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Grave Peril, Page 25

Jim Butcher

Chapter Twenty-five

  Silence lay heavy over the courtyard. I gripped my cane and waited for the first gunshot, or whistle of a thrown knife, or blood-curdling scream of fury. Michael was a steel-smelling presence beside me, silent and confident in the face of the hostility. Hell's bells. I'd meant to give the vamps a little thumb of the nose with the costume, but wow. I didn't think I'd get this much of a reaction.

  "Steady, Harry," Michael murmured. "They're like mean dogs. Don't flinch or run. It will only set them off. "

  "Your average mean dog doesn't have a gun," I murmured back. "Or a knife. Or a sword. " But I remained where I stood, my expression bland.

  The first sound to ring out was neither gunshot nor battle cry, but rich, silvery laughter. It drifted up, masculine, somehow merry and mocking, bubbling and scornful all at once. I squinted down through the lights, to see Thomas, posed like some bizarre post-chrysalis incarnation of Errol Flynn, one foot up on the stairs, hand braced, his other hand on the crystalline hilt of his sword. His head was thrown back, every lean line of muscle on him displayed with the casual disregard of skilled effort. The butterfly wings caught the light at the edges of the spots and threw them back in dazzling colors.

  "I've always heard," Thomas drawled, his voice loud enough to be heard by all, artfully projected, "that the Red Court gave its guests a warm welcome. I hadn't thought I'd get such a picturesque demonstration, though. " He turned toward the dias and bowed. "Lady Bianca, I'll be sure to tell my father all about this dizzying display of hospitality. "

  I felt my smile harden, and I peered past the spotlights to the dias. "Bianca, dear, there you are. This was a costume party, was it not? A masquerade? And we were all supposed to come dressed as something we weren't? If I misread the invitation, I apologize. "

  I heard a woman's voice murmur something, and the spotlights flicked off. I was left in the dark for a minute, until my eyes could adjust, and I could regard the woman standing across from me, upon the dias.

  Bianca wasn't tall, but she was statuesque in a way you only find in erotic magazines and embarrassing dreams. Pale of skin, dark of hair and eye, full of sensuous curves, from her mouth to her hips, everything possessed of luscious ripeness coupled with slender strength that would have caught the eye of any man. She wore a gown of flickering flame. I don't mean that she wore a red dress - she wore flame, gathered about her in the shape of an evening gown, blue at its base fading through the colors of a candle to red as it cupped her full, gorgeous breasts. More flame danced and played through the elegant piles of her dark hair, flickering over her like a tiara. She had on a pair of real heels at least, adding several inches to her rather unimpressive height. The shoes did interesting things to the shape of her legs. The curve of her smile promised things that were probably illegal, and bad for you, and would carry warnings from the Surgeon General, but that you'd still want to do over and over again.

  I wasn't interested. I had seen what was underneath her mask, once before. I couldn't forget what was there.

  "Well," she purred, her voice carrying over the whole of the courtyard. "I suppose I shouldn't have expected any more taste from you, Mister Dresden. Though perhaps we will see about your taste, later in the evening. " Her tongue played over her teeth, and she gave me a dazzling smile.

  I watched her, watched behind her. A pair of figures in black cloaks, hardly more than vague shapes behind her stood quietly, as though ready to attack if she snapped a finger. I suppose every decent flame casts shadows. "I think you'd better not try it. "

  Bianca laughed again. Several in the courtyard joined in with her, though it was a nervous thing. "Mister Dresden," she said. "Many things can change a man's mind. " She crossed her legs, slowly, flashing naked skin up to her taut, silky thigh as she did. "Perhaps we'll find something that changes yours. " She waved her hand, lazy and arrogant. "Music. We are here to celebrate. Let us do so. "

  The music began again while I sorted out the meaning behind what Bianca had just said. She had given her tacit permission for her people to try to get to me. They couldn't just walk up and bite me, maybe, but yeesh. I'd have to be on my guard. I thought of Kelly Hamilton's narcotic kisses on my throat, the glowing warmth that had surrounded me, infused me, and shivered. Some part of me wondered what it might be like to let the vamps catch me, and if it would be all that bad. Another chewed furiously over everything I'd seen so far that evening - Bianca clearly had something in mind.

  I shook my head and glanced back at Michael. He nodded to me, a slight motion beneath the great helm, and we both descended the stairs. My legs were shaking, making the trip down unsteady. I prayed that none of the vamps noticed it. Wouldn't do to let them see weakness. Even if I was as nervous as a bird in a coal mine.

  "Do what you need to do, Harry," Michael said, low. "I'll be a couple steps behind you, to your right. I'll watch your back. "

  Michael's words steadied me, calmed me, and I felt profoundly grateful for them.

  I expected the vamps to descend on me in a charming and dangerous cloud when I reached the courtyard, but they didn't. Instead, Thomas was waiting for me with one hand on the hilt of his sword, his pale body on shameless display. Justine stood a bit behind him. His face practically glowed with glee.

  "Oh, my, that was marvelous, Harry. May I call you Harry?"

  "No," I said. I caught myself, though, and tried to soften the answer. "But thanks. For what you said, when you did. Things might have gotten ugly. "

  Thomas's eyes danced. "They still might, Mister Dresden. But we couldn't have it descending into a general brawl, now could we?"

  "We couldn't?"

  "No, of course not. There would be far fewer opportunities to seduce and deceive and backstab. "

  I snorted. "I suppose you've got a point. "

  The tip of his tongue touched his teeth when he smiled. "I usually do. "

  "Um, thanks, Thomas. "

  He glanced aside, and frowned. I followed his gaze. Justine had drifted away from him, and now stood with a bright smile on her sweet face as she spoke to a lean, smiling man dressed in a scarlet tux and a domino mask. While I watched, the man reached out and stroked his fingers over her shoulder. He made some comment that made the lovely girl laugh.

  "Excuse me," Thomas said with distaste. "I can't abide poachers. Do enjoy the party, Mister Dresden. "

  He drifted off toward them, and Michael stepped up to me. I half-turned my head toward him, to hear him murmur, "They're surrounding us. "

  I looked around. The courtyard was full of people. Many of them were young, pretty folk, dressed in all manner of black, poster children for the Goth subculture. Leather, plastic, and fishnet seemed to be the major themes in display, complete with black domino masks, heavy hoods upon cloaks, and a variety of different kinds of face paint. They talked and laughed, drank and danced to the music. Some of them wore a band of scarlet cloth about their arm, or a bloodred choker around their throats.

  While I watched, I saw a too-lean young man bend over a table to inhale something through one nostril. A trio of giggling girls, two blondes and a brunette, all dressed up like Dracula's cheerleading squad, complete with black-and-red pom-poms, counted to three together and washed down a pair of pills with glasses of dark wine. Other young people pressed together in sensual motion, or simply sat or stood kissing, touching. A few, already partied out, lay upon the courtyard, smiling dreamily, their eyes closed.

  I scanned the crowd with my eyes, and picked out the differences at once. Drifting among the young people clad in black were lean figures in scarlet - perhaps two or three dozen, in all. Male and female, of a variety of appearances and costumes, all shared the scarlet clothes, beauty, and a confident, stalking kind of motion that marked them as predators.

  "The Red Court," I said. I licked my lips, and looked around some more. The vampires were being casual about it, but they had wandered into a ring around us. If we remained there any longer, we wouldn'
t be able to walk out of the courtyard without coming within a few feet of one of them. "The kids with the red bands are what? Junior vampires?"

  "Marked cattle, I'd say," Michael rumbled. There was anger in it, steady and slow anger.

  "Easy, Michael. We need to move around a little. Make it harder for them to hem us in. "

  "Agreed. " Michael nodded toward the drink table, and we headed that way, our pace brisk. The vamps tried to adjust to follow us, but they couldn't make it look casual.

  A couple in red moved to intercept us, meeting Michael and me just before we reached the table. Kyle Hamilton wore a harlequin's outfit, all in shades of scarlet. Kelly followed along with him, dressed in a scarlet body stocking that left nothing to the imagination, but with a long cloak covering her shoulders and collarbones, the hood up high around her face. A scarlet mask hid her features, except for her chin and luscious mouth. I thought I could see a puckering of the skin at one side of her mouth - perhaps the burns she'd suffered.

  "Harry Dresden. " Kyle greeted me in a too-loud voice, with a too-wide smile. "How pleasant to see you again. "

  I chucked him boisterously on the shoulder, making his balance waver. "I wish it was mutual. "

  The smile became brittle. "And of course you remember my sister, Kelly. "

  "Sure, sure," I said. "Hit that tanning bed a little too long, did we?"

  I expected her to snarl or hiss or go for my throat. But instead she turned to the table, collected a silver goblet and a crystal wineglass from the attendant there, and offered them to us with a smile that mirrored her brother's. "It's so pleasant to see you, Harry. I'm sorry that we didn't get to see the lovely Miss Rodriguez tonight. "

  I accepted the goblet. "She had to wash her hair. "

  Kelly turned to Michael and offered him the glass. He accepted it with an inclination of his head, stiffly polite. "I see," she purred. "I had no idea you were into men, Mister Dresden. "

  "What can I say? They're just so big and strong. "

  "Of course," Kyle said. "If I was surrounded by people who wanted to kill me as badly as I want to kill you, I'd want a bodyguard about, too. "

  Kelly sidled up to Michael, her breasts thrust forward, straining the sheer fabric of the body stocking. She walked in a slow circle around him, while Michael remained standing just as he was. "He's gorgeous," she purred. "May I give him a kiss, Mister Dresden?"

  "Harry," Michael said.

  "He's married, Kelly. Sorry. "

  She laughed, pressing close to Michael, and tried to catch his eyes. Michael frowned, and stared at nothing, avoiding her. "No?" she asked. "Well. Don't worry, pretty man. You'll love it. Everyone wants to party like it's their last night on earth. " She flashed a wicked smile up at him. "Now you get to. "

  "The young lady is too kind," Michael said.

  "So stiff. I admire that in a man. " She shot me a glance from behind her mask. "You really shouldn't drag poor defenseless mortals into these things, Mister Dresden. " She looked Michael up and down again, admiring. "This one will be delicious, later. "

  "Don't bite off more than you can chew," I advised her.

  She laughed, as though delighted. "Well, Mister Dresden. I see his crosses, but we all know the value of them to most of the world. " She reached her hand toward Michael's arm, possessively. "For a moment, you almost had me thinking that he might be a true Knight Templar. "

  "No," I said judiciously. "Not a Knight Templar. "

  Kelly's hand touched Michael's steel-clad arm - and erupted into sudden, white flame, as brief and violent as a stroke of lightning. She screamed, a piercing wail, and fell back from him to the ground. She lay there, curled helplessly around her blackened hand, struggling to get enough breath back to scream. Kyle flew to her side.

  I looked at Michael and blinked. "Wow," I said. "Color me impressed. "

  Michael looked vaguely embarrassed. "It happens like that sometimes," he said, apologetically.

  I nodded and took that in stride. I turned my gaze back to the vampire twins. "Let that be a lesson to you. Hands off the Fist of God. "

  Kyle shot me a murderous look, his face rippling.

  My heart sped up, but I couldn't let the fear show. "Go ahead, Kyle," I dared him. "Start something. Break the truce your own leader set up. Violate the laws of hospitality. The White Council will burn this place down so fast, people will call it Little Pompeii. "

  He snarled at me, and picked Kelly up. "This isn't over," he promised. "One way or another, Dresden. I'll kill you. "

  "Uh-huh. " I flicked my wrist at him, my hand right in his face. "Shoo, shoo. I have to mingle. "

  Kyle snarled. But the pair withdrew, and I turned my gaze slowly around the courtyard. Everything in the immediate vicinity had stopped while people, black- and red-clad alike, stared at us. Some of the vampires in scarlet looked at Michael, swallowed, and took a couple of steps back.

  I grinned, as cocky and as confident as I could appear, and lifted my glass. "A toast," I said. "To hospitality. "

  They were quiet for a moment, then hurriedly mumbled an echo to my toast and sipped from their drinks. I drained my goblet in a single gulp, hardly noticing the delightful flavor of it, and turned to Michael. He lifted his glass to the mouth of his helm in a token sip, but didn't take any.

  "All right," I said. "I got to touch Kyle. He's out, too, though I didn't expect him to be our man. Or woman. Or monster. "

  Michael looked slowly around as the scarlet-clad vampires continued to withdraw. "It looks like we've cowed them for now. "

  I nodded, still uneasy. The crowd parted at one side, and Thomas and Justine came to us, blazes of pale skin and brilliant color amidst the scarlet and black. "There you are," Thomas said. He glanced down at my goblet and let out a sigh. "I'm glad I found you in time. "

  "In time for what?" I asked.

  "To warn you," he said. He flicked a hand at the refreshments table. "The wine is poisoned. "