A breeze cold as winter licked over Zaryasien after flying into the Elven Court of Alfanyr. It was far from the only chilly sensation the young elf had suffered this morning. Icy gems scratched his skin from the rope that bound him to the Court’s central pillar, for he had been stripped naked but for a prisoner’s loincloth. Even the color scheme of the Court itself, built of unblemished white marble with blue sapphires winking in the domed ceiling, added to the place’s frigid atmosphere. And then there were the pitiless sneers the High Elves gave Zaryasien from their tiered seats around him.
Robed in dazzling white and blue, the High Elves were evenly split between men and women, but all were pale and wizened with their long hair turned silver with age. Zaryasien himself didn’t even have his scalp anymore, and that was far from the only or the biggest slice of his skin they had removed. Not that any of the High Elves winced even once when admiring his blood-splotched body.
At least neither Ugrok nor Nthendi were present to gape in horror at him.
“It sure is bloody cold in here,” Zaryasien said. “Surely this honorable Court, with all its wisdom, could afford a humble number of torches.”
Judicator Areysil, mantled with violet, shook her head with a grin from her podium at one side of the Court. “Comforting the accused would defeat the whole purpose of a punitive trial, I’m afraid. But given you’re so talkative all of a sudden, let us commence ahead of schedule. You are Zaryasien Ullandir of Othendiel, am I correct?”
Zaryasien nodded with a grunt. “Let’s dispense with the formalities. I know who I am and what I’ve done.”
“Do you?” The Judicator leaned forward, resting her long chin on bony hands. “Never figured you were so astute about the law. Since you claim to recognize the charge you’ve received, can you name it using the proper name?”
Zaryasien knew there had to be some technical word from the legal codices for his specific accusation, but it escaped him despite probing his own memory. Not that the pain of losing a scalp and other hunks of your skin helped keep him on that task. “Well, I don’t know what you would call a ‘proper’ name, but I do know it has something to do with my missing hair.”
“Indeed it does.” It was Galidar the Guard Captain who spoke, swaggering into the Court with his emerald-hued breastplate and a glowing broadsword at his hip. He pulled out shreds of blood-caked flesh from a satchel and waved them before the Court. One of the larger shreds still had blond hair, braided into cornrows, attached to it.
Zaryasien’s eyes watered at what had become of his dear Nthendi’s handiwork. It had been a labor of love for her, and yet the Captain brandished it more carelessly than he would a bag of trash.
“Aren’t those cornrows?” one of the High Elves from the audience asked. “Never seen them done on fair elven hair before.”
“And that’s only the beginning!” Galidar held up another sample of Zaryasien’s skin, which swirled with blue tattoos. “He had these all over his body before we took care of them. Garish things to look at, aren’t they?”
And now it was Ugrok’s gift of friendship which received disrespect. Zaryasien’s face blazed redder than his wounds, or the blood drawn from the rope’s gems as he squirmed under it.
“I wonder what the boy was even thinking with them,” another of the High Elves said. “How, by the love of the Goddess, would he even fit into civilized society?”
“That’s the problem with all these young troublemakers,” yet another said. “They’re so starved for attention that they’ll cross any boundary to get it, even the racial ones!”
“Which brings me to the proper term for this young gentleman’s charge, the term he has failed to recite on my request.” Areysil clapped her hands. “Sir Ullandir, the crime you stand accused of is known as cultural contamination. Do you understand what this means?”
Zaryasien actually had heard the phrase a few times before, but its fancy word choice always made it sound like an arcane construct known only to scholars or other people who could afford better schooling than his own family. He replied to the Judicator’s question with a shrug, which got the High Elves murmuring in disbelief among themselves.
“You don’t even know what cultural contamination is?” Areysil said. “I expected better of a born citizen of Alfanyr. If you really had paid attention to your schoolmaster’s lectures, you’d know our illustrious Republic has incorporated into its population these three races: orcs, humans, and ourselves the elves. Of course it was our race who established and constructed this civilization by virtue of our superior intellect and magical talents.”
Zaryasien smirked. “Not to mention our brutal conquests and enslavement of the orc and human races,” he muttered under his breath.
The Judicator whipped her podium with a silver cane. “I heard that! Such was unfortunately the price of spreading the Goddess’s love to those gray- and black-skinned savages. Regardless, we have since established the agreement that the races can coexist in our Republic on the condition that none of them can influence—that is, contaminate—the others on a cultural level. In other words, we elves should not behave like orcs or humans.”
“And that means no orcish tattoos or human cornrows,” Captain Galidar added.
“But then why do we have our orcish and human neighbors behave like us instead?” Zaryasien said. “You don’t see orcs here in Alfanyr walking around town in wolf furs, nor do we see humans clad in gold and leopard-skin kilts. Everyone in our country regardless of race dresses, speaks, and lives like us elves. Isn’t that ‘cultural contamination’ too?”
Areysil opened her mouth but paused before her rebuke. “It’s true, a certain degree of cultural uniformity is necessary for our Republic’s functioning. And since it was elves who built it, the humans and orcs among us must play by our rules. But there is a difference between the lower races assimilating into our society and their native barbarism infecting it. If we let their way of life eat away at ours, civilization as we know it will collapse.”
“And what makes you think we can’t learn from them for once?” Zaryasien turned his eyes towards Galidar’s sword. “Captain, did you know the broadsword was first devised by orcish smiths? And for that matter, did you know that it was humans who first taught us the forging of metal to begin with?”
“What revisionist nonsense!” Galidar spat onto the floor before Zaryasien’s feet. “Orcs and humans can try to steal elven innovations all they want, but no scholar seriously believes either of those savages had anything to do with our culture’s development—at least not before you lot came along! But I tire of this philosophical debate. The law is the law whether you protest it or not, boy!”
“With that over with, Sir Ullandir, exactly how did you receive these poisonous influences on your choice of body decoration. Who tattooed your skin and cornrowed your hair?”
Though Zaryasien was still bubbling with anger, he shuddered as if the chilly breeze had returned to the Court. He could not betray the two people he cared for more than any elves he ever knew. If he so much as named them before the Court, only the Goddess knew what would happen to them. They might send Ugrok to the mines, or throw him into the arena, assuming they didn’t put him to death on the spot. As for what awaited his beloved Nthendi, Zaryasien did not even want to consider.
Galidar gripped and wrung the hilt of his sword. “You were asked a very important question, Sir Ullandir.”
“I did them myself,” Zaryasien said.
The Judicator raised one eyebrow. “You mean you didn’t trust actual orcs or humans to do them for you. Even if we accept that, how did you pick up those skills in the first place? Surely someone had to teach them to you.”
“Not to mention the cornrowing looks too neat and tidy on this,” Galidar said, examining Zaryasien’s severed scalp again. “Not disheveled enough for a self-taught elf. Admit it, Ullandir, a human did this for you!”
“You caught me, but I will never say her name,” Zaryasien said. “Nor shall I name the orc.”
“Hold on, did you say this human was a ‘she’?” a High Elf from the audience said. “Was this a young female too?”
The rest of the audience gasped. At least one of them uttered something about “liking the dark meat” with a childish snicker. Zaryasien’s cheeks boiled even more scalding than before.
“Considering the boy’s previous offenses against cultural purity, it wouldn’t surprise me if he disregarded more, uh, intimate racial boundaries too,” Galidar muttered. “Was the orc a female too?”
“If you really must know, the orc was male, but the human was female,” Zaryasien said. “Both are my dearest friends, and yes, I love the woman with all my spirit. That’s why I shall never say their names before you!”
Galidar tore his sword out and pressed its point into Zaryasien’s neck, drawing a trickle of blood. “Even if it would spare your head? I’ll give you three seconds. One, two…”
“Captain, he doesn’t need to name his accomplices.” Another elven guard marched into the Court with a malevolent smile. “The Seers have managed to tease them out for us.”
He made way for a troop of other guards barging in, dragging with them a pair of thrashing captives. One was a big male orc with blue tattoos swirling over his leathery gray muscles. The other was a slender young human woman with dark umber skin and cornrowed hair. Both had been stripped naked, with bleeding scars streaked all over their bodies. When one guard banged his fist against the woman’s cheek to subdue her, Zaryasien lunged against his restraints and roared.
“Nthendi! Ugrok!” he cried out.
“Zaryasien! What did they do to you?” Nthendi said with tears streaming from her eyes.
“Well, well, doesn’t this complete the scene?” Galidar said. His subordinates dumped Nthendi and Ugrok onto the floor next to Zaryasien’s column. “All three contaminators are ready to receive their sentence.”
“How about we make a deal with Sir Ullandir?” Areysil said. “He can return to elven society, with his wounds healed and scalp regrown, on the condition that he renounce both his error and these past negative influences.”
Gallidar held his sword’s blade under Ugrok and Nthendi’s chins. “What say you to that, boy?”
“Don’t be heroic, Zaryasien,” Ugrok said. “I’d prefer the honorable death for myself.”
“And I would prefer to see my love alive so long as I live,” Nthendi said.
Zaryasien nodded, even though the exact same thought ran through his head. Whomever would die today, whomever was spared would have their loss continue to haunt them. None of the three would leave this unscathed.
But justice still had to be served.
“I respect my friends’ requests, but I would rather die alongside them too,” Zaryasien said. He glared at Areysil. “But mark my words, Judicator, you will regret this. Most citizens do not know what goes on within this Court, but so long as the others who know me notice my absence, they will figure out what happened today. And once they spread word of the truth of Alfanyrian justice, with all its blood and hypocrisy, the people will not stand for it. And your precious institution will crash down deeper than the fires of hell itself!”
Galidar chuckled. “Such an epic failure at intimidation.” As he drew the broadsword back, a fiery glow blossomed along its blade. “Any last words from your friends?”
Ugrok bared his sharp orcish tusks. “While I feast in my ancestors’ hall, my brethren’s children shall wash their axes with your blood.”
“And the jackals shall grow sick after eating your toxic corpses,” Nthendi said.
“I admire your bold optimism, but for the time being, I shall have three new heads mounted on my wall,” Galidar said.
With one flaming swoop of the Guard Captain’s sword, Zaryasien’s world turned black.