Bonus chapter 2 of 3 thanks to my stupendous supporters on Patreon.
Finally getting the non-aggression pact he’d worked so hard for turned out to be almost frustratingly easy for Aquillius after Leon left the throne room. In fact, he and Rakos formalized the treaty in less than five minutes, leaving the diplomats to return to their guest rooms and figure out what the plan was to do next.
In the end, with the task of negotiating peace with the southern giants complete, they decided to return to the Bull’s Horns. Aquillius informed Rakos of this, and that he hoped he could return in several months with some proposals for trade agreements. The diplomat couldn’t get Rakos to commit to anything more than hearing them out, but he figured that was good enough for the time being, and so made preparations to leave.
Leon was woken the next morning by the sounds of the diplomatic party packing their things and getting ready to leave. He had been sleeping on his side, and when he started groggily pushing himself to his feet, he found that Anzu had curled up right next to him; the little griffin had pressed himself into the crook of Leon’s stomach and remained cuddled there with Leon for the entire night.
Anzu had actually woken several minutes before Leon, and his bright red eyes were warily watching all the other diplomats and soldiers scurrying about. Leon silently chuckled at Anzu’s nervous behavior, and he gently patted the griffin’s tiny head as he rose to his feet. Leon packed much faster than anyone else, as he didn’t have that much to begin with—what was out amounted to essentially just his bedroll, as he had been so tired that he’d slept in his armor.
Within several minutes, he was ready to go. He sat on his pack, waiting for everyone else to get ready, silently eating some of his rations and feeding a few pieces of jerky to Anzu. Eventually, Alix joined him, though she was quiet and unsociable, and Leon began trying to think of a way to explain himself to her.
“Let’s get moving!” Aquillius finally called out, and the soldiers and diplomats departed Rakos’ hall. Once they reached the passage that would take them out of the crater, however, they were stopped by a group of five stone giants, led by Lapis.
[PLEASE WAIT, BULL WARRIOR,] Lapis said.
“Is there something Rakos needed before we left…?” Aquillius asked with a hint of uncertainty in his voice.
[MY CHIEF INTENDS FOR ME TO JOURNEY WITH YOU TO THE BULL’S LANDS. IF WE ARE TO BE FRIENDS AND ALLIES, THEN WE NEED TO SPEAK RELIABLY.]
Aquillius subtly frowned, as even a single sixth-tier giant could wreak havoc in such a dense population center as Ariminium, the city that had been built around the Bull’s Horns. Yet, it wasn’t easy to say no, and since Aquillius was confident that Prince Trajan and the Legates at the Bull’s Horns could easily subdue a giant if the need arose, he didn’t say no.
Putting on his best diplomat’s face, Aquillius said in a jovial tone, “We would be honored to host you as the representative of your people, though there are a few places in our path that I fear may prevent you from joining us...”
[THAT IS NO PROBLEM, I WILL FIND A WAY AROUND WHEN THE TIME COMES,] Lapis said, and the other giants made way for the group to pass.
Seeing this, Leon took his hand off the handle of his sword, where it had instinctively gone when he noticed the giants blocking the passage. He didn’t want to think about what they might have done if Aquillius refused the giant, so he was glad that the diplomat didn’t.
Besides, given the connection between himself and the giants, he wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible before something happened that revealed his identity. He certainly wasn’t looking forward to returning, even though he was sure the giants would receive him with open arms; he genuinely hoped that Aquillius would decide to keep him away from stone giant affairs for a while.
It was a quiet march through the passage for Leon as he contemplated everything that had happened over the past day, from the discovery of the map to the conversation with Rakos. The other soldiers were far more open, talking and joking and laughing amongst each other, but the diplomats were as serious and stoic as Leon was. Leon knew that the reason for their silence was probably him, and how he had not only put their mission in danger but somehow accomplished said mission by being so selfish and reckless. And one of the biggest reasons he knew the diplomats were disturbed and didn’t know how to handle the situation was that no one had even commented on his ascension to the fifth-tier, yet.
Though, if he were being honest, he wasn’t that upset to not be speaking with them. Alix, on the other hand, was still treating him extremely coldly and spoke only when necessary. She did, however, spare a few smiles for Anzu, who was almost literally sticking to Leon’s heels.
Of course, this silence between Leon and the diplomats couldn’t continue, and after a few words with Aquillius, Eleanor fell back from the front of the group to walk with Leon at the back.
“So…” Eleanor said awkwardly once she reached Leon’s side. “Does this little guy have a name?”
“Anzu,” Leon curtly replied.
Sensing that he was being talked about, Anzu looked up and glared at Eleanor before moving to walk between Leon and Alix.
“Please don’t mind him, Dame Eleanor, he’s shy,” Alix said, not bothering to make it clear if she was talking about Leon or the griffin.
“I understand,” Eleanor said with an understanding smile. “He’s young, he’ll learn.”
“So, what now?” Leon asked, keeping his face in its usual stoic expression.
“Well, once we return to the Southern Horn, you’re going to have to take little Anzu to the Beastmaster and get him checked out. It’s not uncommon for knights to return from missions with tamed beasts, and there are some tests that need to be run to ensure the beast isn’t carrying parasites or diseases.”
Leon nodded in acknowledgment as Eleanor told him where to find the Beastmaster.
“After you get that sorted out, you’re to meet us at Headquarters, and we’re going to make our way to the citadel as a group. Prince Trajan will want a briefing on what happened at the Crater and what we walked away with.”
“Understood,” Leon said.
After working out the specifics of where to meet after visiting the Beastmaster, Eleanor leaned in toward Leon’s ear and whispered, “Look, between you and me, Aquillius is furious. He’s elated that the non-aggression pact was formalized, but he could very well kick you out of the Diplomatic Corps for being so reckless—that the giants seemed to appreciate you sneaking into the Cradle and doing whatever you did that destroyed it was pure luck. Even if you aren’t kicked out, you’ll be on thin ice from now on.”
“Thanks for the head’s up,” Leon said, giving her a nod of appreciation.
“No problem. If it were up to me, I’d probably confine you to your quarters for a few weeks, but it isn’t up to me, so don’t get too comfortable in your rooms.”
“We appreciate the sentiment,” Alix replied.
“Oh, and congratulations on ascending to the fifth-tier. That will make you high enough rank that, at the very least, you’re not going to be kicked out of the Legion or sent somewhere like that fort you came from, so no need to worry about that.”
“That’s good to hear,” Leon said. He didn’t follow up with anything, and the three wound up enduring a long awkward silence, during which Leon wondered why Eleanor was talking to him after what happened.
‘Probably just the fifth-tier thing…’ he thought cynically. His ascension gave him not only greater power but also greater status, and Eleanor was probably simply being polite due to that status. Or it was just the diplomat in her, Leon honestly couldn’t tell, and he became more and more unsure the more he thought about it.
“Sooo,” Eleanor said, desperately trying to break the silence, “lightning, huh? A rare element to use, not many books or teachers in the Kingdom who can explain it.”
“So I’ve been told,” Leon tersely responded, causing Alix to frown at him for being rude, but since she knew his identity, she also couldn’t fault him for not wanting to talk about it.
“Sometimes the more difficult elements to learn are the most rewarding,” Alix said, trying to help Leon deflect a little. “What element do you use, if I may ask, Dame Eleanor?”
“Oh, I use fire! Though I’m not that great in a fight…”
“Fire’s a useful element, even if you leave the Royal Legions you’d be set for life as a civilian mage,” Leon stated.
“A nice sentiment, but I doubt I’ll be leaving the Diplomatic Corps or the Legion any time soon. Speaking of diplomacy, what did the giants want with you? I thought they were going to try and kill you after the Cradle collapsed, but instead, they seem to revere your magic…” Eleanor said, staring in thought at Leon.
“I’m afraid you’d have to ask the giants…” Leon said as he nodded to the figure of Lapis far in front of them, “… because I have no answers for you in that regard.”
“Really?” Eleanor asked incredulously. “Then why did you enter the Cradle?”
“… Curiosity,” Leon said after a moment of hesitation.
“You trespassed on the giants’ sacred ground out of curiosity?” Eleanor practically shrieked. “You’d have to be beyond stupid to do something like that for such a reason! And I don’t think you’re that stupid, so why don’t you tell me the real truth?”
“I’ve told you the truth,” Leon replied.
Eleanor glared at him with eyes that could kill an entire field of grass, but Leon remained unmoved and refused to elaborate on his reasons.
“Fine, I will let you keep that secret, but in return, tell me how you became invisible! We all saw you appear out of thin air when Rakos attacked you, so don’t go trying to wriggle your way out of that!”
Leon sighed and began absentmindedly twisting the ring on his finger. The ring was an important tool for him, one that he would rather people don’t know about. That being said, Eleanor already knew that he had the capacity to turn invisible, and Leon suspected that if he didn’t tell her about the ring then she’d go back to pressing him for details about the Cradle.
With a great deal of reluctance, Leon slowly raised his right hand and displayed the emerald ring. “Some men came to kill me once, and one of them wore this. I killed the assassins and took the ring.”
“Someone tried to have you killed?!” Eleanor gasped. “Who?! When?! Why?!”
“Don’t know, about two or three months ago, and don’t know,” Leon answered. “However, as people have been so keen to point out to me ever since I was given my squireship and sent to the most distant frontier of the Kingdom, I have apparently made enemies in the year-and-change since I moved here.”
“Fortunately, no one’s come again since then,” Alix muttered before she could stop herself. “I-I mean, I would be in the way, and most likely would’ve been killed if someone had!”
Leon smiled and nodded, and didn’t push his squire over what she said. It cheered him up immensely, however, to know that she still would be saddened if he were to be killed and that it still seemed that she considered him a friend. He vowed to get her some decent equipment when they got back to the Horns as an apology, something better than what she would be issued if they were in a regular infantry unit. It wouldn’t be an immediate fix to her anger, he knew, but he hoped it would be a start. Besides, he knew that she would need decent weapons and armor eventually, regardless of how she felt about him at the time.
Hours later, after they had left the passage and were winding their way through the massive clusters of hexagonal pillars that made up the Border Mountains, they spied the highest reaches of the Northern Horn peaking over the tops of the mountains in the distance. Aquillius sped up and hurried on ahead of the rest of the group, as he had to inform the Legates and Tribunes in charge of security that Lapis wasn’t an enemy. This was a fairly lengthy process, though, so the group was forced to halt near the foot of the closest mountain, a fair distance away from the small village near the Northern Horn.
While waiting for Aquillius to return, Leon decided to train a little. One of the more useful powers a mage could learn was storing items in their soul realms, and the fifth-tier was generally accepted as the lowest tier that such a power could be learned—though outliers were known to exist. Leon wasn’t one of these outliers, and he was keen to acquire this ability, but he wasn’t about to practice with anything he valued; fortunately, there were plenty of pebbles around, so he gathered a small handful and sat down to meditate.
Leon already knew the general theory behind storing something within his soul realm, but knowing the theory and putting it into practice were two often wildly different things. So, with the resigned sigh of a young man with far too many things that he needed to practice, Leon began trying to muddle his way through the theory. He was tempted to ask Xaphan for some advice, but he wanted to try it first before being forced to suffer through the demon’s mocking words.
Thank you to my Sixth-tier patrons:
Efflorescence - Chris Rose - Sir_readsalot - Michael Garfein - Zachary Spencer - I Dewa Bagus - Eric Parker - Kyle J Smith - Story Seeker - Bruce Fritz - B liz - Jacob Hill - Scott Paris - James Nagy - Eric Austin
Please visit Royal Road and leave a rating or review!
Patreon (Up to 15 chapters ahead)