Chapter 285 - Knighting Ceremony

On the other side of the huge column-filled atrium from the main doors of the palace was the throne room, a magnificently appointed room, long and filled with green marble columns that supported the hundred-foot-tall vaulted ceiling, a floor of polished white marble mostly covered by thick dark green carpet, and white stone walls overlaid with murals of black, red, and gold depicting the Bull Kingdom’s most famous triumphs.  Interspersed around the murals were tall, thin windows that augmented the magic lanterns with natural light—there were a pair of courtyards to either side of the throne room to allow this—and a raised gallery on either side for courtiers who weren’t important enough to stand closer to the throne.

The immense room was lit by white magic lanterns, and at the very end of the hall, where many of the lights were concentrated, was a high raised platform upon which sat more than a dozen white granite chairs.  In the center of the platform was a raised dais, and the Bull King’s silver throne sat atop it.  Behind the throne was the grandest of the murals, the moment when the First Bull King had finally declared an end to his conquests and the formation of the Bull Kingdom five thousand years ago.

The massive, twenty-five-foot tall image of the First Bull King was raised so that it could be seen from anywhere in the room.  Surrounding the heroic figure of the First Bull King were stylized representations of the most powerful of the nobles of the time, including one that drew Leon’s attention as he entered the room, an older man with bulging muscles who was surrounded by white lightning directly to the right of the First Bull King.  Leon would admit that he was biased, but he felt that this obvious depiction of his ancestor was a far more heroic sight than the First Bull King, with his golden sword raised in the air and shining with light like the rising sun.

The throne itself was an ostentatious thing, made almost entirely of silver and trimmed with gold, with the ends of the armrests shaped into bull’s heads, and the backrest rising high above the seat and separating into a pair of curved horns that extended over the entire dais.

In front of the throne platform was another, lower platform that Leon knew to be the place where supplicants and others who had business with the King were to stand while their business was heard.  Despite being smaller than the throne’s platform, though, it was certainly large enough for twenty knights and their squires to now be stood upon it, while August, Trajan, the Paladins, and other important officials took their places upon the throne platform.

Leon and Alix stepped onto on the central platform with the other knights and squires; it was time for the knighting ceremony, the last of the obligatory triumphal ceremonies.  Alix almost vibrated with excitement; she had always wanted to be a good knight, and now she was being knighted in the throne room itself!  In her mind, this was the highlight of her life so far.

After this last ceremony was over, the knights would be dismissed to join the rest of the capital in celebration, so naturally, they all wanted this to proceed quickly.  In fact, the entire ceremony was largely pointless, as they hadn’t thought they would be receiving a triumph upon their return.  As a result, nearly all of the squires that deserved to be knighted had already been.  But Trajan couldn’t let the ceremony proceed with only three or four squires, so he had quietly ordered many of the knights and their former squires to assemble here and bolster the numbers a bit.  As a result, most of the ‘squires’ kneeling were already knights.  Trajan stepped forward, eager as he was to get this over with, however, just before Trajan was about to begin, Octavius began to speak.

“More brave and deserving men and women there have never been,” the Prince said with a jovial smile and arms outstretched in welcome, presenting what he believed to be the perfect image of the benevolent King.  “I consider myself honored to know that so many young, talented people are getting the recognition they deserve!  To-“

“Enough of that,” Trajan said with an exasperated sigh, once more cutting off Octavius’ speech. “There’s a party going on outside, none of these people want to stand here and listen to a political speech, even if said speech is going to flatter the hells out of them!”

For a moment, Leon thought he saw an expression of extreme annoyance and anger cross over Octavius’ face, but he blinked, and it was gone.  The Prince turned and looked at his uncle, smiled, and said, “Of course, Uncle.  I merely wished to express my gratitude for having so many fine young people choose to serve my family.”

Trajan grunted, clearly unimpressed.  He knew that Octavius was trying to play to these young knights, but he wasn’t going to subject the members of his retinue and the followers of the Paladins to such politicking and blatant pandering.

“Well, let’s get this thing over and done with,” the elder Prince growled.  His patience had long since vanished from the unexpected ceremonies that he had to perform, delaying him in getting any work done.  “You begin,” he said to August.

August was shocked and expressed as much with a raised eyebrow and a questioning look to his Uncle.

“Uncle, I do not believe that to be the most appropriate of decisions,” Octavius stated loud enough for his voice to echo throughout the entire throne room, which was quickly filling up with hundreds of nobles who wanted to watch the knighting ceremony.  “My brother was not included in this triumph, though he has seen fit to participate anyway.  It wouldn’t be wise to reward his attempted theft of the glory these knights and their squires have fought to obtain with a role in so venerable a ceremony.  Besides, he did entice a pair of Legions to abandon their duties in the Central Territories-“

“And that’ll be quite enough,” Trajan said, cutting Octavius off for a third time, infuriating the younger Prince, though Octavius concealed it well.  “When this Kingdom was under invasion, August fought to bring me much needed reinforcements.  He has as much a place here as you or I.”

Trajan may not have been a Regent, but his word was final.  Octavius quickly found this fact out by scanning the room and seeing many of the nobles and higher-ranked Legion knights nod and whisper amongst themselves in agreement, and Octavius wisely decided to hold his tongue and let the issue slide.  He had wanted to either make August look weak by forcing him to enter the city hours after the triumph or to alienate him from other Legate knights by having him participate in a triumph that he hadn’t been invited to.  However, it didn’t seem to be going the way he wanted, but since it didn’t take much effort from him, he grudgingly fell silent—for the moment, at least—though his jovial smile was back on his face so quickly that few noticed it had ever left.

With another prod from Trajan, August stepped forward and said to the waiting knights and their squires, “Please kneel!”

The squires and ‘squires’ knelt, and the knights readied their swords.  Alix looked ecstatic and could barely hold herself steady, and Leon wore a rare smile on his face at witnessing such unbridled joy from his friend.

“When the Talfar Kingdom invaded our land, all of you did your duty and bravely fought them back!”  August continued.   “The Royal Legion is honored to call you all its own!  All of you have fought magnificently on behalf of your King, your Kingdom, and all the King’s Legions, and it is a personal honor to pronounce every one of you knights of the realm!”

Once the Prince was finished speaking and stepped back, the waiting knights gently lowered their swords upon each of their squire’s shoulders, finishing the ceremony.  When that was done, they helped the new knights to their feet, shaking their hands and in many cases, embracing their former squires.  Leon, being rather uncomfortable with the hundreds of nobles and other Legion knights watching, opted for a handshake, but Alix threw her arms around his neck anyway.

“Thank you, Sir!” she whispered into his ear.

‘I… didn’t really do much, though,’ Leon thought to himself with a bitter smile.

After several seconds, Trajan said, “This city is currently shaking with so many people outside partying.  It would be an utter shame if everyone here didn’t go out and join them, wouldn’t it?”

“I agree,” the Bronze Paladin said.  “To have so many of our fine young soldiers return home safely after bringing such a swift end to the war is truly a cause worth celebrating.”

“Indeed,” Trajan continued with a smile.  “I now pronounce this ceremony over; you are all dismissed!”

Many of the knights had to fight the urge not to shout and jump for joy as they began to quickly make their way to the door, while the nobles quietly chatted amongst themselves as they started to file out at a much more leisurely pace.

Leon, however, was unsure of what he should be doing.  He wanted to spend time with Elise, but he also didn’t know if he should be following Trajan as many of the Prince’s most senior knights were doing.  Fortunately for him, when Leon turned to look at Trajan, the Prince smiled and waved at Leon, silently telling the younger man to get out and enjoy himself.  Leon smiled back, made a short bow, and then left the palace accompanied by Elise, Alix, and Anzu, who had been forced to wait outside during the ceremony.

But Trajan didn’t have such luxuries as being able to enjoy the unexpected triumph.  He could see out of the corners of both eyes that August and Octavius were subtly glaring at each other, though both young Princes were at least wise enough not to be releasing any killing intent and to present something that looked a lot like unity to the crowd within the throne room.

Trajan sighed, then quietly said to the group on the throne’s platform, “I’m calling a meeting of the advisory council.  I want a full report of the Kingdom’s current situation.”

Octavius raised an eyebrow in confusion and fear; Trajan wasn’t the Regent, but Octavius could tell simply by the way that the high-ranking courtiers to either side of the three Princes quickly snapped into action that Trajan was going to get what he wanted.

Only ten minutes later, August, Octavius, Trajan, and most of the King’s advisory council were sitting around a large ornate table made of dark red wood in a long hall with similar décor to the throne room.  The table wasn’t in the exact center of the room, as there were dozens of scribes and other paper-pushers half-buried in enormous stacks of paper on the other side of the room making sure the council had all the documents they required and taking copious amounts of notes to record all that was said during the meeting.

At one end of the table sat August, with Roland and the Brimstone Paladin standing behind him.  At the other end was Octavius, with Earthshaker and Sapphire at his back.  Trajan sat in the center, in between the Regents, along with all the rest of the council.  The Bronze Paladin had departed to return to the King’s private villa as soon as the ceremony had ended with hardly more than a word to Trajan.

The advisory council was made up of more than a dozen individuals, including the Chancellor, Chief Steward, the Primarch of Lineage Hall, the Spymaster, and a number of other people who advised and aided the King in the administration of the Kingdom.  Perhaps most relevant to Trajan was the Consul of the Central Territories, who was supposed to be the most senior and thus, the first among the co-equal Consuls.  However, since Trajan was also a Prince, he was of senior rank to Lord Avidius, the aged Consul of the Central Territories.

As soon as the council members took their seats, Octavius immediately said, “I move to censure my brother for his inappropriate participation in the triumph, despite being formally excluded from it!”

“Indeed,” Avidius agreed, “this triumph was meant to celebrate the victorious Legions and His Highness Prince Trajan for defeating those Talfar dogs and sending them packing, but Prince August selfishly inserted himself into the proceedings without approval!  Such blatant disrespect of our Legions must never go unpunished!”

Before anyone else could voice their opinions, however, Trajan slammed his fist down upon the table, sending cracks spider-webbing across its surface.  The triumph and the weeks-long ride to the capital from the Horns had left him quite bereft of patience.

“There will be no censuring anyone here,” the Prince growled at Octavius.  “If August is to be punished for taking part in a celebration of a victory he had a hand in delivering, then you shall be punished as well for leaving him out of it!”

Octavius was about to sneer, but when no one else spoke up in support of his idea—and the Consul of the Central Territories shrank back into his seat from Trajan’s anger—he simply smiled and said, “Uncle, I meant no disrespect, I simply believed that August should’ve gone through official channels if he wished to participate, rather than taking it upon himself to so blatantly flaunt the rules.  But, if you wish not for him to be punished, then he shan’t be.”

“Now that that’s over and done with,” August said, sparing only a single momentary glare for Octavius, “Sir Tacitus, I believe there were some issues cropping up with the Serpentine Isles when I departed?  What is the status on that front?”

Tacitus was the Chancellor and the official head of the advisory council, and as such, his duties extended beyond the legal responsibilities of his office.  He knew just about everything of importance that went on within the Kingdom and a great deal of things that went on outside of it.  During the past few years, if there was a problem that August had needed to deal with, he would usually learn of it through Tacitus, the Chief Steward, or the Spymaster.

“Their yearly tribute hasn’t arrived yet, Your Highness, making them three months late,” Tacitus responded.

“Who cares about a few barbarian sailors?” Octavius asked with a derisive sneer.  “They pale in comparison to our navy Legions; we don’t need their inferior stock.”

“It cost a great deal to bring them to heel,” Trajan replied with a tone of subdued annoyance.  “If we let them start to skimp on their tributes, then they may begin to slide back into piracy.  And it’s more than just sailors they provide, Nephew, they are some of the finest shipwrights in all of Aeterna, and they provide us with many of their ships.”

“How should we respond?” the Chief Steward asked.  He, Tacitus, and the Chief Diplomat shared jurisdiction over tributary states, so he was just as invested in dealing with this situation as Tacitus.

“I say we send a diplomatic expedition to the Earls and demand they provide their obligatory tribute immediately,” the Chief Diplomat exclaimed.  He was an ancient man, so close to retirement that his only job was to advise the King on matters of foreign affairs and to act as his intermediary with the Diplomatic Corps in Ariminium.  In this respect, Aquillius, as the senior-most diplomat in Ariminium, was far more important and influential in matters pertaining to the Bull Kingdom’s foreign relations than the Chief Diplomat.  In fact, with the Diplomatic Corps’ headquarters being located in Ariminium, the Chief Diplomat was in charge in name only, with very little say in the goings-on of the Corps.

“I agree,” Trajan said, pre-empting many of the other people around the table from speaking.  “Have the Consul of the Ocean dispatch one of his fleets as well.  Remind them of our power, of when the Penitent Paladin burned their fleets and broke their islands.  We shed enough blood to turn the ocean red to end their raids on our western coast and into the Gulf of Discord, we must not allow them to relapse into their piratical ways.”

“Yes, Your Highness,” Tacitus, the Chief Steward, and the Chief Diplomat all responded in tandem.

Octavius, however, was finding it harder to maintain his noble air amidst his rising frustration.  He had been intending on flexing his might when August returned, which would’ve been easy given how much support he had from the nobility, but Trajan was making that much more difficult.  None of the royal advisors wanted to contradict such a venerable and respected member of the Royal Family, especially not one with ten of the most experienced Legions in the Kingdom still at his beck and call.  What’s more, Trajan would’ve been made King ahead of Julius had he not renounced his claim, and that seniority only increased the respect the old and powerful men and women of the capital had for him.

To put it bluntly, Octavius had been caught off-guard, and he was starting to flounder a bit as he tried to adapt and change his strategy for this situation.

For his part, though, August was more than willing to sit back and let Trajan assert his authority.  He had asked for Trajan’s support and assistance, and he wasn’t going to get in the way of Trajan providing just that.

“Now, then,” August began once their response to the issue was settled, “let’s move on…”

As August began to outline many of the problems that the Kingdom was facing—sightings of krakens off the western coast interfering with trade, a spike in banditry in the rural territories, and the supposed murders of the investigators he’d dispatched to Aurelianorum by bandits—Trajan could only sigh and do his best to swallow his distaste to have to deal with all of these people around him.  But such was his duty, and he had little choice but to deal with it.

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Chapter 286 - An Inevitable Talk

Chapter 284 - Triumph