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The doors, silver-gilt carved sapphire stretching floor to ceiling -- impossibly expensive and inconceivably heavy -- parted smoothly and soundlessly before him. To one side, a deputy in heavy raiment snapped to, his chin lifting and his eyes flashing briefly. In response to the man's silent magical command, the temperature in the sea-colored crystal chamber dropped precipitously. His breath occluded before his own eye.

Such was tradition. Imperial Justice had entered the room. Imperial Justice was cool and passionless, saw truth as if through pure ice, and was inexorable as a glacier's fall.

It was a bitter irony, he reflected as he strode into the gallery. The Viceroys of Dericost had first made tradition of lowering the temperature during such proceedings. It had been a tradition of the Old Lords of the Ice Throne. The subjects in those lands reflexively became more docile in the chill; more accommodating of their fate. The hands of Dericost yet reached from the grave to fold the world's destiny on to new courses.

At his next step, a Hieromancer in the wings heralded his entrance. "Rise! His Most Serene and Dignified Majesty, Emperor Caerlin! Rise!" he bellowed.

Skirts and cloaks rustled in the silence. Six figures rose from seats just behind the carved-ivory rail of the gallery, silhouetted by mists rising from the warm walls into the sudden bitter cold of the air. They bowed to him, master of the Cerulean Throne, Emperor of the Thousand Seas, undisputed ruler of the world of Auberean.

The ponderous weight of his various titles was actually quite embarrassing at times like these. Sometimes he suspected that his subjects gave him more accolades every year merely to suggest the ever-increasing glory of their own culture.

"We are flattered. Be seated," Caerlin said, cringing inwardly at the necessity of the Imperial Plural. He moved to the center dais, three seats to the left, three to the right. He stood in the middle, gazing at the floor below the gallery, and gestured with his right hand. "You who have brought the charges to Our attention, rise, and call upon the accused." He pulled his hands back into the folds of his robe, laying his arms across his barrel chest so that the seams disappeared. From below, he himself would appear as a form carved from a single piece of sapphire and silver.

"Ai, Your Majesty." The woman -- barely more than a girl, really -- stood with slow dignity, like a ribbon unknotting itself. With her motion came a chorus of tiny silver bells, bone beads clattering one upon another, and the hollow ringing of wood upon wood. Peripherally, he noted her long train of hair slipping down to cover her exposed lower back, black water falling over rocks.

There was uncomfortable murmuring to the left, but tradition held that Imperial Justice must keep its eyes on the matter at hand. Until the accused was presented, that happened to imply the floor where she would appear. Later, he would reprimand them for objecting to the Lady of Ithaenc's ceremonial costume. His Empire was about deeds, not dress.

"Bring in the accused," the Lady said, clasping her hands before her stomach. The simple metal hoops adorning her arms fell to her wrists in a pile of silver song. Someone swallowed, loudly, as this revealed a few of the fresh scars upon her flesh.

Silently, the doors to the floor below the gallery swung in. The accused marched out at a deliberate pace, her chin high, sea-grey eyes flashing, heading towards the circle carved in the center of the floor. Her platinum hair fell only to her shoulders; long enough for court, yet short enough to be held away from her face with simple plaits.

Caerlin's eyes burned briefly as he summoned Majesty to his voice. "Protector of Marae," he said, the modulated tones carrying powerfully throughout the baroque carvings of the room. All eyes were drawn magnetically to the source of the voice--from the gallery, from the observers' wings, and from the elegant young woman on the floor below. A minor glamour, but still effective.

"You were summoned before Us for judgment. You elected to represent yourself, against the testimony of the Lady of Ithaenc. These proceedings have been completed. Are you now prepared to meet the judgment of the Seaborne Empire?"

Her chin lifted proudly. He felt her try to bring Majesty to her own voice, vainly -- the floor below possessed a dispelling field, preventing any use of magic. It would not do for prisoners to assault those who looked on them in judgment. "I am well prepared, Your Majesty." He smothered his own look of surprise. Her voice projected quite well bereft of magical aids.

"You have been found guilty."

She did not flinch, blink, or gasp. She simply held her vision locked with his. In them lay the color of ice-strewn southern seas.

He expelled the breath he had been holding, misting the frigid air.

"What punishment shall the Empire bestow upon its humble servant?" she inquired.

"You and your line are to be divested of your nobility. Your citizenship shall be revoked. You shall be exiled to a tower built upon the back of the great southern ice. Your only companions shall be the golems that maintain the structure."

"A harsh penalty for inconveniencing a few beasts, Caerlin."

"Speak with respect, and when you are spoken to!" the Hieromancer bellowed from the wings.

"You wish to exercise your Right of Statement, Lady?" Caerlin said mildly.

"I do."

"By all means, then. It shall be noted in the annals."

The woman drew herself up. "You who sit in these galleries are blind. Blind, ai, and fools in the bargain. Evil lies at the root of that island. Mark you my words now, if you have not before. One among you must finish the work I began."

"And what have you done in your attempts to unearth that root?" the Lady of Ithaenc said, quietly. "Your charge as Protector of Marae was to shelter them from all disturbance. Many of us here recall your endless petitions for the honor."

"You were my only rival, as I recall." The words were said with sly mirth, a tone designed to slither up around the hearts of the listeners, nest there, and whisper doubts in the night: This woman who sits among you is different. She ties the bones of the dead in her hair. She dresses in the cured flesh of creatures slain at ceremony. She exposes too much of her own flesh for propriety, and takes a stone knife to it in search of the future. Do you truly trust her motives more than mine? To the end, she remained among the cleverest of the nobility. He would have to speak carefully to undo that damage?

"You broke the bank of the great water," the Lady of Ithaenc pressed. "When that did not expose enough of the bones of Marae, you used your art and cunning to fold the waters back. In your burning and digging, you led many of true blood to their deaths. And in the end, all you have to show for these infamous works is the flight of those of whom you were intended to be Protector."

"There was a greater issue than the comfort of a few animals."

"They are not animals."

"Then why do they bite?"

Caerlin saw the debate veering towards theology. The proceedings had not been about that particular issue, they had been about the Protector of Marae's failure to complete her charge. "Is Our blindness all you wished to remind the Empire of, Lady?" he said.

She smiled, a bitter, lopsided thing. "Yes, I suppose. I pray that the Empire shall not suffer for what you do here, Your Majesty."

"If it is to be so, then We shall accept the blame of history."
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