Enjoy the third release of the week!
The clouds were thick as the raving winds blew but the campsite on the hill was rife with activity. Thanks to Lorist's instruction, the second highness had learned how to ski and excitedly ordered his soldiers to pile up and flatten snow to make a skiing wonderland. He had lots of fun skiing with his knights despite the cold and windy weather.
Seeing the soldiers and knights on skis, Lorist felt moved somehow and thought that maybe he could spread winter sports across his dominion and make it a seasonal activity. It was far better than having his subjects stay in their homes all day long, at least. Then again, an exception would be the goat-tackling festival of Felicitas's third settlement.
It wasn't that Lorist didn't think of importing modern sports from his world, but that most were rather ill-suited for the world where battleforce existed. Take, for example, the three main ball games. Kicking a ball with battleforce would burst it outright, doing a slam dunk with the aid of battleforce would destroy the whole basket, and rugby was even further out of the question as battleforce rank and application would be the main deciding factors of victory. Frankly speaking, a gold-ranked knight could envelop himself in battleforce and run all the way to the other side of the field and score. His opponents wouldn't be able to do anything against him just because he was a gold rank.
As of now, the main sports within the dominion were swordsmanship, archery, javelin and throwing axe tossing and horse-riding, mostly traditional activities that had been passed down since days of yore. Lorist had once considered hosting a sports festival to lift his people's hearts but gave up after he realized how inappropriate the sports would be. He wasn't worried about there not being enough attendees either. In fact, a sports festival would be a great place to make the commoners spend their money and stimulate the economy instead of letting them keep their money saved and unused.
The second highness did a beautiful circular movement before stopping in front of Lorist. The surrounding guards clapped and cheered enthusiastically. Lorist clapped a few times himself.
"Your Majesty's skills are improving by the moment! You are truly gifted."
The second highness laughed with satisfaction.
"Well, it's coincidental at best. Skiing in snow doesn't appear to be too hard. The most challenging part is maintaining good balance. I realized that the soldiers with awakened battleforce learn to do this faster than those who haven't."
"Your Majesty's words ring true."
"Locke, why are you acting so formal? I've already said you ought to treat me like a brother when we're in private. Right now, you're the only one left that carries House Norton's blood and I am the last surviving offspring of the Krissen imperial family. Each's survival is contingent on the other's."
"Hehe, Your Majesty seems to forget that there are many branch families in my house. For instance, Glacia and her little brothers, my half-brothers, and my three sons and two daughters. Your Majesty, on the other hand, ought to take good care of yourself! You still haven't produced descendants for the royal family!"
The second highness sighed deeply.
"My mind's filled with nothing but restoring the empire and wiping out the humiliation we received. I can't be bothered with anything else right now. Oh, look. The weather's turning, and the snow has also stopped. The winds aren't as strong as yesterday's either. I bet it'll be sunny tomorrow. Are you going to leave then, Locke?"
Lorist bowed his head.
"Yes, Your Majesty. I've already stayed here for the past three days. It is best I leave early in the morning. There are many things I have to deal with back home. On another note, we'll attack Iblia next year. This is a huge matter and we can't afford to delay. It's best I head back to oversee preparations. I believe Your Majesty would like to witness Iblia's end too, right?"
The second highness nodded.
"Indeed. It's a kingdom built on rebellion. Even though the traitorous second prince has already been sentenced to death, the fact that his name still remains in the world through that kingdom is displeasing. I rely on you in this matter, Brother Locke. I hope your forces can wipe that accursed thing out as soon as possible."
"Hehe, ending the kingdom is not an issue just the Nortons will face. Duke Kenmays, Baron Falim, and Baron Shazin's forces will join the fray too. Only with the combined forces of the four houses can we ensure success. We will have to deal with the invasion of Duke Fisablen's cavalry forces as well as the four central duchies' raids against Southern once we're finished. Perhaps ending this war will take more time than we think."
Lorist was already prepared for a long war after attacking and exterminating Iblia.
However, the second highness didn't appear to be the slightest bit moved, as if he didn't hear what Lorist had said. Removing the skis from his feet and kicking the snow off his boots, the second highness raised his head.
"Since you're leaving tomorrow, let's have a drink tonight, just the two of us. Consider it a little parting celebration. Is that alright with you?"
Lorist smiled as he saluted.
"Naturally. It would be my pleasure."
That night, Lorist brought only Howard and two skin sacks filled with fine wine to the meeting. The wine was actually brewed according to a rice-fermentation method from Lorist's past life. It involved choosing the finest grains of rice and fermenting them in a very complicated process. The result was a really strong white wine with a high alcohol content that was only reserved for the enjoyment of the house's higher-ups as it was produced only in limited quantities due to the large amount of food required.
The second highness's igloo was rather empty. There was no one beside the two chefs working outside. Lorist had Howard heat the wine outside before he stepped in.
The second highness leaned against the table in deep thought. Lorist had no idea what was going through his head. He didn't notice Lorist's arrival. He only snapped out of his stupor after Lorist had called him thrice. He hurriedly invited Lorist to take a seat and ordered his chefs to begin serving the food.
The second highness sat in the main seat with Lorist to his left. Baked apples, smoked turkey, roast meat, and various vegetables were served shortly.
Raising his wine cup, the second highness said, "In the wilds, good food is hard to come by. This is definitely far from what I can offer you at the imperial capital. I hope you don't mind, Brother Locke."
Lorist raised his own cup in response.
"There's no need to go through such trouble, Your Majesty. The food is most delectable, not to mention the honor of dining with Your Majesty personally. Cheers."
The second highness downed his cup of wine just as Lorist did.
"Your Majesty, I brought some alcohol I brewed myself but it's far stronger than what we usually have. You'll have to taste it slowly to appreciate the taste. I wonder if you'd like to give it a try?"
"Very well. Let me have a taste," said the second highness curiously.
Lorist clapped and Howard entered. He poured a cup for himself before pouring half a cup for the second highness -- who looked interested only in warming his hands with the chalice.
"Your Majesty, this kind of wine is drunk in the winter to warm you up. You have to make sure to drink it in small sips like this," said Lorist before he did his demonstration.
The second highness chuckled. He felt drinking wine so sparingly was a little too stingy. He took a mouthful of wine immediately. Even though it wasn't a full mouthful, it was hot enough to cause him to redden up. "Ah, it's hot! It burns like fire..."
After a good moment, the second highness returned to normal and had a look of understanding.
"I see now, Locke! This is what your soldiers use to train how to ski and march in snowy weather! All of them have a sack filled with tough wine like this that'll give you a burst of heat?"
Lorist nodded before he shook his head.
"Your Majesty, our soldiers are indeed given strong liquor to counter the loss of heat from the chilling wind. But theirs is brewed from roast potatoes and is really different from this. This wine of mine is brewed using the large grains of rice from Falik Plains and a sack like this costs ten gold Fordes. We'd have gone bankrupt if we produced this for the consumption of our soldiers.
"Also, the liquor we provide to our soldiers is rationed strictly. They don't drink much in a day. This is one benefit of favoring more small units over one large one. It's easier to keep an eye on what they do and what they consume. You thought you could rely on the skis to launch large-scale attacks during winter, but in reality, the cold-resistant clothes cost a fortune. There's also the issue of navigating in a snowstorm. Coupled with having to deal with undisciplined soldiers who would sneak a drink or two, you'll end up with a legion of bumbling drunks instead of one that can hold their ground in a fight."
The second highness sighed before he raised his cup and took a smaller sip.
"Ahhh... Locke, I've long wanted to have a good chat with you. Let's speak openly tonight, alright?"
A little surprised, Lorist agreed, "As you wish, Your Majesty."
"Locke my brother, I really don't understand why you're not willing to help me out. Given the might of your house, if you were willing to lend me a hand, we could've united the empire already. By then, your reputation as my loyal subordinate would be recorded in the annals of history for future generations to remember."
"Your Majesty considers our might impressive, but have you considered how we got it in the first place?" Lorist asked solemnly as he sat up straight, "Do you remember the time we first met ten years ago? Our house's convoy was trapped in the Madras duchy, unable to advance or retreat. The 300 thousand or so men with us on the brink of crumbling later became the keystone to our rise in The Northlands.
"Your Majesty, you should know roughly the state of House Norton when I first arrived. On one hand, Duke Loggins wanted to force us into submission; on the other, we had a group of rebellious subjects occupying one of the largest settlements in our dominion. As for our house, we only had around two thousand people at Maplewoods and were even faced with House Kenmays who had annexed part of our dominion.
"Do you remember how much better off you were from me then? You used my convoy to deal with the rebellious nobles and consolidated your power in the kingdom. You attacked Madras with our aid and managed to take Yungechandler. When our convoy resumed our journey northward, you led your soldiers to the east and defeated the first prince at Flowater Creek, forcing him to cede the two southwestern provinces to you. That year, your fame instantly spread across the lands and you were known as the war god of the new generation.
"But in the following half a decade of peace, you made bad decision after bad decision. You greatly expanded the kingdom's forces and actually formed an army of 300 thousand. You spent most of the kingdom's resources on just one army and wasted the peace time you could've used to rest and recuperate."
The second highness opened his mouth to speak, but Lorist didn't let him.
"Please don't interrupt me, Your Majesty, let me finish. Perhaps you did have your reasons. I know you've always wanted to reunite the empire and bring it back to its former glory. But you forgot that war is not only a matter of pitting one army against another. For instance, can you be sure how many of your 300 thousand troops are actually fighting for the sake of your ambitions?
"The empire's civil war raged for seven whole years and it took another three for the situation between the nobles to stabilize. Does Your Majesty remember the 100 thousand plus refugees loitering around in the kingdom with nowhere to go? They were originally proud citizens of the imperial capital who had been left homeless by the war. Half joined us, while you used the nobles you recently massacred to settle down the other half and finally brought peace to the kingdom.
"What the commoners want most is a life of peace and stability, but you've neglected that desire and merely promised to make it up to them after you united the empire. It's also why the kingdom's nobles supported Queen Carey's coronation when they heard of your losses in Redlis. It all happened because you failed to fulfill your empty promises.
"When you were busy building your army again, those refugees that followed our convoy managed to gain a peaceful life. House Norton abided by our promise to no longer subject them to the sufferings of war. Apart from resisting the magic beast wave and the second prince's attacks, we stayed within our dominion mostly and instead developed it. We focused on improving the quality of our subjects' lives. We spent lots of money developing our dominion in an effort to provide our subjects with a safe home even when we were mocked for being cowardly little bears that didn't dare leave our cave.
"I'm sure you saw how prosperous our dominion was during your visit. But did you wonder even once what kind of price we paid for that prosperity? If you didn't form your army in a hurry to conquer more land, your kingdom would've been just as prosperous. You already missed your chance once. For the sake of the empire's reunification, as long as you are able to focus on development for the next decade, you'll definitely achieve your ambition."
After hearing Lorist's earnest speech, the second highness continued to sip the wine without a single word until the cup was empty.
"Brother Locke, perhaps this is the greatest difference between the two of us. My goal is the reunification of the former empire and bringing us back to the days of our prestigious past. You only reach out to another place after you develop what you already have fully. I'm afraid I'm unable to sit still and develop the kingdom like you did your dominion. I'm constantly worried that a complacent and peaceful life will extinguish this lifelong ambition of mine. I might end up addicted to peace and become unwilling to forsake it for my ambition.
"I've had much time to reflect after I reclaimed my throne and will definitely no longer throw all my resources single-mindedly into the military. I will also learn as much as I can from you by properly controlling one area before moving on to my next target and will try to increase production alongside our military force. But I hope I have your support. I need you to supply some of your weapons," revealed the second highness with a tone of one pleading for help.
Lorist kept silent for a moment.
"Your Majesty, please state your request clearly. I will agree if it is within my capability."