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 not going to help anyone.
He opened his mouth once more, and a noise had 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 cyclone, 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 been seeming 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 sailing for Old Sankt, Vere was not pleased. He was not pleased about being at sea again, he was not pleased about overseeing a bunch of squabbling bureaucrats, and he was not pleased to be consigned to escort duty. There was certainly someone else that Prime Kiluron could have trusted with such mission. If Vere had wanted to spend so much time at sea, he would have joined the navy, not the guard. The last time he had been on a ship had been when he’d returned from Nycheril.
It wasn’t so much the being on the ship that really bothered him, though; it was the nature of his assignment. He had honed his skilled for years, was probably the best swordsman in Merolate, and now he was tasked with ensuring that some ships full of food and medical supplies didn’t end up with the wrong people in Old Sankt? It seemed a waste of his abilities.
Still, the Prime clearly thought this mission was important, and Vere supposed that probably should be enough for him. Vere wondered how much of his resentment of this mission was because it took him away from his elite castle guard and what he considered his core job of keeping Prime Kiluron safe. Even Vere had to admit that Kiluron probably didn’t need him around all of the time; he had a good advisor, and had been proving at least as good as Prime as his predecessor, if a very different kind of ruler. It wasn’t Vere’s place to judge which style might be better, but he could admit to himself that there was something more comfortable about Kiluron’s leadership. Wezzix’s fixation on the rule of law could sometimes become…uncomfortable.
That was part of why Vere had never tried to rise higher than Guardcaptain. He was leader of a small group of skilled guards, with a very specific mission, and that was where he belonged. Trying to be part of a larger mission or a more traditional military wouldn’t have worked; he asked too many questions and spent too much time thinking for such a role. The Nycheril expeditions were as close as he had come to that kind of a system, and they had not made him want to continue, no matter how interesting he had found the southern continent.
Without turning around, Vere noted Captain Grelt approaching from his tread upon the deck, and waited while the other man leaned upon the rail beside him, facing the opposite direction. Vere felt no need to break the silence.
“They say you’ve been to Sankt before,” Grelt began.
“Yes,” Vere affirmed. “Once or twice. It was nice.”
Grelt didn’t seem to be listening. “I’ve been sailing a lot of years, and somehow never made my way there. That cyclone, though…they say it knocked down buildings that have been standing since before the Blood Empire.”
“The storms grow strong this time of the year, but rare it is for them to come so far in here,” Vere agreed.
“True enough.” Grelt looked out towards the west, the direction in which they were sailing. “This is a good thing the Prime is trying to do. Did he tell you what kind of trouble he’s expecting? I assume there must be trouble, otherwise he wouldn’t have sent you along.”
Vere shrugged, as if it didn’t really matter to him. “The trouble that there always is when people are involved and mixed with power. Some will rise, some will thrive, and others try to cower, but always there will be those who take advantage.”
Grelt grimaced. “I suppose that’s true. And when people start getting desperate, it only gets worse.”
That was certainly true, and the aftermath of a particularly destructive cyclone was surely a desperate situation. It was possible that Vere really would be needed on this mission, and somehow that didn’t make him any more enthusiastic about it.
At least the voyage to Old Sankt was uneventful, and soon the green fields, long lines of grapes and other crops, and ancient buildings were growing discernible in the distance as the ships approached the main harbor. As the ships grew closer still, the ancient harbor began to show its more recent damage. The piers had been all but destroyed, and even the great breakwaters built when Old Sankt dominated the entire region showed fresh scars from the cyclone’s assault. It was a bedraggled impression imparted to the delegation from Merolate as they sailed into the harbor.
A delegation was waiting for them upon a dock that had been hastily repaired with rough-sawn boards covering where the stone had been broken away by the cyclone. They wore flowing togas in white, with elaborate necklaces and headpieces atop them in contrast to the plainness of the togas themselves. None of them looked particularly in need of humanitarian aid.
“Well, I got us here,” Grelt said, standing beside Vere in the prow. “I don’t relish your job.”
With a grimace of agreement, Vere left the prow and made his way down the gangplank to be greeted by Sankt’s delegation.
Their leader was an older woman, her face heavily made up atop her plain toga. The simple, unadorned, white cloth was supposed to represent the humility and commonality of the popularly elected leaders of Sankt, a message that was belied when the garment was made of fine silk with lace trimmings. She clasped her hands to her chest, and then held them out to Vere. “Welcome to Old Sankt, the proud center of the modern 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,” Vere said simply. “On behalf of Prime Kiluron, honored sovereign of the Merolate Union, I have come to distribute aid to your people to alleviate their suffering in this time of crisis.”
There were several key points that he had wanted to ensure he included in his first interaction with Old Sankt’s councilors. First, that he intended to personally oversee the distribution of the aid he had escorted aboard the ships. Second, that it was for the people of Sankt, not its leaders. Third, that he was fully aware of the political intrigue that took place on Sankt, and had no intention of tolerating interference with his mission. From the look on Madam Ellipa’s face, he supposed that he had succeeded. “Of course. We’ve already discussed at length the most effective means by which the fruits of your generosity may be distributed with the appropriate alacrity. Warehouses have been prepared, if you would care to begin unloading.”
“This dock will do fine as a distribution point, thank you,” Vere said. He was a guardcaptain, not a diplomat, and these councilors would expect him to be blunt. He could use that, and lean into it; they would be more likely to underestimate him that way, especially given Sankt’s traditional opinion of the military mind. “My men will begin unloading immediately. We will distribute a single Merolate coin to each person who comes to us; this will be used to ensure that everyone is served, and no one is served more than anyone else. We’ll do the food first, as the most urgent need.”
He continued over the burgeoning protests from the councilors. “We’ll set up a triage facility in one of the warehouses you mentioned. If you could provide fresh water, that would be most helpful. Anyone in need of medical attention will be welcome, and will be treated in accordance with appropriate triage priorities: the most severe cases with the best chance of survival with proper treatment are first. Your help distributing this information to your population would be most appreciated, but we are prepared to convey the messages ourselves as necessary. Any questions, comments, concerns, reactions, sarcastic remarks, creative insults, or original death threats?” He didn’t wait for a response; the question was just for appearances. “No? Good.” With that, he turned on his heel and returned to the deck, where he immediately began issuing orders, while Old Sankt’s councilors stared at him in consternation.
In his years leading the castle guard, and his experience before taking that position, Vere had learned that the best operations took place when everyone else was very skilled at their particular roles, so that he could focus on other matters, like making sure no one was murdered. He was pleased, therefore, to find that he had assembled such a team for this humanitarian expedition. The individuals implementing medical care and distributing supplies knew their tasks, and the officers Vere had brought along had effectively organized them. By the time night fell upon the day of their arrival, they had already filled a warehouse with those seeking medical attention, and the docks had been converted into a distribution point for food.
With things moving smoothly, Vere decided to go sightseeing. It was obvious to him that the councilors would make some attempt to interfere with the work his people were doing, and Vere considered it his job to prevent such efforts from succeeding. The main task of a leader was to clear any obstacles to the actual experts doing their jobs. While Vere preferred instances where the solutions involved a sword, this time he had different kinds of obstacles to clear.
Sankt, for all that it had renamed itself Old Sankt in an attempt to recapture the glory it possessed during the era of the Pax Sankt, was a sad place, particularly to Vere. Many of the greatest poets in history had hailed from the island, and its temples and pavilions and even its city buildings were marvels of the classical world. Compared to that, modern Merolate architecture was crude and transient. Too much of what had made Sankt great had been lost during the reign of the Blood Empire, but Vere knew enough history not to blame the Empire. Sankt had destroyed itself, without needing outside assistance.
Not surprisingly, Madam Ellipa offered to personally show him around the island and its many historic sights. She met him not far from the docks with a pair of fine horses, and launched immediately into a tribute to historic figures of Sankt’s greatness, carefully omitting most of the monarchs who had been primarily responsible for its glory. It was one of the great contradictions of modern Sankt, that they sought to reclaim what they had lost, but considered the monarchy that had underpinned their success a source of shame.
“Unfortunately, many of our most iconic sights are probably of little interest to a man of your temperament,” Ellipa was saying. “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, allowing the full sincerity of his respect for those ancient poets into his voice. Let Ellipa ponder this aspect of him, since she was so certain she understood with whom she was dealing. “I do hope they haven’t been damaged by the cyclone.”
Ellipa eyed him appraisingly, just as Vere had intended. “You’ve read the classics?”
Grunting an affirmative, Vere proceeded to quote Odeny, perhaps the greatest of the epic poets, in the original language. He enjoyed the blank expression on Ellipa’s face. “My apologies. I forget that one can appreciate these poets without learning the old tongue.” The translations had been made by Merolate scholars.
It took Ellipa a moment to recover, and Vere noted that she was much more careful in her narrations as they journeyed around Sankt. He was not surprised, therefore, when she pleaded pressing business around noon, and passed his tour off to an aged historian who introduced himself as Drelta.
“I hear you are a student of the classics,” Drelta observed. “A true student of the Greats?” He said the last in the old tongue.
Vere replied in kind. “I consider myself more of an enthusiast. I enjoy poetry, though I admit that I mostly study history for its lessons on the present.”
Drelta raised bushy, skeptical eyebrows. “If you are a mere enthusiast, good sir, then I ought to rename my students.”
Vere shrugged modestly, and indicated for Drelta to continue the tour. As promised, they visited the tombs of the great poets, and late that afternoon they stopped at a particular temple tucked far back into the rocks near the center of the island. There was a dilapidated wooden palisade erected about it, and a very bored guard standing by the gate. The guard recognized Drelta immediately, and allowed him and Vere to pass without question.
Inside, the temple was a squat, plain, utilitarian affair, with oddly stretched proportions. Compared to the other temples and artifacts upon the island, it appeared crude and primitive, almost a mockery of some grander design, although it did not resemble in style anything else Vere had seen during his tour.
“I know you said you are more an enthusiast for poetry than for history, but I do hope that you will indulge me.” Drelta sat down on a fallen pillar, and sighed. “At the very least, here we can talk with some modicum of privacy. I must warn you: do not trust Ellipa.”
Vere resisted the urge to laugh at such an obvious statement. “Why do you say that?”
Despite his assurance that they could speak privately in this ruined temple, Drelta leaned forward, and still whispered. “She would take your aid and keep it for herself. She uses this…this popular style of governance to gain power without responsibility. I would see a return of the monarchy, but not in someone like her.”
“I expected as much,” Vere admitted. “That’s why I’ve been ensuring distribution is managed through my own people.” He played along, waiting to see if Drelta would reveal anything of which Vere wasn’t already aware.
“Good, good.” Drelta still appeared very nervous, and he lowered his voice so that Vere could barely hear him. “I believe you may be in personal danger.”
Vere smiled grimly. “Honored elder, when I am not delivering humanitarian aid to islands devastated by cyclones, I lead the Prime’s bodyguard. I am always in personal danger.” He turned serious again to appease Drelta. “However, I appreciate the warning.”
Drelta patted Vere’s arm, and turned towards the back of the temple. “This is actually a very fascinating place, and not just a private one. As you’ve doubtless noted, it hails from a significantly earlier period than the other artifacts on Sankt. I suspect it predates the Pax Sankt by at least five hundred years.” He gestured at some faint scratched on one wall. “I believe 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 had stopped listening. Something had changed the way their voices sounded in the temple. A faint clink of metal upon stone drifted to his ears, 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 asked.
Stumbling over his narration and stammering to a halt, Drelta hesitated. “Uh, I suppose so. Why do you…” His eyes widened, which was all the sign Vere needed. Already on alert, he spun instantly, a knife leaping from his belt and spearing a rushing spearman through the throat. As the man dropped, he revealed at least a dozen more surging through the palisade, and additional troops surrounding the temple.
Vere’s sword was already in his hand, but now he reversed his grip, and offered it to one of the soldiers. “Finally. Someone on this island decided to give me the respect I deserve.” Moments later, he was disarmed, bound, and in the back of a wagon trundling towards Sankt’s capitol.
Picking idly at a loose chip of stone, Vere waited for someone to come speak to him. It was only a matter of time, and while he fully intended to escape, he wanted to know first what he had missed. Ellipa had moved against him far more directly, and more quickly, than he had anticipated, which implied there were pieces to the puzzle of which he was unaware. The only way he could learn what he had missed was to talk to someone, but the guards were apparently under strict orders not to speak to him. Ellipa must have told them something vile, because they treated him like he was some kind of pariah.
Interestingly, Drelta had been imprisoned too, and was being kept in the cell beside his. With his limbs still bound, Vere shuffled over on his knees to be below the slit of a window that passed between the two cells. “Is this part of the tour, too?” 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. “They’re original, actually. Only the metal components have been replaced,” he answered in the same language. Then he gave a heavy sigh. “I am sorry I got your caught up in this.”
Now this was intriguing. Vere had assumed that Drelta had just been collateral to make whatever fabrication Ellipa intended appear more convincing. Now he had to consider that perhaps Drelta had been as much of a target as he was. That would explain how he had been so thoroughly set up so much faster than he had expected. “Caught up in what, exactly?” Vere asked.
Wary, Drelta glanced at the guard outside before replying in a low voice. “There are…a few of us who are not entirely satisfied with the current political environment. I am a well-known critic of the ruling council and its members, the intellectual face of the movement against them. Doubtless they sought any opportunity to eliminate me.”
“Intriguing.” Vere sat back, considering this. Merolate’s legal system was too thorough for something like this to work, but Sankt was a different place. Ellipa might be able to frame Drelta as a conspirator with foreign agents, and Vere as that foreign agent, without needing to provide further evidence. Of course, with Sankt’s chaotic consensus system, there was always an element of chance in trials, but Vere doubted someone like Ellipa would make such an overt move if she was not fond of her chances for success. He switched away from the old tongue. “You do feed your prisoners here, right? I don’t think I could handle the consensus process on an empty stomach.”
Taken aback at the abrupt change in topic and attitude, Drelta fumbled for a moment. “Uh, yes, I’m sure that the guards will be bringing by some kind of stew shortly.”
“Perfect,” Vere said. “I could really use a spoon right now.”
“A spoon?” Drelta asked.
Vere smiled. “Long story. Maybe I’ll tell you sometime, under better circumstances.”
They lapsed into silence then. So far, their time in prison had been oddly quiet: no one had come to speak with them, Ellipa had not come to gloat, even the guards weren’t bantering idly. That last, Vere knew, was very peculiar – what kind of guards sitting around watching prisoners who they knew could not possibly escape without them noticing would just stand in the doorway like bronze statues? It drove Vere crazy with lack of information. He hoped that Ellipa had not moved against the rest of Merolate’s expedition, and he hoped that his officers would be intelligent enough to keep order while he was gone, and more importantly not launch any ill-timed rescue efforts. That would be terribly inconvenient, and not just to his reputation.
There were so many contradictions on Sankt. Its people considered themselves progressive, with their consensus-driven government, but had elected a representative body of a hundred people in a bid to return to a time of former greatness, a time which they revered with an almost religious verve, but preferred to remember only selectively. They dressed even their soldiers in the armor of a bygone era, as if steel had not become widely available and preferred since their monarchy’s collapse in 450 PU, but they strove to forget they had ever had a monarchy. Even Ellipa’s council was a contradiction, a necessity since all one hundred elected representatives could not have met Vere at the docks, and an unfortunate reminder of the supposed betrayals of the first ruling council that deposed the original monarchy.
It led Vere to wonder how stable Ellipa’s grip on power was. She must have convinced the other elected representatives to support her, or at least a majority of them, but what happened in such a body might not entirely reflect the will of the people. If she moved too aggressively, especially against anyone who had come with the delegation from Merolate that brought them food and medical supplies, the people’s passions might well turn against her. That meant that Vere had a hand to play. It wasn’t a hand he would have wanted to wager a sourdough bread roll upon, but it was a place to start.
A guard brought them supper in shallow, wooden bowls when the sun had quite disappeared from view; the cell’s only source of light was a single barred window on the eastern side, facing out to sea, and low enough that sea spray occasionally misted in, just enough to make the occupants uncomfortable. The meager soup was barely more than a weak broth with a few vegetables boiled to the point of disintegration. It wasn’t what Vere would call fortifying, but he slurped it down; Drelta showed much less enthusiasm. There were no spoons 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 had awoken, 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 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 political asylum.”
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 had risen 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 if 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. 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 talking about 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 more free 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.”
In true, military fashion, Vere had no trouble sleeping, though he was vaguely aware of Drelta’s restlessness throughout the night. A part of Vere still thought that he would be better off escaping, sailing back to Merolate, and leaving the whole, unfortunate episode behind him, but aside from the minor difficulty of escaping without Drelta’s cooperation, it had become a matter of personal pride. This was a job for diplomacy, and the last thing that Vere wanted to do was return to Merolate with the news that the only way in which he could accomplish the Prime’s objectives was via a sword. He may not have wanted this assignment to begin with, but he still intended to conduct it to the best of his ability. For now, that meant going along with the trial. There would still be an opportunity to escape before the executions, if things went poorly in the morning.
Part of Vere had thought that Ellipa herself might collect them from their cell, or at least that Allna might meet them in the dungeon before they were escorted to the public forum in which their trial would take place, but neither woman was forthcoming. Instead, a trio of guards replaced those stationed in the dungeon, and brought them, in chains, to the forum. The whole way to the forum was lined with people, peering curiously at them and forming their opinions of the two criminals for or against whom they would soon be casting their votes. Vere held himself proud and tall, as if he were leading the guards, and not following them in chains, and he met the eyes of as many of the thronging crowd as he could.
Sand in a thick blanket covered the bottom of the public forum, a structure that dated back to the glory days of the Pax Sankt. Storms and the centuries had taken their toll, leaving the relic worn and battered, with stones missing and an entire section crumbled away, but it could still hold thousands of people for whatever event might be held. Everything from public fights, to executions, to ceremonies and celebrations were held in the public forum, and people came to watch it all and, in more modern times, to cast their votes. Today, the entertainment would be a trial.
Their guards deposited Vere and Drelta at the center of the elliptical sandpit. Two podiums had been placed at the two foci of the ellipse; Allna stood at one of them, 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 who bruised his opponents with 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, Umpsil 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 hesitated a moment longer than he needed to before continuing. Vere could guess what he was going to 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 dirty, ragged finger at Vere. “This man refused to follow accepted diplomatic protocol, insisted on maintain 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!” 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.”
Before Vere could reply, Allna had taken 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 had been 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.
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 the voting began. Each citizen inside the forum, and all those queued outside, carried two items: a splinter of glass, and a splinter of wood. Placing the splinter of wood into the collection vessel indicated a vote to acquit, while the splinter of glass indicated conviction. There was no way for Vere to tell which predominated as the voting dragged on into the afternoon.
When the sun was bracketed by the pylons on the forum’s western end, the voting ceased. Those who had not voted were left to make their way home; enough voices, the argument went, had been heard for a decision to be made. Some trials would feature only a few votes, ending well before the sun put an end to the process, but the line still wound out of the forum during Vere and Drelta’s trial. When the forum was cleared, Ellipa emptied the collection vessel onto the sand while Vere, Drelta, Allna, and Umpsil watched, and she began to count with great ceremony.
The pile of uncounted twigs and glasses dwindled as torches were lit all around the forum. Ellipa placed another splinter of wood into the acquittal pile, and Vere’s hands darted out to snare her wrist.
“Nice try,” he said, 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 there was a note of nervousness in it. “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, Allna, Umpsil, and Ellipa conferred, and thus verified the final count. Guards were brought forward, and rested their blades on the prisoners’ necks. Vere glanced towards Allna, but received no hint.
“Ellipa will read the verdict, and if it’s guilty then we’ll lose our heads right here. If it’s not, then we go free. That way, there’s no time for trouble,” Drelta explained.
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. Now, it was just a matter of waiting for the opportune moment. He thought it might be the most dramatic moment, as well, and that pleased his poetic sensibilities.
“The will of the people,” Ellipa announced, “is that these two prisoners are guilty!”
Allna and Umpsil both gasped, and Allna started to protest, but the guards were already swinging. But they had to draw back their swords to swing, and that was all the room Vere needed. His hands were bound, but his feet were not; he tripped the guard standing over him, and then drove headfirst into the stomach of the guard standing over Drelta, bearing them both to the ground. The guard landed on top, but Vere twisted so that he was behind, and wrapped the rope around his wrists over the guard’s throat. Ten pounding heartbeats later, the man passed out, and Vere was on his feet.
Four guards surrounded him, having decided that Drelta, Umpsil, and Allna were little threat compared to Vere. Nodding in agreement and bouncing on his bare toes, Vere agreed. The men rushed in at once, and Vere rushed forward as well. He kicked the sword from the hand of the guard facing him, and broke the man’s nose with his shoulder. That put him close enough to seize the man’s dagger, and then Vere staggered clear of the closing circle, sawing through his bonds as he moved. One guard, faster than the others, rushed him, so Vere threw the stolen dagger through the woman’s eye.
“Time to go!” he said, grabbing the woman’s dagger and tossing it to Allna, who yelped and failed to catch it. “Free Drelta, would you? He was voted innocent, after all. And the two of you had better come, too. Ellipa won’t want any witnesses.”
A guard grabbed him from behind, so Vere snapped his head back, regretting it even before the crunch and the subsequent swimming of his vision; that always hurt more than people who hadn’t done it thought it would. He grabbed the hugger’s sword as he fell backward, and quickly disarmed and slew the guard in front of him.
Allna had finally begun to move, freeing Drelta and both of them hurrying towards the exit. Ellipa had disappeared when the fighting began; doubtless she would be sending more guards. Umpsil still stood in rooted in place. “I said, it’s time to go!” Vere shouted.
“I am loyal to Lady Ellipa,” the orator protested. “She will not kill me.”
Vere thought to argue, and then thought better of it. “Have a nice funeral. Maybe someone will give a nice oratory,” he said with a shrug, and then hurried after Allna and Drelta.
He overtook them before they left the forum, and together they barreled out into the deepening twilight. More guards were waiting at the exit, but Vere was expecting them. He slid on his heel and turned backwards as he came out, flinging two knives he had stolen from the guards in the main forum to take out their throats.
“Please stop killing them?” Allna asked. “They are surely innocent, following whatever lies Ellipa told them. That she would so betray her oaths…” the woman seemed more shaken by Ellipa’s scheming than by guards trying to murder her.
“Takes too long,” Vere replied. “Let’s just hope we don’t run into more.”
“Where are we going, anyway?” Drelta asked, clutching his side and stumbling along, supported by Allna.
Vere took a sharp right. “Right now? The docks,” he answered. “Long term? Merolate.”
Drelta dragged them all to a stop, protesting. “This is my home! As I told you before, I will not abandon it.”
“Then same thing I told your friend, Umpsil,” Vere snapped. “But we really don’t have time for this, so both of you, if you’re going, we have to go now.”
“I will not go,” Drelta insisted. “If I am to die today, then so be it.”
“Fine. Allna?” Vere did not bother hiding his impatience.
Allna hesitated. “I – someone must expose Ellipa’s treason. I…I think that I ought to stay, and assist Drelta. I know the risks, but I also know that it is the right thing to do. If I must sacrifice myself, then I shall do it for this cause in which I believe.”
Vere resisted calling them both fools. He turned, then turned back. He tossed his stolen sword down at their feet. “Good luck.” Then he turned and vanished into the late evening.
No more guards found him on the way to the docks, and Vere slipped aboard the Merolate ship without further incident. The watchman started to cry out an alarm, but recognized Vere and swallowed the noise. Still tense, Vere ordered a handful of guardsmen to ensure that any of their people still in the city were brought back to the ship, and then had the gangplank drawn in; there was no reason to make a boarding attempt easy, although he doubted that Ellipa would be so bold as to attack a Merolate vessel directly.
As soon as there was light enough by which to sail, and the captain declared the tides favorable, Vere ordered them to depart. They slipped away from the historic docks while most of the island was still asleep, though Vere spared a glance to wonder what had become of Drelta and Allna.
“You seem in a hurry to be underway,” Captain Grelt observed, standing on the forecastle with Vere. “Not pleased by your first diplomatic mission?”
Vere kept his eyes on the diminishing island nation. “Just trying to decide if I managed to keep the body count below a dozen. If I did, I’d call it a diplomatic success.” Even so, he would be glad to be back in Merolate.
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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