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The city of Calabria was much like Florentia, to Leon’s eyes. Most of the residential buildings were on the eastern side of the Naga River, while the commercial buildings were on the western side, and a number of tall bridges connected both halves without interfering with the ships traveling up and down the river.
Their destination was in the eastern districts; specifically, it was the palace built on the tallest hill in the vicinity. Like most palatial buildings in the Bull Kingdom, it was made of white stone and marble, decorated with murals, tile mosaics, and carved reliefs, and heavy on blind arcades along the outside walls.
The entire nine thousand strong riding column couldn’t stop at the palace, though; its stables simply weren’t big enough. So, while most of the knights and men-at-arms rode toward the headquarters of the local Legion garrison, Trajan, August, Leon, the Paladins, and about a hundred other high-ranking knights made their way toward the Exarch’s Palace. Lapis went with, and it attracted the attention of just about everyone it passed on the road, and more than a few people screamed and ran away in terror.
Leon’s heart raced as he rode silently not too far behind Trajan. Trajan had warned him whose palace this was and had given him the option of accompanying the rest of the knights to the Legion garrison, but Leon had refused to do so. It was a rash and impulsive action, and one that he was starting to regret as the gates of the walls surrounding the palace closed behind the group.
Once he got off his horse, he intended to find wherever it was that he was going to stay for the next couple of days and leave as quickly as possible. He would become as invisible as he could with his ring broken, he wanted to attract as little attention as possible.
Trajan understood this and didn’t require Leon to perform any of the duties that were expected of him at the Horns—namely, morning training and accompanying him to official meetings.
For her part, Alix was looking more than a little nervous. Her eyes darted everywhere, her head spun around so much that Leon was almost concerned that she was going to get dizzy and fall off her horse, and her hands visibly shook. Leon hadn’t kept it a secret who the resident of this palace was, and since she knew who he was, Alix was in almost as much danger as Leon, and she wasn’t able to hide her anxiety as well as Leon was able to.
Anzu, on the other hand, seemed ecstatic to be somewhere new. During most of the ride from the Horns, he happily bounded along keeping pace with Leon and also running around in the tall grass and light forests they passed through. Now that he was in the palace, he leaped into a flower bush, furled his wings, and crouched down like he was stalking prey, but he stuck his shiny white head out of the bush and watched everyone going in and out of the stables.
When Leon finished putting his horse in its cell and came back outside, Anzu burst out of the bush and rubbed himself against Leon like a housecat. However, Anzu had grown big enough that his head was now higher than Leon’s elbow, and he almost knocked his human over with his expression of joy.
Leon spent a few minutes giving Anzu some head pats, eliciting a few chirp-like purrs from the griffin, and waited for Alix and Trajan.
Alix wasn’t too far behind him, and once Trajan came out, the Prince quickly approached Leon and said, “Make yourself scarce for a few hours. Head down into the city and come back at sundown. We’ll have our sleeping arrangements made by then.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” Leon said, and he, Alix, and Anzu quickly made for the gate. For its part, Lapis stayed within the palace, waiting for Leon’s return. Over the past year, it had learned to keep a respectful distance from the object of its protection, but it endeavored to remain where Leon could easily find it if he needed Lapis’ aid.
‘Now, into the lion’s den,’ Trajan thought once he saw the three vanish past the distant gates.
August and the Paladins sauntered outside not long after Trajan did, and the two Princes and three Paladins made their way inside the palace proper.
The entrance hall was as ornate as expected, all polished marble, thick comfortable carpets, and expensive mahogany furniture. The alcoves along the wall were filled with the requisite marble statues of long-dead Kings and famous knights, and the air was perfectly temperature controlled by complex wind, fire, and ice enchantments.
But these luxurious surroundings were barely noticed by the princely entourage, as waiting for them at the foot of a grand staircase was a man with glittering silver hair, eyes like radiant sapphires, and a slight frame that nonetheless exuded a feeling of power and authority. His face tended more toward pretty than rugged but was still exceptionally handsome with its square jaw, straight nose, and omnipresent jovial smile.
“Your Highnesses, such a pleasure to have you staying in my humble manor!” he loudly proclaimed. “Welcome to Calabria, please avail yourselves of my hospitality!”
August returned the man’s smile and said, “We are grateful for the warm welcome, Lord Isynos, and I, for one, look forward to your hospitality.”
Prince August and Lord Justin Isynos continued in this vein for several more sentences, but Trajan remained silent. He fought the urge to frown in displeasure at the man’s servile tone, as he’d found that the more obsequious the tone, the less competent or loyal the person often turned out to be. What put him even more on edge was the man’s complete lack of aura, indicating either extreme weakness, or extreme strength, and Trajan guessed it was the latter—stronger mages could hide their auras completely from lower-tiered mages, but the instant they started using magic, then the lower-tiered mages would be able to perceive it, even if they wouldn’t be able to discern any meaningful details.
‘Well, at least it now makes a bit more sense why Julius would give this man a city to govern…’ Trajan thought to himself. If Lord Isynos was stronger than even him, then it was perfectly understandable why the King would want to keep him around, despite only arriving in the Kingdom about fifteen or so years ago, which Trajan did note wasn’t even a year after the death of Kyros Raime.
Once the expectedly over-long greetings were finally done with, Justin said, “Please, join me for a late lunch, I’m sure Your Highnesses could use the rest after your journey.”
Escorted by what almost seemed to be a Legion of servants and attendants, Justin led the group to a relatively ostentatious dining hall where a small but sumptuous feast had been prepared. Justin and August chatted the entire way through the halls, discussing the various administrative details of Calabria, while Trajan and the Paladins remained silent.
For his part, Trajan watched Justin as subtly as he could and listened to every word the Exarch said. He had no illusion about whether or not the man would let something slip about any grudge he had against Leon or House Raime, but the Prince wanted to take stock of the man. So far, though, Justin had shown nothing but pleasant hospitality and deference to royalty.
“… and she will graduate from the Knight Academy in a few months’ time,” Justin said as he sat down just to the left of the head of the table. August, being the man with the highest rank present, sat in that seat, while Trajan sat to his right.
“Does she intend to continue guarding my father’s consorts?” August asked with an interested smile.
“I believe so, my daughter has indicated to me that she enjoys her work, even if there isn’t much that’s expected of her. Or maybe because there isn’t much expected of her,” Justin responded with a slight chuckle.
“Well, I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for her,” August said. “I don’t expect any harm to come to her, of course, but you never know.”
“That would be appreciated, Your Highness,” Justin replied.
As the Exarch said this, Trajan noted that his hands twitched slightly and for a moment, he had a curious look in his eye. The Prince read this to mean that, despite his jovial tone, he didn’t appreciate August ‘looking out’ for his daughter. An understandable notion, in Trajan’s mind, given how strong he claimed his daughter to be, but at the very least it indicated some measure of repressed hostility, though the elder Prince was unable to pick up on any killing intent.
“So, Lord Justin,” August continued, “I have been made aware that you have conducted yourself admirably during your time as Exarch.”
“I have merely carried out my duties to the best of my ability,” Justin humbly stated.
“All the better,” August said with a smile. “I have a proposition for you, if you’re interested. I would like you to come with me back to the capital and serve as one of my stewards. As Prince-Regent, I have a powerful need for competent administrators, and I’d say you more than qualify.”
“Your Highness… I… I am honored for the consideration…” Justin said with surprise evident on his face. And yet, again, Trajan saw his hands twitch in what the Prince presumed was hostility.
Seeing Justin’s face fall slightly and sensing that he wasn’t going to immediately give him an answer, August spared both himself and Justin the embarrassment of a public refusal by saying, “The offer isn’t going anywhere, please take some time to consider it. Those in my employ are well compensated, I assure you, far more than an Exarch, so don’t let that be an issue.”
“I will endeavor to give Your Highness my reply before it comes time to depart this city,” Justin said. “I apologize for not answering immediately, but I must discuss things with my family first. This would be quite the change for them…”
“I understand,” August reassured the Exarch.
As they finished speaking, they began to eat lunch in earnest. All further talk was relegated to nearly meaningless pleasantries and random gossip about other nobles in Calabria and the capital, neither of which Trajan participated in.
‘This is painful to sit through,’ Trajan complained in his head. He had never been comfortable with such formality as Justin was showing, and he was greatly looking forward to when the meal was over.
“I noticed nothing too strange about the man,” Trajan said to Leon.
The younger knight returned to the palace of Calabria at sunset, along with Alix and Anzu. Immediately after greeting Lapis, who had waited patiently at the gate, Leon went looking for Trajan. Fortunately, the Prince had an attendant waiting for Leon in the palace’s entrance hall, so he didn’t have to take the risk of wandering around a potentially hostile palace looking for Trajan.
“Mm,” Leon grunted in acknowledgment. They were now in Trajan’s lavishly appointed private guest room in the palace, and they still had to be careful about exactly what they might say. Leon and Alix’s room wasn’t nearly as luxurious, being bereft of the same fine furniture and works of art that filled Trajan and August’s rooms, but it was at least close to Trajan’s, so if they were to be attacked, Trajan could be there in seconds.
“If I notice anything, you can rest assured that I won’t let it go,” Trajan promised. “That being said, I doubt I’ll find anything of substance. For now, make sure to enjoy the city for as long as we’re here.”
“I will,” Leon replied, knowing that was an instruction to stay out of the palace as much as possible.
Trajan didn’t want Leon anywhere even close to Justin Isynos, and he was going to keep them separated as much as was feasible. He had even contemplated having Leon stay in the Legion barracks or in a Calabrian inn, but in the end, he decided that it would draw too much attention from the others who knew who Leon was if he wasn’t in the palace with the rest of Trajan’s high-ranking knights.
“We’ll be here all day tomorrow, and then we’re leaving the next day,” Trajan reminded Leon. “Be careful, boy. Keep a keen eye out for anything suspicious.”
Leon smiled and said, “There’s plenty for me and Alix to do outside the palace. It’ll probably be far more of a vacation for us than it will be for you.”
“True enough, I have to stay here and listen to boring nobles and merchants talk about shit I couldn’t care less about,” Trajan complained as he sat back in one of the couches. After lunch, many of Calabria’s upper class desired meetings with the Princes, and while they could deny most of them, Trajan and August were still expected to mingle a little bit. Making matters worse, Justin had even organized a small feast for the following night and invited more than a few of the local nobles to attend.
Leon couldn’t help but be somewhat amused at Trajan’s predicament, knowing the Prince’s distaste for such things, and he was more than happy to get away from it.
Neither Trajan nor Leon had much else to say, so the latter left the former’s room and returned to his own, ready to get some rest. He, Alix, and Anzu had to get out of the palace before breakfast the next day.
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