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A large, polished plate hung amidst the dark blue veils of the night sky. Its silvery light seeped into the realms of man. Despite the time, Lorist stood on the veranda and cast his gaze on the cities in the valley below. The things that troubled him was carried away by the night's gentle breeze and tranquility ruled.

It's been seven years, huh... Time really flies. Back then, when the northbound convoy was first formed at the academy, I never would've imagined that a day like this would come. Thanks to my efforts, and those of my comrades, our little rural dominion has changed, radically so. Even the lands that used to be desolate, devoid of life, and uninhabitable have become havens for our people.

Lorist could no longer recall every single setback he experienced during the course of his journey. He only knew that the enemies he faced now were growing in might. The second prince was naught but an incompetent king. He had allowed his army, 100 thousand men, to crumble into dust. Even his assassination attempt with the blademaster had failed and, in return, Lorist had conquered his capital, Frederika. He got himself captured by the enemy and executed.

Now, however, Lorist was going up against an entire kingdom by himself. Even though it was a kingdom of pirates, it had already spent the last century developing into a strong nation on its slave trade and labor. It had its own armies as well as countless ruthless slavers. Working together, they were not a force to be underestimated.

Lorist read the interrogation reports. They revealed that the attack on Silowas had been launched with the combined forces of the entire kingdom. More than 80 slaver bands, the smaller of which were around a hundred men large and the larger over 500. The total force stretched into 24 thousand. Five hundred ships had to be used to transport them to the island.

The kingdom targeted the island because they had learned about the 60 thousand laborers recently moved to it. According to the blademaster's report, they had even sent agents disguised as smugglers to the island to confirm the information.

Despite their preparations, they had still underestimated the power of the island's forces. When they finally conquered the island, they tallied 80 ships and close to 10 thousand combatants as losses. Some of the slaver bands regretted taking part in the operation despite the massive haul. Even with the haul being what it was they had lost more than they would gain. The loot would have to be divided amongst the nobility, and the smaller bands would get only the scraps that remain thereafter. Their masters were bound to be very stingy as well, they had taken severe losses themselves and no doubt felt they ought to be compensated accordingly.

For instance, the captive blademaster's master, Duke Gouffman, was a well-known slaver in the kingdom. He had sent five slaver bands, around two thousand men, on the operation. The battles they fought on the ocean, even before reaching the island, had cost him 2 of his ships. The assault on the island and subsequent battles cost them another two bands. At the end of it all, they only had a thousand men left.

In return they had only captured 4 thousand slaves, it was far from equalling their losses. It was for this reason the blademaster had decided to remain on the island with his men a little longer. They wanted to see if they could catch any more slaves. Unfortunately for him, Potterfang's reinforcements came later and not one of them were able to return alive.

"Milord," called Howard softly.

"Finished with your night classes?" Lorist asked without turning around.

"Yes, Milord."

"Very well, go get some rest and leave me be. The three families will be visiting tomorrow. I wonder if Baron Felim will bring his precious daughter along with him this time? If he does, I'll give you three days of vacation so you can take your fiancee on a few dates."

"Milord!" yelled Howard with a flushed face.

"Hehe," Lorist chuckled, "Oh, do me a favor and get the kitchen staff to cook me something. Also, bring me a bottle of wine from the study. You may head to bed after that."

"Understood, Milord."

Howard carried out the instructions rather quickly, as he returned with two servants to the veranda after a few minutes. The servants laid down the table and chairs before serving the dishes. Perhaps in an attempt to get back at Lorist's teasing, Howard had asked the kitchen staff to serve him a huge smoked goose.

The night's scenery was awe-inspiring, but Lorist couldn't help but feel that the gigantic smoked goose in front of him ruined the harmony of his small supper. No matter how hard he tried not to, he still found the thought of biting away at oily, smoked goose to be rather ill-fit for such a great night.

"You little bastard..." complained Lorist.

In the end, he didn't touch the goose at all. He poured himself a cup of fruit wine and continued to admire the sight across the veranda as he went through one piece of information after another concerning Hanayabarta in his mind instead.

The Hanayabarta archipelago was located to the southwest of Silowas. A middle-class merchant vessel would take 11 days to make its way from Silowas to the archipelago, but the Flying Fish of Dawn only required around 8.

The archipelago looked like an octopus that had its teeth bared and flailed its tentacles about. The name 'Hanayabarta' was, in fact, the name of a demonic octopus deity that loved to cause storms and winds at sea. Legend says that the demonic octopus deity had once stolen a precious ornament belonging to Sufanna, Goddess of the Bloodmoon. The Bloodmoon Goddess was enraged by that act and summoned her husband, Singwa, God of the Sun, War, and Light, and her sister Daphlyn, Goddess of the Silvermoon when the demonic octopus surfaced from the depth of the seas. The three heavenly beings turned the thieving octopus deity into the archipelago as punishment.

Many on the continent took the moral of the story to be: angered women are unpredictable. That was why angering a woman was not to be done under any circumstances, or the consequences would be dire. For instance, the octopus deity had thought that the worst he would suffer from the theft was a drawn-out battle with the Bloodmoon Goddess, but it didn't expect that he would be turned into an archipelago as a result.

The Hanayabarta archipelago was perceived as being rural and desolate, being so far from the continent of Grindia without any worthy export to their name. It was only after the formation of the pirate kingdom did trade start to bustle at the archipelago, causing the opinions of the mainlanders about it to gradually change as well.

In terms of actual available area, the Hanayabarta archipelago was larger than the Norton dominion as a whole. However, most of the land available at the archipelago were long and narrow islands which did indeed look like octopus tentacles.

The kingdom had been formed more than 80 years earlier and had a population of around 500 thousand. Four hundred thousand of the population, however, were slaves. Perhaps the declining slaver population was their karma.

Even so, there were still geniuses amidst the wilderness. Lorist had learned that the second king had been one such person. Originally, the pirate kingdom was little more than an anarchic state where the strong were the law. The second king successfully turned that system into a hereditary one, firmly securing the position of the hegemon of his family for the coming years.

After he had been elected by his fellow pirates, he completely changed the raiding patterns of the pirates and enfeoffed the many islands of the archipelago to the pirate bosses as hereditary dominions. Additionally, he provided them with slave labor to cultivate their lands and recruited other common pirates into the royal family's forces, allowing them to spend their days without worry for food or shelter. Not only that, he also announced that he would no longer raid the coastal nations along the Golden Coast. Instead, he would make peace with them and establish trade. The development and expansion of the slave trade also helped to secure the kingdom's foundations.

It was considered fortunate to become a subject of the kingdom, but it was a fortune built on the blood and tears of slaves. The kingdom's subjects would not want for food and shelter. That was the birthright the second king left the pirates' descendants. However, if they wanted better lives, they had to serve as soldiers of the royal family or pick up a trade.

Hanayabarta had two standing armies. The first was the royal family's local defense army, which numbered 28 thousand people, and the second was the national patrol fleet, it had 24 large and middle-class ships to its name. The two units were under the direct control of the royal family. The other nobles of the kingdom were powerful slavers whose personal forces were the descendants of the pirates that had served with their founders. As for the slaver bands under their control, they consisted mostly of desperate deserters, mercenaries, and criminals.

Hanayabarta had two cities, the first was the royal capital of Hamidas, which was located on the central island of the archipelago, and the other was known as the largest hub in the world for the slave trade, Nupite.

While the nobles of the kingdom had residences at Hamidas, they were more accustomed to living at Nupite. It was, to them, nothing short of absolute paradise. They had their slaves construct luxurious estates and lived exuberant lives at the expense of their slaves.

Being a port city, Nupite was also a place where the various products imported from the mainland was available. It was a convenient location for the slaver nobles to instruct their slave traders and slaver bands from.

Lorist was rather confident that his forces were almost entirely unrivaled on the whole continent. This time around, he was prepared to deploy two of Potterfang's heavy-armored divisions, one wheelbarrow-carroballista division, Yuriy's light cavalry scout brigade, as well as Ovidis's Thunderbolt Brigade. Coupled with the two other personal guard regiments, his forces easily numbered 37 thousand. He believed that as long as his forces could make their way onto the islands, Hanayabarta would be exterminated. It might even be possible for him to single-handedly send all the slavers and slave traders on Grindia to the gallows.

Despite that, he was troubled to find a way to move his 37 thousand troops onto the central island without raising any alarms. The maps showed the archipelago's coasts to be straight. In other words, Nupite was in the deepest reaches of a bay that was shielded by a few long island stretches that acted as natural barriers.

Were the islands uninhabited, there would be no problem. Lorist could easily conquer them impose a blockade. However, the islands were the hereditary dominions of the slaver nobles and there was no doubt that they stationed many of their own there. The moment Lorist's ships were in sight, one signal fire after another would be lit and word of their presence would quickly spread to the city. The pirates would have time to form up and set sail, and chaos would no doubt follow.

So far, the best course of action was to transport those who would be deployed to Silowas to make preparations for the expedition. When Els and Tarkel sent back more information about the kingdom's defenses, the expedition could begin. Once most of the soldiers made it to the shores of the kingdom, they could teach the inhuman scum a lesson they could never forget.

Lorist revealed an insidious snicker. He had resolved himself to not let the slavers that attacked the island off, especially the members of the slaver bands. They had committed too much evil and it was high time they felt the consequences of their actions. Lorist had already reaffirmed his decision to go on an expedition against Hanayabarta.

Their time of reckoning would come.

Hopefully, Els and Tarkel would be able to discover where Charade and Jim were being held. He hoped nothing unfortunate happened to them. Even if they had to serve as slaves for several months, as long as they survived, Lorist could rescue them.

Lorist sigh deeply before chucking down the rest of the yellowish wine. News of Charade's capture was still being kept under wraps. Not even his family knew. Lorist looked at the hill to the left of the castle. Two rows of 12 large houses stood there. The first house at the top belonged to Charade. Just recently, Charade's father had gone there to check on his beloved great grandchild and had yet to leave.

Sigh... How would I be willing to be the one to break the bad news to them?

All of a sudden, Lorist noticed the flash of a sword in the corner of his eye. He took a closer look. That was a strike only a blademaster could make!

Why would there be such a strike at Charade's backyard, especially in the middle of the night? Don't tell me the slavers have realized Charade's true identity and intend to take his family hostage to force him to work for them!

Feeling a little distressed, Lorist leaped from the veranda onto the castle walls like a monkey and sped to Charade's house immediately.

Everything seemed normal, however. All Lorist could hear were some soft murmurs along with the noises made by Charade's infant son.

Lorist crept to the backyard like a shadow, silently. He crept under the trees to evade the silver moonlight.

The swordlight could only have come from one person, the one training in the backyard. As the sword in his hand moved, it radiated an air of controlled and contained sword aura. Even though the blade glow arced through a wide space, not a single flower was disturbed.

The control, accuracy, and stability demonstrated by the sword-wielder were amazing, to say the least. Those were the things that differentiated a blademaster from a gold-ranked swordsman.

Lorist stepped out of the shadow of the tree.

The man raised his sword and yelled, "Who goes there?"

"It's me," said Lorist calmly.

"Ugh... Milord..." stammered the man before he sheathed his sword.

"Follow me," said Lorist, before he turned and left.

"Phew," breathed the sword-wielder in relief.

The beautiful night inspired me to start training out of nowhere, but I didn't think that Milord would be back already... It's been some time since I became a blademaster, and given that Milord has seen me train, he's definitely noticed. It's over... My days of freedom and relaxation are over... I can never spend my time with my beloved granddaughter anymore and will be ordered around by Milord to fight on one battlefield after another...

At the same time, Lorist thought, Good Sol! How ridiculous can this get?! I didn't think that cowardly old man, the one willing to sell his daughter and even signed a contract to be my slave for ten years, would be the one to become a blademaster, and without anyone noticing at that! What kind of luck is this?!

The sword-wielder was actually Engelich. Back when Lorist was traveling through Armatrin Harbor with the northbound convoy, he had gotten into conflict with the Sloph Slavers. Lorist had killed two of their gold-ranked swordsmen all by himself, but Engelich, a three-star gold rank, hadn't dared to fight him at all. Instead, he turned tail and ran, only to be caught anyway. Lorist had confiscated all his money and his battleforce manual and even had the old man hand in his beloved granddaughter and sign a ten-year slave contract before letting him off.

Back then, as Charade had been injured by Engelich and was bandaged up like a rice ball, Lorist had no choice but to make the old man's granddaughter Charade's maidservant. He didn't think that the two would be attracted to one another. Lorist had no choice but to go easy on the old man as a result. It would be unseemly for him to treat the father of his chief knight's lover as a slave.

When Lorist had returned to the convoy at Nadegas in the Andinaq kingdom to lead them back to the Northlands, he had to reward those who had contributions to the journey. He had intended to take the old man as one of his household gold-ranked knights, only to be refused by the latter who said that he was satisfied as long as he got to stay by his granddaughter's side. Charade had already impregnated his granddaughter around and even pledged to take her as his wife when he returned to the dominion.

In consideration of the harsh life, the old man had led and his wish to spend the remainder of his time in peace with his family, Lorist allowed the matter to be settled and didn't disturb Engelich. However, he hadn't expected that the old man would actually come to be the house's first blademaster.

There was no way Lorist could afford to leave him be. He had to utilize the old man as best he could. After all, he didn't have that good a relationship with Engelich, to begin with, given how the old man would tremble every time he met Lorist. Lorist was only troubled by how a man like Engelich had managed to reach the rank of blademaster.

When they were back at the veranda of the castle, Lorist sat in his chair and poured himself some wine, leaving Engelich standing before him obediently.

"Tell me, since for how long have you been a blademaster?"

"Mi... Milord, it has been... a year," stammered the old man in fear.

"Why did you not tell me about it?" asked Lorist lazily.

"Mi-milord, you-you were not present back then," said the old man.

His voice broke at every other word.

Lorist could not remember exactly when he was within the dominion and when he was away, so he couldn't really argue. However, he was still rather troubled.

"Why are you trembling like that? Am I really that scary? It's not like I would devour you alive. Also, you're already a blademaster now."

"I... I don't know why, but... I am always afraid when meeting you..."

"Well, Engelich, I guess we should get to the main point. Since you're a blademaster, you ought to do your part for the house," said Lorist.

"Mi-milord... I pray that you let me be, given my age..." pleaded the old man.

"Bullshit! Don't think that I'm not aware that becoming a blademaster means you gain another 30 years of life. Your condition right now is comparable to a strong, healthy youth. I guess I can be honest with you and tell you that the house is not in that great of a position nowadays. In the near future, I will go on an expedition to Hanayabarta. Those darned slavers attacked our dominion, Silowas. Even your precious grandson-in-law has been captured by them."

"Milord, what did you say?" asked the old man with surprise, no longer looking as fearful as he did previously.

"That's one of the reasons why I will be leaving for Hanayabarta soon. I will definitely bring Charade back. Old man, you ought to play your part too. I need you to expropriate ships from the Sea of Grief for now. We still lack enough to transport all our troops there."

Now that the matter concerned the blissful life of his precious granddaughter, the old man no longer tried to push away his responsibilities.

"Alright, Milord. I will definitely make sure that you have the ships you need."

"Very well. Go back for now. I hope you can keep the matter about Charade a secret from his wife. I will notify you when the time comes," said Lorist.

"Understood, Milord," Engelich said before he turned around and headed to the stairs.

He paused at the door, however, and asked, "Oh, how many ships do you need exactly?"

"Well, try to get me around a hundred. But I'm not sure even that'll be enough," replied Lorist.

"What? You need that many?!" exclaimed the old man as he stepped forward, only to find that his leg was already beyond the step of the stairs.

The sound of a bag of meat rolling down an incline could be heard for a few moments afterward, accompanied by the occasional grunt.

Completely dumbfounded and shaking his head, Lorist mused, "For a person with a mindset like that, I wonder how he even managed to break through to become a blademaster..."