Chapter 26 – Whispers

It was early in the morning when the carriages came for them, rattling through streets that were filled with what Rachael at first took to be fog. It took her a while to realise that there wouldn’t be any fog in the city. They were riding through thin wisps of cloud.

The city was neatly arranged, with six long spokes radiating outwards from the central tower. Their carriage joined one of these main streets and proceeded towards the tower itself. The thin spire looked down over everything else in the city, a slender needle of glass that seemed uncomfortably similar to another building, a world away. Rachael assumed that they would turn away onto a side street as they neared the city centre, but instead they continued right up to the very base of the tower and the cluster of buildings that surrounded it. The building they arrived at was larger than a cathedral, with a high domed roof and a long colonnaded entrance hall that stretched out towards them. An impressive set of double doors crested wide marble steps, flanked by rows of grey-coated guards. Impressive as it was, even this immense structure seemed insignificant against the vastness of the tower that overshadowed it.

The courtyard was filled with people, dressed in a dazzling display of coloured silks and gold and silver embroidery. She supposed the crowds were all here for the last day of the hearing, just like they were.

As they stepped down from the carriage their guards formed up around them, leading them in a procession towards the wide steps. She saw people in the crowd turning to look. Some pointed or whispered, and she became increasingly sure that she was the focus of at least part of their attention.

At the doorway another set of guards checked paperwork and waved them through. They entered into a large foyer. Curved staircases followed each wall, leading up to a balcony above. Wall hangings were arrayed in every colour imaginable, each adorned with an elaborate symbol in gold and silver thread.

Groups milled about the room talking amongst themselves in hushed voices. Micah laid a hand lightly on her shoulder, keeping her close. She glanced up at the others, unable to avoid noticing the way Milima’s face seemed to slip into a worried frown. Arsha seemed to notice as well, moving close to the woman’s side. Milima slipped an arm around Arsha’s shoulder and gave them all a weak smile.

“I’ll be OK,” she said. Even Ilona reached out to touch the woman’s arm, the small gesture of comfort seeming to speak volumes.

Rachael turned away and studied the crowd, endless unknown faces milling around her. Then her eyes fell on one face that she recognised, and a cold shiver passed down her spine.

Manindra Bhandari stood amidst a small gathering, his long white hair tied back in a braid with a ruby clasp, his weight resting on an ebony cane. Naveen stood with him, dressed in red and gold like his father, a sword hanging at his waist. He had a hard scowl on his face.

The crash of a gong resounded through the foyer, turning every eye upwards to the balcony where a man in a grey robe stood.

“Ladies and gentlemen, if you will please proceed to the Hall of Whispers and take your seats.”

The doors below the balcony swung wide, and the crowd began to move in their direction. Ilona lead the way as their group joined the stream of people filing through the large double doors. Rachael followed at the back, not feeling particularly eager to see where any of this was going. As she was being jostled by the throng, she was surprised to feel a sharp tug at her sleeve. She looked back to see a woman in a familiar looking white robe standing a little behind her.

“Maya?” she whispered.

The lady nodded. Maya’s bodyguard stood at her side, staying in step, eyes razor sharp. She gave Rachael a stern, measuring look.

“Rachael, I just…”

Maya seemed unsure of what to say. The cool confidence the woman had shown a few nights before had now vanished entirely. A pair of older men ducked past them, carefully avoiding the seer, though their curious eyes took in the scene.

“I’m sorry,” Maya said, with a deep earnestness. “Rachael, I’m truly sorry. You have to believe that. What’s going to happen in there…”

Confused, Rachael tried to catch a glimpse of Maya’s face under the scarf as if she might find some explanation there. More people were flowing past them, an exaggerated care in the way they avoided even brushing Maya’s robes.

“Go. Be with the others,” Maya gestured, apparently unable to bring herself to say anything else. Though she wasn’t happy about leaving without a clearer answer, Rachael saw the way Rukiya’s eyes fixed on her, like something dangerous. She gave the bodyguard a curt nod and slipped away, joining the crowd that filed into the chamber.

As she entered the hall, she found herself at the top of a flight of steps leading down to an open floor. A dais occupied the far side of the chamber, supporting an imposing desk and a high backed chair, whilst all around her tiered seating filled the remaining space. A balcony above encircled half the chamber, seeming to offer more seating. Above it all a high domed ceiling of stained glass allowed sunlight to pour down onto them.

The domed glass had been divided into smaller sections, each depicting a person, strangely stylised. Some were hard to make out, others more clearly depicted, but Rachael immediately recognised the figures she had seen on the walls of Manindra’s home. Her eyes quickly settled on the form of a woman in a flowing dress, surrounded by a swirling cloud of autumn leaves. Her face was concealed by what appeared to be some kind of mask. For a moment she could almost hear a voice like dry leaves whispering her name again. It was only when a tall man jostled her as he passed that she remembered where she was standing.

To the left of the room, a couple of rows from the front, she could see Manindra sitting with his son. Further down, in the very front row, she saw Reuben Ben Mahir with a couple of men she didn’t recognise. To the right, a set of seats appeared to have been reserved for them. Already she could see the others waiting for her. Micah gestured, ushering her into the row ahead of himself. The long bench was hard and uncomfortable.

She glanced across at where Manindra and his boys sat. The old man’s self-indulgent smile never faltered, but his son scowled at everything in the room as if it might be a threat. Just like the way Rukiya had been looking at her. She was thankful that at least Rakesh wasn’t there too.

As the last group entered the chamber, she barely paid attention until she saw the long grey coats of the guards who flanked the two men walking between them. Rishi and Abasi strode between the tiered seats, shoulder to shoulder, cold eyes seeming to issue a challenge to anyone watching. It was only as Abasi saw them seated at the front that his expression softened. He almost seemed to want to reach out past the guard who stood at his side, to grasp his wife’s hand. Rishi, however, seemed to barely notice them. There was only the briefest flicker in his eyes as they met Arsha’s. A moment of something that almost seemed like shame. Then the two men were brought to their seats at the centre of the chamber, just in front of the open floor that surrounded the dais.

In the nervous silence her eyes returned once more to the image of the woman in the glass, surrounded by the swirling golden leaves, the sunlight making the whole image glow.

A few minutes later, a man in grey entered and sounded a gong.

“All rise for Lord Inquisitor Kadima,” the man declared, his voice ringing out across the hushed chamber.

As everyone in the chamber stood, Rachael followed their example. Her eyes flickered to Ilona’s face, the cold mask that seemed to give nothing away. She tried to let the same blank expression settle on her own features, to become an empty space, devoid of emotion. Anything to keep her stomach from twisting itself in knots. She felt Arsha’s hand brush against hers, and with scarcely a thought she slipped her fingers through her sister’s.

A tall man entered the room, walking slowly to the dais where he took his seat behind the large desk. His hair was a tight mat of greying curls, and he was dressed in long black robes hemmed in blue and gold. His face had the square roughness of a heavy stone, skin the colour of jet.

The gong was struck again and the man cleared his throat, a rough, rasping sound that resounded through the silent chamber. When he spoke, his voice creaked like oak timbers, old but strong.

“Ladies and gentlemen, you may be seated. This court of inquiry shall now be called to order.”

As people took their seats, a hush settled over the courtroom.

“This court has heard the arguments presented by all parties, and reviewed all material evidence pertaining to this matter. We have deliberated on the arguments and the facts presented to us, and we are ready now to pronounce judgement in this matter.”

The man paused for a moment to glance down at his desk, where Rachael supposed he must have had papers laid out.

“We have heard, from Sir Reuben Ben Mahir, a charge of conspiracy against Lord Manindra Bhandari and Professor Rishi Chandra. That these two men conspired to gain unlawful access to information held by the Chamber of Foresight, and put that information to the purpose of capturing and containing a forbidden artefact, namely one of the Seeds which was discovered in the city of London, beyond the Veil. Sir Ben Mahir contends that, in doing so, these individuals and persons associated with them and working under their direction enacted multiple breaches of the Accords during the events which transpired in London.”

A pause, as the Lord Inquisitor cleared his throat.

“After reviewing the evidence brought by Sir Ben Mahir, and certain documents provided by Professor Chandra, it is the finding of this court that Lord Manindra Bhandari was indeed in possession of materials that should have remained the sole purview of the Chamber of Foresight, without clear cause or remit. For this matter, he shall be censured, and his family’s estates, titles, and privileges revoked, immediately and forthwith.”

A murmur reverberated through the room, a thousand whispered conversations springing up at once.

“On the actions of Professor Chandra and Captain Bira,” the Lord Inquisitor continued, his voice rising above the din, “we must first address the question of their crossing the Veil without papers of travel, and without apparent cause. Whilst I have serious questions…”

The Lord Inquisitor fixed Rishi with a steely gaze.

“…As to precisely what sparked Professor Chandra’s sudden interest in this matter, I have seen no evidence that he obtained access to information from the Chamber of Foresight, no matter what Sir Ben Mahir or House Bhandari may contend. However the fact remains that Professor Chandra and Captain Bira are responsible for crossing the Veil without the permission of the Wardens. On this matter, Professor Chandra has informed this court that this decision was entirely his responsibility, and that he wilfully coerced Captain Bira into compliance.”

Rachael heard the sharp gasps from those seated around her.

“Oh Abasi…” Milima said, under her breath. “How could you let him…”

“That idiot…” Micah growled. Though Ilona said nothing, Rachael saw the way the woman’s fingers curled, as if ready to make a fist. She turned to look at where Rishi and Abasi sat. The professor’s eyes were cold, almost lifeless, but Abasi looked as if he wanted to throw up.

“Thus, this court has no recourse but to find Professor Chandra entirely culpable in this matter. As to the charge of conspiracy, though the prosecution has dwelt for some time on the history shared between these two men, this court must acknowledge the following… First, that the fostering of Rishi Chandra under House Bhandari is a matter of record. Second, that Rishi Chandra was formally disowned by House Bhandari, and all ties between House Chandra and House Bhandari were severed some twelve years past. Third, that the prosecution has failed to bring sufficient evidence to demonstrate any further collusion. Thus, we can find no cause sufficient to prove any charge of conspiracy.”

“Are you following any of this?” Rachael said, turning to look over at Arsha. The girl nodded, her eyes wide. She seemed unable to actually form a reply.

“In the matter of the breach of the Veil enacted by Professor Chandra, this court declares that Professor Chandra shall immediately be stripped of privilege, his papers of travel removed, and his house be fined the sum of ten thousand Guilders.”

Again, the rising chorus of whispers from around the chamber. For a moment it appeared the Lord Inquisitor had finished, until the man seemed to remember himself.

“One other matter has been brought before this court’s attention. In the matter of the care of the child Rachael Barnes, a refugee from the Hearth, Sir Ben Mahir has moved to take the child into custody as material to the matter of the awakened Seed. Professor Chandra has claimed the child as his adopted daughter, and refused to present her to the Inquisition. However in light of these penalties issued against Professor Chandra, this court must deem that he is longer a fit or suitable guardian. The adoption of Rachael Barnes by Rishi Chandra is hereby annulled. The child shall be granted to the care of the Inquisition until suitable arrangements can be made for her.”

The way the old man spoke the words, it seemed almost like a dismissal. As if she had been hardly worth mentioning. No matter how she had tried to prepare herself for this, she could still feel her hands shaking. Then a voice rang out, loud and clear across the courtroom.

“Lord Inquisitor, I… I need to say something.”

Arsha stepped down from the seats as she spoke, crossing to the centre of the chamber with quick, nervous steps. In the sudden silence all eyes were on her. For a moment the old man didn’t say a word. He just regarded her curiously, as if he had never seen a teenage girl before in his life.

“Speak your piece, child,” he said at last.

“Lord Inquisitor, you can’t take Rachael away. Even if my dad can’t adopt her, she’s a member of this family now.”

“Child, no matter how you may feel about this, the law is the law. If you have nothing germane to bring, you must clear the floor.”

The Lord Inquisitor spoke with the slow and patient tones of an old man addressing a little girl, too young to realise her own foolishness.

“Lord Inquisitor, this is a… A matter of law. Rachael is my sister. Bound by blood and fate. According to the precedents set by the Dunforth trials, Guild law recognises the practice of blood-binding as…” The girl faltered, for a moment, pausing to catch her breath. “As being of equal weight to the ties of family established by birth or marriage.”

For a moment, no one seemed to know quite how to react. The general tenor of the courtroom seemed to be one of confusion. People were glancing at each other, as if to see if anyone knew quite what the words were supposed to mean. Rachael caught the professor’s expression, frozen in disbelief. The man’s knuckle’s were pale as he gripped the railing in front of him. In Manindra’s eyes she saw a look of quiet curiosity that left her even more unsettled.

Gathering himself, the Lord Inquisitor regarded Arsha very carefully, as if his eyes could pierce through any lie she might try to tell him. Standing her ground, Arsha held up her palm, showing off the thin scar. Sensing her cue, Rachael jumped down from her seat before anyone around her could react and stepped out onto the floor with her own hand raised high, the matching scar clearly shown.

In the silence, a single word was spoken.

“Arsha…”

Rishi’s astonished gasp seemed barely a whisper, but it still echoed loud in the hushed room.

The Lord Inquisitor drew a long, calming breath.

“Very well. A fateworker shall be called upon to determine the veracity of your claim to be blood-bound. If it is confirmed, I shall reconsider my previous judgement. Does the prosecution have any point to bring in this matter?”

He turned to regard Sir Ben Mahir. The younger man slowly unfolded himself, striding out onto the floor.

“Yes, Lord Inquisitor, we do. The prosecution accepts that Rachael Barnes and Arsha Chandra are now bound by blood. We must, therefore, move that both children be immediately placed under our care. If, as she claims, Arsha Chandra has indeed been blood bound to miss Barnes then we can only conclude that miss Chandra is, herself, irrevocably contaminated.”

“Contaminated?” the Lord Inquisitor said, raising an eyebrow. “Sir Ben Mahir, I do hope you mean to explain yourself.”

“Yes, Lord Inquisitor. I have here the results of the medical examination performed upon miss Barnes before her admission into the Citadel. Under our discretion, pursuant to Guild laws and articles volume seven, section thirty-two, the results of this testing were made available to our own experts, who have provided their formal conclusions which I also have here, signed and witnessed. I will, of course, make all of these documents available to the court upon request. However, if you will permit me to summarise, what we learned from examining the child’s blood was… Well… Baffling to say the least. None-the-less, our best alchymists agree on one thing with absolute certainty; whatever this girl may be, she is not human. Or at least, not entirely. As such we must attest that she stands outside of the protection of Guild law. Even the bonds of blood.”

For a moment, Rachael felt as if she wasn’t sure which way was down. She caught the incredulous expression on Arsha’s face, as the girl turned to look at her.

“We have not yet fully determined the precise nature of the child’s altered heritage, but it is quite likely that her inhuman ancestry is connected to the situation now unfolding beyond the Veil. As such, the Inquisition demands that she be turned over to our custody for further study.”

Even the professor looked on with horror, as Ben Mahir laid out his case.

“Naturally,” Reuben continued, “if Arsha Chandra has truly bound her blood and fate to Miss Barnes’, we must contend that she is likewise contaminated, and must also be rendered into the care of the Inquisition.”

“No!” Rishi cried out, leaning out halfway across the railing in front of him, eyes wide with horror as the guards pulled him back.

With a deeply disgruntled look about him, the Lord Inquisitor regarded Ben Mahir for a long moment.

“Very well. This court accepts your recommendation. Rachael Barnes and Arsha Chandra shall be given to the care of the Inquisition, pursuant to the ongoing investigation into the matters occurring beyond the Veil.”

“No, you can’t take her! You can’t take my daughter!”

Rishi’s cry resounded through the room as he vaulted the railing. He was moving across the floor before the guards could react. He ran to his daughter, snatching up her hands in his. Rachael could see the way he stared at the pale line across the girl’s palm, as if not able to believe it.

“Oh Arsha, why did you do it? Why?”

Arsha turned to look at her father, with eyes that seemed ready to fill with tears.

“I had to, Daddy. It was the only way.”

“No, Arsha, no, you foolish girl, you never should have…”

The words tumbled out of his mouth, crashing into one another in his confusion, as two guardsmen caught him by the shoulders and dragged him back, kicking and thrashing.

“Get that man out of here,” the Lord Inquisitor snapped, his voice like a whip-crack.

The professor continued to shout as he was hauled out of the room, a stream of violent curses against the Lord Inquisitor, Reuben Ben Mahir, and most of all Manindra. His eyes flickered between them, spittle forming around his mouth as he shouted himself hoarse, all the while twisting in the iron grip of the guardsmen.

As Rachael watched, his eyes met hers, furious and wild. For a moment he seemed to not even recognise her. When he did, the expression that passed across his face chilled her. In those wild eyes, what she saw was an accusation. Her own feeling of shame was immediate, and momentary. She realised that he was wrong. She had not stolen his daughter from him. She had not put him in this place. He was the one. The one who had taken her away from everything she had known, who had committed the crimes that he was now facing the penalty for, who had made his own daughter a part of it all. He was the one who had failed. After all his promises, he had done nothing to protect her. She was going to be locked away from the world, and the only one who had done a thing about it was Arsha.

As the guards hauled Rishi out of the chamber and the doors slammed closed behind them, she saw figures in grey coats moving towards where she was sat. Others came to stand at Arsha’s side, gesturing for her to follow them.

Ignoring their instructions, as the nearest of the men tried to make her step clear of the seats, she looked up at the glass dome above, some impulse making her long to see the sunlight. The figures in the stained glass window stared down at them all impassively. In their glass eyes there was no pity, no comfort. But as she watched, the window darkened. For a moment she thought the shadow must have been cast by a cloud, but then she recognised the shape.

The shape of outstretched wings.


Copyright © 2015 by Peter Brunton.  Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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