Chapter 67: Hold It!
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The first thing I learned about the trial was that it was going to be broadcast, which came as something of a shock to me. It was the lack of television, camera technology, electricity, satellites and broadcast towers that felt off about the whole thing. But, as it turned out, mages trained in the art of illusion were capable of transmitting their vision to others, or even out into the open air, if need be. And there just happened to be an extremely powerful one right here in the capital. So all over Wydonia, major cities would be having a mage waiting for the image from John Mustrum to come in, who would then, presumably, be acting as a giant projector? It was all a bit vague to me, but I got the gist of it. This was going to be a public event. Clearly, Anastasia wanted the whole nation to know what had happened to her, and what would happen going forward. 


Kazumi, Erza and I spent most of the evening in our room, drafting up my responses, what part I would have to play in the upcoming trial. Anastasia could have made this a simple, clear-cut affair -- she was the queen, after all. A simple “off with their heads” would have sufficed -- but she wanted to give a show, and it was the perfect opportunity to make some statements of our own, push for the changes Wydonia desperately needed. There was the matter of ‘my’ promises to Morgana, the Elf and the Green court, and the fact that abolishing slavery and then patting yourself on the back was a surefire way to have things turn out less than peachy keen. Talking to the two of them, I was reminded of our strategy meetings, a lifetime ago, about how we were going to turn my little kingdom around, and I felt Sabine’s absence very keenly. 


We were sitting on the floor -- there just wasn’t any room for chairs in the small room -- when Kazumi caught my eye. She’d noticed me reaching up to touch Sabine’s soul stone again, and she shot me a melancholy smile. I took her hand and gave it a soft squeeze. Soon, we’d have time. Time to do what we could. Maybe one more miracle. 


We talked a while into the night. I wasn’t going to get a lot of sleep, the night before an important event like this, and the changes we wanted to make were institutional. I told Erza about the words and teachings -- the few I remembered -- of great people in my world, about the value of labour and different governments, about disenfranchised people and violent versus nonviolent protests. Luckily, the Orc seemed to already be operating on a system of government that was a lot more equal than what they were running with here. If we wanted to help these people change things, we’d have to offer a solid alternative, and Erza seemed to have that largely covered, which I was glad for. Despite my best intentions, I had no business trying to create a government or an economic system from scratch. 


Finally, we had to get some sleep. We both hugged Erza goodnight and it was strange to see her more emotionally vulnerable than I thought she’d be when her eyes landed on Sabine’s Sapphire. She had to miss her too, of course. They’d spent a lot of time together before our journey. I pulled her in for a second hug when I saw her tear up, and then let her go to her own room. 


My own night with Kazumi was a little more eventful, now that I’d been healing properly, although there was the occasional ‘oof’. Eventually, we drifted off in each other’s arms. If all went well, tomorrow’s trial would be the last part of our grand adventure. Then we’d get to go home. We cried a little bit as we said our goodnights. It was hard to believe this was over, that it had ever begun, that we were here. That we were here and she was not. 


In the morning, we got dressed slowly and carefully. We had to look our best selves for the trial. If it was to be transmitted, we couldn’t afford to look anything less than perfect. But we wanted to make a statement, so I would be dressed as the Dragon Queen. Kazumi would be my Lamia, not some human maiden. There was a statement to be made here about looking like ourselves, after all. But I did want to tone down the ‘Devil’ part of my original title, so I decided to forego the blacks and reds that were so prevalent in my wardrobe, opting instead for a sober white dress with silver armor and accents. Kazumi whispered a soft “wow” when I did a little spin for her, and I was all the more embarrassed to know that she could tell when I was blushing. I couldn’t do much to tone down my horns, of course. My wings I could retract and even my height I had a degree of control over, but the horns were always there.


I did make her pay for it by gushing over just how beautiful she looked in her more traditional Lamia armor, although she’d opted not to wear the… pointier parts of the outfit. Nevertheless, the gold-and-black dress shirt she wore made her look like royalty. “After all,” I pointed out, “if you’re mine, you are royalty.” There. Now she was blushing too. We were a couple of blushing dorks. I softly kissed her forehead and she hissed happily. 


“Ready?” we both said at the same time at the door and laughed. She raised herself up, one hand on mine, and kissed me back. 


“You can do this, love,” she said, and I believed her. 


We stepped out of the room, and, with Kazumi’s help, I did not get lost in the labyrinthine halls of the palace. Apparently there was a second garden, one that was used for official ceremonies, such as weddings. And the trial would be held there. We walked slowly through the halls. This was much better than the first time. It had felt then like we might not survive. But she was by my side, and I knew that, with her there, there was nothing I couldn’t do. 


Finally, we arrived at a door where a terrified royal servant held open the door for me. I only slightly had to bow my head to keep my horns from carving deep grooves in the doorframe. The servant was practically shaking as I passed by. I’d been so used to people not giving me much attention while I was small that the fact that, to many people here, I was the Evil Demon Dragon Queen again hadn’t really sunk in until just then. It was strange, different and not entirely pleasant to be feared. I’d never wanted that. I just wanted for things to be quiet and peaceful, for myself and others. And if all went well, soon enough all of this nonsense would be over. I’d be able to go home with my wonderful girlfriend. 


The door led to a room with a bunch of people sitting on chairs. I didn’t recognize most, but, for obvious reasons, I drew all eyes to me. I waved sheepishly at everyone gathered, and then saw my friends on the other side of the room. Sadly, there was no chair big enough for me, and I was afraid I was going to be standing in the middle of the room, in the middle of everyone’s attention, for who knew how long, but another door opened and a slightly-less-shaky servant beckoned for me to come forward, and then read out name after name. 


We walked out into the garden, which was more like a small park, in a long procession. On one side was a throne, where Anastasia sat, looking like a thundercloud dressed in white gold. On the other sat the Regents, all chained up and much the worse for wear. They’d been given fresh clothing, but the lack of pampering and fancy food had left them all looking more frazzled than dignified. 


There were guards and mages all around, and I saw John standing off to the side with a clear view of both the accused, the benches where all those gathered would be sitting, and the throne. And, of course, in the middle of the little plaza was a marble plinth. Was it a plinth? Or a dais? I’d always gotten the two mixed up. There was a slight elevation with a marble thing. Something an accused could stand behind to defend themselves, though I had the slight suspicion these ‘suspects’ wouldn’t be getting much of a say in how the court proceedings would, well, proceed. 


There was one chair off by the stands that was much too large. It was comically big by comparison, and I noticed a kind of small piece of furniture next to it, between a folding chair and a stool with a hole in it, and I realized it was designed for seating Lamia. Awful kind of them to have Kazumi sit next to me. I took my seat as the announcer read out all the names of those gathered. Finally, everyone was here, and there was a moment of silence. It was the quiet before the storm. I wasn’t sure what would happen next, but I doubted it was going to be anything like courtrooms and trials back in the old world. I was sorely mistaken. The announcer started rattling off the names of literally everyone involved again, although this time I saw John Mustrum’s eyes glow, and I realized that the broadcast part of the trial had begun. 


I got the feeling that these things could usually be dragged out a lot longer than they were now, but if literally everyone in Wydonia was going to be watching, they probably couldn’t afford to waste time with all the usual formalities of a trial. I presumed Anastasia wanted everyone to pay attention. That much was obvious to me when she got up from her throne. She seemed angrier than she’d been the day before and I wondered if she was playing up her anger for the benefit of her subjects, who would be watching her closely all over the country, or if she’d simply bottled up her anger until it was most useful. She’d always seemed like a competent ruler to me, but I wasn’t sure if she had that kind of conniving inside her. 


“My Lords, Council of Regents,” she said as she spoke loudly and clearly. Her throne was elevated just enough to allow her to talk down to the accused. “You stand accused of treason. You have deceived the people of Wydonia in an attempt to wrest control from the throne. You’ve started a war against a neighboring nation and have… betrayed the crown.”


She took a moment to look at each and every man individually. Like this, standing tall, she was more the Queen than I’d ever seen her be. When she’d been around me, she’d often had her guard down, and it had been easier to see her as the young woman she was. 


“Under any normal circumstances,” she said, “you would have all been executed. The Queen herself has been a witness to your crimes. However, as it was that same regent you declared war on who saved my own life and liberated Wydonia...” She nodded to me, and I felt incredibly self conscious as John Mustrum looked at me for a moment. “She will be the one to accuse you, and cast judgment on you. Your lives are hers, as far as the crown is concerned.”


It was clear she wanted to come out of this looking as good as she could. Everything that had gone wrong could be blamed on the Regents, and I’d come out of this as the ruthless-but-not-evil Queen from the neighboring nation. Win-win. For everyone except the Regents, of course. People would have their faith in their Queen Anastasia back. It was commendable, and she’d set things up really well. Probably wasn’t the smartest idea to let me talk, though, but it was too late for that now. I just hoped she wouldn’t realize before I’d said my thing. 


I stood up and walked to the Dais on the far side, addressing the Queen to my left, the Regents to my right, and the gathered -- and John with his glowing eyes, showing my eyes to every city and town in Wydonia. 


That was a lot of people. The plinth had an elevated part on one side and I wondered briefly if Queen Anastasia’d had this thing carved for this occasion specifically. I leaned on it and tried not to think of all the judging eyes on me. My voice got stuck in my throat for a moment and the longer the silence went on, the louder it got, the more self-conscious I became. I didn’t want to lose myself in panic, not now. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Inhale. Count to four. I’d overcome worse than this. Exhale. Count to four.


“My name,” I began, “is Eliza. I am the one you know as the Demon Dragon Queen.” Small pause to let everyone watching the broadcast gasp. “I have been asked to judge these men.” I waved at the Regents in a gesture that was perhaps a little more dramatic than it should be, but it was easier to do this than play it muted. “Because their crimes are numerous. They captured your Queen. Held her against her will. Lied, to  each and every one of you.” I paused and swallowed. This was the big one.


“But there are more accusations that I would make.” I saw Queen Anastasia frown. She hadn’t expected this, but she had given me a platform and she couldn’t get me down from it without risking a diplomatic incident. It was everything or nothing now. “This would never have happened if Queen Anastasia had not come back from a visit with intent to change some institutions in Wydonia.” Anastasia’s frown deepened. She must have been worrying that I was going to pin this on her somehow. No time to worry about what she was thinking. “There is a large population of Wydonia that has long suffered attacks on their rights and livelihoods. There are peoples, people who are your equals, who have been treated as less. Treated as monstrous. And Queen Anastasia wished to end this abhorrent practice. I commend her for this.” I nodded to her, and she seemed to relax slightly, although she wasn’t any less confused. 


I looked around the people gathered, paused at John for a second, and then landed on the Regents. “These powerful men would have never been able to do what they did if the system they had become powerful under hadn’t existed. The problem,” I said, and projected my voice towards Anastasia again, “isn’t that these men are corrupt. That is the symptom. The problem is that this system rewards corrupt behaviour.”


Anastasia had clearly had enough. I was lucky to have said as much as I did. She stood up, clearly upset at my words. “Are you implying,” she said, as she slowly descended from the steps leading up to her throne, “that I am a symptom of this corrupt system, Queen Eliza? I certainly hope you are not.” There was fury in her eyes and I had to steel myself so as not to take a step back. She was barely half as tall as I was, and yet I felt like making myself small. But I couldn’t let myself, this was too important. 


“No, Queen Anastasia,” I said, ready and committed to deliver a serious blow to the goodwill I’d built up with her. “I’m calling you an aberration.” She opened and closed her mouth a few times like a fish presented with high calculus, and I pushed on before she could interrupt again. “You are, it seems, a good Queen. I am sure you will release those collared throughout your Kingdom. But as long as there are those who make collars, some day, one of your children or your children’s children, someone will find necks for those collars.”


“What are you saying?” she asked, exasperated, finally stepping up on the dais with me. “What are you accusing me of?” She hissed her final words, and it was hard not to let that familiar feeling, the burning in my eyes and throat overtake me. 


“I’m not accusing you of anything, Anastasia,” I said softly, so only she could hear me. Then raised my voice again. “I’m accusing the monarchy. It’s a broken system, and it will break, again and again. You asked me to judge the guilty. These men,” I waved again, looking into John’s eyes, “are only half of those responsible. The system needs to change. Too many people in the streets of Wydonia struggle to survive while those with means toss power back and forth like children throwing a ball.”


“Then what…” Anastasia began, but she’d lost any momentum she had.


“No more Kings,” I said. “No more Queens. Power in the hands of the people. Let them choose who represents them. In a council not chosen because of their riches, their titles or their lands, but because they have earned the trust of the people.”


“And what? All will bow to the Demon Queen in the North?” Anastasia said loudly. “I see your ‘crown’ is still firmly on your head.” Her eyes glanced up at my horns. “You’re the Demon Queen, Eliza. One glance at you and people will know who you are.”


I only just managed to keep myself from trying to look up at the top of my own head. “My body is who I am, Anastasia. My horns are a part of that. A title is not.” I sighed and smiled warmly. “I will relinquish my crown, literal or otherwise. I’d be more than happy to give it up.” I’d only ever wanted to use it to empower others. And it seemed like I was finally there. There was no more need for Queen Eliza. I could be Liz now. Just Liz. I didn’t ask to be the Demon Queen.


I put my hand on the plinth. “The rule of Kings, Queens, ends here, Anastasia. Today.”