The atmosphere around the Bull’s Horns was so tense it could almost be cut with a careless swing of a blade. The 19th Legion manned the walls, the 21st prepared themselves in the Northern Horn, and the 23rd readied for battle in the Southern Horn. The fleet had deployed to the mouth of the Tyrrhenian River to watch for any approaching Talfar soldiers using boats seized in Florentia and to bombard any units of their army that strayed too close to the shore.
The people of Ariminium could sense this tension, and even though many went about their day as usual, many more barricaded themselves in their homes.
Prince Trajan was going to meet with Owain on this day, and the possibility of the meeting turning violent was high. Everyone had to be ready for the walls of Ariminium and the Bull’s Horns to be assaulted.
When the time came, Leon, Alix, and Anzu made their way over to the keep and met up with Trajan, Aquillius, and the others who would be going to the meeting. As he approached, Leon bowed slightly to the Prince—who was speaking with Aquillius, Fonteius, Minerva, and a handful of other high-ranking knights—then nodded respectfully to Aquillius, Anna, Lucilius, and Juliana, who he had been acquainted with during his short assignment to the Diplomatic Corps.
“Hi, there!” Anna almost shouted as Leon walked up. She darted forward and threw her arms around Leon’s neck and pulled him into a tight hug.
Leon certainly wasn’t expecting this, and he froze up for a moment as he tried to think of what to do. He gently returned the hug and quietly said, “Hello.”
Anna released him and flashed him an impish smile, reveling in his awkwardness.
“Must you do that here?” Juliana said, chastising Anna for her undignified public behavior.
“Yep!” Anna responded, grinning at Juliana in turn.
“It’s good to see you again, Sir Leon, Miss Alix,” Lucilius said, interrupting Juliana before she could retort.
“And you,” Leon said, while Alix nodded as respectfully as she could to the older knight.
“Hopefully this will turn out better than our last mission did,” Lucilius said with a wry smile.
“Yeah, assuming I don’t screw something up,” Leon replied with a self-deprecating smile. They had accomplished their last mission together, but Leon had recklessly endangered it when he went exploring in the stone giants’ Cradle.
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Anna pitched in, “it’s not like this is going to hinge on whatever you decide!”
“True,” Leon conceded, “though to be fair, last time wasn’t supposed to, either…”
“Just stick with His Highness and everything will be fine,” Juliana responded. “If anything goes wrong, it won’t be because of us.”
“Got it,” Leon said.
As they were speaking, the last of the sixth-tier knights that Trajan was bringing along showed up, along with their men-at-arms, and Trajan shouted, “Everyone here? Then let’s get this thing done with!”
Everyone finished up their preparations and fell in line, but before Leon took his place in Trajan’s entourage, he turned to Alix and said, “Keep an eye on Anzu, all right?”
“Yes, Sir,” Alix said with a somewhat regretful smile. She hated being left out of important things that her knight was participating in, but as she was still only a second-tier mage, there wasn’t much she could do about it.
She laid a hand on Anzu’s back, and Leon whispered, “Stay here, buddy. Keep an eye on Alix for me.”
Anzu hated being left behind probably more that Alix did, but he was starting to get used to it. He sat down and watched Leon turn around and hurry to catch up with Trajan with a rigid expression as if he was just waiting for Leon to change his mind and call out to him to join the mission.
But he didn’t, despite glancing back once with a look of regret that almost matched Alix’s.
Once the group reached the main gates through the walls, Trajan called the group to a halt. A number of horses had been prepared, but none of them mounted just yet.
“Has the Talfar Prince been seen, yet?” he asked a waiting Tribune.
“Not yet, Your Highness,” the Tribune responded.
“Hmm,” Trajan growled in displeasure.
“It’s not like they were going to arrive early and wait for Your Highness,” Minerva said with a hint of chastisement that only those familiar with her could pick up on.
“They could’ve,” Trajan responded. “Not like we’re the ones who asked for this meeting!”
“Perhaps…” Aquillius hesitantly began, before leaning in closer so that the others wouldn’t be able to hear, “… Perhaps a little more patience with those who marched an army to our border would be prudent?”
Trajan almost shot back about his own patience, but realized just in time that it wouldn’t help. He took a deep breath and calmed himself, but made sure that it was subtle enough that he wouldn’t appear less confident to the nearby soldiers watching the group. If he were to be honest with himself, his patience was thinner than normal after seeing so many of the soldiers under his command killed after so many years of relative peace. It took him a moment to regain the regal calm he learned during his childhood in the Royal Palace in the capital.
As he was re-centering himself, he glanced at those who were to accompany him, and his gaze landed on the helmeted Leon. With his face obscured and restful body language, he appeared to be the embodiment of undisturbed calm. The Prince couldn’t help but be a little jealous of the young man for his ability to remain poised in this situation. Even Aquillius and Minerva were a little on edge, despite their admonishments of his behavior.
A soldier suddenly shouted from the gatehouse, “Four chariots on the field coming from the Talfar camp!”
“Time to go,” Trajan said, and his group got on their horses, with the exception of Minerva.
“Let’s hope this isn’t a waste of time,” Lucilius muttered.
“That depends on them,” Aquillius said.
“Given how things have gone so far, I doubt we’ll get very far today,” Trajan cynically added.
Once everyone was mounted and ready, both of the gatehouse’s portcullises began to slide upward almost without a sound.
“Don’t burn this place to the ground while I’m gone,” Trajan said to Minerva with a cheeky smile.
“Oh, you’ll be lucky if the Horns are still here in half an hour when I’m done with them,” Minerva tried to quip back, but her worry for the Prince was shown when her voice quivered a bit.
Picking up on this, Trajan replied, “We’ll be right back.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” Minerva said, bowing her head as Trajan led the group through the wall.
The other two central gatehouses opened to let the Prince’s group pass through, closing behind them so that only a single gatehouse was open at any one time. It was rare for these main gatehouses to ever be open all at once, as that would present a huge weak spot in the walls; for caravans and travelers that want to pass through the walls, smaller gates at the ends of the walls would open, forcing those who want to pass to zig-zag up and down between the walls as a security measure.
Several minutes later, Trajan’s group was riding through the fortified vale between the Horns and Talfar territory. Within the half dozen or so towers and small forts, the passing group could see the soldiers tense and waiting for the Talfar army to make a move, but so far, only the four chariots that could be seen just outside of the eastern-most towers had approached Bull territory.
These four chariots patiently waited for Trajan’s group to meet them. Each one was slightly larger than normal, owing to their function as vehicles for important people, and had five or six people riding within rather than only four. This meant that both groups were about equal in number, though Trajan’s had the advantage in mobility, as each of his people had their own horse.
As the group approached the meeting point roughly at the designated border between the two Kingdoms, both Leon and Trajan scanned the riders of the chariots looking for Bran. Neither truly thought that the seventh-tier mage would miss something like this, but both were disappointed when neither hide nor hair of the vampire could be seen. To be fair, it was a warm, sunny day, and vampires weren’t known for their tolerance to the sun, but not knowing where Bran was still put both—Leon, especially—on high alert.
However, who they could see were two men in particular that stood out from the other soldiers. One wore the silver and blue plate armor of a Talfar Marshal and radiated the vigorous aura of a sixth-tier mage. The other was dressed all in rich blue velvet trimmed with silver, had blue-dyed hair, and watched their group riding toward him with a warm and jovial smile. As Trajan’s group came closer, Leon could make out faint dark blue flowers embroidered in the blue man’s elaborate doublet, destroying any semblance of humility that he may have wanted to convey with a near-monochrome outfit.
In contrast, Trajan was dressed in simple Legion red trimmed with gold, with the only decoration he chose being a golden bull on his chest.
“Prince Trajan!” the blue man called out once Trajan’s group stopped in comfortable speaking range. “I’m so glad you decided to indulge my request for a meeting! You’ve no idea how relieved you’ve made me, giving us the option to settle these unfortunate recent circumstances amicably!”
“Prince Owain,” Trajan growled, his voice so low that Leon almost thought the Prince was mimicking a stone giant, “these ‘unfortunate recent events’ have left thousands on both sides injured and dead. Because of your blatant aggression, it was my first and second instincts to refuse your offer to meet!”
“Our aggression?!” the man in silver armor almost shouted, his eyes staring death at Trajan, “It was you that invaded our land and stole our people from their homes!”
“Those were our people, and we simply assisted in their evacuation,” Aquillius responded, his voice significantly calmer than the silver-armored man’s. “It was your people who attacked first, in an attempt to prevent us from repatriating our people in Ariminium.”
“Now, now, everyone,” Owain interrupted before the Marshal could angrily shout back, “we’ve convened here to speak of peace, not of who did what and who’s to blame for what and when!” The Prince turned his eyes toward Fonteius, and seizing the chance to defuse the others, said, “I remember you, Sir Fonteius! We met eight years ago when you traveled to Pretani!”
“Yes, Your Highness, for then-Princess Andraste’s election as Queen,” Fonteius replied.
At the reminder of his sister and his failure to take the crown, Owain’s smiling mask slipped a little, showing a dark look and a lot of anger, but the smile was back in place almost as quickly as it had dropped.
“I think… that we may have gotten off on the wrong foot,” Owain said through clenched teeth, barely able to hold in his rising anger.
“Cut to the chase, why did you request this meeting?” Trajan demanded, giving Aquillius the urge to face-palm.
“I was hoping that we could come to some peaceful arrangement that would solve our current predicament in a way that’s beneficial to both sides,” Owain explained, forcing his jaw to relax so that he could sound a little more earnest and straightforward.
“Given the blood shed in recent days, these benefits must be stellar indeed if Your Highness believes it can bring peace,” Aquillius observed.
“I should think so,” Owain replied, a confident smile returning to his face. “First of all, I should remind all of you not only of the size of my army, but also that it’s led by Bran, one of the strongest mages in our realm who unfortunately couldn’t be with us today, and Arthwyn, one of our finest military minds. I should also remind you of the current political situation within your borders, something which has even reached my ears. Your King is absent, and your Regents are more preoccupied with each other than with what’s happening here.”
Trajan scowled as Owain brought up things that he didn’t think had spread outside of the Bull Kingdom yet, and Aquillius asked, “And the point of all of this, is what?”
“I have the power I need to take this fortress. You have, what? Three Legions and some men-at-arms? Seventy thousand at the best? Not even half of what I have…”
“Those are some interesting figures,” Trajan muttered with a smile. “You’ll never breach our walls before our reinforcements arrive.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” Owain said mysteriously.
“Don’t underestimate our army, Bull Prince,” the silver-clad Marshal said, spitting out ‘Bull Prince’ as if it were a horrendous curse.
“I’d rather not take this fortress by force of arms if it can be avoided,” Owain said, cutting off another potential fight. “In fact, I’d rather not take this fortress at all.”
The Marshal subtly glared at his Prince in confusion, which only Aquillius picked up on.
‘That appeared to be a look of confusion, did they not speak about this beforehand?’ the diplomat wondered.
“An odd thing to say, Your Highness, given how many citizens of Talfar that have been mobilized to take it,” Fonteius replied, nodding at the gigantic Talfar camp.
“I don’t like half measures,” Owain said with a chuckle. “Anyway, to get to the point, we’re both Princes with a great many warriors willing to kill for us. This is what I propose: that we both use our considerable military might to aid the other in seizing our respective thrones! You march with me to take Pretani, and I will march with you to seize your Central Territories!”
This time it wasn’t only Arthwyn who stared at Owain in disbelief, but nearly everyone else present.
Trajan was silent for several seconds, which Owain thought meant he was seriously considering the offer. In truth, though, Trajan was simply stunned that Owain would suggest such a thing.
“I’m not one for treason,” he eventually said.
“And it wouldn’t be treason if we win,” Owain countered, “it would be the legitimate monarch coming to power. I know that you relinquished your claim years ago, but-“
“Not going to happen,” Trajan interrupted.
Owain stared at his Princely counterpart, his smile faltering a little. “Perhaps… you have not thought out the benefits this arrangement could bring us?”
“I’ve given this offer all the consideration it deserves,” Trajan said with a deep scowl.
“I see…” Owain muttered. “I think you still don’t trust me. How about this, then, I have more than twenty unwed sisters, you can have your pick of them if you take me up on this offer. Hell, you can have them all if you want, so long as you help me claim my throne.”
Trajan almost burst out laughing at this suggestion. “If I wanted women, I wouldn’t need your assistance to get my fill,” he said.
Owain was quiet for a long moment, and Arthwyn managed to get himself back under control, shifting his glare from his Prince back to Trajan. Trajan picked up on the killing intent in the Marshal’s eyes, but it didn’t concern him enough to bother looking back at Arthwyn.
“Then… that’s how it’s going to be, then,” Owain said quietly, almost to himself. “You have chosen the path of blood. I will claim my throne over your rotting corpse.”
With that, Owain gestured to his chariot driver, who turned the Royal chariot around to start marking its way back to the Talfar camp.
Trajan was about to do likewise when Arthwyn suddenly asked, “Do you remember me, Your Highness?”
Trajan glanced at the Marshal, and despite seeing something familiar in the man’s face, couldn’t place it. “No,” he growled.
“A shame,” the Marshal whispered. “It seems you will die without truly knowing the man who bested you.” Arthwyn then joined Owain in riding back to their camp, with the rest of their guards in close pursuit.
“Well, that was enlightening,” Aquillius said. “Maybe get your contacts in Pretani to speed things up with that Elder Council of theirs, yeah?” he said to Fonteius. With Queen Andraste out in the field fighting against the Han Kingdom, the Elder Council was the only body with the power to recall Owain from his current campaign.
“They’re working hard, but it’s domestic problems and their eastern wars that take up their time right now,” Fonteius said with a hint of bitterness.
“Let’s get back to the Horns,” Trajan said. “We don’t want to be caught out here talking if that army decides to attack now that their offer of peace fell through.”
“By your word, Your Highness,” Aquillius said obsequiously.
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