Summary: For the last decade or more Prince Erec has been trained by the head paladin, Nina Benoite, int he arts of combat, war, and strategy. He entrusted to her his education, his morals, and his heart. He has loved her since the day that they met, but no longer can he stand to watch her from afar. He wants to prove himself worthy of her affection in turn, and the current war with Gascony seems the perfect opportunity to do so.

Though not raised in Vasconia, Nina is loyal to her king and cause. When the prince is captured as a prisoner of war on the battlefield, she will brave the foreign kingdom and whatever dangers it may hold for a paladin like herself to rescue him. Though, she doesn't know if she can brave the longing stares and sweet words her prince has begun giving her nearly so easily.

War wages on between the ancient kingdoms of Vasconia and Gascony, two ideologies clashing because of a feud between the ruling classes. Erec thinks little of his enemy's cultures and beliefs. Nina, however, wishes she could have such distance as they struggle to cross this kingdom that is not so foreign to her in an effort to return the crown prince home.

Douleur Exquise

Wind whipped wildly through Nina's long, platinum blonde locks, the man-sized coat about her shoulders jerking forward, as she skidded to a screeching halt on the smooth, worn stones of the long street in the Silver District. Her thigh length leather boots crunched and squeaked, leaving an obvious track where she pulled to a stop.

Sharp, uncompromising violet eyes scanned the street, looking quickly at each common face that turned, surprised, in her direction. A few people were quickly making way, urging others to do the same. Make a path for the lady paladin, they told each other.

She wasn't here either.

Growling, Nina turned and sprinted down the next street. She moved so fast, the world became naught but a blur around her. She knew she appeared the same. Once again, her hair and coat, the hem of her short skirt, all jerked forward when she planted her feet and allowed the momentum to slid her along the ground to stop.

She looked around again, cursing internally. Where had that girl gotten to?

Another short burst of speed later, and she was down the street. Nina could move faster than the wind, but she couldn't see where she was going when she did so. She had to actually stop and allow her eyes to search out her target, and make a new path to run on. Which was why people hastily got out of her way when they saw her moving, they knew she wouldn't be able to see them in time.

Two corners later, there was a city guard waiting. He saluted her formally. "Lady Benoite, we saw her. She's hiding in the third alley off of Fifth Street from the south side."

"Fifth Street, got it." Nina turned and sprinted away.

She didn't skid to a full halt when she came around the next street – Third Street – she only slowed enough to ensure that her path was clear before continuing. Two streets later, she slowed again. She was still running, but not so fast that her body became a blur.

The alley in question had a city guard beside the entrance, standing unobtrusively to the side so that they couldn't be seen by the occupants inside.

"She in there?" Nina asked, slowing to a walk.

"Yes, m'lady," the soldier snapped to attention. "You can hear her with the others."

Nina nodded. "Is someone on the other side?"

"Yes, m'lady. We're ready for her to run. She can't escape. Do you want to arrest those with her? Their activities are illegal, m'lady."

Nina thought about it for a moment. "I suppose it is. If it's convenient to capture them, do so. If not, she's our first priority."

The soldier nodded and Nina turned into the alley. She walked down the shady, dim lane slowly. Her boots very deliberately hit against the stone, providing plenty of forewarning for the group that was whooping and hollering in the center of the back street. It still took until she was halfway to them that one of the men looked up and spotted her.

He gasped and ran off towards the opposite end of the alley. He didn't even pause to give warning to his companions. Nina heard them call out in confusion. The girl who was sitting on a box above the gathered men, however, looked towards Nina.

She grimaced, and though Nina couldn't hear it over the din the others were making, she saw the curse form on her lips from the distance. She didn't bother to get to her feet. She simply crossed her arms over her elaborate dress and rolled her eyes.

By then, the other men had begun looking at Nina. They cried out as each one saw her and scrambled to run away. They left the remains of their cards and money behind. The small gambling unit, illegal in the city, was disbanded in moments.

The girl bent over and began collecting the coins. Nina stopped as she stood over her, frowning with her arms crossed over her chest.

"This is hardly the proper behavior of royalty, Princess Manon."

"How did you even find me?" The rebellious young woman snapped, flipping back her chestnut brown hair to glare through angry light brown eyes at the paladin who, technically, had higher authority than her.

"I have eyes all over this city," Nina replied coolly. "Get up, we're going back, and you're going to tell your mother that you're gambling with reprobates in the city."

"They're hardly reprobates," Manon laughed, standing and straightened her skirts. "Now, the guys I play with in Bronze? Those guys are reprobates."

"Your mother is going to lock you away forever. How did you even escape the palace?" Nina grabbed her arm and began leading her back down the alley. She didn't care if the others were caught. Her concerns were the royal family and the city at large. Rich boys that gambled in alleys to make themselves feel dangerous were beneath her notice.

Manon grinned. "I thought you had eyes everywhere."

Nina rolled her eyes. She didn't want to deal with the mischievous princess.

To escort the princess back to the palace, she hailed an aircab, a floating, smaller airship used to transport people across the large city of Gwenael, most particularly between the large, mostly disconnected plates that created the nine upper districts.

She pushed the princess inside off the pier first before following after her. Since she had royal authority, she was able to jump the line and commanded the driver to take her to the Royal Complex. She didn't bother to lecture the princess; that was a job for her queen mother. Nina was only needed to fetch the princess after she had disappeared into the city.

She had to know though-

"Gambling? Really? Why do you do things like that? You don't need the money."

Manon grinned as she jingled the coins she held in her little handbag. There was neither a need nor a want she could have that wouldn't be fulfilled at the palace. Taking those people's money served her no purpose.

"Maybe I just like money," Manon shrugged, giving no real answer.

Nina sighed. "You really need to consider your station."

"It's not like I'm going to inherit. What does it matter what I do with my time?"

"It matters because you are still a figurehead. You are viewed as a role model in the eyes of all the girls in the city. You cannot do reckless things like back alley gambling. Are you listening?"

"Not really," Manon admitted honestly.

Nina turned from her, grateful she didn't have to look after the princess at all times. Instead, she chose to look out of the aircab windows at the massive mountain city that was Gwenael.

From the air, the nine upper districts were clear. The large plates that separated them and held them at different elevations off of the mountain were all connected by large lifts. However, beyond the lifts, there were only walls. They were held off of the mountain by massive pylons that were placed throughout the singular lower district, the Iron District.

The center of the city, at the top of the mountain, was the only circular district, the Royal Complex. The palace, the Paladin's Suite, and the various guard and knights' quarters were all located there. As the aircab came around, Nina signaled to the men on the pier below that she had the princess. She saw two men break off, probably to go alert the queen.

"Am I in much trouble?" Manon asked, trying to appear nonchalant.

"If you're worried about being in trouble, maybe don't run away to go gambling," Nina responded with just as much sass as the princess had been giving her. She got very nearly the same dark look in return that she wanted to give Manon herself.

Nina grabbed Manon by the arm and exited the cab. She pushed the princess towards her guards. "See that she's taken to her room and stays there until the queen sees her."

"Yes, lady paladin!" The left royal guardsman saluted her. They then turned with the princess and began walking away.

Nina rubbed her temple, trying to banish the building headache. She already had a great deal to worry about, she didn't need the princess to add her rebelliousness to it. Unfortunately, Nina was one of only two paladins left in the city. The other seven were all out of the city, most of them fighting in the massive war that was consuming their entire northern and eastern border.

The other paladin still here, Sybille, dealt with strategy and tactics. She knew sword fighting, but she was the least skilled in it of all the paladins. Which was why she remained here in the city and not out fighting as the others were. Nina, as the leader of the paladins, had to stay within Gwenael, the capital of their country of Vasconia, in order to protect it and the royal family.

Meaning, the headache of tracking down Manon when she went rogue fell to Nina. Since it couldn't be definitively proven – though they still all knew – that she wasn't in danger, Nina, who was in charge of her protection, had to find her again.

It was more than a little annoying. Nina rather wished that Manon would have some consideration for people other than herself. Nina wouldn't have time to seek out the paladin's healer, Master Hubert, to deal with the headache either because she had to get right back to work.

As she was walking across the Royal Complex, aiming for the palace itself, she heard her name being called out. She lifted her head from where she had been lazily watching the ground pass under her feet to see Ferrant, the royal blacksmith, descending the front palace steps. In his arms, there was a long box and on his face, was concern.

Nina groaned, smacking her own forehead. She grimaced as he came closer. "Oh, Ferrant. I'm so sorry. I completely forgot. Manon, she-"

"Yes, I heard," he smiled at her reassuringly. "Are you all right? Does your head hurt?"

"A bit," she smiled sadly. "Right back to work, I'm afraid. But, I have time for this. We can go to the Suite and you can give it to me it there."

"I can do it here," he assured her.

Without preamble, he balanced the box in the crook of his arm and opened it. Nestled inside was the new sword he had created just for Nina. He had spent a great deal of time working on it. The blade was made from special steel that he had invented. The elaborate hilt, a piece of art made with a red leather grip wrapped with thin golden cords and a beautifully intricate golden hand guard. It was only plated in gold, it too was made of steel for strength. The wooden sheath had been stained to a deep, dark brown and inlaid with more intricate golden accents.

The design had been modeled after her last sword. There wasn't anything wrong with it, but the blade was weaker for not being made of his special steel. It was going to be retired so she could use this one in its stead.

And Nina had completely forgotten about their appointment to retrieve it from him.

"It's beautiful, Ferrant," she admired truthfully, gently lifting it from its velvet bed. She pulled it from its sheath, just to see it. The weight was different, but the balance of it was perfect. The long blade possessed no groove down the center, but it was thin and sharp. It was built for speed.

"I'm glad you approve," Ferrant smiled at her, closing the box again. "Are you going to pass down the name?"

She nodded. "Devoir II. A wonderful heir to the title."

"I assure you that she's strong. We didn't really have a chance to test it since you missed the meeting, but I don't have to be anywhere, we can go do that now."

"I trust you. I've seen your work. It's really above reproach." Nina re-sheathed the blade and immediately lowered it down to tie it onto her side. She didn't have her other sword with her, so there was room for it to rest at her hip.

"Have you heard from Colette?" Ferrant asked her. His best friend, the woman he had followed to Gwenael when she had been discovered as a paladin in their distant border home of South Gate, was currently fighting on the front lines. By personal request. She was a rather reckless sort of person, but a useful one.

"Last message I got, she was holding lines about a quarter mile into the Great Plains. She's unharmed and seems to be enjoying herself."

Ferrant nodded, smiling gratefully. He himself was a pacifist. He made weapons, in part, to protect his dear friend while she was off fighting in war. He also made armor. Specifically, a new type of chain mail that had earned him the king's favor and title of royal blacksmith.

Nina thanked him again before bidding him farewell so he could return to his forge. She moved towards the palace again and the work she had to continue there.

As she walked, she mentally began running down the list of things that she still had to accomplish today before she could retire. It seemed, to her, that the list only grew the longer she was the head of the paladins.

It hadn't been so difficult once. Before, there had been a paladin, found not long after Nina, that had been in charge of the royal family. She had disappeared many years ago after the king's brother, the king of Gascony, the very country they were at war with, had been assassinated. Once she had disappeared, her tasks fell onto Nina's shoulders.

Now that every paladin besides herself and Sybille was out of the city, she had to ensure that the city was kept safe as well. A task which normally fell to Lea. However, after her injuries healed, she had returned to the war and her efforts to locate the second missing paladin. That one hadn't exiled herself, she had simply disappeared one day leaving behind only a note swearing vengeance upon her enemies and that she wouldn't return until it was complete.

Keeping track of all seven, powerful women was part of her job. Sybille was the easiest, because she never left Gwenael. However, the other six were part of the reason Nina had headaches. One exiled, one missing, everyone else dealing with different aspects of war. She had to protect the city, oversee the royal guard, lead the war effort, and handle the religious aspects of being a paladin. She didn't need to add fetching Manon to the list.

The headaches were getting worse recently. It seemed the more responsibility was given to her, the more it throbbed. It wasn't every day. It was only occasionally. Usually when annoyances like retrieving Manon reared their ugly heads.

She shook her head and continued on through the palace, aiming for the sight of her other duty. The prince would be having his sword fighting lessons this time of day. Nina was in charge of training him, and the training master she had recently hired to do so for her, had asked her to come oversee this lesson.

Well, she would likely get to see the end of it anyway.

The royal palace of Gwenael was a beautiful marvel. Built in the center of the Royal Complex, it had been designed only to please aesthetically; there was nothing about it capable of becoming a defensive fortress. It had four garden terraces, two grand ball rooms, the most luxurious rooms in all of the kingdom, and likely beyond, and a tower with a glass roof that gave a perfect view of the stars. Steam powered elevators connected the various floors, preventing her from needing to climb to the fifth-floor training hall.

She rested her head back on the bars of the lift. The operator gave her a concerned look, but he didn't ask the question. Nina was grateful and gave him a tip as she left onto her floor. She believed that good service should be rewarded.

High windows illuminated grand hallways with hand carved crown molding and trim. Tiny chandeliers hung from the walls, each made of crystal and sparkling brightly in the sunlight. The windows were so wide and clear that they needn't even be lit.

The steps of her boots were muffled by the thick rug running all along the hallway. It was a piece of art all on its own, telling what appeared to be a fairy tale of a princess captured by a wicked witch and rescued by a valiant knight.

Nina didn't pay it much mind. She even picked up the pace of her steps, putting some of the supernatural speed that made her a paladin into them.

Nina was fast. She could run so fast that the eye was no longer able to track it. Most of the time, she used her power for little things like this so she did not have to waste time walking down long corridors. When she was so busy, it just made her life easier. It was physically taxing, and she often paid for it in increased hunger later.

Being as fast as she was came with its own set of problems. Her eye not being able to track her surroundings at higher speeds was just one of them. The worst of it was that running required a great deal of energy, meaning she had to eat more than the average person. When the stress of her job took her appetite, it could lead to dangerous episodes of starvation.

It took its toll on her physically. Nina was an incredibly thin woman. The large, men's coat that she wore and the thick cloth of her short dress did little to hide her thin, willowy body. There was padding along the dress, creating an artificial bust because she did not possess much of her own. The thigh high boots barely hid her long, bird-like legs. If she weren't wearing clothes that thick, it would be obvious at a glance how tiny she was.

As it was, the southern styled clothing that she did wear, common in the Aqua Isles where she had been born, really broadcast how thin her legs were. She had considered wearing the longer, more proper skirts popular in Vasconia, but they seriously hampered her ability to run. An ability that she often used without thinking.

She would prefer her smaller dress, higher boots, and men's coat.

The double doors she came to weren't locked. They opened silently at her touch allowing her to walk into the second story of the training area. It possessed a thin walkway all around the perimeter of the room, allowing those who stood upon it the ability to look down at those below.

The marble floor of the training room had been covered in the middle by thick mats to cushion falls. There was a rack of wooden practice swords, staffs, and shields along one wall. Cushions along the one beside it allowed those who trained inside to relax during or after their bouts.

There were three people inside at the moment. The older training master, who was currently trying fruitlessly to defend against a barrage of attacks, possessed a good deal of gray hair and large muscles. He was considered one of the greatest swordsmen in the kingdom and it had taken more than a little bit of cajoling from Nina to get him to come train the second man in the room.

His sparring partner, the one who currently had the experienced swordsman taking quick steps backwards, was the crown prince of Gwenael. He was older than Nina by almost a full year. Sweat was running down his face and his mostly bare chest, covered only by a thin, white undershirt. There was fire in his eyes that Nina could see even from this height above him.

Neither man had seen her. However, the third occupant, currently lounging at her ease had.

Nina felt a sharp stab of agitation and pain in her head to see Manon reclining back in the sofas. The princess saw her and wiggled her fingers in a mocking greeting. Nina didn't know if she had escaped her guards or her room. It didn't matter either way. Either Nina had to check the guards or her room, and both scenarios meant more work for her.

For the moment, she ignored the wayward and princess and chose instead to watch the prince. She was rather certain she knew what she had been called to observe. It was the same thing that happened every time that Prince Erec became superior to his instructor.

From the bruises on the trainer's arms, she imagined that this wasn't the first time that Erec had put the other man on retreat. His teeth were bared, struggling to block the quick, brutal strikes that were falling upon him like a hailstorm.

Nina had to admit, she was impressed. The young prince was a fantastic swordsman. He had only been with this current trainer for the better part of a single month. The one before him, he had worked with for a month and a half. Before him, five months. He was spending less and less time with each swordsman, no matter how lauded his deeds, that Nina found.

Even as she watched, he thrust the pointed end of his wooden sword forward, and hit the trainer's heart, 'killing' him. The older man growled in approval, nodding.

"Good form, Erec. You did well that round."

"No notes?" The prince asked, stepping back with a smile. Both men were panting, though the trainer was the only one who possessed any bruises.

"Flawless, just like the last few days." The older man gave a pointed look up towards the balcony, having spotted the dark blue of Nina's coat before Erec had.

The prince followed his gaze and jumped, ever so slightly, at the sight of her.

"Nina," he said in surprise.

Nina didn't know why. He should have been expecting it by now. This was how all of his trainers announced to her that Erec was officially beyond their skill. The look in the older man's eyes told her that he didn't at all appreciate being forced out here to train someone who clearly didn't need training any longer.

That, however, was for Nina to decide.

"Why am I even here?" He asked her, holding out his hands.

Erec didn't take his eyes away from Nina. She deliberately looked away from both of them and to Manon who was grinning mischievously between them all.

"How did you get here?" Nina asked, voice frosty with irritation.

"Wouldn't you like to know?" The stubborn girl responded snarkily.

"Go back to your room and wait there for your mother."

"Come down here and make me."

Nina's eye twitched. She couldn't handle this any longer. She didn't want to. Unfortunately, that was not her choice. She would deal with it later. For now-

"Master Mainard, how has his progress been?"

"What progress?" The swordsman asked in irritation. "The boy was fine when I got here. There's nothing I taught him that time would not have. His form is perfect, his footwork is flawless, and his response times are almost instantaneous. The only things I've really taught him are how to fight me specifically. He doesn't even have to try any longer."

"That's not true, master," Erec smiled good-naturedly. "It's always an honor to fight with and learn from the greats. I always give everything I have when fighting you. It's the only way I can defeat you."

The assurance seemed to calm Mainard's ruffled feathers somewhat. He nodded in acknowledgment of the young prince's praise. "Be that as it may, there's no reason for you to still be in training. Were you my pupil, and your training up to me, you wouldn't be training any longer."

"Thank you for that assessment, Master Mainard," Nina said coldly. "However, that decision is mine. If you cannot teach the prince anything else, then I will find someone who can."

"Do you not listen?" Mainard forgot his manners before the lady paladin out of irritation. "He doesn't need further training. The only thing he lacks is experience, and believe me, he will never get that in a training hall no matter how many masters you hire."

The look on Erec's face was unmistakably hopeful as he turned towards Nina to hear what she would say in response. Mater Mainard wasn't the first to have told her such a thing, but he was considered one of the best swordsmen in three kingdoms. Perhaps, from his lips...

Nina, however, didn't notice look around the hard ball that tightened in her chest from imagining sending Erec to fight in the war. Or even to simply fight at all. She clenched her jaw firmly and her eyes glittered with anger as she looked down.

"The crown prince has no place on a battlefield," she said firmly, leaving no room for discussion on the matter. "He learns to fight as a defensive necessity only. Thank you for your time, Master Mainard, you may see the treasurer for your last payment. Erec, if you're done with swordplay, return to your archery practice. Manon, go back to your room."

"Sure," the princess smirked, both of them knowing full well that she would do no such thing.

Erec's hopeful face fell as he watched Nina turn, those long, smooth, platinum strands of her hair whipping about with the force of it, and walk from the room. The double doors on the second-floor landing closed behind her and he sighed.

"Such attitude, that one," Master Mainard grumbled, walking over to return his wooden sword to the rack. "She's the one who begged me to come here, may I remind her."

He continued to whisper darkly under his breath even as he bid Erec farewell and left through the lower doors. Only once he had gone did Manon stand and walk to her brother who was still in the center of the room, frowning at his practice sword.

"For what it's worth," she smiled, "I thought your skills to be very impressive. Almost as good as a paladin."

"Thank you, Manon," he replied numbly, no real feeling in the words.

"What's wrong, brother dearest?" She asked, resting her hands on his shoulder, her head on her hands so she could smile at his face.

He shook his head. "It's fine. This is a good day. I'm graduating from another master."

"Then why do you look so unhappy?"

A frown pulled down on the corner of Erec's chiseled mouth. He was a handsome man, but his face wasn't made to frown. He looked better when he was smiling. Which he usually was, except after interacting in any way with Nina.

Manon tilted her head curiously, blinking at her brother. He was a friendly sort of guy, and he didn't enjoy forcing people to do things. He didn't push, he didn't demand. It made him a nice, personable guy, but his inability to do so wasn't a good trait to have in a future king. For all that Manon's attitude was sour and unpleasant, she at least made things happen. She knew how to force people to behave as she desired and make them think it was their idea.



"Look at me." She grabbed a pinch of his cooper brown hair and pulled it to force him to face her. He did so with a frown.

"That hurts," he frowned. She hadn't pulled hard, but the small amount of hair she pulled had focused all of the force to one spot at the base of skull.

"I'm trying to talk to you, you can at least look me in the eye."

"What do you want, Manon?"

"Why, only your happiness, my dearest, darling, and only brother."

His eyes narrowed suspiciously on her overly innocent smile. "What did you do?"

She beamed at him, fluttering her eyelashes.

"No. Whatever you're about to ask, the answer is no." Erec pulled away quickly, walking to return the practice sword to its place on the rack. When he turned, his little sister, only a couple years younger than him, was still smiling at him with bright, almost child-like innocence.

"No," he repeated even more firmly.

"You don't even know what I'm going to ask," she laughed, twisting about so that the hem of her long skirt brushed against the mats.

"I know that I'm not going to get in trouble for something you did."

"I wasn't even going to ask you to do anything bad."

"You told me that last time, and mother nearly had my head. I'm not falling for your tricks anymore. Now, do what Nina said, and go back to your room. For whatever you did... What did you do?"

"They caught me gambling," she shrugged like it was nothing.

Erec rolled his eyes. "I've told you to stop. Did they find the whole ring or just whatever group you happened to be with today?"

"That second one," Manon grinned. "They remain blissfully unaware of the true size of my operation. Provided you keep your mouth shut. You are going to keep your mouth shut, aren't you?"

Her voice turned just a bit threatening and Erec glared back at her. He didn't keep her secret because he was so very fond of his sister. He had no real reason to tell, but after he had found out about her gambling ring, he also found out that the devious little Manon knew a secret of his as well. She was currently blackmailing him in order to keep his silence.

It was amazing to him how she could look so innocent and act so devilish at the same time.

When he didn't respond, she started walking slowly towards him, taking care with each slow, deliberate step. She was grinning at him evilly.

"It's just a little favor. It's not so very bad."

"You're a snake in human clothing, Manon," Erec frowned at her. "I'm not doing it. You would probably throw me under a landing airship if it benefited you."

"Perhaps," she grinned. "I would cry about your death after."

"I feel so much better."

"Where are you going?" She frowned as he walked around her.

"To bathe and change."

She chuckled. "Why are you in such a hurry? It's not like you have any responsibilities to see to."

He pulled up short and she knew that she had struck a nerve. Slowly, he turned and met her with a pair of annoyed brown eyes. She smiled back with a pair that was identical in shape and color.

"Irritating, isn't it? Want to help me run the gambling ring?"

He growled at her. "I won't turn to a life of crime just because I'm annoyed."

She actually recoiled, laughing. "A life of crime? I just deal with money, I'm not hurting anyone."

"You're literally blackmailing me. That's illegal, too."

Manon shrugged. "The only reason I have any power over you is because you give it to me."

"You're holding my secret over my head! How am I giving you that power?"

"By letting it remain a secret." She shrugged, unconcerned. "If you would just own up to your own feelings, I wouldn't have any power at all. If you told Nina yourself that you were in love with her, what ability would I have to hurt you by releasing that secret?"

Erec's jaw tightened. He wished that he could think of a rebuttal to that, but nothing was coming to mind. Because she was absolutely right. If he had the ability to tell Nina of the affection he had for her, affection that he had been building steadily since he first met her almost a decade ago, then Manon would have nothing to control him.

It was at once the easiest and the most difficult thing to think of doing.

Manon watched the helpless, angry emotions flit over her brother's face in silence. It was rather sad how desperately he clung to his secret. He had loved Nina almost since the very moment he saw her. At the very least, when they met, he had been struck by the fiercest puppy love that ever existed. Those feelings only grew as he matured and spent more time around her. Though, he wouldn't ever confess, going on as he was.

And Manon was very good at pushing people into doing things they normally wouldn't.

She smiled, walking towards him deliberately slowly again. "I don't think I was gone longer than two hours when she found me again. She's really good at her job."

Erec sighed, sadness settled onto his shoulders. "She really is..."

"We couldn't ask for a better head paladin. In these dark times of war, someone with a cool head and penchant for leadership like her is a relief and a blessing from the Lord."

"Yeah..." A ghost of a smile pulled at the corner of his eyes.

"It's going to be a great man that earns her affection."

He jumped, head whipping quickly to the side to stare at her. "What do you mean?"

She grinned. "Surely you don't think she's going to be available forever? Sooner or later, someone is going to catch her eye. Someone with conviction. Someone with fortitude. Someone that isn't scared to talk to her."

"I'm not scared to talk to her."

"You are. You kowtow to her constantly. You never stand up for yourself in front of her. How are you supposed to impress her with an attitude like that?"

"Manon, enough," he snapped, glaring at his sister.

She shrugged carelessly. "She's treats you like a child, which means she doesn't see you as a man. She sees you as a charge she has to deal with and she keeps finding masters for you to spar with because she doesn't think you capable of taking on responsibilities."

"I said, enough!"

"You'll never be a real man in her eyes if you never try to be more than the obedient little pupil." She smiled at the way he was shaking in anger. "My offer to join my gambling operation is still on the table. If you want to prove yourself a man."

"Stop, Manon!" He glared at her, his voice ringing through the room.

He didn't wait for her to say anything. He turned and began storming off. From beside the door, he grabbed his sword, made specially for him by Ferrant. The Douleur Exquise. His hands were shaking with the force with which he held the blade. The door slammed loudly behind him, reverberating into the now empty room where Manon stood alone.

She grinned and slowly walked out after him.

Master Mainard was the best swordsman in the kingdom. His skills were legendary. Aside from the paladins, none of which could be spared to train the prince, there was no one of superior ability in all of Vasconia.

The solution, of course, was then to see if there was someone to teach him from out kingdom. Since the war with Gascony had effectively shut down their borders on the north and east, that left the kingdom to the northwest, Lloegyr. They were still allies of Vasconia, Nina would simply begin looking there for a new teacher for Erec.

With that business now finished, and Master Mainard's employment terminated, Nina could return to the war room and see what messages had arrived for her since she checked this morning. She should also probably get something to eat before she forgot. The last thing she needed was to collapse because of hunger and deal with everyone worrying over her for no reason.

As she was crossing the palace, she summoned a lift and stepped inside to find another occupant already standing inside.

"Lord Yvain," she beamed at the sight of him.

Odilon Yvain, the wealthiest, most powerful man in Vasconia, aside from the king himself, lifted his head from the newspaper that he was reading as he rode down. He beamed and folded it away as she stepped inside next to him.

"Nina," he took her hand and brushed his lips over her knuckles in greeting. The large diamond ring he was wearing winked brightly in the light of the lift. "It's good to see you."

"What are you doing here? Visiting the king?"

Odilon, though many years his junior, was a close, personal friend of the king. His wealth and power had been mostly inherited, but it had also been built up by Odilon through good business practices and a sound mind for knowing where to invest his money. It was through his fleet of merchant ships and trade routes that the armies were being kept supplied.

However, as far as Nina knew, he had no reason to be here on business.

"Actually, I was coming to see Sybille," he gestured to the lift operator to continue bringing them down, asking her what floor she wanted to get off on before continuing. "The Gasconites have been driven back away from Gy-Hamelin again and the city is being held steady. I'm working with her to create a warehouse there so I can more easily and quickly equip the lines along the border mountains."

"That's wonderful," Nina beamed.

Gy-Hamelin was a city placed nearly perfectly between the three kingdoms. It served as an important trade post and granted whoever had control of it more power because of that. Keeping hold of it was proving successful, though Gascony hadn't yet completely given up in their attempts to take it. If Odilon, a civilian with no desire involve himself with the actual battles of war, was willing to expand his reach there more permanently, it must be becoming safer.

Sometimes, being the one who was deep in the muck and mire of the war, it was hard to tell exactly how much progress that she was actually making. Hearing that something good was happening made her headache finally ebb slightly.

"I certainly think so," Odilon tucked his paper under his arm. He reached up and ran his fingers through the soft, gentle slope of his golden hair.

Odilon was the richest, most powerful, most handsome man around and the most eligible bachelor in all of Vasconia because of those traits. He was young, he was healthy, and he was well known as a fair and caring man. There wasn't a single mother in Vasconia that wouldn't want their daughter married to him.

As far as Nina knew, he wasn't at all concerned with marrying anyone. Not that he wasn't interested in marriage, he simply cared more for his work.

Part of that involved assisting the king, his friend, in whatever he needed. Currently, that was being a supplier of food, weapons, and medical supplies for the troops at war. He provided those services at cost, no profit, for King Cyrille, and he did it because he was loyal and caring. It was no wonder that every single woman in the kingdom wanted to capture him in marriage.

The lift reached the bottom floor of the palace and the two walked out together. Odilon was describing his warehouse plans to her – merely to talk, it wasn't her business or responsibility. It was probably because it wasn't that she was happy to hear about it. It was nice that there still remained something that needed done that wasn't put on her shoulders.

They came to a halt on the long path leading from the palace to the large pier, perpendicular to the path that ran to the Paladin's suit and the guards and knights' quarters. The gardens on either side of the path were bright and beautiful, the evening sunlight still bright overhead. Odilon smiled at her, and the curve of his lips was handsome and tempting.

He was an excellent specimen of a man. Comforting and steady, strong and kind.

"Are you still working too hard, Nina?" He asked, genuinely concerned for her. She appreciated the concern, even as she felt guilty for wallowing in it for a brief moment.

"I'm taking care of myself," she answered, avoiding the question. "I was about to go eat something before I got back to work. I still have many things to do today."

Odilon frowned. "When was the last time you slept the night through?"

"We're in the middle of a war, Lord Yvain. Few people sleep the night through anymore."

"You're dodging."

"I might be dodging."

"Because you know that you're wrong for doing it."

She shrugged a bit helplessly. "I'm the only one who can do it."

"Nina, do you know how I became the number one merchant in the kingdom?"

She frowned, unsure what that had to do with her. "No. How?"

"I learned how to delegate." He gave her a long, deliberate look. "It may feel, when you're in charge, like you have to do everything yourself. But if you allow yourself to be pulled in so many directions at once, you'll only decrease the quality of your work, put your own health at risk, and make things unnecessarily difficult for everyone."

She frowned at the assessment. "I hate to-"

"No. You have to rest. You have to give yourself a break. Part of leadership is having people you can trust to do things that you no longer have time for."

"There are no paladins left to assist me in these things."

"Who said you needed a paladin?" Odilon smiled, reaching across to take her shoulders in hand and make sure that she was looking him in the eye.

Erec couldn't hear what they were saying from where he stood at the palace entrance, but he could see the smile that came over Nina's face at the movement.

"There are more trustworthy people than just paladins," Odilon laughed at her. "You've high knights, you've the Sacellum acolytes. You need not even pull from those groups if you don't wish to. You can create your own hierarchy of people to help you."

"The paladins before me never needed assistance," Nina countered. She had been the first paladin of this generation. She was not, however, the last. Which was unusual. The Lord usually only sent one paladin to Vasconia at a time. That he had sent so many had foreshadowed the war that was coming to his people long before it actually arrived.

"The paladins before you were not involved in war. And the ones who were always had a group of paladins to follow them as you do. Just promise me you'll think about, hm?" He tilted his head, hitting her with those stunning blue eyes of his.

She laughed. "If you insist on it Lord Yvain, I will bow to your superior knowledge of leadership."

"My! You're quite good at sassing with such a pretty smile." He released her to throw back his head and laugh at her cheek. "I admit, my operations aren't as big as the armies you have to control, but the principles are the same."

"Thank you for your concern, Lord Yvain," Nina said more genuinely, smiling at him. "I can handle the load that I carry though."

"I bow to your superior knowledge of your own abilities," he bowed grandly with a grin. "And I'll leave you to your meal, my lady paladin."

"Good day, Lord Yvain," she smiled, watching as he turned and walked along the path, heading for the pier and his private airship that was docked there in wait.

She let out a long breath, grateful for the small reprieve from responsibility. Odilon was a good man, his presence incredibly calming. Even when she heard hurried footsteps – which never signaled good things in her experience – coming up from behind, it didn't break through the peaceful serenity that Odilon had brought her.


Erec's sharp tone, uncharacteristic from him, gave her pause. She turned with a frown to see the prince glaring directly at her, their height nearly the same. She had to blink in surprise because she couldn't remember the last time she had stood this close to the prince. She did remember that he wasn't able to stand head to head with her the last time.

"Did you have a question, your highness?" She asked, injecting calm into her voice.

It went right over his head. She could see in his face that he was angry about something. She tried thinking back quickly to their interaction to figure out what might have affected him so. Nothing immediately came to mind, confusing her.

Erec was trying to remain calm. He knew that he had no right to be jealous or infuriated. He had no claims over Nina, and he knew that Odilon was a close friend of the crown and those that interacted with it frequently.

But it was burned into his mind how casually he had touched her. It burned into his heart how bright Nina's smile when she had smiled back at him.

Erec felt like he had loved her for the majority of his life. At least half of it, since she had first arrived in Gwenael, brought by a Sacellum ship from the Aqua Isles, he had been fond of her. The cool way she regarded him now, her violet eyes so different from how they had looked when she had been talking to Odilon, put into stark relief Manon's earlier words.

He hadn't been thinking when he had marched down here. While he had fully intended to go directly to his room to clean up after his work out, he still found himself riding down a lift and following the path that he thought her most likely to have taken.

Finding her being so friendly with Odilon, had hit him hard. Probably harder than it normally would have after hearing Manon's words.

He bit back the childish desire to begin demanding answers that he had no right to know. Acting petty and jealous would get him nothing and only confirm in her eyes that he was a child not yet ready for bearing responsibility.

If he wanted to prove himself to her-

"Nina, I don't want a different master."

She frowned. "I'm sorry, Erec, but Master Mainard has already expressed that he doesn't want to teach you any longer."

"No, he said I have nothing left to learn from him. He was the best in Vasconia and even he has declared that I've finished my training."

Nina turned to face him fully, hair sparkling distractingly in the sunlight. Erec had to force himself to focus back on her face.

"What do you want then, your highness?" She asked calmly. He could hear her voice turning frosty as she realized that he was irritated.

"I want to go to the war front."

Her eyes narrowed. "No."

With no more thought than that, she turned and began walking away. Unprepared for the suddenness of her movements, Erec had to scramble to run after her. So that she couldn't walk past him, he slid to a halt in front of her.

She put her hands to her hips, annoyed. "Your highness, please, I have a great deal of work to do today that's far more important than-"

"No, you will listen to me." He glared at her eye to eye. "I have been behaving and doing everything you tell me to, waiting for the day that you would agree that I was ready for more than just constant lessons. That day has yet to come, and I'm tired of waving off all my friends and associates as they go to fight in a war that you've deliberately blockaded me from."

"You're the crown prince; you've no place on a battlefield."

"Wrong. I am the crown prince; the battlefield is exactly where I belong. Especially if we're fighting for the sake of the kingdom."

She opened her mouth to say something, but he held up a hand, cutting her off so that he could continue.

"If we lose this war, it is unknown what will happen to the kingdom, but I can guarantee that Queen Sabine won't allow me or my father to live."

"You don't know that-"

"Can you imagine for a moment that she will allow my family to survive if she lives? She still blames us for uncle's death, and her crazy mind has justified war in that blame."

"Your highness-"

"If I don't fight, I won't get a chance to do so before her soldiers are beating down my door. I know that you and Sybille worry that we don't have the manpower to fight this war. Gascony's population is much larger than ours, they can just throw bodies at us until they overwhelm us. Let me take my men and help you fight!"

The impassioned plea did nothing. Nina tossed her hair back and fixed him with a cold and clinical stare as she met his passion with near indifference.

"You are not ready for war, your highness. The lawlessness of battle is nothing like the carefully structured fights in the training rooms. The kingdom cannot afford to lose your life. You will be king one day and you must accept that your life is worth more than others."

"My life is worth nothing if Sabine is successful. And a king is a poor king indeed if all of his subjects are dead. I want to fight!"

"And I said, no. That is my final word on this subject. Return to your archery practice."


"Good day, your highness."

She turned on her heel and began walking away, calling on her preternatural speed to carry her away from him faster. Erec growled and broke into a sprint to run after her. He called out her name, but she resolutely ignored him.

The chase didn't last very long. Before they could even make it to the intersection of the two main paths, a young man wearing messenger garb yelled out for Nina's attention. She came to a short halt, causing Erec to nearly run into her.

The young boy was breathing hard from sprinting here from the aviary where the messenger birds were housed. In his fist was a collection of red papers. Emergency messages, intended to be delivered immediately upon arrival regardless of time or situation.

"From Lady Toinette, Lady Benoite," the boy gasped.

"From Colette?" Erec frowned.

Nina plucked the message from his fingers and turned to read it. Erec gave the boy a silver coin since she was busy reading the message. It was written in the military code, and in decent handwriting, telling her that it was actually Nicolas, Colette's right-hand man, that had written the note.

"What does it say?" Erec asked as the boy ran off.

Nina gave him a look out of the corner of her eye before looking at the message. She had no reason not to tell him, and his father likely would later anyway.

"General Didier has broken through Colette's defensive line in the north west. The army is getting too close to Jorives, the agricultural city. Colette isn't able to get them back under control and if Gascony manages to take Jorives back, it would severely cripple the kingdom by cutting into the biggest food producer we have."

Vasconian towns were mostly built on high mountains. There were many towns on the border mountains. Gwenael itself was built on a singular large mountain, over the remains of an ancient, dormant volcano. The Great Plains that stretched between the various towns were uninhabitable because there were no water sources that could be found to allow a town to begin.

Jorives was one of the only exceptions. It had been built in the bend of the Jourdain River in a rare spot where it briefly escaped the border mountains. It was a large city, and it provided more than half of the crops that supplied the kingdom. There were smaller towns dotting the kingdom that also had faming capabilities, but even collectively they wouldn't be able to provide enough for all of Vasconia if Jorives was compromised.

Its importance made it a valuable target in the war. It didn't surprise Nina that General Didier, Queen Sabine's right hand and the leader of their military, was making attempts to destroy it once again. They wouldn't need to win the war if they could starve the kingdom dead.

"I have to go report this to his majesty." Nina gave no more warning that that before she was turning and sprinting back towards the palace steps.

Erec gave a short cry of surprise before chasing after her at a more normal speed. She had to slow herself down to take the stairs and open doors, but she was still already charging up the massive stairs towards the king's study by the time he made it to the main halls of the palace. She could have taken the lift, but it would be faster if she took all the steps herself instead of waiting for the steam powered elevator.

The same couldn't be said for Erec. He was forced to ride the lift up and run down the hall towards his father's study. When he rushed inside, breathing hard from his trip, Nina was already there and had finished telling King Cyrille of the message's contents.

"Erec?" His father looked over in surprise.

The king was well into his middle ages, but the spritely look in his eyes gave the impression of a man many years younger. Though the spark had diminished significantly since the war had begun just a few short months ago, he still remained a chipper man when things weren't so serious. The brown hair that he had passed onto his son was mussed and out of order from where he had been running his left hand through it while he worked. His right hand, once his dominant hand, had been painstakingly carved from wood and inlaid with gold after the original flesh had been amputated in the same assassination attempt that had taken his brother's life.

"What are you doing here?" Nina frowned at him.

Erec gave her a hard look before turning to his father. "What are you doing about Jorives?"

Cyrille raised a curious eyebrow. He wasn't opposed to telling his son his plans in the war, in fact he rather liked bouncing ideas off of the boy. Not only because it helped him think but it gave Erec a chance to gain experience with what would one day be his duties.

However, this was the first time that Erec had actively sought out the information. He wondered if he should feel proud or concerned.

"I was just about to have Sybille summoned to begin that very same discussion," he responded as Nina put her hands to her hips.

"Your highness, you are supposed to be at archery practice."

Erec gave her a look. He was tired of this. "I think now is a good time to mention that my archery instructor is of the same mind as every single sword instructor you've had to replace. The only reason he doesn't tell you that is because he doesn't want to lose a comfortable job. Most of time, we spend our time at the range just talking."

Nina frowned. "Then I'll add archery instructor to the list. Is there something you want to tell me about your grappling instructor now?"

"What is this?" Cyrille frowned between them, confused by the sudden animosity. While he hadn't ever really seen Nina and Erec interact all that often, the few times they had conversed, it had always been civil. He even suspected that Erec still had that childhood crush on the woman that he had developed the first time they had met.

However, right now, he was glaring at her with obvious anger. She was glaring back. Cyrille stood between them, both of them at the same height of himself, and he wondered what was going on and why Erec was so angry about it.

The prince turned to his king. "Father, I want to join the war front!"



"Your majesty," Nina cut in firmly, "please don't jest about such matters. This is serious. I'm not sure why Prince Erec is being difficult right now-"

"I'm not being difficult."

"You are supposed to be at archery practice."

"Enough." The king's firm call cut them both off. He looked between them, hands to his hips as he regarded them for a long moment.

Both of them had fallen silent and were now glaring at each other. Which Cyrille found to be unacceptable. Erec would take over as king one day, which meant that Nina would be his paladin for the rest of their lives. She was technically a high-ranking member of the church, second to Master Eneas, the church leader, and she obeyed the commands of the king. The crown and the church worked together to run the kingdom. If the two of them were at odds, it would strain the relationship of the church and crown as a whole.

Also, Cyrille didn't enjoy when people fought around him. He was a pleasant man, he preferred pleasant surroundings, and that included the relationships of the people he surrounded himself with.

Reaching forward, the king plucked the red messages from Nina's hand. She started in surprise.

"I'll fetch Sybille and take these to the war room."

"I'll come with you, your majesty-"

"No." Cyrille held out a hand, stopping her in her tracks. He gestured between the two of them with his wooden hand. "You two are forbidden to leave this room until you're friends again."

"What?" She gaped.

"What?" He stared.

"Get to talking," he grinned, turning on his heel.

"Your majesty-" Nina's protest was cut off when the king shut the door behind him.

Nina let out a long breath, putting her hands to her hips. Her eyes turned over to where Erec was staring at the place where his father vanished.

"Why are you so angry in the first place?" She asked, confused.

He turned back. Manon's words were still ringing in his ears, but he couldn't find himself able to repeat them. How could he admit to Nina that he felt like a child? How could he tell her that he wanted responsibility?

Scared to talk to her...

Erec took in a breath, dropping his head back. He counted to ten to try and calm his racing heart. Nina watched the movement with a raised brow.

He wasn't scared to talk to her. If he was going to be man enough to go to the battlefield, then he could be man enough for this.

When he brought his head back down, he had banished the angry scowl he had been wearing. In its place was his more typical, carefree grin. His eyes seemed sharper though. Purposeful. There was intent hidden in the brown orbs that surprised her.

She didn't know why, she didn't want to think about the reason, but that look he gave her, so different from any in the past, made her stomach quiver.

"Nina." He held out his hand.

Oh. He was attempting to mend bridges, as his father had ordered. That made sense.

Still, she felt unusually nervous as she lifted her arm and placed her hand against his. He took the offered limb and pulled, ever so gently. It surprised her again. She fully expected him to walk to her. She found herself closing in the short distance between them instead.

He grinned, looking down at her hands. They were calloused from sword fighting, but slender and elegant. Her nails were clean and clear. Not too long, that would interfere with her ability to fight, but he could see that she cared for them. Just as she obviously applied lotions and creams so that her calluses didn't make her hands hard and dry.

"May I be frank, my lady?" He said, his voice oddly formal.

"Yes, of course, your highness?" Nina tilted her head, frowning at his odd behavior.

He looked up, smirking. "I'm not going to accept another training master."

Her brows furrowed. "Prince Erec, you-"

"No. That's my final word on the subject. I've been training all of my life, I think it's finally time that I do something with that training."

"You are not ready for war."

"And I never will be. I'm going regardless." He pulled on her hand again, jerking her in so close that their chests were just a hairsbreadth away from each other. Her eyes were large, filling the entirety of his vision with her surprise and puzzlement.

"Your highness-"

"Call me Erec."

"That is hardly proper-"

"I don't care about propriety. I care about you."

Nina frowned. Her head pulled back slightly. He chuckled while he reached up and finally fulfilled what felt like a lifelong dream to touch those platinum blonde locks. He pushed them back, tucking them behind her ear. She stood there and allowed it, mostly too surprised to make any sort of motion to stop or encourage him.

"I'm going to war, Nina. Father just agreed that I can go."

Her heart clenched tightly again. Just picturing him on the deck of an airship, flying away from the city, possibly to never be seen again...

"I'm going for me. I want to prove myself. I want to protect this kingdom of mine. I think it's long past time that I do so."

"You have no idea what you're asking for!" She cried, suddenly very afraid. She couldn't protect him if he left the training room. She couldn't leave Gwenael. If he left, if she had to watch him go and risk never seeing him again...

He was her crown prince. She had to protect him. She had to...

Erec lifted her hand and brought it to his lips. He didn't just brush his lips across her knuckles. He lingered, letting them rest and caress those long, elegant fingers. His thumb gently stroked against her palm as he kissed her as though attempting to worship at the temple of her body.

Nina stared, heart stuttered now in something too close to resembling fear.

What was he doing? Why was he doing this? Such behavior wasn't at all typical for the casual and carefree young prince. He was acting like...


Erec's lips finally separated from her hand. He lifted his head only so far as he needed so that he could put his simmering eyes upon her shocked face. The sight of her flabbergasted expression made him chuckle in slightly mischievous mirth.

"I go to fight for my kingdom. I go to fight for myself. More that, though, I go to fight for you, Nina."

"Me?" She repeated weakly. What did she have to do with this change that had come over him?

"You," he nodded in careful agreement. "I fight because, if I don't, you will be in danger. If Gascony's army appears in our skies, you will be the one to go fight them. If we can beat them back and return them through the Pass that they stole, you'll never need put your life at risk."

"My life is not worth so much as yours!" Why? Stop it! He couldn't do this to her!

"That's not for you to decide. That's up to me."

Erec pulled on her again. She tried to pull back to no avail. All the strength that existed in her limbs seemed to have disappeared in one instance leaving her weak and unsteady. The last distance between them closed as Erec wrapped his free arm around her waist, holding her in place.

"I'm going to go fight for you, Nina. I'm not training any longer. I'm not going to play at being a boy trapped in a palace. Watch me. And wait for me."

He leaned in closer to whisper in her ear.

"Because, when I return, I'm going to be a man."

Nina didn't know what she expected, but it certainly wasn't for him to pull back. When he did, the movement startled her and she started falling forward, as though chasing after him. Erec grinned as she quickly corrected her balance, falling forward slightly so that when she turned her eyes back to him she had to look up.

"Wait for me," Erec told her again, taking another step.

Their hands were the last things to separate. Erec let her limp fingers slip away from him with a smirk on his face. A smirk that only grew when her arm remained outstretched. Reaching. Grasping. Her eyes were wide and surprised, uncertain and unsure. But there was at least one part of her body that desired to remain in contact with him.

Even when he walked out, the door closing gently behind him, Nina didn't move. She remained in place, staring at the place where he had disappeared, her heart beating so violently that she felt as though it might rip through her chest.

"Did you work out your animosity?" Cyrille asked without preamble when Erec walked into the library where the king was currently reading military journals and past war accounts.

He wanted to learn as much as he could, giving himself and his people the best chance that they had for survival. Vasconia's population had always been small, and this was hardly the first war to begin beating at their borders. If he could learn the secrets of victory from his predecessors, then he might be able to save his people.

The sight of a smile on his son's face out of the corner of his eye sent relief rushing through his veins that things had gone back to normal.

That relief was short lived, cutting off quickly when Erec spoke.

"Father, you gave me permission to join the war, did you not?"

Cyrille slowly lowered the leather-bound journal down to the table where he had notes and maps and other such accounts spread out haphazardly. He nodded once.

"I did. Was Nina agreeable?"

"She was not."

"And you still wish to go?"

"I do."

Cyrille tilted his head, staring at his son, curious about the change that had come over him since he had seen him just this morning. There was a new strength to his shoulders, a determined glint in his eye, and something like defiance in the hard set of his chin. He had already made his decision, and he was determined to see it through to the end.

Once again, Cyrille wasn't sure if he should be proud or concerned.

"Why?" The king asked. It wasn't a judgmental or damning question. The single syllable fell from his lips with barely any inflection. A simple question, only desiring a simple answer.

Erec took in a breath, filling his confidence and his lungs with the motion. "I am tired of waiting safely in Gwenael to see more airships returning loaded down with the bodies of those that had been slain in war. I'm sick of looking into the faces of grieving parents, wives, and children and feeling wracked with guilt that their loved ones were lost while I hid in the palace."

"Then it is guilt that drives you to war?"

"Not entirely," Erec admitted with a dip of his head. "I also have a desire to prove myself. I train every day, father, in sword fighting, grappling, archery, politics, and tactics. I'm being raised to be a king, while being prevented from protecting what will be mine one day. I know that I am the crown prince, and that risking my life risks the future of Gwenael, but you cannot tell me that Vasconia is mine, then do everything in your power to keep me from it."

"Then is it responsibility?"

"That's part of it, too. It's many things. All of them wrapped up together in a singular desire. I'm not doing this rashly, father, I've thought of it many times before. I think, today, I've just finally been pushed too far. Master Mainard has left the palace. He won't train me any longer. He says that I've nothing left to learn save experience. I cannot obtain that here. Let me go to the war front, father. Let me serve you and Vasconia."

Cyrille took in a deep breath, then let it out slowly. "I can hardly demand that my citizens allow their children to fight for me, then deny my own child that right. If you truly wish to go, Erec, I will not stop you."

Erec bowed his head to his king. "Thank you."

"Gather your troops and I will have an airship from the fleet prepared for you. You wished to go to Jorives and defend it, correct? I'll send a message to Colette that you will be coming. It will be your duty to guard the city and prevent any further advancement of the Gasconites."

"Yes, sire!"

Cyrille grinned. "Why so formal, my son? I've never been opposed to you going. The only thing that has kept you here is your own choices."

Erec nodded. "I understand that now, father. I think... I just didn't realize I was choosing. There is one other thing, though."

"Oh? And what would that be?"

"It's about Nina. I wish to marry her."

Cyrille raised a curious eyebrow. "And have you discussed this decision with her?"

"I have not. I seek your blessing first to pursue her romantically."

A grin spread over the king's face. "Once again, it is only your choices that stop you, Erec. Though, I will say, paladins are considered servants of the church. The Sacellum doesn't frown upon them marrying, but, if you take her as your wife, the two of you will never be fully equals. Even if she becomes queen, she will still be a paladin first. She will be in charge of defending the kingdom. Can you send your wife to war like that?"

Erec frowned. He wanted to fight to protect Nina, that flew in the face of his desires.

Cyrille nodded once. "No king has ever married a paladin, my son."

Erec frowned. Paused. He looked up, the ferocity of determination burning in his gaze.

"Then I'm just going to have to be the first."

Erec fully expected more protests and argument from his father. However, the king simply nodded again, accepting Erec's decision.

"Very well. Then join the war with my blessing. And seek out to marry Nina with my blessing as well. I wish you good fortune in both pursuits."

Erec stood straight and proud. "I won't let you down, father."