Here's the first release of the week, enjoy!

The manor's carriage was a simple two-wheeled wooden cargo carriage. Each side was covered with but four wooden boards. It had, however, been cleaned up pretty well on the supervisor's instructions since it was to be used by the viscount. It had even been loaded with a couch. The vehicle looked rather awkward.

Viscount Timba was fast asleep on the couch, and Kalik and Tarkel sat on two short stools on either side of it. Lorist, on the other hand, kept guard beside the coachman. Hannu and Yannu had to walk beside the carriage; their social status didn't allow them to ride in or on the same carriage as free people.

The Hanayabarta kingdom, being on an archipelago, didn't produce any of its own horses. As a result, imported horses sold for a high price, whenever any were available. The risks associated with dealing in horses were rather high as well. They were quick to get sick on ships, for one. They couldn't deal with the swaying. It wasn't strange for only half, or even just a third, of them to survive to journey to the islands. They were sold for a far higher price than normal so their merchants could make up for the losses suffered on the journey.

The carriage was being pulled by a Northlands horse.  It's posterior was branded with the royal family's crest and the number 19. The coachman was another slave manager.  He'd had to promise his colleagues quite a few benefits to get the position he currently occupied on the carriage since everyone knew what reward awaited him upon their arrival at the capital.

The coachman stopped the carriage at the side of the road when he saw the mobilizing soldiers. He planned to wait for them to pass before moving ahead once more but Kalik's loud cheers caused the knights at the front to notice them.

A few of the knights rode towards the carriage.

"Who goes there?" they asked, "Why are you making such a fuss?"

The coachmen informed the knights of his passenger's identity as the viscount, roused from his sleep by the calls, sat up and yawned drowsily. The knights, having learned of the high status of the carriage's occupant, left for guards with it and sent two men back to report to their lord.

A short while later, a large group of knights arrived with a luxurious four-wheeled carriage.

Their leader was a mustachioed man in his early fifties. He gave the viscount a hug and laughed heartily.

"My poor little Timba," he said, still holding the viscount in the air, "you're finally back! Did you know how worried your sister was? Before I left, she emplored me to bring you back safely. Haha, quick, get on. I've arranged for you to be sent to the palace to see your sister immediately."

Viscount Timba left thusly without so much as a farewell to his companions. Hannu and Yannu quickly stood on the side skirts of the carriage. The mustachioed knight recognized the two slaves and allowed them to leave with the carriage.

Tarkel, Kalik, and Lorist were ignored completely. As the carriage left for the capital, the knight ordered his men to continue leading the army.

Kalik was completely flabbergasted. He had not expected the viscount to abandon him so easily. Currently, he had no status at all and would not be able to find a place to stay even if he got to the capital.

The coachman, on the other hand, cursed out loudly at the departure of his potential benefactor. His trip had been for naught. Without the viscount, he would not be paid and he didn't know how he would explain it to his colleagues back at the manor. As his rage built up, he began to vent it on Kalik. He said that he should not have caused such a commotion to bring the knights to them and allowed them to notice the viscount. He even said that he was going to strip Kalik of his sword and belongings as compensation for how far he had brought them.

Kalik remained in his corner of the carriage without making a sound. He was so crestfallen he looked like a castrated chicken. In terms of status, he was inferior to even the coachman. The coachman was a slave manager working for the royal family whilst he was only a small time supervisor working at the Nupite's city hall -- a place, mind you, that had already fallen into enemy hands.

Lorist gave Tarkel a look. The latter quickly understood his intention and took out a single gold Forde and gave it to the coachman.

"I am the eldest son of the Peterson Merchant Guild's vice president. I promise that you will be rewarded duly if you bring us to the capital," he said, smiling.

With the gold Forde in hand, the coachman began to act incredibly friendly and amicable. He answered all the questions Tarkel had. He told Tarkel that the mustachioed knight was the current king's uncle and was a two-star-gold-ranked knight deeply trusted by the king. He added that, given that the royal defense army was mobilized, Nupite would be taken back from the enemy soon.

Lorist observed the troops that were praised so highly by Kalik but was quickly disappointed. He could see that the armaments they were given were not uniform and their ranks rather disorganized. The royal family's soldiers could be heard complaining as they marched by. One even boasted about their nighttime sexploits with multiple female slaves and other tall tales. Some of the soldiers around him asked for more details out of curiosity.

Lorist snickered as he thought, So that's what they consider elite? They're far from comparable to just our garrison forces, much less our elite troops. They've only just deployed even though I've been here at this hilly area for more than two days... I believe Loze is already waiting for them as well. I can only hope that he doesn't overwhelm the royal defense army and cause them to run back and turtle up in the capital. If that does happen, my plan to rescue everyone will fail...

It took the army most of the afternoon to pass by, but right behind them followed their supply train. Each carriage had only one horse pulling it, but ten slaves could be seen pushing each as well. A carriage was rather hard to move with only one horse, especially given how heavily they were loaded. There stood a soldier every couple of carriages that whipped those he deemed to be underperforming.  The whip cracks were frequently accompanied by spats like 'lazy idiot!'. Another two hours had to pass before the road was clear and the carriage could proceed.

When they finally arrived at Hamidas, Lorist was shocked by the sight before him. He never expected to see such a magnificent castle -- even larger than the one at the imperial capital -- on an island kingdom built on the slave trade.

The coachman proclaimed proudly that in the founding days of the kingdom, the capital was at Nupite. But at the start of the second king's reign, the castle before them's construction was started.  It took a full 18 years and 300 thousand slaves to build. After its completion, it was named the new royal capital, Hamidas.

Lorist's head ached.  He had not expected the royal capital to have such a large castle. The castle's design felt like a copy of the maplewood bastide's.  The bastide was built on a large hill and the only avenue of attack was the small road that led up to the gate. Hamidas, too, was built on a large, excavated hill, though it was about ten times bigger than the bastide's. From a distance, it looked like a city built on a platform. The only way to get up to it was a kilometer long road flanked on either side by a steep cliff at least 30 meters tall. The cliffs surrounding the castle itself was at least that tall as well, and on top of them were 20-meter tall walls.  The 50-metre climb was the only way to attack the castle directly.

A castle like that could only be brought down with a long siege.  It had to be starved out, no assault using current technology could breach its defenses. This wasn't something that Lorist and his forces could do, most certainly not given that -- according to Viscount Timba -- its food and water stores could last it a full three years. Nobody would be able to have an army surround a city for three whole years. The food cost alone would be astronomical.

Lorist also realized that his wheelbarrow-ballistae and catapults would not be of much use given that the castle had been built on elevated ground. The ranged weapons could only fire when it was brought close enough to the castle to be able to take out the defenders on the walls, but the cliff rendered that tactic unusable. Additionally, the castle walls were bound to be equipped with lots of ballistae themselves. Even Nupite's walls had more than a hundred, so Hamidas would definitely have more.

Lorist felt a strong urge to curse out loud, he had never imagined the island nation's capital would be that hard to take. He had expected it to be defended more or less the same as the Iblia kingdom's capital, Windbury. How could a pirate nation, not recognized by most of the other nations on the continent, be so powerful?

Lorist was extremely relieved that he had changed his tactics and had instead focused on defending his foothold at Nupite whilst trying to bait his enemy into attacking him first. Had it gone according to his original plan, where he would attack Hamidas right after taking the port city, he would have been caught completely off-guard by the capital's strong defenses.

The coachman sitting beside Lorist realized his silent mumbling and asked, "What's going on?"

Lorist replied, "Nothing, my balls just hurt?"

"Balls hurting?"

The coachman could not comprehend what Lorist meant. Just when he was about to ask, they arrived at the castle gates.

Entering the city cost a small silver per person. Additionally, given that the nation was in a state of war, the checks at the gates were stricter than usual. If Viscount Timba had still been around, they would not even need to pay and would be allowed to enter the castle without much trouble. The viscount's absence brought trouble for Kalik.

Lorist and Tarkel both had identification documents from the Peterson Merchant Guild and passed the screening process with relative ease. Kalik, however, only managed had his sword with him after his escape from the city. Additionally, the coachman stubbornly refused to back Kalik's claims -- he was the one that lost him the reward for bringing the viscount back. In the end, Kalik was searched harshly from top to bottom. It was already fortunate that they did not insist on probing his rectum to see if he'd hidden anything there.

In the end, Tarkel offered the coachman another gold Forde, and one large silver for each of the guards. The coachman was finally willing to testify that Kalik had come along with them from the royal family's manor. The guards were only willing to let Kalik into the city after they heard the coachman's testimony.

Hamidas was split into five sectors. The gate where the carriage entered was located in the east and was connected to the eastern sector, which was the city's largest commercial area. It was also a residential hub, more than 30 thousand citizens lived there alone. Most of the royal family members' defense forces lived there. Including the slave population, roughly 60 thousand people lived in the eastern sector.

The city's southern sector was reserved for nobles. All the kingdom's nobles had their mansions there. The western sector was a heavily-guarded warehouse area where the food and armaments were stored and was the smallest of the lot. The northern sector itself was divided into three districts, namely, the slave district, the tournament district and the army headquarters.

The slave district was the closest to the northern walls and was tightly packed with huts. The tens of thousands of slaves who lived there were mainly in charge of the waste removal and maintenance work at the city.

The tournament district, on the other hand, was where the dueling grounds were located. There was also a cock-fighting ring which also doubled as the city's largest casino. The nobles would often spent thousands of gold coins betting on the lives of the slave gladiators.

The northern sector's middle district was the royal defense army's base of operations, which also served as a buffer between the slave district and the rest of the capital. Should an insurrection occur, they would be able to react quickly to stomp down on any insurgents so that the safety of the rest of the capital wasn't compromised.

Apart from the four sectors, the royal sector located at the center was where the palace and court were. It was surrounded by tall walls which separated it from the four other sectors.

According to Viscount Timba, apart from the royal defense army's 28 thousand soldiers, there was another royal guard force of 2000 men stationed in the royal sector. The four other sectors each had a 1000-man garrison to maintain order and patrol the walls. In total, the city was garrisoned by more or less 34 thousand people.

The address Tarkel asked the coachman to head to was where an inn called the 'Blood and Flame' was located. Els had picked it to be his residence due to its proximity to the dueling grounds, a convenience for him as he went there almost every day to spar.

After the carriage drove for some ten-odd minutes, it finally arrived at the Blood and Flame.

Tarkel paid the coachman five gold Fordes, much to the latter's surprise and delight. He praised Tarkel incessantly as he left on the carriage.

The Blood and Flame was not as comfortable as the Red Grace Inn; the guest rooms upstairs weren't as clean despite the much higher price -- one gold Forde per night. Tarkel booked three rooms in total -- one for each of them -- before asking the inn's servants to prepare bathwater.

Initially, the middle-aged maidservant -- of relative beauty -- had wanted to bathe alongside Lorist. But after a long period of arguing, she gave up after some stern warnings. Cursing out loud and slamming the door behind her, she entered Kalik's room next door and it did not take long until the loud noises of promiscuity could be heard.

After Lorist finished his bath, he went to Tarkel's room, only to discover the man was not there. Going downstairs, he saw Tarkel chatting happily with the owner of the inn, so he took a seat at a table nearby and ordered a bottle of fruit wine while he waited.

After a while, Tarkel came over and ordered some food from a maidservant.

Taking a few looks around, he whispered to Lorist, "Milord, Els is not in his room. I've asked the owner about it and he said that he hasn't seen him for two days. According to him, Els left the morning the day before, as usual, to spar at the dueling grounds, but didn't return that night, he hasn't returned yesterday either. The owner thinks he might've been invited as a house guest by some noble..."

Lorist's gaze stiffened as he asked, "What do you think actually transpired?"

"I suspect that he's encountered some misfortune. There's no way that Els would attempt to socialize with the slaver nobles. He's pretending to be a young master who's crazy with perfecting his swordsmanship, so he won't bother with anyone else. Let's head to the dueling grounds after dinner. We've already made an arrangement to leave a sign outside the grounds for meet-ups," said Tarkel quietly.

"Alright, we'll do that," said Lorist, nodding his head in agreement.