The entire 23rd Legion couldn’t accompany Trajan to Florentia, as there wasn’t enough room for them, the crews of the ships, and the thousands of people they needed to evacuate. Or at least, they couldn’t all go at once, but Trajan didn’t plan on being in Florentia long enough to ferry everyone upriver.

Five thousand soldiers would go in the first wave and fortify the city. The ships would then return to Ariminium with as many citizens of Florentia as could be packed into them, and then bring more soldiers to the city if there was a need for them. The ships should only need one or two more trips back to Florentia before the soldiers could board again and return to the Horns.

As Trajan, Leon, and the rest of the Prince’s group made their way to the fleet’s flagship, Leon kept a watchful eye out for Charles, Henry, and Alain. All three were in the 23rd Legion, but he didn’t know if they would be joining him and Trajan in Florentia.

He honestly couldn’t decide if it was fortunate or not that he didn’t see any of them.

Knowing who he was looking for, Alix worriedly whispered from behind him, “If they’re coming with us, they’ll be fine, I’m sure, Sir. They’ll be in a shield wall, right at the side of their knights.”

“That was never in doubt,” Leon responded, cheekily smiling at his squire. “The only thing that is in doubt is whether or not they’ll have anything to brag about when next we hang out.”

Alix chuckled at his flippant attitude and her own anxiety over the coming battle was somewhat relieved. She didn’t have to be a coward to be apprehensive about a few thousand Legion soldiers facing down a couple hundred thousand Talfar warriors, after all, and even the bravest, most powerful, and experienced knights among them were solemn and serious about the operation that was about to begin.

The flagship of the fleet was an enormous thing; at more than a thousand feet long, it was easily half again as large as the transport ships, which were the second largest ships in the fleet. It had at least five levels above water and no sails. It was propelled entirely with water enchantments that covered the wooden hull, and from what little Leon could sense, there were a host of other enchantments filling the ship with magic that he couldn’t identify.

At the center of this beast was a tall tower three more stories above the deck. Just in front of and behind this tower was a pair of long metal cylinders on rotating metal platforms that piqued Leon’s curiosity, as he could sense a large amount of magic power flowing through them, but he held his questions for the time being.

Trajan made for the tower as soon as he led his group onto the ship, and Leon followed. The top level of the tower was the bridge of the ship, where the fleet Legate was waiting. He bowed to the Prince, but it was clear from his expression and the hesitation in his movements that he wasn’t happy in the slightest to have Trajan aboard his ship. However, he neither said nor did anything to stop Trajan from ordering the operation to begin.

Twenty minutes later, five thousand soldiers of the 23rd Legion had boarded their transports, and the fleet departed the port of Ariminium.

Leon couldn’t help but marvel at the sight. More than one hundred ships, a handful large enough to have a crew of thousands, while many were barely large enough to require a crew at all. Most were war galleys of varying size designed to ram into enemy ships and allow the accompanying contingent of marines to board and seize the vessel. Leon had no idea how most of the ships were to be used, though, as most of his martial education had been devoted to land tactics and strategies—the forty army Legions were given a great deal more respect in the Bull Kingdom than the fifteen navy Legions.

All of these ships slowly turned east with a wedge of nine galleys in the lead. Florentia wasn’t far, and all the ships would likely arrive in less than half an hour. Most of them wouldn’t dock at the Florentine docks, though, as there simply wasn’t enough room. A couple dozen galleys would travel straight through the city and secure the other end of the Tyrrhenian River in the south while most of the rest of the fleet would protect the miles of river to the west as it approached Ariminium. Only the dozen transports and the flagship would stop at the docks.

Florentia was a long city, with every building less than a quarter mile from the Tyrrhenian River. Every inch of the city that lay on the river itself had accompanying docks and piers. Despite this, the river was more than wide and deep enough for the fleet to pass without trouble, even as the flagship and the transports behind it started pulling up to the docks.

The most eye-catching landmarks of the city were a pair of enormous bridges that had once been at either end of the city, but Florentia had grown past them since their construction, so they were fairly deep into the city. Each bridge was a massive stone arch that Leon guessed had to have been ruinously expensive to build, as even the enormous flagship was able to pass beneath the first bridge with room to spare.

The docks were illuminated by hundreds of magic lanterns and torches, and from the bridge of the flagship, Leon could see several thousand panicked-looking people gathering. Most of the docks already had smaller boats moored, though none were larger than even the lightest of galleys in the fleet. Still, it was obvious that a significant portion of the city’s residents were already evacuating Florentia.

“Where should we dock, Your Highness?” the fleet Legate asked through clenched teeth.

“On the Talfar side wherever there’s room,” Trajan responded.

The eastern and northern sides of the river—the sides of Florentia that were in Talfar territory—were much denser with people, Leon noticed. There were more homes, more warehouses, and more paved roads. Florentia mostly managed the flow of trade goods into and out of the Talfar Kingdom; as it was landlocked Kingdom, the only other way to facilitate trade was by much more expensive land routes. The Samar Kingdom’s side, on the other hand, had comparatively few people living on it, as most trade ships coming north from the center of Aeterna would choose to bypass Florentia and follow the river as it curved west toward the Gulf of Discord, as most cities of significant size in the Samar Kingdom were located near the Gulf coast.

As the flagship slid into the largest dock that could be seen, Leon could hear a few cheers and exclamations of joy from the evacuating citizens, but they were almost lost in the worried and panicked shouts and cries that filled the air.

“Let’s go,” Trajan said to Leon and the rest of his knights.

Trajan and his retinue made their way down to the deck of the flagship where the few hundred Legion soldiers that rode in the ship were gathering. A few sailors were busy coordinating with dockside workers to get the ship tied down and the gangplanks lowered, so everyone had to wait a few more minutes. This was more than enough time for a group of what looked to Leon like militiamen to appear next to the flagship with a very well-dressed man in the lead.

This man wore what was obviously prohibitively expensive clothing made of black and red velvet and trimmed with gold thread. His outer doublet was tight, but beneath that, he wore a fluffy white shirt that spilled out his sleeves, neck, and waist. His black velvet pants were also extremely tight, while the soles of his boots were so thick that they added almost half a foot to his height.

Most eye-catching, however, was the proudly displayed golden bull sewn onto the chest of the man’s doublet.

Trajan was the first to descend the gangplank, and when he saw the Prince, the well-dressed man hurried over and bowed.

“Your Highness!” the man exclaimed. He was tall and well-built, even without his puffy shirt and boots making him seem bigger, and he had a robust fifth-tier aura emanating from his body, but he spoke in a strangely breathy and high-pitched voice that his brawny frame belied.

“You’re the mayor of this city?” Trajan bluntly asked, his expression neutral and stony to maintain his royal dignity.

“I’m Marcus Augustulus, the captain of the militia, Your Highness,” the man answered. “We don’t have a mayor, we have a council of nine called the Consortium. I sit on this council, so I have the authority to aid your visit here in any way I can.”

Trajan nodded at the information. He was a little embarrassed that he didn’t know how Florentia was governed despite its proximity to his own city, but as with most members of the Bull Kingdom’s government, his attention was focused inward. Apart from the largest and most broad issues, he left Ariminium and the Bull Kingdom’s relationship with Florentia to the Diplomatic Corps.

“We’re here to assist any citizens of your city that wish to evacuate,” the Prince stated.

“Yes, Your Highness,” the guard captain replied with an expression of abject relief. He immediately barked a few orders at the militiamen, and they cleared the citizens waiting on boats away from the gangplanks to allow the soldiers to come streaming off the ships.

Tribunes and Centurions began to bellow orders of their own, and the soldiers dispersed into the dark streets of Florentia. The sun had gone down less than an hour before, but already the city had been plunged into darkness. Still, everyone knew exactly where they had to go, which was to say they had to get set up on all of the major streets leading out of the city. The main road leading into the Talfar Kingdom was the main priority, as it was the largest of all the points of entry into Florentia.

That being said, Florentia had no walls, so any attempts to prevent the Talfar Kingdom from entering were futile at best, especially with their cavalry advantage. Ideally, however, the soldiers wouldn’t be needed and the fleet would move fast enough for everyone to get out of the city before Talfar detached a force to seize Florentia. Of course, no one honestly thought that there wouldn’t be at least a few light skirmishes, as so many ships on the river were impossible to hide and the Talfar commanders would be fools to allow the evacuation to continue unchallenged.

Leaving the militia behind to coordinate the departure with the sailors, Trajan and Leon moved further into the city. Their destination was the closest thing that Florentia had to a central forum, and from there Trajan would command his soldiers as needed.

The forum had been built at the top of a wide, shallow hill. It didn’t offer commanding views of the countryside, but it was enough that Trajan could see the Talfar camp from certain angles that weren’t obstructed by Florentine villas. From there, he could see the long line of lanterns leading back into Talfar territory that showed that despite most of the day having passed, the entire Talfar army hadn’t even arrived at their camp, yet.

The soldiers on the main road had a much better view of the camp, despite being slightly lower in elevation. One thousand soldiers, the largest group of soldiers strewn about Florentia, were busy forming shield walls almost thirty men wide and making sure the surrounding buildings were devoid of people.

There were more than half a dozen other easily accessible roads leading into the city around them, and even though they weren’t as large as the main road, those had to be blocked by a shield wall as well. The Tribune in charge quickly split off about a quarter of his battalion to make sure they couldn’t be flanked by these routes.

The Centurions that led these companies were disciplined, and they had trained hard for just such situations like these; they moved quickly and in an orderly fashion, and in less than ten minutes, the entire battalion was formed up exactly where they needed to be. And none too soon, as the Tribune saw when he climbed onto the roof of the tallest building around, a nearby three-story house. He saw in the distance a great cloud of dust and the glittering of armor in the moonlight.

“They’re coming!” he shouted in alarm. The horn blower next to him did his job, and instantly all of Florentia knew that the armies of the Talfar Kingdom were about to crash down upon them.

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