‘Did that work?’
Milton couldn't let his guard down just yet.
From Princess Leila’s perspective, Milton did have a point. She hesitated as she knew there could be no benefit to be had once she was in the public’s eye.
Milton’s next words were the decisive blow.
“All things considered, if you silenced me here, then you would have no way of knowing where your identify was leaked,Your Highness. Does that still sit well with you?”
Princess Leila sighed and restrained her knights.
“Taylor, Richard, both of you stand down.”
The two knights unquestionably obeyed and returned to the back. This time, it was Milton’s turn to breathe a sigh of relief as any immediate danger to his life disappeared.
‘That was real close.’
It was like crossing a single-log bridge between two sheer cliffs. Princess Leila questioned Milton.
“How much do you know?”
“I know of your identity, Your Highness.”
“And that you sowed discord between the First and Second Princes in the capital from the shadows. That is the full extent of my knowledge.”
Truth be told, this last part was his personal inference, a hypothesis he made from what he knew of the capital’s state of affairs once he discovered the lady’s identity – only, there was no way for Princess Leila to know of this.
“Astounding. How were you able to get your hands on such information, from these Southern outskirts so far removed from the capital?”
“I’m afraid I cannot answer that.”
Milton formed a slight smile. As for now, he was holding all the chips on this table.
“I figured as much. If that’s the case… what do you say, shall we work out a deal, Count?”
Her tone became polite again. At the same time she pulled off a ring on her finger, and her appearance returned to that of Charlotte the merchant chairwoman that Milton had seen in the past.
She formed a stunning smile and repeated herself.
“That’s right. Let us have ourselves a deal.”
‘If one thing’s for sure, her looks are just not fair.’
Milton felt his resolve wavering. Deal or scam, he had a sudden urge to give her everything she desired… whether that be liver, spleen, or whatever else she wanted from him, in a nice set menu. He felt that everything would turn out fine.
‘Come on, keep it together. She’s nothing but a fox… no, a wicked beast.’
Milton recalled the Special Trait known as Seduction that was in her repertoire.
Seduction LV.9 (MAX): Utilize one’s innate beauty to tempt the opposite gender and create situations that are advantageous to the user. Able to shake the opponent’s cognitive judgment.
Now that he thought about it, he would have uncovered her true identity much faster if he checked her stats during her era of involvement in the Charlotte Merchant Company. But at that time, he did not so much as consider doing that. It was true that he hadn’t learned to properly utilize his ability back then, but now that he thought about it…
‘My mind must have frozen at her looks. Damn it…’
She was likely well aware of what a brilliant weapon her looks were. Why else would she return to this form, and even revert to talking with this cutesy gentlelady demeanor?
‘Let’s get a grip.’
The trickster beast complimented Milton.
“You are the first person outside of my circle to uncover my identity. I must say I am impressed, Count Forrest. You may be the most competent person I have faced thus far.”
‘Have a load of her singing praises about me. I would be an idiot to be flattered.’
“Which is why I wish to propose: how about we have an exchange of information?”
“An exchange of information? Is this the deal you spoke of, Your Highness?”
“Indeed it is. There is just so much we do not know about each other. Do you not agree that we need to get familiar with one another?”
“…Yes, of course.”
Milton became certain of one thing at Princess Leila’s choice of language which left plenty of room for misunderstanding: she was set on bewitching him out of his senses.
‘She’s a fox. A fox. No, she’s a nine-tailed demon spirit. An absolutely evil nine-tailed demon fox spirit. I need to stay on guard, on GUARD.’
“Then shall I start?”
“Before that, what shall we do about the information we cannot reveal to each other?”
“Ah… that slipped my mind.”
Milton was sure that she most certainly had not let it ‘slip her mind’. Her motive was likely to proceed through things in a haze, to force a spur-of-the-moment confession of vital information out of him.
“Then we can leave those stones unturned. Whoever says they cannot answer three times loses the game.”
“Game? Did you not say this was a deal?”
“I tend to enjoy both.”
“Now that I think about it, there should be a reward for the winner. Umm… how about the loser grants one of the winner’s requests, whatever that may be?”
“Grants a request to the winner?”
“Yep. Whatever. That. Is.”
‘Could you please not say it so suggestively with that dizzying smile?’
Milton physically felt like his heart had turned into a punching bag – but he wasn’t about to cave in to this dangerous deal.
“Let us leave that part out.”
“Goodness, are you scared?”
“Yes. I am.”
Milton firmly deflected Princess Leila’s provocation. A look of disappointment flashed across her face, disappearing as quickly as it was noticed.
‘That’s right, I won’t be so easily swept up in your looks.’
“There will be no game, but I am willing to partake in an exchange of information.”
“Very well. Then may I ask the first question?”
Seeing how coolly she accepted his conditions, all that drivel about playing a game was indeed a bait.
“Be my guest.”
Princess Leila softly looked at Milton and fired ahead.
“How many are there who know of my identity?”
“I cannot say.”
Milton could not answer a question that so abruptly attacked at the core of their standoff out of the blue. He was truly the only one who knew of her identity – and he was not so foolish to come honestly and say that.
Now the ball was in Milton’s court.
“What is your objective, Your Highness?”
“Hmm? Is that not clear enough already? My objective is the throne.”
The princess replied as if it was something obvious, and Milton somehow felt like this was his loss.
“It’s my turn now. What is your aim for the future, Count Forrest?”
‘My aim, huh…’
It was a vague question for Milton. Unlike the straightforward answer that she gave, Milton’s goals were not as clear-cut. Though he had first wanted to enjoy his life with the silver spoon of being born as a noble, he could not do that now even if he wanted to after being entangled in this and that. If anything, this was a bloody and chaotic age where if he let loose, some unforeseen event could lead to his untimely death.
So Milton’s aim was…
“It is to unite the South as one.”
“Oooh… unite the South? Why so?”
“By gathering the South, I hope to form a power that can sufficiently stand up to Central and the Capital, lest they decide to oppress us.”
This was Milton’s current challenge. It had always been Milton’s way to set a reachable goal post and concentrate on achieving that, rather than looking towards the far future.
“The South, you say… a reasonable ultimate goal, if I do say so myself. If that’s so…”
“It’s my turn now.”
Milton cut Princess Leila off and fired his question at her.
“7 years ago, the world thought that you passed away, Your Highness.”
“If I may so ask, how are you alive at this present time, Your Highness?”
Had Milton hit a question that was not easy for even her to answer? She pondered for a moment before replying.
“I survived 7 years ago with the assistance of Duke Palan, then a Marquis.”
“Would you be able to explain in more detail?”
“I would not.”
Princess Leila openly looked offended.
The incident 7 years ago referred to the tragedy of the deaths of her mother, Queen Irene, and her biological brother, Prince Gravion – supposedly along with herself. Milton himself thought it was rather cruel to ask her for the little details of her family’s deaths, but he insisted anyway in order to confirm his opponent’s weaknesses.
‘Though I do feel like I piqued her royal wrath more than her weakness…’
“Now it would be my turn.”
Princess Leila looked at Milton straight in the eyes.
“If I collaborate with you in forming a hegemony in the South around your County, would you, in turn, be able to assist me in claiming the throne?”
“May I take that as Your Highness directing me to join your ranks?”
“That was my original plan. However…”
Princess Leila did not take her eyes off Milton’s.
“Regrettably, it seems you have your fair share of prickly thorns that I did not know of, Count.”
“That is my charm, after all.”
Princess Leila smirked at the carefree Milton and continued.
“I am inclined to refuse having a thorn pointed right at my neck. To that end, Count, I will concede endeavoring to place you under my command. That said…”
A suggestive smile appeared on Princess Leila’s face.
“I do see the possibility of an alliance.”
“An alliance, you say.”
“Yes. I desire the throne, and you, Count Forrest, desire the South. Insofar as our prey do not overlap, would you not agree that our interests align?”
“Would it be apt to see that the new South I envision will also be part of this new Lester Kingdom?”
“It is not as if you intend to declare independence and found a new nation, do you? I was under the impression that you only wished to gather the South into one to form a new strength.”
“You would be correct.”
“I can promise you the title of Margrave. Naturally, your noble peerage will also be elevated to that of a Marquis or above. How is that?”
Milton meticulously thought over the condition she offered.
The title of a Margrave was usually given to feudal lords that resided in domains that bordered other nations. In order to keep the peace, nobles with fiefdoms had the authority to enforce tax laws and other statutes. But lords at the border had an additional duty - the first line of national defense. These nobles, granted special military autonomy so they may complete that duty, were commonly known as Margraves. The perk was that this heightened military autonomy was in addition to their fundamental rights necessary for day-to-day fiefdom administration. As a result, it was no different from being delegated absolute legal authority and control over their lands. Naturally, those designated the title of Margrave found themselves with a powerful tool through which they had no legal limits on the number of soldiers they could enlist, and thus slowly encompassed – and swallowed – surrounding territories to eventually dominate as the district’s head. As time passed, however, the title of Margrave was not only designated for practical purposes but became the highest possible office that any noble could have bestowed upon them if they reached the apex of national recognition – though there was an unspoken rule that only those with the peerage of Marquis or above were eligible. Thus far, no man in the South of the Lester Kingdom had received this office, yet Princess Leila was here promising it to Milton.
“A fairly enticing offer.”
Milton had to acknowledge that her conditions weren’t bad at all.
“Yet there remains a problem.”
“And what could that be?”
“Your Highness, you are currently nothing more than a fugitive on the run after the collapse of the Charlotte Merchant Company. Can I really place my trust in your promise of good faith for the title of Margrave?”
“Do you truly believe I have lost everything?”
Princess Leila nodded at the promissory note worth 100,000 gold that she offered Milton.
“100,000 gold is not a trifling sum. With this much, I daresay one can safely assume they have some level of power. Albeit…”
“Even this much falls short for one who is aiming for the throne, is that what you mean?”
Princess Leila laughed at Milton finishing her sentence.
“You will not believe me if I say I have much hidden power at my disposal, now will you?”
“If I said I believed it, would you be enlightening me further regarding them?”
“Hoh, now why would I? The fact that you are asking a question like that is evidence you do not know the full extent of my power, is it not Count Forrest?”
Milton could only laugh humorlessly at her sharpness.
‘Was it that obvious?’
“I suppose there’s no helping it, as only time will attest to what strength I have… until then, I will be much indebted to you and your estate, Count.”
“Are you suggesting you will stay in my territory, Your Highness?”
“Indeed I am. Is there a problem?”
“There most certainly is. Is it not clear to you that the people would become suspicious if a foreign noble settled in one day?”
“All that is required is an apt reason.”
Milton was incredulous.
“That is a rather curious suggestion. Now, what would be, as you say, an ‘apt reason’, in order for people to take for granted that a noble from a foreign state was suddenly waltzing in and staying in our lands? Please enlighten me.”
Princess Leila flashed a suggestive smile.
“That is an easy task.”
She elaborated on her perfect excuse to stay.
“It was love at first sight and you asked to be engaged.”
“… excuse me?”
Milton was bewildered but Princess Leila continued nonchalantly.
“I was so beautiful that you fell in love with me at first sight and implored me to please stay at your estate – is that not an effective persuasion, Count?”
“Are you serious?”
Milton was so taken aback that he asked again.
‘How can someone so shamelessly entitled exist? Yes, she’s pretty, but why would I?’
Princess Leila put on another one of her charming smiles.
“What is the problem? Or perhaps you have a better alternative in mind?”
“How about we say you are an investor undertaking an inspection of my territory?”
“If that sits better with you, by all means.”
“Then it’s settled.”
Milton’s apprehension began to fade.
But as it did, Princess Leila slowly rose and approached Milton. She then crept in so close that her red lips were inches away from Milton’s ear, and spoke with a captivating air.
“But you see…”
She left a subtle, lingering pause before she continued.
“Would the people really believe whatever we say? When an unmarried man and a woman, both at the ripe age to be wedded, are living together in one house?”
Milton was speechless. Wouldn’t this be the perfect piece of gossip around town?
Princess Leila looked at Milton and giggled.
“I’ll be entrusting myself to your care for the next while.”
And that was how a demonic beast came to stay in Forrest territory.Previous Chapter Next Chapter