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  • Andrew M. Trauger

Ch. 12: The Trial

Updated: Feb 21, 2021

Artwork by Matt Frederick

Cora knew it would happen; she just didn’t expect it the way it did. She expected a letter under her door or a message from the bartender, something inconspicuous and relatively private. When neither of those things had occurred by breakfast the next day, she settled in with Ordin for another dreary day of waiting for word of the savage’s fate.

A barwench brought them each a plate of eggs and sausage, with a bowl of mixed fruit on the side—apple slices, blueberries, and a few sliced strawberries, with a handful of mayhaws from the shores of The Deepening tossed in. She had forgotten how good they were, and the taste of them brought back many childhood memories of picking those tender fruits with her father in the morning light of early summer. It was a wonder any made it home, but she suspected that was part of the fun of it.

She had just popped the first mayhaw in her mouth and was working the fruit off the seeds when the front doors to the Crossroads Tavern burst open and startled half the guests. Immediately the din of the patrons lowered to a whisper. Cora looked up from her sausage and the mayhaw went insipid on her tongue.

Six soldiers from the city guard with the rank of Streeter entered brusquely and pointed to her and Ordin. “Those two,” one of them barked, and they fanned out across the common room in a well-executed maneuver designed to make her escape difficult. They each were outfitted in standard-issue leather armor and shortsword. A seventh soldier entered moments later wearing a dark green tunic over chain mail, marking him as their squad leader. Within seconds, the streeters surrounded their table and blocked their escape until the squad leader sauntered up behind them.

Ordin’s face morphed from inquisitive to sullen to irate in mere seconds. Cora desperately hoped he would refrain from the violence he had promised.

“Cora O’Banion?” the squad leader said.

“Yes?” she replied, trying to act as nonchalantly as possible.

“You will come with us.”

“May we finish our breakfast? You’re more than welcome to join—”

“You will come with us. Now.” He placed a hand on her shoulder. The previous lull of the morning crowd was utterly silenced now, and all eyes were on her and the mystic. Cora glanced over at Ordin, who scooted away from the bar and tossed his napkin disgustedly into his plate. Please don’t do anything rash.

“May I ask what this is about?” she said to the guard.

“Ya burnt the rinkin tower, that’s what,” called a random voice from the morning crowd.

The squad leader simply tapped the hilt of his sword and cleared his throat.

Resignedly, Cora stood and gave one final forlorn look at her fresh breakfast. She grabbed a couple of mayhaws from the bowl and stood, snorting with contempt. Then she strode out ahead of the soldiers, trying to retain as much dignity as she could.

After an embarrassing march down the main street of Westmeade, with people gawking and commenting aloud as they passed, they were led to the base of the Tower of Truth. Unlike Wilder Tower, this edifice was short, stout, square, and intimidating. Barred windows ringed the upper floors at regular intervals.

A ranking officer met them at the front door as if he were calmly answering a knock at his house. He stood like a statue on the front stoop, glaring at Cora with disdain as he slowly donned a pair of white leather riding gloves. His formal uniform gleamed with the insignia of his rank emblazoned on his chest. Glistening brass buttons held tightly against his form a dark green woolen jacket ribbed in gold trim. A white baldric completed the suit, matching his white felt hat and trousers.

The guards parted to the left and right, forming a semi-circle around them. The squad leader stepped forward and snapped a salute. “We have the accused, Captian Hunt.”

With his gloves in place, Hunt crossed his hands gently in front of him and drew in a large breath. “So, these are the other ruffians responsible for burning Wilder Tower?”

Cora smoldered inside. They may have done something illegal, but they were not ruffians.

“Yes, sir,” the squad leader answered.

“Does the Vashanti have leprosy? Make sure he’s clean before—”

“It’s not leprosy!” Cora exclaimed, her eyes burning a hot green.

Hunt sniffed. “Nevertheless, Officer, have him tested. And watch him; he looks…jumpy. Take them inside. Tell Bevell to detain them for later questioning. I have counsel with Chancellor Prisido today.”

Hunt stepped down from the portico and brushed past Cora with a palpable air of disdain. The guards behind her parted to let Hunt pass, then they prodded their two prisoners forward. “Let’s go,” the squad leader ordered.

Ordin hesitated, his eyes darting quickly to Cora’s. She could practically feel the anger radiating off him. As much as she could, she pleaded wordlessly for him to cooperate. The trembling in his hands and shiftiness in his eyes indicated he was about to do something rash. Cora began to doubt whether he would ever settle down.

The guards poked again, forcing them into the Tower of Truth and up a tight set of wooden stairs. The interior of the tower was stark and cramped, as if the builders’ intent was to pack as many people into as small a space as possible. The second floor housed interrogation rooms and offices. A middle-aged woman in one of the anterooms looked up briefly from her paperwork as they walked past, but that was all. They were just another pair of accused criminals awaiting justice.

At the end of the short hallway, they ascended more stairs, and at the third floor, Ordin balked. Several detention rooms lined the central corridor, each a small chamber sealed behind a thick wooden door with a small, barred window. Presented with these imposing doors, the mystic stopped so suddenly his guard ran into him.

“Move!” the soldier barked.

But Ordin stood rooted, gripping the rail and shuddering uncontrollably.

Cora looked over her shoulder and cringed. Ordin’s eyes widened with fear, and his legs quivered as if might bolt any moment. He caught her gaze, and the words slithered out through clenched teeth: “You…said…no one…”

I said move!” the soldier snapped again, jabbing him from behind.

Ordin wheeled with a closed fist, catching the guard squarely on the jaw. “I ain’t goin’ to no rinkin jail!”

“No!” Cora screamed. “Please, Ordin! Stay calm!”

But the mystic had already snapped. “I won’t do it! Not in the Nine Hells!” he shrieked as he flailed about, lashing out at everyone.

Two guards behind him grappled him and shoved him against the railing. The mystic growled as ferociously as his wolf ever had, and he threw one of them off, sending him rolling down the stairs. Two of the men escorting Cora left her side and entered the grapple. Ordin punched one of them in the ribs, but soon the soldiers had pinned his arms and pulled him to his knees.

“Ordin,” Cora implored, “please! They only want to ask some questions. Please calm down.”

Through the stark fear, his icy blue eyes showed a sense of betrayal leveled directly at her. “You said I wouldn’t go to jail,” he snarled back at her. “I’m…not…ungh…”

A solid blow landed on the back of his head, and Ordin fell forward.

“You lied to me,” he moaned before blacking out.

The pain of his accusation ripped through Cora as the guards dragged Ordin’s limp body into a cell and locked him in. I didn’t actually lie to him, but…did I betray him? Would he have been better off escaping into The Grottoes two days ago? Now he might actually kill someone, which will only assure his continued horror in prison. Or, they could put him to death for such a violent outbreak. Would all that be my fault?

She was still staring dazedly at Ordin’s cell when one of the guards tapped her roughly on the shoulder. “This way, Miss,” he said, indicating another door further down the hall.

As she shuffled forward, she heard a familiar voice. Cuauhtérroc! But who is he talking to? She listened closely as the guards locked her in the cell. Is he…praying?

After several minutes of hearing Cuauhtérroc’s continuous supplications, Cora also dropped to her knees to implore the Maker. Her chosen sect, the Arthouse, with all its emphasis on beauty, had never once taught its patrons how to deal with something ugly. They said “Beauty is Truth,” and the Maker desired his creation to reflect such beauty in art, love, and music.

But a thought inspired her, as if the Maker had spoken to her directly. Cora began to compose a song, and by nightfall, she was singing a doleful tune that reverberated with the natural harmonics of her cell. It was freeing, and Cora felt oddly at peace despite her situation. In a roundabout way, her prayers had been answered.

In the morning, a meager breakfast awaited just inside her door, a meal in only the strictest of meanings. It looked like it might have been oatmeal at some point, but it lacked heat and aroma, and it had to be carved out of the bowl with some effort. Nevertheless, she devoured the rations gladly but lamented the loss of mayhaws and sausage from yesterday. When she had finished, she hung her arms out of her small window and surveyed the houses and shops below in the heart of Westmeade. What’s going to happen to us?

Cora had never experienced prison before, and though she knew these were merely detention cells, she could not imagine what an actual dungeon must be like. Awaiting judgment was bad enough; there was hardship aplenty in this cold, stony place where every comfort had been removed and replaced with the barest of essentials. Water was in short supply, the bed was a simple straw mattress—no pillow—with only a thin sheet laid across it, and the ever-open window assured that every sort of weather condition entered her room. A light breeze blew across her face as she looked out over the town. She shuddered to think what winter must be like.

A metallic clang and a creak startled her, and she spun around to face the opening door. A pair of guards entered, two men she had not met before. One of them looked her up and down and smiled lustily. Cora seriously contemplated visiting some specific pain upon him.

“It’s time,” the other guard said and held out a pair of shackles to her.

Cora sighed and stepped forward to accept the binds. It’s time. This is it.

The guards led her past Ordin’s cell, where he watched them through the small window in his door. His eyes were bloodshot from lack of sleep, and they burned with hatred, fear, and loathing. Cora forced herself to meet his angry gaze, and a pain of regret swept over her. “I’m so sorry, Ordin! I honestly didn’t think this would happen. I promise I’ll do everything I can to get you out of here!”

The guards pushed her onward, but she looked back one final time before being led down to the second level. “I promise!” she shouted as sincerely as she could.

She spent the next two hours alone in a featureless room waiting for Sir Reginald Hunt. When he arrived, he was dressed more casually than when they had first met, clad in daily regimentals. His ranking pins were the only insignia spread across his breast, and he smoked a long-stemmed pipe.

Hunt questioned Cora for several hours, writing copious notes on everything she said and probing even deeper into an assortment of issues that seemed to have nothing to do with the case at hand. She couldn’t understand the point of asking why she selected a Flourish lute over a Sarlent. Or why she liked the color green. But these things seemed to interest him as much as her membership in the Arthouse and her reasons for leaving home.

It was mid-afternoon when her inquisition mercifully ended and she was marched back to her cell. She was completely exhausted by the ordeal and noted with great dismay that Hunt hardly looked any worse for it. She flopped across the straw mattress and begged sleep to overtake her.

Just as she was drifting off, a clank of metal echoed down the hall, rousing her. Moments later, the entire floor filled with the sounds of physical struggle, punctuated by the mystic’s vehement cursing, until sudden silence swept through the tower.

“Rinkin skrub,” one of the soldiers muttered as he passed by Cora’s cell. “Ya think ya mighta beat some sense in him this time?”

Several men laughed as they clomped down the narrow stairs.

Cora cried herself to sleep.

The morning of their second day of incarceration began like the day before. After her paltry breakfast, Cora was escorted once more to the second-floor interrogation room. She wondered what else Hunt could possibly want, but to her surprise, someone else was waiting for her.

An older man rose to meet her, his face etched with worry lines and his hair a pale gray. He requested the shackles be removed from her wrists, then he motioned for her to sit and ordered a glass of water and some bread and cheese be brought.

When his commands were fulfilled, he waved the guards out. Then he sat and faced her, his eyes a mixture of worry and warmth. “Good morning, Miss Cora O’Banion. My name is Robert Baskin, Esquire, and I will be representing you in tomorrow’s trial.”

Hope rekindled. Having legal representation was a luxury not every nation allowed, and many towns were hesitant to grant this advantage even if their country did. Prosecutors were in abundance in most places, but defenders were uncommon.

Another thought quickly tempered her excitement. “What are your fees?”

Baskin smiled and sat back in his chair. “I am on the Council of Westmeade, Miss O’Banion. I receive a handsome salary from the city’s coffers for the post and for representing the people in their defense. There will be no need for you to pay me.”

Cora couldn’t believe her ears or the enormous weight that seemed to fall from her shoulders just then.

Baskin sensed her thoughts. “Relax, Miss O’Banion. Once I’ve heard your story, I’ll put together a strategy for winning your case.”

“What about Cuauhtérroc and Ordin? Are you representing them, too?” It occurred to her that her family ties might have brokered her such a deal, but her allies had no credentials.

“I am representing all of you. In fact, they should be here any minute.”

They small-talked until a pair of guards brought in a somber Cuauhtérroc and a very exhausted Ordin. The mystic’s hands were tied, and his mouth was stuffed full of rags. Cora gasped when she saw him, and she instinctively rushed to free him. “This is entirely unnecessary!” she protested. “Free him at once!”

Ordin’s guards flatly refused, citing Captain Hunt’s orders to keep the mystic bound and gagged, for everyone’s safety.

Baskin stood and rounded his desk. “Young man,” he said to one of the guards, glancing at his insignia. “Streeter, is it?”

“Yes, sir,” the guard answered.

“What’s your name, son?”

“Dunnel, sir. Corvin Dunnel.”

“Dunnel…” Baskin said, staring straight into the young man’s eyes while adjusting the streeter’s collar. “Do you study law?”

“No, sir.”

“I see. Then you couldn’t possibly know that you are breaking at least four laws…right now.”

Dunnel’s eyes widened in alarm.

“You couldn’t possibly know that you and your friend over there could be prosecuted and jailed for a litany of infractions that would make both your mothers weep.”

“Uh…no…no, sir.”

“I didn’t think so,” Baskin said patting Dunnel’s shoulder. “Then I’ll overlook things this one time. However, if you don’t take those bindings off this man and remove that gag, I will be careful to throw the entire weight of the law at the two of you for being calloused wastes and general miscreants.”

Dunnel quickly removed Ordin’s restraints and left with no fewer than a dozen apologies.

When he was freed, Ordin calmly stretched his frame, cracking several joints in the process, then he slumped in a nearby chair. He spoke not a word.

“Are you all right?” Cora said, worrying over the mystic as a mother would an injured child. “Did they hurt you?”

“You know, Cora,” he answered without looking up, “I think you need to not talk to me for a while.”

The morning passed quickly as Baskin asked each of the company for his story. For the most part, no one interrupted or contradicted the details, and Baskin rarely interjected with follow-up questions. Unlike Hunt, he took no notes, but seemed to commit each tale to memory. At least, that’s what Cora hoped he was doing.

When the sun was beginning to set, Baskin finally bid them farewell. He had heard all he needed and would spend the remainder of the afternoon and much of the night building his defense. As he stood to leave, several guards entered on cue to escort them back to their chambers. Though they also brought several lengths of rope and more gags for Ordin, he willingly complied, his tired eyes locked bitterly onto Cora’s. The Ordin that entered the tower fighting and railing was not the Ordin now exiting this room.

Cora found sleep impossible. Tomorrow would be their trial, and she had no idea how it would go. A panel of three, randomly selected from the Council, would preside over the court. The determined Sir Hunt would prosecute their case, and the carefree Robert Baskin would be their defense. Cora didn’t like their chances, and when she finally slept that night it was a fitful and restless sleep.

When morning broke, Cora felt a growing knot in her stomach. Her nerves were on edge and her hands visibly shook. Her reputation could easily be ruined. But more disheartening was the fact that her whole family’s reputation was riding on the tribunal’s decision. If I had returned home as I was supposed to, this wouldn’t be happening. I may have ruined everything.

Cora startled when a key rattled in the door behind her. A pair of guards, one holding manacles, opened the door and announced it was time to go. Cora took one final look across the rooftops of Westmeade and one last draught of the morning air before turning to them with her arms before her. With no words exchanged between them, the guards shackled her and led her into the hall.

Cuauhtérroc looked up from his corner as he heard footsteps approaching. A pair of large men in studded leather armor stopped at his door, inserted the key, and opened it. “Come with us,” one of them said, and Cuauhtérroc stood to his full height. They locked his wrists in manacles and silently led him down the hall.

Ordin’s door swung suddenly open and six men streamed in, each of them wielding truncheons, nets, and lengths of cord. The mystic looked up from his meditation and could not help but smirk. If nothing else, they were frightened of him. But he was tired—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. He had no will to resist, and his reflections of late strongly suggested that it was wise to comply. The guards stepped gingerly toward him, truncheons at the ready, but Ordin didn’t move. They quickly pounced and found him surprisingly docile. In no time, they had him bound in multiple strands, his hands behind his back and his feet restricted to half steps. Then they marched him from his room.

The Court of Justice was a circular room that filled the entire fourth floor of the Tower of Truth, the ceiling overhead rising to a conical point underneath the tower’s spire. This hall was lavishly decorated, with gilded filigree along the walls, braided tassels on the tapestries that hung between stained glass windows around the perimeter, and deeply varnished woods of every kind, including some exotic varieties from the Audric Jungles. Along the back wall rose a high platform with several steps leading up from the general assembly area. Atop this platform sat three stately chairs, very throne-like in appearance, behind a solid, hand-carved table. The whole of the chamber radiated power and authority, opulence, and dignity.

Cora and her allies were shown to a padded bench behind a low table polished to a high sheen. The guards then withdrew to posts along the outer walls. For a length of time, there were no others in the room.

Cora leaned her head on Cuauhtérroc’s shoulder. “It’s good to see you again,” she whispered. The savage nodded assent.

“It is not right for Ordin to be tied like this,” she said moments later. It pained her to see him bound so miserably, practically sitting on his hands. Amazingly, his face was calm, relative to the past two days. Though he was obviously suffering under this treatment, there was no hint of the panic or vitriol that previously possessed him. Either he’s completely broken, or he has found his peace.

Cora decided that the only way she could atone for putting him in this position was to fight arduously for his release. “Excuse me,” she said to the nearest guard along the outer wall, “but these bindings on Ordin are not entirely necessary.”

The guards neither spoke nor moved. Ordin, though, turned his head to her, his brow furrowed.

“I said excuse me,” she repeated and began to rise from her seat. That, of course, set several guards immediately into motion. Two of them pulled short swords from their scabbard and stepped toward her. “Sitting down…” she announced and promptly returned to her seat. “But since I have your attention, would you mind treating Ordin a bit more humanely? It’s hardly fair that he’s bound and we’re not.”

A stocky guard pulled at his blonde handlebar mustache. “Ya want me to bind you, too?”

Cora glared at him. “Of course not. I want you t—”

“Then shut yer piehole.”

Cora smoldered and cursed. She didn’t look, but she could feel Cuauhtérroc shaking slightly from silent laughter.

Minutes ticked by while they waited. Gradually, the room began to fill, mostly with onlookers from the town, some of whom they recognized from Wilder District.

Finally, a young boy entered the chamber and stood at the base of the steps leading up to the platform. In a loud, high-pitched voice he announced, “The Honorable Sir Reginald Hunt, Captain of the Guard, and Prime Prosecutor!”

The entire assembly rose to their feet, and the guards along the outer wall snapped to attention. Cora, Cuauhtérroc, and Ordin also stood, the latter with Cuauhtérroc’s assistance. To silent respect, Hunt strode down the main aisle in the center of the assembly floor and took his place to the right of the platform opposite the accused. He glared across the room at them, though whether it was from determination or scorn Cora could not tell. He was followed by a pair of assistants, a prim, young woman who walked closely in his wake, her arms laden with paperwork.

The young boy at the front raised his voice again. “The Honorable Robert Baskin, Esquire, Advocate of the People!”

A few brave people broke the reverent silence by clapping or expressing their admiration of the Advocate, but the firm reminder of a squad leader quickly subdued their outburst. It was an honored hall, and sudden torrents of emotion were generally censured.

Baskin took his place on the bench beside Ordin and frowned bitterly at the mystic’s bonds. “Why do they do this?” he muttered aloud.

The young boy raised his shrill voice once more. “All rise!”

Though nearly everyone was already on their feet, this mandatory call to respect pulled the last few up from their seats.

“The Right Honorable Artus Calloway, Officer of Trade.”

Cora looked up with a mixture of surprise while a stream of hope flooded her. She felt like hugging someone, but she settled for pressing her hand into Cuauhtérroc’s and giving it a hard squeeze. Calloway strode to the front of the assembly, turned to acknowledge the crowd, nodded first to Sir Hunt, then to Baskin. Then he marched up the steps to the top of the platform and took his seat in the middle seat, the seat of honor. The seat of Presiding Judge.

“The Right Honorable Vincent Schumann, President of the Guild of Mages.”

An elderly man slowly tottered down the aisle, aided by a gnarled cane. A long white beard flowed from his wrinkled chin but his head long ago had lost its covering. His expression was cheerless, as if he felt the burden of his years. Perhaps it was only the burden of the task before him, or maybe the four flights of stairs he had to climb to get here.

“The Right Honorable Lady Celdorin Tarnistorel, Proprietress of Knowledge, Keeper of the Grounds, and Ambassador to the Cerion Forest.”

For the first time in many days, Ordin’s face brightened.

Lady Tarnistorel flowed in gracefully, as was common for Vashanti women, seemingly in perfect balance and harmony with her surroundings without exerting any effort whatsoever. Her every movement was elegant and composed, but precise at the same time. As she acknowledged the assembly, several of the young ladies swooned, and many of the men were left awestruck. When she turned to Sir Hunt, his furrowed brow smoothed, and the disdain in his expression vanished. As she acknowledged Baskin, the Advocate hung his head.

Ordin’s eyes filled with admiration and no small amount of pleading. Surely, she would save him from the horrors of captivity.

Cora was likewise enraptured by Lady Tarnistorel’s presence, and though she had seen a few Vashanti in her short life, none were as striking as her. Beneath a diaphanous shawl laced with silver strands, bluish-white hair hung to her waist in an intricate weave, held in place with a gleaming silver tiara studded with multiple sapphires of the exact shade of her eyes. She stood tall and poised, and radiated an aura of confidence with a distinct overtone of condescension. Her satiny tunic fluttered without sound as she quietly turned and regarded the assembly, her slight nose upturned ever so little. It was easy to see why many people believed the Vashanti looked with disdain upon all others.

In the midst of this prolonged pause in the proceedings, Cora stood. With the words rolling off her tongue practically of their own accord, she blurted out, “Please! Lady Tarnistorel, fairest of all Vashanti.” A collective gasp fanned out across the room. “This is a trial, and we are not yet condemned of any wrongdoing. But my friend, Ordin Austmil-Clay is already enduring a continual sentence, bound like a madman.”

Ordin gaped at her in shock, and Baskin’s eyes pleaded with her to desist, but so long as the lovely Vashanti lady was listening, Cora forged ahead. The opening chord was already played, as they say.

“Ordin bears the scars of torture upon his soul, for he was similarly shackled for two years deep in the Subterrain and daily tortured by the vile Roark. This horrific treatment did not break him, but it is an especially cruel punishment to subject him to such handling now. The scars are too real, and they are altogether too painful.

“How can there be justice in this revered hall if he is bound in this manner, constantly reminded of the nightmares which he has thus far valiantly pushed from his memory? How can we be a people of laws when we punish a man even before his trial? Are we no better than the Roark? If you knew the torture his soul is now enduring, you would free him from these hateful bonds. I plead of you then, Lady Tarnistorel, to release him!”

Cora sat down. All eyes were riveted upon her, and somehow the chamber was even more silent than it had been when the Vashanti first walked in. Then, as if a dam had been breached, there arose a sudden din of voices all around as people either praised her speech or argued against it. Some condemned her for having the gall to speak in the first place while others admired her bravery.

Lady Tarnistorel’s face became like stone as she fixed her eyes upon Cora. She studied the songsage, reading her like a book. Cora felt the Vashanti’s gaze, and the blood rose to her cheeks. Baskin didn’t even need to say she was out of line, though he did. She knew as much.

Finally, the Vashanti turned and ascended the stairs to take her place at Calloway’s left. Together, the three magistrates conferred, then Calloway stood.

A hush again swept over the assembly.

“Unbind the mystic!” Calloway said.

As the guards hastened to follow these orders, Ordin stared for a time at the songsage, but his eyes were no longer scowling. He studied her, perhaps he even appreciated her.

Three hours later, after heavy argumentation from both Hunt and Baskin, the Tribunal adjourned to deliberate. Half-an-hour elapsed while the court rumbled with the low murmurs of a hundred people expressing opinions and speculations.

Finally, the young page boy announced, “The Tribunal enters!” and everyone stood in rapt expectation. Lady Tarnistorel entered first, followed by the aged Schumann. Calloway entered last, bearing a wooden mallet, the gavel of judgment. He motioned for the assembly to sit, and then took his seat between the other two judges.

“We have heard the testimony and examined the evidence,” he began in the customary way. “The charges laid before us today concerning Cora O’Banion, Ordin Austmil-Clay, and Cuauhtérroc are trespassing, destruction of public property, arson, and inciting the public unrest. Before the eyes of the Maker, we affirm our sacred duty in this Tower of Truth.”

He paused here, taking a deep breath that seemed filled with mixed emotions. The entire room slipped into silent anticipation.

“We find them guilty!”

The gavel slammed down upon the heavy, hand-carved table, punctuating the verdict.

Cora startled.

“Guilty!” rang out Calloway’s voice. “On all counts!”

A growing din of voices rippled throughout the assembly.

Guilty!? Cora couldn’t believe her ears. I’m ruined. Father’s ruined. Mother’s going to kill me. The verdict echoed hollowly in her head. Guilty of trespassing, destruction of public property. Guilty of arson. Guilty of inciting the public unrest. Guilty!

She replayed the long, drawn-out verbal jousting that had just occurred, failing to see how this outcome was possible. Baskin had argued passionately for their cause, their motivations, and the result of their findings. They had proven that Wilder Tower was not haunted, but was occupied by a trespassing arcanist who had taken on the guise of the dead August Blanchard. They settled the unrest of the people; they didn’t incite it!

Sir Hunt had made a case for the letter of the law, which, as Kedethian customs go, was apparently all that mattered. There were laws, he had plainly said, that forbade entering condemned buildings, destroying publicly held buildings, and setting buildings afire without permit. He even argued that the people of Wilder were in a greater state of unease now than ever before. According to him, they had been happy with and even proud of their “haunted” tower. But with that now gone, he had claimed they had little remaining in which to place their hopes and imaginations.

Cora could feel the anger burning. Removing a source of great and obvious fear should be applauded rather than vilified. The fire was itself pure accident. As to the arcanist we routed out, should the city not be concerned with his purpose for trespassing and living there? Are we not, as freeblades, to be commended for having removed this criminal? Cora glowered at the Tribunal for their obvious oversight. Baskin had made all these points quite convincingly; it just didn’t make sense.

She thought having Calloway on the tribunal would have helped their case immensely. Having already heard their story, hired them, and rewarded them for good deeds and honesty, he should have viewed them favorably in the light of Sir Hunt’s accusations. But the verdict had come from his own mouth: guilty.

Cora felt all her dreams shriveling and the tarnish of her reputation already spreading across her once lustrous career. She was on the verge of tears when Calloway pronounced the sentence.

“For one year, you three will serve the city of Westmeade. You are not to leave the city walls for any reason. You may live in the city wherever it suits you, provided your occupancy is legal, and you are free to earn whatever living you can. Should you leave the city or break even the slightest of our laws within that year, you will forfeit this limited freedom and your prison term will be doubled. Let all be done in Order.”

The gavel slammed down one final time, sealing their fates.

Behind Artus Calloway, a court attendant lifted the gray velvet cloth covering a large round birdcage. Inside, resting stoically on the perch, sat a speckled brown eagle. Its golden eyes blinked once as the attendant fastened a small silver bell to its claw, lifted the bird from the cage, and released it through an open window in the back wall. This ancient custom had originated with the House of Order, a sect of worshippers who chiefly valued and hailed the Maker’s Truth and Justice. But its symbolism held such imagery and inviolability that courts across the land had borrowed the practice to establish a verdict immutable and true.

The assembly departed in reverent whispers, each person commenting on the justice (or lack thereof) in the verdict. Once the room was mostly cleared, Robert Baskin turned to them as he gathered his notes together and shoved them into a satchel. “Well, that went rather well, don’t you think?”

Cora nodded absently. She didn’t really know what to think.

Ordin sat down and silently chuckled to himself.

Cuauhtérroc turned to Baskin. “Are we free?”

The stocky blonde guard with the handlebar mustache approached them, a skeleton key in his hand. “Yep, yer free, so long as ya don’t leave town. Sir Hunt’ll have his eyes on ya, though, so be careful. Miss…?” he said to Cora. “No hard feelin’s, aw’ight? Jis doin’ my duty.”

The guard loosened their manacles and gathered the bindings together, then he left with the rest of the military entourage. Within minutes of the final gavel, the court of justice was cleared. Only the three convicted allies remained, quietly ruminating.

“So, what now?” Cora asked.

Ordin clapped his knees as he stood. “I’m goin’ back to the park. See y’all later.”

“And you?” she said to her Audric friend.

“I need dees water,” he replied.

Cora smiled warmly. Good ol’ Cuauhtérroc.

* * * * * * * * * *

“House arrest…” Sir Reginald Hunt turned the words over in his mouth as he spewed them out. They tasted as bitter coming out as they were when he had heard them.

He leaned back in his wooden chair and propped his booted feet atop his desk. His office in the barracks of Westmeade was simply furnished with no frills or unnecessary décor. Functional is how they wanted it, and that is how he kept it, from the plain, unadorned desk to the nondescript molding that framed the door.

The dossier from the Wilder Tower trial lay on the desk beside his feet, and the Captain stared at it bitterly. Not only did he fail to obtain true justice; he didn’t even obtain justice for the secondary crimes of arson, trespassing, and all the rest. Somehow, even with all the damning evidence stacked against those three straw-swords, he had failed to land their sorry arses in jail. Hunt flipped through the case files.

Ordin Austmil-Clay: the case for insanity had been so obvious in that one that he hadn’t even bothered to pursue it. But Cora’s insolent plea had clearly won over the Tribunal’s hearts.

Cora O’Banion: as expected, her words had dripped with honey and swayed the masses. How he longed for closed-door trials! Her pretty face, striking colors, and golden voice would soften the heart of a dragonspawn, to be sure, so he had practically written off her conviction from the outset.

Cuauhtérroc: the dim-witted, bare-chested, dark-skinned, Audric savage.

Hunt sighed and closed his eyes in weary thought.

The Kedethian Decree, passed down through generations immemorial, spoke clearly of an Ascendency, a glorious future when pure Kedethian bloodlines exercised dominion over the world. Hunt felt his Kedethian heritage to his bones, and he longed to see that day. But he was no fanatical ascetic of the Nephreqin, which had in recent years surfaced in various pockets of the world, displaying cruelty and subterfuge in the name of the Ascendency. Zealots, he called them. They had warped the Decree and turned it into a violent crusade. On the contrary, Hunt considered himself a civilized man, and as such he was convinced that the Decree would work within the laws of the land.

Still, the Decree was clear. Audrics were to be subjugated and forced into service. There simply was no other purpose for the equatorial tribesmen in the Ascendency than servitude. Based on the trial, Cuauhtérroc should have been pressed into slavery or extradited to his homeland. But he wasn’t enslaved, extradited, or even locked up. The savage was walking around the city of Westmeade, effectively a free man. Under his watch, the Ascendency was one step further away from being restored. History would judge this result as an utter failure on his part.

“Reimart?” Hunt said to his sergeant, who was leaning against the opposite wall near the door. “What happened in there, I wonder?” He folded his hands under his chin and studied the files.

Sergeant Reimart pulled a stubby pipe from his trousers pocket and put it between his teeth. “What would you expect with two Lothanians and a Vashanti on the Tribunal?”

“Bah! That’s got nothing to do with it, Reimart.”

“Sir,” the sergeant countered as he swiped a flickerstick against the doorpost, “the mystic was from the Cerion Forest where Lady Tarnistorel is Ambassador. Doesn’t that concern you? And the whole trio had already served Calloway with a successful quest for his Emporium. Is this not a conflict of interest?” He put the burning stick to his pipe and lit the pipeweed. Tendrils of grayish-white smoke swirled about his head and filled the room with the pleasant aroma.

“Hmmm…perhaps you are right, Reimart. Of course, I had already thought of that, but I have been on this Council for many years, and I would not suspect them of favoritism. And yet, it is possible that any one of them might have neglected justice in the ordeal. Now, that fink Baskin…”

“Baskin is nothing, Captain. He is a puppet of Chancellor Prisido and swayed by every emotion that blows on the wind.”

“Yes, yes…I know that, Reimart,” Hunt said as he kicked his feet off the desk and stood up. He paced along the side of the desk for a moment, staring at the floor. “What was it he said, though, about the savage? A ‘noble savage’ did he say?”

“I believe those were the words, Sir.”

Hunt sat on the corner of his desk. “You see, that’s what I’m talking about. Whoever heard such an oxymoronic statement in a Court of Justice? The worse of it is that the rinkin Tribunal bought it. They mistook his idiocy for humility, his wearing clothes with civility, his speaking rough Common with…” Hunt paused, looking to the whitewashed ceiling for the right word.

“Intelligence, Sir?”

“Exactly.” The captain sighed and looked up at his sergeant. “Give me some of that pipeweed, Reimart. What really gets me is that the mystic demonstrated as perfect a case of insanity as I have ever witnessed, and they altered five hundred years of law for him.”

Reimart struck a second flickerstick for his captain. “Well, the redhead’s testimony was fairly convincing.”

“Don’t be an imbecile, Reimart. If you weren’t so taken with her, you’d have seen through the songsage embellishments of her testimony.”

“I wasn’t taken with her, Sir.”

The Captain chuckled. “Oh yes you were. I could see it from across the room. You liked the looks of that redheaded girl, didn’t you? Bright green eyes, light sprinkling of freckles, soft voice…didn’t you?”

The sergeant said nothing, but his cheeks reddened.

“I thought so. Well, by the Maker, don’t be ashamed! I’d be more worried about you if you hadn’t looked twice. She is a cute one…might even be some Kedethian stock in her, though the freckles give away her Lothanian blood. Damnable Lothanians are mixed up in everything but the ragamuffins, I’d say.”

“And the Dareni.”

Sir Hunt looked up at his sergeant as the picture of a half-Dareni formed in his mind, a diminutive form with the full-sized head of a Lothanian. He burst out laughing, and Reimart joined in. Hunt hadn’t laughed in several days, and it felt good. That’s why he liked the man; Reimart always had a way to see the brighter side of life.

“So, why is that blasted Audric slave roaming free in our city?” Hunt asked, growing serious again. “It just burns me that he’s effectively a free man. How did we come to the point where an Audric runaway can come into our town, burn down our monument, and still be walking our streets? We found him guilty, mind you. On all counts. I told you I would. So, where’s the justice?” He blew a huge plume of smoke across the room.

“I still say the Council was biased, Sir.”

“I know. I supposed I’ll have to look into that. Nasty business…”

A knock at the door startled Reimart and made him stand upright.

“Enter!” Hunt called out.

A Streeter from the city guard walked in and stuck a clean salute. But fear clouded his youthful eyes.

“State your business, Streeter,” Hunt commanded.

“Captain, you need to come down to Wilder Tower right away, Sir. Something’s happened.”

Hunt’s expression froze, and he laid his pipe aside. “Reimart, we’ll continue our conversation later, I assure you. For now, you’ve got the barracks. Lead on, Streeter!” The Captain gave the dossier one final look, then he left his office.

* * * * * * * * * *

Ordin Austmil-Clay sat idly against a boulder beside the Rae Belshar, which ran for some distance through the heart of Riverwalk Park. As he stared at the meandering river, he struggled to find peace. Nature surrounded him, but he felt trapped. He had been sentenced to remain within the city walls, and that was no small torture for a mystic.

Faithful Shinnick whimpered softly, echoing his master’s sentiments, and laid down on the carpet of grass beside the boulder. Ordin reached down and rubbed the wolf’s ears. “It could be worse, I suppose,” he said. “We could be on fire.”

Ordin tossed a rock into the river and cursed. It was irony to the extreme that he wanted to fade into the background unnoticed, but his ivory skin and aura of petrichor guaranteed that he stood out. He wanted to pass quietly, but lightning storms followed him. He wanted to leave men alone and be left alone, but now he was anchored in their midst.

It quickly became obvious to Cuauhtérroc that the people of Westmeade no longer trusted him. Crossroads Tavern evicted him from his room, and neighboring inns were suddenly “full.” As the days wore on, he also began to realize that he was the only Audric in town. There were a couple of times he thought he saw a dark-skinned woman skulking about, but he could never be sure. Perhaps he only wanted to find someone else like him, someone he could relate to.

He frequently wandered in Wilder District, troubled by memories of the destruction he brought on the town’s beloved tower. But he didn’t stay long, for the people of Wilder hated him now as much as they had previously admired him.

The one exception was a lady named Ermine Wilkins. She spoke with him, and she tried to understand him. She even forgave him. Though most everyone in her neighborhood disagreed with her, the lady Wilkins gave Cuauhtérroc a home.

For Cora O’Banion, the days following their verdict were filled with anxiety. She had lost her standing with the citizenry and was quickly losing her funds. The Crossroads Tavern became too expensive for her shrinking purse, but it took three full days of searching to find a retired couple willing to board her. That move alone cut her living expenses in half, and it gave her a place to get away from the throngs no longer kindly disposed to her.

The upstairs room in Harold and Velma Kotting’s simple house was adequately furnished for a young lady. It had belonged to their two daughters, who had married years ago and now seemed to be in a race to see who could provide the most grandchildren.

With the knowledge that Ordin and Cuauhtérroc were doing well enough, her thoughts filled with concerns for chances at securing the family heirloom, The Sword of the Coast, and for her family’s good name. These thoughts and many more found their way onto the pages of her escritoire, which was quickly becoming her closest confidante.

In the corner of her room stood a gleaming greataxe and a mediocre longsword that Ordin had pulled from the fire that consumed Wilder Tower. Together they served as grim reminders of their misdeeds, but Cora began to view the weapons as blessings in disguise. The greataxe anyway. It was obviously magically enhanced, but she had not gathered enough courage to present it to Calloway for research. She could possibly do the research herself, but that would require a lot of her time, and right now, time was money. Or, she could just sell the thing, spend no time at all, and take the money.

The spellbook continued to intrigue her, almost as if it drew her closer, but Cora felt her hands tremble involuntarily when she approached it. It was covered in sigils, which could be entirely decorative and benign, or which could hold protective magical wards that killed whoever opened the book without the proper password. She’d read of such things. Arcanists were powerful people, and some had a lengthy vicious streak.

But with nothing much to occupy her time, Cora worked up the courage to investigate the heavy tome. Perhaps the act of studying a symbol or two would not trigger the sigils’ latent power, as some texts suggested. Perhaps they were nothing more than the owner’s name in a foreign language.

Perhaps, too, it might kill her to open it.

* * * * * * * * * *

As Sir Reginald Hunt followed the streeter from the barracks to the base of Wilder Tower, his hackles began to rise. Why am I uneasy? He turned that question over several times in his head. The streeter had said “something happened,” but what? What did those rinkin freeblades do to my tower?

From a distance, Wilder Tower was a scene of peaceful serenity. The smoke had been long ago extinguished and he could not tell that any damage had been done. Near the tower, however, there was plenty of detritus and activity to suggest that the tower was anything but serene. Charred planks and stone rubble had been extricated through the front doors—now removed entirely—by the cartload, and various items that had not been destroyed in the fire were laid out along the hillside in rows according to their general type.

“What did you drag me out to see, Streeter?” Hunt demanded when he couldn’t discern the cause for himself.

“This way, Sir,” he replied with a tremor in his voice, then he walked through the front doorway. Thanks to Councilman Vincent Schumann, a retired arcanist, the magical darkness of the first two floors had been completely dispelled. The streeter took led Hunt up the first flight of stone stairs to the second floor.

The Captain was not prepared for what he saw.

Four of his soldiers were dead, their bodies covered where they fell, each one beside the next. Hunt’s eyes narrowed as his back stiffened. Someone’s going to pay for this.

Calmly but with a growing anger, he lifted the corner of the blanket covering the nearest casualty. He recognized the soldier, a young guard recently brought into service. He had shown some promise, too. But here he lay, his life cut short and his body riddled with lacerations.

Hunt checked all four of the slain men. Their deaths were the same. “Who did this?” he hissed between clenched teeth.

The streeter pointed to a pile of scrap armor.

“What’s that?” Hunt asked impatiently.

“The armor, Sir.”

“You mean to say that the murderer shucked his armor after killing my men?” the Captain asked with obvious skepticism.

“No, Sir. I mean to say that the armor killed them.”

The Captain’s eyes narrowed as he turned the streeter’s words around in his head. “The armor?” It was a difficult concept to grasp.

“Yes, sir. The armor moved on its own and did the killin’ without nobody inside it.”

“Were there witnesses?” Hunt asked quietly. “Besides…” He pointed to the bodies.

“Yes, Sir. Carver dealt the killing blow. So say two others—Thomason and Reichtoven. One of those two is in critical condition at the Solarium of Light.”

“Where is Carver?” the Captain asked.

The Streeter flagged down a soldier and motioned for him to call Carver. Moments later, a tall, lean man with short-cropped blonde hair came down the stairs and approached the Captain, snapping to attention when he was within arm’s reach. One of Carver’s thighs was wrapped—he favored that leg a bit—and there were multitude cuts across his uniform and blood stains throughout.

“They’re saying you ‘killed’ this armor, soldier. Is there any truth to this?”

“Yessir. They’re tellin’ it like it is.”

Sir Hunt paused, his eyes shifting between the two men. “Walk with me,” Hunt said to Carver.

As they walked throughout the tower, Hunt asked for a detailed accounting of what the soldier had seen and done, which Carver freely gave. He told of a frightening battle with an animated suit of armor, a horrifying empty shell of pure metal with glowing red lights for eyes, the deadly blade it wielded that struck down four soldiers before he had managed to jab his shortsword through a “soft spot”—the best he could tell—in its belly. Where they had been unable to inflict any real harm otherwise, that one blow seemed to do it in. He mentioned what felt like an energy transference at that point, and he showed his sword to the Captain.

“This is not standard issue equipment, Carver,” the captain said dryly. “Where’d you get this?”

“Like I said, it was like energy moved outta that armor and into my sword. It’s lighter, more balanced now, and I think it glows in the dark.”

Hunt took the shortsword from Carver and frowned disapprovingly at it. Telltale signs of magical endowment were there, a faint sparkle along the edge indicated a never-dulling blade; the way it interacted with natural light suggested that it probably absorbed it to be emitted during darkness. It felt lighter than standard steel, though it was no different in size or shape than the sword of any other guardsman.

He slipped the weapon into his belt. “I’m afraid we’ll need an arcanist or two to examine this before I can allow you to continue wielding it.”

“I understand, Captain,” Carver said. “It makes me a bit nervous, anyways.”

Captain Hunt thanked Carver for his heroism and bravery, then he asked him to gather all the men from the tower in the yard below. He would meet them for a talk in a few minutes.

The Captain proceeded to the fourth floor and sighed with dismay at the ruin he saw. Much of this floor was charred by the smoldering timbers that had crashed through the fire-burned ceiling above. After poking around behind some blackened debris, he found the burnt carcass of a dog-sized banespider. Cripe…

In the yard at the base of the tower, a dozen soldiers casually loitered as some recounted the heroic deeds of their slain comrades. When Sir Reginald Hunt stepped out of the tower and greeted them, all the soldiers stood at attention.

“Men,” he said, “at ease. I must commend each of you on the fine display of professionalism and bravery shown here today. I mourn with you the loss of our fellow soldiers, and I promise you that their deaths will not have been in vain.

“No doubt each of you has seen some very disturbing things today, things that men shouldn’t have to witness. Things that can be unsettling to the mind. That is why I am giving the order for you to take an extended paid furlough in another city. Go visit beautiful Everglade and soak up the healing waters there, take a fishing cruise on The Deepening, or—Nine Hells—go see Cer Halcyon for once! In the morning, I want every one of you on a coach to somewhere. Forget the things you’ve seen here and set your minds at peace.”

The soldiers cheered, overjoyed by the Captain’s gracious gift. Hunt knew they would be.

He told them to wrap up the day’s events by taking the slain to the infirmary, gathering all movable items into the storehouse of the barracks, and posting a two-man guard at the front doors—two men who were not already furloughed. And above all, they were to mention nothing of what they had seen and done here; this was an ongoing investigation.

Sir Hunt walked away, satisfied. That should keep a lid on things.

He visited the injured in the Solarium, including the critically wounded Thomason, whose face was terribly disfigured from multiple cuts. He congratulated each of them for their service to Westmeade and placed a ribbon on the table beside their beds.

In a small anteroom, Hunt spoke privately with the pontiff of Light. “Make sure that when these men are healed they are sent to the destinations of their choice, preferably beyond the borders of Alikon…as a reward for their sacrifice. I will call for their return when they are needed. As for Thomason…I’m afraid the city’s coffers cannot pay what his remedy will require. See to it that he lives, but I understand he may never talk again.”

“We can perform the necessary regenerative supplications at a steep discount,” the cassock offered.

But the Captain leaned in close to the pontiff. “I understand,” he said with precision, “he may never talk again.”


Hunt’s steely eyes never blinked.

“Oh…” the cassock nodded. “Yes, Sir.”

Late that evening in a small, paved area behind the storehouses of the barracks, Sir Hunt removed from storage all the items that his men had found inside Wilder Tower—furniture, wardrobes of clothing, foodstuffs. He made a pile on the paving stones and doused everything with lamp oil, then lit it and watched through narrow eyes as flames engulfed the collection. In the shadows dancing against his face, the Captain cracked a devious smile. Carver’s shortsword he had locked in his own personal safe.

Back in his office, though, his smile disappeared. One of the soldiers he had ordered to leave town had instead placed a note on his desk. It read, “Captain Hunt, Sir. I decided not to follow your last order, and I reckon you may want to court-martial me for that. But I done served my one year, and so I claim my right to delist. And just so you know, I’m staying in Westmeade. Signed, Elric Reichtoven.”

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