“Men often speak of justice as the middle way, the compromise, but that is the guise of lesser evils. Justice is to uphold that which is right, and there is no place for compromise in this.”
– King Jehan the Wise of Callow
In olden days, when Creation was yet young, a mighty king in the east was entreated for judgement. A great lady had harshly struck a servant, who in his wroth at the blow wounded her with a blade. The king stood in his hall and listened to the words of both until day passed and night fled, yet found no answer to give. For the king sought to be just and justice is a rare and fleeting thing. In his despair, the king called upon the three famed judges of his realm and sought their advice.
The servant must die, said the first judge, himself a great lord. It was law that no servant may strike a master, and laws must be obeyed lest the realm itself fall into disarray and men wound men with impunity. There is just order to the world, the first judge said, and this order must be upheld even when that which is protected stands undeserving.
The servant must be spared, the second judge said, once a servant herself. Though the wounding of the lady was a sin, so was striking of the servant. In committing sin of her own, the lady diminished the sin of the other. To be just is to shield the weak from the strong, said the second judge, and the balance of sin must be weighed by power.
Forgiveness must be given, the third judge said, an old and kind man. Though order was needed and the helpless owed shielding, to take and ruin life for the passing madness of a moment was to do disservice to all. Let the lady and the servant kiss cheeks and thread hands, the third judge said, for is is in mercy that justice can be found.
The mighty king heard the words of his judges, yet he was not satisfied. The answer of the first judge he found wanting, for it trusted in the laws of men and men are flawed. The answer of the second judge he found wanting, for it placed circumstance above sin. The answer of the third judge he found wanting, for it was not judgement at all but mere amnesty. The king slept not for months as he pondered, and thus was born the Riddle of Fault.
You who sought the Face of the Just, you will give answer.
Hanno had not known sleep in a fortnight where the words did not sound in his mind again and again. He caught himself whispering them under his breath after he woke, every single one singed into his mind as if a brand had been applied. Every time his eyes closed he saw the Face of the Just again, that slate of coal with harsh threefold eyes. Six times six wings he had glimpsed through them, and scales of copper where men would have borne skin. He had knelt at the feet of the Face of the Just but been granted no guidance, only more questions. That, and rusted coin so hard-bitten the metal it had been minted from could no longer be discerned. The Speaker had taken shaking breath, after offering the riddle, and with trembling hands blessed him.
“Seek the silent tide,” they had said. “The coin will afford passage.”
The boy slept in the streets, huddling in an alley in the outer districts with the other tierless beggars until the city guard roused them with spear butts at dawn and forced them to disperse. He was hungry and tired and aching, but he had been told to seek the silent tide and so he did. He dragged himself to the docks, though without inked notches on his arm he could only enter those open to foreigners. There awaited ships and men who used strange tongues, Arlesites speaking the singing Tolesian dialects and merchants from the Free Cities who gabbled in tradertalk among each other. None looked at him twice, after seeing his bare arm. They had learned the worths and measures of Ashur, the meaning of being stripped of duty and due. Tierless were as ghosts within a land of the living, ungainly to look upon and best driven to ruins and empty hovels. For hours Hanno wandered aimlessly, sandals beating against stone as he sought something he did not know how to seek. His mind felt dull and dim, as if he had been robbed of the fire that once warmed it and shade had crept in its stead.
As twilight came, he found the tide. There was nothing to see, and that was what he saw. Though foreigners swarmed the harbour like locusts, filling every nook and cranny, there was a bubble of stillness. As if kept separate by some unseen wall, men passed it by without ever looking at it. Hanno himself tread by it thrice before his eyes found purchase, and almost forgot as soon as they had. There was an old man, blind and crooked, who sat at the edge of the pier with a wooden fishing rod in his hands. At his side was a slender ship of creaking wood and woven reeds, left unmoved by the tides. A sail hung from a pole, unraised. Hanno sat by the man’s side in silence and waited. The fishing rod never found bite, and the man’s only movement was the slow rise and fall of his breathing.
“They are not kind,” the stranger said, voice like grinding stones.
The boy considered this.
“I did not ask for kindness,” Hanno finally said.
“Whatever squabble brought you here, they will not care,” the old man said. “They do not give, child. They take and take and take until there is nothing left but smooth stone.”
“I have nothing,” Hanno said, and it was oddly liberating to speak the truth out loud. “I am nothing.”
“Five I have sent, in my day,” the stranger said. “None returned. Ashur is not loved by them, child. There is too much rot in the flesh, and the Seraphim despises that sin most of all.”
“Then I will not return,” the boy said. “What does it matter?”
“Might be that you do,” the old man darkly said. “My days run out. There is always need for a boatman.”
“You went,” Hanno said, and it was not a question.
“Aye,” the old man said, turning to offer a leering toothless grin. “I looked away, boy. If I can offer you advice, it is to fail utterly or not at all. The middle ground is the worst of it.”
A shiver went down his spine.
“I will tread to the end of the path,” Hanno murmured. “No matter what lays at the end.”
“Then offer me your obol,” the old man said. “I gave you fair warning.”
The rusted coin was in his hand before he reached for it, and he pressed it into the old man’s palm. Face a mask of grief, the stranger flicked his fingers and sent it spinning into the air. It fell into the sea without a sound or a ripple. Hanno slowly rose to his feet, making for the boat, but the old man clutched his arm feverishly and drew him close. His breath was foul.
“There is no riddle,” the stranger whispered. “Listen to me, boy, there is no riddle.”
The boatman released his arm, form shivering. He let out a cackle.
“What will you punish me with now, you old snakes?” he called out to the sky. “You have already done your worst. The only way left is down, and you are not so merciful.”
The boat was not moored. Hanno fled to it, distressed by the ugly rictus on the old man’s face. He knew not how to navigate, but raised the sail and pushed off. Where must he go, now? There was no path to follow on water. Wind caught the sail and the boat moved, dragging him away from Arwad and onto the sprawling sea. Was it sorcery or miracle that moved it? It did not matter. There was, he noticed then with quiet amusement, no tiller or rudder at the back. He had not been meant to find the way on his own. Days and nights passed, and though never did the ship end its journey neither did it come in sight of any shore. Hunger tore at his belly, ate away at his limbs. Thirst burned deep in his throat without even a drop of rain to quench it. Had it truly been been a fortnight? He could no longer tell, lying prone at the bottom of the boat and drifting in and out of consciousness. Hanno could barely even move, now, but death did not come. His skin darkened with the sun, grew rough like leather, and only when his ribs came to ache did he drift into his final sleep.
Hanno stood outside of himself, watching his silhouette brawling with another child’s. He remembered this, dimly. This was Barcalid District and he was nine years old. So was the other boy, the son of a digger in some inland mines. The whole family was born to the Twentieth Tier and would die to it – and even within that tier, they neared the bottom. The boy’s parents toiled in one of the mines where foreign prisoners were made to work through their sentences before release. Death came often and cheaply there, his father had once told him. Wasteland witch, the boy had called Hanno’s mother, looking for the approval of other children all the while. They cheered when Hanno struck him across the mouth. They tangled over stone, struggling wildly until Hanno kicked him in the stomach hard enough to make him puke. The others changed their colours with the turning tide, calling the boy weak-bellied and abandoning him to shiver alone in the street. The younger Hanno joined them, but the older one remained. He watched the boy wipe away angry tears and spit out the last of the vomit before dragging himself to his feet. He returned home, where no one awaited. Later that night his mother returned, and offered him the third of a black bread loaf before crawling into her bed to sleep. The father came back long after dark, smelling of liquor.
Don’t ever lose a fight again, the father said, and struck him across the mouth just as the younger Hanno had. The boy gritted his teeth and eventually fell asleep under threadbare blankets. The skies shifted and passed as Hanno watched the boy grow into a man, wed and have children of his own. Watched him strike others as he had been struck, violence begetting violence. Nothing lost and nothing learned. A life of fists without a single offered hand.
Hanno stood, and knew himself watched. There was no invitation, yet the expectation rang like a bell – and behind it awaited judgement. He would not, he suspected, be offered right to defend his actions twice. As the life of the boy began again, with young Hanno’s first blow rippling across his cheek, the older boy frowned. He had not sought that fight. Insult had been given. Neither was he at fault for the father’s sins, or the life delivered unto all of them. Where, then, did the fault lie? Ashur had birthed and raised them, but Ashur was but an assembly of Ashurans. Were they all complicit, then? Simply for being born? He could not find the fault in this, or the justice. Just people, acting as people always had and always would.
“Through ignorance, I contributed to evil,” Hanno Tierless said. “I ask not for absolution.”
What is the answer to the Riddle of Fault?
“I don’t know,” the boy whispered.
The voice had come from nowhere, and did not ask again. The world shifted once more, and Hanno stood a ghost again. He watched himself seated before twelve Ashurans in a sunny courtyard as a grey-haired woman asked him to denounced his mother without ever speaking her name. He watched six wings of copper erupt from his back, visible to none, and his gaze grow heavy with power. He watched himself render judgement upon the would-be judges, and find them wanting. I charge you, he heard himself say, with cruelty and indifference. I charge you with choosing law over right, with embracing blindness. As as his eyes shone, they could not weather the Light that came with it. Blindness embraced embraced them in return. He left that courtyard a righteous man, and brought that righteousness to all of Ashur.
“No,” Hanno said. “That, too, is evil.”
The boy he watched bore power, but he was not just. To mete out retribution upon those he found at fault was no different than what he had despised, in the end. It was only the judgement of power. The rule of strength, bereft of equity. There was no sin in law or the defiance of it, but to clothe retribution in the guise of justice was a thing of evil. What justice could there be, in the blind exertion of violence? To do such a thing would make him unworthy of the very strength being used.
What is the answer to the Riddle of Fault?
“Not this,” the boy whispered.
The world changed once more. This time, no vision or fantasy was put before his eyes. Only a collection of moments, all his own. Wrath, first. The wanton boiling of blood, the taste of victory in his mouth as his strength triumphed over that of others. Lust and envy came hand in hand, covetous eyes laid on women wed but still beautiful. Resentment in knowing they would never be his. The urgent press of lips against lips, the knowledge that the girl loved him but not him her discarded for the heat in his veins. Deeply buried hatred, for those who stood higher than him. Who ate better, who could decide their own lives. Who could see Creation with eyes instead of scrolls. Disgust and fear at tierless beggars. The ugly press of reassurance when violence was dealt to make them leave his sight. Pride at his skill with a quill, at his cleverness and memory. The unadmitted contempt for those less blessed. Kindness offered only for his own pleasure, for the thrill of knowing himself good. Taking bread from his father’s portion, telling himself he had earned it more. Moment after moment came before his eyes, and Hanno Tierless knew himself to be a ghastly soul.
The urge was there to look away, to end the parade of shame. The burn of the admissions did not grow easier with the number, every one fresh and acute. What utter arrogance, to have thought it possible for him to be worthy of any power at all. Hanno looked at the plain writ of his life, the parts of it he had taught himself to ignore brought to light, and found nothing of worth. Not a single selfless speck of dust. All his life he had worshipped at the temple, kneeling beneath the Faces, but all he had ever offered was sordid mockery. Faith picked and chosen, made hollow by his very nature. It did not matter, that there were worse men and women. Not here before the Seraphim. He was being made to answer for his own life, cut clean of all ties and deceptions. Hanno would have asked for forgiveness, but there was nothing to forgive but imperfection and imperfection would always be his lot.
What is the answer to the Riddle of Fault?
Hanno was clever, well-learned and discerning. He knew the words of the riddle, the three judgements and the indecision of the king. One judge offered order. Another offered excuse. The last offered mercy. Reason whispered to him that there was fairness to be found. A path between, where justice could be glimpsed. Let both the lady and the servant answer for their sins, the matter separate. Balance between the three judgements, wisdom found between the extremes. But it was the wisdom of a mortal, and Hanno had been taught the weakness of it.
“The fault lies with the king,” Hanno Tierless said. “For believing himself capable of justice.”
They showed him, then. What it was they saw.
The endless shifting tapestry that was all the decisions that were made and could be. The impossible lay of action and consequence, of motive and result. It was too much. It was too much for him to see, to understand. The boy screamed, felt all that he was fray as he glimpsed a whole he had never been meant to glimpse. The sum of all that was and would be, the culmination of endless paths. Hanno felt feathered wings envelop him, cold arms of metal embrace him closely. He was blind, now, and had never felt more blessed.
“Do not be afraid, child,” a voice whispered into his ear. “You are now beyond fear.”
“We give you nothing.”
“We take everything.”
“You will win no honours.”
“You will know no love.”
“You will find no peace.”
“Hanno of Arwad, we claim you.”
“Truth and sum and whole.”
“We charge you with service unending.”
“We burden you with unknowable mandate.”
“You will weep without solace.”
“You will die a thousand deaths.”
“But in the end, you will rise.”
We anoint you our White Knight.
Instrument of Judgement, Doom of the Wicked.
The Seraphim embraced him, and it felt like home. Like clarity and scales ripped from his eyes, never to grow again.
The boy woke to a thumb and a forefinger hoisting him by the scruff of the neck. Dark eyes large as boulders studied him curiously. The giant let out a breath like a gale.
“Man-child,” it said. “You reek of the Seraphim, yet you live. Curious. Have you come to deliver sentence onto the Gigantes?”
In his palm lay a silver coin. One side bore laurels, the other crossed swords. He knew this to be true without laying eyes upon it. The boy considered the question he had been asked.
“I,” Hanno slowly said, “do not judge.”