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Wedding Bells… No More like Hell’s Bells

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I want to be able to say that I would have thought about my new approach for getting out of marrying Lara Raith months before if I hadn’t been so busy, but to be honest it had occurred to me pretty early on. Actually within a couple of weeks, however I’d thought the solution was a little too simple when it involved Mab.

I mean, simply asking my boss if there was anyone else she would prefer I marry to secure an alliance other than the uncrowned queen of the White Court was too easy to work, right? At least that was what I’d figured when it had first occurred to me to ask. So I’d put it out of my mind while I’d scrambled for anything which could get me out of my unwanted betrothal to Lara Raith.

Okay, maybe not at first because I had been very busy. First taking the time to heal and helping with the aftermath of the battle. Then fixing up Castle Dresden to be habitable for people and pets again had taken up a lot of my attention. Looking for any hint of Justine and growing frustrated at only finding weeks-old cold trails every time I thought I was close sucked away any free time I’d had between being a dad and fighting with the state about getting my PI license reinstated. Apparently having been investigated by the FBI, declared dead, and then alive, before essentially vanishing off the face of the earth for over a year didn’t make the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation happy about activating my private investigator license even if technically it hadn’t expired yet since the last time I’d renewed it. I was not looking forward to the fuss I’d have to deal with when I did have to renew it next year.

All that and I’d lost countless sleeping hours in the night wracking my brain as to how I’d be able to pull my brother safely out of his carbonite freezer without his demon killing him as soon as I did.

And I’d been... grieving. Hurting. Dealing with the emotional wounds from last summer. I’d been too preoccupied with keeping myself together and hopefully resembling something like a sane parent for Maggie and Bonnie to spend my energy worrying about something that was a year – practically forever – away.

It wasn’t until Christmas had come and gone, and winter’s grip on Chicago had started to loosen, with spring right around the corner that it hit me how quickly time was passing. There would be wedding bells – no, more like hell’s bells – in my future if I didn’t shift focus and do something to stop it.

So I’d buckled down and researched, thankful that I had my handy-dandy magical assistant back so I could ask these sort of difficult questions. Well, most of the time. Butters sometimes came by to pick Bob’s brain about supernatural threats he could be facing in the future and even occasionally borrowed him when under a time crunch. A Spirit of Intellect was handy to have around when trying to find things out about supernatural monsters, trust me.

Not that Bob had turned out to be much of a help. Every conversation we’d had about the Winter Knight’s mantle had turned into a variant of our first discussion on the topic.

Take for example our latest one:

“Boss. Harry. We’ve been over this already, being a Knight of a Fae Court is a lifetime gig,” Bob said, exasperated. The orange lights of his eyes followed me as I paced in front of him in the castle basement. Months later it still smelled of laundry detergent and sweaty gym socks. I also wasn’t used to the shape of the room. It felt like too much space but I figured that wouldn’t last long as I stocked the new shelves up with magical ingredients. I was glad to have a working lab again, and better materials and tools to craft my gear than what I had on Demonreach.

You really don’t appreciate how much easier good tools make your life until you try to make things without them.

I can’t tell you how relieved I felt at getting a proper staff carved out and a new blasting rod.

“We can research and research but every Knight, whether they were of Summer or of Winter, has remained a Knight until they died. Only then did their mantle pass on to someone else. Every single one of them.”

Which I’d already – grimly – known to be true. I shoved the sense memory of blood on my hands back into its box.

Three months of actually looking for a solution. And all I had was zip, zilch, nada. A big load of nothing.

Bob continued, “The only thing that could possibly make a difference, although I don’t know how yet, is that you’re the only one who has also been a wizard. That’s definitely new.”

Bob didn’t know how I’d be able to shed a power which went through the center of my being like a lance without somehow killing myself by pulling it out (it made me feel more like an insect pinned to a collection board). For one, he reminded me mantles were bound to the bearer. It usually defined their powers, at least it did, for most of the immortal beings out there. I was weird in the sense of having claimed the mantle of the Winter Knight while I already had powerful abilities in my own right.

I may use the abilities to my benefit, but my power wasn’t dependent on them.

However, until I figured out how to be free of it, I was stuck being the only wizard Winter Knight of the court of the scary faeries.

Compounding my problem was my own determination that when – not if – I did end up leaving the Winter Court behind it would be with my former apprentice joining in my getaway. So not only did I have to figure out how to be rid of the Winter Knight’s mantle, I also had to figure out how to free Molly of the mantle of the Winter Lady without killing either of us.

And without Molly fighting me on it.

Sometimes I had the sinking feeling she wanted to remain the Winter Lady. That she thought she was doing more good in that role than she had as a mortal wizard apprentice. It worried me but I told myself not to make assumptions. Molly could just be doing what I was, trying to survive her new job without losing herself within it. Even if it meant being the best Winter Lady she could be.

Instead I focused on the step beyond that point. Because if we were able to shed the mantles then it was equally important to make sure that we’d both be able to survive the fallout. I doubted Mab would let either of us go easily.

It made me shudder to think of what I’d suffer through if an angry Mab got a hold of me. I wouldn’t survive her retribution for escaping her. Or if I did I doubt I would be sane.

My main problem was that I simply didn’t know enough about how mantles of power even worked, especially how they were even created in the first place, to figure out how to undo one. The only clue given to me which could possibly point me in the right direction was the knowledge of how mantles became more malleable during Halloween. It was the only time of the year during which immortal beings could die, or add to their power or lose bits of it to another immortal.

Trick or treating for the powerful immortal beings of the world.

A day which was my birthday, of course. Which had also already come and gone. So even if I had a working plan to strip away the mantle this coming October it would still be way too late to avoid getting married to Lara Raith.

I had a little less than two months left when I realized that all I had were stupid options.

Cue me just flat out asking the Queen of Air and Darkness my question.

*-*-*-*

“You said before, that you agreed to the alliance with the White Court because they are strong enough to be a worthy ally,” I said quietly, standing beside Mab.

It was somewhat annoying that the aftermath of last summer’s battle and the continued war against the Formor meant that most of the Ministry summits took place in my city. I had no excuse to get out of having to show my face and play courtier to Mab when all the shindigs were held in Chicago. Although I would forever gloat over how Marcone couldn’t host them in the castle anymore.

I suspected my presence was meant to be a reminder of how she had triumphed against Ethniu, and how the Winter Court – through me as its representative – had been the one to finally shut the Titan down. I had been… well, I can’t say requested because armed fae lords had all but whisked me away at gun-point. I’d told Mab I had things to do but apparently that wasn’t good enough. The fae had simply been insistent, politely insistent. As in I didn’t actually get shot. Barely. Lucky for them, they’d been willing to wait for a babysitter for Maggie to show up, or I would have been the one getting violent.

The point was, I was at a party where I was mostly playing arm candy. It wasn’t as if I was much use as a bodyguard to Mab (even if it technically was part of the duties of the Winter Knight), considering she could squish me like a bug without even trying, so it really reinforced the idea that I was meant to be some kind of subtle message to the rest of the Accorded members.

“It also fulfills the debt owed to Ms. Raith,” Mab agreed, flickering her inhuman eyes at me.

I didn’t question it but I knew that wasn’t anywhere close to the real reason.

Oh, it contributed.

Mab, by her very nature as a faerie, couldn’t lie. But that didn’t mean she didn’t act with more motivations behind her actions than the obvious or that she couldn’t toe the line right to the edge of lying. If she’d wanted she could have twisted the favor used by Lara into something that didn’t involve dragging me into it. Or she could have thrown some high-ranking faerie lord or lady under the bus to satisfy Lara’s demands if Lara insisted on a marriage to seal the deal. Yet considering how Lara had reacted when Mab had let us know the news, I knew I wasn’t anywhere near her preferred choice.

After that bombshell it had taken a few days to figure it out why I had to be the one to be married off. In my defense, I’d been reeling in disbelief and also rather had my hands full. As a mortal, and therefore not as tightly bound to the obligations of fulfilling debts as the rest of the faerie courts, I would be able to help out whenever Lara asked. She wouldn’t have to burn any favors to Mab to get my assistance.

And somehow locking me into a marriage was Mab’s way of getting a tighter hold on me. My grandfather’s words of warning hadn’t fallen on deaf ears no matter what he thought. Although, to be honest, I couldn’t figure out how that was supposed to happen by forcing me to get married. At the moment all it did was make me angry whenever I was reminded of having no choice in the matter.

But just because I couldn’t see the bear-trap hidden in the underbrush didn’t mean that I wasn’t aware it was out there somewhere.

“But she was hardly your first choice,” I said quietly. Why else had Mab taken so long to come to her decision. She was hardly the sort of being to take the time to dawdle. I definitely had the impression that Lara had used her first favor by requesting her alliance before they’d even shown up together in the back of the Munstermobile. And… well, in the battle of Chicago while the White Court had held their own, they had hardly been the most impressive fighters out there.

It made me wonder if there had been someone else at the peace talks whom Mab would have preferred as an ally instead of Lara.

“What if I could secure that alliance instead?”

Mab turned to face me and her eyes flashed. “Unlikely. He has been resistance to any offers.”

He? I winced internally at the idea of my only other option being a man. Then I frowned, wondering who had the balls to turn down an offer of alliance from Mab.

Actually, a rather smart person with great survival instincts. Winter faeries are known for their treachery. No matter how straightforward of an alliance on offer, I’d be wary if I was being offered one. Especially by a Queen of the Winter Court. Even now, if I had a choice about it I wouldn’t be spending my time among them. I couldn’t fault anyone else for deciding to turn down such an offer.

Mab’s cat-slit eyes lifted and scanned across the room full of the representatives of the signatories of the Accords who were part of war against the Formor. Those who hadn’t joined in the battle against Ethniu had been pointedly excluded, and ones who had but weren’t yet signatories, like the Forest Poeple in the form of River Shoulders, were given every honor for having fought.

Her gaze lingered in one place long enough for me to follow its path.

My breath caught as I realized it had landed right on Gentleman John Marcone, the Baron of Chicago, kingpin of its criminal underworld. Oh, and Knight of Hell. Can’t forget that sparkling new and terrifying title.

Oh.

Oh, shit.

My eyes widened for a split-second before I forced my expression back under control. It was a really bad idea to show anything like weakness in this company or to a being like Mab. Even if she was the boss. Maybe especially because she was the boss.

John Marcone. Apparently Mab would be perfectly happy – hell more than happy – to see me hitched to Marcone if it meant securing an alliance with him instead of with Lara.

“If you manage that task, my knight, then I’ll release you from the obligation to wed Lara Raith.”

“Right,” I said blankly. I shook my head and shot Mab a wary look. “If you didn’t manage to convince him of the value of an alliance, how in hell am I supposed to?”

“You have the intelligence to come up with several approaches which the Baron would accept. Among them are tactics that he would not welcome one such as I. For example you could seduce him,” Mab offered, not a hint of amusement in her face at the idea.

Hell’s bells, it can get worse.

Yeah, no. That wasn’t going to happen. Not in a million years. The stars would fall out of the sky first.

I looked away, to hide whatever shock had to be visible in my face. I cleared my throat and managed an evenly toned, “Why him of all people?”

Mab’s eyes shifted away from Marcone and landed back on me like a heavy weight, her power a physical presence I could feel surrounding her. “Because in many ways, in various situations, he has impressed me.”

Well, that completely and utterly spooked the hell out of me.

I stared at Marcone in disbelief. He must have felt the weight of my eyes because he glanced over in my direction his expression cool, calculating and dangerous as always.

I looked away before our gazes could lock.

“There isn’t anybody else?” I asked, trying to sound casual and not absolutely desperate.

“There is no one else,” Mab said calmly, sealing my doom.

Okay, cross that idea off the board.

*-*-*-*

An evening later I was curled on my couch (a huge, ugly and sinfully comfortable used piece of furniture Maggie and I had both fallen in love with which was horribly patterned in green and red) with the burrito blanket around my knees (a castle-warming gift from Butters which looked like a giant flour tortilla Maggie loved using to roll herself into a burrito whenever she saw it) when I found myself distracted from writing out futile plans on how to save Thomas in the journal I held and instead found myself thinking about my mother.

I wasn’t thinking about the usual questions which swirled through me whenever I thought about her, such as what kind of person she’d been, what she’d think of me, what she’d think of what was happening in my life. And more recently, what would she think of Maggie and my decision to raise her.

You know those questions.

No, instead I found myself thinking about her past. About her life in the clutches of the White King. I had absolutely no idea how she’d ended up under Lord Raith’s power. Did she go to him voluntarily? As an ally, at least at first? Or had she had no choice in the matter?

It made me think about the possible relationship I’d have with Lara if I couldn’t find myself a way out of betrothal. I mean, she wanted me dead. She had flat out told me she’d kill me once we saved Thomas. Me being the Winter Knight – and the possibility of annoying Mab – wasn’t enough to stop her. Then there was the fact that even if she changed her mind about my future murder, she couldn’t touch me, literally. Not without giving herself third-degree burns (the reason for my protection made my chest hurt for a long moment before I forced my thoughts in another direction). But it wasn’t a protection I could rely upon. The terms of the alliance with the Winter Court required the marriage be consummated. It was part of Mab’s requirement of ‘a merging of households’.

So if I was forced to marry Lara how long could I expect my protection to last? How long would I have before Mab forced the issue (the thought made me go cold inside in a way which had nothing to do with Winter)? Then it wouldn’t be long until I ended up like my mother. I didn’t know how long I could hold out against a succubus of Lara’s power and a sustained attack without my current protection. A few months? A couple of years?

Nearest I’d been able to work out, my mother had finished growing into her power when she’d ended up in Lord Raith’s hold, so she’d been a helluva lot older than me. She’d been better trained than I was now. She’d had more experience with the supernatural side. She’d already established a reputation – however shady – with the White Council and earned her name among the faerie courts as Margaret LeFay.

She’d been smart, tough and dangerous, yet she’d still ended up trapped among the White Court vampires.

From what I knew of Lara, she would do everything she could to erode my will away. And unlike before, I had the Winter Knight’s mantle which would try to subvert my determination to resist whatever seduction she tried (for a power which seemed to be all about survival it was damned stupid). And while I currently had a hold on the instincts of the Winter Knight, I also had painful proof that my control over it was not absolute.

I had faltered once. I could again. These days, I was worried that I would without the presence of friends who’d fight tooth and nail to save me from myself. My willpower was not enough.

It made me think painful thoughts of my mother’s own will being overthrown by Lord Raith. She’d ended up pregnant with my brother. How desperate had she been? How scared had she been to leave Thomas behind when she had the chance to escape the White King? However willing she may have been at first she sure as hell hadn’t been at the end.

It made me swallow down nausea. It made me hurt to think about it.

She’d left Thomas with them. He’d only been five years old at the time. I couldn’t imagine doing such a thing to Maggie.

If there was one thing I did know about my mother it was that she’d hated the White King.

It said so much that for all the evil she must have seen after leaving my grandfather’s home (she’d known freaking Nicodemus) it had been Lord Raith who’d taken the brunt of her death curse. And she had unleashed her curse knowing she wouldn’t be able to actually kill him. She would only be able to weaken him by making him unable to feed.

I thought about how he had been the one responsible for her death.

A White Court vampire had tormented and killed my mother.

I thought about Thomas’s childhood, growing up in that household. Then how he had barely survived adulthood.

It made me remember a conversation we’d had, where Thomas – who is as devoted to family as I am – said that he hoped Marcone killed Lara. It hadn’t really sunk in at the time. But I found myself thinking about it more and more these days and wishing I’d asked more questions. What had Thomas seen from Lara to make him say that? What couldn’t he forgive? What had Lara become in the intervening years I’d been away from Chicago?

Thinking about being tied to the White Court also made me think about my grandfather. Whose seething hatred for White Court vampires pushed him into completely losing his temper to the point he’d been wild and out of control. Even after I’d told him the truth about Thomas he’d only seen red, willing to kill his grandson. On purpose.

And me, on accident.

It made me wonder in the long hours of the night, what had happened in Eb’s past to drive him to such rage... to such a point of madness.

What had the White Court done to him?

This was the same White Court I was going to be forced to marry into soon unless I defied Mab and probably got myself killed (or tortured to the point of wanting to die), I discovered how to rid myself of the mantle of the Winter Knight and all its obligations, or I married Gentleman Johnny Marcone, criminal mob boss of Chicago, instead.

And I still had no idea how to rid myself of the mantle.

Stars and stones, I had no good options left.

I’d already been down the road of dying to resist Mab. That wasn’t a choice I’d ever consider making again. I wasn’t leaving my kids to grow up without me.

I knew too well the pain of being an orphan. I wasn’t about to inflict such loss on Maggie or Bonnie.

So I thought about it. For hours and hours. Turning it over. Letting it simmer in my mind.

Then I came to a decision. No matter what it took, there was no way in hell I’d let another generation of my family suffer at the hands of the White Court. I wasn’t letting Maggie anywhere near those assholes.

Because if I were to marry Lara Raith and even if we kept it strictly professional with her staying in her mansion while I lived in Castle Dresden it would still paint a target on me and on my mortal daughter. I was fervently thankful that Bonnie’s existence was still a secret from most of the supernatural community so she wouldn’t be in danger, but Maggie would be.

How many White Court vampires were waiting for Lara to stumble in her charade of ‘obeying’ the White King whom she controlled as a puppet? How many were waiting in the wings to challenge and kill her? How many would see attempting to kill or hurt me as a means of striking at her? House Malvora and House Skavis weren’t exactly fond of me after I’d interfered with their last attempted coup.

No White Court vampire who calls human beings kine – cattle – would see anything perverse about striking at me through a child.

And while the smart ones probably wouldn’t do it, especially with the recent history of what I’d done to the Red Court and a Titan, there were bound to be ones too stupid or arrogant enough to believe they’d survive my retribution. Or both since the White Court had no shortage of either. And remembering the White Court’s fondness for cat’s paws, maybe the smartest ones would be more than willing to use the idiots as weapons against me.

Against Maggie.

No. I would do anything to keep that from happening.

Even if I had to marry John Marcone.

Holy crap. I think I was actually going to do it. I was going to ask Marcone to marry me.

...gulp.