The food was very good. Excellent, in fact, which Melle appreciated considering how long she’d been waiting. If anyone had told her before she came that it took four months to get an audience with the Tribunal, she would’ve given it all up as lost. Not to mention the last five hours standing in a crowded hallway, clutching her appointment parchment, watching the faint sun rays sink farther down the cold stone walls. She almost wished someone had told her that all the people still waiting while the Tribunal dined were fed from the castle kitchens as well, it wouldn’t have made her so ornery.
“If you are finished, the Tribunal will start seeing you now,” their guide told them, watching Melle cooly. She felt a little bad for lashing out at him when he started his announcement with ‘The Tribunal will break to dine now....’
She snatched a few more slices of bread and a hunk of meat, lingering after the rest of the people. At this point it didn’t matter when they saw her, as long as they did so she could finally go home. She nibbled on her after-dinner snack while others filed through the narrow door, until she was the last one left waiting. That suited her even better. The guide eyed her cooly, as if contemplating telling her she’d have to wait until tomorrow, but grudgingly opened the door for her. She spared him a nice smile to show her appreciation, then sauntered into the Tribunal. Although she kept her chin high and her eyes level, she couldn’t help sneaking glances this way and that to take in the fine hall. While the rest of the castle was fairly drab, this room seemed to hold ornaments from all throughout the nine provinces. The carpet she walked on to reach the bench was a deep and luxurious blue, and though covered in dirt and footprints looked as if it had been placed yesterday. Well, maybe it has, she mused, smelling the crisp scent of cleaning agents. For a moment Melle imagined the hall as her personal living quarters, a giant bed lying in the middle.
She reached the bench, and, keeping her eyes on the Tribunal, bowed low. “Your Honors,” she said clearly, straightening up.
Each of the men nodded to acknowledge her presence. Her lips quirked as she took in their great attempts to look impressive. No matter how well-tailored their robes were, or how tall their hats, they still looked like old men with dust on their noses from pawing through books who would much rather be in a library doing just that.
“Your name?” one of the younger old men asked, poising his quill on the paper like a needle. That must be the General Honor.
“I am Melle Saw’wn, Your Honors.”
“Are you the last one?” a bald, white-bearded man asked hopefully.
Through great control, Melle kept a straight face. “Yes, Your Honor.” That one must be the eldest, the Honorary Honor.
“Your purpose?” the General Honor spoke again.
“I came to Rackabel from Tunus, Your Honor, where I observed their Duke purchasing weapons for an amassed army of roughly twelve-thousand plus four maizar.”
“Four?” gasped another Honor.
“Twelve-thousand?” cried more of the others. They all started talking amidst themselves, almost forgetting they were supposed to be keeping up a front.
The General Honor alone kept his composure, but his face had gone several shades paler. “How long ago was this?” he demanded, fingers clenching around the quill.
“Four, five months,” Melle said casually, waiving her arm gracefully.
“Why didn’t you—”
“Will all due respect,” Melle interrupted coldly, “no one asked when I received my appointment card if it was important.”
“We are sworn to treat all citizens of the Fair Land... fairly,” another Honor pointed out.
Melle shrugged her shoulders, holding out a hand. “It is inefficient for all clients to go directly to the head, that is what un—” she realized what she was about to say, and added a laugh to make up for her pause, “—derlings are for.”
An Honor with a long, hairy nose was flipping through several crisp parchments, and finally spoke in an accusing voice, “You were born to a Rackabel monk in Rackabel, joined the Rackabel Spinners, and were appointed to travel to Enwo preaching the Spiral. There is documentation telling that you left our fair castle, but no record of you entering any of the other provinces. How did you get to Tunus? Why were you there?”
Melle met his level gaze, a little disturbed at his efficiency. Maybe that was part of the reason they took so long to see people.
“Record Honor,” she sighed, lowering her chin a little to display meekness, “you are familiar with the family traditions of the Spinners. There was no way for me to escape my family trade other than vanishing from the Record trail. I went to Tunus for no other reason than it seemed far enough away my father might not search for me.”
“Does he know you’re here now?” the Honorary Honor asked curiously, leaning forward.
Melle shook her head slowly.
“Well,” the Honorary puffed, whacking his hands on the desk, “you should visit him now, young lady! What mischief were you planning, leaving your family with no word for more than three years? Your mother has a weak heart, I dear-say the reason for her recent decline was your unthoughtful abandonment. What a thing to do to your poor father and mother! Why, if my daughter—”
“Yes, we know, Daril,” snapped another Honor, “you’d send a lame horse after her just like you did her brother!”
A couple other Honors snorted, then looked mortified and tried to pretend they were coughing into their sleeves. Melle studied the Honorary Honor closer, gradually feeling like she knew him from somewhere. Some acquaintance of her mother, no doubt, but as Fair Spinner her mother knew half the population of Rackabel personally.
Honorary looked to speak again, but Record beat him to it, saying loudly, “Back to my relevant questions, now. Duke Tunus has no doubt been keeping this army hidden, and hidden well. How were you to observe it? Is there really an army, or are you a diversion of some sort?”
Melle hesitated. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t had plenty of time to get her story straight, but with no one to test it on, it could sound flat stupid for all she knew. “Well-hidden, Your Honor, or merely well-paid. As it goes, how do you hide a convict in a monastery? Give the monks a ham to say he is a monk.”
“You are saying those who might tell us about the army are being paid off,” General Honor clarified.
“I witnessed it myself,” she agreed. “I got a post as a maid in the Duke’s household, and often... passed by doorways.”
“Where did he get the money?” the Fiscal Honor demanded, the question clearly pointed at the other Honors. Melle could see they were quickly taking sides as to if they believed her story or not.
“How should I know?” she said a little crossly, putting her hands on her hips. “He is a Duke. He has control over the entire provence, including your tax-collectors. Does it make a difference? It’s too late to send someone to confirm my story, you must make preparations now.”
“She has a point,” the Record Honor said grudgingly, and she felt relief until he spoke again and she realized they were ignoring her plea of expedience. “The Duke could have been falsifying revenue reports for years and we would not know. I’ve said many times we need better records kept around the provinces—”
“They sent clear records,” the Fiscal Honor objected; “not only has the province been failing to make its trade quotas, but the natural disasters mark it as a cursed—” He stopped suddenly, realizing where exactly these records of trade and famine had come from. Melle knew they were convincing documents, after all, she’d written a fair number of them herself.
“His father would never stoop so low,” sputtered a fat Honor, his hat slipping off his head, “Duke Tunis should be ashamed of his lies and plans of treachery!”
Melle shook her head. “It’s easy to lie,” she said quietly, meeting the eyes of each Honor squarely. “A system based on law is based on trust, and your actions over the past decade have far from convinced the Dukes you can be trusted. The Dukes are accountable to no one but themselves, the people have no power over them, so they learn that they can do what they want. As your laws grow to yoke him and his people more, Duke Tunis takes the easy route: cut off from the sinking ship.”
“Sinking—” an Honor started, but Melle continued, her voice louder. “If you were meeting a power-hungry tyrant, your precious city would already be razed to the ground, but the traditions your procedures have worked hard to engrain upon us would rise until we had elected a new Tribunal, and everything would continue as before. But you are not facing a power-hungry tyrant. You are facing a good man who is tired of answering to your ridiculous requirements and obeying your restricting laws, who has seen too many tired faces, who is sick of building more cemeteries so this province with little natural resources can extend a trade-route to a barbaric desert existence barely acknowledged as a civilization.”
“Why, it’s—” Trade Honor started, jumping on his chance to speak, but Melle wasn’t finished. “If you do not take action immediately, by fortifying Rackabel and notifying the rest of the provinces, this city and our entire country are at risk of being brutally and completely destroyed. What rises from the ruins will be controlled by the belief of a heartless man who sees no need for law and order.” Her voice cracked, but she hoped they wouldn’t notice.
General Honor stared at her, eyebrows furrowing. “I cannot discern if you are defending Duke Tunus as a hero or condemning him as a demon. You worked in his household? You know him personally? At one point you referred to him as a ‘good man’, another, a ‘heartless’ one. Your grasp of politics is strong for a Spinner child. You were a maid, you said?”
The bombardment of questions caught Melle off guard, she made a few sounds not unlike a water pump before regaining her composure. “I— he, Duke Tunus, he has good intentions, when it comes to his province leastwise. He does not see the suffering of his people and cry for their sakes, but for the inefficiency it brings. I spoke to him a few times,” she admitted, “at first I thought as others did, that he cared about people, that he was a hero. He goes to great lengths to make himself look the part. But I had my doubts, and... well...” she added in a measure of hesitation.
“You are not entirely deserted. I was enlisted by a small number of people who are secretly working against Duke Tunus from within. They explained to me what was going on, and I volunteered to bring the news since Rackabel is my birthplace.”
It was almost like a wave, how quickly the Honors relaxed and became convinced she was telling the truth. She wasn’t the loyal one, the smart one, the politically-savvy party, she was just a maid bearing a message. All their doubts went out the door, and Melle wanted to sigh in relief. But it wasn’t finished. She didn’t know how soon he had mobilized after learning of her betrayal, but he could arrived at Rackabel any day.
“Please take action,” she whispered, looking very tired, “before it’s too late.”
Most of the Honors began speaking amongst themselves and calling for messengers and scribes. The Honorary Honor kept his eye on Melle.
“May I go?” she asked him, holding her hands out imploringly.
Melle bowed her head. “I... hadn’t planned on it.”
“Go home. Kuw’om will guide you there, it is late for you to walk alone. You should stay with your family.”
Stay where they could find her, he meant. She nodded, then looked for the guide, who, judging from the look on his face, was the Kuw’om who was to be her bodyguard. She wasn’t sure which one of them were more displeased by the arrangement, but they left without a fuss.