“Well, that was certainly one of the more… interesting negotiations I’ve been a part of,” Aquillius said as he and Trajan watched Andraste’s group fly away on their griffins.
“She was certainly something else,” Trajan said with an appreciative smile. For all of his posturing during the opening of the negotiations, he actually had a good impression of the Talfar Queen and felt like they could’ve been good friends if circumstances were different.
“So, what now?” Aquillius asked with a playful laugh. With everything that had just happened, it felt like there wasn’t much to do now.
“Now, I have preparations to make. I’m going back to the capital for a while,” Trajan replied with complete seriousness.
Aquillius stared at Trajan with a look of surprise; he knew how much Trajan despised the capital, but he, of all people, knew exactly what the political situation in the Kingdom looked like, even if he wasn’t aware of the King’s current infirmity.
“Then… you’re getting involved in politics…?” the diplomat hesitantly asked.
“To an extent, yes,” Trajan replied with an ugly grimace. It was clear to anyone with eyes that he hated making this decision, but he had a strong sense of duty, and he would do what he felt was right. “There’s going to be a civil war soon if someone doesn’t step in… and if my brother doesn’t come out of training soon,” Trajan explained.
“I… understand,” Aquillius quietly said. “I suppose I must prepare for the worst, then, and make sure our neighbors aren’t of the mind to take advantage of the situation… Not that I’d expect the Samar Kingdom to do anything, or the Talfar Kingdom after it’s mauling and current occupation with the east.”
“Still, best to do what you can and silence any hawks if they appear,” Trajan muttered.
“Indeed,” Aquillius said as he anxiously began to think about his own options for keeping the Kingdom stable. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t have much to do, since the Samar Kingdom was quite friendly with the Bull Kingdom, the Talfar Kingdom had renewed its peace deal, and the Serpentine Isles hadn’t returned to their raiding ways. There were no other political entities that he had to concern himself with, especially now that the stone giants in the southern half of the Border Mountains had been pacified. The northern giants were still a problem, but he couldn’t do anything about them, they weren’t nearly as unified as their southern siblings were.
Trajan and Aquillius stared out at the Bull’s Horns from Trajan’s observation room, quietly enjoying what seemed like their last moment together as friends for the foreseeable future.
The next day, Trajan called all of the command staff together and broke the news of his imminent departure. None of the assembled Legates and Tribunes were any less shocked than Aquillius was at Trajan’s announcement. The Prince had, after all, been the Consul of the East for more than a century, longer than many of these knights had been alive.
“Your Highness…” Minerva quietly said as she stared at her Prince with a strange look in her eyes, “Are you sure about this? The Eastern Territories need you…”
“I’m sure,” Trajan said. “But I will not go alone, I will be taking most of my retinue with me—after leaving someone I trust in command, of course.”
Minerva’s eyes brightened up, but then immediately became defiant as Trajan’s gaze drifted over to her. She’d served Trajan for long enough that she knew he was about to give her the Horns, and she shot the Prince a look of such resistance that whatever Trajan was going to say to her died in his throat.
“M… Constantine!” the Prince shouted, and every eye in the room turned to the short and stocky knight in question.
“Your Highness…?” Constantine asked. He didn’t catch Minerva’s look, and he fully expected her to be given the command over him.
“I trust you with my life, and given your actions during these past few weeks, I feel comfortable entrusting the lives of everyone else here to you, as well. I will make you my proxy in the Eastern Territories!”
Trajan’s choice was instantly met with cheers from the surrounding knights, and a few that were sitting around Constantine even clapped him on the shoulder in support. His command of the most dangerous part of the Horns, that of the fortifications east of the wall, made his temperament and skill in battle known to all. There were few knights in the meeting room who didn’t support Trajan’s choice, though there were a few who were confused as to why he didn’t choose Minerva, perhaps the only other knight there who was more well-respected than Constantine.
“Y-Your Highness!” Constantine said as he rose to his feet, then bowed. “I will do as you command, Your Highness, I will not let you down!”
“Please, stand!” Trajan said with a booming laugh. “You’ve earned this, and I know you will perform your duties admirably!”
Constantine bowed again, then returned to his seat with a stunned look on his face, as if he couldn’t quite believe what had happened was real.
“Now, on to less engaging business,” Trajan said as the smile on his face died. It was time for him to go over logistics and how to get in contact with him while he was in the capital, two topics which were hardly interesting for anyone involved.
But, once he was done with that, the meeting would be over and he’d be free to hand over the rest of his duties to Constantine and begin to truly get ready to return to the capital.
Several hours later, Trajan met with Leon alone in his favorite sitting room. His servants were getting some his things packed—he didn’t need everything, once he was certain that he wasn’t needed in the capital any longer, he was going to leave as fast as he possibly could.
“Will I be accompanying you?” Leon quietly asked. For his part, he felt both elation and dread at the prospect of going to the capital. For one, Elise was there, and wherever she happened to be was where he wanted to go. On the other hand, the secret of his identity was now known to far too many people for it to remain secret for much longer, and the capital was the last place he wanted to be when it became widely known who he was.
“Yes,” Trajan quietly murmured, and a conflicted expression appeared on Leon’s face.
“I… I’m not sure I want to go…” Leon hesitantly admitted. “I have a few clues as to who my enemies are, but nothing iron-clad… I’d rather be far away from the capital when they finally learn who I am…”
“They won’t,” Trajan vowed.
“There are too many people who already know to make that promise,” Leon warned, and Trajan cringed a little inside. On recent reflection, he deeply regretted admitting so readily who Leon was when Bronze made his guess, but he did impress upon the three Paladins and Prince August that Leon’s identity was to be kept secret upon pain of death. None of them doubted his words, but that still wasn’t a guarantee that someone wouldn’t let something slip somewhere.
“You’ll be with me, at my side, as much as possible. I will not let anything happen to you, boy,” Trajan said with a fatherly smile.
“They got my grandfather and his entire retinue,” Leon reminded the Prince. “How strong was the old Archduke? I appreciate what you’re saying Trajan, and I have full confidence that you mean those words, but I don’t think even the King could protect me if my enemies learn of my current whereabouts. Secrecy was my best weapon, and now that so many people know…”
“I get it,” Trajan said. He sighed, then asked, “How many other people know?”
“Alix and a few people from Heaven’s Eye. Elise, Emilie, Emilie’s first husband, Ajax… I’m not sure who else, but if they’re with Heaven’s Eye I don’t think they’ll spread rumors or spy for anyone else… But who knows?”
‘Shit, that is too many people…’ Trajan thought as his heart began to race.
“I’ll go with you, though,” Leon said. “I want to know who has such enmity with my family that they would chase me and my father almost literally to the edge of the plane. I can’t do that from here, and there are few people I trust enough to investigate on my behalf, and given how strong these people seem to be, I would actually ask none of those I trust to investigate.”
“A brave decision,” Trajan said appreciatively, “but I would have you stay here if you’re so anxious…”
“No, I said I would go with you, and that’s that,” Leon firmly stated with a steely look in his golden eyes.
“Very well, then,” Trajan said as his chiseled features turned upward into a wide smile. “When we arrive, we’re going to have to move fast if we want to stay ahead of the rumor mill. I said long ago that I would use my influence to assist you in your investigations, and I meant it. I will put you in contact with the man my brother put in charge of his investigations into what happened to your father’s villa eighteen years ago, and the destruction of Kyros’ palace not long after.”
Leon smiled and said, “I’m sure that would help immensely.”
Trajan nodded to his young ward, then said, “So long as you’re diligent in your training, I’ll even allow you to focus on this; I won’t burden you with other duties…”
“Thank you, Trajan,” Leon said with genuine gratitude. Starting his investigation felt like a long time coming, though it hadn’t even been three years. He had been prepared to wait decades until he had the political clout to look into these matters without drawing too much suspicion.
“Just… promise me one thing,” Trajan said with a slow and almost hesitant cadence, “don’t go doing something stupid again. Those stunts you pulled during the war and in the stone giants’ crater… that can’t happen again. Restrain yourself.”
“I will,” Leon replied. He wasn’t eager to do something stupid like that again. His infiltration of his family’s archives in Teira, the Cradle, his stupid solo venture east of the walls, every time he did something reckless, he wound up almost dead or captured. The last one even left him in sexual debt to a river nymph too powerful for him to deny, the very thought of which sent shivers of dread down his spine.
To a degree, though, everything had worked out fine, but he knew he was playing with fire. It only took one reckless decision to end his life and render everything else he had done moot, and if he continued the way he had been, he’d encounter that one mistake sooner rather than later.
“By the way, you should also speak to Lapis,” Trajan mentioned. “I don’t mind if the giant accompanies us to the capital, not that that thing would listen to me if I tried to keep it here, just getting it to stay in Ariminium while you were gone was hard enough.”
“I’ll do that,” Leon responded. If Lapis was willing to follow him to the capital, then Leon was willing to accept the giant’s presence. It had fought alongside him too many times for Leon to be able to justify leaving it behind, and since it insisted that its job was to protect him, Leon doubted that it would stay behind once he left.
“Good,” Trajan murmured. He stared out his window at the fortress he had spent more than half of his life in charge of. It was his home, far more so than the capital could ever be, and leaving the Horns was something he wasn’t comfortable with. Still, he felt like he had to go.
For his part, Leon had much less emotional attachment to the fortress, but a great many things had happened to him here, and he knew he was going to miss the place. Still, now that he had Trajan’s go-ahead to begin his investigation, the urge to leave and return to the capital was growing.
“When do we leave?” Leon asked.
“The day after tomorrow,” Trajan replied.
“I’ll be ready…” Leon whispered. Artorias’ face, both the one he remembered and the one Bran showed him twisted with hate and covered in twisted poisonous black veins, flashed through his mind.
‘I’ll find who killed you, Dad. They’ll pay in blood…’ Leon vowed in his heart. Even if he wasn’t strong enough yet to do anything with whatever he found, it was still time for him to get back to it.
And he knew exactly with whom he would start.
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