“Would you like some wine?” Adelheid asked, raising the pitcher for Flugel to inspect. The Luftzweiten raised a hand in polite protest, and Adelheid set it back down, raising her own glass to her lips. The pale liquid pressed condensation to the glass with the humid night air.
“We’ve been making progress,” Flugel informed her, her voice lilted and filled with soothing cadence. “We’ll be announcing the verdict of Klauen Stahldritten’s trial to the public tomorrow, and his transferral will occur in the coming week.”
“Judge Richter reached a verdict?”
“With the assistance of a unanimous jury. Guilty on seventeen counts of unlawful interrogation and torture; forty-four counts of murder, including the murder of Melior Wasserste–”
Adelheid nodded to herself, quietly pleased that justice had been achieved for the former Great Mage of her Realm. She took another slow sip of white wine.
“–one count in assisting the murder of Coiriuil Sklavesman; one count of inciting suicide; high treason; and assisting the dictator Heike Stahldritten,” Flugel responded evenly. “They were thorough, even if they went about it the wrong way.”
“The wrong way?” Adelheid inquired, indignation creeping into her tone. “They committed a murderer and a psychopath to Rechtlos, where he belongs.”
“Justice should always be pursued fairly and transparently,” Flugel retorted calmly, taking Adelheid’s resentment in stride. “They tried to charge him for killing animals. They somehow managed to convict him for interrogations performed in his capacity as Keeper of Slaves and Prisoners. Not only that, but they found him guilty of murders he committed at arms, in battle.”
Adelheid’s response was cold. “He wasn’t under orders. That’s murder.”
“That doesn’t mean he wasn’t under duress,” Flugel pointed out. “And we both know the influence Heike wielded over him. That doesn’t excuse his actions, but still. He shouldn’t have been convicted for most of those murders.” At her irritated expression, Flugel clarified, “He’s Highborn, Adelheid. You and I both know he’s only legally responsible for two of those murders, even if he should stand justice for more.”
“He should stand justice for all of them, and he did.”
“I’m not saying he was wrongly accused; I’m saying he was wrongly prosecuted. We were looking for someone to stand accountable for Heike’s actions, and he was a convenient solution. I’m just saying that perhaps we shouldn’t have been so emotional about all this. We shouldn’t have reached beyond our means in convicting him.”
“Whatever we think, it’s over now,” Adelheid sighed, settling into her seat opposite Flugel at the long cherrywood table. The rose-coloured timber was coarse against the heel of her palm. “We have a verdict.”
“Bitva Stahldritten has chosen to remain in Ether,” Flugel said, changing the subject to alleviate the Wasserborn’s ire. “She’s decided to resign as acting Great Mage of the Stahl Realm, and award the responsibility to her younger sister, with her advisory.”
The Regenmeer’s brows rose. “Latya Stahldritten? But she’s only fourteen.”
“It would make her the youngest coronated Great Mage, surpassing not only her father and elder brother’s records, but also making her the youngest in the Six Realms.”
“Is she ready for that kind of responsibility?” Adelheid asked sceptically, her mind cast to the stresses she had endured in her position of power over the past four months. She couldn’t imagine someone so young in her stead.
“She’s more mature than you realise,” Flugel assured her. “The Stahlborn grow into maturity much faster than we are used to – it’s their culture. Latya’s in a perfect position to assume the title too; Bitva is an established liaison with the High Council, not to mention, if she pursues a career with the United Forces instead of becoming Great Mage, she will be a liaison to the only other standing army in the Realms. Haren Klinge was an advisor to her father, and he will fulfil his capacity in advising Latya as well. And Latya herself is an excellent candidate; she has a betrothal to Kohle Feuervierte, a union that ensues goodwill between the Stahl and the Feuer Realm – something all the Realms need right now. Besides, it’s peacetime. There’s no better time for her to assume power, politically, than now.”
Adelheid’s lips twisted, but she nodded begrudgingly. “You’re not wrong. She just seems so young. And you forget that the Stahls are bred for war. Are you so sure peacetime is the right political climate for her to enter into?”
Flugel opened her mouth to respond, but her words were swallowed up by the alarmed cries of their accompanying highguard sentries, who bared spears at something behind Adelheid’s chair. The Empress turned, and froze in stunned surprise.
A projection stood at the centre of the room, the blank-faced portrayal of an elderly but healthy man bare of weapons. Adelheid could tell the man wasn’t real; there was a translucency to his form, and she discovered upon reaching out that she could put a hand right through him, despite the protests of her highguard sentries.
Her limb past cleanly through him, and she recognised it for what it must be; talented magery. Someone was projecting this image for them to see, but who it was or what its purpose may be was lost on her. She was about to ask her guards whether they recognised the man, when he spoke.
“We are the Iron Faithful,” he stated, startling their collective attention back to him. “We are an organization with a history almost as decorated as the Realms. I won’t bore you with the details, so I’ll keep this brief.
“The crimes that Heike Stahldritten perpetrated against the Six Realms were unforgivable. The crimes she was able to commit because of the assistance and compliance of traitors were reprehensible. The conduct of those individuals was deplorable, inexcusable and unpardonable.”
Adelheid pushed back her chair slowly, rising to her feet as Flugel watched from her seat, wide eyed and concerned.
“The High Council assisted Heike Stahldritten in murdering the High Empress Asche Zauberin, and countless others,” the man continued, his voice low and roiling with harsh conviction. “She was permitted to evade justice after the fact. They then attempted to pin the severity of her crimes on a scapegoat to calm the outrage of the public, and to draw attention away from their own perfidy.”
“Who is he?” Adelheid demanded.
“We don’t know, Empress,” one of the highguard sentries responded quietly.
“We need to find out who he is right now,” Adelheid instructed, her heartbeat in her ears as panic began to build. “And what the Iron Faithful is.”
“Our demands are simple,” the man continued, oblivious to her conversation. “We demand that those who helped Heike Stahldritten rise to power be held accountable for their crimes. We ask no more than this. Every member of the High Council under Heike Stahldritten will be held to justice – Emmerich Totersieg, Kuren Rotehre, Behende Flusswelle, Flugel Luftzweiten and Svetya Erdefunfte.”
She turned to meet Flugel’s gaze, sharing the concern she found there.
“They will have trials held so that they may answer to the destruction they facilitated. You have a fortnight to ensure this comes to pass, or we will take matters into our own hands.”
“Who are they?” Adelheid breathed. “And why would they want you to stand trial? What do they have to gain from this?”
Flugel looked as dumbfounded as Adelheid felt. Her response was a whispered breath. “I don’t know.”
“To impress upon you the seriousness of your crimes, and to encourage your concurrence, we have leverage. As you are aware, we have custody of Klauen Stahldritten now.”
Adelheid’s yell was like a crashing whip, sharp and painful on the ears of those surrounding her. The highguard stared, stunned at her outburst, and Adelheid forced herself to reign in her emotions.
“What does he mean he has custody of Klauen Stahldritten? How could he have gotten access to him?”
“There was a minor security breach last night,” Flugel theorised slowly. “The highguard sentinels in the underground cells reported seeing the spectre of Heike Stahldritten. It was passed off as a scare, and all the prisoners were accounted for once order was regained. I don’t see how–”
“I understand that you must be sceptical of our reach,” the man said, and then another figure flickered into existence beside his form, kneeling on the carpet laid before Adelheid’s desk, as if he were there in the flesh. His hands bound behind his back and head bowed, but there was no mistaking him.
“Where is he?” Adelheid bellowed, her tone rising in dread and volume. “How do they have Klauen Stahldritten?”
“The High Council has no scapegoat,” the man continued without hesitation. “They will be held responsible for their corruption.”
“This can’t be happening,” Adelheid breathed, running an anxious hand through her long, dark hair.
“You have fourteen days,” the projection reiterated, and flickered from existence.
The doors came bursting in, startling everyone in the room, and a highguard in sentinel armour came staggering through the doorway. “Empress,” she stated, gasping for breath, her face flushed from her run. “There’s been a security breach.”
“What do you mean?” Adelheid asked numbly, knowing what she would hear.
“The highguard sentries in the underground cells have reported that Klauen Stahldritten and Herrin Blesse are unaccounted for. They’re missing, Empress. There’s no sign of forced escape.”
The world rang in Adelheid’s ears, muted and static. “Assemble the High Council now,” she breathed, and when no one moved, she turned her gaze on Flugel. “Assemble the High Council now.”
The Luftborn scrambled to her feet, shaken but focused, and dashed out of the room to relay the message.
“Send me the highguard who have been on shift since the disturbance last night,” Adelheid instructed, and the woman nodded before rushing to fetch them. The Wasserborn turned her attention to the highguard sentries left with her. “Find out who the Iron Faithful is and who that man was.”
One of them stepped out to delegate the message, and Adelheid braced herself on the table, head bowed as she calmed herself in the wake of this disaster.
“Some peacetime,” she muttered, and pushed her hair back from her face, straightening and summoning the resolve to face what had to be done.