Peace Talks Chapter 2
This summer brings not one but TWO Dresden Files novels! Peace Talks arrives July 14th, and Battle Ground hits September 29th. Preorder both through the Jim-Butcher.com store!
Thomas came with me back to my place for a post‑exercise breakfast.
Well. Technically, it was Molly’s place. But she wasn’t around much, and I was living there.
The svartalf embassy in Chicago was a neat little building in the business district, with a lawn that was an absolute gaping expanse when you considered the cost of real estate in town. It looked like the kind of building that should be full of people in severely sober business attire, doing things with money and numbers that were too complicated, fussy, and god‑awful boring to be widely understood.
As it happened, that was pretty close to the truth.
There was a little guardhouse on the drive in, a fairly recent feature, and a bland‑looking man in a bland and expensive fitted suit and dark sunglasses looked up from his book. We stopped at the window and I said, “The purple mustang flies tonight.”
The guard stared at me.
“Uh . . . hang on,” I said, and racked my brain. “Sad Tuesdays present no problem to the local authorities?”
He kept staring at me. “State your names, please.”
“Oh come on, Austri,” I said. “Do we have to do this dance every single morning? You know who I am. Hell, we watched the kids play together for an hour last night.”
“I wasn’t on duty then,” Austri said, his tone entirely neutral, his eyes flat. “State your names, please.”
“Once,” I said. “Just once, would it kill you to let security protocol slide?”
He gave me more of that blank stare, a slow blink, and said, “Potentially. Which is why we have security protocols.”
I gave him my most wizardly glower, to no avail. Then I grumbled under my breath, making mostly Yosemite Sam noises, and started fumbling around in my gym bag. “My name is Harry Dresden, Winter Knight, vassal to Molly Carpenter, Lady Winter of the Sidhe Court, and under the protection of her guest‑right. This is Thomas Raith, also her guest, friend to Lady Evanna.”
“He is one of Evanna’s lovers,” Austri corrected me meticulously. He nodded at Thomas.
“’Sup, Austri,” my brother said.
“Duty,” Austri said seriously, and opened a folder, flipping through a number of profile pages with photographs in the top corner. He stopped on my page, carefully compared the image to me, and then another to Thomas, and nodded. “Passphrase, please.”
“Yeah, one second.” I finally found the folded‑up piece of paper with the weekly passphrases on it in the depths of the gym bag. I unfolded it, shook sand off it, consulted it, and read, “‘All of my base are belong to me.’ What does that even mean?”
Austri stared at me in frustration for a moment and sighed. Then he looked at Thomas. “And yours?”
“‘The itsy‑bitsy spider went up the waterspout,’” Thomas said promptly, without referencing a cheat card. Because he has nothing better to do with his time than memorize random passphrases.
Austri nodded approvingly, flipped the folder closed, and put it away. “Please wait,” he said. He hit a button and muttered a nearly silent word, which I knew would disarm about two thousand lethal magical wards between me and the front door. Then he nodded at me and said, “You may enter.”
“Thank you,” I said.
He leaned back in his chair a bit, relaxing, and the illusion of unremarkable humanity that covered the svartalf went liquid and translucent. Austri had grey skin with a gymnast’s muscles beneath, a head a little too big for the rest of him, and absolutely enormous black eyes, like that alien in the autopsy video. Beneath the surface illusion, his expression was relaxed and pleasant. “My Ingri would like another playdate with Maggie and Sir Mouse.”
“Maggie would enjoy that as well. I’ll contact Mrs. Austri?”
He nodded. “That is her designated area of responsibility. Cards again tonight?”
“I’d like to, but I can’t commit to it,” I said.
He frowned slightly. “I prefer being able to plan my evening activities.”
“Duty,” I explained.
His frown vanished, and he picked up his book again. “That is different, of course. Please let me know when your duties permit you to spare the time.”
I gave him a nod and went forward.
Austri was the svartalves in a nutshell. Anal‑retentive, a ferocious stickler, inhumanly disciplined, inflexibly dedicated to his concepts of honor and duty—but good people once you got to know him. It takes all kinds, you know?
We passed through two more security checkpoints, one in the build‑ ing’s lobby and another at the elevator that led down to the embassy’s large subterranean complex. One of the other svartalves peered at my driver’s license, then at me, and insisted on measuring my height and taking my fingerprints to further verify that it was actually me and not an impostor wearing a Harry suit.
I guess I shouldn’t have minded it so much. Adding more checks did mean more security, even if it was occasionally applied somewhat maliciously by guys like Gedwig here. Still, the svartalves’ particular blend of paranoia and punctiliousness meant that my daughter would be that much safer under their roof. But some days it chafed, and this was one of them.
We slipped into the apartment and found it still dim and dark and cool. I stopped for a moment to marvel at the miracle of air‑conditioning in the summer. Magic and technology don’t get along, and the aura of energy around a wizard like me plays merry hell with pretty much anything developed after the Second World War. I’d never lived in a place whose AC survived more than a few days, but the svartalves had constructed this apartment especially for Molly. It had lights that worked, and a radio that worked, and hot water that worked, and an AC that worked, and I had no idea how the clever folk had managed that. The svartalves were famous craftsmen. Word was, if you wanted something made, they could make it.
Maybe I should get Molly to ask for a TV. Or an Internet . . . thing. Device. One of those Internet thingies. I figure everyone is so insane about the Internet, there must be something cool there.
Anyway, when we finally came all the way into the living room, Mister, my big grey tomcat, appeared as he always did and flung himself at my shins in a welcome‑home shoulder block. I leaned down to rub the base of his ears the way he liked, which he received with great magnanimity, before dismissing me to continue my day. He walked by Thomas, rubbing his cheek against my brother’s leg once and once only to mark him as Mister’s property; then he walked off in regal disinterest. Mister wasn’t as young as he used to be, but he still knew who ruled the apartment.
My daughter was still sleeping on the couch, covered by a heavy blanket. Next to her lay a shaggy grey behemoth about the size of a Budweiser horse, my Temple dog, Mouse. He didn’t even lift his head or open his eyes when we came in. He just yawned and wriggled into a slightly more comfortable position before huffing out a breath and going back to sleep. Maggie’s breathing caught in a little hitch; then she put out her hand and sank it into the dog’s fur. They both sighed in their sleep and went motionless again.
I stood there for a moment, just looking down at them.
Thomas usually busied himself with coffee in the kitchen at moments like this. But today, he stepped up beside me and stood there, looking at the girl and the dog.
“Damn,” he said.
I nodded. “Big responsibility.” “Yeah.”
“You can do it.”
I turned to look at him. There was some expression I couldn’t define on his face, some mix of longing and gentle, exquisite pain.
“I don’t think so, Harry,” he said.
“Don’t be a dope,” I said. “You love her. You’ll love the kid. Of course you can.”
A faint sad smile mixed in with the other expressions on his face. We both turned back to the sleeping child.
There was a quality to the stillness that I had never experienced before I’d started taking care of Maggie. A sense of . . . intense satisfaction like nothing I’d ever known. There she was, sleeping, happy, healthy—safe.
I took a deep stabilizing breath. Weariness fled, not from my body, but from somewhere deeper and infinitely more important. My brother exhaled at the same time and thumped his fist on my shoulder. Then he turned for the kitchen and I headed for the shower.
I broiled myself for as long as seemed appropriate, and as I was getting dressed I heard voices from the kitchen.
“Milk doesn’t have feelings,” Maggie was saying.
“Why not?” piped a voice even younger.
“Because milk is inanimate,” Maggie said cheerfully.
“Oh.” There was a pause. “But it is moving.”
“I moved it,” Maggie said. “And then it sloshes around for a while.”
“Because of gravity, I think,” Maggie said. “Or maybe memontum.”
“Do you mean momentum?” the littler voice asked.
“I might,” Maggie said seriously.
“How do you know, then?”
“When you’re ten, you’ll know things, too,” Maggie said. “Why?”
I walked into the apartment’s little kitchen to find Maggie, in her pajamas, making a mess with the attentive help of Mouse and a skull carved from wood. Little green dots of light glowed in the skull’s eye sockets, like the embers of some bizarre fire. Half the contents of the apartment’s little pantry were crowded onto the kitchen counter.
I eyed Thomas, who was sitting at the kitchen table with a mug of coffee. He’d already poured mine. I walked over to him and took my cup, murmuring, “You didn’t think to step in here?”
“You got in the shower so long ago, I forget exactly what I was thinking back in those days,” he shot back.
I lowered my voice a little. “How’d she do?” I asked him.
He spoke in kind. “Pretty good. We exchanged good‑mornings, made eye contact, and she seemed happy to do it,” he said. “She asked me if I wanted pancakes.”
“And you said yes?”
“Harry,” Thomas said, “be real. Everyone wants someone to make us pancakes; we’re all just too grown‑up to say it.”
I sipped coffee, because it was impossible to argue with logic like that.
He sipped, too. “You going to stop her?”
I savored the perfection that is coffee and enjoyed that first swallow before responding. “Think I’d better scout it out.”
I took my cup into the kitchen and heard Thomas get up to tag along. When I came into its line of sight, the little wooden skull’s eyes swiveled to me, and her voice proclaimed proudly, “Pancakes are inanimate!”
“Correct,” I said, speaking to the spirit inside the skull. Better inside that wooden one than mine, let me tell you. Ever since the new‑formed spirit of intellect had coalesced inside my mind, it had grown until it was too big for the space, which admittedly had not taken her very long. We’d managed to successfully get her out of my head, and she’d taken up residence in the carved wooden skull prepared for her. Ever since, we’d been teaching her and answering a river of endless questions. “Good morning, Bonea.”
“Morning is when the sun comes up!” the little skull said. “It ends at noon!”
Bonea was full of points of information that didn’t connect to anything else. She could tell you the particulars of all sorts of secrets of the universe, but she’d have no idea what kind of an effect those secrets could have on the actual world. Which made her . . . someone to be carefully managed. “Correct again,” I said. “Good morning, Maggie.”
“Hi, Dad,” Maggie said. “I am making us all pancakes for breakfast.”
“Which is awesome,” Thomas said, nudging me in the small of the back.
Maggie threw him a swift glance and a shy smile.
I didn’t have to look to know he winked back at her. I lifted my eyebrows. “Yeah. Pancakes. That’s new.”
“Molly says you have to be brave and try new things to grow,” my daughter said seriously. “And Thomas says everyone likes pancakes.”
“Everyone likes pancakes,” Thomas said.
I gave him a narrow‑eyed look over my shoulder to tell him to stop helping me. He returned it with a guileless smile.
“Well. They’re not wrong,” I said seriously. “Do you want any help?”
“I can do it by myself,” she said. “I know how to work the stove and Bonnie knows the recipe.”
“I know two hundred and twenty‑seven individual pancake recipes!” Bonnie said. “Sixteen can be made with the current inventory of the kitchen!”
“We’re using number seven,” Maggie said seriously. “From scratch is best.”
That sounded like the makings of a huge mess to me. Mouse gave me what I swear was a smug look and licked his chops. It would be extra work to clean up afterward—but it would probably be good for Maggie to try it. So I leaned down and kissed her on the head and said, “Be careful of the stove. And let me know if you need help with anything, punkin.”
“See there, Miss Maggie?” Thomas said. “I told you so.”
I stopped and eyed him. “Did you set all this up so you could get pancakes?”
Thomas put on a serious expression and widened his eyes a little at Maggie. “I’m not saying that I didn’t.”
I rolled my eyes at him.
My daughter giggled. “Mister Thomas is okay, Dad.”
“You are very young. Tell you what. You let me deal with him,” I said. “You keep your mind on what you’re doing, okay? Be safe.”
“’Kay,” she said. She turned back to the task, and though her eyes were still puffy with sleep, she focused on the work with the instant morning energy that can be possessed only by someone who has not yet discovered the immutable necessity of coffee.
I settled down on the couch, nearby. The apartment was basically a single large room, sharing the kitchen, the dining room, and a living room with no walls between. There were two doors to the two bedrooms— Molly’s and mine. Well, technically the room was Molly’s. As far as I knew, she hadn’t actually been in it since I’d moved in, except for a couple of times she’d breezed through, petted Mouse, tickled Maggie, shared some sunny chat with me, and departed again.
It had been a while since we’d really talked.
The apartment reminded me of my old place in the basement of Mrs. Spunkelcrief’s boardinghouse. Only there was no musty, moldy smell of old basement. And it was bigger. And it was more brightly lit. And newer. And quite a bit cleaner. And it just didn’t feel right.
As dumpy as it had been, that grotty little apartment had been my home. Damn the vampires, for burning it down. Damn Marcone, for buying the property and putting up his new headquarters on the ground where home used to be.
I missed it.
Ah, well. There was no sense in brooding over it. Life never stays the same. There’s always some kind of curveball coming at you. Nothing to do but swing away.
Thomas picked a spot of wall to lean against where he could see the kitchen and sipped his coffee. His eyes were focused on Maggie with thoughtful intensity. “Living dangerously, eh?”
“Mouse will let me know if there’s a problem,” I said. “Good dog, there,” Thomas said.
“You want,” I said, “I could write to Brother Wang. Tell him you want a puppy.”
“You already stole that one from him.” Thomas snorted.
“Accidentally,” I said. “Plus I think the furball stowed away on purpose. Even if Brother Wang doesn’t like it, I figure he won’t gainsay the dog.”
“Well,” Thomas mused, “he is a pretty good dog.”
“Damned right he is,” I said.
“Let me think about it,” Thomas said. “There’s a lot going on.” He still hadn’t taken his eyes off Maggie.
“Hey, man,” I said. “You okay?”
He glanced aside at me and offered me a faint smile. “Just . . . thinking real hard about the future.”
“Well,” I said. “That’s understandable.” I closed my eyes and felt my limbs aching in dull, steady throbs that kept time with my heartbeat. Suddenly, I sneezed, hard.
“God bless you,” Maggie said promptly from the kitchen.
“Nnngh,” I called. “Thank you.” The sneeze had sent a surge of aching sensation through my limbs that took several seconds to fade. I opened one eye. That wasn’t right.
The mantle of power of the Winter Knight was what let me keep pace with my brother the vampire while running in sand and wearing two hundred pounds of extra weight. One of the things the mantle did was to dull pain, to the point where I experienced it only as a kind of tense, silvery sensation. Broken bones were sort of annoying. A bleeding wound was something of a distraction—but I didn’t ever, ever just ache.
Except now I was.
Stupid Winter mantle. It kept up a constant assault of primal, feral emotions and desires that were like supercharged versions of my own instincts. I didn’t go out for intense exercise every morning because I enjoyed it. I did it because discipline and routine helped me keep the more primal instincts in check. Daily intense exercise forced the mantle to expend energy in keeping my body going—on my schedule, at my will—and as a result reduced the amount of pressure it could apply to my conscious thoughts. And while it did make me able to ignore pain and to push my body well beyond the normal limits of human endurance, the mantle’s influence was a steady nuisance that required constant effort to keep buttoned up.
“Whoa,” Thomas said. “You okay there, nerd?”
“That was weird,” I said.
Mister prowled up onto the couch and settled on my lap, thrusting his head beneath my hand. I petted him automatically, and his body rumbled with a purr that sounded like a pot of boiling water.
A second or two after that thought, I sneezed again, harder, and this time the aching surge sent a wave of exhaustion flooding through me, so hard that I nearly fell over onto my side.
Also, there was a clang and a splashing sound. Mister leapt out of my lap and bolted. It took me a couple of tries to get my eyes to focus, but when I did, I saw that a metal pot with a black plastic handle was lying on its side on the carpet in front of me. Little wisps of steam rose from the soaking carpet next to the pot.
I blinked up at Thomas and traded a look with him. His face told me that he had no idea what had just happened. We both looked back at the pot.
I frowned and leaned down to touch it. It wasn’t quite hot enough to burn me, but it was close. I blinked at it and reached for the handle. I picked up the pot. The handle felt oddly squishy for a couple of seconds—and then suddenly, plastic and metal and water alike shuddered and melted into a clear gelatinous fluid that fell out of my fingers to splat on the carpet. Ectoplasm, the raw matter of the spirit world.
What the hell?
Ectoplasm was a strange substance. It could be shaped by magic and fed energy, and as long as the energy kept pouring in, it would hold its form. Spirits from the Nevernever could forge bodies to be used in the material world and run around in them like their own version of going on a spacewalk. But once the energy stopped pouring in, the construct body would revert to its original form—mucus‑like ectoplasm, which would itself sublimate from the material world and back to the Never‑ never within moments.
So where the hell had the pot come from?
The Guard? The little faeries who loitered about my home certainly had a mischievous streak a mile wide. Could one of them have played a prank on me?
Maybe. But if so, how had the prankster known what I was thinking about?
It was damned peculiar. “Harry?” Thomas asked.
“Damned peculiar,” I said, and swiped at my nose, which was suddenly all but overflowing. “Even for me.”
“Dad?” Maggie called.
“I’m not supposed to flip the pancake until it’s golden brown, Bonnie says. But I can’t see the cooked part. How do I know?”
I pushed myself up off the couch, grabbed a handful of tissues, andheaded for the kitchen. “It’s a little tricky,” I said. “You can tell from what the batter on the uncooked side looks like. I’ll show you.”
I started instructing my daughter in the fine art of pancake flipping. We had just gotten the second one started when a tiny bell began to ring very rapidly from somewhere in one of the walls—the apartment’s security alarm.
Mouse whipped his head around to the source of the sound and let out a low growl. Maggie blinked and then looked at me uncertainly.
Thomas came off the wall in a tense little bound of tightly leashed energy. He glanced at me and then went to the kitchen and took one of the big chef knives from the block.
“Someone’s coming,” I said. “Let’s see what’s happening first. Now, just like we practiced. Take Bonnie, go to my room, and put her in her box. Stay in there with her, stay low to the ground, and keep quiet. Okay?”
Maggie looked uncertain but she nodded. “Okay.”
I shut the bedroom door behind her and picked up my wizard’s staff from its spot near the fireplace. I suddenly wished that I’d found a way to spend more hours on my personal magical arsenal. I hadn’t, because I’d been busy being a father, which took up way more time than I had believed possible. There’d been very little time to actively work on my gear—a very wizard‑hours‑intensive endeavor. All I had was the staff I’d carved out on the lost island of Demonreach in the middle of Lake Michigan, my blasting rod, and a slapdash version of my old shield bracelet—but they would have to do.
Whatever had set off the alarm, it seemed unlikely that it could march all the way through the svartalves’ security—but if it hadn’t done so, then why was my security alarm ringing?
“What do you think?” Thomas asked.
“I think anything that goes through svartalf security to get here has me a little edgy,” I said.
“Oh, so it’s not just me. That’s nice.”
A few seconds later, a heavy hand rapped hard on the door to the apartment.
I checked to make absolutely sure that the door to the room with my daughter inside was firmly shut. And then, gripping my staff much like a rifle, I paced silently forward to answer the door, my brother falling into step beside me.
This summer brings not one but TWO Dresden Files novels! Peace Talks arrives July 14th, and Battle Ground hits September 29th. Preorder both through the Jim-Butcher.com store!