Skin Game Page 120

But it meant more than that. It meant winning the game Mab had set up for me.

Or, now that I thought about it, the game Mab had rigged for me. Mab had arranged to give me a target I couldn’t miss if I tried. It wasn’t a very appetizing target, but not every job I’d ever done was clean and enjoyable.

I knew how to win the game to Mab’s satisfaction. The trick was going to be both winning the game and surviving it.

Mentally, I went over those cards that I’d been holding close to my chest.

Yeah. If I played them properly, I thought I had a winning hand.

“Right,” I said quietly. I stepped up to the altar and started seizing holy objects. The placard. The crown.

“Take these,” I said in a whisper, passing them to Valmont. “Get out of sight. Stow them in your pack if you can. Hide them somewhere else if you can’t.”

Valmont stared at me with her eyes wide. “Why?”

“They can’t be allowed to fall into the wrong hands,” I said.

“Dresden,” she said, “I’m in this for the money, and revenge if I get a chance at it. I’m not here for a cause.”

I clenched my jaw for a second, and then regarded her frankly. “Anna,” I said, “when have I ever done wrong by you? I need your help. Who do you trust more to get you out of here? Nicodemus? Or me?”

She stared at me hard for only a fraction of a second before she gave me a curt nod, and took them. She started stuffing them into her pack. She hadn’t filled even half of it with diamonds, and was able to slide them in. “Hey, is that the Shroud?”

“This one looks older and shabbier than the one you stole from the Church,” I said, rolling up the old cloth and stuffing it into my duster’s pocket. It was thin stuff, terribly thin, and made a smaller bundle than you’d think. “Hell, maybe that investigative panel was right. Maybe the Church does have a knockoff.”

“But I thought that one had power?” she asked.

“It did, but not like this.” My fingers still tingled from touching the cloth. “Besides, we’re talking about the power of faith, here,” I said. “Enough people believe that the fake is really the Shroud, maybe that’s enough to make it powerful all by itself.”

“Seems like a cheat.”

“Don’t knock it,” I said.

Her head snapped up, and her eyes widened. “Dresden,” Anna hissed.

I heard footsteps approaching a couple of seconds later. My heart thudded in my chest. I managed to get the knife and slip it up the sleeve of my duster, then quietly slid the cup into the exact center of the altar. Even that brief contact was like touching a live wire. Tingles flew up my arm and set every hair of my body on end.

I fought to suppress a full-bodyshudder, and about half a second later, Nicodemus appeared, trailing Michael, Hannah Ascher, and the Genoskwa. Ascher carried my staff in one hand, the lights of its runes gradually growing dimmer. She looked tired but smug, wearing one backpack that sagged with wealth and lugging a second like a too-heavy carry-on bag at the airport.

“There,” Michael said when he spotted me. He looked relieved, and he hadn’t, as far as I could tell, picked up anything. “Thank God.”

I waved a hand at the group, using the gesture to let the knife fall a little deeper into my sleeve. “Over here. Found it.”

They all came down to the stage with me. Nicodemus’s eyes were narrow with suspicion as he walked. “Dresden. You’ve found the Grail?”

“I just had Valmont check this altar for traps, and she says it’s clear,” I said, not quite lying. “I just got done examining it myself.”

“Why did you leave your staff back there?” Nicodemus asked, his rough voice harsh. “A distraction?”

“Figured you guys could use it as a waypoint to find us,” I lied blatantly. I stepped aside with a little Vanna White gesture, revealing the cup, and said, “Ta-da.”

Nicodemus stared at me hard for a second, then at the cup on the marble altar. I could see the wheels spinning in his head as he thought. Michael’s eyes went to it as well, widening.

“That’s it?” Michael asked. “That’s really it?”

“Thing makes my teeth buzz it’s so powerful,” I said. “Yeah, I think that’s it.” I looked at Nicodemus and said, “You’ve got your damned cup. Let’s pack up, get Grey his share, and get the hell out of here.”

Nicodemus walked a slow circle around the altar, examining it. His shadow twisted and writhed with eagerness where it fell on the floor around him. I took a step to one side to avoid letting it fall on me, because ick.

“I know you’ve been aching to have your hands on my staff,” I said to Ascher, as Nicodemus examined the altar for himself. I held out my hand. “But I’d rather be the one fondling my tool. Wizards are weird like that.”

“Wow,” she said, and flashed me a grin, her face flushed, excited. “You left me nowhere to go with that one. I have nothing to add.”

“I’m just that good,” I said.

She tossed the staff back to me, imprecisely, and I fumbled it for a second and nearly dropped it. I had a hell of a time both catching it in my right hand and keeping my left arm bent enough to keep the knife from slipping out of my sleeve.

And the brass hilt of the knife clicked against the aluminum splint still on my left arm.

Nicodemus looked up sharply at the sound.

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