Unlike sea trade routes, the overland trade routes that connected Bern with the rest of Elibe had a few decisive bottlenecks.

There were other possible routes, of course, but the roads, if there were any, were not as well maintained and unlikely to be patrolled. Furthermore, Bern was home to many mountains favored by the dragons and thus home to many caves that allowed simple bandits to dangerous groups like the Black Fang to exist.

The last of such bottlenecks was Ravenhorn Valley, a relatively wide and fairly accessible pass between two mountains that formed the natural barrier between the most frontier regions of Bern to the Outer Duchies. Travelers were in for quite a bit of climbing, but there were good guides, inns, and rest stops along the way. Beyond the valley, merchants or armies could divert as they pleased depending on what their destinations were.

It was the first line of defense against outside invaders, and had been during the Great Sacaen Migration half a millennium ago. Unfortunately, the Sacaens took the long way around and cut off Bernese supply lines, resulting in the death of ten Legions' worth of troops.

Normally, it would be the Dukes of the Outer Duchies guarding this strategic pass in great conflicts. Now, only those who thought their chances with the King were better than those with their respective Dukes gathered their armies to try to stall until reinforcements from Hamor and later the Inner Duchies.

"Steady," Kayleth ordered with his communications stone.

The thing about this valley was, though, that it made for a terribly predictable place to expect armies to show up. Worse, if an invader were to have intimate knowledge of Bern's defenses, that invader could be hiding in wait with his or her forces on both sides of the two mountains that walled off the pass. If the invader had time and had some creative or merely curious inclination, the invaders could find some boulders and large rocks to dump on passers-by.

Worse still, the invader could have sent an Assassin to relay his plan to some very determined prisoners who, under torture, would 'reveal' that the enemies were amassing outside the valley and vastly understate the numbers of said enemies. They would emphasize, however, that it was impossible to make it in time and that if the invaders made it past the valley, it would spell their destruction, and laugh and mock their torturers until they died or ended back in cuffs. The invader, of course, would have the Assassin create 'accidents' for those prisoners who did not have the mental fortitude to sell their stories convincingly.

If the invader were the obsessive compulsive sort, he or she would have sent agents to replace the workers at the inns, rest stops, and guide companies that dotted the landscape leading up to the valley. If the invader were of a mildly sadistic inclination, he would have had those agents serve food and drinks sprinkled with mild doses of poison that were liable to cause upset stomachs, mild headaches, and exhaustion.

The defenders of Bern would make all haste to the valley, where the enemies lay in wait, and arrive exhausted and ready to make camp when the invader decided that it was time for their judgment.

And that judgment came first in the form of earth.

"Now! All projectiles!" Kayleth hissed, and within moments tons of boulders were rolled off the inclines as seventeen Legions and various auxiliaries revealed themselves.

The Loyalist nobles of the Outer Duchies and their lieutenants realized, as the stones and boulders were flung on their heads, that this was either an avalanche or a very elaborate trap. Of the five Legions that they had managed to drag up the mountains, Kayleth estimated that at least two were annihilated within mere moments.

A general touched by delusions of honor might have been tempted to persuade the enemies to surrender. Such generals were rare breeds, however, seeing as most if not all of them were too busy being dead or hunted by their countries on charges of gross and criminal incompetence.

"All forces, charge!" Kayleth screamed.

The enemies showed no white flags, and Kayleth had every intention to butcher as many as possible until they did.

Yet more stones, hand-axes, javelins, arrows, and spells flung by Kayleth's troops struck the enemies trying to regroup. They had a Codicier with them, Kayleth was certain. He recognized the pre-programmed square formation kick in to the enemy tactician's brains as the only acceptable formation when surrounded by enemies.

If the tactician had read into the Codex of military tactics composed by Hartmut a little less literally and a little more sensibly, he or she would have realized that Hartmut also implied strongly that one should never get surrounded in the first place.

Finally, Kayleth's cavalry and Wyvern Knights reached the enemy lines that were struggling to reform.

Ordinarily, the optimal location for cavalry charges would be the vast plains of Sacae. Mountains had rocks and other impediments to a fast-moving cavalry force that could trip them up.

As long as the majority got to the enemy lines, Kayleth did not care one whit that some of his riders would trip. In fact, tripping made them gather even more momentum before gravity did its work and they crashed into enemy lines. They'd die, but that was no big deal. With such incompetent horsemanship, they deserved to die.

The ones that didn't trip would make the Loyalist nobles think again on why one should surrender before a solid wall of metal-encased cavalry galloping down an incline reached them on all flanks.

In situations where an organized cavalry charge did not meet as organized or better organized armored infantry spear walls and halberds, the rider was expected to kill at least one with the first impact of the lance and have his mount run down at least four. Kayleth's cavalry met no organized resistance.

In fact, Kayleth's Wyvern Knights had dumped their complements of boiling water mixed with salt or in cases of heavier resistance boiling oil on the enemies a few moments before Kayleth's cavalry arrived.

The middle of the column, where Kayleth knew the nobles were, was mostly untouched. As expected, they raised the white flag.

"Mercy to the seriously injured, gather up the prisoners," Kayleth said into the communications stone reserved for Vaida, who had led the charge. "Burn the corpses. Capture supplies and horses."

Kayleth was somewhat surprised that the Prince did not display horror at the one-sided massacre that had just occurred, but figured that royals were made of sterner stuff.

"I'd guess about four Legions dead, and one taken alive. About thirty of our own horsemen and four Wyvern Knights fell," Sigismund said. "Well done, Kayleth. Left the supplies at the back nearly intact."

"I'll see to releasing our agents, if they survived," Urumi strode towards the battlefield.

"Well, I'll be damned. We hardly needed to hold so many of our troops back in reserve," Murdock said. "I'll get to moving the Legions."

"Congratulations on your victory, my Lord, Your Highness," Brenya murmured.

"Ah, yes… well done, Baron," Zephiel said. "I will go address the troops on their victory."

"… What's wrong, Lyndis?" Kayleth asked, seeing that she was close to vomiting.

"I realize… that I've never seen war until today."

Kayleth regretted that. He had not foreseen what he should have. A person of a strongly caring psychological archetype, like Lyn, would not be immune to the sight of such horrors. Kayleth had thought she must have gotten used to it but never before had she seen war as it was meant to be fought on any significant scale.

On his part, this was the opening encounter that he had envisioned and planned for nearly a decade. It was satisfying to both his academic curiosity and professional pride to see what happened when his plans were implemented.

As they had for many centuries, the flora of Ravenhorn Valley sucked greedily at the lifeblood of the fallen.

The Prince's army set up camp at the foot of the mountains.

A battlefield made for a very unsanitary place to camp, and Kayleth was not interested in losing troops to it when good sanitation could easily be enforced.

The soldiers could rest, but the tactician had work to do.

He let Alice accompany him; she was very cross at him for not allowing her to fly today. It was a natural impulse for those of his line to take on significant roles. Kayleth knew it because that impulse was especially keen in him.

The siren call to ever greater power and wealth beat so strongly for him that he was able to beat his eldest brother's rage, his eldest sister's perceptiveness, and his other younger sister's guile. He had learned something of all of their methods. It was only through his tutor and the experience of failure in letting ambition blind him to reality that Kayleth was able to realize that his ambitions were the calls of a siren. Kayleth chuckled as he remembered the eons-old question 'What do sirens sing?' He would answer that it depended on the audience.

In a Baron or even a Count, that ambition couldn't do much harm. In a Duke, however, it was an unacceptable failing. He would be an efficient ruler, yes, but he'd also be a tyrant, betraying the centuries of freedom his Duchy was founded upon.

The Great Civil War over the matter of slavery was started, after all, when the Duke of Hamor decreed that the air of Hamor was so pure and free that any slave who breathed that air was instantly freed. That wasn't the actual reason, of course, but such was the emphasis on individual libertas in Hamor that the slave owners of the Inner Duchies believed it.

That was why Alice was going to be Duchess; her ambition was to be a good Duchess, and little in the way of personal ambitions. His eldest sister would have been the best candidate, but she was already dead, killed by his eldest brother who suspected that she had something to do with the death of the younger sister. His eldest brother had naturally been executed for parricide.

All the training and education that goes in raising a Duke's children, worth the training and education for any ten thousand commoners, squandered in a single misunderstanding and hot temper. His own suffering Kayleth did not care about anymore. His suffering was good; it made him strong, competent, and paranoid, qualities that helped save Elibe from a second Scouring. But the Duke would die for such a flagrant waste of resources as well as causing indirectly the deaths of three of his siblings. Alice might forgive him, but that was because she remembered nothing of her other siblings.

Kayleth, on the other hand, was trained and conditioned to remember everything.

Thus it fell to Kayleth to install the correct heir to the Duchy, right the wrongs of his parents, and provide the love and support of four siblings to Alice. Perhaps it was out of guilt, but Kayleth could live with that.

"Where are we going?" Murdock asked, perhaps feeling uncomfortable at the silence.

"To free the bait for this trap," Urumi answered.

"She means to free the agents who convinced the Loyalist nobles of the Outer Duchies that they should move to secure the pass before the Prince's arrival," Alice said.

"Like I said," Urumi muttered.

"Why didn't you free them earlier?!"

"Because, Murdock, those nobles won't take kindly to being fooled by commoners. When this war is over, they might take revenge on those agents," Kayleth said, as though talking to an unruly child. "I'd rather they think them dead."

"Here we are," Matthew said, pointing with his torch.

The cages are wooden, Matthew," Kayleth snapped. Still, Chen and Rika held their lamps perilously close to the cages, too. It was so very difficult to find underlings with some common sense.

"Finally… someone to free us?" a mangled voice croaked.

"Only two?" Alice frowned. "They look like they need medical attention, now."

"I made sure they lived. Father," Kayleth signaled.

Hale cast his restorative magic, making the prisoners look a little livelier and less like mutilated carcasses of meat.

"Now, can you hear me? Can you pay attention?" Kayleth asked.

"Yes," the relative darker-skinned of the two replied. Alice realized that the man was not pure Bernese.

"Good, because the next minute will decide whether or not you live."

"My Lord, we recovered letters from Lord Burmann vouching for their-"

"Yes, because letters can't be stolen, Urumi," Kayleth rolled his eyes. "Now, listen closely, plebeian. You say you're followers of Burmann. If so, you must know this phrase. If not, I am going to pour oil on this cart and light up a match for that God-awful tobacco pipe my servant Matthew enjoys."

"I'm not a servant!" Matthew protested.

Kayleth raised an eyebrow.

"Well, I'm not yours!" the spy pointed out.

"Did you understand that?"

"Yes, my Lord."

"Good. Dulce et decorum."

"Est pro patria mori."

"You could work on your pronunciation, but I have very low expectations of commoners," Kayleth shrugged as he opened the cage. "Of your conduct in this operation, well done. Of your survival, commendations. His Highness the Prince is very pleased, and has informed me that you two should be knighted. Presently, he's busy winning over the incompetents you fooled to his cause, so you won't be graced by his presence. Therefore, kneel."

"Erm… I don't know the words," the other man said.

"It's alright. As I said, I expect precious little of plebs. Just kneel."

They did, and silence reigned the night for half a minute.

"Lady Alice," Urumi whispered. "You're the highest ranking of the nobility present."

"Huh? Oh. Uh…" Alice floundered, looking for her sword and trying very hard to remember the words.

"Virtus tentamine gaudet," Kayleth teased. "Vita summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam."

"I remember," Alice snapped, drawing her sword. The two prisoners flinched at her mood. "What?!" Alice said, waving her sword and venting her embarrassment at the two.

"Your Grace, I'd rather you not kill the two… if I recall, knighting does not involve accidental or purposeful decapitation," Murdock said.

Alice turned an even darker shade of red.

"Sometimes I have trouble believing you're siblings," Matthew chuckled. "Kayleth almost never resorts to violence when he's embarrassed."

"Now, now, let's stop there," Urumi stepped in diplomatically, before grinning. "These poor souls really don't look like they could afford any more scars."

Alice turned away to focus solely on the two kneeled before her. "What are your names?"

"I am Asteion, Your Grace," the part Nabatan said.

"I'm called Cuam," the other said.

"For the good of this Realm and in the Light of our God, you have gone above and beyond the call of duty. That service will not be unnoticed. That valorous deed will not go unrewarded. By the authority granted me by the blood in my veins, I dub thee Knights of the Realm and Defenders of the Faith with all the privileges, and responsibilities, that accompany them. Please, open your mouth."

Alice tapped the two on both shoulders with her sword, and as befitting Hamorian tradition, slit her hand and squeezed some droplets of blood into the open mouths, startling them. Kayleth winced, as it was undoubtedly his and the others' teasing that Alice went so far to observe proper protocol. Physical harm to Alice compulsively hurt him in disproportionate magnitude. "Arise, Sir Asteion, Sir Cuam."

Hale quickly healed Alice's hand, flinching from Kayleth's smoldering glare. In the seven years he had served the short-tempered Baron, he knew there was nothing that hurt him more than his sister's getting even a scratch. Rumor had it that the last time his sister had a serious illness, he killed four apothecaries who failed to do anything for her. As taken aback and shocked as he was by her slitting her hand, his employer expected him to heal her promptly. He had no doubt that the tactician was considering burning him alive in that cage instead.

He'd remind him that it wasn't his fault his Duchy had such barbaric rituals, but then that consideration would turn into resolve. No one survived Kayleth on a warpath. Hale considered it miraculous that nearly two hundred of the thousand men that had entered battle against Kayleth earlier this day lived.

Most of the nobles who had been captured were turned. Mainly because they had little choice in the matter, but still, it meant that the army was good to march for a while yet before encountering hostiles.

The ones who were not turned were pushed into the urinals of the camp before they were buried alive. It was bad manners not to cover the urinals with earth when the army leaves, and someone had to answer for the lives of eight hundred soldiers.

Zephiel and his army were holed up in the great citadel of Lilybaeum. While Kayleth would have been more comfortable with another day's march, the army needed supplies. Eighteen Legions with auxiliaries tended to eat a lot.

That was one of the reasons why the war needed to be concluded as soon as possible. Society could not long afford thousands of men and women in their prime eating more than usual while doing nothing to produce goods and services.

"A copper for your thoughts?"

Kayleth, Alice, Murdock, and Lyn were on one of the verandas overlooking the central courtyard. Two of Kayleth's Paladins, Mihail and Corbulo, were with them, Kayleth being ever wary of assassination attempts. There was a ball inside, trying to reconcile the recently turned nobles with their rebellious from the start colleagues.

They were in the Great Hall originally, but Kayleth got tired of older nobles seeking him out. They were under the impression that while Alice would be the titular Duchess, he'd be the true power in Hamor if the revolution was successful.

Which was very astute of them, and Kayleth enjoyed having his ass kissed as much as the next noble, but he needed to have people believe that his sister be the true power in Hamor.

Alice would be loved by her subjects, and those who did not love her enough to follow her would do so anyway out of the utter terror in not knowing the things he would do to them if they disobeyed his sister. Those who were so foolish as to not fear him would love her enough to follow her. That was the plan.

"Milady Lyndis," Kayleth nodded. "Hardly. Need I remind you that it is my copper you'd be spending for my thoughts?"

Murdock snorted into his mead, splashing the honeyed drink in his face.

"I was thinking, Lyn, that we need to finish this war as soon as possible."

"Of course. Isn't that the ideal war? A short and victorious one?" Lyn said.

"True. See? You have learned something of being a noble after all. My line of thinking was more that I miss Pearl terribly. It gnaws at my mind when I sleep."

"Who's this Pearl?" Murdock asked.

Lyn opened her locket to show him.

"I'm glad she hasn't inherited her looks from Kayleth," Murdock chuckled.

"Complete opposite in personality, too, but she takes after my mother doesn't she?"

Murdock winced at the memory of his last encounter with the Duchess Viviane.

"Wrong hair color, and eyes too. But I see what you mean. Any magic?"

"Not that we know of."

"Shame... I could use a daughter of yours who can set fire to your library."

"If there's a fire in my library, I'll be certain to accuse you first."

"Of magic?" Murdock snorted.

"Yes, and that all those years of pretending not to have magic were just theatrics."

In Kayleth's Duchy, people with sufficient magical potential were sent to special schools at the age of eight to control their powers. To not report children with magical talent was a capital crime. An angry child could do little more than stick a fork in his sibling's hand. An angry child with magic could burn down the village. In that respect, a child with magical potential was treated with all the respect mankind gave wolves and feral wyverns: tamed or killed. It didn't particularly matter which.

"Why don't either of us have magic, Kayleth?" Alice asked.

Murdock was about to give the truthful answer when Kayleth glared, and quickly replied that these things often skipped a generation.

Alice could not find out about her other siblings. The knowledge might very well break her. For all her avowed nobility, dignity, and poise, Alice's soul was a very optimistic and fundamentally good soul. Kayleth had no desire to change that.

Truly ignorance was bliss.

"My Lord Kayleth. Marchioness Caelin. General Murdock," a towering man partially clad in armor said, bowing as he walked into the veranda.

"Your Grace," Kayleth added, pointing at Alice, and refusing to bow more than hair's breadth.

"Ah. You must be the Duchess. My apologies," the man's size was enough for the guards to register him as a possible threat should he turn violent. He stood a head and a shoulder taller than Alice, and Alice was quite tall for a woman, even for a Hamorian woman. He was also at least thrice as wide, or so Kayleth thought.

"I'm afraid you have the better of me, Lord…?" Kayleth prompted.

"Oh, where are my manners. I am Neturus, Baron Kaon."

"Welcome, Baron. I've heard of you from Sigismund."

"The chancellor speaks of me? Good things I hope."

"Good things," Kayleth nodded. He had extensively studied the notables of the Prince's supporters, and made note of the ones he thought he may find useful. Neturus was involved in many a mining network essential to the war economy. Though Kayleth despised subsistence models in economies, that Neturus had joined the Prince was an advantage in the production of armor.

Sigismund had met him before, and told Kayleth what made him tick. Neturus was a soul that operated at the same wavelengths as Kayleth's did. It was so deliciously easy to manipulate such men.

"Indeed, the chancellor and I were talking about spoils of war the other day. Your name came up twice in the conversation."

"I would imagine so," Neturus took to the bait as eagerly as Kayleth had expected. "The decisiveness of that victory last week. Ha… glorious, stunning, masterful! I hear the Duchess challenged and defeated a dozen Paladins by herself!"

"Erm… she didn't join the battle, actually," Kayleth pointed out, knowing how it would fluster him.

"Indeed. That would be General Vaida," Murdock grunted.

And flustered he was, but he had the grace to recover quickly. "Oh? Well, I'm sure she inspired our troops to do much more with her gallant and regal presence. It must be dazzling to have a genius of an older brother, Your Grace. I'm certain you'll do him proud next time, as expected of your revered lineage."

Even the ever kind and well-disposed Lyn rolled her eyes at the obvious ploy of the Baron. Alice, being under scrutiny, managed to refrain from such an obvious display and instead opted to look embarrassed and shy, as befitting of the normal image one had of young Duchesses. Kayleth had long practiced the smile of a pleased noble and was using that to mask his actual enjoyment, which would result in a smirk.

"Baron Neturus… keeping our chief tactician entertained, I see."

Kayleth was annoyed that three outsiders had appeared, but at least he had met two of them before. He knew enough of them to know that they joined the Prince's cause at the last minute. The third, a brown haired man, looked to be their son. He couldn't be sure, of course, and thus refrained from addressing that problem.

He was chief tactician, the stratego of this fledgling army. Kayleth could not afford to look ignorant to more than two mouths that could corroborate each other's story.

"Count Hannover. Countess. It has been too long."

"Indeed! You were hardly sixteen when we first met you!" the Countess said.

"Please, I'd rather not be reminded of my childhood," Kayleth jested. "I'm a father now."

"Congratulations! I'm sure they take after your dashing self," the Countess continued.

"They're all daughters, actually."

"Still, how could your good ancestry fail to show in them, hmm?" the Count asked.

"Speaking of ancestry, my Lord..."

"Ah! Where are my manners?! This is Alan, our son!"

"Pleasure," Kayleth nodded.

"My Lord," the youth bowed.

"Was he the one playing in the courtyard?"

"I believe so," the Countess shrugged.

"Hmph. You were eleven, I believe."

"I'm sure I was."

"Mmm… well, I ought to introduce my wife, Marchioness Lyndis, and sister, Alice, soon-to-be Duchess Hamor," Kayleth tilted his head at both.

"My, my, how you take after your mother!" the Countess beamed.

Kayleth understood, then, why it was that all of the youth were going after Alice and why, to his great chagrin, everyone above a certain age went after him. They had heard that Alice would be inheriting the Duchy, but they interpreted that as Kayleth ruling from behind the scenes. While not entirely true, Alice did not have the temperament to defy him in all but the most private of matters.

The Duchy of Hamor, while not particularly populous, was the richest and most militant Duchy in Bern. It made sense that the older would be concerned with being in his good graces, especially if the revolution succeeded when Kayleth would be in a position to influence very many things. The older would then badger the younger into presenting themselves to Alice, either as friends or marriageable acquaintances. They didn't know they'd have to survive his judgment first, of course, but that could be remedied simply enough.

"These clever, clever people," Kayleth snorted, thinking to himself.

The Countess was trying very hard to ingratiate her son to Alice.

"Anyways," the Count said, having the sense to detect the flare of annoyance in Kayleth's features that he had left deliberately unmasked, "our son was saying how much he admired your example and it would be a great boon to me for you to accept him into the sixteenth Legion."

What he meant was that he wanted to get the greatest amount of glory possible by association.

Kayleth scanned Alan. He was trying very hard to please his parents. He was not as good an actor as he was a son. Still, Kayleth was proficient at sniffing out talent.

The man had the talent to keep up with all but the best of his own Legion.

"Why not?" Kayleth shrugged. "Have him report to my second, who should be in the command tent."

This brought on a new tide of flattery from the gaggle of nobles that seemed to have found him. Kayleth had escaped to a veranda to avoid this sort of attention. He had no time for their drabbles, though he would be lying if he said he did not enjoy flattery. It was just that continued contact with many humans that he did not particularly know or like was very draining to him.

The tactician eventually insisted that he get some space to discuss some things with General Vaida. The tide of admirers vanished in a few seconds, mumbling apologies.

The outsiders finally departed, giving Kayleth a moment's respite. Interaction with strangers was a serious drain on Kayleth's energy.

"Heath," Kayleth nodded as the Wyvern Knight joined them. "No duties?"

"My main job is to be her bodyguard," Heath shrugged, tilting his head at Alice.

"That's right," Kayleth approved. "You will be a porcupine before a single arrow grazes Alice's hair."

"With the way he's been moving, he very well might. He's gotten soft. I expected you to keep him on his toes, tactician."

"General," Kayleth nodded at Vaida. He didn't expect he'd be talking to her that night. "It's not my fault he wasn't instructed on the basics of aerial combat by his previous instructor."

"He never was a good listener, and there's only so much you can do with the whip," Vaida shrugged.

"Oi oi… when did this become 'bash Heath' day?" the Knight said. "I'll have you know my records on the battlefield the other day were impeccable."

"Yes, and you would do well to console yourself of your records against dead, dying, terrified, and burning soldiers who couldn't even organize themselves into a line," Vaida giggled, a distinctly odd sound considering what kind of a creature Vaida was. In the same battle, Vaida had charged into the middle of the formation cordoning the enemy nobles and killed four Paladins, two Wyvern Lords, and two nobles before they raised the white flag. She ended the life of another Baron out of spite. It was small wonder the rest of the nobles switched sides so eagerly.

"Wait a minute… General Vaida, if you and Murdock are here, who's guarding the Prince?"

"Ah crap!" Murdock dashed back into the hall in search of his charge.

"… Oops. Must be the alcohol," Vaida followed Murdock.

Kayleth glared at Heath until he took the hint and followed Vaida.

"General Brenya's probably with him," Alice said, sipping her tea.

"Yes," Kayleth noted. "Her infatuation with the Prince is mildly troubling."

The tea drenched Alice's face as she coughed and sputtered. Mihail promptly handed her a handkerchief, which Kayleth knew was part sympathy and part a guarantee for his bonus this month.

"Thanks Mihail. Well, good for them. She certainly seems capable of becoming Queen," Alice said, handing the drenched handkerchief back.

"Capable? Perhaps. Fitting? I think not."

"Why not? She's well-educated, intelligent, of the right social status-"

"She's on the wrong side of the border. While this revolution gives us an opportunity to purge some of the unworthy in our ranks, Bern needs two things: a stable border and internal unity to result from this civil war. To that end, the Prince must marry a southern Lady or an Etrurian or a Lycian. Personally, I think Lilina would be a valid choice."

"She's nine years old!" Lyn snapped.

"Fourteen and marriageable in five years. I fail to see where your objection comes from."

"What about her choice?"

"Pfft. I told you before, Alice, that being a noble meant that you are public property. There are very few choices involved in the matter of state interests. If it consoles you, the Prince has even less in the manner of choice involved in his decision."

"What of the Princess?"

"Irrelevant. If the Prince marries an outsider, she'll marry a southern Lord, though I shudder to think of one of the most backward genetic imbeciles marrying a Princess of our great nation."

"What's wrong with southerners?" Lyn asked, curious about the sentiments behind Kayleth's sometimes voiced opinions about the south.

"Too soft… too incestuous… too religious… too ignorant… did I mention incestuous?"

Alice snorted. "Northerners believe southerners, at least the southern Lords, to be uneducated, superstitious, too rich for their own good, and incestuous."

"All of it true. No wonder they lost the Slave War. No wonder they're as psychotically retarded and superstitious as they are. No wonder they're so weak. A bunch of freeloading scum feeding on northern taxes and blood. At least the Etrurian delinquents aren't as criminally retarded. They'd be poor sport in our wars otherwise. Sometimes, I wonder why we didn't just massacre all of them at the end of the Slave War. It's a shame. They contribute, literally, almost nothing to Bern."

"Then what prevents you from saying the same of the royal family?"

"Your Highness," everyone in the vicinity but Lyn bowed.

Nino and Brenya were accompanying him. Kayleth was glad that the Prince was in good hands.

"Was that a rhetorical question, Your Highness?"

"Let's say it was not."

"Very well… let us posit, for the sake of this argument, that civilization is the ultimate goal of a state. The question, then, is what constitutes civilization?"

"Culture?" Lyn said.

"Tradition coupled with progress," Alice said.

"That was a question for the Prince but no and no. It means a society based on the opinions of informed people. It means a legislative body and independent courts of justice that nurture freedom and culture while maintaining the power to defend it. However, this is Elibe, and we do not have the resources to educate many people. In such a condition, many of the Kings of Bern have done right by us, and some have even surpassed even our wildest expectations, such as our third, fourth, sixteenth, twenty sixth, and thirty second Kings, who may as well have been demigods.

"Kingship is not necessarily tyranny. Indeed, an enlightened King is the equal of any thousand intelligent senators and certainly better than a hundred thousand of the uneducated masses. It is when the King takes more power than he ought to for unreasonable or unknown ends that the seeds of tyranny are sown. It is when the King uses the people for unreasonably selfish purposes, with no consideration as to the benefit to the people, when the cost of monarchy outweighs the benefits of it, that the King becomes tyrant. It is when the advantages of monarchy including decisiveness, unified vision, and informed decision become inversed that the people have the right to replace the King.

"The overall societal benefit is more important than any one man, even should he be King. This is true of taxation, military duty, gentrification, and the other generic duties to society. The people live to serve the King. The King has a duty to do the same for his people. The current King of Bern is a creature warped by petty jealousies, gross incompetence not seen since our thirty first King, and various other faults. That is why this is a revolution, Your Highness, not a rebellion."

"Your sister becoming a Wyvern Knight is tradition?" Zephiel raised an eyebrow.

"No. It's freedom. And Hamorians never commit the crime of raising weak children. More importantly, Hamorians execute weak nobles on a regular basis when they turn eighteen," Kayleth said, and the Prince could not tell whether he was joking.

He was, of course, being deadly serious.

With so little resources to spend on education, and since most of those resources went to nobles, it was a sin for a noble to be incompetent.

Kayleth should have been executed for his incompetence in letting his ambition cloud his vision, but he found redemption in defeating Nergal and thus saving Elibe.

That was the primary debt Kayleth owed Lyn. Saving his life when he cared nothing for it was a minor debt. The chance for redemption, however, was one he could not hope to repay in his lifetime.

"Alice, General Brenya, please escort the Prince back to the ball. Nino, call Chen and Lady Jill to replace you. You are then dismissed. Mihail, call Malvator and Senel to replace you in watching Alice. You are then dismissed."

"Are you sure?" Mihail frowned.

"Yes. I need madmen who would kill for Alice at the slightest provocation. It's more crowded in there. Extra vigilance may be necessary. Tell them to kill if anyone looks at her funny."

"Kayleth!" Alice snapped.

"Oh, this is also free will," Kayleth defended himself.

"Ah, I meant leaving you and Lady Lyndis with one guard," Mihail amended.

Kayleth raised an eyebrow. "Does Lyn look the type to need more than one guard? Come the four corners of Elibe and she'll defy them. Come a dragon and she'll kill it. She's the only guard I need. Dismissed."

In his seat at Winterfell, the forty eighth Duke of Hamor frowned.

Viviane detected her husband's anxiety, mixed with some other emotions.

"What is it?" Viviane said, taking the letter out of his hands.

"This… Red Baron that leads the Prince's army-"

"There is no doubt," Viviane said. "It can't be anyone other than he."

"The trail went cold at Caelin," Calgar growled. "Nestor!"

"Yes, Your Grace," the aged butler said.

"It seems that my own son is at the head of the Prince's armies… inform the director of our intelligence services that he is to execute the agents who looked into his disappearance or draft them into the Forlorn Hope squads. The charges are criminal and gross incompetence, of course. Send word to the nobles in my Duchy that they are not to be swayed by empty promises of a better future and that my retribution for those who flock to my son's side will be terrible."

"Thy will be done," the butler left.

"But Kayleth… we thought him dead," Viviane murmured.

"It seems we should have put more faith in the remnants of the Black Fang… and I think it likely, then, that he took Alice as well."

"Alice and Kayleth, alive!" Viviane shouted in joy.

"Indeed. Kayleth is not so weak that he would have let Alice come to harm. Praise be to our ancestors," Calgar sighed, visibly relieved.

"But… they've been fooled into taking the Prince's side. What do we do?" Viviane frowned, noting the dilemma they were in.

"Destroy the rebels, capture them, and insist to the King that they were held against their will, of course… and Kayleth will become the Duke he was born to be."

The first one is "It is good/just to die for one's country", the second one is roughly "Strength rejoices in the challenge," and the third is "Life is too short for us to entertain far-off (into the future) hopes."

I thought Latin would be a good root language for the common tongue of Elibe. Obviously only the nobility and the academics would ever feel the need to learn them, the former because it is expected and the latter because it is useful.

Yes. As someone pointed out, the battle does have roots to the pseudo-history, Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Now I'm really busy for a couple of weeks.