Saroma furrowed her eyebrows and looked impatient once more. "You must have a very good reason for coming back to this topic?"
Thales let out a forced cough. "Saroma—"
But before he could finish, Ian chuckled.
"No offense, My Lady, but don't see yourself as too important." The heir of the City of Faraway Prayers raised a finger and shook his head slightly. "You must know that not everyone is crying, fighting, and getting bruised and battered just to marry you."
Saroma's expression changed.
Ian suddenly turned and looked at Thales with a mysterious expression. "Right?"
Thales felt awkward. He let out a few unnatural coughs again. "Saroma, he means that—"
"I know what he's saying." Saroma glared at Ian coldly and then turned to Thales. Her fair face was somewhat contorted. "He's absolutely right, isn't he? I obviously have no way of making someone who doesn't like me bafflingly spellbound over me. I'm not the main character of some legend."
'My God.' Thales lowered his head stiffly. As though he had just discovered a new world, he suddenly realized that the food on the table was quite delicious.
Ian curled up the corners of his lips. He stared at Saroma, then at Thales, and flashed a smile. "None of us are the main characters of a legend… unless we write the legend ourselves."
Thales retracted his hand which was about to take some food. On the other hand, Saroma exhaled and suppressed the annoyance in her heart. She looked at the rude visitor and arched an eyebrow.
"And that is...?"
But Ian only flashed a smile which held a hidden meaning. His expression then became somber.
"My Lady, Your Highness, we're now facing the same problem." Ian had a particularly unique disposition when he was being serious. His facial features, slightly different from the classic Northlander structure, were eye-catching. "A few months ago, our esteemed king, Chapman Lampard, issued a new enfeoffment act in Black Sand Region."
Saroma and Thales finally stopped being awkward and listened earnestly. At that moment, the dining room seemed to have become a war room.
Ian imitated Thales and tapped the table. "Do both of you know what this means?"
He tilted his head with a solemn expression.
The archduchess wrinkled her brow slightly and nodded. It was hard for her to conceal the annoyance from before in her tone. "Yes. I heard that everyone's saying he is emulating the cruel punishments and ruthless laws from the era of the Empire, discriminating against those who hold different views. For example, he set a criteria for common people to become nobles—"
'The king's decree. Criteria to become nobles...'
The prince suddenly thought of the knowledge that did not exist in this world. He then recalled his discussion these past few days with Hicks, and Putray's explicit and implicit hints.
Thales sighed, shook his head, and interrupted the young girl. "No, Saroma. The decree is only a façade, and whether it is strict isn't important either. The real key is the movement of power behind it."
Saroma showed a questioning look.
"King Chapman... He took the traditional rules of nobles that were passed down even before the 'Joint Ruling Pledge', and which had brought about subtle influences among us, whether they were obscure, statutory, whether we were used to it, whether we compromised to it, whether it was an underlying rule, or none of those at all. He then wrote them into articles of the law, inscribed them, and placed them before his city gate."
The prince recalled what Lampard said in the carriage, the fact that the frightening King Chapman held the chess piece called Eckstedt in his hands, and Lampard's spirit and will in playing a game of chess across time with Constellation's Virtuous King from over a hundred years ago. He could not help but feel a tinge of emotion. "He tries to impose the king's authority on the nobles' autonomy, and to hold the execution of the 'Joint Ruling Pledge' as well as the reason of its existence in his hands. He offended the old nobles and vassals who have a long history and had supported the Lampard Family even when the kingdom was first established. If the decree comes into effect, it means that Chapman's volition will override traditional conventions and rules. From then on, the vassals' lives and powers will not belong to them anymore. They won't even be sharing the country with the king; Eckstedt will belong only to the king."
Saroma said nothing.
"In other words..." Ian sneered and shook his head. The corners of his lips curled up. "He made a mess of things, causing him to be confronted with the hardest situation he has faced since he was crowned."
He looked at Thales. "There is always a price to pay for change. He wants to challenge the vassal's natural rights. But at the same time, he's tottering on his own natural rights and corroding the bedrock of his reign.
"The old nobles and vassals of Black Sand Region are unanimously objecting. Count Mendes put out a notice to vehemently denounce his suzerain. The Dawnson Family stated that unless the king withdraws the decree, all the vassals in their county will refuse to pay taxes indefinitely. Count Peruno made a high profile trip to Black Sand Region to confront the king. The Ika Family even recalled nine hundred of their soldiers who were tasked to defend the border and guard it against Broken Dragon Fortress according to their obligatory rotations. All of Black Sand Region became King Chapman's enemy overnight." The heir to the City of Faraway Prayers smiled even wider. "That was his miscalculation."
Thales, who had stayed in Heroic Spirit Palace for a long time now, had heard that Lampard was facing quite a bit of trouble, but this was the first time he heard with his own ears the exact predicament Lampard was in.
'It sounds really horrible.'
Thales then recalled what happened in the carriage, how the king had that complicated gaze, and how his words contained a hint of emotion.
'"I faced many challenges while trying to implement my ruling. Even within Black Sand Region, there is much resistance… My vassals are filled with accumulated resentment and are eager to cause trouble."'
A thought came to Thales. He was about to speak, but the archduchess beat him to it.
"How strange." Saroma frowned. "Ciel once told me that all vassals have their own interests and plans. They won't easily point their weapons at their ruler. It's also very hard for them to align their standpoints and walk together. Moreover, they're facing Lampard who is the king. Without outside help and cards in their hands, those dissenters from Black Sand Region might not be so confident, organized, and full of rapport."
Facing the archduchess' query, Ian put on a rather profound expression. There was a few seconds of silence in the dining hall.
Soon, the archduchess stirred a little and said in sudden realization, "Wait, it's all of you...? It's all of you. All the archdukes are supporting their objection of the king from behind, and even making promises?"
A thought appeared in Thales' mind.
'Perhaps, as the Archduchess of Dragon Clouds City, it's not that, in these six years, she did not improve at all… It's just that I never noticed it in the past.'
Ian bowed slightly from his seat, showing perfect etiquette. This was a sight that was indeed rare among Northlanders.
"How can we miss this opportunity?"
Ian straightened his body and looked at Saroma, whose eyebrows drew together. He chuckled. "It's not just us. Defense City and Elaphure City are helping too."
The viscount nodded in a self-satisfied manner. "Apart from the Archduke of Beacon Illumination City who had not succeeded the position for very long, and Sentry Region's Stustel Family who are staying neutral as usual, the Archduke of the Glacier Sea stated that he is willing to participate. And soon, the reply from Prestige Orchid Region and Reformation Tower from the south will be arriving.
"This is a collective conspiracy, with the unusual king in Black Sand Region as our target.
Thales watched Saroma's unmoving expression. He knew that she was thinking about that day six years ago again.
'The black ring. The blood-stained crown. The wailing girl.'
An unexplainable wave of sentimentality filled Thales' heart.
Ian was like a hunter armed with his bow and arrow while he sat in the dining room. He flashed a self-assured smile. "The arrow has already been shot, and the blade has already left its sheath.
"Lampard's bargaining chips are disappearing. His vassals are dissatisfied, his people doubt him, his tax revenue is decreasing, and his army is going adrift. The reverence left for Quiso the Revolutionary King, Holt the 'Boiling Blood' who was one of the nine Knights, and for their descendants, is getting depleted day by day."
The Prince of Constellation carefully recalled Lampard's temperament and tactics. He suppressed his subconscious disapproval and quietly listened to Ian.
"Soon, maybe half a year, or even a few months later, the king's rule will topple and the Iron Fist Family's natural authority will disappear. His laws and decrees won't be effective outside the palace at all. He will become a powerless and lonely king, staying obediently in his palace until the next king selection."
Ian inhaled deeply. He suddenly changed his topic.
"But when everything was going according to plan, and we were only one step away from success," he said, not without annoyance, "At that time, a small accident happened."
Saroma lowered her head in thought. "Are you referring to the crisis that erupted within the Alliance of Freedom, and how they're trying to free themselves from Eckstedt?"
Ian flashed an approving smile.
"And in this accident, the City of Faraway Prayers happened to be the first to bear the brunt of it," the archduchess said slowly. "Was this really an accident?"
"That is understandable… There is bound to be frustrations when we're about to reach the top." Ian exhaled and nodded. "A beast at bay will put up a desperate fight. Even dying Mixed Breed Orcs have the strength to fight back in a desperate situation, let alone an usurper who murdered his elder brother and the king."
Hearing Ian's words, Thales could not help but scowl. For a few minutes, the prince did not contribute a word. Instead, he listened quietly to the conversation between Saroma and Ian. He suddenly felt a sort of ineffable unfamiliarity.
'The Little Rascal who hid behind my back that year and wiped her tears, and the Saroma who sat fearfully on the archduchess' chair all these years… When did she also become a person who can play games with her opponents and conspire with her allies at the negotiation table?'
A complicated train of thought born from countless emotions such as melancholy, relief, loss, and disappointment appeared in his mind.
'Why didn't I realize this in the past six years? Why is it now, when I'm about to…'
However, Thales immediately clenched his fists. 'No. This is not enough. Her opponents, her allies… This is far from enough…'
"Because of the archdukes led by the City of Faraway Prayers, because of their outside support and assurance, the old nobles of Black Sand Region can revolt against the king without fear and hesitation." Ian sighed. "Nevertheless, we couldn't turn a blind eye to the Alliance of Freedom. To tell you the truth, according to the recent news I received, the situation with the Alliance of Freedom was already unsalvageable, and a peaceful solution would be impossible.
"But if the City of Faraway Prayers' army is busy going out for a battle, and the Roknee Family's hands are tied on this stake known as the 'Alliance of Freedom'..."
He flung his hands open and shrugged.
Coming round from his thoughts, Thales continued Ian's words, "For the king's objectors, the City of Faraway Prayers' promise would not be so reliable anymore. At the same time, the king will easily be able to smother the isolated and helpless dissenters, and pull through the crisis. He might even go one step further to consolidate his authority and remold Black Sand Region into how he wants it to be.
*Clap!* Ian clapped his hands softly.
"If Lampard pulls through this storm… Trust me when I say that, for us, it wouldn't be as simple as failing a hunting expedition." Ian put on his sincerest expression with no hints of the frivolity and the intentional act from before, and said slowly, "That is something all of us would not want to see."
As for what "all of them would not want to see", he did not elaborate.
Saroma paused for a while and asked with uncertainty, "So, is this why the position of Dragon Clouds City in this tempest is so important?"
"Exactly." Ian looked at the archduchess with an affirmative gaze. "Dragon Clouds City is nearest to us among the Nine Main Territories, and also the only one that has a surplus of military force, wealth, and an indisputable name. It is a power that can dispatch troops and send its army to fight the Alliance of Freedom together with us.
"The nearest? The only one? I know how to read the map." The archduchess showed a disapproving expression. "Is Defense City's Archduke Lecco a dead person to you?"
"Hmph, that bald old man who only cares about his own survival?" Ian sneered. "There's not much difference between him and a dead person."
Saroma raised her eyebrows slightly.
"Saroma." Thales put his thoughts in order and said, "The City of Faraway Prayers' Archduke Rokee and Black Sand Region's King Chapman are standing on two sides of a balance labeled 'the crisis of the Alliance of Freedom' or 'the crisis of the king's decree'.
"As Dragon Clouds City's supreme suzerain, your decision, your army, and your vassals will be the greatest leverages in this game of chess."
The prince looked cautiously at Ian and said, "If Dragon Clouds City promises to dispatch troops to the west and help the Roknee Family battle the Alliance of Freedom, the chances of Ian and the rest of them toppling the king will become a lot greater. If you fold your arms and look on without making a move, the pressure King Chapman faces will reduce greatly."
Saroma pondered in silence.
Thales inhaled deeply. "But… Once you dispatch troops, your vassals…"
Saroma raised her head. Ian and Thales could not help but be startled by the iciness in her eyes.
"My marriage," the archduchess said flatly, "I understand."
Ian met Thales' eyes and nodded.
"Lampard must have done something, this is why your vassals are showing their greed for power and disrespect towards you at this moment.
"Once you make up your mind to dispatch troops, they'll use it to coerce you and force you into marrying beneath your status." Thales' expression became more and more solemn. "And due to the honor of your family, you'll be caught in a dilemma… To dispatch troops, you'll have to agree to their request and get married. But after you marry beneath you, Dragon Clouds City will fall into another vortex of power imbalance. Who knows what kind of trouble will await you again?"
"The suzerain and her vassals threatening each other..." Ian snorted coldly. "To be honest, this is not something new in the City of Faraway Prayers."
"Meanwhile, in his territory, King Chapman will be getting rid of his dissenters with all kinds of tactics." Thales sighed. "One after another, day by day, until no one else dares to oppose him and his decree. This is what Lampard is thinking."
"This is also why I'm here." The heir to the City of Faraway Prayers sat up straight, treating the situation solemnly. "My Lady, whether it is to go to war for the sake of Dragon Clouds City and to redeem the Dragon Spear Family's reputation, or to extend a helping hand to the City of Faraway Prayers and thwart the king's act of going against the laws in the country, it is reasonably a war you have no choice but to fight in."
Ian's eyes were keen, and they sparkled. It was hard to believe that a few hours ago, he was still the unorthodox son of an archduke who was frowned upon.
"In this game of chess, we are standing on the same side and facing the same opponent."
Saroma said nothing, but her gaze was unprecedentedly solemn. She shot a glance at the prince, and the prince responded with an encouraging look.
"But we also see that Lampard is using your vassals to hamper Dragon Clouds City. The envoys of Black Sand Region did not come for a stroll in Black Sand Region because they were bored," Ian said seriously. "After the City of Faraway Prayers, the Dragon Spear Family's hands are also getting tied up.
"So, the City of Faraway Prayers is not just here to ask for help… It's unrealistic to ask for help from someone whose hands are tied."
Saroma inhaled deeply. "So, what you mean is that…"
Ian nodded vigorously.
"We're here to help… If the City of Faraway Prayers and Dragon Clouds City are two people who have their hands tied at the same time, what we are going to do next is..." He made a cutting motion with his hand. "I will untie the ropes binding you first. Then, you can sever the ropes around my hands.
The Viscount of Dual Wind City met each of their gazes. "Then, both of us will rise together and beat up the one who tied us up." 5 Best Chinese Romance Books of 2018 So Far