“We’re ready with our verdict.”
On a pedestal near the door lay two trays, one holding a neatly folded stack of black cloths, the other white ones. Without being told, the guard at the door lifted the tray with the black cloths and walked to the podium, placing a square before each Elder. One by one, nine of the men picked up the squares, shook them open, and draped them over their heads like hoods. Arim Tam and his brother hesitated, as did one other Elder, then as the others turned to stare at them, copied their action.
Miles’ stomach twisted.
“Prisoner kan Ingan…”
Aric didn’t move. One of the guards reached through the bars, prodding him with the rifle, and he stirred, opened his eyes, and straightened with a visible effort.
“The evidence in this case has been re-considered. It is the decision of this council that you were fairly tried and sentenced by this Court. You are guilty of treason and conspiracy, and by your own admission, through adherence to the beliefs set forth by the society, TAS, laid the groundwork for a possible weakening of the power of the Throne. Your sentence of execution stands, to be carried out immediately, and in the presence of this Council.”
In the courtyard, a woman near the front of the crowd shrieked out, “He’s innocent! He’d never do that!” The two men quieted her before the Blacks could intervene.
Kozlu waved his hand and the guard opened the door. Miles gripped the rail, not daring to speak.
A black-robed man, wearing a hood covering his features, came through the door. Oh my God, Miles bit his lip to keep from crying out. The Executioner? Behind him, another guard followed carrying a large black case fitted with silver locks. The man stopped before the podium, bowed to the Council, and turned toward the cage.
One of the Blacks opened the door and pressed the switch releasing the magnets. As the power was cut, Aric’s arms dropped and he fell against the guard, who pulled him from the cage, holding him upright.
The hooded man stepped in front of Aric.
The guard accompanying the hooded man opened the case, took out a white cloth, and spread it on the floor. The Black holding Aric dragged him to the center of the cloth. He pulled his arms behind him, forcing them together, and pushed him to his knees. The Executioner leaned over Aric. A small blade glittered in his hand as he ran it around Aric’s neck.
Miles leaned against the railing. “You can’t! For God’s sake, don’t!”
Outside, there was a loud group protest, hands raised, voices shouting, echoing his words. The Black dragged Miles from the railing. Briefly, they struggled as Kozlu’s voice cut through the uproar.
“The Warrior Sheffield will remain silent or be expelled from this Court.” He looked out over the courtyard. “Any further disturbance from outside and those participating will be arrested!”
Kozlu waved a hand at the guard standing by the Executioner and the Black Shield held out the case. The hooded man reached into it, using both hands to lift out a short-handled ax. It was an ancient object with leather hand-grips on its black-lacquered handle. The blade was of a non-reflective material, black with a shining rim of white diamontium fitted onto the edge.
As Miles watched in stunned silence, the Executioner hefted the ax, swung it twice as if testing its weight, and took a step toward the kneeling prisoner, raising it to shoulder height. The second Guard wrapped a hand in Aric’s hair, holding his head immobile.
There was a movement from the balcony and Aric looked up. For the first time, he saw his mother sitting there and the Black Shield behind her in the shadows.
“In the name of the gods, Kozlu!” His voice was thick and hoarse. “Send her away! Don’t let her see this. I beg you!”
The anguish in his voice tore at Miles’ mind. Only thought of the Black’s Petronel kept him from climbing the railing and throwing himself on the Executioner.
“Escort the Lady Alisiastra from the Chamber.”
The Shield stepped forward and touched her arm. She shrugged him away and leaned forward, eyes on her son’s kneeling figure. There were tears streaming down her cheeks.
Raising a detaining hand, Kozlu looked back at the Executioner. “During our prior deliberation, it was expressed by members of this Court that the punishment for the crimes the prisoner has committed are not severe enough”
“Not severe enough?” Miles echoed. “Good God! He’s going to die! What more do you want?” He remembered all the things Aric had said could be done to him. Please…please, don't let them!
Kozlu turned a quick glance in Miles’ direction and gestured. The Black’s hand went over his mouth, the other encircling his chest, holding him immobile.
“I’m sorry, Warrior,” was whispered into his ear.
“Considering the grief and anguish the Margrave experienced through his relative’s guilt,”the Elder went on as though Miles hadn’t spoken. “The Armed Forces were also thrown into disruption due to being left without its second in command, and our entire planet was, for a short time, extremely vulnerable and susceptible to attack through the loss of its Regent. For thus endangering all of Arcanis, with his perfidy, the prisoner’s sentence is commuted to slow exsangination and decapitation.”
What? Frantically, Miles struggled against the guard’s embrace, looking from Kozlu to Aric.
“My Lords! I must protest.” Marel was staring at them, aghast. Though he seemed to have accepted that he’d failed and his cousin would die, he appeared appalled at Kozlu’s statement. “Other prisoners convicted of similar crimes have not been treated thus. Surely, the Council is exercising some personal grievance against the accused—”
“You will be silent, Consillar Marel or you may join your client.”
Marel paled and kept quiet. Even the Executionor looked surprised if the way the hooded head jerked slightly was any indication.
“Proceed.” Kozlu waved a hand.