The public galleries were silent as they were led in, and Iaondrin could see when she turned her head to glance up the tiers of seats, she could see that a number of Aihv’ guards had distributed themselves throughout the crowds. The Councillors had already assembled at the curved table, and in the lower area encompassed by its arc stood the three priests. The cleric of Otori, Roya, was a stout woman with short hair and a pair of spectacles perched at the end of her nose, while the Sa’iph noble, Speranze, was slender, dark-haired, and lovely. In the center stood the last, Tomas Vanek, and Iaondrin almost tripped when she saw how tall he was.
Vermillion was impressed that they could get the people around the room to be that quiet. Through the door first, he paused and scanned everywhere quickly, then let Iaondrin step past him, followed her down the aisle. He raised his eyebrows at the sight of the tall priest. He’s taller’n Broc, he thought in amazement.
Iaondrin stopped when Gilford did, and turned her eyes to focus solely on the Chamberlain. What the Chamberlain asked was all that mattered. She kept repeating that to herself as the woman, standing one step above her, tapped her staff on the floor three times to call the Council officially into session. Gilford said something after that, but she caught only every third word over the pounding of her heart. Pay attention to him once the questioning starts, she told herself. Right now, all she could tell was that someone on the Council had mentioned something about heads, and Gilford had submitted, “respectfully to this august body” that the issue was not one to be presented to her that day.
Vermillion sent his gaze around the room, keeping an eye out for threats to his Lady. He did his best to appear to ignore the Council, as if what they said had nothing to do with him. After Gilford gave his answer, one of the Councillors said, “Not her. Him.” Vermillion waited a few seconds before deciding to realize they were talking about him.
“Who? Me? What was the question?”
“Could you please tell us how the heads of four men found their way above the inside of the front doors of this fortress?” someone asked.
“I -,” he paused, looking in the general direction of the questioner. “Did you want to hire the Nightsong Guild to test your security? Help you plug up any holes? I’m sure I can arrange it.”
“Young man, are you telling us that you had nothing to do with breaking into the Aihv’ and placing the heads above the doors?” from the other end of the table.
“Are you accusing me of that?” Vermillion asked with raised eyebrows. “Master Gilford, is there a recompense that gets paid or punishment to be served if someone makes a false or unsupported accusation against another either here or in the League?”
Iaondrin stared at him for a moment, and then forced herself to look away. Behind them, a murmur ran through the galleries. Four heads above the door? she wondered. Just the heads? Next to her, Gilford shifted and folded his hands in front of himself, but the Chamberlain answered first. “One could lodge a complaint for defamation for statements made outside the Council. But statement made while in session are not subject to such a complaint.” She did not address the second part of his question, regarding false accusations made within the League.
Tallentire sighed heavily, drawing attention to himself. “We should not let ourselves become distracted by a side-show,” he said dismissively. “We have three distinguished clerics here to test the truth of certain claims that have been lodged against the A’nari. Let us get on with it. I, for one, have several bottles of the Vanek red waiting for me. Councillor Oberuc, you were so anxious to proceed, to prove you case – then let’s have at it.”
The Councillor from Halveet nodded in agreement. “Other issues can wait until another time. Madam Chamberlain, if you please?”
The woman turned to look at the entire Council, making certain all were prepared to proceed, and then turned back.”Iaondrin Shal A’nari, daughter of Euricio Shal A’nari and Lillias A’nari, initiate of the patterns of the A’nari Keep, do you submit to interrogation before the High Council?” Iaondrin swallowed, and nodded. “Then step forward, so that the three chosen may bear witness.”
She stepped closer to the tall priest from Yarrick, and kept her eyes straight ahead. At the same time, she saw the three guards move with her, to step closer to the priests. Ellinden So’s Evandin slid his longsword from the sheath first and assumed a stance that would allow him to slice at the Sa’iph priestess’s neck.
Vanek didn’t even seem to notice the guards threatening him, neither did he Vermillion as he stepped with Iaondrin, hand on his sword. Valkor’s Heirarch made the supplications and called on Valkor to allow him to find justice by hearing any falsehoods spoken. When he was done, he smiled calmly and nodded for Iaondrin to move on. The two priestesses cast the spells that had been agreed upon beforehand also, and then Iaondrin was back where she started, watching the Chamberlain, Vermillion at her left elbow wondering how long it would be before they actually asked her a question that had to do with the charges against her.
Iaondrin’s shoulders twitched as she felt the clerics’ invocations settle over her and take effect. The Chamberlain waited until all three had stepped aside, and then tapped the staff again. “Iaondrin Shal A’nari,” the woman spoke, “have you traveled among the Clunne?”
Iaondrin released her breath slowly before answering. She stayed focused on the Chamberlain, but could see from the corner of her eye that a number of the Councillors had sat forward to listen intently. “Yes.” No one seemed to react to that response, perhaps because many from the League had done so. That was followed with questions about how often she had been to Clun.
“What was your purpose for staying among the Clunne?” She didn’t like that one, and the glances some of the League Councillors gave one another worried her. Iaondrin stopped, turning the question over in her mind, and in that moment of hesitation Gilford cleared his throat, as if he had recognized her need to buy time to think. My only surviving family member is there, she might have said, and the thought of giving that response made her tremble. “A clarification of the question, please,” Gilford said smoothly.
Vermillion had to fight the urge to reach for Iaondrin’s hand. All he could do was stand there and glance around the room looking for trouble, glaring outwardly at the helplessness he was feeling inside. From time to time, he would clench his jaw, or his fist, visibly force himself to relax before starting the cycle all over again.
At the table, Oberuc snorted in derision. “What is unclear about that question, barrister? It could not be more straight-forward – why did she go there? What was her motive? What held her there?”
Vanek stood stolidly off to one side, listening for lies in her answers and hearing none. He hadn’t expected to, really. Some people thought they could bluff their way through one of these, but they were always found out in the end. He watched her guard, trying to calm his agitation, and wondered if he had done for the heads. Excessive, he hoped the man didn’t make a habit of things like that. Perhaps Valkor could help him.
When the Lady A’nari’s pause grew longer and they sought legal clarification, the tall priest pondered what had made her pause. Ah yes. Her cousin. The League was trying to get her to talk about her cousin so they could ask more questions about him. Vanek grimaced at the tactic, that wasn’t why she was here, but her counselor seemed to be handling it well.
“First, the question presupposes a fact that has not yet been established – that she ‘stayed’ among the Clun for any meaningful period of time,” Gilford parried. “Second, on which occasion? The Lady already has testified that she has traveled south several times. That, by itself, means nothing. Why, there are countless members of the League who have made such journeys -“
“And been attacked by the Clunne!” someone called from one end of the table.
“Or were treated as guests,” Gilford added. “Finally, her reasons for traveling there are irrelevant, unless she acted in some way that was … improper.”
“By Otori’s teats,” Davron Tallas snapped irritably. It had not been a good day. Forced to wake early and listen to interminable discussions on the minutiae of legal proceedings was torture. He didn’t see what Ankarra saw in it. Then, whatever bird they were serving for lunch had been overcooked. Worse, he had stubbed his toe on his favorite chair, and it was still throbbing. That he had ordered his people to destroy the offending chair and was now without a favorite chair only exacerbated the situation. “What was her longest stay among the barbarians? Did she do anything improper?” Tallas just wanted to go back to bed.
The Chamberlain looked at the Council, waiting to see if anyone would protest the questions offered. Before she could speak, though, Iaondrin interrupted. “What do you mean by ‘improper’?” Was that even a legal term? she wondered. “Why don’t you just ask me whether I did what you think I did?” she looked to Oberuc. “Or do you already know the answer, and you don’t want me to give it?”
“They have no witnesses that place you among the Clunne,” Vermillion reminded her with the barest of murmurs, just one among the many rippling through the hall at her outburst. Inwardly, he was cheering that this was finally out in the open, and relieved that Iaondrin had stood up to the bully.
Standing near the Shal priestess, Speranze, Ellinden So’s Oathbound, Manton, glanced at the Lady of Sutton. Ellinden’s face was unreadable, but he knew she was not pleased by the outburst. The girl had not given Allenel Gilford the opportunity take control – again, as with the day before, she had leapt in before he could use the debate about what was “proper” or “improper” to direct the inquiry where he wanted. They were an impetuous pair, the A’nari and her guard … though the bit with the heads actually amused Manton, even if it had annoyed Ellinden. The man knew something about how to use spectacle as a warning.
The Chamberlain tapped the butt end of the staff against the floor, drawing Iaondrin’s glare back to her. “You speak only to me, Lady A’nari.”
That’s all they want, Vanek realized, seeing the defiance and annoyance in Lady A’nari and the release of tension in her guard as if they had finally come to where they wanted to be.
“Councillor Tallas hits on the key point,” Tallentire said with a yawn. “So let us cut out the heart … I mean, get to the heart of the matter. Madam Chamberlain, I propose that we move to the key questions of the inquiry, and skip all the nonsense about why the Lady was there. Perhaps she heard that the Clunne are especially renowned for their sexual prowess …” He trailed off and looked at Iaondrin. “Was that it? Perhaps I should consider my own sojourn there.” A round of laughter passed through the public galleries. “Ah, well, that is a discussion for another time, I suppose.” He flashed a wide smile, playing to the crowd.
“I second the proposal,” Councillor Ankarra added, after the sounds of amusement had died down. Specific claims had been made about the A’nari, and she shared Tallas’s and Tallentire’s impatience to test the truth of those.
“And which proposal of mine might that be?” Tallentire asked with a leer. Ankarra just blinked at him in her bookish way, and ignored the comment. The Chamberlain did as well, and looked along the table to count the nods from the other members of the Council.
“Then so be it. Iaondrin Shal A’nari, have you raised hand or weapon or weaving against any League caravans traveling through the lands of the Clunne?”
Vermillion found himself holding his breath, wondering if there were some possible way they could misconstrue “No.”
Celadra found herself tensing. Not because she thought the Lady A’nari was guilty of anything, but because it was impossible to tell what would happen with so many hanging on the outcome, for good or ill.
Davron Tallas hoped they had kept his room warm. And made tea.
Iaondrin took a deep breath and tried to stay calm. Oberuc and some of the others were not happy about the shift in questioning, and that pleased her. Wherever they had thought to go, to try to probe what she knew of Morgan’s activities, that avenue of questions had been cut off. “I have not.”
“Have you supported the Clunne through funds, scrying or other aid, in their efforts against the League?”
“I have not.”
There was a pause as the three clerics considered what their spells told them about her truthfulness. Finally, Roya – the priestess of Otori – turned to look at the Council, then to direct her eyes to Oberuc himself. “She does not lie.”
Vanek didn’t hesitate. “Everything she has said has been truthful,” he declared in a clear voice.
Speranze Shal Notti looked down at the floor, and then around the public galleries, and those seated at the Council table. Her eyes did not pause as they passed over Antazos. “The Lady A’nari has spoken no falsehood,” she finally said. There was a long moment of silence, and then the uproar began.
Vermillion let out his breath, then, ready to draw his sword quickly, he stepped between Iaondrin and the Council and turned to face the galleries, watching closely for signs of danger. “Watch behind me,” he told her.
Oberuc had sat back in his chair, staring at Iaondrin with a look on his face that said he could not believe the outcome. But when he turned his eyes to Roya, she gave a slight shake of her head, again confirming that there had been no lie. In the galleries, a scuffle or two broke out, but the Aihv’ guard were on the trouble-makers quickly. Further, Manton and Vanek stepped closer to add to the protection for Iaondrin and Gilford both.
Iaondrin looked up to see that Ellinden So and Tallentire had both stood, with a number of the other Shal Politi, while the League representatives conducted a quick caucus. She could feel the threads tightening in the room, as the mages reached for them. The Quaj and Dwerg ambassadors – who had no dog in this particular fight – just watched carefully for any threat. For a moment, it seemed as if fights might break out at every level, but the Chamberlain slammed the staff again, and the whole chamber reverberated.
The voices died down, and the Chamberlain glared at everyone, as if the noise were a personal affront to her authority … and perhaps it was. “Councillor Oberuc,” she said, turning to him and putting the onus on him to acknowledge what had happened.
He ignored her call, head bent to talk to others in his contingent, those who supported the League’s claim for the Seat. Councillor Ankarra’s expression was intent as she whispered, and she shook her head, then slapped her hand on the table-top. “Councillor Oberuc!” Tallentire snapped, and his voice was no longer that of a lecherous old man – it was sharp, commanding, that of a Shal Lord, a Politi, and a holder of an ancient seat on the High Council. “Does the League intend to press its complaints against the Lady A’nari?”
Oberuc looked up finally, face flushed at the rebuke. He looked at the other League representatives, and then his shoulders slumped. “No. The Lady has withstood the inquiry, and the clerics have pronounced her truthful.”
Vermillion gave a small sigh of relief. He looked over to Iaondrin, managed to keep a smile off his face except for one or two twitches of the corner of his mouth, but his eyes held it. “Now we need them to tell everyone else in the League,” he murmured as he went back to scanning the galleries.
“That will happen regardless of what the League wants.” Gilford’s response was soft. He added, even more softly, “You could demand the Seat now.” He left unsaid that he thought it would put her in a more secure position, that he thought it unwise to again let the moment pass, to give the other factions the opportunity to continue to plot and plan.
Still scanning the galleries, his back to the Council, Vermillion knew Iaondrin was frowning, then felt her eyes on him. He glanced at her, then shrugged imperceptibly, knowing what she was thinking. “We aren’t turning on Morgan, counselor, and that’s what would be required. And we have other things that we have to take care of.”
Gilford just nodded, and did not argue with the decision. He turned to the Chamberlain and bowed. “Madam Chamberlain, my client’s business with the Council has concluded. Therefore, we respectfully request that we be excused from any further discussions that the Council may wish to conduct.”
Manton did not glance at his Lady this time, nor did he need to – he knew without looking that she was again displeased. At this point the A’nari was supposed to have pressed her claim. The corner of his mouth twitched in amusement – the girl was at least as willful as Ellinden herself.
The Chamberlain tapped the staff again. “The Lady A’nari is discharged, as the interrogation has concluded.” And as quickly as that, Iaondrin was free to go.
As Iaondrin hesitated in surprise then worked to push it down and get moving, Vermillion turned his head and started at Antazos of Sa’iph. He took the first few steps with her, still staring, before shaking his head as if an opportunity to cut out the Shal Lord’s heart and feed it to him had been lost. Then his attention was all on Iaondrin.
Down the hall from the Council Chamber waited the tall priest of Valkor. “A word, please?” he asked Vermillion. Vermillion moved himself between the priest and Iaondrin, leading the priest to frown momentarily, as if wondering if he should be insulted. “Congratulations.” Vermillion nodded his thanks. “That bit with the heads, though, a bit excessive, don’t you think?” Vermillion clenched his jaw, eyes going flat. Vanek held up his hands, “No, it’s just a conversation. Just talking.”
Vermillion glanced around the hallway, noting the people staring, and finally offered, as he had to Gilford, “Six attempts on my Lady’s life in one day, your… Excellency?”
“Tomas, or Vanek,” the priest said, eyes widening, “and that is excessive.” He nodded slowly, then held out a hand with a small book in it. “I thought this might be helpful to you.”
Vermillion frowned at the title. The Tenets of Valkor. “Never had much use for gods, uh, Vanek. How will this help?” He really didn’t want to be preached to. Vanek looked from Vermillion to Iaondrin and back slowly.
“He’s the Protector. Thank you for your time,” he turned to go.
“I like your wines,” Vermillion said, though he could think of no reason he should.
“My family. You should try their olive breads and the sheep’s milk cheese.” Vanek nodded again and walked away, a half-Shal with a lute falling in next to him. Vermillion slid the book into his pack and gave it no more thought.
Iaondrin looked at the book, and then scowled at the priest’s retreating back. “You’d think he would offer us a bottle or two of the wine,” she said with a scowl. “Though I suppose we might be able to convince Tallentire to share his … for a price.” Gilford’s men still stood between them and any passersby, and the barrister himself soon joined them.
“Barnabas and I are going to leave for Darilei tomorrow morning. I will follow up from there on the Vind Hall postings, and making certain the news of your vindication is publicized.” He already had shrugged off his robes. “You are welcome to stay again in our rooms at the Cauldron.”
Iaondrin shook her head without speaking. She wanted to be on her way as soon as possible, to put the Aihv’ and everything that had happened there behind her. And to get back to Jaely. “Thank you,” she finally said, and scowled when he looked at her with a faint note of surprise. “I’m not completely graceless.”
Gilford smiled. “No, not completely.” He looked back to Vermillion. “Give my regards to Kaz. And if you need me again, you know where to find me.”
Vermillion nodded, then remembered something. “Oh, Master Gilford, one more thing. You know some Politi,” he reached for the ring then paused when he thought of something else. The Lady knows one who fits that description, the Evandin had said. The Lady knows. And Gilford had been there. “Bugger me,” he whispered. But he knew Gilford would never admit it, and he knew it was something he should not know anyway, so he shook himself and handed the lawyer the ring. “Do you know whose seal that is?”
Gilford looked at him for a moment, and Iaondrin looked away. Even unreadable as he was, she knew the lawyer connected the ring to the mage who had almost killed her the night before. After a slight hesitation, he took the ring and tilted it to look inside. He held it for a moment, and then placed it back in Vermillion’s hand. “Laurent Shal Mercier,” he said flatly. “He is Dominti of a Politi house outside Bense. One of Fournier’s supporters.”
“Thank you, sir. And don’t worry, that debt is paid for now. This is a marker against a future debt.” Vermillion slid the ring back into his haversack. “And now, unless I miss my guess, we have a ferry to catch.”
“Captain Quinn is waiting outside the Aihv’ to see you to the ferry. From there, you will be on your own, unless you want some of my men to go with you.”
Vermillion didn’t even need to look at Iaondrin. “No thank you, sir. We’ll be moving on quickly.”
Gilford nodded as if he understood. Barnabas Portnoy stepped over to wish them well, and Iaondrin stopped to look at him intently. He gave her a sideways glance, but did not comment on the stare. Even after the two of them walked away, four of Gilford’s guards led them to the exit where a contingent of the Town Watch, under Captain Quinn, were waiting.
Iaondrin noted that the blood stains had been cleaned, but she did not mention it. She blinked in the spring sunlight – for some reason she had felt inside as if night had already come, but it was still late afternoon.
Vermillion strode just behind her and just to her left, following the Watch all the way to the ferry, checking for anyone following them. Besides Kaz. On the ferry, he made sure they stood alone, but couldn’t do anything about those trying to get a last look at the returned A’nari. He offered the cloak Tallentire had given them when they got to Malisis, then meandered through the city for awhile, still checking for anyone following, before heading back to the Blue Unicorn.
Iaondrin pulled the cloak up to cover her distinctive hair while she walked with him, dodging aside from people on the street. Back at the Blue Unicorn, she stopped before entering. “I want to go to the stable,” she said softly, without looking at him.
Inside, she walked back to the stall and looked over the door at the mare, and then opened it to step inside. Jaely lifted her head and nudged her mistress hard, looking for some treat. “Is that all I am to you?” Iaondrin asked, an edge to her voice. But her touch on the mare was gentle, despite the scowl, and she wrapped her arms around the horse’s neck and stood there, face pressed against her.
Jaely flicked her ears and looked at Vermillion, hopeful for a treat.
Vermillion held his hands out apologetically, saying nothing. He backed up to the other side of the stable, leaned against a post and waited calmly. The only constant companions he had ever had were the ones he worked against Antazos with, and he never really felt any big sort of a bond with them. Watching her, he wondered briefly if he should try.
Jaely whickered in disappointment, and sighed. “Oh stop it. You’ve probably been spoiled rotten.” Iaondrin stepped away and rubbed the mare’s nose. “Back on a boat tomorrow morning, so enjoy your last few hours on land.” She closed the stall behind her and pulled the hood back up so they could enter the inn.
To be continued.