Maeve, of course, knew about the mortal policeman as soon as he started poking around the edges of the Undercity. He wasn't one of the Wizard Dresden's particular pets, but he had gone to speak to them, almost as soon as he had realized exactly what sort of case he was involved in.
Interestingly, he had listened to Dresden's pets. And they had given him true knowledge in return. Karrin Murphy's people, Maeve's agent had reported to her, treated the man like an old he-wolf returned to familiar hunting-grounds after long wandering: with a wary sort of respect, the deference owed to one whose strength you acknowledged but who was no longer pack.
Even more interesting.
Maeve could have closed the Ways to him. She could have twisted his paths so that he could not find even the edges of the Undercity, circling back endlessly to the commuter tunnels; or fogged his mind so that he did not even have a memory of a memory of its existence; or done a thousand other things to a simple mortal unwise enough to seek out her realm.
But interesting was rare enough in these decadent days, so she did none of them. Instead, she watched him. And, on the night he seemed to be finally determined to venture all the way in to her realm, she sent a breath of Winter to him, a tiny gust of Arctic wind threading its way through twisty passages and Chicago summer air to gently caress his face. He turned into it like a plant toward sunlight, and then froze still and took a deep breath. He licked one finger, made a face at himself, and held the damp finger up into the draft, tracing its direction carefully before he jogged off to follow it. Not a complete fool, then.
She led him down the tunnels, closer and closer to the center of her court. She led him into a corridor where the walls and floors were decorated with a lacy rime of ice, a place threaded with frigid threat in Winter magic. Where most mortals would have hesitated, would have had to push on through fear, he traced a line of frost with one hand as he walked, and smiled, almost fondly.
He didn't seem to care about the cold, in jeans and simple leather boots and a mid-weight jacket. And it was very cold where he was, now. Though she could stretch the distance between him and the center of the Court as much as she liked, there was a sense in which he was very near to it, and much of her attention was bent toward him, bringing with it her cold; even for a man accustomed to Chicago's winters, he should have been feeling it.
She sent a sudden, miniature blizzard, crowded under the tunnels' low ceilings, just to see how he would react. He laughed. She made it stronger, until he was walking ankle-deep and then knee-deep in snow. He stopped, shook his head, and plowed back through the corridor for a few dozens yards, whereupon he retrieved a scrap of corrugated roofing plastic he must have noticed on his way down. He tightened the straps on the backpack he carried, laid the plastic down, took a running leap and tobogganed wildy through the snowstorm, out the other end, and then down a flight of stairs before he managed to stop his frantic rush
So. She decided to let him come, if he wanted to come. He was following the cold, and he followed it right to her Court, through a secondary Way that decanted him into an unoccupied wing of the ruined theater in which she was holding her revels tonight.
He stared out over the scene, concealed in the darkness from anyone who did not know he was there, a single pale mortal looking out onto a Faery Revel in the midst of its frenzy. And yet he could almost have blended in to her own people, slender, rangy, and pared down to essentials, with pale hair drawn up into a wild mass of spikes. In his battered leather jacket, jeans frayed to softness, and all-business boots that would work as well for dancing and combat, he looked a Chicago punk, slightly weathered with long wear; or a young lord of the Sidhe, trying to be a match for Maeve's own fondness for mortal fashions from their borderlands. He twisted his lips into a half-smirk, perhaps noticing the same thing, then dropped his pack off of his shoulders and nudged it farther into concealment. With a reluctant pause, he removed something Maeve could not quite see from one of his wrists and tucked it into an outer pocket. The he squared his shoulders and bounced a bit on his toes, girding for battle.
Maeve herself sat enthroned on the remains of the stage, handmaidens around her, her most recently acquired mortal child propped in unnatural serenity on her lap, as the flower of the Winter Court danced in icy beauty below her, to the strains of sulky jazz from a quartet of mortal musicians. She could see the interloper with her own eyes, now, and careful not to betray her awareness of the intrusion, she watched him, curious as to what he would do next. Challenge her? Attempt to steal from her by stealth? Call in reinforcements using technology he would soon discover had failed him? Create a disturbance among her courtiers? Nothing he could do would avail him, but it could be entertaining to watch.
Instead, he danced.
He stepped out among her people, careful to cause no disruption, until he found himself standing beside a very minor Sidhe lady who had been watching the dancing, unpartnered. He bowed to her and murmured something that Maeve could not make out; the woman smiled, quite suddenly, and led him gaily onto the floor.
Most mortals, finding themselves amidst Faerie dancers, were hopelessly awkward, grotesquely clumsy compared to the perfection of the Sidhe people. Even if, among their own kind, they were counted as skilled, they would become self-conscious in comparison, stumble, and lurch, and step on toes. This mortal danced in perfect confidence, leading his chosen lady through the steps with a grace that was almost Sidhe, but with a flair that only a mortal could manage. The lady laughed with him, beaming under the attention as he spun her in among the others. Maeve stared at him, but she was not the only one. Another lady, this one of a much higher rank than his initial partner, tapped in, and he traded up with a smile, his first partner quickly finding herself other attention with the aid of his reflected glory. Maeve frowned, and signaled to her mortal musicians to switch to a dance more suited to frequent changes of partner.
There was something almost elemental about him, in the way that some mortals managed, of being so pure a conduit of mortal frailty that his own mortality shone through him the way a Sidhe noble's power could. He was the dance. He moved among her courtiers, spinning from one to another, beyond the formal patterns of the Faery dance but in glorious counterpoint to their patterns, a bright streak of mortal lightning, leaving a new energy and a new art with each of his partners as he left them - a lady here, a Lord there, a Ellyll or two, so that the whole shape of the dance changed around him without him changing it at all. The grace of his dance was all coiled, nervous, volatile mortal energy: fear and death and pain and joy and growth and hope, and yet he spun among the ranks of the Winter court as if he belonged there.
He was a mystery. And he was beautiful.
Maeve handed the mortal child to one of the mnathan nighe, who slung a long pendulous breast over her shoulder for it to nuzzle. She stepped down from her throne to join her dancers, who knew her well enough to react to her presence by making a space for her with no comment.
She danced with them, moving without thought in the circles of power and pleasure and structure that made her the Winter Lady, until she found herself, seemingly by chance, in the moment between one song and the next, face to face with the mortal dancer, both of them unpartnered.
He was lit up from within, all joy, all motion. Some of it was the glamour of her court, for no mortal could dance among them and remain entirely unaffected. Most of it, though, she thought, was simple pleasure in his art. He grinned at her, breathless, and offered her the barest nod of deference. "Lady," he said, "May I favor you with a dance?"
"Gladly," she said, and took his hands as the music swelled.
And oh, he could dance. There were powers that mortals had that the Sidhe courts could only look upon and covet, and among the greatest of those was their art. A faery spirit was always and only herself; she was one thing, and that thing she was, wholly. A mortal could become his art, could let his acts transform him, and in return, give his creations a spark of soul that the Sidhe courts lacked. And this mortal was all spark and all soul; he wore his mortal passion and pain on his skin, as if they were armor rather than frailty. Enthralled by the dance already, it would not take much more to bind him fully to her, as she laid the power of her allure against him. She felt the glamour pour in to him, and yet he did not seem to react, even as she poured more into him, even as she pulled him farther into the dance.
In a slow measure, when they both had breath, she said to him, "I am the Winter Lady, the one they call Maeve. Will you give me your name?"
He looked down at her, and then said, "Ray," before he dipped her, so that the tails of her hair brushed against the floor. "Ray Vecchio," he added with a smirk, and she nearly let herself show a frown.
It was a true name. She could hear it in the sound of his voice as he said it, the way it pulled on his selfhood as he offered it to her. And it was his true name, or part of it. And yet it wasn't. Mortals' names were tricky things, always fluid, as apt to be a poisoned tool as a useful one, sometimes barely worth the collecting, but they still had power. This mortal, it seemed, knew that better than most.
"Very clever, Ray," she told him, "Giving away a name you are already trying to lose."
"Well," he said, managing to shrug in such a way that it became part of the dance, "I had it lying around spare, so. And by the way, Lady, you can stop wasting your effort on me. I can't fall in love twice."
Ah. So that was what it was; that was why he had been able to resist her so far. He had a lover in the world outside, and he thought to use that love as a shield against the temptations of even the Lady of Winter. She let out a laugh, brittle and tinkling like ice on glass. He would soon learn differently. "And who is this lover who you would prefer even above a queen of the Sidhe?"
He gave her only a crooked smile, almost sad, resigned. Curious, she looked. He was half in the power of her Court already, and the memory rose bright and immediate under her touch, almost as if inviting her in:
It is a morning like a dozen other mornings; not even quite a morning yet, for the dawn still comes late, this far north. Ray is cold; he cannot remember being other than cold; he has grown acclimated to the discomfort of it so that he notices it no more than he notices the icy sharpness of the air he breathes as he steps out of the tent, or the wind moaning hollowly in his ears.
And yet - suddenly - as he crawls outside, one gloved hand wrapped around a tin cup of warm gruel, the other tucking a layer of scarf under his collar - he glances around the world he has stepped into, and stops, arrested, caught all at once by the beauty and the wildness and the endlessness and relentlessness of it. He has no words for what he is feeling; he has never been a man to whom words come easily; he stands there, his meal forgotten in his hand, feeling something grow enormous and bright in his heart to reach back to the enormity around him.
Another voice rises into the morning, and gives him words for it:
"The great sea stirs me.
The great sea sets me adrift,
it sways me like the weed
on a river-stone.
The sky's height stirs me.
The strong wind blows through my mind,
It carries me with it,
so I shake with joy."
Ray turns around, and smiles at the man who has emerged from the tent behind him. "Let me guess, Inuit poetry."
The other man, in Ray's memory a brilliant presence like a pillar of Summer fire enfolded in a thick layer of Winter ice, nods, smiling back with his voice. "You know me well, Ray. That poem was composed by the Iglulik shaman Uvavnuk almost a century ago. Although the Inuit themselves do not make a distinction between poetry and song, so that poetry is meant to be sung and a lyric is a poem. In fact, the Inuktitut word for poetry, 'anerca', is also the word for 'breath', because to live without speaking poetry is unthinkable to --"
"Haven't even fed the dogs yet and you're already in to Inuktitut entomology," Ray grumbles.
"Etymology, Ray," his partner corrects. "Entomology is the study of insects. Etymology is--"
It should have broken the mood, but it doesn't. All through that morning, as they pack the sled and harness the dogs, as the sun sulkily grazes the horizon and sets glorious fire to the snowscape they travel through on an endless foolish quest, Ray is caught and kept and held by the land around him, by the dome of sky and the trackless ice and the cold that could kill him with a single misjudgement.
He spends most of the day skiing while his partner drives the sled. Around midafternoon his partner calls the dogs to a halt and comes alongside. "Ray," he says. "You have been acting strangely all day. Distracted. Abstracted. Are you ---?"
"What?" Ray says, then shakes his head, clearing it. "Naw. It's just--" he flings one arm around the landscape, still short of words. "It's just I think I might finally understand what you see in this place. I mean, you're still a freak,"
"Understood," his partner says warmly.
"--But it gets under your skin, somehow, doesn't it?"
"Ah," the other man says shortly, and gazes at him for a long moment, considering. "I should have warned you, Ray, I suppose, but I couldn't be sure--" he shakes his head as well, and then produces a small notebook and pencil from a pocket, handing it to Ray.
"What's this?" Ray asks.
"It's the log where we've been keeping track of our progress and food consumption rates, of course. Someone needs to do a new set of rationing calculations after the run of good days we've been having."
"Yeah, I know that, but why are you giving it to me?"
"The Arctic will still be here tomorrow, Ray. And the day after, and the next. In fact, it will most likely remain, in some form, long after you are dead, despite all the best efforts of our species as a collective. But men have gone mad, looking too long into her heart. And men have gone blind. Now, many people have lived long and fulfilling lives under both of those conditions, but I am not certain, Ray, that further impairment along either of those lines is something you can readily afford. I believe a few hours of distraction would do you no harm at this juncture."
Well - okay, Ray is an idiot, otherwise he would not have been here in the first place, and he is fairly sure he's just been insulted (thank you kindly), but he hopes he's smart enough to have learned by now when it's a good idea to do what his partner says. So he spends the rest of that day's light packed onto the sled with the supplies, fighting with long columns of numbers in a cramped waterproof notebook.
His partner is right, though. The feeling in his heart is still there when he greets the sky the next morning; it is still there the next day, and for many after, as the great ice reaches hesitantly toward a spring that it will never quite achieve. It becomes simply another thing about the Arctic, a part of the cold and the wind and the space and the emptiness and the danger and the glory. It stays with him as they turn South, toward home; as they bid farewell to the dogs and the tents that had been their trusty and trusted companions, and when Ray bids farewell to his partner on his sister's threshold. It even stays with him in the plane home, gazing out over the wide white stretch of the Territories, so that he does not even notice until he has been back in the City for weeks, pacing restlessly through the warm dark streets in search of something that is not there, that when he turned away from the North he left behind him more than he realized.
Maeve pulled back from him. If she was shaken, she did not show it. He had not meant a mortal lover when he said he could not fall in love twice; he had meant that all of Winter's power could not bind him any more to Winter than he was already bound.
"You fell in love with Winter Herself," the Winter Lady breathed, to the gentle guiding touch of his hand on her bare waist as they turned together. Winter Herself: in some ways the three Queens of the Court, She Who Was, Who Is, and Is To Be, were Winter embodied, Winter incarnate, all the savage power of cold and forsaking channeled, if not tamed, into the concept of Beings. But the Winter that this man had given himself to, with all the fearless abandon of mortality at its greatest, was not incarnate at all. It was Winter Timeless, Winter endless, the source of the source of the Court's power, the great Certainty which in some ways Maeve herself was only a shadow upon.
The mortal said only, his visage a study in irony, "They warned me and warned me about making deals with you people, but I got to tell you, so far it's nothing on making a promise to a Mountie."
As one who was given to Winter, he was in some ways already a part of her Court, and yet there were things, by the same token, that she dared not do. All the same-- "I could give Winter back to you, if you asked."
He was wistful, tempted, for a passing fancy, but then he shook his head. "He loved her first. And I have the City."
"I could bring your Mountie back to you, too."
"I could bring him back, if I decided to. Do you think I don't know that? But I don't want him that way. And he doesn't belong here any more than I belong in the Territories."
That last sentence had an eerie resonance to it; it was one of the gifts of mortals to speak truth to Powers all unknowing. But all she said to him was, "Then what do you seek here, foolish mortal who came all uninvited to a dance of the Sidhe?"
"All I want from you is Hope," he told her seriously.
She blinked at him. "Few mortals look to Winter, of all places, for Hope. Is your life that empty of it?"
He echoed her blink back, then shook his head. "Oh, no. No. Hope Freedman. The kid." He flicked one arm over to where the mortal babe was still being fussed over by the mnathan.
Was he still worried about that? "What do you want with a mortal child? It's not yours. And it's not even a particularly useful one. Or a particularly special one."
"All babies are useless, Lady. And they're all special. That's the point of babies. Her mother wants her back."
"Its mother said that perdition could take it, for all she cared. She's lucky it was only me who took the child."
"You had no right to take her."
"I had every right. Weren't you listening? Its mother offered it up. Oh, little mortal, did you think you could just walk in to my hall and have it for the asking? What do you have to offer me in exchange?"
"I thought you'd give her to me in payment for the favor you owe me, actually."
"Favor? What favor?" she asked him scornfully.
"The favor of a dance," he said, and let her go as the song ended.
In the sudden silence she cast her mind back: "May I favor you with a dance," he had said, wording it very carefully to throw the obligation back onto her, and she had, unthinkingly, agreed, caught up in the spell of her own revel. "That," she breathed at him, "Was underhanded."
He shrugged. "It worked. It did work, didn't it?"
For a moment Maeve was not sure which was making her angrier: that he had fooled her into his debt, and so easily; or that he had perverted the glory of his dance into simple strategy, into bargaining. She bared her teeth at him, showing the merest inkling of what she kept under her naughty-schoolgirl shell. "I am far your elder in trickery and traps, mortal, and a dance is not much of a debt. I could destroy you so easily."
"Yeah, but you won't, will you?" he said, tucking his hands into his pockets, all confidence, but his eyes darted back to where his pack was hidden.
If he turned to force rather than guile and beauty, he would not make it out of here unscathed, but she did not doubt that he had sufficient iron, or worse, in that pack to make things unpleasantly untidy. And then there was the fact that he was Winter's, yet a mortal, and not of her court, which complicated things.
"Besides," he added, "There's dances, and then there's dances. Don't pretend that was nothing, or you're insulting more than just me."
So he did realize the value of what he had given to her revel tonight. That made her feel much more in charity with him. And it had been no small gift, a mortal of such art dancing of his own will among her people. She had, in fact, made much worse bargains. She might have even made this one, if he had come to her with it openly. And she found that she was not averse to his leaving her realm on good terms. He was still interesting, this mortal who loved Winter and was a match for the Lady in a dance.
Maeve gestured peremptorily to the mnathan nighe and one of them brought the child over to where they still stood in the center of the rapidly-emptying dancefloor. She held it before her and looked at it, calculating. It blinked, still held in unnatural serenity by her power, and reached out one chubby hand toward her hair.
"If this is what you ask of me, I will grant it to you," she told Ray. "But the child has eaten of our food, and drunk of our milk. That will never leave it. It will always be a child of two worlds."
Ray shrugged, and took the child from her. It still reached back toward her hair, and Ray grinned, quicksilver. He reached out and tugged the lock the child couldn't reach, and said, "Being a child of two worlds isn't so bad, really."
Then, with the entire court staring at him with mute disbelief, he sauntered off her dancefloor, whistling some tune that gave rhythm to his movements. And with the child on one shoulder, his pack slung over the other, he left her court through the same door he'd entered by.