Cold Days
Page 23

 Jim Butcher

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"You're here because Mab ordered you to be here," I said. "Anything we did would have an element of coercion to it, no matter how it happened. I'm not into that."
"You saved my life just now," Sarissa said. "Some people might think you'd earned my attentions."
"People think stupid things all the time. The only opinion that matters is yours." I glanced at her. "Besides, you probably saved me right back. Toting steel into the heart of Winter. Using it right in front of Mab herself? That's crazy."
She smiled a little. "It would have been crazy not to tote it," she said. "I've learned a few things in my time here."
We had reached the doors to my suite, which still felt awkward to say, even in my own head. My suite. Guys like me don't have suites. We have lairs. Cat Sith had departed discreetly. I hadn't seen him go.
"How long has it been?" I asked.
"Too long," she said. She hadn't taken her hand off of my arm.
"You know," I said, "we've been working together for a while now."
"We have."
"But we haven't ever talked about ourselves. Not really. It's all been surface stuff."
"You haven't talked about you," she said. "I haven't talked about me."
"Maybe we should change that," I said.
Sarissa looked down. There were points of color in her cheeks. "I . . . Should we?"
"You want to come in?" I asked. "To talk. That's all."
She took a moment to choose her words. "If you want me to."
I tried to think about this from Sarissa's point of view. She was a beautiful woman who had to be constantly aware of male interest. She was a mortal living in a world of faeries, most of whom were malicious, all of whom were dangerous. Her introduction to the office of the Winter Knight had been Lloyd Slate, who had been one monstrous son of a bitch. She had some kind of relationship with Mab herself, a being who could have her destroyed at any moment she was displeased with Sarissa.
And I was Mab's hatchet man.
She'd been targeted for death for no better reason than that she happened to be my date at the party. She'd nearly died. Yet she'd taken action to save herself-and me, too-and now here she was standing calmly beside me, not showing the least anxiety. She'd spent months helping me get back on my feet again, always gentle, always helpful, always patient.
She was wary about extending me any trust. She'd been holding herself at a careful distance. I could understand why. Caution was a critical survival trait in Winter, and as far as she was concerned, I was most likely a monster in the process of being born. A monster she'd been given to, no less.
Thinking about it, even if I had saved her life, it wouldn't have needed saving had she not been with me. I figured that between that and everything else she'd done for me, I was well in her debt.
But I couldn'thelp her if I didn't know more about her.
"For a couple of minutes," I said. "Please."
She nodded, and we went inside. I had a little living room outside of my bedroom. I read somewhere that in general, women tend to be more comfortable with someone sitting beside them, rather than across from them. Men tend to be the opposite. Facing each other has undertones of direct physical conflict-in which a generally larger, stronger person would have an advantage. I didn't know whether it was true or not, but she was already keyed up enough, and I didn't want to add anything to it. So I seated her at one end of the couch, and then seated myself at the opposite end, out of arm's reach.
"Okay," I said. "We haven't talked, I guess, because I've never told you anything about myself. Is that about the shape of it?"
"Trust has to go both ways," she said.
I huffed out a short laugh. "You've been hanging around Mab too much. She's not big on answering simple yes-or-no questions either."
Sarissa's mouth twitched at the corners. "Yes."
I laughed again. "Okay," I said. "Well, when in Rome. Maybe we should exchange questions and answers. You can go first."
She folded her hands, frowning, and then nodded. "I've heard a lot of stories about you. That you've killed a lot of people. Are they true?"
"I don't know what you've heard," I said. "But . . . yeah. When bad things came after people in my town, I made it my business to get in the way. And I've been a Warden of the White Council for a while now. I fought in the war against the Red Court. I've done a lot of fighting. Sometimes people get killed. Why are you in Mab's debt?"
"I . . . have a form of congenital dementia," she said. "I watched what it did to my older sister and . . ." She shuddered. "Doctors can't help me. Mab can. Have you ever killed anyone who wasn't trying to kill you?"
I looked down at my shoes. "Twice," I said quietly. "I cut Lloyd Slate's throat to become the Winter Knight. And-"
A flash of memory. A ruined city full of howling monsters and blood. Flashes of light and roaring detonations of magic tearing asunder stone and air alike. Dust everywhere. Friends fighting, bleeding, desperate. A stone altar covered in a thick coating of dried blood. A terrified little girl, my daughter. Treachery.
A kiss pressed against the forehead of a woman I was about to murder.
God, Susan, forgive me.
I couldn't see through the blur in my eyes, and my throat felt like the Redcap might be garroting me again, but I forced myself to speak. "And I killed a woman named Susan Rodriguez on a stone altar, because if I hadn't, a little girl and a lot of good people would have died. She knew it, too." I swiped a hand at my eyes and coughed to clear my throat. "What were the terms of your bargain with Mab?"