Cold days, p.4
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       Cold Days, p.4

         Part #14 of The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher
 

  And she was naked. Gloriously, disconcertingly naked—and just as fresh and vibrant and unspoiled-looking as she’d been the first time I’d met her, most of ten years before.

  Only, you know, she’d been less naked then.

  Man, was I ever noticing that part.

  “Here’s the birthday boy!” Maeve said in a singsong voice, flinging both arms up. She started toward me in a slow and slightly exaggerated walk. Technically, she wasn’t entirely naked. She had silver piercings at the tips of her breasts, beneath her lip, in her navel, and probably elsewhere. I didn’t let myself look quite that close. Her flawless pale skin was also spangled with gemstones. I don’t know how they’d been attached, but they clung to her and sent little flashes of color glittering around the cavern when she moved. They were concentrated most densely around her . . . well . . . She’d been, ah, vajazzled.

  She came slinking over to me in the silence, her green eyes framed in a quasi-mask of gemstones and some kind of henna inking, and she absolutely smoldered with sex. Not that she’d never been suggestive before, but this was taking things to a whole new level.

  “Look at you,” she said, walking around me and eyeing me slowly and thoroughly. “Rumors of your death have been greatly exaggerated, it would seem.”

  “Hi, Maeve,” I said. “You know, I almost wore that same outfit. Gosh, would our faces have been red.”

  The Winter Lady, Mab’s successor and understudy, completed the circle and stopped in front of me, just oozing pure animal attraction. “It is a birthday. I wore a birthday suit.” She took a deep breath, mostly for effect. “I hope you approve.”

  Hell, yes, I approved. Or at least everything south of my upper lip did—way more than it should have, really. She wasn’t using some kind of magic on me; I had gone on alert to such a possibility the second I’d seen her. It must have been all the rest and the exercise and the good diet, most of which I’d successfully avoided back in the real world. It had resulted in a robust and healthy yet perfectly normal libido. Perfectly normal.

  It wasn’t me changing. Whatever Mab had done to me that had healed a broken spine, made me able to run at vampire speed, and given me the kind of reflexes that were capable of keeping up with the attack of a furious malk hadn’t changed me on some fundamental level.

  Everything was perfectly healthy and normal here in Denial Land.

  Maeve’s eyes met mine and she gave me a slow, slow smile. And, as when Mab had been near, I felt my whole body thrum in response to her, to her presence, her proximity, to her . . . everything. That smile contained something within it, something conveyed to me in a flashing instant—Maeve as she would look in ecstasy, beneath me, looking up at me with that lovely face mindless with sensation. And with that image came a hundred or a thousand others, each of them a single captured moment, the kind of moments that are the only one to survive a frenzied dream, frozen and layered atop one another, each of them a promise, a prediction, and every one of them aimed right at the most base, most primitive parts of my brain. It wasn’t limited to visual imagery. Each layer of the flash had its own round of sensual memory, every one of them only partial but intense—touch, taste, scent, sound, and vision—dozens and dozens of dreams and fantasies compressed into that one instant of dark inspiration.

  I’ve had sex that didn’t feel as good as Maeve’s smile.

  You hear me, came Maeve’s thoughts, along with the images. You hear me now, because we are together now, just as you are with Mab. I felt you, you know, when you joined yourself to us. And I want to feel more. You are my Knight as well, Dresden. Let me welcome you. Come to me. Come with me. Walk by starlight and let me show you secret delights.

  It took me a couple of seconds to remember that I was still standing there in the icy hall, still wearing my clothes, still standing most of an arm’s length away from Maeve. When I spoke, it was through clenched teeth. “Sorry. Already got a date for tonight, Maeve.”

  She dropped her head back and laughed. “Bring her,” she said, her eyes both dancing and wild. Her eyes shifted to Sarissa, who took a short breath and went stiff beside me. “She’s gorgeous, and I would love to . . . get to know her better.”

  Imagine the possibilities, my Knight. Another multisensory slide show hit my head, and every single image was something that I should have known better than to find intriguing, but that I could not bring myself to entirely ignore—only this time Sarissa was included. I can show you pleasures you have never dreamed could be. Bring your lovely companion. I will give you her and many, many more besides.

  Again, my head lit up with lunatic pleasure-maybes, dizzying, electrifying, and I felt as if I were about to start tearing my way out of my clothes.

  And, just for a second, I considered it.

  I’m not really proud of that fact, but it’s not like I’m beyond temptation, either. I’m just as stupid as the next guy, and for a second, I thought about seeing what was behind door number one. I knew it would be foolish—and fun, yeah, but mostly foolish. I knew that I’d be an idiot to go along, and yet . . .

  One day, something is going to kill me. It might be some monster. It might be my own foolishness. It might be what gets most everyone in the end: simple, implacable time (although I wasn’t betting on that one). I’d been closer to the idea of my own death lately, having been dead, or at least mostly dead, for a good while, and I wasn’t any more comfortable with the idea. I didn’t have any more desire to go out in an ugly, painful way than I did before.

  And if you’ve gotta go, there are probably worse ways to do it than in a blaze of sybaritic glory.

  Damn, Maeve had a great pitch.

  Heh.

  Everyone selling something to a sucker does.

  The entire hall had gone completely silent, except for my own harsh breathing, and I suddenly became aware of the tension in the air. Every being there was waiting, and I suddenly realized that this was the second murder attempt of the evening. Maeve was trying to destroy me.

  “You ever make Lloyd that offer?” I asked.

  Maeve tilted her head, staring at me, her smile suddenly frozen.

  “Cat got your tongue?” I asked in a louder voice. I put scorn into it. “Did you not hear the question?”

  The frozen smile became something subarctic. “What did you say to me?”

  “I said no, you psychopathic hosebeast,” I answered, spitting out the words with every ounce of contempt I could muster up. “I saw how you treated Lloyd Slate. I saw how you treated the changelings of your court. I know what to expect from you, you arrogant, spoiled, self-involved, petty, cruel little queen-bee twit.”

  Maeve’s expression changed, though not in any kind of focused way. She looked . . . startled.

  Sarissa gave me a shocked look. Then she glanced around, as if hunting for a foxhole or bomb shelter or perhaps some kind of armored vehicle to throw herself into.

  “You sent your last handmaiden to murder my friends on their wedding day, Maeve,” I continued, in a voice loud enough to be heard by the entire hall. “Did you think I’d forgotten that? Or was it just too small and unimportant a fact for you to keep it from dribbling out of your alleged brain? Do you think I’m too stupid to understand that you set up this ‘surprise’ party in the hopes that you’d startle me into spilling blood at court, Darth Barbie? You tried to murder me just now, Maeve, and you think a little psychic porn is going to make me forget it? I can’t decide if you’re insane or just that stupid.”

  Maeve stared at me with her mouth dropping wide open.

  “Now hear this,” I said. “You’re cute, doll. You’re gorgeous. You inspire supernatural levels of wood. And so what? You’re damaged goods. So turn around and move your naked little ass away from me—before I do it for you.”

  For a long moment, there was dead silence.

  And then Maeve’s face twisted up in fury. The seductive beauty of her features vanished, replaced by an animal’s rage. Her eyes blazed, and the temperature in the air d
ropped suddenly, painfully, enough to cause icy frost crystals to start forming on the ice. The freaking ice iced over.

  Maeve glared at me with naked hatred in her too-big eyes and then gave me a small bow of her head and a little smile. “It would appear we yet have a life to celebrate,” she hissed. “Music.”

  From somewhere in the room, the symphony began playing again. The silent gang-circle ring of bedtime-story villainy broke up with fluid grace, and seconds later you would have thought you were at any kind of extremely wild, extremely posh costume party.

  Maeve’s eyes glittered and she spun once, displaying herself to me with a mocking little flick of her hair, and then vanished into the crowd.

  I turned to Sarissa and found her staring at me with wide eyes. “You turned her down.”

  “Uh-huh.”

  “No one does that. Not here.”

  “Whatever,” I said.

  “You don’t understand. The insult you’ve just given her is . . . is . . .” Sarissa shook her head and said, with masterful understatement, “You just earned a little payback, in her mind.”

  “That was going to happen sooner or later,” I said. “What bugs me is her response.”

  “Music?” Sarissa asked.

  “Yeah,” I said. “And in a minute there might be dancing. Can’t be good.”

  “It could be worse,” she said. She took a deep breath and settled her arm in mine again. “You won the first round.”

  “I only survived it.”

  “Here, that is winning.”

  “So if we win the rest of the night, we’ll be making a good start.” I looked around us and said, “Come on.”

  “Where are we going?”

  “Somewhere that isn’t the middle of the floor,” I said. “Somewhere I can put my back to a wall. And hopefully somewhere with snacks. I’m starving.”

  Chapter

  Five

  I’m never really comfortable at parties. Maybe I’m just not the partying type.

  Even when they aren’t full of lunatic elves, hulking monsters, and psychotic faerie queens, parties are kind of tough for me. I think it’s because I’m never sure of what to do with myself.

  I mean, there’re drinks, but I don’t like being drunk, and I’m pretty sure I don’t get any more charming when I do get that way. More amusing, tops, and that isn’t always in a good way. There’s music, but I never really learned to dance to anything that involved an electric guitar. There are people to talk to and maybe girls to flirt with, but once you put all the stupid things I do aside, I’m really not all that interesting. I like reading, staying home, going on walks with my dog—it’s like I’m already a retiree. Who wants to hear about that? Especially when I would have to scream it over the music to which no one dances.

  So I’m there but not drinking, listening to music but not dancing, and trying to have conversations with near-strangers about anything other than my own stupid life, and they generally seem to have the same goals I do. Leads to a lot of awkward pauses. And then I start wondering why I showed up in the first place.

  Hell’s bells, the kind of party with monsters is actually easier for me. I mean, at least I have a pretty good idea of what to do when I’m at one of those.

  The food table was set up over by the replica of the trapdoor that used to lead into my subbasement. It was open in the giant model, which meant that there was a gaping hole in the icy floor, and if you slipped at the wrong moment, you’d wind up falling down into Stygian darkness. I wondered whether the drop was to scale.

  The table was loaded down with party food of every description, but apart from the sheer variety, it didn’t look like anything but regular old food. I inhaled through my nose and felt absolutely certain about that—this was mortal chow, not the fabled ambrosia of faerie.

  “Thank God,” Sarissa said, picking up a pair of plates. “Food. I was afraid they’d have nothing but those flower trifles again.”

  “Wait,” I said. “Are we sure this is food?”

  “You can’t smell it?” she asked. “I can always tell. Local cuisine is . . . not exactly subtle. Practically the first thing I learned here was how to tell the difference.” She started loading up both plates, mostly with things I probably would have picked anyway. Well. She had basically been my dietitian for nearly three months. She’d know, by now, what I liked and didn’t.

  Weird. Would it be like that if I ever had, like . . . a wife or something?

  Whoa, where the hell did that thought come from? All the recent, if entirely bent, domesticity? My heart did a weird little rabbitlike maneuver, beating way too fast for a few seconds. Hell’s bells, had I just had a panic attack? At the very notion of calling some woman my wife? Though . . . now that I thought about it, I wasn’t sure I had ever used that word in connection with myself and somebody else at the same time. Not explicitly, anyway.

  I shook my head and filed the thought away to be examined later, when I didn’t have a great big target drawn on my back.

  I let Sarissa pick us some food while I kept an eye out for anyone or anything suspicious. After about twenty seconds of that, I decided that it was an impossibility, and dialed it back to watching for anyone who rushed us with a knife, screaming. I kept my defensive spells right on the tip of my mind, so to speak, and ready to erupt into reality at an instant’s notice.

  I spotted a good, quiet corner for us to stand in, over by the giant mantel above the giant fireplace. I took the plates from Sarissa, and we started that way.

  A form that I recognized emerged from the crowd in our path, and I found myself smiling. The creature that came limping over to me wasn’t much more than five feet tall, and leaned on a heavy, gnarled walking staff. He wore a hooded robe of undyed linen, belted with a length of soft-looking rope. Three folded strips of purple cloth were tucked into the belt—the formal stoles of senior members of the White Council of Wizards, taken after they fell to him in separate duels.

  Oh, and he was a goat. Well, a very human-looking goat, anyway. He had the same long face as a goat, and curling ram’s horns on his head. His eyes were golden, his beard long and white, and he looked pleased.

  “Eldest Gruff,” I said, smiling.

  “Sir Knight,” he replied, his basso a pleasant rumble. We exchanged small bows, which also seemed to please him. “Please do thou accept my best wishes on this day of your birth.”

  “Gladly,” I said. “How did they rope you into showing up to this freak show?”

  He sighed. “Obligation.”

  “Word.” I nodded to Sarissa. “May I introduce Sarissa. She’s been helping me recover from an injury. Sarissa, this is—”

  “Lord Gruff,” she said, giving him a courtesy that somehow seemed natural. “How lovely to meet you again, sir.”

  “It is pleasant to see thee, child,” Eldest Gruff said. “Thou dost seem to thrive despite the climate.”

  “That may be a generous assessment,” Sarissa replied.

  “I prefer to think of it as a hopeful one,” the Gruff said. “I see thou hast attached thyself to the new Knight.”

  “No,” I said quickly. “No, she hasn’t. There’s been no . . . attaching. She’s been doctoring me.”

  Sarissa arched an eyebrow at me, and then said to the Gruff, “It was Mab’s price.”

  “Ah,” the Gruff said. “A heavy burden obligation canst be, for Winter and Summer alike.” He glanced aside at me. “Does he know of thine—”

  “It hasn’t come up,” Sarissa said.

  “Ah,” Eldest Gruff said, raising his hands. He had weird nails. They were hoofy. “I will then follow the course of silence.”

  Sarissa inclined her head. “Thank you.”

  “Of course.”

  Two more figures approached us, both of them over seven feet tall. I’m not used to being the shortest person in any given conversation. Or even the shorter person. I can change lightbulbs without stretching. I can put the star on the Christmas tree without standing on tiptoe.
I’m like the Bumble, but with way better teeth, and I didn’t like feeling loomed over.

  (Which probably should tell me about the kind of effect I might be having on other people, sort of generally speaking, and especially when I gave attitude to power figures who were shorter than me, but that kind of crystallized moment of enlightenment probably wouldn’t be helpful in winning the evening.)

  The first was depressingly familiar. He was dressed in hunter’s leathers, all grey and green and brown. There was a sword with a hilt made from some sort of antler at his side. It was the first time I’d seen him wearing something other than a helmet. He had shaggy, grizzled light brown hair that fell to his shoulders. His features were asymmetrical but, though not handsome, contained a certain roguish charm, and his eyes were an unsettling shade of gold-green. I didn’t know his name, but he was the Erlking, one of the beings of Faerie powerful enough to lead the Wild Hunt, and he was the reigning ruler of the goblins.

  (Not like the big ugly dimwit in the Hobbit. Real goblins are like mutant Terminator serial killer psycho ninjas. Think Hannibal Lecter meets Jackie Chan.)

  Oh, and I’d insulted him once by trapping him in a magic circle. Faeries large and small hate that action.

  “Gruff,” said the Erlking, tilting his head.

  Eldest Gruff made a small bow in reply. “Lord Herne.”

  “Know you these children?”

  “Aye,” said Eldest Gruff. He began making polite introductions.

  I studied the man standing beside the Erlking while he did. He was a sharp contrast. The Erlking was huge, but there was something about him that suggested agility and grace. It was like looking at a tiger. Sure, it might be standing there all calm and relaxed at the moment, but you knew that at any second it could surge with speed and terrible purpose and that it wouldn’t give you any warning before it came at you.