Roland didn’t stay the night at Fort 127, choosing to leave as soon as his meeting with the Consul was over, much to the chagrin of the guide who was denied the rest he greatly desired.
Watching the Paladin depart with his magic senses, Clovis smiled and glanced at his assistant. “Good work with those papers,” he said, “getting them done on such short notice couldn’t have been easy.”
“I’ve unfortunately had to fill out quite a few of those recently,” the assistant responded, referring to the hundreds of death certificates he’d been in charge of making for Jean’s garrison. “However, I am concerned, Sir, that Sir Roland may realize that the documents are fake and that he was lied to.”
“No need for concern!” Clovis said with a booming laugh. “If it ever comes out that Sir Leon isn’t dead, then we can simply say that he was misidentified as deceased! These little mistakes are fairly common after battles, especially when the death toll is so high and so few people are left to identify the fallen.”
“Still, Sir, you lied to a legal Paladin.”
“We’ll see who’s legal when the King returns,” Clovis said. “That arrogant prick, walking in here demanding answers from me, hiding behind a Prince… I wouldn’t give that man who grew up in the capital the time of day!”
Roland wasn’t of noble birth, but pointing that out wouldn’t help matters in the slightest, so the assistant held his tongue for fear of encouraging another rant about the nobles in the south—he’d suffered through more than a few such rants from the Consul, and wasn’t keen on hearing another.
Just before the two returned to work, a messenger burst in through the door, covered in dust from the road and gasping for breath.
“Sir!” the messenger wheezed between breaths.
“What is it?” the Consul demanded.
“Count Whitefield… Sir! He’s… left the… Northern Territories!”
“What?!” the Consul shouted in surprise. With a quick glance out of the window in his office, the Consul confirmed that the Count’s camp was still there. “He left his territory with his army in the field…? Where did he go?”
There were several important cities along the western coast of the Bull Kingdom. Aurelianorum was one of them, but it wasn’t the most powerful; that honor was reserved for the grand city of Valentia, the capital of the Duchy of the same name in the south-western reaches of the Bull Kingdom, ruled by House Duronius. In the years since the fall of House Raime, the Duronians rose to be acknowledged as the most powerful noble house in the Kingdom.
House Duronius had the most money, the most mages with experience and training, and the largest territory with a population base to match.
In the Ducal Palace of Valentia, the air was charged; those who knew what was about to happen knew that this was about to become the biggest center of power outside of the capital for a short time. Servants scurried around making sure the palace was spotless and sufficiently stocked for a great number of guests of extremely high rank. The guards stationed at strategic locations around the palace were all on alert, for any disturbance to the events that would take place within the palace would be blamed on them, and they’d likely become intimately familiar with the headsman’s block as punishment.
The center of attention was a meeting room deep within the palace. This room had vibrantly-colored floor tiles arranged in such a way that, along with the massive black onyx table in the center, it appeared to be an enormous blue eye. Around the edges of the room were shallow alcoves with marble statues, and the vaulted concrete ceiling was covered in soft white lights and a painted map of the entire Kingdom.
This meeting room was already about half full, with more than two dozen of the most powerful men and women of the Bull Kingdom seated around the table—nobles all, including Duke Euphemius Decimius and an ugly, rotund, red-faced man that the Consul of the North would’ve recognized as Count Whitefield. Each was allowed to bring only two of their most trusted knights or other members of their household, who stood a respectful distance away from the table, though the room wasn’t big enough that they were out of earshot. Over the course of about half an hour, the room filled up until almost every seat at the table was filled.
“It gladdens my heart to see so many of my friends here today,” came a pleasant voice from above the table. The eyes of all the nobles in the room were drawn upward, to a balcony off a small gallery where six figures could be seen. The man in front, who had just spoken, was recognized by every noble there; he was Prince Octavius, Second Prince and presumptive heir to the Bull King.
“Welcome, all of you!” the Prince continued in a smooth and crisp intonation. “If I could ask for your continued patience, those of us up here will join you in only a matter of moments.”
With that, the Prince and his group turned and disappeared into the gallery, causing the rest of the nobles to burst into quiet whispers.
“Did you see that?” one noble softly muttered to his neighbor with a hint of concern in his voice. “The Second Prince brought two Paladins with him!”
“I saw,” the neighbor responded. “Those two were the Sapphire and Earthshaker Paladins!”
“The Paladins are sworn to His Majesty! What are they doing here?!” another noble angrily wondered aloud.
The mumblings of the nobles immediately ceased once the doors opened and the Prince and his entourage entered the meeting room. The Prince himself was tall, heavily muscled, with warm brown eyes and brown hair streaked with gold. His handsome face was smooth but angular, with high cheekbones and a square lantern jaw. He looked every bit the heir to the Sacred Bull that the nobles expected, and his fifth-tier aura proudly emanated from his body.
Those at his back were even more impressive: a beautiful, statuesque blonde woman dressed in shiny blue velvet; a tall man whose handsome features were marred by a repulsive expression every time his eyes swept over one of the noblewomen in attendance; and finally, walking just to the right of the Prince, a man with hair bleached white and a face wrinkled by time, the Duke of Valentia.
Accompanying this illustrious group were two more people: one a scribe, and the other was Gaius acting in his role as Octavius’ squire. Upon entering the room, Gaius quickly scanned the room for his father’s face, who he expected to be in attendance. Unfortunately, he was disappointed, as Duke Tullius’ seat was empty.
Octavius, the Duke of Valentia, and the two Paladins each took seats at the table, while Gaius and the scribe stood off to the side with the rest of the guards.
“Welcome! Welcome! It’s wonderful that you’re all here!” the Prince repeated.
“If Your Highness calls, who are we to decline?” one noble—a Count from the Southern Territories, Gaius guessed—obsequiously said to the Prince.
Octavius smiled gratefully at the Count, though Gaius noticed a slight tightening of the Prince’s fists and narrowing of his eyes that he recognized from every time he’d seen Octavius called ‘Your Highness’. In the short few months he’d been serving as the Prince’s squire, Gaius had learned that not being formally named heir had left an extremely bitter taste in the Prince’s mouth and that every time he was addressed as ‘Your Highness’ instead of ‘Your Royal Highness’, as he would’ve been if he were made Crown Prince, was a reminder of that fact. However, Octavius regained control over himself so quickly that Gaius didn’t think anyone else noticed his anger.
“I’m sure you are all curious as to why I have summoned you here, especially since there are so many of you from different corners of our venerable Kingdom!” the Prince said, trying to jump right into things. However, before he was able to continue, he was interrupted by the sound of hurried footsteps just outside the meeting room.
The doors to the public wing of the palace burst open, and another man swiftly walked inside. He was dirty and dusty from the road, but his golden hair shone through. His features were almost identical to Gaius’, if a little more chiseled and refined.
Gaius smiled and nodded at his elder brother, who did likewise.
“Sir Gratian…?” Duke Duronius asked, drawing a curious look from the Young Lord of House Tullius.
“It’s good to see you, but we had thought that your father would be the one joining us…” Octavius said.
“My father has decided to spend the rest of his life focusing on his magical training,” Gratian explained. “To that end, he has begun to pass his duties along to me. He hopes to be completely retired from public life by this time next year.”
“I see,” Duke Duronius said. A few other nobles around the table gave their muted congratulations to Gratian for ascending to his father’s position, to which he looked duly grateful.
“I am terribly sorry for the lateness of my arrival,” Gratian said to the Prince as he took his seat. “Unfortunately, I was delayed on the road, but as my House pledged to arrive, I hurried here ahead of the rest of my followers without even stopping to clean up.”
“It’s quite all right, Sir,” the Prince stated with a warm and inviting expression. However, Gaius could see the annoyance in Octavius’ eyes. As the highest-ranking man present, it was the Prince’s prerogative to make everyone else wait on him, and for Gratian to show up after him—even accidentally—insulted Octavius.
Regardless, the Prince didn’t make a big deal out of it and pressed on, making eye contact with every man and woman seated at the table.
“I’m afraid I’ve called all of your esteemed selves here under grave circumstances. I’m sure you have all heard rumors about it, but now I feel that I must confirm your suspicions: my Royal Father has suffered an accident during training, and I fear he may not live long.”
Gasps could be heard around the room, but many of them were a little too enthusiastic, either being from people who had already suspected something given the length of time the King had been absent, or from people who didn’t disguise their excitement at the lack of central authority they had to answer to well enough.
“So Your Highness has called us here to follow through with our pledges to you,” a slightly haggard-looking Euphemius stated. He was impeccably well groomed, but the sanctions placed upon him by Elise had clearly taken their toll; his cheeks were hollow, and his eyes were sunken from stress.
“Indeed I have,” Octavius said. “Should my Royal Father never wake up, another monarch must rise to take his place. My elder brother has renounced all claim to the throne, that he may pursue a career with the blood priests of Lineage Hall. My younger brother, the Third Prince has also renounced his claim, that he may lead the life of a scholar in the Royal Archives. As my sisters have already expressed their desire not to contest my claim, this leaves only myself and my youngest brother as potential contenders for the throne.
“My Lords and Ladies, I must reiterate the belief of mine that August would be a terrible King. He is too weak, too frail, to be the leader this Kingdom needs. Beyond that, I have come across, admittedly circumstantial, evidence that he may have even been responsible for the current infirmity of my Royal Father!”
Again, gasps could be heard from across the table, but these were far more genuine; regicide was a terrible crime, and accusations of it were not to be taken lightly.
“What is your evidence for your claim?” asked Gratian skeptically.
“Not long after my Royal Father was discovered in his coma, I had the cooks responsible for his meals arrested and interrogated,” Octavius explained with a look of utter hatred on his face. “One of them confessed that he poisoned my Royal Father on the orders of my youngest brother!”
“No Arbiter would ever take the word of a common cook as enough evidence to convict,” Gratian responded. “Especially against the word of a Prince…”
“Indeed not, which is why I did a little more digging,” Octavius continued, his look of hatred quickly changing to one of subtle pride. “It took me years, but I eventually managed to trace payments my youngest brother made to a certain alchemist who had been arrested in the past for suspicion of providing poison to assassins. Unfortunately, that alchemist has since disappeared.”
“Hmm,” Gratian hummed in thought. He leaned back in his chair and took a subtle glance at Gaius, who rolled his eyes with as much subtly as he could.
‘I wonder how many people will believe that story… or how many that will say they do. Most of them, probably. Or at least, those who crave more power… which is all of them,’ Gaius cynically thought.
Octavius looked around the room and, understanding that he needed to keep pressuring the nobles for their support, passionately said, “My Lords and Ladies, what I ask is that here and now, before the inevitable happens and my Royal Father goes to join our Honored Ancestors, you all make declarations with your peers as witnesses that you will follow through with your pledges to me. Once I am King and no longer sharing a regency with that kinslaying bastard, I will have the power to bring him to justice!”
It was then that Euphemius spoke up, being the noble in the most desperate position and thus the one most motivated to ask the question they were all dying to know the answer to.
“Does this stand to reason, then, that the decrees that His Highness Prince August has made as Prince-Regent would be overturned?”
Octavius turned to look at the Duke. “That would, of course, depend on the decree. The unlawful ones will be immediately canceled. If you have any concerns over particular decrees, though, I would be only too happy to see what I can do about them now; I am still a Prince-Regent, myself, after all.”
“His Highness August has begun a naked attempt to steal my assets!” Euphemius furiously said, just barely keeping his voice under control. “His Highness has made the claim that I have been growing and selling Silverleaf, and has ordered a full survey of my lands, in a blatant violation of my Ducal rights!”
“I see,” Octavius said quietly. “I will look into this matter for you, my friend. Should I find it unlawful, I will cancel it immediately!”
Behind the Prince, Gaius smirked mirthlessly. ‘Even here, surrounded by none but their most trusted subordinates, they still lie to each other and pretend to act within the bounds of morality and legality. As soon as that Prince scurries out of this room, he’s going to have that survey canceled without even looking at it, so why bother with the song and dance?’ It hadn’t even been half a year that Gaius had been serving under Octavius, but he already knew exactly how the Prince was going to handle this. He also had to admit to himself that had he been appointed Octavius’ squire before his time in the Knight Academy, he probably wouldn’t have cared about the obvious corruption, or even seen it as the right of the nobility.
“Duke Decimius is not the only one wronged by that brat in the capital!” shouted the fat red-faced Count Whitefield. “He’s had that base-born bastard Clovis invade and occupy my territory, all because of a tiny Valeman raid!”
“That is most concerning,” Octavius stated. “Again, I must stress that I must look into this matter in greater detail, but I assure you that if I find anything amiss, then I will immediately order Sir Clovis to return his Legions to Cyrenaica.”
Count Whitefield sat back in his chair with a poorly disguised smile of triumph on his round face.
With those two requests heard, other nobles began to speak up and air their grievances with the status quo or how August had been running things, and Octavius promised to look into all of them, with the scribe he brought furiously scribbling as the meeting continued. Every lord and lady at the table seemed to have a problem they wanted him to solve, and the Prince was only too happy to hear them out.
“My friends,” Octavius said once he had heard from all those who had something to say, “as I’m sure you are all aware, my youngest brother would restrict the privileges of the noble elite and replace all of you with the base and the common if he ascends to the throne! That is not what this Kingdom needs! The strength of a Kingdom is the strength of its leaders, and there are no finer leaders than those with the breeding for it! I would put a stop to the rampant dismantling of noble privilege that has gone on for the past millennium, for if we do not lead the commoners, then who will? And if we are to lead them, then we need the resources to do so!
“Now, I ask you all again, should the worst come to pass, will you support me as your King? Will you all assist me in my endeavors to bring my criminal and power-hungry brother to justice?!”
With the promises he’d made beforehand, Octavius received nearly universal support from the gathered nobles, with the vast majority of assembled nobles reaffirming their promises of support. All had given him offers of support in one form or another before, but those were in relatively secret and private settings or were years old, and so weren’t reliable. Now, however, they spoke their words of support before the rest, and so were bound by honor to support Octavius.
There were a few who didn’t seem so fervent in their support—the Tullius brothers, who shared a nervous look as the rest of the nobles cheered for their chosen Prince, and the silent and serious Duchess of Vesontio, who hadn’t spoken a word since the meeting began even as the other nobles practically choked on their own tongues in their haste to bring up their problems with Octavius. The Brothers Tullius knew that Prince August wouldn’t go down without a fight, but with Gaius acting as Octavius’ squire, Gratian’s hand was forced, and he had to support the Prince against August. The Duchess, however, gave no indications as to what she was thinking, and continued to sit in her chair, her classically beautiful face as unmoving as stone.
‘This will mean civil war,’ Gaius thought ruefully as he glanced at the vast support Octavius received despite Gratian’s and the Duchess’ lack of enthusiasm. ‘Hopefully, it will be delayed until my squireship comes to an end and I can leave the Prince’s service. I would rather not be by this irredeemable scumbag when the war kicks off…’
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