“So,” said Rosemallow once Amaryllis had arrived at the White Room. “How did your meeting go?” Rosemallow wore a pink and white dress that deepened in color toward the top, mimicking the general shape and appearance of the flower from which she took her name. Almost everyone in the Court had flower-themed names, and on certain occasions, especially more formal ones, they were expected to wear their colors. For Amaryllis, that was typically white with veins of crimson, or possibly a pink or purple if the situation called for something especially bold. It wasn’t clear whether Rosemallow was dressed up for something, or whether she was just dressing according to her mood.
“The meeting went well enough,” replied Amaryllis. “Until the point when half the most valuable members of my team were abducted, and a monster, something called a skent, was unleashed in Caledwich Castle.” Amaryllis was certain that Rosemallow knew all of this. Her aunt’s question could only be taken as a smug ‘I told you so’, meant to reinforce Rosemallow’s superiority.
“The meeting was a bad idea,” said Rosemallow, pushing forward a tray of delicately prepared finger food. “I fear the damage to your forces is the least of your worries though, unless the meeting concluded without an agreement?”
“We reached an agreement,” said Amaryllis. “The problem is that it depended at least partially on good faith, or at least both of us following what I thought to be our incentives. Tell me, will they have any fallout from attacking us at Caledwich Castle?”
“Can you prove that they struck first?” asked Rosemallow.
“Raven was a witness,” said Amaryllis. “In a fair world, her testimony would be unimpeachable, but I expect that they’re moving to smear and undermine her as we speak. I don’t think that they expected her to be able to resist what they tried, and I’m certain they would have rather she died. The question will come down to testimony though, and it’s not the kind of issue that would be solved using some of the more extreme means.”
There were magical means for compulsory testimony, but almost all of them were extremely expensive or utterly horrific, or both, and some were state secrets, which meant that there were others that were also state secrets, but at a higher clearance than Amaryllis ever had. A soul mage could technically comb through the memories to find something of relevance, but this was almost never done, both because it was so incredibly time-consuming, and because it was illegal on the imperial level (and if you were doing high crimes, you could just soulfuck them into compliance). There was one entad, used only in extreme circumstances, which would rip apart the mind of the person it was used on, pulling out bits and pieces of them and only occasionally getting the complete truth.
“No, I doubt it would rise to that level,” replied Rosemallow. “Who does Raven say were the belligerents, or was the attack without an obvious source?”
“Yarrow and Zinnia,” replied Amaryllis. “It would be helpful if you would tell me where they are. It’s a reasonable expectation that our people are in one of the black sites.”
“Some sites are more black than others,” said Rosemallow, slightly raising an eyebrow. “Tell me, what kind of security procedures do you follow among your people? How much do they know?”
“Juniper knows everything,” said Amaryllis. This was pretty much true, with only one glaring exception that she could think of, and that one thing was interpersonal rather than being relevant in an information security context.
“You do realize that they’re going to torture him, don’t you?” asked Rosemallow. “Most likely they’ll use a revision mage, which means that even with training, he’s not bound to last long, and even if he’s recovered, he won’t know how much he’s given away.”
“I understand that,” said Amaryllis. “I’ve been trying to prepare for it. I’ve also been trying to prepare for having him walk through that door having killed dozens of people during his escape.”
“Onion and Phlox are running things,” said Rosemallow. “They may have many unsavory qualities, but they’re competent operators. There is no possibility that your allies will escape.”
“I don’t question their competence,” said Amaryllis. “I question their ability to prepare for things that no one has seen in five hundred years.”
Rosemallow tapped her lip. “You’re trying to say that Uther has returned,” she said.
Amaryllis frowned. “I haven’t said anything of the sort.”
“You’ve done well not to,” nodded Rosemallow. “Yet you’ve also arranged quite a bit of evidence that would suggest as much. Raven Masters is, to say the least, a major indicator. It hasn’t escaped my notice that you’ve assembled a motley crew of the sort that Uther always seemed to favor. Nor has it gone unnoticed that Juniper has become a master of still magic in far less time than it should have taken, something I don’t feel is adequately explained by a time chamber, even one of the caliber you seem to have. I didn’t feel a need to place any spies in Li’o when you were going about your humanitarian work there, but there were certain stories that reached my ears anyhow. There are claims that your people were the ones to kill Mome Rath when the whole city was paralyzed and no one else could so much as know about the creature. It all suggests something of Uther. All that’s lacking is the declaration that it’s so.”
“You think this is a gambit,” said Amaryllis.
“I sometimes forget how young you are,” said Rosemallow. “We’re the Lost King’s Court. The fundamentals of our system of governance rest on our descent from Uther Penndraig, and on the fact that he is not here to govern. If you’re trying to suggest that Uther has, in some manner, returned —”
“I’m not,” said Amaryllis.
“Claims have been made before,” said Rosemallow. “Usually it’s someone suffering from a delusion, but there have been a few occasions when the individual in question applied a bit of intellect to the deception. There were always hurdles to overcome, given how easy it would be for Uther himself to prove his identity. The accounts are classified, but they’re very droll, from a certain point of view.”
“That’s not what we’re doing,” said Amaryllis. “Is that what Onion and Phlox think we’re up to?”
“I don’t know if it’s crossed their minds,” said Rosemallow. “It wouldn’t surprise me if they considered it, but I know they don’t have all the information that I have.” She leaned forward. “You can take me into your confidence.”
“This isn’t a gambit,” said Amaryllis. “And I don’t necessarily understand the threat an imposter would pose. The Court wouldn’t roll over for any but Uther himself, and maybe not even then.”
“The threat wouldn’t be through legal channels,” said Rosemallow. “It would be through the public. There’s been unrest, nothing violent so far, but that could change if people had the right person to rally behind and a reasonable expectation of success. The end of the Second Empire set a bad precedent, more because of the stories that people told of the common man rising up against a monstrous evil than from any accurate reading of history. If someone claiming to be Uther came along to declare the Court null and void, and he was backed by a billion obols and hundreds of entads … well. It would be ambitious.”
“It’s hard for me to tell whether you’re still accusing me, or simply suggesting a trajectory that I might take,” said Amaryllis. “And it doesn’t matter, because Juniper has been taken, if not killed.” Amaryllis still had her half-share of his power, which was a strong indicator that he was alive somewhere. She was trying not to worry, because she was already in the process of doing everything that she could reasonably be expected to do.
“If he’s a fraud, they’ll expose him, and it will reflect extremely poorly on you,” said Rosemallow.
“He’s not pretending to be Uther,” said Amaryllis. He’s trying to find Uther. “There’s no threat there. I honestly don’t think Juniper thinks or cares about Anglecynn at all.”
“Yet he grew up here,” said Rosemallow.
“No,” replied Amaryllis. “He’s dream-skewered.” If Juniper was being tortured, that was one of the first things that would come out, in part by design: it was a secret with warts and wrinkles that he could feed them to stall for time. It wasn’t all that secret, given how many places it could leak.
Rosemallow was silent for a moment, facial muscles twitching slightly as she processed that. “He is?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Amaryllis. “You’re familiar with the condition?”
“Somewhat,” replied Rosemallow. “There was an incident at Speculation and Scrutiny not too long ago, outside their dream-skewered clinic, in Boastre Vino. This would have been some time after Larkspur’s death. Did you have anything to do with that?”
Amaryllis nodded. “We just went to get some answers from an expert. Things heated up considerably.”
“There are some theories, largely ignored and forgotten, that Uther himself was dream-skewered,” said Rosemallow.
“I’m aware,” replied Amaryllis, keeping stone-faced.
“The more I learn of your situation, the more curious it becomes,” said Rosemallow.
“You haven’t asked about the terms of the contract,” said Amaryllis. “With respect, I didn’t come here to have you boggle at the absurdity of my current situation, I came here because we have at least some goals in common. Time is a precious resource.”
“Oh, I know all about your contract,” said Rosemallow. “I obtained a copy shortly after your signature was added to it. It might have been a fine thing, if they hadn’t decided on force from the beginning. As it stands, it’s likely that the entire thing will be null and void, unless the councils are particularly against you and decide that certain parts are valid while others are not. I can apply some pressure to ensure that doesn’t happen, if it comes to that.”
“Then the meeting was a waste,” said Amaryllis. “Nothing of what was said in the Mirror Room made any difference whatsoever, it was all about what happened in the Prince’s Room.” It wasn’t exactly a surprise, but she still felt bitter about it.
“We can speak of the good and the bad,” said Rosemallow. “If someone did unleash a skent in Caledwich Castle, we could argue that demonstrates enormous disregard for not just civilians, but other members of the nobility, possibly rising to the level of a high crime. It would be contested, obviously, and given classifications, would only be discussed on a select few councils.”
“There’s a program to breed them and bond them with members of the nobility, and you knew about it,” said Amaryllis.
“I’ll choose not to confirm or deny that at this time,” said Rosemallow. “At this point, everything you know about the skents comes from Raven, who would have made her own observations divorced from our classification protocols. Best to keep it that way.”
“How likely are we to have to fight one again?” asked Amaryllis.
“I couldn’t say,” replied Rosemallow.
“I need to know if the skent breeding program I’m assuming exists somewhere resulted in dozens or hundreds of them,” said Amaryllis.
“You’re too young to have been taught about a certain political scandal that lanced through the Court not long after the Grand Reconciliation,” said Rosemallow. “It would suffice to say that I’ve been careful with classification since learning about it, especially since the younger generation has needed a lesson for some time, and I don’t want to be the unfortunate teacher-by-example.”
“If you think that I don’t have a detailed knowledge of every political scandal to have rocked Anglecynn since the time of Uther, you’re mistaken,” said Amaryllis. “Myosotis, FE 346. Far before your time, when the Court was in a different place.”
“Have you shared classified information?” asked Rosemallow, raising an eyebrow. “That’s another thing that might come out through interrogation.”
“And they would try to pin me on that, when they released a monster that could realistically have killed dozens?” asked Amaryllis.
“I’m only trying to determine courses of action and lines of conversation,” said Rosemallow. “Some things are more classified than others, and you never knew everything there was to know. Project Garden Stake was the highest clearance project, if I recall, so there are limits to how much trouble you could be in on that front. My worry is at least partially about how this will play with the public, or before an open council.”
“You’re the one who made this about the public,” said Amaryllis. She paused. “You’ve been putting my name out, trying to get the common people invested in me. What you said before about the possibility of me setting up a fraud where I claimed to have Uther back, was that your intent?”
Rosemallow shook her head. “No, of course not, not in a literal sense. To claim that you were a reincarnation of Uther through magical means, or that Juniper was Uther, back from the great beyond in a new body, would require solutions to some very large and currently intractable problems, at least if the deception were to survive any amount of scrutiny. With that said, we’re not confined to only the literal level. Uther’s spiritual or metaphorical return would serve nicely, and without the constitutional crisis.”
Amaryllis rolled that over in her head, trying to get a grip on it. “You want to use this perception as part of a plan to win the current battle against Onion,” she said. “All you have is public pressure. I don’t see how it would be enough.”
“One of your faults is that you believe in great people doing great things,” said Rosemallow. “It’s apparent in your writings, and to a greater extent, your actions. I believe it to be a common failing of Penndraigs, and of the Anglish in general, perhaps caused by the fact that we place so much emphasis on Uther, a bright and shining star who has never been rivaled. The will of the public matters. It’s not subordinate to any single great person, and can’t be swayed except temporarily, or with systemic effects. That’s what makes it powerful.”
Amaryllis wasn’t particularly appreciating the lesson, nor did she think that Rosemallow had a very good grasp on her. Amaryllis had written about systemic effects in her diary, she was sure that she had, and if she also wrote about how she wanted to become a prime mover so that things that needed doing could get done … well, the world really did seem to contain some people that were uniquely important and powerful individuals. Amaryllis would have believed that even if Juniper hadn’t spoken to the One True God, may his dice fall fair.
“I need my people back,” said Amaryllis. “Things have gone south with Hyacinth and I might be in a worse situation than before. I was warned, I know. The priority is recovering my team.”
“If Onion has put them somewhere, it will be beyond my reach,” said Rosemallow. “No doubt he’ll have used a thin legal pretense for this action, but obviously I’ll challenge him on it. There’s leverage in it.”
“I need more than that,” said Amaryllis. “I need leads.”
“It’s clear you’re thinking rash thoughts,” said Rosemallow, frowning slightly. “You’re thinking of Miunun.”
“What?” asked Amaryllis. “No.”
“Without Juniper you lose quorum,” said Rosemallow. “You’ve been using him in too many ways.”
“I’m not worried about it,” said Amaryllis. “You’re looking for hooks where there are none.”
“Then I don’t understand the urgency,” said Rosemallow, folding her hands. “He’s gone, Amaryllis. The only way he and the others will be returned to you is if Onion decides it’s so. If you could, somehow, find which site he’s at and break in to rescue him, you would be putting yourself in a far worse position than the one you’re in right now. As it stands, the contract might be troublesome and all the fundamentals are essentially the same as they were the day before, but they have information that you don’t want them to have.”
“Fine,” said Amaryllis. “Pretend that’s true. But also prepare a contingency path in case Juniper comes back to Anglecynn in the next few days having killed a dozen people in his impossible escape.”
“I’ll do that,” nodded Rosemallow. “Now, can I tell you what steps we’re taking? I know you’re a willful girl, and I worry that every word out of my mouth will be met with an objection.”
“Go ahead,” replied Amaryllis, folding her arms.
“The first step is to get you seated on councils, as many and as widely varied as possible,” said Rosemallow. “That will be in preparation for your trial, which we’ll want to undertake as quickly as possible. While the contract is dubious, we can press on that, assuming that you would still want those terms, which I think is questionable. Even if you don’t, Onion has put in writing that it’s possible for him to waive your service requirement, which I believe to be an error on his part. You won’t have a proper role in the councils until after the trial, but it’s a good show that you fully intend to be a member in good standing of the Lost King’s Court. We will, naturally, have to do something about your look, and if possible, have you out of armor as much as you can be.”
“No,” said Amaryllis.
“You’re a diplomat now, not a warrior,” said Rosemallow. “The fullplate is a bit much, and it hides your figure.”
“Do you understand that these people are trying to kill me?” asked Amaryllis.
“Of course,” replied Rosemallow. “That’s why you’ll be staying here, with my security, and why we will prevent you from joining the Host at all costs. I would hate to put in all this effort only to have you wind up dead. Moving on, we’ll push what leverage we have as hard as we can. You’re absolutely right that they made an attack on Caledwich, and that Raven has an incredible pedigree that we can use to our advantage, both as a witness and as a general asset, assuming that she’s willing to follow orders. Is she?”
“She views this as a sideshow,” said Amaryllis. “In her view, we should be focusing on more important things than who controls Anglecynn or how to get one and a half billion obols out of trust.”
“And what’s more important than that?” asked Rosemallow, leaning forward slightly.
“Uther’s legacy,” said Amaryllis. Maybe Uther himself. “She’s been looking for a successor to Uther for quite some time, trying to create one, or be one. So long as our small group can keep doing things like we did in Li’o, she’ll be with us.”
“You maintain that this isn’t a deception of some kind,” said Rosemallow. “You believe that it’s the truth. You think that Juniper is, in some sense, a repetition of Uther, one you can use.” There was something like wonder in her eyes, a first, so far as Amaryllis could ever recall. “Except that he’s now missing, presumed captured,” said Rosemallow. She looked Amaryllis over. “I’ll put more resources into the contingency that he returns. In the meantime, you should make a list of the councils you’re most interested and adapted for. You have a curious and powerful time chamber, and I don’t doubt that you’ve been using it. There’s an open spot on the Commoner Council, which I think you would be well-suited to.”
“I would be most interested in Industry, Infrastructure, Research and Development, and Culture,” said Amaryllis. One of these things is not like the others.
Rosemallow was in her watching mode, taking in minute facial expressions, weighing each word as though they were high-stakes gamblers and she thought that Amaryllis might be bluffing. “There are duties that come with council meetings. If I got you even two of those, it would require you to spend quite a bit of time in the Anglecynn, which I know isn’t your preference.”
“Two would be fine,” replied Amaryllis. “I’ll handle it.”
“You really do need my help,” said Rosemallow, her tone so ambiguous that it was hard to know whether to take that as a threat, a statement of fact, or pity.
“I do,” said Amaryllis. “My priority right now is putting this all to bed. If that means that I have to make frequent trips back here, then so be it.”
“It’s good that you’re looking far into the future,” said Rosemallow. “But what you should be concerned with is what’s coming up soon. They’re going to push for a trial, and soon, especially while you’re off your balance. It doesn’t hurt that a trial can help to distract from the significant errors they made at Caledwich. Be prepared for it to get vicious.”
“I always am,” replied Amaryllis.
They were waiting on a sign or signal from Juniper, and it was slow in coming.
Amaryllis was staying at the Erstwhile Manor with Raven, while the rest of the much-reduced team was at the Hotel Delzora. Now that the peace was broken, they were almost certainly going to try to get her into jail, which meant no more moving around the city without cause. If Amaryllis did go to jail, there was a possibility that they would try to kill her there, though Rosemallow seemed to think that what had happened at Caledwich Castle was a colossal fuckup on their end (not her words) which they wouldn’t be eager to repeat. There were provisions for a member of the Court to stake someone on bonded release, which they would use in order to keep Amaryllis under Rosemallow’s nominal care without the jail being involved, but there wasn’t a way to guarantee that unless Amaryllis stayed as close to Rosemallow as possible.
As part of trial preparation, Amaryllis was reading through her old diaries. They were, thanks to Rosemallow, a part of the public record, and there was a chance that they would be used as part of the proceedings. Amaryllis had done her fair share of reading about the legal system used in the United States of America, on Earth, and desperately wished that Uther had managed to import some of the saner features. From what Juniper had said, Arthur had been enthusiastic about the law, but while Uther had written a huge number of laws and crafted legal frameworks, both in Anglecynn and the First Empire, and engaged in legal reforms of various other polities, the rules that governed the Court showed little of that care and devotion. Of course, some of that might have been because the Lost King’s Court had never been intended, and a fair bit of its current practices had been built up after Uther was gone.
In America, there was a process of discovery, whereby both sides of a trial were allowed (and required) to share evidence. Surprise witnesses were virtually unheard of, as was evidence introduced in the middle of proceedings. Further, both prosecution and defense were constrained in what they could bring up, with questions of character and prior bad acts generally being inadmissible. There were rules about decorum, about badgering, about hostility and self-incrimination. There were limits to how off the rails the questioning could go.
Amaryllis couldn’t help but feel wistful about the American legal system, which she’d only known through reading about it. The Court desperately needed some kind of legal reform, as if the existence of trial by adversity weren’t proof enough of that.
Reading back her diaries was painful, in part because she had so much distance from them that she could just barely remember what was in them. Rosemallow had produced the originals, but Amaryllis was reading the edited version. At times she would stop and search through the originals, only to find that no, that was something she’d actually written down, not some bit of simplistic propaganda that Rosemallow had inserted in. There were groan-worthy essays where a younger Amaryllis had just discovered that systemic problems sometimes arose from the natural incentives people followed, and Amaryllis wanted to just grab her younger self by the head and scream, ‘everyone already knows this!’. That wasn’t terribly charitable, but Amaryllis also believed that you didn’t owe your younger self much respect.
Specifically with regards to things that might come up at the desertion trial, there were a number of passages that went against very orthodox views within the Court. One of the justifications for the structural nepotism of Anglecynn was the argument that the Penndraigs were raised from birth to be rulers, with the best education, nutrition, and magical assistance available. It was a line that Amaryllis herself had repeated quite a few times, but while she was definitely more suited to rule than the average commoner, in her diary she had proposed that outliers among the commoners would almost certainly out-perform the average Penndraig. That was a heresy, though not the kind that you would get put to death over. It was the sort of thing that, in a desertion trial, would get brought up to show that she wasn’t a team player, or just to trigger some of the biases of whoever was deciding her fate.
Rosemallow had made redactions to the diaries, removing a few sections on menstruation, and another recounting an unpleasurable experiment with masturbation. Amaryllis found this understandable but annoying: those things had been put into the diary with the understanding that someone might read them some day. They had been private and personal, but an important aspect of her internal understanding of herself. It was the kind of thing that helped to sell the diaries as being intimate, which would make them more effective, even if they were embarrassing, especially because they were embarrassing.
The diaries could be used to paint her as a revolutionary, or if not that, then at least with views so far outside the mainstream of the Court that she was implicitly a threat. Her position as a bright star orbiting the edges of the Court made that an even more compelling argument, and her lack of family made it more tempting to push her out in one way or another, even without taking into account how much someone like Hyacinth would benefit from Amaryllis’ death. The primary argument, when it came to a charge of desertion, was that Amaryllis had fled because she feared for her life if she tried to go to the Host. The primary counter argument was that she simply hated the Court and wanted to shirk her duty, as evidenced by the fact that she had only returned to the Court when pressure was put on her by an outside force. Rosemallow would no doubt fabricate a chain of correspondence and a legal pretense for Amaryllis to remain outside the kingdom for so long, but the trial would fundamentally not be about legality, it would be about loyalties, alliances, and perceptions of gain and loss.
“How long do you think it’s going to take Joon to come back?” asked Raven.
“I don’t know,” replied Amaryllis. “I suppose right at the critical moment. We still haven’t gotten the check-in.” It had been six hours, and Amaryllis was starting to grow tired. Juniper had the sleeping ring, specifically because it was more important for him to have it if they got separated. “Shit, I should have arranged with Grak for us to sleep in shifts.”
“You’ll know for next time,” said Raven. “We could send Grak a letter and coordinate that way.”
“Infosec risk,” said Amaryllis. “And I’m not sure that it would actually matter. Did you finish cross-referencing your worldline with the list of black sites?” Amaryllis was trying to use her own vibration magic to keep things silent, but it took mental effort, and she had half the skill of Juniper. It would suffice to say that certain topics were off the table for the time being.
“I have approximate matches for three of the eleven,” said Raven. “Moderate matches for another five. The problem is that they’re all in out-of-the-way places. When I was working with the Library, nine times out of ten I was going to one of the major cities, and I wasn’t called out all that often. With Uther, we ranged a lot more, but by the time we were ranging all over Aerb, we had the entads necessary to go point-to-point virtually at will. If he is at a black site, there’s a decent chance that it will take days to get to him, given how much distance we might have to cover in conventional ways.”
“And that means that if he makes an escape from wherever he’s being held, it might be days or even weeks for him to get back to us,” said Amaryllis.
“Or it might be impossible for him to escape without us fixing things on our end,” said Raven. “That happened once or twice with Uther. The first time he went to another plane, he was temporarily stuck there without any backup, fighting for his life while we figured out a way to reverse the magical effect that had done it. When we finally got him back, he spilled out through the portal with a horde of monsters after him, his resources almost completely depleted. The second time, which is arguable, we pulled him out of a deep dream, but he might have gotten out himself, if we’d let him go. That was not too long before we had our adventure in the Plane of Dreams.”
“You mean that this political gamesmanship might actually be relevant?” asked Amaryllis.
“Possibly,” replied Raven. “I could imagine that Juniper was being held in a secure prison and managed to make a partial escape, only to realize that he was out of the frying pan and into the fire. From there he would be racing against time and trying to ration his resources, unlocking star magic only to realize that there was an interdiction, — I have a lot of practice from worrying about Uther. Everrett always said that I was a good storyteller.” She sighed, perhaps thinking about her fallen friends.
“And you still think that we should wait?” asked Amaryllis. “You still think we’re helpless?”
“By all means, fill the time,” said Raven. “Give him a gift to come home to, in the form of having settled what you can settle.” She shrugged. “I plan to do the same, I’ve just beaten my head against the wall too many times with Uther to not have been inured to it.”
Amaryllis went back to her planning, not feeling much better for having had that discussion. Juniper was almost certainly alive, and he would almost certainly be back, but she would struggle and fight all the same. Maybe after the sixth or seventh time this happened, she would feel differently, when they were in their thirties and had been through so many adventures that this one was just a memory, not unique, interesting, or personal. Until that time, she would go on.
“The trial will be today,” said Rosemallow the next morning. The three of them were having breakfast together, just after dawn. Amaryllis had waited for Juniper to contact her through the soul link, but eventually she’d been tired from a long day, and knew that every hour spent waiting up would have to be stolen from the next day. She checked her own soul on waking up, but saw nothing through the established channels, though that might have just meant that he was still unconscious or sedated, or had been under time pressure.
“Today?” asked Amaryllis, her fork frozen halfway to her mouth. The food was in a style common to the Court, heavy on labor and with a wide variety of delicate ingredients. There were a half dozen individual dishes, though as it was breakfast, they were served on larger plates to take from, rather than in six individual courses.
“Yes, today,” said Rosemallow. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to move it from the War Council, which means that we’ll start at a distinct disadvantage, but the War Council is large, and —”
“You couldn’t have pushed it back?” asked Amaryllis.
“It would have been difficult,” replied Rosemallow, frowning at the interruption. Interruptions were Not Done. “The issue of your desertion has been put off for quite some time, which Phlox is claiming is a result of attempting and failing to contact you once it became known that you were, in fact, alive, and later, when your location became known to the Host.”
“I received no letters, nor any communication from anyone, until Sweet William came to speak with me on behalf of the Draconic Confederacy,” said Amaryllis. “Plus whatever you want to say that we privately wrote to each other. But I suppose that’s obvious.”
“We’ll fight it,” said Rosemallow. “Unfortunately, the matter is going to be brought before the War Council, which is where we would object to their fabrication, and at that point, the War Council is likely to hold a vote on whether to delay the hearing to another day. I anticipate that we’ll lose that vote, simply in the name of getting on with things. Your time away from the Court will be held against you. That’s virtually unavoidable, as it’s the premise of the trial.”
“How likely are we to lose?” asked Amaryllis.
“Fairly unlikely,” said Rosemallow. “Dispreferable terms are more likely, but I wouldn’t call that losing. Outright success that gets both of us everything we want is virtually impossible, unless you have a trump card you’ve been holding which you foolishly kept from me.”
Rosemallow was right. The most easily foreseeable loss scenario was that Amaryllis would be forced to serve two years in the Host, without any kind of special accommodation. That was unacceptable for a number of reasons, the two biggest being the amount of time it would take and the fact that it would put her in a position to be murdered. Beyond that, there might be some seizure of the assets that were held in trust as compensation for the technical desertion, or another remedy that the War Council decided on which would be terrible for Amaryllis, Miunun, or the Council of Arches. At the far extreme end, they might order another trial by adversity for her, which wouldn’t be entirely without precedent.
And winning? Well, their position wasn’t great, Amaryllis knew that, especially because she was entirely guilty of the crime she was being tried for. Because the plain facts were so incredibly hard to dispute — Amaryllis had not, in fact, made any effort whatsoever to join the Host — that left an argument that there existed a set of facts which should rightfully mitigate the consequences of the crime. Amaryllis wasn’t sure how that argument would be received. Rosemallow claimed that this trial would be essentially political in nature, more a result of what happened behind the scenes than what anyone might say in front of the War Council, but Amaryllis was alternately worried and hopeful that the evidence and arguments put forward could persuade her family to vote against their own economic and political interests.
The War Council was one of the largest in the Lost King’s Court, with a full fifty members. By itself, it hardly ever did anything, with almost all of the work of military governance being handled by subcouncils. With the Empire of Common Cause providing a measure of stability, there hadn’t been much cause for war in the past few decades, though of course there were still uses for a small standing army, and the War Council often concerned itself with various aspects of war preparedness.
Council meetings were held in the rooms of Greychapel, a large building that was even larger on the inside. Most of these meetings were held in rooms that hewed to function more closely than to form, with security in place to ensure that the meetings were private, water and a small bit of food, adequate lighting, and little in the way of embellishments. The focus, after all, was on the information and arguments that were being brought forward, and everything else was secondary. Amaryllis had spent a large portion of her time before leaving Anglecynn at Greychapel, taking notes in council meetings and occasionally getting into arguments or offering suggestions and reports. As a general rule, junior members of the Court who held council seats were expected to sit and listen rather than dive in head first, hoping to get a feel for the culture and rules before they made any serious mistakes, but Amaryllis had adapted quickly and not made many missteps. She had grown to like the utilitarian nature of those anonymous, interchangeable rooms at Greychapel, even if the actual process of legislative and executive functioning was a little dirty.
The trial, by contrast, was held in one of the large, ornate rooms of Greychapel, with the seats arranged in a semi-circle and layered as in a stadium. The ceiling was a dome, with a fresco Uther himself had painted, depicting a small team of men and women fighting off horrors of all kinds, though it wasn’t ‘real’ in the sense that it didn’t seem to correspond to anything that had actually happened. Uther was an accomplished artist, as he was accomplished at many things, but this was one of the only frescos that he’d found the time to do. The seats of the room were upholstered with some exotic leather, while the majority of the carvings that served as trim were gold-plated. Even the lighting itself was expensive, created by radiant stones tucked away in various places around the trim. A pair of vibration mages were stationed in the room to modulate sound, a pair of warders were on the lookout for unexpected magic, and Armateurs were stationed at regular intervals around the room, managing to look at least a little bit like decoration rather than a defense force.
Looking around at the assembled princes and princesses from a seat in the benches, Amaryllis couldn’t help but think that a bomb going off in this room would result in a significant improvement to the kingdom.
A number of the seats were empty, likely a result of the fact that the War Council had been called with so little notice. Most of the Lost King’s Court lived in Caledwich, especially if they had a position on a council, but it wasn’t unusual for members to temporarily vacate their seat for various reasons, even when they were still technically required, placing their votes by telepresence entads, relayed by phone, or mailed in as the situation required. The reduced numbers of the council wouldn’t really matter one way or another, except insofar as the missing members had their own allegiances.
Amaryllis was relegated to a small area next to the main seating, a gallery where various witnesses, employees, and subordinates were kept. Whatever witnesses the prosecution would call, assuming they were going to call some of them, were being kept elsewhere for the time being, the better to maintain some element of surprise.
As Amaryllis watched, the members of the Court with telepresence were slowly brought up. There were very few methods that allowed instant communication between remote places, especially ad hoc, which meant that entads were left to fill the job. Distance communication was rare in entads, but not overly so, and assistants were left setting up whatever was required for those. In certain cases it was as simple as a thick metal ring that needed to be set in place, which projected up a small hologram, or a bust that would be brought to life by entad magic, looking and speaking for someone thousands of miles away. There were others that were more complicated, like a bunny that was released from a cage and then anointed with oil before taking on a slight glow that indicated someone would be using it to speak. There were six of those altogether, stand-ins used for those who were working or living abroad.
People gradually began to take their seats, and Amaryllis willed herself to be calm and collected. The last time she’d been in front of a council, answering for wrongdoing, it hadn’t gone well for her, and this trial was obviously calling forth some of the trauma of realizing that no one was going to save her, that she was going to have everything stripped from her before being sent to an exclusion zone where she’d assumed she would die.
If they sentenced her to another trial by adversity, she would be very much inclined to kill them all and be done with it. She wouldn’t do it unless it was actually beneficial to the party, but if her family kept deciding that they wanted her dead, it would be fairly easy to make the argument that killing them was beneficial. Not all of them, either, just the worst twenty or thirty percent, which included all her current enemies. These were not terribly mature thoughts, she would readily admit that, but it did make her feel better to think that if she could get Juniper back, their combined firepower might be high enough to wipe out these people arrayed against her.
There was one welcome and familiar face on the War Council, a recent addition: Lisianthus. She didn’t so much as look at Amaryllis, and Amaryllis let her eyes quietly pass over Lisi. It was hardly a secret to anyone that Lisi was close to Rosemallow, but it was better that no one knew how close, as that could impact how Lisi’s contributions to the proceedings were perceived.
Phlox was one of the last to take her seat, which was right next to Onion’s. The two of them were one of the reasons that the War Council wasn’t a preferred place to hold the trial. Onion wore the same full plate and many rings he’d worn the day before, but Phlox was dressed more elegantly, in a rich purple dress that came halfway up her neck and covered her arms to her wrists. She also wore an eclectic selection of jewelry, some of which were probably entads, the others there for symmetry or to make a statement about what she thought of austerity. She was in her late seventies, hair grey and with more than her fair share of wrinkles, and beyond that, she moved slowly, with less of the poise and grace that Amaryllis remembered her having even ten years ago. Some of her royal bearing had been worn away by time. Still, she wasn’t to be underestimated. She and Onion were second cousins and thick as thieves.
Phlox banged down her gavel, and after a few words the session began in earnest.
The first two witnesses were just to establish that a crime had, in fact, taken place. The first was a member of the Finance Council, who spent a few minutes speaking about that first trial and sentencing, which thankfully didn’t go on all that long. The second witness was a member of the Host, a man who had both overseen the drop and waited patiently at the base for any survivors. He talked briefly about the historic importance of the trial by adversity, which Amaryllis didn’t feel was needed, but otherwise stuck to matters of fact, including how long it normally took survivors to complete their trial, their entry into the Host, and some discussion on when they had given Amaryllis up for dead.
After that, Amaryllis was called. She walked into the center of the room, steeling herself, and stood at attention. She was wearing a tastefully conservative dress rather than armor, in service of projecting the right kind of attitude. Many members of the council would have made up their mind before things began, but there were votes to be won, and Rosemallow still seemed to think that public opinion was a concern, even if the council had made up their minds. The War Room had an upper balcony where the public was allowed to sit, warded so that they could make no sound, and even given the expedited trial, it was packed.
“Amaryllis Penndraig, for the crime of desertion, how do you plead?” asked Phlox.
“Mu,” said Amaryllis. It was a word that Uther had coined, often used in cases like these to challenge assumptions. Invoking it here was unlikely to work, but it had to be tried.
“Clarify, please,” replied Phlox.
“Madame Chairman, the wording of the directive signed when I was sentenced to trial by adversity gave a concrete definition for when the trial was to be considered completed, which was the trigger condition for my entry into the Host,” said Amaryllis. “The precise wording used was that when I ‘reached the edge of the exclusion zone’ I would be considered to have completed the trial and would join the Host for a period of two years. As I left via entad from Silmar City, I never reached the edge of the exclusion zone, and am thus not subject to that trigger.”
Onion stood from his seat beside Phlox. “Madame Chairman, I move that Amaryllis’ suggestion that her trial by adversity has not yet ended be quashed under the obvious chicanery rule.” He sat back down as soon as the sentence was out of his mouth.
“Second,” replied a distant cousin.
“Council, are you ready for the question?” asked Phlox.
But obviously, the council wasn’t ready for the question, because in a council as large as this one, only a completely pro forma motion could be dismissed that quickly. People took their turns standing, making their own arguments or requests for information, which eventually looked to be leading down a rabbit hole when Onion took the floor again.
“Madame Chairman, I move the previous question,” he said.
“Second,” replied the same distant cousin, Willow. Her role here was, clearly, to second anything that Onion said. That wasn’t strictly necessary, given that Phlox was chair, but it did give a thin veneer of impartiality to Phlox.
“Is the council ready for the question of whether Amaryllis’ plea of ‘mu’ be rejected in this instance under the obvious chicanery rule?” asked Phlox. Another member of the council stood, but Phlox waved him back down. “We’ll first vote to end debate on the question, requiring a two-thirds majority.”
Amaryllis was starting to get a read of the room and the particulars of each member. She knew all their names, though some she hadn’t really met. She had two stalwart supporters, Iris and Lisi, both of whom had been trying their best to get this relatively hopeless gambit to work, but they’d said their bit already. Then there were two family members who seemed to just be in it for wanting something to say, Sorrel and Camellia. The rest hadn’t spoken, and while Amaryllis knew as much as Rosemallow had been willing to share about their loyalties, Amaryllis wasn’t counting anyone out quite yet.
The vote to end discussion easily passed, but the question of whether her ‘mu’ answer was ‘obvious chicanery’ came much closer than Amaryllis had thought it would: there were forty-one members present, and the vote only had twenty-five ayes. Obviously a ruling that her desertion wasn’t a crime because she’d never finished her trial would put her in an awkward position (necessitating a return to the Risen Lands, perhaps), but if the vote had gone her way, she would have taken it.
“The ayes have it,” said Phlox. “Amaryllis, do you have a new plea?”
It was tempting to say ‘mu’ again, but the other methods of claiming there was no crime were on even shakier areas of technicality, not worth trying when she was trying to maintain the pleasure of the council. “I plead not guilty by reasons of necessity and duress,” said Amaryllis.
“Necessity and duress are two separate defenses,” replied Phlox. “As a point of order, you will need to choose between the two.”
“A defendant is allowed multiple affirmative defenses if the nature of their defense requires such to cover two or more different areas of the crime,” said Amaryllis. “As desertion is an ongoing crime, covering the entirety of the time when I did not report, I believe it qualifies by the standards used to set precedent.”
Another round followed, with the motion first put to a vote, which required more interjections, clarifications, and considerations, and then a real vote once enough time had passed and Phlox’s gauge of the room was that they would close further comments. The chair had an extraordinary amount of power within the council, as they chose what would be brought to a vote and who would get the floor (among other things), but they were constrained by the need to follow procedure, else they face the consequences. Of late, those consequences had been rather lacking, in part because it was difficult to enforce fairness. Beyond that, the attack at Caledwich Castle had shaken Amaryllis’ faith that others would follow even the rather permissive informal rules.
The vote went in Amaryllis’ favor, this time by a wide margin, which she was thankful for, even though it never should have been up for a vote in the first place, given how solid her legal ground was.
“Then proceed, Amaryllis, and put forward your argument for why your desertion was both necessary and under duress. I’ll remind the council that the argument of duress requires the defendant to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they were coerced by force or threats, and the argument of necessity requires passing a burden of presenting clear and convincing evidence. The floor is yours. Will ten minutes suffice?”
“I’ll do my best,” replied Amaryllis. “Esteemed council, when I was initially sentenced to trial by adversity, I had every intention of doing my best to complete the trial and join the Host for two years of service. However, when I landed in the Risen Lands, I was attacked by a number of young men who had also made the drop, which is quite unusual for the trial. From the coloring of their hair, I took them to be members of the Fuchsia Coterie. It was only on my return to Anglecynn that I learned the matter had been seen and settled, implicating a number of low-level officials, though I don’t believe it was discovered who had paid them. At the time, I believed it to be an assassination attempt, and rather than going toward the edge of the exclusion, I went toward Silmar City, where I had an entad that would allow me to leave. At this time, I’d like to enter into evidence the entirety of the proceedings over the matter of the Fuchsia Coterie being dropped into the Risen Lands, which I don’t think I need to mention constitutes a violation of the special exemption Anglecynn enjoys with the Empire.”
No one was actually going to read the thick stack of papers, given that the facts weren’t in dispute, but it was still good to have evidence ready, and to make a show that it was in your possession. Rumor had it that Uther had bluffed his way through a number of meetings by presenting stacks of blank paper, as if daring his ideological opponents to spend the effort wading through it all.
“Point of evidence,” said Onion.
“I yield the floor,” Amaryllis replied, because Phlox would have made her yield anyway.
“The Fuchsia Coterie are paramilitary,” he said. “How many of them did you see there?”
“A dozen,” replied Amaryllis. “But that’s a guess.”
“And what were they doing?” he asked.
“I saw them kill a number of the others involved in the trial,” said Amaryllis. “It’s speculation on my part, but I believe they were killing witnesses.”
“And they attempted to kill you?” asked Onion.
“They did,” replied Amaryllis with a nod.
“You have no military training, is that correct?” asked Onion.
“I trained briefly in self-defense after my mother’s death, and received special instruction at the Athenaeum of Quills and Blood,” replied Amaryllis. “Other than that, no, I have no combat or military training.”
“How did you survive?” asked Onion, which was likely the point of that questioning.
“Initially, I hid, and then I was fortunate enough to come across someone I thought I could trust. He was familiar with me from the Future Leaders of Anglecynn campaign and wanted to help me,” said Amaryllis. “There was, frankly, a large amount of luck involved. With his help —”
“This would be Juniper Smith?” asked Onion.
“That’s correct,” replied Amaryllis, watching him. He gave nothing away, not that she’d expected he would. “With his help, I was able to remove the souls of the dead and use them as fuel for a soulcycle I’d repaired, which we used to make the trip to Silmar City. Once we were past the landing zone, we didn’t encounter anyone else, and the only difficulty was in getting past the undead and finding provisions.”
“What weapons did you use?” asked Onion, not bothering to ask again for a point of evidence.
“We used whatever we could find,” said Amaryllis. “Comfort was largely picked over from the evacuation, later looting, and the trials. Based on the quality of their weapons, I assume that the attackers had a cache dropped or teleported in prior to the start of the trial, though that’s not clear to me.”
“Did you use void weapons?” asked Onion.
“Yes,” replied Amaryllis. “I was able to make a crude void rifle from leftover parts. I will preemptively say, for the benefit of the council, that while use of void weaponry is prohibited by Anglecynn law, it is customary for trial by adversity to include a suspension of legal consequences. Uncle Onion, I believe you’re well aware.”
“I am,” replied Onion, not smiling. “You may continue.”
“The endpoint of the entad was in a family home near Barren Jewel,” said Amaryllis, continuing on. “It was supposed to be a secure redoubt, and we were able to recover some entads that had been left in storage there for dire circumstances, but a local criminal gold mage had placed additional wards to trap anyone who entered. He took me hostage and interrogated me with a revision mage, until I was rescued by Juniper and two others he had recruited. At this point it would be prudent to enter into evidence a news report from Barren Jewel detailing the deaths of a number of people in the upper floors of a building called Trifles Tower.”
“Point of evidence,” said Phlox. “Once you were in Barren Jewel, you had the opportunity to send a letter back to Anglecynn explaining your predicament. Why didn’t you?” Her voice still managed to be sharp, despite her age, and sitting there, she’d regained some of the bearing she’d been lacking when she’d first entered.
“During the time I was in Barren Jewel, I was held hostage, given food and water but otherwise not allowed to write letters. After I was freed from the gold mage, it was a matter of minutes before we used a second entad obtained from the family home to go elsewhere.”
“And it’s your contention that during this entire time, you were acting under duress?” asked Phlox.
“Yes,” replied Amaryllis.
“In terms of timeline, this would bring us up to when, exactly?” asked Phlox.
“Nineteen days after the trial began,” replied Amaryllis.
“I believe it would be a waste of this council’s time for you to recount how you spent the entirety of your time away from the Court,” said Phlox. “Let it be known that for a number of months you were living on the Isle of Poran as a citizen of the Republic of Miunun. At that time, were you under duress?”
“No, Madame Chairman,” replied Amaryllis. “But my plea was duress and necessity, and at the time, I believed that return to Anglecynn would be a greater evil. The reason —”
“When did you feel you were no longer under duress?” asked Phlox.
“Mu,” said Amaryllis. “I have always felt that return to Anglecynn would represent a threat to my life, and the lives of my companions. Further, I’ve felt that mere knowledge of my existence by certain members of the Court would inevitably result in either threats of violence or outright attacks.” She held up a hand to forestall objections. “I’m not claiming that for the past few months duress was a compelling argument informing my decision not to report in to the Host, only that duress was present.”
Phlox let out a sigh. “Then at what point did you feel that the overriding concern was necessity, rather than duress, and what is the nature of necessity you’re claiming?”
“Approximately twenty days after I left the Risen Lands, I was attacked in the streets of Boastre Vino by Larkspur Prentiss and a few people accompanying him, with no attempts at diplomacy or warning on their part,” said Amaryllis.
The council erupted into conversation at that, which was almost immediately shut down by the two vibration mages.
“I suppose you have some evidence of this bold claim?” asked Phlox.
“Little enough,” said Amaryllis. “I’d like to enter into evidence a police report from Boastre Vino, including witness testimonies, a secondary report from Uniquities detailing the events of that fight prior to Larkspur’s unfortunate death, and a report from Anglecynn’s Foreign Security Office, included primarily for the sake of completeness, as it details Larkspur’s movements in the days prior to his death.”
“You’re smearing a dead man’s name,” said Onion.
“Point of order,” Amaryllis replied. “Onion is speaking without having been granted the floor and not following the rules of procedure for the trial.”
“Onion, request the floor if you have something to say,” replied Phlox. “I think it would go without saying that Amaryllis is making extraordinary claims, and that the only person who could possibly offer a solid rebuttal is deceased, thus beyond questioning.”
“I’ll leave it to the council to decide,” replied Amaryllis. “It should be clear to everyone here that Larkspur would have had motive to —”
“This line of comment is finished,” said Phlox.
“Point of order,” said Amaryllis, voice firm and slightly raised. “The chair cannot close a line of comment except with a two-third majority of the council, so the matter should be put to a vote.”
Phlox was clearly unhappy with that, but she was in a procedural bind. Council meetings of this size Followed the Rules, and a chair who shut down her enemies would find herself booted fairly quickly. At worst, the council could rebel against their chair and declare a mistrial.
“Continue on,” said Phlox, not wanting to risk a vote she must have assumed would go against her. “Show respect for the dead.”
“I meant no disrespect,” replied Amaryllis. “Larkspur’s actions in and around Boastre Vino are suspect, even in the report that comes from his former office. When I speak to motive, I don’t mean to imply that he was lacking in character, only that there was a clear and obvious reason for him to want me dead, whether that’s what he wanted or not. In the event of my death, my entads would have passed to him and his wife Hyacinth, representing somewhere in the region of thirty million obols a year income.”
“That’s enough,” said Phlox. “You’ve made your point. When did you learn of Larkspur’s death?”
“I left Boastre Vino shortly after we escaped,” replied Amaryllis. “I didn’t read about his death in the news until more than a month after it happened.”
“Point of inquiry,” said Onion. “You didn’t answer the question.”
“I apologize,” said Amaryllis. “I did not learn of his death until I read it in the news more than a month after it had happened. Until that point, I was under the impression that I was evading magical detection.” It wasn’t good to make a bald-faced lie in front of the council, especially not when three of your companions had recently been kidnapped and were presumably being pumped for information.
“Point of information,” said Onion. “At this moment I have in custody one Juniper Smith, one Oorang Solace, and one Pallida Sade. Mr. Smith and Miss Solace have testified to your involvement in Larkspur’s death.”
Again there was a roar of conversation from the council, which the vibration mages immediately shut down.
“As a point of order, this is a trial on the charge of desertion by Amaryllis Penndraig,” said Phlox. “Whatever other crimes she is guilty of, they fall outside the purview of this current council session, and likely outside the jurisdiction of the War Council. They will need to be dealt with at a later date.”
“I will naturally be needing a transcript of the interrogation,” said Amaryllis. She felt like ice was running through her veins. “I’ll also need to know the legal basis for the arrest of —”
“The three who were arrested were suspected of crimes against Anglecynn,” Onion replied. “Their arrest is a matter for the kingdom. You’re owed nothing.”
“I am a citizen of the Republic of Miunun, as are the others —” Amaryllis began.
“Your so-called nation is not recognized by Anglecynn,” replied Onion. “Juniper Smith has not made a formal renunciation of his citizenship. The other two claim no citizenship aside from Miunun. This matter was cleared with members of the Intraimperial Council and the Legal Council.”
‘Members’ was a weasel word, meant to be skipped past so that people might think he’d put the matter through the councils, which almost assuredly hadn’t happened. And there was something else he’d said that was almost certainly a slip: neither Pallida nor Solace actually claimed citizenship in Miunun. It wasn’t clear proof that he was full of shit, but Amaryllis’ heart began to soar at the first hint that Juniper wasn’t actually tucked away at a black site somewhere, and that this questioning wasn’t so dire for her as it appeared.
“Reporting testimony secondhand is hearsay,” said Amaryllis. “You’ve removed a dear friend and valuable ally from me, then reported on what he said with no method of confirmation by this council or chance for cross-examination. Given the severity of the accusation leveled against me, and that this is a resolvable matter of fact, I move for the trial to be adjourned until the witness, Juniper Smith, can be produced.”
“Second,” came Lisi’s voice.
“Point of order,” said Phlox. “The revelations and accusations regarding Larkspur are a sideshow, and while it’s clear that we won’t be able to come to a vote on the matter of desertion, we might still be able to drive further to the truth of the matter regarding Amaryllis’ actions and her alleged desertion. With that point established, we can go to a vote.”
Amaryllis would dearly have loved to stall for another day, but the vote didn’t go her way, again by a slim enough margin that it suggested she had more supporters than she would have suspected.
Phlox cleared her throat and straightened her notes, and it was obvious that she was savoring a victory. “With the matter of Larkspur tabled for the time being, I believe, for the purposes of this trial, we need to establish the necessity element of your defense. You may proceed.”
“As I said, I’ve felt elements of duress during my entire time away from Anglecynn, owing to the multiple attempts on my life,” said Amaryllis. “Necessity came when I met two individuals in the course of our travels who each provided overriding concerns, above and beyond a return to Anglecynn and fulfillment of my obligation to the Host. The first was Raven Masters, the last of Uther’s Knights, who came with a prophetic warning. While I had the opportunity to return to Anglecynn then, given that she had taken a role as my protector, we felt that such a return would hamper our group, given both the cost and time required for travel, and the likelihood that I would be detained, possibly even permanently. The first of the directives that Raven gave us was to go to Li’o, where she feared a monster of incredible size and strength would appear. When it did, we needed to be available to kill it, which is precisely what we did.”
“A bold claim,” said Phlox.
“Raven is available,” said Amaryllis. “I can call her as a witness. More definitive proof of what happened in Li’o will be difficult to come by, but there are numerous eyewitnesses to the entad we used, and the aid we provided to the citizens of Li’o, and I don’t believe that this matter of fact is in question.”
“Then your testimony is tabled for the time being so we can call in Raven Masters,” said Phlox.
That wasn’t entirely unanticipated, but Amaryllis didn’t particularly want Raven to be speaking to the council, not when she would have to talk her way around the truth. They exchanged positions smoothly, with Amaryllis returning to the gallery, where she was finally able to drink some water and rest for a moment.
“State your name,” said Phlox.
“Raven Masters,” replied Raven. Unlike Amaryllis, she was in full battle gear, the better to demonstrate her position of privilege and power. Her normally hidden banded armor was in full display, as was her sword, which was a slice of frozen time. She was impressive and imposing, save for her height and age.
“You claim to be the same Raven Masters that served as one of Uther’s Knights five hundred years ago?” asked Phlox.
“I do,” replied Raven. She was looking over the assembled War Council. She seemed bored.
“What have you been doing these past few hundred years?” asked Phlox.
“That’s classified,” said Raven.
“Classified by what authority?” asked Phlox.
“Uther Penndraig,” replied Raven. “And by classifying authorities that must themselves remain classified, for the good of Aerb.”
“How and when did you come to travel with Amaryllis?” asked Phlox.
“That’s also classified,” replied Raven. “All I can say is that after Uther left, it fell to the rest of us to ensure that the world was safe for civilization.”
“Madam Chairwoman, may I have the floor?” asked Bartholomew. He was one of those rare commoners who had married into the family, and one of the even more rare commoners who had been given some measure of rights as nobility by his wife. On matters of legislation, they shared a vote. This was a fairly recent change as far as the Court went, part of an effort to appear more egalitarian, if you considered being able to marry into nobility egalitarian.
“You may,” replied Phlox.
“Miss Masters, what were you doing during the time of the Second Empire?” he asked.
“I don’t think that’s relevant,” replied Raven.
“Of course it is, it speaks to the truth of what you say,” replied Bartholomew. “If you were out saving the world, which accounts for your absence, then what were you up to during the time of tyranny and genocide that was the Second Empire?”
“I was a public figure then,” replied Raven. “I’ve been accused of a lack of action in several of my biographies, which I largely agree with. All I can say in my defense is that I didn’t have the same resources then that I do now.”
“Resources which you will maintain are classified by some nebulous classification authority?” asked Phlox.
“Yes,” replied Raven.
This wasn’t good. Raven was looking like a crank or a liar. She was meant to be bringing the full gravitas of Uther’s legacy to the proceedings, but she was treating the council as though it were beneath her. They simply hadn’t had the time to prepare everything properly beyond the broad strokes that had been in place from the night before, and Raven had very little coaching aside from the outline of the story she was supposed to tell.
“Elaborate,” whispered Amaryllis, using vibration magic to amplify her voice. The intent was to create something like tight-beam communication, but there was still some risk that they would be found out, not that it was strictly against the rules. The biggest risk was that the warders would see the vibration magic, or the vibration mages would feel it, but it was small and subtle magic, hopefully below what they would feel the need to raise an alert about.
“Much of what Uther did was secret,” said Raven. “Some of it was secret because it would have been bold and controversial at the time, and other actions were dangerous simply by their nature, beyond the fear of mass hysteria or rebellion if they were found out. Especially toward the end of his time on Aerb, operating in silence became the norm for us. Anglecynn was his kingdom, but Uther and his Knights were beyond it, tasked not just with the kingdom, but with the First Empire, with Aerb, and with the planes beyond. After Uther left, I tried my best to find him and bring him back from wherever he went, but when I failed, I was adrift. To answer the question about my involvement in the Second Empire, I was a citizen, nothing more. They wanted my endorsement, so they could pretend that there was some element of continuity, but I never gave it. I had some knowledge of what they were doing, both from the propaganda they put out and the things that were whispered to me by people in the know, but I didn’t join the resistance movements. I lived my life. When the Second Empire fell, there were tools and weapons that fell with them, and it was only then that I decided that I really should be honoring his legacy. I took those tools and weapons, some of them immensely dangerous, and used them to keep rogue threats in check, threats that this council cannot know. For that purpose, I sought out Amaryllis and Juniper.”
Amaryllis allowed herself a sigh of relief. Raven still had a look of contempt, but at least the words were more or less right. Amaryllis would have cut out everything that undermined Raven’s position as the actual heir to Uther, but that couldn’t be helped.
“Why those two?” asked Onion. He was eyeing up Raven as though trying to decide how hard it would be to kill her.
“I’ve met a great many Penndraigs over the years,” said Raven. “Of them all, Amaryllis is most like Uther. She has his decisiveness, intellect, and compassion. The only thing she’s lacking is his artistry and grace.” There were faint murmurs following that high praise, which the vibration mages allowed to go.
“And Juniper?” asked Onion.
Raven hesitated. Amaryllis had seen, as soon as Onion said his name, that this would be trouble. Objections from someone outside the council were forbidden though, so she had little choice but to hope that someone would speak up on her behalf. “Juniper is special,” she said. “Uther had the ability to pick up new abilities in a frighteningly short amount of time. Juniper has the same ability, if a bit more limited.”
Amaryllis suppressed a groan. Once Juniper had been brought up, it was necessary to explain him, at least a little bit, she understood that, but Raven could have leaned on similarities to Uther, or a personal connection, or something like that. If people knew about Juniper, they would want to test him, and the nature of his character sheet meant that there were some tests that he couldn’t pass. This testimony meant that people could potentially find weaknesses to dig their fingers into, both literal and metaphorical.
“More bold claims, used to support other bold claims,” said Onion.
“If you have him in a prison somewhere, you should already know he’s making these claims,” Raven replied. “He should be brought forward as a witness, given how heavily he’s involved in this.”
The questioning went on for some time after this, but Raven stonewalled them, primarily because for most of the questions, she would have to reveal the existence of the Infinite Library. In typical fashion, a number of members of the council didn’t seem to accept that there really were things that they weren’t meant to know. Onion had a few pointed questions for her about the Second Empire, but Raven was sticking to the awkward truth, which was that she had friends on both sides of the ideological schism that had happened in the wake of Uther’s disappearance. Some of those friends were instrumental in the founding and operation of the early Second Empire. The digressions were mostly to call into question Raven’s credibility and character, which they weren’t terribly effective at: the Second Empire had left its scars on Aerb, but the zeal against it wasn’t what it once had been.
“I think that’s enough,” said Phlox, twenty minutes later. “If the witness cannot or will not answer, then the rest we’ll get is mostly background or historical curiosity. We’ll now vote on the closing of questioning this witness,” said Phlox.
This proceeded without much further deliberation, and Amaryllis once again stood before the council.
“It was interesting testimony, I will give it that,” said Phlox. “As an argument for necessity, it requires an extraordinary amount of faith in both you and Raven, faith that I personally find somewhat lacking at the moment.” This kind of soap-boxing was skirting the rules of decorum; it wasn’t fit for the chair to extemporize on the issue at hand, especially during a trial. “You said that it came down to two people. Would you like to call your other witness now?”
“No,” replied Amaryllis. “My other witness is Oorang Solace, who is currently being held by Anglecynn for unspecified crimes.”
“And what was her role in keeping you from your duty?” asked Phlox, frowning slightly.
“She found me through a powerful predictive magic,” said Amaryllis. “Once she did, she revealed what she knew to me and swore me to secrecy. Part of the reason that we’d been trying to stay hidden from scrutiny was protecting that secret. It was of vital importance. It’s a secret which Onion by now surely knows.”
Onion was stone-faced. “The princess is surely aware that I can’t speak to matters of national security,” he finally said.
“Solace is the last living druid,” said Amaryllis. “She has, on her person, an entad which contains a locus in its extradimensional space, one which survived the Second Empire. I might be turning her against me by revealing this now, but I fear that if I say nothing, she and the locus might disappear forever.”
Of all of the gambits she was employing today, this one was the most dangerous. It wasn’t clear that Onion actually did have Solace, and revealing the existence of the locus was, of course, likely to make Solace upset. But on balance, this seemed a better path to go down, not just because it enormously complicated and improved her necessity defense, but because it would help to raise her stature as heir to Uther.
Once the vibration mages had quieted everyone down, Phlox spoke.
“Amaryllis has made yet another bold claim,” said Phlox. “This one, however is not a matter of opinion or testimony, but instead, a matter of fact. I propose that Oorang Solace be brought before this council by tomorrow, when this trial can continue. I will stipulate that she be brought with her entads, the better to ascertain the truth of this matter.”
Onion didn’t look happy, but he rarely did. Amaryllis had some hope that this was a sign of dissension in the ranks, or at least a lack of coordination, but she wasn’t going to hold her breath.
After a fair amount of discussion, the vote finally took place, and the War Council decided that it would adjourn, meeting again tomorrow with both Solace and Juniper present before the council to give testimony, to the extent that they were willing to cooperate with the needs of the trial.
It felt like a victory, but Amaryllis wasn’t sure that it would hold. There was one big, obvious question still on her mind: where was Juniper?
She got her answer later that night.