A note from the author:

The comment has been made that Blade's name is not really a very good name. It isn't. I knew it wasn't a very good name when I gave it to him, but I just couldn't think of a better one. Now I have done.

I have changed the name of this character to Dirc. Previous chapters have been edited to show this name (and edited for one or two other things). Subsequent chapters will use it. I am mentioning this so that people who choose to read on from here without recapping the first seven chapters don't get too confused.

That is all.


8: The Chariot

When Wanda arrived back at her office, she found a man waiting outside to talk to her. He was small and fairly shabby, but Wanda recognised him as the owner of several warehouses near the docks and invited him in. She sat behind her overloaded desk and waved a hand, indicating that her guest could choose to sit on the slightly suspect chair opposite.

"Thank you," the man said, settling himself down. He glanced around the ramshackle room, and seemed to approve of something.

"Can I help you?" Wanda asked. "Kolvin Tarn, isn't it?" The man looked at her with a smile.

"Actually, I was thinking that perhaps I could help you," he replied cautiously. The merchant's daughter frowned.

"How so?" she enquired. Tarn leaned forward, putting his weight on the desk, then seemed to think better of it when the table shifted. He sat back and glanced around the room again.

"I assume you've been having trouble with the Nanisian officials and their regulations," he ventured, eventually. Wanda nodded and waved a hand at the stacks of paper in front of her.

"You could say that," she agreed. "There are forms to get forms to get permits before I'm even allowed to enter negotiations with local businesses."

"Well, that's what I wanted to talk to you about," Tarn insisted. "The Nanisian authorities like their rules, but us locals- let's just say we've got used to things changing around us. We don't like paperwork or waiting any more than you do."

Wanda sat back, surprise dawning as his meaning sank in. "You want to deal under the table," she stated.

"Your business is a real opportunity for Taron," the man replied. "We can't afford to wait for Nanis to give permission, and neither can you. I'm prepared to offer you use of my warehouses starting tomorrow for the right price, and I can put you in touch with others who are willing to deal without paperwork."

Wanda frowned and shook her head. There was no denying that his offer would help; if she could start shipping immediately, there was a lot of profit to be made. On the other hand...

"I'm not here to break the law," she told Tarn. "Or to antagonise the authorities. I'll have to think about this."

Kolvin Tarn got to his feet and smiled. "That's reasonable," he agreed. "I assume you know where to find me?"

Wanda nodded. "Yes. I'll let you know my answer when I have it."

As Tarn left her office, Wanda looked back at the stacks of paperwork and sighed. There was always more; she longed to finally achieve something. Yet breaking the law to do it... it went against everything her father had taught her. This would not be an easy choice, but it was one she had to make soon if she intended to profit from it.

Chalisse had learned diplomacy and the fine art of conversation from a lifetime of practice, and it wasn't long before she realised that Dirc had been receiving some very different lessons.

"You have to be more polite," she insisted, gently leading her knight away from a group of indignant Tarinieran nobles. "You must have had better manners than that as a child."

Dirc shrugged uncomfortably. "My family come from one of the outlying duchies," he explained. "Father was never one for standing on ceremony."

"But Duke Maladren's wife's sister is married to a grain merchant, and ever since his son died in the war Duke Larines has barely even left his estate. I can't even comprehend how you even thought that was a sensible thing to say near them!"

Dirc sighed. "Look, Chalisse, I didn't know that, and even if I had I don't understand why commenting on the role of merchants in the current state of Arcana was such an issue."

Chalisse looked at his confused face and realised that she couldn't remain cross with him for long. He was her betrothed, after all, and she loved him. With a sigh, she sat on a white marble bench beside a bubbling fountain in the shape of a cherub. From here, she could see the festivities laid out across the wide lawns of the palace. It was a bright, sunny day and colourful flowers were blooming. Fresh food was laid out on long tables, covered by bright marquees, and a troupe of musicians played gentle music from a small stage near the centre. Nobles and dignitaries exchanged pleasantries as they passed each other. It was exactly how Chalisse had imagined her engagement party- with one exception.

As Dirc sat down next to her, the princess returned to reality. Unlike her fantasy prince, there was no escaping the fact that Dirc was woefully ignorant of the affairs of court.

"Perhaps we should steer clear of the nobles," she suggested gently. Dirc looked around the gardens, his expression unreadable.

"Perhaps," he agreed. Chalisse smiled and leaned her head on his muscular shoulder.

Problem solved, she thought happily.

Heads the house, tails the ship.

Koyn stood across the street from the door, playing with the copper piece between his fingers and biting his lip in thought. People walked past him down the bustling thoroughfare without even glancing his way; loiterers were not an uncommon sight in Taron, and the passers-by all had their own business to attend to. The young sailor, too, was focused on his own problems.

I already agreed to do this. I want to do this.

But he needed money; money to pay back Wanda, money to be free of his father's debts, money to finally be in charge of his own life. He didn't need to live in this house.

So tell Riye you changed your mind. He'll understand. Just sleep on the Luitha Mae.

But doing that meant letting his friends down. He didn't want to do that. Except he did.

As Koyn flipped the copper to his other hand, the front door of the house creaked open and Riye stepped out into the crowd. He started to head down the street, then turned when he saw Koyn and headed over.

"What's up?" he asked, then saw the look on his friend's face. "Second thoughts," he realised, answering himself. Koyn nodded, staring at the ground.

"I just don't know if I can afford it," he muttered. "I haven't made my mind up yet, but... I don't know. I'm sorry."

Riye sighed theatrically and placed a hand on Koyn's shoulder, dropping his head until he was looking into the other man's face.

"Don't worry about it," he told Koyn. "I should've expected this; you're always worrying about money."

The young sailor shrugged awkwardly and sidestepped away from his comrade. "But I said I'd move in with you, and I can't just break my promise..."

"Ah, promises," Riye declared, waving a hand in the air. "The other thing you spend far too long worrying about." He folded his arms firmly. "Let me make it easy for you; live on the ship. There'll be other houses and I don't want to live with you if you're going to spend the whole time complaining about your debt."

Koyn looked back up at his smiling friend, and slowly returned the grin.

"I do not complain all the time," he objected, and with a bark of laughter Riye put his arm around Koyn's shoulders.

"Of course not," he agreed. "Sometimes you mope." He started to lead Koyn down the road. "Come on, we should go and tell Captain Rhone that he's going to have to put up with your company more than we thought."

Koyn sighed with relief as they walked down the crowded street. The choice was easier when he didn't have to make it. Now all I have to do is earn enough money to pay back Wanda, he thought wryly. As if that task would be finished any time soon.

Dirc was in hell. Trying to make small talk with the Dukes and their families had been bad enough, but no sooner had Chalisse agreed to avoid tricky situations than the Nanisian ambassador had swept in with his confrontational questions and cornered them beside the hedge maze. The only escape route without physically pushing the man led into the maze- and Dirc was far too worried about getting lost to enter the labyrinth. He had therefore resolved to stand there and keep his mouth shut; the princess could handle this situation better than he could anyway. He just wanted to punch the man.

Unfortunately, the Nanisian ambassador had noticed the young general's silence, and had chosen to try and draw some response from him by pushing his views on the Tarinieran victory at Sillagova, in northern Arcana. Chalisse had, of course, leapt to the defence of her fiancé. Her faith in him only made Dirc feel worse.

"... cannot believe you would dare to even suggest such things!" Chalisse snapped. "General Windguard is a good man!"

"I beg your pardon, your highness, but shouldn't your fiancé be defending himself?" the ambassador demanded, the merest hint of a smile appearing on his stony features. "After all, if the charges are false, surely he can refute them himself."

"Perhaps he doesn't feel it is worth his time to do so," the princess retorted. "In fact, I don't believe I feel it is worth arguing any longer." She reached out and grabbed Dirc's arm. "Come on," she haughtily said. "We are leaving this discussion." With that, she tugged on the knight's arm, and Dirc found himself being led into the hedge maze. The leafy walls were easily seven feet high, and although he glanced over his shoulder the ambassador was clearly not bold enough to follow them in. Chalisse led the young general around several corners, twisting and turning back on herself until finally she stopped and took a deep breath.

"Of all the nerve..." she began, still clearly fuming. "Why, I should have him thrown from court! What problem does he have with you that he feels..."

"I did it," Dirc said quietly. Chalisse broke off and stared at him, and he felt the words bubble up inside him, reaching the surface and popping into revelation. Memories he'd tried to forget came to the surface as the confession poured out of him.

"Sillagova was a stronghold; the Arcanans held it, but they were supported by Nanis. We'd been trying to get in for weeks, camped outside their walls. They shot at us whenever we got close enough, and sometimes they'd make raids in the night... it was winter, so we were cold, and the supply lines kept breaking. And we hated them for what we were going through. Heavens forgive us, Chalisse, we hated them so much."

He paused for a moment and paced a short way past the princess.

"Their soldiers had families in the city," he said eventually, his voice blank and flat. "Women, children. There were others too, people who weren't soldiers, people who just lived there. Do you know what happens when thousands of cold, hungry, angry soldiers get into the place they've been blaming all their troubles on?" He glanced at Chalisse, who shook her head dumbly. Dirc snorted with laughter.

"I was their commander," he said softly. "I should have stopped them. I could have. If I'd given the order."

The princess swallowed. "But you didn't actually... you didn't kill any of them yourself?" she asked. Dirc stared at her.

"It doesn't matter," he replied. The princess folded her arms.

"It does," she insisted. "After all, just because your men descended into savage behaviour, that doesn't mean that you should be blamed."

"What do you think a battlefield looks like, princess?" Dirc demanded, his temper flaring at her persistent ignorance. "Do you think that everybody stands in neat, tidy lines and the enemy announce themselves before they attack?" He shook his head violently. "No! You get into an enemy city and everyone, absolutely everyone, might be trying to kill you! And unless you want someone to finish you off with a kitchen knife you don't let them get close enough to try, either! You want to know if I killed any civilians? The truth is, I did! But that doesn't matter because my men, my people, the people I ate with and played cards with and called friend, they did worse. And I didn't stop them."

He broke off, his breath coming in ragged heaves, wet tears tracing their way down his cheeks. Chalisse frowned.

"I don't understand," she insisted. "You're not like that. You're a good man."

"Why? Because you say so?" Dirc yelled. "When did you become such a moral authority?"

"You're being ridiculous, Dirc," Chalisse told him crossly. The young knight snorted.

"I'm being ridiculous?" he mocked. "Me? I'm not the one falling in love with a fantasy!"

The princess took a deep breath and resolved to forgive him. After all, he's obviously very upset, she told herself. He's not really responsible for any of it.

"I love you," she said reassuringly, reaching her hand up to his shoulder.

"Don't touch me," Dirc yelled, his arm lashing out. Chalisse cried out and fell to the ground, one hand covering the red mark on her face.

For a long moment the two of them stared at each other, both frozen in shock and disbelief. Birds sang in the carefully shaped trees of the royal gardens and music drifted over from the ongoing engagement party. The sun still shone brightly in a clear blue sky as the blood drained from Dirc's face.

"I'm sorry," he whispered, eyes wide in horror as he stumbled backwards away from the fallen princess. "I didn't... I never... I'm so sorry!" As he finished speaking, he turned and fled into the maze, vanishing around the corner in seconds.

Chalisse sat on the grass where he had knocked her, still touching the developing bruise on her face. Her sapphire eyes shone brightly with tears as she stared after the knight, but something inside her refused to let them fall. Instead she sat and waited; for what exactly, she couldn't have said, but she knew that whatever it was, it had nothing to do with Dirc. Not any more.