131. Undecided (1)
“…They’ve still got a massive presence, huh?” Tom frowned.
He read the letter concerning the Holy Kingdom. The situation had become one of extreme conflict, and thanks to the black priests’ tyranny and the priests’ corruption, the kingdom’s collapse seemed both inevitable and imminent. Even with the Golden Cross Army, a force consisting of Holy Knights and priests, assembled in the capital area, there was no sign of any advance after three months had passed. Tom couldn’t help his unease.
“Why has there been no news on these forces? Surely they would have made a move by now.” Tom tapped his fingers on the desk. It wouldn’t matter how long they waited, the Holy Kingdom’s forces would stay in place. “If Salem Gottshuranche is truly crazy, he should be wielding his forces like it.”
The Kingdom had assembled their army and then left them. The resultant cost of maintenance would quickly bankrupt the country; the kingdom itself was paralyzed by the black priests’ oppression.
Most priests and cardinals capable of administering state affairs were dead, and the ones remaining were corrupt brown-nosers and loyalists to the Pope. For the people, The Holy Kingdom currently looked a lot like hell.
Even when the people tried to flee, they were captured by the black priests and considered heretics. Torture and death awaited them. The citizens of the capital were completely isolated from the outside world, trapped in a city ruled by anarchy. The kingdom holding its ground over the next year, let alone two, was out of the question. They were, with a doubt, self-destructing. Tom smirked. For the litany of reasons to attack the kingdom, going against a hollowed-out and collapsing regime carried a certain moral satisfaction.
But when was the right time? There would be no war if the Holy Kingdom disappeared tomorrow, but the demon army wouldn’t be able to beat all of their forces in a head on fight.
‘Make a move.’ Tom cast a thought to their direction. ‘Show me your strength.’
Tom hoped for any sign of the Holy Kingdom’s indiscriminate aggression. He wanted to show the world how feeble they had become, while also demonstrating the Demon Kingdom’s strength.
‘The nations watching need a show of strength from the Demon Kingdom. The play is to wait from the Holy Kingdom to make the first move, then crush them.’
Perceived provocation from the Holy Kingdom meant that neighboring countries would call upon the Demon Kingdom for support, which would bolster their reputation. If the Demon Kingdom took the first move, however, the opposite might happen. They would back the country they believed had the virtuous position.
‘Such was the interest of nations; avoid destruction and maintain their borders, regardless of the outcome.’
If it was up to his personal preference, his forces would not meet the adversary in a useless battle at all. But he had no control over that; he could only choose how to engage.
“We need to force an engagement, but how we do it is paramount.”
The pope was a hedonist driven by lust, engaging in orgies and disconnected from reality. A way forward appeared in Tom’s mind.
Where she was, the Holy Kingdom’s army was sure to follow as an extension of Pope Salem’s yearning. Even more so with the knowledge of Akareal’s pregnancy.
Kine Paulie was aware of the Pope’s lasciviousness towards Akareal, so the pregnancy was made to be kept quiet. However, a well-timed rumor (even if true) was as good a provocation as any weapon. If Salem heard the news, he would attack the Aylan Kingdom, diverting some of his forces for a vainglorious and continuous war. That would be the Demon Army’s opportunity to seize territories and establish a foothold.
‘But I can’t burden her further. Akareal has already risked as much as her soul. The thought of her in Salem’s clutches–I can’t think about that.’
He thought of the orphans and his colleagues in the monastery. No, he would need to think of another party.
‘The Lome Kingdom? No, we’re better off advancing with them at the same time; using them as bait would be to our detriment. We need even more help.’
Tom glanced over the letter once more. The black priests had previously been a group of convicts. Tom paused. Convicts?
‘We’ve got those.’
In fact, there was a group of prisoners underground that had a fanatical allegiance to Tom.
“Necromancers should work nicely.”
Lily sat in a daze upon her throne. A short three months ago, the Demon Kingdom was in chaos, in the grips of an invasion. Today, the stability they enjoyed made it a seemingly distant memory.
However, even with this precious peace, Lily’s mind had remained in turmoil these last three months for one reason, and one reason alone. It was something that had been said during the conversation between Tom and the Hero’s party. Specifically, something the female magen had mentioned.
“If you cherish your precious Demon Lord that much, then despair at losing her!”
Lily gave her head a small shake. ‘Nonsense. He cherishes me as all my subjects do… That has to be it.’
Still, expectation and excitement took residence in her heart, though she had no courage to ask Tom.
Startled, Lily turned her focus back outward. Two humans, Oscal Raffenrose and Akareal Morgana, the guardian knight of the Lome Kingdom and the Queen of the Aylans Kingdom, were standing before her. Lily cleared her throat, regaining her composure before her guests.
“Yes. Thank you for coming all this way. You must be tired. We may discuss matters of diplomacy tomorrow.” Lily turned to Lulu. “Show them their quarters for the evening.”
“Yes, Your Highness.” Lulu nodded and moved towards the exit. He turned to the burly knight and the beautiful queen. “Come with me, if you please. I’ll attend to you.”
Oscal and Akareal followed. As they left, a terse silence settled between them. A dozen years passed since they last shared a room, not that either of them was counting. Oscal stroked the back of his neck and decided to speak.
“It’s been a long time,” Akareal said first.
“Oh–yeah, it has” Oskar glanced around, then leaned over and spoke in a hoarse whisper. “So I heard you’re ‘with child’.”
“What?” her eyes widened and she nearly jumped. “How did you–?”
Oscal cachinnated at her response, his guffaws audible in the hall. “So it’s true? Congratulations! I thought you’d live as a slave forever–”
She crushed his foot under her heel. His laughter ceased.
“–I see the promise of motherhood hasn’t yet made you more temperate,” he snidely remarked.
“Is Highness Paulie fond of such brashness?”
“Another word on the subject, and we’ll see how brash I seem with a magic bomb down your throat.” Akareal smiled, her word slipping between her teeth like a dagger from its sheath.
Oscal shook his head. “No thanks. I know what it’s like to face death—that’s not an activity I want to entertain again.”
“Good. So, how did you know?”
“You forget whom I serve; his Highness Pygni has his ways of finding out what he wants to know. Underestimate him at your peril.”
“Spies. I should have known.”
“You’re welcome to try and root them out,” Oscal sneered. “But don’t think Pygni won’t see you coming.”
“So confident for such a subordinate country.”
“Not subordinate to you. Last I checked, you don’t helm the Demon Kingdom’s forces.”
They faced off, the familiar japes did their job of diffusing the tension between them. Smiles already began to creep on their faces before long.
“This castle is truly something,” Oscal commented, shifting the conversation to other business. “The Demons have got serious craftsmanship. The Lome Kingdom certainly has a challenge of splendor here.”
“Yes, the difference from the previous Demon Lord is like night and day. The sight from when I last saw this place is incomparable.” Lulu’s ears perked up at the topic. He turned his head behind him, nearly straining his neck. “But of course. This revitalization symbolizes the rebirth of the Demon Kingdom under Her Highness, the Demon Lord, and the Apostle, Tom.”
“Tom?” Oscal cocked his head, and then clapped his hands in a boisterous sudden remembrance. “Oh right, that bastard! The spitting image of our beloved Thoma!”
Lulu covered his ears at his shouts, his head rattled and numb. He frowned at Oscal, who suddenly took hold of Lulu and gave a shake.
“Oi! Where is this Tom, Rabbit boy? Huh?”
“Oscal, enough.” Akareal struck his grip with her fist. Oscal released Lulu.
“Ah. Sorry, sorry,” he apologized to Lulu.
Lulu steadied himself, holding his head.
“What’s this about?” He asked, looking to Oscal with a lingering irritation.
“Like I said: sorry.” Oscal’s lips curled into a smile. “ Okay, rabbit boy. This Tom you bragged about so much has piqued my interest. Where is he now?”
— Ω —