Anna, Leon, and Alix stood before the group that Aquillius was either going to take into the Border Mountains with him or had some role in planning the diplomatic mission. They were four men and two women.
“This is Dame Juliana,” Anna introduced, indicating the woman who had chastised her, “and Dame Eleanor,” nodding respectfully to the woman who had asked for introductions. The latter was relaxing in her armchair with her long blonde hair cascading over her shoulders, leaning over to one side to better see the new arrivals in stark contrast to the former, who had her black hair tied back and was sitting straight as a board with absolutely perfect posture.
“A pleasure to meet you,” Leon said, using all the etiquette Artorias had taught him. Which, granted, wasn’t that much to begin with, but he made a reasonably good impression on Juliana, whose chilling dark blue eyes sparkled in curiosity.
Eleanor, however, wasn’t so subtle, saying, “Now that’s certainly a proper response, Sir…?”
“Oh! This is Sir Leon, and his squire, Alix!” Anna said.
“Ah, Sir Leon,” Eleanor continued, “Your manners are quite something, not what I’d expect from a Valeman.”
“Manners shouldn’t be praised,” Juliana said with a glare, “they should be expected of all knights, no matter their origin.” Her eyes flickered over to glare at Anna as she said this, but the latter either didn’t notice or didn’t care, as she continued to smile and almost vibrate with energy.
“Let’s not get too carried away, there are still introductions to be made,” said one of the men, an impeccably well-dressed fifth-tier mage with brown hair and eyes, sharply chiseled features, and an easy-going smile on his face.
Leon and Alix looked to Anna, as did everyone else in the room.
“Sir Leon, miss Alix, please meet Sirs Antonius, Helvius, Viridius, and Lucilius!” Each one of the men sitting around the meeting table nodded in turn, with the man who spoke up being the last.
Both Leon and Alix’s minds were spinning a little as they tried to memorize everyone’s names, something which Lucilius seemed to pick up on, as he said, “There’s no need to remember everyone’s names right this moment, we’ve at least three weeks for that.”
“Anyone in our field should at least be able to remember a few names and faces,” Juliana said disdainfully.
“A few, sure,” replied Eleanor, “but I’m also sure that they’ve had to meet a great many people in the past few days, and I think it’s understandable if they might need a reintroduction or two before they’ve got everyone’s names down.”
“Moving on,” Lucilius said, interrupting before the two ladies’ disagreement turned into an argument, “Sir Leon, why don’t you join us and tell us a little about yourself?”
Lucilius gestured toward an open seat, which Leon hesitantly lowered himself into, while Anna sat down opposite from him. Alix, however, stood by the wall, as none of the knights offered her a seat and she didn’t think it would be wise to sit at the table without an invitation.
After taking his seat and sitting for several silent moments, Leon looked up to meet the expectant gazes of the other knights. “So, what would you like to know about me?” he asked after being unable to decide where to start.
“Tell us about the Valeman attack!” Anna cheerily demanded, causing Juliana to glare at her.
However, before the latter could say anything, Lucilius added, “Yes, we’ve heard a few scattered reports of what happened at the northern border, but nothing concrete. I think we’re all quite curious to hear about the incident from the mouth of someone who was actually there.”
Leon thought for a moment, then began by explaining his assignment to Fort 127. This raised a few eyebrows, but no one interrupted. He then continued by describing the fort and giving his disappointed first impression, Jean assigning him to Sam, and the supply mission that ran into the invading Valemen. He recounted his and Alix’s retreat south, the attack Jean led on the Valemen camps, and then finally the battle itself, ending with the Consul of the North’s timely arrival.
“Well, that’s a hell of a story,” said Antonius. “I’ve been to the Northern Territories and seen some of the fortifications that have been built to guard the passes… To have nothing more than a fort of five hundred to watch for Valemen is negligence at its highest.”
“Oh? You were sent somewhere before you came here?” Helvius asked.
“Yes, for my first command as a Centurion, I was at Clear Ice Fortress on the Great Plateau. After I achieved the fifth-tier and became a Tribune, I was reassigned down here.”
“Sir Antonius isn’t a diplomat, he’s the commander of our guard detail,” Eleanor quietly explained to Leon.
“Anyway, I’m impressed you managed to survive such long odds,” Antonius continued, turning back to Leon.
“It was only because the Consul of the North arrived when he did that I’m alive now,” Leon replied. “Hakon Fire-Beard had my throat in his hands and was closer to ending my life than I think anyone else has come before. I survived by luck, not skill.”
“Still, from the sound of it, you acquitted yourself well,” Lucilius praised.
“At the end of the day, that’s all we can do, to do the best we can with what we’re given,” Viridius added.
“Oh?” Eleanor asked, raising her eyebrow at Viridius. “So when I had to literally drag your lazy ass out of your room this morning so you wouldn’t be late for this meeting, that was you ‘doing the best you could with what you were given’?”
“Hey!” Viridius almost shouted back. If Leon wasn’t able to see their friendly expressions, he’d think that Viridius was about to fight Eleanor. Instead, he said, “I can’t be held accountable for what just-woken-up Viridius does! That guy’s an asshole!”
As most of the other knights around the table chuckled, Juliana straightened the perfectly arranged papers in front of her and coolly said, “If it’s not too much trouble, could I request that we return to the task at hand?”
“Why the rush? We should be welcoming to our new member!” Eleanor replied.
“There is a time and place for such things, and the middle of a meeting isn’t it!” Juliana insisted.
“Levity is good for a person. You should try it, maybe then you wouldn’t be so uptight all the time,” Eleanor muttered.
Juliana glared at Eleanor, then turned her eyes toward Lucilius, who sighed and said, “I suppose we should get this done. It won’t take long, and it would be best to just knock it out. Eighteen days from today, Sir Aquillius will be taking myself, Eleanor, and Juliana with him as he goes north.”
“And Sir Leon,” Anna reminded.
“Right. Antonius, you’ll be accompanying us, as usual, with a company of soldiers. Everyone else, we’ll need you to be organizing our supplies and gifts to the giant chieftains and hammering out the last few details of our proposed treaty.”
“What should we get these chieftains?” Viridius asked.
“No raw goods, they have little need for anything that isn’t granite or basalt, from what little I understand,” Helvius said.
“Then, food?” Viridius suggested.
“I’m not sure what they eat, so maybe we should just get something made of gold or silver, hard to go wrong with that,” Helvius said with a troubled look.
“What do the giants typically go raiding for?” Leon asked.
“Depends on the tribe. The stone giants further north tend to steal food and livestock, though they take so much it’s hard to tell if they look for anything in particular. Those closer to the Horns typically take slaves and treasure,” Anna answered.
“Then some gifts of gold and silver should be enough,” Lucilius decided. “This will get easier after we get our non-aggression pact sealed, and we start talking about trade…”
The discussion about specific logistics continued. Leon paid as much attention as he could, but the diplomats eventually transitioned to an in-depth discussion about what future treaties they would attempt to negotiate with the giants, and his eyes started to cross. Fortunately, the discussion was over after about forty-five minutes, and the meeting was adjourned.
“Sir Leon!” Lucilius called out as everyone was leaving the room.
“Sir,” Leon answered, stopping near the door to wait for the older knight.
“Let’s walk for a little while,” Lucilius suggested.
“Sure,” Leon replied. He and Alix then followed Lucilius out the door and back toward the magical lift. As they walked, Leon saw Eleanor and Juliana walking together, with the latter trying to persuade the former to tame her loose hair.
“You really should tie your hair back, it makes you look sloppy and disheveled when you don’t!” Juliana said.
“Are you saying I look sloppy and disheveled?” Eleanor asked combatively.
“No,” Juliana replied, “but I am saying your hair would look good tied up.”
“I’m not tying it into a bun!” Eleanor replied with a playful laugh.
Seeing that Leon noticed the ladies’ friendly disagreement, Lucilius chuckled and said, “I hope you didn’t take any of our disagreements back in the meeting room too seriously; we’re all friends, so we know how far we can push each other without going too far.”
“I wasn’t too concerned about it, you seemed like you were keeping everyone in control,” Leon stated.
“Good,” Lucilius responded. “You know, despite your lack of diplomatic training, it’s comforting to know that you not only graduated from the Knight Academy but are also a combat veteran. We don’t get many people transferring in who are either…”
“Well, my combat experience isn’t as extensive as some, and I didn’t exactly graduate from the Knight Academy,” Leon said.
“What do you mean you didn’t graduate? You went through the Academy, and now you’re a knight!” Lucilius responded.
“I was supposed to have a two-year-long squireship after my time in the Academy. The Consul of the North sped that up by knighting me barely a month into said squireship, and essentially forced the both of us to give the Academy the finger in the process,” Leon explained.
“Hmm. Good to know, I’m not as well-versed on many aspects of the Legion as I’d like to be. In fact, I don’t think many people here have ever been in a fight, and even less have been through any of the myriad knight academies around the Kingdom, let alone the Knight Academy. Having you here will bring in some valuable new experiences to our corps.”
“Huh,” Leon said with some slight confusion. He, Alix, and Lucilius had passed through the lounge by this point and arrived at the magical lift, and Lucilius immediately took them down toward the entrance hall.
“I would have thought that the Diplomatic Corps would be a post that many nobles would strive for,” Leon continued on the way down. “Being assigned here seems prestigious enough, and there are more than a few high-ranking knights around…”
“It’s certainly prestigious, but not in the same way that leading soldiers into battle is prestigious,” Lucilius explained. “Negotiating the finer points of a trade agreement doesn’t have the same visceral satisfaction as swinging a sword into a monster’s face or stabbing a power-mad mage in the chest. It also requires a lot of sitting in tight, stuffy rooms with many boring people.”
Leon frowned. The magical lift arrived on the ground floor, and Lucilius started to lead him and Alix back to the residential building.
“Would you two like to get lunch with me? The chefs in the residential building really know their business.”
“Sure!” Leon and Alix answered in unison.
“I didn’t even know there was a cafeteria in the place!” Alix said with glee.
“It’s not quite a cafeteria, despite the name; think more in line with a private restaurant,” Lucilius said.
As they walked, Leon picked up from where their talk ended, saying, “I think this corps is probably more influential than being a Centurion or Tribune, as a trade agreement or non-aggression pact will change the Kingdom in ways that a low or mid-ranked commander never could.”
“I’m glad you see it that way,” Lucilius said with a smile. “However, I’ve been working as a diplomat for over forty years now and have brokered no shortage of agreements between our Kingdom and various other parties. In doing so, I have won no medals or ribbons, and no triumphs have been held in my honor. A diplomat’s job is honorable and influential, but it doesn’t afford the glory and prestige that most young people yearn for, I’m afraid.”
Leon went quiet for a little while. Their conversation was certainly giving him plenty to think about.
[Xaphan,] he said.
[What is it?] the demon asked.
[Is your pride marred by my working in the Diplomatic Corps?]
[Not at all, young mage. I’d say that those who perform the diplomatic jobs aren’t appreciated nearly enough by most of those they serve. I know that I certainly relied heavily upon my own subordinates who could speak well when I was back in the Void, and I doubt I gave them enough recognition for their work.]
[He’s right, though,] Leon stated. [There’s a small part of me that’s regretting not simply getting in contact with Roland and asking to join his retinue, or at least asking for a more dangerous and glorious post from the Consul of the North.]
[Isn’t that Roland guy someone who might be trying to kill you?] Xaphan asked incredulously.
[Maybe…] Leon muttered. [My gut says no, but he’s certainly connected to someone who took part in my father’s murder so it’s best not to take the chance.]
[Then you didn’t make a mistake; you’re right where you should be. Never consider joining anyone that puts either of us at risk!]
Leon sighed. He knew Xaphan was right, but those ‘what ifs’ weren’t too far from his mind. Still, he pushed them as far away as he could and returned his attention to Lucilius and Alix.
“Well, I think that’s enough on that topic,” Lucilius said as they entered the residential building. “Let’s move on to something more interesting. More specifically, I’d like to know more about you, miss Alix.”
“Me?” Alix asked a little nervously. “I’m no one, Sir, just a village girl from the Northern Territories…”
“You’re a Legion veteran, a soldier who survived a battle that was stacked heavily against you!” Lucilius said. “Besides, you weren’t given that great of an introduction, and I must admit that I’m a little curious about you.”
Lucilius eventually managed to get Alix to talk a little more about herself, much to the latter’s embarrassment. The three had a pleasant lunch together, and when it was over, Lucilius departed back to the diplomatic building, while instructing Leon and Alix to report back to the meeting room at the same time the following morning, just in case there was any work they needed to do. He assured them that there probably wasn’t going to be any, but to check in regardless.
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