He said that it was a foolish man indeed who would expect the world to behave according to his own notions. I have been a foolish man—I expected you to act according to my own principles, and not only have I been met with frustration, but I have also caused frustration, strife, and at the very least, inconvenience to you, to the students of the court, to my fellow defendants—and to them I have caused real injury, too, for my foolishness is the reason their sentencing has been delayed, and it may be the reason it is further delayed. For any man who would have been set at liberty today, it is upon my head if he must spend another night in bondage.
I profess my deepest apologies to all present, and I beg your forgiveness. My back creaked and popped. Xing Fe Hua of the province of Phra Yala? I tell you now, I committed another great foolishness then—I thought my story had so taken His Honor that. You see.
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I am a vain man. I tell you now, this happened exactly as I tell it, without any embellishment.
They say he must have been spirited away, for he disappeared entirely. No one ever saw or heard of him again. It would have delighted him, that you have heard of him so far from his homeland. Something about it tickled the hairs on the back of my neck. That was twenty years ago! Heard of him! I was there to hear him scream when we wrapped him in those ridiculous sails and burned him!
It must have been forty years since I had traveled with Xing Fe, and the width of the world and the span of time had long since separated us. It is no easy thing to be confronted with unexpected loss. I had. But men like Xing Fe Hua never really die. They leave behind too much of themselves. The judge had been speaking. Everything seemed to be whirling around me, and I kept flinching at the shouts on either side of the aisle, and I must have been stumbling because the guards hauled me to my feet several times before we reached the big wooden doors into the main hall of the courthouse.
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I was almost glad of the dark, almost glad to be shut away from the noise and confusion and chaos. But what had I done? Took two days for Consanza to come see me, or for them to let her come. I had been taken immediately from the House of Justice back to the House of Order, yanked from that tiny coffin-box, and dragged down two flights of stairs to a new cell.
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The ceiling was low, the walls were all stony and plastered over, and the stale air was rank with the smells of filthy humans, damp, rats, piss. And no one would tell me what had happened, though I begged and wheedled and asked to simply be told. But yes, as I said, Consanza came after two days, led in by a guard, who stood by the wall a little way down the corridor and crossed his arms.
There was a little table, where sometimes a guard would sit and play solitary card games when they were watching this block—watching me.
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She took a chair from the table, set it in front of the door of my cell, and sat in it backwards with her arms crossed over the backrest. What did they sentence me with? What evidence have they? What actions did I ever take? A good thing, she says! First a witch, now a spy, and they separate me from legal counsel for days. They lock me up in the dark with only one candle in the whole room!
A good thing!
When I was a witch, I had light and fresh air and a guard who would speak to me! It is a good thing.
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It is. Four steps to the wall and four steps to the bars. It might not be my job anymore. Why, why?
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Anyone else would. A case like yours? No one would keep it for more than a day. No one would take it up after that, after a charge like yours. Xing Fe Hua—I was barely more than a child when it happened, and even I remember it. No—impossible, or nearly impossible.
My heart skipped a beat, but she was only turning the chair around, sitting in it again the right way round, and pulling her pipe and her packet of leaf out of her pockets. I might not resign. The stream of fragrant smoke she blew out did much to improve the air quality of the cell—it was an excellent variety of leaf, I could tell. Undoubtedly foreign, probably from Tash, if my nose was right. Besides the underlying richness of the natural leaf, it smelled of vanilla and unusual spices. I tugged on my beard and rubbed my face again. Forced the plow of my brain into the furrow of thought.
A very long shot. It matters whether I win the case.
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The glory, too, if I won. She looked at me, pitying. If I won. If I won the case for you. I am required to advocate pro bono a number of cases per year to stay licensed. What generosity! You mean, kind advocate, that I get to argue my case to you before you argue it to the court? You want me to save you. I want to save you! Saving you would be a great mark for my career. It would open a lot of doors. I might even run for office later on, but probably not—too much paperwork for me, not enough glamour.
I always hesitate before going into details about what I am—makes people leery. But there was nothing for it. Advocate, or Doctor, or Mayor. And it marks me as a master of an order that goes back more than four thousand years. In the height of its golden age, before it sank beneath the waves and into the shadows of faint legend, it was an empire that stretched from shore to shore, covering all the land from the lowest bog to the highest peak.
That empire was the prize for generations of victories by one tribe over all the others, and that tribe grew and grew, and became more splendid, and built cities made of gold, full of gardens and silk and delicate arts. As they had grown, they had pressed the others back, and back, and back, and one of these tribes fled deep into the marshes, and there they took refuge.