“You’re late,” Prince Trajan growled in deep and gravelly tones. When Aquillius was about to try and apologize, Trajan simply scowled and waved at the chairs next to the other Legates sitting before the dais.
Understanding the gesture as the order it was, the group of diplomats took their seats, with Anna retrieving several small rolls of paper from a satchel and delivering them to the Prince.
“These are the terms for the non-aggression pact,” Aquillius explained. “Nothing we haven’t already agreed on, merely that the giants agree not to raid our lands in exchange for our returning in several months to negotiate a trade agreement and the repatriation of our citizens they took as slaves.”
Prince Trajan didn’t even look at the paper given to him, choosing instead to silently look at each of the diplomats in turn, and the other Legates in the room dutifully waited for him to speak. When the Prince’s eyes finally turned to Leon, they lingered for what seemed to the younger man like an eternity—or at least, far longer than Leon was comfortable with. When Leon met the Prince’s gaze, he felt something strange in Trajan’s aura that sent a shiver down his spine. Still, even though he couldn’t identify what was making him nervous, Leon didn’t look away and showed as little of his rising anxiety as he could.
“… Your Highness?” Aquillius hesitantly asked, trying to gain the Prince’s attention and swing it back to the matter at hand.
Finally, Trajan spoke up, and he turned his gaze away from Leon, giving the latter some small relief from the pressure he was under. “You were late to the meeting today, but I can forgive that in light of your returning to the Horns several days early.”
“Thank you, Your Highness,” Aquillius said obsequiously, bowing his head slightly.
“Explain to me what happened. You’ve intimated to me before that the giants aren’t that easy to deal with, but you suddenly come back with an agreement for me to ratify—I can’t help but be curious as to what changed…”
Aquillius took a deep breath and, with a subtle glare sent Leon’s way that didn’t escape the notice of the Prince, began to explain the events that led to them coming back early. He started with meeting Lapis at the entrance to the passage through the mountains, the initial meeting with Rakos, and the arrival of the subordinate chiefs the next day. He then launched into how, when the soldiers and diplomats were dismissed after the arrival ceremony, Leon snuck off into the giants’ sacred ground, the storm that followed and everyone’s reaction, and the destruction of the Cradle. By the time he finished with the duel between Leon and Lapis and how the chiefs reacted by inviting Leon to speak privately with them, the eyes of all the Tribunes, Legates, diplomats, and the Prince were fixed squarely on Leon.
The young mage had to fight to retain his composure under the scrutiny of so many older and more powerful mages. Still, he sat as straight as he could, ready for whatever punishment that was likely to be coming his way. As he waited, he heard a few of the older Legates whispering about him.
“… old is he?”
“… and a fifth-tier…”
Prince Trajan glared at the murmuring Legates, and they immediately paled and shut their mouths. He then turned his gaze back to Leon.
“Do you want to deny anything Sir Aquillius has said about you?” he growled.
Leon needed to take a long breath before he was able to answer, so great was the pressure he was under from all the other mages in the room. “… No, Your Highness,” he eventually managed to choke out.
Again, silence fell upon the room as the Prince stared holes into Leon. In fact, it was so quiet that many of the lower-tiered mages started forcing themselves to breathe quieter, so as not to disturb the Prince.
Finally, Trajan ordered, “I would speak with Sir Leon alone.”
“… Your Highness?” Aquillius said in confusion. However, the Prince simply glared silently at the diplomat.
Aquillius and a few of the other more senior Legates gave the Prince some funny looks, but none of the other knights in the room ever thought to ask the Prince why, and they certainly didn’t hesitate to make their way to the doors. Aquillius, too, couldn’t justify staying when the Prince was so obviously unwilling to tell him why he was being dismissed. The only person who looked like she might need to be told a second time was Alix, but Anna saw her not move, so she grabbed the younger woman’s arm and half-dragged her out of the meeting room. Once they had gone, only Leon and Trajan remained; even the scribes had left.
Once more, the chamber slipped into silence as Leon rose from his chair, stood before the dais, and waited for the Prince to speak. Trajan inspected Leon up and down, his eyes capturing every detail of the young man’s face and attire. He lingered for a few moments on the sword at Leon’s waist and then turned his eyes upward to meet Leon’s.
“Tell me, boy,” Trajan began, drawing out each syllable to sound as intimidating as possible, “what is your name?”
Leon began to sweat, and he fought the urge to grip the handle of his sword. He could tell that Trajan knew what his twitching meant, as the Prince’s eyes narrowed and he leaned forward a little, preparing to move if Leon tried anything hostile.
“Answer me!” Trajan demanded. “Tell me your name!”
“I am Leon Ursus, Your Highness!” Leon shouted out.
The Prince scowled, and he rose from where he had been sitting on the dais. His aura spiked and so much killing intent poured out of him that Leon’s knees gave out in seconds and he dropped to the floor. Slowly, with every step so heavy as to shake Leon to his core, Trajan marched over to where Leon was barely holding himself up off the floor.
“If you do not tell me your entire name, Sir Leon, then I will assume you to be a murderer and a thief. Now, this will be the last time I ask: what is your name?!”
Speaking up from Leon’s soul realm, Xaphan said, [This guy isn’t playing around; look at his killing intent, he’ll kill you—and then me—if you don’t give him the answer he’s looking for…]
[You want me to reveal my identity?!] Leon asked incredulously.
[Not particularly, but if you don’t, you’re going to die!]
Leon struggled to breathe, but he managed to force down a few ragged breaths and stumble to his feet. He looked Prince Trajan directly in the eye and, summoning every ounce of dignity and poise that he could muster, said, “I am Leon Raime, son of Artorias Raime, grandson of Archduke Kyros Raime.”
The pressure Trajan was emitting didn’t let up, but Leon clenched his teeth and stayed on his feet, determined as he was not to succumb to it again. Like that, staring into the eyes of Prince Trajan, Consul of the East and strongest mage in the Legion outside of the Paladins, he waited.
After about ten seconds, Trajan whispered, “… I see…” and he restrained his immense sixth-tier aura.
“… You… believe me?” Leon hesitantly asked.
[No, no, no! What are you doing? Don’t create doubt if none exists!] Xaphan shouted, panic creeping into his voice.
Fortunately, the Prince explained, “You resemble your grandfather a great deal. He was already several decades old when we met, but you look like a younger version of him. Not to mention, you have his sword. Beyond that, I suppose I could insist on testing your blood to verify your identity, but that would involve the services of the blood priests of Lineage Hall back in the capital, and I don’t have the eternity it would take for those lazy bastards to get out here.”
Trajan returned to sitting on the dais while Leon stood before him, standing ram-rod straight and clearly not at ease.
“Do you want me to ask Lineage Hall to send someone out here, creating a trail of official paperwork in the process?” Trajan asked with the hint of a smile on his face.
“No,” Leon answered instantly.
“I thought not. It’s a good thing your aura is remarkably similar to the auras of other Raime’s I’ve met in the past; I don’t need a blood priest to tell me who you are.”
Leon paled slightly at that small revelation.
Noticing his reaction, Trajan looked a little surprised and asked, “Wait, don’t tell me you were actually trying to hide who you are?! With those looks and so proudly wearing that sword?”
Leon’s face twisted in awkwardness as his left hand came to rest on the pommel of his sword. “I… didn’t think that would be a problem…”
The Prince stared at him in disbelief. There were so many things he could say about that statement that he simply didn’t know where to begin.
More silence followed, until Leon awkwardly asked, “What now?”
Ignoring Leon’s question, Trajan inquired, “Why are you in the Legion?”
“… Your Highness?” Leon asked, seeking clarification.
“Is there any grand purpose to your being here, or are you only here for the experience and the training? To gain power? I assume that you want revenge against those who’ve destroyed your family, but you’re far too weak for that, even if you’re a fifth-tier mage…”
Leon took a moment to think. He wanted to be a knight when he was younger, but not for any high-minded notions of protecting the Bull Kingdom or serving the Bull King. Instead, he wanted to emulate the heroes in the stories that Artorias told him when he was still a child.
Now, his purpose was more for gaining strength and influence than anything else. Even his muted desire for adventure took a backseat to acquiring the means to find his enemies and take his vengeance.
Leon didn’t want to tell the Prince all this, but he also felt like lying would be a terrible idea.
Sensing Leon’s indecision, Xaphan said, [Be very careful how you answer him; his example was too on the nose for him to not have some kind of idea what your goals are.]
[He just stated my goals as if they’re obvious,] Leon responded. [Though, I guess they would be fairly obvious, as who wouldn’t seek their revenge after seeing their father killed…?]
[My point is, whatever you tell this Prince, think it over before you open your mouth. Make sure it’s absolutely what you want to say…]
Leon sighed, then said, [Thanks for the advice, demon.]
[No need to thank me, young mage. If I deign to give you my opinion that could save your life, then I certainly don’t do so for your acknowledgment; I do it for myself, for my own entertainment!]
Leon had to suppress a chuckle at Xaphan’s ridiculous posturing, which he found easy to do when he refocused on Prince Trajan, who was waiting for his response.
“I…” Leon began before hesitating for another moment, “… I want my revenge, that’s my motivation for being here.”
Trajan waited for a few seconds for Leon to elaborate, but the latter stopped there. The Prince sighed with slight dejection. “I see…” he muttered. “I have to admit that I was hoping for a little more from a member of House Raime.”
“Your Highness… while we’re on the subject of my parentage…” Leon anxiously began before being cut off by the Prince.
“I have a proposition for you, Sir Leon,” Trajan said with extreme formality, rising to his feet and towering over the already tall Leon. “Become a member of my personal retinue. I will raise you to the rank of Tribune and protect you from your enemies to the best of my abilities. And when the time comes for you to seek out your enemies, I will provide you with every assistance, from information to fighting at your side if need be.”
Leon blinked in confusion. “Your Highness… I don’t know what to say…”
“How about ‘yes’, or ‘I accept’?” Trajan asked with a smile.
“If it’s all the same to Your Highness, I think I’ll go with ‘what’s the catch’?” Leon countered, which only made Trajan smile even wider.
“That’s a good question. All right, here’s what I would expect of you: fight the enemies of my Kingdom. You are to wet your blade with the blood of those who would cause harm to the Bull’s subjects. I will send you out to kill vampires, werewolves, and all manner of monsters that hide in the dark. I will send you out to put down rebellions and murderous mages that let their power go to their head. I will send you out to defend the borders of this Kingdom from foreign invasion.
“In short, if you would join my retinue, you would help me in making this Kingdom a beacon of light, peace, and prosperity, a place where people feel safe no matter where they are or what time of day it is. Commit yourself to this, and not only will I keep your identity secret from even my own brother, the Bull King, but I will also make your enemies my own.
“This is what I offer. Now, will you take me up on it?”
Prince Trajan held out his hand for a handshake, pointedly not insisting that Leon bow to his royal personage. Leon stared at that hand for a long time, but Trajan kept it extended, waiting for the younger mage to make a decision.
Finally, and with a great deal of hesitation, Leon reached out, took the Prince’s hand, and whispered, “I will.”
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