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Jim Butcher

Chapter 14~15

  Chapter Fourteen

  N ow that I had not one, but two supernatural hit squads with a good reason to come after me, my options had grown sort of limited. In the end there was really only one place I could take Gard and Hendricks without endangering innocent lives: St. Mary of the Angels Church.

  Which was why I told Thomas to drive us to the Carpenter house.

  "I still think this is a bad idea," Thomas said quietly. The plow trucks were working hard, but so far they'd barely been keeping even with the snow, ensuring that the routes to the hospitals were clear. The streets in some places looked like World War I trenches, snow piled up head-high on either side.

  "The Denarians know that we use the church as a safehouse," I said. "They'll be watching it. "

  Thomas grunted and checked the rearview mirror. Gard was still unconscious, but breathing. Hendricks's eyes were shut, his mouth slightly open. I didn't blame him. I hadn't been standing watch over a wounded comrade all night, and I felt like I could have taken a nap, too.

  "What were those things?" Thomas asked.

  "The Knights of the Blackened Denarius," I replied. "You remember Michael's sword? The nail worked into the hilt?"

  "Sure," Thomas said.

  "There are two others like it," I said. "Three swords. Three nails. "

  Thomas's eyes widened for a moment. "Wait. Those nails? From the Crucifixion?"

  I nodded. "Pretty sure. "

  "And those things were what? Michael's opposite number?"

  "Yeah. Each of those Denarian bozos has a silver coin. "

  "Three silver coins," Thomas said. "I'm drawing a blank. "

  "Thirty," I corrected him.

  Thomas made a choking sound. "Thirty?"

  "Potentially. But Michael and the others have several of them hidden away at the moment. "

  "Thirty pieces of silver," Thomas said, understanding.

  I nodded. "Each coin has the spirit of one of the Fallen trapped inside. Whoever possesses one of the coins can draw upon the Fallen angel's power. They use it to shapeshift into those forms you saw, heal wounds, all kinds of fun stuff. "

  "They tough?"

  "Certifiable nightmares," I said. "A lot of them have been alive long enough to develop some serious talent for magic, too. "

  "Huh," Thomas said. "The one who came through the door didn't seem like such a badass. Ugly, sure, but he wasn't Superman. "

  "Maybe you got lucky," I said. "As long as they have the coins, 'hard to kill' doesn't begin to describe it. "

  "Ah," Thomas said. "That explains it, then. "

  "What?" I asked.

  Thomas reached into his pants pocket and drew out a silver coin a little larger than a nickel, blackened with age, except for the shape of a single sigil, shining cleanly through the tarnish. "When I gutted Captain Ugly, this went flying out. "

  "Hell's bells!" I spat, and flinched away from the coin.

  Thomas twitched in surprise, and the Hummer went into a slow slide on the snow. He turned into it and regained control of the vehicle without ever taking his eyes off me. "Whoa, Harry. What?"

  I pressed my side up against the door of the Hummer, getting as far as I physically could from the thing. "Look, just. . . just don't move, all right?"

  He arched an eyebrow. "Ooookay. Why not?"

  "Because if that thing touches your skin, you're screwed," I said. "Shut up a second and let me think. "

  The gloves. Thomas had been wearing gloves earlier, when fingering Justine's scarf. He hadn't touched the coin with his skin, or he'd already know how much trouble he was in. Good. But the coin was a menace, and I strongly suspected that the entity trapped inside it might be able to influence the physical world around it in subtle ways-enough to go rolling away from its former owner, for example, or to somehow manipulate Thomas into dropping or misplacing it.

  Containment. It had to be contained. I fumbled at my pockets. The only container I was carrying was an old Crown Royal whiskey bag, the one that held my little set of gaming dice. I dumped them out into my pocket and opened the bag.

  I already had a glove on my left hand. My paw had recovered significantly from the horrible burns it had gotten several years before, but it still wasn't what you'd call pretty. I kept it covered out of courtesy to everyone who might glance at it. I held the little bag open with two fingers of my left hand and said, "Put it in here. And for God's sake, don't drop it or touch me with it. "

  Thomas's eyes widened further. He bit his lower lip and moved his hand very carefully, until he could drop the inoffensive little disk into the Crown Royal bag.

  I jerked the drawstrings tight the second the coin was in, and tied the bag shut. Then I slapped open the Hummer's ashtray, stuffed the bag inside, and slammed it closed again.

  Only then did I draw a slow breath and sag back down into my seat.

  "Jesus," Thomas said quietly. He hesitated for a moment and then said, "Harry. . . is it really that bad?"

  "It's worse," I said. "But I can't think of any other precautions to take yet. "

  "What would have happened if I'd touched it?"

  "The Fallen inside the coin would have invaded your consciousness," I said. "It would offer you power. Temptation. Once you gave in enough, it would own you. "

  "I've resisted temptation before, Harry. "

  "Not like this. " I turned a frank gaze to him. "It's a Fallen angel, man. Thousands and thousands of years old. It knows how people think. It knows how to exploit them. "

  His voice sharpened a little. "I come from a family where everyone's an incubus or a succubus. I think I know a little something about temptation. "

  "Then you should know how they'd get you. " I lowered my voice and said gently, "It could give Justine back to you, Thomas. Let you touch her again. "

  He stared at me for a second, a flicker of wild longing somewhere far back in his eyes. Then he turned his head slowly back to the road, his expression slipping into a neutral mask. "Oh," he said quietly. After a moment he said, "We should probably get rid of the thing. "

  "We will," I said. "The Church has been up against the Denarians for a couple of thousand years. There are measures they can take. "

  Thomas glanced down at the ashtray for a second, then dragged his eyes away and glowered at the dented hood of his Hummer. "They couldn't have shown up six months ago. When I was driving a Buick. "

  I snorted. "As long as you've got your priorities in order. "

  "I just met them, but already I hate these guys," Thomas said. "But why are they here? Why now?"

  "Offhand? I'd say that they were out to wax Marcone and prove to the other members of the Accords that vanilla mortals have no place among us weirdos-I mean, superhumans. "

  "They're members of the Accords?"

  "I'd have to look it up," I said. "I doubt they're signed on as the 'Order of Demon-possessed Psychotics. ' But from the way Mantis Girl was talking, yeah. "

  Thomas shook his head. "So what do they get out of it? What does taking Marcone prove?"

  I shrugged. I had already asked myself the same questions and hadn't been able to come up with any answers. "No clue," I said. "But they've got what it takes to have torn that building apart, and to get around or go through the kind of muscle Marcone keeps around him. "

  "And what the hell are the Faerie Queens doing getting involved?" Thomas asked.

  I shrugged again. I'd already asked myself that, too. I hate it when I have to answer my own questions like that.

  We went the rest of the way to Michael's place in grey-and-white silence.

  His street was on one of the routes being kept plowed, and we had no trouble rolling right up into his driveway. Michael himself was there with his two tallest sons, each of them wielding a snow shovel as they labored to clear the driveway and the sidewalk and the porch of the ongoing snow.

  Michael regarded the Hummer with pursed lips as Thomas pulle
d in. He said something to his sons that made them trade a look with each other, then hurry inside. Michael walked down the driveway to my side of the truck and looked at my brother, then at the passengers in the backseat.

  I rolled down the window. "Hey," I said.

  "Harry," he said calmly. "What are you doing here?"

  "I just had a conversation with Preying Mantis Girl," I said. I held up a notebook, where I'd scribbled down the angelic sigil while it was still fresh in my memory.

  Michael took a deep breath and grimaced. Then he nodded. "I had a feeling they might be in town. "

  "Oh?" I asked.

  The front door of the house opened, and a large, dark-skinned man appeared, dressed in blue jeans and a dark leather jacket. He wore a gym bag over one broad shoulder, and had one hand resting casually inside it. He paced out into the cold and the snow as if he'd been wearing full winter-weather gear, rather than casual traveling clothes, and stalked over toward us.

  Once he got close enough to make out the details his face split into a broad, brief grin, and he hurried to stand beside Michael. "Harry!" he said, his voice deep, rich, and thick with a Russian accent. "We meet again. "

  I answered his grin. "Sanya," I replied, offering my hand. He shook it with enough force to crack bones. "What are you doing here?"

  "Passing through," Sanya said, and hooked a thumb up at the snow. "I was on the last flight in before they closed the airport. Looks like I am staying for a few days. " His eyes went from my face to the notebook, and the pleasant expression on his dark face turned to a brief snarl.

  "Somebody you know?" I asked.

  "Tessa," he said. "And Imariel. "

  "You've met, huh?"

  His jaw clenched again. "Tessa's second. . . recruited me. Tessa is here?"

  "With friends. " I sketched the sigil I'd seen on the blackened denarius a few moments before and held it up to them.

  Sanya shook his head and glanced at Michael.

  "Akariel," Michael said at once.

  I nodded. "He's in a Crown Royal bag in the ashtray. "

  Michael blinked. Sanya too.

  "I hope you have one of those holy hankies. I'd have taken it to Padre Forthill, but I figured they'd have him under observation. I need someplace quiet to hole up. "

  Sanya and Michael traded a long, silent look.

  Sanya frowned, examining my brother. "Who is the vampire?"

  I felt Thomas stiffen in surprise. As a rule, even members of the supernatural world can't detect what a vampire of the White Court truly is, unless he's actually in the middle of doing something vampity. It's a natural camouflage for his kind, and they rely upon it every bit as much as a leopard does its spots.

  But it can be tough to hide things from a Knight of the Cross. Maybe it's a part of the power they're given, or maybe it's just a part of the personality of the men chosen for the job-don't ask me which. I'm fuzzy on the whole issue of faith and the Almighty, and I swim those waters with extreme caution and as much brevity as possible. I just know that the bad guys rarely get to sneak up on a Knight of the Cross, and that the Knights have a propensity for bringing the truth to light.

  I met Sanya's gaze for a moment and said, "He's with me. He's also the reason Akariel has a date with the inside of a vault. "

  Sanya seemed to consider that for a moment. He glanced at Michael, who gave a grudging nod.

  The younger Knight pursed his lips thoughtfully at that, his gaze moving to the backseat.

  Hendricks had woken up, but he hadn't moved. He watched Sanya with steady, beady eyes.

  "The woman," Sanya said, frowning. "What is she?"

  "Hurt," I said.

  Something like chagrin flickered over his features. "Da, of course. You would not bring her here if you thought her a danger. "

  "Not to you or me," I said. "Tessa might have a different opinion. "

  Sanya's eyebrows went up. "Is that how she was wounded?"

  "That was after she was wounded. "

  "Really. " Sanya peered a little more closely at Gard.

  "Back off," Hendricks rumbled. "Comrade. "

  Sanya flashed that swift smile again and displayed open palms to Hendricks.

  Michael nodded to Thomas. "Pull the truck around to the back of the house. With all this snow piled up it should be hidden from the street. "

  "Thank you, Michael," I said.

  He shook his head. "There's a heater in the workshop, and a couple of folding cots. I'm not exposing the children to this. "

  "I understand. "

  "Do you?" Michael asked gently. He thumped the truck's dented hood once, lightly, and waved Thomas toward the back of the house.

  Twenty minutes later we were all warm, if a bit crowded in Michael's workshop.

  Gard lay on a couch, sleeping, her color improving almost visibly. Hendricks sat down with his back to the wall beside Gard's cot, presumably to stand watch, but he'd started snoring within a few minutes. Sanya, with the help of Molly and her siblings, was off rounding up food.

  I watched as Michael wrapped Akariel up in a clean white hankie embroidered with a silver cross, muttering a prayer under his breath the whole while. Then he slipped the hankie into a plain wooden box, also adorned with a silver cross. "Excuse me," he said. "I need to secure this. "

  "Where do they keep those things?" Thomas asked, after Michael had departed.

  I shrugged. "Some big warehouse with a gazillion identical boxes, probably. "

  Thomas snorted.

  "Don't even think it," I said. "It isn't worth it. "

  Thomas ran his gloved fingers over the white scarf. "Isn't it?"

  "You saw how these things operate. They'll manipulate your emotions and self-control, and something bad would happen to Justine. Or they'd wait until they had you hook, line, and sinker and you were their meat puppet. And something bad would happen to Justine. "

  Thomas shrugged. "I've got one demon in my head already. What's one more?"

  I studied his profile. "You've got one monster in your head already," I countered. "She barely survived it. "

  He was still for a moment. Then he slammed his elbow back against the workshop wall, a gesture of pure frustration. Wood splintered, and a little cold air whooshed in.

  "Maybe you're right," he said in a dull voice.

  "Holy crap," I said. An idea crystallized in my head, and a chill went down my spine.

  Thomas rubbed his elbow lightly. "What?"

  "I just had a really unpleasant thought. " I gestured at Marcone's exhausted retainers. "I don't think the Denarians took Marcone so that they could erase him and make an example of him. "

  My brother shrugged. "Why else would they do it?"

  I bit my lip, my stomach turning in uncomfortable flips.

  "Because," I said, "maybe they want to recruit him. "

  Chapter Fifteen

  T homas stood watch over our sleeping beauties while I went inside to talk with Michael and Sanya at the Carpenter kitchen table.

  I laid all the cards down. See above regarding the general futility of lying to Knights of the Cross-and besides, they'd both more than earned my trust. It didn't take me very long.

  "So," I said, "I think we've got to move fast, and get Marcone away from them before he's forced to join up. "

  Michael frowned and folded his broad, work-scarred hands on the table before him. "What makes you think he's going to tell them no?"

  "Marcone's scum," I said. "But he's his own scum. He doesn't work for anyone. "

  "You are sure?" Sanya asked, frowning thoughtfully.

  "Yeah," I said. "I think that's why they wanted to grab Hendricks and Gard instead of killing them. So they could force him to take the coin or they'd kill his people. "

  Michael grunted. "It's a frequently used tactic. "

  "Not for Tessa," Sanya said, his voice absolutely certain. "She prefers to find those alrea
dy well motivated to accept a coin. She regards their potential talents as a secondary factor to raw desire. "

  Michael acceded the point with a nod. "Which would mean that Tessa isn't giving the orders. "

  Sanya showed his teeth in a sudden, fierce grin. "Nicodemus is here. "

  "Fu-" I started to swear, but I glanced at Michael and changed it to, "Fudgesicles. Nicodemus nearly killed us all last time he was in town. And he did kill Shiro. "

  Both of the Knights nodded. Michael bowed his head and murmured a brief prayer.

  "Guys," I said, "I know that your first instincts tend to be to stand watch against the night, turning the other cheek, and so on. But he's here with maybe twice the demon-power he had on his last visit. If we wait for him to come to us, he'll tear us apart. "

  "Agreed," Sanya said firmly. "Take the initiative. Find him and hit the snake before he can coil to strike. "

  Michael shook his head. "Brother, you forget our purpose. We are not given our power so that we can strike down our enemies, no matter how much they might deserve it. Our purpose is to rescue the poor souls trapped by the Fallen. "

  "Nicodemus doesn't want to be rescued," I said. "He's in full collaboration with his demon. "

  "Which changes nothing about our duty," he said. "Anyone, even Nicodemus, can seek redemption, no matter what they've done, as long as they have breath enough to ask forgiveness. "

  "I don't suppose a pair of sucking chest wounds could get us around that?" I asked him. "Because if they would, I'd be tickled to provide them. "

  Sanya let out a bark of laughter.

  Michael smiled, but it was brief and strained. "My point is that we can undertake such an aggressive move in only the direst of circumstances. "

  "Faerie stands poised on the brink of an internal war," I said. "Which would probably reignite the war between the Council and the Vampire Courts-and in the bad guys' favor, I might add. One of the most dangerous men I've ever known is about to have involuntary access to the knowledge and power of a Fallen angel, which would give the Denarians access to major influence within the United States. Not to mention the serious personal consequences for me if they succeed in making it happen. " I looked back and forth between the two Knights, and held up one hand straight over my head. "I vote dire. All in favor?"

  Michael caught Sanya's hand on the way up, and pushed it gently back down to the table. "This isn't a democracy, Harry. We serve a King. "

  Sanya frowned for a moment, glancing at me. But then he settled back in his chair, a silent statement of support for Michael.

  "You want to talk to them?" I asked Michael. "You've got to be kidding me. "

  "I didn't say that," Michael replied. "But I will not set out to simply murder them and have done. It's a solution, Harry. But it isn't good enough. "

  I settled back in my chair and rubbed at my head with one hand. An ache was forming there. "Okay," I said quietly, trying to make up a plan as I went along. "What if. . . I set up a talk? Could you be lurking nearby for backup?"

  Michael sighed. "There's a measure of sophistry in that. You know they'll try to betray you if it seems to be to their advantage. "

  "Yeah. And it'll be their choice to do it. That's what you're looking for, isn't it? Some way to deal with the problem while still giving them a choice about what to do? Preferably in some manner that will get as few good guys killed as possible?"

  He looked pained, but Michael nodded.

  "Fine," I said. "I'll try to set it up. "

  "How?" Sanya asked.

  "Let me worry about that," I said. I checked the clock on the wall. "Crap. I'm late for a meeting. Can I borrow your phone?"

  "Of course," Michael said.

  I glanced around the quiet house on my way to the phone and frowned. "Where is everyone?"

  "Charity took them elsewhere for a few days," Michael said. "There won't be school in this mess, anyway. "

  I grunted. "Where's Molly?"

  Michael paused and then shook his head. "I'm not sure. I don't think she went with them. "

  I thought about it for a moment and thought I knew where she'd be. I nodded around the kitchen. "How do you keep things running around here with Molly under the roof? I figured things would be breaking down left and right. "

  "Lots and lots of preventive maintenance," Michael replied steadily. "And about twice as much repair work as I usually do. "

  "Sorry. "

  He smiled. "Small price. She's worth it. "

  The reasons I like Michael have nothing to do with swords and the smiting of evil.

  I got on the phone and dialed McAnally's Pub.

  "Mac," answered Mac, the ever-laconic owner.

  "It's Harry Dresden," I said. "Is Sergeant Murphy there?"

  Mac grunted in the affirmative.

  "Put a beer on my tab and tell her I'm on the way?"

  Mac grunted yes again.

  "Thanks, man. "

  He hung up without saying good-bye.

  I made another call and spoke to a humorless-sounding man with a Slavic accent. I muttered my password, so that no one in the kitchen would overhear it, but the connection was so bad that I wound up all but screaming it into the receiver. That kind of thing is to be expected when you've got a wizard on both ends.

  It only took the Jolly Northman about ten minutes to get my call through to my party.

  "Luccio," said a young woman's voice. "What's gone wrong, Harry?"

  "Hey!" I protested. "That's a hell of a thing to say to a man, Captain. Just because I'm calling in doesn't mean that there's some kind of crisis. "

  "Technically true, I suppose. Why are you calling?"

  "Well. There's a crisis. "

  She made an mmmmmm sound.

  "A group known as the Knights of the Blackened Denarius has kidnapped Baron Marcone. "

  "The crime lord you took it upon yourself to assist in joining the Accords?" Luccio asked, amusement in her voice. "In what way is that relevant to the White Council?"

  "These Denarian creeps are also signatories of the Accords," I said. "Marcone's retainers are crying foul. They've asked me to formally protest the abduction and summon an Emissary to resolve the dispute. "

  Seconds of silence ticked by.

  "In what way," Luccio repeated, her voice much harder this time, "is that relevant to the White Council?"

  "The Accords don't mean anything if they aren't enforced and supported," I said. "In the long run, it's in our own best interests to make sure they're supported now, before a precedent is set and-"

  "Don't bullshit me," the captain of the Wardens snarled, a hint of an Italian accent creeping into her speech. "If we take formal action it could provoke a war-a war we simply cannot afford. We all know the Red Court is only catching its breath. We can ill afford the losses we've already taken, much less those we might assume in a new conflict. "

  I made sure to keep my voice steady, grim. "Mab has contacted me personally. She has indicated that it is strongly in our own best interests to intervene. "

  It wasn't exactly a lie. I hadn't ever specified who we meant. And with any luck the mention of Mab would keep Luccio's attention completely. The only reason the Red Court hadn't wiped us out in the years-long war was that Mab had given the Council right-of-way through the portions of the Nevernever under her control, allowing us wizards to stay as mobile as our opponents, who had considerably less difficulty employing mortal vehicles to maneuver its soldiery.

  "Jesu Christi," Luccio spat. "She means to withdraw our right-of-way through Winter if we don't accede to her demands. "

  "Well," I said, "she never actually came out and said that. "

  "Of course she didn't. She never speaks plainly at all. "

  "She does keep her deals, though," I pointed out.

  "She doesn't make deals she can't slide out of. She's forbidden the Ways to her people but also to the Wyldfae as a gesture of courtesy. Al
l she needs to do is relax her ban against the Wyldfae, and we'd be forced to travel in strength every time we went through the Ways. "

  "She's a sneaky bitch," I agreed. I crossed my fingers.

  Luccio exhaled forcefully through her nose. "Very well. I will forward the appropriate notifications, pending approval by the Senior Council. Which Emissary would you prefer?"

  "The Archive. We have a working relationship. "

  Luccio mmmmm ed again. I heard a pencil scratching. "Dresden," she said, "I cannot stress to you enough how vital it is that we avoid general hostilities, even with a relatively small power. "

  Translation: Don't start another war, Harry.

  "But," she continued, "we can afford to lose the paths through Winter even less. "

  Translation: Unless you really have to.

  "I hear you," I said. "I'll do my best. "

  "Do better," Luccio said, her tone blunt. "There are those on the Senior Council who hold the opinion that we're already fighting one war because of your incompetence. "

  I felt heat flush up my neck. "If they bring that up, remind them that my incompetence is the only reason they weren't all blasted to molecules by a newborn god," I shot back. "And after that, remind them that because of my incompetence, we're enjoying a cease-fire that we desperately needed to replace our losses. And after that-"

  "That is enough, Warden," the captain snapped.

  I fought down my frustration and clamped my mouth shut.

  Hey, we were coming up on the holidays. They're a time of miracles.

  "I'll notify you when I learn something," Luccio said, and hung up the phone.

  I hung up too, harder than I really needed to. I turned to find Michael and Sanya staring at me.

  "Harry," Michael said quietly, "that was Captain Luccio, was it not?"

  "Yeah," I said.

  "You never told us that Mab threatened to go back on her bargain. "

  "Well, no. "

  Michael watched me with troubled eyes. "Because she didn't. You just lied to Luccio. "

  "Yeah," I said shortly. "Because I need the Council's say-so to set up the meeting. Because I've got to set up the meeting so that the gang of murdering bastards who tortured Shiro to death will have a chance to prove to you that they've still got it coming. "

  "Harry, if the Council learns that you've misled them-"

  "They'll probably charge me with treason," I said.

  Michael rose from his seat. "But-"

  I stabbed a finger at him. "The longer we delay, the longer those creeps stay in town, the longer Summer's hit men keep coming after me, and the more likely it is that innocent people are going to get hurt in the cross fire. I've got to move fast, and the best way to get the Council to move is to let it think its own ass is about to fall into the fire. "

  "Harry-" Michael began.

  "Don't," I said. "Don't give me the speech about redemption and mercy and how everyone deserves a second chance. I'm all for doing the right thing, Michael. You know that. But this isn't the time. "

  "Then what is right changes because we're in a hurry?" he asked gently.

  "Even your Book says that there's a time for all things," I said. "A time to heal-and a time to kill. "

  Michael looked from me to the corner by the back door, where the broadsword Amoracchius rested in its humble leather scabbard, its plain, crusader-style hilt bound in wire. "It isn't that, Harry. I've seen more of what they've done than you have. I have no qualms with fighting them, if it comes to that. "

  "They've already blown up a building, tried to murder me, and set off a situation that nearly got your own children burned down in the cross fire. In what way has it not come to that?"

  Instead of answering, Michael shook his head, took up Amoracchius, and walked further into the house.

  I scowled after him for a minute and muttered darkly under my breath.

  "You confused him," Sanya rumbled.

  I glanced at the dark-skinned Knight. "What?"

  "You confused him," Sanya repeated. "Because of what you did. "

  "What? Lying to the Council? I don't see that I had much choice. "

  "But you did," Sanya said placidly. He reached into the gym bag on the floor next to him and drew out a long saber, an old cavalry weapon-Esperacchius. A nail worked into the hilt declared it a brother of Michael's sword. He started inspecting the blade. "You could have simply moved to attack them. "

  "By myself? I'm bad, but I'm not that bad. "

  "He's your friend. He would have come with you. You know that. "

  I shook my head. "He's my friend. Period. You don't do that to your friends. "

  "Precisely," Sanya said. "So instead you have placed your own life in jeopardy in order to protect his beliefs. You risk your body to preserve his heart. " He brought out a smooth sharpening stone and began stropping the saber's blade. "I suppose he considers it a particularly messianic act. "

  "That's not why I did it," I said.

  "Of course it isn't. He knows that. It isn't easy for him. Usually he's the one protecting another, willing to pay the price if he must. "

  I exhaled and glanced after Michael. "I don't know what else I could have done. "

  "Da," Sanya agreed. "But he is still afraid for you. " He fell quiet for a moment, while his stone slid along the sword's blade.

  "Mind if I ask you something?" I said.

  The big man kept sharpening the sword with a steady hand. "Not at all. "

  "You looked a little tense when Tessa's name came up," I said.

  Sanya glanced up at me for a second, his eyes shadowed and unreadable. He shrugged a shoulder and went back to his work.

  "She do you wrong?"

  "Barely ever noticed me. Or spoke to me," Sanya said. "To her I was just an employee. One more face. She did not care who I was. "

  "This second of hers, though. The one who recruited you. "

  The muscles along his jawline twitched. "Her name is Rosanna. "

  "And she done you wrong," I said.

  "Why do you say that?"

  "'Cause when you talk about her, your face says that you been done wrong. "

  He gave me a brief smile. "Do you know how many black men live in Russia, Dresden?"

  "No. I mean, I figure they're kind of a minority. "

  Sanya stopped in midstrop and glanced at me for a pregnant moment, one eyebrow arched. "Yes," he said, his tone dry. "Kind of. "

  "More so than in the States, I guess. "

  He grunted. "For Moscow I was very, very odd. If I went out to any smaller towns when I was growing up, I had to be careful about walking down busy streets. I could cause car accidents when drivers took their eyes off the road to stare at me. Literally. Many people in that part of the world had never seen a black person with their own eyes. That is changing slowly, but growing up I was a minority the way Bigfoot is a minority. A freak. "

  I started putting things together. "That's the kind of thing that is bound to make a young man a little resentful. "

  He went back to sharpening the sword. "Oh, yes. "

  "So when you say that Tessa prefers to take recruits she knows will be eager to accept a coin. . . "

  "I speak from experience," Sanya said, nodding. "Rosanna was everything that angry, poor, desperate young man could dream of. Pretty. Strong. Sensual. And she truly did not care about the color of my skin. " Sanya shook his head. "I was sixteen. "

  I winced. "Yeah. Good age for making really bad decisions. I speak from experience, too. "

  "She offered me the coin," Sanya said. "I took it. And for five years the creature known as Magog and I traveled the world with Rosanna, indulged in every vice a young man could possibly imagine, and. . . obeyed Tessa's commands. " He shook his head and glanced up at me. "By the end of that time, Dresden, I wasn't much more than a beast who walked upright. Oh, I had thoughts and feelings, but they were all slaves to my baser desir
es. I did many things of which I am not-" He broke off and turned his face away from me. "I did many things. "

  "She was your handler," I said quietly. "Rosanna. She was the one getting you to try the drugs, to do the deeds. One little step at a time. Corrupting you and letting the Fallen take control. "

  He nodded. "And the whole time I never even suspected it. I thought that she cared about me as much as I cared about her. " He smiled faintly. "Mind you, I never claimed to be of any particular intelligence. "

  "Who got you out?" I asked him. "Shiro?"

  "In a way," Sanya said. "Shiro had just driven Tessa from one of her projects in. . . Antwerp, I believe. She came storming into Rosanna's apartment in Venice, furious. She and Rosanna had an argument I never completely understood-but instead of leaving when I was told to do so, I stayed to listen. I heard what Rosanna truly felt about me, heard her report about me to Tessa. And I finally understood what an idiot I'd been. I dropped the coin into a canal and never looked back. "

  I blinked at him. "That must have been difficult. "

  "My entire life has been one of a snowball in Hell," Sanya said cheerfully. "Though the metaphor is perhaps inverted. At the time I judged the action to be tantamount to suicide, since Tessa was certain to track me down and kill me-but Shiro had followed her to Venice, and he found me instead. Michael-not the Chicago Michael, the other one-met us at Malta and brought Esperacchius, here, with him, offering me the chance to work against some of the evil I'd helped to create. From there I have been Knighting. Is good work. Plenty of travel, interesting people, always a new challenge. "

  I shook my head and laughed. "That's putting a positive spin on it. "

  "I am making a difference," Sanya said with simple and rock-solid conviction. "And you, Dresden? Have you considered taking up Fidelacchius? Joining us?"

  "No," I said quietly.

  "Why not?" Sanya asked, his tone reasonable. "You know for what we fight. You know the good we do for others. Your cause runs a close parallel to ours: to protect those who cannot protect themselves; to pit yourself against the forces of violence and death when they arise. "

  "I'm not really into the whole God thing," I said.

  "And I am an agnostic," Sanya responded.

  I snorted. "Hell's bells. Tell me you aren't still clinging to that. You carry a holy blade and hang out with angels. "

  "The blade has power, true. The beings allied with that power are. . . somewhat angelic. But I have met many strange and mighty things since I took up the sword. If one called them 'aliens' instead of 'angels,' it would only mean that I was working in concert with powerful beings-not necessarily the literal forces of Heaven, or a literal Creator. " Sanya grinned. "A philosophical fine point, true, but I am not prepared to abandon it. What we do is worthy, without ever bringing questions of faith, religion, or God into the discussion. "

  "Can't argue with that," I admitted.

  "So tell me," Sanya said, "why have you not considered taking up the sword?"

  I thought about it for a second and said, "Because it isn't for me. And Shiro said I would know who to give it to. "

  Sanya shrugged and nodded his head in acquiescence. "Reason enough. " He sighed. "We could use Fidelacchius's power in this conflict. I wish Shiro were with us now. "

  "Good man," I agreed quietly. "He was a king, you know. "

  "I thought he just liked the King's music. "

  "No, no," I said. "Shiro himself. He was a direct descendent of the last king of Okinawa. Several generations back, but his family was royalty. "

  Sanya shrugged his broad shoulders. "There have been many kings over the centuries, my friend, and many years for their bloodlines to spread through the populace. My own family can trace its roots back to Salahuddin. "

  I felt my eyebrows rise. "Salahuddin. You mean Saladin? King of Syria and Egypt during the Crusades?"

  Sanya nodded. "The same. " He paused in midstrop and looked up at me, his eyes widening.

  "I know you're agnostic," I said. "But do you believe in coincidence?"

  "Not nearly so much as I once did," Sanya replied.

  "That can't be a coincidence. Both of you descended from royalty. " I chewed on my lip. "Could that have something to do with who can take up one of the swords?"

  "I am a soldier and an amateur philosopher," Sanya said. "You are the wizard. Could such a thing be significant?"

  I waggled a hand in midair. "Yes and no. I mean, there are a lot of factors that tie magic to matters of inheritance-genetic or otherwise. A lot of the old rites were intimately bound up with political rulers. "

  "The king and his land are one," Sanya intoned solemnly.

  "Well, yeah. "

  Sanya nodded. "Michael showed me that movie. "

  "Merlin was the only good thing about that movie. That and Captain Picard kicking ass in plate mail with a big ax. " I waved my hand. "The point is that in many cultures, the king or sultan or whatever held a position of duty and authority that was as much spiritual as physical. Certain energies could have been connected to that, giving the old kings a form of metaphysical significance. "

  "Perhaps something similar to the power of the Swords?" Sanya asked.

  I shrugged. "Maybe. By the time I was born the planet was running a little low on monarchs. It isn't something I've looked at before. "

  Sanya smiled. "Well. Now you need only find a prince or princess willing to lay down his or her life over matters of principle. Do you know any?"

  "Not so much," I said. "But I've got a feeling that we're onto something. " I glanced at the clock on the wall. "It's getting late. I'll be back here in about two hours, or I'll call. "

  "Da," Sanya said. "We will watch over your criminals for you. "

  "Thanks," I said, and went back out to the workshop. Hendricks had slumped to the floor and was sleeping. Gard was actually snoring. Thomas had been pacing restlessly when I entered.

  "Well?" he asked.

  "Gotta get to Mac's and meet Murphy," I said. "Let's roll. "

  Thomas nodded and headed for the door.

  I reached into the trash can by the door, took out an empty motor oil can, and tossed it into the least cluttered corner of the workshop. It bounced off something in midair, and Molly let out a soft yelp, appearing there a moment later, rubbing a hand to her hip.

  "Where'd she come from?" Thomas demanded crossly.

  "What did I miss?" Molly demanded, her tone faintly offended. "I had all the senses covered. Even Thomas didn't know I was there. "

  "You didn't miss anything," I said. "I just know how you think, grasshopper. If I can't make you stay where it's safe, I might as well keep you where I can see you. Maybe you'll even be useful. You're with us. "

  Molly's eyes gleamed. "Excellent," she said, and hurried over to join me.