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Ten hours later and Merrie was exhausted and aching. Her throat felt like broken rocks and the taste of blood coated her tongue. Every word forced out felt like a sharp knife on the inside. But she kept answering the question as best as she could…

The judges had provided her with water but allowed no other help. Originally the water came in a glass but the entire silence as the judges watched awkwardly as she tried to hold the smooth glass between the ends of her wrists. She broke two glasses until someone gave her a bowl to drink out of it, that helped but she spent years not talking and now she said more words in a single day than she had the day she was kidnapped and raped.

“Why did Bass pick you on the street?” asked Judge Rammis.

“He said that he saw it in my eyes,” she rasped. “He said there was a hunger for submission in Alpha’s eyes, the hidden part of our lives that was waiting to break free.”

“Has he been around a lot of True Submissives?”

“At least five.”

“There are less than a dozen living in the known world. How can one man have encountered so many?”

She thought for a moment, ducking her head to lap at the icy water. When she gathered her thoughts, she sat back up and licked her lips. “He trained two of them, one bonded with him.”

“Sable.”

Merrie nodded before she said, “Dixie—”

A sob rose up as she remembered Dixie’s death. “—he was a warrior about to die. He spent his entire life fighting his nature, but when cancer was killing him, only submission stopped him from dying.”

“He was the Warlord of Blood River. A Copir silfae who successfully invaded Franome. He killed thousands before he disappeared.”

Her ears dropped down. She was hoping to show Dixie’s character and she was, once again, twisted into pointing out how destructive or terrible her friends were. “He was a friend, one who died saving all of us,” she said in one last hope.

Judge Kagli started up again. Merrie tensed. The judge’s questions were some of the hardest because he managed to bring up some obscure point and make her defend it.

Struggling to keep her hopes up, Merrie waited for the inevitable question.

“You said you weren’t aware of the size of the shadow land you summoned.”

Merrie nodded, her muscles tensing and sweat prickling her brow.

“You have the ability to dispel it, don’t you? You did that with the Shadowed District, which killed many people before you came to your senses.”

Merrie wasn’t sure if she could dispel it, but she knew it had to be possible. “Y-Yes.”

“Why didn’t you stay behind and dispel it? By your own words, you wouldn’t be here if you agreed to the duke’s request.”

The court grew hushed. She felt everyone staring at her, their gaze pummeling her mental shields with the silent projected hatred.

Merrie struggled with her answer. She wanted to explain her feelings and desires, but couldn’t. In front of the judges, it felt like she was being selfish for wanting a family and to give the shadows a home.

“Merrie? This is important.”

She hated that the judge had such a personable style of questioning, it made it harder to avoid the hard answers. Taking a deep breath, she tried to explain it. “The Lord of Shadows made a deal with me to save Bass and the others. They would have a sanctuary but couldn’t leave the limits of the shadow lands. They would have a home, to be safe.”

“Like the Shadowed District?”

“Y-Yes, but not near Franome City.” She coughed and had to drink to ease her throat. “Blood County was far from cities. I thought it was far enough to prevent so many from dying like what happened in the district.”

That wasn’t entirely true. She just wanted to save her friends.

“You turned four thousand,” he spat out the word, “square kilometers of fertile land into a dying world that no living creature could remain. How is that better than the Shadowed District? How is a significant portion of a dukedom and an entire county better than a few hundred blocks?”

Tears burned in her eyes. “I thought it was safer.”

Judge Ertyo held up two thick fingers to take his turn. Merrie didn’t know what to expect from his questions, he spoke very little. “Why didn’t you renege on the deal after you saved your friends. These are evil creatures of darkness, they will not honor your deal, why should you?”

“They will abide by it.”

“How do you know that? You don’t have control over these beasts. They could be swarming across the country side even as we speak.”

Merrie knew it wasn’t true. The Lord of Shadows would keep its end of the bargain, she knew it deep in her core, an unspeakable feeling written into the very darkness of her soul. “They are not. They will not.”

“How can you be sure?”

“They promised.”

“You said yourself, even Bass broke his promises! Even Gillette and Lem… the goddess did. Why would your so-called Lord not break his promise?”

The tears were rolling down her cheeks now. “I know it won’t. It is bound to me as much as I’m bound to it. Neither of us can break our promise. The shadow land is the limit of their lands! They cannot go beyond the boundaries we agreed on! I promise, I swear that this is true!”

The judge seems unimpressed with her outcry. “What proof can you give us? Not a feeling or hope, but proof. We need hard, solid proof. What can you tell us that will give us confidence that they will not escape or use that land as a staging ground for some invasion?”

Merrie started to glance toward Claston but the geas twisted her insides. A sharp taste rose in the back of her throat as she found she couldn’t even move her eyes in that direction. Even a sideways glance would reveal the connection between her and the royal family.

Kagli leaned forward. “If you have proof that this is for the greater good, you must tell us. If you cannot, we can’t take your feelings into account. Realize, this is the one case where your silence will doom you.”

The tone of the judge’s voice caught her. She inhaled sharply as she stared at him, sinking into his brown eyes. He knew about the geas. The knowledge was there but he, like she, could not reveal the presence any more. There was a sadness in his gaze, a pity and compassion. A single tear hovered in one eye.

Her lips parted in shock.

Kagli was aware that she couldn’t say anything. It tore at him just like it was tearing at her.

All she had to do was belt it out.

And then die as her organs burst out of her orifices.

The little gray girl was suddenly back on the corner of the desk. She was petting an equally colored cat.

Merrie frowned and looked away from the table.

There was a suited man standing on the other side of the table. He also wore gray with pale blue. His eyes were black and sad as he stood there, not moving or touching.

She didn’t know why the Loyals didn’t strike at him. Looking to the side, they didn’t seem to notice the intruders. Nor was anyone responding to the other figures in gray, from children to older folks, that stood among the audiences.

Like the little girl, if she focused on one, they disappeared.

“Merrie,” said Judge Kagli. “You need to speak up.”

Closing her eyes tightly, she squeezed the tears out. “Judges. I will swear on every god that will listen to me, on the crystal of my heart, on the darkness in my blood, that I have only the best of Franome’s wishes in my thoughts. My actions, no matter how devastating or terrible they seem, are for my country and my queen.”

The judges said nothing.

“I-I know that I can’t prove it. I have destroyed Blood County by summoning the shadow lands there, but I can tell you with all the truth I can muster, it must remain. My actions have, and will always be, with Franome’s best interest in my heart.”

There was a painful silence.

“I’m sorry,” said Kagli in a quiet voice.

She sniffed and nodded. Just as the geas allowed her to summon the darkness, it also ensured that she couldn’t defend herself. A bitter taste flooded her mouth but she swallowed it down.

Kagli turned to the other judges. “I have completed my questions.”

The other judges quickly agreed.

Resolute Udin stirred from his position and stood up. “The questioning phase has now completed. Does the Royal Family wish to make any statements?”

The entire court looked up at the queen.

Merrie’s heart skipped a beat in hope.

Queen Vikia stood. “May justice serve,” she said in a clear voice.

Merrie sobbed.

The queen turned and left the balcony, followed by her personal Loyals.

Claston was already gone but Boz stood stiffly on the balcony. Even from a distance, she could see tears in his eyes. Somehow, it helped to know that he, and probably Claston, both morned what was about to befall her.

Udin waited until the queen was gone before announcing to the court. “The judges will now deliberate. The doors will be sealed by the law of the land until a decision is made.”

Kagli cleared his throat.

Udin turned toward the judge, obviously surprised.

“We’ve already decided.”

The rise of murmuring in the audience silence immediately. It was an oppressive silence, a poignant blade that hung over her.

Merrie closed her eyes tightly and tensed.

“Merrie Golddother,” started the elder judge. “The five justices of Franome have decided your fate.”

She nodded, the tears tearing and her throat aching.

“We find you blameless—”

A gasp relief slipped from her lips.

“—in all crimes except for the charge of treason.”

He paused to take another breath. “We find you guilty of treason against the country of Franome, the Royal Family, and the people who swear fealty to the Tree of Wisdom.”

Murmurs rose from the audience but it quickly died when the Loyals and Resolutes hefted their weapons.

“All magical devices in your possession shall be destroyed and you will be sealed from your magic for the rest of your life. You shall be imprisoned in Abbinkey until the end of days with no chance of a retrial baring a pardon from the Royal Family.”

There would be no pardon, she knew that. The tears poured down her face as she forced herself to listen as the judge continued.

“Your guild shall be fined one million crowns—”

“Fuck,” said Monk. He was smacked before he said anything else.

“—for harboring you from justice. It is in the court’s judgment that they be investigated for the decisions they made according to the sealed records. We further declare that Count Bassimar Sarmo shall be stripped of his titles—past, present, and future—baring further considerations. He and the rest of the so-called ‘Puppy Mill’ shall be forbidden from owning lands or businesses until said considerations have completed.”

There was a brief cheer from the back.

“This court has further judged that the Church of Lemetri shall be disbanded, all assets shall be sold and the proceeds donated for the public good. The court suggests to the law to establish laws to prevent the former goddess’ symbol to be forbidden. Furthermore—”

“What, you can’t—!” said a strange voice.

One of the Loyals teleported away in a cloud of smoke.

The outraged voice didn’t continue.

Kagli shook his head. “Furthermore, Diffy Blood—the daughter of Count Waver Blood—is to present herself to the Royal Courts in one month time or a bounty of one hundred thousand marks will be established to bring her alive. We must determine if she is truly an Infernal with dire plans to this country.”

When the cloud blew away, Merrie saw Autiur standing in the Loyal’s place. He wore gray and pale blue. He had a sad look on his face as he looked around at everyone but Merrie. Then, to her surprise, the blue faded away into grayness.

“There shall be no appeal on these pronouncements baring a decree by the Royal Family or the combined decision of the Parliament. So has decided the Royal Court.”

Merrie finally broke down, sobbing as she curled up on the stone platform.