UNMAKE (Spellhounds Book 2), page 21
That was definitely out.
“A Plea for Investigation,” he continued, “is more the trial you’re probably expecting. Witness testaments and evidence will be presented, and the council will vote on their assessment of your guilt.”
Which was what I’d expected. Still not a great option, but definitely better than blindly expecting enough of them to trust me. I glanced down the line, noting the array of poker-faced councilors. I couldn’t read any of them.
“The final option is Plea of Leniency. This means you acknowledge your guilt and, in exchange for your honesty, the council considers a lighter punishment.”
“Considers,” I said.
“We still hear the evidence both for and against your case. A Plea for Leniency is not a guarantee for absolution, but a way of showing contrition and compliance.”
I swallowed, uncertain what to decide. I glanced down the table at Deepti, but she was still as a statue. There was no hint in her posture, she didn’t have her hands on the table, and she didn’t blink when I looked at her. I wanted to be angry, but then, I’d ignored her advice before. Why should she bother to give it to me now?
Or maybe she really thought I needed to make the choice myself.
I swallowed, considering every conversation I’d had with Deepti, Eric, Randolph, and even De Vries. It really wasn’t a choice.
“I Plea for Leniency,” I said.
The noise behind me rolled in a wave, and I felt Sorcerer Randolph ease closer. “Good choice, d’Argent,” he said. “Very good choice.”
I wasn’t so sure. The whispers behind me grew in volume, and after a moment, they weren’t whispers at all. People were talking outright, and I felt the dangerous energy swelling, shouts ringing off the crystalline chandeliers as sorcerers professed their shock or triumph at my admission of guilt.
“Defensively!” someone shouted. “How the hell else are you supposed to take down a blood mage!”
“Enforcers do it all the time without resorting to such disgusting methods.”
“I am an Enforcer.”
“Perhaps I should have specified. Competent Enforcers don’t need sanguimancy.”
“Spoken like someone who sits at home, ignoring his magic until it comes time to vote.”
My shoulders tensed. I wanted to turn around, but Enforcer Randolph’s hand stayed firmly on my shoulder, keeping me faced forward. The Twelve didn’t seem to be in a hurry to regain control of the crowd, either. They were leaning toward Sorcerer Erebus, speaking in hushed tones.
The arguments raged on behind me, rising in pitch until I had to fight to keep from covering my ears.
I hadn’t really believed Deepti and Eric when they’d told me I was a point of contention across the entire Guild. I couldn’t escape that fact now, with a thousand magic-users shouting about my Guilt, and the preexisting conflict it had drawn so sharply to the surface.
At last, the council settled straight in their chairs again, and the bright chandeliers dimmed. The conflict didn’t dull. I clenched my jaw.
Sorcerer Erebus stood, lifting both hands. Twin blue mandalas appeared on each palm, and he clapped them together.
For an instant, he was Zeus, thunderbolts clenched in his fist, the room filled with stormy shadows and crackling forks of lightning. A massive clap blasted across the assembly, and I wasn’t the only person who gave a sharp yell of pain and surprise.
An instant later, the ballroom was bright, golden, and twinkling with crystal. It was also dead silent.
“Helena d’Argent, the Council of Twelve honor your forthrightness. The trial will proceed with statement from your accusers.” Sorcerer Erebus flicked through his papers and his mouth became a grim line. “The Council of Twelve calls its first accuser to the floor. Approach, Enforcer Samuel Ritter.”
The stream of sorcerers entered the ballroom four floors below us, dressed as if they were attending the awards ceremony advertised on the sign displayed in the atrium. An array of slacks and suit jackets accompanied silk blouses and glimmering, sleeveless gowns. I was a little surprised to note how few of the bared shoulders and forearms had tattoos. I’d sort of figured head-to-toe ink was a sorcerer’s standard uniform. It was possible most people simply kept them in places generally concealed by clothing.
It was also possible that tattooed mandalas was mostly for active Guild members like Enforcers or leaders.
“How do you think the Guild usually works?” Krista said next to me. “Like, on the local level.”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe they rent out the back room of a Golden Corral every quarter.”
Krista snorted. “And their chapter leader reads the new policies, they vote on the parade float theme. Someone talks about a newsletter.”
“Then they have a raffle, eat some pie, and go home.”
We were still giggling when Eric opened the door to our room and stepped out, still fussing with his tie. “What?”
Krista and I didn’t look at each other. “That looks better than the first three tries,” I said, nodding at the tie, which was a somewhat crinkled blue and gold paisley.
“Eh,” he said. “Won’t matter from a distance. How many people have gone in?”
I drew a breath and turned back to the atrium below. “Couple hundred. They’ve got some Enforcers on the door. Hey—do most sorcerers not have tattoos?”
Eric stepped up to the railing on the other side of Krista and peered down. “Nah, it’s not a big deal if you’re not planning on fighting for a living. Most people with magic don’t actually do much studying of it. They take a tracking tattoo, but a lot of times that’s all. Some people get wards. We only have three or four really good tattoo artists in North America.”
I blinked at him. “Now that you say that, it makes sense,” I said. “I guess the tattoo artist has to do the drawing order right for the mandala to work.”
“Hard to explain that part to a regular tattoo artist without telling them why. A few have taken the chance, but it’s not something that always works. And it’s expensive as hell. Ah, there’s the fucker now.”
I followed Eric’s baleful glare to the tall, uniformed man crossing the atrium. He was tall, probably around my own height, but with bigger shoulders. He wore a black police uniform with the added bulk of a bulletproof vest beneath it. Even before Eric said anything, I figured out who it was.
“That must be Officer Blue Eyes,” I said. I sent a mental arrow of doom toward the Enforcer’s back.
“Ohh,” Krista said. She lifted her black and pink Hello Kitty purse. “Can I please dart him? I have it right here. I really want to dart him.”
Eric’s lip curled. “It would be far more satisfying to punch him till his mama thinks he’s ugly.”
They both looked at me, but I couldn’t think of anything to say. The way I felt couldn’t be fixed with any kind of vengeful action. What I wanted was for him to undo his report, and that was impossible. Beyond that...
“Yeah,” I said. “Punching him would feel good.”
Eric pushed back from the half-wall and spread his arms out to either side. “Acceptably un-quarterbackly?”
I shrugged. “Press-conference quarterback.”
“Go get ‘em, sugarbuns,” Krista added, earning a raised eyebrow before Eric tossed us a wave and headed for the elevators.
“Be smart,” he said.
We nodded, and watched in silence as he disappeared into the elevator and reappeared thirty seconds later in the atrium. Officer Blue Eyes stood at the door, opposite a woman whose ruffled blouse displayed a good number of tattoos. They checked each person off on a list.
When Eric approached, there was a brief staring match. I couldn’t decide if I wanted Eric to punch him, or to restrain himself and speak for Helena at her trial. Krista was whispering, “Do iiiiit,” beside me. No shock there. In the end, Eric stepped inside, purposefully shouldering De Vries aside. Even from here, I could see the f
Over the next twenty minutes, the throngs thinned, until at last there was no one else waiting to enter.
My palms were slick with sweat, so I rubbed them on my jeans. “What if they’re not bringing her in this entrance?” I said.
“There wasn’t another one,” Krista said. “Remember, we looked and ruled that out.” She didn’t sound entirely convinced.
I was about to say something else when, four floors below us, a pair of Enforcers emerged from the direction of the lobby, followed by a familiar girl.
Helena looked shaky on her feet, but she walked with her chin up, eyes roving across the atrium. I caught sight of her profile, and was relieved to see there weren’t any bruises. I’m not sure why I’d expected there to be bruises. Maybe I’d assumed she’d have them from the fight with the vigilantes, or maybe I’d just seen too many TV shows where the bad guy beat up prisoners. Then again, the small man escorting Helena didn’t look much like a TV villain. He looked like he’d gotten shrunk in the wash.
When Helena’s eyes swiveled our way, Krista and I stepped back against the door of our hotel room. If she reacted, it might prompt the Enforcers to come looking. A few seconds later, we crept back forward, and found that she wasn’t looking anymore. I resumed my assessment of her, heart pounding so hard I could feel my pulse under my tongue.
Her hair was clean, but not restrained in its customary braid. She wasn’t dressed up, like everyone else. She wore black track-pants and a long-sleeved gray tee, and her own chucks. I swallowed. At least she wasn’t in an orange jumpsuit. Then again, that might have given away that this wasn’t exactly the awards ceremony it claimed to be.
I held my breath as she passed De Vries. She made a point not to look at him, though he watched her with hawklike intensity until she was inside the ballroom.
I didn’t realize how hard I was clenching my fists until Krista put her hand over mine. “She looked okay,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said, though my jaw barely wanted to move. I stared at the closed door, as if I could summon her back through it. What if everything went wrong? What if I lost her forever? Panic threatened to claw its way up my back, but Krista dug her fingers into my fist and pried it open.
“Come on, babe,” she said. “We got shit to do.”
I swallowed the pulsing lump in my throat and nodded. I squeezed her fingers, then shook out my hands. I’d put Helena’s phone in my jacket next to mine like a talisman, and Krista’s Hello Kitty purse was big enough to hold the tranquilizer pistol and the 20cc syringes of vet-grade sedative, plus the package of zip-ties we’d picked up from a nearby electronics store.
We rode the elevator to the ground floor. The lobby was one way, and there was a Starbucks on the other side, both of them with exits. There was also the enclosed pedestrian bridge to think about.
“First order of business,” I said.
“Coffee?” Krista suggested.
“I was going to say that we needed to find whatever Jiji is watching the exits,” I said. I’d wanted our code word for the vigilantes to be something impossible for listeners to parse. I’d wanted to go with Iljimae, Korea’s version of Robin Hood, but neither Eric or Krista could remember the whole name. Krista had shortened it to “Jiji”. I was fine with this, since there was always the off-chance one of the vigilantes was Korean. Or knew Korean. Or watched Korean dramas. I mean, probably not, but whatever. We were going with it.
“Actually,” I said, “coffee is a great idea. No one expects a person holding a Starbucks.”
“They’ll assume we’re harmless Millennials.”
So while Krista got in line for coffee, I walked outside to look for whoever the vigilantes had stationed as their lookout. Someone would be loitering, waiting for the trial to finish and Helena to leave.
I doubled down on the Millennial image and pulled out my phone, vaguely playing an augmented reality game as I strode back and forth between the hotel’s two ground floor exits. All the while, I scanned people, checking for the vaguely-colored aura of a magic user.
I found him, just as Krista came up.
“Pokemon Go?” she asked.
“Jiji’s across the street,” I said. “Brown hair, goatee.”
“Is he wearing a shirt with mickey mouse holding a machine gun?”
“Cool.” Krista handed me my double espresso and made her way to the cross-walk, heading toward the line of shops we’d walked only yesterday.
I knocked back my drink in one go. Despite the white mocha syrup and whipped cream, the espresso was still hot enough to scald my mouth. Eugene would have said I deserved the scalding for defiling espresso with ass-loads of sugar, but Eugene wasn’t here, and I needed the extra energy.
We’d discussed a couple tactics for taking out the lookout. This guy was average height and wearing a jacket that might or might not have been concealing a gun. I didn’t know how to tell, so it seemed like our best plan would be to distract him, and get him alone.
I waited for Krista to take a seat on one of the benches in front of the shops before I walked up to the crosswalk, peering at my phone with an exaggerated look of confusion. When the light turned, I made my way uncertainly across, then held my phone in front of me and turned in a circle, muttering in Korean.
When the vigilante was back in my sight, I took a sharp breath, as if steeling myself for something scary.
“Excuse me?” I said in my most mangled English. “Excuse me? Sorry?” I waved at him, walking up close enough to invade personal space.
The vigilante jumped, hand going to his jacket. Okay, so he was probably armed.
“What?” he said, eyes darting down to the phone in my hand.
“Sorry!” I said. “Do you know aquarium?”
God, my fake-accent was terrible. I’d worked like hell to get rid of my accent, and now it was gone. I tried to think of how my mom sounded.
“The aquarium?” the vigilante said. “No, man, sorry. I’m not local.”
I pretended not to understand. “Sorry?” I repeated, and held out my phone. The GPS was up on the screen, but I’d changed my phone’s language to Korean just in case we needed to pull off this particular ruse. “Aquarium? Do you know?”
“NO,” he said, raising his voice to an almost yell, like it would help me understand. “I DON’T KNOW AQUARIUM.”
I glanced at Krista, who really should have been shooting him with a tranquilizer right now. She was staring at me, eyes wide, and pointing at the bench beside her, where a woman had sat down with a double-wide stroller. Shit.
“Okay, sorry,” I said. “Please, do you know Police man?”
“Police man?” he said. “I DON’T KNOW. MAYBE THAT WAY.” He pointed back toward the boardwalk by the harbor. “ASK SOMEONE WHO WORKS HERE.”
“That way?” I repeated. “Ocean?”
“Do you need help?” Krista said, walking up to me. “Bulgogi?”
“Bulgogi!” I said, like someone completely relieved to hear his own language. “Bulgogi Kris-ta babo aquarium!”
The sorcerer took this to mean I’d found help and walked several feet away, resuming his post. I squinted at Krista. “Bulgogi? Really? He might have known that!”
“He’s got a mullet for god’s sake, he doesn’t know what bulgogi is,” she said, then pointed back toward the boardwalk.
“You owe, like, a whole dollar to the racist jar,” I said.
We ducked around the back of the shops and pretended to lean over my phone while Krista dug the dart gun out of her purse. I shrugged off my jacket and she draped it over her arm to conceal the pistol. “So, this is a pretty big dose. Like, I’d use it on a massive dog. It’d still take, like, three to five minutes for it to work, so it’s not going to drop him quick.”
“So I’m hearing we shoot and run?” I said. “Or shoot and duck into the shops?”
I took a deep breath and pretended to consult my phone as I leaned around the corner a bit. “Okay, clear.”
Krista took a deep breath and pulled the trigger.
It couldn’t be happening. That’s what I told myself, even as I turned to look at the back of the room. Ritter sat in a wheelchair, gleaming with spells that secured him to the metal frame. A pair of Enforcers pushed him down the center aisle, and noise rippled in his wake.
I tried to breathe. Why the hell were they calling on Ritter as a witness? I’d thought him on the way to his own trial.
The two Enforcers pushed him past me, but instead of leaving him facing the Council of Twelve, they turned him around and situated him immediately in front of me.
His lower leg was gone, and I though the cuff of his trousers had been folded and pinned like an envelope, I could see the bulge of bandages deforming the fresh injury. The two Enforcers walked to either side of the Council’s table. Ritter and I couldn’t be two feet apart. If not for the locked wheels, I could have lifted a boot and pushed that wheelchair back, sending it’s glowering occupant rolling away from me.
I resisted the urge to step backwards. I would not show fear in front of this man. I wouldn’t show unease at the way his face and chest was patched from the burns I’d caused, or at my own part in causing the loss of his leg.
He’d tried to kill me. The fact that he’d gotten injured was so not my problem.
“The Council recognizes former Enforcer Samuel Ritter, and his right to speak as a firsthand witness to the crime,” said Sorcerer Erebus.
Ritter stared directly at me. I’d half expected him to move, to address the gathered Sorcerers instead, but he didn’t. His hands were pinned to the arms of the wheelchair by a pair of mandalas, so he couldn’t exactly move himself. It seemed intentionally intimidating, like he was trying to provoke me into hurting him.
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