Triumphs were rare in the Bull Kingdom, the last happening after the Penitent Paladin returned from his expedition to the Serpentine Isles to bring an end to their raiding more than fifty years ago. They were long affairs, starting with a parade by the victorious soldiers, followed by lavish spending by the Crown on food for the public and games in the arena, the knighting of those who had earned it, rewards of silver and other prizes for the Legion commanders, and ending with a great feast in the Royal Palace.
Most of the mortals in the capital hadn’t seen a triumph during their lives, as they were reserved for truly great victories over a foreign adversary. The attempted raid by Hakon Fire-Beard didn’t qualify for a triumph, as it was far too short of a conflict and too easily dealt with to warrant such celebration; in fact, it was so inconsequential for most of the people in the Bull Kingdom that the few that heard of it in the first place largely forgot about it within a week or two. The recent war with the Talfar Kingdom, however, was certainly large enough to qualify for a triumph.
Trajan, though, didn’t think that this triumph would be equal to those grand celebrations of the past. It was far too short-notice for everything to go off without a hitch and too subverted by politics. He doubted whether there would even be enough food for the citizens of the capital, let alone the spectacular chariot races and gladiator fights expected of such an event. Triumphs needed months of preparation, and it was beyond insulting for the army being so honored to have found out about their triumph only as they reached the southern triumphal arch of the city.
But this wasn’t the time to get upset. If there was going to be a triumph, then Trajan was going to follow procedure as best as he could. To that end, he and the rest of the army’s commanders stood to the side of the arch as the two Legions poured into the city. First and foremost was the honoring of the soldiers who had won the conflict that the triumph was celebrating, with the commanders following after.
As the soldiers marched into the city, Trajan could hear the ecstatic shouting and screaming of loved ones reuniting—family members were encouraged to come and greet their returning soldiers, with celebratory kisses between lovers and spouses being a long tradition. Given that neither of the two Legions fought and none of the soldiers had died, there were many happy family members lining the streets.
After several hours, all forty thousand soldiers had marched through the triumphal arch, a great number of them singing along with the drums and strings of the accompanying bands that had been rushed out to welcome them home. The songs they sang, however, were extremely rude toward most of the upper-class and the Bull Kingdom as a whole, but that, too, was tradition, and the ruder the better, to the great enjoyment of the crowds.
But then came time for the Paladins and their knights to march through the arch. At first, the honor guard looked like they were going to stop them, but the Bronze Paladin wasn’t having that and almost knocked the Legate to the ground as he passed in front of the marching knights. With Bronze leading the way, no one else dared to try and stop them, and the common people certainly didn’t care, especially once the family members of the knights began to rush out and celebrate with them.
Seven thousand people later, it was finally time for August, Trajan, and Trajan’s retinue to join the soldiers in the city.
“All right,” Trajan muttered, “let’s get this waste of time over with…”
For his part, Leon couldn’t agree with Trajan more; this entire triumph was an enormous waste of time, and he wanted no part in it. But there was no refusing such a thing, and as Trajan and August led the group forward, Leon fell in behind them, just behind Trajan and right next to Minerva. Bringing up the rear of the column was the eye-catching sight of Lapis, but it wasn’t doing anything overtly hostile, so as soon as the shock wore off and the giant moved on, the citizens went back to their celebrations.
Leon was actually a bit surprised, but since there were so many soldiers and knights around, the citizens didn’t care that a single stone giant had entered the city.
The beating of the drums hammered his eardrums, the streets, already colorful from flowers and painted buildings, were filled with banners of Royal green and gold and Legion crimson, and the air was choked with the smells of every kind of food imaginable. All told, Leon found it all overwhelming and everything began to blur together. All he was able to focus on was following Trajan and keeping his head down. The last thing he wanted was to be thrust into the spotlight like this.
The procession continued down the road, flanked by cheering crowds the entire way. The group only grew as wives and husbands rushed forward to greet their spouses on their return, as children ran up to greet their parents when they finally saw them. It was hard to blame these people for being so happy and wanting to celebrate that their loved ones who had gone off to war were coming home safe not even two months after they had left and for the soldiers and knights to want to spend some time with their families, but both Trajan and Leon, like the curmudgeons they were, just wanted this to be over and done with.
Finally, Trajan’s group arrived at the Monolith of Victory, a massive slab of polished black granite as black as the night sky that glittered with bright white flecks and streaks that resembled the stars. Carved into the lower third of this slab were records of every war that the Bull Kingdom had ever fought. To the sides of the monolith were a pair of statues carved out of rose marble in the shape of knights to ‘guard’ the monolith.
The monolith itself was in the center of a massive forum that had been cleared of all stalls for the duration of the triumph. All of the soldiers that had gone ahead of the commanders had gathered here along with their families; more than two hundred thousand people had congregated in the square, but there was still room for more if there had been the need. With the arrival of the two Princes, the crowd parted to make room for them and their most trusted knights to slowly make their way up to the monolith.
Trajan wasted no time walking right up to the gigantic slab of granite and placed his hand upon it, ignoring the earth mage that was standing right next to it in case Trajan hadn’t wanted to do this himself. He channeled his earth magic into the slab and carved a new record upon it, commemorating the short war between the Bull and Talfar Kingdoms, and the result of the conflict. He kept it short but ensured that his ‘handwriting’ was perfect before he finished.
With that done, Trajan turned around and shouted, “You are all dismissed!”
Another tradition was for the victorious commander to give a speech to his soldiers, but these weren’t Trajan’s Legions and he wasn’t one for overly long speeches, anyway. Despite this small bucking of tradition, the soldiers almost exploded with joy and they began to make their way out of the square to continue their celebrations with their families.
Trajan stepped back from the monolith as the Legions around him melted away into the city over the course of several minutes. The only people who remained in the square were his personal retinue, the Paladins and their knights, and August.
After waiting about ten minutes for the Legions to clear out, August asked Trajan, “Time to keep moving?”
Trajan sighed, then said, “Might as well.”
The now much smaller group kept moving toward the center of the city. The Monolith of Victory was on the edge of the noble district, which surrounded the lake and Royal Palace in the middle of the capital, so there were much fewer people running around taking advantage of the triumph to party. They were replaced with exceptionally well-dressed nobles, most of whom were far too dignified and had too much self-respect to engage in such common activities as partying in the streets, which came off to Trajan as them looking down at him and his. These nobles watched them in groups from the porches of nearby estates and from pavilions along the road, drinking wine and holding small feasts as the knights marched past the front gates of their estates.
“Ignore them,” Bronze whispered from just behind Trajan. “It doesn’t matter what they think or how they look at us, treat them as the walking decorations that they are and pass them without sparing them a single glance.”
“Yeah,” was all that Trajan was able to utter in response.
Unfortunately, this proved to be much more difficult than Bronze made it out to be, especially for those following directly behind the two Princes. In such a prominent place, they attracted much attention from the watching nobles. The Paladins were used to such things, but Minerva and Leon were not, and neither felt particularly comfortable under such judgmental scrutiny; Leon could feel the eyes of hundreds of nobles bore into him as the procession delved deeper into the district.
But the noble district wasn’t overly populated, and there weren’t many nobles to pass compared to the commoners in the rest of the city—there were at the most ten thousand nobles as opposed to several million commoners that called the capital home, and maybe ten thousand more nobles who were only visiting. Dozens of the higher-ranked knights within the procession were nobles, though, and so had their spouses and families hurry out to join them in their march toward the capital, the spouses and significant others sharing kisses with their knights as they did.
As the group neared the bridge across the lake to the island that the Royal Palace was built upon, something occurred to Leon: he hadn’t seen Elise at all. They hadn’t parted on the best of terms, though it wasn’t like they had broken up or anything, and there was a part of him that had been quietly looking forward to seeing her on the route. However, even after passing through the noble district, he hadn’t seen hide nor hair of his girlfriend at all.
This uncertainty of where she was and where their relationship stood settled into the pit of his stomach like a stone and Leon’s hands began to shake in anxiety. The only place left for Elise to be was the palace. Leon knew that he was in for either embarrassment or dejection upon arrival. If Elise was there and they were still together, then she’d almost certainly want to kiss him in front of everyone, regardless of his discomfort with public displays of affection. He was an unknown, a nobody in the capital, but Elise, one of the most prominent young noble women in the entire Kingdom, making their relationship so publicly known would undoubtedly invite much more scrutiny than simply being in Trajan’s retinue.
However, if Elise wasn’t there, then that either meant she didn’t want to see him or that she wasn’t supposed to be there as a member of Heaven’s Eye. The latter was infinitely preferable to the former, but Leon still wanted to see his lady, even if he had to suffer through embarrassment in the process.
The bridge had multiple gatehouses, and each one that the procession passed through brought more and more dread to Leon as the palace came closer. Inevitably, though, they had to reach the end, and at the pace that Trajan set, they reached it much sooner than Leon would’ve liked.
The group stepped off the bridge and continued onward through a thin, decorative forest to the palace until finally arriving at the main building where all official business took place. The front of this building was built in a U shape around a large central courtyard with a fountain in the middle and a statue of the Sacred Bull as its centerpiece. Filling the courtyard were hundreds of waiting nobles, all of whom began to politely clap as Trajan and August approached—though many of them stopped once they caught sight of August and the three Paladins and began to whisper amongst themselves at the apparent scandal.
The most important people stood on the half dozen steps before the front gate. Emilie was there, as was a tall man with a square jaw, dark brown hair streaked with gold, and a heavily muscled frame. Next to both of them was a beautiful blonde woman dressed all in blue, and a handsome man with eyes like grey ice. The latter two radiated power as only Paladins could, their auras completely unrestrained, making their identities known to everyone: The Sapphire and Earthshaker Paladins.
But all of this went completely unnoticed by Leon. He had eyes only for the gorgeous red-haired woman that waited by the entrance to the courtyard. He almost felt his heart stop when her emerald eyes found him walking not too far behind Prince Trajan, and it wasn’t until her mouth turned up into a joyous smile that he felt like he could breathe again.
Leon wanted to hurry over to Elise, but he had to stay behind Trajan and the Paladins to maintain appearances, but fortunately, Elise didn’t have the same reservations; she rushed forward to meet the procession and, ignoring the Princes and Paladins in her way, walked right up to Leon and threw her arms around him. Many of the knights behind Leon cheered at this sight, as they had whenever anyone else they knew reunited with their significant others, and they cheered even louder when Elise looked up and planted her lips on Leon’s.
The kiss couldn’t last long as the column was still on the move, so Elise quickly broke it off and whispered into his ear, “Welcome back…”
Leon took her hand in his and she fell in beside him. “It’s good to be back,” he responded, “I missed you.”
Now that they were back together, any anxiety Leon felt instantly disappeared, and he found it easy to ignore the odd look of curiosity he received from the watching nobles with her at his side.
From the steps ahead, Emilie could see her daughter’s actions, and an enormous smile uncontrollably bloomed on her face. Some nobles might have found such a public display beneath the dignity of someone as high-born as Elise was, but Emilie certainly wasn’t of that mind. In fact, she had to fight to maintain her own business-like stoicism, and it took a few seconds for her to wipe the smile off her face—too long to fully conceal it from those who curiously glanced at her for her reaction.
But as interesting as Elise and Leon’s relationship may have been to some of those watching nobles, it remained largely a curiosity, and when the tall and handsome man dressed in green and gold stepped forward to welcome the procession, everyone fell silent.
“Welcome, Uncle!” the man loudly said, pointedly ignoring August and the Paladins.
Trajan glanced at the man as he approached the front steps and growled, “Nephew.”
The man was, of course, Prince Octavius.
“It’s always an honor to welcome returning heroes from their war in-“ Octavius began in an obvious wind-up for a long speech, but he was interrupted by Trajan before he even made it through the first sentence.
“We’re tired, Nephew, and there are other duties we must attend to,” the elder Prince stated as he brushed right past Octavius and both Paladins at his back.
For a moment, it seemed like Earthshaker was about to stop him, but with a single look from Bronze, who was right behind Trajan, the Earthshaker Paladin froze in place. No one stopped Trajan as he flung open the massive front doors of the palace and led those who were following him inside.
For his part, as August passed Octavius, he only glared at his brother. Octavius maintained an aloof air and barely glanced at the younger Prince. Neither brother said so much as a word to each other, despite August wanting to castigate Octavius for ignoring him upon his arrival or Octavius’ desire to reprimand August for participating in the triumph. Octavius simply stepped aside and let the procession enter with a look of utter serenity on his face.
But deep inside, he felt nothing but rage and humiliation; August’s participation alone was enough to infuriate him, but his pride was greatly wounded when Trajan cut off his speech. It was all he could do to stand there and watch as the knights filed into the palace to bring the main event of the triumph to a close: the knighting ceremony.
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