Small Favor Chapter 46

Chapter Forty-six

I woke up covered in a couple of heavy down comforters and innumerable blankets, and it was morning. The bench seat on the Water Beetle had been folded out into a reasonably comfortable cot. A kerosene heater was burning on the other side of the cabin. It wasn't exactly toasty, but it made the cabin warm enough to steam up the windows.

I came to slowly, aching in every joint, muscle and limb. The after-action hangover was every bit as bad as I had anticipated. I tried to remind myself that this was a deliriously joyous problem to deal with, all things considered. I wasn't being a very good sport about it, though. I growled and complained bitterly, and eventually worked up enough nerve to sit up and get out from under the covers. I went to the tiny bathroom-though on a boat, I guess it's called a ’’head’’ for some stupid reason-and by the time I zombie-shuffled out, Thomas had come down from the deck and slipped inside. He was putting a cell phone back into his jacket pocket, and his expression was serious.

’’Harry,’’ he said. ’’How you doing?’’

I suggested what he could do with his reproductive organs.

He arched an eyebrow at me. ’’Better than I'd expected.’’

I grunted. Then I added, ’’Thank you.’’

He snorted. That was all. ’’Come on. I've got coffee for you in the car.’’

’’I'm leaving everything to you in my will,’’ I said.

’’Cool. Next time I'll leave you in the water.’’

I pulled my coat on with a groan. ’’Almost wish you had. Coin? Sword?’’

’’Safe, stowed below. You want them?’’

I shook my head. ’’Keep them here for now.’’

I followed him out to the truck, gimping on my bad knee. I noted that someone had, at some point in the evening, cleaned me up a bit and put new bandages on my leg, and on a number of scrapes and contusions I didn't even remember getting. I was wearing fresh clothing, too. Thomas. He didn't say anything about it, and neither did I. It's a brother thing.

We got into the battered Hummer, and I seized a paper cup of coffee waiting for me next to a brown paper bag. I grabbed the coffee, dumped in a lot of sugar and creamer, stirred it for about a quarter turn of the stick, and started sipping. Then I checked out the bag. Doughnut. I assaulted it.

Thomas began to start the car but froze in place and blinked at the doughnut. ’’Hey,’’ he said. ’’Where the hell did that come from?’’

I took another bite. Cake doughnut. White frosting. Sprinkles. Still warm. And I had hot coffee to go with it. Pure heaven. I gave my brother a cryptic look and just took another bite.

’’Christ,’’ he muttered, starting the truck. ’’You don't even explain the little things, do you?’’

’’It's like a drug,’’ I said, through a mouthful of fattening goodness.

I enjoyed the doughnut while I could, letting it fully occupy all my senses. After I'd finished it, and the coffee started kicking in, I realized why I'd indulged myself so completely: It was likely to be the last bit of pleasure I was going to feel for a while.

Thomas hadn't said a damned thing about where we were going-or how anyone was doing after the events of the night before.

The Stroger building, the new hospital that has replaced the old Cook County complex as Chicago's nerve center of medicine, is only a few yards away from the old clump of buildings. It looks kind of like a castle. If you scrunch up your eyes a little, you can almost imagine its features as medieval ramparts and towers and crenellation, standing like some ancient mountain bastion, determined to defend the citizens of Chicago against the plagues and evils of the world.

Provided they have enough medical coverage, of course.

I finished the coffee and thought to myself that I might have been feeling a little pessimistic.

Thomas led me up to intensive care. He stopped in the hallway outside. ’’Luccio's coordinating the information, so I don't have many details. But Molly's in there. She'll have the rest of them for you.’’

’’What do you know?’’ I asked him.

’’Michael's in bad shape,’’ he said. ’’Still in surgery, last I heard. They're waiting for him up here. I guess the bullets all came up from underneath him, and that armor he was wearing actually kept one of them in. Bounced around inside him like a BB inside a tin can.’’

I winced.

’’They said he only got hit by two or three rounds,’’ Thomas continued. ’’But that it was more or less a miracle that he survived it at all. They don't know if he's going to make it. Sanya didn't go into anything more specific than that.’’

I closed my eyes.

’’Look,’’ Thomas said. ’’I'm not exactly welcome around here right now. But I'll stay if you need me to.’’

Thomas wasn't telling me the whole truth. My brother wasn't comfortable in hospitals, and I was pretty sure I'd figured out why: They were full of the sick, the injured, and the elderly-i.e., the kind of herd animals that predators'instincts told them were weakest, and the easiest targets. My brother didn't like being reminded about that part of his nature. He might hate that it happened, but his instincts would react regardless of what he wanted or didn't want. It would be torture for him to hang around here.

’’No,’’ I said. ’’I'll be fine.’’

He frowned at me. ’’All right,’’ he said after a moment. ’’You've got my number. Call me;I'll give you a ride home.’’

’’Thanks.’’

He put a hand on my arm for a second, then turned, hunched his shoulders, bowed his head so that his hair fell to hide most of his face, and walked quickly away.

I went on into the intensive care ward and found the waiting area.

Molly was sitting inside, next to Charity. Mother and daughter sat side by side, holding hands. They looked strained and weary. Charity was wearing jeans and one of Michael's flannel shirts. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and she didn't have any makeup on. She'd been pulled from her bed in the middle of the night to rush to the hospital. Her eyes were focused into the distance and blank.

Small wonder. This was her greatest nightmare come to life.

They looked up as I came in, and their expressions were exactly the same: neutral, distant, numb.

’’Harry,’’ Molly said, her voice hollow, ghostly.

’’Hey, kid,’’ I said.

It took Charity a moment to react to my arrival. She focused her eyes on the far wall, blinked them a couple of times, and then focused them on me. She nodded and didn't speak.

’’I, uh,’’ I said quietly.

Molly raised her hand to stop me from speaking. I shut up.

’’Okay,’’ she said. ’’Uh, let me think.’’ She closed her eyes, frowning in concentration, and started ticking off one finger with each sentence. ’’Luccio says that the Archive is stable but unconscious. She's at Murphy's house and needs to talk to you. Murphy says to tell you her face will be fine. Sanya says that he needs to talk to you alone, and as soon as possible, at St. Mary's.’’

I waved a hand at all of that. ’’I'll take care of it later. How's your dad?’’

’’Severe trauma to his liver,’’ Charity said, her voice toneless. ’’One of his kidneys was damaged too badly to be saved. One of his lungs collapsed. There's damage to his spine. One of his ribs was fractured into multiple pieces. His pelvis was broken in two places. His jaw was shattered. Subdural hematoma. There was trauma all through one ocular cavity. They aren't sure if he'll lose the eye or not. There might also be brain damage. They don't know yet.’’ Her eyes overflowed and focused into the distance again. ’’There was trauma to his heart. Fragments of broken bone in it. From his ribs.’’ She shuddered and closed her eyes. ’’His heart. They hurt his heart.’’

Molly sat back down beside her mother and put her arm around Charity's shoulders. Charity leaned against her, eyes still spilling tears, but she never made a sound.

I'm not a Knight.

I'm not a hero, either.

Heroes keep their promises.

’’Molly,’’ I said quietly. ’’I'm sorry.’’

She looked up at me, and her lip started quivering. She shook her head and said, ’’Oh, Harry.’’

’’I'll go,’’ I said.

Charity's face snapped up and she said, her voice suddenly very clear and distinct, ’’No.’’

Molly blinked at her mother.

Charity stood up, her face blotched with tears, creased with strain, her eyes sunken with fatigue and worry. She stared at me for a long moment and then said, ’’Families stay, Harry.’’ She lifted her chin, sudden and fierce pride briefly driving out the grief in her eyes. ’’He would stay for you.’’

My vision got a little blurry, and I sat down in the nearest chair. Probably just a reaction to all the strain of the past couple of days.

’’Yeah,’’ I said, my throat thick. ’’He would.’’

I called everyone on the list Molly had quoted me and told them they could wait to see me until we knew about Michael. Except for Murph, they all got upset about that. I told them they could go to hell and hung up on them.

Then I settled in with Molly and Charity and waited.

Hospital waits are bad ones. The fact that they happen to pretty much all of us, sooner or later, doesn't make them any less hideous. They're always just a little bit too cold. It always smells just a little bit too sharp and clean. It's always quiet, so quiet that you can hear the fluorescent lights-another constant, those lights-humming. Pretty much everyone else there is in the same bad predicament you are, and there isn't much in the way of cheerful conversation.

And there's always a clock in sight. The clock has superpowers. It always seems to move too slowly. Look up at it and it will tell you the time. Look up an hour and a half later, and it will tell you two minutes have gone by. Yet it somehow simultaneously has the ability to remind you of how short life is, to make you acutely aware of how little time someone you love might have remaining to them.

The day crawled by. A doctor came to see Charity twice, to tell her that things were still bad, and that they were still working. The second visit came around suppertime, and the doc suggested that she get some food if she could, that they should know something more definite after the next procedure, in three or four hours.

He asked if Charity knew whether or not Michael had agreed to be an organ donor. Just in case, he said. They hadn't been able to find his driver's license. I could tell that Charity wanted to tell the doctor where he could shove his question and just how far it could go, but she told him what Michael would have told him-yes, of course he had. The doctor thanked her and left.

I walked down the cafeteria with Charity and Molly, but I didn't feel like eating or having food urged upon me. I figured that Charity probably had a critical back pressure of mothering built up after this much time away from her kids. On the way, I claimed that I needed to stretch my legs, which was the truth. Sometimes when there's too much going on in my head, it helps to walk around a bit.

So I walked down hallways, going nowhere in particular, just being careful not to pass too near any equipment that might be busy keeping someone alive at the moment.

I wound up sitting down in the hospital chapel.

It was the usual for such a place;quiet, subdued colors and lights, bench seating with an aisle in the middle, and a podium up at the front-the standard layout for the services of any number of faiths. Maybe it leaned a little harder toward Catholicism than most, but that might have been only natural. The Jesuits actually had a chaplaincy in residence, and held Mass there regularly.

It was quiet, which was the important thing. I sank onto a pew, aching, and closed my eyes.

Lots of details chased their way around my head. Michael had come in with gunshot wounds. The cops were going to ask lots of questions about that. Depending on the circumstances of the helicopter's return to Chicago, that could get really complicated, really fast. On the other hand, given the depth of Marcone's involvement, the problems might just vanish. He had his fingers in so many pies in Chicago's city government that he could probably have any inquiry quashed if he really wanted it done.

Given what he'd been saved from, it would be consistent with his character for Marcone to repay the people who bailed him out with whatever aid he could render in turn. It irked me that Marcone could ever be in a position to offer significant aid to Michael, regardless of the circumstances.

Of course, for that to happen, Michael would first need to survive.

My thoughts kept coming full circle back to that.

Would he be in danger right now if I hadn't insisted that he put on that harness? If I hadn't shoved him onto that rope ahead of me, would he still be up there under the knife, dying? Could I really have been that arrogant to assume, based on one glance at Gard's face, that I not only knew the future, but had the wisdom and the right to decide what that future should be?

Maybe it should be me up there. I didn't have a wife and a family waiting for me to come home.

I'd expected Charity to scream and throw things at me. Maybe I'd even wanted that. Because while I intellectually understood that I'd had no way of knowing what was going to happen, and that I'd only been trying to protect my friend, a big part of me couldn't help but feel that I deserved Charity's fury. After all, it reasoned, I had gotten her husband killed as surely as if I'd murdered him myself.

Except that he wasn't dead yet-and thinking like that was too much like giving up on him. I couldn't do that.

I looked up at the podium, where Whoever would presumably be when someone was there delivering a sermon.

’’I know that we don't talk much,’’ I said, speaking out loud to the empty room. ’’And I'm not looking for a pen pal. But I thought You should know that Michael makes You look pretty good. And if after all he's done, it ends like this for him, I'd think less of You. He deserves better. I think You should make sure he gets it. If You want to bill it to me, I'm fine with that. It's no problem.’’

Nobody said anything back.

’’And while we're on the subject,’’ I said, ’’I think the rules You've got set up suck. You don't get involved as much as You used to, apparently. And Your angels aren't allowed to stick their toes in unless the bad guys do it first. But I've been running some figures in my head, and when the Denarians pulled up those huge Signs, they had to have a lot of power to do it. A lot of power. More than I could ever have had, even with Lasciel. Archangel power. And I can only think of one of those guys who would have been helping that crew.’’

I stood up and jabbed a finger at the podium, suddenly furious, and screamed, ’’The Prince of f*king Darkness gets to cheat and unload his power on the earth-twice!-and You just sit there being holy while my friend, who has fought for You his whole life, is dying! What the hell is wrong with You?’’

’’I guess this is a bad time,’’ said a voice from behind me.

I turned around and found a little old guy in a dark blue coverall whose stenciled name tag read, JAKE. He was pulling behind him a janitor's cart with a trash bin and the usual assortment of brooms and mops and cleaning products. He had a round belly and short, curling silver hair that matched his beard, both cropped close to his dark skin. ’’Sorry. I'll come back later.’’

I felt like an idiot. I shook my head at him. ’’No, no. I'm not doing anything. I mean, you're not keeping me from anything. I'll get out of your way.’’

’’You ain't in my way, young man,’’ said Jake. ’’Not at all. You ain't the first one I ever seen upset in a hospital chapel. Won't be the last, either. You sure you don't mind?’’

’’No,’’ I said. ’’Come on in.’’

He did, hauling the cart with him, and went over to the trash can in the corner. He took out the old liner. ’’You got a friend here, huh?’’

’’Yeah,’’ I said, sitting down again.

’’It's okay to be mad at God about it, son. It ain't His fault, what happened, but He understands.’’

’’Maybe He does,’’ I said with a shrug. ’’But He doesn't care. I don't know why everyone thinks He does. Why would He?’’

Jake paused and looked at me.

’’I mean, this whole universe, right? All those stars and all those worlds,’’ I continued, maybe sounding more bitter than I had intended. ’’Probably so many different kinds of people out there that we couldn't count them all. How could God really care about what's happening to one little person on one little planet among a practically infinite number of them?’’

Jake tied off the trash bag and tossed it in the bin. He replaced the liner with a thoughtful look on his face. ’’Well,’’ he said, ’’I never been to much school, you understand. But seems to me that you assuming something you shouldn't assume.’’

’’What's that?’’ I asked.

’’That God sees the world like you do. One thing at a time. From just one spot. Seems to me that He is supposed to be everywhere, know everything.’’ He put the lid back on the trash can. ’’Think about that. He knows what you're feeling, how you're hurting. Feels my pain, your pain, like it was His own.’’ Jake shook his head. ’’Hell, son. Question isn't how could God care about just one person. Question is, how could He not.’’

I snorted and shook my head.

’’More optimism than you want to hear right now,’’ Jake said. ’’I hear you, son.’’ He turned and started pushing the cart out the door. ’’Oh,’’ he said. ’’Can an old man offer you one more thought?’’

’’Sure,’’ I said, without turning around.

’’You gotta think that maybe there's a matter of balance, here,’’ he said. ’’Maybe one archangel invested his strength in this situation overtly and immediately. Maybe another one was just quieter about it. Thinking long-term. Maybe he already gave you a hand.’’

My right hand erupted into pins and needles again.

I sucked in a swift breath and rose, spinning around.

Jake was gone.

The janitor's cart was still there. A rag hanging off the back was still swinging back and forth slightly. A folded paperback book was shoved between the body of the cart and the handle. I went over to the cart and looked up and down the hall.

There was no one in sight, and nowhere they could have conveniently disappeared to.

I picked up the book. It was a battered old copy of The Two Towers. One page was dog-eared, and a bit of dialogue underlined in pencil.

’’'The burned hand teaches best,'’’ I read aloud. I made my way back to my seat and shook my head. ’’What the hell is that supposed to mean?’’

Grimalkin mewled from the pew beside me, ’’That your experience with resisting the shadow of the Fallen One has garnered the respect of the Watchman, my Emissary.’’

I twitched violently enough that I came up off my seat an inch or two, and came back down with a grunt. I slid down as far as I could to the end of the pew. It wasn't far. I bought myself only another inch or three before I turned to face Mab.

She sat calmly, dressed in a casual business suit of dark blue, wearing plenty of elegant little diamonds. Her white hair was bound up into a braided bun, held in place with ivory sticks decorated with lapis. She held Grimalkin on her lap like a favorite pet, though only a lunatic would have mistaken the malk for a domestic cat. It was the first time I'd seen Grimalkin in clear light. He was unusually large and muscular, even for a malk-and they tended to make your average lynx look a little bit scrawny. Grimalkin must have weighed sixty or seventy pounds, all of it muscle and bone. His fur was dark grey, patterned with rippling black fur almost like a subtle watermark. His eyes were yellow-green, very large, and far too intelligent for any animal.

’’The Watchman?’’ I stammered.

Mab's head moved slightly with the words, but it was Grimalkin's mewling voice that actually spoke. ’’The Prince of the Host is all pomp and ceremony, and when he moves it is with the thunder of the wings of an army of seraphim, the crash of drums, and the clamor of horns. The Trumpeter never walks quietly when he can appear in a chorus of light. The Demon Binder takes tasks upon his own shoulders and solves his problems with his own hands. But the Watchman...’’ Mab smiled. ’’Of the archangels, I like him the most. He is the quiet one. The subtle one. The one least known. And by far the most dangerous.’’

I sorted through what knowledge I had of the archangels. It was meager enough, but I knew that much, at least. ’’Uriel,’’ I said quietly.

Mab lifted a finger and continued speaking through the malk. ’’Caution is called for, Emissary mine. Were I in your position, I would speak his name sparingly, if ever.’’

’’What has he done to me?’’ I asked her.

Mab stared at me with iridescent eyes. ’’That is a question only you can answer. But I can say this much: He has given you the potential to be more of what you are.’’

’’Huh?’’

She smiled, reached to the bench on the other side of her body, and produced my blasting rod. ’’The return of your property,’’ the malk said. ’’The need to keep it from you has passed.’’

’’Then I was right,’’ I said, accepting it. ’’You took it. And you took the memory of it happening.’’

’’Yes.’’

’’Why?’’

’’Because I deemed it proper,’’ she replied, as if speaking to a rather slow-witted child. ’’You would have risked your own life-and my purpose-to protect your precious mortals had I not taken your fire from you. Summer would have tracked and killed you two days ago.’’

’’Not having it could have gotten me killed, too,’’ I said. ’’And then you'd have wasted all that time you've put in trying to recruit me to be the next Winter Knight.’’

’’Nonsense,’’ Mab said. ’’If you died, I would simply recruit your brother. He would be well motivated to seek revenge upon your killers.’’

A little cold feeling shot through me. I hadn't realized that Mab knew who he was. But I guess it made sense. My godmother, the Leanansidhe, had been tight with my mother, one way or another. If Lea had known, then it might make sense that Mab did, too. ’’He isn't a mortal,’’ I said quietly. ’’I thought the Knights had to be mortals.’’

’’He is in love,’’ Grimalkin mrowled for Mab. ’’That is more than mortal enough for me.’’ She tilted her head. ’’Though I suppose I might make him an offer, while you yet live. He would give much to hold his love again, would he not?’’

I fixed her with a hard gaze and said, ’’You will stay away from him.’’

’’I will do as I please,’’ she said. ’’With him-and with you.’’

I scowled at her. ’’You will not. I do not belong to y-’’

The next thing I knew I was on my knees in the center aisle, and Mab was walking away from me, toward the door. ’’Oh, but you do, mortal. Until you have worked off your debt to me you are mine. You owe one favor more.’’

I tried to get up, and I couldn't. My knees just wouldn't move. My heart beat far too hard, and I hated how frightened I felt.

’’Why?’’ I demanded. ’’Why did you want the Denarians stopped? Why send the hobs to kill the Archive? Why recruit me to save the Archive and Marcone in the event that the hobs failed?’’

Mab paused, turned, casually showing off the gorgeous curves of her calves, and tilted her head at me. ’’Nicodemus and his ilk were clearly in violation of my Accords, and obviously planning to abuse them to further his ambition. That was reason enough to see his designs disrupted. And among the Fallen was one with much to answer for to me, personally, for its attack upon my home.’’

’’The Black Council attack on Arctis Tor,’’ I said. ’’One of them used Hellfire.’’

Mab showed me her snow-white teeth. ’’The Watchman and I,’’ Grimalkin mewled for her, ’’had a common enemy this day. The enemy could not be allowed to gain the power represented by the child Archive.’’

I frowned and thought of the silver hand that had batted the fallen angel and his master sorceries around as if he'd been a stuffed practice dummy. ’’Thorned Namshiel.’’

Mab's eyes flashed with sudden, cold fury and frost literally formed over every surface of the chapel, including upon my own eyelashes.

’’There are others yet who will pay for what they have done,’’ Mab snarled in her own voice. It sounded hideous-not unmelodious, because it was as rich and full and musical as it ever had been. But it was filled with such rage, such fury, such pain and such hate that every vowel clawed at my skin, and every consonant felt like someone taking a staple gun to my ears.

’’I am Sidhe,’’ she hissed. ’’I am the Queen of Air and Darkness. I am Mab.’’ Her chin lifted, her eyes wide and white around the rippling colors of her irises-utterly insane. ’’And I repay my debts, mortal. All of them.’’

There was an enormous crack, a sound like thick ice shattering on the surface of a lake, and Mab and her translator were gone.

I knelt there, shaking in the wake of hearing her voice. I realized a minute later that I had a nosebleed. A minute after that, I realized that there was a trickle of blood coming out of my ears, too. My eyes ached with strain, as if I'd been outdoors in bright sunlight for too many hours.

It took me still another minute to get my legs to start moving again. After that I staggered to the nearest bathroom and cleaned up. I spent a little while poking at my memory and trying to see if there were any holes in it that hadn't been there before. Then I spent a while more wondering if I'd be able to tell if she had taken something else.

’’Jesus Christ,’’ I breathed, shivering.

Because though I hadn't been in on the original attack on Mab's tower, and when I did attack it I had been unwittingly serving Mab's interests, the fact remained that I had indeed offered her the same insult as Thorned Namshiel. The lacerating fury that turned her voice into razor blades could very well be directed at me in the near future.

I hurried out of the chapel and went down to the cafeteria.

Being bullied into eating dinner sounded a lot more pleasant than it had a few minutes ago.

The doctor came into the waiting room at ten seventeen that night.

Charity came to her feet. She'd spent much of the day with her head bowed, praying quietly. She was beyond tears, at least for the moment, and she put a sheltering arm around her daughter, pulling Molly in close to her side.

’’He's in recovery,’’ the doctor said. ’’The procedures went...’’ The doctor sighed. He looked at least as tired as either of the Carpenter women. ’’As well as could be expected. Better, really. I hesitate to make any claims at this point, but he seems to be stable, and assuming there are no complications in the next hour or two, I think he'll pull through.’’

Charity bit her lip hard. Molly threw her arms around her mother.

’’Thank you, Doctor,’’ Charity whispered.

The doctor smiled wearily. ’’You should realize that...the injuries were quite extensive. It's unlikely that he'll be able to fully recover from them. Brain damage is a possibility-we won't know until he wakes up. Even if that isn't an issue, the other trauma was severe. He may need assistance, possibly for the rest of his life.’’

Charity nodded calmly. ’’He'll have it.’’

’’That's right,’’ Molly said.

’’When can I see him?’’ Charity asked.

’’We'll bring him up in an hour or two,’’ the doctor said.

I cleared my throat. ’’Excuse me, Doc. Is he going to be on a respirator?’’

’’For the time being,’’ the doctor said. ’’Yes.’’

I nodded. ’’Thank you.’’

The doctor nodded to us, and Charity thanked him again. He left.

’’Okay, grasshopper,’’ I said. ’’Time for us to clear out.’’

’’But they're going to bring hi- Oh,’’ Molly said, crestfallen. ’’The respirator.’’

’’Better not to take any chances, huh?’’ I asked her.

’’It's all right, baby,’’ Charity said quietly. ’’I'll call home as soon as he wakes up.’’

They hugged tightly. Molly and I started walking out.

’’Oh,’’ Molly said, her voice very tired. ’’I did that homework.’’

I felt pretty tired, too. ’’Yeah?’’

She nodded and smiled wearily up at me. ’’Charlemagne.’’

I called Thomas, and he gave me and Molly a ride to Murphy's place.

The night was clear. The cloud cover had blown off, and the moon and the stars got together with the snow to turn Chicago into a winter wonderland months ahead of schedule. The snow had stopped falling, though. I suppose that meant Mab had turned her attention elsewhere. Thomas dropped me off a short distance away, and then left to drive the grasshopper back to her home. I covered the last hundred yards or so on foot.

Murphy lives in a teeny little house that belonged to her grandmother. It was just a single story, with two bedrooms, a living room, and a little kitchen. It was meant for one person to live in, or possibly a couple with a single child. It was certainly overloaded by the mob of Wardens who had descended on the place. Luccio's reinforcements had arrived.

There were four Wardens in the little living room, all of them grizzled veterans, two young members in the kitchen, and I was sure that there were at least two more outside, standing watch behind veils. I was challenged for a password in an amused tone by one of the young Wardens when I came in the kitchen door. I told him to do something impolite, please, and asked him where Luccio might be.

’’That's anatomically unlikely,’’ the young man replied in a British accent. He poured a second cup of steaming tea and said, ’’Drink up. I'll let her know you're here.’’

’’Thanks.’’

I was sipping tea and sitting at Murphy's table when Luccio came in a few minutes later. ’’Give us the room, please, Chandler, Kostikos.’’

The younger men cleared out to the living room-a polite illusion, really. The house was too small to provide much in the way of privacy.

Luccio poured herself a cup of tea and sat down across from me.

I felt my shoulders tense up a little. I forced myself to remain quiet, and sipped more tea.

’’I'm concerned,’’ Luccio said quietly, ’’about the Archive.’’

’’Her name is Ivy,’’ I said.

She frowned. ’’That's...part of my concern, Harry. Your personal closeness with her. It's dangerous.’’

I lifted my eyebrows. ’’Dangerous? I'm in danger because I'm treating her like a real person?’’

Luccio grimaced as if tasting something bitter. ’’Frankly? Yes.’’

I thought about being diplomatic and polite. Honest, I really did. But while I was thinking about it, I accidentally bumped the button that puts my mouth on autopilot, because it said, ’’That's a load of crap, Captain, and you know it.’’

Her expression went still as the whole of her attention focused on me. ’’Is it?’’

’’Yes. She's a kid. She's alone. She's not some computer database, and it's inhuman to treat her like one.’’

’’Yes,’’ Luccio said bluntly. ’’It is. And it's also the safest way to deal with her.’’

’’Safest for who?’’ I demanded.

Luccio took a sip of tea. ’’For everyone.’’

I frowned down at my cup. ’’Tell me.’’

She nodded. ’’The Archive...has been around for a long time. Always passed down in a family line, mother to daughter. Usually the Archive is inherited by a woman when she's in her early to mid-thirties, when her mother dies, and after she's given birth to her own daughter. Accidents are rare. Part of the Archive's nature is a drive to protect itself, a need to avoid exposing the person hosting it to risk. And given the extensive knowledge available to it, the Archive is very good at avoiding risky situations in the first place. And, should they arise, the power available to the Archive generally ensures its survival. It is extremely rare for the host of an Archive to die young.’’

I grunted. ’’Go on.’’

’’When the Archive is passed...Harry, try to imagine living your life, with all of its triumphs and tragedies-and suddenly you find yourself with a second set of memories, every bit as real to you as your own. A second set of heartaches, loves, triumphs, losses. All of them just as real-and then a third. And a fourth. And a fifth. And more and more and more. The perfect memory, the absolute recall of every Archive that came before you. Five thousand years of them.’’

I blinked at that. ’’Hell's bells. That would...’’

’’Drive one insane,’’ Luccio said. ’’Yes. And it generally does. There is a reason that the historical record for many soothsayers and oracles presents them as being madwomen. The Pythia, and many, many others, were simply the Archive, using her vast knowledge of the past to build models to predict the most probable future. She was a madwoman-but she was also the Archive.

’’As a defense, the Archives began to distance themselves from other human beings, emotionally. They reasoned that if they could stop adding the weight of continuing lifetimes of experience and grief to the already immense burden of carrying so much knowledge, it might better enable them to function. And it did. The Archive keeps its host emotionally remote for a reason-because otherwise the passions and prejudices and hatreds and jealousies of thousands of lifetimes have the potential to distill themselves into a single being.

’’Normally, an Archive would have her own lifetime of experience to insulate her against all these other emotions and memories, a baseline to contrast against them.’’

I suddenly got it. ’’But Ivy doesn't.’’

’’Ivy doesn't,’’ Luccio agreed. ’’Her grandmother was killed in a freak accident, an automobile crash, I believe. Her mother was a seventeen-year-old girl who was in love, and pregnant. She hated her mother for dying and cursing her to carry the Archive when she wanted to have her own life-and she hated the child for having a lifetime of freedom ahead of her. Ivy's mother killed herself rather than carry the Archive.’’

I started feeling a little sick. ’’And Ivy knows it.’’

’’She does. Knows it, feels it. She was born knowing exactly what her mother thought and felt about her.’’

’’How could you know this about her...’’ I frowned, thinking. Then said, ’’Kincaid. The girl was in love with Kincaid.’’

’’No,’’ Luccio said. ’’But Kincaid was working for Ivy's grandmother at the time, and the girl confided in him.’’

’’Man, that's screwed up,’’ I said.

’’Ivy has remained distant her whole life,’’ Luccio said. ’’If she begins to involve her own emotions in her duties as the Archive, or in her life generally, she runs the serious risk of being overwhelmed with emotions and passions which she simply is not-and cannot be-psychologically equipped to handle.’’

’’You're afraid that she could go out of control.’’

’’The Archive was created to be a neutral force. A repository of knowledge. But what if Ivy's unique circumstance allowed her to ignore those limitations? Imagine the results of the anger and bitterness and desire for revenge of all those lifetimes, combined with the power of the Archive and the restraint of a twelve-year-old child.’’

’’I'd rather not,’’ I said quietly.

’’Nor would I,’’ Luccio said. ’’That could be a true nightmare. All that knowledge, without conscience to direct it. The necromancer Kemmler had such a spirit in his service, a sort of miniature version of the Archive. Nowhere near as powerful, but it had been studying and learning beside wizards for generations, and the things it was capable of were appalling.’’ She shook her head.

I took a sip of tea, because otherwise the gulp would have been suspicious. She was talking about Bob. And she was right about what Bob was capable of doing. When I'd unlocked the personality he'd taken on under some of his former owners, he'd nearly killed me.

’’The Wardens destroyed it, of course,’’ she said.

No, they hadn't. Justin DuMorne, former Warden, hadn't destroyed the skull. He'd smuggled it from Kemmler's lab and kept it in his own-until I'd burned him to death, and taken it from him in turn.

’’It was just too much power under too little restraint. And it's entirely possible that the Archive could become a similar threat on a far larger scale. I know you care about the child, Harry. But you had to be warned. You might not be doing her any favors by acting like her friend.’’

’’Who's acting?’’ I said. ’’Where is she?’’

’’We've been keeping her asleep,’’ Luccio said, ’’until you or Kincaid got here.’’

’’I get it,’’ I said. ’’You don't think I should get close to her. Unless you're worried about what's going to happen when you wake her up and she's really scared and confused.’’

Luccio's cheeks flushed and she looked away. ’’I don't have all the answers, Dresden. I just have concerns.’’

I sighed.

’’Whatever,’’ I said. ’’Let me see her.’’

Luccio led me into Murph's guest bedroom. Ivy looked very tiny in the double bed. I sat down beside her, and Luccio leaned over to gently rest her hand on Ivy's head. She murmured something and drew her hand away.

Ivy let out a small whimper and then blinked her eyes open, suddenly hyperventilating. She looked around wildly, her eyes wide, and let out a small cry.

’’Easy, easy,’’ I said gently. ’’Ivy, it's all right. You're safe.’’

She sobbed and flung herself tight against me.

I hugged her. I just rocked her gently and hugged her while she cried and cried.

Luccio watched me, her eyes compassionate and sad.

After a long while Ivy whispered, ’’I got your letter. Thank you.’’

I squeezed a little.

’’They did things to me,’’ she said.

’’I know,’’ I said quietly. ’’Been there. But I was all right after a while. You're going to be all right. It's over.’’

She hugged me some more, and cried herself back to sleep.

I looked up at Luccio and said, ’’You still want me to push her away? You want her baseline to be what she shared with those animals?’’

Luccio frowned. ’’The Senior Council-’’

’’Couldn't find its heart if it had a copy of Grey's Anatomy, X-ray vision, and a stethoscope,’’ I said. ’’No. They can lay down the law about magic. But they aren't telling me who I'm allowed to befriend.’’

She looked at me for a long moment, and then a slow smile curled up one side of her mouth. ’’Morgan told them you'd say that. So did McCoy and Listens-to-Wind. The Merlin wouldn't hear it.’’

’’The Merlin doesn't like to hear anything that doesn't fit into his view of the world,’’ I said. ’’Japanese.’’

’’Excuse me?’’

’’Japanese. There's a Japanese steakhouse I go to sometimes to celebrate. Surviving this mess qualifies. Come with me, dinner tomorrow. The teriyaki is to die for.’’

She smiled more broadly and inclined her head once.

The door opened, and Murphy and Kincaid arrived. Kincaid was moving under his own power, though very gingerly, and with the aid of a walking stick. I got out of the way, and he came over to settle down next to Ivy. She woke up enough to murmur something about cookies and a Happy Meal. He settled down on the bed beside her, and she pressed up against his arm before settling down to rest again. Kincaid, evidently exhausted himself, drew a gun, took the safety off, placed it on his chest, and went to sleep too.

’’It's cute,’’ I whispered to Murphy. ’’He has a teddy Glock.’’

She was looking at Kincaid and Ivy with a decidedly odd expression. She shook her head a little, blinked up at me, and said, ’’Hmm. Oh, hah, very funny. I had your car dug out of the snow, by the way.’’

I blinked at her. ’’Thank you.’’

’’Got your keys?’’

’’Yeah.’’

’’Give you a ride to it,’’ she said.

’’Groovy.’’

We took off.

Once we were in the car and moving, Murphy said, ’’I like Luccio.’’

’’Yeah?’’

’’But she's all wrong for you.’’

’’Uh-huh,’’ I said.

’’You come from different worlds. And she's your boss. There are secrets you have to keep from her. That's going to make things difficult. And there are other issues that could come up.’’

’’Wait,’’ I said. I mimed cleaning out my ears. ’’Okay, go ahead. Because for a second there, it sounded like you were giving me relationship advice.’’

Murphy gave me a narrow, oblique look. ’’No offense, Dresden. But if you want to compare total hours of good relationships and bad, I leave you in the dust in both categories.’’

’’Touch§٬’’ I said. Sourly. ’’Kincaid was looking awfully paternal in there, wasn't he?’’

’’Oh, bite me,’’ Murphy said, scowling. ’’How's Michael?’’

’’Gonna make it,’’ I said. ’’Hurt bad, though. Don't know how mobile he's going to be after this.’’

Murphy fretted her lower lip. ’’What happens if he can't...keep on with the Knight business?’’

I shook my head. ’’I have no idea.’’

’’I just...I didn't think that taking up one of the swords was the sort of job offer you could turn down.’’

I blinked at Murphy. ’’No, Murph. There's no mandatory martyrdom involved. You've got a choice. You've always got a choice. That's...sort of the whole point of faith, the way I understand it.’’

She digested that in silence for a time. Then she said, ’’It isn't because I don't believe.’’

’’I know that,’’ I said.

She nodded. ’’It isn't for me, though, Harry. I've already chosen my ground. I've taken an oath. It meant more to me than accepting a job.’’

’’I know,’’ I said. ’’If you weren't the way you are, Murph, the Sword of Faith wouldn't have reacted to you as strongly as it did. If someone as thick as me understands it, I figure the Almighty probably gets it too.’’

She snorted and gave me a faint smile, and drove the rest of the way to my car in silence.

When we got there she parked next to the Blue Beetle. ’’Harry,’’ she said, ’’do you ever feel like we're going to wind up old and alone? That we're...I don't know...doomed never to have anyone? Anything that lasts?’’

I flexed the fingers of my still-scarred left hand and my mildly tingling right hand. ’’I'm more worried about all the things I'll never be rid of.’’ I eyed her. ’’What brings on this cheerful topic?’’

She gave me a faint smile. ’’It's just...the center cannot hold, Harry. I think things are starting to fall apart. I can't see it, and I can't prove it, but I know it.’’ She shook her head. ’’Maybe I'm just losing my mind.’’

I looked intently at her, frowning. ’’No, Murph. You aren't.’’

’’There are bad things happening,’’ she said.

’’Yeah. And I haven't been able to put many pieces together. Yet. But we shut down some of the bad guys last night. They were using the Denarians to get to the Archive.’’

’’What do they want?’’

’’Don't know,’’ I said. ’’But it's going to be big and bad.’’

’’I want in on this fight, Harry,’’ she said.

’’Okay.’’

’’All the way. Promise me.’’

’’Done.’’ I offered her my hand.

She took it.

Father Forthill was already asleep, but Sanya answered the door when I dropped by St. Mary's. He was rumpled and looked tired, but was smiling. ’’Michael woke and was talking.’’

’’That's great,’’ I said, grinning. ’’What did he say?’’

’’Wanted to know if you made it out all right. Then he went back to sleep.’’

I laughed, and Sanya and I traded a hug, a manly hug with a lot of back thumping, which he then ruined with one of those Russian kisses on both cheeks.

’’Come in, come in,’’ he said. ’’I apologize for trying to rush you earlier. We wanted to be sure to collect the coins and get them safely stored as soon as possible.’’

I exhaled. ’’I don't have them.’’

His smile vanished. ’’What?’’

I told him about Thorned Namshiel.

Sanya swore and rubbed at his face. Then he said, ’’Come.’’

I followed him through the halls in the back of the enormous church until we got to the staff 's kitchen. He went to the fridge, opened it, and came out with a bottle of bourbon. He poured some into a coffee cup, drank it down, and poured some more. He offered me the bottle.

’’No, thanks. Aren't you supposed to drink vodka?’’

’’Aren't you supposed to wear pointy hat and ride on flying broomstick?’’

’’Touch§٬’’ I said.

Sanya shook his head and flexed the fingers of his right hand. ’’Eleven. Plus six. Seventeen. It could be worse.’’

’’But we nailed Thorned Namshiel,’’ I said. ’’And Eldest Gruff laid out Magog like a sack of potatoes. I'll get you his coin tomorrow.’’

A flicker of satisfaction went through Sanya's eyes. ’’Magog? Good. But Namshiel, no.’’

’’What do you mean, no? I saw Michael cut his hand off and drop it into his pouch.’’

’’Da,’’ Sanya said, ’’and the coin was under the skin of his right hand. But it was not in his pouch when he went to the hospital.’’

’’What?’’

Sanya nodded. ’’We took off his armor and gear in helicopter, to stop the bleeding. Maybe it fell out into the lake.’’

I snorted.

He grimaced and nodded. ’’Da, I know. That did not happen.’’

I sighed. ’’Marcone. I'll look into it.’’

’’Are you sure?’’

’’Yeah. I know those people. I'll go see them right now. Though I was looking forward to going home for a while.’’ I pushed my hips up off the counter they leaned on. ’’Well, what's one more thing, right?’’

’’Two more things,’’ Sanya said. He vanished and returned a moment later.

He was carrying Amoracchius in its scabbard. He offered it to me.

I lifted both eyebrows.

’’Instructions,’’ Sanya said. ’’I'm to give it to you and you will kn-’’

’’Know who to give it to,’’ I muttered. I eyed the ceiling. ’’Someone is having a huge laugh right now at my expense.’’ I raised my voice a little. ’’I don't have to do this, You know! I have free will! I could tell You to go jump in a lake!’’

Sanya stood there, offering me the sword.

I snatched it out of his hands, grumbling under my breath, and stalked out to my Volkswagen. I threw the sword into the back. ’’As if I didn't have enough problems,’’ I muttered, slamming the passenger door and stalking around to the driver-side door. ’’No. I gotta be carrying around freaking Excalibur now, too. Unless it isn't, who knows.’’ I slammed the driver-side door, and the old paperback copy of The Two Towers Uriel had left me, and which I'd dropped into the pocket of my duster, dug into my side.

I frowned and pulled it out. It fell open to the inside front cover, where there was writing in a flowing hand: The reward for work well-done is more work.

’’Ain't that the truth,’’ I muttered. I stuffed the book back in my pocket and hit the road again.

It took a phone call and an hour to set it up, but Marcone met me at his office on the floor over Executive Priority. I walked in carrying the sword to find Marcone and Hendricks in his office-a plain and rather Spartan place for the time being. He had only recently moved in, and it looked more like the office of an active college professor, functional and put together primarily from expediency, than that of a criminal mastermind.

I cut right to the chase. ’’Someone is backstabbing the people who saved your life, and I won't have it.’’

Marcone raised his eyebrows. ’’Please explain.’’

I told him about Thorned Namshiel and the coin.

’’I don't have it,’’ Marcone said.

’’Do any of your people?’’ I asked.

He frowned at that question. Then he leaned back in his chair and put his elbows on the arms of it, resting the fingertips of his hands together.

’’Where is Gard?’’ I asked.

’’Reporting to her home office,’’ he murmured. ’’I will make inquiries.’’

I wondered if Marcone was lying to me. It wasn't a habit of his, but that only meant that when he did tell a lie, it was all the more effective. I wondered if he was telling the truth. If so, then maybe Monoc Securities had just acquired their own Fallen angel and expert in magic and magical theory.

’’The child,’’ Marcone said. ’’Is she well?’’

’’She's safe,’’ I said. ’’She's with people who care about her.’’

He nodded. ’’Good. Was there anything else?’’

’’No,’’ I said.

’’Then you should get some rest,’’ Marcone said. ’’You look’’-his mouth twitched up at the corners-’’like a raccoon. Who has been run over by a locomotive.’’

’’Next time I leave your wise ass on the island,’’ I said, scowling, and stalked out.

I was on the way out of the building when I decided to make one more stop.

Madam Demeter was in her office, dressed as stylishly as ever.

’’Hello, Mister Dresden,’’ she said as she put several files away, neatly, precisely ordering them. ’’I'm quite busy. I hope this won't take too long.’’

’’No,’’ I said. ’’I just wanted to share a theory with you.’’

’’Theory?’’

’’Yeah. See, in all the excitement and explosions and demonic brouhaha, everyone's forgotten a small detail.’’

Her fingers stopped moving.

’’Someone gave the Denarians the location of Marcone's panic room. Someone close to him. Someone who would know many of his secrets. Someone who would have a good reason to want to hurt him.’’

Demeter turned just her head to face me, eyes narrowed.

’’A lot of men talk to the women they sleep with,’’ I said. ’’That's always been true. And it would give you a really good reason to get close to him.’’

’’He's like a lot of men,’’ Demeter said quietly.

’’I know you've got a gun in that drawer,’’ I told her. ’’Don't try it.’’

’’Why shouldn't I?’’ she said.

’’Because I'm not going to give you to Marcone.’’

’’What do you want from me?’’ she asked.

I shrugged. ’’I might ask you for information sometimes. If you could help me without endangering yourself, I'd appreciate it. Either way, it doesn't affect whether or not I talk to Marcone.’’

Her eyes narrowed. ’’Why not?’’

’’Maybe I want to see him go down someday,’’ I said. ’’But mostly because it's none of my damned business. I just wanted you to know that I'd seen you. This time maybe he won't put it all together. He's got more likely suspects than you inside his organization-and I'd be shocked if you hadn't already realized what a great patsy Torelli is going to make.’’

Demeter gave me a wintry smile.

’’But don't get overconfident. If you make another move that obvious, he'll figure it out. And you'll disappear.’’

Demeter let out a bare laugh and shut the filing cabinet. ’’I disappeared years ago.’’ She gave me a steady look. ’’Are you here to do business, Mister Dresden?’’

Granted, there was a building full of very...fit girls who would be happy to, ah, work on my tone. And my tone was letting me know that it would be happy to be worked on. The rest of my body, however, thought that a big meal and about two weeks of sleep was a much better idea. And once you got up to my neck, the rest of me thought that this whole place was looking prettier and hollower every time I visited.

’’It's done,’’ I said, and left.

At home, I couldn't sleep.

Finally I had enough spare time to worry about what the hell was wrong with my right hand.

I wound up in my lab, dangling the packet of stale catnip for Mister and filling Bob in on the events of the past few days.

’’Wow,’’ Bob said. ’’Soulfire. Are you sure he said soulfire?’’

’’Yeah,’’ I said wearily. ’’Why?’’

’’Well,’’ the skull said. ’’Soulfire is...well. It's Hellfire, essentially. Only from the other place.’’

’’Heavenfire?’’

’’Well...’’ Bob said, ’’yes. And no. Hellfire is something you use to destroy things. Soulfire is used the opposite way-to create stuff. Look, basically what you do is, you take a portion of your soul and you use it as a matrix for your magic.’’

I blinked. ’’What?’’

’’It's sort of like using rebar inside concrete,’’ Bob said. ’’You put a matrix of rebar in, then pour concrete around it, and the strength of the entire thing together is a great deal higher than either one would be separately. You could do things that way that you could never do with either the rebar or the concrete alone.’’

’’But I'm doing that with my soul?’’ I demanded.

’’Oh, come on, Harry. All you mortals get all hung up over your precious souls. You've never seen your soul, never touched it, never done anything with it. What's all the to-do?’’

’’So what you're saying is that this hand construct was made out of my soul,’’ I said.

’’Your soul and your magic fused together, yeah,’’ Bob said. ’’Your soul converted into energy. Soulfire. In this case, the spirit energy drawn from your aura right around your right hand, because it fit the construct so well, it being a big version of your right hand and all. Your standard force-projection spell formed around the matrix of soulfire, and what had been an instantaneous exertion of force became a long-term entity capable of manipulation and exertion to the same degree. Not really more powerful than just the force spell, as much as it was more than simply the force spell.’’

I wiggled my tingling fingers. ’’Oh. But my soul's going to get better, right?’’

’’Oh, sure,’’ Bob said. ’’Few days, a week or two at most, it'll grow back in. Go out and have a good time, enjoy yourself, do some things that uplift the human spirit or whatever, and it'll come back even faster.’’

I grunted. ’’So what you're saying is that soulfire doesn't let me do anything new. It just makes me more of what I already am.’’

’’A lot more,’’ Bob said, nodding cheerfully from his shelf. ’’It's how angels do all of their stuff. Though admittedly, they've got a lot more in the way of soul to draw upon than you do.’’

’’I thought angels didn't have souls,’’ I said.

’’Like I said, people get all excited and twitchy when that word gets used,’’ Bob said. ’’Angels don't have anything else.’’

’’Oh. What happens if I, uh, you know. Use too much of it?’’

’’What's five minus five, Harry?’’

’’Zero.’’

’’Right. Think about that for a minute. I'm sure you'll come to the right conclusion.’’

’’It's bad?’’

’’See? You're not totally hopeless,’’ Bob said. ’’And hey, you got a new magic sword to custodianize, too? Merlin, eat your heart out;he only got to look after one! And working a case with Uriel! You're hitting the big-time, Harry!’’

’’I haven't really heard much about Uriel,’’ I said. ’’I mean I know he's an archangel, but...’’

’’He's...sort of Old Testament,’’ Bob said. ’’You know the guy who killed the firstborn children of Egypt? Him. Other than that, well. There's only suspicions. And he isn't the sort to brag. It's always the quiet ones, you know?’’

’’Heaven has a spook,’’ I said. ’’And Mab likes his style.’’

’’And he did you a favor!’’ Bob said brightly. ’’You just know that can't be good!’’

I put my head down on the table and sighed.

But after that I was able to go upstairs and get some real sleep.

I always like the onion-volcano thing they do at the Japanese steak houses. Me and the other seven-year-olds at the table. I got to catch the shrimp in my mouth, too, when the chef flicked them up into a high arc with his knife. I did so well he hit me with two, one from a knife in either hand, and I got them both, to a round of applause from the table, and a genuine laugh from Anastasia.

We had a delicious meal, and the two of us lingered after everyone else at our little table-grill had left.

’’Can I get your take on something?’’ I asked her.

’’Certainly.’’

I told her about my experience on the island, and the eerie sense of familiarity that had come with it.

’’Oh, that,’’ Anastasia said. ’’Your Sight's coming in. That's all.’’

I blinked at her. ’’Uh. What?’’

’’The Sight,’’ she replied calmly. ’’Every wizard develops some measure of precognizance as he matures. It sounds to me as if yours has begun to stir, and has recognized a place that may be of significance to you in the future.’’

’’This happens to everyone?’’ I said, incredulous.

’’To every wizard,’’ she said, smiling. ’’Yes.’’

’’Then why have I never heard about it?’’ I demanded.

’’Because young wizards who are anticipating the arrival of their Sight have an appalling tendency to ignore uncomfortable truths by labeling more appealing fantasies revelations of their Sight. Everything they care about turns into a prophecy. It's vastly irritating, and the best way to avoid it is to keep it quiet until a young wizard finds out about it for himself.’’

I mulled over that idea for a few moments. ’’Significant to my future, eh?’’

’’Potentially,’’ she replied quietly, nodding. ’’One must proceed with extreme caution when acting upon any kind of precognizant information, of course-but in this case, it seems clear that there is more to that island than meets the eye. If it were me, I'd look into it-cautiously.’’

’’Thank you,’’ I told her seriously. ’’For the advice, I mean.’’

’’It cost me little enough,’’ she said, smiling. ’’May I get your take on something?’’

’’Seems only fair.’’

’’I'm surprised at you, Harry. I always thought that you had an interest in Karrin.’’

I shrugged my shoulders. ’’Timing, maybe. It's never seemed to be the right time for us.’’

’’But you do care for her,’’ she said.

’’Of course,’’ I said. ’’She's gone with me into too many bad places for anything else.’’

’’That,’’ Anastasia said, her eyes steady, ’’I can understand.’’

I tilted my head and studied her face. ’’Why ask about another woman?’’

She smiled. ’’I wanted to understand why you were here.’’

I leaned over to her, touching her chin lightly with the fingertips of my right hand, and kissed her very gently. She returned it, slowly, savoring the touch of my mouth on hers.

I broke off the kiss several moments after it had become inappropriate for a public venue and said, ’’Because it's good for the soul.’’

’’An excellent answer,’’ she murmured, her dark eyes huge. ’’One that should, perhaps, be further explored.’’

I rose and held out her chair for her, and helped her into her coat.

As it turned out, the rest of the night was good for the soul, too.

Author's Note

When I was seven years old, I got a bad case of strep throat and was out of school for a whole week. During that time, my sisters bought me my first fantasy and sci-fi novels: the boxed set of Lord of the Rings and the boxed set of the Han Solo adventure novels by Brian Daley. I devoured them all during that week.

From that point on, I was pretty much doomed to join SF F fandom. From there, it was only one more step to decide I wanted to be a writer of my favorite fiction material, and here we are.

I blame my sisters.

My first love as a fan is swords-and-horses fantasy. After Tolkien I went after C. S. Lewis. After Lewis, it was Lloyd Alexander. After them came Fritz Leiber, Roger Zelazny, Robert Howard, John Norman, Poul Anderson, David Eddings, Weis and Hickman, Terry Brooks, Elizabeth Moon, Glen Cook, and before I knew it I was a dual citizen of the United States and Lankhmar, Narnia, Gor, Cimmeria, Krynn, Amber-you get the picture.

When I set out to become a writer, I spent years writing swords-and-horses fantasy novels-and seemed to have little innate talent for it. But I worked at my writing, branching out into other areas as experiments, including SF, mystery, and contemporary fantasy. That's how the Dresden Files initially came about-as a happy accident while trying to accomplish something else. Sort of like penicillin.

But I never forgot my first love, and to my immense delight and excitement, one day I got a call from my agent and found out that I was going to get to share my newest swords-and-horses fantasy novel with other fans.

The Codex Alera is a fantasy series set within the savage world of Carna, where spirits of the elements, known as furies, lurk in every facet of life, and where many intelligent races vie for security and survival. The realm of Alera is the monolithic civilization of humanity, and its unique ability to harness and command the furies is all that enables its survival in the face of the enormous, sometimes hostile elemental powers of Carna, and against savage creatures who would lay Alera in waste and ruin.

Yet even a realm as powerful as Alera is not immune to destruction from within, and the death of the heir apparent to the Crown has triggered a frenzy of ambitious political maneuvering and infighting amongst the High Lords, those who wield the most powerful furies known to man. Plots are afoot, traitors and spies abound, and a civil war seems inevitable-all while the enemies of the realm watch, ready to strike at the first sign of weakness.

Tavi is a young man living on the frontier of Aleran civilization-because, let's face it, swords-and-horses fantasies start there. Born a freak, unable to utilize any powers of furycrafting whatsoever, Tavi has grown up relying upon his own wits, speed, and courage to survive. When an ambitious plot to discredit the Crown lays Tavi's home, the Calderon Valley, naked and defenseless before a horde of the barbarian Marat, the boy and his family find themselves directly in harm's way.

There are no titanic High Lords to protect them, no Legions, no Knights with their mighty furies to take the field. Tavi and the free frontiersmen of the Calderon Valley must find some way to uncover the plot and to defend their homes against a merciless horde of Marat and their beasts.

It is a desperate hour, when the fate of all Alera hangs in the balance, when a handful of ordinary steadholders must find the courage and strength to defy an overwhelming foe, and when the courage and intelligence of one young man will save the Realm-or destroy it.

Thank you, readers and fellow fans, for all of your support and kindness. I hope that you enjoy reading the books of the Codex Alera as much as I enjoyed creating them for you.


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