The High Court looked down at Zarya, the young oracle who was to carry out the next portion of the proceedings after the verdict.
“Bring the Diamonds, girl.”
She bristled at the old man’s tone, but the King was watching, so she kept it to a brief flash of irritation instead of calling him what she wanted.
The obsidian box was on a dark, polished, well-worn mahogany pedestal, the amber light of nearby candles dancing across the glistening surfaces like lost souls seeking sanctuary.
Bearing no love for the men on trial who watched her as she opened the box; she felt their eyes on her even as her thoughts drifted.
Poverty drove people to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do, as she’d discovered in her own life.
The king she served was a small and petty man in every way, like a child.
Giving willful children power is always a losing gambit, her father would say as he disciplined her.
These men had killed a deer on the king’s land, then had the misfortune to run into the game warden and his men, who tied them to poles, and beat them for hours, breaking bones and damaging their insides until their sadism was sated.
The King, eager to deal personally with the matter, had them healed by the court wizard Irhan, which brought more pain as their bodies unnaturally became whole again. He waited another two days until he was sure they could stand and there were no side effects before he handed them over to the guards.
“Zarya! Why do you hesitate, child?”
“Apologies, your majesty.” She invoked the spell that would infuse the gems with the eldritch power to imprison the souls of men.
Soul of raven, song of lark. Change these stones from light to dark.
If these men are guilty found, pull them in and hold them bound.
The magic coursed through her, a warm suffusing of pleasure and power with an edge of discomfort, like needles tickling the sole of a foot.
Grim with silent contempt for the small king, she gave each man a large, sparkling diamond; just one amounted to more wealth than the four of them combined would accumulate in their lifetimes.
Taking the gems in trembling hands, closing crying, frightened eyes, they muttered their prayers in fervent whispers.
To their credit, Zarya noted, they did not whimper and plead for mercy, bravely facing the consequences of their actions.
True men. Their only crime is being poor in a greedy kingdom.
As the seconds turned to minutes and nothing happened, the bewildered men began to tentatively smile.
The Chief Councilor noticed. “What sorcery is this, girl?”
“None, my lord, I swear. I invoked the spell. If the stones have not turned, they are innocent.”
“You presume much, young oracle. Hold your tongue.” He turned his attention to the game warden: “You said you saw them.”
“N’ so I did, y’maj’sty. Carryin’ th’ carcass n’ covered in blood, they was.”
The King turned his attention back to Zarya. “Hand me the diamonds.”
She stiffened. “Your majesty, none but the Oracles may handle—“
“I said, ‘Hand them to me.’ I will not ask again.”
She struggled with all she’d like to say to him; instead, without a word, she collected them and brought them over to the dais.
He shrank back; had she not been so close she would have missed it. He’s afraid of me.
When he had one in front of him, he told her, “Give one to each of the senior members.”
They blanched at suddenly being caught up in this mockery.
She nodded once, and distributed the other diamonds as they too watched her as if she’d sprout a second head. When she handed out the last one, the room was so silent she could almost hear the dust settle.
“We will examine these ourselves,” the King said.
Immediately, the councilors began to argue.
“We know nothing of gems, your majesty.”
“We certainly know nothing of their magic!”
“Your majesty, reconsider; it’s only a deer.”
“They’ve been punished enough by the game warden.”
“The carcass has since rotted. They can’t claim it now!”
The sudden bang of his fist on the table made them all jump, and brought immediate silence.
His glare at them was ice on glass, shiny with cold menace. “No one steals from me. Had they petitioned, I would have granted it.”
Zarya bit her lip to keep from laughing out loud.
“They chose to steal, so…” he looked at Zarya again, “either these gems were spelled to falsely prove innocence, or they are, if you’ll pardon the expression, flawed.”
There was low, nervous laughter that did nothing to relieve the tension.
“Perhaps we’ll find something the experts missed. Take the gems, gentlemen.”
A different set of hesitant hands picked up the diamonds.
The surge of magic scared them, and as they tried to drop and throw the diamonds, they found their hands locked fast. Cries of outraged horror burst from them as dark auras began to creep from the gems and enshroud them.
They entreated the king and Zarya to stop it, but she couldn’t do anything.
The men began to melt into the auras, they began to drift toward the center, where the king sat encased in his own miasma, eyes wide in fascination, too frightened to move or speak.
You stand condemned, your ‘majesty.’ Strangely, she took no pleasure in it, but neither was she said.
The King’s body shuddered, his eyes filmed over, and the short guttural cries that issued from him sounded as if he was getting repeatedly punched somewhere vital.
One by one, the white diamonds turned black, but the diamond in the King’s hand shattered. The people who remained close to the dais were running and covering their faces, covering their eyes from the flairs of the dark strands of power that flew out toward them, killing some as they tried to get out.
The Councilmen and the King were gone.
Some minutes were spent letting the shock wear off.
Zarya didn’t have the authority, but there were none to gainsay her. “Your innocence has been established before this court and council. Return to your homes in peace.”
They left, weeping and laughing, clapping each other on the back, and each of them just about hugged the breath out of her.
When the room finally cleared, and Zarya went to retrieve the gems, the king’s wizard stepped from the deep-shadowed alcoves.
“Wizard Irhan?” She stepped in front of the obsidian box.
“May I?” He held out his hand, and swallowing, she handed him the gleaming black diamond.
Turning it in his hands, he saw the light play across the lines and facets, like lost souls searching for a door out of an unholy sanctuary.
He handed it back to Zarya and smiled.
“It was you,” she said, eyes widening.
His eyes flared red in warning as his index finger touched his lips; she was never to speak of it.
Satisfied she received his warning, and confident she’d heed it, he turned and left her there in the darkening hall, in the deafening silence of a final, terrible judgement.