In the study, Arthur was sitting opposite Gerald, patiently waiting for him to speak.
“Arthur,” Gerald said. “Robben Luwin will be removed soon. That means heavy trade from the south will return to the basin. It will also mean that others will begin noticing the recent change in the Viscounty. We will no longer be the bandit-ridden territory that hardly has enough coin to get by.”
“True, my lord,” Arthur nodded.
Gerald took a breath. “I need to know how our relation is with the Royal family. After trade returns, should I expect someone to come demanding the King’s tribute at the end of the year?”
Arthur smiled and shook his head. “I don’t think so, my lord. Not unless you alert them somehow.”
“Hmm?” Gerald cocked his head. “I understand that the Royal Capital is weaker than before. Even armed conflicts among nobles have been ignored lately. But I doubt that means that the King’s tribute will be ignored.”
Arthur sighed. “For this matter to become clear, I have to tell you about the end of the war, my lord.”
Gerald’s narrowed his eyes. The end of the war. He and his sister had been taken away from his father at that time. “Go ahead.”
“When the Neejer and Mali Kingdoms interfered with the war, the conflict came to a stalemate,” Arthur explained. “The battles mostly happened in the Wild Plains east of the basin.”
Gerald nodded. The Tellus basin was the link between the Andross Empire and the Maric Kingdom. But Andross would never send its whole army to invade Maric through the basin. The latter simply needed to block the southern pass of the basin and continue with a war of attrition. The Andross Empire had chosen the wiser choice and circled around the basin from the east, marching through the western edge of the Wild Plains. They had risked being attacked by the wild tribes, but it was unavoidable. Maric’s King had also decided to meet them in the Wild Plains instead of waiting at his borders. His decision almost brought the Kingdom to its demise.
“The Andross Empire realized that fighting three Kingdoms at the same time would bring them nothing but eventual ruin,” Arhtur continued. “Duke Malfi, however, was greedy. He had used a portion of his army to attack the basin during the war. And as you already know, my lord, Ard suffered a multitude of sieges, and the basin mostly fell out of your father’s control. To be honest, when the war reached a stalemate in the plains, the Duke was very close to taking Ard. The castle had weakened and even with Count Westwell’s help, Ard’s defense was faltering. Continued assaults had depleted your father’s and Count Westwell’s men.”
“Then the Andross Empire accepted the peace treaty,” Gerald said.
“Yes,” Arthur nodded. “The Duke lost his chance. But when the time came for the treaty to be signed, he insisted on compensation. He claimed that the basin was in his hands, even if Ard wasn’t. He had rendered many achievements in the war in the Wild Plains and he had a lot of influence in the Imperial court of Andross. So the Emperor allowed him to impose a condition in the treaty. It was Andross’s only condition, based on their sole advantage in the war.”
“The compensation was supposed to be a large amount of gold that my father had to pay, yes?” Gerald said.
“Indeed,” Arthur said. “Of course, the former Viscount didn’t even have a fifth of what was demanded.”
“And after a war that continued for four years, no one would be able to afford lending my father the needed coin,” Gerald said with a sigh.
“Yes,” Arthur said. “The Duke then demanded that two of the former Viscount’s children be sent to his territory. One as a ward and the other as a future bride for one of his sons. The Neejer and Mali Kingdoms were pushing for peace. That’s all they cared for. As long as the threat of an Andross invasion was averted, they didn’t care about anything else. So they pressured the King of Maric into accepting the ‘modest’ condition that Andross demanded.”
“Considering that the King was on the losing side of the war before the two Kingdoms interfered, I don’t think he had any choice,” Gerald said.
“I doubt the King would have refused the condition either way. In the end, your father had to comply,” Arthur said. “He couldn’t halt the treaty. Even the King couldn’t at that point. And for the condition to be fulfilled . . . ” He looked Gerald in the eye.
“My sister and I had to be the sacrifices,” Gerald said.
Arthur nodded apologetically. “Your father never recovered. During the first few years after the war he rarely even spoke. His disposition improved years later, but he never truly recovered.”
“Tell me, Arthur,” Gerald said, remembering something. “Why didn’t my father accept the Duke’s demands after the war? The trade route never came to be, even though we were the Duke’s hostages.”
“The first few years after the treaty weren’t without tension,” Arthur said. “The borders between Maric and Andross were closed for four years after the treaty. Actually, War nearly broke out once again during that period.”
“What about after the borders were opened?” Gerald asked.
“After the borders opened and trade returned, the Duke indeed demanded for a monopolized trade route,” Arthur explained. “But your father demanded that either you or Lena be sent back in exchange. The Duke refused.”
“Yet he let me return now,” Gerald mused.
“You were the only remaining heir, my lord. There was no one else to inherit the Viscounty and obey the Duke.” Arthur said. “The late Viscount prevented the Duke from getting what he wanted. I believe the Duke hopes that you’ll choose to act differently.”
“My father denied him the trade route for 10 whole years?” Gerald tilted his head. “The Duke sure is patient.”
“It isn’t that simple, my lord,” Arthur shook his head. “At first, your father indeed denied the Duke his trade route. But later, it became more difficult. The Duke threatened your father on several occasions. It may have seemed like the Duke couldn’t harm you or your sister, lest he lose his honor. But many young nobles fall off their horses and get crippled, or worse.”
“True,” Gerald nodded coldly. “What did my father end up doing though?”
“Nothing?” Gerald raised a brow.
“Yes. Nothing, my lord,” Arthur smiled wryly. “Your father’s temper began to get worse again. Then he stopped handling the affairs of the Viscounty properly. Specially the bandits.”
“Wait,” Gerald perked up with wide eyes. “You mean . . . ”
Arthur dropped his eyes, and his expression turned apologetic. “I’m not certain, my lord. Your father never explained his intentions to me. Others might believe that his grip had weakened, but I believe . . . I believe he might have done it on purpose. Unfortunately, even if my belief was true, your father’s condition still detoriorated. Last year, I could hardly see any life in his eyes.”
Gerald grew silent. Everything fell in place now. He finally understood how the basin became this infested with bandits. They could have been removed when they were still budding, but his father had just let them be. Eventually, they had grown so much that they outnumbered Ard’s army. “Why did my father lead the men himself to chase those bandits down?” Gerald gazed at Arthur. He was beginning to have doubts.
“I’m not certain,” Arthur said. “He wouldn’t listen to any of us. He even commanded Robard to stay in the castle no matter what. It wasn’t something he would normally do. He even chased them into the mountains. It’s like . . . ”
“It’s like he wanted to die,” Gerald stood up then walked towards the window behind his seat and opened it. A warm breeze blew into the study, and the sunlight was glaring outside.
“Your father has been through a lot, my lord,” Arthur’s voice came from behind him. “I hope you won’t judge his actions too quickly.”
Gerald looked towards the distant houses below the hill. Some parts of Ard were visible to him from the study’s window. He could see movement in the streets, but he couldn’t see his subjects clearly. Even the colors of their clothes were hard to discern. “I will never condemn my father, Arthur. I didn’t live his life, and I’m still beginning my own.” He walked back to his seat and sat down. “We have deviated from our original discussion. Let’s talk about our relation with the Royal Capital again.”
Arthur paused, eying Gerald who’d returned to his usual self. Then he sighed and spoke. “The King never bothered with the Viscounty after the war. He never demanded a tribute, and he never summoned your father. Some say that it’s out of guilt. But it may also be because the basin has been nothing short of a ruin for years.”
“So the Royal Capital only cares if the basin is invaded by forces from Andross, but nothing else,” Gerald said. He closed his eyes for a while and hummed. Then he raised a finger. “Our house is here simply as a cushion between them and an Andross invasion. They won’t take note of us if there is no danger from the north. We just need to avoid making too much noise. Then we won’t have to worry about a tribute, at least for the time being.”
“I believe so, my lord,” Arthur said. “We only have to worry if the Viscounty gets too wealthy.”
Gerald snorted sardonically. There was a long way to tread for him to make the Viscounty wealthy. For now, he only hoped to avert disaster. As long as he could make the basin stable and have a healthy treasury, he would consider his plans a success. “Oh,” he said, a thought suddenly coming to him. “By wiping out the bandits, am I not removing the only thing that prevented the Duke from having his desired trade route?”
“In a way, you are, my lord,” Arthur nodded helplessly. “But I believe the Viscounty will be having more severe problems if the bandits are not removed. We were already at our breaking point when you arrived.”
“I suppose I will receive demands from him soon enough. And as long as he has Lena, I will have to comply,” Gerald said. “I won’t make it easy for him though.” He smirked, watching the puzzled Arthur with amusement.