Catherine smiled at the young girl's enthusiasm, and her pang of grief crossed through their bond, echoing his own. “No, I'm not dead. Neither is Vincent.”
“Oh, that's good,” the girl said, relieved. “I was afraid when he got sick that...”
Catherine's eyes met his, then turned back to Ellie. “We all were afraid of that,” Catherine said. “Ellie, you've been called here for a reason.” She gestured to the apparition of Paracelsus standing just behind them. “Paracelsus wants a verdict that Vincent is a beast, not a man.”
“Well, that's stupid,” Ellie said, with all the scorn of the young. “Vincent's just Vincent. He doesn't have to be one or the other.”
A wry smile crossed Catherine's face. “Thank you for that, Ellie,” she said. Her tone was gentle and Vincent remembered she'd had a more than a bit of practice at working with child witnesses. “I'm going to ask you some questions and then Paracelsus is going to ask you some. Just tell the truth, okay?”
Ellie nodded, and Catherine began. “Ellie, how did you first meet Vincent?”
“When you rescued me and Eric from that orphanage,” Ellie said, twisting the end of one of her braids. “Eric had already met him.”
“What did Eric tell you?” Catherine asked.
“He said that Vincent looked different, but very cool,” Ellie said, smiling. “Then everyone took me to Eric and then I met Vincent.”
“And what did you think?”
“He was....really cool,” Ellie said and Vincent remembered she and Samantha as they had been, two young girls growing up in the safety and love of the tunnels. It should always have been that way for Ellie, he mourned, and but for a random bacteria brought by a Russian sailor, it would have been.
In the way of this place, where unusual things happened without any warning, Ellie turned to him then. “Vincent,” she said, “I didn't want to leave everyone. But I died knowing I was loved, that Eric would be loved. That's not a bad end.”
Vincent smiled, just a bit, and Ellie turned her attention back to Catherine. “I thought he was fantastic.”
“And you weren't afraid, even a little bit?” Catherine asked.
“No,” Ellie said. “He was always so gentle, so kind with us kids. Even when we'd done something wrong, he never raised his voice. You just knew he wasn't happy.”
“And did you love him?”
“Oh, yeah,” Ellie replied. “Not at first, you know. But he made you want to trust him, to believe what he said. I'd never met anyone like him before. Eric and me, we got moved around a lot---most of the foster parents we had wanted him, or me, but not the both of us, or they thought we were too old to be a part of a family. Vincent and the others never treated us like that, like we were a burden.” She paused, biting her lip a bit. “I had nightmares, bad ones, those first few weeks in the tunnels---nightmares that I was still back at the orphanage, or that Eric was gone. Vincent was always there. He always understood.” She tilted her head. “How could I ever be afraid of him?”
“Thank you, Ellie,” Catherine said, smiling back at the girl. “I have nothing further.” With one last reassuring look at Vincent, she sat down.
Paracelsus' apparition slithered---there was no other word for it, Vincent decided---up to the witness box. “Ellie,” it said, “Vincent rescued you, correct?”
Ellie nodded. “He saved me and Eric, yeah,” she replied, showing only the smallest bit of fear at the shade in front of her.
“And he's killed for you, is that correct?” the apparition asked.
“Yeah,” Ellie said. “Those men were going to hurt me and Eric. Vincent saved us. He's not a killer.” Something in Ellie's eyes flashed. “Not like you are.”
The apparition drew back a bit, clearly not expecting her reaction. “I know who you are,” Ellie said, and there was no fear in her voice. “Everyone talked about you, how you killed those people above by selling them drugs. And maybe I didn't...survive....until that Winterfest, but I saw you kill Lou. You're just a hateful, nasty old man who finally got what was coming to you.”
The apparition turned its face to Ma'at. “I ask that her response be stricken.”
Ma'at smiled faintly. “It's no concern of mine when a witness speaks the truth, Paracelsus. Your crimes are not...unknown.”
“The witness is biased,” Paracelsus tried again.
The feathers on Ma'at's wings shifted a bit as she shrugged. “And the witnesses you called weren't? You chose this forum. So in the parlance of this time...deal with it. Since you don't have any further questions for Ellie---”
Ellie stood then. “May I say something to Vincent first, before I go?”
Ma'at nodded, and Ellie left her chair and came to stand in front of him. She was much as she had been the day she died; a girl on the cusp of adulthood, forever young. Vincent mourned again for the things she would never see or experience: growing up, a family of her own, seeing Eric, who'd become so interested in science that there was speculation he might one day go to medical school; Eric, who was becoming a strong, helpful, considerate young man in spite of all the horrors he and Ellie had endured. Ellie's bright brown eyes stared up at him. “I got your letters, Vincent,” she said quietly. “Tell Eric...tell Eric I love him, and that I know he was sorry. Tell Father it wasn't his fault. And I love you too.”
He reached out to touch her hair, knowing it was the last time he would ever do so. “I love you too, Ellie. Be well.”
She ran across the room and gave Catherine a hug, then disappeared.
“I think we'll...take a brief break,” Ma'at said.
And the courtroom disappeared around them.
Vincent leaned against the wall, slumping now that there was no longer any need to stand. Catherine ran to him. “You're not well,” she said.
The rasp of his breathing was harsh in his ears, echoing in the small chamber. “No,” he replied. “But I'll be all right, Catherine. Eventually.”
She raised her eyebrows at him. “Uh-huh,” she replied, clearly not believing a word of it. Her hand, small but strong for all its size, brushed aside his bangs to look up into his eyes. “I wish this were over and the verdict decided, so we could go home.”
The feel of Catherine's hand on his face as she stroked the short fur on his cheekbones was soothing and he leaned into her touch. “I know,” Vincent replied. “Though matters do seem to be coming to a head.”
Catherine nodded. There was a brief shudder of nervousness and fear through their bond. “You're afraid,” Vincent said. “Why?”
“This isn't any ordinary courtroom, Vincent, and Paracelsus is no ordinary prosecutor. What if I fail? What if Ma'at decides—in spite of all the evidence---that Paracelsus is right? I don't want to fail you. I can't.”
He clasped her hand where it rested against his face, and pressed it against his chest. “Do you feel that? I'm alive because you had the courage to do what no one else would or could. You went into that cave and you saved my life. You won't fail at this.”
Catherine smiled and nestled against him, listening, Vincent thought, to the sound of his heart. She was a warm weight in his arms and although his ribs ached and he felt bruised and twisted and torn all over, there was nothing else he wanted to do but hold her. “It will all be well soon,” he said, brushing a kiss to the crown of her head, and wishing with all his heart it might be true.
The trial restarted with the same suddenness it had begun originally. It seemed to Catherine that she blinked and they were back in the long, paneled room with the apparition of Paracelsus doing its level best to ooze hatred and disdain. She ignored the shade, much as she had any number of defendants and their attorneys. “Are you ready to begin?” Ma'at asked.
“Yes, I am, thank you,” Catherine replied. “I would like to call Phillip to the stand.”
In a blur and a blink, he was there. “Why am I not surprised to be here?” Phillip asked, smiling. “Hello, Catherine.”
She smiled back at him, seeing instantly why he and Vincent had been such close friends. There was much of the same, steady warmth in Phillip's dark eyes as there was so often in Vincent's. “Hello, Phillip. I'm sorry to call you back from...wherever you were, but...”
“Nah, man, don't worry. I knew this was coming. Once the oil slick---” he gestured to Paracelsus' apparition--- “got busy, I knew we'd all be needed.”
A ripple of amusement passed through the court at his words. Ma'at successfully kept the smile off her face but there was a distinct glint in her gold hawk's eyes. “Phillip, the...oil slick...has a name. Please use it.”
Phillip nodded. “Sorry, ma'am,” he said, though it was abundantly clear he was not sorry. He wasn't unaware of the evil Paracelsus represented, Catherine sensed---far from it---but he was refusing to be terrified when facing him. Again, just like Vincent, Catherine thought.
She took a deep breath, gathering her thoughts. “Phillip, you know why you're here, correct?”
“Yeah, I do,” he replied. “Paracelsus thinks Vincent is a monster. You don't. Ma'at's here to decide the point.”
She nodded. “Earlier, we heard testimony from your wife that she had been terrified of Vincent from the first time she saw him in the tunnels. What was your impression of him, the first time you met?”
Phillip grinned. “Honestly? The first time I saw him, I thought I was hallucinating.”
Phillip was an alcoholic when Devin and I found him, Vincent sent to her through their bond.
“I had the D.T.s and a galloping case of pneumonia,” Phillip continued, clearly not bothered by the memory. “I hadn't had a bottle in a few days and I thought he was just another hallucination. I'd crawled into this drainage ditch in the middle of winter, thinking to get out of the cold. Vincent and his brother nearly fell over me.”
“Were you afraid of him?” Catherine asked.
“No. How could I be? He and Devin must have called for help or something, because the next thing I knew, I was someplace warm and safe.”
So I wasn't the first person you rescued, Catherine thought, remembering that same feeling of safety and love that had sustained her in her own time of trial.
No, Vincent replied, smiling through their bond. Father was greatly…alarmed…that it happened once, let alone twice.
I'll bet, Catherine thought back to him. Aloud, she said, “And then what did you think?”
Phillip smiled. “Father, he tried to convince me that what I’d seen was a hallucination, and I almost believed him. Almost. And maybe I would have, if Vincent and his brother had stayed away.”
Catherine could just about picture that. Even if Vincent would have listened to Father’s cautions and warnings, she knew Devin wouldn’t have. “And you still weren’t scared?”
“No,” Phillip laughed. “It’s hard to be afraid of a hallucination that beats you at chess. Once I’d…dried out…Father must have decided I could be trusted after all, and admitted me to the community.”
How did that happen? Catherine asked. I can’t see Father being that trusting.
He’s not, Vincent thought back to her. Devin and I spoke for Phillip. I was eleven, Devin was 14 and we were both terrified to go before the council, but Father said since we’d broken the rules and gone to see Phillip anyway, we had to figure out what to do with him. It was a fair solution---the rules we have do exist for a reason---but I don’t think Father counted on the council agreeing with us.
“What about later?” Catherine asked. “Lark testified she was afraid of Vincent because of the way he acted when he was sick as a teenager.”
“Lark didn’t know him that well,” Phillip said. “She’d only been down below a few weeks at the time, if that.” His voice softened. “Vincent was sick. I certainly wasn’t at my best when I was more interested in booze than eating or working, you know?”
Catherine remembered throwing a headlight at Vincent in a haze of horror and fear, and nodded. “And you were friends?”
Phillip nodded. “Yes. He’s a good man, and you know there ain’t nearly enough of those in this world—or any other,” he finished with a pointed look at Paracelsus. “He can be dangerous when cornered and he's fierce defending his family and those he loves, but a monster? No. Never.”
“Thank you,” Catherine said, liking him, wishing she'd had a chance to know him in life. “I have nothing further.” She returned to her side of the courtroom
Paracelsus rose to confront this latest witness. “So you say he's not a monster,” it drawled with a faint mocking undertone. “What would you say if I told you that he hurt a teenaged girl so badly that she had to leave the tunnels?”
Whatever reaction the apparition was expecting, it wasn't what he received. Phillip just rolled his eyes. “I'd say that you don't know Lisa. And you don't know what happened.”
“You were not in the room, surely,” the apparition returned. “Only Vincent and the dancer were.”
“No. But I was refilling supplies in the stockroom when Mary came in looking for bandages. She asked for gauze and iodine, and when I gave it to her, she left muttering something about 'Lisa getting two small scratches for all the trouble she caused.'” Phillip tilted his head. “If she'd been injured severely, a little bit of gauze and iodine wouldn't have taken care of it.” He sighed. “Besides, I knew Lisa. She was trouble, always teasing the teenaged boys and some of the younger men too. Vincent...had a crush on her and couldn't see what she was really like. I don't know what really happened, but whatever it was, I know Lisa bears at least some of the blame.”
“And the fact that she left the tunnels isn't...suggestive to you?” the shade asked.
“Lisa got tossed out on her ear,” Phillip said, blunt. “I'm not saying it was the correct choice, but she was sent above to live with her dance teacher. All it suggests to me is that Father wanted to protect Vincent.”
“And how he killed those men after you died doesn't make him a monster, an animal, either, I suppose?” Paracelsus drawled, and the mockery was in full force this time.
“They'd already killed James, and God knows how many people above with that poison they were selling,” Phillip said, clearly disgusted. “Which you should know about. Now, I was dead at the time, but I don’t see that Vincent had much choice, given the threat those men represented to our home.”
Paracelsus paused, perhaps trying to regroup, and Catherine used the moment to raise her hand. “If I may, your honor….?”
Ma’at nodded. “Yes. What did you wish to say?”
“Paracelsus wasn’t there for the…incident between Lisa and Vincent. His characterization of Lisa’s injuries being severe enough that she had to leave the tunnels is misleading. Lisa herself described it, years later, as being ‘child’s play.’” Almost against her will, Catherine remembered Vincent’s festering, guilt-ridden anguish on her balcony. The incident hadn’t ever been “child’s play” to him. “Further, Paracelsus wasn’t there when Phillip died, since he’d been exiled several years before. Therefore, I submit that Paracelsus is attempting to mislead the court through lies and innuendo.”
“It’s a fair point,” Ma’at replied. “How did you come to know of these incidents, Paracelsus?”
“Their pipes are monitored, their messages decoded,” Paracelsus replied. “Nothing below remains secret for long.”
Did you know this? Catherine asked.
Yes, Vincent replied. All of our pipecodes came from John Pater’s early works; over time we’ve worked to shorthand the system, to simplify it and remove it further from its origins, but a certain amount of…leakage is something we’ve come to accept. And just as Paracelsus’ followers monitored our communications, we have, from time to time, monitored theirs.
“But you weren’t physically present for either incident?” Ma’at asked, and the apparition appeared uneasy under that sharp gold gaze.
“No, but--- “ it said, and Ma’at narrowed her eyes. “If you weren’t there,” she said, “then you don’t know what really happened. I’m going to disregard your entire line of questioning.”
“You can’t!” the apparition snarled and Ma’at’s voice, sharper than any gavel’s ring, sliced through the air.
“You chose this court. Don't presume to tell me what I can do in it. You tempt me to end this trial here and now, Paracelsus. Continue acting this way, and the verdict will not be in your favor.”
The apparition retreated just a bit. “Very well,” it said, sullen. “But if I may...”
Ma'at narrowed her eyes. “Tread carefully, Paracelsus.”
The apparition nodded. “The testimony of two of my witnesses was not....sufficient. I would like to call one more witness to prove my case.”
“Catherine has not had a chance to call her next witness,” Ma'at replied. “What are your thoughts, Catherine?”
Across the courtroom, Catherine's eyes met Vincent's. It doesn't matter who he calls. A hundred witnesses, a thousand. You're not a monster. You never were.
I know that, my Catherine, Vincent thought back to her. But Ma'at's warning is one you should heed as well. Tread very cautiously; where Paracelsus is concerned, there are moves and counter-moves and hidden shadows everywhere.
“If the court has no objection, I have no problem waiting to call my next witness,” Catherine said, mentally bracing herself for what might happen next.
“I wish to call Vincent's mother to the stand,” Paracelsus said, and the words fell in the too-quiet courtroom.
Catherine stood, buffeted by a long-hidden pain coming through their bond. Vincent's mother? The woman who abandoned him on the coldest night of the year? Vincent? Catherine asked, for just as the wave of pain had hit her, the bond itself had shut down briefly. Don't do this. Let me in.
I'm sorry, Catherine, he thought back to her, and the impression she received was one of dazed confusion. I didn't mean to shut you out. I had to...think. My mother? Here? I know what she thought of me then...what will she say?
No matter what she says, you know it won't matter. Not to me. Catherine thought back to him. She felt the warmth of his love and his acceptance of her strength reach her briefly before a motion out of the corner of her eye caught her attention.
Ma'at stood then, and the power and rage in her stance, wings spread and golden eyes glowing, was stunning. Standing, she resembled nothing so much as the hawk whose feathers she wore on her wings. “You cannot,” she all but hissed. “For one, Paracelsus, his mother is not dead and---as you know very well---you cannot call the living as witnesses to this court. And for another...Vincent's time to know of her is not now. No one can disrupt that, not you, not me. She will not be called here.” Satisfied that Paracelsus intended no further outrages, Ma'at sat down. “I am prepared to render my judgment now, unless you'd like to call your final witness, Catherine.”
Catherine looked over at Vincent and saw again how pale he was, the lines around his eyes tight and strained; despite his stance against the wall as if nothing at all was wrong, she knew he was far from well. They needed to return, and soon, but did she trust she'd proved her point enough? Did she trust Ma'at to judge in their favor?
I trust her, Vincent thought to her. And...I would like to return home.
“I have nothing further, your honor,” Catherine said, and waited.
The verdict, when it came, was decisive. “Vincent is no monster, no being to be molded to your interests, Paracelsus. I set him and his chosen free from Elysium. Your fate is in his hands now.”
Vincent stepped down carefully and came to face the apparition, stumbling slightly. He felt Phillip's arm on his own, steadying him.. “'The thousandth man,'” Vincent murmured and heard Phillip laugh, one last time. “Ah, man, you know that poetry stuff just makes my brain hurt,” Phillip said, smiling. “Say what you have to say to the oil slick. I'll keep an eye on him.”
The apparition faced Vincent, and Vincent wondered what it saw---the helpless infant he'd have turned into a heartless monster? “I would have made you a god,” it hissed.
“It's perhaps fortunate for you that I have no aspirations to godhood,” Vincent said, finding a reluctant bit of humor. “I wish Paracelsus to be judged upon your scale, Ma'at.”
Ma'at smiled. “A wise choice, Vincent. Go and join your chosen.”
Every step felt like a knife was being stabbed under his ribs, but he managed---with Phillip's help---to walk over to Catherine's side. “I'm here,” she whispered as he sank down next to her, her tears in his hair. “I'll always be here.”
Phillip touched her shoulder. “Take care of him now, you hear?”
She nodded. “I will,” and Phillip disappeared.
Ma'at stepped down from behind her judge's box and spread her hawk's wings. “You have terrorized,” she intoned, and although Vincent heard the words in English, he sensed they were somehow also said in the Egyptian of Ma'at's time. “You have been a man of violence. You have stirred up strife, you have wronged many, you have done evil. You have caused many to weep, you have attacked many men, you are a man of deceit.”  The golden scales appeared before her; on one side was a feather, on the other, the image of a blackened heart. The scales tilted slowly and the heart outweighed the feather.
“You are banished, Paracelsus,” Ma'at said, but he did not disappear. Instead, another figure emerged from the shadows. A woman, dressed in the practical tunnel garb Vincent had known all his life, her dark hair coiled on top of her head.
“Oh, John,” the woman said, and her voice was heavy with sorrow and pity. “How far you’ve fallen.”
The apparition backed up against the wooden banister, as if only in her presence had he finally found something to fear.
“You know who I am,” the woman said, turning to Vincent.
“Back where?” the apparition hissed.
“Where you should have gone in the first place,” Anna said. “Where else? The verdict has quite gone against you, and there’s no appeal, not here.”
“And you’ll go…where?”
Anna smiled. It was not a particularly friendly look and Vincent sensed how formidable she must have been in life. “Where you’ll never be. Come now, John. Don’t make Ma’at enforce her judgment. I don’t think you’d find Tu’at as hospitable as where you’re going.” She stepped towards Vincent. “Goodbye, my son. We'll not meet again for some time to come, but just know...I loved you.”
Anna kissed Vincent gently on the forehead, and with a flash of light, she was gone, taking the apparition with her. And then it was a falling, a twisting and turning through light and dark, shadow and substance, light and cloudshadows...the only thing real or solid, the feel of Catherine's hand in his own. After what seemed an eternity, Vincent opened his eyes.
“You're awake,” Narcissa said. “That's a good thing, Child.”
Catherine turned in his arms, dazed, clearly not at all sure that Narcissa was right, worried that he might not have survived the return trip. Vincent met her gaze and kissed her in reassurance and love. “We're back, beloved.”
And I...I am whole.
Click here for part 1 of the Epilogue....