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As things played out, sending Count Kenmays to deal with the second highness was a brilliant plan.
Since Lorist was the second highness's vassal, he had to act respectfully and politely.
But faced with the suspicion the second highness held towards the house, Lorist would never bother to do anything to placate the second highness or calm his fears. Not only was it a sign of his confidence, it was also part of his pride. Whether the second highness be his former self that commanded 300 thousand troops or his current self -- no better than a failed noble -- Lorist maintained the same attitude he always had.
Since you're so suspicious of me, I can't be bothered to deal with you. All I have to do is do the bare minimum required of me.
Lorist thought the second highness wasn't one without talent. His reputation as one of the war gods on Grindia was nothing to scoff at. First, he had used the northbound convoy to pacify the kingdom's trouble-causing nobles. Thereafter he plotted to ruin the relationship between Duke Madras and the second prince and caused them to be on hostile terms to the point that Duke Madras had to cede Yungechandler.
On another front, the second highness schemed against the first prince and gradually chipped away his enemy's forces, ultimately causing his foe to fall into his trap before he invaded the kingdom, forcing the first prince to cede two southwestern provinces for a peace treaty. A few years later when war broke out once more, the second highness crossed Cloudsnap Mountains to circumvent the iron-wall defenses the first prince set up and managed to take over Frederika. It was a battle that greatly alarmed all on the continent.
The second highness may be a brilliant commander, but the way Lorist saw it, he wasn't a good king. While the second highness's governing policies weren't bad per se, he didn't have the wisdom or wit of a king. Lorist believed the second highness was a grudge-holding, petty, stubborn, authoritarian, and opportunistic man who always thought he knew best. Lorist could easily name a ton more faults the second highness possessed.
The man's biggest problem was his self-importance. It was the reason Lorist wanted as little to do with him as possible. He had no right to instruct Lorist to do this or that. He was glad a landed noble like him could refuse unreasonable orders from his liege, unlike the knights that served the second highness -- who had to obey every single order without question.
Lorist's method was simple: do everything step by step and focus on building a firm foundation. It was far better than the second highness's alpha-strike mentality that got him to gather a force of 300 thousand, only to end up with nothing after a devastating loss, having nowhere to return to apart from The Northlands, resulting in him having to rely on Lorist once more.
When the second highness received the Whitelion Legion's equipment as well as 100 thousand gold Fordes, it showed the relationship between the second highness and House Norton was nothing more than one of a liege and his vassal. The second highness had baited House Norton with the same gear to have their forces exterminate the obstacles that would stop him from gaining power. The equipment's return signified Lorist desire to have nothing further to do with the Andinaq royal family, a sentiment which the second highness undoubtedly noticed.
Kenmays, however, thought differently. Given the might of House Norton, Lorist could refuse any unreasonable order from the second highness and the latter wasn't able to do anything about it apart from smiling in a friendly manner. Kenmays was a person from a merchant family, so he had his methods to make the second highness willingly jump into the hole dug for him. Even though the second highness didn't always have his guard down, Kenmays still managed to fulfill his duty without issue. All the while pretending to rally allies for the second highness through advising Baron Shazin and Baron Felim. He encouraged the second highness to accept the two nobles' demands.
When Kenmays brought out his request for Sidgler to be made his dominion after the Madras duchy's conquest, the second highness agreed because he felt Sidgler was a rather rural province that didn't have much value apart from Platinum Beach, which was a famed vacation spot. And, given that the province was in Duke Madras's hands, the second highness was more than happy to give it away to instigate the fight between House Kenmays and the duchy since it would cost him nothing.
"How do intend to convince Baron Shazin to join us in our campaign, Your Highness?" asked the count.
"What if I make him a count?" asked the second highness after some thought.
"Your Highness, it won't do if you only promise empty titles to others," Kenmays said, shaking his head, "You must come up with benefits that will actually move them to support your cause."
"What does Baron Shazin want?"
"This," Kenmays said as he pointed at the map of the Madras duchy, "He wants the land around Sanderson Hills in Delamock."
"There? Why does he desire that?" asked the second highness, a little troubled.
The location was the border of Winston and wasn't like the rest of Delamock, rife with ripe farmlands. It was rather odd for the baron to want such a place as his territory.
"Your Highness, you should know well that Baron Shazin is a man brought up in a military family. He doesn't really understand what it means to manage a dominion. He's the one with the tightest finances among all four houses. He frequently needs our aid. There are two silver mines and one copper mine in Sanderson Hills. It would help alleviate his financial situation. It's far better than selling crops, which is why he desires the area," explained Kenmays.
"But, I intend to use those mines to fill the national treasury," said the second highness hesitantly.
"Your Highness, Sanderson Hills is currently under the control of Duke Madras and there are seven citadels there manned by a 40-thousand-man garrison. If you agree to the baron's request, he will attack and conquer the area regardless of the cost. Your Highness can then levy a ten percent tax on the mines' earnings. That's far better than sending your own elite troops to the grinder that is the seven citadels, no?"
"You're right, Lord Count," the second highness conceded, "Tell Baron Shazin that I agree to his demand. Apart from giving him that area, I will also make him a count."
"Your Highness truly is wise. We are really fortunate to have you as our king. I believe you will usher the empire into a new era of prosperity."
It was something Lorist wouldn't be able to utter even if it killed him. Yet, Kenmays had managed to deliver the line perfectly as if it came from the depths of his heart.
"Let's talk about what we need to do to convince Baron Felim next."
Before the second highness's smile faded, his face turned into a look of bewilderment.
"Baron Felim? Didn't I already agree to promote him to the title of count and give him Southern as his house's dominion? Is he not satisfied?"
Kenmays sighed deeply before he said in an annoyed tone, "Your Highness, don't tell me you forgot that Southern is not under your control right now. The Iblia kingdom rules that area."
The second highness's face flushed.
"Even though it's currently part of the Iblia kingdom, when I return to the Andinaq kingdom and reassume my throne, I will restart my plan to reunite the empire and conquer it. Southern will be my land to rule."
"Time, Your Highness. What you need is time," Kenmays said forthrightly, "Your Highness can no longer promise others apples before the apple tree produces any fruit. Nobody will know for sure whether the apple will be sweet or sour. If you make that kind of offer as a king, others will regard you as a conniving merchant -- quite a harsh blow to your reputation."
The second highness couldn't help but appreciate the truth in the count's words.
"Lord Count," he shrugged, "What you said may be true, but apart from promising others things I don't currently have, what can I do? I'm more than ashamed of being a king so incompetent to fall to my current state."
"Your Highness, please don't think of it this way. Even lions have times of weakness. Your experiences are nothing short of legendary and the people of the future will no doubt sing your praises," Kenmays praised, "Your Highness, what Baron Felim wants is simple. He is willing to pledge allegiance to you and attack the duchy on your behalf. All he wants is your promise to back him up when he attacks Iblia to take Southern. He will also need a legion of troops in Southern to defend against any attack by Duke Fisablen."
"This..." mused the second highness as he fell into deep thought.
"Your Highness, are there any difficulties in doing so?"
"Lord Count, it's not that I don't want to agree to the baron's request, it's beyond my means," the second highness laughed bitterly, "As you said, a king shouldn't make promises lightly. Even if I manage to conquer the duchy with your cooperation, I can only form one Whitelion Legion and I have to use it to fight my way to the imperial capital. Even if I do manage to take the kingdom back, I'll have to rebuild the royal family's local defense legion to defend against the Union and the four central duchies. There's no way I can send a legion to help Baron Felim take back Southern."
After the second highness gained some understanding of the duchy's military, he predicted the three houses of Shazin, Kenmays, and Felim would be in shambles after engaging it. That was the reason he wanted to use his Whitelion Legion to reclaim his kingdom right away without bothering to aid them.
He believed the kingdom's garrison soldiers would hear of his return and surrender and he would have to reorganize his military to deal with the Union and the four central duchies after reclaiming his throne. He couldn't be bothered to send a legion to aid Felim. Duke Fisablen wasn't a person that could be angered lightly either. Sending a legion to fight with the duke's was sending them on a suicide mission.
"If Baron Felim is willing to wait a few years until I destroy the Union and the four central duchies, I'll send troops to retake Southern for him. I hope you, Lord Count, will do your best to convince him to endure for two more years for the sake of the greater good," said the second highness embarrassed.
He knew if the Union and the duchies were that easy to deal with, he wouldn't have ended up in his current state.
Kenmays shook his head as he understood the second highness's intentions to use the light cavalry legion of House Felim to conquer the duchy. After his goal was achieved, the issue of House Felim's rightful dominion could be postponed.
"Your Highness, I really don't understand why you don't use any of the many easier methods at your disposal. Why don't you just use the Nortons mighty forces?"
"House Norton?" The second highness sighed, "Lord Count, it's not that I don't want their aid. It's that they're unwilling to give it."
"Unwilling? How so?"
"I've already made Lorist Duke of The Northlands in hopes that he would send his troops to retake my throne. However, all he gave me is some equipment and money. He didn't bother to give me even a single soldier," said the second highness with a hint of anger.
Come on, that's 100 thousand gold Fordes and the equipment of the Whitelion Legion, not just some money and equipment. That alone should be worth three Duke of The Northlands titles, thought the count.
With a smile, he said, "Your Highness, I believe the reason they're unwilling to deploy any troops is that you didn't offer them anything they want. House Norton has been rather troubled over one issue."
"Oh? What is that?" asked the second highness curiously.
"Back when House Norton clashed with the second prince and won, their forces swept across The Northlands and took care of all landed nobles apart from our three houses. Currently, there are 17 noble houses living in Firmrock Castle. They are all the old nobles of the Krissen Empire that have some relation with House Norton. But, given that The Northlands is already under our four houses' control, Lorist has been wanting to give them replacement dominions."
"What did you say? House Norton actually dared to attack the old nobles of the Krissen Empire?" exclaimed the second highness.
"Your Highness, don't forget that even though those landed noble houses stemmed from the Krissen Empire, by the time the Nortons attacked, they were already nobles of the Iblia kingdom who have pledged allegiance to the second prince," Kenmays sighed, "House Norton's actions are perfectly justified. They have already shown mercy because they were once nobles of the empire."
"Oh, so that's the case," the second highness hurriedly said apologetically, "I'm sorry, I've forgotten. What you mean to say is..."
Kenmays pointed to Delamock.
"Your Highness, if you agree to enfeoff land here to the nobles, I believe House Norton will help us. If you can also let Lorist have Kobo and the rest of the remaining territory, I'm sure he will further Your Highness's cause without any hesitation.
The second highness hurriedly shook his head.
"No way, Lorist is already Duke of The Northlands. House Norton has already been given the whole of The Northlands, yet they want to stretch their hands into Delamock? That won't do."
"Your Highness, please consider your current position. Also, Delamock is Duke Madras's, not the Andinaq kingdom's. If House Norton wishes to take over the area, they will be the ones to pay the price. There is no free lunch in this world. Only through giving will you gain! You're only being asked to strike the deal with the territory currently belonging to Duke Madras. In essence, you don't have to give away anything of your own! Not only that, you can let the Nortons help you reclaim your throne! Are you going to give up on this opportunity? Your Highness! Don't disappoint me!"
The second highness glared at Kenmays all of a sudden.
"Count Kenmays, why did you bother to come up with this? Was Lorist the one that had you come lobby for him?"
"Your Highness, you truly are a person with a suspicious nature," Kenmays laughed, "There are two reasons I chose to do this. First, the Nortons' forces far exceed that of our three other houses. With their involvement, we can decrease our casualties. Second, I wish to have five of the landed nobles we're rearing given land in Delamock along with those in the care of the Nortons."
"Is that so..." Since the count had revealed his own intentions, the second highness no longer suspected he had plotted this in conjunction with Lorist.
"However, I feel this benefits House Norton far too much. To the point it's a little undeserved," said the second highness begrudgingly.
You're still not satisfied even if they're going to fight to the imperial capital for you? Kenmays said with a smile, "Your Highness, if you accept this, you can leave the matter of reclaiming Baron Felim's dominion to House Norton. I believe they would be more than capable of defending against House Fisablen."
"A great plan!" exclaimed the second highness.
The mere thought of having House Norton wear itself down against House Fisablen made his blood boil with excitement.
If those two houses fight intensely and end up both ruined, I'll be able to deal with them after I settle the Union and the four central duchies. Maybe I'll be able to rid myself of two problematic issues in one go!
"I don't think Lorist will agree. He is someone that won't yield unless he sees something in it for him," said the second highness worryingly.
"You can name him the governor of Winston and leave Windbury in his jurisdiction," suggested Kenmays.
The second highness raised his head.
"No way, that way, the Nortons would have two provinces!"
"That won't happen, Your Highness. When we conquer the duchy, there will definitely be nobles that will submit to you. I also know some nobles of the Iblia kingdom that are on friendly terms with me. All you have to do is move their dominions to Winston, and leave only Windbury under House Norton's control. If you make sure to support House Felim, one of the Nortons' allies, I believe you'll have caused House Norton quite a bit of trouble."
"Splendid!" the second highness cried with a clap of his hands, "Alright, I'll go with your plan."