"Politics don't make strange bedfellows - marriage does." ~ Queen Fisablen Cacanne
Though the new year had arrived, it wasn't really delightful. Whether they were the nobles who came over to participate in the festivities or the four houses' high-ranking officials, they were all rather disturbed by the commotion caused by the king. The hushed conversations went on nonstop. Even Lorist felt foreboded. The reason was simple: Felim and Shazin were rather attracted to the conditions the second highness had offered. To them, raiding the four central duchies for wealth before they recovered their might was an extremely tempting proposition.
Lorist couldn't hate the second highness more even if he wanted to.
He's a sneaky and insidious demon. I messed with him a few years ago and he suffered quite the loss from the agreement but I didn't think he'd come back after just three years as a blademaster and turn the tables. He's offered attacking the four central dutchies as bait. The moment he tossed it out, it caught everyone's attention and even managed to shake our alliance. He made his way to the dominion of the Fisablens immediately after...
If it were merely goading the nobles to attack the duchies, he couldn't be bothered to interfere. As long as the four houses didn't make any moves, the northeast would be stable as a mountain. Whether the attack ended in success or failure, it wouldn't affect his house's standing as the local hegemon. The problem now, however, was that Shazin and Felim had been tempted as well. If both decided to join, would House Norton just sit back and do nothing? How would it affect their alliance?
It wasn't that he hadn't considered reaping benefits for himself as well, but his plan could only be carried out in another two or three years. His most dangerous enemy was still House Fisablen. There had been many precedents of snakes not killed lashing out and biting back. House Fisablen might have admitted their loss, but they were far from completely beaten. Only after two or three years of economic and military pressure to make sure House Fisablen truly submitted could he turn his attention to the four central duchies.
But now he realized his allies didn't share his view. Like Felim had mentioned, House Fisablen was an injured beast. It would recover for the next three years, it was unlikely that it would try something in that time. As such, Felim believed the four houses shouldn't just coop up in their dominions waiting for the conflict to resume. He believed they should instead use the opportunity to increase their might, and the best target was the duchies, whose force of 70 thousand elites had already been wiped.
Shazin also believed raiding other nobles was the easiest way to get rich. Be it taking wealth or manpower, both approaches would severely weaken the enemy and decrease their ability to resist. The duchies had already crossed swords with the alliance in their attempt to aid House Fisablen; it went without saying that they saw them as enemies. A little over one year earlier, they had managed to exterminate 70 thousand elites. Surely they hadn't recovered yet. Even if they managed to get new recruits, their capabilities should be extremely low. Shazin was of the opinion that the four houses should use the opportunity to land an early strike instead of giving them time to recover. Even if the second highness wasn't there to lead the charge, the four houses would have to go to war anyway.
Felim had the intention to join in because he lacked manpower; Shazin intended to make a great haul. As for Kenmays, at first, he didn't care whether he deployed his forces or not. but after considering that attacking the duchies would allow more trade routes to be opened for the committee, and the fact that the committee would still be limited by the duchies if they didn't attack, he changed his mind and expressed his willingness to send his troops to join the offensive.
Lorist smiled troublingly at their reasoning. Ever since the duchies joined hands with the Union to defeat the second highness and exterminate Melein, they occupied eleven of the empire's 29 former provinces and had a total population of five to six million. In terms of weather and terrain, the provinces were ideal for agriculture, business, and industry. Even during the chaotic era, the duchies were still far from utter defeat and still a force to be reckoned with. There was also the fact that they were branches on the same three. No matter which was attacked, the others would join their side.
Back then, the first prince had lusted after their riches and led an army of 300 thousand men against them. The duchies didn't have that great a start, but they didn't submit and resisted with all they had. The conflict lasted three whole years and they managed to not only chase the first prince out of their territory, they even crossed the border into Redlissian territory, forcing the first prince to surrender and sign an armistice. There was no telling when history would repeat itself. While it was easy to start a war, it wasn't easy to end one. What Lorist worried about most was that he would be dragged into the quagmire. Should that come to pass, not only would the house not benefit, it might even affect the entire house. It might even allow the old fox to strike back. It was not the result he could accept.
That was also why he had a wait-and-see attitude. Bread had to be eaten bite by bite, and roads had to be traversed step-by-step. He wasn't prepared to start a war with another faction before completely defeating those he currently had. But so far, three out of the four members of the alliance hoped to do just that. It was quite the dilemma. If he supported them, it would disrupt the plan he had laid out. But if he didn't, the alliance might dissolve. Even if it didn't, they wouldn't see as eye-to-eye as they did currently and cooperate so well.
He suddenly realized why the second highness didn't visit The Northlands. If he did, he would have had to convince Lorist to participate in the war. If he refused, his allies, Shazin, Felim, and Kenmays would resolutely support his decision. If the whole alliance refused the second highness's call to arms, the war would end as a mere joke with the nobles the second highness managed to rally to join him. He would also be the butt of the joke.
Kenmays was rather witty in that he'd managed to avoid meeting the second highness altogether, but Shazin and Felim were convinced by his slimy words. The second highness's move was rather well-played. He had dug Lorist a pit to jump into without even having to meet with him. Whether he took the jump was his decision. If he jumped, he would prevent the alliance from dissolving at the cost of forcing House Norton into a corner in which they didn't wish to be. If he didn't, his allies would be alienated and the second highness couldn't be happier if the alliance fractured.
However, the duchies were not as easy to deal with as one might think. Their 70 thousand elites were completely decimated, but they had fought in the field. House Norton had lots of advantages and managed to win by taking them by surprise. But if they fought in the duchies, the enemy could coop up in their castles. Even if they relied on catapults, they would still have to suffer huge casualties.
Charade was easier-going.
"Your Grace, we have to fight. We not only have to fight, we have to pour in even more effort than others. We have to help Felim and Shazin achieve what they want."
Lorist was really unwilling to fight this war. He had constantly been searching for an excuse to avoid it.
"We don't stand to benefit at all. Felim wants manpower and Shazin wants wealth; Kenmays wishes to develop new trade routes... Even the lands we conquer in the war won't belong to us. Everything will belong to the second highness. Tell me what benefit is in this for us?"
"There will be benefits. They just aren't apparent. For starters, if we agree, Felim and Shazin will be incredibly grateful and the alliance will be even more secure. Additionally, didn't Shazin say he wanted different lands? A place with more mines? The two small silver mines and the copper mine in Sanderson Hills will be ours. We can claim a new dominion for House Shazin and the whole of Delamock will belong to us.
"Next, Felim needs manpower and Shazin wants wealth. We need both. The Northlands' population is just 1.67 million and, according to our development plan, we can only advance to the next step with a population of three million. We need at least double the resources and manpower we have now. Attacking the duchies and plundering their manpower and wealth is the best way to get what we need. Just look at our surroundings. Madras and Iblia have already been eliminated, the only target left is the duchies."
Charade's reasoning made quite a lot of sense. After a few days of consideration, Lorist came to a decision. He would deploy his troops and attack the duchies after the spring harvests in the 5th month. He wasn't that worried about field battles. His main focus was the duchies' strongly fortified and protected castles, raiding them for their wealth and manpower, and limiting the casualties he suffered in the process. Fortunately, the house had expanded the four sentry legions and it was time they gained actual battle experience.
Time passed quickly and it was the 17th day of the 4th month. A piece of news arrived that greatly shocked everyone. The moment the second highness arrived at Crouchtiger with his ten-odd knights, the Wargod of the Plains knelt and teared up and expressed his regrets for all he went through. The second highness absolved his house of its crimes and Duke Fisablen announced the house was once more under the rule of the royal family's legitimate heir. He submitted to the second highness and would fight to unify the empire once more.
Duke Fisablen didn't just make empty promises either. He presented one million gold Fordes' worth of horseshoe gold to the second highness as military funds and 30 thousand fine horses. House Fisablen's gift and submission were still within expectation. The truly surprising part was the second highness's response. He announced the days he spent at Crouchtiger was rather delightful and that he had fallen in love with the duke's one granddaughter, Cacanne. He proposed, the duke accepted, and the two were quickly married. The kingdom now had a proper queen.
"This... I have a feeling the second highness is ripping off the second prince," said Charade helplessly as he scratched his head.
The second prince had gone to House Fisablen and the duke allowed his promiscuous second daughter to marry him. The house's frontier legions supported the prince and he successfully founded the Iblia kingdom. Like Charade had mentioned, the second highness also found himself a wife after visiting House Fisablen.
"Haha," laughed Lorist coldly.
He was the one most displeased by news of the king's marriage. His cousin had loyally followed the second highness for 20 years, but he broke it off so easily. Nobody would sincerely believe he got married because of love.
"It's obvious. I was confused at first when Duke Fisablen submitted so easily. So he still had this move. I say, House Fisablen's women are quite fortunate. They all have the knack of becoming queens."
"Your Grace, Princess Sylvia is wedded to you. She's no queen."
Lorist suddenly realized that if Sylvia wasn't sent over by the duke, she might've been the one with whom the second highness 'fell in love at first sight'. Should word of it spread, he might really deploy his troops to fight the king and send the kingdom into another period of turmoil. Fortunately, Sylvia was already by his side. He couldn't be more relieved.
A week later, Potterfang's message was presented.
The second highness and Queen Cacanne had brought a division ten thousand strong to the border and requested entry. The division was the queen's guard and would follow her after the wedding. At the same time, Duke Fisablen had Blademaster Xanthi lead another division from one of his frontier legions to accompany the procession. She was going to travel with the king to the imperial capital. Also, Xanthi requested to visit Sylvia and send her belated blessings.
Lorist's face darkened.
Duke Fisablen you old miser... You gave your granddaughter Cacanne a division of ten thousand troops, but you only sent three carriages' worth of junk to your other granddaughter, Sylvia?! Are you looking down on me?! This is plain insult!
"Your Grace... Your Grace!"
Charade had to call out a few times to snap Lorist out of his vagary.
"How do we deal with this? Should we allow the king across the border?" asked Charade as he pointed at the message.
"Let them in. I doubt the bastard would dare act rashly here. Have Loze lead Tigersoar there and escort them. I will take my guards to Windbury and await their arrival. Also, send Duke Kenmays, Count Shazin, and Count Felim a message. Have them meet me at Windbury. Since we're going to discuss our strategy for the upcoming war, we might as well settle everything in one go."
"Understood, Your Grace."