Captain Hook slammed into the wall, putting gouges in the freshly painted drywall, then staggered back and fell to the ground. Toot bore down with a vengeance, drawing his little sword, and the armored figure held up a mailed fist. "Invocation!" he piped in a high, clear voice. "I am a prisoner! I invoke Winter Law!"
Toot's sword was already in midswing, but at those last two words he checked himself abruptly, pulling the weapon back. He hovered there over Hook with his feet an inch off the ground, gritting his teeth, but then he buzzed back from Hook and sheathed the sword.
"Uh," I said. "Toot? What just happened?"
Toot-toot landed on the kitchen counter next to me and stomped around in a circle, clearly furious. "You opened your big fat mouth!" he screamed. After a moment, he added, sullenly, "My lord."
I frowned at Toot and then at Hook. The enemy sprite just sat there on the floor, making no further effort to escape. "Okay," I said. "Explain that."
"You offered to take him prisoner," Toot said. "By Winter Law, if he accepts your offer he may not attempt escape or offer any further resistance to you for as long as you see to his needs. Now you can't kill him or beat him up or anything! And I was winning!"
I blinked. "Yeah, okay, fine. So let's make with the questions already."
"You can't!" Toot wailed. "You can't try to make him betray his previous covenants or terror-gate him or anything!"
I frowned. "Wait. He's a guest?"
"By Winter Law?" I asked.
"Yes! Sort of."
"Well," I said, starting toward Hook. "I never signed on to that treaty. So screw Winter Law-"
And abruptly, as if someone had just slammed a row of staples into my skin, the mantle of the Winter Knight vanished completely. Pain soared back into my body, inflamed tissue crying out, my bruises throbbing, the edemas beneath my skin pounding with a horrible tightness. Fatigue hit me like a truck. The sensations were so intense, the only way I could tell that I had fallen to the floor was by looking.
And my body abruptly went numb and useless from my stomach down.
That scared the hell out of me and confirmed one of my worst fears. When I'd consented to serve Mab, my back had been broken, my spine damaged. Taking up the mantle had covered what would probably have been a crippling and long-term injury. But without it, my body was only mortal. Better than most at recovering over time, but still human. Without the mantle, I wouldn't have legs, bladder or bowel control, or, most important, independence.
I was on the ground like that for a subjective week, but it could have been only a few seconds before Thomas reached my side, with Murphy, Butters, and Molly right behind him. I knew they were there because I could see them, but their voices swam down to me from what seemed like a great distance among the cacophony of raking sensations scouring my nervous system. They lifted me to a sitting position-and then abruptly the pain was gone, and my legs started moving again, jerking in a single, gentle spasm.
The mantle had been restored.
"Okay," I said in a ragged voice. "Uh. Maybe we won't screw Winter Law."
"Harry," Thomas said, as if he'd said my name several times already. "What happened?"
"Uh," I said. "I think it's . . . a side effect. Fallout from defying the order of things."
"What?" he asked.
"Faeries," I said. "They're kind of insane, and mischievous, and dangerous as hell, but they all share one trait-they're good to their word. They obey what they recognize as law. Especially Mab."
"You aren't making much sense right now," Thomas said.
"The mantle of power comes from Mab. And now it's in me. But it's still a piece of her. If I go violating her own realm's laws, it looks like the mantle isn't going to have my back."
"Meaning I'd better figure out what the laws are pretty damned quick," I replied. "Help me up."
Thomas hauled me to my feet and I looked at Toot. "You know the Winter Law?"
"Well," Toot said as if I were an idiot, "of course."
"Where can I learn it?"
Toot tilted his head. "What?"
"Winter Law," I said. "Where can I learn it?"
"I don't understand," Toot said, tilting his head the other way.
"Oh, for the love of . . ." I pinched the bridge of my nose between my thumb and forefinger. "Toot. Can you read?"
"Sure!" Toot said. "I can read 'pizza' and 'exit' and 'chocolate'!"
"All three, huh?"
"You're a scholar and a gentleman," I said. "But where did you learn Winter Law?"
Toot shook his head as if mystified. "You don't learn it, Harry. You just . . . know it. Everyone knows it."
"I don't," I said.
"Maybe you're too big," Toot said. "Or too loud. Or, you know-too human."
I grunted. Then I eyed Hook, who had continued to sit in the same spot during the entire conversation. "So I've gone and made him my guest, eh?"
"Well. More like your vassal."
I frowned. "Uh? What?"
"That's what surrender is, duh," Toot said. "His life is yours to do with as you please. And as long as you don't starve him or make him an oathbreaker, you can tell him to do whatever you want. And if his liege wants him back, he has to pay you for him."
"Ah. Medieval-style ransom."
Toot looked confused. "He did run some, but I stopped him, my lord. Like, just now. In front of you. Right over there."
There were several conspicuous sounds behind me, the loudest from my apprentice, and I turned to eye everyone else. They were all either covering smiles or holding them back-poorly. "Hey, peanut gallery," I said. "This isn't as easy as I'm making it look."
"You're doing fine," Karrin said, her eyes twinkling.
"Come on, Toot," I said, and walked over to Hook.
The little faerie sat there, apparently ignoring me, which took considerable nerve. If I fell or stepped on him, it would be like a tree falling on a lumberjack. If I were trying to hurt him, physically, I could twist him up like Stretch Armstrong.
On the other hand, Hook was a faerie. It probably never even occurred to him that I might violate Mab's laws.
"The prisoner will stand and face the Za Lord!" Toot shrilled.
Hook obediently got up and turned to face me.