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Wolves of the North

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“You know what’s strange?”

Christa jumped, looking away from the inn’s main fireplace and the glowing embers therein. Annie sat down next to her on the floor, hands in her shirt pocket.

“What?” Christa asked in turn.

“The fact that you know Adhara is worried about you being nervous, but you’re not upstairs with her and Ymir right now.”

Christa sighed, tapping her thumbs on her knees. “I know. I’m not sure how to deal with it.”

“You can focus on the fact that we’re meeting with Zackly and Dok tomorrow and we need to look confident. Which you should be.”

For a time, she was silent. She smiled, pulling her legs up to hold them loosely. “Do you remember what you told me when we first met? You said I wouldn’t be able to win the war for my father.”

“Technically, I’m still right. You’re winning it for us. For your daughter. Who, by the way, is sad that her mother is stressed out.”

She gently slapped Annie’s shoulder. “Stop being so good at making me feel guilty.”

“I will when you stop having a reason to feel guilty.” When Christa pouted, she rolled her eyes and put an arm around her shoulders. Squeezing once, she quietly asked, “Are you worried about what Reiss will think of Adhara?”

“Well…a little bit, yes.” She sighed, looking at the fireplace. “It’s like I still want him to be proud of me. How ridiculous is that? After all this, I’m still a stupid little girl.”

“What’s stupid about wanting your parents to be proud of you? It’ll just take time for you to get past caring about his opinion. In any case, he has every reason to be proud of you. His daughter was instrumental in saving countless lives, wolves and humans, helped a number of people find happiness, and has a pack all her own that loves her more than he could ever understand.”

She tipped her head to rub against Christa’s. “So I think if you go to meet him with that in mind, it’ll be easier. That, or thinking about breaking his nose.”

Christa laughed. “All right, fine. Let’s go upstairs for the night.” She stood first, helping Annie to her feet. As they climbed the stairs, they heard pacing footsteps of small feet. Adhara was awake, roaming the hallway in front of their rooms.

“Adhara, what’re you doing up?” Annie asked. “It’s late, especially for pups.”

“Mommy wasn’t there when I woke up,” Adhara said. “So I wanted to wait until she came back, ‘cause I’m not allowed downstairs by myself.” Looking anxious, she turned to Christa and asked, “Are you okay?”

She went to Adhara immediately, kneeling down to meet her gaze. “I am, sweetheart. I’ve just been nervous about who we’re going to meet soon.”

“The other army people?”

“No, not exactly.” She stood, picking Adhara up. “Say good night to Annie and I’ll explain in our room.”

Adhara waved at Annie. “Good night.”

Annie waved as she turned to go. “Good night, you two.”

Christa waved as well before carrying Adhara back into their room and closing the door. Ymir was on the bed, fast asleep and drooling slightly.

“Did you get outside without waking Mama up?”

“Uh huh.”

She laughed quietly. “Now I know how you catch so many foxes on your own.” She sat down on the bed, back against the headboard so she could hold Adhara in her lap. She combed Adhara’s hair with her fingers, slow and soothing, but Adhara still tugged on her shirt.

“Who’re you worried about meeting?” she asked.

Christa chewed on the inside of her cheek for a few seconds. “My…father.”

Adhara looked up at her properly. “That’s the word for a parent who’s a boy, right?”

“Right.”

“How come you’re worried, then? Is he mean?”

Christa sighed through her nose. “That’s a polite way to say it.”

Shock made Adhara’s mouth fail for a moment. She tugged on Christa’s shirt again. “You mean to other people. He’s…he isn’t mean to you, right?”

She went silent at the way Adhara stared at her, green eyes wide and pleading. Her silence, in turn, made Adhara go still, hand closed in her shirt. Christa swallowed and took Adhara’s small hand to hold.

“In the south,” she said, “there’s something called ‘marriage.’ It’s you and your mate making a promise to be together and be faithful. Children who are born to parents who aren’t married are called ‘bastards.’ My father wasn’t married to my mother, so I’m his bastard.”

“But so what?” Adhara said in protest. “You and Mama aren’t this ‘married’ thing, so then I’m a—”

Christa put her hand over Adhara’s mouth, swift but gentle. “You’re not a bastard at all. We wanted you. You’re our daughter, our Adhara, and we want people to know that. We’re proud of you and we love you. But bastards in the south aren’t really wanted because they’re not considered ‘real’ children. Bastards don’t inherit family names, and people see them as shameful.” She could smell that Ymir had woken up, but she spoke before she could stop herself. “And that’s why the king sent me to the north in the first place—he wanted me to never come back.”

Nothing had made Adhara cry faster than the way Christa choked on her words with tears in her eyes. She buried her face in Christa’s chest, shaking with uneven breaths. Christa held her close, but did not shush her. Her chest ached too much to try. It left her able to hear Adhara’s furious sobs.

“I hate him!” Adhara said. “He’s mean ’n’ evil and I hate him! You wanted me, so why didn’t he want you? Parents should love their kids and I hate him for being mean to you!”

Christa said nothing. She hid her face in Adhara’s hair and began to cry openly. Her tears had barely reached Adhara’s hair before Ymir had sat up and pulled both of them into her arms.

“Hey,” Ymir crooned, nuzzling their hair. “It’s all okay.” She touched Adhara’s chin. “Adhara, look at me, okay?”

Sniffing weakly, face twisted, she looked up.

“Know what’s really great about your mom?” Ymir said. When Adhara shook her head, uncertain, she said, “She didn’t turn out like him at all. You know she loves you and she’d never send you away. And I wouldn’t either. And, Adhara, you love us, right?”

She wiped at her face and said, “Uh huh.”

“Then her dad doesn’t matter. He’s not really even her dad anymore. We have our family and our pack—we all make up for him being an evil jerk. Don’t worry about him, okay?” When Adhara said nothing, she kissed her forehead. “Okay? It’s nothing to be worried about.”

“Promise?”

Christa wiped away the rest of Adhara’s tears. “We both promise. I’m sorry I made you cry, Adhara. I really will be okay.”

She sniffed properly. “You look funny when you cry.”

Christa smiled and pressed on Adhara’s nose. “You should see Mama when she cries.”

“Mama cries?” Adhara asked in a hushed voice.

“No I don’t,” Ymir said, waving a hand.

Adhara sniffed. “You smell like you’re lying, Mama.”

“You can’t tell that when you’re still little.”

“Yes I can! Matvey taught me how lying smells!”

Ymir rolled her eyes. “Thanks, Annie. Fine, yes, I lied. Everybody cries, kiddo. Now we need to get to sleep because you smell wiped out.”

Adhara hid her face in Christa’s chest. “‘Kay.”

Ymir leaned down to murmur in Christa’s ear. “You too. It’ll be okay, don’t worry.”

Christa nodded, saying nothing as she wiped her eyes. She kissed Ymir good night, all of them curling up to sleep. Adhara fell asleep first, but not before mumbling, “Love you.”

In unison, Ymir and Christa replied, “Love you, too.”

————

Never had a man looked more uncomfortable upon meeting fellow guests as did Nile Dok. He flinched visibly when Reiner offered his hand in greeting, but took a deep breath and shook politely. Darius Zackly did not flinch or grimace in the slightest, only looking deeply weary as he shook Reiner and Ymir’s hands. He looked at Mikasa with a raised brow.

“Ackerman, isn’t it?” he said.

“Yes sir.”

“You have my gratitude for keeping your sympathy for southern soldiers despite all of this.” He gave her his hand. “Thank you for not looking for revenge.”

She shook. “Thank you for meeting with us, especially in your second home outside the walls.”

“It’ll work out in the end. Come along.” He paused on seeing the pups. “The little ones can join us in the library and read while we talk.”

They all followed him, the southern soldiers and northern majors taking up guard positions when they were in the library. While most of the adults sat in the armchairs clustered around a low table, Ymir perched herself on the arm of one chair to give the pups a place to sit with their books.

“So,” Zackly said, rolling up the sleeves of his shirt, “General Dok and I have both read through the terms Erwin sent before you arrived. Nile, what did you think?”

“They’re…fair.”

Pyxis chuckled. “Ever the fussy one.”

Nile sighed noisily, running a hand through his hair. “Forgive me for being cautious. The southern divisions have been preparing for a worst case scenario for the better part of the last year. And here you and Smith come waltzing in with the wolves to get us to surrender peacefully, no blood-soaked strings attached. It feels strange, in all honesty.”

“I must admit that I’m surprised as well,” Zackly said, turning to Ymir. “You continued the war after taking the throne. It seemed like you were just as hellbent on striking at the south as the wolf king. Why the change?”

“The bastard’s dead and Mikasa is with us now,” Ymir said with a shrug. “You’re no longer a threat, and I don’t feel like continuing a war that won’t get us anything. In any case, the north wants the fighting to stop. I have to take that into consideration.”

Zackly nodded slowly, stroking his white beard. “Fair point. It’s much the same for us. Considering the greater good of our soldiers and my country brings us to only one conclusion. I willing surrender to you. I will give the order for the south to stand down.”

Dok sighed again. “I don’t really have a choice, now do I? It’s not like anyone in my divisions wants to get killed.” He looked away and mumbled, “Not like I want my family to get killed.”

“Then we’re in agreement?” Erwin asked.

Dok stared at the floor, but lifted his head. “Yes. I also willingly surrender. I’ll take you through Sina to get to Reiss safely.”

Christa stood up, moving to the other side of the table to Dok and Zackly. She took a fountain pen and the rolled-up instrument of surrender from the satchel she wore, setting both on the table. Though Zackly signed it after only a cursory read through, Dok sat staring at Christa.

“So you’re her,” Dok said. “The girl who causes the king so much grief. The men I’ve stationed in the castle say Reiss hasn’t even said your name since you left two years ago—even when citizens of Trost came to ask about you.”

“How unfortunate,” Christa said. “I won’t have any reason at all to believe him if he says he missed me.”

He winced at the chill in her voice. He cleared his throat as he signed the document, and sat still while she took the pen back. He chuckled amiably as she put both pen and paper away. “I bet he regrets getting on your bad side now.”

“Nile,” Erwin said, a warning in his voice.

He cleared his throat again. “Sorry.”

“Just get us in and out of the palace,” Christa said. “We’ll be on our way as soon as possible after that.”

“Yes ma’am,” he said. “Here, let’s go over the route now. Commander, do you have a map of Sina in here?”

“The one in the large drawer on my writing table has street layouts and reaches to my home.”

Dok stood, fetching the folded map and laying it out on the table. He began to trace a path with his hands, speaking as he went. “We’re currently here, three miles from a military-restricted gate into Sina. The only people who have authorization to use this gate are the commander, Smith, Pyxis, and myself, as well as anyone with us or our orders. I would strongly urge that a limited number of people use this gate, and the wolves you have traveling with you wait for a signal to enter civilian gates.”

“What signal?” Annie asked. “If we howl, it’ll make people panic.”

“We’ll sound the bells,” Christa said.

“Say again?” Reiner asked.

“There are a large number of bells in the palace church,” Zackly said. “When those bells are rung, the church in the center of Sina will also ring their bells. You can hear both sets past the walls, and it’s used as a signal for people to come to the palace. It’ll be the best way to bring people to us for an announcement about the end of the war.”

Mikasa looked closely at the map. “Is the gate that close to the palace? It barely looks like it’s five hundred feet from the palace entrance.”

“It’s to ensure that loyal military aid can reach the king quickly,” Dok said.

“Works for me,” Reiner said.

“Ian, Mitabi, you and eight wolves will come with us through the gate,” Mikasa said. “Nanaba, Eld, there are six other gates in Sina’s walls. Split yourself and the hundred wolves we brought here between the gates and wait for the bells.”

“Are we doing this today?” Zackly asked. “You all arrived earlier than I expected. It’s not even midday yet.”

The wolves looked at Christa, Adhara quickly looking up from the book she had chosen. Christa looked back at each of them, stopping when she looked at Ymir and Adhara. She swallowed and looked to Nanaba and Eld.

“How long will it take for you to get everyone into position?” she asked.

They both snapped a salute, and Nanaba said, “Give us one hour and we’ll be ready.”

She went still.

“It’s your call,” Mikasa said.

Christa closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Just loud enough to be heard, she said, “Please get the wolves to the gates and wait for the bells.”

“Yes ma’am!” they said in unison, and they hurried out of the library. For a long time after that, no one spoke or shifted. Adhara broke the stillness by going to Christa and hugging her around the waist. Christa stroked her hair.

“I’ll be okay,” she whispered.

“‘Kay,” Adhara said, but she held tighter all the same.

“We should move out in the next ten minutes,” said Dok. “We’re in a sparsely populated area, so it shouldn’t be a problem to stay relatively close together while we get to the wall.”

“Let’s have you and Commander Zackly in front,” Reiner said. “Christa will walk with you. Ymir and I will be next, the pups in the middle, Annie and Mikasa after them, and Generals Erwin and Pyxis will be in the rear. Guards will be spread around us.”

“Commander, are there any events going on today?” Erwin asked. “Military or civilian?”

“No, it’s just a standard weekday.”

“What’s the military presence at the moment?“ Mikasa asked.

“Five squads of fifteen military police patrolling through Sina,” Dok said, “and three more in the castle itself. They’ll all stand down on my order.”

“It looks like we’re set, then,” Annie said. “Mina should’ve gotten back to the palace by now.”

Dok’s mouth fell open. “Who’s Mina?”

Annie smirked. “A wolf spy who works in the palace when she’s in Sina.”

He went bone-pale. “You—have a spy there?” Before anyone could speak, he waved his hands and said, “No, forget it, we’re already surrendering and I don’t want to know how bad it was. Come on, let’s get this done with.”

They all stood, Matvey and Ginko putting the books on the table in a neat stack. Before they left, Ymir double checked every wolf’s ears to ensure they appeared human. She picked Adhara up, putting her on her shoulders to give her a better view. The air was warm, kept cool with steady breezes from the east. Sina was to the west, and farmlands stretched out to the east along a river that wound away further south.

No one in the fields paid any attention to them, and there was no one on the road to see them. Christa kept her strides long to match Dok and Zackly at her sides, glancing over her shoulder regularly to check on Adhara. The sight of the great walls had enraptured Adhara, Matvey, and Ginko, and they were very quiet as they approached the gate. A man wearing a sword on his belt jogged out to greet them, saluting when he was close.

“Officer Cadet Marlowe Freudenberg, isn’t it?” Dok asked.

“Sir, yes sir!” Marlowe said. “Forgive my ignorance, sir, but I wasn’t aware that you’d be coming to Sina today.”

“I didn’t send notice,” Dok said, “and for a good reason.”

Marlowe looked at him, uncertainty filling his face. “Sir?”

“We need you to open the gate,” Dok said. “It’s absolutely vital that everyone with us gets to the palace without being stopped.”

Marlowe looked past him. His mouth opened slightly, eyes widening. Quietly, he asked, “Is this the end?”

“Yes,” Zackly said, “and you and the solider on the other side of the gate are critical in making sure this ends without bloodshed. Open the gate and raise no alarms, Officer. We’re surrendering peacefully.”

He bit his lip, inhaled deeply, and saluted them once more. “Sir, yes sir! Give us a moment to open the gate!” He jogged ahead, and when they arrived the gate was already beginning to rise. The soldier on the other side saluted them as they came through. Though his face was pale, his eyes were hopeful. As she passed, Christa heard him whisper, “Thank you.”

“Nice and quiet now, all right?” Annie murmured to Matvey and Ginko. “No attention on us until we’re inside.”

“Yes Mama,” they whispered back.

“Doing okay?” Ymir asked, patting Adhara’s leg.

“Uh huh,” Adhara said, hands in Ymir’s hair. “But it smells weird here.”

“Lots more people live here than Utgard,” Reiner said. “Hang on a bit longer.”

“‘Kay.”

Dok and Zackly led them through streets that had less traffic on them, steady and aimed unerringly toward the palace. Christa stared up at it as they drew closer, barely able to remember the marble pillars and fresco paintings high on the walls. Her heart felt heavy in her chest, and it grew worse and worse the closer they drew to the main entrance. Guards at the doors came into view; her fingers grew cold enough to ache. Dok ordered the guards to stand down, and they did so with only slight hesitation.

“General Dok, sir,” one man hissed before he closed the door behind them.

The man looked at his fellows, swallowing when they nodded. “King Reiss is currently meeting with a noblewoman protesting the war, sir. They’re in the throne room.”

“Find me when this is over,” Dok said. “You can have an extra month of leave if you want.”

The soldiers saluted them as they headed out. Zackly took the lead, and Christa followed a pace behind. Painful shivers went up and down her legs as she recognized where they were. When they arrived outside the throne room, she was grateful that Zackly gestured for them to stop while he went to the guards. Ymir knelt down next to her, setting Adhara on her feet so she could hug Christa around the waist.

“You’ve got this,” Ymir whispered to her.

“I know,” Christa replied, and she kissed Ymir’s cheek and Adhara’s head to steady herself. She waited until Zackly waved to her, and she went to stand behind him as the guards opened the doors slightly.

“Your highness, please, if you would only agree to let someone speak with northern soldiers,” a woman said, standing before the throne. She was tall and slim, dressed in a dark green dress, and her voice was steady. “I’m certain the north is just as tired of the fighting as we are. If we could attempt to broker peace, this could end without further loss.”

Silence took the room.

The woman sighed. “Your highness, I am speaking out of love for my country. I do not want to see any more people lost to the war when it could stop. There are a number of reports saying that the fighting has all but stopped already—can’t we take this chance to speak rationally with the north?”

Someone else sighed. Christa froze when she recognized the timber of the man’s voice. She leaned very minutely to see the throne. Reiss was not at all diminished in size since last she had seen him, but there was such nervousness in him that he sat smaller on the throne. His eyes, wet and ringed nearly black with exhaustion, were on the floor. He did not lift them when he spoke.

“Duchess Langnar, I am weary of hearing these requests,” he said. “What the south needs is for your houses’s purse strings to be opened to the army. We need to replenish our iron supplies and import weapons for the interim.”

Christa saw the woman’s shoulders rise as the scent of flaring anger came off her in waves. Barely sounding restrained, the woman said, “I will not use the taxes of Mitras to fund this war. The people there want nothing to do with the fighting, and I will not betray them. We want peace, King Reiss.”

Reiss looked up to glare at Langnar. “You would question your king?”

Zackly glanced over his shoulder. Christa nodded, following him as he moved forward and spoke. She held a finger up to her lips when she came into Langnar’s view, and Langnar said nothing and let no expression cross her face.

“Excuse my interruption, your highness,” Zackly said, “but there’s no need to request funds from the nobility anymore.”

Reiss did not seem to have energy enough to jump from surprise. He sat up slightly, resting his head on one hand. “Explain what you mean.”

“I’ve found someone who can resolve our problems regarding the war shortages,” Zackly said. “They’re here with me and ready to speak with you.”

He lifted a brow and his head. “Who?”

Zackly began to step to the side. Christa lifted her chin, keeping her spine straight. She met Reiss’ eyes directly, taking a deep breath as his jaw dropped.

“I am here to usher in peace, your highness,” Christa said. “Just as you sent me to do in the north.”

Reiss shot to his feet, stumbling back against the throne. “Y-y-you’re—you’re here.”

Christa saw him trying to inch away to one side and moved to block him. “Yes, I am. Was I supposed to be somewhere else?”

“I s-sent you to the north! T-to stay there!”

“You sent me to the north with a letter,” she shot back. He tried to move the other way; she followed him closely, brows dropping. “A letter that offered Ymir the wolf queen two gifts to help bring peace. I’m here to bring that to fruition, your highness. The war ends today.”

“Who in the world are you?” Langnar asked, voice betraying her intrigue.

“My name is Christa Renz,” she replied. “I may have been mentioned by a pen pal of yours.”

Langnar’s brows rose as a small, shocked smile came to her. “Yes—yes, I’ve heard quite a bit about your, your highness. I’m glad to meet you here and now.”

“‘Your highness’?” Reiss coughed out.

“Oh, yes,” Langnar said. “She is a queen of the north, King Reiss. Were you not aware?”

There was nothing but abject horror in Reiss’ face. It grew when the doors opened and the pack and the soldiers walked inside casually. Going pale, he shouted, “Guards!”

The only person who answered his summons was a servant, a woman with sandy brown hair, freckles on her cheeks, and a knowing smile on her face. When she arrived alone at Reiss’s side, he gaped at her.

“Get the guards!” he said.

“They’re here,” she said. “They’re standing down as General Dok ordered them to.”

His head swung about to stare at Dok. He stammered, but could find no words.

“We’re here to make an agreement, your highness,” Dok said. “Peacefully. We ask that you cooperate.”

“You would betray me?” Reiss asked, voice tight with fury.

“You’re not one to talk about treachery,” Mikasa said, “since you sent my entire family to die in the north.”

“You were supposed to serve your country!”

Mikasa scowled at him. “Your war isn’t worth my life, or my family’s lives. And it really isn’t your daughter’s life.”

Langnar stared, almost beyond shock as Reiss went stiff.

“You sent your daughter to the north to be my wife,” Ymir said. “All on the chance that she would make me lower my guard around Mikasa. You sent her to me hoping I’d kill her before I was killed. That about the size of it, your highness?”

Reiss began to stammer again, but he went silent at the murmuring he could hear behind him. He spun about, choking as the servant woman led other servants, guards, and palace guests in through a side door. The woman smiled again, shrugged, and walked away while combing her fingers through her hair. As her hair turned black, Adhara gasped and hurried to meet her.

“Miss Mina!” she said, holding up her hands.

Mina laughed and knelt down to hug her. “Hello there, Adhara.”

“Who in the hell are you?” Reiss shouted.

“A simple servant of the ruling pack,” Mina said, dipping into a curtsey.

“The…the ruling pack? You’re—a wolf?”

“Shocking, isn’t it?” Reiner said.

Reiss stood trembling, a sickly pallor overtaking his flesh.

“You sent your daughter to die?” Langnar asked. “You have a daughter?”

He said nothing.

“He did, and he does,” Annie said. “And he sent the bastard, Corporal Levi, to kill her along with us last fall. He told us he had a signed order to kill all of us.”

Reiss choked.

“You wanted to continue the war until every wolf was wiped out,” Christa said, taking a step toward him. “You told your military that was your goal, even though you knew that was impossible.” She took another step, heart pounding. “We have no intention of ending the war that way.” She stopped in front of Reiss. While her eyes were locked on his, she raised her voice to be heard throughout the hall.

“We want to end this peacefully,” she said, “without any more lives lost. All we want from you is a signature of surrender—and that you do one thing.”

He glared at her, brows low and mouth a narrow line.

“Acknowledge who I am,” she told him, cold rage in her eyes. “Admit to everyone here that I’m your daughter out of wedlock, and beg my forgiveness for trying to have me killed to cover up your shame.”

Silence filled the hall; tension tightened every muscle. Christa stared, unwavering and unmovable. She curled her hands into fists. Reiss opened his mouth. He closed it, jaw quivering. He took a deep breath.

“Yes,” he said loudly, “you are my daughter. I named you Historia Reiss, and I have tried to have you killed.”

Breath was driven out of her. She stared at him, rocking back with her eyes wide and aching. Her knees weakened as she shook her head. When she tried to breathe in, it was difficult to do so. She blinked, shaking her head against, because the difficulty lay not in emotion, but in the way her lung was filling with blood. She looked down to find a knife buried to the hilt in the left side of her chest, piercing her heart. Tears filled her eyes.

“And this is all your fault,” Reiss snarled.

Mommy!” Adhara shouted. Matvey caught her when she tried to run from Mina’s side, Ginko helping to keep her where she was.

“I will never ask for your forgiveness,” Reiss said, letting go of the knife and stepping back. “All you’ve ever done is be useless to me or make things worse. You couldn’t even get yourself killed in the north.”

Ymir caught sight of Annie, Mikasa, and Reiner bristling, bared teeth turning to fangs as wisps of steam rose from their bodies. She held up her hand; no one moved.

Christa looked up, mouth open. “You stabbed me. You’re my father—and you stabbed me. In front of my daughter.”

“If I lose everything, then you lose everything. It’s what a good daughter would do.”

She looked back down, taking the knife’s hilt in a steady head. She pulled it from her chest and let it drop to the ground. She coughed hard, the blood in her lung coming up into her mouth to spit away. Reiss stared at the steam rising from her chest as the wound healed. Christa looked at him, knowing the whites of her eyes had turned black.

“I was going to let you live,” she said. “You just tried to kill your daughter with your own hands.”

“You’re a wolf,” he whispered.

Her flesh crawled, lips pulling back over her fangs as she screamed, “You son of a bitch, I was going to let you live!” She stepped back with her right foot, pulling her right fist up and back. The punch she delivered to Reiss’ face shattered his jaw, fractured her hand, and sent Reiss to the floor and tumbling away. He lay on the floor, whimpering and gagging on his own teeth.

“After all of this?” Christa shouted. “After I come here trying to be peaceful and kind to you when you’ve never deserved that from me—you try to kill me? In front of all these people? In front of children? How can you be this evil and still be alive?”

Reiss sat up slowly, arms covering his mouth. He whimpered, no longer able to speak from fear and from his ruined jaw. Christa realized that she had stopped breathing and stood with fingers capped by claws. She drew a slow, shaking breath and forced her hands to change back.

“You think I’m going to kill you,” she said flatly.

He choked, eyes widening to the point where he began to cry.

“I’m not going to kill you,” Christa said. She turned her back on him. “But I’m not going to let you live.”

He coughed on the blood in his mouth, brow dropping in confusion. When he looked past Christa as she walked away, he saw Ymir smiling at him, toothy and frigid. He screamed through his throat and tried to scramble away, but Ymir strode forward quickly and kicked his leg as she spoke. It let him unable to move, frozen to the floor. Ymir knelt down, leaning close to him.

“Hey there, old man,” she murmured. “Do you really understand what you just did by attacking her?”

Reiss did not breathe.

“You attacked my mate. The mother of our pup. A queen of the north.” She smirked and jabbed a thumb over her shoulder. “All those wolves want to kill you for that. Rip you to shreds and put your head on a pike to carry it through the streets.”

He looked as though he would pass out.

“But you know what?” Ymir said, reaching to pat his broken jaw with firm slaps. “I’m going to do something different. I’m gonna be merciful.”

Reiss stared at her, but shrieked when she slapped his arms away to wrap her hands around his neck. She looked over her shoulder, saw Christa and Adhara watching her closely, and smiled. With one hard wrench of her hands, she snapped Reiss’ neck. She let him fall to the floor, dead and silent.

“Nice and quick for you, Rhode,” Ymir said. “Have fun trying to hunt.” She stood up slowly, wiping the blood on her hands off on her trousers. Sighing softly, she looked at Langnar. “You’re Ilse Langnar, right? I heard Reiss call you ‘Duchess Langnar’ before.”

“Y-yes, your highness,” Langnar said. “And you are Ymir, I presume?”

“Yep,” she replied, and she offered a clean hand. “Anne and Pyxis said you’d be interested in this new prime minister position we’ve been talking about.”

Langnar smiled and took her hand to shake. “I am, your highness. I hope I can help reestablish a good relationship with the north.”

“You’re doing great so far. But can you go chat with the others for a minute? I need to talk to Christa.”

“Of course,” Langnar said, and she bowed her head as Ymir walked away.

Christa was on her knees, staring blankly at Reiss’ corpse. Her arms were tight around Adhara. Adhara clung to her in turn, face buried in her shoulder.

“Hey,” Ymir whispered, kneeling with them. She brushed her thumb over Christa’s cheek. “You’re not crying.”

She blinked and reached up to her face. “Oh. You’re…you’re right.”

“Mommy, are you okay?” Adhara asked, stepping back to look at her.

“I’m—I’m fine,” Christa said. “I just needed to hold you.”

“How come?”

“Because I don’t have this horrible weight on my chest anymore. I felt so strange that I needed to hold you to feel better.”

Adhara smiled tentatively, looking between them. “Did we win?”

Ymir grinned. “We did, kiddo. The north won the war.”

Her smile grew bright. “Do we get to tell everyone?”

“We do,” Christa said, smiling as well. She stood, picking Adhara up to carry her on her hip. She turned to Mina. “Would you tell the people in the church to sound the bells? We have wolves waiting to hear them.”

Mina bowed deeply to her, smiling massively as she went off with a few other servants. Matvey and Ginko rushed to Annie and Mikasa to hug them, and Reiner did the same to Ymir. Christa joined the discussions with Langnar and the generals after mending and cleaning her shirt, and Adhara played with her hair as she spoke.

When the bells began to ring, conversation stopped. Erwin led the way outside, smiling at the people who had gathered at the steps to the palace. He lifted his arm to call attention to himself.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” he shouted. “I am General Erwin Smith! I am here to deliver very important news about the war!”

Hope came to many a face.

“The war is over!” Erwin bellowed. “We have surrendered peacefully, and the wolf queens have promised no further bloodshed from this point forward!”

For a few seconds more, the crowd was silent. They began to cheer all at once, voices full of relief and joy. Christa smiled at this, turning her head when Adhara tugged on her shirt.

“I thought they were gonna be scared of us,” Adhara said.

“They’re too happy about the end of the war to care right now,” Christa replied. “Just like all the wolves will be on our way home.”

“Can I tell everyone in Utgard?” Adhara asked.

Ymir leaned down to kiss both of them on the cheek. “As long as Christa and I can help.”

“Okay!” Adhara said.

Christa laughed and tilted her head. Ymir leaned down again, and Christa kissed her properly. When they parted, she rubbed her nose against Ymir’s. Smiling, Ymir put an arm around her shoulders and held her close.

With a small smile, Christa leaned against Ymir and looked to the north to imagine going home.