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Summer Knight, Page 5

Jim Butcher

Chapter Five

  A heavy silence followed, until Ebenezar flexed the fingers of one hand and his knuckles popped. "Who is up for Simon's place?"

  Martha shook her head. "I suspect the Merlin will want one of the Germans. "

  Ebenezar growled. "I've got fifty years' seniority on every mother's son of them. "

  "It won't matter," Martha said. "There are too many Americans on the Senior Council already for the Merlin's tastes. "

  Injun Joe scratched Little Brother's chest and said, "Typical. Only real American on the Senior Council is me. Not like the rest of you Johnny-come-latelies. "

  Ebenezar gave Injun Joe a tired smile.

  Martha said, "The Merlin won't be happy if you decide to press a claim now. "

  Ebenezar snorted. "Aye. And I can't tell you how that breaks my heart. "

  Martha frowned, pressing her lips together. "We'd best get inside, Ebenezar. I'll tell them to wait for you. "

  "Fine," my old teacher said, his words clipped. "Go on in. "

  Without a further word, Martha and Injun Joe departed, black robes whispering. Ebenezar slipped into his robe and put on his scarlet stole. Then he took up his staff again and strode determinedly toward the convention center. I kept pace silently, and worried.

  Ebenezar surprised me by speaking. "How's your Latin coming, Hoss? You need me to translate?"

  I coughed. "No. I think I can manage. "

  "All right. When we get inside, hang on to your temper. You've got a reputation as a hothead for some reason. "

  I scowled at him. "I do not. "

  "And for being stubborn and contrary. "

  "I am not. "

  Ebenezar's worn smile appeared for a moment, but by then we had reached the building where the Council was to meet. I stopped walking, and Ebenezar paused, looking back at me.

  "I don't want to go in with you," I said. "If this goes bad, maybe it's better if you have some distance from me. "

  Ebenezar frowned at me, and for a second I thought he was going to argue. Then he shook his head and went into the building. I gave him a couple of minutes, and then walked up the steps and went in.

  The building had the look of an old-time theater - high, arched ceilings, floors of polished stone laid with strips of carpet, and several sets of double doors leading into the theater itself. The air conditioning had probably been running full blast earlier, but now there was no sound of fan or vent and the building inside felt warmer than it probably should have. None of the lights were on. You couldn't really expect even basic things like lights and air conditioning to keep running in a building full of wizards.

  All the doors leading into what was apparently an actual theater were closed except for one pair, and two men wearing dark Council robes, scarlet stoles, and the grey cloak of the Wardens stood before them.

  I didn't recognize one of the men, but the other was Morgan. Morgan stood nearly as tall as I did, only with maybe another hundred pounds of solid, working-man muscle. He had a short beard, patchy with brown and grey, and he wore his hair in a long ponytail. His face was still narrow, sour, and he had a voice to match it. "Finally," he muttered upon seeing me. "I've been waiting for this, Dresden. Finally, you're going to face justice. "

  "I see someone had a nice big bowl of Fanatic-Os this morning," I said. "I know you don't like it, Morgan, but I was cleared of all those charges. Thanks to you, actually. "

  His sour face screwed up even more. "I only reported your actions to the Council. I did not think they would be so" - he spat the word like a curse - "lenient. "

  I stopped in front of the two Wardens and held out my staff. Morgan's partner lifted a crystal pendant from around his neck and ran the crystal over the staff and then over my head, temples, and down the front of my body. The crystal pulsed with a gentle glow of light as it passed over each chakra point. The second Warden nodded to Morgan, and I started to step past him and into the theater.

  He put out one broad hand to stop me. "No," he said. "Not yet. Get the dogs. "

  The other Warden frowned, but that was all the protest he made. He turned and slipped into the theater, and a moment later emerged, leading a pair of Wardhounds behind him.

  In spite of myself, I swallowed and took a half step back from them. "Give me a break, Morgan. I'm not enspelled and I'm not toting in a bomb. I'm not the suicidal type. "

  "Then you won't mind a quick check," Morgan said. He gave me a humorless smile and stepped forward.

  The Wardhounds came with him. They weren't actual dogs. I like dogs. They were statues made of some kind of dark grey-green stone, their shoulders as high as my own belt. They had the gaping mouth and too-big eyes of Chinese temple dogs, complete with curling beards and manes. Though they weren't flesh, they moved with a kind of ponderous liquid grace, stone «muscles» shifting beneath the surface of their skins as if they had been living beings. Morgan touched each on the head and muttered something too vague for me to make out. Upon hearing it, both Wardhounds focused upon me and began to prowl in a circle around me, heads down, the floor quivering beneath their weight.

  I knew they'd been enchanted to detect any of countless threats that might attempt to approach a Council meeting. But they weren't thinking beings - only devices programmed with a simple set of responses to predetermined stimuli. Though Wardhounds had saved lives often before, there had also been accidents - and I didn't know if my run-in with Mab would leave a residual signature that might set the Wardhounds off.

  The dogs stopped, and one of them let out a growl that sounded soothingly akin to bedrock being ripped apart by a backhoe. I tensed and looked down at the dog standing to my right. Its lips had peeled back from gleaming, dark fangs, and its empty eyes were focused on my left hand - the one Mab had wounded by way of demonstration.

  I swallowed and held still and tried to think innocent thoughts.

  "They don't like something about you, Dresden," Morgan said. I thought I heard an almost eager undertone to his voice. "Maybe I should turn you away, just to be careful. "

  The other Warden stepped forward, one hand on a short, heavy rod worn on his belt. He murmured, "Could be the injury, if he's hurt. Wizard blood can be pretty potent. Moody, too. Dog could be reacting to anger or fear, through the blood. "

  "Maybe," Morgan said testily. "Or it could be contraband he's trying to sneak in. Take off the bandage, Dresden. "

  "I don't want to start bleeding again," I said.

  "Fine. I'm denying you entrance, then, in accordance with - "

  "Dammit, Morgan," I muttered. I all but tossed my staff at him. He caught it, and held it while I tore at the makeshift bandages I'd put on my hand. It hurt like hell, but I pulled them off and showed him the swollen and oozing wound.

  The Wardhound growled again and then appeared to lose interest, pacing back over to sit down beside its mate, suddenly inanimate again.

  I turned my eyes to Morgan and stared at him, hard. "Satisfied?" I asked him.

  For a second I thought he would meet my gaze. Then he shoved my staff back at me as he turned away. "You're a disgrace, Dresden. Look at yourself. Because of you, good men and women have died. Today you will be called to answer for it. "

  I tied the bandage back on as best I could and gritted my teeth to keep from telling Morgan to take a long walk off a short cliff. Then I brushed past the Wardens and stalked into the theater.

  Morgan watched me go, then said to his partner, "Close the circle. " He followed me into the theater, shutting the door behind him, even as I felt the sudden, silent tension of the Wardens closing the circle around the building, shutting it off from any supernatural access.

  I hadn't ever actually seen a meeting of the Council - not like this. The sheer variety of it all was staggering, and I stood staring for several moments, taking it in.

  The space was a dinner theater of only moderate size, lit by nothing more than a few candles on each table. The room wouldn't hav
e been crowded for a matinee, but as a gathering place for wizards it was positively swamped. The tables on the floor of the theater were almost completely filled with black-robed wizards, variously sporting stoles of blue, gold, and scarlet. Apprentices in their muddy-brown robes lurked at the fringes of the crowd, standing along the walls or crouching on the floor beside their mentors' chairs.

  The variety of humanity represented in the theater was startling. Canted Oriental eyes, dark, rich skins of Africa, pale Europeans, men and women, ancient and young, long and short hair, beards long enough to tuck into belts, beards wispy enough to be stirred by a passing breeze. The theater buzzed in dozens of languages, of which I could identify only a fraction. Wizards laughed and scowled, smiled and stared blankly, sipped from flasks and soda cans and cups or sat with eyes closed in meditation. The scents of spices and perfumes and chemicals all blended together into something pervasive, always changing, and the auras of so many practitioners of the Art seemed to be feeling just as social, reaching out around the room to touch upon other auras, to echo or strike dissonance with their energies, tangible enough to feel without even trying. It was like walking through drifting cobwebs that were constantly brushing against my cheeks and eyelashes - not dangerous but disconcerting, each one wildly unique, utterly different from the next.

  The only thing the wizards had in common was that none of them looked as scruffy as me.

  A roped-off section at the far right of the hall held the envoys of various organizations of allies and supernatural interests, most of whom I had only a vague idea about. Wardens stood here and there where they could overlook the crowd, grey cloaks conspicuous amid the black and scattered brown ones - but somehow I doubted they were as obtrusive as my own faded blue-and-white flannel. I garnered offended looks from nearly everyone I walked past - mostly white-haired old wizard folk. One or two apprentices nearer my own age covered their mouths as I went past, hiding grins. I looked around for an open chair, but I didn't spot one, until I saw Ebenezar wave at me from a table in the front row of the theater, nearest the stage. He nodded at the seat next to him. It was the only place available, and I joined him.

  On the theater stage stood seven podiums, and at six of them stood members of the Senior Council, in dark robes with purple stoles. Injun Joe Listens to Wind and Martha Liberty stood at two.

  At the center podium stood the Merlin of the White Council, a tall man, broad of shoulder and blue of eye, with hair falling past his shoulders in shining, pale waves and a flowing silver beard. The Merlin spoke in a rolling basso voice, Latin phrases gliding as smoothly from his mouth as from any Roman senator's.

  ". . . et, quae cum ita sint, censeo iam nos dimittere rees cottidianas et de magna re gravi deliberare - id est, illud bellum contra comitatum rubrum. " And given the circumstances, I move to dispense with the usual formalities in order to discuss the most pertinent issue before us - the war with the Red Court. "Consensum habemus?" All in favor?

  There was a general murmur of consent from the wizards in the room. I didn't feel any need to add to it. I tried to slip unnoticed into the seat beside Ebenezar, but the Merlin's bright blue eyes spotted me and grew shades colder.

  The Merlin spoke, and though I knew he spoke perfectly intelligible English, he addressed me in Latin, quick and liquid - but his own perfect command of the speech worked against him. He was easy to understand. "Ahhh, Magus Dresdenus. Prudenter ades nobis dum de bello quod inceperis diceamus. Ex omni parte ratio tua pro hoc comitatu nobis placet. " Ah, Wizard Dresden. How thoughtful of you to join us in discussions of the war you started. It is good to know that you have such respect for this Council.

  He delivered that last while giving my battered old bathrobe a pointed look, making sure that anyone in the room who hadn't noticed would now. Jerk. He let silence fall afterward and it was left to me to answer him. Also in Latin. Big fat jerk.

  Still, it was my first Council meeting as a full wizard, and he was the Merlin, after all. And I did look pretty bad. Plus, Ebenezar shot me a warning glance. I swallowed a hot answer and took a stab at diplomacy.

  "Uh," I said, "ego sum miser, Magus Merlinus. Dolor diei longi me tenet. Opus es mihi altera, uh, vestiplicia. " Sorry, Merlin. It's been a very long day. I meant to have my other robe.

  Or that's what I tried to say. I must have conjugated something wrong, because when I finished, the Merlin blinked at me, expression mild. "Quod est?"

  Ebenezar winced and asked me in a whisper, "Hoss? You sure you don't want me to translate for you?"

  I waved a hand at him. "I can do it. " I scowled as I tried to put together the right words, and spoke again. "Excusationem vobis pro vestitu meo atque etiam tarditate facio. " Please excuse my lateness and appearance.

  The Merlin regarded me with passionless, distant features, evidently well content to let my mouth run. Ebenezar put his hand over his eyes.

  "What?" I demanded of him in a fierce whisper.

  Ebenezar squinted up at me. "Well. First you said, 'I am a sorry excuse, Merlin, a sad long day held me. I need me a different laundress. »

  I blinked. "What?"

  "That's what the Merlin said. Then you said 'Excuses to you for my being dressed and I also make lately. »

  I felt my face heat up. Most of the room was still staring at me as though I was some sort of raving lunatic, and it dawned on me that many of the wizards in the room probably did not speak English. As far as they were concerned, I probably sounded like one.

  "Goddamned correspondence course. Maybe you should translate for me," I said.

  Ebenezar's eyes sparkled, but he nodded with a grave expression. "Happy to. "

  I slipped into my seat while Ebenezar stood up and made an apology for me, his Latin terse and precise, his voice carrying easily throughout the hall. I saw the gathered wizards' expressions grow more or less mollified as he spoke.

  The Merlin nodded and continued in his textbook-perfect Latin. "Thank you, Wizard McCoy, for your assistance. The first order of business in addressing the crisis before us is to restore the Senior Council to its full membership. As some of you have doubtless learned by now, Senior Council member Pietrovich was killed in an attack by the Red Court two days past. "

  A gasp and a low murmur ran through the theater.

  The Merlin allowed a moment to pass. "Past conflicts with the Red Court have not moved with this kind of alacrity, and this may indicate a shift in their usual strategy. As a result, we need to be able to react quickly to further developments - which will require the leadership provided by a full membership on the Senior Council. "

  The Merlin continued speaking, but I leaned over to Ebenezar. "Let me guess," I whispered. "He wants to fill the opening on the Senior Council so that he'll be able to control the vote?"

  Ebenezar nodded. "He'll have three votes for sure, then, and most times four. "

  "What are we going to do about it?"

  "You aren't going to do anything. Not yet. " He looked intently at me. "Keep your temper, Hoss. I mean it. The Merlin will have three plans to take you down. "

  I shook my head. "What? How do you know that?"

  "He always does things that way," Ebenezar muttered. His eyes glittered with something ugly. "A plan, a backup plan, and an ace in the hole. I'll shoot down the first one, and I'll help you with the second. The third is all yours, though. "

  "What do you mean? What plan?"

  "Hush, Hoss. I'm paying attention. "

  A balding wizard with bristling white eyebrows and a bushy blue beard, his scalp covered in flowing blue tattoos, leaned forward from the far side of the table and glared at me. "Shhhhh. "

  Ebenezar nodded at the man, and we both turned back to face the stage.

  "And it is for this reason," the Merlin continued, "that I now ask Klaus Schneider, as a long-standing senior wizard of impeccable reputation, to take on the responsibility of membership in the Senior Council. All in favor?"

bsp; Martha glanced at Ebenezar and murmured, "A moment, honored Merlin. I believe protocol requires that we open the floor to debate. "

  The Merlin sighed. "Under normal circumstances, Wizard Liberty, of course. But we have little time for the niceties of our usual procedures. Time is of the essence. So, all in - "

  Injun Joe interrupted. "Wizard Schneider is a fine enchanter, and he has a reputation for skill and honesty. But he is young for such a responsibility. There are wizards present who are his senior in experience and the Art. They deserve the consideration of the Council. "

  The Merlin shot Injun Joe a frown. "Thank you for your perspective, Wizard Listens to Wind. But though your commentary is welcome, it was not asked for. There is no one present senior to Wizard Schneider who has not already declined a seat upon the Senior Council, and rather than run through meaningless nominations and repeated declinations, I had intended - "

  Ebenezar cut in, sotto voce but loud enough for the Merlin to hear him, in English. "You had intended to shove your favorite down everyone's throats while they were too worried to notice. "

  The Merlin fell abruptly quiet, his eyes falling on Ebenezar in a sudden, pointed silence. He spoke in a low voice, his English carrying a rich British accent. "Go back to your mountain, Ebenezar. Back to your sheep. You are not welcome here, and never have been. "

  Ebenezar looked up at the Merlin with a toothy smile, Scots creeping back into his vowels. "Aye, Alfred, laddie, I know. " He switched back to Latin and raised his voice again. "Every member of the Council has a right to speak his mind on these matters. You all know how important the appointment of one Senior Council member is. How many of you believe this matter too serious to leave to a consensus? Speak now. "

  The theater rumbled with a general "Aye," to which I added my own voice. Ebenezar looked around the room and then raised an eyebrow at the Merlin.

  I could see frustration not quite hidden on the old man's face. I could almost taste his desire to slam his fist down on the podium, but he controlled himself and nodded. "Very well. Then, in accordance with procedure, we will offer the position to the senior-most wizards present. " He looked to one side, where a slim-faced, prim-looking wizard sat with a quill, a bottle of ink, and pages and pages of parchment. "Wizard Peabody, will you consult the registry?"

  Peabody reached under his table and came out with a bulging satchel. He muttered something to himself and rubbed some ink onto his nose with one finger, then he opened the satchel, which held what looked like a couple of reams of parchment. His eyes glazed over slightly, and he reached into the papers seemingly at random. He drew out a single page, put it on the desk before him, nodded in satisfaction, then read in a reedy voice, "Wizard Montjoy. "

  "Research trip in the Yucat¨¢n," Martha Liberty said.

  Peabody nodded. "Wizard Gomez. "

  "Still sleeping off that potion," provided a grey-cloaked Warden standing by the wall.

  Peabody nodded. "Wizard Luciozzi. "

  "Sabbatical," said the blue-bearded and tattooed wizard behind me. Ebenezar frowned, and one of his cheeks twitched in a nervous tic.

  It went on like that for close to a quarter hour. Some of the more interesting reasons for absence included "He got real married," "Living under the polar ice cap," and "Pyramid sitting," whatever that was.

  Peabody finally read, with a glance up at the Merlin, "Wizard McCoy. " Ebenezar grunted and stood. Peabody read another half-dozen names before stating, "Wizard Schneider. "

  A small, round-cheeked man with a fringe of gauzy white down over his scalp and a round belly stretching his robes stood up and gave Ebenezar a brief nod. Then he looked up at the Merlin and said, in Latin with a heavy Germanic accent, "While I am grateful for the offer, honored Merlin, I must respectfully decline your nomination, in favor of Wizard McCoy. He will serve the Council more ably than I. "

  The Merlin looked as though someone had grated slices of lemon against his gums. "Very well," he said. "Do any other senior wizards here wish to present themselves for consideration over Wizard McCoy?"

  I was betting no one would, especially given the looks on the faces of the wizards nearby. Ebenezar himself never moved his eyes from the Merlin. He just stood with his feet spread wide apart and planted, his eyes steady, confident. Silence fell over the hall.

  The Merlin looked around the hall, his lips pressed tightly together. Finally, he gave his head a very slight shake. "All in favor?"

  The room rumbled with a second, more affirmative "Aye. "

  "Very well," the Merlin said, his upper lip twisting and giving the words an acid edge. "Wizard McCoy, take your place upon the Senior Council. "

  There was a murmur of what sounded a bit like relief from those in the hall. Ebenezar glanced back and winked at me. "One down. Two to go," he murmured. "Stay sharp. " Then he hitched up his robes and stumped onto the stage, to the empty podium between Martha Liberty and Injun Joe. "Less talking, more doing," he said, loudly enough to be heard by the whole hall. "There's a war on. "

  "Precisely what I was thinking," the Merlin said, and nodded to one side. "Let us address the war. Warden Morgan, would you please stand forward and give the Council the Wardens' tactical assessment of the Red Court?"

  An oppressive silence settled over the room, so that I heard every sound of Morgan's boots as he stepped up onto the stage. The Merlin moved aside, and Morgan placed a glittering gem or crystal of some kind upon the podium. Behind that, he set a candle, which he lit with a muttered incantation. Then he framed the candle with his hands and murmured again.

  Light streaked from the candle into the crystal in a glowing stream and sprang up out of the crystal again in a large cone stretching up above the stage, several yards across at the top. Within the cone of light appeared a spinning globe of the Earth, its continents vaguely misshapen, like something drawn from a couple of centuries past.

  A murmur ran through the room, and Bluebeard, at my table, muttered in Latin, "Impressive. "

  "Bah," I said in English. "He stole that from Return of the Jedi. "

  Bluebeard blinked at me, uncomprehending. I briefly debated trying to translate Star Wars into Latin and decided against it. See, I can have common sense, too.

  Morgan's low voice rumbled out in Latin phrases, rough but understandable. Which meant he spoke it better than me. Jerk. "The flashing red spots on the map are the locations of known attacks of the Red Court and their allies. Most of them resulted in casualties of one form or another. " As he spoke, widely scattered motes of red color began to form on the globe like the glowing lights of a Christmas tree. "As you can see, most of the activity has taken place in Western Europe. "

  A mutter went through the room. The Old World was the domain of the Old School of wizardry - the "maintain secrecy and don't attract attention" way of thinking. I guess they have a point, given the Inquisition and all. I don't belong to the Old School. I have an ad in the Yellow Pages, under "Wizards. " Big shocker - I'm the only one there. I have to pay the bills somehow, don't I?

  Morgan droned on dispassionately. "We have known for a long time that the main power center of the Red Court is somewhere in South America. Our sources there are under pressure, and it has become difficult to get any information out of the area. We have had advance warning of several attacks, and the Wardens have managed to intercede with minimal losses of life, with the exception of the attack at Archangel. " The globe paused in its spinning, and my eyes fastened on the glowing point of light on the northwest coast of Russia. "Though it is presumed that Wizard Pietrovich's death curse took a heavy toll on his attackers, no one in his household survived the attack. We don't know how they got past his defenses. It would appear that the Red Court may have access to information or aspects of the Art that they have not before had. "

  The Merlin stepped back to the podium, and Morgan collected his crystal. The globe vanished. "Thank you, Warden," the Merlin said. "As we expected from Council records, our vari
ous retreats and Paths through the Nevernever are threatened. Frankly speaking, ladies and gentlemen, the Red Court holds us at a disadvantage within the mortal world. Modern technology so often disagrees with us that it makes travel difficult under the best of circumstances and unreliable in a time of conflict. We vitally need to secure safe Paths through the Nevernever or else risk being engaged and overwhelmed in detail by an opponent who can move more rapidly than we. To that end, we have dispatched missives to both Queens of the Sidhe. Ancient Mai. "

  My eyes flickered to the podium to the Merlin's left, where stood another of the Senior Council members, apparently the Ancient Mai. She was a tiny woman of Oriental extraction, her skin fine and pale, her granite-colored hair worn in a long braid curled up at the back of her head and held with a pair of jade combs. She had delicate features only lightly touched by the passage of years, though her dark eyes were rheumy. She unfolded a letter written upon parchment and addressed the Council in a creaky but firm voice. "From Summer, we received this answer. 'Queen Titania does not now, nor will she ever choose sides in the disputes of mortal and anthrophage. She bids both Council and Court alike to keep their war well away from the realms of Summer. She will remain neutral. »

  Ebenezar frowned and leaned forward to ask, "And from Winter?"

  I twitched.

  The Ancient tilted her head and regarded Ebenezar in perfect silence for a moment, somehow implying her annoyance at his interruption. "Our courier did not return. Upon consulting records of former conflicts, we may confidently assume that Queen Mab will involve herself, if at all, in a time and manner of her own choosing. "

  I twitched more. There was a pitcher of water on the table, along with some glasses. I poured a drink. The pitcher only rattled against the cup a little. I glanced back at Bluebeard and saw him regarding me with a pensive gaze.

  Ebenezar scowled. "Now what is that supposed to mean?"

  The Merlin stepped in smoothly. "It means that we must continue whatever diplomacy we may with Winter. At all costs, we must secure the cooperation of one of the Sidhe Queens - or at least prevent the Red Court from accomplishing an alliance of its own until this conflict can be resolved. "

  Martha Liberty lifted both eyebrows. "Resolved?" she said, her tone pointed. "I would have chosen a word like 'finished' myself. "

  The Merlin shook his head. "Wizard Liberty, there is no need for this dispute to devolve into an even more destructive conflict. If there exists even a small chance that an armistice can be attained - "

  The black woman's voice lashed out at the Merlin, harsh and cold. "Ask Simon Pietrovich how interested the vampires are in reaching a peaceable settlement. "

  "Contain your emotions, Wizard," the Merlin replied, his voice calm. "The loss of Pietrovich strikes each of us deeply, but we cannot allow that loss to blind us to potential solutions. "

  "Simon knew them, Merlin," Martha said, her tone flat. "He knew them better than any of us, and they killed him. Do you really think that they will be inclined to seek a reasonable peace with us, when they have already destroyed the wizard best able to protect himself against them? Why should they seek a peace, Merlin? They're winning. "

  The Merlin waved a hand. "Your anger clouds your judgement. They will seek a peace because even in victory they would pay too high a cost. "

  "Don't be a fool," Martha said. "They will never sue for peace. "

  "In point of fact," said the Merlin, "they already have. " He gestured to the second podium on his left. "Wizard LaFortier. "

  LaFortier was an emaciated man of medium height and build. His cheekbones stood out grotesquely from his sunken face, and his bulging eyes looked a couple of sizes too large. He had no hair at all, not even eyebrows, and on the whole it gave him a skeletal look. When he spoke, his voice came out in a resonant basso, deep and warm and smooth. "Thank you, Merlin. " He held up an envelope in one thin-fingered hand. "I have here a missive from Duke Ortega, the war leader of the Red Court, received this morning. In it he details the Red Court's motivations in this matter and the terms they desire for peace. He also offers, by token of goodwill, a temporary cessation of hostilities in order to give the Council time to consider, effective this morning. "

  "Bullshit!" The word burst out of my mouth before my brain realized I had said it. A round of snickers, mostly from brown-robed apprentices, echoed through the theater, and I heard fabric rustle as every wizard in the place turned to look at me. I felt my face heat again, and cleared my throat. "Well, it is," I said to the room. Ebenezar translated for me. "I was attacked by a Red Court hit squad only a few hours ago. "

  LaFortier smiled at me. It stretched his lips out to show his teeth, like the dried face of a thousand-year-old mummy. "Even if you are not lying, Wizard Dresden, I would hardly expect perfect control of all Red Court forces given your role in precipitating this war. "

  "Precipitating it?" I exclaimed. "Do you have any idea what they did?"

  LaFortier shrugged. "They defended an assault upon their sovereignty, Wizard. You, acting in the role of representative of this Council, attacked a noble of their court, damaged her property, and killed members of said noble's household and her as well. In addition, the records of local newspapers and authorities reveal that during the altercation, several young men and women were also killed - burned up in a fire, I think. Does that sound familiar to you, Wizard Dresden?"

  I clenched my jaw, the sudden rush of rage spilling through me in such a torrent that I could scarcely see, much less trust myself to speak. I'd been brought before the Council for the first time when I had been put on trial for violating the First Law of Magic: Thou Shalt Not Kill. I'd burned my old mentor, Justin, to death. When I'd clashed with Bianca, lately of the Red Court, the previous year, I'd called up a firestorm when it looked as if my companions and I were going to buy it anyway. A lot of vampires burned. The bodies of some people had been found afterward, too. There was no way to tell which of them had been victims of the vampires and already dead when the fire got to them and which, if any, had been alive before I came along. I still have nightmares about it. I'm a lot of things, but I'm not a willing murderer.

  To my shock, I felt myself gathering in power, getting ready to unleash it at LaFortier, with his skeletal smirk. Ebenezar caught my eye, his own a little wide, and shook his head quickly. I clenched my hands into tight fists instead of blasting anybody with magic and forced myself to sit down again before I spoke. Self-disciplined, that's me. "I have already detailed my recollection of the events in my report to the Council. I stand by them. Anyone who tells you differently than what you read there is lying. "

  LaFortier rolled his eyes. "How comfortable it must be to live in such a clear-cut world, Wizard Dresden. But we are not counting the cost of your actions in coins or hours wasted - we are counting it in blood. Wizards are dying because of what you did while acting in this Council's name. " LaFortier swept his gaze to the rest of the theater, his expression stern, controlled. "Frankly, I think it may be wise for the Council to consider that we may indeed stand in the wrong in this matter and that it might be prudent to give careful considerations to the Red Court's terms for peace. "

  "What do they want?" I snarled at the man, Ebenezar providing the Latin for the rest of the Council. "A pint of blood a month from each of us? Rights to hunt freely wherever they choose? Amulets to shield them from the light of the sun?"

  LaFortier smiled at me and folded his hands atop his podium. "Nothing so dramatic, Dresden. They simply want what any of us would want in this situation. They want justice. " He leaned toward me, bulging eyes glittering. "They want you. "