The sun had gone down while we ate dinner, but Li’o seemed no less busy, and the temperature hadn’t seemed to move all that much, thanks to a warm wind that was blowing through the streets. Amaryllis and I had talked to the lawyers earlier in the day, enough to get a sense of what was happening with the ethics professor.
Li’o was a city-state, one of the member polities of the Empire of Common Cause, and sharing some but not all of the common legal framework that the Empire had managed to put in place. A lot of that common framework was grafted onto the existing system though, and that system was, in essence, a magocracy, controlled by and for the mages, with some lip service paid to equality and due process of law. That foundation could still prove a bit problematic, if you caught the ire of the mages in question.
Malus Lartin was not, as it happened, a mage of any stripe. I’m not sure why I had assumed she was, other than that she was teaching at S&S, but there wasn’t any need for someone teaching ethics to be a vibrational or still mage, or any other sort of mage, and Malus decidedly wasn’t. She’d been educated at a bog-standard college, one of the lower institutions of learning that could never hope to match the prestige of the athenaeums, then gotten the job at S&S mostly because there were legal prohibitions that mandated that ethics instructors had to be hired from outside the athenaeum that they taught at, presumably to prevent a corrupt institution from teaching corruption (not that I thought such a policy would do much good).
All that was relevant mostly because it put Malus into a fairly precarious position. Non-mages (and non-students) were subject to expedited sentencing, which could move frighteningly quickly if conditions were right. Given the upcoming Demonblooded Festival, plus all the things that she’d been charged with, conditions seemed very right.
“There are imperial anti-discrimination laws,” said Amaryllis as we waited in the police station. She had opted to keep out of her armor; in theory, she was only a public figure in Anglecynn, and while both Lisi and Reimer could give a positive identification, the risk of running into someone else from Anglecynn seemed fairly low. It was also pretty unlikely that she’d be able to be part of the conversation here if she kept fully armored. “Unfortunately, there are a number of loopholes in those discrimination laws so large that you could drive a truck through them. Discrimination on the basis of merit is legal, for example, and widely used to extend into other matters, because there are certain things that certain species are incapable of, and merit then becomes a proxy for species. Monarchy is another one, naturally, as you might have guessed by Anglecynn’s unique situation. Most of the problem is actually the imperial legislature being unwilling to do anything about flagrant abuses of the exceptions.”
“Similar thing in America,” I said. “Except we mostly got our shit together. Mostly.”
“Here in Li’o, there’s a power imbalance, both because of the literal power the mages wield, and the vast resources they control, both explicitly and implicitly. This city is built around the athenaeum, with funds coming in from all over the world. No chance for an uprising, not a real one, not one that would work.” She sighed.
“That’s probably part of the reason they hold the Demonblooded Festival,” I replied. “Five minutes hate.”
“It technically lasts four days,” said Amaryllis.
“Sure,” I said. “Just, it gives the people who might otherwise feel disenfranchised somewhere to direct their hate and frustration.”
“For the dwarves that’s everyone else,” said Grak. “We direct hate at anyone not a dwarf, and a fair few dwarves as well.”
“That’s probably not the situation that we’re here to solve,” I said. “Societal change isn’t really in our wheelhouse.”
“I’m not sure that we should be here at all,” said Amaryllis. She looked around the waiting room. “No quest.”
“Some things are worth doing even if they’re not quests,” said Raven.
It was the four of us, because Solace had wanted time with the locus, Heshnel wanted to guard the house, Valencia was non-anima, and Pallida had gone off to do Pallida stuff sometime after Reimer and Lisi had shown up. Heshnel I could take or leave, especially since he wasn’t fully “in” as part of the team, by his own accounting. Pallida would have been helpful though, in the event that we found ourselves urgently needing to stage a prison break; getting into and out of places she wasn’t supposed to be was kind of her thing. I really didn’t want to do a prison break in this kind of situation, but it seemed within the realm of possibility.
“Visitors for Lartin,” said the orc guard as he ambled into the room. We stood up and I gave him a small wave, which didn’t seem to impress him. “Two at a time.”
I looked at Amaryllis, raising an eyebrow, and she gave me a slight nod. I did want Grak with me, because he could take a look at the magic the jail was using, but Amaryllis was better at talking, and so far, I didn’t know whether or not anything would actually be required of me.
(Before we’d left, Valencia had helpfully pointed out that Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was about a wrongfully imprisoned person in magical jail. I had held my tongue, but I really didn’t think that was a clue.)
We walked down a hallway, following the guard, until he brought us to an archway with red and yellow markings all around it, and more signage than I could read in short order. For the most part, it was a set of rules and warnings.
“No entads during prisoner visits,” the guard said. He tapped a bin. “Everything you have, into this bin, you’ll get it back when you return.”
I don’t think that we gave any outward signs of displeasure, but I had an instant knot of anxiety. Alvion’s Vambrace was my get-out-of-jail card, as well as the place my full combat kit was stored. I wasn’t defenseless with my entads removed, but they were a big part of my arsenal, and worth a lot of money. It was hard to tell what was a normal precaution any sane jail would take, and what was a narrative trick to get me at my weakest.
I took off the vambrace, while Amaryllis took off Sable and the amulet that contained the soul of her great-grandfather. I still had a gem and the smallest of the unicorn bones in my pocket, but it felt awkward to be without everything else at my beck and call. I was certain that went double for Amaryllis, especially since the incredibly valuable teleportation key was currently within Sable.
Nothing happened when we walked through the archway, which from the signage I assumed was a flat ward against entads. Full coverage from all entads was so expensive that it was almost never done, but doing it this way, where it was a single doorway’s worth of protection, was just expensive enough that it was more or less practical for a large city.
We were led to a closed room with a thick metal door, then led inside after some curt orders were issued.
“More visitors,” said the guard. “Thirty minutes. You know the rules.” He looked at the two of us. “No magic.”
Then he closed the door and left us alone.
“Juniper, was it?” asked Malus. “I’m surprised to see you here.” She gave Amaryllis an appraising look.
“Just a friend,” said Amaryllis. “But one that might be willing to hire legal counsel for you, depending on the specifics of the case.”
“Hrm,” said Malus. She looked back at me. “You’re in luck. I sent the paperwork to the bursar yesterday. I don’t know whether or not it will be considered valid, given that my employment at the Athenaeum of Sound and Silence might be coming to a swift end, but I believe the bursar is the one making the consideration.” Her voice was calm. I had expected some signs that she was crying, but she was taking her incarceration and presumed execution pretty well, at least so far as I could see.
“That’s not really why I came,” I said. “I wanted to see — you’ve been charged with some crimes that you’re really unlikely to have committed, all things considered, crimes where it’s not clear what your motive would even have been.”
“You think I’m innocent,” replied Malus. She sounded skeptical.
“Probably,” I said. “If you want to confess guilt, then sure, I would believe you, but all else being equal, the timing here with the Festival is too neat. If you tell me you’re innocent, then there might be ways for me to help.”
“On what basis?” asked Malus.
“The goodness of my heart, I guess,” I said. “A sense of justice. Ethics?”
“Did you do it?” asked Amaryllis.
“No,” sighed Malus. She looked between the two of us. “I’d heard about the death down in the temple, but I didn’t have the motive, means, or opportunity. I’m not a mage. I work for S&S, but I was installed here by the Empire, which means that I have relatively less access, political power, and ability to call in favors than anyone else among the staff. The other deaths I’m being charged with, I wasn’t even aware of before today. I live a solitary life, and some of the events were quite a while ago, so I don’t expect that I’ll have a useful alibi for any of them, but from what was discussed in the preliminary hearing, it seems that the method was a time delayed poison of some kind.”
“Meaning that it could have been administered at almost any point,” I said. I frowned. “It seems like a really obvious set up to me.”
“Yes,” nodded Malus. “Apparently my predecessor didn’t do a good enough job of teaching ethics.”
“You seem very calm about this,” said Amaryllis.
Malus shrugged. “Demonblooded are often brought in for crimes they didn’t commit,” she said. “Li’o is a particularly bad place for us, so far as that’s concerned. I knew when I moved here to teach that it was within the realm of possibility.”
“But you’re just going to accept it?” I asked.
“‘Accept’ is a strong word,” said Malus. “I won’t go to my death with a wailing and gnashing of teeth, if that’s what you’re asking. I won’t uselessly debase myself just so that I can say that I did.”
“Martyrdom,” said Amaryllis.
“Perhaps,” replied Malus. She looked to me. “Is there anything else?”
“We can provide money for legal counsel,” I said. “Failing that,” I glanced at Amaryllis. “There are extralegal methods of saving you.”
Malus frowned slightly. “Why?” she asked.
“Your lack of concern for your own life is becoming a little irritating,” said Amaryllis.
“I would understand if you were crusaders for a cause, ideologues always looking for the next fight,” said Malus, looking back and forth between us. “But that’s not what this is.”
“It kind of is,” I said. I shrugged. “Maybe you had some preconceptions about me because of how we met.”
She turned away from me. “Let me think on it,” she said. “If you give me a phone number, I can call you tomorrow. So far as I know, I’ll still have some semblance of rights then. Unless this is now or never?”
“No,” I said. “We’ll pay for the best legal representation for you, unless you’re planning to refuse it. We’ll leave funds with you, and you can contact us. Beyond that … it would be helpful to have some information about what you’re being charged with, and why you think that the athenaeum would be so willing to throw you under the bus. I don’t know a single thing about the demographics of Li’o, but even with the Festival, you’re probably not the low-hanging fruit, so far as demonblooded go. Right?” That was about as delicately as I could phrase the question.
“You’re wondering what I did to provoke them?” she asked.
“No,” I said.
“Yes,” said Amaryllis. “There were easier, less contentious targets, if they were going to frame someone. So why you?”
“I don’t know,” replied Malus.
“You’re lying,” said Amaryllis, which seemed uncharacteristically aggressive to me.
“Yes,” said Malus. Okay, so I missed something. “I’m sorry, whatever you’re here for, I can’t offer it to you.”
There was a knock on the door, and a muffled voice from the other side shouted, “Three minutes!”
“We’re still willing to work with you,” I said. “Whatever lies you’re telling, whatever you’re hiding, this is part of something bigger –”
“It is,” replied Malus. “Juniper, I’m sorry, you showed actual interest in the lesson, and that’s rare among the students I’ve had. I wish that I could have been a better instructor to you. But we don’t know each other, and this doesn’t concern you. Try your best to be good.”
“That’s that then,” said Amaryllis. There was something hard in her eyes. “Have a nice rest of your life.”
We left shortly afterward, and if she’d been holding back before, Amaryllis let the scowl form in full on her face.
“I don’t know what this is,” she said.
“Psychology, maybe?” I asked. “Sometimes people act against their own best interests. Maybe it’s martyrdom, like you said, maybe it’s fatalism, maybe, I don’t know, obstinate refusal to accept help from a society that wasn’t offering help before.” It reminded me of Fenn for some reason, maybe because Fenn was often unpragmatic.
“Do you think she’s guilty?” asked Amaryllis.
“If she was, why would she refuse help?” I asked. “I mean, if she’s been killing people secretly over the past six to eight months, then why would she have compunctions about taking our help?”
“It doesn’t make sense,” said Amaryllis. “Or rather, it doesn’t make sense without some pieces of information that we’re currently lacking.” She raised her hand to her mouth and bit at her thumbnail for a moment. “I wish Bethel were more cooperative.”
I looked at the back of the guard, who was probably listening to us. “We might help with investigation, to the extent we can do that as private citizens.”
We collected our entads, and it was frankly a relief that we were back up to maximum lethality again. Maybe there was something wrong with that mindset, but I wasn’t going to try to change it just yet.
“Anything?” Grak asked when we came back out into the waiting room.
“More questions than answers,” I said. “And not many ways to get answers to those questions. We’d need to know who’s in charge of the investigation, and even that might not help us that much, because we have no standing here.”
“Not even as advocates of the accused,” said Amaryllis with a sour look.
“We should get home,” I said. “I could go for some sleep in the chamber, a day off, maybe.”
“It seems like a very frustrating dead end from someone unwilling to cooperate,” said Amaryllis.
“Maybe,” I said. “Or maybe it’s just set up for something else.”
Raven and Grak had been left alone in the waiting room of the local jail. Grak had come along partly to be sociable, partly to get out from the house, and partly in order to be kept in the loop about what was going on. It had been easy, in the past, to think of himself as a mercenary, someone following orders for his weekly pound of gold, but the past was the past, and now, he was demanding something more of himself. His training and expertise were in wards, and as an outgrowth of that, security systems and points of failure. There was, for the moment, little need for that expertise, but the moment might one day come. In the meantime, he was watching, soaking things in, becoming more and better simply by taking in the world around him instead of pushing it away. The others talked so much, some, like Amaryllis, because they were putting in their full effort at all times, and others, like Pallida, simply to fill a silent room with their thoughts.
“I’ve known a fair number of dwarves in my time,” said Raven. It was only a mild surprise that she spoke Groglir; the woman was one of Uther’s Knights, after all, and aside from perhaps Vervain, the most academically inclined among them. Her accent was odd, the dialect either long fallen out of favor or a result of how the language had blended with the others she knew.
“I’ve known a fair number of dwarves too,” said Grak. Most now dead.
“You’re atypical,” said Raven. She put a little bit too much force into the declarative, borrowing dwarven bluntness, in a way that was peculiar to non-native speakers. Juniper had never done it, not before his transition into being a perfect native speaker, and not after, for which Grak was grateful. There was something grating about non-dwarves trying to sound like they were culturally dwarven.
“We are all atypical,” said Grak. “Atypical Ell, atypical elf, atypical renacim, atypical crantek, atypical humans. An extremely atypical non-anima. We wouldn’t be in this group if we were typical.”
“True,” said Raven. She folded her hands in her lap. When Grak cared to look with warder’s sight, she gleamed with magic, every item she wore an entad. “It’s alienating in three ways. First, we are separated from our species. Second, we are separated from our culture. Third, we are all different in our own ways, bonded by being unalike, but not by our own peculiarities.”
“Yes,” said Grak. He felt the instinctive urge to leave it at that, to shut down any conversation that would delve deeper, or reveal something about himself. Historically, that way lay pain. “I am less a dwarf and more a citizen of the Empire. It is a different category, bigger in some ways and smaller in others. There is less depth.”
“I’m a citizen of no country,” said Raven. “The last of Uther’s Knights. And now, the last of the Knights to join Juniper.”
“We are not Knights, not subordinate,” said Grak. “He is insistent.”
“Is the word ‘companion’ accurate?” asked Raven. “It was given by his power, wasn’t it?”
“It is a mild word,” said Grak. “We journey with him. Nothing more is implied by it. Whether you want to be his friend is your choice.” Or more, if his appetites would stir for you.
“There is less that binds you,” said Raven. “With Uther … he united us. He was our king.”
“There’s still time for Juniper to become a king,” said Grak. “He could marry into royalty.” He was likely to, even. “Sorry. That was not your point.”
“I don’t know my point,” said Raven. She adjusted her magical cloak, though it could move on its own. “I would like that higher purpose again. I don’t know that I’ll find it here, though there’s nowhere else for me to be. Uther knew what he was doing.” Again, that characteristic dwarven bluntness, borrowed by the Ell in a way that didn’t suit her.
“I never met Uther and have read less than the others,” said Grak. In Anglish, this was where one might put a ‘but’, as a way of negating whatever was prefaced. In Groglir, it was more about flow from one subject to another, bare facts juxtaposed with one another. “Sometimes he was making it up as he went along, inventing his own mythology and deciding without enough information.”
Raven was silent at that. “It was easy to get swept along by him,” she said. “You might be right.”
“I say that because of what Juniper has said of Arthur,” replied Grak. “I did not know Uther.”
“I don’t think I did either,” said Raven. Her voice was soft. It seemed that whatever she’d hoped to get from this conversation, she hadn’t gotten it.
“We can be friends,” said Grak. He held out his hand to her, and she took it, her small hand in his large one, shaking briefly. “You said that you had known dwarves.”
“Yes,” said Raven. “I didn’t mean … I only thought maybe it would interest you. I’m seventeen hundred years old. I’ve seen things. I met Godo the Everliving, ten miles beneath the surface of Aerb. There was a different time when Esclin Tearheart threatened to destroy the whole of dwarvenkind through a bloodline attack, a long but largely unsung adventure that led us to the home of the first dwarves.”
“Bloodline attack?” asked Grak. “I’m unfamiliar.”
“Excluded magic,” said Raven with a shrug. “So many magics gone, more than the Empire counts. That was one of the nastier ones, silently excluded to an unknown place. It was once possible to kill a man by weaving a spell and punching his father hard enough.”
“I wonder what Aerb will be like, once the last magic has been excluded from the world,” said Grak. “Like Earth, I suppose.”
“Let’s pray that we never find out,” replied Raven.