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Leon fought against the instinct to charge at Roland with all the power he had available and attack the Paladin. Roland was vulnerable, surprised and unprepared, Leon knew that with his speed, he could get in one or two good hits before Roland could react.
But he resisted this temptation. His sword hand twitched and his power momentarily spiked as he automatically began to summon his sword from his soul realm, but he calmed himself before he could make any mistakes. After a moment or two, Leon’s opportunity passed, and Roland composed himself as much as he could. He still stared at Leon a little more than the latter would’ve liked, though—the Paladin was more than a little shocked at Leon’s startling rise in power, from a second-tier mage to a fifth-tier mage in not even three years.
As his group walked right down the middle of the meeting room, between the two rows of columns and chairs and before the eyes of all the rest of the gathered knights, August’s face broke out into a wide smile, but just as he was about to greet his uncle, the Bronze Paladin practically shoved his way past.
“Trajan!” Bronze shouted, his voice almost shaking the entirety of the keep.
“Titus!” Trajan replied as he almost jumped up from the dais to clasp the Paladin’s outstretched, bronze-clad hand. The Bronze Paladin was the only man in the room who was still fully armored, being covered head-to-toe in his signature bronze armor—Leon was the only other man in the room wearing armor, but he wasn’t wearing his helmet.
“My friend! It’s been too long!” Bronze exclaimed as he vigorously shook Trajan’s hand. His friendly demeanor towards the Prince surprised some of the watching knights, but he was still a Paladin, and nobody there had the rank or qualifications to reprimand him for his lax manners in the presence of royalty. Besides, Trajan clearly didn’t care about Bronze’s lack of decorum.
“Indeed, what’s it been, twenty years?” Trajan asked, completely ignoring the other Prince and both other Paladins. August looked a bit surprised and self-conscious at being so ignored, but he brushed it off and waited for the two old friends to get their greetings over with.
Trajan’s and Bronze’s greeting carried on for a little while longer. They were like two peas in a pod, both gigantic human beings, powerful earth mages, and highly experienced warriors. They’d fought alongside one another too many times not to be good friends, and with the obviously long time spent apart, they now had to take a few minutes to express that friendship.
Once they separated, August and Trajan greeted each other, polite pleasantries were exchanged between Trajan and the Brimstone Paladin, but when he got to Roland, Trajan shook his hand with threatening force. He glared at the Paladin so violently that, despite offering him some kind words of greeting, it was made clear to Roland that he didn’t have a friend in Trajan.
Once all that was over, August and Trajan took a seat on the raised dais, while Roland and Brimstone sat down in prepared seats close to the dais. Bronze, meanwhile, stood in the back, right next to Leon.
“Give me your reports,” Trajan ordered, wasting no time. He had other business to conduct with Roland, and he was sure August had business with him, so he wanted this post-battle reporting done with as soon as possible.
“Total casualties were light,” Minerva reported, “not even a thousand dead, barely three thousand injured.”
“And we’re estimating thirty thousand Talfar casualties,” Constantine added. “About half of which were inflicted by the cavalry charge.”
“Prisoners?” Trajan asked.
“A couple thousand, not any more than those captured in the last battle,” a Legate said. “The jails aren’t even overcrowded; it seems that the Talfar army still had the wherewithal to take most of their injured with them as they retreated. Most of those left behind were the dead.”
“Hmm,” Trajan said.
For his part, August was quite interested in these proceedings. He had little practical experience with the Royal Legions, so this was all new. Still, despite his burning curiosity, he maintained his royal dignity and kept his mouth shut and didn’t interrupt the meeting with basic questions.
Leon, too, was interested in what was happening, and he was doing his best to pay attention, but the Bronze Paladin was making that more than a little difficult. The Paladin blatantly stared at Leon and refused to look away, despite Leon occasionally shooting him dirty looks. Leon couldn’t tell him to stop without disturbing the meeting, so he had little choice other than to endure this in silence.
“… with Marshal Gwen?” Aquillius asked. “We can keep her for longer if need be, but I feel that she wasn’t lying when she said that the Talfar government is looking to make peace.”
Trajan was about to answer, but he caught himself. Since August was now present, he wasn’t the highest authority in the room anymore. Both were technically of equal rank, being Princes, but August was serving as one of the two Regents, giving him higher authority than Trajan, who was only a Consul and an Exarch.
He looked at August, but the younger Prince simply said, “You’re more familiar with this matter than I am, Uncle, I defer to you on this matter.”
Trajan raised an eyebrow in both confusion and interest, and he asked, “Are you sure about that?”
“This is not an official war,” August replied. “No declarations of war have been made by either side and as a result, there is no need for such an official response or a deferment to a higher authority. To that end, I will leave the matter to your judgment.”
“Very well,” Trajan said. He thought for a moment, then said, “I want to trust Marshal Gwen and bring this conflict to a close, but I also can’t risk the safety of this fortress after an assault was launched while a peace delegation was in this very chamber. Marshal Gwen may remain our guest for a few days longer, and once the incoming Legions arrive, we will shatter the army on our doorstep. Once we are no longer threatened, we will revisit this issue.”
“So, we will not be counter-invading the Talfar Kingdom?” Fonteius asked. “My contacts in Pretani have been getting rather nervous, given how far we pushed eighty years ago.”
“They can rest assured that we will not be putting their backs against the wall,” Trajan replied with a smile of satisfaction. He took a great deal of pride in instilling fear in his Kingdom’s enemies. “Besides, we wouldn’t have the numbers to make it work for any respectable stretch of time, and all of us here might be brought up on charges of treason and corruption if we were to launch an invasion without the approval of the reigning King or the Assembly in his absence.”
“I understand, I shall pass on our intent not to invade to my counterparts in Pretani,” Fonteius said.
And with that, the meeting was over. Trajan dismissed the Legates, Tribunes, and diplomats, but as they were leaving, he turned to August and asked, “Let’s speak privately, Nephew, we have some business to go over.”
“Yes, I have a matter or two I would like to bring up with you as well, Uncle,” August replied. “Do you mind if the Paladins join us?”
Trajan frowned, but he knew and trusted Bronze with his life, he had heard good things about Brimstone, and he knew for a fact that he was stronger than Roland, so he hesitantly agreed.
Several minutes later, three Paladins, two Princes, and one awkward Leon were back in Trajan’s sitting room.
As soon as the door was closed, Bronze pre-empted everyone and directly asked Leon, “You’re a member of House Raime, aren’t you?”
Everyone froze and jaws almost hit the floor. Leon’s heart rate spiked, and he almost called upon his magic, but the overwhelming pressure he felt coming from Bronze helped him not do anything too foolish. Still, he didn’t answer the Paladin.
“Well, I guess that’s one way to bring the issue up, isn’t it?” Trajan said with a dry tone.
Brimstone, the only man there who was actually surprised at the statement, said in confusion, “Wait, what?! House Raime is extinct, though!”
“Not quite,” Roland said, following those two words up with a sigh. “Artorias Raime survived the attack on his villa and escaped to the Northern Territories with his son. It’s good to see you again, Leon, you look well.”
Leon glared back at Roland, but before he could say anything, Trajan asked Bronze with a tone of mild amusement, “I’m guessing you knew who he was as soon as you saw him, didn’t you?”
“I did,” Bronze replied. “He looks exactly like Kyros did, back in the day.”
“I did think the similarities were striking, but I didn’t know Kyros when he was that young…” Trajan muttered.
“You… knew my grandfather?” Leon hesitantly asked. There wasn’t much point in denying his identity after Trajan admitting it, though he was more than a little frustrated at how casually it was revealed. First with Emilie and now with Trajan, he was growing increasingly concerned with how many people were so willing to confirm or outright expose his identity, even if only to a few select people.
“I did,” Bronze replied. “I grew up in Teira, my father was a knight sworn to Matthaios Raime, your great-grandfather. I was raised alongside the old Archduke, only a few years his senior.”
Leon couldn’t see Bronze’s face through his helmet, but the Paladin’s tone was warm and welcoming. And yet, when Bronze took a few steps toward Leon, the younger knight took a few steps back. The Paladin could say all he wanted, he could describe everything about Leon’s family in excruciating detail if he wanted to, but it wouldn’t make Leon trust him.
Fortunately for him, now that Leon’s identity was confirmed, August was keen on moving the conversation along.
“It’s a wonderful thing, learning that House Raime isn’t quite as extinct as it appeared,” the Prince said, “but that is not the only piece of business we must discuss.”
Trajan, Leon, and the Paladins shifted their attention to August, but before he could continue, Bronze said, “You sound like you’re about to discuss politics. I’ll have no part of this.” He then walked out of the room without another word, much to August’s consternation.
“A shame,” August whispered. “I would’ve liked to have a man of his caliber on my side, but he’s free to do as he pleases.”
“‘On your side’, hmm?” Trajan asked. The atmosphere instantly turned cold and business-like, and Roland and Brimstone took a seat on either side of August.
“Yes, Uncle,” August said. “I understand how it sounds, but I have little choice. The next King will be either myself or Octavius, and if my elder brother claims the throne, my mother and I will likely be killed.”
“What are you basing this suspicion of yours on?” Trajan asked.
Leon was quiet and paying as much attention as he could. When entering the sitting room, he had no idea that the conversation would take such a serious turn.
“The Queen is openly disdainful of my mother,” August explained. “Were it only Octavius I had to contend with, I would probably simply give up my claim to the throne and go into exile, but the Queen has a great deal of hatred for my mother for being my father’s favorite. She’s made it clear that if my father doesn’t wake, then when he dies, my mother will soon follow. Compounding her hatred, since I was made co-Regent with Octavius, I’m considered a threat to her son’s ability to ascend to Kingship.”
“And this is why you seek the crown yourself? To survive?” Trajan flatly inquired. His heart wasn’t moved at all by August’s claims.
“It is,” August admitted. “Your assistance would be invaluable to me, Uncle. I have been a Regent for eight years now, but when I started, I was only fifteen. I haven’t been able to drum up support as well as my brother. Making matters worse, his shared blood with the Queen all-but guaranteed him the support of his grandfather, the Duke of Valentia, and through him, just about all of the Western Territories.”
The Western Territories was the region where more than half of the food in the Bull Kingdom was grown, as well as where most of its luxury goods were produced. It was the richest and most populous of the five Territories, and it didn’t take Trajan any leap of logic to understand why Octavius’ control of the region was such a huge problem for August.
“My brother has also made serious inroads in the Southern and Central Territories,” August explained. “I’ve done my best, but all I’ve been able to do is get a few of the lords in the Eastern and Northern Territories to join my side, and even then, those that have pledged to me aren’t particularly powerful in their own right.”
“I understand,” Trajan said, interrupting August’s explanation of his situation. “Now, I have a question for you, Nephew.”
“Speak it,” August said, leaning in to better listen to Trajan. He needed his uncle’s assistance, and as such, he treated anything that Trajan had to say with deadly seriousness.
“What are you planning to do as King?” Trajan asked, surprising August in how quickly he asked. The latter Prince had thought that Trajan would be more interested in the current situation rather than what he’d do later—August thought that Trajan would ask this question, just not so soon.
“I would remove the current Queen from power,” August said. “The Serpentine Isles haven’t been providing their tribute, I’d need to deploy the fleets to ensure that they don’t return to piracy. I would solidify our northern and eastern borders, as they’ve been concerningly unstable in recent years.”
“That’s all well and good, but what would be your strategy?” Trajan clarified. “My brother, my father, my grandfather all worked to lessen the power of the landed class. To have such wealth combined with the guaranteed inheritance of political positions engenders a great deal of corruption among the nobility. It’s been the goal of House Taurus for generations to lessen this impact by weakening the nobility.”
August’s eyes went wide as he understood Trajan’s meaning. “I would continue this process,” he eagerly said. “I’ve been stymied in my attempts to keep the peace and to punish those who flaunt the laws of the land by the nobility at almost every turn! I would make sure to continue our family’s goal of removing this cancer from our Kingdom!”
Trajan frowned. “That’s not the point, boy,” he growled, sending a shiver of fear running down August’s spine. “We protect the people, and more often than not, it’s their own lords that the citizens of this Kingdom need protecting from. We have a responsibility to our people, to protect them and to do what we can to ensure their lives remain stable. That is why we must break the power of the nobility! Not to protect our own power!”
Trajan’s voice was like thunder in August’s ears, and even the Paladins looked a bit shaken. Leon, however, as someone who had been in conflict with no shortage of nobles in his brief time in the Bull Kingdom, greatly resonated with what Trajan was saying.
“The nobles who ought to be leading and protecting them do the opposite!” Trajan shouted. “More often than not, the people of this land are used and abused, exploited for the gain of the nobility! The idea that the common folk are lesser than the nobility is what we must abolish! The only way to guarantee that our people live safe and happy lives is to do away with the nobility!”
“That… doesn’t seem feasible,” Brimstone hesitantly said.
“It probably isn’t,” Trajan admitted as he calmed himself down. “And yet, the point stands. It is my opinion, and Julius shared it, that the greatest threat to our Kingdom and its citizens are the nobility, who seek to subvert the Kingdom’s functions to maintain their power, wealth, and influence.”
Trajan paused here and took a few deep breaths. He was ranting, and he didn’t want to alienate August with his rhetoric. Once he regained his composure, he looked August in the eye with such seriousness that August couldn’t help but start to sweat in anxiety.
“If all you want is to maintain your power and to not be killed by Octavius, then I will not support you, Nephew,” Trajan said. “If you want my support, then you must show me that you are willing to do your duty to the Kingdom, to fulfill your responsibility to your people. Until I see that, then you will find no support from me.”
“I… I…” August sputtered, but after taking a moment to think, he simply said, “I understand, Uncle.”
“Good,” Trajan replied. “And now, for the time being, let’s turn our attention back to the most immediate problem, the Talfar army.”
Two days later, the three Legions that were rushing to Ariminium arrived. Trajan was expecting one more, but he wasn’t going to wait around, not with the Talfar camp in disarray and his scouts bringing reports of Talfar levies and warriors deserting almost by the second.
What was more, he hadn’t received any more requests for peace since Marshal Gwen arrived right before the second assault, leaving him with little other choice.
The six Legions, three Paladins and their followers, and Trajan’s own knights deployed outside the camp. It was time to end their undeclared war.
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