"When a son and a father can speak openly, honestly, and sincerely to one another, only a bright future can await their family." ~ Duke Fisablen
Watching as Chujway left on horseback with his two attendants, Duke Fisablen finally spoke.
"Is it really alright to refuse?"
"Come on, stop putting up that act. Isn't the reason you called me over because you couldn't bear to refuse them because of your history and wanted me to play the bad guy? I'm sure you understand Count Chujway had come to ask us to speak to His Majesty on their behalf as well as to find out more about what we thought about the four dukes. In actuality, he's here to check whether we are having the same supply problem as them. They want to make sure whether His Majesty is going to see this through."
Duke Fisablen shook his head with a smile without refuting Lorist's hypothesis.
"Don't you know I had Count Chujway sent to your main camp and even welcomed him with a banquet? He was so surprised when served the magic beast meat and even felt bad for eating something so luxurious. When I told him even our soldiers ate it, he didn't believe me. So I led him around the camp. He was speechless when he saw the soldiers making jerky. He hurriedly requested to try to make peace between them and our king. I only called you over because I couldn't refuse him."
"It's obvious they're really tight on supplies. They might've begun rationing already," Lorist said, understanding the subtext of Fisablen's words, "While what Count Chujway said about them having 400 thousand troops is true, the claim that they' can sustain them for five years is definitely fake. Otherwise, he wouldn't be so surprised by how rich our meals were. I suspect the claim that they're receiving lots of aid from the Union is false as well. There's no way they'd take the initiative for peace talks if they were indeed being supported by the Union."
"But their conditions are a little too insincere, right? How could they expect His Majesty to agree? The first clause itself required him to give up the eight occupied provinces and return the territory to how it was before the war. The kind would never agree," Duke Fisablen argued, "Their request was just an excuse. The commotion you caused on the bank on the other side of the river is what worries them most. If we really head to Deramak from the demonic lands, we can strike their weak points. Even if they have the Union's support, defending the whole riverbank will require lots of soldiers. They've sent this envoy over to see if we can avoid exactly this outcome."
"Perhaps," Lorist continued after some thought, "I believe the four dukes think that we're in a similar situation as they are. If they are lacking in supplies, they'll believe that it's the same with us. Though their troop numbers exceed ours by around 100 thousand, our dominions are quite far from here and transporting resources here could prove difficult. They believe the eight provinces we've just occupied can't be used for the next two or three years. What they don't know is that His Majesty has already effectively cleared out and organized them.
"And there's your call for those worksmiths to craft boats upstream and my proclamation that I'll build a road at the demonic lands. Logically speaking, there's no way we could afford the supplies. Maybe the dukes believe we're just putting up a front, so they sent Count Chujway over to check. It would certainly explain why he changed his mind so quickly and asked for our help.
"It's a shame the conditions the dukes proposed were predicated on the fact that we're in a similar situation. They consider us on equal standing with them and believe that their conditions are a good exit for His Majesty to step out of this situation while maintaining his reputation. The other conditions are merely empty promises. If we really are to negotiate with them, we'll demand they pay up right away. They are tests as to whether we really want to negotiate with them, so I refused them immediately."
Duke Fisablen nodded in approval. "Your inference is sensible. However, I think it's better to lead them by the nose a little longer. We can fight while we negotiate and find out about the internal situation of Handra and whether they can hold on from their envoys."
"There's no need," Lorist refused the suggestion immediately, "Since Count Chujway already found our supplies are far more than three years, coupled with our swift refusal of his request, the four dukes will be faced with an immediate dilemma. Continuing to defend the riverbank will only make their supplies tighter. But if they don't, they'll have to fear our advance into the heart of Deramak. My refusal of their request will also reinforce His Majesty's resolve to eradicate the duchies. Next time they send an envoy, their conditions will be far better and their attitude will definitely be sincere."
Surprised, Duke Fisablen asked, "Do you think that they'll send envoys again?"
"Yes. They don't have any choice. They have to start negotiating while they still have cards to play. If they continue on like this, it's either extermination or exile. If they know what's good for them, we can put in a good word or two. There's no real need to stay here for a few more years in a stand-off."
"Oh? Didn't you say their supplies were dwindling? They shouldn't be able to last much longer."
"No," Lorist smiled bitterly, "I miscalculated. The duchies are far wealthier than we imagined. Didn't you hear Count Chujway say they were willing to pay two million gold Fordes as compensation and said we'd each get 500 thousand as a token of gratitude if we helped them out?
"I expect the three million gold Fordes is but a third or fourth of their wealth. Otherwise, they wouldn't even make this offer. If they choose to escape, that wealth could let them spend a few lifetimes in luxury in the Union. Similarly, if they choose to resist, it can buy supplies that'd last a year or two.
"His Majesty doesn't mind spending two or three years here. He has already cleared up all the nobles in Forund and Farkel and started managing them effectively. Shabaj's three provinces have also begun to regain their vigor and their development is on track. The king doesn't mind taking his time. But do we really want to stay here for two are three years?"
Fisablen was speechless at how unwilling Lorist sounded when he spoke. While he had agreed to help Auguslo conquer the duchies and spending a year or so wasn't a huge issue, dragging the war on for two or three years for the meager rewards Auguslo had promised was not an option. However, honoring promises was an exalted virtue and he couldn't just drop everything and leave.
Seeing that the three duchies were already gone with only Handra struggling at the brink of death, he was determined to not waste a number of years on the battlefield. It would be best if he could withdraw and return to his dominion rather than remaining here. If he could make the four dukes submit, everyone would have saved their faces and it would for the best.
"Oh, when is Sylvia expecting the child?" Fisablen changed the subject.
"It should be in the 1st month of next year."
"When are you going back?"
"Maybe in the 12th," Lorist said with grit teeth, "Before I leave, I have to take one defense line and put more pressure on the four old bastards. I have to force them to send an envoy sooner to discuss their surrender. Otherwise, I won't hold back..."
Though he had agreed to help the king, his forces didn't really have a chance to perform. Instead, they'd been acting to prevent as many casualties as possible while taking advantage of the enemy's weaknesses from time to time. It was mainly because he felt sacrificing his forces for the sake of reuniting the empire was incredibly wasteful and only wanted to do the bare minimum to fulfill his obligations. One look at Fisablen and one could see he only used the reserve legion for dangerous missions. Grassland barbarians were not in short supply on the plains, after all. Third Frontier had been sitting in the back and watching the show the whole time.
"But... Isn't it winter in the 12th month? How will you attack the defenses?"
Lorist rolled his eyes. "Stop pretending, old fox. Wasn't your Third Frontier forced to surrender to me in the winter? I'll tell you frankly that my men aren't affected by winter. In fact, it's an opportunity to show off. You'll see how we launch our assault when the time comes."
Fisablen smiled a little awkwardly.
"Fine, I'll finally see it for myself. But aren't you worried it'll delay your return? It's Sylvia's first child. I'm worried for her safety."
"Worry not, I've already written a letter to tell her I'll make it back before she gives birth. As long as there are a few heavy bouts of snow, I can travel back in three to four days. It's five to six days faster than traveling on horseback."
"Uhmm... Could I go with you? I know things have gone awry between me and the girl, but she's my granddaughter. I really want to be there for her when she gives birth," asked Fisablen shyly, his head lowered.
Lorist was taken aback and found it a little funny.
"Fine, come along if you want. We can go back together."
"Thank you, Lord Norton," exclaimed he, elated.
Lorist looked at him, sighing. "Call me Lorist it's just us. You're Sylvia's grandfather, my father-in-law. There's no need to address me by title."
"Alright. Thank you, Lorist." the duke responded.
"You're welcome. Also, these are the profits we got from the demonic lands. You can have a third according to our agreement."
Lorist took out a small pouch and tossed it to the duke.
"What's this?" Duke Fisablen opened the sack and found ten smooth oval-shaped pebbles, glowing white like jade.
They were very well-known jewels. Some scholars believed they were a kind of fluorescent stone, others thought they were a variant of jade. Perhaps they were produced when jade was washed onto shore and gradually molded into the round pebbles one usually discovered, beaten by waves and bathed in moonlight for centuries. The silver moon's light gradually caused the jade to become fluorescent. Whenever it's light fell on the stones, they glowed like stars.
It was said that on the southernmost tip of the continent, the Romon Empire had a very famous palace which's roof was decorated with a circular arrangement of moonlight stones. When a candle was lit in the middle of the palace in the night, the stones would reflect the light as white light and make the whole palace bright as day. The palace was named Brightmoon Palace as a result.
The value of moonlight stones varied depending on the strength of their glow. The most expensive ones could go for up to 10 thousand gold Fordes while the cheaper ones cost only around ten gold coins. Most moonlight stones on the market sold for hundreds to thousands of gold coins. The sack Lorist had tossed to the duke contained ten moonlight stones of high quality, even the cheapest was worth over a thousand gold.
"Where did you find these?" asked the duke as he toyed with one of the stones.
Lorist turned to the demonic lands.
"Your grassland barbarians were rather lucky. They discovered a huge creek as they were chasing down a herd of magic goats. While it looks normal during the day, it shines silver during the night. They thought some deity lived there and instantly dismounted and started worshipping the creek.
"When we received their report, we knew they had discovered a stash of moonlight stones. We harvested nearly a thousand, worth around 700 thousand gold Fordes in total. Don't worry, you'll get a third. We've signed an agreement, you don't have to worry about me breaking it. These are your third of the best batch. As for the grassland barbarians who discovered the creek, I've given each five gold Fordes."
Duke Fisablen was speechless. It was a gap in knowledge. The grassland barbarians discovered a moonlight-stone-filled creek and thought it sacred and didn't dare to enter it. They even dismounted and started kowtowing in awe. Lorist, on the other hand, knew it was treasure waiting to be found and managed to get nearly a thousand stones and profited greatly. It was no wonder he was so happy hunting in the demonic lands and didn't want to return.
After some thought, the duke put the stones back into the sack and handed it back to Lorist.
"I think you should keep them. Use the stones to decorate the house after Sylvia gives birth. That way, you won't have to worry about the possibility of a fire from using too many lamps to light the house."
Lorist wasn't the least bit surprised and accepted the sack.
"Fine, I'll accept your gesture."
On the 21st day of the 12th month of Year 1782, House Norton's Tigersoar launched a surprise attack on Welony Pass's defenses under the cover of snowfall and crushed Handra's Reddragon in a single fight. Reddragon lost at least half its forces, the remaining men only barely managing to escape a similar fate by retreating to the second line of defense.
At the same time Welony Pass was conquered, the two defense lines in the flanks were assaulted as well. Forund's first garrison legion and Farkel's Forestmont had no choice but to give up on their defenses and retreat. Countless troops died from the frost. Forestmont raided and burned the villages they came across in accordance with Duke Farkel's scorched earth strategy, resulting in some 30 thousand dead civilians, sowing the seeds for the coming strife between Duke Handra and Duke Farkel.