There was little for Leon to do the next day in the Crater. The other diplomats socialized as best as they could with the Giants, which wasn’t that much since Aquillius was the only one among them who could understand the Stone Giants’ language, while Rakos and Lapis were the only Giants who could do likewise. As a result, much of that socializing came about with the diplomats hanging around the hall watching the Giants go about their business.
Leon was left feeling profoundly bored, as there was effectively no way for him to help with the mission. Aquillius would spend his days quietly talking with Rakos, while the rest of the party was just there.
The entire diplomatic party had assembled in Rakos’ throne room early the morning after Leon explored the Cradle. They were off to the side in a place that was honorable enough, but also kept them out of the way. The rest of the throne room was packed with five or six dozen Stone Giants, most of whom weren’t from Rakos’ tribe. Rather, they were representatives of the Crater Tribe’s subordinate tribes, who had come at Rakos’ request as a favor to Aquillius.
The Giants were discussing something that Leon was unable to follow, and he couldn’t help but start to zone out. Noticing his obvious boredom, Lucilius leaned over and whispered into Leon’s ear, “Try to pay attention.”
His voice in Leon’s ear nearly made the younger man jump out of his skin, but he turned and nodded to Lucilius to indicate that he’d try.
The older mage quietly chuckled, then said, “This is perhaps the most boring part of the job when you’re only brought along to flesh out a more important person’s posse. But this isn’t always a job where you face off with a master of the art of speech in epic battles of wit. You have to take the good with the bad, I’m afraid.”
Leon nodded his understanding. As he watched Rakos slowly introduce each newly arriving Stone Giant to Aquillius, he asked Lucilius, “If I may ask, where did Sir Aquillius learn the Giant language?”
“Ah, that. There are some people in the Eastern Territories that trade with the Giants—smugglers, mostly, who give the Giants gifts so they can move through the Border Mountains without trouble. A group of these smugglers was caught in a raid on a warehouse filled with contraband, and one of them was given the choice of ten years in prison or two years as Sir Aquillius’ translator. He chose the latter.”
“And he taught Sir Aquillius how to understand the Giants in those two years?” Leon asked.
“No, Sir Aquillius taught himself! That translator served his time and left us a little over a year ago, and Sir Aquillius hasn’t needed a replacement since!”
“That’s impressive,” Leon said honestly.
“Indeed. The rest of us barely have more than a rudimentary understanding of the Giants’ body language, let alone their speech,” Lucilius said.
Leon smiled a little as he watched Aquillius converse with Rakos as naturally as he did with any of the rest of the party. Aquillius was respectful before Rakos, but not submissive, striking a friendly tone but not afraid to let the occasional hint of steel enter his voice.
‘I suspect that’s what he meant when he wanted me to watch and learn. It’s not about the words he’s using, but about his attitude,’ Leon thought. Not a lot of nobles could perform delicate diplomatic work, as they’d usually be too arrogant, but Aquillius seemed to be an exception to that trend. He could be friends with another political leader and be respectful in their home without also tarnishing the dignity of the Bull Kingdom he represented.
Now that he was taking a closer look at Aquillius, Leon started paying more attention, trying to memorize the diplomat’s bearing and demeanor. He doubted he’d be able to do what Aquillius could do anytime soon, but he was ready to learn.
Introductions for the arriving Giants took the entire morning and most of the afternoon. The diplomatic party had been on their feet the entire time, but no one was more tired than Aquillius. Still, despite his fatigue, Aquillius was energized and almost shook with excitement. His three years of diplomacy and carefully building up trust with the Crater Tribe was finally paying off, now that Rakos had brought his subordinate tribes to meet with him.
After returning to the guest rooms, he checked and re-checked the terms of the non-aggression pact with the Crater Tribe—not that such a simple agreement needed such scrutiny, but he wanted to make sure everything was ready for proposal. His mind also raced with questions about what kind of trade the Giants could open up to the Bull Kingdom, and he couldn’t wait for the next day for the negotiations to begin.
Aquillius’ excitement, however, meant that there wasn’t much else for the rest of the party to do. After a couple hours of being holed up in the guest rooms, he eventually decided to allow everyone to explore the outside for a little while. There were now Giants in the crater that were still officially hostile, but he trusted Rakos to keep them under control, so he wasn’t worried about any trouble. Still, no one was allowed to leave Rakos’ hall until they agreed not to roam too far away.
Leon took full advantage of this, being the first of the party to leave the underground hall with Alix close behind. As he stepped out into the light of late afternoon, he turned to his squire and said, “If you don’t want to follow me, then please don’t consider yourself obligated to.”
“I’m fine with it,” Alix replied, giving him a radiant smile.
Leon surreptitiously glanced at the Cradle in the distance and briefly considered forcing Alix not to follow him so he could explore the ruins a little more, but he decided that that could easily backfire on him; he allowed Alix to accompany him outside.
“Soooo, what did you do last night when you were out here?” Alix asked. Leon clenched his jaw for a moment, afraid that she might have some idea of where he went. However, his rational mind knew that it was almost impossible and that she was probably only asking out of curiosity.
“I went for a walk. Mostly explored the maze in the center of the crater,” he answered.
“Is that it? You were out for hours just walking around the crater?” Alix inquired doubtfully.
“Yes… Why do you sound so incredulous?”
“It’s a little weird,” Alix responded.
“How so? We were underground for a while, and I needed the fresh air. Plus, we were—and are going to be—around all these other people for a hot minute, so I was savoring the solitude.”
“Hmmm,” Alix hummed, understanding Leon’s explanation to an extent, but still not quite believing him.
Leon could hear the doubt still in her voice, so he decided to let her in on at least one secret, as he had a feeling that the secret would refuse to stay hidden once they got far enough away from the Stone Giants. “There is one other thing…” he began, proceeding to tell her about the abandoned newborn griffin.
When he was finished with the story, concluding with the glimpse he got of the griffin when he exited the maze, Alix almost looked like she had stars in her eyes.
“That little griffin sounds adorable!” she cooed. Then, something suddenly occurred to her, and she asked, “Is that why you packed extra food before coming outside?”
Leon smiled and nodded. “He’s still out here, and on the off chance that we run into him while we’re out seeing the sights, I’d like to leave him a little food. I can’t imagine there’s much in the maze that’s edible, though I also doubt that there’s anything out there that could kill even a newborn griffin…”
“Then let’s hurry up!” Alix said with a determined expression as she hurried toward the mass of hexagonal pillars in the center of the crater.
Leon blinked a few times in confusion, then silently chuckled to himself. ‘Should’ve led with the griffin. Something to keep in mind for the future, I guess…’ he thought.
They didn’t have to go far into the maze before they caught sight of a small white bundle familiar to Leon—in fact, they found the albino griffin only a few steps away from the entrance to the maze where Leon had left it the night before. Alix’s eyes went wide and she rushed forward to examine the tiny creature. However, once she drew close, the griffin woke up, took one look at her, scrambled to its feet, and retreated a ways.
Alix frowned and came to a stop, completely discouraged.
“Can’t blame it for being cautious, can we?” Leon asked as he caught up to his squire.
“I guess not…” Alix muttered.
Leon glanced over at the griffin, which was staring straight back at him, his golden eyes meeting the griffins’ bright red. He didn’t take another step forward, choosing instead to sit down on a short nearby pillar.
“Might as well have a seat,” he said to Alix. “It doesn’t look like the griffin is going anywhere, so I think we can afford to wait for him to come to us.”
Alix frowned again, and begrudgingly took a seat next to Leon. But, she was still repeatedly glancing back at the griffin.
The two sat there in silence for several minutes, while the griffin continued to stare at them without moving. It seemed to Leon that it might have approached him if Alix weren’t there, but he couldn’t see a way for him to be sure without rudely demanding her to leave.
“So, what should we call this little thing?” he asked Alix, finally breaking the minutes-long silence.
“Anzu,” she replied immediately.
Leon was a little taken aback at the speed of her reply, so it took him a moment to respond. “… That was fast,” he murmured.
“I brought the Myths of Ninurta with me to read,” she explained.
“Ahh,” Leon said in understanding; he’d read that book before, so he needed no further explanation.
Xaphan, however, wasn’t so familiar with Aeternan literature, so he piped up, asking, [What is she referring to?]
[A myth from the Eastern Territories,] Leon replied. [Before the First Bull King united these lands and instituted Ancestor worship, the people living near the Border Mountains worshipped a sky god named Ninurta. He was the bringer of rain, lightning, and sunlight. One of his myths involves him getting into a dispute with a lightning griffin, who steals a scroll detailing Ninurta’s magical arts. The sky god fought with the griffin to retrieve his scroll, causing an enormous storm to break out over the entire mountain range. In the end, the griffin returned the scroll, and Ninurta recognized it as his brother and equal. The two were the best of friends from that moment onward.]
[… And I’m assuming that the griffin in that story was called ‘Anzu’?] Xaphan asked.
[He was indeed,] Leon affirmed.
[Hmm, an appropriate name for a beast of the Thunderbird Clan…] the demon mused, returning to his normal silence.
“Anzu’s a good name,” Leon said out loud.
“Especially given how you ascended to the fourth-tier,” Alix added with a smile, pointedly not mentioning his family’s famous lightning arts.
Leon slowly nodded. Alix was giving an expectant look; she was clearly angling for an explanation but didn’t want to outright ask for one, so instead, she brought it up to make her curiosity known. Leon, however, wasn’t going to indulge her.
After a few seconds of silence, he said, “Do me a favor, Alix, and don’t mention what happened to me during the storm to anyone…”
“Why not? I mean, I didn’t intend to, but why?”
“It’s a House Raime thing,” he said. “It’s best not to talk about too much…”
“I see…” Alix said quietly. She had known Leon’s identity since Emilie had let it slip during the dinner they’d had together, but she hadn’t been quite willing to bring it up again ever since their subsequent conversation, and Leon wasn’t willing to offer much information, leaving her burning curiosity unsatisfied.
As they were talking, the griffin took a hesitant step forward, drawing their attention toward it.
“We can talk about this later,” Leon said to Alix. “For now, let’s focus on what’s in front of us…” He quickly pulled out a few strips of dried meat and tossed them on the ground a few feet in front of him. The griffin’s eyes followed the food as soon as it appeared, and it took another couple of tentative steps toward them. There had been about thirty or forty feet between the griffin, Leon, and Alix, but it took almost five minutes for the beast’s hunger to overcome its caution and finally cross that distance.
“There’s a good Anzu,” Alix said softly as the griffin started to peck with its stubby pale-white beak at the meat on the ground.
As Alix happily watched Anzu eat, Leon’s eyes were drawn to the Cradle, visible over even the tallest pillars in the maze.
‘Now, I just have to figure out to get in there without Alix knowing…’ he thought to himself. He briefly considered telling her what he was doing, but in the end, decided against it. Given how the Giants seemed to venerate the Cradle, he thought it best not to involve anyone else in his explorations. Besides, he didn’t have a spare invisibility ring to give his squire.
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