Here's the first regular chapter of the week. For those interested in some of the terminology and style changes we made in recent chapters, don't forget to read the write-up by Prince once it's posted.

Everyone made merry during the extravagant banquet. After the festivities, Lorist invited the Peterson Merchant Guild's vice-president to his study for some tea. Charade was the only other individual present.

The vice-president handed Lorist a personal letter, written by President Peterson. In the letter, he stated frankly that ever since word of the third prince's death had gotten out, voices of dissent had been surfacing among the Union's higher-ups. There was now constant arguments over whether they should continue their plan to take the northwestern area of the Redlis kingdom. After all, nobody was willing to stand against the 300 thousand troops of Second Highness Auguslo.

Peterson believed that, with the third prince now dead, the second highness would launch his attack against the Redlis kingdom by the 4th or 5th month of the year. The war would then quickly spread to the northwestern area.

If the Peterson Merchant Guild persisted and took a part of that area as their dominion there, they might be wiped out by the second highness' forces. All their efforts would be for naught.

The Peterson Merchant Guild couldn't easily afford to shift their focus elsewhere, however. They couldn't shift to the Lormo duchy. They had no intention to become its shield. They could, however, move instead to the Teribo kingdom. Although the situation there was still tense from the war, and the Mayflower- and Twinhead Dragon Merchant Guilds had declared their intent to take parts of the kingdom as their dominions, it was still a more viable option than all the alternatives. They, thus, decided that it would be the Teribo kingdom from which they would take a bite.

Given that three of the big-seven merchant guilds had changed their priorities, the Chikdor Merchant Guild had no choice but to give up on their plan to conquer Silowas. If they insisted on doing so, not only would they become eternal enemies with House Norton, they would also be a target for the second highness.

As Silowas was the dominion of the Nortons, it was considered to be part of the Andinaq kingdom. If the guild forcefully occupied it, they would be invading the kingdom. Second Highness Auguslo, who intended to rebuild the Krissen Empire, would consider it a slap in the face. Even if the guild could afford to take on a noble house, they could most assuredly not fight against an entire kingdom, especially not one that controlled an incredibly strong military.

Lorist almost laughed as he read through the letter. President Peterson had used a few beastskins for his long argument just to tell Lorist that the Union's focus had changed and that his dominion would no longer be a target, implying that he could do business with his guild without worries.

However, the president also made three conditions. First, his guild would be the sole party allowed access to the maritime trade route from Hidegold Bay to Silowas. After the sea blockade incident, there was no way the Chikdor Merchant Guild could seek to benefit from the Nortons anymore. Since the trade route was up for the taking, the Peterson Merchant Guild wasn't going to hold back.

Some issues had cropped up as a result of the war which meant that the guild couldn't gather the 2 million gold Fordes for their fur deal with the Nortons anymore, thus the second deal. The president hoped to barter for the equivalent of their shortage. The deal was very important to the guild, it would help to relieve their burden and ease their position.

The core of the letter was in the president's third condition. Even though the Union had only been at war with the Teribo kingdom for little more than a month, President Peterson had already begun to realize his guild was rather lacking. It wasn't that the guild lacked high-tier fighters, but that they lacked an organized force with which to defend themselves or mount attacks.

As one of the big-seven guilds, the guild controlled the fur trade and were also the leaders in long-distance land-based convoys. They even had their hands in construction, overseas exports and imports, food, entertainment, and other miscellaneous activities. The guild didn't lack any manpower either. For instance, they could very easily move people around to form a force against the Teribo kingdom and reinforce the front lines.

Doing so, however, had negative side effects on the guild's operations. While the guild's forces would be more than sufficient for defensive actions, it would be incredibly troublesome to mobilize them to engage offensively. The leadership of the nations neighboring the Teribo kingdom shared Peterson's opinion.

The nobility system was going to be implemented soon, and with it, the heads of all the merchant guilds would become dukes with their own duchies. It was a logical step for them to possess appropriate standing armies as well.

The Twinhead Dragon Merchant Guild was the fastest to make the change, and they didn't hold anything back. They had completely absorbed the entire Union's garrison forces as their own. President Cobleit had already decided to approve the proposal to disband the garrisons during the 10th month. As a result, the various cities would have to form their own garrisons, thus decreasing the military spending of the Union. On the other hand, he would take all the members of the garrisons to his own dominion and have them join his army.

The Mayflower Merchant Guild wasn't about to sit there and watch either. The patrol regiment stationed at the Callisto Hills had already become their target. Since the Callisto Hills would be divided into more than 50 territories and enfeoffed to others following the implementation of the nobility system, the patrol regiment's future was uncertain.

The Forde Merchant Guild, on the other hand, was rather calm. When it took over the Lormo duchy's Puljas Province, they also absorbed the duchy's 10 thousand troops into their army and were already in the process of reorganizing.

The Riwal Merchant Guild wasn't in a hurry either. They were busy convincing the Mobia duchy to join the Union and had taken an interest in the duchy's forces. Negotiations were already under way.

As for the Chikdor Merchant Guild, they were already incredibly influential at sea. Given that they were the hegemon of the seas, they were not the least bit interested in forming their own defense force. It might also have something to do with their current sore lack of a dominion or even just a prospective dominion.

The Wessia Merchant Guild also lacked their own dominion at present, in spite of that they had already formed their own defense forces. These were used mainly to protect the mines they now possessed in the Redlis kingdom. When they finally had a dominion of their own, they need only merge the new forces into a single, integrated army to be a force to be reckoned with.

This left the Peterson Merchant Guild in an awkward position, which was why President Peterson was so worried. While dealing with bandits during their convoys' journeys or joining forces with other merchant guilds in the current conflict was no problem, forming their own standing army was an issue. It was not something that could be solved solely with manpower. Forming an army required proper training and strict military regulations. They had to have a reliable force by the time they took over their duchy.

This was where Lorist came in. Peterson's third condition was that Lorist had to provide him with a robust plan for forming an army. He also wanted Lorist to let the vice-president observe the training routine used by his house's forces so the guild could gain the basic military know-how. In a chaotic time like this, Peterson's request could be considered incredibly excessive. After all, for many military-based noble houses, their training methodology and techniques were top secret, a matter of confidence that could never be shared with, or even just showed to, outsiders.

But, given the understanding Peterson had of Lorist's character, he made the request straightforwardly. The guild did not lack talented military officials, but they did lack officials well-versed in theoretical strategy. A force without a firm grounding in military theory was no more than a slightly organised rabble, they were an unreliable bunch at best. If the guild formed a standing army like that, they would be nothing more than a punching bag for others. If that were to be the case, there was no point to forming one in the first place and it would be better to abandon the endeavour now.

House Norton was a noble house with a long and star-studded military heritage. Their performance over the past two years, best exemplified by their defeat of the Duke of the Northlands as well as the extermination of Second Prince Iblia's 100 thousand strong force, was more than stellar. They had even conquered the Iblia kingdom's capital and forced Duke Fisablen's Frontier Legion to retreat.

It would be nothing but a strike of ultimate fortune if the guild could get help from Lorist in this regard. This was also why the president was trying to leverage their past dealings to get Lorist to do just that. He trusted that Lorist would give him a satisfactory answer.

Hmm, President Peterson does know his stuff... It seems that our forces' reputation has spread, thought Lorist gleefully.

After reading the letter, he passed it onto Charade.

Charade's expression as he read through the letter shifted from a hearty smile to a frown. As he finished reading the letter, he could only shake his head.

Lorist understood what the gesture meant. Initially, Charade was glad to read President Peterson's breakdown of the situation. Since Silowas would no longer be under threat, its development could continue as scheduled. He no longer had to leave.

His frown was naturally related to the requests the president had made. First was the matter of trade monopoly. Charade knew what the president was actually up to. The president was worried that Lorist would form his own fleet with which to do business. To prevent this from happening, he claimed that he didn't have enough money to do upfront purchases and asked to barter with resources instead. By trading in resources, and not handing over physical money, he could keep Lorist from having the money needed to purchase or commission the construction of ships. If he could indirectly make it too difficult for Lorist to get the ships he needed, he might give up on the idea altogether, in which case the Peterson Merchant Guild would control the trade route heading to the northlands, and could dictate the flow of resources there.

The third request was the bit that brought about the head-shaking. Charade had always been convinced that House Norton's forces far exceeded those of other nations. They were much smaller than their competitors, but the quality of their arms and armament, their discipline, and their strategy and tactics were in a different league altogether. There was no way he would agree to reveal how they trained their troops. Besides, just because the guild was on good terms with House Norton, it didn't mean that they couldn't become hostile in the future. They didn't even have to take action against House Norton, House Norton was a vassal of the Andinaq kingdom, so if the guild became hostile with the kingdom, the house and its subjects would get dragged into the conflict as well. Helping the Peterson Merchant Guild to form an army was helping a possible future enemy.

Lorist wasn't of the same mind, however. He agreed to all the conditions without hesitation. The decision was made so casually that even the vice-president was shocked.

"Treating others with sincerity has always been one of the traditions of House Norton. Since the guild has come as friends, you will be treated to a grand welcome and fine wine, and we will also do our best to help you however we can," said Lorist.

After agreeing to show the vice-president the training routine for Whitebird Town's defense force the next day, Lorist sent the thankful man away.

When he turned around, he saw Charade staring at him angrily.

Worried that the vice-president was still in earshot, Charade lowered his voice, "Are you crazy?! Why did you agree to let them see the defense force's training? That routine is a house secret that must never be revealed!"

Lorist snickered and patted on Charade's shoulder.

"Don't be so tense. There's no way that our training routine will be revealed so easily," said he.

"Then are you planning to mess with them?"

"It can't really be considered 'messing with them'. Right now the local defense force is still just training lining up and taking on different formations. This routine is hardly a secret to the other nations, now is it? This routine was developed by Potterfang using the Whitelion Legion's routine as its basis, so much of it should already be known by others. The routine is really just a hodge-podge of that and bits we added during the convoy days from various sources. Our house's own, unique training routine was only formulated after our engagements with the magic beast wave, and these troops aren't training in that yet.

House Norton's forces went through three stages during their training. The green recruits would be sent to the training camps where they would be taught military regulations and drilled until they obeyed orders almost as a reflex. Once they were satisfactorily reflexively obedient, they would move on to the second stage. Here they would train to awaken their battleforce. They couldn't officially join the military and march under the raging bear until they awakened their battleforce. Once their battleforce was awakened, they had to go through a three-month course that taught them basic military skills. Only once they completed this final course would they be drafted into standing units and officially be soldiers of the house.

The house treated its soldiers very well. They were all provided quality equipment, regardless of their rank, and never wanted for supplies. Lorist understood that good logistical support boosts the morale and loyalty of soldiers. The direct family of soldiers also benefited from having one of their own in military service. The house made sure to take good care of them and even gave them certain special benefits if the soldier died in battle.

All of this meant that being a member of the house's forces was just a source of great pride and elevated the soldier and their family's social status, but made the soldiers anticipate battles and even encouraged them to sacrifice themselves when the moment demanded it of them.

"In other words," Lorist continued, "the guild would have to implement all of this exactly in order to create a force capable of competing with ours. This will also require several years' investment on their part. It'll take time to train and temper their forces to an acceptable level. If they do this diligently they might have a decent force, but, if not, they'll simply be disguising a cat as a tiger - their forces will be for show only.

"Actually, I find the battles the northbound convoy were involved in brought lots of benefits to our forces. It was through actual battle that our forces grew to become elites, not normal training. The gruelling journey was a grindstone that slowly, if somewhat painfully, polished our forces. By the time it ended, we only needed to organise the fighters into proper units and structure them as a proper force to have a formidable army. They were only lacking equipment at the time, but now that they have it, their performance is unmatched."

Lorist had poured each of them a cup of fruit wine as he explained and the two now drank leisurely as he explained his plans. He planned to use this opportunity to aid the Peterson Merchant Guild and sell the equipment the house produced to the Union. The trade in arms and equipment had always produced staggering profits. The three allied houses in the Northlands had already armed their forces to the teeth, and Duke Fisablen had already signed the agreement to trade two years' livestock for equipment. There wasn't any other business in weaponry and equipment left to do in the area around the Nortons' dominion.

When Lorist had gone to the Andinaq kingdom's capital he had originally planned to do two things. He wanted to pass on the hot potato known as Second Prince Iblia to Second Highness Auguslo, but he'd also wanted to strike a deal with the latter for the sale of arms and equipment. He had not expected that the second highness had emptied his treasury just so he could feed his army. Once he knew, he didn't even bother to bring the deal up. He knew the second highness would try to purchase the equipment with empty promises, and he had no interest in provoking trouble where none was necessary.

The Union's arms and equipment need was technically supposed to be filled by the Wessia Merchant Guild, but it was patently obvious that they wouldn't be able to produce the volume the Union needed on short notice. It would be even worse with the implementation of the nobility system. The massive increase in landed nobles who needed to arm and supply their standing forces would create a massive demand for arms and equipment. Just like what had happened with the Kenmays family, the traditional nobles would no doubt view them as nothing but imposters, so they couldn't afford to lose in appearance, or, even worse, appear weak.

It was impossible that the guild would be able to satisfy such a demand and this created a golden opportunity for House Norton to enter the market, through the Peterson Merchant Guild, of course. As long as Lorist could corner a third of the market, he would no longer have to worry about the costs associated with the development of his dominion, nor about the increasing upkeep costs of the dominion's ever-expanding military.

Charade's mood changed from anger to elation instantly. He was determined to be put in charge of negotiating the arm and equipment deal, which Lorist gladly gave to him. Lorist had absolute faith that Charade would be able to get the most benefits for the house out of the deal.

At noon the next day, Lorist and Charade accompanied the Peterson Merchant Guild's men to check on Whitebird Town's forces as they trained. Despite Captain Victor, limp and all, and the rest of the force putting on their best performance, their lack of discipline and proper training was obvious. Even the men from the guild could pick up on it. They clicked their tongues in disappointment, some even mumbled that they were even worse than the troops the guild currently had.

Lorist didn't pay any mind to the comments. He treated them to a meal and let them take a short rest before they headed off to Farama Village to watch the third local defense brigade's training.

The low sound of a horn could be heard as the empty wheat fields filled up with guards wearing greyish-white uniforms. The soldiers arranged themselves neatly into three rectangular formations following a staccato of horn blasts. The men stood neatly together, not one of them made a sound. They had turned into statues, there weren't any detectable movements, only an intense killing intent radiated out from the groups.

This time, the guildsmen were shocked. The manner in which the soldiers got into formation alone was enough to show they were an elite unit. The three rectangular formations were right in front of them. While a unit of 3000 men wasn't considered large, they possessed an incredibly oppressive aura. It was as if the onlookers were standing in front of a huge mountain range. An intense feeling of despair crept into their hearts.

The vice-president took a deep breath and asked with a smile, "So, this is the elite unit of House Norton?"

"Well, I guess they can be considered as such. This is the Third Local Defense Brigade. They were formed pretty recently," said Lorist as he nodded.

He wasn't satisfied with their performance, however.

I should go teach Patt a lesson later... For his troops to take so long to get into formation... I wonder if he's focusing too much of his attention on Martha? Lorist had forgotten that Martha and her mother had already moved to the Northlands.

The training proceeded normally after that. The guildsmen were incredibly impressed. They felt their horizons had been broadened greatly. Now, they knew how an elite unit trained.

It was time for Charade's debut. He made a list of what an elite unit like the house's own needed, what they had to do to make the troops loyal, raise their morale, and ensure their obedience. Had he not stressed the importance of excellent equipment at every one of his points, he would've sounded even more convincing.

Ten days passed in a flash. The men from the Peterson Merchant Guild had observed enough of the training of the third local defense brigade and were ready to head back. As Lorist was making his final preparations to return to the Northlands, a shocking piece of information arrived.

Second Highness Auguslo had mobilized his troops seven days earlier and attacked the Redlis kingdom's capital.