“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.
“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.