Written by: AtheistBasementDragon
Edited by: The Usual Gang of Drunken Perverted Idiots
"I thought you were going to protect her?" Skana said to CZ, looking surprised as the guards marched Neia away.
"She asked me not to, and Lord Ainz said to follow her instructions, the last time I trusted her to make good choices, we rescued a Zern prince and helped overthrow Jaldabaoth." CZ replied.
Skana looked unconvinced. "Do you trust her?" CZ asked.
Skana nodded in the affirmative without hesitation. "I do. But why...?"
"She did not want to make us into criminals in the eyes of the South, true if Black Justice had fought, you would have won. If I had attacked, I could have killed them all. But these are mere soldiers doing their jobs, she wouldn't want to kill them for it. Don't worry, she's strong for a human, and when she comes back, we'll go drinking again, I'll even activate my intoxication protocol and let you carry me back to my room again." CZ said, her voice never wavered, and might have, days earlier, sounded indifferent as if she were disconnected from the events and couldn't care less what happened. But after some association, Skana had begun to pick up the very slight inflections and word choices that suggested CZ was being nice, and it wasn't until she had worked that out in her head that she processed the phrase, 'Intoxication protocol'.
"Wait... are you telling me you were not actually drunk?" Skana asked.
CZ was about to answer when Skana waved her hand in front of her face, "No, no, don't tell me, never mind, this isn't the time for that. For now, what do we do?" Skana asked.
CZ looked at her in silence, "Didn't you hear what she said? Continue combat, she wanted to hear stories afterwards."
There had been many uncertain looks from Black Justice members as Skana conversed with the maid demon, but when CZ said that, Skana snapped back to herself and said, "You're right. Anything else, and I suppose we'd look bad."
She turned to the crowd of observers and fighters and shouted, "Alright, Pope Neia has to take care of this, but she wants to hear about your exploits after she's done, so get back to it, and make it good, we want good stories to tell later!" Skana shouted, putting what authority she could into her voice, and after a brief hesitation, they settled back in to resume the exhibition.
CZ settled next to Skana and they looked out over the crowd, and though CZ gave a perfect impression of being absorbed in the display, Skana had to steel herself and constantly catch herself from looking backwards or slipping away in pursuit. CZ took out a sticker and put it on Skana's face, "Cute." She said, a word she'd used many times, but in this moment, it seemed to mean something very different.
...At the Court of Law...
"Welcome to the Court of Law." The guard said and the group stopped walking. Neia looked around, "Which building is it?" she asked.
"It is this, all of this." The guard said with a note of pride in his voice, and gestured to the open area they were entering. Neia gave it a further appraisal as she took the whole area in. It was a large open pavilion, with buildings on the outskirts, and there were columns of stone with rungs that could be climbed, which lead to small single person waist high enclosures, each of which had an armed guard, and each column had a wooden path from it to another column, and the column's interwoven upper pathways, led to the tops of buildings around the pavilion, it was a very strange arrangement, and no less strange were the series of podiums, seven of them, made of fine onyx stone, three lined up facing inward at a diagonal, and three more faced in the same way on the opposite side, and one podium stood at the center. Twenty paces back from the front of them was a waist high pillar of stone with a chain attached to the top. Behind that and forming a semicircle, were many steps from the depressed area in the center to a higher elevation, it wasn't hard to guess that this was so citizens could have a place to sit if they chose to watch trials unfold. It all seemed... very much like a theater set up for performances.
"You see, we conduct our trials publicly before the people, whoever wants to attend can do so. If the person is to be punished physically, then they are punished in front of all the people so that all learn the power of the law, and that nobody escapes it." He said, looking down at her as he put emphasis on the last part of his statement.
Neia folded her hands behind her head casually, "I admit I like the concept, it’s not how things are done in the North. Just the threat of being publicly accused would probably keep a lot of people honest." Her voice was the calm analysis of an experienced soldier, clinical and indifferent.
"Who and where are the judges?" She asked curiously.
It seemed bizarre to the soldier, to be asked such critical questions so casually by a captive, but he answered anyway. "There are six priests who act as jurors, and the judge is chosen from among the noble class. They do not come out until the accused is secured and the horn is blown. That alerts them to a trial needing their attention, and whoever is tasked with it for the day will promptly take position."
"Am I permitted a defender?" Neia asked.
"No." The soldier said, "We have no lawyers, because we wish for no profession that exists only to obscure the truth. You will speak in your own defense, and for your sake, you'd better be good at it... and then after a few questions and answers from the jury and the judge to yourself and witnesses, they'll render a vote with a majority rule."
"Well, it’s all a very impressive arrangement, with so much over watch by guards, they can see any escape attempt even while it is happening, I'd imagine it doesn't come up very often." Neia said with a sardonic expression on her face.
"No, not really." The guard said flatly, "So, let’s move, we're heading to the central pillar." He said, and prodded her forward lightly, even politely. Neia's pace was deliberately casual, and she had not adjusted her hands behind her head, it gave her a very casual appearance, as if she were walking through a garden, not walking to her trial, it threw off several of the guards, who watched her back with uncertain eyes. They'd done this duty many times, often they had to drag men struggling to trial, sometimes they'd had to drag limp unconscious frames to the pillar and wait for hours for them to awaken so the judge and jury could be summoned, but this... young girl, barely old enough to be called a woman, who could not have seen more than twenty summers, seemed to think it all a game to be played.
She calmly went to the pillar of defense and placed her hands together on top of it. "OK, lock em in." She said with a grin.
As if expecting a trick, several guards stepped back and lowered their halberds, pointing them at her while another guard approached from the front, Neia held still, and looked at him through her visor. She gave him an encouraging smile as she held still and let him fasten the chain's to her wrists, first with one click, then with another. "Oh," he said, "You can't wear this, nobody can hide their face from the judge. I will set it behind you for now." He said, and reached up and took off her visor, and as it came off, he fell back, "Ahh! Wha!" he exclaimed as he stumbled backwards and fell on his backside, only to scramble backwards without rising until he reached his weapon and forced himself to stand up. Neia hadn't moved an inch, but as that happened, the commander of the group snapped out, "What's wrong?!" and then Neia turned to look at him, "Nothing, I haven't done anything to him." She said, and met his eyes with hers.
A chill swept over him, her eyes were the eyes of death itself. But made of sterner stuff than his subordinate, he suppressed the chill that ran down his back, swallowed, and snapped at the man, "Pull yourself together man, show some dignity!"
Neia shrugged, "You all never faced Jaldabaoth, that much is obvious, if you had, you'd know that this is what facing demons does to you. If you can't handle that, you wouldn't have lasted a day in the North during his invasion." She said critically. Under other circumstances, he might have argued, but he was not inclined to do so now.
Numbly the commander walked past her over to the judge's podium and blew the horn, it echoed long and loud, from where she sat, Neia wondered if it might be heard over most of the city. The guards that had surrounded her moved with practiced ease to new positions, one stood beside each podium, the remainder arrayed themselves several paces behind her.
Citizen observers actually appeared before the judge or jury, and as the steps became seats, opportunists hawking food and drinks began to appear, Neia let herself relax, she'd spoken before countless crowds, this was no different, and every audience reflected new opportunity. She waited patiently, calmly, and gradually priests came and took their places at a podium, and a young nobleman not much senior in age to Neia took his place at the center. Neia looked them over, the noble's eyes and face were soft, he didn't have any scars, his clothing was meant more for show than for function, he had a sword at his waist, but his hands looked soft, he wasn't one to train with it, it too was just an emblem of his position, much like his clothing. At the left and right there stood priests, they were ranged in age, but wore severe looking clothing, she guessed based on its distinction from the usual priestly garb, with its tassels and bells that jingled as they moved into place, that they were meant to be noticed and recognized, and that these were the garbs of those selected to serve at trials. They were as different in body as they were in age, two were thin enough to be mistaken for skeletons, while two more were fat enough that one might think that pigs had learned to walk on two legs, while the other two were built like soldiers, and one of them bore a long burn mark on his face. She found it hard to imagine the six of them gathered together for any other reason.
When her name was read out as the one on trial, the hushed whispers of disbelief, and the repetition of her name by the gathered numbers, were so many that the whispers were like a battle cry.
From where she stood, Neia could see others rushing out to be the first to spread the word, an iron rule of cities is that they thrived on news and rumors of news. Selling information for coin or favors was part of life, and today Neia knew she was the product being sold. She didn't care for it, not one bit... but if it achieved her ends, so be it. She looked up at the sky and breathed the air. "What a beautiful day it is today." She said softly to herself.
The announcement of her name as the one being charged had given pause to the administrators of justice, though the pampered looking nobleman seemed to be an exception, his face looked perpetually bored, she did not like his face, it reminded her too much of people who did nothing while others did everything, only to complain about the lack of personal gain for themselves later.
"Will the accused state her name for the record?" The nobleman asked.
"I will." Neia replied, grateful for the few feet of chain that allowed her to move around, she paced slowly and deliberately around the pillar of defense to keep it behind her, placing her entire self in full center view. "I am Neia Baraja. Squire of the Sorcerer King, slayer of Scriptures, breaker of bandits, builder and taker of cities, founder of Black Justice, bearer of the Ultimate Shooting Star, bearer of the Grand King Busar's armor, bane of demihumans, Pope of Black Justice, I am the mad eyed archer. But today... you can just call me Neia." She spoke with the firmness of conviction that came with her time as an evangelist, and she spoke with the absolute confidence that had not been there until desperation made her bold, the day she met with the Sorcerer King and prepared to give up her life to gain a year for her people. She smiled at the memory now, everything had been so horrible... but also all so simple, the enemy was clear, there were no divisions, no factions, not even much in the way of politics.
As her titles poured out and her smile emerged and her terrifying naked eyes raked over the soft men of the south, she saw that one of the priests was uttering a prayer.
"Ahem..." The nobleman cleared his throat and began to read, "You are aware of the charges being laid against you?" He asked.
"I did hear them, but I am afraid my lord, that there were a fair number and I do not recall them, would you please read them to me?" She asked with a kindly smile that looked utterly out of place beneath her eyes.
"You are charged with accosting the priests, blasphemy against the gods, heresy against sacred doctrine, and with slandering the temples. He said, looking intensely down at the document in front of him, as if avoiding looking into her eyes. "How do you plead?" He asked.
Neia inhaled deeply, savoring the air, looking up at the sky again as she had earlier. "It really is a beautiful day for this, and a beautiful place for it." She said.
The unusual response seemed to fluster those who heard it. "Ahem..." the nobleman said, coughing slightly into his hand, "Yes well, thank you, we're proud of our city, but your answer?" He prodded.
"To the charge of accosting the priests, I am of course, guilty, as is every other person who speaks to a priest without being spoken to first. Are the people of this city slaves to the temples, that they cannot speak to them first without being called criminals?" She asked, carefully modulating her voice to project an almost innocent curiosity. It prompted snarls of outrage from the priests at their podiums, and uncomfortable movements in the seats of the audience.
"As to the charge of blasphemy, to that I say I am innocent, and that you are the guilty ones, because I follow the one true god of this world, the one true god of justice, the one true savior of this nation, and not the six dead ones who do not answer your prayers, who do not respond when their altars are profaned by the bloody torment and sacrifice of their worshipers, who will not come no matter how you call them. I am not the blasphemer here!" Her voice began low, and gradually rose to a crescendo that sent shockwaves through the audience and through the judges.
Her voice dropped again, low but powerful, the perfect architecture of the theater-like place allowing even the lowest whisper from her 'stage' to be carried to the farthest seat, "As to the charge of heresy against sacred doctrine, I say again that I am innocent, and you are guilty, because I do not follow your doctrine of the dead, I follow the doctrine of the one unliving god who brought down the greatest evil ever to threaten this world. I am no heretic, and so I cannot commit heresy! Call me an apostate if you will, as I have rejected the fallen gods, and embraced the one who rises above all others!" Her voice again rose from its low beginning to a crescendo that put shivers down the backs of those who heard it... and everybody heard it.
"As to the charge of slandering the temples, I must ask, is it slander to speak the truth?!" She snapped, her voice rapid and forceful, and her gaze bore a hole in the head of the pampered noble judge. It rattled him.
"What...?" he asked, somewhat surprised.
"Is... the truth... slander?" She asked slowly.
His fingers clenched the document so tight that his knuckles turned white, and he forced out..."No."
"Then to the charge of slander I am innocent, because while they might not like what I have said, I have told no lies, nor have I spread lies, I have only told others the truth and asked the same in turn." She responded, spreading her hands as much as the chains would allow, as if she'd just said the most reasonable thing in the world... and which, in the minds of some who were watching, she very well may have.
"But you did intend to impugn their reputation?" A priest asked.
"If a reputation is undeserved, it deserves to be impugned, if the truth harms how they are seen, then the way they are seen, cannot be accurate. Is it not true that you require people to pay to be healed?" She asked sharply.
"Well yes...but that keeps us free of politics by not requiring patronage by the government." He responded as if reciting the answer from memory.
"Free of politics?!" She said sharply. "I am Neia Baraja, I have been in the presence of the King, I have labored in the royal court, spare me the lies, you priests have representatives there every day plying him and other nobles for influence or coin to enhance your positions. I saw first hand how the priests of the royal court tried to influence the fate of a priest who attempted to play the role of an assassin. I saw first hand how priests tried to block the establishment of my temple and tried to hamstring us so that we could not serve the needs of the people. You are not free of politics, you are the EMBODIMENT OF IT!" Her voice carried loudly, the echo of the buildings beyond the pavilion carried far beyond intended reach, drawing curious people to approach to find the cause of the disturbance, and more seats began to be filled.
"Liar!" The priest snapped! "We'll add a charge of perjury if you spin your lies again!"
"Then do it!" Neia retorted, yanking her chain taut. It snapped hard and loud, but was drowned by the power of her voice, "I am permitted to call witnesses, I can call the very maid demon of the Sorcerer King who stood in the same chamber with Prince Caspond before his Kingship, and watched as priests played at politics! Do not forget who I am! I am the one who was charged with the rebuilding of the capital, I can and will write to his very majesty himself and ask for the confirmation of my words! Charge me if you will, but ONLY if you are prepared to see charges laid in turn when YOU are found to be lying now!" She leaned forward, turning the force of her gaze against the fat city priest, and his mouth snapped shut like he'd been hit with an uppercut to the jaw.
There was silence for a moment, but he did not try to charge her with perjury.
"You say I impugn your reputations, that I harm the temples, I say they DESERVE to be harmed! You charge people to save their lives, and therefore hold their lives and the lives of their loved ones hostage, you extort money from them as a price for simply not dying! How many children in this city die because their parents cannot afford to be healed?!"
Neia turned her back to the judge and the priests and walked around the pillar of defense, her eyes raking the crowd, "I call as my witnesses this very body of citizens, if there stand ANY among you who have lost loved ones or limbs because you or they could not pay the extortionate price of healing from temples, STAND UP!"
There was an uncomfortable silence, and for a moment nobody moved, as if they'd been charged. "I do not ask you to speak," Neia said as she moved, looking to meet eyes with one member of the watching audience after another, "I do not ask you to protest, only do what the dead you cherish cannot do, if you have laid someone to rest who would not have died but for the temple's demands for coin, then stand up for THEM!" She said forcefully, and after another moment's silence... the sound of shifting bodies echoed, as first one man stood, eyes downcast as if afraid to face the center pavilion any longer. Then a woman stood up, the sound of movement caused people in the audience to look at those around them, those near her could see tears in the woman's eyes, it was not hard to guess what her loss was, as many women lost children in childbirth. Driven by the courage of two, two more, and two more, and three more, and so it went, with eyes downcast in deference, seeing only the stone and the backs of those who had not stood, Neia realized what they were missing.
"Raise your heads, you who stand! Look around you! LOOK!" She shouted.
Heads gradually rose, as those accustomed to looking down, finally looked around them, and one of the great strengths of humanity poured out in the form of tears. Grief, that sense of loss that drives people to protect what they love, and keeps the dead alive in memory, and shared grief, that of a community that treasures its own such that the loss of a neighbor's child is felt by the neighbor themselves, the pain of a dear friend is shared by those who treasure them.
Neia whirled, and pointed at the priests, "You charge me with heresy, with blasphemy, with slander, but I charge you with murder! I charge you with extortion! What else is it? If a person is dangling from a cliff, and you could lower a rope to them, but refuse because of their inability to buy the rope, when they fall to their deaths are you not culpable? Do you think you can call yourselves innocent as if you did nothing, when your very crime is DOING NOTHING!"
The nobleman began banging his gavel to call for silence, "I will not be silent!" Neia snarled, "You thrive on the silence of people, you thrive on their fear, you thrive on extorting them for their last coin so that their very newborn babe might take another breath and see another sunrise! Black Justice does not KNOW FEAR, we do not know your greed, we do not care what you have to your name, we heal because protecting the weak is common sense!"
Ainz watched as his acolyte, his pope, spoke to the judge and jury, he watched as people stood up at her call, and the memories of Suzuki Satoru stirred, of his crowded world, where sickness or injury could lead to poverty or death. He remembered when he dropped out of school to get a job to pay for medicine for his mother, medicine that he learned cost only a handful of yen to make, but which impoverished them so greatly that his dreams were put on hold until they were beyond him, they were forced to eat the worst food and live in the cheapest and most rundown building, just to be able to afford the means for her to not die... and when Neia said the same words as Touch Me, the undead Ainz felt a shiver through his body.
He gestured to the attending Sebas, calling him forward, "Impressive, isn't she? For a human I mean."
Sebas nodded deliberately, "For a mere human to come to the same words uttered by a supreme being, it is not something I have seen before encountering her."
The stirred memory discomfited the Sorcerer King, he looked away and gave a sigh of breath he did not have. “I am going to step away, it appears she has the upper hand in this, but I require some time to myself. If it appears she is at risk of death, send the eight edge assassins to her. I have no desire to see her die a second time in my service.” Ainz stood as Sebas bowed.
“It will be done, My Lord. Neia Baraja will not die today.” Sebas answered as Ainz withdrew, recalling the weary voice of HeroHero on the last day, and the voice of a weary mother ground down to the point of death.
‘HeroHero, Ulbert, mother… I will do what I did not have the power to do before, and if Nazarick must float on a river of blood to reach the end of Project Utopia… then sobeit.’ He clenched his fist as the door shut behind him, leaving Sebas to watch the trial.
...In the Pavilion...
"But you do not protect the weak unless they are wealthy enough to afford your services! This is not slander for me to say, this is POLICY that you have deliberately formed for your benefit, and which you enforce as a matter of law, even to the extent that until the Sorcerer King took over the guild of adventurers in E-Rantel, and by extension imposed similar policy in the Empire, you had adventurers expelled from the guild for the 'crime' of healing the injured or sick that they came across!" She snapped out, placing special emphasis on the word 'crime'.
Another priest spoke up, "Yes we charge for it, but the nobles and other institutions also provide charity that helps cover the cost of healing the people, that way the poor do not have to suffer and die."
"Then who are they standing for?!" Neia snapped, gesturing to the many people still standing in the audience. "YOU!" She pointed to a woman in the crowd. "Whose memory do you stand for!" Neia shouted.
She tried to speak, but her words were too soft to be heard where Neia stood, "Come down, speak here where all can hear you." Neia said gently.
The woman started to move when another priest, and elderly man of skin and bones, pointed at the woman and said, "Stay there, only witnesses may descend to where the defendant is."
"I call her as my first witness!" Neia responded sharply, and Neia stretched out her arm to the distant woman in a gentle gesture, as if offering to take her by the hand. The woman, as if led or strengthened by the gesture, made her way down the seated area and stood beside Neia.
"Who are you?" Neia asked.
"Puniti." She said softly.
"Puniti, how old are you?" Neia asked, keeping her voice soft and the questions easy.
"I am twenty-three." She said.
Neia smiled gently, "So you're somewhat older than I am, don't I feel like a child now?" She gave a little laugh, one that was almost a giggle, prompting both surprise and a little smile of her own to appear on Puniti's face. Neia looked her over, she was pretty, in a plain sort of way, wearing clothes bearing many patches, suggesting she rarely could afford to replace her clothing.
"What do you do here in the city?" Neia asked.
"I'm a washerwoman at a hotel." Puniti said.
"And how much do you get paid for your work?" Neia asked.
"Two coppers a day." She replied.
"Will that cover any healing treatments?" Neia asked.
"No..." She said.
"And your husband's income?" Neia asked.
"He's dead." She replied.
"I'm sorry. Is that who you stood for up there?" Neia asked.
The woman shook her head, her long brown strands bounced limply behind her.
"Who then?" Neia asked.
"Our son." Puniti replied.
"How did he pass?" Neia asked.
"A rare infection of Rockjoint." Puniti answered.
"The temples refused to heal him? What about charity?" Neia asked.
"There was not enough available to pay, so they sent him away with an ointment for the symptoms, that cost most of my savings, they said I could come when there was an emergency, but when that happened it was too late. He died before going back." Puniti said softly, so softly that Neia was grateful to whatever architect had built this place, since its perfect acoustics carried sound everywhere.
"Thank you Puniti. You can return to your seat... unless they have any questions?" Neia said, and gave a look to the priests who were now shifting very uncomfortably behind their podiums.
"No questions..." One of them said awkwardly, and Puniti scaled the steps back to her seat, the echo of her footfalls like the claps of thunder to the crowd.
"Now tell me my crimes!" Neia's voice rose suddenly, snapping the silence with the violence of her voice, before returning to a more normal but forceful volume. "You say I blaspheme the gods, I say I serve the one true god! Yours are dead and you serve them only as extorters of wealth! I serve the true god who commands that we take nothing for our services! The Chained Priests and Red Paladins move freely from place to place, tending the wounded and the sick and enriching themselves not in the least, the temple of Black Justice does homage to the one true god by serving justice, his justice, through strength, not self sustaining by way of indulging our greed!" She shouted the final word of her sentence.
The nobleman pounded his gavel to still the growing talk in the audience, and said, "If there are no more witnesses, we'll confer for a verdict."
The gathering came together at the center podium, and the noble held out a bowl, and into it five black stones were dropped, as well as one white one. The process was repeated for each charge, and the nobleman serving as the judge added a red stone of his own to each bowl that had a majority of black
"Neia Baraja, on the charge of accosting the priests... you are found... not guilty."
"On the charges of blasphemy against the gods, heresy against sacred doctrine, and with slandering the temples, you are found to be guilty." He paused to let that sink in, and then said, "The penalty for these crimes is severe, you will be given ten lashes and prohibited from having them healed by any temple in the city. "Sentence to be carried out, immediately." He said, leaning forward, looking for a hint of fear on her face. Two guards went to a pair of stone pillars, and attached two sets of chains above head height, clearly there so that a prisoner being punished would not fall face first to the ground. Neia heard the distant sound of bows being drawn in case she tried to escape, and watched this preparation calmly as the judge searched her face, and when he could not find the fear he sought, he snapped out, "Bring the whip!"