Chapter 53: The Lady’s Identity (3)

Milton had said that Lady Raphael would be residing at their territory for the time being to inspect the estate as an investor, but who would take that at face value?

There was bound to be gossip when Milton, who did not have many avenues to interact with women until now, had welcomed a lady into his house.

“Did you hear?”

“Hear what?”

“Rumors that the Master fell in love with a young lady from another country at first sight.”

“Is there anyone left who hasn’t heard? Don’t they even say that he proposed already?”

“Gosh… then what’ll become of Lady Sophia?”

“That’s what I’m saying. Our lord doesn’t look the part, but his relationships with the opposite sex might be messier than I thought.”

“He’s still young, isn’t he? We’ve got to watch ourselves around him as well.”

“Indeed.”

Milton sighed as he heard the maids’ conversation as they cleaned outside his office.

‘I can hear everything, you know.’

These days, this was all the maids talked about when they huddled together. Milton suspected that Princess Leila was deliberately spreading these rumors.

‘But where’s this talk of Sophia coming from? She’s just my vassal.’

At times like this, most nobles would catch the maids in the act and scold them to make an example out of them. But Milton was not one of those strict nobles who used their strength to lash out at powerless servants. Of course, the spread of these rumors was irritating nonetheless.

‘At the least, I would’ve been able to drill them if they were men.’

Milton sighed again. He decided he might as well loosen up at the knights’ military exercise hall and began making his way there. In any case, it was soon going to be time for his training session. No matter how much work he had, Milton always left aside time to practice his swordsmanship. He was well aware of how true it was that as he became stronger, so did his estate.

‘I’ll go break a sweat to feel better.’

That was what he was thinking, but when he arrived at the exercise hall…

“Amazing. Are you to say that you truly made this with your own hands?”

“This may very well be the best sandwich I have ever had the pleasure of eating.”

“Hohoho… your words are too much. It was only light work.”

‘This little…’

What awaited Milton were his knights and Princess Leila, sitting together in the exercise field and enjoying a little picnic with ‘hoho’s and ‘haha’s.

“Ah, My Lord! Have you arrived?”

“My Lord, the Madam- wait, not yet… Lady Raphael personally prepared for us a picnic lunch.”

Milton was horrified by Rick’s innocent grin.

‘You son of a simpleton.’

“What are you doing when our training session is about to begin?”

Tommy explained with a tinge of shame at Milton’s stiff reaction.

“That’s… while we were on our break, Lady Raphael came with sandwiches and tea that she personally made.”

“Oh, it was nothing – my skills fall embarrassingly short.”

“Hahaha, whatever do you mean by ‘embarrassingly’? I have never had the pleasure of indulging in such a delicious sandwich. Our lord is one fortunate youngster to have someone like you fall for him, Lady Raphael.”

Rick heartily laughed and praised Raphael’s – no, Princess Leila’s pretense of coyness. He looked at Milton and snuck a thumbs-up like an earnest child looking for praise.

‘Good job. Are you enjoying being tricked by this monster?’

Now that he thought about it, manipulating Rick would be easier than preparing a cup of tea for Princess Leila. And it wasn’t only Rick: all the other knights around Leila looked to be long bewitched. She was earnestly playing the part of Lady Raphael, a noble daughter that fancied Milton, and a lovely and pure woman who took care of everyone around her…

To Milton, she was like a farmer raising livestock for slaughter.

‘This in itself is a talent.’

Milton let out another instinctive sigh.

Whatever the case may be, he needed to rescue his loyal knights from being led to their undoing.

“Ahem… Lady Raphael. The exercise grounds are unsafe when the knights are training, so please do not frequent here from now on.”

Milton prohibited the demonic beast from entering the exercise hall to stop her from brainwashing his knights.

In response…

“Of course. I apologize, Count Forrest. I forgot my rightful place in matters, and…”

Leila made a somber expression that would make anyone feel sorry for her and looked at the knights around her.

“I must apologize – it appears this was my lapse in judgment. I merely wished to become acquainted with the Count’s vassal knights, but I did not realize this would disconcert him. Please forgive me.”

‘Have a load of this farce.’

Milton was incredulous. 

Even if she was hiding her identity at present, wasn’t she originally a princess of the royal family? So how could someone like her pretend to be so bashful while trying to cozy up to some knights in this shanty corner of the South?

‘Do you really want to capture the hearts of my knights that badly? I can’t believe this. You can try, but my knights aren’t that naïve…’

“My Lord, your words are too much.”

“He’s right. Lady Raphael only sought us to offer encouragement in our training.”

“Is there truly a need to be so hard on her, when she came with pure heart and intention?”

‘You naïve idiots.’

Milton’s knights were much more naive than he took them for. Rick, the pinnacle of naivety, added…

“My Lord, is that how you should be speaking to a gentlelady? Please apologize to her.”

“……”

A step further, and Milton would have mistaken Rick for trying to cause a mutiny. Feeling that the opinions of his fellow knights aligned with his, Rick triumphantly pumped out his chest as he spoke.

“As it has always been from times of old, a real man must bend over backward if need be for the woman he loves. My lord, this is my advice to you, from one man to another: they say that for men, giving ground is the same as gaining. So…”

As Rick began to take things too far, the other knights slowly crept to the back.

‘Ah, Rick’s losing it again.’

‘Does he really have a brain in that thick skull of his?’

‘What do we do? Should I try to stop him even if it’s late?’

Putting up a resistance to one’s superiors was not all that scary if everyone did it together – but here, the other knights were gradually distancing themselves from Rick as he opened the floodgates. When Rick checked his surroundings at last…

“Wouldn’t you all agree with me? …Huh? Tommy? John? Why are you all so far away…”

It was only now that Rick thought:

‘Did I go overboard?’

He came to realize that even Lady Raphael had left some time ago.

Milton bared his teeth as he smiled mirthlessly at Rick.

“Haha… Rick.”

“Yes. My lord. Uh. So, you see… everyone is bound to make mistakes…”

“Hahaha… not to worry. I am not upset.”

“If you’re not upset, my liege, why are you holding that wooden sword?”

“This is all to help you.”

“Sorry?”

“Percussive therapy is the most effective method of mitigating brainwashing. I’ll smack you until you shake it off.”

“Huh? Wait, my lord, that’s aura on your practice sword! Aura?!”

“DIE!!”

All of his pent-up stress exploded towards Rick.

***

While the Forrest estate was getting by in relative peace, the fierce political struggle occurring in the Lester Kingdom’s capital was reaching its last leg. The sturdy power balance between the First and Second Princes began to largely shift to one side. The one who was seizing the path to victory was none other than the First Prince.

The lighted fuse which brought about this change was the collapse of Charlotte Merchant Company. Discovering that the Charlotte Merchant Company was nosing its way in as a third force, the First and Second Princes formed an implicit agreement to eliminate them first. Neither side wanted a third party to join the arena at this stage. The two factions combined their strength and attacked the Charlotte merchants. While they failed to arrest the guild’s chairwoman, the guild itself was thoroughly destroyed. 

In the midst of this commotion, the First Prince's faction framed the Charlotte Merchant Company with many of the corrupt deeds they themselves were under suspicion for. And as the saying goes, evil deeds spread quickly. The Second Prince’s faction also realized this was a good idea indeed, and followed suit. But little did they know that this was a trap.

Out of the accusations that they passed over to the Charlotte Merchant Company, there were corruption charges for price fixing and embezzling military supplies. The Second Prince had many backers with connections to the military, and they wished to seize this opportunity to clear their name of the corruption charges. What they were unaware of was that the First Prince’s faction already procured evidence regarding these charges. They pounced on this weakness as if they had been waiting all along, submitting evidence that some of the knights under the Second Prince’s command had sold out their good name to embezzle military supplies. 

At first, the Second Prince and his backers completely denied these claims. But as knights came out as whistleblowers left and right, the truth was eventually brought into the limelight. The First Prince claimed that the ones complicit in corruption were colluding with the Charlotte Merchant Company. In a time where the chairwoman of the company was pegged as a traitor to the nation that conspired with Republican sympathizers, this was a fatal blow. It seemed as if the Second Prince, the head of their faction, would fall into danger if these 'limbs' was not cut off. 

In the end, the Second Prince's faction wasn't able to defend those who fell under the accusation of corruption and could do nothing but take the First Prince's blow with their eyes opening, knowing fully well it was coming. In a flash, three of the standing knight orders that backed the Second Prince had collapsed. This unavoidable damage proved fatal for the Second Prince’s faction. 

The next monarch might as well have been decided to be the First Prince. 

No one knew the current situation better than the Second Prince. If he bowed down at this point in time, there was no way he would survive this ordeal. If he wanted to live, whatever it took, he needed to win. They say that a mouse would even bite a cat if backed into a corner. Ultimately, the Second Prince took the most extreme path that one must never take.

***

“He what? Repeat that for me.”

The First Prince looked stricken with disbelief at his subordinate’s report. The messenger repeated himself.

“They say that the Second Prince, after disappearing from the view of our eyes in the Capital, established a base of operations in the North and announced a public call-to-arms.”

“Yes, I got all that. And what did you say the justification for the call-to-arms was?”

“The Second Prince… announced that he supports Republicanism, and promised that he would change our Lester Kingdom into a Republic.”

“He’s a lunatic. How can someone like that be deserving of being called my brother? What a disgrace.”

Having realized he hadn't heard wrong, the prince was dumbfounded. Beside him, Claudia chimed in.

“Look at what has happened. Did I not tell you this was bound to occur? This was his plan from the beginning.”

“Byron, you sorry bastard, you're lesser than a dog… to think he would really take advantage of my tolerance.”

In reality, the two of them had met before the Second Prince made his clandestine getaway from the Capital. At that gathering, the Second Prince acknowledged his defeat and asked that his life be spared so he may seek asylum in another country and live the rest of his life in hiding. The First Prince had been rather satisfied at the Second Prince’s total surrender. He had been filled with triumph that his greatest rival was brought to his knees. In his gloating, he readily accepted the Second Prince’s request.

But when he returned home and informed his wife Claudia on the turn of events, she caused a commotion and lambasted him.

[We must kill him. This will most certainly cause us trouble in the future if we leave him alive.]

[But I have already forgiven him. As one that is about to ascend onto the throne, I cannot go back on my word in good faith.]

[What benefit can there possibly be to sparing the Second Prince? Killing him is the correct way forward. It is better late than never to dispatch a tracker and take care of him.]

[That’s enough – this matter is already decided. Please honor my wishes as I do yours.]

The First Prince normally followed Claudia’s advice to the tee – but this time, the triumph he felt in emerging the victor from this conflict and his anticipation for soon becoming king made him haughty. In some corner of his subconscious, he felt he could not continue putting aside his pride and listen to his wife’s words even after he became king.

With that, the Second Prince disappeared from the Capital, and the First Prince assumed that he would defect to a distant land and live out his life quietly.

However, the place the Second Prince had gone to weren't foreign lands, but the domains of the North where he had strong support. The North was the district most concerned with military strength out of all the regions in the Lester Kingdom. It also happened to be a strong source of backing for the Second Prince. These were the lands in which the Second Prince dispatched a call-to-arms, even going so far as claiming to advocate for Republicanism as justification. From the First Prince’s perspective, he had been backstabbed[a] trying to save face.

“Claudia, what shall we do?”

Claudia sighed as she watched the First Prince ask her for advice.

‘There’s no helping it.’

She already knew that her husband’s competence fell short of his pride. To put it in another way, it was precisely because he was that kind of person that she could groom her husband into becoming highly dependent on her. These pros and cons were all considered before she married him. She also knew that it was at times like this that her sorry excuse of a husband needed her support more than ever.

“There’s no helping it. The only way forward from here is war.”

“So war it is?”

“Yes. Thankfully, the unpopular justification which the Second Prince has put forward will not receive the support of the international community – never mind the entirety of the North itself. We must request an edict from His Royal Majesty the King that decrees the entire country to commence a nationwide subjugation of the North.”

“Surely, the North cannot face off against the entire country, no matter how strong their military is.”

“They cannot. For now, please go to His Royal Highness and receive a royal edict. This will solidify both your victory and the legitimacy of your claim to the throne.”

“Surely!!”

The First Prince marveled at Claudia.

“You are indeed my treasure.”

He hugged her tightly with adoration.

‘Just do as you’re told already.’

In reality, his wife had different thoughts in mind as she remained still in his arms with a dull expression.

[a]The original was 뒤통수를 맞다, but contextual, it was closer to being backstabbed than to be struck in the back of his head

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