Many apologies for this taking so long and then being so long. I wildly underestimated both how easy and how labour intensive it is to write a trial. And I missed out a whole section and everything! Still really long. There is, of course, a lot that could be cut out, but as I haven't posted in ages now I just wanted to put it up; hopefully I'll get round to editing it shorter later.
But anyway: plot, look!
“And then Lord Gwilym said ‘Yes, and that’s what has enraged me so’,” Aerona concluded happily. “And then he properly swept out. Turned on his heel and swept, you know?”
“That’s how Madog tries to walk,” Dylan said, apparently automatically, and yelped as a pillow impacted with his head.
“Reprobate,” Madog told him squarely. “This is why we don’t let you out. Sorry Aerona, go on.”
It was the most informal and fun report Aerona had ever given, far different from the neatly written version waiting patiently on Councillor Rhydian’s desk. They were sitting in Dylan’s bedroom, Dylan himself still bare-chested but otherwise cleaned, groomed and ready to go; someone very artistic in the Wing had very carefully addressed the matter of his black-scarred eyes with a black kohl pencil, ling his eyelids and leaving him looking unbearably sexy. Currently he was carefully finishing Aerona’s hair for her, covering the patch that had been shaved clear for the surgery while she contentedly hugged his waist. Madog was sitting on the windowsill with the noble grace of a wolf overlooking its pack. It had taken about four times longer than ordinary to recount the tale of the dungeons from earlier because Dylan was incapable of shutting up unless ordered, which Madog hadn't done and Aerona didn't have the authority for, but she didn’t mind. She was enjoying herself immensely.
“Well, I think that’s about it,” she said cheerfully. “They left then, and so did I. It really was a good sweep, though, I cannot praise it highly enough. He’s developing a really commanding presence.”
“Yeah,” Madog grinned. “Pretty lad, too.”
“Madog Helygen!” Dylan said, hands on his hips. “Consider Awen’s feelings! He’s not available for you to assault, boy, with your eyes or otherwise!”
“I think Lord Gwilym’s attractiveness is objective fact, Dylan,” Aerona giggled. “Although I think Madog's grin classes as ‘roguish’, so perhaps that makes it more inappropriate.”
"It's always inapropriate if Madog does it," Dylan declared morosely, giving her a final look-over after three attempts and nodding, satisfied. "He's a sex pest, only no one listens to me until it's too late."
"Only one of us is currently half naked in front of someone they'd happily have sex with," Madog said idly. "That's all I'm saying."
"So what did Flyn want?" Dylan asked, changing the conversation irreverently. Aerona sighed.
"I don't know," she admitted. "I've been trying to work it out, but -"
"Hang on," Madog frowned as Dylan crawled past Aerona on the bed to reach the rest of his uniform, intentionally barging into her and knocking her over. She giggled. "I'm lost. I thought Flyn was just looking for a favourable vote in his trial?"
"Well, he -" Aerona began, but Dylan cut in.
"Madog!" he exclaimed. "How many favours have you asked for by insulting someone's girlfriend first? Is this why we end up on night shift so often? Hmm?"
"No," Madog said, deadpan. "But this is why you will be cleaning my harness for the next two weeks. Please continue, Aerona."
"Cheers!" she giggled, sitting up again. "Um, that's why it's suspicious, though. It sounded to me like he was trying to see if Gwilym knew something. And found out he didn't."
"Any idea what?" Madog asked, one eyebrow raised. Dylan snorted.
"Yes Madog, because we're psychic," he said, his tone sing-song as he fastened the high collar. "No, of course not. Who do you think we are, druids?"
"Well, I think you're going to feel the back of my hand in a minute," Madog said pleasantly. "Theories, you retard. Do you have any?"
"Something serious," Aerona sighed. "I've been thinking about it. Owain's stopped making sense to me, too."
"Oh, petal, he's stopped making sense to everyone," Dylan said kindly. "At the point he cut Awen's throat. Odd boy."
"I know," Aerona giggled. "But listen. He made sense to me before. I still don't think he wanted Lord Gwilym dead in Aberystwyth, but then he came here -"
"And went straight for him," Dylan said, freezing and staring on average at the wall. "Ah. Hadn't thought of that, and this is why you're awesome."
"You think both Owain and Flyn thought Gwilym knew something?" Madog asked interestedly. "But why him? Why -?"
"Something big," Dylan said, possibly talking to himself, it was always so hard to tell. "Cause, ha, could have escaped before that, straight out of the runway, so it's killing big. And Flyn thought asking for friendship and favours and eternal love was pointless if he knew."
"We're missing something, aren't we?" Aerona said restlessly. "And something Flyn doesn't want us to know, so I just feel we should."
"That's contrary," Dylan said automatically.
"Might Awen know?" Madog asked, leaning forward. "It's her Sovereign and her Deputy. And she's had a while to think about it, too."
"I…" Aerona hesitated, glancing at Dylan. "Well, see, that's the thing. I think she does know, because…"
"The guilt thing," Dylan said sagaciously, buckling on his belt and standing in front of Madog, holding his arms out questioningly for inspection. Madog regarded him, and nodded approval. "Flyn said Awen might be with Lord Gwilym out of guilt. Because he thinks she knows. It's all a big web of people knowing about other people knowing about other people knowing, it's really very straight forward. Let's go, you gypsy, I'm bored."
"You're moronic," Madog told him, standing and stretching. "I am at a loss as to what Aerona sees in you of any value other than comic relief. Aerona: should we be worried?"
"I'm not sure," said Aerona the Worrier. Dylan flashed a soft, brief smile before grabbing her wrist with faux impatience and towing her towards the door.
"No point," he said. "Trial starts in six minutes, nothing we can do about it now, we'll find out then, I want a good seat, can we have snacks?"
"Certainly not," Madog said, striding elegantly past them to the door. "Because I won't be able to have them and a privilege of rank is that I get to indulge my vindictiveness. Later, guys."
"You see!" Dylan exclaimed in outrage as Madog left ahead of them. "You see? It's not just me! This is the injustice I crusade against, day after day! No one believes me!"
"Dylan," Aerona giggled. "You told me not yesterday that he has to wear a slipper inside his left boot because he has no toenails there after a run-in with a Saxon midget, something which is demonstrably untrue."
"Oh yeah," Dylan grinned. "That was a good one. Let's go, pickle, I want a good seat to throw things at Madog."
In spite of the day's importance and Aerona's fresh Concerns, it nonetheless seemed to be shaping up to be rather fun.There was the companionship for a start; as Madog had to go and be official and stand around with Lord Iestyn the task of rounding up Wrecsam's Alpha Wing and making them turn up presentably without walking into walls or anything fell to Dylan, so they made their way to the Great Hall and found an entire balcony of seats in a happy muddle. Additionally to which they picked up a few satellites on the way - Geraint, the Casnewydd Alpha Wing complete with a beaming Llio, and -
"Hannibal!" Aerona said happily, bouncing into his arms for a hug. "Are you coming too?"
"Of course!" Hannibal said merrily, his returned embrace firm. "It is not so very often, my friend, that Riders get to publically discipline Sovereigns. This is your ultimate purpose! Your prime directive! I would not miss this for the world."
"Madog says hi," Dylan told him, disapprovingly. "But in a really soppy way. You shouldn't encourage him, now he thinks someone likes him."
Hannibal's deep laugh was delighted.
"My friend!" he said gaily. "I am genuinely thrilled to discover that neither of you cease your pretended war in each other's absence! But I must ask you, as I asked Madog: is this as fun for you without him here?"
"Oh, Hannibal," Dylan said, shaking his head. "This is always fun for me. I will go to Annwfn a happy man if my final words get to be, 'Tell Madog he smells'."
"And they will be," Menna said, shaking her head. "Even if he's beheaded, he'll get it said before it hits the dust. We've found an empty balcony."
"Take it," Dylan commanded, and they did, filing into the splendour that was the Great Hall.
Aerona had never seen it so full, and it was a big room. Three levels of balconies lined the walls, each containing tiered seating to provide the viewing public a perfect view of the giant oval floor below. A pair of needlessly enormous and ornate doors stood at one end, bracketted by Guard Riders, while at the other end of the Hall stood the currently empty raised dais behind whose panel the High Council would soon be sitting to preside over the trial. Lining the oval walls between both features were more tiered rows of seats, for once completely full; the Low Council sat to either side of the dais, the druids of the Urdd and the bards of the Gorsedd opposite each other next, and finally the assembled Sovereigns of Cymru, their Alpha Wingleaders beside them and various aides lining the back walls. Seating had been added on the floor itself, presumably for witnesses to use, one chair placed between a few sturdy-looking iron rings set into the floor. There were clerks and bards everywhere, ready to record. And above them all, stone branches from the Union's central tree column arced across the ceiling, enamelled leaves in gold and green picking them out. Aerona looked at them, and smiled.
"Did anyone bring snacks?" Dylan asked plaintively. Awe happened to people who weren't Dylan. "I'm hungry."
"I did," Adara said indifferently. "What's it to you, you loon?"
"If you give me some I'll stop Aerona from playing the shop game?"
"Would that you could, Dylan," Adara said, shaking her head. "But we both know you don't have that much power. She's a crazy."
"Well, they are right," Geraint murmured.
"What is this shop game?" Hannibal asked interestedly, leaning forwards, and Aerona beamed.
"Oh my gods," Dylan muttered, closing his eyes against the horror.
"It's excellent!" Aerona said happily. "I have a -"
"Stop! He's Phoenician!" Adara said, her tone alarmed. "Teach him nothing about retail, you'll end up in debt!"
"- shop, and the idea is you guess -"
"This is giving me flashbacks," Dylan said morosely. "I'm seeing Saxonia, all over again. The horror, the horror…"
"The sex," Adara said mildly, proving once and for all that there was a sly undercurrent to that woman that her tone belied. Dylan grinned.
"And that," he said smugly.
"- what the rule is! So, for example, if it's that you can only have something that begins with the same -"
"This is your fault, you know," Adara said matter-of-factly. "You mentioned it, you foolish."
"Some days, I don't realise my own terrible power," Dylan nodded.
" - letter, then you can have horses and hairpins and hooks, and I can have ants and, um… animals. But you guess from what you can have!"
"From what she lets you have," Adara said mutinously. "It's the worst shop ever. Terrible customer service."
"It sounds enjoyable," Hannibal smiled. "May I have… a Rider?"
"Sorry, are you actually playing now or just asking?" Dylan asked, and got smacked upside the head by both Adara and Menna, who seemed happy to do their bit for Northlander-Southlander relations. Hannibal laughed.
"I am playing," he confirmed, eyes twinkling, and Aerona clapped happily.
"Yes!" she said. "Um… yes! Yes you can."
"Can I have a Rider?" Adara asked, and shrugged abashedly as Dylan gave her a look of betrayed outrage. "What? If it's being played anyway…"
"You can have a Rider," Aerona giggled. "Everyone can, because I'm extraordinarily generous."
"Giving away Riders?" Meurig broke in, grinning. "I think that's extraordinarily treasonous."
"Can we have specific Riders?" Caradog boomed merrily. "Or is this a lottery?"
"Name one," Aerona suggested, which predictably took the conversation to a hilarious place.
"Why would you want Owain?"
"No to both."
"Yeah, they're taken…"
"Shut up, Dylan."
"Oh, what?" Adara said, disgustedly. "I'm being sold in your little shop of horror? Why?"
"Owned!" Dylan crowed happily. "Literally!"
"Can I buy Llŷr?" Caradog said hopefully, and Llŷr pinched the bridge of his nose.
"Please, gods, say no," he said wearily. "Whether it's the rule or not."
"You can't," Aerona giggled. "Sorry!"
"So who can buy Adara?" Caeron asked, leaning forwards. Menna smirked at him. "Can we all buy Adara?"
"Everyone can buy Adara," Aerona nodded solemnly, and laughed at the look she got from her.
"You know, I've had nightmares where this was so," Adara said. "Terrible nightmares, from which I've woken up screaming in fear that it would be Caradog."
"It would so be me," Caradog grinned, and Hannibal smiled and shook his head.
"Not unless you were considerably richer, my friend," he murmured, amused. "It would be a Phoenician, of that I can assure you."
"Do you know," Adara said thoughtfully, "in spite of how distressingly creepy the answer will clearly be, I feel compelled to ask how much I'm worth."
They all went quiet and turned to Hannibal, fascinated.
"Hmm." Hannibal regarded her for a second. "I could not give an exact price, of course, since there is no basis for comparison. No Rider has been sold before. Nor ever will, I feel, regardless of my countrymen's optimism. But; let's see."
He looked at the ceiling, his fingers stroking his immaculately forked beard, the light catching the gold chain linking his nose to his ear.
"A half-trained Rider child would probably fetch somewhere in the region of a tonne of purest gold or equivalent precious metal," he said, missing the stunned astonishment from his listeners by looking up and therefore carrying on. "Or twelve shiploads of Tyrian dye, or somewhere around one thousand Iberian stud stallions. If it went to auction rather than straight sale, of course, it would be more. A fully trained but untried Rider, freshly - qualified? I am unsure of your terms - would likely fetch somewhere around three tonnes of gold, perhaps three hundred shiploads of Tyrian dye, maybe five thousand of the Iberian stallions? Something around that mark. Again; only in a straight sale. An auction would drive the price to around twenty times that."
He tapped his fingers idly on the arm of the chair beside him, still oblivious to the Riders staring at him, jaws dropped.
"Alpha Wing would naturally quadruple the price however," Hannibal said distantly. "At the very least, my friends, and very probably more, to as much as ten times. And then, of course, you are from the border, and so practised in combat to the point that it is your second nature. That at least triples the price. And, finally, were your position as Deputy to become official… well. Value very nearly beyond measure. But, assuming no auction, I would put you at ninety tonnes of gold. Or, more realistically, thirty tonnes of gold, three thousand shiploads of Tyrian dye and twenty thousand Iberian stallions. And as these are difficult figures to obtain, perhaps your price would be split over more commodities."
He looked down again with a smile, and saw their expressions.
"Ah," Hannibal murmured. "I thought you would understand better if I explained it in trading terms. I see now I should have merely given a monetary price."
"That…" Adara stared at him. "That's how much I'm worth?"
"As a commodity," Hannibal shrugged. "Considerably more as a person, of course."
"My word," Llŷr said, slightly glazed. "That's - that's a considerable sum, right there."
"So," Menna said slowly, in the tones of one trying to fit an idea into a head that's just not designed to take it. "Okay, apart from Dylan, we're all Alpha Wings from the border -"
"I'm not," Aerona murmured, abruptly thankful.
" - and apart from Aerona and Geraint," Menna amended. "But, the rest of us… are we all worth that?"
Hannibal hesitated for a moment.
"More or less," he said slowly. "Certainly, the discrepancies would be such that you would barely notice the difference."
"Ooh, but there are some!" Dylan said enthusiastically. Naturally, Aerona thought fondly, the first of them to recover would be Dylan. "What are they? Is it because Glesni's a bad sort? She owes me a pint, you know. I'd maybe trade a blanket for her."
"What a card you are, Dylan," Glesni said.
"Sadly for you, my friend," Hannibal smiled wryly, "no. It is known, to the astonishment of some cultures, that both male and female Riders fight equally well, you see. This makes the women more… exotic. Although," he added to Caradog and Tanwen, "your sizes would make your prices particularly high, my friends."
"Excellent," Caradog said blankly, the response apparently automatic.
"And Dylan?" Aerona asked interestedly, ignoring his pointed look. "How much would he go for?"
"Rather a lot more," Hannibal smiled. "At this point we would certainly have to start using additional commodities to reach the price. Silks, ivory and gems, I think."
"I don't even know what ivory is," Dylan said, grinning. "Awesome. What about Madog, then?"
"Ah!" Hannibal smiled. "There we have to also start talking about technologies, skilled labourers, trade agreements, military agreements… all in addition to the mountains of gold, silver, ivory, gems, silk, Tyrian dye, Iberian stallions and expertly carved sculpture that you would command, my friend. Because I believe there would not be enough commodities in the world to equal him."
"Wow," Dylan marvelled. "All that and you've had him tied to a bed. I don't think you're so weird anymore, Hannibal."
"Dylan!" Aerona giggled.
"What?" he said defensively. "Come on, hands up who thought Hannibal was weird!"
They all put hands up. Hannibal laughed, the sound rich and deep.
"Aaahhh, see?" Dylan grinned. "Hands down if the fact that he likes Madog makes more sense to you now."
No hand stayed up. Hannibal's smile was easy.
"How very typical," he said affectionately. "And you will never learn."
"Hang on," Eluned said, leaning forward. "You said the women are worth more?"
"Yes," Hannibal said pleasantly. "Your unspoken question is correct, my friend! The most valuable commodity, living or otherwise, in the entire world is Alpha Wingleader Awen Masarnen. I believe in order to obtain her kings would have to sell their entire countries, in addition to the price I have already mentioned."
"And that would be a bargain," Caradog grinned affectionately, glancing down to the floor. Awen wasn't there yet. Aerona reflected on the assertion, and found that it was more true than Caradog realised. In addition to being Alpha Wingleader, in addition to being from the border and in addition to being a woman, Awen was also an Intelligencer and a bard. She was priceless.
"Let's not tell her," Adara suggested. "That includes you, Dylan, you public menace. She didn't even take the Saxon songs that well."
"Yes, she's such a sensitive flower," Dylan said sarcastically. "Fine. I'm totally telling Madog, though."
"I think I'd pay three bearskins and a cake for Caradog," Tanwen said, leaning back. "Dunno. What does everyone else think?"
"What kind of cake?"
"Three bearskins and a pair of hareskin gloves," Adara sniffed. "And the cake. But only with assurances that his behavioural problems have been corrected."
"But what kind of cake?" Caradog persisted. "Do I merit sugar, that's what I want to know."
"Three bearskins, the gloves, a sugar cake and a keg of mead," Bronwen said. "Because I'm betting on him being anatomically correct. Final offer."
"Sold!" Caradog grinned. "And that was a bargain, too!"
"I'd pay my bow for you," Dylan murmured quietly into Aerona's ear, and she felt her heart break slightly. Dylan was a marksman. Their bows were like their children. "And then I'd remind you that I'd done it every day for the rest of our lives to make you appropriately grateful. Ha ha!"
"You are far soppier than you let on, Dylan," Aerona grinned, wrapping her arms around his neck. "It's a charming hidden depth."
"Don't tell the others!" Dylan said, alarmed. "My stern, authoritarian image will break and then they won't obey me and then we'll all die in battle and it'll be all your fault, Aerona."
"Oh, Dylan," Aerona sighed contentedly. "They know already."
"Ooh, here they are!" Adara said, interrupting whatever doubtlessly superb comeback Dylan had lined up. "And what a colourful face."
They all looked down to the floor of the Great Hall, watching the small procession of Guard Riders marching the freshly dressed figure of Lord Flyn to his seat and tethering the chains from his wrists to the rings set into the floor. It was an almost entrancing sight. No Sovereign had been fully tried like this since the Union's conception. No Sovereign had even been arrested, in fact. Flyn sat with his usual hauteur, his pride unbowed by the chains and buoyed by the clean clothes and such that he'd clearly been allowed before appearing in front of his peers; but even so, there was no avoiding the situation. Not least of all because of the heavy bruising around his right eye where Awen had sent him over a table, of course. It had mottled the swollen skin to shades of black and purple, visible even up on the balconies, and served as an inescapable visual reminder. Flyn, Lord Flyn, the Sovereign of Casnewydd, had been beaten and bound by his Alpha Wingleader. It was shocking on a grand scale.
His back was ramrod straight. He was watching the still-empty dais for the High Council imperiously as the Guard Riders finished and left to stand discretely at the sides. He smiled suddenly and turned his head to the side to speak -
- to the world's most expensive commodity, as it turned out. Aerona had been so busy staring at Flyn with six-year-old fixation she'd completely missed everyone else. Awen glanced at Flyn impassively as he spoke, her mouth framing the word 'Maybe' before she looked elegantly and nonchalently back at the doors, waiting with the patience of a rock. Flyn carried on talking. She ignored him.
"Dammit," Dylan muttered. "His head's at some loser angle, I can't see his mouth. You?"
"No," Aerona sighed. "But I think maybe it's a good thing, because he really is an objectionable man. I suspect knowing his opinion on anything would be quite displeasing."
"Yeah," said Dylan, watching Awen's serene figure, and grinned. "She ain't talking to you, dude. Stop verbally raping her."
She really wasn't. Awen simply watched the doors steadily, her thumbs hooked casually into the belt about her hips. And what a good job her Wing had done on her, Aerona thought. Awen was a naturally attractive woman anyway, her bone structure taking her from 'pretty' to 'striking'; but today, right now, she was beautiful. Combined with the admittedly uncomfortable but nonetheless exotic high collar, in her case ornately embroidered in gold to proclaim her rank, she looked like some kind of avenging warrior queen from foreign parts offering her defeated enemy for her subjects to see. Although, Aerona reminded herself sternly, this was not the time for games. This was a Serious Situation that required Grown-Ups.
"Dammit, I hope he burns," Caradog muttered venomously. "He knew about Owain, didn't he?"
"Yes," Adara said mildly, settling her chin on her forearms on the balcony's parapet. "But he's a politician, they can't help but plot."
"That's true," Aerona said thoughtfully. "Even Marged sent Dissenters about the country, and she's the least devious politician probably in the world."
"She gave me a fine scarf," Hannibal rumbled. "Simply as a gift. I felt this was generous."
"Well, that's because you're Phoenician," Dylan said sagaciously. "You don't get not having money in return for things. It's another true stereotype, like the fact that you're rich and staggeringly well-hung."
"You know, I am perfectly willing to throw you over the balcony on Madog's behalf," Menna warned as Hannibal laughed. "Shut up, Dylan. You're already making the place look untidy."
"I'm making it look cool."
"How rich?" Glesni asked curiously. "How many of us could you afford to buy?"
"Ah!" Hannibal said merrily. "Perhaps, if I saved up every coin I earned for the next ten years and sold every single item of stock and other possessions I own, I might be able to purchase our friend Aerona."
"Really?" Aerona said brightly. "How lovely! Well, it's not, but, you know."
"I think you've missed the point, you crazy," Adara murmured. "But my, yes, you're very rich, Hannibal."
The fanfare sang out abruptly, filling every inch of the enormous hall and silencing all conversation as the High Council finally entered, led by Rhydian. Around the oval floor the Prifarddau and Archdruids stood, but for once it was for show only, a simple gesture of support for the Union's unusual absolute authority in the situation. The Councillors did not stop to bow; although naturally, Gwenllian grinned and waved at them behind Rhydian's back until Huw smacked her shoulder. Aerona tried not to giggle. This was Not The Time.
Rhydian stopped in front of Awen and Saluted her, the other Councillors continuing to the dais. Awen Saluted back, smiling wryly at something he murmured to her before sitting gracefully into her seat. Dylan sighed frustratedly.
"Still can't see anyone's bloody mouth," he whispered. "And she smiled at that! We've missed a joke! It's victimisation because I'm a Northlander."
"Some would call that paranoid," Aerona whispered back, biting down on the laugh. "Shh! It's starting."
Rhydian rounded the dais and stood in front of his chair, finally looking around at the assembled might of Cymric society, and smiled.
"Thank you all for coming," he announced jovially, his voice carrying easily in the accoustics of the Hall. "And I officially now call into session the trial of Lord Flyn ap Gruffudd, Sovereign of Casnewydd. Charges as follows…"
He sat, waving a hand, and Councillor Mererid stood up. Technically she was probably the oldest of the High Councillors, but that was a tag that meant little when applied to Riders. At some point in the past Mererid had had her spine and nerves removed and replaced with solid steel; or at least the overall effect was, to Aerona's mind, identical. Physically she was maybe sixty, or thereabouts. Her hair was iron grey, kept short and loosely curled, and it seemed to be the same colour as her eyes, which were perfectly capable of boring through walls. It was rumoured that she swam in an ice bath every morning to keep in shape. Aerona totally believed it. Her build was stocky, still with a wiry strength most people didn't even have when they were young.
And, Aerona recalled, Mererid's name had been on one of the Development Reports of Awen's Wing when they were younger. It was just something about Casnewydd, she decided. Haf had been right. The place made people tough.
"Thank you," Mererid said, turning the most disgustedly disapproving look Aerona had ever seen onto the sheet of paper in front of her. Dylan grinned. "For the benefit of the assemblage, the crimes of Lord Flyn ap Gruffydd are as follows: after our previous Archwiliad two years ago he began to mastermind a conspiracy with numerous other Sovereigns, with the aim of overhauling our current system of Sovereignity and replacing it with himself as King, and his fellow Sovereigns as Regents. To that end he held several clandestine meetings with a number of them," she paused to glare at the Sovereigns, "most of which were conducted without a Rider present. He also discovered that a Rider, former Deputy Owain Masarnen of the Casnewydd Alpha Wing, was insane. Rather than report this, Lord Flyn made use of Owain Masarnen's insanity in many of his schemes."
There was a low level murmur at that, particularly from the largely Rider-filled balconies, but it was extinguished instantly by Mererid's icy glare. She carried on.
"Furthermore," she said acidly. "Lord Flyn embarked on another conspiracy, this time with a faction in Saxonia whose aim was ultimate rule of that country. In exchange for eventual diplomatic help and frequent use of Owain Masarnen to slowly unite Saxonia's kingdoms, this Saxon - a King 'Coenred' - sent his growing armies to the Northlands on Lord Flyn's request. This was to increase pressure on Wrecsam, since Lord Iestyn had thus far refused to join his conspiracy."
Mererid's tone was a masterclass in saying precisely what it thought of every individual involved. She was a step away from adding a "And quite right, too, since he's not a retarded rapist traitor" after Iestyn's name, and much though they hadn't met Aerona was relatively certain that even Breguswid couldn't have spat the word 'Coenred' with that much venom.
"To the same end," Mererid continued coldly. "Lord Flyn found, through contact with Owain Masarnen, a group of druids who, I'm told, were afflicted with the same insanity. He deployed them as the Casnewydd and Trallwng border guards, and had them delay the border warnings around Wrecsam, in order to increase the damage done by the Saxons in each raid."
The atmosphere in their balcony became somewhere barely short of toxic.
"I knew it!" Menna hissed, leaning abruptly forward. "That son of a bitch. I knew it!"
"It had to be," Glesni muttered bitterly, murder in her eyes. "There was no way they could have consistently got there that fast."
"This is so embarrassing," Llŷr said mournfully. "We're so sorry, guys. If it's any help we're going to do unspeakable things to Owain."
"It was never your fault," Dylan sniffed. "We blame Smirky McTwat down there. Ooh, Madog's angry."
Although the only sign of it was that Madog had crossed his arms, since he was standing professionally straight, his expression hard. Awen glanced over at him briefly. Possibly it was intended as a sympathy glance, or maybe an apology like her Wing; but Aerona couldn't tell. Awen's face remained a mask.
"Of course he is," Adara said, rolling her eyes. "I'm bloody angry, and it wasn’t my City. Cheese cubes?"
"Thanks," Aerona said absently, taking them from her. "I can't get a read on Awen. She's unnerving me a bit."
"Oh," Adara said gloomily as the muttered diatribe of hate continued among the Wrecsam Wing behind her. "She's nervous and deeply uncertain about something."
"Wow!" Aerona passed the cheese on to Dylan, looking at Adara with admiration. "Really? I couldn't tell at all!"
"No, nor can I," Adara sighed. "Which is how I know. She's only impassive when she doesn't know what to do."
"What to do?" Dylan breathed, so quietly only Aerona heard him. Suddenly he was staring straight at Awen, his eyes fixed for once. "What's there to do?"
Good point. Very good point, actually. This was not a situation that required any sort of action, even less one of decision-making. What had Awen so worried? If, indeed, worried she was. Despite Adara's obvious experience, it was difficult to believe just by looking at Awen. She looked as emotive as a statue, including any nervous tells. There was nothing.
"…were not reported to the Urdd," Mererid was saying. "Further to this, however, one of Lord Flyn's meetings with King 'Coenred' in a wood near Magwyr was witnessed by Gareth Morgannwg, an apprentice trapper. He escaped. The next day his family were arrested on a false charge of Saxon collusion. On being summoned to speak on their behalf Gareth was sent to Aberystwyth to await further instructions; which, ultimately, were to assassinate Lord Gwilym."
Aerona giggled before she could stop herself. It was probably the one crime Flyn was innocent of, actually, since that had been Owain's idea, but he'd painted himself into a corner with it.
"Shush, you crazy," Adara whispered, passing her the ham.
"Meanwhile," Mererid said, her gaze vicious. "Gareth's family - his mother Iona and grandmother Nerys - were tortured into false confessions and then left in a category six cell to await a hearing that wouldn't take place for a further three weeks. Nerys Morgannwg died four days ago. Iona is recovering here, but may still require an amputation. Her condition is critical."
"Oh, gods," Llio muttered. "Do they mean Cell Ten?"
"Depressingly, yes," Adara said. "But I think the rape is next."
"Two days after the arrest of Iona and Nerys Morgannwg," Mererid ploughed on, her expression now glacial, "Lord Flyn ordered the further arrest of Alis Morgannwg, 21, the daughter of Iona and sister of Gareth. She remained in custody for use as a concubine until three days ago, when liberated from Lord Flyn's bedroom by Alpha Wingleaders Awen Masarnen and Madog Helygen. In this time her only contact with any other human being was to be either beaten or raped."
They had to pause for a while this time, as the response was a bit over a mutter and didn't end with a simple sweep of Mererid's frigid gaze. Aerona shuddered involuntarily, making Dylan's hand squeeze her knee.
"That should so be enough to have him killed," she said sadly. "But he's going to get out of it, isn't he?"
"Not with his balls intact," Dylan said smugly. "Guess who the witness will be for this? Guess!"
"Ooh!" Aerona brightened up. "Um… Alis?"
"Yes," Dylan sniffed. "But someone else. To be something of an expert. Guess!"
"Do I know -?" Aerona paused. "Haf? Oh my gods, is it Haf?"
"Yeah it is!"
"Excellent!" she beamed happily. "Oh, well, he'll end up a eunuch, then, definitely. That's good news."
"The list of charges, therefore," Mererid concluded down on the floor, "are as follows: conspiracy, subversion of a Rider, subversion of the Union, Saxon collusion -"
"I wonder if I could make Madog laugh from up here?" Dylan said idly.
"May I ask?" Hannibal asked, leaning forwards. "Who is the jury, please?"
"The what?" Dylan asked blankly. "Use words, man."
"I'm sorry," Aerona said, turning around to see Hannibal properly. "I'm sure he doesn't mean to insult people, it's just a sort of default state. What's a jury?"
"He is forgiven!" Hannibal laughed, richly amused. "A jury, though. The… people who will judge Lord Flyn's innocence or guilt."
"Oh!" Aerona gestured down to the floor of the hall. "Pretty much everyone down there. Although - well. It's a bit complicated. The Sovereigns will all vote individually, and then their overall score becomes one single vote. Same thing happens with the Urdd, and the Gorsedd. The Low Council do it according to the areas they represent -"
"The areas?" Hannibal stroked his forked beard. "You mean, such as the Archipelago?"
"Gold star!" Aerona said automatically. "Oh. Sorry. I'm better with six-year-olds. Um, yes; the Archipelago, the Northlands, the Southlands and the Canolbarth. So the Low Council get four votes overall, the Sovereigns get one, the Urdd gets one, the Gorsedd gets one, and then the High Council get ten. All of their individual votes count."
"I see," Hannibal murmured thoughtfully. "So there will be seventeen overall?"
"And thus justice happen," Dylan said. "Here lesson end."
"And you told Hannibal to use words," Adara said, shaking her head. "You're a blight upon us all. A pox, I say."
"I've been saying that for years," Caeron muttered. "I wish it worked."
"… and repeated counts of rape," Councillor Mererid finished down on the floor. They all focused and leaned forwards again. "End of charges."
She sat, fixing her stern glare upon Flyn once more. Rhydian stood.
"Sovereign," he said steadily. "We offer you the opportunity now to give a summary of your defence in response if you so wish. You will, of course, be given the chance to respond to each point in detail later."
"Thank you, Councillor." Flyn's voice was smooth, his special politician's charisma firmly in place, a quiet earnestness radiating from him. He sighed wearily. "I'll take the opportunity. Although I scarcely know where to begin."
"Might I suggest the start, Sovereign?" Mererid asked sourly. She had linked her fingers together beneath her chin and was observing him with appalled disgust. Flyn smiled, and looked down.
"Naturally," he said easily. "Very well. I freely admit that my actions haven't been entirely to the letter of the law over the past two years, but - please bear with me - I fully and wholeheartedly deny any knowledge of former Deputy Owain's insanity until I received the news of his attack on Leader Awen and Lord Gwilym. Up until that point every plan I made was with his full implication and endorsement, and therefore, I assumed, with Union approval."
"Oh, shit," Aerona breathed, horrified. Dylan's hand found hers.
"Otherwise," Lord Flyn continued. "Let's see. The 'conspiracy' was to be suggested as an Open Floor Proposal at this Archwiliad, and much of its planning was also known to Leader Awen. It was in fact conceived in response to another genuine conspiracy - Casnewydd, among others, received Dissenters from Caerleuad attempting to start a social and political revolution which I felt could feasibly have tipped the country straight back into the Wars. The situation in Saxonia is one that I was fortunate enough to insert myself into, meaning that, as dangerous as it is even now, we have a relatively good chance of steering it and possibly ending the Saxon war on Cymru. I was entirely unaware of Owain's interference with Wrecsam's border warnings."
Dylan made a quiet noise in the back of his throat that could have been a growl. Aerona squeezed his hand, biting her lip. For some reason - chalk it up to her normal politics involving children, maybe - she hadn't expected this. She'd expected Flyn to either outright deny everything until the proof was nailed to his forehead or to argue why everything he'd done was right and for the good of Cymru, probably until Awen nailed the proof to his forehead. But he'd found a shield in the form of Owain being legally insane. It didn't matter that it was one man's word against the other - Owain was, certifiably, incapable of reliability.
What evidence had Awen found? Aerona scrabbled to remember. There was going to have to be something good; suddenly, everything was relying on whatever she'd amassed. And she'd had a stressful few days. And right now she was worried, if Adara was right.
"Concerning the Morgannwg family, I had no idea what became of them," Flyn said, his tone one of grave seriousness. "Admittedly their initial arrest was wrong, but it was only intended to detain them until after the Archwiliad. I certainly gave no instructions for them to be interrogated in any way. I most certainly did not instruct young Gareth to make any sort of attempt on Lord Gwilym's life. And as I'm sure Leader Awen - and, indeed, Leader Madog - can attest, the first time I met Alis Morgannwg was when she came brokenly screaming out of my bed chamber to try to attack me. After, I might add, I had been innocently ensconced in another room entirely, and Leader Awen can certainly attest that there was no way for me to have left until she came back for me."
"Oh, Madog's angry again," Dylan muttered, grinning. Aerona peered down. It was more obvious this time, too; Madog's gaze had become like unto a thing of stone, a muscle twitching in his jaw. Like Awen, he looked astonishingly beautiful today. It was making his silent, statuesque anger even more intimidating somehow, as though a god had stepped into the Great Hall and was currently becoming testier before divine vengeance was unleashed.
"Very well," Rhydian said blandly, standing up. "Thank you, Sovereign. Before we go on, there is something else I'd like to lay to rest now, however."
"Marged," Dylan guessed quietly. Rhydian's gaze swept the assembled ranks of Sovereigns, his demeanour suddenly changing from calmly authoritative to controlled, cold fury apparently without him actually moving.
"For the record," he said, voice brittle. "The situation with Lady Marged has come to our attention and been dealt with. However; those Dissenters were sent to twenty-three different City-states. Of those, seventeen Sovereigns were aware of them. But out of those seventeen, and I sincerely hope you are all paying attention, three of you bothered to actually report this knowledge to a Rider. And as one of those had to be forced into divulgence by his Alpha Wingleader and another found out from a Rider, that really leaves one Sovereign - one Sovereign - in the entire country who behaved properly."
"Ooh, quick, guess!" Adara said. "Which one! Was that Lord Gwilym?"
"No," Aerona whispered happily. "He's the one told by a Rider. Lord Iestyn? Did he -?"
"Nah, he's the one who was forced," Dylan grinned. "By Madog. Who was sorely disappointed, I can tell you."
"Lady Erys," Eluned said. "It's got to be. Or maybe Marged, she's crazy enough."
"Apparently you need reminding," Rhydian's voice cracked out like a whip, silencing them, "but contrary to your apparent beliefs, Sovereigns, your Alpha Wingleader is not there to be some glorified bodyguard for you. They are there to protect the country from you. Do you understand, Sovereigns? You are the threat to everyone else. So when you hear of another Sovereign planning some kind of consiracy - no matter how small, how inconsequential - you damned well tell your Alpha Wingleader."
His voice rang into the silence. No one was talking now. It was like a class who knew they'd gone too far, and now Teacher was Angry. Most of the Sovereigns weren't making eye-contact either, Aerona noted, although Lady Marged was simply knitting contentedly with a sad smile, because some people didn't change even when encouraged with a sledgehammer.
"In light of this," Rhydian ground out, "you can consider this a final warning. If in future we learn that you've kept any sort of information on a conspiracy secret again, we will arrest first and ask questions later. Don't let it come to that."
He nailed them all to their seats with a final glare and then sat back down, nodding in satisfaction. Somehow, his persona returned to affable authoritarianism again. He waved a hand.
"Let's continue," he said. "First charge is Conspiracy. Lord Flyn: you're accused of trying to obtain ultimate power over all others in Cymru, your argument thus far is that you believed it was with Union approval, correct?"
"Correct, Councillor," Flyn agreed easily. "Might I also argue my motive again?"
"Ah," Gwenllian said, leaning over to Rhydian. "That was to counteract the dread machinations of Lady Marged."
"Yes, thank you, Gwen," Rhydian said, pained. "Fine. So noted."
"Let's start at the beginning," Mererid commanded, looking down at her notes coldly. "You say you thought your plan was Union sanctioned, Sovereign? Why was that?"
"As I say, Councillor," Flyn nodded graciously, "former Deputy Owain was involved at every stage. I was unaware at the time of his mental condition."
"And why him?" Mererid asked, fixing Flyn with her grey stare. "Leader Awen would have been the far more logical and understandable choice. To say nothing of proper."
"Entirely true," Flyn said. "In retrospect, it all seems rather obvious. But I refrained from using Leader Awen on the suggestion of Owain himself."
Adara swore, creatively. Dylan shot her an admiring look.
"Which was?" Mererid asked.
"He claimed that, given the stresses involved with being an Alpha Wingleader on the border, it would be best if he handled any particularly difficult political situations," Flyn said smoothly, his voice tinged with regret. "And, as her Deputy, I believed he had a better idea of Leader Awen's emotional well-being than I did. I'm uncertain as to his actual motivation now. Although given Leader Awen's recent instability…"
"For the benefit of the assemblage," Gwenllian broke in cheerfully, and fortunately before Caradog could start shouting, "which means all of you listening, by the way, I'm holding here every psychological evaluation of Leader Awen for the last five years, in which she's been consistently proven to be entirely sound. That -"
She threw a balled-up page of notepaper at Awen, who flinched and caught it one-handed, the impassive mask briefly giving way to a predatory edge before slamming back into place.
"That," Gwenllian continued with a grin, "has only been happening for a few days. Specifically since discovering most of what Owain's been up to, and frankly, it would make the rest of you twitchy as well if you knew. She has always been capable of dealing with 'difficult political situations.' Please don't imply otherwise again, Sovereign, or we'll have to throw things at you."
"Understood," Flyn smiled wryly, and glanced at Awen. "My apologies, Leader. That was Owain's position, in any case."
"Aside from Owain's assurances," Mererid said, peering down her nose at him, "did you personally have any reason to believe that Leader Awen should not be informed?"
"I did not," Flyn said smoothly.
"Did Owain specify that she should be kept uninformed of all details?"
"No," Flyn allowed, a tiny note of caution creeping in. "This is why she was included in -"
"But did you know there were areas she was unaware of?"
"No," Flyn said, after the most fractional of fractional hesitations. Aerona wondered if anyone else had noticed. Dylan probably had. "No, Owain told me he would keep her appraised."
"Did it never strike you," Mererid asked archly, "that the situation of reporting to a Deputy instead of your Alpha Wingleader was somewhat unorthodox?"
"Certainly," Flyn said. "But, as I say, I trusted that Owain could judge the situation better than I could."
"You never thought, though," Mererid continued, her eyes boring into him, "that perhaps you should have had written Union confirmation? Given how controversial your plans were, you never considered that perhaps you should make absolutely sure that your actions were all legal? You never found it surprising that in two years you never once had a visit about the matter from a Low Councillor to check your progress?"
"Hindsight is a wonderful thing, Councillor," Flyn said softly. "I asked Owain, of course. He told me that he had seen several, but owing to the need for secrecy none would be visiting me personally. I shouldn't have trusted him, I see now. But frankly, when has a Rider been untrustworthy?"
"Oh, gods damn it, I hate you," Adara breathed, dropping her forehead to her hands in front of her. "I hate you, I hate you so much, I want to break your stupid face."
"Let Awen," Meurig grinned. "She has history now, like you with the cheesewire -"
"Once! It was once!"
"Leader Awen," Mererid said, silencing their conversation. Aerona leaned forward to see better. "Would you agree with the assessment that, lack of briefings aside, Lord Flyn was entirely honest with you?"
"No, Councillor," Awen said. If she was uncertain, Aerona thought, it really wasn't showing. Her voice was clear and steady, utterly professional. Mererid nodded and made a note.
"Explain?" she asked.
"Allegedly, Lord Flyn believed that Owain was keeping me up to speed," Awen shrugged. "If that was true I don't see why he'd have felt the need to actively lie to me, which he did on several occasions before various clandestine meetings with other Sovereigns."
"That -" Flyn began, and Mererid's icy glare was on him faster than a lightning strike.
"Unless you have changed name, gender and profession, Sovereign, you'll find I'm not currently talking to you," she said frostily, and then warmed the temperature up to 'cool' to continue. "Can you give examples, Leader?"
"I can," Awen said. "There were four last month alone. Two I was told were finance meetings, one I was told was a court hearing and one Lord Flyn left the Residence for in the middle of the night in great secrecy. Each was in fact a meeting with either Lady Gwenda or Lord Mihangel. I've given a full list, however."
"Page six," High Councillor Dyfan called out, and there was a rustling of paper among the important people who got notes and a vote.
"A total of forty-three confirmed dates altogether," Awen said neutrally. "And several more I suspected. Curiously, Lord Flyn never even mentioned to me in passing the things that were discussed in those meetings, either, and given that I was otherwise sent to speak with both Sovereigns, I would have thought that would be vital knowledge."
"Yes," Flyn said carefully. "As I say, hindsight is a wonderful thing. Even aside from what we now know of Owain, Leader Awen is right. I should have used her more."
"I don't recall that being her point," Rhydian said, one eyebrow raised.
"A job is better done with all available information," Flyn amended. "And Leader Awen is a highly skilled individual. She wouldn't hold the rank she does otherwise. Had she known everything, her service would have been invaluable."
"This isn't going well, is it," Aerona murmured nervously as the debate continued below them. "He's playing on everyone else's knowledge. They're all shocked by Owain, and so's he. Awen is fragile at the moment, so there was a reason for him not telling her about stuff. He's too good at this."
"Early days, pickle," Dylan muttered back. "That won't work indefinitely as a defence. I try it all the time, and I never get away with it."
"You're not normally trying to," Aerona sighed. "You do it knowing you'll be called on it. And Owain's too good a scapegoat, isn't he? You can blame just about everything on him."
"Oh, if you're going to fret, petal, do it creatively." Dylan threw an arm around her shoulders, yanking her against his side and her ear near his mouth. "Look," he whispered, "at Awen."
Aerona looked, but there wasn't much more to see. Awen remained completely impassive, answering the Council's questions easily and professionally, no hint of emotion either way.
"Still nothing," Aerona whispered. "What do you think-?"
"She's planning something," Dylan said grimly. "Remember? I've been thinking, because don't listen to Madog, I do that sometimes -"
"Dylan," Aerona whispered, giggling.
"Yeah. Soz," Dylan said. "Well, anyway; you know the last time we saw her do that statue impression?"
"Um." Aerona thought. "No," she admitted. "When?"
"Councillor Rhydian's office," he whispered. "After Saxonia. After he was Angry Man about Madog working out about Intelligencers. Remember?"
"Yes, it was horrific," Aerona said, thinking fast. "He said he'd let Eifion have her."
"He said," Dylan muttered, his scarred eyes fixed on Awen's form below them, "that he'd let Eifion have her if she ever kept something relevant to national security a secret from him again. And she was Statue Girl."
"Oh my gods." Aerona stared down at Awen too. "She knows something else? But why wouldn't she have told us? Or Rhydian? Why not Rhydian? Why wouldn't she have told Rhydian?"
"Dunno," Dylan said. "Haven't thought that far yet. It's hard work, you know, this 'thinking'."
"She knew the outcome was uncertain," Aerona breathed. "Could -? What if…?"
She couldn't even finish it. It hurt to imagine, even. Awen was a Rider; more than that, an Alpha Wingleader. They couldn't - she couldn't overrule the Union. She couldn't. It was impossible.
"She can't," Dylan said, suddenly still, his thoughts apparently going to the same place. They watched her, watched every neutral word passing her lips, and struggled with the idea.
"Seriously, though," Gwenllian was saying, her chin propped up on one hand. "This is the bit I don't get: you heard that Lady Marged was doing something underhand and jumped, straight away, to trying to change the political system of the entire country? Just because of Lady Marged? No offense, Sovereign."
"Oh, none taken, Councillor!" Marged said merrily. "Here, Gwilym, be a dear; hold that, would you? Blasted thing gets tangled…"
"Dissenters can be devastating in their effect, Councillor," Flyn said flatly. "As we all know from song and story. The Wars lasted a good sixty years longer than they would have without them. But, more importantly, I was already well aware by this point of the growing issues we will soon be facing with Saxonia. I considered us to be in an incredibly fragile time for unstable politics."
"And so you introduced another conspiracy," Gwenllian said dryly. "Well, thank you for clearing that up, Sovereign."
"Obviously, I don't claim to have made all of the right choices, Councillor," Flyn sighed. "Quite the opposite, in fact. But to my mind there was no conspiracy, and no wrong-doing of any sort. I acted in what I thought were the best interests of my country, and I made the mistake of trusting a Rider, a sentence that has never before even been thought, much less uttered. And I'm sorry for it. I truly am. Particularly as that mistake has had such grave ramifications for the Morgannwg family."
It was the only move Awen had made so far. Her expression didn't change, didn't waver in the slightest, her face still utterly impassive; but she turned her head and looked at him. Everyone in the hall saw it. The Councillors didn't speak, their eyes all drawn to her. Among the representatives of the Urdd druids were suddenly glancing uneasily at one another, unspeaking but unnerved. And Aerona was holding her breath…
But Awen simply looked at Flyn neutrally for a few seconds, and then returned her gaze to the front. Aerona breathed out slowly, and as Mererid selected a new page of notes to continue with she looked over at the Urdd, the druids muttering quietly to one another. One of them mouthed the words 'Did you feel that?'
"I think we'd best discuss former Deputy Owain here," Mererid said stonily. "Since that seems to be your main defence, Sovereign. Let's see… Rider Aerona?"
Her voice rang out around the Great Hall, everyone turning and looking, and for one surreal moment Aerona wondered if she was going to look down and discover she'd also turned up naked and not done her homework. She stood, her heart thundering in her throat, and tried to appear cooly suave.
"Councillor?" she said, heroically managing not to squeak. Dylan's hand settled on the small of her back, calming her slightly.
"For the benefit of the assemblage we now acknowledge Rider Aerona Celynnen of Tregwylan," Mererid intoned, and then looked up at Aerona with her piercing gaze. Somehow, it was only slightly less intimidating across a few hundred feet of space than when up close. "Rider, you've undertaken extensive research into Owain Masarnen over the last few days, correct?"
Oh. That explained it. Aerona breathed again.
"Yes, Councillor," she said. Mererid nodded.
"Excellent," she said, in a tone that flatly dared anyone to disagree. "Report."
Good gods. Aerona took a deep breath.
"He was a competitive child in a fairly competitive Wing," she began, ignoring Caradog's laugh behind her. "But he was arrogant with it. To take out the competitive edge the Leadership Trials were carried out when the Wing was about nine, but the job went to Awen throughout because she was so good at it. The others accepted it. Owain resented it. He believed it should have been him."
"Twat," Adara muttered. "I hope he has venurial disease."
"It left him with a strange relationship with Awen," Aerona said hurriedly, fighting her throat not to laugh. "He loved and respected her, but at the same time he was incredibly jealous of her and thought he could do a better job. It meant that between the ages of about nine and fifteen he spent a lot of time copying her, probably to prove to himself that he could do anything she could. He therefore tried to become a bard when Awen did, although, um, it seems he wasn't very good."
Caradog's laugh boomed around the hall this time, undercut with the shushing of his Wingmates. Aerona ploughed on hastily before Mererid, or worse, Eifion, took it upon themselves to chastise him.
"So when he was fifteen," she said hurriedly, "he took it upon himself to improve by climbing a mountain overnight -"
It wasn't Caradog this time. It was the Urdd. Aerona remembered Haf's assertion - Druids don't like the ones who don't come back down - and watched the uproar. They were very angry, she reflected. These were not happy druids.
"Reckon any of them are about to blind someone?" Dylan asked keenly, his eyes raking the seething mass of robes. "That happens sometimes."
"I think only the evil ones do that," Adara said. "Or the ones you annoy, of course, you big annoyance. Who's got the cheese?"
"I don't understand," Hannibal purred under the noise. "What is this issue?"
"We have dangerous mountains here," Menna told him. "In a fairly non-conventional sense. If you're with someone else it's not a problem, but if you stay up them alone overnight, they do things to the mind. What comes down will be a poet, mad or dead."
"It's worse, though," Aerona said uneasily over the sounds of people trying to restore order. "Haf told me. The druids say the mountains try to get into your mind. If they do and you live, you get to be a poet. But sometimes your mind goes into the mountains instead, and then something else gets in."
"That's the creepiest thing I've ever heard!" Dylan said cheerfully. "You're awesome, Aerona!"
"Oh, and you're massively weird, Dylan," Adara said disapprovingly. "No more cheese cubes for you."
"Thank you," Rhydian's voice said suddenly, overriding the noise, and instantly there was silence. "Rider? If you could go on?"
"Councillor," Aerona said, wishing she didn't have to. "Um… oh yes. That's what changed him, anyway. So he's an interesting dichotomy - on the one hand, he was raised to be a Rider, he lives for Cymru and would gladly die for it and so on. But on the other, he considers himself to be better than - well, pretty much everyone else, actually, but certainly better than common folk."
"Ironic, given that he's better than no one," Adara muttered to herself.
"Very well," Mererid said. "And how evident was this deformity?"
"I'm not the one to ask for a personal anecdote," Aerona allowed. "When I met him he was already in exile, so he seemed completely sadistic and unhinged to me. But everyone who met him remarked sooner or later on his megalomania. I think you could ask just about every Sovereign in this hall and they'd all agree. He couldn't take being at the expense of any joke, or receiving any kind of criticism whatsoever. If his ego was damaged in any way he would react by reasserting his authority over his Wing members in any petty way he could. He constantly tried to imply he was cleverer than everyone else, that he'd worked things out no one else had and such. And -"
"Wait," Marged said thoughtfully, her knitting needles pausing. On closer inspection, her wool was now being held by Lord Gwilym, who was staring morosely at his woven fingers. "Are we talking about that greasy fellow? Funny voice, fringe like two slugs?"
"Yes," Awen said calmly.
"We acknowledge you, Sovereign," Mererid said. "What was your impression of him?"
"Oh, dreadful boy!" Marged said indignantly. "Dreadful fringe. And he was bossy; I told him -"
Aerona zoned out for a while, and played with Dylan's beads as different Sovereigns all stepped in one by one to agree. Owain hadn't, it seemed, made a particularly good impression on anyone. They had all found him arrogant and presumptuous - Iestyn even went so far as to use the term 'unprofessional', which coming from him was the rough equivalent of viciously swearing before placing him somewhere between pond scum and a paedophile. Lord Gwilym's chief impression was that he was clearly a dangerous lunatic, but he did allow for the attempted assassination of him and his family, and so didn't stand too rigidly by it. Finally, the stream of complaints and bitchy personal remarks abated, and Aerona straightened hurriedly in case she was called upon again.
"Very well," Mererid said, scanning the room. "Then it seems to me that Owain Masarnen was an arrogant, megalomaniacal narcissist with no understanding of the humanity of others. Would this be a fair summary, Leader?"
"I'd have said so, Councillor," Awen said neutrally. Mererid nodded.
"Yes," she said. "And it also seems to me that he didn't trouble himself to hide these qualities overmuch. Had you noticed, Lord Flyn?"
"I'd noticed elements, Councillor," Flyn nodded. "Not enough to brand him that strongly, perhaps -"
"Then from your perspective," Mererid interrupted, "you can commit to describing him as an immature, unprofessional pedant who liked to get his own way."
"Yes," Flyn allowed after a moment. "Yes, I could."
"Then you will now explain why you saw nothing wrong with trusting such a person with such vitally important affairs of state," Mererid said coldly. "Begin."
Aerona felt her hopes rise.
"Councillor," Flyn sighed. "With nothing but the very greatest respect, I genuinely don't think you understand. Owain was a Rider. Whatever else he was, he was a Rider. And I am not. In this country, we have come to expect nothing but the very best from Riders. It's a tag that transcends all else from our perspective. No one, not for one moment, thinks that any Rider at all would be unsuitable for a political situation. And, frankly, you could return to every Sovereign who has just given evidence and every one of them would agree. Narcissist or not, it would never have occurred to one of us not to trust him implicitly."
Aerona felt her hopes fall.
"Besides which," Flyn continued gravely, "as obvious as it all is in retrospect, this isn't an entirely fair question. We were all taken in by Owain Masarnen. All of us. If we had not been, he would never have aged past fifteen. But even the Union - even his own Wingleader - never saw the danger he posed until now. And, as Councillor Rhydian himself has reminded us all today, Sovereigns are provided with Riders for us to share our politics with. Owain was one of the Riders I was given. Which is no accusation, I hasten to add; just a statement of fact. There was nothing else I realistically could have done. I had no way of knowing."
He was too good. Aerona watched him in despair as he finished. It was being a politician - he knew how to twist things, how to make everything seem reasonable, and there was something wrong with the argument but she just knew she wasn't going to be able to work it out until she'd left, and he was playing on Rider guilt, and more than a few people down there were slowly nodding agreement -
"You haven't answered the question, Sovereign," Awen said calmly.
There was silence.
"You'll find -" Flyn began carefully, but Awen interrupted him, her face still shorn of emotion as she turned to look at him.
"No, Sovereign," she said neutrally. "You've explained again why you didn't report Owain. The question was why you used him over me when he was so clearly an immature, unprofessional pedant who liked to get his own way. If someone like that had suggested using him rather than his boss, why did you agree?"
"He was still a Rider," Flyn tried.
"So am I," Awen said, a vision in leather and weaponry. There were a few nervous titters around the hall. Flyn looked weary.
"Yes," he said quietly. "It was a mistake, I don't deny it. A foolish mistake. I suppose my distraction with the Saxon situation might have had something to do with it, given how grave it is, but that's little consolation to those affected."
"Oh, for gods' sakes, what bloody Saxon situation?" Tanwen hissed. "He keeps saying that and it's pissing me off."
"All in good time, young one," Dylan grinned back. "Although it's a cheek, since the Saxon situation is actually largely his fault and we could still take the bloody lot of them. Where's the ham?"
"Here," Adara said vaguely, picking up the last slice and eating it. Aerona fought herself not to giggle over Dylan's choked noise of indignation.
"Alright," Rhydian said briskly with excellent timing, sitting back. "I think it's time we discussed Saxonia, then, since you've also brought that up several times as a defence. Can we bring in our expert witness, please?"
He addressed it to the Guard Riders standing by the needlessly enormous double doors at the end of the hall, two of whom slipped out of the room. Flyn's face became carefully unreadable as he turned sharply, clearly wondering who this expert witness was. Awen stood, and moved right to the side of the floor, resting her hands behind her back on the low wall that separated the seated spectators from the main event. She knew who it was, then. Aerona felt her heart speed up and belatedly remembered to sit back down.
"Do you know who it is?" she asked Dylan excitedly. "Awen's moved! Is it Breguswid?"
"Yeah!" Dylan grinned, throwing an arm around her again. "Yeah, it is. We are making history today, my siblings. The first Saxon to ever address the Union. A pint says Awen tries to punch her."
"Hmm." Aerona watched the increasing bustle around the door thoughtfully. "Okay. But I bet Awen bows to her."
"Contraversial!" Dylan said. "I like. Yeah, you're on."
And then absolute silence fell as an announcer called out 'Lady Breguswid of Saxonia' and an actual, real live Saxon walked into the Great Hall.
Having spent a few days in Saxonia meeting a lot of them, Breguswid was, to Aerona, unremarkable. She looked Saxon. She had the strong jaw, nose and browline, the plaited blonde hair admittedly greying, the height, and she was a handsome woman in a foreign sort of way. She wore a dress that reached her ankles in the way of Saxon women. And she carried a staff, long and oaken and inlaid with gold, which she used to carry her weight every other step, alleviating a slight limp. She looked like anyone east of the border.
But the point was that she looked like anyone east of the border. Dylan was right. They were making history. No Saxon had ever been received as an equal in the Union before. The suspense in the room could have been cut with a knife. Riders in the balconies were all staring, as though an ambassador from Atlantis had just slithered in with a bowl of water over its gender-neutral head to ask for aid in sign language. Breguswid ignored them all, her queenly hauteur greater even than Flyn's as she proceeded through the yawning silence to the High Council.
And as she reached them she looked at Awen, and nodded.
And Awen bowed.
The atmosphere thinned abruptly as all breathable air in the hall was sucked into every pair of lungs at once as everyone gasped. Aerona wrestled with her throat not to laugh, a feat made considerably harder at Dylan's disgusted, muttered curse. They'd just made history again. A border Alpha Wingleader had certainly never bowed to a Saxon before.
"Lady Breguswid," Rhydian smiled before anyone passed out from oxygen deprivation. "Welcome to the Union. You have our sincerest thanks for coming."
"It's a genuine honour, Councillor," Breguswid returned in accented Cymric and a slightly dry smile. She bowed her head. "Thank you for the opportunity."
"Have a seat," Rhydian said mildly, waving a hand to the throne-like chairs that had been placed for the witnesses. "Oh, although I must check for safety's sake: you have been told not to get too close to Leader Awen, yes?"
"Yes, Councillor," Breguswid said, settling into a chair with royal poise. She glanced at Awen. "Such a shame. We were hugging before."
And Awen laughed, the first sign of emotion she'd shown yet. The mood in the balcony briefly became one of mild relief.
"I'll bet," Rhydian said wryly. "Alright. Could you please explain to us all the politics of Saxonia?"
"Certainly," Breguswid said pleasantly. "It stems from our society, which is horrendously broken. As I explained to Leader Awen; in this country, you subscribe to the view that all things change, and change makes you strong. It is a worldview that has made you great."
"It has indeed," Hannibal murmured, because he was slightly weird.
"It will be hard," Breguswid said, "but imagine if you can a society that believes the opposite. That all change is bad, that everything should stay the same, should never evolve, never adapt. That is what my people believe."
There was a mutter now, mostly coming from the Urdd, interestingly enough. Scandalised-looking druids were whispering to each other and gesticulating. They stopped when Rhydian and Mererid double teamed and gave them a cautionary glare.
"The function of Saxon politics is, therefore, to keep everything the same," Breguswid continued. Her tone was oddly light. "Kings come and go, but the system remains. They swear not to change anything when they are crowned. But, also, we don't have a concept of 'Saxonia' in the same way that you do of 'Cymru'. We give our loyalties to the bloodlines of our kings, not the station. We don't see ourselves as a country. We see ourselves as a group of genetically similar kingdoms, all of whom war against one another."
She smiled, the expression almost contented.
"We don't allow ourselves to be an intelligent nation," she said conversationally. "We never were before, afterall. In any case - my husband was a king, of a kingdom south of here along the border. I chose to marry him because I thought perhaps I could encourage a few new ideas in his head. Sadly, there wasn't a lot in his head to cushion new things, so they broke."
"This woman is awesomes lol," Dylan commented, spinning Aerona's beads in one hand. Aerona nodded. Nobility through suffering, she thought. It was one of the most prized human achievements, and Breguswid seemed to have it in spades. Although they'd known there had to be something excellent about her when she'd made Awen laugh.
"He didn't listen?" Gwenllian asked sympathetically. Breguswid paused, head to one side.
"I think," she said, consideringly, "that I would have been very happy had he only not listened to me. I wasn't born limping, for example. But no. He didn't listen."
"Hang on," Gwenllian said, her eyebrows raised. "Your husband gave you -?"
"Oh, in all fairness," Breguswid smiled, "it is socially acceptable in Saxonia for a man to beat his wife, Councillor. He was merely acting like a good Saxon, and doing what his ancestors had always done. I can't blame him."
The muttering came back, louder this time, and took longer to die down.
"Not wanting to ruin the end of your nice story or anything, then," Gwenllian said, "but is he dead now?"
"Yes," Breguswid smiled. "Leader Awen rather kindly tore him into around six pieces with his own sword. My brother brought me back the pieces to bury. We have songs about it."
"Yeah?" Gwenllian asked brightly over the now rather pleased murmuring. "How do they go?"
"Please don't tell her," Awen said, pained, and Gwenllian burst out laughing. Breguswid glanced sideways at Awen.
"I'm not sure they'd translate that well in any case," she said. "But they exaggerate slightly anyway. They say, for example, that you're six feet tall and have literal fire instead of hair, which burns away your enemies."
"That'd be handy," Rhydian said thoughtfully. "If it were possible. Okay. Ignoring Gwenllian's interruptions, where were we?"
"Ah, my dead husband," Breguswid said. "And sons. Four of them went marching off to fight with their father and then avenge each other, but I don't hold the deaths of fools against anyone here in Cymru, I assure you. My youngest son was not old enough to take the crown, so the kingdom fell to me, in accordance with our customs. And I suggested to my people that, perhaps, constantly fighting wars might be what was stopping most of our young people from becoming old people. I suggested that maybe we wished to no longer be the laughing stock of the world, perhaps."
"A mild assertion," Hannibal rumbled, shaking his head.
"Many agreed with me, in fact," Breguswid said. "Mainly women. I'm afraid that much though we tried to bear our beatings nobly for the sake of tradition and our ancestors, sadly, we are not strong like men. But, there again, there were many men, too. I suppose being expected to run blindly screaming into a sword point for no greater reason than tradition can even make men weak like women."
"I wish there were more Saxons here to hear this," Aerona said wistfully. "She's brilliant."
"In any case," Breguswid carried on, "as many as my followers were - and they were many, and their numbers grew with every raid that didn't return - at the time they were just outnumbered by those who wanted to remain pure Saxon. They were headed by my brother. As my blood relation, he deposed and exiled me and seized control of my kingdom. And kept my daughter, to make sure I made no further moves against him."
"Well," Dylan whispered, his scarred eyes making his grin look positively evil. "Looks like our boy Flyn has a rival for how to work a crowd. She is totally selling herself, look!"
"Like flour," Adara agreed sagaciously.
"So you remained hidden?" Rhydian asked.
"Of course not," Breguswid said, matter-of-factly. "I've been gathering supporters and news ever since. Besides which, it didn't take long for her to escape. She's a capable girl, my daughter. And back with me now, thanks to a few Riders."
"Possibly wouldn't win Mother Of The Year Award, mind," Adara added. "But, you know. Needs must."
"So how long ago was this?" Rhydian asked, threading his fingers together. Breguswid looked thoughtful.
"I'd have said around one and a half years ago," she said. "I fled to Cymru immediately, and I think this is my third Half here."
"They don't have Halves in Saxonia?" Adara muttered, unnerved. "What is this madness of which she speaks?"
"Thank you," Rhydian said. "What have your brother's actions been since then?"
"Well, before my husband died was when it began," Breguswid said. "I'd have said a year before I left - he started meeting with a Rider and a Cymric Sovereign, in the woods on the border. After my husband died he usually sent messengers to the Sovereign. After I left, the Rider was received openly in our Main Hall."
"Can you name these two individuals?" Mererid asked keenly. Breguswid nodded, graciously.
"I can," she said mildly. "The Rider was the Deputy of Casnewydd's Alpha Wing, and the Sovereign was the man sitting beside me."
It was funny - in spite of the crowd having been warned at every stage that Flyn was facing a charge of Saxon collusion, Breguswid's simple confirmation caused an uproar. Suddenly, people were actively on their feet and shouting, arms flying everywhere, and Aerona's hopes, which were really getting a workout today, rose again. There was a pretty big Cymric taboo against speaking to Saxons. Much though Breguswid seemed to have won the crowd admirably enough, she'd done it on the strength of explaining how heathen she herself found Saxons, her wounds at their hands and her desire to overturn their society. Flyn had no excuse. He was just chatting to them. That was definitely not allowed.
"I will have silence," Rhydian thundered, on his feet, and everyone on the floor instantly shut up. So did everyone in the balconies as Eifion stood up and ran his gaze carefully around them, making them all flinch.
"Thank you," Rhydian said more calmly, sitting back down. "To confirm, then - the meetings between your brother and Lord Flyn began two and a half years ago, your ladyship?"
"Yes, Councillor," Breguswid nodded. "That any of us saw, in any case. It could of course have been sooner."
"And what did they discuss?" Mererid asked.
"Initially, my brother claimed it was simply a reunion of family," Breguswid said. She glanced at Flyn. "We're related, apparently. In any case he very quickly claimed that he was working on forging some sort of alliance with Lord Flyn here, although I wasn't told what for, being as I am a weak woman."
"But?" Rhydian asked, his smile dry, one eyebrow raised. It didn't matter that Breguswid wasn't an Intelligencer. Rhydian was a man who could recognise the core of an Intelligencer in someone from fifty paces. He liked Breguswid, Aerona could tell.
"But I found out," Breguswid smiled. "Curiously enough, my brother was under the impression that Lord Flyn could in some way interfere with the border warnings. Not silence them entirely, but delay them by a few minutes. It doesn't sound like much, perhaps, but I imagine there are Riders here today who could explain the difference."
Menna swore, her voice almost a growl, and Dylan put a hand behind him onto her ankle without looking.
"I was skeptical, I'll admit," Breguswid continued. "I couldn't imagine why he'd do it. Famously, Cymru is a united country these days. Your kingdoms don't war on each other now. And he'd hardly be likely to leave his own kingdom open to attack, so it had to be one of his neighbours. But I thought Riders prevented that."
She smiled self-deprecatingly and shrugged.
"But, of course, he sent his Rider too," she said. "So we assumed that your politics must be slightly different from those advertised, or that perhaps the Union itself wanted this for some reason."
"And he offered this freely?" Mererid asked, leaning forward. "Did he ask for anything in return?"
"Oh yes," Breguswid smiled. "He had a long term plan. He wanted my brother to unite Saxonia's kingdoms and rule them all, all as one country. He said it would make Saxonia stronger defensively speaking - something we do, in fact, desperately need these days, particularly around the north and the east. As I say, the kingdoms fight you, they fight each other, they fight the Angles, they fight the Jutes and, recently, they fight Vikings. Lord Flyn's suggestion to my brother was that if he became king of them all and declared peace towards Cymru, then when he himself became King of Cymru they would form a defensive alliance against all invaders to either country."
The muttering was back. Everyone was looking angry now. Rhydian nodded.
"Were you included in these discussions personally?" he asked. Breguswid shook her head.
"No," she said. "But I overheard a lot of the earlier ones, and the rest I pieced together from what other Saxon refugees knew and from subsequent events."
"Very well," Rhydian said, glancing at his notes. "Then it's time we heard about the Saxon infrastructure as it currently stands, I think. How goes Coenred's plan for country-wide domination?"
Breguswid winced slightly for some reason, possibly at hearing her brother's name, but carried on.
"Rather well," she said. "As of this morning he is the official ruler of eleven kingdoms, and he gathers new ones fast now. Kingdoms that are already fighting and overstretched are surrendering to him on the grounds that since they couldn't have fought him off even if they'd wanted to, they might as well take the added benefit of his army in their defence. More of Saxonia is now under his rule than not. He'll soon have everyone."
"How long do you estimate it'll take him?" Rhydian asked seriously. Breguswid put her head on one side, thinking.
"Hard to say with any real accuracy," she mused. "But I'd say a month or so. Quite possibly less, since the bigger the army under his control becomes the faster kingdoms will either surrender or be conquered. Soon."
"We could have a united Saxonia by the end of the month?" Rhydian repeated, and suddenly the enormity of that hit home, and Aerona caught her breath. Dylan swore quietly, underpinning the stunned silence in their balcony and that was fast enveloping the rest of the room.
"Yes," Breguswid sighed, and suddenly, that cynically light tone was gone, her eyes haunted; but the nobility remained. "I dreamed of a united Saxonia once, but never like this. I wanted my people to learn. I wanted them to grow up. I wanted them to produce something that we could show the world, and be proud of, that we could finally hold our heads high over and be respected for by every other nation we encounter. But this will not happen in my brother's country. He'll come at you again, Riders, and carry on slaughtering innocents and forcing you to ride against him."
She looked up, her eyes scanning the balconies full of Riders.
"I'm sorry," she said clearly. "If I never achieve anything else - if I never get my throne back, and never free my people from themselves - I apologise, to you all, on behalf of my country. It was never your fault. You should never have had to bear the consequences of another country's stupidity."
"Gods I wish they were all like her," Llŷr breathed. "Just imagine."
"A lot of them are," Aerona murmured quietly. "Really. We met a lot of them when we went to Saxonia. It's not a peaceful country."
Down on the floor, Rhydian stood, and bowed to Breguswid.
"Thank you," he said quietly. "You're a credit to your country, ladyship, whether they realise it or not."
"A shame they don't," Breguswid said, wry smile back in place. "But, I don't believe it's completely hopeless. As I said before, back when I first spoke to my people on the subject of change and revolution, there was a high number who agreed. By now, those ideas have had a year and a half to grow and spread. The entire country is full of secret meetings of people who agree with me. When I first met Leader Awen, I told her: these days, the world is smaller. We know now what works and what doesn't from seeing what our neighbours can do. And, much though we don't allow ourselves to be intelligent, we aren't stupid. More and more Saxons are seeing, very clearly, that we are flawed. It may take me a few more years yet, but my brother can't hold the floodgates closed with his bare hands. Change is coming."
"And on the subject of that," Mererid said, examining her notes. "Deputy Dylan Helygen?"
Breguswid's head whipped around, interestedly, and it took Aerona a second to realise why. Dylan tended to stick in the mind, and he'd been the one to send Breguswid's daughter back to her. She was probably keen to put a face to a name.
"Awesome!" Dylan said brightly and obliviously, and leapt to his feet. "Councillor?"
Aerona giggled. Down on the floor Madog turned and looked up pointedly, hands on his hips. As Good-gods-boy-keep-it-professional-or-I'll-skin-you signs between Madog and Dylan went, it was actually pretty subtle. Gwenllian saw it up on the dais, and smirked.
"You were in charge of the mission to obtain Owain Masarnen and any information on the Saxon political situation, correct?" Mererid asked, peering up at them.
"I was, Councillor," Dylan said pleasantly, ignoring Menna's whispered "And to get a girlfriend."
"Excellent," she remarked. "What did you learn of underground resistance movements?"
"That there is one and it's really big," Dylan said promptly. "Every single person we met everywhere we went knew about it, and spoke about it in suitably hushed tones. And Coenred was using Owain to kill dissidents, that's how worried about it he was. And even the people who didn't like Lady Breguswid in the first place would now prefer her to him anyway, because it's supposed to be her throne so if they're both going to change things, they might as well stick with the one it belongs to."
There was a very tiny pause as Mererid adjusted to Dylan's stream-of-conciousness style of reporting.
"I see," she said. "You would agree, then, with Lady Breguswid's assertion that a social revolution in Saxonia is only a matter of time?"
"I super agree with her," Dylan nodded, his curls bouncing. "By which I mean, I agree that it will happen but also the bit where she said it could well take a few more years. Reckon it will, though. She's also right that they aren't stupid."
"Alright," Mererid said. "Thank you, Rider."
Dylan gave her a cheery Salute and sat back down irreverently. Aerona snuggled against his side happily, and he put his arm firmly around her.
"Do you think, in your heart of hearts, that might not have been the tone to strike?" she whispered, trying not to giggle again. Dylan put on his best mock pensive look.
"Reckon so," he whispered back, his tone serious. "I didn't call Coenred a Massive Twatface, which I could've. And, and you'll agree this is an achievement, I didn't call Madog a loser or even imply it. Wins."
"Well then," Mererid said as Aerona giggled again, desperately trying to keep it quiet. "For the benefit of the assemblage we've also included copies of each letter sent between Lord Flyn and King 'Coenred' -"
"Starting on page eight," Dyfan called helpfully.
" - starting on page eight," Mererid said smoothly, as though never interrupted. "In the original Saxon, which it emerges Lord Flyn speaks, and translated into Cymric by Leader Awen, because it emerges she also speaks it. These were taken from Lord Flyn's personal safe. Also there are copies of letters between Lord Flyn and Owain Masarnen, taken from the bedroom of the latter. Please feel free to read them all at your leisure, but their relevance can be summarised as: Lord Flyn told King 'Coenred' that he would be King of Cymru before Lady Marged sent her first Dissenter, he was definitely at the very least aware of the delayed border warnings, and he did, in fact, have the Saxons increase their attacks around Wrecsam."
"Ha ha!" Dylan crowed over the flare of noise. "Awen, you star! She'll go far, that one."
"They've really let him dig his own grave," Adara marvelled. "Now he's a demostrable liar. Who has the bread?"
"So," Hannibal said thoughtfully, "this proves that he wished to conquer your country all along, does it not? Simply out of avarice?"
"Yes!" Aerona said happily. "And it's fractured his main defence, which is that all of the evil things were Owain's fault! It shouldn't take too much to break it now."
"Hmm." Hannibal watched Flyn, his black-and-gold eyes somber. "He is a clever man, I feel. I imagine he will still have some ace up his sleeve."
"Oh," Aerona said sadly. "Yes, good point. I'm getting ahead of myself again."
"He's not the only one with a mysterious ace, maybe," Dylan breathed in her ear as the ambient noise quietened down once again. Aerona followed his mostly-erratic gaze as best she could and found Awen again, still watching the proceedings impassively from the side. "The plot thickens, petal."
"Sovereign," Mererid's voice continued coldly. "We come to you, then. Given the amount of evidence against you on this charge, do you wish to respond?"
"Naturally," Flyn said, his voice clear and devoid of warmth. Mererid nodded, unbowed.
"Feel free to choose where to start, then, Sovereign," she said, and watched him expectantly over linked fingers.
"It's fairly simple," Flyn stated. "My lady Breguswid: you say it will take you some time to complete your return to power?"
"There's a good chance, yes," Breguswid nodded, her face almost as impassive as Awen's.
"And what will your brother do in that time?" Flyn asked brittly. He smiled thinly. "Please, be honest: knowing your brother as you do, how likely do you consider it that he'll keep his word of not attacking Cymru with his new army if neither myself nor Rider Owain are there to steer him?"
"Ah." Breguswid looked up at Rhydian. "Regrettably, not very. In fact I imagine you'll be fairly high on his list."
Aerona's hopes sank. Well, this was the defence they'd been afraid of him using. It wasn't surprising, not really.
"As most of you have never been to Saxonia you probably won't be aware," Flyn said, his voice projecting easily around the room, filled with the harmonics of displeased authority. "But they are excellent carpenters, and workers of wood. When unified, it will be child's play for them to build ships, big enough to move armies. The southern coast is within shouting distance of Saxonia by sea. The Northlands aren't much more of a stretch. The siege weaponry will be devastatingly effective against the Cities of the Archipelago, all the more because of the difficulties of rebuilding there. And how could you know which ships to stop? The Archipelago needs shipping to survive, is entirely dependent on sea trade. A Saxon ship disguised as a Phoenician one? How would you know until the barrage began?"
And for the first time, the danger of Saxonia was laid out before them all, and Aerona realised just how strong a defence it was. He was right, damn him. The Archipelago would be incredibly vulnerable that way, and Saxons clearly had no problems with suicide missions. And how could you keep a City safe that was stranded in the middle of the sea and built vertically instead of horizontally? How strong were these siege weapons? If they caused structural damage, how could anyone escape before they collapsed?
"I would be out of business here," Hannibal said mournfully. "I like it here."
People around the hall were muttering to one another, livid. High Councillor Huw leaned forwards, his bushy eyebrows bristling.
"I want to be clear," he growled, his deep voice deepened by anger. "Is your defence, Sovereign, to clarify just how dangerous the monster you created is?"
"From one perspective," Flyn smiled, the expression ice cold suddenly, the sorrowful mask tinged with regret of earlier dropping away to bare the ambition beneath. It was a remarkable change. "The fact is, they will be a danger like never before. They will burn across this country without end until one side is utterly wiped out, and left to piece together what they can of the devastation. And the fact is, this will happen before Lady Breguswid can reclaim her crown. And the fact is, this will without doubt happen if I am removed from office."
The muttering became an uproar, and this time it was only silenced by one of the Guard Riders slamming the needlessly enormous door closed at Rhydian's gesture, the sound bouncing off the walls and overlaying the shouting and swearing and wild arm waving. Everyone quieted momentarily, so Rhydian took his chance.
"Lady Breguswid," he said, leaning forward, the last few voices dropping away to hear. "If you were to have specialist help, how quickly could you re-establish yourself?"
"Specialist?" Breguswid grinned. "Considerably faster. Fast enough, probably."
"And in exchange for this help, would you be willing to forge an alliance with us?"
"An alliance?" Flyn laughed maliciously. "I think you'd better tell them the part you've so carefully left out, my lady. Tell them why the Saxons attack us. Tell them why we'll be so far up the list if I don't stop Coenred."
"Because my people are backwards," Breguswid said harshly, looking suddenly old. She sighed, wearily. "They -"
"She didn't leave it out," Awen broke in calmly, her voice easily carrying in the now-silent room. "I was told about it. As the Saxons value ties to bloodlines over all others, when a member of their family is killed the surviving members are honour bound to avenge them, either by killing their murderer or through an appropriate monetary sum."
"Quite," Flyn said with spiteful enjoyment. "That's why it never stops. Every Saxon cut down by a Rider forces the rest to swear vengence, and ride against us, and slaughter more innocent Cymric people. Saxons are fanatics. Even if they were capable of anything as civilised as an alliance, it could never be with Cymru. And the woman you're asking for an alliance, Councillor, has by her own admission lost four sons to us? Do you think she can be trusted?"
He laughed again, the sound jarring against Aerona's nerves and making her fingers twitch.
"And even if you trust her," he grinned. "Who's to say her government will be trustworthy? Who's to say she'd retain control? The monster, as you put it, Councillor, is a united Saxonia. It's coming within the month. And your only sure way to control it is me."
"Just to neaten things off quick," Gwenllian broke in, "he also repeatedly raped a woman and tried to have two tortured to death for seeing him plotting. And one did die. Hands up who thinks he should definitely be castrated regardless of this?"
Every single hand in the hall went up, although not Flyn's. Even Breguswid did, and then remembered herself and withdrew it, abashed. Even Rhydian did, for once not calling Gwenllian on being unprofessional, his eyes trained on Flyn with loathing. Gwenllian beamed.
"Sound!" she declared. "I'll just make a note of that, shall I?"
"Indeed?" Flyn said harshly. "This is Cymric law in practice now, is it?"
"Oh, it saves time, you rapist," Gwenllian said irritably, rolling her eyes. "It's not like we'd suddenly change our minds if we actually met your victim in the flesh. And anyway, you can't go horrifically breaking laws and then demanding everybody else abides by them for your sake."
"Philosophically," Hannibal said doubtfully, "yes, he can."
"Right," Rhydian said, his voice like iron. "Just quickly then, Sovereign, do you even have a defence for Iona and Nerys Morgannwg? I'm not going to ask about Alis. The druids have already confirmed that you raped her."
"I don't believe it matters, Councillor," Flyn shrugged, his lazy smile cruel. "Whether I plea that I had no idea what Owain was doing or that I helped him do it and took the greatest pleasure in their screams, it's irrelevant. You need me. You all do. The question you will all have to ask yourselves is a straight choice - do you remove me and execute me for the sake of two people and leave every other person in this country to hope that Saxons can all, simultaneously, overcome who and what they are? Or do you accept that what's done is done, and there is now the far graver and more important threat of a massive and bloody war to deal with, one which I alone can avert?"
And the uproar returned, but it was because they were debating this time, and so that was that. Aerona leaned over, watching people's mouths as they argued, her heart hammering in her chest. They were split, she realised, all of them; the Urdd were almost incenced, most of them apparently on the verge of stampeding down and castrating Flyn where he sat anyway, but they absolutely couldn't agree on whether to leave him in power or not, religious views warring with what they considered their sense of reason. The bards opposite them had, predictably enough, started a more measured debate in which they were taking it in turns to argue their points, and fairly eloquently, but again, as far as Aerona could tell they were split. The Sovereigns were just shouting at each other, the 'Let's burn him' side clearly led by Lord Iestyn, the 'Let's keep him' side by Lady Gwenda while Marged knitted and occasionally either nodded or shook her head emphatically. The Low Council had organised themselves into their representative areas and were discussing it quietly but intensely; currently, they were analysing what feasible defence strategies would work against Saxon attacks. And the High Council muttered to one another, faces as serious as a heart attack, giving nothing away.
And Awen watched it all impassively but for one finger, tapping the wall behind her.
She was really nervous then, Aerona thought. She'd never known Awen to have a tell before. Somehow, it was scarier than everything else.
"Gods, I can't take this," Adara snarled, standing up. The rest of their balcony was heatedly not discussing anything, more just shouting their bad opinions of Flyn at each other. Adara leaned next to Aerona and Dylan, staring down into the seething mass of people. "Do you know what they're saying? Any magic tricks of the trade?"
"Lip-reading," Aerona smiled nervously. "But I can't really report anything. At this stage I think there are more Sovereigns and druids arguing for his immediate execution, but I can't be sure. It's all fifty-fifty."
"Dammit." Adara sighed wearily, running a hand through her hair, and dropped her voice. "What do you want to happen?"
"I want him dead," Aerona smiled meekly. "I'm… quite people-focused, though. I look at him and I see Gareth, and Iona, and Alis' eyes. I see a man who has done so much more damage than a Saxon, and can be trusted so much less."
"I don't think we'll get Awen back if he stays," Adara said distantly. "But then I think of Saxons. And I don't trust Saxons. I can't. I don't know."
"I think," Aerona said, her eyes on Awen nervously, "that she's got something else. Some other evidence, or something, that would swing the trial."
Adara looked at her, one eyebrow raised.
"That she hasn't declared?" she asked blankly. "What is she, some kind of crazy?"
"It depends on how badly she feels she has nothing to lose," Aerona said miserably. "But whatever it is, it's serious. It's why Owain wanted Lord Gwilym dead once he arrived here. It's something to do with him."
"She's throwing him away?" Adara blinked, horrified. "Good gods, Awen, you're an idiot sometimes. Can we stop her?"
"I don't see how." Aerona picked at her sash, nervously. "Although we may not have to. She's unsure."
"The druids are ready to vote," Dylan said, pointing somewhat unnecessarily to the mass of white and blue robes that comprised the Urdd. "What do we reckon, kill or keep? A pint says kill."
"Definitely, they're druids." Adara drummed her fingers on the parapet distractedly. "It's the High Council that matter, though, isn't it? Can you tell -?"
"Not yet," Aerona said quietly as a Rider crossed to the Urdd and spoke hurriedly with an Archdruid. The Archdruid nodded and sat, and suddenly all of the druids were neatly facing forward, watching the Rider as he called out to them all, his voice heard only by them in the noise. Aerona squinted at the side of his mouth, and thought she just caught the words 'favour' and 'execution', and a forest of hands shot into the air, well over three quarters of the assembled druids. There was a pause as the Rider studiously counted them all anyway, and then they were lowered. The side of his mouth framed the words 'keep' and 'Sovereign', and around fifteen hands were raised.
"Well?" Adara demanded. "Come on, magical one."
"I think they went for executing him," Aerona said as the Rider carefully noted down the result and carried it to the High Council's dais. "As we suspected. Although Dylan gets a pint."
"Always!" Dylan grinned. "Mind, I owe you one. Awen has not punched Saxon Queen. I am disappoint."
"Disappointing?" Adara said. "Yes, you are, you demand on everyone's time."
"Inside I cry," Dylan intoned. "Weep, like rain oh, the bards are voting."
The Rider was back, talking to a Prifardd, who sat down as they watched and waited expectantly. The angle to see the Rider's mouth was better this time.
"All in favour of the execution of Lord Flyn ap Gruffydd," Aerona murmured for Adara, "please raise your hand now."
The hands rose. It wasn't the majority shown among the druids, but majority it was. Aerona felt her hopes rise yet again, and wondered how they were still capable of movement.
"All in favour of keeping him as Sovereign of Casnewydd, please raise your hand."
"Well, that's a vote for his head on a plate, then," Adara said, nodding. "Arts and religion. Both agree that the bad must be punished. So how will politics and military vote, hmm?"
"Oh, I wish you hadn't put it that way," Aerona said sadly, her hopes plummetting. "He'll never leave now."
"You're a big pessimistic," Adara sniffed. "What I say is hardly going to affect what they do. And the same goes for what you think."
"And here go the Sovereigns!" Dylan chimed in. "Which ought to be the last of the silent votes, and that's good because they're boring. Wave to Madog!"
They waved manically, grateful to have something fun to do that wasn't nervously waiting. Madog's look was withering. Aerona giggled.
"It takes skill and dedication and a lifetime of study," Dylan said looking at Adara. "Since you were about to ask me how I became this annoying. Ah! I read minds, too!"
"Can you read it now?" Adara asked silkily. Dylan sniffed.
"Yes," he said. "And I'm astonished you even know words like that."
"They're voting," Aerona said urgently. "In favour of his execution…"
It was too tight to call at a glance, but it seemed Flyn's speech about the Archipelago's vulnerability had very much hit home for the relevant Sovereigns, almost all of whom had not raised their hands. Abruptly, Aerona realised how clever that was. The Archipelagan Sovereigns outnumbered the rest put together…
"In favour of keeping him as a loser," Dylan reported helpfully, and the hands went up, and Aerona realised she'd been right.
"Damn!" she muttered. "That's gone in his favour. Bloody Archipelago."
"Hey now, pickle," Dylan said. "That's your home you're bad-mouthing! Could be worse. Could be the Southlands."
"Who wants to help me tip Dylan over the balcony?" Adara asked brightly, but they didn't have time to answer because Rhydian stood, and silence fell faster than if they'd pushed that off instead.
"Currently we have two votes to one," he said seriously, "in favour of execution. Councillors?"
He looked to the stands to his right, and Low Councillor Hefin stood to represent the Northlands.
"We deplore what Lord Flyn has done," he said, his voice hard. "More than any of us can convey. And we're deeply grateful to Lady Breguswid for coming here, and being willing to attempt an alliance. But, much though we all accept her assurance that she herself has no desire to wage any further wars of vengence against Cymru, we just can't envision a scenario yet in which the rest of Saxonia would agree with her."
"No," Aerona breathed.
"Therefore," Hefin said, his tone unwavering, "much though I dearly wish it were otherwise, we vote on behalf of the Northlands to retain Lord Flyn as Sovereign."
"Oh, baps," Dylan said irritably and more than slightly nonsensibly. "But I want him dead! Well, that's what you get from people from Aberdaron."
"On behalf of the Archipelago," Low Councillor Rhun said, his oddly sharp voice echoing around the hall, "we also vote to retain Lord Flyn; but only provisionally. We also request a Union meeting be held as soon as possible to discuss other ways in which we could combat the Saxon threat. If one becomes possible, we reserve the right to call for Lord Flyn's removal from office and, preferably, his execution."
"Ooh, good one," Adara murmured. "There you are, then. The Archipelago is better than the Northlands."
"Your request is noted," Rhydian said gravely, standing. "But, I'm afraid, it can't be granted. Once the trial is held and the charges dismissed, we can't reopen it later without setting an extremely dangerous precedent in our legal system. Knowing this, will you keep your vote?"
"A moment," Rhun nodded, and sat back down to confer. Rhydian turned to the Low Councillors on his other side, and nodded at them to continue.
"We've never lost to the Saxons yet," Low Councillor Iola said, standing. "And much though it would be hard to fight such a strengthened Saxonia, we still believe it could be done if we had to. The Morgannwg family are a cautionary tale we can't ignore, and can't allow. On behalf of the Southlands, we vote for Lord Flyn's immediate execution."
"As do we," Low Councillor Meirion said, standing quickly. "On behalf of the Canolbarth."
"We stand by our vote," Rhun said opposite him, straightening from his impromptu huddle. "The Archipelago votes for his retention."
"Four against three to stab his face," Dylan muttered. "Winning so far."
And then it was just the High Council left, glancing heavily at one another under the gaze of the room. Mererid dropped her notes with a sigh, rubbing her eyes.
"I don't share your faith, Rhydian," she said. "I'm sorry. I think it's too much of a risk. I vote to retain him."
"I vote to execute him," Eifion said, his nasal voice almost lustful as he watched Lord Flyn, who looked vaguely alarmed for the first time.
"There's a surprise," Carys smiled humourlessly. "But I agree with Mererid. The risk is too high, I feel. I vote to retain him."
"As do I," Huw rumbled angrily.
"Well, I vote we burn him at the stake," Gwenllian said cheerfully. "Or, well, let's just give him to Eifion, is it? Better than anything we can come up with."
"Regrettably," Dyfan sighed gloomily, "I don't. I vote to retain him."
"I vote we execute him," Rhydian said neutrally. "Eirian?"
"I agree," Eirian nodded. She only had one eye. Somehow it had concentrated her glare.
"I vote we retain him," Idwel said softly. "I'm sorry."
"Mared?" Rhydian asked.
It was strange, as Aerona would reflect for a long time after that day, but the entire world slowed down at that moment, as if time itself knew it was going to be stunned, and slowed down to watch. Awen's eyes were trained onto the final High Councillor with hunting intensity, her fingers gripping the top of the wall behind her so tightly her knuckles had gone white, while more than a few druids in the ranks of the Urdd opposite watched her, feeling her focus. The entire hall was holding its breath, waiting for the deciding vote. Mared stared down at Flyn in something akin to fascinated horror, her fingers moving slowly over the glass beads in her torque; and slowly, so slowly, she shook her head.
"I'm sorry," she said clearly into the silence. "I vote to retain him."
And as the entire hall breathed in, the tiny moment of calm before the storm, Awen turned and locked her gaze onto Lord Gwilym's.
"Open it," she commanded.
The words bounced around the room, through the balconies and off the walls, freezing everyone. All eyes turned to Lord Gwilym as Awen turned on her heel and strode away to the doors calmly, no backwards glance, no flicker of emotion on her beautiful face. Gwilym reached inside his tunic and pulled out what looked like a letter, plain and unmarked, and slid one thumb into the flap of the envelope.
"No," Flyn said sharply, suddenly, the abrupt noise too loud in the silence. Aerona jumped, her pulse almost leaping into her mouth. Rhydian stood. "The trial is ended! The votes are -"
"You will be silent," Rhydian said, and somehow even the inanimate furniture endeavored to quieten down. He had never, ever seemed more dangerous. His rage was burning, just barely held in check, coming from whatever place deep inside he'd kept it buried. Even Eifion leaned away. He watched Gwilym. "Open it," he almost hissed.
The rustle of paper was the only sound as Gwilym reached into the envelope and pulled out two sheets of neatly folded paper. He glanced at the name written on the outside of the first and put it down, picking up the second, which seemed to have a broken wax seal. He opened it slowly and began to read -
- and froze, his eyes widening. Aerona realised she had Dylan's wrist in a death grip just before she realised she couldn't let go. After a lot of effort a glance at the door told her that Awen had left, the needlessly massive door left ajar as the Guard Rider watched Gwilym too in silent horrified astonishment. Adara didn't seem to be breathing. No one seemed to be breathing. No one seemed to even be able to think.
Gwilym put out a hand to his Alpha Wingleader, caught her wrist and pulled her down to him without looking. She scanned the paper, her face going as blank as the envelope.
Guilt, Aerona thought wildly, her thoughts whirling. Flyn had said they were together out of guilt. Rhydian had said it was relevant to national security. Owain had been willing to kill for it. What -?
Alaw stood, picking the papers up carefully, and carried them over to the dais. Her footfalls remained the only sound in the hall, muffled by the distance and the slight echo. Gwilym was staring at the blank envelope, turning it over in his hand, clearly thinking fast. Rhydian leaned down and took the papers from Alaw, his face like a thunderstorm, and began to read the first paper.
There was a very pregnant pause.
"Taken from the room of Owain Masarnen five days ago," Rhydian said. It was the kind of voice that was on the verge of shouting, that thundered through the room without effort, that sent small animals scurrying for shelter. It held his rage. "From behind a mirror he'd bolted to the inside door of his wardrobe. It can be noted that it carries the seal and signature of Lord Flyn, Sovereign of Casnewydd. The translation from the Saxon is as follows:
"I know that at first glance, Rider, this will strike you as an illegal order, and in many ways it is. But we've discussed law versus necessity, and which protects our country, and I know that you see the distinction clearly. You are unique, Rider, in that you alone of your compatriots see what you must do and unflinchingly bear the burden of it. I'm going to ask that you give your country that part of yourself again.
We've also discussed my suspicions regarding Aberystwyth, and Lord Alun's new plan for a government that puts power in the hands of the people. It seems I was right. Having looked into it, it is simply despotism, precisely what put us into the Wars in the first place; and, moreover, he evidently intends all other Sovereigns to implement it while he stays in power, ultimately leaving himself in place as Cymru's sole ruler. A man who genuinely supports power in his populace does not stand by Aberystwyth's economic set-up year after year. A man who intends to allow his populace to pick his successor does not teach his heirs his schemes for them to carry on.
But as we've also discussed, Lord Alun is persuasive, and so I see no alternative but to end the threat he represents now, before his insidious ideas can creep in. It may already be too late, of course. I pray not.
To this end, I am ordering you to assassinate Lord Alun mab Eurlys, Lady Sorcha Nic Aodha, Lady Bethan ferch Alun and Lord Iago mab Sorcha. No others. The third child, Lord Gwilym ap Alun, has had no contact with the family for several years, and has never received any political training; in any event, he is presently still abroad. Naturally, these deaths must look accidental. I would suggest a carriage accident, perhaps; but, of course, I shall leave the details to you, as this is your area of expertise.
I am sorry to ask this of you Rider, but I know that you shall act as the true patriot you are, and serve your country in her hour of need.
Lord Flyn ap Gruffydd."
"Oh my gods," Aerona managed, shakily. The whispers around the hall were like the wind in a forest, a sussurration on the edge of hearing that even Rhydian's barely-controlled wrath couldn't prevent, and down on the floor as the letter was finished Gwilym stood abruptly, crumpling the envelope in his hand.
"The case couldn't be more clear cut, Sovereign," Rhydian said, the cold fury eating his words. "As the surviving victim of the crime, Lord Flyn's fate is in your hands."
"Yes." Gwilym stared at Flyn for a moment, the disgust visible on his face, and then he turned and strode to the door. "Give him the same fate as Nerys Morgannwg," he commanded over his shoulder. "Every nuance."
And then he was gone, darting out of the door after Awen. Rhydian dropped the letter.
"Very well," he smiled coldly. "Lord Flyn ap Gruffydd, for the deaths of Lord Alun mab Eurlys -"
But they didn't hear the rest. Everyone was on their feet and shouting now, and Aerona was suddenly in a balcony with eight frantic Alpha Wing Riders who were clawing their way to the door, very nearly trampling each other in the process. She grabbed hold of the nearest large thing as an anchor, which pleasantly enough was Dylan, who wrapped his arms around her and put her quickly into a free corner away from the door. Aerona stared over the balcony at Lord Flyn's rigid form, Guard Riders coming forward to take him away.
"- and Lord Iago mab Sorcha," Rhydian finished. "Where you will be tortured until dead. Take him away. You!"
He pointed to the Guard Rider who had been on the door.
"Where did she say she was going?"
"The cells," the Rider said, nervously. "I'm sorry, I didn't -"
"Full Council in the Council Chambers in ten minutes!" Rhydian almost roared, striding around the dais. "Otherwise I want Guard Riders with me, now!"
"What will they do to her?" Hannibal asked over the noise of the room emptying angrily. He seemed genuinely distressed. "What will happen?"
"I don't know," Aerona said, agonised. "This has never happened before, and - she just overturned the ruling! The whole thing! That's not allowed!"
"They will kill her?" Hannibal asked, upset. "They will -?"
"Maybe eventually," Dylan said as he rejoined them, his voice grim. "But not outright. She won't get away with it as easily as just dying. And Eifion's gone."
Oh gods, so he had. Aerona leaned into Dylan's arms, and tried not to tremble.