Read an Excerpt
Also by Jim Butcher
Teaser: Skin Game
Mab, the Queen of Air and Darkness, monarch of the Winter Court of the Sidhe, has unique ideas regarding physical therapy.
I woke up in softness.
What I probably should say was that I woke up in a soft bed. But . . . that just doesn’t convey how soft this bed was. You know those old cartoons where people sleep on fluffy clouds? Those guys would wake up screaming in pain if they got suckered into taking one of those clouds after they’d been in Mab’s bed.
The fire in my chest had finally begun to die away. The heavy wool lining coating my thoughts seemed to have lightened up. When I blinked my eyes open, they felt gummy, but I was able to lift my arm, slowly, and wipe them clear. I’d gone jogging on beaches with less sand than was in my eyes.
Man. Being mostly dead is hard on a guy.
I was in a bed.
A bed the size of my old apartment.
The sheets were all perfectly white and smooth. The bed was shrouded in drapes of more pure white, drifting on gentle currents of cool air. The temperature was cold enough that when I exhaled, my breath condensed, but I was comfortable beneath the bed’s covering.
The curtains around the bed parted and a girl appeared.
She was probably too young to drink legally and she was one of the lovelier women I’d ever seen in person. High cheekbones, exotic almond-shaped eyes. Her skin was a medium olive tone, her eyes an almost eerie shade of pale green-gold. Her hair was pulled back into a simple tail, she wore pale blue hospital scrubs, and she had no makeup at all.
Wow. Any woman who could wear that and still look that good was a freaking goddess.
“Hello,” she said, and smiled at me. Maybe it was just the bed talking, but the smile and her voice were even better than the rest of her.
“Hi,” I said. My voice came out in a croak that hardly sounded human. I started coughing.
She placed a covered tray on a little stand beside the bed and sat down on the edge of it. She took the cover off the tray and picked up a white china cup. She passed it to me, and it proved to be filled with not quite scalding chicken noodle soup. “You do that every day. Talk before you’ve gotten anything down your throat. Drink.”
I did. Campbell’s. And it was awesome. I flashed on a sudden memory of being sick when I was very young. I couldn’t remember where we’d been, but my dad had made me chicken noodle soup. It was the same.
“I think . . . I remember some of it,” I said, after several sips. “Your name is . . . Sarah?” She frowned, but I shook my head before she could speak. “No, wait. Sarissa. Your name is Sarissa.”
She lifted both eyebrows and smiled. “That’s a first. It looks like you’re finally coming back into focus.”
My stomach gurgled and at the same time a roaring hunger went through me. I blinked at the sudden sensation and started gurgling down more soup.
Sarissa laughed at me. It made the room feel brighter. “Don’t drown yourself. There’s no rush.”
I finished the cup, spilling only a little on my chin, and then murmured, “The hell there isn’t. I’m starving. What else is there?”
“Tell you what,” she said. “Before you do that, let’s shoot for another first.”
“Eh?” I said.
“Can you tell me your name?”
“What, you don’t know?”
Sarissa smiled again. “Do you?”
“Harry Dresden,” I said.
Her eyes sparkled and it made me feel good all the way to my toes. More so when she produced a plate that was piled with chicken and mashed potatoes and some other vegetables that I had little use for but which were probably good for me. I thought I was going to start drooling onto the floor, that food looked so good.
“What do you do, Harry?”
“Professional wizard,” I said. “I’m a PI in Chicago.” I frowned, suddenly remembering something else. “Oh. And I’m the Winter Knight, I guess.”
She stared at me like a statue for several seconds, absolutely nothing on her face.
“Um,” I said. “Food?”
She shivered and looked away from me. Then she took a quick breath and picked up an odd little fork, the kind they give to kids with motor control issues—it had lots of rounded edges—and pressed it into my hand. “If you’re willing to go for three, we’ll have had a really good day.”
The fork felt weird and heavy in my fingers. I remembered using forks. I remembered how they felt, the slender weight of them, the precision with which I could get food from the plate to my mouth. This fork felt heavy and clumsy. I fumbled with it for a few seconds, and then managed, on the second try, to thrust it into the mashed potatoes. Then it was another chore to get the stupid thing to my mouth.
The potatoes were perfect. Just warm enough, barely salted, with a faint hint of rich butter.
“Ohmmgdd,” I muttered around the mouthful. Then I went for more.
The second forkful was easier, and the third easier than that, and before I knew it the plate was empty and I was scraping the last of the remains into my mouth. I felt exhausted and stuffed, though it hadn’t been all that much food. Sarissa was watching me with a pleased smile.
“Got it all over my face, don’t I?” I asked her.
“It means you enjoyed the food,” she said. She lifted a napkin to my face and wiped at it. “It’s nice to know your name, finally, Harry.”
There was the sound of light, steady footsteps coming closer.
Sarissa rose immediately, turned, and then knelt gracefully on the floor with her head bowed.
“Well?” said a woman’s velvet voice.
My whole body shuddered in response to that voice, like a guitar’s string quivering when the proper note is played near it.
“He’s lucid, Your Majesty, and remembered my name and his. He fed himself.”
“Excellent,” said the voice. “You are dismissed for today.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” said Sarissa. She rose, glanced at me, and said, “I’m glad to see you feeling better, Sir Knight.”
I tried to come up with something charming or witty and said, “Call me.”
She huffed out a surprised little breath that might have been the beginning of a laugh, but shot a fearful glance the other way and then retreated. The sound of her sneakers scuffing on the hard floor faded into the distance outside the curtained bed.
A shadow moved across the curtains at the end of the bed. I knew whose it was.
“You have passed your nadir,” she said in a decidedly pleased tone. “You are waxing rather than waning, my Knight.”
I suddenly had difficulty thinking clearly enough to speak, but I managed. “Well. You know. Wax on, wax off.”
She didn’t open the curtain around the bed as much as she simply glided through, letting the sheer cloth press against her, outlining her form. She exhaled slowly as she reached my side, looking down at me, her eyes flickering through shades of green in dizzying cycles.
Mab, the Queen of Air and Darkness, was too terrifying to be beautiful. Though every cell in my body suddenly surged with mindless desire and my eyes blurred with tears to see her beauty, I did not want to come an inch closer. She was a tall woman, well over six feet, and every inch was radiance. Pale skin, soft lips the color of frozen raspberries, long silver-white hair that shone with opalescent highlights. She was dressed in a silk gown of deep frozen green that left her strong white shoulders bare.
And she was about six inches away from being in bed with me.
“You look great,” I croaked.
Something smoldered in those almond-shaped eyes. “I am great, my Knight,” she murmured. She reached out a hand, and her nails were all dark blues and greens, the colors shimmering and changing like deep opals. She touched my naked shoulder with those nails.
And I suddenly felt like a fifteen-year-old about to kiss a girl for the first time—excitement and wild expectation and fluttering anxiety.
Her nails, even just the very tips, were icy cold. She trailed them down over one side of my chest and rested them over my heart.
“Um,” I said into what was, for me, an incredibly awkward silence. “How are you?”
She tilted her head and stared at me.
“Sarissa seems nice,” I ventured.
“A changeling,” Mab said. “Who once sought of me a favor. She saw Lloyd Slate’s tenure as my Knight.”
I licked my lips. “Um. Where are we?”
“Arctis Tor,” she said. “My stronghold. In the Knight’s suite. You will find every mortal amenity here.”
“That’s nice,” I said. “What with my apartment burned to the ground and all. Is there a security deposit?”
A slow smile oozed over Mab’s mouth and she leaned even closer to me. “It is well that you heal,” she whispered. “Your spirit wandered far from your body while you slept.”
“Free spirit,” I said. “That’s me.”
“Not anymore,” Mab murmured, and leaned down toward me. “You are shaking.”
Her eyes filled my vision. “Are you frightened of me, Harry?”
“I’m sane,” I said.
“Do you think I am going to hurt you?” she breathed, her lips a fraction of an inch from mine.
My heart beat so hard that it actually hurt. “I think . . . you are who you are.”
“Surely you have no reason to fear,” she whispered, her breath tickling my lips. “You are mine now. If you are not well, I cannot use you to work my will.”
I tried to force myself to relax. “That’s . . . that’s true,” I said.
I hadn’t seen her picking up the thick, fluffy pillow beside me while she held my eyes. So I was totally unprepared when she struck, as fast as any snake, and slammed the pillow down over my face.
I froze for half a second, and the pillow pressed down harder, shutting off my air, clogging my nose and mouth. Then the fear took over. I struggled, but my arms and legs felt as if they’d been coated in inches of lead. I tried to push Mab away, but she was simply too heavy, my arms too weak. Her hands and forearms were frozen steel, slender and immovable.
My vision went from red to black. Sensation began to recede.
Mab was cool. Unrelenting. Merciless.
She was Mab.
If I did not stop her, she would kill me. Mab couldn’t kill a mortal, but to her I was no longer one of them. I was her vassal, a member of her court, and as far as she was concerned, she had every right to take my life if she saw fit.
That cold knowledge galvanized me. I locked my hands around one of her arms and twisted, straining my entire body. My hips arched up off the bed with the effort, and I wasn’t even trying to push her away. There was no opposing the absolute force of her. But I did manage to direct her strength just a little to one side, and in so doing managed to push her hands and the smothering pillow past me, freeing my face enough to suck in a gasp of sweet, cold air.
Mab lay with her upper body across mine, and made no effort at all to move. I could feel her eyes on me, feel the empty intensity of her gaze as I panted, my head swimming with the sudden rush of blessed oxygen.
Mab moved very slowly, very gracefully. There was something serpentine about the way she slithered up my body and lay with her chest against mine. She was a cold, ephemeral weight, an incredibly feminine softness, and her silken hair glided over my cheeks and lips and neck.
Mab made a low, hungry sound in her throat as she leaned down, until her lips were almost touching my ear.
“I have no use for weakness, wizard.” She shivered in a kind of slow, alien ecstasy. “Rest. Heal. Sleep. I shall most likely kill you on the morrow.”
“You? A Princess Bride quote?” I croaked.
“What is that?” she asked.
Then she was gone. Just gone.
And that was day one of my physical therapy.
* * *
I could describe the next few weeks in detail, but as bad as they were, they did have a certain routine to them. Besides, in my head, they’re a music video montage set to the Foo Fighters’ “Walk.”
I would wake in the morning and find Sarissa waiting for me, keeping a polite and professional distance between us. She would help me take care of the needs of my weakened body, which was rarely dignified, but she never spoke about herself. At some point after that, Mab would try to kill me in increasingly unexpected and inventive ways.
In the video in my head, there’s a shot of me eating my own meal again—until, just as I finish, the giant bed bursts into flames. I awkwardly flop out of it and crawl away before I roast. Then, obviously the next day, Sarissa is helping me walk to the bathroom and back. Just as I relax back into bed, a poisonous serpent, a freaking Indian cobra, falls from the bed’s canopy onto my shoulders. I scream like a girl and throw it on the floor. The next day, I’m fumbling my way into new clothes with Sarissa’s help—until a small swarm of stinging ants comes boiling out of them onto my flesh, and I have to literally rip the clothes off of me.
It goes on like that. Sarissa and me on waist-high parallel bars, me struggling to remember how to keep my balance, interrupted by a tidal flood of red-eyed rats that forces us to hop up onto the bars before our feet get eaten off. Sarissa spotting me on a bench press, and then Mab bringing a great big old fireman’s ax whistling down at my head at the end of my third set so that I have to block with the stupid straight bar. Me slogging my exhausted way into a hot shower, only to have the door slam shut and the thing start to fill with water. Into which freaking piranha begin to plop.
On and on. Seventy-seven days. Seventy-seven attempted murders. Use your imagination. Mab sure as hell did. There was even a ticking crocodile.
* * *
I had just gotten back from the small gym, where’d I’d hiked about four miles up and I don’t know how many miles forward on the elliptical machine. I was sweaty and exhausted and thinking about a shower and then bed again. I opened the door to my quarters, and when I did, Mab opened fire with a freaking shotgun.
I didn’t have time to think or calculate before she pulled the trigger. All I could do was react. I flung myself back, slammed my will out into the air ahead of me, coalescing it into a barrier of pure energy. The gun roared, deafening in the enclosed space. Buckshot slammed against the barrier and bounced, scattering everywhere, landing with pops and rattles. I hit the floor, keeping the barrier up, and Mab advanced, her eyes glittering through every shade of opal, wild and ecstatic and incongruous against her otherwise calm expression.
It was one of those Russian-designed shotguns with the big drum magazine, and she poured all of it into me, aiming for my face.
The second the gun went click instead of boom, I flung myself to one side in a swift roll, just in time to avoid the pounce of a silver-grey malk—a feline creature about the size of a bobcat with wicked claws and the strength of a small bear. It landed where my head had been, its claws gouging chips from the stone floor.
I kicked the malk with my heel and sent him flying across the hall and into the stone wall. He hit it with a yowl of protest. I whirled my attention back to Mab as she dropped one drum magazine on the floor and produced another.
Before she could seat it in the weapon, I slashed at the air with my hand and shouted, “Forzare!” Unseen force lashed out and ripped the magazine and the shotgun alike from her hands. I made a yanking motion, and the bouncing shotgun abruptly shot across the empty space between us. I grabbed it by the barrel (which was freaking hot) just as the malk recovered and leapt at me again. I swung the empty shotgun two-handed and slammed the malk in the skull, hard enough to knock it from the air and leave it senseless on the floor.
Mab let out a delighted silvery laugh and clapped her hands like a little girl who has just been told she’s getting a pony. “Yes!” she said. “Lovely. Brutal, vicious, and lovely.”
I held on to the shotgun until the stunned malk recovered and began slinking sullenly away, and only after it was out of sight around the corner did I turn to face Mab again.
“This is getting old,” I said. “Don’t you have anything better to do with your time than to play Grimtooth games with me?”
“Indeed, I do,” she replied. “But why play games if not to prepare for challenges that lie ahead?”
I rolled my eyes. “Fun?” I suggested.
The delight faded from her face, replaced by the usual icy calm. It was a scary transformation, and I found myself hoping that I had not provoked her with my wiseassery.
“The fun begins when the games end, my Knight.”
I frowned at her. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“That appropriate attire awaits you in your chambers, and that you are to get dressed for the evening.” She turned to walk after the departed malk, her gown whispering on the stone of the floor. “Tonight, my wizard, shall be . . . fun.”
Back in my room, I found my clothes waiting for me: a tux in dark silver and pearl. The first of two small paper envelopes proved to contain a pair of jeweled cuff links, the stones too blue and too brilliant to be sapphires.
The other one held my mother’s amulet.
It was a simple silver pentacle, a battered five-pointed star bound within a circle, on a simple silver chain. The pentacle’s center was filled with a small red stone, cut to size. I’d once fastened the gem into place with hot glue. Apparently Mab had sent it to a genuine jeweler to attach it with something more solid. I touched the stone gingerly, and could instantly sense the energy within it, the psychic journal of my late mother’s travels.
I slipped the amulet on over my head and felt a sudden and profound sense of relief. I had thought it lost when my bullet-riddled self had fallen into the waters of Lake Michigan. I stood there with my hand over it for a moment, just feeling the cool metal press against my palm.
Then I got dressed in the tux and examined myself in a mirror the size of a pool table.
“Just a gigolo,” I sang, off-key, trying to enjoy myself. “Everywhere I go, people know the part I’m playing.”
The guy looking at me out of the mirror looked raw and hard. My cheekbones stood out starkly. I’d lost a lot of weight while I was in what amounted to a coma, and my rehabilitation had added only lean muscle back onto me. You could see veins tight against my skin. My brown hair hung down past my jawline, clean but shaggy. I hadn’t cut it or asked for a barber. Things that know magic can do awful stuff to you if they get hold of a lock of your hair, so I’d decided to hang on to mine. I’d ditched the beard, though. Beards grow out so fast that if you shave every day, there isn’t much of a window for anyone to use them against you—and shaved stubble is too diffuse to make a decent channel anyway.
I looked a little more like my brother with the long hair. Go figure. Long, lean face, dark eyes, a vertical line of a scar under the left one. My skin was absolutely pasty-pale. I hadn’t seen the sun in months. Lots of months.
As I looked, the song just sort of faded out. I didn’t have the heart for it. I closed my eyes.
“What the hell are you doing, Dresden?” I whispered. “You’re being kept locked up like a goddamned pet. Like she owns you.”
“Does she not?” growled a malk’s voice.
Didn’t I mention it? Those things can talk. They don’t pronounce words too well, and the inhuman sound of it makes the hairs on the back of my everything stand up, but they talk.
I spun, lifting my hand in a defensive gesture again, but I needn’t have bothered. A malk I didn’t think I’d seen before sat on the floor of my chambers, just inside the door. His too-long tail curled all the way around his front feet and overlapped itself in the back. He was a huge specimen of the breed, maybe eighty or ninety pounds, the size of a young adult mountain lion. His fur was pitch-black, apart from a white spot on his chest.
One thing I’d learned about malks was that you didn’t show them weakness. Ever. “These are my chambers,” I said. “Get out.”
The malk bowed its head. “I cannot, Sir Knight. I am under orders from the Queen herself.”
“Get out before I get you out.”
The very tip of the big malk’s tail twitched once. “Were you not the bond servant of my Queen, and were I not obliged to show you courtesy, I should like to see you try it, mortal.”
I squinted at him.
That was very unmalklike behavior. Apart from one, every malk I’d met had been a bloodthirsty little killing machine, primarily interested in what it could tear apart and devour next. They weren’t much for small talk. They also weren’t terribly brave, especially when alone. A malk might jump you in a dark alley, but you’d never see him coming.
This one . . . looked like it might like to see me put a chip on my shoulder.
I extended my senses cautiously and suddenly felt the nearly silent thrum of the malk’s aura. Whoa. The thing had power. Like, lots of power. You couldn’t usually feel a wizard’s aura unless you were close enough to touch it, but I could feel his from across the room. Whatever that thing was, it only looked like one of the other furry, terminally ADD homicidal maniacs. I reeled in on the attitude.
“Who are you?”
The malk bowed his head once. “A faithful servant of the Queen of Air and Darkness. I am most often called Sith.”
“Heh,” I said. “Where’s your red lightsaber?”
Sith’s golden eyes narrowed. “When first your kind began scrawling knowledge upon stone and clay, my name was ancient. Walk carefully around it.”
“Just trying to brighten the conversation with humor, Sithy. You need to cheer up.”
Sith’s tail twitched again. “Slicing your spine into coasters would cheer me. May I?”
“Gotta go with ‘no’ on that one,” I said. Then I blinked. “Wait. You’re . . . Cat Sith. The Cat Sith?”
The malk inclined its head again. “I am he.”
Hell’s bells. Cat Sith was a major figure in faerie folklore. This thing wasn’t just a malk. It was the freaking monarch of the malks, their progenitor, their Optimus Prime. I’d taken on an ancient faerie creature like this one a few years back. It hadn’t been pretty.
When Cat Sith had offered to slice my spine into coasters, he wasn’t kidding. If he was anything like the ancient phobophage, he could do it.
“I see,” I said. “Um. What are you doing here?”
“I am your batman.”
“My . . .”
“Not the notional hero,” Sith said, a bit of a growl in his voice. “Your batman. Your orderly.”
“Orderly . . .” I frowned. “Wait. You work for me?”
“I prefer to think of it as managing your incompetence,” Sith replied. “I will answer your questions. I will be your guide while you are here. I will see to it that your needs are met.”
I folded my arms. “And you work for me?”
Sith’s tail twitched again. “I serve my Queen.”
Aha. Evasion. There was something he was avoiding. “You are to answer my questions, are you not?”
“Did Mab order you to obey my commands?”
Twitch, twitch, twitch went the tail. Sith stared at me and said nothing.
Silence could generally be taken as assent, but I just couldn’t resist. “Get me a Coke.”
Sith stared at me. Then he vanished.
I blinked and looked around, but he was gone. Then, maybe a second and a half later, there was the snap-hiss of a beverage can being opened. I turned and found Cat Sith sitting on one of the room’s dressers. An opened can of Coke sat beside him.
“Whoa,” I said. “How did . . . You don’t even have thumbs.”
Sith stared at me.
I crossed to the dresser and picked up the can. Sith’s eyes tracked me the whole time, his expression enigmatic and definitely not friendly. I sipped at the drink and grimaced. “Warm?”
“You did not tell me otherwise,” he said. “I shall be happy to similarly fulfill any such command you give me, Sir Knight, but for those that contravene the orders of my Queen.”
Translation: I don’t want to be here. I don’t like you. Give me commands and I will give you hell for it. I nodded at the malk. “I hear you.” I sipped at the Coke. Warm or not, it was still Coke. “So why the tux? What’s the occasion?”
“Tonight is a celebration of birth.”
“Birthday party, huh?” I said. “Whose?”
Sith said absolutely nothing for several seconds. Then he rose and leapt down to the floor, landing without a sound. He flowed past me to the door. “You cannot possibly be that stupid. Follow me.”
My hair was still pretty messy. I slopped some water on it and combed it back, which was as close to neat as it was going to get, and then walked after Sith, my patent leather formal shoes gleaming and clicking on the stone floor.
“Who’s going to be at this party?” I asked Sith when I caught up to him. I hadn’t left my chambers in a while. My entire life had been eating, sleeping, and getting myself put back together. Besides, I hadn’t wanted to go sightseeing around Arctis Tor. The last time I’d been there, I’d pissed off the faeries. Like, all of them. I hadn’t fancied the idea of bumping into some hostile bogeyman looking for payback in a dark corridor. The door leading from my chambers opened by itself, and Sith walked through it with me behind him.
“The high and mighty among the Winter Sidhe,” Sith said. “Important figures from the Wyld. There may even be a delegation from Summer there.”
As we emerged into the capital of Winter, the corridors changed from what looked more or less like smooth, poured concrete to crystalline ice in every hue of glacial blue and green, the bands of color merging, intertwining. Flickers of light danced through the depths of the ice like lazy fireflies of violet and crimson and cold sky blue. My eyes wanted to follow the lights, but I didn’t let them. I couldn’t tell you why, but my instincts told me that would be dangerous, and I listened to them.
“Kind of a big event, huh?” I said. “Think there’ll be a problem with the paparazzi?”
“One may hope,” Sith said. “Dispatching the perpetrators of such an intrusion would be gratifying.”
The air was arctic cold. I could feel the biting depth of the chill, but its fangs couldn’t seem to break my skin. It wasn’t exactly comfortable, but it didn’t matter. I didn’t shiver. I didn’t shake. I chalked it up to the power Mab had given me.
Sith led me down a much dimmer corridor, and we passed in and out of patches of deep darkness and cold, sullen light. As we did, our shadows danced and stretched. After a few seconds, I noticed that Cat Sith’s shadow was larger than mine. Like, seven or eight times larger than mine. I gulped.
“The last time I was at a supernatural shindig, I got poisoned and then everything there tried to kill me. So I burned the whole place to the ground,” I said.
“An appropriate way to deal with one’s enemies,” Sith said. “Perhaps you will find Arctis Tor less flammable.”
“I’ve never met a place I couldn’t blow up, burn down, or knock over with enough motivation,” I said. “Think anyone at the party wants to kill me?”
“Yes. I want to kill you.”
“Because I annoy you?”
“Because I enjoy it.” Sith glanced up at me for a moment. His billboard-size shadow on the wall mirrored the motion. “And you also annoy me.”
“It’s one of my gifts. Asking annoying questions is another. Other than you, is there anyone at the party I should make sure not to turn my back to?”
“You are of Winter now, wizard.” He turned his golden eyes away from me again. “Don’t turn your back to anyone.”
Cat Sith led me down passages I had never seen on my previous visit to Mab’s seat of power. Heck, back then I had thought it consisted entirely of a wall around a courtyard and a single turreted tower. I hadn’t ever seen the complex beneath the ice of the courtyard. It was enormous. We walked for ten minutes, mostly in the same direction, before Cat Sith said, “That door.”
The one he spoke of was made of ice, just like the walls, though it had a thick ring of what might have been silver hanging upon it. I grabbed the ring and tugged, and the door opened easily onto a small antechamber, a little waiting room complete with several easy chairs.
“Go in,” Cat Sith said. “Wait for instructions. Follow instructions.”
“I’m not good at either of those things,” I said.
Sith’s eyes gleamed. “Excellent. I have orders to dispatch you if you disobey Mab’s commands or undermine her authority in any way.”
“Why don’t you go ask Eldest Fetch how easy that one is, Mittens?” I said. “Scat.”
Sith didn’t vanish this time. He just sort of melted into shadow. His golden eyes remained behind for a few seconds, and then he was gone.
“Always stealing from the greats,” I mumbled. “Lewis Carroll’s estate should be collecting a licensing fee from that guy.”
Unless, of course, it was maybe the other way around.
I went into the chamber and the door shut behind me. There was a table with what looked like handmade candies on it. I didn’t touch them. Not because I was worried about my svelte figure, but because I was standing at the heart of wicked faerieland, and eating random candy seemed like a less than brilliant idea.
There was an old book on the table next to the candies, set carefully and precisely in place beside the dish. It was titled Kinder- und Hausmärchen. I leaned down and opened it. The text was in German. It was really old. The pages were made of paper of the finest quality, thin and crisp and edged in gold foil. On the title page, under the title, were the names Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, and the year 1812.
It was autographed, and personalized, “For Mab.” I couldn’t read the text, so I settled for the illustrations. It was better than reading those stupid celebrity magazines in every other waiting room, and was probably more grounded in reality.
The door opened soundlessly while I looked at the book, and a vision came into the room. She wore a velvet dress the deep blue-purple of twilight. She glanced back toward the hallway behind her as the door closed, and I saw that the dress plunged low in the front. She had matching opera gloves that reached to halfway up her biceps, and there was a garland of periwinkles in her dark hair that complemented the dress gorgeously. Then she turned back to me and smiled. “Oh, my,” she said. “You clean up nicely, Harry.”
I rose politely to my feet, though it took me a couple of seconds to say, “Sarissa. Wow. You . . . barely look like you.”
She quirked an eyebrow at me, but I saw a pleased tilt to her mouth. “My. That was almost a compliment.”
“I’m out of practice,” I said. I gestured toward a chair. “Would you care to sit?”
She gave me a demure smile and did, moving with an absolute and liquid grace. I offered her my hand to help her sit, which she didn’t need. She gripped my fingers lightly anyway. Once she was seated, I sat back down myself. “Did you want a bit of candy?”
Her smile somehow contained gentle reproof. “I hardly think that would be wise. Do you?”
“Hell’s bells, no,” I said. “I just, uh . . . You make conversation when you’re, uh . . . I’m not sure what to . . .” I picked up the priceless copy of the Grimms’ tales and held it up. “Book.”
Sarissa covered her mouth with one hand, but her eyes twinkled. “Oh, um, yes. I’ve seen it a few times. I’ve heard rumors that Her Majesty worked hard to make sure the tales were put into print.”
“Sure,” I said. “Makes sense.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Oh, the Sidhe’s influence had been waning as the Industrial Age gathered steam,” I said. “By making sure the tales kept being told to mortal children, she made sure that she and her folk were never forgotten.”
“And that’s important?” Sarissa asked.
“If it wasn’t, why else would she do it? I’m pretty sure that being forgotten is bad for beings that live with one foot in the mortal world and the other over here. Wouldn’t shock me if she greased some wheels for Walt Disney, either. He did more than anyone else to bring those stories into modern times. Hell, he built a couple of fairylands in the mortal world.”
“I hadn’t ever thought about it that way,” Sarissa said. She folded her hands in her lap and smiled at me. It was a completely calm and lovely expression—but I had the sudden instinct that she was concealing unease.
I might not have been able to tell a couple of months ago, but she’d been on the periphery of several of Mab’s therapy sessions, and I’d seen her react to sudden fear and stress. There was that same sense of controlled tension in her now as there had been when a small avalanche of poisonous spiders—big ones—had come cascading out of the towel cupboard in the workout room. She’d been wearing capri pants and no shoes at the time, and she’d had to hold completely still while dozens of the things swarmed over her naked feet, until I could clear them off, gently and cautiously, so as not to threaten the little things into killing us.
That particular test had been all about regulating one’s reaction to sudden fear. Sarissa had done it, refusing to let her anxiety control her. She’d waited, expressionless and almost calm, looking much then as she did right now.
It made my feet start to itch.
She was expecting spiders.
“So,” I said. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your company? Do you need me to perform some last-minute yoga routines?”
“You took to yoga like a duck to vacuum,” she said. “I know how much you love the routines, but I’m afraid I must disappoint you. Tonight I’m to be on your arm, by command of the Queen. I’m supposed to tell you the protocols for a gathering of the court and make sure you don’t get too bored.”
I leaned back in my chair and regarded her thoughtfully. “I can’t remember the last time I had that problem. And gosh, walking around with someone as lovely as you all night sounds like torture.”
She smiled and lowered her eyes.
“Can I ask you something?” I asked.
“I didn’t use that like a rhetorical question,” I said. “I’m serious. I’d like to ask you something, but if you would rather keep it to yourself, that’s okay, too.”
That put a crack in her mask. I saw her eyes flick up quickly to my face for a moment, and then back down. “Why wouldn’t I want to answer your questions?”
“Because we’ve been working together every day for eleven weeks and I don’t know your last name,” I said. “I don’t know what you do in the real world. I don’t know your favorite color or what kind of ice cream you like best. I don’t know if you have family. You’re very, very good at talking about things that don’t matter, and making it seem like the only conversation that could possibly have made sense.”
She very carefully did not move or answer.
“Mab’s got something on you, too, doesn’t she? Just like she does me.”
There was another moment of stillness. Then she said in a bare whisper, “Mab has something on everyone. The only question is whether they realize it or not.”
“I get that you’re afraid of me,” I said. “I know you saw Lloyd Slate in action when he was the Winter Knight, and I know exactly what a peach of a human being he was. And I figure you think I’m going to be like him.”
“I didn’t say that,” she said.
“It wasn’t an accusation,” I said, as gently as I could. “I’m not trying to trick you into saying something. I’m not hoping that you’ll give me an excuse to do something to you. Okay? I’m not like Lloyd Slate.”
“Neither was he,” Sarissa whispered. “Not at first.”
A cold little feeling wobbled through my guts.
See, that’s the tragedy of the human condition. No one wants to be corrupted by power when they set out to get it. They have good, even noble reasons for doing whatever it is they do. They don’t want to misuse it, they don’t want to abuse it, and they don’t want to become vicious monsters. Good people, decent people, set out to take the high road, to pick up power without letting it change them or push them away from their ideals.
But it keeps happening anyway.
History is full of it. As a rule, people aren’t good at handling power. And the second you start to think you’re better at controlling your power than anyone else, you’ve already taken the first step.
“This is the reality, Sarissa,” I said quietly. “I’m the Winter Knight. I’ve got Mab’s favor and blessing. I can pretty much do as I damned well please here, and I won’t have to answer to anyone but her for it.”
The young woman shivered.
“If I wanted it,” I said quietly, “if I wanted y . . . to hurt you, I could do it. Right now. You couldn’t stop me, and no one else would do a damned thing. I’ve spent a year on my back and now that I’m moving again, um . . . my various drives are clamoring for action. In fact, Mab probably sent you in here to see what I would do with you.”
The pleasant mask faded from Sarissa’s face, replaced with wary neutrality. “Yes. Of course she did.” She switched her hands, moving the bottom one to the top, carefully, as if she worried about wrinkling her dress. “I know exactly what role she has in mind for me, Sir Knight. I am to”—her mouth twisted—“be at your convenience.”
“Yeah, well,” I said. “That isn’t going to happen, obviously.”
Her eyes widened slightly. She held completely still. “I’m sorry?”
“I’m not Lloyd Slate,” I said. “I’m not one of Mab’s pet monsters—and I’ll die before I let her make me into one. You were kind to me and you helped me through a bad patch, Sarissa. I won’t forget that. You have my word.”
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“It isn’t complicated,” I said. “I won’t take anything away from you. I won’t force you to do anything you don’t want to do. Period.”
I couldn’t interpret the expression on her face when I said that. There could have been anger in it, or suspicion or terror or skepticism. Whatever was going on in her head to make her face look like that, I couldn’t translate it.
“You don’t believe me,” I said. “Do you?”
“I’ve lived a third of my life inside Arctis Tor,” she said, and turned her face away. “I don’t believe anyone.”
In that moment, I didn’t think I’d ever seen someone so entirely lovely look so utterly alone. A third of her life in Winter? And yet she could still be compassionate and friendly and caring. She’d probably seen things, had to face ugliness that few mortals ever did—the Unseelie were endlessly enthusiastic about their amusements, and they liked their games nasty and cruel.
But here she was, facing a fate she must have feared since she was a child—being given to a monster to be devoured. Facing it calmly. Staying in control of herself, and still managing to be warm to me, too. That told me she had a lot of strength, and strength has always been something I found attractive in a woman. So has courage. So has grace under pressure.
I could really get to like this girl.
Which, of course, was why Mab had chosen her—to tempt me, to make me convince myself to abandon the high road so that I could have her. Then, once I’d done one little thing, she’d start scattering new lures in front of me, until eventually I picked another one up. Mab was Mab. She had no intention of keeping a Knight with a conscience.
So she was planning on assassinating mine an inch at a time. Once I’d abused my power over the girl, Mab would use my guilt and self-loathing to push me to the next step, and the one after that.
Mab was one cold-blooded bitch.
I looked away from Sarissa. I was going to have to keep her safe—first and foremost from me.
“I understand,” I told her. “Or at least I understand part of it. My first mentor wasn’t exactly Officer Friendly, either.”
She nodded, but it was an entirely noncommittal gesture, an acknowledgment that I had spoken, not a statement of agreement.
“Okay,” I said. “Uncomfortable silence is uncomfortable. Why don’t you tell me what I need to know for tonight?”
She collected herself and slipped back into her pleasant demeanor. “We’ll enter next to last, just before the Queen. She will present you to the court, and then there will be a meal and entertainment. After the feast, you’ll be expected to mingle with the court and give them a chance to meet you.”
“That’s the protocol? Thanksgiving dinner at the in-laws’?”
Something like a real smile brought a little light to her eyes, at the sight of which my glands did not go pitter-pat. At all.
“Not quite,” she said. “There are two laws all must follow under pain of death.”
“Only two? Man, how do Unseelie lawyers make a living?”
“First,” Sarissa said, ignoring my wiseassery, “Blood may not be spilled upon the floor of the court without the Queen’s express command.”
“No murder without getting the nod first. Got it. Second?”
“No one may speak to the Queen without her express command.”
I snorted. “Seriously? Because I’m not much for keeping my mouth shut. In fact, I’m pretty sure I physically can’t. Probably because I was influenced at an impressionable age. Did you ever read any Spider-Man comics when you were—”
“Harry,” Sarissa said, her voice suddenly tight. She put her hand on my arm, and her lean fingers were like heavy wires. “No one speaks to the Queen,” she whispered intently. “No one. Not even the Lady Maeve dares disobey that law.” She shuddered. “I’ve seen what happens. We all have.”
I pursed my lips and studied her hand thoughtfully for a moment. Then I nodded. “Okay,” I said. “I hear you.”
Sarissa exhaled slowly and nodded.
Just then, a door I hadn’t seen before opened in the center of what had looked exactly like a wall. Cat Sith stood on the other side of the door. He ignored me pointedly, turning his golden eyes to Sarissa. “It is time.”
“Very well,” Sarissa said. “We are ready.”
I rose and offered Sarissa a hand up. She took it, and I tucked her arm into mine. Her fingers gave my forearm one quick squeeze, and then we turned to follow Cat Sith down another hallway.
Sarissa leaned a little closer to me and whispered, “You know what this is, don’t you?”
I grunted quietly. “Yeah,” I said. “It’s my first day in the prison yard.”
Sith led us down yet another passageway, this one darker than the others, until finally I couldn’t see the malk at all in the dimness. Instead, a very dim phosphorescence in the shape of his paw prints began to rise from the floor, giving us just enough light to move by. I could feel Sarissa growing increasingly tense beside me, but she said nothing. Smart. If anything was going to jump up and eat us, our ears would tell us about it first.
The sound of our steps on the floor changed, and I realized that we had moved into a large open space. Just as I did, the glowing paw prints in front of us vanished.
I stopped at once, pulling Sarissa in closer against my side. Again, she remained completely silent, except for one sharp little inhalation.
Silent seconds went by.
“Sith,” I said quietly. “You are a suck guide. I don’t care how big your shadow is.”
My voice echoed cavernously while I waited, but apparently Sith didn’t have a comeback. After a few seconds, I reached up and tugged my amulet out of the tux.
I held it up and concentrated, sending a microcurrent of my will into the design, and an instant later it began to glow with a blue-white light. I held it aloft and looked around.
We were in another ice cave, this one filled with enormous, bizarre . . . structures, was the only thing I could think to call them. I might have called them sculptures, except no one does sculptures the size of buildings these days, even in ice. I looked around the place slowly. There was something odd about the structures, something almost . . .
Sarissa was looking, too. She seemed alert, but not frightened. “Are those . . . giant pieces of furniture?”
. . . familiar.
The structures were sculpture, built on a scale of maybe one to eight, of a couch, two easy chairs, a brick fireplace, bookshelves. . . . Mab had re-created my old basement apartment in ice, right down to textured carvings of all of my area rugs crafted into the ice of the floor.
I had about a second to take that in before the cavern exploded with sound, color, and motion. A wave front of pure noise slapped against me as a sudden horde of beings from every dark folktale ever told surged into view at the edges of my light, their screams and cries coming from all around me.
This was a worst-case scenario for a mortal wizard. We can do amazing things, but we need time to make them happen. Sometimes we get that time by preparing well in advance—creating tools that help us focus our abilities more quickly and with greater precision. Sometimes we get the time by picking where and when to begin our battles. Sometimes we do it by slinging the spell from a couple or a couple hundred miles away. But I didn’t have any of that going for me.
My convalescence with Mab had kept me way too busy recovering or sleeping to have enough time to create new tools, and my amulet was all I had. On the upside, Mab had given me a serious workout, magically speaking. I’d been forced to use my abilities without any kind of tools or crutch to help me, or else perish. I was better at wielding raw magic now than I’d ever been in my life.
It just wasn’t going to be enough to survive what was coming at me.
I moved without thinking, putting myself between Sarissa and as many of them as I could, and bringing my will to bear upon my right hand. Pallid blue-white fire suddenly engulfed my fingers as I let the pentacle fall. I raised my hand—no time to think or aim or plan—determined to take someone down with me.
Sarissa’s hand snapped out and she grabbed my wrist, jerking my arm down before I could unleash the spell, and I heard two things in the vast roar of sound:
First, Sarissa screaming, “No bloodshed!”
Second, I realized that everything else in the cavern was bellowing, “SURPRISE!”
The horde of all things dark and hideous stopped maybe twenty feet short of Sarissa and me, and the walls and floor and ceiling began to glow with light. Music began to play, a full symphonic freaking orchestra, live, somewhere on the other side of the giant replica of my old secondhand sofa. High up on the ceiling of the cavern, thousands of wisps of eerie light swarmed deep within the ice, swiftly forming up like a flotilla of synchronized swimmers until they formed the words: HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DRESDEN.
I stood there with my heart beating too fast for several seconds and blinked at the entire place. “Uh. Oh.”
Sarissa studied the ceiling for a moment and then looked up at me. “I didn’t know.”
“Neither did I, really,” I said. “Is it Halloween already?”
“Just barely, I think,” Sarissa said back.
It got weirder.
They started to sing.
They sang “Happy Birthday.”
Remember when I said that a malk’s voice made my skin crawl? It’s nothing next to the cackling rasp of a swamp hag, or the freaky-weird whistling voice of a manticore. Goblins can’t carry a tune if it has handles, and the huge bat things that served as Mab’s air force shrieked in pitches that could barely be heard. Trolls, hideous giant thugs towering over ten feet tall, sound like laryngitic foghorns.
But layered all throughout that cacophony were voices that went to the other extreme, voices that carried the melody with such perfect, razor-edged clarity that it made me want to slash my wrists on it. People always equate beauty with good, but it just ain’t so. Amongst the Winter Court were beings of haunting beauty, mesmerizing beauty, disarming beauty, flawless beauty, maddening beauty, bloodthirsty beauty. Even in the mortal world, a lot of predators are beautiful, and if you’re quick and motivated enough, you can admire that beauty while they kill you and eat you. Like all the other things there, the Sidhe sang to me, and I could feel the weight of their attention on me like the pressure wave from an onrushing shark.
You don’t listen to music like that. You survive it.
The voices ended abruptly, and left one crystalline alto singing, “And many more.”
The crowd of creatures parted suddenly, and a girl stepped out of their ranks. She paused for a moment, for dramatic effect, and to give everyone time to admire her.
She’d changed her hair again. Now it was a kind of extra-wide Mohawk, long except for where it had been shaved completely away from the sides of her head, where the cut could show off the tips of her gently tapering ears. It was still colored in all glacial shades of blue and green and deep violet, and hung down over much of one side of her face, allowing her to borrow enough of Veronica Lake’s vibe to give her wide, wide eyes a little extra hint of cheerily wicked mystery. She was tallish, for a girl, maybe five-ten, and built with that perfect balance of lean and lush proportions that some girls are lucky enough to have for maybe a year, the kind of look that gets girls that age in trouble with men who should be old enough to know better.
And she was naked. Gloriously, disconcertingly naked—and just as fresh and vibrant and unspoiled-looking as she’d been the first time I’d met her, most of ten years before.
Only, you know, she’d been less naked then.
Man, was I ever noticing that part.
“Here’s the birthday boy!” Maeve said in a singsong voice, flinging both arms up. She started toward me in a slow and slightly exaggerated walk. Technically, she wasn’t entirely naked. She had silver piercings at the tips of her breasts, beneath her lip, in her navel, and probably elsewhere. I didn’t let myself look quite that close. Her flawless pale skin was also spangled with gemstones. I don’t know how they’d been attached, but they clung to her and sent little flashes of color glittering around the cavern when she moved. They were concentrated most densely around her . . . well . . . She’d been, ah, vajazzled.
She came slinking over to me in the silence, her green eyes framed in a quasi-mask of gemstones and some kind of henna inking, and she absolutely smoldered with sex. Not that she’d never been suggestive before, but this was taking things to a whole new level.
“Look at you,” she said, walking around me and eyeing me slowly and thoroughly. “Rumors of your death have been greatly exaggerated, it would seem.”
“Hi, Maeve,” I said. “You know, I almost wore that same outfit. Gosh, would our faces have been red.”
The Winter Lady, Mab’s successor and understudy, completed the circle and stopped in front of me, just oozing pure animal attraction. “It is a birthday. I wore a birthday suit.” She took a deep breath, mostly for effect. “I hope you approve.”
Hell, yes, I approved. Or at least everything south of my upper lip did—way more than it should have, really. She wasn’t using some kind of magic on me; I had gone on alert to such a possibility the second I’d seen her. It must have been all the rest and the exercise and the good diet, most of which I’d successfully avoided back in the real world. It had resulted in a robust and healthy yet perfectly normal libido. Perfectly normal.
It wasn’t me changing. Whatever Mab had done to me that had healed a broken spine, made me able to run at vampire speed, and given me the kind of reflexes that were capable of keeping up with the attack of a furious malk hadn’t changed me on some fundamental level.
Everything was perfectly healthy and normal here in Denial Land.
Maeve’s eyes met mine and she gave me a slow, slow smile. And, as when Mab had been near, I felt my whole body thrum in response to her, to her presence, her proximity, to her . . . everything. That smile contained something within it, something conveyed to me in a flashing instant—Maeve as she would look in ecstasy, beneath me, looking up at me with that lovely face mindless with sensation. And with that image came a hundred or a thousand others, each of them a single captured moment, the kind of moments that are the only one to survive a frenzied dream, frozen and layered atop one another, each of them a promise, a prediction, and every one of them aimed right at the most base, most primitive parts of my brain. It wasn’t limited to visual imagery. Each layer of the flash had its own round of sensual memory, every one of them only partial but intense—touch, taste, scent, sound, and vision—dozens and dozens of dreams and fantasies compressed into that one instant of dark inspiration.
I’ve had sex that didn’t feel as good as Maeve’s smile.
You hear me, came Maeve’s thoughts, along with the images. You hear me now, because we are together now, just as you are with Mab. I felt you, you know, when you joined yourself to us. And I want to feel more. You are my Knight as well, Dresden. Let me welcome you. Come to me. Come with me. Walk by starlight and let me show you secret delights.
It took me a couple of seconds to remember that I was still standing there in the icy hall, still wearing my clothes, still standing most of an arm’s length away from Maeve. When I spoke, it was through clenched teeth. “Sorry. Already got a date for tonight, Maeve.”
She dropped her head back and laughed. “Bring her,” she said, her eyes both dancing and wild. Her eyes shifted to Sarissa, who took a short breath and went stiff beside me. “She’s gorgeous, and I would love to . . . get to know her better.”
Imagine the possibilities, my Knight. Another multisensory slide show hit my head, and every single image was something that I should have known better than to find intriguing, but that I could not bring myself to entirely ignore—only this time Sarissa was included. I can show you pleasures you have never dreamed could be. Bring your lovely companion. I will give you her and many, many more besides.
Again, my head lit up with lunatic pleasure-maybes, dizzying, electrifying, and I felt as if I were about to start tearing my way out of my clothes.
And, just for a second, I considered it.
I’m not really proud of that fact, but it’s not like I’m beyond temptation, either. I’m just as stupid as the next guy, and for a second, I thought about seeing what was behind door number one. I knew it would be foolish—and fun, yeah, but mostly foolish. I knew that I’d be an idiot to go along, and yet . . .
One day, something is going to kill me. It might be some monster. It might be my own foolishness. It might be what gets most everyone in the end: simple, implacable time (although I wasn’t betting on that one). I’d been closer to the idea of my own death lately, having been dead, or at least mostly dead, for a good while, and I wasn’t any more comfortable with the idea. I didn’t have any more desire to go out in an ugly, painful way than I did before.
And if you’ve gotta go, there are probably worse ways to do it than in a blaze of sybaritic glory.
Damn, Maeve had a great pitch.
Everyone selling something to a sucker does.
The entire hall had gone completely silent, except for my own harsh breathing, and I suddenly became aware of the tension in the air. Every being there was waiting, and I suddenly realized that this was the second murder attempt of the evening. Maeve was trying to destroy me.
“You ever make Lloyd that offer?” I asked.
Maeve tilted her head, staring at me, her smile suddenly frozen.
“Cat got your tongue?” I asked in a louder voice. I put scorn into it. “Did you not hear the question?”
The frozen smile became something subarctic. “What did you say to me?”
“I said no, you psychopathic hosebeast,” I answered, spitting out the words with every ounce of contempt I could muster up. “I saw how you treated Lloyd Slate. I saw how you treated the changelings of your court. I know what to expect from you, you arrogant, spoiled, self-involved, petty, cruel little queen-bee twit.”
Maeve’s expression changed, though not in any kind of focused way. She looked . . . startled.
Sarissa gave me a shocked look. Then she glanced around, as if hunting for a foxhole or bomb shelter or perhaps some kind of armored vehicle to throw herself into.
“You sent your last handmaiden to murder my friends on their wedding day, Maeve,” I continued, in a voice loud enough to be heard by the entire hall. “Did you think I’d forgotten that? Or was it just too small and unimportant a fact for you to keep it from dribbling out of your alleged brain? Do you think I’m too stupid to understand that you set up this ‘surprise’ party in the hopes that you’d startle me into spilling blood at court, Darth Barbie? You tried to murder me just now, Maeve, and you think a little psychic porn is going to make me forget it? I can’t decide if you’re insane or just that stupid.”
Maeve stared at me with her mouth dropping wide open.
“Now hear this,” I said. “You’re cute, doll. You’re gorgeous. You inspire supernatural levels of wood. And so what? You’re damaged goods. So turn around and move your naked little ass away from me—before I do it for you.”
For a long moment, there was dead silence.
And then Maeve’s face twisted up in fury. The seductive beauty of her features vanished, replaced by an animal’s rage. Her eyes blazed, and the temperature in the air dropped suddenly, painfully, enough to cause icy frost crystals to start forming on the ice. The freaking ice iced over.
Maeve glared at me with naked hatred in her too-big eyes and then gave me a small bow of her head and a little smile. “It would appear we yet have a life to celebrate,” she hissed. “Music.”
From somewhere in the room, the symphony began playing again. The silent gang-circle ring of bedtime-story villainy broke up with fluid grace, and seconds later you would have thought you were at any kind of extremely wild, extremely posh costume party.
Maeve’s eyes glittered and she spun once, displaying herself to me with a mocking little flick of her hair, and then vanished into the crowd.
I turned to Sarissa and found her staring at me with wide eyes. “You turned her down.”
“No one does that. Not here.”
“Whatever,” I said.
“You don’t understand. The insult you’ve just given her is . . . is . . .” Sarissa shook her head and said, with masterful understatement, “You just earned a little payback, in her mind.”
“That was going to happen sooner or later,” I said. “What bugs me is her response.”
“Music?” Sarissa asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “And in a minute there might be dancing. Can’t be good.”
“It could be worse,” she said. She took a deep breath and settled her arm in mine again. “You won the first round.”
“I only survived it.”
“Here, that is winning.”
“So if we win the rest of the night, we’ll be making a good start.” I looked around us and said, “Come on.”
“Where are we going?”
“Somewhere that isn’t the middle of the floor,” I said. “Somewhere I can put my back to a wall. And hopefully somewhere with snacks. I’m starving.”
I’m never really comfortable at parties. Maybe I’m just not the partying type.
Even when they aren’t full of lunatic elves, hulking monsters, and psychotic faerie queens, parties are kind of tough for me. I think it’s because I’m never sure of what to do with myself.
I mean, there’re drinks, but I don’t like being drunk, and I’m pretty sure I don’t get any more charming when I do get that way. More amusing, tops, and that isn’t always in a good way. There’s music, but I never really learned to dance to anything that involved an electric guitar. There are people to talk to and maybe girls to flirt with, but once you put all the stupid things I do aside, I’m really not all that interesting. I like reading, staying home, going on walks with my dog—it’s like I’m already a retiree. Who wants to hear about that? Especially when I would have to scream it over the music to which no one dances.
So I’m there but not drinking, listening to music but not dancing, and trying to have conversations with near-strangers about anything other than my own stupid life, and they generally seem to have the same goals I do. Leads to a lot of awkward pauses. And then I start wondering why I showed up in the first place.
Hell’s bells, the kind of party with monsters is actually easier for me. I mean, at least I have a pretty good idea of what to do when I’m at one of those.
The food table was set up over by the replica of the trapdoor that used to lead into my subbasement. It was open in the giant model, which meant that there was a gaping hole in the icy floor, and if you slipped at the wrong moment, you’d wind up falling down into Stygian darkness. I wondered whether the drop was to scale.
The table was loaded down with party food of every description, but apart from the sheer variety, it didn’t look like anything but regular old food. I inhaled through my nose and felt absolutely certain about that—this was mortal chow, not the fabled ambrosia of faerie.
“Thank God,” Sarissa said, picking up a pair of plates. “Food. I was afraid they’d have nothing but those flower trifles again.”
“Wait,” I said. “Are we sure this is food?”
“You can’t smell it?” she asked. “I can always tell. Local cuisine is . . . not exactly subtle. Practically the first thing I learned here was how to tell the difference.” She started loading up both plates, mostly with things I probably would have picked anyway. Well. She had basically been my dietitian for nearly three months. She’d know, by now, what I liked and didn’t.
Weird. Would it be like that if I ever had, like . . . a wife or something?
Whoa, where the hell did that thought come from? All the recent, if entirely bent, domesticity? My heart did a weird little rabbitlike maneuver, beating way too fast for a few seconds. Hell’s bells, had I just had a panic attack? At the very notion of calling some woman my wife? Though . . . now that I thought about it, I wasn’t sure I had ever used that word in connection with myself and somebody else at the same time. Not explicitly, anyway.
I shook my head and filed the thought away to be examined later, when I didn’t have a great big target drawn on my back.
I let Sarissa pick us some food while I kept an eye out for anyone or anything suspicious. After about twenty seconds of that, I decided that it was an impossibility, and dialed it back to watching for anyone who rushed us with a knife, screaming. I kept my defensive spells right on the tip of my mind, so to speak, and ready to erupt into reality at an instant’s notice.
I spotted a good, quiet corner for us to stand in, over by the giant mantel above the giant fireplace. I took the plates from Sarissa, and we started that way.
A form that I recognized emerged from the crowd in our path, and I found myself smiling. The creature that came limping over to me wasn’t much more than five feet tall, and leaned on a heavy, gnarled walking staff. He wore a hooded robe of undyed linen, belted with a length of soft-looking rope. Three folded strips of purple cloth were tucked into the belt—the formal stoles of senior members of the White Council of Wizards, taken after they fell to him in separate duels.
Oh, and he was a goat. Well, a very human-looking goat, anyway. He had the same long face as a goat, and curling ram’s horns on his head. His eyes were golden, his beard long and white, and he looked pleased.
“Eldest Gruff,” I said, smiling.
“Sir Knight,” he replied, his basso a pleasant rumble. We exchanged small bows, which also seemed to please him. “Please do thou accept my best wishes on this day of your birth.”
“Gladly,” I said. “How did they rope you into showing up to this freak show?”
He sighed. “Obligation.”
“Word.” I nodded to Sarissa. “May I introduce Sarissa. She’s been helping me recover from an injury. Sarissa, this is—”
“Lord Gruff,” she said, giving him a courtesy that somehow seemed natural. “How lovely to meet you again, sir.”
“It is pleasant to see thee, child,” Eldest Gruff said. “Thou dost seem to thrive despite the climate.”
“That may be a generous assessment,” Sarissa replied.
“I prefer to think of it as a hopeful one,” the Gruff said. “I see thou hast attached thyself to the new Knight.”
“No,” I said quickly. “No, she hasn’t. There’s been no . . . attaching. She’s been doctoring me.”
Sarissa arched an eyebrow at me, and then said to the Gruff, “It was Mab’s price.”
“Ah,” the Gruff said. “A heavy burden obligation canst be, for Winter and Summer alike.” He glanced aside at me. “Does he know of thine—”
“It hasn’t come up,” Sarissa said.
“Ah,” Eldest Gruff said, raising his hands. He had weird nails. They were hoofy. “I will then follow the course of silence.”
Sarissa inclined her head. “Thank you.”
Two more figures approached us, both of them over seven feet tall. I’m not used to being the shortest person in any given conversation. Or even the shorter person. I can change lightbulbs without stretching. I can put the star on the Christmas tree without standing on tiptoe. I’m like the Bumble, but with way better teeth, and I didn’t like feeling loomed over.
(Which probably should tell me about the kind of effect I might be having on other people, sort of generally speaking, and especially when I gave attitude to power figures who were shorter than me, but that kind of crystallized moment of enlightenment probably wouldn’t be helpful in winning the evening.)
The first was depressingly familiar. He was dressed in hunter’s leathers, all grey and green and brown. There was a sword with a hilt made from some sort of antler at his side. It was the first time I’d seen him wearing something other than a helmet. He had shaggy, grizzled light brown hair that fell to his shoulders. His features were asymmetrical but, though not handsome, contained a certain roguish charm, and his eyes were an unsettling shade of gold-green. I didn’t know his name, but he was the Erlking, one of the beings of Faerie powerful enough to lead the Wild Hunt, and he was the reigning ruler of the goblins.
(Not like the big ugly dimwit in the Hobbit. Real goblins are like mutant Terminator serial killer psycho ninjas. Think Hannibal Lecter meets Jackie Chan.)
Oh, and I’d insulted him once by trapping him in a magic circle. Faeries large and small hate that action.
“Gruff,” said the Erlking, tilting his head.
Eldest Gruff made a small bow in reply. “Lord Herne.”
“Know you these children?”
“Aye,” said Eldest Gruff. He began making polite introductions.
I studied the man standing beside the Erlking while he did. He was a sharp contrast. The Erlking was huge, but there was something about him that suggested agility and grace. It was like looking at a tiger. Sure, it might be standing there all calm and relaxed at the moment, but you knew that at any second it could surge with speed and terrible purpose and that it wouldn’t give you any warning before it came at you.
This man wasn’t a tiger. He was a bear. His shoulders were so broadly proportioned that he made Herne look positively slender by comparison. His forearms were nearly the size of his biceps, and he had the kind of thick neck that you see only in power lifters and professional thugs. There were scars all over his hands, and more on his face, all of them faded away to ancient white lines, like those you see on some lifelong bikers. He wore a coat of mail of some kind—a creature of Faerie couldn’t abide the touch of iron, so it had to be made from something else.
Over the mail he wore a long, open coat of scarlet, trimmed in white fur. It was held in with a wide black leather belt. He had such a barrel of a chest that even a modest bit of stomach was a considerable mass on his huge frame. His gloves were made of black leather trimmed with more white fur, and they were tucked through the belt, right next to the very plain and functional hilt of an unadorned broadsword. His hair was short, white, and shining clean, and his white beard fell over his chest like the white breaker of a wave. His eyes were clean, winter sky blue.
I lost track of what Eldest Gruff was saying, because my mouth was falling open.
The second man noticed my expression and let out a low, rumbling chuckle. It wasn’t one of those ironic snickers. It was a rolling, full-throated sound of amusement, and it made his stomach shake like . . . dare I say it?
Like a bowl full of jelly.
“And this,” Eldest Gruff said, “is Mab’s new Knight.”
“Uh,” I said. “Sorry. I . . . uh. Hi.” I stuck my hand out. “Harry Dresden.”
His hand engulfed mine as he continued to chortle. His fingers could have crushed my bones. “I know who you are, Dresden,” he rumbled. “Call me Kringle.”
“Wow, seriously? ’Cause . . . wow.”
“Oh, my God, that’s adorable,” Sarissa said, smiling. “You are such a fanboy, Dresden.”
“Yeah, I’ve just . . . I hadn’t really expected this kind of thing.”
Kringle let out another rumbling laugh. It absolutely filled the air around him. “Surely you knew that I made my home among the beings of Faerie. Did you think I would be a vassal of Summer, lad?”
“Honestly?” I asked. “I haven’t ever really stopped to think it through.”
“Few do,” he said. “How does your new line of work suit you?”
“Doesn’t,” I said.
“Then why did you agree to it?”
“Seemed like the right thing to do at the time.”
Kringle smiled at me. “Ah. I didn’t much care for your predecessor.”
“Ditto,” I said. “So do you come to all of these?”
“It’s customary,” Kringle replied. “I get to visit folk I rarely see elsewhere.” He nodded toward the Erlking and Eldest Gruff. “We take a few moments to catch up.”
“And hunt,” the Erlking said, showing sharp-looking teeth when he smiled.
“And hunt,” Kringle said. He eyed Eldest Gruff. “Would you care to accompany us this year?”
Gruff somehow managed to smile. “You always ask.”
“You always say no.”
Eldest Gruff shrugged and said nothing.
“Wait,” I said to Kringle. “You’re going hunting?” I pointed at the Erlking. “With him? You?”
Kringle let out another guffaw and, I swear to God, rested his hands on his belly while he did it. “Why wouldn’t I?”
“Dude,” I said. “Dude. You’re . . . freaking Santa Claus.”
“Not until after Halloween,” he said. “Enough is enough. I’m drawing a line.”
“Hah,” I said, “but I’m kinda not joking here.”
He grunted, and the smile faded from his features. “Lad, let me tell you something here and now. None of us is what we once were. Everyone has a history. Everyone comes from somewhere. Each moves toward a destination. And in a lifetime as long as mine, the road can run far and take strange windings—something I judge you know something about.”
I frowned. “Meaning?”
He gestured at himself. “This became the tale with which you are familiar only in fairly recent times. There are wizards enough alive today who knew of no such person when they were children awaiting the winter holiday.”
I nodded thoughtfully. “You became something different.”
He gave me a wink of his eye.
“So what were you before?”
Kringle smiled, apparently content to say nothing.
I turned to Sarissa, asking, “You seem to know these guys, mostly. What . . . ?”
She wasn’t there.
I looked around the immediate area, but didn’t see her. I moved my eyes back to Kringle and the Erlking. The two of them looked at me calmly, without expression. I darted a glance to Eldest Gruff, whose long, floppy right ear twitched once.
I glanced to my left, following the motion, and spotted Sarissa being led onto the dance floor underneath the replica of my original Star Wars poster. The poster was the size of a skyscraper mural now, the dance floor beneath it the size of a parking lot. For the most part, the Sidhe were dancing, all fantastic grace and whirling color, with the occasional glitter of jewellike feline eyes sparkling as they turned and swayed.
A young male Sidhe was leading her by the wrist, and from the set of her shoulders she was in pain. You couldn’t have guessed it from her expression. The young Sidhe wore a black leather jacket and a Cincinnati ball cap, but I didn’t get a look at his face.
“A fresh challenge, it would seem,” the Erlking murmured.
“Yeah,” I said. “Gentlemen, if you would excuse me.”
“You know Mab’s law at court, aye?” Kringle asked. “You know the price of breaking it?”
“What do you mean to do, lad?”
“Seems that what we have here is a failure to communicate,” I said. “Think I’ll go open up a dialogue.”
Moving onto a dance floor full of Sidhe is like dropping acid.
Partly it’s because they’re just so damned pretty. The Sidhe maidens there were all in Maeve’s league in terms of sheer physical attractiveness, and some of them were just about as barely dressed as she was, only in what must have been the latest trends in the Chicago club scene for the fashionably provocative. And, yeah, the boys were pretty, too, and tarting it up just as much as the girls, but they weren’t nearly as much of a distraction to me.
Partly it’s because of their grace. The Sidhe aren’t human, even though they look like close relatives. When you see an Olympic gymnast or ice skater or a professional dancer performing a routine, you can’t help but be impressed with the sheer, casual grace with which they move, as if their bodies are lighter than air. The clumsiest of the Sidhe operate at about that same level, and the exceptional leave the mortals eating dust behind them. It’s hard to describe because it’s hard for the brain to process—there’s no frame of reference for what I saw, the motion, the balance, the power, the effortless subtlety. It was like suddenly discovering an entirely new sense with an enormous amount of input: I kept seeing things that made my brain scream at me to stop and watch so that it could catalog and process them properly.
And partly it’s because of their magic. The Sidhe use magic the way the rest of us breathe, instinctively and without thinking about it. I’d fought them before, and their power was largely invoked through simple gestures, as if the spells had been hardwired into their motor reflexes. For them, movement was magic, and at no time so much as when they danced.
Their power didn’t come after me, specifically—it was more like I had plunged into it, as if it were a pool of water occupying the same space as the dance floor. It subsumed my mind almost at once, and it was all I could do to grit my teeth and hang on. Ribbons of colored light flared in the air around the dancing Sidhe. Their feet struck the floor and their hands struck upon bodies, their own or otherwise, adding rippling layers of syncopated rhythm to the music. Gasps and cries joined with the beat and the melody, primal and fierce, echoing and challenging one another from all quarters, as if they’d practiced it. They hadn’t. It was just what they were.
Sound and rhythm struck from either side, thrumming against my ears, disorienting me. Light danced and fluttered through the spectrum in subtle, seductive patterns. Bodies twisted and strained in inhuman artistry, their very grace an assault upon my reason. Part of me wanted to just stand there and drink it in, gawking like some ugly, clumsy behemoth among the Sidhe. Plenty of mortals had been lulled into tearful rapture by such dances—and generally speaking, it hadn’t ended real well for them.
I put up every mental defense I could, reaching for that core of cold, clear power that had been within me since the night I’d murdered my predecessor with Medea’s bronze dagger. I hadn’t even realized what was happening to me at the time, since other things had been on my mind, but I now realized that the power had restored my shattered body, and given me strength and speed and endurance at the very limits of human ability—and maybe past them. I felt it only when I sought it out, but apparently my instinctive need to survive had been enough to tap into it back when I’d set out to rescue my daughter from the late Red Court of vampires.
Now it poured into my mind like an ice-cold breeze, and withered away the bedazzlement the Sidhes’ dance had wrought on my thoughts. I started forward through the throng, and for a few feet I tried to skip and slip and duck my way through the moving crowd without hitting anyone. Then I realized that even with whatever I had gained from becoming the Winter Knight, I was still hopelessly dull-witted and slow-footed when compared to the Sidhe.
So I just started walking and left it up to them to get out of the way. It kinda fit my mood better, anyway. They did it, too. None of them were obvious about it, and some of them came within a fraction of an inch of striking me with whirling limbs, but none of them did.
The Sidhe are tall, generally speaking, but I’m NBA tall, and I could see over the crowd. I spotted the red ball cap and a flash of Sarissa’s wide eyes and went after them. I caught up to them near the back wall of the cavernous chamber. The Sidhe who had grabbed Sarissa stood behind her, one of his arms wound around her neck, the other around her waist, holding her back against his chest. Her eyes were wide now. I could see deep red flushing on the skin of her wrist, where bruises were already starting to form in the shape of the Sidhe’s fingers.
I found myself clenching my hands into fists and growling deep in my throat.
Without any evident forethought to it, the dance floor for ten feet all around any of the three of us became clear of moving bodies. The Sidhe had made room for the confrontation. Jewellike eyes glittered and watched intermittently while the dance continued.
“Sir Knight,” said the Sidhe holding Sarissa. He had straight black hair beneath the cap, and cheekbones so high that they needed to wear oxygen tanks. He was smiling, and there was something particularly vulpine in it. His canines were just a little too large, a little too sharp. “What a pleasure it is to speak with you.”
“You aren’t going to think so in a minute,” I said. “Let her go.”
He leaned in closer to her and inhaled through his nose. “Odd,” he said. “I don’t smell you on her. You haven’t claimed her as your own.”
“She’s not yours, either,” I said. “Let her go. Don’t make me say it again.”
“She’s just a mortal,” he said, smiling. “A mortal of no station here in Arctis Tor, at court. This place is not meant for mortals. Her body, her mind, and her life are all forfeit, should we decide to take them.”
“We just decided to let. Her. Go.” I began walking toward him.
Something feverish came into his eyes and I could suddenly see every bone and tendon in his hand, tight against his skin. His nails seemed a little too long, a little too heavy, and a little too sharp to be normal. Sarissa tried to speak, but only made a choking sound and went silent.
“You keep coming,” the Sidhe said, “and I’ll keep squeezing. This game is terribly interesting. I wonder how hard I’ll have to squeeze to crush her windpipe.”
I stopped, because I knew the answer to his question: not very hard. It’s only a little more pressure than you need to crush an empty beer can. It’s sort of scary how easy it is to kill someone once you know how to get it done.
“What about Mab’s law?” I said.
“I’ll not shed a drop of her blood,” he replied smoothly. “When I cut off her air or break her neck, she’ll simply cease—which is a waste, but the law is the law.”
And I got a sudden sinking feeling that the Sidhe in front of me, in his black leather jacket and his red cap, knew how to get it done. “You’re not a Cincinnati fan, are you?”
“Ah!” the Sidhe said, smiling. “You see, Sarissa, he’s worked it out. It took a while, but he got there.”
“You’re a redcap,” I said.
“Not a redcap,” he said, snapping annoyance in his voice. “The Redcap, little Knight.”
The Redcap was one of those figures I had hoped was a story. According to what I knew of legend, he got his name by greeting travelers in a friendly fashion, and then murdering them horribly. Once that was done, he would dye his cap freshly scarlet by dipping it in their cooling blood. Odds seemed reasonable that he was a badass. Legend was about as reliable as every other rumor mill on the planet, but looking at the guy, I got the impression that he would smile and have an erection the whole time he murdered Sarissa. Or me.
He certainly expected me to react with fear and caution. Which just goes to show you that no matter how old something is, centuries don’t necessarily make it all that bright.
“The big bad Redcap,” I drawled. “And when you were picking a red cap for tonight to emblemize your power and skill, you went with Cincinnati over Philly? Or Boston? Seriously?”
The Redcap apparently didn’t know what to make of that. He just stared at me, trying to decide whether he’d been insulted or not.
“Man, you Sidhe are a crowd of poseurs. Did you know that? You try to do and say the things you think will push our buttons—but you just don’t get it, do you? Have you even been to a ball game? I caught one with Gwynn ap Nudd a few years back. Decent guy. Maybe you’ve heard of him.”
“Do you think your allies frighten me, wizard?” the Redcap demanded.
“I think you’re an opportunist,” I said.
“You heard me. You jump people traveling alone, people who don’t have a chance in hell of defending themselves against you. Especially not when you make nice and put them off their guard first.” I gave him a toothy smile. “I’m not off my guard, Red. And I’m not someone who doesn’t have a chance against you.”
“Touch me and I will kill her,” he snarled, giving Sarissa a little jerk by way of demonstration.
I looked at Sarissa and hoped that she could read deeper than the surface. “That’s bad, but there’s not much I can do about it if you decide to kill her now,” I said. “Of course, after you do that . . . I don’t really like your chances, Red. If she dies, you’ll join her.”
“You wouldn’t break Mab’s law,” he sneered.
“You’re right,” I said. “So I figure I’ll just open a Way back to the mortal world, drag you through it, and after that . . . well, I’ve always been partial to fire.”
Evidently that line of possibility had not occurred to the Redcap. “What?”
“I know it’s not thematically in tune with my new job and all, but I find it effective. Build a man a fire and he’s warm for a day,” I said. “But set a man on fire and he’s warm for the rest of his life. Tao of Pratchett. I live by it. You wanted to face me down in front of everyone, get props for tweaking my nose on my first night here? Well, congratulations, Red. You’re the man.”
The Redcap’s eyes narrowed, gleaming bright, and his foxlike smile widened. “You think I’m afraid of you.”
“The last time somebody swiped my date to a party, it got a little messy,” I said in a very mild voice. “Ask the Red Court about it. Oh, wait.”
The Redcap actually laughed at that, and it was hurtful. Literally. My ears rang painfully at the sharpness of the sound. “It is nothing to me how many cockroaches or vampires you have ended, mortal. I am Sidhe.”
“Whatever,” I said. “Killed some of them, too.”
“Yes,” the Redcap said, and there was an ugly, hungry heat in his tone. “The Lady of Summer. I was in that battle, mortal. I saw her blood flow.”
I nodded and said, “And what makes you think I won’t do it again?”
The Redcap jerked his chin a little to one side and said, “They do.”
Dammit, Harry, I chided myself. You’re dealing with faeries. There is always a scam with faeries. There is always a sucker punch on the way. I’d gotten too forward-focused. The Redcap hadn’t been a challenger.
He was the bait.
As if on cue, the wild dancing turned to stillness. The music died. All motion in the chamber, as far as I could tell, ceased entirely, and suddenly I stood in a small glade within a forest of lean, wickedly beautiful figures and weirdly sparkling eyes.
Two beings emerged from that forest, shambling out from the crowd of Sidhe, one on either side of me, maybe fifteen feet away.
The first, on my right, was a huge figure, shuffling forward with its form doubled over beneath a tattered grey cloak that could have covered a small truck. Its legs took strides that were two or three times as long as mine, and when it came to a halt, its long arms spread out to either side of it and rested on the floor. Beneath its hood, I could make out a flat, broad head, as stark as a skull and colored red and glistening. Its arms ended in hands with only three fingers, but they were proportionally too thick and a couple of feet long. They, too, were red and glistening, as if something had been built on a bone framework with flesh and muscle added on over it, but then whoever had made it had forgotten to put the skin on. It dripped little patters of ichor onto the floor and stared at me with very wide, very white eyes that contained only tiny pinpoints of black.
I recognized the thing. It was a rawhead, a creature that assembled itself out of the discarded bones and flesh of slaughtered hogs and cattle. Then they started eating whatever they could catch, usually starting with pets, then working their way up to schoolchildren, and finally hunting down adults. If you caught them early, you should shut them down hard—but no one had caught this one.
As I watched, it rose, slowly, up to its full height of well over ten feet. Its jaws had come from more than a couple of different creatures, and they spread open in a slow, wide gape, into a mouth as wide as a waterslide tunnel. More liquid pattered down out of the rawhead’s jaws onto the floor, and its breath rasped in and out in a slow, enormous wheeze.
On the left, the second figure drew back its hood. It was maybe only eight feet tall, and mostly human-looking, except for the thick coat of yellow-white fur that covered it. It was layered in so much muscle that it could be seen even through its pelt, and its eyes were burning, bloodshot orbs shining out from beneath a cavernous brow ridge. It was the Winter Court’s version of an ogre, it was a great deal stronger than it looked, and if it wanted to, it could pick me up and drive my head into one of the icy walls, then hammer my spine in like a piton.
“I’ve been waiting to see that expression on his face all night,” the Redcap said to Sarissa. “Isn’t it priceless? What’s going to happen next? I’m so interested.”
Taking on a little friendly training and a grumpy malk was one thing, but going up against three of the nastier creatures in Faerie all at once was probably a losing proposition. Maybe I could survive it, if I was fast and good and a little bit lucky.
But Sarissa wouldn’t.
I had only one real chance: instant and overwhelming aggression. If I could knock one of these bozos out of the fight before it even started, that changed the odds from impossible to merely daunting. It meant that there might be a chance of saving the girl.
Of course, it also meant that I would break Mab’s law. I’d bragged about opening a Way, and if push came to shove, I probably could—but not before the rawhead and the ogre closed in on me.
Just then there was a sound: a shriek, a blast of cruel trumpets that sounded as if whoever blew them was being beaten with a salted lash. It took me a second to realize that no instruments were playing. Instead, high up on the constructed replica of my favorite chair, at my left shoulder, crystals were thrusting themselves up out of the ice, and screaming as the ice changed form. They rose into a half dome of spikes and frozen blades, and shuddered as the center of the new outgrowth shifted again. Wisps of arctic blue and green and purple buzzed and whirled within those sharp spikes, sending out a wild coruscation of colored light. The aurora was mesmerizing and blinding at the same time, and little disco balls hoped that they could grow up to be half as brilliant one day.
Mab stepped out of the solid ice as if passing through a gauzy curtain. She was in formal wear, a robe of opalescent white, belted with joined crystals of ice. A tall crown of more ice rose from her brow, and her white hair spilled down around her like snow atop a mountain. She was distant and cold, as pure and lovely and merciless as moonlit snow.
She stood for a moment, staring out at the cavern. Then she sat, the motion slow and regal, and the ice within the spiked dome reshaped itself into a seat beneath her. She settled onto it, and the ice screamed again, shrieking out a second tortured fanfare.
Every head in the cavern turned to her. The Sidhe all around me knelt at once, including the Redcap and his buddies. All over the chamber, other beings of the Winter Court did the same, and suddenly only a very few people were standing upright. I was one of them. So were the Erlking, Kringle, and Eldest Gruff, though each of them stood with his head bowed in acknowledgment of Winter’s ruler. I took my cue from them, but kept my eyes open.
I spotted Maeve standing only forty or fifty feet away, on an icy deck that had been formed to look like a paperback that had fallen from one of my bookshelves. Maeve was in a perfect position to see the conflict between the Redcap crew and me, and she hadn’t bowed either. She was sipping something ice blue from a champagne flute, and ignoring her mother’s presence entirely—but I could feel her malice, burning toward me even though she wasn’t looking directly at me.
Mab studied me and my playmates for a solid minute, saying nothing, and in that silence you could hear the fluid dripping from the rawhead’s various bits onto the icy floor.
Maeve turned to her mother and sipped at her blue champagne. She said nothing, and her features were entirely smooth and relaxed, but you could just smell the way she was smirking on the inside.
And only then did I really get it. Maeve’s first attempt to get me to start a fight at court had been a distraction, then. She’d wanted me to focus on her, to unnerve me with her high-voltage psychic sex moves. That way I wouldn’t be thinking clearly enough to avoid it when the Redcap sprang his surprise.
Mab stared down at the Winter Lady for another silent minute. Then she smiled and bowed her head very slightly toward her daughter, the gesture one of acknowledgment.
“Well played,” Mab murmured. She didn’t raise her voice. She didn’t have to. The ice rang with it.
Her eyes shifted to me, and though she was too far away for me to make out any details, I somehow knew exactly what the expression on her face meant: I had allowed myself to be drawn into this mess. I would have to be the one to get me out of it.
I was on my own.
Mab turned her gaze back to the rest of the room. “On this day of celebration of Our newest Knight’s birth, We give you greetings one and all, you lords and ladies of Winter. Welcome again to Our home. We can see that the celebrations are already well under way.” She settled back on her throne and placed one finger against her lips, as though she were fascinated with the scene before her. “We pray you, do not let Our entrance further disrupt them.” She lifted a languid hand. “It is Our desire that you continue the festivities.”
I turned back to face the Redcap, keeping his wingmen in my peripheral vision, and tried to think of something, anything, that would get both me and Sarissa out of this mess.
The rawhead gathered itself into a crouch again, clearly ready to pounce. Its mismatched set of claws and talons gouged at the floor in anticipation. The ogre flexed its hands open and closed once. It sounded like a popcorn popper. The Redcap already had his feet underneath him again, dragging Sarissa effortlessly up with him.
And I was wearing a tux.
Clearly, if I wanted us to survive the evening I had to step up my game.
Mab’s voice came out as a throaty purr. “Music. Let Us see a dance.”
The odds here were long. Way long. All three deadly faeries stood ready to move, and no matter which of them I took on first, Sarissa’s outlook wasn’t good. The music began, low and quiet, with a slowly, slowly rising presence.
I needed some kind of edge, a game changer.
In fact . . .
A game changer was exactly what I needed.
Faeries are always underhanded and tricksy, true, and I’d overlooked that a few moments before. But there’s something else about faeries that runs absolutely bone deep: They love to play games.
“Why don’t we make this interesting?” I said out loud. “I trust you wouldn’t object to making a bit of a game of our dispute?”
Oh, the room got intense then, as maybe a thousand throats all inhaled at the same time. I could practically feel the air grow closer as all of those beings leaned very slightly toward me, their suddenly sharpened interest filling the cavern. The tempo of the music changed with it as well, now all suspended strings and muted percussion.
I felt a surge of emotion run through me, one that I knew was not my own—it was too pure, too primal, and it made my body do that thrumming thing again: Mab’s approval was fierce.
“But, wizard,” said the Redcap. “We’re already playing a game. One cannot change the rules simply because one is losing.”
“But one can change the stakes,” I replied. “What if you could get more out of it?”
The Redcap narrowed his eyes. “What more could you have to lose than your life?”
I gave him what I hoped was a patronizing smile, and then said, “Wait. Why am I talking to the tool instead of the person holding it?” I turned my back on the Redcap, gulped, and faced Maeve. “I’m offering you a prize, Winter Lady. Are you willing to hear me out?”
Maeve’s eyes sparkled more brightly than the jewels on her . . . midriff. She came to the edge of the platform and stood watching me.
“If he wins,” I said, jerking my head back at the Redcap, “I’ll go with you. Willingly.”
Maeve tilted her head. “And if you win?”
“Sarissa goes free. You leave peacefully.”
Maeve thrust out her lower lip. “Peacefully. That’s hardly ever any fun.” She lifted a hand and idly toyed with her hair. “As I see it, I already have a prize, mortal. I get to see Mother watch the steam rise from at least one fresh corpse, here in her own court.”
“You’re absolutely right, Maeve,” I said. “And you’ve got me in a pickle, and it was cleverly done.” I winked at her. “But what fun is the game you’ve already won? Why settle for so ephemeral a prize, however worthy, when you could take Mab’s Knight from her in front of all of Winter?”
That one sank home. I could feel the sudden surge of ambitious lust that went racing through the Winter Lady, and the seething hatred that went along with a swift glance toward distant Mab on her throne.
Maeve’s mouth curled up in an expression that bore as much resemblance to a smile as a shark does to a dolphin. She snapped her fingers, the sound almost as loud as a small-caliber gunshot, and two Sidhe hurried to her side escorting a dazed-looking athletic young man. Maeve didn’t wait for him. She simply sat. The Sidhe shoved the young man to his hands and knees, and Maeve’s slight weight settled across his broad back.
“I’ll give you this much, Mother,” she said, without looking toward Mab. “You do pick the most interesting mortals to serve you.”
Mab’s smirk said more than any words could have. Otherwise, she neither moved nor spoke.
“My lady . . .” began the Redcap, behind me.
“Hush,” Maeve said absently. “I want to see what happens. What did you have in mind, wizard?”
In answer, I reached up and with a couple of quick tugs undid my tux’s tie. It wasn’t one of those preassembled ties. It was made out of a single band of pure silk, sized perfectly to wrap around my throat, with a couple of wider bits left over for handholds. I held it up, making a bit of drama out of it as I turned in a circle, and said, “Out of respect for our host and her law, there shall be no bloodshed.”
Then I tossed the tie to the icy floor halfway between myself and the Redcap.
I looked up at Maeve and gave my chin an arrogant little lift. “’Sup, Princess. You game?”
Maeve lifted one hand and idly began tracing a fingertip over her lips, her eyes bright. She looked at Red and nodded.
“Okay, chucklehead,” I said, turning to face him. “How about you let the yeti there hold the girl while you and I dance?” I gave him a broad grin. “Unless you’re afraid of little old cockroach-swatting me.”
Red’s upper lip twitched. If he hadn’t been one of the Sidhe, and at a party, and in front of all of his dearest frenemies, he would have snarled at me.
He beckoned the ogre with one hand, and the thing lumbered over to him. He thrust Sarissa into its huge, hairy, meaty arms. The ogre didn’t get the girl around the neck. It simply wrapped its hand over her skull, like some hairy, spidery helmet, and held on. The smoky glass chopsticks in Sarissa’s hair clattered to the ice, and her eyes got even wider.
“If the wizard uses his magic,” the Redcap said, “break her neck.” He eyed the ogre and said, “Without ripping it off.”
“Yuh,” the ogre said. Its beady eyes glared at me.
The Redcap nodded and turned to face me, his eyes narrowed.
Yowch. Nice move on Red’s part. Though I’m not sure he needed to bother. I’d never been able to tag one of the Sidhe with a really solid hit with my magic. Their defenses against that kind of thing were just too damned good. But I’d been counting on using it indirectly to help out in the fight, and the Redcap had just taken that option away from me.
Sarissa gave the Redcap a glare that might have peeled paint from a wall, and then said, her voice rasping, “Harry, you don’t have to do this for me. You can walk away.”