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Grave Peril, Page 24

Jim Butcher

Chapter Twenty-four

  Michael parked his truck on the street outside Bianca's mansion. He put the keys in his leather belt pouch, and buttoned it with the silver cross button. Then he straightened the collar of his doublet, which showed through the neck of the mail, and reached behind the seat for the steel helmet that slipped on over his head. "Tell me again, Harry, why this is a good idea. Why are we going to a masquerade ball with a bunch of monsters?"

  "Everything points us this way," I said.


  I took a breath, trying to be patient, and passed him the white cloak. "Look. We know that someone's been stirring up the spirit world. We know that they did it in order to create this Nightmare that's been after us. We know that the girl, Lydia, was connected to the Nightmare somehow. "

  "Yes," Michael said. "All right. "

  "Bianca," I said, "sent out her thugs to take Lydia. And Bianca's hosting a party for the nastiest bad guys in the region. Stallings told me that people have been going missing off the streets. They've probably been taken for food or something. Even if Bianca isn't behind it, and I'm not saying she isn't, chances are that anyone who could be is going to be at the party tonight. "

  "And you think you'll be able to spot them?" Michael asked.

  "Pretty sure," I responded. "All I'll have to do is get close enough to touch them, to feel their aura. I felt whoever was backing the Nightmare when they helped it get away from me. I should be able to tell when I feel them again. "

  "I don't like it," Michael said. "Why didn't the Nightmare come after you the minute the sun went down?"

  "Maybe I scared it. I cut it up a little. "

  Michael frowned. "I still don't like it. There are going to be dozens of things in there that have no right to exist in this world. It will be like walking into a roomful of wolves. "

  "All you have to do," I said, "is keep your mouth shut and watch my back. The bad guys have to play by the rules tonight. We've been given the protection of the old laws of hospitality. If Bianca doesn't respect that, it's going to kill her reputation in front of her guests and the Vampire Court. "

  "I will protect you, Harry," Michael said. "As I will protect anyone who these . . . things threaten. "

  "We don't need any fights, Michael. That's not why we're here. "

  He looked out the truck window and set his jaw.

  "I mean it, Michael. It's their turf. There's probably going to be bad stuff inside, but we have to keep the big picture in focus here. "

  "The big picture," he said. "Harry, if there's someone in there that needs my help, they're getting it. "

  "Michael! If we break the truce first, we're open game. You could get us both killed. "

  He turned to look at me, and his eyes were granite. "I am what I am, Harry. "

  I threw my arms up in the air, and banged my hands on the roof of the truck. "There are people who could get killed if we mess this up. It isn't only our own lives we're talking about, here. "

  "I know," he said. "My family are some of them. But that doesn't change anything. "

  "Michael," I said. "I'm not asking you to smile and chat and get cozy. Just keep quiet and stay out of the way. Don't shove a crucifix down anyone's throat. That's all I'm asking. "

  "I won't stand by, Harry," he said. "I can't. " He frowned and said, "I don't think you can, either. "

  I glared at him. "Hell's bells, Michael. I don't want to die, here. "

  "Nor do I. We must have faith. "

  "Great," I said. "That's just great. "

  "Harry, will you join me in prayer?"

  I blinked at him. "What?"

  "A prayer," Michael said. "I'd like to talk to Him for a moment. " He half smiled at me. "You don't have to say anything. Just be quiet and stay out of the way. " He bowed his head.

  I squinted out the window of the truck, silent. I don't have anything against God. Far from it. But I don't understand Him. And I don't trust a lot of the people that go around claiming that they're working in His best interests. Faeries and vampires and whatnot - those I can fathom. Even demons. Sometimes, even the Fallen. I can understand why they do what they do.

  But I don't understand God. I don't understand how he could see the way people treat one another, and not chalk up the whole human race as a bad idea.

  I guess he's just bigger about it than I would be.

  "Lord," Michael said. "We walk into darkness now. Our enemies will surround us. Please help to make us strong enough to do what needs to be done. Amen. "

  Just that. No fancy language, no flashy beseeching the Almighty for aid. Just quiet words about what he wanted to get done, and a request that God would be on his side - on our side. Simple words, and yet power surrounded him like a cloud of fine mist, prickling along my arms and my neck. Faith. I calmed down a little. We had a lot going for us. We could do this.

  Michael looked up at me and nodded. "All right," he said. "I'm ready. "

  "How do I look?" I asked him.

  He smiled, white teeth showing. "You're going to turn heads. That's for sure. "

  I had to smile back at him. "Okay," I said. "Let's party. "

  We got out of the truck, and started walking toward the gates around Bianca's estate. Michael buckled on the white cloak with its red cross as he went. He had a matching surcoat, boots, and armored guards on his shoulders. He had a pair of heavy gauntlets tucked through his boots, and wore a pair of knives on his belt, one on either side. He smelled like steel and he clanked a little bit when he walked. It sounded comforting, in a friendly, dreadnought kind of way.

  It would have been more stylish to drive up through the gates and have a valet park the truck, but Michael didn't want to hand over his truck to vampires. I didn't blame him. I wouldn't trust a bloodsucking, night stalking, fiend of the shadows valet, either.

  The gate had an honest-to-goodness guard house, with a pair of guards. Neither one of them looked like they were carrying guns, but they held themselves with an armed arrogance that neither myself nor Michael missed. I held up the invitation. They let us in.

  We walked up the drive to the house. A black limo pulled up along the drive as we did, and we had to step off to the side to let it past. When we got to the front of the house, the occupants were just getting out of the car.

  The driver came around to the rear door of the limo and opened it. Music washed out, something loud and hard. There was a moment's pause, and then a man glided out of the limo.

  He was tall, pale as a statue. Sable hair fell in tousled curls to his shoulders. He was dressed in a pair of opalescent butterfly wings that rose from his shoulders, fastened to him by some mysterious mechanism. He wore white leather gloves, their gauntlet cuffs decorated in winding silver designs, and similar designs were set around his calves, down to his sandals. At his side hung a sword, delicately made, the handle wrought as though out of glass. The only other thing he had on was a loincloth of some soft, white cloth. He had the body for it. Muscle, but not too much of it, good set of shoulders, and the pale skin wasn't darkened anywhere by hair. Hell's bells, I noticed how good he looked.

  The man smiled, bright enough for a toothpaste commercial, and then reached a hand back down to the car. A pair of gorgeous legs in pink high heels slid out of the car, followed by a slender and scrumptious girl barely covered in flower petals. She had a short, tight skirt made out of them, and more petals cupped her breasts like delicate hands. Other than that, and the baby's breath woven into the tumbled mass of her black hair, she wore nothing. And she wore it well. In the heels, she might have been five-seven, and she had a face that made me think that she was both lovely and sweet. Her cheeks were flushed in a delicate pink blush, vibrant and alive, her lips parted, and she had a look to her eyes that told me she was on something.

  "Harry," Michael said. "You're drooling. "

  "I'm not drooling," I said.

  "That girl can't be nineteen years old. "

"I'm not drooling!" I scowled, gripped my cane in hand, and stalked on up the driveway to the house. And wiped at my mouth with my sleeve. Just in case.

  The man turned toward me, and both his eyebrows lifted. He looked me and my costume up and down, and burst out into a rich, rolling laugh. "Oh, my," he said. "You must be Harry Dresden. "

  That got my hackles up. It always bugs me when someone knows me and I don't know them. "Yeah," I said. "That's me. Who the hell are you?"

  If the hostility bothered him, it didn't bother his smile. The girl with him slipped beneath his left arm and nestled against him, watching me with stoned eyes. "Oh, of course," he said. "I forget that you probably know very little of the intricacies of the Court. My name is Thomas, of House Raith, of the White Court. "

  "White Court," I said.

  "Three vampire Courts," Michael supplied. "Black, Red, and White. "

  "I knew that. "

  Michael shrugged one shoulder. "Sorry. "

  Thomas smiled. "Well. Only two, for all practical purposes. The Black Court has fallen on hard times of late, the poor darlings. " His tone of voice suggested muted glee rather than pity. "Mister Dresden, allow me to introduce Justine. "

  Justine, the girl beneath his arm, gave me a sweet smile. I half-expected her to extend her hand to me to be kissed, but she didn't. She just molded her body to Thomas's in what looked like a most pleasant fashion.

  "Charmed," I said. "This is Michael. "

  "Michael," Thomas mused, and studied the man up and down. "Dressed as a Knight Templar. "

  "Something like that," Michael said.

  "How ironic," Thomas said. His eyes returned to me, and that smile widened. "And you, Mister Dresden. Your costume is . . . going to make quite a stir. "

  "Why, thank you. "

  "Shall we go inside?"

  "Oh, let's. " We all trouped up the front stairs, affording me an uncomfortably proximate view of Justine's legs along the way, lean and lovely and made for doing things that had nothing to do with locomotion. A pair of tuxedo-clad doormen who looked human swung open the mansion's doors for us.

  The entry hall to Bianca's mansion had been redecorated since the last time I'd been there. The old-style decor had been lavishly restored. She'd had marble laid out instead of gleaming hardwood. All the doorways stood in graceful arches rather than stolid rectangles. Alcoves every ten feet or so sported small statuary and other pieces of art. It was lit only by the spots on each alcove, creating deep pools of shadow in between.

  "Rather tacky," Thomas sniffed, his butterfly wings quivering. "Have you been to any Court functions before, Mister Dresden? Are you aware of the etiquette?"

  "Not really," I said. "But it had better not involve anyone drinking anyone's bodily fluids. Particularly mine. "

  Thomas laughed, richly. "No, no. Well," he admitted, "not formally, in any case, though there will be ample opportunity to indulge, if you wish. " His fingers caressed the girl's waist again, and she focused her eyes on me in a disconcertingly intent fashion.

  "I don't think so. What do I need to know?"

  "Well, we're all outsiders, not being members of the Red Court, and this is a Red function. First, we'll be presented to the company and they'll have the chance to come meet us. "

  "Mingle, eh?"

  "Just so. Afterwards, we'll be presented to Bianca herself, and she, in turn, will give us a gift. "

  "A gift?" I asked.

  "She's the hosting party. Of course she'll be giving gifts. " He smiled at me. "It's only civilized. "

  I eyed him. I wasn't used to vampires being so chatty. "Why are you being so helpful?"

  He laid his fingers upon his chest, lifting his eyebrows in a perfectly executed "who me?" expression. "Why, Mister Dresden. Why should I not help you?"

  "You're a vampire. "

  "So I am," he said. "But, I'm afraid, I'm not a terribly good one. " He gave me a sunny smile and said, "Of course, I could also be lying. "

  I snorted.

  "So, Mister Dresden. Rumor had it you had refused Bianca's invitation. "

  "I had. "

  "What changed your mind?"

  "Business. "

  "Business?" Thomas asked. "You're here on business?"

  I shrugged. "Something like that. " I stripped off my gloves, trying to look casual, and offered him my hand. "Thanks again. "

  His head tilted to one side and he narrowed his eyes. He looked down at my hand and then back up at me, his gaze calculating, before trading grips with me.

  There was a faint, flickering aura about him. I felt it dance and glide over my skin like a soft, cool wind. It felt odd, different than the energy that surrounded a human practitioner - and nothing like the sense of whatever had been pumping up the Nightmare.

  Thomas wasn't my man. I must have relaxed visibly, because he smiled and said, "I pass the test, eh?"

  "I don't know what you're talking about. "

  "Whatever you say. You're an odd duck, Harry Dresden. But I like you. " And with that, he and his escort turned and glided together down the length of the entry hall, and through the curtained doors at the far end.

  I glowered after them.

  "Anything?" Michael asked.

  "He's clean," I said. "Relatively speaking. Must be someone else here. "

  "You'll get the chance to do some handshaking, it sounds like," Michael said.

  "Yeah. You ready?"

  "Lord willing," Michael said.

  We started together down the hall, and through the curtained doorway, and emerged into Vampire Party Central.

  We stood on a concrete deck, elevated ten feet off the rest of a vast, outdoor courtyard. Music flowed up from below. People crowded the courtyard in a blur of color and motion, talk and costume, like some kind of Impressionist painting. Glowing globes rested on wire stands, here and there, giving the place a sort of torch-lit mystique. A dias, opposite the entryway we stood in, rose up several feet higher in the air, a suspiciously throne-like chair upon it.

  I had just started to take in details when a brilliant white light flooded my eyes, and I had to lift a hand against it. The music died down a bit, and the chatter of people quieted some. Evidently, Michael and I had just become the center of attention.

  A servant stepped forward and asked, calmly, "May I have your invitation, sir?" I passed it over, and a moment later heard the same voice, over a modest public address system.

  "Ladies and gentlemen of the Court. I am pleased to present Harry Dresden, Wizard of the White Council, and guest. "

  I lowered my hands, and the voices fell completely silent. From either side of the throne opposite, a pair of spotlights glared at me.

  I shrugged my shoulders to get my cape to fall into place correctly, tattered red lining flashing against the black cotton exterior. The collar of the thing came up high on either side of my face. The spot glared off of the painted gold plastic medallion I wore at my throat. The worn powder-blue tux beneath it could have made an appearance at someone's prom, in the seventies. The servants at the party had better tuxes than I did.

  I made sure to smile, so that they could see the cheap plastic fangs. I suppose the spotlight must have bleached my face out to ghostly whiteness, especially with the white clown makeup I had on. The fake blood drooling out the corners of my mouth would be standing out bright red against it.

  I lifted a white-gloved hand and said, slurring a little through the fangs. "Hi! How are you all doing?"

  My words rang out on deathly silence, from below.

  "I still can't believe," Michael said, sotto voce, "that you came to the Vampires' Masquerade Ball dressed as a vampire. "

  "Not just a vampire," I said, "a cheesy vampire. Do you think they got the point?" I managed to peer past the spotlights enough to make out Thomas and Justine at the foot of the stairs. Thomas was staring around at the courtyard with undisguised glee, then flashed me a smile and a thum

  "I think," Michael said, "that you've just insulted everyone here. "

  "I'm here to find a monster, not make nice with them. Besides, I never wanted to come to this stupid party in the first place. "

  "All the same. I think you've peeved them off. "

  "Peeved? Come on. How bad could that be? Peeved. "

  From the courtyard below came several distinctive sounds: A few hisses. The rasp of steel as several someones drew knives. Or maybe swords. The nervous click-clack of someone with a semiautomatic working the slide.

  Michael shrugged in his cloak, and I sensed, more than saw him put his hand on the hilt of one of his knives. "I think we're about to find out. "