Two days after the evacuation of Florentia, Trajan called all of his command staff for a meeting to keep everyone coordinated. This amounted to the three senior diplomats of the Diplomatic Corps, the three Legates in charge of each of the combat Legions at the Horns, the thirteen other Legates in charge of logistics and administration, and the twelve sixth-tier knights in Trajan’s personal retinue. Each of these commanders brought their senior-most Tribunes, averaging out to about three or four apiece. The Legates sat in the chairs in the dark hall, while their Tribunes stood behind them.
Above them all, Trajan sat cross-legged on the floor of his raised dais, just out of the spotlight that illuminated the entire thing. To his side were a half dozen of his own senior Tribunes, along with Leon who had been in the midst of training when the order to assemble for this meeting was given.
In fact, the only high-ranking knights that were missing were those who represented the local fleet. The Legate in charge was still extremely upset at Trajan’s handling of his refusal to leave without express permission from the Consul of the Gulf, and he declined to attend this meeting out of spite. Trajan needed those ships, though, and he intended to pay another visit to that particular Legate when this meeting was over.
“All of our trebuchets have been fully checked and stocked,” one of the Legates reported. “The supply of spells and other munitions have also been inventoried, and we have enough to fire continuously for hours if need be.”
“And the construction?” Trajan asked, turning his eyes to another Legate. The Bull’s Horns were almost always in a state of maintenance and construction, and one of the biggest reasons it had taken more than two days to get the fortress prepared for the siege was taking down all of the scaffolding and setting up temporary fortifications where needed.
“All civilian equipment has been dismantled and removed,” the Legate quickly responded. “All three walls are intact and ready. The moat, on the other hand…”
“It wasn’t completed?” Trajan inquired.
“No, Your Highness,” the Legate replied. “In fact, we’ve barely gone deep enough to qualify as a ditch on the northern third.”
“Unfortunate,” Trajan whispered. “But no matter. The Horns have stood in various forms for centuries without a moat, it’ll survive this war without one, too. How about deployments?” His eyes now fell upon Minerva, who was sitting closest to him.
“The 19th Legion has taken over watch duties on the walls,” Minerva informed the Prince, while the Legate that led the 19th nodded in confirmation. In addition, each shift has been doubled, and the local garrisoned forces have moved to defend Ariminium.”
“Good,” Trajan all-but-whispered. There weren’t many concerns that the land-locked Talfar army would come at them from the river, but there was always the possibility, so the thousands of less-skilled garrison soldiers that were normally stationed between the Horns were sent to bolster their comrades defending on the southern-side of Ariminium.
“The 21st Legion has assembled in the Northern Horn, while the 23rd is in the Southern,” Minerva continued. “Should there be any attack, we can have the entire wall reinforced in minutes, while also assembling a force that can sally out if needed.”
“How about food and water?” Trajan asked of yet another Legate.
“Not a problem, Your Highness,” the Legate said with a smile. Trajan wasn’t surprised; this wasn’t going to be a complete siege, so getting food and drinkable water wasn’t going to be an issue. Still, it would’ve been negligent of him not to confirm it. “We’ve already received confirmations that food and additional weapons from all over the Eastern Territories have been sent,” the Legate said, “but even without all of that, we have enough supplies in the city to last for more than a year, even with the population of the city.”
“There’re still thousands who have begun to flee,” Minerva mentioned. “The gates out of Ariminium are clogged with people, and nearly half of the civilian ships in the port have left.”
“That was always going to happen,” the Legate said. “No one wants to be in a city that’s under attack, even with the presence of such strong defenses as the Horns possess. Still, I don’t expect more than ten percent of the city’s population to leave, which means there will still be more than enough trade to augment our current supplies.”
“Our supplies will hold out, correct?” Trajan asked, cutting both of his subordinates off to get them back on track. It was the choice of the civilians whether or not they would stay, after all, and he wouldn’t force them to leave or stay unless the situation demanded it.
“Yes, Your Highness,” the Legate answered.
“Then, for now, that’s all that matters,” Trajan said. He was confident that the city would be fine.
Trajan then glanced over at Aquillius and the other two senior diplomats who managed relations with Talfar and Samar.
“We’ve yet to receive any official word back from Pretani explaining the actions of their Prince,” Aquillius stated.
“But we’re sure that it’s Prince Owain leading them?” Trajan asked, to which Aquillius nodded.
“This army came from Briga, the capital of the province Owain was assigned to govern,” said Fonteius, the senior diplomat assigned to Talfar. “There’s no question that it’s Owain that’s in charge. Or at least, officially in charge…”
“Explain,” Trajan said, his expression making it clear that he didn’t appreciate Fonteius pausing for effect in this situation.
“There are at least two Marshals within that army, Your Highness,” Fonteius stated. “Bran, with whom Your Highness has been ‘acquainted’, and a man named Arthwyn, a sixth-tier mage assigned to Briga a few decades ago. By all accounts, it seems that these men are the two who are actually giving out the orders within that army.”
Trajan nodded in acknowledgment, then back-tracked to an earlier point that had caught his attention. “You said there has been no official word from Pretani,” he said to Aquillius, “what about unofficial word?”
Instead of answering, Aquillius turned to Fonteius and silently indicated for him to speak.
“My contacts within Talfar’s Elder Council have expressed some shock that Owain has done this, Your Highness, it’s been made clear to me that this wasn’t a sanctioned invasion,” Fonteius explained.
“That would explain the lack of a formal declaration of war,” Trajan muttered to himself.
Hearing him, Aquillius added, “And why we have yet to receive any word from Queen Andraste herself that might explain her brother’s actions, formal or otherwise.”
“Any word from the Samar Kingdom about this whole mess?” Trajan asked of the final diplomat as he fought the urge to sigh.
“No, Your Highness,” the diplomat said, though Trajan hadn’t been seriously hoping for them to do anything.
‘Let’s see if that continues when trade along the Tyrrhenian River is cut off,’ Trajan thought to himself with a slight hint of schadenfreude. With Florentia occupied by the Talfar army and the main trade route to the center of Aeterna cut off, Trajan fully expected the Samar Kingdom’s economy to suffer, and for them to start putting diplomatic pressure on the Talfar Kingdom to at least pull back from Florentia.
Trajan then turned his attention to Constantine, the sixth-tier knight he placed in charge of the forts and barricades between the walls and the Talfar camp.
“Has their army finished amassing?” the Prince solemnly asked. If it had, then they would have little time left to prepare, but if the enemy army was still in the process of marching from Briga to their camp, then they still had options to be proactive in their defense.
“There are still large units trickling in,” Constantine said, “but for the most part, their barracks outside of Briga seem emptied.”
“Has your initial estimation of their size changed any?”
“No, Your Highness, it remains around two hundred thousand, though it appears that at least twenty or thirty percent of that is still slowly making its way toward their camp.”
“Then we still have time,” Trajan said with a smile.
“Are we going to attack them, Your Highness?” Minerva asked, a smile of anticipation briefly flashing across her lips.
“Not an all-out assault,” Trajan said, “I don’t want to attack a numerically superior enemy while they hold that hill they’re encamped on, especially not when they have a seventh-tier mage at the ready who can tear apart our infantry formations with abandon. No, before we even think of assaulting their camp, we need to deal with that blood-sucker first…”
The meeting was over, and the Legates had departed to see to Trajan’s commands. He trusted them to be ready at sundown for his plan. While he was waiting for them to finish, he had invited Leon back into one of his living rooms to talk.
“How are you doing?” he asked seriously as he gazed out of the window at the Talfar army camp in the distance, as he had done countless times over the past few days.
“I’m fine,” Leon said. “Looking forward to my part in the plan,” he said, relishing the thought of facing Bran again.
“You’re not worried about being paraded before a seventh-tier vampire?” Trajan asked, fighting back a smile.
“It’s hardly like I’m going to be alone,” Leon said, cocking his eyebrow knowingly. “Besides, I’ve been studying up on some things that should help in this regard…”
“What sort of things can a fifth-tier boy barely out of childhood do against a seventh-tier vampire?” Trajan asked with an amused tone.
“A few spells,” Leon answered as he waved his hand and caused a sheet of spell paper to appear on the table in front of him.
Trajan walked over to examine it. He wasn’t much of an enchanter, but even he had to admire Leon’s work; the inscribed spell was incredibly intricate, with runes spiraling out from the central nexus of no less than fifteen runic circles—primarily made up of light and lightning runes—forming small glyphs that in turn formed even larger glyphs, that then formed the entire spell.
“Did you come up with this?” he asked in amazement, half thinking that the spell must’ve come from whatever Leon had been taught of his family’s magical arts.
“I did not,” Leon admitted, “but I did make some small tweaks here and there to make it last a bit longer, though it might’ve weakened the spell a tad.”
“Well, it just so happens that I know a master enchanter that can give this a look and maybe provide a little constructive criticism,” Trajan said with a smile as he pulled an onyx plate out of his chest pocket that Leon recognized. Set in the center of the plate was the radiant red ruby that housed the magic body of Caecilius, the founder of the Bluefire Guild.
“What do you want?” Caecilius disrespectfully asked. He’d been almost entirely silent in the weeks since his guild’s disbandment and the ruining of his life’s work. He was understandably—in Trajan’s opinion, at least—bitter and resentful toward the Prince, as it was Trajan’s order that destroyed his guild.
“I want you to examine this spell that Sir Ursus created,” Trajan said, a hint of dangerous killing intent entering his voice.
Leon’s heart began to subtly beat faster. To his understanding, the spells Xaphan gave him weren’t specifically demonic, but he would still prefer if Caecilius didn’t take too close a look at the only one he’d managed to inscribe so far.
“Why should I?” Caecilius sullenly asked.
Trajan smiled, and his killing intent grew more intense as he said, “Because if you don’t, then I’m going to rip your magic body out of that ruby and sell it off, leaving the last remnant of your guild to the mercy of whatever intrepid merchant buys it from me.”
If Caecilius could pale, he would’ve done so. As it was, Leon thought he saw the ruby dim just a little bit, but he couldn’t be sure.
“V-very well,” Caecilius sputtered, trying to save face. “I will lower myself to examining this amateur spell!”
Trajan was delighted, though more for getting one over on Caecilius, Leon guessed. The Prince was likely quietly furious that even after promising his advice and support, Caecilius had offered neither for weeks.
The ruby didn’t need to be held over the spell or anything, as even when he existed merely as a magic body, Caecilius still had access to his magic senses. Leon felt his skin subtly crawl as a wave of magic washed over him, emanating from the ruby. Caecilius did as he said he would and took a look at Leon’s work.
And yet, he was quiet for a long time. Trajan understood that the dead man would need some time to examine the spell, but he quickly ran out of patience.
“Well?’ he demanded.
“This spell…” Caecilius quietly whispered, “where did you learn it, boy?”
“There a problem?” Leon asked. He kept his face stoic, but inside his heart rate skyrocketed.
There was a long and nerve-wracking pause as Caecilius again examined the spells, during which Leon struggled to maintain his stoic expression.
Finally, the dead mage said, “No… It’s just… spectacular…”
“High praise, indeed,” Trajan said, smiling at Leon.
“Thank you,” Leon said as he allowed himself to relax just a little. “Will this spell block a dark mage’s magic?”
“I can’t see any reason why it wouldn’t,” Caecilius conceded.
“Good,” Trajan said. “How many of these spells do you have?”
“About a dozen,” Leon replied. “They’ll last about five to ten minutes apiece.”
“That’ll be more than enough,” the Prince said with a vicious smile. He didn’t let on that much, but he was almost as eager to kill Bran as Leon was, and that was what the plan was designed to do.
‘Tonight, that gutter leech dies,’ Trajan thought to himself as he remembered the sixth-tier knight that Bran had killed in Florentia. ‘No more of my people are going to die as sacrifices to whatever vile beast he worships!’
Out loud, though, he said with a pleasant and almost fatherly smile, “Go home and get some rest. I have a feeling it’s going to be a long night.”
“Will do,” Leon said, rising from his seat. He didn’t intend to rest much. Rather, he was going to keep building his magic body. He wanted to take every possible opportunity to work on ascending to the sixth-tier, that he may finally speak to his ancestor face-to-face and learn exactly what it meant to inherit the Thunderbird’s blood.
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