Thursday, January 4, 2024

Jacob's Trial

Happy New Year, Everyone! I hope you are all excited for 2024! I thought I would start the New Year with a Short Story that I wrote for an online competition a few months ago. I hope you enjoy the story!

Jacob's Trial

                “Enter!” A voice shouted from inside the room.

                Jacob felt the warden tug his chains. Jacob obeyed the command and marched forward after his captor. The warden led him into a spacious office, where a variety of generals and guards stood around a large desk. The room was clearly designed to be an intimidating structure with each adornment attesting to the greatness and power of its owner.

On one side, an enormous map of the Delarian Empire covered an entire wall, its massive dimensions highlighting the size of the realm. On the other side of the room, a massive display cabinet showcased numerous shelves filled with crowns, jewels, priceless weapons, and treasures of every sort. If these weren’t enough, a large window lined the back of the office, looking out over the military training grounds, where troops beyond count marched, drilled, and constructed massive war machines that towered over the battlements of the nearby city. Seated behind the desk, in the middle of these testaments to his greatness, was Emperor Valerius Stormheart.

All heads turned to look at Jacob as he entered the room. The generals, whose meeting had been interrupted by the warden knocking on the door, watched them with a mixture of confusion and annoyance. They clearly weren’t happy about the warden’s intrusion upon their conference and weren’t afraid to show it.

Only the emperor’s face showed no agitation. Nor did it show any other emotions. He gazed at Jacob with a face devoid of expression. There were no signs of irritation nor were there signs of interest. He just watched with what Jacob would define as passive disinterest.

 Jacob was led into the middle of the room, directly in front of the desk. There he was ordered to kneel. Jacob did so, lowering his head before the emperor. When the emperor said nothing, Jacob felt another tug on his chains, indicating he should rise. He obeyed. As he rose, one of the generals, a tall, stately man, stepped forward.

“Captain Aric, who is this child?” The general asked. “And why are you bothering us with him?”

Jacob felt a degree of indignation at being called a child. He was fifteen, after all. He was practically an adult. Nor was he just some random juvenile. He was educated and born of noble blood. Or, at least, what had once been noble blood.

“The child’s name is Jacob NightCrest, son of Lord Nightcrest, former regent of the Silverwoods and head general for the late King Whitmore,” the warden said. “My men caught him attempting to free his father from the dungeons below. Further, we found this in his possession. He must have stolen it from the royal treasury.”

The warden lifted his right arm to show a gleaming golden amulet adorned with a family crest surrounded by diamonds and other various gems. The general stepped forward, taking the amulet from the warden’s hand and examining it. Then, he handed it to the emperor. The emperor glanced at the trinket with the same blank expression before setting it down on his desk.  

“Well, boy, what do you have to say for yourself?” The general asked.

Jacob took a deep breath. He knew that his life, his future, and perhaps the future of his entire family hung in the balance. What he said next would either condemn him or save him. Either way, he was resolved to stand for what he believed in and represent his family with pride. If it cost him his life, so be it.

"What should I have to say for myself?" He asked. "The locket bears my family crest and has been in my family for endless generations. It belongs to my family, just like my father. Is being loyal to one's family and one’s father a crime?”

“It is when it involves disloyalty to one’s emperor,” the general replied.

“Does the emperor value loyalty?” Jacob asked.

“What kind of question is that?” The general asked. “Of course he values loyalty. Just as he punishes disloyalty.”

“Then why is my father in prison?” Jacob demanded, summoning every trace of courage he could muster. “Why were my family’s lands stripped from us? What did we ever do other than be loyal?”

“Your father marched troops against our armies,” the general answered. “He led legions across our fields, slayed our soldiers, invaded our cities, and attacked our authority! You call this loyalty?”

“Why would I not?” Jacob responded. “It was you who attacked King Whitmore and invaded his lands. My father had taken an oath to serve the King and that is what he did! Even when outnumbered by your militaries, surrounded by hostile forces, and facing the inevitability of death or imprisonment, he obeyed his king and followed his oath to the very end. Yet, he is in prison, while our lands were given to a traitor who betrayed the king and his oath in the name of riches. Is that how one rewards loyalty?”

Jacob addressed the last words to the emperor. His heart was racing and he was doing everything he could to control himself. He knew his words were confrontational, and each syllable could be his last. But he was determined to vent his outrage, even if it meant his death. The emperor, however, showed no signs of anger, outrage, or any other emotion. He continued sitting there, staring at Jacob without the least sign that he was phased by, or even interested in, Jacob’s words. The general, on the other hand, was much more passionate.

“How dare you question the emperor?” the general demanded. “Do you not realize who you are speaking to? Ignorant child! This is not some playground. Look around you!”

The general strode over to the nearby map and pointed at it.

“Can you not see this map?” he demanded. “Do you not see the might and power of an empire larger than any that has existed in history – an empire that encloses all the wealthiest and greatest kingdoms from the western seas to the great forests?”

The general whipped away from the map, pointing toward the nearby window, and speaking as he strode toward the opening.

“Look out that window,” he said. “Do you not see the glory and prestige of the greatest army to ever cross the lands – an army before whom every neighbor trembles and enemy falls; an army whose every soldier kneels in obedience to every whim of their king?”

 The general spun from the window and marched toward the neighboring display cases, his hands gesturing at their contents.

“Look at this wealth,” he continued. “Do you not see the greatest treasures and most prized possessions of all the wealthiest kings, kingdoms, and regents, now nothing more than mere trophies adorning the walls of the victor who claimed their lords?”

The general turned back to Jacob.

"Do you not see these things?" the general concluded. "And, yet, you have the audacity to question the king."

Jacob looked at the general, his face stubborn and resolute.

“I see the object at which you point,” he said. “But I see none of the things you describe.”

The general looked furious.

“You insolent child,” he began. Then froze.

The emperor had lifted a finger from the table. The move was slight and subtle but enough to attract the attention of the general, and all the advisors, who fell instantly silent and still as statues. The emperor stared at Jacob; his face masklike. After a second, he spoke.

“You say you do not see the things he describes,” the emperor said. “Yet, you see the objects. So you must see something. Tell me. What do you see?”

The king gestured at the map.

“Do you not see the might of my empire?” he asked.

“Your majesty,” Jacob said. “I see only a sheet of paper covered in paint. It depicts lands but not meaning. Some may look at it and see an empire. Others may look at it and see a responsibility. Some may look at it and see a thousand lands conquered. I look at it and see only my home, a small sliver of forest in a vast land, a tiny slice of heaven in a chaotic and uncertain world.”

Jacob stared at the emperor's face, desperately wishing for some sort of reaction. He received none. The emperor merely twisted his hand to point out the window behind him.

“And, there,” he said. “Do you not see the greatest army to ever walk the land?"

"You majesty," Jacob replied. "I see only men and women - daughters and sons, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers – faithfully doing their daily duties to the throne, their commanders, and to each other in a never-ending struggle to ensure their families have food on their tables and shelter above their heads."

The emperor’s hand shifted toward the trophy case. This time he said nothing, simply staring at Jacob in apparent anticipation. Jacob sensed the prompting and continued.

“Your majesty,” he said. “I see only the pride, loyalty, and devotion of the great artisans, craftsman, and laborers who sacrificed countless hours of blood, sweat, and tears, to build a masterpiece that would bring pleasure and pride to the lord they served. All done in the desperate hope they might hear the words, ‘well done’ from their revered master’s lips. That is what I see.”

The emperor lowered his hand back to the table and sat silently, staring into Jacob’s eyes. Jacob stared back, praying that he looked braver and more confident than he felt. Finally, the emperor broke the silence.

“Leave us,” he said.

The words brought an immediate reaction. Everyone, including the warden, turned toward the door at once, as though they were a single body, and marched from the room, the warden dropping Jacob’s chain as he went. Only the general who had spoken to Jacob remained. Snapping to attention, he marched to the side of the emperor’s desk and spun around facing Jacob.

For the first time, Jacob saw the emperor’s expression change as the regent leaned back in his chair and began to scrutinize him. His eyes narrowed as they gazed at Jacob, studying him with intense interest.  

“You speak good words, but are they simply that, words?” The emperor said.

He turned to look at his general.

“What do you think?” He asked.

"King Whitmore is dead," the general responded matter-of-factly. "His kingdom is no more. Any oaths of loyalty, fealty, and servitude died with him and his lands.”

The emperor nodded and turned toward Jacob.

“Do you think your father can accept this fact?” He asked.

Jacob thought for a moment. King Whitmore had been a fair ruler, but not exactly a family friend or great leader. Jacob couldn’t see a reason why his father would not consider any oath to the deceased king to be fulfilled.

“I do,” Jacob answered.

"His father was a skilled leader," the general said. "He was a dangerous enemy on the battlefield."

The emperor nodded.

“Would your father agree to never take up arms against our kingdom and swear to follow and obey me with the same loyalty he did King Whitmore?”

“I believe so,” Jacob answered.

"Very well," the emperor said. "Then I shall give him the option. If he will swear fealty to me, I will set him free and restore your family's lands. You may have your 'small slice of heaven' and your locket back. But I make one condition."

“What is it, your majesty?” Jacob asked.

"You profess your family's loyalty," he said. "Now you will prove it. You will stay here and serve me as an advisor. You answered my general's challenge with an intelligence I seldom see in my subjects. As long as you continue to provide such wisdom, you will remain with me, your family will remain safe, and you will have an opportunity to earn great wealth and prestige. But if you or your family betray me, I will make a punishment of your house that will never be forgotten. Do you accept these terms?”

Jacob hesitated. The terms of the agreement were daunting. He never considered himself particularly clever or wise. Now, the lives and welfare of his entire family hinged upon proving himself a good advisor. On the other hand, the opportunity to restore his family's lands and freedom was far better than anything he could have anticipated achieving when he walked in the door. Besides, it wasn’t like he could really refuse.

“I do,” he agreed.

“Very well,” the emperor stated.

The emperor picked up the locket and held it out to the general. The general took the locket and marched up to Jacob, placing the trinket in his hands.

“Come with me,” he said.

The general turned and marched from the room. Jacob gave a quick bow to the emperor, then turned and followed. He wasn't entirely sure what he had gotten himself into but knew it had to be better than what he had just gotten himself out of.