Chapter 196: The Manipulator (One)
Translator: EndlessFantasy Translation Editor: EndlessFantasy Translation
Thales gaped at Lampard’s sword, halfway out of its sheath.
This was not the first time he was in grave danger. And based on Thales’ understanding of this world, it would not be his last.
However, he did not have the slightest clue as to what he could do, stuck in a carriage with the bloodthirsty Archduke Lampard, and hundreds of soldiers outside.
Should he channel his so-called mystic energy once more?
Thales reached out and grasped Little Rascal’s hand.
“You must be Nuven’s granddaughter, little girl,” Lampard said flatly, turning his sword.
The two children froze. Thales’ palm was ice-cold. For a while, he did not know how he was supposed to react to the situation
He had noticed it…
The Archduke of Black Sand Region fixated on the old sword in his hands, his eyes were filled with peculiar emotions.
“Nuven brought you and her—his most important leverage—along when he went on his campaign against the calamity. This arrangement truly exceeded my expectations,” Lampard said casually.
Little Rascal was dumbfounded and terrified. Thales sucked in a deep breath.
What should he do?
No. If this was the end, he must at least figure a few things out.
Thales looked up slowly, right into Lampard’s eyes. “I think your actions were probably not what Nuven expected as either… king slayer.”
It was a clear sound of chafing metal. Little Rascal shuddered. Thales was taken aback as well.
Lampard turned his head, the sword in his hand already returned to its sheath.
“Do you not understand? Whether it is Nuven’s death or the chaotic situation right now…”
Archduke Lampard’s gaze was complex. Thales was unable to capture much of the emotion in it.
“Everything happened because of you,” the archduke said.
“Me?” Thales looked up, surprised.
In the shaking carriage where the light changed every now and then, Lampard’s expression grew unclear and ambiguous.
“If everything had gone smoothly, according to my plan with Arunde,” the archduke said flatly, “Constellation and the Dragon would have heralded a new dawn…
“…until you ruined everything.”
Lampard’s gaze sharpened and turned cold, and it was directed at Thales.
“In Constellation, you made Arunde—who was next in line for the throne—a prisoner. In Broken Dragon Fortress, you cut off my retreat. In Eckstedt, you brought Black Sand Region to the verge of destruction with Nuven’s wrath.” The words of the Archduke of Black Sand Region became unusually cold and made Thales’ flesh crawl. “It was you who forced me to resort to the harshest method.”
Thales gritted his teeth.
“A coward’s excuse.” The prince tried his best not to look at the old sheath—polished until the surface was shining, bare of any patterns—and spoke without compromise. “Why not ask yourselves: why did you assassinate Prince Moriah out of rebellion? Longing for the throne?
“Even if the plan had failed, you had other routes to retreat, but you picked the most extreme one”—Thales threw Lampard a cold glare—”King-slaying archduke.”
Lampard glared at him, unmoving, then gave a chilling grin.
“When I was about your age”—Lampard smiled crookedly with his eyes gleaming—”my mother took Harold and I to Dragon Clouds City. At the city gates, I witnessed a convict get executed.
“The moment before the execution, my grandfather’s mandate was delivered—he wanted to pardon the convict.”
Thales frowned and glanced outside the coach. ‘No.’
He still did not have a chance…
“However,” Lampard continued, “Right before the mandate was read, before the king’s order took effect, the executioner hastily hacked off the convict’s head.”
Little Rascal was horrified, but as she listened to Lampard’s story, a look of intrigue appeared on her face.
“The executioner was a dauntless warrior. His hack was clean, quick, and decisive. I still remember the raised severed head and the gushing blood to this day. And the sight of him as he casually accepted the king’s mandate with his blood-stained hands.”
The archduke paused. He lowered his head to look at the sword in his hand.
“In the coach, Harold kept comforting me. I was petrified and could not stop crying,” Lampard said flatly with a blank expression. “It was the first time I understood what death meant, and what ‘carnage’ was.”
He looked at Thales, but this time, Lampard’s stare was not directed at Thales. It went straight past him, and landed on the little girl.
Thales’ chest tightened and he instinctively held Little Rascal’s hand tightly.
“Later that day, my mother told us that the executioner was her blood brother, our uncle, Prince Nuven Walton.”
Lampard spoke without emotion on his face. His sharp glare was locked on Little Rascal.
“Nuven Walton the Seventh, your grandfather and my uncle, was a born killer. He was ruthless, cold, tough, and stubborn. He could not tolerate frailty and indecision, even more so after he was crowned king.”
Little Rascal gawked at Lampard, holding her breath.
“He always preferred to use the simplest, crudest, and fiercest methods to deal with his enemies,” Lampard said impassively.
Thales’ gaze wavered. He could clearly recall the scenes in which King Nuven slaughtered Poffret without hesitation, poisoned Alex, and banished Mirk.
Nevertheless, what was deeply engraved in his mind was when the old king took ‘Triumph’ off and placed it in Little Rascal’s hand.
“He used these methods when he dealt with the glacial orcs, White Mountain, the Alliance of Freedom, Constellation, and also…” Lampard averted his gaze to the window, his voice was laced with a hint of somberness that even Thales could detect. “… Black Sand Region.”
Lampard’s fingers applied some pressure around the sheath. His words turned grim and cold. “The only way to deal with him and settle this was to act faster than he did, destroy him before he destroys me.”
In the meantime, Thales sighed.
“I get it now,” the prince said suddenly. His words were filled with fatigue and emptiness. “It began at the Fortress.”
Lampard turned to look at him, his eyebrows arched. “What?”
“Your plot.” Thales leaned back against the coach, he felt rather dispirited. “It began the moment I was attacked and entered your military camp, did it not?
“At that time, you knew clearly that if you could not seize Broken Dragon Fortress, what awaited you would be the horrid vengeance of King Nuven, which would descend on you like a storm.”
Thales lifted his chin, met Lampard’s eyes, and firmly said, “From that moment, you decided to destroy Nuven completely, before he got you.”
Lampard’s eyes narrowed slightly. He seemed somewhat surprised.
“Tell me about your plan.” Thales raised his eyebrows and huffed through his nose. “You just pulled off an unprecedented and impossible mission after meticulous planning, but cannot confide in anyone. You must be bored.
“Tell me, how did you do it?”
Lampard’s gaze was still fixed on him, unmoving.
The coach made a turn, the inertia compelling the prince and Little Rascal to tilt to one side.
Thales decided to take action and initiated a conversation that he would also lead, just like what he did in the numerous field investigations and interviews from his past life.
“So, in the that tent, when you suggested an alliance with me,” the prince said flatly, “you were harboring dark intentions, wishing to make certain arrangements through me?”
For instance, blaming King Nuven’s death on him—exactly what Lampard had done.
Thales thought of the days he spent in Black Sand Military Camp. Backstabbing allies was far more effective than the blows exchanged between declared enemies.
He thought of Serene Corleone, the venomous beauty who taught him to be wary of allies.
At last, Lampard scoffed lightly.
“No. I really intended to make peace with you at the time. I even thought of sharing my plan with you.” The archduke shook his head. His tone turned cold. “Such a shame.”
Thales’ brain began to spin. He had already determined how the conspiracy started.
“Poffret.” Thales’ gaze flickered. “When you were investigating your Mystic Gun Unit concerning my attempted assassination, you found a clue that traced back to Disaster Sword, but King Nuven knew about it.
“Now that I think about this, it was the intel you intentionally leaked to King Nuven, wasn’t it? You knew King Nuven would deal with the enemy closer to him first.” Thales recalled the frightful duel in the Heroic Spirit Palace. “You sold Poffret out to Dragon Clouds City.”
Lampard snorted coldly.
“Kaslan,” he said amid the sound of the carriage wheels grinding against the road, “My uncle used to be in the Tower of Eradication. He was quite interested in the Disaster Swords and was fairly close to Nuven, so I divulged this information to him. Nuven would know about it from him, naturally.”
It was killing two birds with one stone.
“Kaslan did not know about your plan to murder the king, did he?” Thales watched him, hoping to find something in his eyes. “I heard that your relationship with him was quite bad.”
Lampard tossed him a meaningful glance. Thales had to retract his probing gaze.
Lampard shook his head slowly. “When you were attacked, I instantly knew that Poffret tried to frame me. That selfish and weak fool still naively believed that we were playing a game where we could retrieve our bargaining chips at any time, or stop playing so that we can prevent ourselves from suffering losses.”
Thales sighed. “He paid the price; he betrayed his ally and died because of an ally’s betrayal.”
“As you said, the purpose of the investigation was to leak the intel to Nuven and, of course, to root out the security leak within my troops. In fact, this investigation yielded an unexpected finding.” Lampard’s fingers glided across his sword.
Thales looked up. “What finding?”
Lampard shot him a cryptic look before shaking his head.
Thales watched him quietly, but the latter had no intention to explain. The prince could only sigh to himself.
“So you used Poffret to distract King Nuven”—based on his previous experiences with interviews, Thales decided to continue the conversation from there—”while you speedily began your preparations, using my assassination as an excuse to send your troops to the north to ‘escort’ me. You even contacted your ally, Shiles, correct?”
Lampard stared at his sword, his eyes void of emotion.
“That was the last purpose that coward from Beacon Illumination City could serve,” the archduke said slowly, “Providing distractions, stalling the meeting, the banquet, and the duel… I heard Nuven had fun in Heroic Spirit Palace.”
Thales’s voice deepened. “Meanwhile, he lowered his guard, especially to you.”
Lampard nodded. His eyes were filled with an aggressive, bright light. “Poffret’s death gave me half a day’s time to secure my victory.”
“You betrayed your ally, distracted your enemy, sought an alliance, sent soldiers, prepared for your plans, and wrought the final, thunderous blow.” Thales sighed. “Coincidentally, it happened on the same chaotic night when the calamity wreaked havoc… You really are a lunatic.”
He lifted his head. His gaze on Lampard was filled with disbelief. “You know, no matter which part of your plan had gone awry, you are doomed beyond redemption.”
Lampard froze momentarily.
The coach raced down an uneven road and trembled abruptly. Little Rascal, who was already tense, could not help but scream. Lampard’s head suddenly shot up.
The Archduke of Black Sand Region raised his voice. His sharp eyes exuded a formidable coldness. “Child, you know nothing. Nothing at all.”
Lampard used an unprecedentedly firm and stern gaze to stare at him. Contained in his voice was an emotion Thales could not identify.
“To accomplish the grand plan with Arunde, we had begun preparations many years ago: the intel correspondence, the mobilization of troops in our territories, the cultivation of talents we acquired through connections…
“To take down the fortress, I issued the mobilization order—rarely seen even in the history of Eckstedt. I exhausted every copper, every drop of blood, every man in my territory. The Day before the Bitter Cold Winter was approaching, but I did not stock up on rations, or reclaim uncharted lands, or transport rations from elsewhere… I betted everything on this plan!”
Thales was somewhat startled. Lampard continued on, his tone grew more urgent.
“For this plan, Black Sand Region has already spent more than what they earn to stock up food and resources. The debt I owed the Camian merchants was impossible to pay off, the economy was on the verge of collapse; the coming years would only be harder and harder.
“The standing army I had was not enough. Two thousand was the best we could gather, even fewer were willing to go against Dragon Clouds City. Last night, after the appearance of the great dragon, we had to execute some rebels. Even then, I could not directly order them to kill the king, only a vague mandate to eliminate the ‘enemy of Eckstedt’.
“Any count outside Dragon Clouds City could recruit an army thrice our size. As for Walton’s own recruits, if they found out about us, we would be surrounded and annihilated in no time, without so much as a scuffle.
“For last night, I lived off field rations, brought my meticulously trained army here despite the nearing Day before the Bitter Cold Winter. They looked at me with weariness, dejection, and doubt in their eyes. They only relied on the habit left behind by their training in the past to maintain their most basic combat abilities.
“My people—Levan, Kentvida, Tolja, and Vick—all of them betted on their lives and their heads, spurring the army to follow me into this bottomless abyss. We did not even consider rations or how to keep ourselves warm on the return journey…”
“…I knew that we might not get out of this alive; this was an expedition with no way out.” Lampard tightened his grip on the sheath in his hand. His expression was fierce and terrifying.
Thales gaped at Lampard. The grim-faced Archduke of Black Sand Region, who gnawed on deer meat in the tent; whose face alternated between flashes of light and dark from the firelight; who pushed a wine goblet towards Thales but was reciprocated with ridicule and rejection… He began to appear more alive and less one-dimensional.
The Archduke of Black Sand Region said slowly, “Do you understand, little prince? While you sat comfortably in Renaissance Palace, receiving the royal title as your father eliminated your enemies like Arunde, Black Sand Region and I were already doomed.
“What I merely did was grasp the last hope for survival in the depths of despair.”
“I racked my brain to manipulate the situation, employed every possible and impossible manpower and resources I could attain, made several promises to the Marquis of Good Flow City, mob bosses, Camian merchant caravans, an intelligence trader in Armor District, the Shadow Shield, and the Charletons. I even made Shiles aggravate the conflict between all of you and Poffret to an unprecedented, aggressive degree, and—”
Lampard stopped. He took a deep breath to calm his emotions. “… All of this was so that I could be as quick as possible to deal the fatal strike on Nuven before he noticed, and be as quick as lightning when I did it.”
The archduke’s eyes glinted. “Even after all that, here I am… holding the future of our two kingdoms in my hand.”
Thales stared dumbly at Lampard, as though it was their first meeting. The coach raced past a street where the soldiers of Black Sand Region had subtly and effectively cleared a path for them.
Thales suddenly noticed that, prior to this, the number of Lampard’s white hairs had increased significantly. He seemed withdrawn, his were lips pale, and eye sockets caved in.
The advice Black Sword gave him before they fought Giza: In despair they seek hope, and from loss they find ways to turn the tide. They escalate favorable circumstances into certain victory and transform unexpected mishaps into support.
Thales exhaled a lungful of air.
“I understand now.” The prince closed his eyes. “So this is how powerful people are.”
Lampard narrowed his eyes. “What?”
Thales opened his eyes, much to Little Rascal’s intrigue, and said flatly, “In this fight for survival between you two, the standoff between Dragon Clouds City and Black Sand Region, you are undeniably the weaker side, at a disadvantage and on the brink of destruction.”
The prince sniggered. “Did you know that after killing Poffret, Nuven threatened to send troops to Black Sand Region to pick a preferable candidate as the archduke?”
Lampard looked down and snorted. “As I predicted of my dear uncle.”
“You knew your uncle, your king and your opponent, well. But he didn’t know you; didn’t know his nephew.
Thales heaved a long sigh. “You used every possible trap you could use, schemed against everyone, used all the power at your disposal and gathered up all betting chips just so that you can fight to the death when your survival is threatened.”
Lampard did not speak. Thales chuckled, his voice was filled with melancholy.
“Compared to that, Nuven Walton, the Common-Elected King and ruler of Dragon Clouds City, held endless power and authority. Even if you had murdered his son, he still saw you as a mere, powerless archduke.”
Thales sighed softly and said, “He was overly confident due to his power and superiority, treating you as an inferior opponent like Poffret, a trivial, insignificant existence that could easily be eliminated for fun.
“In this fight of survival between Nuven Walton and Chapman Lampard, you emerge as the true victor.” The prince raised his chin and gazed at Lampard. “As for King Nuven’s failure and death… it was destined from the start.”
In that instant, Thales noticed that the way Lampard looked at him had changed.
‘Good. A conversation has been established.’ Thales inhaled a deep breath.
“But there is one last thing I cannot figure out.” Faced with Lampard’s complex gaze, Thales spoke slowly, one word at a time. “Why did you personally come to Dragon Clouds City? And…
“…How do you plan on ending this?”