Mab, the Queen of Air and Darkness, monarch of the Winter Court of the Sidhe, has unique ideas regarding physical therapy.
I woke up in softness.
What I probably should say was that I woke up in a soft bed. But… that just doesn’t convey how soft this bed was. You know those old cartoons, where people sleep on fluffy clouds? Those guys would wake up screaming in pain if they got suckered into taking one of those clouds after they’d been in Mab’s bed.
The fire in my chest had finally begun to die away. The heavy wool lining coating my thoughts seemed to have lightened up. When I blinked my eyes open, they felt gummy, but I was able to lift my arm, slowly, and wipe them clear. I’d gone jogging on beaches with less sand than was in my eyes.
Man. Being mostly dead is hard on a guy.
I was in a bed.
A bed the size of my old apartment.
The sheets were all perfectly white and smooth. The bed was shrouded in drapes of more pure white, drifting on gentle currents of cool air. The temperature was cold enough that when I exhaled, my breath coalesced, but I was comfortable beneath the bed’s covering.
The curtains around the bed parted and a girl appeared.
She was probably too young to drink legally and she was one of the lovelier women I’d ever seen in person. High cheekbones, exotic, almond-shaped eyes. Her skin was a medium olive tone, her eyes an almost eerie shade of pale green-gold. Her hair was pulled back into a simple tail, she wore pale blue hospital scrubs, and she had no makeup at all.
Wow. Any woman who could wear that and still look that good was a freaking goddess.
“Hello,” she said, and smiled at me. Maybe it was just the bed talking, but the smile and her voice were even better than the rest of her.
“Hi,” I said. My voice came out in a croak that hardly sounded human. I started coughing.
She placed a covered tray on a little stand beside the bed and sat down on the edge of it. She took the cover off the tray and picked up a white china cup. She passed it to me, and it proved to be filled with not-quite-scalding chicken noodle soup. “You do that every day. Talk before you’ve gotten anything down your throat. Drink.”
I did. Campbell’s. And it was awesome. I flashed on a sudden memory of being sick when I was very young. I couldn’t remember where we’d been, but my dad had made me chicken noodle soup. It was the same.
“I think… I remember some of it,” I said, after several sips. “Your name is… Sarah?” She frowned, but I shook my head before she could speak. “No, wait. Sarissa. Your name is Sarissa.”
She lifted both eyebrows and smiled. “That’s a first. It looks like you’re finally coming back into focus.”
My stomach gurgled and at the same time a roaring hunger went through me. I blinked at the sudden sensation and started gurgling down more soup.
Sarissa laughed at me. It made the room feel brighter. “Don’t drown yourself. There’s no rush.”
I finished the cup, spilling only a little on my chin, and then murmured, “The hell there isn’t. I’m starving. What else is there?”
“Tell you what,” she said. “Before you do that, let’s shoot for another first.”
“Eh?” I said.
“Can you tell me your name?”
“What, you don’t know?”
Sarissa smiled again. “Do you?”
“Harry Dresden,” I said.
Her eyes sparkled and it made me feel good all the way to my toes. More so when she produced a plate that was piled with chicken and mashed potatoes and some other vegetables that I had little use for but which were probably good for me. I thought I was going to start drooling onto the floor, that food looked so good.
“What do you do, Harry?”
“Professional wizard,” I said. “I’m a PI in Chicago.” I frowned, suddenly remembering something else. “Oh. And I’m the Winter Knight, I guess.”
She stared at me like a statue for several seconds, absolutely nothing on her face.
“Um,” I said. “Food?”
She shivered and looked away from me. Then she took a quick breath and picked up an odd little fork, the kind they give to kids with motor control issues—it had lots of rounded edges—and pressed it into my hand. “If you’re willing to go for three, we’ll have had a really good day.”
The fork felt weird and heavy in my fingers. I remembered using forks. I remembered how they felt, the slender weight of them, the precision with which I could get food from the plate to my mouth. This fork felt heavy and clumsy. I fumbled with it for a few seconds, and then managed, on the second try, to thrust it into the mashed potatoes. Then it was another chore to get the stupid thing to my mouth.
The potatoes were perfect. Just warm enough, barely salted, with a faint hint of rich butter.
“Ohmmgdd,” I muttered around the mouthful. Then I went for more.
The second forkful was easier, and the third easier than that, and before I knew it the plate was empty and I was scraping the last of the remains into my mouth. I felt exhausted and stuffed, though it hadn’t been all that much food. Sarissa was watching me with a pleased smile.
“Got it all over my face, don’t I?” I asked her.
“It means you enjoyed the food,” she said. She lifted a napkin to my face and wiped at it. “It’s nice to know your name, finally, Harry.”
There was the sound of light, steady footsteps coming closer.
Sarissa rose immediately, turned, and then knelt gracefully on the floor with her head bowed.
“Well?” said a woman’s velvet voice.
My whole body shuddered in response to that voice, like a guitar’s string quivering when the proper note is played near it.
“He’s lucid, Your Majesty, and remembered my name and his. He fed himself.”
“Excellent,” said the voice. “You are dismissed for today.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” said Sarissa. She rose, glanced at me, and said, “I’m glad to see you feeling better, Sir Knight.”
I tried to come up with something charming or witty and said, “Call me.”
She huffed out a surprised little breath that might have been the beginning of a laugh, but shot a fearful glance the other way and then retreated. The sound of her sneakers scuffing a hard floor faded into the distance outside the curtained bed.
A shadow moved across curtains at the end of the bed. I knew whose it was.
“You have passed your nadir,” she said in a decidedly pleased tone. “You are waxing rather than waning, my Knight.”
I suddenly had difficulty thinking clearly enough to speak, but I managed. “Well. You know. Wax on, wax off.”
She didn’t open the curtain around the bed as much as she simply glided through, letting the sheer cloth press against her, outlining her form. She exhaled slowly as she reached my side, looking down at me, her eyes flickering through shades of green in dizzying cycles.
Mab, the Queen of Air and Darkness, was too terrifying to be beautiful. Though every cell in my body suddenly surged with mindless desire and my eyes blurred with tears to see her beauty, I did not want to come an inch closer. She was a tall woman, well over six feet, and every inch was radiance. Pale skin, soft lips the color of frozen raspberries, long silver-white hair that shone with opalescent highlights. She was dressed in a silk gown of deep, frozen green that left her strong white shoulders bare.
And she was about six inches away from being in bed with me.
“You look great,” I croaked.
Something smoldered in those almond-shaped eyes. “I am great, my Knight,” she murmured. She reached out a hand, and her nails were all dark blues and greens, the colors shimmering and changing like deep opals. She touched my naked shoulder with those nails.
And I suddenly felt like a fifteen-year-old about to kiss a girl for the first time—excitement and wild expectation and fluttering anxiety.
Her nails, even just the very tips, were icy cold. She trailed them down over one side of my chest and rested them over my heart.
“Um,” I said into what was, for me, an incredibly awkward silence. “How are you?”
She tilted her head and stared at me.
“Sarissa seems nice,” I ventured.
“A changeling,” Mab said. “Who once sought of me a favor. She saw Lloyd Slate’s tenure as my Knight.”
I licked my lips. “Um. Where are we?”
“Arctis Tor,” she said. “My stronghold. In the Knight’s suite. You will find every mortal amenity here.”
“That’s nice,” I said. “What with my apartment burned to the ground and all. Is there a security deposit?”
A slow smile oozed over Mab’s mouth and she leaned even closer to me. “It is well that you heal,” she whispered. “Your spirit had wandered far from your body while you slept.”
“Free spirit,” I said. “That’s me.”
“Not anymore,” Mab murmured, and leaned down toward me. “You are shaking.”
Her eyes filled my vision. “Are you frightened of me, Harry?”
“I’m sane,” I said.
“Do you think I am going to hurt you?” she breathed, her lips a fraction of an inch from mine.
My heart beat so hard that it actually hurt. “I think… you are who you are.”
“Surely you have no reason to fear,” she whispered, her breath tickling my lips. “You are mine now. If you are not well, I cannot use you to work my will.”
I tried to force myself to relax. “That’s… that’s true,” I said.
I hadn’t seen her picking up the thick, fluffy pillow beside me while she held my eyes. So I was totally unprepared when she struck, as fast as any snake, and slammed the pillow down over my face.
I froze for half a second, and the pillow pressed down harder, shutting off my air, clogging my nose and mouth. Then the fear took over. I struggled, but my arms and legs felt as if they’d been coated in inches of lead. I tried to push Mab away, but she was simply too heavy, my arms too weak. Her hands and forearms were frozen steel, slender and immovable.
My vision went from red to black. Sensation began to recede.
Mab was cool. Unrelenting. Merciless.
She was Mab.
If I did not stop her, she would kill me. Mab couldn’t kill a mortal, but to her I was no longer one of them. I was her vassal, a member of her court, and as far as she was concerned, she had every right to take my life if she saw fit.
That cold knowledge galvanized me. I locked my hands around one of her arms and twisted, straining my entire body. My hips arched up off the bed with the effort, and I wasn’t even trying to push her away. There was no opposing the absolute force of her. But I did manage to direct her strength just a little to one side, and in so doing managed to push her hands and the smothering pillow past me, freeing my face enough to suck in a gasp of sweet, cold air.
Mab lay with her upper body across mine, and made no effort at all to move. I could feel her eyes on me, feel the empty intensity of her gaze as I panted, my head swimming with the sudden rush of blessed oxygen.
Mab moved very slowly, very gracefully. There was something serpentine about the way she slithered up my body and lay with her chest against mine. She was a cold, ephemeral weight, an incredibly feminine softness, and her silken hair glided over my cheeks and lips and neck.
Mab made a low, hungry sound in her throat as she leaned down, until her lips were almost touching my ear.
“I have no use for weakness, wizard.” She shivered in a kind of slow, alien ecstasy. “Rest. Heal. Sleep. I shall most likely kill you on the morrow.”
“You? A Princess Bride quote?” I croaked.
“What is that?” she asked.
Then she was gone. Just gone.
And that was day one of my physical therapy.
I could describe the next few weeks in detail, but as bad as they were, they did have a certain routine to them. Besides, in my head, they’re a music video montage set to the Foo Fighters’ “Walk.”
I would wake in the morning and find Sarissa waiting for me, keeping a polite and professional distance between us. She would help me take care of the needs of my weakened body, which was rarely dignified, but she never spoke about herself. At some point after that, Mab would try to kill me in increasingly unexpected and inventive ways.
In the video in my head, there’s a shot of me eating my own meal again—until, just as I finish, the giant bed bursts into flames. I awkwardly flop out of it and crawl away before I roast. Then, obviously the next day, Sarissa is helping me walk to the bathroom and back. Just as I relax back into bed, a poisonous serpent, a freaking Indian cobra, falls from the bed’s canopy onto my shoulders. I scream like a girl and throw it on the floor. The next day, I’m fumbling my way into new clothes with Sarissa’s help—until a small swarm of stinging ants comes boiling out of them onto my flesh, and I have to literally rip the clothes off of me.
It goes on like that. Sarissa and me on waist-high parallel bars, me struggling to remember how to keep my balance, interrupted by a tidal flood of red-eyed rats that force us to hop up onto the bars before our feet get eaten off. Sarissa spotting me on a bench press, and then Mab bringing a great big old fireman’s ax whistling down at my head at the end of my third set, so that I have to block with the stupid straight bar. Me slogging my exhausted way into a hot shower, only to have the door slam shut and the thing start to fill with water. Into which freaking piranha begin to plop.
On and on. Seventy-seven days. Seventy-seven attempted murders. Use your imagination. Mab sure as hell did. There was even a ticking crocodile.
I had just gotten back from the small gym, where’d I’d hiked about four miles up and I don’t know how many miles forward on the elliptical machine. I was sweaty and exhausted and thinking about a shower and then bed again. I opened the door to my quarters, and when I did, Mab opened fire with a freaking shotgun.
I didn’t have time to think or calculate before she pulled the trigger. All I could do was react. I flung myself back, slammed my will out into the air ahead of me, coalescing it into a barrier of pure energy. The gun roared, deafening in the enclosed space. Buckshot slammed against the barrier and bounced, scattering everywhere, landing with pops and rattles. I hit the floor, keeping the barrier up, and Mab advanced, her eyes glittering through every shade of opal, wild and ecstatic and incongruous against her otherwise calm expression.
It was one of those Russian-designed shotguns with the big drum magazine, and she poured all of it into me, aiming for my face.
The second the gun went click instead of boom, I flung myself to one side in a swift roll, just in time to avoid the pounce of a silver-grey malk—a feline creature about the size of a bobcat with wicked claws and the strength of a small bear. It landed where my head had been, its claws gouging chips from the stone floor.
I kicked the malk with my heel and sent him flying across the hall and into the stone wall. He hit with a yowl of protest. I whirled my attention back to Mab as she dropped one drum magazine on the floor and produced another.
Before she could seat it in the weapon, I slashed at the air with my hand and shouted, “Forzare!” Unseen force lashed out and ripped the magazine and the shotgun alike from her hands. I made a yanking motion, and the bouncing shotgun abruptly shot across the empty space between us. I grabbed it by the barrel (which was freaking hot) just as the malk recovered and leapt at me again. I swung the empty shotgun two-handed and slammed the malk in the skull, hard enough to knock it from the air and leave it senseless on the floor.
Mab let out a delighted, silvery laugh and clapped her hands like a little girl who has just been told she’s getting a pony. “Yes!” she said. “Lovely. Brutal, vicious, and lovely.”
I held on to the shotgun until the stunned malk recovered and began slinking sullenly away, and only after it was out of sight around the corner did I turn to face Mab again.
“This is getting old,” I said. “Don’t you have anything better to do with your time than to play Grimtooth games with me?”
“Indeed I do,” she replied. “But why play games if not to prepare for challenges that lie ahead?”
I rolled my eyes. “Fun?” I suggested.
The delight faded from her face, replaced by the usual icy calm. It was a scary transformation, and I found myself hoping that I had not provoked her with my wiseassery.
“The fun begins when the games end, my Knight.”
I frowned at her. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“That appropriate attire awaits you in your chambers, and that you are to get dressed for the evening.” She turned to walk after the departed malk, her gown whispering on the stone of the floor. “Tonight, my wizard, shall be… fun.”