Criminal

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic

Chapter 58 (v.1) - Chapter Fifty-Eight

Submitted: April 15, 2019

Reads: 14

Comments: 1

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Submitted: April 15, 2019

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“Alina? Alina, wake up!”

“Hmm?” Rubbing her eyes, Alina sat up and glanced around. It was a few seconds before she realized she was in the coach, remembered everything that had happened with Sil and Naomi in Inverness. She turned to look at Annalisa. “Where— where are we?”

Cirrane.” Annalisa chuckled softly. “You slept almost the whole way here. Smart of you– the rest of us had to listen to Bram drone on about the history of the Catian judicial system for three hours. I wish I could’ve slept through it.”

“Oh.” Alina was still groggy, and she blinked several times to clear her head. She noticed suddenly that the coach wasn’t moving. Even more surprisingly, she and Annalisa were the only ones inside it. “Where’s everybody else?”

“They’re all here, they just got out to stretch their legs.” Annalisa swung the door open. “There’s still a few minutes before we need to report for your appeal. Come see the courthouse!”

Alina followed her aunt down the coach’s rickety steps and into the cool morning air. Bram, Ahmed, and Naomi were all outside, just as Annalisa had promised. They stood before a massive stone building. Unlike the other wooden structures which surrounded it, it was made of smooth gray rock, and stretched so tall into the sky that Alina had to crane her neck to see the top of it. The image of a set of scales was engraved in the façade, with CATIAN FEDERAL COURTHOUSE etched below.

“It’s it beautiful?” Bram whispered, breathless with awe. “Simply amazing.”

Beautiful? Intimidating was more like it. Standing in the building’s cold shadow, Alina felt smaller than ever. She had prepared for this moment for months– appealing to the other judges, writing an argument, practicing over and over again with Bram. But now that she was finally here in Cirrane, standing in front of the courthouse, she wasn’t sure she even had the nerve to step inside.

Then she felt Annalisa’s hand on her shoulder.

“You did it,” she murmured. “Whatever happens in there, you did it. You got this far. And I’m so, so proud of you.”

She reached for Alina’s hand.

“Now, let’s finish this.”

Alina drew herself up to her full height and squared her shoulders. Annalisa was right, she realized– she had done it. She’d fought her way here. Now all that remained was one more appeal, one more speech, not just for herself but for her siblings, her father, her mother as well.

“There you are, Miss Fletcher,” Naomi called, moving towards them. “If you’re ready, I should escort you inside. It’s almost time.”

Alina squeezed Annalisa’s hand tightly before nodding.

“I’m ready,” she said, and she almost believed it.

The outside of the courthouse might have been intimidating, but the inside was much less so. The front door opened into a lobby. Corridors branched off into other, smaller rooms. People milled about, chattering and arguing animatedly amongst each other. No one paid Alina or her family any attention. Naomi led them down a hallway to the right and stopped before a large wooden door.

“This is where your appeal is being held, and where we part ways.” She gave a little bow. “It’s been an honor protecting you, Miss Fletcher. It truly has.”

“You’re not coming inside?” Ahmed demanded. “But don’t we need protection in there, too—”

“There are guards inside the courtroom. You’ll be safe there, I promise.” Naomi turned to look at Alina. “Now that I’ve escorted you here, my assignment is finished, and I’m required to report back to the Civilian Defense Program’s headquarters. But I look forward to reading about your win in the papers tomorrow.” She held out her hand, and Alina shook it. “Good luck, Miss Fletcher. As I said, it’s been an honor.”

Alina watched her go with a pang of sadness. After everything they’d been through, especially Sil’s attack, Naomi’s presence had been a comfort. But she had little time to dwell on it. Bram eagerly pulled the door open and ushered her inside.

“Let’s go,” he said excitedly, as she stepped through the doorway. “You’ve got a hearing to win.”

True to Naomi’s word, the courtroom was lined with guards– Alina counted at least ten of them. Several rows of benches filled the room, split by an aisle down the middle. To Alina’s shock, all of them were taken except for the very first row. Dozens of reporters with books and pens filled the seats. They all turned to stare at Alina and her family as they entered, and a wave of chatter swept through the room.

“I said there would be a lot of reporters,” Bram whispered, somewhat gleefully. Annalisa muttered a surprised exclamation, while Ahmed stood gaping. Alina just felt sick. “I told you, this is a moment of historical proportion. Come on!”

He took the lead and guided them all up to the right side of the first row. As she sat down, Alina noticed a podium several feet in front of them. Beyond that were a large desk and chair.

“That’s where you’ll give your testimony,” Bram said, gesturing to the podium. “And Camille Auster will sit at that desk– there’s no jury, remember, so she’ll be the only one you’re talking to. She should be here in a few minutes.”

“G—great.” Alina tried to sound excited, but she couldn’t keep the tremble from her voice. Fortunately, Bram didn’t seem to notice. He turned to Ahmed.

“Do you see that painting over there, the one with the two generals standing beneath the oak tree? Now, if you’ll recall the story I was telling on the way here, that painting actually depicts the formation of the very first Judicial Council of Catia—”

“Pity Bram isn’t more excitedly about this,” Annalisa said sarcastically, sliding into the seat beside Alina. She frowned. “Hey, are you alright? You look pale.”

 “I’m fine.” Alina took a deep breath. “I guess— I guess when Bram said there would be a lot of reporters, I didn’t think there would be this many.”

“There are a lot of them, aren’t there?” Annalisa looked around. “Still, that doesn’t really change anything, does it? You’ll still say the same thing you would if we were the only ones here.”

“I guess so.”

“Hey.” Her aunt’s voice softened. “I meant what I said outside. Whatever happens here– whatever you say, whatever they think, whatever the judge decides– I’m proud of you, Alina. And I know your father’s proud of you. And your mother– Alina, look at me. Your mother would be so, so proud of you. I know she would be.”

Alina’s throat tightened, and her eyes grew hot. Annalisa wrapped her arms around her and kissed her forehead.

“So proud,” she whispered, stroking Alina’s hair. “So, so proud.”

A sudden murmur coursed through the room, and Alina pulled away. She glanced at the desk, expecting to see that Camille Auster had entered, but it remained empty. The attention was focused instead at the back of the courtroom, where a pack of guards was escorting someone through the door.

“No,” Annalisa breathed, her face paling. “No. That’s impossible. That can’t be—”

Alina strained to see who it was. The guards blocked her view, but she caught a glimpse of a man’s face– one she recognized. She had seen it a hundred times before, in paintings, on pamphlets, in propaganda. Her heart sank into her stomach.

“President Gilbreth?” Bram’s voice cracked. “The president is here?”

“Why would he come to the hearing?” Ahmed demanded angrily, balling his hands into fists. “Doesn’t he have better things to do?”

Alina suddenly felt very cold.

From Michael’s stories, she knew the president viewed the designation of Criminal as a way of keeping people, especially Daltian people, in their place. But Criminal or not, she was only one person– her little appeal couldn’t possibly threaten him, could it? The idea seemed laughable. And even if it did, what good would coming to the hearing do? It wasn’t as if he could legally forbid her from appealing, or order the judge to give a certain verdict—

Unless he didn’t have to.

“The judge,” Alina realized. “He’s going to scare the judge.”

“What?” Annalisa looked confused, but Bram gave a grim nod.

“The president opposes reversing Criminal sentences,” he muttered, his eyes darkening. “He can’t outright forbid Judge Auster from siding with Alina, but he can sit right there on the other side of the front row and stare her down throughout the entire appeal. He’ll make it clear that if the judge values her career, she had better not decide in Alina's favor—”

“It doesn’t matter. It won’t work.”

Everyone turned to stare at Annalisa. She met each of their gazes in turn, then reached for Alina’s hand and spoke with complete certainty.

“It doesn’t matter what Gilbreth does, because it won’t work,” she repeated. “He won’t intimidate Judge Auster. She’ll still side with you.”

Alina wished she could believe her, but this was the president they were talking about! She stole a glance behind her. Gilbreth was moving up the aisle now. He made an imposing figure, dressed in full military regalia and flanked by half a dozen guards. It was difficult to imagine anyone, even a judge, being uncowed by his presence.

Bram seemed to agree. “What do you mean, it won’t work?” he demanded, snorting. “You honestly believe that the judge will be completely unruffled by the leader of our country sitting right in front of her, disapproving of—”

“Gilbreth spearheaded the trial that convicted your parents.” Ignoring Bram, Annalisa turned and looked seriously at Alina. “He wants you to lose this appeal– no one can deny that. But Michael’s told me all about that trial and everyone involved in it. Camille Auster was one of the jurors. She was against convicting your parents. Even when Gilbreth tried to bully her into siding with him, she held her ground. She defied him then, and she’ll defy him now. Even if he’s sitting right in front of her.”

Sure as Annalisa seemed, her words brought Alina little comfort. Camille Auster might have defied Gilbreth without hesitation all those years ago, back when he was only a councilman with no real power. Now he was the president of Catia. Alina doubted if even Camille Auster would be unswayed by his presence.

“I guess there’s nothing we can do about it,” Bram admitted with a sigh. “Even with the president here, you’ve still got a better chance with Judge Auster than you would have with anyone else. Just stick to your prepared appeal and you should be fine.”

Gilbreth marched slowly up the aisle, looking out of the rows of people as he did. Part of Alina wanted to challenge him– or, if nothing else, to meet his eyes with a confident gaze, to show she wasn’t afraid. But at the last minute she shrank back and looked away. As he passed by her, she sensed his heartbeat– slow, steady, certain.

He wasn’t worried at all.

She had expected the president to sit in the front row on the opposite side of the courthouse, where he could best intimidate Camille Auster, but now he passed that as well and stepped up in front of the podium. His guards fanned out around him.

“People of Catia,” he called, in a booming voice. “I would like to take a moment now to thank you all for coming to this hearing. It is always encouraging to see so many people invested in the pursuit of justice.”

An eerie stillness filled the room. The reporters sat on edge, pens poised to write. Alina held her breath. She felt Ahmed’s hand clutching hers, Annalisa’s arm around her shoulder. They held each other tightly, still as death, waiting.

After nearly a minute’s pause, President Gilbreth went on. “I regret that I come to you today with some disheartening news,” he announced. “It involves the judge assigned to this hearing, Camille Auster. Over the past few months, our legislative committee has received numerous complaints about Judge Auster– namely, that she is biased, and places her own ideals above the laws of Catia. An independent panel began an investigation and– I am sad to say– found those complaints were correct.”

No. Alina felt the air rush out of her lungs. She shook her head, tried to shake it all away. No. It wasn’t possible. He couldn’t—

“This country has a federal court for the purpose of interpreting and upholding our laws,” Gilbreth continued. “We cannot allow it to be served by individuals who use it to impose their own political and moral beliefs on the Catian population! In light of these findings, I have no choice but to suspend Judge Auster from the bench, effective immediately.”

Annalisa gasped, and Bram muttered a string of curses under his breath, but Alina barely heard them. Her head was spinning, trying to understand. He couldn’t suspend Camille Auster. Camille Auster was on her side. Camille Auster was her only chance—

“What about today’s hearing?” one of the reporters was asking. “Will it have to be rescheduled?”

“The appeal will continue as planned,” Gilbreth answered. “Another federal judge has been randomly selected to hear the case– I don’t know who. They should be here in a few minutes, and then Miss Fletcher’s appeal will commence.”

For the first time, he turned to look directly at Alina, and she found herself staring into his cold blue eyes. He gave her a sickening smile.

“I wish you the best of luck.”

 




© Copyright 2019 KathrynAcacia. All rights reserved.

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