Each of the fifteen states comprising the Water Kingdom Alliance possessed its own army token. On top of being low-grade Holy Artifacts, those army tokens allowed the owner to freely dispatch state troops, granting absolute control over the generals and armies.
Moreover, the great generals all possessed lesser tokens that allowed communication with the main token holder and facilitated orders.
To strengthen the alliance king's control over the various states, all the tokens remained in his hand. Without them, even the various state rulers couldn't dispatch their troops.
For tens of thousands of years, this practice carried on. Once those tokens fell into the Holy Flame Empire's delegates' hands, the title of alliance king served no purpose and Ernst could immediately pledge his allegiance as a perpetual vassal.
He was unwilling!
How could a monarch possibly surrender his authority in such a humiliating manner? However, as Konrad's piercing, purple eyes nailed him, he didn't doubt that should he falter, his life was in jeopardy.
Rage and indignation welled up within his chest. And though he wished to challenge Augusta's suggestion at all cost, he didn't dare! Ultimately, his life was, to him, more valuable than his pride.
With several wobbling steps, Ernst walked by Augusta to stop before Konrad.
And dropped on his knees while extending his still trembling hands toward him.
In a light haze, a plate appeared on his palms, on top of that plate, fifteen bronze seals rippling with Holy force stood. A silver key then appeared amidst the seals.
"I' m…guilty of failing to manage my state and…almost causing the protector harm. I hereby…surrender the fifteen states' army tokens to…the Holy Flame Empire and…offer you free access to our state treasury.
I…also beseech you to not pursue this matter."
Ernst stammered, the words depleting all his body's strength.
Seeing their house's master and monarch surrender in such a wretched way, the von Gradl kinsmen and women were full of shame. But since things had reached this point, surrender was indeed the only road to survival.
Alas, they'd underestimated Konrad's appetite.
That word flabbergasted all the members of house von Gradl, and the stammering king's eyes rose toward those overbearing purple hues that nailed him from above.
"What more…could you possibly want?"
With a wave of his hand, Konrad brought the fifteen tokens and treasury key into his emerald bracelet.
"Surrender your royal seal."
Ernst's eyes widened in disbelief. If the army token was half the king's authority, the royal seal was the other half. Only the royal seal guaranteed that edicts couldn't be falsified. Without it, not only could he not send edicts by proxy, but whoever held it could draft them in his name.
Moreover, it was a mid-grade Holy Artifact!
Without it, at best, his authority as king couldn't go beyond the city. At worst, it would be restrained to the royal palace!
Offering it was no different from abdicating his throne.
How could he accept it?!
"You can't go too…"
However, before he could struggle, Augusta's voice boomed within his mind.
"Surrender it! At this juncture, we must be decisive. If you falter, we perish."
Forced back into reality by his wife's words, Ernst bit his lower lips till blood spilled and trickled down his chin.
Still, recalling Konrad's dreadful pressure, he couldn't resist, and the Royal Water Seal, an ocean blue serpent seal, appeared on the plate. Konrad took it into his hand, then turned toward one of the high-level Semi-Saint delegates.
"Draft and send royal edicts to the fourteen other state rulers, ordering them to join us in the royal palace within twenty-four hours for a grand summit."
"As you command, protector!"
Immediately, the Semi-Saint gathered paper and ink to draft the decrees and seal them with the Royal Water Seal. He then deferentially returned it to Konrad.
Seeing his fears proven right at such a fast pace, Ernst almost collapsed. Only the belief that house von Gradl's strongest elders would definitely cooperate in snatching back those items filled him with hope.
"Just you wait, if I can't repay you a thousandfold, my name isn't Ernst von Gradl!"
But while he made his inward pledge, Konrad's eyes fell back on him. And assailed by its intensity, Ernst felt as if Konrad completely saw through him. His righteous indignation was thus replaced by a new current of fright.
Startled, he fell onto his rear.
"Like father, like son.
Ruler in name, waste in spirit."
Konrad stated, making Ernst wish he could dig a hole to hide himself.
He then swept his sleeve, turned heels, and walked toward the exit. Led by Krann, the delegation members followed suit, leaving behind the shocked von Gradl kinsmen and women.
Seeing Ernst's pitiful state, Augusta shook her head. How was this a man? Clearly, that husband of hers was nothing more than a coward who only knew how to keep his back straight before the feeble.
Just a gaze from a mightier being was enough to make him cower on his rear.
Compared to that delegation protector…well, they couldn't be compared at all. Were it not for her status and her daughters' being bound to him, what need would there be to care for his life?
With a sigh, she turned toward Lena who suppressed any show of frustration.
"I have a task for you. If you can excel, perhaps all is not lost."
Lena's eyes flashed with a strange light, and without shifting her gaze from Konrad, she replied:
"What is it?"
"Though mighty, that protector's strength cannot surpass the True Origin Saint level. Otherwise, the holy emperor would never send him here to serve as his adopted son's protector. Even if he wished to make a show of force, he would not dispatch an elder whose cultivation approached or surpassed his.
Therefore, this is not a situation that we cannot handle. But the premise is that we can snatch him from the Holy Flame Empire and keep him here!"
Lena's eyes shone with understanding.
"You want me to…seduce him?"
"Yes! Use any trick at your disposal to make him desire you. When he does, thinking of how he must bring you to Adelar von Jurgen, unwillingness and resentment will certainly emerge within his heart.
At that time, we can offer him unimaginable conditions to keep him with us. If he stays, so do the tokens. Afterward, we can plot their retrieval. Even if we can't, as long as you can obtain his favor, when you reach the Holy Flame Empire, you'll have someone to rely on. The road to becoming holy empress will then be smoother."
Since the von Gradl men were useless, it was time for the women to step up and fix the mess they made.
Alas, Augusta failed to realize that she was sending her daughter into a fiery pit.
"Alright, I agree."
Lena replied in a mental message while her eyes shone with determination.
But as Konrad reached the gate, a shocking scene occurred.
The kowtowing maidservant who'd remained prostrated throughout the whole scene suddenly turned toward him.
"Lord, please save me!"
She begged Konrad while keeping her forehead plastered on the ground.
However, Konrad didn't stop and seeing that he was about to cross the door, the maidservant grabbed his right leg, stopping him in his tracks.
"Lord, please save me!"
She repeated while clinging onto Konrad's thigh. Her move startled both the von Gradl and the delegation members who'd not expected that anyone would be bold enough to touch a corner of Konrad's clothes.
Much less grab him.