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When it came time for Trajan and August to depart from Ariminium, they were accompanied by only nine thousand knights and men-at-arms—seven thousand from the Paladin’s own retinues, and two thousand from Trajan’s. The two Legions that accompanied August to Ariminium left at the same time, but the two Princes quickly outpaced them. The forty thousand Legion soldiers could travel quite quickly, up to thirty-five miles per day, but August was eager to return to the capital and so left them behind.
The two Princes rode at the front of the column, followed by the Paladins, and then by Trajan’s most trusted knights, including Leon and Minerva.
Leon was less than thrilled at his place of prominence, but he accepted it without complaint. Anzu happily trotted along beside him with his wings semi-spread and his eyes wide with the joy of going somewhere new. For his part, Leon wasn’t too thrilled at the prospect of returning to the capital itself, but what he would finally be able to do there was something he was greatly looking forward to.
Just to the side of the long column of nine thousand mounted knights and men-at-arms marched Lapis. The stone giant was as happy as Leon had ever seen when it was asked to accompany him to the capital and readily agreed. Unfortunately, its sheer size and weight made it wary of walking on the paved road for fear of causing undue damage.
Or at least, that was its publicly stated reason. That it was able to walk around in the Southern Horn without difficulty was something that occurred to it, but since walking off the road allowed it to stay close to Leon, it didn’t try to walk on the road at all. A bonus was staying out of the way of the knights, who Leon suspected wouldn’t have been too happy riding along behind a giant that they would’ve considered an enemy before Aquillius and the Crater Tribe’s peace agreement was reached.
“Think we’ll get a nice place when we get to wherever we’re going?” Alix asked Leon who, as his squire, she was allowed to ride alongside.
Leon chuckled a little. Alix had been quite pleased with their living arrangements upon their arrival at the Horns, and he perfectly understood her reluctance to leave.
“I’m sure that, as Prince Trajan’s people, we’ll be well taken care of,” he reassured his squire. “Wherever we’re assigned, though, you may be staying there alone.”
“Staying with Elise, Sir?” Alix asked with a knowing look.
“That’s what I intend…” Leon said with a strange look crossing his sharp features. ‘Or, I hope to…’ he pessimistically thought, remembering how distant things became between him and his lady after he revealed his pact with Naiad.
Whatever happened, though, he still wanted to be with Elise, and he hoped that this situation he got himself into wouldn’t be enough to destroy their relationship.
Several hours and about thirty miles later, August, who had been riding alongside Trajan in relative silence, turned to his uncle and asked, “Uncle, do you mind if we make a quick detour on the way back?”
“What for?” Trajan asked with a frown. They had just decided on the route to take the night before, and he was more than a little curious and slightly upset that August hadn’t brought this up then.
“I would like to stop in Calabria. It’s on the Naga River, so it should only be a few miles outside of our route.”
Trajan thought for a moment. Their route was simple: follow the Gold Road straight to the capital. The road led west for a ways, then curved northward to follow the curve of the southern tip of the Border Mountains. The road would then continue roughly north-west, bypassing the swamps and thick forests of the Southern Territories, until it reached the Naga River, where it would turn north and head almost straight into the capital. Calabria was at the northern tip of the Southern Territories, and indeed, stopping there wouldn’t be too great a burden for their group.
“Should be fine,” Trajan replied. “Why do you want to stop there?”
“There’s someone there I’d very much like to meet in person,” August explained. “For the past fifteen years or so, the Exarch of Calabria has been a man named Justin Isynos, a foreign noble that my father entrusted with managing the central sections of the Naga River. He’s done a remarkable job, and I would like to speak with him.”
“Why him in particular?” Trajan asked as he carefully controlled his expression. He remembered Leon telling him about Adrianos Isynos, the man-at-arms that served one of Roland’s subordinate knights and led the assassins to Artorias and Leon’s home in the Northern Vales, and though Leon had refrained from telling the Prince about Valeria’s confirmation of Adrianos’ connection to her family, it wasn’t a great leap for Trajan to connect Justin with Adrianos by the name alone.
“Lord Justin is competent, he owes his current occupation entirely to my father, the city he administers is on the way to our destination, and best of all, he’s a foreigner, completely unconnected to Octavius,” August explained. “If I am to beat Octavius, I need to step up my recruiting game, and the one center of power that Octavius has yet to truly begin tapping into are the Exarchs”
“… I understand…” Trajan slowly said.
‘Looks like the investigation will start a little sooner than expected…’ Trajan thought to himself as he barely paid any attention to August extolling Justin’s virtues.
From what little he did listen to, the foreign noble was apparently a genius steward, astutely managing the flow of trade through Calabria, keeping the river system clear of blockages, maintaining the dikes, levees, and water enchantments that preventing the river from flooding, and all sorts of other great managerial feats that greatly impressed August.
Noticing Trajan’s distraction from the conversation and assuming his disinterest, Bronze rode forward a little—not enough to overtake the Princes, but close enough to speak comfortably—and interrupted August.
“Trajan, I can’t tell you how much it relieves my old heart to see you returning to the capital! The people there right now could use some discipline, I tell you!”
August was a little put off at the interruption, and he didn’t shy away from letting Bronze know. “How rude! You truly are bold, interrupting a Prince!”
“Ha! Bold is my middle name!” the Bronze Paladin shouted out.
August semi-regretted speaking up, as he didn’t want to alienate the Bronze Paladin, but fortunately, Bronze didn’t take it too seriously. In fact, he was quietly pleased that August didn’t just take it lying down. Still, that didn’t change the fact that he spoke up to forcibly take Trajan out of a conversation that he didn’t appear to want to be a part of, and he and Trajan practically ignored August for the rest of that day’s ride as they caught up with each other.
The least enjoyable part of being the chief Heaven’s Eye representative in the Bull Kingdom, in Emilie’s opinion, was receiving countless letters of complaint or supplication from the various lords and wealthy merchants around the Kingdom who she considered so unimportant that she wouldn’t know their faces from a hole in the ground. Complaints about the lack of respect and hospitality shown in Heaven’s Eye banks, the offers of partnerships from merchants that ranged from almost reasonable to outright thievery, and worst of all, the requests for her to attend parties and get-togethers from influential members of the upper class.
It all tried her patience. She had to be diplomatic; simply telling everyone to fuck off, which was what she desperately wanted to do, was not the way Heaven’s Eye did things. Instead, she had to find a softer, much more pleasant way to tell them to fuck off, but the problem then was that it was never a strong enough response to get them to stop their letters entirely. Fortunately, many of her subordinates with more patience handled the majority of that work, but there were still some that she had to do herself.
Emilie was in her office at the top of the Heaven’s Eye Tower in the capital, sifting through a pile of letters on her desk when her door was cautiously opened from the outside. Her office was lit mostly by red-orange magical fire, and the white lantern light suddenly streaming in through the open door and reflecting off the polished marble tiles irritated her. On any other workday, it would’ve only been a minor annoyance, but dealing with self-important people who were too rich or influential for her to brush off made her more than a little angry.
She didn’t shout or scream, despite almost jumping at the opportunity to vent; instead, she glared at the young female attendant who was cautiously peeking inside. Emilie’s aura was thick with killing intent, showcasing just how much she appreciated this distraction, and the attendant almost fell to her knees in terror.
“What is it?” Emilie asked with as much patience as she could muster, but her voice still came out like a hoarse growl that stood in sharp contrast to her usual light, upbeat tone.
“T-The Young Lady…” the attendant sputtered as she tried to stand amid Emilie’s ferocious aura, “s-she has declined t-to attend the appointed m-meeting!”
Emilie took a deep breath and restrained her aura. As the Tower Lord, she felt some small amount of shame at letting one of her attendants see her in such a state, and she felt a little more at making the young girl so uncomfortable. Helping this process was seeing the excuse to finally get away from the letters for a little while.
“I will go and speak with my daughter, then,” Emilie said in a professional, almost detached tone.
By the time Emilie found Elise, who was alone in her personal library pouring over a thick tome, her professional demeanor had dropped back to her more relaxed, light-hearted self. The former was reserved for when she was at work, not when she was dealing with her family.
Elise looked up as her mother entered the library and, noticing the last remnants of her irritated expression, asked, “Answering letters again?”
“Not so much answering as reading, then immediately throwing away,” Emilie said with a laugh. It wasn’t true, she had to send at least a generic noncommittal response to all of them, but since she forgot about most of them immediately after finishing her response, immediately throwing them away wasn’t the most inaccurate thing to say. “At the very least, Duke Decimius has stopped sending requests for information about why he’s being suppressed,” Emilie continued as the smile on her lips turned vicious.
“Hmm, small mercies,” Elise said with a matching smile.
It was rare for Heaven’s Eye to find an excuse to throw their weight around, given their policy of not interfering with the nations they operate in, but when Euphemius and Tiberias tried to have Leon assassinated, these ladies had the perfect excuse to destroy them. Tiberias had been pestering Elise to go out with him for a while, after all, but that had also stopped not long after Heaven’s Eye began to lock up House Decimius’ assets.
“So,” Emilie said as she leaned over and looked at what Elise was studying, “what is it about river nymphs that has you so preoccupied that you refuse to attend meetings?”
“I was curious about them,” Elise casually responded, carefully controlling her expression to give away none of her anger and frustration.
Unfortunately for her, Emilie still picked up on the slight pursing of her lips and momentary balling of her fists.
“Are you sure about that?” Emilie asked her daughter.
For a brief moment, Elise contemplated telling her mother about Leon’s predicament, about his sexual debt with a river nymph queen. However, to admit that her boyfriend had been taken away by a monster on the edge of human civilization was a humiliation that Elise could do without, so she held her tongue and simply nodded to her mother.
Unwilling to press her twenty-two-year-old daughter too much for the details, Emilie sadly replied with, “Well, I’ll be here if you need to talk. Just don’t blow off too many more meetings, all right?”
Elise was legitimately surprised. Given her past experiences with her mother, she fully expected Emilie to press and push until Elise lost patience and left the room. She wasn’t expecting Emilie to just give up like that.
Emilie tenderly rubbed Elise’s shoulder for a few seconds, then stood up to return to work. “Take as much time as you need, Butterfly,” she whispered.
Elise sank back into her armchair as her mother walked toward the door. There were other things that had been on her mind, matters that the situation with Naiad had brought up, matters that she wanted some advice on, but to let go of her pride and ask her mother for help wasn’t something Elise had ever done before.
But, as Emilie opened the door and stepped out of the room, Elise quietly asked, “Mom, could you stay for a little while?”
Emilie paused with one foot out of the door and turned back toward her daughter. Elise had slumped back into her chair and hugged her legs to her chest. Most of her face was hidden behind her knees, but her eyes were visible, and Emilie could see the conflict and uncertainty in them even from across the room.
“Sure thing,” she said as she stepped back into the room, closed the door, and sat down across from her daughter. She didn’t say another word, she just waited for Elise to speak.
She waited for several minutes as Elise worked up the courage to broach this subject. It flew in direct contrast with just about everything Emilie had expected of her, and she doubted that it would go over well with her mother, given her proclivities.
“I was…” Elise hesitantly began, pausing for a second or two before beginning again. “I was thinking… I don’t want multiple husbands… or concubines…”
Emilie raised an eyebrow in interest and slight confusion. “I… suppose that’s fine…” she said, though she wasn’t able to completely conceal the disappointment in her voice. Having multiple spouses and a large harem of concubines was a huge mark of prestige for those of their station, and rare was the noble, male or female, who wasn’t at least interested in building a harem of their own.
“I…” Elise hesitantly continued, knowing that it was best to speak her piece now rather than springing it on her mother later. “I… don’t think I’d mind if Leon didn’t do likewise…”
That drew a sharp glare from Emilie, but the older woman was so stunned by what her daughter had just said that she simply opened and closed her mouth like a fish, completely at a loss as to what to say.
“I’ve been thinking recently,” Elise continued, finding it much easier to talk now that the hardest thing to say had been said, “I know there are some other girls who are interested in Leon, and just because I don’t want to start a harem doesn’t mean he shouldn’t…”
“But… You…” Emilie sputtered. Her own harem counted in the hundreds, and she could barely fathom why her own daughter wouldn’t want to do the same, despite twenty-two years of Elise bitterly fighting against her attempts to introduce her to eligible boys of sufficient status.
“I’ve made my decision,” Elise firmly stated. “I’m not going to have a harem of my own.”
Hundreds of different reactions flashing through Emilie’s mind, from angrily demanding that Elise break up with Leon and not degrade herself by doing such a thing to quietly asking her daughter why. To join a harem rather than building one’s own was significantly less prestigious, after all—though not without its own kind of prestige, depending on whose harem it was. Leon, however, as a mere fifth-tier knight as far as the wider Bull Kingdom was concerned, did not qualify for that status—if Elise were to let him have the harem instead of having one for herself, she would be politically lowering herself.
In the end, Emilie was only able to ask one question, and she did so with such a confused tone that her voice trembled.
“Have… you spoken to him about this?”
“Not yet,” Elise replied.
“Then don’t make such a rash decision yet,” Emilie quietly implored Elise. “If he says it’s fine, then you can still-”
“I’m not doing it,” Elise insisted. “I have seen more rich nobles than I care to count, and I have no intention of sleeping with any of them. I have seen even more rugged or pretty commoners, too, and I have found all of them wanting. I love Leon, and I don’t want any other men.”
Emilie took a deep breath to steady herself. She then took several more before she felt composed enough to speak again.
“What, may I ask, brought this on?” Emilie asked as calmly as she could, which wasn’t that calm; her eyes were narrowed in anger and frustration, her voice was low, and her killing intent spilled out of her.
“A… private matter,” Elise replied with a quick look of bitterness at the book on the table in front of her.
“I… see…” Emilie responded. “I need some time to process this. We will speak again later.”
Elise nodded, and Emilie rose to her feet and left the private library almost in a stupor.
To a degree, Elise could understand why her mother was so shocked, but on the other hand, she could do as she wished, regardless of what Emilie wanted for her. She didn’t want what Emilie had, she wanted something else, something she’d never had before. Letting Leon build a harem of his own might not be the thing she truly wanted in the end, but at the very least, she knew she wasn’t going to let that Naiad have him.
Elise’s eyes turned back to the book in front of her, and they narrowed in anger. Killing intent leaked out of her body, chilling the air in the library. She hadn’t found anything that could help Leon, but she had only gotten started.
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