Hotaru Vulpine sipped from her goblet as she stared out of the window of her office. The smokeless torches remained unlit in their sconces. The only source of illumination was the moonlight that streamed in through the window and fell upon her crystal cup, making the wine gleam red. Taking a large mouthful of the wine, she brought the cup down, swirling the wine within, watching it shatter the silver reflection of the moon into a thousand pieces.
"Misfortune never comes singly." It was her mother's favourite phrase; one she had grown up listening to. Today, misfortune had decided to come in pairs.
She swallowed, feeling the warmth of the wine as it trickled down her throat. Oh, how she longed for a stronger drink – the numbing fires of whiskey or rum. But she couldn't indulge. A clear mind was her sharpest weapon and she would need her wits about her if she was going to deal with this predicament.
The first of the two troubles, she had expected. The first of the two troubles, she had prepared for. After all, she found much merit in another one of her mother's sayings, one she had heard just as often as the first one.
"Buy candles at dawn," the woman used to say. "And when night comes, you'll have something to see by."
So, when the reports of the Cloud Whale passing through her airspace on the way to the Eastern District – no doubt ferrying a large army on par with her own – had arrived, she had listened to them calmly and subsequently ordered a re-fortification of their Eastern border. Every Earth Mage had been conscripted to build a wall that would stretch from the Achkan Plateau in the north to the Bay of Kings in the south. An ambitious project – one that would nearly empty her coffers – but one she could afford to undertake. She hadn't idled all these years she had been the Duchess.
Despite the daunting scale of the construction, the task itself became quite a simple one when Earth Mages got involved. Even a Tier 2 Earth Mage could build a dirt wall and with a basic comprehension of the Aspect of Reinforcement, those walls could be compressed to stone.
Hotaru Vulpine wasn't worried about dirigibles flying across the wall and negating her efforts. In fact, she welcomed aerial attacks. After all, the Kirin – lords of storm and sky – were on her side. Rather, it should be the Regiis forces who should be worrying about airstrikes. A single Mage was much more manoeuvrable than an airship. If she didn't suspect that the Cloud Whale was under the protection of a Demigod, she would have asked Ragyo Kirin to shoot it out of the sky on its trip back when it lacked an army to protect itself.
No, she wasn't worried about the Cloud Whale or the armies it carried. If she was predicting their actions correctly, they would choose to attack the vulnerable Crimson Coyotes and annex their lands instead of initiating conflict with her. After all, if push came to shove, they had two Districts worth of hostages to fall back on. Unless the Empire ruthlessly resolved to give their citizens up and eradicate the invading army by bringing the entirety of their might to bear, it was poised to be a long, tactical war, dependent less on armed conflict and more on strategy.
That was why the second bit of bad news was so discouraging. At a time when every single scrap could tip the scales, the farmers had started burning their crops.
The weakest point of the Shogunate forces, the proverbial chink in their armour, was their lack of a steady supply of grain. The Kirin army had arrived at Regiis on their warships and those, while superb for naval warfare, weren't designed to carry heavy loads, let alone large shipments of grain. It would take time for a proper trade route to be charted from the Southern District's harbour to their island nation across the Bay of Kings . More than six months seeing that all such prospection would have to be paused during the three coldest months of winter as the Midwinter Squalls would render the Bay of Kings non-navigable for cargo ships.
During these months, with the trade embargo imposed on them by Regiis, the Shogunate army would totally be dependent on the grain stored in and produced by the two Districts under their control. The immolation of crops by farmers had hit them at their sorest spot.
Thankfully, the movement had just started, and her informers had brought the news to her before things could get out of hand. Another one of her mother's pearls of wisdom had guided her actions. "What can go wrong, will." Knowing her weakness, she had guarded against just such an eventuality by placing informers amongst the peasants. She also had grain stashed away in secret storehouses across the two Districts. Enough to last a month if she wanted to keep the food prices reasonable even after a winter without harvest. She would have stocked more but with the money she had to save up for the Wall and the added constraint of secrecy, the amount she had now was the limit of her abilities.
Hotaru Vulpine raised the cup to her lips and drained its contents in one go before placing it down on the window sill with a loud clink. Her eyes were cold enough to freeze winter. These peasant uprisings weren't natural. They had occurred too soon after her takeover and they were too organized – dozens of farms choosing the same day to burn their crops.
She could see the shadow of the defecting aristocrats behind these events. While their greed had made it possible to win them over – thereby facilitating her grand accomplishment. Now, they were like millstones around her neck, dragging her down.
The bastards could smell profit like sharks smelt blood, and just like the predatory fish, once they had locked their prey, they would gather together and viciously rip it to shreds. Before, she had been their only channel to the Shogunate and a promise of great riches to come. But now, after they had revolted and switched camps, she had become their competitor. Her huge merit had become a target of their envy.
She didn't doubt that the aristocrats had their own stashes of grain. Maybe not individually, but combined, the grain would be enough to tide them through the inevitable food shortage that would follow a crop failure, at least, long enough for the sea route to the Shogunate to be established. She also didn't doubt that they would drive the prices of the grain up to absurd levels to squeeze as much profit out of the opportunity as they could. And as the current administrator, if she wanted to keep her post even after the Shogunate had firmed their grasp on the region, she would be the one footing the bill of subsidies or risk a riot when the masses starved.
A shadow covered the land like a blanket as the moon hid behind a bank of clouds, plunging her room into darkness. "I didn't want to do this…" she muttered softly under her breath. "But you forced my hand."
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