Leon’s dreams were terrible. The hateful and betrayed looks Artorias, Elise, and Valeria had given him when he had been affected by Bran’s demonic illusions stuck with him, refusing to let him go despite Bran’s retreat.
Artorias stared accusingly at him with cloudy dead eyes as an ugly, gnarled, and withered tree burst out of his chest, his burial worthy of a god turned into a hellish nightmare.
Elise barely glanced at him, and when she did her eyes were filled with scorn and derision for the young boy that was so far beneath her in wealth and status.
Valeria glared at him like a hunter whose prey had evaded her for far too long. Every line and crease in her frown spoke volumes of her hatred, and her eyes communicated nothing but death.
Leon couldn’t move, he couldn’t explain himself or try to talk to any of them. All he could do was kneel in front of these three, his chest leaking copious amounts of blood from where Valeria had slashed him with her glaive, and wait for whatever they decided to do to him next.
“Has he stirred any?” Trajan asked Alix.
“No, Your Highness,” Alix quickly answered, snapping off a quick bow to the Prince. They were on board the flagship heading back to Ariminium, the evacuation of Florentia having been completed.
The Legion soldiers had fought magnificently against the Talfar cataphracts, taking only a few hundred casualties—the vast majority of them were fairly simple injuries that could be healed in a matter of hours or days with skilled enough healers. The cataphracts, meanwhile, lost anywhere from fifteen-hundred to two thousand injured and dead. Nearly all of the citizens of the city had been brought to Ariminium where they would wait out the war in shelters put up in empty warehouses until they could return home.
The Talfar Kingdom would garrison and fortify Florentia over the next few days, Trajan knew. They wouldn’t want the Bull Kingdom landing soldiers behind them when they moved into the vale that the Bull’s Horns watched over. Or at least, they didn’t want any secret landings, as they hardly had the ships to stop the Legion from doing so if they wanted.
Most of the knights that had resisted Bran had recovered from the illusions they had been subjected to in the vampire’s final attack. They had been forced to relive their greatest failures or confronted with their greatest fears. A couple had simply been tortured in their minds. They were shaken, but they were strong and experienced mages, and they put the experience behind them as best as they could for the time being.
Leon was the sole exception, as he had yet to wake up.
Trajan had been among the first to regain consciousness, and he had found Lapis, the stone giant that had been sent by the Crater Tribe as a kind of ambassador, standing guard over Leon’s inert form. When the squires and lower-tiered mages came out of their shelters after it became clear that Bran wasn’t coming back, Trajan put Alix in charge of watching over Leon and to come and get him when the younger knight finally awakened.
Lapis, meanwhile, walked along the shore, keeping pace with the flagship. The giant didn’t want to let Leon out of its sight, but it was far too heavy to take on the ship along with the hundreds of soldiers that needed to be evacuated as well. Fortunately, the Talfar army wasn’t going to attack with so many ships nearby, even if they weren’t busy setting up their camp.
The ships pushed onward, leaving the empty husk of Florentia behind, and Leon never stirred. Alix kept a close eye on him, her face lined with worry, while Anzu had laid down right next to Leon, covering Leon’s waist with one of his wings and laying his head down on Leon’s chest. Occasionally, the griffin would whimper or nudge at Leon, but for the most part, he just stared at Leon, waiting for him to wake up.
That still hadn’t happened by the time the flagship cruised back into the port of Ariminium. Trajan arranged for healers to tend to Leon, and Alix and Anzu departed with them. Trajan almost went with them, but his own duties as the man in charge of the Bull’s Horns had to come first.
When he strode back into his office about twenty minutes later, he found a runner there waiting for him.
“Your Highness!” the runner said, dropping to his knees. He knew it was a little rude, but he didn’t want to waste time with such an important issue, so he immediately delivered his message to the Prince without waiting for Trajan’s response. “Prince-Regent August sent word requesting Your Highness to call him as soon as you returned!”
Trajan nodded in thanks, turned on his heel and instantly left his office. Five minutes later, surrounded by several Legates and about half of his company of secretaries and assistants, he found himself in another of the Southern Horn’s towers, in a dimly lit room lined with black velvet curtains, and a communication stone in front of him. He waited for the stone on the black box to connect with a nearly identical one in the capital.
Hours before the evacuation of Florentia, Trajan had sent out urgent messages to all nearby landed nobles and, more importantly, to the capital. The Legate in charge of overseeing the comm stones in the capital, upon receiving this message, wasted no time in taking it to his immediate superior, the Consul of the Central Territories, an ancient and wizened man nearly three centuries old.
The Consul looked up from his paperwork and glared at the Legate when the latter burst into his office unannounced. However, before the Consul could reprimand his subordinate, the Legate said, “Sir! Prince Trajan has sent word of a massive Talfar army gathering near Ariminium!”
The Consul sighed and leaned back into his chair. “Thank you,” he replied in an obvious tone of dismissal.
Confused, the Legate asked, “Sir, is there any response that ought to b-“
“That’ll be enough,” the Consul growled. With his confusion only growing, the Legate left the office to return to his own. While the Consul’s response—or rather, the lack thereof—was strange, he didn’t think anything particularly malicious of it.
That being said, when he returned to his own office, he called in a runner.
“Sir?” the young Centurion said once he arrived.
“You’re to go to the Royal Palace with an urgent warning. A Talfar army is gathering near Ariminium.”
The Centurion paled at the sudden outbreak of war despite the lack of formal declarations. He furiously nodded his understanding.
“Good,” the Legate replied.
Roland had long been back in the capital and delivered the news of Leon’s supposed death to Prince August. Both men were disappointed, but in the end, it didn’t have that great of an effect on their ongoing strategy. August knew that he and his mother would still likely be killed if Octavius were to come to the throne, and his sister Cristina would be married off to someone insignificant if she didn’t join them in death.
Having a member of the believed-extinct House Raime in his corner would’ve been a great help in dealing with the landed nobles of the Northern Territories, but he never planned on having Leon anyway.
So, August, Roland, and a short but powerfully built man with bright red-orange hair had gathered in the former’s office to discuss their strategies for combatting Octavius’ growing support among the nobility.
“Has my cousin gotten any further information on Octavius’ movements?” asked the red-haired man as he stretched out in his armchair and folded his arms that were thick as trees across his chest. He had a wide and round face, but the reddish-brown stubble that covered his cheeks kept him from seeming too youthful, while his dark blue eyes hinted at a capacity for violence that few in the Bull Kingdom could hope to match.
He was the Brimstone Paladin, who had recently pledged his support for August after receiving a request to do so from his cousin, the Duchess of Vesontio.
“My brother hasn’t left Valentia for months,” August replied. “However, there have been a few troubling reports I’ve received lately. The Consuls of the West and Endless Ocean have found cause to visit Valentia, while there have been more than a few messages sent to the office of the Consul of the South from Valentia’s ducal palace.”
“Should we consider those regions to be in support of Octavius?” Roland asked. “Most of the notable nobles in those regions are Octavius’ creatures, anyway…”
“I’ll send a few letters in the coming weeks to try and strengthen my relationship with them, but I fear that they’re already lost to me…” August said as his forehead wrinkled in thought. “We can still make some headway with the Northern Territories, but they have the fewest Legions and the poorest nobles in the entire Kingdom… I’ve even heard a few things about the Consul of the Central Territories receiving some recent ‘donations’ from my brother for better gear to equip his personal retinue with.”
“At least we have support from the East,” the Brimstone Paladin said, his voice quivering just a bit at how much of the Bull Kingdom seemed to be falling into Octavius’ hands.
“Inde-“ August tried replying, but at that moment, the Centurion who had been sent from the Legion Headquarters breathlessly burst into the office, despite the group of assistants and secretaries behind him insisting that August was in a meeting and couldn’t be disturbed. The nearby guards didn’t actually think the Centurion would do something like this, especially with two Paladins present in Augusts’ office, and so were a little slow to move to stop him.
But just as the guards were about to seize him and both Roland and the Brimstone Paladin were drawing their weapons, the Centurion dropped to his knees and said in a panic, “Please forgive me, Your Highness, but His Highness Prince Trajan has sent an urgent report from the Bull’s Horns!”
The guards’ hands were on the Centurion now and were dragging him out of the office, but August rose from his chair and said, “Wait!” The guards froze and dutifully waited for their Prince, who walked over to the Centurion and asked, “What message did my uncle send?”
Around four or five in the afternoon, the Consul of the Central Territories was getting ready to leave for the day. He had been somewhat preoccupied with the news that Trajan had sent to the capital, but he decided that it would be prudent to ask Octavius what to do. Normally, he’d ask this of the King, but with the King indisposed, he had to make do with one of the Regents. Of course, he never would’ve been so slow to react if he actually thought that what Trajan had sent word about was that credible a threat.
However, before he could depart from his office, the door burst open and August, Roland, and the Brimstone Paladin walked in like they were marching to war. None of them looked even remotely happy to be there.
“Your Highness!” the Consul said in surprise before bowing just low enough to not be considered disrespectful.
August didn’t mince words, he skipped the pleasantries and directly asked, “Why did I receive word about an invasion from the Talfar Kingdom, and yet find you here not doing a damn thing about it?!”
The Consul grimly smiled, his already thin lips nearly vanishing. “Your Highness,” he said with the dismissive air of a superior lecturing a junior, “I have served His Majesty King Julius and King Aurelius before him for over a century and a half, I know enough about these matters to be aware that we need more information before we act.”
“Waiting for information is one thing,” Roland said, his own voice taking on a similar dismissive tone, “but complete inaction is another! There has been no report from your office to the Regent’s about this situation!”
“It wasn’t necessary,” the Consul said again, the pitch of his voice lowering in anger. “Perhaps you’d know that if you weren’t such a-“
“It was necessary,” the Brimstone Paladin interjected, preventing the old and old-fashioned Consul from saying anything in front of the Prince that would get him into trouble.
August stepped forward, placing himself between the Paladins and the Consul. He leaned in to look into the Consul’s beady eyes and said, “My uncle has sent word back about an army on our borders!
“And he has plenty of options with regards to dealing with that rabble!” the Consul retorted. “Not the least of which are the twelve Legions assigned to the Eastern Territories!”
“With an enemy at the gates, you wish to do nothing?” August challenged.
“There is nothing that needs to be done,” the Consul replied. “What’s more, I don’t answer to you, boy! I am a Consul! I answer to no one but the King!”
August glared at the Consul, but what the man said wasn’t wrong in any practical sense; he would face immense pushback if he tried to censure the Consul, and it could destroy his ability to win over other military officers to his cause. August was already losing the recruitment game if what his contacts told him were true, making him reluctant to openly oppose the Consul.
Without another word, August turned and left the office, with a furious Roland and slightly more subdued but still angry Brimstone Paladin right behind him. The Consul of the Central Territories was left alone, his weasel-like face twisting into a smile of triumph. His confidence in choosing Octavius rose dramatically.
Once they left the Legion Headquarters and were safely inside the Prince’s carriage that had been warded against eavesdroppers, among other things, Roland asked, “What are we going to do now, Your Highness? We can’t let an invading force threaten this Kingdom!”
“Not to mention that dealing with them in any way will raise Your Highness’ prestige by a great deal, and might even win over other supporters in the capital and elsewhere…” the Brimstone Paladin remarked.
August sat in silence for a long moment before saying, “I think it’s time I visited my Royal Father…”
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