Duke Reddragon and Marquis Griffon's replies soon came. However, all Claude could read from the tone of the duke was a sense of weariness. The old man kept on beating around the bush to praise the allied noble army only to admit at the end that when they were attacking the fourth prefecture, they didn't gain any satisfactory spoils despite the huge casualties they suffered due to the enemy's scorched-earth tactic. It was then when the slavers from the seven central nations showed up, so they decided to sell the captives to them to make up for their losses.
The old man admitted that it was his negligence that led to such heresy taking place in the first place, but he excused himself for being old and no longer able to keep on fighting, saying that he would retire as commander-in-chief of the allied noble army soon and return to his fief to lick his wounds. So, he apologised to Claude for not being able to complete the assignment of sweeping the ten western prefectures clean.
Unlike Duke Reddragon's letter that contained an intertwined mixture of truths and untruths, Marquis Griffon sounded far more direct. He casually admitted that the allied noble army had lost all semblance of discipline and was no longer an army, but rather, a large band of criminals and bandits. As the second-in-command, he felt nothing but shame!
Ever since the army set foot to attack the three western prefectures, he witnessed countless atrocities being committed in their name without end, especially the acts committed by the nobles. The nobles had lost all their cultivated refinement and saw nothing but money in their eyes. For the sake of getting a gold tooth, they would be willing to behead an old man in his seventies. To force a merchant to hand out their last gold coin, they would have no qualms about smashing an infant into the wall until it died.
Marquis Griffon said that he would rather have all the soldiers of the army shot dead. While there would no doubt be innocent soldiers wrapped up in such a massacre, there would be hundreds of rightfully punished evildoers for every innocent saint killed. As the army's discipline melted away, the units split into various factions under different nobles, though they all shared the same goal of scouring the Shiksan populace for wealth. That was why they were willing to deal with slavers and go against the kingdom's laws.
Marquis Griffon advised Claude to not bear any hope for the army. Those nobles who had filled their pockets to the brim weren't intent on fighting at all. All they wanted was to return to their respective fiefs to enjoy the fruits of their plunder. All of them, from the elite nobles to the lowliest soldier, were worried about losing their lives. The consequences for their crimes was the formation of all sorts of insurgent groups across the four prefectures they conquered. For every tent they sent out to fight them, fewer than four people would return.
The most terrifying part was how they didn't feel safe even in their own camps. The Shiksans once sent suicide bombers into the camps with carriages loaded with explosives under the pretence of selling vegetables, resulting in the deaths of up to a hundred men. There were some that infiltrated their camps to poison their supplies and took out a whole tribe of men and killing more than a hundred of them. Currently, the allied noble army didn't dare send out a patrol unless they had a whole band of men.
They were utterly terrified by the local insurgents and demanded to be allowed to retreat. They were unwilling to continue their mission to sweep through the prefectures either, worrying day in and out instead on whether they could even retreat safely. Marquis Griffon noted that perhaps they were already on their way back by the time Claude read the letter.
Claude regretted it somewhat for having wanted to count on the 100 thousand men of the allied noble army, thinking that they would afford some decent amount of help to the region and agreeing to let them take part in the attack. In the end, they did nothing but leave a mess for Thundercrash to clean up. Claude had no choice but to send an urgent letter to Avitelli I to warn him to raise his guard so that the allied noble army no longer caused him any trouble as they passed through Bleyotte during their retreat.
Their departure was a good thing at the end of the day. The allied noble army was nothing but a liability now and the others would only be relieved with them gone. Even so, Claude still had to have Typhoon send out a folk to the ten western prefectures to monitor the allied noble army's retreat and clean up their mess to prevent the insurgent forces from entering the territory the region controlled.
Near the end of the 5th month of Year 605, Ironclad and the transport fleet finally returned to Port Patkara. The next batch of homecoming Shiksan soldiers and their families could finally be on their way to the region. Within those two months, the sweeping of a few more prefectures saw another 600 plus thousand family members gather at Saint Cyprean.
Fortunately, Mullids' National Defence Army had taken over the five southern and five central prefectures, allowing the region to turn its attention away from matters of keeping its flanks secured. Additionally, Thundercrash could also be mobilised for strategic attacks to help Bleyotte take the four eastern prefectures at the border of Bleyotte.
By now, the other vassal nations of Shiks had begun to react. Now, Shiks was like a buffet of delicious meat served in front of all of them. The nations that believed they had a claim to that grand feast all flocked together and prepared to take their own large bite out of the delicious pieces of meat. News from all over was delivered to Saint Cyprean non-stop.
"Lord Militant, King Avitelli I sent you a letter," Fachselin said as he handed Claude an eagle message.
Claude opened it in a hurry, only to see that it was about the vassal nations of the Duchy of Suncross, the Kingdom of Castro, the Kingdom of Monatro, the Duchy of Tumak and the Kingdom of Isabra had sent ambassadors to Bleyotte. They had wanted to reach out to Claude through Avitelli I's connection with him, so the king forwarded him the message.
Claude stood up to take a look at the map of Northern Freia on his wall and soon saw the vassal nations mentioned in the letter. It was obvious they were gunning for Shiks. Like Bleyotte, they had been forced to cede Shiks territory before.
"Let their ambassadors come, then. Notify Avitelli I about this," instructed Claude.
"Yes, Lord Militant," Fachselin said before he left to send the eagle message.
Claude let the gears in his mind grind as he looked at the map. The five nations to the eastern and western border as well as Bleyotte made six in total. The five nations to the northern border, however, didn't show any response. The three northernmost nations were barbarian nations that could be ignored for now, but it was odd that the lower two, like the Kingdom of Zamaria and Kingdom of Pramaya, didn't show any response. Three of the eleven northern prefectures of Shiks had been taken from those two nations through a gruelling, four-year-long conflict at their borders.
Borkal came in and immediately opened a bottle of wine and poured himself a cup. Claude looked at him, all dusty and dirty, and wondered where he had come from. "Where were you just now?"
"Port Patkara," Borkal said, "There are four more ironclad transport ships this time around, so we're able to send more people and things back. Additionally, General Skri in Northbay requested us to send him 30 thousand captive labourers first as they need lots of manpower for development. They also need another three million crowns to cover the costs. The region's council requested us to pay that sum with the spoils we got."
Claude laughed. The spoils obtained from Shiks was too much that even the council began to get a little jealous over it to the point that they wanted the military administration to cover development costs of Northbay. "It's fine. Send 50 thousand captives there first. As for funding, we'll send General Skri ten million crowns. Just make sure the accounts are clean. What we spend now, the council can repay us gradually. We don't have to worry about them not taking up the costs."
"That's only a small matter. Yesterday, I received word from the department of intelligence that Count Mullids Jay Kreist of the National Defence Army held a local assembly and gave a speech about how Shiks is facing a critical time and how their corps is enduring humiliation to sue for peace with the invaders from the region for the sake of restoring their kingdom.
"He said that no other force in Shiks is a match for the National Defence Army, so that's why they are the ones with the task of negotiating with us to restore peace and order for the kingdom until they will have enough strength to drive us away one day.
"Some people accused the count of siding with us during the assembly and being a traitor, arguing that the National Defence Army should join the Duke of the Northlands if he really wanted to help the kingdom. It' said that Duke Feriot now has 300 thousand troops and plans to come storming through the ten western prefectures.
"The count responded by saying that he understood those criticisms, considering the degree of his actions. But he asked the sceptics why they were so certain that joining Duke Feriot would result in victory for Shiks. If they failed, Shiks would really stop existing and the poor Shiksan folk would no longer have anyone to rely on to protect them.
"As such, while it is fine for others to join Duke Feriot, the National Defence Army can't, as it has to remain to make sure the raided territories no longer suffered any more indignation from the invaders. It also has to silently amass its forces as the last hope for Shiks."
Borkal finished his wine in one go after that long report. "I think Count Kreist isn't really reliable. He actually dared publicly say something like that to antagonise us. Should we give him a warning?"
Claude smiled and waved. "It's normal. To them, we are indeed invaders. We gave him the five central and five coastal prefectures because we already sucked them dry and they are no longer useful to us. Instead, we are hoping that they keep the insurgents suppressed for us.
"I would say that the count did rather well based on the current situation. He's the perfect local defender. His ability to suppress the insurgents and restore basic order and industry is a great help for us. Not only will he be able to restore trade in his territories, but he'll also be able to provide the territories we still occupy with daily necessities. We also wouldn't have to waste manpower to occupy those territories we give away.
"As for his antagonistic rhetoric, that's to win the hearts of the folk. Don't you think what he said was really funny? For the sake of saving his kingdom, he has to silently amass power until he's confident enough to drive us out. Yet, we never planned on occupying them forever in the first place. We'll be long gone by the time the count feels he's powerful enough."
Borkal's expression was one of enlightenment. "That's right. Why did I forget that we wouldn't be staying here? I really shouldn't be picking bones with him. Oh, there's another thing. The allied noble army has left Bleyotte without causing any incident. However, they will be returning with all the wealth they pillaged from Shiks. They have up to a thousand ox carts of spoils and even tied some furniture they got to the carts to bring them back."
Claude sighed. "Those troublemakers are finally gone. That's good news for us. At least we won't have to worry about them causing us any more trouble. By the way, you mentioned that Duke Feriot has amassed a force of 300 thousand and plans to sweep through the ten western prefectures. Is that true?"
Borkal shook his head. "I can't verify whether it is true as our informants still haven't been able to infiltrate the eleven northern prefectures. That rumour stemmed from the local Shiksan folk. Some people swear by it while others think it's just a hoax since the two standing corps that joined the duke still remains unmoving in the prefecture of Krusta. The duke himself has never appeared publicly either.
"But I personally think that it could be true. Otherwise, the allied noble army wouldn't be retreating that quickly. They are probably one of the earliest to receive word of that, hence their decision to retreat. I made some estimations. The allied noble army entered the ten western prefectures from the east whereas the duke's force of 300 thousand entered from the north. There is a gap of around 40 days between the two forces. The allied noble army probably got word of the duke's troop movements and immediately retreated without bothering to notify us."
Borkal sounded rather pissed. He thought the nobles definitely wanted them to suffer by intentionally hiding the fact of the advance of the duke's army. Had Borkal known about that earlier, he would've tried to set the nobles up so that they paid the price.
Claude, however, stood up and took a long look at the map before shaking his head. "It might just be a coincidence. What I wonder is if the duke really has a force of 300 thousand and wants to fight for Shiks' restoration, he should be attacking the nine eastern prefectures where Thundercrash is stationed. He should be coming to us to request a decisive battle. What business do his troops have in the ten western prefectures? There's nobody there apart from the retreating allied noble army.
"Or, it could be that the force of 300 thousand wasn't amassed by the duke, but someone else. They might be trying to occupy their own territory in the ten western prefectures, so they are trying to avoid us in the nine eastern prefectures. That shows that this mystery figure is no fool and recognises his strengths and weaknesses. He might think he won't be our match, hence his evasion. Send someone to check whether that's truly the case."
Borkal nodded. "Got it. I'll work on it immediately."
"Also, there's something I want you to take note of. Check if there's anyone like Count Kreist in the remaining central prefectures. Four of the nine eastern prefectures belong to Bleyotte, and I doubt the remaining five can stay in Shiks either. The two neighbouring nations, Suncross and Castro, should be vying after the five prefectures and want to take a bite out of Shiks as well.
"At the borders of the ten western prefectures, Monatro, Tumak and Isabra are also eager to take their territories back. Well, we'll see if they're capable of doing so. Now that five southern and five central prefectures belong to the National Defence Army, the only territories in Shiks remaining are the eleven northern prefectures and a few other western prefectures.
"We need a suitable candidate to rival the Duke of the Northlands and the National Defence Army for the central prefectures and royal territory. Only then can we form a triangle of opposing factions. By then, we would no longer have any worries after retreating from Shiks. They'll have wolves abroad and hyenas within. Perhaps the days of the northern superpower will henceforth only be a page in history."