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Shanan’s hand traces the patterns on the castle’s walls as he walks.

It’s been twenty years.

He had been able to dismiss his guards, but Ulster and Larcei still follow behind him.

“I can’t believe Grannvale hasn’t completely ruined the place,” says Ulster.

“Only because they needed somewhere to live while they starved everyone in Isaach,” Larcei says, sniffing. Shanan recalls that Danan’s two younger sons had pursued her, and while they did not personally commit atrocities, they had been complicit in them.

Yes, Seliph and the rest of their allies at the time had conquered the castle after Prince Johan was killed. Mana, Dimna, Radney, and Roddelvan had worked with the local people to ensure that the castle did not fall to Grannvale again.

Shanan hadn’t been there when his homeland was freed.

He’s not sure if it was worse to flee Isaach or to live in his fatherland as fugitive.

“There you are, handsome!” Patty turns a corner in front of him.

He wasn’t expecting to see his wife of all people while he soaked in his memories. “How did you find us, Patty?”

“What sort of thief would I be if I couldn’t easily explore a castle?” She grins. “Sorry, former thief. Reformed and all that. I suppose this stuff is mine too, right?”

“Larcei and I do have some claim to Isaach,” Ulster observes. “Our father was a Chalphy knight, but he was the younger son of a count. Our inheritance from him is meager at best. And you also inherited your father’s lands in Sophara, right?”

Larcei scowls playfully at her brother. “When did you become so greedy?”

“I’m just making a point!”

Shanan steps between the two. His cousins tease each other often, but time and time again friendly debates would become quarrels. “That’s enough, you two.”

Larcei turns to look at him. “You don’t have to scold us like we’re children, Shanan.”

He sighs. “Why don’t the two of you go on ahead? Your mother’s favorite place to nap was in a courtyard not that far ahead of us.”

The twins bid them farewell, leaving Shanan with Patty. She stares at him thoughtfully.

“What is it, Patty?”

“I was wondering if part of the reason you married me is because my father was from Sophara. I’m sure that’s good for your rule, right?”

This is the last sort of conversation I could picture myself having with her. “It certainly doesn’t hurt that you father hailed from Isaach, Patty, but that’s not why I married you.”

She bats her eyes at him. “Oh? Then why did you marry me then, my king?”

Shanan groans. “Patty…”

She laughs. “You’re so easy to tease sometimes.”

+++++++++

“Try to sleep, Shanan.” Her nephew is like a garment torn from its stiches. She expects that she doesn’t look much better.

They are hidden underneath a blanket in a cart. Maricle had commissioned a group of his most trusted retainers to spirit away the pair to the northwestern edge of the mountains.

From there, it is up to her to find a way to keep Shanan safe.

She was only five years old when Shanan was born, and since her sister-in-law had died in childbirth, she had taken it upon herself at an early age to be aunt, sister, and mother in one. Their nurses would gossip while she sat on the floor with Shanan, his babbling like music to her ears. When he was older, she would take him to watch Maricle train. She would race around the castle with him on her back, avoiding the servants who would beg her to “please stay still for just a moment, Princess!”

“I wonder if I could still do it…” She smiles at the thought.

“Do what?”

“Carry you on my back…” She realizes how silly she sounds as she speaks.

“I’m much too big for that, Auntie.”

“You’re not nearly as tall as you think you are, Shanan.”

He sticks his tongue out at her and closes his eyes.

When the retainers leave them, what will become of them? She might need to carry Shanan after all. If he were to get hurt, could she?

What would be worse, dying in the wilderness or to Grannvale?

She moves closer to him. She doubts she’ll sleep tonight.

+++++++++

Patty slips down to the training yards to find Larcei easily besting a recruit for Isaach’s army. A small crowd of recruits circles the dueling pair, cheering her and jeering at her opponent.

“I almost feel sorry for the bastard. Almost.” Radney leans against the fence surrounding the courtyard. Roddelvan had told her that his sister had difficulties trusting men. Indeed, the Isaachian woman had begun to recruit women for a separate division of Isaach’s armed forces. Patty thought at first that Radney’s feelings toward men were the reason why she and Mana were lovers, but she doesn’t think that that’s the case any longer. Mana didn’t hate men, for one thing.

Patty chuckles.

Radney turns around and starts. “Oh, Your Majesty! I would have held my tongue had I known you would visit the yards.”

Patty smiles. “It’s all good, Radney. I actually was looking for Mana.”

“She’s praying over by that tree to the right, Your Majesty. We just had midday meal.”

“Bet you that Larcei’s opponent will lose his meal before she’s done with him.” Patty holds her hands up in a pacifying manner when she sees the look on the other woman’s face. “I said that in jest, Radney.”

“Oh.” A pause. “Right.”

Not far away from them, Larcei’s opponent yields to her. The previously quiet crowd erupts into cheers and jeers.

Mana saves Patty and Radney from the awkward situation by walking up to them, a basket in tow. “Good afternoon, Your Majesty.” She curtsies to Patty and kisses Radney on the cheek.

Radney grumbles something about kissing her in front of everyone and blushes.

“I suppose both of you might be able to help me,” says Patty. “Given that you know a lot about love and things like that.”

“No one knows a lot about love, Your Majesty,” says Mana kindly.

“You know what I mean.”

Larcei ambles over to them but stays on the other side of the fence. “What has my cousin done that’s concerning you, Patty?”

“It’s what he hasn’t done. I…I’m not sure if he loves me.”

Her companions glance around.

Larcei turns to the crowd still in the courtyard. “That’s it for now!” Ignoring the protests of men eager to prove themselves against her, she climbs over the fence. “Let’s go somewhere a tad more private, shall we?”

They end up returning to the tree where Mana and Radney had eaten. Mana spreads out a blanket on the ground, and the quartet sits down.

“Why do you not believe that His Majesty loves you?” Mana’s eyes are bright.

Patty suddenly feels foolish. “Well, he never really tells me that he does. And, honestly, he’s not particularly lustful, so that isn’t the reason why he married me.” She stops when she sees Mana’s blush. “Oh, please, it’s no different than you and Radney. Anyway, if he didn’t marry me for political reasons or because he wanted me in his bed, then why did he ask me to marry him?”

“My cousin has been withdrawn for as long as I can remember,” says Larcei. “From what Sir Oifaye has told Ulster and I, he was a bit more sociable as a child, though. The question is why he’s the way he is.”

“His Majesty is the person he is because of what he’s experienced,” says Radney.

Patty plays with her braid. “But personality has something to do with it as well, right?”

“That’s true, but think about it: It’s possible that you’d have the same personality if you were raised in Jungby or Sophara, but would you have been a thief?” Larcei reties her left boot into a lopsided bow.

“But does that mean that he’ll always be like this?”

“The best thing to do, Your Majesty, is to talk to him,” says Mana. “You might be surprised at how much that can help. Or perhaps you can try to help him in some way with a task.”

Patty thanks them. They didn’t give me the answer I wanted, but at least it’s something.

+++++++++

Travel is slow. June finds Ayra and Shanan in Silesse’s capital. In a way, Ayra is glad that they did not reach this country until May. She can’t imagine trekking through blizzards with Shanan.

Shanan, who is refusing to eat.

“I hate this food. Why don’t they try growing potatoes, at least? If I have to eat another bite of reindeer meat, Ayra, I’ll die!”

“You won’t die, Shanan,” she says half-heartedly. “Would you rather it be rabbit?”

He shudders. “Gods no!” He takes his meal without complaint.

She smiles weakly. To feed Shanan, Ayra has worked as a guard for merchants. They tell her that they’ll give her passage to Agustria if she escorts them to Sailane.

They don’t mind that she’s a woman, at least. In fact, the other guards are women as well. The leader of the guards is named Lamia.

When she met her, the woman looked her up and down as though sizing her up for a butcher. Ayra stared ahead, unblinking, until she nodded, satisfied.

As long as Ayra can keep Shanan safe, and their identities secret, they’ll be fine.

After dinner, the caravan does not travel for long before they are stopped by a small group of Pegasus knights.

“Mind if we inspect your goods?”

The head merchant assents, so Ayra takes Shanan off to the side of the crowd. There’s no need to draw attention to themselves, after all.

Unfortunately, two knights must have seen them. They’re off to the side, whispering.

“Isaach…That woman…The boy…”

Ayra’s vision blurs. She grabs Shanan roughly by the arm. If they can slip away into the trees…

Someone taps her on the soldier. She whirls around. It’s one of the two knights.

She instinctively moves for her sword when the young woman raises her arms in surrender.

“I’m sorry for startling you! I just was concerned about the boy traveling with you. He’s an orphan?”

Ayra blinks. Of all the things… “Yes.”

The green-haired knight smiles. “I thought so! He’s too young to be a mercenary, after all.”

Shanan fidgets in her grip. “Ayra…”

This woman is strange. “I’m his aunt.”

The stranger folds her arms behind her back. “Oh, wow! He’s lucky to have you, then.”

While Ayra tries to process the Silesian woman’s thought pattern, her companion appears beside her. “Who’s this, Melina?”

“I didn’t get her name, Danielle. But oh, tell her your Pegasus’ name!”

“My Pegasus is named Isaach! I’m guessing that’s where you’re from, judging by your accent…”

“Your Pegasus is named Isaach?” Ayra breathes for what feels like the first time in years. She lets go of Shanan’s arm.

“And mine is named Chalphy,” says Melina. “All of the Pegasi born in the capital’s stables that year were named after places in Jugdral.”

“I see.” While she’s relieved, Ayra turns to Shanan. How is he coping?

Well enough, it seems. “Why did you want to know if I’m an orphan?”

Melina shuffles her feet. “I’m an orphan too, you see. And if you didn’t have a place to go, Silesse’s orphanages are actually very nice. The nurses are kind, and we had plenty of toys.”

“Well, he has me, so he doesn’t need to go to an orphanage,” Ayra says brusquely.

“Yes, it’s wonderful you have a nephew!” The knight doesn’t pick up on what Ayra is saying. “You’re so lucky to get to travel with him.”

“Melina and I love children,” says Danielle. “And since we’re best friends, we’re hoping that we can have our children grow up together.”

“Or maybe I’ll adopt,” says Melina, giggling. “Maybe I’ll have a woman as a lover.”

“Do you really think Lady Erin of the Angelic Knights would fancy you, Melina?”

“Don’t be so mean, Danielle!”

Ayra shares a look with Shanan. She never made a point to befriend other women. She would talk for hours with a boy she knew from Sophara when she was younger, but she had Maricle and Shanan. She didn’t need any other friends.

It might have been nice to have had some, though.

The knights’ leader calls for them.

“Oh, looks like we have to leave.” Melina frowns.

“It was great to meet the two of you,” says Danielle. “If the two of you are ever in Silesse, be sure to stop by the barracks and see us!”

“Sure thing,” Shanan says cautiously.

That night, Ayra says a prayer of thanks to Crusader Ord. She’s never been that religious, but she’s well-aware that their lives were in strangers’ hands.

+++++++++

Meetings are mentally exhausting.

Grannvale may have united the kingdoms of Isaach into a country-sized kingdom, but each former kingship had its own laws and customs. A former official in Ganeishire had a quarrel with a nearby village regarding grazing rights. Under Danan’s reign, Isaach itself had also suffered. Those given administrative duties didn’t know the land or how to care for it, the consequences of overgrazing or of planting crops in the same field for too many years in a row.

It’s a wonder we didn’t all starve.

One small comfort is that he has only to respond to a letter from King Ced of Silesse before he can finish for the day. The sage hopes to import foodstuffs, as Silesse’s population has increased after the war.

Isaach’s has too, for that matter.

He wonders idly if he and Patty will have a child soon. Their child would mainly be cared for by a nurse, of course, but he would still have to be a guiding force in his heir’s life.

Shanan isn’t sure if the buzzing in his ears is excitement or anxiety at the thought.

He blinks and finishes his reply to Ced. It feels odd to use the royal seal on his letters. The Balmung suits him better than the other tools of ruling do.

“I will take the letter to the king’s messenger,” he tells Sean, the servant attending his study. He welcomes the chance to escape his desk. “Where is he?”

“The King of Silesse sent a Pegasus knight, Your Majesty. She is waiting in the antechamber to this floor’s right wing.”

When Shanan enters the room where she stands waiting, he feels as though he’s been buffeted by Forseti’s winds.

She bows to him. “It has been a long time, Your Majesty.”

His mind scrambles to remember her name. “Lady Melina?”

The woman smiles. “You remember? I must say, that’s a pleasant surprise, Your Majesty.”

He stares at her. “I am glad to see that you are well.”

She understands the meaning behind his words. “Thank you, Your Majesty. Danielle is well, too. Actually, her daughter fought in Thracia with King Leif.”

Shanan did not have the chance to speak extensively with the comrades-in-arms of Seliph’s cousin, but he did know that Pegasus knights served alongside him. “Is that so? I’m sure that she is very proud.”

“She is, Your Majesty. Everyone in Silesse who has survived Grannvale’s hold on the continent is proud of our courageous young people. I only wish that the late queen…” She pauses. “Well, you have no desire to hear about that. But it was wonderful to see you again, Your Majesty.”

“Likewise.”

When she leaves, Shanan props himself against the wall for support.

His memory of the day they met overpowers him.

“Shanan, listen. If need be, I’ll distract them, but we must leave. Run if you have to-”

“But Ayra-”

“Your Majesty?” A maid looks at him with concern.

“Don’t be troubled.” He stares at his hands. They are shaking. “Let Sean know that I am retiring to my chambers.”

+++++++++

They were so close to freedom.

Upon hearing of Grannvale’s looming invasion of Verdane, Ayra and Shanan have taken refuge in a village near Evans. She had thought Shanan would be safe to pick up food at the market while she stopped at the blacksmith.

Why isn’t anyone helping him?! The marketgoers avert their eyes from the scene and continue their business in low voices.

The man restraining Shanan is muscular and wears an axe at his side, but this is not uncommon in Verdane. The number of men attending him, however, is.

“This brat is yours, I take it?” The man’s smile doesn’t reach his eyes.

Keep my voice firm and my hand on my sword. “Let him go. We have no quarrel with you or your men.”

He laughs hoarsely. “Now, is that any way to talk to your ally?”

“Ally?”

Shanan’s eyes shine with worry.

The man beckons her closer.

Seeing no choice in the matter, she does as he asked.

He lowers his voice so that only Ayra, Shanan, and his men can hear. “After all, Princess, we’re both barbarian royalty.”

Her knees buckle, but she grits her teeth. “What sum do you require for our freedom?”

He tightens his hold on Shanan. “And why would I let a skilled swordswoman go free? Verdane is at war with Grannvale. I think the two of us can be friends, perhaps.”

Her stomach hollow, she looks at Shanan, not the prince. “For Shanan, I will be your sword.” Until the day comes that I slice the smirk off of your face.

+++++++++

Patty finds Shanan in their bedroom staring out the window.

“Shanan?” She closes the door behind her.

He starts but doesn’t turn around.

A memory comes to her.

Little Alannah was shaking.

“Is she ill, Febail?” Patty lowered her voice to a whisper.

“I don’t think so, but something’s wrong! Where’s Sister Maeve?”

“She went out with some of the children to forage. It’s just us right now.”

He swore under his breath, mindful of the dozen or so children in the room with them.

“I’ll take the kids out to play a game.”

“Good idea-”

Alannah whimpered.

“What’s going on, Patty?” Eir grabbed Patty’s leg.

Patty picked up the girl and laughed. “Let’s play hide-and-seek. I’ll try to find you all, okay?”

“What about Alannah?” Brian’s brows crinkled in worry.

“She’ll join us next round. I’m counting to one hundred, but stick to just outside the orphanage, okay?”

“Is the barn okay?” Garvan stood on the tips of his toes and looked at her.

“Well, now I’ll know that you’re there! But yes.”

The children ran off, screeching and laughing.

Patty turned to Febail.

“All right, Alannah, take a deep breath and count to ten.”

“Shanan, can you do something for me? I need you to breathe and count to ten.”

His silent count seems to take an eternity.

“Can we sit down on the bed?”

“Not now, Patty-”

“That’s not what I meant. Just do it. When I sit next to you, I’m going to grab your hand, okay?”

Still in a daze, her husband sits. She joins him and takes his hand. “What do you feel?”

“Your hand,” he says dully. “The blanket.”

“What do you hear?”

He is silent for a moment. “Your breathing. Mine, too.”

They sit for a minute or a day or a year.

He breaks the silence. “Your aunt, Aideen…She would do something similar when one of us had nightmares in Tirnanog.”

Patty sits up straighter. “Really? Wow. I learned it from Febail. I wonder if my mom knew it, too.” She casts a sidelong glance at him. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“I thought about when my aunt and I were on the run from Grannvale.” His voice is flat.

“I’ve never seen this happen to you before, Shanan.”

“It may sound strange, but I was…better during the war.”

“But you’re in Isaach now. Your country’s free.”

“That doesn’t mean I can forget, Patty. I haven’t lived in this castle since I was a boy. My memories of this place will always be tainted by the memory of fleeing it with Ayra. There’s no simple explanation for whatever is happening, or has happened, to me.”

“Well, you can talk to me about it instead of trying to ignore it!”

Shanan lets go of her hand and moves away from her, his gaze icy.

“Sorry,” she says softly. “What I mean is…My childhood wasn’t easy, either. But if anyone can understand what you’re experiencing, if you’re going to lay your troubles on someone, I want it to be me. Because I love you, so I’m not going anywhere.”

His gaze softens. He takes her hand again.

She keeps talking. “I want to help you somehow. We never get to talk because you’re so busy, and you don’t sleep enough. I’m a former thief, but I know a lot about money and what goods are worth. I heard the servants gossiping that you had a messenger from Silesse visit about trade, so I can help you with a treaty. And the next time you have to deal with a problem at Sophara, I’m your gal-” She stops when she sees the expression on his face. “What is it?”

“Thank you, Patty.”

Her heart skips a beat. He didn’t say what I wanted him to say, but he said it all the same. She grins. Shanan loves me! “I’m going to hug you now.”

“That’s fine by me.”

She doesn’t think she’ll ever want to let go.

+++++++++

Nearly a year has passed since they talked about Shanan’s childhood.

Patty’s slow-moving these days, but she walks with the pride afforded to a queen and the mother of the country’s future ruler.

Whistling, she walks by the training yards. The crowd in the courtyard is bigger and more boisterous than ever.

Radney is sitting on a bench and looking at the crowd with longing. She sits on a bench, the youngest of the children she and Mana have adopted asleep on her lap. “Why couldn’t you have gone to sleep an hour ago, huh?”

“What’s going on, Radney?”

“Your Majesty, there’s a swordswoman I’ve never seen before fighting Princess Larcei. Unfortunately, Quinn decided that she wanted to sleep now.” She sighs.

“Well, I can’t wait for mine! I wonder who my child will will look like. Shanan is so handsome, but I’m cute, so-”

A voice rings out from the crowd. “It’s a draw!”

Radney’s jaw drops. “What kind of person can go toe-to-toe with Princess Larcei and hold their own? Ugh, and Quinn’s waking up.”

Patty has been trying to learn as much as she can about babies. She knows that the look on Quinn’s face means that she needs food now or else.

Radney quickly grabs a canteen of goat’s milk.

Quinn takes it happily.

Radney looks at Patty. “I can see what’s going on, Your Majesty, if you’d like.”

“I’d appreciate it. I’ll take Quinn.”

Radney smiles with gratitude and runs off.

Quinn fits nicely in the crook of Patty’s arm. Soon enough, little one, there’ll be an even cuter baby around the castle.

The crowd has dispersed by the time Radney returns with Larcei and the stranger. The unknown swordswoman wears leather armor and a red tunic atop a green shift. Her white pants are stained with the dirt of the training grounds.

“You must be Queen Patty,” she says, bowing. “It’s my honor to meet you. I am Mareeta, daughter of Eyvel of Fiana.”