Mab's smirk said more than any words could have. Otherwise, she neither moved nor spoke.
"My lady . . ." began the Redcap, behind me.
"Hush," Maeve said absently. "I want to see what happens. What did you have in mind, wizard?"
In answer, I reached up and with a couple of quick tugs undid my tux's tie. It wasn't one of those preassembled ties. It was made out of a single band of pure silk, sized perfectly to wrap around my throat, with a couple of wider bits left over for handholds. I held it up, making a bit of drama out of it as I turned in a circle, and said, "Out of respect for our host and her law, there shall be no bloodshed."
Then I tossed the tie to the icy floor halfway between myself and the Redcap.
I looked up at Maeve and gave my chin an arrogant little lift. "'Sup, Princess. You game?"
Maeve lifted one hand and idly began tracing a fingertip over her lips, her eyes bright. She looked at Red and nodded.
"Okay, chucklehead," I said, turning to face him. "How about you let the yeti there hold the girl while you and I dance?" I gave him a broad grin. "Unless you're afraid of little old cockroach-swatting me."
Red's upper lip twitched. If he hadn't been one of the Sidhe, and at a party, and in front of all of his dearest frenemies, he would have snarled at me.
He beckoned the ogre with one hand, and the thing lumbered over to him. He thrust Sarissa into its huge, hairy, meaty arms. The ogre didn't get the girl around the neck. It simply wrapped its hand over her skull, like some hairy, spidery helmet, and held on. The smoky glass chopsticks in Sarissa's hair clattered to the ice, and her eyes got even wider.
"If the wizard uses his magic," the Redcap said, "break her neck." He eyed the ogre and said, "Without ripping it off."
"Yuh," the ogre said. Its beady eyes glared at me.
The Redcap nodded and turned to face me, his eyes narrowed.
Yowch. Nice move on Red's part. Though I'm not sure he needed to bother. I'd never been able to tag one of the Sidhe with a really solid hit with my magic. Their defenses against that kind of thing were just too damned good. But I'd been counting on using it indirectly to help out in the fight, and the Redcap had just taken that option away from me.
Sarissa gave the Redcap a glare that might have peeled paint from a wall, and then said, her voice rasping, "Harry, you don't have to do this for me. You can walk away."
"You kidding?" I said under my breath. "You think I'm going to go to all the trouble of finding a new PT guy? Hang tough."
She bit her lip and nodded.
I dismissed the girl from my thoughts, as much as I could, and tried to focus. I was still better off than I'd been a few moments ago. Now, instead of a three-versus-one fight that would probably kill me and certainly kill Sarissa, I had a pure one-on-one. If I lost, Sarissa wouldn't make it, and I would either be Maeve's chew toy or dead. (I was hoping for dead.) But if I won, Sarissa and I both got to walk away. It wouldn't keep something like this from happening again, but we'd live through the night, which was by definition victory.
Of course, now I had to win without using magic in a strangling-cord duel against a faerie who was faster than me, and who had centuries of experience in killing mortals. Oh, and I had to win it without drawing blood, or I'd be guilty of breaking Mab's law-and I knew how she would react to that. Mab wasn't evil, exactly, but she was Mab. She'd have me torn apart. The only mercy she would show would be by doing it all at once instead of spread over weeks.
Long story short, nobody there was going to help me. At times it sucks to be the lone hero guy.
I had one advantage: I was used to competing out of my weight class. I didn't have a whole ton of training in unarmed combat, but I did have considerable experience with being in dicey situations against homicide-oriented people and things that were bigger than me, stronger than me, faster than me, and motivated to end my life: I knew how to fight an uphill battle. The Redcap knew how to kill, but by maneuvering me out of using my magic, he'd tipped some of his hand: He was being cautious about me.
Sure, he was a predator, but in nature predators generally go after the weak, the sick, the aged, and the isolated. Solitary predators almost exclusively hunt by attacking from surprise, where they have every advantage in their favor. Hell, even great white sharks do that, and they're just about the biggest, oldest predators on the planet. I've seen a lot of things that hunted people in my time, and I regard them as a professional hazard, part of the job. I know how they operate. Predators don't like to pick fair fights. It runs counter to their nature and robs them of many of their advantages.
The Redcap had tried to limit what I could do in a bid to scrape together any advantage he could, as any predator does. That told me that he probably wasn't used to this kind of open confrontation.
He was nervous.
I was nervous, too-but I was on familiar psychological ground and he wasn't. Maybe I could use that.
I undid the top button of the shirt and shrugged out of the jacket as if nothing at all were about to happen, taking my time. I tossed it at one of the watching Sidhe. He caught it and folded it neatly over one arm, never looking away, while I calmly undid the cuffs of my shirt and rolled up the sleeves. I stowed the cuff links in a pocket.
I stretched and yawned, which might have been taking the pantomime over the top, but what the hell? In for a penny. I smiled at Maeve, inclined my head very slightly to Mab, and turned to face the Redcap.
"Ready," I said.
"Ready," the Redcap echoed.
The music abruptly stopped, and in the silence Mab's voice came from everywhere. "Begin."
I rushed forward faster than I ever could have done before I'd become Mab's Knight. It was damned close. The Redcap was quicker off the mark, but I had longer arms. He snatched the nearest end of the silk an instant before I grabbed my end. As my fingers closed, he snapped it back out of my grip, and then dropped his weight straight down, his back leg coming forward into a crescent-shaped sweep about six inches off the icy floor.
I turned my forward stumble into a forward roll. I went over the kick, tucked in tight, and came up to my feet smoothly-but the motion had carried me past him, and I knew that with his speed and grace, he'd already be leaping toward my back.
I spun to him, one hand at the level of my throat to intercept him if he was already close enough to get the tie around it, and lunged back toward him with my right arm raised to the horizontal, hoping to catch him across the neck in a clothesline.
I'd misjudged. He was moving so fast that all I got was motion blur, and he hadn't swept the silk tie at my neck-he'd aimed for my upraised left hand. The silk snaked around my wrist, and I caught it in my hand just in time for him to slip to one side, dragging my arm in close to his body. He used my forward momentum and my trapped arm to rob me of my balance and spin me in a circle, hauling at my arm with all his strength.