"That also was pretty," Thomas noted. "In a completely lethal kind of way."
"Look who's talking," Molly said. -Cold Days
[Author's note: This story departs from canon between the end of Cold Days and the beginning of Skin Game. It is rife with spoilers for the entire series up through Cold Days.]
I woke up to my brother's voice screaming my name.
My ears were still ringing, but the apartment was silent. Well, not silent; as usual I could hear circulating air, footsteps in the hallway two stories below me, and the hum of my next-but-one neighbor's fluorescent lights, left on as usual while he worked the night shift.
But not Harry. No sound or scent of him.
I sat up, and nearly yelped as cold metal bit the skin of my bare chest. I looked down
A silver pentacle on a silver chain hung right where it always did, but it was ice-cold, dim with condensation, and a tiny red gem filled the center of the design.
Not my pendant.
I rolled out of bed and pulled on yesterday's shirt and jeans, thinking furiously. Something was obviously up, something magical, and I was going to need help. A year ago I'd have called on Harry's apprentice, but like him—and for similar reasons—she had recently become a lot harder to find.
I checked the time. Four a.m. An ill-omened hour. But luckily, two of the contacts on my list were readily available in the middle of the night.
I called Pizza 'Spress first, and then Waldo Butters, and then I grabbed my keys and ran for my car.
As I drove, I considered calling Lara. Briefly. But unlike Harry, I keep meticulous track of favors granted and favors asked. It was my policy, when dealing with the Raith side of the family, to maintain a strict three-to-two ratio of the former to the latter. Lara gives a surprising amount of weight to family, for what she is; but if I became a net liability instead of an asset, I'd be gone before another sunrise. Besides, there's Justine, who, if her covert activities on the Grey Council's behalf ever became known, would swing well over into liability territory; I have to maintain enough credit to cover her as well as myself.
So; no Lara. Not if I could help it.
If Harry had had any idea how much work I do for the House, in order to earn the stipend Lara pays me...well, let's just say he's never going to know. In particular, he's never going to know how much recruiting I do, both of kine and of security personnel.
I make sure they know what they're getting into. Contrary to what my brother believes, there are worse fates than a short life spent in luxury, followed by death in ecstasy. For that matter, there are worse fates than two or three years of high-end security work, knowing that when your death (violent or otherwise) comes, there will be an iron-clad guarantee that your dependents will never know want.
There are people who would kill for less. I have reason to know it.
If the United States ever gets a decent safety net, my work will get a lot harder. As it is, the Raith household supports dozens of elderly parents, disabled sisters and brothers, widows and orphans, and in return we have one of the best-trained, most loyal, most dedicated security teams in the private sector.
And of course, if that loyalty wavers, we have a lot of hostages.
As for the kine—well, it's no secret that my family's had a strong influence over the more visible parts of the porn industry. What's less well-known is that we also use many other media to spread our gospel of erotic submission. Published fiction, fanfic, blogs, reviews, music videos, the scenes you'll find in your favorite exclusive club—they've all been sponsored, tweaked, steered the way we want them to go. So an entire generation has grown up wanting to be taken, subdued, overwhelmed; with impossible expectations of rapturous, perfect erotic fulfillment.
Impossible, that is, for a vanilla mortal to manage. We do just fine.
Even the least experienced of us can bring the most jaded, insecure, repressed mortal to tears with just a glance or a casual touch. Even without trying.
When we try, it's, well, to die for. In many people's opinion.
Look. People die from heroin, cocaine, even alcohol and tobacco, every day. By the thousands. Ours is a gentler addiction, even if it occasionally—well, eventually for nearly all of them—ends the same way. And there's far less collateral damage. Nobody drives under the influence of a White Court vampire. Nobody steals, or sells their children, to pay for access to us. They don't have to. (And incidentally, we don't take children. That's nothing to do with me, or even with Harry. That's the price of doing business on John Marcone's turf.)
So if a lot of desperate, lonely, unskilled, unlovely mortals would rather fulfill their every fantasy and die warm, dry and happy, rather than live out a cramped, sick old age coughing under a bridge somewhere—well, I'm not losing any sleep over it. The ones I bring in, at least, know what they're signing up for. The last one laughed in my face and pointed across the street to his meth-addict buddy. That was his only alternative; he offered to suck my cock if I'd skip the speech and take him straight to the barn.
I passed. But I did skip the speech.
It's a misconception that we only prey on young, beautiful kine. Like mortals, if we're hungry enough we'll take pretty much anything—even each other. True, the elite of the House get only the best, almost from the beginning; if Justine hadn't been physically perfect, I'd never have spared her a glance. But the peons and the youngest and weakest take what they're given.
The barns were my idea; using what I'd learned in my own career, and with some skilled dietitians, personal trainers and medical staff, we're able to transform some pretty unpromising specimens into quite acceptable fare. Not just visually—that's really more of an affectation, a status symbol. Attractive kine are more valuable, even to other mortals; they're less likely to be desperate, more likely to be looked for, to be reported missing. But it doesn't really affect the taste, so to speak. The quality of emotion—of lust, longing, despair, delight, shock—that's what makes a difference between one mortal and another. We can improve that too. And of course, all the while we're training and grooming them, they're a salad bar for our peons.
Our young always kill on the first feeding; the least promising specimens go to them. That includes a lot of petty criminals, rapists, thugs, abusers—spoiled meat at best. The kids are less likely to have second thoughts, that way. And there's less resentment from the higher-ups than if we wasted a better prospect on a quick, messy meal.
It's sort of like keeping an aquarium. I worked in a pet store for a few days. I know what happens to the first fish you put in a new tank.
Harry, of course, claims to believe that all mortal lives have value. He doesn't really. Karrin Murphy almost does; she's ridiculously reluctant to take a mortal life. Harry's killed dozens, maybe hundreds, and not always in circumstances like Chichén Itzá.
As for me, there are only three mortals I'd rank equal in value to myself. My mother died before I was old enough to do anything to protect her. Justine and Harry—I've risked my life enough times for both of them to back up my claim. Beyond that, well, I've had mortal allies—Harry's friends mostly. I've put myself in harm's way for them, and will again. I fought harder not to feed on Molly Carpenter than I've ever done for anyone except Justine. But if it came down to her or me—well, I'd try not to play with my food.
I don't interfere with others' feeding habits unless they encroach on my own concerns. I don't feed to the death by choice; Justine and Harry would object. Fortunately my work gives me a way around that. Anyone else who wants advice on non-lethal alternatives, sure, I'll give it to them. So far, no takers.
My sister Inari, alone of our generation, managed to get through adolescence without killing for the Hunger; she's in control of it now for the rest of her life. That means she does without certain benefits of speed, strength, and healing, and only she can determine whether it's a good deal for her.
I have no idea how long she'll live. We'll be lucky to hold back the Outsiders long enough for her to grow up, let alone show signs of age.
I pulled into the parking lot and shook off the philosophizing.
Waldo Butters works the, pardon the expression, graveyard shift at the medical examiner's office, and their security's gotten significantly tighter since their former guard got his throat slit on the job.
Fortunately, I had a way in. Or at least a way of getting him out without attracting too much attention.
I had timed my call appropriately; the Pizza 'Spress truck pulled up less than a minute after I arrived at the edge of the property. I strolled up to the delivery car, not too fast, and had my money visible in my hand so as not to scare the driver. I paid him, took my two pizzas, tipped him fifty percent, and watched him drive away before I called Butters again.
His signature polka music was playing in the background.
"Pizza's up," I said.
"Okay, be right there," he said, and just before he disconnected, I heard him say "be right back, George, pizza's here."
A moment later he was at the door.
"I hope you're not going to ask to come in," he began.
"Nope," I said. "Hence the pizza. One for you and one for my nefarious purposes. I just need you to relay a message to Bob for me."
"Surprised you don't just pull a Harry and break into my place and ask him yourself."
"Threshold," I said briefly.
"Ah," said Butters, and kindly didn't rub it in. "Okay, what's the message?"
I held up the pentacle. "This just appeared around my neck while I was sleeping," I said. "It's Harry's. I also thought I heard him call me, but since I was asleep I don't put too much weight on that part of it."
"Uh-oh," said Butters.
"Yeah. Harry takes magic seriously. He wouldn't do something like this unless he had a really good reason, and I'm betting the reason involves having me find out where he is and what's going on with him. Will you ask Bob what he thinks? See if he'd be willing to talk to me? Maybe he can tell something from the pendant itself."
"Will do, as soon as I get home," said Butters. "I get off at seven, but it's been a quiet night and I might be able to sneak out early, take paperwork home with me. I'll give you a call once I've spoken with Bob."
"Thanks," I said. "Meanwhile, I'll check with Harry's..." I hesitated.
"...minions?" suggested Butters.
"Wyldfae allies and subcontractors," I said, mindful of the likelihood that those very minions were listening in. "See if they're willing to help."
"Why wouldn't they be?" Butters asked. "They've been pretty gung-ho about working for Harry, and you've got pizza."
"Personal loyalty is a bigger thing with them than you might think," I said. "And besides, my family has an unpleasant history with the lesser Fae."
"Oh," said Butters. "But then, your family's got an unpleasant history with my people too, and yet here we are."
"Yeah," I said. "Harry has this tendency to make things weird."
"True," said Butters. "Okay, gotta get back to work. Good luck."
"Thanks," I said.
I walked back to my car, in no great hurry, set the pizza box on the hood, and sat on the hood beside it, leaning back on the windshield. I half-closed my eyes, crossed my legs at the ankles, and lounged.
It was less than twenty seconds—I counted—before I heard a tiny throat-clearing noise.
I ignored it.
It came again.
"Yes?" I said without looking around.
"The pizza," said a tiny, reproachful voice, "is getting cold."
"Is it?" I asked. "Oh well. It's sitting on top of the engine. It'll kind of stay warm."
"Kind of—" the tiny voice choked off into a splutter. "Look. Just because you eat mortals doesn't mean it's okay for you to waste good pizza."
"Dude. It's not like it's your pizza," I said, still not looking at the creature. "Sure, I know Dresden has a deal with you guys, but I don't, and this is my pizza."
"If you don't want it enough to treat it with respect, why don't you just give it to me?"
"Oh come on."
"No. I'm probably going to eat it sometime later. Maybe tomorrow."
"Aggghk! Vile, cowardly wretch, avaunt thee and give me the pizza already!"
I opened one eye. The pixie—a giant of his kind, but still less than two feet high—was hovering belligerently just beyond my arm's reach. His hand rested on the hilt of his "sword"—which had probably begun life as a letter opener.
I propped myself up on my elbows and regarded him.
"You know who I am, right?"
"You're one of the pale hunters," he replied. "You don't even need a pizza."
"And what else am I...?" I prompted.
"You're the Za-Lord's ally," he said sulkily.
"That's right. And I will pay you this whole pizza for one task."
"Tell me where to find the Winter Knight."
"Psh. No one knows where he is. Even Mab can't find him."
"What? Since when?"
"Since yesterday. He was on the hidden island for a long time but yesterday he vanished."
"What if I offered to pay you this pizza to take a message to the Winter Lady?"
The pixie hesitated. "She is fierce and quick to anger. She might not welcome your message."
"Or I could just maybe put this in the trunk and save it. Maybe for lunch tomorrow."
"No! Do not imprison the pizza in cold iron, to lose its savory lusciousness in the harsh grip of time!" He fluttered in an agitated circle.
"Do you recognize this?" I said, pulling the amulet from under my shirt so the pixie could see it.
"That belongs to the Za-Lord!" he said angrily.
"It does," I said. "But he sent it to me, and I don't know why. I think he may be in danger. If you tell that to the Winter Lady, I think she might be willing to hear you out."
"Agreed!" piped the pixie.
"But..." I said, blocking him from the pizza as he tried to swoop down on it, "if you fail to deliver my message, I will tell the Winter Knight and all his allies that his troops do not hold to their bargains."
The pixie drew himself up. "That shall never be said of the Za-Lord's Guard!" he proclaimed stiffly.
"Very well. One more thing. If you come to harm in the course of your quest, I will pay a large pizza as wergeld to your kin. You have my word."
"Nobly sworn, O devourer of hearts," said the pixie. "I accept your bargain."
"Have at it, then," I said, and opened the pizza box.
'Devourer of hearts', I thought, as the pizza disappeared by pixie-sized armfuls. Had a certain ring to it. Better than 'Eurotrash faggot' or 'kine-grooming eunuch', certainly.
But maybe not as good as 'asshole brother'.
Bob, as it turned out, couldn't tell me much. He confirmed that the amulet was Harry's, and that Harry had switched it with mine.
"It's a very simple spell, apart from one little tweak," he said cheerily. "The two amulets share an origin, and the two of you are closely connected. It wouldn't take much energy or concentration to swap them, and he could do it from anywhere, as long as neither of you was inside a circle."
"So can we just trace the spell back to my amulet and find him?"
"That's the interesting part," Bob said. "Almost elegant, really, especially for Harry. He used the power of the connection between the two amulets to fuel the spell, so now the connection's broken. You'll have to find another way. Maybe Molly can help. Be sure to call me if she decides to work skyclad."
Beyond that—nothing. Except a few more lewd comments about Molly. Bob seemed unconcerned about Harry's plight. ("I'm pretty sure he's alive. I think his death curse would have made some impressive ripples, and I haven't noticed anything like that.") Butters was more sympathetic.
"What's your next move?" he asked.
"I try to enlist Molly," I said. "And if she won't help, I go talk to Harry's pet baby god."
"Demonreach," Butters said. "Better you than me, man. Good luck. Let me know how it plays out, and if I can be of any help."
Molly, as it turned out, had gotten my message. She unveiled right in front of me just as I was pulling out my car keys, and I jumped. I was glad Harry wasn't there, because he would have laughed. Then I wished with all my heart he were.
"You wanted to speak with me?" said Molly. She was in mortal drag, blue jeans, low black boots and a white cashmere sweater with a wide blue leather belt. Her wands were tucked into the belt.
"Yes," I said. I fished out the medallion. "I woke up about three hours ago with this around my neck. I thought I heard Harry calling me."
Molly's eyebrows went up. "Did you know he's missing?"
"The pixie told me, yeah. Can you use this to find him?"
"Maybe. I need you to take me somewhere first."
I unlocked the car and opened her door for her. She inclined her head slightly and got in. I noticed her give a little hitch of her shoulders as the door closed.
"Something wrong?" I asked, getting in and starting the car.
"Cold iron," she said. "It...itches a little. I can deal."
She directed me back onto the highway, and after a few miles I realized we were heading for her old neighborhood. She told me to pull over two blocks before we got to her parents' house.
"Stay here," she said. "I'll veil the car, but the house is well guarded, and I'm not sure what their radius is." I nodded.
Molly got out of the car and vanished. I waited, rolling down my window. The neighborhood was very quiet this early on a Saturday. I could just see the Carpenters' house, and when the door opened I could barely hear it.
Harry's dog Mouse trotted out the door, a little dark-haired girl right behind him.
The dog alerted immediately, swinging his head around to stare at a point farther down the street, where a clump of trees marked the position of a small stream that ran under the road via a culvert. Faintly I heard Maggie ask, "Mouse?" and then the dog gave a quiet "whuff" and charged for the trees, tail wagging. The child frowned, then retreated into the house and shut the door.
Mouse reached the trees and disappeared from view.
The door opened again and a tall black man with a long cylindrical case slung over his shoulder peered out, led by the girl. I faintly heard Maggie's voice as she pointed to the trees.
"He went over that way. But he wasn't barking, and he was wagging his tail."
"Okay, Malinka. You stay here and I will find out what our friend is so interested in."
"Okay," said the child, and retreated inside again.
The man, Sanya, the only remaining Knight of the Cross, jogged down the sidewalk toward the trees. I closed my eyes and listened more intently.
"Molly!" the Knight's voice was deep and glad. "Come in the house, everyone will be so glad to see you—"
"No. Not yet," she said, and her voice was so soft I could barely catch the words. "I just need to borrow Mouse for a little while. I'm sorry if I worried you."
"No problem," said the Knight gently. "Do you have any messages I could carry?"
"Tell them I'm well, and I love them."
"That's good," Sanya said. "Do not forget that they love you as well."
"I know. I'll send Mouse back when we're done. It will only take a few minutes."
The Knight ambled back to the house. He paused with his hand on the doorknob and took a slow survey of the area, stopping when his face was turned toward my (supposedly invisible) car. He inclined his head gravely to me, then went back indoors.
Molly and Mouse appeared simultaneously next to the car. I managed not to jump this time. Molly opened the passenger door and let Mouse jump in next to me. She opened the back door and climbed into the back seat.
"So," she said to the dog. "How about it? Can I trust him?"
Mouse gazed at me with doggy earnestness for a moment, then laid his head in my lap. His tail waved gently.
"Show him the amulet, Thomas," Molly said. I fished it out from under my shirt, took it off and held it out in my palm. Mouse sniffed it and whined softly.
"Is it Harry's?" Molly asked. Mouse gave a small "woof".
"Is he in trouble?"
Mouse looked at her in eloquent disbelief. "Of course he is," I said, and Mouse huffed as if in agreement. He nudged me, then looked expectantly at Molly. She sighed.
"Okay, buddy," she said. "We'll get on it."
Mouse wagged his tail. Molly climbed back out of the car and opened his door for him.
"Go home," she said. "Take good care of them."
Mouse looked at her for a long moment, then offered her a paw. She shook it and ruffled the fur around his ears. He butted her with his head and she gave a shaky laugh and hugged him.
"Go on now. You're on duty. We'll take care of Harry."
The dog jumped down and trotted back to the Carpenters' house. Molly took his place in the front seat and we watched until he'd climbed the steps to the door and woofed imperiously to be let in. After Maggie had shut the door behind him, Molly sighed.
"Let's go," she said, and I started the car.
She had me drive her down to the marina, and we took the Water Beetle out on the lake. It was windy enough to raise a light chop, but overall not unpleasant.
I relaxed a little. The boat was larger and more open than the car, and Molly's presence (young, female, fertile, attracted to me) was less an all-out assault and more like background music. She asked to see the amulet again, and I started to take it off.
"No. Keep it on, for now." She stepped up close beside me in the cockpit and laid two fingers on the amulet. A sudden, fierce pain stabbed me in the head, and I stumbled, almost losing the wheel. Molly yanked her hand back.
"What did you feel?" she asked.
"Ow," I said intelligently. Then I said, "Sharp pain in my head. And I saw Harry, just for a second. Somewhere dark. Sitting on the floor, legs crossed. Looked like he was meditating."
I thought about it. "Yeah. He had his rings on. And his bracelet." Harry's kinetic-energy-storing rings and his shield bracelet had been lost when he (for all practical purposes) died. Evidently he had replaced them. I found this encouraging.
"So you think this was a vision of the past?" Molly asked.
Crap. I hadn't thought of that. I closed my eyes and tried to summon the memory more clearly. "No. His hair was long, the way he's been wearing it since he came back. And the rings looked different. Cruder."
"Good," said Molly. "So he's not unarmed, wherever he is."
"Why would he leave the island without contacting anyone? Mab can't have sent him on a mission, or she'd know where he is. And if he'd left on his own, you'd think he'd have sent word to us."
"You'd think he'd have contacted me since I became the Winter Lady," said Molly, "but you'd be wrong."
"What?" I said. "You're kidding. Not at all? He told me—" I stopped for a second.
"Told you what?"
"He told me he'd sent you messages. That when you were ready, he'd be there for you."
"You think he was lying?"
I thought about it. "I would have thought he was telling the truth. But—oh."
"I was just thinking. How could he send you a message? I guess he could do it by magic, but more likely he'd use one of his little guard dudes."
"And...they work for Mab."
"Shit," said Molly.
We got to the island a little after noon. There were a few orange and yellow leaves on the twisted trees, but most of the branches were bare. Nothing stirred. Normally there would have been a few birds, maybe a squirrel or two. That we couldn't see any animal activity was a bad sign. Either there was someone here besides us, or the island itself was upset about something.
I looked at Molly. "Rock, paper, scissors?" I said.
"I'll go," she said. "It's less likely to see me as a threat."
I laughed. "Last time it saw either of us, we were both unconscious," I said. "Doubt it's worried either way."
"True," Molly said. "I'll be right back."
She stepped lightly onto the dock and tied the Beetle's bow and stern lines to the bollards. Then she walked to the very edge of the planking, but didn't step onto the island.
"Demonreach," she said, not calling loudly but in a normal conversational tone, "may I speak with you?"
Before she'd quite finished saying the last word, the island spirit was there, dark-cloaked in the bright sunlight. It stood motionless for a few seconds, then gave one slow nod.
Molly stepped onto the island. I stayed where I was.
"Do you know me?" she asked.
The spirit nodded again. "GRASSHOPPER."
"That's right," said Molly. "Do you know who I've brought with me?"
Demonreach looked toward the Water Beetle but said nothing. I stepped onto the dock, then walked up it to set foot on the island itself. The spirit nodded. "BROTHER."
"Yes," I said. I held up the amulet. "We're looking for Harry Dresden. He sent this to me."
"NOT HERE," said the spirit.
"Do you know where he is?" Molly asked.
The spirit shook its head, but pointed at the amulet. Molly looked at me, puzzled. I shrugged.
"Do you mean we can use the amulet to track him?" Molly asked the spirit.
"PERHAPS," the spirit said. "BE SWIFT."
"Why?" Molly asked.
"THERE IS... A PARASITE. WITHIN HIM. IT GROWS STRONG. WHILE HE WAS HERE, I COULD KEEP IT AT BAY. BUT HE WOKE LAST NIGHT, BELOW. THE PARASITE HAD CAUSED HIM TO WALK WHILE HE SLEPT. HE FEARED, AND SO HE FLED."
"Oh, God," said Molly. "Thomas, let me see that."
I took off the amulet and handed it to her. She examined it for a while, then said, "This might take a while. Take a walk, or go back to the Beetle and eat or take a nap or whatever. I'll come find you when I'm done."
I nodded, and as she retreated to the dock and began drawing a circle around herself with chalk, I boarded the Beetle. I glanced back over my shoulder; the island spirit had vanished. I went below and got myself a beer from the cooler.
About the time I'd finished my beer, Molly came down the dock. She looked shaken. The amulet was around her neck.
"What's up?" I asked.
She gave me a very strange look. "I saw your mother," she said.
Another of those blinding flashes of pain hit me, and I saw Harry again, crouched in the darkness with his head in his hands. I tried not to show it, but I must have changed expression, because Molly asked, "Are you okay?"
"Fine," I said impatiently.
"Anyway," Molly said, "to cut to the chase, I can use the amulet to find Harry, and I think we can follow him, but I'll need to get some supplies."
"Right," I said. "Where to?"
"Arctis Tor," she said.
"I'm a little light on armament here," I said.
"Won't be a problem," Molly said. "You're with me. Come on."
I stepped off onto the dock and Molly led me about a hundred yards inland, then opened a Way. It led, not to the huge gates of Mab's fortress, but to somewhere inside it, a small, plain, empty room of stone with a single heavy wooden door. The room had no light in it except what was streaming in behind us through the Way, but the door was unlocked and the hallway outside was lit, though dimly.
The corridor Molly led me down had no statues, no artwork, no guards. The floor was plain stone flags, very pale grey. There were modest sconces on the walls that held softly-glowing globes that looked like frosted glass. On the opulence scale, it was closer to Best Western than House Raith.
One thing the new Winter Lady's quarters did have, and that was a set of wards that outclassed any I'd ever encountered. That's including my brother's, before they disappeared when his building burned to the ground. I could feel their power from a good ten feet away. It made my teeth ache. On my own, I wouldn't have ventured any nearer, but Molly touched the door and the wards dropped.
"Come in," she said, and I stepped over her threshold.
I don't know. If I were a wizard, and I had a room in a castle in the Nevernever, and could make it look like anything I wanted, I wouldn't make it look like a cinderblock jail cell with no window, a narrow bed with coarse wool blankets, and a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling.
But maybe that's just me.
I sat in a hard straight chair and watched Molly gather her wizard gear. When she was ready, we retraced our steps to the room we'd come from, stepped back through the still-open Way to Demonreach, and then walked back down to the dock. Less than half an hour had passed.
Molly sat crosslegged on the dock and studied the amulet. After a while she laid out several objects—a small bowl of water, a candle, some bits of crystal and a few pinches of variously-colored leafy bits that were probably herbs of some kind—and drew a circle around herself and them. I watched her for a while. She had sure, steady hands and her face, in deep concentration, was serene and, in its way, lovely. I'd always thought she resembled her mother, but when she was working she reminded me powerfully of Harry. There was a sort of deep joy underlying the skilled effort. Apparently Harry wasn't the only one who, beneath it all, truly loved magic in itself, completely apart from the power it gave him or the work it could accomplish.
Molly set the little silver bowl in front of her, took the amulet in her left hand, and with her right hand, broke the circle. There was a brief, bright flash that was visible even in the strong afternoon sunlight, and Molly bent over the bowl, looking intently into it. After a while she looked up and took a deep breath.
"Okay," she said, looking up at me. "We're going to have to hurry. He's isolated himself in a tomb in the back of beyond, far out in the Nevernever, and then sent you the amulet so he couldn't find his way back out. He expects to die, and knowing Harry, he's not planning to die of starvation or old age."
"What the fuck?" I said indignantly.
"The parasite. He thinks—and he's probably right—it's getting strong enough to take control of him. He doesn't want to be some evil entity's zombie bitch, and I don't blame him."
"But you think there's an alternative."
"Hell yes," she said, and her eyes blazed with barely-controlled anger. "He's got us."
"What's the plan?" I asked.
"I can take the parasite," she said, "but I can't fight it and Harry both. If I got the jump on him, I could put him to sleep, but the parasite made him sleepwalk before—it might just take over his body. And if it knows what he knows—"
"We'd both be small smoking lumps on the pavement," I finished.
"Yeah. Any ideas?"
I smiled. "I'll hold him down. You get the alien brainsucker out of him."
"You sure you can do it?"
"Okay. He's in a room about twice the size of the one we came through in Arctis Tor. He'll probably have some kind of light source, but just in case, take this." She fished around in her kit and pulled out a glowstick with a string attached to it. She snapped it, shook it to life, and passed it to me; I slung it around my neck, wincing slightly. I hate lime green.
"You go in first," Molly continued. "You're faster than I am. I'll be right behind you, veiled. You immobilize him, then give me the word."
"Let's go," I said.
Molly vanished, and the Way opened up in front of me. I stepped through.
The room was dirty and gloomy, lit by the flame of a tiny oil lamp on a shelf on one wall. Harry crouched on the floor, looking haggard and worn, his hair unwashed. He looked like he'd lost weight since I'd last seen him, several weeks before.
The light from the Way lit the room briefly before it closed. Harry looked up and saw me, and a look of pure terror flashed across his face.
I've seen that look before. More than once. And it's never when he thinks he's going to die. It's when he's afraid he's going to lose one of us, and it's going to be his fault.
I was watching, and so I saw his face change as he decided what to do. His right hand closed, making the little rippling movement of the fingers he does before he fires off the kinetic-storage rings he wears. He raised his left hand to free the charm bracelet from his cuff, the one that powers his shield. One of those flashes of pain stabbed my head, stronger this time, and suddenly I saw what he was planning: Harry raising a shield, close around his crouched body; his fist under his chin, triggering all the rings at once; a splash of red, grey and white—and before he finished shaking out the bracelet, I was on him.
Harry knows what I am. He knows what I can do. Hell, he even counts on it, whenever we fight together, and we do that a lot.
But he doesn't like to think about it. He thinks of me as his brother, not an inhumanly fast, inhumanly strong, half-immortal predator with a built-in demon.
More than once, I've thought that was probably going to get him killed someday.
I was across the room before he could blink, with my hand around his throat. He froze.
"Hell's bells, Thomas," he breathed. "I could have taken your arm off."
I cupped his face in my other hand. And my eyes locked on his.
Harry doesn't avoid looking me in the eye. We soulgazed a long time ago, when I first told him who I was. I tend not to look directly at him for long, but not for that reason.
Skin-to-skin and eye-to-eye with my brother, I unleashed my demon.
Harry stiffened, grabbed my wrists and tried to pull back, but I didn't let him. I called on all my power, the power that can call a mortal across the room and have her stripping off her clothes—or mine—even without conscious effort.
Lust is my house's preferred mode of feeding; our specialty, if you like. That doesn't mean we can't use other emotions to get what we want.
"Harry," I said as he struggled against my hold. "Harry. No. Don't leave me. Not again." And I threw it all at him, the agony I'd felt when I'd thought he was dead, the bleeding gouge that had opened up in what he insisted on calling my soul.
His desolation and my own reflected each other over and over like twin mirrors. Since he'd found out he had a brother, there had been nothing he wouldn't do for me—even when I'd been tortured to the point of insanity and had killed, over and over, to heal my shredded body. Even when I'd nearly killed his apprentice—not once, but twice. (And I had not forgotten, even now, the sweet scent and taste of young Molly Carpenter, just coming into her power.)
He couldn't help himself. He loved me. I could feel it, whenever we were together. And it drew me, like blood in the water draws sharks. Faced with that vulnerability, that weakness, my demon howled for prey.
And this time, I let it go—to the very end of its leash.
Harry's eyes were wide and dark. He shuddered, twisted, tried to look away from me, but I held him, held him still and defenseless, body and will. I felt him try to call up the mantle of Winter, but I kept him with me, kept him anchored to his own identity—my brother, my blood, my other self. Mine. He couldn't reach the Mantle, and the parasite couldn't get to it except through him.
"Molly," I said, "now."
She emerged from her veil behind him and put her hands on his temples. I felt the cold burn of her power as it surged into him. He jerked, and his eyes rolled upward, but I reclaimed his gaze.
"Be still," I said, and he was, though his heartbeat stuttered and sweat broke out on his face. He bit off a sharp cry and clenched his teeth hard. Harry's not normally reluctant to scream; I think he was trying not to make it harder for us, even as he—or was it the parasite?—fought me for control.
Harry's a fierce, brutal fighter, large and reasonably strong for a mortal. Almost as strong as me, actually, now that Mab's had her way with him. But as a wizard, he's in a completely different class. Probably only a dozen or so of the White Council could defeat him one-on-one. And measures of raw power understate the problem—Harry, under pressure, has a flair for the kind of innovative solutions that leave large, smoking craters behind. He has leverage. Given Harry's body, will and knowledge, the parasite could lay a trail of destruction to rival Kemmler or Corpsetaker, and it would take me, Molly, a couple of Wardens, and maybe a Knight of the Cross to take him down in a fair fight.
Fortunately, this wasn't fair.
My demon seethed and snarled, tasting my brother's life force and power at our fingertips and roaring with hunger from the energy we were expending to keep him thralled. If I lost control now, I would likely kill him—and Molly too, since I'd have the jump on her. If my control lasted longer than my strength, the parasite would overwhelm my exhausted brother and break free, and Molly and I would probably die, shortly followed by a shitload of other people.
Better to take him now, by choice. That would make things simple, and oh, Empty Night, the strength of him, the rush of holding that power tame under my gaze—
I shivered. I didn't want to eat my brother. And I really, really did.
Harry has a nasty tactic he likes to use on me in situations like this. I knew he wouldn't try it now, because he understood what we were doing, and he wouldn't risk breaking the hold that was keeping both him and the parasite stymied.
So I did it for him.
Justine, I thought. And I pictured her watching this, watching me. Standing behind me with her slim hands on my shoulders, holding me together.
It was enough. Barely.
Molly, meanwhile, was fighting her own battle. I could dimly sense, through my hold on Harry, the shifting, twisting play of force against force, mind against mind, and for the first time I had a sense of the parasite itself. It was old, old and subtle and strong, with the patience of centuries. But it depended on stealth and time, and it was out of both. It had been laid bare to the cunning and wrath of Molly Carpenter.
I remembered how she and I had danced together at Chichén Itzá, at Demonreach. A little jolt of grim satisfaction went through me. Fuck with my brother? You're going down.
It was only a few seconds later that Molly drew in a sharp breath. "Ideru," she snapped, and straightened up, taking a step back, holding her empty hands about a foot apart. Between them writhed a knot of red-grey smoke, boiling and twisting rapidly, darting out little tendrils that stopped short of Molly's hands, of Harry's frozen form.
Molly glared at it. "Be unmade," she commanded, and the thing exploded into tiny particles of black ash that evaporated before they hit the floor.
She turned that ferocious gaze to me. "Let him go," she said, and even my demon knew better than to disobey. Harry dropped to the floor, landing curled up on his right side, his eyes rolling back even as his eyelids fell.
I had eyes only for Molly. She was magnificent, crackling with power and radiant with triumph, her hair damp with sweat, the peaks of her nipples showing through her sweater. She was breathing hard, her pupils dilated. She was thoroughly aroused, and I was starving.
I launched myself at her.
She raised her left hand and I ran full-tilt into her shield, a thin strip of invisible force right at my neck level. I turned a half-somersault in the air and landed flat on my back, winded and choking, the back of my head meeting the stone flags with a sharp crack.
She had me encased in a sheath of ice up to my neck before I could draw breath.
Oh yeah. I'd forgotten about that whole Winter Lady thing.
She glanced idly back over her shoulder at Harry's unmoving form. She bent over him and struck him in the chest with the heel of her right hand.
"Suu," she said. Harry gasped, and I realized it had been a while since I'd heard him breathe. His eyelids fluttered.
"Neru," said Molly, brushing her thumb across Harry's forehead. His eyes closed and his breathing slowed.
"Now you," she said, turning to me, and I felt a chill that had nothing to do with my inches-thick prison of ice.
Molly stepped over me and sank gracefully to the floor, sitting cross-legged at my side.
"Thomas Raith," she said conversationally, her voice husky. "When I first saw you I thought you were the most beautiful thing on two legs. The perfect bishōnen, but all grown up. A tortured soul with a gorgeous smile. And you looked just enough like Harry to put the icing on the cake."
I kept quiet and tried to avoid her eyes. It was difficult.
"Then on the island, after the naagloshii had finished with you—I saw the monster. And I still wanted you. And only the grace of God, and probably my mother's prayers, gave me the strength to put up that shield."
She sighed, and glanced at my brother's sleeping form. "Harry would have killed you, you know. If you'd eaten me. And then he probably would have killed himself, either on purpose or just by not dodging fast enough next time he was in a fight."
"I know," I said. Then, after a struggle, "Thank you."
"Then later," she resumed, ignoring me, "that night at Harry's place, when I 'gazed you—" she swallowed, looking for an instant every inch the young and vulnerable doe she'd been that night. She sat silent for a moment, then looked back at me. "I would have died to help you. Gladly."
"I know," I said. "And now you have a monster of your own."
She nodded. "Third time," she said, "is the charm." She bent and kissed me.
I could feel them both, the young mortal wizard, fresh and rich and generous as an autumn orchard, sweet as dawn after a long night of horror—and the Lady and servant of Winter, implacable as an avalanche, deep and cold and boundless as the space between the stars. I strained against my bonds of ice as she broke the kiss.
"Molly Carpenter," I said. "Honey and hearthfire. A little sanctuary of light and warmth. And just outside the door, wind and darkness and blood in the snow." She leaned back into me; I kissed her lips, her throat. "Come outside," I whispered.
"Show me," she said. She took my face in her hands and her mouth locked onto mine.
I didn't have it in me to fight my demon any more. I didn't need to. I could no more have drained her than I could drink Lake Michigan.
I was lost in pure sensation for a long, long time, locked in ice, buried in snow. I was dimly aware of her hands cradling my face, her mouth hot on mine, the soft sounds of pleasure we were both making.
At last she let me go, drew back to sit on her heels, flushed and panting. I felt as I had after the Wild Hunt, exhilarated, half-unreal.
"Feeling better?" she asked.
"Yeah," I breathed. My demon was so sated it was nearly inert.
"Let me see your eyes."
I looked at her, and though I could still taste her, still wanted her, it was in a distant, almost theoretical way. I noticed I was shivering, though I'd forgotten about the cold.
She snapped her fingers, and the ice around me shattered into powder. I sat up, and then got to my feet, brushing off as much as I could.
"Get Harry," she told me. "Let's get out of here."
I carefully hefted my brother into a fireman's carry and followed Molly as she opened the Way back to Arctis Tor. We came out in front of the great gates, and Molly called up to the watchman above them. The gates ponderously swung open.
Mab herself stood in the gateway, waiting for us.
Molly curtsied to the Queen. "I've brought back your Knight," she said. "He should be ready to serve you again in a day or so."
"Well done," said Mab, though she held her mouth as if it hurt her teeth to say it. "Bring him inside. I will have servitors place him in his chamber." She ignored me. I was just as glad of it.
As we passed, Mab murmured to Molly, "The parasite?" and Molly replied just as quietly, "Destroyed." Mab nodded. "And I gleaned some information from it before it died," Molly continued.
"We will discuss that anon," Mab said. Two of her lumbering troll bodyguards appeared, carrying a litter with a pillow and comforter on it. They set it on the ground, Molly and I loaded Harry onto it, and they carried him away. Mab inclined her head to Molly, and Molly dropped her a deep curtsey. Then, catching my eye, she backed up a few steps before turning to leave. I bowed to the Queen of Air and Darkness and followed Molly out of the courtyard.
Molly took me to her quarters. As she shut the door behind us, I felt the wards snap into place. She touched the doorframe and whispered something I didn't catch, and the air in the room changed subtly.
"Now," Molly said, and her voice had a muffled quality, as if we were standing in a padded room or a snow-covered clearing, "I'd like to make a deal with you."
"I'm listening," I said.
"The Winter Court's not exactly a hive of cooperative goodwill," Molly said. "I need allies. Specifically, I need a consort." She held up a hand to stop me from objecting. "I don't mean a gigolo," she said. "More like a combination escort, in the non-sleazy sense, and bodyguard. I need someone to watch my back, and someone to stand alongside me on formal occasions. The Sidhe are really into ceremonies." She looked me up and down. "There are very few people I know and trust who could hold their own here. Most of those—Sanya, Ramirez—can't be spared, even if they'd be willing to deal with me."
"What about Harry?" I asked. "As I understand it, the Summer Knight and the last Summer Lady were an item."
"Harry and I aren't, and aren't going to be, an item." Her mouth twisted at some private, and not very pleasant, thought. "And neither are you and I. This is a business relationship. Harry, to go back to your question, is one of those people who can't be spared from his own duties."
"And what would I get out of the deal?" I asked.
"I assume House Raith gave you a basic grounding in dealing with the Sidhe," Molly said.
I nodded. "We got the basics. Cold iron, lying while telling the truth, bargains and games."
"So you know that mortals who go to live with the Sidhe don't age."
"Until they return to the mortal world," I said. "But I'm not a mortal."
Molly gave an odd little half-smile. "Justine is," she said quietly.
For a moment, I couldn't breathe.
"I can make her immortal," Molly said. "And you can be with her forever—or until something kills one of you. No guarantees. But I think she'd be safer here than with Lara. And you won't have to watch her get old."
"Yes," I said.
Molly held up a hand. "Not yet," she said. "If I were Mab, you'd have just made a big mistake. Don't agree until you read the fine print."
"I'm in," I said. "Whatever you want. Damn the fine print."
Molly shook her head. "Humor me," she said. "These are my terms. You agree to serve as my consort; you defend me at need, accompany me when and where I ask, and swear fealty to me. Until I release you. That could be centuries, do you understand?"
"Yes," I said.
"And this is important, Thomas—your oath is to the Winter Lady, not Molly Carpenter. It doesn't end with my death. If I'm killed, it's up to my successor to hold you or release you—and my successor could be someone like Maeve."
"I'll chance it," I said.
"In return," said Molly, "I will bring Justine into the Winter Court. While she lives among us, she won't age. That's a permanent condition; it doesn't stop if I'm killed or you're killed. So before you agree to this, you ask her if she's willing to risk outliving you—maybe for hundreds of years. It could happen."
"Oh," I said. I hadn't actually considered that possibility.
"She'll be under my protection, but that's only as good as my position at Court. So you have a powerful incentive to do your job well. And the same situation applies—if I die, my successor can't revoke her immortality, but she could revoke her protection, and Justine would be essentially defenseless."
"She'll have me," I said.
"True," said Molly. "But you can't be everywhere. And my successor could send her back to the mortal world—where all the accumulated years would fall back on her, unless Mab decreed otherwise."
"I understand," I said.
"All right," said Molly. "One more thing. Your fealty does not imply any kind of romantic or sexual relationship. But there's...a ritual. A very public ritual. And since Justine's part of the deal, she'll have to witness it along with all the rest of the court."
I swallowed. "You mean like Mab and—"
"Yeah," Molly said, wincing slightly. "Like that."
"Still interested?" she asked, after giving me a moment.
"All right. I'll open a Way for you, back to Chicago. Talk to Justine. When you're ready to tell me your decision, call me."
"Just call my name. I'll hear you."
Justine said yes. As fast as I had, and with as little concern for the possible pitfalls.
I went over everything Molly had said, clearly and plainly.
She still said yes.
"Is there anything you want to take with you?" I asked her.
She looked around at her apartment. At Chicago. At the world.
"Nothing but you," she said.
"You'll need a warm coat, at least," I said. "And I'll need my weapons. Come on."
We detoured to my place. I packed a bag, put on my swordbelt and cartridge belt, my falcata and Desert Eagle. I put my warmest parka on Justine—the sleeves hung down to her fingertips—and left the apartment and car keys, my credit cards, my ID and my safe deposit box key in a large envelope addressed to Lara. The Water Beetle, keys still in the ignition, was still docked at Demonreach. Harry could have it, if he wanted it.
"Molly Carpenter," I called to the empty air. "We're ready."
A Way opened up in the wall across from us. An arctic fox peered out at us from between snow-covered rocks, then shook itself and trotted off down a path, glancing back once over its shoulder.
We stepped through and followed it. It led us through the snowy woods, over a black plain scattered with gigantic frozen bones, and into Arctis Tor.
The Winter Lady met us at the gate and conducted us inside. She was wearing a long robe of silk, white with ice-blue embroidery. Diamonds and sapphires glinted at her throat and in her hair. I would have expected the outfit to make her look like a kid dressed for Halloween, or maybe prom night, but instead she looked...well, regal. Not the bad-girl-wannabe that Harry had rescued, nor the Rag Lady, precariously clinging to what was left of her sanity. This was yet another Molly, and I revised my estimate of how long she'd last in Mab's court. Whether she'd really grown into the Winter Lady's role or was just doing a damn fine job of faking it remained to be seen.
Molly's room looked just as it had before, except that the single bulb that had lit it was gone, and instead the entire ceiling glowed with a uniform, steady light.
"For our audience," Molly said with a grimace. "Once you begin your oath of fealty, the stage lights come up, and they stay that way till the ritual's complete." She closed the door behind her and touched it to activate her wards. "Nothing can get in; nothing but our image can get out. When the lights go up, we're on-screen for the entire Court, 3D hi-def and Dolby sound. Once the lights go down, we're on our own again."
I shrugged out of my weapons harness. "Um, any requests?"
"Yes," Molly said flatly. "Don't try to make it good for me. This is business. Don't insult any of us by pretending otherwise. Just get it over with."
"Wow," I said. "That may be the least flattering proposition I've ever had."
"Move over, Mr. Darcy," murmured Justine, with a tiny smile. She loves it when I lose stud points.
"Stop it," said Molly. She glared at Justine for a second, then glanced down quickly before she could trigger a soulgaze. "Don't mock," she said softly.
Justine went to her and touched her shoulder. "Molly," she said. "You're doing what's necessary to survive in a snake pit. And you're giving both of us the thing we want most in the universe. You think we're going to mock you for that?"
"I think—" Molly began, then shook her head. "It doesn't matter. Justine, stand here." Justine took up a position near the wall.
"Thomas—" Molly said, but her voice cracked and she looked away from me. She turned away slightly, so that it was in profile that I saw her unfasten her robe and shrug out of it. She turned back to me, naked but for the bright gems and Harry's amulet, neither concealing nor displaying her body, but simply waiting.
I winced. Thick scars marred her breasts and abdomen, as though someone had struck her across each nipple and her navel with a hot poker. She glanced aside.
"Yeah, so, turns out stainless steel body jewelry counts as cold iron," she said quietly. "I passed out before I could take them out. Fortunately I wasn't wearing the tongue stud, and the lip and earrings were silver." She touched a dim, bruiselike spot over her heart. It darkened gradually, slowly at first and then more quickly, deepening to a dark cobalt-blue, lengthening and twisting until it became a tattoo of a snake, head between her breasts, body coiled around her waist. It glittered like frost. Molly looked back at me. "Strip," she said.
I toed off my boots, stripped out of my shirt and jeans without finesse. Molly spoke again.
"Witness this rite, all of Faerie," she said softly, and the ceiling blazed with light. "Thomas Raith," she continued, "do you swear fealty to the Winter Lady, to come and to go at my bidding, to do my will and guard my person, until death take you, your Lady release you, or the world end?"
"Thus do I swear," I said.
"I hear and accept your oath," said Molly, "in recompense for which, behold: this woman, Justine, I decree one of us, my vassal and a denizen of Winter, under my protection, shielded from the ruin of time and of mortality." She brought both hands up to touch the serpent tattoo again. It rippled and split into three, and one deep-blue snake wrapped itself around each of her wrists.
She laid her right hand on Justine's right shoulder, and the snake slithered over her hand, twined around Justine's neck, and settled there, with its tail in its mouth. It flattened and sank into her skin and lay still, gleaming, an exquisite, jewel-like tattoo.
She laid her other hand on my right shoulder, and the second snake crawled onto me. It grew larger, heavier, darker, as it spiraled down my arm, its tail at the back of my neck, its head on the back of my hand. Like its companion, it sank into my skin and subsided, blue-black and menacing.
Molly gestured Justine to the room's lone chair, then turned back to me. "Let this oath be sealed by our bodies' union," she said. She put her hands on my shoulders and backed me towards the bed.
I sat on the bed and took her hands and pulled her gently towards me. Her head was down, her eyes half-lidded. Her hands were cold. I felt the complex swirl of her emotions—desire, shame, determination—and piercing through them all, a fierce, sharp pang of grief, so intense it nearly brought tears to my eyes.
Mindful of what she'd said about our audience getting picture and sound, I didn't say anything; but I touched her cheek to turn her face towards me, and I looked questioningly at her.
Her lips tightened in a look of resolve, as if she were about to throw herself into an unequal battle—which I guess she was.
Almost any emotion will do, for one of us to lure our prey a little closer. It's sometimes laughably easy to seduce a woman who feels sorry for you. (It had worked on Molly that last time; without Mouse's intervention, I'd have eaten her. And no, I wasn't doing it on purpose. Much.) Fear, in the right proportion, can work beautifully, either as a little spice of danger or as a challenge (bet you're not brave enough to come home with me, little doe). I'd had women who were motivated by sheer animal lust, by wounded pride, by ego, by curiosity. Occasionally one with a death wish, and that's not actually much fun.
But never one who gave herself to me as if she were throwing herself on a grenade. Heroic sacrifice? Really? It hurt my feelings.
Empty Night, kid, I'm not going to hurt you, I thought in exasperation. Not this time, at least.
She was making me feel like a rapist. Which yeah, technically I am, and a murderer, several times over. But this was in front of Justine. And it had been Molly's idea in the first place.
I released her hand and slid my hands around her waist (lithe and strong). I pulled her in to stand between my knees, and nuzzled at her belly (taut and smooth, but for the little knotted scar). I inhaled her scent (lovely, and she was definitely aroused; her body wanted me, no matter what had her mind tied in knots).
I was still well-fed, so the Hunger wasn't an issue. I wasn't exerting my power, not trying to thrall her or control her in any way, just giving her body what it wanted and hoping the rest of her would follow. And it was working; her hands were in my hair, tilting my head back and guiding my mouth to her breast. It had been a long time since I'd had vanilla sex, without feeding (Justine and I had done it that way a few times, early on, times when I'd fed on her and she hadn't yet recovered enough for me to do it again). It was pleasant in its way, relaxing, and I licked and suckled Molly's breast gently, not knowing how tender the scars might be or what might make her freeze up unexpectedly. She slid one hand down my neck, over my shoulder, down my side and in between us to brush, hesitantly, over my cock. I made a soft sound deep in my chest. Wizard's hands, I thought, and smiled against her.
I tried to remember if I'd ever had non-fatal sex with a virgin before. My first had been one. So had one of the does the naagloshii had fed me. I'd barely noticed.
Molly stiffened, and not in a good way. She pulled back fractionally and I let go immediately.
Shit. I'd forgotten she was a sensitive. She could probably pick up, not what I was thinking, but the emotional resonance of those memories.
"Look at me," she whispered.
I looked up and met her eyes, clear blue, ice-blue.
"Look at me," she commanded, and her voice and face were changing, her whole being suddenly charged with an energy that seemed to shake the stone walls. "You. Are. Mine."
A cold wind swept through the little room, though there was no gap it could have come through. I could barely sense Molly any more; the Winter Lady inhabited her, filling her body to overflowing with power and purpose.
She rode over me like an avalanche, and abruptly I understood why victims of hypothermia tear their clothes off and run out into the storm.
The Winter Lady's pitiless desire was endless, unslakable, making my Hunger seem like a kitten mewling for warm milk. Molly's lust, her anger, her sorrow were like bright glints of sun off the face of a glacier, insignificant, laughable.
She rode me, hard and fast and brutal, blue eyes blazing, teeth bared, and I wondered if she'd kill me when she'd used me up, and I couldn't spare the energy to care. I screamed when I came, and she snarled as she followed me. Immediately the bright light faded and the three of us were alone, unobserved except by each other.
The Winter Lady looked down at me for a moment, and then she seemed to shrink and it was Molly who was left lying on me, our bodies still joined, both of us covered in sweat, shivering. Her hair hung loose in her face, the diamonds and sapphires that had adorned it scattered around us.
She closed her eyes and clenched her teeth and eased herself off me. Her grief was like a missing limb, a loss that could never be repaired, and I felt like an idiot. I'd known the girl was in love with my brother. She'd even told me she'd wanted me because I looked like him. This deal had cost her dearly, and she'd done it not because she wanted to live—not like this, not bound to Winter for all the days or centuries she had left—but because if she died, the fight against the Outsiders might be lost.
I tried to hold her, to offer her some comfort, but she pushed me away. She stood up, a little unsteadily, and turned her back to me. Picked up her robe and put it on and huddled into it, like a child too big to admit to nightmares but too small to face them alone.
I sat up. Justine slipped past Molly and into my arms. I pulled her close, buried my hands in her warm, sweet-scented hair. I couldn't stop shivering.
After a while Justine kissed me, stepped back, and handed me my clothes. She went to where Molly stood with her hands over her eyes, and whispered something to her. Molly shook her head.
Justine stayed by her, resting one hand lightly on Molly's shoulder, saying nothing, head bowed. I got dressed, as unobtrusively as I could.
"If it makes you feel any better, Justine," Molly said, and her voice was hoarse and cracked, "he was my first."
"He wasn't mine," said Justine. "If that makes you feel any better."
Molly gave a little huff of breath that might have been a laugh.
"Molly—" I began.
"Be silent," Molly said without heat, and my voice stopped in my throat. She looked at me. "All I require of you, Thomas," she said, "is your body between me and my enemies. And Justine, you have my word that I won't be careless with it."
"I know, Lady," Justine said softly. Her expression was tranquil, her hand still on Molly's shoulder. Apparently the Winter Lady didn't intimidate her at all.
It shouldn't have surprised me. Justine was accustomed to dealing with my sisters. In House Raith she had been like a butterfly among scorpions, somehow gliding just beyond the reach of their stings. It had kept her alive for nearly a decade. Perhaps she would survive the Winter Court.
"You're released until I call you, Thomas," Molly said, and I no longer felt the constriction in my throat. "The chamber next to mine is for you and Justine. Let me know if there's anything you need that's not there." She took off Harry's amulet and handed it to me. "And if you see your brother, tell him I await his convenience."
I bowed, and sat on the floor to put on my boots. I retrieved my weapons. I put on my swordbelt, settled my pistol in its holster, checked to be sure my falcata drew smoothly. Molly took down her wards and opened her door.
Harry stood outside.
He extended his hand, and when I took it, he pulled me into a quick, embarrassed hug. He let me go, took Justine's hand between both of his, and kissed it lightly. Then he turned to Molly.
"Smart move, Grasshopper," he told her.
"Harry—" She wouldn't meet his eyes.
"No. I mean it. I sold myself to Mab and got you into this cesspit. I'm glad you thought of a way to strengthen your position. And incidentally, thank you—both of you—for saving my life." He looked back at me. "I wasn't actually intending for you to come after me. It was the only way I could think of to isolate myself and get the amulet out of the parasite's reach before it took over."
"Yeah, sure," I said, rolling my eyes. "'No way would you have come after me if I'd screamed your name in the night."
"Of course not," said Harry, with a small, tired smile. "Here. Trade you." He took off my amulet and handed it to me. I gave him his back.
"Mab wasn't pleased," Molly told him. "I think maybe she had plans that included the parasite."
"It wouldn't surprise me in the least," said Harry. "But she'll have a Plan B. She always does." He gave his apprentice a measuring look. "I hope you have an ace up your sleeve, though. In case she takes offense."
"I do," Molly said. Harry waited, but she had no more to add. He sighed.
"Be careful, Molly," he said more gently, and she nodded, glancing away from him again.
Harry looked at me, and his eyes were shadowed. "Thomas," he said, "if you fail her, it's not going to end well for any of us."
"Good thing I'm not planning on failing her then," I said.
Harry nodded. "Neither was I," he said quietly. He turned and walked away.
"You went behind my back," said Mab. "You knew I was looking for my Knight, and you found a way to track him, and you failed to inform me."
"You made alliances without my approval. You have retainers whose loyalty is to you, not to me. It could be seen as the foundation for a coup."
"It could be seen that way."
"I require a reason not to kill you."
"I can offer three, Majesty. One, Harry would rebel, and you'd have to replace us both. That would be inconvenient for you, and bad for the Realm. Two, it would make you look weak—as if one mortal wizard, one White Court vampire, and his half-mad concubine could be a threat to Mab."
"Three. You now have potential successors to the Winter Knight and the Winter Lady in position. In case of...accidents. Where you can keep an eye on them and influence them as you see fit."
"You're learning," said Mab. There was a hint of approval in her voice.
"I had a good teacher."
"I accept your reasons," said Mab.
There was a sharp snap and a soft tinkling clatter, as of icicles falling, and a tiny whimper of breath. Then there was silence, for a time.
"And what of the child?" asked Mab.
More silence. Then: "Margaret LeFay believed the Raith line could produce a Starborn. I thought it was worth the gamble."
"Have you told him? Either of them?"
"No. That would be disloyal, my queen. I leave it to you when and whether to tell them, though I think Thomas is likely to notice soon."
"And if the child is not what you hope?"
"Harry's child was given to my house, perhaps in recompense for their losing me. If it turns out that Margaret Angelica is the one we need, it would be fitting to fill her place with another. One of their own."
"You would put a vampire nestling among your own kin?"
"I think his uncle Sanya can tell him all he needs to know about how to handle a demon. Besides. He might take after my father. Can you imagine the look on Lara's face if a Raith grew up to bear one of the Swords?"
A thoughtful silence.
"For that," said Mab at last, "I can be patient."