Peace Talks Chapter 3

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 store!

Catch up on previous chapters: One and Two.

I summoned my will and channeled power into my staff. The runes spiraling along its length smoldered with emerald fire, and tiny wisps of smoke rose from it. The clean, smoky scent of fresh‑scorched wood laced the air. Runes and sigils of green light spangled the walls.

A wizard’s staff is a versatile tool. I could use one to project any number of forces or effects as the need arose, and I made sure mine was ready to wreak havoc or reflect energy as needed. Thomas moved in utter silence to the wall beside the door, where he would be within arm’s reach of anyone who came through it. He gripped the knife low along his leg and nodded to me when he was ready.

And I calmly opened the apartment’s front door.

An old man stood there. He was a couple of inches shorter than average, and stout. Like me, he carried a staff, though his was a good deal shorter and, like him, stouter than my own. Some wisps of white and silver hair drifted around his otherwise shining head, though there seemed to be more liver spots on the skin than I remembered from the last time I’d seen him. His dark eyes were bright, though, behind his spectacles, and he wore a plain white cotton T‑shirt with his blue overalls and steel‑toed work boots. He was my mentor, Ebenezar McCoy, senior member of the White Council of Wizardry.

He was also my grandfather.

The old man eyed me, his brow furrowing in thought, studying me as I stood there, and then my green‑glowing staff.

“New work,” he noted. “Dense, though. Maybe a little rough.”

“All I had was a pocketknife,” I said. “No sandpaper. Had to use rocks.”

“Ah,” he said. “May I come in?”

I looked past Ebenezar to where Austri stood in the hall, one hand inside his suit, a couple of fingers pressed to one ear. His lips were moving, though I couldn’t hear what he was saying. “Austri? What’s with the alarm?”

Austri apparently listened to something coming into his ear  that  only he could hear and nodded. He didn’t take his hand out of his coat when he answered me. “This person is known to the svartalves,” he said. “He is an enforcer for the White Council of Wizardry and is known to be extremely dangerous. He did not follow security protocols.”

“I don’t have forty‑eight hours to wait for DNA tests to come back, even if I’d give you any,” Ebenezar growled. “I told you. Etri knows me. He’ll vouch for me.”

There was an odd, almost rippling sound, and suddenly a dozen more svartalves like Austri just slid up out of the floor as if it had been made  of water. They were grasping a number of weapons, both modern and ancient—but they didn’t move to attack. Impulsive responses were not   a part of their nature. Their expressions were unreadable, but definitely not friendly.

Austri eyed Ebenezar and then looked to me. “Wizard Dresden? Is this person to be considered a guest of Miss Carpenter?”

“That would be simplest for all involved, I think,” I said.

“Simple?” Austri asked. “It is irrelevant how simple or how complicated it may be. Is he Miss Carpenter’s guest or not?”

“He is,” I said. “Let him come in. I’ll take responsibility for his conduct while he is here.”

Austri frowned for a long moment, his expression taking on several nuanced shades of doubt. But he only lowered his hand from his jacket and nodded to me. At a gesture, he and the rest of the svartalf security team filed down the hallway and out of sight.

“Sticklers, aren’t they?” I said.

“Goes a great deal deeper than that,” Ebenezar said.

“You pushed their buttons on purpose,” I said.

“Not at first. But one of them got snotty with me.”

“So you just started walking over them?”

Something mischievous sparkled in the back of his eyes. “It’s good for them, from time to time, for someone to remind them that they can’t exercise control over everything, and that a member of the Senior Council can walk where he chooses to walk.” His eyes crinkled at the corners. “That last guy really got to me.”

“Gedwig,” I said. “The grouchy. He’s always extra paranoid.” I let the power ease out of my staff, and the runes stopped glowing, the light dying away. I made a gesture toward Thomas with one hand, and my brother eased away from the door. Then I stood aside and opened the door wider for my grandfather. “Come in.”

The old man didn’t miss much.  He  came in with the calm, wary look  of a man who isn’t focused on one thing because he’s taking in everything— and immediately spun his staff to point squarely at Thomas.

“What is that thing doing here?”  Ebenezar demanded.

Thomas lifted his eyebrows. “Thing? Pretty bold assertion of righteousness from the White Council’s hatchetman.”

As far as I knew, my grandfather didn’t know that Thomas and I shared a mother, his daughter. He didn’t know he had another grandson. Ebenezar had . . . kind of a thing about White Court vampires.

(The Paranet called them “whampires,” but I refused to cave in to such silliness, unless it became entirely convenient.)

“Vampire,” my grandfather growled, “you’ve been a useful ally to young Dresden up until now. Don’t go ruining things by getting my attention.”

Thomas’s eyes glittered a shade brighter, and he put on the smile he wore when he was exceptionally furious. “I’m hearing a lot of loud talk from a guy who let himself get this close to someone like me without having a shield already up.”

“Why, you slick little punk,” my grandfather began.

The stench of burning batter filled the air, and I stalked over to the stove, where I flipped the pancake, which had burned during the altercation. Then I slapped the spatula back down onto the counter with unnecessary force and said, words sizzling with vitriol, “Gentlemen, I should not need to remind either of you that you are guests in my home.”

And that hit them both like a bucket of cold water.

In our world, maybe the closest thing to inviolable laws are the ancient traditions of guest‑right and host‑right. In them, guests are to be honored and treated as members of the host’s own family. And they, in turn, are expected to behave as respectful members of the host’s own family.

And in this case we all were actual family, only my grandfather didn’t know it.

But Thomas backed off a bit more, his tense frame easing out of its predatory stance, and my grandfather lowered his staff and turned until he was partially facing away from Thomas.

“Sorry, Harry,” Thomas said. “Won’t happen again.”  I nodded at him and glanced at the old man.

“I owe you an apology,” my grandfather said to me, with heavy emphasis on the pronouns. “Shouldn’t have behaved like that in your home. I’m sorry.”

Well, clearly this morning wasn’t going in anyone’s photo  album. But it wasn’t going to result in a funeral, either. Take your wins where you can get them, I guess.

“Thank you,” I said to them both. I held out my hand, and Thomas passed me the chef knife’s handle.

I put the knife away and cleared my throat at my grandfather.

He eyed Thomas, the look a threat. Then he abruptly eased his stance and spoke in conversational tones. “Those pancakes I smell?” he asked, setting his staff in the corner by the door.

I put mine with his. “Yeah. Just making us some breakfast.”

“Harry,” Thomas said, “I’m going to go.”

“You don’t have to,” I said.

He eyed Ebenezar, his lips compressed. “Yeah. I do.”

“Thomas,” I began.

My brother held up his hand to forestall me, his face a thundercloud, and stalked out.

My grandfather watched him go until the door closed behind him.  Then he glanced up at me from behind the ridge of his shaggy eyebrows.

“Thanks for that,” I said.

“You should thank me,” he said without heat. “Telling you, you don’t know them like you think you do.”

“The White Court might be bad on average,” I said. “But that one’s okay.”

“Which is exactly what everyone they’ve ever seduced will tell you about them,” my grandfather said, scowling. But he held up a hand and his tone turned apologetic. “Look, Hoss. Your business is your own. I don’t come riding in here all the time trying to run your life. And I shouldn’t have thrown a wrench in whatever you had going with the vampire. But you’re young, and I got experiences with them and perspective on them that you don’t. I don’t want you to figure it out the hard way, that’s all.”

I frowned at the old man.

If he was explaining his reasoning instead of leaving me to do it myself, he was worried.

“There he is!” Ebenezar said, smiling as Mouse came shambling over to greet him. He ruffled the dog’s ears with brisk fondness. “I don’t have much time, so I’ll come right to it. You’re in trouble.”

“Uh‑huh,” I said. I went back into the kitchen and poured batter onto the griddle. “First time we’ve spoken face‑to‑face since Chichén Itzá. All business, huh, sir?”

He took that in for a moment, his eyes narrowing slightly. “We’ve all had our hands full since that night,” he said. “People have been dying. You don’t know what it’s been like out there.”

“I missed you, too,” I said. “I’m likewise glad to see you alive and in one piece.”

“There isn’t time for this,” he said.

“Pancakes?” I asked. “I’m always pretty hungry after my morning constitutional.”

The old man’s voice hardened. “I’m not kidding, grandson,” he said. “There has been a motion raised before the general Council to strip you of your status as a member of the White Council entirely.”

I arched an eyebrow sharply. “Huh. First the Council forces me to wear one of those damned grey cloaks whether I want one or not. Now they’re talking about kicking me out? I’m going to get whiplash.”

“You’re going to get more than that if the motion  passes,” he said, heat in his tone. Then he visibly took a moment to forcibly calm himself. “Harry, I want to get caught up, too. I want to talk. Clear the air. And we will. But right now is no moment to let your emotions run your life.” I scowled down at the pancake. I’d had all kinds of practice in keeping my emotions in check lately.

“All right,” I said. “Truce. For now.

What pretext is the Council basing this upon?”

“An aggregate of various factors,” he replied. “Your nonstandard elevation to full wizard, for example. The number of times you’ve involved yourself in high‑profile cases. Your insistence on operating openly as a wizard for over a decade. Not least of which, the conflict of interest they claim now lies upon you due to your service to Queen Mab. A service that has apparently also brought a proven warlock into Mab’s influence beside you.”

“It’s all true,” I said. “I haven’t lied to anyone about any of it. It’s all on the record. So what’s the problem?”

“The problem is that trust is getting harder and harder to come by in the White Council,” Ebenezar said. “Your choices have made you an outlier. Suspicion naturally falls upon someone in your position in times of strain.”

I flipped the pancake. I’d timed it right. It was golden brown.

“If they boot me,” I said, thinking through it aloud, “it means that I will no longer have the protection of the Council. I won’t be an official wizard.”

“You’ve made a great many enemies over the years,” Ebenezar said. “So have I. If you were outcast from the Council, your enemies—and mine—would see you occupying a weakened position. They’ll do something about it. How much protection can Mab provide you?”

“Mab,” I said, “is not all that into safety. She mostly provides the opposite of that, actually. The way she figures it, the only way she could make me perfectly safe would be to cut my throat and entomb me in amber.”

The quip did not draw a smile from the old man. He stared at me with craggy non‑amusement.

I sighed. “It isn’t Mab’s job to protect her Knight. It’s supposed to be the other way around. If something comes along and kills me, I clearly wasn’t strong enough to be her Knight in the first place.”

“You aren’t taking this seriously,” he said.

I flipped the pancake onto the pile and poured out batter for the next. “If it gets bad, I can always fall back to Demonreach.”

“God, if they knew the whole truth about that place,” Ebenezar muttered. “And then what? Stay trapped on your island for the rest of your life, afraid to step off it?”

“So don’t let the motion go to a general vote,” I said. “You’re on the Senior Council. Pull rank. Assume control of it.”

“I can’t,” Ebenezar said. “Without a quorum, it’s got to be a general vote, and four of the Senior Council are going to be at the peace talks when the vote takes place.”

My stomach twisted a little. “Which four?”

“Me, Cristos, Listens‑to‑Wind, and Martha Liberty.”

“Oh,” I said quietly. My grandfather was a cagey old fox, with a thick network of alliances throughout the White Council—and almost as many enemies. The Merlin himself couldn’t stand Ebenezar, and of the three Senior Council members who would preside over the next Council meeting, only the Gatekeeper had ever shown me any kind of fondness. Even if the vote could go to the Senior Council, I’d lose two to one. Of course, I wasn’t sure about how I would fare among the general population of the White Council, either. Wizards live a long time, and they don’t do it by taking unnecessary risks. If you look up unnecessary risk in the White Council’s dictionary, my picture is there. And my address. And all my personal contact information. And my permanent record from middle school.

“You need to talk to some of them face‑to‑face,” Ebenezar said. “Shake some hands. Make sure they know who you are. Reassure them. You only have a few days, but if you move fast, I think you can gather enough support to defeat the motion.”

“No,” I said. “I can’t. Not without neglecting my duties as a Warden and the Winter Knight both.”

“What?” he asked.

I told him about my meeting with Ramirez that morning. “I’ve been assigned to look out for you at the summit and to liaise with Winter.”

The old man spat a curse. “Yeah,” I said.

Most of my support in the Senior Council was getting sent away at exactly the same time I was given a high‑profile assignment providing security for the peace summit. Meanwhile, of the wizards who actually did know me, Ramirez and his bunch were the ones who would probably speak on my behalf—and they’d been sent to the summit, too.

“I’m being set up.”

“Hngh,” Ebenezar agreed.

“Was it the  Merlin?”  I  asked.  “Kind  of  feels  like  his  style.”

“Maybe,” my grandfather said. “On the other hand, Cristos is throwing around a lot of orders these days, too. Hard to say where it comes from.”

I flipped the pancake. If I hadn’t spent years with the old man, I wouldn’t have noticed anything in his tone, but there was a peculiar shade of emphasis to his phrasing that made me glance up at him. He’d said Cristos, but what he meant was . . .

“The Black Council,” I said.

He grimaced at me and then at the walls.

The Black Council was secret stuff. Some unknown folks in the wizarding community had been causing a great deal of mischief in my life over the past decade and more. Their goals were no clearer than their identities, but it was obvious that they were damned dangerous. Wizard Cristos had ascended to the Senior Council under odd circumstances— circumstances that seemed to indicate that the Black Council was exercising power within the Council itself. A White Council that was bumbling and fussy and not interested in anything but its own politics was a fairly terrible but normal thing—but a White Council that was being directed by the kind of people I’d run into over the years was a nightmare that barely bore thinking upon.

A few of us had gotten together to see if we could stop it from happening. Because secret societies within the White Council were seen as evidence of plotting to overthrow it, we had to be really, really careful about our little cabal. Especially since we were kind of plotting against the White Council, even if we were doing it for its own good.

“I sweep it three times a day and have the Little Folk on the lookout for any possible eavesdropping,” I said. “No one is listening in on us.”

“Good,” Ebenezar said. “Yes. Whether Cristos is an open servant of the Black Council or just their puppet, I think it’s safe to say that they want you gone.”

“So what else is new?” I asked.

“Don’t be cute,” Ebenezar said. “They’ve  been  running  operations and sometimes you’ve interfered—but they’ve never come at you directly.”

“Guess I was a headache one time too many.”

“My point is,” he said, “whatever’s happening here . . . your removal has become a priority to them.”

I flipped another pancake. I bobbled it. Some of the batter splattered and smeared. I wasn’t scared, exactly . . . but the Black Council had done some scary stuff.

“What do you think?” I asked him.

“I think that these people aren’t going to announce themselves,” he said. “They aren’t going to come at you directly, they aren’t going to be obvious, and they aren’t going to give up.” He squinted at me and said, “This vote that’s going—that’s just the storm they’re brewing up to distract you.”

“So we ignore it?”

“Storm can still kill you, whether you pay attention to it or not,” he said. “We still have to deal with it. That’s what makes it an excellent distraction.”

“Then what do we do?”

“Don’t get too focused on the situation that’s being set up. They want you locked in on that so that you never see the real problem coming.”

I finished another pancake and brought the plate of them over to the table. I divided them out, and my grandfather and I ate in quiet.

“Good,” he said. “Thanks.”

We wrapped up breakfast and my mentor shook his head. “I’ll see what I can do about this vote. Meanwhile, you do whatever you need to.”

“To do what?” I asked.

“To survive,” he said. He squinted at nothing in particular and said, “You’ve had it easy so far, in some ways.”

“Easy?” I asked.

“You’ve had troubles,” he said. “But you’ve gotten to play Lancelot at all of them. You’ve ridden forth to do open battle and you’ve won the day.”

“Not all of them.”

“More than most would have,” he said. “I was like that once. Like you, now.”

Silence stretched and I didn’t try to fill it.

“You’re getting into deeper weeds now, boy. The stakes are getting higher.”

“Meaning what?”

“The past few years have shown them that you aren’t someone who  is easily removed the direct way. They’re going to start trying alternate methods.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“The old way,” he said, his voice weary. “The way it always happens. I think someone you don’t expect is going to stab you in the back, Hoss.”

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 store!