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Summer Knight, Page 4

Jim Butcher

Chapter Four

  I leaned against my door with my eyes closed, trying to think. I was scared. Not in that half-pleasant adrenaline-charged way, but quietly scared. Wait-on-the-results-of-medical-tests scared. It's a rational sort of fear that puts a lawn chair down in the front of your thoughts and brings a cooler of drinks along with it.

  I was working for the queen of wicked faeries - well, Queen of Winter, of the Unseelie faeries, at any rate. The Unseelie weren't universally vicious and evil, any more than the Seelie, the Summer fae, were all kind and wise. They were much like the season for which they had been named - cold, beautiful, pitiless, and entirely without remorse. Only a fool would willingly associate with them.

  Not that Mab had given me much of a choice, but technically speaking there had been one. I could have turned her down flat and accepted whatever came.

  I chewed on my lip. Given the kind of business I was in, I hadn't felt the need to spend too much time hunting for a good retirement plan. Wizards can live a long, long time, but most of the ones that do tend to be the kind that stick at home in their study. Not many tossed their gauntlets into as many faces as I had.

  I'd been clever a couple of times, lucky a couple of times, and I'd come out ahead of the game so far - but sooner or later the dice were going to come up snake eyes. It was as simple as that, and I knew it.

  Fear. Maybe that was why I'd agreed to Mab's bargain. Susan's life had been twisted horribly, and that was my fault. I wanted to help her before I went down swinging.

  But some little voice in the back of my head told me that I was being awfully noble for someone who had flinched when push had come to shove. The little voice told me that I was making excuses. Some part of me that doesn't trust much and believes in even less whispered that I had simply been afraid to say no to a being who could probably make me long for death if I denied her.

  Either way, it was too late for questions now. I'd made the bargain, for better or worse. If I didn't want it to end badly, I'd better start figuring out how to get out of it without getting swallowed up in faerie politics. I wouldn't do that by taking the case of Ronald Reuel, I was pretty damn sure. Mab wouldn't have offered it if she hadn't thought it would get me further entangled than I already was. Maybe she had me in a metaphysical armlock, but that didn't mean I was going to jump every time she said "frog. " I could figure out something else. And besides, I had other problems on my mind.

  There wasn't much time to spare before the Council meeting that evening, so I got my things together and got ready to leave. I paused at the door, with that nagging feeling I get when I'm forgetting something. My eyes settled on my stack of unpaid bills and I remembered.

  Money. I'd come here to get a case. To make some cash. To pay my bills. Now I was hip-deep in trouble and heading straight out to sea, and I hadn't gotten a retainer or made one red cent.

  I swore at myself and pulled the door shut behind me.

  You'd think as long as I was gambling with my soul, I would have thought to get Mab to throw in fifty bucks an hour plus expenses.

  I headed out to start taking care of business. Traffic in Chicago can be the usual nightmare of traffic in any large American city, but that afternoon's was particularly bad. Stuck behind a wreck up ahead, the Beetle turned into an oven, and I spent a while sweating and wishing that I wasn't too much of a wizard for a decent modern air conditioner to survive. That was one of the hazards of magical talent. Technology doesn't get along so well when there is a lot of magic flying around. Anything manufactured after World War II or so seemed prone to failure whenever a wizard was nearby. Stuff with microcircuits and electrical components and that kind of paraphernalia seemed to have the most trouble, but even simpler things, like the Beetle's air conditioner, usually couldn't last long.

  Running late, I dropped by my apartment and waded through the wreckage looking for my gear for the meeting. I couldn't find everything, and I didn't have time to get a shower. The refrigerator was empty, and all I could find to eat was a half-wrapped candy bar I'd started and never finished. I stuffed it into my pocket, then headed for the meeting of the White Council of Wizardry.

  Where I was sure to cut a devastating swath with my couth, hygiene, and natural grace.

  I pulled into the parking lot across the street from McCormick Place Complex, one of the largest convention centers in the world. The White Council had rented one of the smaller buildings for the meeting. The sun hung low in the sky, growing larger and redder as it dropped toward the horizon.

  I parked the Beetle in the relative cool of the lowest level of the parking garage, got out of the car, and walked around to the front to open the trunk. I was shrugging into my robe when I heard a car coming in, engine rumbling and rattling. A black 37 Ford pickup, complete with rounded fenders and wooden-slat sides on the bed, pulled into the empty space next to mine. There wasn't any rust on the old machine, and it gleamed with fresh wax. A weathered shotgun rode on top of a wooden rack against the rear wall of the passenger compartment, and in the slot beneath it sat a worn old wizard's staff. The Ford crunched to a halt with a kind of dinosaur solidity, and a moment later the engine died.

  The driver, a short, stocky man in a white T-shirt and blue denim overalls, opened the door and hopped down from the truck with the brisk motions of a busy man. His head was bald except for a fringe of downy white tufts, and a bristling white beard covered his mouth and jowls. He slammed the door shut with thoughtless strength, grinned, and boomed, "Hoss! Good to see you again. "

  "Ebenezar," I responded, if without the same ear-ringing volume. I felt myself answer his grin with my own, and stepped over to him to shake his offered hand. I squeezed hard, purely out of self-defense. He had a grip that could crush a can of spinach. "You'd better take the shotgun down. Chicago PD is picky about people with guns. "

  Ebenezar snorted and said, "I'm too old to go worrying about every fool thing. "

  "What are you doing out of Missouri, sir? I didn't think you came to Council meetings. "

  He let out a barking laugh. "The last time I didn't, they saddled me with this useless teenage apprentice. Now I don't hardly dare miss one. They might make him move in again. "

  I laughed. "I wasn't that bad, was I?"

  He snorted. "You burned down my barn, Hoss. And I never did see that cat again. He just lit out and didn't come back after what you did with the laundry. "

  I grinned. Way back when, I'd been a stupid sixteen-year-old orphan who had killed his former teacher in what amounted to a magical duel. I'd gotten lucky, or it would have been me that had been burned to a briquette instead of old Justin. The Council has Seven Laws of Magic, and the first one is Thou Shalt Not Kill. When you break it, they execute you, no questions asked.

  But some of the other wizards had thought I deserved lenience, and there was a precedent for using lethal magic in self-defense against the black arts. I'd been put on a kind of horrible probation instead, with any further infraction against the Laws punishable by immediate summary judgement. But I'd also been sixteen, and legally a minor, which meant I had to go someplace - preferably where the Council could keep an eye on me and where I could learn better control of my powers.

  Ebenezar McCoy had lived in Hog Hollow, Missouri, for as long as anyone could remember - a couple of centuries at least. After my trial, the Council packed me off to his farm and put him in charge of the remainder of my education. Education, to Ebenezar, meant a lot of hard work on the farm during the day, studying in the evening, and getting a good night's sleep.

  I didn't learn much magic from him, but I'd gotten some more important stuff. I'd learned more about patience. About creating something, making something worthwhile out of my labor. And I'd found as much peace as a teenager could expect. It had been a good place for me then, and he'd given me the kind of respect and distance I'd needed. I would always be grateful.

  Ebenezar frowned past me, squinting at the Beetle. I followed his gaze and
realized that my car looked like it had been pounded with bloody hailstones. The toad blood had dried to dark caramel brown, except where my windshield wipers had swept it away. Ebenezar looked back at me, lifting his eyebrows.

  "Rain of toads," I explained.

  "Ah. " He rubbed his jaw and squinted at me and then at the cloth wrapped around my hand. "And that?"

  "Accident in the office. It's been a long day. "

  "Uh-huh. You know, you don't look so good, Hoss. " He looked up at me, his eyes steady, frowning. I didn't meet the look. We'd traded a soulgaze, years ago, so I wasn't afraid of it happening again. I just didn't want to look at the old man and see disappointment there. "I hear you been getting into some trouble up here. "

  "Some," I admitted.

  "You all right?"

  "I'll make it. "

  "Uh-huh. I'm told the senior Council is pretty upset," he said. "Could mean trouble for you, Hoss. "

  "Yeah. I figured. "

  He sighed and shook his head, looking me up and down, nose wrinkling. "You don't exactly look like a shining example of young wizardry. And you're not going to make much of an impression wearing that. "

  I scowled, defensive, and draped the stole of rich blue silk over my head. "Hey, I'm supposed to wear a robe. We all are. "

  Ebenezar gave me a wry look and turned to the pickup. He dragged a suit carrier out of the back and pulled out a robe of opulent dark fabric, folding it over one arm. "Somehow I don't think a plaid flannel bathrobe is what they had in mind. "

  I tied the belt of my old bathrobe and tried to make the stole look like it should go with it. "My cat used my good robe as a litter box. Like I said, it's been a long day, sir. "

  He grunted and took his stumpy old wizard's staff off the gun rack. Then he drew out his scarlet stole and draped it over the robe. "Too hot to wear this damn thing out here. I'll put it on inside. " He looked up, pale blue eyes glittering as he swept his gaze around the parking garage.

  I frowned at him and tilted my head. "We're late. Shouldn't we be getting to the meeting?"

  "In a minute. Some people want to talk before we close the circle. " He glanced aside at me and said more quietly, "Senior Council. "

  I drew in a sharp breath. "Why do they want to talk to us?"

  "Not us. You. Because I asked them to, boy. People are scared. If the Senior Council allows things to come to an open vote of the entire Council, it could go badly for you. So I wanted some of them to get a chance to meet you for themselves before they started making choices that could get you hurt. "

  Ebenezar leaned back against his truck and folded his arms across his belly, bowing his head with his eyes squinted almost completely shut. He said nothing more. Nothing about him betrayed any tension, from the set of his bull neck and solid shoulders to the stillness of his gnarled, work-hardened hands. But I felt it in him, somewhere.

  I said quietly, "You're going out on a limb for me, aren't you?"

  He shrugged. "Some, maybe. "

  I felt the anger run hot in my belly, and I tightened the muscles of my jaw. But I made an effort to keep my voice even. Ebenezar had been more than my teacher. He'd been my mentor at a time when I hadn't had anything else left to me. He'd helped me when a lot of other people wanted to kick me while I was down - or, more accurately, decapitate me while I was down. I owed him my life in more than one sense.

  It would be wrong for me to lose my temper, no matter how tired or hurt I was. Besides, the old man could probably kick my ass. So I managed to tone my answer down to, "What the hell do you think you're doing, sir? I am not your apprentice anymore. I can look out for myself. "

  He didn't miss the anger. Guess I'm not much of a poker player. He looked up at me and said, "I'm trying to help you, boy. "

  "I've got all the help I can stand already," I told him. "I've got vampires breathing down my neck, toads falling from the sky, I'm about to get evicted from everywhere, I'm late to the Council meeting, and I am not going to stand around out here and suck up to members of the Senior Council to lobby their vote. "

  Ebenezar thrust out his jaw, rapping his staff against the ground to emphasize his sentences. "Harry, this is not a game. The Wardens and the Merlin are dead set against you. They will move. Without support in the Senior Council you're in trouble, Hoss. "

  I shook my head and thought of Mab's glacial gaze. "It can't be much more than I'm in already. "

  "The hell it can't. They could make a sacrificial lamb of you. "

  "They will or they won't. Either way I'm not going to start brownnosing the Council now, Senior or otherwise. "

  "Harry, I'm not saying you need to get on your knees and beg, but if you would just - "

  I rolled my eyes. "What? Offer a couple of favors? Sell my vote to one of the blocs? Fuck that. Pardon my French. I've got enough problems without - " I broke off abruptly, narrowing my eyes. "You're the last one I would expect to be telling me to get involved in Council politics. "

  Ebenezar scowled at me. "Oh?"

  "Yeah. In fact, the last time I checked, you told me the whole swill-spouting pack of lollygagging skunkwallows could transform one another into clams, for all you cared. "

  "I did not say that. "

  "Did so. "

  Ebenezar's face turned red. "Boy. I ought to - "

  "Save it," I told him. "Go ahead and punch me or whatever, but threats just aren't hitting me like they used to. "

  Ebenezar snorted at me and slammed his staff on the concrete once more before turning and stalking several paces away. He stood there for a minute, muttering to himself. Or I thought he was muttering. After a minute, the sound resolved itself into swallowed laughter.

  I scowled at his back. "What?" I demanded. "Why are you laughing at me?"

  Ebenezar turned out to an open parking space across the row and said, "There. Are you satisfied?"

  I never felt a whisper of power, not a breath of magic stirring against me. Whatever veil had been used, it was beyond anything I could have even attempted. I'm not exactly a neurosurgeon when it comes to magic. I've had my moments, but mostly I muddle through by shoving a lot of energy into my spells until it doesn't matter if half of it is slopping out. Magically speaking, I'm a brawny thug, and noisy as hell.

  This veil was good, almost perfect, completely silent. Way better than I would be able to do anytime in the next couple of decades. I stared in abrupt shock as it fell and two people I hadn't sensed at all simply flickered into existence in front of me.

  The first was a woman better than six feet tall. She wore her grey hair coiled in a net at the base of her neck. She had already put on her robes of office, black silk nearly the same color as her skin, and her purple stole echoed the gems at her throat. Her eyebrows were still dark, and she had one of them arched as she regarded Ebenezar, then me, with a completely unamused expression. When she spoke, her voice was a low, rich alto. "Lollygagging skunkwallows?"

  "Matty - " Ebenezar began, laughter still flavoring his words. "You know how I get when I'm talking about Council politics. "

  "Don't you 'Matty' me, Ebenezar McCoy," she snapped. She looked past my old mentor to focus on me. "Wizard Dresden, I am less than amused with your lack of respect toward the White Council. "

  I lifted my chin and glared down at the woman without meeting her eyes. It's a tough trick to learn, but if you're motivated enough you can do it. "That's a coincidence. I'm not terribly amused with you spying on me. "

  The black woman's eyes flashed, but Ebenezar cut in before either of us could gather any more steam. "Harry Dresden," he said dryly, "Meet Martha Liberty. "

  She shot him a look and said pointedly, "He's arrogant, Ebenezar. Dangerous. "

  I snorted. "That's every wizard ever. "

  Martha continued as if I hadn't spoken. "Bitter. Angry. Obsessive. "

  Ebenezar frowned. "Seems to me he has good reason to be. You and the rest of the Senior Council saw to that. " />
  Martha shook her head. "You know what he was meant to be. He's too great a risk. "

  I snapped my fingers twice and hooked a thumb at my own chest. "Hey, lady. He's also right here. "

  Her eyes flashed at me. "Look at him, Ebenezar. He's a wreck. Look at the destruction he has caused. "

  Ebenezar took two quick, angry steps toward Martha. "By challenging the Red Court when they were going to kill that young woman? No, Matty. Hoss didn't cause what's happened since. They did. I've read his report. He stood up to them when they damn well needed standing up to. "

  Martha folded her arms, strong and brown against the front of her robes. "The Merlin says - "

  "I know what he says," Ebenezar muttered. "By now I don't even need to hear him say it. And as usual, he's half right, half wrong, and all gutless. "

  Martha frowned at him for a long and silent moment. Then she looked at me and asked, "Do you remember me, Mister Dresden?"

  I shook my head. "They had a hood on me all through the trial, and I missed the meeting Warden Morgan called a couple years back. They were taking a bullet out of my hip. "

  "I know. I never saw your face before today. " She moved then, lifting a slender staff of some dark reddish wood, and walked toward me, the staff clicking with each step. I faced her, bracing myself, but she didn't try to meet my gaze. She studied my features for a long moment and then said, very quietly, "You have your mother's eyes. "

  An old pain rolled through me. I barely managed more than a whisper in response. "I never knew her. "

  "No. You didn't. " She lifted one wide, heavy hand and passed it through the air on either side of my head, as though smoothing my hair without touching it. Then she raked her eyes over me, staring intently at my bandaged hand. "You hurt. You're in great pain. "

  "It isn't bad. It should heal in a few days. "

  "I'm not talking about your hand, boy. " She closed her eyes and bowed her head. Her voice came heavily, slowly, as though her lips were reluctant to let the words pass them. "Very well, Ebenezar. I will support you. "

  She stepped back and away from me, back to the side of the second person who had appeared. I'd almost forgotten about him, and looking at him now I began to see why. He contained a quality of stillness I could all but feel around him - easy to sense but difficult to define. His features, his bearing, everything about him blended into his background, swallowed by that stillness, patient and quiet as a stone beneath moon and sun.

  He was of innocuous height, five eight, maybe five nine. His dark hair was plaited in a long braid, despite age that seamed his features like bronzed leather under a scarlet sun, warm and worn. His eyes, beneath silver brows, were dark, inscrutable, intense. Eagle feathers adorned his braid, a necklace of bits of bone circled his throat, and he had a beaded bracelet wrapped around one forearm, which poked out from beneath his black robe. One weathered hand gripped a simple, uncarved staff.

  "Hoss," Ebenezar said, "this here is Listens to Wind. But that's always been too much of a mouthful for me, even for a genuine Illinois medicine man. I just call him Injun Joe. "

  "How - " I began. Maybe some kind of irony could be found in the first part of asking how did he do, but something scratched at my foot and I left off the rest. I let out a yelp and jumped away from a flash of fur near my feet without stopping to see what it was. It had been that kind of day.

  I tripped over my own staff and fell down. I scrambled over on my back to put my legs between my face and whatever snarling thing might be coming for me, drawing back one foot to kick.

  I needn't have bothered. A raccoon, and a fairly young one at that, stood up on its hind legs and chittered at me in annoyance, soft grey fur bristling wildly as though it had been fit for an animal several sizes larger. The raccoon gave me what I swore was an irritated look, eyes glittering within the dark mask of fur around them, then ran over to Injun Joe's feet and neatly scaled the old man's wooden staff. It swarmed up Injun Joe's arm to perch on his shoulder, still chittering and squeaking.

  "Uh," I managed, "how do you do. "

  The raccoon chirruped again, and Injun Joe tilted his head to one side, then nodded. "Good. But Little Brother is irritated with you. He thinks anyone with that much food should share it. "

  I frowned, then I remembered the half-eaten stale candy bar in my pocket. "Oh, right. " I pulled it out, broke it in half, and held it out to the raccoon. "Peace?"

  Little Brother let out a pleased squeak and darted back down Injun Joe's arm and staff to my hand. He snatched the candy and then retired a few feet away to eat it.

  When I looked up, Injun Joe stood over me, offering his hand. "Little Brother thanks you. He likes you, too. How do you do, Wizard Dresden. "

  I took his hand and got to my feet. "Thanks, uh, Listens to Wind. "

  Ebenezar interjected, "Injun Joe. "

  Injun Joe winked one grave eye at me. "The redneck hillbilly doesn't read. Otherwise he'd know that he can't call me that anymore. Now I'm Native American Joe. "

  I wasn't sure I was supposed to laugh, but I did. Injun Joe nodded, dark eyes sparkling. Then he murmured, "The one you knew as Tera West sends her respects. "

  I blinked at him.

  Injun Joe turned to Ebenezar and nodded, then walked slowly back to Martha's side.

  Ebenezar let out a satisfied grunt. "Fine. Now where is the Russian? We haven't got all day. "

  Martha's expression became remote. Injun Joe's face didn't change, but he moved his eyes to the tall wizard beside him. No one spoke, and the silence grew thick enough to choke on.

  Ebenezar's face went very pale, and he suddenly leaned hard on his staff. "Simon," he whispered. "Oh, no. "

  I stepped up beside Ebenezar. "What happened?"

  Martha shook her head. "Simon Pietrovich. Senior Council member. Our vampire expert. He was killed less than two days ago. The whole compound in Archangel, Ebenezar. All of them. I'm sorry. "

  Ebenezar shook his head slowly. His voice was a pale shadow of its usual self. "I've been to his tower. It was a fortress. How did they do it?"

  "The Wardens said that they couldn't be sure, but it looked like someone let the killers in past the defenses. They didn't get away unscathed. There were the remains of half a dozen nobles of the Red Court. Many of their warriors. But they killed Simon and the rest. "

  "Let them in?" Ebenezar breathed. "Treachery? But even if it was true, it would have to be someone who knew his defenses inside and out. "

  Martha glanced at me, then back at Ebenezar. Something passed between them in that look, but I couldn't tell what.

  "No," Ebenezar said. "That's insane. "

  "Master to student. You know what the Wardens will say. "

  "It's buffalo chips. It wouldn't ever get past the Senior Council. "

  "Eben," Martha said gently, "Joseph and I are only two votes now. Simon is gone. "

  Ebenezar took a blue bandanna from the pocket of his overalls and rubbed it over his pate. "Damnation," he muttered. "Guts and damnation. "

  I looked at Ebenezar and then at Martha. "What?" I asked. "What does this mean?"

  She said, "It means, Wizard Dresden, that the Merlin and others on the Council are preparing to bring allegations against you accusing you of precipitating the war with the Red Court and placing the responsibility for a number of deaths on your head. And because Joseph and I no longer have the support of Simon on the Senior Council, it means that we cannot block the Merlin from laying it to general vote. "

  Injun Joe nodded, fingers absently resting on Little Brother's fur. "Many of the Council are frightened, Hoss Dresden. Your enemies will use this opportunity to strike through them. Fear will drive them to vote against you. "

  I shot Ebenezar a glance. My old mentor traded a long look with me, and I saw his eyes stir with uncertainty.

  "Hell's bells," I whispered. "I'm in trouble. "