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25 Oct

Read This Free Excerpt of Seanan McGuire’s ‘The Innocent

Read This Free Excerpt of Seanan McGuire’s ‘The Innocent



The innocent sleep,

Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care,

The death of every day’s life, sore labor’s bath,

Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,

chief nourisher in life’s feast.

— William Shakespeare, Macbeth


EXITING THE SWEET SAFETY of the shadows for the hotter, softly lit solidity of the bedroom I shared with October was, as at all times, something of a shock. She pushed against my chest to be released and I let her go, staying where I used to be and watching as she stepped away to catch her breath and brush the ice from her hair, remaining within sight. We were each, I feel, too shaken to maneuver very removed from each other.

She shot me a glance, wearily amused, and pulled her fingers through her hair, coming away with flecks of frost clinging to her skin. The Shadow Roads did treat her harshly, even in any case this time. 

“Once I said to get me out of there, I assumed we’d wind up within the Court of Cats or something,” she said.

I raised an eyebrow, and asked, “Why on the earth would you assume that when home was right here, waiting to function a superbly lovely option?” It had been so a few years since I’d considered any point outside the Court a house. Now that the choice was once more open to me, I used to be greater than comfortable to take advantage of it.

She smiled, slow and warm and excellent and mine, offering me her hands. “You understand, if you put it like that, I do not know.” 

I took her hands, raising each eyebrows to cover the undeniable fact that I badly wanted to begin kissing her fingers, to reassure myself that we were each here, and solid, and secure, operating under our own control and never the control of an ancient and terrible Queen. “Why am I concerned that whatever it’s you’re about to say will likely be indirectly distressing?”

“I genuinely hope it’s not going to be,” she said. “I mean, we’ve talked about it before.”

“We’ve discussed a fantastic many things.” I eyed her warily. “A lot of them involve knives, blood, and screaming.”

“I feel two of those are more likely to be involved.” She took a deep breath, visibly steadying herself. “I’m pregnant.”

I knew the words. I understood the words. And in that moment, the words meant nothing to me; they were only sound, signifying nothing. Slowly, I frowned.

October attempted to tug her hands from mine, clearly desiring to move farther from me. I tightened my grip, refusing her retreat. Puzzled, I cocked my head and continued to frown at her. 

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I do imagine I should have misheard you.”

Suddenly insecure, she stopped pulling against me. “Um, if what you heard was ‘I’m pregnant,’ you heard appropriately,” she said. “We’ve talked about this. You said you desired to have kids. Did you not? Wish to have kids?”

“You said we might should wait until you had finished risking your life in an informal fashion,” I replied, keeping my voice as whilst possible.

“I said I wasn’t willing to begin trying until I used to be finished risking my life in an informal fashion,” she said. “Apparently, the universe had a special idea.”

All my attempts at remaining calm were slipping from my grasp. I allowed my frown to fade, face relaxing as I watched her. “You’re pregnant.”

“Yes. That’s what I’ve been attempting to let you know.”

“And also you told Simon first.” I could accept the person as her father, I could. In some ways, I already had. But I used to be her husband, and the order irked me.

Her eyes widened barely, pupils dilating. “He was dying. I shared my blood to save lots of him. He should have picked up the thought from what he was swallowing.”

“So that you didn’t tell him?”

“Not intentionally, or using actual words.”

“A baby.” The smile I had been fighting to contain finally escaped. I had been waiting so long for . . . oh, oak and ash. My eyes widened. “But before, once I—”

“You mean, when Titania.” October’s voice was iron, and never the killing kind. She pulled one hand free, reaching as much as lay her fingers against my cheek. “You didn’t do anything. She forced you, and I’m high-quality. I’m high-quality, and the child’s high-quality, and we’re each going to be high-quality.”’

I put my hand over hers, trapping it where it was, keeping her near me. “You understand how my first wife died.” Sweet Anne had been as mortal because the morning. She would have been long gone even had all things played out perfectly.

But I might still have modified the past, had I been capable of accomplish that. Even now.

“And you realize I’m principally unkillable.” She stepped closer, until I could smell the salt-sweet of her skin. “Can we attempt to be comfortable? Please? For me? For us? So I may be in an honest mood and never totally terrified when I’m going to inform Quentin and May? Oh, ash and oak, and Raysel. Is she going to think we don’t have room for her? That we would like her to lea—”

I pulled her into my arms and pressed my lips to hers, silencing her anxieties with a kiss. It wasn’t the form of thing that may work for long; her worries would catch up together with her soon enough, as they at all times did. But for the moment, all I wanted was to kiss her until she was breathless, then pick her up and do it once more. A baby. Our baby. A baby we had made together, coming into Faerie already secure and loved, without having to fear rejection as we had each done. She was already a mother, but I had never been a father to a toddler that lived, and the thought was dizzying and heady.

I took a step back, pulling her together with me, and sat down on the bed, placing her in my lap as I continued the all-important task of kissing her anxieties away. My little fish had many anxieties. This might take some time.

Once I finally stopped kissing her, it was to lean back and smile without letting her go. “A baby,” I breathed. “Our baby. I’ve never been a parent before.”

I had come close, down the years, had taken the uncle’s role at every opportunity, but a toddler of my very own, to like and lift in safety and in joy, had never been an element of my life. October snorted, like she desired to argue, then leaned over, resting her head against my shoulder. “Our baby,” she agreed. “I suppose it’s time to begin talking about names. Oh, and there’s that whole Sleeping Beauty story thing. Do purebloods have any weird ‘Hey now we have a baby now’ traditions that I would like to find out about?”

I swallowed my laughter. “Well, there won’t be a christening, if that’s what you’re asking. There will likely be a celebration, nevertheless, to present the infant to the local nobility, and to permit them the chance to supply gifts. It’s traditional for the Firstborn of the parents to be invited.

They never attend, in fact.”

“Except that in my case, they really might,” she said, with a groan.

“That’s an issue for tomorrow,” I said, and leaned all the way down to kiss her again. This gave the impression of a wonderful technique to pass the following several hours. 

That was when she screamed and jerked away, almost falling out of my lap. I held her where she was, staring wordlessly as she spasmed and thrashed, clearly caught in the online of some agonizingly painful physical response with no visible source.

She kept screaming. I stared at her, trying to seek out the words that may take her pain away, attempting to work out what enemy was attacking her so. The bedroom door slammed open. May burst into the room, her eyes gone wide and wild, and air round her crackling with the scent of cotton candy and ashes.

“Toby?” she demanded, a note of shrill terror in her voice. Her eyes snapped to me. “What’s improper together with her? Why is she screaming?” Then: “What did you do?” 

“Nothing,” I said, and I could hear the horror in my very own voice. “I used to be kissing her, and she or he just—”

October was struggling to breathe, whilst she continued to scream. It seemed not possible that her body should still be producing sound, that she must be anything but silent and unconscious from an absence of air, all aside from whatever was happening to her. Quentin appeared behind May within the doorway, his eyes fixed on October and a brief sword already drawn and in his hand. Jasmine, close behind him, was just as visibly horrified because the others. None of them looked as if it would have any higher idea than I did why this was happening.

I couldn’t let her go, couldn’t go searching for whatever was causing her such countless pain. All I could do was hold her fast, keeping her from falling to the ground as she screamed and writhed.

Finally, after what gave the impression of an eternity, she managed a break in her screaming long enough for her to catch her breath. Silence fell, broken by the soft sound of footsteps on the steps. She looked to May, gasping as she struggled to talk. “Is that. . . Raysel?”

“She’s asleep in her room,” said May. “She was exhausted. I do know that seems odd, given the entire ‘cursed to sleep for a century’ thing, but magical sleep and real sleep aren’t the identical thing. She’s high-quality.” 

October took one other breath. It sounded painful. It appeared like a dagger in my very own heart.

“Someone . . . on. . . stairs,” she said.

May checked out her in horror before she whirled to stare at whoever was coming down the hall. She paled on the sight, taking a half-step back, putting herself more firmly within the bedroom door. “You may’t be here.”

October tried to face. I didn’t let her go. 

Quentin turned. “You!”

This time, when October tried to face, I allowed it, and stood together with her, close behind, putting my hands on her shoulders. Not to carry her in place—to ensure she knew that I used to be there, for anything she needed. She drew her knives, keeping them low by her sides, and I shifted barely to make it easier for her to strike if the necessity arose.

The smell of roses wafted down the hall, woody and wild and tantalizingly familiar. I desired to follow those roses, to smell at them until I understood where they were coming from. October improved, and I let her, lowering my hands as she left me behind.

“Quentin,” she said.

Her squire ducked his head as he hurried into the room and moved to face beside her. May remained within the doorway, eyes on our unseen intruder.

“Child of mine,” said a female voice, familiar and never, all at the identical time. I saw May stiffen, and I knew who had come for us. “Child of mine, you can’t stand against me. Stand aside.”

May glanced at October, agonized, before she moved out of the doorway to make way for the lady who appeared in her place. Titania stepped into the room, looking flatly at October. Her expression was almost neutral, more dismissively unimpressed than anything. Her hair and clothing were once more impeccable, all signs of the sooner battle washed away. I couldn’t have a look at her directly. She was so far more than we were, and she or he had caught me so easily before this. . .

“You may’t hurt me,” said October, my brave girl. “You may’t hurt any of us. You’re not allowed to harm my family.”

“True, child,” said Titania, voice sweet. “But you forget how young you might be. You forget how far more time I’ve needed to play this game. So far more time than any of you. Only the distorted child of mine comes anywhere near to me, and hers is a dilute and unwarranted claim to her age. I do know the way in which of ward and wording. I do know the roads through riddle and restriction. Do you truly think my husband can stop me from doing anything I would like to do?”

“Get out of my house,” said October, with cold finality.

“I can’t hurt you.” Titania smiled. “But I could make you another person’s problem.”

The smell of roses grew stronger, filling the room. My nerves jangled with the sudden awareness of danger, and I moved to wrap myself around October, to guard her and our child from the threat Titania represented. As for Titania herself, she watched me begin to maneuver, expression entirely serene.

“Uh‑uh‑uh,” she said, shaking a finger. “Naughty kitty. You’ll not damage this for me. You’ll not damage this for her, either, or for anyone. I don’t think there’s a spot for you in what I’m doing.”

October’s knives clattered as they slipped from her hands and fell to the ground. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t do anything but glare in futile, frozen hatred at the lady who was meant to be the mother of us all. 

The air turned pink with sourceless brilliance, then red, crimson and carmine, as if all the world were bleeding.

That is how October sees the world, I assumed, and my mental voice was the accent of my childhood, of a London that passed centuries ago, and for a moment, it dazed me, and in that moment, the whole lot went away.

I never even saw her disappear. She was simply gone. All of them were, and I used to be alone, plummeting through countless, burning white.

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