Chapter 8

"Hey," said one of the young Wardens outside the ostentatiatory. "Hey, Harry. What's up, man?"

I owed Carlos Ramirez more than a quick shake of my head, but I couldn't give it to him. I didn't want to talk at all, because I wasn't sure I could keep it from turning into furious shouting. I heard Molly turn quickly to him and say, "Not now. There's a problem, we're working on it, and I promise to call you if there's something you can do to help."

"But - " he said, taking a few steps after us.

"Warden," Luccio said firmly. "Remain at your post."

He must have obeyed. We kept on walking and he didn't follow us.

Luccio marched me down a tunnel I had never seen before, took a few turns into the darker hallways lit only by light she called to hang in the air around us, and then opened a door into a warm, firelit room. It looked like a den. There was a large fireplace crackling, several candles lit, and a lot of comfortable furniture scattered around in solitary nooks and in groups, so that one could have as much or as little conversational company as one wished. There was also a bar. A very large, very well-stocked bar.

"Oh," Molly said, as she came in behind me. "Cozy."

Anastasia let go of my arm and marched straight to the bar. She got down a bottle of black glass and poured amber fluid into three shot glasses. She brought them to a nearby table, gestured for us to sit, and then put all three glasses in the middle of the table, leaving it to us to choose which we would drink - two centuries of Warden-level paranoia tends to sink into your bones.

I sat down at the table. I took a glass and downed it. The liquor left a scouring heat in my chest as it went down, and I wanted it.

Anastasia took hers and made it vanish without twitching an eye-lash. Molly looked at her glass, took a polite sip, and said, to the other woman's amused glance, "Somebody should be the designated . . . not driver, but sober person."

"Harry," Anastasia said, turning to me. "What you did today was dangerous."

"I could take the bitch," I growled.

"There's no way for us to know how old Arianna is," she contradicted, "because humanity hasn't had a written language for that long. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

I pushed my empty glass away with my fingers and said, "I could take the prehistoric bitch." I looked around the room for a moment and said, "What is this place?"

Anastasia leaned back in her chair and spread her hands, palms up. "Welcome to the Worry Room."

"Worry Room, huh."

She quirked an eyebrow. "Didn't you see the bar?"

Molly giggled, and suppressed it. "Sorry."

Anastasia's voice turned faintly ironic. "It's a place where we crusty old Wardens can go when we're sick of the softhearted wizards who are so lily-livered that they want us to permit wayward children with enough talent to go warlock to live instead of executing them. Like your apprentice, here. I guarantee you some drinks were poured in this room and bitter words said about how we would regret it after her trial."

I grunted. "Were you pouring, drinking, or talking?"

She shrugged. "If not for her, then for plenty of others. I was here when Morgan drank himself into a stupor after your trial, Harry."

"No wonder it feels so cozy."

She smiled tightly. "It's likely the most private and secure room in the complex."

"Paranoia Central is only likely free of spies? You guys are getting sloppy."

"Dammit, Harry." Luccio shook her head. "You've done the Warden job for a while. Or most of it. You still think that the Wardens never have a reason for acting as . . . decisively as they sometimes do?"

I sighed. Life is never simple. I had railed against the Wardens for years for killing children, young men and women who had gone warlock, lost control of their magical talents and their minds by indulging in black magic. Then I had seen the results of a few warlocks on a spree. They were ugly. Ugly, ugly, ugly. "You've got good reason," I said. "Doesn't mean I have to like it. Doesn't make it right."

"Not everyone is so far over the edge they can't come back," Molly added softly. "Sometimes people just . . . just get lost. They just need someone to show them how to come back."

"Yes. And in the time it takes to make that distinction, a lot of innocent people have died, Miss Carpenter," Anastasia said, her tone frank and gentle. "The human population has expanded with unthinkable speed in the past two centuries. More and more wizard-level talents are being born. Every time one of them goes warlock, we have less and less time to confront the problem - and nowhere near enough help."

"Prevention," I said. "Find them early and they don't go warlock."

"Resources." She sighed. We'd had this talk before. "If the entire Council did nothing but Warden duty, full-time, it still wouldn't be enough."

"Education," I said. "Use the Paranet. Get the smaller talents to help identify the gifted."

She smiled at me and said, "I'm still building support for it. It's a good idea, Harry. It might even work. The problem is making some of the others in the Council understand it. They see it only as a security risk, especially after Peabody. But it's a good idea. Its time will come - eventually."

I grunted. I was quiet for a moment, and then I said, "Familiar argument, huh? Give me some routine. Calm me down. Is that it?"

"Anxiety, anger, and agitation cloud the mind. That's why the Worry Room is here." She smiled faintly. "I'm well aware of what it looks like when a wizard has been pushed to the brink." She poured the two of us another shot and said, "So why don't you tell me how the prehistoric bitch did it to you."

I took the glass without drinking. "She took a little girl."

"Vampires take a lot of children," Anastasia said. "What makes this one so special?"

I said nothing. Silence reigned. I looked up and met her eyes.

Anastasia and I had seen each other for a while. She knew me better than most. She studied my face for maybe half a second, and then took a deep breath. "Harry," she said, "don't say anything about this to anyone you don't trust with your life."

I gave her a small, bitter smile and nodded. Knowledge was power. Anyone who knew Maggie was my daughter might use her for leverage against me. Anastasia wouldn't, not for any reason - but others on the White Council would. Oh, they'd probably use softer gloves than Arianna had: I could just see being offered money to help support Maggie, give her access to nice schools, a privileged upbringing, and everything a father could want for his child - so that the offer could be withdrawn if I didn't play ball. After all, these were the good guys.

But it could get worse. I literally shuddered to think what Nicodemus might do with the knowledge - or, joyous thought, Mab. (Yes, that Mab. Take it from me: The stories don't do her justice.) I'd met some other real gems out there as well, and none of them had reasons to like me. On the other hand, I thought with a shiver, Arianna was the devil I didn't know.

Regardless, it wouldn't be helpful to let knowledge of Maggie become general. I had never planned on making an open case of her blood relation to me before the Council. It wouldn't win sympathy - only interest. The fewer people who knew I was Maggie's father, the safer she would be.

And yes.

I am aware of the irony.

I kept looking at Anastasia and asked, "Can I count on you?"

She put her hands flat on the table and looked down at them for a slow five count, considering her words before she answered. "I am not what I was in a fight, Harry."

I ground my teeth. "So you'll sit here where it's safe."

For the first time since I'd arrived in Edinburgh, Anastasia Luccio's dark eyes flashed with real anger, and I suddenly remembered that this woman had been the captain of the Wardens for decades. The air between us grew literally physically hotter. "Think carefully," she said in a very quiet voice, "before you call me a coward."

Since the stern, iron-haired captain had been magically relocated to the body of a college grad student, her powers had diminished significantly - but her savvy and experience hadn't. I wouldn't care to fight Luccio, regardless of our relative strengths. And, hell, it wasn't as if I hadn't seen her fight more than once since then.

The anger inside me wanted to spill out onto her. But she deserved better than that from me. I stuffed it back down and lifted the fingers of one hand in a gesture of mute apology. Anastasia Luccio might be many things, but she was no coward - and she was born and raised in a day and age where such an accusation might literally require a duel to be refuted.

No, thank you.

She nodded, mollified, and some of the tension went out of her. "I was going to say that I would be of most use to you here - gathering intelligence, asking questions, and digging up resources for you to use. Of course you should fight - but you can't do that until you find the girl, and some of our own people will have an interest in making sure you don't disrupt the peace process. If I am working from here, I can circumvent them."

I glanced down at my hands, suddenly embarrassed. She was thinking more clearly than I was. "I didn't even think . . . Yeah. I'm sorry, Ana."

She inclined her head. "It's nothing."

"It was unnecessary." I scratched at my head. "You think you can sandbag the Merlin?"

She lifted both eyebrows.

"Hell's bells, I'm shocked he didn't rip off his hood and start screaming at me. Maybe challenge me, right there. No way he's going to sit on his ass when he can stick it to me inste - " I broke off speaking as I noticed that Molly's eyes had gone very wide. I turned to look behind me.

A painting on the wall had just finished sliding to one side, revealing a doorway hidden behind it. The door swung open soundlessly, and a wizard who was the solemn, movie-poster version of old Merlin himself came into the Worry Room.

Arthur Langtry was one of the oldest and the single most powerful wizard on the White Council. His hair and beard were long, all snowy white with threads of silver, and perfectly groomed. His eyes were winter sky blue and alert, his features long, solemn, and noble.

The Merlin of the White Council was dressed in simple white robes. What I could think of only as a gunslinger's belt of white leather hung at his hips. It looked like it had been designed after tactical gear made for Special Forces operators, but in an insignificant flash of insight I realized that, if anything, the opposite was likely to be true. Multiple vials, probably potions, rode in individual leather cases. The leather-wrapped handle of an anemic rod or a stubby wand poked out of a holster. Several pouches were fastened closed, and looked as though they would contain bits and pieces of the standard wizarding gear I habitually carried with me when I was working. He also bore a long, white staff, a simple wooden pole made of an unfamiliar wood.

I stared at him for a moment. Then I said, "The peace talks are over?"

"Of course not," the Merlin said. "Goodness, Dresden. We aren't going to allow the entire Senior Council to stand on a stage within reach of a vampire's claws. Are you mad?"

I blinked at him.

"Wizard McCoy was the only actual Senior Council member on the stage," he said, and then grimaced. "Aside from Cristos, of course, who is unaware of the security measure. The envoy might well be an assassin."

I worked my jaw a few times and said, "So. You left him up there by himself while you played it safe."

The Merlin shrugged. "One of us had to be there to handle any questions. It was McCoy's idea, Dresden. He is an irritating, arrogant, and formidable man."

I scowled and mentally flogged my brain for slacking, forcing myself to see past my emotionally driven hostile response. "You don't trust the vampires," I said slowly. "You aren't drinking the Kool-Aid on this peace conference."

Langtry looked at me patiently. Then he looked at Luccio.

"Jonestown," she provided. "The mass suicide last century."

He frowned at that and then nodded. "Ah, I see the metaphor. No, Dresden, we are not willing to simply accept them at their word - but a great many people on the Council do not concur. Cristos has garnered an enormous number of supporters who very much want to embrace the terms of peace."

"If you don't want to call off the war," I said, "then why the hell did you stop me, Captain Luccio? I could have fixed it for you right there."

"You wouldn't have," Langtry said calmly. "You would have been knocked senseless and thrown in a hole." A faint smile touched his lips as he spoke the words. "Granted, a pleasant notion, but not a practical one."

Next to me, Molly put her elbows on the table and propped up her chin in her hands, staring at the Merlin thoughtfully.

My brain kept chugging. I think I can, I think I can. When it got to the top of the hill, my eyes widened. "You aren't planning to smoke the peace pipe. You're expecting an attack."

He looked at me blandly, and rested one hand on the hilt of his combat wand as if by pure coincidence. "Egad. What gave it away, Dresden?"

I started to say something hot in reply, Merlin or no Merlin, but Anastasia put a hand on my wrist. "Our sources," she said, overriding my incipient insult, "have reported a great deal of activity in the Red Court camp. They're mobilizing."

I looked back and forth between them. "You figure they're trying a Trojan horse?"

"Or some variant thereof," Langtry replied.

"So we're getting ready for it," Anastasia said. "As well as preparing the heaviest counterattack we've thrown at them yet."

"Um," Molly said, "what if they're serious about making peace?"

Everyone looked at her, and my apprentice visibly wilted beneath the Merlin's gaze.

"It might happen," she said.

Langtry smiled faintly. "The leopard cannot change his spots, Miss Carpenter. Sheep can befriend a hungry wolf only briefly. The Red Court is all savagery and crocodile tears. If they make peace, it is only because they need the time to replenish themselves before fighting anew."

"Really old things get set in their ways," I confirmed to Molly, my tone including Langtry as a matter of course. "Always hope for the best and prepare for the worst."

Molly chewed her lip thoughtfully and nodded.

Langtry eyed me and said, "Need I explain why I have explained, Dresden?"

"Maybe you'd better," I said. "I mean, you didn't use illustrations or anything, Professor."

Langtry inhaled, briefly closed his eyes, and then looked away from me.

"Um?" Molly said, frowning.

"We want the Red Court to attack, if that is their intention," I told her. "We want the Red Court to think their trick is working. We want them to be overconfident. Then when they hit us, we hit them back so hard and fast that they don't know it's coming until it's over."

"No," Langtry said. "So they never knew it was coming. Period. We will no longer wage a war with that filth, cold, hot, or otherwise. We're going to destroy them, root and branch." He lifted his chin slightly as his voice turned to frost. "We're going to exterminate them."

Silence followed. The fire crackled cheerfully.

I felt my hands clench into fists. "But you need them to expose themselves first. And that," I whispered, "is why you're going to ask me to lay off Duchess Arianna."

"Don't be absurd," Langtry said in a calm, quiet voice. "I am not asking you. I am ordering you to desist, Warden Dresden."

"And let the child die," I said.

"In all probability the child is already dead, or else turned," Langtry said. "And even if she still survives, we must face a cold truth: Uncounted billions now living and yet to be born will be saved if we stop the Red Court from feeding on humanity ever again." His voice became even colder. "No one life, innocent or not, is worth more than that."

I said nothing for several long, silent seconds.

Then I stood up. I faced the Merlin for a moment. I could feel the obdurate, adamant will that drove the man, and made his power the greatest well of mortal magic on the face of the earth.

"You've got it backward, you know," I told him quietly. "No life is worth more than that? No, Merlin. No life is worth less."

His expression never changed. But his fingers tightened slightly on his staff. His cold blue eyes touched lightly upon Molly, and then returned to me.

The threat was plain to see.

I leaned over close to his ear and whispered, "Go ahead, Arthur. Try it." Then I straightened slowly away, letting every emotion and every thought drain out of my expression. The tension in the air was thick. No one moved. I could see Molly trembling where she sat.

I nodded slowly at the Merlin.

Then I said in a quiet, clear voice, "Grasshopper."

Molly stood up immediately.

I kept myself between the girl and Langtry as we walked to the door. He didn't offer any challenge, but his eyes were arctic and absolute. Behind him, Luccio gave me a single, tiny, conspiratorial nod.

Hell's bells. She'd known who she would be working against all along.

Molly and I left Edinburgh behind and headed back home to Chicago.

Tags: Jim Butcher The Dresden Files Suspense