Chapter 10

It was just past noon when Alex arrived at the lake behind the palace, led there by one of the castle servants. The sun was reflecting off the waters, making it sparkle like silver. Henrietta stood by the shore facing the lake, accompanied by another man; a knight judging by his uniform. When she heard them approach, she turned, and right away Alex could tell that she was in a foul mood. Her expression was terse and tight, her shoulders tense, and though she did relax slightly upon seeing him, it took a visible effort to do so.

The cause of her temper most likely had to do with the knight that stood beside her, or rather the actions of those whom he represented. He was a large and heavily built man, whose muscles were so thick that they bulged out against the padded blue cloth of his uniform. His coarse and tawny hair was tied back into a bushy ponytail, while a trimmed beard partially concealed an old scar that ran vertically from jaw to cheekbone. But it was his eyes that stood out the most; gleaming golden eyes that locked onto Alex as soon as they saw him, following him not with fear or hatred or even suspicion, but with a deep, predatory hunger.

Alex glared back. This must be the bodyguard Wardes said he'd assign to Henrietta, he thought, and for that reason alone he disliked the knight. His presence here was intrusive and unwanted, and Alex had no doubt that Henrietta felt much the same.

"Good afternoon, Alex," Henrietta said, drawing his gaze back to her. "I know last night was hectic, but did everything go well after we returned?"

She must be asking about that favor. "Yeah, everything was fine." Alex jerked his chin over in the knight's direction. "Who's he?"

Henrietta let out a quiet breath. She had been making a pointed effort to pretend that the knight wasn't there, but Alex wasn't so willing to oblige. If he was going to follow them around, Alex at least wanted to know what his name was.

"This is Sir Marrok of the Griffin Knights," Henrietta said. "He will be in charge of my guard detail when we leave for Germania?"

"Germania?" Alex repeated curiously. Then there was a look of dawning realization on his face as one of his newly acquired memories came to the forefront of his mind. "Oh. For your marriage."

"Why, yes." Henrietta looked at him, thoroughly surprised. "Although it was never a secret, I haven't had the time or opportunity to tell you about it yet. How did you know?"

"I heard about it in town," Alex lied. "Guess I should give you my congratulations."

"Thank you," Henrietta said, giving him the sort of smile that caused him to frown in response.

"If there's something about your marriage..." Alex began, before Henrietta suddenly cut him off.

"No," she said almost snappishly. "Forgive me. I do not mean to be rude. But now is not the time to discuss matters of my marriage. Let us leave the topic aside for later."

Alex glanced back at Marrok. Is there something about her marriage that she doesn't want him to hear?

"All right," Alex said. "Later, then."

"Will you walk with me?" Henrietta suddenly asked.

Alex nodded, as the princess turned and began walking along the shore, onto the trail that ran around the lake. At first he walked a few steps behind her, but then she slowed her pace down until she was walking with him side-by-side. Alex worried that she was going to try to link arms with him again, but fortunately she refrained from doing so. Perhaps it was because Marrok was keeping a close eye on them from a short distance behind them. If so, then at least he was useful for something.

"It is a fine day today," Henrietta remarked idly.

"Hmm," Alex grunted in response.

"You mentioned before that you were interested in learning more about magic. Are you still interested?"

"Yes." Having consumed and stolen the memories of the two men from town, Alex now had a basic understanding of how magic worked, and what role it played in society. But all that he knew now was from the perspective of two commoners; there was still so much he did not know, and would not without an actual mage.

"In that case, given what you told me of your homeland, I believe it is best if I start from the very beginning," Henrietta said. "Here in Halkeginia, magic refers to the ability to control the four elements of nature: fire, water, earth, and air. Amongst humans, there does exist a fifth element, Void, but as that belonged solely to the Founder Brimir, who died thousands of years ago, in practice there are only four. Every mage is born with a natural inclination towards one of these elements, but more can be used depending on talent and training. We thus divide each mage into one of four ranks, depending on the number of elements that they can place into a single spell: dot, line, triangle, and square."

"So in order to be a square-class mage, you'd have to be able to use all four elements."

"No, not quite." Henrietta smiled. "Pardon. That was a poor explanation on my part. How should I put it... perhaps a demonstration might be easier to understand than an explanation."

From inside a hidden pocket in her dress, Henrietta withdrew a plain, unadorned wand, completely unlike the decorated scepter Alex had seen her use back at the Academy. This one seemed like it was meant for more private or daily use. She pointed it at the lake, made a brief gesture with it, and said, "Akao."

Some feet away, the waters swirled and dance, and then fell still.

"This is the most basic water spell," Henrietta explained. "As you can see, it is nothing special. Its primary purpose is to teach students how to move water around – a stepping stone for learning more advanced water spells. Now here is the same spell, but at a line-class. Akao volao."

This time the water churned and spat white foam, forming small riptides and currents as the water followed the abrupt movements that Henrietta traced in the air with her wand, until finally she gave a sharp flick and ended the spell.

"Now here is the spell at a triangle-class. Akao volao iraam."

The water raged and roared.

There was a sound like crashing thunder as a whirlpool that was several dozen feet wide opened up in the middle of the lake like an antlion's pit. Alex touched his cheek when he felt some of the spray land on his face, until at last Henrietta ended this spell as well and put her wand away.

"I get it," Alex said. "You can stack the same element on itself to make the spell stronger." He paused, then added, "Impressive."

"Yes." Henrietta looked pleased. "In truth, it is an exceptionally rare thing for a mage to be able to wield all four elements. To my knowledge, there are only four or five such mages here in Tristain. Most can only wield one or two. Spells of multiple elements do tend to have the advantage of versatility, but those composed of a single element typically have the edge in raw power. Of course, differences do exist depending on the individual power of a mage, and on the specific combination of elements. Water and earth, for example, creates mud, which has relatively few combat applications; fire and earth at the square-class, on the other hand, can create lava, which is notoriously dangerous, even to the caster. But for the most part this rule of thumb holds true."

"How much stronger would you say a square-class mage is compared to you?"

"It's hard to say," Henrietta admitted. "As I said, a mage's strength differs from person to person, just as one's physical strength might differ between individuals. Moreover, the fact that I already have such a large body of water to work with greatly exaggerates my strength."

"I'll keep that in mind," Alex said. "Just give me your best guess." At this point in time, as ignorant as he was, even a rough estimation would be helpful to him in determining what kind of threat these mages could potentially pose. If nothing else, it at least gave him a frame of reference to work with.

Henrietta tapped her chin thoughtfully. "If we were to assume that it is another water mage casting the same spell as me, but at a rank higher, it could be anywhere between... hmm... five to seven times more powerful, perhaps. On drier land, two to three times."

"I see."

"Now, just like with mages, we also divide every spell into different ranks, regardless of their elemental type," Henrietta continued. "Dot, line, triangle, square, those are all the same; but there exists a level above square when it comes to spells. We refer to them as star-class spells.

"It is a technique that was originally developed during humanity's first crusade for the Holy Lands against the elves in an attempt to counter the dreadful power of their brand of magic – ancient magic – which predates humanity's own. By having multiple mages work in tandem, it becomes possible to cast a spell far greater than anything any of them could achieve on their own. To illustrate, a single triangle-class mage can only cast up to a triangle-class spell. But two of them together can cast any spell up to a six-pointed star-class spell, or a six-point spell for short. Two square-class mages could cast anything up to an eight-point spell. And, theoretically, with enough dot-class mages, you could cast any spell above line-class, though in practice this is impossible."

"Why's that?"

"To cast a star-class spell is an incredibly difficult thing," Henrietta explained. "Imagine trying to paint a portrait or sculpt a statue while another person is holding onto the same brush or chisel as you are and is trying to paint their own portrait or sculpt their own statue at the same time. Now imagine trying to do it with two or three or even four other people, while blindfolded and gagged. It takes an incredible amount of coordination, discipline, and finesse to succeed. Even for the most talented group of mages, it might take months or even years for them to accomplish it in any practical setting. That is why the most that is typically ever achieved is a six-point spell. Albion's Knights of the Star and Romania's paladin orders are famed because of their ability to consistently cast seven- and eight-point spells. And, for a time, Tristain's Manticore Knights were just as renowned, during the tenure of Karin the Heavy Wind." Henrietta chuckled. "Her most of all.

"Around twenty years ago, a powerful duke attempted to rebel against the crown. He led an army nearly ten thousand strong, and would have destroyed the country for his actions had it not been for Karin. She led a force of just five hundred knights, and after a week of battle she routed the traitor's entire army, casting three times an unprecedented twelve-point spell. That is how she earned her runic name: the Heavy Wind."

"Oh," Alex grunted. "So what happened to her? Did she die?"

"No, she's alive," Henrietta said. "She retired from service many years later and wed the Duke of Valliere. She's the mother of my friend Louise Francoise."

"Princess," Marrok said from behind them. "We have come quite far. I believe now is a good time for us to return to the palace."

"Have we truly?" Henrietta looked back, only just then realizing how small the palace was in the distance, a picture framed by branches and leaves. "Time certainly does fly. Let us go back."

"You go ahead," Alex said. "I'm going to walk around a little longer."

"As you please," Henrietta nodded. "Come, Sir Marrok. If you would please escort me back to my solar, I'm sure I'll be able to find some other business to take care of."

In truth, there was actually very little Henrietta had to do back in her solar. Or more accurately, there was little that she was interested in doing at this time. As the day of her marriage drew closer and closer, there were certainly various details of the marriage-alliance she could review, but by and large that matter had already been settled. The only thing left was to finalize some of the more minor details of the arrangement with Emperor Albrecht. Her fiance.

Henrietta sighed and began to pace the room, as she so often did when she was impatient or bored. She looked out the window frequently, where the lake was, wondering if she squinted hard enough she might find Alex still wandering by the shore or between the trees. The familiar's contract allowed her to sense his presence, but right now he was too far for her to feel anything.

"Perhaps I was too subtle," Henrietta pondered aloud. "Did he not understand my message?"

There were many things that Henrietta wanted to discuss with Alex, both large and small, but she wanted her words to be for his ears only. That was why she told him to leave the topic of her marriage aside for later, and why she loudly declared where she was headed as she left; she wanted him to find a way here so that they could talk without having to be chaperoned like a child again.

It still irritated her, what Mazarin and Wardes were doing. I know that they are merely trying to keep me safe, but can't they see that they're overreacting? Henrietta sighed and sat down on the windowsill, which was large enough for her to perch her entire body on. She leaned her head against the glass, watching the sparkling waters outside.

She wondered if there was something she could do to make Alex more trustworthy in the cardinal's eyes. If she could just convince him that Alex wasn't someone he needed to be so wary of, then the viscount would fall in line as well. But as she mulled over this problem, no easy answer came to her.

Time passed, and eventually Henrietta tired of waiting. But as she was getting ready to give up and leave, she felt it.

Alex was near.

To feel the presence of one's familiar was a peculiar sensation. Rather than something physical, it was more like having an inexplicable certainty in one's mind, a conviction as strong as knowing that the sun rose in the east and set in the west. My familiar is this far away. My familiar is over that way. Answers such as these would appear in the mage's mind unbidden, like they had always been there, and the nearer the familiar was the stronger that certainty became.

"Hold." Henrietta heard the muffled voice of one of the mage-knights posted outside her door. "What are you doing here?"

"I was instructed to bring Her Highness cakes, milord," a distinctly female voice said, meekly. "See?"

Henrietta got up from her perch and crossed the room in ten strides. She opened the door.

"Ah, you're here at last," she said to the one who appeared for all the world to be a common maidservant. Henrietta had to try hard to not burst out in laughter. There was such an enormous gap in the image between this timid little girl and the normally quiet, brooding Alex that it was almost comical. "Let her pass, Darvell. I've been waiting quite some time for my cakes."

"Your Highness," the guard frowned. "We were instructed to let no one through, not without the permission of Captain Wardes or Sir Marrok."

"It's only sweetcakes," Henrietta smiled sweetly. "Here, why don't you try some?"

"They do look tempting," Darvell admitted, "but I cannot. The captain would have my hide if he found out I disobeyed orders and ate on duty."

By the Founder, Henrietta thought exasperatedly. A knight this young shouldn't be so dutiful. Sir Wardes, never have I thought that the day would come where I would complain about you doing your job too well.

The maid suddenly let out a long, irritated breath. "Okay, now this is just pissing me off."

The knights turned to face her, and blinked.

"Excuse me?" said Darvell.

Without warning, Alex shed his disguise, while at the same time his arms became a tangled net of black and red tendrils. They wrapped around the two guards' legs and body like constricting snakes, and then broke off at the elbows to bind them in place. Before the guards could cry out, Alex had regrown fresh arms and muffled their mouths with his hands.

"Alex!" Henrietta cried out in shock. "What are you doing!?"

He shrugged nonchalantly in response. "They're fine. I haven't hurt them. But I'm getting really sick of having to play around that old man's rules. You wanted to talk, let's talk. These guys aren't going anywhere."

Henrietta bit her lips. "You shouldn't have done that."

"If you want, I can untie them and leave."

Henrietta glanced left and right down the hallway, and then stepped aside. "Hurry and come in."

Before he entered the room, Alex grew extra tendrils from his body and used them to tear off two long strips of cloth, one from each of the knights' uniforms, turning them into makeshift gags. After he was done, he leaned them against the wall.

"Oh, I am in so much trouble," Henrietta said as the door closed behind them. "I can imagine what Mazarin will say when he hears about this."

"Let me worry about him," Alex said. "I'll talk to him for you."

"That," Henrietta said sternly, "sounds like a terrible idea."

Alex shrugged again. "It was just a thought."

"Well, what's done is done," Henrietta sighed. "We should speak of what we must while we have time. The guards won't change for another hour, so we have at least that much time to ourselves."

"Right," Alex nodded. "So is there something wrong with your marriage?"

"Wrong?" Henrietta chuckled humorlessly. "No, Alex, there's nothing wrong with the marriage. Everything about it is right. It's just... undesirable, I suppose."

Alex pursed his lips and crossed his arms in front of him. "Explain."

"First, you must know that whatever I tell you now cannot leave this room," Henrietta warned him. "What I tell you, no one else may know. Can you promise me that?"

Alex nodded.

"I need to hear you say it."

"I promise," Alex said. "I'll keep your secrets."

Henrietta nodded back at him. "You already know that I am set to marry Emperor Albrecht of Germania. Would you also happen to know why?"

"For a military alliance, right?"

"Yes," Henrietta said grimly. "As a foreigner to Halkeginia, you are likely not aware of the current political landscape, but right now is a time of great upheaval. Around a year and a half ago, a rebellion took place in the country of Albion. At first it was just a localized affair, limited to the city of Rosais from which it began. But since then it has grown into a full civil war... and the rebels are winning. They call themselves Reconquista. Their goal is to unite the whole of Halkeginia under their banner and lead a crusade on the Holy Lands, or so they say, and already their fingers stretch across the continent.

"Once they've defeated the last holdouts of the Albion royalists and consolidate their power, it is almost guaranteed that they will invade Tristain next. We are the most vulnerable target on the mainland. In order to prevent that, it was decided that we needed the military backing of either Germania or Gallia. The latter would have been more preferable as an ally, as they are the most powerful country on the continent, but all diplomatic overtures towards their king, Joseph, have met in failure, most likely because they have judged that they have nothing to gain from such an alliance."

"And Germania does?" Alex said. "What does Tristain have to offer that Germania would be willing to potentially go to war with another country?"

Henrietta smiled sadly and brought a hand to her chest. "Me."

Alex arched an eyebrow, and waited for her to continue.

"Germania is a... unique existence in Halkeginia," Henrietta said. "It is not like any of the other nations. You see, long ago, at the dawn of the Brimiric age, there were only four countries: Tristain, Albion, Gallia, and Romania. The first three were founded by Brimir's three sons, while the last was established by his sole disciple. It is thus from Brimir that the royal houses of the four great nations draw their legitimacy.

"Since then, there have been many other kingdoms that have risen and filled in the the gaps of the unclaimed territories of Halkeginia, but all have met with the same fate: they either became a vassal to one of the four great nations, or were conquered and absorbed. Germania alone has defied this fate.

"Originally, Germania was not a single nation as we know it. Instead, it was a collection of forty-one smaller kingdoms populating the eastern frontiers. For a long time they warred amongst themselves, until around three hundred years ago they were forced to band together in order to fend off a Tristainian invasion. King Francis the Aggressor, the ruler of Tristain of the time, had long coveted the vast timber lands, rich mines, and the abundant fur that could be found in their territory and sought to make it his own. He thought that he had seen weakness in their division, but as Mazarin once told me there is nothing like a common foe to bring a divided people together.

"After the war, the forty-one kings decided to remain as a single kingdom to better defend themselves against future threats. But of course, the problem arose of choosing who among them should be their leader. It was a question that nearly destroyed their fragile, fledgling alliance, until they finally decided upon a most peculiar system of government.

"Rather than having the crown pass down through a single royal house, the forty-one kings decided that they would elect who among them would become their leader. The King of Kings. The emperor. When the incumbent ruler dies, the kings would convene again to elect a new leader. Thus was Germania formed, a country ruled by its emperor and the now forty princes.

"You can see why the other nations might look down upon them for this. They are at times disparaged as the Great Outsider, for although their wealth and might rivals that of any other nation, their culture is as if it belongs to another world... though I suppose you would know more about that than I."

"Mmm," Alex grunted as he listened to her intently. "Keep going."

"This 'elective' monarchy, being what it is, breeds political scheming and civil wars like no other. Indeed, Germania has the highest rate of civil conflict in all the world, and the cause is more often than not because the princes look to force their rivals to submit to them and elect them the new emperor when negotiations fail.

"In order to try to put an end to this strife, many past emperors have attempted to establish his family's reign more permanently. Emperor Albrecht is no different from them. But what he and his predecessors all lacked was legitimacy. They all failed because they do not belong to the line of Brimir. And that is what I offer him: My body and my blood. Legitimacy. In return, Tristain will receive all the supplies and manpower it needs to protect itself against Reconquista."

"I take it he's not a nice guy," Alex said dryly.

"Anyone who can force at least twenty-one other princes to bend the knee is perforce not a 'nice guy,' no," Henrietta replied. "He is not the one I long for, but I have no choice. In order to protect my people, I must wed him."

"You have someone else you love?"

"I do," Henrietta admitted, and sighed. "But it doesn't matter. Most like, he's soon to be dead."

Alex paused and considered this. "He's someone from Albion, isn't he?"

"Yes." Henrietta sighed again. "Princes Wales Tudor."

"How do you know him?" Alex asked curiously.

"We met once, many years ago," Henrietta said wistfully. Even now, despite the years that had gone by, she could remember every detail of their first meeting with perfect clarity. "I was seven years of age at the time. My father and mother had taken me to a great ball at Ragdorian Lake, and Prince Wales and his father had come in attendance. The party lasted for three days and three nights, and every day there was dancing and feasting and all manner of sport and pleasure. I danced with Wales on the first day, and before that day had even ended we were in love as only children can."

Henrietta smiled as the nostalgia took her. "Each night I had Louise Francoise pretend to be me in my bed while I slipped out to the lake shore to meet with Prince Wales. We talked about many things then, about what we would do once we ascended to our respective thrones, what we wanted to do, but what we talked about most of all was our great dream of marrying each other once we were of age and uniting our two countries. We even swore a solemn vow with the Spirit of the Lake as witness to love each other until death and beyond." She sighed ruefully. "We were truly children then, and that was merely a child's dream. Neither of us were prepared for the harshness of reality, nor for the weight of the crown."

Alex did not respond. He was silent for several minutes, but Henrietta did not press him. He was deep in thought, perhaps of something she had said, and she wanted to give him time to put his thoughts together.

"You know," he finally began, his words slow and deliberate. "If you want, I could..." and then he trailed off.

Henrietta tried to prompt him to continue. "You could...?"

"No, never mind," Alex replied gruffly. He looked over his shoulder, towards the door. "I should leave before the next round of guards comes."

"Yes, that would be wise," Henrietta said, feeling disappointed inside. She thought that they had been making great strides in their relationship, but did Alex still not trust her, even now? Or was it something about what he had to say that made him stop?

Alex went to the door. His hand reached out for the doorknob, then froze. He seemed to hesitate again, tilting his head, before turning back around and facing her.

"I'm tired of having to try to get around all these guards every time I want to talk to you," he said. "I'd rather not have to."

"I'm aware," Henrietta said. "But Mazarin is insisting, as you well know."

"Fuck him," Alex growled. "I don't care what he thinks. Don't even like the guy. I'm asking you what you think."

"What do I think?" Henrietta frowned. "What do you mean? What are you trying to say?"

"I'm saying that we should ignore him and Wardes," Alex said. "We'll talk when we want to and do what we want, when we want."

"Ignore his orders," Henrietta echoed. "You mean as you did just a little while ago?" She looked past him, towards the door, and to the knights unseen on the other side.

Alex shrugged. "If that's what it takes."

Henrietta shook her head. "No, I cannot condone violence against my knights."

"I didn't even hurt them," Alex pointed out.

"Even so."

"Then I'll do it non-violently. Less violently. Whatever," Alex said. "But I'm tired of having a guy standing behind me thinking he has a gun pointed at my head for if I take one step out of line. It's really fucking annoying."

"A wand," Henrietta said.


"A wand," Henrietta repeated. "Knights don't use guns. They use wands."

Alex gave her a flat stare. She smiled sweetly back at him, and he scowled.

"Truth is, I feel the same way," Henrietta admitted. She could not help but to then add, with a note of accusation in her voice, "Though frankly you haven't left me much choice in the matter anymore. I was originally thinking that we should find some way to prove to Mazarin that you are trustworthy, but after today I do not think that will ever happen."

"Do you really think that someone who suggested I be killed would ever trust me in the first place?"

Henrietta had no answer for that. "You mustn't harm anyone. Ever."

"Without just cause," Alex said. "I already made that promise."

"Then promise me that you won't attack my knights like this again."

Alex arched an eyebrow, but finally nodded. "Fine."

"All right, then," Henrietta said. "Then let's go jump off the roof."

Dearest Mother,

I expect that some days will have passed by the time you have received this letter. I have given the responsibility of the delivery to a local hippogriff courier. If he should successfully accomplish his duty within three days (for reference, I write to you now on the thirty-seventh day of the Season of Water) please give him a generous tip and a kiss on the cheek. The poor boy was ever so eager to please.

You are likely already well aware that the Academy of Tristain just held its annual Summoning Festival. I have summoned a marvelous familiar: a salamander. My friend Tabitha, whom I hope to introduce you to in the near future, has done one better, however. She has summoned a wind dragon. I am quite proud of her, though that is a strange feeling as I admittedly had no hand in her upbringing.

However, the topic of my familiar is not why I write to you now. I have much greater and more important news to share with you instead. The young princess of Tristain was in attendance at the Festival, and I was able to establish preliminary relations with her. She is as virginal as you would expect from a Tristainian, but she is also kind, relatively tolerant, and open to friendly contact. More importantly, she has expressed her displeasure of her upcoming marriage with our oh-so-glorious emperor.

Given that she is to be our future empress, it is in my judgment that our family would benefit greatly by forming a strong bond of friendship with her now. Our family has always held a strong position within the country, but for that reason Albrecht has always kept us at length from the affairs of the imperial court. This will give us the foothold we need to breach upon his territory.

But more than that, I'd like for you to be of whatever help you can be for the princess as a favor to me. I fear that the sheltered flower of Tristain is ill-prepared for the harshness of Germania. It would sadden me to see such a young, innocent flower be trampled into the dirt without even knowing why. Please watch over her for me, as I already promised her the courtesy of the Zerbst family. Use what I said above if Father needs convincing.

Your loving daughter,


P.S. The princess's familiar was most unusual. It is difficult to describe, but it bears keeping a close eye on.

"What is that?"

Joanna looked up from her reading to find her husband, Arduin, looking at her from the doorway. She hadn't even heard him open the door.

"You should knock next time," she said.

"Should a wife have something to hide from her husband?" Arduin said as he approached her. "And, by the way, I did knock. You weren't listening."

"It's from Kirche," Joanna said, folding the letter back up.

"Really?" Arduin's face lit up. "What news?"

"Here." Joanna handed the letter over. "Read it for yourself."

Arduin accepted the parchment and unfolded it. For a few minutes, Joanna watched as his eyes moved from left to right and down, until finally he reached the end.

"It seems our daughter is doing well in Tristain," he said. "I'm glad. I just wish she had sent a letter for me as well."

"She is still rather angry that you tried to force upon her a marriage she did not ask for," Joanna said wryly.

"It was a good match," Arduin said sullenly. "He had wealth and status, and would have taken care of her till the end of her days."

"But there was no passion involved." Joanna shook her head. "For all your years, you still do not understand a woman's heart."

"Has there ever been a man that did?"

Joanna laughed. "Perhaps not. More importantly, what do you think?"

"I think that a woman's heart is like a labyrinth."

"Not that, you great oaf," Joanna rolled her eyes. "I meant Kirche's words. Personally, I'm of mind that we should do as she asks. I see no reason to refuse."

"I must disagree," Arduin said, his grin fading. "There has been troubling news as of late. Dark clouds are on the horizon, and it may be wise to keep our family well away from it."

Joanna arched an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"

"There are many who do not look well upon this marriage. They would rather see it destroyed."

"Every prince has always wished to see every emperor's attempts for more power destroyed. What makes this different?"

"Because it is not just words," Arduin said grimly. "I haven't told you yet, but there have been envoys with masters whose names they would not give who have come to see me. They ask for my support in a great future endeavor, whose details they also would not give. There is the smell of blood in the air, my love. What else could this mean?"

"All the more reason why we should keep this young princess safe," Joanna argued. "She'll need an ally now more than ever."

"Do you believe that it is worth it?" Arduin said. "I have long worked to keep our family out of these petty power struggles, for our safety and our continued prosperity. Would you rather that I lead us into the fire of war instead?"

"Since when have we of Zerbst ever feared fire?" Joanna stood up and put a hand Arduin's chest. "There is much we have to gain from this, but if that is not enough to move you, then hear this: If it is a mother's duty to listen to the problems of her daughter, then it is the father's duty to keep her and those she holds dear safe."

"So be it then," Arduin said. "But in that case, I cannot go to the capital. If what I fear comes to pass, then we must be made ready for it. You must go in my stead and guide this princess."

"Of course," Joanna said and leaned down to kiss him. At her full height, she stood nearly four inches taller than her husband, but he, unlike most men, did not care about that. "I love you," she said when their lips finally parted.

"As do I," Arduin replied. "Be safe, love. And should things take a turn for the worse, come back to me as fast as you can. Nothing is worth losing you."

Somewhere in the royal palace of Tristania, Mazarin sat at his desk in his solar. He was reviewing the proposed numbers of the Germanian force that was to be garrisoned at a still undecided location in Tristain when he thought he heard a scream. He paused in his work and tried to listen more carefully, but he heard nothing.

You're getting old, Mazarin, he thought to himself with a sigh. I suppose I should be glad my hearing is the first to go and not my sight.

But as he continued his work, he suddenly heard the screaming again. And then the door to his solar slammed open, and his personal assistant, Darry, ran into the room, his sandy blond hair stuck to his sweaty brow. He wheezed heavily as Mazarin rose to his feet.

"Darry? What's wrong?" he said. "What happened?"

"T-the princess..." Darry gasped. "The princess... she... she..."

Oh, dear. Mazarin braced himself. He could tell that what Darry was about to say couldn't be anything good. Most like it would have something to do with that damnable familiar of hers.

"She's jumping off the roof of the palace with her familiar!"

Mazarin blinked at him. Then slowly he sat back down and put a hand over his eyes, and he muttered with a long suffering groan:

"Brimir's balls."