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Proven Guilty, Page 26

Jim Butcher

Chapter 44~45

  Chapter Forty-four

  My mechanic's skills bordered on the supernatural. He left word with me that the Beetle was ready to resume active duty, and that while it didn't look like much, the car would roll when I pushed the pedals-which was all I really needed it to do. So Molly and I rolled up to the lakeside warehouse where I'd met with the Council at the start of this mess.

  When I shut down the engine, the Beetle rattled and shuddered hard enough to click my teeth together before it died. It continued wheezing and clicking for several seconds afterward.

  Molly stared out ahead of her, her face pale. "Is this the place?"

  The rundown old warehouse looked different in the orange evening light than it had at high noon. Shadows were longer and darker, and emphasized the flaws and dents in the building, giving the place a much more rundown, abandoned appearance than I had remembered. There were fewer cars there, as well, and it gave the place an even more abandoned atmosphere.

  "That's the place," I said quietly. "You ready?"

  She swallowed. "Sure," she said, but she looked frightened and very, very young. "What comes next?"

  I got out of the car as an answer, and Molly followed suit. I squinted around, but no one was in sight until the air shimmered about twenty feet away and Ramirez stepped out of the veil that had hidden him.

  Carlos Ramirez was the youngest wizard ever given the post of regional commander in the Wardens. He was average height, his skin glowing with bronze health, and he wore both the grey cloak of the Wardens and one of their-or rather, our, except that I don't have one-silver swords at his left hip. At his right he wore a heavy semiautomatic in a holster, and his military-style web belt also bore several hand grenades.

  "Good veil," I said. "Way better than the other day. "

  "I wasn't here the other day," he assured me with bland confidence.

  "Your work?" I asked.

  "I make it look easy," he said without a trace of modesty. "It's a curse to be so damned talented when I'm already obscenely good-looking, but I try to soldier on as best I can. "

  I laughed and offered him my hand. He shook it. "Dresden," he said.

  "Ramirez. " I nodded to my right. "This is Molly Carpenter. "

  He glanced at the girl, looking her up and down. "Miss," he said, without a polite bow of his head. He glanced at me, indicated a direction with his hand, and said, "They're ready for you. But walk with me for a minute? I need to talk with you. " He glanced at Molly. "Privately. "

  I arched a brow at him. "Molly, I'll be right back. "

  She bit her lip and nodded. "O-okay. "

  "Miss," Ramirez said with a somewhat apologetic smile. "I need you to remain exactly where you're standing now. All right?"

  "Hell's bells," I muttered. "You think she's that dangerous?"

  "I think it's security protocol," Ramirez said. "If you didn't want me doing it, you shouldn't have asked me. "

  I started to snarl an answer, but I choked it down and said, "Fine. Molly, just stand there for now. I won't go out of sight of you. "

  She nodded, and I turned with Ramirez. We walked several paces away over the gravel before he asked, "That the kid?"

  Ramirez wasn't old enough to get good car insurance rates himself, much less to refer to someone as "kid," though he'd had to grow up awfully swiftly. He'd been an apprentice when the war with the Red Court erupted, and he'd done good service for the Council upon attaining status as a full wizard, fighting in several nasty engagements with the vampires. It was the kind of thing that made a man age in a hurry.

  "That's her," I confirmed. "Did you get a chance to examine the victims?"

  "Yeah. " He frowned and watched me for a moment before he said, "She's someone you know. "

  I nodded.

  He glanced back at her. "Crud. "

  I frowned at him. "Why?"

  "I don't think today is going to go well for her," Ramirez said.

  My stomach suddenly felt cold. "Why not?"

  "Because of how the battle in Oregon played out," he said. "Once the forces from Summer attacked their rear, we gave the vamps one hell of a beating. Morgan got within about twenty feet of the Red King himself. "

  "Morgan killed him?"

  "No. But it wasn't for a lack of trying. He cut down a Duke and a pair of Counts before the Red King got away. "

  "Damn," I said, impressed. "But what does that have to do with Molly?"

  "We had the Reds by the balls," Ramirez said. "Sunrise was coming in the real world, and when they tried to retreat into the Nevernever the faeries were on them like a school of piranha. The Reds had to find a way to draw off some of our heavies and they found it. Luccio's boot camp. "

  I drew in a breath. "They attacked Luccio and the newbies?"

  "Yeah. McCoy, Listens-to-Wind, and Martha Liberty led a force from the battle to relieve the camp. "

  "They did, huh? How'd it go?"

  He took a deep breath and said, "They haven't reported in yet. And that means. . . "

  "It means that my support in the Senior Council isn't here to help me. "

  Ramirez nodded.

  "Who has their proxies?"

  "We didn't hear from you until after they had left, so they didn't entrust their proxies to anyone. "

  I sighed. "So the Merlin holds them by default. And he doesn't much like me. He'd cast the votes to condemn her just to spite me. "

  "It gets better," he said. "Ancient Mai is still in Indonesia, and LaFortier is covering the Venatori while they relocate. The Merlin has their votes too-and I don't think the Gatekeeper is coming. "

  "So the only one whose opinion counts is the Merlin," I said.

  "Pretty much. " Then Ramirez frowned at me. "You don't look surprised. "

  "I'm not," I said. "If something can go wrong, it does. I've accepted that by now. "

  He tilted his head. "I've just told you the kid will probably be found guilty before she's been tried. "

  "Yeah," I said. I chewed on my lip. This would make things more difficult. I had been counting on at least a little help from Ebenezar and his cronies. They knew the Council procedures better than I did, and how to manipulate them. They also knew the Merlin, who, magical talents aside, was a damned slippery fish when it came to maneuvering through a Council meeting.

  The Merlin had every reason to oppose me, and therefore Molly. Now, if he wielded the votes of the people I'd been counting on to support me, he could literally be Molly's judge, jury, and executioner.

  Well. Judge and jury, anyway. Morgan would do the executing.

  I ground my teeth. My plan could still work, theoretically, but there was very little I could do to alter the outcome from here on in. I glanced back at Molly. Here we were. I'd brought her to this turn. I'd see it through.

  "Fine," I said. "I can deal with this. "

  Ramirez arched an eyebrow at me. "I thought you'd look more upset. "

  "Would it help anything if I started foaming at the mouth?"

  "No," Ramirez said. "It might explain a few things, but it wouldn't help, per se. "

  "Water, bridge," I said. "Spilt milk. Accept things you cannot change. "

  "In other words, you have a plan," Ramirez said.

  I shrugged and smiled tightly at him, and just then a low, throbbing engine approached the old warehouse.

  Ramirez's hand went to the butt of his gun.

  "Easy," I told him. "I invited them. "

  A motorcycle wound its way through the maze of alleys and potholes between warehouses, and then crunched to a stop in the gravel beside the Blue Beetle. Fix flipped the bike's kickstand down, and then he and Lily got off the motorcycle. Fix flipped me a little salute, and I nodded back to him.

  Ramirez arched an eyebrow and said, "Is that who I think it is?"

  "Summer Knight and Lady," I confirmed.

  "Well, crap," he said, and scowled at me. "You going to tur
n this into some kind of fight?"

  "Los," I chided him. "Would I do that?"

  He gave me a steady look and then said, "You just had to ask me to handle security. "

  "What can I say, man? No one else was pretty and talented enough. "

  "No one is so talented that you couldn't make him look bad, Dresden," he muttered. Then he gave Lily and Fix a calculating look and said, "Well. This should be interesting, at any rate. Introduce me?"

  "Yep. "

  I did. Then Ramirez led us through the veil protecting the warehouse from perception. Two Wardens at the door searched everyone for weapons.

  They even had one of the animate statues of a temple dog they used to detect hostile enchantments, veils, and concealed weaponry. The stone construct made me a little nervous-I had nearly been attacked by one over a false alarm once-but this time it passed me by without showing any interest. It lingered longest on Molly, once emitting a grindstone growl, but it subsided after a moment and returned to its post beside the door.

  I started to go inside, but Ramirez touched my arm. I stopped and frowned at him. He glanced at Molly and drew a black cloth from his belt.

  "You've got to be kidding me," I said.

  "It's protocol, Harry. "

  "It's sadistic and unnecessary. "

  He shook his head. "I'm not offering an option, here. " He lowered his voice so that only I could hear him. "I don't like it either. But if you violate protocol now, especially in a case that involves mind-control magic, it will be all the excuse the Merlin needs to declare the proceedings potentially compromised. He'll be able to pass summary judgment on the girl, and put you and me both on precautionary probation. "

  I ground my teeth, but Ramirez was right. I remembered when I'd been brought before the Council for the first time. One thing, more than any other, stuck in my memory of that night-the scent of the black cloth hood they'd had over my head, over my face. It had smelled slightly of dust, slightly of mothballs, and no light whatsoever had come through to me. Some terrified corner of my brain had noted that so long as the hood was over my face, I wasn't really a person. I was only a creature, a statistic, and one that was a potential threat at that. It would be far easier to pass and mete out a death sentence when one did not have to look at the face of the damned.

  I took the hood from Ramirez and turned to Molly. "Don't be afraid," I told her quietly. "I'm not going anywhere. "

  She stared back into my eyes, terrified and trying to look brave. She swallowed and nodded once, then closed her eyes.

  I cast a resentful look at the warehouse. Then I slipped the hood over Molly's pink-and-blue hair and pulled it down over her pale face.

  "Good enough?" I asked Ramirez.

  It wasn't fair of me to blame him for it, but the note of accusation in my voice came through far more strongly than I had intended. Ramirez glanced away, shame on his face, and nodded. Then he held open the warehouse door.

  I took Molly's hand and led her inside.

  Chapter Forty-five

  Blood might not stain a Warden's cloak, but it's all but impossible to get it out of an old, porous concrete floor. The Merlin, Morgan, and a dozen Wardens stood in the same places they had before, a loose circle that surrounded the dark brown stain that yet remained in the spot where the young warlock had been beheaded.

  Morgan had a fresh cut on one of his ears and his left wrist was tightly wrapped in medical tape. Even so, he stood calmly and steadily, the sword of the White Council's justice resting with its tip on the floor, his hands folded over the weighted pommel. His expression, as he saw me, was impossible to read. I was used to flat contempt and hostility from the man. Hell, I was used to feeling the same thing about Morgan in reply.

  But I'd seen him in action. I'd learned a little bit about what his life was like. I understood what moved him better than I had in the past, and I couldn't simply dislike him anymore. I respected the man. It didn't mean that I wouldn't pants him on national television if I got the opportunity, but I couldn't simply dismiss him outright anymore, either.

  I nodded to the man who might be ordered to murder Molly in the next few minutes. It wasn't a friendly nod. It was more along the lines of the salute one gave to an opponent at a fencing match.

  He returned it in exactly the same manner, and I somehow sensed that Morgan knew that I wasn't going to let the girl get hurt without a fight. The fingers of his right hand drummed slowly on the hilt of the sword. It wasn't meant as a threat: It was simply a statement. If I fought the White Council's justice, I would be fighting him.

  We both knew how that kind of fight would end.

  I would never survive it.

  We also both knew that, if given the right reasons, I'd do it anyway.

  Beside Morgan, the Merlin also watched me, speculation in his features. He knew that I didn't plan on slugging it out if the hearing didn't go Molly's way. In the past, the Merlin might simply have sneered at me, spat in my eye, and dared me to do my worst. Now, he was sure I was up to something else, and I could all but see the gears spinning in his head as I entered holding Molly's hand and guiding her blind steps, followed closely by Fix and Lily.

  Morgan nodded to Ramirez, and he went to pull the doors closed and to close the circle around the building, a barrier that would prevent magical intrusion while the Wardens guarded the purely physical approaches. But just before Ramirez reached up to chain the doors closed, they opened to reveal the tall and ominous figure of the Gatekeeper. Dressed in his formal black robes, with a deep purple cowl that left his features shadowed but for the glitter of his dark eyes, the Gatekeeper stood in the doorway for a moment, and something gave me the impression that he was staring at the Merlin.

  If so, the Merlin wasn't rattled. The old wizard inclined his head in a regal nod of greeting and respect to the Gatekeeper, and he gestured for the man to join him. Instead, the Gatekeeper walked to a point in the circle midway between the Merlin and myself, and stood quietly, leaning on an aged, slender staff.

  The Merlin regarded this positioning for a moment, eyes narrowed, and then addressed the room, in Latin. "Wardens, close the circle. Warden Dresden, please step forward and introduce us to your guests. "

  I gave Molly's hand a squeeze of reassurance, then let go of her and stepped forward. "First thing," I said, looking around at the dozen or so Wardens present, plus a few other noncombatant Council members who had been in the area or who were on the Senior Council's staff. "Is there anyone here who doesn't understand English?"

  The Merlin folded his arms, a slight smile curling his lips. "Council meetings are conducted in Latin. "

  The old bastard knew that my Latin wasn't so hot. I could understand it pretty well, but speaking it myself tended to result in words being transposed in increasingly odd ways until linguistic surreality ensued. If I tried to defend Molly in Latin, I'd sound like an idiot from the get go, and the Merlin knew it. While he technically held all the power he needed to quash any defense, he was still accountable to the rest of the Council, so he had to do everything he could to justify his actions. He'd planned on undermining me with Latin from the moment he heard about the conclave.

  But I can plan things too.

  "Granted that Latin is our traditional lingual medium," I replied, giving the Merlin a big old smile. "But our guests, Lily, the Summer Lady, and Fix, the current Summer Knight, do not speak it. I would fain not show the slightest lack of consideration to such prestigious visitors and envoys of our allies in Summer. "

  Choke on that, jerk, I thought. Let's see you snub the ally who just bailed the Council out of ass-deep alligators.

  The Merlin narrowed his eyes and chewed on his options for a moment before he shook his head, unable to find a way to counter the move. "Very well," he said in English, though his tone was grudging. "The Council welcomes the presence of the Summer Lady and Knight in this conclave, and extends its hospitality and protection while they r
emain within our demesnes. "

  Lily bowed her head in acknowledgment. "Thank you, honored Merlin. "

  He bowed his head to her in turn. "Not at all, your Highness. It is hardly our custom to involve outsiders in confidential internal affairs. " He pointedly shifted his gaze back to me. "But given the recent development between our peoples, it would be ungrateful indeed to evict you. "

  "It would, wouldn't it," I agreed.

  The Merlin's eyes went flat for a moment, but his expression shifted back to neutrality. "Warden Dresden. As a regional commander of the Wardens, you have the authority to summon a conclave in matters pertaining to your duties and your area of command. As soon as it is quite convenient, would you enlighten us as to the purpose of this conclave?"

  "Two reasons," I said. "The first is to allow the Summer Lady to address the Senior Council. " I turned my head and nodded at Lily, who stepped forward into the circle, while I faded back to stand beside Fix.

  "Honored Merlin," she began, her tone serious and formal. "My Queen Titania has bidden me to pass her compliments to you and yours, and for two in particular whose courage has gained the admiration of the Summer Court. "

  I frowned. "What's this?" I whispered to Fix.

  "Shhh," he said. "Pay attention. She'll get there. "

  "All I needed her to do was verify what we did. "

  "Be patient," Fix whispered. "She will. "

  Lily glanced over her shoulder at me and winked. I twitched. It looked exactly like the gesture from the statue that might have been Mab atop the spire at Arctis Tor.

  Lily turned to Morgan and said, "Warden Morgan. Your courageous defense of the Venatori and their retainers, and your assault upon the Red King, were feats she has never seen bettered. My Queen extends her compliments and congratulations to you, Warden, and to the Council you serve. Furthermore, she will not let such acts of daring and dedication go unremarked or unrewarded, and so she has bidden me bestow upon you this token. "

  Lily held up a small, intricately detailed oak leaf of pure silver. She walked over to him and pinned the oak leaf to his grey cloak, just over his heart. "I name thee friend and esquire to the Summer Court, Warden Morgan. An you find yourself in peril near the realm of the Sidhe, once, and once only, you need but touch this device and call aloud upon Titania for aid. "

  Morgan got an odd look on his face, as though he had tried to make several expressions at once and gotten stuck halfway there. His mouth opened, shut, and then he settled for a deep bow at the waist and replied, "I thank thee, your Highness. "

  "What the hell is that?" I whispered to Fix.

  The little guy grinned. "The Order of the Silver Oak is nothing to sneeze at. Hush. "

  Lily smiled, laid a slender hand over the oak leaf in benediction, then walked back over to me. "Warden Dresden," she said. "Your own contribution to the battle is every bit as admirable. My Queen has bid me-"

  "His contribution?" the Merlin said, interrupting her.

  I blinked at Lily.

  "Dresden was not present at the battle," the Merlin protested.

  "Indeed not," Lily said, turning while she spoke to address every wizard there with some of her words. "In the late hours two nights ago, Warden Dresden planned and led a small force in a raid upon Arctis Tor itself. "

  A collective inhalation went through the room, and was followed by a nebulous buzz of murmurs and whispering. The Merlin's poker face was too good to tell me anything about his reaction, but Morgan's eyebrows went up.

  "Warden Dresden and his team won through the defenders of the fortress and launched an assault of fire upon the icy wellspring at the heart of Arctis Tor. His actions disrupted the dispositions of the forces of Winter upon our borders, compelling them to retreat to the fortress to deal with the offenders. Once there, the flow of time through the region was slowed, creating an opportunity for our own forces to come to your aid.

  "What is she talking about?" I whispered to Fix. "I didn't know I was going there until I got there, and the only fighting left to do was all the fetches. "

  "Mmmm," Fix murmured back. "And yet not one word she's said has been untrue. "

  I snorted.

  "In short, honored Merlin," Lily continued, "and honorable members of the Council, had Dresden not attacked the lair of Mab herself, the mightiest fortress in Winter, had Dresden not stormed the gates of Arctis Tor, the battle would surely have been lost. Every soul who came safe home again from the battle owes his life to Harry Dresden and his courage. "

  Silence fell.

  She looked slowly around the circle, and let the silence emphasize her previous words far more ably than any speech. "It is for this reason," she said after a moment, "that my Queen confers upon Warden Dresden status as friend and esquire of the Summer Court. " She turned to me and pinned another silver leaf over my heart, then laid her hand over it. She looked up at me and smiled. "You, too, may once call upon us at need. Well done, Harry. "

  She stood on tiptoe and gave me a kiss on the cheek, and then turned to face the Merlin. "My Queen wishes you to know, honored Merlin, that, while glad to be able to go to the aid of the Council against the threat posed by the Red Court, Winter's forces have returned to their original positions, and once again the forces of Summer must remain vigilant of our borders. Until that situation changes, she cautions you that Summer will be able to offer its allies only limited assistance. "

  The Merlin was staring at me so hard that for a second I thought he hadn't heard Lily's warning. Then he blinked and shook himself a little. "Of course, your Highness," he said. "Please convey to Her Majesty the gratitude of the White Council and assure her that even in these desperate times, her friendship will not be forgotten. "

  She bowed her head again. "I shall do so. And so are my duties discharged. " She retreated back to her original position, beside Fix.

  "Why," I muttered under my breath, "do I get the feeling that Titania handing me a medal can't possibly be as simple as it looks?"

  "Because you can tell a hawk from a handsaw when the wind is southerly," Lily murmured in reply. "But it offers you some benefit today. " She smiled at me. "Surely you didn't actually expect a Summer Queen to do simply as you bid her and no more?"

  I grumbled something under my breath, while the Merlin turned to confer quietly with Morgan. A general round of whispers rose up as the wizards took the opportunity to bandy rumors and theories around.

  I found Molly's cold, trembling hand and squeezed it again.

  "What happened?" the girl asked me.

  "Lily talked me up like I was a hero," I said. "Everyone seems sort of shocked. "

  "Can I take this off yet?" Molly asked.

  "Not yet," I told her.

  "Harry," Ramirez said, stepping over to me. "She's not supposed to speak. "

  "Yeah, yeah," I muttered to him, and lowered my voice to speak to Molly. "Pipe down, kid. Try not to worry. So far, so good. "

  Which was true enough. I had managed not to look like an illiterate idiot, and Lily's impromptu medal ceremony had tacitly established my fighting credentials as something comparable to those of the Council's most capable soldier. It didn't mean that Molly was out of the woods, but it would give me a solid foundation for presenting her case. My credibility was everything, and I had done all that I could to establish my presence before the Council.

  The Merlin had been in the game a while, and he knew exactly what I was up to. He didn't seem too happy about it. He beckoned the Council's secretary, a dried-up old spider of a man named Peabody, and put his head together with the old man in whispered conference.

  "Order," the Merlin called after a moment, and the room settled down immediately. "Warden Dresden," the Merlin said. "May we continue with your explanation for the necessity of this conclave?"

  I stepped back into the circle, tugging Molly along with me until we were standing on the heavy bloodstain where the boy had been executed. There was a
psychic remnant of the death there, a cold, quivering tension in the air, an echo of rage and fear and death. Molly shuddered as her feet came to rest atop the stained concrete. She must have felt it, too.

  I had a sudden flash, a horrible image of the future, where Molly's body lay in spreading scarlet a few feet from a black cloth bag, so bright and detailed that it almost replaced the reality before me.

  Molly shuddered again and whispered, so softly that no one but I could hear, "I'm afraid. "

  I squeezed her hand and answered the Merlin's question in the manner prescribed by protocol. "I have brought a prisoner before the Council, one who has broken the Fourth Law. I have brought her here to seek justice, Merlin. "

  The Merlin nodded at me, his expression serious and distant. "This woman with you is the prisoner?"

  "This girl is," I replied, and put no emphasis on the correction. "She comes to face the Council openly, of her own will, and in open admission of her wrong. "

  "And this wrong?" the Merlin asked. "What has she done?"

  I looked at Morgan. "She broke the Fourth Law of Magic when she imposed a fear of drug use upon two addicts in order to protect both them and their unborn child from the damage of their addictions. "

  Morgan stared back at me as I spoke. I thought I saw a faint frown in his eyes.

  The Merlin remained silent for half a minute, then slowly arched one brow. "She violated the free will of another human being. "

  "She did-but in ignorance, Merlin. She knew neither the Laws nor the side effects of her actions. Her intentions were only to preserve and protect three lives. "

  "Ignorance of the Law is never an excuse, Warden Dresden, as you well know, and has no bearing upon this judgment. " The Merlin glanced at Peabody, then back to me. "I assume you have examined the victims?"

  "I have, Merlin. "

  "And have you had their condition confirmed by another Warden?"

  Ramirez stepped forward. "I have done so, Merlin. The psychic trauma was serious, but it is my belief that both will recover. "

  The Merlin eyed Ramirez. "Is that your opinion, Warden Ramirez? Based, no doubt, upon your extensive experience?"

  Ramirez's eyes glittered with anger at the Merlin's tone. "It is the opinion of the duly appointed regional commander of the western United States," he replied. "I believe that the Merlin should remember that he personally appointed me. If it hasn't faded into a blur of senility. "

  "Warden," Morgan barked, and his tone was one of absolute authority. "You will apologize to the Merlin and moderate your tone. At once. "

  Ramirez's gaze smoldered, but he glanced at Fix and Lily, and then a little guiltily at Morgan. "Of course, Captain. " He drew himself up and gave the Merlin a proper, polite bow. "I ask your forgiveness, Merlin. The last days have been difficult. For everyone. "

  The Merlin let it hang in the air for a minute. Then his rigid expression softened somewhat, and I saw a flash of bone-deep weariness in the old man's eyes. "Of course," he said in a quieter voice, and bowed his own head. "My choice of words was less polite than it could have been, Warden Ramirez. Please do not take it as a slight upon your performance. "

  Clever old snake. Establishing himself as oh-so-reasonable and understanding with the younger members of the Council. Or maybe he really was apologizing to Ramirez, who was the unofficial poster boy of the younger generation of wizards. Or, more likely, he was doing both. That was more the Merlin's style.

  The Merlin returned his attention to me. "To continue. Warden Dresden, have you soulgazed the prisoner?"

  "I have," I said.

  "You are convinced of her guilt?"

  I swallowed. "I am," I said. "But I am also convinced that her actions do not represent the malice that defines a true warlock. "

  "Thank you for your opinion, Warden Dresden. " His voice turned drolly unapologetic. "Doubtless offered to us out of your own extensive experience. "

  "I beg your pardon, Merlin. But when it comes to the Council sitting in self-righteous, arrogant judgment over a young wizard who made an honest mistake, I believe I have more experience than anyone in this room. "

  The Merlin's head rocked back as if I had slapped him. I wasn't as subtle and proper as him when it came to insults, but if he was going to do it, I saw no reason not to return fire. I pressed on before he could speak, stepping forward and turning to address the room as I spoke.

  "Wizards. Friends. Brothers and sisters in arms. You know why this is happening. You know how thinly stretched our resources have become. In the past three years, the Council has tried and condemned more warlocks than in the past twenty. Children who are raised in societies that do not believe in magic suddenly inherit powers they could hardly have imagined, and certainly cannot control. They have no support. No training. No one to warn them of the consequences or the dangers of their actions. "

  I reached out and jerked that fucking black hood from Molly's head, and the girl suddenly stood blinking at the light. Tears had streaked her makeup into dark stains running down her face. Her eyes were red with crying, her expression haunted and terrified. She shuddered and lowered her eyes, staring down at the bloodstained floor.

  "This is Molly," I said to the room. "She's seventeen years old. Her best friend had already lost one unborn child because of the drugs she'd been addicted to. She knew it was going to happen again. So to protect that child's life, to protect her friends from their addiction, Molly made a choice. She used her power to intervene. "

  I faced Morgan. "She made a wrong choice. No one denies that. She admits to it herself. But look at her. She's no monster. She understands that what she did was wrong. She understands that she needs help. She submitted herself to this Council's judgment freely. She wants to learn to control her power, to handle it responsibly. She came here hoping to find help and guidance. "

  Morgan didn't look at me. He was staring at Molly. His fingers kept drumming on the hilt of his sword.

  "I've soulgazed her. It's not too late to help her. I think we owe her the chance to redeem herself," I continued. I looked at the Gatekeeper. "For God's sake, wizards, if we are to survive this war, we need all the talent we can get. Molly's death would be a foolish waste. "

  I drew in a breath and turned to face the Merlin. "There's been enough blood spilled on this floor. I beg you to consider clemency. Levy the Doom of Damocles, if you must, but I beg you to spare her life. I will take personal responsibility for her training and accept the consequences of any actions taken under my mentorship. "

  Silence fell.

  I waited for the Merlin to speak. Molly began trembling harder, and small whimpering sounds came from her throat.

  The Merlin's eyes narrowed, and with that single revealing expression I suddenly knew that I'd made a terrible mistake. I'd outmaneuvered him. I'd startled him with my insult and delivered my speech effectively to the wizards present. I could see it on their faces; the uncertainty, the sympathy. More than one wizard had glanced at the bloodstains at my feet and shuddered as I spoke to them. More than one looked at Molly's face, and grimaced in sympathy for her fear.

  I'd beaten the Merlin. He knew it.

  And he hated it.

  I had forgotten to take into account his pride, his ego, his self-image. He was the mightiest wizard on the planet, the leader of the White Council, and he was not accustomed to being insulted and manipulated-and especially not in front of outsiders. I, a mere puppy of a young wizard, had stung him, and his wounded pride sprayed arterial anger. He had it under control, but it was no less terrible or dangerous for that.

  "Warden Dresden," he said in a deadly quiet tone. "Your compassion does you credit. But as you yourself pointed out, our resources are spread too thin already. The Council cannot afford to have a regional commander of the Wardens burdened with a hazardous rehabilitation of a warlock. The duties of the war and of containing the increasing occurrence of black magic must have your full attention. "
br />   Oh, God.

  "The Laws of Magic are clear. The prisoner admits her guilt. I am not unmoved by the prisoner's plight, but we are involved in a war for our very survival. "

  Ohgodohgodohgod. . .

  "I therefore take no pleasure in pronouncing the prisoner's fate. It is the judgment of the Senior Council that the prisoner is a warlock, guilty of breaking the Fourth Law. " He lifted his chin and said, very calmly, "The sentence is death. To be carried out immediately. "