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Jotari

The Lord of Friege

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As of the second Choose Your Legend poll, Bloom is the least popular character in the Fire Emblem series (he came second lowest in the first poll, but Glade shot up several places by gaining notability for being the previous least loved). This baffles me some what. Bloom is never going to win any rewards for the best villain in the world, but he's still a far cry above some of the other, more minor and forgettable characters in the series. His Isaac counterpart, Dannan (who got twice the number of votes in the recent poll) being a prime example of a much less developed and noteworthy character. Unlike Danann (or say the replacement characters or most of anyone in Thracia 776), he plays a relatively large role in the plot of Genealogy of Holy War, taking two chapters to defeat and wielding a Holy Weapon. He's also given some nuance as a character, being against the child hunts and treating Tinny well. Anyway, all this, along with a comment in some thread (I think it was an Eldigan argument) got me thinking about Bloom, and the position he was in. What things must have been like for him. When someone brought up a comparison between him and Sigurd, being put in charge of an unwilling Agustria, everything clicked into place and I knew I had to write a fanfic examining Bloom's life and actions. Don't worry, it's not a "Oh gee guys, he was just misunderstood and is a super swell guy all along, Seliph was the real villain," sort of story. Bloom is still most definitely a villain, but I think it could be interesting to interpret the events of the game from his eyes. So here it is, feedback thread can be located here:

If you've read even half of the first chapter, I'd love you to drop me a line telling me what you think, be it good or bad.

Edited by Jotari

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Chapter 1: The Duke

 

               Kingdom of Grannvale, Outside Friege, 761

 

               The fields surrounding the city were lush and green. The wars that had plagued the continent seemed distant and remote in this quiet place. Bloom was hunting, alone. The luxury of solitude was not something he commonly had, but with everyone focused on the conflict in the east, nobody had time to care what the first son of Friege was doing to occupy his time.

               Sigurd, Bloom thought to himself as he prepared to shoot a pheasant, what on earth possessed him to rebel? Bloom was close in age to the heir of Chalphy, but he had never really befriended him. Sigurd typically preferred to associate with foreigners; his best friends were from Agustria and Leinster. No one ever thought this was an indication that his family was planning treachery, however. Why would he attack with such haphazard forces? It just doesn’t make sense. He has no chance of success. Blume launched his arrow and missed. The stupid bird raised its head and looked around, but did not flee. Perhaps he counted on more support from Leinster, but they could never risk sending the bulk of their troops against Grannvale so long as Thracia harrowed their boarder. He readied another arrow. I wonder how much support Leinster has given the rebels. We might end up being forced to invade them. First Isaach then Verdane and Agustria, we’ll end up owning the whole bloody continent because of this war. Bloom couldn’t decide whether or not that was a good thing. He launched his second arrow and hit the bird.

               After retrieving the carcass and placing it on his saddle bag with several others, he noticed a company of soldiers approaching him from the castle. Judging by the emblem on their flags, they were from Velthomer. He climbed onto his horse and rode out to meet them.

               “Greetings,” he called. “To whom do I have the pleasure of addressing?”

               An aging man in armour led the group. He got off his horse and bowed before Bloom. “My name is Cowen. I am here to bring you sad tidings.”

               Bloom also dismounted. “What? Surely Sigurd did not defeat our forces in the east?”

               “No, he got close to Barhara, but ultimately he was defeated. It seems his father managed to deliver to him the holy sword Tyfring before dying.”

               “Lord Byron is also dead?” What will happen to Chalphy’s lands now? I know Sigurd has a sister, but she married the prince of Leinster. Could the king promote someone to hold the lands? Someone without holy blood?

               “Yes. The conflict with Sigurd’s army was unexpectedly bloody. Many nobles have perished, including your father.”

               The man’s words hit Bloom like a hammer. He stumbled slightly and had to grip his horse to remain standing. “My…my father. He is dead? You are sure?”

               Cowen nodded. “Yes. His body should arrive in a few days.”

               Bloom had never considered this a possibility. He had known his father was going to war, but he carried the divine Mjolnir. It was inconceivable that Reptor would actually die. Could actually die.

               “What…other casualties are there?”

               “Lord Langbolt was also killed.”

               Bloom waved his hand. “I already knew that. What of Alvis? Did he survive?”

               Cowen nodded again. “Yes. Lord Alvis felled Sigurd himself, and ended the conflict. On a slightly happier note, we’ve found your sister.”

               “Tailtyu!? Where is she?”

               “She was discovered among the ranks of Sigurd’s rebels.”

               “That’s not possible. She must have been a hostage.”

               Cowen shook his head. “No. She was fighting by their side. Witnesses even say she attacked lord Reptor herself.”

               “My sister…was a rebel? How? Why?”

               “We’re not sure, yet. She wasn’t quite forthcoming with information, at least when I left.”

               “What will happen to her?”

               “That will depend on you. You’re lord of Friege now. You will have to discuss the matter with Lord Alvis.”

               “Alvis? Why Alvis?”

               “With your father gone and the king in ill health, he’s the one in charge of things in.”

               “I see….Ex…excuse me for a moment.” Bloom walked away from Cowen and his soldiers. He looked at the city of Friege, standing at the top of a hill in the distance. The prince, Langbolt, Byron, Ring and my father…All dead. An entire generation of nobles, all wiped out within the span of three years. I’m one of the most powerful men on the continent now. What on earth am I meant to do?

               He stood staring at his ancestral home for several minutes. Eventually, one of the soldiers approached him to see if he’s alright. “Is there anything we can do for you?” the soldier asked.

               Bloom turned around and smiled. He placed a hand on the man’s shoulder. “Yes. You must all return with me to my city. We will have to feast. Today is a sad day for me indeed, but it is also a day of rejoicing. The wars are finally over, and by Tordo’s blessing, the land shall know peace for many years to come.

 

               Kingdom of Grannvale, Friege, 761

 

               Duke Reptor’s body arrived a few days later. It was laid to rest for several nights at the center of Friege. The sight of his father shocked Bloom. He had always looked old, even when Bloom was a child. Now, he looked ancient. He was adorned in a large suit of armour Bloom had never seen before. Between his folded arms lay the divine tome, Mjolnir. The monocle he always wore had been removed, allowing his eyes to close. He didn’t look to be at peace, nor did he look particularly restless. He just looked...empty.

               “Brother.” A voice broke the silence of the dark and empty room. He looked up. His sister Ethnia was standing by the door. Clutching the door frame, as if afraid to enter. He beckoned her in and wrapped her in an embrace. Together, they looked down on the wrinkled visage of their father. “What happened?” she asked. It had been a few days since they had last spoken.

               “He was killed,” Bloom said. “Killed by the rebels.”

               “They’re saying Tailtyu killed him. That can’t be true? Can it?”

               “I don’t know,” Bloom admitted. “All we know for sure is that she was there.”

               “I met him once,” said Ethnia. “Sigurd. He played with me, even though he was too old for the games I wanted to play. He seemed so kind and just. Why would he rebel? Why would he cause this bloodshed?”

               Bloom shook his head. “I’ve wondered that myself. It must have been because of his father. Lord Byron killed the prince. The only thing that makes sense is that Sigurd was just fighting to preserve his honour.”

               “Oh, brother!” Ethinia buried her face in Bloom’s chest. “What are we going to do?”

               With his free hand, he reached out and picked up Mjolnir. He wasn’t sure if he was allowed. Maybe it was meant to remain with the body until it was ready to be buried. The apprehension he felt disappeared as soon as held the book, however. A power deep inside him awoke. For the first time he felt like the Duke of Friege, and not merely an heir. Mjolnir was his. He was the only one in the world who could use it. A century of heritage now rested upon his shoulders. His father was dead. No longer right in everything he said and did because he was the duke. Now, it was Bloom’s turn to pave the way. His opinion was equal to that of his fathers. He would have to decide what was best for Friege.

               “I was always afraid of him,” Ethnia said, looking down at Reptor again now. “He always seemed so stern and angry.”

               “I admired him,” Bloom said. “He seemed so powerful and wise. But now, looking back, I realise he was too distant. I craved his praise, but he never had time for me. He was always so busy serving the royal family.”

               “He did a lot of good work.”

               “Maybe. But if he was truly as great as I thought he was, then he wouldn’t have let this happen. He would have discovered Byron and Ring’s treachery before it happened.”

               Ethnia sniffled slightly. “I guess he was only human in the end.”

               “No,” said Bloom. “We are descendants of the crusaders. We possess the blood of gods. We must be more than human. I swear to you here, dear sister, before our departed father and upon to book of Mjolnir itself, I shall not make the same mistakes as him. I will protect this family and this house.” He laid a hand on the side of the coffin. “Tailtyu is being held at Barhara. Duke Alvis and I must discuss what is to be done with her.”

               “What is to be done with her? Bloom, brother, you must bring her back to us. Even if she’s a rebel, you can’t let her rot in a cell.”

“Like I said, I will protect our family, first and foremost, above all else.” He placed his hand on Ethnia’s shoulder. “I plan to leave at once. You are in charge of the funeral arrangements and protection of Friege. Give father all the respects he deserves. I wish I could be there, but our sister needs me.”

 

               Kingdom of Grannvale, Barhara, 761

 

               Barhara was in chaos when Bloom finally arrived. People ran to and fro, busy trying to accomplish a thousand different tasks. Although he had sent word ahead, there was nobody there to meet him. He felt slightly jilted, but quickly recovered when he noticed people treating him differently. They called him Duke or Lord and looked at him with an inherent level of respect.

               It wasn’t long before he discovered the source of the chaos. Not only had they recently weathered the rebel attack, but the king had only just passed away from illness. Bloom was brought to an empty audience chamber where a priest also waited. “What are you here for?” the priest asked, seemingly not noticing or not caring who Bloom was.

               “My sister, she fought with the rebels.”

               The priest nodded. “We’re in the same boat then. My lord, Claud, fought with them.”

               “You mean the Duke of Edda?” Bloom sat up straight.

               “The very one.” The priest offered his hand. “The name’s Rodan.”

               He shook the man’s hand. “Bloom,” he paused, and then added, “Duke of Friege.”

               Rodan bowed his head. “I’m sorry for your loss. I never met your father, but by all reports he was a strong and capable ruler.”

               Was he? Bloom thought, not for the first time. Then why was there a bloody rebellion?

               “Would you,” Rohan hesitated, “would you happen to have Mjolnir on you right now?”

               Bloom smiled. “Of course. You think I’d go anywhere without it, now that it’s mine?”

               “Could I, maybe, see it?”

               The book was strapped tightly to Bloom in a specially made harness. He removed it from beneath his cloak and put it on display in his hands. Rodan slowly reached out and touched it. Bloom was aware of how unorthodox it was to show the weapon off on request, but he was also sure this priest would be unable to take if from him by force.

               “It’s beautiful,” Rodan muttered. “This is the first of them I’ve ever seen. But I suppose I shall see Valkyrie soon, once I get back Lord Claud’s body.” He looked up. “Are you here to bring back a prisoner, or a body?”

               Bloom’s heart jolted. He had never even considered the possibility that Tailtyu could have died. Could even be dead now. Executed for her crimes. “A prisoner...I think. I hope.”

               “Ah. How I envy you. Lord Claud fell in battle.”

               “I can’t believe the Duke of Edda allied himself with the rebels. He was a holy man.”

               Rodan nodded. “We’ve known for a long time now. We offered to have Edda itself assist him, but he turned us down. Didn’t want to risk the lives of its citizens.”

               Did this man just confess to attempted treason, Bloom wondered. Just for the sake of their duke? I wonder if I could summon such dedication from my people.

               Almost subconsciously, Bloom stroked the binding of Mjolnir. “Sigurd, with the divine Tyfring. Claud, with holy Valkyrie. His friend Quan, with the Gae Bolg. And possibly the heir of Sileese with Forseti. No wonder they managed to do so much damage. Imagine if Eldigan and Agustria also managed to join their cause, before my father put a stop to them.”

               “That’s not even all of them,” Rodan said. “I’ve been here several days now. I’ve heard all the rumours. They say the lost daughter of Jungby was there too, using the holy bow Yewfelle.”

               “I’d believe it.” Bloom thought back to when this whole mess started. When the other daughter of Jungby had been kidnapped by Verdane bandits and Sigurd took it upon himself to invade the neighbouring country. He never asked me for assistance. Did he think I wouldn’t help? Or did he think someone needed to stay to defend the motherland while our parents were away? He should have at least told me what he was doing.

               “Ah. Seems they’re finally ready for me,” Rodan said. “If you see lord Alvis, give him my regards.” Rodan departed, leaving Bloom alone with his thoughts.

               It’s just as well that Sigurd never asked for my help, he thought. I could well be in Tailtyu’s place right now. Or worse. He shuddered at the thought. How had things grown so complex? When did all this infighting start? Why had his sister fought against his father? Andorey against his sisters? Langbolt against his son? Alvis against his brother? They were family. They were all nobles of Grannvale. We should have been united. How did it come to this?

               Eventually, he was taken out of the room and brought before Duke Alvis. He expected their meeting to take place in an audience chamber, like the one he waited in, but, instead, Alvis talked to him as they briskly walked through a series of corridors, stopping along the way to address some issue or problem the various staff of the castle had. Alvis had taken on the responsibilities of a duke at a young age, so even though he was a peer of Bloom’s, he always seemed more mature, more sure of himself. Now, however, there was a completely different air about him. He didn’t just seem like an adult, he seemed like a true leader. In a strange way, he almost reminded Bloom of Reptor.

               “Duke Bloom,” Alvis said, “it’s very good to have you with us. I apologize for letting you wait so long. A man of your standing should have been seen immediately.”

               “I do not wish to waste your time,” Bloom said. “Evidently, you are very busy with the succession crisis. Just hand over my sister to me and I shall be on my way.”

               “There is no succession crisis,” Alvis informed him. “I am to become king.”

               “You?” It made sense, Alvis seemed to be running the place already, but part of Bloom was annoyed. Alvis had no more standing than himself. “You lack the blood of Naga. Even if the king died childless, there must be other people with Naga’s blood.”

               “The king has a granddaughter,” Alvis said. “We have married. Would you like to meet her?”

               Alvis was walking more swiftly now; Bloom struggled to keep up. “But the prince never married.”

               “No, but she has the mark of Naga. And as you said yourself, that’s all that matters.”

               Kurth had a bastard child? Of all the nobles in the kingdom, he was the last I would have suspected of such a thing.

               “I must say Alvis, this is all rather sudden. I’m a duke, I should have been informed.”

               “Your father was informed,” Alvis told him. “As you can see, things have been hectic around here, thanks to the insurgents. But that’s all over now. It’s time to move forward.” Alvis suddenly stopped and looked at Bloom properly for the first time. “Chalphy, Edda, Jungby have all been left without heirs and the new duke of Dozel is still subduing Isaach. It’s just you and I, Bloom. There were many witnesses, but you can still contest King Azmur’s dying wish if you choose to.” He put his hand on Bloom’s shoulder. “I ask you, as friend, do not. Grannvale needs to heal from this ceaseless conflict that has plagued us. We’ve been left hollow, our lands extended, but our leadership eradicated. I promise you, I can lead our country into an age of prosperity, but only with your help. Do I have it?”

               Bloom hesitated. “You say it is only you and I, but what about this princess? Why can she not become queen?”

               Alvis smiled. “How progressive of you.”

               Bloom scoffed. “Three of the crusaders were women. If they were good enough for the gods, then they should be good enough for us.”

               “As I know well, Fala is my ancestor, after all. I agree with you, Deirdre should become queen by all rights. But she simply doesn’t have it in her. Here, see for yourself.”

               Alvis opened the door that they had stopped at. Inside was a room that looked very comfortable. The cold stone walls that filled the other rooms of the castle, were covered with carpets and drapes. A large bed lay at the end of the room. Sitting on it was a beautiful young woman with silver hair, not too unlike his own. She looked up in shock as they entered and retreated back onto the bed slightly. Alvis was right. This girl didn’t have it in her to be a queen. She was fragile, delicate and so very, very afraid.

               Alvis walked over to her slowly and whispered something to her. He knelt down on one knee, looking partly like a prince before a princess, and partly like a father before a daughter. Something about his manner had changed the moment he entered the room. The selfassured confidence was replaced by an aura of gentleness and love. It was clear this marriage wasn’t a political gambit on his part. The look in his eyes proved that he adored the woman before him.

               Alvis took her hand and they both stood up. “Deirdre,” said Alvis, “this is the Duke of Friege, Bloom. He is a very important man.”

               Deirdre bowed. “Thank you for your service to our country,” she said in a quiet, almost inaudible voice. When she had completed her bow, she maneuverered herself so that she was standing behind Alvis, almost as if asking for his protection.

               “I hear you recently lost your grandfather,” said Bloom. “My condolences. I am still mourning the death of my own father.”

               She looked away. “I knew him only a short time, but my grandfather was a good man. I loved him dearly.”

               “Many of us have lost family in the past few weeks. I confess, I am almost jealous of Lord Alvis for expanding his. I wish you both a happy marriage.”

               Alvis smiled, slightly. “I’m sure we’ll find a suitable wife for you in time, Bloom. Now that you are a duke, it is your duty to procreate. The blood of Tordo must be passed on.”

               “I’ll see what I can do, but in all this talking, I’ve almost forgotten about the reason I originally came here. Where is my sister?”

               Alvis sighed. “I was hoping to delay that discussion as soon as possible.” He turned to his wife and took both her hands in his own. He sat her back down on the bed and kissed her forehead. “I will be back as soon as I can,” he whispered. He stood up and walked away from her. “Come,” he said to Bloom. “We will discuss your sister outside.”

               Just as he was about to leave, Deirdre’s quite voice called out. “Si…sir Bloom.”

               Both Bloom and Alvis turned around. Alvis seemed shocked that his wife had spoken up.

               “Did you…did you know that rebel? Sigurd?”

               “A little,” Bloom said.

               “I…met him. Just once. He seemed to know me. And I felt I knew him.”

               “That’s enough,” Alvis interjected. “You’re distressing yourself.” Despite Alvis’ words, the princess seemed calmer than before. He was the one that looked distressed.

               “I killed him,” she whispered.

               “No!” Alvis said, sternly. “I killed him. I killed him for you. For us, for our future.”

               “But if not for me, he would have slain you,” she said. “I killed him.”

               “I have an important matter to discuss with Lord Bloom. We’ll talk later.” He practically pushed Bloom out of the room and slammed the door shut.

               “Was she on the battlefield?” Bloom asked.

               Alvis faced the closed door, his fingers resting on it longingly. “Yes,” he said. Bloom was surprised, he had expected Alvis to avoid the question. “It was…a mistake of mine. I was overconfident in our victory. Sigurd turned out to be more resilient than I expected.” He turned away from the door and looked at Bloom. “But that’s all in the past now. Sigurd is dead. Before we entered that room, I asked you for your support, and your friendship. I ask you again, Bloom, son of Reptor, can I depend on you to assist me rebuilding Grannvale?”

               Alvis’ face had reverted back to the firm and strong countenance he had before, but Bloom could not forget how he had looked in that room just seconds before. He also couldn’t forget how Alvis had looked upon first entering the room either. There was a mystery here that Bloom had no answer to. A mystery as to why Sigurd rebelled, with the support of so many nobles. A mystery that involved Alvis and the newly discovered princess. But Alvis was right, Sigurd was dead, all that woe was in the past now. It didn’t matter. What mattered was that he believed Alvis’ words when he said he wanted to build a brighter future for them all. What’s more, Alvis clearly believed in his own words, and that’s all Bloom needed to swear fealty.

               Bloom nodded. “I have your back, Alvis. Don’t worry, no matter what.”

               Alvis smiled. “That’s good to hear. Now, about your sister. I’m afraid we’ve lost her.”

               “You’ve lost her? What do you mean you’ve lost her?”

               “She escaped. To where, we don’t know, but we have one of two choices. The two countries that aided the rebellion against her.”

               “Leinster and Silesse.”

               Alvis nodded. “Conquering Silesse is outside our current capabilities, but we’ve already started drawing up plans to conquer Leinster. I want you to lead the invading force.”

Edited by Jotari

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Chapter 2: The Conqueror

 

               Munster District, Outside Melgen, 762

 

               Bloom was a god of destruction on the battlefield. Mjolnir ploughed through soldiers as if they were stalks of grass. Everywhere he went, people died. Growing up, he had preferred to train with swords or bows, but now, that didn’t matter. Mjolnir required no skill to use. He simply had to think it and great streams of lightning eliminated anything he looked at.

               They had outfitted him with a large suit of armour, similar to the one his father had worn during the wake. He found it restricted his movement too much to be useful. He had to keep requesting that his soldiers slow their pace to match his. Thanks to Mjolnir, the only thing he need fear was the appearance of King Calf, the War God. The most experienced man on the continent with a holy weapon. Melgen was located on the boarder, in technically within Leinster, but far from Calf’s lands. The soldiers opposing him stood no chance of victory.

               “Curse you, Alvis,” he muttered. “What am I doing here? You were meant to bring peace.”

               “Sir,” said his aid, Paulus. “The enemy appears to be falling back. What do you require us to do?”

               “Let them retreat,” Bloom ordered. “There’s nowhere to run. They’ll realize that soon enough.”

               Melgen bordered the desert, the lands nearby were poor. Bloom was confident they would need outside support to sustain themselves. They set up their tents around the sieged castle and sent a message to the enemy commander.

               While he waited, he received word that Isaach had finally been subdued. He requested reinforcements from Duke Danann. Partially because he felt a show of power would make the people of Leinster see reason, partially because he wanted to see his old friend once more.

               On the morning of the fifth day, the commander of the castle emerged. He was escorted to Bloom’s tent, unarmed. Bloom rose to greet him. “I am Bloom, son of Reptor and Duke of Friege. Who are you?”

               “My name is General Xavier,” the man said. His words were laced with bitterness and hatred.

               “Well met, Xavier.” Bloom extended his hand, but Xavier merely scoffed.

               “You play the good and honourable duke, while you slaughter my men.”

               Bloom lowered his hand. “I allowed your men to retreat. Believe me, if I truly wanted that castle, I would have it by now. But that would result in an unacceptable number of losses on both sides.”

               “Oh? So you don’t want to see any more casualties? Then get the hell out of my country.”

               Bloom’s eyes narrowed. “I would if I could, but so long as your king refuses to cooperate, I can’t.”

               “King Calf is an honourable and righteous man!”

               Bloom steadily began raising his voice. “He supported the man who wished to destroy our country. If he would merely accept Alvis as king of Grannvale, then neither of us would be in this mess.”

               Xavier grew quiet. Bloom also tried to relax as they both attempted to understand the silence between them. “What would you have me do?” Xavier eventually asked.

               “Surrender,” Bloom said. “Hand the castle over to us, and leave with half your men. The other half will be prisoners of war, we’ll treat them well.”

               “I can’t just let you take our castle and waltz straight into my country. I will have failed in all my duties.”

               “Not your duty to your men. They’ll get to live.” Bloom showed him the letter from Danann. “Isaach has fallen to our forces. Be it three months, or three years, Leinster will eventually fall too. You can’t stop that. But you can control how it falls.”

Xavier’s fists shook by his sides. “I’ll hand myself over to you. All my men go free.”

               Bloom shook his head. “You have six hundred men in that castle at least. I’m afraid you’re simply not worth three hundred.”

               “Pox on you, Bloom. I see right through this act. You’re a bully; the people of Lesinter won’t stand for it.”

               “And what will you do?”

               “I’ll do what you want. For now. But even if you stick a soldier in every house in the country, this land will never be yours.”

               “We will do everything that needs to be done to maintain control,” Bloom said. “I think you’ve made a wise decision today. We need people like you. People who care, people who can see reason.”

               “Are you offering me a job?” Xavier asked, sarcastically.

               Bloom shrugged. “If you want one.”

               “No,” Xavier muttered. “This war hasn’t ended for me just yet. I hope I see you on the battlefield again someday. Next time we meet, I intend to stick an arrow through your heart.”     

 

               Munster District, Melgen, 762

 

               Bloom was behind schedule, but he still decided to rest in Castle Melgen as he awaited the reinforcements. In that time, an unforeseen problem arose. They didn’t have nearly the resources to adequately keep three hundred men prisoner. Bloom had congratulated himself for avoiding loss of life, but now he was kicking himself at the lack of foresight.

               Danann arrived a week later. He decided it would be more fun to meet his friend at a tavern, instead of within the castle. His aide objected, but Bloom was confident no ruffian in the world would stand a chance against Mjolnir, let alone a second holy weapon.

               Bloom was dressed in his standard wear, but Danann arrived in his full armour, divine Helswath on open display at his side. Danann had been fighting the war in Isaach since the start, almost five years ago. “It’s good to see you, Bloom,” he said.

               “Well met, friend. How was your journey?”

               “I can’t complain. The coastal road has a nice view.”

               “I hear you’ve finally subdued Isaach. Congratulations.”

               Danan rolled his eyes. “At last. I thought they’d never stop fighting. I can’t even be sure this is really it. Feels like they might rebel again at any moment.”

               Bloom waved his hand. “You’ve done enough. It’s time for you to go home, and for me to take up arms.”

               Danann smiled. “Actually, I’ve become rather accustomed to Isaach. I’ve even found myself a wife from among the locals.”

               Bloom caught the barkeeper’s attention and ordered two drinks. “We’ve been out of touch far longer than I realized.”

               “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. It was a bit of a rush job, if you understand my meaning.”

               “Do you mean to tell me you’re a father?”

               “Second one’s on the way.”

               The drinks arrived and Bloom raised the goblet in toast. “To the blood of Neir.”

               “And to the blood of Tordo, I’m sure we’ll find a wife for you soon enough.”

               “It’s on the cards,” Bloom said. “Alvis has promised to pair me with his cousin, though I’ve yet to meet her. Tell me about your wife.”

               Danann smiled greedily. “A fine specimen. They don’t make women like Isaachian women. She was reluctant at first, but I soon persuaded her.”

               “Have you met Alvis’ wife?”

               “The mysterious princess? Can’t say that I have. Is she pretty?”

               “Words can’t describe.”

               Danann laughed. “Looks like I should find an excuse to visit Barhara. Pay my respects to Kurth’s bastard.” He raised his goblet again, “to the Blood of Heim, and the Empire’s future.”

               “Empire?” Bloom said after drinking. “We’re a kingdom.”

               Danann raised an eyebrow. “Grannvale controls Isaach now, soon you’ll subjugate Munster. Face it, we’re an empire in all but name.”

               “We only plan to punish Leinster, not the entirety of Munster.”

               “Leinster, Munster, it’s all the one.”

               Bloom shifted uncomfortably. “Maybe. But calling us an empire just reminds me of the Lopt Empire.”

               “Was the empire any worse than the state of things these past few years?”

               “I don’t know, I didn’t live while the Empire reined, but they certainly tell some terrifying stories.”

               “Like putting three hundred men to the sword?”

               Bloom ordered another drink. “So you heard about our overcrowded prison?”

               Danann laughed again. “Overcrowded prison? They say you have most of them in the dining hall of the castle. Is that why we’re out here in this cobblers tavern?”

               “Don’t tell me the mighty Danann has grown tired of taverns.”

               “Are you trying to avoid the conversation? What do you plan to do with these prisoners?”

               Bloom sighed. “You think I should just execute them?”

               “You don’t have much choice,” Danann pointed out. “Let them go and the people of Munster will never respect you. I made mistakes like that in the early days of the war. That’s why I was stuck there for half a decade. Mark my words, if you let these men go, this war will still be raging fifteen years from now.”

               “Nonsense,” said Bloom. “I have Mjolnir and you have Helswath. Together we’ll crush Leinster, and all of Munster if need be. Regardless of how soft I seem to them.”

               Danann patted Helswath. “I’ll give you my men, but I won’t give you Helswath. I return to my duchy tomorrow, for the first time since becoming duke. And you forget, the enemy also has a holy weapon, the mighty spear Gae Bolg. I was lucky never to have faced Isaach’s Balmung on the battlefield. If it’s anything like Helswath, then I shudder to think of the damage it can do. The outcome of this war won’t be certain until that King Calf is dead.”

               “I thought I’d enjoy speaking with you,” Bloom said. “But you’ve just given me more woes.”

               Danann placed an arm on Bloom’s shoulder. “That just means you’re not drunk enough.”            

 

               Munster District, 762

 

               The next day, Bloom sent a message to King Calf. He threatened to kill one prisoner a day until Leinster surrendered and acknowledged Alvis as king. Unfortunately, the prisoners quickly realized what was happening when members of their party were taken away and never came back. The staged an uprising, tried to overpower the guards using their numbers. They succeeded, to a certain extent, holed themselves up inside the very dining hall they’d been imprisoned in, with the overpowered guards as hostages. The Second Siege of Melgen they called it. Of course, while they still had a massive amount of numbers, they were far from properly armed. They had, however, also seized the pantry, meaning the soldiers of Friege would be the ones to starve if the conflict was drawn out. There was plenty of food in the towns and surrounding countryside, but Bloom didn’t want to encourage pillaging. He already had enough trouble with soldiers looting without his sanction.

               Bloom threatened to use Mjolnir on them if they refused to surrender. They pointed out that being a prisoner of his meant death regardless, so he made good on his promise and stormed the hall with his mighty tome. He had wreaked havoc on the battlefield with Mjolnir, but this was entirely different. This was wholesale slaughter. They were packed so densely together, each bolt of lightning couldn’t help but kill dozens. By the time the deed was done, the prisoner count had dropped from three hundred, to fifty five, most of them killed by Bloom personally.

               That night, he trashed the bedchambers he’d been staying in. He felt angry at the people of Leinster for opposing him, angry at Alvis for ordering him here, angry at Sigurd for rebelling, angry at his father for dying and making him duke, and, of course, angry at himself for not being capable of avoiding the situation, angry that he had personally killed at least two hundred people.

               King Calf never responded to his letter. When asked what to do with the remaining prisoners, he said they could rot in the dungeon, no matter how much that exceeded capacity.

               He put the army on the march the next day. When they reached the next fortress, he personally led the charge once more. He didn’t hold back this time. Using Mjolnir’s power, he eradicated all who stood in his way. “This sooner this war ends, the sooner people will stop dying”, he kept telling himself. For some reason, the words never seemed to do anything to subdue his anger.

 

Munster District, Outside Ulster, 762

 

               The Munster District was split into four provinces. Leinster in the northwest was Bloom’s primary concern. To reach it, he first had to deal with Ulster in the southwest. To his surprise, when his army arrived, the large city was flying a white flag.

               “Surrender?” said Paulus, Bloom’s aid.

               “Hmm. What are they playing at? Ulster isn’t the same as Melgen. They could hold out against us for weeks, even without a holy weapon. Send a messenger. Let’s see what their conditions are.”

               Less than an hour later, Conor, the king of Ulster itself, arrived in Bloom’s tent. He was a young man, but there was a weariness in his eyes, as if the age of his soul resembled that of a feeble old man. He gave Bloom a broken smile. “You are the Duke of Friege, correct?”

               Bloom nodded. “And you’re the king of Ulster.” Bloom had risen to greet him, but sensing he wouldn’t need much intimidation for this meeting, he took a seat behind his desk. “Let us not delay. What are your conditions?”

               “We seek the protection of Grannvale,” Conor said.

               “Protection? Protection from whom?”

               The king shifted uncomfortably. “Our greatest enemy, Southern Thracia. They’ve invaded Munster already. King Calf and King Carl have gone to King Crete’s aid, but I have little confidence in their success. As you probably know, prince Cuan was killed in the Yied Desert last year. He had holy Gae Bolg on him at the time. We have not been able to recover it. Without it, we cannot stand up to Travant’s Gungnir. Please, you have a holy weapon. Please use Mjolnir to protect Ulster.”

               An invasion from Thracia? suddenly everything made sense. The reason King Calf had never returned any of his messages. Bloom had thought himself the great invader, but in truth, Leinster just had more pressing concerns. The things he had done at Melgen suddenly seemed unnecessary. The thoughts of it made his stomach feel sick. He leaned back on his chair and kept a steady face. “And what will you offer us in return?”

               “Peace. Cooperation. I know Leinster aided Sigurd, the rebel, but that has nothing to do with us. We’re united, but we’re also separate countries. King Calf is my leader, but he isn’t my king. General Xavier passed through here not long ago. He said you were an honourable man. That you accepted his surrender graciously.”

               Ha! thought Bloom. I doubt Xavier said anything of the sort. Bloom got to his feet. “Is there anything else?” he asked.

               Conor grew even more fidgety. “What do you mean? Are you accepting my request or not?”

               “You’ve only just presented the case to me. I must consider it.” Bloom gestured towards the door. “Go back to your city for the time being.”

               Conor opened his mouth to say something, but with a faint sigh he closed it again and left.

               “What are you going to do?” Paulus asked.

               Bloom sat back in his chair and began peeling an orange. “The fool made a mistake by telling me they’ve lose the Gae Bolg. With this surrender and Thracia’s eastern invasion, it means the entire Munster District has fallen. That’s a foregone conclusion. Our actual enemy now is Travant. I wonder, is it better to simply make an alliance with him and crush Northern Thracia together.”

               “What then?” Paulus asked. “We control Ulster and Leinster, while Thracia controls Connacht and Munster? That might provide a temporary fix, but Travant believes the entirety of the Thracian Peninsula belongs to him. He’d never be satisfied if Grannvale occupied a quarter of it.”

               “So then, we are to war with both Leinster and Thracia? What if the two of them agree to set aside their differences and repel me together, and then get back to their own war once the foreign invaders are dealt with?”

               “I don’t think that’s likely sir. North and South Thracia are bitter enemies. The King of Ulster, at least, thinks we’re a better option than Travant.”

               Even though Bloom had finished removing the peel to his orange, he kept tearing it into smaller and smaller pieces. “That’s true, but the King of Ulster is weak. I could see it in his eyes and the way he held himself. From what I’ve heard of him, King Calf won’t be so quick to simply give up. And while North and South Thracia are bitter enemies, they were once a united family. They both consider the Thracian Peninsula to be the one land. We’re the outsiders here.” He swept away the orange peels and looked at the map of Thracia built into his desk. He was silent for a moment before speaking. “Ulster only wishes for their own protection. They haven’t asked me to assist any of the other provinces. Suppose we remained stationed here. We don’t make any offensive moves towards either Munster or Thracia. The two of them continue warring with each other as they are, and when one side has defeated the other, we sweep in and take control.”

               “But we’ve already attacked a major Leinster castle,” Paulus pointed out. “We slaughtered over two hundred prisoners, if word gets out-”

               “It won’t get out,” Bloom said sharply. “We had to invade Melgen, to reach Ulster unhindered. Conor summoned us for protection, and we came. That’s the official story. So long as we show no intentions to move any deeper into the Munster District, neither Calf nor Travant have any grounds to suggest we are an enemy. They’ll both know what we’re doing, but they’ll lack the excuse they need to form an alliance with each other. The fact that they hate each other should help make it easier for us. So long as we stay here, our enemies will grow weaker, while we remain just as strong.”

               The reasoning he delivered to Paulus was sound, but all the while he talked, a voice in the back of his head kept saying Join forces with Travant, and you can crush Munster in a month. The war will end, the fighting will stop. Let them fight it out, and countless more will die while you sit here and do nothing.

               I know, he replied to his own mind, but at least I won’t be the one killing them. Does that make me a coward?

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Chapter 3: The Father

 

Jugdral, 762

 

               Thracia’s role in the war mimicked Grannvale’s, they also allied with one of the four provinces. Connacht betrayed Leinster during their march and King Calf was killed. Thracia swept over the land faster than Bloom expected, but the people of Leinster and Munster fought savagely, with years of ancestral hate fuelling them. By the time the tide of war reached Ulster, the Thracian army was exhausted. Bloom countered and quickly gained the upper hand. Raydrick of Connacht betraying Thracia at the battle of Melghen Valley was what finally forced them to approach Bloom with a nonaggression pact. Travant was a proud man, a man who was inches away from achieving the ultimate goal of his dynasty, but Bloom had all the power, and power decided everything. Grannvale became, unquestionably, the strongest kingdom on the continent. Dannan was right, within a year; people had started calling it an Empire.

               Bloom managed to return home once, before the war was over; when his army was still stationed outside of Ulster. He met Alvis’ cousin, Hilda, on the way back. She was a stunning woman. Her sense of style and poise outpaced that of anyone else. She was from Miletos, but she constantly talked about Grannvale and the things she loved about the country. She was very impressed by his status as a duke and for the first time since he initially left Grannvale, she made him feel good about the war. Made him feel patriotic, convinced him the he was aggrandizing Grannvale with his actions.

               Like the priest from Edda, it wasn’t long before she asked to see Mjolnir. Where the priest had touched it with quiet reverence, she stroked the binding with an admiration that bordered on lust. He was captivated by her. Before they were even half way to Friege, he had sent word ahead to arrange the marriage ceremony. His wedding was a joyous affair, but there was an emptiness in his heart. Ethnia was the only family member in attendance, Tailtu’s location was still unknown and everyone else was dead. All he could do was smile, and resolve to build a new family with his new wife. He returned, just in time to see his children born.

 

Grannvale Empire, Friege, 763

 

               Bloom sat outside waiting while Hilda screamed in the birthing chambers. He had only arrived two days ago, had only spent one day with his wife before the child arrived. She had looked so different, heavily pregnant, but still extremely sexy. Part of him wished he had waited longer, spent some more time with Hilda before starting a family. A larger part of him was happy to become a father, and an even larger part of him was apprehensive. Since becoming duke, he had slowly become aware of how little Reptor had prepared him for this life. Of how selfish his father had been by always pursuing his own career over being with his family. He desperately didn’t want to make those same mistakes, but if he was called to go to war again, he wasn’t sure how he could avoid them.

               Suddenly he heard crying from the next room. He stood up so suddenly, the bench he had been sitting on toppled back. He hesitated before knocking on the door. When no one said anything, he let himself in.

               Hilda was lying on the bed, breathing heavily. In the arms of cleric beside her was a baby. The cleric looked up at him and smiled. “A boy,” she said.

               Bloom’s face turned from uneasy apprehension, to pure joy. “I have a son,” he cried. “I have a son!”

               His wife suddenly let out a cry. The cleric with the baby passed the tiny little creature to Bloom and returned to Hilda’s side.

               “What’s going on?” Bloom asked. “What’s wrong?” The baby in his arms was crying loudly. “Do something. Help her!”

               “Everything is okay,” the lead cleric reassured him. “It’s just another baby.”

               “Twi-twins.” He looked down at his son, uncertain of his feelings. His mind had been filled with all the things that could go wrong, a second child was the last thing he had expected.

               Hilda let out another groan of anguish. Bloom didn’t know what he was meant to do. Should he leave? Was there anything he could do to help? Was he still meant to be holding the baby? Gently he rocked his son up and down, hoping to keep him quiet as he waited for the second child to arrive.

               “A girl,” the junior cleric eventually said. She wrapped the baby in a blanket and tried to hand it to the mother, but Hilda waved her hand, indicating she didn’t want it.

               Hilda slumped back in the bed and let out an exhausted sigh. “Never again,” she murmured. “Never again.”

               Bloom walked around the bed and stood beside the cleric. They held the two babies close to each other. For a moment they stopped crying, somehow becoming instinctually aware they were reunited with their twin.

               “I bet they’ll be wonderful mages,” Hilda whispered. Her eyes were closed, almost as if she were asleep. “They’re well breed. Can you see any marks on them?”

               “The Holy Blood brand doesn’t appear until adolescences,” Bloom informed her, remembering the delight he had felt when he discovered his own brand.

               “Who do you hope will have it? The girl, or the boy?”

               “Maybe both,” Bloom suggested.

               Hilda laughed. “So long as it’s one of them.”

 

Grannvale Empire, Barhara, 763

 

               Things were quiet for the next few months. Bloom didn’t have to do much when raising the twins, he had people for that, but he still spent a lot of time with them. Just holding them and being present in their life. They eventually settled on the names Ishtore, for the boy, and Ishtar, for the girl.

               Coincidentally, Queen Deirdre had also given birth to a pair of twins at the same time. Bloom had only seen Alvis once since the war ended and was eager to show off his children, but they decided to wait until the children were a few months old. Alvis was instituting a lot of changes to the system. Bloom was charged with constantly sending out the Gelben Ritter to patrol for bandits and implementing a wider support system for the populace to report their issues. Most of the problems the lower classes had were trifling affairs, but a few genuine crimes were brought to light and Bloom was called upon to enact justice on some truly despicable people. To his surprise, the nobles also used this system to bring to light scandals that had previously been buried.

               When the children were six months old, Bloom and Hilda finally travelled to Barhara to visit Alvis, who was now universally called the Emperor, rather than the King. Bloom still felt unsettled by this and he suspected many others were of similar mind, but the common people loved Alvis and wanted to exalt him as something beyond the kings that had come before.

               Bloom, Hilda, Alvis and Deirdre, sat together in the palace garden. On a blanket nearby were their four children, now old enough to sit and investigate whatever they came into contact with. The sun was shining and all around them flowers buzzed with the sound of bees and the sight of butterflies. Everything was peaceful, Bloom could not recall a happier time.

               He had not seen Deirdre since that first meeting. She looked fuller now, more human. More like she should be. Although she was still quite reserved, she talked a lot more. He discovered her history, which had been the source of much gossip. By her own admission she had amnesia, she couldn’t remember anything before meeting Alvis, who had found her by sheer coincidence near the castle one day.

               “So he was the brave knight who saved you in an hour of desperation,” said Hilda.

               Alvis laughed. “Please. I was always too busy being a duke to achieve knighthood.”

               “It’s not untrue,” Deirdre whispered. She held Alvis’ hands in her own. “Without you I would still be lost.”

               “So even after several years, you haven’t recovered any memories?” Bloom asked.

               Deirdre shook her head. “No. But some people…Some people I feel like I knew, from before. Nobody has stepped forward to identify me.”

               “Where did you get your name?” Hilda asked, her face a strange mix of curiosity and disinterest.

               “I always remembered that. I don’t know why.”

               “It probably shouldn’t be too hard to figure out who you are,” Bloom said. “We know your approximate age and your father must be prince Kurth, from there it’s only a matter of determining which of the women he was interacting with around the time you were born. When I first saw you, I thought your hair was similar to my own. Perhaps Kurth had an affair with one of my late aunts. We could be cousins.”

               Alvis’ eyes suddenly widened. He grew agitated, like when Deirdre had asked about Sigurd. This time, however, he hid his discomfort better, possibly indicating such bouts of distress had become habit for him. Deirdre didn’t seem to notice. “Who I was isn’t really important to me,” she said. “They’re the only thing that matters to me now.” Her gaze was fixed on the children playing on the blanket.

               “It’s fortunate,” said Alvis, looking to Bloom, “that you had twins. One can be heir of Friege, and the other can be heir of Munster.”

               Bloom suddenly sat up straight. “What do you mean?”

               “I allowed Danann to declare himself King of Isaach. I thought it only natural then, that I should offer you the position as King of Munster. I was very impressed by your campaign. You did a good job, Bloom, you deserve to be honoured.”

               Hilda had also snapped to attention. “We accept!” she said eagerly.

               “Hold on,” said Bloom. “What about Friege? I can’t abandon it. That’s my ancestral home.”

               “You did a good job of conquering Munster,” Alvis said. “But the district has been restless ever since you left. I put Cowen in charge, but he can’t handle it alone. You’re the only other person I trust for such a task.”

               Bloom was still reluctant. “What about my children? I want them to grow up in Friege, where I grew up.”

               Hilda placed her hand on Bloom’s shoulder. “I will raise our children. You have no reason to worry about it. This will be good for them. They won’t simply be heirs to a duke. They will be a prince and princess. This is our opportunity to establish a dynasty.”

               “I’m already part of a dynasty,” Bloom objected.

               “I’m going to feed the children,” Deirdre suddenly said, evidently not wishing to be present for the argument.

               “You of course have the right to refuse if you wish,” said Alvis. “I won’t begrudge you that, Friege is your home, I understand that. I had to give up Velthomer to become Emperor. I miss it a considerable amount, even though it’s less than three days ride from here.”

               Hilda leaned closer to Bloom, pressing the full weight of her body against him. “Do you want your children to live as you lived, Bloom? Or do you want them to have a better life? The life of royalty. They won’t simply be another duke. They will be the first imperial children of a united Munster. People will remember their names for generations.” Hilda’s mouth was right by his cheek now. The soft touch of her breath was distracting.

               “I can see you’re not entirely convinced yet,” Alvis said. “How about I offer you something in return?”

               Hilda suddenly leaned away from Bloom and locked her eyes on Alvis. “A marriage,” she said, quickly. “Our son and your daughter.”

               Alvis chuckled. “Let your husband speak, Hilda. What do you want, Bloom? What can I do for you?”

               Bloom was quiet. He looked at his children. Deirdre was sitting beside them now, breast feeding one of her own. “My sister,” he finally said.

               Hilda looked disgusted. “You mean the traitor?”

               “Find my sister and I’ll become King of Munster.”

               A sombre look passed over Alvis’ face. “I already know where she is.”

               “What? How long have you known? Why didn’t you tell me?”

               “I didn’t tell you, because I wasn’t sure what to do. I knew you wouldn’t like what it entails.”

               “Tell me now, and I’ll decide that.”

               Alvis sighed. “She’s in Sileese. The previous queen, Rahna sheltered Sigurd and his rebels. The current king is one of those rebels. The most powerful one, Lewyn, the wielder of Forseti. They refuse to hand Tailtu over to us. The only way to get your sister back is a full scale invasion. Ever since you secured Munster and made an alliance with Thracia, certain people have been pushing to have me invade Sileese. If I do, the continent would truly be unified.” He sighed again. “I’m not sure, what do you think?”

               It’s only been six months, Bloom thought, must I go to war again?

               “I can tell by the look on your face that you don’t relish the idea of invading,” Alvis said. “Don’t worry, it needn’t concern you. I have other co-”

               “No,” said Bloom. “I’ll handle the invasion myself. It’s the only way to ensure Tailtu’s safety. When I’ve return, I’ll become your king.”

               A moment of quiet passed over the three of them, Bloom, Alvis and Hilda. Even though all of them got exactly what they wanted, none of them seemed satisfied with the result.

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Chapter 4: The Brother

 

Sileese, Outside Zaxon, 764

 

               Mjolnir did not cut through the forces of Sileese as easily as those of Munster. Their pegasi and wind mages were far better suited to dealing with Bloom’s thunder magic. Alvis and Danann were by his side, however. No force, no matter how strong, could stand a chance against three holy weapons.

               A young pegasus rider endured an attack from Mjolnir. Bloom was so surprised, he didn’t even react when she rushed and jabbed at him with her spear. The attack bounced off him and for the first time he was thankful for the bulky armour. The pegasus knight scowled with frustration as she circled round again for another strike. Before she could reach him again, he blasted her with a second strike of Mjolnir. This time she was sent flying off her mount. She fell ten feet and landed in the snow.

               Bloom approached her with caution. She lay on the ground, with a look of fury on her face. She was clearly using every bit of will power to move, however she was too injured to do anything but shake feeble. For a long moment Bloom stared at her, stared into those eyes, filled with so much hate. All around him pegasi fell from the sky and bursts of magic tore through human and armour alike. This girl was like the rest of them, just another soldier, yet Bloom knew, even before he ended it, that this kill would be more personal than any before, even more so than the prisoners of Melgen. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. In the last instant, the girl’s eyes widened, the hatred vanished, leaving only shock and fear. Mjolnir utterly destroyed her, leaving a corpse no one would recognise.

 

Sileese, Castle Sileese, 764

 

               It had been late summer when Alvis disclosed the location of Bloom’s sister. They both agreed that an invasion of Sileese was necessary, but neither relished the idea of launching an attack before winter. Sileese had never been invaded before. With their high mountains and air support, it made for a very difficult country to move through for a foreign army. Grannvale attacked in late spring, just as the snows were melting, prepared for a long, protracted war. They hoped to seize castle Sileese before autumn, ready to weather the winter there if the royal family retreated northwards. For months they planned supply routes and ways to cut off the enemy’s escape. It all turned out to be a waste. King Lewyn called for surrender after a single battle.

               He asked for Danann, Alvis and Bloom to come to Sileese castle with only a single squadron to negotiate the terms of the surrender. Danann was adamant that it was a trap. He urged Alvis to ignore the summons and move their entire army into position. Alvis was uncertain and asked Bloom for advice. With the death of the pegasus knight still fresh in his mind, Bloom voiced his opinion that they should do as King Lewyn advised. “It took almost five years to conquer Isaach,” Bloom reminded them. “Munster, less than one. I think if we do as they ask, we could control Sileese in a month. If we ignore them, continue this fight, then the conflict could end up even longer than Isaach. We’ve done the projections, there’s little way we can take the northern territories from them.” Alvis agreed and they set out.

               The throne room of Castle Sileese was cold. Great big windows adorned each side of it, showing the full length and breadth of the countryside outside. Although they were rather high up, there was no wind. It was as if the cold seeped in without a current of air to carry it. King Lewyn’s appearance was strange. He leaned on the side of his throne, with one hand grasping his face. It was only when they stopped approaching, did he seem to realize they were there.  He used his hand to brush away a lock of dark green hair and looked at them. He was approximately the same age as Bloom, but, like Alvis, there was a strange depth to his eyes, a maturity that seemed at odds with his youthful appearance.

               The look of a king? Bloom wondered. Will I look like that when I take my position as King of Munster? No. His eyes aren’t quite the same as Alvis’. He seems even older, almost ancient.

               “Welcome, descendants of the crusaders,” Lewyn said.

               Alvis stepped forward. “I was glad to receive your summons,” he said. “I hope we can put this ugly mess behind us, for the sake of both Grannvale and Sileese.”

               “Oh?” said Lewyn. “Were you not afraid it was a trap? After all, the trap you laid for me is still very fresh in mind.”

               “What?” Alvis said, clearly startled.

               “The Battle of Barhara,” Lewyn said. “Or should I say the Massacre of Barhara?”

               Alvis lowered his head so his eyes looked up at Lewyn from below his furrowed brow. “You were there?”

               “I was.” He gestured to the throne room. “As you can see, I was more fortunate than most. I managed to escape, though I doubt I’ll ever forget the smell of burning flesh.”

Bloom leaned closer to Alvis and whispered in his ear. “What did he mean about a trap?”

               “Did he not tell you?” Lewyn asked, somehow hearing the whisper from several feet away. “They told us the war was over, that the conspirators were killed.” Lewyn laughed. “We were such fools. We believed every word. It felt so good to think our fighting was done. And then your precious Emperor turned on us, without warning. We stood no chance. We weren’t prepared.”

               Bloom moved his gaze between Alvis and Lewyn. “Is this true?”

               “It was the only way,” Alvis said. Bloom had never seen him look more serious. “It was the only way to end the fighting. I couldn’t best Sigurd’s army in combat. I had to use strategy.”

               “And why couldn’t the lie be truth?” Lewyn asked, a sad smile on his face. “Why couldn’t you have just welcomed us back with open arms like you said?”

               “Sigurd was a traitor,” Alvis said. “He was coming to conquer the kingdom. Or would you claim it a lie that he was sheltering prince Shannon of Isaach?”

               “He was sheltering a child,” Lewyn whispered.

               “Enough of this,” said Danann. “Have you come here to voice your grievances, or to negotiate your surrender?” Danann’s palm rested lightly on Helswath at his side.

               “You have a beautiful holy weapon,” Lewyn said. “I do too.” He thrust his cape aside and revealed the book of Forseti in his hand. Bloom took this as a threat and grabbed hold of Mjolnir, beside him, Alvis was similarly reaching for Valflame.

               “None of you attack until he does,” Alvis hissed.

               “Oh I won’t attack, Lewyn said. “I could kill one, maybe two of you, but that wouldn’t be enough.”

               “Then put your weapon down,” Alvis ordered, his voice filled with power and authority.

               Lewyn suddenly let out a gasp and clutched at his face. Forset dropped out of his hand and fell to the floor. One of the king’s aids quickly picked it up and placed it back in his hand. This display of weakness caused Bloom and Danann to relax, but Alvis still stood battle ready.

               “Unlike you,” Lewyn muttered, after he had regained his composure, “it saddens me when humans die. I do not wish for this conflict to continue. Allow Sileese to become a vassal state, similar to Thracia. That is all I ask.”

               “And what would that entail?” Alvis asked.

               “You leave me in power. Send some representatives from Grannvale to oversee my actions and ensure they do not threaten your empire.”

               “Ha!” said Danann. “He just wants to maintain his own position.”

               “And,” Lewyn continued, “amnesty for all the so called rebels who fought against you in the past.”

               “We cannot grant amnesty to those who wish to destroy us,” Alvis said.

               “We’ve lost,” Lewyn said. “We know we’ve lost. None of us wish your country any harm. We only desire our lives.”

               “You might not, but there are plenty of escaped rebels that are not in Sileese, I’m sure. Unless you happen to be hiding Prince Shannon of Isaach here.”

               “You’re harbouring my sister,” Bloom said. “I want her back.”

               “To do what with her?” Lewyn asked. “Hang her? Set her on fire?”

               “I just want her to return to her family.”

               “She doesn’t want to go back.”

               “She’s a child. She doesn’t know what she wants.”

               Lewyn laughed. “It’s been a long time since you’ve seen Tailtyu, hasn’t it? She’s no more a child than you or I.”

               “This is ridiculous,” Danann said. “You want us to simply forgive the ones who tried to conquer our kingdom. No deal. Alvis, let’s go. We can crush this insect on the battlefield and seize the rebels ourselves.”

               Lewyn massaged his forehead with his free hand. “I might not be able to defeat you in combat, but I can make this war very difficult for you. Refuse my terms, and the next time you see your children, they’ll be adults.”

“Amnesty,” Alvis said, “for all the rebels in Sileese, except Tailtyu.”

Lewyn’s eyes narrowed. “Why her?”

               “Because my dear friend Bloom here misses his sister very much.”

               “I refuse,” said Lewyn.

               Alvis smiled. “Alright then, if not her, then your wife.”

               Lewyn almost stood out of his chair. His eyes widened with anger, for the first time they seemed to match his face. “You bastard.”

               “Your wife was a rebel too. Did you think I didn’t know?”

               “You didn’t know I was at the Massacre,” Lewyn growled.

               “No, I didn’t know you were at the Battle of Barhara. But I did know you were one of Sigurd’s rebels. Was she there too? Does the stench of burning flesh still haunt her?”

               “Shut up!”

               “She’ll smell it again if you force me to go to war. Even if it takes a century, I’ll see your country-”

               “Enough!” Lewyn slammed his fist against the throne. “Very well then, take Tailtyu if it’ll satisfy you.”

               Alvis smiled and bowed. “I hope you don’t mind if I have one of my men write up the terms of your surrender. I trust they will satisfy you.”

               Lewyn waved his hand. “Be gone, before I change my mind!”

               Alvis turned on his heel and began walking out. “Danann, you’re in charge of things here,” he said. “Bloom, go find your sister.”

               “And what will you be doing while we’re running things?” Danann asked.

               “I’m going on a trip. Don’t ask me where, it’s none of your concern. I’ll meet you back at the capital when I’m done.”

 

Sileese, Mountain Village, 764

 

               Spring was not coming to the world as quickly in the place where Tailtyu had chosen to hide.  Fields of bright green grass were still covered in large patches of snow. Bloom saw her, even before he entered the village. She was playing with a young child on the hill side, encouraging it to walk. The child’s hair was silvery grey, just like Tailtyu’s, and just like his own.

               She looks happy, he noted. What am I even doing? Do I have the right to tear her away from this place? Lewyn was right, she’s an adult now.

               She’s a noble of Friege, another part of him said. She should not live in a shack on a mountainside. Her child should not be forced to grow up without their due heritage.

               Bloom had only brought a small retinue of soldiers. Tailtyu didn’t notice them approach until they were nearly upon her. When she looked up, there was a moment’s pause. Shock plastered her face as she realised who Bloom was. He wasn’t sure what she would do, she didn’t seem certain either, but then she picked up the child and started running.

               He had not come here in his armour, but he always had Mjolnir on hand. He shot a bolt of lightning. It missed Tailtyu by several meters, but it still clearly sent the message he had intended. She stopped running.

               “Father is dead,” he said to her, after closing the distance between them. He wasn’t sure what else to day.

               “I know,” she whispered. “I was there when it happened.”

               “You made it happen.” He had not intended it, but his words were an accusation.

               “He was…” Tailtyu started to speak, but her voice trailed off. “He killed the prince.”

               This was new information to Bloom, but it didn’t faze him. Deep down, he had suspected it all along. “You think that matters? You think any of that matters?” He spread his arms out wide. “This is what matters. Family. It doesn’t matter if he was a traitor. He was our father.” Bloom knocked on his own chest. “He was our blood, the blood of Tordo.”

               “What are you going to do to me?” Tailtyu asked quietly.

               “You’re coming back to Friege with me. We’ll figure out what happens after that.”

               Tailtyu shook her head. “No Bloom, please. I’m happy here, I have a life. I help them milk the goats and feed-”

               “You are no milk maid,” Bloom interrupted her. “Having children with commoners.”

               Tailtyu held the toddler close to her. “He wasn’t a commoner.” The beginnings of tears were forming in her eyes.

               “So you had a child with a rebel then.”

               “We weren’t rebels! Sigurd was innocent.”

               “Sigurd is dead. Everything he did or didn’t stand for died with him. History has declared him a rebel, and so he is.”

               “How can you say that?”

               “Because the Empire is at peace!” Bloom tried to calm himself. “Things are good and right and just now. If you and Sigurd must be seen as rebels for that to happen, then so be it. We can’t change the past, all we can do is make a better future, for our children.” Bloom offered his hand out to her. “Come with me, dear sister. Let us not make the mistakes our father made. Return with me to Friege, Ethnia misses you.”

               “Don’t pretend I have a choice,” Tailtyu cried. “How can you say all those things? This village isn’t as quiet as it seems. Peace! I’ve heard about the wars you’ve fought. You call that peace?”

               “That’s all behind us,” he told her. “There’s no one left to fight. Alvis and I have united the continent. The whole world belongs to us. We’ve done what father couldn’t. The people in the streets of Grannvale praise our name.”

               “You think you’re any better than father? You’re exactly like him. All he cared about was his own power too. How he could shape the world to suit him.”

               “I’m nothing like him,” Bloom whispered. “I care about family. That’s what I’ve tried to prove by coming here.”

               “Well you shouldn’t have. I don’t want you, Bloom. I don’t ever want to see you again.”

               Bloom still had his hand offered to her. He lowered it now and closed it into a fist. “Well that’s too bad. Because you’re right. You don’t have a choice. Seize her. And make sure you don’t hurt the child.”

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Chapter 5: The Son

 

Grannvale Empire, 764

 

               Tailtyu didn’t speak to Bloom on the way back to Grannvale, nor did she say anything for the month he spent in Friege before leaving to fulfil his duty as King of Munster. Parting from the twins hurt him more than he imagined it would. He wanted nothing more than to remain at Friege to raise them, but Alvis had remained true to his word and now Bloom had to honour his.

               Alvis’ previous ambassador, Cowen, had not done a bad job running the country. However, most of the experienced rulers from Leinster and Munster had been killed in the war, leaving opportunists, glory seekers and undeserving citizens of Grannvale to fill the open positions. Much of Bloom’s first year was spent getting acquainted with the various dukes and barons that made up the country.

 

Munster District, Ulster, 765

 

               “Do you have any children,” Bloom asked King Conor one day. They were standing on the ramparts of the castle. Ulster sat at the top of a hill, surrounded by a large plain. From the top of the castle, one could see for miles.

               “I do,” Conor said. “A daughter. She was born not long after the invasion.”

               “About the same age as my two then. Do you get to see her much?”

               “Eh, yes. I have a lot of free time, ever since you took charge of things.”

               “We still give you some administrative duties to keep you busy.”

               “Ah yes, of course. I didn’t mean to suggest you had stolen my role. In fact, King Crete and I were speaking. He wants me to ask you about Leinster and Connacht’s kings.” Crete was the King of the Munster province. He had managed to survive the war and accepted Grannvale’s rule, but he wasn’t a fan of Bloom and preferred to have Conor act as an intermediate. Of course Conor was so spineless, he barely ever brought Crete’s grievances to Bloom’s attention.

               “Leinster and Connacht don’t have kings,” Bloom said. “They both died in the war.”

               “Yes, but, well, that’s the point. The territories need new kings.

               “Prince Leif is still alive. Leinster can’t get a new king while there is still an heir to the old one. That’ll only bring trouble in a few years. And if I give the Kingship to Connacht, without also aiding Leinster, then people will use it as an excuse to say Grannvale is bias against Leinster. It’s a no win scenario. Things are more stable if the northern regions lack kings.”

               “King Crete is afraid we’ll, that is to say he and I, will be deposed if Leinster and Connacht lack a proper ruler.”

               “They have proper rulers,” Bloom pointed out. “All my reports say General Muhammad and Baron Raydrik are capable rulers. I don’t think declaring them kings would make them any better.”

               “Oh heavens, no!” Conor exclaimed. “We couldn’t make them kings! Muhammad is a Grannvalian and Raydrik committed regicide! Ah, not that there’s anything wrong with Grannvalian rule. You are of course from Grannvale and you make for a wonderful king.”

               “Who would you make king?” Bloom asked.

               Conor hadn’t expected this question. “Ah. Well I haven’t really thought about it. I suppose…Really this was all King Crete’s idea. I had very little to do with it.”

               Bloom cast his eyes northwards. Even though he couldn’t see it, he knew the city of Leinster lay beyond the horizon. “Well if you find a suitable pair of candidates that don’t make Grannvale look like their subverting Leinster, I will consider it.”

               Conor was silent for a moment. It seemed like he was gathering his thoughts. “What if we were to crown young Prince Leif?”

                “We don’t know where Prince Leif is.” Bloom turned his gaze back to Conor. “Isn’t that right?”

               Conor almost jumped out of his skin. “Ah, yes. I, or I should say we, have no idea where the Prince of Leinster evacuated to. Munster probably, as they were allies with Leinster in the war. Then again, his parents were supporters of Sigurd’s rebellion, so he’s probably fled to Sileese.” Conor’s speech gradually grew more and more rapid until it became incoherent babbling as he somehow managed to theorize that Prince Leif had fled to every nation on the continent.

               “Enough,” said Bloom. “As I said before, if you find suitable candidates, be they Leif or some other member of the royal family who has a legitimate claim, then bring them to me. Otherwise the whole question is moot.”

 

Munster District, Ulster, 765

 

               “The Empire is putting pressure on me,” Cowen said. Bloom was playing chess against the ambassador in his study. “The whole continent is at peace, but there’s unrest in Munster.”

               Bloom scoffed. “I’ve reduced tensions in the city of Munster to that of Ulster and Connacht.”

               Cowen shrugged. “I know, you’ve been doing as good a job as anyone. But that’s not the way the people back home see it. Munster, or more specifically, Leinster. It’s the stain on Alvis’ utopia. If a riot happens in Leinster, then there will be repercussions.”

               Bloom noticed that Cowen’s conversation was twofold. He was trying to set up a trap for him in the game as they spoke. He pretended to not noticed, and set himself up in a more advantageous position that would let him deal with the trap later.  “I almost hope there is a riot,” he said. “I never wanted this job in the first place. Alvis can appoint someone else and I can see my children again.”

               “That’s not the kind of repercussions I was talking about. This is serious Bloom, you could be executed.”

               “Alvis wouldn’t do that. He’s my friend. He knows what kind of situation I’m in.”

               “He was Sigurd’s friend too,” Cowen reminded him. “And look how that turned out.”

               “That’s different.”

               “Not as different as you might think. Sigurd was placed in charge of Agustria. He too failed to supress the rebellions there, and, for his troubles, he was branded a traitor.”

               Bloom picked up one of Cowen’s defeated pawns and started to thread it through his fingers. “You don’t think Sigurd was a traitor then?”

               “I know he wasn’t a traitor,” Cowen confessed. “My daughter told me everything. Check.”

               Bloom looked down at the board. A two pronged attack! The sly devil did succeed in distracting me. “What does your daughter have to do with any of it?”

               “She’s the one who gained him Alvis’ trust. By betraying your father in the heat of battle.”

               Bloom dropped the pawn. “What!?”

               “She led the Roten Ritter during the final battle. They turned on Reptor and assisted Sigurd in defeating him. Then, they led Sigurd’s army to Barhara under a guise of friendship and swiftly betrayed them. It was a master stroke from Alvis, eliminating two enemies at once.”

               Bloom had known about Sigurd’s innocence ever since Sileese, but he had not known the true circumstances of Reptor’s death. “Your daughter killed my father?”

               “Yes, on Alvis’ orders. Check.”

               Bloom ignored the game. He stood up and started pacing. “Why are you telling me this?”

               “So you know what kind of man Alvis is. He’s willing to do whatever it takes to strengthen the Empire. It’s what makes him a good leader, but one you must be wary of.”

               Bloom opened the door and ordered the soldier standing guard outside to ready a carriage for him.

               “What are you doing?” Cowen asked, a hint of outrage in his voice.

               “I’m going to see Alvis. To get to the truth of the matter.”

               “I advise against that. You’re needed here. We’ve already quelled Munster, just a few more months to get Leinster under control and you won’t need to worry about anything.”

               “I don’t care!” Bloom shouted. “He killed my father! I must know why.”

 

Grannvale Empire, Barhara, 765

 

               Bloom arrived at Barhara unannounced. Alvis wasn’t there. He was off on one of his mysterious trips that he told no one about. When he did return, they tried to tell Bloom he was too busy to take visitors. Bloom had grown more confident since that day, four years ago, when he had been forced to wait with the priest from Edda. He demanded to see Alvis immediately, and his demands were met. The meeting did not take place in a corridor. It was in the throne room, yet it still wasn’t like Bloom had originally envisioned. For some reason, no one had lit the room. Alvis sat in the darkness, with only a sliver of moonlight illuminating his feet. Bloom stood at the bottom of the steps leading up to the throne. The wrath he had felt in Ulster had not diminished in the weeks it had taken to get this meeting. He had carefully rationed the anger, making sure it was reserved and ready for this crucial moment.

               “What are you doing here, Bloom?” Alvis asked. His voice was filled with exasperation and irritance.

               “I’ve come to learn the truth! Did you order the death of my father?”

               Alvis was quiet for a moment. The silence was overbearing. The hall was so big an empty, it felt like the only room in the world. He tried to focus on Alvis’ face, to guess what was passing through the emperor’s mind, but the shadows enveloped Alvis, revealing nothing.

               “Who told you that?” Alvis eventually asked.

               “Does it matter!? Just tell me if it’s true.”

               Again, a lengthy silence passed before Alvis deigned to answer. “It is.”

               “Why!? He trusted you! Sigurd trusted you! And you betrayed them both!”

               “Reptor didn’t trust me,” Alvis snapped. “If he were in my position, he would have done the exact same thing. Your father was a power hungry fool. And unlike me, he didn’t want that power for any reason other than to have it. He didn’t want to rule this kingdom, he wanted it to bow to him. If I had let him survive that battle, he would have murdered me, just like he murdered my wife’s father!”

               Bloom’s fists shook. “Maybe so, but he was still my father. How would you feel if I killed the man who raised you?”

               Alvis leaned forward, allowing the moon to illuminate his face. He looked just as angry as Bloom. “I would have thanked you. My father was a lecherous drunk who drove my mother insane. I would have killed him myself if given half the chance.”

               It was Bloom’s turn to grow quiet. He didn’t know how he wanted to respond. He wanted Alvis to understand his pain, his horror, but there was no common ground to empathize with.

               “These past few months have not been kind to me,” Alvis said, his voice was less angry now, though it was still far from gentle. “If you have nothing further to discuss with me, then please leave.”

               “Is that all you have to say? You won’t even apologise?”

               “No. I won’t. Because I did it for the good of the continent. We have peace now. Neither Sigurd, nor Reptor could have brought that. Only I could have.”

               “Oh we have peace,” Bloom said mockingly. “Well actions have consequences, Alvis. You won’t have peace if I gather the armies of Munster and march against Grannvale!”

               “You wouldn’t dare.”

               “Do you want to test that? You made me a king. I have that right.”

               “You would really go to war over this grievance? Think about how many fathers you will kill with that decision.”

               “The question isn’t if I would really do it. The question is, would you really let me?”

               “Oh, so you want me to beg, do you?” Alvis’ voice began to rise again. “I’ve already given you a kingship and a wife, what more could you possibly want!?”

               “The head of the woman who murdered my father.”

               Alvis paused. “You mean Aida?”

               “Yes. Aida. Your most trusted general. Is her life worth more to you than peace on this continent?”

               “If you rebel, Bloom, then I swear I’ll-”

               “I said is her life worth more to you than peace!?” Bloom roared.

               Again, silence descended. Bloom didn’t know what Alvis would say. It looked like Alvis didn’t know what he would say either. “Yes,” he eventually muttered. “She is my friend. I will not let you have her.”

“Then it seems you have some degree of loyalty for those that serve you.” Bloom twirled on the spot and began to walk away. His heavy footsteps echoed across the hall.

 

Jugdral, 765

 

               Bloom did not go to war with Alvis. He would have, if Alvis did willingly surrender Aida. It would have proven that he was not worthy of loyalty. Bloom had to face the facts, Alvis had been right about Reptor. Bloom knew he needed to be more than Reptor. He needed to forgive Alvis, for his own sake, and for the sake of all the people on the continent, his children included.

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Chapter 6: The Husband

 

Munster District, Ulster, 766

 

               For the next year and a half, Bloom dedicated himself to subduing the growing discontent in Leinster. It continued to be the one province that refused to accept Grannvalian rule. Although outright riots and uprising were nonexistent, the people frequently disobeyed the orders of his generals and in the streets, it wasn’t at all uncommon for children to throw stones at Friege Soldiers or vendors to refuse service. The occupying Friege forces were steadily growing more and more irritated by the populace’s lack of respect. It was only a matter of time before a soldier ended up dead, and a general ordered a massacre as revenge.

               The Solstice Festival was approaching. What had once been a time of celebration and joy to him, had now become a time of stress and worry. The people of Munster and Grannvale both celebrated the Solstice, it should have been a symbol of union, but to him, all it symbolized was large crowds and the potential for things to go awry. The only thing that he had to look forward to was Hilda and the children coming to visit.

               He met them at the castle gate. Hilda arrived in an ornate carriage, covered in silver and gold. She emerged wearing a large and gaudy dress. She had previously worn attractive, revealing outfits. This dress was something different. It was eye catching in a whole different way. Even if she only had the title by marriage to him, she wore the regalia of a queen.

               She stepped down out of the carriage and kissed him on either cheek. “Welcome to your kingdom, Queen of Munster.” Bloom had returned to Friege a handful of times since becoming king of Munster, but this was Hilda’s first time visiting him in Ulster. “So happy to be here, darling,” she said.

               Out of the carriage stepped Bloom’s children, Ishtar and Ishtore. “Daddy,” they cried as they ambled into his arms. He laughed and pulled them into a large embrace. It was the first time they’d spoken to him with familiarity. He picked them up, one each hand.

               “Look how big you’ve gotten!” he said. He was filled with joy, but he also had to hide the sadness in his words. Each time he saw the twins, they had changed. He felt like he was missing their entire lives. He looked to Ishtar. “How old are you now?”

               “Three!” she said, holding up three tiny fingers to show him.

               He turned back to Ishtore. “And how old are you?”

               “Three and a half,” he proudly declared.

               “I’m three and a half too,” Ishtar cried, not wanting to be outdone by her brother.

               He knew perfectly well how old they were, down to the very day, but he wanted to hear them say it. To show him how brilliant and intelligent they were for understanding the concept of numbers and age. He closed his eyes and kissed them, one after the other. “I missed you,” he whispered.

               He looked up as someone else emerged from the carriage, Tailtyu, holding the hand of her own daughter. Bloom was surprised by how pale she looked, but he didn’t have much opportunity to examine her, she walked past him, intentionally avoiding eye contact with him. At her side, the child, Tinny, stared up at Bloom with great, big, curious pupils.

               Bloom’s eyes followed after Tinny as she vanished into the castle courtyard. He turned back to Hilda and handed her Ishtore. “Is she doing alright?” he asked, indicating with his head towards the courtyard.

               “You mean your sister?” Hilda asked with some mild distaste. “I think she’s stopped eating, just so her brat can get more food.”

               “There’s no need for that,” Bloom said. “Give her more food. There’s enough for everyone. Are we not royalty?”

               Hilda scoffed. “She gets as much as anyone else at dinner. If she wants more, then she can ask the chef herself. I’m her sister in law, not her mother.”

               Bloom frowned. He wasn’t sure what to do. He wanted to help Tailtyu, but she still refused to open up to him. “How’s Ethnia?” he asked, in a bid to change the subject.

               “More capable than that one,” Hilda nodded in Tailtyu’s direction, “but not by much. She’s meant to be the one in charge of Friege, but I’m the one who ends up running most things.”

               “Ethnia’s personality isn’t as strong as yours,” Bloom said. “But you shouldn’t underestimate her. She did a fine job when I was conquering this place.”

               “I should hope so,” Hilda said. “She needs to keep the place running until I get back.”

               “G-Greetings, Queen Hilda,” said a voice behind them. They turned to see King Conor approaching them from the castle. Holding his hand was his daughter, Miranda.

               “Who is this?” Hilda asked.

               Bloom placed Ishtar on the ground, who eagerly began talking to Conor’s daughter. “This is King Conor.”

               King Conor,” Hilda said, icily. “My husband is the only king around here.”

               Conor smiled weakly and shrugged. “I agree, but they’ve allowed me to keep my former home and title, and I’m very much grateful for that.” He looked down at his daughter, who seemed to be less talkative than Ishtar. “I wanted to introduce our children. I think they should become friends. If they like each other, perhaps one day we could arrange a marriage. It would do a great deal to solidify-”

               “That’s not possible,” Hilda interrupted, she held their son closer to her breast. “Ishtore is to marry Princess Julia someday.”

               “Ah!” cried Conor. “Forgive me. I was not informed.”

               “That’s because it isn’t true,” Bloom said. “We’ve talked about it, but Alvis has never agreed to such a thing.”

               Hilda turned her nose up at Conor. “It might not be official yet, but the emperor’s children and ours are good friends. I’m confident Alvis will one day accept my proposal.”

               “Ah. Well perhaps our children might still play, just for the sake of it. There are not many children Miranda’s age in the castle.”

               Hilda pushed passed Conor and headed towards the castle. “Ishtar can play with her, but Ishtore is staying with me. Come along, Bloom.”

               Conor turned to Bloom with a pleading look on his face. Bloom shrugged. “It’s not going to happen, Conor. If I was going to use one of my children as a political tool, it would be to stabilize Leinster. Everything here is fine, I don’t think it would achieve much.”

               Conor looked down. “Of, of course. This was rash of me. I should have brought the matter to you earlier, instead of ambushing you like this.”

 

Munster District, Ulster, 766

 

               “Why do you want Ishtore to marry Julia so much?” Bloom asked Hilda. They were in his private quarters. Bloom sat waiting on the bed, while Hilda applied makeup in front of the mirror.

               “Isn’t it obvious?” she said, without looking at him. “He’s a prince, he should marry a princess.”

               “No, that’s not what I mean. Why Ishtore and Julia? Why not Ishtar and Julius?”

               “Oh, that’s because Ishtar is to marry Prince Areone.”

               “Travant’s son? How are you going to manage that?”

               “I’m not sure. Travant has turned down all my offers to meet. But I’m relentless,” she smiled at her reflection, “once he meets me in person, I might be able to change his mind.”

               Bloom rotated his wedding ring along his finger. “That would make Ishtar’s children the heirs to Thracia. Ishtore would become the heir to Friege, what then of Munster? We’d need a third child to take up my mantle here.”

               “Unite all of Thracia and you’ll solve that problem. Honestly, I think you should have pushed the advantage and killed Travant when he was still weakened from battling Munster.”

               “I didn’t want to risk any more lives.”

               Hilda rolled her eyes. “You’ve just delayed that battle. We both know what kind of man Travant is; he won’t stay idle in the south forever.”

               “He wouldn’t dare attack. He couldn’t dare. Not with how powerful Grannvale is.”

               “That’s only if Grannvale continues to support you. The whole kingdom knows about that fight you had with the Emperor.”

               “Do they know what it’s about?”

               “No. Just that you haven’t spoken to him in over a year.”

               “You’ve seen Alvis since then. How is he?”

               “Same as ever. He’s ignoring the entire thing.” Hilda finished powdering herself, and joined Bloom on the bed.

               Bloom kissed her on the neck. “Are you curious to know what we fought about?”

               “I don’t care in the slightest,” she said, “so long as it doesn’t interfere with my plans to marry Ishtore and Julia.”

               “I’ll have to make it up to him then,” he whispered in her ear. “Just to make it up to you.” He slid his hand along her abdomen and reached lower.

               Hilda began to sigh, but suddenly slapped his hand away. “I’ve told you before, Bloom. I’m not having another child.”

               Bloom broke away from her and rubbed his hand. “But it’s your duty. You’re my wife.”

               Hilda laughed. “I don’t care.”

               “I’ve stayed faithful to you. All this time I’ve stayed faithful to you. Do you know how hard that is for a man?”

               Hilda slipped under the covers and smiled nonchalantly. “Then don’t. Go fuck a whore if you need to satisfy yourself.”

               “I don’t want a whore,” Bloom growled. “I want you.” There was a knock on the door, but they both ignored it.

               “Well you can’t have me,” Hilda said. “Unless your man enough to take me by force.”

               “I should. Gods know I should. I have every right to.”

               “But you won’t. Because if you do, I’ll slit your throat while you sleep.” Bloom liked Hilda’s willful personality. It was one of the things that had attracted him to her in the first place, but sometimes she frustrated him to no end on her utter refusal to yield to any opinion but her own.

               “What do you expect me to do?” he asked.

               “Wait, until a safe day.”

               “When will that be?”

               “Not until after the New Year.”

               There was another knock on the door. “Who the hell is it?” Bloom asked, in no mood for yet another trivial errand that demanded his attention.

               Instead of a response, there was only another knock.

               Bloom got off the bed and made his way to the door. Perhaps it was better to have something to distract him from how angry he was at Hilda. How did she expect him to restrain himself when they shared a bed? When she puts so much effort into looking beautiful at every moment of the day.

               He opened the door to see a figure wrapped in a black cloak. “What the devil do you want?” he asked.

               The figure was wearing a hood, but beneath it he could just make out some feminine features. “Justice,” she said. She removed a knife from her sleeve and stabbed him in the chest. He let out a cry and stumbled backwards. She slashed at him again, this time he managed to raise an arm in defense. The knife bit through muscles and tendons. He stumbled and fell to the ground. She leapt on top of him and continued to stab. A surge of adrenaline gave him the energy to throw her off him, but he faltered soon afterwards and collapsed again. She scrambled back on top of him and went for his throat. He grabbed her arm and tried to restrain her, but already he was growing weak. She swapped to her left hand, he tried to restrain her there too, but only his injured arm was free.

               Suddenly, his attacker was engulfed in flames. She dropped the knife and rolled off him, desperately trying to put the fire out and screaming all the while. Bloom glanced up to see Hilda, with a fire tome in hand. She shot another blast of magic at the assailant, who was now convulsing and thrashing around from the pain. Her screams brought more people to the room, but by then, Bloom found himself unable to care. Torrents of dizziness assaulted his mind.  He kept thinking the same thing, over and over again. My mother called me Bloom, I was meant to flourish.

               He was lying in a pool of his own blood, and despite the roaring fire beside him, the world felt cold.

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Chapter 7: The Victim

 

Munster District, Ulster, 767

 

               Consciousness returned to Bloom slowly. He became aware of the world again over the course of several days. With great difficulty, he could open his eyes, but his mind was unable to register anything he could see. There was activity around him, a constant ebb and flow of people moving about. Some even talked to him, although he couldn’t understand the words at first. Eventually, the haze cleared and things started to make sense.

               The first thing he recognised was a balding man with a moustache. “Are you awake, Lord Blume?”

               “You,” Bloom said, with some confusion. He weakly noted that he was still in his bed chambers. “You’re that priest…from Barhara.”

               The man cracked a smile. “I see you remember me. The names Rodan. Look, it’s my turn to show you a holy weapon.” He reached down, picked up a wooden case and opened it in front of Bloom to reveal an ornate stave.

               “The Valkyrie stave,” Bloom whispered. “Did I…die?”

               Rodan laughed. “No, not quite. But they were afraid you would. There’s no one alive who can use the Valkyrie staff, but I came anyway, to see if I could help. I’m glad I got to show it to you at least. It’s also been my pleasure to meet your sister. I’m glad to see she fared better than Lord Claude.” Bloom followed Rodan’s gaze and noticed Tailtyu sitting on the other side of the bed.

               “Tailtyu,” he gasped.

               She looked down before speaking. “Hello brother,” she muttered.

               Bloom looked back to Rodan, as if seeking aid. “How long was I unconscious?”

               “About two weeks,” Rodan said. He closed the box containing the holy Valkyrie staff and got to his feet. “Well, I must be off. Not sure if you’ve heard, but they’ve put me in charge of Edda. Always plenty of things to do, as I’m sure you well know. It was good to see you again. I leave you in the capable hands of your own staff.”

               There were a few guards and clerics in the room, but Bloom took no interest in them. With Rodan gone, the only one he cared about was his sister. He was pleased Tailtyu was there for him, but he had no idea what he was supposed to say. “Is Hilda still here?”

               Tailtyu shivered at his wife’s name. “Yes.”

               “And the kids?”

               “Yes.”

               “That’s good.” Bloom hesitated. “Your daughter…”

               “Tinny.”

               “Yes, I know her name. Tinny…does she get along with Ishtar and Ishtore?”

               “When Hilda lets them play.”

               Tailtyu was so different from how he remembered. She had always been such a cheerful and loving child. He had assumed that when they finally found time to mend things, he would see that side of her again. Now she was cold and detached, without any sign of happiness. “Tailtyu…why did you run off all those years ago?”

               She looked to the door Rodan had left through. “Because of Calude. He was taking a trip to the Tower of Blaggi, and I just joined him for fun. Suddenly father was there, declaring Sigurd a traitor, and I had no choice but to go to Sileese. Claude tried to get the matter sorted, but father declared him a traitor too. He didn’t know he was condemning his own daughter at the same time.”

               “You didn’t…If you had of just left, then father would have welcomed you back.”

               “I couldn’t leave.” There were tears in her eyes. “None of it was true. None of us were traitors. We just wanted to go home.”

               “I know.” Bloom reached out to grab her hand, but she recoiled.

               “Tailtyu…please understand…I only wanted to give you your life back. You have to admit, things are better now, better than they would be if you’d stayed in that village. Tinny can play with her cousins and you-”

               “Shut up.” Tailtyu didn’t scream, but the words still pierced through Bloom as if she did. “You don’t know anything. My life is a living hell. Hilda spends every moment making sure I suffer.” She clutched her right arm with her left. “At first I thought it was because she was jealous, but she just does it because she enjoys it. It takes everything I have to make sure she doesn’t hurt Tinny.”

               “What are you saying?”

               “She beats me, Bloom. Beats me and burns me and mocks me and locks me away without food or water. She’s so cruel. She doesn’t let me sleep. I can’t take any more.” She still wasn’t shouting, that, more than anything, broke Bloom’s heart. It was as if there was nothing left in her. She spoke with emotion, but lacked outrage. Lacked any sort of pride or even anger at the indignity.

               “I’ll talk to Hilda,” he promised.

 

Munster District, Ulster, 767     

 

               Hilda visited with the children that evening. She denied everything. That didn’t surprise Bloom. He didn’t doubt Tailtyu’s words. He loved Hilda, but there was something in her that was unrelenting, a selfishness that would drive her to do anything for her own personal gain, with no care for others. He would have shouted at her, had he the energy, but he was still feeling weak and confined to his bed. In the end, all he could do was decide that Tailtyu would stay in with him in Munster.

               Cowen visited not long after Hilda left. “What’s happened while I’ve been away?” Bloom asked.

               “There was a minor riot in Leinster during the new year,” Cowen said. “About a dozen citizens were killed, along with two soldiers.”

               “Friege soldiers or Leinster soldiers?”

               “Leinster soldiers.”

               Bloom nodded. It was regrettable that anyone had to die, but better Leinster’s soldiers than his own. “And what do we know about the bitch that put me in this bed?”

               “The assassin? Very little I’m afraid. Your Queen really did a number on her. There wasn’t much of a body left to identify.”

               “Where were the soldiers guarding my door?”

               “It seems someone used a sleeping stave on them. We didn’t find a stave on her body, which means she wasn’t working alone.”

               “A sleeping stave isn’t easy to come by. If she had a benefactor, it must have been someone rich. Probably one of the Leinster nobles.” There was a large ball of pressure at the front of Bloom’s head. He didn’t know if it was from the injuries he sustained, or if it was a natural anger he was still feeling after talking to Tailtyu. “This is an outrage,” he muttered. “I’m meant to be their king, yet they attempt to kill me. And they almost succeeded. I won’t let it happen again. Tell Muhammad I want the oldest child in every noble family of Leinster killed in retribution.”

               Cowen hesitated. “Sir, we don’t even know is Leinster is to blame.”

               “Of course it’s Leinster,” Bloom growled. “They’re the only ones who won’t play by the rules, won’t just accept defeat. That was an order. Carry it out.”

 

Jugdral, 767      

              

               Bloom had to learn how to walk again after the attack. It was difficult, painful and took several weeks. Hilda did not go back to Friege. She insisted on staying with him for “moral support,” but he rarely saw her. He was thankful it meant the children were still near, but he rarely saw them too. He didn’t want to worry them by letting them see what state he was in. Even more than that, he didn’t want them to see him as weak. He was their father, he was meant to be a pillar of support, invincible, not some slobbering wreck that can barely stand.

               At first, he thought Hilda’s choice to stay had something to do with Tailtyu, but eventually he learned she was here to try and open more frequent communications with Thracia. Eventually, after two months, Thracia responded to her saying Prince Areone was already engaged, to a minor noble’s daughter from one of the other cities in Ulster. This outraged Hilda. She deemed it as a personal insult, thinking there was no political advantage to the arrangement. Bloom saw beyond this feint, however, noting that the city Travant was trying to marry into was practically on the South Thracian border. If it came under Thracian control, it would be a good location to invade Munster from on the western flank.

               Not long after Hilda received this news, Tailtyu hung herself. The body was taken to Friege, where a funeral was held. She was buried amongst her ancestors as a true noble of Friege. Bloom shared a carriage with Hilda throughout the journey back to Grannvale. He didn’t say a word to her. He didn’t speak with her until the funeral was held, at which point he informed her Ishtar and Ishtore would be living in Ulster with him and Tinny. Hilda did not take kindly to this, but all she could do was scream and shout. Bloom was king, after all.

               Alvis also attended the funeral. Bloom didn’t say anything to him, either. Instead, he embraced his old friend. The Emperor of the world looked just as haggard, worn and exasperated as Bloom felt. No more, Bloom thought as they lowered Tailtyu into the ground. No one will ever make me feel like this again. No one will ever hurt me like this again.

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Chapter 8: The King

 

Munster District, Ulster, 767     

 

               Bloom hurried down the hall with Cowen and a dozen soldiers by his side. He had grown used to walking with a cane now.

               “Your grace, I’m not sure we can trust this information,” Cowen said. “We have no idea who leaked it to us.”

               “If it’s true, he won’t be able to hide it,” Bloom said.

               “You do realize, this would mean the…purging you ordered of Lesinter’s nobility. It was-”

               “It was necessary,” Bloom said, with a firm and resolute tone. “Even if they weren’t behind the assassination, they needed to learn I’m not to be taken lightly. And there’s been no trouble there since, has there?”

               “No,” Cowen admitted. “Not yet.”

               Bloom threw open the doors in front of him. Inside, was a lavish apartment, not unlike his own. A man and a woman were on the carpeted floor, playing with a child. For a second, the scene seemed peaceful, then the guards swarmed in and lowered their lances. The man stood up and looked around. “B...Bloom. What is the meaning of this? You’re scaring my daughter.”

               Bloom stepped forward and bored through King Conor’s skull with his eyes. “I should be scaring you,” he said.

               “Wha…what do you mean?”

               “Tell me, is it an act? Or are you really as gutless as you seem?”

               “Please, let’s talk about this somewhere-”

               “Did you try to kill me!?”

               Conor’s shivering form suddenly slumped as his entire body took on a defeated expression. “How did you know?” he whispered.

“One of your friends betrayed you. I didn’t think you had it in you. This only proves, I shouldn’t place my trust in anyone from Munster. You invite me into your country, and then you try to murder me.” Bloom took a second to calm himself. “Say goodbye to your wife and child, I’m going to execute you in the morning.

 

Munster District, Ulster, 768

 

               Before he was killed, the last king of Ulster confessed that he’d been sheltering Prince Leif too, but the prince of Leinster had fled to parts unknown after the assassination attempt failed.

               Things changed in Ulster after that. The locals, who had always been complacent, started to get nervous. Bloom started to show his authority more and more. It didn’t matter how safe things seemed, if his most trusted allies could betray him, then anyone could. The only way to ensure his safety, and the safety of his family, was to ensure retribution would befall any who dared try and harm him. Ishtar and Ishtore were given personal bodyguards, Reinhardt and Liza, promising young commanders from Friege. For Tinny, he assigned three mages of lesser renown, but also from Friege. Those of the Friege household were the only people he even vaguely trusted now.

               Fearing a revolt from one of the districts, particularly Connacht, which had sided with Thracia in the past, he rotated his officers in charge. A man called Gustav was placed in charge of Leinster, while Muhammad was moved to Connacht and Raydrik was moved to Munster. He also had King Crete executed too, leaving Conor’s daughter, Miranda, as the only surviving heir of Munster’s royal families, aside from the missing prince Leif, of course. Finding the boy became one of his top priorities. The fact that he and his retainers had successfully managed to hide in the same city as Bloom for years was a constant source of embarrassment. He almost caught them in the city of Frest, but someone tipped them off and they fled again. Frest was supposedly an independent city, outside of Grannvale’s control, but Bloom changed that, executing the bishop in charge and enforcing martial law. He hoped that would send a firm message to any other city that dared to shelter Leif Faris Claus.

               Alvis maintained contact with Bloom after Tailtyu’s funeral. Although he didn’t visit Bloom often, he regularly sent his children to Munster in order to maintain their friendship with Ishtore and Ishtar. Hilda also visited on a regular bases to see the children, Bloom allowed her that much. She spent most of her time in Miletos, doing what, Bloom had no idea, but he was glad of it. He didn’t particularly want her returning to Friege at the risk of treating Ethnia the same way she’d treated Tailtyu.

               Not long after her sixth birthday, the mark of Tordo appeared on Ishtar’s body. Secretly, Bloom had been hoping Ishtor would carry on his Holy Blood, but such favouritism was immediately dismissed when he discovered that his daughter would carry on the line. Never before, had there been a child to manifest the mark at such a young age. Ishtar was immediately given a thunder tome and, as everyone expected, she was a natural when it came to magical talent. Ishtore couldn’t help but be jealous, Bloom knew it and tried to accommodate him without underselling the significance of Ishtar. He also trained with his tomes and, while he wasn’t as adept as Ishtar, he still proved to be a prodigy in his own right.

               Just like Hilda predicted, he thought one day as he watched them train. She always got what she wanted. She always found a way. Now, it’s my turn. Munster is mine, and I will not have it taken away from me, no matter how many assassins they send.

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Chapter 9: The Traitor

 

               Munster District, Ulster, 769

 

               Cowen rushed into Bloom’s office, on a night when the wind was howling and the rain dashed the glass with a solid rhythm. “Bloom, my friend, how many years have we known each other?”

               Bloom had been reading a book on genetics, and old book from before the crusaders. He put it down and looked up. “More than half a dozen years,” he said. “I remember the day we met, when you came to tell me of my father’s passing.”

               “In all that time, serving by your side, have I asked for anything?”

               Bloom narrowed his eyes. “No, not yet, but I suspect that’s about to change.”

               Cowen sighed. “I’m sorry. A friend of mine…she’s in trouble. I need you to shelter her here, in Ulster. And no one can know. Her enemies…they have eyes everywhere.”

               Bloom snorted. “I’m King of Munster. My only enemies are these incorrigible rebels who refuse to accept defeat, and they are of no concern.  There hasn’t been a single incident since I started implementing these harsher measures.”

               “These enemies I speak of aren’t rebels. They’re much more dangerous.”

               “Who then? Not the Thracians surely?”

               Cowen shook his head. “No.” He hesitated. “It’s the…remnants of the old Empire.”

               “You mean the Lopt Empire? There’s no such thing. The Crusaders utterly destroyed them.”

               “You know how hard it is to completely eradicate an enemy,” Cowen reminded him. “These last citizens of Lopt are smarter than Munster’s rebels. They’ve bided their time, regained the power as the world forgot them. Now they’ve infiltrated the halls of every major power in the world. These people I want you to protect, they’ve come from the capital itself in fear of their lives.”

               “I see,” Bloom said. “What of Alvis? Have you told him any of this?”

               “I have,” Cowen said. “But he is…sympathetic to their cause. He sees them as his own people, and feels the abuse they suffered during the fall of the Empire was unjust. He hasn’t advertised it much, but he’s over turned several antidiscrimination laws in his time. He thinks he can bring them into the light, but as good a ruler as the emperor is, he can still be very naïve. These people are fanatics. They’ll stop at nothing to achieve their goals, and they’re slowly gaining the power to do so.”

               Bloom stood up and walked to the window where the storm was raging outside. “So what you’re saying, is that there is an invisible enemy out there, in the shadow of every capital, one that we cannot see but can strike at us at any time. If I accept that as completely true, then it sounds like I put myself at great risk by helping you. Tell me, who is this person, or people that you want me to protect? What did they do to earn the ire of this cult?”

               Cowen hesitated again. “She is the Emperor’s…mistress.”

               Bloom couldn’t help but laugh. “Alvis? Has a mistress. I used to think Prince Kurt was the last person to have a secret lover, but Alvis was a close second. And after he scorned his father so much for his proclivities. Am I the only Duke in the world that hasn’t had an affair?” Lord knows Hilda has given me enough reason to. “Poor Deirdre, she doesn’t deserve that.”

               Cowen adjusted his collar. “Well, actually, it’s a mistress from before the Emperor ever met his wife. To my knowledge they haven’t…had relations since then.”

               “Then what relevance does she have that would draw the attention of this invisible enemy?”

               “She had a child, with the Emperor. With Alvis. This child inherited Alvis’ Holy Blood. They want to kill him as vengeance against the crusaders.”

               Bloom sat on the windowsill and gazed at Cowen with a contemplative look. It was all an act, he had decided to help Cowen from the moment the old man asked. He just didn’t want to seem too eager. Always make every piece of kindness look reluctant he had learned. That way people actually appreciate generosity.

               “Well an innocent child doesn’t deserve to be hounded. And if they’re after people with Holy Blood, then it seems my family and I are already the enemy of this empire in hiding.”

               Cowen’s eyes brightened. “So you’ll help me?”

               Bloom smiled. “I will.”

               “Excellent. I’ll bring them to you immediately.”

               “Wait, they’re already here?”

               Cowen didn’t hear Bloom’s response; he had already left to bring this mother and child to him. He returned not long later with the two, both of them wore long dark cloaks, wet and heavy from the rain. Cowen had been inaccurate by describing the boy as a child. He was already a young man, standing taller than his mother. His bright red hair was the thing that most linked him to Alvis, although there were shades of the Emperor’s face in him too. His mother also had red hair, though of a slightly darker shade. She looked particularly young to have a child as old as the boy.

               The son bowed before Bloom. “Hello, my name is Saias. Thank you for agreeing to help us.”

               “A friend of Cowen’s is a friend of mine,” Bloom replied.

               The woman stood behind her son, with a calm and confident look on her face. Bloom turned to her, waiting for her to divulge her name. “Aida,” she said.

               Bloom nodded. “Welcome to Munster. I still don’t know much about this situation, but I give my word that I’ll do the best I can to protect you.”

               The woman gave him a smile, but then ignored him and made her way to the fire. The boy noticed the chess set on Bloom’s desk and made his way to it. “Do you play?” he asked.

               “Only against Cowen,” Bloom said.

               The boy glanced at Cowen, who was still standing by the door. “He’s the one who taught me too.” He sat down in the armchair by the table. “Come, let us have a game, if you’re not too busy.”

               “I have things to do,” Bloom admitted. “But they can wait till later. I haven’t played in a while.”

               The boy was good at chess. Better than Cowen. It took him twenty minutes to beat Bloom. He was quick to demand a rematch. As they played, all Aida did was stare into the fire. Cowen sat by her side, but said nothing.

               “How do the two of you know Cowen?” Bloom asked.

               “He’s my grandfather,” Saias said.

               “So your mother, is Cowen’s daughter, correct?”

               Sais nodded. “Correct.”

               “Does your mother have any other siblings?”

               “No. My father had a half-brother, but I never met him.”

               “I see.”

               Bloom tried to keep his words clean and level, but inside, his mind was racing. He kept glancing at Aida. That woman is Cowen’s daughter. Alvis’ lover. The one he ordered to kill my father. Over the years he had come to forgive Alvis for the treachery, but an anger still burned with him. A desire to see justice. He immediately found himself regretting his vow of protection. He wanted that woman gone, dead, destroyed. Before she had seemed comfortable in her manner, but now, Bloom saw it as arrogant, condescending. Was she sitting there, smugly thinking of Reptor and how she mercilessly killed him? Or was that betrayal so completely innocuous to her that that she never once hesitated to seek aid in the son of a man she murdered?

               His mind went back to another woman in a dark cloak, the one who had plunged a knife into his chest and tried to kill him, the one Hilda killed in an inferno. Try as he might, he couldn’t remember what her face looked like. All he could see was Aida instead.

 

               Munster District, Ulster, 769

 

               A large man in brown robes was waiting for Bloom in his study a few days later. He had a face that looked particularly cold and cruel. An ugly, brutish face, yet with a hint of sly intelligence. His build looked like he would be better served as an axe wielding barbarian from Verdane. Yet a stave leaned against the chair he had taken it upon himself to occupy, indicating that the robes weren’t just for show, he was a mage.

               “I’m not expecting anyone,” Bloom said. “How did you get in here?”

               “I go where I please,” the man said. His voice sounded harsh and aged, despite him looking no older than forty.

               “Not in my castle. Guards!”

               A group of soldiers rushed into the room and immediately pointed their weapons towards the stranger.

               The man stood up. “Come now, there is no need for such ugliness.”

               “I don’t take kindly to intruders,” Bloom said, “not since I got a knife in the gut. So tell me who you are or get the hell out.”

               “My name is Veld,” he said. “And for their sake, I suggest you call off your guards. I am not some sly assassin here to kill you. Mjolnir alone makes me no match for you.”

               “True,” Bloom said. “But you can never be too sure.”

               The man’s face had been stoic, but it now suddenly turned into an evil smile. “Very well.” He suddenly had a tome in hand, the room grew dark for a few seconds, one of the soldiers gasped and screamed. He dropped his weapon and began clawing at his own flesh. It was hard to tell what was happening to him at first, but then, patches of grey started to appear all over his skin. Seconds later, what had once been a man, was now a statue. One of the other soldiers took it upon themselves to throw a javelin at Veld, the sorcerer evaded it, moving as if he’d teleport just a few feet to the right.

               “Everybody out,” Bloom ordered. Some of the soldiers hesitated, but most obeyed without question, a few of them glancing at their petrified comrade. Bloom held Mjolnir in one arm and pointed his hand at Veld. “Try doing that to me and Mjolnir will utterly destroy you.”

               “I have not come here to kill you,” Veld assured him. “If that were my intention, you’d already be dead.”

               Bloom tilted his head at the stone soldier. “Can you fix him.”

               “I can,” Veld said, “but I don’t see why you care so much about one soldier.”

               “He served me loyally; he doesn’t deserve to die like that.”

               “Dying is exactly what loyal servitude is.”

               “To you maybe, but not to me. Now out with it, what do you want?”

               “Can you not guess? Obviously I am here for the boy. The Heir of Fala. We know you’ve taken him in, and we don’t like that.”

               “So you’re one of these Lopt fanatics. That makes me your natural enemy too. The blood of a crusader runs in my veins, just as much as his.”

               “That did not stop you crushing Leinster,” Veld said.

               “I didn’t kill King Calf.”

               “No, but you would have, had it came to it. And you’ve made a fine job searching the kingdom for his grandson, prince Leif. Leinster, Chalphy, Edda and Jungby, all left without heirs. The kinship of the Crusaders have obviously not endured to this age. So you have no inherent reason to protect the boy.”

               “He is the son of my emperor.”

               “The bastard child of the people who killed your father.”

               Bloom lowered his hand. Veld took this as an indication that he could return to the chair. “Why do you want to kill him, and not me?”

               Veld placed his hands together and smiled. “It is not apparent yet, but we are the true rulers of this empire. You work for us. You are a king who suits our philosophies, brutal and merciless.”

               “I only act that way to keep them from rebelling.”

               “Do not take it as an insult. We are proud of you, Bloom. You are one of us. But that boy, he is wild. Untamed, and thus, dangerous. And the world doesn’t know he exists, that provides an easy opportunity to eliminate Fala’s blood without causing undue political stress.”

               “I see no reason why I should believe a word out of your mouth,” Bloom muttered.

               “I see no reason why you should doubt me. I have demonstrated my power, have told you things no ordinary man should know. I have even confessed to worshipping the forbidden god Loptyr. What reason could I have to lie?”

               “Even if what you say is true, I still have no reason to aid you.”

               “Ah, well then perhaps I should give you some more incentive. You have two children, yes? That is so wasteful. One of them could make a nice ornament for-”

               There was a mighty crash as Mjolnir exploded with force. Veld was knocked out of the chair and send flying half way across the room. For a moment he didn’t move, then he started breathing heavily and got back to his feet. He wiped a bloody lip on the cuff of his sleeve. “That was a mist-”

               “Don’t you dare threaten my children again!” Bloom said. “If you do, I don’t care how many of you there are, I don’t care how many holes you crawl into, I will eradicate every last one of you!”

               “Your holy weapon gives you much power,” Veld said. “But it does not make you invincible. One assassin proved that.”

               “I let my guard down, it won’t happen again.”

               “I wonder, would Conor have tried to kill you a second time, had we not tipped you off that he was the traitor.”

               “So smug. I wouldn’t be surprised if you organized that hit on me to begin with.”

                Veld walked back towards the chair and picked up the staff that had rolled onto the ground. “I will ask just one more time, tell me where you’ve stashed the bastard. If you help us, then you can gain vengeance on the ones who killed your father. If you refuse, even if you kill me, there will probably be consequences. That, is beyond my control.”

               Bloom returned Mjolnir to its pouch beneath his cloak. “I’ll help you, but there’s one thing you should know. The boy, he has Valflame with him.”

               Veld’s eyes widened. “What? Are you sure?”

               “Yes. I’ve seen it myself.”

               “But Alvis, he would never part-”

               “He would if he believed his son was in danger.”

               Veld rubbed his chin. “This does change matters.”

               “Yes,” said Bloom. “It means you need me. I will take you to the boy, and I’ll personally kill him using Mjolnir.”

               “You would really do such a thing?”

               Bloom was silent for a moment. “Alvis hated his father,” he eventually said. “Only by killing his son can I make him feel the grief I felt when Duke Reptor left this world.”

 

               Forests of Melfiye, Ulster, 769

 

               It was a long time since Bloom had donned his armour. Feeling its weight again came with a strange combination of nostalgia and revulsion. He hated the things he had done on the battlefield, particularly the slaughter at Melgen, but in a strange way he longed for those times, when his path was clear and simple.

Saias and Aida had been stashed away in a small church in the forest between Ulster and Leinster. Cowen had been sent off to Connacht, to get him out of the way. Bloom brought a platoon of his own troops. None of them knew the reason as to why they were there, but they all grew more concerned and weary as an increasing number of dark bishops joined the group. They drifted in slowly and confidently, as if it was the most natural thing in the world that they should be present in an army’s march.

               Only when they reached the church itself did Veld somehow appear within the ranks. He nodded at Bloom and smiled without saying a word. Bloom turned to the assortment of soldiers and cultists. “I’m going in alone. I shall call if I need any of you.”

               Inside the church was a small group of priests. None of them appeared to be armed. “Where is that woman?” he asked them.  With a shuddering finger, one pointed towards a room towards the back.

               As soon as Bloom opened the door, a fire ball was launched at him. He swiftly back stepped out of the room. “Aida! It’s me!”

               “What’s going on, Bloom?” Aida did not shout, but there was an unmistakable fury in her voice. “Have you allied with our enemies?”

               “No. But I had no choice but to bring them here. They’ve infiltrated the empire. These orders go above me.”

               “There’s no one above you,” Aida said.

               “There is one man,” Bloom said. Aida did not respond. “Is the boy, is Saias okay? I’m coming in, don’t attack.” Bloom made his way into the room. It appeared to be a pantry. Aida stood at the opposite wall with a sword in one hand, and a fire tome in the other. The sword was held at the ready, pointing directly at Bloom. Behind her stood Saias, looking calm and dignified, despite the circumstances.

               “Alvis wouldn’t betray me,” she said.

               “I don’t know what to tell you,” Bloom said. “But I intend to stay true to my word. Here, I brought a warp staff.” Bloom removed a staff he’d been hiding beneath his cloak. “I can get you out of here. I’ll tell these Loptyr fanatics that you’ve already fled.”

               Aida’s features softened, she lowered the sword, but only slightly. “The local priests, they know we were here when you arrived.”

               “It’ll be my word against theirs. Now come on, we don’t have much time. Saias, you first.”

               Saias placed a reassuring hand on his mother’s shoulder. “It’s okay, we’ll escape. We always escape.” He walked passed her and stood before Bloom.

               “As soon as you reappear, start running north,” Bloom whispered in his ear. “Don’t stop for anyone or anything until you reach Leinster. Once you get there, ask for a man named Gustav, he’ll know what to do.” Bloom raised the staff and a pentagram appeared beneath the boy. It flashed several times and he was gone. Bloom hoped he had succeeded in directing the spell. He hadn’t used magic like this since becoming a duke.

               “Quickly,” said Aida. “Do me; I don’t want to leave him alone for long.”

               “He’ll have to make it alone,” Bloom muttered. “I do hope he succeeds.”

               “What do you mean?”

               Bloom looked at Aida and narrowed his eyes. “Tell me, who killed my father? Who actually landed the killing blow? Was it Sigurd? Was it my dear departed sister? Or did you do it personally?”

               “Shit.” Aida raised her tome and shot another blast of fire at Bloom, it bounced harmlessly off his armour. She then tried to rush him with her sword, but Bloom drew Mjolnir and shot a stream of lightning at her. The blast was so powerful, it knocked her right through the wall of the church. She landed in the grass beyond, injured, but somehow still alive. Soldiers and bishops were already rushing towards the scene. “You bastard,” Aida said between coughing fits. “You goddamned two timing bastard. You’re the worst human being.”

               “Maybe I am,” Bloom said. “But you’re no better.” He shot a second blast of Mjolnir, snuffing the light out of her for good.

               Veld appeared seconds later. “Where’s the boy?”

               Bloom pointed at the room inside the church. The warp staff he had used lay abandoned on the ground. “He was there, but she evacuated him before I could do anything. To where, I do not know.”

               “Damn her,” Veld said. “You should have left her to me; she would have made a fine statue for my collection.”

 

               Munster District, Ulster, 769

 

               When he returned to Ulster, Bloom summoned Ishtar to his study and gave her Mjolnir. From then on, he ensured that she would practise using it at least once a week. Veld had indirectly threatened his children. He told Ishtar to use the power of Mjolnir to protect her brother, and any other loved ones she might have. If anyone came after his family, they would find that even the youngest members of house Friege would not go down without a fight.

Bloom hid his involvement with Aida’s demise from Cowen. He placed all the blame squarely on the Lopt Sect’s shoulder. His old friend was understandably distraught, but he buried his feelings and took solace in the fact that at least Saias had lived. Bloom reflected on Aida’s last words, and decided that if ever Cowen or Saias came seeking his life in vengeance, he would willingly give it to them.

               Alvis never contacted Bloom about Saias, nor did he ever acknowledge Aida’s passing. Bloom could only guess how the death of his former lover affected him. At first, Bloom took mild sadistic pleasure in presuming he’d hurt Alvis. This pleasure quickly turned to pity when a messenger arrived two months later to inform him that Queen Deirdre was dead and princess Julia was missing.

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Chapter 10: The Friend

 

Grannvale, Barhara, 770

 

               Bloom attended the funeral for Deidre, but he was unable to exchange more than a few words of condolence with Alvis. He felt guilty for adding to Alvis’ sorrows and, while he wasn’t mad enough to confess to his crime, he was determined to console his mourning friend. Official duties and procrastination delayed him several months in doing so, however.

               When he eventually found the time to make anoter trip to Barhara, Bloom was surprised to see Alvis had aged considerably since they last met. His once youthful and fresh face now sagged with visible lines of stress and sorrow. They sat together in the sunlit garden, just like they had all those years ago. He could almost see Deirdre sitting with them, that gentle and pure creature. In a way it almost seemed fitting that she should be dead.

               “How is Julius doing?” Bloom asked.

               “Not well,” Alvis said. “He gets sick frequently. Fevers. Sometimes it feels like I might lose him too. If that happens, I don’t know what I’d do.”

               “Ishtar came with me, she’s visiting him now.”

               Alvis made a sad smile. “That should make him happy. It has been some time since he saw her. They’re good friends our children.”

               “And you have no word on where Julia might have been taken.”

               Alvis shook his head. “If I had the slightest hint to her whereabouts I’d send out every last soldier on this continent to return her.”

               “I was approached by a group of people. People calling themselves members of the Lopt-”

               “It wasn’t them,” Alvis muttered.

               “How can you know?”

               “They wouldn’t kill her. They’d have no reason to. If anything they should…”

               “They tried to kill your son.”

               “You mean…Saias. I never thanked you for taking him in. How is he doing?”

               “He’s alive.” Bloom silently cursed himself for allowing the conversation to stray to this subject.

               “It’s such a shame about his mother.” There was a faraway look in Alvis’ eyes. “We only slept together once, when I was young and emotional. I was eager not to become my father, yet I ended up just like him. I never loved Aida. I certainly liked her, she was loyal, intelligent and attractive, but she never made me feel the way Deirdre felt. Aida was good to me though, far too good to me.” He shook his head. “I should have married her. If I did, Deirdre would still be alive.”

It was at that moment Bloom realised what had changed about Alvis. It wasn’t that his friend had grown old, it was that he had grown weak. That force that had once been indomitable, that had eliminated all opposition and united the continent, it now lay reduced to an empty shell that possessed nothing and wanted for nothing. “Alvis…if there’s anything I can do to help you, just ask,” Bloom said.

               My friend, I still love you, but I can no longer respect you.

 

Grannvale, Barhara, 770

 

               As Bloom was preparing to leave, he was told by a page that the archbishop wished to see him. He went to the office, expecting it to be Rodan, but instead an old man in a robe was waiting for him. At least the man seemed to be old. He was immensely skinny, with long spindly bones that seemed like they should break from basic movement. His face, however, lacked any signs of advanced age. It certainly wasn’t the face of a young man, but it was free from wrinkles and facial hair. His long nose and heavy brow gave him a very sinister appearance.

               “Another member of the Lopt Sect, I presume,” Bloom said.

               “Come in,” the old man ordered. “Take a seat.” He motioned to the chair in front of the desk.

               “Why do they let someone like you call himself archbishop?”

               The man smiled. “Now, now. You’re not allowed to belittle another’s religion, Alvis passed laws to that effect. I have as much right to be here as you do. In fact, if you make another negative comment against the Lopt Church, I could have you arrested for heresy.”

               Bloom snarled. “Why did you call me here?”

               The man folded his hands. “My name is Manfroy. For starters, I wished to meet the man who screwed me over in Munster.”

               “What are you talk-”

               Manfroy raised his hand. “Let’s not sully our intelligence. We both know where we stand. You used my bishops to enact your revenge against the mother, while simultaneously keeping the boy safe. I’m not even angry, in fact, I admire your guile. Not that I’m pleased the boy still lives, but I’ll get him eventually. I am accustomed to waiting to get the things I want.”

               “How can you openly admit you want to murder the emperor’s child in the heart of the empire itself!?”

               Manfroy laughed. “You saw what state Alvis was in.” His his smile darkened. “This is my empire.”

               “Did you kill the queen?”

               The smile was replaced by a look of dissatisfaction. “No. I wanted her to produce more heirs. You can’t have a kingdom without proper succession after all. Our entire future now lies on the shoulders of young Julius. That reminds me, the other reason I summoned you here.” He lifted up a small bell and rang it. A bishop wearing the signature robes of the Lopt Sect entered. Standing only as tall as his waist was a little girl. “This is Sara, I wish you to keep her safe.”

               This was the last thing Bloom had expected. “Why should I do anything for you?”

               Manfroy shrugged. “Then abandon her if you wish. Regardless, I entrust her to you.”

               Bloom looked back to the girl. She had long lavender hair. Her eyes stared forward, registering nothing. “This isn’t…princess Julia, is it?”

               Manfroy laughed. “Of course not. You think if I had princess Julia, I’d entrust her to you?”

               “Well then, who is she?”

               “The future of my house.”

               “Your…daughter?”

               “Granddaughter. Now that’ll be all. Your own daughter is waiting for you downstairs.”

               Bloom hesitated before taking the young girls hand. She looked at him ever so briefly before turning her gaze forward once more. “Do you…want to say goodbye?” Bloom asked Manfroy.

               “No,” Manfroy said. “Why would I?”

               What is this bastard playing at? Does he think children are a weakness of mine? Or is this some kind of demonstration of superiority? Well he’ll get no satisfaction from me; I’ll dump her in that monastery, just like Saias and Miranda.

 

Grannvale Empire, Northern Road, 770

 

               After the visit to Alvis, Bloom proceeded on to Friege. Ishtar was to be dropped off there to spend the rest of the month with Hilda. Initially Ishtore was to go too, but he had stayed behind to study tactics with Liza, his bodyguard. Tinny, Tailtyu’s daughter had also accompanied them. He would never dare leave her alone with Hilda, but he did think she should be at least passingly familiar with Friege as a place. With nowhere else to put her, Manfroy’s granddaughter Sara also joined them in the carriage. Ishtar tried to talk to her, but Sara merely stared forward without saying a word. Eventually Ishtar got bored and joined her cousin to look at the passing landscape outside.

               Bloom was suddenly struck by how different Tinny and Sara were. They were both very quiet girls, but it was an entirely different type of silence. Sara didn’t seem shy; it was more like she didn’t register the world at all, while Tinny seemed actively afraid of expressing herself.  As if all she wanted to do with her life was exist without being a burden to the rest of the world. It made her very hard for Bloom to deal with. He wanted to treat her like his own daughter, but he wasn’t sure how. The level of accomplishment and pride he felt when interacting with Ishtar and Ishtore simply wasn’t there with Tinny. She wasn’t as accomplished a mage as the twins, but she was still far above the average child. He praised her often, but she still barely spoke to him. He would have given her anything she asked for, but she never expressed a desire for anything. He wanted to tell her she didn’t bother him, that he was happy to take her in, but he feared even the suggestion of such a thing would cause her to worry even more.

               “Father,” said Ishtar, having resolved the landscape would continue unchanged for some time. “How was the emperor?”

               “I wish he were happier,” Bloom admitted. “But it is to be expected. He’s been through a lot. How was Prince Julius?”

               “I don’t know?” Ishtar said

               “Don’t know? What do you mean?”

               “He was acting strange. He was…nicer to me than normal.”

               “Hasn’t he always been nice to you?”

               “Yes…but this was different. He kept telling me how much he cared for me and wanted to make me happy.”

               “He probably misses his mother.”

Ishtar shook her head slowly. “I don’t think so. I mentioned the queen at one point, and he got very angry, very quickly. And not just upset, really, actually angry. He told me to never mention Queen Deidre again.”

               “It’s a hard time for him,” Bloom said. “There’s no right way to act when you lose someone you love.”

               “He asked me to come visit him again, on the way back from Friege.”

               “And do you want to?”

               Ishtar brushed her left arm with her right. “I’m not sure. He really scared me when he got angry. But I liked how he was being so nice, even if it was a little strange.”

               “Wait until it’s time to come home before making up your mind. I’m sure Hilda would be more than happy to take you.”

               “She wants me to marry him, doesn’t she?”

               Bloom was surprised by how perceptive her words sounded. “Yes, yes she does. Would that be the worst thing in the world?”

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