The Legion captured more than a dozen smugglers in Ariminium alone due to Merovech’s information. It took all of about three days for Minerva to get enough intelligence from them in turn for the ball to enter Leon’s court.
“… said about a mile or so down the coast from this fishing village,” Minerva explained to Leon, Trajan, several Legates, and the knights that were assigned to Leon’s team.
“The coast to our west is hilly and extremely rocky, any docks that have been built in that area will be small,” one of the Legates added.
“We only need to put some pressure on the local villagers,” another Legate said. “If the information Dame Minerva extracted is correct, then this little storage point for smuggled goods is way too close for the fishermen not to know it exists. They’re probably being paid a few silvers to look the other way when a strange boat comes in.”
“What do you want us to do, take the entire village into custody?” Leon asked sarcastically. If it were any Tribune in any other unit, then the Legate he was speaking to would be incensed. However, Leon was one of Trajan’s knights, and it was obvious that the Prince thought highly of him. Consequently, most knights treated him with great respect, despite his barbarous last name or their own higher ranks.
“No, that would be too… authoritarian,” the Legate said, not insulted at all by Leon’s comment.
“Have a few thousand silvers requisitioned, and pay the village elder or mayor to give you the information you need,” Minerva said as she rolled her eyes. “If they won’t help you, someone will, for the right price.”
“Hmm, we may not need that in the first place…” Leon mused. “I can’t imagine that the smugglers would take their things too far inland, only to have to haul it all back to their dock to transport here or anywhere else. And if that’s the case, then we only need to stick to the coast, and we’ll find what we seek.”
“Don’t count on that too much,” one of the Legates said. “As I said before, the coastal region is very hilly, so hiding places close to the water are abundant. The coast itself is also extremely rocky, so you won’t be able to ride on the along the beach.”
Leon nodded with a thoughtful expression. ‘That’s a good point. If these smugglers weren’t so cautious and well-hidden, then we would’ve had some information on them before the riots…’
Throughout this planning process, Trajan sat back and didn’t say a word. He put Leon in charge of this mission so he could see how well the young man was progressing, so the Prince wasn’t going to offer any advice. This was Leon’s job, not Trajan’s.
After a twenty minute meeting, Leon and the other three knights in his team settled on a plan of action and a back-up plan. There was no more time to waste, as the smugglers had a three-week head-start on them from Merovech’s capture, so Leon and his team made to depart immediately.
An hour later, Trajan stood in front of a window on the highest floor of his personal tower. From there, he could see all of Ariminium and the Bull’s Horns; with his sixth-tier eyesight, few details escaped his notice, though in his current mood he wasn’t paying attention to a single thing. The Prince had been staring out of that window since the meeting with Leon’s team ended completely alone, unmoving, and silent.
It wasn’t until he heard a respectful few knocks at the door that he returned from where his mind had wandered off to.
“Come in!” he called out.
At the sound of his voice, Minerva entered the room. It was a small and cozy sitting room, with a few couches and chairs in the center and bookshelves lining the walls. The lights were dim just as the Prince liked, but Minerva could see the worry lines in Trajan’s face.
“Count Severus is expected to arrive in the next few hours,” she said as she took a few steps further into the room.
“I’m aware,” Trajan said quietly.
“He’s going to demand an audience with you as soon as he does,” Minerva continued.
“He can wait,” the Prince responded.
Minerva sighed, then threw herself into one of the couches, burying her face in one of the pillows. “Sit down,” she said to her Prince.
Trajan, understanding that she was now speaking as a friend rather than a subordinate, complied, taking a seat in another couch across from her.
Still laying down on her stomach, Minerva quickly kicked off her decidedly unglamorous and unflattering shoes, then turned her head so she could see Trajan. “You need to relax,” she said.
“So you’ve told me, time and time again,” Trajan said with a faint smile.
“And I mean it,” Minerva countered with a stern tone. “That boy’s going to be fine. You’ll see, he’s going to come back tomorrow bringing word of victory, and that’s assuming the smugglers have even stuck around this long after Merovech was arrested.”
“I’m sure he will,” Trajan replied. “Doesn’t stop me from worrying about the kid, especially after the recklessness he showed with the giants…”
“He has three experienced knights keeping an eye on him,” Minerva reminded.
Trajan sighed and cast his gaze back out of the window. He could see over the wall of the Southern Horn and down onto the plain between the Horns. The road in the center of the plain was well traveled, and given that it was still around noon, there were hundreds of people and wagons moving along it. Some turned south toward Ariminium, while others were going west and further into the Kingdom, while still others were going east, through the gates in the wall.
Even among these crowds, Trajan could pick out a group of twenty soldiers and one white griffin departing from the posthouses near the foot of the Northern Horn and riding west along the road.
‘I imagine that this is kind of what having a son is like,’ Trajan brooded. Minerva, for her part, just shifted around until she got comfortable so she could listen to her commander. “I have no doubts that Leon will return alive and well, but that doesn’t stop me from being afraid that he won’t.”
The two sat there in silence for a few more minutes while Trajan watched Leon’s group fade into the distance.
“They’ll be fine,” he told himself. “They’ll be fine…”
Leon’s group rode hard west from the Bull’s Horns, quickly leaving the coast behind. They stuck with the Gold Road as far as they could, soon passing the village that had several weeks prior been terrorized by the vampire. The road eventually turned slightly northward, following the curve of the southern tip of the Border Mountains, and continued until it reached the Naga River. From there, it would follow the river all the way to the capital.
But Leon and his team weren’t going nearly so far. They turned off the paved road to follow another that was barely more than a dirt path into the wilderness. After passing a couple of mining villages, the group finally caught sight of the coast again in the distance. About five miles from the fishing village, Leon called the group to a halt.
“We’ll stop and rest here for a little while. Get some food,” Leon ordered. The knights and their men-at-arms complied, dismounting and getting as much rest as they could. No one wasted any time, as they tied their horses to nearby trees and started shoveling food into their mouths.
As the lower ranked men-at-arms were doing this, one of the knights approached Leon and asked, “Have you decided against seeking information from the villagers?”
“No,” Leon answered. “I would just prefer to give the smugglers as little to react as possible. We’re going to move again once the sun sets and the villagers get off the streets.”
“I understand,” the knight answered, returning to his men.
For Leon, the hour and a half it took for the sun to creep down below the horizon were agonizing. He felt jittery as if there were countless things that he should’ve been doing, and that he’d forgotten countless more. He stared at the brilliant disc in the sky almost every second from when they stopped to when it finally disappeared.
The other members of his team seemed to pick up on his anxiety, and there wasn’t much conversation between them while they waited. This silence only served to make Leon more anxious than he already was, and once it was time to go, it was almost with relief that he turned to face his team and said, “Let’s go.”
Everyone sprang to their feet and jumped back on their horses. They were in the village in less than fifteen minutes.
The village was large enough to warrant a mayor, so his house was Leon’s first stop. The streets weren’t as devoid of life as Leon had hoped for, but at this point there wasn’t any point in stopping and turning back, so his team rode right past about a dozen villagers on their way to the village center where, as was legally required, the mayor’s house could be found.
Fortunately, they didn’t have to be any more specific than that, as the mayor was still awake and came outside when he heard the commotion of the arriving soldiers.
“What’s goin’ on out there?!” he demanded, before immediately striking a far more submissive appearance once Leon dismounted his horse and stepped into the light coming from the mayor’s home.
“There are smugglers in the area,” Leon bluntly stated. He didn’t even bother to remove his helmet, his anxiety about his mission driving away the memory of Grim chastising him for being unsociable on his previous mission. “We want you to help us locate them.”
“I’m afraid I don’t know anything ‘bout smugglers, Sir…?” the mayor understandably said.
“My name is Leon. We know there are smugglers along the coast near this village. We’ve been authorized by Prince Trajan himself to find them and destroy their operation. Anyone who hinders us in the performance of our duties will be arrested for treason.”
The mayor paled a little as Leon let his aura start to pulse out from his body. Even some of the weaker soldiers on their horses not too far away could feel their hair start to stand on end from the hint of killing intent Leon layered into his aura.
But then, Leon suddenly cut off his aura and said, “On the other hand, those who aid us will be rewarded…” He then pulled out a small box from a satchel at his hip and gently shook it. The mayor could hear the muted clinking of silver coins from within, and his face momentarily twisted in a greedy smile.
‘Well, those bastards are probably gone by now, and I certainly can’t just pick up and leave like that… Why shouldn’t I take some money from this man?’ the mayor thought to himself.
“Please, come inside and let’s talk a little,” the mayor said out loud. “I’m not sure ‘bout any smugglin’ in these parts, but I think there’s plenty I can discuss with a knight such as yerself…”
For a quick moment, Leon almost demanded that the mayor just spit it out, but Trajan’s training started to kick in and he looked around. There were dozens of other homes in the area that could see what was going on, and with his fifth-tier senses, Leon could perceive a lot of people watching and waiting to see what would happen.
‘Better to not be rude,’ Leon thought as he silently followed the mayor inside, with Alix and Anzu right behind him.
For his part, the mayor welcomed them quite warmly in his home, though he did send more than a few apprehensive looks Anzu’s way. In the end, though, Leon, Alix, and Anzu walked out of his house with the location of a nearby cave the smugglers were using, while Leon’s satchel was remarkably lighter than it had been only ten minutes earlier.
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Efflorescence - Kyle J Smith
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