Turn Coat, Page 11Jim Butcher
Here's something a lot of people don't know: being choked unconscious hurts.
There's this horrible, crushing pain on your neck, followed by an almost instant surge of terrible pressure that feels like it's going to blow your head to tiny pieces from the inside. That's the blood that's being trapped in your brain. The pain surges and ebbs in time with your heartbeat, which is probably racing.
It doesn't matter if you're a waifish supermodel or a steroid-popping professional wrestler, because it isn't an issue of strength or willpower-it's simple physiology. If you're human and you need to breathe, you're going down. A properly applied choke will take you from feisty to unconscious in four or five seconds.
Of course, if the choker wants to make the victim hurt more, they can be sloppy about the choke, make it take longer.
I'll let you guess which the skinwalker preferred.
I struggled, but I might as well have saved myself the effort. I couldn't break the grip on my neck. The pile of rubble shifted and surged, and then the skinwalker sat up out of the wreckage, sloughing it off as easily as an arctic wolf emerging from a bed beneath the snow. The skinwalker's nightmarishly long arms hung below its knees, so as it began moving down the hallway, I was able to get my hands and knees underneath me, at least part of the time, preventing my neck from snapping under the strain of supporting my own weight.
I heard boots hitting hardwood. The skinwalker let out a chuckling little growl and casually slammed my head against the wall. Stars and fresh pain flooded my perceptions. Then I felt myself falling through the air and landing in a tumble of arms and legs that only seemed to be connected to me in the technical sense.
I lifted dazed eyes to see the security guy from the entrance hall come around the corner, that little machine gun held to his shoulder, his cheek resting against the stock so that the barrel pointed wherever his eyes were focused. When he saw the skinwalker, uncovered from its veil, he stopped in his tracks. To his credit, he couldn't have hesitated for more than a fraction of a second before he opened fire.
Bullets zipped down the hall, so close that I could have reached out a hand and touched them. The skinwalker flung itself to one side, a golden-furred blur, and rebounded off the wall toward the gunman, its form changing. Then it leapt into the air, flipping its body as it did, and suddenly a spider the size of a subcompact car was racing along the ceiling toward the security guy.
At that point, he impressed me again. He turned and ran, sprinting around a corner with the skinwalker coming hard behind.
"Now!" someone called, as the skinwalker reached the intersection of the two hallways, and a sudden howl of thunder filled the hallways with noise and light. Bullets ripped into the floor, the wall, and the ceiling, coming from some point out of sight around the corner, filling the air with splinters of shattered hardwood.
The skinwalker let out a deafening caterwaul of pain and boundless fury. The gunfire reached a thunderous, frantic crescendo.
Then men began screaming.
I tried to push myself to my feet, but someone had set the hallway on tumble dry, and I fell down again. I kept trying. Whoever had made the hall start acting like a Laundromat dryer had to run out of quarters eventually. By using the wall, I managed to make it to my knees.
I heard a soft sound behind me. I turned my head blearily toward the source of the noise and saw three pale, lithe forms drop silently from the floors above through the hole that the skinwalker had made. The first was Lara Raith. She'd torn her skirt up one side, almost all the way to her hip, and when she landed in a silent crouch, she looked cold and feral and dangerous with her sword in one hand and her machine pistol in the other.
The other two women were vampires as well, their pale skin shining with eerie beauty, their eyes glittering like polished silver coins-the sisters Justine had mentioned, I presumed. I guess I'd arrived in the middle of the night, vampire time, and gotten some people out of bed. The first sister wore nothing but weapons and silver body piercings, which gleamed on one eyebrow, one nostril, her lower lip, and her nipples. Her dark hair had been cropped close to her head except for where her bangs fell to veil one of her eyes, and she carried a pair of wavy-bladed swords like Lara's.
The second seemed to be taller and more muscular than the other two. She wore what looked like a man's shirt, closed with only a single button. Her long hair was a mess, still tousled from sleep, and she held an exotic-looking axe in her hands, its blade honed along a concave edge instead of the more conventional convex one.
Without any visible signal, they all started prowling forward at the same time-and it was a prowl, an atavistic, feline motion that carried what were very clearly predators forward in total silence. Lara paused when she reached me, glanced over my injuries with cold silver eyes and whispered, "Stay down. "
No problem, I thought dully. Down is easy.
The screaming stopped with a last stuttering burst of gunfire. The security guy came staggering around the corner. Blood matted his hair and covered half of his face. There was a long tear through his jacket on the left side. His left arm hung uselessly, but he still gripped the handle of his miniature assault weapon with his right. He wavered and dropped to one knee as he spotted the three vampires.
Lara gestured with a hand, and the other two spread out and moved forward, while she came to the side of the wounded guard. "What happened?"
"We hit it," he said, his voice slurred. "We hit it with everything. Didn't even slow it down. They're dead. They're all dead. "
"You're bleeding," Lara said in a calm tone. "Get behind me. Defend the wizard. "
He nodded unsteadily. "Yeah. Okay. "
Lara's guy had to be either incredibly lucky or really good to have survived a close-quarters battle with the skinwalker. I stared dully at security guy for a second before my impact-addled brain sent up a warning flag. Nobody was that lucky.
"Lara!" I choked out.
Security guy turned in a blur of motion, sweeping the machine gun at Lara's head like a club-but she had begun moving the instant she'd heard my warning and he missed knocking her head off her shoulders by a fraction of an inch. She flung herself to one side and rolled as security guy's other arm flashed out, lengthening and sprouting yellow fur and claws as it came. She avoided the worst of it, but the skinwalker's claws left a triple line of incisions down one shapely thigh, and they welled with blood a little too pale and pearly to be human.
The skinwalker followed her motion, surging forward, its body broadening and thickening into the form of something like a great bear with oversized jaws and vicious fangs. It overbore her by sheer mass, slapping and raking with its clawed paws, snapping with its steely jaws. I heard a bone break, heard Lara cry out in rage-and then the skinwalker flew straight up into the ceiling, its head and shoulders slamming into it with such force that it went cleanly through it, and out onto the floor above.
Lara had rolled to her back, and had launched the thing away from her with her legs. They were long and smoothly muscled and utterly desirable, even as she lowered them and rolled lightly to her feet, holding one arm tucked in close to her side. Her skin shone with cold, alien power, and her eyes had become spheres of pure white. She stared at the ceiling for a few seconds, slowly lifting and straightening her arm as she did.
Her forearm had received a compound fracture. I could see bone poking out through the flesh. But over the next few seconds, the flesh seemed to ripple and become more malleable. The bone withdrew, vanishing beneath the skin of her arm-even the hole that the bone had torn in the skin sealed slowly closed, and in ten seconds I couldn't even tell she'd been hurt.
She turned those empty white eyes to me and stared at me with an expression of focused naked hunger. For a second, I felt my body responding to her desire, even as woozy as I was, but that was quickly snuffed out by a surge of nausea. I turned my head and threw up onto the expensiv
e floor while my head and neck screamed with pain.
When I looked up again, Lara had turned her head away from me. She picked up her fallen weapon-but the machine pistol had been bent into the shape of a comma by a blow from the skinwalker's sledgehammer paws. She discarded it, recovered her sword, and drew the matching weapon from her belt. She was breathing quickly-not in effort, but in raw excitement, and the tips of her breasts strained against her dirtied blouse. She licked her lips slowly and said, evidently for my benefit, "I sometimes see Madeline's point. "
There was a feminine scream from somewhere close by, a challenge that was answered by a leonine roar that shook the hallway. The short-haired sister flew into the wall at the T intersection ahead, and collapsed like a rag doll. There were sounds of swift motion from around the corner, and a gasp.
A moment later, a blur came around the corner, dragging the axe-wielding sister's limp form by the hair. The veil faded as the skinwalker came closer, once more showing us its bestial, not-quite-human form. It stopped in front of us, maybe ten feet away. Then, quite casually, it lifted one of the unconscious vampire's hands to its fanged mouth and, never looking away from Lara, calmly nipped off a finger and swallowed it.
Lara narrowed her eyes, and her rich mouth split into a wide, hungry smile. "Did you need a break before we continue?"
The skinwalker spoke, its voice weirdly modulated, as if several different creatures were approximating speech at the same time. "Break?"
With the word, it calmly snapped the vampire girl's left arm in midhumerus.
"I am going to kill you," Lara said calmly.
The skinwalker laughed. It was a hideous sound. "Little phage. Even here at the center of your power, you could not stop me. Your warriors lay slain. Your fellow phages are fallen. Even the foolish pretenders to power visiting your house could not stop me. "
I'd gotten enough of my head back together to push myself to my feet. Lara never looked at me, but I could sense her attention on me nonetheless. I didn't have time to gather my will for a magical strike. The skinwalker would feel me doing it long before it became a fact.
Fortunately, I plan for such contingencies.
The eight silver rings I wore, one on each of my fingers, served a couple of purposes. The triple bands of silver were moderately heavy, and if I had to slug someone, they made a passably good imitation of brass knuckles. But their main purpose was to store back a little kinetic energy every time I moved one of my arms. It took a while to build up a charge, but when they were ready to go, I could release the force stored in each ring with instant precision. A blast from a single band of a ring could knock a big man off his feet and take the fight out of him in the process. There were three bands to each ring-which meant that I had a dozen times that much force ready to go on each hand.
I didn't bother to say anything to Lara. I just lifted my right fist and triggered every ring on it, unleashing a pile driver of kinetic energy at the skinwalker. Lara bounded forward at the same instant, swords spinning, ready to lay into the skinwalker when my strike threw it off balance and distracted it.
But the skinwalker lifted its left hand, fingers crooked into a familiar defensive gesture, and the wave of force that should have knocked it tail over teakettle bounced back from it like light from a mirror-and struck Lara full-on instead.
Lara let out a startled whuff as the equivalent force of a speeding car slammed into her, knocked her back, and flattened her against the mound of rubble still filling the hallway behind me.
The skinwalker's mouth split into a leering smile of its own, and its bestial voice purred, "Break, little phage. Break. "
Lara gasped and lifted herself up with her arms. Her white eyes were fixed on the skinwalker, her lips twisted into a defiant snarl.
I stood there staring at the skinwalker. It was hard, and I had to use the wall to help me balance. Then I took a deep breath and stepped away from the wall, moving very carefully, until I stood between the skinwalker and Lara. I turned to face it squarely.
"Okay," I said. "Let's have it. "
"Have what, pretender?" the skinwalker growled.
"You aren't here to kill us," I said. "You could have done it by now. "
"Oh, so true," it murmured, its eyes dancing with malicious pleasure.
"You don't have to gloat about it, prick," I muttered under my breath. Then I addressed the skinwalker again. "You must want to talk. So why don't you just say what you came to say?"
The skinwalker studied me, and idly nipped another finger from the unconscious vampire girl. It chewed slowly, with some truly unsettling snapping, popping sounds, and then swallowed. "You will trade with me. "
I frowned. "Trade?"
The skinwalker smiled again and tugged something from around its neck with one talon. Then it caught the object and tossed it to me. I caught it. It was a silver pentacle necklace, a twin to my own, if considerably less battered and worn.
It was Thomas's necklace.
My belly went cold.
"Trade," the skinwalker said. "Thomas of Raith. For the doomed warrior. "
I eyed the thing. So it wanted Morgan, too. "Suppose I tell you to fuck off. "
"I will no longer be in a playful mood," it purred. "I will come for you. I will kill you. I will kill your blood, your friends, your beasts. I will kill the flowers in your home and the trees in your tiny fields. I will visit such death upon whatever is yours that your very name will be remembered only in curses and tales of terror. "
I believed the creature.
No reflexive comeback quip sprang from my lips. Given what I'd seen of the skinwalker's power, I had to give that one a five-star rating on the threatometer.
"And to encourage you. . . " Its gaze shifted to Lara. "If the wizard does not obey, I will unmake you as well. I will do it every bit as easily as I have done today. And it will bring me intense pleasure to do so. "
Lara stared at the skinwalker with pure white eyes, her expression locked into a snarl of hate.
"Do you understand me, little phage? You and that rotting bag of flesh you've attached yourself to?"
"I understand," Lara spat.
The skinwalker's smile widened for an instant. "If the doomed warrior is not delivered to me by sundown tomorrow, I will begin my hunt. "
"It might take more time than that," I said.
"For your sake, pretender, pray it does not. " It idly flung the unconscious vampire away from it, to land in a heap atop the other sister. "You may reach me through his speaking devices," the skinwalker said.
Then it leapt lightly up through one of the holes in the ceiling, and was gone.
I slumped against the wall, almost falling.
"Thomas," I whispered.
That nightmare had my brother.
Lara took charge of the aftermath. A dozen security guards were dead, another dozen maimed and crippled. The walls in the hallway where the guards had sprung their ambush were so covered in blood that it looked like they had been painted red. At least a dozen more personnel hadn't been able to reach the battle before it was over, it had all happened so swiftly-which meant that there was someone available to help stabilize the wounded and clean up the bodies.
The skinwalker's hex had effectively destroyed every radio and cell phone in the Château, but the land lines, based on much older, simpler technology, were still up. Lara called in a small army of other employees, including the medical staff that the Raiths kept on retainer.
I sat with my back against the wall while all this happened, a little apart from the activity. It seemed appropriate. My head hurt. When scratching an itch, I noticed that there was a wide stripe of mostly dried blood covering my left ear and spreading down my neck. Must have been a scalp wound. They bleed like crazy.
After some indeterminately fuzzy length of time,
I looked up to see Lara supervising the movement of her two wounded relatives. The two vampires were liberally smeared with their own blood, and both were senseless. When they were carried off in stretchers, the medics began helping wounded security guards, and Lara walked over to me.
She knelt down in front of me, her pale grey eyes concealing whatever thought was behind them. "Can you stand, wizard?"
"Can," I said. "Don't want to. "
She lifted her chin slightly and looked down at me, one hand on her hip. "What have you gotten my little brother involved in?"
"Wish I knew," I said. "I'm still trying to figure out where the bullets are coming from. "
She folded her arms. "The doomed warrior. The skinwalker meant the fugitive Warden, I presume. "
"It's one way to interpret that. "
Lara studied me intently and suddenly smiled, showing neat white teeth. "You have him. He came to you for help. "
"Why the hell would you think that?" I asked.
"Because people in hopeless situations come to you for help on a regular basis. And you help them. It's what you do. " She tapped her chin with one finger. "Now, to decide what is more advantageous. To play along with the skinwalker's demands. Or to write Thomas off as a loss, take the Warden from you, and turn him into fresh political capital for those who are hunting him. There is a rather substantial reward for his capture or death. "
I eyed her dully. "You're going to play along. You're hoping that you'll be able to act reluctant and get some concessions from me in exchange for your cooperation, but you're going to give it to me anyway. "
"And why should I do that?" Lara asked.
"Because after the coup attempt in the Deeps, Thomas is a White Court celebrity. If you let some big bad shagnasty come along and kill him after it openly defies you in your own home, you look weak. We both know you can't live with that. "
"And by giving in to his demands, I avoid the appearance of weakness?" she asked skeptically. "No, Dresden. "
"Damn right, no," I said. "You're going to play along, set Shagnasty up, and then take him out in the true, treacherous tradition of the White Court. You get Thomas back. You lay low a heavyweight. You gain status among your own folk. "
She narrowed her eyes at me, her expression giving me no hint to the direction of her thoughts. Then she said, "And when that is done, what if I should take the Warden and turn him over to the White Council myself? It would be a formidable bargaining chip to bring to the table with your folk in the future. "
"Sure it would. But you won't do that. "
"Won't I?" Lara asked. "What's stopping me?"
"I am. "
"I always enjoy dealing with a man possessing a well-developed sense of self-worth. "
It was my turn to show my teeth in a smile. "Slugging matches aren't your style, Lara. If you play this situation right, it will further your reputation and influence. Why jeopardize that by throwing down with me?"
"Mmmm," she said, her eyes wandering over me. She idly smoothed her skirt with one hand, instantly drawing my eyes to the pale length of thigh showing through the torn seam. Trickles of blood from her wounds slithered lovingly over smooth flesh. "I wonder, occasionally, what it might be like to throw down with you Dresden. To go to the mat. I wonder what might happen. "
I licked my lips and jerked my eyes away with an effort, incapable of speech.
"Do you know how to really control someone, Harry?" she asked, her voice a low purr.
I cleared my throat and rasped, "How?"
Her pale grey eyes were huge and deep. "Give them what they want. Give them what they need. Give them what no one else can give. If you can do that, they'll come back to you again and again. " She leaned down close and whispered in my ear, "I know what I can give you, Harry. Shall I tell you?"
I swallowed and nodded, not daring to look at her.
"Surcease," she breathed into my ear. "I can make it stop hurting, wizard. I can take away the pains of the body. Of the mind. Of the heart. For a little time, I could give you something no one else can-freedom from your burdens of responsibility and conscience. " She leaned even closer, until I could feel the coolness of the air around her lips. "Sweet Dresden. I could give you peace. Imagine closing your eyes with no worries, no pain, no fears, no regrets, no appetites, and no guilt. Only quiet and darkness and stillness and my flesh against yours. "
I shivered. I couldn't stop myself.
"I can give you that," Lara said, her lips slinking into a smile. "You wear your pain like a suit of armor. But one day, it will be too heavy to bear. And you'll remember this moment. And you'll know who can give you what you need. " She let out a small, sensual sigh. "I don't require more food, Dresden. I have that in plenty. But a partner. . . You and I could do much together that we could not alone. "
"Sounds swell," I croaked, barely able to get the words out. "Maybe we'll start with getting Thomas back. "
She straightened her spine and leaned back from me, her beautiful pale face full of lust and hunger. She closed her eyes and stretched a little in place, the way cats sometimes will. It was a mind-numbing display of lithe femininity. She nodded slowly, then rose and regarded me with her usual cool detachment. "You're right, of course. Business first. You want me to help you. "
"I want you to help yourself," I said. "We've both got the same problem. "
"And that would be?" she asked.
"Traitors within the organization," I said. "Inciting conflict and destabilizing the balance of power. "
She arched a raven black eyebrow. "The Warden is innocent?"
"Only if I can find the guy who set him up. "
"You think there's a connection between your traitor and the skinwalker. "
"And another connection that led me here," I said. "One of your folk paid that lawyer and rewired her head. "
Lara's mouth twisted with distaste. "If that's true, then someone was hideously gauche. One never leaves such obvious and overt blocks behind-and especially not in a contact only one layer removed. Such things call too much attention to themselves. "
"So," I said. "A White Court vampire who is gauche, overt, impatient. Oh, and who did not show up to defend the homestead when the skinwalker broke in. And who Thomas recently beat and humiliated in public. "
"Madeline," Lara murmured.
"Madeline," I said. "I think whoever is pulling the strings on this operation is using her. I think we need to find her and follow the strings back to the puppeteer. "
I reached into my duster pocket and took out the sheet of paper with Morgan's supposed account on it, along with a photocopy of the huge deposit check. "Find out who set up this account. Find out where the money came from. " I passed her the pages. "After that, see if you can't find some way to track down where Thomas's cell phone is. "
"His cell phone?"
"Shagnasty said we could contact him by calling Thomas's phones. Isn't there some way that they can track where those things are?"
"It depends on a number of factors. "
"Well I'm betting the skinwalker doesn't have a subscription to Popular Science. He'll probably have some kind of countermeasure for a tracking spell, but he might not even realize that it's possible to physically trace the phone. "
"I'll see what I can find out," she said. One of the medics approached us and stood back respectfully. Lara turned to the young man. "Yes?"
He held up a clipboard. "The triage report you wanted. "
She held out her hand. He passed her the clipboard as if he didn't want to move his feet too close to her. Lara scanned over the topmost page, and murmured, "Hennesy and Callo both have broken backs?"
"It'll take an X-ray to confirm it," the medic said nervously. "But from what I was told, the, uh, the attacker just broke them over his knee and threw them down. They're paralyzed. Probably permanently. "
"And Wilson lost both eyes," Lara murmured.
The medic avoided looking at her. "Yes, ma'am. "
"Very well," Lara said. "Take Hennesy to Natalia's chambers. Callo will go to Elisa. "
"Yes, ma'am. Should I send Wilson to the infirmary?"
Lara stared at him with absolutely no expression on her lovely face. Then she said, "No, Andrew. I'll come for him in a moment. " She held out the clipboard, and the medic took it and hurried away.
I watched Lara for a moment and said, "You're going to kill those men. When Elisa and Natalia wake up. . . "
"They will feed and their lives will be spared. Annoying as it may be to lose what I invested in those men, I can replace hired guns," she said. "I cannot so easily replace members of my family and my House. As their leader, it is my responsibility to provide adequate care and sustenance in times of need-particularly when loyalty to the House is what created that need. "
"They're your own men," I said.
"That was before they became useless to the House," she replied. "They know too much of our internal affairs to be allowed to leave. Lives must be lost if my kin are to survive their injuries. Rather than inflict that upon one who can still be of use to us, I preserve lives by seeing to it that these men serve us one last time. "
"Yeah. You're a real humanitarian. A regular Mother Teresa. "
She turned that flat, empty gaze to me again. "At what point did you forget that I am a vampire, Dresden? A monster. A habitually neat, polite, civil, and efficient monster. " Her eyes drifted down the hallway, to where a well-muscled young man was being helped to sit down, while a medic secured bandages over his eyes. Lara stared intently at him, the color of her eyes lightening to silver, and her lips parted slightly. "I am what I am. "
I felt sick to my stomach. I pushed myself to my feet, and said, "So am I. "
She glanced obliquely at me. "Is that a threat, Dresden?"
I shook my head. "Just a fact. One day I'm going to take you down. "
Her eyes went back to the wounded man, her lips shifting to one side in a smirk. "One day," she murmured. "But not today. "
"No. Not today. "
"Is there anything else I can do for you, wizard mine?"
"Yeah," I said.
She glanced at me and raised an eyebrow.
"I need a car. "
I sort of shambled up one floor and down a wing to the Château's infirmary, escorted there by a guard who was being very careful not to limp on a wounded leg. The skinwalker had smacked my bean against hardwood and knocked something loose. I felt fairly confident that if I jumped up and down and wiggled my head, my brain would slosh squishily around the inside of my skull.
Not that I was going to be doing any of those things. Walking was hard enough.
In the infirmary, I found a white-coated young woman tending to the wounded. She moved with the brisk professional manner of a doctor, and was just finishing seeing to Justine's injuries. The young woman was laid out on a bed, her midsection swathed in bandages, her eyes glazed with the distant, peaceful expression of someone on good drugs.
Anastasia sat on the bed next to Justine's, her back straight, her expression calm. Her right arm was bound up close against her body in a black cloth sling. She came to her feet as I entered the room. She looked a little pale and shaky, but she stood without leaning on her slender wooden staff. "We're leaving now?"
"Yeah," I said. I moved to her side to support her. "You okay to walk?"
She leaned her staff toward me, stopping me from coming any closer, though she smiled slightly as she did. "I'll bloody well walk out of here," she said. And she said it in an atrocious Scottish accent.
I lifted both eyebrows at her in shock. "You told me you fell asleep during Highlander. "
Her dark eyes sparkled. "I always say that when I find myself at a vintage movie showing at a drive-in theater while in the company of a man two centuries younger than me. "
"And not because you didn't want to hurt my feelings with your professional opinion of the swordsmanship on display?"
"Young men can be so delicate," she said, her dimples making a brief appearance.
"We should get you to a hospital," I said, nodding at her sling.
She shook her head. "The break is set back in place already. From here, all one can do is wear a sling and wait for it to stop hurting so badly. "
I grimaced. "I've got some meds at my place. "
She smiled again, but this time I could see how much she was straining to keep up appearances. "That would be lovely. "
"Harry," said a soft voice.
I turned to face the wounded Justine, who looked at me with drowsy eyes. I turned to the bed and bent down to smile at her. "Hey there. "
"We heard that thing talking," she said. All the hard consonants in her words had blurred, rounded edges. "We heard it talking to you and Lara. "
I glanced up at Anastasia, who gave me a short nod of her head.
"Yeah," I said to Justine. I desperately did not want her to say anything she ought not to be saying. "I'll take care of it. "
Justine smiled at me, though she looked like she could hardly keep her eyes open. "I know you will. He loves you, you know. "
I did not look up at Anastasia. "Uh. Yeah. "
Justine took my hand in one of hers, her eyes reaching for mine. "He always worried that he'd never be able to talk to you. That the world he came from was so different. That he wouldn't know enough about being human to relate. That he wouldn't know about being a br-"
"Brass-plated pain in my ass," I said. "He knows that plenty well. " I avoided her eyes. The last thing I needed was to endure another soulgaze now. "Justine, you need to rest. I'll dig him up. Don't worry. "
She smiled again and her eyes closed all the way. "You're like family to me, Harry. You always care. "
I bowed my head, embarrassed, and settled Justine's hands back on the bed, then tugged the thin hospital blankets up over her.
Anastasia watched me with thoughtful eyes as I did.
We walked back to the front of the house, and past the fairly fresh plaster that might have hidden ridiculously lethal booby traps, out over a front porch the size of a tennis court, and down several steps to the circular drive, where the car Lara had lent me was waiting.
I stopped so suddenly that Anastasia nearly walked into my back. She caught her balance with a hiss of discomfort, and then looked up and caught her breath. "Oh, my. "
Nearly two tons of British steel and chrome sat idling in the drive. Its purring engine sounded like a sewing machine. The white Rolls limo was an old model, something right out of a pulp-fiction adventure film, and it was in gorgeous condition. Its panels shone, freshly waxed and without blemish, and the chrome of its grill gleamed sienna in the light of dusk over the Château.
I walked down to peer inside the Rolls. The passenger seating in the back was larger than my freaking apartment. Or at least it looked that way. The interior was all silver-grey and white leather and similarly colored woodwork, polished to a glowing sheen and accented with silver. The carpet on the floor of the Rolls was thicker and more luxurious than a well-kept lawn.
"Wow," I said quietly.
Anastasia, standing beside me, breathed, "That's a work of bloody art. "
"Wow," I said quietly.
"Look at the filigree. "
I nodded. "Wow. "
Anastasia gave me a sidelong look. "And there's plenty of room in back. "
I blinked and looked at her.
Her expression was innocent and bland. "All I'm saying is that it is rather crowded in your apartment right now. . . "
"Anastasia," I said. I felt my face getting a little warm.
The dimples reappeared. She was just teasing me, of course. In her condition it would be some time before she could engage in that kind of activity.
"What model is this?" she asked.
"Um," I said. "Well, it'
s a Rolls-Royce. It's. . . I think it's from before World War Two. . . "
"It's a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith, of course," said Lara's voice from behind me. "At this house? What else would it be?"
I looked over my shoulder, to see Lara Raith standing in the shadowy doorway of the house.
"You have special needs, obviously," she said. "So I provided you with an appropriate vintage. Nineteen thirty-nine. " She folded her arms, rather smugly, I thought, and said, "Bring it back with a full tank. "
I tilted my head at her in a gesture that wasn't quite an affirmation, and muttered, as I opened the passenger-side door, "The loan officer will have to run a check on my credit first. What's this thing get, about two gallons per mile?"
Anastasia slid into the car with a brief sound of discomfort. I winced and held out my hands in case she fell back, but she managed it without any other difficulty. I shut the door, and caught a glimpse of Lara taking a sudden step forward.
She focused sharply on Anastasia for a moment-and then upon me.
Lara's eyes flickered several shades paler as her ripe lips parted in dawning realization. A very slow smile crept over her mouth as she stared at me.
I turned away from her rather hurriedly, got into the Rolls, and got it moving. And I didn't look back again until the vampires' house was five miles behind us.
Anastasia let me get most of the way back to town before she looked at me and said, "Harry?"
"Hmmm?" I asked. Driving the Rolls was like driving a tank. It had all kinds of momentum behind it, no power steering, and no power brakes. It was a vehicle that demanded that I pay my respects to the laws of physics and think a little bit further ahead than I otherwise might.
"Is there something you want to tell me?" she asked.
"Dammit," I muttered.
She watched me with eyes much older than the face around them. "You were hoping I didn't hear Justine. "
"But I did. "
I drove for another minute or two before asking, "Are you sure?"
She considered that for a moment before she said, more gently, "Are you sure there's nothing you want to tell me?"
"I have nothing to say to Captain Luccio," I said. It came out harder than I had anticipated.
She reached out and put her left hand on my right, where it rested on the gearshift. "What about to Anastasia?" she asked.
I felt my jaw tighten. It took me a moment to make them relax and ask, "Do you have any family?"
"Yes," she said. "Technically. "
"The men and women I grew up with, who I knew? They've been dead for generations. Their descendants are living all over Italy, in Greece, and there are a few in Algeria-but it isn't as though they invite their great-great-great-great-great-great-grandaunt to their Christmas celebrations. They're strangers. "
I frowned, thinking that over, and looked at her. "Strangers. "
She nodded. "Most people aren't willing to accept a radical fact like the life span of our kind, Harry. There are some families who have-Martha Liberty, for example, lives with one of her multiple-great-granddaughters and her children. But mostly, it ends badly when wizards try to stay too close to their kin. " She bowed her head, apparently studying her sling as she spoke. "I look in on them every five or six years, without them knowing. Keep an eye out for any of the children who might develop a talent. "
"But you had a real family once," I said.
She sighed and looked out the window. "Oh, yes. It was a very long time ago. "
"I remember my father, a little. But I was raised an orphan. "
She winced. "Dio, Harry. " Her fingers squeezed mine. "You never had anyone, did you?"
"And if I did find someone," I said, feeling my throat constricting as I spoke, "I would do anything necessary to protect him. Anything. "
Anastasia looked out the window, letting out a hiss of what sounded like anger. "Margaret. You selfish bitch. "
I blinked and looked at her, and nearly got us both killed when a passing car cut me off and I almost couldn't stop the monster Rolls in time. "You. . . you knew my mother?"
"All the Wardens knew her," Anastasia said quietly.
"She was a Warden?"
Anastasia was silent for a moment before shaking her head. "She was considered a threat to the Laws of Magic. "
"What does that mean?"
"It means that she made it a point to dance as close to the edge of breaking the Laws as she possibly could whenever she got the chance," Anastasia replied. "It took her all of a year after she was admitted to the Council to start agitating for change. "
I had to focus on the road. This was more than I had ever heard from anyone in the Council about the enigmatic figure who had given me life. My hands were sweating and my heart was thudding. "What kind of change?"
"She was furious that 'the Laws of Magic have nothing to do with right and wrong. ' She pointed out how wizards could use their abilities to bilk people out of their money, to intimidate and manipulate them, to steal wealth and property from others or destroy it outright, and that so long as the Laws were obeyed, the Council would do nothing whatsoever to stop them or discourage others from following their example. She wanted to reform the Council's laws to embrace concepts of justice as well as limiting the specific use of magic. "
I frowned. "Wow. What a monster. "
She exhaled slowly. "Can you imagine what would happen if she'd had her way?"
"I wouldn't have been unjustly persecuted by the Wardens for years?"
Anastasia's lips firmed into a line. "Once a body of laws describing justice was applied to the Council, it would only be a short step to using that body to involve the Council in events happening in the outside world. "
"Gosh, yeah," I said. "You're right. A bunch of wizards trying to effect good in the world would be awful. "
"Whose good?" Anastasia asked calmly. "No one is an unjust villain in his own mind, Harry. Even-perhaps even especially-those who are the worst of us. Some of the cruelest tyrants in history were motivated by noble ideals, or made choices that they would call 'hard but necessary steps' for the good of their nation. We're all the hero of our own story. "
"Yeah. It was really hard to tell who the good guys and bad guys were in World War Two. "
She rolled her eyes. "You've read the histories written by the victors of that war, Harry. As someone who lived through it, I can tell you that at the time of the war, there was a great deal less certainty. There were stories of atrocities in Germany, but for every one that was true, there were another five or six that weren't. How could one have told the difference between the true stories, the propaganda, and simple fabrications and myths created by the people of the nations Germany had attacked?"
"Might have been a bit easier if there'd been a wizard or three around to help," I said.
She gave me an oblique look. "Then by your argument, you would have had the White Council destroy the United States. "
"Your government has drenched its hands in innocent blood as well," she replied, still calm. "Unless you think the Indian tribesmen whose lands were conquered were somehow the villains of the piece. "
I frowned over that one. "We've gone sort of far afield from my mother. "
"Yes. And no. What she proposed would inevitably have drawn the Council into mortal conflicts, and therefore into mortal politics. Tell me the truth-if the Council, today, declared war upon America for its past crimes and current idiocy, would you obey the order to attack?"
"Hell, no," I said. "The U. S. isn't a perfect place, but it's better than most people have managed to come up with. And all my stuff is there. "
She smiled faintly. "Exactly. And since the Council is made up of members from all over the world, it would mean that no matter where we acted, we would almost certainly be faced with dissidence and desertion from those who felt their homelands wro
nged. " She shrugged-and grimaced in pain before arresting the motion. "I myself would have issues if the Council acted against any of the lands where my family has settled. They may not remember me, but the reverse is not true. "
I thought about what she'd said for a long moment. "What you're saying is that the Council would have to turn on some of its own. "
"And how many times would that happen before there was no Council?" she asked. "Wars and feuds can live for generations even when there isn't a group of wizards involved. Settling the conflicts would have required even more involvement in mortal affairs. "
"You mean control," I said quietly. "You mean the Council seeking political power. "
She gave me a knowing look. "One of the things that makes me respect you more than most young people is your appreciation for history. Precisely. And for gaining control over others, for gathering great power to oneself, there is no better tool than black magic. "
"Which is what the Laws of Magic cover already. "
She nodded. "And so the Council limits itself. Any wizard is free to act in whatever manner he chooses with his power-provided he doesn't break any of the Laws. Without resorting to black magic, the amount of damage an individual can inflict on mortal society is limited. As harsh an experience as it has created for you, Harry, the Laws of Magic are not about justice. The White Council is not about justice. They are about restraining power. " She smiled faintly. "And, occasionally, the Council manages to do some good by protecting mankind from supernatural threats. "
"And that's good enough for you?" I asked.
"It isn't perfect," she admitted. "But it's better than anything else we've come up with. And the things I've spent my lifetime building are there. "
"Touch¨¦," I said.
"Thank you. "
I stroked her fingers with my thumb. "So you're saying my mother was short-sighted. "
"She was a complex woman," Anastasia said. "Brilliant, erratic, passionate, committed, idealistic, talented, charming, insulting, bold, incautious, arrogant-and short-sighted, yes. Among a great many other qualities. She loved pointing out the areas of 'grey' magic, as she called them, and constantly questioning their legitimacy. " She shrugged. "The Senior Council tasked the Wardens to keep an eye on her. Which was damn near impossible. "
"The woman had a great many contacts among the Fey. That's why everyone called her Margaret LaFey. She knew more Ways through the Nevernever than anyone I've ever seen, before or since. She could be in Beijing at breakfast, Rome at lunch, and Seattle for supper and stop for coffee in Sydney and Capetown in between. " She sighed. "Margaret vanished once, for four or five years. Everyone assumed that she'd finally run afoul of something in Faerie. She never seemed able to restrain her tongue, even when she knew better. "
"I wonder what that's like. "
Anastasia gave me a rather worn sad smile. "But she didn't spend all that time in Faerie, did she?"
I looked up at the rearview mirror, back toward Château Raith.
"And Thomas is the son of the White King himself. "
I didn't answer.
She exhaled heavily. "You look so different from him. Except perhaps for something in the jaw. The shape of the eyes. "
I didn't say anything until we got to the apartment. The Rolls went together with the gravel lot like champagne and Cracker Jacks. I turned the engine off and listened to it click as it began to cool down. The sun was gone over the horizon by that time, and the lengthening shadows began to trigger streetlights.
"Are you going to tell anyone?" I asked quietly.
She looked out the window as she considered the question. Then she said, "Not unless I think it relevant. "
I turned to look at her. "You know what will happen if they know. They'll use him. "
She gazed straight out the front of the car. "I know. "
I spoke quietly to put all the weight I could into each word I spoke next. "Over. My. Dead. Body. "
Anastasia closed her eyes for a moment, and opened them again. Her expression never flickered. She took her hand slowly, reluctantly from mine and put it in her lap. Then she whispered, "I pray to God it never comes to that. "
We sat in the car separately.
It seemed larger and colder, for some reason. The silence seemed deeper.
Luccio lifted her chin and looked at me. "What will you do now?"
"What do you think?" I clenched my fists so that my knuckles popped, rolled my neck once, and opened the door. "I'm going to find my brother. "