Here's the fourth release of the week, enjoy the read!

Lorist noticed that Els seemed rather downcast.

"What's wrong?" asked he.

Els looked at Tarkel. The man was calling a carriage to head to Viscount Timba's residence.

"Milord, don't you think Tarkel is a little too sneaky? He was getting along so well with Chelwar and Kalik, and yet he so easily comes up with a plan that dooms them at a moment's notice. I'm a little apprehensive about befriending him; he might just turn his knife on me when I least expect it..."

Lorist was speechless. Els might have served as a syndicate boss in the past, but that was mainly because his subordinates had forced him into the position. He wasn't like your typical syndicate boss, he treasured camaraderie and was a man of principle. Tarkel, on the other hand, had muddled in the lowest depth of society and had seen much of the deceit and duplicity it had to offer. He appeared friendly and generous - as a good man should - but there were few lines he did not dare cross to achieve his goals.

At Geldos he had suggested Lorist use the families of Count Cobry's soldiers as hostages to force their surrender.  Lorist had rejected the proposal outright.  He was a principled man from a military house.  He would never resort to such dishonorable designs.  It was a shame neither he nor his house would be able to live with.

His suggestion had caused Lorist to take true note of Tarkel. He had a rare adeptness at making friends and connections, and was deft at intelligence gathering.  These traits resulted in his forced relocation to The Northlands. Lorist understood that the house would require both virtuous and vicious talents to develop and thrive, so he did not mind -- and even appreciated -- Tarkel's insidious nature. Lorist was not averse to using Tarkel, as long as he was obedient and loyal.

It seemed now that Tarkel was far better than Els at intelligence gathering. Els' behaviour had slowly aligned ever closer to that of a standard household knight ever since he joined Lorist's personal guard.  he prioritized chivalry and honor over results. Lorist could only console Els by patting him on the shoulder.

"Like it or not, I have no choice but to use these methods to save Charade and the others this time," said he.

Their visit to Viscount Timba's residence proceeded very smoothly. The viscount had his aura of wealth and nobility restored. He received Tarkel and the rest with joy. Tarkel mentioned Kalik's case after some pleasantries, but, perhaps because the viscount had heard of Kalik's visit to his residence, he only hummed in agreement. Tarkel quickly changed the subject to the state of the conflict.

Viscount Timba asked, "Why are you that concerned about the war?"

"Hahaha, well, we have been traveling for more than a year already, but because we've been trapped here by this war of yours, we have yet to visit many places, nor have we been able to set up our trade network in the kingdom..." answered Tarkel.

"Please, you don't need to worry," the viscount chortled, "Start a trading firm in the capital for the time being. I will act as the guild's guarantor so no one will dare cause you any trouble."

"That's amazing, then, why don't I give you thirty percent of the shares of our upcoming venture?" offered Tarkel.

The viscount was surprised but felt that he could not possibly receive such a huge benefit for not doing that much. In the end, however, he found himself unable to refuse Tarkel's kind gesture and settled for a third of the venture's shares.

"I've seen the state of Snowshame's troops. I can't help but feel a little worried. The army is already made up of mostly just mercenaries and slavers, so they can't match up to the royal defense army, but it seems they also lack the will to participate in the upcoming counteroffensive.  Their morale is incredibly low," warned Tarkel.

"That's right," the viscount conceded, "Snowshame is still far from having enough troops and their morale is also rather low. That's a given since most of those who were enlisted just escaped from Nupite. They have continuously complained and caused trouble ever since they were conscripted. Even the garrison soldiers are having a lot of trouble dealing with that lot..."

"I feel His Majesty has been a little too hasty with the conscriptions. He should've settled the refugees first. Those with significant contributions should have been promoted and rewarded -- it would have roused the ambitions of the others. it would have been ideal if he had baited the refugees into volunteering.

"The main difference between volunteers and conscripts lies in their combat strength and rate of desertion. These are crucial factors to success on the battlefield; they are the difference between whether a unit breaks or holds in a dire situation. If Snowshame's soldiers desert or break, they are completely useless to the kingdom, and might even end up being assets to the Nortons," expounded Tarkel.

"That's what I think as well. However, the King himself is unable to come up with a method to raise their morale..." agreed the viscount.

"There are ways. It only depends on whether His Majesty is willing to execute them. Our guild once had to assemble a strong combat unit at short notice. We built up their moral and improved their determination with only three things.  We gave them lots of meat and alcohol, promised hefty rewards, and enforced strict military discipline. Even though we had far less time to train and prepare our unit than proper armies would, at the end of it they were still able to compete with regular military forces of similar size and armament.

"The meet and alcohol provide the nourishment and enjoyment the troops need, thus strengthening their bodies and improving their morale. Well-fed and satisfied soldiers are grateful soldiers.  Grateful soldiers become loyal soldiers.  And loyal soldiers become soldiers willing to die for your cause.

"Rewards must also not be limited to money.  Coin is important, yes, but not everyone yearns for money alone. Some yearn for fame instead, give to them honors and praise. Some yearn for peerage, grant them titles and land. Anything that will make the soldiers more willing to take the field on our behalf, and obtain victory in our name is a worthy reward.

"As for enforcing military regulations, that's pretty much a given. The soldiers who feast and drink from your purse, who are given the chance to rise in the ranks must earn their keep through loyal service. Kill a few of those who wish to receive without giving and the other will fall in line. They must understand that rewards and benefits go only to those who earn it with their blades, shields, bows, and axes."

Tarkel's detailed explanation successfully roused the viscount's interest and they continued to debate how they would reshape the army.

"If someone had come up with this suggestion earlier, Snowshame wouldn't the mess it is now!" grieved the viscount, "It's too late for my brother-in-law to rescind his orders and accommodate the refugees properly..."

Tarkel's lips twitched, eager to spill the words swimming in his mouth. Though he kept quiet, the twitch couldn't escape the viscount's notice.

"Please, feel free to speak your mind,"

"This is actually a good opportunity that you must not miss, no matter the cost," Tarkel encouraged, " I've come to understand that you are someone with excellent ingenuity and great foresight. It's a shame that many people treat you as a noble that's only relying on the name and prestige of your elder sister, the regent consort, and overlook your talent. Your sister's status is far too great; it easily eclipsed you in the eyes of others..."

Viscount Timba nodded softly. Tarkel's words resonated with his deepest thoughts an hidden feelings.

"This is the opportune moment for you to shine, for you to show others what you are capable of. Surely you understand what I mean. Snowshame has already disappointed your brother-in-law, the king and, as you have said, a sudden change in approach isn't possible anymore. That's the root of the problems Snowshame has right now.

"But what if you make an appearance to reshape things? Given your status as the regent consort's younger brother, and your experience fleeing Nupite without any gold-ranked knight or large escort, your words hold much more weight than those cowards who discarded their arms to flee. As long as you are willing to deal with the mess that is Snowshame, I'm sure that the king will be more than happy," said Tarkel without restraint.

"That's true, you speak sense. But I do not wish to lead Snowshame into battle," agreed the viscount with a troubled expression.

"No, Lord Viscount, you misunderstand my meaning. How could an exalted noble such as yourself march onto the battlefield? That is not permissible. Heck, the loss of even one strand of your hair is a huge loss for the kingdom; you will play a huge role in making the kingdom's future prosperous. All you have to do is whip Snowshame into shape. There will be others to lead it into battle."

Good lord, Tarkel, your flattery knows no bounds, thought Els and Lorist.

They were incredibly embarrassed to hear the shameless and cringy words. Viscount Timba, in stark contrast to their attitude, seemed to be enjoying the attention he was given. His eyes sparkled like two bulbs of crystal in a stream.  Every word that entered his ear lowered his guard towards Tarkel that little bit more.

"I feel you should start to reorganize Snowshame. It will cost you a teensy bit of money, there's no way around it, but in exchange, you will greatly improve your reputation, everyone will see you in a better light, much less His Majesty. There's no doubt in my mind whatsoever that your sister will also be very proud of you. A most ludicrously profitable trade. I can already imagine the day I hear praises sang in your name in court. Oh revered Viscount Timba, it almost brings tears to my eyes. If I can still gain your support in my venture when you are so highly regarded, my trip here would have been worth it."

"How much do you think this will cost? Tarkel, do you have an estimate?" inquired the viscount hesitantly.

"Implementing everything won't cost a lot," Tarkel affirmed, "I've already made some estimations. Providing the 20 thousand soldiers with meat and alcohol is not that costly; it'll only cost around 800 gold Fordes per feast. According to my calculations, feeding one soldier to the brim only costs 50 coppers, only half of a large silver. An average baked potato costs less than 15 coppers and a large serving of ale is only around 10 coppers. A soldier will be more than satisfied with a baked potato and a large serving of ale. Add 30 coppers' worth of delicious meat to each man's meal and you have one satisfied man ready to serve you.

"One gold Forde is worth 20 large silvers, so each gold Forde is enough to feed 40 soldiers. Even 20 thousand soldiers will only cost you 500 gold Fordes. If you up the spending to 800 to improve the quality of the alcohol and have some surplus meat to be shared around the soldiers will be even more pleased. This is a big step up from their usual black bread and vegetable soup.  I am certain many of them are sick and tired of such bland meals. As long as you treat them well this once, these soldiers will be grateful from the depths of their heart.

"You should first ask your sister if its fine for you to do this. Your sister's approval is tantamount to the king's tacit approval. With this in place, it'll be easy for you to reorganize the army and to claim credit for their improved performance. If you can show your talent today, then no one will be able to criticise you for enjoying the King's favor."

"So, it will be around 800 gold Fordes in total?" hesitated the viscount.

"You can rely on the Peterson Merchant Guild to give you a hand. We will donate 500 gold Fordes as a sign of support," offered Tarkel.

"Oh?" Viscount Timba mused with surprise, "Tarkel, tell me honestly.  Why are you willing to help me out this much?"

"I'll be frank with you, Lord Viscount. While I call it a donation, I will easily get the money back as long as you agree to do this twice," snickered Tarkel.

"Oh? How so?" asked the viscount, intrigued.

"Lord Viscount, will you refuse to let me supply the meat and alcohol if I donate the 500 gold Fordes?" asked Tarkel.

"Of course not. I would be more than willing to let you handle this business given your generous donation," replied the viscount.

"The meat and alcohol business will actually be a very profitable transaction for me. The price per soldier I mentioned earlier doesn't take profit into account. We can make it up by selling all that in large volumes, especially by buying some old or dying goats that are incredibly cheap. After all, we're only feeding the common soldier. All we have to do is cook the meat in a large pot and nobody would be able to tell the meat's quality.

"Additionally, if we can get our hands on some expiring smoked meat, the price will be even lower. In other words, I'll easily be able to earn 400 gold Fordes in profit for every feast you organize for the soldiers. If you do this twice, we will be able to earn the 500 gold Fordes back," explained Tarkel, revealing the secret to his profitable formula.

"I also understand that after escaping to the capital without your belongings, you're a little tight on finances. If your sister accepts your proposal, you might even be able to request a 1000-gold-Forde budged for each feast. You should ask for a budget for three feasts from the get-go. As for the meat and alcohol, let me serve you on that front. I will definitely ensure that the accounts for each feast would be flawless. That way, you will also be able to solve your financial shortage. What do you think?" asked Tarkel in a low voice.

"Very well," Viscount Timba beamed, "your proposal is magnificent. I will visit my sister at the royal court right away, so I hope you three can wait here for a short while. When I return, we'll discuss the details of the plan. Is that alright with you, Tarkel?"

Tarkel stood up and bowed respectfully before he said, "Lord Viscount, it is my honor to be able to serve you. We will wait here for the good news."