Book 7, Chapter 24

Lightless Night

Duke Orleans frowned, his fingers tracing out a large, fertile tract of land right next to the Azan peninsula instead of Azan itself. This new land contained quite a large section of core Schumpeter territory as well as several of the Josephs’ territories as well, one of which was amongst the oldest fiefs owned by the family. His stance was clear; he could sacrifice much of the profits of the Schumpeters and Josephs, but the core Archeron territory had to remain within the Sacred Alliance.

The Schumpeters were no longer amongst Faust’s fourteen, but even Duke Joseph who was in the chamber could only smile without protest as his heart was gouged out. At this moment, even he had to admit that the Archeron Family headed by a grand runemaster approaching the legendary realm was worth far more than a family that was nearly destroyed by war. This was why the Ironblood Duke was personally conducting the negotiations; there would be no room for argument.

As for fairness, equal justice only came with equal power. Azan was the core territory of the Archerons. Richard himself wouldn’t be affected much by the transfer in rulership, but that would make him a noble of the Sacred Tree Empire or Millennial Empire instead. He would have to pay taxes to his new ruler, and his soldiers would be obligated to fight different wars.

The borders of the three empires had varied greatly over the centuries, with many large families now owning territory in all three empires. Alice herself had some land in the Sacred Tree Empire that she paid taxes on, but because it wasn’t much she didn’t have a complete peerage there. Richard’s situation would be far more complicated; the split would give him enough territory in the other empire to be an earl, but the rest of the Archeron territories in the Sacred Alliance would make him an Earl as well. This would put him in an extremely delicate situation where he couldn’t really support either side.

Both Earl Kimbaye and Marquess Miranes had made their objectives clear. They wanted Azan for one reason and one reason alone; Richard himself. If they could gain some amount of sovereignty over the Archerons, the possibility of getting him to defect over time would grow. As the dispute continued, the young Kimbaye showed surprising resolve, offering to give up a magic crystal mine and several earldoms’ worth of land for Azan alone.

The argument raged on for an entire hour with no side budging. Eventually, they agreed to suspend the negotiations and return to them in a few days. As they were leaving the conference room, Kimbaye hurried over to Richard and handed him a dark gold invitation with a smile, “Mister Richard, would you like to share some afternoon tea tomorrow? It would be even better if you were willing to give me a tour of Faust’s magnificence.”

Richard shook his head, “Forgive me, I don’t think that’s appropriate at this time.”

They were already close to the room’s exit, but all of the other major families seemed to turn a blind eye to the Earl’s behaviour. Kimbaye looked at their backs once before lowering his voice, “We will soon be fellow lords under the Millennial Empire, what’s so wrong with sharing tea?”

Richard forced a smile as well, “Are you so confident?”

“Of course! Not just because we’d be sincere towards a future saint runemaster, but also on account of Her Highness Mountainsea. She has imperial blood flowing in her, and as her partner you are nominally a member of the royal family as well.”

Richard frowned slightly, but Kimbaye continued, “The Sacred Alliance does not see your worth. They reject you, conspire against you, even try to murder you in broad daylight! Only a few days ago I saw you being ganged up on by the lesser nobles of this city, but nobody came to your aid. You should know what this means, Mister Richard; they simply do not regard you as one of their own. Why would you want to stay in such a country?”

The Earl’s voice was quite opposite to his average appearance; even such a treasonous entreaty sounded like a hymn, possessing fascinating charm. Richard had no answer to his question either; there wasn’t really any major difference in terms of race or beliefs between the three empires. A number of lords had changed allegiances over the years, and many had done so without issue.

However, such an implication was patently untrue. There was a major difference between the Sacred Alliance and the other empires: freedom. The noble circles of both the Millennial Empire and the Sacred Tree Empire were near impossible to break into, and any newcomer would be treated with distance. Even more annoying to Richard himself was just why he was being valued; Kimbaye had made it clear that he was wanted because of his runecrafting talent. That was his greatest value in their eyes.

Again, Richard felt like there was another hidden card at play. He didn’t know what it was, just that Kimbaye hadn’t revealed it yet. Still, he didn’t say anything and just bowed with a shake of his head before leaving. The Earl looked at the invitation he had failed to send out and smiled ambiguously.

……

It was rare for the assembly of the Sacred Alliance to be full, but it was even rarer for it to be dead silent. Every noble in the city had gathered here, waiting for the results of the conference. The quiet was only broken once the first of the negotiating parties walked out, and those who were direct subordinates rushed over to get the news. Those who weren’t waited quietly for the news to spread.

The differences in networking between the various families was immediately made clear. Even Duke Anan had a number of people asking him about the proceedings, but almost no one approached Richard. Still, word spread like wildfire and everyone knew about the partition plan; although it wasn’t final, it was still indicative of what would eventually happen. Someone brought over a map and marked the separations, the lines feeling like two nooses wrapping around the neck. It brought great shame to the entire Alliance.

Richard felt like his footsteps were heavy today. The Archerons had many enemies in the Sacred Alliance, and many of them had led to his own personal tragedies, but there were also those like Philip and Ferlyn who had made sure to take care of him. He had Sharon and Flowsand, the loves of his life; Beye, Agamemnon, and Nyris, friends that couldn’t be replaced. This was the place he had grown up in.

He was feeling a sense of shame and helplessness that he hadn’t even when being chased around on his last breaths as a weakling in Faelor. It was only now that he realised he still had a sense of identity with the Sacred Alliance and truly wanted to do something for it. However, the current situation left him completely powerless.

Even having given up Blackrose Castle, his dynamic in Faust itself wouldn’t change much. He would still maintain ownership of his island and could interact as usual, and with no tensions of large-scale war it didn’t seem like he would ever have to make a choice between any two empires. On the other hand, the Sacred Alliance would regain more than a hundred thousand square kilometres of land with many important resources for this sacrifice. If the question ever fell to him directly, he had no idea how to answer.

……

The next few days were spent in intense negotiation. Most borders were finalised completely, leaving only a few points of contention of which Azan was the greatest. However, the attention of the public was gradually drawn elsewhere, as the time for the vote approached.

All kinds of forces awakened in the underbelly of the city, forcing unwilling people to make their moves. Over a dozen assassinations occurred the very night before the election, but the normally active Archeron Family was the calmest of everyone amidst the storm. With Richard having no vote in the matter, there was simply no reason to target him at all.

On this eve to the election, the entire city seemed to be filled with blood. Everyone in Faust was at risk, with assassins running around everywhere. However, a burly middle-aged man was walking alone on the road through it all. He was remarkably tall and with a rather angular shape to him, body covered in common cotton robes. His short, messy hair seemed to be made of steel needles, and his beard was completely out of control.

The man didn’t seem to have great power, not even entering sainthood, but every assassin lying in the dark felt an inexplicable sense of unease at his sight. The saints and even legends couldn’t tell why, but he just oozed a feeling of danger. Although many of them had orders to kill those heading to the Church on sight, not one person loosed an arrow at him as he crossed through Faust. By the time he was gone, everyone was thinking up excuses as to why they hadn’t attacked.

Many of these killers watched with strange faces as the man climbed the stairs to the Church of the Eternal Dragon, unwilling to admit that they had refrained from fear.

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OMA's Thoughts

Translated By: OMA

Edited By: Theo

TLC'ed By: OMA