Trajan glared at the letter in front of him as if its very presence profaned him and his Kingdom. It was a simple letter with an honorable request, but given recent events, Trajan couldn’t help but be furious that such a thing was even asked.
Leon and Minerva were both with him, along with most of the command staff of the Bull’s Horns, including Aquillius and the other two senior-most diplomats.
“Not good, I take it?” Leon asked, seeing Trajan’s dark expression.
“No,” Trajan growled. “Those bastards have the audacity to request a meeting to discuss peace!”
The entire room descended into angry grumbling, with one Legate even loudly saying, “Presumptuous little shits!”
“Do they think we’d take this seriously after their acts of naked aggression?” shouted another Legate.
“In the strictest sense, though, they haven’t attacked us,” Minerva quietly stated, causing the room to fall silent in shock. “We evacuated a city in their lands and arrayed our forces against theirs in the field. They haven’t invaded us, yet.” This statement angered many in the dark meeting room, but before anyone could castigate her for saying these things, Minerva continued, “Of course, marching an army of two hundred thousand to our doorstep makes their intentions clear, even if they haven’t sent a formal declaration of war, and we have to defend ourselves and our citizens, no matter what side of the border they live on.”
“So you’re saying I ought to agree to this meeting?” Trajan asked.
Minerva flashed the Prince a devilish smile and said, “That’s Your Highness’ call to make. I’m simply saying that they might make the claim that they’re not here for war and that they’ll then paint us as the aggressor. It’s hardly illegal for them to move armies around their territory, after all, and our actions in Florentia could be taken as both an invasion and mass kidnapping.”
“I agree,” Aquillius added. “This is an issue that needs a delicate touch, to prevent any outside interference.”
“Do you foresee any kind of involvement from other Kingdoms?” Trajan asked.
“No,” Aquillius said. “Or at least, not on Talfar’s side. From what I understand, Asturias to the southeast is too busy with wars on their own southern and western borders, and the Samar Kingdom’s economy is too closely linked with our own for them to rashly go to war with us. These are the only two Kingdoms that are close enough to worry about.”
“Hmm,” Trajan hummed in thought. He was admittedly curious about what Prince Owain had to say, but the anger he felt at seeing so many of his people die by Talfar blades was a difficult thing to get past.
“Can we trust anything said by those who willingly work alongside vampires?” asked Amatius, the Legate in charge of the 19th Legion.
“Indeed,” agreed Labienus, the 23rd Legion’s Legate, “there is only one proper response to those who consort with demons, and talk is not it!” Labienus meaningfully rubbed his sheathed sword that he displayed at his hip, making his meaning clear. Leon tried not to look too hard at this, and he wisely kept his mouth shut.
“I, for one, am not in favor of making peace,” Saufeia, the 21st Legion’s Legate said. “Most of my battalions lost people to that damned cavalry, they’re going to want revenge.” She didn’t say it outright, but her tone made it clear that she wanted another crack at the Talfar army as well.
“Even if we don’t make peace,” Trajan said, “I’m hesitant to fight in open battle again. We killed more of them than us, but we need our soldiers more than they need theirs. I’d rather we stay behind our fortifications and only sally out if we absolutely need to, or if a great opportunity to inflict damage on our enemy’s army presents itself.”
“Should we take this to mean that Your Highness is going to turn down this offer of peace?” Aquillius asked, his eyebrow cocking in surprise.
“Not necessarily,” Trajan answered. “I’m inclined toward keeping this fight going until we can get reinforcements and counter-attack. Have we received word back from Pretani?”
“Nothing of note, Your Highness,” Fonteius, the diplomat assigned to the Talfar Kingdom, stated. “My people in Talfar’s capital have sent word back that they’ve had several meetings with secretaries to Talfar’s Elders, but so far haven’t managed to get a sit-down with anyone of importance yet.”
Silence descended over the meeting room as Trajan closed his eyes in thought. It seemed a long and tense quiet that no one wanted to break, but in reality, it only lasted two or three minutes.
Finally, Trajan opened his eyes and said, “I want to hear what Owain has to say for himself. I will agree to his meeting to discuss the possibility of peace.”
Many of the faces around the room contorted in anger and surprise, but no one argued with the Prince. He’d taken counsel with the highest ranking soldiers under his command, and he’d made his decision; to question him now would not be wise.
“Who will Your Highness take with to this meeting?” Aquillius asked. Trajan, of course, couldn’t go alone; should the peace offer turn out to be a trap, he’d need plenty of people with him who weren’t strangers to combat.
Trajan glanced around at the assembled knights. His group would have to be relatively small, but as a Prince, he couldn’t skimp on his entourage when meeting with another Prince from a hostile Kingdom.
“Sirs Leon, Aquillius, Fonteius, Cispius, and Dame Oscia,” the Prince said, and each of the five called out nodded in acknowledgment. To everyone save Leon, Trajan ordered, “Each of you will bring along three men-at-arms or junior diplomats.”
Again, those four nodded. Leon was the only one called out that wasn’t a sixth-tier mage, and since he had no one officially under him except Alix and Anzu, there wasn’t much of a need for him to prepare to accompany Trajan.
Fortunately, it wasn’t Leon’s nonexistent military support that Trajan wanted Leon to come with him to the meeting; rather, it was to give the young man experience in dealing with matters of extreme importance. Over the past year and change, this had become well understood among the top echelons of the Bull’s Horns that Leon was essentially Trajan’s unofficial apprentice.
“And the rest of us?” Minerva asked, despite already knowing what Trajan would say.
“You’ll be directing our defense efforts while I’m gone,” Trajan said. He then turned to the three Legion commanders and said, “And you three will have your battalions in their defensive positions and ready for combat. I don’t think that this little talk will go south, but just in case, we have to be ready for anything.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” Saufeia, Labienus, and Amatius said in unison.
“We’ve lost more than a thousand soldiers so far,” Trajan said with a solemn look and a slow cadence, making sure to make eye contact with the dozens of knights present to impress upon them the importance of what he was saying. “They will answer for this. Sir Aquillius, Sir Fonteius, I’ll leave it to you two to arrange this meeting.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” the diplomats said as one.
With that, the meeting was over. Trajan left with several of his secretaries to inspect the walls, while Minerva returned to the Northern Horn. Leon at first tried to follow the Prince, but Trajan, perhaps seeing the shadowed look in Leon’s face, sent him home to rest. The younger knight wasn’t saying much about it, but Trajan could tell that whatever he’d seen in Bran’s nightmare, it still weighed heavily on his mind and that without rest, he wouldn’t be paying much, if any, attention to the duties that Trajan was trying to expose him to.
‘I hope he pulls himself out of this soon,’ Trajan thought to himself as he watched Leon amble out of the meeting room. Despite walking relatively quickly, Trajan could tell that Leon lacked his usual purpose and direction to his movements. The latter’s every step was usually calm, direct, and purposeful, but now there were hints of hesitation and uncertainty that Trajan could pick up on.
But, as much as he may have wanted to, the Prince couldn’t afford to dwell on Leon’s problems when there was an enemy army in the field and an entire fortress to see to. For the time being, he could only sigh and hope that Leon could work through whatever was going on in his head himself.
As usual with these war councils, the squires of the high ranking knights waited outside. Leon met up with Alix and Anzu as he walked out of the meeting room.
“What now, Sir?” Alix asked.
“Home,” Leon said.
“And then?” she inquired, hoping for more than a one-word answer.
Leon quietly sighed, then filled her in on what had been decided, after which Alix frowned and went silent. Neither spoke again until they returned to their rooms.
As usual, upon walking inside, Anzu sprawled out over a couch that by now was covered in fur and feathers, despite Leon and Alix’s frequent cleaning. Alix, however, wasn’t nearly as laid-back as Anzu, and, in the absence of any instructions from Leon, changed into her training outfit and began training in the sandpit.
Leon, meanwhile, went into his bedroom, closed the door, and quietly sat down on his bed to think. He cradled his head as he shook in anger and grief, his thoughts filled with images of Artorias, Elise, and Valeria. He’d hoped that killing Bran would help him banish these thoughts, but the vampire had escaped.
Without anything else to do, Leon decided to train. He felt a powerful need to speak with the Thunderbird and to do that he needed to reach the sixth-tier. A fringe benefit of this training was that, for at least a little while, he managed to get his mind off his darkness-induced nightmare.
But that wasn’t a permanent solution, and after about two hours, he knew he had to get up and do something rather than just sit in his bedroom like the mopey teenager he didn’t want to be.
When he exited his bedroom, he found Alix still in the sandpit, slowly working through a sword form with her eyes closed that Trajan had taught her several months before. Her face was red from exertion and her clothes were damp with sweat, indicating just how intensely she was training. Seeing her, Leon felt more than a little terrible, as, despite his own determination to reach the sixth-tier, Bran’s escape was leaving him distracted.
Leon walked over to the edge of the sandpit to watch his nominal squire train. It occurred to him that he hadn’t taught her that much in the past year, barely a fraction of what a more experienced knight could show her. And yet, he never detected even a hint of resentment coming from her despite his rather lacking knightly qualities.
As Leon grimly smiled to himself, silently laughing at his own uselessness, Alix opened her eyes and saw him watching her. She finished up a few last swings before stretching out a bit, then asked, “Feeling all right?”
Leon almost answered, “Yes,” without thinking, but the word died on his tongue.
Alix stared at him in obvious concern; he had bags under his eyes like he had trouble sleeping, his hair was messy, and his face had gone unshaven for days. All in all, while he didn’t look bad, per se, compared to many of the other knights in the Legion he was down-right disheveled.
Alix calmly walked over and took a seat beside Leon. They weren’t the teacher-student pair that most knights and their squires were. She was his squire, lower than him in rank, magical ability, and even—assuming Leon ever identified himself to the Bull Kingdom at large—his political inferior. But she was also older than him, if only by a couple years, and that tiny age gap helped them to grow closer and become friends despite the difference in their stations.
So, with that relationship in mind, Alix sat next to Leon and waited for him to speak. She could tell that he wasn’t himself since waking from Bran’s attack several days prior, but she didn’t push him for information. She just waited for him, for whenever he was ready to talk.
She waited a while, about ten agonizingly slow minutes, during which Anzu meandered on over and lay down at Leon’s feet. Alix almost commented on how fast the griffin was growing, but she also knew that Leon might take that as an excuse to move on from his current state, so she just sat and waited while running her hands through Anzu’s soft fur—which the griffin, at best, tolerated.
Finally, Leon whispered, “I’m doing about as well as can be expected.”
Alix glanced at him and almost asked what he meant by that statement, but after seeing his face which was struggling not to show the bitter anguish he felt, she changed her mind. “Well, whenever you’re ready to talk, if you ever decide you need to talk, I’m here, for as long as you’ll have me. We’re friends, after all!”
“Right,” Leon said, his face slowly relaxing into a smile. “Thanks.”
“By the way,” Alix said, moving the conversation onward, “what will I be doing on this little sojourn to meet this Talfar Prince?”
Leon’s face again twisted in discomfort, but this time it wasn’t the prospect of talking about his insecurities that did it.
Seeing this, Alix asked, “I’m being left behind again, aren’t I?”
Leon silently nodded.
“I hate being left behind,” Alix said bitterly.
“Then there’s only one thing to do,” Leon replied, standing up and retrieving a training sword. He wasn’t confident in teaching Alix anything other than some of the fighting styles that he’d learned from Artorias, but he was at least willing to do that much.
Alix smiled and joined Leon in the sand. It was Prince Trajan who dictated who was strong enough to accompany him on his missions. Leon was strong enough, but neither she nor Anzu were. Anzu, as a young griffin, would continue to gain strength as he grew larger, but she didn’t have such a luxury; her only recourse, if she wanted to join Leon in his later missions, was to train and gain strength through hard work.
And she could feel herself nearing the third-tier. She didn’t know when she might finally cross that threshold, but she could feel that it was getting relatively close.
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