Cold days, p.8
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       Cold Days, p.8

         Part #14 of The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher
 

  One, a ravishing dark-haired beauty wearing leather pants and strategically applied electrical tape, stared hard at me and, when she saw me looking, licked her lips very, very slowly. She trailed a fingertip over her chin, down across her throat, and down over her sternum and gave me a smile so wicked that its parents should have sent it to military school.

  “Oh,” I said, understanding. Despite my fatigue, my throat felt dry and my heart revved up a bit. “Devolving.”

  “I’ll go,” Sarissa said. “I don’t expect anything from you simply because we arrived together.”

  A Sidhe lady with deep indigo blue hair had sidled up to Miss Electrical Tape, and the two slid their arms around each other, both staring at me. Something inside me—and I’d be lying if I said that none of it was mine—let out a primal snarl and advised me to drag both of them back to my cave by the hair and do whatever I damned well pleased with them. It was an enormously powerful impulse, something that made me begin to shift my balance, to take a step toward them. I arrested the motion and closed my eyes.

  “Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, they look great, but that isn’t a fantasy come true, Harry. That’s a wood chipper in Playboy bunny clothing.” I shook my head and turned deliberately away from temptation before I opened my eyes again. “We’ll both go,” I said to Sarissa. “It’d be a bad idea to stay.” I offered her my arm.

  She frowned thoughtfully at me for a moment before she put her hand on my arm. We left, again preceded by Cat Sith. Once we were in the icy hallways, she asked me, “Why?”

  “Why what?”

  “Leave,” she said. “You wanted to stay. And . . . let’s just say that the, ah, appetite of Sidhe ladies has never been overstated. And nothing excites them more than violence and power. There are men who would literally kill to have the opportunity you just passed up.”

  “Probably,” I said. “Morons.”

  “Then why turn it down?” she asked.

  “Because I’m not a goddamned sex doll.”

  “That’s a good reason to avoid attention that is forced on you,” she said. “But that isn’t what happened. Why pass up what they were offering?”

  We walked for a while before I answered. “I’ve already made one choice that . . . that took everything away from me,” I said. “I don’t know how much longer I’ll be around, or how much of a life I can make for myself now. But I’m going to live as much of it as I can as my own man. Not somebody’s prison bitch. Not the flavor of the day.”

  “Ah,” she said, and frowned faintly.

  I blinked several times and suddenly realized what she’d been trying to find out. “Oh. You’re wondering if I turned them down because I was planning to have you instead.”

  She gave me an oblique look. “I wouldn’t have phrased it that way.”

  I snorted. “I’m not.”

  She nodded. “Why not?”

  “Does it matter?” I asked.

  “Why always matters.”

  It was my turn to give Sarissa an appraising look. “Yeah, it does.”

  “So, why not?”

  “Because you aren’t a goddamned sex doll, either.”

  “Even if I were willing?” she asked.

  My stomach jumped a little at that. Sarissa was attractive as hell, and I liked her. I’d made her smile and laugh on occasion. And it had been a while.

  Man, story of my life. It seems like it’s almost always been a while.

  But you have to think about more than what is going to happen in the next hour.

  “You’re here because Mab ordered you to be here,” I said. “Anything we did would have an element of coercion to it, no matter how it happened. I’m not into that.”

  “You saved my life just now,” Sarissa said. “Some people might think you’d earned my attentions.”

  “People think stupid things all the time. The only opinion that matters is yours.” I glanced at her. “Besides, you probably saved me right back. Toting steel into the heart of Winter. Using it right in front of Mab herself? That’s crazy.”

  She smiled a little. “It would have been crazy not to tote it,” she said. “I’ve learned a few things in my time here.”

  We had reached the doors to my suite, which still felt awkward to say, even in my own head. My suite. Guys like me don’t have suites. We have lairs. Cat Sith had departed discreetly. I hadn’t seen him go.

  “How long has it been?” I asked.

  “Too long,” she said. She hadn’t taken her hand off of my arm.

  “You know,” I said, “we’ve been working together for a while now.”

  “We have.”

  “But we haven’t ever talked about ourselves. Not really. It’s all been surface stuff.”

  “You haven’t talked about you,” she said. “I haven’t talked about me.”

  “Maybe we should change that,” I said.

  Sarissa looked down. There were points of color in her cheeks. “I . . . Should we?”

  “You want to come in?” I asked. “To talk. That’s all.”

  She took a moment to choose her words. “If you want me to.”

  I tried to think about this from Sarissa’s point of view. She was a beautiful woman who had to be constantly aware of male interest. She was a mortal living in a world of faeries, most of whom were malicious, all of whom were dangerous. Her introduction to the office of the Winter Knight had been Lloyd Slate, who had been one monstrous son of a bitch. She had some kind of relationship with Mab herself, a being who could have her destroyed at any moment she was displeased with Sarissa.

  And I was Mab’s hatchet man.

  She’d been targeted for death for no better reason than that she happened to be my date at the party. She’d nearly died. Yet she’d taken action to save herself—and me, too—and now here she was standing calmly beside me, not showing the least anxiety. She’d spent months helping me get back on my feet again, always gentle, always helpful, always patient.

  She was wary about extending me any trust. She’d been holding herself at a careful distance. I could understand why. Caution was a critical survival trait in Winter, and as far as she was concerned, I was most likely a monster in the process of being born. A monster she’d been given to, no less.

  Thinking about it, even if I had saved her life, it wouldn’t have needed saving had she not been with me. I figured that between that and everything else she’d done for me, I was well in her debt.

  But I couldn’t help her if I didn’t know more about her.

  “For a couple of minutes,” I said. “Please.”

  She nodded, and we went inside. I had a little living room outside of my bedroom. I read somewhere that in general, women tend to be more comfortable with someone sitting beside them, rather than across from them. Men tend to be the opposite. Facing each other has undertones of direct physical conflict—in which a generally larger, stronger person would have an advantage. I didn’t know whether it was true or not, but she was already keyed up enough, and I didn’t want to add anything to it. So I seated her at one end of the couch, and then seated myself at the opposite end, out of arm’s reach.

  “Okay,” I said. “We haven’t talked, I guess, because I’ve never told you anything about myself. Is that about the shape of it?”

  “Trust has to go both ways,” she said.

  I huffed out a short laugh. “You’ve been hanging around Mab too much. She’s not big on answering simple yes-or-no questions either.”

  Sarissa’s mouth twitched at the corners. “Yes.”

  I laughed again. “Okay,” I said. “Well, when in Rome. Maybe we should exchange questions and answers. You can go first.”

  She folded her hands, frowning, and then nodded. “I’ve heard a lot of stories about you. That you’ve killed a lot of people. Are they true?”

  “I don’t know what you’ve heard,” I said. “But . . . yeah. When bad things came after people in my town, I made it my business to get in the way. And I’ve been a Warden of the Wh
ite Council for a while now. I fought in the war against the Red Court. I’ve done a lot of fighting. Sometimes people get killed. Why are you in Mab’s debt?”

  “I . . . have a form of congenital dementia,” she said. “I watched what it did to my older sister and . . .” She shuddered. “Doctors can’t help me. Mab can. Have you ever killed anyone who wasn’t trying to kill you?”

  I looked down at my shoes. “Twice,” I said quietly. “I cut Lloyd Slate’s throat to become the Winter Knight. And—”

  A flash of memory. A ruined city full of howling monsters and blood. Flashes of light and roaring detonations of magic tearing asunder stone and air alike. Dust everywhere. Friends fighting, bleeding, desperate. A stone altar covered in a thick coating of dried blood. A terrified little girl, my daughter. Treachery.

  A kiss pressed against the forehead of a woman I was about to murder.

  God, Susan, forgive me.

  I couldn’t see through the blur in my eyes, and my throat felt like the Redcap might be garroting me again, but I forced myself to speak. “And I killed a woman named Susan Rodriguez on a stone altar, because if I hadn’t, a little girl and a lot of good people would have died. She knew it, too.” I swiped a hand at my eyes and coughed to clear my throat. “What were the terms of your bargain with Mab?”

  “That as long as I remained myself, and sane, I would attend her and do as she bade me for three months out of every year. Summer vacation, when I was in school. Weekends, now, except for lately. Taking care of you meant that I’d have months and months off to make up for it.” She fidgeted with the bloodied handkerchief. Her split lip had stopped bleeding, and a line of dark, drying blood marred it. “The whole time we worked on your therapy, I think you said something about having a dog and a cat once. But you never spoke about any friends or family. Why not?”

  I shrugged. “I’m not sure,” I said. And then I realized that I was lying to everyone in the room. “Maybe . . . maybe because it hurts to think about them. Because I miss them. Because . . . because they’re good people. The best. And I’m not sure I can look them in the eye anymore, after what I’ve done. What about you? Do you have any friends?”

  “There are people I sometimes do things with,” she said. “I don’t . . . I’m not sure I’d call them friends. I don’t want to make friends. I have the attention of some dangerous beings. If I got close to anyone, I could be putting them in danger. Don’t you ever worry about that?”

  “Every day,” I said. “I’ve buried friends who died because they were involved with my work, and my life. But they wanted to be there. They knew the dangers and chose to face them. It isn’t my place to choose for them. Do you think it’s better to be alone?”

  “I think it’s better for them,” Sarissa said. “You’re healthy now. Are you going to go home? To your friends and family?”

  “Home isn’t there anymore,” I said, and suddenly felt very tired. “They burned my apartment down. My books, my lab. And my friends think I’m dead. How do I just walk back in? ‘Hi, everyone. I’m back, and did you miss me? I’m working for one of the bad guys now, and what good movies came out while I was gone?’” I shook my head. “I’m making fresh enemies. Nasty ones. I’d be pulling them in all over again. I know what they’d say—that it didn’t matter. But I don’t know what I’m going to do yet. Mab seems to trust you. What is it that you do for her, exactly?”

  Sarissa smiled faintly. “I’m sort of her humanity Sherpa,” she said. “For all of her power and knowledge, Mab doesn’t always understand people very well. She asks me questions. Sometimes we watch television or go to movies or listen to music. I’ve taken her to rock concerts. We’ve gone ice skating. Shopping. Clubbing. Once we went to Disneyland.”

  I blinked. “Wait. Your job is . . . You’re BFFs with Mab?”

  Sarissa let out a sudden torrent of giggles, until her eyes started to water a little. “Oh,” she said, still giggling. “Oh, I’ve never thought of it like that, but . . . God, it applies, doesn’t it? We do something every weekend.” She shook her head and took a moment to compose herself. Then she asked me, “Is there anyone special for you? Back home?”

  Karrin.

  But I didn’t dare use her name. No telling what other ears might be listening.

  “Maybe,” I said. “It was . . . sort of starting up when I left. I’m not sure where it would have gone. I’d like to think that . . .” I shrugged. “Well. It was bad timing on an epic level. You?”

  “Nothing more than casual,” she said. “If I was close to someone, well . . . it would create a target for Mab’s enemies, which I sometimes think is practically everybody in Faerie. Killing the lover of Mab’s pet mortal would be an insult while remaining oblique enough to not allow her room to respond.” She took a deep breath and looked at her hands. “I saw you speaking to her on the dance floor. I saw your face. Who did she tell you to kill?”

  I hesitated. “I . . . I’m pretty sure I shouldn’t say. It’s information that could get you into trouble.”

  I looked up in time to see the wariness returning to Sarissa’s features. “Ah,” she said. “Well, I suppose our little exchange is over, then.” She bit her lower lip and asked, quite calmly, “Was it me?”

  That one caught me off guard. “Uh, what? No. No, it wasn’t you.”

  She didn’t move for several heartbeats. “I . . . see.” Then she looked up, gave me a pleasant and false smile, and said, “Well, it’s late. And you should still try to rest as much as you can.”

  “Sarissa, wait,” I began.

  She rose, her back straight, her shoulders tense. “I think I’m going to my bed. Um. Unless you’d prefer . . .”

  I stood up with her. “Don’t think that I’m against the idea, as a general principle. You’re smart, and I like you, and you’re gorgeous. But no. Not like this.”

  She chewed on her lip again and nodded. “Thank you for that. For understanding.”

  “Sure,” I said. I offered my arm and walked her back to the door of my lair.

  (“Lair” worked so much better in my head than “suite.”)

  At the door, she looked up at me. “May I ask you a question?”

  “Of course.”

  “Are you going to obey Mab?”

  My brain started gibbering and running in circles at the very thought of what Mab had asked me to do. But I forced it to sit down and start breathing into a paper bag, and then I thought about it for a second. “Maybe. Maybe not.”

  “Why?” she asked.

  I rocked back onto my heels. It felt like that one little word had thumped me between the eyes with a Wiffle ball bat. Sarissa had hit exactly upon what most bothered me about Mab’s command.

  Why? Why now instead of six months ago, or a year ago, or a hundred years ago? Why today instead of tomorrow? Hell, why should I do it in the first place? The whole reason Winter and Summer had a Knight was because the Queens of Faerie themselves were forbidden from directly killing any mortal, and they needed a hit man to make it happen. But Maeve wasn’t a mortal. As far as Mab was concerned, Little Miss Spanglecrotch was fair game.

  Why?

  “I’m not sure yet,” I said. “But I’m damned well going to find out.”

  Chapter

  Nine

  “Cat Sith,” I called, once Sarissa had left.

  From behind me, a voice said, “Yes, Sir Knight?”

  I twitched and didn’t whirl around like a frightened teenager. I turned in a very urbane and James Bondian fashion, in keeping with my tux, eyed him, and said, “Hell’s bells. Do you always come in like that?”

  “No,” the malk replied. He was sitting on the back of the sofa Sarissa and I had recently vacated. “Generally I do not speak. I simply proceed.”

  “Are you aware of my orders?” I asked.

  “I am aware that you have been given orders. I am to facilitate your ability to comply with them.”

  I nodded. “I need to get back to Chicago. Right now. And I need a car.


  Cat Sith turned and padded down the hallway, toward my bedroom. He stopped in the hall at the door to the linen closet and lashed his tail once, then looked at me. “Very well.”

  I frowned at him. Then I went to the closet and opened the door.

  Autumn air, humid and smothering compared to that of Arctis Tor, flooded into my lair. Brilliant lights shone on the other side of the door, and it took me a few seconds of blinking against them to adjust, and realize that I was being blinded by simple streetlights. Inside my closet, there was a bit of sidewalk and then Michigan Avenue stretching out to the storefront opposite.

  I blinked several times. Sith had opened a Way between Faerie and Chicago.

  The spirit world, the Nevernever, is vast almost beyond imagining. Faerie is but one part of it, for the most part occupying the realms of spirit that lie most adjacent to the mortal world. The geography of the spirit world isn’t like that of the real world. Different places in the spirit world will connect with places with a similar energy in the real world. So dark, spooky parts of the Nevernever hook up with dark, spooky places in the mortal world.

  And my freaking linen closet in Arctis Tor hooked up to Chicago—specifically to Michigan Avenue, to the Gothic stone building across the street from the Old Historic Water Tower. It was night. Cars went by occasionally, but no one seemed to take notice of the open portal to the heart of Winter. Arctis Tor was isolated in the Nevernever, difficult to reach without inside help. Even traveling by Ways takes at least some time, and I’d expected a hike back to the real world.

  “How?” I asked quietly.

  “Her Majesty had it made,” Sith said.

  I whistled. Intentionally forming a connection from a specific place to a specific place took amounts of energy so enormous that even the White Council of Wizards could rarely manage it—I’d seen it done only once in my lifetime, the year before, in Chichén Itzá. “She had it made? For me?”