“Fifth of all Choirs, sternest Judgement
They who cannot abide the repugnant;
None more farsighted than the Tribunal,
And none as even-handed or as brutal.”
– Extract from the ‘Hymn of Hymns’, Atalantian sacred text (declared heresy in Procer and Callow)
Anaxares had been a boy when he’d first heard the song of rage.
He’d been seven when thousands boiled through the streets of Bellerophon in wroth, for the lot-drawn iakas had mismanaged the People’s wheat and rationing was announced. He’d heard myriad voices howling out the same displeasure, like a great beast made up of an entire city, and it had been a thing of awe. So many voices, all telling of the same belief: this may be, yet this is not how it should be. The iakas were dragged out one and all, and before the citizens they had failed were made to answer for that failure. Tribunals were called by the People, held by the People, and the People handed down their bloody verdict. As a boy he’d watched the fear on the faces of the iakas with curiosity, but it had felt distant. Like a glimpse of another world entirely. His own was easier grasped for it was made up of the pounding of a thousand feet, the shouts of a thousand throats. The people, he’d dimly grasped then, were the river that carried them all. No single man nor woman could command the current, and like any capricious river-god it could bathe or drown as its whims demanded. What purpose was there to fear, when naught of this could be changed? And so Anaxares the Diplomat had let the river take him where it would, beyond care or worry.
Yet the river had brought him to a shore where none of the people should ever know.
What a terrible thing it had been, to watch the sole thing he truly believed in turn against itself. Your services to the people have made you a Person of Value, the kanenas had told him. And in that blasphemous betrayal the seed of a greater folly was planted, for the People cast their vote for Anaxares the Diplomat and that worst of treasons saw him elected the Hierarch of the Free Cities. Long had he wondered of this, of the purpose to it. Could there even be one? Forbidden to take his own life through action or inaction by the decree of the People, he had been left to wallow in the absurdity of his continued breath. And with every moment the world had hounded him for further treasons, flies swarming to him like they would to carrion. Named and kings and queens, princes high and low, a buzzing flock of foreign despots that wanted him to sit at their table and pretend they were anything more than ticks sucking the blood out of those they claimed to be ruling. And all the while Kairos Theodosian, Helike’s bloody son, had taken the spurs to his flanks until this day came. This hour, this moment, this reckoning for all the many balances left uneven.
Anaxares was not blind. He knew well the Tyrant had paved the road to this for his own foul reasons. It did not matter to him, for the destination was of his own choice, and no part save that one weighed on the scales. It’d been a choice forged in that terrible, lucid moment where the creature that called itself the Wandering Bard had tried to clap him in chains, but he had not grown to regret it since. Anaxares had been a boy, when he’d first heard the song of rage, but he heard it still as a man grown. It had stayed with him, seeped into his bones, and as the great despots of the east and the west entered under his watchful gaze the tune was so loud he grew deaf to all that was being spoken. The Tyrant flew above on his gargoyle-carried throne – a familiar twitch of revulsion went through him at the sight, the clenching muscle of Thrones Are An Unforgiveable Abomination Unto The People, To Be Met With Scorn And Thrown Rocks – and addressed the lot of them, weaving his exact truths into the finest of lies. The song ebbed low, though it did not leave, and the Hierarch cut in through the chatter.
“Be seated or you will be expelled,” Anaxares stated.
“Lord Hierarch,” a fair-haired woman said. “I greet you-“
The diplomat twitched.
“There are no lords in a court of the People,” Anaxares of Bellerophon coldly said. “Neither crowns nor the petty tyrannies of those claiming them are of any weight here. Be seated presently or you will be expelled-”
He did not know her name, unfortunately, and so glanced at the Tyrant in question. The mad boy grinned back.
“Cordelia Hasenbach,” the king of Helike helpfully provided.
Was she? It would explain why she might be under the mistaken impression her words carried authority here.
“Yes,” Anaxares said, “that.”
His eyes swept the crowd, recognizing only a single face: Catherine Foundling, the so-called Queen of Callow. The Black Knight of Praes was not here, which was displeasing. The man had also committed crimes under the laws of the League and would not have been unfit to stand trial today, were he present. A woman at the back of the pack, bearing a large unstrung bow, raised her hand.
“Speak,” Anaxares said.
“Is that the Dead King?” she asked, pointing behind him.
There did indeed seem to be some sort of crowned skeleton there, the Hierarch noted. It was holding a cup full of blood, which after a long moment he was forced to concede was not against any law he knew of. The diplomat once more cast a glance at the Tyrant, who equivocated with a wiggled palm.
“More or less,” Anaxares replied.
She raised her hand again, to his irritation.
“Speak,” he repeated.
“I see the Dead King got refreshments,” the woman said. “Which is most terribly unfair, as we have not.”
“That is not a question,” the Hierarch peevishly told her.
It was, however, true. And damning. Anaxares turned to glare at the Tyrant.
“My staff are on it,” the boy assured him.
It would suffice. He was not concerned with the matter beyond the perception of willingly allowed imbalance.
“I will not repeat myself a third time,” Anaxares bluntly said. “All attending must take their seats or depart.”
There was offended shuffling from the band of Avaricious Foreign Oligarchs, but they heeded the reminder. Not that the diplomat spared them much attention, not when the accused himself was stepping forward. The White Knight, Hanno of Arwad. No longer a citizen of Ashur by their own laws, inquiries to the Thalassocracy had established, and seemingly claimed by no one in particular. No one mortal, that was. The White Knight was a tall and solid man, plain of face but of calm bearing, and he strode to the stand reserved for the accused without need for prompting. Anaxares approved. He waited until the man stood amidst the gutted altar to Above before speaking up.
“I am Anaxares of Bellerophon,” he informed the Named. “The elected Hierarch of the Free Cities.”
“I know who you are, Anaxares the Diplomat,” the White Knight replied.
The afternoon sun filtered in though the stained glass and the gaping walls, casting the court in mixed and coloured light. It made the White Knight seem as if he had been painted on, as if this entire court of law was some delirious stretch of Arcadia. Anaxares remained seated at his table, facing the accused with a quill in hand and the parchments he had prepared for this day ready.
“Then you know why you stand now before me,” the Hierarch said. “A grievance was lodged by a member of the League concerning crimes you committed, and my judgement was sought over the matter.”
“I am not a citizen of any nation of the League,” the White Knight said.
That was true, and to be entered in the record, though of no repercussion on the proceedings.
“That is irrelevant,” Anaxares flatly replied. “Crimes committed against citizens of the League on the grounds of the League fall under its jurisdiction nonetheless.”
“I am told,” the Hierarch said, “that you willingly agreed to submit yourself to judgement.”
If so, that was a principled action. Not one that mattered in the slightest when it came to culpability, but the principle was laudable regardless.
“I agreed to stand trial,” the White Knight corrected.
“Then as is allowed the laws of the League of Free Cities, you are allowed to request someone to advocate in your name,” Anaxares said. “So long as they are a citizen of a member-nation, that is.”
“I have volunteered to serve as your defender, should you desire it,” the Tyrant called out. “Otherwise a band of seven candidates was arranged.”
Those had already been refused, which the boy knew even if he now implied otherwise, and so Anaxares made note of the Tyrant’s petty obstruction.
“Your candidates were judged unlawful,” the Hierarch reminded the Tyrant. “Gargoyles are not citizens, even when words indicating otherwise are painted on them.”
His gaze turned to the former Ashuran.
“While remaining here in containment, you have an hour to send for such an advocate should you so wish,” Anaxares informed him. “Or you may accept the offer of the Tyrant of Helike.”
“It was my understanding,” the White Knight said, “that it was the grievance of the Lord Tyrant that led to this trial.”
A moment passed.
“That is correct,” Anaxares conceded.
“I would seek to be impartial in both offices, naturally,” Kairos Theodosian cheerfully assured the accused, “You have my solemn vow in this.”
“A kind offer,” the White Knight drily said. “I will be serving as my own advocate, Hierarch. Who is to be my accuser?”
The song stirred at the man’s mellow manner, the way he seemed to take none of this seriously. Anger, anger the white-clad killer who had walked the Free Cities and killed as he pleased and never once thought there might consequence to this. That a Name and the blessing of angels set him beyond such petty matters.
“There is no accuser,” the Hierarch harshly stated. “Your crimes are not in dispute, they are a matter of known record as certified by sworn witnesses from Delos, Stygia, Helike and Nicae.”
“Then the actions you deem as crimes should be listed, should they not?” the White Knight said. “Unless you intend to simply pass sentence.”
“I deem or dismiss nothing,” the Hierarch said, grinding his teeth. “The law is writ, and known to any who care to know it.”
He brought forward the first parchment, his own familiar writing providing the list that the Named was asking for.
“Murder of citizens of Helike and Stygia is the first charge,” Anaxares said. “On one hundred and seventy-three counts assured, forty-two alleged with proof in only the second degree.”
Which was to say, less than two witnesses and no writ evidence.
“You speak of soldiers,” the White Knight said, “fought in time of war.”
“In time of war between members of the League of Free Cities,” the Hierarch said. “You are not a citizen, and so not legally part of such a war, unless you took coin as mercenary in the service of a lawful government. Do you here claim to have done so?”
“I do not,” the White Knight said, “though I worked in lawful accord with the Secretariat in the defence of Delos and with the permission of Strategos Nereida Silantis in the defence of Nicae.”
“The Secretariat has provided records that put truth to your words,” Anaxares acknowledged. “Basileus Leo Trakas, who speaks for Nicae, has declined to do so. Yet in the absence of payment from Delos that would qualify you as a mercenary in the employ of the Secretariat, the point is irrelevant. The askretis cannot absolve a crime, only abet it.”
Anaxares reached for his papers, where he had put to ink the names he could not all remember. There were many, some he had known when he was still entirely a diplomat.
“You also murdered sitting members of the Magisterium, the exact list of your victims being-”
“Has the Magisterium then made complaint to the League?” the White Knight interrupted.
The song rose in pitch at the interruption, not for the words themselves but at the disrespect for the trial they implied.
“It has not,” the Hierarch replied, brow creasing in displeasure. “It has, however, granted rights to another party to seek redress in its name.”
“That would be me,” the Tyrant gleefully said.
“That is correct,” the Hierarch agreed. “You have also attempted to murder the ruling king of Helike-”
“Also me,” the Tyrant added, still with unseemly glee.
“- and in the attempt claimed to hold the authority to pass judgement over King Kairos Theodosian of Helike,” Anaxares continued unflinchingly.
“That is incorrect,” the White Knight said.
Someone in the benches loudly cursed, but the Hierarch paid it no mind.
“Speak now, if you would amend the record,” Anaxares said. “It has until now been understood that in your role as the White Knight you spoke for the Choir to which you are sworn and passed judgement in their stead.”
Was the man now renouncing the authority bestowed upon him by the Choir, in an attempt to exempt it from consequence? If so, it was a cowardly thing.
“I do not judge,” Hanno of Arwad said, “and passed no judgement over the Tyrant of Helike. The judgement was passed by the Tribunal, and I sought to execute the sentence it as is my duty.”
The song, oh the song swelled. This was, Anaxares understood, so much worse than he had believed. Had the Tyrant known? No, that did not matter. Law was law, no matter what capering gargoyle brought it to the fore. Yet mistakes here could not be allowed.
“Clarify what you mean by ‘the Tribunal’,” the Hierarch ordered.
“The Choir of Judgement,” the White Knight replied.
“You then allege,” Anaxares slowly said so there could be no mistake, “that the Seraphim of the Choir of Judgement have claimed the right to pass judgement over citizens of the League?”
“It is not a subtle thing, what you attempt,” the White Knight told him. “Do you understand this? That you have not tricked or fooled any in this hall. That your intent is clear as day.”
“What I attempt,” Anaxares of Bellerophon softly repeated. “As if this were some sort of plot, a scheme against you or your masters. Is that what you believe, Hanno of Arwad? That the Seraphim and your service of them are owed abeyance? That the world entire is to twist and bend to your verdicts, unasked for and unsought?”
We are all of us free, the song whispered in his ear, or we are none of us free.
“Madness,” the White Knight said, “is no excuse for baring steel at the Heavens.”
“If the Heavens would have part in this trial,” the Hierarch coldly said, “they may be seated and silent, like the rest of the gallery. Speak not otherwise of those that cannot be called to account.”
“This will not end as you wish, Hierarch,” the White Knight calmly said. “Yet if you cannot be turned aside so be it: the Choir of Judgement acknowledges none to be beyond its jurisdiction, save for the Gods Above.”
The song filled him, up to brim, but that wroth was as much his own as the tune’s.
“There is no law, writ or known, that grants this right to the Choir of Judgement,” Anaxares of Bellerophon said with excruciating calm.
“And yet it is theirs nonetheless,” the White Knight said.
We are all of us free, the song hissed in his ear, or we are none of us free.
“No,” the Hierarch coldly said. “It is not. And if it would pretend otherwise, let it stand before this court and defend that crude arrogance.”
“I warned you,” the White Knight sadly said.
Power coursed around the court, first the distant weavings the Tyrant had laid around this place and then the blooming protections the tyrants high and low garbed themselves in out of fear. And then it came, the answer he had asked for. There was no ceiling above them, nothing save the cloudless blue sky, and through it the wroth of Judgement came down on him.
The Hierarch burned.
The Tribunal gazed down upon him, and its fury broke his bones and scoured his flesh. All around him shattered, even the very ground, and even as his body tore apart claws dug into his mind. Force him to look where they would, to see what they wished him to see. Before his eyes unfolded and endless shifting tapestry, made from all the decisions that were made and could be. The depth was… too much to grasp. The threads of every action and consequence, of the reasons and the endings. This was, the Hierarch grasped, what the Seraphim saw. The truth of their judgement. And as he tried to parse it, he felt his mind begin to unravel. He could have looked away. It would have spared him the horrendous pain going through every fiber of who he was. But that would be admitting that their judgement was right. That it was correct, for they knew things mortals could not. And so as he stared unblinking Anaxares of Bellerophon found oblivion snaking her arms around him. Oblivion, and with it would come rest. Would that not be a relief? And yet there was one thing he could not help but see.
It was a woman, carving words into a stele of stone that somehow reminded him of a great bird’s corpse. Around her was a sea of people in rags, thin and sickly and hungry. Yet there was something in their eyes, as they looked at the stele and the woman, that made him want to weep. And the words, oh the words he knew them. Every child born of Bellerophon knew them. All are free, or none. Ye of this land, suffer no compromise in this. The woman was wounded, bleeding within, and with the last letter she died. But the words, the words stayed. And as the city rose around them, around the stele, blood splashed stone. Suffer no compromise in this, the stele had told them, and so they did not. And they bled and they bled and they bled, and they bled but they never bowed. Not once did they look at the world, even at the very bottom of the pit, and bend their neck. It would have been easy, light as a feather. And perhaps they would have been better for it. And from mother to son, father to daughter, the words on the stele had carried down. Until they ended up told to a small boy, who one day would be a diplomat. Suffer no compromise in this, Anaxares thought, and the world sang it with him.
His body was a ruin yet there was a need for it, and so the Hierarch decided it would have to Mend.
Bones set back in place, soldered by will, and flesh knit itself anew. Teeth made by heat into black and broken stones flew back into his mouth as the table and the chair snapped back into place. The Hierarch of the Free Cities dipped his quill into the inkwell, tongue lolling out of his half-broken mouth as it reformed.
“This will be added to the record as evidence of guilt,” he informed the Choir.
Attempted murder of a sitting judge of the court, he penned. The Seraphim had expressed their displeasure yet not bothered to attend, but that would not be enough to spare them judgement earned. Mind clear and still as a pond, the Hierarch closed his eyes and allowed himself to Receive what he required. Silhouettes stood before his gaze, bearing each six wings of bronze and a conviction like a fire that nothing could put out. They gazed back, and in their fury struck again. The world broke, and Anaxares with it, but without pause it was mended anew.
“Petulance,” the Hierarch said. “I address now the Seraphim of the Choir of Judgement, also known as the Tribunal, and Indict you for the following crimes-”
They smote him again, and he mended. It did not matter, for now his Name sang and filled the world. As it had in Rochelant, a blank slate on which all could write their accusations and have them known by all.
“- despotism high and low, arrant and illegal intervention in League affairs, attempted regicide –”
The Tyrant of Helike was laughing, he realized as he mended anew.
“- disturbance of the court, three –”
It was desperate now, the burning that consumed him tinted with dismay.
“- four times,” the Hierarch adjusted. “And repeated attempted murder. Given the overwhelming evidence-”
It no longer hurt, the Hierarch mused as he mended, as if the ability to feel pain had been scoured out of him.
“- the verdict cannot be in doubt,” he continued. “I pronounce you guilty and sentence you to-”
The words choked in his mouth, for something has seized his throat. Not the Tribunal, no. It was a great presence but not that, and as the grip tightened around his throat the Seraphim prepared to strike again.
“I win,” Kairos Theodosian laughed.
And the grip was gone.