The conference hall was in a state of full commotion.
Even Lasalle was frowning.
This time around, other than Duke Cullen and Gilbert,all the noblescast amazed looks upon the Duke of the Northern Territory, who had been keeping absolutely quiet until now.
What was this about?
"Your Majesty? Duke Arunde?"Being one of the suzerains of the Northern Territory too, Count Zemunto was puzzled and looked at the Duke of the Northern Territory as well as the king with an uncertain gaze.
Whereas the disbelieving Count Friess simply stared blankly at Val.
The commotion and uproar lasted well over ten seconds until the suzerain of Cold Castle, Guardian Duke of the Northern Territory, the firm and resolute looking Val Arunde lifted his head and turned around to look at the king.
He no longer remained silent, but chose to let out a long sigh.
Under the gazes of all the amazed onlookers, including that of Baron Lasalle, Val, the master of the White Eagle Family, the man who was like a determined warrior, lifted his head and smiled.
"You are as sharp as ever, Kel."
Lowering his head a little, the Duke of the Northern Territory sighed. "Just like your damn elder brother."
Thales' eyes were wide with shock.
This prompted immediate reactions from all the people.
'Judging from the Duke of Northern Territory's reaction
'But how can this be?'
Kessel lowered his head and truly sighed.
"Are you not going to provide some explanations for us, Val?"the king asked blandly.
"What is there to explain? It failed, did it not?" Unperturbed and not in the least concerned about the other suzerains' gazes on him, Val continued, "And you, when did you actually see through this?
"It was obvious that the slaying of the diplomat group was done by the other suzerains, was it not? I have appeared very innocent, and both the Northern Territory as well as the royal family were clearly victims of this scheme."
Zayen stared at Val in disbelief.
'That is right. It is impossible. The assassination of the diplomat group was done by the united efforts of the nobles in New Star!
'Moreover, the Duke of the Northern Territory was not even in our group!'
With a lowered gaze, Kessel spoke in a soft voice, "During the National Conference yesterday, you were in too much of a hurry to cast your vote against Thales during the voting process of the Higher Parliament Conference."
The king's voice was filled with complex emotions. "That was when I became suspicious of you.You should know that even when Koshder offered to provide military support to help you as a bargaining chip for your vote, I would definitely not just sit back and watch the Northern Territory fall to ruin.There should not be any reason for you to object to my son as the successor just based on the One-Eyed Dragon's promise."
The One-Eyed Dragon, Duke Koshder, looked at the Duke of the Northern Territory in amazement. At the same time, he remembered the voting held during the afternoon of the previous day.
"Is that so?" Val put on a sad smile. "How do you know that I have no reason?You know I hate you very much, do you not?"
"I should be the person you detest because of Liscia." King Kessel spoke with an expressionless face, but underneath his sleeves, his fists trembled slightly, though it went unnoticed by all. "You are a noble man, you would not take it out on my son."
At this point, most people turned to look at Thales, especially Count Lasalle, who had a face as dark as thunderclouds.
"Unless you have a special reason that makes it absolutely necessary for you to stop my son from being the heir." The king continued in a low voice.
Under all the complicated gazes in the hall, Val sighed. "But this is merely a guess. Perhaps this is only a coincidence."
The king lifted his head and spoke with a detached voice, "That is why I tested the diplomat of Eckstedt today."
"Hmm." Val smiled coldly. "Certainly, after the Bloody Year, you have become very skeptical."
Ignoring what he said, the king carried on.
"Lyanna was able find out that he was a subordinate of Archduke Lampard with just a couple of words. Only Lampard's subordinates would be so anxious to change the topic of conversation so as not to expose Archduke Lampard's evil ambition."
Without saying a word, the Duchess of Blade Edge Hill looked at the Duke of the Northern Territory coldly.
"When he first got here, he put up an act with you. He looked as if he was a diplomat who did not know much about the Northern Territory's military strength, and he was trying to gauge the defensive abilities of Constellation's Northern Territory. You counterattacked without backing down. By the looks of it, he was trying to stir up a confrontational atmosphere, according to what was planned," Kessel the Fifth continued with a somber voice.
"But when I deliberately refused to make a clear choice between war and conciliation, he was very clear in threatening me by saying that the Northern Territory does not even have sufficient military strength to defend Broken Dragon Fortress... At that instant, he showed that he was well versed about the Northern Territory.
"Do you not think that this is very contradictory?
"It was then that my suspicion intensified."
Lasalle's face turned pale in an instant.
The king lowered his head and he went on. "Moreover, he was clearly more interested in agitating me, provoking me, and to some extent, he had more interest in replacing me as the King of Constellation than helping King Nuven strive for better benefits for Eckstedt.
"Is it not sufficient for Lampard to procure lands in the Northern Territory?Why was he still so interested in me and in replacing the Jadestar Royal Family?Evidently, he was collaborating with someone from Constellation, and my crown was the collaborators' aspiration.
"The question is, who is qualified to work together with Eckstedt's powerful nobles and the Archduke of Black Sand? Who can he work with to be able to gain mutual benefits and obtain a win-win situation?
"I have pondered over this for a long time. I have considered Nanchester, Covender, Cullen and even Fakenhaz. Originally, the least likely person was you, Val.Because when war erupts, the Northern Territory would be the first to be affected.So, together, you and I will be the pitiful targets of their plot, the sacrifices."
Fakenhaz's sharp voice rang in the air. "Heh, heh. Unless, of course, he volunteers to be a sacrifice."
Kessel the Fifth looked at Val Arunde with a gaze as piercing as blades.
"However, when I looked at it from another angle, what can Archduke Lampard gain? If King Nuven's only son died in the Northern Territory, then the Walton Family would be 'out of the race' in the next King Selection Congress.
"Therefore, Lampard would be able to obtain the land in the Northern Territory and the death of an opponent in the Northern Territory.
"In Constellation, who would have the highest amount of power to ensure the occurrence of these two events simultaneously?"
With grief on his face, Kessel slowly lifted up his head.
"That would be you, Val Arunde, the person who controls the Northern Territorythe Guardian Duke of the Northern Territory.
"But I still cannot believe it. I would rather believe that this is just a coincidence."
The Duke of the Northern Territory replied, "No. In truth, you believed it long before this. You simply used every single method in your disposal to verify your suspicion, did you not?"
The king let out a light snort and cast a profound look at Eckstedt's emergency envoy.
"Before this, my men intercepted Count Lasalle and sent them directly to East City District with all the other suzerains knowing about this clearly. Up until this morning, the hidden sentries of the Secret Intelligent Department ensured their absolute seclusion from any Constellatiate, and also made sure that they did not know about yesterday's National Conference as well as the appearance of an heir. They are also ignorant of the fact that their collaborator in Constellation is already in a sorry plight.
"Take a guess, under this situation, how many batches of people have the hidden sentries of the National Secret Intelligent Department intercepted for wanting to liaise with Count Lasalle?"
Morat's hoarse voice replied, "Three batches, Your Majesty. These people had the skills of a military scout. Their mouths were tightly sealed, and they refused to reveal the true identity of their master." He laughed aloud. "But what good does it serve? Only a few places in the country have scouts with this characteristic. Discovering the man behind them was as easy as breathing."
Val sighed and said, "They were my best scouts."
The supreme king said coldly, "But I did not manage to figure out what exactly the agreement between you and Lampard is and how you would come to realize your plan.
"That was until this Eckstedtian mentioned that Eckstedtians prefer heroes from the battlefield. Yes, once war breaks out, the most dazzling person on the battlefield would be the hero. Eckstedt itself was built on that basis.
"Moreover, in the likelihood of a war, who other than the Duke of the Northern Territory could better use the excuse of 'fending for the country' to engage in warfare?If the enemies were actually your collaborator, then it would be very much easier for you to claim your honor and glory from the battlefield.
"When war breaks out, your pledge to defend the Northern Territory will make you a hero who fought against Eckstedt. You will also become the only person who can mediate with them. In the situation where there are no more descendants in the royal family, are you not naturally the best suited to be the next king?"
Val laughed coldly.
Looking at Val with grief, the king continued, "Am I right?Traitor of the Northern Territory, the Guardian Duke of the Northern Territory?
"Is it really so important for you to be a king? So important that a person with an originally noble and pure personality like yours would betray your land, your people, and your country?"
Suddenly, the hall was immersed in absolute silence.
Even Lasalle felt awkward and kept his silence.
Val Arunde stared at the floor blankly for a long time.
Then he shut his eyes tightly.
As he laughed in a desolate manner, he opened his eyes and spoke calmly, "It was not supposed to be like this."
With a dazed expression on his face, Val slowly continued, "All of this was supposed to go according to my plan."
The king narrowed his eyes.
"New Star is a group that was set up right after the Desert War five years ago by Constellation's suzerains, aiming to fight against your increasingly pretentious power as the king.
"It did not matter whether it was Cullen or Nanchester, all of them came to me, and were all rejected.
"But I reckoned that it was a rare opportunity. I could realize my objective from the confrontation between the both of you.
"That was an unbelievably far away objective."
Val walked towards the center of the hall, eyes set upon a distant spot, and sighed. "Despite the risk, I went to Eckstedt and met LampardYou should have seen his face when I took off my hoodThat night, we formed our alliance.
"I was responsible in provoking Zemunto and Friess, in provoking them to engage in the frequent conflicts at the borders with Eckstedt. For this purpose, I spared no pains in giving up Pine Nut County to Zemunto."
Two of the counts from the Thirteen Distinguished Families of the Northern Territory became livid and frowned.Both looked towards the duke, whom they had fought side by side with over the years.
"In Eckstedt, Lampard began his operation. Making use of the border conflicts, he exaggerated the importance of revising the 'contract' pertaining to national boundaries and blew it up until it became a great mission. King Nuven was convinced and decided to secretly dispatch his only son for the diplomatic mission so that he could enhance his experience and qualification to be better prepared for the throne. He was old, and old people always wanted to arrange for all things that would happen after their demise.
"I disclosed this information to New Star. Many of the ambitious ones in the group like Nanchester and Covendier were quick to realize that it was a good opportunity to whittle the power of the king. The only thing I did not tell them was that the only son, whom King Nuven secretly sent, was in that diplomatic group. Thinking of it now, they would have been quite intimidated if they found out about this fact.It is too bad. To quote a Far Eastern proverb, 'Once you ride on a tiger, you will not be able to get off.'"
Duke Cullen shook his head, Zayen let out a cold harrumph, while Koshder gritted his teeth and glared at Val.
"The suzerains were under the impression that they were using Eckstedt's indignation and accusation to whittle away the king's prestige and power. Only Lampard and I knew that they were just beginning to instigate a war between the two countries.
"Lampard was the source of information on Eckstedt providing me with information concerning the diplomatic group's travel route and personnel. I was tasked to buy over the escorts since I had the advantage of having control over the Northern Territory. I was to monitor and guide them to the 'ideal' assassination sites, and the ignorant New Star would finish up the last part of the plot. The three sides unknowingly coordinated together to complete our mission, even the skillful guards beside the prince were not able to escape death.
"Lampard speedily forwarded the news to the 'Secret Room', to Dragon Cloud City, and at the same time, recommended Lasalle Weider to the anguished King Nuven. I rushed nonstop to bring the news to Eternal Star, suggesting military mobilization to exaggerate the seriousness of the matter, so as to make Kessel convene a meeting among the nobles to discuss it. This was to obtain majority support, and the more, the better."
Lasalle looked at Val with a pale face, then turned to Kessel.
No one took notice of him.
"Zayen Covendier, little boy, you should have been dead during yesterday's assassination. The nobles of New Star were not the only ones who knew about your whereabouts. I, the schemer also knew."
Immediately,Zayen's expression changed.
"Yes."Val Arunde nodded his head powerlessly. "The one who tried to kill you was not one of your fellow New Star. It was me.
"Just look at your alliance, all of you started to harbor suspicions towards each other upon learning the news of the attempted assassination. That shows how fragile your alliance actually is."
Several of the dukes and counts narrowed their eyes.
Zayen slammed his palm fiercely on the armrest.
The young Covendier spoke in anger, "So yesterday, when that boy... You stood up for him to sow discord among the suzerains! Because you have planned this all along!"
Val had a disarming smile, and as Zayen still remained livid, he continued speaking, "This way, New Star would soon become scattered as a result of doubt and internal instability. The royal family's pressure will be greatly enhanced, and I too would have one less strong opponent to deal with in the future.
"The original plan of New Star was to force the king to appoint an heir when he most needed their support for war, but in such a chaotic parliament where the members were highly skeptical of each other, this plan would definitely bring about a lot of problems in the future. Meanwhile, my proposal and Kessel's to fight against Eckstedt's invasion would surely fail to get the support of the other suzerains. It would have seemed as if the both of us had been schemed against.
"And in a few hours, Lasalle Weider would barge into Eternal Star with Eckstedt's indignation. He would start to provoke us in a frenzy, and he would propose conditions that Constellation could not accept. There was only one aimwar."
Thales looked at Val in great disbelief.
"If Kessel had chosen war, as per our plan, we would have made sure that he would not have sufficient military power. Then Lampard would easily succeed in the invasion of the Northern Territory, and my tacit agreement with Lampard could easily render Kessel's glorious death in the battlefield, just like what had happened to the late Prince Horace. At the very least, I would be able to let him taste the agony of defeat, where he would disheartened and disgraced.
"On the other hand, if Kessel had chosen conciliation, giving up the Northern Territory would make him a criminal in the Kingdom. I would urge the suzerains and the citizens to abdicate him from his throne, but I would still remain in the Northern Territory and be involved in the battle. When Eckstedt, particularly Lampard, comes to claim the territory, the suzerains and the royal family would cower, and only I would call upon the military and pledge to fight against the attackers to my death. It would make me even more noble, like the only beam of light in the dark."
"Hah! And someone called me a hypocrite before this!" Upon hearing this, the One-Eyed Dragon glared at Thales.
Arunde folded his arms and put on a pained smile.
"Yes, no matter which choice, we would meet a disastrous defeat in the Northern Territory. But then, in the darkest moment of all, I would suddenly 'defeat' Lampard in a crucial battle, thereby reversing the situation. After that, Lampard and I would appreciate each other's abilities, and once we form an alliance, he would retreat with the territory he claimed, feeling satisfied.I would be a hero worthy of becoming the new king. Compared to Kessel, who has suffered tremendous blame and has no support from the suzerains, I would naturally be the best choice to be the next powerful king."
"Val Arunde!" Count Zemunto shouted angrily, "That is our Northern Territory!The land your ancestors defended and ruled for ages!"
"Stop this nonsense." Count Friess looked at Val with a dark gaze. "Can you not see? He is no longer the 'Iron Eagle' Duke we used to know."
With a desolate look, Val did not even notice the two counts from Northern Territory. He continued with a dazed expression.
"Among the mutual distrust of the suzerains, I should have been the least suspected person, since I remained neutral. Moreover, even if the king still survived by then, I am his closest friend, brother of the Head Ritual Master of Sunset Temple, and the popular hero of Constellation, who will return after fending off an invasion. I am destined to be the next Supreme King of Constellation."
"Whereas, in Eckstedt, without a rightful heir to the throne, the Walton Family would have to withdraw from the King Selection Congress. At the same time, based on Lampard's splendid accomplishments in invading Constellation and the occupation of a large chunk of land in the Northern Territory, he would rapidly rise to power. With Constellation and my support, Lampard would be destined to be the next King of Eckstedt."
With a strange look on his face, Val Arunde gazed at Thales, and an expression that said he was sorry things turned out this way appeared across his eyes. "Everything was supposed to go smoothly without a hitch... Until the sudden appearance of this boy, which messed up the entire plan.
"Zayen is not dead, he is still on your side. The effect of forcing you to name the heir was not good. There was no life and death struggle among the suzerains of New Star as far as the issue of succession was concerned. Instead, they got into a conflict with the royal family in terms of the appointment of the new prince. The diplomat from Eckstedt was caught in your trap by his ignorance of the National Conference and the appointment of a new prince.
"Nevertheless, I will have to go on walking, until"
Val sighed, smiled in a mocking manner, and shook his head indifferently.
"Just like that, I failed."
At this point, the hall fell into total silence.