“Congratulations on your marriage,” the king of Lars said, though he never meant it.

   “Thank you, your majesty,” Bjorn replied, playing along.

   The two played their parts expertly, like actors performing a well rehearsed play.
Their conversations flowed as naturally as a fresh water stream.
The ministers who stood outside the door, trying to listen in, trembled nervously.

   “Although it comes too late, I must say that I am grateful of the proposal you sent to me, with Princess Gladys compliments.
I regret that my will gad already been pulled me along another course, I will remember that consideration for a long time to come.” Bjorn wanted to get that out the way at the start, in the hopes that it would make things a little less awkward between them.

   Arthur Hartford’s eyes creased as he took in the words.
He felt he was being provoked by the Prince, who always wore a smile like he had some deep plot going on.
His eyes never gave away his intentions, they were always so cold and calculating.

   Did you really think you could use your daughter to meddle in the internal affairs of another country? The King imagined Bjorn was actually saying.

   Of course, it was an outrageous response to an act of faith, a helping hand to get him back his crown.
But it was also laced with warning that he should not forget his tresspass.

   “As will I,” Arthur said out loud, with a laugh in his tone.

   The King had expected Bjorn to have become spiteful over the years, but he seemed like the same Bjorn he had met when he came over to Lars and used Gladys as a means to tighten a snare around Lars.

   “It was not my intention to meddle in the affairs of Lechen, I am well aware of the ferocity with which the Wolves of Lechen can operate.
I was trying to offer a hand of peace, to atone for my foolish daughter.”

   “I trust in your sincerity, in return, I hope you understand Lechen’s intent.” Born said.

   “Bjorn,” Arthur let out a long sigh.
“I fully understand your not wanting Gladys back, but you must put aside personal feelings and think rationally.
Having you as the Crown Prince would be far more beneficial.
You must see that.”

   “Having Leonid ascend would be no different.
We would still maintain a friendly relationship, Your Majesty.
Considering my brother would be a far more considerate and kind king, do you not think the situation would be better with him?”

   “You really have no attachments to the crown, do you?”

   “If I wanted to hold onto it, I would never have let it go in the first place.” Bjorn smiled.

   Arthur’s gaze narrowed as he tried to read Bjorn, but his face was cold, hard and unmoving.

Lechen’s Mad Dog has returned.
A name that had been given to Bjorn’s great grandfather, Philip II, the conqueror from Lechen.
A gnashing enemy to everyone but Lechen itself and his Wolf Banner is still widely talked about.

   Back then, one country would beat another, then later that country would beat the other back.
That wasn’t the case for Lechen, its Mad Dog bit out at everyone and no one was brave enough to try and muzzle Philip II.
Lars was always the worst bitten.

   There was a brief moment when Lars was richer and more powerful than Lechen.
During this time, the King of Lars led a cavalry charge right into the heart of Lechen and obtained the Mad Dogs’ surrender.
That was the pride of Lars.

   It did not last long, as the following year Philip II led a massive naval engagement that nearly destroyed the entire navy of three countries.
It became the cornerstone victory for the young king, who was barely thirty years old.
He went on to conquer the entire continent and unite the countries.
Bringing peace.

   It was a close call, reluctance and resignation eventually gave way and the beaten looked upon it as an opportunity to prosper in their unity.
The continent stabilised, industry blossomed and an era of prosperity began.

   Fortunately, the light of a brighter future also fell on the wolves of Dniester and their descendants took to the peace, unlike their ancestors.
Worried that the wolves would bare their teeth again, a marriage was arranged between Bjorn and Gladys.
At the time, Bjorn was being labelled as the second coming of the mad dog.

   The young Prince was proving to be very much like his great grandfather.
A cold-hearted conqueror, another mad dog.
He had not even started his era yet and already people were becoming afraid of what he was going to do.
So when he gave up the crown, everyone but Lechen was relieved.

   Arthur nodded, shaking away the thoughts.

   “In all honesty, Bjorn, if I can not make you my son-in-law and put you on the throne, maybe it would be better if you were kept far away from positions of power.”

   “Then we have reached a consensus on what would be best for the both of us.” Bjorn said.

   “Best? Is this really what is best for you and Lechen?”

   Bjorn faced Arthur, who eyed him suspiciously.
Bjorn smiled lightly and Arthur couldn’t find a shred of regret in that smile.
He did see the image of the Mad Dog in him though.

   “It has become a time of chaos, your majesty, a time where we need negotiators, not conquerors, to navigate the waves of tumult, to solidify the peace that is quickly spiralling out of control.”

   “Are you not confident that you can be a negotiator? Is that why you hand the crown off to your brother?”

   “It’s not that I don’t feel I am capable, I understand the burden of the crown, a weight that can not be lifted once it has been put on.” Bjorn looked out the window of the meeting room, thinking.
“I just feel my brother would be better suited to the role.
I just can’t justify dedicating my one and only life to values that are different to my own.”

   “What values would they be, for someone who set aside the crown with no regrets?”

   “That’s, probably…I guess, living life to its fullest, enjoying everything it has to offer?”

   Arthur looked at Bjorn gobsmacked.
Was he really sitting before the King of another country and talking this nonsense? He burst out laughing.

   “A very beautiful value indeed, and I don’t suppose buying up Lars’ bank is part of that?”

   “Oh, it’s an honour that your majesty would take an interest in my small investments.”

   “Small investments?”

   “Yes, didn’t the Prince Alexander of Lars recently buy up the most famous horse from Lechen some time ago?”

   The audacity of comparing Prince Alexander’s hobby of racehorses and Prince Bjorn’s attempts at merging with the Bank of Lars made Arthur laugh again.

   “Leonid is well aware of the price both countries have paid for our unity.
So there is no need to be worried, Your Majesty.
There is no need for arranged marriages, the alliance will remain as strong as ever, you have my promise on the honour of the Dniester’s.”

   Sunlight broke through a gap in the clouds and shone through the windows into the meeting room.
Arthur saw Bjorn knelt before him and let out a sigh.
What a foolish woman his daughter had been, the regret deepened.

   “Can I open the door now?” Bjorn said motioning to the door behind him with a tilt of the head.
“The ministers must be worried sick that you might have beaten me to death.”

   “Why do you put up with the awful rumours? Is it because you like to be seen as a troublemaker?” Arthur tried to make light conversation, in response to Bjorn’s joke.

   “I suppose you could say that, but please consider, I am on my honeymoon.” Bjorn said with a smile.

   “I understand your meaning, but why on Earth did you get married…the way you did? What a wonderful woman your bride must be.”




Karen let out a sigh as she rubbed the nape of her neck.
The Grand Duchess had been sitting at her reading table, memorising the Lechen nobilities family tree for several hours now.
Karen had to stand by her side and give guidance where asked.

   How do you pronounce this family name? What crest does that family belong to, and what does it all mean?

   “I’m sorry Karen, are you tired?” The Grand Duchess said with a look of concern.

   “No, Your Highness.” She gave a mechanical answer.

   Karen’s disapproval was evident on her face though.
It would seem that the youngest member of the Royal Family, Greta, who was only twelve, knew more about this than the Grand Duchess.

   “I hear you and Bjorn have been together for a long time.” Erna said, trying to make conversation.

   “Yes, Your Highness, I have been serving the Dniester since they were young boys.”

   “Mrs Fitz says you are very loyal, I think so too.”

   Karen narrowed her eyes at the Grand Duchess.
“Yes, Your Highness, thank you.” She got the impression the Grand Duchess was trying to say something.

   “I understand that you are unhappy with me because you respect and love Bjorn, Karen.” Erna still smiled softly.
“I know you think I am not good enough to be his wife.”

   “What, no Your Highness, I…”

   “So I will study hard and I will work very hard to be the Grand Duchess that people like you are not ashamed of.
All I ask is that you help me.

   Karen swallowed dryly and sighed.
Her tummy was all twisted and she couldn’t stand it.
She swallowed again and could do nothing more than accept the order.
Erna seemed satisfied and turned her attention back to the almanack.

   The barrage of questions didn’t come to an end until the sun had fully set.
Then, Erna went to get ready for dinner with her husband.
Karen was standing outside, getting some fresh air when a message came for Erna.
It said that Bjorn was going to be late and that Erna should eat without him.

   “What if the marriage doesn’t last a year?” The maids had laughed together when they heard the news.
Instead of scolding them, Karen joined in.

   “Tell her later.” Karen said.
“The Duchess is changing right now, it would be rude to disturb her.”

   The noise of the maids laughing and talking continued.
They joked about the Grand Duchess’ reaction, after spending all that time getting ready for nothing.
Their laughter and gossip carried way into the night.

   “Hey, isn’t that Jade?” A maid said.

   They all turned around to look and saw the maid of honour of Princess Gladys running toward them.

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