Chapter Sixteen: Stone Diplomacy

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Stone Court justice sounded worse than anything the Admiral might throw at me. It sounded like I'd end up in a chain gang, in a mine thousands of feet below the surface, surrounded by murderers and monsters, inhaling dust, cracking rocks, unable to ever see family, friends or daylight again. It sounded like the worst end imaginable. I wondered if I should run, and how far I might get if I did.

"My lords, these men cannot be held accountable for their actions," said the Admiral. "They were acting under my orders. We have come to you in peace to explain ourselves and demonstrate our friendship. If you demand justice, I alone will answer for it. I alone will offer myself for trial."

The Admiral fixed her eyes on the king, making it clear that she was speaking to him, and not to his minister. The minister looked as stunned by the Admiral's offer as I was. It seemed like a bet to force the minister to back down, but maybe these were the rules. Maybe this was duty.

The chamberlain opened his mouth to speak, but King Tor stopped him with a gesture.

"A circus will do us no good, Admiral Winstanley," said the king. "Please, explain yourself."

"Your highness, my men were sent in to end a threat to both our kingdoms. I regret that we did not have time to pursue proper diplomatic channels. Are you familiar with the Cup of a Thousand Flowers?"

The king looked to his minister.

"The Cup of a Thousand Flowers belongs to the Forest Queen," said the chamberlain. "It is earth magic, yes, but it is not of our court."

"Of course, Lord Kain," said the Admiral. "There is no suspicion that any of your people were responsible, but the Cup was used within your borders. We believe the artefact was placed there by an agitator who sought to trigger hostilities between our kingdoms. By acting decisively, we meant to prevent a war, not to spark one."

Lord Kain was unimpressed. "And by sending in your men, you no doubt meant to ensure that the cup returned to your hands and did not fall to ours," he said.

The king smacked his cane on the ground and again the crack echoed through the room.

"Lord Kain, you are addressing our friend," said King Tor. "Curb your vulgar insinuations. Admiral Winstanley, I apologize for my minister. You know our court. We do not build walls. We create the spaces between them. Your men have our gratitude for acting as you did, and we will do everything we can to learn who was responsible for this offence. When we find him, we will deliver you his head."

"His head?"

The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them.

Everyone stared. Malachi was open-mouthed. Kain's mouth was firmly shut in a grim line. The King had a slight smile on his face. I couldn't see the Admiral or Grace or Hari, but I knew they were staring at me just the same.

I tried to maintain my composure. If they meant to chop off Éven's head, I wasn't going to stand by and let that happen.

"Spirited boy, this one," said King Tor. "An agent, you said?"

"New," said the Admiral, her voice tense. "Not quite up on his discipline yet."

"Yet you sent him on such an important mission?" said the King. "How unusual. You don't want us to behead this thief, young man?"

I hesitated to answer, but no-one stepped in to stop me. When addressed by a king, one presumably does not defer to any other authority.

"I...don't want you to behead anyone," I said.

"We prefer our prisoners' heads to still be attached to a living, breathing body," said Grace.

King Tor nodded.

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