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“We should’ve hurried back to the capital sooner,” the Earthshaker Paladin grumbled.
“The war was supposed to last longer,” the Sapphire Paladin shot back. “Who could’ve guessed that those horse lovers were going to lose so quickly? I mean, they were always going to die upon the Horns, especially once we arrived with the nobles and the Legions of the Central Territories, but to lose so quickly?”
“What’s done is done,” Octavius growled. He was obviously as upset at the swift resolution of the war as the other two, but he didn’t want to dwell upon it when there were other matters to attend to. “We’re here now, no going back to the Western Territories without giving the impression that I’m scared of that common bastard.” Octavius would rather eat his own tongue than let people think he feared August.
The three were in the Royal Palace complex, walking out to the King’s private villa where he had lain comatose for almost seven years. It had been more than five years since Octavius had seen his father, and now that he was back in the capital, the Second Prince thought it best to make time to visit, if only to show his filial piety. He didn’t rush to do so, of course, there were still a great many people in the capital who were yet unaware of the King’s infirmity and Octavius didn’t want to tip them off until he was prepared to do so. So, he acted like the King was perfectly fine and that he had all the time in the world to go and visit his father.
“With your uncle here, things are going to get complicated,” the Sapphire Paladin whispered to Octavius as she took the Prince’s arm and looked his way with her big, glittering blue eyes. “We should do something about him.”
“I would happily volunteer for anything that disposes of Trajan,” Earthshaker said with a vicious smile. He had old grievances with Trajan, and he wasn’t ever going to forget them.
“You two advocate me ordering the death of my uncle? A war hero so respected in this city that the advisory council ignores me and my bastard half-brother?” Octavius asked, his handsome features contorting into a smile. “No, we’re not there yet. I’ll admit that having Trajan here does ruin many of my plans, but don’t forget that I have the support of more than half the high nobles in the Kingdom! His interference is only a setback, and I won’t jeopardize my position by openly kinslaying, especially when that kin is as respected as my uncle is.”
“You won’t openly kinslay?” Earthshaker asked with an eyebrow cocked in interest.
“Drop this topic right now,” Octavius growled. “We have more important things to go over, like the preparations for the triumphal games that will take place next week.”
The ending to every triumph included grand public games, such as chariot races and gladiator fights, all paid for by the Crown. Since the recent triumph was so last-minute, though, the earliest Octavius was able to schedule his games were more than a week after the triumph had ended.
Earthshaker shrugged; he couldn’t care less about things like organizing games if he tried. Sapphire, on the other hand, smiled at her Prince and said, “We’ve attracted some of the best gladiators in the entire Kingdom to come and fight for your amusement, and the chariot clubs have agreed to hold the preliminary races for their usual tournament a month early this year, to coincide with your games.”
“Good,” Octavius whispered. “Commoners are simple creatures; all they need to stay in line are bread and circuses. And I’ll give them that much, at least.”
“The commoners should be happy with what they have!” Earthshaker spitefully spat. “It’s their duty to serve us, their betters, not the other way around!”
“Mm,” Octavius hummed, not truly hearing what his Paladin had to say. His mind had begun to drift to other things as his father’s villa came into view through the trees.
Upon his entering the villa, Octavius went straight for the bedroom in the back. The door was guarded by the Bronze Paladin, who had returned to his self-assigned post almost as soon as he returned to the city.
“Your Highness,” Bronze softly said as he slightly bowed, the soft clinking of his bronze armor almost deafening in the deathly silent villa.
“I’m here to see my Royal Father,” Octavius said imperiously, with all the pride of a Prince. He thought about openly asking about the Bronze Paladin’s allegiances, but he decided against it. That he was here, isolated from all the goings-on in the capital, was enough for Octavius for time being.
Bronze thought about it for a moment, but he had no reason to bar their entry, so he opened the door and made way.
Octavius strode into the bedroom but halted a few feet past the door once he caught sight of the King’s withered form. Julius hadn’t improved any since August had come to see him a little over a month before, though at the very least, his condition hadn’t drastically worsened. The King was much thinner, but still breathing.
At the King’s bedside was a man who appeared about middle-aged, with golden blonde hair, sky-blue eyes, a slight frame, and soft, round, almost feminine facial features. However, despite his rather unassuming appearance and decidedly pedestrian clothing, his body was strong and radiated more power than even the Paladins. This man was the doctor that August had hired, hailing all the way from the Sacred Golden Empire, a realm famous for its mastery of healing and nature magic.
In the corner sat the Penitent Paladin, watching the doctor and the newcomers like a hawk. He didn’t rise to greet the Prince or his fellow Paladins, but they were far too distracted by the King’s current state to care. By the door stood Bronze, watching the three newcomers just as intently as Penitent was, and focusing especially on his fellow Paladins. So intense was his gaze, in fact, that both Earthshaker and Sapphire had to fight the urge to shiver in fear.
Octavius walked over to the side of the King’s bed and asked the doctor, “My Lord, how is my Royal Father’s health?”
The doctor barely looked at the Prince and he curtly answered, “He’s doing fine. Better than expected, even.”
“I trust that you’re still working on the potion to heal His Majesty?” Octavius inquired a little sharper than he had intended.
The doctor dismissively glanced at the Prince and said, “I have most of the required ingredients. Once I have what I need, I’ll make the potion and use it on my patient. It’s not guaranteed to work, but rarely have I failed.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?” Octavius asked, partly out of an actual desire to heal his father, but also partly to make up for the tone of his previous question.
“No,” the doctor replied. “I’m done here, anyway.”
Octavius only now realized that the doctor had been packing up his instruments and preparing to leave. The Prince remained silent and didn’t say another word until the doctor departed. The doctor was the King’s only hope to wake up, and he was stronger than the seventh-tier Paladins besides, so Octavius silently endured his informality and light disrespect.
Silence fell upon the bedroom in the doctor’s wake. Octavius stared at his infirm father and none of the Paladins wanted to disturb him. After about five minutes, though, Octavius quietly ordered, “Leave me alone with my Royal Father.”
Sapphire and Earthshaker immediately moved according to their orders, but neither Penitent nor Bronze did likewise.
“Do you two think yourselves above a Royal command?” Earthshaker demanded when it became clear that neither of the elder Paladins were going to comply with Octavius’ command.
“The King will not be left alone. With anyone,” Penitent quietly but firmly responded.
Earthshaker glared at the bald, plain-robed Paladin and fought to suppress the urge to drag him out of the bedroom by force.
“I am a Prince, here to see my Royal Father!” Octavius said indignantly.
“Doesn’t matter, Your Highness,” Penitent replied. “The King will not be left with anyone, Princes included.”
“You disrespectful-“ Sapphire began as she took a few threatening steps toward Penitent, but she was immediately stopped when Bronze lowered his ax in front of her; she hadn’t even noticed him drawing the weapon.
Bronze said nothing, but his position was clear; he stood with Penitent, they were not going to leave Octavius—or anyone else—alone with the King. Perhaps it was paranoia or perhaps it was sheer blind loyalty, but that was the way of things. The two elder Paladins didn’t do anything else overtly hostile, but their auras spiked and put enormous pressure on their younger colleagues.
These two men were old and venerable, their individual experience in the various arts of war dwarfing that of Sapphire and Earthshaker put together. To put it simply, for all their posturing, neither Sapphire nor Earthshaker—or even Octavius, for that matter—had the ability to make them leave.
“Stay then,” Octavius snarled.
‘I’ll remember this insolence when I’m King!’ the Prince thought to himself. He then turned back to his father and deliberately softened his angry gaze. He knelt at the King’s bedside and held his father’s hand, looking every bit the humble son that he wanted to appear to be.
However, his thoughts were significantly more vicious than he let on.
‘You ignored me my whole life, you worthless excuse for a father!’ Octavius thought with bitter hatred, but with not a hint of it appearing on his face. ‘Herculanus ran off to the blood priests, but I have always been here for you, not that you’d ever see it! Words do not exist to describe the hatred I feel for you after naming me co-regent with that bastard that your whore squeezed out! If you wanted to seclude yourself and train so much, you should’ve just abdicated to me! You will never wake up, which makes this Kingdom mine, and I will have what is mine, one way or another. But I hope you don’t die anytime soon. If you do wake up one day, you can see for yourself what I’ve accomplished! To see the heights that I will climb to without you holding me back!’
Octavius wished with all his heart that his anger and hatred could reach his father, but he let none of it show on his face or in his body language. When he was done shouting his frustrations in his head, he rose from his position at his father’s side and made for the door without a word. Sapphire and Earthshaker followed him, both equally quiet, though Earthshaker did spare one last venomous glare for Penitent.
As the door closed behind them, Earthshaker growled, “I despise those two!”
“Drop it,” Octavius said. “Now’s not the time for it. We have other business to attend to.”
“What kind of business?” Sapphire asked.
“The games and dealing with the number of officials in this city who are more loyal to August than to me,” Octavius answered. “We need to replace them with nobles that support me, not upstart peasants who have stumbled into a modicum of magical power. There’s also a private matter I need to take care of.”
“If you tell us what that matter is, then maybe we could help,” Sapphire said as she took Octavius’ arm and shot him a smoldering look.
“… It’s honestly nothing,” Octavius said. “I just need to pay back some old friends, fulfill a few promises, that sort of thing. Nothing a Paladin need concern herself over.”
“If you say so…” Sapphire replied as her mouth turned downward into a light frown. She didn’t like Octavius keeping secrets, but she didn’t push him on this. If Octavius needed her, though, she wouldn’t hesitate.
“Well… he was certainly… something,” Penitent muttered as he took his seat in the corner once the door was closed and those outside could no longer hear.
“He was a damned prick, but not too unexpected for a Prince,” Bronze added.
“Still disappointing. Even more so than August,” Penitent said.
Bronze lost himself in thought for a moment, but eventually responded, “It’s not for us to judge. We’re just two old men playing at sentry, let those in the Kingdom choose who to follow. His Majesty will clean things up when he wakes, and should he have need of us then, then we can get involved.”
“Mm,” Penitent hummed in agreement as Bronze left to resume guarding the door.
Lord Justin Isynos wasn’t one to shirk his duties, but as he made preparations for his departure from Calabria, he quickly realized that he wasn’t actually needed all that much. It was his servants and subordinates who were going to do most of the work, so about a week after August and Trajan left, he got in his yacht and made his way north, toward the capital. Most of his belongings would follow in a few days.
About a day after departure, his sleek ship slid into dock in the capital. Despite being quite possibly the most magically advanced ship in the entire Kingdom, it drew no attention, it was just one of many pleasure yachts owned by one of the nobles in the capital as far as anyone could tell. And that lack of attention was just as Justin wanted it.
However, there was one person watching the ship as its crew tied it down to the dock’s cleats. Justin could see her from the deck of the yacht, with her silver hair glittering in the midday sun and her dark blue clothing fluttering in the gentle wind. Valeria, his daughter and only child, had come to welcome him to the capital.
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