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The Then | 13yrs ago

It turned out that living on the streets was rough. Even compared to a life of misery, this was worse. Perhaps it was not worse than the abuse of his past, but it was not much better. And anyway, at least back then he’d had the friendship of Bulge. Now he was all alone. No-one was there to offer even a cool word of support.

And worse than that, he had no outlet either. He had no way to quench his hunger for learning. Two years ago he had been on the cusp of a life with purpose, intent, substance, and perhaps even love. Now he had nothing. It was like being starved, then being given the very tiniest morsel, and then finally having it pulled mercilessly away. It drove one insane. But alas, such was the curse of his existence. In some ways misery suited him better. At least it was familiar.

He’d left the smithy in such a hurry that he’d been entirely unprepared for a life of rough. But a child of his background is nothing if not resourceful. Within a cycle of Father Fortune, he had his routine down to a pinch. In time, he may even learn to flourish in the squalor. And if he knew Triosec well before, then he held her secrets in his pockets now. In many ways he had become the king of the damned city. Though in most ways, he was mere gutter scum.

And yet he retained a sense of personal pride, refusing to be sucked into the vortex of self-deprecation that seemed to plague a majority of the city’s Lost. Though Lost actually seemed entirely inappropriate when the unfortunate population were actually one of the more common sights in the city. They were visible, but they were not noticed, and this was why Kantal fitted in.

His hair was long, scraped into a tight tail which hung from the base of his neck, secured with a hempen chord. He had patchy and wispy facial hair sprouting, young man of seventeen as he was, and he would dearly love to shave it off. But a clean-shaved face was noticeable, and invisibility was useful. The wafting beard gave him a perverse freedom, and so he stuck with it. Even if it did annoy him intensely.

And if the freedom was good for anything, then it was good for fuelling his incessant hunger for learning. A life of purpose may have been fleeting, but it was profound, and it had taught him one thing: that there must always be something worth pursuing. And he wanted to live his name.

That taste of creation had been so sweet that his dreams were now consumed by that experience. He dreamed of that weapon he had helped craft. He longed to replicate the satisfaction that he’d felt in those heady days, and he desperately sought his path back. But in his position, that was a challenge. Just staying clean was a problem beyond his capacity.

True enough, there were small victories to be had on the streets: a meal forged from waste; clothes salvaged through charity; and privacy crafted by cunning. But each success was disappointingly temporary, and he found himself quickly twitchy once more. He had only one outlet for his curiosity, and it was the same sanctuary that saved his childhood. He sought out the library.

The archives held some truly magnificent volumes on the art of the smith, and no small amount on the revered craft of weapon-lore. He consumed the text hungrily, but with each earned lesson, he found himself further from where he wanted to be. He had experienced perfection, and anything less would just not do. His frustration drove him on.

He searched hungrily for the ways of the Mandari, to supplement what fragmented learning he had retained from his experience with his father. But the trouble with Mandari art was that it wasn’t well known outside of Mandaria. He craved that weapon that his hands had made, but the King had paid dearly for it. He could never own such a thing. All he had to do was look at his reflection to recognise that truth. It was a weight on his optimism.

But if Queen Delfin had taught him anything, then it was persistence. The library was vast, and he would search until every flaky page had been turned. He had nothing else to occupy his time.

His unsolicited access to the building was through a window that seemed to remain permanently unlocked about the upper gallery. It was still early morning, but he clawed his way closer to the top of the wall even despite his sweaty hands. He looked back down to the street with a trembling lip. It was filling up nicely, the day’s tradesmen emerging for business. More eyes to spy his approach. Damn.

He shook the idea from his head, revelling in the challenge of the climb. As a slap of wind unsettled him, his moist palm threatened to give, but a forceful extension of his knees projected him the final distance. He gulped and hauled himself onto the roof. Phew.

Of course, he would much rather have climbed earlier in the day, before the threat of city life was rife. But he’d run into trouble. It turned out that the baker he’d stolen from last night was not one to let a financial loss lie, and he’d been hunted most of the night. As he was emerging into the barely-light to make his way to his beloved temple, the City Guard had descended upon him with the baker screaming for his head. It took all of his wit, and no small amount of his pocket aggression, to get out of that one. But by the time he’d shaken his tail, the early chance was gone.

It would probably be sensible to lay low a few days. And where better to lay low than the library? No-one would think to look there.

He eased the creaking window open, its filthy glazing barely reflecting the bright daylight. The silence in the building always offered danger with the noise of any movement, but he had to take the chance. And besides, once inside, he could conceal himself from anyone. Bulge had taught him all the places after all. But on entry, it was evident that he would not need to hide his presence. He hauled his meagre sack of possessions through the window with barely a care. The library should be open by now, but such was the lack of demand, the new chief-librarian often neglected to air the doors at all. It saddened him despite the freedom it offered. Delfinia was rotting.

He pulled the window casually shut, but before it was closed, the inflamed cry of the baker drifted in. That man truly did hold a grudge, and he chuckled. Then he popped a morsel of the stolen bread into his smiling mouth, appreciating its flavour all the more. It was very good bread, he had to give the bastard that. And with that satisfaction, plus the waning stimulus of panicked flight, he had a sudden urge to lie down. He appreciated the deathly isolation, and found himself looking to the Royal Gallery. If anywhere was likely to house comfy surroundings, then...

He licked his lips at the prospect of cushioning. After all, he was nearly a king here. But unfortunately, the climb to that place was a bit of a challenge, especially with aching limbs. It was toil he could do without. And yet despite his fatigue, he managed to claw his way across the far wall of the library, gripping barely proud bricks. But halfway across the void, he almost succumbed to the tiredness that now infected his body. He made the final precarious moves with incredible care, and with his hand on the rail of the gallery, he exhaled. Ha. King after all!

“What do you think you’re doing?”

“Shit!” If he hadn’t been holding the rail, he would now be dead. In fact, he wasn’t entirely sure that wasn’t still the case. A hand extended, offering support over the banister, but he did not know what to expect on the other side. When he found it, it did not bode well.

The young man was pristine; utterly pristine. He wore simple black trousers, pressed to a dangerous edge, and a shirt of such whiteness that it was actually painful. It had been a long time since he’d seen anything that clean. His hair was glossy and well ordered, his face trimmed deadly tight, and he had deep eyes which betrayed a lot of confidence. And it was remarkable confidence too, because it seemed so out of place on such a young man. But in this man, a man he recognised, it was not out place. This man was born into confidence. He looked to the belt and saw it immediately. It was there. The sabre that he’d helped forge with his very own hands hung at the prince’s waist. It was an effort to look away from the thing.

“I said, what are you doing?”

He remembered himself and dropped to a knee. “Apologies, your Majesty.” Urgency rose in him, and with it came that consuming and possessive anger. He dearly hoped he would not need it.

“Oh, get up. And I’m not ‘your Majesty’. I am the heir. Not the king.”

Could he get up? Could he stand gaze to gaze with the future head of his nation? He was Kantal, and he’d always battled the odds. The deeper shades of his character unwound further, but they were well in check. The sense translated into a confidence of his own, and he extended himself, standing almost toe to toe with the heir. He smiled as he nodded.

Only then did embarrassment strike. He was in a state, and he was sure he could make out his own dishevelled reflection in the man’s teeth.

“So?” The prince tapped a foot, and then reinforced the question a seemingly final time. “What are you doing here?”

What better way to shock than with the truth?

“I hear that my king has an excellent collection on military mechanics and weaponry. I have come to indulge.” And perhaps have a nap? No; that was too much truth.

Those deep eyes had firmed in the two years since they’d last met. The expression was hard, and daunting. But he had grown too. He was rougher certainly, but he had his own particular brand of defiance. The heir stated the obvious.

“What makes you think that you have a right of access to these archives?”

Bulge escaped in his words, “the library, and all its contents, is for the people. And besides, what possible harm is there in perusing these volumes when no other bugger is looking at them?”

He regretted the use of the word almost instantly, but his coiled anger prevented him from apologising.

“This bugger minds.” Stern authority and a hand on the hilt of the magnificent weapon diluted his resolve ever so, but he stood firm. Then that stony face melted into something else. The hardness had been for show after all. “Oh, don’t worry about it. There’s nothing but dull statistics in these tomes anyway. This is no way to win a fight. This is.” The prince tapped the pommel of his precious sabre.

He gazed longingly once more. He had to hold himself back from the weapon. He had to satisfy himself with his own tools.

“I beg to differ, your…”

“Highness. It is highness.”

“Yes of course, your highness. But as I was saying, the maths behind the mayhem is of utmost importance.”

The prince turned and strutted into the room. He followed obediently.

“Nonsense. It is an easy equation. If I have a thousand fine men with fine weapons, and you have a thousand modest men with modest weapons. Then I am victorious. The equation is therefore simple: take more men with finer weapons. Victory is assured.”

The ignorance was exquisite. He could not proclaim authority on the matter of course, but he had read enough to know the basics.

“And from where will all these fine men come?”

The prince swept about the room, and he followed the exhibition. There truly were some treasures here, and a comfy looking lounger in the corner. His tiredness heaved at that.

“Well, I shall train and arm them of course.”

“And do you think your opponent sits idly while you train your army?”

The royal face turned stony, and the circumstances clicked smoothly into place. He now understood why the prince was here. He was supposed to be learning. But he evidently already considered himself an expert, which was folly. He was anything but.

“The borders will be defended by the lesser forces.”

He jumped hungrily into debate. If he had lacked intelligent conversation at the smithy, then the streets were barren. Excitement pushed him on. “And if these inferior forces are pounced upon by the enemy, will they not be defeated by your very logic?”

The prince was evidently not used to being attacked, especially by a vagabond. Come to think of it, the heir hadn’t even offered recognition. He must be unaware of their previous encounter.

“They will be in defensible positions.”

“And when you assault with your finery, is there not a chance that your enemy digs themselves into defence? Are you still assured of victory?”

“Well yes, I must admit that this does―”

“And even in open combat, what about the lay of the land? And the most unforgiving of all masters: Father Fortune himself. What if the Father is against you? And while these fine men are about their business, what happens to the heartland? And even despite all of this, even if you have all in hand, what if—”

“Yes, please, stop.” He had been raising his voice, almost to the point of anger, and now he flushed. It would not be sensible to shout at one’s future king. He hung his head.

“Sorry, your highness.”

“No; not at all. How is it that one so bedraggled comes to have such an intimate understanding of military mechanics?”

He shook his head. “I don’t, your highness. That’s why I’m here.” That and swordsmithery. He found himself looking to the weapon once more.

“Then you should stay. And you should teach me.” A door slapped shut below, but when he turned to look over the banister, the main entrance remained closed. The prince bridged the confusion. “Though perhaps some other time. My father is here, and he is rather less tolerant than I am.”

Shit! The King, here. What was going to happen? The prince stepped forward, arms reaching for him. He was going to be grabbed! He was going to be handed over to the Wings. No! He wouldn’t succumb. He slapped the prince’s hand away, his anger spitting into life. He wouldn’t succumb…

He paused. It was mighty bold to strike one’s future king. Bold or stupid.

The prince looked affronted, which was unsettling. He hadn’t meant to do that. He edged to the banister, but peculiarly his breathing slowed. He stared levelly at the prince, and went no further. He wasn’t sure of the basis for his actions, but he stood nonetheless. The heir furrowed his brow, but then he smiled. It was a broad and friendly-looking smile.

“I only wanted to show you this.”

With a kick of a lever, a trapdoor sprung and a ladder ran smoothly to the library floor. Oh blessed relief! He didn’t know whether he could struggle across that precarious wall once more. His limbs had suffered enough already.

As he started down the steps, his head just above the floor of the gallery, he paused. He could hear voices, so he didn’t have much time.

“Sorry, highness. I meant no offence.” It was not in his nature to apologise, but on this occasion...

“No need. Go. Flee.” He took the first steps down to safety, and was looking up at the prince when the instructions were expanded. “Oh, and Kantal. I will see you at the Fields tomorrow at midday.”

That he was not expecting. It turned out that he was more recognisable than he gave himself credit for.

“What are you doing here, you little shit?”

He hadn’t been expecting friendly in the Fields, but this? This was just plain aggression.

“I was told to come,” and regretting it too. He looked to the heir, a man standing on the other side of the open courtyard, prancing. He was a colonel already, despite his clearly inadequate learning. Military science was a mystery to the man, and yet here he was. Lord of an army. He, meanwhile, was little more than a learned tramp. And for that apparent inadequacy, he was being drenched in the spittle of a disciplinarian. It appeared that the man had a real problem with his own poor looks, and revelled in the aggression he could apply to others. The sergeant turned to the cluster of officers, and then switched back. His eyes were narrowed, as if in menace.

“Told or ordered? Either way, you have some sense at least.”

What was he supposed to say to that? “Thank you.”

The ugly bastard flared up. “Or maybe not! Did I ask you to speak?”

This was going to be tough. He had been obedient to no-one at any point in his life. He’d even floored his mountain of a father. This frankly scrawny sergeant could not dampen the fire in his gut. His edge was alert, but he wouldn’t need it yet. He would handle this the proper way if he was able. It would not serve to make enemies this soon. He gulped down the anger.

“Good. When to shut up and when to whimper are important lessons. We’ll beat that into you.”

He nodded, unsure whether this was a moment for silence or squeaky submission. He almost sniggered, which would definitely have been the wrong option. He hid it by scrunching up his face and itching his nose.

“You don’t have anything to say?”

He’d got it wrong. Of course he had. He looked to the prince, but the young colonel didn’t seem to care. Oh well. There was no other option. He tried to talk his way out of the situation. This was unlikely to go well.



His face was drenched, and it turned out that this authority figure had an oral hygiene problem. And that simple fact made the sergeant closer to him than any of his actual family. How sad was that?

“No sir.”

The sergeant was riled, but that was clearly the correct etiquette and the reprimand ceased. The whole of the Fields – so named because it was the only open stretch in Triosec, save for the gardens about the Senate – had come to a halt. The fact that his sponsor was here was reassuring, in part, but no-one else seemed to be expecting him. He didn’t even know what he was here to ask.

Actually, of course he did. There was no other reason to come. He’d come to fulfil his purpose.

He’d never considered it before, which was strange. He’d come here and watched drills as an eleven-year-old, absorbing the movements of the trained soldiers until he was sure he could overcome them. And since then, nothing. Yet if he wanted to be a great smith, what better place to practise the art than here? He wanted to make the world’s greatest weapons, and these would therefore be his customers. Then again, deep down, he actually only wanted one weapon. He looked to the prince’s waist. That was the only true reason to be here, and he wasn’t sure it was enough. It would never be his.

“What are you doing here, you shit?”

Not a little shit anymore. Was that progress?

“I’ve come to join the Royal Guard.” It came out with a questioning inflection at the end, which raised eyebrows. There was silence for a moment, but not for long. What was he expecting? Did he expect a slap on the back?

The laughter rolled through the open space, and the petty sergeant’s guffaw was taken up by all and sundry. And looking about, he judged that there was more than a sprinkling of miscellany. This was supposed to be the finest that Delfinia had to offer, but they certainly didn’t look the part. No wonder the Mandari held such sway.

“Think you can fight, I s’pose?”

At least he could speak properly. This bastard was barely coherent.

“I’ve had my moments.” He’d forgotten to say sir, but he didn’t care.

“Corporal Sluuger! Come and show this shit what’s required of the Royal Guard.”

His interrogator walked off – only that – and a hulking bastard stepped into the space before him.

He looked to the heir, who was still gazing intently. At least the prince seemed interested in his performance. That was something at least. He was offered the slightest nod. What did that mean? Was he a piece in a play? What was he doing? Did he want to join the army? He wanted revenge, though he didn’t know what for. Most likely he wanted revenge on his father, and he wanted to make great weapons. And he really wanted that weapon, the one that winked at him from the prince’s waist. But was this really the way to get it? Then again, what other option was there?

And then it didn’t matter. This was a question of pride and survival.

“You little shit.”

The hulking git recognised him, and it was two way. Beef stood before him, now a full-grown adult, but none the wiser for it. He hauled a brutish lump of metal from his side, and grinned. His teeth were rotting. Perhaps that was a requirement of the Royal Guard? If anything, Beef’s breath was worse.

“Chick never moved again. You left him a vegetable, you little fuck.”

How dare he. “Well my arse has never been the same again, so call it evens?”

Beef lurched, and he saw the path. He would have the better of this encounter. But when he sidled past Beef and jabbed at the exposed neck, his old bully managed to spin. He came again. In the interest of evasion he dropped to that self-same arse, and exhaled.

“Ha. Arse of a girl; technique of a woman. You’re no Guardsman. You’re dead meat.”

It turned out that Beef was actually quite quick. That was surprising given his considerable bulk. The only option was to dance out of the line of pain and wait for his moment. The turgid fight became frustrating, but finally a plan hatched. With the prince looking on, and with his possessive edge now screaming from within, he channelled that anger in the way that was uniquely his. If he had something to fight for, then the anger fuelled him, and here he was fighting for a future that had been ripped away once already. His past would not catch up with him again.

As he squatted down and forced his shoulder into the man’s stomach, he screamed in brief concession. But it was controlled. When Beef was on the dusty ground looking into his eyes, he showed genuine shock. And then the lumbering idiot came again.

This was just wasting time. He had greater deeds in mind, and this flailing heap of lard was just an obstacle in his path. With an abrupt acceleration, he snapped the corporal’s arm to a painful angle, and levered the dull steel from his grip. When those eyes – ghosts from his past – looked upon him, little Jossie slapped the side of Beef’s head with heavy metal. He gazed at the blood trickling over the sand without a pinch of remorse. It had been a while since he’d done that.

And this time there were witnesses. A lot of witnesses. “You sneaky shit. Give that here.”

The tendons in his wrists flexed as the disciplinarian came for him. He was about to start a chain of carnage, but instead he recognised the tiniest shake of a head from the corner of the Fields. Such a small gesture. Such a huge effect. He dropped the poor lump of metal.

The sergeant took him by his shirt, knuckles white with fury, and he whimpered. The bastard knew it was fake, but he didn’t care. That was fine.

“You bastard. I will―”

“Sergeant, you will find a place for him. I suspect he will prove useful.”

The eyes of the man told him everything he needed to know. That was true hatred, right there. But a colonel’s word, and the Prince of Delfinia no less, outweighed any personal intentions the man might have. Authority smothered the temper, and he was given back his ability to breathe.

“Yes, I’m sure we can. You can clean the fucking mess. Now!”

He walked past his sponsor harbouring a surge of gratitude. But it was mingled with something else too. After all, it was the prince’s fault he was here in the first place. But without that man, his temper would probably have got him killed. He wasn’t stupid. He had to be grateful for the intervention at least. And besides, it was almost like the prince was looking out for him. Perhaps they shared a goal?

A flash of light distracted him, and he turned to see his sabre being shown off. The bastard. Even if they did share a goal, they wouldn’t share that sword. The class chasm was just too big. And Kantal was on the wrong side.

He was on boot polishing duty. Again. Twenty cycles, and all he’d done was shine stuff: floors; boots; crockery; cutlery; other people’s steel. He’d almost ended up shining a handful of cocks too, though he’d managed to duck that responsibility. Being a twelve-year old recipient of buggery was one thing. Taking cock in mouth at eighteen was quite another. He would have bitten the fucker off.

The Royal Guard was the self-confessed pinnacle of the Delfinian military machine, and they wore the arrogance that went with that title. They were utterly meticulous in their demonstration of marching capabilities, and could switch a right angle to near mathematical perfection. Everything about the bastards was polished: their weapons; their uniforms; their facial hair. Even the abuse they handed out had a honed edge to it. The word shit could be made to sound almost divine.

But he had never lived a life of embellishment, and he would not succumb to polish. He hated this place.

How had he ended up here?

The first cycle was probably bearable, but that was only because he was still learning. As an eternal resident of Triosec, he’d assumed that the Fields was where the finest of the military came to practise. Surely the Royal Guard was the pinnacle, wasn’t it?

No. It turned out that anyone worth their steel was a long distance away. If you were good, then you were sent straight to the borders. To die. It seemed madness, but such was the potent threat of the Mandari that it was the only option. It had been like that for generations.

He looked back at himself in the outrageously reflective leather of the boots he was shining. He had been working on the toe for an undefined period of time, and he suspected his thoughts had dragged. This would probably mean a beating of some sort – there was usually a beating involved. It was fair to say that he wasn’t popular.

“And your father’s okay with this?”

The accent was polished, and he jumped to immediate attention. His own ill-fitting uniform looked embarrassing compared to the fine officer’s garb arrayed about the room. It was ironic that he spent so much of his time within reach of the finery, and yet he was the lowest scum on site. But when the second man spoke, a shot of acidic spittle burned his throat.

“It was his idea. I need to earn my wings.” It was the prince.

“You’re not a Wing. You’re a colonel of the Royal Guard.”

The prince strutted before his companion, his shoulders back and his eyes focused directly ahead. There was no way the bastard would see him, even less recognise him. They’d had no contact in twenty cycles, and the dull dislike for the man was turning ever sourer. It was this man’s fault he was stuck here.

And he had his sword.

“You know what I mean. My father is an embattled war veteran. I am a raw pup. I need to taste the blood, and I need to see the horror of the Mandari war machine. How else am I to succeed as a ruler?”

They were passing him, strutting by like superior peacocks. He seethed.

“Morning Kantal. I trust you are well?”

He was, quite literally, blown dumb. But he would have to speak. Not responding would be the worst thing he could do.

“Y-y-y-es, your highness.”

“Not highness, Kantal. Colonel.” He hadn’t looked at him once, but he didn’t need to. His companion offered a glance, the look of a man who’d just picked dog-dirt off their boots, but it didn’t matter. He had been recognised by the senior man. He almost smiled.

“Back to work, Kantal.”

With the appreciation over, he reflected on the unexpected experience. It was fleeting, but thoroughly enjoyable. Not that it got him anywhere.

The two senior officers proceeded to have an extended argument while they embellished their appearance with the final immaculate touches. The prince came over and took the boots off him, complimenting him on his work. He was a clever bugger. Then he returned to his increasingly vocal companion. It was only when the junior officer’s voice was thoroughly raised that he could make out the detail.

“It’s madness! You can’t beat a mandahoi.”

The words of his past resonated. That was a path he’d once considered, wasn’t it? It was a path less chosen, but it was still a path. His mind drifted and his mouth opened mechanically. He was not in charge of his voice. “Yes you can.”

He gulped. How had he forgotten about that? But it was an impossible objective, as he’d concluded before. It made sense to forget about it. Then again, anything was better than shining stuff, wasn’t it? Maybe this was always supposed to be his path. Maybe he’d been chasing the wrong goal. He stared absently at the floor.

The two officers were obviously looking in his direction, but he kept his eyes low. He was still struggling to make sense of the trajectory he just set himself upon. He had time to take it back.

“Kantal? You’ve never argued that truth before.”

The other officer seemed to sense an injustice. “Your highness, you do not talk to this filth. He had no right to speak. This boy will be―”

“Boy? He is the same age as I am. Am I a boy, captain?”

He looked to his prince then, meeting the intense gaze. The captain spluttered. Why was it that their fates were seemingly entwined? Not that he was complaining. But was this a path he could really follow?

“You’ve never made that bold claim before, Kantal. Why would you say that now?”

Because he was an idiot – that was why. You couldn’t beat a mandahoi. It was a universal truth. True enough, mandahoi died like any other, and in the complex front of a battle, Father Fortune was ruthless with his judgement. But beat a mandahoi, one on one? Never.

“Sorry colonel.”

“It’s highness to you―”

“Shut up captain. What do you have to say, Kantal?”

But the truth was he had nothing to say. It may have been the wistful dream of his childhood, but it was not a path he could tread. He didn’t know the way. It was a fleeting scrap of madness, that was what it was. It was boredom playing mischief. He looked about the room and took in the fine stonework; the oiled wood; the polished metal. So much polish. And such a nice weapon staring back at him from the prince’s side. He had an idea.

“They die like the rest of us. Give a practised man a Mandari edge, and with the Father in his court, he may just succeed. They are fast, but they are human.”

The captain clearly disagreed. He spat. “Pah. Mandari steel is second rate. They are freakish ghouls who have sold their souls. The Stranger touches them. That’s what makes them so potent. It’s like fighting a ghost.”

The prince stood, and smoothly removed the steel from its home. She was beautiful. He lusted upon the thing his hands had made. The folding caused the blade to reflect glorious patterns, like she was burning. It was seductive.

“Offer your fine Delfinian steel, captain.”

The captain ticked his gaze between the two men, evidently at a loss as to whether his commander’s order was genuine. Eventually he stood and swept out a length of dull grey steel whilst offering that same dog-dirt look. As the petty officer spoke, it was a struggle not to snigger.

“It is Gorfinian.”

The prince nodded, then swept his own weapon back, and then pushed it forward almost lazily. The Gorfinian steel – some of the finest metal in the world – was split clean in half. The prince smirked.

“This is Mandari steel, captain. But more than that, it was Delfinian made. And by him.” The hand rose and pointed in his direction. The captain chewed his lip.

“Sorry sir.” He was clearly at a loss for what was going on, but the destruction of his fine steel was worse. In all honesty, the fact that it had sheared like it did suggested it was a fake, but he was not about to ruin the prince’s exhibition.

“Mandari steel is not the finest because it has the purest raw materials. It doesn’t. It is the finest because it is infused with a love of perfection. It is infused with the gift of time, and time, captain, is the ultimate scarce resource.”

A part of him wanted to believe that he’d read that somewhere before, but he knew he hadn’t. It was beautiful.

And time was a scarce resource. And he was wasting his time here. That was surely why he’d made the impossible claim.

“Sir. Let me come with you.”

He didn’t even know where ‘where’ was, but anything was better than this infuriating stagnation. He’d enjoyed showing Beef up again, but that had been one exhibition almost a year back. It was not a reason to stay.

“Yes, I think you should. You seem to be wasted here.”

Yes! His relationship with the prince was ever confounding, but it seemed to yield unexpected results. Presumably the prince got something out of it too?

He gulped. Perhaps that was still to come.

“Come, Kantal. Let’s see if we can equip you for the future.”

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