Klauen woke at what he supposed was dawn. It was difficult to tell in the underground prison; the worn stone walls stole what natural light managed to filter down, and the artificial torchlight was a constant and unwavering reminder of marching time. He marked the days by the four shifts of guards that passed by his cell.
He spent most of his time sleeping, but his body was adjusted to the military clock; rise at dawn and train till dusk. It was a habit he had set during his brief stint in the legions in his youth, and he valued it now, however meaningless it was down here.
He occupied his time with training, just moving around the cell to utilise his stifled muscles. There wasn’t much else to relieve him of his leisure. The only interaction he got was when they were pulled out of their cells for the morning count, to ensure they were all accounted for before they were returned to their cells.
The prison was remarkably bare. In its current state, it housed four residents, although it was built for a capacity of far, far more. Aside from the interchanging personalities of his stoic sentries, the only other faces he saw in this quiet, time-still hell was his similarly apprehended spouse, Herrin, and elder brothers, Konnen and Korol.
Of the four of them, Korol seemed to be taking imprisonment the worst. His condition worsened in visible increments every morning Klauen saw him for the count. They would place their palms flat on the wall, spread their legs to shoulder width and stare straight ahead at their blank brick while their cells were searched for forbidden items and each prisoner was accounted for. Increasingly, Klauen noticed Korol’s weakening stance; the way his knees came together and his back bowed with the weight of holding his form. His hands shook almost incessantly, and when they had briefly encroached on his own hand, Klauen had noticed their distinct lack of warmth, as if they were constantly leeched of vitality.
His skin was always stained in sickening shades of yellow, and abrasions formed seemingly at the slightest of touches. Korol always seemed drained of energy, always on the brink of fainting.
Klauen couldn’t summon the compassion to be concerned for his declining health. Not after all the bastard had put him through.
Klauen pressed his face into his hands, digging the heels of his hands into his bleary eyes. He didn’t need to think about that, not now, not ever if he could help it. He’d managed not to think about him so far; and today was the last day of days to be thinking about his death.
“On your feet.”
The voice pulled Klauen from his reverie like a chain from mud, lingering in his ears as he rose to press his fists against the walls that always seemed to hold warmth, even down here in the stale air. He uncurled his fingers, fixing his gaze ahead as the three soldiers shrugged into his cell; one familiar sentry and two new escorts.
“State your name.”
His voice was harsh and broken, abused in its misuse, and it grated even in his own ears. “Klauen Stahldritten.”
One of the escorts stepped forwards, easing his arms into the small of his back and sealing the manacles around his waiting wrists. The other’s gaze stayed fixed on the back of his head, wary of any hint of resistance, but Klauen was nothing if compliant.
The first escort’s hand wound around his upper arm, tugging him gently away from the wall and steering him towards where the sentry held the barred door to his cell open. Klauen kept his head down, gaze focused on his bare toes, ears accustoming to the rhythmical staccato his escorts’ boots drummed on the stone tiles.
They ascended from the depths of the jail, breaching into the warm sunlight that filtered into the corridor from open windows. Klauen strained towards one slightly as they passed, his gaze alighting on green and blue for the first time in months. The sky was awash with cobalt, vibrant strikes of colour that pierced his desperate, longing eyes like a benediction. The golden walls of the citadel rose in the distance, segregating the bustling centre from the verdant fields beyond. The sandstone roof sloped down from the window sill, dropping abruptly, like a cliff, to be supported by new walls and rooves. He longed to climb out to them, to stand on their edges and inhale fresh air and blessed sunlight.
Klauen cast his mind back to the last time he had sat on the Ether palace’s rooftops, to the sensation of Blair’s fingers trickling over his skin, his lips pressed to Klauen’s forehead. His sweat ran cold down his spine, and he jolted violently out of the memory, causing his escort to constrict his grip. Suddenly, Klauen’s throat was a lot tighter than it had been a few minutes ago.
He tore his gaze away from the open windows, studiously ignoring the painful reminder that gaped at him from every open window, his gaze quickening as much as his escorts would allow. He felt only fleeting relief when the courtroom doors reared before them.
They were huge, monstrous things. Carved marble megaliths, four times his height over, and as they approached, Klauen saw that it took three highguard a side to split the sarsens open. The archway yawned wide for their entrance, exposing the courtroom within, its conversation rising to cacophonous climax.
The raised galleries and the congregation were bursting with occupants, eyes glued to his form as he was led down the centre aisle, to where the circular emblem of the Six Realms – the ten-petalled lotus – was embossed onto the marbled sandstone. It was cold under his bare feet, but Klauen barely paid it a second thought. His gaze was fixed on the bench that reared before him, a great slab of mahogany, with wings that expanded to either side, housing the three jury members from each respective Realm who would oversee his conviction.
Klauen’s escorts guided him to a stop at the centrepoint of the lotus, stood before the empty judge’s platform, before the eyes of his eighteen peers. He recognised none of their faces.
As the escorts instructed him to kneel, his gaze alighted upon which a plaque read ‘Richter’, and finally, a familiar face emerged from the depths of Klauen’s memory. An mid-aged man with watery blue eyes reflective of his Wasser heritage, and profligate outfits littered with an array of trinkets to allude to his family’s history of prosperity in Erde lumber trade.
Klauen didn’t have to wait long before his made his presence known, taking his perch atop the bench and arranging his robes about him. His blonde curls ran amok on his head, the only discrepancy to his otherwise immaculate attire. He peered down through his petite glasses, shuffling papers as the courtroom quietened and fell silent.
“We are gathered here today for the trial of one Great Mage of the Stahl Realm Klauen Stahldritten, fourth of the tenth House of Stahldritten. That is your name and title?” Richter added without glancing over the rim of his glasses.
“Yes,” Klauen responded, and repeated it louder, shifting his hands in their manacles. “Yes.”
“If you refuse to comply with the requests of the court, you will be held in contempt of the court and this trial continued in your absence, until such a time as you are deemed fit to be returned to this court,” Richter warned. “Do you comply?”
Klauen set his shoulders, his fingers dangling between his ankles. “I do.”
The judge nodded contemplatively. “Who stands for the prosecution?”
“Anwalt, your honour,” the prosecution answered – a man in his early thirties, blue eyes marking him as Wasser. “I’ll be presenting for the prosecution.”
Of course he’s Wasser, Klauen thought bitterly. With how his luck had been progression, of course the prosecutor at his trial would hail from the Realm whose leader he had literally stabbed in the back.
“What are the charges against the accused?”
“Klauen Stahldritten is accused of multiple counts of unlawful interrogation, torture, and murder.”
“Please list the grievances of these charges,” Richter instructed with a wave of his hand, scratching notes beyond Klauen’s scope of view. It was difficult to see much but his disapproving smile when he was on his knees.
The prosecutor lifted a set of documents from his desk, reading aloud, his voice clear and unmistakable as he listed Klauen’s crimes to the court. “Chronologically,” he began, and Klauen had to swallow against the revulsion building in the back of his throat. “The interrogation and torture of numerous prisoners of the Stahldritten household while in his occupation as Keeper of Prisoners and Slaves, including lowlord Herrin Blesse; inciting the suicide of Morser Speise; the murder of one Geben Wisse–”
“Fuck you, that was a mercy killing,” Klauen snapped, glaring at the prosecutor. The escorts took a precautionary step towards him, and he loosened his hands from their balled fists.
Richter rapped his knuckles on the mahogany of his bench, drawing attention to himself. “Stahldritten, you will have the opportunity to rebut all of the prosecution’s charges after–”
“It shouldn’t be a charge!” Klauen insisted, frustrated. “He was my friend! He was bleeding out–”
“Stahldritten!” Richter bellowed, and the Stahlborn lapsed into restrained silence. The judge regained his calmer tone, leaning over his bench, far above Klauen. “You will have the opportunity later. For now, you will remain silent until all of the charges have been brought against you. If you cannot comply with this, you will be held in contempt. Continue, Anwalt.”
“Thank you, your honour,” the prosecutor said, casting Klauen a conceited glance. He ground his teeth together, locking his jaw in place as he turned his gaze to the decorated tiles between his knees. “To continue: the interrogation, torture and murder of the slave Eiche Sklavesman; aiding in the murder of the commander of the Feuer Army, Coiriuil Sklavesman; the murder of the Great Mage of the Wasser Realm, Melior Wasserste.”
Klauen grimaced. He had committed a string of executions under Heike’s orders, and even more whilst under her thumb. She had threatened him life and his love, had destroyed what meagre rebellion he had salvaged, had used his elder brothers to threaten him into obedience.
Konnen and Korol would, of course, be absolved of their crimes as a result of their immunity clauses. The right for and duty of a soldier to fulfil orders given by their commanding officer carried with it an exemption for any crimes committed whilst under that duty. Which meant that all of the kills they had committed under Heike’s instruction, in their duty as her legion commanders, they weren’t able to be charged with.
Klauen, however, had never been one of Heike’s commanders, had never been a member of her military, had never been privy to the same immunity. He had no such defence to fall back upon. And with the perpetrator herself banished, he was the scapegoat they would pin all of her crimes upon.
“…the murder of Asche Zauberin, High Empress of these Six Realms; the unlawful execution of High Commander Dienst Befehl of the Highguard; the particularly brutal murder of highguard Gans Kreuz, as well as the murder-at-arms of numerous other highguard of the Six Realms; the unlawful execution of lowlord Blair Eisen–”
The bellow came down like a whip, and the prosecutor faltered, glancing down at Klauen where he knelt, shoulders heaving. His eyes were wide with utter rage and anguish, his nostrils flared. He came to his feet, to the irritation of his escorts, who moved forward to apprehend him. Klauen didn’t even register their efforts.
“What the fuck did you just say?” Klauen repeated, his gaze transfixed on the prosecutor.
“I have the execution certificate right here,” the prosecutor explained, crossing to the desk and lifting a document from the depths of mountainous parchment. He approached Klauen where he stood, the chain between his manacles secured by his escort to contain him, and extended the certificate for him to see. “Your signature is right there, Stahldritten.”
Klauen’s gaze leapt across the seal of his house, skimmed the execution title and the nameBlair Eisen scrawled beneath that, before alighting on his own familiar signature. His stomach roiled with revulsion and contempt, his pulse thundering in his ears and his constricted arms. “I didn’t fucking sign that.”
“It’s your signature,” the prosecutor reminded him, passing the certificate onto Richter’s bench.
“I didn’t sign–”
Klauen froze, straightening. He remembered now, sitting at the head of the table in the hall of his family’s home, document after document sprawled across its surface, going through every certificate Heike had piled upon him to sign in his new capacity as Great Mage of the Stahl Realm. Blair had helped him in his frustration, urging him to skim each and scrawl a caricature of a signature, but Klauen had grown tiresome of even that, resorting to merely signing every document in his desperation to be done with the whole affair.
A few had been execution certificates, mostly of convicted criminals, but one… One must have been the certificate calling for Blair’s execution, which Heike had enacted less than a week later, as a reprimand for Klauen’s persistent disobedience and rebellion. Which meant the execution had been authorised in his name. Which meant he had signed it. Which meant he had signed it with Blair sitting next to him.
Which meant it was his fault Blair had been executed. It was his fault that Blair was dead.
Klauen screamed, long past fury, far beyond self-revulsion, and launched himself at the prosecutor, twisting his wrists out of his startled escort’s sweat-slicked grasp. The man was turning from handing the document to Richter, and Klauen drove his shoulder straight into the Wasserborn’s diaphragm, knocking them both back into the mahogany bench.
They tumbled to the floor, equally winded from the attack, until Klauen wrenched himself up, still panting, hands still bound in the small of his back, and knelt with his thighs either side of the prosecutor’s ribs. It was in that moment that he wished he had his hands free and daggers in his palms as he braced over the stunned man. There was a bruise beginning to well on his temple, from where his skull had connected with the wood, but Klauen barely noticed it as he leaned forwards, invading the man’s space with a glare that spoke of murder and a snarl that bared his teeth in the wolfish of growls.
“Fuck you,” Klauen sneered, fury pounding in his ears as the sound of his scrambling escorts rang loud on the tiled marble. “Fuck you,” he repeated, and slammed his forehead into the prosecutor’s skull, knocking the man back to the floor before his escorts dragged him bellowing obscenities off the prosecutor. He spat on the man’s curled, shaken form as a last resort before he was hauled bodily from the courtroom.
He didn’t even resist, marching obediently down the aisle with one escort’s hands on his shoulder and cuffs, and the other on his neck and upper arm. Klauen allowed them to lead him from the beneath the shocked stares of the watching congregation and into the cool quiet of the corridor.
They didn’t break pace, even as Klauen could hear Richter’s gavel exclaiming orders to the now rambunctious court. He was dragged down the hallway and the steps into the Ether palace’s prison, past the cells holding his enquiring brothers, past his own cell, until they reached the very depths.
The startled sentry there pulled the door open, illuminating the small, windowless, confined space. Klauen’s feet seared on the tiles when they yanked him to a stop, unbinding his chains and sending him staggering into what minimal depth it offered.
He slumped to his knees braced against the bed, and kept his head low until they had bolted the door behind him, sealing him in impenetrable darkness. Then he wrapped his jaw around his forearm and screamed until he couldn’t breathe anymore.