Authors: Jim Butcher
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,
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
) 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.”
ack 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
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 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
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
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.”
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,
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
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.” His turned his golden eyes away from me again. “Don’t turn your back to anyone.”
at 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
. 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
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
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.”