Falchion1984: Beware of obvious Lord of the Rings reference. And, don't bother asking EmblemQueen if she's a fan, because she isn't.

Chapter 33: Forging Alliances

Part 2

Deep within the borders of Melora, however, far less benign contemplations were afoot. Royce had newly returned to the keep in Ebonar, bearing yet another report for his mother. The last time he had stood before Isis's less-than-motherly presence was to report that his plan to swiftly invade and capture Aracion had been derailed. Despite her nearly dismissive attitude toward the setback, Royce had been doubly incensed. Not only had he been denied the chance to win the war for Melora in one blow, eclipsing Bernard's capture of Jerusa, and ensuring that the name of Royce would know eternal glory, but the added insult of Bernard's smugness and Isis's indifference had nearly sent him into a rage. This time, however, the Meloran prince entered with news of an unfolding disaster in hand and a devious grin on his face. This time, it would be Bernard who would suffer for the fickle whiles of fate. Royce never really did like the bandit commander, which was quite ironic, since it had been his idea to hire the Red Claw in the first place.

Though Royce had committed many a deed that would cause any person of decency to shudder, the decision to enlist the Red Claw was his sole regret.

Bernard was an insolent, impertinent piece of gutter trash, which Royce so desired to hurl back into whatever heap of refuse the bandit commander had crawled out of. The sting had been all the more acute during the brief eternity in which all Melora seemed enchanted with Bernard's victory over Cilae. Whatever semblance of mercy the Meloran Prince possessed had been bent to its limit to keep himself from decapitating as many of Bernard's newfound admirers as could be found.

Still, Royce knew that if Melora was to defeat Allied Command, they would need all the strength that they could muster, especially if the Orenias dragons were brought into the war on the Allied side. Individually, Melora could defeat any of the other nations with a speed and ferocity borne of nightmares. But if enough of the other nations banded together, they might pose a potential threat. So, he chose to plug his nostrils and put up with the Red Claw leader…but, not for a moment longer than was absolutely necessary. And thankfully, Isis had not yet ordered the two to lead a mission together as joint commanders. She likely knew that doing so would cause all hell to break loose and destroy any chances Melora had of winning the war.

Though some suspected her mental faculties to be unbalanced, Isis was nobody's fool.

And neither am I, Royce affirmed, silently vowing that no one, not even his forbearers or his descendants, would outshine him again.

After his wyvern alighted upon the royal wyvern roost once again, Royce descended the structure, entered the keep, and continued to the throne room to report to his mother. This time, he actually hoped to see Bernard as well, but only until after Royce got there first. That would make the Red Claw commander's failure all the more delightful to savor. And much to Royce's pleasure, the commander of the Red Claw had not arrived yet. Isis was alone, seated upon her blood red throne with a languid posture that belied just how deadly she could be. Royce eagerly approached his mother, stopped a few paces short and offering a perfunctory bow.

"Ah, Royce. By the look on your face, I suspect you have good news?" Isis greeted.

"Some at least, Mother," Royce admitted. "The plan to turn Larame against Astryn has worked. Spies have confirmed that the beast laguz blamed Astryn for the raids on their lands, as we had hoped, and have already retaliated against them. What's more, my men are fully stocked with supplies that we may need in the future. We shouldn't have to worry about that for a while, which will bolster our resources for the war effort all the more."

"Ah, excellent," Isis commented with a devious chuckle. "But I'm guessing there's bad news also?"

"Indeed. I'm afraid this time, Bernard hasn't kept up his end of the bargain. The army led by the girl and Astryn's so-called prince have traveled to Astryn and the prince has proven to be more of a problem than we expected. From what reports have reached me, they have wiped out all of the Red Claw there with relative ease, and the prince had proved his bloodline. They even managed to stop the duke whom we hoped to install on the prince's throne. The delegation that was bringing the non-aggression pact for the duke to sign found his bloody corpse along with many others, including the men we loaned to him. What's more, the prince has turned out to be none other than that wretched Emerald Sentinel, who slew so many men of our men in Cilae. The prince has, apparently, secured the throne of Astryn, and that country gradually becoming a threat. And to top it all off, we've learned that the girl whom we hunt has made a troubling discovery. Apparently, the strong archer she has in her army is actually the latest reincarnation of that famous Astrynian hero, Silver Arrow. Along with Silver Arrow's spirit, this archer possesses his power. Our foe is a great deal stronger than we initially anticipated. Bernard should have his throat torn out for costing us so!"

"I see. Yes, Bernard has failed, and it angers me," Isis admitted, an eyebrow arching at the sight of a feral grin spreading on Royce's face. "However, the blame for these developments is not his alone. Disciplining him now will not do us any good."

Royce's feral grin turned into a twisted grimace of anger that even one of the Feral Ones on Tellius would be sore pressed to mimic.

"W-What?!" he thundered, sudden redness gathering at the periphery of his vision. "But we can't afford any more failures! And this debacle could prove disastrous!"

"I know, and I will make sure Bernard is very well aware of this. He will have one chance to rectify his mistakes, however. The time is approaching for us to bring our full strength to bear. A few more preparations still need to be made, but we have the time. The girl's army is still in Astryn and since they still have Shigo and the Larameans to deal with, they will likely be tied to the spot for some time. Besides, the other nations clearly have neither the strength nor the will to strike back at us. Also, I think it best for us to finally, should I say, mend fences with the herons."

During his life, Royce had left many a woman bruised and bleeding in his wake, and had very nearly entertained the notion of adding Isis to his credit for denying him his rightful glory yet again. However, as the merit of her suggestion sank in, he reconsidered.

And, it was fortunate that he did. Not only had Isis taught him everything he knew of violence and cruelty, but she could've taken him.

"Ah. Excellent…" he purred. "Heh, heh."

"Indeed!" Isis cackled. "Now Royce, I require your aid in this. We'll show them the real power we've developed since we last clashed!"

"Yes! Anything you wish, Mother! Hahahaha!"

While Isis and Royce reveled in the excitement of their latest plans, Owen listened with rapt attention as Bryan relayed his dream. The prince had been all too eager to tell his father after finishing his breakfast and suiting up for the day. Owen, however, appeared stunned as his son described every detail of the dream and the conversation Bryan had had with the shade of his mother.

"I saw the estate I was born in…and how you and Mother contemplated on what to name me," Bryan explained. "She said that a knight in your service named Bryan had introduced the two of you, and Mother thought it was only right to name me after him for that reason. And then she spoke of her father, King Casimir. She said he was a great king and you said that your parents were proud to have served him. She said she'd been torn for a while about whether or not to name me after him, and then decided that Casimir would be my middle name."

"…That…that's right…" Owen confirmed, his eyes wide with shock. "I remember it all now, and what you saw is uncannily accurate."

"I had a feeling."

Perhaps the onrush of resurfacing memories had come too swiftly and proven too much, for Owen's breathing had become ragged and he began groping for something to support his suddenly quaking legs. Bryan moved to aid him, but was a half a second too slow, and Owen went sprawling to the floor.

I'm having one of those funny déjà vu flashes, he mused as he helped his father to his feet.

"I'm sorry," Owen blurted once he was standing again. "Perhaps the years really are catching up to me."

"Oh, don't be ridiculous," Bryan chastised, though he nonetheless looked his father over for injury. "You're not hurt, are you?"

"My head is spinning so much, I can't even tell. But Bryan, this is remarkable. Spirits of the dead entering the dreams of the living is a very rare occurrence. In fact, it's been practically unheard-of. Some say it hasn't happened since before the Oathsworn made their pledge."

"Wow… Well, Mother must be special. More than either of us could've guessed, that is. When she came to me, we talked about what's been going on. She saw how hard my childhood was and told me how much she regretted that she couldn't come into one of my dreams before, to comfort me and tell me of my heritage. And she also said that she still loves us both. Oh, and…you were quite right when you said she loved me so dearly…"

Bryan scratched the back of his head as he recalled how Caline had hugged him and kissed his forehead in the dream, eerily and wonderfully tangible despite her seeming to have little more substance than a puff of vapor.

"Ah, ha ha, I thought as much. Your mother held you, cuddled you, and kissed your forehead just about every day."

"I'm not surprised. Well, shall we go join the other nobles now?"

"Ah, yes. Let's go before they start getting impatient."

Bryan nodded and the two made for the palace's conference chamber where the nobles awaited them. While they did so, the rest of the troops conversed or passed the time as they awaited their next orders. Kiel and Marina went to join Lartz once more, but this time, they sought him on the palace training grounds. Some of Bryan and Azura's men were already there, preparing themselves for the campaign against Shigo's troops. Some of Alec's men were there as well, though not as many as one would've hoped to see.

Though Bryan had gone to extraordinary lengths to convince the Astrynian soldiers that had sided with Tavon to join their newly discovered prince, many had been deaf to his pleas. And, those who hadn't listened had perished with their traitorous master.

Still, even though Astryn's army had grown sparse since Shigo had sacked Medann, the Astrynian troops which the group had met during Tavon's last stand couldn't have been all of Alec's men.

Perhaps discipline had become lax during the years of Astryn's decline, and they simply hadn't risen in a timely fashion?

Or, perhaps they still didn't give much credence to the story of the "Lost Prince" having returned?

Either was to be expected, but it was also yet another concern to add to a seemingly endless list.

Hopefully, however, Bryan would be able to convince more of them that he was the true successor to the throne, and persuade them to fight at his side. Knowing that Bryan alone could accomplish this, the others continued their training. Lartz, who had long since recovered from the injury Royce had dealt him back near Aracion, and he had been eager to get himself back in fighting trim and to make up for his absence from the battlefield. When Kiel and Marina found him, however, they saw him setting a meal in front of Fang.

It was a bowl of meat, and it looked very fresh; raw, red, and still-bleeding fresh.

"…Ah! Oh dear…" Kiel uttered, literally freezing in midstride. He immediately began to tremble.

"Oh, Kiel, calm down! You know Lartz's wyvern is gentler than most," Marina reminded him, the slightest hint of irritation in her voice.

Kiel didn't seem particularly convinced. In fact, he didn't seem to even hear Marina. The red wolf's intact eye, round with terror, remained fixed upon Fang's long snout and the fluids escaping his grinding jaws. When these grisly morsels traveled down Fang's throat and he thrust his snout into the bowl for more, Kiel was suddenly certain that if he got close enough to the wyvern's bowl, he'd be devoured in nary a bite.

Marina must've gleaned Kiel's train of thought, for she looped her arm with his, as much to keep the wolf from running as to reassure him.

"Now don't worry," she offered, underscoring her words by squeezing Kiel's hand. "I had a feeling that this would be difficult, and this is exactly why I invited you along with me."

Hearing these words seemed to shock the red wolf from his frightened stupor. He whirled, nearly wrenching free of Marina's grasp, and his gaze hardened into a glare.

"W-What?! You knew Lartz's wyvern was with him?! Of all the low down dirty…!" Kiel trailed off angrily, though there was still quavered with anxiety.

Had Faline been present, she might have commented on Marina's quick temper, and the danger Kiel was in of discovering this first-hand. And, indeed, Marina looked tempted to dislodge a few of Kiel's fangs, but settled for fixing him with a glare that even Ike would find intimidating.

"I am losing patience," Marina warned in the sort of tone that Faline sometimes heard in her nightmares, though it softened a moment later. "But, you're in danger of losing a lot more. I'm doing this for your own good! And, more than that, I might add. Don't you remember how nervous Lartz has always been around wolf laguz? But, you know he really is a good soldier, and a better man. You two owe it to each other to help sort one another's issues out. And, if that's not enough, how about Sara? Your sister might be a bit tart about saying it, but she's always worried sick about you. She fears that you'll freeze in the middle of a battle and then get yourself killed."

These words seemed to overpower Kiel's incredulity, almost as much as Marina's fearsome glowering, and the red wolf gave a reluctant nod.

"Well, that's true…" he admitted. "And I can't let her see me in another mess. Not like the one that cost me my right eye. And, you're also right about Lartz. After we spoke with him back in Castle Talgria, I did feel like I could trust him. That's why I showed him my scars."

"Exactly," Marina affirmed, gently pushing Kiel forward. "Now be brave and go say hi!"

Marina's shove met little resistance, but she could tell that Kiel's knees were knocking together.

"Are…are you sure we can't wait until Fang's full?" he wondered, prompting Marina to roll her eyes heavenward. "Come on! I'd rather be half-blind than half-digested!"

Marina muttered something under her breath about "the real weaker sex" and began silently counting to ten, though she only got up to six before her frustration got the better of her.

"You're going up to him, and that's final," she informed him, unmistakable finality in her tone."

"O-Okay…" Kiel uttered, his gaze fixated upon Fang's slavering jaws.

With that, Kiel approached Lartz and his wyvern, seeming to tremble a bit more with every step. Marina followed a pace behind, a hand clamped upon Kiel's shoulder to urge him forward. The red wolf, it seemed, had no chance of avoiding this confrontation.

"Hey there, Lartz…" he greeted nervously and waved.

"Hi, Lartz!" Marina greeted with a girlish grin.

"Ah, Kiel, Marina. I'm glad to see you two again," Lartz greeted, a grin tugging at his features as he approached and extended a hand.

Having met the former Meloran soldier when he was still a mistrusted outsider amongst the band, Kiel was more than a bit surprised by the dragonmaster's apparent ease, especially with a wolf laguz. Some of his perplexity must've shown, for Lartz had begun to withdraw his hand. But, at the last moment, Kiel's own hand darted out to snatch that of the dragonmaster.

"Sorry about that," the red wolf apologized. "You…kinda caught me off-guard back there."

"I understand," Lartz replied, a hint of sheepishness creeping into his words. "And, I'll admit, I really had some misgivings when I first joined this group, not the smallest of which being you and Sara. But, looking back, I know I made the right choice."

He paused, his gaze drifting tellingly in Marina's direction, then turning his attention back to Kiel.

"Those talks I had with you and Sara also helped me a lot," Lartz went on, subconsciously massaging his side. "The...reception I received from Bryan had me wondering, but, I feel like I finally found someplace I belong."

"Oh, that's good to hear," Kiel replied, more than a bit surprised by the admission.

"I don't feel as leery of wolf laguz as I used to, but your superior officer is another story, I'm afraid. What was his name? Derien? Don't get me wrong, I appreciate him saving me back in Talgria; but, good goddesses, he gives me the chills. Especially when he's transformed, with how he looks about twice the size of any other wolf."

"Heh, rub it in, why don't you?" Kiel complained good-naturedly. "But, I agree. General Derien can be like that sometimes. It's part of what makes him a great leader, though. The way he looks so fearsome by giving them that you-don't-want-to-mess-with-me look can unnerve his enemies and get them to lower their guard. And him being a dire wolf only makes that technique even more effective."

Kiel had been about to say more, but perhaps the reminder of Derien harkened him back to the dangerous mission his superior officer was even now undertaking. The dragonmaster and falcon knight lapsed into silence as well, perhaps even more aware of just how deadly a gamble it was to be skulking about behind the Red Claw's lines. Still, the trio shook off any grim musings that might otherwise have taken root.

Leyon and Derien would succeed.

After all, what was the alternative?

"I've seen plenty of bandits soil themselves just from the sight of him," Kiel continued with a snicker. "His little junket in Cilae will be no different."

"I figured as much," Lartz replied, though he couldn't quite match Kiel's grim humor. "I'm just glad I had the chance to thank him before we split up. But, you're shaking quite a bit. Are you okay?"

Kiel's forced levity suddenly faltered, his snickering degenerating into a nervous chuckle.

"Oh, w-well, I…" he stammered, his gaze straying once more towards Fang and his grisly meal.

"Ah, right," he noted, giving Marina a nearly invisible nod of approval. "I remember you talking about your fear of dragons. But hey, I've begun to think that my wyvern can help you cope with that. Fang is as gentle as a lamb."

An expulsion of digestive gas punctuated his sentence and a flying piece of raw beef suddenly plopped upon Lartz's shoulder. The dragonmaster, apparently used to such occurrences, did not even blink.

"His table manners are those of less endearing creatures," Lartz admitted, flicking the dripping morsel back in Fang's direction. "Still, he trusts anyone that I trust, like you and Marina."

"That's right, Kiel! You have nothing to worry about," Marina put in. "Lartz will even let you pet Fang! He's the sweetest wyvern I've ever met."

"How many wyverns have you met that weren't being ridden by people who were trying to kill you?" Kiel inquired, though with more humor in his tone than trepidation.

"…You've got me there, I know that! But, still, I think it'll do you a lot of good to go through with this."

"Yeah, go ahead. Fang doesn't even mind that sort of thing while he's eating, so as long as he trusts the person," Lartz added with a smile. "And he knows you don't want his food or anything. Though the way he eats, you might get some anyway."

"W-Well…if you're sure," Kiel reluctantly agreed. His levity suddenly slipping away, he then began to slowly approach Fang. Seemingly heedless, the wyvern continued chowing down upon the meat in his bowl, the occasional juicy bits flying out to buffet the approaching red wolf. Fang soon heard Kiel's footsteps and looked up from the bowl to see him. The red wolf briefly jerked to a halt as Fang's reptilian yellow eyes found his own, a sudden onrush of memories overtaking him. He saw again the bodies of his parents washed up on the riverbank, rent and torn so that, for a time, he could not recognize them. Images of the claw marks flashed through his mind, causing his head to lighten and his steps to falter. A hand suddenly clapped onto his shoulder, jolting him back to the present, and he turned to see Lartz at his side. The dragonmaster nodded reassuringly and gave the red wolf a nudge forward. Gulping audibly, Kiel offered no resistance.

Through all this, however, the wyvern's interest had turned back to its meal. Kiel gulped once more as he stared at the creature, and reached out a trembling hand. His quavering fingers found the scales on the back of Fang's neck and, when Fang showed no inclination to bite off his arm, the red wolf exhaled. Seeing Lartz, who was still at his side, offer another encouraging nod, Kiel held his breath and stroked the wyvern's scales, which the winged saurian did not seem to mind at all.

"See? What'd I tell you?" Marina commented smugly once Kiel had finished. "You did it!"

"Yeah, I did, didn't I?" Kiel blew out in a long breath and his lips curved into a smile, though he was still trembling a bit. "I might be able to get over this after all."

"I agree. We'd do pretty well together, I think," Lartz surmised, playfully cuffing Kiel on the shoulder.

"Aw…" Marina uttered, smiling at such comradely antics. She was starting to like Lartz more and more every time she talked to him. Though she hadn't yet joined the group when he'd been unexpectedly added to Azura's army, it was plain to see that he hadn't been a happy person. Yet, it had been no less clear that he was a good man and had a heart far kinder than that of any other Meloran.

"You know how you spoke of how glad you are that you met us?" Kiel asked, his smile broadening. "That goes both ways. And, I'm feeling that I can beat this fear thanks to you two."

"Heh, I'm glad," Lartz replied, thanking Fang for his participation with a stroke upon his scales.

"You know what's funny though?" Marina continued. "All this talk about when we first joined Azura's army reminds me of when I first met you guys. I…can't say I was too impressed, especially since Faline was with you. Back during her time in Cilae's Pegasus knights, she struck me as a washout. She was always behind in her training, seemed distracted so often, was late more times than I could count. But, wow, did she surprise me with how she's improved since then."

"I know what you mean," Lartz chimed in. "I had similar misgivings about Bryan, especially since he nearly killed me twice in a row. Even aside from that, he seemed too hotheaded and impetuous to be a captain. Still, he's gotten much better since then. I really think he and Faline help to get each other's heads mortared on straight."

"Indeed. And, Faline and I got to talking the other day. She must've just had some romantic moment with Bryan or something, because she was flittering about like a drunk Pegasus."

That analogy was greeted with bemused stares from the red wolf and the dragonmaster, though Marina simply chuckled.

"Every once in a while, as something of a hazing prank, somebody adds malt whiskey to the water troughs of the pegasi. It's not a pretty sight. But I'm rambling. Anyway, I was talking about how you and I had some things in common and that I'd made you blush, Lartz, Faline coos and says to me, "Oh, that's so cute! I bet you two would make a lovely couple!""

If Marina's story about Pegasi and malt whiskey had been startling, this tale had left her small audience stunned. Kiel gaped as his gaze turned to Lartz, whose eyebrows shot clear up to his hairline.

"W-What? Well, th-that was…uh…sudden," the dragonmaster uttered, his cheeks going deep red with embarrassment. "But l-let's not get too far ahead of ourselves here."

There was a quirk at the corner of Marina's mouth which, for some reason, caused the hair on the back of Kiel's neck to stand on end. When he saw it blossom into a sly grin that bridged the gap between the falcon knight's ears, the red wolf was suddenly found himself drawing back.

"Oh?" Marina chuckled. "Are you saying you aren't interested?"

"Er…what…I mean…" Lartz stammered, his cheeks suddenly reddening again.

A coy light gleamed in Marina's eyes as she drew closer to the still incoherent dragonmaster, bringing up one long finger to trace over his lips.

"Well," she remarked, a hint of feigned petulance in her words, "then what was that flirtatious smile you flashed me a moment ago?"

"I…" Lartz blurted, wiping at his suddenly streaming brow. "That was…an approving smile. I saw what you…ah…were doing to…help Kiel and I was…er…I was…approving, that's it! Ah…Kiel, tell her!"

Kiel, however, seemed engrossed in cultivating his newfound friendship with Fang, and the dragonmaster found himself alone. Muttering something under his breath about ingrates, Lartz tried to talk his way out of this mess.

Not that Marina gave him much of a chance.

"I'll bet you're like that with all the girls," she jibed, but then her expression softened. "Don't take it hard though, I was just teasing you. And, I'm glad you were willing to help Kiel. It shows you're a good man, even if you fluster too easily."

"Thanks…I think."

"Well, how about we all get some training in? Would you guys like to spar? I think the next step for you, Kiel, should be battling a mounted dracoknight anyway. It'll help make sure you don't panic during a real battle."

Kiel had been snickering all this while, his laughter muffled by Fang's noisy meal, but Marina's suggestion caused him to stiffen.

"Ah, uh…I d-don't know about that…" the red wolf stuttered, his pleading gaze darting toward Lartz.

Unfortunately, the dragonmaster's answering grin offered no escape.

"Oh come on!" Lartz intoned, seeing the red wolf tremble all the more. "She meant that I'll be your opponent, not that we'd send you up against an enemy. And you know Fang and I will go easy on you…but, the Melorans won't. So, you should learn how to deal with dracoknights now, rather than in a real battle."

"W-Well, I guess I could try…"

"Glad to hear it!" Marina agreed. "I'll spar with you guys after."

"Mkay, that settles it then!" Lartz replied with a smile. "Let's go once Fang is finished. He's almost done."

As if on cue, a great saurian belch erupted, sending a foul-smelling cloud billowing towards the trio. Kiel, whose sense of smell was easily the keenest of the three, turned fairly green from the stench.

"Ugh!" he groused, pinching his nostrils shut. "Just so long as he gets that out of his system first!"

After sharing a good natured laugh, Marina and Kiel waited as Lartz began to tack up Fang and led the beast onto the training fields. Though the red wolf's thoughts were quite fixated upon whether or not Lartz would prove as good as his word during their bout, some others found their thoughts traveling in directions other than honing their skills. While Bryan and Owen met with the Astrynian nobles, Faline had lingered near the conference chamber, anxious to know what was going on inside. Though she had donned her armor, she merely sat upon a bench in the hall, craning her head towards the huge mahogany doors for any portent that might slip through the cracks. It soon became apparent, however, that the wood was much too thick for anything softer than an earthquake to reach her ears. Frustrated, her gaze fixed upon the doors, as she worked both to kindle hope that that Bryan would soon emerge and to resist the urge to try and open them a crack so she could listen in.

Neither was an easy task, and Faline found herself snatching back her own hands more than once.

Although Faline was glad that Tavon's plans had been thwarted, even if she had been the one to strike the final blow, she was still worried about her love. Though his determination to lead Astryn to a better future was beyond question, she nonetheless was concerned with how he'd been affected by suddenly being thrust into the position of leading a deeply troubled nation in the midst of an ever-expanding war. After all, Bryan had been shocked to his foundation when he'd first learned of his royal blood and his mother's true identity. He'd been thrown into a daze, at a complete loss as to what to do until Skye had rather harshly knocked some sense into him. And later, after seeing the horrors inflicted upon his homeland, Bryan had flown into a rage against the Red Claw commander that had led the sacking of Astryn's towns for their loot.

Though understandable, this act of pure and uncontrollable rage had nearly cost him more than he could have ever foreseen.

It was quite possible that the pressure of being a prince might eventually prove overwhelming, especially since Bryan had the title of a prince but none of the political grooming that came with it. Such monarchs as Queen Belinda, King Wenceli,s and presumably, the late Queen Marion had begun learning what they'd need to know to succeed their parents as soon as they crossed the boundary between childhood and adolescence. Bryan, by contrast, was armed with little more than his instincts and a few snippets of advice from his father. And, much though she tried to tell herself that such could not happen, Faline feared that this might affect how the people or nobles saw Bryan, or even change him for the worse. The man she loved had always been kind, strong, brave, and staunchly determined to protect those he cares for, whatever the cost to himself might be.

Faline hoped that the Astrynians would find him much the same way she did, but would they instead find a man crumbling inwardly and out under the strain of a duty he was born to and yet had not been trained to bear? The falcon knight sighed as she prayed to Ashunera that the latter outcome would not happen. Moments later, however, Faline was snapped out of her trance by the sound of footsteps drawing near. She looked up to see Elincia approaching her, armored up as well and with Amiti sheathed at her hip.

"Oh, hey, Faline," Elincia greeted with a smile. "I'm not surprised to see you here, what with Bryan being on the other side of those doors over there."

"Ah, Elincia," Faline replied, putting a lot of effort into painting a smile on her face. "Hey, I heard the good news that you and Ike are getting married! That's so awesome!"

"Hee hee, I guess word has gone around by now," Elincia surmised with a giggle, though her levity quickly faded. "Hey, are you alright? You're smiling, but you're also fidgeting."

Faline looked down to see her hands clenching and trembling of their own accord.

"Oh, uh…" she began, and then sighed. "I guess there's no hiding it. I've just been worried about Bryan, is all."

"Why's that? He seems to be fine…all things considered, that is."

"Well, I'm not sure. Ever since we first found out about his royal blood, he's changed. And even before then, when I first found him and Azura at sea, it was clear enough to me that he was different. Don't get me wrong, I still love him the same way I did when he escorted me home a year ago. In fact, it's because I love him that I worry about him so. I mean, all of a sudden, he has all of…well, this to worry about."

She punctuated her words by wildly flinging her arms about to encompass the expansive marble corridors, the gilded ornamentations, the opulent tapestries, and all the other astonishing decadence that marked the palace as the seat of kings. Curiously, Faline noticed an odd gleam in Elincia's eye as her gaze scanned the decor. Elincia, Faline belatedly noticed, did not seem overwhelmed as the falcon knight and her beloved sentinel had, though the emerald-haired woman hardly seemed at ease.

There was a curious light in her amber colored eyes, almost like…nostalgia?

Where did that come from? she wondered silently, but then shoved aside the question and turned her focus back upon Bryan.

"He's in there, and everybody expects him to find a way to guide this country back to greatness," she went on. "And, I can barely even guess at how much of a burden that must be. It was really hard for him to accept that he's a royal, and, even now, I fear it's going to become even more difficult for him."

It might've been Faline's imagination, but Elincia's expression seemed to be one of empathy.

"Mm," Elincia intoned. "I can definitely understand that. Any way you look at it, what he's going through is tough."

Though Faline would later convince herself that worry for Bryan had over-fired her imagination, she had not been mistaken about Elincia's seeming empathy. Having once been a queen, and having faced the same challenges as Bryan, without success in Elincia's opinion, she knew full well that a crown was more burden than adornment. The one time she's deigned to wear it for Ike, she'd remarked that it felt as though she'd been balancing an anvil on her head.

She hadn't been speaking just figuratively, even though it had felt good to have Ike soothing her bruised cranium with his tender kisses.

Elincia found herself wondering if bringing up her own time as a monarch might help, but decided against it. Though Ike had never missed an opportunity to argue otherwise, she hardly considered her reign a good example from which Bryan or Faline might draw reassurance or advice. And, relaying the story would more likely end up worrying Faline instead.

She hardly liked to speak of that part of her life anyway.

Even if she was alone in believing her reign had been a failure, her shortcomings had been too glaring and too numerous for her to dismiss.

"I guess it really started back at Fort Hector," Faline went on, shaking Elincia back to attention. "Bryan just…lost it and he nearly killed both Ike and Lartz. He was so angry and he had such wild hatred in his eyes. When I first met Bryan, he never would've acted like that in any situation. Even Skye agreed that he had gone way over the line when he went ballistic against that Red Claw commander from before. And…I…I understand that he's changing, and that he might have to in order to be the ruler Astryn needs. But, I don't want that person who went into a killing frenzy to be what he changes into!"

"I don't blame you at all," Elincia replied, having to take in a breath before she continued. "Once Bryan came back to himself, after the incident with the Red Claw commander, he felt horrible. I noticed him sitting by that lake, and he was in tears."

"True. He even feared that he might have lost me; that I was so horrified at what he'd done that I'd leave him. But I could never leave him. Not for anything."

Elincia lowered herself onto the bench and clapped a reassuring hand on Faline's shoulder.

"And that's something that should help him keep going, no matter how hard things get," she intoned, smiling with approval at Faline's resolution.

"You think so?" Faline wondered, her eyes turning glassy.

"Of course. Back on Tellius, Ike and I went through a lot of hardships just to see each other, let alone be together. At that time, opportunities to be together were few and far between. But, through it all, and even when things were at their worst, I never stopped believing that, one day, all that would be behind us."

Elincia's eyes alighted upon her engagement ring. "And, I was right."

"That's a great story," Faline replied, though her brow furrowed with perplexity a moment later. "But, why did you have to go through all that trouble anyway? I mean, you and Ike had to elope to a whole other continent! I'd probably do the same thing for Bryan, if I had to. But, how did it come to that for you and Ike?"

Elincia's cheeks had suddenly taken on a dusky hue, which caused the furrows in Faline's brow to deepen.

"It's…complicated," the emerald-haired woman replied vaguely.

"Did your parents not approve of Ike? My mother first saw Bryan a long time ago, and she didn't like him at all."

Again, a curious light flickered in Elincia's eyes, as though her thoughts had migrated to another time…one far removed from what had truly transpired.

"Actually, my parents were killed before Ike and I even met," she answered.

"I'm sorry to hear that," Faline replied, recalling her own mother's death.

Elincia didn't immediately respond. Instead, her gaze had once more become distant.

"Sometimes, I find myself wondering," she said, almost to herself. "Maybe, if they'd lived, things would've been much different."

For a long moment, Faline wasn't sure if she ought to speak. But, after a moment, she found herself asking "Was it Ike's parents?"

"No," Elincia replied, seeming more present than before. "Ike lost his mother when he was little, and his father was killed not long after Ike and I first met. I didn't have the chance to get to know him, aside from the stories Ike told me. I really wish it had been different though, since losing him was so hard on Ike."

Faline couldn't help a twinge of envy, since Elincia's tone said a great deal about how different Ike's father must've been from Faline's, but lingering curiosity soon moved to the forefront on her thoughts.

"Then, why couldn't you two have been together in Tellius?"she wondered. "I don't understand."

"In a lot of ways, I don't either," Elincia admitted cryptically. "But, if I had it all to do over again, the decision to be with Ike is probably the one thing I wouldn't even think of changing."

Faline, her thoughts moving once more to Bryan and echoing the emerald-haired woman's sentiments, clapped a hand on Elincia's shoulder and gave a comradely squeeze. Even though the falcon knight could readily discern that Elincia hadn''t told her everything, not by a long-shot, Faline could not help but feel a sense of admiration for the courage and determination it must've taken to, almost literally, chase her love to a whole different world.

The emerald-haired woman was keeping her secrets about just why being with Ike had required such an elopement and so much sacrifice, but Faline decided she could respect the other couple's privacy.

"And, getting back to Bryan," Elincia went on, sounding almost eager to shift the focus of the conversation. "He has you, Skye, and many other friends and supporters to help him through these tough times. You'd be amazed how many people looked to Ike to guide them through dark days back on Tellius, and he'd been even less prepared than Bryan. But he had others he could turn to for advice, and I've never met a braver man than him. So, personally, I like Bryan's chances."

"That's true too, but…" Faline's words trailed off as her gaze lowered. "After what's happened, I'm worried that even Skye and I just may not be enough… And then, there's still my sisters back in Aracion, who are ill and probably wounded too. They were lucky enough to have survived the fall of Cilae at all. And then there's my mother…who wasn't so lucky…"

Faline sniffled as a tear trickled down her cheek.

"Just this morning, I was thinking quite a bit about her," she went on, "especially how surprised she'd be with how Bryan turned out. I could just picture her fawning over her grandkids while I was sitting right next to her, smugly saying "I told you so.""

A peculiar sound escaped Faline's throat then, as though she couldn't decide if she ought to laugh or sob, and had somehow managed to do both in the same breath.

"I know, that must sound so childish," she admitted.

"A little," Elincia remarked, though with no hint of reproach.

"But afterward, it just hurt so much when I realized that it would never happen."

"I know… I lost my parents because of a war too. Ike also lost his father in that same war, and Raela and Lily lost their parents to the Red Claw as well. And, of course, the man who killed Bryan's mother is still out there. Many can sympathize with what you're going through in that matter, but we all had to find the strength to move on. I may not have met your mother, but, from what I do know about her, she'd want you to find some happiness in your life."

"Yes… I've been trying. It's just so hard."

"I understand completely. Wounds like that never really go away. Believe me, I know. All we can really do is learn to live with them."

"True…"

Faline lapsed into silence for a long moment, her thoughts once more straying to her mother, and she was suddenly, painfully aware of the truth of Elincia's words.

Living with that pain would be difficult.

Elincia seemed to sense Faline's mood, for her brow furrowed in concentration for a moment, and then she suddenly brightened.

"…Ah, I have an idea that might cheer you up, Faline!" she blurted out, so abruptly that it caused Faline to jump. "How about we pester the boys into taking us on a double date sometime when this is all over? Wouldn't that be fun?"

At this, Faline's face lit up.

"Ooh, that would be wonderful!" she gushed, but her excitement seemed to dim in an instant. "Oh, but… Bryan's probably going to be so busy even when this war is over. He might not have the time…"

"Oh, he'd always have time for you! He and Ike would love the idea, I'm sure."

"Well, if you say so. It'll be exciting, I know that! Say, where is Ike, anyway? I can't even remember the last time I saw the two of your apart."

"There might not have been a last time, actually."

"Yeah, probably not. But, I would have thought that he'd be on his way to the training field by now, at least."

"Oh, he's probably still in the dining hall. Last I saw of him, he went to get breakfast. He said he absolutely loved the dinner he had last night and, after his fourth serving, he told me that he simply couldn't wait to try the breakfast."

Faline chuckled and rolled her eyes good-naturedly.

"I swear, he could probably clean out this place's whole granary if he wanted to!" she remarked.

"Can't say it would surprise me, since he already did that back at Castle Eraghoa."

"…seriously?"

"We visited Castle Eraghoa on our way to Aracion, a ways before we met you. King Rothgar invited us to dinner, but I suspect he won't be doing so again anytime soon."

"…Wow. If I ate like that, I'd need a whole team of pegasis just to get me off the ground."

"Oh, Ike's been like that for a long, long time."

As she finished the sentence, Elincia found herself harkening back to another adventure she'd had with Ike. Some months after the end of the Mad King's War, she'd managed to escape long enough to join him and the Greil Mercenaries in their hunt for Ettard. During their search, they'd met Rosie, a laguz shaman who'd known Ike when he was a tot and had adopted him as her grandchild.

And, by all accounts, she had been the single most indulgent grandmother that Elincia had ever even heard of.

Even back then, Ike had had a hearty appetite, and Rosie had been only too happy to oblige his every wish. Because of Sephiran's tampering with Ike's memories, Ike recalled very little of that time, and had been quite anxious to discover more of his past. However, when he'd received an old family portrait from Rosie, the image of himself as a very tubby toddler had rather thoroughly dampened his enthusiasm.

The other Greil Mercenaries having a bit of rude fun over Ike's embarrassing discovery hadn't helped matters either. But, since Ike was the one who paid their salaries, he did get the last laugh.

Whatever happened to that portrait anyway? Elincia found herself wondering.

Between navigating the perils of the Gallian jungle and racing every which-where to follow the clues leading to Ettard, she hadn't had a chance to find out what had become of the old portrait. Ike hadn't seemed particularly eager to keep it but, since it was the only picture of his mother he'd ever found, perhaps he'd reconsidered. As far as she knew, he hadn't brought it with him, so maybe it had gone up in smoke when the former mercenary fort had been torched? She hoped that wasn't the case, and that Geoffrey truly was recovering after his melancholy had driven him over the edge.

"Elincia?" Faline spoke up, snapping her back to attention.

"Oh!" Elincia blurted. "Sorry about that, I had let my thoughts wander."

"Yeah, I can't say I blame you. But, there's one thing I've been wondering for a long time now. When this is over, will you and Ike go back to Tellius?"

That question caused Elincia to fall into another contemplative silence, though one of a darker bent than those prior.

Could I go back if I wanted to? she inwardly wondered. And, for that matter, do I?

Two questions, which, in truth, encompassed hundreds more.

Elincia knew she would dearly love to see her lord uncle and her milk-siblings again. She also would dearly like to visit her parents' resting place again and see how Gwydion, her elderly Pegasus, was enjoying his retirement. And, she had a feeling that seeing Boyd and Soren had given Ike a pointed reminder of the people he too had left behind.

She much wanted to see them again. But, would they want to see her?

Many people had surely been disheartened and disappointed when she'd abdicated the throne, regardless of whether or not she'd been right to pass the crown into her lord uncle's hands. And, by the sound of it, the blame for Geoffrey's short-lived rampage was likely upon her head.

The notion of what he, and Lucia, had been put through filled her with grief.

Perhaps it would be best to cut all ties, and leave the people she'd left behind to their own devices?

From the news Boyd and Soren had delivered, the situation in Crimea had begun to turn around, and perhaps it would be best if she didn't appear to reopen old wounds.

And, yet, the former queen was nonetheless at odds with herself.

Crimea might or might not be her home anymore, but, despite her decision to leave, the land of her birth was nonetheless still dear to her. And, she knew Ike had roots there as well. Her heart ached to try and make some sort of recompense for what had happened to Geoffrey, and what anguish it must've caused Lucia. And, even if she could not hope to be the stateswoman Crimea needed and, mistakenly in her opinion, believed Elincia to be, she could not help but believe that she ought to do something to take responsibility for the harm her shortcomings as a queen had caused.

She owed it to her former subjects, and the return of a great hero such as Ike might regale the people's spirits.

She did not trust herself to wear the crown again, but she might seek service as a healer or a diplomat in her lord uncle's service, or even a mercenary fighting alongside her beloved Ike.

Of course, that brought up a very prominent point of contention in the matter.

If she and Ike returned, would they been separated once again?

Perhaps they would be, their engagement forcibly sundered and the chasm of their birth, once bridged, would yawn wide once again.

Or, maybe the people had either learned from her departure, or no longer cared whom their former queen consorted with.

Elincia rolled her eyes at the accidental pun, but her levity was short-lived.

For all her ponderings, she was certain only that the question of where she would live would be answered by which continent would accept her and Ike's love.

And, for all her ponderings, she had wound up right back where she started.

"I'm really not sure," she finally admitted. "It would depend on whether or not I could be with Ike. Like I said, it's complicated. And, I'm sorry to say, I really don't want to talk about it anymore. Not yet, at least."

"Okay," Faline replied, not pressing the issue. "I'm here though, if you change your mind."

"I appreciate that, thank you."

"And, if you can't go back to Tellius?"

A wry smile crossed Elincia's lips, one not too dissimilar from Ike's rakish grin.

"Well," she began, almost coyly, "aside from all the people who've tried to kill me lately, this place does have its charms."

Faline and Elincia laughed long and raucously together over the emerald-haired woman's words while, barely a dozen paces away, the newly rediscovered Prince Bryan was busy making history…

…in ways both desirable and not-so-much.

Owen had, rather hastily, given his son a quick lesson on how best to deal with the nobles. Although Bryan had interacted with such people before, he'd always done so as a subordinate.

Being the prince, his role and theirs were now reversed.

Owen had advised Bryan to treat them as he might his own troops; speaking to them with a firm but respectful manner, listening to their suggestions, but not letting them make his decisions for him.

In hindsight, Owen might find cause to regret his choice of analogies for, when confronted with a room full of opulently dressed nobles rising from their chairs to bow and curtsy respectfully, his son had perfunctorily intoned "As you were."

The perplexed stares that greeted his words, and the nearly inaudible sound of Owen grinding his teeth, told Bryan that he must've gotten the phrasing wrong. But, thankfully, the meeting soon commenced. The various nobles, evidently, already knew that this "Lost Prince" was the genuine article, which Bryan knew would save precious time. Bryan quickly outlined to the assembly what had happened since he'd arrived in Astryn. In particular, he'd relayed that Shigo had returned to complete what he had begun more than two decades prior and Tavon's scheme to force Astryn to remain neutral in the war between Melora and Allied Command. Bryan had been worried that Tavon being killed, rather than arrested and tried, might make these supposed allies wary of helping him, but they seemed to understand that he'd had little choice in the matter.

With that, done, the meeting began in earnest. Between Shigo's return, the continued threat from the suddenly hostile Larameans, and the possibility that Melora might retaliate over Tavon's death, there was no shortage of threats confronting the prince of Astryn's new reign. Still, though Bryan knew little of statesmanship, his strategic mind was not shaken by these strange, new circumstances.

Unfortunately, neither his strategic mind nor the others at the table could offer much encouragement.

A large portion of Astryn's army had, apparently, shared the same sentiments as the band of deserters he'd faced some time ago, and those who'd sided with Tavon. Believing Astryn either needed different leadership, or was beyond saving, many of them had deserted and turned to banditry. Those who remained were much fewer in number and, aside from Eric's dracoknights, largely untried.

Between Shigo's army and the potential Laramean raiders, Bryan could foresee that Astryn's army was too few and weak to confront these threats directly.

And, when the topic of where Shigo might be was discussed, the situation seemed even grimmer.

Ever since Shigo's first invasion, large portions of Astryn had fallen into lawlessness. Some regions were, for all intents and purposes, controlled by bandits, while others, largely picked clean, had been abandoned entirely. Since Shigo's troops encroaching upon the still populated regions would have been noticed long ago, the renegade Meloran general could only be somewhere amongst those wild regions. Information about them was sketchy and outdated, but Bryan could see that a number of deserted villages and abandoned forts lay within these lawless provinces.

Thus, Shigo had vast swaths of the country to hide in, while all Bryan had to seek him out and confront him with was a skeletal army of inexperienced and dispirited men.

Yet, this didn't stop Canus from insisting that Bryan address what troops he had at his command, and then to seek out and attack Shigo as soon as possible.

"Canus, I won't say it again," Bryan replied testily. "We will not strike now. We have no way of knowing where Shigo might be hiding and, even if we did, I don't feel we are ready to confront him yet."

"Why not? Once word of your return spreads, our troops will regain their fighting spirit!" Canus argued. "Our people have, for the most part, not had a leader for many years, but, you have already proven yourself to be a peerless commander! And besides, not only could Shigo attack us at any time, but we face other threats from Larame and Melora! I really think it's best for us to deal with Shigo as quickly as possible, lest he still be lurking at our backs when we face the threats lurking from beyond our borders."

"I agree," Alec put in. "With things as they stand, we likely won't have much time before more trouble crosses our doorstep. We should deal with Shigo as quickly as possible."

"But what good will it do if we attack Shigo when we don't have the strength to win?" Bryan pointed out. "Even if I can motivate the soldiers, that will only do so much. From what you tell me, our troops are too few and too inexperienced."

"I'm inclined to agree with you, your highness, but are you sure it's worth the risk of Shigo attacking us first?" Laris inquired. "There's no telling when the Larameans might attack again, or if Melora might attack us. If we were to face one, or both of those threats with Shigo still at large, it could be disastrous."

"That much is true, your highness," Francois seconded. "The strategic situation is…less-than-favorable, but, waiting might very well make it worse."

"I'm afraid I must concede that point as well, Bryan," Owen added.

"I understand what you all are saying, but I feel that we must wait," Bryan insisted, taking on a firmer tone. "Also, I don't think Shigo will attack us any time soon."

"W-Wait, what?!" Canus exclaimed, so stunned that an Arcfire tome nearly fell from his suddenly nerveless fingers. "Are you insane?! Your father told you about how ruthless and cold-hearted he is!"

Canus had been about to say more, and it looked as though several others at the table were ready to join in, but, Bryan silenced them with an upraised palm.

"I am all too aware of the history I have with Shigo, but…hasn't it occurred to any of you that he may not be the same man that he was twenty two years ago?" Bryan suggested, recalling what his mother had said in his dream.

Yet another uncomfortable silence fell over the room, this time chafing and stifling. Bryan's gaze roamed over the assembled nobles and, inevitably, his eyes met those of Owen.

And, there was no hiding the expression of shock and pain on his face.

"Bryan, what are you saying?!" Owen blurted, his customary calm nearly evaporating. "You know what he did to our land…our family…your mother. How can you defend him?!"

"Don't put words in my mouth!" Bryan snapped, though more for the sake of maintaining a commanding appearance than out of anger. "Just listen to me and you'll understand. First of all, I cannot condone or forgive Shigo for what he did those years ago, nor can I ever forgive him for killing my mother. However, the fact remains that he has been here for some time now, but that he has taken no action. Not to mention that he let me live despite murdering my mother. Wha''s more, he's had plenty of opportunities to kill me since then, and to take Astryn for himself. Yet, he's let them all slip past him. There's only one explanation; he's waiting for something, and, whatever it is, it's important to him."

Some of Owen's incredulity seemed to seep out of him and, when he met his son's gaze, his expression was apologetic. Trying not to let his relief be terribly obvious to his audience, Bryan gave a sliver of a relieved nod in reply.

"Perhaps you are right," his father intoned, his brow suddenly furrowing. "But, what is he waiting for? And, how does it help us?"

"The way I see it, there's only one reason for him to wait," Bryan replied. "Somehow, some way, I think he is waiting for us to be ready for him. If that's true, then he'll give us the time we need to give him a proper challenge. And, that's time we'll put to good use. Please, just trust me on this."

"Sigh… If you say so. But for all our sakes, I hope you're right," Canus replied.

"I have no doubts." Bryan said, his tone brooking no argument. "I may not understand why he'd wait for us to be ready for him, but his doing so gives us a fighting chance. And I intend to use it."

"Well…then, what would you like to do before we strike?" Laris wondered.

"As I said earlier, what troops Astryn has are too few and too inexperienced to deal with Shigo, much less those Laramean beast laguz. They still believe that we looted their stores, and they will surely be coming back as well. We need more men."

"Well, I have a thought on how we can address that problem, Prince Bryan," Laris cut in. "I would advise that you take a group and travel to Orenias to meet with King Cragen. He will be more than glad to assist us, since our nations have been friends for generations. Admittedly, he doesn't know any of you, and he can be rather blunt and intimidating at times. However, so long as you show him Eronite, he will know you can be trusted."

"That's a good idea," Francois agreed. "Whatever reason Shigo has for staying his hand, it's doubtful that Melora or the Larameans will have any such compunction. However, if the Orenias dragons were to lend us their aid, it might give our enemies pause. We can use that time, in particular, to discover who framed Eric's men for robbing the Larameans."

"Speaking of which, where is Eric?" Owen wondered, already sensing his son's displeasure at the question. "I thought he would be here with us."

"He said he wanted to make sure that Armelle was alright after what Tavon pulled with his Silence staff," Bryan replied, ending the sentence with a grumble. "But, I know it's really because he didn't want to be in my presence."

"Typical…" Alec groused. "I swear, Eric is as stubborn as a mule. Just like his father was. I was still a child when General Reynard died, but I remember him…"

Though he tried to hide it, Bryan could detect a hint of grief in Owen's face at the mention of his old friend. Bryan slipped one hand under the table, grasping for his father's. A flicker of surprise crossed Owen's face, but his expression eased as Bryan felt his hand being gently squeezed in answer.

"Seeking help from Orenias might help," Laris spoke up. "But, what of our own army? It has been in tatters for years now, and our kingdom has been crumbling all the while."

"Talgria has been known to use conscription during wartime," Bryan spoke up. "Could we do the same here?"

"That might help to bolster our numbers," Alec conceded. "But, our real problem is that, aside from the dracoknights, we have few experienced troops. Indeed, over the years, many of our seasoned warriors have abandoned their service and turned to banditry."

Recalling running afoul of such a group, Bryan had to struggle to keep a scowl from his features. Even if he could understand why those deserters had made the choices they did, the recollection of Sally and her impoverished village caused the logic to turn his guts.

Thus, at Canus' next words, he was briefly leapt gaping in barely restrained fury.

"Would you mind repeating that?" he replied, his tone flat and grim.

"I realize that it might sound…questionable," Canus said warily. "But, perhaps those who have deserted our army could be drawn back by the offer of a…general pardon?"

Some of Bryan's displeasure must've shown, for Canus began to lean back in his seat, as though to put in a little more distance between him and the prince.

And, indeed, he might need every last inch.

Despite his anger, Bryan was stunned at the suggestion. How could he expect his people to trust him if he allowed people who had terrorized them to go unpunished?

Didn't you take a similar risk with Lartz? some inner voiced asked.

That musing extinguished Bryan's anger like a dose of cold water. It had been quite some time since the former Meloran dragonmaster had defected, and Bryan suddenly found himself remembering his own doubts about Lartz's sincerity.

In hindsight, they seemed almost silly. But, though Lartz had long since proven himself trustworthy, the prince realized he'd only given the faintest consideration to what Lartz might've done before his defection.

For all Bryan knew, Lartz's past might very well be marred by far worse than banditry.

And yet, despite that possibility, Bryan trusted him.

Might there be others, among the deserters who were the same, who could be trusted with a second chance to serve the people and country they'd once turned their backs on?

"I'll consider it," Bryan decided. "But first, we'll travel to Orenias. I've seen on maps that an area called the Dragon Claw Desert straddles the border between Orenias and Astryn. Will we have to cross it?"

"No, King Cragen's castle is northwest of the desert," Laris explained. "You can easily travel around those wastes. The terrain near the border will grow mountainous, making travel a little more difficult, but the mountains are certainly passable."

"Alright, that's good. I would hate to have to worry about running out of water along the way. Anyway, while I'm gone, I'll need you to see about the recruitment efforts. Deliver conscription notices everywhere you can think of. And, if we have any reserve troops, call them up as well. However, I want the majority of the army to remain here for now to guard the palace and capital. As has been said earlier, Melora may retaliate against us for the thwarting of Tavon's plans and I refuse to take any chances."

"That's a good plan," Owen commented. "And I would like to join you again. Orenias is unfamiliar territory to many of you, and I have actually been there once before, so I can serve as a guide."

"Alright, that works. If that's all for now, then let's adjourn this meeting. Azura and I will gather some troops and get ready to depart."

Perhaps Bryan had overlooked some rule of how princes were expected to conclude such conferences, for the other nobles seemed surprised by the abruptness of his declaration. Knowing that time was against him, he fell back on Owen's earlier, somewhat flawed advice and intoned "You are dismissed."

With that, Bryan and Owen departed the chamber, the latter rubbing at his temples and muttering something to the effect of "what was I thinking?"

"Was I really that bad?" Bryan wondered, almost conversationally.

"You need practice," Owen replied curtly.

"I'll be sure to put that on my Royal Itinerary, right after "Save Civilization," "Marry Faline," and "Figure Out How To Navigate The Palace."

The two men shared a raucous laugh, and then went about making their preparations. After greeting Faline and Elincia, Bryan decided that Laris and Canus had best remain at the palace to aid its defense and to ensure that the recruitment efforts went forward. Francois, meanwhile, would accompany Bryan's group once again. Alec would also journey with Bryan, as he felt that the more Astrynian support Bryan had with him on this journey, the better. The prince also requested, after a great deal of cajoling from Faline and Owen, that Eric and Olivia go as well. It quickly became apparent, however, that Eric wanted to stay so he could be with Armelle. Bryan was almost relieved to hear this, but Armelle insisted that she accompany them as well because she wanted Bryan to have as many healers as possible. Seething, Eric then gave in and chose to go along as a result, but only because of Armelle and the fact that he had yet to find "the scum" that framed his men for robbing the beast laguz. Bryan could understand the sentiment, and even sympathize, as his Talgrian platoon had also been framed for crimes they had not committed. He told Eric about it and promised he'd help, despite the tension between the two. All Eric had said in reply was that he didn't care as long as Bryan stayed out of his way. Bryan merely scowled as the dragonmaster left for the main hall.

Since most of the group was already out on the training grounds, it did not take long for Azura and Bryan to gather the same troops. They assembled the same group that had accompanied them when they first arrived in Astryn, along with Zarek and Fin. By this time, a number of the Astrynian troops had trickled onto the field, and Bryan suddenly found himself second-guessing his decision to entrust the palace to them. Although he recognized some of the men who'd left Tavon's side to join him as capable soldiers, most of the others had seen too many winters, or too few.

Some were too small for their armor, others too large. Several had their armor on backwards, and others wore armor that was suffering from visible neglect. Looking at the sorry specimens before him, Bryan found himself fervently hoping that he was right that Shigo would not attack any time soon. But, then again, there was no telling whether or not the other Melorans, or the Red Claw, or even the Laramean beast laguz might strike while the prince and his companions were gone. Though he idly wondered if it would do any good, Bryan ordered the Astrynian troops to train, and hard. Still, he was already planning to give the lot of them a severe dressing down when he returned.

And on that cheerful note, his and Azura's group departed once more, this time heading further west toward the land of the dragons. Kye, even after nearly being eviscerated by a Red Claw member the day before, was very nearly jumping up and down with excitement, saying that he'd always wanted to see a real dragon laguz up close in person. During the journey, he even claimed that he had seen something big flying high in the Talgrian sky some months back. It had been too distant for him to see clearly, but he swore on his life that it was a red dragon laguz. However, Skye never believed him. He said there was simply no reason for a dragon laguz to be clear on the opposite side of the continent and that Kye must've seen a bird laguz messenger or something. However, Kye staunchly refused to concede, and stood by his claim.

Over half the day passed as the group traveled and they gradually approached the border that separated Astryn from Orenias. The Dragon Claw Desert covered much of the southwestern area of Astryn, spreading across the border to encompass the southeastern regions of Orenias. In order to circumvent it, the group was forced to pass near the border of Larame. Both Azura and Bryan had heard of the desert before, but all they knew for certain about it was that it was named for its curving shape, which resembled the claw of a dragon. And of course, part of it lay within Orenias's borders.

Still, the small army wasn't keen to see it up close.

The group cautiously skirted the Laramean border and, as Laris had said, they soon came upon a mountain range. However, unlike many of Talgria's mountains, these slopes were low and gentle, and covered with forests that offered ample defense from unfriendly eyes. Few of the rocky peaks were impassable, and luckily, none stood in the group's path. Suddenly, however, just as the group was mere miles from crossing into Orenias, a loud shriek echoed from above them.

"You guys, that was a wyvern!" Lartz shouted. "I'd know that kind of roar from anywhere!"

"So would I, and he's right!" Eric seconded. "I bet you it's the dirtbags that framed my men!"

"Blast! Not now!" Bryan opined in frustration. "They could draw the attention of the beast laguz, and we'd be vastly outnumbered! Everyone, just be quiet and stay low and maybe they won't notice us!"

"What?! You're a fantastic fool if you think I'm going to just let them go!" Eric shot back and turned to the dracoknight in the sky. "YOU WON'T GET AWAY WITH THIS, YOU SLIMEBALL!"

With that, Eric spurred his wyvern into the air. However, he didn't get far. The other wyvern rider had heard his shout and turned to face the oncoming Dragonmaster.

"Damn it, Eric! Your idiocy is going to get us killed!" Bryan angrily shouted, though Eric merely ignored him.

"Geez, his temper is worse than mine," Skye commented.

As the wyvern rider Eric had shouted to descended to meet the dragonmaster, both aerial combatants hovered in the air, weapons angled for the kill. Eric noticed, however, that a pair of bulging sacks had been lashed to either side of the other rider's saddle. Moments later, at least two dozen other dracoknights appeared behind the first, each similarly laden.

"Well, well," the enemy dragonmaster spoke up, chuckling. "Look what we've got here. It's General Eric. I must admit, I wasn't expecting to see you way out here."

"You're damn right it's me! If those sacks are what I think they are, you're in for a world of pain!" Eric threatened.

"Hey! I smell the meat and herbs that the beast laguz like to use inside those sacks!" Ranulf shouted.

"So do I!" Kiel seconded. "They must be the ones that robbed the Larameans!"

"Heh, heh, so we are," the enemy dragonmaster confirmed. "Pity we had to meet so soon, though. My men and I were going to "deliver" some of the loot to a fort near Astryn Palace, so as to leave no doubt in the Larameans' minds that you were the culprits. But it looks like we'll have to settle for defeating you instead."

"Ha, dream on, whoreson!" Eric retorted and unslung his poleax. "I knew it had to be Meloran dracoknights that framed my men! Prepare to die!"

Suddenly, however, Eric noticed that the flock of wyvern riders he faced each carried infantry units as well as loot. In an instant, numerous snipers, warriors, halberdiers, sages, and swordmasters from the wyverns to the ground, setting upon the group from air and land. Bryan clenched his teeth and grimaced in anger, wishing fervently that Eric would've just listened to him and kept his big mouth shut. Now, however, he had no choice but to do battle. He un-slung Eronite and the sounds of the other troops drawing their own weapons reached his ears. Still, this encounter could not have happened at a worse time. The Melorans he faced would be trouble enough, but, the Meloran dracoknights were carrying sacks of food and other supplies stolen from the Larameans. If any of the beast laguz were nearby, they would surely smell them and follow the scent.

And, given how close they were to the Laramean border, it would surely be a matter of time before they showed up to give Bryan's group even more problems to contend with. He doubted that his and Azura's men could win this battle and leave before that happened, so their only other option was to whittle down the Melorans' numbers enough so that by the time the laguz arrived, the odds would be even.

Knowing that the Melorans' advantage in the air posed the greater threat, Bryan ordered Skye, Fin, and the magic users to focus mainly on the dracoknights, hoping that arrows and thunder magic could clear the skies of hostiles. Francois, being the most proficient with thunder magic, proved deadly to the saurian flyers. Faline also engaged the dracoknights since she had the wyrmslayer that had been given to her by the Astrynian swordmaster after she'd killed Tavon. As the enemy dracoknights charged, Kiel gulped audibly as the enemy dracoknights swooped down on the party, though, since he'd been pushed into his close encounter with Fang, his dread of wyverns was no longer overwhelming. Azura also decided to fend off their airborne foes since her sword offered her an advantage against the dracoknights' axes.

Sometime later, however, just as Bryan had feared, the roar of a tiger suddenly echoed in the distance. Though he could not see the tiger, he didn't doubt for a moment that it was the same white tiger laguz that had led an attack against the Astrynians mere days before. And sure enough, an all too familiar blur of claws and stripes burst forth from the nearby woods. Bryan growled angrily and then blanched with dread as he noticed that there were far too many Melorans for the group to break off the engagement. Worse, enemy reinforcements had appeared from the hills, leaving the group outnumbered and trapped.

"Blast it! The beast laguz are here!" he shouted.

"They are?!" Eric replied from above, although he seemed neither surprised nor worried.

"Yeah! Eric, this is exactly why I didn't want these Melorans to see us!" Bryan shouted, wishing he could reach the dragonmaster and strangle him. "That goddess damned mouth of yours might've just signed all of our death warrants!"

"You moron! It's good that the laguz are here!" Eric retorted. "If we can convince them that these Meloran worms are the ones that looted their stores, they'll help us!"

Bryan merely grumbled, as Eric did have a point.

"Huh, easier said than done," he uttered in annoyance, though the dragonmaster likely cared nothing for the prince's opinions.

Deciding he hardly had a choice in the matter, Bryan tried to approach the laguz. Before he'd taken more than half a dozen steps, however, something rammed him in the chest, knocking the breath from his lungs and sending him sprawling to the dirt. Once he'd blinked away enough stars to see, he beheld the white tiger looming over him.

"You! I knew we'd find you at the other end of that scent!" the tiger intoned, his fangs bared. "You won't give me the slip this time! We know some of what was stolen from us is here, and I'm eager for some payback!"

"Idiot! They're with those Meloran dracoknights, not us!" Bryan retorted, using his eyes to direct the tiger's gaze upward, lest an attempt to point cost him an arm. "It's the truth! See for yourself!"

"Oh, I see plenty. It's your eyes I'm wondering about. Look to your left."

Suddenly feeling a chill at the base of his spine, Bryan turned his head and saw a pile of bulging sacks sitting on the ground nearby. The dracoknights must've cut them free of their saddles during the battle, dropping them there to make it look like Bryan and Azura's group had been carrying them.

"If you're not the thieves, then perhaps you can explain that?" the tiger suggested rhetorically, his eyes dilating with anticipation of vengeance.

"Damn it, those dracoknights—!" Bryan groused, but an impatient growl from the tiger reminded him of his more pressing difficulties. "Look, we're kind of in trouble here—"

"You have a remarkable gift for understatement," the tiger commented dryly. "Perhaps my claws can remove a few of your cares?"

"Listen to me! Those Melorans are the ones who raided your lands! They were carrying that loot when we found them, and they cut the sacks free while we were fighting. Look at the sacks and their saddles. You see they're freshly cut ropes on both, right?"

The tiger had one paw hovering over Bryan's face, claws unsheathed. And, yet, he paused and gave the sacks a cursory glance.

"I see cut ropes, and that's all," he intoned, unimpressed. "For all I know, you and these dracoknights are in cahoots."

"Then why are they attacking me and my men?!" Bryan thundered. "Look, if you don't believe me, fine. We can settle this matter after these Melorans are defeated."

The tiger's ears flattened against his skull, and he looked ready to turn the prince of Astryn into a scratching post.

"I am not letting you out of my sight," he warned, hardly needing to describe what would happen if Bryan tried to flee.

"Then help me fight these Melorans," Bryan suggested desperately. "We have great need of your strength."

"And why should we help you?"

"Because if you don't, there might not be any of us left for you to deal with at all!"

"Grrr… Fine! But only because we wish to be the ones to rip you to shreds!"

With that, the tiger drew back from the prone prince and roared a second time. Before the echo had even faded, a fearsome band of cat and tiger laguz streamed forth from the woods and charged onto the field to engage the Melorans. Bryan sighed with relief, glad that Eric's plan had worked…to some extent. The laguz were still angry with Bryan's group, and the tiger seemed quite intent on keeping Bryan well within reach of his claws, but at least they agreed to help. Now, hopefully, the battle would end with the Melorans being defeated and the beast laguz's goods returned safe and sound.

The tiger would likely point out that Bryan returning the loot didn't mean that the prince hadn't stolen it in the first place, but Bryan decided he'd have to deal with that eventuality after there were a few less people trying to kill him.

Whoever said "It's good to be the King" needs a bracing reality check!