Nobody dared to stop the advance of the three Thundercrash folks. There were more than ten noble fiefs in the Nasrian region, but the so-called lords were nowhere to be seen. Not a single one of the butlers dared to object to the crossing of the troops nor demand compensation for any damaged property on the fief. However, the poor subjects of those fiefs didn't have it much easier as the horses left their droppings on the streets as they passed.
"And there I thought there would be some braindead nobles who would come to stop us so we can slay them and make an example of them. Looks like they're no fools after all. What a shame..." Claude muttered on horseback.
He was really hoping for someone to cause trouble and blame Thundercrash for property destruction and attempt to claim money from them. That would be ample reason for Claude to hang them up so that the other nobles knew their place before pure military might. Even the king's decrees were worth nothing, to say no more of a puny noble's life.
Masonhughes had a short conversation with three mounted scouts that returned before he rode back to Claude. "Lord Militant, there are a few nobles at the rest stop some five kilometres ahead who would like to meet you. They even prepared a feast for a meeting."
So they were finally there. Claude finally snapped out of his boredom. They were probably trying to defend the honour of the kingdom or do something along those lines. Should Claude try to avoid them, they would try to provoke Claude into fighting them and be framed by history as the rightful, honourable men whereas Claude would be the wicked villain who slew a loyal subject of the kingdom.
"How many troops do they have?" Claude asked.
"Troops?" Masonhughes snapped out of his stupor a moment later. "No, Lord Militant. Those nobles didn't bring any troops with them. They only came with a few attendants and servants. They appear to want to meet for some order of business."
Business? Claude wondered what it could entail.
"Bring me to them."
There were six nobles, and the one with the highest status was a hereditary count like Claude. They really were there to do business with him. They didn't care that Thundercrash was making their way to the royal capital in the least. They were more concerned now with their fiefs rather than the kingdom. However, nobody but Claude could give them the greenlight for the business they had in mind. They hoped that Claude could sell them the new rifles of the region so that they could form a formidable force to defend their fiefs.
"I will be frank, Lord Militant," the leader, Count Hiblos said, going straight to the point, "After His Majesty's enfeoffment, the Nasrian region will only remain stable for five years at most. There will definitely be endless conflict among nobles following that. Conflict between nobles isn't something the kingdom can stick their hands into. Even the king wouldn't have the right to send troops to quell these conflicts.
"What we want is an elite force for self-defence, and currently, the strongest troops to exist are your Thundercrash and Monolith corps, Lord Militant. That's why we hope you can sell us the military gear from the autonomous region so we can have an edge over the other nobles. We are willing to pay any cost for that."
Claude didn't really expect that they would be there just for an arms deal. However, there was nothing Claude could do about it, as the matter at the royal capital was still not solved. He could only promise to revisit the matter with the other leaders of the region once everything was wrapped up and get back to them.
As they set up camp for the night, Claude asked around about conflict among nobles and his adjutant, Masonhughes, did seem to know something about it. He told Claude that it involved at least nobles from two different fiefs. The winner would absorb the fief of the loser and expand his influence. Two neighbouring fiefs could fight over matters as small as the amount of water siphoned from a stream or the number of houses built along the border. Eventually, those little spats would no doubt develop into war.
The nobles from both sides would rally their troops and allies to fight, and the winner took all. In ancient times, duels were also commonplace. Each side would send out a knight to represent them in a sacred duel at the war god's shrine. The winner would take the loser's fief as their own or make the loser a vassal house. The loser would swear allegiance to the winner at the shrine and could never go against the will of the winner. In other words, it was a game of gobbling up as much territory as possible.
Though finally understanding the essence of the matter, Claude was completely disinterested in such squabbles. Battles on those scales only numbered in the hundreds or thousands. He asked Masonhughes whether there was any response from the royal capital since their departure, especially the movements of Reddragon and Griffon.
"There's nothing. We didn't receive any reply to our letter. Griffon and Reddragon remained at their stations in the Nasrian region without any odd movements. They didn't make any battle preparations either."
"How is Monolith in Polyvisia so far?"
"Monolith 1st Folk left Polyvisia three days ago with General Birkin for Audin Mountain Range. He sent Corps Command a letter saying that Eimis still remained under the control of our local garrisons. He had ordered 117th Garrison Line to send two tribes to take Audin Mountain Range and hold it until Monolith 1st Folk arrives. It would take at least 16 days for them to reach.
"General Birkin also asked whether he should send 1st Folk straight for the royal capital once Griffon and Reddragon showed up to stop us or flank the kingdom from the borders to work with us to wipe them out in a pincer attack," Masonhughes reported.
With everyone marching their troops around, communication was a little difficult. They mostly communicated with horseback messengers. Carrier eagles' greatest weakness was being unable to locate a moving army. They could only be sent from one signalling station to another.
Claude fell into deep thought. "I'm wondering if the royal capital might use Griffon or Reddragon to stop our advance. I'm sure the king and prime minister know that even those two corps together won't be the match of our three corps. After our letter, they should know that any attempt at stopping us will be considered as a declaration of war.
"The royal capital can't possibly risk stoking another conflict at this point in time, nor can they afford to take us on. If they really send their troops to stop us, that means something has changed in the royal capital. Our representatives might really be in real danger.
"Send someone to Polyvisia and send an eagle message to Eimis as well as a messenger to General Birkin and his troops. If war breaks out, he is to take Monolith 1st Folk straight to the royal capital to crush the royal guard so that those there don't have time to prepare for war or retreat."
The closer he was to the border of the kingdom's original territories, the more nervous he got. If Reddragon and Griffon really showed up to stop him, it would mean that the royal capital had made up their mind to fight that war. Even if Claude could crush them easily, he would be labelled a traitor for good.
In a time of monarchs and royal families, no minister or soldier dared oppose the king even if he committed wrongdoing. Treason was the paramount sin. Even with Claude's excuse of fighting for the safety of the representatives and their wealth, it was still enough to consider sending troops to the royal capital without explicit permission from the king treasonous.
Claude had made up his mind to fight if it came to it. It wasn't that big a deal. If the royal capital really wanted to fight, he would uproot the whole Stellin royal family and exterminate Aueras for good. As for what will come in the future, he would cross the bridge when he came to it. Perhaps he could gather the House of Dignitarians and the House of Lords for the formation of a republic.
Without the Stellin royal family, there was no more need to worry about his traitor label. In the centuries to come, he would be regarded as the one who put an end to the monarchy for the founding of the republic. Like the autonomous region, there would be no one monarch nor figurehead. Nobody was inherently superior to another and there would be a council of men of equal standing deciding on national policies. It would more or less be a democratic, republican system.
"Sir--" Masonhughes barged in and snapped Claude out of his train of thought. "--General Eiblont sent a messenger from the frontlines, saying he crossed the border successfully. Reddragon and Griffon remain in their encampments."
Claude was a little delighted before the disappointment set in. Though he prepared so much for battle, what he envisioned had not come to pass. What was Reddragon and Griffon up to? Was the royal capital really unwilling to go to war? Did they not give any orders, or did the two corps chicken out and refuse to obey those orders, knowing that they were doomed to fail?
If it was the former, the royal capital should be willing to resolve the matter peacefully and pretend they accepted the excuse Claude used to mobilise Thundercrash. Perhaps when Thundercrash finally reached the royal capital, the arrested representatives would be released and the 30 million crowns returned in full. Thundercrash would have nothing left to do but to turn back.
If the royal capital had given the two corps decrees but they didn't act, that meant they would sit there and do nothing as Thundercrash exterminated the kingdom completely. That would mean the command the royal family held over those two corps was merely an empty promise, and that those in real command were hidden behind the scenes.
Claude couldn't figure out the reason for their inaction no matter what. But since they already crossed the border, he no longer had to worry about that problem. Reddragon and Griffon were now worries of the past. They would soon reach Ibnist Plains and only the royal guard could possibly stop them.
"Continue advancing!" Claude said.
Two days later, Thundercrash 4th Folk reached Ibnist Plains and stopped. Eiblont sent an urgent message saying that Prime Minister Blancarte himself came to welcome Thundercrash's troops with a camp already erected in waiting for them.
"What is the meaning of this?" Claude mused, completely confused. What game was the royal capital trying to play? Having the prime minister there to welcome them sounded weird no matter how he tried to think about it. After triple confirming with the messenger that no trace of the royal guard was found, Claude wondered if the royal capital simply gave up upon first notice to avoid war with them.
"Bring me to see Prime Minister Blancarte then." Claude was determined to find out the truth of the matter.
Thundercrash 4th Folk had already settled down in camp. Claude rushed to the main tent with his guards. The moment he pushed the tent cover open, he saw Eiblont and a few other high-ranking officers of the folk laughing with a red-faced, moustached man dressed in common clothing.
Eiblont and the rest immediately saluted Claude when they saw him. Eiblont reported, "Lord Militant, we were about to arrange a meeting before dinner. This is Marquis Blancarte, our prime minister. He wants to discuss something with you."
Claude nodded at the tall man and removed his cloak before handing it to Masonhughes. "I am also curious about the royal capital's plans. It is my honour to be able to meet you, Prime Minister. However, I think we can leave some things for later. I rushed all this way here and am hungry and cold, having been riding against the wind for most of the day. Let's talk after I fill my stomach with some warm soup."
And so a large bowl of potato-beef soup was served to Claude along with four steaming slices of blackbread toast. As he munched away at his food, he apologised for the poor hospitality their troops offered an honoured guest like him.
Some ten minutes later, Claude ordered for his unfinished food to be taken away. The other officers also left, leaving Claude, Eiblont and Blancarte in the tent. Masonhughes served two bottles of fruit wine before exiting the tent.
Claude opened the bottle and poured the three of them some wine. "I believe it's our first meeting, Lord Prime Minister. I've long heard about your reputation. Your five-year revival proposal truly had me gasping in amazement. It is perfect for the kingdom's current climate. If it could be executed, Aueras will no doubt be the number-one nation on Freia."
"You flatter me, Lord Militant. I don't deserve such high praise." Blancarte shook his wine lightly before slowly tasting it like a connoisseur. "I'm sure you are aware that my proposal borrowed much from the developmental plans of the autonomous region, whose progress is thanks to your efforts, Lord Militant."
Claude burst out laughing. "I'm merely a musclehead that only knows how to fight wars. You must've heard one too many rumours about me. Alright, let's skip the pleasantries and talk frankly. I want to know how you intend to resolve this incident."
Blancarte wasn't expecting Claude to get straight to the point and ask for a final resolution. Though taken aback, he quickly recovered and slowly shook his wine glass again. Claude and Eiblont didn't rush him, waiting for him to finish his wine.
"Actually, the kingdom has already extended the greatest sincerity to you. His Majesty accepts your excuse for deploying troops and didn't send Griffon and Reddragon out to stop you. You might be interested to hear about how angry the officers of the ministry of the army and our three corps were when they saw the notices you released. They think you don't take the king seriously at all in mobilising without permission. Many of them requested to be sent to stop you, but His Majesty shot them all down."
A cold smile surfaced on Claude's face. "So, you're saying it's thanks to your graciousness that we even made it to Ibnist Plains? Stop with the bullcrap and let's have a heart to heart. How did this happen in the first place? Why did we send our troops for the royal capital? Are you not aware of what your foolish queen did? You have my thinning patience to thank for us not being in an all-out war. Otherwise, I dare say that the Stellin royal family will be no more when the war ends."