Cold Days, Page 37Jim Butcher
He held up a finger. “Do not underestimate the depth of this favor,” he said soberly, but his eye was twinkling. “And on a similar note, do not underestimate yourself. You haven’t been given the power and the knowledge and allies and the resources you possess for no reason, Harry. Nothing I have to say can possibly make this task any easier for you. The only way to do it is to do it.” He lifted his chin. “You don’t need help, Warden. You are the help.”
“We’re in trouble,” I said.
He winked at me, restored his hood to its usual position, and said, “We always are. The only difference is, now you know it. God be with you, my friend. I will cover this end. You see to yours.”
He took several rapid paces out from under the towering gates and gestured. A second later, I kid you not, a freaking woven carpet, maybe ten feet by twenty, came sailing neatly down out of the sky, coming to hover about six inches off the ground beside him. Rashid stepped onto the carpet, slipped his boots into some kind of securing straps on it, and then lifted his staff. The carpet and the Gatekeeper rose serenely up out of sight, and a second later went streaking out over the storm-lit battlefield in a howl of whirling winds.
And that’s when it hit me. I mean, when it really, really hit me.
It was up to me.
There wasn’t a backup plan. There wasn’t a second option. There wasn’t any cavalry coming over the hill. The White Council was the next-best thing to clueless about what was happening, and would never in a zillion years admit that they were.
Tonight, a catastrophe that could kill millions of people, including my daughter, was going to happen unless I stopped it. And on top of that, there was a deadly turbulence happening inside the Winter Court, and depending on which side I threw in on, I could save or destroy the world as we knew it. Walking away from this one was not an option.
No dodges, no delays, no excuses. It would happen or it wouldn’t, depending on me.
I looked down at my bruised hands. I slowly closed them into fists and then opened them again. They were battered hands, and they didn’t have anywhere near as much skill as I could have wished were in them—but they were what I had. I had earned the scars on them. They were mine.
I’d done this before. Never on this scale, maybe, but I’d done it before. I’d saved the day, mostly, more or less, on several occasions. I’d done it before, and I could do it again.
There wasn’t any other way it was going to happen.
The only good thing about having your back to the wall is that it makes it really easy to choose which way you’re going to go.
I felt like throwing up. But I stiffened my back and straightened my shoulders and walked quickly over to Mother Summer as she finished standing up from tending to the last of the wounded Sidhe.
“Ma’am,” I said quietly. “I’d appreciate it if you could take me home. I have work to do.”
With all the benevolence she’d had going on, I sort of forgot that Mother Summer wasn’t human. She took me from the gates back to her cottage in silence, smiled, touched my head with her hand—and sent me back to my freaking grave.
I landed on my ass in the muddy broken ice—and could still hear the echoes of the crackling detonation when Mother Winter’s ugly mitt had smashed up through it and grabbed my noggin. I could still hear the raucous cawing of startled crows. Time had all but stopped while I was gone—or, more accurately, time had flown by extremely swiftly where I had been, in the Nevernever, relative to Chicago. I’d been on the other side of that kind of time dilation while dealing with beings of Faerie before, but this was the first time I’d actually benefited from it, gaining time rather than losing it.
Which I hadn’t even considered until now. If things had gone the way they usually did when one got pulled into Faerie business, I could have been gone for an hour and come back a year later, to what would presumably have been a blasted wasteland. The thought made my stomach churn with anxiety.
But I suppose I hadn’t exactly volunteered for the trip. It wasn’t like I’d taken a hideous risk on that score—it had been something entirely outside of my control.
That was scary, too.
While I was sitting there wondering whether that meant that I was a control freak or just sane, a Goth kid poked her head into view atop my grave and peered down at me. She took a cigarette in one of those long holders out of her mouth, exhaled smoke through her nose, and said, “Dude. That is pretty hard-core down there. Are you, like, gonna cut yourself or something?”
“No,” I said, self-consciously hiding my hand behind my back. I looked down and only then did I realize that my outfit had changed from the Sidhe armor back to the secondhand clothes I’d been wearing before. “I fell.”
Other Gothlings appeared. The girl repeated herself, and the others agreed that I was hard-core down there.
I sighed. I gathered my things and clambered out with some reluctantly offered help. I didn’t need it, but I thought it might be good for some kid’s self-esteem. Then I looked around at all the people staring at me, hunched my shoulders up around my head, and hurried out of the graveyard before anyone else could become helpful.
* * *
When I got back to Molly’s place, she asked, “Why do you smell like cloves?”
“Kids today,” I said. “I’m just glad they weren’t smoking marijuana.”
“Ah,” Molly said. “Goths. So I guess that’s grave dirt on you?”
“Stop Sherlocking me,” I said. “And, yes, it is, and I’m showering. Any word?”
“Not yet,” Molly said. “Toot’s waiting outside for his crew to get back. I had to promise him extra pizza to keep him from going out to look himself. I figured we needed him to coordinate the guard.”
“Good thinking,” I said. “One sec.”
I went into my temporary quarters and got clean. It wasn’t just because I had mud from a century-old graveyard on me, along with an open wound on my hand, and because I feared about a million horrible things that could be made from those ingredients. The whole wizard-metabolism thing means that our immune systems are pretty much top-of-the-line. I doubted the Winter Knight’s mantle was slouchy in defending against such mundane threats, either.
It was mostly because I’d been up close and personal with some extremely powerful creatures, and such beings radiate magic like body heat. It’s the sort of thing that can cling to you if you aren’t careful, maybe coloring the way you think a bit, and definitely having the potential to influence anything you do with magic. (It happens with people, too, but with people, even wizards, their aura is so much less powerful that the effect is negligible.) Running water cleanses away the residue of that kind of contact, and I wanted to be sure that whatever happened tonight, I wasn’t going to be handicapped by any mystic baggage from today’s visits.
I hit the shower, bowing my head under the hot water, and thought about things. The Mothers had been trying to tell me something, something they hadn’t said outright. Maybe they hadn’t wanted to just give me what I wanted—but, way more likely, maybe they were incapable of it.
I had bullied Maeve and Lily into straight talk, such as it had been, and it had obviously been uncomfortable for them. I would never have tried the same thing on Titania or Mab. For whatever reason, it seemed that the essential nature of the Queens of Faerie was to be as indirect and oblique about things as possible. It was built into them, along with things like not being able to tell a direct lie. It was who they were. And the farther up the chain you went, the more steeped in that essential nature the Queens became. Maybe Titania or Mab could be a little bit straightforward at times, but I doubt they could have laid out a simple declarative statement about the issue at hand without a major effort. And if that was true, then maybe the Mothers couldn’t have done it even if they wanted to.
There’d been a message in all their talk, especially Mother Summer’s. But what the hell had it been?
this wasn’t a human-faerie translation problem at all. Maybe this was a male-female translation problem. I read an article once that said that when women have a conversation, they’re communicating on five levels. They follow the conversation that they’re actually having, the conversation that is specifically being avoided, the tone being applied to the overt conversation, the buried conversation that is being covered only in subtext, and finally the other person’s body language.
That is, on many levels, astounding to me. I mean, that’s like having a freaking superpower. When I, and most other people with a Y chromosome, have a conversation, we’re having a conversation. Singular. We’re paying attention to what is being said, considering that, and replying to it. All these other conversations that have apparently been going on for the last several thousand years? I didn’t even know that they existed until I read that stupid article, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.
I felt somewhat skeptical about the article’s grounding. There were probably a lot of women who didn’t communicate on multiple wavelengths at once. There were probably men who could handle that many just fine. I just wasn’t one of them.
So, ladies, if you ever have some conversation with your boyfriend or husband or brother or male friend, and you are telling him something perfectly obvious, and he comes away from it utterly clueless? I know it’s tempting to think to yourself, “The man can’t possibly be that stupid!”
But yes. Yes, he can.
Our innate strengths just aren’t the same. We are the mighty hunters, who are good at focusing on one thing at a time. For crying out loud, we have to turn down the radio in the car if we suspect we’re lost and need to figure out how to get where we’re going. That’s how impaired we are. I’m telling you, we have only the one conversation. Maybe some kind of relationship veteran like Michael Carpenter can do two, but that’s pushing the envelope. Five simultaneous conversations? Five?
Shah. That just isn’t going to happen. At least, not for me.
So maybe it was something perfectly obvious and I was just too dumb to get it. Maybe the advice of someone less impaired than me would help. I went back into my head and made sure that I remembered the details of my recent conversations, putting them in order so that I could get a consult.
Once my brain had resolved that, it went straight down a road I’d been trying to detour around.
If I blew it tonight, people I loved were going to die. People who weren’t involved in the fight. People like Michael, and his family and . . .
And my daughter, Maggie.
Should I call them? Tell them to hit the road and start driving? Did I have the right to do that, when so many other people’s loved ones were at risk, too, with no possible way to get them out of reach of harm? Did that matter?
Was I going to be responsible for my daughter’s death, the way I was for her mother’s?
The lights didn’t waver, but it got really, really dark in that shower for a minute.
And then I shook it off. I didn’t have time to waste moaning about my poor daughter and my poor life and, gosh, do I feel bad about the horrible things I’ve done. I could indulge my self-pity after I’d taken care of business. Scratch that. After I’d taken care of bidness.
I slammed the water off hard enough to make it clack, got out of the shower, dried, and started getting dressed in a fresh set of secondhand clothes.
“Why do you wear those?” asked Lacuna.
I jumped, stumbled, and shouted half of a word to a spell, but since I was only halfway done putting on my underwear, I mostly just fell on my naked ass.
“Gah!” I said. “Don’t do that!”
My miniature captive came to the edge of the dresser and peered down at me. “Don’t ask questions?”
“Don’t come in here all quiet and spooky and scare me like that!”
“You’re six times my height, and fifty times my weight,” Lacuna said gravely. “And I’ve agreed to be your captive. You don’t have any reason to be afraid.”
“Not afraid,” I snapped back. “Startled. It isn’t wise to startle a wizard!”
“Because of what could happen!”
“Because they might fall down on the floor?”
“No!” I snarled.
Lacuna frowned and said, “You aren’t very good at answering questions.”
I started shoving myself into my clothes. “I’m starting to agree with you.”
“So why do you wear those?”
I blinked. “Clothes?”
“Yes. You don’t need them unless it’s cold or raining.”
“You’re wearing clothes.”
“I am wearing armor. For when it is raining arrows. Your T-shirt will not stop arrows.”
“No, it won’t.” I sighed.
Lacuna peered at my shirt. “Aer-O-Smith. Arrowsmith. Does the shirt belong to your weapon dealer?”
“Then why do you wear the shirt of someone else’s weapon dealer?”
That was frustrating in so many ways that I could avoid a stroke only by refusing to engage. “Lacuna,” I said, “humans wear clothes. It’s one of the things we do. And as long as you are in my service, I expect you to do it as well.”
“Because if you don’t, I . . . I . . . might pull your arms out of your sockets.”
At that, she frowned. “Why?”
“Because I have to maintain discipline, don’t I?”
“True,” she said gravely. “But I have no clothes.”
I counted to ten mentally. “I’ll . . . find something for you. Until then, no desocketing. Just wear the armor. Fair enough?”
Lacuna bowed slightly at the waist. “I understand, my lord.”
“Good.” I sighed. I flicked a comb through my wet hair, for all the good it would do, and said, “How do I look?”
“Mostly human,” she said.
“That’s what I was going for.”
“You have a visitor, my lord.”
I frowned. “What?”
“That is why I came in here. You have a visitor waiting for you.”
I stood up, exasperated. “Why didn’t you say so?”
Lacuna looked confused. “I did. Just now. You were there.” She frowned thoughtfully. “Perhaps you have brain damage.”
“It would not shock me in the least,” I said.
“Would you like me to cut open your skull and check, my lord?” she asked.
Someone that short should not be that disturbing. “I . . . No. No, but thank you for the offer.”
“It is my duty to serve,” Lacuna intoned.
My life, Hell’s bells. I beckoned Lacuna to follow me, mostly so I would know where the hell she was, and went back out into the main room.
Sarissa was there.
She sat at the kitchen table, her small hands clutched around one of Molly’s mugs, and she looked like hell. There was a dark red mouse on her left cheekbone, one that was swelling and beginning to purple nicely. Her hands and forearms were scraped and bruised—defensive injuries. She wore a pale blue T-shirt and dark blue cotton pajama pants. Both were soaked from the rain and clinging in a fashion that made me want to stare. Her dark hair was askew, and her eyes were absolutely haunted. They darted nervously toward me when I appeared, and her shoulders hunched slightly.
Molly said something quiet to her and rose from the table, crossing the room to me.
“She said you knew her,” Molly said.
“I do. She all right?”
“She’s a mess,” Molly said. “Showed up and begged security to call me before they called the cops. And it isn’t the first time this has happened to her. She’s terrified to be here—terrified of you personally, I think.”
I frowned at my apprentice.
Molly shrugged. “Her emotions are really loud. I’m not even trying to pick anything up.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Is she on the level?”
I thought about it for a second before I answered. “She’s Mab’s BFF.”
“So that would be a no, then,” Molly said.
“Probably so,” I said. “There’s bound to be an angle here, even if she doesn’t know that there is one. She’s a pawn in Winter. Somebody has got to be moving her.”
“She’s also a lifelong survivor in Winter, so don’t let your guard down. The last creature who did wound up as frozen kibble.” I jerked my head toward the exit. “Heard anything from the scouts yet?”
She shook her head.
“Okay. We’ll talk to her. Stay close. I might need to pick your brain about something later.”
“Right,” Molly said, blinking a little. Then she followed me back over to Sarissa.
She gave me a nervous smile, and her fingers resettled on the mug a couple of times. “Harry.”
“I didn’t realize you made house calls all the way to Chicago,” I said.
“I wish it were that,” she said.
I nodded. “How did you know where to find me?”
“I was given directions,” she said.
She swallowed and looked down at the tabletop. “The Redcap.”
I sat back slowly in my seat. “Maybe you’d better tell me what happened.”
“He came for me,” she said quietly, without meeting my eyes. “He came this morning. I was hooded, bound, and taken somewhere. I don’t know where. I was there for several hours. Then he came back, took my hood off, and sent me here. With this.”
She reached down to her lap and put a plain white envelope on the table. She pushed it toward me.
I took it. It wasn’t sealed. I opened it, frowned, and then turned it upside down over the table.
Several tufts of hair bound with small bits of string fell out, along with a small metal object.
Molly drew in a sharp breath.
“He said to tell you that he’s taken your friends,” Sarissa said quietly.
I picked up the tufts of hair one at a time. Wiry black, slightly crinkled hairs, sprinkled with silver ones. Butters. Red hairs, luscious and curly. Andi. And a long, soft, slightly wavy lock of pure white hair. I lifted it to my nose and sniffed. Strawberries. I let out a soft curse.