Ariminium and both Horns were lit up in celebration of a swift and relatively decisive victory over the Talfar invaders. The city’s citizens partied in the streets and many of the off-duty soldiers joined them. Even those Legion soldiers who were on duty were brought food and allowed to grow a bit lax in their discipline.
But one place where the cries of revelry did not reach was Trajan’s dimly lit office. He was completely alone; not even Minerva was there with him. Despite the end to the war, he had a great many things to think about and plan for, from the potential fallout from Talfar about the capture of their Prince and routing of their army, to the situation in the Bull Kingdom itself and the issues August had brought to mind the last time they spoke in private.
Octavius was seeking the support of the nobility for his claim to the throne, indicating to Trajan that he didn’t think King Julius would ever wake up. Julius was still fairly young by the standards of seventh-tier mages, and were he still awake and healthy, he could look forward to at least a century or so of continued existence. Since Trajan was almost that much older than his brother, he had never once contemplated the thought of outliving him.
But Trajan couldn’t let himself worry too much about Julius himself, as the real problem was what would come after his death. August was looking for supporters, too, and it was clear to Trajan that the Kingdom would plunge into violence if Julius were to die within the next few years.
The Prince sighed; he hated politics with a passion. He much preferred to be the unquestioned authority in the Eastern Territories, and even then, he delegated a great deal to his Legates and the local nobility. Ariminium was his focus, the local Legions had his attention, the border with stone giant territory was his concern. These things were enough for him, even with the stone giants in the south now largely pacified.
And yet, his nephew had come asking for his support. Trajan hated politics so much that he’d joined the Legions and given up his claim to the throne, allowing Julius to take it uncontested, but if there was one thing that could cause Trajan to dip his toes back into the cesspit that he considered the political world to be, it was his family.
Who his family was didn’t just end with blood, of course, in the past year and a half, he’d come to view Leon as a son, and he loved Minerva, Constantine, and Aquillius like siblings.
‘I have a duty to my people and to my Kingdom, to bring them peace and safety, to keep the blood of their countrymen out of the streets,’ Trajan thought to himself. ‘I am their Prince, if I allow this civil war to break out, then I am complicit in every death that results from it.’
He hated himself for the decision, but he knew he had to go back to the capital if he wanted to maintain the peace, regardless of any agreements he made with August.
On that note, he had to admit that he could still sleep well at night if he were to support August. He hadn’t known the younger Prince for very long, as Trajan had only gone back to the capital a handful of times during August’s life, but he had a good impression of him. In Trajan’s eyes, August was a good man, even if he lacked perspective and was fairly self-centered as a result.
Octavius, on the other hand, Trajan wasn’t fond of. ‘That boy takes after his mother far too much,’ Trajan thought to himself with an expression of disgust as he momentarily thought about the Queen and her brother, the Earthshaker Paladin.
Trajan thought Octavius was elitist, insecure, far more self-centered than August, and would likely roll back many of the meritocratic policies that had been implemented by Julius and other recent Kings.
Again, Trajan sighed. Herculanus Britannicus, King Julius’ firstborn son, was an extremely competent man and one that Trajan would’ve been quite pleased to see inherit the throne, but he had given up his claim to join the Blood Priests of Lineage Hall. Princess Stefania, Julius’ first daughter, was also quite capable, far more so than Trajan thought Octavius or August to be, but she had already publicly announced that she wouldn’t compete for the throne—though rather pointedly not formally renouncing her claim, as Trajan and Herculanus had done.
The two most qualified, talented, and adept children of Julius were either busy honoring the ancestors and maintaining the Kingdom’s genealogical records or engaged in other apolitical pursuits.
Trajan’s thoughts were suddenly interrupted by a knock at the door of his office.
“Come in!” the Prince loudly said.
The door opened, and one of Trajan’s assistants respectfully held it open for Prince August, who Trajan had summoned earlier.
“Uncle,” August said in greeting and a wide smile on his gaunt face.
“Nephew,” Trajan responded. The elder Prince nodded to his assistant, who bowed and shut the door, allowing the enchantment that prevented noise from escaping the office to activate. Trajan and August could now speak in total privacy.
The Princes each took a seat, but they sat in silence for several long minutes. Trajan had asked August to join him, so the younger Prince was waiting for his uncle to speak first, but Trajan wasn’t entirely sure where to start.
Eventually, though, Trajan finally broke the awkward silence by saying, “I’ve been thinking, nephew, about the current situation in our Kingdom.”
Trajan paused, and August gently prodded him to continue with a quiet, “… Yes…?”
“I’m not comfortable supporting either of my brother’s children,” Trajan explained, causing August’s smile to falter a little before immediately setting itself right. Trajan had to admit that he admired his nephew’s composure. “I hate politics. Nobles, ambitious knights, commoners with chips on their shoulder being given knighthoods, I find the behavior of those who cozy up to powerful people distasteful.”
“They can be trying,” August agreed. As one of the Prince-Regents, and the only one that stayed in the capital, he was more than familiar with both the bootlicking and the arrogance that filled the Kingdom’s capital.
“However,” Trajan continued, causing August to fall silent, “I will do what I must to preserve the peace. If that means I must return to the capital, then I will, and if that means I must add my voice to that of one of my nephews, then I shall.”
“Then… you will support me?” August asked in a tone so hopeful that Trajan almost felt his heart give out as he prepared to ask his next question.
“Your plans as King,” Trajan said, “If you want my support, I need something more concrete than a simple desire to survive and a few vague notions about weakening the landed nobility. What are you going to do?”
August thought for a moment, and to buy himself some time, he asked, “What is it you’re looking for, Uncle?”
“I’m looking for you to tell me what you’re going to do,” Trajan replied with deadly seriousness, which sent a chill down August’s spine. “I will not support someone whose only real goal could be accomplished by going into exile and sparing the Kingdom a civil war.”
“I understand,” August replied as he began to seriously think.
It was true that he had intentions to weaken the nobility, but that was borne out of frustration that the nobles were more favorable to Octavius than they were to him, and he hadn’t any ideas as to how to go about it. And so, he began to think out loud.
“I suppose I would go after their biggest assets,” August said, “The landed class gets the lion’s share of their wealth and power because of the land they rule. Confiscating or buying that land would go a long way towards breaking up their power base.”
“True,” Trajan agreed, but he didn’t give voice to any specific thoughts he had about this strategy. He wanted August to finish, first.
“Their inherited titles are their second biggest assets,” August continued. “Without land and without the authority their titles give, they’re nothing more than just wealthy commoners.”
“So you would target these things?” Trajan asked as he kept his face completely impassive. “A difficult thing to do, given that most of them own at least one castle.”
“I suppose that might be a bit too ambitious,” August admitted. “Perhaps something a bit smaller to start off and keep those as longer-term goals. The nobles wouldn’t appreciate such extensions of Royal authority and would more likely than not fight back against them.”
“They would, and do, indeed, often fight back when they see their power so rapidly diminish, and those aforementioned castles can make them extremely difficult to bring to heel,” Trajan said. “For the past few centuries, our family has been doing just what you’ve brought up, by confiscating the land and titles of as many nobles as possible. This has led to a large growth in the royal demesne, and we needed governors appointed by the King for limited terms to take care of all that extra land.”
“And that’s where the Exarchs came in,” August said with a smile.
“Yes, and the landed nobility, for the most part, despises them. I can’t tell you how many letters of complaint Julius received from lords on the Great Plateau demanding that they be named the new Archdukes and getting rid of the Exarch of Teira.”
“Those letters haven’t stopped just because my Royal Father is indisposed…” August bitterly mentioned. “I’ve also gotten reports from the Exarch of Teira that the city is still overrun with nobles hoping to seize what power they can grab without the Raime Archdukes around anymore.”
“Of course they are…” Trajan whispered. “Nephew, I’m not averse to giving you my support, but as I said before, it doesn’t make me comfortable to be so overtly political. However, in exchange for that support, I would require some things from you in turn.”
“Name them and they’re yours,” August immediately said with an excited look.
However, Trajan just sat there staring at him in disbelief, making the younger Prince feel more than a little awkward.
“‘Name them and they’re yours…?’” Trajan repeated. “The first thing I would require of you is to never ever give such blanket, open-ended permission to anyone again!”
As August realized his mistake, he paled and sank down into his seat in shame, but with a reproachful look from Trajan, August straightened himself back up.
“I understand, Uncle,” August said. “Then let me rephrase… Speak your concerns and your requirements, and I will give them all due consideration.”
“Hmm. Better,” Trajan said. “What I would need is for you to swear upon your Mana Glyph that you will continue the work of our family to bring increased freedoms to our commoners and, more importantly, to the peasants living under the thumb of the landed nobility. Even if they have a kind Lord, that may not always last, and they need the right to choose their path in life, not have it dictated by the inevitable greedy Lord that they will find themselves stuck under. Do your best to make this Kingdom more meritocratic than it is now and to bring peace and stability to our people every way you can. Swear this to me, swear to continue the work of our family, and I will support your claim to the throne over Octavius’.”
August sat back in his seat again to think. To swear anything upon his Mana Glyph wasn’t something to do lightly; he’d need to think hard about it if he swore to continue breathing upon his Mana Glyph, let alone work to enact drastic societal reform. But then, he thought about his mother, and his little sister, Cristina. They were relying on him, and their lives wouldn’t be pleasant or particularly long if he lost this power struggle.
For all his consideration of the consequences, of how damaged his soul realm would become if he didn’t fulfill such a binding oath, of how likely it was that he wouldn’t survive the backlash if he broke this oath, his decision had been long made already when he refused to go into exile instead of challenging Octavius’ claim to the throne.
August pulled out a piece of paper and pressed his hand against it. He pushed his surprisingly weak magic power out of himself and into the paper, and upon the paper appeared his Mana Glyph, a large, angry, golden bull preparing to charge.
Taking the paper in his hand, August said, “I swear upon my Mana Glyph,” and the image on the paper began to glow a bright gold, “I swear that I will devote my life to breaking the power of the nobility, to granting personal freedoms, peace, and safety to my people to the best of my ability, to ensure that they do not suffer under the hands of lawless tyrants again.”
As the Prince finished his short oath-swearing, the paper dimmed, and he collapsed into his seat. For a fifth-tier mage, he had a distressingly low amount of magic power, and the oath had left him drained.
Trajan was quiet for a long time as he stared at August in genuine surprise that the younger Prince had so readily made this oath. Finally, he said, “We’re going to have some work to do, then, not the least of which is increasing your stamina.”
August tried to laugh, but he barely managed to eke out a few weak chuckles.
“That’s enough, Nephew, that’s enough,” Trajan said quietly.
“Once everything’s sorted out here, I’m going to have to return to the capital. I would appreciate it if you would come with me, Uncle.”
Trajan sighed, as he had done so many times in the past few hours, and muttered, “I suppose I’d have to, wouldn’t I?”
Returning to the capital was not a prospect he enjoyed, but he knew it was necessary to keep the peace. He’d have to select a temporary Consul of the East while he was away, and he’d have to take most of his retinue with him, which significantly narrowed down his choices.
Regardless, it was time to leave the Bull’s Horns and Ariminium, at least for a little while. He’d have to take Leon with him, as well…
As Trajan was going through everything that he’d have to organize before leaving, there came a sudden knock on the door. Trajan glared at it, but after a few moments, shouted, “Come in!”
A breathless Centurion pushed open the door and immediately said, “Your Highnesses! We’ve just received a report that Queen Andraste is on her way here! She’ll be here in less than a day!”
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