"It is not the oath that makes the man trustworthy, but the man the oath." ~ Norton Lorist

The second highness soon left; he had to take the queen back to the capital before leading Whitelion to Southern. His trip would take about two months, so the war would only start in the middle of the 8th month. Currently, it was only the 5th.

A large military camp had already been built in Southern. House Norton's Tigersoar and House Felim's Pegasus were the first to arrive. The two legions' camps sandwiched Third Frontier. Firmrock was still stationed at the border with Eastwild to maintain security.

Lorist planned to mobilize Tigersoar, two sentry divisions, and two divisions from Jaeger. Tigersoar would be the vanguard. The sentry divisions and Jaeger's divisions were brought along for training, to provide them with experience. The other reason was to ensure numerical superiority so the Fisablens wouldn't do anything fishy. Even if they were on the same side, Lorist wasn't willing to let his guard down.

Duke Fisablen had been acted within his bounds as of late. Even after seeing that the released soldiers were armed with only old and beaten armor and rusted weapons, he just sighed a few times and resisted the urge to make his objections heard. He moved in to live alongside his soldiers. Xanthi, however, sought out Sylvia to vent her frustration by talking bad about lorist, forcing Sylvia to get her husband to give out thousands of better weapons and make up for it.

Kenmays mobilized two heavy-armored divisions but they would first meet up with Whitelion before heading to Southern. Shazin mobilized all his forces. All 48 thousand had departed and would arrive in Southern in another ten days. It was apparent that Shazin was rubbing his hands in anticipation of a huge haul. As for House Fisablen, they were mobilizing two legions. Apart from the freed Third Frontier, they also mobilized another legion. They had brought quite a lot along, so their journey would take longer and they were estimated to arrive in Southern in the 6th month.

Apart from the four houses and House Fisablen's forces, the landed Delamockan and Winstonian nobles had brought their private armies. The furthest ones even came all the way from the capital, they didn't bring many men, though. The smallest were around ten strong, the largest around a hundred. They all traveled together in a huge convoy that totaled roughly ten thousand by the time they arrived. However, it seemed they weren't there to go to war, but rather, to make a killing pillaging.

Much to Lorist's surprise, his lover, Arriotoli of House Dina, also brought around a hundred farmers. She even got into trouble the moment she entered the military camp. It was not surprising that a rare female knight would be teased by the rough crowd. However, she was far too short-tempered and got into a fight immediately, setting off an incident that resulted in one dead and three injured. The whole camp broke into a commotion. Lorist only discovered what was going on after sending Loze to stop the fighting.

Exceedingly troubled, Lorist had no choice but to send Charade to deal with it by paying reparations for and to the dead and injured. However, not only did Arriotoli refuse to let it go, she even demanded Lorist avenge the seven casualties on her side. Lorist had no choice but to have her men stationed at the campsite of the sentry divisions and 'punish' her in his unique way in order to calm her down.

Despite the various commotions, it was soon the 20th day of the 6th month. House Fisablen's second legion arrived. The moment Lorist heard the report Firmrock sent from the borders, he knew both he and Auguslo had fallen for it. The legion mobilized wasn't a frontier legion like they had thought, but rather House Fisablen's newly formed reserve legion, 35 thousand grassland barbarians graced with 50 thousand war horses and a large number of leather armor and weapons for Third Frontier, they looked more like proper light cavalry again.

That old fox! thought Lorist furiously as he glanced at Duke Fisablen. It so happened that the other was looking at him and even shot him a slight smile.

Lorist nodded and had Loze increase their guards. He had thought House Fisablen would mobilize both frontier legions and was wondering whether he should cause Duke Fisablen some trouble during the attack so they would lose more men and further weaken them. But now, there was no need.

The reserve legion's loss wouldn't impact the house in the slightest. After all, grassland barbarians were a dime a dozen. As long as the house had money, they could recruit as many as they wanted. Duke Fisablen was obviously trying to save Third Frontier and use the reserve legion for the main charge. Though Lorist had gone through the trouble of arming Third Frontier with poor armor, the duke now had a good excuse to not send them into battle. He had truly miscalculated.

On the 27th day of the 6th, Lorist received Tarkel's report. The four duchies were aware of their movements and even knew the war would erupt in 8th. So far, Handra, Farkel, and Forund had prepared. Each had formed a legion 45 thousand strong and were preparing to form a second. At the moment, the three legions were on the march to Shabaj. They would likely arrive at Rimad by the 30th of the 7th. They would later set up fortifications with the intent of bogging them down at Rimad. They wanted to turn this into a war of attrition.

Additionally, ever since exterminating Melein, Duke Shabaj had moved their capital to Messen Castle in Messen. After their defeat during the war between the four houses and House Fisablen, they had sought to defend themselves from further attacks by stationing the duchy's second legion in Rimad, the first legion, 45 thousand strong, in Messen, and a division of 12 thousand at Egret Swamp to prevent Auguslo from attacking there.

Even if Shabaj still had a population of around 800 thousand, having a standing force of 100 thousand was definitely no easy feat. Hence why the second legion relied mainly on the support of the three other duchies. When word of Andinaq's upcoming invasion spread, Duke Shabaj requested aid from his allies and held a recruitment drive.

Messen used to be House Melein's hereditary dominion. After it was conquered, the whole Melein family, save a seven-year-old boy and a four-year-old girl left at the imperial capital, were put to death. Though Duke Shabaj had moved his capital there, he couldn't capture the citizens' hearts, resulting in the snail-paced war preparations. Nowadays, the duke could only rely on his first legion. It was the greatest pillar of his house. He planned to join up with the three other duchies before heading to Rimad.

Lorist looked at the map for quite a while before he sent someone to call Duke Fisablen, Felim, and Shazin for an emergency war council. During the council, he briefly summarized the intel he had.

Pointing at the map, he said, "So far, Handra, Forund, and Farkel's reinforcements have yet to arrive. While Whitelion hasn't arrived for us either, given how urgent the situation is, I don't want to wait. Let's attack as soon as possible and force the reinforcements outside the border."

Shabaj contained three provinces. Rimad and Messen were former dominions of Melein. The other province was Jigzai, the original hereditary dominion of House Shabaj.Originally, both Jigzai and the neighboring province, Samora, belonged to them. But when Auguslo was trapped in Frederika, he asked Duke Melein to reinforce him by deploying his troops at Samora and fight with the four dutches. After Melein fell, Shabak occupied Rimad and Messen while transferring their former dominion, Samora, to Farkel.

The duchy now had an oblong shape. If Lorist and the rest could barge their way into Jigzai, they could gain the initiative. They could attack Forund in the south or Farkel in the west. As a result, the four duchies would be forced into a passive, reactionary position. Shabaj would also have no choice but to turtle up and defend while the other three couldn't reinforce it at all. They would only be able to protect their borders.

The others were all experienced veterans who could tell his decision was the best choice under the circumstances. Felim and Shazin weren't a problem since they were part of the alliance. They all turned to Fisablen. If he insisted they wait for Whitelion and Auguslo's arrival before launching the offensive, they would pretend Lorist didn't bring anything up and get ready for a long, grueling war.

Duke Fisablen looked at the map wordlessly.

Finally, he turned to Lorist and asked, "How do you all plan to attack?"

"Simple," Lorist said as he pointed at Jigzai, which belonged to Shabaj, "House Fisablen's reserve legion and Third Frontier, and House Felim's Pegasus are all light cavalry. You can drive straight into the province and avoid the citadels all the way to Jigzai. Seal off Forund and Farkel's borders and pillage the two duchies to force them to send their reinforcements there instead.

"Count Shazin's forces and the nobles will go to Messen and encircle Messen Castle. We just need Shabaj's first legion trapped. I believe our surprise attack will catch the duke off-guard. They believe our attack will only start in the 8th. Their preparations aren't finished yet, so we can catch them with their pants down. Duke Shabaj can only stay and defend Messen Castle.

"As for Tigersoar, they will deal with Shabaj's second legion stationed in Rimad before regrouping with Shazin at Messen. We can plan our next moves then. Your forces will have to hold the borders until then."

Felim and Shazin both agreed. Fisablen, on the other hand, just stared at Lorist.

"Two conditions," he finally said, "First, you may not sabotage my legions. Second, you will pledge the logistics support is kept fair and is the same as that of the other houses. Swear to the Wargod in the name of House Norton's ancestors. I won't trust you otherwise."

Lorist blushed, some sweat trickled down his neck. He had thought he was the only one cautious of his opponents. He didn't Fisablen also saw him as a crook. Both sides were incredibly wary of a huge commotion breaking out.

"Fine, I'll swear," Lorist said, "But you must also swear your allegiance to Andinaq with Singwa as your witness and pledge to be serious in this war. Only if you swear publicly can I treat you fairly."

"Will you withdraw Firmrock if I do?" countered the duke.

"No. That's a different matter entirely. Firmrock is just a garrison force. They aren't part of this war, what does your oath have anything to do with them?"

The two argued for the rest of the meeting before they arrived at a compromise and made their oaths publicly. Lorist was quite satisfied that he didn't have to withdraw Firmrock from the borders, and Duke Fisablen was assured he wouldn't have to worry about being caught in a trap.

"One more question. How will the spoils be split?" asked the duke.

Lorist gave it some thought.

"You keep what you get. To prevent conflict, we can even designate which areas will fall into whose jurisdiction."

"Alright," agreed the duke as he stretched out his hand.