74

It was like flipping through a yearbook, or being at a royal roast, or attending his own funeral. A little like all three. It was serious – every one would draw blood if allowed, but Raev remembered them more clearly than suspected. His past decisions were walking up to greet him, and he knew them very well.

The critical ones, everybody knew about. It started a long time ago, and he learned quickly how to use notoriety to his advantage. Some in particular created a lot of requisite damage, that he wished weren’t so even as he made it happen. It was pointless telling them he didn’t have horns – after all, he wore them so well. True, for some time his thirst for retribution could hardly be slaked. But it had taken him all those years to figure out why.

74

When he acquired that first gargantuan sum of funds off the Oligarchy of Tamakopa, it was enough to shut down companies and end towns. He’d known who would greet the citizens beyond the town borders, and now he learned how life had treated them. Ultimately well, he thought, but he must be held accountable.

There was the one he hated to hear, even though he reminded himself of it all the time. When he didn’t keep her – lost her and everything in one fell swoop, all involved. People had never been more angry with him, and he with himself. Here he paid probably his greatest price.

After that was a lot of boat rocking, and sinkholing. And of course, the disappearance at the prestige. His return still had people fuming, most especially because he had won sympathy, and families divided over it.

Certain attributed tidbits, he did not recognize. He didn’t bother making contest, only took in the news as it came to him. The source of his privately connected counsel noted the new information as well.

“They have added to your reputation.”

“Clearly. Though I don’t mind, as the time for setting things straight is not now. The tall tales are an added layer of distraction, which is fine with me. The truth overshadows them regardless, which is why they slip right in.”

“How will they hang you for your current move?”

“They can’t yet. However this centershow works out, they still need me to get them out of the corner. The King Ascendant and Queen haven’t released a reverse agent. We got it from them after all, though we improved on it. I suspect what final option they’re narrowing down to as far as handling this. I don’t think I’m prepared to play lab rat to satisfy the cameras. They have days before a toll begins to mount, as far as they know.” This final indictment was difficult, as its inconclusive nature brought everyone to edge.

Raev Sturlusson heard it all again in the Queen Ascendant’s voice as she announced the collected statements.

73

The panoramic door drew upward, revealing row after row of hard gazes landing squarely on the prisoner and his two keepers. The clamoring hiss fell silent. The three traveled up the center aisle toward the hearing platform ahead. From within the green-tinted keeper’s field, Sturlusson received their suppressed snarls. He looked up at the ceiling full of recording lights, the fixated heads around him, and the arbiter’s tiers beyond the rest. Passing the front row of assembly seats was like breaking a runner’s tape.

At the pause before the platform, he was greeted by the three judges, and the King and Queen Ascendant above them. They all went through the requisite gestures. He eyed the empty witness’ stand, and opposite that, to the right of the arbiter’s tiers, the large screen where the Queen’s face watched the proceedings.

As he stepped to the platform and the keepers attached the field to it, he felt nudges at the tip of either shoulder over his burn scars. Sturlusson glanced up again, and behind his field of vision he pinpointed two watching presences. Their communication with him was more or less clear.

73

“I loathe them, and watch this only under duress.”

“I sort of know what you mean.” He looked to the medallion above the tiers, which read Justice Is Served In Many Ways.

“Over the next few days, we will hear from witnesses who will present accounts of your doings. There are many in this hall who have waited some time for the opportunity, though their statements must remain brief, as must your rebuttals. You’ve opted against the presence of a legal interpreter, so you are responsible for adhering to the guidelines of reply.” He received a veiled stare from King Ascendant Vario in his red arbiter’s garb.

“From the witnesses’ statements and your replies, we will build and subsequently examine the case to determine your sentence. For all that you yourself have taken credit for, you can expect no less than a great period of suffering.” At this, Raev Sturlusson blinked slowly. He heard a hissing chuckle of irony.

72

Mireille loaded her bowl with greens as Margeaux took her seat.

“Glad you could join us, dear,” Charlotte intoned, leaning forward to fill Margeaux’s glass.

“My pleasure. Where is Queen Celeste?” she asked, looking around.

“The Queen pardoned herself for other matters,” replied Vario. Mireille rotated the greens to Margeaux’s place and dipped into the capers and onions.

Charlotte smiled, and asked “Have you spoken with Soleil in the last couple days?”

“Yeah!” Margeaux flashed a grin and laughed. “What a relief it is. I expected her to sound croaky, but it’s her very same voice, only a little quiet.” Charlotte nodded.

Mireille sampled her melange. “She hasn’t been eating with us,” she shrugged, “so.”

72

“Oh, I know. It makes sense she’s withdrawn, considering. It’s strange as to when Soleil started speaking again, isn’t it.” Margeaux sipped on her drink. “At least that’s all there was to it, and he’s off to get what he deserves.”

Charlotte pressed her lips shut and looked at her husband. “It was a surprise, yes,” said Vario. “One that I was glad to see. I was only expecting she would learn from the encounter as necessary, but her speech at that moment was revelatory.”

“Can’t argue with that,” said Mireille. She tipped a ramekin of honeygrub dressing over her bowl and cracked pepper over it. Everyone continued to help themselves.

“It had been a while since we two caught a sunset together.” Margeaux smiled as she nibbled.

“Here’s to many more,” toasted Charlotte, raising her glass. Vario returned the gesture, and the girls followed suit.