My heart pounded loudly in my ears. I wondered if the rest of the Sivvas assembled could hear it- a constant pulsing rhythm that was unnaturally fast. Each beat was almost painful. Somehow I held it all in as the guards walked me forwards. There was a platform in the center of the room, and a single chair that faced where the council sat. The metal bracelets hadn’t been removed, and I doubted that they would. They had not restrained me in any way yet, but then again, where would I run to that wasn’t blocked by countless other Sivvas?
We reached the chair, and one of the guards- a Sivva close to my age, named Kezec- gestured for me to sit. I complied. The rest of my guard force retreated, leaving Kezec standing behind me. In case I were to snap, like Karnax did.
Of course, I reminded myself that this was what they wanted me to do. A final way to prove my recklessness, my status as a traitor.
Remember, I told myself, no matter what they say, no matter what they do, do not lose your head! Stay calm. In control. A true Sivva to the end.
My first order of business was to regulate my breathing. It would do me no good to begin to hyperventilate, or show panic. That would just be labeled as weakness. Why weakness mattered so much to the Sivvas, I did not know- only that it was a large crime, which I could not afford to be held accountable for now- not when so much hate was already directed at me. I didn’t need scorn as well.
“Do you doubt now?” Miraza said from the council table. “You may say we are being unreasonable- was she not on trial a few weeks ago? Yet now you see her again in high trial before the entire Sivva body, and the council. The crime is serious, and the charges are set. This trial brings me no joy, but it must be done, for the safety of us all.”
I gritted my teeth. Enough with the speech. Get this over with.
I was gratified to see that I wasn’t the only one who appeared impatient. Several of the Sivvas shifted uncomfortably in their seats, while a few even shot me sympathetic looks, though they averted their gaze whenever I tried to meet their eyes to express my thanks. Eventually I gave up, returning my eyes to the council.
“What now remains,” Miraza was saying, “is for us to determine the proper punishment for her actions.”
Determine the punishment?!
I leapt to my feet, my instincts taking over. “You said I would receive a fair trial!” I yelled. “This is no trial- simply an attempt to publicly shame me in front of the entire Sivva population!”
“Be silent, Râegan!” she barked, slamming her hand down on the table. “You will not speak unless ordered to! Remember that you are already walking on coals- unless you wish to be burnt further, I’d advise you to tread with caution!”
Kezec- who was still standing behind me- put a hand on my shoulder and roughly pushed me back down into the chair, where I remained seated, still fuming.
“Now, as I was going to say before we were interrupted,” she shot me a malicious look, “We will give the accused one chance to defend herself. One chance. If what she says is not satisfactory, the punishment will be carried out. But if she can convince us of her innocence, then she is free to go.” She turned to look back at me. “The time is yours, Râegan. Convince us that you are not a liar, not a traitor as Karnax is. Otherwise, your punishment is death.”
Karnax leaned forwards, eagerly lacing his fingers together. This was the part he had been waiting for. The part where she spoke in her defense.
He cursed under his breath. Her name had been spoken twice, but it had fuzzed enough so that he couldn’t make it out. Of course she would have a scrying charm on it! He should have realized that earlier. It was a simple charm, but highly effective. No one could hear her name over scrying, it had to be said directly to the person, or it would be just distorted enough that the listener wouldn’t be able to make sense of her name. It was clever- and incredibly annoying. Her name was practically in his grasp, but at the same time it eluded him.
But that didn’t matter. Her name was, in the end, of little importance. It would be her common name they spoke- not her true name. His hope was that she might do something reckless- force them to invoke her true name. But at the same time, he was curious to see how she took her defense- and how the Sivvas would respond.
She was getting to her feet now, appearing as calm and unfazed as ever. It was as if she had never lost her composure in the first place. But he’d seen the outburst. Her temper could flare quickly- if things worked the way he planned, that would be useful to him. He knew she was incredibly powerful- that much had already been made evident. But what would she use this power for, given the chance? Would she bow to the council, or to him? That remained to be seen.
It was time. I rose to my feet, afraid that now, at the crucial moment, they wouldn’t be able to hold me. The last thing I needed right now- to add to the ever increasing list- was to collapse. I had already made one terrible mistake in letting my anger control me- if only for a brief moment. Now I had to fix the damage that I’d done, as well as the lies spread by Karnax.
“My respects to the council,” I said, bowing. “May I speak in my defense?”
“You may,” Miraza said firmly. “Proceed, and do your best to make us believe.”
I sighed, attempting to regulate my breathing again. Now was my only chance to speak, I couldn’t spoil it.
“I understand that much evidence has come against me,” I said evenly. “Anything I say may be considered a lie, but I will swear on my own life that my words are not. You may not believe me still, but there is little I can do about that.” I gathered my thoughts before continuing. “You believe I am allied with Karnax. The evidence that has been presented is convincing, yet lacking in certain areas. Let us begin with my capture. Why would I need to be captured by force if we were already allied? I am aware the deed was done by the Hâfléngs, but they were working with Karnax. I could not have lied about this, my mind was searched. In that selfsame search, I hid nothing, yet you found no evidence of any form of allegiance with Karnax. As you are aware, when we left, Karnax had nearly killed me. If I was a powerful ally of his, why would be take such a course of action? You say it might have been a ruse to trick you, but would he risk almost killing me, not knowing the time when you would arrive?”
There were a few murmurs, and glances were exchanged. Miraza gestured for me to continue.
Encouraged, my words began to flow more freely, gaining power and authority as I spoke. I was used to speaking in front of an audience- if I forgot that this was my trial, and spoke as if in the defense of another, the words came more easily, smooth and convincing.
“Karnax is hardly a fool. The stories are numerous enough. Why should he make his return so obvious- unless he wished to distract attention from himself? Think back to when he was on the council. Each murder was directed onto an innocent Sivva’s head. Several were executed before he was unveiled. Is this truly any different from his old style? While you all are here accusing me of traitorous actions, who is to say that he isn’t crossing our borders now, preparing a raid?” More murmurs. My words were having the desired effect. “And furthermore, he would know all messages sent to members of the Sivva unit would be traced through the council. They know if an outside source- especially one with an aura as dark as Karnax- is communicating with one of us. Tell me, did you recognize the whisper’s casting aura?” I asked, turning to the council.
Nods. “Almost immediately,” one of them said, looking thoughtful. I glanced to Miraza, but her face was unreadable.
“Yes, of course. How convenient it would be for him to make one slip,” I shook my head. “One little mistake. To forget that any messages to his supposed ally would be intercepted. Unless he intended it to be this way. What a simple ruse it would be- and it would easily draw suspicion to the targeted individual.”
“And the mention of this Nest of Gems?” the council member who had agreed with me spoke now, leaning forwards. She was younger than most, but still older than me. I searched for her name, and placed it as Jasir.
“Ah, yes. Another convenience- a mention of a place that few have ever been to- and those that do find their way there are forced to swear an oath that they will never reveal the location. Yes, I know where it is. Karnax knows where it is as well. I cannot speak the location, for fear of being struck dead instantly, but I am not the only one who has this information.. Karnax began his work in the dark arts there. I was drawn to this place for studious purposes. To each their own reason. I am sure that some would recognize its name, if I were to refer to it in a slightly different context. Perhaps the name ‘Well of Dreams’ strikes a memory in some?”
Judging by the reaction that received, many had heard of it.
“Ask and the well shall provide,” I said thoughtfully, quoting one of the texts that held legends of the place. “Who wouldn’t find such a location tempting? It is only known as the Nest of Gems to a select few- those that have seen the real reason why the place is so guarded. Again, this is information I cannot reveal. But Karnax would know I had been there- he would detect the enchantment placed over me by the oath, I’d imagine. Therefore, it would be a perfect thing to add in his message, to further reinforce the idea of me being a traitor.”
I stopped for breath, and to study the faces around me. In the back of the room I saw Dalz nod at me, and Mirada, sitting with the apprentices, gave me a thumbs up, smiling. So my words must have been helping me more than I thought. They wouldn’t have been so free with encouragement if this were going badly.
“We all know that Karnax is not a fool when it comes to his plans,” I continued, pacing back and forth. “We all know how dangerous he is. See, the measures he has forced us to take.” I raised my arms, revealing the iron rings around my wrists. “Before the day of the betrayal, those accused were given more freedoms, and trusted more. But now, can we afford it? Especially in a case that involves Karnax. We all know that he is counted as the greatest dark Sivva of all time. But do we even dare to refer to him as a Sivva, after all that he has done? Sivvas are meant to be the embodiment of right- he is the opposite to us. We know how clever he is. We know how dangerous he is. So tell me, will we follow his mold, obeyed the plan that he has laid out, or will we show that we cannot be manipulated?”
“And how do you suggest we do this, allow you to go free, when we know you may be a potential spy?” Miraza replied.
Fortunately, the reactions to this weren’t overly pleased. There were several quick words of protest from council members, and irritation swelled through the ranks of Sivvas as well.
Dalz actually stood and spoke. “After all that she has told us, you still believe she could possibly be working for Karnax?”
“Order!” Miraza barked. Dalz sat quickly, looking ashamed. The murmurs fell silent. “Answer me, Râegan. What would you have us do with you, until the war- for this could become war- is resolved?”
I bowed my head respectfully. “I do not suggest that you simply allow me to go free. If I were indeed a spy, this could be dangerous, especially at a precarious time like this. Therefore, if I were in your position, I would advise you to place me in prison, under guard, until more evidence was raised,”
Miraza nodded approvingly. “A wise decision. Now we will adjourn and confer, and decide if your words have been sufficient. You may go. Kezec, escort her out, and keep her in holding until our choice is made.”
Kezec bowed, as did I. Then he gripped my arm sharply and led me from the room.