"There is a point at which determination becomes foolhardiness, where the stubborn become the stupid and the determined the reckless.  I'm not too sure on which side Auguslo sits." ~ Norton Lorist

Though it was late, Lorist couldn't fall asleep. He lay on the inclined chairs under the grapevine and let the silvery moonlight shine through the leaves and dance on his skin.

Why am I not willing to deploy troops? Lorist thought, Because I am thinking about the house's future. I admit Auguslo is talented and has a good eye. He can see things clearly and grasp opportunities as they come. But...

Auguslo was determined to take the provinces while the Union's army was held up in Chikdor's territory before the war formally ended and they returned. The Union couldn't turn their forces and march them north while the accords were still unsigned in the south.  The only thing preventing open war from breaking out again was their presence in the region. If that went away, the remaining coalition members would lash out. Under these circumstances, the Union had no choice but to negotiate with the king.

While Auguslo sounded audacious, he wasn't prepared to take back the provinces that had joined the Union of their own accord, such as Lormo. He couldn't go too far since he was relying on the Union's willingness to negotiate. If he insulted them too much, and they decided to duke it out, he would lose.

As Lorist had said, the Union wasn't the small merchant state it had been during its war with the empire. It was now a superpower that stood near the peak on the continent. It had rich and developed land while Andinaq was barely anything more than a barren wasteland. The kingdom inherited the empire's legacy, but not its power.

This moment when the Union was distracted was a great opportunity. It was a moment that would vanish the instant the Union signed the accords with Jigda and the coalition. He would instead enjoy the Union's full attention and lose his last hope of re-establishing the empire.

The empire' first prince broke the empire when he rebelled. His entire kingdom, spanning Kanbona, Bodolger, and Anderwoff was now under Union occupation. Bodolger, which boasted a huge mining industry, was now Wessia's territory. The lands bordering Andinaq in the north of the kingdom had also been turned into the puppet duchy Zitram.

Coupled with the two provinces in Lormo that joined the Union, the state occupied five of the empire's old provinces. The king's ambitions would never be fulfilled until they were retaken. While Lormo was a difficult goal, the three provinces occupied by the Union weren't, so he had to, at the very least, get them.

He planned to take the two provinces by force, then fortify the border with Lormo and annex the duchy in the peace negotiations. If he could do this, he would have restored the empire. He could then reform the empire proper, make his family the imperial family again and write his name in the history books as the second founder of the empire.

His plan sounded sound, but nothing was certain. Things could easily go just bad as they could good. Lorist admitted the plan would catch the Union of guard and the minimum goals of taking the three provinces would likely be achieved, but the negotiations thereafter were likely to either fall apart completely or end with far fewer benefits than the king hoped for. Even if Auguslo agreed to reopen the trade routes, the Union would not agree to give up Lormo. He might not even manage to get them to the negotiation table. The Union knew they were far more capable of fighting a drawn out war than Andinaq, even better if it was a war fought with stares and standing armies rather than battles. Their economy could soak up the losses, Andinaq's couldn't.

He had advised the king against this several times. The best scenario was that they negotiated and came to a compromise that led to peace but disappointed Auguslo. The bad outcome was that the Union simply sat across from the border and waited for Andinaq to collapse under the costs of maintaining such a massive army.  But the worst case was that they retaliated with force. There was no way they wouldn't deploy their swordsaint if they did, and Andinaq had nothing to counter.

Auguslo was convinced the swordsaint wouldn't go to the front, especially not to target him.  He was protected by thousands of veteran soldiers! He believed that, even if he did come out, he would just die eventually.

The king had convinced Kenmays to deploy his troops by promising to make the salt merchant committee the empire's sole business partner. They would be the only guild officially endorsed and supported by the empire and the imperial family. They would get first pick of any business or contract the empire had to offer.

The king promised Felim migrants, financial aid, and tax rebates and exemptions to get him to agree to join the campaign. It helped that Felim was a knight at heart, not a lord. He lived for war and pillaging, not management and careful governing.

Shazin also used to be a knight. Though he was a duke, he governed a piece of land the size of a county. He was still want for a proper duchy. Auguslo gave him written oath that, should he provide his forces, and Auguslo succeed in establishing the empire again, he would get Kribia, the province he had wanted all along. The king's oath and letter of guarantee, the poor fool was roped in yet again.

Auguslo might have thought the three houses would convince Lorist to join, but he would not even listen to their appeals. There was nothing he needed from the king, nor anything the king could offer. The only way he could go from where he was independence, but Auguslo would never agree. He would march every two-legged man in the kingdom on the duchy before he would accept a declaration of independence. Lorist wasn't afraid of fighting him if it came to it, he would win without a doubt, he just had no interest in being called a traitor.

Duke Forund had visited him earlier. He told him he had agreed to deploy his men. The king had promised to return his original duchy to him once the empire was reformed. The land there contained two hundred years of his family's roots, they had built the Summer Palace, even his family mausoleum stood there, he would do anything to get it back.

This through their previous agreement down the drain.  The duke wouldn't hold on to Yungechandler as well as his old territory, he would be trading it in.  Auguslo would get the province back, and he would not abide by the agreement between the two dukes. The investments made thus far were worthless to the house now, there was no reason to keep throwing money down the drain.

The duke didn't want everything to be canceled, however. He didn't know if the war would end well for the kingdom, and, in that case, he wished to resume the programme. Lorist assured him he was willing to only put the programme on hold and not cancel it outright. The duke was incredibly grateful. He told Lorist that the same offer had been made to Madras, who agreed immediately.

Among the four dukes, Houses Forund, Handra, and Farkel were the first nobles entitled by the founding emperor, Krissen I. Their houses made countless contributions, gradually raising their titles to that of duke despite being only low nobles at first. It was easy to see why they were so sentimental about their territories. Auguslo's move made them willing to serve him despite their animosity. Lorist was surprised, impressed, and slightly concerned. It was never a good thing to have a competent rival.

As for Shabaj, his house was moved to their former lands by Krissen VI and weren't as attached to it. Additionally, it was obvious how badly Jigzai was treated by the alliance and Fisablen. They didn't feel like going back to clean up the mess. Auguslo instead offered them Bodolger. As he shared the same fate as Duke Handra, the duke made peace with Auguslo and agreed to mobilize his forces.

Currently, apart from Duke Fisablen — whose conditions were still unknown — only Lorist had not jumped on the bandwagon. He counted six dukes with 280 thousand men and Auguslo's own 500 thousand made 800 thousand already. If Fisablen joined them Auguslo might have up to a million men.

No wonder the king was so confident. It wasn't impossible that the Union would be wary of a war against a million men and be willing to negotiate. It was far from certain, or even likely, though. And if they decided to continue the war, the million-strong army would bleed the kingdom dry in two years at most. Even if they did agree to negotiate, if the negotiations weren't completed within two years, Auguslo would still run dry and have to agree to whatever was on the table at the time.

Auguslo's decision shocked everyone who heard about it. Luckily there wasn't the added shock of Lorist participating. The primary reason for his decision to stay out of the war wasn't that he thought it would likely end badly, though he did think that, it was that he knew he would be next. Auguslo would never settle for having a duke that could rival him in his kingdom. He would turn on Lorist the moment the war ended and not stop either outright conflict or sabotage and subterfuge until he felt the duke was sufficiently suppressed and obedient.

Lorist actually hoped the campaign was a massive failure. A successful conclusion to the war would signal the start of a protracted cold war, possible even a hot one, between him and the king. But, regardless of his disdain for the reckless man, he had to respect his blind determination to his ambitions.

'Where there's a will, there's a way; the beast that lies in waiting will eventually catch its prey. The heavens won't disappoint hard workers; even a desperate rat can swallow a cat.' Lorist's grandfather from his previous life used to quote these often. 'Always study hard…', 'Always aim high…'.  Auguslo must have been one of his cousins from his previous life, he epitomized his grandfather's teachings. He stood up from one failure after another unwaveringly and always continued to walk on the path he drew for himself. There was a certain point, however, at which determination became foolishness. Lorist wasn't sure on which side of that point the king stood.

Having a rival like Auguslo is troublesome...

As his liege, he had learned from his lessons. He had a good grasp of his vassal's temperament and stopped at the right point whenever things were getting uncomfortable. They appeared amiable, even close, on the surface, but they both knew how guarded each was against the other.

Take the king's move on Duke Forund. He appeared to not mind Lorist refusing to join the war, but went and vaporized Lorist's agreement with the duke. It was clearly a show of force. The king could have used any number of conditions to get the duke to participate, but he just to happen to choose the one that screwed Lorist over.

Lorist would not participate no matter what the king offered because the latter could offer nothing short of independence that was worth anything. But he knew how stubborn the man was. He would not let Lorist sit by idly. The only reason he hadn't made his move yet was because he was still trying to find out how he could rope him in.

Lorist got up and went for a walk, feeling the onset of a headache. Half an hour in a light breeze blew by and Lorist stopped dead in his tracks.

"Who's there?! Come out!"

Jinolio, who stood beside him, drew his sword and stepped in front of his lord. A figure appeared from the man-made hill further ahead.

"It's me," Duke Fisablen's voice echoed down the hill.