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Summer Knight, Page 6

Jim Butcher

Chapter Six


  "Me?" I said. Et la, LaFortier. Feel the bite of my rapier wit.

  "Yes. Duke Ortega writes that you, Wizard Dresden, are considered a criminal by the Red Court. In order to end this conflict they wish to extradite you to an area of their designation for trial. A resolution that is, perhaps, distasteful, but may also be only just. "

  He didn't get the last word out of his mouth before several dozen wizards around the auditorium rose to their feet with outraged shouts. Others stood up to cry out against them, and still more against them. The room descended into a cacophony of shouts, threats, and cussing (among wizards, cursing is a different matter altogether) in dozens of languages.

  The Merlin let people shout for a moment before he called out in a ringing voice, "Order!" No one paid him any attention. He tried once more, then lifted his staff and slammed it down hard on the stage beside him.

  There was a flash of light, a roar of sound, and a concussion that slopped the water in my glass up over the brim, spilling it on my flannel bathrobe. A couple of the wispier wizards were knocked down by the force of it - but in any case, the shouting ceased.

  "Order!" the Merlin demanded again, in exactly the same tone. "I am well aware of the implications of this situation. But lives are at stake. Your lives and my own. We must consider our options with the utmost gravity. "

  "What options?" Ebenezar demanded. "We are wizards, not a herd of frightened sheep. Will we give one of our own to the vampires now and pretend that none of this has happened?"

  LaFortier snapped, "You read Dresden's report. By his own admission, what the Red Court accuses him of is true. They have a just grievance. "

  "The situation was clearly a manipulation, a scheme to force Dresden to those actions in hopes of killing him. "

  "Then he should have been smarter," LaFortier said, his tone flat. "Politics is not a game for children. Dresden played and was beaten. It is time for him to pay the price so that the rest of us may live in peace. "

  Injun Joe put a hand on Ebenezar's arm and spoke quietly. "Peace cannot be bought, Aleron," he murmured to LaFortier. "History teaches that lesson. I learned it. You should have, too. "

  LaFortier sneered at Injun Joe. "I don't know what you are babbling about, but - "

  I rolled my eyes and stood up again. "He's talking about the American tribes losing their land to white settlers, dolt. " I figured Ebenezar would leave the insult out of the translation, but there were more stifled snorts from brown robes around the room. "And about Europe's attempts to appease Hitler before the Second World War. Both attempted to purchase peace with compromise, and both got swallowed up bit by bit. "

  The Merlin glared at me. "I did not recognize you, Wizard Dresden. Until you have the floor, you will refrain from such outbursts or I will have you removed from this meeting. "

  I clenched my jaw and sat down. "Sorry. Here I was, figuring we had a responsibility to protect people. What was I thinking?"

  "We will protect no one, Wizard Dresden, if we are dead," the Merlin snapped. "Be silent or be removed. "

  Martha Liberty shook her head. "Merlin, it seems clear that we cannot simply hand one of our own over to the Red Court because of their demands. Despite past differences with Council policy, Dresden is a fully ranked wizard - and given his performance in recent years, he seems well deserving of the title. "

  "I do not question his ability with the Art," LaFortier put in. "I question his judgement, his choices. He has played loose and reckless with his status as a wizard since Justin's death. " The bald man turned his bulging eyes to the wizards in the theater. "Wizard Harry Dresden. Apprentice to the Wizard Justin DuMorne. Apprentice to the Wizard Simon Pietrovich. I wonder how the Red Court learned enough of Pietrovich's defenses to bypass them so completely, Dresden. "

  I stared at LaFortier for a second, shocked. Did the man actually believe that I had learned about this Pietrovich's defenses through Justin? Then sold a Senior Council member of the White Council to the vampires? Justin hadn't exactly taken me around much. Before I'd been put on trial, I hadn't even known that there was a White Council - or other wizards at all, for that matter. I gave him the only answer I could. I laughed at him. Wheezy, quiet laughter. I shook my head.

  LaFortier's expression grew outraged. "You see?" he demanded to the room. "You see in what contempt he holds this Council? His position as a wizard? Dresden has constantly endangered us all with his obtuse indiscretion, his reckless disregard for secrecy and security. Even if it was someone else who betrayed Pietrovich and his students to the Red Court, Dresden is as guilty of their murder as if he himself had cut their throats. Let the consequences of his decisions fall upon him. "

  I rose and faced LaFortier, but glanced at the Merlin for permission to speak. He gave the floor to me with a grudging nod. "Impossible," I said. "Or at least impractical. I have violated none of the Laws of Magic in this matter, which rules out a summary trial. I am a full wizard. By Council law, I am therefore entitled to an in-depth investigation and trial - neither of which would provide any kind of workable solution anytime soon. "

  The room rumbled with agreement when Ebenezar finished translating for me. That was hardly a surprise. If the Council jammed a trial down my throat and then threw me to the wolves, it would set a deadly precedent - one that could haunt any wizard in the room, and they knew it.

  LaFortier jabbed a forefinger at me and said, "Quite true. Provided that you are, in fact, a full wizard. I move that the Council vote, immediately, to determine whether or not Dresden's status as a wizard is valid. I remind the Council that his appointment to his stole was a de facto decision based upon circumstantial evidence. He has never stood Trial, never been judged worthy by his peers. "

  "Like hell I haven't," I answered him. "I beat Justin DuMorne in a duel to the death. Is that not Trial enough for you?"

  "Wizard DuMorne died, yes," LaFortier said. "Whether he was defeated in an open duel or burned in his sleep is another matter entirely. Merlin, you have heard my motion. Let the Council vote upon the status of this madman. Let us end this foolishness and return to our lives. "

  Ouch. An angle I hadn't thought of. If I was stripped of my stole, it would be like a medieval noble having his title taken away. I would no longer be a wizard, politically speaking, and according to Council law and to the Accords between the various supernatural factions, the Council would be obligated to turn over a fugitive murderer to the Red Court. Which would mean, if I was fortunate, a horrible death. If I wasn't fortunate, it could be considerably worse.

  Given the kind of day I'd been having, my heart started skittering in my chest.

  The Merlin frowned and nodded. "Very well, then. We vote upon the issue of the status of one Harry Dresden. Let those who would have him keep his stole vote for, and those who favor that his status be restored to that of apprentice vote against. All those in fav - "

  "Wait," Ebenezar interjected. "I invoke my right as a member of the Senior Council to reduce the vote to the Senior Council alone. "

  The Merlin glared at Ebenezar. "On what grounds?"

  "On the grounds that there exists a great deal of information about this matter of which the Council at large is unaware. It would be impractical to attempt to explain it all. "

  "Seconded," Injun Joe murmured.

  "Accord," Martha Liberty added. "Three votes yea, honored Merlin. Let the Senior Council make this decision. "

  My heart started beating again. Ebenezar had made the right call. In a room full of frightened men and women, I wouldn't have had a prayer of keeping my stole. With the vote reduced to the Senior Council, maybe I had a fighting chance.

  I could almost see the Merlin trying to figure a way out of it, but Council law is pretty clear on that point. The Senior Council members can always take a matter to a closed vote with three supporters.

  "Very well," the Merlin said. The room rustled with whispers. "My interests
lie in preserving the health and safety of those upon this Council, and of the communities of mankind in general. I vote against Dresden's validity as an initiate wizard of this Council. "

  LaFortier jumped in, bulging eyes narrowed. "As do I, and for the same reasons. "

  Ebenezar spoke next. "I've lived with this young man. I know him. He's a wizard. I vote to preserve his status. "

  Little Brother chittered from his perch on Injun Joe's shoulder, and the old wizard stroked the raccoon's tail with one hand. "My instincts about this man tell me that he comports himself as a wizard should. " He gave a very mild glance to LaFortier. "I vote in favor of his status. "

  "As do I," Martha Liberty added. "This is not a solution. It is merely an action. "

  Harry three, bad guys two. I turned my eyes to Ancient Mai.

  The tiny woman stood with her eyes closed for a moment, her head bowed. Then she murmured, "No wizard should so blatantly misuse his status as a member of this Council. Nor should he be as irresponsible as Harry Dresden has been with his use of the Art. I vote against his retention of wizard status. "

  Three to three. I licked my lips, and realized at just that moment that I had been too nervous and involved with events to take note of the seventh member of the Senior Council. He was standing at the far left of the stage. Like the other wizards, he wore a black robe, but his dark purple, almost black stole had a deep cowl upon it as well, which covered his face entirely. The candlelit dimness masked in shadow whatever the cowl didn't cover. He was tall. Taller than me. Seven feet, and thin. His arms were folded, hands hidden inside the voluminous sleeves of his robe. Every eye in the place turned to the seventh member of the Council, and a silence deeper than that of the nearby Great Lake enveloped the room.

  It lasted for long moments, then the Merlin prompted, quietly, "Gatekeeper. What say you?"

  I leaned forward in my chair, my mouth dry. If he voted against me, I was betting a Warden would zap me unconscious before the sound of his voice died away.

  After several of my frantic heartbeats, the Gatekeeper spoke in a resonant, gentle voice. "It rained toads this morning. "

  A baffled silence followed. It became, a moment later, a baffled mutter.

  "Gatekeeper," the Merlin said, his voice more urgent, "how do you vote?"

  "With deliberation," the Gatekeeper said. "It rained toads this morning. That bears consideration. And for that, I must hear what word returns with the messenger. "

  LaFortier eyed the Gatekeeper and said impatiently, "What messenger? What are you talking about?"

  The back doors of the theater burst open, hard, and a pair of grey-cloaked Wardens entered the theater. They each had a shoulder under one of the arms of a brown-robed young man. His face was puffy and swollen, and his hands looked like rotten sausages about to burst. Frost clung to his hair in a thick coating, and his robe looked like it had been dipped in water and then dragged behind a sled team from Anchorage to Nome. His lips were blue, and his eyes fluttered and rolled semicoherently. The Wardens dragged him to the foot of the stage, and the Senior Council gathered at its edge, looking down.

  "This is my courier to the Winter Queen," Ancient Mai stated.

  "He insisted," one of the Wardens said. "We tried to take him for treatment, but he got so worked up about it I was afraid he would hurt himself, so we brought him to you, Ancient. "

  "Where did you find him?" the Merlin asked.

  "Outside. Someone drove up in a car and pushed him out of it. We didn't see who it was. "

  "You get the license number?" I asked. Both Wardens turned to eye me. Then they both turned back to the Merlin. Neither of them had gotten it. Maybe license plates were too new a concept. They weren't yet a whole century old, after all. "Hell's bells," I muttered. "I would have gotten it. "

  Ancient Mai carefully descended from the stage and moved to the young man. She touched his forehead and spoke to him gently in what I presumed to be Chinese. The boy opened his eyes and babbled something broken and halting back at her.

  Ancient Mai frowned. She asked something else, which the boy struggled to answer, but it was apparently too much for him. He sagged, his eyes rolling back, and went completely limp.

  The Ancient touched his hair and said in Latin, "Take him. Care for him. "

  The Wardens laid the boy on a cloak, and then four of them carried him out, moving quickly.

  "What did he say?" Ebenezar asked. He beat me to it.

  "He said that Queen Mab bade him tell the Council she will permit them travel through her realm, provided one request is fulfilled. "

  The Merlin arched a brow, fingers touching his beard thoughtfully. "What does she request?"

  Ancient Mai murmured, "She did not tell him. She said only that she had already made her desires known to one of the Council. " The Senior Council withdrew together to one side, speaking in low voices.

  I didn't pay them any mind. The Ancient's translation of the messenger's words shocked me enough to keep me from so much as breathing, much less speaking. When I could move, I turned back to my table, leaned forward, and banged my head gently on the wooden surface. Several times.

  "Dammit," I muttered, in time with the thumps. "Dammit, dammit, dammit. "

  A hand touched my shoulder, and I looked up to see the shadowed cowl of the Gatekeeper, standing apart from the rest of the Senior Council. His hand was covered by a black leather glove. I couldn't see any skin showing on him, anywhere.

  "You know what the rain of toads means," he said, his voice very quiet. His English had a gentle accent, something part British and part something else. Indian? Middle Eastern?

  I nodded. "Trouble. "

  "Trouble. " Though I could not see his face, I suspected a very slight smile had colored the word. The cowl turned toward the other Senior Council members, and he whispered, "There isn't much time. Will you answer me one question honestly, Dresden?"

  I checked Bluebeard to see if he was listening in. He had leaned way over toward a round-faced grandma-looking wizardess at another table and appeared to be listening intently to her. I nodded to the Gatekeeper.

  He waved his hand. No words, no pause to prepare, nothing. He waved his hand, and the sounds of the room suddenly seemed to blur together, robbed of any coherence at all. "I understand you know how to Listen, too. I would rather no one else heard us. " The sound of his voice came to me warped, parts pitched high and others low, oddly reverberating.

  I gave him a wary nod. "What is the question?"

  He reached up to his cowl, black leather against twilight purple, and drew back the hood a little, enough that I could see the gleam of one dark eye and a rough, thin grey beard against bronzed skin. I couldn't see his other eye. His face seemed to ripple and contort in the shadows, and I had an idea that he was disfigured, maybe burned. In the socket of the missing eye, I saw something silver and reflective.

  He leaned down closer and whispered near my ear, "Has Mab chosen an Emissary?"

  I struggled not to let the surprise show in my face, but I'm not always good at hiding my feelings. I saw comprehension flicker in the Gatekeeper's shadowed eye.

  Dammit. Now I understood why Mab had been so confident. She'd known all along that she had set me up for a deal I couldn't refuse. She'd done it without breaking our bargain, either. Mab wanted me to take up her case, and she seemed perfectly happy to meddle in a supernatural war to get what she wanted.

  She'd just been toying with me in my office, and I'd fallen for it. I wanted to kick myself. Somewhere out there was a village I'd deprived of its idiot.

  In any case, there was no sense lying to the guy whose vote would decide my fate. I nodded to him. "Yes. "

  He shook his head. "Precarious balance. The Council can afford neither to keep you nor to cast you out. "

  "I don't understand. "

  "You will. " He drew the cowl back down and murmured, "I cannot prevent your fate, wizard. I can onl
y give you a chance to avoid it on your own. "

  "What do you mean?"

  "Cannot you see what is happening?"

  I frowned at him. "A dangerous imbalance of forces. The White Council in town. Mab meddling in our affairs. "

  "Or perhaps we are meddling in hers. Why has she appointed a mortal Emissary, young wizard?"

  "Because someone up there takes a malevolent amusement in my suffering?"

  "Balance," the Gatekeeper corrected me. "It is all about balance. Redress the imbalance, young wizard. Resolve the situation. Prove your worth beyond doubt. "

  "Are you telling me I should work for Mab?" My voice sounded hollow, tinny, as though it was trapped in a coffee can.

  "What is the date?" the Gatekeeper asked.

  "June eighteenth," I said.

  "Ah. Of course. " The Gatekeeper turned away, and sounds returned to normal. The Gatekeeper joined the rest of the Senior Council, and they trooped back up to their podiums. Podii. Podia. Whatever. Goddamned correspondence course.

  "Order," called the Merlin again, and the room grew quiet after a reluctant moment.

  "Gatekeeper," the Merlin said, "what is your vote?"

  The silent figure of the Gatekeeper silently lifted one hand. "We have set our feet upon a darkling path," he murmured. "A road that will only grow more dangerous. Our first steps are critical. We must make them with caution. "

  The cowl turned toward Ebenezar, and the Gatekeeper said, "You love the boy, Wizard McCoy. You would fight to defend him. Your own dedication to our cause is not inconsiderable. I respect your choice. "

  He turned toward LaFortier. "You question Dresden's loyalty and his ability. You imply that only a bad seed can grow from bad soil. Your concerns are understandable - and if correct, then Dresden poses a major threat to the Council. "

  He turned to Ancient Mai and inclined the cowl forward a few degrees. The Ancient responded with a slight bow of her own. "Ancient Mai," the Gatekeeper said. "You question his ability to use his power wisely. To judge between right and wrong. You fear that DuMorne's teaching may have twisted him in ways even he cannot yet see. Your fears, too, are justified. "

  He turned to the Merlin. "Honored Merlin. You know that Dresden has drawn death and danger down upon the Council. You believe that if he is removed, so will be that danger. Your fears are understandable, but not reasonable. Regardless of what happens to Dresden, the Red Court has struck a blow against the Council too deep to be ignored. A cessation of current hostilities would only be the calm before the storm. "

  "Enough, man," Ebenezar demanded. "Vote, for or against. "

  "I choose to base my vote upon a Trial. A test that will lay to rest the fears of one side of the issue, or prove falsely placed the faith of the other. "

  "What Trial?" the Merlin asked.

  "Mab," the Gatekeeper said. "Let Dresden address Queen Mab's request. Let him secure the assistance of Winter. If he does, that should lay to rest your concerns regarding his ability, LaFortier. "

  LaFortier frowned, but then nodded at the Gatekeeper.

  He turned next to Ancient Mai. "Should he accomplish this, it should show that he is willing to accept responsibility for his mistake and to work against his own best interests for the greater good of the Council. It should satisfy your concerns as to his judgement - to make the mistakes of youth is no crime, but not to learn from them is. Agreed?"

  Ancient Mai narrowed her rheumy eyes, but gave the Gatekeeper a precise nod.

  "And you, honored Merlin. Such a success may do much to alleviate the pressure of the coming war. If securing routes through the Nevernever places the Red Court at a severe enough disadvantage, it may even enable us to avoid it entirely. Surely it would prove Dresden's dedication to the Council beyond a doubt. "

  "That's all well and good," Ebenezar said. "But what happens if he fails?"

  The Gatekeeper shrugged. "Then perhaps their fears are more justified than your affection, Wizard McCoy. We may indeed conclude that his appointment to full Wizard Initiate may have been premature. "

  "All or nothing?" Ebenezar demanded. "Is that it? You expect the youngest wizard in the Council to get the best of Queen Mab somehow? Mab? That's not a Trial. It's a goddamned execution. How is he even supposed to know what her request was to begin with?"

  I stood up, my legs shaking a little. "Ebenezar," I said.

  "How the hell is the boy supposed to know what she wants?"

  "Ebenezar - "

  "I'm not going to stand by while you - " He abruptly blinked and looked at me. So did everyone else.

  "I know what Mab wants," I said. "She approached me earlier today, sir. She asked me to investigate something for her. I turned her down. "

  "Hell's bells," Ebenezar breathed. He took the blue bandanna from his pocket and mopped at his gleaming forehead. "Hoss, this is out of your depth. "

  "Looks like it's sink or swim, then," I said.

  The Gatekeeper murmured to me in English, "Will you accept this, Wizard Dresden?"

  I nodded my head. My throat had gone dry. I swallowed and tried to remind myself that there wasn't much choice. If I didn't play with the faeries and come out on top, the Council would serve me up to the vampires on a silver platter. The former might get me really, really killed. The latter would certainly kill me as well - and probably more than that.

  As deals went, it blew. But some little part of me that hadn't let me forget all the destruction, maybe even the deaths I'd caused last year, danced gleefully at my apparent comeuppance. Besides, it was the only game in town. I tightened my grip on my staff and spoke as clearly as I could manage.

  "Yeah. I accept. "