“Why are you here?” Gerald said as he stared at Renard. “I doubt that you truly want to discuss ways to better the workings of the iron mine. You don’t care about the territory, not truthfully.” Renard had arrived in his study a while ago, feigning ridiculous reasons for the visit. Ordinarily, he wouldn’t meet Gerald without being summoned or being in the assembly in the Lord’s Hall.
The minister sighed and threw Gerald a glance of what seemed like sympathy, but it wasn’t very believable. “You see, your lordship. The Duke had an agreement with your father . . . about the army. I understand that you are recruiting more men than mentioned in that agreement.”
Gerald sneered. “And did my father sign this agreement?”
“Oh, there was no signing,” Renard said. “It is an agreement that is carried only by the power of word. Your father gave the Duke his word, and the Duke assumed that he would keep it.”
“And that he did,” Gerald glowered at him. “But I’m not my father. I have not given my word to the Duke, and I don’t intend to when it comes to this matter.”
“You see, your lordship. Your sister—”
“Enough of that!” Gerald stood up, growling. “What is it that you want?”
“The army of Ard must be curbed back to what it used to be,” Renard raised both his hands, as if helpless.
“It won’t be done,” Gerald said, the decisiveness in his tone clear.
“In that case,” Renard sighed. “The Duke won’t be pleased.”
“It will depend on how you deliver the news, my ‘minister’,” Gerald looked at him with contempt. “And you should think well before deciding how to deliver this news. If the Duke isn’t pleased with my decision, then to hell with everything. If he harms my sister, the trade route he’s planned so much for will be blocked for eternity, and I will direct it to his rival; Count Herwald.”
Renard raised his chin and hid the signs of irritation that began to appear on his face.
“I’ve already given the Duke what he wants. Merchants have already begun to travel north,” Gerald tapped on the table. He walked around it until he was right in front of his minister. “You have to remember, Renard. Your fate is entwined with the fate of that route. It’s what gives you worth. Without the trade route, you are nothing to the Duke. So think well before ruining this for a useless agreement.” Gerald snorted in his face then walked back to his seat. He knew that the agreement had been one more form of pressure the Duke had put on the Viscounty. His father had abstained from attacking the bandits. The Duke hadn’t like that very much, so he’d imposed some restrictions on Ard’s military, since it wouldn’t be fighting the bandits anyway.
The Duke never needed worry about the Viscounty’s military though. There would never be war between them after all, since it would entail a war between Maric and Andross. And aside from that, no matter how much Gerald expanded his army, he wouldn’t have enough strength to battle the Duke, at least not in nearer times. He’d heard that the Duke had as many as thirty thousand men. He was perhaps the strongest Duke in the subcontinent. He’d garnered enough influence and territory in Andross to build such an army without obstacles. Gerald would have no fortune in a war against him.
He glanced at his minister as he took his seat. Renard was biting his lips and giving him a hateful stare. Gerald had thrown the whole weight of the problem on him after all. He would have to either not inform the Duke of it or deliver the news in the best way possible to avoid troubles. If he were to deliver the news to the Duke as a form of insult, it could complicate things and ruin the trade route, which was what his success rested on. Gerald knew that, and he wished to make use of it.
“I’ve had enough of you in my study,” Gerald said, waving him away with two fingers, just like he would a servant.
Renard pushed his jaw from side to side and nodded. He shot Gerald a venomous glare before turning and walking out of the study.
Gerald didn’t get a few moments of respite before Frederick knocked on the door and came in. “My lord, Lady Elrite awaits you in the gardens.”
Gerald nodded and headed towards the door. He left the study and found Arthur outside, about to enter. “Arthur?”
“My lord,” Arthur said, looking at him inquisitively. Then he seemed to abandon his unasked questions, sighing. “I have matters to discuss with you.”
Gerald nodded for Frederick to go ahead of him. “Walk with me, Arthur.”
The old minister nodded and walked beside him through the hallway. “The harvest has begun, my lord.”
“How well is it going?” Gerald said.
“The fields will yield a considerable amount,” Arthur explained. “And with the outer villages falling back into the House’s hands, we can expect more income.”
“Yes, yes. You said before that we would need three thousand gold more than our income to support the Viscounty,” Gerald said uncertainly.
“Indeed, my lord,” Arthur said. “But I doubt that that will be the case after this harvest. I believe that the Viscounty will pass its first year in the recent past without such difficulties.”
“Very well,” Gerald said. They strolled through a few hallways before climbing down the stairs. “How goes the preparation in the scorched forest?”
“The sowing for the winter will begin in a month, my lord. The lands will be ready before that.”
“How much land will be planted?”
“More than we’ve imagined, my lord. The refugees aren’t keen on missing chances like this one. Aside from the amount of gold you have provided for lending, many refugees have borrowed from merchants and are preparing to plant their fields.”
Gerald smiled and glanced at his minister. “Then we needn’t worry about next year’s grain. If all goes well, we’ll have much to spare.”
“Or sell, my lord,” Arthur chortled.
Gerald shrugged. “Regardless, there is always use for grain.”
Arthur nodded as they came to a stop a door away from the gardens.
“Ahh, and how has the undertaking in the south been faring?” Gerald asked.
“We’ve begun building the roads for the new quarter south of the walls, my lord. Hopefully, the quarter will be ready in a few short months.”
“How few?” Gerald said, narrowing his eyes.
“I can’t be certain,” Arthur shook his head. “If this is a calm winter, then we could need only two months, my lord. But if it isn’t or if any other matters obstruct the building, then we could need as many as four months to have the skeletal foundation of a new quarter ready.”
Gerald rubbed his chin. “What if you focused on building the market area before anything else. How long would it need to be prepared for merchants?”
“A month, I believe, my lord.”
“Do so then. I also want the streets of the market area built with stone instead of gravel,” Gerald tapped his minister on the shoulder.
“It shall be done, my lord.”
“Very well,” Gerald nodded, heading towards the gardens. “I shall go handle my other matters.” He opened the door and walked out to the smell of greenery and roses.
Reya was standing in the middle of a group of blood-red roses. She touched their petals with her hovering palms. She turned from side to side, slowly dancing among the crowd of flowers, her green dress swinging with her. A moment after he entered, she turned around and smiled at him.
“Lady Reya,” Gerald said.
“I hope our gardens have been pleasant to you,” Gerald said as he walked to the seats to the side.
Reya nodded with half a smile and walked to the seats as well.
Gerald sat down and she quickly joined him.
“The gardens are very beautiful,” she said, eying him. “I have found pleasure in my time here. Yet your company has been difficult to keep, your lordship.”
“You must forgive me, my lady.” Gerald wore a wry smile. “The matters of the Viscounty rarely give me leisure.”
“I understand, of course,” she nodded. “But that is not all.” She gave him an anxious glance, perhaps even impatient.
“My lady,” Gerald sighed, irritated. “That is indeed not all. I wish to get past the unneeded pleasantries.” He glanced at her as well, but his glance carried meaning.
“I will be honest then, Lord Tellus,” her eyes lowered towards the ground.
“I appreciate honesty very much, my lady,” he said. “I hope that you will say that which we both already know.”
She nodded and forced a smile. “Yes . . . The alliance has sent me in the hopes of gaining a new friend. I was to subtly solicit an alliance by marriage.” She blushed, her eyes still fixed on the ground.
Gerald smile, satisfied. At least with the truth put to words, he could speak his truth as well. “You see, my lady. I have great appreciation for your honesty, but I do not intend to enter such an alliance with the Baronies yet. You are very beautiful. It would have been my honor and certainly my fortune to wed you. But such a decision never crossed my mind, because it meant more than just wedding you. It meant I would be wedding the Baronies, and I intend to do no such thing.”
Reya pressed her lips, seemingly distressed. But she soon nodded and smiled at him. “I’m glad that you chose to be honest with me, Lord Tellus. And with the truth you have told me, I can at least avoid needless accusations when I return home.”
Gerald nodded. It was understandable that the Barons would attempt to put the weight of this failure on her. She had been the winner of the opportunity to seal such an alliance after all, and the other Barons’ daughters had lost that opportunity. But with Gerald’s words, it was made clear that the failure came from his decision to avoid an alliance with the Baronies, not from Reya.
“I wish you the best in your coming endeavors, my lady,” Gerald said as he stood up.
She nodded and stood up as well. “Thank you, Lord Tellus. I wish you the same. I will tell Radiel to stop extending the negotiations with your minister needlessly. I have been your guest for long enough.”
“A welcome guest,” Gerald said. “You may stay as long as you wish”
“There is no need for me to stay any longer. I wish to return home. It has been pleasant visiting somewhere new, but I have spent enough time here, I suppose.”
Gerald nodded and departed, leaving the gardens with a smile. He would no longer have to purposelessly keep a stranger’s company.