The Beginning After The End - Chapter 330 - The Hight Hall
The three weeks until my trial passed in a blur of repetition and monotony.
When the morning came, I was spared the usual session of torture with Petras and Matheson, and even allowed a cold shower to wipe away the blood and grime of my three week stay in the Granbehls’ dungeon. I guess they didn’t want it to be too obvious that I’d been deprived and tortured.
Ada, thankfully or not, hadn’t come to visit me again, but I guessed I’d be seeing her soon enough at the trial.
I was sitting cross-legged on the floor, Three Steps’ dried-fruit toy held firmly in one hand. The index finger of the other hand had sprouted a curved claw of violet aether, which was currently wrapped around the seed within the fruit, pulling desperately at it.
I’d held the claw’s shape for ten seconds already, but the seed wasn’t budging. Twenty seconds passed. Then thirty. My finger began to ache and tremble, and I could feel the claw losing its shape.
Finally, after nearly forty seconds, the aether claw dissipated with the seed still lodged firmly inside the dried fruit.
“What is that?”
My eyes snapped open to find Matheson staring through the bars at me. I’d been so focused on holding the aether claw’s shape that I hadn’t heard him arrive.
I flourished my hand, rolling the toy out of sight before storing it in my dimension rune, then cupped one hand over the other.
“Oh…you mean this?” I said innocently while slowly sticking up the middle finger of the hand I was hiding in my palm.
Regis barked out a laugh.
Matheson scowled and stepped aside so four Granbehl knights could open my cell door and march in to surround me. The tallest of the four pulled my arms behind my back and put manacles around my wrists.
“Search him,” Matheson ordered, and the same knight proceeded to give me a thorough patting down, but of course found nothing. He shrugged his armor-plated shoulders at the steward.
“I hope you’re enjoying yourself, Ascender Grey,” he said quietly. “I myself am very much looking forward to seeing that infuriating smirk slapped off your smug face.”
“Can we get going then?” I asked. “I sure wouldn’t want to be late for that.”
Matheson adjusted the cuffs of his sleeves and marched past, leading the way up the stairs and through the well-appointed halls of the mansion above. A few household servants peered at us from various rooms as we made our way out of the Granbehl estate, but the only familiar face I noticed was Petras, who was sitting on some barrels near the backdoor that I was led out of.
I gave him a cheery smile as I passed by. “We shed so much blood, sweat, and your tears together that I’m almost going to miss you.”
My words made the torturer practically fold in on himself in shame, while Matheson chortled in disgust.
‘Way to kick a man when he’s down,’ Regis said accusingly.
I rolled my eyes. Forgive me for lacking sympathy to the guy that spent the last three weeks cutting me open.
‘Well, if we only judged by your reaction, I’d say poor Petras did nothing more than give you a rigorous massage,’ Regis noted. ‘But that’s beside the point. You’re awfully chipper for a guy on the way to his own murder trial.’
I felt genuine curiosity radiating from the little ball of warmth that was my companion.
I’m just about ready to burn this damn place to the ground. We’ll see how things play out with whatever Alaric is up to, but whatever happens, I don’t plan on coming back here.
‘I call dibs on Matty.’
Several more heavily armed and armored Granbehl guards met us outside the house, and I was escorted to another cart like the one in which I’d been brought here.
Lord Granbehl was standing beside the door, his hands clasped behind his back. He lifted his chin as I approached. “This will be your last opportunity to confess your crimes, Ascender Grey. Admit your guilt, and I will plead for leniency on your behalf. If you stand before a panel of judges and profess your innocence, it will be out of my hands.”
I locked eyes with the Alacryan nobleman. “Thank you for your wonderful hospitality, Titus.”
He ground his teeth as we matched glares, but eventually he waved a hand, and I was shoved bodily into the carriage.
This time there were two knights seated inside, each with a naked blade trained on me. Even if one of the guards turned out to be Alaric, there was no way he could let me know without giving himself away, and so I stayed quiet. Mostly.
I let out a sigh, leaning back in my seat. “They could have at least given me a carriage with windows.”
One of the guards shifted awkwardly on the narrow bench across from me, which was obviously meant for luggage, not a fully armored knight.
“I guess you fine gentlemen are still a better sight than my dingy cell and ever-attractive Petras,” I continued with a shrug.
The other guard stifled a laugh while the first raised his blade so the point pressed into my throat. “Be quiet.”
‘Do you think everyone that works for the Granbehls is trained to be an ass, or do they need previous experience as an ass to qualify?’ Regis asked.
This time, it was my turn to stifle a laugh.
“You think this is funny?” The guard holding his blade against my throat twisted the shortsword and lashed out with the pommel, driving it into the corner of my mouth. “Make another sound, and I’ll give you the other end, scum.”
‘Yup. This guy definitely likes to kick puppies.’
I smiled as I ran my tongue across the cut that had already begun to heal, tasting blood.
“Vritra, he’s as freaky as they’ve been saying,” the second guard said. He sounded young, and more than a little nervous.
Neither are Alaric, then, I thought, regarding the knight coolly.
“You heard the rumors, Roffe? They say someone’s been stirring up all kinds of trouble around this ascender. Some of the guards think he’s secretly from a highblood house, and they’re—”
“Would you shut up?” the guard who’d hit me, Roffe, snarled. “We’re supposed to guard, not chit chat like a couple of academy girls.”
The second knight went silent.
So, someone is starting rumors? That has to be Alaric, I thought, frowning. What’s that old drunk think he’s doing, going head to head with a named blood?
Securing his investment, I’d imagine,’ Regis suggested.
Let’s just hope that he knows what he’s getting himself into, I thought, leaning slightly to the side and trying to get comfortable, which wasn’t easy considering my hands were still chained behind me.
The rest of the carriage ride went by quickly. Within a few minutes, we rolled to a stop and someone knocked three times on the outside of the door. Roffe knocked back twice, and the door opened.
Without waiting for them to push or pull me out, I hopped down to the ground on my own, causing the closest armored figures to step back and brandish their weapons.
Looking past them, I took in the building they were leading me to. Even without any cultural touchstone to compare it to, the massive structure was immediately recognizable as a courthouse.
The dark stone building was covered in ornate decoration: colored glass filled the arched windows, leering, horned gargoyles leaned out from the walls and glared at all who approached, and hundreds of thin, black metal spires reached up toward the sunless blue sky above.
Matheson appeared from between two of the many armored guards standing around the carriage. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” he said, looking up at the courthouse. “Like the Sovereigns’ own justice carved in stone.”
I snorted, drawing an irritated look from the steward.
“Get this criminal inside,” he snapped.
I was pushed and prodded forward, under an arched entryway and into a grand hall. The inside of the courthouse was just as ornate as the outside: the floor was cut marble, the grand stairs that led up to a second floor landing was wrought of the same dark iron as the spires, and an enormous fresco covered the entire ceiling.
It showed a muscular, bare-chested man with grayish skin and sweeping horns that curved around his head like a crown standing amidst dozens of much smaller, less detailed people. Colorful motes of light were drifting down from him and being absorbed into the gathered crowd, whose faces were upturned gleefully. A ring of runes encircled the painting.
Agrona, giving magic to the Alacryans…
‘Do you think the part where Agrona tortured and experimented on the Alacryans for a bajillion years is drawn on the backside?’ Regis asked.
“‘Under the watchful gaze of the High Sovereign, all beings are judged,’” Matheson said, reading the curved runes.
I was about to say something flippant, but a jolt from Regis cut me short.
What is it?
‘Remember, you’re an Alacryan. It wouldn’t be a good look for you to go demeaning Agrona in public, especially here, now.’
I thought for a moment. Mm…Good catch.
A hunched figure in thick, black robes with a golden symbol on the breast approached and exchanged a few words with Matheson. I couldn’t see their face, which was hidden in shadow beneath the cowl of the robe, but I could sense probing eyes on me.
The symbol showed a sword with scales hanging from the crossguard, and must have labeled them as some kind of court official.
They waved for us to follow and led the procession of guards, Matheson, and myself, down a long, high-peaked corridor that ended in two solid stone doors, each at least ten feet tall and four feet wide.
As we approached, the doors opened by themselves, revealing a courtroom capable of seating a few hundred people, at least.
It was designed like an amphitheater: half-moon shaped, with a series of ebony benches ascending in steps around a platform along the flat side, where five high desks, each emblazoned with the same golden symbol as the official’s robes, looked down on a single chair made of twisted black metal.
The dark-robed figure led us down an aisle between the benches, all of which were empty at the moment, and gestured to the chair. Two of the knights shoved me into it, and heavy black chains came to life and wrapped around my wrists, ankles, waist, and neck. The chains were blisteringly cold to the touch.
I flexed carefully, keeping the motion subtle so no one thought I was trying to break free. The chains constricted around me like a snake, their burning cold surface biting into my flesh and threatening to choke me.
The dark-robed official leaned forward so that we were face to face. Beneath the shadowed cowl, a young woman with dark eyes stared back at me. “The more you struggle, the stronger the chains grow, ascender. Be still, and let only truth pass your lips in this place. Only guilty men fear the High Hall’s justice.”
More out of curiosity than anything else, I relaxed to see if the chains would slacken. They did.
“Good,” she said, straightening. “The trial will begin shortly. The rest of you may find seats, or stand along the back wall.”
There was a lot of clanking and rattling as the heavily armored guards maneuvered to the back of the room. At least thirty of them had escorted my carriage, and Matheson had brought every one of them into the courthouse.
I turned my head slightly and caught sight of the Granbehls’ steward sitting on the closest bench to my left. He was inspecting me carefully, his eyes following the crisscrossing network of chains.
The babble of voices and low thunder of dozens of footsteps on marble drew his attention to the back of the room. He glowered, apparently not liking whatever he saw there.
I listened carefully, trying to pick up snippets of the many conversations happening behind me.
“—to prove murder in the Relictombs. What are the Granbehls—”
“—exciting, isn’t it? I’ve never been in the High Hall before—”
“—that him? Oh, wow, he’s so handsome, I—”
“—cousin heard from one of their guards that he never even blinked when Lord Granbehl beat him—”
I snapped around, looking warily to my right as heavy steps approached. A large, blond man in a gray suit was moving purposely toward me. His bright green eyes squinted into a smile when they met mine.
“Grey,” he said, his voice a rumbling baritone. He gave me a jaunty grin. “Comfortable?”
“Not really,” I admitted. Another man was behind him, dressed in an ill-fitting charcoal suit.
“Alaric,” I said in surprise. “Are you sure you should be here?”
The ex-ascender raised an eyebrow. “Who do you think’s going to get you out of this mess if not me, nephew?”
“Well, if I were to put my bets on just appearances, I’d go with the gentleman that doesn’t look like he was still nursing a hangover,” I said with a faint smirk.“My dearest nephew indeed.” Alaric rolled his eyes before nodding his head toward his companion. “Grey, this is Darrin Ordin. Ex-ascender like me, and once a pupil of mine. He makes it a habit of helping out other, less fortunate ascenders.”
I gave the man a second look. His clothes were perfectly tailored and made of a fine wool that must have cost a fortune. He didn’t have the athlete-gone-to-pasture look like Alaric, and I couldn’t help but wonder how retired he really was.
Mostly, though, it was the way he carried himself that made his wealth obvious: confident, straight-backed but not stiff, and an unconcerned air. Alaric, on the other hand, looked so out of place in the High Hall that it was almost comical.
Darrin was scanning the seats behind me, the hint of a frown on his face. “I’ve been fortunate, that’s true,” he said, turning his attention back to me. “I just try to make sure others who choose the life of an ascender—those who don’t have the backing of a high or named blood—have someone looking after them…but we can talk about me later,” he added, his attention turning to the tall desks that looked down on my chair.
Five robed figures had entered from a door I couldn’t see, and were each moving to stand behind a desk, elevated several feet above me. They wore matching black robes, similar to the woman who’d guided us to the courtroom, but their hoods were down, revealing five gaunt, humorless mages.
The man at the central desk hammered a gavel, causing the room to hush suddenly. I could hear the muffled noises of people hurrying to sit behind me, then the resounding crash of the huge double doors slamming shut.
“So begins of the trial of Ascender Grey, blood unnamed, on the charges of murder,” the judge announced in a rasping voice.