“Uughh,” Justin Isynos sighed in displeasure as he sank into his armchair. He closed his sapphire-blue eyes in fatigue and his body stretched out until he almost slid off the chair.
“Well, don’t you just look chipper,” said one of the other three mages in the room, a youthful-seeming man with a stout frame and a shaved head.
“I hate dealing with these fucking people,” Justin replied with uncharacteristic venom in his voice.
The Princes had been at his palace for more than a day, and the feast he had prepared the day before was in full swing. More than a hundred of the most important nobles in Calabria had been invited, and all but about half a dozen had attended, despite how little notice there had been. All of them wanted to share a room with two Princes and three Paladins—especially Trajan and the Bronze Paladin.
“At least most of Trajan’s knights aren’t here,” said another of the mages in the room, a woman with strawberry blonde hair and sharp features. Her piercing green eyes were closed just as Justin’s were, as she was as tired with the company as her Lord was.
Leon, Alix, and all but a small handful of Trajan’s knights had been given the night off. Many were a little disappointed about not being able to attend the feast, but the Prince had wanted to camouflage Leon’s nonattendance by not having most of his other knights attend, as well. As a result, Leon, Alix, and Anzu spent most of their day down by the riverbank training and wandering around the market district trying to kill time, with no one of consequence there to take notice of them.
“These Princes are truly aggravating, or at least, August is,” the last mage said, a tall, lithe man with a thin, oval-shaped face and pitch-black hair.
“Trajan doesn’t talk much, thank the Great Lord,” Justin replied. “It’s times like these that I wish I just stayed in the shadows of this damned Kingdom. Presenting myself to the King was one of the worst decisions of my life.”
“It brought you power enough to build the spy network, though,” the blonde woman replied.
“It hardly seems worth it at this point,” Justin replied. “In our years of searching, we’ve only gotten one possible tip, and it led to the deaths of five of my best men at the edge of this cursed mausoleum. No sightings of our quarry since. I’m correct in that assessment, no?” Justin looked to the tall man for confirmation; an extended search he ordered of the Northern Vales for Timotheos’ team and their targets had recently been completed, and the tall man had been going over the results and preparing a report for his Lord.
“It’s… not promising,” the tall man replied, though Justin could’ve guessed that by the simple fact that the man had waited this long to tell him the results. “There were some rumors about a father-son pair living in one of the more remote regions that might be who we’re looking for, but my scouts have been finding it increasingly difficult to get more concrete details on them. Those Valemen truly do not like outsiders.”
“I can hardly blame them,” Justin said with a long sigh. “Keep digging. Someone will talk, even if we have to grease a few palms. Make sure our agent has plenty of silver for the job.”
“He’s got more than enough, the damn barbarians simply won’t take it,” the tall man complained.
“These fucking people, always making things more complicated than they have to be…” Justin muttered in exasperation. “Try everything you can think of, if they still don’t talk, then… I suppose we’ll have to take more extreme measures.”
“Surely you don’t mean massacring them?” the stout man asked with an expression of strong distaste.
“I’d rather not, but Lord Kamran sent us here to do a job, and he’ll not be pleased if we fail,” Justin said in a low, fearful tone. “We’ll make every effort to do this right, but if we have to get messy, then we can’t shy away. We can’t shy away…”
“Still doesn’t feel right,” the stout man murmured as he crossed his arms and stared at the floor in concern.
Justin sighed once more.
‘If they survived Timotheos’ attack, then there’s little chance they’re even still there…’ he thought to himself. ‘We need more people for this investigation, we need more spies…’
“I’ve made a decision,” Justin said out loud, drawing the undivided attention of the other three. “I will accept Prince August’s offer to go to the capital with him. We need more followers for this, our current network is clearly not cutting it. To aid in that endeavor, I will need greater political clout than I currently possess and entering the service of one of the Princes will get me that influence. It increases the risks to us, but the network we have right now is clearly not cutting it.”
“Perhaps the Young Lady can intercede-“ the blonde woman began, but she instantly fell silent when Justin turned a wrathful gaze upon her.
“I will not involve my daughter in these matters,” he growled as his killing intent erupted from his body, dropping the temperature of the room well past freezing. “It’s bad enough that I’m doing that soulless bastard’s dirty work, I will not allow her to stain her hands with this!”
“I-I understand,” the blonde woman replied as she began to uncontrollably shake from the pressure Justin’s rage put her under.
“… Good,” Justin responded as he restrained his killing intent and leaned back in his chair; he’d made his point and he wasn’t the sort to deliberately terrify his subordinates. He much preferred the carrot to the stick, but when his business in the shadows began to get too close to his family, he’d lose his cool remarkably quickly.
“So, we’ll be accompanying you to this Kingdom’s capital?” the stout man asked, seeking confirmation.
“Of course,” Justin said. “I’ll need your skills if we’re to recruit more people to our cause. Besides, I’m probably going to be busier there than I was here, that little self-centered Prince is probably going to want me to do a lot of work in the palace, leaving me with little free time to devote to our goal.”
“Any idea of how much we need to expand?” the tall man asked.
“None at all, so let’s take this slow,” Justin said. “Only recruit those who can be trusted and be extremely conservative with what you tell them. Basically, just do what we’ve been doing, but on a slightly larger scale.”
“Got it,” the tall man replied.
The four continued to plan and strategize for about fifteen more minutes when Justin decided that he’d been away from the feast for too long and had to return. He took a few deep breaths to steel himself and regain the attitude of a humble servant of royalty before leaving the study.
The other three, however, stayed to continue discussing details of exactly how, and more importantly, where to expand.
It was late, an hour or so past sundown, but with the feast not wrapped up yet, Leon and Alix were still out in Calabria trying to kill time. They had trained in the morning in a public park by the Naga river, a sight that wasn’t too uncommon in most parks on Aeterna, regardless of the Kingdom, and had explored the city in the afternoon.
Calabria, however, wasn’t much of a tourist city. There weren’t many great places to visit unless one enjoyed the view of hundreds upon hundreds of warehouses. Consequently, after dinner, Leon and Alix returned to the park to continue training—though neither were particularly unhappy about the situation, they both had an intense desire to continue growing stronger.
They had chosen a secluded grove to practice within, with Leon sitting on the ground with his back to a tree and Anzu curled up in a ball right next to him. Alix slowly practiced her sword skills while she flooded her body with magic power. She was close to the third-tier, she could feel it, and wanted nothing more than to ascend.
Leon, too, felt like he was nearing the threshold for ascension, but based on his past experience, he thought he wasn’t nearly so close to his as Alix was to hers. Still, he diligently trained as fast as he could without abandoning safety, slowly building up his magic body with every passing moment. He estimated that everything above his hips was fine, he just had his lower body left to magically copy over to his magic body.
He’d made great strides in the past month. Ever since the Thunderbird helped him dispel Bran’s nightmare, he’d been training almost constantly, though not usually at the intensity that he did during dedicated training sessions. Still, he couldn’t honestly say that he’d stopped training during his conscious hours after recent events had instilled an immense determination within him to speak with the Thunderbird.
Suddenly, Leon’s eyes snapped open; he sensed a drastic change in Alix’s aura, and in concern, he shifted his attention away from his own training and over to her. What he saw was the distinctive aura of one whose bone marrow was now producing mana instead of blood.
Alix had frozen in mid-swing of her training sword. She stared ahead in bewilderment, her eyes wide and unfocused with the shock of what she now felt. Leon rose to his feet, and the soft noise he made jerked Alix back to reality. She looked to her knight with a face of half disbelief and half ecstasy.
“I…” she mumbled, so overwhelmed with her accomplishment that she was finding it difficult to form words.
“… You’ve ascended,” Leon said with a tone of soft pride. “You’re now a third-tier mage.”
There was a long moment of silence as Leon’s confirmation of her status sank in. And then, when she finally realized that her accomplishment wasn’t a figment of her imagination, she shouted at the top of her lungs, “YYEEESSS!!! FINALLY!!!”
Alix’s face split in half with a smile of sheer unadulterated joy and she raised her arms to the sky and jumped in celebration. Energy coursed through her body, and all her fatigue from training most of the day vanished in her exultation.
Leon felt a modicum of embarrassment in seeing just how unapologetically gleeful Alix was. Fortunately for him, the two had chosen their training area wisely, and no one else was around for them to disturb, save for the sleeping Anzu who was jerked awake with Alix’s triumphal shouting.
“It’s about damned time!” Alix exclaimed as she clenched a fist and felt the magic that was slowly being produced in her body. It was a fairly slow trickle, but she knew that it would take a few more days or weeks of training to finally solidify her gains and to make sure all of her bones had completely adapted to the presence of magic power. During that time, her bones would begin to produce more and more mana and less and less blood, until mana was all that was being produced. And as she progressed through the tiers of magic, the quality of mana being produced would greatly increase, meaning her bones would be producing mana that held a much greater amount of magic power for every tier she ascended.
“Only a couple weeks late, eh?” Leon said as he playfully punched his squire in the shoulder. She was behind Leon’s other friends, but she had ascended much faster than they had, even if they had managed to do so weeks before her.
“Better late than never,” Alix replied, “and from the way my training has been going recently, I was starting to get worried that I wasn’t ever going to ascend!”
“You shouldn’t doubt yourself; it was only a matter of time with how diligently you train,” Leon reassured his squire. “Now, I’d say it’s about time to get you knighted.”
Alix’s eyes almost sparkled at that statement. It had always been her dream to be a knight, and now that dream was close to being fulfilled.
“Think that party’s over by now?” Leon asked. It had grown dark outside and the moon had risen quite high, but it wasn’t even close to midnight yet.
“Not sure…” Alix said as she suppressed her excitement.
“This might need to wait until later, but rest assured, we’ll get that knighting ceremony taken care of,” Leon said with a wide smile. He had to admit, he really wasn’t that great of a mentor to Alix, and that fact had weighed on him quite heavily since he’d taken her away from Fort 127. Now that she was about to become a knight, much of that responsibility was going away, and he could feel himself unconsciously relaxing.
“I don’t mind waiting,” Alix replied, though it was clear to anyone with the power of sight that she was practically bursting with energy due to her own excitement.
Leon chuckled, then said, “Let’s spar a bit, then head back in a couple hours. Best to err on the side of caution and not show up too early…”
“Yes, Sir!” Alix responded with a bright smile.
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