“He who casts judgement will ever be judged in turn.”
– Ashuran saying
Hanno had borne eighteen inked notches on his arm since the age of twelve, yet never truly grown used to the privilege. The seeker who’d come to his native district for the yearly tests had done more than simply choose the tier of his citizenship: the man had set the path of his life until he died. Hanno’s own father had been of sturdy frame even young and possessed no aptitude for scholarly matters, and so had kept the tier of his own parents: twenty, with a note by his name indicating preferred assignment to the mines. The boy himself had been found to bear different talents. He had remembered the seven colours of the marbles he was shown for a fleeting moment and their respective numbers too, then proved to have some understanding of numbers and letters. Eighteenth Tier, the seeker decreed. The lowest rank of civil servants in the Thalassocracy, yet a world apart from the back-breaking daily labour that was his father’s lot. His mother had no ink on her arm at all. She had not been born in Ashur, and would never be a citizen. Even two decades after she had made her home in Arwad, she still needed to give way to any citizen on the street and show an official scroll proving her marriage to Father when yearly taxes were collected. She would be forcefully evicted to the foreigner’s district if she failed to do so even once, whether she had an Ashuran son or not.
It sat ill with the boy. Had his father been a ship’s captain of the Tenth or even sat on any of the lower councils, Zoya of Thalassina would have been safeguarded even in widowhood. But promotions up the tiers were rare, near the bottom, and that Father’s name was to the side of a Soninke exile’s in the registers made it certainty he would never sit on any council at alll. A Tenerifan would have been forgiven, perhaps even a Nicaean. But Mother had been born in the Tower’s shade, and even centuries after the Great Conqueror had been slain the memory of her atrocities was laid at the feet of all her people. It was a story often told in the alehouses still, though less was spoken of Ashur’s surrender to the villain and more of the coming of the Hegemony’s fleet to liberate its daughter-holdings. Hanno had no fondness for the Baalites himself, and avoided those that came to Arwad as much as he could. They were arrogant, and never lower than the Seventh: to offer even accidental slight to men such as these could have grave consequences, even an offhand word enough to have him demoted out of both tier and title of court scribe for the Outer Tribunal. It would be a hard blow to the family if it happened. The notches on his arm allowed him access to the markets deeper in the city where the better fare was sold, and earned the coin to afford it.
He had been raised on black bread but enjoyed breaking his fast with the grey now, and even white bread with butter once a month. Going back to miner’s food would not be pleasant for any of them. Hanno swallowed the last of his boiled egg and touched his knuckled to the table to thank the Gods for the meal under his mother’s tolerant gaze. He’d risen an hour before dawn so he would be able to visit the temple, but even so Father had been gone when he woke. His labour in the mine began before dawn and ended past sundown.
“You should make the proper gestures as well,” he told his mother. “It would help with… it would help.”
He’d answered the jeers about his mother being some kind of foreign seductress with fists and and feets, when he’d been younger, but now that he was fourteen he could no longer risk it. If he was brought to the attention of the guards as a troublemaker, he might lose his position at the Outer Tribunal.
“You have your faith,” Zoya of Thalassina smiled. “I have mine.”
“The Hellgods are no true gods,” Hanno muttered. “Just great and mighty devils.”
“This land knows little of devils, Hanno,” she said, brushing back an errant lock of his hair. “I came to these shores because of this. But do not speak such ignorant words. Below listens. Below remembers, and pays its debts in full.”
His lips thinned but he did not argue, for he needed to hurry. His parents did not often speak of religion, for his father rarely set foot in a temple save on festival nights and his mother kept her faith quiet. She a;sp kept a small tile in a dark corner of the house, and every time the moon was full shed blood and salt on it. For luck and long life, she said. The tile was always pristine after the moon began waning, though he’d never seen his mother clean it. Father often teased it was a waste of time, for her Gods were pricks one and all. But how much worse would they be, without tribute? Mother always replied. Hanno kissed his mother’s cheek and took his satchel from the floor, waving her goodbye and picking up the pace so he’d have enough time for full prayer at the temple. Barcalid District was near the edge of the city, not far from the docks, and so its temple was smaller and poorer than those of the wealthier districts. Hanno loved it nonetheless, for it was said to be one of the first temples the Baalites had raised on these shores when they settled them. He set down his satchel on the steps outside, sure not even a tierless thief would fool enough to attempt theft on hallowed grounds, and knelt before the gateless arch of old wood. Three heartbeats he spent kneeling, then rose and advanced with quiet footsteps into the sanctum.
There was no light within save for the sun’s coming down through the openings in the ceiling, and a pair of braziers in the back. That part of the temple Hanno shied from looking at, for on a thin carpet set over an iron grid the Speaker would be seated. The heavy scent of the incense and redwood being burned in the thuribles hanging from the grid in the pit below drowned out every other smell, even this close to the street. Head bowed, Hanno walked the full path around the seven pillars in silence. The masks paced on the jutting wood were not set with precious metals and jewels as they were in richer temples. No, in his district they were clay and driftwood, seashells and baked mud. There was an eight pillar in the back he did not walk before, the one whose masks were sculpted straight into the wood. The faces of the Gods Below, never to be taken off and worn by the Speaker as the faces of the Gods Above could be. Neither denied nor embrace, the old saying went. After walking the path Hanno returned to the second pillar, as these days he often did. It was most fitting for a court scribe to pray before the Face of the True or the Face of the Just, but it was the Face of the Kind he had always preferred. Even among the poor masks of this place it was unadorned, a simple visage of wood hanging from a nail. No inscription or carving.
Hanno extended three fingers and kissed the tip before touching them to the mask. Of all the faces of the Gods, he loved this one best. It asked nothing of the faithful but to offer kindness without expectation, to allow a sliver the light granted to mankind to be offered back to Creation. Gods Above, You Who Are Kind, let me cause no pain, Hanno prayed. Let my hand be gentle and my tongue guileless. Let the only life given me be a gift unto others. A whisper of bare feet and rough spun robe kissing the ground behind him had the boy opening his eyes. The Speaker stood behind him, wearing their birth face. It would have been impious to attempt to see if the priest had been born man or woman: a Speaker renounced it all when they became so. Gender, name, past. They spoke for none but the Gods, and their words were that of the very Heavens when they wore a Face.
“Do you seek guidance, child?” the Speaker said.
Hanno bowed his head deeper.
“Not this morn, Speaker,” he replied softly.
He was humbled by the offer, though also scared. It was rare for one of the priests to offer guidance unasked. It was said that if a Speaker spoke untruth while wearing a Face their flesh would be burnt by Heavens’ own hand, a mark of shame for all to see. The faithful only rarely asked a Face to be worn and guidance provided, for the words of a Speaker often brought to light truths unpleasant. The Gods Above were father and mother both, and their love for their children was ever dispensed with firm hand. The Speaker’s eyes lingered on him.
“You have a light in you, child,” they said. “Do not let it go out.”
And then they were gone, as quietly as they had come. Hanno bowed again before the Face of the Kind but left without walking a farewell path. He would be expected in court soon enough and his usual shortcut through the foreigner district was sealed now that it was under quarantine. Some trader from the Free Cities had brought the welting pox along with their goods, and with so many priests out of the city to prepare the Festival of Ropes in the countryside the sickness was spreading too quickly to be stamped out by ordained healing as sicknesses usually were. The boy had to bare his arm to the guards at the Halan District’s gate to be allowed entrance, though they knew him well. Law was law, in Arwad. Lower tiers had no place treading these grounds unless summoned by the Outer Tribunal. The courthouse where Hanno had been apprenticed was one of the lesser even among the Outer Tribunal, but he did not mind. It was a rare day where it saw no case brought for adjudication, and for such a small court it had a large scrollhouse.
The many laws of Ashur made up most of the collection, including a full set of Madrubal’s famous treatises the Ten Scales, but many foreign laws were set to parchment as well. The Outer Tribunal often settled disputes with foreign traders having occurred within the city, so the laws of southern principalities like Tenerife and Valencis were kept by the side of the more-often used records of Nicaean and Delosi legalities. Hanno enjoyed the quiet days most, as he’d obtained permission to read the scrolls when no duties were left to him. Today would not be one of those, though. Baring his arm a second time before the constable, Hanno greeted the old man with a smile.
“Good morning, Veno,” he said. “Looks like a warm day, doesn’t it?”
The constable eyed his arm for the notches, as he had every morning the boy came to the courthouse since his testing. That the ink was there every time changed nothing, for duty was duty. All must serve as ordained, for Ashur to shine.
“That it does,” the constable agreed. “The sun will do my bones some good. You should hurry inside, Hanno. The foreigners came early.”
The dark-skinned boy winced. That did not bode well for the very same Stygians who’d sought adjudication. He didn’t know what tribunes had been drawn to oversee the trial, but he knew quite a few who’d take offence to what could be perceived as foreign impatience. Not his trouble, though. He thanked Veno for the advice and passed through the scrollhouse with only swift greeting to all the senior scribes and archivists, avoiding conversation. As one of the youngest in the courthouse and more than decent with a quill, he tended to be given assignment as scrivener when trials took place. The duty was usually long, tedious and unforgiving of mistakes, which made it quite unpopular with his fellows. Failing to properly transcribe the spoken words of a tribune was a good way to get on their bad side if they noticed it, and that usually got you assigned every chore in sight for a few weeks. His suspicions were proved correct: when he set down his satchel and made the cursory bows before the only official judicial scribe of the courthouse, he was given an affectionate pat on the head along with a greeting. That usually meant Scribe Zenon was about to send him off after a chore.
“Scrivener?” Hanno sighed.
Scribe Zenon as, a duly recognized judicial scribe, was a citizen of the Fourteenth tier. He was quite friendly, however, and often reminded the lesser citizens under him that if he’d sought to be surrounded with formality all day he would have remained serving in the High Tribunal.
“Clever boy,” Zenon said fondly. “It’s not as bad as you think. The serving tribunes are Lagon and Discar, but the absent is Yzebel.”
Serving tribunes were the adjudicators of any trial brought to the Outer Tribunal, always in a pair. Should they prove to disagree on the verdict, a third tribune known as the ‘absent’ would tip the scale one way or another. Serving tribunes usually paid little attention to the scrivener, but the absent one was seated right behind them. If said tribune was prone to reading over shoulders, the duty could become quite nerve-wracking. Tribune Yzebel was nearly seventy, though, and known for both terrible eyesight and motherly fondness for younger scribes. In this he had truly been fortunate, and Hanno discretely made the three fingers over his heart in thanks to the Face of the Kind.
“Go on,” Zenon told him, smilingly. “I’ll let even let you use the courthouse quills this once, as reparation for this delightful morning duty.”
Hanno’s face split in a smile. It was a little thing, but an accolade nonetheless. Scriveners were usually made to use their own ink and quills, and strictly disciplined should those be damaged in any way. The ability to take care of your own satchel was considered a mark that one was qualified for further advancement within the tier. The courthouse quills were of much better quality, though, and the inks preserved in ritual boxes said to have been made in Praes. Which, while a land of lawless savages, was said to be ruled by powerful mages. Both would be a pleasure to work with. Hanno bowed low in thanks, and headed to the courthouse proper. Trials took place in an open courtyard, when weather permitted, with twin raised seats reserved for the serving tribunes before which those in need of adjudication would stand. A lesser seat was to the side for the absent tribune, and before it a carpet and wooden writing desk. Hanno bowed to the tribunes in the proper order then sat at the desk as Tribune Yzebel waved him down affably.
The case was not an overly complicated one. The supplicants, a pair of Stygian traders, were not disputing against Ashurans but asking compensation of the Thalassocracy itself. Such a demand would usually be under the authority of the High Tribunal to settle, but as the loss had been incurred within Arwad itself it had been passed off to the Outer after being put before a committee. The Stygians had come to Arwad with a hold full of slaves, to obtain tea from across the Tyrian Sea before making shore in Nicae with their goods and returning home to great wealth. They had been forced to remain in the city because of the quarantine, and though priests had prevented them from catching the welting pox they had lost most their slaves to it. As they had lost goods because of an Ashuran decree, they sought reparations of equal worth from the Thalassocracy. Upon being asked by Tribune Lagon the provenance of their slaves, they refused to answer the question. Some eastern shore of the Free Cities, Hanno guessed. Villagers from some coastal nowhere taken in a raid, though the Stygians could not admit to this before the Tribunal without the entire case being dismissed. The serving tribunes remained even-handed, though they must have suspected the same. Ashur did not reimburse traders for natural calamities and their effects on trade, but it was law for compensation to be offered for the inconvenience of forced quarantine if it resulted in provable loss. The Stygians insisted they be offered back to their harbour fees as well, if not the worth of their slaves, but the demand had no basis in Ashuran law and so they were sent off fuming. Hanno penned the last of the official record and set the quill down, finding Tribune Yzebel leaning close.
“It looks done quite properly,” she smiled, wrinkles thickening.
“I would not fail the Outer Tribunal,” Hanno replied gravely.
She mussed his hair, which he rather disliked but did not object to.
“Old Zenon tells me you’ve been spending time in the scrollhouse,” she said.
“I enjoy reading the scrolls,” the boy honestly replied.
“Good,” Yzebel said. “Some of our archivists are getting long in the tooth, young Hanno. If you keep discharging your duties so admirably there may be a place among them for you when one retires.”
The boy’s eyed widened, and he bowed low. Archivists were of the Eighteenth tier as well, but even within that tier there were differences in rank. To be custodian of written works was to stand above a mere scribe, and it was not unheard of for long-serving archivists to rise up a tier. They were also much appreciated among committees for their learning, and those who had seat on such things often wielded the highest authority within their own tier – if not slightly higher. He was still beaming from the tribune’s words when he left the courthouse to present his transcription, though the joy was replaced by surprise when he found Scribe Zenon waiting him for him at the outskirts of the scrollhouse.
“Hanno,” the man grimaced.
“Sir?” the boy said. “I was bringing you the transcripts, if that is your need.”
“No,” the older man said, “but hand me those anyway. Your father, he works in the mines to the south?”
Hanno’s head dipped hesitantly.
“I’m so sorry, child,” the scribe said quietly. “There’s been a collapse. Go back home, your district seat should have the Lists of the Lost soon. He may have been lucky.”
His father, he learned within the hour, had not been lucky.
Sorrows never came alone. There was no body to bury, and that was the blow that truly unmade his mother. The mine shaft that collapsed over his father’s head had been old and already picked clean, and so the committee of Thirteenth tier citizens that oversaw the aftermath of the disaster decided it would be amongst those that would not be cleared out. It would be, they said, a net monetary loss for the Thalassocracy. Hanno knew his family was not wealthy enough that they would have been able to afford a driftwood funeral for Father, that his body would have never been set on a raft for the eastern tide to take back to the faraway home of all Ashurans, but that it would not even be buried in consecrated grounds wounded him. The Gods Above would know their own, and the soul of a good man would be brought at their side, but for profane earth to be the tomb of his own father was a shameful thing. The priests laid blessing upon the whole mine and spoke the names of the lost, but that was as much to allow work to resume as to honour the dead. Worse, there was but a month left before the yearly taxes were to be collected. Without Father, his mother would be expelled from Barcalid District and sent into quarantined grounds. It could not be borne.
Hanno went with every dawn as a supplicant to the district seat to ask the ruling committee to grant an exemption, but he was never even allowed to state his case before them. His fellows in the Outer Tribunal shared his sorrow, but none had the influence or inclination to intervene. The boy swallowed his fear and begged every tribune that would listen to speak in his mother’s favour, but increasingly cold refusals were his only answer. There was no more talk of his becoming archivist after that. As the day grew nearer and his fear mounted, Mother grew calmer. Grief had numbed her at first, but that distance eventually turned into something else. She offered comfort he was not willing to receive, and began to speak of the city of her birth. Faraway Thalassina, on the coast of the Wasteland. She told him of the seashell walls that surrounded it, of the great port where traders from all of Calernia and beyond came to call. Of the beautiful and terrible highborn, of their strange sorceries and exquisite clothes. Of the Empress they said was the most beautiful woman in the world. He asked her, then, if she wanted to go home. She told him his father had been home, and that it was now beyond her reach. The morning after, he found her gone when he rose.
The tile in the dark corner of the house was gone as well.
It was instinct that had him find her but it came too late. The same committee that had left his father to mass grave was attending the districts where pensions were due to widows and widowers, and on that day that had come to Barcalid.
“Gods of my ancestors, grant me due,” Zoya of Thalassina snarled, throwing the tile at their feet. “Blood for blood, life for life. Let every breath be a torment, every night a terror, every pleasure turn to insipid ash. Let them have no rest or peace until my love lies in the grave he earned. I curse you to this with my last breath.”
Even as guards hurried to wrestle her down, she took a knife and opened her own throat. As her blood stained the tiles the light of day dimmed, and with the curse still on her lips his mother died. The Gods Below listened. The Gods Below remembered, and in that moment paid their debt in full. He knew this to be true when the first man of the committee began to scream.
The weeks that followed were lived only by the ghost of him. Even as one cursed citizen after another found their salvation beyond the ability of hurriedly summoned priests and took their lives to flee the agony, whispers spread through the district. Witch, children called his mother. The Witch of Barcalid, don’t say her name or you’ll be cursed too. Wasteland spawn, old women muttered, shaking their heads disapprovingly. They always go bad, didn’t I tell you? The district’s ruling committee summoned him to stand before them after a full fortnight under house arrest. As the last member of the family, he was informed a decision had been reached to strike every mention of Zhoya of Thalassina from Ashuran records and registers. Any trace of her presence, every act she had ever made, was now never to be mentioned again. He would not be given the body. It had been burned at sea without his permission, far enough no ash would ever touch the shores of the Thalassocracy. Hanno sat in a sunny courtyard before twelve Ashurans with grave faces and was told his own fate would now be debated. Though he had committed no crime, the depth of his involvement in the murders had yet to be established. Complicity warranted punishment under the law, should he charged with such.
“In light of your exemplary service under the Outer Tribunal, a chance has been granted you to denounce the act of the woman who gave birth to you,” a man told him.
A name had been given, but Hanno could not recall it. Looking up at the bright sky, the boy remained silent.
“You would have sent her,” he finally said, “in a quarantined district.”
“As was only lawful,” a grey-haired woman said flatly.
Hanno considered this.
“It was lawful,” he eventually conceded. “Was it just?”
“Justice is the exercise of Ashuran law,” the same woman said. “Nothing more or less.”
He studied her face for some time.
“My father’s body,” he said. “Will it be buried properly?”
The men and women of the ruling committee looked uncomfortable, some looking away.
“That is not for us to decide,” a man said. “Another committee will be assembled to reassess the matter.”
They would do it, he understood in that moment. Because the citizens who would be charged with that debate would be wary of the curse finding them too. Because Mother had made them afraid.
“This matter does not fall within the business of this hearing,” the grey-haired woman said. “Further departures from such will be punished. Hanno of Barcalid District, citizen of the Eighteenth Tier, will you or will you not denounce the actions of the woman that gave birth to you?”
They would not even say her name, he thought. Even that had been stricken.
“Zhoya,” he said. “Zhoya of Thalassina. That was her name.”
“You have broken censure,” a man said coldly. “This will be taken into consideration.”
“No,” Hanno said calmly. “I will not denounce her. It is not for the likes of you to stand in her judgement.”
They demoted him to tierlessness, though they refrained from naming him a criminal. The ink notches on his arm were removed by a mage, his skin left smooth and unmarred. Though still a citizen, he was now stripped of all rights – even that of keeping the home he had been raised in. Hanno pondered this. It was Ashuran law, and once he would not have questioned it. Now he wondered, for he had been forced to see the laws of his people were not always what he believed they should be. His eyes had been opened, and all the old truths were as smoke in the wind. If a law was not just, could it truly be a law? It shook him, because he could not trust himself to see the truth. He knew his own anger, his grief. And even without it, he would be as flawed as the men who had made the laws he now decried in his heart. It had been correct to refuse the committee, he decided. They were as blind as he. Homeless and umoored, he found his feet taking him to temple once more. Three heartbeats he knelt before the gateless arch, and entered hallowed grounds. This time, he did not walk the path. Forward he went, and knelt again at the feet of the priest shrouded in incense.
“Speaker,” he said. “I seek guidance.”
They looked at him through the mist.
“What face would you have me bear, child?” they asked.
“I ask,” Hanno said, “for the Face of the Just.”