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“Hmm, Avidius always was over-cautious and indecisive,” Trajan mused, “I have no idea why my brother made him into a Consul…”
Before him was a hovering light projection of August. The younger Prince had arranged for a call with his uncle to discuss the situation with Talfar, but it had been delayed both by August’s difficulties with the Legions in the Central Territories and by Trajan’s evacuation of Florentia.
“Is there nothing you can do to help, Uncle?” August asked. “I’m doing my best to wrangle some support to bring to the Horns, but I haven’t gotten very far…”
“I can send a message to Avidius personally, but he’s under no obligation to assist me without a royal decree. This would be a very different thing if I were in the capital, but I can’t leave my post with an enemy army in the field.”
“I understand,” August said.
“By the way, how is my Royal Brother?” Trajan asked, doing an expert job at keeping the concern he felt from leaking into his voice while he was surrounded by many of his subordinates.
“His Majesty is…” August began before hesitating for a long moment as he chose the right words to say, knowing that others could hear their conversation. “His Majesty is doing about as well as can be expected…”
King Julius’ personal palace wasn’t nearly as grand as his station might imply. With only five rooms built around a small courtyard, it was barely even as large as the most modest of noble villas out in the city. But what the King loved most about this place was its isolation, as rather than being surrounded by luxurious gardens and other wings of the Royal Palace, it had been built within the small forest that had been cultivated for the pleasure of the royal family. The purpose of this was to fulfill the need for isolation and privacy that the Bull King might otherwise be denied in the main palace complex.
Despite this isolation, the small royal villa had a battalion of guards stationed around it at all times, though most of these were, admittedly, made to patrol around the perimeter of the forest.
August, Roland, and the Brimstone Paladin were stopped several times by the guards as they hurried toward the villa. The forest wasn’t that large, as they could easily walk there from the main palace complex, but it was more than enough space for them to run into no less than three guard patrols who weren’t pleased with their unannounced visit.
Still, a Prince-Regent accompanied by two Paladins wasn’t going to be stopped for long, and August arrived at the gates of the villa before the sun set.
The villa wasn’t nearly as ostentatious as the rest of the Royal Palace. It had the same white stone walls and red ceramic roof tiles as the rest of the palace and had a huge marble statue of the Sacred Bull outside of it, but it lacked the intricate murals and tapestries that covered the walls in the main palace. Much of the floor was covered either in smooth white marble tiles with long black streaks or thick red carpet, but otherwise, there wasn’t much in the way of decoration. Even the columns within the courtyard were fairly simple, lacking the paint that covered most of the other decorative columns in Bull Kingdom architecture.
The three visitors entered the villa after passing by one last guard detail on the main doors and made their way to the back of the villa, just off the courtyard. Standing guard outside of this room was a truly enormous man covered from head to toe in gleaming armor of interlocking bronze plates, large boxy pauldrons that emphasized his broad shoulders, and a full-face helmet that had been shaped to have a vague resemblance to a short bird’s beak tucked under his left arm. Along the joints and the seams between the bronze plates, August could see runes glowing a gentle gold.
“Sir Praecilius!” August said in greeting. The Bronze Paladin barely lifted his gaze to the Prince, and August noticed his hands drifting toward the gigantic bronze battleax strapped prominently on his back.
“Your Highness,” Praecilius replied in a tone of both greeting and warning as if the Paladin wasn’t sure which to use, his bright brown eyes tracking every movement August made.
“I’m here to see my Royal Father,” August said. He brokered no room for bargaining, as he walked right past the Paladin to push open the door.
Fortunately, he was both a Prince and was followed by a pair of Paladins himself, as otherwise, the Bronze Paladin would’ve cut August down before his hand had even touched the door. As it was, the Bronze Paladin warmly smiled to the Brimstone Paladin as he passed, while he gave Roland little more than a curt nod.
The King’s bedchamber was exceptionally dimly lit. Even with his fifth-tier senses, August had to take a moment to adjust to the lack of light.
The bedroom was lavishly furnished, though the pieces of furniture themselves weren’t particularly ornate. There were tables, comfortable armchairs, a warm fireplace, a door that lead to a magnificent bathroom, dressers and closets filled with clothes, and in the very back, a massive bed. The Bull King had been a large man, but his bed could’ve fit a dozen people or more—and given the size of his father’s harem, August was certain it had fit even more than that in the past.
Unfortunately, the King had tried to force his soul realm to grow in a bid to reach the eighth-tier and wound up severely injuring himself. He’d been in a coma for more than six years as a result, and his formerly robust and heavily built body had wasted away to the point that August was barely able to still see his father in the dangerously thin and pale man that lay unmoving in the bed.
The King’s short brown hair had grown while he had been unconscious, with much longer stretches of time between when a trusted servant was allowed to come in and cut it, and there were noticeable streaks of silver within his once rich brown locks. August felt his stomach sink at the sight of how weak his father appeared, just as it always had whenever he visited. It was difficult to reconcile the strong and energetic man he once was with the bag of skin and bones that his injury had reduced him to.
August walked right over to the side of the bed and quietly kneeled at his father’s side, ignoring the other Paladin that stood guard in the bedchamber itself. This second Paladin was of average height and dressed in shapeless brown robes. He had no hair anywhere on his head, and his face was thin enough to show his unimpressive cheeks and jawline. His deep brown eyes watched August like a hawk while his hands unconsciously curled into fists.
“Mettius!” the Brimstone Paladin said, trying to be both as quiet and as good-natured as he could.
“Saturnius,” the Penitent Paladin replied. He practically ignored Roland’s presence, much to the last Paladin’s chagrin—though it was better than the Bronze Paladin’s almost open hostility.
“How is His Majesty?” Brimstone asked.
“He hasn’t changed much since last you visited,” Penitent replied as he watched August whisper into the King’s ear.
“Has that doctor from the Sacred Golden Empire made any progress with that potion he was supposed to brew?” Roland curiously asked.
“He’s gathered about half of the ingredients, including that Heartwood Amber you retrieved,” Penitent responded.
Roland nodded, earnestly hoping that the King could be healed in time to prevent a civil war, but that was looking less and less likely as more time passed.
After about five minutes, August stood up from his father’s side and looked at the three Paladins standing near the entrance.
“Get Sir Praecilius in here,” he commanded.
Penitent frowned a little, but since there was no danger to the King with four Paladins present, he didn’t say anything about Bronze moving from his post outside the door.
Once all four Paladins were in the bedroom, August calmly and bluntly stated, “My uncle, Prince Trajan, has sent word to me that there is a Talfar army on our borders, and that it seems so likely that they are going to try and seize Ariminium that it would be the height of absurdity to deny it.”
Both Penitent and Bronze were shocked at this news, but their surprise was muted compared to their anger.
“Those traitorous dogs! Did they not learn their lesson the last time?!” Bronze angrily muttered, careful not to raise his voice too loudly when in the presence of the King, his level of consciousness notwithstanding.
“They will be turned back from the Horns,” Penitent said. He kept his expression neutral, but it was clear from his clenched fists and the subtle way that the magic lanterns in the bedroom began to flicker that he was incensed.
“I have tried to mobilize several Legions and have them reinforce my uncle’s fortress, but the Consul of the Central Territories has stymied my efforts,” August continued, only slightly exaggerating the truth.
“It takes a decree from the King or the Assembly to declare war,” Penitent observed, “and the Assembly is not in session. The Consul can’t legally move without a direct order from the King or a unanimous order from his representatives.”
“Nowhere in the laws does it say ‘unanimous’,” Brimstone growled. “His Highness has every right to command him to ride east, but Avidius is too chicken-shit to do so!”
Penitent flashed Brimstone a quick glare at the profanity but otherwise didn’t respond.
“That doesn’t matter right now,” August said, moving the conversation along before anyone started getting offended. “What matters is who I can bring, as I am not going to leave my uncle out there on his own, with only the resources of the Eastern Territories to call upon!”
“Why are you telling us this?” asked Bronze.
“I want your assistance,” August replied.
“We are sworn to the King, not to the Princes or Princesses,” Penitent reminded August.
“I’m aware of that,” August snapped back, “but without a direct order from the King, you’re left to your own devices! ‘Your own devices’ right now means that you have taken it upon yourselves to guard His Majesty, but that doesn’t have to be the case! There are enemies at the gates of the Kingdom, literally, and I can’t imagine that the two finest warriors in the entire Kingdom would ever want those gates breached!”
“And what did they say?” Trajan asked, his tone dropping to freezing-cold anger at the implication behind August pausing at this point.
August took a deep breath and said, “They gave me no specific promises. I asked them for help in persuading the individual Legates to march with me, but again, they refused to commit to anything. They’re more taken with guarding my father’s… training chamber than they are with protecting the Kingdom!”
As most of the people in the room with Trajan weren’t aware of King Julius’ current condition, August had to be careful and step around that issue, but he was getting angry enough at his inability to get the Legions moving that he almost lost control.
“Uncle,” August continued, “you’re still highly respected among the Legion officers here in the capital, as well as in the entire Kingdom! If you were to contact individual Legates, or at least let me speak for you, then I’m sure I can assemble three or four Legions and bring them to you at the Horns! I also have the Brimstone Paladin and the Paladin Roland Magnus committed to the cause, and they can together bring another seven thousand knights and men-at-arms as well!”
Trajan sat in his armchair silently fuming. The bureaucracy of the capital and the arrogance of those who ran it was the main reason why he renounced his claim to the throne in favor of his little brother, to begin with. But, if it brought him the reinforcements needed to not just defend Ariminium and the Bull’s Horns but to push the Talfar army back, then he’d certainly help his nephew in any way he could.
“You can speak for me. I’ll back up whatever you say, within reason,” Trajan said, finally relieving some of the obvious tension in August’s strained expression. “Do as your father once did, and bring me Legions to push Talfar back!”
August sighed and said, “I will, Uncle, but there’s not much we can do right now, is there?”
“Not while my brother is still locked away in training,” Trajan said, his face darkening at the lie told for the sake of the knights and Legion officers around him.
“I’ll do what I can,” August said. “At the very least, you’ll have the Paladins Roland and Saturnius, plus their combined seven thousand knights and men-at-arms. And me, for whatever that’s worth.”
“You know, most nobles would advise that you not humble yourself like that,” Trajan said with a sly smile. “A Prince, a King, would never put himself down so quickly.”
August chuckled and said, “I’ll remember that, Uncle. Now, I have a lot of work to do to coordinate this, as I’m sure you have as well.”
“I do, indeed.”
“Then I’ll let you get to it. Oh, and congratulations on the evacuation of… Florentia?”
“Thank you, it was not a pleasant experience and we’re still picking up the pieces, but it was an overall success.”
With that, the two Princes finished their goodbyes and the communication stones flickered off. Neither wasted any more time and immediately got to work. However, just as Trajan was about to sit down back at his desk and call a meeting with his immediate subordinates, a messenger knocked on his door.
“Your Highness,” the messenger said, “Sir Ursus has woken up!”
“He has?!” Trajan said, almost springing to his feet. “Is he all right?”
“He’s… fine…” the messenger replied, not quite looking Trajan in the eye.
The Prince’s face dropped, and he immediately left his office, shouting back at his assistants to collect reports from his Legates on how the defenses were being prepared while he made his way to the hospital.
“And so it seems that August is going to leave the capital to try and deal with this minor threat,” the Consul of the Central Territories reported to an ecstatic Prince Octavius in their own comm stone call.
“Are you sure?” the Prince delightedly asked from a room in the ducal palace in Valentia similar in aesthetic design to the one at the Bull’s Horns. “Your reports are accurate?”
“Both Paladins that follow him around like leashed pets have called up their knights,” the Consul replied.
“He’s going to abandon the capital for some petty border skirmishes in the East when he hasn’t left in more than six years…” Octavius whispered to himself. “Wonderful!” he almost shouted to the Consul. “In that case, I will be returning to the capital! It’s a little early for something like this, but I can’t let this opportunity to destroy whatever support that common bastard has raised in court slip by!”
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