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Memoirs of Thracia

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Chapter 1) King

Hannibal was distinctly unamused with me. This wasn't an unusual thing, mind, but right now, he was very unamused with me. I knew because he barely waited for the servants to lead all my soldiers out of the main hall before rounding on me. "I am afraid I must ask for clarification, my king," he began, slowly and formally. Which meant he was about five seconds away from hitting me in the head. Again. "How is it that you leave to go kill someone and come back with a child?"

"I didn't leave to go kill someone," I half-protested. It was more for the fun than anything to nitpick what he said. Bad habit of mine, left over from childhood, to purposely pull his tail. A way to keep sane(ish). "I left to investigate some information we got."

"You left to go kill someone." Hannibal was having none of my nitpicks, though. "You didn't leave with a little girl. Why have you returned with one?"

"I saw her and decided she was too adorable to not bring home." I kept my voice as dry as possible, and smirked when Hannibal closed his eyes and counted to ten. Aloud. Twice. I really needed to stop doing this, it wasn't befitting for a king, but it was one of the few bits of fun I had nowadays. "More seriously, desert. Child alone in desert. Typically not a good thing." I shrugged, and shifted Altena a little higher, and she mumbled sleepily. She'd fallen asleep after we'd landed, tired out from the excitement of seeing everything from above. "I don't know why the hell Quan was an idiot and brought his kid, okay? But I couldn't leave her."

"And what plans do you have?"

"So distrusting."

"I trust that you have at least ten plans running through your head at any given moment. I've known you since we were toddlers." Hannibal sighed. "Well, Arion will like the playmate, at least. But seriously, tell me your plans later."

"I will." Some of them, at least. But Hannibal knew that. "Regardless, help."

"With…?" Hannibal frowned, studying Altena. "Ah, she needs clothes."

"Yes, she does." She was currently swimming in one of my shirts. Her dress was far too stained for her to wear, but we didn't exactly carry clothes for little girls when out and about on missions. Some of the greenhorns forgot to pack their own clothes, sometimes. "I'll get a room set up while you do that."

"Lorelei would've been…" Hannibal trailed off, and I knew it was because I'd automatically locked up. "I'm sorry. I should've kept the thought to myself."

"...She would've been yelling at me while also making sure she was perfectly taken care of." I hurt. I always did, but the hurt did surge whenever Lorelei was brought up. "Hannibal, you know I don't…" I sighed. Now wasn't the time to continue that old 'argument'. "Clothes. List."

"Of course." Hannibal bowed. "Later, then."

"Thank you, Hannibal." I watched him leave, and then I looked down at Altena, who was yawning, stirring awake. "Lorelei actually would've adored you."

"Lory?" Altena 'repeated'. Probably the only thing she'd heard. "Who's Lory?"

"My wife," I explained, walking down the hall. Servants smiled and bowed as I passed, and I nodded in greeting for each one, noting how they looked. Most seemed normal. A few were thinner. I'd need to double check the food stores. "She's… she had to go away."

"Like my parents? And the knights? And the horsies?"

"Yes." I tried to remember how old she was. Three? Four? I knew she was around Arion's age. Arion was just learning what 'death' was. Wasn't a surprise that she didn't quite understand. "Just like them."

"I'm sorry." She reached up and patted my cheek, smiling warmly. 'Little ball of sunshine', my men had called her. It was an apt description. "I'll stay with you until they all come back! Even Lory! That way, you won't be lonely. Lonely is sad."

"It is sad, huh?" I made it to the 'royal wing' of the palace, the innermost part that was the most defensible, and found an empty, not too dusty, room. "Ah, but that's a discussion for another time. How do you like this room?"

"I get my own room?" Altena giggled and wiggled until I set her on the ground. Then she rushed to the window, nearly tripping over the hem of the shirt before pressing her face and hands against the glass. "Wooow…! Pretty! Just as pretty as in the air!"

"It is, isn't it?" Thracia was a harsh land, but I loved it. I had always loved it, and I vowed as a child that I would do whatever it took to make it prosper. "Well, it's a harder place to live than Leonster, but it's pretty."

"Pretty-pretty!" She giggled and smiled at me. "I love it!"

"I'm glad." And I was decidedly out of my depth. I'd done my best to deny it on the way over, but right now, I really couldn't. At all.

"Daddy!" Still, even that awkwardness couldn't keep me from softening when Arion ran up and leapt for a hug. "Welcome home!" Arion laughed, as I caught him. He was getting bigger, heavier, but I could still do this. "Did you miss me? I missed you."

"I always miss you, Arion," I replied, hugging him as tightly as I dared. I was always worried about hurting him. I didn't know how to be gentle. Gentle got you killed in Thracia. Lorelei… Lorelei proved that. "But I have someone that I want you to meet."

"You do?" Arion let me set him on the ground and looked around curiously. Then he saw Altena. "Oh! Hello!"

"Hello!" Altena chirped, smile somehow brightening. Swore it was going to blind someone. I really did. "Let's play!"

"How about you first change into some clothes that fit you, Lady Altena?" Hannibal also joined us, probably the one who sent Arion my way in the first place. He always made sure to do that. "I'm sure you would like to not trip all the time," he noted with some amusement, smiling and not showing any signs of awkwardness. I simply sighed and thanked the gods for blessing me with himl. Because I swore it was the only way Arion wasn't going to turn out as messed up as me. "So?"

"Aw… but this is fun." She waved her hands up and down, the excess fabric flapping like demented wings or something. "But fine. I guess. Are they pretty?"

"Very pretty."


"Hannibal, can I leave them to you while I check on reports?" I asked him. Hannibal gave me a look, one that screamed he knew I was running. But it was one of my duties, so he sighed and nodded. "Thank you."

"We are definitely having that talk later," Hannibal warned. But then he knelt down and showed Altena the clothes he had found, and she pulled Arion into the 'discussion'. And I used that opportunity to escape. Escape and find one of the servants who looked thinner than my memory said to ask them if everything was well.

I'd probably have to skip a few meals again. No matter. Wouldn't have been the first time. My people needed to eat, far more than I did.

"You know; when I asked you two to hunt for it, I was sure you wouldn't find it in the mess," I noted bluntly, leaning against the desk in my study. A day or so after we returned, so did the two soldiers I tasked with finding Altena's stuffed bear that had been lost during the 'fight'. Which they did find. Somehow. "I really only asked so that she'd stop asking." The two soldiers simply smiled and shrugged, standing at attention. Everyone in Thracia knew I had no sense of tact and no soldier of mine bothered getting offended over it. "I'm impressed."

"We got lucky, your majesty," one explained. His name escaped me for the moment, but I definitely knew him. He'd fought with our mercenaries since he was seven, after a landslide killed his parents, leaving him and his two younger sisters without anything. One sister now served as a seamstress for us here in the palace, and had measured Altena to get her own clothes. The other lived in Grutia, happily married with a son. "Though, ah… we have a message? And some information? Or, I do. I really want him to get looked at again." He jerked his thumb at his companion, who scowled. "He collapsed, you see. While we were out, I mean."

"The desert is a pain, isn't it?" I studied the second one, a newer member, and remembered something that I kicked myself over. "Of course I remember now. You're from the mountains." Not a single soldier from the higher mountain villages did well with the heat. "You should've said something."

"I'm proud to serve, King Travant," the second one protested immediately. They even saluted. "I… did overestimate my stamina. I'm sorry."

"Well, it didn't get you killed, so all is forgiven if you do get checked," I replied. The second one nodded and bowed. "When you're done, see Hannibal for an extra ration of wine." Extra alcohol always worked for a reward.

"Thank you, sire." They bowed again, and left, with a servant following to make sure they went to the infirmary.

"So, a message?" I, however, turned my attention back to the first one. "And information?"

"Yes, sire," the first one replied, bowing. That told me both were serious. "Which do you want first?"

"Hmm…" I almost said information, but then I realized something. 'Again.' That was what he had said. Meaning they had been checked before. And while Phinora no doubt had its own healers, rumors of Sigurd's army had placed… "Message."

"The message is that the 'Vala healer' trusts that you will take care of Altena until her family can see her again." He frowned and I nearly laughed. I'd been right. "She didn't give a name. But she wore a dragon's eye, so I decided to trust her."

"She didn't give a name because I wouldn't have known it." But Vala Healer? I definitely remembered her. Probably the only healer I ever met that actually believed in the oaths she swore, keeping to neutrality and never charging for the healing. "Very well." No demanding or anything. A simple 'trust'. Easy to see the fire she probably said the words with. Probably the same fire that had been in her eyes when she told me to shut up and let her heal me. "The information?"

"Well, sire…" He hesitated and looked down. I frowned, recognizing that little 'tell'. This wouldn't be good. He could never keep eye contact when it came to bad news. "They say Arvis killed the traitor, Sigurd, along with most of his army at Belhalla not long afterwards."

"...Is that so?" Normally I liked being right. But situations like this made me wish otherwise. Especially when it was something like that. "Anything else?"

"No, sir."

"All right, dismissed. Get some rest and go see your sister. And send Hannibal here, would you?"

"Sir!" He saluted, bowed, and then left. And I sat down at my desk, tipping my chair onto the back legs as I thought about that simple, yet all too troubling, piece of information.

Hearing that Sigurd was dead… well, good thing and bad thing. Good, because his reckless loyalty would definitely mean he'd charge right through the gates to avenge Quan and Ethlyn and, best case scenario, he would take quite a few of my soldiers out with him when he fell. Bad, because… well, it was hard to not have some respect to someone who stuck to their morals in this hellscape of a continent. Confused respect, but respect nonetheless. But it was also bad because of what it represented.

Arvis annihilated Sigurd. More important, Sigurd and his army. The Vala healer had been there, and, based on the Holy Blood and her age, she had to be Arvis's sister. And even if he didn't know the relationship, I remembered the Vala mage during that lone attack, back in Agustria. Everyone and their dead knew Arvis had a younger brother, Azel. Everyone knew Arvis doted on him. And yet, Arvis killed him. Or, at least, killed his friends. Killed her friends. Destroyed his siblings' lives for his ambitions.

"Blood of Skadi, even I'm not that coldhearted," I muttered, scowling at the ceiling. Then again, Hannibal was the closest thing I had to a sibling. "But if he's killed Sigurd, then he's basically got all of Grannvale under his control." Given Grannvale's expansion into Verdane, Agustria, and Isaach… "Bastard is making an empire." And, damn it all, he was a step ahead of me. Thankfully, I was good at speed-chess, but this was definitely going to change things.

"I see you're doing your best to serve as Arion's bad example for behavior." Hannibal walked into my office without knocking, as was his usual. "I fear what you'll do when he's older to continue being the bad example," he continued dryly. I pointedly ignored him, looking at the ceiling. "Altena is very happy to have her stuffed bear, by the way, and delights in sharing it with Arion."

"Good to hear." I let the chair settle back on all four legs and frowned at Hannibal. "Who do you think Arvis would send down south here? I'm thinking Friege or Velthomer."

"Friege would be more of my guess, simply because I imagine Velthomer's is in Belhalla."

"You and yours won't last long against them."

"Don't underestimate the Shield of Thracia, my king." Hannibal drew himself up briefly to match the mild boast, mostly because he knew it made me smile. "Still, I won't be as effective. My armor is strong, but that's for physical weapons. Magic… is another story."

"Of course." I closed my eyes, thinking rapidly. Damn Arvis for this, but I could still turn it to an advantage. I could still make it a 'victory' for Thracia. Less than I wanted, damn it, but I could do it. "Gather intelligence on Leonster. See if there's any nobles in the north that want to save their skin and switch sides. By this time next year, we're taking it." I opened my eyes again to look at him. "Then, when Arvis brings his army south, we'll leverage it in negotiations, along with lower tariffs."

"As is typical, I definitely missed some key bit of information while watching the children." Still, Hannibal nodded, simply trusting me. "Do you think it'll work?"

"We're going to rip large chunks of their army to pieces and make them decide we're not worth the trouble." Many of mine would die. But the sacrifice would be worth it. "Then we'll surrender, and negotiate. Or you'll negotiate, rather."

"Like hell. I'll just be translating for your lack of tact." Hannibal became thoughtful, looking down at the ground. "I'll send the spies out by the end of the day. I think we should assume any turncoats will turn on us."

"Of course. I just want the openings." The more openings I had, the less of my people would die for this 'play' on the board. "You can kill them when you're done if you'd like."

"We'll see." Hannibal sighed. "People are going to call you a hyena or something again."

"Like I care. People hate us anyway for the mercenary work." Yet without taking advantage of Jugdral's love of conflict, Thracia would've starved long ago. And the same people who insulted us sure did love giving us gold to kill people for them. As hypocritical as Leonster. "Also, see if they know we have Altena." If the Vala Healer had known… there was a chance. A low chance, but a chance.

"Of course." Hannibal gave me a stern look. "And in exchange, you can have dinner with your son. And whatever we're calling Lady Altena. Ward?"

"Ward is fine." I debated something quickly. "Hannibal?"


"Come up with a story for her. One that doesn't involve her being from Leonster. Just in case."

"You're definitely having dinner with the children." Hannibal pinched the bridge of his nose, no doubt warding a headache. "Gods above…"

"Shouldn't have learned how to lie to compensate for my honesty." I grinned, though, and after a moment, Hannibal did smile. "But all right. Dinner. I can do that." I hoped. I was bad at the whole parenting thing, but I had to try. "Wait, do we even have enough for a dinner?" I frowned and hunted through my papers for the food stocks. As soon as I found it, though, Hannibal snatched it from me. "I need that."

"No, I'll have a new one for you in the morning." And for emphasis, he ripped the page and tucked the pieces into his pocket. "Go eat."

"...Damn it, Hannibal." I knew what was going on now. Hannibal had gone without eating, probably for a couple of days, so that I could indulge with Arion and Altena. "Fine, fine! I give. You got the win this time."

"Excellent, sire." Hannibal smiled smugly. I found an old report, wadded it into a ball, and threw it at his face. Sadly, he caught it before it hit. "I'll get on the tasks. What shall I tell the soldiers?"

"I will tell them." I was going to sacrifice them for Thracia. The least I could do was look them in the eyes and tell them that. "Oh, but one thing."


"You are forbidden to die." I narrowed my eyes at him. "Thracia needs you."

"I will do my best." Hannibal smiled reassuringly, though, and I smiled back. He never promised, but he did try. "The children. You're delaying."

"I'm moving; I'm moving."

Everything moved according to plan and worked out just as I'd anticipated, more or less. Almost a year after the 'Battle of Belhalla', Leonster fell to Thracia. A month after that, Thracia fell to the 'Empire'. Arvis decided that having us as allies was much better than us being defiant to the end and slaughtering his soldiers, and thus, let us keep our autonomy. I won, though I played the part they expected. I pretended to be annoyed at the 'defeat'. It wasn't hard. For one thing, I hated Bloom and Bloom got the northern farmlands. For another, I had to go to Belhalla to discuss the tariffs, and gods above, the whole place irritated me.

"You'd think a place as rich as this could afford to not smell worse than a wyvern's stall," I grumbled to Hannibal as we were led through the halls of Belhalla's Castle. The center of the 'Empire'. Because Jugdral had a good history with Empires. "Also, how many paintings does a single hallway need? And rugs of such…"

"All of the colors are hurting my eyes," Hannibal quietly murmured. Still, he nudged me and almost fell because his arm and leg wouldn't move quite right. "Try to be polite."

"I think politeness went out when I reminded Arvis and Bloom during the initial negotiations that all of Thracia was filled with wild dragons." Though, I hadn't planned on being that blunt. But Bloom had said something insulting my people, so I retaliated. And I didn't regret it because it had been worth the brief flicker of horror on their faces. "How are you?"

"I am well, my king."

"You're hurting, then." And why wouldn't he? Hannibal had endured countless thunder spells while our injured retreated. It was a miracle he lived. "We should see if their healers can check you over."

"I'll consider it." Hannibal nearly tripped. I caught him before he fell, and glared at the servant who gave us a dirty look. They promptly squeaked and looked away. "Now, now…"

"It's good to remind people that a servant's actions reflects their lord's attitudes and beliefs." I made my voice as dry as possible, just to make them wince. "Better be almost there. I'm tired of how gaudy everything is."

"Gods, especially blessed Skadi of the mountains, please make sure my king doesn't start a second war."


I did work on calming down, if only so that Hannibal didn't fret so much. But it was a relief to get out of the halls and into the throne room, because at least then, I could understand why the place was so gaudy. Throne rooms were meant to impress and intimidate, and for most, that meant showing off wealth. I preferred Thracia's way, though: taking advantage of the size of the windows for the dragons to lay about the room.

"Welcome to Belhalla, King Travant, General Hannibal," Arvis greeted, voice carefully polite. He wasn't seated on either of the two thrones in the back, but standing in front of them. A show of equality, probably meant to play on my ego some. "I understand there was a problem with the stalls?"

"Too small for a dragon, but there's only mine, so I've just got him sleeping on the outskirts of the city," I replied, matching Arvis's tone. Hannibal gave me a warning look, so I did try to add some reassurances. "He knows to not go after livestock, and we'll hopefully not be here long." And couldn't resist the barb. I didn't like being here. My dragon flying about would hopefully be an incentive for Arvis to not waste my damn time.

"We'll have to modify the stalls by the time we have to renegotiate this, then." Arvis smiled, again, carefully polite. "No other trouble, then?"

"No, just that." I looked around the throne room, and noticed something interesting. "I would've thought Empress Diadora would be here."

"Please forgive her. She's still recovering from giving birth."

"Ah, that's right. I did hear about that." I made sure to smile as well. The new Emperor and Empress had twins, if I recalled correctly. "Congratulations, and good luck with the toddlers."

"I've dealt with a toddler before, and this time, I have help." It was hard to tell his tone. Part of it seemed like a joke. Part of it seemed defensive. The hurt in his eyes added guilt to it. Sadly, it all disappeared before I could get a good read. He was certainly good at wearing a mask. Probably why he'd managed to plan Grannvale so well. "Do you wish to jump straight into the negotiations or…?"

"Arvis, I wanted to tell… oh!" Someone walked in unexpectedly, a woman with long Vala-red hair and green eyes. Even with that distinctive coloring, it took me a second to realize she was the Vala Healer, and then, I had to stare. "I didn't realize you had guests, Lord Brother," she continued quietly. Quiet and melancholic. Nothing like before. "Hello again, Travant."

"Alicia, you know King Travant?" Arvis asked, looking surprised. Hannibal nudged me and I nodded, frowning. The change in her was frightening, really. Before, she had been as fierce as any dragon, fiery as she stuck to her oaths. Now, it was like she… it was like all that was left of her fire was embers, embers that were slowly burning her alive. "I would've thought…"

"He was a patient of mine, once." She smiled faintly, but it was still muted. She honestly felt more like a ghost than a person. "I'm sorry for interrupting."

"No, no, it's fine." Arvis smiled, but this time, I saw the guilt and it didn't quickly disappear. I nearly rolled my eyes at it. He chose this. He chose to destroy her life. He chose to kill her for his ambitions. He didn't have a right to feel guilty about it, no more than I had a right to feel guilty over all those I had killed. "You were saying something?"

"I just wanted to tell you that Diadora's illness is fully gone, though she's still on bedrest, just in case. Julius and Julia remain in perfect health and take to the wet nurses well."

"I see. Thank you, Alicia." Arvis's smile warmed. "I'm glad to hear it."

"Of course." She nodded to Hannibal and me. "But I am intruding, so I'll…"

"Actually, do you mind checking on Hannibal for me?" I requested. She became thoughtful at the name. "Yes, the one who sent you the letter and… whatever Arion sent."

"A lovely drawing and a wooden carving," she replied, laughing a little. It sounded hollow. "Of course I can check him over. Hannibal, can you follow me?"

"Thank you." I helped Hannibal over towards her and the two quickly left. As quickly as Hannibal could move, at least. "My apologies for taking advantage, but Hannibal has some nerve damage."

"I do remember Bloom complaining about how many thunder spells Hannibal endured," Arvis murmured. He frowned at me. "I wasn't aware Alicia knew you, though."

"One of mine looked for a healer and she happened to be the one he found," I explained, shrugging. At least I finally had her name. 'Alicia'. Odd name. But there were other things to focus on for now. "To answer your earlier question, though, yes, I would love to begin negotiations immediately."

"Ah, yes, this way then." Arvis led me out of the throne room and down the hall to a study, one that thankfully wasn't gaudy or anything. Bit luxurious for my tastes, but I could actually stomach it. "Take a seat. I'll make some tea."

Well, this was going to be fun. I hated tea. But I'd endure the leaf-water, I supposed.

Negotiations went better than I thought, hateful tea aside. Arvis had actually done a bit of research, and I could remember average wages and the like off the top of my head, so we managed to get a good base, especially for the first day. From here, it would be minor tweaks and well as seeing if we could get the other to relax enough to slip up and make a concession. He played the game well. Been a while since I had a good challenge on that front.

"How many damn gardens does this place have?" I grumbled as I found yet another one. I couldn't sleep in their too large guest room, with a bed so large and soft that I swore it would swallow me up and enough pillows and blankets to suffocate a dragon three times over. So, I'd gone for a walk to cool my head while I thought about how I'd adapt the sleeping situation. Probably just sleep on the floor or something. "Ugh… I hate it here."

"Somehow, I'm not surprised." It wasn't often someone was able to surprise me. As Dain's Major, I had a strong connection to the wind and skies, and I was one of the few who could sense Holy Blood. That Alicia could still hide in plain sight was definitely a sign of how ghost-like she felt. "Hannibal should be fine in a few days," she told me, sitting casually on a bench not far away. Between the elaborate silver and white dress, near-translucent skin, and the moonlight, she really did blend in with everything. "I'm healing him in stages to make certain of it."

"My thanks." I glanced around, making sure no one else was going to surprise me, before walking over. "Altena is doing well, by the way."

"Good, good." She laughed softly. Like before, it sounded hollow. "I told Sigurd. We never told the rest of the army, though. We'd wanted to confirm it first."

"Smart. To confirm it, I mean." And explained why she was alive and yet, Leonster hadn't known Altena was in Thracia. The spies had been certain on it. "Surprised you're alive, truthfully."

"Arvis had Aida lure Azel and I away, so we weren't there during the initial strike. We both tried to run, but I'm not very athletic, so I didn't make it." She shrugged. "So, here I am. Working as a healer while someone else handles Velthomer in my name."

"I see." It was awkward, talking to her. But that was mostly because I could easily imagine what her responses would've been. Terse, politely furious, much as she had been when she healed me. Now, though, she was just… there. There and apathetic to everything. "When Leonster fell, my scouts noticed a knight with blue hair escaping to the south. So, I'm sure that Finn is fine."

"Oh, I'm sure he is. I gave him the necklace Hannibal sent me."


"I should've given Ethlyn my bracelet." She brought up her hand, and her sleeve fell back to show she still wore the bracelet. It also showed how much weight she'd lost, considering how it hung awkwardly somewhere around the middle of her arm. "With him, was there a girl with golden hair?"

"Sounds familiar. I'd have to check the reports to be sure."

"I hope so. They're married and someone deserves a happy ending out of this mess." She looked up at me then. "If I give you some things for Altena…"

"I'll make sure she gets them." I studied her closely and then turned my attention to the flowers. "I'll tell her they're from her deceased aunt. Same with the bear."

"A good story. I doubt I'll live long enough to see her again." She fell silent for a while, looking up at the stars. "Travant, you mentioned you lost your wife."

"I did." I glanced at her, wondering why she asked. But then I had a guess. "Ah, did you marry?"

"Sort of. I had a lover, and we planned to marry. Because no one would shut up about it. But he died. The meteors hit him, and I couldn't heal him." She relayed the words absently, monotone, like reciting from a particularly boring book. "I tried, and I failed. So, he died in my arms." She looked to me, and I tried to not wince. Lorelei had already been dead when I'd seen her. Hannibal had carried her body out, along with Arion. "I imagine as a mercenary, you have lost many friends?"

"I have." Out of my childhood friends, only Hannibal still lived.

"How did you pull yourself out of it?"

"For the friends, a lot of it was overworking. For Lorelei…" Again, it hurt. I missed her terribly. The day she died haunted me, and would always haunt me. "Well, I didn't 'pull' myself out at all. Hannibal dragged me." Made me eat. Made me sleep. Made me work. Nagged and bothered until I was doing it on my own. "From there, I had my duty. And I had Arion. Once Hannibal dragged me over the worst, the rest was enough."

"Whereas all my friends are dead, missing, or amnesiac and my children are very far away." She sighed, and I frowned over the 'amnesiac' part. I had no idea what she was talking about at all, there. Or who. "Well, I am a healer. Maybe that'll be enough."

"Honestly surprised you're holding on at all."

"Part of it is the hope that I can see my children again, but honestly, it's mostly spite." She smiled like it was a joke, and the smile actually seemed real, compared with her earlier ones. "Arvis banned the Loptyrian hunts, you see. Where they would burn even babes in arms alive. So, some of them are slowly integrating themselves into society. Most are nice, if timid. Their leaders trouble me. Particularly Manfroy." There was actually some force to the name, a harshness that conveyed more than 'trouble'. She hated him. "He's got plans. I hope that I can muddle them, even a little."

"Spite is an excellent motivator." Gods knew spite was one reason why I managed to survive things. Holy Blood was another. "But plans, though?"

"I don't know what they are. I know what he's done, to a point, but I don't know what he will do. But I do feel like at this point, he and Arvis are playing against each other, even if Arvis doesn't know it." She looked to me again. "I don't know which one will win. But you should prepare for that. For Arion and Altena's sakes."

"I'll keep that in mind." I smiled a bit and changed the subject. "But you mentioned children?"

"Yes, I have twins. Caitriona and Conall. They're safely away from this hell of a city." Slowly, she began talking about her children, telling little stories about them. I told her about some of the antics Arion and Altena were getting into, and commiserated over how children just had to try and eat everything. Eventually, she left to go to bed, and I remained outside in the gardens, thinking about what she had mentioned.

Playing against each other… yes, with everything so radically different, one needed to say that this was an entirely new game. A new board, with new pieces and new players. I'd managed a small victory in the previous, but now, I had to watch closely and play again. Play against two masters, at that. I was up to the task, of course, but I'd have to be careful. I'd have to play for a very long game, longer than I normally did. And who would be the king? Who would be my 'king piece', which I guarded above all else? Well, that was obvious. I might be the king of Thracia, but my King… well, that was why I brought Altena to Thracia, after all. To set up my perfect 'King'. Arion, Altena, and Leif.

I couldn't leave a child to the desert, but Phinora wasn't far and I could've walked to hide the connection to Thracia. Gae Bolg would be a powerful weapon on our side, but giving it to her would easily lead her to figuring out the truth, so it would be impossible to 'keep' that powerful weapon for long. But when Altena learned the truth about what happened, and she would because there's no way it would be kept secret forever, she would return to Leonster with the knowledge of what Thracia was like. She would know how much Thracia starved, how hard it was to live there. She would be a friend to Arion, adding a personal incentive to wanting to help. And so, she would advise her little brother to do so. Because, of course, when little Leif learned his sister was truly alive, he'd either reject her and suffer backlash, or accept her and listen to her words.

Leif was a very important part of this game, truthfully. With the 'Yied Massacre', Quan and Ethlyn would be the 'tragic heroes', and I, the 'villain'. Leif would be set up as a 'hero', and when Thracia was unified, be given priority to that throne. Then would come Altena's advice. Thracia would prosper. I would win. And the best part about little Leif was that he required absolutely no effort on my part. The knights would protect him. The people around him would encourage his anger and hatred at me. And then, one day, he'd come at me, the villain. I'd make him work for the honor of killing me, though. I'd have to play my part well, after all, to make it feel 'real'.

But that was for later, and truthfully, things could change rapidly and upend the board entirely. That was the danger of long games. Too many things you could never predict. So, I'd leave Leif to them and see if they managed to meet my expectations. In the meantime, Arion and Altena were my responsibility, and I would protect them. I would encourage them to walk their paths, to think for themselves. So that hopefully, when the time came, they would fight with Leif and his allies and not suffer my fate.

The game for Thracia's prosperity had begun again. And this time, I would win.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2) Childhood Friends

"I know that the circumstances are, by no means, the same, but my poor sense of humor refuses to let me be quiet." Ignoring the reports I knew I needed to read, I grinned at Hannibal, distinctly amused. Hannibal? Not so much. In fact, he looked like he wanted to strangle me, as usual. "So, how is it that you leave for a mission to kill someone and come back with a child?"

"I didn't leave to kill someone, your majesty," Hannibal corrected instantly. He huffed a bit, crossing his arms as he tried to keep himself from puffing up defensively. It was a habit of his from when we were little. "I was getting our very delayed payment from Bramsel in Darna."

"And kill him if he tried to 'technically' get out of it one more time." While I could admire how Bramsel weaseled his way in and out of bargains while holding onto the terms, he was an absolute idiot to bait dragons. "How did that go, by the way?"

"Got extra." Hannibal's look screamed 'did you really need to ask?', but I just continued to grin, leaning back in my chair and resting my hands behind my head. My neck greatly appreciated my not leaning over the desk. "And, regardless, how I got Coirpre is nothing like how you got Altena."

"True, true." Hannibal likely hadn't slaughtered the boy's parents as I had. Yied Massacre, they called it, and whenever I left Thracia, the whispers followed me. Not that I cared, mind. People have been calling us 'hyenas' since before I was born. I did wish they'd be a little less hypocritical about it all, though. I, at least, just ambushed the lot. Arvis invited Sigurd to a damn festival before incinerating him. Brutal, even by my standards. But hey, he was the 'hero', and I was the 'villain'. Same old, same old. "But seriously, what happened?"

"I found a wounded man and offered to help." Hannibal sighed, running a hand through his hair. "The man passed me his son and a few items, like a staff. Then he thanked me, told Coirpre goodbye, and ran."

"Odd, that." On the run from the Empire, likely. An ally of Sigurd's, perhaps? Life was actually decent in the Empire, so there wasn't a lot of rebellions popping up, but those who had known the Holy Knight Sigurd treated the new emperor with a coldness that rivaled Skadi's temper. Last I heard, Verdane had actively chased out the knights and lords sent there to 'rule', while Chalphy only kept the ports opened for Miletos's sake. It wouldn't surprise me if they were hunting malcontents to lessen problems. When you had a large area to rule, things slipped through the cracks all too easily. A factor in why the south and north split here in the Thracian Peninsula, in fact. "So, the boy's name is Coirpre?"

"Yes, your majesty. He's two years old, or so he claims." Hannibal sighed again, and looked at me pleadingly. "Help."

"You're better at child-rearing than…" I trailed off, putting the pieces together. Slow for me, but in my defense, I was distracted. "Oh, toddler. Exploring. Your estates aren't toddler-proof."

"And I have absolutely no idea how to fix that."

"Yeah, I'll help out with that." It was, after all, the least that I could do for him. Hannibal helped me with Arion and Altena, after all. "Arion and Altena should see your lands anyway. Get out of the castle for a bit for things not involving the harvest."

"That reminds me." Now he became stern, and I nearly groaned, knowing just what lecture was coming. "Have you been spending time with your children?"

"Yes, Nanny-Hannibal, I have." Not the least because Altena had no qualms barging into my study if she was bored, unlike Arion. "Though, I am reminded. The servants have been complaining about how much of… oh, what was that word?" I struggled to remember it, but shrugged, unable to. I hadn't paid attention to the complaints, once I realized it wasn't some emergency. "Whatever the word is. Altena's behavior."

"I imagine it has something to do with how Lady Altena cannot sew or weave as well as most other girls her age, and how she can't sit still long enough to learn." Hannibal laughed, amused, and I smiled. Altena was a bundle of energy and raced about do whatever activity seemed interesting. She knew all the healers and doctors in the castle by name due to the number of times she'd ended up in the infirmary. "They probably think she should be more feminine. But I don't see what's wrong with her acting differently."

"Maybe she needs more female friends." I jotted down a note to look into that. Arion needed more friends as well. Honestly, both should probably start trips into the city to learn about our people. They already helped during planting and harvest times. "Ah, whatever. I think she's fine as she is, and if you think the same, then I'm not going to worry about it."

"Until she breaks her legs again."

"Until then." I rolled my shoulders and leaned forward to begin working again. "Neither here nor there. Pick up any interesting gossip while you were out of Thracia, Hannibal?"

"...There is one thing that I think you should know." All trace of humor, cheer, and really anything but solemn sorrow disappeared from his face. I paused, glancing up at him. "I heard that Duchess Alicia had passed away."

"...Ah." I sat back in my chair again, looking up at the ceiling. I honestly wasn't surprised. If anything, I was surprised she had lived as long as she did. Five years was a very long time to slowly 'bleed'. Her spite lasted a long time, it seemed. "Well, that explains why her reply is late." Over the past five years, Alicia and I had exchanged letters. I wouldn't call it 'friendly', by any means, but they had been rather constant and polite. Typically, it was focused on Arion and Altena, making sure they were okay, talking about potential health issues, little stories about the trouble they'd get into… things of that nature. She'd also always send little gifts for them, like candies. "What's the cause?"

"The official words is 'illness'." Apt way to describe 'soul bleeding out', I supposed. "What would you like to do, my king?"

"..." I thought about it and sighed, standing up. There was only one thing I could do, really. I wouldn't claim I had a conscience or honor or anything like that, but… "We'll have a memorial for her. She saved my life, after all." And gave me far less problems by keeping it quiet that Altena was here. While I wasn't sure what Arvis would do, Bloom was a little too ready to send assassins against 'potential trouble'. Not that assassins last long here, mind. Never had one that didn't get ripped apart by a dragon. "Help me pick out the materials for it."

"I could do it myself, if…"

"No, no. I need to do it." Because that's what Thracians did when people they respected died. Make small memorials for them, so that they were never forgotten. And while I neither liked nor hated her, I did respect her. "And I can afford to take the break. I don't need to keep a close eye on the food stores anymore." The negotiated tariffs were quite the boon. For the first time in my life, having a meal once per day wasn't a luxury. In fact, many could afford two. For now. I was waiting for that house of cards to fall apart. Empire was just too big for something to not go wrong. "But you can come with me."

"It would be my honor and pleasure." Hannibal smiled and bowed. "Shall we, then?"

"Lord Father, when can I get my own dragon?" Altena asked, looking up at me with… it was probably supposed to be a pout, but her eyes sparkled too much to make it effective. "I want one so very badly!"

"When you are fifteen, Altena, you may walk among the dragons and see if any wish to bond with you," I explained, amused. Probably shouldn't be, since this had to be the thousandth time I'd told her that, but I supposed it was my bad sense of humor again. Noba's descendants were warriors of the earth, blessed by Gaia of the Lands, yet Altena was fascinated by flying. "Same as all of our knights."

"Why can't I walk with them now?"

"Because you're nine-years-old and not big enough to mount up on your own."

"Grr…" Now she sulked, but she went right on back to laughing when she looked down at the mountains we were flying above. "Oh, pretty! Look at all the oranges and reds, Lord Father!"

"It's simply another autumn, Altena."

"Nothing is ever simple here at home!" She grinned up at me, laughing brightly. "Besides, Thracia is always beautiful. And I haven't seen those mountains since you first brought me home anyway."

"I suppose that is true." 'Brought her home'... either due to trauma or age, Altena didn't remember the Yied Massacre. She knew of it, of course. Everyone did. And those outside Thracia mourned the hideous deaths, while those within its borders celebrated the deaths of the people who longed to starve us and laughed when they slaughtered our children. Altena was a little more conflicted over it, but even she was glad by the reduced tariffs that helped our people thrive. "Don't move around so much. You'll fall."

"No, I won't." She continued grinning. "You'd save me, Lord Father! Just like when you brought me home."

"...Yeah, I suppose so." If I was the type to feel guilt, that might've done it. "Ah, there's Hannibal's main estate."

"He's got more than one?"

"He's got one in the mountains as well." When we were younger, Hannibal and I would hide there for a few days to just relax and have fun. Lorelei would scold us for 'shirking', but she never made us go back. Now, though… well, I hadn't been there since she died. Neither had Hannibal. "This is where he lives, though."

"It's biiiiiiig!" She stretched her arms out wide, like she was trying to hug it from up here. "Oh! Arion! Hi~!" Then she started waving, because the knight who was escorting Arion had flown close to begin descending. Arione, being much quieter, didn't verbally reply, but he did smile and wave back. "Yay! We're here; we're here!"

We landed in the open courtyard and I helped Altena down. She remained still for exactly half-a-second before zooming over to the herb garden Hannibal kept, one of the few gardens to thrive in Thracia. Shaking my head at her antics, I pulled my packs off of Hagen, and let him fly over to the stables where the servants there would get him settled in. Same thing as always, really. I did have to smile when I saw Arion watching the dragons fly off with sparkling eyes. He was much quieter than Altena about it, but I knew he looked forward to it as well.

"Just wait five more years, and you'll bond with your own," I told him, resting a hand on his shoulder. Arion absently nodded, still watching them. "You'll start your training when we get back, though."

"I hope I live up to expectations," Arion murmured, finally turning to me. Somehow or another, he'd gotten a rather serious, solemn personality. Wasn't quite sure where, since 'solemn' definitely didn't apply to me or Hannibal. And Lorelei had been a sandstorm in human form most of the time. "Will I really have one, though? The dragons are the ones who choose, right? They see into our hearts and judge us."

"Yes, and you are of Dain's blood, descended from the Lord of the Skies, blessed with the power of Skadi of the Mountains." I squeezed his shoulder. "I'm willing to bet the dragons are already fighting over which one of them gets to have you as their rider."

"You're teasing me."

"I am being quite serious." I grinned, however, and ruffled his hair. "Now, if I was going to bring up how you tried to fly on your own using the curtains…"

"I-I was applying physics!" Arion blushed, though, embarrassed. "Trying to add practical lessons to my studies!"

"Of course, of course." I pulled him into a hug and then patted him on the back. "Come on. Let's head in. First time you've actually visited Hannibal at his estate."

"That's because Hannibal has to babysit you, Father."

"Now where did that sass come from?"

"Hannibal says you."

"Did he now?" I ruffled his hair again and nudged him forward. "And do you agree?"

"Why, of course!" Arion widened his eyes innocently. "Whyever would I disagree with someone much older and wiser, Father?"

"Scamp." I couldn't help but laugh, though, and I waved when I saw Hannibal had finally stepped out to greet us. "We're here."

"I think I noticed the sudden increase in wyverns and the little princess attached to my leg, your majesty," Hannibal laughed, stumbling a little. After all, he was right. Altena had thrown herself at him for a hug and refused to let go. "Lady Altena, I really do need my leg." Altena pouted, puffing out her cheeks like a chipmunk. "Ah, yes, of course." He scooped her up easily for a 'proper-Hannibal-hug', as Altena called it, and Altena giggled. "Welcome to my estate, Prince Arion, Lady Altena."

"Your home is lovely, Hannibal," Arion replied, keeping polite. Hannibal and I exchanged an amused look over his head. I really didn't know where he got this personality trait. It was almost as surprising as him also having any sense of tact. "Thank you for letting us come."

"The honor is mine, your highness." Hannibal set Altena down and gestured to someone behind him. "Ah, but you should meet someone." Tentatively, a small boy toddled up, hiding quickly behind Hannibal's leg. "Lady Altena, Prince Arion, King Travant, this is Coirpre." He gently nudged the boy a bit more forward, so that we could get a proper look at him. Blonde hair, blue eyes, and a timidity that honestly would get him killed in Thracia, if anyone but Hannibal was raising him. But that wasn't what held my attention. It was the fact that the boy burned with Holy Blood. "He's a bit shy and nervous, so…"

"You're so cute!" Altena cooed, immediately picking Coirpre up. Coirpre stiffened, but she held him securely, pressing her cheek against his. There was a flash of confused nostalgia in her eyes, and I wondered if she was 'remembering' Leif. "I'm Altena. Quiet one over there is Arion."

"I'm only quiet in comparison to you," Arion immediately retorted, rolling his eyes. He held out his hand to Coirpre, however, and shook it when Coirpre hesitantly took it. "It's very nice to meet you, Coirpre. Do you know a good place to walk around?" Coirpre nodded shyly and pointed in a direction. "Then let's head that way. Altena, you sure you can carry him?"

"Of course I can, and even if I couldn't, I wouldn't give him to you." Altena scowled, even as they began to walk off down the hall. "You may be faster than me, Arion, but I am way stronger."

"I was more asking because I am a bit bigger than you. Center of balance and all."

"I've got him!"

"Okay, okay."

"Hey, Hannibal…" I began quietly, watching the children walk off. I focused a bit, just to make sure, but no, I was right. Arion, Altena, Coirpre… all three burned with Holy Blood. "What was among the items the man gave you again?

"Most were just clothes and small personal items, like toys," Hannibal answered. Though he smiled indulgently, his eyes were sharp. He knew I was piecing something together. "The only thing of note, really, was a staff. I imagine he was a priest."

"I see." Priest. Staff. Holy Blood. Well, well… I hadn't know Father Claude of Edda had any children, but it seemed to be the case. And it also explained the running. There was absolutely no way the Empire would let someone as politically powerful as Father Claude live, particularly since he had been allied with Sigurd. "Huh."

"What are you plotting?"

"I am plotting nothing. For once." Though now that he brought it up, I did wonder how I might incorporate this new 'piece' into my board. Also made me wonder if I had guessed right about little Leif and his knights. I wouldn't find out for a very long while, sadly. Long games were a headache. "I'll tell you what I figured out later."

"I do wish you'd at least be a little more open when you're manipulating people you like."

"I am what I am, and I am too old to change." Just because you loved people didn't mean you couldn't use them. In fact, it was because I loved them that I was willing to do whatever it took to give them a better life, and a better future.

If it meant Thracia would thrive, and that Arion and Altena wouldn't have to get their hands as bloodsoaked and dirty as mine, I'd gladly welcome any and all the hatred and punishment in every hell. That was the duty of a king, and a father.

"Ah, that does explain quite a bit," Hannibal mused, once I finished explaining my reasonings about Coirpre's heritage. It was much later, and the two of us decided that, since we were on break, we should do something we hadn't done since Loreleil died. Drink a whole bunch of alcohol while sitting at a window table in Hannibal's room. "Well, I suppose we have technically increased our amount of 'treason' against the empire."

"Is it really 'treason' if you've never been loyal in the first place?" I countered, downing the last of… whatever Hannibal had served me. I wasn't picky when it came to alcohol. Spent too much time as a mercenary and having 'ale' that stripped skin off your tongue. "And I know damn well Arvis is aware of it. That's why I went with the tactic of fighting and then surrendering."

"So long as you are more trouble as an enemy, then you are an ally." Hannibal nodded, and I knew he understood that it was the same for us. The second the Empire's vigil faltered, the second their strength wavered, we'd be ready. Predators watched and waited to find the weakest one of the pack to slaughter and devour, and if the other countries were going to constantly compare us to such animals, I saw no reason to not oblige. "Still, I do wonder how he ended up at Darna."

"Must've escaped, and then the church hid him." Healers were 'neutral', after all. Most didn't pay attention to that. Most required monetary compensation. Alicia had been strange for being completely opposite, but I'd heard that Father Claude was similar enough. "Child must be a Major then. More healers are good."

"No Mark, as of yet."

"Not sure you should be looking for one." I thought of Altena's Mark, which had faded almost to the point of being invisible shortly after she came here. The Mark protecting her, hiding her, while she was away and in 'danger'. There were probably quite a few like that, this generation. "How many Majors did Sigurd's army have? How many had Holy Blood?"

"You're thinking and jumping around in conversation, my king." Still, Hannibal closed his eyes to think. "Five Majors, six if you count how they gave Sanctuary to Prince Shanan. Seven if…"

"If you believe the rumors that Diadora was once married to Sigurd." They were whispers, things you only really heard if you were used to filtering through gossip and rumors to discover truths, like a mercenary. You only heard it from Verdane at the moment, though, and they hated the Empire with a passion. They lost their king due to it. "If the lists are accurate, then it was probably around fifteen or sixteen who had Holy Blood." Could be off. The list of who exactly had been in Sigurd's army changed every time you heard it. "And they had kids, so yeah, many are probably hidden."

"My king, I thought the point of day-drinking in my room was to relax, not talk about serious things."

"If we want serious, I'm drunk enough to ask one."

"My lord, you don't get drunk." Hannibal sighed, shaking his head in exasperation. "Like many other Major Blooded, from my understanding."

"No clue. Never have had the chance to test it out." Thracia was always alone. The other countries looked down on us for selling our skills for their wars. I supposed our assaults on the Manster District didn't exactly help matters. "Regardless-"

"You can't use alcohol as an excuse."

"Sure I can. I'm the king. I can do what I want."

"That is probably the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard you say, and considering how long I have known you…"

"Yeah, yeah." He was right, though. I was barely even buzzed despite drinking on an empty stomach. Though, drinking on 'empty stomachs' was something Thracians were sorely used to. "Regardless, Coirpre reminded me of this. Why aren't you married? You called things off with your last paramour not long after Lorelei…" My heart ached, just as it always did. I was certain it would until my dying day.

"Yes, I did." Hannibal finished off his drink and poured himself some more. "I decided that such things didn't suit me."

"You know her death wasn't your fault, Hannibal. If not for you, I would've lost both of them." When the Leonster knights attacked… Hannibal had been Lorelei's only guard. After all, things were supposed to be 'safe'. And when the knights attacked, he couldn't keep both of them safe. There were too many, even for him, especially since he hadn't worn full armor. So, he had to make a choice. Who did he save? And he picked Arion. "I have never begrudged you for it, and I never will."

"It is a blight on my epithet that I could only shield one." Hannibal shook his head. I sighed, and chose against pointing out that as the 'Shield of Thracia', he did live up to it. He had protected Thracia's future. Arion was Thracia's future. That was why I did the things I did. "But no, Travant-"

"Been a while since you called me without title."

"Must be the alcohol." He smiled slightly, and I nodded accepting the 'excuse'. It took a lot to get him drunk too. "But no, that is not the reason. I feel horrific guilt, and will carry that guilt for all of my life, but we both know that Lorelei would've killed me, slowly, if I picked her over Arion. And losing Arion would've destroyed you."

"Yes, both are true." The thought of Arion dying was enough to make me freeze up. "So…?"

"It was simply that incident, and helping you recover, made me realize I couldn't give Eleanor what she wanted." Hannibal pointed to my mug, and I held it out for a refill. "In the aftermath, I spent no time with her. I wrote no letters. And I felt no guilt over it. After all, in my heart, Thracia is first and foremost. None will ever take that place. Secondmost would be the children. Arion, Altena, and now Coirpre. You are third, Travant, if you do not mind my being blunt."

"Considering who outranks me, I can deal with that."

"And fourth are my people, my soldiers. Any wife of mine would have to be content with being fifth, Travant. And there are very few who would accept such a thing. In fact, I don't think there are any who would." Hannibal smiled. "That's all, my friend. It is related to the incident, but only in that it truly showed me my heart's affections."

"Then I shall be certain to never bring it up again, and you can have fun adopting and raising Coirpre." A little bit of laughter filtered in through the window, and both of us looked out to see Arion, Altena, and Coirpre were playing in the garden. Both Arion and Altena were being careful to make sure Coirpre was included and not left out at all. It reminded me of how Hannibal and I met, all those years ago. "Harvest will be soon."

"It will." Hannibal smiled warmly at the trio, no doubt thinking the same thing I was, even if I didn't voice it. "Let us drink to a good one."

"Yes." Drink to a good future as well. And a hope for 'victory' in my long game. "I'll drink to that."

Chapter Text

Chapter 3) Unease

"Lord Father!" Altena's snappy voice told me that I was in a lot of trouble, but I decided to try and delay the inevitable by continuing what I was doing. "Lord Father, I know you can hear me!" However, Altena refused to let me so, with a sigh, I looked up from where I was preparing the soil for planting and found her… attempting to loom over me. She was on the tips of her toes in order to actually try that, and that broke any sort of attempt at being intimidating. "Break. Now."

"I'm fine, Altena," I replied, about to use my shirt to wipe the sweat off my face. Altena prodded my hand and provided me a handkerchief to use instead. "The shirt works fine."

"Your shirt is already the laundresses' nightmare," she retorted, hands on her hips. She was definitely in a mood. I wondered what I did. "Anyway, you need to take a break."

"I know my limits well, and Hannibal hasn't come out to scold me yet."

"Hannibal is busy trying to get Arion to take a break." She stomped her foot and I put the pieces together from there. Arion was refusing to take a break until I did, even though his endurance was much, much lower. "And Arion's hands are completely raw from popped blisters, meaning that Coirpre is crying." And that explained why she was in a bad mood. Coirpre was on the tearful side of things, but woe be to the ones who managed it because Altena would swoop in to give them a piece of her mind. And her fist in their face. "Besides, food is ready, and the cooks are particularly proud of it, so you have to have some instead of skipping. Especially today."

"Okay, okay, okay…" I sighed and stood up. Altena grinned triumphantly. "Imp. Where did you learn to scold like that?"

"Hannibal, of course." She took my arm, uncaring of the dirt and mud on it, and gleefully led me out of the fields. I waved to some of the other helpers as we passed, and they laughed and waved back, amused that their 'big-bad-scary-king' couldn't win an argument with his ward. "Someone has to help him deal with you, Lord Father."

"He's clearly been telling too many stories." Still, I ruffled her hair and she giggled. "How's the planting going?"

"I think well. Certainly no one has complained yet. Well, aside from the usual." Altena's eyes saddened at that. 'The usual' meant worrying over the fertility of the soil, and the irrigation systems. "Why is it that the women plant and the men break up all the rocks?"

"Because we men are idiots and thus, stupid enough to win fights against rocks." I smiled when she laughed. I knew that would cheer her. "More seriously, Altena, it's more of a traditional thing. At this point, there are many tricks passed down from mother-to-daughter and not many women take up mercenary work." I smiled teasingly. "Besides, why would you want to break up rocks? They're difficult."

"They can't be any more difficult than you." She grinned and I rolled my eyes, realizing I walked right into that. "But no, I was just curious. I'll be a mercenary, though, right?"

"When you're fifteen and the dragons choose you." I did have to admit that I was worried none would, recognizing she was of Noba and thus, belonged on the ground. Altena would be devastated if that happened. However, I had seen the dragons watching her closely, and that was typically a good sign. "Your training has been going well."

"Of course! I have to get stronger so that I can help you, Lord Father!" She became very serious. "I'm going to be the strongest. That way you and Arion can take more breaks."

"That's… that's kind of you." And I was getting old since that actually made me choke up a little. Just a little. "Not sure how you managed to be so sweet. Maybe learning from bad examples?"

"You're plenty kind, Lord Father. You just like hiding it because you get embarrassed easily and all." She giggled and started waving. I looked up to see we had made it to the courtyard where food and drink had been set up for everyone. "I got him!"

"And again, my king shows his weakness," Hannibal teased, laughing from where he was standing off to the side where he had a table and chairs set up. He had a hand on Arion's shoulder, keeping him seated in one of those chairs while Coirpre fussed over his hands. He must've just carried Arion off. "It's been so much easier to get you to actually take care of yourself nowadays."

"Yes, yes, Nanny-Hannibal," I grumbled, pretending to be annoyed. However, I winced when I saw Arion's hands, which were just as bad as Altena had said, and resolved to have a talk with Arion later about recognizing his limits. ...And somehow try to keep him from pointing out hypocrisies. "Well, I'm here. Shall we grab some food?"

"I'll handle that." Hannibal kicked a chair over to me. "Sit. Relax."

"I give already!" I sat down, wincing as my body acknowledged the ache in my shoulders and back. "Go on already."

While Hannibal left to grab us all food, Altena actually moved behind me to rub my shoulders, letting me just watch Coirpre rub balm on Arion's hands. It was fascinating to watch, really. Coipre took to healing like a bird to air. Clumsily, but instinctive. And he loved every bit of it. For now. He hadn't seen anything bad, yet. If he continued, he would. If he wanted to be a healer, then he couldn't be coddled. That would be the worst for him. But, for now, he could handle minor things, like bandaging Arion's hands. Though, Altena had to help him. Coirpre never could tie bandages tight enough.

"Looks like an excellent job," I praised, nodding at Coirpre. Coirpre smiled shyly. He wasn't much for talking, especially around me, but he could at least look me in the eyes finally. I scared him quite a bit. "Thank you for tending to my stubborn son."

"I just wanted to help!" Arion protested. Coirpre tugged Altena's hand and whispered something to her, before both of them left for whatever reason. "I… uh… didn't notice."

"That's your body numbing you up so that you can go get help. You'll experience it on the battlefield as well." I shook my head. "It's important to know your limits, Arion. You have to build it up gradually. Injuries like that will set back your training."

"I'm sorry…" He looked down, ashamed. "I just…"

"You're fine, Arion. Move at your own pace." Over the years, Arion began feeling the pressures of everyone's expectations all too clearly. And unlike me, who thrived under pressure, he wilted and found it hard to think things clearly. I wished I knew how to help him, but all I could really do is reassure him. And I wasn't even sure I was doing it correctly or anything. Parenting was hard. "But you should take the rest of the day off. Most your age have already stopped for the day."

"That's what Hannibal said." He looked up again, and smiled slightly. "He was saying something about you taking-"

"I deny anything he told you." I glanced over and saw Altena had returning, but not Coirpre, for some reason. "Everyone all right?"

"Coirpre has a surprise for Hannibal, so he went to get that," Altena explained with a bright smile. Arion also smiled, and that told me the two had helped Coirpre with it. "However, the cooks need help bringing out more food, so can you distract Hannibal for him until we get back?"

"I am an expert at distracting Hannibal," I replied, laughing. I hoped I was around to see Hannibal get said surprise, because I knew he'd get all choked up and I'd get to tease him for months about it. "Go on."

"Thank you!" Altena grinned at Arion and Arion led the way out, both quickly turning it into a race.

I watched them leave with a smile, and then turned to watch everyone else mingle and laugh around the large table of food. It was a scene I had seen many times, but I would never tire of it. During planting and during harvest… I had as much food out as can be afforded, so that everyone wouldn't have to worry about food. It helped turn a tedious, but needed, chore into something fun. The singing, dancing, and instruments during breaks also helped, as with stories. No one was drunk enough, yet, to start with mayhem, but it would be along before long. Hopefully after the planting was finished. No one needed to deal with drunk teenagers messing up the rows. Again.

"Well, it seems we have been abandoned, old friend." Hannibal set a plate of food on the table, along with a mug of ale, before taking Arion's vacated seat. That he only brought two plates, and mugs, told me he'd seen them leave. "Though, I recall hearing Lady Altena volunteer to grab more food with Prince Arion," he continued, laughing softly. "Coirpre?"

"He didn't say anything to me," I replied. Which wasn't a lie at all. "You know he still thinks I'm scary."

"Well, maybe if you smiled more…" He laughed and I rolled my eyes. "He'll get used to you. He's becoming considerably less shy, and he sees how gentle you are with the children. You just had an interesting first few meetings."

"I suppose I could've cleaned up a bit before barging into your room to ask you something." My second meeting with Coirpre involved me returning from dealing with some idiotic bandits, and not being able to find Arion or Altena. So, of course, I had gone to ask Hannibal. While still covered in blood. "Is Coirpre really going to be okay as a healer?"

"There's a difference between 'treating injured' and 'person with stringy hair and dirty armor barging into the room and dripping with blood', your majesty." Though Hannibal smiled, there was some sadness in it. "And he had just woken up from a nightmare. Never did tell me what it was about."

"It makes sense. I'm just concerned, given his personality."

"He's stronger than he appears. Most children are. But that is a discussion for another time, because I have a very serious question." And he certainly did look serious, though there was a bit of mischief. "I know that the idiotic treaty required arranging a marriage for Arion…"

"Neither he nor Linoan pay any sort of attention to it." I had only agreed to the concession in order to have better ground on less idiotic things. "As soon as possible, it's getting nulled."

"Of course. We all know that. Linoan and Arion have apparently joked about whether they should make it dramatic or not. Mostly in their letters." Linoan wasn't allowed to leave Tahra, so she and Arion only saw each other when I could swing him up there. A shame, since Arion had very few friends, and I knew Linoan looked forward to properly meeting Altena. "So, I was curious…"

"Get on with it. Before you go gray."

"Was one of your plots Arion and Altena marrying?" Hannibal thumped me on the back when I choked on my drink. "Wow, did I actually think of something before you? I should mark it on my calendar."

"Shut up." I had to cough a few more times to feel like I could breathe again, and the burning feeling wasn't going away anytime soon. "They're both too young to be thinking about marriage."

"Arion is fourteen. You and Lorelei started courting when you were both fifteen."

"That's…" I knew he was right. But that didn't mean I had to admit it. "There was nothing official about that."

"Oh, please. You were both serious, even if you weren't official." He gave me a knowing look and I looked away. I had frequently relied on him covering for me while I'd snuck out for dates and the like. "But it seems not."

"Thracia doesn't do arranged marriages." Our lives were too chaotic. Might as well take what choices you had. "Why even bring it up?"

"Hmm… should I divulge secrets?" Hannibal made a show of thinking, and I brought up my mug, silently threatening to pour it on him. "Oh, very well. Arion has a crush on Altena."

"He… huh?" That… well, that was unexpected. "Really?"

"Yes. It's quite adorable, truthfully. And, you know, you never officially adopted her or anything." Hannibal chuckled, though whether he was amused by the idea or my shock, I hadn't a clue. "Are you going to use that?"

"...No. That sort of thing is their business." Even though it could help… that would certainly be a way to unify the peninsula, and it was a way I had never considered. But the very thought of trying to manipulate something like that made my skin crawl. I would use loyalty, certainly, but… "Besides, I'm in denial that they're old enough for such things."

"Of course, your maj-"

A scream. A growl. A roar. Three noises in quick succession, and I was bolting out of the courtyard, knocking over the table in the process. Hannibal followed, of course, but I longed outpaced him. Only those of Forseti's blood could rival a Dain-Blooded when it came to speed. When it came to me… well, since this was the same direction Arion and Altena went, I wasn't sure even King Lewyn of Silesse could outpace me. Because even though I knew, one day, I would send them off on jobs, into battle… that was still years away. Not now. Now, there was a chance they were in danger and I would not let them be harmed while here. While home. I would not!

However, when I found them (and the source of the growl and roar), I slowed to a stop, stunned by what I saw. In the sparse grass by the castle, a great black dragon, female based on the size, was curled up around Arion, nuzzling his cheek and pulling him towards her as if he was her own child. Altena sat near, frazzled and awestruck (and probably the source of the scream), but Arione was enthralled, smiling and laughing at each little gesture of affection from the dragon. And when the dragon opened her mouth to croon, I saw her teeth were silverish. Only the firebreathers had such coloring, due to the tinting being from something that protected their teeth from flames, and there were no firebreathers among our breeding population. This was a wild dragon who had chosen Arion and, more to the point, firebreathers didn't choose riders. None had since the Loptyrian Empire fell.

I had a feeling this 'game' of mine was going to be a lot darker, and bloodier, than I'd originally thought. And I… didn't like that. At all. Because Arion and Altena were involved, and...

There was much discussion of what to do. Arion was chosen a year earlier than normal, which was another thing that made me uneasy. All I could think of was just give them an extra year to bond before entering the training as normal. And, luckily for me, there were actually some records of dragon knights who were chosen 'early' and that was exactly what they had done. Altena was, of course, horribly jealous, but was placated by how Arion's dragon seemed to adore her too. Which made me a little more hopeful that Altena would get her own dragon, but neither here nor there.

"Nothing about why dragons choose early, though…" I sighed, putting up the book I'd been reading and rubbing my eyes. I'd hope for some sort of insight besides my bad feeling, but all I seemed to get was 'whimsy' and 'dragons sensing something'. The latter made me nervous. I knew I was adaptable, and I knew I was strong, but something told me this wouldn't be like anything I'd seen before. And I didn't like that. "Damn…" Unfortunately, it was also late, and I still had my duties. Hannibal was going to scold me.

Still rubbing at my eyes, dim light and reading didn't go well together, I headed for the door of the library. However, I was soon distracted by seeing Altena curled up in the corner with a cushion and a book, mostly because it was an usual sight to see. Not that Altena was stupid or anything, but she'd never been the type to spend extended time in the library, preferring to read outside. And she certainly seemed absorbed in her book. So, I took a step towards her, wondering what held her attention so.

"Altena?" However, Altena's yelp, bashing her head on the wall behind her, and whimper all showed that she hadn't expected any sort of company. Not even Arion's. "Well, that was a reaction," Arion noted dryly, holding a book in his hand. And only one, which was unusual. He normally took four or five at a time. "Hi?"

"Arion?!" Altena squeaked, turning red in the face. For some reason. "W-what are you doing here?!"

"...It's the library? I'm here more than you." Now he frowned, and I hung back, eavesdropping. This was atypical behavior for Altena, so it was better to observe for now. "I mean; Hannibal is probably going to scold us for reading in the dim light."

"Huh? Oh, it's dark." Altena clutched the book to her chest, and pushed herself more into the corner. "Why are you in the library today? Tactics?"

"No, I'm looking up names for my dragon." Arion smiled shyly at the last two words, still awed by the experience. "I can't find one that I like and think she'll like."

"Well, what about Lori?" The name made my heart ache. "That's pretty."

"It is, but where did it come from?"

"Huh? Oh, uh…" Altena shrugged, smiling sheepishly. "When I first got here, I couldn't pronounce your mother's name, remember? I'd always trip up over the middle."

"Oh, that's right." Arion tucked the book under his arm. "You think I should name her for Mother?"

"Why not? She was obviously amazing."

"She died tragically."

"Who doesn't die tragically in Thracia?"

"I… well, that's pessimistic." Arion made a face, mostly because there wasn't really a counter to that. People in old age, sure, but that was pretty rare in Thracia. "I'll consider it. I want to have a list to read out for her."

"That's so sweet!" Altena giggled and Arion coughed, embarrassed. "I'm sure she'll love it."

"I hope so." Arion squirmed at the praise, like he always did. "A-anyway, what are you reading?"

"Me? I… er…" Now it was Altena's turn to squirm, but she eventually sighed and simply held it up so that the cover was visible. It took me a moment to recognize the title from where I was, but it startled me. It was a book of folktales from the Manster District, or so the title claimed in fancy lettering. "One of the merchants gave it to me."

"Manster, huh?" Arion's eyes darkened slightly, but he nodded. "That's no reason to hide it, you know. Books are books. You have a favorite?"

"The Tale of Diarmuid, but…" Altena hesitated again, and stroked the cover of the book. "It's… Arion, where am I from?"


"Where am I from? Lord Father found me in the chaos of the battles, but where did I live before? My birth-parents were killed, but who were they? Why was I near a battle in the first place? Did anyone else survive?" With each question, Altena's voice became quieter and smaller. With each question, more and more dread pierced my heart. "The story is familiar. Like I've heard it before."

"Stories travel." Arion sat down next to her, setting his own book on the floor. "Maybe you lived near the border?"

"Or maybe I'm from Manster? Or, worse, Leonster? The same people who…" Altena looked down, her hair covering her face. "Were my birth-parents the same sort of people who killed your mother and laughed, Arion? The same sort of people who kept the tariffs high and never once wondered that it might be 'too' high?"

"So what if they were?" Arion took her hand and squeezed it. "You're you. You live here, with us. Thracia is your home, no matter where you were born." He shrugged and brushed back her hair with his other hand so that he could smile at her. "And you're thinking about it too negatively. If you are from there, then maybe they'd actually listen to you."

"You… think so?" Altena slowly raised her head, still hesitant. "I mean…"

"Well, they don't listen to us. Never have. Of course, all the fighting makes it worse." Arion's smile grew. "But if you are originally from there, then that'll give you an edge I don't have. Maybe it'll get you people to talk to, and things can go from there."

"You think it can help Thracia?"

"Who knows? Maybe it'll reunite the two halves of the peninsula! But with less blood and death." He grinned now, and slowly, Altena grinned back. "But that's for later. We're still young, and you don't have to do anything with it. Like I said, you're you. Always."

"...Thank you, Arion…" Altena's smile was warm, and I caught Arion blushing. "Ah, but here, let me show you the story…"


Slowly but surely, Arion coaxed Altena into a better mood, and the two began enjoying and bickering about the story. I watched them for a while before leaving, lost in my own thoughts. Those questions she had still weighed on me. And while I could appreciate the irony (or whatever the word was), that dread… that unease… I had thought myself incapable of feeling guilty, but it seemed I still could. Guilt over causing Altena grief… guilt over knowing I was using them… ha, it seemed I had more limits than I thought. I manipulated anything and everyone, and I'll still go through with it. But Arion and Altena… it almost made me feel ill to know that I was doing the same to them.

But there was another part to this pain, one I never expected. I… I didn't want Altena to hate me. It was a realization that almost made me laugh. Long had I scoffed at the idea of appealing to other people, of caring about what they thought of me. Hate me, call me a villain… if it protected Thracia, if it saved Thracia, I couldn't care less. Hell, I didn't even care if the gods liked or hated me. But the thought of Altena (or Arion) hating me... that was almost enough to send me to my damn knees. And, worse, if things worked out as I (vaguely) planned… I had no doubts Altena would. She might even be the one to kill me.

Damn… I'd gotten softer with age… but I had to keep going. There was too much at stake, and I used everyone when it came to Thracia's future. Even myself. But I might… make a few changes to limit what Arion and Altena would have to do. Let them walk their own paths or… ah, damn it all. Things would be much less complicated if I were as heartless as everyone thought I was.

But, I made my choices. I'd live, and die, with them. I couldn't give Thracia, Arion, or Altena anything less.

Chapter Text

Chapter 4) Storm

The silence in my office was broken by a quiet, hesitant knock. Normally, that would be a cause for concern, since Altena stepped in soon after, proving she was the knocker. And… well, it was still a cause for concern, but I at least knew what was going on. The rules stated that when a soldier of Thracia was fifteen, they may choose to walk among the dragons to see if any wish to bond with them. Said soldier could walk three times before they must give up. This would be Altena's third walk, and I had promised her that I would be with her.

"You ready?" I asked her. She nodded, not quite looking up. "Are you sure? You can wait a few days." She shook her head. "Let me finish writing this sentence, then."

She nodded again, staying in the doorway, perfectly silent. Even when I was finished and we both left my study, she was silent. I had never known her to be so quiet, but I knew how much she wanted to be a dragon knight. I knew how hard it had to be, to want something so much and simply… not get it, through no fault of your own. To try and try, to do everything right, and still just… lose. That was why I took up my methods to ensure Thracia's prosperity. I continued so that Arion and Altena would not have to dirty their hands as much as me.

Still, the silence was unnerving, because she was usually a bundle of energy. The 'little ball of sunshine' might not be so 'little' anymore, but she was still sunshine. Most days. But not today, and I wondered what I could say. What could I do. I was never one for gentle words or the like. Arion had already researched and showed her examples of famous dragon knights who were chosen at an older age. Coirpre had been extra adorable to distract her. Hannibal had given her a shoulder. I didn't know why she asked me to accompany her for her Final Walk. But she had, and I had promised. So, here I was and here we were.

The non-bonded dragons rested in the large open space behind the castle, fields that could barely support the grass that grew there. I wouldn't have thought it comfortable, but the dragons loved it there, especially so early in the morning. A couple looked up as Altena and I approached, but we stopped on the edge, me because I couldn't accompany her on her Walk and her because of nerves. She closed her eyes, as if that could hide her fear, and then she took a deep breath, opened her eyes, and walked forward with confidence.

I watched her walk among the dragons, noticing how they brightened immediately upon seeing her. Many happily growled at her, and a few playfully wrapped their wing or their tail around her briefly. They truly did adore her, so it confused me why none would choose her. I truly wondered if it was because she was of Njorun, of the earth, with the blood and blessings of Gaia. That the dragons didn't want to separate that connection, no matter how much they loved her.

Altena reached the end of the fields and still, none had chosen her. So, she began making her way back, her head down. I tried to think of what I could do or say, since I knew this had to be a crushing disappointment. And then one of the dragons blocked her path back. At first, I thought it was just an accident, except when she tried to go around, another blocked her. Then another. And then another. When she tried to go back, even run into the nearby forests, they blocked her, keeping her in the field. I almost called for my Hagan, since the only way to break through a group of dragons safely was with another dragon. And that was soon proven true, but not by my Hagan.

A dragon with multicolored (red and green, with green on the muzzle and claws slowly bleeding into red on the body) scales, a highly unusual coloring and one I knew wasn't in the breeding herd, flew down and landed right in front of Altena. A mangled deer's corpse was in one claw, but she (the size hinting female) set it to the side and actually wiped the blood off her claw and muzzle before hunkering down to look Altena right in the eye. After a moment, she crooned and licked Altena's cheek, showing silver-tinted teeth.

I realized a few things right then. One, the dragons blocked Altena because they knew there were only three walks, and they wanted to be certain Altena and her dragon did not miss each other (again). Two, like Arion's, Altena's dragon was both wild and a firebreather. Three, something very wrong was going on, and the dragons knew it.

There was a storm brewing on the horizon. I wondered where the floods would be.

Just as I had with Arion, I gave Altena her first few flying lessons. However, afterwards, I was stuck going to Belhalla because it was time for 'renegotiations' for the treaty or whatever nonsense there was. It was something I didn't want to do, but knew I had to, so I had to deal with the long trip, the awful smelling halls of the castle, and word-fencing with Arvis while pretend to drink the tea he served. I had no idea why that man had an obsession with tea. Maybe it was just something with Grannvale in general or something. But I felt like I needed to scrape my tongue to get the taste out of my mouth. It was a relief when we were done for the day. It let me go do something that was probably long overdue, and do it in a manner that no one would suspect anything about it.

"Wow, it smells better here than it does upstairs," I drawled, my voice bouncing off the walls of the crypt. It was also cool, though not a 'damp' cool. The lack of dust showed that someone cleaned here regularly. "Let's see… probably a more recent ones…" I walked through the lines of graves, reading the names, and as I'd guessed, I found it quickly and not just because of it being close. Alicia's grave was one of the few graves here covered with flowers and incense. "Still can't believe you held on as long as you did. But spite is a hell of a motivator and you seemed like the stubborn sort." I fished out the trinkets from my pocket, setting them carefully among the flowers. "Arion carved you another dragon. As you can see, he got a lot better. Altena doesn't remember you, but she insisted on sewing a charm. She's not very good, but she did her best. Hannibal insisted on the gem fragment. It's a dragon's eye that broke." I, of course, didn't bring anything to leave. It felt silly. It felt silly to babble at a stone as well. But I had promised Arion, who wanted to give her a new carved token as extra thanks, so here I was. "...They're doing fine. Surprisingly so, really." And that was the extent of my social graces, especially for ghosts.

So, I left abruptly, grumbling over how ridiculous all of that was. Swore I heard laughter following me, and thought it might've been her ghost. Wouldn't surprise me if her ghost lingered here. But if it was, that wasn't my concern. Instead, I headed out to the gardens for some fresh air, the only bit of fresh air in the entire damn city, and quickly saw I wasn't the only taking refuge here. A young boy with long red hair sat on a nearby bench and carefully read through a thick book, uncaring of the world around him. Or so I thought. When I stepped closer, he glanced up curiously, and I saw the boy had heterochromia, a red left eye and a blue right eye. And they burned. Unlike most of the people here in Belhalla, his eyes burned with a fierce, defiant fire. And I recognized that fire, even though I had only seen it once before. It was the same fire that had been in Alicia's eyes when she'd treated me. I remembered vaguely hearing that her son, Arvis's nephew, had been brought to Belhalla a few years ago…

"Seems I interrupted you," I said, nodding in greeting. The boy just continued staring at me, studying me curiously. "You are…?"

"Conall," he answered. I'd been right. This was her son. "Prince Conall, if we must be formal, but it's much too nice a day for that." He brushed his hair behind his ear, showing that unlike most, he wore two different earrings as well. A dangling ruby and either a ruby or garnet in the other. But it was his bracelet, just a little big for him, that held my attention. The red dragon's eye gem glittered in the sun, showing it was exactly what I thought it was. The bracelet I had given Alicia. "You out here to avoid suffocation by incense and scented candles? They're using the strong ones today."

"Take it you don't like them either."

"I got used to the milder ones. They aren't so bad. But these ones are." He marked his page in his book, and closed it. "I think they're trying to cover up something. It's not working."

"No, it's not." And I could appreciate straightforwardness in a place like this. "What are you reading there?"

"A book." He grinned, and I thought of how he'd get along great with Altena, if they didn't strangle each other first. "It's one of my textbooks. Anatomy and physiology."

"That's an unusual topic."

"It's for class. I'm at the university here, and Arvis and Diadora let me pick my own studies." Just the names. Interesting. "I'm thinking about being a healer, though, like Mom."

"Are you now?" I supposed it made sense. But I thought of what Alicia no doubt suffered. I had no regrets over my choices, save the fear of Altena hating me, but at the same time, I was aware of what she had endured. Given that she saved my life, and kept Altena's location a secret all the way up to her death… it felt wrong to not make sure her son knew what he was getting into, if he picked the same path as her. "You know who I am, yes?"

"Travant, king of Thracia, Dain Major, instigator of the Yied Massacre, one of the many Thracia Dragon Knights who sells their blood for coin to save their people from starvation." He rattled it off easily, and… well, it seemed that despite what Hannibal liked to claim, I wasn't the only royal who didn't have a speck of tact. "You killed Ethlyn and Quan. I didn't know them, but I know they were friends of my parents. Aideen broke down sobbing when she learned. It's one of my first memories."

"You're a blunt one, aren't you?"

"Diadora tried to teach me how to be more tactful. It failed. Very sad." He spoke with perfect dryness, and I had to fight to keep from grinning. After hours of dealing with Arvis, it was refreshing to deal with such bluntness. "Besides, was any of it wrong? I'm sorry if it was."

"No, no, you're correct." I wondered if there was a way I could drag him to Thracia with me. I wanted to see Hannibal's reaction to him. "Now, with that established, do you know the bracelet you wear?"

"It's… my mom's?" He brought up his hand for emphasis, the gem catching more of the light and sparkling more. "If you mean the gem, I don't know it. I've been trying to look it up, but I haven't found anything."

"It's dragon's eye, that gem." I spoke slowly, wondering if I left some hints, he'd piece things together. "It's only found in Thracia, and we believe that those who wear one are protected by dragons. Killing them is bad luck."

"Sounds problematic for a mercenary."

"It is, which is why we keep them close."

"Makes sense." He suddenly frowned, catching the oddity. "Wait, but then why does Mom have one?"

"Why, indeed?"

I told him. I explained it all, about how his mother had saved my life, despite how I even got the scar and despite knowing I could kill her friends again. It was my usual blunt way, and I could imagine the glowers Hannibal would've given me, but it seemed the most effective. Though, I'd admit that my gradually-getting-soft heart did feel a bit bad about shaking him so. Just a bit. But he had to know. I made sure Coirpre knew, and it felt wrong to not make sure Conall knew as well.

I checked on him later, from a distance, watching him play with Julius and Julia. They were heading into the market, and the twin royals were arguing over which one Conall would carry. Amusingly, they each argued for the other, with Conall laughing at them both. He seemed well enough. We'd see how that would hold, I supposed.

Well, let it never be said that I couldn't be surprised. Conall's eventual response to my question was to demand to visit Thracia. He wanted to see the land I loved, the land I made my choices for. I agreed, both because I thought such audaciousness should be encourage and… something he said reminded me that he had a lot in common with Altena. And when… when Altena learned the truth, that commonality might ensure she had someone to lean on when everything was confusing. She'd need that. I was sure of it. And, also, as I told Diadora, I just had a bad feeling. Making sure there were strong bonds… that Arion and Altena had strong bonds outside of Thracia… it might make a difference.

"Whoa… Thracia's so pretty…" Conall gasped, grinning. He'd said the same thing practically every day since we crossed the border. A Warp Circle, or whatever the thing was called, had been established, but it couldn't transport the dragons, so we flew. "You know… given how many times Bloom has called you 'hyenas', I expected your home to look more like their habitats. Though the books do mention they've got a pretty wide variety."

"Did you now?" I replied, laughing a little. It didn't surprise me that Bloom would hate me as much as I hated him. "Disappointed?"

"No way. I'm not sure why he calls you 'hyenas' anyway. Or why that would be an insult."

"You don't think 'hyena' is an insult?"

"Well, I'm not sure why any animal would be an insult. They're amazing!" He twisted to look up at me better, face chapped from the wind. But he didn't care. "But the spotted hyena, for instance, is a super successful hunter, is very adaptable, can recognize distant relatives in their groups, are able to cooperate to solve problems… they're cool! Oh, and they're matriarchal as well." He paused, and tilted his head. "You're not matriarchal or anything, right?"

"Unlike most countries, inheritance is based on first-born, not gender." Mostly because 'only children' were very common and because we had a higher death rate than the other countries. It was just something that got established for convenience. "That was an interesting transition."

"It's interesting!" He sulked a bit. "And anyway, they're very cunning. So, I don't know. It seems like it's a compliment to me."

"Perhaps it is because they are beasts."

"Humans ambush and betray each other for their goals, and kill people just for being in the way, even children." He became very solemn. "They put on a nice face to lure people into traps, smile and laugh with someone while aiming a dagger for their heart. How is that better? Animals rarely attack except the protect something or for food, after all."

"That's a philosophical discussion, which I hate, so I have no answer for you." And luckily for me, the castle was in sight, so there was a convenient distraction. "There's where we'll be staying, by the way."

"Whoa, it's huge!" And Conall was right back to being an excited kid. "Are those statues of dragons on the side? Amazing!"

He continued babbling questions about what he could see, and we slowly landed in the main courtyard, where servants were waiting to assist with luggage and tending to the dragons. Hannibal, of course, was here waiting for me, and the complete exasperation on his face when he saw Conall was hilarious.

"My king, why is there a child?" Hannibal asked, tone the perfect mix of politeness and dryness. No doubt he was trying to think of scenarios, each one more elaborate than the last, which almost made me burst into laughter. "You left for a diplomatic thing, yes? Do we have a hostage because you instigated a war?"

"You think I'd be this relaxed if I was?" I asked, matching his dryness with my own. Though, I had to admit that I was surprised Arvis and Diadora didn't bring up that worry. Especially Arvis, since he knew I was just waiting for a weakness. "Regardless, Hannibal, this is Prince Conall, Alicia's son. Prince Conall, this is Hannibal, the Shield of Thracia." I rested a hand on Conall's shoulder, and he bowed before looking away at the castle, still fascinated by it. "He's going to stay with us for a few months."

"And why, pray tell, is that?"

"I wanted to see what Travant has done with the life Mom saved besides kill her friends," Conall explained bluntly, more interested in the castle than the conversation. Hannibal's look of horror at the tactlessness was just as beautiful as I could've hoped. "That's going to be hard to climb."

"Climb?" I asked, curious. He was still looking at the castle, after all. "Why would you want to climb the castle?"

"To give Diadora a heart attack when she comes to pick me up. And be the bad example for Julius and Julia."

"Who's the good example?"

"Cyas." Twin dragon cries caught our attention and Conall gasped. "Oh wow…"

"I take it Altena and Arion took Coirpre for a flight?" I asked Hannibal, smiling proudly as Arion and Altena guided their dragons down in perfect sync. Altena was unbalanced slightly by the landing, but no worse than anyone else with her amount of training and it could've been because she was the one who had Coirpre. "How did their training go while I was away?"

"Went just fine," Hannibal answered. Conall immediately raced over to the group, examining Lori's teeth when she crooned at Arion. "Seriously, though, what are you plotting?"

"Must I always plot?"

"If you're breathing, my king, then you're plotting. You've been plotting since we were in diapers, starting with escaping the cradle." He gave me the dirtiest look, and I finally let myself snicker. "Also, did you teach him tact or something? He's almost as bad as you."

"I have nothing to do with this, save agreeing to his request."

"Again, I don't believe you."

"I'm afraid I can't answer that question on draconic anatomy," I heard Arion say. From what I saw, Conall was peering into Lori's mouth, completely unafraid of the sharp teeth, with Arion watching closely, just in case his dragon decided to rescind her permission abruptly. Altena and Coirpre watched, with Coirpre hiding a bit behind Altena, and Altena frowning. I wondered if there had even been introductions. "However, I'm sure there's a book in the library."

"Library?" Conall repeated, his eyes lighting up. He stepped back from Lori and bowed to her. "My thanks, gentle lady, for letting me stare at your teeth and learn more about you and your kind." He then focused completely on Arion. "Where's the library?"

"Ah, this way." Arion made to head inside the castle, but Conall seized his arm and dragged him along. Whatever answers Conall wanted, he was very eager about it, and still had a child's impatience. Or he was desperate to find an answer to my question, and thus, to learn all he could. "Whoa!"

"Hey, boy! You can't just arrive and steal Arion!" Altena yelled, chasing after them. Coirpre lingered awkwardly for a moment before bowing to us and following. "You have to at least introduce yourself first!"

"Why? Do you need the name of the person you'll duel for the dashing prince?" Conall retorted instantly, with a grin. Even though they were quickly heading inside, I still caught Arion's sudden blush. "Because books."

"Who needs a duel when I have Ethniu?" Altena rolled her eyes. "Duels are overrated anyway."

"They are, so I'd just set your hair on fire or something first."

"You little brat!"

"You're really easy to tease."


"Well, things are going to be lively for a while," I laughed, watching them all leave. Hannibal facepalmed before glowering at me. "Look, this was actually not my idea." I certainly took advantage of it, yes, but for once, things weren't my fault.

"I don't believe you," he deadpanned. Then he sighed, back to facepalming. With both hands, at that. Ethniu and Lori flew off, no doubt to head to the fields with the other dragons. "I was hoping for some quiet."

"Let them have fun, Hannibal." I had meant for it to be still laughing, but I thought again of my reasons for agreeing, so my voice dropped to a whisper. Hannibal's eyes narrowed, noting the change. "I think... there's a storm on the horizon."

"A bloody one." He nodded, understanding completely. Of course he did. We'd known each other far too long. "I'm going to strengthen patrols. If anyone asks, we'll say it's because we've an Imperial prince here."

"I leave it to you."

I chuckled as I looked through the reports, noticing that there were some complaints from the servants because of the children. Not all that unusual. Arion was a quiet, polite, and well behaved young man, with the awkwardness that came from just coming of age and thus, led him to not know how to stop his friends from doing unadvised things. Coirpre was a shy and gentle boy, with a quiet stubborness that let him see things through, even if they were silly or stupid things. Altena, of course, was a bundle of energy, as she always had been, and though she did do her best to not make more work for everyone, she still had a few years of maturing before one could call her 'calm'. So, complaints were common, but there were more now. Because of Conall.

Conall was fiery and bright much like Altena, and both of them seemed to thrive off competing with each other. It seemed odd, based on how he'd been when I first saw him and how he'd been around Julius and Julia, but perhaps this was simply him enjoying not being the 'older and responsible' one. Whatever the reason, it led to quite a few more pranks, so I did have to at least attempt to scold. And tell Hannibal so that it could be done properly, because I was just glad the children were smiling. There had been more smiles in Thracia these past few years, and it reminded me of the reason why I fought so hard.

"Your bear really seems familiar, but I can't think of where." Conall's voice drifted out of Altena's room and since the door was open, I peeked inside to see both were sitting on Altena's bed, with the stuffed bear Alicia gave Altena long ago tucked in her lap, and Conall holding a stuffed-dog to his chest. "Maybe I've just seen something similar in the market or something," he continued, poking its cheek. Altena playfully made it batt Conall's hand with its 'paw'. "Anyway, it's adorable. You've had it a while."

"As long as I can remember," Altena confirmed, giggling. She smiled warmly at the stuffed-bear, playing with its arms. "Lord Father says that my aunt gave it to me. I wish I had memories of her. Whenever I try to think of her, I get an… well, it's not an memory, but an…"

"Impression. That's what I call them." Conall hugged his stuffed-dog closer to his chest. "My Dad died during the Battle of Belhalla, and my mom died before I could see her again, so all I have are impressions. Not quite memories, but things you know are them. Like how Dad would sing Riona and me lullabies, and Mom always smelled of medicinal herbs."

"I like that word, and it certainly fits. I've the same for my birth parents, and… I think a few others, probably friends of theirs." Altena closed her eyes, thinking. "For my aunt, I get 'warmth' and an herbal smell. My mother had a bell-like laugh, rising and falling, and my father had a strong presence. You could just tell whenever he was in the room."

"So, you lost your parents young?"

"Yep. Gran 761, the same year where bunches of people died. So, it's been a bit over ten years now." Altena opened her eyes and smiled. "Lord Father found me near a battlefield and brought me here for safety. And so, I've remained. I do wish I knew a bit more about my past, though."


"Mostly so that I can ask why I was near a battle in the first place."

"Mmm… maybe they just thought it would be safe and got ambushed?" Conall shrugged and shifted so that he was leaning against the wall. Altena preferred her bed to be tucked into the back corner. "Lots of battles happened then, and a lot of things changed, right?"

"That's true. I'd be willing to bet that's what happened to the little princess lost during the Yied Massacre." Altena suddenly scowled. "I hate what the merchants say, though. Lord Father would never attack a child. Her parents should've not brought her to the desert in the first place!"

"Yeah, I imagine Ethlyn and Quan were very surprised by an ambush in the desert."

"Seems like an obvious place to attack horses. But I guess we're looking in hindsight. But it does get annoying that it gets vilified, and the Battle of Belhalla..." She shrugged and suddenly frowned. Which was good because I wasn't quite sure how to deal with eavesdropping on all of that. "Wait, hold on. You said your father died during the Battle of Belhalla. But the one who did that was…"

"Yes, I'm being raised by the people who killed my parents and their friends." Conall's voice became very, very dry. "It's the absolute greatest."

"That sounds awkward. I can't even imagine being raised by my parents' murderers." Altena smiled sympathetically, and I had to bite back a laugh at the sheer… well, I was pretty sure this counted as 'irony'. "Is that why you don't call your aunt and uncle… well…"

"Yeah." Conall played a bit with his stuffed-dog. "I will admit that I like Diadora. Arvis is… way more complicated. But I can see the good he's doing for the people. Even if he's a little too insistent that he knows best."

"Why would you think otherwise?"

"Mostly because… um…" He hesitated, strangely, and half-hid behind his toy. "Let's just go with 'feeling'. I guess."

"Okay?" Altena frowned, and I had to admit to being curious. "That sounds suspicious, you know."

"It's knowledge that could hurt Diadora. And I won't hurt her. I'll drive her insane and give her heart attacks, but I won't hurt her. Even if things are complicated, I do love my aunt." He suddenly looked very serious. "But if you tell her that, I'm going to deny I ever said it. It's complicated."

"You use that word a lot."

"My parents got slaughtered alongside their friends, my family is in hiding, and I got kidnapped and dragged across the desert to be raised by the people who are responsible for it all." With every word, Conall's expression got more and more impassive and his words became dryer and dryer. "My whole life is complicated."

"Okay, point. But go with some synonyms or something."


"Is that even a word?"

"I have no idea, actually."

I left then, deciding that I could scold later, when they weren't being quiet and having a good conversation. Besides, the guilt was gnawing at me again, and the fear of Altena hating me, and I knew Altena would pick up on both and switch the conversation to that. And then there was what Conall said. Knowledge that could hurt an Empress? That was a very interesting thing to know… and to look into. Another card to have up the sleeve, just in case. She was kind and she was deserving of her title, but there might be a time Thracia needed me to have that card. So, I'd find it. That was all there was to it.

A few days after that overheard conversation, I saw something that confused and frightened me. While I was working in my office, I saw Hannibal run past. Except Hannibal rarely ran. He hated running, mostly because he was used to the heavy armor that clanged horribly and threatened to deafen you if you ran. So, if he was running… typically, that meant something was wrong. So, I looked out my window, wondering if I could see just what was going on, and I saw Coirpre in the garden. Not usual, but the lynx bearing down on him was. And it confused the living hell out of me because wild animals rarely came near. The dragons scared them away.

But neither here nor there. I had my answer for why Hannibal was running, and so, I promptly went after him. He had a headstart, so it took me a bit to catch up, and by then, we made it to the gardens. Just as the lynx rushed and leapt for Coirpre. Hannibal yelled something, as if that would stop the lynx and save Coirpre, but something else did. Save Coirpre, I mean. It took a couple of blinks to figure out what had happened, because it had been a blur of motion, but I soon figured it out. After all, Arion, who hadn't been within sight, was suddenly there with Coirpre in his arms a short distance away from where the lynx was. Arion had managed to snatch Coirpre up in time, but it was hard to move quickly while carrying a child, and the lynx was preparing to leap again…!

"Leave them alone!" And then there was Altena, who caught the lynx as it leapt and threw it a good distance away. "Don't you touch them, cat!" she snapped, standing protectively in front of Arion and Coirpre. Coirpre was shaking and clinging to Arion, looking near tears, while Arion shifted to better shield him. "I won't forgive you for hurting them!" The lynx, however, regained its footing, and snarled, preparing to attack yet again. "Yeah, come on, you little…"

"Wait a moment!" Conall rushed up then, and, in complete defiance to all sense, actually approached the growling, snarling lynx. "Easy, proud lady…" he murmured, speaking gently. The lynx focused on him, but surprisingly didn't attack him. "You are fierce and not one to attack without reason. What reason did we give?" The lynx's eyes darted to something behind Coirpre and Arion, still not attacking. For some reason. "Wait, given the time of year…" Conall frowned and then looked to Coirpre. Ignoring the snarling lynx who really should've bitten his arm off by now. "I can't think of a way to say this without sounding accusatory and I'm sorry, but is one of her babies behind you?"

"W-well, th-there's a wounded animal hiding in the bushes…" Coirpre explained, pointing to the shrubs behind him. By this point, Hannibal and I had made it to the courtyard, but both of us were more than a little frozen by the weird series of events. "I was trying to get to it and… and…"

"Basically, the lynx is doing the same thing Altena did. Good. I was afraid we were dealing with rabies and that is kiiiiinda bad. Fatal bad. Super fatal bad." Conall looked to Arion and Altena. "I can probably keep her calm? Maybe?"

"I'll stay near you, just in case," Altena declared firmly, moving to stand partially in front of Conall. The lynx growled, and Altena glared right on back. "Go ahead and try. You scared Coirpre and hurt Arion. I'll throw your ass into the forest, cat."

"Well, while Altena is attempting to insult a wild animal, I think I'll get the kitten," Arion murmured, crouching down to crawl underneath. Coirpre was sniffling, desperately trying to keep from crying. "Easy, Coirpre. You're not at fault here."

"Yeah, the cat is."

"The lynx saw weird creature near her crying baby," Conall pointed out, almost sulkily. He even scowled when Altena glowered at him. "It's definitely not Coirpre's fault, but if you're going to get mad at her for this, you should be mad at yourself. Since, you know, you did the same thing."

"Are you saying I'm the same as the cat?" Altena asked, sounding offended. Arion, meanwhile, crawled under the bush Coirpre indicated, and Coirpre picked up a healing staff that must've fallen before I saw Hannibal running. "Seriously?"

"Well, if it looks like a lynx and acts like a lynx…"

"Seriously?!" Altena looked ready to hit Conall, but instead, she focused on the lynx, who was back to growling. "That better just be you being you and not you being insulted at being compared to me."

"Easy, easy, fierce one." Conall brought his hand up and looked the lynx right in the eye. "We are helping. Your little one is trapped and hurting." The lynx growled again, but slunk back, her eyes darting to Altena. "I thank you, dear lady."

"How the hell are you doing that anyway?"

"You just have to be respectful." He grinned up at her. "See how she's watching you more than me? I think she is wary of being thrown again, though."


"Got the kitten," Arion called, wriggling out from under the bush. He had numerous scrapes, scratches, and what looked to be bite wounds on his arms, hands, and face. And a squirming, whimpering, fuzzy kitten-lynx in his arms. "Poor thing was pinned."

"I honestly don't know if I should treat you or it first," Coirpre whispered, looking between both of them. But after a moment, he crouched down to heal up the kitten. In no time at all, it was perfectly healthy again. "There we are."

"Good." Arion let the kitten down, and it immediately bolted to the lynx. "Try not to get caught again!" Silence fell as the lynx left with its kitten, and Coirpre immediately began tending to Arion's wounds. "Well, that was…"

"That was amazing, Arion!" Conall praised, his eyes sparkling. He even bounced a bit from excitement. "When I saw what was going on, I was sure no one would get there in time, but you were like the wind!"

"It was pretty cool," Altena agreed with a bright and warm smile. Arion coughed and squirmed, ducking his head while Coirpre tended to his injuries. "And I know I snarked, but it was neat how you got the lynx to stop attacking."

"Considering how mad she was, I think it only worked because you threw her first. And wow, you threw her far!" Conall grinned. "You're super strong! And Coirpre is super skilled!"

"Isn't he?" Altena giggled, and Coirpre began blushing. "The best healer in Thracia! Or he will be with a bit more training."

"Especially with how quickly he heals. Look at that!"

By that point, Hannibal unfroze and rushed over to hug Coirpre tightly, loosening only when Coirpre insisted on healing Arion more. I walked over a little more slowly, ruffling Arion's hair and hugging Altena before looking at Conall. "I think we're going to keep this from your aunt and uncle," I told him, partially just to joke. "Just because."

"Oh, it's no worse than me smuggling a lion cub out a window and climbing to the roof to play with her when I should've been in class," Conall replied with a bright grin. In light of everything, I just smiled and nodded at the weird string of words. "But I won't tell. Diadora might try to stop me from hiking in the woods again and it's a pain to sneak out."

"Wait, how do you climb to the roof?" Altena asked curiously. She looked at the castle for emphasis. "I mean…"

"I've been trying to figure out a good path up, but if you and Ethniu want to help, I can show you here."

"Sounds like fun! Let's go!"

It was later that the shock of 'holy hell, someone really should have died' made it through with the children. Coirpre cried, Arion and I had a heart to heart about things like that, Altena had a similar talk with Hannibal but was noticeably less shaken than I would've thought, and Conall curled up alone in his room, refusing to talk to anyone about it. Everyone reacted different to situations like that. All you could do was make sure they'd be okay.

"How is Coirpre doing?" I asked about a week or so after the incident with the lynx. Hannibal and I were working on organizing scouting reports and filtering through potential jobs. Arion would have to go on his first one soon, like all dragon knights. Dragon at age 15, come of age at age 16, first job at age 17. "He recovering decently?"

"More or less," Hannibal replied, frowning over something. I noticed it was his frown of 'this is so ridiculous that I cannot decide if laughing or groaning is more appropriate'. "He is hesitant about walking through the gardens alone, but…" Hannibal pointed out the window and I saw how Coirpre and Conall were there, talking about something. "I've noticed Conall is conveniently always free. I think he does it on purpose."

"Probably does. I know that only their training keeps Arion and Altena away from Coirpre." I held out my hand for the paper he was reading, and felt my brain wither while looking it over. "This is basically hiring us to be babysitters. Petsitters. Whatever."

"Should we take it?"

"Small group of those recuperating and able-bodied. Just in case. But for this price, I'd say go for it." I tossed it into the 'accepted' pile. I then tossed the one I'd been reading into the 'rejected pile', really the fire. "I still can't believe no one got seriously hurt. Arion took the worst injuries, and that was from a scared baby lynx."

"It was certainly a unique showing of the blessings their Holy Blood gave." Hannibal chuckled, and I nodded, remembering it now. "Prince Arion's speed, Lady Altena's strength…"

"Od is known for 'skill', yes? Sharper eyes and the like?" I picked up another report, glancing over it before noting that it was typical for this time of year. "Maybe that's why Prince Conall didn't get bit."

"Possibly, but I wonder if it might be something else." Hannibal passed me another potential job, and I set it into the 'accepted' pile. Bandit killing was a fairly typical one for us. "Though there are the 'famous' boons, there are the quieter things, yes? Like how you and Prince Arion can fly far higher than anyone can."

"That is because we are blessed by Skadi of the Mountains." The blessing meant we could just… breathe easier. Even at high altitudes where the air was thin and others had to drop because they were too dizzy. Useful for spying, so long as you wanted only the big picture and not the little details. "You think something like that came about?"

"Well, I'm not sure for Lady Altena or Coirpre. I don't know too many tales there." He balled up one job offer and tossed it into the fire. Meaning it had been something that would've made me lose my temper, and now I was far too curious. "But I remember something an Issachian mercenary once told me."

"When did you fight with an Issachian mercenary?"

"I didn't fight with him, and a good thing. The one I speak of is Galzus."

"Ah." I grimaced and leaned back in my chair to stretch out my neck. A skilled and powerful mercenary with quite a few legends attached to him… he operated mostly in the northern part of the peninsula, but occasionally, his jobs took him close to the border. "Should we be worried?"

"No, of course not. But the thing he told me was interesting." Hannibal smiled, amused by how he was leading the conversation. "Do you know the god who blessed Od?"

"Tiamat, yes?" I frowned, trying to remember the rest. I'd done well in my lessons, but with so few interactions with Isaach, some things just faded away. "Tiamat of…"

"Beasts, your majesty. Tiamat of the Beasts." Hannibal shrugged, and I had to chuckle, catching his meaning now. "That might be why Prince Conall didn't get his face bitten off. Along with Lady Altena throwing the thing."

"Maybe." I looked out the window again, this time noticing Arion and Altena had joined them, and the four were playing something. Or plotting something. Or both. "What I want to know is why they were so close. Animals don't get close enough to get stuck under the shrubbery."

"...Animals have been known to flee when danger is near." Hannibal's eyes were serious, all bits of joking turning to ash like the papers. "I remember when Queen Lorilei… when the attack happened… shortly before, the animals were acting oddly."

"I see." I watched the children from the window for a moment before turning away, thinking. This bad feeling of mine… it just wouldn't go away. I was almost used to it by this point. "Get the patrols even stronger. "I want to know if we've got people in there, or if…"

"I'll handle it at once."

"Thank you, Hannibal. I mean it."

"Always, your majesty. Always."

Chapter Text

Final Chapter) Check

Altena had done her best while giving her report. She'd returned from her first mercenary job, where she'd performed admirably, and had to keep calm while delivering the final report. However, in the middle of it, her temper sparked and there was no stopping the tirade. Her employer had them put down a 'rebellion', which had been starving peasants desperate for some sort of change. She'd done her job, as had her group, but… I would have to check that missive again, to see if there was something I had missed. While a good experience for her, it wasn't exactly a job I would've given her for her first.

Finally, though, she stopped, breathing heavily as she fought back screams and tears. I made myself keep calm, and looked at her impassively. "Is that the end of your report?" I asked her softly. She nodded, not looking up. "I asked a question, Altena."

"Yes, sir…" she bit out. She took a shuddering breath. "So, I'll-"

"Altena." I got up and quickly walked around my desk to hug her. No, this was not a good first job, especially for her. "I warned you. While you are on the job, I will treat you as I do every other dragon knight. That means being professional, not balking orders, and giving a report." I stroked her hair, though, to soften the scolding. "As soon as the report is done, though, you're no longer on the job. That is when you rant, Altena."

"Of course, Lord Father." She sighed, and leaned into me. "I just… no, I need to be calmer. For Thracia's sake. I can't tarnish its reputation, especially when we depend on it for our people." She clenched her fists, though, shaking with suppressed rage. "But there must be a way to help it thrive without spilling the blood of civilians! Without having to bend knee to petty lords who don't know the meaning of nobility!"

"If there is, I know you can find it, Altena. You and Arion both." I hugged her a little tighter, wishing I could better comfort her. "But, for now, this is the only path Thracia knows, and the only path we have."

"Got to clear the weeds before you can look at the others." Slowly, she relaxed, but that only made her sorrow more pronounced. "They were starving, Lord Father. Like our people. They were no different…"

"Let it serve as motivation, Altena. I'm afraid that I can't help you with this." I let go of her and rested my hands on her shoulders. "However, when you've got a bit more experience, I actually have a gift for you."

"You do?"

"Yes, a lance." The words were hard to say. But I knew… I couldn't push this off forever, no matter how much I wanted to. Thracia was more important than myself, and this would lead to Thracia's prosperity. But for the first time, I did wish I had done something different. No idea what, but… "But only in a few years."

"Wow, I'm being bribed like I'm four again." Still, Altena grinned, laughing a little. "Is it a fancy spear like the dragonpike spear you gave to Arion and me?"

"Even fancier." If one was allowed to describe a divine weapon like Gae Bolg as 'fancy'. "I promise that you'll like it."

"So, endure assholes employers and bite my tongue. Got it." Altena narrowed her eyes suddenly. "Hey, if I can possibly subvert while still technically obeying…"

"You'll need a few more years of a reputation for that."

"But I can? Eventually."

"Oh yes. I do it all the time."

"Okay." She giggled, finally in a good mood again. I was glad; things felt wrong when she wasn't smiling. "So, Lord Father, I was thinking-"

Whatever she'd been considering had to wait. There was an strange series of yelps and scrambling in the hall, followed quickly by the sound of things falling. Confused, I stepped out of my office, with Altena following, and saw a black blur heading straight for us. I easily scooped it up, and discovered that it was some sort of puppy. A large puppy who kept wagging its tail, and looking about curiously.

"Aw… you're so cute~!" Altena immediately cooed, rubbing the puppy's head. It whimpered a bit, but sniffed her hand when she offered it. "How did you get in here, cutie pie?"

"Hekate, gods damn it, you were supposed to stay in Belhalla!" And there was Conall running down the hall. The puppy immediately squirmed out of my arms and raced for him, barking excitedly. "Why did you sneak into the Warp Circle?" he groaned, picking her up. The puppy just licked his face. Should've expected he was connected to the 'trouble'. "If you wanted to come along, you shouldn't have chewed through your leash!"

"I take it the cutie is yours, wolfy?" Altena grinned and skipped over to pet the puppy. "I am so surprised. Not."

"Yes, Hekate is mine, lynx." Conall sighed, and gently scratched the puppy behind the ear. I hid a smile at their nicknames for each other; it had been that way ever since the lynx incident two years ago. "I found her while on a hike, and healed her up with Ishtar's help. Arvis let me keep her, though I didn't mention she was a wolf."

"Oh, I seee… wolf?!"

"Yes, wolf. You really think I'm going to have a normal pet?" Conall then looked past Altena and waved at me. "I apologize for whatever trouble she has caused, and will cause. I'm told she's like a toddler, getting into everything. Also, lock your office door. She can reach the handle and has no concept of 'important paperwork'."

"Somehow, I'm unsurprised the imp belongs to you," I noted dryly. I did promptly shut my office door, though. "I thought you weren't due for a few more days." Conall had taken to spending the harvest here with us in Thracia these past couple of years. The extra help was welcome, particularly his control over fire to help clear out dead plants, and he was always willing to learn. "Did I mix up the calendar?"

"No, I just returned from Alster earlier than expected because Hilda was coming and I didn't want to deal with her," Conall replied easily. Took me a moment to remember Hilda was Bloom's wife. I didn't know much about her, save that she ruled Miletos and Conall called her a 'bitch' when he first met her. "Which meant I arrived just in time for a lovely formal dinner."

"And so, you promptly escaped to here." I could definitely understand that one. "Well, let's get you settled in. And deal with your unexpected guest."

"She was supposed to stay in Belhalla. She did when I was in Alster." He looked sternly at Hekate, who barked and wagged her tail. "When I'm working, you are behaving, or I will lock you up. And no eating the harvest."

"If she does, does it mean I automatically win the duel for Arion?" Altena asked with a giant grin. This time, I had to laugh, because this was also a long-running joke between them now and it was a shame they started up when Arion wasn't here to yelp at it. The most hilarious part about it was that the two only had the joke because Arion's reactions were so amusing to them both. "Because if so…"

"No way, you can't use Hekate to default a win," Conall retorted, his eyes dancing with laughter. He and Altena had fun with the joke, though it was becoming increasingly obvious that both Arion and Altena had feelings for each other. Which I hadn't planned in the slightest, but so long as they were happy… "Unless I can use Coirpre."

"No way!"

"I thought so."

Things always got lively when Conall visited, mostly because he and Altena always bounced off of each other's energy so much. It seemed this year would be no different.

It was rare when other mercenaries requested help from us. Typically, it meant a big job or something. To get it from Jabarro's group… I didn't like the man much, the few times I had to interact with him, but he was no-nonsense when it came to what jobs were. Could be a good experience for Altena… and the Black Knight that Jabarro's group had could be a good connection for her as well. Mercenaries lived and died by their connections, and Thracia was no exception, even if we had more of a 'buffer' for that.

I set that missive in the 'accepted' pile and went to look at the next one. Laughter, however, drew my attention to the window. Outside in the gardens, the children were playing with Conall's wolf. Ha… 'children'. Arion and Altena were of age, past that even. Conall was still legally a child, but at fourteen, he would start taking 'adult' responsibilities soon. Only Coirpre could truly be called a 'child', and even then, he was already ten years old. They really did grow up too fast… I'd heard that phrase many times while listening to gossip during plantings and harvests, but it was only recently that I actually understood it.

"It feels like yesterday you brought Lady Altena home, doesn't it?" Hannibal mused. As usual, he was helping me filter through all the job requests, and he'd been distracted by the same thing I was. "That day, I swore I was going to strangle you."

"Even more than the other days you swore you'd strangle me?" I asked, smiling slightly. It really did feel like yesterday, but it had been thirteen years, give or take. Thirteen very happy years. "What do you think now?"

"I honestly think it was one of your best decisions, whatever your reasonings for it were. She breathed new life into the palace, and the people love her. They see both her and Arion as the future, and are hopeful." Hannibal laughed softly. "I worry what effect the truth will have, but at the same time…"

"Yeah…" The castle had been in mourning for Lorelei, a hard place to stay. Altena had brightened it with her bright smile and brighter laugh, though. She helped turn the place into 'home' again. It was something I hadn't ever expected, really. I never expected to love her as much as I did. But here I was, fretting over her just as much as I did Arion. Regardless of everything, both were my children. "Didn't do too bad of a job, raising any of them."

"No, we didn't. There are things I wish I had done differently, but overall, I'm proud of the people they've become and are becoming. Particularly Prince Arion." Hannibal looked specifically at him, where Arion was helping Coirpre not be overwhelmed by how energetic Conall's wolf was. "He'll be a good king. Especially given a few more years. More cautious than you."

"Probably a good thing." I thought of my plan, my very long plan, and felt my mood darken. "A very good thing."

"Yes…" Hannibal focused on me, eyes narrowed as he studied my expression. "You're troubled. What has you fretting, my king."

"Just what trials they'll have to face, now that they are older." I laughed mirthlessly. "I wish they could've just stayed children forever, unaware of how the world truly works."

"My king…" Hannibal continued to study me. "Travant, are you regretting your choices?"

"I don't know." I didn't think so. But that might've just been because I knew there was no other path to walk at this point. "But I'll keep going."

"Of course. And I will stand with you." Hannibal smiled and then looked out the window to watch the 'children' play more. "As always."

I smiled tiredly at him, and went back to work to hide how much that statement, that statement I had heard my entire life, had shaken me. Arion and Altena… they would need Hannibal. I knew they would. So, I… I needed to do something to make sure Hannibal didn't follow me to the end… somehow… Ha… maybe Hannibal was right. Maybe I was actually feeling regret for the first time. But it was done. I'd come too far. And if it meant saving Thracia…

After a while, Hannibal left to get us both some food, and as soon as he was gone, I stopped working and looked up at the ceiling. The sky. "Gods, I don't care if I'm condemned to hell," I began softly. I wasn't sure if they'd hear me, but perhaps Skadi would and pass the prayer along. "I'm sure I was condemned long ago. But let me be the only sacrifice here. Please, keep Arion and Altena safe. Please, keep Hannibal and Coirpre safe. Please, let Thracia thrive. Let this plan of mine actually work."

When this was all over, Lorelei was going to scold me. But it would be worth it. I would make it worth it.