(Tales of the Blue Serpent, Part Two)
At first glance, you could mistake her for one of the Sidhe.
She's pale and slender, and her hair is purest white. She moves slowly, gracefully. Her face is serenely beautiful, but not with the cold, heartless beauty of the Fae. There's warm, red blood beneath her fair skin.
You can smell it if you get close enough.
The Sidhe stand too close to her, moths drawn to a flame—but the flame is so fragile, one brush of a moth's wings could snuff her out.
They stand too close. And they watch me, to see what I'll do.
They hear me grind my teeth. And they smile.
I stood in front of the mirror in our lovely, elegant bedroom in Mab's palace, and scowled.
The blue-black serpent tattoo on my arm was in stark contrast to my skin. It was an elegant design, graceful yet menacing. I tried not to think of it as a badge of ownership. I failed.
"Maybe you should just go like that," said Justine.
I glanced back at her over my shoulder. I was wearing beautifully-tailored slacks, perfectly fitted, made of something not quite linen in the same blue-black as the serpent, and nothing else. "A little too boy-toy for my taste," I said.
"Maybe not for Molly's, though," she said. "I would have said you'd freeze to death, but I've noticed I don't feel the cold at all."
"Neither do I. I think it's these," I gestured to the tattoo. "I suspect there's more going on there than just an ID badge." I turned back to the mirror. "It's not like everyone in Faerie hasn't seen everything I've got at this point," I grumbled.
"You volunteered," she reminded me.
"And I'm glad."
"Always." She came over to stand beside me, twining her arms around my waist. "Do my hair?"
"Of course," I said. "What would you like?"
"You're the expert. Whatever you think looks good."
I moved behind her, lifted the long, lush fall of her hair, and kissed the back of her neck. I closed my eyes, breathing in her warm scent. "Sorry. Got distracted," I muttered.
"I'm not complaining," she said, leaning back into me.
I held her for a while, reveling in the incredible gift of being able to touch her as much as I wanted, for as long as I wanted, without the constant reminder of the ticking clock of her mortality. I laughed a little.
"What?" murmured Justine drowsily.
"There's no justice in the universe," I said. "That's all. The good people get chewed up and spat out. I get you."
"I haven't done anything to earn this either," said Justine. "But not to be thankful for it would be a crime."
"True," I said. I reluctantly let go of her long enough to find a comb. She sat down and I moved behind her. For a while I just focused on the white glory of her hair. Every time I looked at her, I could see that I'd almost killed her. Every time I looked at her, I could see that she'd been willing to die for me. Like so many others. What made the difference? Or was there any?
Well, yes, there had to be. None of the others burned me when I touched them. As she had, and would again, probably, unless something had changed when we became Molly's... servants? Retainers? Hostages?
It had not escaped my notice that Justine's tattoo made a noose around her neck.
"Thomas," she said quietly. "Let it go, love."
I met her eyes in the mirror, forced a smile. "How do you always know?"
She didn't smile back. "Because I know you. We'll be all right. We're together. This is the best chance we've had since we met."
"It's still not that great," I said. "There's really no one here we can trust. Except each other."
"Harry?" she said, but it was a question.
I shook my head. "I don't know."
"No. Well, I trust her to keep her word. It's one of the few things the Winter Lady has in common with the old Molly. But she has to have her own agenda, and I don't trust her to have our backs."
"You don't? Even though you're sworn to have hers?"
I shook my head. "Let's just say I hope we don't have to find out."
I ran the comb through her hair a few more times and got to work.
"You look lovely, Justine," Molly said. She sounded as if she meant it, but there was a little crease between her eyebrows.
"Thank you," Justine said. "You're looking well yourself."
Molly gave an absent nod as she studied Justine's hair. It cascaded down her back in a long tail, bound by an intricate net of thin braids that emerged from the fall, intertwined with it, returned to it. No jewels, no ribbons, no pins; just her glorious hair itself, like a foaming waterfall or a cascade of ice.
"Thomas," Molly said slowly, "this is... almost a spell. Did you do that on purpose?"
"No," I said. "I'm not a wizard. You know that."
She turned a penetrating look on me. After a moment she said, "I believe you. Because if you could see... it's like a beacon. It will attract attention."
"Should I undo it?"
Molly thought about it, but before she could answer, Justine spoke up. "No. Leave it."
Molly and I both looked at her. She raised her chin slightly. "Let them know who I belong to."
"It might not be safe for you," said Molly.
"I haven't been safe since I was born," Justine said. "I'm used to it."
Molly shook her head, but made no objection. "Are you ready?" she asked me.
"I am," I said. I carried neither pistol nor sword. Firearms are notoriously unreliable in the Nevernever. Blades, in this context, weren't worth the risk. Molly had made the rules abundantly clear: speaking to Mab, or spilling blood on her floor, without her express permission, would bring her wrath on all three of us, with fatal results if we were lucky. So I carried a telescoping baton of matte-black steel, and my demon.
Unlike my brother, I can keep my mouth shut. Therefore I wasn't worried about Mab. Which only left everyone else at the party.
Tonight was Imbolc, the festival that marked the waning of Winter and the beginning of Summer's increase. Mab had invited various dignitaries, allies and rivals to this last hurrah before her Court ceded precedence to Titania's; it would be the first time many of them had laid eyes on the new Winter Lady, who'd spent much of the past year in seclusion. And many of them would take the opportunity to test her, in one way or another.
Molly was beautifully dressed. Her gown was worthy of her rank: narrow and simply cut, sheer silk over satin in dark, smoky blue, it glittered with tiny dark beads, jet and amethyst and silvery-black hematite, in subtle, delicate patterns. It was almost monastically simple compared with the Winter Court's usual garb. Justine and I matched her. Justine wore a long elegant gown, straight in the front, the skirt made full with tiny crisp pleats in the back. I wore a jacket and trousers of the same material, blue/black, slightly lustrous almost-linen. The jacket lacked a right sleeve, leaving my weapon arm free. I wore my pentacle. Justine wore a star sapphire pendant on a silver chain and small earrings to match. We stood out, simply because of the lack of flash, and Molly's rivals would look cheap and obvious in contrast. The serpent tattoos on Justine's neck and my right arm stood out boldly, marking us as the Winter Lady's. I was sure we were intended as a challenge and a defiance, but I wasn't sure to whom. Maybe to everyone there. I hoped not to Mab herself.
I stepped out into the corridor behind Molly, ahead of Justine, and we had gone about twenty feet when I realized something was wrong. I slowed down. I scanned the corridor, floor, walls, ceiling. Nothing. No sound. No air movement. No smell... ah. I put up a hand to tell Justine to stop. I let Molly get a few yards ahead of us.
"Molly," I said. She turned around, and I put myself between her and Justine. "Why can't I smell you?" I asked.
"Oh," she said. "It's a veil. I'm sorry. I should have told you."
"Prove it," I said.
She sighed, flicked her hand out and was suddenly holding a small, wicked blade of ice. She cut a short slice into the base of her left thumb and held her hand palm-out so I could see the little beads of blood well up. Red, yes, and the consistency was right, but I couldn't smell it either.
"Not good enough," I said. "Could be an illusion. How do I know it's you?"
Molly made the knife vanish and threw a forceful open-handed gesture at me as she snapped, "Osuwari!" An invisible force knocked me on my ass. I blinked up at her.
"Inuyasha? Seriously?" I said in disbelief. Behind me, I heard Justine giggle.
Molly looked smug.
"What are you, twelve?" I asked.
Molly snorted. "Don't give me that. You're a grown-ass vampire half again my age, and you got the reference."
"When you stalk the night, you've gotta do something to pass the time in the daylight hours," I said, and I let myself smile. It had been a while.
Molly grinned, walked over and extended a hand to me. I clasped it and got up. (And of course, as soon as I touched her, I could tell she was indeed Molly. As if the anime fangirl spell weren't evidence enough.) She let go of me and took a moment to heal the little cut in her palm.
"Can you give him bishie sparkles?" Justine asked, coming over to tousle my hair. I glared at her.
"I. Do not. Sparkle." I said in as forbidding a tone as I could manage with my lover messing with my hair.
"Oh God," said Molly, giving Justine a wide-eyed look of delight. "Best blackmail threat ever. In front of Harry."
"Empty Night," I said. "Justine, you're supposed to be on my side."
"Can I have a Team Thomas shirt?" Justine asked.
"I'll make us each one," said Molly wickedly.
I buried my face in my hands. "This deal is getting worse all the time," I said.
Justine took my hands and kissed them. "I'll make it up to you later," she said softly.
"Get a room," said Molly, still smiling. "Oh wait. You already have several."
"Very nice ones. Thank you," said Justine.
"You're welcome," said Molly. "But seriously—Thomas, I apologize for worrying you. And thank you for being on-task."
"No problem," I said.
"Most of the Sidhe are as good as bloodhounds," said Molly. "I got tired of constantly advertising my emotional state. So: olfactory veil."
"Okay," I said. "Warn me next time. I like to know I'm guarding the right body."
Molly gave me a little crooked half-smile. "Let's go hang out with the grownups," she said.
The celebration was a trial. Justine and I stood behind Molly's left and right shoulders as she greeted Mab's guests, smiling graciously, poised and charming. Most were off-the-shelf Sidhe nobles: stunningly gorgeous, inhumanly graceful, strong, fast, magical, blah blah blah. "Now you know how the rest of us feel," Justine murmured to me between groups. I pretended not to know what she was talking about, but yeah. I felt short, plain, and dull.
There was some subtle posturing, some carefully-couched insults, but nothing major. There were a few nasties that stood out from the crowd: trolls, goblins, and a lean, weathered guy whose demeanor screamed predator! Molly identified him as Long Lankin, sort of the patron saint of serial killers.
The Leanansidhe passed through, leading a brace of hounds on a silver chain. One male, one female; the dark-pewter-colored beasts were panting anxiously, ears low, tails tucked, yellow eyes ceaselessly searching for the next threat. I wondered who they had been, and what they had done to deserve their current state.
The Erlking nodded to me from across the room, but we didn't speak. And there were a few pleasant surprises: a troop of Einherjaren and a delegation of Svartalfar. I could see some of the tension ease out of Molly in the presence of her allies. I glimpsed Mab only at a distance; she seemed content to sit back and watch her heir-apparent work the crowd. The crowd, in return, seemed to feel this was an opportunity for sizing up the fresh meat, rather than going straight in for the kill. But that, of course, was subject to change without notice.
Molly was hyper-alert, her pupils contracted, her breathing slightly more rapid and shallow than it should have been. As the night wore on she spoke less, and her smile became a little less natural. A couple of times I saw Justine brush shoulders with her, as if accidentally, and each time the tight line of Molly's neck eased fractionally, as if she'd drawn strength or comfort from the contact.
The party was well under way, and most of the guests were circulating through the room, gathering in twos and threes and tens to spar with wit and trade in gossip, when something stirred at the door, curiosity and then silent attention spreading outward in ripples through the crowd. A man in mortal attire, slender and poised but not inhumanly tall, paced unhurriedly into the room, and the Sidhe gracefully swayed aside to clear a path for him. His hair was dark but for a single white streak; he wore a neatly-trimmed goatee. He didn't look around; he simply strolled straight up to Molly and bowed slightly, a look of suave amusement on his face.
"Miss Carpenter," he said pleasantly. "How charming to see you here."
His shadow stretched long and dark behind him, though Mab's magical party lights were arranged in such a way that none of the rest of us cast one.
"Nicodemus Archleone," said Molly.
I shifted my weight slightly.
"Stand down, Thomas," Molly said in a voice like cold steel, and suddenly I couldn't move. On her other side, Justine was utterly still, whether by choice or not I couldn't tell.
Nicodemus raised an eyebrow. "So like her mother, don't you think?" he asked me. His voice oozed malicious glee like fluid from a four-day-old corpse at midsummer. "I look forward to doing a detailed comparison. With Michael to take notes." Molly didn't react outwardly, but I heard her heart rate jump. Nicodemus sensed her rage, apparently. His smile widened.
"And where is the Winter Knight?" he asked Molly. "It's not like Dresden to pass up a chance to be in the thick of things."
"I believe he's running errands for the Queen," Molly said evenly. "You could always ask her."
Nicodemus smiled. "That would be rude," he said chidingly. "I'm sure Her Majesty will tell me what she thinks best for me to know. But I had so hoped to see Dresden here. I had a proposition to make to him."
"He'll be sorry he missed you," Molly said. (Hopefully he'll have better aim next time, I thought.)
"I like your minions," said Nicodemus thoughtfully. "Very decorative." He looked Justine over, very slowly and thoroughly. "I can see why you took the vampire," he continued, "but this one puzzles me. You haven't taken her, at least not yet. She's not talented. Not a sensitive. Not even particularly stable. Is she just pet food?" My own anger and my demon's were in perfect synch, both snarling Ours! Nicodemus smiled slightly but didn't spare me a glance. Instead, he looked at Molly, eyebrows raised. "Oh. Oh. He's for you to use, and she's here to watch. While they yearn so for each other. And you glory in your newfound power." His smile grew wider. "You're learning, little Molly. In a few more years, I might have an offer to make you as well."
"Why are you here?" Molly asked him. Her feigned boredom was pretty good, if you didn't know there was murderous fury beneath it.
"Mab owes me a debt," said Nicodemus. "I'm here to collect. Deirdre advised me to take you as my payment. Play with you for a while—I confess, I'm curious what would happen if we just locked your Sight open and took you home with us—then trade you, perhaps, for one of your parents. Maybe even both of them. There's an outside chance we could even get the traitor to trade himself for you, but I doubt it. Still, his teacher's example... but no. No, I prefer to take the long view. I can just sit back and watch you destroy yourself. Taking Dresden with you, probably; certainly tearing your family apart. Look at what a few years of the mantle did for Lloyd Slate, after all; or a few decades for Maeve. I'm in no hurry. And this way I can use my credit for something more important."
"One thing about being immortal," Molly said, "is that I have a better chance of being there to see you go down. And when you do, I'll pour a libation to Shiro over your smoking carcass."
Nicodemus laughed. "Many have said so. Their bones are dust, and their tongue is no longer spoken," he said. "Enjoy the party, Miss Carpenter."
He bowed gracefully and left, weaving his way through the crowd towards the dais where Mab was seated.
Molly took a deep and somewhat shaky breath. "Okay," she said, and I felt the magical straitjacket fall away. Justine sagged, and Molly supported her with a hand under her elbow.
"Take Justine back to your quarters," she told me quietly.
"But you—" I began.
"Now, Thomas," she said, though she didn't reinforce it with any magical coercion this time. She looked over her shoulder, tracking Nicodemus. He wasn't visible, but his shadow was, trailing up the back wall near Mab's dais.
"You shouldn't be here without backup," Justine said. She was shivering, and her voice was barely stronger than a whisper. I put an arm around her and she leaned into me gratefully. Her terror was so strong it made my breath catch. My demon stirred, hungry. I ignored it.
"I don't have to stay much longer," said Molly. "He won't risk insulting Mab in her own stronghold. Not without backup of his own. He was just amusing himself."
"Then we'll stay too," Justine said, more strongly. "And we'll all leave together."
Molly opened her mouth, closed it, and nodded. She looked exhausted.
"Molly," I said, "may I?"
"Go ahead," she said. I cradled Justine's face in my hand. She closed her eyes and sighed as I kissed her forehead and carefully drew off the worst of her fear. She put her head on my shoulder for a moment, letting me use her as a screen so I could take Molly's hand without being seen.
Molly's emotions were as strong as Justine's, but much more complicated. Fear, horror, rage and shame fought for control of her. But she was holding herself together with a cold, hopeless tenacity, the desperate strength of the Rag Lady.
I didn't dare speak encouragement to her, not in a roomful of powerful, acute and ruthless rivals. But I could calm her, numb her as a leech does its victim, while my demon strained greedily for the intoxicating banquet before us.
I wanted them both, wanted them naked and panting and grappling with me, right fucking now. It was hard to let go of Molly's hand, harder to release Justine. But this wasn't my first rodeo, and I managed, without drawing any undue attention.
As fate, or Mab's sense of humor, would have it, that was when the music started.
"Jesus fucking Christ," said Molly between her teeth. "This is all I need."
"May I have this dance?" said a voice behind us, and we all three turned to see Harry, in a tux of all things, smiling at Molly and holding out a hand. She took it, with a deep, shaky breath in and out.
"Boss. Nicodemus is here."
"I heard," said Harry. He looked her over carefully. "You okay?"
She nodded. "Yeah. So far, just talk. Threatened me, threatened Mom and Dad, insulted you, me, Thomas and Justine, gave me a new subject for nightmares, all in less than a minute of conversation."
"Typical. I'm sorry I couldn't run interference. You look good, by the way." He tilted his head, eyeing her darkly-glittering gown. "Actually, you look like a cloud of mordite."
"Which is in no way deliberate," she said, with just a gleam of the old Molly.
"Of course not," he said. "Shall we?" and he led her out onto the dance floor as I did the same for Justine.
We danced. (Who knew my graceless little brother could dance? And who taught him?) After a while I handed Justine off to Etri, the chief of the Svartalves; Harry yielded Molly to me, and he slipped away, presumably to continue avoiding Nicodemus.
"I think this is the first time I've danced with you that nobody's died," I commented, as the song drew to a close.
Molly shook her head. "Night's still young," she said. "Although—"
"My turn now," said a silky voice, and I turned to see a Sidhe noble intercepting Justine before she could return to us.
"No thank you, my lord," Justine said with a polite smile.
"It wasn't a request, little mortal," he said, and reached for her hair.
I grabbed my baton. But before I could snap it open, before the Sidhe's hand could close, the snake tattooed on Justine's neck darted its head forward and sank its fangs into the Sidhe's wrist. He shrieked and jerked his arm back, grabbing at the wound with his other hand. A thin trail of black smoke twined upward from it, and the Sidhe backpedaled rapidly, his eyes on Molly. She raised an eyebrow at him.
"You may not be familiar with the customs of the mortal world," she said quietly. "Where we come from? No means no."
The Sidhe pressed his lips together tightly, nodded, turned, and faded into the crowd.
Molly turned an inquiring look to me. I shrugged and returned my baton to its sheath.
"Thanks," said Justine to Molly.
"Part of the deal," Molly said.
The evening wore on. I danced a few dances with indistinguishable Sidhe ladies (which is to say, they were all staggeringly beautiful, reeking with lust, magically talented enough to turn me into a cockroach and strong enough to stomp me into the floor without needing to). It was like being back at House Raith, in my teens. Ordinarily I'd have found it intimidating, but compared with Nicodemus, the Sidhe were straightforward, honorable, friendly and cheerful company. I had to work to remind myself that any one of them could take me in a fair fight, and that several of them working together could probably take Molly down. At least, before she'd gotten her Winter Lady upgrade. I was grateful that Molly kept a close eye on Justine while I was occupied.
We left before the real party got started. Mab looked displeased, but gave a nod of acquiescence, and we were gone. Justine and I walked Molly back to her room.
"May I ask you a question?" I said as we headed back to the less-populated parts of the castle.
"Not here," said Molly. I nodded and held my peace till we got to her room. She took down her wards and opened her door.
"Come in," she said, and I ushered Justine in first, then followed.
Justine sat down on Molly's lone chair rather abruptly.
"Are you okay?" Molly asked.
Justine nodded, her face remote as though she were thinking about something else entirely. "I'm... well, no, I'm not fine. But I'll be all right," she said.
I put my arms around her and she leaned on me. She was still shivering a little, intermittently. I stroked her hair and she quieted. I looked back at Molly, who'd kicked off her shoes and sat on her bed, feet tucked under her.
"Can he really do that?" I asked.
"Can who do what?" Molly said.
"Nicodemus. Could he really lock your Sight open?"
She shrugged. "Probably. He's had centuries of experience torturing people, including wizards. All the Denarians lie like rugs, all the time, but according to my father, Nicodemus doesn't bluff. If he says he can do it, I believe him."
"So he was lying about why you're keeping me and Justine."
She didn't reply.
She sighed. "I'm a human being, Thomas. Or I was. I can't help having mixed motives. And more power just makes it worse." She looked up at me. "So no, getting off on fucking you and making Justine watch was not the plan. And yes, I did get off on fucking you and making Justine watch. I'm sorry."
My hand tightened on Justine's shoulder and she touched my arm, glancing up at me. I eased my grip.
"You, or the Winter Lady?" Justine asked.
"I am the Winter Lady," Molly said. "At any rate, as I said before, that was a one-off. No more."
I nodded and looked for a less perilous subject.
"What did Harry want? I assume he didn't turn up just to show off his dance moves."
Molly glanced aside. "He... had some information for me. About some obligations I need to take care of."
"Anything you need me for?"
"Probably. We can talk about it tomorrow. You're off duty."
"Molly?" asked Justine. "Can I ask a question?"
"Are the Sidhe immune to Thomas? They seem... well, interested, but not, you know. They don't have any trouble walking away from him."
Molly smiled grimly. "To the Sidhe, the White Court are like crack," she said to me. "They find you intoxicating. Literally. There was a fashion a few decades ago for wine spiked with vampire blood."
"Noted," I said. I bowed, Justine curtsied and we walked the short distance back to our suite. I don't know about Justine, but I felt like I had crosshairs on me the whole way.