“A Struggle in Vain”
Gran Flamm, a kingdom originally doomed to simply await its own destruction, suddenly rose up from the ashes again. It had enjoyed an undisputed advantage in the recent battle against the Windhill Kingdom, a pretty natural outcome if one were to consider things objectively. Despite the disparity in numbers and the territory size, Gran Flamm’s strength was superior by far to that of Erwin’s kingdom. The quality of the loyalist soldiers and the officer corps was heads and shoulders above that of the enemy. And not only did Gran Flamm have better officers, but they also had far more of them. The officer cadre was numerous enough to maintain an army of hundreds of thousands. They might not have had that many troops at the moment, commanding twenty thousand soldiers with that many officers provided Gran Flamm with unmatched advantage. The Knight Commander, a leader who had personally led a hundred thousand royal guards previously, was now spearheading a force just ten thousand strong.
From a tactical standpoint, Gran Flamm held one more huge advantage over Windhill – magic. The degree to which loyalists could suppress Erwin’s forces had already been proven to be a major factor. However, it might be more accurate to say that it was not so much the Crown’s superiority but rather Erwin’s magicians being sub-par. Even if they had to face Arnold, the most recognized magic user in the former kingdom, now supported by Ariel, and the princes of Orcus and Hashu.
In all countries, royalty had always been the people with the highest levels of magical prowess and these potent bloodlines were showing their potential. However, the kingdom of Windhill didn’t even have a direct descendant of the main bloodline in its ranks. Erwin was talented, without a doubt, however, not only there a limit to the heights he could reach, but he had also been consistently negligent in polishing said talent. He might have thought he had put a great deal of effort into his training, but the actual rigor of his practice severely paled in comparison to that of Rion’s, Vincent’s, or even Ariel’s.
In many ways, Erwin was simply unlucky. If he had associated himself with Vincent and the others from his childhood, it was possible that he might have come to realize the inherent limits of his own talents, preventing the rise of both unnecessary hubris and unhealthy ambitions. However, due to the interference of Lady Windhill, not only was Erwin separated from Ariel, Vincent, and Rion, but from his own mother as well. He was raised in an overprotective environment, prevented from leaving his own safety bubble, and thus denied an opportunity to measure his true worth. For example, during his magical aptitude trials, an amplifier had been deployed in secret, turning the result into nothing more than a farce. And since the truth of the matter had been hidden even from him – yet another fact that he was protected from – his estimation of his own abilities had diverged even further of truth.
At any rate, the Windhill Kingdom, which had been supposed to be on the offensive, was now being pushed back into its own lands. And there were other bad developments too, the biggest fear of all usurpers everywhere became reality for Erwin. In the beginning, it had only been ten people. Ten nobles had fled their Houses to throw away their social status and their former loyalties. They had changed their colors from followers of House Windhill to supporters of Gran Flamm, or to be more precise, to supporters of Ariel Frey. She had accepted their defection and the Kingdom had turned a blind eye to her new followers. Once the knowledge of that outcome spread to other Windhill vassals, this trickle of defections turned first into a steady stream, and then into an unstoppable tide of noble families abandoning Erwin en masse.
With this, the Kingdom of Windhill could no longer think of a victory in the current war but had to focus on pressuring their allies into continued obedience. However, a tide of such magnitude could not be held back with what feeble effort they could muster. Before long, Erwin lost his largest advantage, the numerical superiority, and could barely do more than struggle in vain against Gran Flamm. The table had turned, now he had to contemplate impending destruction. In that situation, even had to discard his pretentions, abandon his ambitions, and swallow his pride. He set on the bitterest of journeys to preserve his fledgling nation.
“Pathetic. Is this all you were capable of?”
Lancelot’s voice was cold. He was staring down at Erwin, who knelt in supplication before the imperial throne.
“Your Imperial Majesty, I humbly beg You for the assistance of Your mighty empire.”
Whatever Lancelot would say, however cruel his words, Erwin right now had to accept them. The only path to the preservation of the Windhill Kingdom led through borrowing strength of the Great Alexandros Empire.
“Oh, We hear you. All the same, We were hoping to see you maintain the situation a while longer.”
In reality, having to send reinforcements now would be a problem for Lancelot. True, his war against the Kingdom of Fatillas was going quite well, but it was still a while before it could be concluded. And furthermore, he had set his sights on Merica too. The conclusion of the Fatillas campaign would herald a conflict far fiercer than the one he was waging right now.
“My Emperor, if Gran Flamm regains its former strength it will become a real threat to Your glorious empire.”
“There is no threat. To speak bluntly, We would be quite untroubled even if the Windhill Kingdom itself were to fall to Gran Flamm.”
“…What did you just say!”
The hope of securing Lancelot’s support had been the only thing that had held Erwin’s pride until now. Without it, the young Windhill saw no reason to stomach he disgrace.
“As expected, Our true competitor was always Arnold, and that score shall be settled with these two hands.”
Lancelot had always, from the very start, one-sidedly held Arnold as his rival. Now that he had managed to obtain the title of an Emperor, they had become rivals in the truest sense. He no longer had to curry favor with the prince through flattery, and could now try to crush the Crown Prince outright in a straight contest. That made the Emperor extremely satisfied.
“In that case, feel free to depart to the battlefield to do just that,” remarked Erwin snidely. He was wholly disinterested in whether it was the Windhill Kingdom or the Great Alexandros Empire that dealt the final blow to Gran Flamm, so long as he could preserve both his domain and his own position as its rightful king.
“Have We not explained already? It cannot be done at this very moment. You must hold out until the campaign against Fatillas concludes, at the very least.”
“And when would that be, O great Emperor?”
Lancelot turned to a nearby subordinate repeating the question – “…How long is it going to take?”
“The conquest is proceeding apace, Your Imperial Highness. That said, it will take at least two months to secure full control. Bearing in mind that we will have to organize the redeployment, as well as the travel time to the northern territories… Three, no, four months.”
“There you have it.”
That was much longer than Erwin had expected. Regardless of how well the Empire’s campaign against Lord Fatillas had been going, it was rather doubtful whether the Windhill kingdom would last until then. More inevitable losses would mean more defections from his cause, accelerating the rate of decay of the Windhill Kingdom.
“Is four months such a tall order?” asked Lancelot with a sigh. “Arnold must really be going all out up there.”
“Actually, it is Ariel and the Clans of Bandeaux that cause us most hurt.”
“What?” Lancelot’s mask slipped a little for the first time. A mention of Ariel brought a reaction out of him that clearly contrasted with his prior bored indifference.
“My kingdom’s greatest plight is the growing number of defectors. It is a shameful situation for myself as the king, but my opponent is leveraging the former Lord of the House as a hostage to force my loyal subordinates into treason.”
This statement was a mixture of fact and lies designed to provoke a reaction from Lancelot.
“…So you are saying that Ariel Frey is exploiting the former direct vassals of the previous Lord Marquess Windhill?”
“Yes, Your Majesty, it is exactly as you say.”
“The amount of support stolen from us in this way is cascading out of control, and to speak candidly, it will be quite difficult for us to hold out for four more months.”
“…The impossible remains impossible. We reject your plea.”
Lancelot’s reply completely shattered Erwin’s expectation. Erwin had been completely certain of a positive response and the shock of the rejection was all the more severe for it.
“Ariel growing in power is something Our wife would desire to deal with her herself.”
“And why would that be?”
“I do not know. Empress just cannot stand the thought of that woman getting stronger.”
For Maria, Ariel was no more than a villainess, a stepping stone. To have someone like that revered in song and verse, to have them invited to the royal palace to live at Arnold’s side right after Rion’s death, it was unforgivable. Whatever her feelings regarding Ariel happened to be, however, complicated they became by the game setting, at the very basic level Maria was simply jealous.
“Where is Lady Maria right now?” Erwin inquired anxiously.
“Somewhere at the frontlines of the campaign in the south. We suppose it would be impossible to call her back at this point.”
“That cannot be…” To Erwin, this answer was no different from a death sentence.
“However, there is a way for Us to help you.”
“Your Majesty?! What would that be?!”
“Abdicate. Hand over your crown to Us.”
“As soon as the former Windhill Kingdom becomes a territory of the Great Alexandros Empire, We would no longer be reinforcing an allied nation, but rather defending what is Ours. Even I would be helpless to refuse that sort of a request.”
Erwin failed to see the difference between being destroyed by the Gran Flamm kingdom and being absorbed into the Great Alexandros Empire. In the end, he realized Lancelot had never had the slightest intention of helping him. After all, for him, the Windhill Kingdom was a country the Great Alexandros Empire would eventually destroy anyway.
“I understand now. It was foolish of me to ever think of requesting assistance from the Great Alexandros Empire.”
“Oh, indeed. If you had the time to request help from others, you should have used it to do something on your own.”
“Just so. Emperor. I will do just that from here on.”
Even after swallowing his pride, Erwin didn’t get what he wanted, there would be no helping hand from the Great Alexandros Empire. The Kingdom of Windhill would still have to fight the forces of Gran Flamm alone, as it always had. Without the faintest possibility of victory.
The attempt to secure reinforcements from the Empire might have been a failure, but the officials of the Kingdom of Windhill could not simply allow the war to run its course as it was. If their king decided to resign himself to personally fight his last battle in a desperate bid for survival, that was up to him, they would secure their own paths to survival. Viscount Austin was their shining light and leading example in serving their own ambitions. This is why they had pushed for Erwin to succeed the House, why they had pushed for the founding of the new nation too. They had not the slightest intention of dying for that new kingdom.
“You are seeking… vassalage?”
The negotiator of the Gran Flamm’s government was stunned by the unexpected mission of the Windhill Kingdom’s envoy. Given the present circumstances, his superiors had been sure that the negotiations would be about an armistice or something similar. The sudden offer of subordination came as a shock.
“That is so, good sir. Given the current situation, our kingdom’s defeat seems rather inevitable. We believe it is only right for the loser to graciously acquiesce to the victor’s demands.”
While this meant they were admitting their loss, the motives behind this negotiation attempt were still selfish. The envoy was scant on details, and the driving force behind the request was clearly the fact that the Great Alexandros Empire abandoned the Windhill Kingdom to its own fate.
“…What manner of vassalage do you wish for?” asked Prime Minister Lightham, taking over the conversation and pressing for details. “Do expand on your position, if you may?”
Cid judged that it wouldn’t be prudent to have King Edward take part in the negotiations at the present juncture.
“It is not proper for the vanquished to make demands, my masters would prefer to hear the wishes of your side, My Lord.”
While this could be seen as an attempt at deflection, the Prime Minister judged this wasn’t the case here.
“Interesting. You do understand that the only conditions we could possibly consider would include King Erwin’s head, war reparations, annual tribute, and an unconditional oath of fealty?”
“Is that so? May I take that as the entirety of Gran Flamm’s demands?”
“Not quite, we would wish for one more thing. Revocation of titles of all nobles currently residing within the borders of Windhill Kingdom.”
The envoy gasped. He had calmly accepted the prospect of Erwin’s death, but the potential removal of the court ranks seemed to shake him to the core. That was enough for Cid to confirm his suspicions that the envoy was not an official one. Or rather, that he had not been sent under the king’s orders.
“Please be at ease, good sir. These, of course, are our initial demands pending potential future negotiations. We do not necessarily expect for the final terms to look exactly like this.”
“…Oh, thank you for clarifying.”
The envoy showed clear relief at this. In Cid’s eyes, his behavior was pretty obviously amateurish. And while incompetence across the negotiation table was preferable most of the time, here it made it harder to judge whether he was actually worth taking seriously.
“Nonetheless, without more details, it will be difficult for us to decide whether these talks are worth pursuing. How do your masters intend to proceed?”
“Once your willingness to negotiate was established, the intention was to dispatch a proper diplomatic mission to finalize the terms of a potential agreement.”
It was an unexpectedly competent reply. If this were to be true, it meant that this unknown, nebulous faction in Erwin’s court was numerous enough to assemble and warrant a formal negotiating party.
“…Since I am of a mind to personally take part in these talk, might I inquire who will be representing your side?”
After giving things a bit more thought, Cid decided to probe for names in an intentionally non-committal manner. If the Prime Minister of Gran Flamm planned to take part in the negotiations, the other party had no choice but to send their most senior member. Learning the name of that person would help him figure out to some extent just what kind of faction were they dealing with.
“Regarding that matter…We are of a belief that our side should also dispatch negotiators of considerable gravitas.”
The answer was somewhat lacking for names. Therefore, Cid decided to turn the screws a bit and shake the man.
“Is Prime Minister Lange opposed to these negotiations?! How do you expect them to achieve anything if that is the case?!”
“His Excellency is very much in favor, but…”
The envoy was clearly shaken, one more push seemed in order.
“But? There is a proper explanation, I hope? Otherwise, we can only take his absence as a lack of respect for our Kingdom.”
“…His Excellency seeks only the assurance of his own safety. If this can be guaranteed, then naturally he will be present at the talks.”
This envoy was not someone who should have been tasked with conducting diplomacy, especially during the time of war. The Prime Minister couldn’t really fault the man for his shortcomings. This was the result of the difference in skill and experience between someone who was a Prime Minister of a major kingdom for years and someone who was just a vassal noble in that kingdom. The Windhill Kingdom, since its inception, had suffered from a shortage of qualified personnel, not only in the army but clearly in the diplomatic corps too.
“His safety, is it? That can certainly be assured for the duration of the negotiations. We are happy to extend such a guarantee.”
“We are deeply grateful. However… may we take it that Lady Ariel is of the same mind?”
Cid was slightly confused and couldn’t think of a reason for that name to surface out of the blue. A quick glance in the direction of the King was met with a simple shake of the head. Trying the same with Prince Arnold yielded a similar reaction. Nonetheless, Cid could obviously not speak for Ariel without asking her first. And, to be honest, he was growing more and more curious to find out why such an explicit guarantee would be necessary. The circumstances of the fallen House Windhill could justify this to some extent, but if that were the case, wouldn’t it be more proper to seek the forgiveness from the former Lord Marquess instead? In the end, the Prime Minister judged that it was impossible to give an answer without asking the person herself, so he decided to adjourn the audience for the time being.
“…If that as well is necessary, we will have to make certain of this before we give an answer. Can we postpone this discussion until that time?”
“Of course, Your Excellency.”
Once the envoy departed, Ariel was summoned to the command tent. To call her displeased by this would be a severe understatement.
“Lady Frey,” said the Prime Minister, caring not one bit for her obvious bad mood, “an envoy of our enemy came to ask for negotiations. They seek assurances of Prime Minister Austin’s safety were he come to hold talks in person.”
“How can that possibly require my presence here?”
“Do allow me to finish explaining, please. It is only natural to guarantee a negotiator’s safety in circumstances like these, thus, we accepted. That was deemed insufficient. The envoy requested assurances from yourself specifically.”
“…He did?” Ariel asked with clear surprise after a moment of silent incomprehension. There should be no reason for her name to be mentioned in negotiations between two kingdoms.
“Are you acquainted with Viscount Lange Austin?”
“Of course. He was Father’s most important vassal. We had met many times.”
He was also someone she never wanted to meet again.
“Naturally. Do you know why he would require this sort of guarantee from you personally?”
“If you have to know, then yes, I have a rather good idea.”
There were innumerable wrongs that Prime Minister Lange inflicted on Ariel. However, it didn’t require much thinking to guess which of them he would find most egregious. The heaviest sin on his conscience was his deception regarding Erwin’s true lineage. The nature of Erwin’s existence was a source of constant suffering for Vincent. To make Erwin seem like the superior successor, Vincent had been subjected to severe harassment from behind the scenes. In the end, even Rion had been forced away from her brother, ultimately leading to Vincent’s death. And while she could not blame everything about Vincent’s demise on Erwin and Prime Minister Lange, it was undeniable that they had played an active role in those tragic events.
“…What reason would that be, if I may ask?”
“Erwin is not of Father’s blood. He was sired by Viscount Austin.”
Ariel revealed Erwin’s greatest secret without the slightest hesitation and it came as an enormous shock to all present. If this had been uncovered prior to the fall of the Kingdom, it would have been a devastating scandal. Irregularities in the succession of a Marquess-rank title had long since ceased to be a problem just for the family involved.
“…Have you any proof?”
Knight Commander Frederick was the first to speak. A wry smile played across his face.
“Not a shred.”
“Then how do you know?”
“I heard overheard a conversation between a man named Will, a valet who served Erwin at Viscount’s behest, and Rion. That valet happens to be Lange’s son as well.”
“So Rion was involved after all. To rephrase the question, how long have you known?”
“Since the time we spent at the royal academy.”
This caused everyone to exhale loudly. It wasn’t, by now, surprising that Rion had been involved, but the fact that he obtained this secret so long ago still came as a shock. It was so very like him too. But, as far as people gathered in the tent were concerned, this particular information should never have been kept from sight.
“Why did he never tell anyone?”
“What good would it do without any evidence? Would you indict Erwin on spurious grounds as well?”
There was no one in the present company on whom that second question was lost. They were all reminded of a fact none of them would ever be able to forget. That Ariel still had not forgiven any of them for her indictment and her brother’s execution.
“If the negotiations are going to involve Viscount Austin, I shall return to Camargue. I hold no desire to see the face of someone who posed as Father’s most loyal retainer, only to turn to treachery like this. I believe he would also feel considerably more at ease without my presence.”
The statement was addressed to everyone present and brooked no objection. The King silently looked towards the Crown Marshal, Marcus. Ariel was an important strategic asset in the war and even Edward was unsure if it was fine for her to return. Marcus nodded, reluctantly. The war had reached the point where Erwin’s force could be simply ground down through the force of numbers. They had long passed the point where losing was a real concern.
So, a few days later, Ariel returned to the town of Camargue. The relief forces of Orcus and Hashu took that as a cue to depart as well and the two countries’ armies requested permission to return home since the outcome of the war had been all but decided. With the situation as it was Gran Flamm was in no position to refuse.
revised on 15th January 2018
Translation by Hikkinomori Translations
with the kind permission of the author
All rights to Ayato-sensei