"People who enjoy meetings should not be in charge of anything, people who enjoy secret meetings even less so." ~ Norton Lorist
The moment he heard Fisablen say Duke Handra's envoy had been waiting at the campsite for four days, Lorist stopped in his tracks.
Wait, something's amiss.
The gears in Lorist's mind started turning. Looking at Fisablen glumly, he thought, What is this geriatric planning? Handra's envoy should be seeking an audience with the king. What does he plan to achieve by staying in the campsite I'm in charge of and calling me? Is he going to keep it from Auguslo and drag me down?
A single look told Fisablen that Lorist had misunderstood him. He hurriedly explained.
"We know the envoy and he came to find us specifically to ask what price the king wanted to stop this war. I don't dare make any decisions on my own. You know the king far better than I, so I need your advice. You know my campsite is under tight surveillance, I can't just bring him in there, especially not considering that I've only recently returned to the fold."
Come on, isn't that basically trying to pin part of the blame on me? Also, since when were we close enough for you to be bothered by my opinions?
Despite his skepticism, his interest had been aroused.
"I know him too? Who is it?"
You must've had some sort of complicated relationship with the duchies. They even sent 70 thousand of their elite infantrymen to aid you. But now you've suddenly submitted to Auguslo and even led your troops against them, a thankless traitor. Don't tell me you haven't heard how the enemy curse your men. How dare you have the balls to hook up with them again?
And that Duke Handra is really something. Why would he even bother sending an envoy to negotiate with you? If I were in his shoes, I would fight to the bitter end.
He understood such things were only common for nobility, however. Everyone was making their decisions for the good of their house. He didn't have much control over what Fisablen did. It was common for people to switch sides overnight and no one thought it something immoral and appalling.
"The envoy is Count Chujway. You met him during the knighthood tournament. You even invited him to the inn called Anna's Abode for a talk once," whispered Fisablen, his eyes keeping close watch over their surroundings.
It almost seemed like an incredible secret was being revealed. Lorist quickly took two steps back.
"Oh, it's him? And what does he have to say?"
"Uhmm..." Fisablen hesitated, "You should talk to him yourself. Given my relations with them, it's a little awkward for me to deal with him."
"It's good you're aware," Lorist nodded, "Where's he now?"
Count Chujway dallied in a corner in the back of the camp. There stood a few ad-hoc wooden houses. They used to be isolation cells for Tigersoar soldiers who broke regulations. However, Fisablen had Pegasus's general, Penawar, clean it up and refitted to be a guest house.
Lorist was speechless. If Tigersoar had remained in the camp, Fisablen and even Lorist himself would have had to be announced before they could enter the camp. Now that Tigersoar was in the demonic lands, the old man could come and go as he pleased. However, Lorist understood Penawar was a knight of House Felim, whose dominion in Southern bordered Eastwild. Though House Felim was a member of the alliance, he couldn't afford to offend the duke for no good reason. Additionally, the old man was technically Lorist's grandfather-in-law and had been visiting him quite frequently as of late. The least Penawar could do was make it easier for him to come and go.
The moment the two entered, Count Chujway was ready to receive them by the door. He bowed to the two respectfully. Lorist immediately noticed the joy in Chujway's eyes when he saw he'd had arrived. He might have believed Lorist was the only one who could call the shots.
Fisablen was surprisingly quiet once they sat down as if he wasn't willing to speak at all. Lorist didn't have to beat around the bush for long for Chujway to cave in and stated outright why he'd come: Duke Handra wished to affect Auguslo's moves through the two to stop the war.
Lorist played around with the teacup in his hands as if it contained some sort of interesting secret. When he became a little annoyed by what Chujway was saying, he asked softly, "Oh? So Duke Handra can't resist anymore?"
"That's not what I said!" Chujway denied firmly as he started like a person being injected with chicken-blood injected, "Duke, all our nobles and commoners are prepared to resist you to the end! We've formed three legions so far. Coupled with the garrison legion in the capital, Hans, as well as the various garrison forces across the land, our duchy alone has 200 thousand soldiers!
"Additionally, the three other dukes brought over 200 thousand men, we have at least 400 thousand between us, far more than your 300 thousand. The duke can mobilize another 200 thousand youths at a moment's notice. However, my lord is benevolent and treasures our history with the empire. That is why we have not launched any offensives."
Lorist put the cup down and applauded. "Well said, Lord Chujway. Do continue."
Continue? What's there to continue? Chujway looked at Lorist blankly. He didn't understand what the duke meant. But, seeing how attentive Lorist was, he had no choice but to turn to Duke Fisablen.
The duke felt a huge urge to laugh, but suppressed it by coughing loudly a few times. "Well, Duke Norton, do you think given our numerical inferiority, we will really be successful in attacking Handra?"
Old fox, you're feigning ignorance again and pushing this bad cop role to me. Lorist smiled and spoke frankly, "Lord Chujway, Handra has three provinces and a total population of around a million. I'm sure feeding an army of 400 thousand is quite challenging."
Chujway reddened immediately but was still unwilling to concede. "It's not difficult at all! The last couple of years had great weather and amazing harvests. Food fills our warehouses to the brim and we can feed our army for even five years. The Union has also been very generous with their aid. They've been sending streams of resources since they first heard of our predicament.
"They hope the army can teach your king a lesson and wake him up to reality so he drops his reckless ambitions. The duke was too kind and wasn't willing to go to all-out war, hence his sending of me to inquire as to your king's intentions. If His Majesty's requests aren't outlandish, we can cease hostilities and restore peace."
Hehe, what a load of bull! Nobles are so shallow. If it's really as you say, then why would your duke bother to send you? Let's see who can last longer. Lorist smirked disdainfully but refrained from bursting his guest's bubble just yet. Instead, he acted as if he was really troubled, "Lord Chujway, I completely believe you. But you should know what our king's temper is like. He's been holding a grudge for your betrayal for years and believes had you submitted to him and returned to the empire when he first asked, his dreams of reuniting the empire to its former glory would've been successful.
"It's not that I don't want to give you a hand, but our king's mind is made up. He wants to wipe you all out no matter what. It's best they turn themselves in and beg His Majesty for forgiveness. I am confident His Majesty won't them."
"Impossible!" Chujway barked. face red, "We have 400 thousand men! We won't go down so easily!"
Lorist slapped his thigh. "Wonderful. Since you're unwilling to surrender despite understanding our king's stance, you might as well send your 400 thousand troops over all at once. We'll unravel our defenses and prepare for a grand battle. As long as you defeat us, our king's anger might just subside and we can finally get the peace we all want."
Chujway understood the situation in a moment. He had taken his threats too far. Currently, his side had no other option available but to defend, especially with Lorist standing with Auguslo. It wasn't that the count hadn't witnessed the might of House Norton's forces before. His strong act had completely backfired.
"Haha... Hahaha..." Chujway laughed dryly and hurried to change the subject. "Well, Lord Norton, I... I have come on the orders of my duke to sue for peace. I wasn't going to suggest we engage in a huge battle. My Lord truly wishes to end the war. He sent me over to ask what the two of you think about whether there'd be a way to end this needless conflict."
"Really?" Lorist mused, "Then tell me, what kind of conditions did your lord suggest?"
"Well, he said if the two of you could convince His Majesty to restore the four duchies, then the dukes will pay two million gold Fordes as compensation and even relinquish their sovereignty. They are also willing to pay the royal family a million gold Fordes in annual tribute."
Lorist was so angry he felt like laughing. You expect Auguslo to accept these conditions and even want me to convince him? No wonder that old fox isn't saying anything. Had the war not happened, Auguslo might really have taken these conditions seriously. But now that three duchies have been conquered, that's all they're willing to offer? Has Duke Handra had his head kicked by a mule?
"Do you think the king will accept this? If Duke Handra doesn't have the intention to be sincere, he shouldn't have sent you over. How about this: Why don't I send you to the king and you tell him these conditions yourself?" asked Lorist discontentedly.
Chujway's face greened and paled. In actuality, even he felt the conditions were a little ridiculous. But there was nothing he could do; the conditions had been agreed upon by all four duke. Given how unstable the duchy was, the four's relationship was rather strained. Forund had promised his subordinates, and Duke Shabaj wouldn't be able to cause any commotion even if he wanted to. The most troublesome was Farkel, who acted completely without tact. Though he was a guest, he didn't consider Handra with respect at all.
That was especially so with Duke Farkel's knights, who behaved no differently from bandits. They actually dared to raid villages in the duchy and violate the women. They even proudly proclaimed they had abandoned their own nation to come protect Handra, so it didn't really matter what they did to the wenches.
Handra was enraged and sent his knights to apprehend Farkel. Considering their status as allies, He left the fate of the knights to the duke. But the latter just released them and even argued it wasn't a big deal for a few commoners to be killed. He even invited the the duke's knights to go along and rape some of his subjects when the dominion was conquered.
It was Handra's own misfortune to encounter such a ridiculous person, an ally, no less. Though he still had lots to spare after forming two legions, a duke formed the third Blackdragon Legion to keep an eye on Duke Farkel's Bloodspear situated within the duchy to prevent them from messing with the villages.
Chujway was aware of the current situation. While there really were 400 thousand soldiers, his statement about being able to feed them for five years was a lie. Even if the duchies had had great harvests for several years running, their consumption was immense. The latest estimate predicted their food could last them only six months. Even if they included the fall harvest during the 10th month as well as the following spring harvests of the winter wheat next year, they could drag the war on for another month or two at most. During such a critical lack of food, Duke Farkel even wanted his legion to be supplied with good grain and meat.
It wasn't that the dukes didn't try requesting aid from the Union. But the Wessian supervisor, the nearest to Handra, said they couldn't help even if they wanted to and expressed his sympathy. Currently, the Union was caught up in the war with the mid-southern army; they were unable to provide aid. But, given how Wessia had old ties with the duchies, they said they could sell weapons and other supplies at a discount on account of that.
While they claimed it was a discount, the price was actually three times normal and the quality was bad. The supervisor's answer was that he had no choice. Given how war was all over the place, all sorts of supplies were in short supply. Being able to procure some to sell was already the best they could do, causing Duke Handra to question on the spot whether Wessia was worried Auguslo would turn his sights on Bodolger after the extermination of the four central duchies, given that it used to be Krissen Empire territory as well.
The supervisor proudly replied that Wessia Merchant Guild was not the least worried about that happening, given how they were backed by Forde Trade Union, Grindia's number one superpower.
The reason the four dukes wanted to make peace with Auguslo was because they were unable to procure aid from the Union at all. However, their first condition to restore the four central duchies to the state they were before the war was akin to saying that they wanted the conquered territory of the three duchies to be returned. There was no way Auguslo would agree to that. It was like asking him to spit out a piece of meat he already swallowed. As for the two million gold Fordes, that was even more unconvincing. If Handra's defenses were breached, the money wouldn't be going anywhere either.
"If... If the two of you are able to convince His Majesty Auguslo to agree to our request, the four dukes are willing to gift each of you 500 thousand gold Fordes..." Chujway still tried to make his best effort.
Lorist felt his anger rise. I already earned close to two million gold Fordes from the demonic lands already! Are you mocking me with your measly 500 thousand?
"Lord Chujway, since you're an envoy, I can tolerate your impolite transgressions. However, I will not allow you to humiliate us like that. You may leave. Tell the four dukes to keep their necks clean. I don't want my longsword to be dirtied when the time comes."
"You..." Chujway glared at Lorist angrily.
Lorist shrugged him off and ordered, "Men, send the guest off!"