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Unfated

Chapter Text

“A song from Silesia, if you know one, Maestro?”

The room fell into silence as Selis spoke. They were gathered around the fire, which did little to dispel the spring chill of northern Isaac, drinking farewell to his younger brother, about to leave for a reconnaissance mission in Imperial lands.

The bard nodded. His weathered but nimble fingers quickly adjusted the strings for a different tune. After a few scattered notes and a short silence, he began to play.

The melody was a sweet one, and every note masterfully played. Yet the bard did not sing, and made no apologies for the missing words. So finally on the second refrain Sety looked up from the fire, and began to sing the words with the conviction of one who was not afraid of it.

It was said that the younger son of Sigurd of Chalphy and Lewyn of Silesia had the demeanor and poise of the late Silesian crown prince. Indeed, just as Selis himself bore the holy brand of Baldo, the mark of Forseti had long ago manifested on his brother. So as Sety began to sing, Selis wondered if his father had sung in the same mesmerizing voice, disguised – as the stories went – as a minstrel in his many travels.

It was a song about love. Of love blossoming like the lone flower on the snowy peaks of Silesia, dreaming of the day when the summer sun would chase away the shadows. Few had spoken to Selis about his parents, but somehow in his mind’s eye, he could see the wandering prince sitting on a rock amidst the mountains, half-heartedly plucking at the strings of his mandolin while contemplating the landscape below.

Those must have been happier days. Days before war ravaged pristine Silesia and dyed its snowy plains red with blood, before the crown prince ripped his own kinsmen to shreds and annihilated their dismembered flesh in the gust of Forseti, and certainly before it all came to an end in the flames of Belhalla.

Selis only realized that he had been long lost in thought when he heard Lana’s voice. The song had ended, the bard had gone on to a new tune, and everyone was talking again.

“You are good at this!” Lana was saying to Sety, with her characteristic sweet smile.

“Thank you,” his brother replied with an expression of completely feigned modesty, “I’ve been practising. It would make a good disguise, travelling as a minstrel, don’t you think?”

“You have to be careful…”

But Selis already stopped paying attention. Oifey was sitting with Shannan, with a wistful smile on his face. They half-whispered their conversation, as if they did not want the children to overhear. Selis did not look their way but turned an ear.

“You remember, certainly?” his guardian and strategist said.

“Yes,” answered the prince of Isaac, “Erinys tried to teach me the song once… but we are too young to be this nostalgic. We can fight, and we will fight.”

“We will fight,” Oifey repeated. “But you remember – they sang this song at Lord Sigurd’s wedding.”

“I remember. Ayra danced – ”

Shannan stopped abruptly, stealing a glance at Lakshe and her brother, and the rest of the conversation vanished as if into a puff of smoke.

 

Shannan used to like weddings.

He was so excited to be the ring bearer when Ayra was betrothed to Lex of House Neiru, that it became customary in Lord Sigurd’s army to give the young prince a part in every such celebration. When Sigurd declared his intention to marry the heir of Silesia, Queen Rahna indulged Shannan with the honor of toastmaster. Oifey mumbled something about the politics of the decision, but Shannan couldn’t quite remember what he said.

Of all the people involved in the wedding, Prince Lewyn seemed to be the least enthusiastic, muttering that his mother appeared happier about having Sigurd as a son-in-law than about seeing her own son wed. Yet (this Shannan remembered Oifey saying) it was important to put on a show for the people of war-torn Silesia; therefore Lewyn, for all his detestation of formalities, put on a most splendid one like the bard he could be.

It probably wasn’t too hard, given the glitter of hidden passion whenever the Silesian prince smiled half-mockingly at Sigurd – such was the love that only one who had lost too much innocence could bear towards one still innocent. Lewyn even got some revenge out of embarrassing his fiancé ever so slightly with public displays of affection, but Sigurd was too large-hearted to understand this kind of playful vengeance, so all that remained at the end was only affection.

Like when they were walking up the long flight of stairs to the palace in Silesia, and the successor to Silesia suddenly stole a kiss from his companion’s cheek. Sigurd had stopped, somewhat perplexed, and then pulled the prince in for a long, solemn kiss.

They must have heard the crowd cheering and whistling below. Shannan thought Lewyn probably didn’t mind and Sigurd cared more about other things.

Lord Sigurd was a man for whom each word was like a vow.

So the people of Silesia drank and danced in the short northern summer, celebrating the return of their long-absent prince, in whom an end to all their troubles was almost promised. Amidst the songs and the flowing mead they chanted the name of Sigurd of Chalphy, by whose might they had been delivered from endless strife. In darker times, when the armies of Grannvale pounded on the walls of Silesia, when fire rained on its frozen plains and thunder shook its snow-clad mountains, that same chant was taken up as a warcry until it was finally trampled under the deafening hoofs of knights and drowned in the wails of the wounded.

There was a time when Shannan liked weddings. There may yet be a time when he will like weddings, but that time is not now.

 

Unable to catch more from Oifey and Shannan, Selis went over to talk to the bard. They called him Maestro, for lack of a better name. The seemingly unremarkable man first came to Tirnagog five years ago, and since then consistently brought them information about the world outside on his visits.

And he played his strings for them. It was a rare treat in the long winter of Tirnagog.

“I’m glad to see you well, Lord Selis,” the bard smiled as he saw Selis going towards him. “It appears that I have chanced upon an important occasion.”

“Sety insists on going,” Selis said. “I was hoping, if that’s not too much to ask, if you could speak to him a little of the dangers. Certainly the Empire would hunt for him if they learned of this.”

The bard was quiet for a moment, and then he said, “The blood of the Crusader Baldo runs in his veins, as it does in yours and your father’s, Lord Selis. The Empire hunts for the scions of the righteous, but they have not capitulated – it is this that gives the people hope. The path your brother chooses is a valiant one, and one that is necessary to kindle the flames of tomorrow.”

“You put me to shame now, Maestro,” Selis answered.

The bard shook his head.

“A greater destiny awaits you, Lord Selis, though it has yet to be revealed. If your brother can afford the luxury of the valiant path, your destiny allows only for the prudent one.”

“I do not feel ready,” Selis said.

“We are all as moved by events as we can move them,” the bard said, and with a reassuring smile placed a hand on Selis’ shoulder. For a moment Selis felt almost enchanted by a strange, surreal warmth, until his converser changed the topic with a noticeably lighter tone, “Now, where is Yuria?”

Selis turned around. The silver-haired girl who occasionally accompanied the bard to Tirnagog was beside Lana, who took a liking to the soft-spoken visitor since the first time they met. Lakshe and Skasaher were arguing about some point on Grannvale Empire’s military deployment, to the point that Sety decided to ask for Oifey’s intervention.

“Ah, there she is,” the bard said brightly. “I have been meaning to speak to Prince Shannan and your brother as well.”

They stood up and went over, inconspicuously sequestering the latter two from the heated discussion. After due greetings, the bard said, “You would forgive me, Prince Shannan, for making an abrupt request.”

The Prince of Isaac nodded his acknowledgement, so the bard continued.

 “I’m about to embark on a journey on which I dare not take Yuria. If it would not inconvenience you, I was hoping I can leave her in Tirnagog for some time.”

Shannan looked at Lana (all smiles), and then looked at Selis (sheepishly nodding).

“I don’t see why not,” he said, “she is most welcome to stay.”

Yuria blushed and lowered her head, “Thank you… I will try not to inconvenience anyone.”

“You are too modest, Yuria,” her erstwhile guardian said. “All is well then. There is one last matter before I must be on my way.”

He turned to look at Sety. Caught off-guard, the younger prince blinked, and then broke into a smile, “Do you have words of advice for me, Maestro?”

“Not today,” the bard said quietly but firmly. “Some time ago on my travels, I passed through Belhalla.”

Silence swept across the room. The name of the Grannvale capital was like the deadliest of charms, stirring every memory, every fear, every irretrievable loss.

The bard continued.

“And, by fate, this tome came to me.”

He took out a leather-bound tome. On its cover, an emerald glimmered with an ancient, mystic light.

Forseti,” the bard pronounced, pausing for a moment as if to feel the weight of that name. “Take it, Sety of Silesia.”

For some time Selis was not sure he understood the situation, but Sety seemed just as dumbfounded, until he finally managed, in a voice barely louder than a whisper, “What thanks can I give for this?”

“What you will do with it, will be thanks enough,” the bard said. “Take it.”

Sety held out a hand, uncertainly at first, but as his fingertips touched the tome’s cover, a bout of resolution flared from his person. Then it was the wind. Every breath of air seemed to have been bound, held still in obedience to the overwhelming power of the tome. Every sound deadened, the howling evening winds of Isaac screeched into absolute silence all around them. The emerald blazed with a brilliance that blinded the eye.

Then the light faded into a faint glow, and air started moving again, radiating a scarcely distinguishable warmth.

“So this is the power of a holy weapon,” Sety said, a little breathlessly.

“It came into the world to do good,” the bard said. “May it protect you and others from harm.”

“I will not fail,” Sety said.

The bard sighed. He almost hesitated, when Sety pressed, “Is something the matter, Maestro?”

“Power,” the bard answered softly. “The power of holy weapons can make one forget many things. I wish you would not take it for granted, Lord Sety, lest your journey ends in sorrow and regret.”

“He won’t,” Selis interjected, without knowing whence he found the courage. “We thank you, Maestro, for bringing this to us. There is not a more worthy successor to Forseti – we will not betray your trust.”

“That I know,” the bard said.

With that, he took his leave.

Chapter Text

For no reason at all he remembered his wedding night.

Remember might not be the right word for it, for all that had been him now floated only in that vast consciousness beyond human comprehension, scattered between countless threads of aegir that reached deep into the past and towards the future of immeasurable distance. So what he “remembered” was that in the human war which saw the Crusaders’ descendants take arms against one another, one man had intertwined his fate with another’s. That intertwining took place because the prince of Silesia who had fled his duties envied those who not only fulfilled them but sought them out with the purest intentions, and could not help but give out his aid and eventually his heart.

All this had taken place in Agustria and on route to Silesia, thus the ceremony of marriage, in effect long consummated, constituted – from his current perspective just as from the perspective of the human that he had been – a curious formality that was completely irrelevant and immaterial in the larger scheme of things.

Strangely enough, however, his thoughts were now turned to the summer evening just as humans sometimes contemplate meaningless things like shapes of clouds or spots on a dirty tablecloth. He remembered how the being that had been him solicited intercourse in the bedchamber that had been his since childhood. In all their journeys through Agustria and Silesia, the flirtatious bard had taught the pleasures of the flesh to the upright knight. On that evening, therefore, the solicitation received a response that was quite satisfactory even by his standards. His human memory, heightened by supernatural clairvoyance, could vividly retrace every panting breath, every drop of perspiration, every candle flame flickering in his blurred vision, every delicate pattern embroidered on the silken bedsheets, which he clutched and tore at over and over again as he was stimulated to the point of losing consciousness. Sigurd followed instructions just a little too well.

He could see their flesh intertwined just as their fates intertwined, a slim thread in an endless tapestry, quickly submerged under the titanic waves of what came to be known as history. Yet for him alone that thread blazed like a meteor whose light illuminated the labyrinth of time, though at the same time it was falling away, like countless others, into the void of meaningless irrelevance to which most human experiences were always consigned.

Irrelevances like how Sigurd first said “Lewyn”, and then “Prince Lewyn” (oh, Erinys), then again “Lewyn”, and finally “my beloved Lewyn,” whispered into his ear that summer night, when his human body almost suffocated under the crushing heat of passion. The echo of that voice rang in his consciousness still, an infinitesimally faint sound that called into the infinite distance, and was lost in the darkness as soon as it was uttered.

My beloved Lewyn.

He was that man no longer. The more he yearned for the glimmers of the past to fill the immeasurable void, the quicker they dissipated, showing themselves for what they were – irrelevances. For history it mattered only that the union between Lewyn of Silesia and Sigurd of Chalphy produced the heirs to Tyrfing and Forseti – among those who would right the world from its wrongs –

And that they died at Belhalla.

This knowledge burned like acid through what remained human of him, an ever-corrosive hole where his heart could no longer be. He lived on stolen time.

– He has your eyes, Lewyn. He’ll grow up like you, a worthy successor to Forseti.

– First, he doesn’t have my eyes. Second, if he’s like me, he’ll bolt for the door the moment he hears the words “worthy successor to Forseti.” And never come back.

– You came back.

– Shut up, could you?

For a brief moment his memory was lost in the sensation of the warm kiss, the firm hand on the back of his neck, the intermingled breath that escaped from between their lips. Then pain overcame him in the form of the ocean of flames, of the shears that cut short the threads of life, of the vast void which no amount of irrelevant details could fill. He must have been screaming mentally because Forseti descended into him, as he closed his eyes and allowed himself to be completely filled by its gentle warmth, whose overwhelming presence lifted him from his own existence into the eternal time of unquestioning and unquestioned faith.

Strangely enough, it almost felt exactly like that summer’s eve when the lord-knight of Chalphy picked him up from his old bed and pressed him against the window, and gently drew from his lips every kiss and moan and sound in-between.

Chapter Text

A verdant storm tore through Manster’s thick, moonless night.

From the arrow slit atop the castle walls, Saias could see the guards’ stiff bodies fall soundlessly into the ground. Two hooded silhouettes vanished quickly into the dim shadows that led towards the castle’s dungeon.

There were more of them, he observed, hidden within a bowshot of the castle walls, presumably standing guard and preparing to conduct the rescued children to safety. But only two went in.

It was either very brave, or very foolish, or both.

 

Three days ago, when the arrival of the Bishop of Velthomer was made known at the castle of Manster, Duke Reydrik practically burst with indignation. That indignation quickly subsided into ostentatious hospitality, as Saias explained that he was merely “passing through on personal business” and flattered the duke on the latter’s expert handling of the rebel army.

“Army?!” the duke had exclaimed in return. “They’re mere brigands! I captured the brat-pretender already, and I’ll have the rest of them caught and executed all within the week.”

Saias expressed his uttermost faith in the duke’s ability to do so. He then had to turn down an invitation to an evening’s entertainment at the gladiators’ ring, citing fatigue from travel. Soon enough Reydrik seemed to have forgotten his presence, so he went about the city as a travelling priest of Bragi, which in the literal sense he was. In these days the Church of Bragi commanded much goodwill among the people, and Saias even received a few concealed suggestions that he seek out and join the rebel Magi Squad.

That was all for the better, since it gave him a good pretense under which the citizens were much readier to divulge information about the rebels. He learned from whispered conversations that Lord Leif of Leonster had been captured in the mountains, and that the Magi Squad, nearly eradicated by Reydrik some months ago, had emerged again from the shadows under a new leader.

“Who might that be?”

It was speculated that he – it seemed to have been a man, albeit some said only a youth – was not a native of Manster. A sage of considerable magical prowess, some said. Others murmured, perhaps not without some wishful thinking, that he was a descendant of the Crusaders.

 

As the rebels slid into the dungeon, Saias pondered the situation unfolding before him.

It was certainly not ideal. Allowing the rebels to disrupt the child hunts would shake the foundations of Imperial authority, but the alternative was worse – unacceptably so. If the Loptous Church did not hold such sway over the Imperial court, it might be possible to play them off one another…

But that was impossible, so he ceased giving the impossible another thought, and turned his mind to the more immediate events.

Prisoners were emerging from the dungeon, the children quickly taken up by the Magi Squad members waiting in the shadow of the castle. They could not yet escape, because a patrol of guards – unexpected, judging by the reaction among the rebels – were just going by the walls. There seemed to be some disagreement among the rebels on the next course of action, most likely because they could not decide whether the guards were going their way.

Most of the Magi Squad were amateurs, Saias had gathered over the last couple of days. Perhaps with training they could hold their own against a contingent of professional soldiers, but certainly not while escorting twenty or so children.

From their current hiding place, it was about five hundred steps to the outer walls. Saias could not see it from where he stood, but from the way they came in, it was safe to assume they had bribed or otherwise secured the pair of soldiers who typically guarded the back exits. Of the five hundred steps, approxiately eighty would be in plain view of the patrolling guards, if they took a turn to the east.

Which, judging by his past observations, they probably would.

But the rebels had made up their mind to make a run for it. The youngest children were picked up, while the older children edged towards the open following a rebel scout. Slowly but surely they fell into a loose formation, snaking away from the shadows that had so far concealed their presence.

Once again, Saias had to remind himself that there was often no ideal situation in war.

With a flicker of the Rewarp stave, he was standing inside the castle gate, just out of the patrol’s line of sight. He could no longer see what the rebels were doing, but there was no time to lose.

Three minutes ought to be sufficient.

He walked into the open. The night was quiet enough for the patrol to immediately notice his presence. They halted and saluted – Reydrik’s soldiers were not the kind that would question what he was doing at this hour.

“Good evening, Your Excellency!”

“Good evening,” he said, a little more harshly than he normally would, “I hope you had not been delinquent in your duties.”

“You can trust that this company has been most diligent, Your Excellency.”

“How many rounds have you made tonight?”

“Three, Your Excellency,” the commanding officer answered a little embarrassedly. “We were just about to start on a fourth round.”

Two minutes.

“No unusual activities?”

“None, Your Excellency. The rebels were quite aggressive for some weeks, before Your Excellency arrived. But we’ve beaten them back and they dare not show their faces now.”

Saias nodded, taking a second to seemingly reflect on the answer, and continued, “Have additional precautions been taken? The cover of darkness favors hidden enemies, while our forces lie in the open.”

One.

The guard captain stammered, visibly fearing the consequences if words got to the duke that he made the army lose face before the visiting tactician. So Saias softened his tone and offered, “My apologies, gentlemen, if I wasn’t clear. I merely wanted to know how many companies of patrol are about, and how each company is armed.”

That the captain could answer without a problem. Appearing satisfied with the answer, Saias commended the soldiers for their dutiful service, repeated a warning against the rebels, and let them go.

By the time he returned to his former position, the children were gone. Not all members of the Magi Squad had left, however. What appeared to be the more experienced rebels had remained behind. They were preparing for battle.

It was to be expected: they planned to rescue Leif of Leonster, presumably under heavy guard in the depth of the dungeon. A much more demanding mission than the rescue of Manster’s children, the length of time required would almost render avoiding the guards an impossibility.

Leif of Leonster would be a dangerous foe if at large. The youth himself was nothing to be feared, but the promise of a savior could be the spark that set an entire continent ablaze. Already rumors abounded of how the sons of Sigurd of Chalphy were hiding in Isaac, where the mere mention of a long-gone name stirred the population’s imagination. And now…

There was no mistake – he could not be sure which, but at least one of the sons of Sigurd was in Manster with the holy weapon of Silesia. As of the moment he must be beneath the dungeon, most likely making an alliance with the dispossessed heir to Leonster.

Saias pressed a finger against his forehead.

He could not let his instinctive distaste for Reydrik get in the way of a rational decision. Yet the benefits of a growing rebellion could not be ignored either: It might check the power of the Loptous Church, making already-hesitant rulers think twice before committing to the child hunt.

Or it might drive them further into the arms of the dark priests, whose powerful magic could be seen as necessary to quench the rebellions.

He almost wondered if he was playing with fire, ironic as it was for him to use that metaphor.

 

Saias returned to his quarters as the first light of dawn seeped through the eastern horizon. Scattered sounds of unrest echoed in the distance. He did not need to observe the action; the die was already cast.

He slept a little, waking up at his usual hour. Then he dispatched a servant simultaneously to inform Reydrik that he planned on departing today, and to inquire about the curiously loud noises outside. Amidst all the chaos in the castle, the servant did not return. When he walked downstairs with the apparent annoyance of a high-ranking person who had to do his own chores, he saw it again through the windows.

The emerald maelstrom sweeping across the sky, ripping apart the clouds, the winds, the rising sun’s light itself. The castle trembled. Blood was on the paving stones.

Two images flashed into his mind simultaneously. The first was of white skies, of firmaments so clear as if sculpted from ice, of cold air sparkling with tiny crystals of snow. Beneath those skies the dead were thrown into the ditches. Shovel after shovel of frozen soil, mixed with snow and icy gravel, piled upon their bodies, until finally nothing remained except a swelling in the earth, minuscule in the shadows of the overhanging mountains.

The second was a verdant storm that shook the land, that blew away the permafrost and sundered the glaciers, that awakened the mountains from their eternal slumber and forced open the earth to throw up its dead.

He was just contemplating this thought when a voice caught him from behind.

“Bishop?”

He turned around. It was one of the mercenaries in Reydrik’s service.

Chapter Text

The story of Lex and the brave axe had been one of Lana’s favorites throughout childhood.

Oifey would tell the tale just before bed time: the knight, the axe, the mysterious fairy of the lake. It was a good story with a good moral, and everyone would beam with excitement when Oifey described how the lady held out her hand and presented the honorable knight with the most wondrously crafted weapon imaginable as a reward for his candor.

“What was it like, Oifey? Tell us about the axe!” everyone would demand.

And Oifey would say, “The blade of the axe shone with a snow-white sheen, and upon its surface were inscribed three runes of power in muted silver. It was sharper than any weapon of earthly make, and could cut through metal as if it were wood. Its handle was most delicately sculpted, inlaid with gold and studded with rubies.”

By the time she was ten, Lana had become convinced that it was just an old story whose protagonist Oifey changed for the children. Thus the axe, too, most likely never existed. It was still a good story though.

How shockingly wrong she was.

 

“Lakshe! Lakshe! Stop! He’s dead!”

Lana’s lips trembled, but she could not hide. She pulled Yuria behind her, averting the latter’s glance from the mangled corpses.

They had been forced to go to war for three months now, since Danan sent his army after their hideout in Tirnagog. Lana wanted to fight – if nothing else, she would rather die like her parents died, at her friends’ side.

She did not regret the decision. They were fighting for the people of Isaac, who had been reduced to indigence by Danan’s exploitation. As they entered Ganeishire, the ragged inhabitants emerge from its ruins to cheer the young rebels. In those sunken eyes shone the light of hope.

Those were moments that made her feel good about the war. Then there was this.

The blood of men soaked through the grass. Body piled upon body piled upon body, their unclosed eyes staring emptily into the sky. Dying horses, collapsing under the weight of their own bodies and the bodies of their riders, frantically struggled against inevitable death with kicks and screams.

Fallen from the lifeless hand of Danan’s general was the axe with which they had been only too familiar.

It was a marvelous weapon, exactly as Oifey described it in all those bedtime stories: Snow-white blade, silver runes, golden handle studded with beautiful rubies.

Lana’s mind almost did not register the fact that the axe of the stories lay in front of her very eyes, its shining blade speckled with blood and bits of flesh from its former wielder.

Lakshe had stopped, as if finally comprehending the fact that her foe was dead. Sword in one hand, she looked down stiffly at the bloody remains of the man who must have been complicit in her father’s murder. Her face was devoid of expression. Her dark eyes burned.

Skasaher was holding his sister. Selis rushed forward to calm the situation, while Johalva, who had only defected to join them a couple of days ago, looked visibly shaken. Oifey, who had gone to check on the villages, was galloping towards them.

Lana didn’t let go of Yuria.

“I think she needs healing,” Yuria whispered.

“You are right,” Lana forced a smile, and led the younger girl by hand across the battlefield strewn with corpses, towards Lakshe and the rest of their frontline fighters. She picked their way carefully, so Yuria would not have to step in too much blood or come near bodies too gruesomely disemboweled.

It was almost an impossible task.

As she went through the battlefield she was gripped by a deathly fear that she, too, would one day have to kill someone like this. Should her parents’ murderers appear before her, would she, too, feel that flame of vengeance burn through her veins?

And Yuria…

Lana was nearly shuddering at her own thoughts when Yuria pulled ever so slightly on her sleeve. She turned around.

“I… I’m alright. Please don’t worry about me, Lady Lana,” the silver-haired girl said in a barely audible whisper.

“You’ve done well,” Lana smiled. “We’ll work on this together.”

 

Since Johalva was the only one trained to wield an axe, Oifey suggested that he should have it.

The youngest son of Danan, however, refused.

“I mean,” he shrugged, “Uncle Lex was their old man, right? If Lakshe wants it, she should keep it.”

Oifey didn’t press the issue, but Lakshe said, “He can have it.”

“Really?”

She looked at him as if he was an idiot, “Do you think I would joke about it?”

Johalva appeared visibly flustered.

“I heard some things about him when I was small,” finally he said. “Always thought he must have been a pretty cool dude, running away for his friends and everything.”

She glared at him. He twitched his mouth a little.

“Thanks, I’ll take good care of it. I promise.”

Lana supposed that counted as a happy ending to the story, but she could not stop thinking what enemies that axe would have to mow down in the days to come. Somewhere deep within her, she might have wished that Lex’s axe remained what it had been throughout her childhood, the storybook symbol of virtue’s own reward. At the same time she knew the storybook world had closed long ago, when they left Tirnagog with a determination to go to war.

Oifey never said so when he told the bedtime stories, but even as Lex’s axe, it must have hacked through many, many enemies already.

Yet the fairy, who must have known it all, gave it to him anyways.

 

When they searched the armories of the castle of Isaac, a magical tome was found. Selis took it to Lana for deciphering, but she had very little success. Yuria stared at it intently all the time she sat at the attempt, such that she finally asked what the matter was.

“I…” Yuria said, “I… seem to remember. Light… this warmth…”

Lana felt her heart lift and fall at the same time.

“Do you know what it is?” she ventured carefully.

The reticent girl leaned forward. It was almost as if she was afraid, but hesitatingly she touched the tip of the tome.

It glowed.

“The forces of life… come from within. It drains the light of life from the enemy, and replenishes your own.”

“You can fight with it, then?”

Yuria considered the tome with innocent, almost bewildered eyes, then nodded slightly.

Lana suddenly remembered Sety. She found it difficult to imagine the silver-haired girl with an open tome like him, commanding the forces of nature to strike down her enemies. It always seemed so effortless when she saw Sety at practice, which must have been two years ago now, such that she couldn’t quite make out what was bothering her about Yuria doing the same.

“Well, that would be a great help to everybody, wouldn’t it?” she smiled, and handed the tome to Yuria.

She imagined again her parents’ faceless murderers before her, and whether she could call on the wrath of her heart to strike them dead.

Yes, she could fight.

No, not for that reason.

Chapter Text

Fee was absolutely thrilled when she received orders from Lady Mahnya to aid Prince Selis’ army.

That excitement was promptly dampened thirty seconds later, when it was revealed that her duties also included escorting Arthur.

Her aunt, however, was the one person in the world to whom Fee would never talk back. Thus she was busy glaring at Arthur when the commander of what remained of the Silesian Knights stood up and placed a hand on her shoulder.

“You have grown up to be a fine pegasus knight, Fee. Your mother would be proud to see this day.”

“Yes, Lady Mahnya,” the young pegasus knight bowed her head. Her aunt’s hand, however, remained still on her shoulder, so she asked, “Do you have further orders?”

“That is all,” Mahnya said slowly. “Take care of yourself, Fee, and come back safely.”

“Of course!” Fee answered without a second thought. “We’ll fly out of the archers’ range, and Arthur won’t do anything stupid – right, Arthur?”

 

Fee was fairly sure that she remembered Prince Selis and Prince Sety.

Well, it was a long time ago, but in the vaguest recollections of her earliest childhood, she seemed to remember – or at least convinced herself that she remembered – a blue-haired crybaby and a green-haired troublemaker. They had all been left in Queen Rahna’s care when the Prince went to war in Grannvale. Nobody came back.

Fee didn’t remember saying goodbye to her parents – she was just a baby. She only remembered four years later when the armies of Grannvale invaded Silesia, and Queen Rahna arranged for the refugee children – included the young princes – conducted to Isaac for their safety.

“No!” Fee had screamed and kicked when they tried to take her away, “No! No! I’m not going! No!”

The caretakers pleaded with her in vain. Finally Lady Mahnya came to her and said, “You’ll grow up to be a pegasus knight of Silesia, Fee, and it’s the duty of the pegasus knights to guard the princes of Silesia. Go with Selis and Sety – protect them.”

Fee thought about it, then asked, “Are there pegasi in Isaac, too?”

“No, my dear,” Mahnya said, with the habitual pride of a Silesian knight. “They reside only in the mountains of Silesia, and befriend only the pure of heart.”

“Then how would I be a pegasus knight in Isaac?” Fee retorted with the impeccable logic of a four-year-old.

At that point Queen Rahna laughed.

“She has her mother’s spirit, Mahnya,” said the queen. “She can stay if she wishes.”

Fee remembered the day they fled Silesia. Wrapped in Mahnya’s cloak, she stuck out her head from the her aunt’s embrace. The plains were awash with the gold-and-sable banners of the Imperial armies, and meteors set ablaze the distant sky.

Traitors. Invaders. Murderers. They killed Queen Rahna and despoiled serene Silesia. They dragged away Lady Tiltyu and little Tinny. When she flew in the clouds far above the battlefields, she saw them digging ditches for the bodies of the slain. She hated them so.

 

Fee snapped at Arthur as soon as they walked out of the room.

“What are you thinking? Alster is across the sea from Isaac. You know we are going to Isaac, right?”

“You know,” Arthur said infuriatingly cheerily, “Isaac is still closer to Alster than us here.”

“Why didn’t you ask Karin to take you? She actually went somewhere close to Alster – they said Prince Sety is there, so he can help too.”

“Karin probably would have said no.”

“What made you think I would say yes?”

“Lady Mahnya said yes,” Arthur answered with an innocent smile. “Plus, I only got the idea after Karin left.”

“Fine,” Fee said, “But you are not going to do anything stupid.”

“When did I ever do something stupid?”

Fee rolled her eyes.

 

They arrived in Tirnagog amidst an atmosphere of general rejoicing. Prince Selis’ army, they learned from the villagers, had taken Sophara and Isaac. The last time words came, the army was on the way to besiege Rivough.

Arthur was the one suggested that they head south for Rivough immediately. To be completely honest with herself, Fee had agreed out of a desire to make herself useful to Prince Selis as soon as possible.

That turned out to be a mistake. She should never have listened to Arthur.

They landed in the mountains north of Rivough out of necessity. After crossing the sea and almost no rest at Tirnagog, Erinys was too exhausted to carry the both of them for even another mile.

“It’s OK,” Arthur said as they made camp. “You can go to Rivough. I’ll walk from here.”

“Are you kidding? There are bandits in these mountains!”

“I’ll blast them,” Arthur answered nonchalantly. “Then I’ll see you in Rivough in a couple of days.”

“Absolutely not! Do you even know how to find your way out of here on foot?”

Arthur held up a finger towards the night sky.

“I’ll read the stars.”

Fee looked up. In complete darkness, a web of silvery lights stretched across the heavens. She breathed in their staggering brilliance. Then she remembered how annoyed she was with Arthur.

“And which one is the northern star?”

“Eh, that one… I think.”

“That way is south, Arthur.”

“I’m sure it isn’t…”

“It is! We flew in that direction the entire – ”

Fee stopped mid-sentence. Erinys was flapping her wings, lifting her head as if discerning something deep in the woods. Fee held her breath.

“Fee?” perplexed by his companion’s sudden silence, Arthur tried, “what is it?”

“Must be bandits,” she whispered, quietly drawing her Wind Sword from its sheath.

Arthur blinked, “How many of them?”

“I can’t tell.”

“You should go now,” he said, “in case they have archers, then it would be too late.”

“I’m not leaving,” Fee insisted.

“Well,” Arthur said, “it is kind of my fault that we’re in this situation, and you have orders to aid Prince Selis…”

“I’m not leaving!” she said a little angrily, inadvertently raising her voice.

“Shhhh, quiet,” Arthur said. “It’s totally fine, I can handle them. The woods are thick here, so I can blast them and run…”

Fee felt anger swelling in her, “I said no, Arthur! Did you think this through? They’re bandits! What the hell will I tell Tinny if you get chopped to pieces?”

Arthur opened his mouth and stammered.

Just then, a man’s voice rang out in the woods behind them.

“Good evening!”

Erinys looked up and tapped her hoofs. Fee turned around. A middle-aged man was standing there, with a tome strapped to his side and a mandolin on his back.

“Who are you?” Fee asked, sword still in hand.

“Sorry to alarm you, my lady, my lord. I’m a bard travelling to Rivough – it is cold tonight, so I had hoped to share your campfire.”

Fee sheathed her sword, “Sure, but what kind of bard travels at this hour in the mountains, no offense?”

“A foolish one who had hoped to arrive at Rivough before sundown,” the stranger smiled, and came over to sit by the fire, nodding his thanks to Arthur as well. “But I had been over-confident in my ability to find shortcuts.”

“So had this one,” Fee said, staring at Arthur.

“The mountains around here can be treacherous,” said the bard. “The paths are often hidden, and many of King Danan’s men took to brigandage after their armies were scattered by Prince Selis.”

“Of course they are no match for Prince Selis,” Arthur said. “You said you’re going to Rivough?”

“Yes,” the bard smiled. “I had word that Prince Selis’ army had taken Rivough, and he is the son of an old acquaintance of mine. So I thought I would pay him a visit.”

“Really?” Fee’s eyes lit up, “Did you know Lord Sigurd?”

“Yes,” the bard answered, “I knew him in passing.”

“My mother fought in Lord Sigurd’s army,” Fee offered excitedly, her former mistrust of the stranger completely forgotten. “In fact, both my mothers. And Arthur’s parents too.”

“Both your mothers? You must be of high birth, my lady.”

Fee thought about it for a moment.

“If you put it that way, I suppose…” she said. “My mother was a pegasus knight of Silesia, and she wed a lady of Grannvale. My aunt says she was a daughter of House Edda, and the Duke of Edda himself officiated at their wedding… so I guess I have the Crusaders’ Blood.”

“Thus your magnificent steed,” the bard smiled, turning to admire her pegasus, “The true wonders of Silesia. To be certain, I have not seen one for a long time.”

“Her name is Erinys, after my mother,” even without Fee calling for her, the white pegasus already came towards them. Bowing her head, she rubbed the stranger’s hand with her nose, and allowed him to stroke her snowy mane.

Arthur pouted, “She never let me do that.”

“Maybe if you didn’t almost kill her with your weight, she would,” Fee retorted.

“What a beautiful name,” the bard said pensively, as if he had not noticed their banter. “I can only imagine what a beautiful woman your mother must have been, my lady.”

“If you are trying to flatter me,” said Fee, “it’s not working.”

“My apologies, my lady,” said the bard.

Then he was silent for a while, though they did not stay silent for long. They took turns keeping watch, and in the morning the bard led them out of the mountains to Rivough.

Chapter Text

It felt almost like a dream to Selis.

Isaac, liberated. Danan, dead.

He sometimes suspected that he would be waking up any moment now in his old straw bed in Tirnagog.

The days after taking Rivough passed in a flurry. The hated taxes and corvees imposed by Danan were abolished; privileges were granted and regranted to the towns; land and property confiscated by the crown were returned to their rightful owners. People tried to bring cases before Selis wherever he went.

“That won’t do,” Oifey said, “we have to make it clear that you are only acting in Shannan’s stead.”

Thankfully, Lakshe and Skasaher could stand in as members of Isaac’s royal house. Neither really understood what exactly they were doing, but it sufficed for Oifey to explain that they were performing Shannan’s duties. For all his acting annoyed with politics, Johalva was also surprisingly helpful, which made the transition a lot easier.

At the same time, attention needed to be paid to military affairs. The army was reorganized and restationed. The loyalty of surrendered troops was assessed. Supplies had to be secured, and chains of communication established across the castles. Oifey arranged everything masterfully, such that Selis often felt himself to be no more than an inconvenience.

“That is because you are learning, my lord,” Oifey said to him when he hesitantly voiced his self-doubts at lunch one day. “I was about your age when I went to war with your father, Lord Sigurd, that is. Lord Sigurd was undisputed master of the field, but what did he know about logistics or politics? So Prince Lewyn took pity on him, at first just so we all could be fed. It was from them that I learned when I was your age, my lord, and surely you would learn too.”

Oifey was evidently in a good mood, for otherwise he never spoke of the last war to the children. Selis couldn’t help but grin a little at the mental image of the frivolous Silesian prince wrinkling his eyebrows at the supply reports.

He had wanted to ask a little more about it when a servant entered to announce the arrival of several guests from Silesia. To Selis’ pleasant surprise, they were accompanied by the bard whom he had last seen in Tirnagog two years ago.

“Maestro!” he jumped to his feet. “It is good to see you! Are these the guests from Silesia?”

Introductions were made and greetings were exchanged, and the volunteers from Silesia were solemnly welcomed. Oifey had more food brought and invited the newcomers to lunch, and conversation naturally turned to the prospects of the war.

“I’ll be frank,” said the bard, “I did just come from Leonster.”

“Did you see Sety?” Selis immediately interjected.

“No,” said the bard, “although the last I heard of him, he seemed to be terrorizing the Imperial troops in Manster. They are fortunate to have him there, because King Blume of Northern Thracia is intent on following through with the child hunts.”

“I heard the same when we were traveling last year,” Oifey said. “But surely Prince Leif can hold his own?”

“I would not be entirely optimistic. King Blume’s army was humiliated but not vanquished. Just before I left, I heard they were amassing their forces. Their army could easily amount to five, perhaps ten times that of Leonster.”

Selis didn’t know what exactly the number implied. Sety was in Manster, and he could only imagine that they would be searching for him. But their visitor didn’t seem to know more about Sety’s situation, and in any case this shouldn’t be about his brother alone…

Before he could figure out an answer, Oifey already moved on. “What of Agustria?”

“News of the uprising in Isaac has reached Agustria. I was there some time ago, and had the impression that Lord Eltshan was exceedingly concerned for Lord Sigurd’s sons and for Prince Leif,” he turned to Selis. “It is said that he holds your father and Lord Cuan in the highest regard.”

“I can vouch for it,” Oifey said. “A peerless knight was Lord Eltshan in his exploits and in his virtue. There are those who say with malice that treachery came between him and your father, but it is not true. It was Arvis’ men who spread such falsehoods, just as it was they who later stirred Agustria against its rightful king. Lord Sigurd left Agustria on his own accord, such that the people of Agustria would not be imperiled by war with the Empire.”

“Indeed I hear the same,” the bard said. “Lord Eltshan was the most loyal of friends. His love for your father was surpassed only by his duty to his country, which could not permit him to leave a young liege amidst restless vassals. I can hardly imagine his agony and sorrow when news of your father reached him.”

Selis nodded his comprehension solemnly, as Oifey sighed, “An injustice of fate, that such a man must suffer the unbefitting indignity he suffered, and be subject to the most venomous slanders.”

“He bore it with the greatest dignity,” the bard said squarely.

“Yet it pained Lord Sigurd deeply…” Oifey was about to continue, but he remembered Selis’ and the Silesians’ presence, and abruptly changed the topic. “How are the Imperial troops in Agustria?”

“They are held in check,” the bard said. “Arvis played on the greed and fears of the Agustrian lords to gain their domains, but on the open field none could be Lord Eltshan’s match. Fourteen years ago Saias of Edda won great renown and the Emperor’s favor for barely holding a castle against the assault of Nordion, and until this day no man of the Empire has defeated the Cross Knights in battle. Thus they fear Lord Eltshan more than any other man alive, and dare not move a single regiment from Agustria for wars elsewhere, lest the people rise to welcome back their king.”

“Then his part in opposing the Empire already overshadows the rest of ours combined,” Oifey said. “I have heard much praise for the young King Aless. Have you had a chance to meet him?”

“I observed him a little when I was in Agustria. He takes after Lord Eltshan, to the extent that sometimes I forget whether I behold the father or the son,” the bard smiled, and looked at Selis. “It would have delighted your father too.”

“You make me wish I can meet King Aless,” Selis said.

“Certainly one day,” the bard answered. “I have said what I know for Agustria. How fares Silesia?”

He looked at the Silesians. The pegasus knight, Fee, bowed her head to Selis.

“Your Highness, Lady Mahnya sends her regards.”

“You can call me Selis,” Selis quickly said.

“Those of us loyal to the House of Forseti have been gathered in the north of Silesia. For some time we held Thove, but after the Empire’s last offensive we lost the castle and have been forced into smaller strongholds. Every day we hope that you and Prince Sety will return, and we will reclaim Silesia from the Empire.”

Selis had not expected it. He remembered Silesia, certainly. He remembered the grace with which his grandmother, Queen Rahna, carried herself when she went out to inspect the troops. There was fragrance in her hair. He remembered the cold air and the pegasi. He remembered leaving in great haste, being led by hand through the limestone corridors of the Silesian palace.

It seemed surreal enough that they had liberated Isaac from Danan’s tyranny, but Silesia… that country of distant memory which had been lost to them so long ago, his father’s country, which must have suffered through so many painful winters…

His silence must have been prolonged, because everyone was looking at him, until the bard laughed a little, “My lady, your words seem to be giving our prince some trouble.”

“No, no,” Selis hurriedly looked up, finding himself blushing. “It’s not that… I mean… I’m very thankful…”

“We’re not asking to be liberated,” Fee said indignantly. “Of course war is hard for every country, and nobody said going against the Empire would be easy. But we are fighting for it too.”

Selis blushed even harder.

“I don’t mean to offend, my lady, I know the situation is much more difficult in Silesia than it has been here. It was my parents’ union that brought ruin to Silesia, so we will not give up on the opportunity to right the Empire’s wrongs.”

Oifey looked up abruptly and frowned.

“Where did you hear that your parents’ union brought ruin to Silesia?” the paladin demanded.

Selis stammered. He had heard it from Johalva – the youngest son of Danan almost made it a point to get him into unpleasant conversations. This particular conversation had started with the war between Grannvale and Isaac, but somehow it got on to the topic of the invasion of Silesia.

“Silesia had been neutral for a hundred years,” Johalva had said, “If Prince Lewyn never decided to get involved in Grannvale’s stupid wars and get married to Sigurd of Chalphy of all people, it might still be free today. What do you think gave Arvis an excuse to invade them anyway?”

But Johalva’s position in the army was delicate enough, and Selis couldn’t let him get on Oifey’s bad side. So he lied, “Sorry, Oifey… I… heard it on the streets.”

The paladin scowled.

“It was not Lord Sigurd and Prince Lewyn who brought ruin to Silesia,” he said sternly. “The Emperor’s ambition is such that he would not rest until he has the entire continent within his grasp.”

“I’m sorry…” Selis stammered again. So rarely had he seen Oifey so displeased that he almost wished he never opened his mouth, as he frantically searched his mind for something – anything – he could say to defuse Oifey’s anger.

“But our prince has a point,” the bard said softly, as if coming to his rescue. “In war it is not always the righteous who wins, and even the just must plan for unjust consequences. You may not hold them to blame, Lord Oifey, but consequences are always consequences.”

Oifey turned red with indignation. Desperate to prevent an argument arising between them because of him, Selis hurriedly rose to his feet and placed his hand on his guardian’s.

“It was I who misspoke, Oifey,” he said. “I pray that you would not fault our guest for speaking thus. His words are reasoned, and he said them only out of love for me.”

Oifey bowed his head, and sighed.

“You have grown up now, Lord Selis,” he said, softly, reminiscently, with a hint of sadness. “How proud would they be were they to see you today.”

Selis smiled at his guardian, and did his best to manage his words.

“The Empire is our enemy, right? And it is a formidable one. So we have to think carefully about this, because many people would be counting on us, including those still in Silesia…”

“Of course,” said Oifey.

 

After due deliberations, it was decided that Selis would lead their army south across Yied Desert, to relieve Leonster’s war against King Blume. It was a risky decision, but a necessary one to shake the Empire’s foundations.

As Oifey made the final preparations for the expedition, Selis went up to the tower of Rivough Castle.

He found what he had been looking for.

The visiting bard was sitting on top of the battlements, overlooking the city bustling with activities below. He had his mandolin by his hand, though its strings were soundless and still.

“Maestro!” Selis called out.

The bard turned around, and feigned surprise.

“What a fright you gave me, my lord,” he said, leaping lithely over the battlement to come towards him. “I almost fell from the wall – it would not be pretty with that steep a drop.”

“I’m sorry!” Selis apologized instinctively. “I didn’t mean to…”

“Why do you apologize, my lord,” the bard said, his eyes sparkling with faint amusement, “when you knew I was merely teasing you? There are those who would take every word at face value,  and would truly fear for my safety, but you are not like them, right? You knew I wouldn’t fall, else you would not have called for me.”

“I… eh…” Selis said, “I feel bad, Maestro, for having disturbed you.”

“You do not disturb me, Lord Selis,” the bard smiled, and bowed. “How may I be of service today?”

“It is a personal matter,” Selis said after some hesitation. “Do you have time?”

“For you, always.”

Selis looked up at the visiting bard. He was probably in his late thirties, his brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. One would hardly describe him as handsome, but he had a natural charm about him, and his eyes were a lucent, dreamlike emerald.

“I meant to ask,” he breathed, “Maestro – when you first visited us, you said you had once known my father, Sigurd of Chalphy?”

“Yes,” the bard answered with the same, composed smile, “I had.”

“I wonder… if it is not too much to ask, could you tell me a little about what my parents were like?”

The bard turned away from him, and looked up towards the clear, Issacian sky. His reply came a little belatedly, but in the gentle, measured tone in which Selis always heard him speak.

“I am happy to oblige, my lord. Lord Sigurd was… a man above all honorable in every way, who was incapable of suspecting the malice of others. He was kind to the vanquished and the oppressed, though he never gave thought to why they had been vanquished and oppressed. He trusted perhaps a little too much for his own good, but for this he earned the unconditional love of all who were worthy. That love has remained through these years, Lord Selis, waiting to be rekindled by the longing for justice.”

Selis thought about these words, then asked, “What of Lewyn of Silesia? Did you know him as well?”

“I hardly knew him,” the bard said. “I’m sorry.”

“You have travelled through many lands, Maestro,” Selis said. “If you have heard things said about him, I would like to know them…”

The bard looked deep in thought. Seeing some chance of success, Selis pressed on.

“I hope I am not rude, but… before we embark on this war, I want to know who my parents were, and for what their war had been. Maestro, Shannan would not speak of it, and I dare not ask Oifey. I’m sorry if my questions bring back unpleasant memories…”

“You apologize too much,” the bard cut him off tersely.

“I’m sor – ah!”

Selis stopped himself short, but the bard did not seem to mind. Slowly he turned around to look at Selis again, an unspeakable tenderness in his eyes.

“If you are asking me to go by the rumors, my lord,” he said quietly, “I’m afraid I do not have kind words for your father.”

“I’m not looking for kind words,” Selis said. “As you said, Maestro, wars are not won by righteousness. If they made mistakes, I want to try not to make them again.”

The bard looked him directly in the eye.

“Then you will forgive me, my lord, if I say Lewyn of Silesia was a fool. Seventeen years ago he abandoned his country to go to war in Grannvale. They say he suspected Arvis’ treachery, but so haughty was he, that he thought it an opportunity to gain the upper hand against their enemies. So he died.”

Selis realized he was shaking. Words escaped him completely, and he could not make a sound no matter how hard he tried. He was biting his lips to choke back his tears, when the bard must have been moved by pity and took him into an embrace.

“I did not mean to be so harsh on your father,” the older man said in the soothing tones of a lullaby. “If he had one saving grace, it was that he loved all his friends dearly, and could not bear to be parted from them.”

Chapter Text

Hello.

You are dead, aren’t you?

Just like me.

They danced around the fire beneath the earth, the smoke from the offerings filling the cavern. They chanted and swirled and writhed in ecstasy.

Loptous. Loptous. Loptous.

They were bound with ropes and dragged out of their towers and caves. Pyres were raised where they burned and burned and burned. Human fat sizzled in the bonfires as bones cracked and the screams were deafening. Black smoke rose into the heavens and the children sang.

Loptous. Loptous. Loptous.

Come to me, my love.

He kissed her and twisted her hair between his fingers. A dagger pierced his heart and his blood was red as the first rose of summer. It streamed down his body into a boiling, burning pool at his feet, fuming with sulfur and cinders, consuming the last of his crumbling human vestiges. In tears she crawled along the river of blood, gathering his remaining ashes with her fingers, until at last, too, they burned through her and incinerated her white bones.

Do you hear it?

Everywhere they die. In the scorching desert, by the frozen seas, on the plains and between the valleys. They die hacked into pieces and impaled by spears. They die drowned and strangled and charred in flames. Everywhere the shadow of death rises from the earth, and opens its embrace to give its final grace.

Oh Sara, my dear Sara.

Amidst the stars they dance and sing, and the darkness is filled with their wails and prayers.

Loptous. Loptous. Loptous.

 

She woke up to the utter silence of the rain falling on the forest. She felt the chilly raindrops falling from the sky and dissolving into her skin, the clouds weaving their ephemeral threads around her arms. In the somber shadows beneath the thick leaves, the birds hid and swallowed their songs.

She rose and moved about. They bowed to her. They who like shells served that strange and heartless presence. She heard the sun moving unseen through the clouds. She heard a voice calling out to her, closer than ever before. It penetrated the shades and reverberated in her mind, above and beyond every other sound.

Help me, Sara, please help me.

She went out into the woods.

Chapter Text

They were hastily assembled but determined to fight, tired and worn but full of hope. The banner of Nova unfurled high over their heads. Some were veterans of the army, others fresh recruits who rallied to Prince Leif on news of the liberation. Still others were soldiers disillusioned with the Empire’s tyranny, who saw in the returning prince the promises of a new Thracia.

The sun shone down on the city of Leonster, still tattered after three days of hard fighting. Finn himself was exhausted after trekking through the mountains and sustaining several wounds in the siege, but he hardly felt the fatigue. A cheer rippled through the ranks and amplified into thunderous ovation as General Dorias rode towards Prince Leif.

“You have the hardest task, Dorias, but the people of Alster are counting on us.”

The veteran knight bowed his head.

“Your Highness, we will not betray your trust.”

It struck Finn that Lord Leif now spoke with the dignified gravitas of his father and grandfather. Like the kings of Leonster, he placed his hand on Dorias’ mount, and looked resolutely at the general.

“The remainder of the army will join you tomorrow. Godspeed, general.”

“Yes, Your Highness. Glory to Leonster!”

The army behind him cheered, as the newly reclaimed gates of Leonster opened to let them pass through. But Lord Leif only watched the marching army with anxious concern – his heart was already with the uprising in Alster. He wished he could go and go now, Finn knew. Finn, too, remembered everything they owed as exiles to the royal house of Alster and its people. Prince Leif was still young then, but he would not forget a debt as heavy as this.

“Finn.”

With less ceremony than before, General Dorias steered his mount and turned towards the knight behind Prince Leif. Finn saluted.

“General, may Victory smile upon you.”

“I haven’t had a chance to commend you yet, Finn. You had the most difficult duty, but you did it exemplarily.”

“It’s not worth mentioning, sir.”

The general smiled.

“It’s not for me to give you orders any more; I know you will guard the prince well.”

“I will protect Lord Leif with my life.”

Dorias nodded. For a moment the older knight’s eyes passed over him to look over the palace and city of Leonster, and Finn shared in the sense of surreal disbelief, the joy of having returned to Leonster after long years of exile. A hint of fanciful nostalgia crept into Dorias’ voice.

“You know, for some years I thought you would wed my daughter. A lucky lady your wife will be.”

Finn thought this was a strange thing to say. “I don’t have my heart set on anyone, general.”

“I know,” answered the general. “I’ll drink to her. Farewell, Finn. Take care, Prince Leif.”

Finn saluted again, and Lord Leif waved his blessing. The veteran knight turned his horse and rode away alongside the files of Leonster’s army. They sang the songs of battle, songs in praise of the liberator of Thracia, while Finn turned around and saw August looking at the prince, just a few steps back.

“Lord Leif, I have ordered the remaining troops to rest.”

“Good, we set out tomorrow.”

“As you insist, my lord, but before that, a few prisoners have given me some noteworthy information… can I have a minute?”

There were times when Finn wondered if August had the prince’s ears just a little too much, if they had been a little too unscrupulous in the help they recruited. But beneath the light of the spring sun, as the banner of Gae Bolg flied high above the walls of Leonster, Finn thought, as he always had thought, that it was not his place to pass judgment on these matters.

 

“Oh look, Cuan, he’s blushing!”

“Stop embarrassing him, Ethlyn,” Lord Cuan said mildly, with an indulging smile. “He’s too young to think about it anyway.”

“Not so young – I was sixteen when I married you! Don’t worry, Finn, we’ll see to it. We’ll find you a bride so pretty that even I might get a little jealous sometimes. What do you say?”

“Lady Ethlyn!” he stuttered. “P-please don’t trouble yourself with such a thing!”

“I see!” she beamed. “Have your heart set on a very special girl already?”

“N-no, my lady, I’m not thinking about it!”

“Ah, a very special boy, then?”

“No! That’s not w-…”

“You are just making fun of him now, Ethlyn,” Lord Cuan had laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. “Time to go to morning practice.”

 

The news of Dorias’ death reached them in the breaking light of dawn, as scattered soldiers came running towards the castle of Leonster. Blume’s counterattack was overwhelming, and the advance troops on route to Alster met a crushing defeat. General Dorias himself held the rear while the rest of the troops retreated, but their sheer numbers proved too much for even the veteran hero of Leonster, and he fell to the last protecting his own men.

Prince Leif froze when the news came, the color of blood drained from his face. Only with prodding from August did they send out the remaining forces to gather the survivors.

Finn felt… almost nothing.

He must have lost his ability to mourn long ago. He had his duties while Selphina and Glade had theirs. They could not afford to lose any time – every soldier saved was a force for the liberation.

As they crossed the castle grounds to ride out, he suddenly saw the silver-haired girl named Sara coming towards them, gliding like a shadow between the moving soldiers. They had found her wandering alone in Melfiye Forest, and taken her with the army to Leonster for the lack of a better option. Finn thought that she had already been escorted away with the civilians, but that was apparently not the case.

Lord Leif saw her as well and stopped.

“Sara…? Is something the matter? Didn’t Selphina arrange for you to take shelter?”

She walked past the soldiers as if she didn’t see them, and came to a straight stop before Lord Leif.

“He is asking me to protect this city, Leif. So I cannot leave.”

The prince blinked, “Sorry… who?”

“The man who was here, and is no longer. Dorias is his name.”

Lord Leif made a muffled sound of incomprehension. The girl stared him directly in the eye, before she let her glance slide momentarily towards Finn.

“Where should I go?” she asked.

“Go?” the prince asked, but Finn somehow understood something that he was not sure he understood.

“You can go find Janne,” he said. “She is taking care of the wounded in the hospice.”

She nodded faintly at him, and was gone without a word. The young prince turned to Finn, a perplexed look on his face.

“Did… Dorias say something to her?”

“Perhaps, Lord Leif,” in all honesty, Finn could not imagine that the esteemed general of Leonster would ever make such a request to so young a girl, “perhaps they had a conversation in the army.”

“I see,” despite his words, Lord Leif did not look convinced. “We cannot delay, Finn, let’s go.”

“Yes, my prince.”

 

A month had passed, and the situation hardly looked any more promising than the morning when they received the news of Dorias’ fall.

The uprising in Alster had been ruthlessly crushed. What remained of Leonster’s army had all but retreated into the castle’s vicinity, but Blume’s forces greatly outnumbered theirs, and they tried their utmost to avoid direct engagement with Alster’s army.

Finn stood behind Lord Leif as August unrolled the map.

“We have good news. Prince Selis’ army has across the Yied Desert, and they have taken Melgen from Ishtor’s army. Alster is under pressure, and Blume is sure to take heed.”

Lord Leif nodded. Since Dorias’ death, the prince had been much more reticent than usual. Finn kept quiet as the tactician continued.

“Our role is to keep as much of their forces engaged here as possible. If Alster is liberated soon, then it is only a matter of time before we can join forces with Prince Selis’ army and surround the Imperial armies deployed here. However, if their progress is delayed…”

“We’ll hold out nevertheless,” Lord Leif said in a low voice. “We would do it as long as possible, if it gives them time the hope of victory.”

“It is good that you have the conviction, Lord Leif,” the tactician said. “We also have bad news to consider. Rumor came to me that the Lord of Darna has long conspired with King Blume. If Darna attacks Prince Selis’ army from behind, it would significantly delay any advances they can make on Alster. Also, Blume’s daughter, Ishtar, has returned to Conote with her legions, and I hear that Saias of Velthomer is currently in her service. If Blume sends out Conote’s garrisons against us, it is only a matter of time before we are overrun.”

“What are you suggesting, August?”

“We may have to leave Leonster to the enemy for strategic purposes.”

 

Not yet, Finn knew. Things were not bad enough yet that they had to abandon Leonster castle. It had seem surreal when they had first taken it, and perhaps it would be ephemeral. Finn understood the necessity just as he understood the necessity sixteen years ago. This was no time to indulge in unnecessary nostalgia.

So he rallied the troops and spoke to them of hope. He led the reconnaissance missions, fortified the castles and evacuated the villages.

Lord Leif came to him one evening as he was in the stables inspecting the horses. He was preparing to take a small company out the following morning, to delay the reinforcements from Alster with skirmishes while Leonster readied its defenses against a renewed siege. The prince must have stood by the door watching him without a word, until he turned around and realized he had company.

“Lord Leif, what are you doing here at this hour?”

The prince looked a little pale.

“Finn… can I talk to you?”

“Of course, Lord Leif.”

He went over to the door and took the young prince by hand, checking whether the night chill had gotten to the prince. The hand was not cold, but Lord Leif was staring at him intently with an unspeakable anxiety. Finn felt a slight tug in his chest.

“I’m sorry, Finn,” the prince said.

“You have nothing to be sorry for, my lord.”

“I’m sorry I don’t have the power to protect Leonster… if I had been as good a commander as Prince Selis, if I could wield Gae Bolg as my father did… then all these people would not need to die because of me.”

“It was not the power of Gae Bolg,” Finn answered quietly, “that made the people of Leonster look up to your grandfather and your father. Whether or not Lord Cuan bore the holy brand of Nova, he would always be the just and kind knight and liege that he had been to us.”

“August said the same thing, too,” Lord Leif said. In Finn’s heart of hearts, that irritated him slightly, but he was careful not to show it, and merely nodded. Thus after a prolonged silence, Lord Leif said, “I was really glad, Finn, to be able to return to Leonster with you. There is not enough that I can do to thank you.”

“It is only my duty, Lord Leif.”

“Finn…”

Lord Leif seemed to want to say something else. His eyes flickered, and he hesitated. Finally he said, “My father… took good care of you, took good care of his men. He never let them venture into danger when he stayed behind in safety. He must have been a better leader than I…”

“That is not true,” Finn insisted. “Your father fought in simpler times, but now we cannot afford to lose you, Lord Leif. Only you can liberate Thracia from the Empire’s tyranny, and fulfill your father’s hopes for a united Thracia at peace.”

The young prince lowered his head.

“Finn… you all say I can do it, but what if…”

“We all have the greatest faith in you, my lord. You are the heir to Leonster, and you have already inspired the people of Thracia with courage in struggling against the Empire.”

“I will never be able to forgive myself if you died, Finn,” Lord Leif said suddenly.

“It would only be my honor, my lord, if I had to give my life for this war.”

“But Finn, what if it is in vain?”

“It would not be in vain, my lord. If I were to die tomorrow, my lord, I do so only in fulfillment of my vows, and you should not feel sad for me.”

Lord Leif shook his head.

“But I…” he whispered. “I wouldn’t know… I don’t want to lose you. What would I do if I lost you?”

He remembered when Lord Cuan said to him, I cannot lose you in this war, Finn. But that was too long ago, too distant a memory. He took hold of his lance.

“My lord, Leonster has many loyal knights. Even if I were no longer here, they would protect you to the last.”

Prince Leif grinded his teeth. Finn thought about all those times when he heard the promises of returning broken; he could not make such a promise.

“It is late, Lord Leif,” he finally said. “I’ll escort you back to your quarters.”

Chapter Text

She must be careful, very careful.

It was obvious that she was being followed. Bramsel’s scoundrels didn’t even bother with the pretense. No, quite the opposite. They were making a show of it, reveling in her fears, her desperation, her futile struggle, like beasts that toyed with their prey.

She quickened her footsteps, turning into the labyrinthine alleys in the heart of Darna. She had followed the mercenaries to the desert oasis, for they paid well and tipped generously. She had entertained them in the castle of Darna, where the greasy-lipped lord of Darna made her dance in his lap and grinded his body against hers as she moved. They laughed and whistled as he pulled her scarf from her hands and tried to tie it around her wrists, pushing her into the couch to “appreciate” her beauty.

She had smiled her smiles, pretended she didn’t care, tried to convince herself that she held all the power when she slipped away from his embrace with playful, inconspicuous grace. It came with the line of work, after all. But as she ended the performance and left the castle, the butler stopped her with an invitation “to perform in private for the lord of the castle.”

When she refused, he looked down at her with a knowing smile.

“Lord Bramsel thought you might refuse, but he had also hoped that you might change your mind.”

He made a gesture, and dark silhouettes emerged from the shadows of the corridors.

Leen instinctively darted from the door.

“Bring her within the hour! Lord Bramsel does not like to wait!”

She heard the order barked behind her. She dared not looking back.

Now they were not far behind her. In the shadows of war, the narrow streets of the oasis city were nearly abandoned at night. Only the boulevard running from the castle to the main piazza remained lit, while the rest of the winding streets were shrouded in overlaying shadows.

She slid into the slit of darkness between houses and waited for her pursuers to go past. Swords drawn, they pranced through the alleys, waving their torches through every shadow. She could not see them. There were only the violently turbulent shadows, the shouts and the lewd laughter as they speculated what deserved punishment the lord of the castle would mete out to the dancer who dared defy him.

She held her breath and closed her eyes.

The stomping footsteps were so loud that she could almost feel them beside her, breathing down her neck with malicious contempt. But they didn’t find her yet, no, not yet.

She thought about the mother whom she had never met, and almost opened her eyes unconsciously to look towards the sky. The slice of sky between the houses was narrow, yet in darkness starlight showered upon her, blinded her eyes with their brilliance.

She almost heard the footsteps fading into the distance. For a moment she could not be certain whether it was only her wish, but soon enough and certainly enough she heard their voices growing fainter and fainter, as their footsteps turned towards the next corner.

This was the chance.

Leen stood up quickly, readying her mind and body for an escape.

R-i-i-ng.

The bright and unmistakable sound of metal ringing, rolling, jumping against the cold ground. It rang louder than thunder through the dead silence of the night, the beautiful, musical sound of the silver bell that had somehow fallen from her scarf.

Her heart must have stopped beating. She held her breath, daring neither to pick up the rolling culprit, nor to think about whether her pursuers heard the sound.

Their voices returned from the distance.

“What is that?”

She heard them coming towards her. Dark silhouettes blocked the narrow pathway as they waved the torches between the houses. She could barely breathe. A torch thrust itself her way.

“There she is!”

Getting out the way she came was impossible. Without a moment to lose, she pushed her way deeper into the narrow passage, leaping over empty crates and barrels. Her pursuers were close behind, but she could not look. She did not even know what lay in front of her. In the dark labyrinth her eyes failed her, and she stumbled ahead by touch and instinct.

They failed her too.

Something must have caught her foot. She felt herself flying out and crashing into the cold, damp ground.

A hand grabbed her shoulder from above.

“There, little bitch, gave us quite the chase, did ya?”

“Let me go, you bastard!”

She screamed, reaching for the sword she always carried with her. Even before she could draw it from its sheath, another hand clamped down on her wrist. With a single snap, her pursuer wrested it from her hand and threw it to the ground.

“Ya like ’em long and pointy, eh?”

He gave her a violent shove, while the men behind him pinned her shoulders and hands. Leen realized with horror the sensation of the foreign body squeezing between her legs.

“Let go of me!” she screamed again.

“Like playing hard to get?” with a chuckle, her pursuer pinched her buttocks, “I bet ya ain’t as virtuous as ya pretend, so Bramsel won’t notice a thing when he gets his hands on ya, eh? Hold her – y’all get your turn!”

“Let go – of me!” she screamed again, panting from the sheer terror of the men piling on top of her, forcing her still so their leader could run his hands over her body and rip through her clothes. “Let me go! Let me go!”

Her wandering gaze swept over the glittering night skies. Amidst her futile struggles she no longer saw the stars, though something must have made her call out to them.

“Help me! Mother, help me!”

 

“Release the lady.”

It was a man’s voice, Leen realized, that came from behind her assailants. She could not see his face, but her assailants seemed surprised.

“Who the hell are you?”

“Do I need to repeat myself? Release her!”

For a moment Leen thought her prayer must have been answered. Yet to her dread she heard the sounds of multiple swords unsheathing, and in that brief moment she feared more for the life of the man who had unwittingly come to her rescue than for her own. She couldn’t see anything as swords clang in the darkness above her, and to her great horror she heard the heavy sound of a body falling to the ground.

Then she heard the man’s voice again, and her heart was lifted, if only momentarily.

“Do you truly want to die in such dishonorable endeavor? If so, you will end like him.”

“Bastard, kill ’im!”

Her assaulters turned around, rising to lunge full-force at the interloper. Taking advantage of this opportunity, Leen scrambled away and curled herself into a corner. In the maddeningly dancing torchlights she could hardly discern the figure of her rescuer, if it weren’t for the fact that he wielded his sword in a most meticulously measured dance. Like shadows fleeing before the sun Bramsel’s men fell before his blade, until finally he sheathed his sword and came towards her.

 “My lady, are you hurt?”

Almost entranced, Leen shook her head, and took the hand he offered. He pulled her up from the ground, then immediately withdrew his hand.

“You should leave this city,” he said. “If the Lord of Darna has plans on you, I doubt he would stop here.”

A mask covered most of his face. Her rescuer had stepped over the bodies with such customary ease and contempt that, now that the immediate danger had passed, Leen found a little spine-chilling. At the same time she could not help but admire his towering masculine elegance, the gentleness in his voice and the resolution in his grip.

“Thanks,” she said. “I’ll make it.”

He must have noticed that she was ready to slip away, “Where do you plan to go?”

“I’ll figure it out.”

“Bramsel will be hunting for you by tomorrow’s dawn, after he learns what have become of these men,” he said softly. “It was ill-considered of me, but I need to go to war, otherwise I would take you to safety myself.”

“I think men like you worry too much, sir,” she said. “but maybe that’s necessary with your businesses of war and killing. Which side are you on, anyway?”

“I will ride to the armies of Prince Selis and Prince Leif,” he said. “But word came to me that the Lord of Darna was planning to ambush Prince Selis’ army and prevent them from relieving Leonster, so I came here to learn their plans, and chanced upon Bramsel’s men following you from the castle.”

“Oh!” she said, “Good!”

“Good?” he asked.

“Good!” she repeated, “Then I can surely help you! I heard their plans at the castle – news arrived today that Melgen had fallen, so they are riding out tomorrow at dawn, since your people will leave Melgen soon for Alster.”

“Then I must go meet them in battle,” he said gravely. “If you can hide in this city for three days, my lady, I will return to deliver you.”

“You alone?!” she exclaimed.

“I cannot allow Selis’ army to be ambushed from behind. The relief of Leonster cannot be delayed.”

“Then I’m going with you,” she said, making up her mind. “I know them and I know how they fight. My mother fought once, too.”

The man seemed to have smiled beneath the mask. Picking up the sword that now lay beneath a pile of corpses, he contemplated it, and handed it to Leen.

“Is this yours?”

“Thanks, it was my mother’s,” she said. “I never learned to use it.”

“It is a fine weapon of Silesian make,” he said, “marked by a rare enchantment, not one made for fighting, but one that wards you from harm.”

She felt tears swelling into her eyes. The masked man took off his cloak, and wrapped it around her shoulders as if to ward her from the evening chill.

“I can teach you if you would like,” he said.

 

They left the city at the first light of dawn, before the guards at the gate had a chance to receive orders from the castle. It was Leen’s first time on a horse, and she was in high spirits.

“They were all wasted last night,” she said happily to her newfound companion, “so I bet they won’t set out until later in the morning at least.”

“That will allow us to gain some distance,” he said. He would not ride with her, but walked and held the reins like a squire, even when this arrangement hampered their speed considerably. “We should arrive at the cliff passes before sundown, then you shall find a place to hide, but keep within my sight.”

“I know, I know,” Leen said impatiently, not wanting to start thinking about the war yet. “What should I call you, anyway?”

“I am merely a knight,” he answered.

“Sir knight... that’s boring, how about Sir Black Knight?”

“That would be a rather pretentious title, my lady.”

“And you know,” she said, “I’m not a lady, just a traveling dancer. You are the first person who ever called me a lady.”

To this he did not answer, but Leen felt calm and happy, finally at ease as if on a homecoming journey. When all of this was over, she thought, she wanted to dance for him. He probably wouldn’t like it – he didn’t seem like the kind that enjoyed scantily clad dancers, didn’t even want to touch her when he helped her mount his horse, but he might like her dance.

That thought brought a smile to her lips. She felt unreasonably confident that he would like to see her dance. So she thought about the enchanting rhythms and melodies as the horse made its way from the plateau oasis.

It was nearly dusk when they descended from the mountain paths.

“I shall meet them here,” the knight said solemnly to her. “You shall find cover, my lady.”

She still judged that he must have been a little crazy, but for a very thoughtful person, he seemed to have given no thought at all to the possibility that he might come to harm. So she got off the horse and went into the rocky hills. In the distance she could already hear the hooves of horses as Jabarro’s company marched, and she felt once again strangely serene as she watched the knight mounted his horse and drew his sword, a dark silhouette against the setting sun.

Being so close to Darna, Jabarro had not even bothered to send scouts ahead. The mercenary company, therefore, came to a halt only when they discovered – apparently to their surprise – the lone knight blocking their path.

Leen ducked behind the rocks as Jabarro’s impatient voice echoed across the mountain path.

“What do you want?”

“Declare your intentions.”

“What do you want?” Jabarro repeated, “Move, or we have no time for mercy.”

“If you intend to ambush Lord Selis’ army, then do battle with me first.”

Jabarro burst into laughter.

“Who do you think you are? Fine, then, you can have your death wish.”

The mercenaries’ warhorses neighed amidst the ringing sounds of weapons unsheathing. Leen couldn’t help herself but peek out from her hiding place. The path below was narrow, with barren mountains on her side and a steep cliff on the other. Jabarro’s company had amassed behind him, readying their weapons. With one wave of Jabarro’s sword, the vanguards charged towards the lone interloper.

Leen almost couldn’t look, but she couldn’t look away.

The narrow mountain path trembled under the momentum of the charging riders, but the knight did not move an inch. He raised his sword with almost ceremonial solemnity, then, just as the first of the riders were about to charge into him, suddenly leapt into action. Like a bolt of lightning, his stallion flew past the mercenaries, who swung their weapons in vain at the galloping steed.

A fountain of blood shot into the sunset.

Jabarro’s head fell off his shoulders, rolling into the dusty ground between the trampling hooves. The knight reined in his horse. Raising the bloodied blade to the sky, he cried.

“Which one of you is next?”

The mercenaries shook in disbelief of their eyes. Jabarro was well-loved by his men, Leen knew. Shock and anger fermented in their ranks, until at last one of them let out a raging roar for vengeance, and spurred his horse towards the masked knight.

A moment later he was dead. Blood gushed out from the wound through his chest, and he fell over backwards from his horse.

“Regroup!” some mercenary had cried. They fell back into ranks, and prepared hastily for another attack. They fell upon him like moths fell into the fire: The lone knight swept through their crumbling ranks, his figure awash in the black and crimson gore of fallen men, bathed in the golden glow of the sun’s last rays.

On the ground lay those who had not run away. Only last night they drank and made merry in Bramsel’s castle, flirting with Leen as she passed them by with swaying hips. Now their blood soaked through the sand, their broken bodies, decaying carrion.

Leen touched the sword at her side and thought about her mother.

Chapter Text

In her dreams there was a shadow. Not the sinister kind, no, Tinny was sure it wouldn’t hurt her. The shadow floated around the edges of her memories. Sometimes she could hear its laughter, bright in the afternoon sun.

In her dreams she almost could remember the shadow’s name. But she couldn’t, and it felt so warm when the shadow ran to her and embraced her, so she forgot everything else…

She woke up in a sudden fright.

Someone was calling for her. It was the maid, staring down at her bed blankly.

“Lady Tinny, you are to appear before His Majesty today. Surely you have not forgotten?”

She shot up from her bed, seized by the sudden fear that once again she had disappointed her uncle, the warmth and comfort of her dreams all but forgotten.

“O-of course! I will be right there!”

Yes, she was remembering it now. The war, the rebels coming from the north, that usurper who claimed Leonster’s throne. They killed Prince Ishtor, who had been like an older brother to her. They would kill her too.

She got dressed as quickly as she could, fumbling everything as the maid braided her hair without a word. She hated it when the maid braided her hair, because her mother used to do it for her, and the maid would only pull her hair so hard that it began to hurt.

Right, the war. They were setting out for Melgen today, weren’t they? That rebel Selis whom Uncle Blume called a bandit, who killed Ishtor and Liza.

Probably because the maid was pulling too hard on her hair, she suddenly remembered her mother.

“Lord Sigurd… was a kind man.”

Her mother had said suddenly one day, out of nowhere. Tinny was really scared, scared that one of the servants had heard it, but they did, and they told her uncle and aunt.

She did not see her mother for the next week. Uncle Blume pulled her aside and told her solemnly, “Sigurd was a traitor. He killed Prince Kurth and your grandfather, Duke Reptor. Your traitor of a mother was bewitched by him, and brought great shame to the good name of House Friege. Are you going to listen to her, Tinny?”

“No, Uncle,” she answered meekly.

When she saw her mother again, her mother was wearing a long gown that covered all of her neck, arms and legs. Her mother said nothing, and only sat by the window before servants took her away.

Tinny shook her head, as if she could dismiss the memory of her mother’s sorrowful, longing gaze. No, no, it was her mother’s fault. It was her mother’s fault that the rebels had killed Prince Ishtor. It was her fault.

She went into the throne room in trepidation. Every glance cast at her was cold and angry, as if scolding her for her indolence. How dare you? Their eyes said. You are just like your mother.

She knelt before her uncle.

“You are late, Tinny,” he said. “Do you not want to fight?”

“I want to fight!” she shot out almost too eagerly. “I would avenge Prince Ishtor! I promise, Uncle!”

“Good,” said the King. “It’s time for you to prove yourself. That you are not like your mother.”

“Yes, Your Majesty! I will avenge Prince Ishtor!” she cried at the top of her lungs, and bowed to the king as low as she possibly could.

 

Tinny was sure they were keeping an eye on her. Their mistrusting eyes fell on her back as soon as she turned around, and they laughed just a little too loudly whenever she walked by.

If only Princess Ishtar were here, she couldn’t help but think. Princess Ishtar might say, are you nervous, Tinny, it’s your first time on the battlefield, right?

But Princess Ishtar was not here. Even if she were, wouldn’t she want Tinny to avenge her own brother? So Tinny couldn’t let her down, either. She had to be at least useful for somebody.

“Tinny!”

Vampa was calling for her. Hurriedly she checked her memory whether she had done anything wrong, and found nothing. With frightful apprehension she answered.

“Y-yes! What do you need me for?”

“The enemy is within half a day’s march. We are going to take the front assault now. You’re going to back us up, got it?”

“Of course! If those are my orders…”

Vampa gave her a cold glare, and left without a further word.

 

A fortnight ago Princess Ishtar sent someone to visit her in Alster. Tinny was petrified with fear when the maid told her she had a guest, and even more so when she heard he came on behalf of the princess. More than anything she was afraid that she had somehow displeased the princess.

It turned out that her guest was a mild-mannered man in priestly attire.

“Lady Tinny,” he smiled at her, “I am here on an errand for Princess Ishtar, and she wanted me to see how you are doing in passing.”

Why did the princess want to know how she was doing?

“I’m fine!” she blurted out in panic. “Thank you! I mean, please thank Her Highness for me! She has been really kind to me, really kind, not that everybody else isn’t kind… everyone is really good to me, especially given my mother betrayed House Friege, nobody ever held a grudge against me, and Uncle Blume treated me like his own daughter…”

She trailed off, panting from her desperation. Her guest did not seem pleased or displeased with the answer. She was secretly praying that he would leave – didn’t she say enough to make him leave? – when he asked, “Do you mind if I sit, Lady Tinny?”

No, no, no, now she had been rude, and to Princess Ishtar’s messenger not the least. She scrambled to pull out a chair and call for the maids to bring tea, but instead he pulled out a chair and gestured for her to sit.

She sat down, deploying all her willpower to prevent herself from shaking. Then her guest sat down in the opposing chair.

“My apologies, I have not introduced myself,” he said. “Lady Tinny, my name is Saias, and I have the honor of being appointed Bishop of Velthomer.”

Her terror, which had only begun to subside, abruptly peaked when she realized she might have heard that name somewhere. Wasn’t he supposed to be famous for some reason? She seemed to remember Uncle Blume mentioning him, but she couldn’t recall the occasion. Surely she had been rude and offended him. Why would Princess Ishtar send a famous person to see her anyway, if she hadn’t done something wrong?

“Your Excellency, I- I’m sorry!” she apologized instinctively. “I really didn’t mean to be rude. I’m sorry I forgot you wanted to sit, I promise I won’t forget again!”

“There is no need for you to apologize, Lady Tinny,” he said softly, calmingly. “I am sure Princess Ishtar would be glad to hear that you have not come to harm. To be honest, aside from her request, I had wanted to speak to you myself, so I hope I hadn’t alarmed you too much with this impudent visit.”

“No, no…” she denied, “I’m not alarmed. I’m sorry, Your Excellency, if it came across that way…”

He smiled reassuringly at her.

“No, my lady. It is entirely out of a personal reason, if I may so confide to you.”

His eyes seemed to be asking for permission. Tinny realized that they were a clear, transparent blue, filled with gentle patience. She nodded.

“You see, my lady,” he said, “I am an orphan with no parents. But in my infancy, I had the good fortunes of being found and cared for by a man of lofty mind and loftier virtue. He was Claude, the last Duke of Edda, and he took me to the monastery of Bragi, where I was raised by servants of our Lord.”

But the Duke of Edda was a traitor, Tinny thought with some confusion, how could he speak in praise of a traitor who conspired to usurp the throne? As if anticipating her thoughts, her guest continued.

“They say the Duke of Edda conspired with Sigurd of Chalphy in the murder of Prince Kurth, and for that reason he died in the Battle of Belhalla,” he said softly. “To me, however, he was always the man who gave me the first book I owned and taught me kindness. Lady Tinny, I understand your mother, Lady Tiltyu, was implicated in the war through her connection to him. Although Lady Tiltyu had unfortunately passed away, I had wanted to visit you because he would have wanted me to.”

“I- I don’t want anything to do with the traitors!” she said loudly, half afraid that all of this would get reported to her uncle. “My mother brought shame to House Friege and disgraced herself as a Crusader’s descendent! Sigurd of Chalphy was a crook, and I’m sure everyone else she associated with was just as terrible! It was only right that His Majesty executed all of them! And my father, he- he…”

She felt her voice breaking. She had to lower her head to collect her emotions a little, lest she started crying and her visitor misinterpreted it as sympathy for her mother’s treacherous friends. But that desperate longing overcame her heart, melting away all her inhibitions. She ventured out.

“You reside in Velthomer, Your Excellency? Do you know of my father – was he really His Imperial Majesty’s own brother?”

“Lord Azel? I am not old enough to have known him personally, I am afraid, but I hear he was gentle and kind of heart.”

Tinny blinked. She didn’t know what to make of this description. A thousand questions pounded in her heart, but she couldn’t ask any of them. The visiting bishop lowered his eyes, and continued as if he knew what she had wanted to ask.

“It is not known whether he took part in the Battle of Belhalla or the conspiracy against the throne. It is believed that he went missing before the Battle. His Imperial Majesty had sent out many knights in search of your father, but – I’m sorry to say, Lady Tinny – he could not be found.”

The bishop’s voice was faint, almost mesmerizing. Tinny could choke back her tears no longer, and at the same time she was perplexed why she wanted to cry and afraid that she shouldn’t be crying. Her visitor reached out from across the table, and lightly, nearly imperceptibly, rested his hand on top of hers.

It felt so strange that someone was not touching her to rebuke her, that she almost couldn’t control the urge of jerking back her hand. But gradually she relaxed beneath her visitor’s soothing touch and slowly stopped her tears. He went on gently.

“I hear, also, that he loved your mother very much. Lady Tinny, from what I know, your mother was an extraordinarily courageous woman, and well worthy of his love.”

This couldn’t be real, she thought. She must have lost it, must have been staring at him with bewilderingly blank eyes. But she couldn’t help it. She didn’t know what to make of it.

Her visitor stood up and let go of her hand. She almost wanted to hold on, but she couldn’t.

“It is time for me to go, Lady Tinny,” he said, bowing slightly. “Do not worry if your uncle will catch wind of our conversation – I have already told him that the Emperor had some caring words for his niece.”

Tinny nodded, not knowing what any of it meant. Her head was still spinning.

“And there is one final thing,” her visitor said, his eyes gazing directly into hers. “I had not been wholly forthright about my intentions. I came by, Lady Tinny, also because I must offer you an apology.”

“Apology?” she said, somewhat recovering her composure, “What does Your Excellency have to apologize for?”

“It is not something I can explain as of now,” he answered, “but it is possible you will never see me again. Perhaps one day you will understand, and decide then whether you can forgive me.”

She looked at him uncomprehendingly, while he smiled.

“Farewell, Lady Tinny, I will pray for your happiness.”

 

Two weeks later, Tinny had virtually forgotten the visit. It had occurred almost like a dream, such that she had to eavesdrop on the servants’ conversations to ascertain that someone called Saias of Velthomer really did come on behalf of Princess Ishtar. But according to the servants he was here to discuss the defense of Conote and Manster, so perhaps she only heard about him and made up the meeting in her imagination.

However, as she stood on the grassy hills overlooking the isthmus leading to Melgen, she could not drive the bishop’s voice from her head.

Your mother was an extraordinarily courageous woman.

What did he mean by that? Surely he could not have known how her mother shielded the little Tinny with her own body? Plus, her mother only got what she deserved… She was a traitor, after all. Even if she had good intentions, she still brought shame to House Friege…

Tinny looked up. In the distance, Vampa’s regiment had already engaged the enemy, and her sisters’ regiments were not far behind. Blades clashed as the forces of magic exploded throughout the battlefield.

That must be the rebels’ army. The distance was too great for her to see them clearly, but when she passed through the villages on the march here, she heard the villagers whisper that the rebels’ was the army of liberation. Then they looked at the Friegian troops with fearful, dodging glances, as if they were afraid of the dreadful consequences of an overheard conversation.

There was something familiar in their eyes that she couldn’t quite make out.

But they killed Prince Ishtor.

Back up, Tinny, where is back up? She could almost hear Vampa’s voice screaming at her. It couldn’t really be Vampa, since she must be several miles away. But Tinny heard it so clearly in her head that she wanted to cry. Do you want to fight or not, Tinny?

Traitor, daughter of a traitor.

“We- we are going in too!” she told her lieutenants, less here to assist her than to watch her. “We are proud knights of Friege! Long live the Emperor! Long live the King!”

“Long live King Blume!”

The battle cry resounded through the ranks. Grasping her tome so tightly that its metal binding cut into her palm, she stepped forward to join the battle.

 

Tinny was quivering. She had no experience commanding a regiment, and her lieutenants “suggested” all the orders. That was fine. They probably knew better, and she wanted to fight too, because she had to avenge Prince Ishtor and she was a proud daughter of House Friege.

The rebels were advancing. The Friegian frontlines were falling back, shouting that the commanders had abandoned position and fled back to Alster. Ranks began to break; some soldiers ran.

Tinny pressed on.

She couldn’t go back. Not under her lieutenants’ condemning eyes. Coward, traitor. Their eyes said. She dared not propose retreat, and they nodded as if she was passing some examination, some test of courage and loyalty.

If her uncle could forgive Vampa, Fetra and Eliu for retreating, he would never forgive her. She could almost hear the insults hurled at her, the sneers and the cutting glares. The defeat would be her fault, her fault and nobody else’s, because she betrayed her uncle’s trust just like her mother did.

“Long live the Emperor!”

“Death to the Emperor!”

Almost before the opposing battle cries had dissipated from the field, their regiment clashed head-on with the rebel army. Tinny did not know what happened. At some point she turned around and realized her lieutenants, too, were fleeing the field. Volleys of arrows and fire bolts were falling on them.

“Advance!”

They were outflanked, isolated and surrounded. There was almost no one to give orders to, so Tinny stopped pretending to give orders.

She opened her tome.

Lightning.

The energy that jumps and zaps and destroys and turns everything to ash. She knew the blood of Tordo was rushing within her, waiting for its power to be released.

She looked up. There they were, the enemies closing in. They were close enough that she could see their faces, their eyes. The reality of the fact that she was going to kill them began to sink in.

Was she going to kill them?

Cold despair washed over her and froze her in place. She suddenly realized what had happened to Ishtor and Liza, what Uncle Blume meant by vengeance. There was no going back.

Your mother was a traitor, Tinny. Are you going to fight?

Her fingers shuddered as they lingered on the magical script. She looked up at the enemies again, coming towards her, closing in on her.

You disappoint me, Tinny.

Breathlessly she tried to mouth the words. Thunderous bolts of arcane power hurled themselves into the enemy ranks, like a drunken man’s blows, straying wildly from their targets. The enemies were everywhere. An arrow narrowly missed her arm. Another pierced her shoulder. The pain made tears come to her eyes. She stumbled backwards, tripping over a dead body.

“Put down your weapon! You are surrounded!”

She attacked. Almost blindly, lightning flashed from her fingertips, bursting in midair, striking nothing at all. She had forgotten she was summoning them, forgotten she could do anything else. Enemy fire burned through her.

That’s not so bad, maybe she will die here, maybe she will die now. Then she won’t have to return to Alster and face Uncle Blume.

She didn’t want to die.

As arrows rained down on her position, she remembered that no one would miss her if she died. Not her uncle, not Vampa and her sisters, definitely not her aunt. Perhaps Princess Ishtar would ask, where is Tinny? And they would say, she died, like the useless thing that her mother was. She thought suddenly of the bishop who came to see her; she wondered if he would remember her.

Then she remembered the white shadows in her dreams. Her father, her mother, her brother… ah, that’s who it must have been in all her dreams. She had a brother, too, from so long ago.

Her mind wandered aimlessly as magic exploded around her. “The enemy would not submit!” she heard them shouting. “One more round, fire!”

This was surely the end.

She closed her eyes.

Then suddenly her body was thrown off balance. She felt herself rolling into the grass as fiery missiles struck the ground where she must have been standing. A warm, heavy body fell on top of her and shielded hers.

“Ow…” she heard a voice, wincing from pain, “Stop fire! Dammit, stop firing! Tinny? Are you Tinny?”

She opened her eyes. He had silver hair just like hers.

For the first time in her life, she knew with certainty that she could cry without any consequences, so she buried her face in his chest and let out her tears.

Chapter Text

So many happy reunions, after a hard-won victory not the least. Prince Selis’ army entered Alster to universal elation among the citizens, whose uprising had been bloodily suppressed by Blume. The season was that of hopeful spring, and flowers rained from the balconies as they paraded through the city.

Selis, Shannan and Oifey all had important business to attend to. But for Fee, the first priority was pampering Tinny – who could leave it up to Arthur to know what a girl wanted? She took Tinny through the reopened shops of Alster and bought the girl sweets and flowers and books. Normally Arthur would hog all the best candies, but today he was almost like a different person, and truth be told, Fee was a little impressed.

“Can I really take this?”

Tinny’s eyes sparkled with timid excitement.

“Of course!” Arthur was quick to offer. “I didn’t know you were so popular around here, Tinny! Everyone really liked you, eh? Not like Blume’s ilk.”

Tinny avoided Arthur’s eyes. She didn’t want to continue the topic, so Fee changed it for her.

“They’re going to hold a dance here tonight, to honor the return of Princess Miranda – you want to go, Tinny?”

“Of course!” she answered almost too quickly, “I mean, if Fee thinks that’s good…”

 

They returned to the camp in the afternoon. On Oifey’s advice, Selis’ army did not set foot in the palace except to capture the remaining Friegian soldiers, and they set up camp outside the city walls. When the trio came back, Shannan and Selis were in a meeting with some old Alsterian generals, while Oifey was making arrangements for supplies.

Fee paid all of it little heed. The sun shone brightly on the grassy hills surrounding Alster, and Fee was content to bicker with Arthur on whether he should assume Tinny liked licorice candy just because he liked them. They rolled around on the grassy hills outside the camp gates as if they were children, until languor washed over Fee and she could only feel the sunlight beating down on her heavy eyelids. Even Arthur was quiet for a while.

It was almost as if fourteen years of time had not passed at all.

Fee opened her eyes to the sound of a horse approaching slowly. Arthur had already sat up, looking down at the road.

Fee yawned, rubbed her eyes, and jumped up from the grass. Coming towards the camp was a girl on a horse, while a tall man wearing a mask held the reins. They approached the camp guards, as the girl jumped off the horse and the man gave a knight’s salute.

“I’m Leen, a traveling dancer!” the girl said cheerily as she landed gracefully before the horse with a wave of her scarf. “This is my companion, Sir Black Knight, and he’s looking for Prince Selis.”

The guards looked a little flustered and perplexed at the same time, perhaps not the least because how scantily clothed the girl was.

“Prince Selis is meeting several guests, young lady, Sir… eh, Black Knight. Could I learn where you are coming from, and why you would like to see the prince?”

“We came from Darna,” the girl said with a sparkling grin. “Sir Black Knight here said he wanted to fight for your prince and the Prince of Leonster, so he came all the way over here. As for me, I guess I could help out too.”

“Ah, volunteers, we are honored to have you here! You may want to see Sir Oifey first – his tent is right that way,” the guard gestured. “Take a left, then along the river, towards the walls.”

“I can take you to see Sir Oifey!” Fee shouted to the newcomers, eager to display their hospitality. She bounced over the meadows towards them, dragging Arthur and Tinny one in each hand.

They turned around and saw her. The girl waved. The knight bowed.

“I’m Fee! Pegasus knight of Silesia, proudly in Prince Selis’ service,” she pointed to her companions. “This is Arthur, and this is Tinny. We can take you.”

They went into the camp, and Arthur was already picking up most of the conversation.

“That’s really weird,” he said, “Sir Black Knight? Is that your real name?”

“No, my lord,” the knight answered. “You may call me anything you desire.”

“You don’t even wear black,” Arthur reflected.

“He wore black the first time I saw him,” Leen interjected. “Looked gorgeous too.”

“If he’s going to keep that name, he should at least wear black, you know?”

“Allow me to interrupt,” the knight said. “I have no intention of keeping the name. ‘Sir knight’ is more than sufficient.”

“But that’s really dull,” Arthur said.

Right?! That’s what I said!”

“For the love of Forseti!” Fee said, “If the man doesn’t want to be called that, don’t call him that.”

“He never said he doesn’t want to be called that,” Leen protested.

“I did once, my lady,” the knight said, “but it is within your freedom.”

See?!” Fee said, triumphant.

Arthur looked a little dejected. “I really don’t think it’s a bad name; it’s just very misleading if he doesn’t wear black. Or, I mean, if he has a black sword or horse or something, that works too.”

“Nobody cares if it misleads you, Arthur.”

“I just think people on our side should have cool nicknames too. You know, like ‘Crusader Tordo Reborn’ – sounds kind of amazing, right?”

“Don’t joke about it in front of Tinny,” Fee hissed.

“It’s alright,” the girl answered meekly. “Lord Reinhardt… was kind of nice. He came with Princess Ishtar a lot.”

“Now you are making her nervous,” Fee threw a condemning glare at Arthur, and an arm around Tinny. Arthur looked immediately apologetic, and cuddled up to his sister.

“Sorry! I only meant the nickname, that’s all! You could be Crusader Tordo Reborn too, you know? We both have the Crusader’s blood.”

Tinny’s eyes glittered with the hint of a smile. Encouraged, Arthur kept going.

“And Shannan can be the Crusader Od reborn, Selis is Reincarnation of Baldo, and Lana is Reincarnation of Bragi.”

“That’s just getting tedious,” Leen said, “no one will remember that! You gotta be memorable.”

“How about the Pure Light of Bragi?” Fee suggested, unable to resist the urge of joining in. Plus, she wanted a nickname too, not that she would ever admit it to Arthur.

“That’s more like what I’m talking about!”

Fee beamed at Leen’s approval. Not to be outdone, Arthur jumped in.

“Then Shannan can be the Shooting Star Sword that Cuts Through Everything!”

Leen burst out laughing.

“That’s a mouthful!”

“How about… the All-Annihilating Blade that Sunders Heaven and Earth?”

“Wait, he can actually do that?”

“Of course not!”

 

“We need a name.”

“Yup, we need a name.”

“Agreed.”

Sigurd had suggested the Swords of Justice, but Cuan promptly pointed out that he didn’t use a sword. The Weapons of Justice sounded… well, it didn’t sound quite right, that much they agreed on. Cuan had favored the Knights of Justice, but Eltshan thought it was a little too mundane. Instead he proposed the Glorious Vengeance of Justice.

Cuan was onboard, but Sigurd thought that “vengeance” and “justice” were a little repetitive. At length they debated the virtues of vengeance versus justice, until Eltshan finally convinced Sigurd that the imagery should be that of a personified Justice avenging the wronged. Then they debated whether vengeance could be glorious, then whether vengeance should be glorious. That launched a prolonged, pseudo-philosophical discussion on the meaning of justice. Finally Cuan suggested a compromise with the Bound Oath of Justice.

They were twelve, they had nothing better to do, and they all forgot about it within a week.

 

“Oifey, you have guests!”

Fee leapt into the tent with a straight salute. The tactician of Chalphy was in the middle of talking to some knights, but he must be used to this by now.

“Give me two minutes, Lady Fee.”

Fee stood by like the patient and good-natured soldier that she was, and listened to more “the Holy Sword that Cleanses the Evil of Loptous from the World” and “the Shining Girl within whom is Hidden the Light that Created the World.”

“For the record, Yuria doesn’t do that,” she whispered to Leen. “She is good with light magic though – you’ll get to meet her.”

Oifey gave the knights their assignments and they went out. Then the tactician turned towards Fee.

“We brought the new volunteers, Oifey!” Fee jumped before Oifey had a chance to ask. “This is Leen and Sir Black Knight from Darna.”

Oifey looked a little awkwardly at the strange pair, but he maintained perfect politesse.

“It is an honor to have you volunteering to join Prince Selis and Prince Shannan, my lady, my lord. If you do not mind, could you tell me a little about your combat experiences, so I can assign you to suitable posts in the army?”

“Well,” Leen said. “I don’t really have any, but I dance – people tend to like that, right?”

“We would appreciate the boost for the morale,” Oifey nodded. “And you, Sir… eh, Black Knight?”

Fee suddenly remembered that she introduced him as Sir Black Knight. Ops, she hadn’t meant to.

“I was a traveling knight for many years, Sir Oifey. I cannot tell you what battles I have been in, but if someone from the army would so honor me, I am more than willing to demonstrate my swordsmanship.”

“I’ll do it!” Fee volunteered immediately. She saw nearly no action in the battle of Alster – they wouldn’t let her approach the city because of ballistae.

“Lady Fee? It is my honor.”

The knight bowed to her, and they went outside with training swords.

Fee was on the ground after two passes. She was too sulky to take the hand the knight offered her, and instead let Leen pull her up. She almost protested that she wanted a rematch with her lance, but Oifey had already picked up a training sword.

It made her feel much better a minute later when Oifey was struck to the ground too, though somehow Oifey didn’t look unhappy at all.

“Truly remarkable swordsmanship!” the strategist exclaimed. “Surely… it may be injudicious for me to ask, but… Sir Black Knight… are you of the bloodline of Hezul, sir?”

“You flatter me, Sir Oifey. Lady Leen gave me the name without knowing anything of me, as I happened to have worn black when I travelled at night. A knight I am, and no more.”

“You are modest, sir, many armies would chase after prowess such as yours. As you may know, once I had been fortunate to serve in the armies of Lord Sigurd of Chalphy, whose swordsmanship was unrivaled among the knights of Grannvale. Were he alive today, he would have been delighted to meet a match such as yourself.”

“You speak of the impossible, sir,” the knight answered, “though had it been possible, I would very much like the honor.”

“There is one other person who might like a match, though,” Oifey said.

 

The practice match between Prince Shannan and the mysterious newcomer soon became the talk of the camp. Oifey had to mandate that someone must go to the celebration dance for the Princess of Alster, lest they offend the princess and the city’s citizens.

Lakshe and Skasaher were obviously staying to watch, and Johalva said, “Are you kidding, man? No way I’m missing this!” Lana and Yuria had to stay in case healing was needed, and Patty already started a betting ring. Finally Selis said, “I will go to the city.” After some soul-searching, Oifey decided to accompany the young prince.

Fee was super excited. Arthur bet on the mystery knight because everybody else bet on Prince Shannan. Leen probably would have too – by now Patty had filled her in with more than enough details of the Issacian prince’s many exploits, but the dancer was unconvinced.

“I’m only telling you,” she pulled Fee aside to whisper, “because I’m not supposed to tell anyone in the army. He killed all of Darna’s mercenaries, all of them who didn’t run or surrender. I saw it myself; it was really bloody.”

“What did he do that for?!”

“They were about to ambush your camp,” the dancer said, in a matter-of-fact manner as if it was no big deal at all.

“Aren’t you supposed to tell Oifey this?!” Fee was shocked, but the dancer put a finger on her lips.

“Shh, he said there were reasons, but you won’t tell anyone, right? Anyway, my money is on him. Not that I have actual money – left all my stuff in the inn when we fled Darna.”

Secretly Fee hoped the knight would win, too, because it would look that much better if the knight who handily beat her also defeated Prince Shannan.

The much-anticipated match started in the late afternoon, after the Alsterian generals returned to the city with Selis and Oifey. Prince Shannan was pleasantly surprised that Oifey found him someone to practice with.

“Well then, let’s begin,” he said, slightly startled but not too bothered by the multitude of people who had gathered to watch.

He got into a starting pose. The knight bowed, and held out his sword.

Before Fee’s eyes even registered anything, the sword in Shannan’s hand sliced through the wind in a silver crescent, twirling forth in a million thrusts like a torrent of steel.

“Dodged! Dodged! That was a parry!”

Skasaher was keeping count, because Arthur disputed Lakshe’s partiality – Arthur would dispute Skasaher’s partiality too, but nobody else had eyes trained enough to follow Shannan’s movements, so he had to take his pick between the lesser of two evils. In an instant the combatants had shuffled away three steps, Shannan pressing on like a cascading tempest, but the knight’s retreat was almost perfectly timed, allowing him to narrowly slide away from the onslaught of attacks and swing a powerful counterattack.

“Dodged!” Skasaher called.

But Shannan had to jump to avoid the hit, and suddenly the tide turned. The knight leaned forward, and with both his hands on the hilt, cleaved into Shannan’s position. Fee had not taken Leen to heart when the dancer said he single-handedly defeated an entire company, but now she instantly had no doubts in her mind. So ferociously forceful was the cleave that Shannan did not even attempt a parry. The Isaacian prince leapt back, readjusted his stance, and lunged forward again.

“Go, Prince Shannan!” Patty cheered.

It was a thunderstorm of clashing metals. A spin, a thrust, a sweeping blow. “Dodged!” Skasaher cried. Shannan caught an opening! But the backhand riposte was faster. “Parried!” An improbably opportunistic snap of the wrist, and a second counter attack slid under Shannan’s arm.

“Hit! Thigh!” Skasaher announced, but the combatants had already continued. Arthur was grinning madly, and Leen let go of her clenched hands to clap. Lakshe had the same fixated, fierce expression on her face as Shannan renewed his attack. The cold light of the Isaacian prince’s blade blossomed into a silver, ever-shifting flower, every unfurling petal closing in with deadly delicacy.

“Hit! Shoulder!”

It was the knight who took a slash to the shoulder this time, half a second too late with a sideway glide. But he recovered his position quickly, parrying Shannan’s follow-up assault with the flat side of his sword. For a while distance was maintained, as each waited for an opportunity to strike. After a few parries at arm’s length, the knight sprang into offensive. His broad blade swung down and forward, not with the blindingly swirling speed of Shannan’s blade, but with an overpowering, burning intensity.

Irreplaceable is the blade that was forged in a hundred battles, Shannan used to say, but Fee recalled the majestic eagles in the distant mountains of Silesia, and the awe-inspiring splendor with which they spread their wings and swooped down upon their prey. In breathless succession the attacks followed one another, each more powerful than the last. They were almost at the edge of the crowd.

With little room to maneuver, Shannan turned and ducked a blow, but was forced to parry the next attack. But the crushing power of an overhand cleave overwhelmed the parrying blade, sending the Isaacian prince rolling to the ground to dodge the attack.

“Prince Shannan!” Patty gasped.

And a second later it was over. Just as the knight bore down on the defender with a follow-up swing, the tip of Shannan’s blade was pointing at his throat.

The knight withdrew his sword and bowed.

“I concede, Your Highness.”

“Well-fought, sir. I have never known such an opponent; your prowess honors us.”

Prince Shannan allowed himself to be pulled up by the masked knight. There seemed to be some lingering confusion among the audience on who was the winner, but Patty was already cheering and running up with a waterskin. Seeing that Patty only took one waterskin, Leen mumbled something under her breath, grabbed a second waterskin and tugged Fee along with her.

“That was amazing!” Patty was exclaiming. “Sir Black Knight was really good, but my heart will never turn from Prince Shannan!”

But Shannan was looking distractedly at Leen, as the dancer gave the knight water along with a motivational speech.

“Don’t be dejected! It’s not a shame to lose to Prince Shannan of Isaac – this man is famous!”

“Thank you for the concern, my lady,” the knight said mildly, “but I feel no shame, only gladness. It gives me peace that Prince Selis is protected by such a blade.”

Shannan was still looking at Leen – Leen’s hips, to be exact, Fee noted with some interest.

“Prince Shannan!” Patty protested, “I- I didn’t know you are this kind of person! That’s not what you promised when you proposed to me!”

“Can I see your sword?” ignoring Patty, Shannan said abruptly to Leen.

“Huh, mine?” Leen blinked.

Fee thought all of this was really funny. She made a mental note to tell Arthur and Tinny later.

“May I?” Shannan held out a hand.

Mystified, Leen drew the sword from her belt, and handed it to the prince.

“I know this blade,” the dark-haired prince pronounced solemnly, turning it over in his hand. “Where did you find it?”

Fee’s sense for a good story began to tingle.

“They told me it was my mother’s,” Leen said.

 “I knew this blade when I was yet a child,” the prince said. “The Silesians presented it to Lady Sylvia, whom they loved as one of their own.”

“Huh?” Fee looked up and blinked. “You don’t mean my mother?”

“Yes, Lady Fee. She danced with this blade on Prince Lewyn and Lord Sigurd’s wedding day, then she took it when the army left Silesia. I could be wrong, but I have never seen another like it.”

Fee opened her mouth, but her mind was completely blank. What? … How? … Really? … No way? … Disjointed and incomprehensible bits of thought bounced maddeningly in her head, as she heard Leen cry out.

“You knew my mother, Your Highness?”

“It is probable,” Shannan said. “You should speak to Oifey about this. Lady Sylvia was of House Edda, so if you have the blood of Bragi, it is very pr-”

“Arthur!” Fee screamed, diving to pull Leen into a possibly choking embrace, never mind she was cutting the prince short, “Tinny! I have a sister! I have a sister!!!”

Chapter Text

When Fee and Arthur came to Rivough from Silesia, they brought a letter for Lana.

It was a letter that was written and received seventeen years ago, when Sigurd’s army was on route to Belhalla. It was received in Silesia into the keeping of Queen Rahna, who trusted it to Lady Mahnya when the city fell. Instruction on the letter was that it would be given to Lana when she came of age.

Lana did not open the letter until she was alone and late at night. It would be unseemly if other members of the army saw her cry. She broke the seal bearing the crest of House Jungby with shaking hands. The mere thought that it was her mother’s hand that tilted the candle and allowed the melting wax to fall upon the parchment made something swell up inside her. Carefully she left the seal attached to one side of the parchment, and unfolded the letter.

It started in a slender, elegant hand that must have been her mother’s.

My dear daughter Lana,

You must have grown up, into a beautiful woman now. Just thinking about that makes it hard for me to continue, but I have to continue.

Will you grow up in Silesia, under the care of Queen Rahna? Or will this coming war make you a refugee in an unfriendly world, where you would find neither trust nor comfort?

I don’t know how to continue. Since your father spoke to me three days ago, I questioned every waking moment if this is the right decision. I pray every night that you will forgive us.

We love you so much, our beautiful, little daughter, but we have to leave you behind.

I am sorry, I can’t go on. Your father will continue for me. We love you, Lana.

Her mother’s writing ended here with an almost scribbled signature. What continued was a script thin and delicate like threads of silk, as if the pen nib hardly touched the parchment in the process of writing. It must have been her father’s.

My sweet daughter,

More than anything I regret the fate we will be forcing on you, but this fate cannot be changed. I had hoped that your mother will return to Silesia to care for you, but alas, it was not to be. So the shadow of death lies upon us.

My daughter, we do not yet know, but the mark of Bragi may manifest on you one day. However, you would not succeed to the Valkyrie Staff. It would have disappeared from this world for a greater purpose.

That purpose is the reason I must leave you.

This would have become history by the time you are grown up: When Prince Kurth was murdered, I traveled to the Tower of Bragi to pray to the voice of our god. Through his light many things of past and future were revealed to me. I saw it was Arvis who conspired to murder Prince Kurth and wed the prince’s daughter, who would subjugate the duchies of Grannvale and destroy Sigurd for his ambitions. I saw, too, the ominous but impenetrable evil behind these plotting.

That evil is now ready to rise in this world. Fate has decreed a path to combat it, but that path is arduous and tortuous. It gives your mother and me great pride and joy to know that you will embark on that path.

To set you and others on that path, it is necessary that one whose aegir has been exhausted is returned from the shadows of death. This is beyond the power of the Valkyrie Staff, but the gods, who are merciful, will intercede. Such a forceful intervention in the flow of fate will forever drain the Staff of all its power.

Therefore, my last task in this life is to bring the Valkyrie Staff to the battlefield at Belhalla. After that, I will die, and your mother has resolved to die with me.

I ask you to absolve your mother from blame, for she will not give up hope that we will return to you alive and well. But if you are reading this letter, then fate has already run its course.

Farewell, my beloved daughter. Your aunt Sylvia has recently discovered that she is with child again. Even in these times, the promise of new life continues to gives us hope.

There had been half a line written beneath it, above her father’s signature. The writer, however, seemed to have changed his mind and scorched the few letters that were written. Lana squinted at it, turned it, held it to the light, and scratched over it with a piece of paper. But no matter how hard she tried, she could not make out what had been erased.

Only after these fruitless endeavors did her mind finally return to what she had read, as the fact that her mother chose her father over her hit her head like a two-hundred-pound rock.

It was for an important purpose, she repeatedly told herself, it was because her mother had wanted to save them, had wanted to avert fate from its inevitable tragedy. But tears slid down her cheeks almost without her feeling anything, their moist warmth dissipating as they dripped from her chin into her lap.

Then she heard Yuria’s footsteps behind her, and swiftly dried her tears.

 

Therefore, it made Lana very happy that they so quickly found her aunt’s long-lost daughter, about whom her father had written seventeen years ago. However, unlike Fee who dragged Leen and Tinny with her everywhere, Lana did not have the luxury of family-bonding time. The battles of Melgen and Alster had been two of the most demanding they faced to date, and their camp was full of wounded soldiers for whom she needed to care. Oifey made sure they gave proper medical attention to the captured Friegian troops too. While Lana whole-heartedly applauded the humanitarian purpose, it was also undeniable that it significantly increased her workload.

“We should send reinforcements to Leonster as soon as possible,” Oifey said after they returned to camp from the city later that evening, when everyone was still out and about chatting, too excited to sleep after what Lana gathered to have been a sword match earlier. “Alster’s own garrisons would be capable of holding the city with just a little help from us, and in the meantime Prince Leif’s forces are still menaced by the bulk of the Friegian troops.”

Lana was reluctant to leave her work unfinished, but allowed herself to be persuaded by the direness of Leonster’s situation and the availability of medics in Alster. Selis, for his part, was tremendously eager.

“We can set out tomorrow morning,” the prince said. “The scouts said the siege on Leonster had been lifted, right?”

Oifey confirmed the report.

“Good, then we can go ahead with a small party, before they have a chance to blockade us again.”

It was quickly decided at an impromptu strategy meeting, which involved most of the army’s older members standing around with some wine, that the company would consist of Selis himself, Lana and Yuria (healing), Leen (morale), Fee (scout), and Patty (provisions). Oifey had wanted to accompany them, but there was too much unfinished business in Alster, so after a few private words between the strategist and Shannan, it was agreed that the masked knight will escort them to Leonster.

Oifey also expressly forbid them to call him Sir Black Knight. Lana wasn’t sure what happened when she was attending to the wounded, but Sir Knight suited her well enough.

 

Their small company arrived in Leonster amidst the entire city’s cheering. After the prolonged drudgery of siege, there was no pomp, no ceremony. But an uplifting spirit pervaded the air, and Prince Leif of Leonster himself ran down from the battlements to greet them.

“You must be Prince Selis! We have heard so much about you and your army. It’s truly amazing that you expelled Blume from Alster so quickly!”

Selis was blushing.

“We had the good fortune that most of Blume’s forces were engaged around Leonster, so we can hardly take credit for the victory.”

“You are too modest, Lord Selis. You already reclaimed Isaac and crossed the Yied Desert, while we could hardly hold on to Leonster.”

“Blume is a foe of a different caliber than Danan,” Selis turned even redder, “t-that’s why both our armies would be necessary to defeat him.”

“We will give our utmost!” Prince Leif said, seemingly slightly more at ease. “This is Finn – he told me a lot about how our fathers used to fight together – and this is August, our strategist.”

The knight and the balding priest each bowed. Selis introduced everyone, and the two princes went to their war room meeting. Since neither Shannan nor Oifey was here, Sir Knight went with them, and everyone else dispersed for respective duties.

 

“How are you doing, Yuria?” Lana whispered to Yuria on their way to the hospice.

“I’m fine, Lady Lana…”

Lana had been more than a little worried since they had Yuria fight the dark mages in the desert. She killed them all, and when they went into the ruins of the Yied Shrine, Lana found Yuria staring at the scratches on the wall.

“Is everything alright, Yuria?” she had asked.

“Yes, Lady Lana!” with hurried steps, the silver-haired girl had run to join her, as she took Yuria’s hands and led the girl out of the underground passage.

Since then she had battled the lightning mages of House Friege, her slender hands quivering as it gathered the blinding light of the heavens to annihilate their enemies. Lana had forgotten how many times she healed Yuria’s wounds – burns, cuts, arrow piercings. Always the girl said nothing.

“If it is hard,” Lana whispered again as they passed by a patrol of Leonster’s soldiers, “you can always tell me, agreed?”

“I promise, Lady Lana.”

They were greeted at the hospice by a young lady named Janne, the daughter of Sir Finn whom they had met on the walls. She was extremely relieved at their arrival, and immediately asked them to attend to soldiers in the urgent care ward.

Lana was taking care of a man who would need an amputation when she realized Yuria had not been in her sight for a while. Finishing the task at hand as quickly as possible, she rushed out into the corridor, and found Yuria standing there with boxes of bandages and potions in her arms.

In front of Yuria was a tiny girl, only the height of Lana’s shoulders. Her voice was faint.

“You have forgotten, haven’t you?”

Yuria was staring at the strange girl intently. Lana was dumbfounded. The girl continued speaking in a distant, dreamlike voice.

“He is looking for you, Yuria, he who loved you but is no longer. The shadows are whispering of vengeance.”

“Who are you?” Lana asked breathlessly.

The little girl smiled innocently.

“I am Sara, and you are Lana of Houses Edda and Jungby, branded of the blood of Bragi,” she waved, tilting her head to one side. “I have to go, bye-bye!”

“Wait!” Lana called out, rushing to Yuria’s side. “What did you say to Yuria?”

But Sara had already disappeared behind a corner in the narrow corridor. Lana turned to Yuria and smiled a smile she couldn’t feel.

“Do you need help with these, Yuria?”

“… thank you.” The girl answered docilely. Lana took a few boxes from Yuria’s hands, but couldn’t drive the ominous feelings from her heart.

“What did she say to you before I was here?”

“… a highborn woman … her… tragic death. I… I don’t remember… Lady Lana, do you think she could have been talking about my mother?”

“I don’t know,” Lana answered. “You don’t remember her, do you?”

“No…” Yuria was lost in thoughts as she lowered her glance. “… the only memories of my childhood were with the kind bard, the one who left me with you.”

It seemed to be troubling her excessively. Lana placed a comforting hand around her arm.

“It’s fine, it’s fine,” Lana said. “It might take time, but one day you will remember, and we will be here for you.”

“Thank you, Lady Lana.”

 

Two days later, Fee returned with some astonishingly bad news.

“The army of Conote is on the move!” the pegasus knight crashed into the castle grounds shouting. It was lunch time, and Sir Knight was sparring with the princes before servants came with the food. Lana had been in the midst of a conversation with Sir Finn when the bloodied pegasus barely managed a landing. She ran up.

“Fee!”

“Ow! Ow! Damn archers, didn’t let the archers get me! Even evacuated the villages on my way back! Ow, Lana!”

“Sorry, this is going to hurt…”

“Ow!!!”

Lana quickly cleaned the wounds with the medic kit she carried everywhere with her. Everyone had already gathered around.

“What’s the situation?” Sir Knight asked.

Normally Fee would get a little pouty when military information was prioritized over the scout’s (her) personal wellbeing, but Fee had become the knight’s #1 fan since it was revealed that the latter saved her sister in Darna, so she started talking without minding.

“Three regiments have set out from Conote, knights with mage support under Ishtar’s command. Two are headed for Alster, and the Gelbe Ritter are stationed in backup position, within two day’s march of either.”

“What…? How far away are they?”

“Three days from Leonster! I also overheard Ishtar has Mjolnir!”

Lana knew Selis was subconsciously looking for Oifey, and she was too. But Oifey was not here. Sir Finn said, “We don’t have much time, Lord Leif, Lord Selis, we must make preparations.”

Hurriedly Selis sent a messenger back to Alster. Leif sent a soldier to look for Leonster’s strategist.

Yuria was gazing at the horizon, so Lana went to sit beside her and placed a hand on her knee.

 

The defense of Leonster was arranged haphazardly at best – even Lana could tell.

Leonster’s army consisted of a large number of new recruits and unseasoned militia, as well as various veterans, mercenaries and defects from the Imperial army. More than once Lana ran into soldiers who were not directly under Leonster’s authority but only aided its princes with certain conditions. This made the command structure exceedingly complex.

On the other hand, Blume’s forces were one of the most well-trained within the Empire.

Lana thought she had gotten used to fear during the war in Isaac, but now everything had looked so easy back then. The bulk of Danan’s army was hardly professional, and Lakshe made short work of even the elite guards.

They arranged to meet Conote’s army on the hills beneath Leonster’s walls. Lana stayed on the walls, tightly gripping the Reserve stave that, Oifey said, was left to her by her mother.

The morning had started off relatively well. Using tactics suggested by Leonster’s strategist, their vanguard baited the enemy knights to charge, separating the knights from the main army and lured them into encirclement. The Friegian knights put up considerable resistance, but the positioning of Leonster’s forces made it difficult for them to maneuver.

Lana found it a little spine-chilling that she could look at a battlefield like this now, judging the odds, counting the numbers fallen.

They had been on the verge of victory. Only the most obstinate enemies had not yet capitulated, and the makeshift army of Leonster was sweeping up the field and taking prisoners. Lana had left the walls to provide healing to those in need, and she found Yuria already at the same task.

It was then she heard thunder rolling in the distance.

“Enemy reinforcements have arrived!” shouts came from the front line. “Non-combatants, retreat back to your positions!”

Lana took Yuria by the wrist, but the girl suddenly shook her off with so vigorous a force that she almost fell to the ground.

“Yuria?!”

“We can’t fight Ishtar…” the girl said with a trancelike fixation. “She’s too dangerous… someone will die… I have to find Lord Selis!”

She darted off towards the front lines.

“Wait! Yuria!”

Lana picked herself up and ran madly after Yuria. All around them lightning was falling on the battlefield, scorching to ashes rows upon rows of earth, grass, trees, soldiers.

“Yuria! Come back! It’s too dangerous!”

Heedless of Lana’s warnings, the girl ran straight on, calling for Prince Selis. A lightning bolt struck her straight across the chest. She stumbled, and launched a beam brighter than the sun towards her attackers. They crashed into the ground. She ran on.

“Lord Selis!”

They found Selis in the thick of battle alongside Prince Leif, Sir Finn and the masked knight. Breathlessly Yuria sprinted towards the prince, who was as dumbfounded as Lana.

“It’s too dangerous here, Yuria! Lana! Why are you here too?”

“You mustn’t fight Princess Ishtar!” Yuria exhaled urgently, with the same trancelike fixation Lana saw in her eyes before. “The holy weapon… please don’t let anyone get hurt!”

“What do you mean… Yuria?”

The light was suddenly gone from her eyes. The silver-haired girl looked up in confusion.

“L-lord Selis, why am I here? What happened… I remembered… something…”

“Get to safety quickly, both of you!” the masked knight said with unquestionable authority, and Lana automatically bowed without knowing why. “Lady Yuria is right. The holy weapon Mjolnir is too dangerous, we cannot fight her under these circumstances.”

Before they had the chance to say another word, the earth beneath their feet quaked.

They did not even see anything as the entire sky blazed white with lightning. Somewhere in front of them soldiers screamed, hewn trees came rolling down from the hilltops, and the smell of charred flesh saturated the air.

“Back to position!” the knight cried, “Keep formation and disengage! – If that’s fine, Prince Selis, Prince Leif?”

“O-of course,” Selis answered, and Leif nodded.

“I’ll hold the rear,” the knight said. “Prepare to regroup at the hills, my lords.”

“My lord!” Sir Finn protested.

“Let me have the honor, Sir Finn.”

With that he went towards the front, leaving the young princes and Sir Finn to rally the ranks.

Lana had already grabbed Yuria and run. Behind them the entire world seemed to be exploding in thunderous cacophony. They had seen Mjolnir at Alster, but then Shannan cleaved through the blinding lightning with the divine light of Balmung. Now Shannan wasn’t here, and the power of Ishtar’s lightning was a hundredfold more terrible than Blume’s.

They found themselves panting beneath the walls of Leonster. Yuria was trembling like a leaf in the wind, and Lana tried to be encouraging as they helped to refresh battle-worn soldiers.

“Don’t worry, Yuria, Prince Selis and Sir Knight will protect us, and we will protect them, too.”

Yuria only stared into the distance even as she laid her staff upon the wounded, and said nothing. Scrambling back came Leonster’s forces, crumbling under the overwhelming power of the advancing curtain of thunder and lightning. And there she was, Ishtar herself, the Goddess of Thunder raining destruction upon all who stood in her path, a dazing silhouette of white-blue surrounded by nothing but death.

None dared approach her. Even Sir Knight, who guarded a retreat that at its most orderly was only containing its panic, kept his distance and only engaged her when it was necessary to block her advance. He was already wounded, but the distance was too great for Lana to heal him.

August had come out onto the walls. “Everyone inside the gate!” was the order. But the field was flooding with screaming wounded soldiers, and it took everything within Prince Leif and Sir Finn’s power to prevent the retreat from quickly turning into a trampling stampede. Soldiers rushed past Lana into the city gate, and the Friegian legions pressed towards the foot of the hills. Sir Knight could disengage no longer without exposing the retreating soldiers, thus he stopped.

The distance was still too far for healing, but Lana dared not go forward.

The Goddess of Thunder stepped forth. She looked up at the knight on his horse, blocking the passage towards the castle.

“You’re the one delaying me? Sorry, you have to die now.”

She raised her hand. The bouncing arcs of lightning that shone through the sky dimmed, and a profound darkness gathered between the clouds. Ten thousand bolts of lightning burst towards the earth. Mjolnir roared.

The knight spurred his steed into a galloping charge. Lightning pierced through him, but with single-minded determination he shot into the thunderstorm, the blade of his sword slashing down at the enemy. Perhaps surprised that anyone without a holy weapon would dare to challenge her power, the princess stumbled back, her body thrown into the ground by the force of the blade. Enraged the thunders gathered around her, booming with the defiance of her blood, and thrust themselves at the impudent assaulter.

For a moment Lana couldn’t see or hear anything, as she pushed Yuria to the ground for cover. The thunderous echo only dissipated slowly from her ears, and the first sound she heard was Sir Finn’s.

“My lord!”

Lana raised her head from her position on the ground. The knight of Leonster was galloping towards the enemy lines. The masked knight had emerged from the thunderstorm, but he was severely wounded and barely staying in saddle.

“Stay back!”

“My lord!”

“Stay, Finn!”

With grinded teeth the knight seemed to be preparing a second charge. It was not possible. Definitely impossible to take another hit from Mjolnir. Surely he couldn’t be taking the gamble, thinking he could strike down Ishtar before she had a chance to finish him. Surely…

Lana heard an almost inaudible gasp beneath her. Before she had a chance to react, Yuria had wrested the Reserve stave from her fingers and dashed out into the open towards the knight.

“Yuria, no!!”

The knight raised his sword, every one of his injured and spent muscles commanded by sheer willpower to fulfill the purpose of one single duel. Sir Finn had not heeded what came off as an irresistible command, but he suddenly saw Yuria emerging, and turned his horse towards her…

She ran on.

“Yuria!”

Cackling bursts of lightning surrounded Ishtar, preparing to strike as soon as the knight came near, but suddenly the sparking electricity between Ishtar’s fingers quivered and dissipated. Lana hardly comprehended what had happened when her unbelieving ears heard the Friegian princess’ voice.

“Back! Regroup! Stop firing!”

Before Lana’s astonished eyes, Ishtar’s form vanished from the battlefield.

Chapter Text

“The continent suffered great unrest in the last days of the Republic. Factions arose and warlords ravaged the land, each attempting to pillage more than their enemies. The archons sat in the vaulted halls of Belhalla, where they must have been able to hear the people’s cries, but busied themselves with petty intrigues, and fought over the distribution of ranks and spoils…”

“Why are you telling me this, Bishop Saias?”

“Because I am given to believe, my lord Reinhardt, that a game of chess between friends is enhanced by conversations over obscure and completely irrelevant episodes of history.”

Reinhardt moved a rook, so it was his turn again. Saias picked up his white queen and spun it in his palm.

“Surely even if those pages had existed, by now they would have been expunged from all the histories – but I often wonder if Galle had been hailed as a savior at first by those who loathed the abuses of the Republic. I wonder how soon did they become disillusioned.”

“You are implying something.”

“You see right through me, my lord.” He put the chess piece back on the board with a faint smile. “Check.”

“And what would they do when they become disillusioned?”

“That is hard to say. It is difficult, after all, to deviate from the path one had chosen. Rarely was that first choice made without reason, and perhaps that reason would dictate the end.”

“Is it so?” Reinhardt said, lowered his eyes to the board and pushed out a knight. “Checkmate. This is unlike you, bishop, your mind is not in the game.”

“Perhaps it isn’t,” Saias admitted without reservation. “Nevertheless, well-played, General.”

He was about to reset the pieces when a guard burst into the room.

“General Reinhardt, Bishop Saias, Princess Ishtar is here!”

The chess players stood up simultaneously, each perceiving the other’s surprise and confusion. A moment later the princess had walked in, and they bowed.

She was visibly distraught. Reinhardt made a start to go to her side, but somehow refrained himself and said nothing. So Saias attempted, “Is something the matter, Your Highness?”

She looked up straight into the eyes of her inquirer.

“Bishop, be honest with me, are you in Thracia to look for the princess?”

Saias could not be sure which princess she was referring to – there were too many in Thracia. But for Princess Ishtar to believe he would have a reason to be involved, and for her to appear so troubled over the matter… surely it could not be…

“I came because I thought I could be of use to Your Highness’ armies,” he gave a neutral answer.

“Close the door, Reinhardt,” she said. “No one is allowed near this room before we finish.”

“As you command, Your Highness.”

The Friegian princess sat down beside the chessboard and Saias promptly brought her a cup of tea. She drank it with the expression of one downing a shot of hard liquor, set the cup on the table, and let out an exhausted breath.

“I saw Princess Yuria in the rebel army – you truly know nothing of this?”

“I know nothing of it, Your Highness. It may be rude of me to ask, but how could one be sure it was Princess Yuria? The enemy could have attempted to trick us with a look-alike.”

“No,” Ishtar shook her head. “I am certain. I cannot be wrong. The expression on her face was most definitely Lady Yuria’s…”

She described the situation to Saias, who sat down across the table and found himself picking up and staring at the white queen again.

“Even if it is only a possibility, bishop…”

“I understand, Your Highness, I will investigate the matter.”

“I will tell no one else of it,” she bowed her head, and sighed. “Now tell me what you know of Princess Yuria’s disappearance.”

That was an order, not a request. Saias was under penalty of death not to speak of the event, but he doubted anyone would be of the mind to carry out that penalty now. In any case, now was the time that he had to tell Ishtar.

“As Your Highness knows, when Prince Yurius and Princess Yuria turned ten years old, Archbishop Manfroy brought a gift for the prince: the tome Loptous……”

 

Saias had hardly finished what he knew of Empress Diadora’s death when they all heard an unmistakable, angry voice, accompanied by striding footsteps coming from the corridor.

“Came here to see Reinhardt, Ishtar? You do want to see me rip him to shreds, then?”

Ishtar ran towards the door. Saias quickly stood up and followed.

“Lord Yurius – I’m here to see our tactician… I told Reinhardt to stand guard!”

The Imperial Prince of Grannvale appeared at the door with a sneer.

“I went to Leonster to look for you, and they told me you left the heat of battle to go on a date with this cockroach? What can I say, Ishtar…”

The prince raised a hand menacingly.

“Lord Yurius!” Ishtar begged, desperation dripping from her voice. “There was a formidable foe at Leonster, so I came looking for Bishop Saias’ help! I didn’t come for Reinhardt!”

“A formidable foe?” Yurius barked a laughter, “I thought you had more in you. Fine, then, let your father’s men have fun massacring the rebels. You are coming with me to Belhalla.”

“But Lord Yurius, my father entrusted Mjolnir to me…”

“All the better then, you are way prettier with that tome than he will ever be. Come on, Ishtar.”

He took her wrist, and they left.

 

“In the faint glow of dawn the people of Darna looked towards the heavens, and they saw a wondrous light descend from the clouds…”

It was pouring in Belhalla, so the children could not go out to play. The Imperial prince leaned quietly against Saias’ knee as the young bishop read to them, his twin sister nestling at his side.

“It’s crying for help…” the princess suddenly said.

“Your Highness?”

Yuria jumped down from the couch and ran towards the door. Saias stood. Following the direction of Yuria’s gaze, he saw a tiny, furry bird flapping its wings helplessly in the shadows of the overflowing fountain.

“Your Highness,” a servant stopped her. “It is wet outside, Your Highness will catch a cold.”

Yuria bit her lips.

“But…” she said hesitatingly, pointing to the fountain, “it’s too cold… it will drown…”

Before Saias could have said anything, the young prince dashed out into the rain. Saias grabbed an umbrella and chased after him, as the young prince stood on his tiptoes and climbed on the fountain. Dipping his sleeves into the brimming waters, he caught the little bird and leapt down.

“It’s fine, Yuria… look, it’s alive!”

He ran towards her cuddling the bird between his palms, drenched but smiling.

 

Saias made tea in silence. Reinhardt sat by the window, contemplating the standard of the Gelbe Ritter atop the castle walls.

It was finally Reinhardt who broke the silence.

“What are your plans, bishop?”

“I cannot betray Her Highness’ trust,” Saias said softly as he watched the stream of warm glowing tea splash into the porcelain. Reinhardt was not the kind who kept finer things in the army, but he carried the tea set for Ishtar and Olwen, and the chessboard in case Saias dropped by. “I will search for Princess Yuria. But first I need to go to Manster.”

“Why Manster?”

“Her Highness made certain… defensive arrangements there. Now that she had returned to Belhalla, I need to ensure the reliability of these arrangements.”

That was all that needed to be said for Reinhardt to understand him.

“Don’t you need to go promptly, then?” the general said.

“I would like to learn the outcomes of the Battles of Leonster and Alster first – that would inform what I can and cannot do in Manster,” Saias smiled, and brought the tea over. “These messages travel faster in the army, and plus, I enjoy your company much more than Reydrik’s.”

And I may not have it for much longer, he added quietly in his heart. Reinhardt picked up the teacup to take a slow sip as Saias watched him. In silence the general’s mind turned somewhere else.

“Do you suppose you would run into Olwen some time?”

“Perhaps, though I suspect you will see her first.”

“If you do, tell her I wish her the best.”

“I would rather you tell her yourself,” Saias said wistfully.

Reinhardt lowered the teacup into its saucer with a nearly inaudible ding; his eyes were half immersed in some distant thought.

“There are things that are the hardest to say to those closest to you.”

“I understand… As you wish, if I see her, I will give her your greetings.”

“Thank you.”

Chapter Text

“The immediate threat is neutralized,” Selis said. “And we received word this morning that the assault on Alster has been repelled. Shannan, Oifey and the remainder of the army will be marching north soon.”

“That would be a great help,” August said. “But this is not sufficient reason to be optimistic about our situation, Your Highness. Conote is still well-armed and well-provisioned, and the reason we were saved from total destruction in the last battle remains unclear.”

Selis seemed to have thought about it. “You are right… we cannot deal with a foe like Ishtar… perhaps Shannan could, but I don’t want to be too confident.”

“That is exactly what I meant, Your Highness. We do not know why she withdrew, and we do not know when she will return.”

Leif sat in the war room. Selis was sitting by his side. Finn sat on his other hand, and the masked knight beside Selis. Around the table, the strategist stood with his hands on the map.

August turned abruptly to the knight beside Selis, and continued.

“It is imperative that we determine Ishtar’s motives. I’ll be blunt, sir, do you know anything about this?”

“I beg your pardon, Lord Tactician, what may be the motives of which you believe I may have knowledge?”

Leif probably looked as confused as Selis was. August said, “It appeared that Ishtar had an opportunity to overrun our positions, but when she saw you wounded, she withdrew instead. I would not dream of doubting your loyalty, sir, but it would help us eliminate some possibilities if you could be more forthright about your identity and intentions.”

Leif didn’t know whether he should stop August, and he certainly would not want to offend Selis. But strangely what August said seemed to make sense, so even when he was second-guessing himself, he already heard the knight speak.

“I have little to say with regards to my identity, except that I have been in many wars and am an enemy of the Empire. As to my intentions, I am a friend to Prince Leif and Prince Selis, is that not enough?”

“Since we are among friends, it would not be too abrupt a request to ask you to remove your mask, then?”

Finn stood up suddenly. His right hand was on the table, only with some delayed self-restraint did he withdraw it behind his back a second later.

“Finn! I…”

Leif had made a sound before he caught himself. Fear seized him, though he could not say why he was afraid. Finn bowed to him, with an expression modest and controlled as always.

“My lord, I ask you would not make this request of our guest.”

“Sir Finn,” August said, “the security of the army should have first priority, would you not agree?”

Leif looked at Finn, and saw Finn’s lips trembling. He realized that in his heart of hearts he agreed with August, that they could never fully trust such a man no matter how valiant or honorable he may seem. It was true that Ishtar retreated when she could have finished him off, and this could have all been a ploy for him to gain their trust… So they had to know. He almost felt Finn would have to agree, too, just like all the times in the past Finn carried out the orders without a word.

But he couldn’t say that to Finn. Almost subconsciously he averted his glance from Finn’s, but he could not tear himself from the memory of Finn’s blue eyes glimmering in the campfire, when Finn sang to him and told him about Leonster.

“Lord Leif,” Finn said slowly, every word strictly pronounced as if to excise the last ounce of emotion, “I swear this on your father’s name. There is no enemy among us; I would that you do not insult the honor of a friend.”

In Leif’s entire life, he had heard Finn swear anything no more than three times, and never on his father’s name. Not sure what to make of it, he wanted to reach out and grasp Finn’s hand, just to make sure Finn knew he believed him and he always would. But already he heard August laugh – it seemed almost a surreal sound.

“Of course we can take your word, Sir Finn. That would allow us to eliminate some possibilities.”

 

“How did he come to be in your army anyway?”

After dinner Leif went to the armory with Selis, and they only came back to the castle long after dark. Before Selis had a chance to answer, however, Leif immediately realized that his question could be interpreted the wrong way, so he added.

“ – I do not mean to suspect him at all. You must allow me to apologize for August, he could be tactless like that… I think sometimes he even gets on Finn’s nerves.”

“Your strategist is prudent,” Selis said softly, and cast his glance towards the ground. “It is only after he spoke that I realized how little I knew about that man – to answer your question, Prince Leif, he came to our camp with Leen a few days ago, and declared his intention to help us. But I know nothing else about him beside that Oifey says we can trust him. So it is not unwise for your strategist to suggest that we take precautions.”

Leif waited for the inevitable “but”, and there it was.

“ – But,” Selis continued, “something in my heart tells me we can trust him. I would not dream of putting you or your people in danger, but I don’t think he will.”

It seemed impolite to inquire why after such a statement, so Leif held his tongue. As if sensing his reservation, Selis said, “That’s because… when he is here, I feel like he genuinely cares about me, more than a stranger or an enemy ever could. Prince Leif, the only reason I could be here today is because of the goodwill of people who put themselves in great danger to help me. So I would always believe in that goodwill.”

Leif stopped. There was something in Selis’ eyes that hit him square in the chest. It was unlike anything he had known before.

“I understand…”

That was all Leif could manage, but Selis smiled.

“We have to get ready for the battle ahead too. It’s still early, would you like a round of practice?”

“Of course,” Leif agreed. “I need to train more, too – the Duke of Manster had the woman I love as a mother captured. For what he did to her, I want to defeat him myself.”

“I hope you would allow me to go with you, then,” Selis answered, as they started to make their way towards the training field. “On the topic of prudence – just before our army headed south, I heard a story about my parents. Would you like to hear it, Prince Leif?”

 

“I remember,” the bard said, “I once heard a story told about your parents. Would you like to hear it, Lord Selis?”

Selis realized the older man’s arms were still around his shoulder. A little embarrassed that he had broken down crying because of a few unkind words about his father, Selis wiped his eyes and nodded.

“… if you don’t mind, Maestro.”

The bard took hold of his hands and led him towards the battlements, over which the skies above Rivough stretched out into the pale blue horizon. Leaning with his elbows against the stones, the bard began.

“As you may know, Lord Selis, your father once travelled through Agustria as a wandering minstrel. At that time King Shagall of Agustria had plans to invade and conquer Grannvale. He imprisoned Eltshan of Nordion, who had opposed the war, and laid siege to Nordion to capture Eltshan’s sister Lachesis. Sigurd of Chalphy and Cuan of Leonster, both close friends of the Lionheart, were then at war in Verdane. Hearing the report that Shagall coveted not only Nordion but also Hezul’s blood, they rode north to the rescue of their friends.”

Selis nodded. This was well-known to him. The bard continued.

“The wandering minstrel ran into Sigurd’s army in the midst of this war, and wanted to provoke their commander. So he said to Sigurd, ‘What a ravaging war, have you no consideration for the people of Agustria?’ What would you say, my lord, if someone ever said so to you?”

Selis pondered the question, then answered, “I would consider… if I had truly brought more sorrow to the people than peace.”

The bard smiled.

“Well-said, my lord, but Sigurd was chagrined, for he had not considered what you would consider, and he took the minstrel’s words at face value. Thus he replied, ‘It was my oversight. I had known this war brought misery to Agustria, but I had not the courage to stop it. You are right – I shall sue for peace with Shagall.’”

Selis blinked. “But… I hear their army took Agusty itself… was that not true?”

“You are correct, Lord Selis,” the bard said. “For Lewyn beheld Sigurd, and saw that his heart was sincere, thus he said to him, ‘Would you decide the same, my lord, if you knew all who aided you with good faith in Agustria would be executed as traitors? For such a vile man is Shagall.’ At this Sigurd did not know how to answer, since he had to weigh the evils of war against the evils of appeasement. – If it were you, my lord, how would you decide?”

“I… I don’t know enough to judge, Maestro. But my father had a strong army, thus he could choose war and hope for the swift return of peace… and yet… even when he did defeat Shagall, peace did not come to Agustria…”

“It is as you say, Lord Selis. It is beyond human capacity to foresee the consequences of all their actions, but it is now up to you to consider them to the best of your abilities, and seek advice where you need them, for much rest on your shoulders, as it had once rest on your father’s.”

The bard was looking straight into his eyes, and Selis found self-doubt surging once again into his mind. Perceiving his trouble, the bard smiled, “And you know the ending of that story.”

“The ending?”

“The minstrel laughed and said, ‘I’ve heard enough. I will come with you.’”

Selis blinked again. He had always taken it for granted that his parents would meet and fall in love, but the way the bard told this story, it suddenly perplexed him why his father would follow a man who had not thought about the war and could not answer those questions.

“Does something trouble you, Lord Selis?”

“Maestro,” he whispered, “is this a true story?”

“I don’t know, my lord, does it strike you as a true story?”

Selis wanted to say no, but his heart said the opposite. So he said, “Yes, Maestro.”

“I think so too, for they say Lewyn fell irresistibly in love with him, and those are the kind of answers over which one could fall madly in love.”

 

Leif listened intently as Selis finished retelling the story, then he remarked, “It seems to me that Lord Sigurd is very kind, but Prince Lewyn is very wise.”

“I was reminded of this story,” Selis said, “because wisdom did not always accord with kindness. Out of kindness my father Sigurd had wanted to stop the war, but my father Lewyn judged that such a kind act could only beget sorrow. Please forgive me if I trespass, Prince Leif, but it struck me that Sir Finn is honorable as Master August is prudent. Though honor and prudence may clash over the path to justice, they both seek to serve the just end, and thus can love one another despite their differences. If I had been too kind, then I would like to be taught prudence – I would not take offense.”

Leif found himself staring at Selis. The Silesian prince’s eyes glowed with a warm sincerity, and he was overcome with admiration.

“Now I know,” he said out of the depth of his heart, finding it a little hard to breathe, “why you are many times my superior, Prince Selis. I really have much to learn. I did not believe Prince Sety when he said you are a better leader than him, but now I see why he would say such a thing.”

“You are too modest, Prince Leif, and Sety just likes teasing me,” Selis hesitated. “If you do not mind, please call me Selis.”

“It is my honor, Selis. You can of course call me Leif too.”

Leif felt strangely serene as they walked towards the training grounds, all his mixed feelings about August and Finn’s disagreements dissipated. He even felt secure enough to tell Selis about the grounds of August’s suspicions. Selis was considering them, as Leif added, “August doesn’t seem concerned any more, so even he could trust in Finn’s judgment, just like you said – but I wonder what changed his mind.”

He stopped. They had come near the training field, which was usually empty at night. Yet Leif thought he heard the sounds of weapons clashing within the gates. He made a quick gesture to Selis.

They ceased their conversation and lightened their footsteps. Quietly Leif sneaked up behind the gates, and quickly found Selis behind him. He stuck out his head and peeked.

It was Finn. The tip of his lance shone in silver moonlight, which enfolded his person with a surreal glow. It took Leif a while to figure out that Finn was practicing with the masked knight, who held not a sword but a lance. The knight’s golden manes jumped and fell with every movement, dancing in the reflection of the moon’s light.

Somehow Leif felt an inexplicable warmth welling up inside him. He had seen Finn at practice many, many times, had practiced with Finn many times too. Finn was always meticulously rigorous and intensely focused. He allowed no mistakes, no imperfections, not even a moment of wavering attention. Every practice with Finn felt like a battle between life and death.

But something about Finn felt different tonight. He was serious, but he seemed relaxed and at ease, as if his mind had melded with the combat itself, into the thrusts and blocks and feints and little displays of skill that were almost joyous.

He had never seen Finn like this. He would feel guilty to interrupt them.

He watched as Finn forced his opponent to the ground with a sweeping attack. Finn laid down his lance, took a step forward and bowed, waiting for the knight to rise. They seemed to have said something, but Leif could not hear them.

He then realized that this was the first time he did not see Finn offer a hand to an opponent on the ground.

Chapter Text

“Lord Sety, we have word on the children!”

They had been monitoring the children kept in fortresses outside Manster for a couple of months now. Word was that they were waiting to send them to Belhalla, but with most of the Friegian troops engaged elsewhere, they never seemed to have gotten to planning on sending soldiers. Therefore the Magi Squad, already a little short on hands with the new hunts in the city, bided their time.

Until now.

“Do we know why they are taking the children back into the castle?” he asked.

“Not yet… but, there are rumors.”

“What rumors?”

“There are priests of the Loptous Church near the castle … Our contacts say that the children are not in the dungeon. Some suspect that they are being taken into the crypt.”

“How can we enter the crypt?”

“We don’t know. It is… only the suspicion of some friendlier soldiers.”

Sety briefly considered the situation.

“We can’t wait on this. I have a plan.”

“Lord Sety, there could be some high-ranking Loptous bishops there… and the guards who helped us had been…”

His companion lowered her glance and Sety felt something in his throat. It hardened his resolve.

“Look,” he said, “my brother’s army took Alster, and Prince Leif is at Leonster. If anything happens to me, stay put. They will come for you.”

 

It was a risky plan, but a necessary one.

“The Magi Squad is in the castle already! They are going for the crypt!”

Sety summoned the power of Forseti as the Magi Squad assaulted the castle walls, while other Magi Squad members in Imperial uniforms ran towards the castle gate screaming. In the darkness before dawn, Manster Castle burst awake and into action.

Leaving the rest of the Squad to feign an assault on the gate, Sety made his way across the castle grounds, sweeping through everything in sight. He made sure the guards saw the stones falling from the walls, before he blasted open the door and forced his way inside. A minute later the bodies of the soldiers who had run to stop him were strewn across the entrance.

Now came the tricky part.

Sety quickened his footsteps as he heard reinforcements arrive. Spotting an empty bloom closet, he slid into it.

Thirty seconds later, he emerged from the bloom closet with the hooded robe of a Loptous priest covering most of his face. He looked about, no one had come this way yet.

It was quite convenient that evil cultists preferred outfits that covered their faces.

Imagining how a Loptous priest might react if the Magi Squad was really inside the castle going for the crypt, he ran down the corridor towards where he knew there had been Loptous priests.

“The Magi Squad! They have broken through the gates!”

A man in black robes stopped him at the door.

“Stop this indecorous behavior! Those heathens cannot overcome our defenses.”

“But… but Your Excellency! Soldiers outside say they have found the crypt’s entrance and broken into the castle. Surely we must alert…”

“Fool! You don’t think they would know already? The ceremony is not to be disturbed.”

Uh oh. The ceremony.

“But… if the heathens somehow manage to disrupt the ceremony, I am afraid they would be outraged…”

The black-robed man weighed Sety’s words for a moment.

“Fine, go to the altar!”

“As you command, Your Excellency!”

He left promptly. But where was the altar anyway? Sety went through the corridors looking for a second Loptous priest, but none could be found. He went up to a soldier.

“I’m here from Belhalla. What is going on?”

“Some rebels are attacking the castle, Your Excellency, but do not worry, we will have them taken care of immediately.”

Sety snorted. “Fine. Where is the altar? I’m here to see the bishop.”

“Y-yes, Your Excellency, down that corridor. If Your Excellency goes down the stairs, it is on the north side.”

Sety nodded and left without a word. He took off the robe and stuffed it in his bag, and sent a blast of whirlwind down the corridor, making as much noise as he possibly could. Without him having to fake anything, he heard the shouts flare up all around him.

“On guard! The rebels are inside!”

Just like he wanted. Soldiers were running in his direction, and the next moment their bodies slammed into the walls and slid down to the floor. He advanced, hearing to his satisfaction panicked cries beneath the stairs.

“Open the passage! Alert His Eminence!”

The altar room was full of robed Loptous priests, and their dark magic was nothing to be trifled with. For the first time Sety was wounded, but he annihilated the last of the priests just before they could have closed the passageway. One was running down the dark passage. The blade of Forseti struck him straight in the back, and he fell in spluttered blood.

Seti walked into the passage, and soon found himself in darkness. The space beneath the altar room was much larger than he had anticipated. He could make out hallways, locked rooms, even guards in the distance. He slid on his black robes again.

“I’m here for the sacrifices.”

“Already?” the priest at the door seemed somewhat surprised. Behind the door, Sety heard a choked sob. “Is it the hour?”

“Just the first few, for the preparations of the ceremony.”

A glimmer came into the priest’s eyes. “What’s your name? I’ve never seen you around before.”

“Your Excellency, I go by… Forseti!”

A blast of wind exploded around the Loptous priest, instantly tearing his robe and flesh to shreds. The sound must have alerted guards and priests nearby, but Sety had no time to lose. He felt through the dead priest’s body and found the keys on the belt, then opened the door behind him.

There were about fifteen children in the room. Most were asleep, cuddled together in fear, but a few looked up at him with eyes swollen from tears.

“I’m Sety of the Magi Squad!” he whispered. “Quickly, up, up! We’ll get you out of here!”

He took one small girl on his shoulder and another in his left hand, and started shepherding the rest out of the room as quickly as they could.

“Sir, they took Todi and Rhee already,” a boy sniffled. “I heard them say it was to prepare for the ceremony.”

Sety heard dark priests rushing towards them.

“Good boy!” he said. “I’ll go back to get them later – we have to get you out now!”

The children ran before him while he held off the onslaught of dark priests, and finally they made their way up the stairs and back into the castle. It did not look good. Sety had told the rest of Magi Squad to retreat into hiding after they feigned the assault, so he would have to make it out of here by himself.

Which might be for the better, anyway.

He picked the routes carefully, scouting ahead to make sure he took out all the enemies before he led the children through. They managed to get out of a small door, which a frightened maid opened for them, and slid under the overpasses towards the side gate. Reydrik’s soldiers were gathering.

“Forseti!” he shouted, in the hope that the prospect of a certain death would at least intimidate some. The soldiers scattered before the bellowing vortex.

“Run!” he whispered to the children around his feet, “I’ll cover you!”

Twirling blasts of wind struck the soldiers blocking the gate, knocking them ten, twenty feet into the air. The children ran through the gate with Sety at the rear. He heard Reydrik’s knights gathering behind the walls as he led the children into the shadows of the streets.

It seemed that some of the children had been taken to the ceremony, and he must return for them. But to avoid pursuit the Magi Squad had retreated already, and he could not let the children go on their own. He looked anxiously across the streets and alleys for a friendly face, while asking the little ones as gently as he could.

“What happened to Todi and Rhee, does anybody know?”

“T-they said something about a ceremony in the morning…”

“I heard them say… blood,” a girl added. “And create…”

Dawn was breaking on Manster. A few children were crying. Sety placed a finger on his lips.

“Let me find one of our friends who can take you to safety, alright? Reydrik’s knights will be out here looking for you in a second, so I can’t let you go on alone. Then I have go back to look for Todi and Rhee.”

Just then he heard a voice behind him.

“Let me take them.”

Sety turned. In the dawning light stood a young man with a staff in his hand. He wore the vestments of a bishop of Bragi, but his cloak was clasped with the crest of Velthomer.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“A passer-by,” the stranger said, “but I can help you. Time is not on your side, I understand.”

He looked friendly enough, and the Bragi Church had provided them with immensurable help already, but the Emperor’s crest vexed Sety a little, to the extent he almost felt guilty to question the good intentions of a stranger.

“I would like to trust you,” Sety said, “but could I know your name, sir?”

The stranger lowered his eyes.

“Forgive me, I can say nothing. But if you can trust me, please leave them to me.”

The stranger looked up at Sety again, an urgent plea in his eyes. The sounds of knights riding loomed in the distance.

“I trust you,” Set said, and handed the girl in his arms to the stranger. “Take care of them.”

The stranger nodded.

“You are wounded. Please allow me.”

The warm light of the staff surrounded him as the children went to the stranger’s side. Sety felt curiously at peace, as if he really could have left them in no better hands than these.

“Thank you,” he whispered, looking into the stranger’s blue eyes. “Could you tell me your name now?”

Somehow he sensed he could ask that question again. The stranger paused, his gentle smile faded away, and a solemn resolve resurfaced into his eyes.

“I am Saias of Velthomer.”

Sety must have looked a little surprised, but he nodded.

“Thank you, Lord Tactician.”

“… bring this staff with you. The children may need it.”

It was a Warp stave. Sety smiled a thanks, took hold of the stave, and left for the castle again. He could probably take on a couple more dark mages now.

 

Amidst the chaos, Loptous priests and Reydrik’s soldiers rushed between the castle and the temple underneath. No one had thought of closing the passage to the underground crypt – which was fortunate for Sety, because he would not know how to open it.

It was already teeming with alarmed dark mages and Reydrik’s elite soldiers. The Magi Squad’s tactics were predominantly clandestine, thus this was the first time he faced enemies of this magnitude.

The gusts of Forseti tore through them.

He ran downstairs. The number of guards in each direction conveniently indicated the paths he needed to follow. Priests of Loptous emerged from the corridors and summoned ominous shadows that grasped at him. The wind pushed them all aside, throwing the robed bodies one upon another.

Panicked cries were coming from the end of the corridor.

“Your Eminence! Please save us! The heathens have broken into our holy temple!”

Good, he knew where to go now.

The maelstrom tore apart the iron-wrought gates engraved with dark, interwoven runes. Vile black smoke flooded out with nauseating odor, as the eerily drifting flames within the room revealed a ring of bone-white sarcophagi. In the middle of the room was the source of the smoke: a pool of writhing black matter, within which stood the stone statue of a woman.

Black scales were wrapping themselves around her, melding themselves into the stone, turning it into dark, writhing flesh, in which something seemed to be madly beating, struggling. Standing over the statue was a hooded figure, knife in one hand, a small girl in the other. A boy cowered in the shadows.

“Let them go!”

Burning rage in the form of a roaring hurricane ripped through the murky fog, striking the hooded figure in the abdomen. It dropped the girl and turned around, reaching for a tome.

Sety waded into darkness. All around him the black fog made it nearly impossible to see anything. He waved his hand wildly in the girl’s direction and finally found her.

“Come here!” he shouted out in the boy’s direction, reaching into his bag for the Warp stave. With a flash she was gone, and he felt his way around the statue towards the boy.

The dark bishop chanted a spell, and the explosion of devouring energy engulfed the entire room. Raising his hand, Sety summoned the winds of Forseti. Only momentarily did it dispel the sickly mist. The dark bishop stumbled back a step.

Sety did not hesitate. A second blast of wind swept through the room, its blades cutting across the darkness and tearing it to shreds.

“Heathen scum!”

Dark magic crashed through the air, enveloping the matter around him, piercing into him like a thousand needles of ice. He almost fell over backwards from the pain, but when he looked up he saw the boy covering his head and frozen in fear. His fingers touched the emerald in the tome.

“Help me, Forseti!”

Windstorm shook the ground beneath his feet. In an instant the warm breath of the heavens evaporated every particle of darkness, and with the wrath of vengeance converged upon the hooded figure. Instinctively the dark bishop raised his arm to ward against the power of the wind, but it overwhelmed him, ripped through the black robe and sent blood flying onto the ceilings and walls. The lifeless body fell like a rock onto the floor.

Sety breathed a sigh of relief, and rushed to the boy’s side.

“Come on, are you okay?”

The boy looked up and nodded, but in an instant the expression of shocked numbness turned into panicked fright. The boy’s eyes were looking past him…

Sety turned around. Another black-robed figure stood in the doorway.

“Lewyn’s brat, eh?”

He raised a hand, and all of a sudden Sety could see no longer. Everything was dark, very dark. An ocean of shadows came down upon his consciousness, grabbed it by the edge and shredded it into a million pieces.

… go… let me go! …

His mind screamed as his body squirmed in pain and ecstasy at the same time. With his final strength he stretched the staff towards the boy. He could not see the orb’s light or the child’s face, but the last thing he felt before darkness overcame him was that something vanished from the end of the staff.

He smiled an exhausted smile as Forseti fell from his fingers.

Chapter Text

“Lord Selis, Lord Leif, a man is outside the castle requesting to see you on urgent business.”

Selis turned around. They were in the barracks talking to the lieutenants, trying to figure out when the troops would be able to set out on an expedition to Conote or Manster.

“Did he say what the business was?”

“He said he came from Manster bearing tidings of Prince Selis’ brother, his name is Saias of Velthomer, and he gave us his weapons as a gesture of goodwill.”

“Sety?” Selis blurted out.

“The Imperial tactician?” Leif blurted out at the same time.

“We told him to wait in the old audience chamber, if Your Highnesses wish to see him.”

“I need to go see him,” Selis started immediately, excused himself to the lieutenants and strode for the door. Leif quickly caught up to him.

“Wait, Selis – you know who that is, right?”

“I know, but he gave the guards his weapons, I can’t imagine he could hurt us. Plus, if he came for Sety’s sake, I don’t want him to feel like we mistrust him.”

Leif agreed a little reluctantly, but insisted he would go with Selis and sent for the knights and the strategist.

They ran up the stairs as the guards outside the audience chamber saluted and opened the heavy wooden door. The man standing in the middle of the chamber bowed.

“Good morning, my lords.”

He was very different from how Selis imagined him based on Oifey’s tactics lessons, but Selis hardly registered his appearance. “Your Excellency, did you come from Sety?”

The visitor did not hide his slight surprise at the honorific. He nodded, “Yes, my lords. I will be brief. Your brother was captured earlier this morning in Manster Castle by the Loptous Church… in fact, I suspect, by Archbishop Manfroy himself. Before his capture, your brother was able to rescue the children used for human sacrifices in evil rituals. However, Reydrik’s soldiers are searching the entire city for the escaped children. Unless you act promptly, it is only a matter of time before they are found and slaughtered.”

Selis wanted to say they had to march on Manster immediately and send word to Shannan and Oifey, but Leif spoke before him.

“How did you learn of this?”

“Before Lord Sety was captured, he was able to warp the children from the Loptous temple to the Magi Squad’s base. One of them witnessed his capture and told us.”

The doors swung open. The two knights came in with August. The knights saluted and August bowed.

“To what do we owe this visit, Your Excellency?”

The Imperial tactician repeated his message.

“And what would Your Excellency propose we do?” August said. “March on Manster? Surely Your Excellency is aware that the Gelbe Ritter are stationed in the path of such a march?”

“I know,” the tactician answered. “I do not expect General Reinhardt to capitulate. I will seal his magic if no one can do so in your army.”

“Why would you help us?”

“Because I miscalculated. There is a greater evil afoot in Manster than I anticipated, and it would go to considerable lengths to purge Manster of its children.”

“A bishop of the Empire disobeying the Emperor’s own orders?”

The Imperial tactician remained silent for a moment, then he said, “Not all vassals of the Empire agree with all of its doings.”

August crossed his arms, “And Your Excellency expects to be believed. What evidence do we have that what you say is true?”

“None,” the tactician answered with forthright candor. “You have my word, my lords. If one from your army can use my staff and knows Manster, then they can go to the city, but they would not know who is trustworthy, and thus could not help verify my account. You may take me hostage if you wish. If not, I will aid you to my best ability. Will you accept this proposal?”

“Allow us to deliberate,” August said. “My lords, do you have further questions for our eminent visitor?”

“If I may,” the knight said. “How did you know Prince Sety?”

“I helped him a little with the evacuation in Manster. When the children were warped back to the hideout and told of his capture, no one else could use the staff. So I came.”

They went out into the adjacent room.

“I think he speaks the truth,” Selis said. “If he had wanted to cheat us, there is no need for him to endanger himself.”

“Your Highnesses know he is high in the confidence of the Emperor himself,” August said. “I would not too quickly rule out the possibility that he did so solely for you to have that reaction, especially considering what our enemies stand to gain from having us march on Manster prematurely: We would have to engage the Gelbe Ritter under severe time pressure, and we would leave Leonster ill-defended. This is a master of psychological warfare – surely you recall the Silesian war? The man you’ve just met was about your age then.”

Selis bit his lips.

“But… even if there is the slimmest possibility it is true, we cannot just…!”

“The epitome of psychological warfare is such that one’s enemies know about the trap but jump into it anyways. But Your Highness is right, we cannot just ignore this message.”

August’s brows were furrowed. For a moment nobody spoke, until the tactician spoke again.

“We do not know enough about his character or motives, and he could have learned everything he knew about Prince Sety and Manster from our enemy. So it is not possible to come to a judgment on these grounds, and we must solely judge him on his actions. If there is something he can agree to do that would greatly imperil the Imperial army without threatening our own position, we could be more inclined to trust him.”

“He did say he will seal Reinhardt’s magic for us,” Selis suggested.

“By then we would have engaged the Gelbe Ritter already, which may be the point of the ruse.”

“I’ll go ask him!” Selis stood. Before August could (or perhaps decided to) stop him, he ran out of the room.

 

The tactician from Velthomer laughed. His laughter was courteous and gracefully contained, but Selis glimpsed a glimmer of gentle amusement in his eyes, strangely not unlike what Selis once saw in the bard’s.

“You came straight to ask me, my lord,” he said. “I am most honored.”

Selis blushed. “Can you think of such a thing?”

The tactician smiled, “Yes, my lord. You understand sometimes knowledge can be as menacing as swords or magic. Since there is no alternative…”

“I’m sorry…” Selis lowered his eyes.

“Don’t be,” the Imperial tactician said. With great solemnity he removed his cloak, loosened the top buttons of his cassock, and pulled down the collar of the white robe underneath. On his naked chest was a scarlet mark that soared like a phoenix’s wings.

“I ask you to keep this to your closest advisors, if that is a request I can make,” the tactician straightened his clothes and tightened his cloak. “Take me hostage. But you must march on Manster now. Reydrik’s soldiers are searching the entire city for sacrifices, and the innocent will die if you delay.”

Selis nodded. He might have mumbled a thank-you as he ran out.

 

The knight was standing just outside the door, hand on the hilt of his sword. Selis hurriedly nodded, and saw Leif was already peeking this way.

“I think we can trust what he said,” he said as soon as they got back into the meeting and closed the door.

“What made Your Highness come to that conclusion?” Leif’s strategist asked.

“He showed me something…” Selis hesitated. “He said we can take him hostage. That ought to be enough…”

“So it is true?” said August, “Of all the rumors I’ve heard in the Church, this one always struck me as one of the more far-fetched.”

“How did you guess?” Selis inhaled, a little wide-eyed. “I’m… sorry I didn’t want to say. It seemed such a private thing, and it must be really hard for him that his father was ordering these things.”

“I didn’t guess,” August said matter-of-factly. “You just told me, Your Highness. Very well, I can recommend we make preparations for Manster.”

Selis felt so guilty that even the relief of being able to go find Sety almost did not gladden him. “… do we need to take him hostage?”

“It is not necessary. In the grand scheme of things, Your Highness, the counter you just received is much more valuable than the outcome of a battle in Thracia. So he is not here for a political or strategic reason.”

 

Saias had returned to Belhalla to report the activities of the rebels and the reemergence of Forseti.

Unusually, the Emperor did not receive him in the throne room. It was in the aging sovereign’s private study that he made his report on the Thracian situation, but the Emperor hardly seemed to have taken his words to heart, and only nodded tiredly when he described the power of the holy weapon.

“It is well,” after he finished, the Emperor said. “I and my armies no longer have need for your services. You are hereby released.”

“Your Majesty – ” he started to protest.

“Return to your see, bishop,” the Emperor growled, in a tone that allowed for no dissention. “There is nothing for you in Belhalla.”

“I would rather die in your service, Your Majesty.”

“Do you want an order from me, then?”

“Your Majesty’s wish is my command.”

The Emperor snorted. “Fine, bishop, you can have a last order from me.”

Saias knelt down to the carpet, bowing his head, when the Emperor said.

“I forbid you to die.”

He looked up at the man whom so many had revered and feared. The Emperor was looking at him, too, and when their glances clashed he was suddenly sure the Emperor knew something he long suspected the latter to have known.

He bowed his head and, with quivering lips, kissed his liege’s hand.

“Your Majesty’s wish is my command,” he repeated, then rose, bowed, and took his leave.

 

“Your Excellency!”

They had just agreed to cooperate on the matter of Manster. The knights left to make urgent preparations while August was going to send a messenger to Alster. Selis probably should have gone with them, but he found himself whispering an apology and running downstairs after the Imperial tactician, who was leaving under the escort of two soldiers.

The tactician turned around and bowed.

“Yes, my lord? You do not need to be so formal with me.”

“Eh… yes, bishop, sorry!”

He suddenly forgot what he wanted to say. With smiling eyes, the tactician suggested, “Is there something you would like to ask me, my lord?”

“Y-yes! Sety – how is he!”

That came out without thinking, and Selis realized it probably wasn’t the clearest question. He rushed to add.

“Where are they keeping him? What happened to him? Is he still alive?”

Seeing his panic, the tactician took hold of his hand. It probably should have felt weird, being so intimate with an appointee of the Empire, but somehow it didn’t at all.

“My best guess is that he is still alive – based on the description the escaped boy gave us, the spell that hit your brother did not seem to have killed him. However, I am sorry to say that I do not know what the dark magic was. It was my oversight to have allowed your brother to brave such dangers alone, and I will do all that is within my power to make amends.”

“It can’t be your fault…” Selis started, and stopped when he heard footsteps running behind him. Leif ran up to them.

“Sorry, bishop, I apologize for August, he really is of a distrustful nature.”

“I do not fault him. If one of the enemy’s officers suddenly showed up at my castle with this story, I would have it investigated.”

Leif was a little taken aback by the frankness of this response, then he seemed to have remembered something.

“Thank you, bishop. I meant to ask… that dark magic, it couldn’t have been petrification, by any chance…?”

Chapter Text

He dreamt of a city.

It was not like any city that he had ever seen. Its stones glittered with a pearly sheen, and its windows were studded with sparkling gems. Above the pristine white roofs gilded with gold, towers, breathtakingly majestic in perfect geometric harmony, rose against the softly glowing sky that blossomed like peonies painted in watercolor. That gentle hue flowed across the heavens, saturating the horizons with the pleasing scarlet of sunsets. A faint fragrance of orange blossoms lingered in the air, the breath of eternal summer.

The streets were empty. He went through the city looking for the inhabitants of this wondrous place, but only his footsteps echoed through the alleys and the squares and the water fountains of splashing melody. There were no birds in the air, no floating clouds, only the ever-shifting tapestry of the firmaments, rosy pink like the finest silks of Miletos.

He mounted the staircases that led towards the towers. The trees that swayed in the wind had leaves of gold, but they made no sound as the wind ruffled through them. He found his way through the gardens. The water in the ponds was clearer than the essence of stars, but no fish swam and no reeds swung in them. The shadow of the towers fell upon him; it radiated a warmth he had not known since childhood.

It was the warmth of a certain truth, he knew somehow. He emerged onto the grand square before the towers almost intoxicated by its warmth. The square was empty, but at its very center rose a high altar wrought in pure silver and draped in golden embroideries, and atop the altar sat a little boy.

He suddenly came to his senses. Fear grasped him as he ran towards the altar.

“Todi? You must be Todi? Am I dreaming?”

From the heights of the altar, the boy looked down towards him and smiled.

“Oh, Lord Sety, do not be so concerned. I am in no danger.”

He stopped at the foot of the altar and inhaled, as the boy’s voice continued to come from above him.

“You are not dreaming. Instead, the vision of heaven has been granted to you, just like the reality of heaven has been granted to me.”

He picked himself up and started to climb up the altar. “What do you mean?”

“Lord Sety, before your eyes is the city of the True God. Behold the towers yonder! Therein reside the Blessed Chosen, they who had given their lives to serve God and to bring His empire to earth. Behold the city beneath your feet! It is prepared for the generations of the Faithful who will be raised to worship Him! Happy are those who die in the Last Crusade!”

The warmth of the promise was almost mesmerizing, but something strange stirred at the bottom of his heart, and he asked, “What about you, Todi?”

“Alas, Lord Sety, I was born an infidel and will die an infidel. But do not lament me, for now light has been shone into my eyes, and I see that through me, a hundred generations of children yet unborn will come to live in this blessed city forevermore.”

Something was not quite right. The boy’s body seemed to be dissolving into particles of flesh, dust, nothingness, and the heavens somehow reached down and siphoned him into its all-encompassing existence.

Then he realized what it was, the watery pink that seemed to be dripping towards the horizons. It was the blood of glorious sacrifices painted onto the sky.

And he heard the last echoes of the boy’s voice.

“You too, Lord Sety. Certainly you see now, you must kill the infidels so their children can come to live in the City of God. How I envy you, Lord Sety, for you are the chosen sword of the Holy Crusade.”

Chapter Text

“Retreat!”

The skies above the walls of Manster shone with a brilliant green. The clouds scattered. A whirlwind swept down from the heights across the field, mowing down everything in its way.

It couldn’t be.

Selis stared, glancing frantically through the enemy ranks, searching for that which he was too afraid to see.

“Selis! Get back!”

No, no, it couldn’t be.

“Selis!”

A hand on his shoulder pulled him back forcefully just when he found it. He didn’t know whose hand it was, maybe it was Shannan, maybe it was Oifey, maybe it was the knight… maybe it was even Lana. He didn’t know. He hardly even heard anything. He saw only the glowing silhouette at the center of the storm.

He did not cry. Sety would not have wanted him to.

 

They retreated out from the walls, chased by the nightmare of the emerald windstorm, which dispersed their ranks as Manster’s knights charged into them. The commanders barely kept order as companies abandoned their wounded for dead.

“We cannot assault the walls like this,” Oifey said.

That meant that they didn’t have to think about how to kill Sety, Selis thought, and felt strange relief creep into his heart. At the same time he hated himself for thinking it. They were dying inside the walls. The children, the citizens who were rising up against Reydrik’s tyranny, the people whom Sety must have loved very dearly. And all he could think about was that he didn’t want to kill his brother.

“No, not like this,” Saias agreed.

The tactician from Velthomer had come forward from the rear of the army to find them. Oifey had initially been a little grumpy that the man who helped to drive them from Silesia was now aiding them. But he was quick to be persuaded of the bishop’s good intentions, and instantly forgave Saias when Selis divulged the bishop’s secret to him.

“Indeed,” Oifey had said, “there are always some good ones who must serve bad masters. People cannot decide where they were born or what masters they must serve – I was only too lucky myself.”

So they were on good enough terms now, though Selis could hardly feel the gladness as the bishop laid hands on their wounds. On the hills outside Manster the knights and dark mages were in hot pursuit as their armies retreated towards the mountains, but the bishop took hold of his hand and pointed towards the field.

“Behold, my lord,” the red-haired tactician said, “Manster is a centipede. Its legs may sting and writhe, but it is the head that poisons. Cut off the head and the remainder will crumble.”

“What do you mean?” Selis asked.

“I mean, Lord Selis, though our army appears to be in disarray, there is no opportunity better than this moment. The city is emptied of soldiers and many Loptous priests are out on the field. If you could gather twenty of your best soldiers, with Lord Shannan and your loyal knight, I can lead them into the castle and seize the Loptous temple.”

Selis must have stood open-mouthed. It sounded crazy.

“W… wait… but Sety…”

The tactician softened his voice.

“I’m sorry, my lord, we do not know what happened to Lord Sety. But if we are first able to eliminate the Loptous bishops, Reydrik will pose little threat and his army will scatter. Then we will have more room to deal with Lord Sety, if he is still a threat then. I cannot give you false hope, but perhaps we could even find some clues as to what happened to Lord Sety, and whether his consciousness could still return.”

Selis subconsciously knew the tactician was using euphemisms. He wanted to cry but stopped himself. If Lady Olwen could kill her own brother, why couldn’t he? He couldn’t even be sure that was still Sety. But he couldn’t stop thinking – if only they still had the bishop’s Silence stave… but its power had been exhausted in the battle with the Gelbe Ritter.

“I am truly glad you are aiding us, bishop,” Oifey said. “Few would dare to propose so audacious a plan, but I trust you are confident we can take on the Loptous bishops?”

“I can’t lie to you, Sir Oifey, it is not without risks. Veld is a better schemer than magician, so I thought Lord Sety could easily defeat him. But it now appears that Archbishop Manfroy is at Manster, and the risk is considerable – but it is far from impossible, and you would have rid the continent of a great evil.”

“Forgive me, bishop, but how do you know?”

Saias seemed to have taken a moment to organize his thoughts.

“When I became a bishop of the Empire, I… took an interest in the matter of the Battle of Belhalla, because when I was growing up in the orphanage of Edda, Lord Claude showed great kindness to us.”

“You knew Bishop Claude?” Oifey said, surprised.

“Yes, my lord, but to return to our situation – thus I learned that Prince Lewyn had very nearly killed the archbishop, so he was by no means invulnerable, and not an impossible foe to those with a holy weapon. It is very probable that Lord Sety already killed Veld, so we would only have Manfroy to reckon with. If we can exploit the element of surprise, there is a good chance we can take him out quickly.”

As he spoke his gentle eyes fell on Selis, and Selis somehow sensed what he wanted to say – I’m sorry I have to talk about it under these circumstances.

“Very well,” Oifey said. “Let’s regroup the army, Lord Selis. I’ll call Shannan and Sir Knight to us and send for Prince Leif.”

 

Leif came running towards him. They were still retreating, closing ranks and drawing into tighter formations. In the distance Forseti roared in pursuit.

“Selis! I’m so sorry! I can’t believe… Prince Sety!”

“It’s not your fault.”

Selis felt strangely calm as he explained to Leif that this was Manfroy’s fault and nobody else’s. Somehow the mention of his father dispelled the chaos in his head. He remembered the emerald eyes of the Silesian prince just before the army set out, one of the few memories of his father that he held onto and repeated for himself again and again.

“Sigurd, did you cry this much when you were young? I swear he doesn’t take after me.”

His father picked him up and kissed him, once on each tear-stained cheek.

“Alright, alright, you are crying more than Sylvia now, isn’t that quite the feat? Shh, my dear, or you’ll wake Sety up and the entire castle will have no peace. You have to make sure he doesn’t tear down the castle when we are gone, promise?”

I’m sorry, he whispered to the memory of his father.

The knights had come back, and the strategists were picking the assault squad. They planned to circle to the other side of Manster through a mountain path, and enter the city under the guise of retreating Gelbe Ritter soldiers. Selis didn’t ask how the bishop got his hands on a Gelbe Ritter standard.

Shannan and the knight would go with the bishop, while Oifey and Finn would stay behind to keep the enemies distracted. Patty was thrilled to go with Shannan, her trap-finding skills finally put to good use. Leif insisted on going, saying his Light Brand could be useful against the dark bishops. Then it was the healers.

“We should have at least another healer,” the bishop said.

“I’ll go,” Yuria said.

She and Lana had come up closer to the front to support them with healing. Selis thought this would be a good idea – they were going up against dark mages after all – when Saias said.

“Forgive me, Lady Yuria, we cannot let you go.”

“I want to fight,” she insisted.

“I can recommend her,” Oifey said. “Light magic is very effective.”

Selis saw something flash by in the tactician’s eyes.

“I’m sorry, my lords, my lady, this is not the time to explain, but Lady Yuria absolutely cannot go. There is greater danger in that castle for her than for us.”

Lana looked visibly relieved, “Bishop Saias, I can go with you.”

Selis saw that Yuria was pulling on Lana’s sleeve a little reluctantly, but Lana soothed her with a reassuring smile. He was about to go comfort Yuria when a tiny voice rang behind them.

“Why don’t you take me too?”

“Sara?” Leif exclaimed.

Selis turned around. A tiny silver-haired girl stuck her head out from behind the crowds with wide, innocent eyes. With a spring in her steps, she skipped towards them.

“My lady,” Saias said softly, “you are too young for so dangerous a mission.”

Jumping between the soldiers like a flickering white shadow, she glided to a stop before him.

“Do you not hear it?” she looked up into the bishop’s eyes and whispered. “The temple calls to me as Velthomer calls to you.”

“Young lady – ” he started.

She reached forward. As her delicate caress fell on the orb atop his staff, it burst into a blinding white glow. She smiled.

“The altar shall open for me. It is fated that we take arms against those whom we love, just as one of your fathers was killed by the other.”

The tactician almost took a step back. Selis saw that he turned deathly pale, like a man upon whom the most terrible secret had only now dawned. But he immediately recovered his composure and forced his mind back into the present.

“If you insist, my lady. We don’t have much time, let us go.”

Just before they left, Sir Finn gave his lance to the masked knight. No words were said between them, except, “Take care, my lord.” Leif seemed surprised, but he said nothing.

 

For as long as he could remember, Selis knew in his heart that his parents weren’t coming back. He just knew it, even as Oifey and grandmother Rahna said that they would return one day, and he said so to everybody including Sety too, over and over again.

When the Imperial armies were at the gates of Silesia castle, the servants packed their things and Shannan and Oifey led them out into the mountains under the cover of night. In the biting cold Sety looked at him, and said suddenly.

“They are dead, Selis.”

“No, they are not. They are just fighting in Grannvale, okay? It’s far away, but it’s father’s homeland, so they have to fight for it.”

“You’re stupid, Selis. If they are alive, they will come back. They won’t let Gramma go out to fight.”

Selis hugged Sety to his chest as flames and arrows fell upon Silesia in the distance.

“They will come back,” he insisted.

 

Selis felt no irony of fate as he watched the red-haired bishop vanish behind the hills along with Shannan, the knight, Leif, Patty, Lana, the strange girl called Sara, and the rest of the assault team in full-face helmets. These were Imperial standard issue, so hopefully the enemies wouldn’t suspect a thing.

The armies on the field closed in. They had to calculate the retreat very carefully, to remain engaged while preserving their forces for the counterattack, and above all to avoid combat with Sety. Their rearguard almost got too close, and the devastating power of Forseti caught up with them when they battled Manster’s knights.

“To me! Retreat full-speed!”

Selis had to emerge from the center of the army to ensure an orderly retreat. Just when he got on top of the hill, the whirlwind ripping through the knights’ ranks abruptly changed directions, and swept towards him. The silhouette in the middle of the storm cut through the battlefield like a sword. For a moment he caught Sety’s eyes.

They burned with longing, zeal, resolve, desire.

“Sety!”

He couldn’t restrain himself from crying out, but Oifey shouted.

“Lord Selis, get down!”

The tail of the hurricane swept through the hill where his horse had just been standing, and instantly there was nothing left but a murky cloud of sand and dust. Selis coughed as he rolled down the hill and ran for his bolting steed. The hoofs of horses trampled all around him in panicking retreat.

“Lord Selis!”

Oifey caught the reins of his horse and guided her towards him. Selis jumped back on his frightened mount as the rushing wind overtook the battlefield and struck towards them.

“He’s coming for me, Oifey!” he panted.

“You can’t be so close to the front, my lord! It’s too dangerous here!”

“No…” he said, “It’s better if Sety wants to pursue me… Then he… wouldn’t have to kill anybody else.”

Before he could have said another word, the tempest came his way again.

Selis spurred his horse into a sprint. The maelstrom struck just behind his mount and sent her tumbling forward. He barely avoided falling out of saddle as Sety chased after him. The wind tore through the hills, leaving a trail of barren, overturned earth. A haze of reddish dust permeated the air.

He had so much he wanted to say to Sety, but he dared not stay too close. Too loud was the roaring of the wind that he could not even hear his own voice.

Perhaps… just perhaps… they must be inside the city now. Perhaps they are inside the temple already. Could they find a way to dispel this dark magic? Just, just a while longer…

He urged his horse onward. From the corner of his eye he could see Oifey and the others not far from him.

 

Sety liked to sing. On one of his birthdays, Selis couldn’t remember which one, Oifey brought him a little lyre. It wasn’t an actual lyre, because it only had five strings, but that was the best one could have in Tirnagog.

Later, when the bard started to visit them, he tuned the lyre for Sety.

“It is a marvelous instrument,” the bard had said, “just needs a little touch-up.”

Sety sat at his feet and plucked at it with one finger, “Can you teach me how you did that?”

“You’d like to learn, my lord?” the bard smiled. “Of course, with pleasure.”

 

There were only woods and mountains in front of them now.

“We have to turn back soon, Lord Selis!”

Oifey had come up to him. A dozen or so riders were with them – there had been double this number when they started to keep the possessor of Forseti on the chase.

Selis didn’t know what was going through his head anymore.

“Yes,” he said numbly. “How is Sir Finn doing?”

“They held strong. We have come too far to the north, I have asked them to converge.”

Selis almost felt afraid to ask the next question, “Any word from the city?”

“None yet, my lord, but it should be any time now.”

The fear that he might never see Shannan again suddenly seized him. Selis forcibly pulled his thoughts back to reality.

“Sir Finn will come to our aid soon,” Oifey was saying. “We can maneuver between the hills to avoid combat.”

“What would we do after we join Sir Finn?”

“We have to keep Prince Sety from withdrawing,” Oifey said grimly. “If he withdraws into the castle, that would put them in great danger.”

Selis nodded. It was almost dusk. The emerald glow of Forseti’s storm intertwined with the clouds glowing crimson, splashing streaks of eerily, ominously, breathtakingly beautiful colors on the golden sky. It was strangely quiet as only the hoofs of their horses stepped on the grass.

“This way!” Oifey called to the knights as they circled around the hills to take a route just beneath the mountain cliffs. They had lost a few more riders when they met Sety in combat on the slope of the hills, but the sacrifice held off Forseti’s power for a while, it seemed, and Selis could no longer hear the whirling wind behind him. Around the mountains’ edges, beneath the steep climb of the path ahead of them, he could just see the battlefield below: The rest of the army, scattered and regrouping after a long battle, was almost in sight.

“Do you think we lost… him?” he asked Oifey.

“He’s not too far behind,” Oifey answered, “but we need to get past here first. Then we can reengage if necessary.”

Selis was about to nod when a thunderous sound exploded above them. The cliff on top of them came crashing down as rocks crumbled and rolled onto their path.

“Out! Out and scatter!” Oifey shouted.

Horses neighed and Selis pulled on the reins so hard that it frayed the skin of his palm and grinded into his flesh. A couple of knights had leapt over the falling rocks just as the cliff fell, but it was too late for him. The path ahead was blocked.

The wind had changed. Selis turned his head and saw Sety leaping down from just behind the hill. Bands of verdant breeze twirled themselves around him, their tails bursting into blasts of gale.

Selis’ body already went into motion. Turning his horse around, he urged her across the rubble-littered ground as quickly as they could. It was too slow – they had lost momentum, and the splintered rocks made it almost impossible to run or jump – but he did it mechanically, out of some subconscious panic that they had to get of here now. Yet at the same time his mind seemed to be in a distant place. Absent-mindedly he thought he heard Sety singing, as if they were still children.

“Careful, Lord Selis!”

A blast from behind him almost threw him off his horse. He was almost out of the rubbles, but before he could spur his mount into a run, the voice came from behind him.

“Die, infidel!”

Forseti cut through the ground as his horse’s legs were forcibly torn from its body in an instant. Selis hardly leapt off in time – it would have eviscerated him had it hit him – and rolled into the ground.

He pulled himself back onto his feet, holding his sword before him as he turned towards Sety. It felt unreal, the thought that this was the enemy, but his body was reacting while his mind wandered without direction. Throughout childhood he might have never won a fight with Sety, but Sety would pat him on the shoulder and say, “It’s not a fair fight for you – I get more range out of a tome, see?”

“You shall perish now.”

Selis readied his blade as he retreated step by step. The emerald shone. The winds gathered. The possessor of Forseti closed in. It came at him.

“Lord Selis!”

Oifey must have turned his horse around and was charging towards them. With a lunge he threw himself at Sety, but his lance was not pointing forward.

“No!” Selis screamed. “Don’t! Oifey!”

“Run, Lord Selis!”

The air seemed to have shattered as blades of winds shot into Oifey. Half a second later the knight’s body crashed into the ground, as they cut through his armor and snapped his spine like a broken twig. Bits of blood and flesh and metal came down raining.

“Oifey!”

Everything in his mind went blank.

Chapter Text

The stones slid open beneath her fingers and they went into the darkness.

She saw the bishop with the blood of Fjalar hide his face beneath a hood. Perhaps he did not want grandfather to see him.

She would want grandfather to see her.

The tip of her staff glowed dimly. It felt warm as she played with its light, as she could hear the Loptous priests running to defend their temple. It was dark and quiet and solemn like where she grew up, where memories whispered of desires of a bygone age. It was filled with cries of the forgotten people, who raised their voice to the heavens to denounce the world.

Lithely she followed them, they whose blades cut through human flesh without a second thought. In this darkness they were all haunted, some more than others, but everyone equally so. The ghosts of their pasts rose from the ground and grasped at their ankles, and they had to shake and stomp and kick with all their might to walk on. But they walked on, through the snowy fields of Silesia and the dark dungeon of Agusty, through flames devouring Leonster and children crying in Conote, through corpses outside the Yied Shrine and the great Thracia River red with blood. Every city, every town, every village had its ghosts, and as they passed through the silver threads of memory spun around them until they became entangled as cocoons.

Come, speak to me…

The walls spoke to her of the children’s fears. The floors whispered of hatred, the ceilings of desire. The reliefs dreamt of hope, breathing the prayers for deliverance from the hands that sculpted them. The doors could tell how many times they were closed – and how mundanely and thoughtlessly each time. Only the statues were silent, asleep in lost time. She saw the boy looking at the statues as they rushed towards the altar.

“Treacherous daughter of a treacherous mother.”

They went up to kill grandfather with swords and spears. The dead spirits came at them, screaming in the pain of their cursed bodies. It might be better that he was dead, she thought. The spirits pleaded, they cried in the night.

“What a disgrace to my bloodline.”

Of course grandfather wanted to kill her. She always knew he did. But she did not feel afraid at all when his dark magic pierced through her. The pain felt like clouds of darkness on which she could dance as on ice. She saw her mother stand before her with arms opened and nothing harmed her.

They cut and slashed at his black robes as his blood spilled on the ground, like the screaming blood of the countless sacrifices. She opened her hands and light rained from the darkness. They burned through him like falling ember.

It was not hard to kill. That was why there were so many ghosts, all around them, in this room, in this temple, in this city. It was not hard to hurt someone at all.

But he was not dead. The dark shadows of his cloak shifted and in a moment he vanished before their eyes.

They looked around and asked questions in loud voices, but she heard it calling out to her behind the temple. So she went towards it and the stones opened before her, and there lay shining the staff for which she had come.

She took it and went out, and said to the one who had been mourning.

“Herein, the end to your grief.”

Chapter Text

He could not feel his legs, his arms, his hands that were grasping the sword hilt.

The maelstrom roared, tossing aside Oifey’s body and chunks of the horses’ torn carcasses. Sety stepped forward. With a nonchalant wave of his arm, a new hurricane formed around him.

“Sety!” Selis cried.

Sety’s gaze was that of cold indifference, mixed with the distinct pleasure of a predator coming towards its prey. Selis shuddered.

“Don’t you remember Maestro?! Remember why he gave you that tome? It was father’s tome!”

“You shall… die here.”

For the first time Selis felt his hands on the sword hilt. He tightened his grasp, and swung his blade towards Sety in a headlong charge.

Father, please watch over me.

I won’t let him kill anyone else.

The winds rushed against his blade, but suddenly it ceased. The corner of Selis’ eye caught a dark shadow that appeared at the foot of the hills.

“Come here, Sety,” it said. “Kill that bastard, then we are leaving.”

A rage flared up in Selis that he had never known in his life. With a scream, he ran towards what must be Archbishop Manfroy.

“Let go of Sety!”

“Pathetic,” the archbishop of Loptous sneered. But Selis did not hear it. He did not even see what Manfroy looked like under the hood. He did not care. All he wanted in this life was to kill this man. He did not care whether he died trying.

“I’ll kill you!” he cried as he swung down the blade. Blood splashed forth from the dark archbishop’s already-torn robes. He coughed a snort.

“You think that’s all takes, brat? Loptous is with me! Finish him, Sety!”

Dark energy exploded on him. But it didn’t even hurt, at least he didn’t feel it. Somewhere in the corner of his mind he knew the power of Forseti was just behind him, rushing forward to kill him under the archbishop’s command. Yet the threat of that sure death barely registered.

“This is for Oifey!” he yelled, thrusting his sword forward into Manfroy’s body. Warm, sticky blood splashed onto his face as he pulled the blade out. He shoved forward with another slash.

“This is for Sety!”

His blade cut into thin air. Just as the swing was about to slice open Manfroy’s chest, everything vanished into a puff of black smoke.

It took Selis a couple of seconds to realize that the hollering wind of Forseti behind him had not hit him. It had dissolved into absolute stillness.

He heard a scream, and the sound of a tome dropping to the ground.

Selis turned around.

Sety was running madly towards Oifey. His hands picked up pieces of torn flesh and broken body parts, and aimlessly tried to place them back onto the mangled corpse. His fingers dug into the dust as he gathered a handful of blood-drenched earth and stared at it in horror.

“Sety!”

But Sety heard nothing. He stood up and finally let go of the clasp of bloody soil, and stumbled towards the tome of Forseti lying on the ground. His expression was completely blank. His eyes seeing only the tome.

“Sety!”

Sety bent down and picked up the tome, the corner of his mouth twitching convulsively. Suddenly realizing what he wanted to do, Selis broke into a run.

“No, Sety, stop!”

The sky turned green and the fulsome power of the holy weapon came hurtling down towards its wielder. Selis leapt through the air towards his brother.

Selis’ fingers touched but lost the tome in midair just when the booming hurricane struck and hurled Sety into the ground. It fractured his bones and ripped open his face and hands. Grinning like a madman, he reached out for the tome again.

“No!”

Selis landed on top of him and wrestled the blood-covered tome from his hands.

“Don’t do it!” he heard his own voice screeching. “Don’t leave me! Do you want me to avenge Oifey alone?”

The mad light in Sety’s eyes blinked and receded. He stared at Selis emptily, uncomprehendingly.

“It will be alright, Sety,” Selis whispered. “I won’t let them hurt you anymore.”

And he could control his tears no longer.

 

They were in possession of Manster by nightfall. Selis did not remember how he entered the city. He only had the vaguest recollection of Bishop Saias warping back and asking Sir Finn to come get them. Then all the streets, the people, the citizens’ cheers melted into a whirlpool of meaningless colors and sounds.

Sety would not see anyone, not even Shannan. Only Lana came to check on his health, and Selis stayed in his room as much as duties allowed. Asvel and the rest of Magi Squad came everyday, and children whom Sety saved came before the castle with their parents, but it was always Selis who went out and apologized on Sety’s behalf.

It was already dark when Selis left Sety’s room one evening, and he realized that Leif was standing outside the door. Selis knew that Leif felt guilty that they rescued his foster mother while Selis lost Oifey, but neither of them said anything.

“It is already late and the servants said you haven’t had a chance to eat yet, so I brought some food over.”

Selis nodded. He was not in a mood to talk, and Leif didn’t push him. So they sat down in the sitting room outside. Selis was breaking the bread when Leif said, “I can go get more for Prince Sety.”

“It’s alright,” Selis said. “He doesn’t really want to eat. I’ll just leave a little for him.”

Leif bowed his head.

“I’m really sorry… if only we…”

Selis was almost a little frustrated how everyone kept on telling him that they were sorry. He was tired of explaining to everyone that it wasn’t their fault, because it wasn’t. But he couldn’t take it out on Leif, or anyone else for that matter, but especially Leif who had lost as much as he had.

“It’s not your fault,” he said. He didn’t know what else to say, so he stuffed his mouth with bread and ham. Leif only watched him quietly, and he got the sense that Leif wanted to touch him but was too afraid to, so after he finished eating he edged his chair a little closer and leaned his head on Leif’s shoulder.

“Thanks, that was filling.”

“It’s nothing – are you tired?”

“A little… if you don’t mind.”

It was the most banal of conversations, but it calmed his mind, as if everything was just like when they would practice or walk together in Leonster or in the camp.

“Are you sure you don’t want to go to bed?”

“I can’t – Sir Knight will bring the provision reports soon.”

Only after they lost Oifey did Selis truly realize that Oifey had been doing everything in the army from negotiating alliances to gathering intelligence to securing provisions. Neither Sir Finn nor August had experience running an army this size, and General Xavier was in Leonster to defend against a possible attack from Conote. Bishop Saias was experienced enough, but he couldn’t appear in public and half-jokingly said he should not know too many of the army’s secrets. Therefore the task of coordinating the army fell to Shannan and the masked knight, which in effect meant all the more mundane but indispensable tasks fell to the knight, with the two tacticians helping him here and there.

“Well, if you need help with it, I don’t have other duties tonight…”

“It would be a great help – are you good at all with numbers? Sir Knight said I don’t need to verify them, just to know where things are coming from and where we are short, but all the payments and dates and credits give me a headache.”

Normally Selis would never complain about something like this, but complaining about trivialities strangely lightened the conversation.

“I can… try…” Leif said hesitantly. The tone of his voice couldn’t help but make Selis smile.

“That makes two of us, then.”

Leif made him take a nap on the couch. When he woke up he heard the knight’s voice.

“…… as the commander of an army, Prince Leif, you do not need to be too concerned with the details, what you need to look out for – ”

“S-sorry!” Selis shot up. “How long did I sleep?”

The knight was sitting at the table with Leif, flipping through some papers. “I just came, my lord. Lord Leif didn’t want to wake you.”

“Sorry to keep you waiting!” Selis realized Leif’s cloak was on him and fell to the floor when he sat up, so he bent over to pick it up.

“It’s not a problem, my lord,” the knight stood up. “While you and Prince Leif look over these, could I have a word with Prince Sety?”

Selis was a little surprised.

“I’ll go ask him…” he stuttered, “but… he really doesn’t want to see anyone.”

“Perhaps he would prefer to see a stranger – I haven’t had the chance to meet him yet.”

Selis nodded and went into the room.

 

The candles were not lit. Sety was sitting in the darkness on the side of his bed, looking at his hands.

“Sety?” Selis tried.

His brother didn’t answer. He went up and threw his arms around Sety.

“It’s not your fault,” he whispered.

Once again, no answer came. Selis sat down beside his brother.

“There is a knight in our army, he said he wants to see you. Can I let him in?”

“… why?”

Not quite sure what Sety was asking, Selis answered, “We don’t know who he is, because he always wears a mask… but he saved me many times. I think he is concerned about you.”

Sety seemed to have thought about it, then nodded almost imperceptibly.

 

Selis did not know what they said, but the next morning Sety came out from his room, apologized and asked to go to breakfast. Selis was a little worried when everyone quickly surrounded him and started talking, but Sety answered them, if tiredly. Then after breakfast they went to the strategy meeting together.

Sety seemed a little surprised to see Bishop Saias in the room, and Shannan was there too. Leif came as usual with August and Sir Finn, and the knight came just on time. August began promptly.

“I have report, my lords, that Blume has conspired with Travant to coordinate a counterattack at Manster. I have further report that the wielder of Ichival is in Blume’s service.”

“How did Blume acquire Ichival?” the knight asked.

“Allow me to explain, my lord,” said the bishop of Velthomer. “Four holy weapons were taken to the Battle of Belhalla in Lord Sigurd’s army – Tyrfing, Forseti, Ichival, and the Valkyrie Staff. However, after the battle, only Tyrfing was found. About two years ago it became known that Ichival was in the hands of a young mercenary in Conote, but the fact that the bow was a holy weapon was not known to the wielder himself.”

“Is that possible?” Shannan asked.

“As I understand, he grew up in an orphanage, and might not appreciate the difference between Ichival and a very good bow. He seemed to have been reluctant to work for Blume in the beginning, but when I left Conote the arrangement had already been made.”

“How good a fighter is he?”

“Formidable, but he is young, and less overwhelming in power than Princess Ishtar.”

“We should perhaps worry about Mjolnir first, then?”

“The last time I was informed on the matter, Mjolnir is not at Conote,” the bishop said, “ – nor is the princess.”

Selis realized that a faint, fleeting shadow passed beneath the bishop’s eyes, but the discussion had already gone on.

“Good, then,” Shannan said. “What about Travant’s army?”

 

Selis ran up to the bishop after the meeting. Sety looked a little distrait, so he had wanted to get Sety back for some rest, but he did not want to see the bishop leave alone.

“Bishop – ”

The tactician turned. “May I be of service, Lord Selis, Lord Sety?”

“S-sorry if this is abrupt! I… do you have friends in the Imperial army?”

That came out less smoothly than Selis wanted, but if the tactician took offense, he did not show it.

“Yes, Lord Selis,” he said softly. “In my years of service, I have come to know many members of the Imperial army, some honorable, others less so. And yes, I have held a few very close to my heart.”

Selis heard Sety gave an irrepressible little gasp behind him, and turned around to find Sety containing a violent tremor. The bishop had already come up to them and placed his hands around Sety’s shoulder.

“Perhaps now is not the time to have this conversation,” he said to Selis. “We should see your brother to his room first. – Lord Sety, may I?”

Sety barely nodded. Selis rushed to hold his hands.

“Are you okay?”

Sety nodded again. But Selis realized his eyes were gazing into some faraway distance, fixating on some unseen horror.

“She didn’t have a black dress for the funeral,” he whispered.

Chapter Text

Patty quickly became best friends with all the kids who came to ask about Prince Sety everyday. She made them lunches, showed them around the castle, told them all about her heroic romance with Prince Shannan, and played jumping houses with them on the square outside.

It did not bother her or them at all that Reydrik’s naked corpse, hung up by the vengeful citizens of Manster, was swinging above their heads on a pole.

She still found it hard to believe that Oifey was no longer with them. Prince Shannan was very sad and she tried to keep him company, but he loved her too much to reveal his weak side to her, and went to sword practice instead. So in the meantime she was contented to collect stories of Prince Sety’s valiant exploits from her young friends.

She was tactful enough not to mention any of it to Prince Sety, though – he looked hardly better than a ghost as he dragged himself about the castle, trying to make his brother stop worrying about him. At first Patty made him super special pastries for breakfast, but then she realized that he was forcing himself to eat them, so she stopped and decided she would make everyone else super special pastries first.

They hadn’t had a good meal for months now – Alster was all but pillaged and the situation in Leonster just as difficult – thus she was ravished that Reydrik’s cellars were stuffed with luxuries from all over Thracia and Miletos.

The cooks were more than happy to let her use them. They were happy to have her, too. The liberation army, Prince Selis and Prince Leif were… heroes. But Patty was like their hero. They were thrilled that the best cook in the liberation army wasn’t just a cook. Just the way it should be – if you could run a kitchen, you could run anything.

As they brought the wood and fanned the ovens, they told her that there had once been a king in Manster, but Travant killed him. Since then the castle’s kitchen had served the new Duke. He was cruel and capricious, but the servants always had more than enough leftovers from his tables. Once he even gave one of old cooks, now dead, an entire pouch of Miletos gold coins for perfectly roasting a rare bird he shot down in the mountains.

“Must have tasted heavenly,” Patty said.

“Nah,” said the sous-chef, “he was just proud he shot it down from two hundred yards – or so he boasted.”

She made chocolate raspberry soufflés and lemon sorbet puffs topped with little flowers of basil cream, and listened to them talk about how they might all need to find new work in the city once the princes’ armies depart. Reydrik didn’t even pay the last season’s wages, and Patty made a promise to “look into” the castle’s finances on their behalf.

Actually she could probably just talk to Selis, she realized when she walked out of the kitchen with a big tray and a basket on her arm. Ah well, old habits die hard.

 

Patty heard someone crying when she was walking up the stairs.

It was a little late, and the sound was coming from the gardens, so whoever it was probably didn’t want to be disturbed. But curiosity got the better out of Patty (and her desire to bring pastries to everyone). Setting down the tray on the stairs, she tiptoed outside.

In the shadows just beyond the fountain was a dark-haired girl. Patty recalled seeing her in Prince Leif’s company – she was the daughter of that woman they rescued from the temple, right? She was hiding herself between the trees, possibly close to the fountain so the running water could disguise any noise she made. Patty sneaked up behind her.

“Hey, are you alright?”

She put on her best smile as she tapped the girl on the shoulder. The girl jumped and almost made a gesture to draw her weapon, but instead quickly dried her tears and looked fiercely at Patty.

“… Thank you, there is no problem.”

“Don’t be so uptight! Come on, you can tell me, right? What is it?”

Without asking, Patty snuggled up and put on her best cute expression. The girl seemed to have let down her guards a little.

“You are… in Prince Selis’ army? I’m Mareeta. I heard from Leif – thank you for saving my mother.”

“No problem at all! I’m Patty, by the way, Prince Shannan’s fiancée.”

“Wow… really?”

Patty laughed.

“No, of course not!”

“Oh…” the dark-haired girl blinked. “Then why do you say you are?”

“Aha, that’s not important!” glad that she had livened up the conversation, Patty quickly changed the topic. “So, are you alright?”

“Y-yes. It’s really nothing.”

“I promise I won’t tell a soul,” Patty whispered, “I’m really good at not telling people things! I know the secrets of all the kids in our orphanage.”

“Can you promise you won’t tell my mother?”

“Of course!”

Mareeta hesitated, as if she was a little ashamed, then she said, “Last year I was captured in this castle and… a mercenary here rescued me. I think he was my father. When Manster was liberated, I asked around and … they said he had been killed.”

Ouch, Patty thought, this is harder than I thought. Mareeta went on.

“They said Prince Shannan killed him, and I don’t blame Prince Shannan. It’s… it’s only that, I remember that my father was a kind man, I wanted to ask him why he decided to help Reydrik…”

“That’s what mercenaries do, right?” Patty tried. “My brother’s a mercenary too, so I know a little. If he didn’t get paid, all the kids in our orphanage had to go hungry.”

That seemed to have made Mareeta feel slightly better.

“I want to see him buried at least,” she said quietly. “The temple of Bragi has all the dead soldiers, but I don’t think anyone would come to claim his body… But… if I go, then my mother will know, too… I don’t want to make her sad…”

“Alright, alright,” Patty said. “That’s easy. They don’t have a lot of guards at the temple of Bragi, right? And no one will bat an eye if we sneak out of the castle.”

“We can do that?”

“Trust me, I’m pro.”

 

Patty was sore all over the next day from sneaking the body outside the city and digging a grave for it, so she did not get up until way past breakfast time, and went outside the castle yawning. All her fatigue, however, completely evaporated the moment she saw Prince Shannan standing on the stairs, talking to Selis and Sety.

“Prince Shannan! Did you miss me?”

The prince nodded to her, “Good morning, Patty.”

It was just then that a guard came into the castle grounds. Wasn’t he one of the guards at the Bragi temple? Patty thought absent-mindedly.

“Prince Shannan! We are terribly sorry, the body you asked us to keep is missing!”

Patty blinked and shrank inconspicuously towards the back.

“Body?” Prince Selis asked.

“One of the soldiers in the castle was probably my kinsman,” Prince Shannan said. “I wanted to give him an Isaacian burial… … I forgot about it.”

After Sir Oifey died, of course.

“This does not bode well,” Prince Sety said, looking a little paler than even the usual. “The Loptous Church practiced necromancy. I heard rumors that they sought out the bodies of strong warriors… Let me go see the scene.”

He started immediately towards the guard. Prince Selis caught him by the wrist.

“Wait, Sety, we’ll go together.”

“You don’t need to go!” Patty burst out. “I took the body!”

Suddenly all eyes were on her.

“ – Because I thought Prince Shannan definitely forgot, of course, and there was no need to trouble anyone else, so I buried him.”

“Did I tell you about it?” Prince Shannan looked at her, visibly questioning his own memory.

“No – I heard from the soldiers,” Patty said with an absolutely innocent face. Prince Shannan looked impressed.

“Thank you, Patty. It was thoughtful of you.”

“Anything for you, Prince Shannan!” she grinned.

“Can you tell me where you buried him? I should pour wine on his grave.”

“E… eh… wait, I might have forgotten! Give me a moment!”

She ran off before Prince Shannan had the chance to say another word.

 

She found Mareeta with Eyvel in their rooms. They seemed to be packing, since news had come from the east that there were disturbances on the coast. As Patty approached the doorway she saw Mareeta lean on Eyvel’s shoulder, and the swordswoman with flowing golden tresses kissed the girl lightly on the forehead.

Something pricked her just a little. She couldn’t tell what it was. Perhaps it was remembering that she never had a mother who could kiss her so.

She forgot it instantly when she remembered how happy she was for Mareeta. She ran up to them and waved.

“Hey! Lady Eyvel! Can I chat with Mareeta for a sec?”

Chapter Text

She went to see Sety every evening. “I’m okay now,” he said. “You really don’t have to come anymore.”

“I have to make sure you are recovering,” she said. He didn’t try to stop her from coming again.

They cremated Oifey’s body soon afterwards. It was almost July, and even in the mountains, the heat made the bodies decay within days. Shannan and Selis had not wanted Sety to go, but Sety insisted. Only then did Lana learn that Oifey gave his will to Shannan long ago – he wanted to be buried in Chalphy one day. So they gathered the ashes into the urn and sealed it with prayers to Bragi.

There were the wounded to take care of, and she helped Selis with the army’s affairs where she could. They were planning an assault on Conote to avoid a two-sided war, though there might not be enough time for that now. But whenever she had a moment’s freedom she found her thoughts turning to the silver-haired girl who followed them into the temple of Loptous. She wanted to speak to Sara, but somehow she never found her.

Thus a few evenings later she sent Yuria to check on Sety, and went to find the Bishop of Velthomer.

He was in the room they assigned him, apparently playing chess with himself. Lana bowed.

“Good evening, Your Excellency. May I disturb you for a minute?”

He stood and bowed.

“My lady, you are the successor to the blood of Bragi. It would make me a little uneasy to hear an honorific from you.”

“Pardon me, Lord Saias… I came for Yuria’s sake.”

“I see, my lady. Would you like to sit? Some tea, perhaps?”

She sat down by the table while he served her tea. As she took the cup and saucer, he sat down across the table and smiled at her.

“Are you concerned why I would not allow Lady Yuria to go to the temple of Loptous?”

She nodded.

“That is a long story, but I had hoped I wouldn’t have to tell it until I know its entirety – but perhaps you can help me with it, Lady Lana?”

“How can I help?” she asked reflexively.

“My lady, I came to Manster because a friend of mine asked me to watch over the children here. However, when I came to your army, I found that Lady Yuria greatly resembled the Emperor’s youngest daughter who went missing several years ago, the Imperial Princess Yuria…”

 

Lana walked out of the tactician’s room without comprehending anything from their hour-long conversation. She told him about how Yuria came to them in Tirnagog, about the bard, and even about Sara’s strange words in the hospice at Leonster. But they agreed that none of this provided concrete evidence.

“My lady, you bear the mark of Bragi. When Princess Yuria went missing from Belhalla, no holy brands had manifested on her yet, but if the mark of Naga or Fjalar had manifested on her since, then we could be more certain.”

It was possible to conduct a ceremony at the Temple of Bragi with the Ring of the Twelve, which would reveal the holy blood possessed by an individual, but the ceremony would take an entire day and thus was not a luxury they could afford under the shadow of war.

She resolved to ask Yuria first, but Yuria had not come back yet, so she went to Sety’s room.

In the sitting room outside she found the silver-haired girl with Selis, Sety, Leif and Patty.

Lana knew that the sitting room had become a sort of impromptu meeting place due to the amount of time Selis spent with Sety.

“We’re working through Reydrik’s treasury!” Patty said excitedly to her. “Yuria’s helping us with the magical gimmicks!”

“Yuria is most helpful,” Selis said, and the girl smiled shyly at the compliment.

 

It was only when they were alone that night when Lana asked, “Yuria, do you know if you have a mark like mine?”

She opened her hand and displayed the pale-gold brand of Bragi burned into her palm. Yuria reached out and touched it lightly, seemingly contemplating its significance.

“No,” she whispered, shaking her head. “Not like this one.”

“What about other ones?” Lana tried.

“I… I’m not sure… there might be… behind my shoulder.”

Lana made her voice as gentle as possible.

“Can I see it?”

Yuria seemed surprised, but she quickly nodded.

“Y-yes, of course, Lady Lana.”

She pulled down her shawl and exposed the skin on her back. Behind her right shoulder was a silver mark like a shining star. Lana bit back a gasp.

“Is… something the matter, Lady Lana?”

“N… no,” Lana struggled to answer, pulling up Yuria’s robe for her lest she caught a cold. Her head was spinning. “Yuria… you… remember nothing of your childhood?”

Blinking her eyes uncomprehendingly, Yuria shook her head.

“I’m sorry… did I cause everyone trouble?”

“No, no, not at all,” Lana said. She didn’t know if she should tell Yuria – on the one hand she felt Yuria should know, but on the other hand she was afraid it would only drag the girl deeper into the abyss of war.

“Wait… wait here for a moment, alright?” she finally said. “I need to ask Lord Selis something.”

 

To Lana’s great surprise, she found Selis with the Bishop of Velthomer walking through the castle grounds.

“I ran into the bishop when I was returning to my room, so we took a walk,” Selis explained a little apologetically. “Did it take long to find me?”

“Not at all…” Lana said. She was a little unnerved that the bishop was here, and he might have caught on to it, such that he said, “If you need to converse in private, my lady, my lord, I can withdraw.”

“No, no,” Lana said. “It concerns the matter you asked of me, bishop.”

Selis looked a little surprised.

Lana lowered her voice.

“Yuria has the mark of Naga.”

Selis opened his mouth. “B-but the mark of Naga is……”

He did not continue, but the bishop looked around them and nodded, “Yes, my lord. It is the brand of the royal house of Grannvale. Lady Yuria is the daughter of Emperor Arvis and Empress Diadora.”

Chapter Text

The boys were practicing swordplay in the courtyard when she heard someone singing. It was a song she had not heard in a while now, but one that her brother used to hum sometimes when he was in a good mood. She gathered that it was a song popular in Chalphy, so he probably picked it up from Lord Sigurd, and thus he stopped humming it a long time ago.

She went to the window and looked outside. Just around the corner outside the castle gates, a bard was playing by the street. A crowd had gathered around him, and she could not see his face, but his voice was gentle and mesmerizing. The crowd cheered – even at this distance she could hear them applauding, asking him to sing, too, of Lord Eltshan, and how he drove the invaders from Agustria but was betrayed by his own countrymen. They were a little restless, now that they had not seen Eltshan for a while, but they loved him above all else.

She thought a little absent-mindedly about her brother, and rang for a servant. One came immediately.

“Do we still have wine from our villas outside Nordion?”

“Only the 760 vintage, my lady.”

She might have frowned just a little, before she said, “Take a glass to the bard outside, and tell him if he would like an audience, it is granted him.”

“As you wish, my lady.”

 

The bard bowed before her.

It was almost sunset. Half the sitting room was awash in the reddish gold glow of the setting sun, while the other rested in a serene shadow.

“What is your name?” she asked.

“I have no name, my lady. Some flatter my skills and call me Maestro, but as you see, I am merely a singer of old songs, and my talents merit no such name.”

“Your presence gladdens us, Maestro,” she said. “Is it your first time in Silvail?”

“No, my lady. I had the great honor of playing in the presence of His Majesty, Lord Eltshan and you yourself when you were at a festival in town, but certainly my insignificant talents would not have left you with any impressions.”

Lachesis searched her memory.

“I remember now – Aless likes you, he would be glad to know you are here.”

It must have been two years ago, perhaps longer. After a song the bard had gone up to the young king’s seat, and sought a dance with the king. It was not the most decorous of requests, but Aless obliged him happily, and Eltshan let him. After that the people of Silvail began to ask the king to dance with them at public festivities.

“It honors me deeply that His Majesty should remember a humble bard as myself,” the bard bowed again.

“I did not know you are from Chalphy,” Lachesis said.

“I… do not think I am, my lady. If I may be frank with you, I do not remember my homeland. I was in an accident a few years ago, and since then only bits and pieces of my past had come back to me.”

“Where did you learn the songs from Chalphy, then?”

“I beg your pardon, my lady, I do not know which songs you are referring to.”

“It begins thus…” she sang the first stanza for him.

“I had not known this song is from Chalphy, my lady,” he said. “A bard picks up many songs in his travels; I may have even learned it in Agustria.”

“Indeed?”

“I do not remember, but I suspect so, my lady. Sometimes as I travel through Agustria, I feel a deep fondness for the land, as if treasured memories had been buried here.”

Lachesis suddenly remembered when she rode through the countryside of Nordion with her brother. She was six and he was twelve, and he let her sit in front of him and said, “Careful, don’t fall off.” And then, “I won’t let you fall off.”

A smile had come between her lips before she realized it. She was thinking of what to say to him when the door opened, and none other than her young nephew was standing at the door with his companions.

“My lady aunt, the servants have set the tables, would you care to join us for dinner?”

He was charmingly handsome as his father had been at this age, tall, well-built, a graceful ease in his steps and a childlike light in his eyes. Merely looking upon him filled Lachesis with pride. She stood up, and scolded him jokingly.

“You came just for this? Learn to use servants, Aless.”

“But we haven’t seen you all day, lady aunt,” he grinned and kissed her cheeks. “Lester is still holding a grudge after he lost target practice.”

“I’m not holding a grudge against Lady Lachesis!” the bow knight protested as colors came to his cheeks.

“Losing to Lady Lachesis is nothing to be ashamed of,” Tristan said in a tone that Lester probably found irritating.

“We’ll practice tomorrow,” Lachesis said.

“You’ll probably lose again,” Delmud said to Lester.

“Anyway,” Aless said, “we hear there is a bard from out of town?”

The bard bowed.

“At Your Majesty’s service.”

The young king looked at him and laughed. His laughter was clear like the summer sky over the sea.

“I remember you well. Were you not here a few years ago?”

The bard bowed again.

“There is no greater honor than being remembered by Your Majesty.”

 

Aless invited the bard to dine with them. There were the pretentious kind who would never eat at the same table with anyone they considered inferior in status. Her brother was not like them, and neither was Aless. In olden days bards and dancers would come to Nordion, and the entire city would sway with music and dancing steps in the summer. And Elty would put on a hat with a pretty feather and a painted masque, and take her out into the crowd. Everyone still knew it was the Lord of Nordion and his sister, because Mystletainn never left his side.

One of those summers – when Lachesis was eleven or twelve – Lord Sigurd and Prince Cuan were there too, along with Lord Sigurd’s younger sister. There was a big game in the town square, a bit of a tradition in Nordion, in which ropes were strung between the buildings and bouquets of flowers hung from them. Youths from the town would reach for the bouquets with long wooden poles, and gift them to the young ladies. Elty and Lord Sigurd made a huge show of who could be the first one to present her with a bouquet. As Lachesis was laughing with Lady Ethlyn at how ridiculous they looked, Prince Cuan came up to them.

“Lady Ethlyn, this is for you.”

He knelt with perfect elegance, and held the flowers out to Ethlyn. Somehow Lachesis remembered that bouquet still. It was lilac with white roses.

“But Cuan, I don’t want flowers! I want to play too!”

“Would you like my pole too, my lady?”

“Hang on, Lady Lachesis,” the lady of Chalphy turned to her and said, “we’ll beat our brothers to this! Quick, Cuan, let me sit on your shoulders!”

All of this ended in Elty trying to climb on Lord Sigurd’s shoulders and the twain falling over comically in the middle of the square, amidst flowers scattered like a confetti of summer colors. Everyone laughed at the young lord of Nordion, and they gave his sister their bouquets.

Not once in the past seventeen years did the Lord of Nordion speak the names of his friends. The silence of 760 buried him just as it buried them, and since then every war was a war of vengeance.

But Lachesis remembered how her brother used to be when she saw her nephew sit down at the table and let the bard sit on his right hand side. The boys surrounded them, and everyone began to ask questions at the same time.

“Where are you coming from?”

“Is there news of the Imperial army?”

“Do you know of the war in Isaac?”

They had their own scouts, but tidings from outside were always welcomed. The bard nodded at each, and leaned forward slightly.

“I had just come from Agusty, my lady, my lords. There was a rumor that the Lord of Nordion is not well, and the Imperial regiments stirred at the prospect of taking Silvail without facing battle with the Lionheart.”

“Impudent fools,” Aless scoffed. “Do they take me for nothing?”

Chapter Text

Sety went with them to Conote.

No one had expected him to fight, but it was a necessary precaution in case Mjolnir returned to the castle, especially since Blume sent messengers by sea to Kronos and Belhalla to seek reinforcements, so Sety insisted on coming.

They had, however, the happy surprise of discovering that Ichival’s wielder was Patty’s brother, and Ishtar did not in fact return. Thus Conote fell with little suspense. The castle had the capacity to put on a greater resistance, Bishop Saias said, but the troops’ morale was broken after repeated defeats and news of the child hunts spreading.

They were sitting in Blume’s war room. Though Conote had only been the king’s seat since Alster was liberated, Blume certainly brought all his love for pomp. There was a model of the entire Thracian peninsula, carved from fine marble and inlaid with ivory, along with little soldiers and flags representing regiments. August was playing with some of them, but the bishop sat at the corner of the table. Selis had the feeling that the bishop harbored many other thoughts, but would never say them with August in the room, so he merely sat next to Sety and considered the map.

“So Travant has betrayed Blume, as we expected,” the balding tactician said, “but soon enough he will come for us, because he has ambitions to rule over the entire Thracia. Travant is an opportunist – he will not attack Manster since it is well-defended, but if his history is any indication, he will seek a weak spot.”

“You mean he will go for Alster?” Leif said. Almost half the city witnessed the long-exiled prince of Leonster strike down King Blume on the steps beneath the palace earlier that afternoon. The gates had fallen with minimal resistance, and the outraged Blume gathered his personal guards to fight the rebels to his last breath, which he did.

“It is probable. Before we departed for Conote we already sent messengers to Alster, so they should have begun to make preparations by now. Now the threat of Conote is neutralized, we can divide the remainder of our forces between Manster and Alster’s defense.”

“What do you think, Selis?” Leif looked at him.

Selis thought about it, and said, “… If Travant was set on Alster, he would have preferred to attack at a time when we were engaged at Conote. Is it possible that they have set out already? The scouts at Manster probably know, but we won’t know until some time later.”

Last night, when they were still laying siege to Conote, Selis spoke to the bishop when he saw the latter in the camp. The bishop’s opinion was that Travant’s army would be at Alster within three days, so any reinforcements not already sent would need to be sent by teleportation. But Conote is the priority, my lord, the bishop had said. You can consider Alster’s defense after Conote has been taken, else one risks losing both.

August considered Selis’ words.

“We can warp a few over in case they had already started for Alster,” Leonster’s tactician said. “The remainder of the reinforcements can follow on foot.”

“Could we send Ichival’s wielder to Alster?” Leif said.

“Archers need to be deployed carefully when facing a highly mobile army like Thracia’s wyvern riders,” the knight said. “Though their offensive capacity against a flying regiment is excellent, there is little they can do to defend themselves when such a regiment descends on them.”

“Let me go,” Sety said. “I can take them.”

Selis instinctively wanted to respond no. The last thing he wanted was to send his brother to a faraway city, facing a horde of enemies, all over again. It didn’t matter that his brother was the heir to Forseti. He had to protect him.

“Are you certain you can fight, Prince Sety?” August asked, and Leif looked a little worried.

“I heard about Travant’s raids when I was at Manster,” Sety said. “They were brutal. When a village or town put up resistance, they slaughter the civilians… the elderly, the children. Let me go.”

“I know that, of course!” Leif stood up. His expression was urgent and earnest, “Prince Sety, you have done enough for the people here, I can testify to that. I… we will protect them for you!”

Sety turned and looked at Selis.

“I cannot rest knowing the people of Alster will be in danger, Selis. Please let me go.”

A fiery resolve burned in his eyes. It was the same light that Selis saw in him when they parted two years ago, and Selis loved him so.

 

Selis only began to feel more concerned when Bishop Saias said he would warp himself to Alster with Leif, the knight and Sety. They had left Shannan in Manster with Balmung, and made sure this was well-known to the Thracian scouts. The bishop had come with them to Conote because of Yuria, and took every precaution to prevent himself from being seen. But now he was going to Alster for Sety’s sake, Selis felt a little guilty.

“Don’t worry about it, Lord Selis,” the bishop said to him after the meeting. “The city of Alster is under the Empire’s protection, so it is squarely within my duties to aid its citizens in the event of a Thracian invasion.”

“Will you be taking off the hood in Alster then?” Selis said.

The tactician laughed.

“No – I would like to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings.”

Leif had left with Finn and August to check on the people of Conote, and the knight saw Sety back to their quarters. So only the two of them were left in the war room.

“Speaking of Alster,” the tactician continued, “there is a further precaution I would like to take… I had not wanted to discuss the matter in front of Lord Sety.”

“You have a plan, bishop?”

“Just a back up that I hope won’t be needed,” the bishop smiled, “if it’s not too personal to ask – my lord, I see you wear a ring blessed with enchantments.”

“It was my father’s. Oifey said…” Selis paused when he came to the name, “… the people of Jungby presented him with it as a token of gratitude.”

The bishop nodded with quiet comprehension, and said, “Could you let me borrow it for three days? I promise I will have it returned to you, my lord.”

Selis wanted to ask why, but he took off the ring and placed it in the tactician’s palm, and said, “Of course.”

“Thank you, my lord.”

The tactician bowed and turned to leave, but Selis remembered something and quickly called after him.

“S-sorry, bishop – do you have just another moment?”

“Certainly, my lord, how may I be of service?”

Selis hesitated. Slowly he went over to the marble board and stared at it for some time, then he looked up at the bishop, who was waiting with smiling eyes.

“Did you… know Blume well, bishop?”

“I knew him,” the tactician said. “He was not the best of men, but not the worst either. In many ways he was a prisoner of his own ambition and vanity. He was cruel because he believed himself to be just. He married for love, though the same could not be said of his wife.”

“Did he believe the child hunts were just, too?”

The bishop sighed.

“It may be difficult to believe, Lord Selis, but I know personally that Blume never felt too comfortable with them.”

“But…” Selis objected, “he had it carried out all throughout Thracia!”

“Indeed. If you were to guess, my lord, why would you think that is?”

“I can’t imagine,” Selis said.

“If you were to ask my humble opinion,” the bishop said, “he was afraid he would lose his position if he did otherwise. Lord Selis, the same can be said of many others. Blume did not walk among the people of Thracia, nor did he care to, but the Loptous priests were around him, and they convinced him that he must obey them to keep what he had. All the others around him – like Reydrik – did the same, so he did.”

“Even when he knew it was wrong…?”

“Yes, my lord, though he may justify it to himself as right.”

“… and is this true of the rest of the Imperial army, too?”

The tactician stood up. Gazing at the marble board of mountains and rivers, he picked up the figurine of a knight who carried a golden banner.

“Everyone has something they are afraid to lose. For some, it may be power and prestige; for others, it may be honor; yet others, love.”

“They are not bad people,” Selis observed a little shakily.

“No, my lord, few are truly evil, just as few are saints. Circumstances made them into what they are, though this does not absolve them from their actions, nor does it absolve me.”

He put down the figurine and contemplated the board, his glance tracing lightly over the onyx river.

“Is it wrong that I am glad Blume is dead?”

The tactician smiled, “No, my lord. He is not absolved from his actions either.”

Selis bowed his head.

“I… Bishop Saias, when we started this war in Isaac, I felt like we were fighting to avenge all the people whom Danan had slaughtered and oppressed, and so, that war made me feel good, because the people welcomed us, and called us liberators. Here, too, the people welcome us and call us liberators, but I can no longer feel good about this war… Yet I know, at the same time, we have to continue fighting. If only we could do it in a way that involved fewer sacrifices, then perhaps everyone could live in peace afterwards……”

The tactician’s hand lingered over the board and came to rest on the table. He looked up at Selis, and smiled.

“That is true determination, Lord Selis. If one day we shall face each other on the battlefield, it will give me great comfort to die by such determination.”

Selis had just picked up a figurine and dropped it almost immediately.

“Absolutely not! If fate so decrees that our army will come before you, bishop, I would lay down my sword and take off my helmet, and go in front of your army alone, and ask you to have your knights and archers kill me.”

Selis heard that the tactician’s voice was shaking slightly.

“Why would you do such a foolish thing, my lord?”

“Because if you are taking the field against us, bishop, there must be a good reason. I don’t want to increase unnecessary sacrifices.”

The tactician closed his eyes.

“I will never give that order.”

“Then I wish you would preserve your own life just as you would preserve mine.”

The tactician did not answer, so Selis took a step forward.

“Bishop Saias, perhaps I am dull of mind, but you said earlier that everyone had a reason to fight… if you were to become our enemy, what would be that reason?”

As if out of nowhere, the tactician smiled at him.

“I apologize, Lord Selis, I must have been too tired that I am indulging far-fetched fantasies. I don’t think I will ever take arms against you.”

Selis felt his voice breaking.

“Why would you fantasize such a thing, bishop?”

“If I may so confess to you, my lord,” the tactician said, “there is no one in the world whom I love more than the Emperor, and not for the reason you might find obvious.”

It was the last part of the statement that surprised Selis.

“Why, then?”

“Because, Lord Selis, the Emperor is a high-minded man, and he desired above all to bring the continent under one rule, where all his subjects could live in equality, peace and prosperity.”

He cast down his eyes. Selis was about to object that the people of Isaac hardly lived in equality, peace and prosperity when he continued.

“ – But one realizes, of course, how pale such words are before the sufferings it has wrought.”

He stopped, and Selis knew the shadow of Belhalla weighed on him just as it weighed on them all.