"I didn't think the Winston province would be more desolate than The Northlands. I see that you two ravaged the land quite thoroughly," said Lorist when he turned to Baron Felim and Baron Shazin, who were riding behind him.
"No, this is not our fault," Felim countered, shaking his head, "We haven't touched the province since you brought us to conquer the capital. You might not believe it, but half of the new civilians in our domains came of their own accord. Winston's nobles have caused such a huge mess that we don't feel the urge to get wrapped up in it at all. Many civilians ran from the province for the sake of their survival. We didn't even need to threaten them to have them come."
Shazin nodded in agreement. They were currently on their way to Windbury for the knighthood tournament. After looking around, Lorist recalled a line from a poem he had read in his past life: Whites of bones litter the wilds, not a single chicken chirps for kilometers.
Little more than a decade ago, before the civil war began, Winston was the fourth province in the empire to have a population of over 600 thousand. Despite having only a seventh of the area of The Northlands, the trade developments were well known across the empire.
The province used to be one of the empire's largest livestock markets, with merchants from The Northlands, Eastwild, Wild Husbandry, Southern and the seven central provinces all flocking to Winston and bringing with them lots of different products and supplies.
It was said that a baron in Winston was richer than a Duke in The Northlands. Not only was the saying a point of pride for the people of the province, it also signified the mocking manner the people there viewed Northlanders. After all, even though The Northlands was the largest province of the empire, it was the poorest.
The tides of time, however, turned the whole situation around. Only ten odd years had passed since Winston was at its peak, and it was now far more desolate than The Northlands had ever been. It was probably in part thanks to the second prince's rampant scouring of resources and his military failures, but Lorist's intentional encouragement for his allies to sabotage the vitality of the province certainly played the largest part. Those that controlled the province at the moment didn't have the might to mediate between the quarreling nobles -- battles raged without end.
Winston had been relatively peaceful during the last two months, however. No nobles had gotten caught up in any territorial disputes. It was quite obviously due to Duke Fisablen's deployment of two cavalry divisions to Windbury. With the one known as 'The War God' even when the empire was still around present, even the most arrogant nobles had to think twice before taking action. Most did not dare to make a move and were on their best behavior.
Since the reason for the duke's presence was nothing alarming, the nobles were content to wait out the months of the duke's stay before taking up the feuds once again. It was also a welcome reprieve for the nobles, most of whom had been exhausted from the years of conflict. They could make the best of the short break in hostilities to prepare for their new offensives. There were also those nobles confident in their martial prowess who wanted to show off in the tournament.
Rows of mounted troops continued to travel across the ruined paths of the province. Lorist brought with him an escort of 3000 men. Patt, who had been injured during the attack on Silowas, had spent a year in the local defense legion following his recovery and was transferred back to Lorist's personal guard to become a regiment leader. Patt had been rather fortunate despite suffering injuries. After he recovered, he managed to take the beauty Martha from Whitebird Restaurant as his wife. Too bad Lorist was busy at the Hanayabarta archipelago at the time, so he could only congratulate his old rival and playmate for settling down when he returned.
Count Kenmays came with a thousand guards, while Baron Shazin and Baron Felim each had 500 men. Due to Lorist's request, the three brought only cavalry guards. They were followed by Fiercetiger Loze and one of Tigersoar's heavy-armored cavalry divisions and two carroballista brigades, who maintained about a day's distance. Should anything unexpected really happen, the 20 thousand men would be able to respond in time.
"This place is far too run down. We've already traveled for three days, yet we haven't seen a single castle. Where have the darned nobles gone?" asked Josk, bored.
Shazin struggled to suppress his laughter.
"What are you laughing at, Hennard?" barked Josk angrily.
He was the baron's old opponent. Back when the Duke of the Northlands, Loggins, sent Knight Chevany to attack the Norton dominion, Baron Shazin, or Hennard, as he was known back then, was one of the commanders of the duke's forces. Even though Josk did not personally fight against the baron, he got to know him during the time the baron was held captive. The two had developed a strong friendship in the time since then and spoke informally in private settings.
"This is all your lord's fault," Shazin said, pointing at Lorist, "You'll understand once you ask Felim about it. Back then, Locke had us raid and pillage the whole Winston precisely to make the place barely habitable, especially the stretch of road from here to the capital. We swept the area a number of times. All the nobles whose whereabouts you wonder about, we hung them all. That's why so many commoners have been flooding into our dominions."
Josk didn't comment on Lorist's use of scorched-earth. Even though Windbury's nobles weren't worth much, standing behind them was Duke Fisablen, and Lorist could not be too careful when dealing with such a dangerous adversary.
"Be patient, Josk," Shazin consoled, "We'll arrive at Dawok tomorrow. It's Viscount Eidis's dominion. His castle is there as well. The last time we led our soldiers to storm the city, the viscount knew what was good for him and donated a great sum of money and food to us. Given his rather good reputation, we spared him and his dominion. I heard he's been developing quite well during the past two years, a rare breed of good noble in Winston. He doesn't have a good relationship with the queen, so he's allied with a bunch of nobles and has quite a bit of influence these days.
"We can have a nice, filling drink when we reach Dawok tomorrow, my friend. Then again, it's all Lorist's fault that we have to hold off on the road. Even I can't stand not drinking for that long, not to mention you. My mouth's felt so tasteless during the past few days, eating only bread and dried meat on the pretense of keeping vigilant. We're going to attend a knighthood tournament! Why does it feel like we're preparing for war?!"
Shazin's complaints displeased Josk.
"Come on, Hennard, Milord's doing this for your own good. This time around, we, the four houses of The Northlands, are attending the knighthood tournament together. Milord's being extra careful about this to make sure nothing goes wrong. Otherwise, Milord could've traveled with just Els and me. It's because we need to protect the rest of you that we brought so many men with us, yet you're here complaining ungratefully."
"You... And to think that I bothered to console you. Now, you're blaming me for this instead! It was you who brought the subject up in the first place," Shazin retorted.
The messenger they sent to the capital when they arrived at Dawok return at noon the next day. He brought with him the noble Duke Fisablen had sent as his ambassador, Count Richard.
Count Richard welcomed Lorist warmly before expressing that the duke was overjoyed for the participation of the four great houses of The Northlands in his knighthood tournament. Not only that, the duke was also willing to let the four houses be in charge of the south gate of the city's defenses.
Lorist only was only truly relieved when he heard the count say that. Duke Fisablen's suggestion was obviously made with the intent of easing the four great houses' suspicions. The gesture's implication was that Duke Fisablen only wanted to organize a knighthood tournament and was not plotting anything sinister behind the scenes.
Count Kenmays expressed his thanks to Count Richard and praised Duke Fisablen's open-minded approach, not failing to mention his admiration for the house. And so, the two launched into a chain of time-wasting pleasantries, which could not be avoided - it was what etiquette demanded. Even if one was annoyed, one must always retain a smile to show one's cultured demeanor.
In the end, Count Kenmays accepted the duke's suggestion and shook hands with Count Richard in an intimate manner, like long lost brothers who had just reunited.
Viscount Eidis, who had waited for a good while, approached them and expressed his welcome. He also greeted Count Richard and invited all of them on a tour of his castle. He also organized a welcome banquet.
Dawok was rather prosperous an populous, with an estimated population of 30 thousand. What surprised Lorist was that shops and businesses lined both sides of the main street, complete with large signs to attract customers.
Perhaps seeing Lorist's surprised reaction, Viscount Eidis explained that since the second prince set Windbury as the kingdom's capital, the trade routes to it were cut as soon as the civil war began. Additionally, the livestock reared near the capital made it stink of manure. The prince couldn't stand it, so he outlawed the rearing of any livestock near the city. With the ban in place, no one dared to get involved in the business but, the last couple of years without the second prince's meddling, along with the stability of the neighboring regions, saw a resurgence in the trade. Even with the nobles duking it out amongst themselves frequently, the province still frequently saw traders from the four central duchies.
It was too late to restart the livestock in the city itself, the high entrance fees saw to that. The Queen's tax collectors cut such a huge slice off the merchants' profits, that it was hardly worth it for them. Viscount Eidis, as he had done with Lorist's invasion, had seen an opportunity. He rushed to develop a livestock market and industry in his dominion and its prosperity has not waned since.
"Even though the livestock industry here is not that big, our market still wants for furs and beast tendons," said the viscount bitterly, "Such items are valued rather highly by the armies, they buy them in absolutely absurd numbers, which is why we have so many shops just to sell those two items."
Dawok's improving economy also attracted the envious glares and greedy eyes of many nobles, many of whom had already gotten into fights and skirmishes with the viscount a number of times. The viscount was forced to ally with a number of other nobles, whose interests aligned with the survival of Dawok, in order to protect his own. The success of his town was also one of the reasons for his fall-out with the queen. Once she became aware of his success, she sent a tax collector over with a demand for 70% of the town's profits. A demand the viscount naturally refused.
"That queen's so blinded by money she's gone insane! What sane person can make a demand like that?!" exclaimed Lorist.
"That's right," Viscount Eidis agreed, frustration infused in his voice, "Even though my dominion's prosperity allowed me to profit a little, most of the money I earn is invested back into its defense. The money goes in a huge circle and has yet to achieve anything productive. And that's not taking into account the time and effort I've had to put in to train the men that man the defenses! I'm so busy that I can't even afford a good night's sleep. I'm starting to wonder if developing my dominion was even worth it…"
Lorist couldn't do anything but sympathize with the viscount's troubles. Viscount Eidis would have thrived had they been in a time of peace and stability given his keen eye for business and benevolent attitude towards his subjects. Unfortunately, this was not a time of peace and not an era of stability. His prosperity served only to attract hungry wolves like moths to the fire, only these moths could bite against the fire and the wolves could do more than howl at the moon.
Dawok was originally just 100 meters away from the viscount's castle but given the rapid expansion of the town and increase in population over the years, Dawok had already connected with the castle. A wall had already had to be erected between the two. It had four firing posts similar to blockhouses around it. The design allowed the garrison to react equally quickly and effectively whether it was the castle or the town being attacked.
Eidis's castle had a century of history behind it. According to the viscount, his grandfather was granted the title for his military achievements and took root as one of the nobles of Winston. The castle was constructed by his grandfather, whose portrait still hung within, alongside one of his father.
Eidis joked that even though both his father and grandfather were well-known gold-ranked knights, he was only a two-star silver rank without any hope of breaking through to the gold rank. His father's fame was especially prevalent in Winston, but he had perished in the empire's last invasion of the Union. It was a matter from 30 years ago and the viscount had been only 16 when he became the house's head.
Lorist could see the portraits of the viscount's white-haired grandfather and his heroic-looking father dressed in knightly armaments in the castle's great hall. At the entrance of the hall, Eidis's wife, two sons, and daughter, as well as three other noble guests, received Lorist and the rest.
Lorist greeted the viscount's wife before he presented the gift he brought with him. Ever since he exterminated Hanayabarta, he was never short on precious gifts. As expected, the sapphire-embedded platinum necklace caused the other nobles to stare with utter awe. While the materials themselves were expensive in their own right, the craftsmanship was what gave it most of its value. In the days of the kingdom, unskilled slaves would find it very hard to survive after all.
After the viscount's wife expressed her gratitude, the viscount introduced Lorist to his two sons and seven-year-old daughter. His two sons were 24 and 21 respectively. The elder was a three-star-silver-ranked knight and the younger a one-star silver rank. All of the viscount's hope of the house having another gold-ranked knight lay firmly in his two sons.
The three nobles present were the viscount's allies whose territories neighbored his. Baron Klaus's dominion was a livestock breeding-ground, Baron Wade's was farmland while Viscount Zindler's produced mainly feed. All three of the nobles dealt in activities related to the thriving industry in Dawok, which made it easy for them to ally -- they had numerous mutual interests, after all.
During the banquet, Eidis requested that he, and his three allies, be allowed to travel with their group to attend the knighthood tournament. He was worried that he would face dangers on his journey to the capital, given his sour relationship with the queen. He had yet to decide to participate precisely because of that. But, if he could travel with Lorist, they would not have to worry about their safety. Should any mishap occur, they could still make it back to their dominion through the city's southern gate.
After some consideration, Lorist agreed. The banquet ended with the guests parting on friendly terms.