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Changes, Page 3

Jim Butcher

Chapter 6~8

  Chapter 6

  I didn't sleep long, but I did it well. When my old Mickey Mouse windup alarm clock went off at seven, I had to fight my way up from a deep place on the far side of dreamland. I felt like I could use another eighteen or twenty hours.

  It was another instance of my emotions getting the better of me. Using soulfire on pure, instinctive reflex was a mistake - potentially a fatal one. The extramortal well of power that soulfire offered was formidable in ways I understood only imperfectly. I don't know if it made my spells any more effective against the Red Court - though I had a hunch that it sure as H-E-double-hockey-sticks did - but I was dead certain that it had drawn upon my own life energy to do it. If I pulled on it too much, well. No more life energy kinda means no more life. And if that energy was indeed the same force that is commonly known as a soul, it might mean oblivion.

  Depending on what actually happened when you got to the far side, I guess. I have no idea. And no mortal or immortal creature I had ever met had sounded like he knew for sure, either.

  I did know that powerful emotions were an excellent source of additional energy for working magic, sort of a turbocharger. Throw a destructive spell in the grip of a vast fury, and you'd get a lot more bang for your effort than if you did it while relaxed on a practice field. The danger, of course, was that you could never really be sure how much effect such an emotion would have on a spell - which meant that you ran a much higher risk of losing control of the energy. Guys operating on my level can kill others or themselves at the slightest mistake.

  Maybe the soulfire came from a similar place as the emotions. Maybe you couldn't have one without at least a little bit of the other. Maybe they were all mixed together, like protein powder and skim milk in a health smoothie.

  Didn't matter, really. Less than sixty seconds of action the night before left me exhausted. If I didn't get a handle on the soulfire, I could literally kill myself with it.

  "Get it together, Harry," I growled to myself.

  I shambled out of bed and out into the living room to find that my apprentice, Molly, had come in while I was sleeping and was profaning breakfast in my tiny kitchen.

  She wore a simple outfit - jeans and a black T-shirt that read, in very small white letters, IF YOU CAN READ THIS, YOU'D BETTER HAVE BOUGHT ME DINNER. Her golden hair was longer - she'd been letting it grow - and hung down to her shoulder blades in back. She'd colored it near the tips with green that darkened to blue as it went down.

  I'm not sure if Molly was "bangin'," or "slammin'," or "hawt," since the cultural catchphrase cycles every couple of minutes. But if you picked a word meant to be a term of praise and adoration for the beauty of a young woman, it was probably applicable. For me, the effect was somewhat spoiled, because I'd known her since she was a skinny kid somewhere between the ages of training wheels and training bra, but that didn't mean that I didn't have an academic appreciation for her looks. When she paid any attention, men fell all over her.

  Mouse sat alertly at her feet. The big dog was very good about not taking food off the table or from the stove or the counter or on top of the refrigerator, but he had drawn a line on the linoleum: If any bits fell to the floor, and he could get to them first, they were his. His brown eyes tracked Molly's hands steadily. From the cheerful wag of his tail, she had probably already dropped things several times. She was a soft touch where the pooch was concerned.

  "Morning, boss," she chirped.

  I glowered at her, but shambled out to the kitchen. She dumped freshly scrambled eggs onto a plate next to bacon, toast, and some mixed bits of fruit, and pressed a large glass of OJ into my hand.

  "Coffee," I said.

  "You're quitting this week. Remember? We had a deal: I make breakfast and you quit morning coffee. "

  I scowled at her through the coffeeless haze. I dimly remembered some such agreement. Molly had grown up being interested in staying healthy, and had gotten more so of late. She was careful about what she ate, and had decided to pass that joy on to me.

  "I hate morning people," I said, and grabbed my breakfast. I stalked over to the couch and said, "Don't feed Mouse anything. Not good for him. "

  Mouse didn't twitch an ear. He just sat there watching Molly and grinning.

  I drank orange juice, which I found a completely inadequate beginning to my day. The bacon turned out to be made of turkey, and the edges were burned. I ate it anyway, along with toast that was not quite done enough. The grasshopper had talents, but cooking was not among them. "Things are up," I said.

  She stood at the sink, scrubbing a pan, and looked up at me interestedly. "Oh? What?"

  I grunted and thought about the matter carefully for a moment. Molly was not much for combat. It just wasn't her field. The next few days would certainly be hazardous for me, and I could live with that. But if Molly got involved, they might well be murderous.

  I'd seen both sides of the "ignorance is safety" line of thinking in action. I'd seen people die who wouldn't have if they hadn't been told about the supernatural and its hazards, and I'd seen them die because they'd been forewarned, and it just wasn't enough to really impress the scale of the threat upon them. There was just no way to know what would happen.

  And because I had no way to know what would happen, I'd come to the conclusion that, absent factors that might make me believe to the contrary, I just wasn't wise enough to deny them the choice. Molly was a part of my life. This would affect her strongly, in one way or another. The only responsible thing to do was to let her decide for herself how she wanted to live her life. That included endangering it, if that was what she felt was appropriate.

  So, much as I had for Murphy, I laid it out for the grasshopper.

  By the time I was finished, Molly was kneeling on the floor next to where I sat at the sofa, her blue eyes wide. "Wow, Harry. "

  "Yeah," I said.

  "Wow. "

  "You said that. "

  "This changes everything. "

  I nodded.

  "How can I help?"

  I hoped that she hadn't just chosen to get herself killed. "You tell me. What's the smart move, padawan?"

  She chewed on her lip for a moment and then peered up at me. "We need information. And we need backup. Edinburgh?"

  I drank the last swallow of my orange juice, resented its healthiness, and said, "Bingo. "

  We took the Ways to Edinburgh, taking advantage of the weird geography of the spirit world to cover a lot more physical distance in the material world. Only certain previously explored routes were safe and reliable, and you had to have some serious supernatural juice to open the door, so to speak, between the real world and the Nevernever, but if you could do it, the Ways were darned handy. The Chicago-to-Edinburgh trip took us about half an hour.

  The headquarters of the White Council of wizards is a dull, dim, drafty sort of place - not unlike the insides of the heads of a great many people who work there. It's all underground, a network of tunnels, its walls covered in carvings of mystic runes and sigils, of stylized designs and genuinely beautiful artistry. The ceilings are kind of low for me in places. Some of the tunnels are pitch-black, but most of them are bathed in a kind of ambient light without a visible source, which is an awfully odd look - sort of like one of those black lights that makes certain other colors seem to glow.

  We passed two security checkpoints and walked for another five minutes before Molly shook her head. "How big is this place?" Her subdued voice echoed down the empty tunnels.

  "Big," I said. "Almost as big as the city above, and it has multiple levels. Way more than we actually use. "

  She trailed her fingers over an elaborate carving in the stone as we passed it, a mural depicting a forest scene, its edges and lines crisp and clean despite the smoke from occasional torches and the passage of centuries. Her fingers left little trails in the light layer of dust coating the wall. "Did the Council carve it out?"

  "Nah," I said. "That would have been too much like work. Rumor has it that it used to be the palace of the lord of the Daoine Sidhe. That the original Merlin won it from him in a bet. "

  "Like, Merlin Merlin?" she asked. "Sword in the stone and so on?"

  "Same guy," I said. "Doubt he was much like in the movies. "

  "Wrote the Laws of Magic, founded the White Council, was custodian of one of the Swords and established a stronghold for the Council, too," Molly said. "He must have been something else. "

  "He must have been a real bastard," I said. "Guys who get their name splashed all over history and folklore don't tend to be Boy Scout troop leaders. "

  "You're such a cynic," Molly said.

  "I think cynics are playful and cute. "

  There was no traffic at all in the main corridor, which surprised me. I mean, it was never exactly crowded, but you usually bumped into someone.

  I headed for Warden country. There was a large dormitory set up for the militant branch of the White Council, where I could generally be confident of finding a surly, suspicious face. It was also very possible that Anastasia Luccio, captain of the Wardens, was there. The cafeteria and the administrative offices were nearby, so it was hands down the busiest part of the stronghold.

  Warden country and the cafeteria were both empty, though there was a deck of cards spread out on a table in one of the lounges. "Weird," I muttered. "All the checkpoints are business-as-usual or I'd think something was wrong. "

  Molly frowned. "Maybe someone got into the heads of the sentries. "

  "Nah. They're jerks, but they're not incompetent jerks. No one around here is going to get away with mental buggery for a while. "

  "Buggery?" Molly asked.

  "Hey, we're in the United Kingdom. When in Rome. "

  We went across the hall to administration and, finally, found someone: a harried-looking woman who sat at an old switchboard - the kind with about a million holes and plugs that had to be manually inserted and removed to run it. She wore a pair of ancient-looking headphones and spoke into an old radio microphone. "No. No, we have no word at this time. When we learn something, you will be informed. " She jerked the wire out, plugged it in under another flashing light, and repeated her spiel. I watched that half a dozen times before I literally waved a hand in front of her face to get her to notice us.

  She stopped and blinked up at me. She was a matronly-looking woman, iron grey woven smoothly through her brown hair, which meant that she could be anywhere between forty-five and two hundred years old. Her eyes flicked over me and then Molly, and I saw her body tense. She eased her rolling chair a few inches back from us - like most of the older crew of wizards, she probably regarded me as a sociopath looking for a nice bell tower. The switchboard lights blinked on and off steadily. They were the old kind that made little clicking sounds as they did.

  "Ah," she said. "Wizard Dresden. I am quite busy. "

  "It looks like it," I said. "Wizard MacFee, right? Where is everybody?"

  She blinked at me again, as though I had spoken in Ewok. "Why, they're in the Senior Council's residence hall. It was the only place big enough for everyone who wished to witness it. "

  I nodded pleasantly and tried to remain calm. "Witness what?"

  "The ambassador," MacFee said, impatience touching her voice. She gestured at the switchboard. "You haven't heard?"

  "Was sort of busy yesterday," I said. "Heard what?"

  "Why, the Red Court, of course," she said. "They've sent an ambassador plenipotentiary. " She beamed. "They want to change the cease-fire into a genuine peace. They've sent no less than Duchess Arianna Ortega to ask for terms. "

  Chapter 7

  I felt my stomach flutter around inside me.

  The duchess was playing dirty. As the Red Court envoy, of course she'd have some advance knowledge about her people's intentions. There was no way in hell that this was a coincidence. It was too perfect.

  If the Red Court was offering a return to the status quo - and older wizards love status quo, let me tell you - and adding in something to sweeten it to boot . . . the Senior Council would never authorize an action that would jeopardize such a peace. Not for some random little girl - and certainly not for the offspring of the White Council's most famous maybe-psychotic problem child, Harry Dresden, and a half-vampire terrorist.

  Plenty of the people on the Council thought I should have been beheaded when I was sixteen. It made the younger wizards think I was cool and dangerous, which probably explained my popularity with them. The older members of the Council, though, held the lion's share of its influence and authority. That set would be happy to take any reasonable excuse to leave me hanging in the wind, and Duchess Arianna clearly planned to give it to them.

  She was cutting me off.

  It wasn't until then that I noticed that while my brain had been calmly paddling down the stream of logic, the raging cauldron in my belly had overflowed, and I was walking with smooth, swift strides down a hallway, my staff in my left hand, my blasting rod in my right, and the runes and carvings of both were blazing with carmine light.

  That was somewhat alarming.

  Someone was shaking my arm, and I looked down to see that Molly was hanging on to my left arm with both hands. I was dragging her sneakers forward across the stone floor, though she was clearly trying to stop me.

  "Harry!" she said desperately. "Harry! You can't!"

  I turned my face away from her and kept walking.

  "Harry, please!" she all but screamed. "This won't help Maggie!"

  It took me a few seconds to work out how to stop walking. I did it, and took a slow breath.

  Molly leaned her forehead against my shoulder, panting, her voice shaking. She still held on tight. "Please. You can't. You can't go in there like this. They'll kill you. " I heard her swallow down a mouthful of terror. "If we have to do it this way . . . at least let me veil you. "

  I closed my eyes and took more deep breaths, concentrating on pushing my anger back down. It felt like swallowing acid. But when I opened my eyes, the runes on the staff and rod were quiescent once more.

  I glanced at Molly. She looked up at me, her eyes reddened and afraid.

  "I'm okay," I told her.

  She bit her lip and nodded. "Okay. "

  I leaned over and kissed her hair gently. "Thank you, Molly. "

  She offered me a hesitant smile and nodded again.

  I stood there for a moment more before I said, gently, "You can let go of my arm now. "

  "Oh, right," she said, releasing me. "Sorry. "

  I stared down the hallway in front of me, trying to order my thoughts. "Okay," I said. "Okay. "

  "Harry?" Molly asked.

  "This isn't the time or the place to fight," I said.

  "Um," Molly said. "Yes. I mean, clearly. "

  "Don't start," I told her. "Okay. So the duchess is here to play games. . . . " I clenched my jaw. "Fine. Game on. "

  I started forward again with a determined stride, and Molly hurried to keep up.

  We proceeded to the White Council's ostentatiatory.

  I know. That isn't a word. But it should be. If you'd seen the quarters of the Senior Council, you'd back me up.

  I strode down the hall and nodded to the squad of twelve Wardens on guard outside the chambers of the Senior Council. They were all from the younger generation - apparently there were grown-up things happening on the other side of the large double doors, to which the children could contribute nothing but confusion.

  For once, the Council's geriatocracy had worked in my favor. If they'd left one of the old guard out here, he would certainly have tried to prevent me from entering on general principles. As it was, several of the doorkeepers nodded to me and murmured quiet greetings as I approached.

  I nodded back briskly and never slowed my steps. "No time, guys. I need to get in. "

  They hurried to open the door
s, and I went through them without slowing down and stepped into the chambers of the Senior Council.

  I felt impressed upon entering, as I always did. The place was huge. You could fit a Little League baseball field in it and have room left over for a basketball court. A rectangular central hall splayed out in front of me, its floor made of white marble with veins of gold running through it. Marble steps at the far end swept up to a balcony that circled the entire place, which was supported by Corinthian columns of marble that matched the floor. There was a quiet waterfall at the far end of the chamber, running down into a pool, surrounded by a garden of living trees and plants and the chirp of the occasional bird.

  A platform stage had been erected in the middle of the room, complete with stagelike lighting from a number of brightly glowing crystals, plus another mounted on a wooden podium that would, I took it, provide amplified sound for anyone speaking near it. The place was packed with wizards standing on the floor in a miniature sea of humanity, with more of them lining the balcony above, filling the place to its capacity.

  All in all, the ostentatiatory was so overdone that you couldn't help but be impressed, which was the point, and though my brain knew it was hundreds of feet underground, my eyes insisted that it was lit by natural sunlight.

  It wasn't, though: There was a vampire standing on the platform stage, beside the newest member of the Senior Council, Wizard Cristos. He stood at the podium, smiling and addressing the assembly. The rest of the Senior Council, resplendent in their black formal robes and purple stoles, looked on with their hoods raised.

  ". . . another example of how we must meet the future with our eyes - and minds - open to the possibility of change," Cristos said. He had a great speaking voice, a strong, smooth baritone that rolled effortlessly through the enormous chamber. He spoke in Latin, the official language of the Council - which ought to tell you something about their mind-set. "Humanity is already beginning to move away from the cycle of unthinking violence and war, learning to coexist with its neighbors in peace, working together to find solutions to their mutual problems, rather than allowing them to devolve into bloodshed. " He smiled benevolently, a tall, spare man with a mane of flowing gray hair, a dark beard, and piercing dark eyes. He wore his formal robes open, the better to display the designer business suit beneath it.

  "It is for this reason that I requested a telephone conference with the Red King," he continued. He used the English word for telephone, since there wasn't a proper Latin noun for it. It garnered a reaction from the assembled Council watching the proceedings. Such things were not done. "And after speaking with him for a time, I secured his support for a clearly defined, binding, and mutually acceptable peace. Creating the peace is in everyone's best interests, and it is for this reason that I am pleased to present to you, wizards of the White Council, the Duchess Arianna Ortega of the Red Court. "

  Several wizards not far from Cristos's position on the stage began clapping enthusiastically, and it spread haltingly throughout the chamber, eventually maturing into polite applause.

  Arianna stepped up to the podium, smiling.

  She was gorgeous. I don't mean "cutest girl at the club" gorgeous. I mean that she looked like a literal goddess. The details almost didn't matter. Tall. Dark hair. Skin like milk, like polished ivory. Eyes as blue as the twilight sky. She wore a gown of red silk, with a neckline that plunged gorgeously. Jewels touched her throat, her ears. Her hair was piled up on her head, occasional loose ringlets falling out. Hers was a beauty so pure that it was nearly painful to behold - Athena heading out on a Friday night.

  It took me a good five or six seconds of staring to realize that there was something beneath that beauty that I did not like at all. Her loveliness itself, I realized, was a weapon - such creatures as she had driven men literally insane with desire and obsession. More to the point, I knew that her beauty was only skin-deep. I knew what lurked beneath.

  "Thank you, Wizard Cristos," the duchess said. "It is a very great honor to be received here today in the interests of creating a peace between our two nations, and thereby finally putting an end to the abominable bloodshed between our peoples. "

  The Applause Squad started up again as Arianna paused. People picked up on the cue faster this time. Outside of the wizards who stood on the floor beneath the raised stage, the applause was still polite and halfhearted.

  I waited until it began to die before I released the door. It closed with a quiet boom precisely in the moment of silence between the end of the applause and the duchess's next statement.

  Nearly a thousand faces turned my way.

  Silence fell. I could suddenly hear the little waterfall and the occasional twitter of a bird.

  I stared hard at Arianna and said, my voice carrying clearly, "I want the girl, vampire. "

  She met my gaze with polite serenity for a moment. Then the hint of a smile touched her face, bringing with it a shadow of mockery. It made my blood boil, and I heard my knuckles pop as they clenched harder at my staff.

  "Wizard Dresden!" Cristos said in sharp rebuke. "This is neither the time nor the place for more of your warmongering idiocy. "

  I was so impressed with his authority that I raised my voice and said, louder, "Give back the child you took from her family, Arianna Ortega, kidnapper and thief, or face me under the provisions of the Code Duello. "

  Murmurs ran through the assembly like a rumble of thunder.

  "Wizard Dresden!" Cristos cried, aghast. "This is an ambassador of an Accorded nation, promised safe conduct while she is here on a mission of peace. This is not done!" He looked around the room and pointed a finger at several grey-cloaked wizards standing not too far from me. "Wardens! Escort this man from the chamber!"

  I shot a glance at them. They were all old guard, all dangerous, all tough, and they really didn't like me. Six sets of eyes with all the mercy and pity of a gun's mouth locked onto me.

  I heard Molly gulp.

  I looked back at them and said, in English, "You sure you want it to be like this, fellas?"

  It must have come out sounding more threatening than I thought it had, because half a dozen White Council hard cases stopped walking. They traded looks with one another.

  I turned from them back to the stage, and addressed the vampire. "Well, thief?"

  Arianna turned to Cristos and gave him a rather sad and gentle smile. "I'm sorry about this disruption, Wizard Cristos. I'm not sure what this is about, but it's quite clear that Wizard Dresden feels that he has been badly wronged by my people. Bear in mind that whether justly held or not, his feelings contributed to this war's beginning. "

  "I apologize for this outrageous behavior," Wizard Cristos said.

  "Not at all," Arianna assured him. "I, too, have suffered personal loss in this conflict. It's always difficult to control the emotions arising from such things - particularly for the very young. That's just one of the problems we'll need to overcome if we are to break the cycle of violence between your folk and mine. The veterans of wars suffer horrible mental and emotional scars, vampires and wizards alike. I take no offense at Wizard Dresden's words or actions, and do not hold him responsible for them. " She turned to me and said, her voice compassionate, "I can sincerely say that I understand exactly how much pain you're in right now, Wizard Dresden. "

  I had to force myself not to raise my blasting rod and burn that false empathy off of the duchess's face. I gripped my gear with both hands, to make sure they weren't going to try anything without consulting me.

  "We can never regain the loved ones this war has taken from us," she continued. "All we can do is end the fighting - before even more of our loved ones get hurt. I'm here to avert any more needless deaths, Dresden. Surely you can see exactly why I would do such a thing. "

  Boy, did I. It wasn't enough for her simply to kill me. She wanted to defeat me utterly first, to have her cake and eat it, too. If she brought the fighting to a close this way, she would
garner massive credibility in the supernatural community - and if she did it while simultaneously sticking it to me, it would only be that much more elegant a victory.

  She smiled at me again, with that same tiny shading of mockery so faint that no one who wasn't looking for it could possibly have seen it. It was just enough to make sure that I could see the malice behind it, to make sure that I damned well knew she was rubbing it in my face in front of the entire White Council. She'd probably practiced it in a mirror.

  "I'm giving you a chance," I said, my voice harsh. "Return the child and it ends. We're quits. Make me take her from you and I'll play hardball. "

  She put long, elegant fingers to her chest, as if confused. "I don't know why you're so upset with me, or what I have to do with this child, sir," Arianna said. "But I understand your outrage. And I wish that I could help you. "

  Someone stepped up close to my side, a little in front of me. She was a young woman, not particularly tall, with curling brown hair and a heart-shaped face that was appealing and likable, if not beautiful. Her eyes were steady and hard.

  "Harry," said Anastasia Luccio, captain of the Wardens, "don't do this. Please. "

  I clenched my jaw and spoke in a heated whisper. "Ana, if you knew what she'd done. "

  "You are not going to restart the war and tarnish whatever honor the White Council has left by attacking an ambassador visiting under a pledge of safe conduct," she said evenly. "You're strong, Dresden. But you aren't that strong. If you try it, there are at least thirty wizards here who could take you alone. Working together, they wouldn't just beat you. They'd swat you down like a bug - and then you'd be imprisoned until they decided what to do with you, three or four months from now. "

  My belly and chest felt like they were on fire. I looked past Anastasia to Duchess Arianna again.

  She was watching me - hell, probably listening to me, too, vampire hearing being what it was. Her smile was a scalpel drawn slowly over my skin.

  Anastasia put her hand on my arm - very gently, not firmly. She was making a request. "Harry, please. "

  Behind me, Molly added, "This won't help Maggie, boss. "

  I wanted to scream. I wanted to fight.

  On the stage one of the hooded figures of the Senior Council reached up and drew back his hood. My old mentor, Ebenezar McCoy, was a stocky old man with broad hands and scarred knuckles, bald except for a faint fringe of pale white hairs. His blunt, strong features were smooth and unreadable, but he met my gaze and gave me a very small, very precise nod. The message was clear. I could practically hear the old man's voice growling, Trust me, Hoss. Go with her.

  I felt my lip lift up from my teeth in a silent snarl.

  Then I turned and stalked from the chamber, my work boots thumping heavily on the floor, my staff clenched in my hand. Anastasia walked with me, her hand still on my arm, making it clear that I was being escorted from the room, even if she'd used a gentler persuasion than Cristos would have preferred.

  The Wardens closed the door behind me with a soft, solid boom, cutting me off from the assembled might of the White Council.

  Chapter 8

  "Hey," said one of the young Wardens outside the ostentatiatory. "Hey, Harry. What's up, man?"

  I owed Carlos Ramirez more than a quick shake of my head, but I couldn't give it to him. I didn't want to talk at all, because I wasn't sure I could keep it from turning into furious shouting. I heard Molly turn quickly to him and say, "Not now. There's a problem, we're working on it, and I promise to call you if there's something you can do to help. "

  "But - " he said, taking a few steps after us.

  "Warden," Luccio said firmly. "Remain at your post. "

  He must have obeyed. We kept on walking and he didn't follow us.

  Luccio marched me down a tunnel I had never seen before, took a few turns into the darker hallways lit only by light she called to hang in the air around us, and then opened a door into a warm, firelit room. It looked like a den. There was a large fireplace crackling, several candles lit, and a lot of comfortable furniture scattered around in solitary nooks and in groups, so that one could have as much or as little conversational company as one wished. There was also a bar. A very large, very well-stocked bar.

  "Oh," Molly said, as she came in behind me. "Cozy. "

  Anastasia let go of my arm and marched straight to the bar. She got down a bottle of black glass and poured amber fluid into three shot glasses. She brought them to a nearby table, gestured for us to sit, and then put all three glasses in the middle of the table, leaving it to us to choose which we would drink - two centuries of Warden-level paranoia tends to sink into your bones.

  I sat down at the table. I took a glass and downed it. The liquor left a scouring heat in my chest as it went down, and I wanted it.

  Anastasia took hers and made it vanish without twitching an eye-lash. Molly looked at her glass, took a polite sip, and said, to the other woman's amused glance, "Somebody should be the designated . . . not driver, but sober person. "

  "Harry," Anastasia said, turning to me. "What you did today was dangerous. "

  "I could take the bitch," I growled.

  "There's no way for us to know how old Arianna is," she contradicted, "because humanity hasn't had a written language for that long. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

  I pushed my empty glass away with my fingers and said, "I could take the prehistoric bitch. " I looked around the room for a moment and said, "What is this place?"

  Anastasia leaned back in her chair and spread her hands, palms up. "Welcome to the Worry Room. "

  "Worry Room, huh. "

  She quirked an eyebrow. "Didn't you see the bar?"

  Molly giggled, and suppressed it. "Sorry. "

  Anastasia's voice turned faintly ironic. "It's a place where we crusty old Wardens can go when we're sick of the softhearted wizards who are so lily-livered that they want us to permit wayward children with enough talent to go warlock to live instead of executing them. Like your apprentice, here. I guarantee you some drinks were poured in this room and bitter words said about how we would regret it after her trial. "

  I grunted. "Were you pouring, drinking, or talking?"

  She shrugged. "If not for her, then for plenty of others. I was here when Morgan drank himself into a stupor after your trial, Harry. "

  "No wonder it feels so cozy. "

  She smiled tightly. "It's likely the most private and secure room in the complex. "

  "Paranoia Central is only likely free of spies? You guys are getting sloppy. "

  "Dammit, Harry. " Luccio shook her head. "You've done the Warden job for a while. Or most of it. You still think that the Wardens never have a reason for acting as . . . decisively as they sometimes do?"

  I sighed. Life is never simple. I had railed against the Wardens for years for killing children, young men and women who had gone warlock, lost control of their magical talents and their minds by indulging in black magic. Then I had seen the results of a few warlocks on a spree. They were ugly. Ugly, ugly, ugly. "You've got good reason," I said. "Doesn't mean I have to like it. Doesn't make it right. "

  "Not everyone is so far over the edge they can't come back," Molly added softly. "Sometimes people just . . . just get lost. They just need someone to show them how to come back. "

  "Yes. And in the time it takes to make that distinction, a lot of innocent people have died, Miss Carpenter," Anastasia said, her tone frank and gentle. "The human population has expanded with unthinkable speed in the past two centuries. More and more wizard-level talents are being born. Every time one of them goes warlock, we have less and less time to confront the problem - and nowhere near enough help. "

  "Prevention," I said. "Find them early and they don't go warlock. "

  "Resources. " She sighed. We'd had this talk before. "If the entire Council did nothing but Warden duty, full-time, it still wouldn't be enough. "

on," I said. "Use the Paranet. Get the smaller talents to help identify the gifted. "

  She smiled at me and said, "I'm still building support for it. It's a good idea, Harry. It might even work. The problem is making some of the others in the Council understand it. They see it only as a security risk, especially after Peabody. But it's a good idea. Its time will come - eventually. "

  I grunted. I was quiet for a moment, and then I said, "Familiar argument, huh? Give me some routine. Calm me down. Is that it?"

  "Anxiety, anger, and agitation cloud the mind. That's why the Worry Room is here. " She smiled faintly. "I'm well aware of what it looks like when a wizard has been pushed to the brink. " She poured the two of us another shot and said, "So why don't you tell me how the prehistoric bitch did it to you. "

  I took the glass without drinking. "She took a little girl. "

  "Vampires take a lot of children," Anastasia said. "What makes this one so special?"

  I said nothing. Silence reigned. I looked up and met her eyes.

  Anastasia and I had seen each other for a while. She knew me better than most. She studied my face for maybe half a second, and then took a deep breath. "Harry," she said, "don't say anything about this to anyone you don't trust with your life. "

  I gave her a small, bitter smile and nodded. Knowledge was power. Anyone who knew Maggie was my daughter might use her for leverage against me. Anastasia wouldn't, not for any reason - but others on the White Council would. Oh, they'd probably use softer gloves than Arianna had: I could just see being offered money to help support Maggie, give her access to nice schools, a privileged upbringing, and everything a father could want for his child - so that the offer could be withdrawn if I didn't play ball. After all, these were the good guys.

  But it could get worse. I literally shuddered to think what Nicodemus might do with the knowledge - or, joyous thought, Mab. (Yes, that Mab. Take it from me: The stories don't do her justice. ) I'd met some other real gems out there as well, and none of them had reasons to like me. On the other hand, I thought with a shiver, Arianna was the devil I didn't know.

  Regardless, it wouldn't be helpful to let knowledge of Maggie become general. I had never planned on making an open case of her blood relation to me before the Council. It wouldn't win sympathy - only interest. The fewer people who knew I was Maggie's father, the safer she would be.

  And yes.

  I am aware of the irony.

  I kept looking at Anastasia and asked, "Can I count on you?"

  She put her hands flat on the table and looked down at them for a slow five count, considering her words before she answered. "I am not what I was in a fight, Harry. "

  I ground my teeth. "So you'll sit here where it's safe. "

  For the first time since I'd arrived in Edinburgh, Anastasia Luccio's dark eyes flashed with real anger, and I suddenly remembered that this woman had been the captain of the Wardens for decades. The air between us grew literally physically hotter. "Think carefully," she said in a very quiet voice, "before you call me a coward. "

  Since the stern, iron-haired captain had been magically relocated to the body of a college grad student, her powers had diminished significantly - but her savvy and experience hadn't. I wouldn't care to fight Luccio, regardless of our relative strengths. And, hell, it wasn't as if I hadn't seen her fight more than once since then.

  The anger inside me wanted to spill out onto her. But she deserved better than that from me. I stuffed it back down and lifted the fingers of one hand in a gesture of mute apology. Anastasia Luccio might be many things, but she was no coward - and she was born and raised in a day and age where such an accusation might literally require a duel to be refuted.

  No, thank you.

  She nodded, mollified, and some of the tension went out of her. "I was going to say that I would be of most use to you here - gathering intelligence, asking questions, and digging up resources for you to use. Of course you should fight - but you can't do that until you find the girl, and some of our own people will have an interest in making sure you don't disrupt the peace process. If I am working from here, I can circumvent them. "

  I glanced down at my hands, suddenly embarrassed. She was thinking more clearly than I was. "I didn't even think . . . Yeah. I'm sorry, Ana. "

  She inclined her head. "It's nothing. "

  "It was unnecessary. " I scratched at my head. "You think you can sandbag the Merlin?"

  She lifted both eyebrows.

  "Hell's bells, I'm shocked he didn't rip off his hood and start screaming at me. Maybe challenge me, right there. No way he's going to sit on his ass when he can stick it to me inste - " I broke off speaking as I noticed that Molly's eyes had gone very wide. I turned to look behind me.

  A painting on the wall had just finished sliding to one side, revealing a doorway hidden behind it. The door swung open soundlessly, and a wizard who was the solemn, movie-poster version of old Merlin himself came into the Worry Room.

  Arthur Langtry was one of the oldest and the single most powerful wizard on the White Council. His hair and beard were long, all snowy white with threads of silver, and perfectly groomed. His eyes were winter sky blue and alert, his features long, solemn, and noble.

  The Merlin of the White Council was dressed in simple white robes. What I could think of only as a gunslinger's belt of white leather hung at his hips. It looked like it had been designed after tactical gear made for Special Forces operators, but in an insignificant flash of insight I realized that, if anything, the opposite was likely to be true. Multiple vials, probably potions, rode in individual leather cases. The leather-wrapped handle of an anemic rod or a stubby wand poked out of a holster. Several pouches were fastened closed, and looked as though they would contain bits and pieces of the standard wizarding gear I habitually carried with me when I was working. He also bore a long, white staff, a simple wooden pole made of an unfamiliar wood.

  I stared at him for a moment. Then I said, "The peace talks are over?"

  "Of course not," the Merlin said. "Goodness, Dresden. We aren't going to allow the entire Senior Council to stand on a stage within reach of a vampire's claws. Are you mad?"

  I blinked at him.

  "Wizard McCoy was the only actual Senior Council member on the stage," he said, and then grimaced. "Aside from Cristos, of course, who is unaware of the security measure. The envoy might well be an assassin. "

  I worked my jaw a few times and said, "So. You left him up there by himself while you played it safe. "

  The Merlin shrugged. "One of us had to be there to handle any questions. It was McCoy's idea, Dresden. He is an irritating, arrogant, and formidable man. "

  I scowled and mentally flogged my brain for slacking, forcing myself to see past my emotionally driven hostile response. "You don't trust the vampires," I said slowly. "You aren't drinking the Kool-Aid on this peace conference. "

  Langtry looked at me patiently. Then he looked at Luccio.

  "Jonestown," she provided. "The mass suicide last century. "

  He frowned at that and then nodded. "Ah, I see the metaphor. No, Dresden, we are not willing to simply accept them at their word - but a great many people on the Council do not concur. Cristos has garnered an enormous number of supporters who very much want to embrace the terms of peace. "

  "If you don't want to call off the war," I said, "then why the hell did you stop me, Captain Luccio? I could have fixed it for you right there. "

  "You wouldn't have," Langtry said calmly. "You would have been knocked senseless and thrown in a hole. " A faint smile touched his lips as he spoke the words. "Granted, a pleasant notion, but not a practical one. "

  Next to me, Molly put her elbows on the table and propped up her chin in her hands, staring at the Merlin thoughtfully.

  My brain kept chugging. I think I can, I think I can. When it got to the top of the hill, my eyes widened. "You aren't planning to smoke the peace pipe. You're expecting an at
tack. "

  He looked at me blandly, and rested one hand on the hilt of his combat wand as if by pure coincidence. "Egad. What gave it away, Dresden?"

  I started to say something hot in reply, Merlin or no Merlin, but Anastasia put a hand on my wrist. "Our sources," she said, overriding my incipient insult, "have reported a great deal of activity in the Red Court camp. They're mobilizing. "

  I looked back and forth between them. "You figure they're trying a Trojan horse?"

  "Or some variant thereof," Langtry replied.

  "So we're getting ready for it," Anastasia said. "As well as preparing the heaviest counterattack we've thrown at them yet. "

  "Um," Molly said, "what if they're serious about making peace?"

  Everyone looked at her, and my apprentice visibly wilted beneath the Merlin's gaze.

  "It might happen," she said.

  Langtry smiled faintly. "The leopard cannot change his spots, Miss Carpenter. Sheep can befriend a hungry wolf only briefly. The Red Court is all savagery and crocodile tears. If they make peace, it is only because they need the time to replenish themselves before fighting anew. "

  "Really old things get set in their ways," I confirmed to Molly, my tone including Langtry as a matter of course. "Always hope for the best and prepare for the worst. "

  Molly chewed her lip thoughtfully and nodded.

  Langtry eyed me and said, "Need I explain why I have explained, Dresden?"

  "Maybe you'd better," I said. "I mean, you didn't use illustrations or anything, Professor. "

  Langtry inhaled, briefly closed his eyes, and then looked away from me.

  "Um?" Molly said, frowning.

  "We want the Red Court to attack, if that is their intention," I told her. "We want the Red Court to think their trick is working. We want them to be overconfident. Then when they hit us, we hit them back so hard and fast that they don't know it's coming until it's over. "

  "No," Langtry said. "So they never knew it was coming. Period. We will no longer wage a war with that filth, cold, hot, or otherwise. We're going to destroy them, root and branch. " He lifted his chin slightly as his voice turned to frost. "We're going to exterminate them. "

  Silence followed. The fire crackled cheerfully.

  I felt my hands clench into fists. "But you need them to expose themselves first. And that," I whispered, "is why you're going to ask me to lay off Duchess Arianna. "

  "Don't be absurd," Langtry said in a calm, quiet voice. "I am not asking you. I am ordering you to desist, Warden Dresden. "

  "And let the child die," I said.

  "In all probability the child is already dead, or else turned," Langtry said. "And even if she still survives, we must face a cold truth: Uncounted billions now living and yet to be born will be saved if we stop the Red Court from feeding on humanity ever again. " His voice became even colder. "No one life, innocent or not, is worth more than that. "

  I said nothing for several long, silent seconds.

  Then I stood up. I faced the Merlin for a moment. I could feel the obdurate, adamant will that drove the man, and made his power the greatest well of mortal magic on the face of the earth.

  "You've got it backward, you know," I told him quietly. "No life is worth more than that? No, Merlin. No life is worth less. "

  His expression never changed. But his fingers tightened slightly on his staff. His cold blue eyes touched lightly upon Molly, and then returned to me.

  The threat was plain to see.

  I leaned over close to his ear and whispered, "Go ahead, Arthur. Try it. " Then I straightened slowly away, letting every emotion and every thought drain out of my expression. The tension in the air was thick. No one moved. I could see Molly trembling where she sat.

  I nodded slowly at the Merlin.

  Then I said in a quiet, clear voice, "Grasshopper. "

  Molly stood up immediately.

  I kept myself between the girl and Langtry as we walked to the door. He didn't offer any challenge, but his eyes were arctic and absolute. Behind him, Luccio gave me a single, tiny, conspiratorial nod.

  Hell's bells. She'd known who she would be working against all along.

  Molly and I left Edinburgh behind and headed back home to Chicago.