The Eld council sat in audience, behind the long stone table, more stern-faced and straight-backed than the last time Aphella had seen them assembled. Zyteus wore a perpetual frown, matched by Hamon and Shaenyll. The usually bright and cheerful Warka sat blank-faced. The thief, Azom, was on his knees in the center of the room, under unusually bright crystal lamps in a shade of pale green. His dim eyes were in shadows, and a long shaft of iron was holding the elbows of his shackled hands behind his back. Frey stood apart from him, leaning on the smooth white staff he had carried into the chronolathe room. Beside him stood Graft, sour-faced and with his arms crossed, though his posture seemed relaxed. Aphella sat in a chair off to the side, waiting for the inevitable calling to witness.
“Does the thief have anything to say for himself?” Zyteus directed the question at Frey, though it was clearly meant to address Azom.
“The accused,” Sabon said. He rubbed the knuckles of his right hand. “We have not yet pronounced judgment.”
Zyteus nodded to him. “Well?”
Azom breathed heavily, his face downcast. After a long few moments of silence, he spoke. “It would be wise for you to release me.” His voice creaked and croaked, dry and emotionless.
Zyteus grunted disapprovingly.
“When the master comes, you will bend, or be broken,” Azom went on. He raised his head, and his dim eyes seemed glazed over and vacant. Their dim light was a pale red, burning strangely. Warka turned away her eyes. “When he comes, what you have done will be remembered. You who condemn his servant; who stand in the way of his plans. He will remember, and suck more than just your pitiful light from you. Your soul will be his!”
“Silence!” Zyteus shouted, standing up.
“He will drink it! He will chew it! But you triflers, you fools! You could release me. Even in the darkness there is mercy…” Azom swayed and tried to move forward on his knees awkwardly, the iron bar clanging on the ground to his left and right as he advanced.
“Will nobody restrain this madman?” Shaenyll said over Azom’s ravings.
“Mercy, and life, but life first for me, the servant. When the master comes-” Abruptly the train of words cut off as Frey threw a flow of light at the man. Azom froze and held his mouth open, soft guttural moans escaping.
“My apologies,” Frey said, stepping closer to Azom, the prisoner’s eyes darting about wildly. “I was not sure if he would say something of use or not. I have bound his tongue.”
“Useful words are often not understood at the time,” Sabon said. Of the Eld, only he and Hamon remained seated. “This man has a master, it seems.”
“Yes, and he stands beside him,” Zyteus said. He turned his chin up as he gazed at Frey. “What do you have to say in your defense, Frey the traveler?”
Frey squinted and looked as though he were chewing on something. “Very little that would not also be said in Azom’s defense.”
“The thief has defense?” Zyteus said.
“Well, in a manner of speaking… yes.” Frey’s face relaxed, and he looked almost curious. “Azom, for all the apparent madness he shows here, is not technically a thief, as you called him.”
“Of course he is,” Zyteus said.
“He would have to have stolen something to be a thief,” Frey said. “That does not, however, mean he is harmless or has committed no offense. It merely means that he hasn’t actually stolen something.”
“So you haven’t brought it and harbored a thief,” Zyteus said.
“I would not have harbored him if he had stolen anything. I do not harbor him now.” Frey walked back toward Graft and leaned on his staff. “I do not sue for his pardon or lay claim for his defense, except as it pertains to myself.”
“Yourself you hold blameless, then,” Hamon said.
“I did not say that,” Frey said. “I am guilty, however much so, for hiring a man of poor character. A potential thief. For that, I am prepared to stand, and make reparations, such as they are to you.”
“You can’t very well make reparations when nothing’s been stolen, eh?” Sabon said.
“A gift, then.”
“You and gifts,” Arda said. “Always trying to smooth things over. What are you hiding?”
Frey smiled. “Every man has secrets. None of mine concern you.”
Arda scoffed, but as she did so, Shaenyll stood up and cleared her throat. “Master Frey. It is clear to me we have not made our laws or the subject of this proceeding clear to you. Please, allow me to do so now.”
“Perhaps you should let me,” Zyteus said. “In the interest of objectivity.”
“Objectivity?” Shaenyll said, her voice rising in pitch.
“It is clear to others that you have developed some level of… friendship, with the traveler.” Shaenyll clenched her fists as Zyteus spoke. “I will not censure you, but I suggest you at least remove yourself from questioning, if not recuse yourself.” His eyebrows lifted high as Shaenyll shoved her chair under the table and walked, her hardened leather heels clacking loudly, across the hall to stand between Aphella and Frey. She crossed her arms and leaned up against the wall to Aphella’s left.
“What’s wrong with being Frey’s friend?” Aphella said softly.
Without moving her eyes from Zyteus, Shaenyll whispered harshly, “He’s not suggesting we are friends. He’s suggesting we are… Bah! You’ll understand when you’re older.”