Here's the next installment of our Metallum Nocturne story. If you need to catch up on any of the previous episodes, click here.
The outside of the courthouse made Claire think she was walking into a museum. A marble statue of a robed male with a trimmed beard commanded the top of the triple level of stairs. The dark blue sleeveless blouse and pants that had a hole in the inseam seemed completely out of place compared to the Armani suits and expensive silk dresses worn by the other people at the court.
The first ward of the city felt like an entirely different place and not only because it had the largest cluster of skyscrapers. In the other inner ring wards, magic was big and flashy. The second ward put on illusionary shows each night. The third ward, known for its stores and shops, sold all kinds of magic for a price. Even the fourth ward, which didn't have a distinctive presence like the others had a mish-mash of magical businesses. The first ward, on the other hand, kept its magic subtle and classy. She guessed half the jewelry she saw served some protective or enhancement purpose.
"You can't go in there like that," said a familiar voice from behind.
"What?" exclaimed Claire, spinning around.
The reporter Elle Dark from the Invictus Times appeared from behind the statue. She wore a black pantsuit with a black coat over a silk cream long-sleeved shirt.
"I love your tattoos, but you can't be sleeveless in the Court of Arcane. Judge Ambersand is a stickler for rules and a bit of a misogynist. It won't be a good start for your trial," said Elle apologetically.
"I don't have time to find a jacket," said Claire, feeling like her lawyer should have warned her but considering she wasn't really paying him, found it hard to complain. She listed about as her palms grew sweaty.
Elle raised an eyebrow. "I can lend you my jacket...if you promise to give me an interview."
"It's not blackmail. It's quid pro quo. I'm helping you, so I'm asking you to help me. And frankly, given the narrative online with the mayoral campaign, you could really use some help."
Feeling like she had no choice, Claire held out her hand. "Fine. I'll give you an interview."
Elle set her matching shoulder bag onto the concrete and half-pulled the jacket off. "You have to promise to talk to me. No sitting on the opposite side of the table in silence."
"I'll talk. Might as well. Not like anything else is going right for me."
The jacket was tight around her shoulders and upper arms. She feared if she flexed she might split it in back.
"Looks good on you," said Elle, handing over a business card.
"No, I want you to write your number on it."
Claire pulled out her phone and unlocked it. "Just put your info in here and text yourself."
After the exchange was finished, Claire hurried into the building. The security line was long. She feared she was going to be late, especially when the arcane detectors sent up alarms, but she explained she had imbedded enhancements and after showing them the night metal striations on her side, they waved her through. She managed to reach the courtroom with a minute to spare. Her lawyer, Lamar, was waiting outside in a shoddy brown suit that didn't fit him correctly.
"Nice jacket," he said.
Claire tried to smile but her stomach ached. "What's going to happen?"
They'd talked on the phone the day after she'd gotten back from Kentucky, but had been busy researching the next steps for her ring. He wrinkled his nose which made the gray hairs sticking out waggle.
"Today will be straightforward. The Blocks will formally enter their charge and we'll respond. This will give us the chance for discovery."
"Discovery," she repeated, remembering his explanation previously. "That's when both sides get to ask for information."
"Right, though in this case, it's mostly going to be one way, given that the other party is deceased."
Mara's face rose up in her mind. An avoidable tragedy. Claire wished she understood that day better, including who had put her name down on the sheet.
"We'd better get in there. Our case is up next."
The moment she stepped through the door, the flash of a camera nearly blinded her. She flinched, stumbling forward and nearly knocking over Lamar. The disturbance brought a frown from the old judge behind the bench. She was led to an area near the front. As she settled into the seat, she felt heat from being stared at and realized it was Annette and Andrew Block on the opposite side of the court. The venom she was receiving made Claire want to sink into her own skin. She knew she had nothing to do with their daughter's death, but the intense glare made her feel like she had.
As the judge began explaining how the trial would proceed, Claire couldn't help think about Grayson's grief and how it'd led him to put himself at risk. She checked back to the Blocks, sensing none of the same energy, but she decided it was hard to compare. He was a loner warlock in the middle of the Kentucky forest, and they were wealthy, self-made business owners who had aspirations for higher office.
Claire froze. The entire court was staring at her including her lawyer.
"Is that correct?"
Lamar gave her a slow nod.
The old man behind the high bench frowned and spoke menacingly. "Yes, Your Honor."
A pit opened in her stomach. "Yes, Your Honor."
Judge Ambersand turned towards the Blocks, a smile returning to his wrinkled face. He spoke to them as if they were old friends at a dinner party. Claire wasn't even sure their conversation was part of the trial. She felt like a servant watching royalty interact.
The rest of the pleading was over in the blink of an eye. The part that left a ball of slag in her gut was that the Blocks were suing her for $1.8 Million dollars. She'd read the number in the original suit, but hearing it in court made it real. If she lost the case, Lamar had explained they would take her future wages, essentially making her an indentured servant for the Blocks. The prospect of not only losing everything she'd worked for in the past, but her entire future, daunting.
When it was over, she found herself outside the courtroom. Lamar sighed heavily which she took as a bad sign.
"Am I roadkill?"
His nostrils flared as she glanced towards the Blocks and their lawyer striding past them as if they'd already won.
"It's not good, if that's what you're asking."
"I thought this part was straightforward? Just a formality," she said.
"Normally it is, but that exchange between Judge Ambersand and the Blocks was disturbing. Far beyond the typical respect given. I worry that Annette Block's mayoral campaign is going to affect the trial."
"What? Why should it? Shouldn't the law be equal?" asked Claire.
Lamar snorted wistfully. "I wish it was, but the truth is that people in power or with more money have an advantage. I knew going in that this would be tough, especially since it's a civil trial rather than criminal, the burden of proof is lower, but if the judge is friendly to their side, it's going to make my job harder."
"Great," said Claire. "I'm fucked already."
"Hey," said Lamar, placing his hand on her upper arm. "You can't have that attitude in this fight. One of the reasons I agreed to take the case was because Canterbury's an old friend and he said you were a fighter."
"I thought you took it because you wanted revenge."
"That's true too, but there's no point if there's no chance at winning. I know it looks bad, they've got every advantage, but I've won worse cases. I've got to know that you're going to stay tough. Can you do that?"
"I can. I will."
Lamar held out a hand which she shook firmly.
"Be strong." He checked over his shoulder. "Now please excuse me, I have to follow up with some old friends about another case."
Lamar grabbed his leather shoulder bag and disappeared into the crowd, leaving Claire alone in the marble halls. She thought about what her lawyer had said about the Blocks having all the advantages and pulled up the reporter's number. Claire's thumb hovered over the text button, but decided she wasn't ready to talk yet. There were more pressing concerns. First, she needed to figure out who put her name on the sign out sheet.