Owain’s anger had cooled by the time he returned to his tent in the Talfar camp. The high-ranking Warrior-Chiefs of the army had been waiting for him and Arthwyn to come back, but as soon as Owain walked into his tent, he dismissed everyone. Conveniently already absent was Bran, though no one was all that upset at the vampire’s lack of appearance. Arthwyn did send a few messages to the vampire before he and Owain left to meet with Trajan, but all he got in return had been silence.
In contrast to Owain, Arthwyn’s anger had not lessened over the short drive back to camp, though he at least waited until the rest of the Warrior-Chiefs left him and the Prince alone before letting it show.
“Respectfully, Your Highness, what in all the hells was that?” the Marshal demanded, his face rapidly turning red.
“If this is your idea of ‘respectfully’, I question your understanding of the word,” Owain drily said as he took a seat behind his desk and leaned back in his chair.
Arthwyn wasn’t amused with Owain’s quip, and furiously said, “When I agreed to support your bid for the throne, you agreed to take my counsel in all things!”
“I remember,” Owain said as he leisurely stretched out in his chair.
“Then why was I not consulted about the terms you offered to that bastard?!”
Slowly, Owain leaned forward until his elbows rested on his desk, and he released a tiny modicum of killing intent, something that Arthwyn didn’t think the young pampered Prince was even capable of.
“I am not your slave,” Owain said with a tone of deadly seriousness. “I am your Prince! I am not beholden to you!” The Prince took a deep breath to calm himself before continuing. “I took the liberty of looking through your history in the service of the Kingdom, and I understand that the first unit you ever commanded was wiped out in the Bull Kingdom’s counter-invasion in the last war. I understand your personal desire for revenge, which is undoubtedly the real reason why you recommended we go on this campaign, rather than marching on Pretani.”
With every word, Arthwyn’s face grew redder and his expression contorted even more with anger. However, he held his tongue; he wanted to hear everything that Owain had to say.
“You were not made a Marshal without reason,” Owain continued, “and I respect your experience and expertise. However, this is my campaign! I am the Prince here, not you! I will dictate our strategy, and you will obey!”
“You would then put my support for you in jeopardy,” Arthwyn angrily whispered.
“No I wouldn’t,” Owain countered. “You’ve already committed to me. You’ve done too much for you to extricate yourself from my cause, now. Besides, you’re not going to abandon this before it’s finished, you’re going to stay here to see your revenge for your fallen comrades completed.”
Aeronwen’s face flashed in Arthwyn’s mind, and his shoulder began to throb. “You don’t know a fucking thing,” he growled. Seeing that his words got to his normally unflappable Marshal, Owain wore a smug and confident smile, and Arthwyn had to beat back the urge to smash the Prince’s teeth in.
“Whatever you think I do or don’t know is irrelevant,” Owain responded. “The only thing that matters is my throne. Having the support of foreign royalty would’ve given my reign legitimacy, but that ship has sailed. Now it’s time to do things the hard way. Prepare an assault on the Horns.”
“To attack them now would be a fool’s errand,” Arthwyn said through clenched teeth. “Their guard is up, and will stay that way for a day, at least.”
“I’m not going to wait for them to get their act together and force us back,” Owain said. “As we speak, I’m sure they have reinforcements marching their way! I want Ariminium to be mine by the end of the month!”
“You’re giving me time limits?” Arthwyn asked with mocking amusement. “You, who have never fought a war before, let alone conducted a siege, are telling me when to take this fortress?! Have you forgotten that we have our own reinforcements on their way? Marshal Gwen will be here in a matter of weeks, and she’ll be bringing fifty thousand more soldiers with her!”
“Then let her come to a city flying the Talfar banner,” Owain said. “She can accompany us back to Pretani, at least. Just get on this. I want a plan ready by the end of the day.”
“It will take at least two or three days to organize an attack in our current state, we still need to finish setting up the camp fortifications,” Arthwyn coolly replied.
“Excuses are unbecoming a man of your stature,” Owain shot back.
Arthwyn had to fight not to grind his teeth in rage, but the Prince had given an order and he had to follow. He turned and left the tent, pausing only to wipe his face clean of anger, and pointedly not bowing to his Prince.
For his part, though, Owain no longer cared about Arthwyn’s insubordination. ‘Such unbecoming behavior,’ the Prince thought, ‘would only matter if Arthwyn survives long enough to see me crowned, which that bastard most assuredly will not.’
When the portcullises of the last wall opened, Alix and Anzu were still there, waiting to greet the return of Trajan’s group. Anzu didn’t sit and wait for Leon to approach, though, and bounded forward to run alongside Leon’s horse, startling the poor beast in the process and almost throwing Leon off its back.
“Better be careful with that little guy, Sir Leon,” Lucilius said, “he’s getting too big to play rough.”
“You can say that again,” Leon said with a nervous laugh as he righted himself in his saddle. He knew from conversations with the beastmasters and his own research into griffins that Anzu, being just over a year old, had entered into his primary growth spurt. He’d probably be big enough to ride in a matter of months, around which time he ought to be around the late third-tier or early fourth-tier. The beastmaster that Anzu had been assigned guessed that he’d grow to be about twenty or thirty percent larger than even the burliest of destriers and had been providing Leon with special food—mostly high-quality beef and lion’s milk—to help the griffin grow as large as he could.
Given that Anzu was now comparable in size to the biggest breeds of dogs, had sparkling red eyes, and a coat of gleaming white fur and feathers, Leon knew that whatever else the beastmaster put in his food was exceptionally good for him.
As if knowing that he was being talked about, Anzu chirped and fluttered his wings, kicking up a cloud of dust off the road and causing him to sneeze.
Seeing this, Trajan seized upon the moment of levity and added, “I think we might have to see about getting you bigger quarters, otherwise that one isn’t going to fit through the doors!”
“If Your Highness insists, I suppose I could live with a larger place,” Leon said with a sarcastic smile.
“We’ll get it done, then,” Trajan replied.
The group dismounted there at the gates and started walking back to the keep, which was actually faster than riding all the way back to the stables in the Southern Horn.
Along the way, Alix quickly caught up to Leon and asked, “So, we still at war?”
“Mmhmm,” Leon responded. “Though no one’s made any formal declarations…”
“We don’t need declarations to kill our enemies,” Trajan said, hearing the question and answer. “It’s clear enough that they’re here for conquest, and they’ll be left wanting.”
“That they will,” Leon agreed, though it was Bran his thoughts turned to rather than the main Talfar army.
The vampire didn’t show himself during the brief meeting, and Leon found himself feeling a little unsettled.
When the group arrived back at the keep, they went straight to Trajan’s meeting room and took their seats, with Leon standing at Trajan’s side while Alix and Anzu waited outside the room, as usual. There they waited for a few more minutes while the high-ranking Legates showed up—the entire command staff wasn’t needed, so more than a few Legates and nearly all of the Tribunes stayed at their posts.
“Was there a peace agreement?” Amatius asked.
“You ask like it’s not obvious,” Labienus responded, glancing over at the grim faces of the diplomats.
“It’s always best to confirm these things,” Amatius chided. “I’d hate to make false assumptions. Either way, though, my 19th Legion is ready.”
“That’s good,” Trajan said, his deep voice echoing in the spacious room, “because we are, indeed, still at war. I’m sure there’s going to be an attack soon, perhaps even tonight, so we need our readiness level to be high.”
“I’ll make sure we’re at twenty-five percent guard,” Minerva said. This would have one out of every four guards manning the walls to be awake and on duty, which was about fifteen battalions, not including those outside of the three combat Legions.
“We’re going to need a force of cavalry to ensure those in the towers and forts to the east can fall back if necessary,” Saufeia mentioned.
“Two or three thousand should do it,” Minerva said. “We only need to screen the retreat, not break the Talfar cavalry on its own terms.”
“It’s not like their cavalry can easily take fortified positions, though,” Labienus stated.
“We’re not going to leave five hundred knights and men-at-arms out there to die,” Trajan growled.
“About how long can they stay out there, though?” Labienus asked.
“Not long, if they get surrounded,” Saufeia answered.
“Which they will be,” Amatius added.
“With the ships at the mouth of the river and our own cavalry and archers giving them hell, falling back won’t be an issue; Constantine won’t give up his positions without putting up one hell of a fight,” Minerva confidently stated.
Suddenly, the door burst open and a Tribune hurriedly entered. “We have a situation!” he breathlessly explained.
“What is it?” Trajan demanded.
“Your Highness, we may have detected someone infiltrating the fortress!”
The mouth of the Tyrrhenian River was wide and relatively calm. That being said, if a mortal—or first-tier mage and possibly even most second-tier mages—were to try and swim across, they would find themselves quickly being swept out into the Gulf of Discord. There were no bridges or walls spanning this part of the river, only three enormous towers at the end of the wall protecting Ariminium, though the local Bull fleet was out in force, just in case any enterprising Talfar officer tried to infiltrate the city beyond the walls—which didn’t have any walls west of the Horns—using captured Florentine boats.
But Bran didn’t need boats, and he certainly wasn’t going to be swept out to sea anytime soon. Not long before Owain and Arthwyn set off for their meeting, Bran had left his soldiers in the care of the highest-ranking Warrior-Chief in his division that he hadn’t eaten, then slipped into the river. He sank down into the water, and even further into his shadow, then rode the current down the river.
He had a strong darkness demon on his side, plus prodigious power in his own right, but he still had to be careful as he drifted down the river. There may not be any bridges spanning the river, but there were certainly plenty of enchantments that he had to avoid, not to mention the sheer magical power required to move the warships that radiated out into the water could force him out of his shadows if he lost concentration. On top of all this, he was unable to rise to the surface in order to breathe, though as a seventh-tier mage he could hold his breath for hours if he didn’t exert himself too much.
And it was like this, with ships patrolling above him, and the eyes of soldiers in the tower scanning the water that surrounded him, that Bran slithered past the walls of Ariminium.
‘That wasn’t so difficult,’ the vampire thought as he sped toward the Southern Horn, unaware that he had tripped one of the alarms on his way past the towers overlooking the river, an alarm that no fish or ship could trigger.
Leon’s taste had faded somewhat in the days since he’d first sampled it, so Bran was a little more lucid as he emerged from the water as nothing more than a shadow. Still, with all the speed of his darkness, Bran didn’t arrive at the Southern Horn until after the meeting between the two Princes had concluded.
The gates of the Southern Horn were a little trickier than the river, as the walls enclosed the Horn completely, preventing him from just drifting past and trusting in his shadows to hide him from detection; if he were to try and go over the walls, he’d almost certainly be caught.
Luckily, the gates of the Horn were still open, and carts of supplies were being brought in and out in great numbers. Bran simply hid in a dark corner of one of the carts and let himself be taken into the Horn with little trouble.
However, yet again, he tripped some alarms, and he had to speed away on the other side of the outer walls when the guards watching over the gate pulled the merchant over to inspect the supplies he was delivering. He didn’t, however, notice exactly how many alarms he’d tripped.
The vampire’s next biggest challenge was finding his prey. There were thousands of people in the Southern Horn, and he couldn’t release his magic senses without fear of discovery, and so that left him with nothing more than the manual approach. He’d have to search the entire Horn for Leon, something which would likely take days, and then he’d have to wait for an opportune moment to strike, when the young knight was on his own, preferably.
But Bran was patient, and as he shot up a small tower to get a better look at the Southern Horn’s layout, the glittering white marble towers of the keep entered his view.
‘That delicious morsel was with Trajan both times we fought, so might as well start someplace where the Prince is likely to be,’ Bran thought, and he began to slowly make his way past more walls, gates, and defensive wards meant to deter infiltrators, all of which failed against the seventh-tier vampire.
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