Author: Maldoror
see chap. 1 for warnings, disclaimer

Two Halves + Chapter 15
All The Way, First Half

The library of Lin was dark now that night had fallen. The big room was lit by carefully covered lamps and four brazeros in its centre, but the room's clutter and odd angles meant that most of the spectators were in deep shadow up in the mezzanines. Murmurs ran through the adults of the houses of Lin as one after another of their children walked to the spot between the four brazeros and announced their intent to participate in the trial. Most of the children -some as young as ten, others as old as sixteen- then walked over to join the other candidates.

A small throng of children, all dressed in clothes of rigid military cut in blue, dove grey or red, stood between the bookshelves and statues near one end of the room. Some joined one of several groups forming around those candidates who were most likely to have a chance of reaching the coveted position of heir designate of Lin, throwing in their lot with the rising star of their choice.

Their parents, the members of the houses of Lin, cast curious -and sometimes cruelly amused- glances at the dais down on the ground on which stood the three most important members of the present council, Septim first among them. The man must be writhing. He'd never actually announced that the child he'd brought back was intended for the trials, though he had housed him in the school. But it was a bit much of a coincidence to imagine that he had brought back Treize's son at this point in time only to have the lad become a minor lackey in his house. How embarrassing that the boy had disappeared almost on arrival and hadn't been found for the last two days.

Septim himself appeared unruffled; a man in his position did not show frustration or any other emotion that could be used against him. Inside he seethed.

He hadn't been expecting much! He thought the boy would come crawling to him, beg him for protection, some advice, a few rags... He had a uniform already prepared, grey with blue piping, Septim's own colours, to give the boy some moral support in the trials. It would remind whatever faction he joined -Rao's, if he was smart, but Septim would not have interfered with his decision, as he believed in the spirit of the trial- that the boy had the backing of the head of the present council and was not to be taken lightly.

The first year of the trial was essentially education in arcana, law and military skills, no magic or real fighting allowed. But Septim knew from harsh personal experience that this did not make it easy, especially for someone that young, with no friends in Lin. It was amazing how much damage children could do without actually causing too much physical harm. Septim felt a flush of pride; the children of Lin were no milk-sops, they were wolves! If the sacred mountains that infused them with magic weren't so harmful to the human body, reducing their population, then they would have overrun the pitiful kingdoms around them long ago!

Probably the boy didn't fit in here, he was just too weak. Being raised by *shudder* the Peacecraft fool had apparently leeched the spirit of his true family from his blood.

Septim cursed the fact that he hadn't realized his nephew was alive until recently. He'd never thought Une's son had survived. Then, when the boy had neared puberty, his power started to grow, and was sufficient to start showing up in the fortune tellers' casts. His lineage had been clear to those who could read the ebb and flow of power in the bloodlines of Lin. Once he knew the boy existed it didn't take too much of a genius to figure out where and who he was. He'd never quite bought that 'twins' story Marquise had put out, but he'd just imagined the man had pulled a couple of distant cousins from somewhere to designate as his heir, seeing as he'd lost his own...

Septim was a cautious man by nature, but the timetable of the trials of Lin had forced his hand, and he'd still barely been able to get the boy here in time. Well, no, actually he'd obviously been too late, seeing as the brat had failed to show up today.

At least he'd managed to eliminate the Peacecraft heir! That was the main reason the council had granted him the right to take hostile actions in Sanq, and also allowed him to borrow power from a gestalt of sorcerers to give him the ability to teleport out of Sanq and back into Lin before the white mages could react. That murder had been as important as bringing back Treize's seed. It was vital to keep Zechs off balance right now, keep him from spending too much time on the defences near the Gap of Sevring... Finding a new heir and getting his people to accept him would keep him busy until it was too late...

Where could the boy be? Thinking of the future reminded Septim that he would not be part of it, and he was shaken with frustration, though he did not show it. There were magical wards around the walls of the school, he couldn't have got out, could he? If he had, he was probably dead in a ravine somewhere, the mountains of Lin were unforgiving to the uninitiated. Had someone managed to get to the boy? That had been the only positive thing about finding the brat so late in the game; his enemies had had very little time to react. Not that they had to, damn the boy!

He hadn't expected much! Some small position for the child, a little bowing and scraping to the most likely candidate, enough to get him in the new council in five year's time. Then Septim could have shown him how to get further ahead, given them both a small amount of power, a stake in the future.

The boy would probably not have gotten that far. The first year would have been very difficult for him, even with Septim's support. A few children dropped out even in the first year, unable to stand the pressure of competing studies, the isolation, the infighting. Weeding out the weak, this was good, Septim thought automatically. The first year wasn't a test of raw power or anything really intense yet, but it was a good start, and allowed the youngest to get ready for the real 'fight' later on.

The first year was mainly a time for choosing alliances, and, for the real candidates, a time to develop presence, charisma, and the ability to generate awe and fear without necessarily a demonstration of power. These were qualities that were hard to define, but Lin knew how important they could be. They would allow one man to lead a nation of strong-willed sorcerers and fighters. It was an indefinable quantity, but the child who would be heir would have to make them believe he could carry it off. Or they would eat him alive.

The last child stepped forward to recite the Acknowledgement. Septim allowed the disappointment to replace the anger in his gut. Sure, it wouldn't have been easy... maybe he should have helped the boy more? It repulsed him, catering to a weakness, but really, seeing how the child was raised...

No, that wasn't why he hadn't helped the boy...

Septim recalled the blazing hate in those eyes, before the boy had concealed it, quite well at that. Septim knew adults who would have a harder time masking their hate for him than that twelve year old lad. Recalling that flicker -and the power of anger that had unleashed itself in the clearing- Septim remembered finally why he'd not helped the boy. Why he thought it important to get the child to crawl to him and beg. The boy wouldn't be able to make it that far in the trials on his own, after all, he needed to learn to boy and scrape to a candidate, he needed to be tamed. And he needed Septim, and he needed to know that. A painful lesson but one that was necessary, if Septim were to mould the weak boy into something greater.

For an instant he thought the boy had shown up as he felt again that hatred wash against him. He glanced around with the discretion of long habit. No, it was that oriental boy, the hostage. An interesting lad. His beautiful features were now schooled once more into that arrogant air of contempt for his surroundings, the flash had been only momentary. Septim didn't fear that hate. The people from the oriental isles did not know magic, though they were powerful warriors, excellent doctors and scientists, and knew enough shamanistic rituals to keep most monsters at bay. But no danger to one such as him. He wondered what would happen to the boy. He seemed... a bit less cautious about showing his feelings today. Maybe the ceremony was upsetting him. His new master or mistress was being chosen today...

The last child, a ten year old girl, had left the centre of the room. She went to stand next to other candidates around Rao, who was gloating at the number of supporters already declaring for him. There were more children standing free of any groups than expected. The appearance of Treize's son had thrown the carefully constructed allegiances into a bit of a spin, unsure loyalties shaken until they could see which side a potentially powerful mage would join. Septim stirred, about to take a step forward to officially begin the trial.

"Nice party. Bit quiet though. Mind if I join?"

The voice lifting from the shadows did not sound like that of a twelve year old. People looked around, surprised, trying to see which corner it was coming from.

The boy stepped through the door. Septim actually gaped for a split second, fortunately no eyes were on the old sorcerer. The lithe figure moved slowly but surely, and the children of Lin made way for him with nervous glances.

He was dressed in black, from head to toe, a stark contrast to the others. Septim suddenly felt a fierce smile on his lips. Of course, Treize's battle colours. Had he cropped his hair? No, it was there, swinging behind him in a braid that reached down to his shoulder blades, another distinction. Another sign that he was different. But the way the boy moved, the way he smiled and looked around him, indicated that he wasn't isolating himself from the others; he was isolating them.

The boy stopped in the centre of the ring of fire and rapped out the Acknowledgement perfectly. All eyes were glued to the arrogant figure, almost sounding bored, radiating confidence and power well beyond his age. Septim's eyes were flicking over the other candidates, noting reactions, judging. Ah yes, the Chang boy. His lips were twitching along with the words of the Acknowledgement, as if ready to prompt the other if he faltered, not that that seemed conceivable. He'd have access to the texts, he was the only one here who wasn't utterly amazed... so the boy had managed to find an ally after all... how interesting.

Septim fixed his eyes on his nephew. Who was looking at him. Septim made the response of Acknowledgement, noting the well-concealed rage behind those eyes. Yes, the boy - Duo was reaching for the top, taking the hardest road, and he had his chances at that. Septim smiled ever so slightly, catching those eyes, acknowledging the feelings behind them. A mental sparring. Finally Duo's eyes dropped just a little. He was still very young, thought Septim, but that would change.

Well, well, well. He thought he would have to break the boy and mould him, but actually this was better, much better. Treize had been the one to dare, Septim the one to hold back and not take chances. But apparently his nephew took after his father, and might still carry them both to power like Treize had.

He didn't care that Duo hated him now more than anything else in the world. Septim believed in the trials, in the strength of Lin. If Duo won this, he would deserve it. He would be what was best for Lin, the strongest there was. And then Septim would convince him that the old dog could still teach the young pup a trick or two. Hate was not a problem in their future relation. He'd hated his brother after all, as much as he'd admired him and served him, and Treize had despised him as much as he'd counted on him and used him. Septim smiled like a snake, and found an echoing smile on the boy's face. "I won't go down so easily boy, but you are welcome to try. If you have that much strength... you're welcome to try."

"You're a bigger fool than I thought." Septim, on the dais, could hear Rao's snippy comment as Duo wandered over to the other candidates as if he didn't have a care in the world. Septim desperately pricked his ears, trying to hear the soft exchange.

"Just how far do you think you can go?" Rao's voice was very soft, and dripping with disdain. He'd moved a bit away from his group, hedging Duo back against one of the brazeros. It was starting; the dog fight for ascendancy, for the throne.

Duo gave a manic grin -Septim hoped the lad hadn't been pushed too far in the last three days, insanity did tend to run in the family- and said, in a voice like a dagger: "All the way, blondie, all the way." Septim felt annoyed that he couldn't see the play of eyes, as that was where the real conversation was happening.

Duo couldn't beat Septim yet, but he could apparently draw a stalemate from Rao, as the later turned with a sniff. "Nice hairdo." He sneered over his shoulder.

Duo's grin widened as his eyes dropped.

"Nise ass." He commented, in an imitation of Rao's snippy tone.

Rao spun around. "You dare-"

"Well you do keep showing it to me!"

Rao replied something along the lines of it being all that Duo deserved, but Septim had stopped listening, thinking that if Rao were smart he would actually listen to the warning that lay behind those words.

Septim, for one, wouldn't be turning his back on Duo any time soon.

[chap. 14] [chap. 16] [back to Maldoror's fic]