For the tenth time in only twenty minutes, Waller trod heavily on his own toes to avoid crashing into the Grand Duke, who had halted abruptly in one of the one great halls of his palace. In this case, the sight that the Grand Duke now invited Waller to view appeared to be nothing more than a woman working a spinning wheel in intense concentration. And yet, the Grand Duke beamed and rubbed his hands together in evident satisfaction, as if he were about to show off some unheard-of wonder.

“Herr Waller,” the Grand Duke said proudly, “as a new visitor to our land, we trust that you have not yet had any opportunity of observing any of our nation’s craftspeople spinning the fine thread for which they are so well-known, even in America.”

Waller, who had indeed arrived only that day, indulged the Grand Duke by turning his attention to the woman at the wheel. Alpinia was a small country, not much larger in area that the city of Brooklyn, New York, and Waller supposed that he must expect its wonders to be equally modest. He regarded the woman at the spinning wheel politely for a few moments. She was small and slight, seemingly a little past middle-age, and was simply dressed in the national costume of the duchy. Waller had no special interest in yarn-making, so he offered a few complimentary phrases to the Grand Duke as he waited for the tour to continue.

But the Grand Duke did not seem disposed to move on. “It perhaps does not look like much to you, Herr Waller, but thread-making takes a great deal of skill. Much of the challenge is in the spinning of the wheel, which she operates by foot with a treadle.”

At this, the Grand Duke actually squatted on the floor next to the woman, which obliged Waller to do the same.

“See how she presses the treadle regularly with her foot. The circle of the wheel must be absolutely perfect to keep the drive band turning at a constant rate. Too fast, and the spindle may break under the strain. Too slow, and the wool will snarl with knots instead of twisting cleanly into thread.”

It was clear even to Waller from the behavior of the Grand Duke, and from the small crowd that stood in the hall observing the woman, that this was some extraordinary exhibition of craftsmanship. Dutifully, he observed in turn the woman’s beating foot, the whirring flight of the wheel, and the quick movements of her hands. “This splendid woman certainly must be one of your Royal Highness’s most skilled spinners.”

For it did seem that the woman kept the wheel flying at a very great rate, one hand deftly feeding the spindle with perfectly twisted thread while the other continuously caught up handfuls of new wool from a bag on the floor, teasing the fibers out then pressing them into the twisting strand. The handfuls of wool seemingly melted effortlessly into yarn, and the yarn likewise collapsed down into the finest gauge of thread, as if by magic.

The Grand Duke puffed his chest in evident delight, though his voice remained hushed and serious when he spoke. “Frau Fenster is the finest spinner in all of Alpinia.”

“In that case, I offer my most genuine congratulations to her,” answered Waller. “But your Royal Highness may forgive me if I ask whether it is usual for her to ply her craft in the palace?”

The Grand Duke’s eyes grew wide. “Good heavens! Forgive me, Herr Waller! As a visitor, of course you do not understand! Your father had always expressed an interest in seeing our Alpinian legal system at work—so different from the English common law with which you are familiar. This scene before you could in some ways be equated to what you would call a court of appeals. For Frau Fenster is here, in the palace, because she is at this moment undergoing a trial by ordeal.”

Waller looked at the woman with new eyes. A trial by ordeal! This woman?

But yes—now that he knew what to look for, he could detect an unmistakable recklessness in her movements. The trembling hand, straining against cramps! The swaying body, fighting to stay upright! It was as if the woman were a steam engine being run at the limits of its tolerances, the weak components rattling and protesting under the building pressure.

And her face! Her jaw was firmly shut, her teeth grinding as she worked. And her eyes! Under her jumping eyebrows, did they not glow with a look of feverish desperation?

But all of that was nothing to what Waller now saw when he examined her fingertips—where the swift flight of the fine thread had lacerated and abraded her skin so that blood welled to the surface, staining the thread a bright scarlet as it whipped through her hands and wound furiously around the spindle.

“The ordeal set before Frau Fenster,” continued the Grand Duke, “is to spin and ply six hundred ells of fine gauge thread before the sun sets.”

“But what on earth was her offense?” asked Waller.

Waller was aware that his voice now carried an edge—but well might it! His father had told him of Alpinia’s trials by ordeal, but he had thought they must have certainly disappeared with so many other superstitious customs in so many other places at the dawning of the rational twentieth century. Finding himself now abruptly confronted with the reality of the practice, he could not help but be horrified by the scene. Forcing this woman to undergo an ordeal, with guilt or innocence depending on the outcome! It was a brutal test of the stamina of her body and mind, with no appeal to evidence or logic. Waller looked to the Grand Duke. Could he not see how her fingers bled? Could he not see the fear in her eyes lest she make a fatal mistake? The practice was barbaric!

“But Frau Fenster is accused of nothing,” answered the Grand Duke serenely. “It would be too cruel for the accused to undergo the ordeal, in addition to their punishment. Rather it is this woman’s husband, Herr Fenster, who stands accused of poaching on royal game lands.

“The facts of the matter are very simple, really. Herr and Frau Fenster live on the edge of the royal forest. He has a permit to cut shingles there, while his wife operates her spinning wheel inside their house. Sadly, the last accounting of the deer in the forest found several inexplicably missing, despite the mild winter. The gamekeeper testified that he had seen Herr Fenster carrying a rifle into the forest on occasion— As we have said, it is all very simple.”

“But if it is so simple, then what is the point of the ordeal? Surely an investigation would quickly establish whether there was sufficient evidence to convict the man.”

The Grand Duke frowned. “Your way is not ours. Indeed, while at school in America, we studied your system of law extensively. To our mind, it is... not satisfactory. Evidence can be falsified or be interpreted incorrectly, and even testimony is often not reliable. The sorts of investigations that you suggest all too often introduce more doubt than they resolve.” Here, the Grand Duke shifted his weight and cleared his throat, then smiled indulgently. “But on the other hand, the local magistrate did not consider that Herr Fenster’s case was so clear-cut that he should be convicted based solely on the gamekeeper’s observations. You may think it simple-minded or backward, but it is for that reason that we put our trust in God: the only true Witness and the only unerring Judge.”

“Six hundred ells—is that very much?”

“Oh yes, indeed,” answered the Grand Duke. “A skilled spinner would ordinarily produce between two hundred and three hundred ells of fine thread each day, depending upon the quality of the wool.”

“Your Royal Highness asks for twice as much!” Waller was staggered. “Can there be any hope for this woman at all? Is such a task even possible?”

The Grand Duke beamed. “That is precisely the point! As with every properly designed ordeal, her only real hope lies in the intervention of God.” For a moment, the Grand Duke’s attention shifted to Frau Fenster, and he regarded her pensively. “For we know that God is loving. And what truly loving God could endure the injustice of seeing an innocent man executed? That is why we can be sure that if Herr Fenster is in fact innocent, God will grant to Frau Fenster the strength and resolve she needs to exceed her normal mortal abilities and complete even this otherwise impossible task.”

Waller’s head reeled. For a moment he was speechless, but then his eye was caught by the golden flash of the setting sun through a window. “But your Royal Highness—allow me to observe that the day is almost over! If this woman began her spinning at sunrise, then she has been at her task for eight hours already. Surely it must be clear by now whether she will be successful or not.”

At this, the Grand Duke consulted in the Alpinian dialect with a uniformed official in the crowd. After a moment, he turned back to Waller with an excited glow in his eyes. “It is a very close thing, but it seems that Frau Fenster may indeed complete the ordeal. If she continues without error at the same rate that she has been working all day, then God will have proved through her the innocence of her husband!”

But as fate would have it, it was at just that moment when the woman’s foot suddenly faltered, missing the treadle of the spinning wheel altogether. Though she hastened to correct her error, it was too late. The spinning of the wheel slackened even as Waller watched in chilled horror—the length of thread that Frau Fenster had been twisting suddenly leaping into a terrible snarl, bulging with an accumulation of ugly knots.

At once, Frau Fenster stopped her wheel and began unwinding the tangled length that was wrapped around the spindle. She worked quickly and silently, but her lacerated fingers slipped against the tiny knots. The snarled thread soon was slick with her blood.

Meanwhile, the sun slipped lower, and the cold shadows in the hall grew longer.

For one instant only, a look of pure agony was evident on Frau Fenster’s face and in her pose. Her hands clenched at her temples and a sobbing cry escaping from her lips. But just as quickly, her hands were back at the knots, fighting to untangle them.

The Grand Duke tugged gently at Waller’s sleeve. “Come,” he said. “It is finished. There is no need for us to watch the end.”

“But there is half an hour left in the day!” protested Waller. “She might yet recover.”

The Grand Duke only shook his head. “Alas, no. The matter was too close. That mistake has sealed her husband’s fate.”

“But surely your Royal Highness has the power to pardon the man!”

“To what end? Nothing we can do here on Earth can erase the guilt of the man in the eyes of God. And if we shirk our godly duty, does God not have it in His power to choose another instrument?”

And with that, they moved out of the hall and into another part of the palace. But though they no longer talked of the ordeal or the fate of the prisoner, the matter was not so easily dropped from Waller’s mind.

Waller had not originally intended to visit Alpinia during his tour of Europe. Instead, like any young man fascinated by the culture and courtliness of the continent, his itinerary had been filled instead with the sights of Paris, Vienna, Budapest, Berlin, St Petersburg, and other such grand old metropolises.

When his father had first suggested the idea of visiting Alpinia, young Waller had gone immediately to the study and pulled down the first volume of the encyclopedia from the bookcase. Opening the volume to the article on Alpinia, he had dutifully read the entire entry from start to finish. It had not taken very long.

Afterward, he had come away with an impression of Alpinia as some sort of mountain-climbing, sheep-rearing, thread-spinning, church-going principality. Rustic and picturesque, indeed—! But what of it? Waller had already seen the American Rockies.

But the elder Waller had a reputation as one of the finest jurists in New York, and before long he began to apply his persuasive skills to the problem of changing his son’s first impression.

“In Paris or St Petersburg,” argued the elder Waller, “you will find yourself no more than an anonymous flyspeck. A nobody! Merely another foreign tourist stumbling through the Louvre, sounding out the French names in your guidebook, buffeted by the busy locals, an object of contempt and scorn.” Here, the old judge had grinned and placed a reassuring hand on his son’s knee. “But in Alpinia! With my letter of introduction, you will be the guest of the Grand Duke himself! He was educated in America, you know, and the two of us were great friends at university. Ah, Franz! It has been years! You must go—and you must find out for me what Alpinia is really like.”

In the end, young Waller had reluctantly penciled in a detour into Alpinia between his visits to Geneva and Munich, while his father wrote a letter to his old friend, the Grand Duke. As Waller studied his new schedule, he reflected that this change would likely mean abbreviating his tour of Munich’s Marienplatz and famous royal avenues—but he supposed that every dutiful son must now and then indulge his father.

The Grand Duke’s reply to the elder Waller’s letter, however, did not allow for merely a day or two in the duchy. Instead, Waller was soon to learn that the Grand Duke exerted a kind of iron persuasion of his own (quite different from his father’s way, but no less effective), and his letters made it clear that it was simply to be understood (as only an absolute monarch can make one understand) that Waller would arrive on the train from Geneva on such-and-such date and must not think of leaving on the Munich express until the grand banquet in honor of so-and-so dignitaries had concluded a week later.

Returning rather doubtfully to the encyclopedia, Waller re-read the article on Alpinia with a slowly sinking heart. To his initial impression, he was able to add the fact that Alpinia’s population of six thousand souls was divided almost evenly between a single mostly modern town in the bowl of a beautiful Alpine valley and a scattering of a half-dozen little villages throughout the nearby mountains and forests. In addition, he learned that the traditional cuisine of the duchy consisted largely of mutton, leeks, turnips, wild mushrooms, hard dark breads, and soft sheep’s milk cheeses. The shops closed at three in the afternoon every day, and public houses closed at eight in the evening. The only exceptions were Wednesdays and Sundays, when the shops and public houses were closed all day, and the churches were open instead.

Though Waller never allowed any complaint or protest to escape his lips, it would be fair to say that he had crossed the frontier from Switzerland into Alpinia in quite a gloomy mood. He expected to run out of English books to read before the week was half over, and supposed he would have to see about buying a new walking stick if he was to have any hope of amusing himself.

But then, on his very first day in the capital, he had been witness to the trial by ordeal. And all at once, he no longer had any thought for novels or alpine exercise.

Indeed, despite the downy comfort of the bed that the Grand Duke had provided him, Waller scarcely slept a wink that first night. Every time he closed his eyes, the image of Frau Fenster rose up in his mind—her hands darting quickly, her foot beating time on the treadle, and always the wheel ever spinning and spinning and spinning—

(Perhaps it was still spinning yet, Waller’s sleep-deprived brain had mused more than once. Nonsense, he had quickly thought each time in reply. The ordeal ended at sundown!)

During times of more intense wakefulness, he paged through the slim volume of Alpinian law that he had asked to borrow from the Grand Duke’s library. Though it was a very brief book, containing the entire law of the country in only one hundred pages, the sharp and heavy characters of the German type strained his eyes, just as the dense legal phrasing clouded his mind, and at last he was forced to put the book aside as utterly unreadable.

Finally, dawn found Waller staring moodily out of the window at the palace grounds, wondering if it could really be true that somewhere in the labyrinthine courtyards below him there was actually a man about to be executed for a charge that (according to the legal customs of any modern nation) had not remotely been proved against him—

But the sounding of a distant volley of shots just as the sun rose above the valley’s stony walls put any such doubts to rest.

Waller’s mind was no easier later in the day when he boarded the Alpinian local train that connected the capital with the duchy’s hamlets. Sitting on the bench in the otherwise empty carriage, waiting for the train to depart, he considered how strange this place was that wrapped layers of apparent modernity around a core of beliefs that permitted such scenes of quiet barbarism to occur!

The sense of unreality was only heightened when, a moment before the whistle blew, Frau Fenster mounted the stairs of Waller’s carriage and sat down facing him on the bench on the opposite side.

No sooner had Frau Fenster sat down than the train began to puff slowly out of the station and under the rim of the valley wall. The carriage windows immediately revealed the kind of dramatic view common in Alpinia—vistas of sheer grey rock topped by endless expanses of shining white snow, with the faint blue lines that indicated ancient glaciers peeking out from under the newer snow. But Waller had no eyes for the scenery. Instead, he could only stare in gradually mounting horror at the woman on the other side of the carriage.

Frau Fenster was neatly dressed, and her fingertips had been covered over with a profusion of bright white plasters. But her face was haggard and her expression was dazed, as if she had continued straight on with her task and had worked all through the night, neither stopping nor sleeping in the hours since Waller had seen her last.

Then again—hadn’t she? After all, her husband had been executed that very morning! Was not grief a kind of work and ordeal of its own? And likewise self-reproach? And shame—?

Indeed, it was with a start that Waller realized that it was more than likely that a long pinewood box had also been loaded into the train at the station, into the luggage car at the back, just before Frau Fenster had taken her seat—

Neither did Frau Fenster look out the window during the slow hour-long train journey. In fact, she looked at very little, simply staring into the middle distance in front of her. Waller was sure that she saw neither the world outside the window, nor himself, nor even the interior of the carriage. Whatever it was that she looked at was entirely within her own mind.

Waller’s embarrassment only grew as the journey went on, as he began to feel that he was intruding upon a private moment. He felt somehow that it would have been easier to ignore Frau Fenster if she had been sobbing, or screaming, or pulling her hair out. As it was, anybody would think she was merely tired or bored—that she might turn at any moment and make one of those trite commonplace observations that travelers say to each other. “These benches get harder every year,” perhaps. Or, “At least there’s no trouble getting a seat this time of day.”

But what was most horrible to Waller was the knowledge that behind her affect lay a wholly beaten woman who could only reproach herself (or her God, if she could bear such a blasphemous thought) for her husband’s death.

At last, the train glided to a stop at a particular hamlet on the edge of a dark forest. Here, Frau Fenster rose mechanically and crossed the train to exit to the platform. As she did, Waller could not help but turn and look out the window at her. She stood alone on the platform, silent and stoic yet—not moving and not saying anything to the lazy porters who loafed by the station door.

Seized suddenly by a sympathetic impulse, Waller rose and leapt down from the train. He disregarded it as it built its head of steam again, even though he had made accommodations to stay at the next village. Shyly but firmly, he took Frua Fenster by the arm and held her elbow in his hand. Her skin felt cool and frail underneath his fingers, like the discarded casing of a metamorphosised insect.

“Come, mother,” said Waller gently, his hat in his hand. “Please let me assist you.”

At that, Frau Fenster looked at him in confusion. There were tears now in her eyes. The tears of a homecoming to a home that would never be the same again. She said nothing, only shaking her head, the same look of agony on her face that Waller had seen when she had missed her step on the treadle during the ordeal.

“Come,” said Waller again, holding out his arm. “You may lean on me until you are home.”

A week later, Waller sat once more on one of the solid wooden chairs in the anteroom of the Grand Duke’s chambers, waiting for an audience with his Royal Highness. He could not help but remember his first visit to that anteroom, a mere seven days earlier.

On that occasion, he had been excited and nervous in equal measure. After all, he had never met a monarch before and had not known what to expect of the man. But he had been carrying his father’s letter of introduction, and he had trusted that his father would not have befriended a boor or a tyrant.

Waiting in the anteroom the second time, Waller was nervous once more. But this time, it was because he wanted something from the Grand Duke, and because he knew enough of the Grand Duke’s personality to know that even though he was neither boor nor tyrant, the thing he wanted was something very big and very difficult to ask for.

But Waller had not come to plead his case alone. He was accompanied by Frau Fenster, who sat now ramrod straight in another solid wooden chair, her small body facing Waller’s across the anteroom in a strange repetition of their positions in the railway carriage. But even more importantly than that, Waller had also brought a valise with him—a valise full of evidence that would undoubtedly (though posthumously) exonerate Herr Fenster of the crime of poaching deer in the royal forest.

When the door to the Grand Duke’s chambers at last opened, both Waller and Frau Fenster immediately jumped to their feet. The Grand Duke himself swept out into the anteroom, as if he could not wait a moment longer to greet his visitors. And he looked not at all put-out or even surprised to find Frau Fenster standing there; indeed, he crossed the anteroom and immediately took her hands in his, greeting her with solemn pleasure, as if seeing an old friend on an occasion of sadness.

A moment later, the Grand Duke crossed the anteroom to welcome Waller as well. “Greetings, greetings, my young friend,” murmured the Grand Duke with a subdued voice, his tone finely modulated to register both pleasure at their meeting and respect for the new mourning of the widow standing nearby. “Frau Fenster has been telling me of your attentions to her. For that, you have our genuine gratitude. But was it wise to bring her here again, so soon after—?”

A strange thrill ran through Waller’s body as the Grand Duke’s voice trailed off into polite ambiguity. The man spoke of events that he had arranged and overseen—the ordeal, the execution—as if they were astronomical observations or hands of cards dealt from a shuffled deck. The man seemingly had no notion that he himself had possessed the power to spare Herr Fenster’s life if only he had acted!

“I’m afraid that Frau Fenster’s presence is unavoidable,” said Waller in reply. “There is something of great importance that we wish to discuss with your Royal Highness—”

The Grand Duke smiled and patted Waller’s arm. “Yes, that was explained to us. You understand that we must dress for the banquet? But please come and talk to us as we do so.”

The arrangement proved to be an awkward one, but Waller pressed on the best he could, shouting his arguments over the folding screen that the Grand Duke soon disappeared behind. As the Grand Duke was bathed and dressed in privacy, Waller drew sheaf after sheaf of paper from his valise, reading from each one the testimony of certain persons who lived in the same village as Herr and Frau Fenster.

For almost an hour, no response issued from the Grand Duke, except for an occasional assurance (“Please continue, I am attending your words closely!”) whenever Waller paused for longer than usual. Even worse, Waller could not see either the Grand Duke’s facial expressions or his physical comportment, so at last when the Grand Duke emerged from behind the screen in his dressing gown, now impeccably washed and coifed, his face pale with powder and a mole artfully drawn onto his cheek, Waller could scarcely contain his curiosity about the monarch’s opinion of the matter.

“My boy,” began the Grand Duke discouragingly, “it is evident that you have made a very thorough investigation, after the fashion of your country’s legal customs, of Herr Fenster’s regrettable crimes... But the matter has been decided! What is the purpose of revisiting it?”

Waller suppressed an exclamation of indignation. Did the Grand Duke really not understand anything about modern criminal investigation? Did he really hold such things as testimony and evidence in such low regard? Or was he simply playing dumb, since he did not like to be proved wrong?

“I beg your Royal Highness’s pardon,” answered Waller with difficulty. “But can your Royal Highness not see that the testimony tells a different story from the one the gamekeeper related...?”

For indeed, Waller’s investigations had soon uncovered that it was an open secret that the gamekeeper himself was in the habit of appropriating half a dozen deer from the royal woods each winter—taken as a kind of unofficial bonus to his salary, with the expectation that the takings would be covered by the natural culling of the herds that occurred during the cold months of winter. But during the most recent spring, the Grand Duke’s auditors had pressed him harder than usual on the losses, and the gamekeeper had at last in desperation thrown suspicion on Herr Fenster instead by inventing the story of the rifle (which numerous others had testified was nothing more than an old fowling piece loaded with birdshot—unable to bring down anything more substantial than a duck or a grouse).

“What we have heard,” said the Grand Duke, “is a lot of contradicting and confusing statements. Which is why it is so imperative that we—when we dispense justice—listen only to the clear and undiluted voice of God.”

At this proclamation, Frau Fenster at last opened her mouth, but she said no more than: “Ha!”

The Grand Duke turned to look at her. His face was angry for an instant but soon softened. His voice, when he spoke, was soothing and consolatory. “Please, Frau Fenster. It is natural that you are upset, but you can have no doubts about the truthfulness of what God tells us—”

“God does not speak,” answered Frau Fenster abruptly, cutting the Grand Duke off in the middle of his sentence.

The Grand Duke did not bother to finish what he had been saying, or indeed to take any further notice of Frau Fenster. Instead, he turned back to Waller, his face now drawn and troubled. “You had better take Frau Fenster away from here at once,” he said quietly. “She is treading the line of blasphemy. If she persists, we will not be able to ignore it—!”

Waller stood for a moment, considering his options. His presentation to the Grand Duke had been a failure so far, but he had not yet brought out the one piece of physical evidence that he possessed. It was a broken and discarded butchering knife that he had discovered after careful searching among the bones of one of the poached deer in the woods. The haft and the blade had been miraculously protected from the elements by the skin of the animal, and Waller had succeeded in lifting two fingerprints from the tool and matching them to the gamekeeper’s own prints, which he had obtained through a bit of ordinary subterfuge with a cigarette case.

Even if the Grand Duke could not be swayed by testimony, surely he would not ignore evidence such as that! Waller expected that he would have to explain the theory of fingerprinting before the full import of the evidence would be understood, but surely the Grand Duke would soon see that justice had not been served by executing Herr Fenster!

“Of course,” said Waller quickly, not wishing to lose the Grand Duke’s attention. “But if I may impose upon your Royal Highness’s patience for just a moment longer—”

And as he drew the knife out of the valise with a trembling hand, Waller considered that he was about to destroy a man’s faith in his God. The God that that man believed not only infallible but also active and interested in the world, speaking audibly through the success or failure of champions at their ordeals. It was a serious thing, ending a faith such as that! A child’s faith, practically: the very sort that Christ had praised in the Gospels. But in this case, as Waller reminded himself, sadly perverted in a way that allowed the innocent to be punished and the guilty to go free. So perhaps he would not be destroying the Grand Duke’s faith in God so much as correcting it—

“This knife—” began Waller, as he gingerly held the blade before the Grand Duke. “This knife—”

But he got no further. For Frau Fenster had appeared suddenly at his elbow and wrapped her hand around his own, pushing it hard toward the Grand Duke’s chest, carrying the knife precipitously forward, point foremost, and striking a glancing blow into the Grand Duke’s right side—

And the Grand Duke had stepped back, surprise and pain on his face—

And Waller himself had wrestled Frau Fenster away, preventing her from striking a second blow—

But by then, the Grand Duke’s attendants had rushed to intervene, and there was chaos in the room.

It was not until almost sundown the next day when Waller next saw the Grand Duke. By then, Waller was standing before the three chief magistrates responsible for exercising the law in the capital of Alpinia. The three of them all sat stone-faced and impassive as Waller addressed them, having shown no emotion other than boredom for the entire day.

Waller, however, was not on trial, nor even accused of anything. Instead, he was standing as Frau Fenster’s champion, undergoing his own ordeal on her behalf, just as she had been for her husband when he had first seen her.

In the aftermath of the stabbing of the Grand Duke, Waller was fortunate that there had been no question about the role he had played in the event. Everyone present had clearly seen him wrestle the knife away from Frau Fenster’s hand and prevent her from making a second, surely fatal, blow.

Frau Fenster herself fared less well.

In fact, when Waller first sued for permission to represent Frau Fenster in an ordeal, the chief magistrates had laughed him away. “What need is there for an ordeal?” they had asked. “When the crime was committed, the crown itself was present in the person of the Grand Duke, so there can be no question about the facts of the case.” The familiar slim volume of Alpinian law was even produced and the relevant section was read aloud in Waller’s presence in formal German, as the chief magistrates looked on in tolerant patience.

But Waller had not given up, and ultimately his petition had been carried to the Grand Duke himself. Nor was Waller disappointed by the Grand Duke’s response. Indeed, he had begun to truly marvel at the seemingly limitless reservoirs of generosity that were apparently contained within the Grand Duke (in seeming contradiction to the travesties of justice that he allowed to be committed by adhering to the cruel laws of his country). Indeed, Waller reflected that it took a certain optimism and magnanimity for the Grand Duke to permit Frau Fenster (a near regicide!) any trial at all, when the law called for nothing more than a summary judgment.

Yet here Waller stood, by the grace of the Grand Duke, in the seventh hour of his ordeal.

Because Waller was trained in the law, the ordeal that had been offered to him was to argue for one day in front of the chief magistrates of Alpinia. If, at the end of that day, his arguments resulted in a change to any law of the land, Frau Fenster would be released immediately and sent home. But if Waller failed, she would be executed at dawn the following morning.

So far, judging from the expressions on the faces of the chief magistrates, Frau Fenster seemed destined to die.

The problem, Waller had discovered during his ordeal, was not in communicating the features or even the benefits of a modern criminal justice system, such as he was familiar with in America. The magistrates all easily understood those points, and indeed had no doubt studied such things before when examining the laws of Alpinia’s neighbors. Instead, the difficulty lay in convincing them that their existing system was lacking in any way. Time and again, the chief magistrates responded to Waller’s arguments by simply saying:

“Our nation, alone among all nations, has been blessed with a legal system of God’s own devising. Our system may not work in other lands, for God may not care to intervene in the affairs of the Swiss or the Germans or the Americans. In your nation, you may have no choice but to rely on these other inferior methods you describe. But here, in Alpinia, we have no such need.”

And so, for seven hours, Waller had thrown himself and his arguments upon this unassailable cliff—and had been beaten back every time.

It was to be expected then that Waller was exhausted in body and clouded in mind when the Grand Duke entered the hall late in the day. For a moment, Waller lost his train of thought and allowed his sentence to trail off into incoherence as he stared at the Grand Duke. He looked, he felt, with the eyes of a man who had already failed. But how could it be otherwise? Had he not known that the ordeal set before would be something judged to be beyond his mortal abilities? Tradition held that Alpinian law had never been altered from the moment it had been set down in print. How could Waller expect to be the exception?

“Please continue,” said the Grand Duke as the silence stretched on. “Do not let me interrupt you.”

And so Waller turned once more to the chief magistrates and tried to pick up the thread of his last argument. But his aching tongue was no less stiff than the bloodied fingers of Frau Fenster; no matter how he tugged or pulled at his phrasing, he could not seem to pick out the knot in his reasoning.

He was beaten, crushed, at the end of his endurance.

Waller slumped down on the stool that had been provided for him and buried his face in his hands. Soon, he was shaking with silent sobs.

From behind him, in the hall, a murmur ran through the gathered spectators. He heard the Grand Duke distinctly say, “Good Heavens!” in a tone of genuine concern. Then, before Waller knew what was happening, he felt hands on his shoulders as the Grand Duke himself bent down next to him.

“Kneel with us, my young friend,” murmured the Grand Duke. Waller flowed forward off his stool and onto his knees, having no strength to resist. The Grand Duke gestured upward, as if pointing through the ceiling. “Give yourself over to God. For Frau Fenster’s sake, you must!”

Then together they began to pray.

And whether it was the kind touch of the Grand Duke, or the reminder of Frau Fenster’s looming fate, or the clarifying rhythm of the prayers they spoke... Waller all at once saw the answer. All at once, he understood.

He understood what Frau Fenster had understood at last as well. What she had realized, and what had driven her to her desperate act. It was this:

That faith was the key.

The faith, in particular, of the Grand Duke. That childlike and unquestioning faith. It was a potential source of infinite cruelty but also a potential source of infinite compassion. It was what drove the Grand Duke to follow the ancient laws and beliefs of Alpinia, as well as what drove him to treat his subjects with such boundless mercy and love outside the iron restrictions of the law.

And that was why Frau Fenster had prevented Waller from presenting the evidence of the knife to the Grand Duke. That was why she had prevented the destruction of his faith.

For if the Grand Duke had stopped loving God, so too would he have stopped fearing God—

And his acts of tyranny would no longer have been balanced by any act of mercy. He would have become a true despot: selfish, suspicious, disillusioned altogether with any notion of justice. Using his power not to serve his idea of God but rather to serve only the continuation of power itself.

But though Waller understood this now, he could not believe that assassination was the answer; that the Grand Duke could not be taught to replace a fear of an invisible God with a love of his very tangible fellow men. Nor could Waller believe that any law established at the point of a knife would remain uncorrupted itself. No, Waller would bring a change a different way: a better way.

Rising to his feet, he turned once more to face the chief magistrates and addressed them in a strong and clear voice. “Learned gentlemen,” he said. “Keepers of the law. My brothers in faith—”

Beside him, the Grand Duke was rising to his feet as well. Waller glanced at him, and somehow the Grand Duke’s face seemed rapt upon Waller, as if ready to receive instruction from a master. Confidently, Waller stepped forward and picked up the volume of Alpinian law, raising it in his hand.

“My brothers, we have spoken much already about the special nature of the law in Alpinia—the law that was devised for you by God Himself. But I ask you: did God speak your law in human words? And did God mean to be bound by what words have been printed here?” At this, Waller opened a page and pointed at the Gothic block letters of German text. “Do you mean to tell me that God spoke this law in formal German? Why not in the dialect of Alpinia, as you speak?” At this, Waller turned to the endless bookshelves that ran around the room, containing countless volumes of exegesis and analysis. “And do you also mean to tell me that God was not aware that His simple law, so briefly and so beautifully stated, would still require so many thousands of pages of arguments and interpretations once it was put into practice? Do you mean to tell me that God Himself could be no more precise than this?”

Waller paused and looked around the hall, meeting the eyes of each one of the chief magistrates in turn. They fidgeted in their chairs and looked away, not in boredom but in discomfort. At last, Waller turned to look at the Grand Duke, who nodded encouragingly at him. Waller took another breath.

“Or did God in fact give you a deeper and holier law? A more permanent law? A law of love and compassion. Of flexibility. Of human reason—”

And so fell the words out of Waller’s mouth. He hardly needed to stop and think at all. The argument simply seemed inspired—and for half an hour more, until the sun dropped down to the very edge of the western hills, he allowed his words to paint a picture of the Law of Love and the Law of Sense that ought to have reigned in Alpinia.

By the time that night fell, there was not a dry eye among those of the chief magistrates—nor anyone else in the hall.

The Grand Duke in particular clasped Waller by the hands and stared down at him. For a long while, the Grand Duke said nothing, seemingly too overcome for speech. At last, he said merely: “You were magnificent, my son. Magnificent!”

Then the Grand Duke turned to the magistrates. They rose instantly at his command.

“Don’t delay any longer!” said the Grand Duke. “Render your verdict!”

At that, the chief magistrates picked up the volume of Alpinian law and quickly began turning its pages. One by one, they each pointed at passages in the book, and a low murmur hovered about them for several minutes as they seemed to weigh and discuss what they saw written there. Once they had reached the end of the volume, the senior-most of the chief magistrates looked up at the Grand Duke, shut the book lightly, sighed in visible regret, and shook his head.

The Grand Duke’s eyes flashed. “What!” he demanded. “That cannot be possible!”

He stepped forward himself, snatching up the volume and opening it, his eyes scanning the text inside. Again, a low murmur of discussion floated around the book as the chief magistrates pointed out to the Grand Duke what they had already observed among themselves.

Moments later, the book was closed again, and the Grand Duke stood as if thunderstruck. “We cannot believe it,” he said. “It is almost incredible! After such a performance as that! Such passion! Such inspiration! Our heart was moved—all of our hearts were moved!” The Grand Duke looked around, as if seeking agreement, and all in the hall nodded emphatically. Then the Grand Duke’s shoulders slumped as he reverently laid the book of law aside. “But it is true: not a word has been changed as a result! No, not even a single letter!”

To Waller, after that everything seemed to go black.

There was some commotion in the hall, of which he was scarcely aware. Then there were people around him, helping him to walk up a never-ending flight of stairs, then taking off his clothes and putting him to bed inside layer after layer of thick down blankets—impossible numbers of blankets, endless blankets.

And then all at once there were no people at all, and there continued to be none for a long time.

Later, as if far in the distance, there came a sound like the beginning of a gunshot—but somehow it had no end. Somehow it went on and on interminably, the echoes reverberating inside Waller’s body until he seemed to shiver in sympathy with the same roaring sound himself. It grew louder every moment, closer, more insistent, the pitch twisting and rising into an unearthly scream—

Blackness and loudness surrounding Waller like curtains of tidewater—

But now suddenly rushing out of him again, as all tides must do sooner or later. Leaving him brittle and cold, with a dull ache in each of his withered fingertips and a ringing in his ears.

No, not ringing—

Roaring, as if on a train rushing through a mountain tunnel—

Wailing, as if on a train approaching a trestle, the horn sounding in warning—

“You’re all right now,” said somebody very pleasantly.

A train! Good Heavens, so it was! And not the Alpinian local but a great barreling thing—the Munich express roaring past mountain towns at sixty miles an hour.

“We thought you were having a fit,” said the voice again. It was nobody who Waller recognized. Simply some other traveler. Some good Samaritan who had noticed his pale hands and the blank look on his face. An Englishman by the sound of his accent. “We were afraid you’d gone out for good!”

Memories were flooding back to Waller now. His hands clenched. Oh God, they were empty! Had he left it behind? Had he left it there? Waller jumped up in his seat and looked around the train car wildly.

“You’ve been ill!” protested the friendly voice. “Don’t excite yourself!”

But Waller was already forcing his way into the aisle of the train car. “I left it there,” he said, running toward the back of the train. “I left it there! What a fool I was!”

“What?” asked the friendly voice. “What did you leave?”

“The knife,” shouted Waller. Was the man an idiot? Did he not see? Did he not understand? “How could I have forgotten it? How could I have forgotten—?”

The broken knife! The gamekeeper’s knife!

He had brought it with him to the palace on purpose, but Frau Fenster had gone mad and had attacked the Grand Duke, and he had never had a chance to explain about the fingerprints.

Oh God! She was surely dead now. Shot, at dawn—just as her husband had been. And the same Grand Duke still presiding over the same damnable law!

“What knife?” asked the friendly voice again, receding now into the distance. “What were you going to do with a knife?”

And suddenly Waller was running through the tunnel again, or something like a tunnel, long miles of blackness and loudness, the gunshot sound ringing in his ears again. But then, all at once, he burst through the back of the train car and out into the Grand Duke’s dressing chamber.

He stood for a moment, trying to remember where he had just been. A train? On his way to Munich? No, that was absurd. Of course he had never left Alpinia. Of course, he had never left this room, since making his case to the Grand Duke. Wildly, he looked around, counting off the people he could see around him.

One: the Grand Duke, wearing his false mole and his silk dressing gown facing him! Good! Two: Frau Fenster, standing at his side, six round bullet holes in a tight circle on her breast! Even better!

Three: Waller himself, who now looked down into his own hand and observed that it clutched the knife. Magnificent!

Four: some man with a friendly voice, who never seemed to stop asking him what he was going to do with the knife.

Waller grinned back at him deliriously, unable to keep his voice from cracking with glee. “What am I going to do with this knife? Why, I’m going to do what I ought to have done the first time I had it in my hand.” Already, Frau Fenster’s hands were on the haft as well, and already the blade tore through the air in a ragged thrust.

“I’m going to push, and damn the consequences,” cried Waller to nobody in particular. “Yes, for the good of us all, this time I’m going to push—!”

Read Comments on this Story (2 Comments)

M. Bennardo's short stories appear in Asimov's Science Fiction, Salt & Syntax, Mithila Review, and Gordon Square Review. He lives in Kent, Ohio, and prefers not to be subject to grand dukes. His website is www.mbennardo.com.

Return to Issue #297