The double doors opened on the main hall and the first man in line stuttered in his first step. The chain between his feet clattered in his quick stop, and the echo of it lasted longer than his pause. The woman behind him elbowed him forward, the guard beside him nodded for him to continue, and he turned to lead the line along the back wall, glancing furtively at the high seat on the far side of the hall. Clearly, he had not expected to find the First Lord sitting as his judge.
The entire line clanked as it moved, the men and women taking the short steps the chains allowed them. Their hands were free, however, each of them convicted of small crimes that made the guards more wary of them running than the harm they might do to those around them. They glanced up then away, quick, then glanced up again a moment later, and Terius didn’t blame them for being surprised.
Not one of them had done anything to warrant a high trial. It was just his father’s habit to take half of whatever remained of the magistrates’ cases when he was finished with his own. It was a simple matter to move them from one hall to another, simpler still to see that the city could only benefit from an extra judge near the end of a long day. He knew from past experience their nervousness would fade once the first few cases went through without any great judgement being passed down.
Once the line had moved all the way up the left wall and the doors were shut behind the last of them, the guard at the front motioned the first man forward. Lord Ryden leaned forward in the high seat to give him his full attention, though he was easy to hear in the near silence of the hall.
“Your name?” Lord Ryden asked.
“Kory, my lord,” the man murmured. The scribe’s pen scratched as she marked his name in the record books.
“Will you tell me why you’re here, Kory?” Lord Ryden asked. It was a scripted question, though he hadn’t been required to use the man’s name.
Kory hesitated, as if he was surprised that Lord Ryden was actually meeting his eye. “I took two loaves of bread, a pie, and a bag of apples without paying,” he said. He took a quick breath, then seemed to realize he had left something out. “From the market.” The scribe marked that down too.
Lord Ryden checked with the guard to be sure that the man had given his answer completely. Receiving a nod, he turned back at the man immediately. “Do you deny the theft?” he asked.
“No, my lord,” Kory said.
“Do you have paid work right now?” Lord Ryden asked.
Kory shook his head before he answered. “Not at the moment, my lord.”
“You will pay twice for what you took,” Lord Ryden told him. His tone quieted, balancing between gentleness and authority. “You will return here tomorrow and we will match you with an employer. One quarter of what you will earn will be withheld to pay your debt and you will stay with whoever we place you with until it is paid in full. Once it is paid, you are under no obligation to stay and they are under no obligation to keep you. Do you understand?”
“Yes, my lord,” Kory said. He bowed immediately.
“Release him,” Lord Ryden commanded.
The guard stepped forward without hesitation, the key already in her hand. Kory steadied himself on her shoulder while he stepped out of the shackles, then bowed twice more, and left the hall.
It had taken less than two minutes. A simple thing. Terius resettled his hands in front of him, forcing himself to bring the man’s face up from memory now that he was gone, to prove that he could. He hated to think it, but he had stood through so many of these sentencings, the circumstances eased together in the broad strokes of what they were: broken laws and the law’s scripted responses delivered on a kind tongue. So few of them required more than that.
Terius forced himself to remember the faces, knowing that, to anyone standing in front of the high seat, it was much more than that. He kept reminding himself.
A woman named Maura stepped forward. She had stolen a pair of shoes. She would return them and pay double. She had work, so she would come back in a week’s time with proof from the shop that she had begun to pay them back, and would come back in a month to say she had paid in full, or else ask for more time. She was released.
A woman named Ceisa had drunkenly thrown two bricks through a stranger’s window. She would pay to replace it, and stay away from strong drink for six months. If she were found publicly drunk in that time, she would be put in confinement. She was released.
A boy named Benj had failed to return to the court to meet his employer. The city watch had to find him and bring him back.
“Did something prevent you from returning?” Lord Ryden asked.
Benj shrugged, and shook his head, before he managed a quiet, “No.”
Lord Ryden paused. “Then you will work for me. Half of what you earn will be withheld to pay your debts. When it is paid in full, you will not be kept on.”
Benj was released, but ushered to the far side of the hall to wait until a servant could be called in to show him to his duties. Terius had known what would be decided as soon as the boy shrugged.
The girl at the front of the line stepped forward, her chains clattering until she stopped in front of the high seat. Very slowly, Terius straightened as he recognized her. The shadows at the edge of the room had kept her hidden before, but he should have known her just by the rough knot of her dark hair. He blinked, fast, trying to keep his surprise to himself. She watched the floor, hands still at her sides, waiting.
“Your name?” Lord Ryden asked, though he knew her, too.
She took a deep breath, and replied evenly. “Jaera, my lord.”
Terius wished she would look up at him. She had raised her head, but her gaze was still at his feet.
“Will you tell me why you are here?” Ryden asked.
Jaera looked at the guard, seeming to consider surrendering the right to her. Then, “I was found walking in the Court of Lords,” she murmured. “And I’m clanless. I don’t belong there.”
Ryden glanced at the guard.
“And she ran from us, my lord,” the guard said. Jaera nodded slowly, chiding herself for forgetting such an important thing.
“You were aware that you are not allowed in the Court of Lords?” Ryden asked.
“Yes,” Jaera said.
“Why were you there?” Ryden asked.
Terius shut his eyes. He knew why. He started to hope she wouldn’t say, then wasn’t sure which would be better in the records: looking secretive or flippant.
Holding her breath, Jaera glanced at the scribe. “It was a shortcut, my lord,” she said carefully. “It takes a long time to go around the Court of Lords if you’re aiming for anything on the north side of the city.”
Ryden nodded. “You will be confined for eight days and pay a fine of five silver. Do you understand?”
“Yes, my lord,” Jaera said.
“How long have you already held her?” Ryden asked the guard.
“Three days,” the guard said.
“Hold her for five more and then release her,” Ryden said.
The guard bowed, Jaera bowed, and another guard stepped in to lead her from the room. The chain rang between her feet.
Less than two minutes, but it didn’t feel simple.
Terius looked at his father sharply. Still leaned forward on the arm of his chair, Lord Ryden faced the room and motioned for the next man in line.