubled by night fears.
A tune she'd stolen straight from Kai's mind. Kai started to jerk up – and fell back, groaning. Dell gave a protesting grunt.
"Shh. Give yourself a moment. The pain will fade soon." One of those deceptively normal hands reached out to stroke her temple, and the pain receded. "I would like to meet your grandfather. Perhaps Coyote will introduce us."
"I don't think..." But maybe Grandfather did know Coyote. How could she say? He didn't talk about his spirit guides. Maybe he had daily conversations with the trickster god. "I don't think he has a high opinion of Coyote," she said, amending her original thought. "Maybe you should ask Changing Woman or First Man."
Perfect eyebrows arched up. "You are indeed feeling better if you can argue with me."
Kai sat up, moving slowly this time. Her head pounded, but it was no more than an ordinary headache now, and already her memory of what had happened was fading. The examination had taken her to every significant event in her life connected with her Gift... at once. Every memory, even those she could have sworn she didn't possess. She'd been a baby when her Gift was suppressed. How could she have any memory of that? But she'd gone there, and to so many others, all of them laid open to an overwhelming and intimate presence.
Nathan sat cross-legged nearby, his face cleaned of expression, unreadable. Behind him approaching dawn banded the sky in shades of gray, with the widest band the same steel as his eyes.
Dawn. Dawn was near, lifting the blackness. She'd been... away... longer than she'd realized. She searched Nathan's eyes for the answer she needed.
He invented smiles again. This one arrived as fresh as the dawn behind him – a smile holding hints of tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.
Her eyes stung. "She isn't going to kill me."
"No, and nor is the Huntsman. But you may not like the solution she's found."
The Huntsman. Kai looked around, but he was nowhere in sight.
"My brother's a restless sort," the queen said, rising fluidly to her feet. "He's off to other hunts, or possibly to sleep. Dell remains yours," she added, looking down at Kai. "That was her choice. But you can't remain here."
Kai scrambled to her feet. "What do you mean?"
"I've decided on a testing. You have three quests to perform, Kai Tallman Michalski." The rich voice deepened, seeming to echo in the still air. "Three quests that will take you far from this realm, where none can defend against you. You will be allowed to prove yourself and find the true nature of your Gift. Do not suppress it any longer, or it will take you over."
"I don't – "
"The fugue, child. What you call fugue. You must learn to use your Gift fully." Solemnity dropped from her as suddenly as it had arrived. She made a little huff of sound, exasperated. "Human-sidhe mixes produce the oddest results sometimes."
"I'm not sidhe!"
"Only a little, true, but that little has had quite an effect. Nathan was correct when he said you weren't a binder, but neither are you precisely not a binder. Your Gift is unlike any I've seen." She turned to Nathan and held out her hands, smiling.
He rose and took them. "It is very strange to get what I've needed for so long, and what I wanted even more, and find I was wrong about the one."
"And right about the other." There followed more of those liquid syllables that had no meaning for Kai.
Nathan chuckled. "Fare thee well, my queen."
"And thee, my hound." She dropped his hands, turned, and a slit opened in the air before her. But she paused to glance over her shoulder, a spark of glee in those silvery eyes. This time she looked about ten, and full of mischief. "Do not worry about your grandfather, Kai. I will explain to him. Nor will the police chief trouble you again."
"But what – "
She was gone.
Nathan felt the queen leave as clearly as he saw it. Yet she wasn't fully absent, not as she had been for all the long years of separation. She had come when he called – come the second he called her, leaving her court, the press of duty and love and need and laughter there. She had come.
As he would go to her if she called. That had always been true. But now he knew that she, too, would come to him.
Yesterday he hadn't known he needed that. Today he did.
"Did you think," she'd said, "I'd gone through all the grief of setting you free – and put you through it, too – only so I could force you back into shapes of body and mind no longer yours? You are still my hound, as I am your queen. But now you are your own, as well."
Today many things were clear to him. He'd been foolish. He could see that now – how foolish he'd been in thinking the queen hadn't known from the moment she sent him here that by the time he could return, he would no longer need to.
He went to Kai and slid an arm around her waist. "Are you..."
"Okay" wasn't the right word. What was? She'd be struggling – her life nearly lost, then saved, and now overturned. "Unbearably confused," he finished, "or simply overwhelmed?"
"Yes! Yes and yes." She laughed, or choked – the sound held both. "I'm to leave? To leave Earth?"
"Yes." He pressed his face into her hair and breathed her in. "I'm sorry. Probably not forever, but the leaving is hard. At least we'll have a little time to gather supplies first."
"Kai." He smoothed her hair back from her face. "Of course. You and I and that great cat of yours will go together, since she couldn't stand to be parted from you, either."
"I thought... you love the queen so much. You've missed her and your home so much. And she clearly loves you."
"I do, and she does, but I've loved many over the years, and in many different ways. She isn't mine, Kai. Not as you are." Words. He would have hated losing speech, but words didn't come easily. How to put this feeling, this certainty, into something as limited as words?
He looked at her beautiful face, so uncertain, and finally found the question in her heart. "Eh. You want to know... but of course I love you. I am yours as much as you are mine. That's what I wasn't saying, isn't it?"
She laughed and kissed him and hugged him hard. "Yes. Yes, it is. You are such a man."
That was the word for him, he realized, happy. He wasn't fully human, nor truly hound. He was sidhe – wild sidhe – and he was a man.