Enjoy the second release of the week.

The sound of the horn resounded nonstop across the dry, withered plains as a group of soldiers marched into view on the horizon. They brought with them various banners and stood in the distance. Not long after, a few mounted men seemed to utter something, followed by some inaudible, confused cries from the men at the back. They began to move once more and headed for Duke Madras's camp at the foot of the mound.

The second highness could still remember clearly the time the messenger of Duke Madras once again visited the army's camp to urge the army to leave the duchy in a day's time after the four houses pledged their allegiance to him.

However, when Kenmays revealed the new conditions of retreat, the messenger laughed with insult laced eyes.

"Lord Count, are you treating the duchy like an ox you can simply slaughter? Do you think His Grace will agree? Don't forget a huge ox will have a pair of fearsome horns. As the messenger, I have no right to criticize you for how ridiculous your ambitions are. I can only repeat what you said word for word to His Grace. But I have to tell you one thing before I leave: since you want war, we won't disappoint you."

After the messenger's departure, the second highness was completely riled up and he instantly gave a spirited speech, which basically boiled down to how negotiations have fallen apart and that the army should use the chance to strike the duchy and take the rest of Delamock to gain as much territory as possible before they can ready themselves. That way, they can afford to drag the war on or crush them utterly.

However, the four nobles merely looked at the second highness with expressionless faces. Baron Shazin was the first to speak out. He explained that there was no longer any need to attack Delamock. He would instead raid the nobles' orchards and farmlands. Given his understanding of Delamock, he felt there would be no point in attacking the well-defended castles since they would have to station soldiers thereafter occupying them. It was no good to fragment their forces.

With a stern face, Baron Felim also criticized the second highness's plan. It was already the 10th month and winter would arrive in a month. It wasn't possible to take the whole of Delamock in just 35 days, not to mention the fact that apart from Kobo, the rest of Delamock worth taking were only manors of other landed nobles. Given that Kobo was a fortified city with 20 thousand men guarding it, it was incredibly hard to take. The army wouldn't be able to take the city quickly and any attempt to do so would only incur unnecessary losses.

Kenmays smiled and advised the second highness that there was no need to be in such a hurry. The messenger would require at least ten days to deliver the news to the duke, it would be the 11th month by the time word reached him. The duchy's forces would have less than half a month to prepare for winter, whereas their own army was mostly ready. By the time spring comes, the enemy would be severely weakened because of their lack of preparation and victory would be within their grasp.

In the end, Lorist concluded that they would go according to their predicted course of action and ignore the army that the duke would no doubt send. They would only fight after the duke gathered his army in spring the next year. Lorist expressed his confidence in the army's might. They would be able to take the duchy far more easily if the duke's army was wiped out first.

The strategy meeting ended on that note, with the four nobles leaving immediately without giving the second highness a chance to convince them otherwise. The second highness grit his teeth after everyone else left and regretted that he didn't ask for the right to guide the army's actions when he signed the agreement.

The contract of oath was a guarantee a liege gave to his vassals. As long as the vassal carried out the task given by their liege, they could go about it however they wanted without needing the permission or interference of their liege.

Usually, an oath contract came in three copies. Apart from the liege and vassal's copies, there would be another one for public announcement. The second highness's oath contract came in four copies, one each for him and the four nobles with the final one used for public announcement. During the new year, Kenmays would represent the four houses at the annual celebration in Gildusk and announce the agreement to the nobles currently deprived of dominions by the Nortons and Kenmayses. According to Kenmays, the agreement signaled the return of those nobles to the second highness's rule.

At first, the second highness wanted the smaller noble houses to sign the contract with each of the four houses respectively, but Kenmays mentioned that the act might make others think the second highness was intentionally trying to sabotage the alliance between the four houses. It was imperative that the four houses worked together to conquer the duchy, so all four houses should be involved in a joint signing. Only thusly would all the houses be in the same boat with regards to reputation and casualties.

Kenmays added that he would like to personally sign the agreement independent of the other houses because he didn't want to be dragged into the same pit with them. He said it would definitely incite Lorist's suspicion and the others by making them think the second highness had some private arrangements or benefits for House Kenmays. If it were allowed to come to pass, not only would the alliance be affected, the second highness's plan to reclaim his throne would also be ruined. So, Kenmays said he was willing to get into the same boat as the four houses, even if it meant potentially greater losses for him, so the second highness managed to successfully regain power in the kingdom.

The second highness praised Kenmays's sensible considerations and agreed to follow his suggestion for the four houses to sign the same agreement, with the conditions Kenmays stipulated. When the second highness stamped his finger on all six copies of the contract, Lorist, Felim and Shazin all nodded in acknowledgment. The second highness couldn't be more riled up. He thought the four houses were now at his beck and call. He would use them to wipe out his enemies and conquer the realm.

However, Lorist refused his suggestion to deploy soldiers almost immediately. When the second highness brought up the plan to conquer Delamock, he realized he didn't have any right to command the four houses' forces despite being their liege. Even the second highness' guards reported to the four houses. Apart from gold-ranked knight Ripleid, Glacia and his three silver-ranked knights were back at the Norton dominion recruiting soldiers and guarding the Whitelion Legion's equipment.

Not willing to give up, he sought out Lorist and the rest and tried his best to convince them once more to follow his plan and storm the duchy while the duke was busy moving his own troops in to position to defend against the upcoming assault, saying that allowing the enemy to gather their forces was the biggest mistake they could ever make. After all, Duke Madras had the advantage in terms of both terrain and manpower. Even if they fought to a point of losing, they would still be able to go on the defensive and drag on the war.

However, there was only a month before winter arrived, so the second highness suggested that even if they weren't able to conquer the whole of Delamock, it was still better than nothing if they managed to wear down on the forces of the duchy and force the troops at Delamock to be unable to receive reinforcements or support. That way, they could deliver the final strike when the enemy was worn out even further by the coming winter.

Since Lorist mentioned that he wanted to wipe out the duke's army in one go, the second highness intelligently changed his rhetoric. He said they had to decrease the enemy's combat strength before the final fight instead of sitting around and watching the enemy gather their forces. Given the current situation, the duchy was like a huge ox which the sole wolf that was their own army intended to hunt. The wolf ought to open as many wounds on the ox as possible to stall the ox from launching into a life-ending charge. Only after the ox bled most of its vitality out should the wolf engage in the killing engagement and spell the end of the duchy.

To convince Lorist and the rest, the second highness went so far to use himself as an example, citing his loss two years prior to the allied noble army in Anderwoff. Back then, he didn't command his troops to wipe out the allied noble army in one go and instead engaged in three to four smaller skirmishes which all ended in the horrible loss of the nobles. However, the nobles of Anderwoff continued to fight to the death even after Anderwoff had been taken. Having been driven to Majik, they continued to struggle against the second highness's forces until they received aid from the Union and the four central duchies which ultimately resulted in their triumph.

That was the reasoning behind his argument that Lorist's plan for an all-out battle wouldn't guarantee the duchy's fall. The second highness felt the army might repeat his mistake and end up in a huge predicament. He maintained that only by attacking first and conquering the nobles' manors in Delamock and crippling the duchy's forces was the way to go and that the army had to grasp the chance instead of leaving their troops cooped up within the camp doing nothing.

Lorist didn't bother to argue with the second highness and merely brought out a map of the duchy and began a simple simulation. Given the current state of the allied army, if they wanted to take the nobles of Delamock's manors, they would have to split up into four contingents, each contingent containing 20 thousand men. Only then would they be able to conquer the manors of those nobles. Even at the lowest possible casualty ratio of one to one, each of the four units would lose at least half their numbers after conquering around five of those manors and would have no choice to retreat, ending up with only a third of Delamock under their control.

The biggest weakness of the strategy was how there wasn't a way to encircle Kobo mainly due to the fact that the duchy's reinforcements would arrive far too quickly. The duke would either send his strongest unit, Seamountain Legion, to disrupt their plans or send 20 thousand garrison soldiers stationed at the Sanderson Hills, making it extremely dangerous for the troops on the way to Kobo, even threatening the safety of the camp at the riverbank.

If they sent 50 thousand men to encircle Kobo, the duke's reinforcements wouldn't be able to deal with it. If they did that, however, the duke would send his troops to attack the camp at Metropoulos. If the camp was destroyed, the consequences would be unimaginable. They might lose their only way of retreat and perhaps be eliminated completely.

Lorist didn't hesitate to point out that the reason the second highness failed his attack on the Redlis kingdom wasn't that he had gotten into a drawn-out, to-and-fro battle with the nobles, but that he had his supply lines cut, which ended with the defeat of the troops stationed at Kanbona. Naturally, the second highness's ill-prepared resources also contributed to the problem when they had to battle for an unexpected amount of time. However, it still seemed the second highness hadn't yet understood where he truly failed and almost had them repeat his mistake.

Embarrassment turned into anger as the second highness stressed that the forces of the Nortons and Felims could secure the camp at the riverbank during the attack. That way, they would be able to guard the camp and even press the attack on the nobles.

It was then that Felim objected profusely and called the second highness out for not understanding his and the Nortons' forces. So far, the allied army's main force lay with Shazin and Kenmays, most were heavy-armored infantry only proficient at defense and interception. Not only that, Shazin's two cavalry divisions currently served as scouts and the camp had been set up in a way that would make it easier for the infantry to defend from enemy assault and spend the winter.

Letting the defensive infantry troops attack the nobles all the while defending the camp along with the Norton cavalry legion, which was optimized for attack operations, was nothing short of idiotic. Felim insinuated that even if his troops and those of the Nortons guarded the camp, it wouldn't be able to support the heavy infantry troops that returned from the attack. The resource consumption during winter for the mounts of two legions was already astronomical.

"There's no need to argue further. We'll stick to the plan as previously discussed. All we have to do from now to winter is defend the main camp. As for whether we attack, that can wait. Your Highness, you ought to take a bath, calm down, and get some rest. Don't waste any precious time," said Lorist before he left.

The second highness almost coughed up blood from his anger.

What do you mean take a bath and get some rest?! Did he mean I was wasting his time?!

The angered second highness brought out the contract and tried his best to find a clause that would allow him to assert some control over Lorist. As he scoured the contract, he realized he had been duped by Kenmays, who had dug him a huge pit into which he had jumped willingly, to say the least.

All of the clauses in the contract were ran through the second highness and mandated by him personally. But after re-reading the contract, he hurriedly brought out a map of the empire and realized that even if he could reunite the empire, apart from House Fisablen's Wild Husbandry Province, the entirety of the Iblia kingdom would fall under the jurisdiction of the four houses. As long as the alliance held, a third of the empire's territory would forever be out of his reach.

Take, for instance, Delamock, which the second highness promised to the landed nobles deprived of their dominions. Most of them were vassals of House Norton, and Delamock would belong to the Nortons in the truest sense after the duchy was eliminated.

The worst part was how the second highness elected Lorist as the governor of Windbury. He had forgotten that Windbury was the capital of Winston, so even if the nobles of Winston were on the second highness's side, a governor like Lorist wasn't. And in the chain of command, any order the second highness had for the nobles of Winston had to go through Windbury first, so Lorist could just intentionally not pass the orders on while he dealt with the nobles himself.

The second highness's regret amplified. He had practically given the whole of Winston to the Nortons. He later discovered another clause that severely disadvantaged him: there was no date for when the Nortons had to help the second highness reclaim his throne. Not only that, the territory promised to the four houses would be in effect right after the duchy's conquest whether the second highness regained his throne or not.

For instance, the second highness had promised Sidgler to Kenmays as his hereditary dominion with the count promoted to duke with the only condition being the conquest of the Madras duchy. Not only that, as long as the four houses conquered Winston and Windbury, Lorist's term as governor would be effective immediately and Windbury would fall under his control.

I was blinded! How could I believe Kenmays, a person from a sly merchant family?!

The second highness despaired with his realization, especially the one where he didn't stipulate when the four houses had to reclaim his throne. It could happen right after their conquest of Madras, or even 20 years later! The four houses would only have to sustain the second highness in The Northlands in the meantime while they carry out their strategy to suck as many benefits out of him as they could.

Even though the second highness felt rather generous when he was giving away almost all the benefits of conquering the Iblia kingdom to the four houses to ensure their loyalty, he realized that the current situation allowed the four houses enough territory to found their own kingdom after he reunited the empire. He almost wanted to cut his own hands off and wondered how he could be so misguided to put his thumbprint on such a contract.

There were no lieges that dared to go back on their word on an oath contract. After all, it was the most sacred form of agreement there was. It represented the promise of the liege to the gods and their ancestors. The second highness knew the contract was the only document ensuring the four houses' loyalty. If he truly breached it, not only would all his reputation and trustworthiness be gone, the four houses could use it as an excuse to revoke their pledge of allegiance to him and return to being rogue nobles. Not only would he not gain a single thing for which he had bargained with the four houses, he would also gain four mighty enemies.

Currently, the second highness was standing at the top of the castle in the middle of the mound where the camp was built. He looked at the horizon and saw the duchy's forces gathered at a campsite one kilometer away, busy digging moats and building up their defensive line. He also saw rows of carriages bringing in all sorts of resources.

I hope they gather as many as possible. I can only be patient and wait for spring to come now. Perhaps after the four houses' army clashes with the duchy's and end up crippled, I can rise again. Maybe the only way I can go about this is to let the army get entangled with Duke Madras at Delamock while I build up Whitelion Legion on the sidelines to regain control over the situation, thought the second highness.