Holy cow! It's a new chapter! Well, proto-chapter...it's not as long as the others, and really, I had originally intended it as another section appended to the last chapter, but what the hell, this thing's already been kicking around so long now that sensibilities really have no place in the course of things anymore.

The Words Between - part 22

:CHOSEN!:

Kyn jerked back, and the willow's trunk proved as solid in his imaginings as the real world, his vision momentarily filling with stars when the back of his head cracked solidly against the aged wood...no, not just stars. Sianni reared between him and his master, forehooves glinting sun-bright in the leaf-filtered light. She had not the sheer, terrifying bulk that the drafts bred for war claimed, but her shadow loomed dark enough that even Kyn blinked beneath an upraised arm, though his heart knew he should fear no danger from her.

Jenner, expression tight with surprise, spoke with clipped haste. "Hold, White Lady! I lay no claim to your Chosen!"

Hooves whipped out - one, two - grazing the man's temple and cheek before Sianni bore down. Jenner's eyes closed with the twin brushes of polished horn, his shoulders drawn back with tension...but otherwise unflinching, even when the Companion snorted, her breath hot against his breast. He opened his eyes, body rigidly still, gazing boldly back when he found her standing watchful a hand's width away, neck arched in clear aggression.

:At least you are someone with fortitude,: Sianni's voice echoed softly through their joined minds, and Kyn shivered in surprise at the coldness that layered her mental touch into icy sheets. He had never heard her sound like this - even in her conflicts with the un-Herald. Even toward himself at his most stubborn.

The man smiled thinly. "No one else could have made your Chosen what he is."

The fan of crystalline-white lashes lowered, hooding bright sapphire orbs until they were the midnight of a starless night. :Or perhaps I mistook arrogance for courage. I have yet to thank you 'properly' for what you have done to my Chosen.:

"Confidence...and desperation," Jenner corrected, smile disappearing as he addressed the Companion as soberly as he would a peer. "There is just as much danger to not recognizing all of one's strength as to being blind to one's weakness. And as for thanking me...I am afraid there is something else that has a prior claim to yours. If you plan on waiting for your turn, it will be a very long wait indeed." He straightened, lifting his chin. "I have nothing to fear from you, White Lady, but neither do I have the time or attention for another enemy. Simply step aside for this last candlemark.."

:Step aside...?!: Sianni's eyes and nostrils flared wide, something uncannily like a growl accompanying the outraged toss of her head. :You tell me to step aside from my Chosen?! I would step upon you and trample that black sore you call a heart -

"And leave said Chosen helpless upon the chamber's floor, waiting for the sacrificial knife?" Jenner snarled, what little caution he had wearing even thinner. "Do not forget that your bond cannot transcend his body's limitations. You may have uncontested ties to his spirit, but I alone can ensure that there is still a vessel to contain it by the end of this!"

"And am I to find a seat to watch the show from?" Kyn blurted, his frustration finally surmounting his uncertainty, earning himself two startled looks - one vaguely guilty, the other vaguely irritated. With the first words thrown down like a glove in challenge though, it was surprisingly easy to let the rest burst out, though they were flat from the effort of keeping his voice steady. "Perhaps neither of you truly needs my good opinion, but I assure you, I can still make enough of a difference to utterly confound all your plans if you do not obtain it."

"So sure are you of that?" Master was the first to retort, confident in his years of dominance, while Sianni hesitated in reflexive deference to Kyn's emotional turmoil. "All I need is to prevent Aisner's sacrifice to also prevent the renewal of the contract. You, he would delight in dispatching, so your death would not trigger the compact. True, you could potentially delay me...but not enough to prevent Minnefei's rescue. It would only ensure your own demise."

"No, you need me alive."

The man's gaze narrowed upon his erstwhile student. "You are allowing your hopes to cloud your logic, boy," he began to sneer.

"No," Kyn repeated with a glint of knowing, something teasing at the edges of his mind - not from the Sight that he had truthfully relied on too much, but from his own intuitions, reading the words between the words and the lines between the lines, an intuition that he had left sorely neglected in the well-structured world of his Master. "No, you have another purpose for me. Else, as you had said, any other 'gardener' could have done just as well, and with less trouble to you! You need me specifically for something - and that purpose calls for me alive."

:What is that purpose, Jenner?: Sianni finally interjected, her temper cooled enough during her involuntary pause to remember that it was the man's motivations and not his apology that was the most important at the moment.

Jenner did not acknowledge Sianni's question, gaze fixed unblinkingly upon his protege, as emotionless and inscrutible as if he contemplated a mouse pinned beneath a cat's paw, wondering if he should walk on or waste the effort to silence its squeaks.

Kyn matched that gaze, not knowing if he was absolutely correct, but also knowing that to show otherwise was no longer an option. Regardless of whether he was right or wrong, if he did not stand firm now upon his own reasoning, then he may as well be nothing more than a hapless servant, eternally searching for reassurance and direction. If I am to be misled by foibles or errors, they may as well be my own rather than another's!

Jenner smiled, sharp and fierce. Bravo, Kyn read in that expression. And with a casual shrug, as if he had been merely caught filching cooling sweet buns off a windowsill, Jenner said, "The pact needs to be turned back upon Aisner. And after Aisner has been dispatched, you will become Duke of Lynxfinn."

It had been stated with such mildness and aplomb that the implications nearly escaped him. Kyn did not even know if the suggestion was enough to warrant a laugh of disbelief. He tried to wrap his mind around the concept of Master playing a practical joke, and upon failing utterly in the attempt, finally croaked, "What?"

Jenner leveled a narrowed, thoughtful gaze upon Kyn. "No matter what the circumstances, blood is blood, and there is nothing that can manufacture the ties that it creates. There is a reason why bloodcraft is one of the most powerful and dangerous of the magical arts. You areVinsen's son, no matter the memories that you hold - or do not hold - and as such, you are the one who should be duke. Even your competence should not be questioned - I made sure of that when I raised you."

Kyn shook his head dazedly, barely noticing that he did so. "No..." he husked, biting off the syllables as if they tasted as sour as the idea felt. "No! You orchestrated all this, you are the one who wants all this to happen, you be the duke!"

Jenner's face darkened as he turned to face Kyn directly. "I cannot be duke - "

:Why not?: Sianni jumped in, her head turning to eye the man keenly, not bothering to conceal her satisfaction with a solution that would pull her Chosen from the center of his schemes. :As you said yourself, blood is blood, and nothing can erase that fact. You are Duke Vinsendail Mrr'Thaine's brother. If Kyn had not been born, you would have been next in the line of inheritance. Kyn can renounce his title and you would be able to take it in his place.:

Jenner laughed. It was the first time Kyn had ever heard such a thing from the man's lips, and he could barely comprehend the tortured sound of it. "Have you forgotten my bargain with the demon? If all goes well, there will not be a brother left! We took Aisner in," he continued more softly, a poisonous glee coating his words at the tantalizing thought of vengeance, "treated him as a brother of our own blood. Shared our bread and roof with him, and comforted and defended him in his trials. In repayment, he tried to steal everything we had given him freely, including our lives...I would make every pact possible with every monster known to ensure repayment is exacted from his hide and soul in triplicate! Tell me that is the duke you wish seated upon the land's eastern border!"

Kyn stared, rapt by the performance. Had he ever felt something so deeply before? Had he ever wanted, needed anything, on such a basic level? Had there ever been anything that he felt worth sacrificing twelve years of his life and then his soul for?

He thought he had felt that way about Master once. But faced with Jenner's need...maybe he was wrong.

Pellucid blue eyes flattened with uncompromising judgment. :Errors should not be compounded. Assignage of blame and punishment is not your duty; leave Aisner to the guard, and take what comfort you can in being returned to your rightful place - :

"So that you may remind me of your 'altruism' and 'clemency' whenever I so much as sneeze when you do not want me to?" Jenner laughed, shaken from his mad musings. "I think not! And Kyn is the last scion of our line. Are you going to put someone else in his place? The girl, perhaps," Jenner suggested with vicious sarcasm. "The daughter of a usurper?"

:Kyn has been Chosen. He cannot inherit the estate by law - :

"The queen would end a long and illustrious bloodline upon the whim of a talking horse? She will have the noble houses rebelling against her if she denies a surviving inheritor of sound mind and body his blood rights and his lands default to the crown...!"

:All before have abided by that law without protest - !:

"Laws have been changed before and so have monarchs upon the throne - no circumstances have ever placed the existence of a house at risk like this...! "

:Are you threatening the queen? You could be arrested and properties siezed for treason - :

"- and you think that will help your cause?! "

"Tell me what I have to do."

Lost momentarily in a glaring match, the two combatants turned as one to blink at him as if startled that he was still present. With grim patience, Kyn repeated himself. "Tell me what I have to do."

:Kyn...: Sianni warned, ears backswept. :This is completely unnecessary. The laws stand opposed to his desires. There is nothing that can force you to do this if you do not want to...:

If he did not want to. That was the real question, wasn't it?

"Boy, you are a duke, and let no one tell you otherwise. The noble houses will not stand for a sole living heir to be stolen by such frivolous reasons, the crown fattened by his rightful inheritance - otherwise, any of their names and estates would be just as vulnerable to extinction!"

There was a distinct clack of teeth as Sianni gave the man a warning nip near his elbow, to which Jenner flinched with a dark glare, looking fit to bite back - quite literally.

"I want to," Kyn assured her, and as he turned from her accusing gaze to meet Jenner's eyes, he could tell that Master knew he was lying too.

But as tumultuous as things had become, there was still a future for him to worry about...while for Jenner, there was nothing left. For this man, who had bargained his soul with a demon for a single gift - time - Kyn wanted to grant this final peace. This would be his decision, made for his own purposes - not for the arguments or orders of any else.

Sianni sensed his resolution, and bowed her head in sorrow and resignation.

Jenner understood, and lowered his instead in obeisance.