Chapter 1: Charged
“You are accused of war crimes, punishable by death. State your name for the record.” The woman’s tone was flat and bordered on disinterest.
The words washed over June, like pebbles dropped onto concrete. They ricocheted off her unregistered, then hit like the first sip of chunky sour milk.
Not wanting them to see any facial expression, other than cool composure, she kept her attention on the black metal manacles on her wrists, studied the chain that connected them to a hole in the floor.
She leaned forward to gaze for several moments into the dark hole, she could see the dim outline of a pulley system. Bile rose into her mouth and resentful heat spread down from her face into her arms and hands, where it was absorbed by the now cool restraints. Am I so savage that they feel the need to be able to bring me to my knees?
She pulled until the chain came taught, level with her chest, relaxed and the chain retracted back into the golden-brown floor. Not much room on the leash.
She was tempted to say nothing, to not acknowledge that anyone had spoken, to not lift her head and make eye contact. It wasn’t fear, not that. There was nothing to fear from this place. Eye contact with strangers was so awkward. She knew the instinct was wrong. That it would be misinterpreted. She lifted her head in a slow way, as if she was in no hurry.
The open space of the room grabbed her by the throat and choked her words off, pushed her down into the floor. Hundreds of silent eyes, accusing eyes, screamed for her to speak, demanded that her blood be the price.
Emotions mixed and churned inside, too fast for her to register one and latch onto it, she felt like she had been caught in the dirty waters of a flash flood. Calm was beyond her. Garbage emotions collided with her; betrayal, shame, isolation. None would do.
A full exhale pushed the torrent back. Two years… in four days. She had been stuck with those thoughts over the last lonely weeks. Too afraid to do the math.
She made eye contact with the Speaker. She had to show that she wasn’t worried, had to show that she was here not because she was in chains but because she wanted to be here, had to show that she was still strong, had to stay focused. The appearance of strength could free her. Well… it couldn’t hurt the situation.
She smiled. The urge to look away pulled at her head. I did the right thing, not that I had a choice. She forced herself to hold the Speaker’s eyes with her own for a moment longer than she normally would have.
How long is too long?
She studied the Peadarian woman. Eyes large and black: reflective, like polished stones. She could see herself mirrored in them, her dark green and black uniform needed to be washed and pressed, her hair looked like she had been standing out during a windstorm.
The Speaker looked like every other Peadarian. Skin all brown and orange swirls, hairless, except for two thin eyebrows over those onyx eyes. Never blinking eyes.
The sounds of breathing around the room hushed. Benches creaked as people shifted.
The power in the room shifted to her. They were waiting for her. The smile on her face became real, she would make them wait.
June took a deep breath through her nose sending air into her lungs and brain. The air had the sharp metallic scent of recycled oxygen, it was familiar in the way a hospital was familiar, clean and disinfected. She had to fight the urge to cough.
June flicked her eyes over the other twelve Judges. Six on each side of the Speaker. Four Gutxic, four Ifanian, five Peadarian. Thirteen in total.
Not one human.
The man to the Speakers right was Gutxic. His blue-gray and silver fur was concealed by his dark brown robe and light brown shirt. She was too far away to make out his red hourglass pupils. Does he have a special chair for his tail? She couldn’t tell. She squinted at him, he looked familiar. Didn’t he try to kill me a few years back? Or had I tried to kill him?
On the other side of the Speaker sat a man with perfect ebony skin. He was Ifanian. Predators. Every last one, with their sharp teeth made for ripping, and claws for tearing flesh. They were intimidating enough when the sun was up, worse when the day grew old, the light from the sun would fade away, the deepest part of the night closed in. They vanish into the night, invisible in their element. Darkness belongs to them.
Goosebumps broke out on her skin as memories of waking to wet choking screams. The perfect hunters. She respected that, or more specifically, she had a respectful fear of them.
She had to force eye contact with the other ten Judges. Took the time to memorize their faces and burn them into her memory.
She turned her head to observe her surroundings, took everything in with a glance. She stood in the center of a small stadium. The sides of the room sloped up, rows upon rows of seats, with a second level where more eyes gawked at her. At a safe distance from one of the night stalking monsters.
What surprised her was that the seats were filled with citizens. Not what she had expected. Brown and orange skinned Peadarians, their swirls a painter’s dream. Male Gutxic with blue-grey and silver fur, female Gutxic with bright red, orange, and honey-brown fur. Predator like Ifanians, still enough to teach the stones patience.
She turned back to the platform where the thirteen Judges sat, they were watching her, waiting for her.
Isolation licked at the corners of her mind, she was alone here. Not surprising. The isolation squirmed under her skin and made its way into her stomach, formed a tight burning knot. Sweat beaded on her mid back. I’m alone in a room full of people that want to kill me. She had to force herself not to shift or hunch her shoulders. The ball of heat cooled. The walls and people started to inch toward her, the air felt thick. I’m okay, I’m okay.
The room was silent, still waited to hear what she was going to say. Movement in a roped off section drew her attention. Those in this section were all wearing the cloaks of the Gersemi Immortals.
Masters of their Orders. Two men, seated in the front stared at her, not with the hatred that the others had, not with the curiosity of those who had never seen a human, but with a pleased expression, one that you might see on someone who has spotted a best friend that they haven’t seen in years.
They were as different as two men could be, one an Ifanian panther. Skin so dark it makes black… green with envy. She suppressed a smile. His cavernous, purple catlike eyes seemed to drink in the light as he stared back at her. She nodded to him.
He returned the nod and tapped the left side of his chest twice.
The other a Peadarian. She could only compare him to sandstone and marble. His skin had the same orange and brown eddies, he had the reflective onyx eyes.
The guilt she had been holding onto eased. The isolation drew back a few inches. They didn’t look any worse than the last time she had seen them. They sat close together, as if they had been interrupted while talking over private matters.
Her smile became authentic, the corners of her eyes crinkled in amusement. Not breaking her gaze from the seated men, she spoke, “Juniper, my real name is Juniper Aquila Constanza.”
The two men shared a glance.
Members of the audience, those who had come to see her receive justice, put their heads together and started talking, the murmuring rising in volume.
She hadn’t told anyone her real name in over five years.It felt good to hear it spoken aloud. Felt good to tell them her real name. I should have told them sooner. Her hands started to shake.
The Speaker slammed her hand down on the table in front of her. Those that were deep in their own conversations stopped mid-sentence, some in the crowd jerked as if slapped. June frowned and took her time returning her attention to the woman.
The Speaker had narrowed her eyes and was holding her lips pressed together into a thin line.
June gave her a grin and tipped her head to the side.
A translucent screen popped up in front of the Speaker.
June would have loved to read it.
“You are accused of joining a terrorist organization, mistreating prisoners of war, destroying civilian property, the bombing of civilian populations, the intentional killing of civilians, torture, and murder.” The Speaker flicked her fingers and the screen vanished.