The sky was a curtain of darkness and goose-feather-sized snowflakes fell incessantly. A look outside showed the fields and buildings covered in a white blanket.
White Alice Palace in Efenasburg was fully illuminated, with officers and attendants entering and leaving it nonstop. It was a common sight to many. They would still be so busy even if it was raining knives, not to say anything about heavy snow. This was the headquarters from which Prince Hansbach commanded the entire front's military forces as well as the base of operations for the logistics boys. Every single order issued there would be carried out by a soldier even at the cost of their life.
In a grandly decorated meeting room on the first floor, ten-odd generals were having a strategy meeting with the first prince.
"My royal father gave a victory speech during the harvest festival, but I'm sure all of you here know the situation isn't that heartening. Currently, Rimodra, Askilin, and Canas' forces have been digging in and refusing to meet us on the field. Our plan to attack Rimodra has been completely derailed and there's no chance of a deciding battle happening.
"My royal father wrote me last month and revealed the worries he had about the war. Half of the money we gathered in the treasury over the last two decades has already been spent. As for our forces, we just formed twelve new irregular corps and sent them to the battlefield. The kingdom still needs to form eight new corps and all of the local keepers have been transferred to the frontlines. Our total forces number 1.2 million men. It's a massive burden.
"Father asked me to end the war as quickly as possible so we minimise the toll it will take on the kingdom's subjects. Naturally, that doesn't mean we'll stop when the opportunity presents itself. Instead, we must have a sudden breakthrough and achieve our strategic objectives and conquer Askilin and Rimodra to force Nasri and Canas to the table.
"While we took Sidins, it's cost us dearly. Our spoils are meager -- most of the duchy is desolate wildlands. Who knows how much money the kingdom will have to invest before we can start getting something back. After we took Sidins, the Alliance's navy hit the two port cities we conquered and set fire to even the residential buildings. A good part of the cities have been turned to ash and they won't serve as our navy's new bases.
"In Nubissia, the forces of Shiks refuse to leave Nasri's colony, keeping us from conquering it. All we can do is reinforce our border defences and keep watch. Port Vebator has become the main pirate base and they still pose a severe threat to our shipping to Nubissia.
"And here, we're stuck and unable to deal a critical blow and force them into a grand battle with us. We can only slowly take one stronghold after another and advance laboriously. But the enemy builds two forts in the time it takes us to tear down one. We're getting nowhere slowly."
Prince Hansbach slammed two documents on the table.
"Just look at this! The royal guard takes four to five days to take one stronghold and suffers five to six hundred casualties each time. They have been fighting continuously for nearly three months and nearly half are dead or so wounded they can't return to combat ever again. They are at their breaking point and require immediate rest and recuperation. The reports say the soldiers are starting to hate the battles and morale is at an all time low.
"This other document is a report from 1st Rangers requesting recognition for their achievements. They managed to take Blackmaple Castle and suffered only 27 losses. However, they took 54 days. I don't even know whether I should reward or punish them. They completed their mission, but at this pace they might as well not have. If we adopt their strategy wholesale we'll be here for the rest of the century!"
The ten-odd generals laughed together. The report from 1st Rangers did shock most of them and they suspected a zero was missing from the casualty count. But after reading the detailed report, they were certain that it was true. Many of the officers began to argue whether they should mimic the tactics used by 1st Rangers on the frontlines.
But a good number of them believed it couldn't be used as the tribe took advantage of the loophole in their orders, the lack of a deadline. Otherwise, they wouldn't have been able to complete the mission with so few casualties. The current situation meant every second counted. Each second wasted was a second the enemy had to reinforce their defences.
Had 1st Rangers been part of the main force and not sent to the flank to deal with the area around the Pikleit Mountains, they wouldn't have had the luxury of time. If they switched places with the royal guard and had to take one stronghold every four or five days, they'd suffer even more casualties since most of their members were new recruits. They definitely wouldn't have the same experience, pride, and combat ability of experienced veterans in the royal guard.
The prince waved for them to be silent.
"Many don't feel too surprised at the results of 1st Rangers, but they did manage to complete their mission with light casualties. They should be rewarded accordingly. I've decided, however, to hold back for the time being. Since they took 54 days to take Blackmaple Castle, I'll wait 54 days to give them the reward."
The generals burst into laughter once more.
"Your Highness truly is wise."
It was just a harmless joke. They would take their time to show the tribe they weren't happy with their pace. Fortunately, Pikleit Mountains was in a far corner not crucial to the main push. The kingdom might've had to pay a much heavier price if this had happened in front of their spearhead. The treasury was half emptied and the cost to maintain an army a million strong was astronomical, even worse during combat. Nobody could afford to let the war drag on.
"Let's get back on topic. Bluefeather recently built themselves back and the last two irregular corps are formed. The ministry of the army has argued much about how to utilise the three corps. They proposed two plans."
Two attendants brought a thick stack of documents over and distributed them to the generals.
When everyone finished looking through them, the prince continued.
"It's obvious, right? The top strategists in the department doesn't have anything new. The first is for us to replace the royal guard with Bluefeather to allow them to rest and recuperate and switch them back once Bluefeather is spent. We'll cycle the two corps until we obtain victory.
"This isn't anything new. We all know that even if we can win with this method, we'll pay too huge a price. It'll also take too much time and we might not be able to achieve victory in a single battle. The enemy will also have time to move all their riches out of the way and leave nothing but barren land for us just like the case with Sidins.
"The other proposition is to send Bluefeather and the two irregular corps to the other front to force Nasri into surrendering. Naturally, we are aware this is nothing but a pipe dream. Nasri isn't like Rimodra or Askilin. They are the only nation in Eastern Freia that stands a fighting chance against us. They still have a lot to give.
"While our forces on the western front and those on the southern border of Sidins managed to breach Nasri and take out three of their corps, they still have two standing corps. It's a stalemate right now because Nasri managed to stabilise their internal situation and are drafting new corps. Reddragon and Griffon, as well as the two irregular corps, have made preparations to fight a defensive battle despite the fact that we're still attacking Nasri.
"It's clear that the Nasrian front won't be decided that easily just because we send three more corps there. Personally, I think we should keep to our current strategy and deal with Rimodra, Askilin, and Canas first. We'll defang Nasri before gathering our forces and giving them a blow that counts and exterminating them completely."
The generals wanted to give a standing ovation, but the prince stopped them.
"I hope you all think carefully about where we should send Bluefeather and the two irregular corps. I hope to force the enemy out of their turtle shell into a grand battle to decide the fate of Eastern Freia."
Everyone quietly frowned in troubled thought. A major-general stood up eventually.
"Your Highness, is there any progress at sea?"
He obviously intended to take advantage of the maritime trade routes to have Fearless help deploy Bluefeather and the two irregular corps.
But the prince's reply disappointed him. "Don't count on the maritime trade routes. The Alliance's navy is putting up a frenzied search for Fearless. They took the initiative to enter our waters and are planning to spark conflict in our coastal areas. Fearless is still a little unequipped to protect itself and the kingdom is sending the newly formed fleet, Storm, to the eastern coast to aid them. For that, we even decreased the scale of the transport fleet to Nubissia.
"The battle plan of the navy truly is laughable. They truly think that the outbreak of war wouldn't affect the status quo at sea and that the enemy allied fleet won't take the initiative to attack ours. They even dreamt that they would be able to take over the enemy fleet without resistance. Come to think of it, they're nothing but a bunch of fools. How deluded they must be to be able to come up with such a ridiculous plan. I wonder how swollen the faces of the senior naval officers will be from all the slapping once they return to the royal capital, hehe."
Another slender middle-aged major-general stood up, cleared his throat and headed for the map on the wall. "Your Highness, I do have an idea. Perhaps we can mount a sudden attack here and burst into the heartland of Askilin directly. That way, we can circle around and surround the enemy from the back."
The part of the map he was pointing at was Pikleit Mountains. "As we all know, Pikleit Mountains stretch over a wide area and is located beside the Great Plains of Canas and the three southern prefectures of Askilin. However, there aren't roads that directly connect those areas. The three duchies had considered making a joint effort to build a road across, but the harsh terrain caused them to give up on that plan. That's why the enemy didn't station any troops near the mountains even after we began attacking Rimodra. They believe there's no way troops can be taken through Pikleit Mountains.
"After receiving word of 1st Ranger Tribe's conquest of Blackmaple Castle, I inspected the information from the castle and realised that the reason it was built was to curb smugglers travelling between Askilin and Canas. Since there are smugglers, there must be a route, so I launched a series of investigations and discovered that there are indeed two small paths connecting the two nations. If we have Bluefeather and the three irregular corps use those paths to pop up in the enemy heartland through the route in Pikleit Mountains, we'll be able to catch them by surprise."