The morning after Leon returned to the Horns, he and Elise woke up in each other’s arms just as the sun was beginning to rise over the horizon, still dressed in their clothes from the previous night. They were intimately entwined with each other, with their legs tangled, Leon’s arms snugly wrapped around Elise’s waist, and Elise almost holding Leon’s face to her neck and chest with hers.
And yet, as their eyes opened and they slowly awoke, they silently separated. Without a word, they changed their clothes, and there was none of the suggestive staring or drawn-out movements that they had so often enjoyed teasing each other with when changing. If anything, their first moments awake were almost painfully awkward, with neither particularly willing to break their long silence.
But that silence had to break at some point, and once they had changed into clean clothes and were about to leave Leon’s bedroom, Elise put her hand on Leon’s arm and stopped him from opening the door.
“I’m going home today,” she said, and Leon’s heart sank into his feet. But before he could say anything, Elise continued, “I’ll consult with some of my people in the Tower about your pact with that nymph monster and whether we can break it. I’ll be waiting for you to come back to me at the capital, so don’t do something reckless again, all right?”
Leon softly smiled and slowly leaned down to press his forehead against hers. To his relief, she didn’t pull away.
“Promise me you don’t do something reckless again, promise me you’ll come back alive,” she repeated.
“I won’t do something so stupid again, I’ll be sure to come back to you when this is all over,” Leon agreed.
“I’ll hold you to that, dummy,” she whispered, which she followed with a gentle kiss.
Their moment of intimacy was over all too quickly when Elise broke their kiss and slid past Leon to open the door of the bedroom. Alix was already awake and quietly training in the sandpit, but she paused when the two exited the bedroom.
“Sir,” she said with a curt nod to Leon.
“We’re meeting up with Prince Trajan in a few minutes,” Leon said. “After that, I’d like to go and get Anzu back from the beastmaster.”
“Yes, Sir,” Alix said in the same terse and dispassionate manner, causing Leon to cringe a little. However, she did spare a second to warmly smile at Elise, but the latter was so distracted that she barely managed to return it before Alix went to get ready.
For a moment, Leon contemplated getting into his armor, but he figured that there wasn’t much point if he was going to be with the Prince for the duration of the war.
And so, once Alix had changed into more formal clothing and armed herself, the trio left the barracks and made their way over to Trajan’s tower in the keep. Once entering the tower, one of Trajan’s assistants helpfully guided them to the small sitting room that Trajan was resting in.
The Prince glanced up from the reports he was reading as they walked in, but there was little of the warmth and affability in his eyes that Leon had come to expect from him. Trajan wordlessly gestured to the empty couch in front of him for Leon to take a seat, while Alix moved to stand near the back wall.
Elise, meanwhile, put on an amiable expression and said, “Your Highness, your hospitality has been most appreciated, but it’s time for me to leave.”
Trajan smiled back at her and replied, “My Lady, wherever I may be, you may consider yourself welcome there.”
A few more words were exchanged in the over-long ceremony that Leon had come to expect from nobles dealing with the Prince, and Elise departed in due time, but not before leaning down and tightly hugging the sitting Leon one last time, not caring that both Alix and Trajan were watching.
“Next time we see each other, I expect a proper introduction with little Anzu,” she whispered.
Leon smiled and returned her hug, whispering back, “Of course, my love.”
With that, Elise straightened up and left the sitting room. As the door closed behind her, there was only one thing on her mind: ‘I will not let that monstrous bitch have her way with him!’
Once she was gone, the tension in the sitting room became much thicker. Trajan turned his eyes back to the report in his hand while Leon sat awkwardly in front of him.
After an excruciatingly long time, Trajan finally said, “I have decided on your formal punishment for abandoning your post, Leon.”
Leon paled a little, but he didn’t say a word.
Trajan glanced up and said, “As I said last night, you will be stripped of your formal rank of Tribune, though your status as a knight will remain intact. You will check in with me every day an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset; I may decide that there’s some extra work that requires your attention.”
Here, the Prince paused and stared at Leon with an expression of deadly seriousness. “You accomplished great things while you were gone, but abandoning your post is not something that can ever be rewarded. Your accomplishments, in fact, are the only reason you are still a part of the Legions.”
Leon somewhat doubted that last part, he didn’t think that Trajan would honestly throw him out of the Legions given who his family was, but he also couldn’t say he would be surprised if the Prince did follow through with that unspoken threat if Leon did something that reckless again.
“I expect professionalism from my knights, a trait that you displayed right until the moment you left the tower Dame Minerva sent you to. I cannot have that.”
“I understand, Your Highness,” Leon said.
“You’d better. I won’t tolerate this kind of behavior again.” Trajan stared at Leon in the eye to impress upon him the seriousness of what he was saying, and Leon could feel from the intensity of his gaze that Trajan wasn’t playing around in this respect—he’d be screwed if he did something so stupid again. Of course, given how his self-imposed mission went, Leon wasn’t eager to launch another one, even if he hadn’t been warned by both Elise and Trajan.
After a few moments of letting Leon contemplate his situation, Trajan said, “I have nothing for you to do right now. You’re dismissed, come back an hour before sunset.”
Leon rose from the couch, bowed, and took his leave, with Alix right behind him.
As soon as the door closed behind him, Leon let out a long sigh. Trajan was tremendously disappointed in him, he could tell from the Prince’s expression and tone, even if Trajan didn’t say it expressly. And that disappointment hurt Leon far more than he thought it would’ve.
For perhaps the thousandth time since being detected leaving the Talfar camp, Leon thought, ‘I am never doing something like that again!’
“Let’s go get Anzu,” Leon muttered, bringing a subdued smile to Alix’s lips. As they exited the keep and began the long walk to the stables, Leon said, “I’m sorry. For leaving you behind again.”
“I understand why you did it,” Alix quickly replied. “I’m too weak to accompany you, I don’t have the weaponry to do what you did, and I certainly don’t have an invisibility ring.”
Leon almost froze as soon as Alix brought up his ring and his heart sank. In the wake of telling Elise all that had happened to him over the past couple of weeks, he’d completely forgotten to inquire as to whether Heaven’s Eye could fix the damn thing.
‘Shit!’ he thought. ‘An issue for later…’
“Well, I’m never going to leave like that again,” Leon said out loud, moving on from his own stupidity. “It did not end well, though I survived everything that happened.”
“You can’t promise that,” Alix whispered. “Almost everyone I know has left me; I barely even have any family left…”
Leon glanced at his squire just in time to see her trying to subtly brush her eyes, and his heart almost broke at the sudden realization of what his constant leaving meant to his friend.
“I was too weak to save Sam and everyone I knew back north, and I’m too weak to help you when you’re in trouble,” Alix said, feeling slightly awkward that they were having this conversation as they walked through the streets of the Southern Horn, but unable to stop now that she’d started. “I’ve wanted to be a knight ever since I knew what that title meant, but I can’t do anything! I’m a terrible warrior, I’m a weak mage, I can’t even command Anzu to eat his dinner, let alone a unit in battle! I’m useless as a squire, and I’d be worthless as a knight!”
Her attempts to prevent her tears from falling failed and they began to pour out of her eyes like a broken aqueduct. And this only saddened, angered, and frustrated her more, causing even more tears to fall.
Leon stopped and immediately gave Alix a hug. He barely even registered that he was doing so until she was already in his arms; he generally hated physical contact with other people, and there were a fair number of people around boring holes into him with their eyes, but still he held Alix close.
“You’re not useless, you’re not worthless,” he whispered into her ear as she buried her face in his shoulder. “You’re a damned good warrior, and magical strength will come with training. Plus, stick with Trajan, and you’ll be a fine commander as well. You’re a smart woman, you’ll pick these things up. And I’m not going to leave you again if I can help it. You’re my squire and my friend, it was irresponsible to leave you when I did and I won’t be so stupid again.”
They stood there in the street for a few more minutes as Alix dried her eyes and composed herself, attracting strange looks all the while from the other knights and soldiers that passed them as they went about their duties. Still, Leon didn’t move until Alix started to pull away.
“Thanks, Leon,” she said quietly as she wiped her eyes a few more times.
“Any time,” he said with an awkward smile. “What else are friends for?”
Alix smiled and nodded, and the two continued on their way toward the stables, only pausing when Alix realized that what little make-up she wore was probably smudged. They stopped at the nearest place with a public bathroom so she could fix herself up, then proceeded onward.
There still wasn’t much talking between the two, but Leon could tell that there was a little bit more spring in Alix’s step after she finally let out her frustrations and insecurities and got some reassurances from Leon, the only friend she had left after departing from her home town and losing everyone she knew at Fort 127, that she wasn’t going to be left alone.
When they arrived at the Beastmaster’s stables, one of the assistants noticed their arrival and quickly hurried over.
“Sir Ursus, thank the Ancestors you’ve returned!”
“Hm?” Leon said in confusion. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s your griffin, Sir, he’s been a nightmare!”
The assistant led Leon and Alix to Cecilia, the knight and beastmaster that took care of Anzu in Leon’s stead.
“Well, I’m glad you’re back,” Cecilia said. “Little Anzu has been an absolute terror, he even pecked and scratched me up more than a few times…”
“I’m sorry about that, he’s not that great with other people,” Leon said with a tone of remorse. As someone who hated dealing with people he didn’t know, Anzu having created trouble for other people was mortifying.
“It’s fine, we understand,” Cecilia said with a bright and cheery smile. “Since you’re back, you can take him off our hands. Just follow me!”
The beastmaster led them through the stables, past thousands of horses, wolves, lions, and other exotic beasts, few of which Leon had seen participate in battle.
“How many of these are actual war beasts?” Leon asked out of curiosity as they walked through the huge stables.
“Not many,” Cecilia admitted. “These are expensive animals, and many knights don’t want to risk their investments unless they absolutely have to. Besides, there isn’t much room in a shield wall for a war beast, and of those animals that belong to knights outside of a shield wall, most are fourth-tier and below, which is too weak for their knights to want to bring into battle.”
“Makes sense… I guess,” Leon muttered. He didn’t quite agree with that philosophy, or at least it was one that he had no intention of following with Anzu. He may have tamed the griffin by imprinting on him, but Anzu was still a creature of the wild, and as such was capable of great killing intent. Leon didn’t want to dull that particular weapon by keeping Anzu out of battle.
‘That little guy’s going to be quite the ferocious beast when he grows up!’ Leon half thought, half vowed to himself.
Finally, Cecilia brought Leon and Alix to a stop in a remote and rather isolated part of the stables.
“We had to bring him out here, he was being a menace to the other animals,” Cecilia explained. The stalls here were bigger and much more secure, with fewer other animals around. Given Anzu’s temperament, Leon understood completely why Anzu was brought out here. The griffin generally hated being around other beings, human or animal, that he didn’t know, and if Leon wasn’t there to keep him in check or he wasn’t able to hide, then he might get violent; he was still a creature of the wild, even if Leon had tamed him.
Cecilia quickly unlocked and opened the door, allowing Leon to step inside. The wooden floor was covered in straw, and there was a water trough and a tray of bloody fish and red meat sitting on the floor, which appeared to Leon to be completely untouched.
Leon didn’t immediately see Anzu when he entered the stable, but once the griffin saw who had entered, he burst out of a bed of hay in the corner and almost knocked Leon over in his enthusiasm. He threw himself at his human, pressing his head and beak into Leon’s neck and chest, chirping and whimpering the entire time.
“Hey there, little buddy!” Leon said with a smile wider than any he had all day.
“There’s a happy boy,” Cecilia cooed from outside, but the sound of her voice seemed to cool Anzu’s abject joy, and the pure white albino griffin settled down.
“He looks like he’s grown a bit!” Leon observed as he ran his hands through the feathers on Anzu’s head. But he was in for a bigger surprise, as when he off-handedly investigated Anzu’s aura, he noticed that the griffin had grown to the third-tier!
“… In more ways than one,” Alix jealously muttered.
Picking up on her tone, Leon said, “Then let’s get home. I can see from your aura that you’re close to ascending as well. We’ve been slacking a bit in our own training, lately, and we should rectify that.”
“Yes, Sir!” Alix agreed with more enthusiasm than Leon had seen her express in weeks.
Cecilia helped them get Anzu checked out of the stables, and then they returned to their barracks room to train.
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