Translator: EndlessFantasy Translation Editor: EndlessFantasy Translation
In the main hall of Rorun Fortress, Gilbert’s pupils reflected the light from the Everlasting Lamp.
“Baron Williams informed me that Duke Cyril Fakenhaz dropped by for a surprise visit a few days ago.”
The Foreign Affairs Minister asked gently but prudently, “I suppose he did not only bring you a sword?”
Thales paused for a while.
“He did convey a lot to me.”
The teenager swallowed a piece of meat. His gaze became slightly focused, and he appeared to be pondering over something.
“He also made me feel uneasy.”
Gilbert’s face darkened.
“Dealing with different people is the most straightforward way to have a grasp of affairs regarding human life.”
Gilbert maintained his gentle tone but was a little more careful and selective.
“However, Your Highness, please never forget that people only show you what they want you to see, especially when you hold such a special position and a rather sensitive identity,” Gilbert who sat opposite him said profoundly.
Thales put down the knife and fork he was using before he quietly fell into a daze.
“What a coincidence. Not long ago, Count Kroma said something similar.” There was a hint of resignation and mockery in Thales’ expression.
Gilbert watched him with a steady gaze. He swallowed the words that were on the tip of his tongue.
Thales carried on with his dinner until the Cunning Fox of Constellation sighed.
“Since you have met them before, Your Grace, what kind of men do you think the noblemen of Western Desert are?”
Thales’ hands slowed down.
‘The noblemen of Western Desert… What kind of men are they?”
He had a flashback to the moment when he met the three noblemen: Fakenhaz, Kroma, and Bozdorf.
The prince narrowed his eyes.
“They are not fools. They know you… They know what we are up to, be it back in Blade Fangs Camp or Blessings Town.”
Thales was dazed as he watched the flames in the distance.
Gilbert frowned slightly before he cleared his throat. “So how did they respond? I mean… to ‘us’?”
‘How did they respond…’
Thales fell into deep thought again. He thought about what he had seen and heard in Western Desert.
“It is not easy to say. From the guardian duke to conferring countship, from the Four-Eyed Skull to the Crow and the Black Lion, from the young noblemen to the old forces of power, I can tell that they do not get along with each other. Additionally, they hold different opinions on a lot of matters.”
Thales further sliced the steak, which D.D had already cut into equal portions, into smaller uneven chunks. He frowned and said, “I bet they have not done a good job in dealing with what they are faced with.”
Gilbert’s expression grew a little complicated under the firelight.
“Is that so?”
Thales nodded, but he had some reservations and concerns. “And we are slowly forcing them to come together to fight us, their common enemy.”
Gilbert hummed and suddenly asked, “Such as?”
The prince raised his eyebrows. “Such as Williams.”
When he recalled that name and Stake’s dead body lying on the desert, Thales found the steak in his mouth incredibly nauseating.
Gilbert suddenly nodded as he realized something.
Thales gulped the food down laboriously and did not wait for Gilbert to answer when he asked, “Why him, Gilbert?”
Thales put down the knife and fork, then he turned to Gilbert with a serious as well as puzzled expression.
“Why does this unreasonable man have to be the one who stays in Western Desert to represent Renaissance Palace and the Royal Family, then rule Blade Fangs Camp?”
“He cannot even work with the people of the Kingdom’s Secret Intelligence Department.”
Gilbert’s expression underwent several changes.
Thales did not allow him to interrupt.
“Based on my understanding of him from our brief contact with each other…” Thales raised his index finger and creased his eyebrows intensely. “Every single minute the Legendary Wing spends in Blade Fangs Camp causes the local noblemen of Western Desert to fall into a greater state of despair. They become even more uneasy, and he pushes them away from Renaissance Palace. It also intensifies the conflict between them and the Royal Family, to the point that they are forced into a tight spot and are willing to risk their lives. Let’s not compare him to the Kingdom’s Wrath, who is crude but sensitive at times, or the Fortress Flower who is mature and level-headed…”
The prince turned his head and glanced at Gilbert, who had a complicated expression.
“If I have to say it without mincing words, even the Star Killer knows how to act better than he does,” Thales said in resignation after he sighed and searched for the right description.
Gilbert furrowed his eyebrows intensely and did not speak.
His gaze fell on Thales before it shifted to the incredibly messy tray—courtesy of the prince when he took his meal—and he fell silent for a long time.
Just as Thales thought that he would not hear an answer and resigned to turning around to continue his dinner…
“You are as observant and intelligent as you were six years ago, Your Highness.”
Gilbert sighed slowly. His gaze became sharp.
“However, Your Grace, I think you should probably think out of the box and think at the kingdom’s level. Consider the breadth of history and our perspective as you approach the situation in Western Desert.”
‘The kingdom’s level, the breadth of history, and our perspective…’
Thales blinked his eyes in confusion.
“Let’s put the intermediate as well as minor nobility aside and talk about the Three Great Families of Western Desert. They do hold different attitudes toward Renaissance Palace.”
Gilbert sat up straight with a smile like that same diligent teacher from six years ago again.
“One man is gentle and conservative, one man is aggressive and discontented, while another man is apathetic and does not take a clear position. What do you think this situation means to us?”
Thales leaned back against his chair while a thought formed in his head.
‘Gentle, aggressive, apathetic.’
The old, middle-aged, and young man; the Crow, the Black Lion, and the Skull, appeared in his mind.
“It is good.”
Thales tried hard to remind himself that he belonged to the Jadestar Royal Family and was supposed to speak correctly.
“When the opponent—if Western Desert is even our opponent—is divided and scattered, it is, therefore, weaker. This plays into our advantage as we plan our attack and penetrate the enemy’s strongholds one by one.”
He shrugged and appeared disdainful.
“However, our plan for the situation is… Williams? Really?”
Gilbert smiled, observing Thales’ exaggerated expression.
“As we plan our attack and penetrate their strongholds one by one…” Gilbert looked at him the same way he did in class six years ago. There was approval and praise in his eyes. “Isn’t that just like what you did in Eckstedt six years ago?”
Thales was startled.
He realized that, compared with the Old Crow’s unstructured and encouraging leading questions, Gilbert’s questions were much clearer. They had distinct purpose and directions.
“Yes, indeed, just like in Eckstedt.” The prince frowned and nodded.
“Unless we force them to stand together, forget their past conflicts, and fight… fight Jadestar together.”
Thales gulped arduously as he swallowed his words. “Thanks to a certain pretty boy who swings a double-headed spear.”
Gilbert nodded and laughed.
“Please do not get me wrong, Your Grace. As a matter of fact, I highly approve of your thoughts.
“But, Your Highness, the choice of our strategy depends on the kind of opponent we face.”
Thales soon realized that Gilbert was more straightforward in his narration than Putray, whose words were actually rhetorical questions full of mockery, sarcasm, and somewhat wicked personal preferences.
“Eckstedt has been our first great enemy since Constellation was founded more than hundreds of years ago. The nation is spread over a thousand miles, is easy to defend but difficult to attack, has formidable customs, has an untamed vicious nature, has strong armies and horses, as well as mighty masters who come forth in large numbers. They are our valiant and destined natural enemy who, even when we were at our strongest, may not be able to hold down with confidence.”
The Foreign Affairs Minister seemed to sigh with a wave of sentimentality. After he paused for a few seconds, he said faintly, “To us, a divided Eckstedt is naturally in Constellation’s best interest compared with a united Kingdom of the Great Dragon.”
In the next second, Gilbert’s gaze changed.
“But Western Desert? It is Constellation’s territory, and its suzerains are His Majesty’s vassal. They are merely a corner of the chessboard. In our opinion, they are in our hands, and we are determined to win.”
Gilbert’s eyes grew piercing. “Under such circumstances, do the chaos and division in this corner of the chessboard play to our advantage?”
Thales frowned in puzzlement. “Why do you say so?”
Gilbert laughed and cleared his throat. He looked at the firelight in the distance before he continued to speak tirelessly, “Two thousand years ago, while it flourished, the Ancient Empire spread across the continent and ruled over two territories, five districts, and nineteen provinces.”
It was only right then that Thales sensed Old Crow and Putray’s shadows in Gilbert’s tone.
“However, in these twenty-six established places, what caused the most trouble to Capital of Triumph and Pegasus Throne was not the strong Northland, the ancient chauvinistic countries, the arduous Barren Hills, the complicated Green Heart, the Sele Prairies that is hard to tame, the wild Nedaneses, not even the hard-to-reach Flame Ocean, or the out-of-reach Far East…”
Gilbert’s tone changed. “It was Thornland, which was located to the southwest of the Empire. It was set in a remote place, and was insignificant.”
Thales recalled the world geography he learned when he was in Northland. Fortunately, the Northlanders did not see that there was a need to hide anything about Thornland.
As he remembered what he learned, the prince asked probingly, “Was it because of their conservative nature and rejection of foreign rule, so much so that they rejected even the Empire’s regime? I came across an old proverb in the Northlanders’ book, ‘the men of Thornland are born to fight against their rulers.’”
Gilbert nodded. There was a look of gratification in his gaze that said, “The Northlanders are finally willing to read.”
“Yes, Your Highness, indeed. But it goes beyond that: the men of Thornland not only reject the reign of foreigners, they also reject their own people’s reign.”
Thales wore a puzzled gaze.
“Long before the Empire rose, the tiny Thornland was known for its division and chaos. Warlords rose in masses from all sides and in great numbers while oligarchs were everywhere. There was often unrest. Even the religions practiced in the country could not unite the people, and if religion could not, they could much less find a leader that the people would follow. This gave trouble to the then Empire. After they had an easy time conquering Thornland, they found that ruling over them afterward was difficult. As if they were stuck in a swamp, they could not advance. When they wanted to exert the policy of control through conciliation, they could not find any agent throughout the province who was reliable and could win the people’s heart; when they wanted to intimidate them by military force, every single time they killed the leader of the rioters, his opponents or supporters always rose up after a few years and caused upheaval once more in Thornland.”
Gilbert snorted lightly, and there was slight derision in his words,. “This uniqueness of Thornland lasted for a thousand years until the Empire fell, and it has lasted to this generation. Even after the Battle of Eradication, Alumbia Kingdom and Tarundy Collegium, which were built on the old Thornland, never stopped causing trouble. The royal family of the former looks as if they were there to oversee the kingdom for a while, and the ruler changed every season, while the latter has internal strives so frequently and regularly that they are like everyday occurrences.”
Thales listened seriously.
“Do you mean that Western Desert is to us like how Thornland is to the Empire? Despite the rule over the people and place, it is hard to maintain a stable rule?”
Gilbert paused for a few seconds as if he was looking for the right words.
“It is not entirely similar, but…”
Gilbert cast a serious glance at Thales.
“Tell me, Your Highness, if you were your father, in the face of influential officials from Western Desert’s Three Great Families, whose powers have been handed down from ancient times and who appear to have political conflicts and thoughts of their own, changing their positions from time to time to the extent that it is hard to tell which is friend or foe, who should you reward, strike, entice, put your hand to, support, and give free rein to?”
The question stunned Thales.
“Based on what I have seen…”
He recalled what he had seen and heard in the past few days, and he answered tentatively, “I should probably reward the Kromas for their capabilities to distinguish between right and wrong, and for having a clear understanding of the current state of affairs?”
Gilbert did not say a word, but he watched Thales with great expectation.
Thales then decided to continue with some uncertainty, “I should strike the Bozdorfs for their arrogant opposition and how upfront they are about their attitudes? And I should also draw the Fakenhazes to my side because they have not expressed their positions in a long time and may be waiting for the best offer that either side will make them before they decide?”
Gilbert’s eyes lit up.
“Very good. We thought so in the beginning.”
When he heard the strange tone, Thales frowned. “But?”
Gilbert revealed a smile as expected and continued from where Thales left off, “But in the few years right after the Bloody Year and when Williams was not made a baron, from major matters about troops recruitment, tax reforms and land merging to minor matters about rewards, punishment, conferring titles, and designations, no matter which national policy was to be propagated or which law was to be implemented…” Gilbert’s gaze turned incisive, just like his tone. “When Renaissance Palace did something with good reason and prescribed order, such as the instance they implemented the timed enlisting bill or the emergency case of the Desert War, conservatives like the Kromas always beat around the bush and displayed outward devotion while they held inner opposition. When His Majesty made conciliatory attempts and reached out to the people in the form of support and enticement, such as when they suspended the Tax Exemption for the Opening Up of Border Counties as a show of compromise and goodwill, stubborn men like the Bozdorfs were not satisfied with small gains and wanted more. They also fought to the end. When Eternal Star City decided to strike with a thunderous force, such as when they punished noblemen who disregarded the Central Tax Bill, the unwelcomed Fakenhazes suddenly appeared. Duke Fakenhaz jested, acted stupid, and even brought all the problems in Western Desert to all corners of the nation and caused our plan to come to nothing.”
As he listened to those specific affairs, Thales felt confused, and he frowned more intensely.
‘Are these all… another side of Western Desert?’
“Other intermediate and minor nobility took a side, and there was hardly any exception.”
There were strands of resentment in Gilbert’s words.
“No, it was not only a few years and not only a generation or two. For the past few decades or even centuries, whenever there was a new royal power or a new policy to be implemented in Constellation, every opposition party in Western Desert could find where they fit in: regardless of whether it was the Black Lions who were well-known for their stubbornness, the Single-Winged Crows who appeared obedient, or the Four-Eyed Skulls who were shrewd and astute, where what happened was of no concern to them.”
As Thales heard more, he grew increasingly apprehensive.
“No matter what we did, the three parties who did not see eye to eye would always play an unexpected card. They played the game so well that they could relax and play according to any card they were dealt with. They would dodge to move out of the picture, act shamelessly and cause delays in our plans, or give a head-on blow. In the end, we were countered so badly that we were taken off guard, and our efforts only led to half the results we wanted.”
Gilbert’s words suggested great wariness.
“They looked like they could not get along with each other and were divided in Western Desert, but when there was a new mandate from the king of Renaissance Palace, they could almost always be unified. They took cover for each other with the smallest alignment, worked together in different aspects, and formed the most timely obstruction to cleverly dissolve our efforts that were aimed for the betterment of Western Desert and the entire kingdom.”
The lights in the main hall were bright as ever. A few Royal Guards changed shifts dutifully but were smart to keep a long distance to avoid disturbing the conversation between Gilbert and the new Duke of Star Lake.
It took a long time for Thales to process the messages from Gilbert.
“Gilbert, do you mean that…”
Thales turned his head in disbelief. “…That what the Three Great Families of Western Desert have displayed to us and their divided stances are a collaboration between parties? That they have done so on purpose?”
Thales thought of Fakenhaz’s terrifying smile, Derek’s sincere treatment, and Bozdorf’s overbearing manners.
From talks about how “power came from violence” to the Sentinel, from the history of Blessings Town to jokes about Kohen, and the dazzling flag with the nine-pointed star…
At that moment, it felt like… someone had broken a mirror.
The only thing left for Thales were pieces of shattered glass that reflected countless faces but could not be put back together.