“Your Highness!” Elise exclaimed as Cassandra walked into the yacht’s primary lounge. “It’s such a surprise to see you!”
Leon smiled at her as he led Cassandra inside. He’d sent everyone else on the ship a message with his darkness magic that Cassandra was here—assuming they hadn’t noticed the Princess’ yacht idling in the harbor blocking them from leaving.
“A surprise, huh?” Cassandra replied as she strode in looking like she owned the place. “Is it a welcome one, at least?”
“Always,” Elise replied as she seamlessly took over Leon’s role of escorting the Princess over to the central sofas.
As she did, Leon sensed Maia approach, but she wasn’t on the ship—rather, she was below it, merged with the water, literally in her element. Gaius, Alix, Alcander, and Marcus all took up posts on the deck, watching the Princess’ own ship for any more boarders. Anshu remained on the bridge waiting for their clearance to leave, while Talal, Helen, and Anna approached the room, but stayed in an adjacent room, ready for anything that might happen. Only Valeria came in to join them, walking in just as the Princess was sitting down.
Valeria gave Leon a look but didn’t say a word as she entered. Cassandra gave her a quiet glare, but likewise remained quiet.
And with that, Leon took a seat, himself.
“Now, then,” the Princess said, “let’s dispense with all formalities, all right? It’s not like any of us are strangers…”
“An Imperial Princess is on my ship,” Leon countered. “Some formalities are unavoidable.”
“Everything can be avoided,” Cassandra rebutted. “I’m not one to hold on ceremony. If I were, I would’ve had your ship swarming with my guards, by now.”
“Such restraint,” Leon quipped.
Before Cassandra could reply, Elise asked, “So what brings you here, Your Highness?”
“I’ve decided to escort you as you see to your personal business—at least, so long as you remain within my Empire.”
“A personal escort?” Elise said a little disbelievingly.
“Is that a problem?”
“No, no, it isn’t…” Elise replied with some hesitation.
“Not for us,” Leon clarified. “But we’re a little concerned that we’re taking up your time. We don’t feel like we need an escort, especially not one quite so high in rank.”
Leon didn’t honestly think that Cassandra would back down, and even if she did, at this point, he didn’t think Evergold would just let them do what they wanted without supervision. That was essentially what the Grand Druid—or so he assumed—was saying by sending Cassandra to escort him.
As he expected, Cassandra declared, “The choice has been made; I’ll be joining you for the foreseeable future. Now, why don’t you two tell me what your business in my Empire is, and I can ensure it goes smoothly?”
Elise smiled, but didn’t immediately respond, and Cassandra’s focus narrowed in on Leon. She fixed him in her ruby gaze, and he stared right back, his golden eyes narrowed from a low smile masking his annoyance.
“We’re seeking some leisure,” Leon explained. “I heard that there’s a forest in the north of your Empire that’s particularly dangerous, and it piqued my interest. That’s our destination.”
“Leisure?” Cassandra inquired, almost mocking him with her tone. “Is that it? With everything that’s been happening in Heaven’s Eye recently, I wouldn’t have thought that you’d have the time for leisure…”
Leon’s narrow gaze turned to a glare of warning, but he wasn’t that surprised to hear the Princess allude to his current troubles with the Director.
“And what’s ‘been happening’ in Heaven’s Eye, recently?” Leon innocently asked.
“Vampires, kidnappings, violence in the streets,” Cassandra replied. “Made for some juicy headlines, I have to say. Journalists were practically falling all over themselves speculating about what prompted such violence, and of course, as an Imperial Princess, I have sources of my own linking you to all of that excitement. And yet, you’re leaving so soon after all of that? Aren’t you worried about what might happen in your absence?”
Cassandra smiled at Leon like she’d just found a weak scale in his hide, but Leon stared right back at her, unconcerned.
“Don’t believe everything you read,” he replied. “Things back in Occulara are fine. Whatever violence you’ve heard about has clearly been overblown.”
Cassandra stared at him for a moment, then sighed and said, “I suppose we can go with that. If you want to pretend everything is fine in Occulara, then so be it.”
“There’s no need to call me out like that,” Leon replied. “If we both know what’s going on, then the only difference is how blunt I am in my refusal to talk about it. If you’d like, I could be a little clearer with how I tell you that I’m not going to talk about it.”
“Do you not trust me to talk about this, Leon Raime?” Cassandra asked, acting offended and scandalized.
“In the interest of not being called out again by being too subtle, I’ll be brutally honest” Leon responded. “No, I don’t trust you. You’ve given me a generally positive impression, but I don’t even know you, not really. And I don’t talk about sensitive topics with people I don’t know well, let alone people I’m only somewhat acquainted with.”
Like a switch had been flipped, Cassandra fell back into her usual attitude, her confident smirk returning.
“And your goals in the Prota Forest? Is that something you won’t talk about, too?”
“I’ve already told you my goal: to explore this dangerous place. For fun.”
Cassandra gave him another skeptical look, but didn’t challenge him this time. “Very well, Leon Raime. I suppose there’s only one thing left for me to do: get to know you better. Prepare a cabin for me; I’m going to be traveling with you on your ship. I’ll also need space for at least three of my guards.”
“Hold on a mo—” Leon tried to protest, but Cassandra just spoke louder, cutting him off.
“I also have a strict diet, I’ll be sure to send your chefs my requirements—wait, you do have chefs on this thing, right? Ah, if you don’t, I’ll just bring mine. I’m also going to require use of your training facilities in the mornings and evenings, and would prefer to be alone when I’m using them.”
“This is not your ship!” Leon shouted, and Cassandra fell into an arrogant silence, smirking at him like she’d won some kind of duel. “You have your own ship, there’s no reason for you to slum it with us.”
“We’re not exactly slumming it, though,” Elise said as she languidly stretched on the sofa, the silk curtains over the windows billowing slightly and casting her face in the morning light.
“Not the point,” Leon said with some exasperation.
“It’s a point worth addressing,” Cassandra responded. “Your ship is adequately appointed for one of my station. Now, where will I be sleeping?”
Leon stared at her, wondering if what he was hearing was true, or if it were distorted by some trickster god.
“Your ship would be better for your comfort,” he insisted.
“I don’t want my ship, I want to travel on yours,” Cassandra replied, equally insistently.
Leon glared at her, but after a moment’s thought, realized that she wasn’t going to back down, and she was a Princess, so he switched tactics, deciding to mitigate what seemed like an inevitability instead of trying to prevent it altogether.
“You’re not going to stay on my ship and act like you own it,” Leon said. “I don’t care if this is your Empire or not.”
Cassandra smiled in triumph, then asked, “Conceding, hm? And what are your conditions?”
Leon almost reversed his decision to not be stubborn just out of spite, but reluctantly stayed his course. “Your guards stay on your ship. They’ll still be plenty close, my defenses are more than adequate to ensure you won’t come to any harm.”
“Fine,” Cassandra said so quickly that Leon immediately knew that she’d never intended for her own guards to stay here in the first place. He buried his regret and continued.
“Secondly, my training facilities are for my people first and foremost. We don’t spend much time training in the evenings, so if you want to train without an audience then that would be the time. But you don’t get exclusive use, ever. Those facilities are for my people’s use, and you’re not going to kick them out.”
Cassandra looked a little more bitter about that, but after a moment, she still nodded in agreement.
“Finally, you aren’t going to disturb my chef. He does damn fine work and his food is to die for. Unless you have an actual medical reason not to eat his food, you’ll eat what he cooks.”
“That’s unacceptable!” Cassandra finally protested, looking as if Leon had just told her to skin her family dog to accompany him. “I have extremely refined standards and I won’t lower them for anyone!”
“Then eat on your ship, where they might care more for your standards,” Leon shot back, silencing Cassandra.
After several long seconds of staring at each other, wondering if the other was going to break, Cassandra finally said, “Fine. I guess I’ll have to do that, then. Have my room ready in an hour, I have to go inform my people of this development. I’ll return after.”
Cassandra, without waiting for either Leon or Elise to acknowledge her declaration, stood up and left. Valeria watched her leave like a hawk eyeing a mouse, but Cassandra didn’t spare her so much as a glance.
As soon as the door closed behind the Princess, Valeria asked, “Are we really going to host this arrogant bitch?”
“Would you rather she stay on her own ship?” Leon asked, though he knew the answer already.
“I would,” Valeria confirmed without a shred of hesitation.
“She’s going to be coming with us anyway,” Elise said, her tone resigned. “It’s not easy to turn down a Princess, and as it is, I think that she wants to join us on our yacht without the rest of her entourage is already more than we could’ve asked for.”
“Leon didn’t ask for that, though,” Valeria replied. “He just said no to those things and she accepted it! Couldn’t we have pushed a little more?”
“Doubtful,” Leon muttered. “She only accepted those concessions because she wants to travel with us on this ship.”
Valeria scowled. “She wants to travel with you. She seems like she’d be happier pretending the rest of us don’t exist.”
Leon walked over and took her in his arms. “This won’t take long. Just ignore her as she ignores everyone else. If she proves to be too bothersome, just let me know and I’ll tie her up and throw her in the river!”
Valeria burst out laughing. “Now that… would be a… sight to see!” she gasped between giggles.
“In the meantime,” Leon continued, “Let’s just try to get along with our new… what should we call them? Our escorts? Our uninvited companions?”
“Stalkers,” Valeria suggested.
“Chaperones,” Elise said, her tone a little more diplomatic but expressing the same intent.
“Let’s just tolerate them as best as we can,” Leon replied. “At this point, either we see them or we don’t, they’re not going away. We’re just going to have to come to terms with having Evergolden eyes on us.”
“Splendid,” Valeria murmured.
“It’s fine with me,” Elise added, though she sounded a little tired and unenthusiastic.
Leon gratefully nodded to both, the thought that he was sure occurred to all three of them to abandon their expedition remaining unsaid, then stated, “I’ll make sure everyone knows. We’re going to have to be fairly tight-lipped going forward about what we’re looking for, but I think we’ll get through this just fine.”
Valeria, still in his arms, laid a hand on his cheek. “Do you really think that?”
Leon paused and smiled awkwardly. “I… I’ll be doing what I can to make sure we get through this just fine.”
“You inspire such confidence, husband,” Elise said as she stood up. “I’ll do what I can, too, so let’s get this over with, shall we?”
Cassandra made good on her demand to move into a cabin on Leon’s yacht. She didn’t get a particularly large cabin, and in Leon’s opinion, while it was well-appointed, it wasn’t quite up to Imperial standards. Still, she accepted it with a surprising lack of complaints, and she didn’t bother anyone else for the rest of the day. Her own yacht got out of the way, and Anshu was cleared to take the yacht back out onto the river. From there, they made good time.
Much like the Scamander River for the Ilian Empire, the Neilos River for the Sacred Golden Empire was quite built up on either side. However, it was in the Evergolden style, making the riverbanks seem almost like they were cutting through a forest of gigantic trees whose branches constantly intertwined around and above them. The river practically ran through a corridor roofed by leaves frequently shining in every color.
Not too far out were the farms growing just about everything that Leon could imagine. Food, alchemical ingredients, textiles, and other growable materials could all be seen. Leon knew that the Sacred Golden Empire was the most fertile and agriculturally productive of the four Empires, but it had been a hard fact to internalize after seeing the extent to which the Ilian Empire’s land was farmed. However, Leon could now believe it, as what he could see was hard to deny; the Sacred Golden Empire was filled with farms, ranches, and orchards farther than even his magic senses could see.
Of course, further out there was wilder land, with most of the Sacred Golden Empire’s populace being concentrated around the Neilos River, but at least in that first day of sailing up the river, Leon wasn’t able to see any of those less civilized regions.
By the end of that first day, though, Leon found himself feeling restless. He could sense another storm coming, rolling in off the central sea, but this far inland, its power was much diminished, and it had much less of an impact on him. Still, he found it hard to sit still, so made his way to his yacht’s training chamber.
His yacht was fairly large, but to have enough space for everyone aboard, many concessions had to be made for its amenities. One of those concessions was a training room that was much smaller than what Leon was used to, and no meditation chambers. There was enough room for Leon’s entire retinue to train in at once, but only just barely.
When Leon entered the training chamber, he was accompanied only by Anzu, and he found that it was already occupied: Valeria had come here first, and she was alone.
“Val,” Leon whispered lovingly as he walked in. She’d been gracefully turning and swinging a training glaive, her silver hair pulled back into a loose braid and whipping behind her beautifully. The evening sun shone in through the large windows, and she appeared to glow in the light.
Valeria didn’t even open her eyes, but a smile spread across her face, and she said, “Leon.” She didn’t stop moving, but instead of more deliberate and practiced movements, she shifted into something that flowed even more between movements, something that was more dancing than training.
Leon almost froze right there in the doorway, and only pushed a little further in when Anzu nudge him with his head. The griffin laid down in a corner, but watched the two of them intently.
Without a word, and without taking his eyes off his silver-haired lover for very long, Leon took a training sword down from the wall. He’d been intending on more magical training as that would help him bleed off some of this energy that the distant storm was sending his way, but now that he saw Valeria, her body aglow with evening light, he was in the mood for something a little more physical.
Similarly silent, Valeria slowed her twirling until she came to a stop standing opposite Leon about twenty feet away, her glaive at the ready.
Leon swung his sword a couple times to limber up, and then assumed the stance of his family’s ancient fighting style, the style that he’d since refined to near-perfection from training with the Thunderbird. He didn’t call upon his magic, and neither did Valeria, from what he could tell of her aura. This was to be a fight about skill, not power.
At this point, Leon and Valeria had sparred together so much that they could practically read each other’s minds in battle. Each knew exactly what the other was capable of, and what their habits were. So, their sparring sessions these days had a more tactical aspect to them, where they often mixed up their styles trying to catch each other off-guard.
Things were rarely so easy, but Leon had great fun facing off against Valeria like this.
The two slowly circled each other, eyeing each other up, searching for any exploitable weak points. They rather leisurely drew closer a step at a time, each knowing that they were about to come to blows, but neither in much of a rush to make the first move.
The tension between them ratcheted up the longer they went without exchanging blows, until finally, it all seemed to explode in one violent moment as Leon lunged forward, his blade extended, while Valeria simultaneously swept outward with her glaive. Their blades met in the air with a loud metallic clang that resounded through the ship, and in a flash, the two exchanged half a dozen more.
Their attention was wholly focused on the other, their movements and the glow of their eyes all they could see. Each reveled in the way the other was utterly captivated by them, but in no way did that distract from their spar.
In five minutes, they exchanged a hundred blows, neither striking the other even once. They simply knew each other too well, and without the benefit of magic power, their skill was about equal.
They both stepped back, smiling fiercely despite the inconclusiveness of this first round, only to be pulled out of their brief reverie by an amazed, “That was… something to see,” from the door.
Leon turned, his movement mirrored perfectly by Valeria, and saw Cassandra in the doorway, staring near-slack jawed at the two of them.
After an awkward moment, the Princess took another step into the training room, her expression hungry and predatory, and she asked, “Mind if I cut in here?”