While Leon and Elise were confirming their relationship, Tiberias had an important meeting to attend. He was to be the squire for the Legate of the Twelfth Legion, which was stationed in the Western Territories conveniently close to the Duchy of Aurelianorum, which his father ruled. In celebration of his completion of the Knight Academy’s training cycle, both Tiberias’ father and the Legate Tiberias would soon squire for had arrived in the capital and were staying in the Duke of Aurelianorum’s private estate.
“Ah, Tiberias! It’s good to see you, boy! You’ve grown quite a bit!” shouted the Legate as soon as he saw Tiberias. He was an immense man, over seven feet tall and built like a brick wall.
“It’s good to see you, too, Lord Aurius,” Tiberias said, giving the Legate a polite greeting. “I’ll be in your care for the next couple years, I hope you’ll forgive and correct any incompetence on my part.”
“Nonsense! No son of House Decimius could ever be so terrible in the knightly ways as to be incompetent, especially not the son of Euphemius!” the Legate boomed as he clapped the shoulder of the slight and unassuming man beside him, who was the patriarch of House Decimius and the Duke of Aurelianorum.
“Father,” Tiberias said in greeting, to which Euphemius Decimius gruffly and silently nodded back.
Despite his reserved nature and modest stature, Duke Decimius was easily one of the five most powerful people in the entire Bull Kingdom. In fact, his power was eclipsed only the Duke of Nicaea, the capital city’s Tower Lord, and the Bull King himself. His lands were vast, his personal army was mighty, and his wealth was tremendous.
And it wasn’t enough. He had the reputation for being a fair, kind, and pleasant man, one who was content with what he had, but he was a man of great ambition. His reputation was earned through calculated deeds done specifically to cultivate the renown needed to mask his secret power plays.
“Come, let’s find a place to sit down; the hallway is no place for a proper greeting,” Duke Decimius said.
The three men went to an octagonal patio in the expansive estate’s gardens surrounded by tall trees and colorful flowers. Each side of the patio had a marble arch that supported a small dome, and within each archway were white silk curtains that had been subtly enchanted to prevent noise from escaping when all were drawn. It was the perfect place not only to receive distinguished guests, but also to have conversations that the Duke didn’t want overheard, a feature the Duke frequently made use of.
“So, Tiberias, how did you find the Knight Academy?” asked Aurius once the three had taken their seats.
“It was an invaluable experience,” Tiberias replied.
“It still couldn’t have been that challenging, though, given the skills I’ve seen you use,” said Aurius.
“There was plenty of challenge,” Tiberias countered, “my unit managed to hold on to our banner for the entire training cycle despite everything we were faced with. One unit, the Snow Lions, managed to acquire nine of the other banners at one point, then left to hide out in the mountains. Three other units ventured out to lay siege to their camp, while the other five dedicated themselves to trying to seize my banner. My Black Vipers had to hold out against the combined efforts of five other company-sized units for almost two months!”
“I find it impressive you were able to hold out for so long without losing,” Euphemius praised, showing his son a rare smile before brushing his long pitch-black hair out of his matching eyes and returning to his usual noble stoicism.
“Indeed. I’ve heard it only takes two to three times as many soldiers to take a fortified location, assuming a realistic level of fortification. To hold against five times as many means you must truly be gifted,” Aurius said. It was in his interest to praise the Duke’s son, so he didn’t hesitate to do so, but he cut it short before it became too excessive. However, he didn’t realize that his statement also betrayed his lack of practical military experience.
“To receive such praise from the man I will serve for the next two years is an honor,” Tiberias responded, putting on a courteous smile as he did to try and cover up his contempt.
The conversation continued on like this for another ten minutes, with Tiberias explaining some event of the training cycle and having Aurius praise him for it. But, the Legate couldn’t stay long, so he only stayed for another couple of minutes to discuss the details for him and Tiberias to head west in several days. Once he was gone and the father-son pair were left alone, Duke Decimius’ expression darkened.
“An imbecilic man,” he growled, his sunken eyes subtly glaring at the back of the Legate as he made his way out of the garden.
“If he’s so lacking in brains, why did you send me to squire for him?” Tiberias asked with bitterness creeping into his voice. He’d heard that the Second Prince and two Paladins were requesting squires, and given his social rank, he’d expected to be sent to one of those three. Instead, Gaius was sent to the Prince and he was being given to a lowly Legate.
“The Twelfth Legion is close enough to our borders that it pays to have them on our side. Plus, you’ll be there for every important meeting that Legate has. You can be our eyes within the Legion, and once you gain rank and power, you can sway the soldiers in the Legion to be more sympathetic to our family.”
“Would it not have been more advantageous to have me squire for a higher-ranked officer, though? A Paladin, or even one of the Consuls would’ve sufficed.”
“Probably. Hard to say for certain. The actual benefits of having you serve a Paladin is debatable, and none of the seven Consuls are headquartered near our lands. The Twelfth Legion, on the other hand, is thus more valuable, and more easily influenced. And we need that influence, given what’s coming.”
“What do you mean?” Tiberias stared at his father, whose sharp features took on a pensive expression. He was clearly debating with himself whether to let Tiberias in on what he was thinking.
Eventually, he decided for it, and explained, “The Bull King is in a coma.”
“What?!” Tiberias almost shouted. The Bull King had been in seclusion as far as most anyone knew, and it was generally taken as a given that it was to observe how his sons handled real power. Most in the nobility assumed that the Bull King still ruled by issuing orders through the Bronze and Penitent Paladins, and that it was only a matter of time before he emerged and selected either Prince Octavius or Prince August for the rank of Crown Prince, thus designating them as his heir.
The implications of the Bull King not only not being in control of the kingdom but also so severely enfeebled were not lost on Tiberias.
“So, if he dies without designating an heir…” he began.
“… Then the kingdom will likely plunge into civil war upon his death, which is looking more likely by the day,” Duke Decimius finished. “Prince Octavius has already visited me, asking me for support. He believes that Prince August will try to seize the throne once the Bull King dies, so Prince Octavius has been raising support in the Western and Southern Territories.”
“What did you tell him?” Tiberias asked.
“I eventually pledged my support to him. He’s going to be the next king, no doubt in my mind, so pledging support early on will yield great benefits to the family, in addition to the rights His Highness plans on returning to the nobility.” Duke Decimius allowed his passive expression to slip for a moment, revealing a hungry look that only Tiberias and his younger sisters had ever seen. Tiberias knew from that look alone that his father was planning on exploiting that favor he accrued with Prince Octavius to acquire more land and titles at the very least. After all, there are always huge shake-ups in the noble classes after civil wars, and once they won, any nobles who might support Prince August would undoubtedly be purged and vast tracts of confiscated land and their accompanying noble titles would be open for the taking.
“Then for now, I should be working on bringing the Twelfth Legion over to Prince Octavius’ side, to further our rewards?” Tiberias inquired with a devious smile.
“Yes, but I also want you to focus on keeping Aurius out of our lands. He’s been having his soldiers patrolling far too close to the border between our duchy and the royal demesne, and it’s been making it quite difficult to grow Silverleaf. Even if we don’t particularly need the income it brings in, I still enjoy having the extra silver in our treasury that growing it provides.”
“I’ll do what I can. I’ll only be a squire, though, so don’t expect instant results,” Tiberias said calmly. Growing Silverleaf was incredibly illegal, as it was the primary ingredient in Gray Dust, a drug that could increase the potency of wind magic, though at the cost of severe mental damage with repeated use. If their family was caught growing it, their punishment would be fines heavy enough to ruin them. They’d probably be forced to sell off land and other properties, assuming the Royal Family didn’t cut out the middleman and directly seize their land.
Knowing this, Tiberias didn’t resolve to prevent the growth of Silverleaf; rather, he resolved to keep the Twelfth Legion from ever finding out. That would be easier after being knighted and becoming an officer in said Legion, but as Aurius’ squire he’d still have some borrowed authority to use.
“One of these days,” Duke Decimius began, but he immediately cut himself off. He was in as private a place as he could be, with no one but his own son around, but he still let his guard down enough to almost utter words that would send him directly to the headsman’s block if they ever got out.
“One of these days… what?” Tiberias asked curiously.
“Never mind,” the Duke replied.
‘One of these days, I’ll be a king in my own right, just as my ancestors were! I won’t be enslaved to these calves, to these descendants of a dead beast!’ he finished in his mind.
“Anyway,” he said, changing the subject, “is there anything you want to tell me, anything that you couldn’t mention in front of Aurius that you need taking care of?”
“Why yes there is,” Tiberias said with a vicious smile. His father had given him a leading question, but Tiberias had already insinuated that there was something he needed taking care of when he last sent a letter to Duke Decimius.
“Well, I brought a couple of our Shadow Guards, I’m sure they can handle any tasks you give them,” the Duke said, mirroring Tiberias’ sadistic look.
“Well, this particular task ought to be fairly easy. There’s a third-tier mage, a Valeman by the name of Leon Ursus, that crawled his way south. He then joined the Knight Academy and has been doing nothing but offend everyone’s nobility with every fetid breath he’s taken. So, it’s time to stop him from breathing.”
“That’s not a good enough reason. Simply being an annoyance wouldn’t cause you to send out assassins after the boy.”
Tiberias leaned back in his chair, smiling. Then, as if right on cue, a cloud cast a shadow over his face as he began to emit killing intent.
“That vulgar savage dared to lay on hand on what’s mine! I would have him strung up by his entrails if I could!”
“HAHAHA! That’s my boy!” the Duke laughed uproariously. “Just remember…”
“Discretion. We have a reputation to maintain, and it must not be tarnished. Act with dignity, act with nobility, and, above all, don’t be caught when you don’t.”
“I remember, Father. I’ll make sure this cretin’s death won’t be traced back to us. My own personal gratification comes second to the advancement of the family.”
“So long as you understand that, then everything’s alright.”
With everything said that they wanted to say, the two rose from their seats and left the patio to go about the rest of their business. The Duke had meetings, meals, and parties to attend with many of the other nobles whose children had either been in the Knight Academy with Tiberias or were about to join the following training cycle. Tiberias, meanwhile, decided to spend some time in the Heaven’s Eye Tower, with the hope that he would be able to spend some time with Elise.
He would end up disappointed, though, because Elise was far too busy spending her day in bed with Leon to go to the Heaven’s Eye Tower.
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