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Excerpt Reveal: The Salt-Black Tree by Lilith Saintcrow

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The Salt-Black Tree by Lilith Saintcrow

What happens when you find a way to save your loved one… but the price might not be worth it—the stunning conclusion to New York Times bestseller Lilith Saintcrow’s The Dead God’s Heart

Nat Drozdova has crossed half the continent in search of the stolen Dead God’s Heart, the only thing powerful enough to trade for her beautiful, voracious, dying mother’s life. Yet now she knows the secret of her own birth—and that she’s been lied to all her young life.

The road to the Heart ends at the Salt-Black Tree, but to find it Nat must pay a deadly price. Pursued by mouthless shadows hungry for the blood of new divinity as well as the razor-wielding god of thieves, Nat is on her own. Her journey leads through a wilderness of gods old and new, across a country as restless as its mortal inhabitants, and it’s too late to back out now.

Blood may not always prevail. Magic might not always work. And the young Drozdova is faced with an impossible choice: Save her mother’s very existence…

…or accept the consequences of her own

Please enjoy this free excerpt of The Salt-Black Tree by Lilith Saintcrow, on sale 8/8/23

Chapter 1

Entirely Different

The ride back to Ranger’s was a bone-jarring gallop, the black horse slipping and sliding, melting into a motorcycle at odd moments, throwing itself across small streams once the desert faded and they were back in rolling winter prairie again. The sun was a low bloody coin disappearing behind distant bruise-shadows of western mountains, and Nat Drozdova was fully occupied clinging to reins or clutching handlebars, her shoulders aching every time the big beast veered. Sparks struck from its iron-clawed shoes sent up tiny acrid puffs—very possibly brimstone, though she’d never smelled it before—and she was sure it was doubling back once or twice, running alongside a deep, swift, cold stream chuckling with sharp menace.

Just waiting for her grip to loosen. Just waiting for her to fall. Sheets of icy water thrown up on either side, her tailbone bruised as the beast landed stiff-legged, bolts of pain zipping up her back, her teeth clicking painfully together over and over again—even the worst bus ride was a cakewalk compared to this. No fluid union, no sense of connected togetherness, just an endless rattling, jarring, thumping as her head bobbled and she clamped her knees to elastic, heaving sides.

Finally, the song of hooves rang on concrete instead of dirt and rock; Nat was almost tossed from the saddle as the horse shook himself angrily, shrinking into a motorcycle again. His whinny became a scream of defiance, but Nat’s fingers had cramp-tangled in the reins and her knees, while numb, still stuck like glue to his sides. He rattled over washboard road at a punishing pace, pavement breaking away on either side in great frost-heaved chunks; nobody had driven here for a very long time.

Icy wind roared, stinging her face, and instead of too hot and sweaty in a magical desert, she was now miserably cold. The motorcycle-horse screamed, shaking his head again as his mane whipped, stinging her hands, but Nat held on. There was no other choice.

Finally there was a long rubber-smoking howl as he swelled into horse-shape once more, a jolting as if the entire motorcycle would shake itself to pieces as it shifted back, and a billow of nasty black smoke. The world shuddered to a stop and Nat let out a surprised cry, saved only from a girlish scream by the fact that there was no air left in her lungs to fuel it. Westering orange sunlight escaping under a long low band of snow-bearing clouds filled her eyes, and there was a shout.

Hi there, you bastard!” It was Ranger in his fringed dun rancher’s jacket; the Black man darted close and grabbed at the horse’s bridle. “Ain’t no way to treat a lady, you just mind yourself now.”

Oh, thank goodness. I’m back. Nat couldn’t make her fingers unclench. The reins swelled and stiffened into handlebars once more; the engine’s choppy growl smoothed out and died with a resentful rumble. Fitful warmth returned, her entire body ached, and she couldn’t wait to have her boots on solid ground again.

But she was no thief, and had forced this thing—whatever it was—to bring her back. As bad as the ride had been, she suspected accepting its offer to show her “shortcuts” would be even worse.

“Get her off,” Ranger snapped. “Oh, you sumbitch, thought you’d take the long way home, did you? None of that now.”

Another tooth-snapping sound cut cold air; Nat flinched. Every girl loves horses, yes, but this thing was only horse-like. The shape didn’t make it as advertised; whatever was trapped in its galloping, restless body wouldn’t have hesitated to shake her free in the middle of a river, or while it galloped across the shimmering surface of a winter pond.

And then, those teeth—not the blunt herbivore-seeming ones, but the other set—would close around whatever mouthful it could grab. Or so her imagination informed her, and Nat Drozdova was very sure whatever she could imagine was far less awful than the truth.

For once.

Ranger made a swift movement, his brown fist pistoning out, a bright golden flashgleam lingering over knuckles. There was a crunch, and the horse’s growl cut off cleanly. “I said mind,” the cowboy continued, mildly enough, but his dove-gray hat was slightly awry, his hazel eyes blazed, and if he ever looked at her like that, Nat’s heart might well stop. “And get her off there, horsethief!”

“Don’t shout at me, kovboyski.” Dmitri Konets sounded just the same, and Nat’s fingers finally creaked open enough to slide free of solid, chilly metal handlebars. The gangster’s hair was a wild mess instead of slicked back, his black eyes burned with carnivorous glee, and even though he might very well murder her sometime in the very near future he was still familiar, and Nat was almost glad to see him. “Eh, zaika moya, have fun? Should’ve let me drive.”

“Th-th-that w-w-wasn’t . . .” Her teeth chattered, chopping every word into bits. That wasn’t part of the deal.

“I know.” He dragged her free of the motorcycle, his lean tanned hands strangely gentle; Ranger had the handlebars now and pulled the resisting hunk of glossy black metal, silver springs, wheels, and still-grumbling engine towards the barn. The porch light of Ranger’s trim blue ranch-style house was on, a golden beacon, and more incandescent light spilled through the half-open barn doors. The cold was even worse now that they’d stopped, which shouldn’t have been possible; the warmth in Nat’s core fought a frigid blanket.

“Breathe.” Dmitri held her up, coiled strength belied by his leanness; Nat’s legs wouldn’t quite work. “That’s it, nice and easy. Take drink.”

There was a chill metallic tap at her chin; the gangster tipped a mouthful from a dull silver hip flask past her lips. Nat spluttered; the liquid burned like vodka and most of it went straight down her throat without so much as a hello, a nova exploding inside her ribs. The heat was amazing, tropical, and very welcome; she decided she liked temperate zones better than desert or this winter prairie bullshit. Going from winter to summer and back again couldn’t be good for your immune system.

Did divinities get colds? Did they need flu shots? There were so many questions, and nobody she could trust to answer them.

Nat went limp, every bone inside her aching flesh quivering at a slightly different rate. Her forehead rested against Dima’s shoulder; the flask vanished, and he dug for something else in his pockets. His arm was a steel bar holding her upright, and that unhealthy, unsteady heat blazed from his jacket and jeans like a gasoline-greased pile of burning tires sending great gouts of black smoke heavenward.

“There,” he crooned, with lunatic calm. “Hush now, little zaikazaya, krasotka moya.” He was stiff-tense as if ready for a punch or some other violence, but Nat was too tired—and too glad to be stationary—to care much. “Eh, Cowboy? They gathering again.”

“I know.” Ranger sounded grim. “Where the hell did you run to, horse?”

Silly girl,” the horse replied, its voice full of shrapnel and burning oil. He made a low, shuddering, grinding moan, a motorcycle’s various metal joints resisting. “I offered her shortcuts. Stupid, silly girl.

“For the love of  ” Ranger sighed. There was a creak, another sharp thump—sounded like he’d punched metal. “That girl ain’t no horsethief. You and your mischief; I swear I’m half ready to remake you.”

Go ahead.” The beast was completely unrepentant. “You’ ll never have a faster horse.

Ranger muttered a blistering obscenity, and for once didn’t follow it up with a pardon my French. “Curses work both ways.”

Whatever Dima had forced down her throat worked wonders, or maybe Nat was stronger than she thought. In any case, she found her legs would finally work again, pain receded like the tide going out on a pebbled beach, and she pushed ineffectually at the gangster’s disconcertingly broad chest. “I’m all r-r-right.” Even the teeth-chattering was going down.

A dark line showed high on Dmitri’s left cheek. It looked like a knife-cut, but there was no blood, just flesh swiftly sealing itself back together. The sun’s bleary red eye slipped behind distant, serrated mountains, and a crackling-cold wind brushed over Ranger’s house. There was an uneasy mutter from the barn, animals moving; Nat shuddered.

What else did he have in there, next to the big black motorcycle-horse? She found she didn’t want to know; there was a limit to even her curiosity. Go figure, adulthood was 40 percent figuring things out for yourself, with another 40 percent of avoiding knowledge that might drive you crazy.

Not that she had far to go to reach that state. The remaining 20 percent of being grown-up was probably taxes and approaching mortality, though the idea of Uncle Sam pursuing Dmitri Konets for not filing a return was bleakly hilarious.

Was there an Uncle Sam? She’d probably find out, if this kept up.

“You came back.” Dmitri tucked his chin slightly, peering into her face. A flush of effort pinkened his cheeks, and his black suit was a bit rumpled. Had he and Ranger got into a fight?

I don’t care. Nat supposed she looked a little worse for wear, too. I just want to go home.

But that wasn’t quite accurate, Nat discovered. The thought of going back to her mother’s little yellow house, halfway across the continent on South Aurora Avenue in Brooklyn, was even more unappetizing than riding Ranger’s predatory magical horse.

Nat’s backpack, warm and heavy, finally settled against her shoulders like it was relieved to be off the carnival ride as well. It was the closest thing to “home” she had now, smaller and far more bedraggled than a snail’s spiraling domicile.

“I don’t w-want to be a h-h-horsethief,” Nat managed. Her throat was so dry the words were husks of themselves, left propped and forgotten in a field while a faded scarecrow leered from a listing pole.

Dima’s faint flush drained away, and his jaw hardened. “No other way to get what you want, Drozdova. Not when rich bastards sit on it.”

Oh, so you’re a real Robin Hood. Go figure, twenty seconds in his presence again and she was already irritated. The sharp unsteady feeling was a tonic, filling her with fresh strength, and her legs felt more like her own usual bodily possessions now instead of just insensate noodles. “I’m h-happy to s-see you too.”

Ranger reappeared, swinging the barn door closed; Dmitri stepped away from Nat like she was carrying something fatally communicable. She swayed, but the steady fire in her chest poured strength through the rest of her. The sense of deep, inalienable energy filled her again, and she wondered if she looked burningly vital, impossibly real, like the two men.

The two divinities.

“Sorry about that.” Ranger’s iron-toed cowboy boots ground icy gravel as he hurried towards her; he could probably crack a boulder by kicking it. “You did right well, Nat. He just takes some gettin’ used to, that beast.”

So I gathered. And even if she liked the cowboy, even if he said he liked her more than her mother, he still hadn’t warned her that the horse—or whatever it was, trapped in a shapeshifting body—was very strong, not to mention wholly murderous. “It’s all right.” There was nothing else to say.

The Black man’s fringed jacket was torn, too, and Nat was abruptly tired of men and their squabbles. Even if she didn’t agree with Mom on everything, Maria Drozdova’s frequent assertion that males were saved only from being more dangerous by their unending stupidity held a great deal of water.

“No, it ain’t.” Ranger glanced over her shoulder, his sculpted mouth tightening. “Y’all better go. I’ll do what I can, horsethief.” “I could call you something worse,” Dima muttered, and jabbed his left hand at the glossy black muscle car crouched leonine before the ranch house’s stairs. His right, Nat saw with a sinking sensation, was full of that same dull-black gun he’d had before, except with no long silhouette of a silencer. “Come, zaika. Into car we go.”

Wait a second. “I—what happened?” Nat shuddered; the bright white vapor of her breath shivered and plummeted, thin ice breaking on hard ground with a soft musical noise. “What the hell?”

“Oh, naw.” Ranger shrugged, a loose easy motion, and stretched his neck, tilting his head from one side to the other. His lean, capable right hand rested on a revolver butt, slung hip-low on his broad leather belt; the matching gun on his other side gleamed secretively from its well-worn holster. “Hell’s entirely different, ma’am, pardon my French. You go on now. Come back and visit anytime.”

Yeah, not so sure I want to, now. Nat summoned a polite, weary shadow of a smile, and tacked unevenly for the black car. Dmitri walked backward, placing each foot with a cat’s finicky delicacy, and Ranger’s boots made soft stealthy sounds as he set off in a different direction.

Towards the road, not his house. Maybe they hadn’t been fighting each other at all. The wind was knifelike, her breath froze as it left her mouth, and though Nat had quickly grown used to not feeling the weather, she shivered.

Potoropis”.” Dmitri peered past her, his black eyes narrowed and his lip lifting slightly. Strong white teeth gleamed, and though his snarl wasn’t directed at her, it still sent a shudder down her back. “Quickly, devotchka. Not many left, but always more come.”

Well, that’s not terrifying or anything. Nat’s boots were almost too heavy to lift; her backpack now weighed a ton. Even the stealthy, hidden glow of the Cup and the black-bladed Knife in its depths wasn’t comforting. “More what?” The starving things, of course. Great. Fantastic.

“You didn’t tell her?” Ranger laughed, every scrap of warmth gone and his voice cold as the gangster’s. “’Course not, why am I surprised? Get gone, I’ll keep your trail clear as I can.”

Dima swore, lifting the gun. Its muzzle pointed past Nat, carefully not at her, but she still hurried, not liking how big and bottomless the hole at the end seemed.

Like the Well, only without the quicksilver glitter in its throat. She skirted the black car; its engine throbbed into life and she flinched, letting out a small hurt sound. Suddenly its interior seemed like an old friend she couldn’t wait to meet again, but she paused at the open passenger door, the dome light sending a distorted golden rectangle onto the pavement, touching the edge of the porch’s wooden stairs.

There was very little twilight on the prairie in winter; day ended like a descending guillotine blade out here. Glimmering stars, peeking through dusk’s veil, were snuffed behind a lowering sky pregnant with fresh snow. Nat tasted the penny-metal of approaching precipitation, and a tiny, cold flake kissed her cheek.

Dark shapes, gleaming slightly, clustered a fair ways from Ranger; behind them, the driveway warped like the glimmer over hot pavement on a blinding summer day. Nat’s breath froze again, thin ice falling down the front of her peacoat; she stared, almost unable to believe her own eyes for the hundredth—or thousandth—time since walking into the Morrer-Pessel Tower to negotiate for her mother’s life.

She will eat you, Drozdova. After you bring her what she wants, so she can bargain with Baba Yaga to allow the theft of a native-born child.

She wanted to call what the metal horse had said a lie. She wanted to call all of this a hallucination, a cruel practical joke, a forgiving insanity.

Anything other than truth.

The shadowy things tumbled over each other, sharp cheesecloth-veils of utter negation swallowing even the faint ambient glow of winter night in the Dakotas. A few more tiny white spatters of snow drifted down, and Nat was suddenly very sure an iron-haired woman was bending over a glossy desk top high in a Manhattan skyscraper’s penthouse, her red-painted mouth pursed as her coal-hot gaze somehow pierced the intervening distance and came to rest upon a girl she called granddaughter.

So Baba was watching. The image was so clear, so crisp, Nat could take no refuge in tattered, comfortable disbelief.

“Get in the car,” Dima snarled. There was a sharp report and a brilliant flash. One of the muffled, razor-edged shapes imploded; Nat could swear she saw the bullet as it streaked free, an improbable gleam.

Silver. Well, that doesn’t surprise me.

Nat clambered into the car; its hood ornament, a beast caught somewhere between snarling wolf and slump-shouldered bear, glittered angrily. She slammed the door, her teeth chattering afresh even though whatever he’d given her to drink still burned behind her breastbone and the vivid bright warmth of divinity poured strength through her, a steady reassuring glow.

Did her mother feel a corresponding weakness each time that flood filled her daughter’s body? Did it hurt?

More flashes, and faraway popping noises. Nat twisted and craned, trying to look out every window at once; the driver’s door opened and Dmitri dropped into his seat. He didn’t bother reaching for his seatbelt, just twisted the wheel-yoke and popped the brake; the black car jolted and shot forward, but not along the driveway.

He steered them for the far side of Ranger’s house, and Nat found her lips moving silently.

Of all the useless things to do, she was praying.

Copyright © 2023 from Lilith Saintcrow

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