They came to the biggest wagon Robin had seen so far. It was so tall, so broad and so long, made of such solid wood, that he wondered how many poor horses were to be used to pull it, and with what effort. Chrom must have grasped the dismay in his eyes.
“Our animals are not like any others, they can handle it,” he said in a low voice, staring forward, certainly focused on something else.
It was a crumb of relief in the sea of worries and fears that stirred in Robin's stomach. When they got right at the foot of the stairs that would give them access to the wagon, Chrom stopped and grabbed his shoulder.
Meeting those eyes, bluer than the ocean, infused him with the usual dose of reassurance; but the boy was pale, serious, more than he had ever been before.
“Listen, Robin,” he said, his voice hard enough to make him understand that the instructions that would follow would better be understood. “Let me and Lissa speak. My father is unpredictable, susceptible, and he does not accept to be contradicted. I think he would be much tougher toward us too, if only the whole circus was not on our side.”
“Besides, he doesn't live there all alone,” Lissa added grimly. “Validar and Gangrel could be around, in fact, I'm sure. At least maybe Aversa is resting...”
“Do not even talk to them,” Chrom said. “If they greet you, just nod back. Don't look at them too much, nor too little. We will handle the situation. Agreed?”
Robin nodded, though he felt like his guts had become one knot. Were these people really so fearsome that a single misstep could cause such serious consequences? He wasn't an idiot, he knew how to behave – and yet, while Chrom and Lissa certainly didn't consider him stupid, they didn't think he could face them. It was humiliating and scary at the same time.
The other boy tightened his grip on his shoulder for a moment.
“Trust me,” he murmured, with a hint of a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes, but brought a little warmth to Robin's chest, and he was forced to smile back, nodding again. At that point Chrom pulled his hand away from him and turned to the wagon – Lissa and I'll go first. Wait here, we'll only take a few minutes.
In fact, they didn't stay inside for longer than that; but to Robin it felt like an eternity, which he spent shifting his weight from one foot to the other, trying to see if by chance Gaius emerged from the carts to go and check the situation, or if he could spot any strangers. He didn't see anything, actually: he only heard more shouts from the girls in the fields far away and what sounded to him like an unsettling roar; in the end he convinced himself that he had imagined it. Or at least that it wasn't close enough to be a threat.
Finally, the wagon door opened again and Chrom appeared on the doorstep. He had a very serious expression, but he was no longer pale, at least.
Robin didn't have to be told twice: he climbed the steps and followed Chrom inside, closing the door behind himself.
Lissa was waiting for them in a sort of narrow corridor. It was lit by small lamps hanging from the ceiling – at first Robin thought it wasn't very safe to have so much fire in a wooden wagon, but then he realized that the light was a little too golden to be that of a normal flame: he didn't want to investigate any further, but he could feel in the air a shred of that strange electricity he had perceived when entering Tharja's quarters. With the difference that, there, he had only had the sensation of being surrounded by a velvety darkness, dark but soft and somehow seductive; in that new place, everything felt suffocating, and the fact that every step made the floor creak didn't make the atmosphere any more reassuring.
Lissa led them, followed by Chrom, who had Robin at her heels. They passed by some side doors, and Robin could begin to see golden decorations on the dark wooden panels that seemed to end the corridor; but before he could concentrate on them, a door to their left opened just as Chrom was in front of it. All three of them jumped, and Robin found himself staring wide-eyes at this new person.
He was a man, very tall and very thin. The sumptuous robes of black velvet and purple silk, embroidered with gold threads and glistening with some precious stones, made him more imposing than Robin suspected him to really be; his brown hair was pulled back, leaving his forehead uncovered, and it looked greasy, which gave him an instinctive motion of disgust – as if the hand resting on the jamb of the door, bony, grim, with long fingers that ended with horrible black claws, wasn't creepy enough by itself. His face was long, his skin dark, his curly goatee highlighting his pointed chin and high cheekbones; his thick eyebrows framed two eyes that burned like coal – when they lay on Robin and stared at him for a really long time, the boy shivered from head to toe.
Malevolence. It stirred in the folds of those robes and shone in those hawk-like irises. He wondered how Chrom could glare at him with his head held high, with such open but controlled contempt.
“Ah, Chrom, my dearest boy. I wondered who was making so much hustle.”
The man's smile was colder than ice, slicker than mud and more false than the jewels which adorned his clothes. And his voice was deep, scratchy, a mixture of the hiss of a snake and the low growl of a wilde predator. Robin would have liked to retreat from his presence, but the man didn't waste a moment longer before looking at him again.
A wicked hunter, with a twinkling wink in his pupils.
“Who is he?”
Chrom made such a grimace, he made it obvious how much he'd rather avoid that moment and that question. But then he composed himself, and answered in a completely detached tone.
“We found him. He's name is Robin. Robin...” He turned to look him in the eye, and Robin welcomed with a warm and affectionate surge in his chest that flash of blue, however unfathomable in that moment. “He's Validar. Supervisor of the circus, as well as our most skillful and appreciated performer.”
How the public could love an individual with such a disquieting presence, Robin didn't understand; or rather, he was forced to think that this man must have beem remarkably good with magic. However, he nodded politely in return, and Validar gave him another smile, one that highlighted the sharp tips of his teeth.
“Chrom flatters me,” he hissed, with obvious satisfaction. “I'm just one of the many artists in this beautiful circus. Has Robin met Cornelius?”
“No,” Chrom was quick to reply, dryly. “But we're getting there, and we should go. You know he doesn't like it to be kept waiting.”
“I see,” Validar murmured softly, before giving a new, long glance at Robin. “It was a pleasure to meet this possible newcomer. Good luck... if you need help in persuading Cornelius, you know you can count on me.”
Chrom's glare made Robin understand that never would they ever ask that man for help in case of trouble, but he thought it was polite to nod and murmur some thanks. Validar looked satisfied, and after nodding to Chrom and Lissa, he disappeared behind the door he had come from, closing it behind him.
The two siblings breathed a sigh of relief at the same time.
“It went a little better than I feared,” Chrom murmured, running a hand over his forehead. “I don't like like the fact he's seen Robin already, but sooner or later it did have to happen.”
If he had to be honest with himself, even Robin had expected worse: Validar had a look that was not reassuring at all, slimy ways and a glance that burned one's soul as if he wanted to take possession of it, but, in fact, he hadn't done anything worthy of note, nor said really unpleasant things. In short, he had only kept a polite attitude, within the limits of his personality. Robin could only hope that things would go like that even with the head of the circus, he told himself, as Chrom beckoned him to keep walking.
They arrived at the door at the end of the corridor: two massive and gorgeous doors, which seemed very heavy and difficult to move. It was when he saw them so up-close that Robin began to sweat, but he forced himself to be calm: Tharja had said that the odds of him staying with the circus were very high; he had Lissa and Chrom ready to testify for him, and the girl must have been worth something, with her gift of perceiving lies. Chrom gave him one last penetrating look, then knocked.
After a single second, a cavernous voice from the inside said Come in – a rumble that echoed amongst the wooden walls of the corridor. Robin swallowed.
Lissa and Chrom opened the doors, not without difficulty. The environment ahead of them didn't seem to have a very different lighting, but it was with his heart in his throat that Robin crossed the threshold behind the siblings.
The first thing he saw was a huge back, one of a very tall and massive man who seemed to be leaning over the dark wood desk in the middle of the room to read something. Robin soon realized that his robes were sumptuous, if only for the white fur hems adorning the end and the collar of his dark blue cloak. He barely had the time to wonder how he could have such luxurious clothes, when his children looked so modest and simple, when the man turned, and Robin was forced to give up such thoughts.
For a moment, he met two eyes as black as an abyss, so intense and dark that he couldn't handle their gaze for more than a second before lowering his own. The man in front of him was majestic; for some reason, unknown to Robin, he wore some kind of richly decorated armor, and he also saw the golden hilt of a sword sprouting from under his cloak. His well-combed hair was the same bluish color as Chrom's, but his face had none of the boy's softness: a white scar cut through his tanned skin from the left side of his forehead to his right cheekbone, his features were hard and his dark beard only helped chiseling them more. Last, but not least, there was no smile on those lips.
“Father ... this is Robin,” Chrom began, in a loud and clear voice, even if Robin was able to perceive a hint of apprehension under his usual confidence. “Robin ... This is my father, head of this circus. His name is Cornelius.”
“Sir will suffice.”
The man had spoken with a stone-hard voice. He didn't deign his son of a glance: he stared at Robin without batting an eyelid, and he found himself unsure whether to show self-confidence and keep his head high, or lower himself to show the most servile humility. Cornelius's hostility towards him was evident. Chrom didn't dare to reply, while Lissa shifted her weight nervously from foot to foot, eyes downcast.
“What use do I have for him?” the man asked, dryly, without even a hint of warmth in his tone. Robin felt a knot forming in his throat: in fact, what would he even do in the circus during his stay?
“He can work with the other guys,” Chrom answered, quickly. “He'll help us set up the next show. More working arms are always...”
“Useful? Umpf,” Cornelius interrupted him, contemptuously, glancing at his son with a poisonous look that filled Robin with discomfort even before the man returned to focus on him. “I deduce that he is not a magician.”
“No, father,” Lissa intervened after a moment of silence, with a voice even smaller than usual. “He just needs a place to stay.”
“And is my circus an inn that rents rooms to vagrants?” said Cornelius, his voice like the rumble of an angry and disdainful lion; then he turned to his son, without changing his grim expression. “You know, Chrom, I already carry along enough empty and useless bags without magic, like you.”
“I don't think Chrom is useless.”
The look the other young man gave him was not of gratitude, but of pure horror; Lissa held her breath so abruptly that Robin could hear it. As for Cornelius, he stared at him with so much anger in his black eyes, Robin feared he was going to be incinerated on the spot, but he stood firmly on his feet, chin high, despite the fact that his heart was beating wildly.
“What did you say?” the head of the circus hissed, threatening, and Robin realized at once that this was the right time to murmur a humble Nothing, sir, forgive me. But he immediately dismissed that option. He knew he was acting rashly, but he also knew that a bully would not stop him from doing the right thing.
“I said that I don't think Chrom is useless,” he said, trying to control the tremor in his own voice. “He treated me with great kindness, and... altruism is certainly not useless if you are part of a team.”
He was kind of clutching at straws, sure – he had no evidence of what Chrom actually did in the circus. But he had seen people treating him with familiarity and some respect; heck, even Validar hadn't been too arrogant towards him. He must have been liked by everyone, or almost everyone, and that was already a quality that would have been unjust to waste: this, Robin did firmly believe.
Too bad that Cornelius was choosing that moment to give him his first smile – and it was at that point that he realized he had made an irremediable mistake: fierce, cruel, that was the sneer of someone who felt pure hatred.
“Thanks, Robin,” he snarled at him, stressing his name with angry sarcasm. “You've just made my decision even easier.”
He raised his right arm up high, and Robin saw electricity charges start crackling between his fingers. His hair stood on the back of his head.
Chrom and Lissa both had cried out in one voice, but Robin's eyes were attracted for a fraction of a second only by the boy's movement – he tried to jump in front of him. By pure instinct, Robin pushed him away again, just as the sphere of energy detached itself from Cornelius's fingers to be hurled straight at him.
He knew it was over, but his body could not stop himself from trying to protect him: he raised his arms and crossed them in front of his face, and immediately felt the impact on his skin.
It was hot, a net of chills that enveloped him from his wrists to his elbows and then up to his shoulders; it made him jump and his whole organism vibrated with a sensation that he knew to be alien and unknown despite having lived for so little. But he didn't feel even one bit of pain, and it was this detail that made a faint chime ring in the back of his mind. Was he... alive?
Trembling, with incredulous slowness, he lowered his arms and looked at his hands. He gasped when he saw them covered with a spiderweb of electricity that barely stung at his skin. For a moment he wished it to disappear, or at least gather, and those little gold-colored snakes, with his immense bewilderment, obeyed him, crawling over his wrists and rolling into two small, glittering spheres in the center of his palms, before giving one last crackling and fade away with a hiss.
In shock from fright and confusion, Robin finally looked up, gazing at the other three people in the room.
Chrom had remained almost as petrified as he was, to the point that his eyes seemed to have no expression, stuck on his hands as if they had just witnessed a miracle. Something in Cornelius's attitude, on the other hand, had completely changed: he was looking at him with a suspicious attitude, now, but he looked more intrigued as well, his angry hatred disappeared. However, Lissa was the first to come to her senses – showing the most relief and joy among all those who were present.
“You're a wizard,” she murmured in a low voice, widening her eyes, and then smiling and making almost a leap of joy. “Father, he's a wizard! This is awesome!”
Robin recorded those words and was even more shocked. Could he really control that magic which existence he didn't even remember until Chrom and Lissa had told him about it? Did he really have a strange gift, or more, like the girl? Was that why his presence interfered with Tharja's magic? Or was he jumping ahead of himself, while in truth that miraculous rescue had been just an accident?
His heart was beating wildly: he no longer had the slightest idea how to behave. At least, the same seemed to hold true for Chrom and Cornelius; Lissa, however, was not intimidated by the silence that had fallen after her enthusiastic exclamations.
“Father, he's one of us,” she continued, clasping her hands on her chest with just a little apprehension, but smiling. “We can train him. We can add new numbers to the show. Maybe...”
“It'll take time, before he reaches such level,” Cornelius interrupted her, coldly, crossing his arms. But he looked pensive, which Robin tried to interpret as a good sign. “I do not like him at all. And third-rate wizards aren't welcome here.”
Finally, even Chrom was able to snap out of it.
“Give him at least one chance,” he said, raising his head with a certain determination, though Robin could see his hands trembling. “It might take some time, that's true, but it's worth further investigation, isn't it?”
Cornelius seemed to ignore him. He pointed his abyss-black eyes in Robin's, who really started to feel microscopic; he found himself lowering his gaze before he could even decide to do otherwise, too shocked by what had just happened to keep behaving defiantly and stand his ground.
Perhaps, this show of frailty played in his favor.
“I made my decision.” Cornelius spoke imperiously, and only then did Robin manage to raise his head to look at him, filled with fear and adrenaline rushing through his veins. The expression of the head of the circus was still hard as stone, far from benevolent, but no hint of anger or hate had returned to scratch his features. “He has three days to show me he's able to do something useful. If he won't, I will not let him stay in my circus one more night. Let it be clear that I have not forgotten his insolence.”
For a few moments silence fell, while his words took root in the minds of the three of them.
At first, Robin felt relief: anything was better than a sentence to death, or being kicked out of the circus right away. Then, a shiver of discouragement shook his heart: three days to learn how to use magic? Three days? He knew less than zero about it. It was almost certain that he managed to stop Cornelius's attack only with sheer panic and willpower, in an exceptional situation that would have been difficult to replay; and something like that didn't even mean being able to control any kind of power. And doing a number in the show? Was he even just capable of appearing before an audience without freezing in fear?
“Thank you, father,” Lissa was saying, though, with a smile a little more restrained than usual, but still genuine. “We'll do our best.”
Chrom nodded, but Cornelius was already turning away from them.
“Go, now. You've been annoying me for long enough. And start waking up the others, we're to leave soon.”
The two siblings murmured an obedient Yes, father that emphasized even more, to Robin's ears, the fact that there wasn't a crumb of affection between him and them; then Chrom beckoned him to get out.
They walked along the corridor in silence – certainly it would have been madness to discuss the events while the despotic head of the circus was still so close –, but they couldn't get to the open air before a new unknown figure stood in their way, coming right from the outside.
In spite of the fact that she stood for a few moments against the light, Robin soon realized that this time it was a woman: it would have been difficult to misunderstand the generous curves of her hips, even before he could observe her better as she approached them elegantly.
He wasn't sure it was appropriate to call her beautiful. She was tall, slender, and her black robes clung to her bust, highlighting her bursting breasts even without the help of her neckline, which almost reached her navel. Her skin was dark, painted with some strange purple tattoos, and a thick corolla of pitch-black feathers encircled her shoulders, giving her an aura that resembled almost that of a queen. Her hair was as white as snow, and white she had also painted her lips; she had sharp features, a narrow, pointed face, red almond-shaped eyes. No doubt she was young, but the colors and the purple lines that cut through her face made her look a lot older; her refinement immediately seemed to him like it was feigned, almost ... filthy.
“Hello, my dears. Who's this handsome young man?”
She had a hoarse voice, sensual to the point of being almost obscene. Robin felt her words caress his face eagerly, and at once he felt the urge to move away from her, all of his senses on the alert. It was something completely different from what he had felt with Tharja – he knew right away that he never ever would want to be touched by that woman.
He glanced at Lissa and Chrom, looking for belays to cling to: the little girl had her lips tight in an apparent motion of disappointment, her forehead frowned and all of her joyful sparkles disappeared from her big blue eyes; but the real shock was to see that Chrom was pale as it had never even happened in Cornelius's room.
The anguish that transpired from his eyes was such, it also invaded Robin's heart; the attempt the young man made collect himself only showed how much each of his features was stiffened by his tension.
Lissa was the first to speak.
“Good to see you, Aversa,” she greeted her, without any enthusiasm. “Father just told us we're about to move on.”
“Ah, I thought so. It's getting late.”
With Robin's deep discomfort, the woman didn't seem to want to stop approaching. When he saw her raising her hand – bony, grim, similar to those of Validar even because of the long claws that were her nails –, he couldn't help but take a half step back, with his heart in his throat; but for his even deeper anguish those fingers went to caress Chrom's cheek, as the boy stood as motionless as a salt statue.
“Chrom, honey, are you feeling well?”
That thoughtful question was so fake and full of malice, Robin understood at once that Aversa knew very well the reason for the boy's tension – and probably she was the cause of it, not without a massive dose of complacency. Chrom tightened his lips together, unable even to reply, and it was from that precise moment that Robin began hating that woman.
His disgust and anger made his bowels twist.
Lissa took a step forward, a hard and determined expression that one would have not expected to see on her delicate face.
“With your permission, we're in a hurry, Aversa,” she said aloud, firmly. Aversa turned to stare at her with a smile full of condescension, getting a little closer to Chrom and moving her hand over his shoulder.
“Oh? Isn't there any time to make some introductions, or to reassure me about the health of my dear boy here? You're getting rude, little princess.”
The insult to his sister seemed to shake Chrom at least enough to make him talk.
“His name is Robin,” he said dryly, staring downward and almost not moving a muscle. “He could become part of the circus. But we have to start training him.”
“Ah, a new recruit, I see,” said Aversa, smiling towards him. Robin had no trouble glaring back at her; maybe it wasn't the best idea to make his hostility clear so quickly, but it wasn't so easy to suppress those feelings born straight from his stomach. “He's really cute, don't you think, Chrom? How did you find him, amid these boring grasslands?”
The young man seemed to stiffen even more at the first, strange question he had been addressed with. Robin was confused and more troubled than ever, but before he could think about it, Chrom decided at last to shake off that harpy's hand.
“He needed help,” was his lapidary explanation, though still without daring to give her in the eye; yet he made a move to pass by her. “Now we really have to go and help the others.”
“Have a good day, Aversa,” Lissa concluded, clutching Robin's wrist with one hand and pulling him a little to urge him to move. She didn't have to insist.
Luckily, the woman didn't try to stop them. When he found himself standing in the grass, blue sky above him, Robin felt like he was breathing freely for the first time in centuries.
The two siblings, however, made him walk away from the larger wagons before stopping to speak. In the meantime, Robin noticed there was more movement in the camp: the voices of the girls who were to take care of the horses were closer, and he saw some young men jumping off a few carts. However, he already had enough thoughts on his mind without even looking at everything else.
“Did you say that Tharja behaves like a witch?” was the first thing he said, turning to Lissa. “I'm sorry, but that hag is much worse. What is she doing here?”
“She's a good example of why people hate us, Robin,” the girl replied bitterly. “Stay away from her, I beg of you. Her gift is charm. The only real protection against her is not going near her.”
Robin looked up at Chrom: he was still pale and deadly serious. His fear of that harpy seemed so great that the idea of asking questions was not even to be contemplated.
“But let's forget about her,” Lissa went on, trying to take on a more cheerful tone. “You rascal, you surely are full of surprises! You were incredible!”
It was impossible not to return her smile; even Chrom's face lit up.
“We did it,” the young man said, as if to drive away the last shadows that hoovered in his eyes. “From now on, our path goes downhill.”
“Downhill?” Robin repeated, frowning. “Chrom, how can I learn to be like all the other wizards in three days?”
“You don't have to be perfect, or to have a number set up,” Lissa replied, reassuringly. “You'll just need to be able to use a tome, improvise a few tricks. Father's spell.. it wasn't easy to stop it. You have talent.”
“It was more a matter of panic...”
“Without a certain amount of power, not even panic would have saved you,” Chrom said. “Believe me, this revelation about you is the best thing we could hope for ... in the current situation, of course.”
Those words were perhaps what triggered Robin's full awareness of what had happened: he was a magician. Being a magician meant belonging to that circus, provided that Cornelius did not incinerate him. What extraordinary coincidence had led him to wake up in that field just as the company was passing by? Was it really a coincidence to begin with? Perhaps he'd been abandoned, rejected by the world, and that was why he didn't remember his house or his family? In fact, had he just found that family?
“What are you going to do, Chrom?” Lissa was asking, meanwhile.
“We have to ask someone to help him,” her brother said quickly. “But Tharja already has enough on her hands, I suppose.”
“You know she's very busy as well...”
“But she's reliable and kind and knows a lot about so many types of magic. We should at least try to ask her.”
“Well ... okay. Trying can't do us any harm, since it's her,” Chrom finally consented.
“What does she do in the circus?” Robin asked, curious.
“Cherche is our tamer,” Lissa answered with a smile. “Sumia and Cordelia start the number with the horses, then she arrives with the most dangerous animals.”
“Dangerous animals?” he repeated, remembering the roar he had thought he had heard a little earlier. The siblings giggled in response.
“You'll see with your own eyes,” Chrom replied, without any malice. “You don't need to fear her beasts unless you infuriate her. And I know you won't.”
“Can we go, then?” Lissa urged them. “We don't have all day.”
To Robin's surprise, Chrom hesitated, glancing in his direction.
“Mhm ... Lissa, go ahead. Go wake up those who are still asleep, please, we will meet you at Cherche's. I'd like to have a few words with Robin, first.”
“Oh,” the girl said, surprised. “Well... fine. But don't take too long.”
“Just a few minutes,” he reassured her. “See you there.”
After one last farewell, Lissa was hopping away, slipping between the carts and disappearing soon. A slight buzz was beginning to rise from every corner of the camp: sheets were lifted, and the first horses were in position.
But Robin looked back at Chrom, who returned his gaze with a new intensity. When his hand touched his shoulder, Robin felt a chill that had nothing to do with the weather, sunny as it was.
“You took a terrible risk for me. You shouldn't have.”
Chrom was a little too close to him, and his voice was too beautiful, deep and vibrant, for Robin's heart not to start beating way too fast.
“Getting a crush on him is a horrible idea. He has a boyfriend.”
“Look who's talking,” Robin tried to smile. “You were jumping between me and him. We're even.”
“You pushed me away,” Chrom said firmly, but gently. “You're still winning.”
“Chrom, really...” He swallowed, trying to find the right words. “You found me. You gave me your trust. Defending you was the least I could do. I couldn't just be quiet.”
A veil of sadness fell over that beautiful face.
“Taking my defenses is not the wisest choice for you here. You'll come to understand it quickly.”
That was the moment when, in his features, Robin began to see secrets. They were there, indecipherable and mysterious; and his soul knew instantly that they were of a very dark kind.
“I don't care,” he murmured. “I will never stand against you. You can't make me change my mind.”
Surprise, tenderness, melancholy appeared in Chrom's eyes. An affection that made his lips curl in the faintest and sweetest of smiles.
Robin's heart fell in his stomach when he realized just how irrationally, recklessly, and rashly he wanted to kiss him.