Secrets are tricky things.
She watched the newcomer carefully; when it was plain that he sensed her power no better than did Jian, she made tracks for the river. She must be seen to be harmless, after all. When they arrived, carrying their piled baskets of laundry, she was sunning herself on the high rock she'd been on when Jian first saw her.
The look on the newcomer's face was gratifying; he was pleased to see her, and envious of Jian. Well and good; perhaps he would reveal more than Jian, or prod Jian to be more forthcoming with her.
"Hello again, Jian," she said pleasantly. "Who's your friend?"
But Jian didn't get the chance to answer; his friend set down his baskets and swept into a low and courtly bow - comical, out here in the woods - and said, "Quinlan of the Cobra, under Leonhart, at your service milady."
/Ah. So the snake is a cobra/. "Carolin, at yours," she laughed. "Are all you Squires so formal, then?"
"Of course, Lady Carolin," said Quinlan as Jian gathered soap-root to get his work done. "Especially when speaking to beautiful women."
Carolin made herself the picture of casualness, rolling onto her stomach and curling her feet up over her. "Is it something you're trained to do, then?" she asked. "Or something you want to do?"
"A bit of both, really," replied Quinlan, grinning at Jian. "The exact ratio is sort of individual."
What odd people Squires are, Carolin thought. Any of the town boys would've made some blatant suggestions by now. Quinlan is standing on the bank of the river in the middle of a jungle in his black and green outfit and behaving as though we're a lord and lady at some court, and Jian...is up to his knees in river water and washing sheets while wearing crimson and gold, and neither one sees anything odd about this... "So, what sort of world do you live in, then?" she asked, curious. "Do you guys ever get...time off? Casual days?"
"The answer to both of those," said Jian distractedly, "would be 'no'. Back off a bit, would you Quin?" and he shot his friend a slightly annoyed look. Carolin noted it carefully; Quinlan immediately found a seat, and grinned ruefully as though caught doing something he shouldn't.
"What do you mean?" she asked, for a variety of reasons.
"I mean...you're a Squire until you're chosen, released, or quit," said Jian, still somewhat distracted as he concentrated on getting a stain out of dark sheets while trying not to think about possible sources. "And if those don't happen, you don't get 'time off'. And as long as you're a Squire, you have to look the part. 'S'in the rules, somewhere."
"Yep," said Quinlan, looking like a noble on holiday as he leaned up against a tree. "Somewhere near the beginning I think. I never did get them all memorized; have to ask Lan when we get back."
"Chosen, released, or quit..." mused Carolin. "You can get fired? You can quit?"
Both boys laughed at her puzzled tone. "Boy, you really don't know, do you?" asked Quinlan. "We have to ask the Lion whether they send schoolteachers out this far. Everybody's supposed to know this stuff."
Carolin blushed. "Um, I live pretty far out," she admitted, "and my parents went in for home schooling."
Jian looked up at that, for a moment. It was the first time Carolin had mentioned any family, and she used the past tense. But he quickly got back to his work. "Chosen - if you're chosen by a Sorceress, you're not a Squire any more, you're a Knight. Released - you complete the Squire's training, but you're not chosen. Happens a lot. Quit - you leave the training of your own will before completing it. That happens a lot too."
Pretty high fail rate, noted Carolin. But these guys don't look like anything special..."Why would people quit?"
"Some just decide it's not the life for them," said Jian, "some realize they have absolutely no talent," and here the two boys shared a look as though thinking of someone in particular, then Quinlan finished, "and some get a look at the downside and decide they don't want to handle it."
Time to play the card. "Like...seeing your Knight run riot and kill people?" she asked innocently.
Both boys lost their smiles and stared at her as though she'd just called the Empress a tyrant. Quickly she sat up, adjusting herself so she could get to her feet and run if she needed to. "Who told you that, Carolin?" said Jian flatly.
"It was all over town when he visited yesterday," she said, trying not to sound defensive. "That he was exiled here because he killed people and they couldn't execute him because he's a Knight." She didn't like that look in Jian's eyes, like she'd suddenly turned into a maggot he'd found in an apple. She wished briefly that she hadn't said anything.
"Don't believe everything you hear," said Quinlan, and turned to Jian. "I'm going to head back," he said. "The Lion needs to know this is being said about him. I'll be back around sunset to help you carry the stuff back." And without a look at Carolin he immediately set out, his flail spinning in his hand.
Jian watched him go, and turned to Carolin. "I warned you about this," he said. "We don't like hearing such talk. I think he liked you before you said that."
"I just repeated what the townsfolk say," she said, worried. "He'd have heard it sooner or later."
Jian nodded. "But the one he heard it from was /you/." He got back to his work, but the extra ferocity with which he scrubbed showed his anger. "Just so you know - and you don't ask again - yes, he did kill people. The day the old Empress died. He didn't know what he was doing. We aren't exiles here. We came by choice."
Carolin considered her wording carefully. Jian was just as angry with her as Quinlan had been, but he couldn't leave because he had work to do. That didn't preclude him drawing his sword and attacking her, though...and for some reason, she thought she liked him. "How do you...know he didn't know what he was doing?" she asked slowly.
"Your ignorance is starting to get on my nerves," gritted Jian. "I told you. The old Empress died/. Don't you know /anything about the Knights?" He took in her confused expression and growled. "I guess not. Look - this isn't a political appointment, all right? Nobody but a Sorceress makes a Knight. Ever/. For any reason. It's not inheritable, it's not transferable, it's not earnable. Doesn't that tell you /anything/? She chooses her Knights because she /loves them. They accept because they love /her/."
The intensity in Jian's brown eyed gaze was hypnotizing, unsettling. But her mother hadn't said anything about this, and she needed to know. "But...people lose people they love all the time, they don't go killing people when it happens..."
"That's because ordinary people aren't bonded," said Jian flatly. "The love of a Sorceress isn't like anything else in the world. Not all the Squires want it. It changes you. Permanently. And if she dies..." he shrugged, helpless to explain what little he knew. "Look, I don't have the love of a Sorceress so I don't know. All I know is, Leonhart reacted to the Empress' death the way you might react to finding out your family and entire home town had been torched by raiders. And he went a little nuts for a few hours, and some people got caught in the middle of it. I know Knights have killed themselves when their Sorceress dies - we get told that on the first day of the Squire's training." He bent low over his work, and even with her Sorceress' hearing Carolin almost missed his final words:
"And I know that even now, the Lion wouldn't trade places with anyone."
Jian spent the next few hours scrubbing in silence, as Carolin mulled this over, lying on her back on her sun-warmed rock and staring at the sky. The love of a Sorceress? It didn't sound like what her mother had described at all. Her mother had said she needed to choose many Knights so that none of them would control her...but if they loved her, didn't it seem more likely that they would do what she wanted more than the other way around? She turned on her side, looking at Jian's angry features as he scrubbed yet another sheet. He loved his master, she knew, just as Quinlan did. She didn't think anything perverted was going on - they acted like he was their father, or their king. That kind of loyalty couldn't be bought, it had to be earned.
She was surprised to realize that a part of her wanted Jian's loyalty for herself. She wanted him to look at her the way he looked when he was describing the virtues of his master.
And all loyalty has to be earned, so she started with, "I'm sorry, Jian. I didn't mean to insult your Knight. I'm from this little backwards town, remember? I didn't know."
And was rewarded with his smile.
Quinlan was quite detailed as he made his report, and Leonhart nodded gravely. Of course the people of Timber couldn't be expected to know the full story, or understand it if they did. Timber was as far as you could get from the capital and still be within the Empire. There was only one school, and teaching probably went on a rota, and neither Squires nor Knights were ever seen.
...And there was a degree of justice to it. He didn't remember killing those people, didn't really remember anything of that day other than the tearing pain and loss of the bond breaking, and the overriding knowledge that he had to get to the com tower to find out what had happened. It was only later, after the report sank in, that he had learned he had killed people to get there...people who had only been doing their job in asking for his name, or who had simply not gotten out of his way fast enough. Yes, if the Timberi condemned him for that they had reason.
Quinlan was also more than willing to talk about the girl Jian had met. She did seem to be pretty enough to be a Sorceress...but Jian wasn't ready for that kind of power. He wasn't ready to be chosen. He thanked Quinlan for his promptness and sent him on his way, knowing the flashy gossip would now repeat his tale to all the Squires - who would be more than adequate to defending his honor from less-than-well-informed locals.
Jian wasn't ready. He was a likable fellow, very open and honest, and that would probably catch this Carolin's eye. But if she was the Sorceress, her regard could overwhelm him. Of all the Squires, the only one Leonhart would trust in the presence of a Sorceress was Lan. The others were too easily swayed; they wouldn't be able to guard the Sorceress' spirit, because they would be too busy fawning over her every desire. Just like that boneheaded Knight that had gotten his Marie killed. It was considered acceptable for one or two Knights to be this way, because Sorceresses generally also chose at least a few men of strong enough will to perform the basic task that was their true function; to guard her spirit against the corruption of power. But out here...the first Knight this new Sorceress chose had to be strong of will. She had lived here long enough to grow strong, without any teaching or guidance. It wouldn't be long before she started to fall; even with the best intentions, power would corrupt her eventually.
Well...there was an option, though he didn't know how he would be able to do it. You could trap a Sorceress' power in an object, if you knew how. You had to get her to make something with her power, and then you broke a wizard stone on it. It would hold her power for as long as the stone's power lasted, and hopefully by that time the sorceress would be dead. But if he didn't kill her...perhaps it would last long enough to frighten her, convince her to come to the compound for training.
A slight commotion outside drew his attention away from his musings. Jian and Quinlan were returning, and while Quinlan still looked a bit annoyed, Jian was smiling widely. The Old Lion's heart sank. He would have to find out whether Carolin was the Sorceress very quickly, before Jian fell too far. In the meantime, he couldn't afford to take the risk that she wasn't - he would have to push Jian hard, do his best to fill in the gaps in the boy's knowledge. He watched the activity in the courtyard for a while, until he was sure Jian had had time to finish his tasks, then sent Elric to go and bring Jian to him.
Jian arrived in a somewhat less than perfect state, his legs still wet from the river and his calves coated in mud from the riverbank. He was keenly aware of it, by the look on his face, so the Lion opted to ignore it. "Jian," he began, "Quinlan tells me you've become friends with a local girl?"
Jian's black brows met in a look of puzzlement. "Yes, sir?" he said. Why would the Lion care?
Leonhart sat down in his old chair. "Sit, Jian, and tell me about her." His features were stern; this was not conversation, this was a report. Jian immediately sat down on the floor, indian style, and paid no attention to the mud beyond making sure none of it stained the floor.
"She's about my age I think sir, with red hair and green eyes. She said her parents home schooled her and she's been raised around here. I think her parents are dead."
That pale gaze was incredibly unnerving when the Lion wanted it to be, and so it was now. Jian felt like diamond tipped arrowheads were leveled at his throat. "You think they are dead, Jian? I taught you better than this. What do you know of her?"
Beginning to panic under the relentless gaze of his master, Jian had no defense other than honesty. "Um, that's all I can say for sure, sir," he said. He felt confused - he knew they'd talked for hours, each time; how did he come away knowing so little?
But the Lion nodded slowly, his eyes never releasing Jian's - as though he had the answer to a question. "Tell me, Jian," he said softly. "This girl - would you say she is pretty?"
"Oh, /yes/, sir," said Jian immediately. "Very definitely."
The Lion moved suddenly, bringing a heavy fist slamming down onto his desk as his features grew showed anger. "Listen to yourself, boy!" he snapped. "Can you not see the signs, after years of service?"
Jian was amazed - the Lion never showed signs of temper. The fact that he was doing so now was terrifying, to the point where what he was saying almost eluded him completely. He blinked rapidly, thinking faster than he'd ever done in his life. Pretty, yes she was beautiful...the conversations he couldn't quite remember...the fact he knew so little about her...oh. He gulped; no wonder his master was angry with him. "She...she's a /Sorceress/, sir?" he asked.
The Old Lion calmed down immediately, the cat sheathing its claws as he resumed his seat, face impassive once more. He nodded. "Very good, Jian," he said. "There is a Sorceress in Timber. I know this for a fact. It seems that you are the one she found." He didn't sound happy about it, and Jian felt inexplicably ashamed.
"Am...am I not worthy, sir?" he asked.
Leonhart frowned. "Ask yourself that question, Jian. How long do you think it would have been before you understood her nature, if I had not forced you to consider it?"
Jian hung his head. It was entirely possible that he would never have noticed; he had been taught about the natural thrall that Sorceresses exuded, that made the good ones natural rulers, and the bad ones powerful tyrants. He should have noticed it right away, that he couldn't remember much about her, or what he did around her, except how pretty she was. He knew that if you didn't understand it right away, it could pull you in...and you'd never question anything she said or did...
But he had, hadn't he? When she'd said the Lion had run wild? He dared to raise his head. "Sir...I am not her thrall yet," he said, with as much courage as he could muster. "I condemned her today."
"For how long?" came the calm reply.
"Until she apologized, sir," he said, and was finally rewarded with a slight lessening of tension in the room as the intensity of the Lion's gaze softened into one of searching. His master was looking for something in him; Jian could only hope it was there.
At last the Lion nodded, slowly. "That is good," he said. "There is hope for you. Remember that it is never your role to rule her. You'll always have all you can do ruling yourself - but in ruling yourself, you protect her. It is good that you were able to resist her. Now I have something more difficult for you to do."
"More difficult, sir?" asked Jian. It hadn't been too hard to resist the urge to talk to Carolin this afternoon; he'd been far too angry over her unfair accusation to want to talk to her. But the Lion nodded.
"You will persuade her to use her power to make an object, Jian," he said. "Like Griever, here," and he held up the hand where he wore the platinum lion ring. "Do whatever you must to persuade her to make you something. Then bring it back to me. Tomorrow I will send Lan with you - he won't know about this task, but he'll pull you out of there if it looks like you are becoming her thrall."
Jian gulped. For Lan to be the one to go with him - taking the two best fighting Squires out of the compound - the Lion must feel that this was a dangerous task. "Yes, sir," he said, hoping his voice stayed steady.
"Dismissed," waved Leonhart, and Jian wasted no time in leaping to his feet and getting the hell out of there. When Elric poked his blond head into the room, curious, Leonhart told him to bring Lan.
He spent the minutes frozen in place, concentrating so absolutely that any person entering the room might have mistaken him for a rather lifelike statue. At least for the half-second it took him to notice the movement. Lan stepped lightly into the room, his movements practiced and controlled.
Everything about Lan was controlled. Behind the Lion's stillness lurked passion hotter than any flame, passion which could be unleashed in love or war...only in war now...passion so great that it must be contained or consume all around it, as it had done on that day of shame....
Behind Lan's control was ... nothingness. There was nothing in his regard; no curiosity, no intensity, no passion, no caring. He was reliable, and he was skilled, but he was not liked or loved. To throw caring at that stillness was to throw it away, into a black hole from which it could never be recovered. Of all the Squires, only Lan had chosen a featureless field for his emblem. A simple gray field, as his clothes were gray, as his hair was gray. The official name his emblem was given was Shadow - because the Knights could not imagine complete featurelessness as an insignia. Leonhart had long ago given up prying the details of Lan's past from him. He knew when uncaring was used as a mask, and when it was genuine. Lan's was genuine; there was no spirit in him.
Which made him perfect for this task. What had no soul, could not be thralled.
He indicated that the Squire should sit, and he did so quickly and efficiently, his double-bladed polearm resting across his knees. He said nothing.
"Lan, there is a Sorceress in Timber," said Leonhart. "She appears to have chosen Jian."
A flicker of...relief?
"Jian is not ready to be chosen," he continued. "I am sending you with him when he performs his chores tomorrow. You will be excused from your usual duties to attend to this. You do not need to assist him; merely make sure he is not thralled."
"Yes, sir," said Lan calmly.
"Observe them. Learn as much as you can about this girl he speaks with, and report back to me."
"Yes, sir," repeated Lan, and stood up as Leonhart waved his dismissal, leaving without another word.
Leonhart leaned up against the wall, casting a brief, longing glance at the armaments hung there. One day, he might have to kill Lan. Such soullessness could not be tied to the Sorceresses. However, if that too-brief flicker of emotion was anything to go by, it seemed that Lan himself agreed with that sentiment. It was good to know that something could elicit a response from him.
The next day, the two boys headed for the stream. With the backlog taken care of, Jian had only two baskets'-worth of clothes to wash, so it was possible he might actually come out of his chores today with some time left over. Assuming, of course, that he could convince Carolin to make him something - and that she was the Sorceress his master knew was here. Lan strode easily at his side, his polearm in a ready position and occasionally used against the jungle growth to widen or smooth the path. He didn't speak, or look at his companion - for all anyone might be able to tell from looking at Lan, he was traveling alone.
Jian, long used to his sparring partner's ways, didn't bother trying to engage him in conversation. He spent his time trying to decide what to ask Carolin to make. He wasn't upset that she was a Sorceress; he had always wanted to meet one. That was why he'd become a Squire - to meet these women who were the source of magic in the world. That a Sorceress would actually talk to him was luck beyond his wildest dreams.
He hoped she'd still talk to him after he revealed he knew what she was. Sorceresses could be funny that way.
Carolin waited on her usual perch for Jian's approach, and noted that once again he'd brought someone with him. Not Quinlan, though. This one was so blank as to be frightening. Gray clothes, gray hair, pale eyes - no shield, which was a first. But that impassive expression of determination made her skin crawl. When they saw her, Jian gave her a friendly wave - at least, as friendly as could be managed while carrying baskets - and the gray one gave her a stiff bow.
"Lan of the Shadow, under Leonhart," he said flatly. He didn't offer her his service, she noted. Which was fine, because she certainly wouldn't offer him hers. He didn't set foot on the riverbank, instead standing rigidly at attention with his queer double-bladed polearm held at an angle before him. He watched her carefully.
"Carolin," she said with a short nod. "Jian, are all your friends going to be making an appearance?"
"Lan's just here to guard my back," said Jian, sounding a little uncomfortable. "You could've told me, you know."
A chill went up Carolin's spine. "Told you what?" she said carefully.
"Carolin," he said, "I'm a Squire. Lan here is a Squire. We serve a Knight - we make reports of our activities to him, we obey his wishes to the best of our ability. I nearly got thumped when I told him I'd met you."
Carolin tried to calm her breathing, taking care not to make any overt moves with that gray Squire staring at her. /He knew/. They both did. There was no safety in being here, but she didn't trust that gray Squire not to throw his polearm at her if she tried to flee. He looked far too capable. She swallowed. "Wh-why?" she quavered, ashamed that her nervousness showed in her voice.
Jian smiled reassuringly. "You know why, milady," he said. "It's okay, you know. We're not going to hurt you."
"You might not," she retorted, and then realized she had said more than she meant. Lan's colorless eyes narrowed, his grip on his weapon tightening.
Jian looked at his companion. "He won't hurt you either," he said. "So long as you don't hurt either one of us. You should have told us right off the bat what you were," he said sadly. "It would've gone better."
"Better for who?" she demanded, suddenly angry with the anger born of panic. "Better for you? So your master could force me to choose a husband - or two or three? I like my freedom, Jian, and I intend to keep it. I thought for a minute I might have made a friend, but I can see that that's not what you're interested in. You tell your master to /go to hell/, Jian - and if he comes near me there'll be one less Knight in the world!"
Lan moved incredibly quickly, and in a panic Carolin did the only thing she could think of - she cast Sleep on the pair of them before he could reach her. The power came at her call, stronger than she remembered it, and the two boys toppled where they were - falling into the river.
Safe, at least for the moment, Carolin got a grip on herself. The boys would drown if she left them here, and if they died it would be war with the Knight and his surviving Squires. Quickly she picked them both up out of the water and laid them face-up on the riverbank. She left Lan's weapon in the water - she had no desire to see that one coming after her again, and hoped the river would carry it away. Assured that they would live, she climbed up a tree and used the 'squirrel's road' to make all haste away from the river, grateful that they didn't know where she lived yet. She'd have time to get her favorite things out of her parents' house before the Knight came calling.
When the two boys roused, the angle of the sun told them several hours had passed. The clothes were still there, nothing had been taken. It was a miracle they hadn't been ravaged by monsters.
"What the hell did you attack her for, Lan?" demanded Jian. "She was just scared."
"She is a /Sorceress/, Jian," said Lan calmly. "When a Sorceress gets scared, people get hurt. And she wasn't just scared. I did as I was ordered to do."
"You were ordered to attack her?" Jian asked incredulously. "Why?"
"I wasn't ordered to attack her, I was ordered to protect you. Do you have any idea how dangerous it is to have a Sorceress' anger directed at you? I made her focus on me, instead. Now, come on. Get your washing done. I'll have to find out what she did with my blade-bo."
He did so, and hid a smile when Lan couldn't find his favorite weapon. Served him right for doing something so stupid. He didn't relish telling the Lion what had happened when they got home, though. This was one order he had managed to completely fail to obey.