Chapter 2: Magisterial Choices

Excerpted from A Warrior’s Penance Copyright © 2016 by Davis Ashura
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Chapter 2: Magisterial Choices

The life of a Magistrate—to serve the citizens—would be a wondrous life indeed if not for those same citizens. Why can’t they simply leave us in peace?

—From the journal of Magistrate Olive Rue, AF 1833

Rector Bryce sat quietly at his seat and listened as various members of Ashoka vented their thoughts regarding the OutCastes and whether they should be allowed to remain in the city. This was an open meeting of the Magisterium, and as a result, most everyone with an opinion had shown up.

Rector had quickly grown bored with the proceedings. No one was exhuming anything more than emotional pleas based on what they thought was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ with only the most cursory of references to the law. Passion was fine, but the decision before the Magisterium was one that required logic and reason—not merely the lowest common denominator of what was most popular. If the prevailing sentiment was all that was needed, the Magistrates would have long since granted the OutCastes sanctuary.

A year ago, it wouldn’t have been the case, but Rukh Shektan’s actions in the Chimera breeding caverns had changed many minds about ghrinas and naajas. And when the sad state of the OutCastes themselves was taken into account, who wouldn’t have been moved to pity? As such, it wasn’t surprising how opinions had shifted in such a short period of time.

It also helped that one of the most forceful advocates for the OutCastes was someone well-known to the city. In fact, by now, everyone knew of her. Jessira Shektan had made an unforgettable impression on Ashoka during her initial stay in the city and was doing so now as well.

Rector’s stray thoughts were interrupted when a new attestant, a middle-aged Duriah matron, was allowed to speak. He perked up a bit to listen to her.

“I say this without meaning any insult to anyone, but as ghrinas, the OutCastes are beings of sin based upon their very nature. It isn’t something that can be corrected,” she began. “As such, we must consider the needs of our children. How can they learn what true morality is if the immoral is flaunted before them?” The matron pleaded with utmost earnestness. “They can’t. Their young minds can’t see the complexity that we can. Therefore, I say the OutCastes can’t stay here in Ashoka, but before anyone thinks I’m being cruel, we must also think of their children. They are innocent and shouldn’t be turned out into the cold night.” She nodded with grave self-importance. “We can build them a village just beyond Ashoka’s walls and Oasis. They’ll live there. We’ll live here. Separate but equal.”

It was an asinine idea, and Rector rolled his eyes in unconcealed scorn.

She blathered on, and Rector turned his attention to the Magistrates themselves. They appeared as bored as he. Fol Nacket, the Cherid Magistrate, nodded politely at the attestant but his glazed-over eyes spoke the truth about his inattentiveness. The Muran Magistrate, Dos Martel, sat back in her chair and yawned, while Poque Belt and Gren Vos, of Caste Sentya and Caste Shiyen, respectively held demeanors of barely concealed annoyance. Magistrate Krain Linshok of Caste Kumma spoke an aside to Jone Drent, the Duriah Magistrate, and the two of them chuckled over whatever had been spoken. Brit Hule, the uncompromising Rahail, glared sternly at the speaker, causing the poor woman to stumble to an uncertain halt.

When she did, Magistrate Nacket appeared to sigh in relief before calling for the next attestant.

Rector sat up straighter when Bree Shektan stood up and stepped forward. This was why he was here.

A few weeks ago, he had seen Bree researching at the City Library. She had been studying The Word and the Deed and had asked for the oldest edition that was available for study. The librarian had brought her a version printed several centuries past, condescendingly insisting it should do for her needs. It hadn’t, and Bree had not been pleased. In classic Bree Shektan fashion, she had simply raised an eyebrow and spoke in a clipped manner. “When I ask for the oldest volume, I expect the oldest volume. Do we have an understanding?” The librarian had taken one look at her face before scurrying away to fetch the volume she had initially requested.

Rector still couldn’t believe how easily Bree could bend people to her will. It was a skill she must have learned from her frightening amma.

At any rate, her actions had piqued Rector’s curiosity. It was well-known that Bree and her brothers were trying to find a means by which the Magistrates could allow the OutCastes to remain in Ashoka. It was what all three of them had been working on ever since Rukh’s return to the city.

Rector had watched quietly from afar as Bree had transcribed what seemed to be entire passages from the old volume of The Word and Deed. And while she had done so, her countenance had grown steadily more excited. She had finished her work with a satisfied smile and left the Library.

Afterward, Rector had ventured over to her desk. She had returned the borrowed edition of The Word and the Deed, but she’d left behind a small stack of blank sheets of papers. Imprinted upon them were whatever notations Bree had busily written down. It had been simplicity itself to use a pencil to highlight the indentations on the blank pages and discover what had her so excited.

A pleased smile had washed across Rector’s face when he realized what Bree had been studying. His smile washed away just as quickly as it had arrived when he read her final words: You aren’t as clever as you believe, Rector Bryce. Forget this if you wish any future in Ashoka.

All along, she’d known he’d been watching her. All along, she’d known that he’d been wondering what she had been up to, but rather than hide her work, she had let him see exactly what she had discovered.

Or had she? Maybe what Rector had rubbed out was merely a ruse. After all, why would Bree have let him see what she’d written?

She wouldn’t have.

At that point, Rector could have proceeded down two obvious paths. He could have searched out a way to contest Bree’s findings—a difficult proposition even if he could have trusted what she had allowed him to see. Or he could have chosen to do nothing, remained silent and done just as Bree had warned. The latter would have been the simpler path to follow, and the one she likely had expected of him.

Rector had looked long at that scrap of paper with its naked warning before a small grouping of mismatched letters and numbers in the upper right-hand corner had caught his attention. There had been a C followed by an illegible number or a 4, a V with an illegible number next to it, and finally an L3 or 8. The writing had been faint, likely an imprint of an imprint, and probably something Bree hadn’t meant for him to see. As for what it meant, it was probably a verse and a line from The Word and the Deed, but what chapter?

Rector had paused as he considered his finding. The Word and the Deed was broken down into forty-three chapters, each with a number of verses and lines. But which ones had Bree been studying? With a sigh, Rector had realized that the only way to know would be by reading every chapter number that ended with a four, such as four, fourteen, twenty-four, and thirty-four and all lines three through eight of every verse.

Hours later, he had a faint idea of what Bree might actually be attempting, and if he was right, then the effort was truly inspired. If she managed what he suspected she was going to try, it would overturn several millennia of settled law.

Even as he had stood back and admired the audacity of Bree’s plan, he had vacillated over what to do next. Eventually, he came to the realization that a third path had just opened up to him. He had smiled then. No one, least of all Bree Shektan, would expect it of him. It was the trickier route to take, one fraught with risks of misunderstanding, but it was also the one that might allow Rector to make up for some of the wrongs he’d committed in the past few years.

But before he made any final decisions on what to do next, he had needed advice from someone far more clever than he, someone far more cunning. He had needed the input of Dar’El Shektan, the most cunning, clever man that Rector knew.

His faith hadn’t been misplaced. Dar’El had seen angles and arguments that Rector had missed. He had found ways to challenge Bree’s declarations but to do so in a way that made them even stronger. And Dar’El had impressed upon Rector the need for absolute discretion. No one, not even Bree, was to learn of his secret support.

Her reactions had to be genuine, and no one, especially the Magistrates, could ever become aware of what Rector had done. He took a deep, steadying breath before approaching the attestation stand.

Magistrate Nacket peered down from his raised seat. “You wish to debate Bree Shektan?” he asked.

“Yes, sir,” Rector replied. He didn’t need to look at Bree to sense the withering scorn on her face.

“You were warned,” she whispered.

Bree nodded to the Kumma honor guards as she passed through the open doors of the Magisterium. The guards were dressed in their typical gold-filigreed, bright-red uniforms and stood at parade rest. Their impassive visages gave no hint as to their thoughts regarding the momentous meeting about to take place.

Just past the entrance, a trickle of people made their way through the length of a long hallway, and Bree joined them. She vaguely noted the portraits on the walls. All of them were great Magistrates from Ashoka’s history. Another pair of honor guards—again Kummas and dressed identically to the ones outside—flanked a pair of open mahogany doors embossed with the seal of the Magisterium: a golden eagle clasping a sword and a scythe. The doorway led to the chamber where the Magistrates held their public meetings, and the guards stood at attention, studying those who entered with the same impassive watchfulness as their brethren outside.

Bree entered the large, round chamber where the Magistrates met and searched for her brothers. The room was filling quickly, and people jostled her about, looking for a seat. The deference normally given to a Kumma woman wasn’t in evidence today, and the noisome din echoing throughout made for a welter of sight and sound. Bree craned her neck and stood on her tiptoes. A waving hand and her shouted name caught her attention. She relaxed when she saw Rukh and Jaresh gesture her over.

She squeezed in next to them. “Thank you,” she said, having to yell in order to be heard over the din. With its high ceiling and stained-glass dome portraying a scene from the life of the First Father, the room was meant to impress, and while it did so, the open and airy nature of the space also meant that sounds reverberated throughout it. Even hushed words could echo into a susurration of sound. And right now with everyone trying to have a conversation at the same time, the chamber groaned with a tide of distant thunder.

Jaresh tried to tell something to Bree, but with the surrounding noise, she couldn’t hear a word he said. She shrugged her shoulders in mute apology, and he gave up with a disgusted shake of his head.

The three of them faced forward, staring straight ahead as they waited for the meeting to begin. They didn’t have long to wait. A thudding gong quieted the room. The booming note announced the entrance of the Magistrates.

Fol Nacket gaveled the meeting into order. “Let us begin,” he said, sounding portentous. “We have before us a decision of utmost importance, and as it is one that affects all of Ashoka, we must ensure that all possible views are heard before the Magisterium renders its verdict.”

The Magistrates called forth a number of people who spoke at the attestation stand. They passionately voiced their opinions about what should be done with the OutCastes. Bree was heartened that so many of them supported the notion of allowing Jessira and her people to stay, but throughout the evening, no one offered a suggestion that had a basis in law. All their attestations were simply opinions saturated with emotional pleading but rarely infused with any rational reasoning.

She sighed as a Rahail gentleman meandered at length about how the penumbras and emanations of the Constitution allowed the presence of the OutCastes within Ashoka. Of course, based on his twisted logic, he had somehow managed to turn the straightforward meaning of the text inside out.

Bree shook her head in pity.

“Remember to aim your strongest arguments at Magistrate Belt,” Rukh said while the Rahail wound down his inverted dissertation. “He’s the fulcrum.”

Bree nodded.

“You realize that after tonight, your name will be forever remembered by history?” Jaresh asked. He wore an encouraging smile. “What we’ve found could transform the entire world.”

Bree smiled somewhat sickly at Jaresh’s words. “I know you’re trying to be inspiring, but I’ve got enough pressure on me as it is.”

“If you’re nervous, then let us help you,” Rukh said. His face tightened with concentration while Jaresh’s grew slack. Lucency from both her brothers—during Stronghold’s fall, Rukh and Jaresh had gained one another’s Talents—calmed her nerves and settled her mind. She relaxed as her thoughts grew diamond sharp.

During all this, a Duriah matron had been in the midst of meandering rambling, but under the stern glare of Magistrate Brit Hule, she thankfully meandered to a halt. Bree was then called forward to the attestation stand.

Following close behind her was Rector Bryce. She shot him a bemused look, but immediately understood what he meant to do. Her warning to him hadn’t taken hold. Rector must have come to realize a small part of what Bree intended and now planned on challenging her.

A cold anger roiled within Bree’s mind, thankfully buried too deep to mar her equanimity—the Lucency from her brothers remained with her. Nevertheless, a part of Bree wanted to grind her teeth in fury. This would be Rector’s final insult, his final betrayal. When this meeting was over, she would see him raked over the coals. He’d be run out of House Shektan with no hope of ever reclaiming his place in the city. She would see him ruined.

She briefly wondered what could have possessed Rector to go against her like this. According to Mira—and even Jaresh—Rector had grown in wisdom, becoming both more forgiving and understanding. Bree hadn’t entirely believed their judgments, and as if to prove her perspicacity, here he was, living down to everything she thought about him.

When Bree reached the attestation stand, Magistrate Nacket peered down at Rector who had kept pace with her and now stood at her side. “You wish to debate Bree Shektan?” he asked.

“Yes, sir,” Rector replied.

“You were warned,” Bree whispered.

Rector shifted restlessly upon hearing her words.

Bree turned her attention back to the Magistrates. “My name is Bree Shektan. My brothers are Jaresh Shektan of Caste Sentya and Rukh Shektan, who is married to Jessira Shektan of Stronghold. I believe the OutCastes should be allowed to stay, and I make the case that our Constitution requires that they be granted refuge.”

“Everyone knows how you feel and why,” Rector interrupted before Bree could get into the meat of her discourse. “But the words of the Constitution most certainly do not require anything of the sort. In fact, it states the very opposite.” He pulled out a slim booklet—the Constitution—and made a show of turning the pages until he found what he was looking for. He theatrically cleared his throat before he began speaking. “Any Person born within the bounds of Ashoka’s Oasis is automatically granted Citizenship. Those Persons who are born elsewhere and are unable to return home, will be offered refuge and granted the choice of Citizenship, with all the attendant rights and responsibilities, if he resides in Ashoka for an uninterrupted period of time of no less than seven years.” He set aside his copy of the Constitution. “I fail to see how the OutCastes fit into either category.”

Bree hid a smile. Rector’s assertion was easily refuted and doing so now would allow her to build a bridge to her more powerful arguments later on. She wore what she hoped was an introspective expression as she turned to face Rector. “And I don’t think anyone would argue that the OutCastes can return to their home since it was destroyed by the Sorrow Bringer,” she replied before turning back to the Magistrates. She aimed her next words at Poque Belt. “Thus, by the very words of our Constitution—Those Persons who are born elsewhere and are unable to return home, will be offered refuge. Not ‘might be’ or ‘possibly’, but ‘will’. Therefore, we have a clear obligation of what we must provide. The OutCastes must be offered refuge as it is ordered in the Constitution.”

Rector wore a condescending smile. “If it were that simple, the Magisterium would have already ruled on behalf of the OutCastes,” he said. “Your assumption is that the OutCastes are Persons,” he said. “But the Constitution has a particular comment about the definition of Personhood.” He thumbed through his booklet and apparently found a spot he’d earlier marked out. “For all the purposes of Government and Citizenship, a Person is hereby defined only as an individual Human, whatever his particular Caste. As such, membership in any Caste is not a bar to Personhood. A Person cannot be any grouping of Humans, any type of Animal, or any inanimate object. A Person must be naturally born and is deemed to have Personhood, with all the rights and protections thereof, from the instant of his birth.” He looked to Gren Vos. “Whatever his particular Caste,” he emphasized. “The OutCastes have no Caste. Thus, they cannot have Personhood.”

Bree shook her head in disagreement. Although Rector’s challenge merited thought, it was also one for which she was well-prepared. “An interesting point,” she conceded. “But I think it makes better sense if we break the passage into its component parts. First, the beginning: ‘. . . a Person is defined only as an individual Human . . .’ The OutCastes are individual Humans. They petitioned the Magisterium as individual Humans; they seek Personhood as individual Humans. Thus, they meet the first criterion. Next, let us take the rest of the passage. ‘. . . whatever his particular Caste.’ It is obvious the OutCastes meet this standard as well.” She gathered her thoughts. “The Constitution does not demand that a Person be born into a particular Caste. It simply states that a particular Caste is no barrier to Personhood. Therefore, it follows that having no Caste is also no barrier to Personhood since the Constitution is silent on the topic of Personhood with regards to ghrinas. Logically, since there is no evidence to the contrary, it seems obvious that since ghrinas meet the definition of a ‘naturally born Human’, they must also, therefore, be Persons.”

“She has a point,” Gren Vos said, leaning forward in her chair.

Rector tilted his head in bare acknowledgment of the Magistrate’s words. His gesture could have been construed as a veiled insult. In the least, it was rude, and Bree shook her head in disgust. It was the height of arrogance to show such minimal courtesy to the oldest serving member of the Magisterium, but then again what else was Rector Bryce but arrogant?

“Perhaps this answers the issue of Personhood, but it is the least of the issues facing us,” Krain Linshok said. “You wish to allow ghrinas to remain in Ashoka when the law is clear on the matter: they are to either be executed or removed permanently from the city.”

“Exactly,” Rector said, sounding pleased. “The authors of the Constitution considered the topic of ghrinas to be so important that they devoted several passages to what should be done about them.” He held aloft his booklet and this time spoke from memory. “Those individuals who are judged to have had congress with someone not of his Caste or those born of such a union will henceforth be known as ghrinas. Any such individual must be judged according to the dictates of The Word and the Deed.” He smiled in triumph. “The unchanging verses of The Word and the Deed, the basis of all our law and morality, are the reason why ghrinas cannot make a home in Ashoka.”

Bree let slip a smile of triumph. This had been her plan all along—dispute the veracity of The Word and the Deed. But it would have always been a tricky matter to introduce such a topic in a manner that seemed organic to her presentation rather than merely argumentative. Now she wouldn’t have to worry about it. Rector had brought up the topic on his own, and because he had, her statements would merely be explicative.

The weight of her words would fall with greater force, and Bree  briefly wondered if this might have been Rector’s plan all along: to point out the flaws in traditional theology so she might more easily dispute them. As soon as she considered the notion, she dismissed it. Rector wasn’t so subtle. She’d never known him to be. Despite what Mira had thought, Rector was as he’d always been: unduly sure that only his version of dharma led to morality.

Her mind settled, Bree returned to the matter at hand.

But as she realized the true import of what she was about to do, even through Lucency, her heart fluttered. She was about to challenge the very moral basis of Ashoka’s laws. There would be many who would find her words heretical. They would be furious with her, and no matter how persuasive her rhetoric, their minds would be closed off by escalating anger. Bree only hoped the Magistrates would not be among those too outraged to listen without prejudice.

“The Constitution does indeed call for judgment of the ghrinas to be based upon what is said in The Word and the Deed, and therein lies the problem,” Bree began as she held up a sheaf of papers. “A little history first. These are notarized statements from the Head Librarian of the City Library of Ashoka. They confirm what I am about to say next. The first known edition of The Word and the Deed was said to have been published shortly prior to the fall of the First World. It is said to be the dictated words of the First Mother and First Father, but the earliest version we have only dates back to the Days of Desolation, decades after the Fall. We still have that edition displayed within the atrium of the City Library. I was given an opportunity to study a more recently printed copy of this version, and what I found is truly stunning. The Word and the Deed has changed greatly over time.”

Shocked intakes and furious conversation met Bree’s pronouncement, and Fol Nacket had to gavel for quiet. “Silence!” he thundered. “We will have decorum here! We are the Magisterium of Ashoka, and we will not allow Ashoka to be ruled by a mob!”

When silence reigned once more, Magistrate Nacket gestured for Bree to continue.

She nodded appreciation. “I, too, was surprised by what I found, but here is a quote from that earlier edition from chapter two, verse fourteen, line three: . . . a marriage between a man and a woman of different Castes is not to be encouraged. It weakens us all. This is what is now said in our current edition in that same location: . . . an impure relationship between a man and a woman cannot be allowed. It darkens all our souls. It’s a subtle difference, but nevertheless, it is a significant one.” She glanced up from the writing and was heartened to see that the prior boredom of the Magistrates was no longer in evidence. She had their rapt attention, and most of them wore airs of incipient hope.

“I fail to see how this changes the fundamentals of the situation,” Rector said, speaking into the hushed quiet. “The Word and the Deed is still clear about the nature of ghrinas.”

Bree stared at Rector in surprise. So far in his attestation, there had been cadences to his statements, a manner of his phrasing and presentation that had sounded utterly unlike his normal plainspoken self. If anything, his words and delivery reminded her of Nanna, which made absolutely no sense at all.

Bree shook off her confusion and returned to Rector’s most recent declaration. “So all of us are taught,” she replied, “but after finding this discrepancy, I studied the history of The Word and the Deed itself. As I said before, it is reputed to have been written prior to the Fall, but what I, and probably most everyone else, didn’t realize is that the version we study and use is actually an edited form of the original. This edition was put into its current form in approximately 350 AF.”

“This is old information,” Rector declared. “But the spirit of the original was kept intact. The editing you cite was simply record-keeping to correct some translational errors.”

“It was more than translational errors,” Bree snapped. “It was a wholesale changing of the intent of The Word and the Deed.”

“You have proof of this?” Poque Belt asked.

Bree nodded. “I do. In the Cellar, there are shelves of books documenting when this happened and the reasons for it. Apparently, our older version, the one in the City Library’s atrium, isn’t the same as those found in other cities. There needed to be a single version, and the one we know and use today was the result of a decades-long debate. In fact, one of the most controversial changes was to edit out a single line from The Word and the Deed: the first line of the first verse of the first chapter.” She read from a sheet of paper. “Above all else, honor The Book of All Souls, the source of all all truth and morality, including this, the accumulated insight of the First Father and First Mother.” Bree set down the paper. “Based on this one missing line, it is obvious that the moral basis of our laws should be The Book of All Souls, not The Word and the Deed.”

More shocked intakes met her statement.

Fol Nacket rapped again for quiet. “Do you have anything to refute this claim?” he asked Rector, who shook his head in negation. Magistrate Nacket turned to Bree. “For the sake of discussion, we’ll accept your claims. But what does The Book of All Souls say about ghrinas?”

“Very little,” Bree answered. “Remember, The Book of All Souls is generally pacifist in nature. It emphasizes the importance of service to others, the holiness of understanding, forgiveness, and the universal love of Devesh.”

“If that’s the case, then the judgments against ghrinas, as prescribed in The Word and the Deed should remain in effect,” Rector loudly proclaimed.

“No it should not,” Bree proclaimed just as loudly. “Because again, you would be basing your judgment upon the version of The Word and the Deed that was edited and compiled from AF 350. However, if you go back to the original book that we have, it says only that ghrinas are unclean, and that they should be kept separate from the rest of society. But The Book of All Souls says the following.” She reached again for her papers. She shuffled through them until she found what she was looking for. “This is an important passage. ‘Devesh sees no Castes, for a man’s worth is not measured by the lowness or highness of his birth, but by how well he holds to this simple truth: all those he meets in life are his brothers.’ Devesh sees no Castes,” Bree repeated. “Later, The Book of All Souls speaks of refuge, and how we are compelled to offer it to our brothers. This is similar to what is described in The Word and the Deed. We are compelled to take in the OutCastes because they are our brothers.”

A few cheers met her words.

“We need to examine your findings,” Poque Belt said, “but if they are accurate, then I know how I will vote.”

Similar murmurs from the other Magistrates met the Sentya’s words.

“I think we have heard enough,” Fol Nacket said. “Please leave that packet of information,” he ordered Bree. “We need to further investigate this matter.” He rapped his gavel. “This meeting is adjourned.”

As Bree turned aside, she caught Rector staring in her direction. Very deliberately, he gave her a brief smile and a wink. For all the world, he looked pleased with himself. “Well done,” he whispered as he brushed past her.

Bree frowned. What was that about? Rector had spent the evening trying to sabotage her work, but just now, he’d seemed pleased with himself—and her. She stared at his retreating back in consternation, suddenly caught up in doubt and reconsidering her previous notion: had Rector brought up his questions as he had in order to bolster Bree’s testimony and weaken his own? If so, it had been a master work of planning and subtlety.

Once more, as soon as the thought occurred to her, Bree tried to dismiss it. Rector Bryce had never been so canny and cagey and . . . her eyes widened and a grin came to her face.

But Nanna was exactly that canny and cagey. Could he have coached Rector and told him what to say? It made sense, and the more she thought about it, the more convinced she was that it had happened in exactly that fashion. Bree chuckled, pleased to have seen through Nanna’s clever ploy.

Later in the week, she was even more pleased when the Magisterium rendered its verdict.

The OutCastes had been granted refuge.

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