"It's one of my gifts. Asking annoying questions is another. Other than you, is there anyone at the party I should make sure not to turn my back to?"
"You are of Winter now, wizard." His turned his golden eyes away from me again. "Don't turn your back to anyone."
Cat Sith led me down passages I had never seen on my previous visit to Mab's seat of power. Heck, back then I had thought it consisted entirely of a wall around a courtyard and a single turreted tower. I hadn't ever seen the complex beneath the ice of the courtyard. It was enormous. We walked for ten minutes, mostly in the same direction, before Cat Sith said, "That door."
The one he spoke of was made of ice, just like the walls, though it had a thick ring of what might have been silver hanging upon it. I grabbed the ring and tugged, and the door opened easily onto a small antechamber, a little waiting room complete with several easy chairs.
"Go in," Cat Sith said. "Wait for instructions. Follow instructions."
"I'm not good at either of those things," I said.
Sith's eyes gleamed. "Excellent. I have orders to dispatch you if you disobey Mab's commands or undermine her authority in any way."
"Why don't you go ask Eldest Fetch how easy that one is, Mittens?" I said. "Scat."
Sith didn't vanish this time. He just sort of melted into shadow. His golden eyes remained behind for a few seconds, and then he was gone.
"Always stealing from the greats," I mumbled. "Lewis Carroll's estate should be collecting a licensing fee from that guy."
Unless, of course, it was maybe the other way around.
I went into the chamber and the door shut behind me. There was a table with what looked like handmade candies on it. I didn't touch them. Not because I was worried about my svelte figure, but because I was standing at the heart of wicked faerieland, and eating random candy seemed like a less than brilliant idea.
There was an old book on the table next to the candies, set carefully and precisely in place beside the dish. It was titled Kinder- und Hausmarchen. I leaned down and opened it. The text was in German. It was really old. The pages were made of paper of the finest quality, thin and crisp and edged in gold foil. On the title page, under the title, were the names Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, and the year 1812.
It was autographed, and personalized, "For Mab." I couldn't read the text, so I settled for the illustrations. It was better than reading those stupid celebrity magazines in every other waiting room, and was probably more grounded in reality.
The door opened soundlessly while I looked at the book, and a vision came into the room. She wore a velvet dress the deep blue-purple of twilight. She glanced back toward the hallway behind her as the door closed, and I saw that the dress plunged low in the front. She had matching opera gloves that reached to halfway up her biceps, and there was a garland of periwinkles in her dark hair that complemented the dress gorgeously. Then she turned back to me and smiled. "Oh, my," she said. "You clean up nicely, Harry."
I rose politely to my feet, though it took me a couple of seconds to say, "Sarissa. Wow. You . . . barely look like you."
She quirked an eyebrow at me, but I saw a pleased tilt to her mouth. "My. That was almost a compliment."
"I'm out of practice," I said. I gestured toward a chair. "Would you care to sit?"
She gave me a demure smile and did, moving with an absolute and liquid grace. I offered her my hand to help her sit, which she didn't need. She gripped my fingers lightly anyway. Once she was seated, I sat back down myself. "Did you want a bit of candy?"
Her smile somehow contained gentle reproof. "I hardly think that would be wise. Do you?"
"Hell's bells, no," I said. "I just, uh . . . You make conversation when you're, uh . . . I'm not sure what to . . ." I picked up the priceless copy of the Grimms' tales and held it up. "Book."
Sarissa covered her mouth with one hand, but her eyes twinkled. "Oh, um, yes. I've seen it a few times. I've heard rumors that Her Majesty worked hard to make sure the tales were put into print."
"Sure," I said. "Makes sense."
"Why?" she asked.
"Oh, the Sidhe's influence had been waning as the Industrial Age gathered steam," I said. "By making sure the tales kept being told to mortal children, she made sure that she and her folk were never forgotten."
"And that's important?" Sarissa asked.
"If it wasn't, why else would she do it? I'm pretty sure that being forgotten is bad for beings that live with one foot in the mortal world and the other over here. Wouldn't shock me if she greased some wheels for Walt Disney, either. He did more than anyone else to bring those stories into modern times. Hell, he built a couple of fairylands in the mortal world."
"I hadn't ever thought about it that way," Sarissa said. She folded her hands in her lap and smiled at me. It was a completely calm and lovely expression-but I had the sudden instinct that she was concealing unease.
I might not have been able to tell a couple of months ago, but she'd been on the periphery of several of Mab's therapy sessions, and I'd seen her react to sudden fear and stress. There was that same sense of controlled tension in her now as there had been when a small avalanche of poisonous spiders-big ones-had come cascading out of the towel cupboard in the workout room. She'd been wearing capri pants and no shoes at the time, and she'd had to hold completely still while dozens of the things swarmed over her naked feet, until I could clear them off, gently and cautiously, so as not to threaten the little things into killing us.
That particular test had been all about regulating one's reaction to sudden fear. Sarissa had done it, refusing to let her anxiety control her. She'd waited, expressionless and almost calm, looking much then as she did right now.
It made my feet start to itch.
She was expecting spiders.
"So," I said. "To what do I owe the pleasure of your company? Do you need me to perform some last-minute yoga routines?"
"You took to yoga like a duck to vacuum," she said. "I know how much you love the routines, but I'm afraid I must disappoint you. Tonight I'm to be on your arm, by command of the Queen. I'm supposed to tell you the protocols for a gathering of the court and make sure you don't get too bored."
I leaned back in my chair and regarded her thoughtfully. "I can't remember the last time I had that problem. And gosh, walking around with someone as lovely as you all night sounds like torture."