Wortenia Senki (LN) - Volume 12 - Chapter Pr

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Sitting in his office, Count Bergstone looked up at the ceiling, his expression bitter. He’d been in this state, unstirring, since he’d returned home from the royal castle. Ten minutes passed by. Twenty minutes. Thirty. An hour. His sense of time had long since faded.

Count Bergstone was one of the men at the helm of the Kingdom of Rhoadseria in these dark times. His heart was heavy with conflict, regret, and sorrow. Never before had he felt so exhausted and hollow.

Where did we go wrong? I thought we had more time...

Count Bergstone had prepared a hand that could save them from this bleak situation. Though it had been unpleasant, he had spent the last few months’ worth of palace meetings in complete silence, waiting to unveil that hand.

In order to overcome a greater evil, I actively condoned and helped raise a lesser one. Queen Lupis must come to a decision if she wants to save this country. But she refuses to make the necessary sacrifices. She had to be forced to see that this country was starting to come apart at the seams. She needed to panic in order to move forward. It wasn’t a mistake to open her eyes to what’s happening, but...

The count had been doing all in his power to save this country. But given time, evil could mature and ripen. He had intentionally left such an evil unattended, allowing the commoners to suffer poverty and pain. The consequences were undeniable, but he’d acted so that Rhoadseria would avoid the flames of rebellion and civil war.

Nothing could be more ideal than exorcising both a greater and a lesser evil. Sometimes, however, one had to choose between them. Count Bergstone had chosen, and his choice wasn’t wrong. Nevertheless, despite his intentions, everything had gone down the drain.

Now I’m back to square one. No, even that’s too optimistic.

Today, a messenger riding a fast horse came to the palace to deliver news of a magistrate’s death. Normally, a message like that would contain nothing more than a brief notice about a greedy, corrupt man’s demise.

It wasn’t clear yet what kind of family this magistrate was from. The details were still being gathered, but since he worked as a magistrate collecting taxes from a village, his station wasn’t very high. He was probably from some noble house’s branch family. He was either a knight, or at best, a baron. He was indeed a noble, but he was only a step above a commoner. It was rude to state such a thing publicly, but the fact of the matter was that there were countless low-ranking nobles across the kingdom, and his death was somewhat inconsequential. He was merely a cog in the machine.

Normally, his passing would have concluded with his funeral. The only real problem that would arise from his loss would be the question of his house’s succession. And unless there were unusual circumstances, the capital’s House of Lords would generally accept whoever his heir was to be. After all, bloodlines decided one’s noble status in Rhoadseria.

This was how things usually progressed when a noble like a magistrate died. This time, however, the story wasn’t that simple. This magistrate had died at the hands of commoners.

As low and insignificant as he was, he was still an aristocrat. And aristocrats would never forgive a commoner killing one of their own. The commoners know this too. So the escorting knights must have realized that even if they tried to discuss things, or hinted at the possibility of a pardon, the crowd wouldn’t have listened. They’d had no choice but to suppress them.

Count Bergstone bit his lip—hard. The fact that commoners had killed a noble complicated things to no end. The commoners’ discontent was understandable, and the circumstances leading up to the rebellion were undeniable—the blame lay with the dead magistrate.

Due to the national crises, the kingdom had enacted several special war-related taxes, but nearly half of those taxes ended up in the pockets of the nobles collecting them—for assorted trumped-up reasons. A few nobles went as far as keeping up to ninety percent of the revenue.

No one recognized this situation for what it was more than the commoners. All their hard-earned money was going to taxes, so their anger and indignation was understandable.

That didn’t mean the kingdom could overlook commoners rising up in revolt, though. No matter what, the sovereign and the nobles ruled Rhoadseria. The kingdom itself was based around a rigid class system. No matter the events that led to an uprising, the Kingdom of Rhoadseria could not tolerate the commoners conspiring to slay a member of the ruling class.

This problem jeopardized the survival of the state, which meant there could be no negotiating with the leaders of the rebellion. Commoners were better off than slaves, but their lives were nowhere equal to a noble’s. The ringleaders would be executed, as would any surviving parents or remaining children. That was the law, and the commoners were aware of it.

But that’s not to say all doors are closed. The easiest solution would be if Queen Lupis gave them a pardon. She could bend the law and resolve everything. However...

In a monarchy, the sovereign’s words trumped all others. That was only the official stance, though. Not even the sovereign could overturn each and every situation. Still, Queen Lupis’s decision could greatly change things. It would wrap things up neatly if the queen were to pardon them.

But asking her to make a decision now would be a bit too awful.

This would be the best course of action for Rhoadseria, but it would also place Queen Lupis in quite the precarious position. A sovereign had the power to bend the rules, but that didn’t mean nothing would break. And since Queen Lupis’s coercive power had grown so weak, it was questionable whether she could truly withstand the nobles’ backlash.

Either choice would be a gamble. Maybe we got the timing wrong. Or maybe there really isn’t any way to save this country anymore...

In his younger days, Marquis Ernest, Count Bergstone’s father-in-law and sponsor, had lost a power struggle with Duke Gelhart and had been forced to live in seclusion in his territory. At the time, Bergstone had been crushed by sorrow. What he felt now made that pain pale in comparison.

Perhaps that’s what growing older means.

A sense of helplessness and loss, the likes of which he’d never felt during his youth, hung over Count Bergstone like a stone.

Just then, someone knocked on his office door.

“My apologies, sir,” said the aged butler, “but Count Zeleph is here to see you. Shall I let him through?”

The knock pulled Count Bergstone back into reality. “Oh, yes, of course. Let him in.” He was torn between wanting to see his brother-in-law and greatly dreading it. His gaze settled on the bundle of papers resting on the table. It was all evidence he’d gathered to denounce the nobles and placate the commoners.

What would Elnan say?

Up until a few hours ago, these papers were a trump card that could turn things around for Rhoadseria. But now, they were nothing but kindling. How many sacrifices had he made to prepare this mountain of useless trash? It wasn’t simply a question of money. He’d spent time, connections—not just his own, but Elnan’s as well. The thought that it had all been for nothing made him ashamed to look his brother-in-law in the eye, especially since Elnan trusted him so much. He knew Elnan wouldn’t blame him for it, but...

The door opened and Count Zeleph entered the room. Seeing the look on Count Bergstone’s face, he immediately furrowed his brow.

“Why the long face, dear brother-in-law?” Zeleph asked as his corpulent form sank into the sofa opposite Bergstone.

“Well, given the situation, I’d be hard pressed to react any other way,” Bergstone replied with a sigh.

“I happened to hear something about Her Majesty collapsing during the daily meeting? Something to do with some bad news?” Zeleph prodded.

Surprised, Count Bergstone stared hard at his brother-in-law’s face. Only the people at the meeting should have known that.

I don’t know how he knows about that, but as always, he doesn’t miss a beat.

In front of Count Bergstone sat a pudgy middle-aged man. His amicable smile was charming, but that was his only notable trait. In terms of appearances, he was greatly below Count Bergstone, who was refined and handsome, yet unrestrained and daring.

Within the Rhoadserian aristocracy, Elnan Zeleph was merely an extra attached to Count Bergstone, the unwanted side dish next to the succulent entrée. He was necessary—perhaps—and his absence would impact the picture as a whole, but he wasn’t worthy of attention.

Marquis Ernest, who had been Duke Gelhart’s rival for many years, had impressed most of Rhoadseria’s nobles with his wisdom and good looks. But when he informed them that one of his daughters was to wed the young Elnan Zeleph, it came as a shock to the numerous aristocrats who had hoped to marry her themselves. Even now, it was a topic of discussion among Rhoadseria’s nobles.

But while rumors insisted that his brother-in-law was mediocre and unremarkable, Count Bergstone had never looked down upon Elnan Zeleph. He knew very well just how deceptively menacing Zeleph could be.

“Yes,” Bergstone said, confirming Zeleph’s question. “She fainted after she heard news of a rebellion. She’s resting in her room for the day. I’m sure it was quite heartbreaking in its own way for her.” Bergstone then glared at his brother-in-law. “I’m surprised you know that, though. I was under the impression that the palace issued a gag order on the whole matter...”

Count Zeleph shrugged. Ordering people to keep quiet was easy enough, but assuring that they remained silent was difficult. It was a self-evident truth, as far as Count Zeleph was concerned. He couldn’t very well brag about it, but he had eyes and ears all around the palace.

“A gag order doesn’t mean much,” Zeleph said. “Even the gods would struggle to completely silence people, especially at a time like this, when everyone’s anxious about Rhoadseria’s fate.”

People had a natural proclivity for gossip. News had a tendency to expand from mouth to ear like a ripple, picking up fragments of truth and falsehood along the way. Because of that, forcibly suppressing human instinct was arduous. No matter how much one thought they could keep things in check, it would always fall apart on some level.

“I suppose that’s inevitable,” said Bergstone.

Zeleph nodded. “Indeed, it is.”

For one long moment, they gazed at each other.

In all honesty, Queen Lupis’s physical condition was the last thing on Bergstone’s mind. “This means that all the things I had you gather for me were for nothing,” he said, breaking the silence. “I’m sorry it ended up like this after I asked you to do the dirty work. I’m really sorry, Elnan.”

Count Bergstone bowed his head to Count Zeleph, apologizing from the depths of his heart. Count Zeleph’s expression, however, remained unchanged.

After a moment, Zeleph cracked a smile and said, “Don’t let it trouble you, Alan.”

Bergstone raised his head. “But—”

“Neither of us could do anything about this,” Zeleph stated, shaking his head. “It was a poor gamble to begin with.” There was no sign of anger or indignation in his expression. He truly believed this outcome was unavoidable.

Count Bergstone moved his gaze to the stack of papers on the table.

How can he be so calm? Or am I just too naive?

The papers were full of information about the taxation in Rhoadseria. It detailed who collected how much from which village, and what method they used to do so. They also noted how much had gone into the collector’s pocket. The information on these papers was thorough and precise. And Count Bergstone had intended to use this information to purge the nobles’ faction from the regime.

Many of the problems plaguing Rhoadseria could be attributed to the nobles’ faction, which was once again gathering under Viscount Gelhart. They provoked discontent toward Queen Lupis, interfered with national defense, and pressured the bureaucrats to slow their work. Nothing they did proved fatal to the country, but on the whole, they couldn’t be ignored.

And by now, it wasn’t just the nobles’ faction. The aristocrats of the neutral faction, who had entered Queen Lupis’s service alongside Count Bergstone, were beginning to prioritize their own greed. They were much worse than the nobles who actively opposed the queen and obstructed her reforms; they were much harder to deal with. Or rather, they would be difficult to deal with given Queen Lupis’s position and disposition.

And so, Count Bergstone had turned to the simplest, most effective solution. He had checked which of the uncooperative noble houses had the weakest political power and terminated their entire families. He didn’t even give them time to object. He completely crushed and purged them from the aristocracy.

Nobles saw themselves as special and essential to society, so no punishment was more terrifying to them. This fear could bind the hearts of even the most rebellious nobles, making them more cautious to act. After that, the regime would need to formally and relentlessly tame them until they were completely docile.

They wouldn’t need to look too hard to find a reason to purge them either. The information Count Zeleph had collected was incriminating enough to justify eliminating their families altogether. Besides, all noble houses had their shady dealings. And if not, they could use the sovereign’s authority to fabricate a crime.

So long as Queen Lupis was willing to tarnish herself like that, she could have used her absolute authority as sovereign to crush any and all nobles who opposed her. Engaging in politics naturally meant she couldn’t avoid dirtying her hands sometimes. But her gentle and calm disposition, coupled with her lack of achievements since becoming queen, made it difficult for her to invoke the power to forcibly purge the nobles’ faction. She was terrified of tarnishing her reputation like that.

That was why Count Bergstone—knowing all the while that Queen Lupis held a grudge against him—had adopted a wait-and-see approach. He’d sat on this evidence despite the fact that it could cripple the nobles’ faction. After all, he had been on friendly terms with Ryoma Mikoshiba when they both worked together in the previous civil war. Plus, he was disillusioned with the queen for sending Ryoma on the expedition to Xarooda. He also couldn’t tolerate Mikhail Vanash, who remained safe only by the grace and trust of Queen Lupis.

Even so, that didn’t mean I would give up on this country and cast my homeland to the dogs.

Count Bergstone hadn’t acted, but only because he was biding his time. He knew that Queen Lupis was so indecisive that any suggestion he made would fall on deaf ears—unless she was completely and utterly backed into a corner. And as he held his tongue, he had his brother-in-law act in secret, gathering evidence of the nobles’ corruption. He’d waited until the nobles would be at their most careless, lying low until the day he would expose their true ugly nature for all to see.

I gambled everything on this ploy, but...

Count Zeleph seemed to have a different opinion, though.

“I realize it might be too late to say this now, but honestly, I thought it would take a great deal of luck for your plan to work. Just setting it all up was too complicated to begin with.” He paused for a moment, exhaled, and then continued, his tone heavy. “Do not misunderstand what I’m about to say. I, too, am a noble servant of Rhoadseria. I am loyal to Her Majesty. That’s why, when you approached me with your plan, I lent you what little strength I had and helped you weave this plot. But anything more than this is wasted effort.”

“” Bergstone swallowed, realizing the meaning behind Zeleph’s words. Those were the very words he never wanted to hear.

“Listen, Alan. You’re a wise and skilled governor. Your subjects hold you in high regard, and you are talented with militaristic endeavors. Surely you’ve realized it by now.”

The gentle smile was gone from Count Zeleph’s lips, and his eyes glinted with a dangerous light. His words were like the herald of the grim reaper’s approach. But as much as Count Bergstone didn’t want to hear what he was about to say, it wouldn’t change the reality of it all.

“Stop it, Elnan. You...a retainer of the Rhoadserian throne, aren’t allowed to say that...”

What Count Zeleph was saying was all too evident already. The words he would speak next were exactly what Count Bergstone was trying to avoid. Hearing it would crush him...but he already knew. Hearing it from his brother-in-law, a man he trusted so deeply, was going to hurt worse. The moment those words were out, he would have to choose between following his brother-in-law or parting ways with him. And if they were to part, they would not meet again.

Of course, Count Zeleph didn’t approach this with half-hearted emotions. He knew how Bergstone felt. Despite that, he continued speaking, his tone grave.

“Alan, it’s time we look reality in the eye. We’ve been loyal to this country long enough. Now we have to consider which path to take—which way will help us survive this.”

The Kingdom of Rhoadseria was a ship on the brink of capsizing. It hadn’t quite begun to sink, but any stopgap measures that could have saved it had all but failed. The impending submersion could no longer be stopped.

This left them with only two options: either remain on this sinking ship and share its fate, or—

“But that would mean...”

—or abandon Queen Lupis.

Bergstone’s eyes were full of questions and doubt, but Zeleph wouldn’t back down now. Giving in to emotion and letting sentimentality sway his choice would only bring ruin upon his household. And so, if it came down to it, he would even abandon his brother-in-law. He had come here resolved to do what needed to be done.

Zeleph continued, “Either way, Queen Lupis has no chance of winning at this point. If she doesn’t suppress this rebellion... Well, the commoners carry too much of a grudge against her. She won’t be spared. Even if she does suppress the rebellion...”

“Viscount Gelhart will use Princess Radine as a banner to crush her,” Bergstone finished. “He’d claim that an incompetent ruler has no place on the throne.”

Count Zeleph nodded slowly. Nothing was a greater indicator of one’s capacity than their ability to take advantage of a just cause. Legitimacy could be the most powerful weapon in one scenario, but a crippling poison in another.

During the previous civil war, Queen Lupis’s greatest weapon was her just cause. By asserting that she was the legitimate heir to the throne, many nobles who’d waited for the right time to eventually unite had come under her banner and helped her. Things were different this time. The power and responsibility that came with being the legitimate sovereign only served to push Queen Lupis back against the wall.

“Isn’t negotiating with the commoners a possibility?” Bergstone asked. He had written it off as impossible before, but he had to mention it now. He couldn’t think of a better alternative.

“It’s pointless, Alan. The commoners won’t believe anything a noble says anymore, and the other nobles would never agree to compromise with the lower classes. The only possible way out of this is if Queen Lupis forcibly suppresses the nobles and pardons the ringleaders of the rebellion. But if she does that, she would be beholden to the nobles, and their power would only grow. It would buy the kingdom a bit of time, but... In the end, there’ll be yet another, greater rebellion, or one of the surrounding countries will take advantage of the unrest and invade.”

That was the same conclusion Count Bergstone had come to. They both had similar outlooks, so them reaching similar conclusions wasn’t much of a surprise.

Count Bergstone feebly turned his face away from Count Zeleph.

So that’s really all there is to it.

The secret to keeping a country stable was maintaining fear, be it by military strength, financial advantage, political authority, or lawful power. People didn’t obey the country because they believed it was absolutely just and right. They obeyed because they feared its power and, at the same time, trusted that it was strong enough to protect them.

For better or worse, peace was built on the power to keep internal threats in check and deter external ones. As she was now, Queen Lupis lacked that power. Without power, she couldn’t foster trust. And without trust, her words had no potency. When all was said and done, the problem lay in one fact: Lupis Rhoadserians was weak.

“But even if they had no regard for her cause, too many people doubt the queen’s capacity to rule,” Zeleph continued. “The current rebellion is a crippling blow to whatever respect people still had for her. All of the nobles will likely gather under Viscount Gelhart and Princess Radine.”

“Even if we try to persuade them?” Bergstone asked, as if clinging to a final strand of hope.

Count Bergstone was a confident man. Perhaps too confident, since it had bought him the ire of the late King Pharst II, but he was by no means unpopular. He was known for having a backbone, for not bending to the nobles’ faction even at its strongest. That was why so many of the neutral nobles had answered his call when he’d asked them to gather under Queen Lupis. But there was no guarantee that the same thing would work this time.

“It won’t work,” Zeleph said. “Viscount Gelhart’s influence extends to over forty percent of the nobles. Even after being reduced to a viscount, he still retains most of his authority. With things being what they are... Unless you’re dealing with someone who has a major grudge against the viscount, you won’t be able to convince any of the nobles’ faction to help the queen. Not even the neutral nobles will listen.”

Being the legitimate queen did give Lupis a great advantage. But even if they tried to convince other nobles to join her, Viscount Gelhart’s scheming to depose the foolish ruler would completely overshadow that. And since he could place Princess Radine on the throne instead, he would also have legitimacy on his side.

The only silver lining was that the leader of the knights’ faction, the former General Albrecht, had perished in the last civil war. Because of his demise, the royal guard and the knights affiliated with the kingdom were all under the control of the royal house.

No, even that depends on Lady Helena.

The face of the Ivory Goddess of War flashed in Count Bergstone’s mind. Normally, she was Queen Lupis’s ace in the hole, but she was currently in Tritron, a region near the Xaroodian border.

The general who oversaw all military affairs couldn’t be absent from the capital for too long, though. Rumor had it that the relationship between Queen Lupis and Helena had soured due to the expedition to Xarooda, which was a possible explanation for this situation. Still, even though the O’ltormea Empire had been forced into an armistice, they could launch an invasion on Xarooda again, so the army had to remain stationed by the border. That wasn’t a wrong decision by any stretch of the imagination.

Who’s to say what Helena Steiner’s feelings are about this rebellion. I doubt she would join the nobles’ faction, but what is her take on this situation?

Helena had become the highest ranking knight in the kingdom, but she was originally a commoner. On the other hand, the royal family and the nobles did help her rise to that position, so she couldn’t regard them too harshly. Given those circumstances, how would she view this rebellion?

At worst, she might give up on Queen Lupis...

That would truly be the worst possible conclusion. But Count Bergstone couldn’t see any way of avoiding it.

“So there’s nothing we can do,” Bergstone muttered. He let out a deep, despondent sigh.

Zeleph slowly shook his head. “I understand how you feel, Alan. But the situation is simply too bleak. If only we could do something about Princess Radine and Viscount Gelhart, we might still be able to do something, but...”

If Princess Radine were gone, Viscount Gelhart wouldn’t be able to dethrone Queen Lupis, no matter what cause he had on his side. He would look like a usurper. And the nobles wouldn’t want to associate with a usurper. At least some of them would take Queen Lupis’s side and would be willing to listen to Count Bergstone.

But now that Princess Radine had been recognized as an official princess of Rhoadseria, that wasn’t possible. The same could be said of Viscount Gelhart himself. His oath of fealty during the civil war should never have been recognized, and he certainly should have been disposed of alongside General Albrecht.

“It’s too late...” Bergstone lamented, sounding hopeless. “Saying this now might be pointless, but accepting his allegiance in exchange for Mikhail Vanash’s life was a fatal move.”

Mikhail Vanash. If only he wasn’t so starved for merit.

Regretting the past would achieve nothing, but Count Bergstone couldn’t help but look back bitterly. There was certainly a moment, back at the end of that war, where a brilliant future could have dawned for the Kingdom of Rhoadseria.

But now it’s too late for that. That glorious future slipped through our fingers. This rebellion will completely end Her Majesty’s reign. In which case...

He had to choose between perishing with Lupis Rhoadserians or seeking a way to survive. His duties as retainer to his queen clashed with his responsibilities as governor to the population of his territory and his vassals. Both of those things were precious to him. Normally, he wouldn’t have to pick one over the other. But now he had to.

A long silence settled over the office. Eventually, Bergstone nodded and said, “Understood, Elnan. Tell me your idea. How can I save my county’s people?”

“There’s something I need to check first. Can I take this to mean you’ve decided?” Zeleph asked, making doubly sure. Given their intimacy, it was unlikely that he would misunderstand Bergstone’s intentions. But the matter in question was quite dangerous, so he needed to hear Bergstone say it directly.

“I have no choice,” Bergstone said, forcing the words out from the bottom of his heart. “I won’t denounce all of her decisions, and her love for this country is true. this point, I can’t do anything else.”

It felt like his very soul was howling in pain. Queen Lupis’s choices were by no means all mistakes, at least not on an individual, personal level. Even as a person in charge of national politics, her decisions weren’t inherently erroneous. But that was all the praise he could give her. She wasn’t wrong...but she wasn’t right either. And in politics, whether a choice was good or bad was decided purely by the outcome. If the outcome was poor, right or wrong didn’t matter.

Queen Lupis had failed to bring about desirable outcomes. For that, she was deemed guilty and seen as an evil upon her kingdom.

Forgive me, Your Majesty.

In the depths of his heart, Count Bergstone wept. He held no hatred for Lupis Rhoadserians as a human being. She might have made a few foolish, even childish decisions, but she wasn’t a vile woman at heart. She was a sovereign worth serving. If nothing else, during the civil war, he had served her because he truly and honestly believed in her.

But now he couldn’t be picky about his measures. There were lives riding on his shoulders—a family he’d shared the good and the bad with for years and the subjects living in his county.

“You’ve made a wise decision, Alan,” Zeleph said gravely.

Bergstone bit his lip and nodded.

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