Five minutes later, Machai and I were in trapped in a carriage with barred windows and steel floors. I tugged half-heartedly at the cuffs biting into my wrists and stared morosely outside, watching the rough gray landscape rush by. Across from me, on another bench, Machai's head was hung. He had clearly given up. I couldn't see his face, but I knew it would be cold and expressionless.
"Machai," I hissed. He didn't respond. "Machai, please. What's going on?" A bit of fear trickled through in my tone- my master had always been overbearing and knowledgeable, sure of what to do and willing to do it no matter the cost. It was scaring me to see him so beaten and unsure.
"I'm sorry, Nessa. I failed you." He looked up and I saw deep sorrow etched into the lines of his face. I had no idea how old he was- I was unsure if anyone really knew- but just then he looked like he had lived for centuries, and they had all been wearying. "There is nothing we can do at this point."
"There must be something. The Board can't do anything without a fair trial, can they? We can talk our way out of this." I leaned forward- the carriage was narrow enough that I could touch my forehead to his in what I meant to be a consoling gesture. He twisted away from me.
"Don't. It'll only make this worse." He sighed, then tugged hard on his handcuffs. They came unchained from the carriage, causing my mouth to drop open. "They loosened the chains," he explained. "They want as much evidence as possible. The more innocent we appear, the better chance we will be let off."
"How good is our chance now?" I asked, almost afraid to know the answer.
"Terrible, but existent." He shook his head as the hope dropped away from my features. "If you would stop trying to defend me, you would have a better chance."
"At what expense?" I narrowed my eyes. "I'm not going to let you take the blame. If anything, I should be convicted. You're more important. I would have no idea what to do if you hadn't taught me so much, and if I were caught in that situation with the hag, I wouldn't have lasted close to as long as you did."
"You killed her," he reminded me wearily. "I just held her off."
"I only managed that because you and Abrahm were distracting her, and I still got sick. Oh, and you saved my life! I would be dead if it wasn't for you. It's the least I can do to go to prison so you can stay free."
"Prison?" Machai repeated. He had paled suddenly, his eyes snapping up to mine. "You think I'd be afraid of prison? That isn't what the penalty for breaking the rules are, Nessa."
"Then what's the punishment?" I was confused.
"Death." Machai avoided my gaze. "We're up against death right now, and I will not accept that I saved you only to have you killed."
The courtroom was tiny and completely filled by a desk, two chairs, and a metal pipe running along the side. Two members of the Board that I recognized from Abrahm's stories, Hevel Gertch and Amia Regar, sat behind the desk. The Magistrate sat in one of the chairs, along with a woman I didn't recognize. Machai and I were chained to the pipe.
"Machai," Regar said coldly. "I wouldn't expect you to be brought here, especially on these charges."
"Times change," he replied, in an equally frosty tone. The Board member raised an arched eyebrow, but turned to the Magistrate.
"Lara. I believe you are the one pressing charges here?"
"Yes," the Magistrate replied smugly. She stood, her chair scraping back noisily. "I was in the vicinity of the area in which Machai and his Apprentices live, so I decided I would check up on the youngest occupant, Nessa, who is here. As you know, she had been gravely ill for almost a month. I found Machai and Nessa in the bedroom, kissing passionately-"
"Hold it," I snapped. "We were not kissing passionately."
"Silence, Apprentice!" Gertch shouted. I flinched. Machai instinctively drew towards me, causing everyone in the room to stare at him. He looked emotionlessly at the Board members. "Continue," Gertch said to the Magistrate, in a slightly less condescending tone.
"Well, of course, I knew my duty. I called the Board," she finished lamely. I rolled my eyes. This was ridiculous. Anger built up in my chest, suffocating me. I had to do something. There was no way the Board could ruin my life like this.
"Yes, you did well," Regar said softly. The Magistrate inclined her head, hiding her self-satisfied grin. I felt my fist clench and had to force myself not to illusion something terrible crawling all over her. "Well, Machai. What do you have to say for yourself?"
"She's lying," he said simply. Regar's eyebrow cocked slightly. "She has always hated me for Stephen, and she has the chance to ruin- or end- my life." This last bit was said with a hint of a smile. I found myself holding my breath. Could this work? It was a chance, but whatever Machai was talking about, it seemed to affect everyone else in the room, especially the Magistrate.
"Are you denying you kissed the girl?" Regar asked softly. Gertch stared at him threateningly, although he wasn't as frightening as his partner. Regar had a sharp sort of menace in her tone and face, rather than Gertch's brutal intimidation.
Machai debated this question for a moment. "No," he said finally. I felt a sharp tugging in my stomach- fear, mixed with something else. I forced myself to pay attention to Machai. The tension in the room was thick enough to slice with a knife. "But it was intended to be on the forehead. She looked up at the wrong time."
"She looked up at the wrong time," Regar repeated doubtfully. I cringed and decided it was time to speak up.
"When I was little, he used to try and comfort me. I was homesick, and he would tuck me in and kiss me goodnight like my parents used to. I guess he thought that since I was sick, it would be comforting for him to do the same again. But I looked up at him to say goodnight and…" I felt myself blush.
"I see," Regar said in a tone that told me the exact opposite. "And why did neither of you pull away?"
"Shock, at first," Machai said. "Then the Magistrate came in, and there was no chance to explain ourselves."
"Lies!" the Magistrate hissed. "They were kissing. I know what I saw."
"We aren't denying that," I snapped. "It was an accident." Machai's eyes met mine and I saw a warning in there. I had to play the wronged girl- otherwise it was all down the drain. I lowered my eyes and bit my lip.
"Lara, do you deny that you have disliked Machai since Stephen's death?" Regar turned her attention back to the Magistrate.
"No," the other woman admitted, her lip curling.
"Could you have perhaps seen a… passion… that was not there?"
"No." The Magistrate glared at Machai with hatred. "It was there."
The Board members exchanged a look. Then Regar turned back to us. "We cannot truly convict you of what Lara is accusing you of," she began.
"But you did wrong. Machai, you should never have shown affection to her- it could have been taken in a way that was substantially different from what you say it meant," Gertch finished.
"As a result, we have decided to give you one last chance." Regar gave a smile that somehow made me feel even worse. "Once Lara leaves, we can discuss this."
"A chance?" the Magistrate shrieked. "How can you give them a chance?"
"We don't have substantial evidence, Lara," Regar said softly, her smile still in place. "It would be unfair to convict them without evidence. Now, will you leave or do I need to have you removed?"
The Magistrate slowly rose, obviously trying to keep her pride, and swept out of the room in a haughty, dignified manner. I watched her go with an air of jealousy- I did not want to be left in the room with Regar without another target for the Board member to focus on.
"Now. What to do with you?" Regar's smile had somehow grown even sharper. Machai had adopted the same defensive stance he had when the Magistrate had visited the first time, shielding me subtly from sight.
"I believe there is a job we need doing, Amia," Gertch replied, glaring hostilely at my master. Regar nodded thoughtfully.
"Yes, the one in the Otherworld. It's too dangerous to send anyone in good favor on, but it needs to get done…"
"You can't send Nessa there," Machai hissed. "She's a child."
"Not that you seemed to mind," Regar snapped back, losing her composure for a moment. At my shocked expression, she smiled cruelly. "Did you really think I bought your little story? It's obvious how protective you are of the girl, Machai. You are simply lucky enough to be too useful to just throw away, and I haven't been on the best of terms with Lara lately."
Machai dropped any pretenses and moved closer to me. I wasn't sure if he was trying to comfort me or protect me. "What game are you playing now, Amia?" he asked softly. I shuddered. When Machai got really angry, he got quiet, which was in some ways worse then yelling. Even Regar looked momentarily shocked.
"I am playing no game," she replied testily, recovering quickly. "And you will see that soon enough. You are expected to be in the Otherworld by sunset tomorrow. Otherwise your lives are forfeit." She glanced at me coldly. "I hope it was worth it, girl."
"My name is Nessa," I replied, surprising myself with the ice in my voice. Regar pursed her lips and gestured to the guards in the room, who unlocked our cuffs. I resisted the urge to rub mine where the metal had chafed them. She waved her hand, dismissing us, and I allowed Machai to lead me out of the room.
Longest chapter yet! Of course, it took a while, but this was for some reason a really challenging chapter for me. I rewrote it three times! And I'm still not totally happy with it, but whatever. I activated anonymous reviews- I didn't even realize I had it off! I apologize profusely. But yeah... Questions!
Any ideas on who Stephen might be? ;)
What did you think of the Board members?
Who's worse: the Magistrate or Regar?
You all followed that "Lara" was the Magistrate… right?
Thanks so much for reading, and I will try to get the next chapter up as soon as possible!