She peered around the doorway, through the entrance. The room was full, as it usually was at this time. Usually, no one noticed her. (Someone always noticed.) Would she learn about those things during her schooling? Possibly, but it would be in later years. They had started a few minutes ago, so the room’s attention was fixed at the front. She crept in. The proceedings were quiet today, but still, everyone’s focus was on the front of the room, and no one had heard her. (But one person had seen her. He always watched her creep in and sit on the floor behind the rear barriers. Today, before she made it safely behind cover, he nudged his partner, a woman even older than him, and gestured slightly. She stifled a gasp, and stiffened instead.)
The courtroom was made almost entirely of metal. Charllotte didn’t know the alloys. She knew quite a lot for her age, is what people told her, but of metals, she had learned very little. After many months of eavesdropping, she had learned one thing about the building, and especially about this room. The construction had been focused on structural soundness over all else. The space had a tinny echo that could become dizzying if someone began shouting as part of a rhetorical movement, or worse, if an argument broke out. She knew how to fix that though. You just had to line the ceiling and walls with something that dampened sound. Even patches of fabric or carpeting here and there would help. She was almost at her hiding spot, in the corner, behind the barrier. No one who was not requested to attend was allowed to attend, and worse, children were not allowed at all unless required for the trial. She crawled on her hands and knees so no one would see her behind the barrier.
Someone shouted, startling her, and freezing her in place for a moment. The call echoed across the walls and ceiling. (He whispered, explaining that this girl came to trials quite frequently. She asked him why, but interrupted by one of the speakers.) The call moved to her end of the room with noticeable a degree of control. Charllotte caught herself, and glanced down the second gap between the benches. She could see the man who had called out, pale and confident, on the other side of the room. He continued speaking as he had before. His yell had been made on purpose, that man must have practiced in order to make such an effect.
Charllotte saw eyes on her, past the man. It was one of the judges. She gasped—two of them had seen her. She scurried forward to her hiding spot.
She had been doing this for so long and getting away unseen, but now someone had noticed her. And it was a judge! Two judges! Charllotte sat hidden in the corner of the room. She breathed hard, but through her mouth, as quietly as she could.
Usually, Charllotte listened and studied by ear what happened in the court. Then, would leave before everything ended, but today she was shaken. Would she ever be able to sneak in again? Would she be caught? What would the judges do? Her brain swirled, and just as the thought leaving—leaving immediately and running—just as the idea occurred to her, the steel whistle blew and ended the session. (He wasn’t sure if the girl was still hiding or if she had run out while he was focused on his role.)
Charllotte was hidden in the corner, in a little nook created by the wall on two sides, and the barrier and its open door on the other. Surprisingly, after the case was decided and the courtroom emptied, no one bothered to look over the barrier to where she was hiding. At least, she didn’t think so. She looked up to check. She didn’t want to be surprised again. As the footsteps faded, Charllotte caught her breath, and readied herself to make a dash out through the door. She stood up and stopped.
“There she is.”
(He watched her freeze in place.)
Charllotte’s body tensed again. The judge had waited behind for her! Both judges had.
Her call was short, but loud. She tried to stifle it, but it reverberated across the courtroom.
“This isn’t the time for silliness!”
It was the second judge, the woman. She was taller than Charllotte would have expected of a woman that old, and her skin was dark. She was also very wrinkled, especially her face. She had eyes that Charllotte felt were reading her mind through her face.
“It wasn’t too bad a shout, I don’t think.” The other judge, the old man, mumbled. He mumbled, but unusually loud. And he was nodding continuously, but very slightly, giving his head an odd agreeable bob. “Maybe with some practice she could be rhetorician. Just need to work on your self-control a bit.” At this, he laughed, but without smiling. It was a mirthful laugh, but it confused her more than anything else.
“Umm,” Charllotte started to turn towards the door. Both of the judges were in the benches, and they were both elderly. She could quite likely run and lose them quite easily.
“Stop there, maid.” The woman spoke sharply, but her eyes were even worse.
“You can’t call her maid,” the man mumbled noisily, “this generation doesn’t even know what that means, do you?” He laughed plainfacedly and wiped his face. He had light skin that seemed to have been hardened by the sun, as if he had been slowly cooking all his life.
Charllotte frantically tried to find in her head a sentence, even a single word to say in reply. Instead, to her tense relief, the woman interrupted her.
“Why are you here?”
Charllotte gave up trying to form arguments or excuses. She gave up and just spoke.
“I came here to learn!”
“Learn courts?” Said the man.
“How old are you, five?” Asked the woman.
“No no, she must be eleven or twelve. Come on Shushann, don’t you have grandchildren?” He laughed again.
“Five, eleven, same thing under these circumstances. A child. So you’re breaking how many rules?” Shushann asked.
“Two,” Charllotte said.
“At least that.”
“And?” The man said, to Charllotte’s surprise. “What are we going to do about it? I vote nothing. Come now, you are the only other judge here, what is your vote?”
“She must be punished.”
Charllotte stepped back.
The man laughed. “What punishment then!”
“I vote nothing,” the man said.
The Shushann frowned. “You mustn’t come here anymore. Not until you reach adulthood.”
Banned? She was banned! She had been exiled from the courthouse! Why? She had come here only to learn on the topic which fascinated her most. She wasn’t breaking any rules; she wasn’t breaking any rules that made sense to her anyway. But she would never be allowed to return here. Never again…
Charllotte began to cry.
Shushann took a step back in disbelief. “I am not—Fordrick, you have grandchildren, do what must be done!”
What must be done? Charllotte began to cry out louder. It echoed across the ceiling and across to the other end of the room and back again, but with the added sharpness of the steel walls. Fordrick closed the door.
“Come now, you have to save that crying talent for when you are trying to warp the reason of judges in your next trial, child.” He chuckled, but this time he actually put in the effort to smile. And the wrinkles in his face did funny things when he smiled. They bunched up around his forehead and his mouth, but his cheeks puffed up and become smooth and shiny. Charllotte laughed.
“Tell me, how old are you?”
She wiped her eyes and took a breath. She was eleven. She could take control of her emotions at least somewhat, being this old, and so she decided to show them. She said, “I am eleven.”
“Well, there you go Shushann.”
“So,” he turned back to the girl, “tell me, young, err…”
He trailed off, and Charllotte said, “Err? No, my name isn’t err.”
“Err, no it isn’t. It is…”
He trailed off again, this time it looked like he was trailing off into a nap as well. (He wasn’t though, he was just trying to be silly to keep the girl’s spirits up.) Shushann opened the door again.
“I am Charllotte.”
“That’s an awfully long name! Tell me, when is your birth date?”
“Birth date? Why, it is—” her eyes lit up. Fordrick straightened up and smiled. Shushann watched in amazement as she read the girl. Her face revealed the connections being made within. The girl had figured it out, and Fordrick knew…and she didn’t even know.
“My birthday is in two months!”
“And, of course, you wouldn’t want to continue breaking the law now would you?” Fordrick asked.
“No, of course not. But!”
“Stop,” Shushann said. “One moment. What are you two talking about? I can read a face, but I cannot read your minds.”
“Why, when she’s twelve, is she not legally an adult?” Fordrick smiled.
“But…” Charllotte mumbled.
“Yes,” Shushann added, “but who says she can attend trials that she is not required to?”
“Oh.” Fordrick stopped. Then, he began to smile slightly.
Charllotte nodded and frowned. Then she saw Shushann’s expression.
“I see,” said Shushann, “You intend to give her an observer’s pass, do you?”
“Ah!” Charllotte’s mouth opened up. “I know about that! That is ‘a document that allows its holder to enter any trial except those in the high courts in the event that a person who had been ordered to attend neglected attendance.’”
“Yes, that is the law…almost as written,” said Shushann. “You don’t, by any chance happen to read law books too, do you? At five years old?”
Charllotte stopped, a little confused. She looked at Fordrick, who smiled back.
She said, “No, not at five years old. I couldn’t read when I was five. But I can read now, and I did check for ways to learn in person!”
– February 2, 2020
Hopefully this reads okay. I wrote it on 0 sleep.
This does actually take place on the Underside, in the Lussa City, which is the setting of The Solune Prince. Charllotte, as well as these two judges, have existed in my head for probably a year or two (maybe more). I wasn’t, and still am not sure if they will appear in The Solune Prince, but they are certainly residents of the city.
See you next week,
P.S., Isn’t “plainfacedly” such a wonderful made up word?