Choices have consequences.
Truly, it didn't take much in the way of observational powers to come to that conclusion. Both boys showed signs of a dunking, Lan didn't have his weapon, and they'd been gone most of the day when the task at hand shouldn't have taken more than a few hours.
Still, there was the official Making Of The Report, and Jian was shivering with more than the effects of his dunking when he and Lan entered the Old Lion's office. He was leaning in the windowsill, watching the sunset, but turned to face them when they entered.
"You failed, didn't you," he said flatly. "Come on then, tell me how badly."
"S-sir," stammered Jian, "she acted frightened as soon as she realized we knew what she was. Then Lan tried to attack her, and she used magic on us." He still couldn't keep the anger out of his voice over that move. Who would have guessed Lan to be so /stupid/?
Leonhart's steely gaze landed on Lan then, but if it had an effect it wasn't noticeable. "She was afraid, sir," said Lan. "She looked ready to attack either one of us. I made sure she focused on me, instead."
"Not very well," said Leonhart, "since she used her magic on both of you by the looks of it. Lan, I will deal with you separately. Hold yourself in readiness at your quarters until Elric comes for you."
Lan said, "Sir," bowed and left. For all anyone would be able to tell from looking at him, he'd just been told to go change clothes or some other logical order. Leonhart left his perch at the window and took a seat at his desk, and just for a moment Jian thought he looked very, very old, and very tired. Then he took a deep breath, and the moment passed. He laced his fingers together on the desktop, and gave Jian a long, level look.
"All right," he said. "Tell me."
"Sir, she was frightened of Lan," said Jian. "She acted nervous as soon as she saw him, kept away from him the whole time. And I can't blame her, really. He's good in a fight but there's just something creepy about him. She was even more frightened when she realized we knew she was a Sorceress, sir - I couldn't convince her that we wouldn't hurt her. She seems to think that we'll force her to take a husband, sir...or lots of husbands. She thinks you ordered us to be nice to her." He grimaced. "She said to tell you she intends to keep her freedom, and to - to go to hell, sir."
Leonhart observed his Squire closely. He was nervous, as he should be to repeat such a statement in front of his Knight, but there was something in his voice..."You agree with her, don't you Jian," he said, a statement and not a question. "You would prefer her to be free, and you do not agree with my choices."
Jian swallowed. No help for it now; he was a lousy liar and the Lion knew it. "Yes, sir," he said carefully. "She seems to be doing all right on her own...and Lan was a really bad choice to put in front of her. He gives half the other Squires the chills, sir, and we've had years to get used to him."
Leonhart's expression was unreadable, but it was clear he was thinking something over. "You are confined to the compound, Jian," he said at last. "Lan will take over the washing duty. If you think yourself able to question a Knight's decisions, then you must prove yourself able of becoming a Knight. I will expect you to be training every hour of daylight, and that includes mealtimes. You will eat before dawn and after sunset only. And you will be beaten for every failure. Dismissed."
Jian's eyes went wide, and his jaw dropped. He was tempted to ask just what it was he'd done to merit such a harsh punishment, but one cold look from his master's eyes told him that opening his mouth would be an incredibly unwise move just now. Hastily he bowed and fled the room; there was at least an hour of light left.
Leonhart moved back to his window seat; anyone watching would have sworn he was closer to seventy years of age, rather than his true forty-odd. I am sorry, Jian, he thought silently. I must take your faith in me and break it, in any way I can. You care for this Sorceress enough to question me, and that's all I have. I can only hope that by separating you from the rest, she will realize it is safe for her to care for you as well, no matter what she's been told. She could have killed you both; if she was as afraid as you both claim, she should have. She didn't. It's a thin enough hope to pin your life on, Jian...but it's all I have. I'm sorry.
Carolin raced through her family's home, scanning as quickly as she could for anything to take with her. Her bow and quiver, yes. Her spear, yes. A whetstone, a hunting knife, flint and tinder...
Her head was pounding with pain, so much so that occasionally she stumbled. Each time she used her Sorceress' magic, the power grew and became harder to control. Never had she used it against a living creature before today, and the difference was palpable. Her magic was almost like a living thing, scrabbling at the cage in her mind where she kept it, clawing at the walls that penned it, seeking a way out. Even now it whispered that she didn't need her hunting gear, didn't need the flint and tinder - she had lightning bolts and fireballs at her fingertips if she only reached out with her thoughts. It took all her willpower to resist the urge to let her power loose; it was making coherent and rational thought much more difficult to come by.
What else to take? The miniatures, yes. Small enough to go with her. She grabbed them off her windowsills; tiny metal miniatures of local monsters, done in perfect detail. A teaching tool for children, they were meant to be. They were perfect enough to be works of art. She wouldn't need blankets. Her power took care of such details whether she wanted it to or not. That seemed to be everything - time to make tracks. There was no telling how cold the trail would have to be before a Sorceress' Knight could no longer follow it.
Only when she was a long way away from the only home she could remember having, did it occur to her to wonder where she would go, what she would do. Living alone had little appeal; she liked hearing other people's voices, being at least peripherally involved in their lives. Damn you, Jian. Why did you have to betray me? Life would be so much harder now, without being able to head into Timber for the things she couldn't make on her own.
Oh, who was she kidding? The headaches she got from holding back her power were literally blinding now - tinting her vision with black and red spots. She had no intention of dying out here - assuming she could die. The magic needed to be released, in one way or another. Damn you, Jian. Damn you straight to hell. She stumbled as she ran, clutching her head as she fell to the earth. She had gone as far and as fast as she could. Was it far enough? Fast enough?
No. Anyone can track along a straight line. She needed to release her magic, but not in any way that could be traced. That left out most of the offensive magic. On the grounds that it might help her get farther away, with less of a trail, she cast Float. Immediately she felt the power negate her weight, so that only the tips of her toes touched the ground. The spell took effect with great power; it would be hours before it faded, and in the meantime it seemed to have helped the headache some.
Rebalancing herself, she ran on - changing directions randomly, but never ever heading back the way she came.
By the time the spell wore off and her headaches were back at full strength, she was satisfied that she had gotten far enough away. Now there was just the headache to deal with.
Well...using her power eased the pain. How much could she do with it at once? Focusing as well as she could, she concentrated on the result she wished to achieve and threw out her hand, pouring power into the earth.
A spear of crystal jutted out from the ground, curving, shaping...a miniature castle - the details were right, but the size was that of a one-person cottage. Clear crystal? I don't think so. She glared at it until the crystals darkened to black. It now looked like a miniature castle dipped in glass. And it would be private.
What it wasn't was comfortable. But she knew the headaches would return. When they did, she would have any number of 'projects' to kill them off again.
She couldn't bring herself to care anymore whether the power would drive her mad. It seemed bent on doing so anyway, by one means or another. If she became the tyrant of the local monster population, it was better than curling up in a ball and waiting for her head to explode. Creating the house had completely drained her power - exhausted, she laid down on the smooth black crystal floor, making sure the door was barred, and let sleep claim her.
Jian soon learned just how far he was from being his master's equal. He no longer trained with the other Squires; Leonhart delegated the best Squire in each area to continue the training of the others, while he personally took Jian's training in hand.
It would have been flattering if it weren't so exhausting. And there was no mercy, no mercy at all, in the Old Lion's eyes or voice. If Jian stumbled in combat practice, every slip was taken advantage of - by the end of the day, his body was covered in little nicks and cuts, which would have been lethal wounds in real combat. Whenever he wasn't training with the sword, he was learning about the local monsters and about various forms of government. And when those topics were exhausted, he was taught about magic and Sorceresses. The Lion seemed indefatigable, and he was never slow to reward an incorrect answer with the thwack of a switch. For completely wrong answers, the switching would take place over the cuts of the earlier combat practice.
Just once, after a particularly unfruitful session, Jian dared to ask what it was that he'd done wrong; his belief in his master's fairness was implicit in the question. For 'daring to question' he was whipped raw. Jian was left wondering if his master had gone mad. Nothing he did was good enough; his confidence in his own ability was shattered. And always there was a cut or a switching ready to greet any failure.
For a few weeks he stuck it out, hoping that whatever had triggered the tide of anger would pass - or that at least he would be told what it was he had done wrong. Yes, he'd failed to get the Sorceress to make him an item, but this punishment seemed to far outweigh the crime - especially since Lan, his partner in failure, was only given laundry duty. It made no sense.
He set himself a test, one night. He called Lan over, and asked if he would spar with him after sunset. Lan agreed.
The moon was full and bright that night, negating any need for torches in the courtyard - a good thing, because Jian had no idea what the Lion would think of this if he saw it. Lan had gotten himself another blade-bo, and was spinning it around in a steely blur. Jian's crimson dragon shield was much battered from recent practice, but it was still in good enough shape to serve.
Blade stop - scything for the knees. Jian caught it on his shield and struck at Lan's stomach, forcing him back. Lan's eyebrows went up, and the bo went into its spin. Jian didn't wait for it to stop but went for a high cut at Lan's shoulder that his partner was only just able to block.
No more spinning; Lan whirled his blade at Jian's stomach but the dragon shield caught it squarely - and Jian's sword promptly cut the bo in two. Lan backed off immediately and bowed.
"You've gone beyond me," Lan said solemnly. "If I defeat you now it is by luck." And without another word he picked up the pieces of his broken weapon and returned to the barracks.
Jian stood stunned. The fight, from his view, had been easy. Lan was the best fighter in the Squires - they'd always been equal before. But after a few weeks of training under the Lion, he'd beaten Lan effortlessly. Yet he still lost every time he faced off against the Lion. In general, he lost /badly/.
What of the other aspects of his training? Was he better than Quinlan with the rules of high society? Did he know more of government than Twyl? More of magic than Elric? In all subjects he still had not satisfied the Lion...but how did he measure up against the other Squires?
Over the next few nights he tested those questions, and found that he had indeed passed all the others by - though the thorough beatings he got during the day kept him from feeling much pride in the fact.
Ordinarily, a Squire studied for about ten years. Jian was only in his third year. But he was better now than specialists who had reached sixth-year training. The Lion was accelerating his training? Or was he trying to force Jian to quit?
And...what of Carolin? The more he learned of Sorceresses (and he was being taught a great deal more than he'd ever thought there could be to know) the more he realized that Carolin was probably in trouble. A Sorceress alone was safe only if she never used her power - with every use it grew, until she must incorporate it into her life or die from repressing it. Sorceresses were wellsprings of magic; a spring could only remain corked for so long once it started to flow. Too long, and the pressure would cause an explosion - in practical terms, the force required to hold the power back would kill her.
Screw 'no first use'. She'd cast Sleep on Lan and himself. If it was her very first use, she might be okay...but if it wasn't...
He didn't like thinking about that. It was his own fault she'd been scared enough to use her magic. But he was /here/, and she was...wherever she was...possibly in pain because he'd played the fool, possibly going mad.
One night that possibility just wouldn't let go; he lay on his uncomfortable bunk in the Squires' dormitory, looking at his much-nicked sword and battered shield hung over his bed. The golden dragon had seen better days, that was certain, but he was so tired after his training he hadn't had the energy to beat the dents out in weeks. It was still beautiful in its crumpled way, the countenance of the dragon pure and full of spirit. It was worlds away from what Jian felt now; the sheer pressure of his training beginning to take its toll on his spirit. He wasn't even able to see the other Squires any more, except here in the dorm...and he was too tired to talk most of the time.
He was vaguely aware the others were starting to worry about him. A few times, a dessert had been left on his bunk by whichever Squire was in charge of cooking that day, and once he'd come back from a few hours of lessons to find his sword sharpened and his shield repaired. The Lion had assumed he'd found 'time' somewhere, and that afternoon's practice had been particularly rough.
Tonight he looked at his golden dragon and realized he just didn't care any more. To hell with the whole Squire business. Where was he going to use it out here? What monster was impressed by a colorful picture on a shield? Someone who might be his friend was out there, somewhere, if he could find her and explain.
But he wasn't going to sneak out like some thief. He wouldn't bother worrying about the civics courses - but by the dragon he would pay the Lion back for the scratches. The Lion's claws are no match for the Dragon's fangs, and it's about time somebody learned that.
The next day Jian felt unusually calm, as though something had changed. Maybe it had. He answered questions in a half-conscious haze, and if he was beaten for an incorrect answer he didn't notice it. His skin had toughened amazingly over the past few weeks.
Back in the practice ring. Time to end this farce, one way or another. He raised his sword tip from the ground and held it so that the crosspiece was just under his eyes.
"I am Jian of the Dragon, and I challenge you," he said, sweeping his sword out to one side and then drawing it in, to hold in a ready stance. Offering challenge; his master was not required to spare his life if he lost. Right now, Jian really didn't care.
Leonhart's gaze did not soften, but he nodded once, quickly. "I am Leonhart of the Sorceress Marie, and I accept the challenge," he said in response, raising his sword to the ready. Cautious.
The two circled each other within the ring for a while, testing defenses. Everything Jian had learned over the past few weeks flowed through his mind and hands, without ever once involving his brain. He was operating purely on instinct, his usual high spirits gone. The dragon waiting for prey.
Leonhart came in with a powerful high-line attack that could have beaten Jian into the ground; the golden dragon took another pounding, hard enough to numb his left arm. His own sword struck out, aiming not for the silver lion shield but the arm that held it. A miss but it threw the Lion off his balance. Jian followed with a series of mid-level thrusts, to keep him that way.
No luck; the Lion had his namesake's grace and sense of balance. He twisted out of the pattern and sent his sword diving for Jian's unprotected back. Jian escaped only by throwing himself to the ground - but he aimed for the Lion's legs. He wasn't going to play by the traditional rules any longer; if his master could kill him, he could return the favor. In this he succeeded; the two of them tumbled to the ground. Because Jian had been expecting it, he recovered first - and put his sword to his master's throat.
Glaring, panting, his bright crimson and gold covered in dust...he'd won. He hadn't strictly been playing by the rules, but he'd won and he wasn't going to take any more. He did not remove his sword point until Leonhart said, "I concede the match."
Jian jumped lightly off of him and bowed. And without a word left the compound; he had what he wanted, and having gained it wanted nothing more than to never see this place again. He had a friend to find, and apologies to offer, and whatever help he could give. He didn't notice the silence that trailed in his wake.
Leonhart got up and brushed himself off, and picked up his arms where they'd fallen. The Squires were careful not to look him in the eye as he returned to the great house; their leader had been beaten.
The Old Lion didn't quite see it that way. He'd seen the look in Jian's face on Squires before - the look that says they've hit a wall, and don't care what it costs to get past it so long as they do. He would have had to kill Jian to put him down.
That wasn't what Knights were supposed to do. No...when a Squire reached that point it was time for them to win. The making of a Knight was a lifelong process, not a school with a set graduation date - no matter what the boys were made to think. Other Knights knew there was no better swordsman than Leonhart, and knew too that any Squire under him would never defeat him. He wasn't the only specialist around; one of the best-kept secrets of the Knights was when, how, and why to throw a match, in arms or in any other field.
No, what made him feel old was the sheer venom in his favorite Squire's eyes when he had his master down. He had had to break Jian's faith in him, to make him think on his own, make him want to leave to seek out the Sorceress. He knew that. At least he wouldn't have to beat the poor boy any longer. He was as ready as he would ever be; now he just had to hope he was ready /enough/.
Unusual circumstances require unusual tactics; there hadn't been a rogue Sorceress in several decades, and the last one had been born in Centra proper and quickly found. A teenaged one, out here, untrained in any way...it was hard to imagine a more unusual circumstance.
Leonhart tried to tell himself the situation was unusual and treacherous enough to justify manipulating his favorite student in the way he had, but couldn't shake the idea that Marie would have had a better alternative. He looked down at the ring he'd named Griever. It wasn't so much a name for the ring as a name for himself, but he'd already changed names once in his lifetime. Better that his name recall the joy of the day his Sorceress had honored him, than the loss of her death. The lion on the ring was proud and fierce, fearless in a pose of roaring attack. So she had told him he looked when he had done what any Knight would have done with his Sorceress in danger. Leonhart had succeeded where others would have failed, but that had nothing to do with courage - only training and skill with the blade.
"What would you have done, Marie?" he asked the ring. "Was I too harsh? When he finds her, will it be enough?"
Reassurance. Perhaps she could hear him, wherever her spirit had gone. It was oddly comforting. He turned the ring around his finger with his thumb, pretending - just for a moment - that Marie was with him, his beautiful Sorceress. But eventually he had to open his eyes again, and come back to the reality that she could not be with him. He opened the door to his office and addressed a nervous Elric. "Go and find Dorin and send him to me," he said, and watched the boy scamper off.
Dorin was the best tracker of the Squires; he'd been a thief before sent to a Knight for discipline. He would be able to find Jian, and if the Sorceress made an object he'd be able to take it and bring it back to Leonhart.
Jian might become this girl's Knight, but that didn't necessarily mean everyone else was out of danger. Leonhart had survived situations that had claimed others of his brotherhood by always, always having other options.
Carolin's little castle was mostly furnished by now, though she couldn't believe she'd ever find a use for the things she'd made. A full four-poster bed had kept the pain away for a week, the blanket and sheets had won her a few days...pieces of furniture created with the purity of her power, the absence of pain purchased with the absence of thought.
That was the problem. She had only a small space between the power's use and the onset of the headaches, and more and more often what filled that space was...fuzziness. Not-thinking. A tendency to be fascinated by the play of light on a dandelion's myriad tiny petals, idly tracing the veins in a leaf, watching a trail of ants wind their way from their nest to a tiny trickle of sap. The white-mist aftermath of her power's use filled her brain with fog, growing thicker all the time.
She wasn't bored. There wasn't enough thought to be tired of thinking. She had no concept of the passage of time; her awareness faded in and out, and she didn't know where she would have to be to mind. If she was going mad, it seemed a pleasant enough way to go.
Except for killing. Whenever she used her power to kill - a squirrel, a rabbit, perhaps a pheasant - the fog cleared for a while. The first time she used her power on a live creature to kill, she'd thundaga'd a rabbit into a small red smear of fur, and in the clarity of the aftermath had cried all afternoon...until the headaches returned and she began to cry from pain. She had not used any of her offensive spells at full power since. Just...enough. Enough to kill. She mentally set a radius from her little house. If something moved within it, it was fair game and she'd make what use of its body she could. If it were outside the radius, no matter how dangerous it was she left it alone.
Amazing, the way the animals and monsters learned where the boundary was. Must be the really dramatic way a thunder spell fries its target - you can see the light for a long way in any direction, even through trees.
Or maybe they just didn't want to get within a hundred feet of a Sorceress. Maybe monsters were more sensitive than people, and could feel what she was and fear it. What a way to go...alone in the middle of teeming life, an object of power so fearsome even the ancient anacondaurs refused to slither into her field of vision, and unable to care while pretty fleecy clouds floated past.
That was where she was right now...lying on her back in an open space outside her little house...watching fleecy white clouds puff by overhead, in her head, shapes melding and flowing into one another, endlessly fascinating. Her Sorceress' hearing picked up a crashing noise, but it was outside her boundaries so she didn't worry about it. If it was trouble, it would come inside her boundaries and she would fry it. If it wasn't trouble it would leave her alone. She didn't really care one way or the other, beyond idly guessing at the creature's size. If it was very small she would use blizzard so as not to obliterate it; rabbits were small and she liked their fur. If very large, she could electrocute it with thunder spells. And in the middle, she'd use fire so as to have her dinner pre-cooked.
She didn't really think about any of it. She hadn't really thought anything out in...well, a while. Time was one of the things she hadn't thought about. She didn't even need to engage her mind to attack; clarity came after a fight, not before. Hard to miss when something is literally within arms' reach.
It crossed the boundary. She could sense that, even though she didn't see it in the trees. Vaguely annoyed to have her daydreaming interrupted, she threw a thunder spell at it. She wasn't feeling very hungry.
In the clarity of mind that followed her use of a combat spell, the very human scream echoed painfully. She'd used that on a person? Had she been found? Or was this one of the Timberi jungle hunters, or one of the tribesmen?
If she was quick she could heal them, if they were someone who shouldn't have been hurt anyway. She ran to the source of the scream, and found a boy, or a young man, who had definitely seen better days even before her blast had hit him. She remembered him through the fog...crimson and gold, and long black hair in a straight braid down his back.
Turning him to face up, she saw her aim had been perfect - the crimson silk was charred black in a circle around his chest. Her hearing told her he had been alone...she called on her curing magic to undo the damage she had caused. He looked like he'd been given a guided tour of Hell before she'd zapped him, which was the only reason she was inclined to revive him. Logically, anyway.
She was, in a way, illogically, glad to see him now that he had none of his friends with him. Which was why the only thought running through her thoroughly cleared mind was Great Hyne I shot Jian.
Save poetry for an evening on the beach; when you're really up the creek short and simple makes the point.