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White Night, Page 18

Jim Butcher

Chapter 35~36

  Chapter Thirty-Five

  Chateau Raith hadn't changed much since my last visit. That's one of the good things about dealing with nigh-immortals. They tend to adjust badly to change and avoid it wherever possible.

  It was a big place, north of the city, where the countryside rolls over a surprising variety of terrain - flat stretches of rich land that used to be farms, but are mostly big, expensive properties now. Dozens of little rivers and big creeks have carved hills and valleys more steep than most people expect from the Midwest. The trees out in that area, one of the older settlements in the United States, can be absolutely huge, and it would cost me five or six years' worth of income to buy even a tiny house.

  Chateau Raith is surrounded by a forest of those enormous, ancient trees, as if someone had managed to transplant a section of Sherwood Forest itself from Britain. You can't see a thing of the estate from any of the roads around it. I knew it was at least a half-mile run through the trees before you got to the grounds, which were enormous in their own right.

  Translation: You weren't getting away from the chateau on foot speed alone. Not if there were vampires there to run you down.

  There was one new feature to the grounds. The eight-foot-high stone wall was the same, but it had been topped with a double helix of razor wire, and lighting had been spaced along the outside of the wall. I could see security cameras at regular intervals as well. The old Lord Raith had disdained the more modern security precautions in favor of the protection of intense personal arrogance. Lara, however, seemed more willing to acknowledge threats, to listen to her mortal security staff, and to employ the countermeasures they suggested. It would certainly help keep the mortal riffraff out, and the Council had plenty of mortal allies.

  More important, it said something about Lara's administration: She found skilled subordinates and then listened to them. She might not look as overwhelmingly confident as Lord Raith had - but then, Lord Raith wasn't running the show anymore, either, even if that wasn't public knowledge in the magical community.

  I reflected that it was entirely possible that I might have done the Council and the world something of a disservice by helping Lara assume control. Lord Raith had been proud and brittle. I had the feeling that Lara would prove to be far, far more capable and far more dangerous as the de facto White King.

  And here I was, about to go to her aid again and help solidify her power even more.

  "Stop here," I told Molly quietly. The gates to the chateau were still a quarter mile down the road. "This is as close as you get. "

  "Right," Molly said, and pulled the Beetle over - onto the far side of the road, I noted with approval, where anyone wanting to come to her would have to cross the open pavement to get there.

  "Mouse," I said. "Stay here with Molly and listen for us. Take care of her. "

  Mouse looked unhappily at me from the backseat, where he'd sat with Ramirez, but leaned forward and dropped his shaggy chin onto my shoulder. I gave him a quick hug and said in a gruff voice, "Don't worry; we'll be fine. "

  His tail thumped once against the backseat, and then he shifted around to lay his head on Molly's shoulder. She immediately started scratching him reassuringly behind the ear, though her own expression was far from comfortable.

  I gave the girl half of a smile, and then got out of the car. Summer twilight was fading fast, and it was too hot to wear my duster. I had it on anyway, and I added the weight of the grey cloak of the Wardens of the White Council to the duster. Under all that, I wore a white silk shirt and cargo pants of heavy black cotton, plus my hiking boots.

  "Hat," I muttered. "Spurs. Next time, I swear. "

  Ramirez slid out of the Beetle, grenades and gun and willow sword hanging from his belt, and staff gripped in his right hand. He paused to pull on a glove made out of heavy leather overlaid with a layer of slender steel plates, each inscribed with pictoglyphs that looked Aztec or Olmec or something.

  "That's new," I commented.

  He winked at me, and we checked our guns. My . 44 revolver went back into my left-hand duster pocket, his back into its sheath.

  "You sure you don't want a grenade or two?" he asked.

  "I'm not comfortable with hand grenades," I said.

  "Suit yourself," he replied. "How about you, Molly?"

  He turned back to the car, hand on one of his grenades.

  The car was gone. The engine was still idling audibly.

  Ramirez let out a whistle and waved his staff into the space it had occupied until it clinked against metal. "Hey, not a bad veil. Pretty damned good, in fact. "

  "She's got a gift," I said.

  Molly's voice came from nearby. "Thanks. "

  Ramirez gave the approximate space where my apprentice sat a big grin and a gallant, vaguely Spanish little bow.

  Molly let out a suppressed giggle. The car's engine cut out, and she said, "Go on. I've got to keep compensating for the dust you're kicking up, and it's a pain. "

  "Eyes open," I told her. "Use your head. "

  "You too," Molly said.

  "Don't tell him to start new things now," Ramirez chided her. "You'll just confuse him. "

  "I'm getting dumber by the minute," I confirmed. "Ask anybody. "

  From the unseen car, Mouse snorted out a breath.

  "See?" I said, and started walking toward the entrance to the estate.

  Ramirez kept up, but only by taking a skipping step every several paces. My legs are lots longer than his.

  After a hundred yards or so, he laughed. "All right, you made your point. "

  I grunted and slowed marginally.

  Ramirez looked back over his shoulder. "Think she'll be all right?"

  "Tough to sneak up on Mouse," I said. "Even if they realize she's there. "

  "Pretty, a body like that, and talent, too. " Ramirez stared back thoughtfully. "She seeing anyone?"

  "Not since she drilled holes in her last boyfriend's psyche and drove him insane. "

  Ramirez winced. "Right. "

  We fell silent and walked up to the gates to the estate, getting our game faces on along the way. Ramirez's natural expression was a cocksure smile, but when things got hairy, he went with a cool, arrogant look that left his eyes focused on nothing and everything at the same time. I really don't care what my game face looks like. Mine is all internal.

  I kept Anna's face and her serious eyes in mind as I tromped up to the gothic gate made of simulated wrought iron, but heavy enough to stop a charging SUV. I struck it three times with my staff and planted its end firmly onto the ground.

  The gate buzzed and began to open of its own accord. Halfway through, something near the hinges let out a whine and a puff of smoke, and it stopped moving.

  "That you?" I asked him.

  "I took out the lock too," he replied quietly. "And the cameras that can see the gate. Just in case. "

  Ramirez doesn't have my raw power, but he uses what he has well. "Nice," I told him. "Didn't feel a thing. "

  His grin flickered by. "De nada. I'm the best. "

  I stepped through the gate, keeping a wary eye out. The night was all but complete, and the woods were lovely, dark and deep. Tires whispered on pavement. A light appeared in the trees ahead, and resolved into headlights. A full-fledged limousine, a white Rolls with silver accents, swept down the drive to the gate, and purred to a halt twenty feet in front of us.

  Ramirez muttered under his breath, "You want I should - "

  "Down, big fella," I said. "Save ourselves the walk. "

  "Bah," he said. "Some of us are young and healthy. "

  The driver door opened and a man got out. I recognized him as one of Lara's personal bodyguards. He was a bit taller than average, leanly muscled, had a military haircut and sharp, wary eyes. He wore a sports jacket, khakis, and wasn't working to hide the shoulder rig he wore under the coat. He took a look at us, then past us at the gate and t
he fence. Then he took a small radio from his pocket and started speaking into it.

  "Dresden?" he asked me.

  "Yeah. "

  "Ramirez?"

  "The one and only," Carlos told him.

  "You're armed," he said.

  "Heavily," I replied.

  He grimaced, nodded, and said, "Get in the car, please. "

  "Why?" I asked him, oh so innocently.

  Ramirez gave me a sharp look, but said nothing.

  "I was told to collect you," the bodyguard said.

  "It isn't far to the house," I said. "We can walk. "

  "Ms. Raith asked me to assure you that, on behalf of her father, you have her personal pledge of safe conduct, as stipulated in the Accords. "

  "In that case," I said, "Ms. Raith can come tell me that her personal self. "

  "I'm sure she will be happy to," the bodyguard said. "At the house, sir. "

  I folded my arms and said, "If she's too busy to move her pretty ass down here, why don't you go ask her if we can't come back tomorrow instead?"

  There was a whirring sound, and one of the back windows of the Rolls slid down. I couldn't see much of anyone inside, but I heard a velvet-soft woman's laugh saunter out of the night. "You see, George. I told you. "

  The bodyguard grimaced and looked around. "They've done something to the gate. It's open. You're exposed here, ma'am. "

  "If assassination was their intention," the woman replied, "believe me when I say that Dresden could already have done it, and I feel confident that his companion, Mr. Ramirez, could have managed the same. "

  Ramirez stiffened a little and muttered between clenched teeth, "How does she know me?"

  "Ain't many people ride zombie dinosaurs and make regional commander in the Wardens before they turn twenty-five," I replied. "Betcha she's got files on most of the Wardens still alive. "

  "And some of the trainees," agreed the woman's voice. "George, if you please. "

  The bodyguard gave us a flat, measuring look, and then opened the door of the car, one hand resting quite openly on the butt of the pistol hanging under one arm.

  The mistress of the White Court stepped forth from the Rolls-Royce.

  Lara is. . . difficult to describe. I'd met her several times, and each meeting had carried a similar impact, a moment of stunned admiration and desire at her raw physical appeal that did not lessen with exposure. There was no one feature about her that I could have pointed out as particularly gorgeous. There was no one facet of her beauty that could be declared as utter perfection. Her appeal was something far greater than the sum of her parts, and none of those were less than heavenly.

  Like Thomas, she had dark, idly curling hair so glossy that the highlights were very nearly a shade of blue. Her skin was one creamy, gently curving expanse of milk white perfection, and if there were moles or birthmarks anywhere on her body, I couldn't see them. Her dark pink lips were a little large for her narrow-chinned face, but they didn't detract - they only gave her a look of lush overindulgence, of deliberate and wicked sensuality.

  It was her eyes, though, that were the real killers. They were large, oblique orbs of arsenic grey, highlighted with flecks of periwinkle blue. More important, they were very alive eyes, alert, aware of others, shining with intelligence and humor - so much so, in fact, that if you weren't careful, you'd miss the smoldering, demonic fires of sensuality in them, of a steady, predatory hunger.

  Beside me, Ramirez swallowed. I knew only because I could hear it. When Lara makes an entrance, no one looks away.

  She wore a white silk business suit, its skirt less than an inch too short to be considered dignified business wear, the heels of her white shoes just a tiny bit too high for propriety. It made it difficult not to stare at her legs. A lot of women with her coloring couldn't pull off a white outfit, but Lara made it look like a goddess's toga.

  She knew the effect she had when we looked at her, and her mouth curled into a satisfied little smile. She walked toward us slowly, one leg crossing the other at a deliberate pace, hips shifting slightly. The motion was. . . awfully pretty. Sheer, sensual femininity gathered around her in a silent, unseen thundercloud, so thick that it could drown a man if he wasn't careful.

  After all, she had drowned her father in it, hadn't she.

  All is not gold that glitters, and how well I knew it. As delicious as she looked, as pants-rendingly gorgeously as she moved, she was capital-D Dangerous. More, she was a vampire, a predator, one who fed on human beings to continue her very existence. Despite our past cooperation, I was still human, and she was still something that ate humans. If I acted like food, there would be an enormous part of her that wouldn't care about politics or advantage. It would just want to eat me.

  So I did my best to look bored as she approached and offered me her hand, palm down.

  I took her cold (smooth, pretty, deliciously soft - dammit, Harry, ignore your penis before it gets you killed!) fingers in mine, bent over them in a little formal bow, and released them without kissing her hand. If I had, I wasn't sure I wouldn't take a few nibbles, just to test out the texture as long as I was there.

  As I rose, she met my eyes for a dangerous second and said, "Sure you don't want a taste, Harry?"

  A surge of raw lust that was - probably - not my own flickered through my body. I smiled at her, gave her a little bow of my head, and made a small effort of will. The runes and sigils on my staff erupted into smoldering orange Hellfire. "Be polite, Lara. It would be a shame to get cinders and ashes all over those shoes. "

  She tilted her head back and let out a bubbling, throaty laugh, then touched the side of my face with one hand. "Subtle, as always," she replied. She lowered her hand and ran her fingertips over the odd grey material of my Warden's cloak. "You've developed. . . an eclectic taste in fashion. "

  "It's the same color," I said, "on both sides. "

  "Ah," Lara said, and inclined her head slightly to me. "I'd hardly respect you otherwise, I suppose. Still, should you ever desire a new wardrobe. . . " She touched the fabric of my shirt lightly. "You would look marvelous in white silk. "

  "Said the spider to the fly," I replied. "Forget it. "

  She smiled again, batted her lashes at me while my heart skipped a beat, and then slid on to Ramirez. She offered him her hand. "You must be Warden Ramirez. "

  This is the part where I got nervous. Ramirez loved women. Ramirez never shut up about women. Well, he never shut up about anything in general, but he'd go on and on about various conquests and feats of sexual athleticism and -

  "A virgin?" Lara blurted. Lara blurted. She turned her head to me, grey eyes several shades paler than they had been, and very wide. "Really, Harry, I'm not sure what to say. Is he a present?"

  I folded my arms and regarded Lara steadily, but said nothing. This was Ramirez's moment to make a first impression, and if he didn't do it on his own, Lara would regard him as someone who couldn't protect himself. It would probably mark him as a target.

  Lara turned to walk a slow circle around Ramirez, inspecting him the way you might a flashy new sports car. She was of a height with him, but taller in the heels, and there was nothing but a languidly sensual confidence in the way she moved. "A handsome young bantam," she murmured. She trailed a finger across the line of his shoulders as she moved behind him. "Strong. Young. A hero of the White Council, I've heard. " She paused to touch a fingertip to the back of his hand, and then shuddered. "And power, too. " Her eyes went a few shades brighter as she completed the tour. "My goodness. I've recently fed, and still . . . Perhaps you'd care to ride with me back to the estate, and let Dresden walk. I promise to entertain you until he arrives. "

  I knew the look on Ramirez's face. It was the look of a young man who wants nothing so badly as to discard the complex things in life, like civilization, social mores, clothing, and speech, and see what happened next.

  Lara knew it, too. Her eyes glittered brig
htly, and her smile was serpentine, and she pressed closer.

  But Ramirez apparently knew about glittery gold, too. I didn't know he'd hidden a knife up his sleeve, but it appeared in his hand an instant before its tip pressed into the bottom of Lara's throat.

  "I," he said very quietly, "am not food. " And he met her eyes.

  I hadn't seen a soulgaze from the outside before. It surprised me, how simple and brief it looked, when one wasn't being shaken to the core by it. Both of them stared, eyes widening, and then shuddered. Lara took a small step back from Ramirez, her breathing slightly quickened. I noticed, because I'm a professional investigator. She could have been concealing a weapon in that decolletage.

  "If you meant to dissuade me," Lara said a moment later, "you haven't. "

  "Not you," Ramirez replied, lowering the knife. His voice was rough. "It wasn't to dissuade you. "

  "Wise," she murmured, "for one so young. I advise you, young wizard, not to hesitate so long to act, should another approach you as I did. A virgin is. . . extremely attractive to our kind. One such as you is rare, these days. Give a less restrained member of the court an opportunity as you did me, and they'll throw themselves on you in dozens - which would reflect poorly on me. "

  She turned back to me and said, "Wizards, you have my pledge of safe conduct. "

  I inclined my head to her and said, "Thank you. "

  "Then I will await your company in the car. "

  I nodded my head to her, and Lara walked back to her bodyguard, who looked like he was fighting off a fit of apoplexy.

  I turned and eyed Ramirez.

  He turned bright red.

  "Virgin?" I asked him.

  He turned more red.

  "Carlos?" I asked.

  "She's lying," he snapped. "She's evil. She's really evil. And lying. "

  I rubbed at my mouth to keep anyone from seeing me grin.

  Hey. On nights like this, you take your laughs where you can get them.

  "Okay," I said. "Not important. "

  "The hell it isn't!" he spat. "She's lying! I mean, I'm not. . . I'm. . . "

  I nudged him with an elbow. "Focus, Galahad. We've got a job to do. "

  He exhaled with a growl. "Right. "

  "You saw what was inside her?" I asked.

  He shuddered. "That pale thing. Her eyes. . . she was getting more turned on, and they kept looking more like its eyes. "

  "Yep," I said. "It's a tip-off to how close they are to starting to take a bite of you. You handled it right. "

  "You think so?"

  I couldn't resist jibing him, just a little. "Just think. If you'd messed it up," I said, as Lara slid into the car one long, perfect leg at a time, "you'd be in the limo with Lara ripping your clothes off right now. "

  Ramirez looked at the car and swallowed. "Um. Yeah. Close one. "

  "I've met several of the White Court," I said. "Lara's probably the smartest. She's the most civilized, progressive, adaptable. She's definitely the most dangerous. "

  "She didn't look that tough," Ramirez said, but he was frowning in thought as he said it.

  "She's dangerous in a different way than most," I said. "But I think her word is good. "

  "It is," Ramirez said firmly. "I saw that much. "

  "It's one of the things that makes her dangerous," I said, and headed for the limo. "Stay cool. "

  We walked over and I leaned down to see Lara in the back of the limo, seated on one of the dogcart-style seats, all poise and beauty and gorgeous grey eyes. She smiled at me as I looked in, and crooked a finger.

  "Step into my limo," said the spider to the fly.

  And we did.

  Chapter Thirty-Six

  The limo rolled right past the enormous stone house that was the chateau proper. It was bigger than a parking garage, and covered with cornices and turrets and gargoyles, like some kind of neo-Medieval castle.

  "We're, uh," I noted, "not stopping at the house. "

  "No," Lara said from the seat facing us. Even in the dark, you could see the glow of her luminous skin. "The conclave is being held in the Deeps. " Her eyes glittered at me. "Less walking for everyone, that way. "

  I gave her a small smile and said, "I like the house. The whole castle-look thing. It's always nice to know you're living somewhere that could withstand a besieging army of Bohemian mercenaries if it had to. "

  "Or American wizards," she replied smoothly.

  I gave her what I hoped was a wolfish smile, folded my arms, and watched the house go by. We turned down a little gravel lane and drove another mile or so before the car slowed and came to a stop. Bodyguard George got out and opened the door for Lara, whose thigh brushed against mine as she got out, and whose perfume smelled good enough to scramble my brain for a good two or three seconds.

  Both I and Ramirez sat still for a second.

  "That," I said, "is an awfully lovely woman. I thought I should let you know, kid, in case your inexperience had blinded you to the fact. "

  "Lying," Ramirez stated, blushing. "Evil. "

  I snickered and slid out of the car to follow Lara - and the three more bodyguards waiting for her - into the woods beside the gravel lane.

  The last time I'd found the entrance to the Deeps, I'd been stumbling through the woods, focused on a tracking spell and tripping over roots and hummocks in the old-growth forest.

  This time, there was a lighted path, with a red carpet, no less, leading down between the trees. The lights were all of soft blues and greens, small lamps that, upon a closer glance, proved to be elegant little crystal cages containing tiny, humanoid forms with wings. Faeries, tiny pixies, each surrounded by its own sphere of light, trapped and miserable, crouched in the cages.

  Between each cage knelt more prisoners - humans, bound by nothing more than a single strand of white silk about their throats tied to a peg driven into the earth in front of them. They weren't naked. Lara wouldn't have gone in for anything that overt. Instead, they each wore a white silk kimono, accented with strands of silver thread.

  Men and women, arrayed in a variety of ages, body types, hair colors, every single one of them beautiful, their eyes lowered as they knelt quietly. One of the young men sat shivering and was seemingly barely able to stay upright. His long, dark hair was marred with streaks of brittle white. His eyes were unfocused and he seemed totally unaware of anyone around him. His kimono was torn near the neck, leaving a broad swath of muscled chest exposed. There were raking nail marks, deep enough to draw tiny trickles of blood, all the way across one pectoral. There were repeated teeth marks deep in the slope of muscle between neck and shoulder, half a dozen sets of messy bruises and ugly little gashes. There were more nail marks, four side-by-side punctures, rather than rakes, on the other side of his neck.

  He was also obviously, even painfully, aroused beneath the kimono.

  Lara paused beside him and rolled her eyes in irritation. "Madeline?"

  "Yes, ma'am," said one of the bodyguards.

  "Oh, for hunger's sake. " She sighed. "Get him indoors before the conclave is over or she'll finish him off on her way out. "

  "Yes, ma'am," he said, turned aside, and began speaking to nobody. I spotted a wire running to an earpiece.

  I kept walking down the long line of kneeling captives and trapped pixies, and got angrier with every step.

  "They're willing, Dresden," Lara said a few paces later. "All of them. "

  "I'm sure they are," I said. "Now. "

  She laughed. "There is no shortage of mortals who long to kneel before another, wizard. There never has been. "

  We passed several more kneeling men and women who looked mussed and dazed, though none so badly as the first. We also walked past spaces where there was a peg and a strip of white cloth - but no person kneeling within.

  "I'm sure they all knew that they might die by doing it," I said.

  She shrugged one shoulder. "
It happens at these meetings. Guests have no need to dispose of a body, since as hosts we are responsible for such necessities. As a result, many of our visitors make no effort to control themselves. "

  "You're responsible, all right. " I gripped my staff harder and kept my voice neutral. "What about the little folk?"

  "They trespassed upon our land," she replied, her voice calm. "Most would simply have killed them, rather than pressing them into service. "

  "Yeah. You're all heart. "

  "Where there is life, there is hope, Dresden," Lara replied. "My father's policies on such matters have changed of late. Death is. . . gauche, when it can be avoided. Alternative courses are far more profitable and agreeable to all involved. It is for precisely that reason that my father seeks to help create a peace between your folk and mine. "

  I glanced aside at the shining eyes of a short-haired redhead in her early thirties, absolutely lovely, her kimono still open from whatever had fed on her, the tips of her small breasts taut as she panted, the muscles of a lean stomach still trembling. Behind us, the thralls stretched out into the darkness. Ahead of us, they went on for a hundred yards or more. So many of them.

  I started to shudder, but the faces of the women the Skavis and his pretenders had murdered flickered through my mind, and I fought it down. Like hell was I going to let Lara see me look discomfited, no matter how sick the display of the White Court's seductive power made me feel.

  The path went for another hundred yards through the woods and stopped at the mouth of a cave. It wasn't large or sinister or dramatic. It was simply a fissure in an almost-flat stretch of ground at the base of a tree, with the hypnotic sway of firelight dancing somewhere below. There were guards outside - set back in the woods, out of obvious sight. I spotted a couple of deer stands, occupied by dark shapes. There were others standing silent sentinel. I assumed that there would be more guards I could not see.

  Lara turned to us. "Gentlemen," she said. "If you will wait here for a moment, I will send someone when the White King is ready to receive you. "

  I nodded once, settled my staff on the ground, and leaned on it a little, saying nothing. Ramirez took his cue from me.

  Lara gave me a level look. Then she turned and descended into the Deeps, flawlessly graceful despite her high heels.

  "You've met her before," Ramirez noted quietly.

  "Yeah. "

  "Where?"

  "Set of a porn movie. She was acting. "

  He stared at me for a second. Then shrugged in acceptance and said, "What were you doing?"

  "Stuntman," I replied.

  "Uh. . . " he said.

  "I'd been hired by the producer to find out why people involved with the movie were being killed. "

  "Did you?"

  "Yeah. "

  "So. . . did you and she. . . ?"

  "No," I said. "You can tell from how I'm breathing and possessed of my own will. " I nodded toward the entrance of the cave, where a shadow briefly darkened the firelight from below. "Someone's coming. "

  A young woman in an especially fine white kimono, heavily embroidered with silver thread, emerged from the fissure. I thought she was blond for a second, but that was because of the light. As she approached us with slow, quiet steps, her hair turned blue, then green, passing through the light of the faerie lamps. Her hip-length hair was pure white. She was lovely, very nearly as much so as Lara, but there was none of the predatory sense of hunger in her that I'd come to associate with the White Court. She was slim, and sweetly shaped, and looked quite frail and vulnerable. It took me a second to recognize her.

  "Justine?" I asked.

  She gave me a little smile. It was oddly disconnected, as if her dark eyes were focused on something other than what she smiled at, and she never looked directly at me. She spoke, her words flecked with little pauses and emphasis on odd syllables, as if she were speaking a foreign language in which she had merely technical proficiency. "It's Harry Dresden. Hello, Harry. You look dashing this evening. "

  "Justine," I said, accepting her hand as she offered it to me. I bowed over it. "You look. . . ambulatory. "

  She gave me a shy smile and spoke in a dreamy singsong. "I'm healing. One day I'll be all better and go back to my lord. "

  Her fingers, though, tightened hard on mine as she spoke, a quick and measured sequence, to the rhythm of "shave and a haircut. "

  I blinked for a second and then squeezed back on the beat for "six bits. "

  "I'm sure any man would be delighted to see you. "

  She blushed daintily and bowed to us. "So kind, my lord. Would you accompany me, please?"

  We did. Justine led us down into the fissure, which proved to be a smooth-walled descent into the earth. From there, our way forward entered a torchlit tunnel, its walls also polished smooth, and from far below us came the music of echoing voices and sounds dancing through the stone, being subtly changed and altered by the acoustics as they came up from below.

  It was a long, winding descent down, though the tunnel was wide and the footing steady. I remembered the nightmarish flight from the Deeps the last time I'd been there, while Murphy and I dragged my half-dead half brother all the way up before we'd been consumed in a storm of psychic slavery Lara was whipping up to take control of her father, and through him the White Court. It had been a close one.

  Justine stopped about two-thirds of the way down, at a spot that had been marked with a bit of chalk on the floor. "Here," she said in a quiet - but not at all dreamy - voice. "We can't be overheard from here. "

  "What's going on?" I demanded. "How are you walking around like this?"

  "It doesn't matter right now," Justine said. "I'm better. "

  "You aren't crazy, are you?" I demanded. "You nearly scratched my eyes out that one time. "

  She shook her head with a frustrated little motion. "Medication. It isn't. . . Look, I'm all right for now. I need you to listen to me. "

  "Fine," I said.

  "Lara wished me to tell you what to expect," Justine said, dark eyes intent. "Right now, Lord Skavis is below, calling for an end to any plans for negotiations with the Council, citing the work of his son as an illustration of the profit of continuing hostilities. "

  "His son ?" I said.

  Justine grimaced and nodded. "The agent you slew was the heir apparent of House Skavis. "

  Mouse might have been the one to do the actual killing, but the Accords regarded him as a mere weapon, like a gun. I was the one who had pulled the trigger. "Who is in charge of Malvora?"

  "Lady Cesarina Malvora," Justine said, giving me a smile of approval. "Whose son Vittorio will be quite insulted by Lord Skavis's lies about all the hard work he and Madrigal Raith did. "

  I nodded. "When does Lara want me to make my entrance?"

  "She told me that you would know best," Justine said.

  "Right," I said. "Take me to where I can hear them talking, then. "

  "That's going to be a problem," Justine said. "They're speaking Ancient Etruscan. I can follow enough of it to give you an idea what - "

  "It isn't a problem," I said.

  Is it ? I thought toward Lasciel's shadow.

  Naturally not, my host , came the ghostly reply.

  Groovy , I thought. Thanks, Lash .

  A startled second passed. Then she replied, You are welcome.

  "Just get me to where I can hear them," I told Justine.

  "This way," she replied at once, and hurried on down the passage, stopping not twenty feet shy of the main cavern. Even so close, I could see very little of the cavern beyond - though I could hear voices raised in speech that sounded strange and sibilant in my ears and English in my head.

  ". . . the very heart of the matter," a rolling basso voice orated. "That the mortal freaks and their ilk stand on the brink of destruction. Now is the time to tighten our grip and neuter the kine once and for all. " Lord Skavis, I presumed.

&
nbsp; A strong and lazily confident baritone answered the speaker, and I recognized the voice of the remains of the creature who had killed my mother at once. "My dear Skavis," answered Lord Raith, the White King, "I can hardly say that I find the notion of a neutered humanity entirely appealing. "

  There was a round of silvery laughter, men and women alike. It rippled through the air and brushed against me like an idly ardent lover. I stood fast until it had gone by. Ramirez had to rest a hand on the wall to keep his balance. Justine swayed like a reed, her eyes fluttering shut and then opening again.

  Skavis's deep voice resumed. "Your personal amusements and preferences aside, my King, the freaks' biggest weakness has always been the length of time it took them to develop their skills to the most formidable levels. For the first time in history, we have degraded or neutralized their many advantages altogether, partly due to the fortunes of war, and partly thanks to the resourcefulness of the kine in developing their arts in travel and communication. The House of Skavis has proven that we stand holding an unprecedented opportunity to crush the freaks and bring the kine under control at last. Only a fool would allow it to slip between his impotent fingers. My King. "

  "Only a fool," came a strident woman's voice, "would make such a pathetic claim. "

  "The Crown," Raith interjected, "recognizes Cesarina, the Lady Malvora. "

  "Thank you, my King," Lady Malvora said. "While I cannot help but admire my Lord Skavis's audacity, I fear that I have no choice but to cut short his attempt to steal glory not his own from the honorable House of Malvora. "

  Raith's voice remained amused. "This should be interesting. By all means, elaborate, dear Cesarina. "

  "Thank you, my King. My son, Vittorio, was on the scene and will explain. "

  A male voice, flat and a little nasal, spoke up, and I recognized Grey Cloak's accent at once. "My lord, the deaths inflicted upon the freakishly blooded kine indeed happened as Lord Skavis describes. But in fact, it was no agent of his House who accomplished this deed. If, as he claims, his son accomplished it, then where is he? Why has he not come forward to bear testimony in person?"

  The words fell on what I could only describe as a glowering silence. If Lord Skavis was anything like the rest of the Whites I'd met, Vittorio needed to bury him fast, or spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder.

  "Then who did accomplish this fell act of warfare?" Raith asked, his tone mild.

  Vittorio spoke again, and I could just imagine the way his chest must have puffed out. "I did, my King, with the assistance of Madrigal of the House of Raith. "

  Raith's voice gained an edge of anger. "This, despite the fact that a cessation of hostilities has been declared, pending the discussion of an armistice. "

  "What is done is done, my King," Lady Malvora interjected. "My dear friend Lord Skavis was correct in this fact: The freaks are weak. Now is the time to finish them - now and forever. Not to allow them time to regain their feet. "

  "Despite the fact that the White King thinks otherwise?"

  I could hear Lady Malvora's smile. "Many things change, O King. "

  There was a booming sound, maybe a fist slamming down onto the arm of a throne. "This does not. You have violated my commands and undermined my policies. That is treason, Cesarina. "

  "Is it, O King?" Lady Malvora shot back. "Or is it treason to our very blood to show mercy to an enemy who is upon the brink of defeat?"

  "I would be willing to forgive excessive zeal, Cesarina," Raith snarled. "I am less inclined to tolerate the stupidity behind this mindless provocation. "

  Cold, mocking laughter fell on a sudden, dead silence. "Stupidity? In what way, O weak and aged King? In what way are the deaths of the kine anything but sweetness to the senses, balm to the Hunger?" The quality of her voice changed, as if she changed her facing in the cavern. I could imagine her turning to address the audience, scorn ringing in her tone. "We are strong, and the strong do as they wish. Who shall call us to task for it, O King? You?"

  If that wasn't a straight line, my name isn't Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden.

  I lifted my staff and slammed it down on the floor, forcing an effort of will through it to focus the energy of the blow into a far smaller area than the end of the staff. It struck the stone floor, shattering a chunk the size of a big dinner platter with a detonation almost indistinguishable from thunder. Another effort of will sent a rolling wave of silent fire, no more than five or six inches high, down the tunnel floor, in a red carpet of my very own.

  I strode down it, Ramirez beside me, the fire rolling back away from our feet as we went, boots striking the stone together. We entered the cavern and found it packed with pale and startled beings, the entire place a wash of beautiful faces and gorgeous wardrobes - except for twenty feet around the entrance, where everyone had hurried away from the blazing herald of our presence.

  I ignored everything, scanning the room until I found Grey Cloak, aka Vittorio Malvora, standing next to Madrigal Raith not thirty feet away. The murdering bastards were staring at us, mouths open in shock.

  "Vittorio Malvora!" I called, my voice ringing with wrath in the echoing cavern. "Madrigal Raith! I am Harry Dresden, Warden of the White Council of Wizards. Under the Unseelie Accords, I accuse you of murder in a time of peace, and challenge you, here and now, before these witnesses, to trial by combat. " I slammed my staff down again in another shock of thunder, and Hellfire flooded the runes of the staff. "To the death. "

  Utter silence fell on the Deeps.

  Damn, there ain't nothing like a good entrance.