3-13

Al would have loved nothing more than to lay down and let his magic heal him, but he and his two friends were on their way  to the city’s temple of Zayine.  Every jostle bumped his head into the carriage’s wall, since he was still too deep into the Calm to maintain good posture.  It annoyed him, but only in a detached way, as if he were feeling the irritation on behalf on someone else.  Someone who had won a case as a layman, saving Telbarisk’s life.  Someone who had almost died.

Anladet pulled Al’s head gently to her shoulder.  “You can stop your magic, now,” she murmured in his ear.

He gave a higher pitched moan that sounded suspiciously like a whimper.

“Al.  You’re safe.  We’re safe.  If you heal too well, it will look suspicious.  Lawyers can’t heal.”

“He’s using magic?” Telbarisk asked.

Anla nodded her head.  “Al isn’t a lawyer.  He’s a wizard.  We needed to keep that quiet because he could get into a lot of trouble if people found out.”

“He risked a great deal to help me, then.”

“Yes,” she answered.  “For the time being, his name is Dominek Choudril and he is your lawyer.  After we leave Carvek, he will go back to being Alpine Gray and we won’t speak of this again.  Do you understand?”

Telbarisk nodded and sat back to contemplate this while Anla continued to say things softly to Al.

A boy appeared in the window of the carriage, startling all three.  “D’ya need anyt’in’?  Water?  Food?  A blanket?”

After she spoke with Al, she answered, “Water, please.”

A minute later, the boy passed a flask through the bars.  “Take as muchen as ya’d like.  Call down ta us if ya need anyt’in’.”

Anla moved Al aside for the moment and looked out.  The dirt road outside the carriage was filled with people walking alongside.  When they saw her step out, they pointed and waved.  She waved back at them, then nudged Al.  “Come look at this.”

When Al looked outside, the people cheered.  He smiled and waved at them before sitting back in his seat.  “Not everyone liked Akort,” he whispered hoarsely.  After a few moments, he drew himself out of the Calm and closed his eyes for the rest of the journey.

Carvek was a small city, so the ride from Uvarna’s temple to Zayine’s was only a mile or so.  It was also a unique city in that, while only a day and a half’s ride from Hanala, it had not one but four temples, the other two being the smithing temple of Skethik and Iondika’s temple for a number of different skills.

This wound up being a risky but ultimately smart move.  Carvek had more of a focus on skill learning in the four priesthoods and spent a good chunk of resources supporting them.  In turn, they had some of the country’s best hunters, blacksmiths, lawyers, tailors, and most importantly for Al, healers.

Someone must have run a message ahead because two students met the carriage and escorted him inside. Anladet followed, her hands clasped demurely in front of her as she thought a worried wife would appear. Telbarisk acted as a porter and carried their packs inside. Both he and Anladet were asked to wait outside his room, or on the grounds, until they assessed Alpine.

Al was given a rather spacious room.  The late afternoon sun filtered in through both windows, which were shut with a snap by one of the attendants.  A priestess in dark green robes entered and sat next to his bed.

“I understand speaking will be difficult for you.  Just nod or shake your head at my questions, unless I ask you to speak for evaluation.”

She listened to his breathing, watched him as he drank water, asked him to say certain phrases, and spent a long time feeling his neck.  After twenty minutes or so, she opened a hard case on the table under the window and pulled out a few vials.  She poured a few drops into a glass of water, mixed it with a glass rod, and brought it over for him to drink.

“This will stimulate your healing process and reduce any malignant thoughts you have.”

He swallowed.  The water felt ice cold in his throat.  It had a sickly sweet taste that he found almost too much to ingest.  It spread in tiny threads in a fizzing sort of manner, traveling down to his stomach.  Al finished the whole glass after his initial shock and handed it back to her.

“Excellent.  Can you please say the phrase ‘hiking cold glens in Yarma’ slowly?”

He obeyed, finding his voice was gravely but working.

“Splendid,” she said, moving back to the table.  “I will give you a few other regular treatments.  This,” she said, holding up a waxy substance, “is to help keep your muscles from seizing.  This cream will help reduce your bruises.  Herbal tea will be along shortly.  I’d like you to rest for a short time before we try dinner.”

“Thank you,” he rasped before she left.

Zayine priests used a number of medicines, which acted in hopes and high percentages, but any of the goddess-blessed liquid would make them much more potent.  It would also take quite a bit of energy from the patient. Al found himself falling asleep quickly.

He was awake and sipping on his tea when Anla and Telbarisk were finally allowed in to see him.

“How are you feeling?” Anla asked, sitting on the same stool the priestess had used.

“Better.  I think I’ll be good by tomorrow.”

“We’re in no rush,” she said.  “Take your time getting better.”

“I’m a little concerned that they may try to verify my licence.  I doubt it, but it still worries me.”

“Do you think they’ll suspect you were a fake?  You won.  How many people pretend to be a lawyer and actually win a case like that?”

“You have a point,” he said, sipping on the lukewarm tea.  “I think it would take a lot more effort than its worth.”

Anladet spoke.  “Al, Telbarisk and I were talking a great deal while you were in here.  We have a proposal.”  She nodded at Telbarisk.

“If a man saves another man’s life in my home, he is expected to offer one year of service to thank him. I would like to do that for you and Anladet. She told me it was not necessary, but I feel that I can both honor the tradition and follow my purpose by accompanying you.”

“What’s your purpose?” Al asked.

“For the last nine years, Nourabrikot has opened its shores to diplomats from different places.  They speak of their world and how they wish to do business with us.  A diplomat from Merak taught me Ghenian and many other things, but I still don’t understand a lot.  My people understand even less.  Their world is changing and I feel we need to know as much as possible if we can hope to open peaceful trade.  I’ve decided to spend my exile learning about the rest of the world, so that when my punishment has ended, I will return better than I left.”

“That’s a brilliant way to live your life. What a wonderful idea!” Alpine said.  He began to wonder where to start with Telbarisk. Politics, religion, wizardry, food… There were so many things he wished to tell him.

“There is a problem, though. Kouriya sometimes calls to me in compelling ways.  I may follow it and not be able to find you again.”

“Ah,” Al said, putting the tea down on the nightstand.  “I think I see where this is going.  You have no objections?” he asked Anladet.

“None. I think he’ll make a great addition to our…whatever we call ourselves. Team?”

She rummaged through Al’s pack until she found the chalice. She wiped the inside of the bowl out and looked up at Telbarisk, who was giving her a curious look. “Don’t worry. It’s invisible for the moment.”

She poured some of Al’s herbal tea into the bowl, then handed the chalice to Telbarisk. He held it for a moment, moving his fingertips over the surface he couldn’t see. The tea hung suspended in air, a seeming solid that swirled as he moved the cup.

“We need a little blood, too.” She held out a knife she had rummaged from her pack but he declined, biting the inside of his cheek, rubbing it with his thumb, and placing it on the bowl. He adjusted his grip, then took a small sip. He closed his eyes and drank the rest in one gulp.

When he opened his eyes, he saw the goblet in full. He tilted it, examining it from different angles before handing it back to Anladet. “It is a beautiful cup.”

Alpine grinned. “What color are the stones?”

“Red. The cup itself is yellow.”

“Well, it worked.” Al laid back down, fluffing his pillow. “Not that I don’t mind the company, but I’m feeling a little drained still.”

Anladet stood to leave at the same moment Telbarisk spoke. “What does it mean, this thing that I drank.”

“What you drank doesn’t matter. What the chalice does is link people together. For one year you can’t move beyond one mile from either of us. That’s all I know it does, at least. Now, about the sleep?”

Telbarisk nodded and stood. “This is a good thing, I think. I just wanted to know what…”

He was interrupted by a knock at the door. Anla looked at Alpine, then opened the door. A man in a simple uniform, clean and crisp, stood on the other side. “Letter for Mr. Dominek Choudril,” he said.

“I’m his wife, I’ll take that for him,” she said, thanking the man before he left.

“I did not know you were married,” Telbarisk said. “I hope I haven’t intruded on anything.”

Anladet read the letter address as she closed the door. “Oh, we’re not married,” she said. “We’re using it as a cover.”

This worried Telbarisk.  That was the second lie they had told him.

Anladet handed Althe letter. “Do you think you’re in trouble?”

He sat up again to read the letter. “No, I doubt it. If I had been outed, they would have addressed it to me by my wizard name.” He pried the wax seal off the back and noted a few smudges of ink on the brief page. It had either been written by a poor man without the proper tools to dry the ink or written in haste.

“’Dear Dominek Choudril, Esquire,’” he began, then skimmed the letter to relay the highlights. “It seems word got around quickly. In the audience today at the trial was the Count of Carvek, who happened to be attending the church for a scheduled walk-through. He was impressed by my wit and rational thought throughout the trial and wanted a chance to speak with me personally about ‘a general but measured discourse’.” He looked up suddenly. “He’s offering us rooms in his manse for a night if we’d like.”

“That seems very generous. Are we really going to continue the charade, though? You seemed worried earlier about someone checking on your credentials.”

“I know, Anla, but it would be nice to stay. Besides, it would seem rude not to go. Maybe it would even make enemies of someone we don’t want to make enemies of.”

“Yes, but what if the duke heard about it? It would seem awfully difficult to explain to him what happened if we were in front of him again.”

“I know, I know. I understand that. Let’s just stay briefly, just one night, and we’ll move on as quickly as decorum dictates.”

“All right, Al. You can go show off to the count,” she said with a smirk. “Just one night, though, and only after you’re healed enough. Tel and I will be back tomorrow. I’m going to go find us rooms and dinner.”

Telbarisk followed Anladet, waiting until she finished hugging and saying goodbye to Alpine. In that moment, as he stood waiting for Anla, it dawned on him that things moved swiftly around his two new companions. It was almost as if they weren’t the leaves on the river, like everyone else, but the boulders in the stream that the water passed around. And then he understood. He said nothing, thinking it was best to be sure, absolutely sure, before he said something, but he felt very strongly that he was in the company of two hayinfal.

3-12

“Are you finished with your statements, Mr. Choudril?” the judge asked.

“Almost, Fairness,” he said as he turned back to address her. “Just a few more questions.”

“Proceed,” she said, looking a little nonplussed.

“Mr. Blecal, could you enlighten us as to what you hunted last night?”

“Two coyotes, a cougar, a deer, and some fish, for dinner,” he said just as smoothly as everyone else had.

“A nice haul, wouldn’t you say, folks?” The crowd murmured it’s agreement. Akort was shrewd enough to suspect something with the change in Al’s demeanor and narrowed his eyes. “Now, you were out there hunting with your boys, as you call them, your two sons and your friends. You did your fair share, right?”

“Of course!” he said, leaning back.  “My boys are a little young to be wrangling their own kills, but they caught some fish. Everyone else killed their own. I got the cougar.”

“Good job,” Alpine said, smiling at Akort. “Very impressive. And, I assume that when you shot the cougar, you let someone else finish it off? Like you said when we spoke earlier, quick slice across the throat?”

“Hell, no!” Akort said. “A man takes care of his own kill! All the way through! You shoot, you kill, you skin. That’s the rules.”

“Oh!  I see.  That makes sense.  You’ll have to forgive the questioning, Mr. Blecal.  I’m from the city and I’ve never been hunting before.  I don’t know all the steps and protocol.”

“You should come out with us sometime.  There are still loads of vermin out there needing to get killed.” He turned to face Telbarisk and looked at him for a few long moments.  Thinking he was being kind, Telbarisk grinned again and Akort frowned.

“That’s really kind of you.  I might take you up on that.  Maybe daytime hunting, though?  I would think hunting at night would be hard.”

Akort shrugged.  “Not when you get good at it.  I could shoot an acorn off the top of a milkweed stalk without one tuft of dander falling.”

“That’s amazing!” Al said. “You can get that precision from a bow and arrow?”

Akort was about to boast when the judge cleared her throat.  Al held up one finger and then linked his first fingers and his thumbs together in a promise.  “I expect you could, then,” he said, turning to face Akort.  “Whereabouts were you hunting and fishing?”

“Not too far away. We went west, where the woods are thickest. We fished on Oskil Lake first, then went night hunting.”

“I see. And how was it out there? Was the weather good? Did it rain?” He heard the judge sigh loudly and ignored her.

“Oh, no, it was good for us. A bit humid and muddy on account of the rain the last few days, but no rain.”

“And, one more time, quickly go over what happened since you left last night?”

“What, you want me to say all the stuff we talked about? Danik is having some girl troubles, so we did his hair in braids and told him how pretty he was.” The audience laughed.

“Just the highlights, please.” He couldn’t help but put his hands behind his back and put on an intent look as he waited for Akort to speak.

“We left yesterday afternoon. We fished on Oskil Lake, then went hunting at night in the forest west of Wiyok. Then, we came into town from the woods and I went right to the mayor’s house for our meeting.”

“And when did you change your clothes?”

“I didn’t,” Akort said. His smile dropped.

“Interesting. So, you go fishing, get your boots all muddy, get your clothes all bloody from killing a cougar and skinning it, then somehow miraculously walk to the mayor’s house freshly shaved with clean boots, an unstained shirt, and no bug bites to itch?”

“I…” Akort said. To his friend’s credit, they stopped itching their bites and looked at their leader.

“What I think happened,” Alpine plowed on, “was that you didn’t go fishing or hunting last night. You may have gone into the woods with your friends, to keep up appearances, in case anyone saw you, but you slipped around and came back to town. You waited for the mayor to return home from work, snuck up on him in his drawing room, stabbed him several times in the back with your hunting knife. Then you went back home, changed your clothes, slept in your bed, then got up early this morning in your clean clothes, and walked to the mayor’s house for your ‘meeting’. Once you arrived, you made sure the mayor was still dead, and left the house with some cockamamie tale about a ‘tall man’ running away from the scene. Or maybe you changed it when you saw a grivven walking in to town. People wouldn’t remember. They’d just know that someone killed the mayor and you said you saw him running from the mayor’s house. How does that sound, Akort?”

Akort had lost all color in his face. He said nothing, working his jaw like a caught fish on land while he looked between the judge and Alpine. The crowd was so quiet he could hear the faint sound of the wind through the trees on the other side of the walls.

“Fairness,” he said, turning to see her eyes wild with thought, “I would like to change my position from defendant to prosecutor.”

“Granted,” she said in a breathy voice.

It was the coin finally landing on the other side. It was now up to Akort to defend his position or else the court would automatically pin the crime on him. “You ask my boys!” he said, finally finding his voice. “They’ll tell you I was with them!”

“I remind you,” Alpine said, addressing the group of men, “that you’re under oath. Uvarna isn’t a goddess to trifle with. If you lie now, you risk Her wrath.”

None of them said a word. One even caught Akort’s gaze and mouthed the word “sorry”.

“I just forgot to mention I changed my clothes before going to my meeting,” he said quietly.

“Mr. Blecal,” the judge said, “that still wouldn’t explain your lack of insect bites. Do you have an alibi as to where you were between the hours of midnight and seven this morning?”

“My wife! She’s here.  Tell them, sweetling.  Come on up.”

A thin wisp of a woman stood and quickly took a seat next to her husband, not looking at anyone.  Her brows were furrowed and she was taking in shallow breaths.  “He…he was with me all night.”

“And where were you?” Al asked.

“At home.”

“Ma’am,” Al began.  “I’m going to remind you that you’re speaking under oath.  Uvarna watches all cases and judges not just the accused, but everyone involved.” She refused to look at him.  “I understand your oaths of marriage hold you to speak on his behalf, but if they aren’t true, you are free to go against him.”

She hugged herself, rocking back and forth a few times.  When Akort rubbed her back, she flinched and bolted back to her seat in the audience.

“Ma’am?  Do you still hold to his alibi?”

When no response came, the judge nudged her.  “Mrs. Blecal, was your husband with you the full time last night?”

She shook her head vigorously and started taking shallow breaths again.

“Mr. Choudril, would you please address the Needs of Alteration?”

Al froze.  Needs of Alteration? He had heard that before, somewhere, in one of the books he had read.  It took him a few moments to think of the story, then remember what had happened.  He cleared his throat and turned to address the court.  “As prosecutor, I declare Telbarisk of Nourabrikot innocent and accuse Akort Blecal of Wiyok, Sharka guilty of the murder of Magen Layock of Wiyok, Sharka.  He has no alibi for the time.  His motive is political gains.”

Al watched the court to see their reactions.  Most seemed shocked or animated, speaking with their neighbors in hushed tones.  A few were looking beyond Al with their eyes widened.  When he turned to see what they were looking at, he almost bumped into Akort, whose face was red.

“You couldn’t have stayed out of it!” he said, his teeth clenched as he wrapped his hands around Al’s neck. “You could have left without doing anything!”

Al began clawing at Akort’s neck, tapping into the Unease instinctively. But Akort’s fingers were latched around his neck too tightly. Al began walking forward, hoping to do something to throw Akort off balance.

They wound up walking back to the benches below the judge.  Al slammed the man against the wall, whom he saw was standing in alarm. Al’s eyes were starting to spot in the middle when two guards tried yanking Akort’s arms. Al tried gasping for breath, fearing his windpipe was crushed from the force. It wouldn’t matter if they got Akort off of him; he still wouldn’t be able to breath.

Al slammed him into the wall again and again, but it was only his back that hit. He twisted, then brought his knee up and launched it into Akort’s groin. Finally, he felt the pressure around his neck release.

He was on the ground, gasping, with Anla next to him. “Al, breathe. You can do it!”

He couldn’t.  He was in far too much pain to tap into the Calm.

“Al,” she whispered, “can I use my magic on you?”

He would have agreed to having her slice his throat open. He was paupered of air, starved of it, straining to fill a void so basic he had never considered it before that moment. He kicked his heels and bucked, trying to nod his head. She whispered, “Aall, I want you to relax and reach your mmagicc.”

The Calm came with such an intense, but soft rush that he almost blacked out from it.  He couldn’t repair all the damage,but just enough that he could breathe again. When it finally came it was so sweet, so euphoric he thought he’d forever bless every breath he took.

She held his head with her arms. “Is there anything I can do for him?” Telbarisk asked.

Anla shook her head. “He just needs time.”

He nodded in response and let her move his head to her lap as he lay down.

Telbarisk sat next to them and watched as the court simultaneously left the three of them alone while yearning to speak with them. The judge was the first to break the silence.

“Is he okay?” she asked Anladet.

“I think so. He’s able to breath, but just barely.”

“Your husband did a magnificent job,” she said. “I’d like to apologize on behalf of the court and Uvarna for what transpired. Mr. Blecal does not represent the fine people of Sharka. I want you to know that a carriage is waiting outside to take him to a temple of Zayine whenever you feel ready to move.” She stood to leave, then ducked down again. “Uvarna thanks you for your service, barrister. You are dismissed.”

He looked up at Anla and grinned.

3-11

“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.

3-10

Al and Anla had changed quickly into appropriate clothing, he into trousers and a nicer shirt and Anla into a high-collared, white blouse and long skirt, all courtesy of the duke.  Then they walked to the end of the hallway and out into the court. It was open air with dozens of long benches that curved slightly to face a raised dais.  The ground was grassed, though paths in between the benches and areas where people’s feet were when they sat were ground to dirt.  Only a few people were sitting.  Most were holding conversations, including several key people they needed to interview.

“What would you like me to do?” Anla asked.

“You’ll take notes,” he said.  “Normally you’d just assist me that way, but I want you to speak up whenever you have a question.  Don’t undermine my authority; ask for clarifications or repeat something I should speak more about with the witnesses.  Our main adversary will be Akort.  If you can think of anything to throw him off without making me look bad, please do.”

Akort was leaning against the wall below the dais.  He wasn’t what many would call well-kempt, but he was clean and freshly shaven. His dark blond hair had the tangled look of a man who had won the final battle against a barber when he was ten. His clothes were simple, like the way most of the country folk in attendance were dressed. He wore brown trousers that reached past his ankles, patched and stitched several times. His boots were also brown with mismatched laces. His white shirt, at least, looked very presentable and without a stain on it.

“Well, if it isn’t the fancy lawyer from up north,” he said, grinning as they approached.

Alpine shook his hand and remembered to give his fake name and introduced Anladet as his wife and his impromptu secretary. Akort looked her up and down slowly, then grinned at Al.  “I’m speaking with certain people to get a feel for the possibilities with this case. You have the most information out of anyone here. I was wondering if you’d like to answer a few questions?”

“And what happens if I say ‘no’?” he asked, still giving a very toothy grin.

Al took a deep breath. “I get less information and my case may depend on it.” Akort held his smile until Al said, “Of course, it reflects poorly upon you. Since there is no prosecutor in this case, it’s up to the judge to make a fair ruling. And you know how these judges get sometimes when procedures don’t go as smoothly as they’d like.”

Akort soured. “There’s not much else I can tell ya.”

“Well, first off, why were you meeting with the mayor so early in the morning?”

“None of yer…” he started, then took a deep breath and gave a feral smile. “The mayor and I were planning to talk about hunting rights around town. When we could hunt certain animals, where we could hunt.”

“And when you say ‘we’ you mean…?”

“Me and ma boys. My two sons, Syke and Forca, and a few of my buddies. Really, though, I mean all the townsfolk who need to hunt to live. We actually went huntin’ last night, all night, and called it early this morning so that I could come back and have the meeting with the mayor.”

“What were you hunting?”

“Some of the critters are getting’ out of hand. We’ve had problems with wolves, coyotes, and paw-paws. We bagged us two coyotes, a cougar, and a deer. Oh, and some catfish. We went fishin’ before we went huntin’ so that we didn’t have to bring a bunch o’ food with us.”

“Then you came back at, what, dawn? You then headed over to the mayor’s house where you found him dead. Can you tell me what you saw?”

His plastered smile faltered. “I’m not sure what you mean.”

“Start with his house. Was the front door open, unlocked, or locked? The back door? Were any windows broken?”

“Uh,” Akort said, scratching his head, “the front door was closed, so was the back. I didn’t see any broken windows.”

I’m going to tuck that away for later, Alpine thought. “And the scene of the horrific act? Which room did you find the mayor? Where was he stabbed on his person? How many times?”

“Sir, the man is dead. I find it distasteful to talk about the mayor with such disrespect.”

Akort spoke with such vehemence that it not only took Al by surprise, but caused him to lose his composure. He was swayed for a moment, forgetting his faux professionalism, wanting this man to like him for some reason. Then, he remembered he was fighting for someone else. “I understand. I expect the mayor was a beloved man in Wiyok. But he is dead and his killer is still loose.”

“His killer,” he spat, “is in jail, where he should be until he is hung.”

“Hanged,” Alpine corrected. “Animals are hung, men are hanged.”

“I got it right the first time,” he said.

Akort was being especially difficult with this question. Alpine was unsure why. Was he really that fond of the mayor? Maybe he had a weak constitution and didn’t want to conjure up the memory of the scene. Al guessed that someone who went hunting regularly would have a stronger stomach and dismissed the excuse.

No, it was more likely that, as Al was beginning to suspect, this was their man and he hadn’t been expecting so many questions. Kill the mayor, blame it on someone defenseless, and get everything he wanted from the situation. Al was going to have to be subtle with this man.

He watched as Akort gave a very pleasant smile to Anla.  She returned it by biting her lip and looking away, hugging the clipboard and paper close to her chest.

Al cleared his throat. “You said it was a tall man who stabbed Mayor Layock. I’d expect to see any wound on the upper party of the mayor’s body. Is this true?”

Akort thought for a moment. “Yes, many wounds on his shoulders. He was lying face down, all of his blood already spilled.”

“And he was cold to the touch?”

“Yes,” the man answered, shifting his weight.

“And which room was this and it’s relation to the front door?”

“His drawing room, I gather. It was the first room to the left, off the hallway.”

“So, you entered the drawing room, saw the mayor face down on the floor, and checked to see if he was alive. Then what?”

“I left the room, then saw that straw man leaving out the back door.”

“You can see clearly from the front to the back door?”

Akort answered ‘yes’, but he looked doubtful. Al understood he was both a man who never admitted he was wrong and had a strong need to prove his own case.

“Then what did you do afterwards?”

“I ran out to his nearest neighbor, the Franlis, and we walked into town. Dr. Abina made his way back to the mayor’s house to check on him.”

Alpine was at the end of his questions. He waited until Anladet finished writing the conversation and handed it over to Akort. “Please sign at the bottom if you feel the conversation is accurate.”

He shoved it back into Al’s hand. “I’m not signin’ nothin’ unless I…”

“Oh,” Anladet said softly, causing him to pause as he looked at her, “I did all that for nothing?  I thought you said it was going to help.”

“Well, since we didn’t get much, dear, I don’t see how any of that will help us.”

Anla stepped closer to Akort.  “I mean, since it’s not going to help things, it wouldn’t hurt to sign it.  Just right here.”

Akort stepped closer to Anla so that they were touching shoulders.  “Sign where?” he asked, reaching over her arm to grab the pen from her right hand.  After scribbling his name at the bottom of the page, he returned the pen to her hand.  Before stepping away, he brushed her hair off her shoulder and said, “You are far too pretty to be his wife.”

Al grabbed Anla’s arm and led her away while Akort chuckled.  “I said not to undermine my authority,” he hissed.  “You just made me look like a fool.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, shaking off his arm.  “He was flirting with me.  I used it to get him to sign the form.  I’m sorry your pride was injured.”

He pretended to look around for other witnesses, taking deep breaths all the while.  “I should point out that his testimony is littered with lies,” she said. “The house information especially. I think the only truly honest thing he said was his sons’ names.”

“At least we’re on the right track,” he muttered, letting his anger go.  He took her notepad and flipped it to the last page, jotting down several notes. “Nothing we can do about it. We’ll need to prove it without any sort of magic. We’ll need to check-up on a few things that might be inconsistent. Let’s see if we can find Dr. Abina, the Franlis, and at least one of Akort’s ‘boys’, as he calls them.”

Dr. Abina, paunch, aged, and looking like he could use a stiff drink, did little more than confirm what Akort said. The mayor had been stabbed in the shoulders, though more correctly in between the shoulder blades. One of the wounds had likely punctured his heart or an artery. He had bled out quickly and hadn’t fought against his assailant. The doctor had noted the body was at room temperature and was stiff.

The Franlis could only agree with Akort’s testimony. “We saw him arrive early in the morning,” Mr. Franli said. “I guess he was having a meeting with the mayor.”

“Odd time of day for that,” Mrs. Franli said. “Magen owns a tavern in town. He’s rarely up before late morning.”

“So, you’re saying it’s unlikely he would have made a meeting for a time when he wouldn’t be up?” Al asked.

“I’m surprised he made a meeting with Akort at all. Those two have been fighting for years.”

“Oh? About what?” he asked as Mr. Franli tried shushing her.

“Everything. Layock has been mayor since Akort was born and Akort is a bad seed. Always getting into trouble, fighting with the other boys, pulling pranks. It only got worse as he got older, only instead of throwing rotten fruit at the mayor’s house, he’d threaten him. Him and his gang have caused all sorts of mayhem over the years: starting a fire in the mayor’s tavern, getting’ into fights with merchants, chasing bards and troubadours out of town with their words.”

“I see,” Al said, “thank you kindly for your help.”

“It seems like the past is painting something fairly interesting,” Anladet said to him when they were out of earshot.

“Indeed. Let’s see if the recent past holds up.”

They walked over to a group of men that Alpine was sure were Akort’s boys by the glares they were shooting him. They were grimy and dirt stained, their boots covered in mud. Each of them intermittently scratched at a number of bites on their arms.

“You’re the reason we’re not home right now,” one of them said.

Al ignored him. “I’ve already spoken with Akort about giving an accurate testimony. He agreed and even signed this,” he said, pointing to the pages Anladet held up. “If you don’t cooperate, it will look badly for your boss.”

“What do you want to know?” one of them asked.

“Akort’s alibi was he was with you guys last night and this morning up until his meeting. Is this true?”

“Yes,” said the man to the left. “We were out hunting and fishing.”

“What did you guys get?”

“A cougar, a deer, and two coyotes,” he said smoothly.

Al tried not to show his disappointment at the confirmation.  He had hoped to find an inconsistency, since he didn’t feel Akort had actually been out hunting.  “What time did you leave yesterday and what time did you arrive this morning?”

“We met by Akort’s house with our fishing poles, bows and arrows, and knives.”

“Knives?” Alpine asked.

“Yeah, how else are you going to finish a cougar? You sneak up on them when they’re down and slice their throats.”

“All right. And what time did you arrive this morning?”

“Must have been early, after dawn, but before most of the businesses opened. We all went right to the mayor’s house after we came out of the woods.”

Al couldn’t think of anything more to ask at the moment, so he had the man who answered his questions sign the testimony and walked away with Anladet. He sat down at a bench specifically for the defense lawyer and began moving his ankle over his other knee.

“This is going to be tricky,” he said to Anladet.

“How? Akort’s side is flimsy. There’s no real proof, other than his word, that Telbarisk killed the mayor.”

“You know the saying ‘a copper always lands on a side’? It’s the same with Uvarnic law. The goddess is extremely fair, parting things right down the middle for as long as She can, but in the end there has to be a guilty party. Since our grivven friend stands accused, if I can’t prove that someone else did it, he goes to the gallows. And I’m not quite sure I can pull this off.”

3-9

While Telbarisk and Anla had held pleasant conversations in Elvish, Al had been thinking about the case.  He was pleased to say that the grivven was innocent.  It seemed unfathomable that someone so foreign to these lands would waltz into a small town, murder a man, and have the cunning to sneak around to the opposite entrance to walk through.  In fact, someone who did the last wouldn’t be cunning at all. Telbarisk could have run north and be well away from Wiyok before a posse could gather.  He seemed too smart to do such a thing.

His whole demeanor told Al he was innocent, too.  Al knew that he couldn’t use a gut feeling or anecdotes in court- there was a liar somewhere in this circus- but it went a long way to making him feel like he was doing the right thing.  Why would a man feign innocence on a murder, but admit to another with shame?

Finally, after a few hours, the wagon stopped, the chains removed, and the doors flung open.  Al winced at the bright light and held an arm up to shield his eyes.  He clomped down the stairs and lent an arm to Anla as he looked around.

They were in the small city of Carvek and in front of a wide building with the sign of Uvarna: a feather encircled with a chain done in grays and reds. Alpine noted that there were no gallows on the premises, or else there would be a set of fangs on either side of the signet. At least if he failed they had a sporting chance to rescue Telbarisk from the jail before he was executed.

The street was filled with people.  Around the wagon was a small crowd of people, including the two magistrates who had tried to hang Telbarisk earlier.  Most looked wary from the travel.  Those that met his eyes frowned or looked away after narrowing their eyes.  He told himself that he wasn’t going to make friends nor be popular today, whether he won the case or not.

A jailer from the temple met them and shackled Telbarisk, this time with metal manacles linked with ornamental chains that were wavy instead of straight. Alpine stayed to the grivven’s right side. There were at least few lawyeral procedures he knew offhand.

“We’re going to go inside,” he said to Telbarisk as they walked up the stairs, “and you’ll be placed in a cell while Anladet and I gather as much information as possible. Then, if there are no other trials, yours will start in an hour or two. You’ll sit quietly until someone asks you a series of questions. Answer them truthfully and briefly. Do you understand?”

Telbarisk nodded as they entered the building. It was two stories high and set flush with the street. Tel was taken left and down a set of stairs while Anla and Al walked forward down a hallway. Their soft-soled shoes were the only ones that didn’t echo on the richly tiled floor.

They were escorted to a room to the right. It was small, albeit important in its function. Here, Al would report to the case and offer his services to Telbarisk, on behalf of the goddess Uvarna. Before them was a robed clerk who sat behind a desk.

“Name?” the clerk asked and Al already found himself in trouble. Only wizards were given a natural given name with a color surname combination. In fact, it was illegal to give your child a forename that involved something involving the outdoors. It was a way for wizards to differentiate themselves immediately from the regular population. And to gain respect, Alpine had realized sometime recently. He couldn’t give his wizard name.

He cleared his throat. “Dominek Choudril.”

“And you’re licensed to practice law in Sharka?”

“No. My license holds in Quisset only.”

The clerk looked up and over her spectacles. “Then we cannot proceed unless you have your license with you.”

“I’m on vacation with my wife,” he said, gesturing to Anladet. “I have none of my documents, notes, research, or books with me.” When the clerk frowned and sat back at her desk, Al put a little pressure on her. “I’m taking the case as pro bono. My wife is already upset that I’m cutting into our travel time. If you’d prefer I step down and allow one of the clergy to take over as my client’s representation, I’d feel it was in Her divine grace and would feel very grateful.”

The clerk’s eyes darted back and forth as she thought about this. It would have to be someone, now that the wheels were in motion, and whomever it was did not please the clerk. “I suppose if you could give me the name of your practice, your city, and your sponsor, if you’re still under moderation, than that would be sufficient.”

“Clathem, Choudril, and Simmers in Condreyin. I’m fully licensed.”

She rose and passed him a very thin folder. “Here is the docket of information we have about your case.” Inside was just one handwritten page. “Your trial begins in one hour.”

“I don’t suppose we could have a delay due to the recent nature of the events?”

“One hour,” she repeated.

One hour was a pitiful amount of time to prepare. He didn’t show his disappointment that the trial wasn’t delayed, though, for it would look unprofessional. In fact, he had to admire the efficiency of the situation even though it didn’t benefit him.

He took the page and was escorted by the clerk to the defense lawyer’s personal room a few hallways down. When they were alone, Anladet looked at Alpine. “Dominek Choudril?”

He looked around the room dramatically.  “It’s my birth name.”

“Br’vanese?”

“Yes, actually.  My grandparents on both sides were from there.  Now, let me read this.  The deceased, Myr. Magen Layock of Wiyok, Sharka, was found deceased in his home this morning by Mr. Akort Blecal, who had a meeting scheduled with the mayor.‘ A meeting early in the morning, in the mayor’s house, on a Monday? That’s odd.”

“Maybe the mayor is a busy man?” Anla offered.

“Seems like something to keep in mind. ‘Mr. Blecal claims to have seen a tall man leaving the mayor’s house, running into the woods behind his property. He later identified the accused as the man he saw.‘ That doesn’t seem concrete enough. He claims a man with one feature is the culprit and points out someone who happens to fit that one description. That could have been just about anyone.”

Anla folded her arms on top of the desk and sank her head slightly. “So, the man who found the mayor dead, a murdered mayor, just so happens to be the one person who can identify the killer? Gosh, how convenient for this Akort guy.”

“Yes, I think he’s going to be the first person I’d like to talk to.” Alpine flipped over the paper, then turned it back. “It was too much to hope that someone jotted some notes as to how Layock was found.”

“That I don’t understand. What does it matter? He’s dead. He was stabbed.”

“Well, walk yourself through the crime as if you were the killer. Say our mayor is of average height, a few inches taller than me. You want to kill him and you only have a knife to do so. What would you do?”

Anladet rubbed her lips with her two joined pointer fingers. “I would sneak up and stab him in the back?”

“Yes, good. If he was stabbed in the front, especially a lower thrust into his digestive area, it would indicate the killer knew the person. As the culprit, you’d want to surprise your victim and keep them unsuspecting as long as you can. You can tell a lot about how a man died by how many times he was stabbed and where and if there are any errant cuts elsewhere. Did the victim struggle with the culprit? Was it a crime of passion or was it planned?”

“Um, Al?  Would you be upset if I offered some thoughts on the matter?”

He put the paper down.  “Actually, I would love a different perspective.  Neither of us have any experience with this.  I learned some law in the base curriculum at Amandorlam, but it’s not nearly enough to win this case.  We’re partners.”

“Thank you,” she said, smiling.  “So, you just said that someone who knows the mayor would stab him in the front, but someone who doesn’t would stab him in the back.  I don’t think that’s going to help us either way.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Well, our prime suspect so far is Akort.  He was having a meeting with the mayor and was likely the last person to see him alive.  Is that intimate or not?  Would someone like that stab from the front or the back?”

“That’s a good point,” he said, leaning back in his chair.  “You need a lot more information before it becomes something tangible.  When was the mayor stabbed?  Where in the house?  What was he doing?  Those are all valuable missing pieces.  Akort could have been having a nice conversation with Layock when he suddenly stabbed him.  Or he may have snuck up on him in the middle of the night.”

Anla took one of the pieces of paper and the fountain pen on the desk and began writing down all the questions.  “What else do we need to do?”

“Well, we can explain how someone killed the mayor for days, but if we don’t explain why, then we lose.  It’s called a ‘motive’, the reason why he was killed.  Could be anger, could be jealousy, but usually there’s some trail that leads you back to why it happened.”

“Any ideas?”

He shook his head.  “Too early to tell.  I bet they’ll be some small town politics involved.”

“Okay, so motive and information about the murder.  Anything else?”

“I think praying will help,” he said, smiling weakly.

“Al, have some confidence.  You’re the man who convinced the Duke of Sharka that we didn’t kidnap his daughter and to pay us the reward when he didn’t want to.”

“One small victory.  All the books I’ve read and classes I’ve taken aren’t going to help me out.  I don’t think I have the instincts it takes to solve things on my feet.  It’s one thing to win debates in a classroom and another to win an actual legal case.  I just hope I don’t get him killed.”

Anla placed her hands over his right.  “Telbarisk and I talked a lot about kouriya on the way over.  I can assure you that he has all of his faith in you.  And I know you’re brilliant.  I believe you’ll solve this.”

“Thank you,” he said, rising from his seat.  “I’ll feel better once we start interviewing people.  Let’s go.”