So I've had writer's block since January, and then on the morning of my birthday I woke up, sat down at my computer, and banged out an 8,000 word short story.
BEST BIRTHDAY PRESENT EVER! THANK YOU, MY BRAIN!
Original fantasy, featuring the protagonist from a different novel I'm working on, back when he was a scandalous young man instead of a scandalous older man. Much gratitude to
I had my earliest brush with Sedekevran justice while I was working at Black Scaggs, toward the end of my first summer in the capital, and three weeks before my sixteenth birthday. The timing would prove to be extremely unfortunate.
I was working downstairs in the common room, cleaning tables left in the wake of the supper rush. The crowd was quieter now, thinned down as it was to only the committed drinkers, and so it caused a brief stir of alarm when the front doors burst violently open.
The group at the door was a cadre of guardsmen, three or four stern, burly men who stalked in and immediately swept the room with unsmiling eyes. Here on business then―not an uncommon occurrence. The proprietors of Black Scaggs had been in and out of trouble for as long as I’d been there, scandals that ran the gamut from counterfeiters in the back room to a man who got dead in a brawl right there on our doorstep.
Oh, Mistress Lissa, what have you been up to this time? I wondered idly as I finished stacking the dirty plates and mugs. It didn’t occur to me that the guards might have come on my account, so I paid them scant heed as I swept back round to the counter to exchange empty mugs for full ones.
The guardsmen were talking to Elisse, the owner’s wife, who had come out from the back and was listening to them in silence, distractedly twisting her apron in her hands while a worried line creased the center of her brow.
“…required to present as a witness before the Fairwarden Court of Justice…” I heard the guardsman saying as I squeezed past their entourage to get to the counter. It was, to my untutored ear, a jumble of legal jargon that I neither followed nor cared to.
Suddenly a hand came down heavily on my back, deftly twisting my collar to catch me in a firm grip, as one would restrain a wayward kitten. “Is this the boy? Keilja?” he demanded of Elisse.
Elisse glanced at me unhappily, but jerked her head in a tight nod. “Yessir.”
It was my family, I thought with a wild surge of panic, for in that first moment I couldn’t conceive of anyone else who would take an interest in me. My family had finally tracked me down and now I was going to be dragged back to Linshore whether I would or no, for whatever punishment my father wished to devise.
Then I realized that they were asking me about someone else.
“Beg pardon?” I managed.
“Halirey Camden,” the guardsman repeated with exaggerated patience. “Do you know a man by the name of Halirey Camden?”
I hadn’t yet guessed the nature of the game. “No sir,” I replied in honest confusion.
He huffed with annoyance and snapped his fingers at one of the other guardsmen, beckoning preemptorily, and a moment later a creased roll of oilpaper was handed over. It was unrolled and thrust before my face to reveal a sketched likeness of, as it turned out, a man I did know.
Knew intimately, if you will.
Now I understood their purpose here, but the revelation came too late for me to school my expression and they could see it plainly when enlightenment dawned on me.
“Ah, I see you do know him,” the guardsman said, self-possession returning with his satisfaction.
“He eats here regularly, sir,” I tried, nodding innocently toward the common room. Inwardly I winced as soon as I said it, for furnishing him with innuendo that any of the girls here would have taken and run with, but―small mercies―the guard was not of a like mind. “What has this to do with me?”
Robven’s law protected whores, I told myself, my mind working furiously. Even if they’d taken this man―Camden, apparently―for sodomy, they couldn’t take me. Or that was the belief I’d always acted under, but now I was seized by a sudden rush of doubt. Who had told me that, after all? The girls working here? The closest they came to knowledge of law was having fucked a legal clerk a time or two. I had never seen this statute in writing, had never heard of it being upheld in court.
The guard looked tolerantly amused, as though I were dissembling for his entertainment. “What does it have to do with you?” he inquired, slightly mocking. “Lord Camden will be appearing before the Fairwarden justice on the nineteenth, at two in the afternoon, to answer accusations of sodomy, and you will be there to testify to having unnatural acts practiced upon your person. You’ll receive three shillings for your trouble.”
“I―no thank you, sir, I don’t need the money,” I said stupidly.
His brows went up in theatrical surprise, though the eyes beneath them had hardened, as though he were fast losing his enjoyment of me. “What a generous and civic-minded lad you are then, to do your patriot’s duty with no thought of recompense.”
“No sir,” I managed with difficulty, all too aware of the size of the guards boxing me in and the authority of the man I was speaking to. “I mean I shan’t testify.”
His face hardened, all trace of humor gone, and he stepped in closer, bringing all his superior size to bear as he loomed over me.
“Yes, you will,” he corrected me in a voice gone quiet and low with menace. “Or else you will be appearing before the Fairwarden justice at half-past two on the nineteenth to answer accusations of sodomy, do you understand me?”
“You―you can’t prosecute me,” I protested weakly. “Robven’s law…”
“Robven’s law declares that prostitutes are not to bear responsibility for sexual misconduct committed at the behest of their clients, it does not protect kirilines,” he snapped. “Everyone in this damned tavern knows you let Camden fuck you, so whether or not Robven’s law even applies to you hinges entirely on whether you admit to taking coin for your services. Now, I have better things to do with my time than waste it prosecuting one Scarswicke whore, but―so I swear it―if you will not cooperate in Camden’s conviction, I will make the time.”
Stunned, I scarcely noticed as the man holding my collar finally released me and the others began to move off.
“Afternoon of the nineteenth,” the guardsman reiterated as he turned to leave, clapping me on the shoulder with a hand as heavy as justice. “Someone will come round to collect you.”
Elisse, kindly, did not send me back to work at once. She disappeared briefly into the back while I stood at the counter trying to gather my scattered wits, and returned to press a cup into my hand. “Drink up, lad, it’ll steady your nerves.”
I brought the cup to my lips automatically, because somewhere along the line I’d learned to drink the piss-awful beer at Black Scaggs, but this was apparently the advancement of my education because I came away choking on a mouthful of brandy.
Elisse patted me sympathetically on the back while I recovered myself, gasping at the shock and the burning heat of it.
“Thank you,” I managed after a bit, surprisingly without sarcasm. Once the initial burn faded, I did feel somewhat bolstered.
She said nothing, just rubbed soothing circles on my back. For lack of other distraction I kept my eyes on the cup in my hands, watching light glimmer across the surface of the dark liquid.
At last I sighed. “Elisse, what am I going to?” I asked, feeling lost.
“You’re going to testify,” she replied, not happy but resigned to it.
“I don’t want to.”
In the corner of my eye, I saw her glance at me. “Are you in love with him?”
“No. That’s not the point. I would send no man to Fairwarden for being kiriline.”
“From where I’m standing, it doesn’t look like you have much of a choice.” She drew a deep breath and then pushed herself up off the counter, heading back toward the kitchen. “When you finish your brandy, you’ll want to check the men by the hearth, they’re looking thirsty again.”
Which was her tacit hint that I’d gotten as much time to collect myself as I was likely to receive.
I spent the rest of that day and the next revisiting my memory of that conversation with the guardsman. At the time I hadn’t been able to muster sufficient presence of mind to argue with him, taken by surprise as I was, but on closer inspection I began to notice a number of discrepancies in what he’d said.
First of all, did Robven’s law protect kirilines or did it not? The guardsman had declared that it didn’t, but then immediately gone on to imply that I would be absolved of Camden’s crime if I named him as my client, but jailed as his willing accomplice if I didn’t―the very action of Robven’s law. Which was it, then?
Secondly, if I did refuse to testify, and they decided to try me for the same crime, how did they expect to bring about a conviction? If my eyewitness testimony was needed to convict Camden, then whose testimony would they use to convict me? Did they actually have evidence to try me on, or was that threat just so much bluster?
And lastly, why did they need my testimony at all? As I understood it, there were mages in abundance who could judge the truth or deceit in men’s words, and a great many of them employed by the courts. They should have been able to hang Camden on his own testimony, without requiring corroboration from―as the guard so cogently put it―one Scarswicke whore.
What I needed was someone in possession of the hard facts, not inheritor to the vast body of speculation, hearsay, and outright misinformation that made up the common man’s understanding of the law. Fortunately, Black Scaggs served all types.
There was a man I knew to be educated in law, a secretary by the name of Clyne who came in sometimes for drinks or a tumble upstairs with one of the girls, and who was reasonably tolerant of me. I resolved to speak to him at the earliest opportunity, but it was four anxious days gone before he finally turned up for supper.
“Your beau’s here,” Sally announced as she sailed into the kitchen one evening when I was filling beer steins from the tap.
“What?” I said. Which one? might have been a more apt question.
“The man whose company you’ve been breathlessly longing for lately,” she answered with pantomime drama, reminding me anew why Sally was not my favorite of the lot.
I frowned. “You mean Clyne?”
“Don’t see anyone else who’s set your maidenly heart aflutter.” She planted her elbows on the counter, picked up a mug and downed half of it while my hands were too full to stop her.
I was annoyed, but let it pass. “Who’s got his table?”
“Lizzie. Though last I checked she was about to go upstairs.”
Overriding Sally’s complaints, I pressganged her into taking over the beer for me and went in search of Lizzie. I found her in the small closet beneath the stairs where the girls and I spruced up before and after clients, the only reliable square of privacy on the premises. She was hunched in front of the spotty, palm-sized mirror on the wall, touching up the rouge on her lips by the wavering shadows of a rushlight.
“It’s just going to come off, you know,” I observed, stooping to join her in the low, claustrophobic space and closing the door carefully behind me.
“And a goodly number of men like where it ends up.” She pressed her lips together in the glass, made a moue, and then turned around to face me. “You want to talk to Clyne,” she said astutely, capping the pot of rouge.
“He’s the only one I know to ask. Could I trade tables with you?”
“Oh, I’m sure he’d love that,” she returned with a small laugh. She smiled and shook her head, running her hands through her hair to give her curls some life. “Nope, tell you what though, you’ve got until I’m done upstairs to interrogate Clyne―and if Maggie catches you shirking, I’ll tell her you were covering for me.”
“You’re a true friend, Lizzie,” I said solemnly.
She dimpled. “Don’t I know it.”
I turned to leave, but the light pressure of her hand on my arm stopped me. When I glanced back, her smile had fallen away and the unflattering rushlight brought out the lines in her face, usually masked by powder. I’d known she was among the older of the girls, but she didn’t often look it.
“Keilja, try not to get your hopes up,” she cautioned gently. “You’re not the first boy to find yourself in this particular fix, and you won’t be the last. I don’t know that Clyne will be able to tell you anything helpful.”
She was right―if there was a loophole, surely someone would have found it by now. But even so, I had to know for certain; nothing could be gained by ignorance. After a few moments’ silence, she let me go and I headed back to the kitchen to arm myself.
“Whoa now, I’ve no use for the likes of you,” Clyne joked when he saw me approaching their table, to the general amusement of his drinking mates. He frowned a bit and moved to try and look past me. “Where’s pretty Lizzie?”
“Doing me a favor, she’ll be back in a bit,” I said. On the table in front of him, I laid down a mug of beer that he hadn’t bought. “Master Clyne, I need some legal advice.”
“Here’s a piece of advice,” one of his friends put in, already laughing at his own incipient brilliance. “Don’t get caught!”
Clyne stopped looking for Lizzie. His gaze sharpened and moved to me, flicking over my person and no doubt taking in my current state of liberty. “What’s the matter?”
“Robven’s law,” I asked bluntly, “does it apply to kirilines?”
He hesitated, then let out his breath in a stymied little sigh. “Yes and no.”
“Isolde’s tits, which is it?” I demanded, exasperated past bearing. I’d asked any number of people and had yet to get a clear answer.
“It’s both, lad, which is why I said so,” Clyne replied quellingly. He glanced briefly at the kitchen, turned a wary eye on the implicit bribe before him, then sighed. “Though I suppose if you’ve a few minutes to spare, I could explain it.”
I didn’t, or I hadn’t asked for them anyway, but I made up my mind and sat. “I’m listening,” I said.
Ignoring the bemused wisecracks of his colleagues, Clyne laid out Robven’s law for me. Largely it was what I already knew―that King Robven, some sixty years back, had been immensely sympathetic to the plight of prostitutes (and oh yes, had weathered his fair share of prurient speculation about the root of those sympathies) and argued that it was a profession of last resort, for the downtrodden and the desperate, and that of any crime committed in the execution of their livelihood, they were its victims and not its perpetrators. Robven drafted legislation to that effect and managed to ram it through the Council of Lords, and once it was law no one had been sufficiently motivated to reverse it.
Granted, I didn’t consider myself particularly victimized, but if that were the argument one chose to advance, then surely it would apply to men in the trade no less than women. When I said as much to Clyne, he agreed that the spirit of the law would seem to favor me.
“The rub, however, lies in the letter of it,” he went on. “The law states that charges shall not be brought against a whore for sexual misconduct committed in the course of her duties, for acts performed at the demand of her client.”
I began to see the difficulty.
“Surely there have been past cases of kiriline whores taken to court?” I asked.
“Oh aye, there’s precedent. But the rulings have gone both ways, usually depending on the wealth and influence of the players involved.”
I sat back, dismayed. I had been expecting the truth to clarify matters, but it had only muddied them further.
“In short, you can’t rely on Robven’s law for absolute protection, not like the girls can,” Clyne said, not unkindly. “It’s enough to keep the watch from going after you in the regular course of things, as they can’t be sure of sealing a verdict, but make no mistake, they have the advantage of you should they ever choose to press it. Generally they’re content to hunt bigger game, and let boys like you be the stalking-goats.”
Bigger game, like Camden. Who was apparently a lord of some sort, though I’d never known him by that name or that title. Men who frequented kiriline whores tended to be circumspect―much good it had done him.
I told Clyne about the visit the guardsmen had paid us the other day, and what they were demanding of me. Lizzie was back but didn’t chase me off when she delivered Clyne his supper, so he ate and listened without interruption. After hearing me out, he professed himself unsurprised.
“If this man’s a lord, then he’s probably received some degree of instruction in magic,” Clyne replied when I asked why the court mages couldn’t just take the truth out of Camden directly. “They judge truthfulness by examination of a man’s aura, and there are measures mages can take to render themselves immune to such scrutiny. Camden’s likely proof against it.”
Now that was the best idea I’d heard all day. Show me how it was done and I’d take those measures in a heartbeat, and then perjure myself before God and sovereign to say that Camden had never touched me.
I don’t think Clyne realized I had an aptitude for magic, because when I made that suggestion he was amused rather than alarmed. “Do that, and you’ll find yourself in Fairwarden legitimately. No one is permitted to undergo the procedure without special warrant from the king himself.”
“Well, what about his other threat?” I pressed. “He can bring me up on charges, but if I won’t stand witness against Camden, then there’s no one to stand witness against me, is there? How does he expect to bring a verdict?”
“Oh, he can’t and he knows it,” Clyne admitted candidly. “What he can do is make your life a misery, and you would do well to remember that. If he brings charges, then you’re in Fairwarden until they get around to sending you before a magistrate―which, if they’re doing it for spite, could take months. Believe me, a boy like you would not enjoy prison.”
I doubted anyone would enjoy prison, but I took his meaning.
In the silence that followed, Clyne used the opportunity to wet his throat while I mulled over this new intelligence. His friends had long ago lost interest in our discussion and turned away to engage a nearby table in conversation, leaving us a sphere of relative privacy.
“What happens to Camden if he’s convicted?” I asked at last. “What’s the punishment for sodomy?”
His mouth full, Clyne shot me a baleful look as if to say, A young man in your profession, and you really don’t know? He swallowed and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Depends on the magistrate. Work term, most likely. A sympathetic judge might give him as few as three years, a hard one as many as eight. Worst case? Castration and branding, if it’s determined that any of the boys he frequented were underage.”
Ten days to Camden’s trial. Three weeks to my sixteenth birthday.
Clyne’s spoon was halfway to his open mouth when he caught sight of the look on my face and stopped dead. “Oh, Keilja,” he whispered harshly, his spoon coming back down with violence as he correctly interpreted the horror in my expression. “Oh, you idiot, idiot boy. And that poor bastard.”
So, just as I’d learned that there was no way for me to protect Camden, the imperative to do so had become that much greater.
He didn’t know that I wasn’t of age; no one did. When I arrived in the capital I was starting afresh and I’d told everyone that I was sixteen. The only document that could prove otherwise was the village register in Linshore, and that was a hundred miles farther away than anyone was interested in going. I hadn’t anticipated that my own word could be used to betray me.
Because in the course of prosecution they were bound to ask my age. I would be forced to admit that I was fifteen, and then Camden would be convicted of not only sodomy but also child-rape, to be deprived of his manhood and forced to wear the shame of it branded on his face for the rest of his days.
And, though I felt unworthy for even thinking it, when word got out that I was underage―and I was under no illusions that it wouldn’t―that would effectively spell the end of my income, at least for a long time to come. Before this crisis arrived, I’d calculated that two more months of working tables and upstairs at Black Scaggs would give me the money I needed to start paying tuition at Wickmoor. Now that was in the dust along with everything else.
Truth be told, it was already cutting into my earnings. Word was getting around that I’d been pressed into testimony and men I’d known before were now avoiding me out of a superstitious sort of dread, as if bad luck were catching. Furthermore, my own conscience bullied me into declining the few offers that did still come my way.
Like the offer from a man named Tarwyn, one of the few patrons who occasionally made use of both my services and that of the girls. I knew him to be a working mage of some sort, for the crescent tattooed under his eye and the scars on his hands, but he’d never brought up his work and I’d never asked him to teach me anything. The one time I’d begged (bullied, blackmailed) such instruction from a client, I had learned second ki-mandhari, but the experience left a bad taste in my mouth and a reluctance to tell anyone else about my ambitions. Mages appreciate magic in their colleagues―not so much in their whores. In any case, when Tarwyn made an overture that night, I felt obliged to decline.
“You’d best go with Sophie tonight, love,” I told him with some regret. “I’m afraid I’m under a blight at the moment.”
Tarwyn had sharp, dark features, his expression permanently sardonic, though not unattractively so. At that, his satyr’s brows flew up. “Oh?” he inquired. “Should I take that to mean you have the pox again?”
“Piss off,” I shot back mildly, flicking at him with the towel tucked into my belt.
He caught the tip of it and reeled me in, wrapping his arm around the back of my thighs and cupping a hand securely over my arse. “For a night with you, Keilja my sweet, I would gladly suffer the itching of a thousand poxes,” he informed me with mock solemnity, punctuating his words with a squeeze.
I snorted and bumped him with my hip. “I’m not poxed, you randy bastard. I’m just not the wisest company to be seen in right now.”
That sobered him. “Oh?”
“I’ve been called to court, to testify against a… regular patron of this establishment,” I said carefully.
He could read between those lines easily enough, and knew as well as anyone that I had little say in the matter.
“I see,” he said, sounding ruffled. “Well. That is a blight indeed.” He gave my bum another squeeze, though it felt more sympathetic than lascivious this time.
“Isn’t it just.” I let myself lean on him in tired silence for a few moments before gently disengaging. “I wish I had a fifth-mask,” I remarked without optimism. Fifth-mask, as I’d learned, was the name of the spell that interfered with the ability to read auras.
Tarwyn hmphed. “That only makes you look guilty.”
“I am guilty,” I said dryly. “I’d like to be able to lie and say I’m not.”
“Thought you said it was someone else on trial, not yourself?”
“I think we’re all on trial. Robven’s law doesn’t protect kirilines,” I said, more bitterly than I’d intended. I’d certainly repeated that phrase often enough in the past week for it to be rote by now.
“That it doesn’t, my sweet,” Tarwyn agreed with a sigh. “That it doesn’t.” His voice had grown oddly subdued and he was frowning intently in the general direction of the kitchens. Now he looked up at me abruptly. “When do you go to court?”
“On the nineteenth.”
“Come here,” he said curtly, motioning me down to him with a sharp jerk of his fingers.
“Let me tell you something about fifth ki-mandhari,” he began, his voice low. Ki-mandhari was the family of spells used to perceive magic visually; five was the spectrum for human auras. “What you need to know, if you’re going to try to play the system, is that it’s not as black and white as most folks think it is. Fifth-form doesn’t measure dishonesty―nothing does. Fifth-form shows them your psyche in its entirety, which is vastly more complicated and a field of study all its own, but for court purposes, what they’re looking at is clarity versus conflict. Lying, by definition, means holding two narratives in your head: the one that’s true, and the one you’re telling them. That makes it impossible to lie with clarity of thought.
“But the bottom line is this: there’s not a spell in the world that can tell them whether or not the things you’re saying are actually true. All it tells them is whether you think it’s true.”
I’d leaned in close to listen, but now I drew back, feeling as lost as ever. “So what does that mean for me?”
“It means,” he said, fixing me with a significant eye, “that you have three days to convince yourself that you’re innocent.”
Convince myself that I was innocent―easier said than done. And yet I had to think that Tarwyn wouldn’t have suggested it if it weren’t possible.
The notion of subjective truth was a philosophical question I hadn’t bothered to consider before, but it explained a great deal about the courts, namely why they still needed witnesses and barristers and trials and such when they had mages. When I stopped to think about it, I could easily imagine any number of cases in which the ability to read truth might not lend any clarity to a dispute. Anyone who’d ever witnessed an argument before could tell you that invariably both parties were absolutely convinced that God and righteousness were on their side. And if fifth ki-mandhari saw not objective truth, but relative truth…
Then that still did me no good, because the truth, both as it was and as I knew it, was that Halirey Camden had enjoyed my arse on a number of occasions, and now he was going to suffer for it. I could scarcely convince myself that it hadn’t happened, not at this late date.
I could run, of course. The thought had occurred to me, but I daresay it had occurred to the guards and the magistrates as well. My name and occupation were known, and I wouldn’t stay long unknown if I fled Black Scaggs and tried to take up in a different quarter of the city. If I were going to run, I might as well keep running all the way back to Linshore, and so much for my aspirations in the capital. It was my happiness, weighed against the misery that would be all of Camden’s life to follow.
As twilight fell on the day before the trial, I was still no closer to a solution. By unspoken agreement the girls had stopped asking about it, dancing around the subject as if mentioning it aloud would bring its curse down on the rest of them. The closest they came to acknowledging it was when Sally, in an unwonted kindness that she was awkward with, told me that she’d handle my share of the washing up and that I should get an early rest.
An hour later, when it was plain that there was no rest to be had, I abandoned the unoccupied bed I’d claimed and crawled barefoot out the window onto the roof.
It was temperate enough to be comfortable in my shirtsleeves, some lingering daytime heat still warming the slate tiles of the roof, but the scales had tipped toward autumn and the air carried that first, crisp hint of the season to come. Living in the city had almost made me forget what the world was like beyond it, swallowing up the rhythms of nature and burying them under brick and mortar, but in weather like this you could taste the earth again.
I carefully climbed to the ridge of the roof and settled myself astride it for balance. Black Scaggs occupied no prime piece of real estate, but from this vantage I could see fully half the city. Below me, the neighborhood of Scarswicke was a jumble of darkened houses and tenements, their residents in general too poor to afford the candles or magelights that glimmered on the far bank of the Merhen. Traffic on the river was sparse at this late hour, but a few boats continued to ply their trade, lanterns winking on the water as they ferried a few straggling passengers from one side to the other.
From here I could see Fairwarden too, if I looked for it. It lay across the way in Hazywake, half a mile or so upstream, rising from the river’s edge like the gilded edifice of a temple. At this distance I could make out few details of the architecture, only the magelight that made it blaze as bright as day and cast a rippling mirror image of itself onto the dark surface of the water. There was probably a metaphor in there somewhere, but it was one I was in no mood to appreciate, not with the very real possibility that I might soon find myself looking out from a window in Fairwarden and trying to determine which distant bump was Black Scaggs.
I still had no idea what I would do on the morrow―but apparently I had little patience for deluding myself, because no sooner had that thought crossed my mind than cold logic checked my self-pity.
For I’d already made my choice, hadn’t I? Simply by staying I’d decided that tomorrow I would be going before the court and testifying to the “unnatural acts practiced upon my person,” because I was too much in love with this city to leave it for Camden’s sake. I would testify, and then he would be lucky to escape a lynching, or the rough, unofficial justice of prison.
Unnatural acts, I thought bitterly, turning my eyes from Fairwarden. Just leave me to my shame, and let us alone to sin in peace.
Not everywhere were kirilines so reviled. In the Highlands to the south, they still cherished the classical ideal of young comrades-at-arms, sharing friendship and love in every sense of the word. Kailen Akeinoi himself, the great Highland hero who slew Zetsa Dharakima and drove back Ambidian’s armies, had loved so; the story Kailen’s love for his liege-lord and his grief at the man’s death was their nation’s most celebrated tragedy.
Nor was it a crime in Watertree, that bastion of heathen decadence so roundly excoriated by the Isoldics, where all manner of sexual depravity was allowed to flourish. To hear the priests talk, one could only wonder how they found the time to build an empire amidst all their rampant fornication.
It was only in the Norslens that I could be called to account for my sins, for this crime that was not a crime anywhere else.
And that was when I suddenly saw it―the path that had maybe, just maybe, been left open to me.
“I have committed no sin,” I whispered, scarcely daring to try the words aloud. I have no idea what a mage looking at my aura would have seen, because the words seemed divorced of any meaning then, like nothing more than a chain of carefully-shaped syllables.
“There have been no unnatural acts practiced upon me,” I whispered. My heart was pounding as hard as if I stood before the magistrate already. “I have nothing to be ashamed of. I have done nothing wrong.”
And for one brief, dizzying moment I could grasp what it meant to believe that.
The day of the trial dawned bright and clear, though I’d slept little and passed the morning like a sleepwalker. As promised, a guardsman came round Black Scaggs to escort me to the Fairwarden Court of Justice, located conveniently adjacent to the prison of the same name. From there I passed through a staggering number of hands, lost in a blur of bewildering procedure and mounting dread, before I finally found myself taking the stand in a vast room that closer resembled my notion of a madhouse than a courthouse.
There was the magistrate himself, of course; also the court mages, a panel of three to provide consensus and prove that they could not be bribed, except perhaps comprehensively; there was a regular starling flock of clerks and assistants who never stopped darting to and fro among the participants; there were the barristers and students, somber, dark-garbed men who watched the proceedings with the jaded eye of connoiseurs; the broadsheet writers who half-dozed over their foolscap, keeping one ear cocked for stories that could be spun into scandals; and then the raucous crowds of the upper galleries overhanging the courthouse floor, where gathered men and women of every sort who apparently found the courthouse as diverting as the stage and a good deal cheaper.
I was the third and final witness. It hadn’t occurred to me that others might also be called in to verify Camden’s guilt, but so they had. Two of them, city-bred boys, one seventeen and one nineteen, both confirming before the court that Camden was guilty of everything he’d been accused of. There was nothing in their manner to suggest where their true sympathies lay, but I noticed that neither of them looked once at the box where Camden stood, his hands shackled in front of him.
And then it was my turn. By now it was plain that there was no saving him from a work term, not with the testimony of the other two, but perhaps I could spare him anything worse. As I took the rail, I was keenly aware of the figure I cut, thin and shabby and indistinguishable in the eyes of the onlookers from any other young Southbank ruffian. I was glad I’d at least had the foresight to wear a cap and neckerchief, so I didn’t look quite so much a tart.
I stated my name for the court, Keilja Esterlyn. That was the unimaginative surname I’d claimed when I needed to reinvent myself upon arriving in the capital, but apparently I’d used it long enough that it rang sufficiently true now. There was a rustle of movement from the panel of mages, and then three white cards came up as they confirmed my statement. White for truth, red for falsehood.
Then they asked my age.
I drew in a deep breath. “Fifteen,” I said evenly.
My eyes were fixed on the magistrate, but in the corner of my eye I saw Camden’s face jerk up in shock, heard a smattering of muted astonishment rising from the assemblage, mutters that turned into fully-voiced shouts when three white cards followed my pronouncement. The upper balconies were enthused by this turn of events, no doubt as riveting as any plot twist in a melodrama, and began loudly issuing their revised opinions of the defendant. Even the barristers and other officials had been goosed into an immediate flurry of consultation, because this would change the nature of the charges being brought against Camden.
He must think himself truly damned now. It remained to be seen whether he was right.
Eventually the magistrate regained order, saving his breath and instead slamming his staff against an anvil set into the floor, ear-splitting peals that continued until the galleries were forced to quiet in sheer self-defense.
The same court official who had questioned the other two boys came forward―a wizened, sticklike man with an ugly glint of triumph in his eyes now. He asked me in what capacity I knew Lord Camden.
“I work tables at a tavern in Scarswicke,” I said. My hands were clammy on the greasy wooden railing before me, my heartbeat so fast and shallow it was nearly a thrum, but my voice came out surprisingly steady. “Lord Camden was a regular patron there, until recently.”
“And what did Lord Camden solicit of you, while you worked at this tavern?”
I hesitated, then offered, “Beer?”
There was a ripple of mirth from the gallery. The prosecutor’s mouth turned down into a sour frown. “Anything else?” he inquired pointedly.
Here it was, then.
I swallowed and forced my stiff shoulders into a shrug. “Nothing untoward, sir.”
There was a long, fraught moment of silence, then a rustle of paper as a lone white card went aloft―uncertainly, as if it weren’t sure what it was doing there―and two more belatedly followed.
The prosecutor glanced over his shoulder to see it confirmed, then back to the rail where I stood, vexation writ large on his face. “You mean to say that Lord Camden made no indecent propositions to you?”
“No, sir. Lord Camden has always behaved in a most seemly and honorable fashion.”
For he had. He was courteous to me in the common room, a considerate lover upstairs, and uncommonly generous with his coin. As well he should be, the thought came to me giddily, since he’d turned out to be a peer of the realm.
There was another small commotion, but three white cards agreed with my assessment of Camden’s character.
It was working. I could scarcely believe it, didn’t let myself give rein to even a cautious hope yet, but the hard knot of fear in my chest started to loosen. Now I was silently praying for the magistrate to draw the obvious conclusion―that I had been called to the stand in error―and dismiss me before I could make any damning misstep.
The prosecutor, however, was unwilling to concede just yet.
“What is the name of the establishment where you are employed?” he asked, changing tack.
There was a solitary hoot from the balcony. Perhaps we had an admirer.
“Black Scaggs,” the prosecutor said, continuing when I did not. “A tavern in Scarswicke that enjoys a most ill reputation for gambling and licentiousness, catering to all the desires of idle and lustful men.”
That was precisely the kind of pompous moralizing that set my teeth on edge, and I found myself unwisely piqued into replying.
“Our reputation can’t be too ill, for our popularity suffers none,” I said caustically. The galleries found it diverting; the prosecutor did not.
“Keilja Esterlyn!” he thundered. “You will not make a mockery of this court. You are a widely known peddler of kiriline vice, and Lord Camden, as we have seen today, is an avid consumer of said vice!”
Widely known, was I? That was unsettling. The people in the balcony were making noise again, shouts and scattered boos, though I couldn’t tell if it was directed at the prosecutor or at me. I was beginning to suspect that they simply enjoyed disrupting the legal process as much as they enjoyed watching it.
The prosecutor ignored them, his focus all on me as he raised his voice to demand, “Do you deny having allowed him unnatural usage of you?”
I drew myself up and looked him squarely in the eye. “Yes, I deny it,” I said without flinching. “For I would suffer no shameful or unnatural acts to be practiced upon me; I have never done so, and never do I intend to.”
My knuckles had gone white where they clenched on the railing, for I was certain that at any moment someone was bound to call me out. Even if the prosecutor didn’t see it, surely someone else would. How in God’s name could they not, when the deception I played, the sophistry of it, seemed so blindingly self-evident? All he needed to do―all any of them needed to do―was to ask me directly, in plain words that allowed for no equivocation, Did Lord Camden put his prick in your arse?, and then it would all be over. The moments ticked by in an agony of dread as I waited for someone to unmask me, but seconds passed, then minutes, and still no one did.
Perhaps it was due to decorum, to a sense of propriety that kept them from using such blunt language in the courtroom―but in a larger part, I believe it was due to their complacent belief that there was no material difference between that and the euphemisms they employed.
Yet there was a difference. All of the prosecutor’s questions were variations on the same theme: whether I saw shame in my actions. Before taking the stand, I hadn’t been sure of the answer myself, but now I had found that I could, in all honesty, say no. And I did, again and again, as the prosecutor tried different circumlocutions and each time came back empty-handed. He was outraged and utterly perplexed, for apparently my reputation had preceded me and he couldn’t imagine that I might be innocent, but the cards kept coming up in my favor.
I looked now to where Camden stood shackled at his box. Through my testimony he’d neither spoken a word nor taken his eyes off me, and although I had felt the heavy weight of his regard, I hadn’t dared to steal a glance at him. His face was guarded but his eyes, open to me alone, were incredulous―for he of all people knew the full impossibility of what I claimed.
He was much changed from when I had seen him last. Though outwardly healthy enough, dressed to appear in court with his hair and beard trimmed, he was nevertheless thinner, his features grown haggard and hunted through his ordeal. There was an indefinable air of defeat that clung to him like a sickness, the despair of a man who knows himself to be abandoned as the wolves are closing in.
And maybe I’d been lying when I told Elisse that I wasn’t in love with him, or maybe it was some confused surfeit of emotion spilling over, but at the sight of him there, a hot, protective surge of anger ran through me. I wanted to take his face in my hands and kiss him in full sight of everyone, to say to them, He is loved, damn you. He has not been cast out to be your easy prey, to weather your scorn alone. He is a better man than you have the right to judge.
I felt it keenly then, the secret we shared and a sense of kinship that bound us together, the two of us alone against the mob that stirred restlessly around us, thirsty for blood as any invading army.
Unprompted, I addressed those assembled, “I don’t claim to know his lordship well, but in my acquaintance he has always conducted himself as a gentleman ought to, honest and honorable”―here I had to raise my voice to be heard as shouts from the galleries started to intrude―“and I believe him to be innocent of any crime! God keep you safe, sir.”
The courtroom’s tenuous peace broke for good then, the galleries going into an absolute uproar over this piece of theatre. Over the din, I heard the magistrate pounding his staff and issuing orders that I should be removed from the courtroom, that my testimony was irrelevant to this case―naturally, since they had no interest in the inventory of boys whom he hadn’t buggered. Nor were they keen to give me a platform from which to air my opinions on Camden’s virtues.
I remember several persons closing around me to hurry me out of the courtroom and into one of the cramped side corridors. The doors closed behind us, muffling the sounds from the courtroom, but even though thick oak and heavy stone I could hear the dull roar of the galleries as it went on and on and on.
I remember thinking that this was ostensibly my moment of victory and that I should have been flushed and heady with success, but instead I felt dazed, awash with every feeling except triumph. I was aware that there would be hell to pay later, that I’d generated far more of a stir than I’d intended to, and yet my worries about that were equally remote.
Instead, I was experiencing a curious moment of epiphany.
It is your own shame that they hang you with.
A shame that you acquiesce to, that you participate in, that you are every bit as complicit in as those who would wield it against you, for otherwise it would be powerless.
All my life I had accepted the judgment thrust on me, accepted that disgrace as my due. How could I not? Who was I to fly in the face of society’s collective wisdom, to declare that the kings, the priests, the magistrates of history were wrong, and that I, a provincial arriviste, knew better?
You have the choice to reject the cup they offer.
But in that wide-open moment I could see the full possibility in the revelation I’d only glimpsed the night before, the absolute freedom of being able to refuse the guilt and the shame they would have me feel.
I didn’t fully grasp the magnitude of the idea then, coming over me as it did in that dim hallway in Fairwarden Court, but it was a moment I would revisit many times in the years that followed. For happiness and hardship both, it irrevocably defined the man that I would become―the simple conviction that they could only shame me if I let them, and the resolution that I never would again.