The most monstrous of the collaborators were put on trial, found guilty, and condemned to death in their absence, as it had been done for centuries. As it would be done for centuries more.
The Justice Commission saved the worst of the collaborators for last. Already, the day had been long, with sessions beginning well before the first rising of the sun. The room had warmed and cooled with successive rotations of the bloated orange star riding high in the sky, and the assembled spectators had pulled on smoked glasses or jackets as appropriate with the shifting heat and light. Eight sunrises into a ten-rotation day, the six judges on the great stone dais at the center of the court theater were slumped and weary. But the prosecutors still came, an endless stream of them, enough to condemn today’s five hundred named collaborators.
Finally, the last prosecutor of the session rose from her seat, the folds of her munificent violet robe shifting like ripples of storm cloud, and said, “Now we come to Elodiz Ta Muvard, former navy officer and one-time harbor master for the city of Cerize.”
She paused, and the crowd in the public boxes that ringed the great court theater leaned forward. Many had waited throughout the day’s rotations just to have a good seat for this condemnation.
She continued, “Ta Muvard has been tried by the Justice Commission and found guilty of the following crimes.”
Once more she paused for effect, and the silence stretched; the result of hundreds of held breaths. The crowd had heard of Ta Muvard only recently, his crimes exposed by a family member. Had he really been the worst of the collaborators during the war, this man they knew as one of the great heroes of their city, the benevolent master of commerce for their rich harbor, the man who sponsored the educations of dozens of poor youth and gave generously of his wealth each year, paying four times that required in religious tax to city’s patron god, Savazan? Surely it could not be. It was an impossibility. They had heard wrong.
The prosecutor began her recitation: “Ritual cannibalization with the intent to call nefarious magics aligned with the Enemy’s purpose. The mass killing of over forty infants in the Mosov hospital, their bodies delivered to the Enemy to power the sentient machines that killed tens of thousands of our soldiers in Fuzil. The facilitation of murder in the death of fifty-seven mentally unsound patients of the Sazid Retreat with the intent to revive them through dark magics for insurrection against the home state. The capture, abuse, and sale of three thousand young people over the course of forty years for conscription in the Enemy’s army. Identifying and aiding in the murder of General Ozian Te Soliviar and her family during the ceasefire he conspired with the enemy to negotiate for just this purpose, removing her from the field to her less secure family estate. Aiding and abetting the Enemy with information leading to the deaths of ten thousand soldiers on the fields of Gavozia, and forty thousand more burned alive at the front near Hovash. Channeling city funds collected via the harbor tax to the Enemy and Enemy agents. Facilitating the theft and shipment of weapons from Cerize harbor to Enemy weapons caches.”
The prosecutor shuffled the green billets in her hands. “There are another three pages, your worships.”
“Continue,” the Senior Judge said.
And so the prosecutor did, until even the eager crowd began to become restless and uncomfortable. One of these was a young reporter from the Cerize Standard, the first of the free media to capture and record the opening of the Justice Commission sessions. A copper recording device was affixed to his shirt like an oversized metallic boutonniere. The device smoked occasionally, and for the last three rotations of the sun he had expected it to set him on fire. But it continued to whir away without issue, and he was glad of it now, because the exhaustive list of Ta Muvard’s crimes was so long as to be unbelievable. The absurdity of it, that a single man had committed so many crimes over forty years, was the sort of story that a fictioneer would never have had the audacity to dream up.
Beside him sat a meaty, squinty-eyed woman with a wide rump that pressed comfortingly into his, a closeness among strangers that would have been impossible a decade before. She wore the red-and-black linen suit of a Justicar. She was the only Justicar in the building, at least the only one on duty, and he thought it odd that she was here to listen to a list of crimes instead of out there capturing men like Ta Muvard, as was her sworn duty. Her fingers absently caressed the edges of the hat resting on her left knee. Her face was impassive as the prosecutor rattled out the charges, and the reporter thought that curious, too, because Ta Muvard’s crimes were truly the most stomach-churning he had yet to hear in this court theater since he had taken this beat six months before. Of course, Justicars had been bringing collaborators to trial since the end of the war five years ago, so there was the potential, certainly, that she had seen worse. But if so, the public would have heard of it. Wouldn’t they?
Finally, the prosecutor below finished her long sermon of horror. The reporter found that he had blanked out the last few paragraphs, letting his mind wander. Well, that’s what the recording was for. He couldn’t remember everything.
Senior Judge Corvoran rose from her seat at the end of the table of Judgment. The reporter leaned in to get a better recording. People loved Corvoran, as she was the only commoner to be given a seat on the Commission.
Corvoran said, “We, the Thirty-second Justice Commission of the Sixth Age, do hereby find the citizens on trial today guilty of their crimes. We legally condemn them to be labeled collaborators henceforth. The sentence for their crimes is heretical death. This sentence may be commuted to consecrated death only if they agree to appear before this court within ninety days’ time and provide full written and spoken confessions of their crimes, willingly and without duress. Those who do flee from the Justicars who serve their warrants, or who refuse to cooperate with the Justice Commission hearings, will be buried alive, their names expunged from all historical record, and a list of their crimes engraved on their tombs for all the gods to see here and in the afterlife. It being so ordained, we arraign this hearing. The Commission shall recommence after the Maliter holiday season.”
The other judges rose and bowed to the crowded theater of justice. At that, the assembled citizens finally began to mutter and shuffle, searching for belongings or making quick exits in search of the lavatories.
The reporter stretched his legs and turned to the Justicar beside him as she, too, shuffled to her feet.
“I admire what you do,” the reporter said to her, “bringing monsters like that to justice. “Someone so vile...” He shook his head. “It’s incredible no one knew of his crimes before the Commission convened. Had you heard of him before today?” He fiddled with his recording device. It was smoking silently again.
“I have,” she said, pulling on her broad black hat. “He’s my father.”
Darkness came up from the south forty years ago. I wasn’t alive then, but I heard about it, of course. They were the stories I learned around the warm hearth on a cold night as my mothers mended fishing nets and baked bread and cobbled shoes. None of us were fighters then. Even the community guardians we appointed were trained in little but the art of restraining a drunk widower or mischievous teenager bent on stealing chickens for sport. The Enemy, the darkness, brought with them war machines steeped in magic, already well-oiled with the blood of countries they had destroyed before they reached ours. The young people back then thought they could halt the encroaching armies with the words and gifts and fine speeches they had been taught in school for quelling personal arguments and community disputes. But the elders knew better. The elders knew we had faced the Enemy before, and knew the only way to fight monsters was to become monsters ourselves. There was a guidebook for it. The plan was all laid out. It was the only way we could survive.
The darkness was an old evil, one we had purged from time immemorial, as predictable as the rotation of the heavenly bodies. They came every two hundred and twenty-eight years, their emergence perfectly timed with the aphelion of the ever-present winking green star in our sky called the Mote. We had fought them so many times that we had a strict protocol for the aftermath of that conflict. When the Great War was over, we were to appoint Justicars to hunt down what remained of the Enemy’s machines and black magics and the monstrous people who had collaborated with them and we were to expunge them from the face of the world. Then the guidebooks and the records would be shut up again, until they were needed during the next cycle. Until we began it all again.
I fought in the war. I commanded in it like a good woman from a decent family, because I was a Ahgazin Te Muvard and my father was the harbor master of Ceriz, Elodiz Ta Muvard. He called me Zin, and his friends called him Diz, and we had a reputation to uphold, which we both did, right up until the end.
When the war was over I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was twenty-nine, and the war had been going on longer than I’d been alive. Most women I know drank away their memories at liquor theaters or took cushy family jobs that would never fire them, even if they came to work drunk or burned down their own family factories. And they did. Burn down factories and drink, I mean. They did it again and again, and the media nodded sagely about it and put up tinny little recordings on the tabletop displays at every restaurant and bodega as if these were all unfortunate, unrelated incidents. But our cultural psychosis was real. We were broken people, twisted foully by war, and if we were lucky, maybe, our grandchildren might be whole enough to build something better.
This is why my task, and the task of our children, was now this: to obliterate the machinery of the war. Including the people who ran it.
People like my father.
Only in destroying everything evil could we become the peaceful people we’d once been. It was in the guidebook. It was part of the protocol.
You have to believe in the protocol, because in the aftermath of a war that breaks you down like it has us, it’s the only faith you can still muster up at all.
Zin sat up at the counter of the bodega across from the god Savazan’s shrine, drinking tea and brooding, when she saw her own face pop up on the news display in the tabletop. She almost choked on her drink.
Her partner, Merriz, cackled when he saw the image of her sitting in the courtroom with her hat on her knee, frowning out at the room. “That’s you!” he crowed. “I can’t believe some kid had the audacity to record you. At your own father’s trial!”
“He didn’t know who I was,” Zin said.
Merriz watched the report intently. Zin frowned at it. Did she really look so lean, still? All her friends had gotten fat at the end of the war as the harbors opened up and the government encouraged the overproduction of starches. Zin couldn’t go anywhere without confronting something concocted from some glutinous mess of sticky dough, but she didn’t have the stomach for it. She had always been meaty, but tastes ran more toward fat now, and to many onlookers she probably appeared like she was stuck in the past. Maybe it’s all the running after monsters, she thought grimly, and watched the reporter vomit her family’s shame all over the newsfeeds again.
“You’re Justicars?” the girl behind the counter asked.
Zin raised her head from the recording. Clearly the girl wasn’t paying attention to it. Her gaze was fixed on pretty little Merriz. Zin didn’t blame her. He was foppishly charming on first glance; a petite, wiry little man who was also the best grappling opponent she had ever met. Once he got you to the ground, the fight was all but over.
Zin suspected the girl was interested in a different sort of grappling. She would be supremely disappointed.
“We are,” Merriz said, practically preening. He touched the brim of his black hat resting on the counter beside him. He nodded at the new report, which had moved on to a lengthy speech about the last time Elodiz Ta Movard had appeared in public, six years ago, just before the end of the war. No one had seen him since. Not even Zin. The report replayed his final speech. Before he disappeared that day, she had seen him at the house. She was already on leave then, as the armies were already being recalled. The last of the Enemy were all but routed from their holdouts. She and her father had argued about something petty—dirty dishes, a stained tablecloth—and he had stormed from the house, calling her soft and irresponsible. An irony, of course, considering what she and the rest of the world had come to learn about him since.
The girl leaned toward Merriz, letting the long hank of her dyed blue hair fall over her shoulder. “I’ve always wondered,” she said, “why do people like you become Justicars?”
“I want to know what convinces a man to betray his own principles,” Merriz said. He moved his fingers from the brim of the hat to the counter, a breath from the girl’s forearm. Touching strangers without permission was still frowned upon; there were still errant magical plagues and curses jumping person to person, but the danger had only added another level of intrigue to flirting. “What makes a man a monster?” Merriz said, and he lowered his voice conspiratorially when he said, ‘monster.’ “So many of us fought bravely, in accordance with the laws and principals of war. What makes men like him?”
Zin snorted at that but said nothing. The girl cocked her head at Zin, though, and asked, with a hint of contempt, “Why do you do it then?”
“I don’t need to know why they do what they do,” Zin said. She wiped away the tea she’d dribbled on the table. “The reasons are all the same. Power. Greed. A belief that one is above the law. That one is law. Belief that one is somehow special, more equal than others. It’s people with no empathy, no understanding that human beings are sentient creatures, not things. I see these people every day exploiting workers, bullying lovers, nattering on about refugees squatting on their land. It’s an easy step to the right, once you cease to acknowledge the humanity of others, to become a monster. That’s all it is. A half step.”
“Then why?” the girl persisted, and Zin sighed, because she realized now as the girl’s body shifted toward hers, that the girl’s interest in Merriz had been a feint.
Merriz rolled his eyes. “Here it comes,” he said.
“I do it because I want justice,” Zin said, and finished her tea. She set the empty cup down in its saucer with a clatter and pulled on her hat.
Merriz sighed and slumped from his seat, waving his hat at the table girl. “Off we go to catch another collaborator,” he said. “Soon we’ll have condemned so many there won’t be an old wretch left in Fravesa.”
“I suspect that’s the point,” Zin said, and held open the door for him.
They got three paces into the street, into the looming shadow of the great status of Savazan, Merriz still limply waving his hat at the counter girl, when the whuffing-thud of weapons fire compressed the air and shattered the glass storefront behind them.
Merriz hit the ground first, his reflexes better than Zin’s. She slid to the cobbled pavement right after him. Her hat landed an arm’s length away, its cap tangled with spidery snarls of bone fungus released from the weapon shells. She grimaced. She had very much liked that hat.
Two more shots. Then footsteps scraping the stones.
Zin peered under the row of tricycles between them and the trolley tracks and saw the shooters approaching. Two at least, possibly three.
Merriz pulled his sidearm. Hers was already out. “Your family or mine?” he asked.
She shouldn’t have gone to the trial, or talked to that stupid reporter, even for a second. Her father would know, now, that it was her who had his file. It was her who had been called upon to bring him in. She wouldn’t have shown up at the trial otherwise, and he knew it.
“Two bits to the one whose family it isn’t,” she said, and rolled up to get a look at them.
My childhood was normal, which no one wants to hear, because no one wants to believe they could live with a collaborator, but it’s true. Elodiz was the senior father in the house, and I suppose that gave him a bit more authority, but it also meant we saw him less. Senior family members tended to work more, and he and my two senior mothers were rarely home. Growing up, my relationship with him, and my understanding of what it was he did, was informed by the media as much as it was my mothers’ and other fathers’ stories of him. He was a figure of legend even in his own household. A former navy general, a hero. I tell you this so you’ll hear the same stories I did. So you know I couldn’t have known what others say we all must have known.
I went into the army with my sisters and most of my brothers. The war took a turn for the worst when I was fifteen, so I joined up early with my older sister Savoir, and the whole household was proud of us. Elodiz sent me a singing boy to congratulate me. I remember because his dance was so ridiculous and his voice was very poor, and that was why I recognized Merriz when I met him again a decade later when he introduced himself as the other Justicar assigned to case folder 446. I burst out laughing when I saw him, because I knew his voice right away. I still haven’t told him why I laughed, but when he gets drunk and sings along to war ballads, I have to excuse myself because I can’t contain my mirth.
Elodiz always said that when one was a public figure, the person you had to be in front of the tinny recorders and ever-smiling politicians could not be the same as the one you were at home. It was, he said, an impossibility, like a fish trying to survive on land without water. One had to make accommodations. When I was a child I pictured this as something like a fish in a bowl carried around on a cart driven by speckled deer like the ones our neighbors used for the ritualized furrowing of the fields during the fertility festival. But politics was not as easy as that. It wasn’t just a fish wearing a bowl on its head.
If you want to live in the same tree as a family of snakes, you have to become a snake.
Three shooters, all dressed in black and tan linen like scholars. But the long black curves of the weapons they carried at their sides were anything but scholarly.
Zin scanned for civilians, because she wasn’t permitted to shoot within sight of any of them, not even in self-defense, and then it would be up to Merriz to take these three down with some cunning combination of flash-bangs and grappling. People had scattered in the streets at the sound of the shots, most of them worshippers at the Savazan shrine, but they hadn’t retreated inside. Zin saw two men cowering in the trolley stop thirty paces up, their arms full of lilac blooms to offer at Savazan’s feet. She holstered her gun, took cover, and pulled her truncheon.
Merriz rolled next to her.
“They’re ugly,” Zin said. “Most certainly your family.”
“Civs?” he said.
She nodded. “No guns.”
He smirked. “You get funny when you can’t use a gun.” He slipped brass knuckles onto both fists and crouched low into a boxer’s walk, moving fast and low.
Zin followed. She was bigger than him, not as nimble, and kept her truncheon out, stun on. He leapt and drove his weaponized fist into the first shooter’s face as she rounded the bank of bikes. The hit was so powerful that Zin heard the bones of the woman’s face crunch. She toppled like a tree.
Zin caught the woman’s weapon and threw it hard at the other woman behind her opponent. The weapon had been designed for just that purpose; a magic-imbued Enemy weapon that morphed its shape and function depending on the purpose intended by its user.
Merriz leapt off the one with the crushed face and pounced the third one. He hit her hard enough that Zin saw her jaw dislodge from its socket. It went one way, her face another. She fell.
Zin grabbed the one she’d stunned before Merriz could take her out. Zin smacked her with her truncheon, sending a stunning zap through her body that left her limp. Zin straddled her.
“Who sent you?” Zin said.
The woman’s eyes rolled in her sockets. Zin thought to zap her again, but once was usually enough to stir up the truth.
Merriz came up behind her. He wasn’t even breathing hard. “It work?” he said.
“Give it a minute,” she said. The truncheon was another Enemy weapon, one she and the other Justicars would have to give up, eventually. But not today. It encouraged truthful answers.
“You hear her?” Merriz said to the woman.
The woman blinked slowly, like she’d gone dumb.
Zin hoped she hadn’t fried her senses. She had done that before, too. “Who told you to shoot at us?” Zin said.
“Your senior father,” the woman said.
Merriz snorted and held out his hand.
Zin tucked into her tunic pocket and pulled out a quarter bit coin. Tossed it to him.
“You said two bits,” he said. “You’re short.”
“So are you,” she said.
Zin pressed the warm truncheon against the woman’s face. “Where is he?”
“I don’t know. Got the job from his secretary.”
“I heard he was in town,” Zin said. In truth, she had not. They had just started a preliminary search for him and a dozen others due for processing. But sometimes letting a witness think they were commiserating with you over shared secret knowledge got them to open up easier than the truncheon. And she wanted to make it easier on this woman before she had to kill her or bring her in. Pity had always made her soft, but no less effective. Sometimes pity and compassion got better results. She had seen torture get a lot of misinformation spilled all over the floor, and little else. “We were on our way to pick him up.”
“Yes,” the woman said. She blinked furiously. “I think... yes, the hotel.”
“The hotel, yes,” Zin said.
“Just ask her,” Merriz said.
“Hush,” Zin said. He had never liked her methods. But she didn’t always like his either.
“Shiny grim façade,” the woman said, and smiled. “All those skulls.” Then her eyes came back into focus, and Zin saw that she was back, fully present.
“Get the fuck off me,” the woman said.
“I’m a Justicar,” Zin said. “Admit your crimes and I might.”
“Go fuck yourself.”
“You know what happens if you don’t admit your crimes?”
“I know,” she said. “Do it.” And she jutted her chin forward, defiant.
“You want to die?”
“I know what you are,” she said. “I know you’re trying to erase everything.”
“We’re not erasing anything,” Zin said. “This is about truth and justice.”
“You’re erasing everything,” she said. “You’re turning heroes into monsters.”
“It’s not like that,” she said. “You have no idea what we do.”
“Do it,” the woman said. “I know the protocol. You’ll do me eventually. You’ll kill all of us.”
Zin shook her head, but an image rose up in her mind, one she had tamped down since first reading the protocol, of her own people walking into the big cremation ovens, drinking red phials of liquid, breaking apart into a thousand starry pieces. “That’s for the court.”
Merriz looked disappointed, but he went to the emergency tube box at the end of the block and pushed the button for the guardia. The numbered pneumatic tube fwumped out to the station. Zin and Merriz restrained both of the conscious shooters. But one couldn’t be roused; her jaw was clearly broken, almost comically askew.
“Should have called paramedics too,” Zin said.
Merriz shrugged. “They usually send some.”
The guardia arrived in their green-striped suits and loaded all three women into the back. Zin filled out her report and reminded them to get a medic.
The man who took her thumbprint on his report frowned at it. “They’re violence offenders, though, right?”
“Yes, but -”
“Well, you know what happens to them.”
“That’s for the court.”
The man huffed out something like a laugh. “Sure,” he said. “Once you sign this, you know what the sentence is. Think it’s different because the court says it?” He shook his head. “I don’t understand why you don’t just kill these people.”
“Because we’re not animals,” Zin said. “You let that woman die and it’s you they’ll ask to step into an oven.”
Merriz came up beside her and tugged at her sleeve. “Hey now, let’s go. We’ve done our jobs.”
She turned abruptly away. It didn’t feel like she’d done her job. It felt like she was still on the field, calling a bullet justice.
They stepped up into the tricycle lane, narrowly missing a gaggle of students headed to the campus common.
“So much for hotels,” Merriz said, picking at the flecks of blood on his sleeves. “You could have scared her more, at least. She’d have talked.”
“Torture doesn’t work,” Zin said. “Besides, there wasn’t any need.” She rubbed her face, wondering if she could rub the whole thing off and become someone else, someone with some greater purpose, and a longer future. “I know what hotel it is.”
The first time I did something I knew I shouldn’t have was when I fed the baby lake fowl without permission. Lake fowl have a very particular life cycle, and interrupting it can cause chaos. I was exploring the garden shed down by the pond on our family plot. It was unlocked and the food bin was open. So I just took out a handful of food and threw it out onto the lake.
It turns out that fattening up lake fowl doesn’t take much time at all, and after a couple of days of that protein-rich food, all the babies had grown into full adults, two weeks earlier than they would have just eating wild foliage. When the whales in our pond came up to feed on them the same way they did every year, there were no baby fowl in the lake, and our whales starved. I remember seeing their big bloated white bodies floating in the lake, like dead gods. I cried and cried, but I never told anyone what I’d done. The groundskeeper was fired for keeping the shed unlocked; my parents assumed some outsider had come in and tampered with our fowl to sabotage the whales. It was not unheard of. The whales were sacred creatures, the god Savazan’s favorite animal, and doing injury to them was a grave crime.
Elodiz liked a lot of hotels in Ceriz, especially the ones on the water, because he could watch the lake fowl spawning. Spring was a busy time at the waterfront, and for three weeks every year, all water traffic ceased in order to accommodate them. The lake fowl courted, mated, and laid their eggs at the bottom of the lake. Two weeks later—so long as they weren’t overfed by overzealous children – the slimy, squawking larva emerged, halfway between gory amphibian and arrogant fowl. They grew quickly and took flight just a week later, but the arrival of the whales was the real spectacle. The whales hibernated the whole year long at the bottom of lakes. They came up for a single week and gorged themselves fat to sustain themselves for another year of hibernation. The whales were tremendous things, each the length of a trolley, with great feathered frills around their wedged heads. In the spring the harbor was full of the sounds of their chattering language, a series of whistles, pops, and water thumping with the front two of their eight flippers.
They were fully sentient animals, eerily so. When a few citizens occasionally gabbled about why we stopped traffic in a lake with whales in it every year, the city elders reminded them that the whales had been here longer than we had, and the alternative to allowing them three weeks of time to feed and breed was to murder them all, and then what would we be then? We would be no better than our own Enemy.
One season I met with Elodiz at one of the hotels, a grand old pre-war building with fanciful leering faces on the façade. The faces were meant to be jolly, I think, but the art style of the time depicted people with bony features and starved bodies. There were few portraits that did not emphasize the bones of the skull beneath, painting all skin as slightly translucent.
He and I stood out on the balcony watching the fish while two of my sisters bickered over the breakfast cart in the room behind us. Sometimes Elodiz would take a few of us out with him on business like this, so each of his children got to spend time with him and meet the various magistrates and politically powerful people who we might need to make an impression on later in life.
I was only ten at the time, though, so I saw these ventures as little more than great fun. An excuse to eat rich food from a hotel cart and spend time with my senior father.
We watched the whales on the beach below. They were clever, those whales. Though they ate many of the larval foul, most often they used the larva to bait the much larger adults. The whales would slide up onto the shore and deposit an injured baby lake fowl there, and six or seven adults would swoop and circle and crowd in to defend it, and then the whale would slide back up onto the beach and swallow one of the adults whole.
This seems, in retrospect, to be a strange pastime for our people, to watch this dance of death and rebirth every year at the lake. But Elodiz said he found it very cathartic.
“What’s happening in the lake below is just like our lives with the Enemy,” he had said, “only time is compressed. It’s like watching the whole cycle speeded up.”
“But the whales aren’t evil,” I told him, already firm in my sense of fairness and justice at that age. “They’re just doing what they need to do to survive.”
“Yes, they are,” Elodiz said, and he reached down and smoothed my hair and crossed my forehead for luck. “Sometimes we must do terrible things just to survive, Ahgazin.”
I remembered that day well.
I also remembered the grim, skeletal façade of the hotel.
Zin hesitated on the steps of the Hotel Savazan, struck by how the bony, grimacing figures leering at her from its exterior looked both more and less terrifying than they had when she was ten. Merriz was already at the door, his hand on a handle carved to look like a femur. Zin had taken her fair share of anatomy classes during basic training—it was supposed to make the soldiers more effective killers—and found that she could name the types of bones decorating the archway, too: metatarsals, fibula, patella, two sacrums, a coccyx....
“This the right one?” Merriz said. He wore smoked glasses now, though the day was so overcast that the sky hardly seemed to change during the sun’s multiple rotations. The black dust of the winter season had blown in a few hours before, two weeks ahead of usual. Zin expected to see a lot of angry farmers in the news on the counter display at dinner.
“It’s the right one,” she said. “Let me go around to the other side. As soon as you ask for him at the front, he’ll bolt.”
“They can’t legally announce our presence,” he said.
She raised her brows. “Elodiz is very convincing. He’s known the people who run all these hotels for years. Why do you think nobody’s turned him in yet?”
“I won’t know what room he’s in unless I ask,” he said.
“I might know,” she said. “Let’s try meeting up there first. Highest floor, center room facing the lake. It’s his preferred room. If he isn’t there, we ask, and have a brawl just like you want.”
“I don’t always want a brawl.”
She made a noncommittal grunt and waved at him. She went around the back of the hotel and through the lush gardens. The great bountiful faces of the blue margonias were already drooping. Soon they would wither and become clotted with fungi. Most gardens became fungal havens during the winter season; dying flora, darker skies, and the invisible but radiant heat of the winter star made conditions perfect for them.
Zin pulled off her red coat and left it on the banister. Without the coat, she looked slightly less like a Justicar. She couldn’t imagine anyone would recognize her—Elodiz was the senior father of a household with two dozen children, and none of them had become politically powerful. Elodiz had wanted to make them all into well-connected politicians, but most, like Zin, found they preferred community organizing and military service to politics.
Zin came to the end of the hall on the third floor. Merriz was already waiting at the other end. They met each other at the door emblazoned with a black tulip. Her father’s preferred room.
Merriz, too, had taken off his jacket.
“You knock,” Zin said, taking out her truncheon.
“You think he’ll fight? He’s a politician. They never fight.”
“Just being cautious,” she said. “He may not even be here.”
Merriz snorted. How arrogant, she thought as Merriz raised his hand, that Elodiz would have hidden here in plain sight, confident that the many people he had befriended over the years would continue to shield a man who committed some of the war’s greatest crimes.
The door opened immediately, so fast Zin flinched, instinctively bringing up her truncheon.
A young woman stood at the door. “Oh, it’s you,” she said. “He’s been expecting you.”
Merriz raised a brow at Zin and smirked, his usual “I told you so” look. He strode in ahead of her. Zin kept her truncheon out.
They followed the young woman into the large suite. Windows overlooking the lake made up the whole rear wall. She saw Elodiz’s familiar portly form there at the glass, his hands clasped behind his back. He wore a plain white robe and yellow linen jacket.
He turned and smiled when he saw them. He looked much the same as he had during their last argument. Zin found it oddly unsettling. It was as if she had gone back in time, obliterating the last decade comprised of the final horrible push of the war and routing of the Enemy and the subsequent institution of the post-war protocol and Justice Commission.
She pushed back her sense of dissonance and flicked her truncheon. “Elodiz Ta Muvard—” she began.
“Oh, save all of that rhetoric,” he said, waving at her. “I know what you’re here for. What baffles me is why my own daughter took this case.”
“Not my choice,” she said. “Your name was in the file we were assigned. You were just one of the easier ones to find.”
“It doesn’t surprise me,” he said. “When justice is done, we’ll have condemned fully ten percent of our own people.”
“Yes, well—” Zin said.
“You know who they move to next,” he said.
“I’ve read the post-conflict protocol, yes.” She walked forward, gesturing for Merriz to pull out his restraints. Merriz took out the long curl of the stretchy bands.
“And still you came for me, even knowing your own end,” Elodiz said. He did not present his hands to her, though she was now within four paces of him.
Zin hesitated. What was he playing at? “Clearly you expected me to be,” she said, “or you would have run further.”
“Your Worship—” the young woman said, and Zin winced.
Elodiz waved a hand. “You go on, Jivoz,” he said. “I won’t have need of you. Thank you for your service.”
The young woman burst into tears.
“It’s all right now,” Elodiz said. “Come, this is the way of things.”
She nodded and left the room.
Merriz looked over the top of his glasses at Zin and cocked his head at Elodiz.
Zin began again, “Elodiz Ta Muvard, the Justice Commission has found you guilty of collaboration with the enemy. You have the right to hear these charges in full on remanding yourself to custody today. Though your sentence is heretical death, this sentence may be commuted if you give a full confession of—”
Elodiz snorted. “Who dares judge a god?”
“You’re not a god,” Zin said. “You’re a human being. And we are judged by the communities that make our lives possible. The communities that feed and clothe us and care for us—”
“It was not the community that did that,” he said. “It was me. I clothed you. I fed you. And the things I did ensured you are alive now to condemn me.”
Zin said, “And how would you have cared for us, without mastering a harbor built by public funds and free hands? How would you have reached our home without the roads built by civil servants and squabbling politicians? The freedom you sought by sacrificing the lives of others was not freedom at all. You sought power. There is no other name for it.”
“You are self-righteous. You get that from your near-mother Caroliz, or perhaps your mother Mashiva, or your fallen mother Lizatia.”
“No,” Zin said, “I got that from you.”
Merriz stepped between them. “I’m sure you can both catch up back at the repository,” he said. “Family stuff, I know. You haven’t seen each other in a while. But let’s just get you downstairs, call a trolley and—”
“You know the protocol, Elodiz,” Zin said. She tucked her truncheon into her belt and jerked the restraints from Merriz’s hands just as Elodiz turned and walked out onto the balcony. Zin sighed. “Father, please—”
Just as she stepped up beside him, Elodiz took her by the back of the neck and propelled her to the edge of the balcony. Zin pin-wheeled her arms, dropping the restraints. He was her father, still, even now, and she was transported back to her girlhood, when her father was always right. Her gut clenched, and she found herself paralyzed with guilt for a full breath.
He shoved her head toward the lake, “Look out there!” he said. “We never overfeed those lake fowl. The whales come back every year, because we say we must preserve the process. But what is that process but another circle of life and death? Why don’t we take control of it, Zin? Why don’t we change it? They come and they go, every year, just like the Enemy. But always with them, and with our Enemy, we follow the same protocol. We enable the same cycle. We could be gods, and instead we condemn ourselves each cycle. We condemn ourselves to be monsters.”
She could have broken his grip. He was an old man, a politician, and she was a soldier. But she endured him, because he was her father. “We are not gods,” she said.
Merriz’s fist was fast. Zin heard the crunch as his punch met her father’s rib cage. Elodiz huffed out a cry and crumpled.
“For fucks’ sake,” Merriz said. “Did you forget who you were?”
Zin stared at the old man moaning on the ground between them. “No,” she said. “I know who I am.” She raised her gaze to Merriz. “Do you, Merriz? Do you know what we are?”
Many question the work of the Justice Commission. When wars end, collective amnesia is common in other countries. People forget the things that they did during war, and they puff themselves up like paragons of virtue, as if acts committed during war were somehow only committed by the aberrant, by the one percent of people believed to be truly monstrous. These sociopaths are far less common than many believe. Wars are not fought by sociopaths, they are fought by ordinary people. That’s what’s so frightening about them.
The Justice Commission was created as part of the post-war protocol formed in the Second Age. After the Enemy had been turned back, everyone who had participated in the war had to make a public accounting of their crimes. Silence and forgetting would only deny the experiences of victims, deepening their trauma, and contribute to the mass delusion that the atrocities we committed during our wars were only perpetrated by a few. And, of course, if we forgot what we did, what we were capable of doing, to win the war each turn, then we would not be able to summon that horror within ourselves to fight again the next time. We could not forget how to make war, because in another two hundred years, we would need to unseal these records again, and remember.
In truth, when the war first started, only ten percent of our troops would actually fire on the Enemy. Oh, they might light off cannons from a distance, or catapult great gobs of burning pitch at ships, but when it came to shooting a weapon—dead or fungal—they found they could not aim and fire at another human being when they could make out that person’s face.
You must train people to kill. And we did. Breaking open the records from the four Ages of uprisings before us helped. We saw what we had done. We knew what was possible.
Other countries ask why we don’t keep our people trained for fighting between wars, but the truth is we are a peaceful country, and you cannot build a peaceful country when half of its resources are dedicated to war. A country with an army will use it. You cannot train soldiers to deal out death and expect them to stop when they come home. When you train people to enjoy killing, they will kill, and they will look for ways to kill, and ways to abuse that power, even when they come home. They will disrupt any attempt at peace.
People trained in war will bring the war home.
I learned this from parents. I learned this at school. I learned it even in basic training: a country of killers was not a country at all but a war machine, a snake always eating its own tail. But it was not until a woman raised her hand during philosophy class the second week of basic training and asked the implicit question behind that knowledge that I considered what that meant.
“If soldiers who have killed can never go home and create a peaceful society,” she said, “what happens to all of us after the war?”
The instructor did not hesitate. “Our fates are sealed when the Commission disbands,” she said. “The protocol has clear instructions on what’s to be done with those who fought.”
The great court theater was packed to bursting. Children had scrambled up onto the roof and were peering down around the edges of the great glass dome. The whirring of copper recording devices was a constant whine, noxious and distracting.
Zin and Merriz, as the Justicars who had brought in the man on trial, sat just behind the prosecutor’s table. Merriz was chewing a gob of sap, which Zin would have found more insufferable if she could actually hear him chomping on it above the din of the recorders.
When they brought Elodiz into the court theater, a murmur rolled through the crowd. He stood in the raised box of the condemned.
The prosecutor rose from her seat and read his four pages worth of crimes aloud to the court. “Do you admit to these crimes?” she asked.
“Of course,” Elodiz said. “That’s what we’re all here for, isn’t it?”
The prosecutor continued, “And on whose order did you commit these crimes?”
“First Premier Torozina’s,” he said.
“That would be the former First Premier Torozina,” the prosecutor said. “The leader of this country.”
“And why would our country’s highest elected office ask you to commit these crimes?”
“They were necessary to win the war.”
Elodiz grimaced. “How so? How do you think we turn them back every two hundred years? You think you can turn a country of pacifists into soldiers suddenly, after two centuries of peace? Soldiers must be inspired, prosecutor.”
“So you undertook these acts of barbarism to... inspire people?”
“No country wants war,” Elodiz said. “Why should some idiot commoner risk her life at the front when she can live out her life on her farm baking bread and fucking her husbands? It’s natural not to want war. No one wants it. We all understand that, do we not? But it is those who lead countries who shape these policies, and it is always an easy thing to drag people along, no matter if it’s a pacifist or tyranny. The people can always be led about by the nose. It’s easy. Just tell them they’re being attacked by a grievous evil, by some nefarious, cannibalistic monster of a threat. Denounce the peacemakers for their lack of spine. Tell those on the fence that it is these pacifists who are putting us in real danger. Say they are endangering our freedom, and ultimately, our very existence. It works the same in every country, in every age.”
The prosecutor nodded. “If you understood that these actions would condemn you by the laws of our country, why did you undertake them?”
“I knew when this began that I would either go down as our history’s greatest hero, or its greatest villain,” Elodiz said.
Elodiz’s gaze moved to her. He jabbed at finger at Zin. “You think you’re better? You shoot people in the street for ‘war crimes.’ Crimes they committed at the behest of the state that resulted in the end of this war and the crushing of our enemies. You aren’t any better than me. You’re worse, in fact, because you don’t even know what you’re doing. You don’t even have the self-awareness to know what’s going on. But they will pin a medal to your chest right up until they ask you to murder yourself. And I’ll die a collaborator. Is it worth it?”
“Was it worth it for you?” Zin said.
Judge Corvoran banged her gavel.
“Yes!” Elodiz said. “I would do it all again. I would kill every one of them to see this country great again.”
“Your worships...” the prosecutor began.
Judge Corovan raised her hand. “It’s all right,” she said. She sighed. “Ta Muvard, the state understands that there were crimes that had to be committed during times of war. Great crimes which were indeed sanctioned by the state. But crimes done in service for any cause are still crimes in this court. Crimes committed in war must be—”
“This is a circus,” Elodiz said. “This is not justice—”
“I’m afraid it is our justice,” Corovan said. “You understood when you committed these acts that there would be a reckoning. Do you have his paperwork, prosecutor?”
“I do.” The prosecutor handed Corovan one of her green files.
Corovan pulled a thin government-caliber slide from the sheaf. “Is this your signature and hand print, Ta Muvard?”
“It is,” Elodiz said. His face was still angry, but his tone was lower.
“And do you remember what you signed here?”
Elodiz said nothing.
“I will read it aloud to the court,” Corovan said. “In the interests of full transparency. This is the first case where a senior official disputes the charges.” She read aloud, “I, the undersigned, agree that the War Office will commission me for certain crimes which will aid and abet the ending of the current conflict with the Enemy. In engaging in these duties for the state, I understand that on the cessation of hostilities, I may be considered a collaborator and put on trial for crimes against my country. I understand that committing violence against another human beings remains illegal in our state, and I expect to be prosecuted for these crimes to the fullest extent of the law at war’s end.”
“Does that sound right?” Corovan said.
Corovan held up the page. “We are each called to a singular purpose when faced with an enemy greater than ourselves. But that does not mean that we can sacrifice our humanity. Do you have any regrets to air in this court?”
“Yes,” Elodiz said, “Just one.” He gazed at Zin again. “I regret only that I have built a world where my daughter will be a hero, and have a medal pinned to her chest... but I will not live long enough to see it.”
Judge Corovan raised her gavel.
“And—” Elodiz said, holding up a hand. “I regret that when she marches into the ovens, of her own volition, her chest covered in medals, that I will not live to hear her say I was right.”
The gavel came down. The Judge read his sentence. A sanctified death. It was something.
As they escorted Elodiz from the room, he looked back once at Zin. She kept her face neutral, knowing how many recording devices were trained on her impassive face.
Then it was over.
The crowd stood. A few reporters tried to ask her questions. She rebuffed them. Zin and Merriz sat still beside one another for some minutes while the theater cleared out. Then, finally, Merriz pulled on his hat. “Well, that was something,” he said.
Zin sat motionless. “I didn’t know they asked him to do it,” she said.
“Hey,” Merriz said, “it doesn’t matter why someone does something, does it? You said you didn’t care why. You want justice? Well, that’s what it looks like.”
“And we’re next.”
“I read the protocol too,” he said. “I can sing it in my sleep. If you believe in a peaceful country, if you believe that’s really what we were before the war, well, peaceful places don’t have monsters, Zin. We’re building a world that’s got no place for us. Best enjoy the time we’ve got.”
Zin imagined it just as her father had said, her standing up in court the way he was now, and agreeing that she had indeed shot collaborators and punched women in the face, and tortured people, her own people and the Enemy, at the behest of the state, and then she would have to straighten her spine and walk of her own volition to her own fiery death.
In the end, no one could kill her or Merriz or any of the other Justicars. They had to die by their own hand, of their own volition. And what they would leave behind was their children and their grandchildren, to create a society run by human beings who had never known war, and had never committed violence. They would sacrifice themselves at Savazan’s feet to build a peaceful world for another two hundred years, until they did it all over again. Peace was the one thing she believed it. The one thing she would kill for, and the one thing that she would ultimately die for.
It was in the protocol.
Merriz tapped her hat. “Come now,” he said. “We have seven hundred and thirty more names in case file 446. Who will bring them to justice, if not us?”
Zin pulled on her hat. “I’m fond of justice,” she said, and resolved to eat more glutinous treats, because her time was short, and the price of peace was high.
She and Merriz walked out into the grimy dusk of the latest rotation of the sun, and if Zin squinted, she could almost see the stars.
© Copyright 2015 by Kameron Hurley. Reprinted by permission of the author.