When Cyrus turned to Alainna, he looked agitated. Sergius’s sobs had died down, but the music still hung heavy around the room. And, though most of the class didn’t understand the words of the song, they understood that something had happened, even though they were not entirely sure what it was.
Finally, Cyrus said to Alainna in a soft voice, “Did you recognize that song, my Lady?”
Alainna shook her head. “That was the first time that I’ve ever heard it. It sounds sad.”
“It is the last song that the Lady sang before she disappeared,” Cyrus said strangely, pacing at the front of the classroom. “The Conqueror had just killed Diamea, much to the Conqueror’s surprise, for the Conqueror did not think that Diamea would die. Horrified by his death and the blood which now cursed her, the Conqueror, with the help of the possessed Black Swans, dragged the corpse of Diamea, out from the place where she slit his throat, and cast him into Diamea’s lake, which, at the time, was just a shallow pool of water. Back then, Diamea’s lake was renowned for being able to cure even the gravest wounds and sometimes even bringing the dead back to life again. Perhaps the Conqueror, in that mad state, was hoping to revive Diamea and thus prevent the curse of his blood from descending upon her and her future generations. Who knows? But, when she threw the body of Diamea into the lake, the bottom of the lake shattered and gave out, revealing a bottomless pool of water. There, the Conqueror and Diamea’s Black Swan children watched the corpse of Diamea fall into the deep. And, when the corpse of Diamea disappeared from view, that is the song that the Lady sang to all of her children. And that is the last time that her children ever heard their mother’s voice.”
Cyrus hesitated, then continued, “I said before that one of the most sacred traditions of the Swans is the exchange of stories. But, more sacred than that, is the exchange of songs. Diamea works his magic through music. It is said that he sang the entire creation of the world into existence. And, if you are the Lady, he will sing to you as well. Right now, the prophecies of the Lady state that he is hidden. He has lost his memories and has no recollection of who he is. Yet, he will still have his voice and he will still sing out for you. If you are to find him, you will do well to listen for his song. Because that is how you will find him.”
Cyrus rummaged through his satchel and found a pocket watch. Then he glanced at it and grimaced. “I suppose that is a grim way to end the first class, but so we must! Next time, I promise you happier subjects.” He looked up and smiled. “We will finish up our introductions next time, as well as do some in-class reading and writing, since I am curious to see how well you can read and write the language. As I mentioned before, I simply want to learn where you are right now, so please do not worry about how well you read or write! Everyone has to start somewhere and I am happy to approach you wherever you are. Now, before we conclude, are there any questions?”
Alainna stood up, looking frustrated. “Yes. I have lots of questions. First, how old are you?”
Cyrus bowed politely. “If Diamea grants it, I will be nineteen in three months, my Lady.”
Alainna glared at him. “The next question: who are you?”
Cyrus blinked at her. “I beg your pardon?”
“You are young, only about two years older than I am,” Alainna said firmly. “And yet, you seem to have an in-depth knowledge of the Swan’s language, their traditions, their manners, their history, their stories, and their songs. You were able to learn our language, to the point of being able to translate it, in only five weeks. Furthermore, during class, you were able to speak knowledgeably about several very different subjects, including paper manufacturing, music, textiles, forestry, cooking, piping, pottery, and farming. Forgive me for sounding skeptical, but how does one know as much as you do?”
Cyrus frowned. “I listen, of course. How else does one learn anything?” Then, when Alainna continued to glare at him, he took out a handful of papers from his satchel. “I shall tell you a secret,” he said. “In order to be an effective language teacher, you need to be able to know and communicate with your students effectively. If I were to simply lecture at you mindlessly, you would be bored. However, if I were to interact with you and talk with you about things that you were interested in, then you wouldo learn more quickly. And so, during my interviews — and I was interviewed extensively for this position! — I had the privilege to meet with all of your fathers, as the headmistress determined that, since I am the first male teacher in the school, the families ought to meet me before I began teaching you. And so, after all of your fathers had a chance to ask me questions, I made sure to ask questions about your lives and about subjects that would be personally interesting to you.”
Cyrus grabbed one paper and held it up so that the class could see that the paper was filled with tiny handwriting, with various hand-drawn diagrams of trees and saws. “See? Here are my notes about forestry. And here are my notes about pottery!” he said quickly, holding up another paper, also filled with tiny handwriting and other various hand-drawn diagrams of a variety of jars and pots. “For you, my dear Lady,” he said, giving her a deep bow, “I studied the prophecies concerning the Lady quite thoroughly.” He held up several papers, which looked as though they largely contained poetry. “And so the answer is, I know as much as I do because I want you to learn this language, and learn it well.”
Alainna narrowed her eyes and strode to the front of the class to the desk with all the papers. Archondid, who had been quietly observing the class the entire time, suddenly hissed and stepped forward with his wings outstretched, gesturing to Cyrus that he ought to back up away. Cyrus immediately backed away from the desk and away from Alainna, giving Alainna a low bow as he did so. “My Lady, our chaperone disapproves,” he said in an odd voice.
Alainna ignored him. She snatched up one of his papers and glared at it. Then she picked up another paper and glared at that as well. “I can’t read any of this.”
“It’s written in the Swan’s language,” Cyrus said gently. “You’ll learn how to read them soon enough. I am going to teach you how to read, remember?”
Alainna glared at him. Then, she grabbed one of his papers and tore it in front of him.
The class gasped in horror. Cyrus’s face changed immediately, from a friendly, but confused look to a look of pure fury. And yet, he stayed where he was and didn’t move, even when she tore it a second time.
“Enough!” Sergius yelled, standing up suddenly. “Class is dismissed!”
“Alainna, please stay after class,” Cyrus added. “And Solea, too. Everyone else, please leave.”
“Me?” Solea suddenly cried, feeling small. “But I didn’t do anything!”
The class started to filter out, confused, while Sergius strode up to the front of the class. And then he grabbed Alainna’s arm and pulled her back so violently that she stumbled and fell. “What in Diamea’s name are you doing?” Sergius hissed.
“Don’t you see?” Alainna called out, scrambling to get up. “He knows too much. He’s too perfect. Everything about him is fake. I don’t trust him at all.”
Cyrus stepped forward, his face still pale. “I can assure you that I am not perfect,” he said in his soft voice. “Far from perfect, in fact. Nor do I require that you trust me. Perhaps it’s better that you didn’t. But please don’t destroy my notes.” He glanced at Alainna, who had been pushed aside, and walked up to the desk, picking up the fragments of the paper that had been ripped in four. He glanced at the paper fragments, frowning. “I can rewrite this.”
“Good,” Sergius said. He turned to Alainna, furious. “As for you, my Lady, you need to learn how to stop attacking everyone who displeases you. One of these days, you’re going to land yourself in trouble because of it.”
“We know he’s a Conqueror!” Alainna suddenly yelled.
Sergius stopped. “What are you talking about?” he snapped.
“We figured it out, Solea and I,” Alainna said quickly. “We know that you deal with serious Conqueror cases, Sergius. And then suddenly you are involved with selecting our teacher? That seems a little bit of a jump. Not only that, but our new teacher is very young and yet he knows too much. And two very important Swans — you and Archondid — are the ones selected to chaperone him in class, when humans or other Swans, who are far less important, could easily do the job of chaperoning him. Furthermore, when I stepped up in front, Archondid shooed him away, instead of ordering me to go back to my seat, which makes it seem like he was worried more about Cyrus being a threat than I was. Therefore, Cyrus must be a Conqueror.”
Cyrus looked horrified. “Wait. You deliberately tried to upset me because you thought I was a Conqueror?” Then, when Alainna hesitated, he said, “Are you insane? What are you going to do when you meet Diamea? Throw a rock at his head? He’s a lot more dangerous than any Conqueror!”
Sergius looked annoyed. “Worst yet, this isn’t the first time she’s pulled this sort of stunt. She attacked Uclepidies not too long ago when he gave her a gift that she didn’t like.”
Cyrus winced. “She attacked Lord Uclepidies? The broken one?”
Sergius nodded grimly. “She threw him off the table and sent him crashing to the floor. It took a week for him to stop bleeding from that injury.”
Alainna’s face turned red. “He insulted me with his gift! Besides, it’s not my fault that he’s so broken. He did that to himself when he tried to help out the first Conqueror.”
Cyrus held his head in the palm of his hand and groaned. “At least you didn’t reject his gift.”
Sergius laughed darkly. “Actually.”
Cyrus snapped again, looking pale. “What! You can’t be serious.”
“Solea’s wearing it right now,” Sergius said, nodding at Solea.
Cyrus glanced at Solea. “The cloak, right?” he said strangely. “He gave the cloak to Alainna as a present, didn’t he? But then, why would he turn around and give Solea that cloak instead? After all, it was a present intended for the Lady, not her.”
“Never mind the stupid cloak!” Alainna cried, her face growing red. “The point is that you are a Conqueror, and I don’t think you should be teaching here.”
Cyrus grimaced. “She’s got a point,” he said grimly, gesturing to the desk filled with his papers. “How am I supposed to teach the language and manners of the Swans, when the Lady doesn’t even grasp the most basic and commonsense manners that even a mere child should understand? You have sent me on a doomed mission, Sergius.”
Sergius grinned. “I said I would take you away from your home and give you an adventure of a lifetime. I never said it would be an easy adventure.”
Cyrus turned to Alainna seriously. “Do you truly believe that I am a Conqueror? Or are you just trying to provoke a reaction from me to get me in trouble, perhaps because you preferred the other teacher?”
Alainna suddenly looked uncertain. “You’re the Conqueror,” she insisted. “Aren’t you?”
Cyrus turned to Solea. “And you, my quiet one. You must try to find your voice, for I fear that you are tangled up in this matter as well. What is your opinion?”
Solea shook her head. “I don’t know,” she admitted.
Alainna looked furious. “What! You said that he was a Conqueror! Remember? We decided this together!”
Solea shrugged helplessly. “It seemed like an intriguing theory at the time that our teacher would be a Conqueror, seeing as how much fuss there seemed to be in choosing the new teacher. But now that we’ve met him, I’m not so sure. He seems normal to me.”
Alainna looked even angrier. “He knows too much! He can speak the language at a fluent level, and he can write even better than you, and you are exceptionally good at writing! And you don’t think he’s the Conqueror?”
“But, isn’t it good to have a language teacher who knows the language better than you?” Solea asked. “The Swans promised us a competent teacher. Not a Conqueror. We seem to have a competent teacher.”
Cyrus laughed, his eyes twinkling, and bowed to Solea. “I shall try to meet your high expectations, lady! I am young and admittedly this is my first class that I've taught, however I have good guidance.” He gestured to Archondid. “Archondid is your godfather, correct? He has been wonderful to me. He will be too humble to admit this, of course, but he helped me plan the first couple of lessons, and didn’t complain when I asked him to take me to the library every day to prepare. He has been my constant companion as of late and he has done his best to help me navigate this strange new country with its strange language, for which I am very much grateful.”
“Stop changing the subject and answer the question directly,” Alainna snapped. “Are you the Conqueror?”
Cyrus looked at Alainna contemptuously and curled his lips in a smile. “Very well, my Lady. As you are the Lady, you are entitled to answers.” He took out a large folded card from his pocket and tossed it to her. “There. Take a look at it.”
Alainna caught the card and unfolded it, looking at it closely. Then she frowned. “It’s in the Swan’s language. I can’t read it. What does it say?”
Cyrus bowed to her. “I wouldn’t trust my input if I were you. If I am the Conqueror, after all, I am sure I would lie and mislead you.”
Alainna shot him a dirty look and turned to Sergius. “What does it say?”
“Am I your personal translator?” Sergius snapped. “Isn’t it enough that I gave you a brilliant teacher who can teach you our language? But of course, you would be foolish enough to reject his teaching, just as you reject everything that is given to you, and now you have made a complete fool out of yourself. Again.”
Alainna flushed. “Fine! Solea?”
Solea’s face had turned white. Without moving to take the card from Alainna’s hands, she said quietly, “It is a card that says he is an Indeterminate.”
Alainna frowned. “What does that mean?”
“It means that he has Swan blood, but no Swan has claimed him.”
Alainna looked confused. “Does that mean he’s a Conqueror?”
Solea shook her head. “It means that he may or may not be a Conqueror, but nobody knows for sure.” Then, when Alainna continued looking confused, she said, “Everyone with Swan blood is supposed to have a card like that, which they carry with them always. If Swans have children with humans, they are required to register them. And if their children have children, they are supposed to register them too. That way, the Swans can distinguish their children from the Conquerors, who are always unclaimed.”
“So, since he’s unclaimed, does that mean he’s a Conqueror?” Alainna asked hesitantly.
Solea shook her head. “Not necessarily. Some of the Swans never claim their children, since a lot of Swans are ashamed that they married mortals. That’s why the blood is Indeterminate. You can’t tell whether it is a descendant of a Swan or a Conqueror.”
Cyrus smiled bitterly. “You seem to know a lot about this, Solea. Do you, by chance, happen to have a card as well?”
She blushed and nodded.
“Claimed or unclaimed?”
Cyrus grimaced. “By whom, if you don’t mind me asking?”
Solea’s face grew red. “Please don’t ask.” When Cyrus frowned at her, she said, “My mother died when I was born and I am afraid that this was an unforgivable sin to the Swan who eventually claimed me. He did not claim me when I was born and it was not until many years later that I learned I had Swan blood.”
Cyrus frowned. “But you are claimed now?”
Solea nodded. Then, in a bitter voice, she explained, “When I was ten, after I was imprisoned for being a potential Conqueror and given an execution date. So the Swan finally claimed me.”
Cyrus shot a look at Sergius. “Solea was almost executed for being a Conqueror?” he asked in disbelief.
“The circumstances were suspicious,” Sergius said, gritting his teeth. “Besides, it was an honest mistake. I admit, I was wrong. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes. It happens. Besides, at least some good came out of it. She’s claimed now, isn’t she?”
Solea glared at Sergius. “Yes, at least I’m claimed now. If it weren’t for you trying to kill me, I am certain that the Swan would have never stepped forward to claim me. Then I would have never learned that my entire life was an accident! As it is, I have no doubt that claiming me has been a constant source of humiliation for the Swan ever since.”
Sergius flinched, as if she had struck him.
A strange look passed Cyrus’s face. He looked grim. “I apologize for bringing up such a sensitive subject,” he said, bowing politely. “I didn’t know. I am sorry for upsetting you.” Then, to Alainna, he nodded. “May I have my card back, Lady?”
Alainna stretched out her hand to give it to him.
He snatched it away.
“So are you a Conqueror?” Alainna asked suspiciously.
Cyrus shrugged. Then, when Alainna narrowed her eyes, he bowed again at her and gestured to the card. “Whether I am a Conqueror or not is uncertain, as you both now know. However, I beg you to look beyond my blood and to look at me as a man. For a Swan may be ruled by his blood, but a man is ruled by his actions. So, let me tell you my story, and judge me by my actions.”
Cyrus nodded to Sergius. “When I was discovered by the Swans a couple of months ago, it was also under suspicious circumstances. They too were afraid that I was a Conqueror. My mother and older sister had been brutally murdered, and my father had somehow fallen and been killed in a bear trap that had been inexplicably set up in our house. I was, of course, the primary suspect, seeing as I was the only survivor in our little family, and I was quickly imprisoned. Furthermore, since I had Indeterminate blood, the Swans became involved. Sergius was sent to investigate me, as it looked like a potential Conqueror case.”
Sergius nodded grimly. “What he says is true so far.”
Cyrus bowed to Sergius. “Thank you, Sergius.” He continued, “After investigating the crime thoroughly, Sergius found out that my father had killed both my mother and sister, and accidentally killed himself in the process. Mind you, my father had always threatened to kill us all for many years, because my mother never told him that her blood was Indeterminate until after she had my sister, and he always resented this. But this time, he actually followed through. He slit both their throats while I was away fishing. He had intended to kill me too. He predicted that it would be dark by the time that I came home, and so I would walk to the fireplace to light it. So he put a bear trap there for me by the fireplace. But I didn’t come home when he expected, and my father got very drunk that night. The fool stumbled into the trap that he set for me and eventually bled to death. I finally came home the next day in the afternoon, where I saw everything. I called for help, not knowing what else to do, and quickly found myself imprisoned for all their murders. And that’s when Sergius found me.” He turned to Sergius. “Is everything that I’ve said so far true?”
Sergius grimaced and nodded.
“Having been found innocent of any crime, I was released. But I had nowhere to go. My village didn’t want me there anymore because of the grisliness of the murders. And, because of my blood, nobody wanted me anywhere else. Most people with Indeterminate blood who are orphaned suddenly either work as slaves under some sort of master, or else, we wander in the wilderness until we die from exhaustion. So, when Sergius offered me an adventure, so long as I complied with everything that he said, I figured that sounded like as good a way to die as any, and readily agreed.
“Since I could possibly be a Conqueror, Sergius told me that, if I agreed to release all of the original twelve Black Swans and renounce any claim that I might have on them, just in case I were a Conqueror, thus giving up any possibility of my possessing them in the future, he could possibly arrange some sort of situation for me. I agreed, of course. And so, I met personally with each of the Twelve Black Swans and I have freely renounced any claims that I have on them, just in case. After that, Sergius informed me that there was an opening for a language teacher for the Lady and some other girls. Since I was already fluent in that language, Sergius informed me that if I could convince everyone that I could be a good teacher, there was a possibility that I would be chosen for the position. And so, for the last five weeks, I have been researching and preparing lesson plans for this class. I have been interviewed by the Twelve Black Swans and nine of the original White Swans. I talked with the headmistress and the teachers of the school. I talked with all of the major families of each of the girls that I would teach. And they all decided to give me a chance, and for that I am so thankful.”
Cyrus hesitated. Then he knelt to Alainna. “At the beginning of the class, I thanked you for allowing me to serve you, my Lady. This is still true, and I mean it from the very bottom of my heart. Now you know my story. If you still do not trust me, I understand. The blood that runs through my veins will condemn me until I die. I cannot change my blood, no matter how I try. If you wish to hate me because of this, I understand. However, give me a chance to help you find your voice. That is all I ask.”
Alainna looked skeptical still, but her face had softened. “If you’re not dangerous, then why are there two Swans monitoring you?”
“Because that was part of the conditions that the Black Swans set, if we were to select him,” Sergius said. “They are still wary of Indeterminates. Furthermore, the headmistress requested for him to be chaperoned at all times, since she didn’t want to have anything inappropriate happen between him and the students. And so we agreed to have two Swans monitor him whenever he is at school, just in case, even though we’ve all agreed that it’s probably an overreaction, given how cooperative he has been with us so far.”
Alainna looked down at Cyrus, who was still kneeling in front of her. “All right,” she said reluctantly. “I will let you teach me. But if you do anything funny, I will report you.”
Cyrus smiled. “Thank you.” He stood up and then turned to his desk. “Do I need to write a letter for their next teacher to excuse their lateness to the next class?”
“I’ll do it,” Sergius said. “They’ll expect the note written in their language, and you’re still slow writing in their language.”
Cyrus bowed. “Thank you, Sergius.”
Cyrus backed away politely while Sergius wrote two notes on the desk. Then, when Sergius stepped away to give the notes to the girls, he quickly went to the desk. When the girls left the classroom, Cyrus was rearranging his notes while Archondid watched on silently.