Monday, December 21, 2015

The Knights of the Jewel: Magus

        How could the princess speak so familiarly with the Jewel? Speaking to it at all proved difficult for Lovisa, who for the moment couldn't even bring herself to open the great double doors that led to the Jewel's chamber. Sure, she had been here before to greet the Jewel or to wish it goodnight; the Jewel considered them all to be its companions, and to reciprocate such considerations with a greeting or an acknowledgement seemed natural. But to actually stand before the Jewel and consult it, to ask for its advice, or even to carry out any sort of conversation with it did not seem natural at all. Lovisa had never approached the Jewel on her own; at the knighting ceremony, her seven comrades had been there with her, and the Jewel had no words for her that it did not have for any of them. They had all been made to feel simultaneously small, insignificant, great, and powerful by its words.
        Still, Lovisa knew that if no one knew what to do about that poor boy, then the Jewel certainly would. But if she didn't act, then there was nothing to be done. Feeling as stiff as if she had been petrified, Lovisa pulled the massive doors aside and entered. There was the Jewel, sitting upon its dais in an oddly patient manner, as if it had been waiting for her. In an instant, Lovisa's anxiety was replaced by the combination of joy and comfort that she remembered so well from her first encounter with the Jewel. She felt as though it were the beginning of the holiday season, or the first day of a week-long stay with a dear friend or relative. If the Jewel was a person, she figured, then it would be a kind maiden woman who warmly welcomed guests into her home to have a chocolate chip cookie and a seat on a comfortable chair. But still, how was one meant to address a magic stone? Lovisa was spared the difficulty of having to figure it out when the Jewel spoke first. “Hello, Lovisa.”
        “Hello,” Lovisa replied, and the sound of the Jewel's voice calmed her enough to allow herself to walk right up to the dais. “I mean, good afternoon,” she said, remembering that pleasantries were the best things to be said when nothing else could be.
        “What brings you to me, my dear?” the Jewel asked in a rather motherly fashion. Lovisa did not hear the words from the Jewel itself, but from the turquoise stone around her neck. “Have you run into any sort of terrible trouble?”
        “Oh, not exactly,” Lovisa said. “We're all just fine. But you see, Ion and Troy found this young boy just sitting around in the middle of the field, and they brought him to me. He's only about fourteen years old and, well, he certainly looks as though he has had a rough time of it. We don't know where he came from or what his intentions are, and if he knows, then he isn't telling us. So we're all at a total loss for what to do with him. But he's so small, much too small for a boy his age. He's dirty and burnt and his clothes are frayed...could a boy like that really hide any wicked intents?”
        There was a long silence. Even the Jewel, Lovisa supposed, must take some time to think. Finally, it spoke again, and its voice was like a long, heavy sigh. “Anybody,” it told her, “has the ability to harbor malicious intents, and anybody has the ability to mask them. But I would like you to bring this boy here to me.”
        “Bring him here?” Lovisa asked incredulously. “Are you s...” She caught herself. Of course the Jewel was sure. It would not have said anything that it was not sure of. “All right, I will,” she said with a nod. “Thank you, Jewel, for your time and for your help.” She nodded again and she saw herself out. The Jewel had no more words for her.

        Lovisa found Sanjaia's horse before she found Sanjaia and the boy, but she was relieved that it was parked in the same place as where she had left them. She parked her own horse beside it and dismounted, and found the two of them nestled safely underneath the thick branches and trailing leaves of a willow tree—a makeshift fortress. Sanjaia sat perched on a lower branch, strumming out a merry melody on his lute. The boy had managed to relax enough to lie down and rest his head on a soft clover patch. His eyes were closed, his face calm, and his arms crossed over his chest, and Lovisa wondered if he had actually fallen asleep. But at the sound of Lovisa's footsteps, his eyes snapped open immediately, and he sat up. “I'm sorry,” Lovisa said, “I didn't mean to wake you!”
        “I wasn't asleep,” was the boy's stony reply.
        “You could've fooled me,” Lovisa said with a chuckle. “Anyhow, I would like for you to come with us. I've found a place for you to go, and there's somebody who would like to see you.”
        “Who is it?” Sanjaia asked in unison with the boy.
        “It's somebody very kind,” Lovisa told the boy, “and very wise, who will know exactly what to do to take care of you. Go on back to the horses now. Sanjaia and I will meet you there.”
        The boy headed back to the horses with an unmistakable spring in his step that had not been present before, holding his head higher and his body taller, without a slump or a slouch to be seen. Guilt took hold of Lovisa at the thought of this poor waif facing interrogation or even imprisonment when all he wanted was a warm place to rest his head. If he was sent to go against us, she thought, then the real enemy is whoever it is that sent him. She had the saddening feeling that the boy had forgotten he was meant to be an enemy the moment he was offered care and kindness.
        “So where are we taking him?” Sanjaia asked. “Who is this mysterious kindly soul?”
        “It isn't so mysterious,” replied Lovisa. “It''s the Jewel.”
        “Lovisa, no!” Sanjaia caught her by the shoulders. “You can't take him to the palace, Lovisa! Remember what Ion said! You can't trust him!”
        “Well, tell me where else he should go!” Lovisa snapped. “Sanjaia, the Jewel itself told me to bring him there! If the Jewel itself requests his presence...”
        “You spoke with the Jewel?” Sanjaia asked, astonished.
        “Yes,” Lovisa said, “I did. 'Bring the boy to me,' it said. It would not have said that if it saw any danger!”
        They found the boy waiting on the back of Lovisa's horse, his expectant eyes facing the horizon. Sanjaia knew that he couldn't argue with the Jewel. “It's probably best if we don't tell Ion,” he whispered finally as he mounted his horse. “Are you all right?” Lovisa asked the boy warmly, forcing herself to smile against her guilt and anxiety.
        “Fine,” the boy said dryly.
        They urged the horses on, making way for the Palace of the Jewel, making their way through the repetitive scenery of tall grass and thickets of weeds and shrubs. The boy was alerted to a sudden cacophony in the distance: what sounded like a horrifically agonized cry that sent a chill through the bones of all three of them. “What in the world is going on out there?”
        “It's nothing to worry about,” Sanjaia assured him. He recognized it as the sound of Morgana testing out one of her distortion spells against an unfortunate manikin.
        “That's nothing to worry about?!” the boy asked, his voice quaking. “It sounds as though somebody's being turned inside-out!”
        “Nobody is being turned inside-out,” Sanjaia told him with a light chuckle. “It's only a friend of ours, practicing her spells.”
        “What kind of spells?” the boy asked. But Sanjaia shook his head; he wouldn't say anything more about it, and the boy didn't press him. He remained silent until they pulled up into the courtyard of the Palace of the Jewel, and then he let out a cry in spite of himself.
        “What's wrong?” Lovisa asked. “Are you all right?”
        “It''s's remarkable!” the boy exclaimed with a gasp. Like other children, he had read about such places in storybooks, and like other children, he had been sure that such places did not exist outside of storybooks. Oh, he knew that there were palaces, though he had never been fortunate enough to see one up close. But a palace like this, with its opalescent walls that reflected every color of the rainbow and its glistening towers that imposingly looked down upon them as if alive, was another thing entirely. Everything, from the trailing, bell-like flowers in the courtyard to the glittering golden gates inlaid with tiny pearls, seemed unfit for any ordinary royalty. “Who in the world lives there?” the boy asked once he had caught his breath.
        “You'll see,” Lovisa told him. “But wait here for a moment, all right? Keep a sharp eye on him, Sanjaia.” She dismounted her horse and unlocked the gate to let herself through.
        Keep a sharp eye on him. The boy was still distrusted, and he sighed wearily. He distracted himself with the sight of the dreamy palace before him, watching as reeds danced in the wind beside the aquamarine-colored garden pond. Sanjaia played a bit on his harp, but the boy was too enchanted to take any notice.
        Lovisa returned a few moments later and, to the boy's surprise, unlocked the gate again and pushed it aside for him. “Come in, honey,” she said, and he thought that his heart would rise and fly. Oh my! I get to go in there?! He leaped from his horse and darted through the gate like a rabbit, and Lovisa quickly caught him by the hand. “Not so fast, please,” she told him firmly. “We'll be going in together.” She could feel his body tremble as she led him to the entrance. The boy found warmth in her hand this time, which he had not felt when Ion had handed him over to her like a pet that nobody wanted. The warmth increased as she led him into the palace, and he remembered what it was like to be cared for.

        A staple such as milk is one that is easily taken for granted. After all, in any ideal quality of life, milk is both plentiful and accessible. Very few may truly appreciate milk, or savor the taste of milk, or long for milk with their breakfast in the way they might long for blueberry pancakes. But if someone were to find themselves in a situation where milk was as hard to come by as a buttercream birthday cake, it would become just as savored and sought after.
        “Oh, I think that's enough, Magus,” Lovisa said, patting the boy's head when he eagerly held out his glass for a fourth serving of milk. “If you fill up on milk, there won't be room for anything else. Eat your sweetbread. It's really good!”
        “It's so empty in there that I have room for anything,” Magus insisted, but he obediently took a bite out of the bread, and then had to be stopped from wolfing the rest down. It was as if he had never seen good food before, even ordinary food like milk and sweetbreads. Dear god, Lovisa thought as she watched him greedily gobble it up, how has this boy been living? His clothes had been changed from the dirty street attire to the soft cotton pants and taffeta shirts from Rodin's wardrobe; though they shared a clothing size, the clothes were still very loose and billowy on Magus' twig-thin body. The Jewel had instructed Lovisa and Sanjaia to let him have a bath and to dispose of all traces of his old attire, preferably by burning them. Lovisa didn't know why, but Sanjaia did, and it gave him a spooky feeling: the Jewel had discovered that the boy came from Aldine. The clothes were bugged from head to toe. The thread-worn pockets of the loose shirt and torn jeans were ideal hiding places for tiny devices designed to spy and track, as were the holey cap and shoes. The boy was likely outfitted with so many devices, traps, bugs, tools, tricks, and even magic spells intended for surveillance that a thorough bath was the only way to get every inch of them off. Sanjaia had guarded the bath door for an hour and not one moment less, no matter how much Magus insisted that he was done washing. “You're done when I say you're done,” was Sanjaia's curt response. He was taken aback by how harshly he spoke—he had never spoken like that before. Good lord, he thought, we really are changing...
        The Jewel had not deemed it necessary to turn Magus away, and even if it had, Lovisa wouldn't have been able to do it. That said, it was Lovisa who would have to explain why he was here despite strict instructions to keep him away. Magus had cleaned his plate entirely and now held it out for her. “Can I have more?” he asked hopefully, and Lovisa was delighted to see that some color had returned to his pale face, which reminded her of something else entirely. “No, honey,” she said, taking the plate from him. “You can have some more later on. Right now, I'd like to tend to those awful sunburns. Why, you look just like a roast chicken!”
        “I feel like one too,” said Magus, and Lovisa giggled. “Go on over to the bed, then,” she told him, “and I'll look around and see what I have for those burns.”
        “I've been wanting to lie down on that bed since I laid eyes on it!” Magus excitably confided. He threw himself down on the bed with relish, ignoring the pain of his burns and the aches of joints that never found a good place to rest. He was delighted to find a mattress so soft and thick that his body sank into it. He sighed happily and rolled over on his back. When Lovisa returned, she found him asleep with one pink cheek pressed against the pillow. He was not yet so far into sleep that he could not feel the delightfully cool, minty ointment that she gently applied to his sunburnt face, or the soft kiss that she placed on his cheek once she finished.

        There was much discussion among the seven other knights about what was to be done about Lovisa and Magus, none of it shared with Lovisa and Magus themselves. Ion considered her breach of his orders a grave betrayal, which quickly escalated to an act of treason when Sanjaia reported that the boy came from Aldine. “She doesn't think!” Ion had roared. “She leads with her foolish heart, and now that heart has led the snake and his venom right to our door!”
        He had calmed down considerably since then, after a few of his well-meaning comrades had convinced him to lead with his own head as opposed to his hot blood. As per their advice, he had not confronted Lovisa or even spoken with her at all, and the rest of them followed suit. When he spoke now, his exasperation was buried under several layers of pity: “It's a shame, she is such a dear girl, and I've never known a better heart than hers. But it's that very heart that has gotten the best of her. No one has ever taught her that there's no room for kindness in war.”
        “Of course they haven't,” Alicia said in Lovisa's defense. “She has never known war.”
        “She's only following the Jewel's advice,” Sanjaia said. “The Jewel told her to bring the kid here, and so she did! The Jewel told her to let him have a bath and some food, and so she did! The Jewel said it was safe to keep him here for now, and so that's what she did! Do you really think that the Jewel would lead danger to its own door?”
        “He is dangerous,” Morgana said harshly, “and only an idiot would doubt that. But I suppose that the Jewel saw something in him besides the danger. Humans are dreadfully complicated, and young humans especially—they are fickle, impressionable young things who hardly have a mind to make up. I suppose that somewhere in the unintelligible nonsense that makes up the mind of a young human, the Jewel found something that prompted it to keep him around.
        “I'll tell you what the Jewel saw in him,” Sanjaia said, standing up on his chair. “It saw a child, put up to some ridiculous evil plan by some ridiculous evil man who finds it appropriate to send a kid out to do his dirty work! He was probably promised food, or a bed, or even money in return. 'Go do these knights in, and you won't have to sleep in a pile of dirty hay tonight!' But now look, he's gotten that and more without having to do anybody in! So who's to say that he won't just give up on the whole thing? I think it might be all right to let up on him at least a little.”
        “And as usual,” chided Morgana, “you're a fool.”
        “Eluani hasn't said anything,” Alicia interjected as Sanjaia attempted to work up a retort. “If anybody ought to have anything to say about all this, it would be Eluani, and yet she's been completely silent!” They all looked to Eluani, who was sitting at the end of the table with her arms folded and her face stoic. “How do you feel about all this, Eluani?” Alicia asked. “Do you think that it bodes well?”
        Before Eluani could answer, Lovisa appeared in the doorway. “I know you've all decided not to speak to me,” she said bitterly, “and I know you probably don't care about Magus...”
        “I do care!” Sanjaia interrupted.
        “Yes,” said Alicia, “how is he doing?”
        Lovisa grinned. “He's smiling in his sleep,” she told them. “I don't think he's ever even dreamed of accommodations like these.”
        “I'm sure he's dreamed of them,” Morgana said coldly.
        “It's very unfortunate,” Alicia said, “but Lovisa, you know that he can't stay here. He's a refugee from Aldine, and it's just too dangerous to keep one of those around.”
        “Where else is he going to stay?” Lovisa asked defensively. “They won't have him in the city.”
        “I wonder why,” Troy said with a roll of his eyes.
        “It's dangerous for him too,” Alicia reminded Lovisa. “Right now, we are under the constant threat of an attack. You know that.”
        “I do know that,” Lovisa said, “but we can protect him. And if we can't, the Jewel certainly can. There's a reason that it asked me to bring him here.”
        “Yes,” said Rodin, “it wanted him off the streets and out of harm's way. Now that he is, we've got to figure out what to do with him.”
        “You don't know if that's the only reason,” Lovisa argued.
        “Take him to the princess,” Eluani spoke out suddenly, and everyone turned to face her. “As soon as he wakes up, we'll get him fed and on a horse, and we'll set out.”
        “You can't be serious,” said Troy in exasperation. “It's bad enough that he's hanging around here. Now you want him brought to the palace?
        “Not that they'll take him,” interjected Morgana.
        “I didn't say to take him to the palace,” said Eluani, “I said to take him to the princess. As soon as he wakes up, we'll go.”
        After the incident with the golem, the knights had been given devices that could be used to call upon the princess at any time, as well as to communicate with eachother across the field. Rodin took his out now and pressed the switch that would allow him to connect with the princess' device. “Princess Cordelia?” he spoke out, and she returned a clear and prompt response: “Yes, Rodin, what do you need?”
        Rodin was suddenly at a loss for words. “I...we...well...”
       “We found a young vagrant out in the fields,” Ion took over. “He is a waif from Aldine.”
        There was silence. Lovisa could have slapped him. You idiot! They're going to interrogate him, browbeat him, intimidate him...and he doesn't need that! He needs someone to take care of him! Finally, Cordelia spoke: “Are you sure that he's from Aldine? Did he tell you so himself?”
        “The Jewel told us,” Rodin said.
        “Do you have the child with you?” Cordelia asked.
        “We do,” replied Rodin.
        “Then bring him to the city entrance,” Cordelia said. “I will meet him there.”
        “As you wish,” said Ion. “Thank you, Princess.” He turned to Lovisa. “Go and wake the boy.”
        “I'm not going to wake him,” Lovisa said defiantly. “We will wait until he wakes up, and then we will give him dinner before taking him out. You can tell the princess that.” She headed for the door, her mind already formulating the right words to say to Magus. No matter how the news was broken, it would be a betrayal. But hopefully there was a way to take a bit of the edge off. To find Magus standing there at the door, his eyes turned on her like angry flames, was the very last thing that she would have expected. “Magus!” she exclaimed. “How long have you...”
        “I heard everything!” he cried out with fury. “You brought me around just to toss me back out! I ought to have known!”
        “Magus...” Eluani began.
        “Shut up!” he hollered. “Don't even talk to me! You all hated me from the start...and I hate you too! You all can burn in hell!
        He took off running, making his way through the halls like an angry dart with no particular target. Immediately, Lovisa gave chase. “Magus!” she called. “Magus, come back here! Magus!” But his legs were like springs, and he flung himself out the door before Lovisa could catch up to him. She heard Ion's angry boots pounding their way towards her, and she turned around and stood her ground, her arms outstretched. “Step aside!” Ion roared, his eyes crackling like the sparks of a blue flame.
        “Leave him alone, Ion!” Lovisa cried. “He's...” The next thing she knew, she was lifted into the air and set back down on her feet in one swift motion that knocked the wind out of her. By the time she regained her composure, Ion was already out the door.

        Magus was accustomed to running, and he had the powerful legs to show for it. His entire life, it seemed, was running; running down streets, through alleyways and farmers' fields, running from guards and from people who caught him stealing, running from ruffians that singled him out as easy prey, running from the many altercations he had gotten himself into. He had been tossed over Aldine's border and forced to run from guards, and now he was running from traitors he had been foolish enough to believe were friends. He didn't have any friends.
        The good meal he'd had—a very rare treat for him—had given him the energy to fling himself over the golden gates of the palace and dart off before anyone that may have been chasing him could even think of catching him. The sound of heavy feet pounding after him brought him down to his hands and knees, darting through shrubbery and patches of tall grass like a snake. He sprung up the moment he touched road and continued to run. The beautiful clothes that he had been given were dusty and stained with grass. His hair, which had been detangled and combed down neatly, was tousled by the breeze and was gradually returning to its previous wild state. His burns began to sting again as the sun touched his skin. He had been brought to an enchanted castle, where they had managed to transform him into someone else for the time being. Now he was out in the wide world again, and slowly reverting back to himself. He was truly lost, with nowhere to go that would not lead him into trouble. The beacon that he was meant to use to call upon his benefactors at a time like this had been taken from him. It was still in the palace, with all of the other remnants of his life in Aldine.
        The woods were still a distance away, but nearby enough that they would provide a viable place to settle. The trees would shade him from the sun, there were thickets to hide in, and there were willows. Willows, with their dense, trailing leaves and strong bodies, were the best possible shelter trees. In Magus' experience, they often grew alongside clear streams and ponds, where there was water and fresh fish to be had. The thought of a willow was a comforting one in the past, but now it could not measure up to the nice, soft bed that he had left behind in the palace. He wiped a tear from his eye, and shook his head as if to clear away any more that might come. You wouldn't have been able to stay there, Magus, he reminded himself. They would've taken you away, and then you would be back out here anyway, if not in prison. He slowed down and allowed his legs a respite from the need to run. It was not a long one, for he was set off again by the deep rumble of oncoming hooves. Those machine horses, Magus thought as he frantically searched for a spot to hide. They were ridiculous things. He had been informed of Rasta's preoccupation with machinery and enchanted tech, but he thought they at least ought to use real horses. He had evaded real horses enough times, but these things...
        Finally, he came upon a growth of berry bushes, and he got down on his stomach and dragged himself under them. He drew his knees up to his chest and curled up as tightly as he could manage, which was relatively easy with his small frame. The low rumbling sound drew nearer, and he peered between the branches and beheld his opponent.
        These were real horses, not the bronze-colored machines of Rasta. They were tall, strong black steeds decorated in the familiar purple and gold regalia of Aldine, each carrying an armored rider. The soldiers of Aldine had come for him! Even facing the wrath of his benefactors was preferable to having nowhere to go at all. Magus emerged from the bushes and darted after the army. “Hey!” he called out, waving his arms. “He-e-ey! I'm right here! Help me! Hey!” But his cries were lost in the pounding of the hooves, and the army was quickly getting away from him.
        They were heading for the city.
        Magus halted in his tracks. They weren't here for him. They were here to storm the city. Suddenly, his chest tightened as if it had been squeezed. The princess! She was waiting for him at the city's entrance, and that's where she would be when the soldiers showed up...
        Magus' mind raced. She's the enemy, he reminded himself. Why should I care? But enemy or not, he hated the thought of the princess in danger. After all, she had offered to take him in, when originally he had been turned away completely. And besides, she was in league with that lovely woman who had shown him such unheard-of kindness and comfort; that beautiful, golden-haired woman, who fed him and tended his wounds, who gently combed the mats out of his hair and gave him his best sleep on that wonderful bed. She treated him like he was a precious thing that she must care for and protect, and he didn't remember the last time that he had been shown kindness like that. It certainly hadn't happened during his hard life in Aldine.
        As he thought of her, his legs carried him towards the army. His body grew hot with an inner fire fueled by pure passion and by the thoughts of the kindness that he had received. He wished more than ever that his fear had not gotten the best of him and that he had gone quietly to the princess. It was his fault that she was in harm's way, and now he was going to make up for it. A few more flying sprints, and he would be tailgating the last row of horses. The soldiers, facing forward, were unaware that he was even around. The heat within his body grew and grew, until finally it exploded. He closed his eyes against the blinding flash. There were the soldiers, letting out blood-curdling, almost inhuman screams as the pain overtook every part of their bodies. Magus covered his ears and ran, without any regard for direction or purpose. Those haunting death cries would surely break him if he didn't get away...
         He ran into something hard and oddly metallic, and he was knocked to the ground. He opened his eyes, clutching his head with one hand to stop the vertigo. Ion, that red-haired knight with the red stone, had finally caught up with him. But right now, he only had eyes for the soldiers and their horses as their bodies were engulfed in flames. Magus turned away, because he just couldn't bear the look in those eyes. 

Monday, December 7, 2015

Into the Land of the Elves: Katie Messes Up

The Diary of Miss Aidyn Hall, friend and protector of the Jadeites
August 23
4:00 PM

Katie Messes Up

       I am currently lying face-down on the floor of what Apple Blossom calls “one of the spare rooms” (“Though we never use it for anything,” she had told me, “so I don't know what it's the spare for.”).
       I don't know what it's the spare for either. What I do know is that I'm going to remain here until I hate everything just a little bit less, and who knows how long that will be? This is usually the time of year when I take my annual summer retreat, so nobody's expecting to see me around anyway. But the usual feelings of contentment, serenity, and relaxation that come with the annual retreat are completely absent.
       Katie just had to go and run her gigantic mouth. The good news is that she only told Hannah and Janelle. The bad news is that she told them everything. I returned home from teaching Wildflower her letters the other day and was treated to about a thousand new text notifications the moment I turned on my phone. They were all from Hannah and Janelle, and they all said the same things: “Katie told me that you've been hanging out with, actual elves?” “What's the deal with this elf story Katie's been going on about?” “She says there are woods full of elves behind your house.” “This is a prank you and Katie are trying to pull, right?” “You have a picture of the elves?” “Can I see the elf picture that you showed to Katie?” There were stacks and stacks and stacks of that with a few missed calls mixed in, and I had to delete the entire threads to keep my message box from caving in. I saw so much red that it clouded my brain, and I paced in circles hollering every swear word and swear-word-laden insult I could think of. When I ran out of swears, I flopped myself down on the couch and texted Katie, bashing the touch screen so hard that I'm surprised it didn't break. I erased the text full of the swear words that I had just called her, erased another text that went into vivid detail on how she was the very worst person to had ever walked the Earth, and finally decided to get straight to the point: “WHY DID YOU TELL THEM?!”
       She texted me back immediately: “I'm sorry! It was one little slip that escalated out of control!”
       I could've sworn that my face was heating up and my ears were steaming like an angry Looney Tunes character. “TELL THEM IT WAS A PRANK!” I texted back.
      “I can't,” was her response. “It's too late for that.”
       I had to set the phone down and walk away from it to keep from smashing it in fury. Finally, I picked it up and texted, “We need to discuss this in person. GET OVER HERE.”
       When an hour passed with no sign of Katie, I figured that I would give her an extra thirty minutes—just enough time to figure out what to do with Hannah and Janelle's texts that continued to blow up my phone. As much as I would have preferred to, I couldn't remain silent; I had to initiate damage control, and I had to do it soon. The best way to handle this, of course, would be to tell them that it was a prank and that I couldn't believe they fell for it. But apparently it was “too late” for that. What in the world had Katie meant by that?
       So I opted for the next best course of action: I told them that we would talk about this later on. There, I had bought myself all of the time that I needed, because thirty minutes were not going to cut it.
       Katie didn't answer the first “where are you” text I sent. I made dinner. I watched TV. I browsed the web. I even scribbled out a little bit more writing when I could concentrate enough to do so. The next hour crept up on me. Still no Katie. My next “where are you” text went as unanswered as the first one. I called her and received no answer. I didn't bother to leave anything on the voicemail. “This is unbelievable,” I said, slamming my palm on the arm of the chair. She was avoiding me. Instead of facing the music, talking it out like an adult, and owning up to the fact that she messed up, she was going to hide away from it, like a five-year-old child hiding under the bed after breaking a window. Who knew what she was telling Hannah and Janelle now? They had stopped texting me entirely, and I had a feeling she was telling them something.
       I had to make one last-ditch attempt. I got in the car and made my way for Katie's place. She wouldn't avoid me if I showed up right at the door, would she? If she was really my friend, she wouldn't even think of doing so! She had to understand just how serious this was, right?
       I rang the doorbell and waited a full sixty seconds, timed by my phone's clock. There was no answer. There wasn't even any sound of her footsteps making their way to do the door. Her car in the driveway was the only indicator that she was home at all. I rang again and waited another sixty seconds. There was nothing. I wanted to yell for her and bang on the door, but I didn't want to scare her neighbors. I turned around and dragged my feet back to the car. Katie wasn't going to answer—not her texts, not her phone, not even her door. She was going to avoid the situation entirely, and for that reason, she was no friend of mine. Apple Blossom had been sorely mistaken. Katie was in no way, shape, or form a “nice human.” She was just like every other entitled, intrusive busybody of a human. I never wanted to see her lousy face again.
       I went to bed earlier than usual that night, and lay there musing over what to tell Hannah and Janelle. Finally, I decided that the best thing to do was to get the hell out of dodge. It was time for my annual summer retreat and they knew that, and if I wasn't around, then I wouldn't have to tell them anything. I would surely have something to say by the time I returned home. But I had been so wrapped up in my adventures with the Jadeites that I hadn't even thought about my summer retreat at all. None of my usual locations—a secluded campsite out in the woods, a well-kept hotel room with a view of the sea, a living history museum where I could journey through another century for a weekend—seemed like anything special or even desirable anymore. Any place full of humans seemed a most undesirable place indeed. Who knew just how many Katies were among those humans (and of course, there were plenty that were much worse than her)? I fell asleep with that on my mind, and my sleep was not very pleasant.
       During breakfast the next morning, I got the idea to stay in the Greenwood. It was simple; I would go into the Greenwood to visit Apple Blossom just like every other day, but not return home. I wondered if the king and queen would be all right with holding me up in the palace after I explained the situation to them—and then realized that I would be lucky to be allowed to sleep within thirty feet of the palace after explaining that situation to them. Still, I'd be all right with sleeping in a hole in the ground, so long as it meant that I could both hide away from Katie and quite possibly keep an eye out for any threats she might pose to the Greenwood. A hole in the ground, full of bugs and worms, was preferable to a world of humans that poked their noses where they weren't supposed to, no matter how many times you flicked that nose. I truly understood the animosity the Jadeites and tree elves had for humans, and I was entirely sure that the humans had provoked it.
       As it turns out, I got so much more than a hole in the ground. For the past two days, I packed and I prepared, just as if this was any other retreat. Consequently, for the past two days I had not gotten a chance to visit the Greenwood, and I hoped that Apple Blossom wouldn't be too torn up about it. I told everybody—friends, family, editors, and agent—that I would be going on a nature retreat, a very common vacation choice for me, and nobody asked me any questions. Even Katie, who had finally decided that I existed, simply said, “Oh. Have fun.” But I could practically smell the passive-aggression in that text.
       I made my way to the magnolia archway this morning, with only my carry-on bag, and found Apple Blossom waiting for me at the Grand Elder Guardian's web. “Oh, Aidyn!” she cried. “Where have you been? Wildflower's been asking for you all this time! She was worried that you might not come back, even though I kept telling her that you would never leave us behind. Have you been spending all of that time with Katie?”
       What happened next was completely unexpected, and I couldn't stop it once it started. I burst into tears, right in front of Apple Blossom. I sunk to my knees, buried my face in my hands, and sobbed. At that very moment, when Apple Blossom bounced on her toes and asked me where I've been, everything had caught up to me all at once: the texts, Apple Blossom's assertion that she now knew “two nice humans,” what Katie had done and my own role in it, the way she had avoided me, the trouble that the Jadeites had ended up in because both Katie and I had messed up...and now, disappointing Wildflower on top of all that. It was all just too much for me.
       I heard Apple Blossom cry, “Aidyn!” The next thing I knew, her arms were wrapped around my heaving shoulders. For a while, she just held me and patted me gently, then she grabbed me by the arm and helped me to my feet. “Come on, Aidyn,” she said, gently nudging me in the direction of the bridge. When I cry, my face turns beet red and my nose runs like a waterfall. I must have been a total mess, but of course, Apple Blossom didn't care. She patted me on the back and spoke to me as if I were the hurt and frightened child that I felt just like. “It's all right, Aidyn. I'll take care of you.” She held my hand as we crossed the bridge. By then, my sobs had diminished and my shoulders had stopped heaving so much. Apple Blossom took me by both hands and stood all the way up on her tiptoes—her way of trying to place herself at my level. “Tell me why you're crying, Aidyn.”
       I nearly said, “I can't.” But instead, I told her that I wasn't ready to. She accepted that answer and led me in the direction of the palace. The two of us were silent as we passed through the village of people that used to gawk at me at their doors and windows. Now, they accepted me as a regular occurrence. I knew I had to tell Apple Blossom something, and during the walk to the palace my mind fought for the right words. When we reached the palace gates, I said finally, “Apple Blossom, things aren't going so well in the human world right now.”
       “What's going on?” she asked, but I shook my head and she didn't ask anything else. She patted my hand and we went inside.
       She led me to this spare room and told me to stay here while she talked to her parents. I think that she expected me to use the bed, but she came back in while I was working through the middle of this entry and I was, and am, still on the floor (to be fair, it is a very comfortable floor). And to my incredible surprise, relief, and ecstasy, she told me that her parents are allowing me to stay here for a while. “This is really big, Aidyn!” she said breathlessly. “This is a first in Jadeite history, unless there's a bit of history that I missed. The harboring of a human in a Jadeite home—and the palace, no less—oh, this is revolutionary, Aidyn!”
         So I'm a part of something revolutionary, and right now I can't even be happy about it. 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Knights of the Jewel: Harkinian's First Assault

        Lovisa was the first to find the bard, leaning against an old oak tree in the woods surrounding the training fields. The fields were dormant, free of training manikins, and the only sound was that of the haphazard chords Sanjaia mechanically strummed out on his harp. His eyes were wide, fixated on the distant image of the golem's massive body lying in the grass, but his face was as stony as the carved face of a statue. Lovisa had never seen him like this before. She called out to him, and he regarded her with a disconcertingly broken smile. “Are you all right?” she asked as she approached him.
        “I am alive, thankfully,” Sanjaia said, “as are you.”
        “Thankfully,” Lovisa said. “But look at you! You're so...”
        “I'm frightened,” he told her. “I've never had such an experience, not in my entire life! It makes me wonder if I'm really made for this, and quite frankly, I don't think I am.” His fingers fluttered rapidly over the harp strings as if they had been shocked.
        “But you held out so well!” Lovisa said, laying a hand on his shoulder. The man was trembling like a frightened animal, and she could feel the pounding of his heart. “I watched you out there,” Lovisa went on, “and well, the two of you knew exactly what to do. You...”
        “I didn't know what to do at all,” Sanjaia reminded her. “It was all Eluani! She knew what to do, I was only following her orders. If she hadn't been there...” His body tensed, and his hands tightened around the harp. “I would have been done for!”
        “But she was there,” Lovisa said. “Sanjaia, you can't think about what might have been or what could have happened, because it didn't happen! What did happen is that the two of you fought and you won! It was the first fight against a real enemy—a real, dangerous enemy—and you made it! We all did!”
        Sanjaia looked at the ground, and the next chord he strum out wouldn't have been out of place in a dirge. “Of course I'm thankful for our lives,” he said, “but I don't feel victorious—far from it. And I cannot bring myself to care about a win. I feel small, vulnerable, and like I must hold on tightly to my life before it's taken from me! I don't feel as if I can live this way, Lovisa. I cannot live this way! My life was peaceful and mundane, and my greatest adventure was the daily quest for a new stage to perform my music. I liked it that way, and this I just can't take!”
        “Get a hold of yourself, fool!” Morgana scolded, coming up behind him. Sanjaia turned around, and his face lit up at the sight of her and Eluani looking just as well as they had before the fight. “Morgana!” he cried. “You're all right!” He threw his arms around her, and though her first instinct was to pull back, she decided to allow it in lieu of the circumstances. “I'm just fine,” she said, “and you're carrying on like a fool. Just what did you think it would mean to be a knight? Of course there will be peril! Of course there will be times when we will stand on the brink of death! You agreed to give your life for the protection of the Jewel, and that is exactly what you're going to do, right along with the rest of us!”
        “I cannot do it!” Sanjaia cried, dropping his harp and wrapping his arms around himself. “When I entered this, I did not take into account that I am simply not made for this kind of thing!”
        “If I am made for it,” Lovisa told him, “then you certainly are.”
        “You're so much stronger than me,” Sanjaia said. “You may not feel that way, but you really are!”
        “It doesn't matter who is stronger than what!” Morgana said firmly. “Nobody is going to bow out of this, and that includes you! No one can take your place—there can be no other Knight of the Citrine! You go, and each and every one of your strengths goes with you! And, as proven by that battle with the golem, there are going to be times when you will be required! Are you willing to betray all of us, along with the Jewel and the kingdom of Rasta, just to give in to fear?”
        “I don't want to betray anybody!” Sanjaia said mournfully. “But...the thought of dying out here is just too much! It's overwhelming! I cannot die! There's still so much that I mean to do and so much that I mean to see, and so much music that I have yet to share with the world!” Oh, lights, thought dismayed Morgana, the man has broken out in tears! If he doesn't cut the dramatics, it will take all I have not to kill him myself!
        “Then fight, Sanjaia,” Eluani said solemnly. “In war, the only way to stave off death is to fight. If you give up, you will surely die. But if you turn that fear of death into your driving force, then you will have a much better chance of coming out alive.”
        “I have never fought a day in my life!” Sanjaia lamented.
        “That's a lie,” Morgana said harshly, “and you know it! You just spent the afternoon fighting—and winning—against a colossal golem! Who are you to tell anybody that you can't fight?”
        “The urge to survive is a strong one, Sanjaia,” Eluani told him, laying her hand on his back, “and it exists in each and every one of us. Nobody wants to die, even when death is all around. You will fight when you must; everybody does.”

        There was no viable way to transport a golem of such proportions; the core was to be extracted and the body examined right there in the field. Cordelia arrived with Rasta's knight master and four of his knights, the master alchemist, arcane master, and head magician from the palace, and a small army of Rasta's scientists, public officials, and magitech experts. All eight Knights of the Jewel gathered around as well, but Cordelia dismissed them. “I would like it if you rested after a battle with such an enemy,” she told them. “If there are any others, then I and my forces will take care of them.”
        “But you will tell us who sent this beast?” Ion inquired.
        The princess' face grew dark. “I'm sure that I already know who sent it,” she said grimly, “but yes, any information will be passed along to you.”
        The knights returned to their chambers, and there was nothing to do but wait. There were still a few hours of sunlight left, but Lovisa didn't ride her automaton horse through the countryside. Alicia declined to go out for a romp through the woods and the fields. Sanjaia wouldn't play his instruments, not even to belt out a few nonsense chords. Even Morgana would not retire to the cellar to practice keeping control of her magic. The tension in the air around them was too great to even think about doing anything. What they did think about, and couldn't shake from their minds, were the princess' words--”I'm sure that I know who sent it.” Harkinian. This had been a direct attack on the Jewel a mere week after the arrival of the knights. Did Harkinian know that the knights would be there, or had he expected his golem to stomp right in and collect the Jewel without a fight? Of course he hadn't, thought Troy as he paced his room. If he didn't think there would be any resistance, then he wouldn't have sent that implacable walking tank. The idea sent a shudder through his bones. Harkinian was aware of them, and even knew that they were there, but how?
        To Eluani, it made perfect sense that Harkinian was aware of the knights' presence—there was no way that he wouldn't be made aware of them after the song and dance that had been made of their arrival at the capital alone. Who knew what sort of ridiculous shows he rest of the country put on about it? Eluani was annoyed with Rasta as a whole for such a preposterous fanfare; had it ever occurred to anyone at all that the news would travel, as news is wont to do? Had it ever occurred to anyone that the man must have spies planted among them? That golem had not arrived with the sole intention of capturing the Jewel. It was meant to take them out, and now that it had failed, Harkinian would need to find another way to do it...
        Rodin thought that the golem must have been a test, an iron adversary meant for Harkinian to determine the strength and competence of his new opponents. If this was Harkinian's first assault—and it was almost certainly Harkinian's first assault—then he had been made aware of the knights' existence before they had even arrived. Word had traveled into Aldine, perhaps via spies walking among the citizens of Rasta, that a personal army was to be assembled to protect the Jewel. Such a piece of news would itself serve as a call to action for Aldine's forces. The Jewel would have an army, Harkinian would have an opponent, and now he meant to see just how formidable this opponent would prove. Now that it was determined that the Knights of the Jewel were not to be trifled with, there would be many more attacks from much stronger forces than a colossal golem. Rodin shuddered.
        Dinner was served before any news arrived, and as such it was a tense and dismal affair. The knights ate only out of obligation, though they found it very hard to stomach, and no conversation was made; even the ever-talkative Lovisa said very little. When the concerned servants questioned them, Ion told them simply that they were waiting anxiously for news and did not need to be troubled over. Sunset was nearing its end when Cordelia finally arrived with the news that broke the silence: “The golem's core has been extracted and thoroughly examined, and...”
       “And it's Harkinian's,” Rodin finished. Cordelia nodded.
        “So what do we do now?” Sanjaia asked.
        “You continue your training,” Cordelia said. “This was inevitable; we've anticipated this since Harkinian's declaration. The Jewel anticipated it, and that is why it sent for you. It's very lucky that you made it here before he made his first attack.”
        “He made his attack knowing full well that we're here,” Eluani told her. “It wasn't luck, he was simply biding his time.”
        “Is that what you think?” Cordelia asked, her eyes widening in alarm.
        “It's what I know,” Eluani said. “There is no more speculation involved. Harkinian made his first attack on us as well as the Jewel.”
        “Well, you're here to fight and defend,” Cordelia said, “and now the time has come to rise to that task. As always, train as you fight. There will still be manikins. You will still have the opportunity to practice. But now there will be real enemies, and they are unlikely to operate in the way that manikins do. You must keep your guard up at all times, and your eyes open for anything that doesn't seem right. Above all, remember that this is what you are all here for. The Jewel does not make hasty decisions, and it had a reason for choosing all of you.”
        They were left to sleep on the princess' words that night. When Lovisa passed by Sanjaia's door on her way to say goodnight to her comrades and the Jewel, she could hear the war song of the singing trident as he twirled it energetically through the air. She smiled.

        So, Rasta was so desperate to keep the Jewel to themselves that they had organized an entire army for the Jewel alone. Of course they had; the Jewel ensured that Rasta had the resources for such an endeavor. They could organize a dozen armies if they were so inclined. Still, Harkinian had not entirely anticipated this. He knew that there would be plenty of opposition. What he didn't know was that he would have to tangle with a brand new army of soldiers that he knew very little about. He only knew what his informants had told him: they were a peculiar group of men and women who appeared to have been taken in from some faraway land, it was debatable that all of them were even human, and by the looks of them they would do about as well in an army as a small child would. There was an astonishingly beautiful woman illuminated like a falling star, there was a glossy-haired man who carried a decorated harp, there was a tall and willowy young lady with pointed elven ears, and there were two fresh-faced youngsters who looked just barely out of their teens. Harkinian swallowed his amusement as he listened to this recaps, and when they had said all that they needed, he allowed himself to laugh. This was Rasta's answer to his declaration? A bard, an elf, two children, and a light-up beauty queen? It was utterly ridiculous, and it wasn't until that night, as he paced his chamber and pondered the logic of organizing such a ragtag army, that he began to give it any real thought. Regardless of appearance or even of age, it was dangerous to underestimate anyone who was to be called a soldier. Unlikely warriors existed, hiding master-level skill sets beneath their unlikely appearances. It was entirely possible that these so-called “knights” would prove to be formidable opponents. If they were harboring hidden depths, he would have to uncover them before he could truly act.
        And in doing so, he had discovered that he had indeed underestimated them. His golem had not returned, which meant that they had managed to either stall it or defeat it. Of course, he hoped for the former, but he knew that the latter was much more likely. The golems of Aldine, a technology passed down from the reign of Harkinian's grandfather, were unstoppable tanks that had the ability to stall but were not explicitly designed to. They were employed in situations where force was required and opposition was anticipated, but a fight would be impractical. Now he knew that it would be necessary to dispatch more offensive forces. Still, there was plenty that he did not know about these peculiar knights—above all, the nature of their abilities. Even if the golem had returned, he thought with a sigh, it wouldn't have been able to inform him of the nature of the knights' abilities.
        Of course, if the golem had returned, there was a decent chance that it would have come with the Jewel wrapped up in its steely fingers...

        Training was no longer exciting in the way that it had been in the days before. The adrenaline rush now came from the fear, the vigilance, the ever-increasing feeling of being watched by some invisible, threatening entity. The movements, however subtle, of every manikin in the distance were ominous—after all, when was a manikin not a manikin? Alicia had made the difficult decision to abandon the shuriken blaster without learning to decipher the messages in its runes. As much as she cherished the weapon and longed to learn its secrets, she couldn't afford to fumble over it in the heat of an enemy assault. It would be dangerous to falter.
        Alicia shuddered as she watched over the countryside from her treetop perch, keeping a lookout for any threats. A manikin was nothing like a real enemy, she realized as she watched her comrades accost and eliminate one after another. Their movements were mechanical, their actions were predictable, and though they put up a decent fight, they were pretty easily overpowered. They were meant for honing combat skills and for getting a feel for one's weapon, and for that they were just fine. But as an imitation of an enemy, they missed the mark by far. A real enemy could be anything. There had been no manikin to prepare them for that golem, after all. Alicia pushed the manikins from her mind and relegated them to animated pieces of the scenery, no more significant than the phragmites and the trees and the dirt roads that seemed much longer than they had before.
        At the base of the tree, Sanjaia paced back and forth. His right hand rested on the handle of the singing trident, which sat quietly in its hold and waited to be called upon. His heart had raced since the fight with the golem three days ago, only ceasing when he slept. Like Alicia, he mentally relegated the training manikins to part of the scenery. Enemies were in the picture now, and they were all that mattered. They were all that he could focus on. He only wished that focusing on them didn't make his heart race quite so much.
        “Do you see anything?” he asked Alicia, who had been perched in the tree in the same position for the good part of an hour. She had endured repetition of the same question for the duration of her perch. “Ion and Troy are fighting with a few manikins,” she answered rather boredly, “and nearby them, Lovisa is practicing with her staff.”
        “She isn't alone, is she?” Sanjaia asked, tensing up until Alicia told him, “No, Eluani is right there.”
        “Are you sure it's only manikins harassing Ion and Troy?” Sanjaia asked, his hand tightening around the trident. “Maybe we should go out there.”
        “Don't be hasty!” Alicia chided him. “They are only manikins, and I can tell by the way they conduct themselves.”
        “Right,” Sanjaia said with a weary sigh. “I'm sorry, Alicia.” He shook his head, trying to clear away the tears that had begun to form in his eyes. “It's just...oh, what have we become?
        “We have become soldiers,” Alicia said bluntly, and left it at that. They had become soldiers in a world where danger was all around. Sanjaia admired the will of the elven princess, who had never had to fight a day in her life except for sport. He had never heard her speak so sternly or with such confidence and certainty in her voice. Something had changed in her since the day of their arrival, and it was a change that made him feel protected under her watchful eye. Though his heart still raced, he didn't feel the need to pace anymore. He unstrapped his lute and began to run his fingers over the strings. The sound cheered him and brought back memories of a time when all he ever had to do was play for a room full of smiling faces—had it really only been a week since then? It seemed like so much longer.
        This lute was nothing like the lute that he had used then. It was crafted of painted metal rather than wood, decorated with elaborate appliques of leaves and birds, and of course inlaid with a single citrine that pulsed in sync with the notes he played. The peaceful, contented feeling that came to him almost immediately was as much a result of the Jewel's magic as it was the natural joy that the music brought to him. The lute was a weapon as well as an instrument, but when there was no need for either, then it was a healing device.
        Mixed in with the sound of the notes, a rapping sound began faintly and then increased in volume and energy. It sounded like somebody was knocking on wood. Sanjaia stopped playing, a the knocking sound ceased with the music. He looked to all sides of him and reached for the singing trident.
        “Hey, Sanjaia!” Alicia chirped from above. “Don't stop! Play some more.”
        “Was it you making that sound?” Sanjaia asked, exhaling.
        “You mean this?” Alicia rapped her palm against the branch that she sat on. “Yes, that was me. I'm sorry if it scared you! But I can't exactly dance while I'm up here, so this is the least I can do. Now keep playing! I liked it!”
        So Sanjaia played, starting out calmly to settle his own nerves, and then building up to a merry jig. Alicia added the sound of happy wood-knocking, keeping in time with the music as if she was playing her own percussion instrument. He looked up at her and saw that she was grinning from ear to ear, her eyes sparkling, her head happily rocking from side to side. He was relieved to see that Alicia hadn't changed so very much since the day sh had danced merrily to the music of his harp.

        Ion's automaton horse made its way through the phragmites swiftly and mechanically, the tip of his expanding lance prodding for any enemies in their midst. Troy brought up the rear, his horse keeping a steady pace with the knight's. The silence that had befallen the fields would have been a comfort just a few days ago, but now was ominous enough to reduce them both to shudders. Any number of things could be concealed in that silence. Back in the Arcadian army, Troy and his comrades were prone to engage in battlefield banter. The seemingly pointless battle narrations and verbal streams of consciousness served to calm the soldiers' nerves, keeping morale high while still ensuring focus on the task at hand. He learned quickly that Ion did not subscribe to such methods; talking carried too much of a risk of revealing their position to nearby enemies. “If we were still merely training,” Ion had told him, “and enemies were not a factor, then perhaps I wouldn't mind a little conversation. But now, we must keep silent.”
        This total silence is going to drive me crazy, Troy thought. If Ion won't banter with me, then I'll have to banter with myself. God, I hate these lousy phragmites—I'll be blowing the damn seeds out of my nose all night! I'm gonna come out of here with a case of hay fever. Okay, good, we're finally nearing the end of this patch. Oh, hello, what's this? Is that a little boy out there in the field?
         Ion's lanced clicked into position, his finger resting beside the drill switch. “Ready your projectiles,” he ordered Troy in a whisper, “and wait here.” Troy obeyed, removing his missile piercer from its holster. They dismounted the horses and Troy took his position behind a row of large, leafy shrubs. Ion approached the boy, his lance held at his side. The boy was about thirteen or fourteen years old, with the unkempt hair and dirty face that was quite characteristic of boys at that age. He wore a loose button-up shirt that looked as if it had seen better days, and thick black pants with holes in the knees and ankles. He was unnervingly skinny and willowy for a boy, and where is skin was not pinked with the sun's heat, it was pale as milk cream. He's a ragamuffin, that's for certain, Ion thought as he looked upon the the boy's stained face with sympathy. But still, he is not to be trusted. “Good afternoon, lad,” Ion said cordially. The boy turned to look at him without a word.
        “This is an awfully peculiar place to find a young lad,” Ion went on. “Is there anybody with you?”
        “Nobody's with me,” the boy replied monotonously.
        “Are you waiting for somebody?” Ion asked.
        “You should not be here, nor anywhere near here,” Ion said sternly. “This is not a place for boys. Do you know where you are?”
        “I don't,” said the boy, drawing his knees up to his chest. He looked every bit the vulnerable, wayward vagrant, but Ion's suspicions were too high to feel any pity. “Then come with me,” he told the boy, “and I will take you into the city.”
        “I was already in there,” the boy replied, still without expression. “They told me that there was no place for me there and they turned me away.”
        Impossible, thought Troy, overhearing the conversation. There's no way a city like that wouldn't have a place for lost kids. Ion's suspicions were similar, but he was unsure of where to go from there. His experience with vagrant children was quite limited; every so often they were brought into the palace, and from there they were either sent off to the children's home or turned back into the world with food in their bellies and warmer clothes on their bodies. If the boy was telling the truth, then Rasta City, in spite of its prosperity, must not have had the necessary resources to provide for a stray during wartime. Still, he could not be trusted to stay with the knights, nor could he remain out here in the fields where his life was in danger. In a moment of quick thinking, Ion told him, “My comrade, Lovisa, might know what to do with you. She is a kind young maiden with a talent for caring for others. I will take you to her. Come with me.”
        The boy drew back, and Ion looked into his eyes sternly. “If you remain here,” he told him, “I cannot guarantee your survival. This is a war zone. There is danger everywhere, even if it cannot be seen.” There was no way out. With a sigh, the boy stumbled to his wobbly feet. Ion held out his hand. The boy took it and instinctively pulled back when Ion tightened his grip. His grip on the boy's hand was nearly as tight as his grip on the lance, and any attempts to escape would have hurt much more than helped. Ion motioned for Troy to come out of hiding, and Troy returned his weapon to its holster so that it would not frighten the boy. If he was alarmed by Troy's sudden appearance, he did not show it. He did not even look at him.
        “Those ain't real horses,” the boy said critically when they reached the automaton horses.
        “They do everything a real horse can do,” Ion said, “and more besides.” He lifted the boy up onto the horse's metal back and then climbed up behind him. “They do not stop to graze, or to rest,” Ion went on. “They can travel at speeds that real horses can only manage in their dreams. They can withstand blow after blow, should we be ambushed on horseback. Real horses do not compare. Why, if horses such as these existed back in my homeland...” With a pang, he recalled the humiliating defeat that he had never really had to face. Would such a defeat have been possible with a sturdy metal horse like this one? Even if he had been thrown off...
        “You're not from around here?” the boy asked, interrupting Ion's thoughts. “Where is your homeland?”
        “I'd rather not give such information to a lad I've only just met,” Ion said firmly. “You do not have to know such things.”

        Lovisa had been warned against taking this boy anywhere near the Palace of the Jewel, but what better place was there to take him? “Bring him into the city,” Troy had instructed her.       “Regardless of what he says, there's got to be a place in the city for him to go.” In Eridell, there were no large cities, and entire villages were small and stable enough to take in and care for children like this boy until they could make it on their own. Lovisa herself had worked with several children like this, and she loved each and every one of them so dearly that she made a point to catch up with them long after they were able to move on. But a sprawling city such as Rasta's capital, with so many people to feed and entire armies to provide for during wartime, could never have the resources to do such a thing, no matter how prosperous.
        The boy sat tensely and rigidly on the back of Lovisa's horse, and his stony face remained fixated on the passing phragmites, weeds, and tall, green grasses. He hadn't spoken to Lovisa once, or even looked at her. “He is not to be trusted,” Ion had warned her, “at a time when anyone could be an enemy.” The boy's emotions were entirely hidden, but Lovisa had a feeling that he knew he was distrusted. Either way, he must have been frightened; being bounced around from place to place by strange people would frighten any young man, enemy or not. Even if he is an enemy, he is a child first, Lovisa thought, and she gently patted the boy's knee. “Don't worry, honey,” she said reassuringly, “we'll find something for you. I promise that we won't turn you out into the world.” The boy stiffened when she patted him, and he didn't look at her or respond.
        Lovisa turned to Sanjaia, trailing behind them on his own horse. She had asked for him specifically when the boy had been turned over to her, and now he was there to do what she needed of him; “Play a song, Sanjaia,” she told him. “I think we both might like a little bit of music.” And so Sanjaia unstrapped his lute and began to strum. The tune that he built up to was a soothing, lilting melody that reminded Lovisa of breezes and ocean waves in calmer times. She could feel the boy beginning to relax, leaning back so that his head rested on her torso.
        They passed by one of the sandy roads that led to the Palace of the Jewel, and Lovisa longed to be able to take the boy there, where he could have a bed and some of the good food that the servants had left that morning. It seemed as though he had not had either of those things in quite a while. Perhaps I should take him to Eluani, Lovisa thought on a whim. Her clairvoyance would tell her who he is and if he's hiding anything. This course of action seemed the best; yes, they would take him to Eluani. She would read him, assess him, determine exactly who he was and why he was here...But what if it's wrong? Lovisa thought then. What if she gets a bad reading? Besides, Eluani wasn't the least imposing presence to place before a displaced child. She was sharp, blunt, and no-nonsense, her gentle side hidden under layers of rigidity. It would be difficult even for a clairvoyant to read somebody who was sufficiently anxious and intimidated.
        The Jewel could identify its enemies, Lovisa mused. It was only a throwaway thought, but the more that she thought of it, the better it sounded. The Jewel had identified its friends long before they had even set foot in Rasta—surely, it could identify an enemy on its own soil. Of course, she had been ordered not to take the boy to the palace...
        The sign that marked the entrance to Rasta City had come into view when Lovisa drove her horse to a sudden halt. “Sanjaia,” she said urgently, “look after the boy. Give him some food from my pack. There's something that I have to do!”
        “What?” Sanjaia drove his own horse to a halt. .”You can't leave us here alone! What if there's an attack?” At this statement, the boy's eyes grew wide.
        “Then protect him!” Lovisa said, tossing Sanjaia her pack. Before another word could be said, she and her horse were darting off in the direction from which they had come. There was nothing else to be done. Sighing, Sanjaia dismounted his horse and helped the boy off the back of Lovisa's. “Come with me, lad,” he said, taking him by the hand. “We've got to find somewhere to lay low.”
        “I can fight,” the boy said. “When you live a life like mine, you've got to fight."
        “In that case,” Sanjaia said, “perhaps you will have to protect me!” He hid his unease beneath a light chuckle.