Leon hauled himself out of the Tyrrhenian River with some difficulty; he was extremely tired from the running and fighting he’d done over the past week—and this day in particular. It was nearly midnight, and he’d been going strong for more than six hours, and this was after a day spent hunting the Talfar warriors that had been hunting him.
The Legion soldiers at the other end of the pier did nothing to help him out of the water. They still weren’t certain who he was, and until they found out, they were going to assume that he was hostile.
As Leon rose to his feet, the local Centurion shouted, “Stay where you are, no sudden moves!”
Leon complied. In fact, he just sat down on a nearby cleat and waited for the soldiers to make their move. He was too tired to even offer his own name. His obvious power put the watching soldiers on edge, but after a few minutes of waiting for stronger soldiers to arrive, the company watching him started to relax.
As he waited, Leon’s thoughts turned toward what happened in the river. None of the soldiers around seemed strong enough to have been responsible for the water magic that aided him, and he couldn’t think of anyone that might have been around to have used that magic. For a few brief terrifying seconds, he thought he might have been followed by Naiad, but he couldn’t feel her presence like he could after they made their pact, leading him to think that she wasn’t around.
“Hey, what’s your name?” the Centurion called out, pulling Leon out of his thoughts.
“Leon Ursus!” Leon shouted back, and he heard an audible gasp from several of the soldiers.
“What unit are you a part of?” the Centurion continued.
Leon rolled his eyes, but he understood the man’s caution and the need for these questions, even if he were too tired to appreciate them. “I serve in Prince Trajan’s retinue!” Leon replied.
He didn’t get out and interact with most of the rank-and-file soldiers much, so Leon didn’t truly understand how famous he was. Nearly every soldier stationed at Ariminium knew the names of most of the Prince’s most prominent knights, and Leon was no different. Of course, few of them knew what he looked like or the appearance of his armor, so he wasn’t immediately recognized.
“I apologize, Sir,” the Centurion said after some thought, “but we’re going to have to ask you to stay put for a little while longer, Sir Constantine is on his way here!”
Leon gave the man a thumbs up and got back to waiting. But he didn’t have to wait long, barely five minutes passed by before Constantine’s familiar short and stocky frame appeared at the front of the company.
“Ursus?!” the knight shouted, getting Leon’s attention.
“Sir Constantine!” Leon shouted back in greeting as he removed his helmet to give the other knight a good look at his face.
Constantine was shocked speechless for several moments, but he quickly gathered himself together and said, “His Highness has been waiting for you, best not to keep him waiting!”
The knight waved at Leon to get him to follow, and the two began their journey to the Southern Horn. It was a somewhat awkward trek, as neither had much experience in dealing with the other, but about halfway there, Constantine asked, “Soooo, had a good time out there?”
Leon gave the other man a bitter smile but didn’t say a word. He hadn’t much time to truly process everything he’d done and reaching Ariminium was bringing all of it back to the forefront of his mind in vivid detail.
“I’ve got to warn you, His Highness is furious with you,” Constantine mentioned.
“Not surprised,” Leon replied. He knew what he had done was stupid and reckless, but he did it anyway. He wasn’t going to shy away from taking responsibility for it now.
They reached the keep of the Southern Horn soon enough, and they went straight to Trajan’s meeting room. Right before entering, though, Constantine gave Leon a quick nod of solidarity before returning to his duties; Leon entered the dark meeting room alone.
Trajan was already there waiting for him on the raised dais, his face cast completely in shadow. The room was otherwise devoid of people, and Leon felt his heart rate skyrocket. It didn’t matter that his reason told him that Trajan wasn’t going to harm him, his primitive instincts were screaming at him that Trajan was an enormous danger and to run away.
But Leon didn’t run away. He calmly walked right up to a respectful distance and bowed to the Prince.
“Your Highness, I’ve returned,” Leon said, trying to keep his voice calm and steady. He was only partially successful.
“I noticed,” Trajan grimly muttered. His aura was heavy, and it pressed down uncomfortably on Leon. The younger knight was still on one knee, waiting for Trajan to allow him to rise. “I wondered multiple times how I ought to react should you return alive,” Trajan continued in a slow and morose tone. “You abandoned your post, you abandoned the soldiers around you, and you abandoned your squire and war-beast. I considered shouting at you in anger until I was blue in the face, I thought what kind of punishment would be appropriate for such actions, and I even entertained the idea of throwing you out the Legion entirely…”
“It’s exactly as Your Highness says,” Leon said with a formality that was uncharacteristic of the interactions between the two in the year-and-change the two had known each other.
“Give me your report,” the Prince growled, and Leon began to explain everything that had happened since leaping down from the tower. Trajan had already known about Leon’s invisibility ring from Aquillius’ report about the events surrounding the Cradle, so that didn’t come as a surprise.
Leon carefully explained everything about the trebuchets, his destruction of the Talfar supplies, his detection and subsequent damage to his invisibility ring, and finally the chase into the forest to the north-east of the Talfar camp. He did not, however, tell Trajan about his encounter with Naiad. Instead, he told the story of how he defeated a water nymph and climbed up the chasm on the north side, and then his guerilla war with the Talfar squads sent to find him. He finished his story with his return south and swimming down the Tyrrhenian River.
“That’s a hell of a story,” Trajan brusquely said. What Leon could see of his shadowed face was stoic and expressionless. There was no anger, wrath, happiness, or glee that Leon could read in the Prince’s face.
Leon began to sweat a little.
“The reports I’ve received from our scouts have largely confirmed everything you’ve said,” the Prince finally stated after a long silence. “We found the remains of the trebuchets you destroyed, we discovered the dire supply situation that our enemy has found themselves in, and we noticed the number of warriors they sent into the forest—it was obvious now that they were looking for you.”
Leon was quiet. He had no intention of speaking unless Trajan specifically asked him a question.
“These are accomplishments worthy of reward. Under normal conditions, at least,” the Prince said in a voice almost low enough to shake the entire keep. “You, however, did all this by leaving your post. If you have ever wondered why you have not been assigned a command, it’s for reasons like this. I’d hoped your reckless streak would’ve been stamped out by now, but it’s clear to me that it hasn’t been.”
Leon could feel Trajan’s disappointed gaze bore into him like a team of a thousand miners carving their way into the side of a mountain, and his eyes dropped to the floor.
“I’m not going to shout or throw you out of the Legion—there would be little point in doing so. Instead, you will ride out the rest of this war at my side. You will not fight again unless I specifically give you permission, and that permission won’t come easy. Your rank as Tribune is also revoked, to be returned only when I believe you have earned it.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” Leon acknowledged.
“I will continue to consider what punishments ought to be levied, should I decide they’re necessary,” Trajan continued. “You may leave. Be here first thing tomorrow morning, assuming the Arthwyn and Owain don’t decide to attack before then.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” Leon repeated, and he rose to his feet and swiftly moved toward the door of the meeting room. His back was slick with sweat, and his mind wasn’t at all put at ease, knowing that it was still incredibly likely that he would be punished later.
He was suddenly stopped when Trajan said, “Oh, and well done making it back home. It’s good to have you back, son.”
Leon could feel a stinging sensation in his eyes, but he managed to keep his composure. Still, it was all he could do to simply respond, “Thank you, Your Highness,” and he walked out of the room.
Instantly, all thought of what Trajan had just said and his potential punishment was pushed out of his mind when he heard someone in the waiting room scream, “Leon!”
He turned around to see who it was just in time to catch a flash of bright green eyes and a headful of brilliant red hair before a pair of familiar arms wrapped around his neck and pulled him into a deep hug. Lips he knew well locked with his, and after his surprise wore off, he wrapped his own arms around Elise’s waist and hugged her back.
The two lovers remained there for several seconds until Leon became self-conscious about the stares they were receiving from Trajan’s assistants and secretaries. He reluctantly parted from Elise and asked, “What are you doing here?”
“There a problem with me being here?” she asked as a playful challenge.
“Of course not, I just wasn’t expecting you,” Leon replied, showing off a rare smile.
“You sent off for some things from your vault in Teira. I decided to deliver them to you personally!” Elise happily explained. “I got here yesterday, and His Highness directed me to your room, where I left your package.”
“Ah,” Leon said, suddenly feeling awkward. “Did His Highness tell you why I was gone?”
“He did,” Elise replied, her joyous smile faltering a little.
“Maybe we ought to head somewhere a little more private, then,” Leon said, taking Elise’s hand and steering her toward the door.
“Let’s do that,” Elise whispered as she squeezed Leon’s hand.
“That damned idiot,” Trajan muttered as he collapsed into his couch in his favorite sitting room.
“He’s back safe, at least,” Minerva replied.
“I just… I don’t know what to do with him,” Trajan said exasperatedly. “How should this sort of thing be stamped out? Damnit, what was he thinking, running off and taking on the entire damned Talfar camp alone?!”
“Indeed, taking the initiative is one thing, but doing something so profoundly stupid is another,” Minerva murmured as she ran a hand through her silky black hair. “It’s hard to remember, but he’s still only eighteen. Nearly all boys his age are stupid and reckless and think they’re going to live forever, and he also has the power to summon lightning, which I guess makes him even more over-confident.”
“Well, whether he’s confident or not, he’s not going to be doing something like this again,” Trajan vowed. “He isn’t going back out into battle unless it’s at my side for the duration of this war.”
“With the numbers we have stacked against us, do we really have the luxury of doing that?” Minerva asked.
“We do,” Trajan said definitively.
“All right, then,” Minerva replied with a smile. “He’s a good kid, and there’s a great deal of potential within him, we ought to do what we can to keep him alive a little longer.”
“Mmm,” Trajan hummed in agreement. Switching gears, as asked, “How far out are our reinforcements?”
“The 20th Legion will be here in a matter of days,” Minerva replied. “Beyond that, we don’t have concrete times for the 22nd or the 25th, but Prince August has crossed the Naga and shouldn’t be much later than the 20th.”
“Good. We only need to hold out a few more days and we can push these bastards back.”
“Do you think we’re going to be attacked in that time?”
Trajan frowned, then said, “It’s possible. From the reports our scouts have made and what I heard from Leon, Talfar is busy replacing their siege equipment and figuring out their supply situation. If they do decide to attack, though, they’ll be leaving more of their dead behind than last time…”
“They won’t crack our defenses,” Minerva vowed.
“No, they won’t,” Trajan agreed, “but pushing them out of their defensive position will be another thing entirely…”
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