---- Two Days Later ----
In my experience, to crush a target thoroughly, one would need three things: Information, time, and the means to execute a plan.
And unfortunately, I had none of them.
According to Vetter, the signal they were waiting for was the incarceration of Leonard. Thankfully, without the internet, information spread at a snail's pace. No details had leaked to the general public, and anything they brought up were swiftly dismissed as vague rumours.
Although, I was certain that my adversaries were aware of the situation in the manor. Most likely, they had an informer stationed on the estate.
By the time any 'evidence' against him is presented, we'd have an army at our doorsteps, tearing down what scant fortifications we had.
To make matters worse, I had just learnt how medieval armies were organised. A duke's army relied on its vassal conscripts. Julia said that even by conservative estimates, her own forces accounted for less than one-fifth of her standard troop composition.
Along with the 'mysterious' cuts to the garrison's paycheck, I could safely assume that militarily, we were in a hopeless situation. Even if by some miracle only half the soldiers became insubordinate, we were still woefully unprepared for any direct confrontation.
The situation with the Church of Light was equally disturbing. From my research, I learnt that they held little interest in expanding their territory, known instead as 'peacekeepers' amongst most human nations.
They were like the UN in some respects. While they essentially policed the world, rather than being a coalition of nations, they instead acted as an entirely independent institution.
What was interested me was their lack of an official military. To compensate, nations would temporarily send their troops to be led under the Church's flag, essentially reduced to sponsors in wars they don't fight. In exchange, the Church pledges to help them in times of need; be it a foreign invasion, famine, or economic downturn. I couldn't help but admire the masterful hegemony they had created for themselves.
Everybody helped the Church of Light, not because they were 'forced' to, but because it was a disadvantage they couldn't make up for on their own.
I had a sneaking suspicion that the Church was here due to the (admittedly) appaling lordship of Leonard. Just as conflict breaks out, under the guise of 'helping', they'd swoop in with an undefeatable army, cease hostilities, and install a puppet leader.
Orthea wouldn't care if their borders were breached by the Church, being one of their biggest advocates. In fact, by ending a duchy's internal conflict, the king would probably owe them after this…
I pulled at my hair in frustration.
I was up against an elaborate scheme, years in the making. The only resources at my disposal were a mentally unstable helper and some faceless volunteers in the Order of Etris.
To add insult to injury, I'd have to coordinate everything from my office, twice a week through Vetter, limited to only a few hours per session.
It was inconceivable that I'd be able to pull anything off.
"Kuro, what's that expression for?" Julia queried.
She stood a few steps ahead of me, staring at me peculiarly. I gently placed my hands back by my sides.
"Just a tricky problem Mister Vetter asked me yesterday, nya. Kuro's having some trouble figuring it out…"
I was accompanying Julia on her daily stroll around the gardens. I could feel the tranquil surroundings do its best to calm my frayed mind to no avail.
Despite that, the outdoors had gained a indescribable charm ever since I transmigrated to this world. Presumably, it was a remnant of my demihuman body. If it were not for the current circumstances, I'd dedicate more time appreciating the impressive horticulture; something I'd never do back on Earth.
"A puzzle from Albertt?" Julia chirped. "Would you mind telling me? Let's see if I can provide any insight."
Hm. It shouldn't be a problem.
Some quick substitutions and modifications to the narrative should work. I cleared my throat.
"Ahem, the problem is as follows: You are a defending an encampment against an army. However, you know that a third party is waiting for an opportunity where both sides are distracted.
If you do not counterattack, the belligerents capture your position. If you engage, both sides are wiped out by the third party. How do you win?"
"Hmm…" Julia closed her eyes in deliberation. "It sounds to me like Vetter is trying to teach you about false dichotomies. You are presented with two choices, but the answer likely lies in neither. Though, I'm no military strategist, so unfortunately I don't know the solution. My advice is just be creative!"
An unexpected response.
"Thank you, Julia. Kuro understands a bit better now," I bow.
"No problem! "
Be creative, huh…
I wasn't a military strategist either. I didn't know the first thing about medieval combat, let alone magically enhanced warfare. However, what I did know, was that this body was built for killing.
My razor-sharp claws, inhuman strength, and enhanced senses were more than enough evidence to convince me. Don't misunderstand, I wasn't planning to charge onto the battlefield like a lunatic in the hopes of soloing an army.
This operation would require a little more subtlety.
And I was equipped with just the tools I needed.
---- One Day Later ----
Juliana Von Wickten's Study
POV: Juliana Von Wickten
As we sat in my study, I watched Kuro put quill to parchment, fully engrossed whatever she was scribbling.
Her request yesterday suprised me. Not only did she want to help with finances, but also with duchy management. Kuro requested a list of my vassals, from counts to mayors, with rough estimates of their resources and manpower.
I feel like she's been pushing herself a little too hard lately; I could see bags forming beneath her eyes. Demihumans weren't usually suited for desk work, but she had insisted.
"…I'd need to confirm it…" Kuro whispered to herself intensely. She had begun a strange habit of talking to herself while working.
Another phase, or something else? I was endeared by the possibility that maybe, she wanted to reassure me that she wasn't simply slacking off.
I turned to the relatively small stack of papers beside me.
Recently, I had noticed that my workload had decreased. Fewer reports and requests were coming in from my vassals. With all the unrest emerging across the demesne, I had expected the opposite.
And while I wanted to investigate, that wasn't serious enough to warrant it. If reports stopped flowing in altogether, that was a cause for concern.
As it stood, it was just a slow week.
And hopefully, with Leonard soon gone, I can begin to rebuild Wickta. I had always admired the prosperity of the Orthean capital. Each time I visit, its people always look filled with so much life… quite the contrast to the streets I govern.
It was unquestionably a result of the young king's revolutionary decrees. Maybe I should arrange an audience with him soon to update him on our situation and ask for some suggestions.
I hadn't been summoned since I first attended his coronation a couple years ago.
Kuro spluttered from her desk and stood up.
"Julia, how does one vassal make up over half the standing army's size?!" She exclaimed.
"Hmm… Count Thilo Raban. In terms of land, he controls almost a fourth of Wickta. How it came around is rather an oddity. I'd need to give some background first. Around three hundred years ago, the Rabans were independent dukes of Orthea and held power that rivalled ours. Unfortunately, they bordered the beastkin-occupied east, holding frequent battles with them.
One particularly bad year, the Rabans had to concentrate almost all their forces to fend off the demis, neglecting to station any defensive forces. That's when my predecessors saw an opportunity to strike. When Raban's army returned home, they were greeted with an occupied capital, forcibly vassalised by us.
The event is recited as a cautionary tale to many children of the Kingdom. The moral of the story being that one shouldn't dedicate all their resources into one area, lest they lose everything.
Nowadays, reduced to the influence of a count, Thilo's lands depend on our aid to fortify its borders. It's why the numbers on paper look so large: to defend against those savages."
Kuro seemed perturbed by my words.
"Ah! Not you, Kuro!" I waved my hands frantically. "Please excuse my wording! I didn't mean to insinuate anything about you-"
She raised a hand to stop me.
"I know, Julia; don't worry about it. While I am indeed demihuman, I don't care what you call others like me. And thanks for the explanation; it seems Kuro still has much to learn." She returned to her seat to continue her perusal.
Silence hung over the two of us, the occasional flipping of paper now the only thing filling the air.
---- Half an Hour Later ----
As I completed the page with one last dotted line, I felt a sense of satisfaction.
The sheet before me looked like a conspiracy theorist was just given a corkboard and told to go nuts. Connections were drawn everywhere, criss-crossing over each other with the occasional 'X' indicating a change of mind.
They all had some link to the Church of Light; whether it be donating a monthly tithe or dispatching troops, they were all supporters in some shape or form.
Of the counts I had listed, Thilo looked guiltiest of them all, and thanks to Julia, I had a convincing motive.
There was no question that House Raban held a generational grudge from the disgrace they suffered. Add the fact that his forces had been steadily increasing over time, and he was the perfect candidate.
The Church had promised him dukedom if he were to serve as their pawn. A pitiful existence, but something his forefathers could only fantasise over,
I had no idea what the previous Wicktens were thinking. I would've divided the land among existing vassals to keep them loyal, while simultaneously eliminating a dangerous element. There was no reason to keep them in power, unless something compelled them at the peace accord…
Who was I kidding, the Church of Light were the literal arbitrators of the realm. I'd be suprised if they were absent from even one round of peace dealing since their inception.
I cracked my knuckles as I leant back in my chair.
It was undeniable that they were going to use Thilo's legitimacy as a casus belli to settle things. So what happens if I take that justification away? Whether killing him would stop their plans completely, I can't say.
The Church were competent, exceedingly so. It follows that in all likelihood, they had several fallback plans.
But hey, nothing ventured nothing gained.