“You know, I wasn’t really expecting to find you still alive, given how wrecked this district is,” Trajan drily quipped as he, Leon, Alix, and Anzu stepped into the main office of the Bluefire Guild where the guild’s master was waiting for them.
Leon could see that the office was supposed to be sumptuously decorated, but the marble floor tiles were cracked and broken, tapestries had been torn from the wall, painted murals were defaced, and most of the expensive-looking furniture had been smashed to pieces. In fact, the only relatively intact pieces of furniture in the office were a couple of chairs that had been brought in from the waiting room outside.
Bluefire’s guild master was sitting on one of these chairs. He was a man of about average height with light brown hair that was streaked with blood. His round wrinkled face was lumpy from bruises and obvious ill-treatment, and one of his hazel eyes was blackened and bloody. His purple tunic and pants were ripped and torn, and Leon could see injuries on his neck and fingers that led him to guess that rings and a necklace had been taken from the guild master in a rather violent manner.
“It’s good to see you, Your Highness. I’m as surprised as you are that I yet breathe, I genuinely thought that they were going to kill me a few times…” the master replied in a deep voice that didn’t fit at all with his more modest stature and build.
“What were you thinking?” Trajan continued. “You had to know that refusing to pay your alchemists, enchanters, and contracted mages in silver would come back to bite you hard!”
“They agreed that this might happen when they signed the contract and joined this guild!” the guild master almost shouted. “Payment is to be made at the discretion of the guild, not with the person arranging the contract and certainly not with the mage!”
“As I recall, my Royal Grandfather made this sort of thing illegal more than three hundred years ago…” Trajan countered. The guild master paled a little under Trajan’s withering gaze, despite both men being aged sixth-tier mages. Trajan let the guild master stew a little before he smiled and said, “Oh well. What happens to you won’t be up to me; it’ll be for an Arbiter to decide in court.”
“I’m still being arrested?! I’m the victim here!” the guild master shrieked.
“You did something illegal and instigated a riot that has left hundreds dead!” Trajan shouted back. “You’re lucky that I don’t have you killed right here and claim that we found you that way!”
The guild master quickly quieted down, though he did try to rise before settling back into the chair with a wince of pain. He looked to Leon for a little assistance, but he couldn’t even see the young man’s stoic face behind his helmet, let alone his unsympathetic eyes. Alix, too, barely spared the guild master a look, but the latter wasn’t expecting a second-tier mage to help, anyway.
“What’s going to happen to me?” the guild master meekly asked.
Leon was able to control his surprise, but Alix couldn’t help but lift an eyebrow at the sight of a sixth-tier mage giving in so quickly.
“As I said, you will go before an Arbiter for judgment. You can try to put up a defense if you want, but I assure that you will be held accountable for at least some of what happened today. Were I you, I would hope for exile at the very least. You could also be imprisoned or be given forced labor, but I doubt it—that would be a hassle that few Arbiters want to deal with, anymore. You’ll most certainly be fined, and Bluefire as a guild will cease to exist.”
“What?! You can’t disband this guild!” the guild master suddenly shouted as he sprang to his feet, ignoring the injuries that kept him in the chair previously.
However, he swiftly lost this passion when Trajan glared at him and submerged him in a sea of killing intent. “Sit. Down,” the Prince growled.
The guild master acquiesced, taking his seat again without a word.
“I have every right to disband this guild! It isn’t a person, and so can’t stand trial! All of the assets of your guild will be confiscated, and your guild will cease to be!”
With that, Trajan turned around and left, with Leon, Alix, and Anzu close behind. The group walked in silence all the way back out into the square that had quickly filled up with several thousand prisoners. The other two battalions had just as much success as they had, taking the Sanctified and Iron Dove without too much trouble once their gates were knocked down.
“So, what do you make of these guild mages?” Trajan asked Leon. They stared at the massive crowd of mages sitting in the middle of the square in restraints. Hundreds of soldiers were watching them like hawks.
“… To be honest, I think I expected a bit more from them,” Leon answered honestly.
“How about you, Miss Alix?” the Prince continued.
“Ah! I mean, yeah, they weren’t quite as strong as I imagined…” Alix nervously replied.
“And how about you, little one?” Trajan asked Anzu with an enormous smile on his face. The griffin simply stared back at the Prince, silent and motionless, almost hiding behind Leon.
Leon reached back to pat Anzu on the head a few times and said, “He did great. I don’t think there was a single mage he went up against that could do anything to him.”
“Good. Still, best to take him to his beastmaster once we get back to the fortress, to ensure that he isn’t injured.”
Leon nodded in acknowledgment.
“As for why these guild mages weren’t as strong as you might have predicted… Well, they’re no better than mercenaries at best, and magical handymen at worst. They don’t have access to the resources of the Bull Kingdom, and as such their understanding of magic isn’t nearly as deep as that of soldiers with comparable power,” Trajan explained with a hint of pity and fatigue in his voice.
“They might not have all the accumulated knowledge of the Kingdom,” Leon said, “but they still had some strong mages.”
“And a ton of much weaker mages who surrendered as soon as they could,” Alix added.
“Indeed, they don’t work for a cause that they’re willing to die for,” Trajan stated. “They work to support themselves; an admirable enough goal, but hardly an inspiring one.
“But, to get back to my point, most of their jobs don’t involve violence. Those who do ascend in the magical tiers aren’t necessarily great warriors, in contrast to most soldiers who spend a great deal of time practicing how to kill people. Their strong mages were of comparable strength to our own Tribunes, but they have such little experience in the arts of war that they were quickly cut down before us.
“Remember this, both of you: magical strength isn’t everything. You must temper your strength with skill, or you’ll never gain true power. There are countless people working to make themselves greater at the expense of the world, and not enough people working to make it better for everyone. If you wish to bring these people to justice and make things better not just for you, but for all of us, then you need true power.”
“I understand,” Leon said as the attack on his home in the Northern Vales flashed through his mind.
“As do I,” Alix whispered, remembering the harrowing journey back to Fort 127 after Sam had been killed.
“Hmm. I suppose this all sounds overly idealistic, doesn’t it? Especially after having just cut down several thousand of our own citizens…” Trajan said, glancing down at his blood-covered armor.
“Well, maybe a little,” Leon conceded with a smile.
With a sigh, Trajan looked out into the square and said, “What a waste…” After a few more silent seconds, he then said, “The rest of the night is yours. And take tomorrow off, too. Be ready for training at the usual time the day after, though.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” Leon and Alix said in unison.
The two then departed from the district, leaving the clean-up to the half-Legion that was occupying the island. By then, the fires were mostly under control, and just about all of the rioting mages had been either killed or captured, so it was easy enough for them to cross a bridge and leave.
Their first destination was the Beastmaster’s office, where Leon had Anzu checked out. In twenty minutes, the griffin was cleaned and inspected, much to his obvious displeasure, and no injuries were found.
“This little guy is really unfriendly…” Alix muttered as they left the office and started making their way back to their quarters.
“He’s just not used to people,” Leon said with what Alix considered a strange amount of pride in the little griffin.
Anzu glanced up at Leon with shiny eyes, as if he knew what Leon had just said. He happily flapped his small wings and rubbed his head on Leon’s leg.
“Uugh… I’m filthy…” Alix muttered as she pushed open the door to their quarters.
“You’re not the only one,” Leon said as he crossed the threshold after his squire. “But, at least one of us is clean…”
Anzu came in after Leon, clean as a whistle, and quickly jumped up onto a nearby couch and sprawled out over it.
“I need to get out of this armor,” Alix said, making for her room.
Leon felt the same way after spending the day riding, walking around a village, exploring an abandoned mine, swimming across the Tyrrhenian River, and fighting his way through the guild district. He almost stumbled back to his own room in his hurry to get changed.
Alix had much less complicated armor, so she emerged from her room a few seconds before Leon did. However, she didn’t go to the bathroom to clean up just yet, choosing instead to wait for her knight.
When Leon walked out a few seconds later and saw her waiting by the sandpit with a smile on her face, he raised an eyebrow in a questioning look.
“I’m still a little keyed up from all that fighting,” she explained. “Plus, I don’t really feel all that satisfied from it…”
Leon smiled, as he felt the same way. They both had come to understand their own capabilities a little bit better from the battle, but fighting the guild mages hadn’t been particularly challenging, leaving both feeling unfulfilled.
“Then how about a little sparring before we finish getting cleaned up?” Leon asked as he walked out into the sandpit.
“Read my mind, Sir,” Alix stated as she followed him.
Anzu, meanwhile, had already checked out and fallen asleep on his couch.
Leon and Alix took positions ten feet apart from each other and readied their training weapons. Alix made the first move, lunging forward to stab Leon in the chest. However, Leon easily dodged out of the way.
“Going for a killing strike right away?” he asked with an appreciative tone.
“If I can’t bring you down before you go on the attack, then I’m hardly going to get the opportunity after, am I?” Alix responded as she pivoted into a slash at Leon’s midsection.
It almost seemed as if she was about to hit him, but out of nowhere, Leon’s sword appeared to block her strike. But she wasn’t disheartened; she shifted her weight and pushed to her right while reducing resistance and giving ground on her left. Leon’s sword slid down her blade to the left and she used that pressure to try and impale him with the guard of her sword.
Unfortunately for Alix, though, this brought her close enough for Leon to sweep her front leg out from under her, sending her crashing into the sand.
“Not bad,” Leon said with a smile.
“I’m not done, yet,” Alix growled as she rolled to her feet and slashed at Leon’s legs.
Leon took a step back and her sword tasted nothing but air, and in her split second of vulnerability, Leon moved in and rammed her with his shoulder, knocking her back down.
Their sparring continued in this vein for about half an hour, when they both finally managed to relax a little and the fatigue of the day caught up to them.
“Ahh,” Alix sighed as she collapsed onto the sand for the tenth time. “I think I’m done for today…”
“Yeah, me too,” Leon replied as he took a seat at the edge of the sandpit and leaned against a pillar. Anzu had woken up halfway through their sparring session and had come over to watch. Now that Leon took a seat, the griffin shuffled over and lay down next to Leon while resting his head down on his front paws.
“I feel like I just stormed the Blue Heaven,” Alix said, referencing a story she had just read a few days before as she spread herself out to get more comfortable on the sand.
“My lady, surely you aren’t comparing yourself to a goddess, are you?” Leon playfully asked, understanding her reference.
In that story, the goddess Diana became alienated from her fellow gods and left her home in the Blue Heaven. She lived among humans and even took a human husband. However, a jealous god killed her husband, causing her to return to the Blue Heaven to seek revenge.
“Maybe I am,” Alix said cheekily. “In all seriousness, though, I need a shower, and then I’m rackin’ out.”
“Be my guest,” Leon said. Etiquette as a squire required Alix to wait for Leon to bathe first, but Leon wasn’t that into formal etiquette; he freely gave her license to ignore those unofficial rules when they returned home.
With a happy cry, she leaped to her feet and hurried to the bathroom. She cleaned herself as thoroughly as she could as quickly as possible, as she didn’t want to force Leon to wait on her. However, when she emerged about fifteen minutes later, she found him asleep at the edge of the sandpit, curled up right next to Anzu.
She couldn’t help but giggle, and quietly walked around him; she knew he was a light sleeper, and she didn’t want to disturb his rest.
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