Chapter 7

I felt my stomach flutter around inside me.

The duchess was playing dirty. As the Red Court envoy, of course she'd have some advance knowledge about her people's intentions. There was no way in hell that this was a coincidence. It was too perfect.

If the Red Court was offering a return to the status quo - and older wizards love status quo, let me tell you - and adding in something to sweeten it to boot . . . the Senior Council would never authorize an action that would jeopardize such a peace. Not for some random little girl - and certainly not for the offspring of the White Council's most famous maybe-psychotic problem child, Harry Dresden, and a half-vampire terrorist.

Plenty of the people on the Council thought I should have been beheaded when I was sixteen. It made the younger wizards think I was cool and dangerous, which probably explained my popularity with them. The older members of the Council, though, held the lion's share of its influence and authority. That set would be happy to take any reasonable excuse to leave me hanging in the wind, and Duchess Arianna clearly planned to give it to them.

She was cutting me off.

It wasn't until then that I noticed that while my brain had been calmly paddling down the stream of logic, the raging cauldron in my belly had overflowed, and I was walking with smooth, swift strides down a hallway, my staff in my left hand, my blasting rod in my right, and the runes and carvings of both were blazing with carmine light.

That was somewhat alarming.

Someone was shaking my arm, and I looked down to see that Molly was hanging on to my left arm with both hands. I was dragging her sneakers forward across the stone floor, though she was clearly trying to stop me.

"Harry!" she said desperately. "Harry! You can't!"

I turned my face away from her and kept walking.

"Harry, please!" she all but screamed. "This won't help Maggie!"

It took me a few seconds to work out how to stop walking. I did it, and took a slow breath.

Molly leaned her forehead against my shoulder, panting, her voice shaking. She still held on tight. "Please. You can't. You can't go in there like this. They'll kill you." I heard her swallow down a mouthful of terror. "If we have to do it this way . . . at least let me veil you."

I closed my eyes and took more deep breaths, concentrating on pushing my anger back down. It felt like swallowing acid. But when I opened my eyes, the runes on the staff and rod were quiescent once more.

I glanced at Molly. She looked up at me, her eyes reddened and afraid.

"I'm okay," I told her.

She bit her lip and nodded. "Okay."

I leaned over and kissed her hair gently. "Thank you, Molly."

She offered me a hesitant smile and nodded again.

I stood there for a moment more before I said, gently, "You can let go of my arm now."

"Oh, right," she said, releasing me. "Sorry."

I stared down the hallway in front of me, trying to order my thoughts. "Okay," I said. "Okay."

"Harry?" Molly asked.

"This isn't the time or the place to fight," I said.

"Um," Molly said. "Yes. I mean, clearly."

"Don't start," I told her. "Okay. So the duchess is here to play games. . . ." I clenched my jaw. "Fine. Game on."

I started forward again with a determined stride, and Molly hurried to keep up.

We proceeded to the White Council's ostentatiatory.

I know. That isn't a word. But it should be. If you'd seen the quarters of the Senior Council, you'd back me up.

I strode down the hall and nodded to the squad of twelve Wardens on guard outside the chambers of the Senior Council. They were all from the younger generation - apparently there were grown-up things happening on the other side of the large double doors, to which the children could contribute nothing but confusion.

For once, the Council's geriatocracy had worked in my favor. If they'd left one of the old guard out here, he would certainly have tried to prevent me from entering on general principles. As it was, several of the doorkeepers nodded to me and murmured quiet greetings as I approached.

I nodded back briskly and never slowed my steps. "No time, guys. I need to get in."

They hurried to open the doors, and I went through them without slowing down and stepped into the chambers of the Senior Council.

I felt impressed upon entering, as I always did. The place was huge. You could fit a Little League baseball field in it and have room left over for a basketball court. A rectangular central hall splayed out in front of me, its floor made of white marble with veins of gold running through it. Marble steps at the far end swept up to a balcony that circled the entire place, which was supported by Corinthian columns of marble that matched the floor. There was a quiet waterfall at the far end of the chamber, running down into a pool, surrounded by a garden of living trees and plants and the chirp of the occasional bird.

A platform stage had been erected in the middle of the room, complete with stagelike lighting from a number of brightly glowing crystals, plus another mounted on a wooden podium that would, I took it, provide amplified sound for anyone speaking near it. The place was packed with wizards standing on the floor in a miniature sea of humanity, with more of them lining the balcony above, filling the place to its capacity.

All in all, the ostentatiatory was so overdone that you couldn't help but be impressed, which was the point, and though my brain knew it was hundreds of feet underground, my eyes insisted that it was lit by natural sunlight.

It wasn't, though: There was a vampire standing on the platform stage, beside the newest member of the Senior Council, Wizard Cristos. He stood at the podium, smiling and addressing the assembly. The rest of the Senior Council, resplendent in their black formal robes and purple stoles, looked on with their hoods raised.

". . . another example of how we must meet the future with our eyes - and minds - open to the possibility of change," Cristos said. He had a great speaking voice, a strong, smooth baritone that rolled effortlessly through the enormous chamber. He spoke in Latin, the official language of the Council - which ought to tell you something about their mind-set. "Humanity is already beginning to move away from the cycle of unthinking violence and war, learning to coexist with its neighbors in peace, working together to find solutions to their mutual problems, rather than allowing them to devolve into bloodshed." He smiled benevolently, a tall, spare man with a mane of flowing gray hair, a dark beard, and piercing dark eyes. He wore his formal robes open, the better to display the designer business suit beneath it.

"It is for this reason that I requested a telephone conference with the Red King," he continued. He used the English word for telephone, since there wasn't a proper Latin noun for it. It garnered a reaction from the assembled Council watching the proceedings. Such things were not done. "And after speaking with him for a time, I secured his support for a clearly defined, binding, and mutually acceptable peace. Creating the peace is in everyone's best interests, and it is for this reason that I am pleased to present to you, wizards of the White Council, the Duchess Arianna Ortega of the Red Court."

Several wizards not far from Cristos's position on the stage began clapping enthusiastically, and it spread haltingly throughout the chamber, eventually maturing into polite applause.

Arianna stepped up to the podium, smiling.

She was gorgeous. I don't mean "cutest girl at the club" gorgeous. I mean that she looked like a literal goddess. The details almost didn't matter. Tall. Dark hair. Skin like milk, like polished ivory. Eyes as blue as the twilight sky. She wore a gown of red silk, with a neckline that plunged gorgeously. Jewels touched her throat, her ears. Her hair was piled up on her head, occasional loose ringlets falling out. Hers was a beauty so pure that it was nearly painful to behold - Athena heading out on a Friday night.

It took me a good five or six seconds of staring to realize that there was something beneath that beauty that I did not like at all. Her loveliness itself, I realized, was a weapon - such creatures as she had driven men literally insane with desire and obsession. More to the point, I knew that her beauty was only skin-deep. I knew what lurked beneath.

"Thank you, Wizard Cristos," the duchess said. "It is a very great honor to be received here today in the interests of creating a peace between our two nations, and thereby finally putting an end to the abominable bloodshed between our peoples."

The Applause Squad started up again as Arianna paused. People picked up on the cue faster this time. Outside of the wizards who stood on the floor beneath the raised stage, the applause was still polite and halfhearted.

I waited until it began to die before I released the door. It closed with a quiet boom precisely in the moment of silence between the end of the applause and the duchess's next statement.

Nearly a thousand faces turned my way.

Silence fell. I could suddenly hear the little waterfall and the occasional twitter of a bird.

I stared hard at Arianna and said, my voice carrying clearly, "I want the girl, vampire."

She met my gaze with polite serenity for a moment. Then the hint of a smile touched her face, bringing with it a shadow of mockery. It made my blood boil, and I heard my knuckles pop as they clenched harder at my staff.

"Wizard Dresden!" Cristos said in sharp rebuke. "This is neither the time nor the place for more of your warmongering idiocy."

I was so impressed with his authority that I raised my voice and said, louder, "Give back the child you took from her family, Arianna Ortega, kidnapper and thief, or face me under the provisions of the Code Duello."

Murmurs ran through the assembly like a rumble of thunder.

"Wizard Dresden!" Cristos cried, aghast. "This is an ambassador of an Accorded nation, promised safe conduct while she is here on a mission of peace. This is not done!" He looked around the room and pointed a finger at several grey-cloaked wizards standing not too far from me. "Wardens! Escort this man from the chamber!"

I shot a glance at them. They were all old guard, all dangerous, all tough, and they really didn't like me. Six sets of eyes with all the mercy and pity of a gun's mouth locked onto me.

I heard Molly gulp.

I looked back at them and said, in English, "You sure you want it to be like this, fellas?"

It must have come out sounding more threatening than I thought it had, because half a dozen White Council hard cases stopped walking. They traded looks with one another.

I turned from them back to the stage, and addressed the vampire. "Well, thief?"

Arianna turned to Cristos and gave him a rather sad and gentle smile. "I'm sorry about this disruption, Wizard Cristos. I'm not sure what this is about, but it's quite clear that Wizard Dresden feels that he has been badly wronged by my people. Bear in mind that whether justly held or not, his feelings contributed to this war's beginning."

"I apologize for this outrageous behavior," Wizard Cristos said.

"Not at all," Arianna assured him. "I, too, have suffered personal loss in this conflict. It's always difficult to control the emotions arising from such things - particularly for the very young. That's just one of the problems we'll need to overcome if we are to break the cycle of violence between your folk and mine. The veterans of wars suffer horrible mental and emotional scars, vampires and wizards alike. I take no offense at Wizard Dresden's words or actions, and do not hold him responsible for them." She turned to me and said, her voice compassionate, "I can sincerely say that I understand exactly how much pain you're in right now, Wizard Dresden."

I had to force myself not to raise my blasting rod and burn that false empathy off of the duchess's face. I gripped my gear with both hands, to make sure they weren't going to try anything without consulting me.

"We can never regain the loved ones this war has taken from us," she continued. "All we can do is end the fighting - before even more of our loved ones get hurt. I'm here to avert any more needless deaths, Dresden. Surely you can see exactly why I would do such a thing."

Boy, did I. It wasn't enough for her simply to kill me. She wanted to defeat me utterly first, to have her cake and eat it, too. If she brought the fighting to a close this way, she would garner massive credibility in the supernatural community - and if she did it while simultaneously sticking it to me, it would only be that much more elegant a victory.

She smiled at me again, with that same tiny shading of mockery so faint that no one who wasn't looking for it could possibly have seen it. It was just enough to make sure that I could see the malice behind it, to make sure that I damned well knew she was rubbing it in my face in front of the entire White Council. She'd probably practiced it in a mirror.

"I'm giving you a chance," I said, my voice harsh. "Return the child and it ends. We're quits. Make me take her from you and I'll play hardball."

She put long, elegant fingers to her chest, as if confused. "I don't know why you're so upset with me, or what I have to do with this child, sir," Arianna said. "But I understand your outrage. And I wish that I could help you."

Someone stepped up close to my side, a little in front of me. She was a young woman, not particularly tall, with curling brown hair and a heart-shaped face that was appealing and likable, if not beautiful. Her eyes were steady and hard.

"Harry," said Anastasia Luccio, captain of the Wardens, "don't do this. Please."

I clenched my jaw and spoke in a heated whisper. "Ana, if you knew what she'd done."

"You are not going to restart the war and tarnish whatever honor the White Council has left by attacking an ambassador visiting under a pledge of safe conduct," she said evenly. "You're strong, Dresden. But you aren't that strong. If you try it, there are at least thirty wizards here who could take you alone. Working together, they wouldn't just beat you. They'd swat you down like a bug - and then you'd be imprisoned until they decided what to do with you, three or four months from now."

My belly and chest felt like they were on fire. I looked past Anastasia to Duchess Arianna again.

She was watching me - hell, probably listening to me, too, vampire hearing being what it was. Her smile was a scalpel drawn slowly over my skin.

Anastasia put her hand on my arm - very gently, not firmly. She was making a request. "Harry, please."

Behind me, Molly added, "This won't help Maggie, boss."

I wanted to scream. I wanted to fight.

On the stage one of the hooded figures of the Senior Council reached up and drew back his hood. My old mentor, Ebenezar McCoy, was a stocky old man with broad hands and scarred knuckles, bald except for a faint fringe of pale white hairs. His blunt, strong features were smooth and unreadable, but he met my gaze and gave me a very small, very precise nod. The message was clear. I could practically hear the old man's voice growling, Trust me, Hoss. Go with her.

I felt my lip lift up from my teeth in a silent snarl.

Then I turned and stalked from the chamber, my work boots thumping heavily on the floor, my staff clenched in my hand. Anastasia walked with me, her hand still on my arm, making it clear that I was being escorted from the room, even if she'd used a gentler persuasion than Cristos would have preferred.

The Wardens closed the door behind me with a soft, solid boom, cutting me off from the assembled might of the White Council.


Tags: Jim Butcher The Dresden Files Suspense
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