I was right the whole time, Ciena thought as she led her captive through the snow-covered courtyard.
The sun was falling behind the mountains to the west and the enclave's buildings sparkled with lantern light in the blue darkness. The wind blew as fierce as Ciena herself, tossing her braided hair across her face.
Student trials usually took place in the privacy of the White Council chamber, but the half-blood's trial was scheduled in the chapel for all to see. It was highly irregular, but Vash said the students had a right to know what happened to their Headmaster.
And to show them what happens to traitors, no doubt.
Steel manacles bound Nahlia's hands and feet, but Ciena didn't take any chances. She kept a firm grip on the half-blood's upper-arm, slender as it was. The other hand she rested on her dagger.
One wrong move, and Ciena could have it at her throat in half a heartbeat.
A pair of guards led the way into the chapel while the other four followed close behind.
Overkill? Not in the slightest. The Council already spent the last month underestimating this girl. They'd be even bigger fools to do so again.
Too bad one of them had to die before they figured that out.
They passed under the stone archway onto the marble floor. Inside, the sanctuary was as crowded as Dresten's market. The pews were full to bursting, packed with everyone from students and instructors, to farmers and craftsmen. From Seekers and soldiers, to mothers and children. They all showed up to see the girl who'd murdered their leader.
Finally, someone in this enclave who's more infamous than me.
They stopped at the front of the nave, and she attached Nahlia's manacles to another steel chain inside the defendant's box. The four remaining Council members sat on the dais above, their faces dark and unreadable.
Elias sat at the far edge of the chamber with the rest of Wolfe Clan. Ciena might've joined them, but her guard duties required her to stand for the duration of the trial. Instead, she found a place at the edge of their pew.
"How's Relyn?" she asked her brother.
There was a long pause before he answered. "She was awake when I saw her this morning. Only... " His eyes grew tighter as if the answer pained him to say "She couldn't feel her legs."
"What?" she asked. "Are they broken or something?"
He shook his head. "Marwyn called it spinal cord damage."
"Well, Is it fixable?"
He raised a weary shoulder. "It's too soon to say. She took a bad fall out that window. Almost twenty feet."
Yimo nodded. "It would've been twice that if the walkway hadn't caught her. Sounds like she's lucky to be alive."
Aegon above... Ciena felt a flood of guilt for the way she treated her former clan member before. She assumed Relyn was the one to request Nahlia's admittance into Wolfe Clan, but that was the Battlemaster's doing all along. It was the only way his niece could get close to her.
Relyn Vash was the only one in this entire enclave to act against Nahlia Cole, and it cost her.
"The council should never have let it go so far," Ciena said. "It's their job to protect us, not the other way around. They should have interrogated the half-blood more thoroughly. They should have done something. Anything."
"Who could've seen it coming?" Yimo said. "How many small-town barmaids are capable of assassination?"
Elias leaned back on the bench, eyes narrow in thought.
"What?" Ciena said flatly.
"I didn't say anything."
She rolled her eyes. "I know that face. Spit it out already."
He ran a hand through his blond hair. "I don't know what to think anymore. I agree with what you said about the council, but I still can't believe Nahlia did all this."
"What? Didn't she already confess when she turned herself in?"
"That doesn't mean she's capable of murder," Elias retorted.
Ciena let out a huff of ignition. "Well, I guess that settles it then. Our dear Headmaster must have died of old age."
He looked around. "You want to keep your voice down?"
"What?" She shrugged. "It's a trial, not a funeral."
"Your sister's got a point," Yimo said. "You really think Relyn would lie about what happened?"
"I think there's more to the story," he replied. "I had Nahlia in my martial arts class, and she could barely take on a twelve-year-old."
"Once again," Ciena broke in, "The half-blood already confessed to this last night. What more do you want?"
"Well"—Yimo gestured to the front of the chapel—"If you two stop bickering for one second, we might actually find out."
Nahlia shifted uncomfortably in her chains, feeling the weight of two-hundred eyes upon her. Vash, Marwyn, Vaulden, and Zidane. The members of Wolfe Clan, and so many others whom she'd never even met. They were all watching her now. Judging her.
Her wrists were raw and bleeding, and bits of tomato clung to her hair from where an onlooker struck her outside. She thought that sort of thing only happened in stories. Apparently not.
Nahlia tried to heal her wrists to no avail. Her Etherite necklace had always been the source of her power, and now even that was gone.
To think ... I actually thought I was special for doing Ethermancy. It was the necklace. It was always the necklace.
After what seemed like an eternity of formalities, Battlemaster Vash's voice caught her attention. "Apprentice Nahlia Cole, you stand accused by this Council of treason against this enclave. For the murder of Headmaster Elveron, and the attempted murder of Apprentice Relyn Vash."
There was a short pause as a pen scribbled on parchment; one of the scribes at the foot of the dais.
"Is it true you that infiltrated this academy, working on behalf of Thane Solidor of Dragonshard?"
Nahlia nodded, and her voice came out dry and weak in the vast chamber. "Yes."
"And is it true you gave him information regarding this enclave, knowing he would pass it on to the Templars?"
"Yes," she said, "but I—"
Vash held up a gloved hand to silence her. "And, is it true, that you collaborated with Thane Solidor to murder Headmaster Elveron?"
Nahlia didn't waste a heartbeat. "No. I did not."
"How would you say he died then?"
"Why are you asking me?" she retorted. "Didn't you examine his body by now?"
Vash's brow furrowed, and she scolded herself and her too-quick tongue.
"Examined his body this morning," Marwyn said. "No wounds, no signs of disease or infection. No signs of poison. Cause of death impossible to determine."
Nahlia couldn't meet Marwyn's eye as he spoke. Of all the masters, she respected him the most. She couldn't bear to see the regret on his face.
"You were there when he died." Master Zidane sat with his hands folded on his lap. His accented voice was quiet compared to the Battlemaster's, but no less commanding. "If you didn't kill him, then tell us what happened."
Nahlia took a deep breath, trying to forget about the crowd behind her. She reiterated her last conversation with Elveron, telling them how she suspected Thane of having another piece of Etherite that was bound to her necklace.
"When I told the Headmaster this, he used the necklace to summon Thane into the Ethereal. He wouldn't tell me why, and he made me wait outside while he did it. I came back a few minutes later when I heard him fall out of his chair."
"Wait," Mistress Vaulden spoke up in her ageing voice, her violet eyes fixating on Nahlia. "You confessed to treason against this enclave, and the Headmaster simply let you 'wait outside'?"
Nahlia gave a slow nod. "It seemed strange to me too, but I didn't argue. He didn't seem particularly surprised by my confession either."
"You're still the one who delivered the necklace to him in the first place," Zidane pointed out. "Even if Thane Solidor was the killer, is it safe to say he could never have accomplished it without your help?"
Nahlia set her jaw. "I never would have given him the necklace if I knew! I went to his office that night to tell him the truth—to tell him I was done spying for the Templars."
"So you say," Vash noted. "But you've had opportunities to confess before. We questioned you the night you arrived here.. Are we to understand you lied to us then?"
Nahlia could do nothing but nod.
"And if you lied to us then, why should we believe you aren't lying now? Why should your word mean anything to us?"
A long silence followed before Master Zidane cleared her throat. "Moving onto the issue of Relyn Vash. Due to the nature of her injuries, she's unable to join us today. However, we have received her written testimony of the encounter. "
Great. As if things couldn't get any worse.
Zidane glanced down at a piece of parchment and began to read. To Relyn's credit, it was surprisingly accurate. From Nahlia's conversation with Elveron to their encounter after his death. Everything was accurate except for the end.
Zidane looked up once he finished reading. "Do you deny this, Apprentice Cole?"
"I did not push her out the window," Nahlia said.
"I wanted to surrender, but Relyn attacked me first. I got this when she knocked me into the desk." Nahlia gestured to her face, raising her trembling hand as high as the chains would allow.
"I was on the floor then, and she tried to hit me with her staff. I reached out to catch it. The room went dark, and there was ... a burst of energy between us."
Nahlia trailed off at the end. Last night, the explosion had been both powerful and terrifying. At the time, she thought she'd killed Relyn Vash, and the guilt was enough to make her turn herself in.
Now that she tried to explain it with words, it all sounded so ridiculous. An unexplainable burst of energy? Could she really expect anyone to believe her? Aeonica spoke of the Redeemers using their Ethermancy in forms of defence, but nothing so specific as this.
A few laughs broke out from some of the braver audience members.
"Silence," Vash roared in a low, agitated tone.
"I know it sounds crazy," Nahlia said. "But that's the best way I can describe what happened. Look at me, do you really think I could have bested Relyn Vash in a physical fight?"
"You held your own against Ciena Raider," Zidane noted
"Only because I used Ether—"
"Enough of this nonsense." Vash waved a dismissive hand.
Vaulden's face scowled in disapproval. "That's twice now you've blamed your crimes on supernatural phenomena. That's not an adequate defence here, Apprentice."
Nahlia slumped back in the defendant's box. The council had made their decision. Probably before this trial even began. There was nothing she could do or say to convince them otherwise. But perhaps there was still time to save them.
"Fine." Nahlia stood up, trying in vain to keep her voice steady and her eyes free of tears. "I'm responsible. If it weren't for me, Elveron would still be alive, and Relyn Vash never would've been injured. Is that what you want to hear?"
Vash leaned forward. "So you confess to these crimes?"
"Does it matter?" she retorted. "Does anything I say here matter? I made mistakes, and I'm sorry, but I never wanted anyone to get hurt." She took a deep breath, surprised to find the four of them quiet for once. "But the Templars are on their way here right now. We're only doing them a favour by arguing about this."
"Did Thane Solidor tell you that?" Vash asked without any particular inflexion.
"No," she admitted. "But by killing Elveron, they've created chaos from the inside. We should be evacuating, not—"
"Evacuate?" Vaulden raised her gray eyebrows. "In doing so, we would expose ourselves to the enemy."
"So you'll do nothing then?" Nahlia shot back. "You'll punish me, and then go on like nothing is wrong?"
"Enough," Vash bellowed. "This is a trial, not a war council. Now sit down before we have you gagged."
The half-blood is right, Ciena realized. Aegon curse her, but she's right.
She turned to her brother. "When's the last time you spoke with Mother?"
"Yesterday," Elias said. "But she only contacts her spies in Dresten twice a week."
Ciena coiled a crimson braid around one finger. "So it is possible that the army could have made their way north by now?"
He grimaced "That's ... unlikely. They have, what—three thousand troops in Dresten? It's not like they can sneak out a postern gate without anyone seeing."
"True," Ciena said. "But I also can't imagine them killing Elveron with a bloody necklace of all things."
"So you don't think Nahlia's responsible?"
"Regardless of who's fault it is, the Templars are behind it. The council seems content to ignore that little detail."
"They're not ignoring it," Elias said. "They just don't want to create a panic."
"Maybe that's exactly what we need. I'd rather we panic now than wake up breathing smoke in the middle of the night."
Images of Raidenwood struck her like shards of glass. Elias must have shared her thoughts, judging by his expression. They didn't always agree, but at least her brother would never call her paranoid like the others. He knew what it felt like to never feel safe.
Yimo cleared his throat. "And how about that magical blast of energy, huh? What the hell could that be?"
Ciena's memories travelled through time. Venturing into the library as first-years. Spending hours searching for hidden sections. Finding forbidden books, and ancient powers long forgotten.
"Ethermancy," she said, more to herself than anyone else.
Elias nodded, lowering his voice. "I never told either of you this, but I helped Nahlia steal an Ethermancy book from the Chronicler's office. The council should have found it when they searched her things today, but no one mentioned it."
"Because the book isn't supposed to exist in the first place," Ciena said. "Damnit. Of course accidents like this are bound to happen. She has this power, and no one's showing her how to control it."
"I'm surprised you believe her," Elias said. "You of all people."
Ciena gave him a pointed look. "The half-blood isn't the only one."
"What?" Hid dropped his voice to an urgent whisper, "When?"
Ciena crossed her arms, feeling her words get caught in her throat. "In the Gorge. When we went up against Wolfe Clan. I moved faster than I'd ever moved ... so fast, that I lost control."
The Council spent almost a half-hour deliberating amongst themselves. When they finally returned to the chapel, it took another half-hour to get everyone situated again.
They all took their seats except for the Battlemaster. His silhouette stood black against the candlelight.
"Nahlia Cole, you are found guilty of treason against this enclave. As an accomplice to the murder of Headmaster Elveron, and the attempted murder of Apprentice of Relyn Vash. By the will of this council, and by the laws of Aegon; the punishment for this crime is execution, to be carried out tomorrow at dawn."
Execution. Nahlia fell back in her seat. Her head feeling light, her insides clenching.
She'd been prepared for this moment ever since she stepped into Elveron's office, but she didn't realize until now how badly she wanted to live. To see her father again. To see the world. To fall in love. To read all the books in Whitecliff's vast library. To do something good with her life and make up for all the pain she'd caused.
Now, all of that was stolen away. All because of a few stupid mistakes.
Tomorrow morning, she was going to die. And unless someone stopped the Templar army, the others would all share her fate.