Chapter 564: Blazing Blood
Amid the silence that enveloped the long table, Thales exhaled.
No war is isolated.
Soria’s brutal acts twenty years ago had led to the resistance that Eckstedt is facing twenty years later.
The victory of twenty years ago had led to the defeat twenty years later.
The second prince was reminded of Old Crow’s words:
“Before you make a decision to start a war, I think perhaps you should contemplate carefully. Can this decision help you achieve your aim? How many unexpected events will take place? What are the additional repercussions? What will it symbolize in the future? How do you evaluate its effects on both of you?”
Solder scoffed and broke the silence. “And so, the provision of supplies was erratic, and the troops collecting grains progressed slowly.
“The attack on Fort Liberté did not go well, and the efficiency of the siege was delayed repeatedly.
“And the fate of the Archduchess of Dragon Clouds City was still unknown. Scattered forces returned with the Dragon Spear Flag, leading to countless rumors.”
‘Fate still unknown.’
Thales strived to regulate his breathing.
After hearing about the blood feud between Prince Soria and the Alliance of Freedom, he suddenly realized that, if Saroma falls into the hands of the Alliance…
Thales forced himself not to think of the worst possible outcome.
Solder paused and beckoned the man from the Secret Intelligence Department to continue.
The latter nodded.
“After that, we found out a little, and postulated a little: an altercation must have broken out among the high-level officials of Northland.”
The ministers exchanged looks.
“The nobles of Defence City were keen on retreating, but the Archduke of City of Faraway Prayers, the proud Kulgon Roknee, took a hard line. He threatened his allies not to retreat and claimed that he would mobilize more troops from the country to reinforce the frontline, maintaining an ‘all or nothing’ attitude.
“Their commanders were in disagreement and things have turned ugly.”
A distant memory fragment came to Thales’ mind. It was another verse from a poem:
Power triggers disputes, internal strife arises soon after.
Solder sighed and interjected, “And this was their third mistake.”
Maybe it was because they had already lamented about the war, the ministers were no longer rattled when they heard about Eckstedt’s foolish acts.
The scar-faced man from the Secret Intelligence Department said calmly, “Until one day, the flag of the Camus Union was raised above the city gate tower of the Alliance of Freedom.”
These words were again met with disbelief.
“Camus?” Gilbert asked in surprise, then shook his head firmly, “Impossible!”
“Yes, it does seem impossible at this point.”
Solder nodded and frowned. “But the news has left its mark: since then, rumors that Camus meddled in the war has spread within the Northland military camp. Not even the generals could suppress it.
“On the other hand, when the soldiers and civilians of Fort Liberté who were fighting hard to hold on heard that aid was imminent, they felt encouraged and their confidence increased a hundredfold.
“It disheartened one and motivated the other…”
Solder looked up. There was a gleam in his eyes. “The total failure of the Northlanders…
Thales looked at the stalemate on the map and felt emotional.
In the next second, Solder’s tone hastened!
“Under the flurry of rumors, a Defence City noble who was unwilling to take the risk abandoned the camp in the early morning and was the first to retreat.
“He might have just been discontented about his defended territory and wanted a change, or wanted to collect grains from elsewhere. Of course, there is also the possibility that it was an espionage tactic…”
The military advisor moved the white chess pieces around, away from their original positions.
“However, following his lead, and also because of the previous discord with the City of Faraway Prayers, a large number of Defence City suzerains retreated along with him without informing their allies, affecting the entire battle formation.”
Thales frowned: with Fort Liberté as the epicenter, the group of white chess pieces gradually spread outward, revealing increasing gaps.
Like a battle-scarred armor that had experienced hundreds of blows finally giving way and splitting open.
Solder Ryder slapped the table with a palm and turned pale. “This caused the City of Faraway Prayers army that was exhausted but still persevering at the frontlines of besieging the city three miles out to all of a sudden lose their sentinel and support on the flanks.
“Thoroughly exposing their soft underbelly in an area within reach of the enemy!”
The ministers were solemn and anxious as they followed the progression of the battle.
“Maybe the breakdown in communication only lasted for two hours, maybe the vulnerability window of the Northlanders was only sixty minutes, but remember the trump card of the Alliance?”
Solder reached a hand out to retrieve the black knight from the outside of the map. When he released it, it had already appeared in front of the battle lines of the white chess pieces like a phantom.
“Following the canny victory over Dragon Clouds City and after disappearing for a long time, they reappeared and took advantage of this window.”
The military advisor gritted his teeth, as if he was experiencing the war. “Before the morning fog cleared, they coordinated with the remnant troops within Fort Liberté and successfully launched a surprise attack.”
Solder’s words were concise, but Thales could imagine the intensity and violence on that day.
“When the retreating troops of Defence City received orders from higher-ranking officials and reacted by halting the retreat,” Solder sighed and slowly reached out a hand to scramble the initially formidable white chess pieces.
“The City of Faraway Prayers army, that was low on morale, was already being attacked from behind. They fought back in a hurry but could not prevent their eventual defeat.”
“That’s ridiculous!” Viscount Kenney could not help but complain, “How could the Northlanders have been so foolish!”
Thales listened to these words with mixed emotions.
“Because we’re looking at them from where we’re standing,” Duke Cullen explained slowly, but in a rare solemn tone.
Viscount Kenney was dumbstruck.
“What happened next?” Chief of Finance, Kirkirk Mann asked calculatingly, “The Defence City army was still quite extensive. Even though they are not as good in battle as the army of the City of Faraway Prayers, they shouldn’t be underestimated either. The defeat was only in one corner of the battlefield, it should…”
But Solder cut him short. “The commanders of the Defence City army knew they had made a mistake. Eager to remedy the situation, they made a decision.
“It was not to retreat and fortify the defence, and stabilize the battle lines.”
The military advisor no longer sounded rueful. He continued to narrate the battle as he pushed the white chess pieces of the City of Faraway Prayers forward, “But to head back into the battlefield and rescue their compatriots.”
Some ministers frowned contemplatively while some seemed to have a look of realization after they heard this.
“How loyal,” Viscount Kenney muttered.
Solder Ryder suddenly looked up!
He cast a sweeping gaze around the table. “That was their fourth mistake.”
Viscount Kenney frowned.
Solder lowered his head and gathered the black chess pieces inside Fort Liberté together with the black knight. “The Alliance of Freedom employed a diametrically opposite strategy from 20 years ago. In pursuing the enemy forces after a victory, they did not aim to kill as many as possible. They sought only to act flexibly, chasing away a majority of them and attacking their elites.
“So when the flag of Defence City rushed to the battlefield…”
In the next moment, Thales saw the toppled white chess pieces being gathered together and shoved towards those that were still standing.
He had an ominous premonition.
“Of the tens of thousands of defeated troops of the City of Faraway Prayers, there was still a large portion left, but they either retreated or fled in large numbers and did not respond to orders.
“Like a flood tide after a rainstorm, they breached the Defence City formation, overwhelming it.”
Solder was no longer moving the chess pieces with detailed precision, but in sweeping moves swept the cluster of chaotic white chess pieces toward the east.
“What’s more terrifying was that, under hunger and fatigue, the desperation and fear of defeat spread like plague from the defeated troops to the Defence City army, provoking herd mentality and nervous breakdown. Many died in the stampede or from internal fighting before they even encountered the enemy.”
Solder’s tone turned grim. “Amid the chaos, the Defence City army—the Northlanders’ last hope—did not even manage to fight more than a handful of noteworthy battles before retreating helter-skelter in defeat.
“The Northlanders suffered heavy losses. The entire army retreated in droves continuously for days. Even after retreating for hundreds of miles, they could not stabilize their battle lines.
“Along the way, some unyielding nobles tried to assemble troops to make a last-ditch effort, but small acts of bravery could not overturn the situation and was of no help.”
Thales kept silent. He was transported back to Dragon Blood’s Night, watching the White Blade Guards who knew they were heading towards certain death raise their swords for the last time ever and launch a counterattack against the Black Sand Region army, covering him and Little Rascal as they fled.
Eckstedt was a highly threatening enemy country, but when he saw them being defeated so miserably, he felt inexplicably frustrated and upset.
Like seeing a hero out of breath or in trouble.
And he noticed that he was not alone in that sentiment.
“How could this be?” Gilbert asked faintly, as if immersed in the past, in sorrow, “The invincible Northlanders lost… just like that?”
But a deep voice interrupted him almost instantly and made everyone tense.
“They are far from ‘invincible’.”
At the end of the long table, the Iron Hand King’s cold eyes appeared against the light. “Just…
The king’s words carried a natural air of authority, leaving the officials speechless.
Recalling the truth behind ‘Dragon Blood’, Thales grew wistful.
If the information he received yesterday was still disorganized and unconfirmed, there would still be a sliver of hope.
But today, now, the detailed report on the war in Ballard Room has clearly told him:
The Northlanders have been defeated.
Unquestionably and irreversibly.
There was a glint in his gaze as Duke Cullen broke the silence by pondering, “I remember now. Their strategy in going up against the Northland barbarians, including avoiding direct confrontation on the battlefield and attacking the logistic and supply lines—they’re imitating the Starlight Brigade of the Duke of Star Lake…cough, pardon, the former Duke of Star Lake.”
Everyone frowned, including the king.
Solder turned around and nodded to the Secret Intelligence Department agent.
The scar-faced man stepped forward again, bowed and continued reporting, “According to the latest reports, the general that led the Alliance of Freedom elite squad and captured the Dragon Clouds City commander was a young military attaché called Ivan Polado who’s barely twenty years old.”
Gilbert raised his eyebrows. “Military attaché? So young?”
The scar-faced man nodded. “His father died in the political struggle in Northern Sea Kingdom. He had no choice but to flee to Fort Liberté for asylum.
“And when the Eckstedt army closed in, when everyone in Fort Liberté fled in panic and no one dared to lead the army, Ivan Polado volunteered and was assigned his current position.”
This reminded Thales of something the Duke of Iris Flowers told him last night.
“The Alliance of Freedom that has fallen on hard times is doing everything possible to survive. Disregarding dignity and price, they are desperately asking those with ambition to join their righteous struggle, irrespective of their origins or past.”
“Northern Sea Kingdom…” the king muttered, “That barren country north of Camus where anarchy is rife, with a tyrant as a king and an idiot as his heir?”
The spy from the Secret Intelligence Department bowed again. “That’s right, Your Majesty.”
The king nodded and seemed to be contemplating. “Northern Sea Kingdom, Ivan Polado.
“Such a small country actually cultivated such a talent.”
Kirkirk Mann sighed. “His defeat of Eckstedt will definitely gain him recognition across the Western Peninsula.”
Gilbert settled his emotions then smiled and looked at Thales somewhat intentionally, “They say times make the hero, and heroes come from youths.”
Military advisor Solder started to speak again, drawing everyone’s attention.
“But in my opinion, the most crucial part of this war is not on Polado and his squad.”
Solder’s palm glanced over countless fallen and standing chess pieces, then gently covered the city on the map.
“But on Fort Liberté.
“Fort Liberté was close to being empty apart from a few elderly and weak soldiers after the elite squad was extracted. They managed to hold off the siege from the Eckstedtian army and in the end was even able to coordinate with the elite squad to surround and defeat the Northlanders.
“Over the course of a few months, they repelled the fiercest of attacks and attracted the majority of their enemy’s attention to achieve this epic David-over-Goliath-esque victory.”
No one realized it initially. But after Solder mentioned this, everyone at the Imperial Conference sensed that something was amiss.
Solder looked towards the scar-faced man from the Secret Intelligence Department. The latter pulled out a few pages of information and said, “The general leading the defense efforts at Fort Liberté is a man over 40, a Constellatiate.”
Everyone was stunned.
The scar-faced man looked up and gave a name. “‘Iron Anvil’ Josh Kenya.”
There was momentary silence. Everyone at the Imperial Conference was puzzled.
Until the king asked, “Iron Anvil?”
King Kessel looked up. “This nickname…sounds familiar.”
The Secret Intelligence Department agent nodded calmly in acknowledgement. “Yes. Kenya started out as a soldier of the Jadestar Private Army, and was part of the combat officers of the Starlight Brigade, as well as the former deputy of ‘Fortress Flower’ Lady Sonia Sasere.
“He was also Duke John’s…personal guard.
“And a fugitive of the kingdom.”
A small commotion broke out in Ballard Room.
‘Former deputy of ‘Fortress Flower’…’
Surprised and baffled, Thales was reminded of the veteran Genard who had served him.
“I see. So the commander of the Alliance of Freedom was a former general of Starlight Brigade.”
Having his query resolved, Prime Minister Cullen had a look of enlightenment on his face. “No wonder this war felt familiar from beginning to end.”
But King Kessel frowned. His focus was clearly different. “Fugitive? What crime did he commit?”
The scar-faced man glanced at his report then hesitated to speak.
Until Gilbert coughed and said in a low voice, “Your Majesty, have you forgotten?
“After you were crowned, Josh Kenya acted out: not only did he refuse to follow orders, he spread false claims that the true murderer of Duke John was…”
He did not finish his sentence.
All the officials lowered their heads wordlessly.
The king seemed contemplative. “Oh.”
The scar-faced man from the Secret Intelligence Department coughed and attempted to gloss over the awkward silence, “Anyway, we are investigating Kenya’s movements in the past few years and the reason for his sudden appearance in this war.”
“So, that’s the situation on the battlefield?”
Solder exhaled heavily, as if expelling all the gloom that this war brought him.
The military advisor scoffed. He casually tossed a white chess piece aside, seemingly mocking its foolishness, while also angry at its lack of grit. “The City of Faraway Prayers was betrayed and suffered a humiliating defeat.
“Defence City could not overturn the battle due to tactical mistakes.
“Dragon Clouds City lost its pillar early on and became dispirited and useless.”
Thales lowered his head. Pretending to rub his forehead, he angled his arm so that no one could see him close his eyes.
‘The Archduchess of Dragon Clouds City.
‘Separated from her troops in the chaos.
‘Uncertain whether dead or alive.’
He saw in his mind’s eye the girl who walked tentatively towards the throne, but could not even lean on its armrests.
He felt his heart ache.
It was him who delivered her to this position.
But the situation was so putrid, reality so broken, fate so cruel…
Thales clenched his fists subconsciously; they sobbed along with his heart.
‘Who could save her?
‘Who could help her?
“So, the Northlanders on the battlefield,” the king’s voice could again be heard. Cold as ever, it made Thales’ already-miserable mood worse. “With the tides against them, and after continuously retreating…”
Thales rubbed his forehead, on the one hand trying to conceal his grief, on the other hoping that the Imperial Conference would end as soon as possible.
It was unbelievable how, when he was fretting about something as ridiculous as wine glasses at a banquet, his friend was knee-deep in trouble and suffering a terrible fate.
At this thought, he could not help but feel guilty and hurt.
But the king’s voice continued annoyingly, “How did they finally…
“Turn defeat into victory?”
Thales opened his eyes!
His thoughts froze.
‘The Northlanders…turned defeat into victory?
Thales gently lowered the hand that was rubbing his forehead.
He adjusted his posture and looked up expressionlessly.
He noticed that no one at the Imperial Conference was surprised; they were merely puzzled about the same question.
They did not think it was strange.
‘The outcome of the war…’
Thales controlled his breathing and pressed his left hand on his knee, not looking at Gilbert’s worried expression.
Solder Ryder nodded solemnly and reached out a hand towards the pile of toppled white chess pieces.
Thales’s gaze was fixed on his hand.
As if it held the universal truth.
The military advisor gently picked up a white chess piece.
He placed it back onto the chaotic map, in the most prominent spot.
In that moment, Thales suddenly recognized it:
A white queen.
“The Archduchess of Dragon Clouds City who was separated from her troops in the chaos and whose whereabouts were uncertain.”
Thales’ breathing staggered.
“Saroma Alex Walton.”
Everyone at the Imperial Conference listened intently to the military advisor speak in an astonished yet emotional tone.
“We don’t know what happened in between.”
Solder gritted his teeth, as if disbelieving the words coming out of his own mouth, “But when she reappeared and miraculously reversed the tide of the war…
“Soldiers, civilians, enemies and allies alike…
“Everyone called her—”
In the Ballard Room of Renaissance Palace, royal military advisor Solder Ryder glanced at the white queen standing proudly on the map, and continued in an inexplicably reverent and solemn tone, “The Blazing Blood Dragon.”
His voice faded away.
In that moment, under everyone’s confused gazes, time seemed to stop.
Thales stared blankly at the white chess piece and slipped into a daze.
‘No, Thales, you laughable idiot.
‘You got it all wrong.
‘This white chess piece…’
The Duke of Star Lake heard a small voice in his heart, seemingly mocking his idiocy and self-righteousness.
‘She’s not the queen.
‘She’s a white—