"A good negotiator is not the one who can get his opponent to say yes, but who has mastered the art of saying no and knows how to get to an agreement thereafter." ~ King Andinaq Auguslo

It seems Auguslo has realized my intentions.  He's actually learning his lesson, thought Lorist as he sighed, disappointed, It's over. I shouldn't think of taking advantage of him anymore. It's getting harder and harder to swindle him. It seems he isn't as much of a fool as I thought.

"The final option is to just continue the stand-off."

"Continue the stand-off?"

"Yes. Think about it, according to our reports, Dukes Forund and Farkel brought two legions to Handra, Duke Shabaj also brought a division. There are 200 thousand more people in the duchy than is normal. Additionally, Hans's reports say Duke Handra has also expanded the Dragon Twins. Coupled with the city garrison, there are a total of 100 thousand men.

"Handra has three provinces and a population of approximately one million. Over a third of their bodies are now in uniform, I doubt the duchy can support so many people essentially just sitting around for long. So far, the dukes are working together to defend against us. But they are running out of money and supplies very quickly. We can just sit around and wait for them to crumble.

"There's be complete chaos when they do, and the three dukes now guests in the duchy won't disband their forces and give up on their claims so easily. If Handra's supplies and money runs out, there'll be hell to pay. I doubt any of the dukes will be willing to disband their forces, they'll try to get more supplies instead.

"I'm sure you can imagine what'll happen then. All three dukes will begin vying for resources, and Handra will recruit even more men to defend his territory against his allies, which'll only worsen the situation and bring the collapse about so much quicker.

"The longer we stay put, the worse things will get between the three. They might be able to hold out without much issue for a year, but no more. And they will inevitably turn on one another when the food runs out. They'll no doubt try and suppress the conflicts at first, but that just means it'll burst out like a hot geyser all at once and the three will be at each other's throats.

"The dukes will likely set their sites on the commoners first. They'll raid the villages and farms for food and other supplies. As the duchy's ruler, Duke Handra will have to protect his subjects. Which will pit him against the other three. We can just sit by and watch the show.  We don't need to lift a finger or lose a single life. Handra will fall apart on its own.

"If Your Majesty can be patient enough, just wait until they start fighting amongst themselves. It might even be that the losers will defect and lead us into Handra. If we march in at that time, the victor will be too battered to fight back."

The tent was completely silent. Everyone was analyzing Lorist's third and final suggestion. After a while, Duke Fisablen stood up and gave sound to his doubts.

"Lord Norton, while what you said makes sense, you seem to have forgotten an important point. Handra's Majik province neighbors Anderwoff, which is currently under the Union's control. The Wessia merchant guild occupies Bodolger right next to Anderwoff. The duchies could request support from Wessia or trade with the Union to get more resources and continue to resist."

Lorist laughed heartily.

"Your criticism is fair, Duke Fisablen, but you presuppose the guild will choose to trade with them. Merchants prioritize profit above all else; if the duchies still exist, Wessia's dealings will at the very least break even if they don't profit. But three of the dukes have already lost everything. They still control many men, but they can't trade in people if they want to continue fighting, and they have nothing else.

"Wessia might only provide minor support on account of their cooperation in the past, but they won't truly support them. The guild might instead be the first to crumble if it did. Given that Wessia occupies the former imperial territory of Bodolger, they will rely mainly on the Union instead of the duchies.

"As for the four dukes trading with the Union, that would depend on whether the dukes have something to trade as well. Among them, Duke Shabaj escaped in a hurry and should be the one who brought the least resources. Dukes Forund and Farkel left with the wealth of their house and duchy, so they might look like they are loaded, but given that they're no longer in their dominion, they don't have an income.

"Their forces will only consume their resources, not generate any. After we occupied the two duchies, we estimated they each took around a million to two million gold Fordes. I believe Duke Handra's pouch is in more or less the same state. He still has his duchy, yes, but the war is sapping its vitality, not to mention that most of his tradable produce probably goes to feeding the guest armies.

"How long do you think two million gold Fordes can sustain two legions? Forund and Farkel have already been conquered, and the two dukes have a combined 90 thousand men. No matter how savvy they are, they will still be spending money like water.

"They can't invest their funds in trade with the Union. They'll rely on Handra completely instead. Handra might be forced to give his produce to feed the two legions, but I doubt he'll do so willingly, or be happy about it."

Ah! thought Auguslo as he clapped his hands, I see. The more pressure I apply to them, the more united they will be. But if I let them be, they will fight amongst themselves. Lorist's right. The duchy can't support 300 thousand soldiers for long. They can't sustain that kind of consumption.

"How long do you think we have to wait until the enemy caves?"

Lorist smiled, the whites of his teeth showing. He stretched out two fingers.

"Two years at most, nothing more. Probably less."

"That may be good, but we have forces to feed and pay as well. True, we have an entire kingdom's resources, but that also means we have far further to transport them. It is no cheap endeavor. Two years is a long time. We also have so many cavalry troops here. The food we need is at least double our enemy's." Auguslo furrowed his brow at the thought that Lorist's proposal was a double-edged sword.

"Hehe, Your Majesty seems to be forgetting that you have two new territories nearby. You could spend the two years governing the two properly. We can use its produce  supply the army.

Each noble can look after his own forces in terms of any other supplies as long as Your Majesty remembers our contribution in eradicating the duchies and reward us accordingly."

Auguslo paced around, his head lowered. The others present gazed at him, waiting for his final decision. He appeared rather troubled. Lorist's first suggestion was the simplest: keep up the assault. But, the shock squad his participation and it had already been shot down. The second method was to split off a portion of the troops, and the best candidate for the job was Tigersoar as Lorist had said. But, out of worry for any hidden intentions, he'd mentally crossed that off as well. The third option was to stand off without fighting. Everyone understood from Lorist's breakdown that it was the best method; they just had to sit around and wait for the enemy to implode. However, it would take quite long and a lot of supplies to pull off. However, it wasn't a big deal in that the supplies would have to be spent either way regardless of which choice they made. Apart from Whitelion, the standing armies of the various noble families were gathered under Auguslo's banner. Lorist had specified that they only needed food since they could take care of the other supplies.

What troubled Auguslo was what reward he would give to the nobles if he chose this path. Usually, the nobles got to keep what they pillaged. The right to pillage was their reward. But the enemy this time was practically sucked dry already, and would certainly be if they waited for them to collapse. There would be nothing left to give away as spoils of war. He would have to reward the nobles from his own coffers. After pacing about several times and checking the expressions in the tent, it was obvious most of them preferred the third method.

It's true that fighting an enemy that occupies strategically advantageous terrain is really taxing on everyone's forces. It's better to sit and watch as the enemy crumbles on its own. Though it might take longer, they could gain victory and be rewarded without much cost.

"Let me consider this a little longer. We'll discuss this again in two days."

In the end, Auguslo, didn't settle on a method immediately and adjourned the meeting.

What in the world is is he planning? thought Lorist curiously.

The next morning, he noticed Duke Fisablen had been called for a private meeting with the king. Thereafter Kenmays, then Felim. He was just guessing who would be next when Kenmays came over.

"D'you know why the king summoned me?" asked he.

"How would I know?"

"His Majesty asked me what reward I would want for having the two heavy-armored divisions stationed here for two years."

Lorist finally understood what was going on.

"What did you request?"

Kenmays stretched out two fingers.

"I want the salt merchant committee completely exempt from tariffs in the kingdom for two years."

Felim soon came over as well.

"What did you request?" asked Kenmays.

"I asked for 50 thousand young laborers for Southern's development, but His Majesty only agreed to give me 30 thousand."

"What about Hennard?"

"He should've been summoned already."

In the evening, Auguslo sent two guards to invite Lorist for dinner.

"You should know my intentions for inviting you. Tell me what you want. Don't be greedy," said Auguslo frankly.

"Your Majesty, have you decided on not fighting?"

The king nodded.

"The part I'm most satisfied with is that it'll cause the four traitors to fight each other. Just like you said, the moment they turn on each other, a lifelong grudge will form. The most troublesome part of the four central duchies is that they're four nations in one and they'll support each other no matter what. Regardless of how this turns out for them, I'll be satisfied as long as they're at each other's throats by the end. I have more than enough patience to watch them tear themselves apart. But, I'm sure you know how worried I am about not getting any spoils as a result. I wanted to set the reward beforehand."

Lorist smiled.

"Your Majesty, may I know what Duke Fisablen wanted?"

"He didn't ask for much. He just wanted enough equipment to outfit a legion and 50 thousand migrants."

"Oh," Lorist said, "Then I'll have..."

"Stop! Locke, don't even bring up migrating people. I will not allow it. I regret letting you deal with moving the refugees in Farker the most. You should know what you did," interjected Auguslo.

"Fine," Lorist conceded with a shrug, "But what else can you give me apart from people? Any ideas?"

"Locke..." Auguslo slapped his forehead in preparation for the impending headache, "As long as your request is not overboard, I will agree."

"Fine. Exempt my dominion and the territories I control from taxes for five years." Lorist had no choice but to come up with such a request.

"No way," Auguslo objected, before he stared Lorist in the eye, "Fine, three years at most and not a month more."


Lorist stretched out his hand.