"My apologies, Second Highness. Even though the Norton Family is under the jurisdiction of the Krissen Royal Family and you are one of its members, currently, you represent the royal family of the Andinaq Kingdom. Also, our lord has willed that we lead the convoy all the way to the family's dominion and didn't say anything about helping the Andinaq Royal Family solve the issue of rebellious dominion lords within your kingdom," Charade said as he refused Auguslo's request.
The aim of the Second Highness in coming over with his group of 20 was to try to mediate between the convoy and the alliance of nobles so that they could come to a truce and stop battling. After all, that was the request of his most intimate and loyal subordinate, Norton Glacia. Secondly, he wanted to see if he could purchase some food supplies as the kingdom had been struck with a severe lack of resources due to the trade embargo of the Forde Trade Union.
The Second Highness believed that the alliance would give him some face as he was the one who led the Whitelion Legion and the Fiercegale Legion during the times of the civil war and kept the First and Second Princes in check so that they didn't reach the imperial capital. Many of the dominion lords within the alliance had received help from him before and thus owed him some form of favor.
However, as he was on his way to the convoy, he heard that the convoy's forces managed to utterly crush the soldiers of the alliance. This news filled the Second Highness with shock as he didn't expect that the convoy's escort troops would actually be that powerful. Upon seeing Glacia's elated and excited reaction, Second Highness Auguslo started contemplating his next move.
While the Second Highness had gained some stellar achievements in the military, he wasn't favored by the other nobles within the Andinaq Kingdom. To them, having great achievements translated to being willing to achieve anything regardless of the cost. While the Third Prince did rely on the Second Highness to lead the two armies to resist the assaults of the First and Second Princes, it had drained the kingdom of its much needed resources and caused it to become a desolate husk of what it used to be. Additionally, the Second Highness was a rather stubborn person and nobody liked an impulsive and forceful king. That was why the nobles gave their support to the First Highness and caused the Second Highness to be exiled back to his own principality at an island near the western coast of the kingdom by the Third Prince, Andinaq I.
Being drained of resources and vitality from the constant battles of the civil war, the Andinaq Kingdom could no longer sustain three large armies, resulting in the Whitelion Legion being disbanded and the Fiercegale Legion joining the Melein Duchy to resist the Second Prince with their aid. The royal family's local defense guards had also been downsized quite substantially given the state of finances of the kingdom to the point that they were left with only one regiment of troops.
Having lost the military power necessary to control the kingdom, the nobles no longer took the Andinaq Royal Family seriously. Coupled with the Third Prince falling sick due to an unknown disease, the weak-willed First Highness got pushed around by the nobles when he took over and that allowed the pride and arrogance of the nobles to inflate even more. They began to blatantly ignore the laws of the kingdom and oppressed the citizens all the while forming their own private armies and dividing the territory of the royal family among themselves, which eventually resulted in the formation of the alliance for the sole purpose of putting pressure on the Andinaq Royal Family.
Having witnessed the state of the kingdom, the Second Highness resolved himself to one day unify the Krissen Empire and restore the imperial family back to its former glory. It was too bad that he didn't have a reliable force of his own at the moment and even his personal guard and the garrison soldiers within his territory numbered to only 300 people. And while his elder brother the First Highness wasn't the best at resisting external threats, it was the opposite when it came to internal threats given the almost paranoid awareness he had towards his own younger brother which he deemed a potential hazard to his own regime to the point that he stopped giving any subsidies to the Second Highness using the excuse that the kingdom was running severely low on funds.
Even if he had the will, the Second Highness couldn't do much without any soldiers and power of his own. But when he saw the might of the convoy of the Norton Family, he started having his own plans. The sole reason he went to the convoy was to borrow food and troops to restore stability to the Andinaq Kingdom by way of eliminating the noble alliance and forcing the First Highness to abdicate and grabbing the throne for himself. But Charade saw through his intentions right away and refused his request immediately.
"Is Abelyde the family head right now?" Glacia asked.
"Abelyde? Who's that?" Charade asked the beautiful female knight with a curious look on his face.
Glacia's expression suddenly changed as she shouted, "Who the heck are you? Why are you impersonating the people of the Norton Family?" She already had her hand to the hilt of her sword.
"We are no doubt knights of the Norton Family. Our lord is indeed Baron Norton. Oh, the current Baron Norton is Norton Lorist," Charade said as he brought out his knight badge and infused his Battle Force into it to manifest the misty form of the roaring raging bear.
Stunned, Glacia asked after she hesitated for a moment, "Lorist? Are you talking about Little Locke? That crybaby? The one who has snot all over his face? Wasn't he exiled to Morante City?"
"Pfft..." Everyone within the tent burst out in laughter at hearing the childhood nicknames of their lord.
Resisting the urge to laugh, Charade replied, "Yes, milady. Locke was indeed exiled to Morante City but he received summons from the family a year ago. Currently, he is the only person left within the direct line of succession and he had no choice to return to the dominion to inherit the dominion and his title. Many of us here are friends of his back at Morante City and we were accepted into the family as knights by him and are on a mission back to the dominion with this convoy. May I ask who you are and what relationship you have with the Norton Family?"
"What did you say? Little Locke is the only one left that can succeed the Norton Family? Then what happened to Abelyde and Norwesk?" Glacia asked hurriedly, before she regained her calm and realized her abrupt behavior. "Apologies, I am Norton Glacia, Lorist's elder cousin sister. My father is Lorist's Second Uncle and he used to be the vice captain of the knight brigade of the empire's local defense force."
"I offer you my greetings..." Charade said as everyone within the tent saluted Glacia.
"The names you mentioned just now referred to the First and Third Young Masters, right?" Charade asked. "It's like this..."
Charade told Glacia everything he knew about the state of the Norton Family, causing Glacia to burst into tears. The Second Highness hugged her as he tried to comfort her.
"I thought that losing my father was one of the worst things that could have happened to me... But to think that the family had gotten even worse over the years..." Glacia mumbled.
"Mistress Glacia, please calm your feelings and trust that the Norton Family will once again return to glory under the leadership of Locke. The journey of the convoy will be an important cornerstone to restore the family, so I am afraid that I cannot accept Your Highness's request as I have to ensure that the people and resources within the convoy arrive at the Northlands safely," Charade said.
"If that's the case, there's even more reason to accept His Highness's request. With the military might of the convoy, you'll be able to easily wipe out the forces of the nobles who are going against him. Just capture their bastides and take their resources so that you'll have enough to last the whole journey back. I've been to the family dominion before and I know that it is a desolate place deprived of every kind of resource. That's why the more you bring back to the dominion, the more beneficial it will be to the family," Glacia argued.
"If you agree to help me out, when I take control of the imperial capital, I will instantly raise the rank of the Norton Family from a Baron to a Count," promised the Second Highness. "I also won't take your supplies for free. I can offer you the equipment and gear of the Whitelion Legion that was disbanded long ago in exchange for your help and supplies. I believe the Norton Family will stand to benefit quite a bit from gaining these equipment."
Charade started to hesitate as he couldn't think of a reason to refute the offer. While a rise in rank was nothing of note, the equipment of the Whitelion Legion was a different story altogether. Being the main offensive force of the Krissen Empire, the Whitelion Legion used quality equipment which boasted excellent offense and defense that were crafted by the best smiths of the empire. They were easily two times better than usual equipment and the armor Charade wore was garbage in comparison. Other than that, the Whitelion Legion had 89000 members which were fully equipped and divided into four regiments. Including the stuff of the supply units, Charade estimated that there would easily be 100000 sets of gear in total.
If they could obtain all the gear of the Whitelion Legion, then the Norton Family would not have to worry about weapons and gear for more than ten years. As long as they were able to form an army and provide it with those equipment, the family would unquestionably be able to reign supreme within the Northlands and develop the dominion with the peace and security that came with it without the slightest worry about the chaos and turmoil of the lands.
The Second Highness didn't have much of a choice either as the Whitelion Legion had been disbanded and all that remained was their equipment. Even so, many sets had been used and worn out over the course of the conflict within the empire and the sets in good and bad condition combined only numbered around 70000 instead of the 100000 Charade believed it to be. Originally, the Third Prince, Andinaq I, had planned to sell those gear for a high price to purchase the much needed food and other resources to stabilize the kingdom. However, the Forde Trade Union was only willing to offer less than a tenth of the cost required to manufacture the gear to take advantage of the Andinaq Kingdom's desperation. In a fit of rage, the Third Prince stopped all negotiations immediately and even cut off trade ties with the Forde Trade Union.
The people of the trade union were also infuriated by that response as during the past 100 or so years, the Whitelion Legion was involved in all the invasions the empire made on the Falik Plains and they were even the biggest contributor to the empire's successes! To them, it was already very generous of them to offer to purchase the equipment at that price. They had intended to have the equipment melted down and made into a monument to commemorate the dissolution of the Krissen Empire with the insignia of the Whitelion Legion placed at the very bottom to symbolize the complete triumph of the trade union. Since the Third Prince wasn't willing to sell the gear, they gave up and didn't bother to convince him otherwise anyway.
Without trade, the once lively imperial capital started to regress as the quality of life gradually worsened. The embargo also caused the nobles of the Andinaq Kingdom much distress and some of them even lusted after the gear that was left unused in the warehouses of the empire.
The Second Highness himself didn't have any other choice either as the Andinaq Kingdom's finances are in the red and he had to offer an appealing proposition for the Norton Family for them to be willing to help out. After brainstorming, he came up with two methods, the first of which being granting the family more territory and land as well as a higher-ranking title. That was something the Second Highness was extremely unwilling to do as the Andinaq Kingdom only encompassed three of the provinces of the former empire with the already limited land split between many noble families. Given that there were more than 100 noble families within the kingdom, even the royal family's territory had to be reduced. That was why he planned to eliminate the nobles that were causing trouble and only spare the ones who were loyal to the kingdom to lay the foundation for the restoration of the Krissen Empire.
Giving the Norton Family a higher title and part of the territory taken from the purged nobles was akin to luring in yet another tiger after chasing away a pack of wolves. As the Second Highness was still unsure of the loyalty of the Norton Family, he refrained from that thought to save himself some trouble. The second method he could use was to offer the equipment of the Whitelion Legion as he observed that the convoy took their defense and security very seriously with even the most basic foot soldier being equipped with metal armor. He thought that the gear of the mighty Whitelion Legion would prove very alluring to the convoy, and he was right.
Even though Charade was able to keep his calm when he heard that offer, the three within the tent that had relatively high positions in the convoy stared straight at him. Those three were Potterfang, Lode Wales and Mons Malek respectively. As they were former members of the Whitelion Legion and were all commoner officers, the Second Highness couldn't recall their faces even though they have met before. Upon hearing that the Second Highness was willing to give them the equipment of the Whitelion Legion, the three felt completely ecstatic, but they couldn't reveal their thoughts openly and could only stare hard at Charade in hopes that he would accept the offer.
In the end, Charade nodded.
The results of the negotiation were as follows: the convoy would use 100000 gold Fordes to help fund the formation of a 20000-strong army for the Second Highness and supply them with equipment and food. The new army would accompany the northbound convoy and cooperate with them to defeat the nobles of the alliance and the spoils of war would be split evenly among the two parties for the whole period until the Second Highness ascends to the throne. The Second Highness on the other hand would agree to raise the rank of the Norton Family to that of a count when he goes into power with no change or addition to the size of the dominion. Additionally, the gear of the Whitelion Legion would be completely handed to the Norton Family and it was promised that there were no less than 70000 sets in total and any additional sets would be given to the convoy for free.
Even though the convoy was biting the short end of the stick given that they had to go to battle almost immediately and the Second Highness only had to make promises without actually putting anything up front, Charade agreed to the deal in consideration for Glacia's standing. Other than that, he also had plans of his own that would ensure that the convoy wouldn't suffer much losses either. Also, he felt that it was a good opportunity to get on the good side of the Second Highness and pave a way for the family's influence into the Andinaq Kingdom, allowing the family's trade convoys to one day be allowed passage through the territory of the Andinaq Kingdom to Viscount Tim's dominion at the Redlis Kingdom.
Charade's plan was simple: he would use the convoy's main force in the open field battles and scouting missions as he was confident that the armored cavalry unit of the Norton Family would be able to utterly crush any enemy resistance without trouble. He also considered it to be a good chance for the soldiers to gain experience. The battles which would cause the most casualties were the sieges and he planned to have the convoy's ranged units aid in the effort. That way, he could minimize the casualties of the convoy's forces and also resupply the convoy with the loot they took. What was there for them to lose?
After the expedition began for two or so months, the forces of the convoy swept past the Hanstmost Province and the Central Province of the Andinaq Kingdom under Charade's leadership, forcing 35 dominion lords to submit and swear their allegiance to the Second Highness in the process and earning him the moniker of 'Charade the Demon'. He also used the youths among the captives and vagabonds to form a 20000-strong army for the Second Highness as per the agreement which was used to encircle the imperial capital, giving the First Highness no choice but to abdicate and pass the throne to the Second Highness.
The Second Highness also fulfilled his side of the bargain and gave all 73645 sets of gear of the Whitelion Legion to the convoy and also signed the certificate of the entitlement that was testament to the elevation of status of the Norton family leader from a baron to a count, complete with the official imperial seal. On a side note, the Second Highness also hoped that the convoy would continue to fight for him and help him restore the empire.
Charade refused the request without hesitating and the Second Highness merely laughed it off without stirring up any fuss. But when Charade announced that they would be departing immediately to resume their journey back to the Northlands, the Second Highness asked for a favor: since the convoy was headed for the final province of the Andinaq Kingdom, the Welbassia Province, which was also the main stronghold of the noble alliance which the Second Highness couldn't reach his hands into no matter how hard he tried, the Second Highness made an optimistic request for the convoy's troops to clean up the rebellious nobles as they had done during their passage through the previous two provinces.
Charade shook his head and said, "My apologies, Your Highness, the convoy has already been delayed for too many times and we have to head for the Northlands immediately. As long as the nobles don't stop us on our tracks, we won't act against them for no reason."
The Second Highness laughed and said, "But there is a lot of food within that province... Well, no matter if you can't help it."
In the end, the convoy parted with the Second Highness on friendly terms and Glacia had even written a couple of letters meant for Lorist and entrusted them to Charade.
And so the convoy continued its journey north, but Charade and the rest quickly felt that something was not right. By the time the convoy reached the Welbassia Province, the vagabonds that followed behind them numbered more than 100000.
After making some inquiries, Charade found that he had been duped. As the population within the Andinaq Kingdom was quite dense, the food shortage that plagued it caused the citizens to wander around to forage for food for their survival. And somehow, rumors that the northbound convoy was handing out food and bringing people to settle down within the Northlands spread and caused many of the vagabonds to seek it out.
Enraged, Charade wrote a letter to the Second Highness about the issue to which the Second Highness responded, writing, 'The Andinaq Kingdom has roughly 400000 vagabonds. Due to the efforts of the convoy which freed up more land in the Hanstmost Province and the Central Province, I have only managed to settle 100000 of them down despite the best of my efforts. I cannot do much about the rest who chose to follow the convoy. However, if the convoy is willing to clean up the Welbassia Province, the extra land might be enough for another 100000 or so people to settle down..."
It was at that moment when everyone's face froze up. There was no way that they would be able to travel quick with so many vagabonds slowing them down! However, they couldn't just leave them be and ignore them as they might be prompted into attacking and robbing the convoy out of desperation. 100000 desperate and hungry people was no small threat. On the other hand, if Charade chose to feed the vagabonds, the food source that would last 60000 people for three months might run out within only one month. The only solution was to attack the bastides and castles of the dominion lords within the province to attain more food to feed the vagabonds as well as help the Second Highness settle some of them down within the province.
That was the main issue that plagued the convoy which caused Charade much grief and frustration as he had no option but to jump into the abyss despite knowing what lay below.