“What we say will have physical consequences,” Sheriff whispered, “Do you understand that?”
June pinched eye-gunk from the bridge of her nose and rubbed a hand over the bristles on her scalp. Her bones felt weak, drained of all strength. The cage door opened. A path led under a polished soapstone archway. Two lines of men in feathered hats guarded the concourse outside of the carriage, standing with heels together and halberd axes tucked into shoulders. Sunlight flared off their fake white periwigs, to the point where she held a hand in front of her eyes. Their expressions held mechanical obedience. Sheriff pulled her up by the hands. Her knees wobbled beneath her as they proceeded down into the sun.
“Outlaw!” a woman yelled in her direction.
Rows and rows of hecklers stuck their heads between the gaps of a metal fence to scream at them. June rubbed knuckles into her eyes in a failing effort to sooth her headache. Kensington grabbed the corner of her vest and steadied her, wrapping an arm around her waist and lacing his fingers in hers.
“Look innocent,” he said through grit teeth and waved to the crowd. They seemed to calm once they saw his badge in the daylight, but a few dirty hands still snatched at them between the bars. “These people are poor, too poor to know it’s the King who made them this way, and they’re dying for people to blame.” A man rose out of the crowd, scaling the soapstone base of a spire. He yelled head and shoulders out over the throng.
“To the guillotine with ’em!” he shouted, thrusting a fist with such conviction that he lost his footing and tumbled back into the sea of screaming heads.
She continued walking. The archway swallowed them away from the sun in a thankful marquee. The cover eased her nerves as if she were tucked back away in the Vesper. Manufactured constellations of saints and kings had been painted on the archway’s underbelly with bold crimson and silver.
The street’s singular roar of a thousand mouths chased them into the archway, crashing off the narrow acoustics like thunder around them. Her eardrums rang well into the citadel deeps, until calming to a hush. She dropped Kensington’s hand.
“Are we going to die?” she asked.
Kensington scrunched his bottom lip damned near into his nose, then nodded.
“I will, you might not.”
Tips of drawn swords herded them onwards. The guard at point unlatched a thick iron door and pushed it open. Kensington stepped in first, maintaining the graces of society. Winding tin stairs fell into a sunless dungeon of barred chambers. It smelt damp, ancient damp. The brown walls dripped wet with mildew as she stepped down the stairs. Barred rooms lined the hallway on both sides with small piss-holes drilled into the wooden floor. Above all the acrid smells was the perfume of dead books. Three men were stuffed elbow to elbow in a passing cell that was no larger than an outhouse in Hastings.
“Alas, Vesper criminals,” a bald man with neck tattoos sang out as they passed his cell. Inmates cackled from the shadows—though they didn’t seem to be laughing at them, they seemed to be tragically laughing with them, as though nobody belonged in such a place.
“Highway snatchers, those ones,” Sheriff whispered behind her.
They walked to a red circular atrium lit with candles and oil lanterns. Stacks and stacks of parchment rose all the way to the cracked granite ceiling. Shelves that looked as though they once held books had been jammed with parchment. Coals glowed through the metal grate of a furnace, shining out like a welcome mat onto the dark floor beneath them. Here a man sat at his desk, head down to the page, nothing but a halo of balding white hair facing up to them. His eyes flit over his spectacles, then back down to his work. He dabbed a white feathered quill on his tongue, dipped it in a black inkwell, and continued scratching on.
“I know you!” June said. “I know you! You’re the Kingdom’s magistrate. There’s been a terrible mistake.”
With an arthritic hand, the magistrate pinched the corner of his spectacles and removed them, folding their arms and—seeing that there was no space on the desk between heaps of parchment—opted to place them in the front pocket of his coat. He pushed a chair screeching back along the floor and stood. He cleared his throat. Then he cleared his throat once more.
“Arrest files?” he said in a measured tone.
The Captain handed four prepared scrolls over to the Magistrate, who in turn placed them one by one in small compartments of what looked like an old wine-trellis holder labeled ‘Defendants’ across the top. He pigeonholed the documents into their slots. Twenty or so scrolls were queued up ahead of theirs.
Brushing the coattails of his jacket behind him, he sat back down, pulled the chair back to the desk, and slid the spectacles back up the crook of his nose. His eyes were black as two inkwells; they shot up at her over the foggy lenses.
“There are no mistakes,” he informed them, fanning the drying ink with a hand. The whites of his teeth had yellowed since the last time she’d seen him. He signed a death sentence with eviscerating scratches of a quill and slid it to the edge of his desk. “Take this back with you.”
The captain fetched the document and returned to his post beside her. She caught sight of the name ‘Lilly Fenwick’ at the bottom of the death sentence, for ‘Unpaid Familial Debt.’ The ink still bled wet down the parchment, where the magistrate had signed with the indifference of routine.
The guards showed them to a great holding cell. It was larger than the entire townhouse in Hastings. She was the last to step in, blanching again in sickness as she crossed to the other side of the bars.
“You’re detaining officers,” Sheriff said with a stuck out jaw. “I’m the Sheriff of Hastings, this can all be solved with a quick reference.”
As the guard’s footfalls tapered away down the hallway, the voice of a prisoner sung around the corner.
“Mate, there ain’t no Hastings anymore,” the unseen man said, “King Gallows burnt it down.”
Kensington pulled the Sheriff’s badge from his breast. He tossed it underhanded through the bars. It landed on the magistrate’s desk, scattering a stack of parchment to the floor and revealing the aged wood rings of the mahogany desk.
A plaque of the man’s identity which had long been buried under paperwork read, “Magistrate Yasmen Lexifer, Chief Perlocutioner of Librae.”
Lexifer didn’t look up from his work to see what was in front of him. With a backhanded flourish, he swept the Sheriff’s badge into a bin on the floor.
“I’m much too busy for mistakes,” Lexifer repeated, scanning a pile of documents beneath him. Lexifer stamped a thumb on a black pad and pressed a thumbprint beside another signature.
She curled up in a shadowy corner, watching Lexifer at his throne. Beneath the desk, she could see Lexifer’s awful clogs resting flat on the floor, with pant legs tucked tastelessly into crimson stockings, per uniform requirements. Pillars of lives and livelihoods etched on parchment awaited his judgment. With the flick of a wrist, anything he authorized was truth, and the only ones to ever see it died. Kensington knelt in front of her, blocking the sight of Lexifer with calming blue eyes. He pressed his forehead against hers, trapping a lock of gold hair between them.
“Listen to me now,” he mouthed the words very quietly. “I’m not talking as your Sheriff anymore; I’m talking as someone who cares very much for you, Ms. Foster. How we conduct ourselves from this point forward will determine our fate. You’re going to loathe this with all your being, but you must act with the dolt naivety of a Hastings girl.”
She pulled her forehead away from his, slamming the back of her head against the granite behind her.
“You want me to pretend I’m a flustered damsel?”
“It will help make the case for your innocence if you plea ignorant.”
She shook her head.
“And if I refuse?”
“The whole bloody world’s pleading ignorant,” June said, tears welling in her vision. “The only honest ones are on death row.”
“It’s time you know,” Kensington said. June felt as though she were eight years old again, shaking hands with a cold door handle, about to find her murdered parents on the other side. “There have been whispers around this Kingdom for years about Gallant murdering his father for the throne—it’s not a conspiracy, it’s the damned truth. I know because I was one of the witnesses,” he grabbed her shoulder, “your father was the other.” She stood. She didn’t know why she stood, but she did. Kensington stood, too. He pet the back of her hand with cold strokes, and kissed her on the forehead.
“Damn,” she cursed to herself, remembering her mother’s arm hanging off the bed when she found them there.
A gavel sat on the Magistrate’s desk, catching the firelight in its polished brown wood. The image of groveling masses outside the kingdom, all shouting at them flashed in her memory. Her whole life she’d been one of them.
“And nobody can speak out against it or they die…”
“I became a harmless drunk,” Kensington completed the thought for her. “Alcohol was my lobotomy. But your father, June, had the annoying knack of integrity which you inherited. Your father spoke out against Gallant murdering the King.”
She closed her eyes, thinking of Mum and Pops lying in the bloody bed; the truth buried with them beneath the headstones in her pasture.
“In stamping out the fires of his grand lie, he only scattered the ashes,” Kensington added. “And soon the truth burned in another. It was Gallant who had your parents murdered, June, and he forced an orphan to do it.”