“Al, calm down,” Anladet said quietly.

Alpine was not only bouncing his foot, he was now constantly wiping his hands on his trousers. “I can’t. This is the hard part for me. If I know I have to get in front of people, I start to get antsy. It’s much better when I can run into something without preparation.”

“I know, but you look obviously nervous.  People have been watching you.  If you look like you don’t have a case, it will only make it harder for you to get respect.”  She had learned to fake confidence as a piscarin rather quickly.

“What do you suggest?”

“Could you channel it? Maybe use some magic?”

He shook his head.  ”I could tap into the Unease and make you feel better, but it doesn’t work for me.  Not unless I was a Cycler, and those wizards are extremely rare.”  He bounced his leg again, then put it flat on the ground.  “Could you distract me with a story?  Something funny or riveting?”

“I remember some fairy tales from Arvonne that my father would tell me…”

“I’ve probably heard all of them.  I have several books at home.  How about what your father told you about Arvonne?  Where was he from?”

“He was from Tapenstri, along the southwest coast.”

“Ah, where the Watcher Lady legend is from.”

Anla nodded.  “Yes.  He claims to have seen her.  That’s why he became a doctor.  He said he and his friends went to the coast late one night on a lark.  He caught sight of her and the lady whispered in his ears that he was meant to…well, it translates a little funny, but…’bring into the world that which heals something greater than men, not here but across the sea’.  His friends told him he fainted and was very dazed when he awoke.”

“Interesting.  I actually didn’t know Caudet was responsible for prophecies.  Did he ever do it?”

“No,” she said.  “He died before ever making a breakthrough.”

Al was about to apologize for the events when he saw the judge walk out and take her seat on the dais, followed by a few assistants. She was young, perhaps his age, with blonde, curly hair and brown eyes. He wouldn’t have called her attractive, since her round face pinched her features a little too much, but she was fair enough to look at without staring. He rose and approached her dais.

“You may address me,” she said.

“Fairness, my name is Dominek Choudril. I am a lawyer acting as barrister for Telbarisk of Ervaskin, the accused. I practice law in Condreyin, Quisset at Clathem, Choudril, and Simmers.”

She gave him an odd look. “I suppose they do law a little differently up in Quisset. I’ll have to keep that in mind.  You are accepted as barrister for this case.”

“Of course, Fairness.” He summoned Anladet with the pages and handed them over for her to look over.

After she skimmed the pages, she handed it to her assistant on her right. “Bring the accused in,” she directed a bailiff.

Telbarisk looked the same as he had an hour ago. This relieved Alpine, who had read several times about “backroom justice” where jailers tended to have their way with the accused before trial.

The crowd quieted down as he walked down the aisle. He was seated next to Alpine to the right of the judge. The defendant’s side, as well as the plaintiff’s, were just benches with their backs against the wall. Akort was the only one on the plaintiff’s side. They all faced the rather large crowd of people from Wiyak, curious people from Carvek, and students of Uvarna, who sat robed in the rear of the auditorium.

The judge read out the facts agreed upon by as many parties as possible. The mayor was dead. He had been stabbed with a knife in the shoulders sometime that morning in his home. “We have at least two versions of events from that point,” she said. “Mr. Telbarisk is accused by Mr. Blecal of being at the scene of the crime when Mr. Blecal arrived. Is this correct, sir?”

“It is, Fairness,” he said.

“Other than his presence, what makes you think he did it?”

Alpine was as surprised as Akort was that the judge was favoring Telbarisk. “Fairness, there was no one else in the house when I arrived. If it wasn’t him, who was it?”

Al realized when she moved on quickly that she wasn’t siding with Telbarisk, she was just clarifying. “The accused, Mr. Telbarisk, claims he wasn’t in town at the time of the murder. Is this correct?”

“Yes,” Tel said, then added, “Fairness” when Alpine prompted him to. “I was walking into town this morning when I saw a crowd of angry people.”

“I’d like to point out that this is on the other end of town from the mayor’s house,” Al added.

“Noted,” the judge said. “Can anyone confirm the accused’s location during the events?”

The audience murmured for a few moments, but no one spoke up. Either they had their own reasons not to say anything or Telbarisk was unlucky and no one who had seen him was in the audience. Both testimonies were what the system called “untethered”, meaning they only relied on their own existence for proof. Neither was strong, but Akort’s was still stronger for having been first. Al needed to punch enough holes into Akort’s testimony to prove he had lied and to revoke it.

“Defense, you may begin,” the judge prompted.

“Thank you, Fairness,” Al said, rising. “Uh, I think, having spoken to many people, many fine townsfolk of Wiyok, who I’m sure are being quite honest in their testimonies, that it would be better to pursue a different line of thought, if that’s okay with you, Fairness.”

“Proceed,” she answered a little dryly.

“Thank you. It is my duty today to prove that my client, Telbarisk, did not kill Mayor Layock. Unfortunately, since he is in a disadvantaged position, it is difficult for me, for anyone, to prove he did not commit the murder of the mayor. He is traveling alone with no connections in this land, unsure of the customs, what he’s doing right or wrong, to us at least.”

“Why, do straw men kill people?” one of Akort’s boys asked from the front row.

“No. I mean, they do, just like we do, but…”

“Has he killed someone before?” asked Akort. “He looks like a killer. Have you, straw man?”

Before Alpine could counsel Telbarisk to stay quiet, he answered, “A man died.”

“Ah! So he has killed before! What’s to say he didn’t kill again? I mean, I’ve heard that once you kill, it gets easier.”

The crowd began to murmur. “What I mean to say,” Al began, waiting for the crowd to calm down. “What I mean to say is, it is unlikely he killed someone and we are prejudging him unfairly because he’s different and new and not one of us.”

“It doesn’t matter if he’s short, tall, or talks funny, if he did it, he did it. And I saw him run from the house,” Akort said.

“Did you see him run from the house or someone else like him?”

“And where the hell do we find someone else that tall?” he answered to some laughter.

“Language,” the judge said and Akort bowed his head in apology.

“I’m just making sure because you said you saw a tall man run out the back of the house, but then you said the back door was closed.” He looked at Anladet, who smiled encouragingly. “You also said there was a large pool of blood under the mayor and he was cold when you checked him. How many killers would stay around for, what was it you estimated, Dr. Abina? A quarter to half a day? Why would he wait around for hours and hours, run when someone caught him, then close the door behind him as he ran?”

Akort’s eyes widened for a moment, then he eased into a sly and relaxed expression. “I don’t know what went through his mind. Like you said, he doesn’t know what’s right or wrong to us. Maybe he thought to stay after he killed the mayor, then ran when he saw me, but he wanted to be polite and closed the door?” The audience laughed at him again.

Al felt like he had just played a hand of hearts against a hand of spades in Hierarchy. He should have won the crowd over, but Akort had parried back smoothly against his strongest attack. Al decided to hit low. “And why didn’t you run after him? Chase him down and bring him to justice?”

Akort snorted. “Look at the man. Would you want to chase him down?”

Alpine turned slowly and appraised Telbarisk. “He’s tall, sure, but other than that he doesn’t seem that frightening to me. Are you a frightening man, Telbarisk?”

Tel looked at him curiously at first, then gave a wide but forced smile. The crowd laughed. “See. Rather friendly, I think.”

“Let’s see how you react when you find your mayor, a man you’ve know your whole life, brutally murdered in his home. Then you see a straw man running away.  It was like out of a nightmare!  All I could think to do was to get help. Maybe, and I’m ashamed to say this, maybe I was a little frightened to take him on on my own, without any weapon. Clearly he could have overpowered me and he had a knife. I mean, the mayor was already dead. I was thinking about the living, me, at that point.”

Al was beginning to understand how such a mischievous, nay malevolent, man had survived in a small town for so long without punishment. He was quite charismatic and clever, too. He understood how to get people to do what he wanted. Al had underestimated Akort.

“Yes, I think we can all say that, faced with danger, we’d rather run away. It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Alpine said, which was exactly the opposite of what he hoped people would feel about Akort. “Now, I have a question about your meeting. You say you and the mayor were meeting about hunting rights. You decided to go hunting the night before, knowing you’d be out in the woods and would need to return early to have this meeting. Does that sound wise?”

Akort shrugged. “I don’t know. I didn’t pick the time.”

“Really?” Al asked. “The mayor, a man who owns a tavern, someone it’s known doesn’t rise until late morning picked, oh, seven o’clock in the morning for a meeting?”

“Well, now that you mention it, sure. It sounds a bit odd. I’m thinking it’s because his tavern hasn’t been doing so good lately.”

“Would that be because you and your boys are driving the business away?”

Akort gave a dry laugh. “Once in a great while, we get out of hand. Sure, we do. But, not enough to chase business away. I’ve heard nasty rumors lately from the townsfolk about our beloved mayor. I won’t go repeating them. I don’t like to speak ill of the dead.”

“Probably not necessary anyway,” Alpine said. He was sweating. “So, we have a man attending a meeting with someone he doesn’t like at a time that doesn’t make sense, coming across a dead body far too gone to be recently killed, and who sees a very polite grivven who’s waited around for someone to catch him so he can run away after shutting the door behind him. This sound about right, Mr. Blecal?”

“Look, I’m not saying things make total sense. We have a strange man hanging around town, killing people. That’s odd enough. But I know what I saw and I saw him,” Akort said, pointing at Telbarisk, “running away from the house that had a dead body in it. Seems suspicious enough for me.”

Al paused, trying to drum up some more things to throw at Akort. That was it. He was about to turn and dismiss himself, when Anla got his attention. She had scribbled one word on her notepad, deep and dark,  and was holding it up for him to see.

“SHOES” it read.

Al looked down at his feet, then back at her with a confused look. She pointed to Akort, then over to the area where most of his group was sitting.

Then, it dawned on him. He mouthed the words “thank you” and grinned.

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