The guards forced them to their knees in the middle of the square, before the small committee. Dax wondered if they were senior somehow, like a Taugen government, but there were no discernible signs of rank anywhere. They could have been chosen at random from any Taugen they had seen so far.

Several were dressed in dark blue, either strips or rags or hoods. One was almost naked, save for a pair of rough trousers and some strange implements hanging on a leather strap across his chest. Another, wrinkled with age, was leaning on a staff made out of a length of heavy pipe. All of them carried some sort of weapon, either those arm-mounted Ancestral devices Dax had seen elsewhere or larger weapons across their shoulders.

The entrances to the square were crowded with faces, solemn and curious. One of the raggedly-dressed Taugen on the committee clapped her hands briskly and then spoke, addressing the crowd in their own language. Kaire listened, then translated: “She’s telling them all about how we were captured by a handful of the Taugen’s least powerful warriors.”

“I can believe it,” said Dax. “I was weak as a kitten.”

“Interrupt her,” Athellus said. “Let her know we can understand everything she’s saying.”

The ragged-dressed female Taugen’s head snapped around as Kaire spoke. A whisper of comment ran through the Taugen. The one with a staff made from a pipe rapped it on the ground and barked at them. “He asks how I can speak their language.”

“I guess they don’t know everything about the people they’re about to murder.”

Ragged waved a dismissive hand at Pipe Staff and began upbraiding him. Kaire nodded. “She says it doesn’t matter, we’re human—” She made a wry face, “—and we wandered into their tunnels, our lives are theirs and we’ve already been judged.”

“A talk may be useful,” Pipe Staff countered, as Kaire translated. “We have questions that must be answered before their execution, and the Oracles who know their speech have other business.”

“We cannot trust anything they might say,” Ragged replied.

“We certainly cannot if we don’t ask.”

The discussion went on, into quiet muttering; Kaire kept translating but Athellus waved it away. “Just pick it up when they make a decision.”

“We’re talking, at least,” said Dax hopefully.

“About our impending murder,” Athellus pointed out.

Another rap on the ground from the staff put an end to the Taugen argument. A dark blue hooded Taugen with a wave-shaped mark on his snout stepped forward. “Then it is agreed. The female will translate. They will speak before their death.”

“Wait, wait a second,” said Dax. “Who are you people, anyway? Do you rule the Taugen? Why should we answer to you?”

One of the guards cuffed him on the shoulder. Ragged let out a derisive snort. “Who are we? We are Taugen. We have no ruler. We are all one. We are merely the ones who stepped from the crowd to judge you, because it pleases us. We are not you. We do not bow to a master.”

Wave Mark began to wander back and forth. “The Evinthei are heretics. We know this in our bone and blood. Their use of Gating energy as a tool—unforgivable. But even this crime pales before their most recent evil. An Oracle who went to parley with the Evinthei was foully betrayed and murdered.”

An angry rustle went through the Taugen. Wave Mark waited until it died down. “Ryss spoke with the female-who-leads, the Aeslin commander. She shot him in the head. What do you know of this?”

“Nothing,” said Dax. “We weren’t even there.”

“But Evinthei are human and you are human. Why would this be done?”

“You murder the Evinthei and torture them.” said Dax. “And Adree’s not very forgiving, so yeah, I’m not surprised that she killed your… your…”

“Oracle, ignoramus,” said Pipe Staff. “Our wise ones. They learn the ways of Ancestral technology and maintain existing systems, ensuring we live as the Guardians intended.”

Wave Mark spread his hands and spoke to the crowd. “Inexcusable ignorance. The death of any Oracle is a blow to the heart. Ryss was wise for one so young. Guardian-blessed. His death is a tragedy. And you claim no involvement, no insight? You will not confess to the sin of Ryss’s destruction?”

They cannot understand a species that does not function with one voice and one hand.

“We didn’t kill him,” said Dax. “You just want to make us talk so you feel better about killing us. We’ve never fought anyone we didn’t have to, to survive—”

“That one has.” Ragged pointed. “We know of him, oh yes. The prisoners we take often speak before they die. And the Guardians still whisper to us. We know of that one. The assassinations, understandable perhaps. But some killings are unforgivable.”

Surprised, Dax followed her accusing gaze. Athellus was meeting it, unflinchingly. “Yes,” he said. “It’s as you say.”

Dax stared. Pipe Staff struck the ground again. “Confess, then!” he roared. “Confess!”

The cry was taken up by all the Taugen, echoing in the tunnel. Feet stamped, a thousand hands clapped, over and over in a storm. “Confess! Confess! Confess! Confess!”

Athellus got to his feet, slowly. For a moment Dax couldn’t place the look on his face. Then he remembered; it was the same look Athellus had had when Kaire went berserk, when he’d gone up against a creature of madness and destruction in his shirt sleeves, with only a knife.

“Thel,” said Kaire.

“Keep translating,” he answered, gently, then turned to the crowd. “I confess,” he said, his trained voice strong against the noise; Dax could hear everything clearly. Even Kaire’s translation sounded pale against it. “I am Athellus Marc Borden, and if you really demand it, I’ll confess my crime.”

The Taugen jeered and yelled. Athellus stood, waiting until there was silence.

“The Evinthei trained me in two arts,” he went on when it was quiet. “The art of the voice, and the art of death. When I became full-grown, I stopped being a balladeer and became an assassin. To kill dissidents and rivals; to keep the Evinthei safe.”

“Assassin! Assassin!” The jeer went up from the Taugen, scattered and brief. Athellus waited it out; Dax watched, sensing something bad was coming.

“I killed several people when called upon,” Athellus went on. “I was professional about it. None of them suffered more than a moment. Then…” He stopped, then continued with a visible effort. “Then there was the midsummer that a banru came to Nones.”

 

 

 

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