At the same time Marcus and his group were chasing after Leon after their trap failed to catch him, Gaius was nervously pacing in his room. He had been summoned by his brother Nicomedes again, and given how poorly their last meeting had gone, he was understandably anxious.
About half an hour after the Deathbringers’ Senior Instructor dismissed them for the evening, a runner arrived at the tower from Administration to escort Gaius to his brother. If the runner hadn’t been sent, then it was quite likely for Gaius to be attacked by another unit while he was on the road, and that wouldn’t do for someone who had been ordered to appear before a Tribune.
Gaius arrived at his brother’s office in no time. While he was waiting, Nicomedes had been attending to some paperwork, but he set that aside as soon as Gaius arrived.
“Little brother! Come in, take a seat!” Nicomedes’ office wasn’t that large, but it had several comfortable chairs that Nicomedes and Gaius took advantage of.
Gaius sat perfectly straight and didn’t let a single emotion show on his face. Nicomedes, on the other hand, allowed himself to relax and lean back into his chair. The two brothers sat in silence for several moments, stoically staring at each other.
And then, Nicomedes broke that silence with a light-hearted laugh and said, “You can relax, Gaius. No need to be so formal right now.”
Gaius breathed a sigh of relief and leaned back into his chair. He didn’t let his guard down, but it at least seemed that he hadn’t done anything to make his brother angry.
“I understand your apprehension, but I haven’t called you here to castigate you for anything. In fact, there is something I should’ve said a while ago but work got in the way.” Nicomedes’ easy-going smile vanished, leaving a deadly serious look. Gaius tensed up again, expecting Nicomedes to start shouting, despite what he had just said.
“I must apologize to you for my actions the last time we spoke. I was angry, and I let my anger speak. I scolded you for losing your noble bearing, but I lost mine as well.” As Nicomedes continued, Gaius’ eyes nearly popped out of his skull in surprise. In his seventeen years of life, he had never once heard Nicomedes apologize for anything!
“I scolded you for tarnishing our family’s name, but I hardly acted familial,” Nicomedes continued, leaving Gaius far too surprised to stop him. “I even scolded you for… events, for which that barbarian deserves the blame. For all this, I’m sorry.”
Gaius sat in stunned silence for a moment after Nicomedes finished, and when he realized that his older brother was waiting for his response, he hurriedly said, “That’s fine! I wasn’t exactly as I should’ve…”
“Your self-awareness does you credit. You sound a little more grown-up than the boy that left Lentia half a year ago. A little more like a man,” Nicomedes said with a smile. He then leaned forward and clapped Gaius on the shoulder.
“So, what brought this on?” asked Gaius.
“What? Can’t I simply admit when I was wrong and take responsibility for it?” Nicomedes countered with, a frown appearing on his face.
“You can, but I’ve never seen you so unambiguously apologize before. Usually, you would apologize through actions, not words.”
Nicomedes’ frown disappeared, replaced with an appreciative smile. “You certainly know me well, don’t you? You’re not wrong, I probably wouldn’t have said those things if I hadn’t received two letters a couple weeks ago. One was from His Highness Octavius, and the other was from a friend of mine who works in the Royal Palace who informed me of some actions His Highness August has taken.”
Nicomedes paused to retrieve the letters from a locked cabinet behind his desk.
“Here, read these and tell me what you make of them,” he said, handing the letters to Gaius.
Gaius quickly scanned through both letters. His face lit up in joy and he read through the letter from Prince Octavius again to make sure he hadn’t misread.
“Well?” asked Nicomedes.
“His Highness Octavius wants me as his personal squire!” Gaius responded, almost jumping out of his chair in joy. Nicomedes held out his hand to ask for the letters back, and Gaius passed them back to him with his own hands trembling in excitement.
“Does he?” Nicomedes wondered aloud.
“That’s what the letter said, His Highness was asking for me by name!”
“Gaius, settle down for a moment and think about it. There’s a vast difference between a noble family offering one of their own to squire for a Prince, and a Prince specifically asking for one.” Nicomedes’ words cooled Gaius’ head quite a bit, and he leaned back in his chair to think.
“Note that he didn’t ask for my recommendations, or for any specific information about you,” Nicomedes added.
“Then… does he want me as…” Gaius began, but his sentence trailed off as his suspicion sank in.
“He might want you as a hostage,” Nicomedes said, finishing Gaius’ thought. “Father did profess his support for His Highness when His Highness attended Gratian’s wedding, and this might be part of the Prince’s plan to ensure our support for whatever plans he might have.”
“What should I do?” Gaius asked, his voice cracking in panic.
“You’re going to be his squire. We can’t really stop it, so we need resign ourselves to it.”
Gaius stared at the wall with hollow eyes, now dreading the time when his squireship would begin. The rules of the Knight Academy stipulated that in order to graduate, a trainee had to complete a year-long training cycle in the Academy itself, complete a squireship under an anointed knight, and ascend to the third-tier of magic. Since there were trainees already at the third-tier, as well as second-tier mages who would quickly ascend during or not long after the training cycle, the Academy also required that the squireship had to last at least two years.
That meant that Gaius would be directly under the thumb of Prince Octavius for at least two years, and then likely be transferred into his service as one of his retainers. Of course, that was an appointment that Gaius would’ve normally ecstatically celebrated, but if Nicomedes was correct and Prince Octavius only wanted him as a hostage, his knightly career would be closer to a grueling nightmare than a dream come true. He wouldn’t learn much and would more likely than not be assigned menial tasks rather than treated with honor and dignity.
In the worst case, Gaius could expect to be more a prisoner than a squire.
“Don’t worry about it so much, little brother,” Nicomedes said as he saw the dread on Gaius’ face. “Our family is powerful enough that you won’t be treated as poorly as you might think. And besides, it’s not like my speculation is confirmed. For all I know, His Highness truly does just want you as a squire. I barely spoke to him during Gratian’s wedding, so I don’t have a strong enough impression of him to guess for certain what he wants. I can only tell you what I think, to better prepare you for what may come.”
Gaius looked a little better, but that still wasn’t great. “Thanks, Nico. That helps. So… what was the other bit of news?”
“Ah, right! Last month, Prince August censured Marquis Grandison for attacking the Brown Bear Tribe in the Northern Vales. He even levied an immense fine on the Marquis for supposedly ‘attacking an ally of the Bull Kingdom’. The Marquis would’ve been ruined by the fine if Prince Octavius hadn’t stepped in, relaying a pardon to the Marquis via the Earthshaker Paladin.
“The Prince-Regents who rule the Bull Kingdom while His Majesty secludes himself are starting to lock horns, little brother, and if you’re going to be Prince Octavius’ personal squire, then you’re going to be right at his side should anything happen.”
Gaius’ face paled slightly at Nicomedes’ words. The Second and Fourth Princes had never gotten along, as their many public disputes could attest. His situation would be dire indeed if they were to escalate their conflicts now that they had real power over the Kingdom.
“Do you think there will be war between them?” Gaius asked with a quivering voice.
“… Maybe, so you must be vigilant and watch over yourself, little brother.”
Gaius sat in his chair trying to regain his noble stoicism, but his face had been drained of blood and he wrung his hands together, showcasing his anxiety. Nicomedes gave him a few moments to process everything they had discussed before changing the subject to help Gaius regain his composure.
“So, tell me about the Snow Lions who have been giving you so much trouble, especially this barbarian.”
Gaius froze at Nicomedes’ mention of the Snow Lions. His unit had lost their banner to them, which was hardly something a noble should be proud of.
“Don’t worry, I’m a little disappointed your unit lost its banner, but I’m not angry with you,” Nicomedes said with a laugh. “From what I’ve gathered, you’ve cleaned up your act and have behaved in a manner more befitting a noble of your status. Everything beyond that is on your entire unit, not you personally.”
“I lead them, their failures are my failures,” Gaius answered, causing his older brother to smile.
“Well, there’s something I didn’t think you’d say. That’s actually quite encouraging, little brother. It means you’re taking responsibility, something every good noble ought to do. I think Father would be proud of you despite the defeat you suffered.”
After that, Gaius loosened up a little as he filled his brother in on everything that had transpired between him and Leon from his perspective.
“I see,” whispered Nicomedes once Gaius was finished. “You weren’t wrong that the barbarian shouldn’t have undergone the combat test with the rest of the nobles, but there aren’t any rules saying he couldn’t. Still, you were more than a little arrogant in trying to remove him yourself, you should have waited for the Legate and the rest of his retinue to decide what to do with him.”
“But House Aeneas supports the Crown, and the Bull King has made it clear that he wants the lesser stock of common men leading his Legions. The Legate wouldn’t have—and didn’t—do a thing about the barbarian’s presence,” Gaius said, his face regaining some of its color with his rising anger and indignation.
“Hmmm,” Nicomedes murmured. “Ah, well. No use dwelling on something long done, we should be concentrating on what you’re going to do from now on.”
“You’re a Tribune, you’re not supposed to show favoritism, even to me…” Gaius responded hesitantly.
“But I can give you some encouragement. Listen, I don’t care that your unit has lost its banner. As I said, that’s something your entire unit has to take the blame for. However, our family has its pride to maintain, so I want to make sure that you don’t end this training cycle without at least one banner, regardless of whether it’s yours or not.”
“What did you have in mind?”
“Even I don’t know where the Snow Lions are, so you’re going to have to concentrate on another unit. The Crimson Tigresses and Steel Century have both proven themselves formidable rivals, and three of the other six units no longer have their own banners. It’s the remaining three that you’ll have to focus on.”
“The Black Vipers are a no-go. Tiberias keeps a low profile, but I know him. He’s undoubtedly fortified his tower so well that attacking his unit would be suicide.”
Nicomedes nodded in acknowledgement of Gaius’ insight.
“Then that leaves the Silver Legionaries and the Obsidian Cataphracts. They have both managed to keep their banners despite attacks from all the other units. Your Deathbringers are going to have to succeed where the other units have failed and seize one of their banners or take a much riskier chance and challenge the Crimson Tigresses or the Steel Century. Why don’t you fill me in on your training?”
Gaius informed his brother on the extra training he had instated for his unit. His main focus was on archery, the importance of which he had realized quite painfully during the Snow Lions’ assault on his tower.
After listening for a while, Nicomedes gave him a few more tips on what to teach his unit. His older brother couldn’t give him any specific tactics or strategies, given his position, but he could chat about what he would focus on if he were in Gaius’ place.
When they were done discussing training, Gaius rose to leave. The two had talked well past the time when Gaius should’ve gone back to the tower, and he was eager to return to his unit. The Deathbringers only had three third-tier mages including him, after all, and leaving them short-handed for long periods of time wasn’t something he was comfortable with.
“Once again, little brother, I’m sorry for my outburst last time. Family should support each other, and I wasn’t that supportive.”
“Don’t worry about it, Nico. I deserved it, but I won’t disappoint you anymore.”
With that, the brothers hugged and Gaius returned to the Deathbringers, intent on implementing Nicomedes’ suggestions as soon as he could.
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