Olatiri rose from his ancient oak desk beside the throne as we entered the throne room. Apart from a few early-rising courtiers, we were alone. “My dears,” he said, bowing stiffly.
“Good morning, father,” said Inaya. “You look even more harassed than normal this morning.”
“If you would not mind delaying the petitioners for a few minutes?” said Olatiri.
Inaya nodded. “Of course. Is there a problem?”
“One I have been awake for the past four hours trying to settle,” said Olatiri in an exasperated voice. “To no avail. Your majesty, we may have a minor diplomatic crisis on our hands.”
“So early in the morning?” I said. “It must be with the Moravin, then. The nobles are too busy sleeping or eating their third breakfast to be causing any trouble.”
“We aren’t,” Inaya pointed out, elbowing me.
“The Sepreni, in fact,” said the Grand Vizier. “Some wretched boy come courting the Shinomá. Lasãsh loi Damakh is his name,” he added, with an almost perfect Seprena accent.
“Vulture,” said Inaya.
“To be fair, I think we can blame Lasãsh for that, not the boy,” said Olatiri. “He’s not smart enough to plot his way to the privy and back.”
“So what’s this about?”
“Around midnight last night, a slave Damakh brought with him escaped the Shinomá townhouse he’s been staying in.” Olatiri perched on the edge of the throne. “Imesha’s staff noticed and made the mistake of waking him. He immediately demanded a chase, and the Watch got involved when he and his retainers dragged her out of a tavern she was trying to beg for a room in.”
“So?” Inaya shrugged. “Let the Watch give them both a public whipping and send them back to Imesha. I don’t see the problem.”
“The problem,” said Olatiri, “is that they’re now both suing each other. She’s accusing him of kidnapping and assault, he’s accusing her of personal treason. And theft.”
“She stole from him?”
“He’s saying she stole herself by fleeing.”
“Anur alive,” I muttered.
“The courts can’t deal with it?” asked Inaya.
“The courts spent all morning tossing the case around like a bag of vomit,” said Olatiri with exasperation, “and finally it landed on my desk. Nobody wants to be held responsible for this mess.”
“I suppose I can’t blame them.” Inaya seated herself on the throne and beckoned to me to join her. “Send them in, then. I may as well get the worst over with now.”
I climbed up to the throne and perched on Inaya’s lap, pecking her on the cheek. She placed a palm on my chest and pressed me back against the seat cushions so I was laying across her lap. “You don’t look nearly decadent enough sitting up,” she chided me.
“Oh?” I giggled. “Are you going to send for some servants to fan me and feed me grapes?”
“I might just have to if y—” Inaya was interrupted by the doors to the throne room opening abruptly. A group of watchmen entered, dragging two prisoners in chains. Behind them was a girl I recognized as a niece of Shinoma Imesha. She was either here to report on the proceedings to her aunt or witness the fate of her suitor, if he was hers.
“Lasãsh loi Damakh and Lasãsh lau Mereut,” announced Olatiri, stepping forward and standing before the throne. “Arrested this morning for disrupting the queen’s peace.” He gestured, and the watchmen forced both the prisoners to their knees. Damakh was young and tall, and quite handsome, dressed in extravagant Sepreniish fabrics. Mereut was ragged, her hair dirty, and where Damakh looked like he was about to explode with rage, she hung her head, not meeting Inaya’s critical gaze.
“They have thrown themselves upon the mercy of your laws, your majesty,” said Olatiri. “Meraya grant that your judgment be fair.” The courtiers echoed the prayer. I noticed Mereut’s lips moving in time with the words.
“This is absurd!” screamed Damakh. “I—”
“You will speak when spoken to, worm!” bellowed a guard-captain, smacking Damakh with his truncheon. From his expression I could tell he was enjoying this rare chance to rough up a noble.
Damakh subsided, but remained visibly apoplectic. I caught the captain’s eye and winked at him. He grinned back.
“What form of address do I use?” whispered Inaya to me.
“Depends. Lord Damakh if you want to be respectful.”
“And if I don’t?”
“Lasãsh-loi, then,” I said. Inaya nodded.
“Lasash-loi!” she said aloud. I giggled at the expression of pure hate on Damakh's face. “You come into my lands and cause a fray in my city. Instead of accepting your punishment, you have pled suit against a fellow Sepreni. I will now hear your case.”
Damakh tried to stand, but the guard captain smacked him around the head. “Her Majesty can hear you just fine where you are,” he snapped.
“Olátirika, your Majesty,” said Damakh angrily, “would you kindly dismiss these ruffians that we might discuss this matter respectfully?”
“I already don’t like him,” I said aloud. There were a few demure giggles from the courtiers, including the Shinoma girl. Not her suitor then. —Well, on second thought maybe he was.
Inaya scratched the back of my neck distractedly. “You stand before my court accused of crimes against my peace,” she retorted. “Until you have proven otherwise, you are a criminal and will be treated accordingly.”
“I see.” Damakh straightened as best he could. “Very well. Your Majesty, firstly, I plead for myself and my retinue in this matter.”
“I ask that you place the blame for the disturbance of your peace on the shoulders of the one who deserves it,” Damakh continued. “I and my retinue acted only to protect our legal interests.”
“The capture of my escaped slave.”
“Lasash-loi, are you aware of our land’s laws regarding slavery?”
“I am. Your Majesty.”
“Then you are aware that there is no law under which you could press suit against a slave for escaping. You’re going to have to do better than that.”
“Your Majesty’s law governs theft, disputes of labor, and covenant, does it not?”
“Then I submit that this lau— this slave has committed theft in stealing my rightful property, and additionally has betrayed a covenant sealed in her name.” Damakh fumbled with his manacled hands to produce a small wax-sealed scroll from within his robes — I made a mental note to tell the captain to start cuffing prisoners behind their backs. A guardwoman snatched the scroll from Damakh’s hands and passed it to Olatiri, who passed it to Inaya. She unrolled the scroll and glanced over it critically.
“I see,” she said at length. “Have you any other arguments to make?”
“I have said all I have to say.”
“Very well. Lasash la Mereut!” I cringed at her awful Sepreni accent. “What do you have to say in your defense?”
The girl looked up fearfully. She spoke in faltering Onamaši. “I do not know the laws of your people, my lady,” she said.
“I am the law of my people,” said Inaya coolly. “Two charges have been made against you which I am willing to consider. The first is treason of covenant.” She held up the scroll. “Lasash loi Damakh alleges you made and broke a covenant with him. Is this true?”
“I do what my lord commands of me. If I do not I am beaten.” She gave Damakh a hateful look.
Inaya sighed. I felt her hand clench in frustration behind my neck. “Do you recognize this document?” she said.
“Yes, my lady.”
“How long has Lasash loi Damakh held you as a slave?”
“I have belonged to Lasash since I was born,” she said.
“Las—” A look of confusion passed across Inaya’s face. She glanced at Olatiri. “Father, under Sepreni law, does Damakh own her?”
“Men cannot own slaves under Sepreni law, your majesty,” said the vizier, a touch of amusement in his voice. “I assume from her name the girl belongs to Lasãsh. His grandmother,” he added.
“Ha!” Inaya snorted with laughter. “Lasash-loi! Is this true that this slave is not even your property under Sepreni law?”
“She belongs to my family—”
“That was not the question.”
“It is true then! She belongs to my grandmother!” Damakh shrugged. “What difference does it make?”
“Then I strike all charges of theft against her,” said Inaya. “You cannot sue for theft of property that does not belong to you.”
“Fine!” Damakh’s manacled fists clenched. “Then she still stands in treason of covenant!”
“Yes, the covenant.” Inaya smirked. “Mereut, when did you seal this covenant?”
Damakh’s eyes lit up in alarm, and he looked over at his slave, baring his teeth.
“Four months ago,” said Mereut quietly. “Just before we began our journey!”
“You lie!” Damakh lunged at her. The watchmen descended on him, dragging him clear and assaulting him with their truncheons. Inaya watched with amusement for a few moments as Damakh screamed, then gestured to guards to cease. They hauled him back in front of the throne, blood dripping from his nose.
“You would, I take it, claim she entered this covenant before she became your slave?” Inaya asked, smirking.
“Yes!” shouted Damakh hoarsely.
“Milord Damakh,” said Inaya, and I could tell from the tone of her voice the trial was as good as over. “Are you lettered?”
“What? No!” snapped Damakh. “Do you take me for a scribe, woman?”
“I see. You must be unaware then,” said Inaya, “that this covenant is written in Onamaši.”
“W-what?” exploded Damakh. “What does that—”
“I cannot for the life of me imagine,” said Inaya, “why a Sepreni lordling would bind a slave with a covenant written in the language of a kingdom hundreds of leagues away. In fact, I would guess that this covenant was written before your voyage began to add an air of legality to a practice that Onamaši law does not enshrine. Father, when is a covenant invalid under our laws?”
Olatiri smiled thinly. “A covenant cannot be valid when it is sealed under duress.”
“I thereby declare this covenant illegal.” Inaya casually tore it in two and tossed the pieces aside. “As you have so effectively demonstrated your slave’s innocence, I find you guilty of disturbing the queen’s peace, assault, kidnapping, and court hooliganism. I thereby sentence you to fifty lashes at noon in the market square, thereafter to be held in a gibbet for the remainder of the day as punishment for disruption and hooliganism. For your more serious offenses, I sentence you to be imprisoned in the palace dungeons until such time as I deem fit.” She raised her voice as the courtiers began to exclaim in shock. “In the sight of Meraya and by the guidance of Her hand, I so rule.” She clapped her hands once.
I rose up and kissed Inaya on the cheek. “Good move, my queen,” I murmured.
“I’m so glad you approve.” Inaya squeezed my thigh, and put an arm around my chest. The court was clamoring loudly now, some nobles applauding, others shouting in anger. Inaya raised her hand. “I will have silence!”
Inaya looked down at the slave girl as the court quieted down. “Mereut,” she said, “I dismiss all charges levied against you. In my sight and the sight of the gods, you are a free woman.” She waved to the guards, who helped Mereut to her feet and began to remove her shackles.
“How dare you!” Damakh screamed, shaking his fists. “I am the son of Oiran daughter of Lasãsh, a noble of Seprena! How dare you treat me like a common peasant! How dare you thieve from my family!”
“Take him away,” Inaya ordered.
“I am the second cousin of the Prophet, you bitch!”
“I think Kelaune has more important things to do, don’t you?”
“You are going to rue this day!” Damakh shrieked as the guards hauled him from court. “You haven’t heard the last of—” The doors slammed shut.
“Mereut, come here,” said Inaya gently. Nervously, the girl approached the throne, and knelt.
“What do you want of me, my lady?”
“Do you have money? A place to stay?”
“No, my lady.”
“What skills do you have?”
“I... I speak several tongues, my lady.” The flicker of shame on her face was enough to tell me what the rest of her skills were.
“Are you lettered?”
“Aye, my lady.”
Inaya raised her voice. “Will any here take this girl into their homes?”
“I will.” The Shinoma girl piped up immediately, stepping forward with an easy confidence.
Inaya raised her eyebrows. “You are Shinoma...?”
“Shinomá Taré Waléshana Simoléka Sátisa, your Majesty,” said Satisa. She took Mereut by the hand and helped her to her feet. “It is my family’s responsibility that this matter disturbed you. It is only proper we care for her.”
Inaya nodded. “Hani, dear, would you be willing to recommend Mereut to the Guild of Scribes?”
I nodded. “Of course I would.”
“It’s settled then.” Inaya smiled at Mereut. “You will be recommended to the scribes so you may pursue that as a trade. In the meantime, I award House Shinoma a one-year pension of one gold sovereign each season for your upkeep.”
Mereut nodded, too stunned to speak.
“Come on then,” said Satisa, putting an arm around her shoulder. “Let’s get you home. Thank you, your Majesty. I did not relish the thought of marrying that oaf.”
“I think I know how she escaped,” I said, as the two walked away and Satisa slipped her arm around Mereut’s waist. “I think I also know who told Damakh his slave was escaping.”
“Satisa is a dangerously clever one,” said Inaya.
“You actually managed to do that all within the law,” said Olatiri, leaning against the side of the throne. “I’m impressed.”
“Why thank you, vizier,” said Inaya, laughing. It’s been two years and the sound of her laugh still makes me blush.
“I am curious,” said Olatiri archly. “What if you hadn’t been able to?”
“Father dear,” said Inaya reprovingly. “I’d have said Kepet take the law, of course.”
Olatiri nodded. “I was afraid you’d say that. As it is, you’ve probably made a lot of people very angry today.”
“I really don’t care,” said Inaya, crossing her legs and leaning back. “It’s not like Imesha was enamored of me anyway, and what does it matter if I’ve made a few nobles from the Northeast mad?”
“You know Lasãsh has other family ties to this country.”
“It’s time we started isolating the Sepreni anyway,” said Inaya, shrugging. “I don’t like the tone their ambassador has been taking lately. The less pull the Temple has here the happier I am. As I see it, we’ve cut off the Northeast from scheming with a house that hates us, and made a powerful friend among Shinoma Taré.”
“You mean Simoleka Satisa?”
“Of course. She pulled off a pretty remarkable scheme today. Arasha may be Imesha’s daughter, but I think Satisa will matter more in the long run.”
“And Imesha herself?”
“Is old. How much longer is she going to live anyway?”
Olatiri regarded her for a moment. “You are a much more daring queen than Imesha ever was.”
“Why thank you, father.”
Olatiri laughed. “I can’t fault your logic, but you’re taking risks. But,” he added, as Inaya started to interrupt, “I’m sure you know what they are.” He bowed. “I am as ever your loyal servant, your Majesty.”
I hopped off Inaya’s lap — she smacked my bottom as I left — and strolled over the to the Watch captain, who was dictating a record to the court clerk. I tapped him on a shoulder. “A moment?”
He turned, and smiled broadly. “Your grace!” he said, bowing. “I’m guessin’ you enjoyed the show?”
“I did, captain,” I said. “But I’d like to have a word with you about how to use manacles.”