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“Please tell me your summer months are almost over. Even this early in the day, it’s awfully uncomfortable.”

Leif glanced over at Ced. “You crossed the Yied Desert and you think this is hot?”

“That I was expecting,” Ced said. “It’s strange being in a country where the weather changes so drastically. For Silesse, summer simply means longer days and maybe warm enough weather to not need a cloak when you go outside.”

“I’m not sure I want to ask what qualifies as warm to you."

“He’d go out withoutta cloak when it was freezin’,” Asbel chimed in.

“It was never overly cold here,” Ced said.

“If you think it’s too hot, why don’t you wear shorter sleeves?” Tine suggested. “Or if your arm wrappings aren’t necessary…”

Ced looked down at the bandages covering his forearms. “Well, they were at the time.” Although curious as to what he meant, Nanna tried not to stare as blatantly as Asbel as Ced unwrapped the bandages. On the inside of his left forearm was what looked like an oddly shaped birthmark. It took Nanna a moment to recognize the shape from the symbol on the Crusader scroll Leif still carried. “I didn’t want this to give away who I was and wrappings seemed a more secure way of hiding it than just hoping my sleeve would never be pushed back that far.”

“Yet you still went around using a Holy Weapon and your real name, which also happens to be the name of a Crusader,” Leif said.

“And how many Thracians know anything about the Prince of Silesse?”

“Every Loptyrian and Bloom know a fair bit.”

“By fair bit do you mean that I exist?”

The two of them had been going back and forth like this constantly since their army left Manster. There was never any anger or animosity in their words, almost seeming entertaining to Ced. It was harder to tell what Leif thought but he wasn’t one to hide his anger or annoyance. As much as she liked seeing Leif talking so much with someone about more than just battle plans, they’d keep going like this until someone stopped them and they didn’t have much time to practice before they had to rejoin the army.

“What was it you wanted to work on, Prince Ced?” Nanna asked, raising her voice only slightly to be sure she would get their attention.

“Common magic,” Ced answered. “I’d rather hold off on trying white magic again until I’m certain I can tell my life force from my affinity.”

Ced had nearly collapsed with relief after Leif let him have his tomes back and he found he could still use magic. But the close call had left him wary and the closest he’d come to using white magic since was having Leif instruct him on how to find his life force. Nanna was fairly certain she’d seen him going over what Leif had shown him several times while they were marching and in camp. It was excessive but understandable.

“Then you’re gonna need a wind tome,” Asbel said. Although Ced did as he asked, Asbel frowned. “You’re not gonna use Forseti?”

“I want to see if what happened last time happens again with a regular wind tome,” Ced explained. “If it does, then I found a wrong way to cast it that no one else in the army has. If it doesn’t… then maybe there is more to Holy Weapons than we know.”

“Then you gotta do ‘xactly what you did last time,” Asbel said. “I can’t tell you anythin’ or I might mess it up.”

Ced nodded and Asbel took a step back to give him room to cast his spell. Closing his eyes to concentrate, Ced held out his hand. They all waited silently for something to happen. After a moment, Ced opened his eyes and a gentle wind blew towards the trees on the other side of the clearing, lightly rustling their leaves.

“It worked.” For a moment, Ced seemed to forget what they were testing as he stared at where his spell had hit, a smile briefly breaking through. But it was only a moment before he composed himself again, brief excitement gone as he turned back to them. “It felt a little strange but nothing like before, most likely this time was simply not being used to casting spells this way. I don’t think the problem was how I cast it, I think it was Forseti.”

“Try with Forseti again, to be sure,” Leif said. Ced nodded and switched tomes. Just like last time, he held out his hand and closed his eyes but barely a second later recoiled and dropped the tome, expression pained.

“It’s Forseti,” Ced said. “It feels as if it doesn’t want me to cast spells your way. But why?”

“Maybe the dragons don’t like magic bein’ used this way?” Asbel suggested. “Last time you said it felt like the spell was bein’ cast inside of you. Maybe ‘cause the power of it comes from the dragon in it, tryin’ t’ pull it into you affects the dragon, like pullin’ its tail.”

“That… could be it,” Ced said, frowning at the tome. After reading Galle’s journal and having the Loptyrian’s possession curse explained to him, Ced hadn’t brought up anything related to Holy Weapons again until now. It had been easier for the rest of them to consider and accept as none of them could use Holy Weapons. But Ced had been using one for years. Learning it might contain a dragon capable of possessing him at any time had to make him at least conflicted about continuing to use it.

“This method of magic does go against the sages’ teachings,” Tine said. “I was taught affinity is used to call the magic from the tome and with greater affinity comes greater spells.”

“As was I,” Ced said. “My teacher told me a mage was only as strong as their affinity since tomes have a limit to their power. But the ways I’ve seen you use it, casting fire spells small enough to hold in your hand to large enough to take out dozens of mercenaries at once… affinity still plays some role but the size matters much less than what I was led to believe. Why would the Crusaders try to hide this? Why hide anything? They saved Jugdral after centuries of anguish under the Loptous’s rule, the people wouldn’t turn on them for accepting help from dragons to do it. Blood magic may be frowned upon but those were desperate times.”

“They might have believed the people wouldn’t want to trade one ruler controlled by a dragon for twelve rulers also potentially controlled by dragons,” Nanna suggested.

“I could understand why the new emperor being controlled by the ruler of the dragons wouldn’t sit well with some people,” Leif said.

Ced frowned. “Are you saying the dragons did that on purpose?”

“I don’t know. It could be that or it could be that the Crusaders decided Heim should become emperor since the leader of the Dragon Tribe chose him. Or maybe Heim was just the best choice for emperor,” Leif said.

“But more than any other holy bloodline, the continuation of Naga’s has been treated as essential,” Ced said. “I overheard several of the rebels protecting my family and me in Thove debating why Emperor Arvis and Empress Deirdre never revealed if either of their children had the Brand of Naga. One thought Empress Deirdre kept it a secret from even her husband to protect the child from the Loptyrians. Another thought perhaps neither of them had it. If Sara’s telling the truth about Prince Julius, then Princess Julia is the only one who could have it… well, perhaps Lord Seliph but I think I heard he has Major Baldr Holy Blood? I don’t think people can have two types of Major Holy Blood…”

“I don’t think that'd work,” Asbel said. “If you had more’n one then the dragons would hafta share control.”

The mention of being controlled by dragons seemed to bother Ced but Leif quickly added onto Asbel’s reasoning. “It would be a risk to lock two weapons to the same person as well. They can’t use both weapons at the same time and if they’re the only option for both weapons, that makes one weapon useless. The dragons made blood pacts with the Crusaders to give them the best chance at defeating Loptous, they’d want to make sure that was still the case.”

“That makes sense,” Ced agreed, trying to assure himself of this less unsettling possibility. “There’s probably some condition they use to determine which Holy Blood stays Major and which becomes Minor.”

“Do you think there’s a similar condition for determining who inherits Major Holy Blood and who will only have Minor?” Leif asked. Nanna watched him closely, afraid of where this might be going. “Veld said people with only Minor Holy Blood shouldn’t exist but he was probably only going off of the terms of the blood pact Galle and Loptous made. The Crusaders and Divine Dragons must have had different terms to their pact but we don’t know how different.”

“If Veld thought any descendent of a Crusader should have Major Holy Blood, then Loptous’ terms were probably that every descendant of Galle’s would inherit Loptous' blood,” Ced reasoned. “He would probably want that to give his blood a chance to spread through Jugdral, giving him more people to control. From the little Loptous said about the Divine Dragons, they wouldn’t want to do that but since they knew Loptous would still be out there and could potentially return one day, they’d need to make sure their blood was passed down. There’s probably some conditions, maybe the firstborn child inherits it. That would be the easiest to meet and is what’s most often seen.”

Nanna shook her head. “The whole reason House Nordion had Major Hezul Holy Blood and not the royal family was because Hezul’s youngest daughter inherited it, not his eldest son. If that was the condition and it was already not being met in the first generation after the Crusaders, the blood pact would be so weak, it would have degraded almost completely by now.”

“It’s not that limited either,” Leif added. “Prince Shannan, Galzus, and Mareeta all have Major Od Holy Blood.”

“Maybe th’ dragons judge a person when they’re born an’ decide if they’re gonna give ‘em Major Holy Blood then?” Asbel suggested.

“But why would they choose Unc- Bloom and not my mother?” Tine asked.

“I don’t mean as a person,” Asbel said. “Havin’ Major Holy Blood would be pointless if th’ person with it can’t use the weapon that goes with it. Maybe the dragons can tell what kinda weapons a person’ll be good at usin’.”

“That still doesn’t explain why my mother or Tine’s didn’t have Major Holy Blood. My mother was a talented swordswoman and Lady Tailtiu a gifted thunder mage. If all it takes is skill with the weapon to be chosen, then why weren’t they?” Nanna asked. “Or Lord Leif or Princess Altena. They can both use lances yet neither have Major Holy Blood.”

Tine glanced over at Nanna, her comment about Tine’s mother seeming to make her at least a little happier. After Nanna told her their mothers had been friends and fought together in Lord Sigurd’s army, Tine had been more willing to open up to her. As Karin was landing, Nanna heard Tine saying she thought she deserved something, only to feel horrified at what Leif’s words implied and Tine’s questions to Ishtore confirmed. No one should think they deserved to suffer, especially as a child. She hoped Tine knew that now but if not, there were at least half a dozen people here who would do all they could to prove it to her.

“Then… is it random?” Ced asked, looking slightly horrified at the thought. “Do the dragons not care at all who ends up with their blood?”

“If they did, you think they would have stopped Julius from inheriting Loptous’s blood,” Nanna said. “How did he end up with it? Emperor Arvis has Major Fjalar Holy Blood and Empress Deirdre has Major Naga Holy Blood.”

“Maybe th’ Empress had an affair?” Asbel suggested. “Or maybe th’ Loptyrians made her have a child with Galle th’ Seventeenth’s descendant.”

“But if they had someone with Loptous’ blood, why wouldn’t they put him on the throne and give the Loptous tome to him?” Ced asked.

“And Prince Julius is definitely Emperor Arvis’s son,” Tine added. “I’ve seen both him and his father and they’re undoubtedly related. Maybe… the emperor and empress both had Loptous's blood but not enough to use the tome, like a Minor Holy Blood?”

“That would work,” Nanna said, Tine relaxing slightly at the support for her suggestion. “It could also explain why Emperor Arvis worked with the Loptyrians. Salem said he believed under Emperor Arvis, the Loptyrians would have a chance at being accepted by the world. Maybe that was because having to hide his Loptyr blood made him sympathize with them.”

“He definitely wouldn’t have been in any position of power if anyone knew about his blood,” Ced agreed. “But then Veld’s comment makes no sense. If it’s possible for Loptous’s blood to become weaker, why would he think people with Minor Holy Blood shouldn’t exist?”

“Veld said a blood pact with a god doesn’t degrade in a century but Loptous and Galle’s has been around for several. At the very least, it’s weaker than the blood pact the Crusaders made,” Leif said. “Both Emperor Arvis and Empress Deirdre had a parent with Major Holy Blood so the more recent connection of that blood pact likely won out over Loptous’s.”

“But the combination of two of the same kind of minor blood would strengthen that connection,” Ced continued, catching up to Leif. “That could give it a chance to win out against the Major Holy Bloods, especially if that connection is weakening.”

“But if this was gonna work, th’ Loptyrians had t’ know both of ‘em had Loptous’s blood,” Asbel pointed out.

“Maybe that’s where the descendant of Galle the Seventeenth comes in,” Tine said. “Maybe there were a couple of them and the Loptyrians had them go out and try to have a child with someone and one was lucky enough to have a child with the Duke of Velthomer.”

Leif frowned and looked away but he didn’t say anything. Even after all this time, losing Salem still affected Leif. He would have been extremely helpful right now but Nanna doubted that was the full reason why Leif wished he was still here. She’d seen how angry he was after learning about what the Loptyrians had to do to survive. After that, he was the only person who would willingly approach Salem and listened to his stories for as long as Salem would tell them. How Nanna felt about Tine now was probably close to how Leif had felt about Salem.

“That could explain why Lord Sigurd found Empress Deirdre in the middle of a forest in Verdane,” Ced said then frowned. “Of course that story came from my father as well so who knows how true that is.”

Nanna exchanged a glance with Asbel, wondering if he was also trying not to think about how familiar this felt. Fortunately, Leif didn’t notice, focus still on Ced.

“The stories your father told you and Fee, how close were they to the ones the rest of Jugdral believes?” Leif asked.

“Identical,” Ced said, rather darkly. “He has to be involved in this, that’s probably what he’s been doing ever since he abandoned Silesse. But why? Why lie to all of Jugdral? Sure he’s given them hope but the people of Northern Thracia have shown what happens to that hope when the truth comes out. Fee’s dream came from those stories, I don’t know how she’ll handle learning the truth. It-” Ced paused, not used to getting this worked up about something. “After we’d taken the tome from the Deadlord we fought, Eyvel said something to Asbel about people being raised to believe something that wasn’t true, having an awful lie drilled into them that made them act and think in ways they shouldn’t, ways that ended up hurting them and the people around them. I- I think that was what my father was trying to do with Fee and me; convince us to believe Lord Seliph was our savior so before we even met him, he’d have our absolute belief and loyalty, our willingness to do anything for him, even give our lives. And it worked on Fee. It worked on me as well. I always knew he was an awful father but this…”

“I- I know how you feel,” Tine said. “Learning my family’s kindness was false, that they only kept me around to be another soldier for them, hurt more than anything. I didn’t want to believe it, even before we arrived in Manster, some part of me tried to deny it. But after hearing that Bloom kidnapped my mother and me and how he used my mother’s death… I hate him, I hate all of them now.” Even though the words were meant to come out harsh and angry, neither her words nor expression came across as either.

“You don’t hafta,” Asbel said, slightly soft. Tine stared at him, a momentary glimpse of hope quickly being smothered by confusion. “Just ‘cause they did awful stuff doesn’t mean you hafta hate ‘em. They’re still your family an’ you said they weren’t cruel t’ you. They still shoulda done somethin’ t’ stop Hilda but you don’t hafta hate ‘em for it if you don’t wanna. I don’t think you should forgive ‘em but you know ‘em better than us. Decidin’ how t’ feel ‘bout them should be up t’ you.”

Tine looked as if a weight had lifted from her shoulders, letting out a shaky sigh. Even with this, it took her a minute to respond. “I… I don’t know how to feel about Ishtar or Ishtore yet but Bloom… I want to hate him. I want to stop trying to make excuses and justify his actions. I’ve been trying to but…”

“But it’s not easy to hate your family,” Leif said. “It hurts. A lot.”

Tine nodded then took another shaky breath. “Then I won’t think of him as family. He never treated me the way Eyvel treats you or Nanna or Mareeta. It’s like General Muhammad and Raydrik said, I was his pet... That’s what I was to all of them, wasn’t it? They didn’t treat me like family, they treated me like a songbird they put in a cage to sing for them.”

Tine’s eyes were starting to water but before anyone could step forward, she wiped it away, trying for confidence as she spoke. “I won’t be their anything anymore. Except their successor.” She reached into the pouch at her waist and pulled out the magic ring from Rosa’s mother, looking down at it as she spoke. “Amalda and the other knights think I could be a good duchess even though I’ve never been to Friege. I’m not sure if I can but I want to try, to honor my mother.” Tine looked up at Leif. “I’d also like to honor her by following in her footsteps as best I can. I’d like to learn how to use staves and swords as well, so I could be a mage fighter like she was.”

“Nanna’s excellent with both, she could teach you. Amalda would be happy to as well,” Leif said. “It doesn’t have to be me, I know you’re still not comfortable around me.”

Tine shook her head. “That’s why I want it to be you. I want to be more comfortable around you, to stop letting my uncle’s lies scare me. I’ve seen you fight and fought beside you, you’re not the monster Bloom made you out to be.”

“I used to be,” Leif said. “But not for the reasons he told you. I would never hurt someone just to hurt them.”

The harder insistence he made at the end seemed to catch Tine’s attention. Nanna couldn’t tell what she was thinking until her gaze lowered to Leif’s arms.

“For about a week after Hilda would… visit, I couldn’t stand to be touched,” Tine said, voice softer but somehow stronger than before. “Those aren’t from a battle, are they?”

“No,” Leif said. “Hilda uses magic as well, doesn’t she?”

“She had minor Fjalar blood so she prefers fire over wind and thunder,” Tine said. “It wasn’t often as I wasn’t worth wasting a spell on but sometimes she’d use a weaker one to make the skin more sensitive before she began. Never enough to scar but… I think she preferred that, so once a mark healed she could leave another.”

When Tine had told Nanna this, she’d stuttered her way through her story, even just the thought of Hilda still terrifying to her. She’d never heard of a crueler person, causing suffering for no reason other than her own enjoyment. At least after she’d been given control of Miletos by Emperor Arvis, she had been too far to hurt Tine so often. But if this was how she treated the people who were supposed to be her family, Nanna dreaded to think what life in Miletos was like for the people.

Ced had started staring at Leif’s arms now as well, reminding Nanna he hadn’t been there when Leif showed them to Travant. Leif seemed to remember as well as he pushed up his sleeve, causing Ced to inhale sharply.

“Amazing,” he said softly, quickly noticing the looks he was getting and elaborating on what he’d said. “Sorry, I just, I’ve never seen magic scars before. I knew they were possible but didn’t see how someone could survive with them when they require direct contact with the skin to be formed. I’d assume they were caused using common magic?”

“Probably,” Leif said. “Olwen said her brother told her about them so she’d know more about how these happen than I do.”

Ced looked as if he was about to ask another question but paused to reconsider, deciding against it after a little thought. “I could show you how to wrap them,” he offered.

“They go up all the way."

“Then I can show you how to wrap them all the way,” Ced said. “Even for a Thracian, it can’t be pleasant wearing long sleeves in this heat.”

“It’s not that bad,” Leif said. Nanna noticed his grip tighten around the sleeve he’d just pulled down and decided to step in.

“If you want to have any time to practice at all, you ought to get started, Prince Ced.” He glanced at Nanna, either seeing something in her expression or deciding on his own to drop the subject and nodded in agreement. She turned to Tine next. “If you want to learn swordplay, we’ll need practice swords. It’ll take Lord Leif and I a moment to grab them but Asbel can teach you a little about using staves in the meantime, if that’s alright with you.” Tine nodded and Nanna gave her a smile back before turning to Leif. He gave her a nod as well and they started heading back towards camp to find practice swords.

Nanna waited until they were out of the clearing before extending her hand towards Leif to see how he was doing. If the conversation with Ced had bothered him too much, he wouldn’t take it. After a few moments, he did, touch still gentle but enough of a grip it almost felt as if he wanted to hold on.

“I’m sorry,” Leif said. “I don’t like having attention on them.”

“And wrapping them would remind everyone of what’s underneath,” Nanna guessed, Leif giving a nod to confirm she was right. It was easy to forget about the scars on his arms with them covered simply by his sleeves. But if she always saw them wrapped, she’d always be reminded they were there, of what Leif had been through. She didn’t want that to be the first thing she thought of when she looked at him.

“You should be the one to teach Tine,” Leif said, abruptly changing the topic to something more comfortable for both of them. “She likes you. She’s even seemed happy around you.”

Nanna couldn’t help feeling a little pleased. “I hope she is, I hope she’s finding reasons to be happy. She was so sad and scared when she joined us and knowing how she’d been treated in the past, all I wanted was to change that, to find some way to help her.”

“You sound like Eyvel,” Leif said. Nanna paused to think about what he’d just said then laughed when she realized she did.

“That’s the nicest compliment anyone’s ever given me,” Nanna said, smiling a little after Leif did. But bringing up Eyvel reminded Nanna of something else that had been on her mind lately, something she only wanted to talk to Leif about. Seeing as they were alone now, this would probably be the best chance she had. “Lord Leif, what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a mother?”

“Eyvel,” Leif said without hesitation.

“It's the same for me,” Nanna said, feeling a bit relieved as she continued on. “Is that wrong? After… now that my mother’s gone, I feel as if I’m being disrespectful by putting someone else before her.”

Leif was quiet for long enough Nanna thought he wouldn’t respond. “It’s different for me since I never knew my mother. I always wished I did and even after I learned about my father, I kept wanting to believe she had been a good person. I still do, that’s why I still use her sword. She’s not less important to me because I have Eyvel now, she just… never had a chance to be a mother to me like Eyvel’s been. I think of Eyvel first because she’s been a mother to me and my mother second because I want to believe if she was still alive that’s how she would be.”

“We’re not so different,” Nanna said. “I can hardly remember my mother anymore. I remember some of the things she did, the stories she’d tell and lullabies she’d hum, how she used to hold me and how I’d cling to her skirt when I was nervous. But when I tried to picture her, I could only see her from the back, like I was chasing someone I could never catch up to. Until I saw her statue, I couldn’t remember what her face looked like. There’s so much more I’ve forgotten, it sometimes feels as though I don’t remember her at all.”

“If-” Leif started then stopped as if unsure if he should share his thought. Nanna stayed quiet, watching him in hopes that he would. “If you wanted, I could try to help you remember.”

“What? How?” Nanna tried not to sound too alarmed, clueless as to what Leif was going to suggest next.

“Down in the temple, Veld tried to pull out some of my memories. If I learned how to use black magic, I might be able to use it to recover your memories of your mother,” Leif explained. “But black magic can be dangerous to the person it’s being cast on so I’ll only do it if you want me to.”

This was something she never expected. “Isn’t black magic supposed to be extremely difficult to learn?”

Leif nodded. “If you’re not born with the ability to sense other people’s life force, it’s almost impossible. But if you want me to I’ll do everything I can to learn it.”

Nanna didn’t answer right away, dropping her gaze to look down at their hands. The scar on the back on hers matched the one on the back of his. It felt like a promise. This time he’d stay. This time they’d keep each other safe. There was even a chance they could be happy too.

“You have more important things to focus on than trying to learn a new type of magic just for me,” Nanna said, hesitating a moment before adding. “But for now, is there anything you remember about my mother?”

Leif turned to look ahead, the time he was taking to come up with an answer only making Nanna more anxious. “She didn't like getting up early, almost as much as Asbel. Glade let us into her room to wake her up once but the next time we asked, he looked scared when he said no. Whenever she came back from having tea with Queen Ethnia, she’d bring back one of the little cakes for you. I thought they were too sweet but you really liked them. She liked the garden a lot. When the weather was nice, she’d take us out there after supper. I’d run off but you stayed back with Lady Lachesis.”

“Because I wanted time alone with her.” It was little more than hazy outlines but she could recall small details, the setting sun causing the castle’s shadow to slowly creep up behind them, the scent of the rose bushes her mother liked to linger by, her tiny hand held up to be embraced by her mothers. She couldn’t remember anything that happened but she could remember how she felt, how happy it had made her just to walk with her mother.

“Nanna?” Leif’s call drew her back from her almost memory, free hand reaching up to her face as she realized she’d been crying. Knowing what Leif would be thinking, she shook her head as she turned to him, smile coming easily.

“I think that’s the first time anyone’s ever talked to me about my mother as a person and not simply praised her beauty and accomplishments as a Master Knight,” Nanna said. “That may be how they want to remember her but it’s not how I do. And please, don’t apologize again.”

Leif didn’t even have the decency to look ashamed for being called out. “After Tahra, you said you wanted to find your mother after the war, find out why she didn’t come back.”

“I know enough,” Nanna said. “And I mostly wanted to know because the only reasons I could think of were that she had died or that she didn’t want to, that she’d rather be with my brother than Father and me. I didn’t want either to be true but the second would have been worse.”

She felt Leif’s hand shift in her own, sliding his fingers in between hers in an attempt to comfort her with what little contact he was comfortable with. Even though the gesture was small, just him trying was enough for her.

“What do you want now?” Leif asked. Surprisingly, she didn’t have to think about her answer.

“A home,” Nanna said. “I’ve spent all my life either wandering or a guest in someone else's. I’d like to have somewhere permanent to live for once.”

“With Finn?”

“It wouldn’t be a home if I was by myself,” Nanna said as they reached the convoy. Leif let go of her hand to search for the practice swords among their supplies. It didn’t take very long, coming back holding three of them along with a Heal staff and a Slim Sword.

“You shouldn’t be carrying all that by yourself,” Nanna said, walking forward to meet him halfway. “At least let me take the Slim Sword and Heal staff.”

They were on top of the pile in his arms so all he had to do was hold it out for her to take them. She took the sword off first and attached it to her belt but when she went to reach for the staff, a desire she’d had before but always pushed aside popped up again. Barely thinking about it, she slowly reached forward and brushed back the few strands of hair that had fallen in his face. He didn’t say anything but stared back at her curiously. When he stared at her the morning he’d first taught Asbel common magic, he’d seemed so hollow, it felt as if he wasn’t really there. It finally felt like Leif was looking back.

“I can see Eyvel’s point,” Nanna said.

“It’s not that bad,” Leif said. “Mareeta’s is worse.”

That hadn’t been what Nanna meant but perhaps it was better he'd taken it a different way. “I almost didn’t recognize you in the arena because of it,” Nanna said as she took the staff and attached it to her belt. “Father always kept your hair short, I never imagined it any other way.”

“I didn’t do it on purpose, it just sort of… happened. I didn’t have any reason to care so I didn’t do anything about it,” Leif said as they started heading back towards the clearing. “Yours hasn’t changed.”

Nanna reached for her hair, suddenly self-conscious. She’d worn her hair in the same style for as long as she could remember, always letting her father cut it when he cut Leif’s. It had gotten a little longer before they reached Fiana but she’d quickly changed that, finding comfort in the familiarity of it. But now it felt childish, clinging to something so trivial for so long.

“It still looks pretty,” Leif said, momentarily stopping Nanna.

“Still?” Nanna repeated.

“Still,” Leif said. “You’ve always been pretty.”

He said it so easily, as if stating a simple fact. That’s all it was to him, no deeper meaning to his words. But it didn’t stop the small, light feeling in her chest from growing. She’d been called pretty before but it felt different coming from Leif, nicer somehow. Maybe it was because of how he said it, as a fact rather than a compliment. Or maybe it was the addition of always and exclusion of a comparison to her mother.

It could be either of those. But it was most likely because he was still pretty too.

“So apparently Rumei’s your new best friend.”

“Who?” Finn turned away from watching Leif talking with Prince Arion and Prince Ced to find Glade looking back at him. “I’ve never met anyone by that name.”

“He’s a Dracoknight you and Prince Leif caught working with bandits. I had to find out from him about Lady Lachesis,” Glade said. “Finn, why didn’t you say anything?”

Since learning what had happened to Lachesis, the only person Finn had spoken to about her was Leif and that had only been because Leif brought her up. He’d seemed bothered when Finn said he didn’t need to apologize but at least if he’d been angry, he’d managed to control his temper. But that was the most Finn wanted to talk or think about Lachesis right now. “There are more important matters at hand and you had preoccupations I didn’t wish to distract you from.”

“Preoccupations,” Glade said bitterly. “Black magic was used on my wife’s body to turn her into a Deadlord. That’s not something I want to spend time thinking about.”

“Then you understand why I don’t wish to speak about what happened either."

Glade frowned and for a moment, looked as if he might give in. “I already knew Selfina was dead, this was just an extra blow. I had my time to mourn and you were there for me through it. Now let me do the same for you.”

Finn wasn’t sure how to get out of this. He’d been dealing with Lachesis’s death by not thinking about it and would prefer to continue doing so. “I had my time as well. I’d accepted there was little chance I’d see her again after fleeing Alster. This was far more than I ever thought I’d get.”

“Yes, traveling through the Northern Thracian wilderness with two small children sounds like the perfect time to mourn your wife,” Glade said. “And little chance isn’t no chance. You don’t let go that easily. You certainly didn’t with Prince Leif.”

“If Leonster was to have a chance at being restored and Northern Thracia liberated, Lord Leif had to still be alive,” Finn said. “Lord Quan’s last order to me was to protect Lord Leif. Giving up on finding him was never an option.”

“Neither would giving up on finding Lady Lachesis be,” Glade said. “She was the only woman I ever saw you take any interest in, the two of you married almost as soon as she arrived in Leonster. Eyvel said you told any woman who asked that you were married when you were staying in Fiana. Still want to claim you had your time to mourn?”

“Glade, I appreciate your concern but I’d rather than discuss this," Finn said, slight irritation starting to creep in.

“I know. But I want to make sure you’re alright,” Glade said, voice softening a little. “Not the ‘I’m ignoring something that hurts so I don’t feel it’ alright either. Are you really alright?”

Glade’s gentler tone gave him away. He wasn’t doing this to force Finn into a heart to heart like Eyvel would try to do. He was worried, the similarities between their situations likely poking at still fresh wounds. Although the topic was still uncomfortable, for Glade he could give something. “I am. I could never dismiss her as dead but I knew it was unlikely we’d meet again. Now at least I know why.”

Glade watched him for a few moments as if looking for something more. Seeing this as a chance to direct the conversation away from their dead wives, Finn tried to think of his own question. “Why were you speaking with a Dracoknight?”

“He seemed fond of Prince Leif, I was curious as to why,” Glade said. “It seems to have become quite common for Knights of Leonster and Dracoknights to speak together nowadays.”

“Lord Leif… requested the Knights of Leonster make an effort to become better acquainted with Prince Arion’s Dracoknights after an incident on the second day of our march to Manster,” Finn explained. “I’m fairly certain the whole thing was orchestrated by Prince Arion. As soon as Lord Leif finished speaking with the knights, he apologized to Prince Arion and the two spent the rest of the night talking. It was the first time Lord Leif stayed in the camp the entire night.”

Glade looked back to the front of their procession. “Friendly Dracoknights is one thing but I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to seeing that,” he said. Finn didn’t need to follow his gaze to know what Glade was talking about but did so anyway. Leif was looking up at Arion, listening intently to whatever he was saying. Arion turned as Leif added his thoughts, smiling at whatever Leif said. They both had enough of their fathers in them, seeing Quan and Travant in their places wasn’t hard. “At Arion’s age, their fathers were trying to kill each other. I can’t imagine what Prince Quan would think of this.”

“Prince Arion has been able to offer Lord Leif the guidance he desires and has made a considerable effort to help improve relations between our people. Lord Quan would be grateful for both,” Finn said, purposely limiting his answer. He knew Glade was referring to the entire alliance but the only reactions Finn could think of weren’t pleasant. Travant had been his greatest enemy, considering even negotiating with him would have been impossible for Quan. But the world had been a very different place back then, having now become so desperate even Travant was willing to give up the ambition he’d before wanted to fulfill at any cost. If Quan were here, he never would have made this alliance but after seeing their successes, would he have chosen this over his dream of a unified Thracia? What would he think of Leif choosing this? Finn tried not to think about what Quan would think of his son for both of their sakes.

“And back to the brooding,” Glade said, nudging Finn with his foot in case that hadn’t been enough to get his attention. “I wasn’t saying I disapprove of it, even from the little I’ve seen of Prince Arion, he has my trust. General Hannibal’s a good man as well. We wouldn’t have been organized, let alone survived without him. He even took in Carrion and his mother and raised him after she passed shortly after. Speaking of, there’s something I’ve been forgetting to do. Carrion!”

At the call, Carrion ended his conversation with Robert and rode over to join them. As he neared, Finn noticed Hannibal’s son riding with him. “Did you need something, Sir Glade?”

“I have something for you,” Glade said, turning to grab whatever it was. When he turned back, he held a sheathed sword out to Carrion. “It was one of your father’s favorite blades. Your mother wanted you to have it when you became a knight.”

“F-father’s own blade,” Carrion stared at it in awe for a moment before coming to his senses. “Thank you, Sir Glade! I look forward to wielding it in service of House Leonster, just as he did!”

Carrion handed the reins over to Coirpre as he accepted the sword and attached it to his belt. As he took the reins back, he gave the younger boy a fond smile. “Masterful steering, Master Coirpre.” The boy gave him an equally fond look in return.

“Does Travant know about General Hannibal sheltering all of you?” Finn asked.

“I’m afraid I don’t know but if he asks, I’ll claim General Hannibal didn’t know my father had been a knight of House Leonster when he took my mother and I in,” Carrion said. “I don’t know if King Travant will be alright with what General Hannibal did now that we’re allies but after everything General Hannibal’s done for me, I’d hate to get him in trouble. I know I shouldn’t but I think of him as a father.”

“Why shouldn’t you?” Coirpre asked. “He raised you and cares about you, just like me. If you care about him too then what’s wrong with thinking of him as your father?”

“I don’t see any problem with that,” Glade said, turning to Finn with an almost challenging look.

“I know there’s no problem with it but I didn’t want to because I knew there was a chance we’d be on opposite sides of a battle one day. I longed to serve under the banner of House Leonster as my father did and reclaim our sovereign land but I was aware King Travant still held onto his ambition to unite Thracia under him. If he tried to conquer us again, I’d have to fight whoever he sent to take our home, even General Hannibal,” Carrion explained.

“But that won’t happen now. Prince Leif and King Travant are allies so you and Father will never have to fight each other,” Coirpre said.

Carrion let out a sigh. “Gods am I grateful for that.” He looked down at Coirpre and smiled lightly before plopping his chin down on top of his head. “I’m even more grateful I’ll never have to face you in battle. I wouldn’t stand a chance.”

“I’d knock you out before you could get close,” Coirpre said, lifting his chin to try and push Carrion’s head off of his. Carrion responded by sliding his chin down onto Coirpre’s forehead.

“I don’t recall seeing you at Castle Meath,” Finn said.

“I spent most of the time you were there looking for Prince Leif in order to thank him for saving Coirpre. Well, I didn’t know he was Prince Leif at the time otherwise I would have asked to join you. All I knew was that he rescued Coirpre and three other children taken in a child hunt, defended a village from barbarians, and scared one of the servants,” Carrion said. “I was also hesitant to approach you in particular. I could tell you were a knight but not where from. There were only three knights of Leonster who survived both the fall of Leonster and the fall of Alster and two of them were at General Hannibal’s villa. The last was Prince Leif’s guardian so wherever he was, Prince Leif would be as well… I feel rather foolish now for not realizing the truth.”

“It’s understandable that you didn’t. You’d never seen Prince Leif before and he was trying to hide his identity,” Finn said, the exclusion of the most obvious reason leaving a bitter taste in his mouth. Fortunately, no one brought it up although Glade and Carrion shared a look.

“He came to check on me that night,” Coirpre said, leaning forward to move out from under Carrion. “He wanted to make sure that the soldiers hadn’t done anything to me that I didn’t want to tell Father about, something worse than being locked in that room. They hit the other boy once but that was the worst they did to any of us.”

“Taking you at all is bad enough,” Carrion said. “I’m glad Prince Leif got you out of there before anything worse could happen. I don’t want to imagine the things he’s seen after doing this for years.”

Finn felt his stomach knot as it always did when Leif and the child hunts were mentioned together. He hadn’t been able to bring himself to ask about them again, to ask what the worse guards had done. Whatever they wanted was horrifying to consider, the vague openness allowing every cruelty Finn could imagine to cross his mind but the moment Leif said anything, it wouldn’t be just Finn’s imagining. He didn’t know if Leif would say anything either. He’d stared down at the table the entire time he recounted what his first time being taken in the child hunts was like, clearly uncomfortable and not wanting to do this. Even if Finn thought he could handle hearing it, he didn’t know if Leif could handle talking about it.

“Did he really bring down part of a mountain with thunder magic?” Coirpre asked, looking directly at Finn as if he could tell his thoughts had gone somewhere unpleasant. “He said they used my Warp staff to warp him to the bottom of a mountain so he could climb it and use thunder magic to make part of it collapse onto the ballista on the other side.”

“He did."

“Then if I learned thunder magic, he could teach me how to do that too?”

“I don’t think your father would be too keen on that idea,” Carrion said, looking slightly pale himself.

“He doesn’t have to know.”

Glade chuckled. “He’ll be even less keen if he doesn’t find out until after you try it. Finn here panicked when Prince Leif did it the first time.”

“I didn’t panic,” Finn said.

“No, of course not,” Glade said, rolling his eyes as he looked at Carrion and Coirpre. As the boys shared a small laugh, Glade lightly nodded his head to the side, indicating to Carrion to leave them. Carrion gave a small nod in return to indicate he understood.

“Why don’t we see what General Hannibal thinks about you learning magic? He did agree to let you come with us, it would be useful for you to have some way to defend yourself,” Carrion suggested. “Besides knocking us all out with your Sleep staff.”

“I could Berserk you too,” Coirpre added as Carrion led them away to find Hannibal.

Glade watched the two of them, expression slowly sobering. “Carrion said Coirpre was missing for three days. A servant returned with him on the evening of the fourth. He barely said a word and General Hannibal let him spend the night in his room, not wanting to let him out of his sight as much as Coirpre didn’t want to be alone. Looking at him now, you’d never know what happened to him.”

“He was fortunate to be rescued quickly,” Finn said, uneasy about where Glade was going with this.

“He was and so was General Hannibal,” Glade said. “Even though they don’t share blood, he cares for Coirpre as deeply as if they did. He’d never forgive himself if Coirpre had been harmed... especially if what was done to him left a lasting mark.”

Finn glanced at Glade and his friend’s shoulders sank. “Olwen told me what caused the scars on Prince Leif’s arms,” he said. “Is that one of the things he was asking about when he came to check on Coirpre?”

“I don’t think so,” Finn said, the words hard to force out. “Coirpre mentioned the guards hit one of the other children. According to Lord Leif… that’s a common occurrence with only some doing worse than that. Those scars are from the first time he was taken, a punishment for drawing his sword to try to keep them away.”

“Gods.” Glade sighed heavily. “Fred claimed none of the soldiers liked the child hunts but to take it out on the children… I'm surprised there's a sane soldier left in Friege.”

“You think that’s why they did it?”

“Well it’s either that or House Friege is full of soldiers who get off on beating children. I’d like to have a little faith in the world.”

Finn had never considered the reason behind the soldiers’ cruelty, unable to understand how anyone could willingly choose to hurt a child. But if it was a product of their frustration at being forced to follow immoral orders, then the child hunts were just as much to blame as the men themselves. It didn’t excuse their actions but it reminded Finn of Nanna’s argument, that cruel lords made their lands look cruel. Perhaps there was more to it than that. Perhaps cruel lords made their men cruel too.

Would he have done it? He’d been fortunate enough to have only served good lords but if he hadn’t, if he’d been a Knight of Friege or Belhalla, what would he have done when the child hunts were instated? Knowing what Leif had gone through because of them he never wanted to think he’d ever go along with them. But it would be an order from his lord, a wrong and immoral order but knights didn’t have the right to question orders. Even with that context, the thought of handing children over to their deaths still felt wrong. Maybe this would have been enough to change his mind, make him think like Nanna. Or maybe he would have become cruel as well.

“Nanna said something to me, that she believes cruel lords deserve to be betrayed and knights ought to reject orders they believe to be wrong,” Finn said. "I didn't agree with her but... could there be times when that's right?"

“Fred seems to think so. He believes that knights should step in to stop their lord if their actions are harmful to their land and pointed out that we swear ourselves to a house, not a lord specifically,” Glade said. “Well, excerpt for you but awkward shows of affection don’t count.”

“It wasn’t a show of affection,” Finn said but Glade ignored him and continued on.

“The Knights of Friege who have joined us and that are holding Melgln justify turning against Bloom by separating him from House Friege. Instead of seeing him as the house’s symbol and taking his beliefs as representative of Friege, they’re taking their beliefs as representative of Friege.” Glade paused for a moment. “It’s almost the opposite of what’s happening with Leonster. We all rejected the idea of allying with Southern Thracia but because Prince Leif insisted on it, we went along with it. He separated himself from the beliefs of Leonster and is trying to replace them with his own.”

“It's working with the Knights of Leonster,” Finn said. “With their growing closeness with the Dracoknights, they’re being forced to rethink their perspective and many are adopting a similar outlook to Prince Leif. They don’t go as far as denouncing Lord Quan as an evil man but they do believe he was wrong to want to conquer Southern Thracia.”

“At least they’re being reasonable,” Glade said. “Hopefully that will help the people of Leonster warm to Prince Leif and the Southern Thracians as well. We'll have a chance to see when we stop by Leonster before leaving for Silesse."

"Eyvel said she had something that might help with that, although she wouldn't say what," Finn said. "She was going to ask Prince Ced to help her with it and I believe Lady Linoan is involved as well."\

"Lady Linoan could vouch for the Southern Thracians," Glade suggested. "Perhaps Prince Ced as well? Or maybe she was hoping he'd vouch for Prince Leif. As the Prince of Silesse, he has no stake in Thracian politics so the people would have no reason to question him or believe he has an ulterior motive."

"They could believe he's only doing it in order to gain support to help liberate Silesse."

"Or he could use it to prove Prince Leif's care and generosity. You said his father was charismatic, if he inherited that trait then he should have no problem spinning this however he wants."

"I don't believe charismatic was the word I used."

Glade chuckled. "It wasn't. Although to be fair to you, I made you drink first. You would have only given a report of the battles otherwise. Instead, I got to hear you wax poetic about how beautiful and talented and graceful-"

"That's enough," Finn said, the embarrassment from years ago returning. He'd been the only knight Quan had taken with him to Chalphy and upon his return, all the knights he'd trained with had wanted to hear about what had happened. He had never been popular before and unsure of how to act, leaned heavily on Glade for guidance. Glade claimed having a drink would help with his nerves and while it did, it also made him share every thought he'd had, regardless of how disrespectful or ridiculous it was. The other knights loved it but Finn had been mortified the next day.

"Huh," Glade said, looking at Finn with mild surprise. "It's been a long time since I've seen you get embarrassed. I didn't know if you could anymore."

Finn's response quickly died as he recalled Nanna's claim. "Do I come off as distant?"

"Yes," Glade said without hesitation. "You have ever since we regrouped in Alster. At the time I brushed it off as grief, we were all affected by our kingdom's fall and struggling to come to terms with it. But over a decade's passed and when we met again, you seemed the same as back then. I was almost relieved to see you fight with Prince Leif in Millefeuille Forest, just because you were reacting strongly to something for once."

Had it been that bad? He thought Nanna was exaggerating when she said he came off this way to everyone but apparently not. "I don't mean to."

"I know. And that's why I kept pestering you about Lady Lachesis," Glade said. "I don't want this to cause you to close down even more. You're my best friend, I want to see you truly happy again. So for the last time, despite how annoying this must be, are you alright?"

After Friege invaded Alster, Finn thought he'd never see Glade again. The few Knights of Leonster that had survived their kingdom's fall had all stayed behind to help the Knights of Alster defend their kingdom and ensure Leif's escape. He'd heard later that the battle had been a slaughter, House Friege's much larger army easily overpowering them until the king was forced to surrender, the queen already dead and the princess' status unknown. When he discovered who was at General Hannibal's villa and Dorias confirmed Glade was still alive, that had been the closest to truly happy Finn had been in a long time. "It's not annoying, I'm grateful to know you care. I really am alright or at least this won't make me any worse."

"It better not. I'm not the only one who wants to see you truly happy again," Glade said. "Or in their cases, for the first time."

Finn's gaze wandered to Nanna, watching her smile as Tine laughed at something she'd said. Lachesis had made fun of him for how he'd reacted the first time Nanna laughed but that tiny, happy sound had been the most wonderful thing he'd ever heard. Even the times after that, he felt a small thrill from hearing it, knowing it meant his daughter was happy. It had meant the world to him and thinking about it now made him understand why Nanna had doubted him.

He never wanted that to happen again. He didn't want either of them to doubt he cared. What they wanted from him he wasn't sure he could do but if it would make them happy he'd try. He'd try to find some reason to be truly happy again.

Altena couldn't help staring. Of everyone in Prince Leif's army, Linoan was the last person she expected to find setting up her own tent. Yet here she was, kneeling on the ground as she tied a decent knot around the stake in front of her.

"Did you need something, Lady Altena?"

Linoan's question caught Altena off guard, leaving her slightly embarrassed. "No, my apologies for any rudeness. I wasn't expecting to find you like this."

"It's a way to pass the time before the war council," Linoan said, giving the rope one last tug to ensure it was secure. "It's strange. Now that we're so close to Northern Thracia's liberation, I'm suddenly quite nervous."

"You don't seem it."

"I've had plenty of practice hiding how I feel." Linoan stood, brushing a few strands of grass of her dress that was otherwise remarkably clean. How she managed to remain so composed, both in action and in appearance, despite all that was going on was impressive. "Perhaps it's because of our past victories that I worry about defeat now. To come so close and be defeated would devastate the people and give Bloom control of all of Thracia. Life would become much worse for everyone then."

"When you put it that way, I understand your concern," Altena said. "But strategically, we're in a better position. Bloom has been cut off from the rest of the Empire for months and now holds only an island with one remaining connection to the rest of the peninsula. He's cornered with the last of his forces while the Liberation Army has more than doubled in size and has control over the air. Because of your past victories, the chance of victory now is much higher than ever before."

"When a person's cornered is often when they become most dangerous. Bloom's shown he has no care for civilian lives, there may be little limit to what he's willing to do to hold onto his throne now," Linoan warned. "But this is enough talk of battle, we'll be doing plenty of that later."

"You're not fond of fighting, are you?" Altena guessed.

"I never thought I'd have to when I was growing up," Linoan admitted. "I only knew how to use staves when Tahra was invaded. But once the people decided to revolt and elected me as their leader, I figured I ought to learn something so I could help defend my city. My father told me my mother had been a sage so I thought I'd see if I had any affinity for magic. I still prefer healing to fighting but both are necessary right now."

"What's it like to use healing magic?" Altena asked, earning her a curious look from Linoan. "I recently learned a little about my mother as well, one of those things being that she used staves. It... made me curious."

Linoan stared at Altena a moment, making her worry she'd said too much. She probably shouldn't have brought up her mother at all but hearing Linoan connect her skill with magic to her mother made Altena wonder if she could do the same. As if reading her mind, Linoan unattached her staff and held it out to Altena. "Would you like to try?"

Hesitantly, Altena accepted the staff. "What do I do now?"

"You don't have to do anything. Like tomes, staves contain magic inside them although in this case, it's a channel of sorts to prevent whoever's using it from using too much of their life force at once. The magic used to create the channel reacts to white magic so if you're able to use it, you'll feel that reaction when you try to reach out to it," Linoan explained.

Altena looked down at the staff, not understanding what Linoan meant by reaching out to it. She tried to imagine some invisible force going from her to the staff but nothing happened. After waiting a few more moments to see if anything would, she held the staff back out to Linoan. "I don't think it's going to work."

"If she could use staves, then she could likely use magic as well," Linoan said. "It's commonly the case but not always. Still, if you'd like to try."

Altena shook her head. "She couldn't use magic, just staves. She did use a sword but those aren't the best weapon to use when fighting on a wyvern."

"I can understand why. Dean explained the Dracoknights method of attacking to me and it certainly wouldn't work as well with a sword's shorter reach." Linoan paused to think. "Perhaps you could come up with a new approach that's more suited to swords. All Dracoknights know how to use them, don't they?"

"We do but we only learn it to give ourselves a way to defend ourselves if we're grounded," Altena explained. "Not that many of us are very good at it. I don't think I could ever manage the footwork I've seen from the swordsmen here. I passed by two of them training and I swear their feet barely touched the ground. They moved so fast I could hardly keep up with what was happening."

"I know what you mean," Linoan agreed. "My father trained in Isaach when he was young since they're known for their swordmasters. He moved faster than any of the dancers at the summer festival, more gracefully as well. Lord Leif tried so hard to recreate his movements, he'd practice until Sir Finn dragged him inside, usually scolding his for wearing blisters into his hands as well. I'm not sure if he'd appreciate me mentioning it but when I watch him fight, I can see some of my father in his movements.

The mention of Prince Leif made it hard for Altena to focus on anything else Linoan was saying. Since she found out Prince Leif was the Ghoul, she'd gone back and forth with herself over whether and how she should approach him. She'd quickly found out that would be almost impossible in camp as he was rarely there, almost taking this as a sign she shouldn't approach him yet. But she'd gone back to wanting to after seeing him with Arion and Prince Ced during the march and the small group he returned to camp with in the mornings. Arion said they went out to practice together, Prince Leif teaching them his method of magic and how to safely use white magic. He didn't seem like a monster and no one here treated him like it despite all of them knowing what he'd done. Hannibal even let Coirpre be alone with him. She didn't understand why they were so accepting of him, adding one more frustration to her ever growing list.

"You still don't like him, do you?" Linoan asked, correctly guessing who Altena's mind had been on.

"How can any of you follow him?" The words came out before she could stop them but perhaps it was better to just be blunt about this. "He's murdered hundreds of men. Yes, they were all Empire soldiers but that doesn't excuse such underhanded, savage methods. They deserved to be fought fairly in battle not slaughtered inside their forts in the dead of night. How he even managed that is too disturbing to think about. How can you, how does anyone here think he's a good person, that he'll make a good ruler? Prince Ced has been a better prince to Northern Thracia than he has."

Linoan watched Altena closely, not saying anything for a moment. "What have you heard about the Ghoul of Thracia?"

"That he viciously kills Empire soldiers and is capable of breaking into anywhere, even military forts."

"Do you know why he did this?"

"Because he hates the Empire."

"No." Linoan's firm refusal shocked Altena, only able to stare back as she waited for Linoan to say more. "He does hate the Empire but that's not why he became the Ghoul. Everywhere he attacked was holding children taken in the child hunts. Did you think he rescued Coirpre on accident, just happened to come across the children and decided to do a good act?"

She remembered Arion bringing up Prince Leif's involvement in fighting the child hunts but it was hard to reconcile such a righteous act with someone as violent and vicious as the Ghoul. "Bloom didn't mention anything about that when he told my lord father about the Ghoul."

"According to Tine and Ishtore, Bloom dislikes the child hunts. If he admitted that was the reason behind the attacks, he might end up sympathizing with the person killing all of his men. It could also make others believe the Ghoul was justified or admire and be inspired by him if they knew that was his reason," Linoan explained.

The thought of someone being admired or seen as justified for this felt repulsive to Altena but even though she didn't want to, she could understand why some would, simply being glad to have their children safe. "But why did he use such horrible methods? I understand wanting to rescue the children taken, I would have wanted to as well, but why did he have to do it like this?"

"That's a question for Lord Leif, not me," Linoan said. "It's his past, he should be the one to decide how much to share and with whom. But there is one thing I can share with you. Lord Leif doesn't know about this, only one other person besides me does. What happened in Peruluke was inspired by Prince Leif rescuing a group of children from the child hunts. The people didn't even know it was him, all they saw was a child rescuing their children. But that was enough to make them realize they could find a way to save their children as well."

Altena couldn't remember what happened in Peruluke but she remembered Arion praising Linoan's involvement there and even Travant seeming impressed. That didn't say much for the morality of it but while she had plenty of reason to doubt Prince Leif's character, she had little to doubt Linoan's. "Are you trying to say you think he was in the right when he acted as the Ghoul?"

"I'm saying I think you should hear his side before you judge him," Linoan said. "Arion asked King Travant not to be too harsh with him but that should go for you as well. He gave you his word Prince Leif is a good person. If you value Arion's opinion at all, then trust him on this."

Altena bristled but before she could say anything in return, one of Prince Leif's advisors approached them. "Pardon the intrusion but a messenger has arrived for you, Lady Linoan. He says it's quite urgent."

"Then I'll meet with him at once," Linoan said before turning back to Altena. "For Arion's sake, at least consider it." With those parting words, she followed Prince Leif's advisor, leaving Altena alone with her thoughts.

As much as it bothered her that Linoan was using Arion against her, she had to admit it was working. Arion had been so earnest trying to convince her of Prince Leif's merit, he sincerely wanted her to give Prince Leif a chance. Any other time that would have been enough to make her give in but she'd been so caught up with her own feelings, she hadn't considered Arion's. When they were children, he'd told her younger siblings were the older sibling's responsibility. If he knew she was Prince Leif's older sister, he'd be ashamed of her for not stepping in sooner.

Although she knew he rarely stayed in camp long, Altena found herself outside the war council tent. Pulling open the flap, she was surprised how unsurprised she was to find Prince Leif already inside, maps of Conote neatly laid out before him. He lifted his head as she entered, lack of expression reminding her of the first time they met. But it felt slightly different now, almost softer, as if something was filling the emptiness that had unsettled her before.

When he continued staring, Altena realized she'd have to be the one to speak first. But now he was in front of her, she didn't know what to say. He didn't look like someone who could take out an entire fort by himself or had spent the past few years murdering hundreds of men. He just looked like a boy, a small, scarred boy, but still just a boy. The contradiction between what she knew and how he seemed left her conflicted on how to go about this. But he was often blunt so she opted for that.

"I heard you're the Ghoul of Thracia."

"I am." His calmness bothered her, sounding as if he didn't care what he was admitting to. He might not, with how little anyone else seemed bothered by this, he might think there was nothing wrong with what he'd done. That thought made it easier to go on.

"You shouldn't be proud of that. Rescuing children from the child hunts was a good thing but not even that could justify your savagery."

"I'm not proud of it," Leif said, the softness she thought she'd glimpsed gone. "It's just a fact. And what I did was the only way I could have freed the children taken in the child hunts. It may have been savage and unforgivable but I don't regret it. Stopping anything worse from happening to them was more important than anything else."

"You should regret it. How could you ever expect your people to accept freedom gained through such awful methods?" Altena asked. "The Empire must be defeated but the way you went about it was wrong. Nothing gained through means like that could ever be worth it."

"Because they're dishonorable? If that's the point you're trying to make, you can stop now. I've had this lecture enough times," Leif said, eyes narrowed into a glare.

Altena glared back, irritation rising. "Clearly not. Have you ever considered the reason you've had this lecture so many times is because people have a point? That you should care more about the decency of your actions? Do you think your people want their prince acting so barbaric?"

"My people want to be safe and alive," Leif said, just as irritated. "I'll do all I can to make that happen, that includes not putting myself at even more of a disadvantage by limiting myself with something as pointless as honor."

"Pointless?! There's nothing pointless about honor!" Altena protested. "Fighting with honor proves your character to your people and men, that you're a fair and honest person, worthy of admiration and respect. The Empire and Loptyrians may use cowardly, underhanded tactics but lowering yourself to that level makes you no better than them. The only way you should fight is honorably unless you really are a ghoul."

"I'd rather be a ghoul than dead." Something about the harshness of Leif's words cut through her own anger, giving her the impression she'd touched something she shouldn't have. "If I thought like you, I would have died years ago."

"You shouldn't have been fighting years ago, you're only fifteen now," Altena pointed out, although she'd lost some of her momenta. There was something wrong about his anger. It was too deep, too defensive. There was something personal about this.

"I didn't have a choice," Leif argued. "I couldn't just do nothing once I knew there were child hunts going on."

"Then why didn't you rally a force to fight for you? All you'd have to do to gain one was tell people who you were and they'd support you."

"No, they wouldn't. And even if they did, they wouldn't stand a chance against the Empire's soldiers, especially if they fought honorably." Leif spat out the last word as if he despised it. "They shouldn't have to be involved either. Protecting the people of Northern Thracia is my responsibility, not theirs. Any suffering my people are being put through is my fault and my responsibility to fix."

"How was becoming the Ghoul supposed to fix anything?" Altena asked, the rest of his words slowly catching up to her. "And did you just blame yourself for the child hunts?"

Leif's response never came as Altena heard the flap of the tent open behind her. She turned around to find Travant standing in the entry. He paused to look between the two of them. "Am I interrupting something?"

"No," Leif said at the same time Altena said, "Yes."

"It's not important," Leif said.

"It is," Altena insisted. She only had more questions than when they'd started talking and every one of them felt important. There was something Prince Leif wasn't saying and she wanted to know what it was. She was sick of all the secret, both the ones she had to keep and the ones others were keeping from her.

"You'd better figure out if it is or not because we need to start our meeting soon," Travant said. As if she hadn't been frustrated enough already, Altena was tempted to tell Travant to get out, to hold off the entire war council until she'd gotten her answers from Prince Leif.

"It isn't," Leif said. "We're not going to agree and I don't care. I'm used to being looked down on for not being honorable."

"That's what you were arguing about?" Travant looked down at Altena. "I shouldn't be surprised, given how many times you've started fights with me about it. But I thought you'd have better manners than to start a fight with Prince Leif about this as well."

"I just... want to understand," Altena said, feeling both ashamed and annoyed by Travant's scolding.

"Then perhaps you should listen to the other person instead of simply getting angry when they don't agree with you," Travant said, ignoring her glare at his unfair assessment. But he didn't give her a chance to defend herself as he continued. "Your ideals are pretty but impractical. You can try to live up to them but if you take anything from these arguments, let it be that not everyone else is. The standard you hold yourself to is not the same as the rest of the world's, sometimes for good reason."

The arrival of Prince Ced and Duke Dorias prevented the conversation from continuing as while Altena would have had no issue arguing with both Travant and Prince Leif, she'd rather not make a scene in front of everyone else. As she and Travant moved closer to the table, she was surprised to see not a trace of anger left in Prince Leif as Prince Ced moved to stand beside him. He looked so calm as the two of them looked down at the map, if Altena hadn't been in here arguing with him she never would have known he'd been deeply angry less than a minute ago.

Everyone else filed in shortly after. Arion took the spot on Prince Leif's other side, Linoan beside him with the advisor who'd come to inform her about the messenger on her other side. Nowhere else to go, Altena stood between him and General Hannibal as they looked over the maps of Conote.

"With the western bridge destroyed, the southern bridge is the only way in or out of Conote," the advisor beside Linoan began. "Which means it will be heavily guarded, perhaps on both sides but certainly on the Conote side."

"Sir Glade mentioned several armor knights were guarding the mainland side and mages on the Conote side," Duke Dorias added. "But more worryingly, the Gelben Ritter was able to arrive shortly after the fighting began. Bloom is likely using them to guard the border since they're the most powerful force he had left. They'll certainly be at the southern bridge."

"It would be reasonable to assume there will be ballistae there as well," Hannibal said. "The island will be covered in as many as Bloom could get his hands on after fleeing Alster."

"From what I saw just between Alster and Manster, that could be quite a lot," Arion said, leaning closer to the map. "But he did have limited time and only the eastern coast of Thracia to gather supplies from, perhaps less depending on how cooperative Raydrik was with him. He may have only the ballistae already in Conote with him, which will make things much easier for us."

"Fewer ballistae will mean he'll have to be strategic with their placement," Ced said. "There are three ways I could see him going about this. Either he'll put everything into defending the bridge, which means they'll be mostly if not entirely around there, he'll have them spread along the shores to shoot down any Dracoknight who tries to approach the island which means there will be few by the bridge, or he'll keep them around the castle to protect him which again means few by the bridge."

"We could send two small squads of Dracoknights out to scout the coast before the battle. If it's not guarded by ballistae, the Dracoknights can cross onto the island easily while the main army handles the bridge," Arion said.

"You should stick to the eastern side of the island," Leif said, reaching to point towards an area marked as a forest. "This would be the best place to hide ballistae and if they're the long-range ones, they could easily take out a good number of your men before they come close to the island." Arion nodded in agreement.

"If the Gelben Ritter is guarding the Conote side of the bridge, do you think we could get them to cross it?" Ced asked. "Otherwise getting across will be nearly impossible. The bridge is only wide enough for two people on foot or one on horseback to cross at a time. All the Gelben Ritter will have to do is sit there and pick us off one by one as we try to cross."

"If armor knights are guarding the other side of the bridge, they could wait until the fighting starts then join to reinforce them," Arion said. "But they'll likely only do that if the armor knights are winning, otherwise they'll be giving up the better position."

"How uniform are house brigades?" Leif asked.

"Extremely," Arion answered, looking confused for a moment. Once the realization hit him, he perked up. "The part of their forces we encounter when crossing the River Thracia all had the same weapons, a Rapier and a Thoron tome with the exception of their leader who had a Master Sword instead of a Rapier."

"Then we should expect the members of the Gelben Ritter here to be carrying the same," Ced said. "Except for their leader."

"Olwen says her brother uses a Dire Thunder tome as well as using both a Master Sword and a Blessed Sword. No one with low resistance or on horseback should go near him," Leif said. "Fortunately, what we need to get across isn't either of those things."

"Didn't Prince Ced just say it would be nearly impossible to cross the bridge while the Gelben Ritter is on the other side?" Arion asked.

"The keyword there was nearly," Ced said, a small smile forming. "Each type of anima magic is stronger against one type and weaker to another. In the case of thunder magic, it's strong against fire magic but weak against wind. Only two people can go across together at the same time but two wind mages should be enough to counter their spells."

"If I take the Tornado tome and Asbel uses his Grafcalibur tome, we'll be able to hold back the Thoron spells long enough for several people to cross and join us," Leif explained. "It won't be too many since we won't be able to move far from the bridge but it will at least be enough to put up a fight to keep the Gelben Ritter busy so more of the army can cross."

"Why not have Prince Ced help with this as well? Surely the Forseti tome would be incredibly useful for this," Arion suggested.

"The common magic method doesn't work with it, which is needed to cast a continuous spell," Ced said. "It will be incredibly useful afterward, as both of their wind tomes will be used up or extremely low."

"If your plan is to use wind magic, then why not use the Blizzard tome as well?" Linoan asked. "Its range is far enough you wouldn't have to worry about it affecting the other wind spells and it could take out Sir Reinhardt before the battle begins. The disorganization that would cause as well as the lack of variety among their weapons will make the rest of the Gelben Ritter easier to handle then."

"It's harder to hit a single person with a long-ranged tome than a regular one. If there are any men in front of Sir Reinhardt, he could easily avoid the spell," Ced explained. "Blizzard tomes give the enemy a warning of the spell's approach with the snow it creates. It could work but it's not reliable enough that we should count on this working."

"But putting Sir Reinhardt to sleep isn't a bad idea," Arion added, turning from the map to Linoan. "I could take you up with me and you'll be able to use the Sleep staff while out of the Gelben Ritter's range."

"The problem with trying to use a Sleep staff rather than a Blizzard tome is not only could I miss but if my magic isn't stronger than his, it won't work on him," Linoan pointed out. "I've heard Sir Reinhardt referred to as the second coming of Crusader Thrud. I'm not sure if anyone in our army could use a status staff on him without having their magic raised first. Even then, this would only be possible if there aren't any ballistae by the bridge."

"If there are, Olwen should be able to handle them as long as there's no more than eleven," Leif said. "Since Olwen's mounted, she'll be able to reach the ballistae more quickly if they're spread out. This way, she won't have to fight Reinhardt either."

Arion gave Leif a gentle look before returning to looking at the map. "We can do something similar to Manster and have several Dracoknights act as a distraction. That will allow Olwen to take out the ballistae without having to worry about being fired at."

"How many ballistae will you be able to distract at once?" Ced asked. "And how will being spread apart affect their effectiveness?"

"Depending on the number of Dracoknights we use, we could probably manage five at most. But if the ballistae are greatly spaced out, this won't be as effective. It will be harder for Olwen to take all of them out as well as once she's taken one out, the rest will start targeting her."

"With a little more practice, Tine will be able to use a Bolting tome. If she reaches that point by the time we reach the bridge, she can ride with Amalda and help take out the ballistae," Leif said. "They'll likely be on both sides of the bridge so it might be best to do this anyway."

"If we assume this is the scenario where Bloom is focusing on guarding the bridge, then the Dracoknights who cross away from the bridge could attack from the Conote side," Ced said. He gestured to one area beside the bridge. "It would probably only be reasonable to expect them to be able to attack the ballistae on the eastern side then but if Tine can't use a Bolting tome yet, this would be our best option for taking out the ballistae on the side Olwen isn't attacking."

"We know how we can handle ballistae by the bridge but what about this is the third scenario?" Arion asked. "What if the ballistae are back by the castle protecting Bloom?"

"Then getting across quickly is even more essential," Linoan said. "I doubt he'll burn Conote since that would trap him in the city with nowhere to flee but that doesn't mean he won't have another defensive measure that endangers the citizens. Evacuating them needs to be a top priority when we arrive."

"Asaello knows the best ways in and out of the city, the safest routes and hiding places as well. If his sister is in Conote, Asaello says she knows the city even better than him," Leif said. "We'll need more than just Asaello and Daisy evacuating people though so whoever else is familiar with Conote, Asaello can share what he knows with them and they can lead groups out as well."

"If he knows ways in, then we could start the evacuation before the army arrives at the city," Ced said. "A Dracoknight could bring him across or he could be warped ahead of us. That would give him more time to find Daisy and alert the people to our upcoming arrival."

"If possible, we should try to do that with everyone working on the evacuation. Conote doesn't have anyone like the Magi Squad so organizing and executing the evacuation is going to be much more difficult than in Manster," Linoan warned.

"But we can still use similar methods to keep them safe," Arion said. "To protect the people while they evacuate, we can have several Dracoknights flying in the areas that are being evacuated. We'll have them circle the area to not give away what they're doing but allow them to stay close enough to swoop in if anyone tries to attack the civilians."

"Tine said Bloom took only mages, priests, and armor knights with him to Conote. Aside from the Gelben Ritter, there may be no other cavalry in Conote," Leif said. "If so, then the worst you would have to worry about are wind mages which aren't common in Friege."

"Mages in general are a worry for most Dracoknights but they'll certainly be more manageable on foot and with only thunder tomes," Arion said.

"Except for Bloom, although after what Raydrik said about him, I doubt he'll be on the battlefield," Ced said. "That gives us a chance to choose who faces him. Even if the rest of his men are defeated, I doubt he'll surrender and with Mjolnir, he could wipe out a large portion of our army."

"Mjolnir doesn't boost magic, does it?" Linoan asked. Ced shook his head. "Then while it will still be dangerous, those of us with high resistance stand a chance at surviving a hit from him. That and the ability to use a ranged weapon should be requirements for facing Bloom."

"Why not use the Blizzard tome on Bloom?" Arion suggested. "Then no one would have to risk getting close enough for him to use Mjolnir."

"But we'd have to be able to confront him from far enough away to cast the spell," Leif said. "If he's going to be relying solely on Mjolnir, he'll want to be able to use it as soon as possible. He could position himself so he'll be able to attack as soon as he sees someone, perhaps placing himself somewhere where he'd be able to see them first. None of us know what the inside of Conote Castle is like so he could use that against us."

"Unless he's afraid fighting indoors will give you an advantage over him," Linoan said. "He's afraid of you so he'll likely go into this battle thinking you're his biggest threat. He'll try to base his planning around what he knows about you, which includes your aptitude at breaking into secure places and fighting in close quarters."

"Then he may be on the field after all," Arion said with a frown. "At least that will make the Blizzard tome a viable strategy. But it does increase the chances of ballistae being around the castle as well."

"We'll need a plan for how to take out the ballistae once the Bolting tomes are used up as well. Tina's trying to learn how to use Safy's Hammerne staff which could replenish the tomes but she hasn't mastered it quite yet," Linoan added.

Arion looked over at Prince Leif. "How much room do you think your knights would need?"

Leif paused to think before looking over at Arion. "We'll only be able to do this if there are a few and they're spaced out. Even two right next to each other would make it hard for them to dodge. Someone on foot could manage it more easily but they won't be able to reach the ballistae as quickly."

"By someone on foot, do you mean yourself?" Arion asked. "Can you counter the bolts with a regular thunder tome?"

"And a lightning tome," Leif said.

The pause in conversation made Altena realize how caught up in listening to them she'd been. They bounced off each other so quickly and easily, no one else had been able to get a word in. Altena was surprised Travant hadn't tried but when she looked up at him, she found he wasn't annoyed as she expected but seemed as if he was enjoying himself. He could have easily interrupted them but didn't because he'd been caught up watching them too. But now that there was a lull, he stepped in.

"I'll scout the bank with my squadron and send one of them back to you if we find it's unguarded," Travant said. "Coruta's squadron can guard the civilians as they escape and Disler's will wait outside the city to protect the civilians once they've evacuated. Do you think one squadron of armor knights is enough or should I have Maikov out there as well?"

"One should be enough," Leif said, turning to look back at Travant. "Bloom will want his men guarding him so there's less chance of the people being pursued than there was in Manster."

Travant smirked and moved forward to reach the map, Arion moving back to give him room. "After we scout the banks, I can take my men down to the end of the river then up along the coast. Bloom won't have put ballistae all the way out there so we'll have no trouble approaching this way. It will take longer but that works in our favor as it will allow my squadron to attack the castle from behind after the battle begins. At that point, any ballistae outside the castle will be focused on you without enough time to change direction after my squadron attacks. That should work better than you and Arion throwing yourselves at the ballistae."

"It would," Leif said, looking up at Travant. Next to him, Leif seemed so small, reminding Altena he was the youngest one here and one of the youngest members of the army. The reminder of her responsibility made Altena want to speak up when she noticed how relieved Arion looked. This was what he wanted, what he had been trying so hard to make possible. He'd spent months planning and working in secret, risking war with the Empire to aid someone he had no reason to trust, and knowing everything he was doing could be for nothing if his father chose to reject it. But everything had worked out and now that Arion had what he'd hoped for, she'd never seen him more at peace. For once, for Arion's sake, Altena stayed silent.

"Then it seems we've covered everything we can for now," Travant said. "Although there are a few things I'd like to speak about with just you."

Taking that as a cue to leave, Altena was the first out of the tent, wanting to get as far away from everyone inside there as possible. She had too many conflicting feelings to put a name to any of them and too many questions to think clearly about any of them. At the center of everything was Prince Leif, the Ghoul of Thracia, her brother by blood, Arion's friend. He was the most frustrating and confusing thing of all, almost making Altena wish she didn't know the truth about their relation.

"Princess." Altena turned to see Hannibal behind her. She'd thought she wanted to be alone but relaxed when she saw him looking back at her with concern. He knew more about what she was dealing with than anyone else and had been so patient with her after he revealed the truth about her parentage. If anyone might understand, it would be him.

"I don't know what to do with him," Altena admitted. "How can I treat someone like him as a brother? He's done such horrible things and doesn't regret them at all. He and Travant have more in common than the two of us ever will."

Hannibal frowned. "Does his past bother you that much you?"

"How can it not?" Altena asked. "How do you look past it or hide your disapproval if you don't?"

"I don't look past or disapprove of Prince Leif's past," Hannibal said. "When Travant told me what Prince Leif admitted to in Alster, the only thing I was upset about was that we live in a world where a child would be forced to go to such lengths."

"Forced?" Altena repeated. "No one was forcing him to do this, he chose to!"

"Your highness, I know you're upset but try to think rationally about this," Hannibal said. "What person would want to live a life like this, to constantly fight against terrible odds for a handful of children they were a stranger to? You would be choosing a life of endless violence with the only consolation you have being the children's survival. You'd sacrifice a great deal as well, the opportunity to have friends, a home, a family... no one would choose such a harsh, lonely life without something pushing them into it."

Altena took a moment to think over everything Hannibal had said, trying to only focus on what she knew and not how she felt. "He claimed his people's suffering is his fault and his responsibility to fix," Altena recalled. "But that's absurd. The Empire is the one oppressing his people, they're to blame for the suffering the people of Northern Thracia. And being the Ghoul wouldn't have ended his people's suffering, what he's doing now will. But now his people will have to come to terms with their liberation being built on savagery."

"Is that how you see him, as a savage? Did he seem that way in the war council when he assigned Lady Olwen a task that would keep her from having to face her brother in battle? Or in Manster when he returned Lady Selfina's bow to her husband and apologized for what the Loptyrians had done to her?" Hannibal asked. "You've forgiven Travant for his past savage actions, what's making you reluctant to do the same with Prince Leif?"

There was no judgment in Hannibal's question despite his own forgiveness of Prince Leif. Hearing that made it not only easy but comforting to answer him. "I grew up with Travant, I know he's a good man. And you helped me understand his perspective, how he convinced himself he had to go to such extreme measures for our people. But I don't know Prince Leif. I don't understand him so I can't be certain he's a good person and won't revert to being the Ghoul whenever it suits him."

Although he seemed slightly sad, Hannibal nodded. "It would be unfair to you to expect you to accept him simply because of a blood relation. But it would be unfair to Prince Leif to let your disapproval of his past actions prevent you from giving him a fair chance. You don't have to make any judgments just yet but for now, I'd ask that you give him the benefit of the doubt."

It had only been begrudgingly that Altena accepted Hannibal's explanation of Travant's perspective as enough of a reason to not hate him for everything he'd done. She hated accepting any use of dishonorable or underhanded methods. It made her worry about slipping into them as well, that by accepting them, she was slowly sacrificing her morals and pride until one day they'd be lost completely. She'd worried about the same thing with Arion with how unquestioningly he followed Travant's orders and had started pushing back harder against Travant for both of their sakes. He'd claimed she was the one who didn't listen but he was the one who never paid attention to her arguments, dismissing them without any consideration. That didn't stop her from continuing to try, refusing to give up on believing her father could be better.

Thinking of her father being better brought her back to when she'd found Prince Leif in the war council tent and the less empty look he had. She'd only been around him a short time in Tahra and at Melgln but even with that little interaction she could tell something was different about him. He'd reminded her of a doll before, only coming to life in his bursts of anger. But that resemblance was no longer there, something she hadn't realized until now. Those times when he was with Arion and Prince Ced or his practice group and she'd wanted to reach out to him, he'd seemed almost happy. He'd changed, maybe enough to be the good person Arion saw him as.

"At least this will be much easier soon," Altena said. "Travant said he would tell everyone the truth after Conote was liberated."

"He did?" Hannibal looked as shocked as she'd felt when she'd heard this. "Did he say this to you?"

Altena nodded. "He promised after Conote was taken he'd set things right, the way they should be."

But that wasn't entirely true. How it should have been was the two of them growing up together in Leonster, raised by their parents. She may have accepted some of Travant's actions but she'd never forgive him for killing her parents. But perhaps, like Prince Leif, he was becoming better too. Maybe this was his way of trying to make up for what he'd done, returning her to her brother and country after helping liberate it.

Her country. This was the first time she'd thought of herself as part of Northern Thracia. She looked up at the trees surrounding them, leaves a more vibrant green than any plant that managed to grow in Southern Thracia. Even the sky seemed bluer and clouds softer, as if the blessings of the land extended into the sky to make everything about Northern Thracia bright and beautiful. This bright, beautiful land was hers not only to be a part of but to take care of. Even though it had been fifteen years since she called this land home, as soon as she thought it, she could think of nothing else she'd rather do with her life than protect this land, just as her true father had. Maybe she couldn't find a way to connect with her mother but she had one to connect with him.

"You wanted to speak with me, your majesty?"

Since retreating to Conote, Bloom had become increasingly more private, refusing to leave the castle and limiting who he would directly speak with to only the highest ranking officers. He'd restricted himself even more to only his chambers and the attached study after the western bridge was destroyed, confirming his fear Alster would fall to the rebels and most likely Prince Ishtore as well. As Princess Ishtar's personal guardian, Reinhardt had known Ishtore quite well. He was more outspoken and passionate than his father but would have made a good king. His death was more than just tragic though as it left Friege in a very vulnerable position. For once the rebel's blockade was useful as it managed to keep word from getting out but once the rest of Jugdral discovered Bloom had lost his only son, Ishtar would have to act quickly to protect their homeland.

"Yes, come in Reinhardt," Bloom said. "Make sure you shut the door behind you."

Reinhardt obeyed, refraining from commenting on Bloom's haggard state. He was grieving and under a great deal of stress from the inevitable arrival of the rebel army, led by one of the most atrocious people in Northern Thracia, a little unkemptness was understandable. But it did worry Reinhardt to see the king so anxious.

"Have you heard back from the masons?" Bloom asked.

"They're still short on stone to complete the bridge," Reinhardt said. "But they should have enough of everything else."

"There's a village to the north of here. Knock down as many buildings as you have to for the masons to be able to start construction," Bloom instructed. "Did they say how long they think it will take?"

"About a month."

Bloom scowled. "That's too long. Raydrik doesn't stand a chance against the rebels. The Ghoul almost killed him on his own last time he came to Manster. They'll take the city in a day."

"There is Bishop Veld," Reinhardt said. "His Stone spell can only be undone by someone of Archbishop Manfroy's bloodline. If he can turn Prince Leif to stone, he'll be as good as dead."

"Relying on the Loptyrians again... I'm almost not sure who I would want to win that fight," Bloom said. "Damn Arvis for bringing these fanatics back! How the hell did he even manage to find so many? They were all supposed to have been burned at the stake years ago. They should have been, then we wouldn't be in this mess now!"

Although he agreed, Reinhardt remained silent. Ishtar's fiance, Imperial Prince Julius, was heavily involved in the Loptyr Cult and the biggest supporter of their actions. It had earned him the people's hatred and the title of the Scion of Darkness. But Ishtar loved him and swore he was good so Reinhardt refrained from saying anything against him. No matter his personal feelings on the matter, Julius made Ishtar happy and treated her well. For that, he would defend the prince until his last breath.

"If the bridge isn't ready in time, I suppose I'll have to do it," Bloom said with a sigh. He turned to face Reinhardt, something foreboding in his solemn expression. "There's something very important I need to ask of you. You're the only person I'd trust to do this."

"I will not disappoint you, your majesty."

"If the Ghoul's army makes it across the bridge, I want you to leave your men and return to the castle. Come straight to me and if the bridge isn't complete yet, I'll warp you across the river."

"You want me to flee!?" Reinhardt was horrified by the suggestion. "Your majesty, I could never abandon you or my men!"

"You will," Bloom said. "Because I'll need you to take Mjolnir to Ishtar."

"Take... Mjolnir?" The implications of Bloom's order left a knot in his stomach. "Your majesty..."

"Ask Hilda's man how to get past Melgln and head straight for Belhalla," Bloom instructed. "You're the best knight in all of Friege and I know you'll keep Ishtar safe. If I can only pick one person to survive this battle, I want it to be you."

He was expecting to lose. House Friege would be left with only Ishtar. "Your majesty, escape yourself. I'll send one of my men to alert you if they cross and-"

"I can't," Bloom interrupted. "The Ghoul is after me, I won't be able to escape." The fear in his voice made Reinhardt want to protest more, insist on staying to protect him. But they both knew Bloom was right. He was too well-known to be able to escape without notice, silvery hair characteristic of House Friege making him stand out wherever he went. Reinhardt had never encountered the Ghoul and looked plain enough to not draw attention to himself. As long as he hid that he was a Knight of Friege, he could be easily overlooked.

"Very well. In the unlikely scenario this situation occurs, I will ensure the Mjolnir tome is brought to Lady Ishtar," Reinhardt promised.

Bloom relaxed slightly, the closest thing to a smile he'd seen from the king in months crossing his face. "Thank you, Reinhardt. At least I'll have the reassurance Mjolnir and my daughter are in good hands."

"She already is with Prince Julius."

Bloom scoffed. "There's nothing good about his hands. I've no idea why my daughter is the exception to his wickedness but I pray that never changes. If it does..." He paused to glance at Reinhardt.

"My loyalty is to Lady Ishtar and House Friege."

Bloom relaxed again. "You truly are the finest knight. It's a shame I couldn't be a better king."

"There is no greater king in all of Jugdral. I'm proud to have had the chance to serve you," Reinhardt insisted. He loved his country and even if they hadn't always been in the right, he would never regret anything he'd done to preserve and protect House Friege.

"Even though I ordered you to conduct child hunts?" Bloom asked. "At least your record was outstanding enough you could be promoted beyond having to personally involve yourself in them quite soon."

He didn't mention it as he knew of Bloom's dislike of the child hunts but he'd found them little more than tedious. It was the same thing over and over with only slight variations on the rare occasion a parent or child was brave enough to try to resist. They were always easily taken care of but it was a break from the monotony of it and occasionally resulted in an interesting story to share. "I stand by my previous statements. I will never regret anything I’ve done in service of House Friege."

"Then ensure some part of House Friege survives," Bloom said. "Since we don't know when the rebels will arrive, I want you to go find the Miletian soldier now."

Not long ago, a man had appeared on the other side of the river, waving his arms and shouting until he attracted one of the soldiers' attention. He wore a Miltiean uniform and claimed to have come with a message from Queen Hilda. They'd warped him across and after his message had been delievered, he offered to stay and help fight, admitting his fear of Hilda made him dread going back.

"I'll locate Sir Fergus at once," Reinhardt said, giving Bloom a small bow before turning to leave. But before he could open the door, Bloom spoke again.

"I heard your sister was the one who destroyed the bridge. That she's defected to join the rebels."

Reinhardt was grateful his face was turned away from Bloom. When he heard Dandrum Fortress had collapsed, he thought he'd lost Olwen. There was no word of any survivors and the rebel army appeared in Tahra shortly after, making it very likely they were involved with it. They had to be for Olwen to be with them now. Even though she was with them and had just destroyed the bridge connecting Conote to Leonster, seeing her alive had been the greatest relief of his life. But no one else felt the same.

"Olwen is little more than a child. I'm certain she's being deceived by the enemy, somehow," Reinhardt said. "If I can just speak to her, I know I can bring her back to her senses."

"And if you can't?"

He could, he knew it. Olwen was his little sister, she would listen to him and realize the mistake she'd made joining the rebels. She would feel ashamed over being tricked for so long and probably expect him to be angry with her. But all he cared about was that she came back so he could protect her properly this time. After believing he'd lost her once, he couldn't bear the thought of losing her again, this time for good.

But that wasn't the answer Bloom wanted. He was too anxious right now and needed reassurance the people around him were strong, Reinhardt most of all. He'd put more trust in him than anyone else, Reinhardt couldn't afford to let his king down now.

"Then I will strike her down myself."