The Chief Justice’s voice was smooth and clipped, the verdict immediately followed by two quick raps of his gavel. Their echoes rang throughout the room, reverberating off of the polished obsidian walls and looming, stern-faced statues. Thereafter fell a somber silence, save for the sobs of the condemned (punctuated by fervent pleas for mercy and compassion) and the quiet snores of Justice Pomponius, sinking ever lower into his swollen armchair. Finally the guards regained some sense of propriety and began to drag the fair-faced lad out of the chamber. He struggled at first, ‘til one of the men—looking bored—reached across and broke two of the boy’s fingers. Afterwards he was led meekly out, the ornate black Doors of Departure swinging smoothly shut as if to beckon the hapless victim to his fate beyond.
Justice Hadriana kneaded her brows together and sighed. The day was not off to a promising start.
On her left Justice Crispus coughed loudly and leaned over. “I don’t see,” he muttered, in what was clearly meant to be a conspiratorial whisper, “quite why that business was so grim. After all, it’s only a foot. We’ve all got two of them.”
Hadriana resisted the urge to grind her teeth. “He’s a peasant, Crispus. He spends his days out in the grain fields while we sit indoors and talk about how hot the grain fields are. He needs to be able to stand upright: otherwise he can’t work, and if he can’t work he has to beg. A farm boy like that panhandling on the streets of the Capital—we might as well save some time and toss him into the canal ourselves.”
Crispus nodded sagely and made a show of mulling over her words. Then, “I suppose if he wasn’t a peasant he could probably afford one of those…” He gestured to her seat. “What do you call them…wheeled chairs?” A smirk stole across his face. “Maybe you should see if you’ve got a spare sitting around.”
She’d be lying if she said she hadn’t expected remarks, irritating little pissant that he was. And it was irritating. Six consecutive cases sorting through traffic violations, a double burglary conviction with a veritable mound of paperwork, their third amputation sentencing of the day, and now Crispus was trying to be funny. This was why she hated sitting on the end of the bench.
Behind her, her slave kept shifting her weight from one sandaled foot to the other. Lengthy trials seemed to make her restless; she could feel her dark fingers drumming a poised rhythm into the wooden handles of her chair. They were sending tiny, multiplying flickers of pain through her swollen legs, but she didn’t overly mind. The throbbing helped to distract her from Crispus’s unrelenting tedium.
“Bring in the next one,” called the Chief Justice, and Hadriana relaxed into the ebb and flow of the court.
* * *
“A word, my dear?”
Her eyes flew open. She was always the last to leave after the day’s trials. Several of her colleagues assumed she was trying to avoid the scrutiny and foot traffic of the end-of-day departure from the Hall of Order. Others, she knew, liked to theorize that—even with her condition—a woman could not stand to see any room left unclean. Hadriana let them believe what they wanted. Truthfully she enjoyed just being in the courtroom, experiencing its near-majestic stillness once the hustle and bustle of Gracian justice had died down. She had certainly never expected for someone else to be waiting with her, least of all the Chief Justice himself.
Felix Festus was close to forty, yet (as the court criers were fond of pointing out) he didn’t look a day over thirty. His teeth, polished and crisp, could transform into a winning smile at a moment’s notice, and his lustrous black hair was pared down to the finest edge. Every part of his appearance was strictly tailored, as if he’d crawled from his mother’s womb donned in lavender silks and violet velvets. His ascendancy from third-circuit chariot clerk to Capital Prosecutor to Chief Justice of the Republic of Gracia had been nothing short of meteoric. Though Hadriana had rarely spoken to him, she knew him to be clever, determined, and with an arresting knack for commanding the attention of the court. And there was no denying his charms either—although Hadriana, nearing fifty-three, had always considered herself beyond his notice.
“In private, if you please,” said the Chief Justice, motioning dismissively to her slave.
“No need,” she said at once. “I bought the girl recently. She is Mudanese, and was sold to me properly trained. Her previous master removed her tongue, and she cannot read or write.”
“All the same,” he replied, watching the dark-skinned girl closely. “She still has ears, and my words are not meant for hers.”
She nodded and patted her slave, who gave them each a rigid curtsy and left the room. The Chief Justice’s piercing eyes stayed fixed on a carving of paladins until she had gone, whereupon he turned back to examine Hadriana once more.
“It is a great pleasure to speak with you at long last. I’ve wanted to meet you for some time, but…the usual affairs of justice have contrived to eclipse personal pursuits. At what foul point in history did the High Court’s duties descend into doldrums?” He did not wait for an answer. “I have long admired you, Hadriana. You share little of your secrets with the rest of the world, and to those you do not value you speak even less. In the three years since I have been elected, you have done naught but watch the innocent and the guilty trickle by. But your wisdom, shrewdness, and ambition have not gone unnoticed. Oh yes—” he continued, for here Hadriana’s eyebrows had reached their apex, “—for a woman, gout-afflicted and widowed, to be named a Justice of the Republic? That requires no small measure of resourcefulness.
“Fortunately,” here he paused and glanced around the room, “a matter has arisen which requires an individual of your precise caliber. It must remain between us, of course. Consider it of the utmost discretion. But there is no one I would rather trust with its completion—and by doing so, you would find yourself extremely advantaged in your own endeavors. The favor of a Chief Justice is not granted lightly.”
He extended a hand and regarded her closely. “Do we have an accord?”
After a moment of consideration, she reached across the desk and took it. “We do. Thank you, Chief Justice.”
He smiled warmly. “Please, call me Felix.”
* * *
“Ah, Hadriana!” cried the Justice as she wheeled herself into his office. Normally she would have been content to delegate that task to the slave girl, but Julius was famous for his near-fanatical hatred of the Mudanese. They said he had lost a brother to the fighting in their country. They also said he had lost a battalion, a wife, and a son while serving there, so she didn’t take any of the rumors too seriously. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“Just some new business for us to go over,” she said briskly. “Recent affairs cropping up that require your attention. I hope I’m not interrupting anything?”
Julius waved her inside impatiently. “Not at all, not at all! Just composing a speech about the national spirit of the Republic. Praise the Makers, I’m lucky enough to get all my best ideas pacing around this room.” He gestured inelegantly to the office at large.
Hadriana had never seen a peacock, but she knew that if she did she would expect it to look like Julius. Today the man was attired in an ostentatious blue uniform with matching white gloves and a blood-red sash, festooned with his usual array of impressive medals. His silvered mustache was oiled, curled, and groomed to a minute degree. A heavy latch-and-pull crossbow occupied a rack behind his oaken desk. The walls especially were covered with trophies: skulls from creatures that she couldn’t identify, chariot-racing awards, swords and sabers and daggers of every variety. No patch of obsidian was left bare; Crispus had been there once before and deemed it “Overcompensation to the extreme.”
“To…preserve…and protect…our great…nation’s…history…” Julius muttered to himself. Then without warning, he plopped himself into his intricately carved wooden chair and picked up a goblet of wine. “Right, then. What was it you needed taken care of?”
Hadriana folded her hands neatly. “I have reason to believe that Justice Morlux is selling state and military secrets to foreign countries.”
Julius nearly spilled his drink. Spluttering and coughing, he regarded her with newly wide and wary eyes. “Do you have any evidence to support this theory?”
She shook her head.
“Then consider it outlandish and without merit. Morlux and his office are staunch supporters of the Republic of Gracia and its military. Why, I’d say just this past year his contributions comprised about a fifth of defense spending. A whole fifth! Man like that—nay, a patriot like that—would have no reason to go supplying our nation’s enemies.”
Hadriana chose not to argue the logic of that remark. “But you must wonder where that wealth comes from, Julius. Think about the amount that we earn every year. Think about how much Morlux is able to spend on Gracia’s armies. Something doesn’t add up.”
He looked at her suspiciously. “Hadriana, Morlux has a great deal of friends in the financial district. And he’s careful about where he spends his money. We can’t all gallivant around buying the latest in foreign fashions, or exported scents and spices, or—”
“—or doctors?” she finished sweetly. Julius did not respond, choosing instead to fiddle with a groove in one of his larger medals. She sighed and spun her chair around to wheel herself out. She’d laid her cards on the table, and Julius had scattered them—as she’d expected. At least the lines of battle were clearly drawn now.
“You’ll drop this if you know what’s good for you!” he called out suddenly. Hadriana ignored him and continued to wheel into the hallway. She wasn’t in a very talkative mood (her legs were flaring up again), and she had other legal business to attend to. The rest of the burglary paperwork, a fresh stack of expired horse permits, new updates on the killer rumored to be stalking the Capital’s sewers…
She was so preoccupied with her thoughts that she nearly ran into the crooked, angular man waiting outside Julius’s office. The apology almost left her mouth before she realized who it was: Justice Morlux, attired all in a moth-eaten green, wrinkled with crags and sallow-faced. He looked down at her with an expression of utter disdain. “Excuse me, Justice,” he snapped, and stalked into Julius’s office like an oversized, moldy vulture. The door slammed shut behind him.
It looked as if Morlux would be hearing about her inquiries even sooner than she’d thought.
* * *
Lavinius had agreed to meet her in a bathhouse, of all places. The slave girl had wrinkled her nose upon approaching, undoubtedly due to the overlapping layers of sweat, dirt, and male musk that emanated from its marble exterior. Nonetheless they had pressed onward, past rising trails of steam and scores of naked patrons—most of whom were either hairy old men or children who looked as if they would rather be anywhere else. Now Hadriana sat face to face with perhaps her least favorite of the High Court’s justices. A round-bellied man of indistinguishable age, Pollux Lavinius greeted her with an insincere smile and a wet peck on the cheek. His skin was hairless and smooth, from his toes to his scalp, and he seemed to ooze a perpetual aura of greasiness in both presence and word. Here was the sort of creature who would never agree to anything unless there was something else to be gained—and that was on generous days, when one something was all he wanted.
“I must say, my dear, I was delighted when your messenger arrived,” simpered Lavinius. He bowed almost patronizingly to her slave, on legs that seemed much too thin to support his bulk. “It seemed like so much time had passed since we last spoke, and indeed there is so much for us to talk about.” He lowered his voice and beckoned her closer. “Did you hear that someone has been investigating rumors of corruption amongst one of the Justices? Whoever could be behind such an intrepid scheme, hmm?”
Hadriana stared daggers at Lavinius, who sniffed. “Oh, it seems I’ve touched a nerve. I merely wondered whether I might be the recipient of such attentions. Not that I have anything to hide, of course. It’s just that so much effort goes into such an affair, and I fear I have too little time for myself as it is. What with the constant demands my work entails—”
“Your predilections are not my immediate concern, Lavinius, as you well know,” she said shortly. “Now, enough with the games. I’d rather not stay here one moment more than necessary. I have a favor to ask you.”
His expression changed to one of delight, and he rubbed his hands together. “Wonderful, my dear, simply wonderful. And what might I be able to do for you?”
Hadriana shrugged. “Precisely that. A favor for a favor. I haven’t decided when or where it’ll be, but I know I’m going to need one. You help me, and someday I’ll help you in return.”
Lavinius tut-tutted and shook his head. “Oh no, my sweet, that simply won’t do, as deliciously tempting of an idea it is. One general nonspecific favor is—after all—a very tall order. I am not without a certain fondness for you, however, so I believe we can strike a bargain. Here is what I propose: answer me one question, in addition to the exchange of favors, and we have a deal—and answer it honestly, if you please.”
She gritted her teeth. With Lavinius, a single question was no small matter…but the heat and the humidity were suffusing her legs with waves of agony. The sooner she left this accursed building, the better. “One question,” she heard herself reply.
Lavinius smiled. “Your former husband, the…ahem…rather late Justice Aurelius…” Twenty-five years a widow and the name still lingered on. “An…associate of mine informed me that the cause of death was blunt force trauma; rather different from the cholera the criers reported at the time, yes?” She was surprised he had learned that much. She’d tried her best to keep the true nature of the disaster out of the public eye. “How exactly did your husband die, my dear? I am ever so curious.”
She stared into the waters of the bath. “We’d been arguing about something trivial. Something to do with a tiger-skin rug, or maybe it was leopard-skin—I can’t really remember. He was angry, and he slammed his fist into the side of the wall. A Kefkian vase on the mantle above fell and struck him on the head. He was killed almost instantly.” She sniffed. “Tragic, really. Especially since the vase had broken as well…if only it had been a pot, or something less fragile.”
* * *
She was alone on her balcony when Cato arrived. Dressed in a plain gray robe and leaning on his usual stick of cherry, he greeted her with a nod and sat almost immediately. She inclined her head in deference. “Justice Cato? Thank you for your presence. May I say what a pleasant surprise it is to welcome you to—”
“I’ve noticed what you’re up to,” he said brusquely.
For a second she considered feigning innocence, but the grim lines etched in his face quashed that impulse. “And? Do you have an opinion?”
“I do,” he said, tapping a rhythm out on the stones and watching the birds pass. “I want no part in it. And don’t bother asking me for favors, or offering me gifts, or trying to intimidate me. I make my own choices and I stand by them.”
“I understand,” she said, regarding him with a certain measure of curiosity. “And I had no intention of bothering you. Something I’m sure you know. So why come at all?”
For a long while he did not speak. Then, “I have fought in three wars. One to increase the Republic’s wealth, though we were told it was to defend ourselves from the Venegalian hordes. One to feed the ambition of up-jumped consuls who wanted to carve some territory out of the Orient. And one to take the Mudanese as slaves so they could repair the damage from the last two wars. In that time, I have seen friends die in ways that I could not have envisioned in my worst nightmares. I have seen men inflict every manner of pain on men that there is to inflict, at times out of nothing more than boredom. I have seen horrors beyond counting, and in sixty-three years I have seen no evidence that there are Makers. Certainly I have seen nothing of justice.” He stared at her—no, through her. “Do you think your games matter to me? That the politics and double-dealings matter?” He spread his hands, extending to the very skies around them. “Do you think that any of this will end up mattering in the end?”
Cato did not wait for a reply, rising from his place and stalking out the balcony door. It was the most he had ever said to her. She did not speak until her slave came to push her to bed.
* * *
Hadriana was generally good at predicting how the other eight Justices would vote. Easiest of all to gauge was Balbus, who would stutter and whine and spill ink on his papers before following the Chief Justice as he always did. Crispus was a fool who would make fruitless attempts to divine the minds of his fellows, then go along with whatever the majority decided. She had nearly laughed out loud the last time he’d referred to himself as “a master manipulator.” Pomponius was rarely ever awake long enough to add his voice to the fray. But Cato…Cato was troubling. The man had little care for the opinions of the court, and would cast his votes regardless of the political consequences. If all went as planned, however, and the other meetings had been as successful as she believed, then his support would not be necessary. First, of course, they would need some form of evidence.
“Next,” called Felix. The Doors of Departure opened, to the roar of what appeared to be quite a substantial crowd. Instantly Hadriana noticed several of her peers straighten up in their seats. A dozen guards entered, all fully armed and armored, looking much more attentive than usual. And they were flanking her very own slave, the Mudanese girl, bruised and bleeding and bound hand and foot in thick iron chains. She had not been present this morning, forcing Hadriana to send for one of the others. Now she knew why.
The prosecutor stepped forward. “Justices of the High Court of the Republic of Gracia, this slave was discovered last night trespassing in the garden of the esteemed Justice Morlux. She was arrested carrying documents of a personal and sensitive nature, all of which were stolen from the Justice’s possession. They have been confiscated and returned. She claims that they are evidence of his corruption.” Here he laughed, and the High Court laughed with him. All but Hadriana and Felix, who shared quick looks of concern. The Chief Justice leaned forward and the hubbub of the Hall died down.
“She ‘claims?’” said Felix. “It was my understanding that most Mudanese slaves were not only mute, but illiterate. Is she even capable of such intelligence?”
The prosecutor cleared his throat. “Under…duress, the girl has demonstrated the ability to write simple words. She is as intelligent as can be expected from a slave, and certainly capable of committing crimes. Furthermore,” and here he stopped for dramatic effect, “she claims to serve Justice Hadriana. Her testimony suggests that the Justice sent her there with the express purpose of uncovering Morlux’s treason.”
The room erupted. Hadriana’s protests and Morlux’s angry shouts fell on deaf ears. It took three bangs of Felix’s gavel before the room could quiet down.
“This matter seems to involve two Justices,” began Felix, “and in my opinion would be best settled outside of the High Court. Morlux, Hadriana, perhaps we should adjourn for a moment—”
“Unfortunate as it seems, Chief Justice,” crooned Lavinius, “I must remind you that the law is the law. This matter has already been brought before the High Court, and thus it must be dealt with in the Hall of Order. It must be decided in plain sight, without the privacy of a secluded backroom or the secrecy of a nighttime walk. Unfortunate, yes, but—”
“Very well,” said the Chief Justice, seeming resigned at last to the inevitability of events. “Justices, what say you?”
Morlux was out of his chair before Felix had even finished speaking. “This wretch was found trespassing on my property and breaking into my home, with my personal possessions on her person,” he snarled. “Perhaps she was intending to distribute them on the black market, or use them as some form of extortion. Perhaps Justice Hadriana seeks to discredit me. But I think it more likely that she is a spy sent here from Mudan, her purpose to infiltrate and undermine the noble workings of our Capital. She is cunning, deceitful, and no doubt without scruples. In short, the opposite of everything our great Republic strives to represent.” Morlux looked down his hooked nose at her and spat. “I denounce this traitor, and consider her guilty on all counts. If the rest of you have any sense you’ll do the same.”
“Seconded!” barked Julius, making the girl jump. He appeared to be so enraged that his mustache was curling in on itself. “That a Mudanese commoner would impugn upon the honor of a Gracian citizen, and actually dare to steal from a Justice! Utterly appalling!”
“Silence,” called Felix, and Julius fell quiet. “Morlux has not yet seated himself. Allow your peers their proper turns to speak, Julius.” The pair exchanged looks and Morlux scowled, before taking his place and shooting a vicious look across the bench at Hadriana.
A sudden wheezing noise drew the room’s attention. Pomponius was not only awake but actively trying to rise out of his cushions. He struggled in vain for what seemed like a minute, before finally settling for a propped position against two of the larger pillows. Then, in between fits of coughing and gasping breaths, he began to speak. His voice was barely audible, however, and Balbus had to lean in to translate.
“He’s saying sh-shameful…no respect f-for the law…d-dishonorable…guilty! H-he says guilty!” Pomponius plopped back into his seat, looking immensely satisfied, and feebly flagged down one of the servants carrying a plate of fresh olives.
Hadriana rang the bell on her desk, and the Hall of Order fell silent. Now was the time to cast her vote. The instant she had witnessed the girl enter the courtroom, her calculations had begun: in this case, Morlux and Julius were easy assumptions. She honestly hadn’t expected Pomponius to speak up, but that was a minor setback. If they found the girl innocent, the documents would be hers by right—and Morlux would have to produce them. With Lavinius in her corner and Felix already backing her (bringing Balbus as well), that meant four to three—and Crispus, never one to be on the losing side, would join them. It wouldn’t even matter how Cato voted; the trial would come to a close, and Morlux would face swift retribution for his crimes. Simple, effective, and efficient.
Or it would have been, if she hadn’t already seen the jaws of the trap snapping shut.
“My fellow Justices,” Hadriana called, and this time her voice rang throughout the Hall of Order. Felix nodded encouragingly. “If you please, I wish for you to understand the full extent of my dealings with the prisoner before us. And in this way, I hope that I might regain the full extent of your trust and support.” Her gaze swept the room. “This girl, for a brief period of time, was a servant of my house. She assisted me with the day-to-day hardships of my life; she fed me, bathed me, clothed me and helped to carry out my affairs. I grew to value her and rely on her—I will admit that I trusted her. Indeed, I hoped that one day she might gain a place as a proud citizen of our beloved Republic.”
She paused to allow the gasps and whispers to die down. “But the actions I have witnessed today do not inspire trust. And they do not inspire pride. I have nothing but gratitude for Justice Morlux for opening my eyes to this treachery. My goodwill has been met with nothing but base savagery from this…this foreign mudder.” She took a deep breath, steadied her aching legs—and rose, to the general astonishment of the room. “I see no alternative but to declare her unequivocally and irrevocably guilty. I strip her of any connection to my house. May the Makers have mercy on her twisted, blackened soul.” She collapsed back into her chair, breathing heavily, and—for a long moment—no one dared to speak.
What followed was nothing short of chaos. Roars of approval from the mob of surging onlookers were met by the banging and clattering of spears as the courtroom guards called for order. The clerks were frantically bustling amongst themselves, while a few were wildly scribbling on scrolls of parchment. Julius was banging his fist on the desk and calling for a full-scale invasion of Mudan. One of the servants had dropped a pile of grapes, and now dozens of tiny spheres were being scattered along the bench to leave reddish stains on the floor tiles. The stenographer had knocked over a flailing Pomponius in his rush to record her speech, and Balbus appeared to have fainted. Crispus merely gaped at her, slack-jawed, and Lavinius looked like he’d just taken a blow to the head. Even the slave girl was shouting, screaming curses without words and struggling against her bonds to reach the woman who had condemned her. But Hadriana only had eyes for Felix, and the expression of ugly anger etched on his face. He wore a look of absolute fury that only confirmed her suspicions: Morlux had merely been the bait. It seemed the trap was not meant for him after all.
* * *
Once order had been restored in the Hall, the verdict was all but decided. Lavinius had recovered quickly enough from the shock and added his voice to hers (“A favor for a favor,” he had been quick to remind her afterwards). Julius had stamped his foot and urged the court to serve traditional Gracian justice. And Felix had voted guilty—as she had known he would—prompting Balbus and Crispus to follow suit. In the end only Cato voted for innocence, though whether for merciful or contrarian reasons he did not say. The girl had flung herself before the Chief Justice after the sentencing, and the guards had been forced to drag her from the courtroom kicking and wailing. Hadriana had not thought that a girl with no tongue could make so much noise, yet she could not fault her for trying. The punishment for stealing was merely death, but the punishment for stealing from a Justice? Not that she faulted her for the betrayal, either. Truthfully, it was hard to cast blame on anyone once the Doors of Departure had closed on them.
“Impressive,” came the voice, and this time she knew he was telling the truth. The Chief Justice was standing taut before her, hands tightly gripping the desk, gleaming teeth locked in a rictus of rage. “Disappointing, but impressive all the same. I almost admire your abilities. If it wasn’t for your illness and…defects, Justice, I might even respect you.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Am I to understand that we are no longer on a first name basis?”
He ignored this. “You should know that I offered her freedom. No coins or jewels or meaningless trinkets, just a chance to start over: that was all she wished for when I asked her to plant that evidence in Morlux’s garden. She was going to work a ship, to ride the waves and smell the salt, and return to Mudan again. She wanted to see the ocean.”
Hadriana laughed. “And you would have honored your agreement by throwing her in the canal.”
He ignored this as well. “When did you know?”
“From the first. Morlux’s dealings are no secret to the court, and acting as if they were was foolish. Perhaps if you’d been here a bit longer you might have realized that.” There it was, marvelous: she could just make out a single vein, pulsing splendidly in his sculpted brow. Felix leaned closer and lowered his voice to a barely audible growl.
“Do you really consider this to be a victory? I am the Chief Justice of the Republic, in case you’ve forgotten, and I have half the court on my side and the other half in my pocket. Whereas you…you’re an aging, decrepit piece of Gracia’s past, from a foolish time when old men would let whatever crippled cow they were bedding have a place on the bench. You are a relic, as much a disease as the gout riddling your infirm body.”
“And you’re afraid, Felix” she murmured back, equally soft. “Otherwise you wouldn’t have put all this time and effort into dragging my name through the muck. Which is exactly what would have happened if Lavinius and I had joined Cato, and voted to release her.” She favored him with a rare smile. “Although no doubt you had Lavinius ‘in your pocket’ as well. It’s what I would have done. But I understand your fears, and believe me, I sympathize.” For some reason Felix’s face kept morphing into her husband’s right at the moment of his passing, frozen in a mask of anguish and terror. “Sometimes I scare myself too.”
She examined her fingernails, just as clean and manicured as the Chief Justice’s bared teeth. A lock of his dark hair was falling out of place. “I believe that concludes our discussion, Felix. It’s best you depart with some dignity. We wouldn’t want a piece of Kafkian pottery to fall on your head, would we?” She locked eyes with him, blue to pale blue. “It does seem to be a rather common occurrence.”
The look on his face was almost worth her momentary lapse of restraint. Felix turned on his heel and swept out furiously, smoothing his hair back as he went. The Doors of Departure swung shut behind him, and Hadriana found herself once again in the tranquil silence of the remnants of the High Court. Alone, save for her ambitions and her doubts. Alone once again. And she realized rather suddenly that she did not find that to be a troubling feeling.