“… and I just felt it, you know? I just felt strong, and like the warriors I was fighting against were suddenly no match,” Henry narrated. “It took a few moments for me to register what was happening to me in the heat of battle, but I realized I was ascending to the third-tier!”
“And you got cocky because of it,” Alain said with a half-smile.
“Well, I mean, I was feeling good, you know?” Henry said as he sat back on the bench in the restaurant booth. “It was just so… exhilarating!”
“And because of that feeling, you later took on someone who you didn’t have a hope to defeat, and got your ass injured!” Alain continued. “Seriously, though, I get the rush, I truly do, but challenging someone whose power you can’t determine is a quick way to the funeral pyre, you know!”
“I think at this point, I know that better than you do, pal,” Henry said with a hint of sarcasm. “I was the one who made that mistake and paid for it!”
“I’d say the person who never made the mistake in the first place knows more about that than the person who did,” Charles pitched in from across the table.
“Oh, now you’re dogpiling on me?” Henry complained.
“It was an exceedingly stupid thing to do,” Leon said, adding his voice to the chorus decrying Henry’s foolish attempt to fight a fourth-tier Talfar mage. “But I suppose it was hardly unsurprising coming from you…”
“Ooh, that cuts deep,” Henry said with a mocking tone of pain and hurt.
“I’m sure you’ll get over it,” Charles stated. “I mean, you have had your entire life to get used to being not that bright…”
“All right, well if you think your ascensions were particularly bright, then why don’t you tell us your stories!” Henry retorted in a voice that sounded angry, but the effect was ruined by the huge smile on his face. They were all used to poking fun at each other, and they knew when to stop if the other party got too angry.
“Charles! You’re next!” Leon said.
“I mean, it’s not too different between any of us, I think,” Charles said with a wide smile of pride. He’d ascended to the third-tier during the second assault, only a matter of days after Henry and Alain. “I just fought with everything I had, letting my magic flood through my system, and before the end of the battle, I had ascended.”
“That’s all you’re going to give us?” Henry asked incredulously. “Here I was, telling you all about my ascension in detail, but you’re getting yours done in a single sentence?”
“Brevity is the soul of wit, which is probably why you’re so long-winded,” Charles shot back.
The four friends chuckled amongst themselves, while Anzu quietly slept at Leon’s feet. For her part, Alix had returned to her and Leon’s room to train. Realizing that she was now the only second-tier mage left in their group—even Anzu was third-tier—had spurred her on to train more in order to close that distance.
And Leon honestly did think she was closing that distance, but Charles, Henry, and Alain had their training from the Knight Academy propping up their magical abilities, whereas Alix had only what he and Trajan had taught her in the past year and a half. But her diligent training was seeing that gap closed, even if the others had ascended to the third-tier ahead of her.
“… and that’s when I ascended,” Alain explained. “I managed to kill the man trying to kill me and kept on fighting. So, not too different from you two.”
“Still, it’s a remarkable accomplishment,” Leon said, “There’s a reason squireships from the Knight Academy last for five years on average. Hell, most last even longer than that, but the squireships for the stronger mages bring that average down some. It’s quite the feat to reach the third-tier, especially for as young as everyone is.”
“… All this coming from a fifth-tier knight,” Henry observed. “You sure you’re not just giving yourself a round-about compliment?”
“Uh… I mean… No!” Leon nervously said. It was true, he was just trying to compliment his friends, and he didn’t realize what he was saying might come off as a bit condescending coming from him.
“Relax, man, I’m just messing with you!” Henry immediately said after seeing the look of genuine panic on Leon’s face.
“Anyway,” Leon said after a moment of regaining his composure, “what I wanted to say was congratulations. So, congratulations. You’re all going to be made knights in a few months once you’ve finished the two-year minimum squireship that the Knight Academy requires.”
Charles smiled and his cheeks reddened at Leon’s words, while Henry looked ready to begin boasting again. However, it was Alain who spoke first. He reached over and lightly punched Leon’s shoulder and said, “And don’t think any of us are ungrateful for your help in these past couple of years. It’s entirely possible that we’d all be dead if we hadn’t trained with you back then, and we’d certainly not be on the verge of being knighted.”
At that moment, a long horn was sounded from the keep and was heard all over the Southern Horn. This was a signal for the highest levels of leadership to assemble that was only used when runners would be too slow.
“Well, I guess I have to go,” Leon said with a frown. “But I guess it’s a good thing, I was getting a bit sappy there…”
“Yeah, might want to dry your tears before you get to see the Prince!” Henry jabbed.
“Better be quiet, or I’ll give you something to cry about,” Leon responded while flexing an arm.
As much as he wanted to spend more time with his friends, though, Leon couldn’t linger. He rose from the table, waking Anzu as he did so, and he and the sleepy griffin made their way out of the restaurant.
Alix was waiting for them at the keep, and Leon could tell that she’d been training hard; her face was red from exertion, her long brown hair was pulled back in a hasty ponytail, and she was still adjusting the clothes that she’d changed into after ditching her training gear.
“Sir,” she nodded in greeting.
“Any idea what’s going on?” Leon asked.
“None, Sir,” she replied, her face showing a bit of disappointment that Leon didn’t know, either.
When the two arrived at the meeting room, Alix and Anzu waited outside with the other squires while Leon entered and saw that most of the other command staff were already there.
Trajan jerked his head in a ‘come over here’ motion, and Leon hurried over to his place behind Trajan near the back wall.
After a few more stragglers showed up, Trajan looked at his Legates and Tribunes, as well as the visiting Prince and his Paladins, and said, “We’ve got a new situation to deal with…”
Early the next morning, the entire fortress of the Bull’s Horns was on extremely high alert. The walls were fully manned, the magical gems powering the defensive wards and enchantments were swapped out for fully charged gems, and Leon, Trajan, August, and a host of other knights were waiting just behind the main gate on the western side of the walls.
The air was almost as tense as it was when the Legion could see Owain’s army bearing down on them, and in a way, they half expected something similar to happen.
Queen Andraste was on her way and was scheduled to arrive in a matter of minutes. However, there was no sign of a Royal entourage on the main road, and the soldiers on the wall could see for miles. Normally, a Queen visiting a foreign fortress would be accompanied by hundreds of powerful mages and hundreds more servants and attendants, creating a retinue that was impossible to miss. But the soldiers on watch couldn’t see anything of the sort coming from Talfar.
But Andraste had no intention of being late, not when one of her Marshals—and Owain—was being held by a foreign power. It took a soldier on the wall casually glancing at the sky to finally notice her approach and let off the signal, and by the time she was noticed, she was practically on top of the walls.
Fifty grey, brown, and black griffins swooped down in front of the walls, giving every Legion soldier a look as they sped past, and came to a running stop in front of the main gates. Each griffin was larger than even the largest of warhorses and looked far fiercer. Likewise, each of the riders of the griffins was extraordinarily powerful, being mostly either of the fifth or sixth-tier, and they were dressed in pitch-black armor. There were even a pair of seventh-tier mages accompanying the group, but one of them—the elder of the two, if his appearance was any indication—was dressed in bright green and completely lacked armor.
The other seventh-tier mage was a relatively young woman, and she stood out even amongst all the other magnificently equipped riders as she was dressed in resplendent silver plate armor complete with a long blue cloak that billowed out behind her gorgeous brown griffin. She wore no helmet, giving every soldier in the gatehouse a good look at her sparkling blue hair, her astonishingly beautiful face, and her equally astonishingly harsh glare; her radiant green eyes glittered in the morning light, but she was a hard woman who had come to power almost a decade ago and had been fighting almost non-stop since, and her expression was terrible to behold.
The soldiers in the gatehouse scrambled to open the portcullis and allow what was obviously Queen Andraste and her retinue inside. The Queen and her followers rode the griffins past the gates, and the soldiers on the walls watched them like hawks.
As the royal procession appeared on the western side, the Paladins prepared themselves for the possibility of violence, while Anzu glared at the approaching griffins, made aggressive chirps, and spread his wings to make himself look bigger—though he was still much smaller than the Talfar griffins.
“Stop that,” Leon growled, silencing the albino griffin, but Anzu and the other griffins stared daggers at each other, and Leon suspected that if Anzu wasn’t as obedient as he was and if the other griffins weren’t as well-trained as they were, then they’d already be fighting.
Riding slightly ahead of the group came a young fifth-tier mage, who shouted loudly enough for everyone to hear, “Her Majesty, Queen Andraste of the Talfar Kingdom, presents herself before the Bull’s Horns and requests an audience with His Highness, Prince Trajan!”
Both Trajan and August found this announcement rather intriguing as, despite the Queen’s haughty demeanor, she was being quite diplomatic; she’d formally requested entry and didn’t ride her griffins directly over the walls and their defensive wards.
“Her Majesty may consider herself welcome within the Bull’s Horns and the city of Ariminium for the duration of her visit,” Trajan responded, and several Tribunes rode forward to lead the Queen’s retinue to the stables in the Southern Horn.
“Our Diplomatic Corps has prepared suitable quarters for Her Majesty and her retinue. There, you all may rest and recover from your journey. We will be ready to begin negotiations at your earliest convenience,” August said. His tone was quiet and diplomatic but carried a steely undercurrent that implied he would much rather start negotiations sooner than later.
Andraste’s messenger rode back to his Queen, who whispered a few words into his ear. When she was done, the messenger rode forward again and said, “Her Majesty accepts your offer of hospitality, and indicated her own preference for starting the negotiations as soon as possible.”
Trajan and August both nodded, and the Queen and her retinue began the last short leg of their journey as the Legion guides took them to the stables, though the retinue was under heavy guard from the Paladins and about a thousand Legion horsemen the entire time.
Once they were out of earshot, August glanced at Trajan and said, “Well, that went well, I think. She didn’t seem overly hostile.”
“Not yet,” Trajan replied. “I don’t expect her to be, but it’s always better to assume that negotiations will fail, and to prepare accordingly.”
“I understand, Uncle, but we also can’t be too pessimistic about these proceedings. We’ll never succeed if we don’t sincerely believe that diplomacy will work.”
Trajan cynically grunted, but he didn’t argue with his nephew. He was a military man through and through, and he had little faith in the power of diplomacy after repulsing an invasion. But, of course, that’s what Aquillius and the Diplomatic Corps were for, to make up for his own shortcomings in that department.
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