"Most men do not get to choose their own fates. Those that do, tend to not choose wisely." ~ Duke Fisablen



Though he had agreed to seriously consider Handra's requests, Auguslo didn't really wish to. Whether it was a misunderstanding or not was of no concern. The key lay in the fact that he had a good chance of victory at the moment. Everyone knew the dukes were on the brink of defeat and tethered on their last lifeline, as long as he gave it another push, Handra's second defense line would collapse. What remained would be stomping on a losing hound.

However, the thing he most hated was Lorist's attitude. Lorist didn't agree to press the attack at all and believed there was no need to continue and sacrifice the lives of his soldiers given that the whole situation was set. Since the dukes had already admitted defeat, even though they had brought up conditions, they were still surrendering. What need was there to kill them? Additionally, they had also made it easy for him to step back from the war without harming his reputation by agreeing that it had started because of a misunderstanding. People didn't know whether the duchies had actually betrayed the empire.

Lorist had told him to accept the olive branch instead of dallying. He was the one in the wrong in the first place anyway. The dukes had been on good terms with the kingdom during the late king's reign and were also famed heads of prestigious houses during the empire's era. Not only had they been loyal, they had made great contributions to it. Yet they were now called traitors. He should clean up his own mess before accusing others.

The ing was pissed off a lot by Lorist's arguments, but he couldn't do much about it. He was inferior to the man in both personal strength and military might and House Norton had made huge contributions during the expedition as well. Lorist himself had also solved the king's refugee problem. While he had poked around where he shouldn't have, it was still a great help to the empire's reformation. The attack on Welony Pass had also been the deciding move that had placed the king in a superior position on the battlefield and had forced the duchies to send an envoy to sue for peace.

In stark contrast to the amazing performance of House Norton's forces, the other nobles's forces were just tagging along. His own Whitelion was used as a labor force, they had lost nearly half their numbers for meager results. House Fisablen's reserve legion had accompanied Whitelion and served as fodder. Though, since the ones who had died were mainly grassland barbarians, the duke didn't really care. In fact, the more he lost, the stronger his loyalty to the king was.

It was the king's greatest tragedy. Lorist's achievements were great, but his men didn't obey their king. The four houses of the alliance were in cahoots; since Lorist, the alliance's unofficial leader, couldn't be ordered around, neither could Kenmays, Felim, or Shazin's forces.

No matter how he tried to divide or tempt them, it was useless. Shazin had appeared infinitely grateful when he had ordered him to sweep the dominions of Forund's rich nobles, so Auguslo had thought he was now loyal to him, someone he could use. But the moment the man returned to the frontlines he obediently took up his place behind Lorist again. The mere thought of that particular failure incensed Auguslo all over again.

While Andinaq's army numbered 300 thousand in name, he was aware he could only command Whitelion and House Fisablen's reserve legion. Whitelion had lost nearly half its men during the campaign so far and only had 30 thousand men left. The reserve legion was formed from grassland barbarians and their casualties had filled with resentment. They may be barbarians, but they weren't idiots. They had become very willing to follow Lorist's orders since hey didn't incur as many casualties and even profited quite handsomely on occasion, while Auguslo had lost his ability to easily command them because he would only send them on suicide missions.

As for Third Frontier, it was Duke Fisablen's treasure. The king knew there was no chance in hell the duke would give him command of it. It wasn't quite like he wanted to shatter it anyway, he preferred it remain intact to cause trouble for Lorist when they returned home. At times — when he was calmer — he would ask himself whether the expedition's casualties would have been this low without Lorist's help. If he had been in total control on his own, he would've opted for a brute force approach and might've not even taken a single duchy by now.

It wasn't that he considered his achievements in military strategy inferior to Lorist's; he just had to consider the bigger picture since he was now the king. From this perspective, the ideal result was for both the duchies' and the alliance's forces to be battered and defeated by the end of it, while he would deal the final blow and conquer everything. It would cement his superiority over his disobedient vassals and shave off a considerable portion of their power. He also had to keep both Lorist and the duke on the frontlines so he could keep an easy eye on them. It had the unfortunate side-effect of allowing Lorist to rake in great achievements.

House Kenmays's two heavy-armored divisions had suffered the most casualties, around 1300 men, of the four houses' forces. Shazin's men had suffered the worst next, losing around 800 men during their sweep of the Forundian nobles' dominions. House Felim's pegasus came thereafter. They had been in charge of defense and scouting, and had lost around 500. Tigersoar had lost the least men, just 400. These numbers could barely be considered casualties compared to Whitelion's losses. It could even be considered an insult to Auguslo. It had even gotten so bad that rumors were spreading that he wasn't really the genius strategist he had been thought to be.

He was incredibly frustrated. He couldn't do anything about Lorist, and the rest of the man's alliance had stood behind his decision to not press the attack firmly. Even Duke Fisablen had privately told him to leave a thread of mercy for the dukes. They had already admitted their loss, after all.

Though he had his worries, they weren't something he could speak of publicly. It wasn't that he didn't want to spare the dukes, he had already set his sights on their dominions. While Andinaq's territory was vast, most of it wasn't under his direct control; he only had command of a couple around the capital and they had long been stripped of all their worth already. He had been sucking the provinces dry since the day he decided to reform the empire. That was why he had killed all the nobles involved in the rebellion after he retook the throne, even at the cost of his reputation. Without the resources those nobles had, he couldn't maintain the forces he needed to achieve his ambition.

He had planned to use the four duchies to rebuild his forces, to assemble an army half-a-million strong and to march on the Union. Them having a swordsaint supporting their position as the continent's largest nation, but it would cost them dearly. Even they had to be wary of creating a death-feud with a nation with an army half-a-million strong.

He believed the merchants would make a wise decision. His requests weren't excessive. As long as they returned the provinces of the old empire they now occupied, there was no need for war. He might even consider trading with them, even giving them special privileges, once the empire had been restored to its former glory. He looked especially forward to using them to deal with the alliance and its salt merchant committee.

In order to achieve these things, he couldn't accept Chujway's conditions, even after considering it for several days. He had decided; the duke would not get their dominions. They were crucial to his future and his ambitions. Lorist and Fisablen continued to pester him, so he wanted to finalize his decision as soon as possible. He summoned Chujway and gave him his conditions. He could forgive the dukes, but they would not get their current dominions back. They had to accept new dominions around the capital. They would also have to pay way steeper fines than they had offered. Handra, Forund, and Shabaj each had to pay 1.5 million gold Fordes, and Farkel had to pay 3 million because he dared to burn his city and the surrounding settlements. Finally, the dukes were only allowed to take 45 thousand men with them, everyone else had to be left behind and would be under his direct command. The duke's vassals would also no longer be such, they would fall directly under the king and would be demoted depending on their house's historic contributions to the empire.

His conditions were unexpectedly harsh. Though Chujway had wanted to contest, the king withdrew to his quarters and refused an audience. His attendants simply said the conditions were final and couldn't be negotiated. Chujway had no choice but to return and pass the message along.

Kenmays and the others were confused. The went to Lorist for clarification. Why had the king come up with such ridiculous demands? Wasn't he forcing the dukes to fight to the death? Would continuing the war be beneficial to him somehow?

Lorist smirked and pointed at the map.

"Our king has his eyes on the duchies. It's simple. To him, while gold is important, it can't compare to the manpower the duchies can provide. Reforming the empire with the provinces near the capital is a pipe dream. With these provinces, however, he stands a chance against the Union."

The rest gasped. Lorist warned them to be prepared just in case the dukes decided to fight to the death. Nobody could predict how long the war would last if they did. They might even resort to underhanded methods like assassination, so they had to watch out. Lorist was more hopeful that the dukes would accept Auguslo's conditions.

"What? Why would they even consider it?" Shazin exclaimed, "If it were me, I'd rather die than accept those demands."

Lorist shook his head.

"You don't understand. This concerns their houses' survival. It's not something the dukes can decide on a whim. They have no choice but to seriously consider it. The demands are unfair, but not so much so that it's completely unacceptable. While wealth is important, it can't compare to the house's legacy and continued existence. The most important thing is that they won't lose their peerage or be demoted, granted, they will lose their current titles.

"Their new dominions will be poorer, but they can rebuild. They haven't lost the right to have levies either. They can each keep a force of 45 thousand. If they bring these men's families along, they will have secure control of their new lands in no time. They don't have to be too concerned about their future"

......

On the 6th day of the 7th month, Year 1783, more than 50 days since Chujways' return. Andinaq's army remained stationed opposite the second defense line. Auguslo was still rather mad at Lorist for not wanting to press the attack and couldn't command Whitelion and House Fisablen's reserve legion to go on a suicide mission either. Duke Fisablen tried his best to appease the king and had managed to get him to agree to stay on the defense for a little longer.

That night, the sounds of fighting echoed over no man's land into Auguslo's, Lorist's, and the others' ears. Fires lit up the night soon thereafter. It appeared Farkel's Forestmont and Bloodspear's camps were under attack. It was incredibly odd; Auguslo believed it a trap to lure them into attacking.

A few scouts soon brought over a bloodied Chujway. He reported that Handra, Forund, and Shabaj had accepted his conditions and were willing to surrender. But Duke Farkel wanted to resist to the end and swore he would rather die than surrender. Though they managed to convince him otherwise after much difficulty, he then said he didn't have that many gold Fordes.

Just as they were considering whether they should send a messenger to ask for the Farkel's dues to be lowered a little he actually ordered his two legions to raid the duchy's towns and villages. They took, killed, and burned, committing every sin imaginable. Handra had sent his men to stop him, but the latter said that since the rest were going to surrender anyway, and that the territory would soon no longer be theirs, he might as well take what he could and leave nothing for Auguslo.

Angered to the point of coughing up blood, Handra led his troops into battle against the duke and managed to push him back to the frontline. He convinced Forund and Shabaj to surround Farkel's two legions. But before they could mobilize, Farkel attempted to escape.

Fortunately, Handra's garrison troops had long been prepared and didn't allow him to go anywhere. The situation had been thrown into chaos and Forund's forces had broken into Farkel's camp and were slaughtering everything on the hill. Chujway only barely managed to make it out of the mess to request reinforcements.

Greatly elated, Auguslo hurriedly ordered his generals to reinforce the frontlines to prevent the criminal ringleader, from escaping. Lorist actually obeyed his commands without protest for once. The mobilization of cavalry was the last nail on Farkel's coffin. They crumbled like withered barks as the cavalry charged into their lines. Many died or surrendered. Perhaps because the two legions had committed too many evils in Handra, Handra's men began to slaughter the surrendered soldiers after gathering them up. By the time Lorist realized what was happening, it was already too late. Most of the 30 thousand captives had been slaughtered, less than a third were still alive.

Handra and Farkel's clash marked the end of the campaign. The three dukes surrendered without further ado. Farkel, unfortunately, managed to escape towards Majik with a hundred riders and sought asylum in the Union. From that day forth he was a renegade noble.