Chapter 171 - Southern Cruise

It was the night before Leon and Alix were scheduled to leave the capital and continue on their journey to the Bull’s Horns.  They were going to take another galley south along the Naga River, switch to a ship more suited for the waters of the Gulf of Discord, and continue east until they reached the southeastern-most tip of the Bull Kingdom.

To ensure he was ready for the trip, Leon had laid out all of his things before packing.  First, and most importantly, was his combat gear, his armor and sword.  His armor wasn’t enchanted yet, as he’d decided to make a few adjustments after testing the bracer Elise had given him a little more.  He did, however, pack some of the special—and mind-bogglingly expensive, he guessed—paper that would burn the enchantment into the metal.

Next came his books, which were neatly stacked next to his armor.  Next to the books was all the rest of his enchanting supplies, of which he’d restocked.  In fact, he’d gotten so much more spell paper and ink that he had to buy a separate pack to carry all of it.  Then came his clothing.  He’d bought a fair amount of plain clothing at Elise’s tailor, and the custom and much fancier clothes had been delivered a few days before.  The fancier clothes were primarily black and had silver trimming, which he thought paired quite well with his snow lion coat.

Once all of this was packed into a pair of bags that he wasn’t looking forward to carrying, he turned his attention to a leather bag, within which was all of his ID documents as well as his gold card.  He quickly went through it, to make sure everything was still there; most of those documents identified him as a scion of House Raime, so he had to make absolutely sure they were accounted for.

Leon started to pull things out of the bag and put them on a nearby table.  There weren’t that many documents, but he still carefully scrutinized them as he pulled them from the bag, ensuring nothing was gone.  He placed the supposedly empty bag on the table, and it made a muffled clunk sound, indicating he’d forgotten something.  With narrowed eyes, Leon searched the bag again and found a thing he hadn’t thought about in over a year, not since he buried Artorias and left his home behind: the black Heartwood seed.  The pitch-black seed was cold in his hand, far more than it would be if it were dead, and it emitted a steady aura that he hadn’t noticed when it was concealed in the bag.

When he pulled it from the bag, his free hand instinctively twitched toward the lion’s tooth necklace around his neck.  For a moment, it was as if Leon was back in the Forest of Black and White, sitting dazed with his back against the obelisk in the center of his and Artorias’ fortified compound, while Artorias lay dying in his house.

[What is that?] Xaphan asked in wonder from Leon’s soul realm, abruptly distracting the latter from his rapidly escalating depression and grief.

[A seed my father found a while back,] Leon answered.  [It came with another seed, only that one was gold.]

[Where is that other seed?] asked the demon.

[I cut open my father’s chest and planted the seed within his heart.  Then I buried him,] Leon said bitterly.

[Don’t lose that seed,] Xaphan said carefully.  He could hear the sadness and grief in Leon’s voice, and he wanted to step lightly.

[Do you know what this is?] Leon asked.

[Nope,] Xaphan answered.  [I know about a great many species of flora, especially about those suited for fire magic, but that is something I’ve never seen before.  What’s it called?]

[It’s the seed of a Heartwood tree,] Leon replied.

Instantly, Xaphan went quiet.  Leon waited for the demon to say something for a long moment, and just as he was about to ask what was up, Xaphan said slowly and deliberately, [I take back what I said.  I have heard of this thing before.  The Primal Gods and Devils would bury their most powerful and fervent worshipper with one of these implanted in their chest.]

[Why would they do that?] asked Leon in fascination.

[I… I’m not entirely sure.  But, don’t lose that seed.  There’s power in it, though that should be obvious to anyone who sees it.  If you can, don’t tell anyone you have it.  I doubt they’d recognize it, let alone know what to do with it, but it’s always better to err on the side of caution…]

[… All right,] Leon responded, and he carefully put the cold black seed back in the leather bag, right next to his gold card.

Only a few seconds later, Elise entered the room.  “All ready to leave?” she asked teasingly.  When she got closer, though, she saw that Leon’s eyes were a little watery, and her playful demeanor vanished.  “Is everything all right?”

“I’m fine.  Or, as fine as I can be right now,” Leon answered.  He walked forward a few steps and pulled Elise into his arms, whispering, “I love you,” into her ear.

Elise shuddered in his arms, from both hearing those words and feeling his breath on her ear.  For a few more moments, she enjoyed just standing there quietly with Leon.  When those moments were over, she pushed herself up on her toes and gently kissed him, then took his hand and led him back to her bed.  They laid there quietly for a while, merely embracing and making sure each knew the other was there for them.  They didn’t start anything more intimate for over an hour until their arousal that was slowly building from being in each other’s arms finally became too much for either to bear.

The two lovers made love rather gently at first, but after a while, they went at each other so vigorously that Leon was still thinking about it several days later on the galley heading south.  His depression at being so reminded of his father’s death had been greatly lessened, and he had spent the past few days diligently working on his planned edits to the enchantments he was placing on his armor.

His cabin on this galley was much like the one he and Alix had on the way from Cyrene to the capital: small and cramped, but much nicer than the hold that the rest of the crew slept in.  There was plenty of privacy for him to work, and for Alix to voraciously read her way through the books she bought in the capital.

Her books and his enchantment work had been all they had done for the past few days, so it came as something of a surprise to him when Alix suddenly closed the incredibly thick book she was reading and asked, “Mind if I ask you a few things, Sir?”

Leon was placing the finishing touches on his enchantment, so he said, “Give me five more minutes…”

Five minutes later, once Leon was finished, he turned to Alix and nodded.  “If it’s all right with you, I’d like to ask a bit about House Raime…” she said.

Slowly, Leon nodded.  He and Alix had been through a few life-threatening situations together, and he trusted her, but that didn’t make him comfortable talking about his family.

“You mentioned your father and your grandfather before, but do you have any other family?  Anyone else you could go to for help in taking revenge?” Alix asked.  Most noble Houses had extensive family trees and blood connections with other Houses, which would provide support to the main branch of the family in case of an emergency.

“None that are worth mentioning,” Leon answered simply.

None?!” Alix asked incredulously.  “Your family was one of the oldest in the entire Kingdom, and you have no branch families?!”

“None that are worth mentioning,” Leon repeated.  “There are a few cadet families of House Raime living on the Great Plateau, but there are other circumstances that lead to them not really being considered true members of my House…”

‘Not the least of which is having gone enough generations without awakening their blood that such a thing is no longer possible…’ Leon finished in his mind.

“Huh…” Alix responded.  She sat there quietly for several more moments, thinking and hesitating about whether to ask her next question or not.  Eventually, her curiosity won out over her caution, and she asked, “If you don’t mind, could I ask about the specifics that led to House Raime’s collapse?”

“Why are you so interested?” Leon asked instead of answering her question.

His counter gave her pause.  “I’m curious.  House Raime was the strongest noble house in the entire kingdom.  How can anyone hear of its fall and not be fascinated?”

“Is it really so fascinating?” Leon inquired.  “It’s not too common, but the rise and fall of noble houses is hardly something unique in history, and the Bull Kingdom has had its fair share of strong and venerable noble houses falling to ruin.”

“And none of those other noble families very suddenly fell when they were at the height of their power, or had the Royal Family go to such great lengths to suppress information about what happened.  I doubt there’s anyone in the entire Northern Territories who hasn’t wondered what happened, especially since no one knows anything more than one day, Archduke Kyros Raime was alive, and the next, both he and his son were dead.  His younger son, too, was widely believed to be dead, killed months before.”

Leon frowned as he pondered what to say.  After a few quiet moments, he decided that there wasn’t much he could say that wouldn’t put him at any more risk than he already was with Alix knowing the truth.

“My father, Artorias Raime, moved to the capital after marrying my mother, who my grandfather didn’t approve of.  He and my grandfather were supposedly not on speaking terms because of this and is why my father didn’t return to Teira when his villa was attacked.  Instead, he took me and went north, into the Northern Vales, where we stayed for years,” Leon explained.

Alix’s eyes almost glittered in excitement as Leon continued to tell her his entire story, from when Artorias ran from his home to when he was forced to leave the Forest of Black and White.  Her mood was dampened a little when he got to the part where the assassins entered their home, poisoning Artorias, but she still couldn’t help but stare in fascination as Leon spoke in detail about his life.

However, a few things that Leon intentionally omitted were the prison where he found Xaphan, the archives under the palace in Teira, and the ancient history of his family.  She already knew he was of House Raime, but he was neither going to tell her what he’d learned of the Storm King from Xaphan nor about his Inherited Bloodline from the Thunderbird.

“So, you’re the last heir to a venerable noble house, on a quest for revenge against those who attacked your family!” she said, barely able to contain her voice from the sheer excitement.

Leon was struck speechless for a few moments, unable to respond.  He was completely taken off-guard at her enthusiasm for his situation now that she had the full story.  When he finally found his tongue again, he said, “… I wouldn’t say that, exactly…”

“What do you mean?  You already told me that you’re seeking strength so that you can get your vengeance, you haven’t changed your mind, have you?” Alix incredulously asked, as if the concept of Leon walking away from the entire affair was completely and utterly alien to her.  And, she quickly revealed why, when she added, “That would be so boring!”

With teeth clenched in agitation and anger, Leon said, “Well I’m hardly here for your amusement, am I?”

Hearing his tone, Alix quickly averted her eyes in shame and didn’t say another word.

“My father,” Leon reminded, “was approaching the threshold of the eighth-tier when he was killed.  By assassins, who I think probably had bosses.  Bosses, I assume, must be stronger than they were.  I’m only ­a fourth-tier mage!  Those odds are far longer than I’d be willing to gamble—it’s going to be a long time before I can start my investigations in earnest...”

“… I’m sorry,” Alix apologized.  “I was just caught up in your story and lost my head a little.  It’s just, your life is practically out of a story!”

Leon clearly didn’t think that way, as he subtly glared at Alix.  “I’ve been thinking that lately, I’ve been going too soft on you during training.  Why don’t we fix that tomorrow?”

“Shutting up now!” Alix said, hurriedly returning to her book, while Leon turned back to his enchantment work.

After about half an hour, Leon finished up and sat back to look at his work.  He’d made his adjustments and copied the enchantment onto two of the sheets of enchantment paper he received from Elise.  Neither he nor Xaphan saw any problems with the enchantment, so with great trepidation, he began to wrap the papers around his gauntlets.

The papers began to quietly burn, the glow illuminating the cabin more than the cabin’s magic lanterns.  Alix looked over a few times, but she kept her silence.

It would take a while for the enchantments to burn onto the metal of the gauntlets, especially since they were made of Magmic Steel.  Leon had been thinking that he was a little too much of an asshole when he was talking to Alix earlier, so to pass the time, he decided to try and mend bridges, so to speak.

“What are you reading?” he asked, keeping his tone as light and jovial as he could.

Alix looked up from her book.  She hadn’t actually been reading, only staring at the page as Leon’s enchantment procedure was too distracting, but hearing Leon’s friendly question, she eagerly launched into an explanation of her book, the epic tale of a knight that tamed a wyvern and rode it into battle.  Leon was quite interested, as he hadn’t been able to indulge his own interest in literature since his classes early on in the Knight Academy before he stopped going to them in order to make time for more training.

The two chatted for hours about books, all while the paper continued to burn on Leon’s armor.

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Chapter 172 - The Bull's Horns

Chapter 170 - Inner Fire