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Leon led Elise back to his and Alix’s barracks room, though it wasn’t entirely necessary as Elise had been there before to drop off Leon’s diamond and sapphires. The main room was fairly dark, but it must not have been that long since Alix went to bed, as she immediately came out into the main room fully clothed and with her sword drawn.
“Leon!” she said in surprise. She quickly composed herself and drily quipped, “I thought you would’ve been back sooner.”
“Things got… complicated,” Leon said quietly as Alix set her blade down on the table in front of the couches.
Elise and Alix warmly greeted each other, and Alix said before Leon could ask, “Anzu is fine, Sir. He’s currently with the beastmasters, but they wouldn’t let me take him home without you.”
“Thank you,” Leon said with a genuine smile. “I was worried about him, it’s good to hear that he’s doing well.”
“Not as well as he could’ve been doing,” Alix replied. “With you gone for so long, apparently the beastmasters had to separate him from the rest of the animals in their care for their safety. He was going a little crazy.”
Leon seemed to nod and cringe at the same time, and he said, “I’ll go get him tomorrow morning.”
“Can I go with you? You’ve told me so much about Anzu, I really want to see him for myself!” Elise asked, her eyes bright with enthusiasm.
Leon nodded, and she gave him a quick hug.
“Well,” Alix continued awkwardly, “It’s good that you’re back, Sir. I think I’ll be heading to bed now.”
Again, Leon nodded, not quite sure what he should, or even could, say that might improve things. Alix quickly hurried back to her room, leaving Leon and Elise alone with each other.
“So, where have you been staying since you came here?” Leon asked.
“An apartment in the Diplomatic Corps,” Elise responded. “What they gave me was pretty nice, like this place but bigger.”
“Guess being the daughter of the top Heaven’s Eye official has some perks, doesn’t it?” Leon asked teasingly.
“There are a few, here and there,” Elise playfully responded. “But now that my idiot boyfriend is back from his idiotic suicide mission, I would like to stay with him, if that isn’t an imposition?”
Leon took her in his arms and pulled her close, whispering into her ear, “You’re never an imposition.”
“And that is the correct answer,” Elise replied. She pressed her lips onto Leon’s, but quickly pulled away and said, “You need to bathe.”
Leon chuckled at the way she said it, but he had gone almost a week without a decent shower or bath, and he had been quite physically active during that time. His dip in two rivers and an underground lake helped it not be too overpowering, but he knew that he probably stank quite a bit.
Twenty minutes later, Leon emerged from the bathroom feeling like a new man. He had taken off his armor for the first time in five days, he was clean, and he was wearing clean clothes. He went back into his room to find Elise waiting there, sitting on the edge of his bed with a thin case made of dark red wood in her lap.
“Those are…?” Leon began.
“The gems from your vault,” Elise replied as she opened the case. Leon saw a brief flash of light as the enchantments locking the case released and the lid swung open, revealing four small sapphires and a clear white diamond the size of Leon’s thumb glittering in black velvet padding.
“Those ought to be perfect,” Leon said.
“What do you need them for, anyway?” Elise curiously asked.
Leon honestly wasn’t sure what specifically Xaphan wanted the gems for, but he didn’t find it that difficult to spin a little white lie.
“I’m working on some of my family’s enchantments and needed some materials. Didn’t want too many, though, I’d rather not blow through what I inherited so quickly,” he said. He took the case and placed it on top of his desk, then joined Elise on the bed.
“Now that my business is done, I don’t know what to do…” Elise said as she leaned back on the bed and gave Leon a smoldering look.
Leon smiled and leaned in, but just as he was about to kiss Elise, he stopped, and his smile grew strained. He paused there for what seemed like an eternity, and just as Elise was about to rise a little bit and meet him partway, Leon pulled back to a sitting position on the bed, turned slightly away from her.
“What’s wrong?” Elise asked with extreme concern. Every time they’d had sex before, both of them had been enthusiastic, to say the least, so Leon’s current behavior wasn’t something she’d been expecting. She quickly looked herself over; she was wearing a long dark red dress with a plunging neckline that had been perfectly tailored to cling to her body. It even had an enchantment that she had activated once she and Leon were alone that tightened the fit, in order to show her body off to her lover even more without just taking the dress off. She’d also put her hair up into a loose bun and bathed not long before Leon returned.
In other words, she had dressed up and cleaned up, so she didn’t think that there was anything about her that would turn Leon off, but his reaction made her check anyway.
Leon sighed and went silent for a long time, and Elise frowned in dejection when he didn’t even turn around to face her.
“You can talk to me, tell me what the problem is,” she said as she gently hugged him from behind. She grew even more concerned when she felt him instinctively pull away, but he overcame that instinct and ended up pulling her closer.
“It… it hasn’t been a fantastic few weeks,” Leon finally said after sitting in silence for several agonizing minutes. “There was a darkness mage in the enemy ranks. He was a vampire and a seventh-tier mage…”
Leon proceeded to tell Elise everything about Bran and the illusion that he was subjected to. It wasn’t easy to get through, and he needed to pause several times, but he made it.
“That bastard!” Elise raged. “How dare he use me to strike at you!”
Leon smiled despite himself and unconsciously leaned back into Elise’s well-endowed chest, while at the same time Elise tightened her embrace around his shoulders and pulled him in closer. During the story, the two had moved back from the edge of the bed, so Elise’s back was braced against the wall.
“Is this swamp leech still alive?” she demanded to know.
Leon shook his head,
“I love you,” Leon whispered after her rage had cooled a little.
“I love you, too, with all my heart,” Elise whispered back as she curled herself around his head and broad shoulders and ran her hands through his black hair. “You know that I would never say those things, right? The idea that you aren’t worthy of anyone you want is ludicrous and is an idea that I would ne- will never entertain!”
“I love you,” Leon repeated, bringing a smile that could shame the sun to Elise’s face. But what he said next brought it crashing down. “I need to tell you something else…”
He slowly and hesitantly told Elise about his experience with Naiad and his subsequent pact. He paused here and there, trying to find the proper words to not only describe the events but also to reassure his lover that there were few things he wanted to do less than fulfilling the terms of said pact.
When he was finished, Elise was fuming with anger, but whether it was at him or Naiad, Leon couldn’t say.
‘Probably both,’ he figured as he waited for her response. She hadn’t said a word since he told her of Naiad emerging from the pond in the middle of the underground lake.
After a long few minutes, Elise finally said, “This… is some unpleasant news, if you’ll forgive my understatement…”
“I’ve been trying to think of ways to get out of this pact, but nothing has come to me so far,” Leon muttered.
Elsie hugged him even closer and he could feel her shaking and her heart racing in anger. “You came back to me, that’s what matters,” she whispered half to herself and half to Leon. “There are some people back home who are familiar with magical pacts, I’ll see if they have any way to get out of this… I don’t want you sleeping with someone I don’t know…”
Leon was grateful, but he had no idea what he could say in this situation. He’d basically told his girlfriend that he was obligated to sleep with another woman; despite nobles having the right to take multiple spouses, there was always the expectation that the other spouses would have a say in these things, and sex outside of marriage was still frowned upon in the upper reaches of society—surprise bastards could complicate title succession and inheritances, after all.
But for all Leon’s nervousness from telling Elise about Naiad and his anger in recalling how close the latter had come to raping him, as well as Elise’s own suppressed anger, neither started shouting or pushed each other away. Instead, they cuddled together as close as they could and eventually fell asleep. They didn’t make love, as they so often did when alone together; Leon’s news had killed the happy mood at their reunion.
“One rat! ONE!” Arthwyn raged as Emrys looked appropriately apologetic. “How many of our warriors did this one bastard kill?!”
“More than four hundred,” Emrys responded.
“More than four hundred! And yet, you let him get away! You had a damned week to catch him, and he slipped through your fingers!”
Emrys frowned, but nothing that Arthwyn said was false. Still, the Marshal’s face was red with rage and he was clearly desperately holding himself back from screaming even more at his subordinate. Screaming wouldn’t help the situation, after all, and would likely make him look bad in front of his other Warrior-Chiefs, who were watching Emrys’ castigation with varying levels of anger and apathy.
Arthwyn took a deep breath to steady himself, then said, “We are in a bad situation right now. We’re barely getting enough supplies to keep the levies from starving and there’ve already been reports of desertion among their ranks. We need to get our towers and trebuchets finished and get this fortress conquered before the army dissolves.”
“I understand our situation, my Lord,” Emrys replied.
“I didn’t say you could speak,” Arthwyn snapped. He immediately regretted it as several other Warrior-Chiefs sent disapproving looks his way. Still, Emrys failed in his task and Arthwyn felt he needed to be punished. “For your failure, Emrys, I’m sending you back to Briga to supervise the supply shipments to the army.”
Emrys clenched his jaw in frustration—he was a charioteer, one of the most highly respected warriors in all the army, being assigned to logistics was an enormous slap in the face. Still, he couldn’t deny that even after being given two thousand warriors, he still failed to capture the Bull soldier who had put their supplies in such dire straits, to begin with.
“Pack your things and get moving,” Arthwyn commanded, and Emrys departed the command tent barely able to suppress his ugly look.
The Warrior-Chief was furious in both his own failure, and in the punishment that Arthwyn decided to give him, but words could not properly describe Arthwyn’s wrath. His carefully planned assault on the Bull’s Horns had been stymied at nearly every turn—and mostly by Owain, at that. The Prince had sent Bran on a suicide mission, he’d tried to broker peace with Trajan, and he’d ordered a retreat after their supplies had been destroyed.
Arthwyn could now see the very real possibility that he would not achieve his revenge, and he was not happy, to say the least. In fact, he’d even started to contemplate removing Owain from power and continuing on with his campaign, regardless of the consequences.
The Marshal glanced around at his subordinates—most hid their emotions well, but he could see in the nervous tapping of feet and inability to meet his gaze those whose will to continue was flagging. A few chairs were empty due to death and injury, but his chain of command remained intact, at least, and those around him continued to do their jobs well enough.
Still, with mounting casualties and their supply problems, it was only a matter of time before he would start losing the support of these high-tiered warriors if he hadn’t begun to already. Starvation was one of the quickest ways to mutiny, after all. The army could continue for only so much longer in this state. He needed a win to raise morale, and he needed it soon if he was to accomplish his goals with this campaign.
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