J'ai en moi l'audace
du champ magnetique.
I have in me the audacity
of a magnetic field.
The rain had been torrential all day, and the ensuing mud and wet made the scene in the courtyard all the more unsightly. Erwin was not particularly interested in public spectacle. He stood under the dripping eaves in straight-shouldered silence as the trial carried on, listening to his father's irritable underbreath mutterings whenever they became audible beneath the Marshal's booming voice. There had already been presentation drills that day, and Erwin's uniform was soaked already through from marching around in carefully constructed formations for the pleasure of the social elite. He'd managed to comb his hair back into something approaching order, but the Military Police uniform trousers were notoriously thin, and clung to his legs with unpleasant clamminess. Combined with the water dripping down his neck, every tiny lift of late autumn wind seemed to skitter off his skin like sleet.
Erwin knew better than to make any show of how chilled he was, however, especially during this rare display of acknowledgment. Egon Smith believed in a very certain kind of order in public, and this applied especially to his fifth son, whose circumstances were widely known in their circle, but never spoken of outwardly. Erwin had received his father's summons even before he'd left the parade grounds, and all wistful thoughts of a hot bath and a change of clothes had needed to be carefully dismissed. He'd thanked the courier most kindly, taken a few moments in the reflection of one of the barracks windows to arrange himself, and had set out for the courthouse immediately.
Egon's expression upon seeing the state his son was in had been an unpleasant one, and it remained in place even now, though Erwin knew its cause had shifted now to the Marshal. So far as Egon was concerned, these sorts of civilian trials were more properly carried on behind closed doors, in calm voices and with speakers for the defense, save for extreme cases. Erwin supposed this was an extreme case, though he wasn't fully informed of all the details. He knew his father disapproved anyway.
Their peers of the realm had a somewhat more magnanimous approach, however, which was why a teeming crowd of well dressed lords, ladies, dukes, and marquises were crowded beneath the overhangs that ringed the courtyard along with them. A good number of them looked quite angry, though just as many others wore expressions of idle, distant curiosity. They'd been more moved by the march, Erwin thought, or at least more willing to put on a good show of filial piety there. He let his eyes wander away from the crowd, and back to the courtyard again.
The courthouse was more of a court estate; a four story building composed of lovely shaped stone and fine wood scrounged from far beyond the Walls. It played host to weddings, christenings, and other celebrations much more often than any form of law and punishment, and the carefully cultivated garden of flowers and precisely set rocks that filled the courtyard were a testament to that. All four floors of the building opened out onto balconies that surrounded the yard, presumably so that meandering MP officers on patrol could dawdle and enjoy the scenery when the sun was out.
The Marshal stood ramrod straight behind his podium, tucked nicely under the tarp that had been set up just for this purpose. Erwin was a little startled to see the thunderous set of his brow and the furious twist of his mouth. Marshal Embry was a tall man, a lean, former Garrison soldier who'd found himself on the right side of society a few decades past thanks to a particularly lucky marriage, and normally he conducted himself with a strange kind of simpering confidence, like an artist performing for his patron. Erwin had never seen him look so genuine, or so angry.
“Do you admit to all of these charges? Or would you like to plead your innocence?” Embry said loudly, though the hiss of the rain drowned the words a little.
“God, man,” Egon muttered, “He's not going to respond.”
Egon seemed to have a better measure of the prisoner than Embry did. There was no response from the prisoner, only the faint rattle of chain as he shifted imperceptibly. Slight movement was all he could manage, it seemed – he'd been bound to the very top of the pole, his arms stretched full length above his head, and hoisted up to a height meant for a man much larger than he was, forcing him to balance on his toes. Egon had growled something earlier about him overpowering a handful of guards when he'd been restrained in the normal fashion, but Erwin wasn't sure he believed it. The prisoner was terribly small, and not more than a boy by the look of him. He'd been stripped to the waist, revealing the extensive bruising around his ribs and throat, and that, Erwin thought, was more likely to be the mark of the MP guards than anything else. He craned his neck a little, trying to get a look at the boy's face, but the rain had plastered the boy's black hair down into a dripping curtain, and the boy did not raise his head.
“If you continue to keep your silence,” Embry said, “We will have to assume your guilt. You understand that the sentence is execution, don't you? You understand that you will die if you don't make some attempt to explain yourself?” His nostrils were flaring.
“Sir,” Erwin murmured, taking a risk as his curiosity began to overpower him, “What has he done?”
Egon glanced at him. “Worse than showing up as an official witness looking like a drowned sewer rat,” he said, his voice dry. Erwin smiled, and looked away carefully. He said nothing, and after a moment Egon sighed.
“The boy seems to be responsible, both personally and by organization of others, for these break-ins and muggings we've been plagued by for the past year and a half,” he said.
“Oh,” said Erwin. “Well. The treatment seems a little extreme in that case, doesn't it?”
“He was caught robbing the Aldenberg Estate a few nights ago.”
“When Lady Aldenberg summoned the MP, he killed two of them, and wounded three others in his attempt to escape from justice. I suppose you've been too busy in your studies to keep up with the goings on of your own branch, then?”
Erwin looked up at the MP officers clustered tightly to the railing of the second story balcony. He supposed that explained the tension radiating off of them and their fellows standing guard, not to mention Embry's fury.
“Quite an offense,” he said.
Egon snorted. “Even so, as deplorable as the boy's actions have been, this public display bears no resemblance to anything approaching a proper trial. There is no stand for the defense. They're going to hang him, one way or the other, which is well enough, but this circus makes a mockery of the justice system.”
“Yes,” said Erwin, careful to keep the distraction out of his tone. Embry was leaning over the podium, bright red spots of furious color standing out on his cheeks.
“Eli Levi!” he bellowed. “You will speak to your charges, boy, or I will declare for you here and now!”
A murmur rippled through the noble assemblage as the boy lifted his head. It was visibly an effort for him; Erwin could see the exhausted trembling in his thighs and stomach, the strain of holding such an unnatural position for what must have been hours.
“Élie,” he said.
Embry's eyes seemed close to bulging out of his head. “What?”
The boy smiled thinly. Erwin could see it clear across the courtyard. “It's Élie,” he said. His voice was calm, almost thoughtful. “Eh-lee, you stupid fuck. Quit fucking calling me Eli.”
“I beg your pardon-”
“And,” the boy went on, tipping his head almost boredly to one side, “Technically, it's 'Rivaille.' It's French, you know. The spelling's just been simplified a little. So ignorant motherfuckers like you can get it right. I guess it's a wasted effort here.”
The crowd of onlookers was beginning to titter and mutter to itself. Erwin heard a few people quietly trying out the proper pronunciation for themselves.
Embry stepped heavily out from around the podium, though he hesitated under the tarp. His hands were clenched into tight fists, his angry flush a bright point of pink in the dim of the rain.
“You little shit,” he hissed. “You threw two men to their deaths, and you don't even feel the slightest ounce of shame.”
Erwin glanced at his father again. Egon caught his look, and the question in his eyes. “I'm told he climbed most of the way up Wall Sina before another of the MPs caught him,” he said. “The dead men apparently got too close to him during his progress.”
Erwin stared at him openly. “Halfway up the wall with no Gear?” he exclaimed. A few of the people standing nearby glanced at him in confusion and distaste, and he hastily straightened his shoulders, looking forward again and lowering his voice. “How is that possible?”
“I suppose you would have to ask him.”
“Why haven't they? Sina is more or less a sheer rock face – I'm sure there are tiny handholds here and there, but the balance and strength he'd have to be capable of to...” Erwin trailed off as his father's lips thinned, and finished in a slightly hangdog manner, “Well, I was only thinking what a good soldier he'd make.”
“Which is precisely why you are not in charge of making soldiers, Erwin.” Egon didn't look at him. “The boy is a murderer. Whatever hidden talents or wily tricks he may be capable of are inconsequential.”
“Of course, sir.” Erwin looked away. Embry's voice droned back into his awareness.
“-these shameful acts, disrupting our calm and peaceful society-”
“Can't have been well trained if they couldn't even catch themselves,” Levi said. “Isn't that pretty basic training?”
“Your malicious action which-”
“I don't give a shit, old man,” Levi said. His voice trembled a little, but it wasn't with emotion. His small body shook with cold and strain, legs obviously on the verge of giving out. “Just tell me when I'm gonna die.”
“Tomorrow!” Embry thundered, and all of the crowd noise ceased in a single sweep. Now there was only the hiss of the rain, and his voice. “Tomorrow! I sentence you to be hanged at this time tomorrow! You will spend this night in prayer and contemplation-”
“-and preparation for your judgment before God!” Embry's fist slammed into the top of the podium, making a few people jump nervously. “I dismiss this court! I dismiss it! I wash my hands of this filth!”
A few of the MP officers standing guard began to come forward hesitantly to take Levi back into their custody, but Embry struck the podium again, with a sound of splintering wood. “Leave him there,” he snarled. “Maybe he'll find it within himself to do a bit of soul-searching while he waits.”
“Yes, sir,” the guards mumbled, stepping back, though their glances were wary.
The crowd began to disperse, less unsettled by Embry's pronouncement than the soldiers were. They filed past Erwin towards the door in a ruffle of expensive skirts and fine perfumes, the sound of low and well-bred laughter echoing off the fine stone of the interior.
Levi was watching them go, with a blank and utterly untouched expression. He only looked tired, and a little ill. After a moment, he seemed to rouse himself, and began to strain at his cuffs.
“And, of course, a overly dramatic ending to an overly dramatic farce of justice,” Egon said. He brushed at his dress jacket, and turned away from the courtyard. “Come, Erwin. I will see you back to your post.”
Erwin hadn't moved. He was watching the boy, watching his hands flexing in their cuffs, his feet straining for better traction. He lifted one leg and pressed the sole of his bare foot against the pole that held him in place, head lifting painfully with the effort, but there was a look on his face that Erwin recognized. It was one he'd seen on the faces of his fellow trainees, especially the ones who had gone on to hardier divisions than his own. It was a look of unconscious calculation, of canny hyper-awareness of every flat plane and surface nearby, every object in the vicinity that might be capable of taking human weight, with no division between what was horizontal and what was vertical.
He watched as Levi pushed off with his other foot, and balanced both against the pole for a moment, leaning his weight against his already strained wrists, his body bending in a perfectly acrobatic curve above the ground. He was walking himself upwards and backwards, one foot behind the other, elbows bending slightly. Then he slipped, and dropped back to the ground. The frustrated little growl that escaped him was faintly nerve-inducing.
Erwin believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that Levi had climbed that wall.
Further, he believed that Levi would have made it over to the other side, had he not been snatched up beforehand.
From somewhere far away he heard his own voice, saying casually, “I'm sorry, sir. I actually need to speak with Captain Hamlin before I return. Please, go on ahead without me.”
Egon only snorted. “Very well,” he said. “I suppose it'd be better for you to clean up afterward, too.”
“Yes, sir.” Erwin smiled at him, humble and guileless. “Thank you for allowing me to accompany you.”
Thoroughly mollified, his father only waved a hand dismissively, and left the courtyard, his boot heels echoing off the stone. Erwin waited, counting his steps as he had so often counted his own on a boring day's patrol march, and then when he was sure his father had gone, he went down the veranda steps into the soaked and muddied courtyard.
Levi had stopped his struggling. Only his head moved as Erwin came towards him, just enough for him to see. Up close, Erwin could make out his features more properly. He was a narrow eyed creature, his nose and mouth as petite as the rest of him, making assessing his age on sight impossible. He was so small that Erwin supposed a large man could fit both hands around his waist at once, though it was clear that what Levi lacked in size he made up for in tense and well toned muscle.
“Élie Levi,” Erwin said.
“Oh,” Levi said. “Look at you. A cut above the rest.” He didn't sneer, nor smirk, only looked placidly at Erwin with those sharp and pitiless eyes. They were pale and grey, heavy-lidded, and gave him a rather haunted look. “What are you, the front of the line?”
Erwin blinked. “The line?”
“Nobody's gotten around to raping me yet. Does that mean you want to be first? Come on, then.” He jerked his chin, chains clinking. “Let's see your dick. It better at least be as good looking as the rest of you.”
Erwin swallowed his revulsion, and remained impassive with an effort. “I see. No. I haven't come for that.”
Levi snorted, tipping his head up a little. His gaze broke from Erwin's face and he swayed a little, blinking hard, once. When he opened his eyes again they were unfocused, rolling back a little beyond his control. “What, then,” he muttered, sounding dizzy.
“I heard you climbed Wall Sina by yourself,” Erwin said. He pressed his palm flat against his thigh, fighting the urge to shake the boy out of semi-consciousness to ensure straight answers. He could tell he wouldn't have long to ask. “Is it true?”
“Not by myself.” Levi shivered. “Were a couple of MP assholes trying to jump me the whole time.”
“Without Gear, I mean.”
“They don't give out Gear to thugs, shithead.”
“You climbed it bare? With only hands and feet?”
“Yeah.” Levi gave him an unsteady look. “That and the pickaxe I keep up my ass. Why do you care so much? It's not that hard. Getting starting traction's the hard part. Once you're up, you've just got to keep going. Of course,” and there, now, was the faintest of curves on his lips, almost dreamy, “Of course, sometimes it's real helpful when you've got a bunch of dimwits trying to get up after you with ropes and so on. Easier to get a foothold on a grappling hook. Even if it does detach when you push off a lot of the time.”
“You climbed Wall Sina, using a running start, traction, your hands and feet, and by leaping off the grappling hooks of the MP officers who were chasing you.”
“Fuck me, you ask a lot of questions.”
Erwin smiled. The rain was showing no sign of abating anytime soon, and what little chance at drying off he'd had under the eaves was ruined, now.
“Élie,” he said, “Don't you think you'd make a much finer soldier than any of those 'assholes' ever could be?”
Levi's head jerked up, and he stared at Erwin, trying to make sense of him. “Don't call me that,” he said, tense. “You haven't earned it.”
“It doesn't seem to matter very much whether I have or not,” Erwin murmured, his smile widening. “You aren't exactly in a position to decide what you do and don't want at the moment, are you?” Impulse touched him, and he lifted his hand, touching the boy's bruised cheek with the flat of his palm. Levi flinched slightly, but his narrow eyes had grown wide and a little lost. Erwin could feel the fine tremors in his body, the honed fury and murderous independence struggling to free itself from impending unconsciousness. There was something else, too, that he couldn't quite name, something that made him step closer, and tuck the wet black hair off Levi's forehead.
The boy shivered. “Stop,” he breathed, but his eyes had grown unfocused again, his head heavy in Erwin's hand.
“I have an idea,” Erwin said. “One that will save your life, I think. But I will require your cooperation, Élie. Your cooperation and your trust.”
“I don't want your help.” He was sagging now, with a kind of inevitable finality. Erwin waited, watched as his eyelids flickered, and finally closed, as the weight of his body returned to his wrists again. His skin had grown warm against Erwin's palm, and Erwin let his thumb brush along Levi's lower lip, once.
“You will have it,” he said, “Whether you ask for it or not.”