As the audience chamber doors boomed shut behind Delvun, the ambassador from Old Sankt, Doil’s careful effort to maintain his composure fled. He turned to Prime Kiluron, opened his mouth to speak, closed it again, rephrased, opened his mouth to speak again, and closed it again. He needed to say something diplomatic, because just exclaiming to the Prime that he had made a terrible mistake was certainly counterproductive.
He opened his mouth once more, and a noise actually started in the back of his throat, when Kiluron held up his hand, forestalling Doil’s words. “Before you say anything,” Kiluron said, “let me see if I can do it for you.” Doil shut his mouth, and Kiluron continued, acting as if he were quoting. “’My lord, you’ve made a terrible mistake. I know that you want to help the people on Old Sankt recover from the typhoon, but look at the state of the Union. In less than a year, we’ve lost a Prime, had a war with a demon that included devastation of our existing reserves of natural resources, and suffered from a contaminant that has left our cities reeling. Don’t you pay attention when the ministers are meeting? We’ll be lucky to have enough reserves for the winter, much less extra to give aid to Old Sankt. And yet here you’ve promised them things that we don’t have.’” He paused. “How am I doing so far?”
Doil hesitated. “My lord, I wouldn’t presume to put it quite so baldly…”
Smirking, Kiluron waved him down. “I know. But as it happens, I do actually listen when my ministers meet, or at least I do some of the time. So, I do realize that we are hardly as a Union in a position to offer much in the way of aid to anyone. I even remember enough of your briefing to know that Old Sankt is still a political mess, and that we’ll probably never get any kind of benefit from the effort we put in now, and that there’s about no chance that they would come to our aid in the future. Despite all of that, this is not one of the decisions that I’m uncertain about.”
“But why?” Doil asked.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Kiluron replied. “And that’s all there is to it.” Standing, he gestured for Doil to follow him. “That being said, I do realize that just sending aid would probably be a disaster and would ultimately end up helping only a very few people who I’m not particularly interested in helping. That’s why I’m planning to send Vere.”
Doil thought about that for a moment. “That’s…downright politically devious of you, my lord.”
“And here I was just thinking it was a practical way to ensure that the aid gets to the people who actually need it,” Kiluron replied, but Doil could tell he knew he was being political.
As they walked, Doil began running numbers in his head. “It will take some time to put together the supplies and get the crews ready. We’ll probably have to divert some ships from the Nycheril expeditions in order to put this together. Admiral Ferl won’t be pleased about that. It would be convenient if there were a way to divert the ships directly instead of routing everything through the Merolate port, but I don’t think that’s logistically feasible.”
Kiluron smiled. “Thanks, Doil.”
Pausing in making mental lists, Doil looked at him. “Er, for what?”
“Once you knew I’d thought it through and made up my mind, you didn’t keep trying to talk me out of it, and you didn’t keep acting like it was a bad idea. You just jumped right into figuring out how to make it happen.”
“That is my job, my lord,” Doil observed, but he was pleased. He always worried that Kiluron thought he was too critical, and that he could never know enough to really be a good advisor. “I should go put together the necessary teams to ensure that the logistics for this expedition come together appropriately.”
“Good plan,” Kiluron said. “I’ll go tell Vere the good news. He’s seemed kind of restless recently, so I figure he should be pleased at the chance to get back out into the field again.”
Leaning upon the rail of a ship approaching Old Sankt, Vere was not pleased: about being at sea again, about being consigned to escort duty, or about dealing with Sankt’s squabbling bureaucrats. Someone other than Merolate’s Guardcaptain could have been entrusted with this assignment. Vere remembered seeing Sankt enroute from a Nycheril expedition, and once was sufficient. These were not Sankt’s glory days.
That the Prime considered this relief mission of such importance to assign him should have been satisfactory, but there was a reason Vere never pursued a military role beyond Guardcaptain. He asked too many questions and spent too much time thinking; the Nycheril expeditions were as close as he came to it, and they had not encouraged him to continue. Besides, this whole mission was a dangerous distraction from his core responsibility for the Prime’s safety.
Without turning around, Vere noted Captain Grelt approaching from his tread upon the deck, and he waited while the other man leaned upon the rail beside him, facing the opposite direction. “Been to Sankt recently?” the bearded man asked.
“Not recently,” Vere admitted, “unless you count vicariously through their ancient poetry.”
Grelt snorted. “It ain’t nothing like it was in those days, but you know that if you’ve been. That typhoon…they say it smashed down buildings that’ve stood since before the Blood Empire.”
“The storms grow strong this time of the year, but rare it is for them to come far in here,” Vere agreed, mostly for the rhyme.
“True.” Grelt looked over the prow towards the west. “It’s a good thing the Prime’s trying to do, here, but you better watch yourself. I hear the merchant captains talking at times.”
That caught Vere’s attention. “What do they say?”
Grelt shifted on the deck. “I guess you could say that sailing cargo through Sankt ain’t quite profitable these days. Costs a lot of gold, if you know what I mean.”
Vere knew exactly what he meant. “The trouble that there always is when people are involved and mix with power? Some will rise, some will thrive, and others try to cower, but always there will be those who take advantage.”
After a moment to parse Vere’s verse, Grelt grimaced. “Suppose that’s true. And when people start getting desperate, it’ll only get worse.”
Like in the aftermath of a destructive typhoon. Vere nodded with a sigh. He might be even less pleased if his presence actually proved necessary on this mission.
At least the voyage was uneventful, and the green fields, long lines of grapes, olives, and other crops, and ancient buildings were already growing discernible in the distance as the trio of ships approached the main harbor, or what remained of it: the piers were all but destroyed, and even the great breakwaters built during the Pax Sankt showed scars from the typhoon’s assault.
A delegation awaited them upon a hastily repaired dock of rough-sawn boards filling gaps in the stonework. They wore flowing togas in white, with elaborate necklaces and headpieces atop them to contrast the plainness of the garments. None of them looked in need of humanitarian aid, which was how Vere would call them corpulent in a poem.
Once Grelt had the ship docked, the crew lowered a gangplank, and Vere made his way down to greet Sankt’s delegation. Their leader was an older woman, her face heavily made up atop her plain toga. The unadorned white cloth was supposed to represent the humility and commonality of the popularly elected leaders of Sankt, a message undermined by the garment’s silk thread and lace trimmings.
The woman clasped her hands to her chest before holding them out to Vere. “Welcome to Old Sankt, the proud center of the world,” she greeted. “I do apologize that we cannot receive the honorable delegation from our young neighbor, the Merolate Union, in better form, but under the circumstances I’m certain that you will understand. I am Madam Ellipa, and these are my fellow councilors.”
Vere returned the gesture and appended a military-style salute. “Guardcaptain Vere, representing Prime Kiluron of Merolate. On behalf of the honored sovereign of the Merolate Union, I come to distribute aid to your people to alleviate their suffering in this time of crisis.” He made certain that his address sounded rehearsed, as if he were not accustomed to formal language.
From his discussions with Captain Grelt, and his own intelligence network, Vere had three points he wanted to establish in this first interaction with Sankt’s councilors: that he intended Merolate’s people to oversee the distribution of the aid he escorted, that it was for the people of Sankt, not the government, and that he was aware of Sankt’s political intrigue and did not intend to allow it to interfere with his mercy mission.
From Madam Ellipa’s expression, he supposed he succeeded. There were advantages to studying poetry; poets were masters at packing subtle implications into few words. “Of course,” she covered. Then came the counter. “The Assembly already discussed at length the most effective means by which the fruits of your nation’s generosity may be distributed with the appropriate alacrity. Warehouses are prepared, if you would care to begin unloading?”
“The docks will do just fine for distribution, thank you,” Vere replied. They knew he was not a diplomat, so he leaned into that; Sankt traditionally had a low opinion of the military mind and might be convinced to underestimate him. “We can begin immediately. A single Merolate coin will be given to everyone who comes to us, which will help us keep track of who’s already received aid and who hasn’t.”
Protests burgeoned from the councilors, but Vere spoke right over them. “We can set up a triage facility in those warehouses you mentioned; that would be the best use for them. If you could provide some fresh water, we have some limited supplies, but focused on food and medicine. I have triage experts ready to go, if you’ll just help distribute the information to the populace? We can do it ourselves if need be.” That would help keep them honest in their messaging.
“I – that is, we…” Madam Ellipa began to protest, but Vere was already returning to the deck while the councilors stared after him in consternation.
By the following morning, a warehouse was filled with those seeking medical attention, the docks were converted into a food distribution point, Sankt’s citizens were forming disorderly, disgruntled queues for what they needed, and Vere was effectively superfluous. That was the best way to run an operation. Everyone involved knew their tasks better than Vere did, leaving him free to focus on making sure nothing external could interfere with them.
The first sign of such interference presented itself in the form of Madam Ellipa, which was not an obstacle Vere could overcome with a sword. She approached the docks, followed by a small entourage, not long after dawn. “Good morning, Guardcaptain. I see that affairs are progressing smoothly?”
“My people are competent enough to not even need me most of the time,” Vere replied. “I hope that your people are satisfied so far?”
Madam Ellipa plastered a false smile on her face as she nodded. “If that’s the case, perhaps you would care for a tour of Old Sankt? The Blood Empire may have destroyed some of our greatest architecture and artifacts, and the typhoon inflicted its own damages, but we still can boast some remarkable sights. I would be proud to have one of our historians escort you.”
Poetry was not history, but Vere knew enough history to understand that Sankt collapsed of its own accord years before the Blood Empire rose to power, not that the ‘Old Sankt’ of today would ever admit that, or that their lost glory could largely be attributed to the deposed monarchy. “I would be honored,” Vere assented, and he followed Madam Ellipa from the docks.
“Unfortunately, many of our most iconic sights are probably of little interest to a man of your temperament,” Madam Ellipa observed as she led them to a pair of fine horses just out of sight of her citizens thronging at the docks, “however, we do have some limited remains of our ancient military prowess which might be of interest.”
“Actually, I was hoping to see the tombs and tributes to Odeny, Indur, and Hante,” Vere replied. They were among the greatest poets of the ancient world, and all hailed from the glory days of the Pax Sankt. “I do hope that they’ve not been damaged by the typhoon.”
Madam Ellipa eyed him appraisingly, but Vere kept his face impassive. “You’ve read the classics?”
Vere grunted an affirmative, and then he proceeded to quote Odeny, the greatest of the epic poets, in the original language. The lines were beautiful, and in this rendition, they were accompanied by an enjoyably blank expression on Ellipa’s face. “My apologies, Madam Ellipa. I forget that these days one can appreciate these poets without learning the old tongue.” The translations were made by Merolate’s scholars.
It took Madam Ellipa a moment to recover, and Vere noted the relief with which she pled pressing business when they reached the pair of horses, and she could introduce him to the aged historian awaiting them. “This is Drelta, amongst our greatest historians. I’m certain he will be able to do your tour greater justice than I.”
“You are a most gracious host, Madam Ellipa.” Vere offered her a clumsy bow and turned to Drelta as the councilor retreated. “Guardcaptain Vere, of Merolate,” he introduced himself.
Drelta was too busy eying Madam Ellipa’s retreat to pay attention to Vere. Only when she disappeared around a low hill did he turn to Vere a grunt. “I hear you’re a student of the classics,” he observed, then switched to the old tongue. “A true student of the Greats?”
“I consider myself more of an enthusiast. I study poetry more than history,” Vere replied in kind.
Drelta raised bushy, skeptical eyebrows, but reverted to the common tongue. “If you are a mere enthusiast, Sir, then I ought to rename my students.” He snorted. “Half of them can’t properly conjugate a basic verb in the old tongue, much less get the declensions right.”
Vere offered a modest shrug as he mounted the horse next to Drelta. “Shall we?” he proposed.
With a last glance over his shoulder after where Madam Ellipa disappeared, Drelta jerked a nod and led Vere towards a conical hill with what looked like a smokestack protruding from the apex. When they rounded its base, Vere discovered that part of it on the side facing the sea was cut away, revealing a doorway of intricate worked stone, compared to which modern Merolate architecture was crude and transient.
“This is Indur’s tomb, the oldest of the Greats,” Drelta explained. “At least, we call it his tomb, although in truth he died ignominiously, virtually unknown and living as a hermit. This structure was built a century after his death, after his writers were rediscovered.”
Vere trailed a hand over a relief of the rising sun. “That still makes it…almost eight hundred years old?”
Drelta nodded. “Legends says he kept his home here, before he died, and penned his great poems while watching the sun glancing off the waters.” He shrugged. “That seems unlikely to me, to be honest, but it does make for a dramatic story.”
They continued to the next sight, which was a temple to a forgotten god. Then there was another tomb, and a relic from the monarchy, before they visited Odeny’s tomb.
“Unlike Indur, Odeny’s greatness was recognized during his lifetime, hence the comparative grandeur of his tomb,” Drelta explained. Vere noted marble claddings upon much of the stonework, still scrupulously maintained. There were metallic inlays, filigree, and artistic tributes in every imaginable medium. “He traveled all over Sankt during his lifetime, reading his poems to audiences, adapting them into performances, telling stories. Some historians believe, myself included, that today we recollect only a fraction of his total body of work.”
After Odeny’s tribute, Hante’s tomb was humbler. “By Hante’s time, Sankt was beginning to wane, which is reflected in the architecture here.” Drelta sighed. “Entire building techniques were forgotten, such that even had there been funding and resources, Hante could never have had a tomb to rival Odeny’s. Perhaps that is fitting: long he has been described as the poet of the fading world.”
“’Lo, I have seen the glories of old/they fade behind me/an overused mold/the contours blurred and rimy.’” Vere softly quoted.
He received a sharp look from Drelta in return. The historian hesitated, seeming to wrestle with something in his mind, and then gestured. “Come. There is one last sight I would show you.”
It was late that afternoon when they reached a temple tuckled far back behind igneous rocks near the island’s center. A dilapidated wooden palisade was erected around it, slumping in places, and a lone, bored guard stood by the rickety gate. The guard recognized Drelta without a word or question and allowed him and Vere to pass.
Behind the palisade, the temple was a squat, plain, utilitarian affair, its proportions oddly stretched. Compared to the other temples and sights Vere had visited earlier, it appeared crude and primitive, almost a mockery of some grander design, although not in resemblance to another of Sankt’s styles that Vere could identify. If anything, it struck his as reminiscent of the spectral Heart City conjured by the Guardian, but without that place’s architectural refinement, a sort of parody of that style, or perhaps a tribute by someone far less capable.
Once inside, Drelta relaxed slightly. “I know you said you are more an enthusiast for poetry than for history, but I do hope that you will indulge me in this visit.” He sat down on a fallen pillar with a sigh. “At thee very least, here we can speak with some modicum of privacy. I must warn you: do not trust Ellipa.”
Carefully, Vere resisted the urge to laugh at such an obvious warning. “Why do you say that?”
Despite his assurance that they could speak privately in this ruined temple, Drelta leaned forward, and kept his voice to a whisper. “She would take your aid and use it to empower herself further. She uses this…this popular style of governance to gain power without concomitant responsibility. I would see a return to the monarchy, but not in someone like her. But she sees you as a threat to her authority; she cannot tolerate that. You are in danger.”
“I expected as much,” Vere admitted. “That’s why I ensured distribution would be managed by my own people.” He wondered if Drelta had anything to reveal of which he was not already aware.
“Good, that’s good…” Drelta shifted and lowered his voice further, so that Vere could barely hear him. “I believe you may also be in personal danger.”
Vere smiled grimly. “Drelta, when I’m not delivering humanitarian aid to islands devastated by typhoons, I lead the Prime’s bodyguard. I’m always in personal danger.” He turned serious again to appease Drelta and wondered if there was something more going on than what he already understood. “However, I appreciate the warning.”
Drelta patted Vere’s arm and turned back towards the temple. “This is actually a very fascinating place, and not merely a private one. As you’ve doubtless noticed, it hailed from a significantly earlier period than the other artifacts on Sankt. I suspect that it predates the Pax Sankt by at least five hundred years, perhaps more.” He gestured at some faint scratches on one wall. “I believe that these are the remains of some manner of etchings, perhaps reliefs of whatever god or gods for which this temple may have been built.”
Nodding along, Vere almost missed the faint clink of metal on stone, barely audible over Drelta’s droning, and quickly muffled. He lowered a hand to his sword hilt. “Do you come often to this site?” he interrupted the scholar.
Stumbling over his narration, Drelta stammered to a halt. “Uh, I suppose so. Why do you…” his eyes widened. He was facing Vere and the entrance, so it was all the signal Vere needed. He spun, whipping his sword from its sheath, and saw a dozen troops rushing inside, with more surrounding the palisade.
After knocking a spear away from his throat, Vere reversed his grip on his sword and offered it to one of the soldiers. Another solider took his belt knives and searched him thoroughly. “Finally. Someone on this island decided to give me the respect I deserve,” Vere muttered. In moments, he was disarmed, bound, and in the back of a wagon trundling towards Sankt’s capital, Drelta trussed up beside him.
Picking idly at a loose chip of stone in Sankt’s dungeon, Vere waited from someone to come to speak with him. It was only a matter of time, and though he could probably escape, he wanted to know what he had missed, and he did not want his activities to interfere with the safety of the rest of his team. Ellipa – at least, he assumed it was Ellipa – had moved against him far quicker and more directly than he had anticipated, which implied there was something else afoot.
He tried speaking with the guards, but they must have been told something vile, because they treated him like a plague bearer and refused to even exchange pleasantries. Intriguingly, Drelta was imprisoned too, in the cell beside Vere’s. Vere shuffled over to the slit of a window that passed between the two cells. “Is this part of the tour?” he asked in the old tongue. “These dungeons look pretty old.”
Drelta tried to return Vere’s levity, but his laugh became a nervous cough; the old man had probably spent less time in various dungeons than Vere. “They’re original, actually. Only the metal components have required replacement over the centuries,” he answered in the same language. Then he gave a heavy sigh. “I am sorry I got you caught up in this.”
That gave Vere pause; he had assumed that Drelta was just collateral to make whatever fabrication Ellipa intended appear more convincing, but now he had to consider that his arrest was a fringe benefit to a larger plot. That would explain why it happened so much faster and more directly than he’d expected. “Caught up in what, exactly?” Vere asked.
Wary, Drelta glanced at the guard outside before replying in a low voice, despite how unlikely it was for the guard to speak the old tongue, as well. “There are…a few of us who are dissatisfied with the present political environment. I am a well-known critic of the ruling council and its members, the intellectual face of the movement against them, actually. Doubtless they sought any opportunity to eliminate me.”
“Intriguing.” Vere sat back, pondering. It would probably have failed in Merolate, but Sankt was a different place, more mercurial, less legalistic. As he understood it, Ellipa would need to be able to tell a convincing story more than she would need concrete evidence. He switched back to the common tongue. “You do feed prisoners here, right? I don’t think I could handle your consensus process on an empty stomach.”
Drelta fumbled, taken aback by the abrupt change in both topic and attitude. “Uh, yes, I’m sure that the guards will be bringing some kind of stew shortly.”
“Perfect,” Vere said. “I could really use a spoon right now.” He waggled his eyebrows.
“A spoon?” Drelta repeated.
Vere grinned. “Long story. Maybe I’ll tell you sometime, under better circumstances.”
They lapsed into silence. Indeed, the whole prison was oddly quiet, and still no one came to speak with them. Ellipa did not come to gloat, and the guards did not banter. That last was especially peculiar – what kind of guards would just stand in a doorway like bronze statues? He hoped the delay was not from Ellipa moving against the rest of Merolate’s relief mission; short of that, his officers could keep order in his absence, and probably wouldn’t launch any ill-timed rescue attempts, which would be terribly inconvenient.
Sankt was so full of contradictions. Its people considered themselves progressive, but they elected a representative body of a hundred councilors in a bid to return to a past era of greatness, a time revered with almost religious verve. They dressed their soldiers in the armor of that era, as if steel were not widely available and preferred since their monarchy’s collapse in 450 PU. Ellipa’s ruling council was itself a contradiction, a necessity since a hundred people could not greet Vere at the docks, but an unfortunate reminder of the first ruling council’s betrayals.
Whatever was going on, assuming Ellipa was behind it, which was a safe assumption, it was probably because her grip on power was unstable. Inherently: that was a deliberate feature of Sankt’s system, and it meant that Vere had a hand to play in whatever scheme was afoot. Not one on which he would care to wager a sourdough bread roll, but it was better than nothing.
A guard brought them supper in shallow, wooden bowls when the sun disappeared from view; the cell’s only source of light was a single, barred window on the eastern side, facing the sea, and low enough that sea spray occasionally misted in, perhaps just to make the occupants uncomfortable. The meager soup was just a weak broth with a few vegetables boiled to disintegration. It wasn’t what Vere would call fortifying, but he slurped it down; Drelta showed less enthusiasm. No spoons were involved.
Stiff, salty wind carried the night’s mellowed warmth into the cell, turning Vere’s damp skin chilly. Retreating to a corner of the cell, he settled himself into it, leaned his head back, and fell asleep. If there was one talent common to military types in all places and in all times, it was the ability to fall asleep anywhere with a minimum of effort.
He awoke with the sun’s first rays, thanks to the easterly window, and was unsurprised to see a cross, overtired Drelta pacing and grumbling across the cell’s minimal breadth. As soon as he noticed that Vere was awake, he launched into a well-brewed tirade. “I haven’t the slightest understanding of how you can possibly have slept through the night in such a dismal, uncomfortable confine as this. It hardly bears contemplating. I never imagined that I would find myself in such ignominious circumstances.”
Shrugging, Vere rose to his feet and began to stretch and move about as best he could in the limited confines, getting his blood moving and waking himself up fully. “Part of the training, I suppose.”
“You might have thought of that, Drelta, before engaging in treason,” a voice interjected from outside of their cell. Both turned to see Ellipa approaching. “Or did you think there would be no consequences to your actions?”
“Ah, Ellipa,” Vere greeted. “I didn’t expect to see you up and about so early this morning. I’m sure you were kept plenty busy yesterday, after our unjust imprisonment.”
“You are clever, for a military man,” Ellipa replied. “How unfortunate that you were ‘involved in a plot to overthrow the rightful government of Old Sankt.’ I do not know if you were acting on your Prime’s orders, but in the interests of good relations in the Aprina basin, I will assume that you were not.”
In other words, she had not been able to secure the supply ships from Vere’s people. He smiled. “Most magnanimous of you.”
“Indeed.” Ellipa turned to Drelta, apparently dismissing Vere from her considerations. “As for you, old man, you know the punishments you face for the crimes you have committed and planned to commit against the government of Old Sankt. However, I am prepared to offer some degree of mercy, should you provide the identities of others involved in your conspiracy.”
“I am an old man,” Drelta answered, “and not long for this world now, regardless of your tender ministrations. I shall tell you nothing.”
For a long moment, Ellipa held Drelta’s gaze, and then she nodded. “I believe you.” She turned to go, but called back over her shoulder, as if she had forgotten. “By the way, both of you will be put on trial before the whole body of the voting people of Old Sankt in two days’ time. An orator will be assigned to you. The people of Old Sankt will decide your fate, as is appropriate. Good day, gentlemen.” Then she was gone.
“Of all the hypocritical, conceited, arrogant, hackneyed notions!” Drelta railed. “Manipulating the will of the people to suit her whims…”
Vere frowned. “Were you not the one advocating for a return to the monarchy?”
Drelta stumbled in his diatribe. “Well, yes, but the monarchy would not place the reins of power in the hands of some capricious egoist.”
“I suppose that depends upon the method of monarchical selection,” Vere consented. “However, we have more pressing concerns. I believe it may be time for me to return to Merolate. After all, I do have a real job, and it does not involve delivering humanitarian aid to ungrateful dictators.”
“You intend to escape?” Drelta asked. He sounded appalled. “But…you mustn’t. The trial…”
“I’ll take you with me, if you want.” Vere needed Drelta onboard with his escape attempt, or the man could call the guards, and then all of Vere’s efforts would be meaningless. “I’m certain that Prime Kiluron could be convinced to grant you shelter in Merolate.”
Shaking his head, Drelta waved aside this offer, as if it were irrelevant to the discussion. “The trial must be respected. We believe we are in the position of right, and if that is the truth, then we must convince the people of that. The trial provides us a forum in which to do so: that is its purpose.”
Although Vere was hearing and understanding the words, they were not making sense to him. “Are you not in prison precisely for the reason that you do not believe your state ought to be governed by the whims of the masses? Yet now you think that your path to righteousness and vindication is through appeal to the very people, and respect for the very system, which you think are inadequate to the task of governance?”
There was only the slightest hesitation in Drelta’s response. “My goal has always been to convince the people to embrace monarchical rule once more, to see beyond their fleeting passions to the good of all Old Sankt. Not to force authority upon them at the point of a sword.”
On the one hand, Vere could respect the man’s convictions; in some ways, they reminded him of Prime Wezzix’s resolute adherence to the rule of law. On the other hand, just at this moment those convictions were both inconvenient and dangerous to Vere, not to mention in part responsible for placing him in this mess in the first place. He opened his mouth to convince Drelta to change his mind, but the arrival of someone else in the prison forestalled him, and he turned around to see who had come to visit them in their confinement.
The woman wore a traditional toga of simple cotton cloth, though of very fine weave and high quality, and she was carrying several scrolls in the crook of her left arm. A single, silver medallion hung from her neck, and she showed no hesitation as she descended to stand before Vere’s cell. Their guards were clearly deferential, and the woman must have had some positional authority, because when she ordered the guards away with a gesture, they went without protest.
“Good morning,” the woman said, looking over Drelta and Vere, who rose as she approached. “My name is Allna, and I shall be your orator for your upcoming trial.”
Drelta’s response was snide, taking Vere by surprise. “We have no need of a sniveling sycophant to ensure that Ellipa gets her desired outcome. I can speak for myself, as is my right as a classically trained scholar.”
If Allna was phased by Drelta’s accusations, she gave no outward sign of it in her person or her voice. “If that is your wish, I shall respect it, of course. However, before you make a hasty decision, you should be aware that Ellipa did not assign me to this case. I volunteered.”
Forestalling what he feared would be another acidic retort from Drelta, Vere stepped forward. “How interesting. May I ask why you volunteered? Do you know of what we are accused?”
“Of course I know of what you are accused,” Allna replied. “That is standard procedure when a case comes before the public orators. And when I took the case, I received a full briefing upon it, though I will be very interested in hearing your perspectives on the matter, should you decide to accept me as your orator. As for why I volunteered, I considered it my duty to ensure that you had the best orator available for your trial before the people, and all false modesty aside, that would be me.”
“Oh, I’ve heard of you,” Drelta sneered. “Your one of the ‘people’s orators.’ Why would you take our case, of all cases? You know of what we stand accused, and my sympathies are not secret. Do you intend to sabotage our defense to ensure we are properly and publicly executed?”
This was finally enough for Allna to sound affronted in her response. “I would never stoop to such low, duplicitous tactics, no matter what the cause,” she snapped. “I consider it the right of every person on Sankt to have the opportunity to present the best possible defense, particularly when they face capital punishment.” She hesitated. “Furthermore, I have no interest in seeing this devolve into a show trial. That will only alienate people further from the ideals of public governance. If what you have done is truly wrong, then no defense will be adequate to see you vindicated. In a way, the stronger defense you can mount, if you are still proven guilty in the end it will be all the greater an affirmation of the causes that I personally hold dear.”
“Perfect,” Vere asserted, before Drelta could argue further. “We accept you as our orator. Or at least I do. If Drelta wants to go his own way, far be it from me to dissuade him. But you’ve certainly persuaded me, and if your powers of persuasion work on me, they’ll work on anybody.”
“I’m glad we’re all so humble here,” Drelta muttered. Then he sighed. “Fine. I accept, too.”
“Excellent,” Allna said. “Now then, shall we get started?”
It was said that no one could talk like someone from Sankt, at least in terms of sheer volume of words. Even in ancient times, under the monarchy, Sankt’s people were known for their verbosity, and like so many things about their culture, that tendency had only become more pronounced with the passage of centuries. Leaning against the rough stone wall of his prison cell, watching Drelta and Allna endlessly debating over individual words, Vere shook his head for his own benefit. Though not taciturn himself, there were limits. Spending time worrying over whether to say ‘It is the right of all people in a free society to express their opinions,’ or ‘It is the right of all people in a free society to hold their opinions,’ when the trial was barely a night away was well past his.
“Yes, yes, I’m sure that’s all very important and absolutely fascinating,” he interrupted. “However, does it really have a significant impact on the presentation of our defense? Perhaps we could save the philosophical discussion of the role of government and the rights of the individual for a more appropriate time, like after we’ve avoided being publicly executed.”
Drelta harrumphed, and muttered something about ‘young people,’ but after a moment’s hesitation, Allna sighed. “Yes, I suppose you’re probably correct,” she admitted. “Whilst under normal circumstances I would say that the precise wording is, in fact, a matter of great import, given our limited available time perhaps it is more important to complete the whole defense, rather than perfect each phrase without having a coherent conclusion.”
Vere nodded his approval. “A sound tactical decision, for an orator.”
That drew a scowl from Allna, but at least they were back on track and discussing the next part of the defense. It was to be composed of four main points, in addition to the introduction and the conclusion, and each main point had its own supports. The first point was physical, the second intellectual, the third legal, and the fourth moral, but the details varied between Vere and Drelta. As Allna remarked several times, Vere’s defense was relatively easy, as in truth he had done nothing wrong, and the people they had to persuade were well aware that he was responsible for bringing aid from Merolate. Drelta’s was more complicated; his work with dissident organizations could be considered legally subversive. More importantly, a return to the monarchy was far from popular.
Of course, the whole defense for both of them could be undermined by whatever orator Ellipa had secured to speak against them, as Allna admitted. While the public trials were ostensibly legal proceedings, there was a large element of show to them, and the people were famously irrational in their decisions. This to the point that known murderers had been allowed to walk free because enough of the audience had enjoyed the defense orator’s presentation. Add it to the list of reasons Vere preferred Merolate’s systems to the fickle popularity contests on Sankt.
“If we succeed with such an argument, I would think it would be in opposition to your own cause célèbre, the whole reason you’re in this position,” Allna argued. It sounded interesting enough for Vere to start paying attention to the conversation again.
Drelta grumbled. “It is a common misconception that those of us who favor a return to a more authoritarian form of government would also like to see limits placed upon the freedoms that Sankt’s public enjoy. If you bothered to study history, you would note that for most of the Pax Sankt, Sankt’s citizens were free to pursue their own interests, express themselves, and so forth. Arguably, in fact, they were freer than they are now, under this unique form of tyranny we have developed.”
“Actually, I do study history,” Allna replied with some venom. “There was freedom during the Pax Sankt, yes: for those who furthered the interests of the state. What we would be arguing here would be for something quite different, and I’m not sure, even if it succeeds, that it would be wise, though I favor it personally.”
With some surprise, Drelta regarded Allna. “Then it seems we have found a topic on which we both agree,” he said. “Do it.”
Allna made another note, and then glanced out of the cell’s barred window. It was getting late in the evening. “Very well. Unless either of you have any other additions for the defense, I shall retire, to make the finishing touches upon these arguments, and ensure that I am adequately rested for the trial tomorrow morning. I suggest that you do the same.”
Vere had no trouble sleeping, though he was vaguely aware of Drelta’s restlessness throughout the night, which included a great deal of inchoate mumbling. Vere still wondered if he would be better off escaping, sailing back to Merolate, and putting the whole, unfortunate episode behind him. Even Drelta’s obstinacy would not be too great an impediment, but…it was a matter of pride, now. This was a diplomatic task, and Vere intended to prove he could accomplish his missions as well with the pen as with the sword.
A trio of guards replaced those stationed in the dungeons when morning came, and led the two prisoners, in chains, to the forum. The entire pathway to the forum was lined with Sankt’s citizens, peering curiously at Drelta and Vere and already forming their opinions. Vere walked proudly, as if he was leading the guards instead of following them in chains, and he met the spectators’ eyes.
Sand covered the bottom of the public forum in a thick blanket. The forum itself dated from the Pax Sankt and would have made a fine addition to Drelta’s tour, for all it was worn and battered by the centuries. An entire section was crumbled away, but it could still accommodate thousands for whatever event was held: public fights, executions, ceremonies, celebrations. People came to watch it all and, since the advent of the Assembly, to cast their votes. Today’s trial was as much entertainment as legal proceeding.
Their guards deposited Vere and Drelta at the center of the elliptical sandpit. Two podiums faced each other from the ellipse’s foci; Allna stood at one, clad in her formal regalia and appearing calm and composed before the tumultuous crowd, and Ellipa’s orator stood at the other. He had a vaguely pugilistic look, if that term could be applied to someone whose right hook consisted of polysyllabic verbiage.
“You!” Drelta seemed fit to explode, straining against his handcuffs as if the old historian was ready to physically attack Ellipa’s orator. “Of all the orators, she chose you?!”
Allna tried to make urgent, covert soothing gestured at Drelta, but if he noticed, he ignored them. “Ah, my old, old friend,” Ellipa’s orator acknowledged. “Seeing you humbled before all the people you hold in such contempt is an experience that I would not have missed for all the grain in Lufilna.”
Sneering, Drelta snapped back. “’Old friend,’ indeed. What a gross miscarriage of this vaunted justice! Everyone knows that you are no unbiased participant, Umpsil.”
“Do they?” Umpsil was nothing but mock innocence. “Lady Ellipa does not seem to think that my judgement is impaired by my personal feelings, and I am certain that the people will be likewise confident in my role.”
“You – you!” Drelta fumbled for words, failed, and Vere kicked him in the knee. Not hard – he was not seeking to injure the man – but hard enough to cause the knee to fold backwards and Drelta to sit hard on the sand, rather than launching himself at Umpsil.
“Drelta, calm yourself,” Allna belatedly urged, though Vere doubted the words would have had much effect, even had they come earlier. Whatever the history was between Umpsil and Drelta, there was little of rational scholarship to its present form.
When the rising sun was framed between the pylons on the eastern face of the forum, Ellipa, standing where once Sankt’s king would have stood, raised her arms, indicating that the trial should begin, just as would have happened centuries ago under the monarchy. As soon as that signal was given, Umpsil began to speak, the curves of the forum directing his voice and helping everyone who had secured a seat therein to hear his words.
“My fellow citizens, equals, people of Old Sankt, I humbly bid you hearken unto my words. It is with a great and serious obligation that I come before you to tell you of a dastardly conspiracy amongst foreign actors and our own people to subvert the careful progress we have made to return to the glory of our old days, and bring down the rightful representatives of our collective will.” Umpsil was dramatic, his intonation pitched to incite the crowd, and it had the desired effect; a chorus of aghast cries and accusations filtered down from the spectators, although the form of the forum was such that they were muffled at the center, giving the impression that Vere and Drelta stood in a private bubble.
His introduction completed and his audience sympathetic, Umpsil launched into his narrative. And a narrative it was. There was no careful presentation of evidence, as Prime Wezzix would have demanded, no witnesses or testimony, no reference to previous precedents.
“Long it has been known to those with the eyes to see that the historian called Drelta harbors treasonous notions towards the modern institutions that have returned Old Sankt to the path of greatness and prosperity. In secret, this ‘humble scholar’ plotted with other sympathizers to cast down our popular system of governance, and to reform the awful tyranny of the monarchy. The difficulties presented by the recent storm were the perfect opportunity, but his movement lacked the strength to act against our esteemed representatives, for not many of our people could be persuaded to abandon their own welfare and freedom in exchange for the oppression and tyranny of the olden times.”
Pausing for dramatic effect, Upsil caught Vere’s eye, and Vere winked at him. The man was an experienced orator, and gave no visual sign of being discomfited, but he did hesitate a moment longer than he needed to before continuing. Vere shrugged: it had been worth an attempt, and he already know what the orator would say next.
“So, this traitor turned to those outside of our country, where many are our enemies and harbor resentment towards our superior way of being. When a delegation from Merolate was sent, it was not an ambassador or an experienced diplomat dispatched to see that the aid was distributed effectively, but this man, a military man, Guardcaptain Vere. An experienced killer, a known advocate for the tyrannical, expansionist notions of the upstart Merolate Union. We are fortunate, my dear fellows, that the Prime of Merolate does not harbor such subversive thoughts towards our free and just society.”
As his voice rose in tandem with his narrative, Umpsil pointed a finger at Vere. “This man refused to follow accepted diplomatic protocol, insisted on maintaining sole control of the aid intended for our people in a futile attempt to sway your loyalty, was responsible for the murder of multiple of our fellow citizens, and was here for the express purpose of assassinating the Lady Ellipa and deposing the representative government!” Vere coughed, wondering where the murder charges came from; that was precisely why he had not tried to fight his way out of the temple where he had Drelta were captured.
Breathing hard, Umpsil waited for the fervor to recede slightly from its peak. “But that is not all. No, this Vere does not think like one of us, and his conspiracy stretched deeper, and aimed higher, than anything our elderly scholar could have dreamt. Had his plot been allowed to come to fruition, he would have surely slain Drelta, his own sponsor here, and set himself up as a foreign dictator of Sankt!”
It took an exertion of Vere’s considerable willpower to refrain from a noticeable guffaw at Umpsil’s hyperbolized and factually optional presentation. He wondered if this was really the height of the man’s oratorical skill, or if Ellipa had insisted on such unbelievable charges. Then he noted the nervous look on Drelta’s face.
“What’s the problem?” Vere asked, keeping his voice low so that the whole forum wouldn’t hear him. “Your ‘friend’ just practically made our case for us.”
Drelta shook his head. “You don’t understand. Our trials do not work the way your Merolate justice does. Evidence, legal arguments…they mean nothing compared to a good story when it comes to convincing this fickle crowd.” He left the other part unspoken: however ridiculous Umpsil’s narrative was, it did make for exciting fiction.
Before Vere could reply, Allna took her podium. If she too was concerned by the strength of Umpsil’s performance, she gave no sign, standing stern and poised as one of the statues that had endured since the old days of Sankt’s glory. The crowd had grown raucous, demanding the immediate execution of both prisoners, but she held up her hands for silence and just waited, and the hubbub gradually died. Her words rang into perfect silence.
“Citizens of Sankt, these men are guilty.” Vere felt a flash of fear that his decision to trust this orator was misplaced, but then she continued. “These men are as guilty as every one of us, of the sins and shortfalls that befall every human, whether they be a citizen of Sankt, Merolate, or Rovis, or a savage out of distant Nycheril. And they are no guiltier of treason and conspiracy than any of us.”
If it were possible, the silence became even more profound. Vere found himself holding his breath, worried that the slightest disturbance would break whatever peculiar spell Allna was weaving.
“It is true that Drelta, perhaps the foremost scholar of our ancient history on our island, harbors reservations about our current system of governance. Who among us does not? It is true that he seeks out and converses with those who share some of his opinions. Who among us does not? These things do not make him a conspirator or a traitor, any more than they make you guilty of such charges. In our struggles today, Drelta sees an affirmation of our ancient monarchy as surely as I see an affirmation of our more recent democracy. Yet despite our differing politics, we both agree on the flaws of our current system, and we both hold the utmost respect for the freedoms that all of us have come to expect.”
Turning then to Vere, Allna continued. “And this man, he was sent to help all of us. You and me, not just the representatives we selected. He is not just a military man, but a scholar and a poet in his own right, and more than intelligent enough to know that, had he turned his supplies over to our representatives and returned to Merolate, most of us would never have received the aid we so desperately need. How many of us have benefited from this man’s wisdom, what my colleague calls conspiracy?”
The crowd was still quiet, not cheering like they had been for Umpsil. Vere wondered whether or not that was a good sign. Clearly, they were listening to Allna, but there was no way to know if their attention would translate into an acquittal. In light of Drelta’s words, Vere wondered if their strategy was fundamentally flawed.
On and on the arguments went, moving between popular appeals and legal repartee, until the sun reached its zenith. With the coming of noon, the arguments ceased by decree, and Madam Ellipa stepped forward again. “The orators will present their conclusions, and then the voting shall begin,” she intoned.
Umpsil stood forth, and his closing oration had all the drama of his opening. It had the crowd on their feet, demanding blood. Vere listened to little of it; he was trying to attract Allna’s attention, but she knew none of his usual signals.
“What are you doing?” Drelta hissed at him.
“We need to change tactics,” Vere hissed back. “If Allna makes the concluding statement we planned, we’ll lose.”
Drelta hesitated, but then joined Vere in signaling to Allna, who finally realized something was happening and stepped away from her podium towards the two prisoners. “Stop fidgeting! You must not look nervous,” she reprimanded.
That didn’t matter to Vere. “Let me make the concluding statement. You and Drelta are too scholarly; the people aren’t going to go for it. We need to leave an impression to match his.” He jerked a manacled finger in Umpsil’s direction.
“I…” Allna wavered. She could sense the direction the crowd was leaning. “Drelta, are you comfortable with this?”
A shrug embodied Drelta’s enthusiasm, but he gave a reluctant nod. “I don’t have a better plan, and I’d like to keep my head attached, if it’s possible.”
“Alright.” Allna glanced at Umpsil again. “He’s finishing up. When he’s done, I’ll introduce you, and then do…whatever it is you’re going to do.”
The only acknowledgement she received from Vere was an absent nod; he was occupied rehearsing in his head. Too soon, he heard Allna’s cue. He took a deep breath, and he told his story. Because he was Vere, he told it in verse.
It was not a poem to equal any of the Greats. It was, in fact, poor poetry, with no meter, no rhythm, and a juvenile rhyme scheme of couplets, half of which were contrived. Twice, Vere had to pause as he searched for a suitable word, and his story wound backwards and forwards and side to side with complete abandon as he belted out rhymes to the audience in stream-of-consciousness. Almost none of it had to do with anything Umpsil said, mostly because Umpsil’s narrative was so far from reality. That was fine. The audience wanted a story, a drama, and Vere gave them one.
When he finished, sweating, breathless, and hoarse, the voting began. Each citizen inside the forum, and all those queued outside, carried a shard of glass and a splinter of wood. Placing the splinter into the collection vessel indicated a vote to acquit, while the shard indicated conviction. The voting dragged on into the afternoon while Vere and Drelta waited, still chained, and the forum’s center.
The voting ceased when the sun was bracketed by the pylons at the forum’s western end. Those who had not yet voted were left to make their way home. Some trials might feature only a few votes and conclude well before the sun put an official end to the process, but the line still wound out of the forum for Drelta and Vere’s. Once the forum was clear, Ellipa emptied the collection vessel onto the sand, surrounded by the entire Assembly, while Vere, Drelta, Allna, and Umpsil all stood witness.
She began to count with great ceremony, and the uncounted pile dwindled as torches were lit around the forum to dispel the gloaming. Ellipa placed another splinter of wood into the acquittal pile, and Vere’s hand darted out to snare her wrist.
“Nice try,” he whispered, sliding the handful of splinters out of her voluminous sleeve and back into the pile where they belonged while everyone else had yet to react. A few guards belatedly ran towards them. “You’ll have to be faster than that if you want to hide your lies from me.”
Ellipa laughed, but with a note of nervousness. “You act as if the conclusion is not already known. But I know you’re more intelligent than that.”
Vere just smiled and released her hand, and the counting continued.
When the counting was finished, Ellipa turned to her fellow councilors and verified the final count with them. Vere glanced at Allna, but received no hint. Drelta had his eyes closed. “You’re speech was quite fine, quite fine,” he said. “I’m certain that the people were swayed.”
Wondering at the scholar’s blindness, Vere tensed. He didn’t need to know what the real count had been to know that Ellipa would pronounce them guilty. Unless the count was so hugely tilted against her that it would be too obvious, there was only one possible verdict.
“The will of the people,” Ellipa announced to the Assembly, “is that these two prisoners are guilty!”
Allna and Umpsil both gasped, and Allna started to protest. “Madam Ellipa, I witnessed the count, and it did not end on a guilty verdict! In the name of the law, I demand a recount by an impartial third party!” She might have continued, but a guard punched her in the stomach and dragged her over to stand with the prisoners.
“Most unfortunate that your true sympathies should be revealed,” Ellipa loudly declared. “I do not know how these prisoners so clouded your judgement, but you shall now share their fate. All three of you shall be executed tomorrow at dawn.”
They were prodded back to their cells, plus a third one for Allna, who seemed stunned into silence. Vere just sat down with a sigh and looked towards Drelta. “How do you feel about that escape attempt, now?” he asked.
“Escape?” Drelta exploded. “We can’t escape! We must expose this gross miscarriage of justice! Ellipa is assuming powers which have not been delegated unto her by the Assembly. Any semblance of rule by the people is now revealed as utter codswallop.”
“And how will we do that?” Allna recovered herself enough for an argument. “We are to be executed less than a day from now. My opportunity for appeal via legal means was aborted.” She rubbed her stomach, wincing. “The other members of the ruling council did not protest, so they must be aiding her, or at least not going against her on this.”
“I don’t know!” Drelta shouted. “But someone must expose this corruption at the highest levels of our government.”
“Isn’t this what you wanted? She’s setting herself up with all the powers of a monarch.” Vere just wished that the two would stop yelling at each other through his cell, which was between theirs.
Eventually, the shouting died down, but it was Vere’s turn for a sleepless night. He had preparations to make that were more important than a good night’s rest. When the guards came in the morning, he was ready.
A guard opened the door to his cell, and Vere kicked him in the face as he catapulted out of the cells. Drelta and Allna both yelled in harmony with the fallen guard as Vere swung at the guard’s partner with the rusty metal bar he had spent the night prying out of the cell’s window. It screeched across her armor, and Vere drove her back punched her head against the wall, and let her drop. He was surprised there were only two.
Drelta made protesting noises, but Vere forestalled him. “We tried it your way. It didn’t work, and I’m not so committed that I’m going to let myself by executed here. Time to try it my way. Unless you’d care to stay in your cells?”
The two hesitated, and then they followed Vere up the stairs, though they refused the weapons he offered them from the fallen guards. Smashing through a wooden door, Vere startled a group of guards waiting with their weapons sheathed; they backed away from him, crying out and trying to shield the white-clad people standing behind them.
“Wait!” Allna shouted from behind Vere. “Those are members of the ruling council.”
Vere did not lower his stolen sword. “You mean the ones who ordered us executed yesterday?”
“Ellipa’s not here…” Allna trailed off.
Licking dry lips, one of the councilors stepped forward. “Ah, Guardcaptain Vere? If you would, ah, please lower your weapon, I believe that, ah, some apologies are in order.”
Vere blinked, but he kept his sword raised. “Start talking.”
Another councilor spoke. “We all noted what happened in the forum yesterday and the discrepancy in the counts and of course we could not allow Ellipa to seize power in that manner but lodging a protest in that forum ah pun not intended would have been terribly ineffective and only led to further acrimony so we waited until we could convene a proper meeting and ejected Ellipa from the ruling council demoting her back to the Assembly and we overturned her ruling in the matter of your trial.”
“Ah, what Councilor Ogima is saying is that we are, ah, deeply apologetic for the terrible experience which you have all undergone these past few days, and that you are all free to go. And, ah, that Orator Allna has been reinstated, if she should still desire the position.”
Finally, Vere lowered his sword. “If this is a trap, it’s the most confusing one I’ve ever encountered, and I’ve encountered a lot of traps.”
It was not a trap. Explanations took most of the day, mostly because of the effusive apologies, which included Vere apologizing to the guards he had attacked during his abortive and needless escape attempt; he was glad that he had not killed anyone before the councilors could explain, although the guard whose head he had smashed into a wall had a nasty concussion. He was plied with food and drink, and even Drelta was treated with a modicum of respect, but Vere was still relieved to return to the ship at the end of the day.
By then, most of the supplies were distributed, and Captain Grelt informed Vere they were ready to get underway. The Guardcaptain nodded, and went to speak to the two visitors on board. Drelta and Allna were speaking animatedly, sitting on a few emptied barrels and watching the seagulls.
“Well, it’s about time for us to be heading back to Merolate,” he said. “You’re sure that both of you want to stay here, after what happened?” Vere looked especially at Drelta, but the historian nodded.
“This is home,” Drelta explained. “I’m too old for something new. Besides, there is still much work to be done here; the mess extends far beyond one corrupt councilor.”
Allna nodded. “I’m not going back to being an orator. I’m going to run for the Assembly and try to push through some changes, so that this sort of thing can’t happen again.”
Vere hesitated. It seemed foolish to him. For all of Sankt’s wonders, he would not be sorry to put it behind him. “Good luck,” he told them.
Their guests disembarked, the gangplank was drawn up, and Captain Grelt directed them away from the docks and out towards the open waters of the Aprina Sea. Vere leaned on the rail, and hoped that he never had to do another diplomatic mission.
The end of Blood Magic S2:E9: Bread and Steel. Thank you for reading. If you are so inclined, please consider posting a review in the comments below. Your continued support of IGC Publishing is much appreciated. Don’t forget to set your calendar: the next episode in season two will go live on October 31st, 2021.
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