Like everything else in the house, the round, subterranean courtroom was nothing to brag about. Not compared to his own home, Gabriel thought as he, along with his father settled down at the upper seat, the seat of justice, Shade and Nathaniel behind them and Zacharias and Aenriques just below them. The silence was instant among the onlookers and the small jury consisting of five persons. No more were needed, no more could be found in the area. The granite walls dripped with moisture, the stone tables and benches were draped with dark red cloth and torches hung on the walls. As if taken out of medieval times, Gabriel thought.
They had arrived in New Orleans late at night and had been received at the Nathaniel Residence, the home of the head of the Darklighter branch in North America, James and his wife Carolyne and their three children, Walden, Jane and Marilyn en parade in the noble but humble entrance hall of their house. The place was an old plantation, and the Nathaniels had settled down there many hundred years ago and made a living of exportation of many different crops and especially textiles throughout the ages. There was still work to do on the property, but most of the labour had been outsourced or radically mechanised. But none the less, the goods gave a reasonable profit in the family company’s annual review.
Gabriel had stayed in the background as his father had greeted their host and taken time to study the young inhabitants of the house. Both Walden and Jane had been initiated a few years back, but Marilyn was still too young. In a few years it would be her turn to enter his chambers. Gabriel had seen the sheen in his father’s eyes of anticipation. A wave of anger had curled up inside his stomach, but he knew he could not change the traditions.
As for now, he turned his attention to the present matter of the courtroom. On the left of the seat of justice, sat the Tarleys, and on the right sat the Beauregards, both families were Houses in the same conclave in and around New Orleans. The Nathaniels were the rulers of all matters in the entire North America, James being their Prince of State, and when dealing with affairs without plausible solutions they called in a Core member of the Darklighter family to settle the score. Nobody argued with a Core member. When they arrived, the disputes seemed to settle into lesser conflicts than previously, because nobody wanted to publicly challenge the court, now led by the Core member in question.
The New Orleans conclave was troublesome, but Gabriel and his father had never gone there. Isobel usually settled matters in North America, but Matthew had decided to deal with this affair himself, allowing Gabriel to get out and witness some administrative cases and prepare for his training. The pressure was building, the expectations high. What if he did not succeed? What if he failed miserably and never advanced to become what he had to in order to be ready to follow in his father’s footsteps and become the Lord himself? He let the worries drop for the time being and focused on more important matters as he sat down beside his father and watched the two houses of the conclave entering the courtroom.
Matthew rose. He had no need to call on order; there was an instant hush on the crowd and everybody fell silent turning their attention to him.
“I call upon the heads of Tarley House and Beauregard House. Terry Tarley and Alexei Beauregard, present yourself to the court.”
Dark patches of blood could be seen where sentences previously had been carried out seconds after they had been announced. The two men advanced the jury, which sat in front and beneath Matthew and Gabriel’s seat. The Prince of State, James Nathaniel Darklighter, rose and turned to them.
“Your Highness, Protector of Justice and Righteousness, I give to you the dispute of the houses of Tarley and of Beauregard,” he read from a paper, his South American accent rang shrill in Gabriel’s ears. “The matter consists of a disagreement about the land between the two houses’ dens. The surrounding land has been in the families for centuries. Last winter, Alexei Beauregard gave his sons orders to raise a barn closer to the Tarleys’ den than was agreed upon when the land was originally divided. No documents state, however, the distances, which were agreed upon, the argument Mr. Beauregard brought up in the initial phase of the dispute.”
“What was the purpose of the barn?” Matthew asked.
“Housing of cattle,” James answered and folded the paper. “Mr. Tarley contacted Mr. Beauregard at the construction site and a fight broke out when Mr. Beauregard refused to cancel his project. The dispute culminated last week when one of Mr. Beauregard’s servants, Anthony Brickens, was found dead in the nearby quarry on Tarley’s land.” He sat down. “In both cases I see the possibility of penalty, but in my heart, I don’t know which sort of penalty.”
Matthew sat down, his fingers drummed on the armrest of the cold chair.
“A deliberate action, Mr. Beauregard, how would your regard the action, if your neighbour raised a barn on your premises?” he asked. Alexei Beauregard raised his head. He was a proud nobleman of the 17th century.
“Your Grace, Lord Darklighter, The One, Prince of Darkness,” he said firmly. “The surrounding area of my den, the Beauregard Plantation, has been in my family since my ancestors arrived by ship in 1522 and established the plantation. We are proud of our willingness to share the grounds with the House of Tarley, whom we welcomed around the year of 1600, but my family owns the land. We lend it to the Tarleys, we take it back from the Tarleys, whenever we need to.”
“Is that correct, Mr. Tarley?” Matthew directed his gaze to Beauregard’s opponent, who glanced sourly at Alexei.
“No document states that either,” Terry Tarley replied before he took a step forward and looked up at Matthew. “Your Grace, My Lord, Highest and Holiest, my family has resided in the Tarley Residence for centuries, just like the honourable members of the house of Beauregard have resided in their plantation. We only discovered that we shared almost the same land years after our settlement had been established. Whoever came first can never be documented. Our eldest, the only who remembered the exact date, was hunted down two winters past.”
“A coincidence?” Matthew raised an eyebrow and glanced at Alexei, who pursed his lips grimly without answering.
“He was found in a ditch near the Tarley Residence, or rather what was left of him after he apparently had been burned,” James added. “The circumstances were never uncovered and the local authorities gave up the search for any assailants few months after the incident.”
“You call it an incident?!” Terry Tarley turned outraged towards the Prince of State. “Aaron Tarley, my father and maker, bless his soul, was in perfect health and shape when he left that evening to go hunting. My wife found him before dawn!”
“So it was a crime and not natural death?” Matthew tilted his head, surveying the angry man on the floor.
“I can’t see why it should be anything else than a crime,” Terry Tarley replied firmly, stiff with hate from head to toe. “It’s not like we go playing with fire of our own accord, is it? We’re wiser than that!” he glared at Alexei, who remained surprisingly calm although the very air around Terry seemed sultry.
“So,” Matthew leaned forth and looked at James, “this event was prior to the construction of the barn, I take it?”
“It was,” James nodded.
“I see.” Matthew’s gaze swept between Terry Tarley and Alexei Beauregard. “Both of you have not committed crimes against your houses according to the dispute of the barn, and land can be owned according to the present law here in Louisiana, over which I have no authority. The death of servant Anthony Brickens is not a punishable crime, but in the matter of Aaron Tarley’s death, I want a clear answer to uncover the circumstances surrounding his death. Mr. Beauregard, look me in the eye and tell me: did you arrange his death to avoid the trouble of an elder’s memories when you began planning the construction of your barn? A simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ will do.”
Alexei quivered like a leaf in a wild wind as he raised his gaze to meet his Lord’s. He swallowed hard and sweat broke on his forehead. Clearing his throat, he nodded before he looked away, shameful of the dishonour he brought upon the family name by admitting to the crime.
“Yes, Your Grace,” he said.
“Do you amend your crime, Mr. Beauregard?” the tone was sharp, like a sword carving out pudding.
“I do, Your Grace.”
“Seeing that the murder of an elder was part of your scheme to construct your barn, I demand it burned, along with any cattle living in it,” Matthew leaned back. “And you will serve seventy years coffined and meanwhile your household will be given over to the Tarleys to do as he pleases, residence, servants, children, brothers, sisters and yours and their spouses. When you emerge, they will be redelivered to you, as will your home.” A note was scribbled down to state the sentence. Matthew looked at Terry who smiled slyly. “And you, Mr. Tarley, have the responsibility to see to Mr. Beauregard’s household, to keep them out of harm’s way and to take care of them as if they were your own.” Terry’s smile diminished within seconds but none the less he nodded firmly. “Deliverance of mercy will be yours to judge, if they should not comply with your will, but remember,” Matthew’s eyes narrowed, “a good leader weighs power and deals out judgement in portions according to the crime committed and not what pleases him the most. And twenty years is but a short intake of breath, so keep in mind that I will not look upon this as mercifully as is the case at the moment. If Mr. Beauregard accuses you of abuse of his household while he’s coffined, you will be next to sleep in the wooden bed, not your enemy, no matter how much hate you may hold against him.” He looked over the crowd and nodded. “Sentence announced. Next matter on the agenda.”
Alexei Beauregard was dragged out of the courtroom by two dark-clad guards; he did not say a word, and Gabriel watched his exit as a broken man leaves when a righteous death sentence has been dealt upon him for his crimes. The crowd buzzed as they settled down again and a person was presented to the court, shackled and trembling nervously, a frail excuse for a man, but his yellow eyes glowed fiercely and he held his head high despite the condescending cries from the audience.
“Order!” James called out and Matthew rose.
“Milo Carmenos, am I right?” he drew out a pair of reading glasses and glanced at the sheet of paper brought to him before he had entered the court room. The man nodded, perhaps trying to answer with a feeble voice, but no discernible words emerged; the audience laughed scornfully.
“Silence!” Matthew’s voice was like the crack of a whip and the crowd obeyed instantly. “Mr. Carmenos, you were caught trespassing the Nathaniels’ property a week ago, killing poultry and a horse.” He folded the glasses into his breast pocket, put down the paper and looked inquiringly at the man. “Is that true?”
“Y-yes, Your Highness,” the man answered.
“Emergence from the underground is a crime punishable in itself for you and your kin. Does your acquaintances and next-of-kin know you’re up here?” Matthew raised a slender eyebrow, his gaze never leaving the trembling figure.
“N-no, Your Highness. I’m here… of my own accord. I was cast out of my tribe,” the man explained. “I had nowhere else to go unless I wanted to risk death by the hand of my tribe. We are not many in the underground here in Louisiana.”
“I see,” Matthew nodded slowly. “But you must have come far, the nearest underground exit is south of Jackson.”
The man fell to his knees and looked pleadingly around. “I had no idea. I had wandered for days, getting lost until I found the animals!” he cried; he was shaking all over and tears began flooding his eyes.
“But have you killed other animals on your way down here?” Matthew asked.
“N-no… Well, I tried not to, and I stayed away from civilisation as much as I could,” the man explained. “I had no idea that I was trespassing.”
“There was a breach in the fence north of the Nathaniel Residence,” James noted and glanced at Matthew. “The wire had been cut or torn apart.”
“So you did that?” Matthew asked the poor man who shook his head furiously.
“No! No, it was already damaged when I reached it. I was… confused because I hadn’t passed another fence, but… I was too tired to think any of it,” he looked from James to Matthew, extending his hands pleadingly, the shackles clinking from his tremor. “Please… I did not know! I beg you…” his voice died away in sobs and he lowered his gaze to the stone floor.
“Milo Carmenos, judging from the straight line you seem to have taken from Jackson and to here, just south of Hammond, I dare say you must have followed the interstate, and there is civilisation along that route. So when you claim to have kept away from it, you must either have been sleepwalking or… you’re simply lying to me,” Matthew smiled thinly. “Which one do you want me to believe the most?”
“I…” the man croaked; his throat parched by fear.
“And seeing that I have friends in the underground, I could have spared myself the trouble of questioning you and contacted your elders. But,” Matthew sat down calmly, “being a man of my position, and merciful nature, I wanted to hear your story before I began pulling the strings. And if I pull and discover a loose end which you have not told me about, you’ll be in more trouble than if you just tell it to me now.”
The spindle shoulders trembled as the man began sobbing helplessly, but he was unable to reply.
“Answer the Lord, Mr. Carmenos,” James commanded. “Are you lying to the court, you filthy ground-dweller?”
“No, my Prince, I’m not… at least…” the man looked up. “I chose to go south because… I was told if I went down here and wreaked a havoc on the property of one of the Houses of the conclave, I might…” he swallowed hard, “I might be welcomed back, you see. In my tribe, that is.” He glanced from James to Matthew again. “Please, Your Highness, forgive me! I-I… I just wanted to get back! My whole tribe cast me out and… and I had a chance to win it back! Nobody was s’posed to know that they wanted me down here.”
Matthew’s fingers drummed on the armrest again, clearly annoyed with the new turn of events. He glanced at Zacharias, who sighed heavily and leaned up.
“Uncle, we need to find out who’s behind this before we leave for London again,” he whispered. “If the elders of his tribe really were planning a stealth attack, using this ostracised member as bait, who knows what else they may be planning?”
“My Lord,” Nathaniel stepped up behind Matthew. “Gestur would never allow a tribe to take control of their own actions. I can send for him in no time and get this conflict over with. Our words are no use in their underground territories. Their realm is too different from ours, and their hate for us is stronger than the winter winds of Siberia.”
“Do it,” Matthew nodded and Nathaniel left with a final bow in his Lord’s direction. “Call for Gestur. And let him know what’s going on. I do not like these wile dogs attacking my minions, especially without just cause.” He straightened up. “Milo Carmenos, you have done what anybody in your position would have. I sentence you to a year’s service in the Nathaniel Darklighter household, where you will be treated with the amount of respect that you deserve for still being loyal to those who cast you out, and for telling all of us the truth about your surface venture. I pledge of you to swear fealty until your sentence has been carried out, and to remember the mercy with which your actions have been judged.”
The man broke into convulsive cramps from the sobbing and collapsed on the floor. “Yes, yes, my Lord, I will! Thank you! Your Darkness bless you!” he mumbled gratefully before the guards took him away under a shower of outcries from the audience. Matthew rose and calm settled in.
“I hereby summon for six agents of the New Orleans conclave to go to the underground passage in Jackson and find out whether more have ventured out these past days,” he said. Six men stepped forward on the court floor. James surveyed them before nodding to the clerk beside him, who began scribbling down.
“Eric Raynor, Gary Monroe and George Bosworth of the household of the House of Tarley, Maynard Lavender and Carl Pretsman of the household of the House of Beauregard and Mark Rooney of the household of the House of Moranis,” he said and dismissed the men who all left the court.
“This is serious,” Matthew gritted his teeth as he looked around. “If any of you have heard or seen anything which might give us more detailed information about a coming conflict, do not hesitate to contact me, my agents or the members of the Nathaniel Residence. You are all witnesses; you have all got a responsibility to stay the ways of madness, should an evolving feud break out. I will be in the Nathaniel Residence for the remainder of my stay in New Orleans, and I implore you to seek audience with me, should you have the slightest knowledge of what is happening in the underground. Court dismissed.”
There was a scrambling of feet against the stone floor as the audience rose to leave the court. The jury followed suit, but Matthew held James back, and they remained in their seats to watch the crowd slowly dissolve. An opposing movement caught Matthew’s eye and a young woman with red hair and a spindle figure appeared in front of them. She dropped a courtesy, head bowed, but apparently she was not well trained, and she stumbled insecure.
“Your Grace,” she greeted Matthew and bowed to James as well. “Ma Prince.” She straightened up.
“What’s your name, my love?” Matthew asked.
“Ginger Harrison, o’ the Moor house,” she replied, her fingers fiddling with the seams of her skirt.
“Another house?” Matthew glanced at James who frowned.
“There’re no houses around here by the name of Moor,” he said. “The last one I heard of was in Cleveland, but they were dissolved five years ago. The only houses left here are Tarley, Beauregard and Moranis.”
“I kno’, ma Prince, but we’re new ‘round ‘ere,” Ginger shrugged. “We’re actually an ol’ fraction o’ the Cleveland house and we’re headed west for a while, but then we thought, why not come to the New Orleans conclave and help a bit ‘ere, righ’?” she smiled mildly, the smile of an innocent girl walking deliberately into a lion’s den.
“And what can we do for you then, miss Harrison?” Matthew leaned forth, his eyes scanning her thin figure. She could not possibly have been more than thirteen at her turning.
“Well, Your Grace, me and ma da’, and some o’ ma da’s friends were all up in Jackson some while ago, and we ‘eard talks of a war brewin’, almost like, y’know, a new Great Hunt. Only this time it’d be them earth-dwellers who’d do the hunting and not us,” she answered.
“When was this?” James asked.
“Last month, I guess,” Ginger replied. “Not sure tho’, them days are awfully alike.”
“Ginger, darling,” Matthew rose and descended the stair to the floor where he stopped in front of her and took her small hands in his. “Would you be so kind as to find your mentor and bring him to the Nathaniel Residence? I should very much like to speak with him.” He forced the gentlest of gentle smiles upon his lips and watched how she melted inside at his touch and words.
“Anything for his majesty, Your Grace,” she bowed again and skipped out of the courtroom. Matthew turned and looked at James.
“Let’s go to your office,” he said. “The flock will be more inclined to seek out council in less darkened surroundings.”