Chapter 1:

Imperial Adjudicators

Eria of Taint and Discovery


Fifty young people were standing in neat rows inside a big audience hall. The most numerous among us were nobles, but there were also soldiers, merchants, commoners, nomads, serfs and maybe even a slave or two. Not only our social standing was vastly different, but judging by the nobles’ emblems, the countries we came from were spread all over Altanea. On top of that, mixed within the group were three members of the rumored ma’gan race. Although I had never seen a ma’gan before coming to Dove Island, their bright red eyes, sharp pointed teeth, and movements that were somehow inhuman made them easy to recognize.

Such a bizarre mixture of races, cultures, social standing and old feuds should have had exploded right after we had been gathered inside this spacious room. However, only gazes full of contempt and hatred were exchanged above the heads of those who tried to remain unnoticed. Other than that, everyone maintained a perfect silence. This state was partly caused by the legionnaires standing around us, each fully equipped with vifer armaments, and partly by the imperial adjudicators who were sitting on ornamented chairs placed in two rows on the granite platform opposite to us.

[I feel kind of sorry for that redhead girl, she looks as if she is about to cry.] A male voice shattered the oppressive silence. Its calm tone felt entirely out of place in this room filled with tension and for the first time in a very long its sudden appearance made me flinch. This voice belonged to Teacher, and it sounded from the yellow topaz adorning my silver necklace.

I was the only one who reacted to his words and quickly found the mentioned girl.

[That one? She looks like a commoner… but is acting way too scared to be one. I bet she’s a serf.]

[A serf huh? The poor girl is surrounded by nobles, no wonder she’s terrified. This world is messed up in this matter. And don’t even get me started about those three lolis. They don’t seem too disturbed, but aren’t they at least three or four years too young to participate in all this?] Like a hawk, Teacher managed to pinpoint every young girl inside the room whose height was under one hundred and fifty centimeters. The so-called ‘loli’. It was one of the many terms that I had involuntarily learned after listening to Teacher for years.

After I had to leave my younger sisters behind, I thought that Teacher would be willing to lend me his knowledge without making any more strange demands, but it seemed that I still was too naive. He was already looking for new targets.

[Don’t try pretending to be concerned, Teacher. I know you’re happy to see them here. Anyway, it’s about to begin. We will talk later.]

[Sure.]

[And thanks.]

In comparison to half of the people around, who were either covered in sweat, trembling, pale, grinning madly, about to cry or all of the above, my mental shape was much better thanks to Teacher. He not only focused my attention on someone who was clearly in a way worse state than me but also followed it with his usual silly talk. At the same time, he reminded me about my sisters for whom I was willing to go through all this… not that I had much choice in the first place. An order signed by the emperor was something that caused you to throw away EVERYTHING and obediently follow the legionnaires who had ‘magnanimously’ gave you an hour to say goodbyes to your family and pack your things.

The most important looking person among the imperial adjudicators, an older man surrounded by the air of authority, stood up from his decorated chair and took the central position on the platform. He had a black cape which contrasted with his short white hair. On top of his luxurious garments was a single piece of armor, an ornamented silver breastplate on which the seal of The Grand Crimson Empire’s imperial family, the burning crown, was engraved. The seal’s color was golden which meant that he was even more important than I thought, probably the head imperial adjudicator himself.

It was strange that the imperial protocol was entirely ignored and there was no master of ceremonies who would open everything with a round of courteous introductions, but if this gathering had been following the protocol, then two-thirds of the fifty people standing in rows would have never been allowed to step inside this place. Add to it the armed legionnaires, and I felt more like a criminal who was about to be judged.

“I wonder, how many of you know the true reason behind being brought to this place?” Started the head imperial adjudicator in a booming voice. By no means he was a tall man, yet at this moment his presence was bigger than any of the people inside the audience hall. “There are sixty-two imperial adjudicators working directly under the emperor. It may seem like a lot if you think of us as the extension of the emperor's will, or as the people who can freely order around the rulers of the vassal states, but in reality, it’s far from enough. That’s why you were chosen among tens of thousands of potential candidates. You were chosen as the candidates to become new imperial adjudicators.”

There were more people shocked by this revelation than I expected. Some lowborn idiots were even gaping at the man on the platform as if they wanted to ask him if he wasn’t mistaken. At least no one was brain-dead enough to voice such a question. On the other hand, I wanted to ask, were those guys truly the handpicked elite candidates?

After I had arrived in the city of Fallice on Dove Island, I still had to wait over a month for the remaining candidates. Then several more days before we were finally gathered in this room. Although soldiers had been watching us closely during that period and hadn’t allowed to meet with each other, it had been more than enough time for Teacher and me to deduce the reason behind this summon as well as gather some basic information about the selection of imperial adjudicators from the locals.

“Being allowed to attend the Imperial Academy of Adjudication is a great honor in itself. Nevertheless, your families have also received a generous remuneration for sending their precious children to fulfill their duty towards the empire. As for our guests from The Te’Sha Grandate.” He briefly looked at each of the three ma’gans. “In accordance with the treaty signed by both empires, as of this moment, each of you is granted the title of a baron and become a part of The Grand Crimson Empire’s nobility. Shall you survive till the end of the selection, then no matter its outcome, you will be elevated to the rank of a count and given a plot of land inside the empire. At the same time, you’re stripped of any and all of your previous privileges and titles granted by The Te’Sha Grandate.”

Two of the ma’gans, a tall girl with orange hair and a much smaller one with blond curly hair, didn’t seem to be surprised by their sudden change of citizenship. The petite girl bowed courteously with a big smile showcasing her shark-like teeth, while the other only nodded slightly without any visible change in her blank expression. The third ma'gan, a red-haired young man, was biting his lip hard and dark red blood dribbled down his chin.

“I’m the second prince of Ra’Sha Marchia…” He whispered through his sharp teeth and looked as if he wanted to reject this demotion to a mere baron, but was smart enough to realize that it was neither the time nor place for that. Those who had heard him paid it no attention, we were more concerned with the ominous phrase ‘shall you survive’.

After observing their reactions, the head imperial adjudicator resumed his speech. “However, the status of a candidate for an imperial adjudicator is just below that of a junior judge. This temporarily elevates you to a position above that of a ruler of an empire’s vassal state and makes all fifty of you equal. Any actions deemed as an abuse of authority will immediately result in expulsion and loss of all previously held titles. Such is the will of the emperor.” If someone else had told us this, then I doubt many would believe it. Yet here, no one dared to deny those words or treat them as a mere fantasy. Every single one of the head imperial adjudicator’s sentences carried an unbelievable weight. It was almost as if they became a part of the imperial law upon contact with air.

I could already tell from the sour expression that appeared on many faces that a lot of the nobles detested the very idea of having to treat slaves, serfs, and commoners as equals. Especially that pair with pale skin and black hair, bearing the emblems of the house of Raven. Their family was no different from royalty in Raven’s Oligarchy and was infamous for inhumane treatment of their subjects. However, there were also a few exceptions, like that person I knew well who looked thrilled with this turn of events. He was Ordius Lunera, the third prince of the Lunera family ruling over the kingdom of Verluna, the place I hailed from.

“The five imperial adjudicators responsible for overseeing the current selection are High Judge Kyle Blackdust, Judge Romiel Andronicus, Judge Vera Raven, Junior Judge Hector Umbric, and Junior Judge Neriell di Isabella. I leave the fate of the candidates in their capable hands.” The head imperial adjudicator finished his short speech and immediately started walking towards the exit of the audience hall. One after the other, the imperial adjudicators stood up and followed him in the order of importance until only the mentioned five remained sitting on the podium.

[That was Supreme Judge Gabriel Alexandrius? I’m a bit disappointed, his paintings looked more intimidating.]

[That’s because you’re unable to feel his overwhelming presence and piercing gaze, Teacher. It felt as if he could ruin my entire life and turn my sisters into criminal slaves with an offhand gesture… the worst part is that he actually could do that if he wanted to. I’m glad that we aren’t worth more of his time.]

When the man second only to the emperor left the room, the atmosphere became much more bearable. The fifty people standing in rows weren’t the only ones who could finally breathe a sigh of relief, the legionnaires relaxed their stance as well. I shot a glance at the crying girl from before and saw the exact moment she fell on the floor.

For a short while every person inside the room turned towards the source of noise, but after it became apparent that she had merely fainted, everyone lost their interest. The girl was left alone on the cold stone floor. The legionnaires couldn’t touch her without an explicit order since she had just been elevated to a status high above theirs, the imperial adjudicators ignored her entirely, and none of the candidates was willing to risk helping a potential rival in a place where our every move was probably closely watched and evaluated. I also didn’t move, unwilling to sabotage this precious chance to obtain the authority required to free my sisters.

“Excuse me, High Judge Blackdust. May I request one of the legionnaires to help her?” Proved me wrong a skinny noble who looked to be in his mid-twenties, one of the oldest candidates. I couldn’t recognize the emblem of his house, but his tanned skin meant that he was probably from the kingdom of Holnest.

“And you are?” Responded a man with a trimmed beard and a stern face. He was the only imperial adjudicator who remained sitting in the first row of the chairs placed on the podium.

“The candidate for an imperial adjudicator Maximus Eulogius.”

“Permission denied. Those soldiers have their responsibilities and orders, I will not disturb their duties with minor requests. However, you have my permission to help this candidate personally.”

“Thank you, your honor.”

The minor noble swiftly moved towards the unconscious girl. Without the slightest sign of contempt or disgust for the girl who just yesterday had been a serf, he took her in his arms and carried towards one of the benches set against the wall. Then he carefully placed her on it and sat down himself. A second later his rescue operation was completed, the girl had her head lying comfortably on his lap. Maximus failed to hide his satisfaction with this situation and even began stroking the hair of the pretty teenage girl. I watched all this with astonishment and aversion, wondering if he was one of those people who saw members of lower classes as outlets for their base urges.

[The only decent person among the wicked.] Teacher’s opinion was as unorthodox as ever.

“The Crimson Kingdom, Xertia kingdom, Verluna kingdom, Holnest kingdom, the Raven’s Oligarchy and the Triangle Protectorate.” The high judge began his speech after he moved to the central position of the podium. Each of his words was accompanied by an energetic hand gesture. “So many different states, but we can’t forget that they’re all a part of a single, powerful empire, The Grand Crimson Empire! Once, we didn’t need all that unnecessary division, the entire humanity was united under the banners of The Eagle Empire, fighting to regain our rightful place in Altanea that was stolen by blood beasts. However, as we all know, The Eagle Empire gave too much freedom to its citizens and collapsed internally. Now, the role of humanity’s flag bearer has been entrusted to our glorious empire! But the autonomy of each region is too high, the emperor’s brilliant ideas and edicts are met with illogical resistance and delay. How is the empire to stand united against the blood beasts that still persist deep inside the mountains when some of its vassal states scheme to gain independence?! How is the empire to help The Te’Sha Grandate with the war in the far north when the empire’s nobility is busy with petty feuds and quarrels?! How is the empire to stop further division and weakening like the emergence of the wretched Laverox Federation?! The answer to all those questions is simple, the imperial adjudicators.” The high judge lacked the air of authority possessed by the supreme judge, but he tried to make up for it with conviction and passion.

[I already told you a better answer to this problem. Care to enlighten him?] Proposed Teacher.

The speech that the high judge continued to deliver wasn’t anything new to me, he focused mostly on repeating a few propaganda slogans like the unity of the human race or the glory connected with serving the empire. All that sprinkled with the importance of the imperial adjudicators, who were akin to the extended will of the emperor. I kept listening to it half-heartedly and shifted my focus to the internal discussion with Teacher.

[Let’s say that after using an ungodly amount of luck I will manage to get the high judge to arrange a meeting with the emperor. After that, I will somehow convince the emperor to reform our entire society, then what? Should I dedicate the rest of my life to help with making it come true? Will I even see the result of my hard work? How long did you say it took to abolish feudalism in your world, a few centuries? Why should I bother with all that? I’m the second son of a marquis, with a chance to become an imperial adjudicator, and I happen to like my current perspectives.]

[Buuu! No gunpowder for you! And with my help, it would take a few decades at most!]

[You’ve said yourself that the situation here is different to the one you know, the empire doesn’t exactly follow every rule of that feudalism of yours. We’ve got a standing army in the form of imperial legions, there are no knights or cavalry, more than half of the human countries are included into The Grand Crimson Empire, and the remaining ones are still independent only because the emperor wants to stabilize the internal situation first.]

[Yeah, so big and strong. Until a rebellion happens and suddenly you’ve got five new countries, four in the form of the Laverox Federation that took a massive chunk of the empire’s east coast, and one buffer zone called the Triangle Protectorate. Why does exactly The Crimson Kingdom, the beating heart of the empire, needs a buffer zone cutting its southern borders from its biggest vassal state and the allied ma’gan empire?]

[... alright, the situation could be better.]

[That’s why you can’t treat winning this selection as the end goal, always remember that it’s nothing more than a stepping stone. Otherwise, you will be wasting precious time by playing the role that for sure is going to be swamped with meaningless work. You should establish a country of your own and modernize its every aspect from the ground as soon as you free those adorable tiny devils you call sisters.] Teacher was serious, he truly believed that it was something I could accomplish as long as he acted as my guide.

[But where? And how?]

[I’ve got a few ideas. For now, focus on making the best out of the current situation. Even if they’re ‘only’ second or third sons and daughters of their respective houses, there’s still a bunch of royalty and nobles standing right next to you. Go and make as many friends as you can, they may come in handy later. Prioritize the three lolis, I won’t teach you anything else if you don't befriend at least one of them. Also, become an imperial adjudicator if you can, then we will go back to making as much money as possible. I will tell you later about a few more things that are easy to mass produce and will help to make you rich.]

[More stuff like graphite pencils, chess and all those tasty things you can turn potatoes into?]

[Better. Just remember to keep your promise after earning one hundred thousand gold coins. But let’s end our discussion here. I think the necklace’s battery is about to-]

Teacher’s voice suddenly disappeared, the small vifer core inside the yellow topaz had run out of energy. I shifted my attention to the high judge who finally finished his lengthy introduction and began talking about more important things.

“... into several stages. The first of them last for a year and is dedicated to making sure that all of you possess a similar level of knowledge and the right attitude towards this position. During that year you won’t be able to leave the academy grounds. Don’t worry, everything required to live comfortably will be provided to you. However, that also means you will have to leave all of your personal belongings behind. They will be sold, and the entire profit will be used to cover a part of the academy expenses. This is a standard procedure, and no objection will be tolerated. Also, there are many special cases among you who were accepted despite failing the initial examination, so the current selection is... highly experimental.” High Judge Blackdust made a small break during which he called for one of the servants waiting outside the audience hall to bring him a cup of water.

At first, I didn’t understand what he meant by initial examination, but then I remembered those people from the merchant guild who had been persistently collecting information about me inside my family’s marchdom. At that time, I was convinced that they were simply trying to find out if the patents I had sold to Verluna’s merchant guild were truly my original inventions, but they might have also been checking if the genius child of the Gaure family was a valid candidate for an imperial adjudicator.

The other revelations, the fact that we were going to be kept here for a year and that our things were going to be seized, were something that I had already taken into consideration, but a few candidates were more than unhappy with it. Especially the two muscular guys wearing nomadic robes who moved to leave their place in the row. But right after they made a single step, they were stopped by the sound of unsheathing gladiuses coming from the legionnaires closest to them. It seemed that an attempt to leave, no matter the reason, was going to be judged as treason towards the empire, and this verdict had a tendency to end with detaching the offenders' heads from the rest of their bodies.

They unwillingly returned to their places. After watching this, other candidates refrained from voicing any complaints.

“As you may have already deduced from my introduction, the main characteristics of a perfect imperial adjudicator are lack of prejudice, impartiality towards everyone other than the emperor, willingness to act together with other adjudicators no matter their background, and lack of interest in using the authority for personal gain.” The high judge continued to speak as soon as that minor commotion was resolved. “Achieving all this is always the hardest part. Raising young children to become perfect imperial adjudicators robs them of the ability to act independently and creatively. On the other hand, a more mature person is usually unable to entirely cut himself off from his family, country, culture, and the feeling of power that comes together with this position.” He was stating the obvious, though I couldn’t truly condemn the part about brainwashing children. “Anyway, I won’t go into further details as there is a possibility that you won’t remember any of it, so let’s move on to the next part of today’s schedule.” He finished his speech with a rather offensive statement that resulted in a few cases of unhappy grunts.

High Judge Kule Blackdust sat down in his ornamented chair, and another person took his place. This time it was a young woman wearing a modest but elegant dark green dress that covered everything except for her hands and head. Her dark brown hair was braided into a long braid that fell over her left shoulder. Unlike the previous speakers, she held some document.

“I’m the imperial adjudicator, Junior Judge Neriell di Isabella. I’m going to read your names in a random order. Please exit through the door to the left of the podium as soon as your name is read.” Junior Judge Neriell spoke in a mechanical and monotone manner. “One of the servants will guide you through a series of rooms where you will be asked to leave your personal belongings, put on the prepared uniform, and go through a round of check-ups. If you notice that there was a mistake in the uniform’s size, please inform about it any of the nearby servants. Finally, you will be led to your room in the dormitory. The rest of today and the entire tomorrow is going to be a free time during which you are to get acquainted with the Academy and its facilities. Be ready to start the reformation process from Tenday. That’s all. The candidate for an imperial adjudicator Rinne.”

After the junior judge read the first name from the list, one of the little girls who had caught Teacher’s attention started walking towards the indicated exit. She had interesting hair. When she stood in shadow, it could be called black, but as soon as some light shone upon it, its hue changed to a more violet-like. One of my sisters had once told me about a similar effect that could be obtained with skillful use of cosmetics, but I didn’t think that was the case with this girl. Anyway, a noble bearing the blank emblem wasn’t someone I should involve myself with.

I was looking forward to getting out of this audience hall, but soon it became apparent that my patience was going to be tested. There was almost a five minutes period of silence before Junior Judge Neriell read the second name. The same situation repeated after the third, fourth, and fifth person was called. My hope that this wasn't going to be the norm died when the remaining four imperial adjudicators quietly stood up and left the room.

If by any chance I was the last person on the list… that meant almost four hours of waiting. Other candidates had also realized this. There was a brief storm of poorly concealed heavy sighing, a stealthy wave of angry glances directed at the junior judge, a few envious looks at the girl who was sleeping happily on the bench and her caretaker, and a single unbelievable guy who threw away his dignity and sat down directly on the floor. Even though he wore merchant-like clothes, he was one of the few candidates who I was unable to put a label on.

For sure that sitting guy wasn’t a merchant, the poorer ones were hardly different from commoners, and the richer ones tended to act like minor nobility. He also didn’t look to be a member of any of the lower classes, they were too terrified to pull out something like that. Neither was he a noble because not only I didn't find any emblems on his clothes, but also no proper noble would ruin his reputation with such a breach of etiquette. Nor did he belong to the angry nomads who had their pride and could remain standing for days.

He wasn’t just an idiot brought here by mistake… right?


**************

“The candidate for an imperial adjudicator Aeriell Raven.”

A beautiful girl from the infamous house of Raven was the ninth person called. Her perfect posture was further enhanced by long wavy black hair that swayed lightly with her every step. But almost no male candidate paid any attention to her hair as she had other, more eye-catching, bouncing elements. Judging by the number of awestruck expressions, Aeriell gained an admirer or three. Although, I couldn’t fully understand them. My libido had been literally sealed by Teacher, and at most, I sometimes felt a desire to hug a huggable looking girl.

“The candidate for an imperial adjudicator Av Mao.”

The ma’gan little girl with blond curly hair no longer had a wide grin on her face, it was replaced with an expression of relief that she was the twelfth person called. Despite her exotic name, she wore a long light blue one-piece dress that was a rather ordinary choice among the young noble girls in most of the empire’s regions, though it didn’t have the emblem of her house sewn on it.

I curiously observed her and realized that Av Mao's movements were a bit predatory as if she was always looking for prey.

“The candidate for an imperial adjudicator Altarius Sereni.”

This time it was the turn of one of the nomads who had been stopped from leaving the audience hall. Altarius wasn’t someone who I wanted to get acquainted with. The southern tribes had almost no political power outside the kingdom of Holnest and were treated like unwanted pests.

Surprisingly, this musclehead was shorter than me, and I was only one hundred and seventy-five. Still, my height was enough to immerse my sisters in an embrace, and that was all I needed.

...

“The candidate for an imperial adjudicator Ateia Faustus.”

Number twenty-one was an average looking girl dressed in a fancy silver ball gown. Eyes full of tears, she firmly held something with both hands. Her face looked as if she was gathering the courage to fight for the right to keep this particular item. If this was a memento or something, then the poor girl was going to be devastated, but maybe I could use this situation. If I successfully consoled her, then she would feel obligated to repay me, a rare win-win situation.

“The candidate for an imperial adjudicator Marcus Geta.”

Upon hearing his name, a tall guy from the first row saluted briefly towards the junior judge. Though there wasn't much point in him emphasizing his military background since he only had a small sheathed dagger attached to his belt.

On the other hand, that guy with a stupid looking face standing on my left was way too accomplished for someone who was at most twenty. Not only was he allowed to bring a goddam gladius, but it also had the symbol of the seventh legion ‘Scorpio’ engraved on its sheath.

“The candidate for an imperial adjudicator Charlotte Kartagra Icaros.”

This particular name succeeded in temporarily chasing away the growing boredom and disappointment that were nourished by not being one of the thirty-five people who had already left. It also made me feel ashamed since I had actually failed to recognize a royal emblem, though it belonged to a fallen royal family whose kingdom had been the only human state erased from the maps by ma’gans. This teenage girl with rusty-blond hair, who had the no longer existing kingdom’s name included in her own, was no different from a rebellious element openly declaring insubordination towards The Te’Sha Grandate and its ally The Grand Crimson Empire.

It was impossible for Charlotte to be a citizen of the empire as she would have been long dead if that were the case. But then, why the supreme judge didn’t mention her when he had been talking about the citizens of the ma’gan empire? If she was going to remain a subject of The Te’Sha Grandate, was she to be sent back after the selection? What was the point of Charlotte’s participation?

Thinking about this was a good way to pass some time.

After nearly four hours of waiting, and one case of a girl who had to be woken up, there were only four candidates still standing inside the audience hall. Despite not exchanging a single word, a strange competition had somehow developed between us, though there were two different sets of rules.

At this point, I wasn’t going to be satisfied unless I obtained the title of the most unlucky one among the candidates. And the closer I was to it, the bigger my smile became. My playmate, and at the same time the only rival, was a rather short, gray-haired girl. The occasional challenging smirk she sent in my direction and the countdown on her fingers that decreased with each name were enough to understand that she also aimed for that jinxed title. This amusing girl easily became the first person in this place who I genuinely wanted to become friends with. Besides, she was a noble, which meant that there shouldn't be any strange awkwardness between us caused by different backgrounds.

The other two candidates were the third prince of Verluna and a young man from the house of Raven. They were using a set of rules contrary to ours. Neither of them wanted to be the last one to leave the room, and they were evidently bored out of their minds. Ordius visibly frowned every time the junior judge read a name that wasn’t his, and the other guy looked at the girl and me as if we were retarded for getting a kick out of this situation.

“The candidate for an imperial adjudicator Nero Raven.”

A muffled snort reached our ears, and the pale young man swiftly walked out from the room. The girl watched this with a look full of pity and then turned to me searching for approval, to which I nodded. We both failed to understand what caused Nero to think that he was better than us only because he left as the person number forty-seven. Nevertheless, our contest continued. I hoped that Ordius would be the next one, all three of us would be happier this way.

I pointed at the third prince of Verluna and politely gestured him to get lost. He was not amused. The grey-haired girl was quite shocked that I did something like that towards a member of the royalty. However, after a few seconds, Ordius slightly shook his head and calmed her down with an 'I don't care' shrug. She looked at each of us, drew some kind of a conclusion, and giggled voicelessly.

I knew I could count on my childhood friend to act as my wingman.

A few of the legionnaires watched this exchange, and one even showed me a thumbs up. He probably misunderstood the situation, but it was fine. The girl took an interest in me, Ordius was given an excellent topic to annoy me, and I was glad to find a potential person to do stupid things with. Things looked good.

“The candidate for an imperial adjudicator Rexar Gaure.” The junior judge read my name.

It wasn’t the outcome I hoped for, but it couldn’t be helped. I started walking towards the exit. Ordius released another heavy sigh, I bet that he wanted to trade places with me. The girl stealthily waved twice and smirked for the last time. She was the winner of our competition.

Everything after leaving the audience hall was just as it had been described. While following a servant, I left all my personal belongings in the first room, changed into the academy’s uniform in the second, and lost all memories deemed as obstruction towards becoming a perfect imperial adjudicator in the third.

This definitely wasn’t our lucky day.

A.A. James
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