My brain shifted into overdrive.
My back might have been against a wall, but that was hardly anything new. One thing I’d learned in long years of spine-to-brick circumstance was that anything you could do to create a little space, time, or support was worth doing.
I met Mab’s implacable gaze and said, “It is necessary to set one condition.”
Her eyes narrowed. “What condition?”
“Backup,” I said. “I want an extra pair of eyes along. Someone of my choosing.”
“Because Nicodemus is a murderous murdering murderer,” I said. “And if he’s picking a crew, they’re going to be just as bad. I want another set of eyes along to make sure one of them doesn’t shoot me in the back the second I’m not looking—you’re loaning out the Winter Knight, after all. You’re not throwing him away.”
Mab arched an eyebrow. “Mmmm.”
“Out of the question, I fear,” Nicodemus said. “Plans have already been made and there is no room for extraneous personnel.”
Mab turned her head very slowly to Nicodemus. “As I remember it,” she said, her tone arctic, “when you loaned me your service, you brought your spawn with you. I believe this request exhibits symmetry.”
Nicodemus narrowed his eyes. Then he inhaled deeply and inclined his head very slightly in agreement. “I do not have explicit authority over everyone involved. I can make no promises as to the safety of either your Knight or his . . . additional associate.”
Mab almost smiled. “And I can make none as to yours, Sir Archleone, should you betray an arrangement made in good faith. Shall we agree to an explicit truce until such time as your mission is complete?”
Nicodemus considered that for a moment before nodding his head. “Agreed.”
“Done, then,” Mab said, and plucked the card from my fingers. “Shall we go, my Knight?”
I stared hard at Nicodemus and his bloody-mouthed daughter for a moment. Deirdre’s hair rasped and rustled, slithering against itself like long, curling strips of sheet metal.
Like hell was I gonna help that lunatic.
But this was not the time or place to make that stand.
“Yeah,” I said through clenched teeth. “Okay.”
And without ever quite turning my back on the Denarians, I followed Mab back to the elevator.
At the bottom of the elevator ride, I turned to Mab’s bodyguards and said, “Time for you guys to get out and bring the car around.” When none of them moved, I said, “Okay. You guys filled out some kind of paperwork for how you want your remains disposed of, right?”
At that, the Sidhe blinked. They looked at Mab.
Mab stared ahead. I’d seen statues that indicated their desires more strongly.
They got out.
I waited until the elevator doors closed behind them, flicked a finger, and muttered, “Hexus,” unleashing a minor effort of will as I did. Mortal wizards and technology don’t blend. Just being in proximity to a wizard actively using magic is enough to blow out a lot of electronics. When a wizard is actually trying to blow out tech, not much is safe.
The elevator’s control panel let out a shower of sparks and went dark. The lightbulbs went out with little pops, along with the emergency lights, and the elevator’s interior was suddenly plunged into darkness lit only by a bit of daylight seeping in beneath the door.
“Are you out of your mind?” I demanded of Mab.
There was just enough light to show me the glitter of her eyes as she turned them to me.
“I am not going to help that dick,” I snarled.
“You will perform precisely as instructed.”
“I will not,” I said. “I know how he works. Whatever he’s doing, it’s nothing but bad news. People are going to get hurt—and I’m not going to be a part of that. I’m not going to help him.”
“It is obvious to me that you did not listen to me very carefully,” Mab said.
“It is obvious to me that you just don’t get it,” I replied. “There are things you just don’t do, Mab. Helping a monster like that get what he wants is one of them.”
“Even if refusing costs you your life?” she asked.
I sighed. “Have you even been paying attention, the past couple of years? Do you have any doubt that I would rather die than become part of something like that?”
Her teeth made a white gleam in the dark. “And yet, here you are.”
“Do you really want to push this?” I asked. “Do you want to lose your shiny new Knight already?”
“Hardly a loss if he will not fulfill a simple command,” Mab said.
“I’ll fulfill commands. I’ve done it before.”
“In your own inept way, yes,” Mab said.
“Just not this one.”
“You will do precisely as instructed,” Mab said. She took a very small step closer to me. “Or there will be consequences.”
The last Knight to anger Mab had wound up begging me to end his life. The poor bastard had been grateful.
“What consequences?” I asked.
“The parasite,” Mab said. “When it kills you and emerges, it will seek out everyone you know. Everyone you love. And it will utterly destroy them—starting with one child in particular.”
Gooseflesh erupted along my arms. She was talking about Maggie. My daughter.
“She’s out of this,” I said in a whisper. “She’s protected.”
“Not from this,” Mab said, her tone remote. “Not from a being created of your own essence, just as she is. Your death will bring a deadly creature into the world, my Knight—one who knows all that you know of your allies. Lovers. Family.”
“No it won’t,” I said. “I’ll go back to the island. I’ll instruct Alfred to imprison it the moment it breaks free.”
Mab’s smile turned genuine. It was considerably scarier than her glare. “Oh, sweet child.” She shook her head. “What makes you think I shall allow you to return?”
I clenched my fists along with my teeth. “You . . . you bitch.”
Mab slapped me.
Okay, that doesn’t convey what happened very well. Her arm moved. Her palm hit my left cheekbone, and an instant later the right side of my skull smashed into the elevator door. My head bounced off it like a Ping-Pong ball, my legs went rubbery, and I got a really, really good look at the marble tile floor of the elevator. The metal rang like a gong, and was still reverberating a couple of minutes later, when I slowly sat up. Or maybe that was just me.
“I welcome your suggestions, questions, thoughts, and arguments, my Knight,” Mab said in a calm voice. She moved one foot, gracefully, and rested the tip of her high heel against my throat. She put a very little bit of her weight behind it, and it hurt like hell. “But I am Mab, mortal. It is not your place to judge me. Do you understand?”
I couldn’t talk, with her heel nudging my voice box. I jerked my head in a short nod.
“Defy me if you will,” she said. “I cannot prevent you from doing so—if you are willing to pay the price for it.”
And with that, she removed her foot from my throat.
I sat up and rubbed at it. “This is not a smart way to maintain a good professional relationship with me,” I croaked.
“Do I seem stupid to you, my Knight?” she asked. “Think.”
I eyed her. Mab’s voice was perfectly calm. After what I’d said to her, the defiance I’d offered her, I hadn’t expected that. She had never been shy about showing her outrage when she felt it had been earned. This perfect poise was . . . not out of character, precisely, but I had expected a good deal more intensity than she was displaying. My defiance endangered her plans, and that never left her in a good mood.
Unless . . .
I closed my eyes and ran back through her words in my head.
“Your precise instructions,” I said slowly, “were to go with Nicodemus and help him until such time as he completed his objective.”
“Indeed,” Mab said. “Which he stated was to remove the contents of a vault.” She leaned down, took a fistful of my shirt in her hand, and hauled me back to my feet as easily as she might heft a Chihuahua. “I never said what you would do after.”
I blinked at that. Several times. “You . . .” I dropped my voice. “You want me to double-cross him?”
“I expect you to repay my debt by fulfilling my instructions,” Mab replied. “After that . . .” Her smile returned, smug in the shadows. “I expect you to be yourself.”
“Whatever Nicodemus has going this time . . . you want to stop him, too,” I breathed.
She tilted her head, very slightly.
“You know he’s not going to honor the truce,” I said quietly. “He’s going to try to take me out somewhere along the line. He’s going to betray me.”
“Of course,” she said. “I expect superior, more creative treachery on your part.”
“While still keeping your word and helping him?” I demanded.
Her smile sharpened. “Is it not quite the game?” she asked. “In my younger days, I would have relished such a novel challenge.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Gee. Thanks.”
“Petulance does not become the Winter Knight,” Mab said. She turned to the elevator doors, which had an enormous dent in them the same shape as a wizard’s noggin. They swept open with a groan of protesting metal. “Do this for me, and I shall ensure the safe removal of the parasite when the task is completed.”
“Nicodemus, his daughter, and God knows what else is in his crew,” I said. “I’m working with my hands tied, and you expect me to survive this game?”
“If you want to live, if you want your friends and family to live, I expect you to do more than survive it,” Mab said, sweeping out. “I expect you to skin them alive.”