Chapter 172 - The Bull's Horns

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Two weeks after leaving the capital, the Bull’s Horns appeared on the horizon.  First came the city on the Gulf, then the southern Horn behind that, and then finally, when the galley was sliding into port, Leon could see the northern Horn five miles away through the haze and smoke of the hot day.

Few other kingdoms had such robust natural defenses as the Bull Kingdom had in the Frozen Mountains to the north, the Border Mountains to the east, the Endless Ocean to the west, and the Gulf of Discord to the south.  For these other states, a fortress complex as large as the Bull’s Horns would be an extravagant waste of resources, as there were few locations that could truly make the most of it.

For instance, the Talfar Kingdom east of the Border Mountains was primarily flat plains, and as such their border defenses were comparatively light, as any potential enemy could easily bypass them.  The Bull Kingdom, however, only had one land route into their territory large enough for armies to march along and for trade to flow, this five-mile-wide passage between the Gulf and the Border Mountains.  As such, the fortress guarding it had been built, rebuilt, and extensively added to countless time over the Bull Kingdom’s five thousand year history, and had become one of the largest and most heavily defended places outside of the Central Empires.

Ariminium, the city to the south, was equally impressive.  It had been first constructed to house the families of the soldiers who guarded the pass, but there were now three full combat Legions stationed at the Bull’s Horns, sixty thousand soldiers, along with tens of thousands more for supply and logistics.  Their families had to live somewhere, and that somewhere was in the city.  Artorias had told Leon that this city had the third highest population in the entire kingdom, behind only the capital and Teira, with over a million people calling it home.

The port was suitably impressive for such a large and important city.  The city had been built on the river delta and had several enormous canals flowing through it.  However, to enter these canals, a boat would have to sail or row past a half dozen towers on small islands in the gulf that could raise a gigantic chain to enclose the port; if the Legion didn’t want someone to approach the city from the Gulf, then said approach wasn’t going to happen.

Leon and Alix marveled at the size of these towers as the galley sailed past them.  They had come to the deck so they could see the city, and so far, it hadn’t disappointed.

“Look!” Alix shouted, pointing to three enormous banners that were easily seen even hundreds of feet out into the Gulf, where they were.  She was so excited that she was almost jumping up and down, taking in the sights of the city and happily pointing them out to Leon, and appeared much younger than her nineteen years.  “What do those banners mean?” she asked.

“The one on the right,” Leon answered, nodding towards one that was dark red with a golden eagle emblazoned upon it, “is the sigil and colors of the Royal Legions.

“And the middle one?” Alix asked, pointing to the largest of the three.  It was dark green, with a bright silver bull charging and brandishing its horns.

“That’s the sigil of the Royal House, and the banner for the entire kingdom,” Leon said.

“But then what’s the one on the left?  I thought that one was the Royal Family’s…” Alix inquired, tilting her head in confusion.  The indicated banner was the exact same as the middle one, only with the same colors as the Legion banner—red, with a golden bull.

“That’s the personal standard of Prince Trajan, the king’s older brother.  And, the Consul of the East, based here at the Bull’s Horns.”

“Oooh…”

“Haven’t you ever seen the Royal standard before?” Leon asked.  Alix had lived her entire life in the Bull Kingdom, so Leon was quite surprised that she had gotten the Royal standard confused with Prince Trajan’s.

“There aren’t many standards hung in the mines and lumberyards in the Northern Territories,” Alix responded.

“Still, we were in the capital for two weeks,” Leon pointed out.

That did give Alix some pause, as the Royal Family’s banners were hung everywhere in the capital.  “… I guess I must have missed it; there was quite a lot to see,” Alix said with a shrug and a cheeky smile.

Leon chuckled a little, then said, “All right, we can sightsee when we’re settled in.  For now, we should get ready to go.  Let’s head back to the cabin and make sure we have everything.”

“Right!”

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It took another hour for the galley to finally reach their docking area and have all the paperwork completed for the passengers to disembark.  That was plenty of time for Leon to put on all of his armor, though he had to do so in front of Alix.  She respectfully averted her gaze, and he got it over with as quickly as possible.

When it came for them to leave the galley, they were both fully dressed and packed, and they quickly got off the galley.  Leon, especially, was grateful to be back on dry land, as it meant he didn’t have to use Xaphan’s technique for countering motion sickness every waking moment.  Alix, on the other hand, seemed quite at home at sea, so her enthusiasm stemmed more from being able to see the city than from any specific desire to get off the ship.

Much like when they arrived in the capital, the first things the two of them saw after disembarking was the dry, boring, depressing offices of a Legion port station.  Fortunately, though, they didn’t have to stay long, only long enough for one of the knights to look over Leon and Alix’s orders, check them with the copy he’d received several weeks prior, and send them on their way with directions to where they should report in next.

That place ended up being another office within the walls of the massive southern Horn, which acted as the citadel of the city.  This gave them plenty of opportunities to admire the city, and Alix took full advantage, swinging her head around to delight in every marble statue, immaculate garden, and monumental piece of architecture on their way.  Leon, on the other hand, rarely lifted his eyes up from the street.

Eventually, the two started to approach the southern Horn.  It towered over the city, ensuring that no matter where they were, neither Alix nor Leon could ever get lost.  The Horn was a massive castle, with the central keep large enough that Leon guessed it could contain thousands of rooms.  Surrounding it were five white marble towers, each capped with a dome of blue tiles reminiscent of a Heaven’s Eye Tower.

To reach the castle, one would have to enter the citadel and pass through more than a dozen internal walls.  As a result, Leon thought the architects might have gotten a little bit lazy and decided to lay off the fortifications a little, as the gatehouse of the last internal wall was a pair of pylons at the foot of a staircase leading up to a propylaea, without even a portcullis between the pylons.

The Horn was built atop a massive hill on the northern side of the river delta the city had been built upon, and as Leon and Alix steadily climbed it, they saw the massive black granite walls that protected the keep and other castle buildings.  The outer walls of the citadel were three layers deep, with the smallest, shortest, and outermost layer being more than a dozen feet thick and almost glowing with magic power from the enchantments in the stone.  The boxy towers along the wall were gigantic, easily able to fit two hundred or more archers, and capped with red ceramic tiles.

Leon and Alix approached the Legion soldiers standing guard at the immense outer gate and presented their orders.  The huge drawbridge over the moat was already down and the massive portcullis had been raised into the gatehouse—the drawbridge was only ever raised and the portcullis lowered if the castle were under siege, as there were thousands of people coming and going from the citadel every day.

Following their passing of the first gatehouse, the two had to pass more than five additional gatehouses and cross another drawbridge before they were in the first of dozens of the castle’s outer baileys.  They made their way through the streets and passed through a number of gatehouses for internal walls—aided greatly by the fact that the entire citadel had been built in as much of a grid as the hill allowed—until they arrived at their destination, a big whitewashed limestone building with a monumental arch over its entrance.

“This should be the place,” Leon said.

“That is a seriously intimidating building,” Alix muttered.  The arch was more than fifty feet high, and the building was higher still, with a stark and cold façade.

“Not as much as that one,” Leon responded, nodding toward the keep higher up the hill.

Stepping through the open door beneath the arch, the two found that inside, the building was far more inviting with thick carpets, marble statues set into decorative alcoves, and long rows of plants illuminated by the glow of the nature enchantments that kept them alive.  In the center of the spacious entry hall were a pair of knights who were working behind a large mahogany desk, who Leon approached.

“How may we help you?” asked the older of the two, a third-tier mage.  He was the picture of respect and courtesy, smiling and waiting patiently for Leon’s response.

“I’m looking for Sir Marcus Aquillius,” Leon stated.

“Ah, you must be Sir Ursus!  And his young squire, miss Alix!” the receptionist immediately replied, startling Leon into silence.

A quick glance to his side told Leon that Alix was just as surprised as he was, but her expectant look helped him to recover and say, “You were expecting us?”

“We were,” the receptionist proudly admitted.  “Sir Aquillius sent word to expect a young knight and his squire arriving sometime this week!”

“Can you point us to him?  We’re supposed to join his unit…” Leon asked.

This time, it was the receptionists turn to stare in surprise.  He’d only been told to expect Leon, not why he was there.  The receptionist certainly wasn’t expecting someone so armed and armored as Leon to be joining the Diplomatic Corps!

“Yes… Sir, please follow me,” the receptionist replied, recovering his composure quickly.  He muttered a few words to his younger colleague, then started to lead Leon and Alix to the back of the spacious hall, where four magical lifts could be found.  The group entered one and shot straight to the second highest floor.

When the doors of the lift opened, the three were greeted with the sight of an open and airy lounge, filled with couches, tables, and even a bar and kitchen in the corner with their own staff.  The lounge had been decorated to the nines, but there were only about half a dozen extremely well-dressed people relaxing in the dozens of couches and armchairs, most of whom were hunched over nearby tables staring at various documents.

None of these people looked up from their work to see the receptionist leading Leon and Alix through the lounge.  Leon was a little distracted by the delicious scent coming from the kitchen, especially since neither he nor Alix stopped for food after leaving the galley several hours before, but the receptionist didn’t slow down in the slightest, forcing him to keep moving.

On the other side of the lounge was a long hallway with both walls covered in painted sculptures, and the door Leon and Alix were led to was at the very end, which was labeled with ‘Sir Marcus Bellius Aquillius’.  The receptionist knocked, waited for the gruff, “Come in!” and opened the door for the other two.

“This is where I’ll leave you,” he whispered.

“Thanks,” Leon replied.  He then took a quick breath and walked into the room.  Alix hesitated a little longer, but she followed only a moment later.  It was time for them to meet the knight whose unit they’d be joining.

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Chapter 173 - Diplomatic Corps I

Chapter 171 - Southern Cruise