Here's the third regular release of the week! If nothing goes wrong, there will be six releases this week in total to make up for the chapter I missed last week.

"Respectful greetings to you, Lord Count. This one is Serihanem of Clan Chikdor. I have come to express our peaceful intentions on behalf of the Chikdor Merchant Guild."

The one dressed in the standard noble attire of the Union, who had introduced himself as Serihanem, bowed respectfully to Lorist before he presented his list of gifts.

Howard received the list and placed it on a small table beside Lorist, who gave it a glance. He saw assortments of jewelry, fashionable clothing, high-quality armaments, wine, and even four zeno horses. All of which, combined, was easily worth over 30 thousand gold Fordes. Lorist thought back at the times when he toiled so hard, only to earn a little more than eight thousand gold Fordes a year. To think that Clan Chikdor's gifts would easily rival the wealth amassed by a silver-ranked swordsman over 30 years of hard work...

"Please, take a seat," Lorist said waving his hand, "I wonder what business you, the first young master of Clan Chikdor, have with me that you would make such a long trip."

Serihanem smiled bitterly.

"Lord Count, you should know best why I've come. To be frank, my third brother's reckless actions have caused your house huge losses and put us at odds with one another. Back then, the guild was mainly focused on the war with the Teribo kingdom and didn't have any opportunity to make it up to you. This is why our misunderstanding grew even deeper, which have led to even further losses.

"I have come in hopes of resolving our differences and forming an amicable relationship. I hope that you will be forgiving and release our northern fleet's crews. The guild is more than willing to pay ransom to get them back. Lord Count, please don't refuse my earnest request. I understand that House Norton has exterminated Hanayabarta and performed a most righteous deed in liberating more than 400 thousand slaves. I hope you will be able to extend the same mercy to our honest and hard-working sailors as well. Our two sides might have been at odds at the time of the incident, but it is a conflict that has nothing to do with the common sailor or soldier.  They were only working to make end's meet to feed their families.

"To them, this is only their job, they themselves have no enmity with House Norton. I'm sure their families are eagerly awaiting their return. Lord Count, if you have anything you're dissatisfied with, please don't hesitate to tell me. The Chikdor Merchant Guild will definitely do all in our power to ensure that you are compensated in full. The main reason for my trip is to secure the release of our sailors so they can be reunited with their families."

Lorist looked at the man, no more than a few years older than him, with scrutiny. He presented himself as someone frank, honest, and sincere. He would easily be able to make others feel like they could get along with him.

"Please sit down, Sir Serihanem," Lorist beckoned, "I believe you of all people know why I am so particular about the men of your guild. To be honest, House Norton is practically at war with your guild. The only thing keeping it from being truly war is that no official declaration has been made as of yet. Let me also add that all of this started because of the guild in the first place."

"Please just use my name, Lord Count. I am most undeserving of such a title," Serihanem said, raising both his hands, "I understand your point. Apart from coming here to ransom our sailors, I've also come here in an attempt to resolve our conflict. The Chikdor Merchant Guild does not in any way wish for war with House Norton.

"I believe you know we originally intended to have Silowas as our dominion. But, now that we already have Urubaha, the main cause of conflict between us is no more. I have come here to ask your forgiveness for our actions so that we can start anew with a relationship that will benefit us both, instead of one that will dye the seas with the blood of the innocent."

"Serihanem, you say you don't wish for the innocent's blood to dye the sea, but do you know how much blood the Silowasian have spilled already? Do you know why our house mobilized to exterminate Hanayabarta?" asked Lorist.

"I am well aware, Lord Count. It was because of my reckless third brother. He said what he should not have in the midst of a drunken stupor at a banquet. But I can assure you that the leak about Silowas was purely accidental. My second brother and I have always been against our third brother's plan to take Silowas. To the guild, Silowas is too far from the southern seas which we control. Apart from its convenience as an island, it is not suitable at all to be our dominion.

"Not only that, we were involved in the War of Glass and have since put our plans for the north on hold indefinitely. It was that which caused my third brother to feel incredibly frustrated and resulted in his trip. It took him to Hanayabarta and it was there that he blurted out Silowas' status. The Hanayabartan nobles set their sights on Silowas as a result of his mistake. This is definitely not something we could envision happening...

"It's not that I'm trying to push responsibility away from us. We were also worried at the end of last year when our northern fleet didn't return from their voyage. We only heard of Hanayabarta's extermination in the third month, and of the matter for which I am now here. My father questioned our third brother and learned everything. At the time, even my third brother was unaware of what was happening. It was the attendants that served him who recalled that he accidentally leaked our plans for the north.

"For that, my third brother has suffered two harsh slaps from my father and has been exiled to the wastelands around the Urubahan mountains. My father said that since it was the fault of my third brother that your house suffered such huge losses, we are willing to give you our northern fleet's ships as compensation. All we ask is that our sailors be allowed to return.

"Regardless of my third brother leaking the information, surely nobody can refute that the slavers have already been targeting the 200 thousand refugees in the Andinaq kingdom's two southwestern provinces. Your house's bringing in of more than 60 thousand of them would have alerted the slavers eventually regardless. All my third brother did, was say the wrong thing in the wrong place. He was merely venting his frustration without the intention of causing trouble."

"Well, aren't you a talkative one," Lorist said as he looked at the round-faced Serihanem, shaking his head, "Well, the matter has already been over for a year, and there's no longer a point in pursuing whether the third young master was intent on causing trouble for us or not. The slave traders and slaver bands have already attacked Silowas and made a hell of it, and the house has already repaid that debt in blood and built Dread Monument.

"As to why we captured the northern fleet, the main reason is that House Norton is hostile towards your guild. It was your third young master that harbored hostile intentions towards us and dreamt of making Silowas your dominion. Other than that, it was your northern fleet that happened to make its way to Nupite. It's not like we sought them out intentionally. Fortunately for you, they were smart enough to surrender without resistance. All we had in store for them was three years' labor.

"I want to stress that House Norton is capable of being reasoned with. We won't oppress those weaker than us. But, while we appreciate peace, we don't shy from war. If the Chikdor Merchant Guild truly wishes to end hostile relations with us, I am more than happy to allow it. However, I must first see your sincerity through your actions. While it was you who started the conflict in the first place, it's not up to you to end it at your convenience. I would like to know what kind of price your guild is willing to pay."

Serihanem took a deep breath before he stood up. At the start of the 3rd month, more than ten ships that had been expropriated returned to Hidegold Bay. Up to a thousand liberated slaves brought word that Hanayabarta had been ended, as well as how the young count heading the house ordered the extermination of the civilians and nobles and had pyramid made of human heads constructed from their remains.

The news shocked the whole Union. Following the gradual release of the expropriated ships, and the slaves that traveled on board them, word of the incidents spread far and wide. It did not take long for the fame, or infamy, of the Nortons to skyrocket.

Wartime massacres were not uncommon in Grindia, but an entire kingdom's civilian population had never been eradicated before. The slaughter committed by the Nortons was nothing short of absolute cruelty. Even the chroniclers, historians, and journalists of the continent were afraid to make their way to the archipelago to see it all for themselves. They feared their own heads might be added to the pyramid.

When one of the Dawn Academy alumni revealed that the current head of House Norton was no other than Iron Locke, the Silver Undefeated, the academy began to swarm with journalists, much to the dismay of Academy Head Levins. In the end, the old fox wrote a recommendation letter for all the pestering journalists and guaranteed that House Norton would definitely not cause trouble for them. They only had enough confidence to head to Hanayabarta after they received such reassurance and the letters.

The journalists found a few of the formerly expropriated ships and traveled to the archipelago. After a month-and-a-half-long round trip, they began writing article after article on the incident. They covered, extensively, everything minute detail of the whole matter, from how the enmity between Hanayabarta and the Nortons started, to the conquest of their capital. The journalists and scholars were welcomed warmly by Governor Hector and taken on a tour of the island. It caused them to cast the Nortons in a more favorable light.

When they reported on the pyramid made of human crania and drew pictures of it, they did not fail to mention the touching tale of how Governor Hector had begged the count, even going as far as kneeling before him for seven hours, to spare the 12 thousand women. Despite its intention, however, it did nothing but cast Count Norton even more as a cold-blooded despot.

All of the reports were gathered by Knight Lundmorde, who had his own pediatric and gynecological clinic at Morante, and delivered to Lorist. Lorist did not take them to heart. He was well aware that this was the reputation he would gain when he gave the order. Sometimes, only with cruelty would the enemy fear oneself and think twice before causing trouble. Lorist was curious to see whether there were any other enemies who would face his forces with confidence now.

During the whole chaotic affair, the Chikdor Merchant Guild had kept a low profile, they observed from the sidelines. They knew that something was off when their northern fleet did not return at the end of the year. Even the scout ships they sent were nowhere to be found. Actually, the scout ships had run into the Flying Fish of Dawn and the Windstorm when they were on patrol. Three were captured and another two sunk. Not even one successfully return to send word of the situation.

The guild originally intended to send the southern armed fleet to find the northern fleet, but by the 3rd month, the expropriated ships had been returned and they began to grasp the situation. The northern fleet's capture was no secret; many of the expropriated ships' captains were able to provide reliable information on that matter.

Fortunately for the guild, the northern fleet did not incur any losses. They only fell into a trap and were forced to surrender. It was later discovered that they had been sent to Silowas to work as laborers. By then, no one in the guild even dared to mention the northern strategy. Even the third young master, Moribak, kept quiet. If he had known how much might the Nortons possessed, he would never have dared to propose taking Silowas in the first place. They had exterminated Hanayabarta, a full-fledged kingdom! Other things aside, the blademasters that had died by their hand numbered 14, and the Nortons suffered nothing in return. The news of 170 thousand civilians being beheaded and stacked up to make the pyramid brought chills to the third young master.

When President Chikdor learned that it was his third son that had accidentally revealed the information about Silowas and incited the interest of the slavers, he gave his son two harsh slaps and ordered him to head to their dominion and never leave. He ordered an urgent meeting with the guild's other higher-ups immediately. The result was Serihanem's trip.

"Count Norton, our guild is willing to spend 200 thousand gold Fordes to ransom the sailors as a token of apology. Other than that, we are intent on purchasing 56 thousand sets of equipment of the stainless steel model, 107 variants at your set price of 89 gold Fordes each without any need for discounts over the next three years. We'll pay the sum in full every time we receive a shipment, is that alright?"

Serihanem sighed secretly.

Had it not been for the six million gold Fordes we found in Duke Urubaha's treasury, the guild would not have benefited one bit even though we acquired the whole duchy, he thought, Sigh, the spice and other goods on the northern fleet, confiscated by the Nortons, easily cost more than 1.5 million gold Fordes, and we still have to spend such a huge sum to ransom our people back... If only we knew better...

Lorist tapped on the table.

"Have you seen the blueprints of the armor set ordered by the Peterson Merchant Guild?" asked he.

"Yes, we have, Lord Count. We also know that they are produced by your house. It is far superior to those produced by the Wessia Merchant Guild, both in terms of design and defensive capabilities. After making the Urubaha duchy our dominion, the duchy's two armies will be reorganized into a proper garrison legion. This is why the guild is willing to give this business to House Norton.

"Other than that, we are also willing to give up the trade route to the Shyarsia kingdom. In the future, we will purchase spice from your house at Silowas. Additionally, this is one of the plans my third brother devised as part of our northern strategy. With this floating box port plan, I'm sure that the Cursed Coasts would no longer prove troublesome to you."

Serihanem brought out another document which Howard received and checked before handing it to Lorist.

It detailed a flexible port made by linking floating boxes meant to be deployed in shallow waters around the reef area. Serihanem was correct that it would be able to neutralize the trading troubles along the Cursed Coasts. In the event of stormy weather, the linked floating boxes could even be retracted and made into wave breakers and filled with earth to make a permanent port.

Lorist finally revealed a smile, "Alright then. I am willing to reconcile with the guild. We will cease all hostilities with your guild."