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...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...it's just...it'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.