Skin Game: Chapter 2

My brother and I had built the Whatsup Dock down at the shore at one of Demonreach’s three little beaches, the one nearest the opening in the stone reefs surrounding the island. There had been a town on the hillside up above the beach maybe a century before, but it had been abandoned after its residents had apparently been driven slowly bonkers by all the dark energy around the hideous things imprisoned below the island.

The ruins of the town were still there, half swallowed by the forest, a corpse being slowly devoured by fungus and moss. I sometimes wondered how long I could stay on the damned island before I was bonkers, too.

There was an expensive motored yacht tied to the dock, as out of place as a Ferrari in a cattle yard, white with a lot of frosty blue chrome. There were a couple of hands in sight, and they weren’t dressed in sailing clothes so much as they were in sailing costumes. The creases were too straight, the clothes too clean, the fit too perfect. Watching them move, I had no doubt they were carrying weapons, and practiced in killing. They were Sidhe, the lords of Faerie, tall and beautiful and dangerous. They didn’t impress me.

Mostly because they weren’t nearly as pretty or dangerous as the woman standing at the very end of my dock, the tips of her expensive shoes half an inch from Demonreach’s shore. When there’s a Great White Shark in the water with you, it’s tough to be worried about a couple of barracuda swimming along behind her.

Mab, the Queen of Air and Darkness, was wearing a tailored business suit somewhere between the color of smeared charcoal on newsprint and frozen periwinkles. The blouse beneath was snow white, like her hair, which was bound up in an elaborate do that belonged in the forties. Opals flashed on her ears and at her throat, deep colors of green and blue, matching the shifting hues of her cold, flat eyes. She was pale, beautiful on a scale that beggared simple description, and I harbored a healthy and rational terror of her.

I came down the old stone steps in the hillside to the dock, and stopped an arm’s length away from Mab. I didn’t bow to her, but I inclined my head formally. There were other Sidhe there, on the boat, witnessing the meeting, and I had worked out a while ago that though I was no danger to Mab’s pride, she would not tolerate disrespect to her office. I was pretty sure that if the Winter Knight openly defied her in front of her Court, it would basically be a declaration of war, and despite what I now knew about the island, I wanted nothing of the sort with Mab.

“My Queen,” I said pleasantly. “How’s tricks?”

“Functioning flawlessly, my Knight,” she replied. “As ever. Get on the boat.”

“Why?” I asked.

Her mouth turned down into a slight frown, but it was belied by the sudden pleased light in her eyes.

“I’m predictable, aren’t I?” I asked her.

“In many ways,” she replied. “Shall I answer you literally?”

“I’d like that.”

Mab nodded. Then she leaned forward, very slightly, her eyes growing deep, and said in a voice colder and harder than frozen stone, “Because I told you to do so.”

I swallowed, and my stomach did this little roller-coaster number on me. “What happens if I won’t?” I asked.

“You have already made clear to me that you will resist me if I attempt to compel you directly to obey my commands,” Mab said. “Such a thing would render you useless to me, and for the moment, I would find it inconvenient to train a replacement. I would therefore do nothing.”

I blinked at that. “Nothing? I could deny you, and you’d just . . . go?”

“Indeed,” Mab said, turning. “You will be dead in three days, by which time I should have made arrangements to replace you.”

“Uh,” I said. “What?”

Mab paused and looked over her shoulder. “The parasite within you will emerge in that time. Surely you have noticed the pains growing worse.”

Boy, had I. And it added up.

“Dammit,” I snarled, keeping my voice too low to be heard by the goons on the boat. “You set me up.”

Mab turned to face me and gave me a very small smile.

“I’ve been sending out Toot and Lacuna with messages for you and Molly every damned day. None of them got through, did they?”

“They are faeries,” Mab said. “I am a Queen of Faerie.”

“And my sendings to Molly?”

“I wove nets to catch any spells leaving this island the moment I bade you farewell, my Knight,” she said. “And the messages you sent to her through your friends were altered to suit my needs. I find it useful how the tiniest amount of distrust creates so much opportunity for miscommunication. Your friends have been trying to visit you for several weeks, but the lake ice has held unusually long this year. Alas.”

I ground my teeth. “You knew I needed her help.”

“And,” she said, biting the words off crisply, “you still do.”

Three days.

Hell’s bells.

“Have you ever considered just asking me for my help?” I asked her. “Maybe even saying ‘please’?”

She arched a pale eyebrow at me. “I am not your client.”

“So you just go straight to extortion?”

“I cannot compel you,” she said in a reasonable tone. “I must therefore see to it that circumstance does. You cannot leave the island without being incapacitated by pain. You cannot send for help unless I allow it. Your time has all but run out, my Knight.”

I found myself speaking through clenched teeth. “Why? Why would you put me in a corner like this?”

“Perhaps because it is necessary. Perhaps it is to protect you from yourself.” Her eyes flashed with the distant fury of a thunderstorm on the horizon. “Or perhaps it is simply because I can. In the end, it does not matter why. All that matters is what is.”

I inhaled and exhaled a few times, to keep the anger from boiling out into my voice. Given what she had to manage, it was entirely possible that manipulating me and threatening me with death this way was asking politely—by the standards of Mab, anyway. But that didn’t mean I had to like it.

Besides. She was right. If Mab said I had three days to live, she meant it. She had neither the capability nor the need to speak any direct lies. And if that was true, which I felt depressingly confident it was, then she had me over a barrel.

“What do you want?” I asked. I almost sounded polite.

The question brought a pleased smile to her lips and a nod that looked suspiciously like one of approval. “I wish you to perform a task for me.”

“This task,” I said. “Would it happen to be off the island?”


I pointed a finger at my temple. “Then we have an issue with the incapacitated-by-pain thing. You’ll have to fix me first.”

“If I did, you’d never agree to it,” Mab said calmly. “And I would then be obliged to replace you. For your own health and safety, therefore, you will wear this instead.” She lifted her hand and held it out to me, palm up.

There was a small stone in her palm, a deep blue opal. I leaned a little closer, eyeing it. It was set on a silver stud—an earring.

“It should suffice to contain the parasite for what time remains,” Mab said. “Put it on.”

“My ears aren’t pierced,” I objected.

Mab arched an eyebrow. “Are you the Winter Knight or some sort of puling child?”

I scowled at her. “Come over here and say that.”

At that, Mab calmly stepped onto the shore of Demonreach, until her toes were almost touching mine. She was several inches over six feet tall, and barely had to reach up to take my earlobe in her fingers.

“Wait,” I said. “Wait.”

She paused.

“The left one.”

Mab tilted her head. “Why?”

“It’s . . . Look, it’s a mortal thing. Just do the left one, okay?”

She exhaled briefly through her nose. Then she shook her head and changed ears. There was a pinpoint of red-hot pain in my left earlobe, and then a slow pulse of lazy, almost seductive cold, like the air on an autumn night when you open the bedroom windows and sleep like a rock.

“There,” Mab said, fixing the post in place. “Was that such a trial?”

I glowered and reached up to the stone with my left hand. My fingertips confirmed what my ears had reported—it felt physically cold to the touch.

“Now that I’ve got this to keep me safe off the island,” I said very quietly, “what’s to stop me from having Alfred drop you into a cell right this second, and solving my problems myself?”

“I am,” Mab said. She gave me a very small, very chill smile, and held up her finger. There was a tiny droplet of my blood upon it, scarlet against her pale skin. “The consequences to your mortal world should there be no Mab would be dire. The consequences to yourself, should you try it, even more so. Try me, wizard. I am willing.”

For a second, I thought about it. She was stacking up enough leverage on me that whatever it was she wanted me to do, I was sure I was going to hate it. I’d never wanted to be in Mab’s ongoing service anyway. The boss couldn’t be the boss if I imprisoned her in crystal hundreds of feet beneath the waters of Lake Michigan. And it wasn’t like she hadn’t earned some time in the cooler. Mab was a serious bad guy.

Except . . . she was our serious bad guy. As cruel and as horrible as she could be, she was a guardian who protected the world from things that were even worse. Suddenly removing her from that balance of power could be worse than catastrophic.

And admit it to yourself, at least, Dresden. You’re scared. What if you tried to take her down—and missed? Remember what happened to the last guy who betrayed Mab? You’ve never beaten her. You’ve never come close.

I didn’t let myself shudder. She would have seen it as weakness, and that isn’t a wise thing to show any faerie. I just exhaled and looked away from those cold, endless eyes.

Mab inclined her head to me, barely, a victor’s acknowledgment. Then she turned and walked back onto the dock. “Bring anything you may need. We leave at once.”