6. Kind and Cruel Kings


The Military Police were there to guard Cadet Yeager and ostensibly to protect Erwin and Levi from the currently unconscious cadet. But they were also there to report anything said to or by either of the Scouts.

Thus far, it had been a disappointing assignment.

Erwin Smith, Commander of the Survey Corps was known to be highly intelligent, analytical, bold, and a gambler. Captain Levi was absolutely legendary. The guards from the Military Police had expected them to be frustrated, fidgety and angry at the inaction and delay. Much to their surprise, the two men exhibited an aura of implacable calm. And quiet. So far, other than sitting calmly, they had said and done nothing.

An hour passed. Then two. The operation to clear out Trost had commenced. Still the men in the underground prison said nothing. The only sound was the fitful noises made by the sleeping cadet. Another hour began to creep by.

The MPs weren't entirely wrong; under his calm exterior, Erwin Smith was seething. His regiment was going into battle without him because his one-time best friend Nile Dok decided to play politics to protect his own ass rather than the greater good of humanity. He suppressed an exasperated sigh. Perhaps they were taking the wrong approach, thought Erwin. Perhaps a soft background noise would wake the cadet earlier. "Eld and Petra said you found a boy outside the walls," Erwin broke the silence.

Levi nodded. "Damnedest thing. Gutsy kid though. Petra wants to keep him."

"I will not countenance your putting an untrained civilian is harm's way." Erwin was firm, and not just for the listening MPs' benefit.

"It may not be official military training, but he's not untrained. This is not a normal kid."

Erwin glanced sharply at Erin then back to Levi. "What do you mean abnormal?"

"He took out seven Titans yesterday. Solo. They're still quibbling about the number of assisteds, but if we're keeping score, it puts him on the board."

"Seven?"

"Petra was eye witness to two, I witnessed three on the ride back in. The other two were over the wall in Trost last night. The only other person around was another cadet who didn't try to claim the kills." Levi shrugged. "His sword technique is different from the standard or from mine. He talks about places none of us have heard of. It's got us wondering if there's not a village somewhere in the north by Wall Maria that survived."

"That's not possible!" One of the MPs interjected.

"He's not the first person we've found outside the walls," Erwin's glance was filled with soft condescension.

"That's heresy!" The MP said.

"Doesn't make it not true," Levi baited them. "Besides, if they had survived, what should they have done? Come running up to the city at a time when we were sending out people to die to reduce the number of mouths to feed? Ask for the pity of the same MPs who shut the gates of Wall Sina when they thought Wall Rose was about to fall?"

If Erwin's intention was to refocus the guards' hostility towards the Scouts and away from the kid in the cell, it had worked.

"That's enough, Levi," Erwin said. "They were following orders."

Very clever. By appearing to side with these particular MPs, Erwin again shifted the hostility away from the Scout Regiment as a whole while undermining the MPs faith in their own leaders. And if Erwin was setting up Levi to look like a cold, unsympathetic bastard, Levi trusted it was necessary.

But Levi couldn't leave that alone, not given his own personal history. "Some men are worth following blindly," he said to the guards, "others are not. Learn which are which."

The guard made an unpleasant noise. Whether it was that sound or the conversation, Erin finally stirred. After tossing his head, he opened his eyes and stared dumbly down at the shackles on his arms. "What…?" He looked up, his eyes struggling to focus on the two men on the other side of the prison bars. Slowly, recognition flickered in his eyes. "Commander Erwin? Captain Levi? Where… where am I?"

•-|—-— —-—|-•

By the time Annie had returned from Trost, Reiner and Berthold were asleep in the men's barracks. There was nothing to do but wait for morning.

The mess hall was crowded at breakfast, too crowded to speak freely, so she sat silently across from them with her customary glower, looking for an opening. She took out a pen and a small notebook and began writing down her recollections from yesterday in case she needed them later.

Connie bounded over, interrupting her thoughts. "Hey, did you guys hear? They're asking for volunteers to help with the cleanup of Trost."

"You're not stupid enough to take them up on it, are you?" Annie said.

"We won yesterday, and with the Scouts, we'll win again today." Connie was offended by her remark. "Erin was right, we can't just give up."

"Yeah?" Annie said. "And where is Erin right now?"

"Um, well, the MPs took him…"

"Lay off him, Annie," Reiner jumped in. "If he's got the guts to face the Titans again, you've got no business insulting him for it."

"If you guys want to be suicidal, that's your affair." She got up, flipped her notebook closed and stalked off, leaving her pen on the table.

Reiner recognized her signal. He waited for her to get half way to the door before he picked it up and followed her. "Hey Annie, you forgot something."

The noise of people coming and going covered their speech. "Marley sent someone," she said in a low voice.

"What?" The moron was too loud.

"Get Berthold and meet me outside."

•-|—-— —-—|-•

To the last man, the Scout Regiment felt a squeeze in the gut that they hadn't been inside the walls when the attack happened, and doubly so that they hadn't been there to help retake Trost. But they had been handed the operation to eliminate the Titans now trapped within Trost and they were not going to fail. They were authorized to conscript anyone they thought was useful for the cleanup. Damned if they were going to put anyone else at risk.

The order simply stated that those still in a condition to fight the Titans were to report to the Wall. It left an out for any injury, however minor, even fatigue.

A much larger contingent than expected showed. All the Scouts, most of the Garrison, and a significant number of the cadets. The Garrison, of course, made sense. They weren't about to let the Scouts take credit for their victory. But the cadets were surprising. It would appear that 104th Cadet Corps was made of sterner stuff than their predecessors.

Without question, Hange had superior experience in actual combat with Titans, but yesterday's victory belonged to Dot Pyxis and she had no desire to be seen as stealing his credit. "Sir," she said a little tentatively, "the decision to hand this operation to Commander Erwin was sensible given his experience in battling Titans, but you are the senior officer present currently."

He smiled genially at Hange. "No worries. While I appreciate your concern for my pride, I have enough blood on my hands from yesterday. I needn't collect more. Have you a strategy for today?"

"Sir. Similar to your plan, we will mass our forces in the corner here and draw as many Titans into the range of your cannons as possible. Then we will send out small squads to the far edges of the city and sweep inwards towards this quarter."

Pyxis nodded. "I'm certain the troops will appreciate your trying to keep casualties down. Our numbers yesterday were as bad as yours."

"Your people were largely inexperienced. Facing actual Titans is a lot harder than the wooden cutouts they train on." It was Hange's way of acknowledging the losses while accepting them.

"We'll have to do the math, I suppose; which is worse? Familiar foes on unfamiliar ground or unfamiliar foes on familiar ground." Pyxis said.

"I guess we'll have to use familiar foes on familiar ground for our control group," Hange said, ever the scientist.

"Ha!" Pyxis barked. "Where does Erwin find such unusual people?"

"Same place you found yours," she answered tartly, "the Cadet Corps. Although I think what you found yesterday trumps anything Erwin ever came up with."

"True enough!" He let out an amused snort. "But let me let you in on a secret: Cadet Yeager was not the most interesting thing I found yesterday. His friend Armin Arlet, that kid is a tactical genius. He's the one who thought of using Erin's Titan abilities in the first place. He came up with a strategy to clear the Titans out of the resupply depot. For that matter, he came up with the strategy you're planning on using to draw the Titans into canon range. Give me a genius over a giant soldier any day."

"Speaking of which, we had an unusual bit of luck ourselves in that way…"

•-|—-— —-—|-•

"Are you sure?" Reiner's unease showed in his posture.

Annie nodded. "He's younger than we are, but he's had a Warriors training. And he has seen actual combat; you could tell from the way he carried himself and in the way he dealt with those pure Titans. He went over the wall last night into Trost so we could have a quiet word. Unfortunately, the Scouts seem to be on to him. They followed immediately and wouldn't let him out of their sight."

Berthold looked troubled. "What would the Scouts know about Marley?"

"They go outside the walls all the time. They know way more about what's out there than anybody else on Paradis. If anyone suspects the truth, it's them."

•-|—-— —-—|-•

"Absolutely not!" Eld said.

"Your call said anybody who was up to fighting the Titans today," Kirito answered.

"It takes months to become proficient at ODM gear and years to fully master," Eld said.

"I did ok last night," Kirito said.

"You almost got eaten last night," Oruo reminded him.

"And what was with dragging a cadet into it with you?" Gunther said.

"I didn't ask her to come with me. I don't know what she was doing there."

An exuberant call from a brunette woman interrupted them. "Kirito!" Hange waived at them. "Oh, are you fighting with us today? Thanks!" She didn't even notice Eld's shoulders sag as she plunged on. "I haven't had a chance to talk to Commander Erwin about your spawning ground theory, but I will. It makes total sense for why they always come from that direction, why they come in waves and why the ones we see are sexless."

"Fascinating as this all is, Commander Hange, Ma'am, is this a social call or are you here to give us orders?" Eld said.

"What? Oh, yeah. Can you take a Titan alive? Commander Erwin said it would be ok and I figured you guys are the ones best able to do it."

"Take one alive?" Oruo said.

"We're here to clean out the city so people can return to their homes." Gunther reminded her.

"Oh come on. Our last one died so we need a new one to study. Kirito, you see the advantages, right?"

Kirito shrugged. "We can do it if it's important to you, but I'm kinda with the guys on this one. I just don't think the information is worth the risk. I mean they're not exactly normal biological organisms… they have no digestive systems, they throw up everything they do eat so they don't derive energy or health points from eating, which means they are powered by the system. They're not smart; frankly they show all the battle sense of a carnivorous plant. They only eat people, not animals, which means they are programmed to go after us; and since you can't communicate with them, you can't subvert that programming. Although…" he stopped to think about it, "I guess Silica tamed a monster that would normally be hostile, so maybe it's possible."

"Someone tamed a Titan?" Hange's eyes grew large with excitement.

"What? No. Pina was a feathered dragon. And the large ones are pretty dangerous. So maybe if you got a small one."

.

The Black Swordsman stood on the wall, but Reiner, Berthold and Annie didn't dare approach. He was surrounded by Scouts. And not just any Scouts; the Special Operations Squad. The Scouts were onto him alright, and they weren't taking any chances.

"And what was with dragging a cadet into it with you?"

Shit. If the Scouts made a connection between a Marlian spy and the three "cadets" they were screwed. They'd fed Marco to the Titans to protect their secret but seasoned scouts would not be so easily gotten rid of.

"I didn't ask her to come with me. I don't know what she was doing there." It was a weak attempt to hide their connection, but he was trying to distance himself from them.

They listened further, while he tried to dissuade them from taking a Titan alive, but not so vehemently they'd suspect. The stranger walked a fine line with these Scouts.

"You're right," Reiner said. "This guy is good."

Berthold scrunched up his face. "Are you sure? I don't think it's a convincing act; I don't think he's acting."

The other two looked at him. "Berthold, you're a good warrior, but you were not selected for your brains."

.

Petra came over swinging on crutches that kept her weight off of her injured leg. "Pardon me Commander Hange, Commander Pyxis wanted me to tell you that the sun is up and the Titans have begun to move and he is ready to begin the canon barrage as soon as you have your teams ready to move."

"Oh, right! Excuse me gentlemen."

Petra wasn't used to the crutches and they strained her arms, so she leaned them up against the crates of gas canisters and armaments and rolled her shoulders. "I'm glad I caught you guys…"

"Absolutely not!" Eld said.

"What?" Petra looked confused.

"You are injured. You cannot work ODM gear properly. I'm stuck with the kid but you are not going out with us."

Petra looked offended. "I'm not stupid. I wasn't planning on it."

"Then why are you wearing a uniform darlin'?" Oruo smirked at her.

"Because we just got back from the field and these are the only clothes I have."

"And the ODM gear?" Gunther said.

"A safety precaution while I am on the walls."

"Which you shouldn't be." Eld crossed his arms in irritation.

"Look," Petra said, "they asked for warm bodies to stand in the corner and draw the Titans into canon range. I can't fight, but I can at least do that."

Kirito couldn't keep silent anymore. "And what happens if the Titans climb the walls?"

"Titans can't climb the walls," she said.

"Can't? Or haven't so far?" Kirito said. "You guys just told me you've never had them penned up like this. What if they climb over each other?"

"That's why I'm wearing the gear." She gestured at her waist.

"You can't stay airborne forever; and when you try to land, your leg won't support your weight. You'll collapse and become Titan fodder."

Eld glowered at her, but she was used to Levi, who was far more terrifying. "I'll be fine."

"You will not be fine, Sachi! You're not up to this!" Everyone was surprised at Kirito's outburst, even Kirito.

There was a moment of stunned silence. "Sachi?" Petra asked softly.

"Don't needle the man," Eld said. "We've all lost people."

"No, it's ok," Kirito said. He stared into Petra's eyes, willing her to understand. "She only went because her friends were going, but she wasn't up to it and she knew it. She should have stayed in the safe zone of the town."

Petra nodded her understanding. "But if the Titans climb the walls, as you suggest they might, town won't be a safe zone anymore."

•-|—-— —-—|-•

"I beg your pardon?" Erwin's tone was polite but clipped.

"You heard me Erwin," Nile said. "Your request to have Cadet Eren Yeager transferred from the custody of the Military Police to the Survey Corps has been denied. We feel he is just too great a threat to humanity."

"Despite the fact that he just saved all our asses," Levi remarked dryly.

"So what do you intend to do, keep him locked underground for the rest of his life?" Erwin said.

"Unfortunately, we don't think that will do it. We will have to separate him from the rest of humanity."

"Ah." There actually didn't seem much else to say.

"With full military honors of course," Nile added.

"I'm sure that'll make make his execution much more pleasant," Levi said.

"Nile, surely you must've realized that if there's one of these, there could be more of them. We need to know everything there is to know about him." Erwin said.

"Of course, we intend to do as much research as possible before hand."

"In which case, you should definitely transfer him to the Scouts. We have done almost all of the research on Titans." Erwin's smile didn't quite reach his eyes.

"But you want to keep him within the confines of the walls for far too long a time. It's a safety concern and we need to reassure the people that we have their best interests at heart; they are restless and on edge right now anyway. I've spoken to the Royal Council. They are in complete agreement."

Erwin's lower jaw tightened. "You have won this round Nile. But fair warning, I intend to appeal. A full military tribunal, if I have to push it that far. And in the meantime, should any harm come to Cadet Yeager, if he should die or even be injured while in your custody, I will have you brought up on charges of treason against humanity."

Nile chewed on that. "You'll never be able to make that stick."

"Perhaps not," Erwin said. "But I can make enough of a stink that it will cost you your command. Give my regards to Marie."

•-|—-— —-—|-•

"I don't doubt your gamblers instincts," Levi said as they left the courthouse and mounted their horses, "but did we over play our hand back there?"

Erwin threw a cynical glance at Levi. "Nobody played anything. That was just the ante to get us into the game."

Levi was impressed. "You threatened the commander of the Military Police just so they'd take our bid seriously?"

"Burning that bridge was a higher price than I wanted to pay, but it ensured that Eren will suffer no mysterious accidents before his court martial."

"I just hope he's worth it," Levi said.

"He's worth it. He has to be." Erwin looked grim. "A week ago, if you had told me the Colossal Titan would reappear and kick in the gate of Trost, I would have told you humanity was finished. But on the same day that happened, we discovered a human that could turn into a Titan and that in Titan form he would still fight for us. Pyxis told me that in his same cadet class is a kid who shows remarkable tactical awareness. And that kid did not finish in the top ten percent, so we have an even chance of getting him. And most interesting of all, you found a young man who speaks of cities that are not on any map, who fights in a style we've never seen with weapons we didn't make."

"How is a kid from outside the walls more interesting than one that can turn into a Titan?"

Erwin took so long to answer, Levi started to wonder if he had heard the question. But once they were well away from the courthouse and the noise of the city made it hard to hear, Erwin spoken a soft voice. "You never went to school in the underground, did you?" Levi would have bristled at this question had it come from anyone besides Erwin. "We were taught that in the year 743 the Titans appeared and slaughtered all of humanity except a handful that took refuge behind the walls. But the books never said where the Titans came from or what was life like before. My father said it was strange, even his own grandparents couldn't tell him. But they had to be among the people who first fled to the walls. And yet they had no meaningful recollection. Their parents never talked about it, ever. How do you not remember the most significant event of your life? The books said that all of humanity had been killed, but they didn't say how we knew this was true. When my father asked these questions, they had him killed for it. And now I find out that he was at least partly correct."

"But he could well be from a village that survived the fall of Wall Maria."

"You said he's cadet age. Wall Maria fell five years ago. He would know about it."

Levi chewed on that a bit. "But how could you wipe the memories of all the people within the walls?"

"My father thought the king did it somehow."

"You mean like in the Tale of the Kind and Cruel Kings?"

Erwin threw a questioning glance at Levi. "I've never heard that story."

"It's a children's story my mother used to tell me. Once upon a time there were two brothers who were both kings. A dread sickness spread over the land bringing death and deformity wherever it went. And the people went to the first king and they begged him to heal them. And the king said 'Will you swear to obey me in all things?' The people did. Then the king commanded them to be well of the disease and, true to their oaths, they were.

"Then the disease spread to the land of the second king and the people went to him and begged him to heal them as their brother had done for his people. And the second king said 'Will you swear to obey me in all things?' And the people did. Then the second king commanded them to become unkillable and immortal warriors. Instantly, their illness subsided and their wounds all healed, and they grew to three times their normal size. Their families screamed and fled in terror. And the giant warriors said to the king 'This is not what we asked for!' And the king said, 'I have done what you asked for and now you complain? How dare you! I command you to forget everything that happened before this day and never speak again.' "

Erwin stopped his horse and stared after Levi. "I've never heard that story."

"It's just a children's story," Levi said. "A cautionary tale not to trust kings."

"It's also the only story I've ever heard about the origins of the Titans."

"They weren't Titans, they were… well, come to think of it, 6 meters tall, unkillable… Maybe they were. But it's just a story. You can't tell people to get better from a disease. It doesn't work that way."

Erwin touched his heels to his horse's flanks. He was lost in thought the entire rest of the way back to the wall.


A/N: Dark Sapphire: It doesn't happen to Kirito very often, but anybody can get distracted.

UseFistNotMouth: Ok, I;m really loving the idea of Yui showing up to provide mental health counseling to Ymir