The bottom fell out of my stomach.
A Faerie Queen. A Fearie Queen was standing in my office. I was looking at a Faerie Queen. Talking to a Faerie Queen.
And she had me by the short hairs.
Boy, and I thought my life was on the critical list already.
Fear can feel like literal ice water. It can be a cold feeling that you swallow, that rolls down your throat and spreads into your chest. It steals your breath and makes your heart labor when it shouldn’t, before expanding into your belly and hips, leaving quivers behind. Then it heads for the thighs, the knees (occasionally with an embarrassing stop on the way), stealing the strength from the long muscles that think you should be using them to run the hell away.
I swallowed a mouthful of fear, my eyes on the poisonously lovely faerie standing on the other side of my desk.
It made Mab smile.
“Yes,” she murmured. “Wise enough to be afraid. To understand, at least in part. How does it feel, to know what you know, child?”
My voice came out unsteady, and more quiet than I would have liked. “Sort of like Tokyo when Godzilla comes up on the beach.”
Mab tilted her head, watching me with that same smile. Maybe she didn’t get the reference. Or maybe she didn’t like being compared to a thirty story lizard. Or maybe she did like it. I mean, how should I know? I have enough trouble figuring out human women.
I didn’t meet Mab’s eyes. I wasn’t worried about a soulgaze any longer. Both parties had to have a soul for that to happen. But plenty of things can get to you if you make eye contact too long. It carries all sorts of emotions and metaphors. I stared at Mab’s chin, my hand burning with pain, and said nothing because I was afraid.
I hate being afraid. I hate it more than anything in the whole world. I hate being made to feel helpless. I hate being bullied, too, and Mab might as well have been ramming her fist down my throat and demanding my lunch money.
The Faerie Queens were bad news. Big bad news. Short of calling up some hoary old god, or squaring off against the White Council itself, I wasn’t likely to run into anything else with as much raw power as Mab. I could have thrown a magical sucker punch at her, could have tried to take her out, but even if we’d been on even footing I doubt I would have ruffled her hair. And she had a bond on me, a magical conduit. She could send just about anything right past my defenses and there wouldn’t be anything I could do about it.
Bullies make me mad. I’ve been known to do some foolish things when I’m angry.
“Forget it,” I said, voice hot. “No deal. Get it over with and blast me. Lock the door on your way out.”
My response didn’t seem to ruffle her. She folded her arms and murmured, “Such anger. Such fire. Yes. I watched you stalemate your godmother the LeananSidhe autumn last. Few mortals ever have done as much. Bold. Impertinent. I admire that kind of strength, wizard. I need that kind of strength.”
I fumbled around on my desk until I found the tissue dispenser, and started packing the flimsy fabric against the wound. “I don’t really care what you need,” I told her. “I’m not going to be your emissary or anything else unless you want to force me, and I doubt I’d be much good to you then. So do whatever you’re going to do or get out of my office.”
“You should care, Mister Dresden,” Mab told me. “It concerns you explicitly. I purchased your debt in order to make you an offer. To give you the chance to win free of your obligations.”
“Yeah, right. Save it. I’m not interested.”
“You may serve, wizard, or you may be served. As a meal. Do you not wish to be free?”
I looked up at her, warily, visions of barbecued me on a table with an apple in my mouth dancing in my head. “What do you mean by free?”
“Free,” she said, wrapping those frozen-berry lips around the word so that I couldn’t help but notice. “Free of Sidhe influence, of the bonds of your obligation first to the LeananSidhe and now to me.”
“The whole thing a wash? We go our separate ways?”
I looked down at my hurting hand and scowled. “I didn’t think you were much into freedom as a concept, Mab.”
“You should not presume, wizard. I adore freedom. Anyone who doesn’t have it wants it.”
I took a deep breath and tried to get my heart rate under control. I couldn’t let either fear or anger do my thinking for me. My instincts screamed at me to go for the gun again and give it a shot, but I had to think. It was the only thing that could get you clear of the Fae.
Mab was on the level about her offer. I could feel that, sense it in a way so primal, so visceral, that there was no room left for doubt. She would cut me loose, if I agreed to her bargain. Of course, her price might be too high. She hadn’t gotten to that yet. And the Fae have a way of making sure that further bargains only get you in deeper over your head, instead of into the clear. Just like credit card companies, or those student loan people. Now there’s evil for you.
I could feel Mab watching me, Sylvester to my Tweetie Bird. That thought kind of cheered me up. Generally speaking, Tweetie kicks Sylvester’s ass in the end.
“Okay,” I told her. “I’m listening.”
“Three tasks,” Mab murmured, holding up three fingers by way of visual aid. “From time to time, I will make a request of you. When you have fulfilled three requests, your obligation to me ceases.”
Silence lay on the room for a moment, and I blinked. “What. That’s it?”
“Any three tasks? Any three requests?”
“Just as simple as that? I mean, you say it like that, and I could pass you the salt three times and that would be that.”
Her eyes, green-blue like glacial ice, remained on my face, unblinking. “Do you accept?”
I rubbed at my mouth, slowly, mulling it over in my head. It was a simple bargain, as these things went. They could get really complicated, with contracts and everything. Mab had offered me a great package, sweet, neat and tidy as a Halloween candy.
Which meant that I’d be an idiot not to check for razor blades and cyanide.
“I decide which requests I fulfill and which I don’t?”
“And if I refuse a request, there will be no reprisals or punishments from you.”
She tilted her head and blinked her eyes, slowly. “Agreed. You, not I, will choose which requests you fulfill.”
There was one landmine I’d found, at least. “And no more selling my mortgage, either. Or whistling up the lackeys to chastise or harass me by proxy. This remains between the two of us.”
She laughed, and it sounded as merry, clear and lovely as bells—if someone pressed them against my teeth while they were still ringing. “As your Godmother did. Fool me twice, shame on me wizard? Agreed.”
I licked my lips, thinking it over. Had I left her any openings? Could she get to me any other way?
“Well, wizard?” Mab asked. “Have we a bargain?”
I gave myself a second to wish I’d been less tired. Or less in pain. The events of the day and the impending Council meeting this evening hadn’t exactly left my head in world-class negotiating condition. But I knew one thing for certain. If I didn’t get out from under Mab’s bond, I would be dead, or worse than dead in short order. Better to act and be mistaken than to not act and get casually crushed.
“All right,” I said. “We have a bargain.” When I said the words, a little frisson of sensation prickled over the nape of my neck, down the length of my spine. My wounded hand twitched in an aching, painful pang.
Mab closed her eyes, smiling a feline smile with those dark lips, and inclined her head. “Good. Yes.”
You know that look on Wile E. Coyote’s face, when he runs at full steam off the cliff and then realizes what he’s done? He doesn’t look down, but he feels around with one toe, and right then, right before he falls, his face becomes drawn with a primal dread.
That’s what I must have looked like, right then. I know it was pretty much what I felt like. But there was no help for it. Maybe if I didn’t stop to check for the ground underneath my feet, I’d keep going indefinitely. I looked away from Mab, and tried to tend to my hand as best I could. It still throbbed, and disinfecting the wound was going to hurt a lot more. I doubted it would need sutures. A small blessing, I guess.
A manilla envelope hit my desk. I looked up to see Mab drawing a pair of gloves onto her hands.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“My request,” she replied. “Within are the details of a man’s death. I wish you to vindicate me of it by discovering the identity of his killer and returning what was stolen from him.”
I opened the envelope. Inside was an eight by ten glossy black and white of a body. An old man lay at the bottom of a flight of stairs, his neck at a sharp angle to his shoulders. He had white frizzy hair, a tweed jacket. Accompanying the picture was an article from the Tribune, headlined with “LOCAL ARTIST DIES IN MIDNIGHT ACCIDENT.”
“Ronald Reuel,” I said, glancing over the article. “I’ve heard of him. Has a studio in Bucktown, I think.”
Mab nodded. “Hailed as a visionary of the American artistic culture. Though I assume they use the term lightly.”
“Creator of worlds of imagination, it says. I guess now that he’s dead, they’ll say all kinds of nice things.” I read over the rest of the article. “The police called it an accident.”
“It was not,” Mab responded.
I looked up at her. “How do you know?”
“And why should you care?” I asked. “It isn’t like the cops are after you.”
“There are powers of judgement other than mortal law. It is enough for you to know that I wish to see justice done,” she said. “Simply that.”
“Uh huh,” I said, frowning. “You said something was stolen from him. What?”
“You’ll know it.”
I put the picture back in the envelope and left it on my desk. “I’ll think about it.”
Mab assured me, “You will accept this request, wizard Dresden.”
I scowled at her and set my jaw. “I said I’ll think about it.”
Mab’s cat-eyes glittered and I saw a few white, white teeth in her smile. She drew a pair of dark sunglasses from the pocket of her jacket. “Is it not polite to show a client to the door?”
I glowered. But I got up out of the chair and walked to the door, the faerie Queen’s heady perfume, the narcotic scent of her enough to make me a little dizzy. I fought it away and tried to keep my scowl in place, opening the door for her with a jerky motion.
“Your hand yet pains you?” she asked.
“What do you think?”
Mab placed her gloved hand on my wounded one, and a sudden spike of sheer, vicious cold shot up through the injury like a frozen scalpel before lancing up my arm, straight towards my heart. It stole my breath, and I felt my heart skip a beat, two, before it labored into rhythm again. I gasped and swayed, and only leaning against the door kept me from falling down completely.
“Dammit,” I muttered, trying to keep my voice down. “We had a deal.”
“I agreed not to punish you for refusing me, wizard. I agreed not punish or harass you by proxy.” Mab smiled. “I did that just for spite.”
I growled. “That isn’t going to make it more likely that I take this case.”
“You will take it, emissary,” Mab said, her voice confident. “Expect to meet your counterpart this evening.”
“As you are Winter’s emissary in this matter, Summer too has sought out one to represent her interests.”
“I got plans tonight,” I growled. “And I haven’t taken the case.”
Mab tilted her dark glasses down, cat-eyes on mine. “Wizard. Do you know the story of the fox and the scorpion?”
I shook my head, looking away.
“Fox and Scorpion came to a brook,” Mab murmured, voice low, sweet. “Wide was the water. Scorpion asked Fox for a ride on his back. Fox said ‘Scorpion, will you not sting me?’ Scorpion said, ‘If I did, it would mean the death of us both.’ Fox agreed, and Scorpion climbed onto his back. Fox swam, but halfway over, Scorpion struck with deadly sting. Fox gasped, ‘Fool, you have doomed us both. Why?’ ‘I am a scorpion,’ said Scorpion. ‘It is my nature.'”
“That’s the story?” I said. “Don’t quit your day job.”
Mab laughed, velvet ice, and it sent another shiver through me. “You will accept this case, wizard. It is what you are. It is your nature.” Then she turned and walked down the hall, aloof, reserved, cold. I glowered after her for a minute before I shut the door.
Maybe I’d been shut away in my lab too long, but Spenser never mentions that Mab has a great ass.
So I notice these things. So sue me.