Cold days, p.3
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       Cold Days, p.3

         Part #14 of The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher
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She quirked an eyebrow at me, but I saw a pleased tilt to her mouth. “My. That was almost a compliment.”

  “I’m out of practice,” I said. I gestured toward a chair. “Would you care to sit?”

  She gave me a demure smile and did, moving with an absolute and liquid grace. I offered her my hand to help her sit, which she didn’t need. She gripped my fingers lightly anyway. Once she was seated, I sat back down myself. “Did you want a bit of candy?”

  Her smile somehow contained gentle reproof. “I hardly think that would be wise. Do you?”

  “Hell’s bells, no,” I said. “I just, uh . . . You make conversation when you’re, uh . . . I’m not sure what to . . .” I picked up the priceless copy of the Grimms’ tales and held it up. “Book.”

  Sarissa covered her mouth with one hand, but her eyes twinkled. “Oh, um, yes. I’ve seen it a few times. I’ve heard rumors that Her Majesty worked hard to make sure the tales were put into print.”

  “Sure,” I said. “Makes sense.”

  “Why?” she asked.

  “Oh, the Sidhe’s influence had been waning as the Industrial Age gathered steam,” I said. “By making sure the tales kept being told to mortal children, she made sure that she and her folk were never forgotten.”

  “And that’s important?” Sarissa asked.

  “If it wasn’t, why else would she do it? I’m pretty sure that being forgotten is bad for beings that live with one foot in the mortal world and the other over here. Wouldn’t shock me if she greased some wheels for Walt Disney, either. He did more than anyone else to bring those stories into modern times. Hell, he built a couple of fairylands in the mortal world.”

  “I hadn’t ever thought about it that way,” Sarissa said. She folded her hands in her lap and smiled at me. It was a completely calm and lovely expression—but I had the sudden instinct that she was concealing unease.

  I might not have been able to tell a couple of months ago, but she’d been on the periphery of several of Mab’s therapy sessions, and I’d seen her react to sudden fear and stress. There was that same sense of controlled tension in her now as there had been when a small avalanche of poisonous spiders—big ones—had come cascading out of the towel cupboard in the workout room. She’d been wearing capri pants and no shoes at the time, and she’d had to hold completely still while dozens of the things swarmed over her naked feet, until I could clear them off, gently and cautiously, so as not to threaten the little things into killing us.

  That particular test had been all about regulating one’s reaction to sudden fear. Sarissa had done it, refusing to let her anxiety control her. She’d waited, expressionless and almost calm, looking much then as she did right now.

  It made my feet start to itch.

  She was expecting spiders.

  “So,” I said. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your company? Do you need me to perform some last-minute yoga routines?”

  “You took to yoga like a duck to vacuum,” she said. “I know how much you love the routines, but I’m afraid I must disappoint you. Tonight I’m to be on your arm, by command of the Queen. I’m supposed to tell you the protocols for a gathering of the court and make sure you don’t get too bored.”

  I leaned back in my chair and regarded her thoughtfully. “I can’t remember the last time I had that problem. And gosh, walking around with someone as lovely as you all night sounds like torture.”

  She smiled and lowered her eyes.

  “Can I ask you something?” I asked.

  “Of course.”

  “I didn’t use that like a rhetorical question,” I said. “I’m serious. I’d like to ask you something, but if you would rather keep it to yourself, that’s okay, too.”

  That put a crack in her mask. I saw her eyes flick up quickly to my face for a moment, and then back down. “Why wouldn’t I want to answer your questions?”

  “Because we’ve been working together every day for eleven weeks and I don’t know your last name,” I said. “I don’t know what you do in the real world. I don’t know your favorite color or what kind of ice cream you like best. I don’t know if you have family. You’re very, very good at talking about things that don’t matter, and making it seem like the only conversation that could possibly have made sense.”

  She very carefully did not move or answer.

  “Mab’s got something on you, too, doesn’t she? Just like she does me.”

  There was another moment of stillness. Then she said in a bare whisper, “Mab has something on everyone. The only question is whether they realize it or not.”

  “I get that you’re afraid of me,” I said. “I know you saw Lloyd Slate in action when he was the Winter Knight, and I know exactly what a peach of a human being he was. And I figure you think I’m going to be like him.”

  “I didn’t say that,” she said.

  “It wasn’t an accusation,” I said, as gently as I could. “I’m not trying to trick you into saying something. I’m not hoping that you’ll give me an excuse to do something to you. Okay? I’m not like Lloyd Slate.”

  “Neither was he,” Sarissa whispered. “Not at first.”

  A cold little feeling wobbled through my guts.

  See, that’s the tragedy of the human condition. No one wants to be corrupted by power when they set out to get it. They have good, even noble reasons for doing whatever it is they do. They don’t want to misuse it, they don’t want to abuse it, and they don’t want to become vicious monsters. Good people, decent people, set out to take the high road, to pick up power without letting it change them or push them away from their ideals.

  But it keeps happening anyway.

  History is full of it. As a rule, people aren’t good at handling power. And the second you start to think you’re better at controlling your power than anyone else, you’ve already taken the first step.

  “This is the reality, Sarissa,” I said quietly. “I’m the Winter Knight. I’ve got Mab’s favor and blessing. I can pretty much do as I damned well please here, and I won’t have to answer to anyone but her for it.”

  The young woman shivered.

  “If I wanted it,” I said quietly, “if I wanted y . . . to hurt you, I could do it. Right now. You couldn’t stop me, and no one else would do a damned thing. I’ve spent a year on my back and now that I’m moving again, um . . . my various drives are clamoring for action. In fact, Mab probably sent you in here to see what I would do with you.”

  The pleasant mask faded from Sarissa’s face, replaced with wary neutrality. “Yes. Of course she did.” She switched her hands, moving the bottom one to the top, carefully, as if she worried about wrinkling her dress. “I know exactly what role she has in mind for me, Sir Knight. I am to”—her mouth twisted—“be at your convenience.”

  “Yeah, well,” I said. “That isn’t going to happen, obviously.”

  Her eyes widened slightly. She held completely still. “I’m sorry?”

  “I’m not Lloyd Slate,” I said. “I’m not one of Mab’s pet monsters—and I’ll die before I let her make me into one. You were kind to me and you helped me through a bad patch, Sarissa. I won’t forget that. You have my word.”

  “I don’t understand,” she said.

  “It isn’t complicated,” I said. “I won’t take anything away from you. I won’t force you to do anything you don’t want to do. Period.”

  I couldn’t interpret the expression on her face when I said that. There could have been anger in it, or suspicion or terror or skepticism. Whatever was going on in her head to make her face look like that, I couldn’t translate it.

  “You don’t believe me,” I said. “Do you?”

  “I’ve lived a third of my life inside Arctis Tor,” she said, and turned her face away. “I don’t believe anyone.”

  In that moment, I didn’t think I’d ever seen someone so entirely lovely look so utterly alone. A third of her life in Winter? And yet she could still be compassionate and friendly and caring. She’d probably seen things
, had to face ugliness that few mortals ever did—the Unseelie were endlessly enthusiastic about their amusements, and they liked their games nasty and cruel.

  But here she was, facing a fate she must have feared since she was a child—being given to a monster to be devoured. Facing it calmly. Staying in control of herself, and still managing to be warm to me, too. That told me she had a lot of strength, and strength has always been something I found attractive in a woman. So has courage. So has grace under pressure.

  I could really get to like this girl.

  Which, of course, was why Mab had chosen her—to tempt me, to make me convince myself to abandon the high road so that I could have her. Then, once I’d done one little thing, she’d start scattering new lures in front of me, until eventually I picked another one up. Mab was Mab. She had no intention of keeping a Knight with a conscience.

  So she was planning on assassinating mine an inch at a time. Once I’d abused my power over the girl, Mab would use my guilt and self-loathing to push me to the next step, and the one after that.

  Mab was one cold-blooded bitch.

  I looked away from Sarissa. I was going to have to keep her safe—first and foremost from me.

  “I understand,” I told her. “Or at least I understand part of it. My first mentor wasn’t exactly Officer Friendly, either.”

  She nodded, but it was an entirely noncommittal gesture, an acknowledgment that I had spoken, not a statement of agreement.

  “Okay,” I said. “Uncomfortable silence is uncomfortable. Why don’t you tell me what I need to know for tonight?”

  She collected herself and slipped back into her pleasant demeanor. “We’ll enter next to last, just before the Queen. She will present you to the court, and then there will be a meal and entertainment. After the feast, you’ll be expected to mingle with the court and give them a chance to meet you.”

  “That’s the protocol? Thanksgiving dinner at the in-laws’?”

  Something like a real smile brought a little light to her eyes, at the sight of which my glands did not go pitter-pat. At all.

  “Not quite,” she said. “There are two laws all must follow under pain of death.”

  “Only two? Man, how do Unseelie lawyers make a living?”

  “First,” Sarissa said, ignoring my wiseassery, “Blood may not be spilled upon the floor of the court without the Queen’s express command.”

  “No murder without getting the nod first. Got it. Second?”

  “No one may speak to the Queen without her express command.”

  I snorted. “Seriously? Because I’m not much for keeping my mouth shut. In fact, I’m pretty sure I physically can’t. Probably because I was influenced at an impressionable age. Did you ever read any Spider-Man comics when you were—”

  “Harry,” Sarissa said, her voice suddenly tight. She put her hand on my arm, and her lean fingers were like heavy wires. “No one speaks to the Queen,” she whispered intently. “No one. Not even the Lady Maeve dares disobey that law.” She shuddered. “I’ve seen what happens. We all have.”

  I pursed my lips and studied her hand thoughtfully for a moment. Then I nodded. “Okay,” I said. “I hear you.”

  Sarissa exhaled slowly and nodded.

  Just then, a door I hadn’t seen before opened in the center of what had looked exactly like a wall. Cat Sith stood on the other side of the door. He ignored me pointedly, turning his golden eyes to Sarissa. “It is time.”

  “Very well,” Sarissa said. “We are ready.”

  I rose and offered Sarissa a hand up. She took it, and I tucked her arm into mine. Her fingers gave my forearm one quick squeeze, and then we turned to follow Cat Sith down another hallway.

  Sarissa leaned a little closer to me and whispered, “You know what this is, don’t you?”

  I grunted quietly. “Yeah,” I said. “It’s my first day in the prison yard.”

  Chapter

  Four

  Sith led us down yet another passageway, this one darker than the others, until finally I couldn’t see the malk at all in the dimness. Instead, a very dim phosphorescence in the shape of his paw prints began to rise from the floor, giving us just enough light to move by. I could feel Sarissa growing increasingly tense beside me, but she said nothing. Smart. If anything was going to jump up and eat us, our ears would tell us about it first.

  The sound of our steps on the floor changed, and I realized that we had moved into a large open space. Just as I did, the glowing paw prints in front of us vanished.

  I stopped at once, pulling Sarissa in closer against my side. Again, she remained completely silent, except for one sharp little inhalation.

  Silent seconds went by.

  “Sith,” I said quietly. “You are a suck guide. I don’t care how big your shadow is.”

  My voice echoed cavernously while I waited, but apparently Sith didn’t have a comeback. After a few seconds, I reached up and tugged my amulet out of the tux.

  I held it up and concentrated, sending a microcurrent of my will into the design, and an instant later it began to glow with a blue-white light. I held it aloft and looked around.

  We were in another ice cave, this one filled with enormous, bizarre . . . structures, was the only thing I could think to call them. I might have called them sculptures, except no one does sculptures the size of buildings these days, even in ice. I looked around the place slowly. There was something odd about the structures, something almost . . .

  Sarissa was looking, too. She seemed alert, but not frightened. “Are those . . . giant pieces of furniture?”

  . . . familiar.

  The structures were sculpture, built on a scale of maybe one to eight, of a couch, two easy chairs, a brick fireplace, bookshelves. . . . Mab had re-created my old basement apartment in ice, right down to textured carvings of all of my area rugs crafted into the ice of the floor.

  I had about a second to take that in before the cavern exploded with sound, color, and motion. A wave front of pure noise slapped against me as a sudden horde of beings from every dark folktale ever told surged into view at the edges of my light, their screams and cries coming from all around me.

  This was a worst-case scenario for a mortal wizard. We can do amazing things, but we need time to make them happen. Sometimes we get that time by preparing well in advance—creating tools that help us focus our abilities more quickly and with greater precision. Sometimes we get the time by picking where and when to begin our battles. Sometimes we do it by slinging the spell from a couple or a couple hundred miles away. But I didn’t have any of that going for me.

  My convalescence with Mab had kept me way too busy recovering or sleeping to have enough time to create new tools, and my amulet was all I had. On the upside, Mab had given me a serious workout, magically speaking. I’d been forced to use my abilities without any kind of tools or crutch to help me, or else perish. I was better at wielding raw magic now than I’d ever been in my life.

  It just wasn’t going to be enough to survive what was coming at me.

  I moved without thinking, putting myself between Sarissa and as many of them as I could, and bringing my will to bear upon my right hand. Pallid blue-white fire suddenly engulfed my fingers as I let the pentacle fall. I raised my hand—no time to think or aim or plan—determined to take someone down with me.

  Sarissa’s hand snapped out and she grabbed my wrist, jerking my arm down before I could unleash the spell, and I heard two things in the vast roar of sound:

  First, Sarissa screaming, “No bloodshed!”

  Second, I realized that everything else in the cavern was bellowing, “SURPRISE!”

  The horde of all things dark and hideous stopped maybe twenty feet short of Sarissa and me, and the walls and floor and ceiling began to glow with light. Music began to play, a full symphonic freaking orchestra, live, somewhere on the other side of the giant replica of my old secondhand sofa. High up on the ceiling of the cavern, thousands of wisps of eerie light swarmed deep within
the ice, swiftly forming up like a flotilla of synchronized swimmers until they formed the words: HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DRESDEN.

  I stood there with my heart beating too fast for several seconds and blinked at the entire place. “Uh. Oh.”

  Sarissa studied the ceiling for a moment and then looked up at me. “I didn’t know.”

  “Neither did I, really,” I said. “Is it Halloween already?”

  “Just barely, I think,” Sarissa said back.

  It got weirder.

  They started to sing.

  They sang “Happy Birthday.”

  Remember when I said that a malk’s voice made my skin crawl? It’s nothing next to the cackling rasp of a swamp hag, or the freaky-weird whistling voice of a manticore. Goblins can’t carry a tune if it has handles, and the huge bat things that served as Mab’s air force shrieked in pitches that could barely be heard. Trolls, hideous giant thugs towering over ten feet tall, sound like laryngitic foghorns.

  But layered all throughout that cacophony were voices that went to the other extreme, voices that carried the melody with such perfect, razor-edged clarity that it made me want to slash my wrists on it. People always equate beauty with good, but it just ain’t so. Amongst the Winter Court were beings of haunting beauty, mesmerizing beauty, disarming beauty, flawless beauty, maddening beauty, bloodthirsty beauty. Even in the mortal world, a lot of predators are beautiful, and if you’re quick and motivated enough, you can admire that beauty while they kill you and eat you. Like all the other things there, the Sidhe sang to me, and I could feel the weight of their attention on me like the pressure wave from an onrushing shark.

  You don’t listen to music like that. You survive it.

  The voices ended abruptly, and left one crystalline alto singing, “And many more.”

  The crowd of creatures parted suddenly, and a girl stepped out of their ranks. She paused for a moment, for dramatic effect, and to give everyone time to admire her.

  She’d changed her hair again. Now it was a kind of extra-wide Mohawk, long except for where it had been shaved completely away from the sides of her head, where the cut could show off the tips of her gently tapering ears. It was still colored in all glacial shades of blue and green and deep violet, and hung down over much of one side of her face, allowing her to borrow enough of Veronica Lake’s vibe to give her wide, wide eyes a little extra hint of cheerily wicked mystery. She was tallish, for a girl, maybe five-ten, and built with that perfect balance of lean and lush proportions that some girls are lucky enough to have for maybe a year, the kind of look that gets girls that age in trouble with men who should be old enough to know better.