Sorry for the deviation from the usual Tuesday release. Here's the first release of the week, enjoy!

"Do you want to take a whole province for yourself?" asked Lorist Count Kenmays, who was busy picking some fine wine off the racks.

The count was the fastest among the three and had already arrived. Baron Felim and Baron Shazin would take another day.

"You're finally going to act?" asked Count Kenmays with two bottles of wine in his hands.

Lorist nodded.

"Which province? I don't want the bad ones," said the count.

"See for yourself," said Lorist as he pointed at the purplish-black veil that was on the wall.

Count Kenmays put the wine bottles down and pushed the veil aside to reveal a large map on which two red arrows were drawn. One was pointed at Wild Husbandry while the other was pointed at Delamock.

"Are you going to act against the Madras duchy and House Fisablen?" Kenmays asked, "Can we really hold off against the combined attacks of those two?"

Lorist shook his head. "We can't attack both sides at once. What we have to prepare for now is to attack Madras first and conquer the Metropoulos River’s northern streams. In other words, we have to take control of the floating bridges that are sealed off there to connect Delamock with The Northlands.

"We can thus increase our four houses’ spheres of influence. We will then turn our blades to Iblia to see whether we have an opportunity to swallow up Winston and Southern.

"However, before this can happen, we need your houses to move to fitting dominions. As your armies are built to be greater in defense than offense, you won't be much of a threat against House Fisablen. So, I have to take over the eastern part of The Northlands, which is where your dominion is situated.  I can only station Tigersoar there to put pressure on Duke Fisablen that way. He'll have to station at least one of his cavalry legions opposite me to be at peace."

Count Kenmays walked to Lorist's front and felt Lorist's forehead with his palm, before raising three fingers and asking, "What number is this?"

Lorist glared at the count angrily and said, "What are you up to?"

Count Kenmays said, "It seems you don't have a fever. So I take it you're serious about what this. Do you think attacking the Madras duchy will be an easy feat? That old turtle Duke Madras has done nothing but build fortresses and citadels and other defensive fortifications across his dominion all these years. Even though the Metropoulos River’s northern streams are rather peaceful, the opposite shore is full of defensive walls and barricades as well as moats, not to mention that we won't be able to get ashore given how our boats won't make it to the opposite side. I recall that punk Hennard telling me that he had wanted to procure some fresh fish and had some of his men construct some boats to fish at the river When his men got a little too close to the opposite shore, two of the boats were sunk and seven or eight men drowned. He was so mad he almost went to war.

"Also, just look at the border between Iblia and Madras, the intersection point between Winston and Delamock. Back when Duke Madras defeated the second prince at Kobo, he managed to reclaim the southeastern area of Delamock. To stop the second prince from once again breaching the south, the duke spent three whole years building seven citadels around Sanderson Hills. That area is basically an iron wall defended by more than 40 thousand troops. When the salt merchant committee deals with them, we have to pass through that area. While you might not know much about it, I've seen how strongly defended that area is for myself. Are you going to waste all your soldiers conquering the citadels over there?"

"Are you done?” Lorist asked, rolling his eyes, “You don't have to worry about how we attack the area. I have confidence in my ways to take down the duchy."

"Confidence, eh?" Kenmays said, unconvinced, "Locke, I really don't understand... Even if Duke Fisablen refused to let Sylvia marry you, you have to maintain your calm. You shouldn't act like this just because you received a bit of a shock. War is not to be initiated this recklessly."

Not knowing whether he should be humored or annoyed, Lorist said, "This has nothing to do with Sylvia."

"Then why are you in such a rush?" Kenmays asked, "Right now, the salt merchant committee has a monopoly on the daily necessities and salt of Duke Fisablen's dominion. If you're patient enough, we will eventually be able to control their salt supply and limit our trade on the products to force the duke to lower his head to us. If he doesn't want his dominion to fall into chaos and revolt, he has to abide by our demands. You can take up your role as groom then. This is also war on the business front. At any rate, it's better than taking our weapons out carelessly, right?"

"The Melein duchy is gone," said Lorist, shrugging.

"What did you say?" the count asked, not having heard it clearly enough, "What is gone?"

"The four central duchies worked with House Fisablen to attack Melein. Duke Melein died on the battlefield and the duchy is no more. I have a detailed report in the blue folder on my desk," said Lorist as he pointed at the folder he mentioned.

Kenmays leaped over and flipped the folder open before he jumped and exclaimed, "Deploy our troops! We have to attack immediately! We have to take Southern as soon as possible! We have to seal the trade route between Eastwild and the four duchies! We can't let our years of effort go down the drain like this! If we don't, even if we stop supplying salt, the four central duchies will provide House Fisablen with large amounts of it. If House Fisablen takes control of the trade route, then the salt merchant committee's monopoly on the three provinces under their control will be ruined!"

Count Kenmays had made a 180-degree turn from a pacifist to a warmonger in mere moments.

Lorist laughed and coughed as he tried to pull Kenmays to the couch before he brought him a cup of wine.

"Calm down. Now, you understand why I said we should act, don't you? It's obvious that Duke Fisablen's relationship with the four central duchies is growing by the day and he might eventually end up our enemy. If we don't take down Madras, The Northlands will only have two metal suspension bridges to rely on and might be cut off from the rest of the continent should Duke Fisablen attempt to do so.

"That's the reason I've decided to act against Madras. After we conquer it, we will move your dominion there and station Tigersoar in your current dominion to add pressure to the troops at Wild Husbandry. It will force the duke to station more troops on our border to rebalance the power disparity, diverting resources from the defense of the kingdom and allowing us to take Winston. We will gain the initiative to press our attack or defend our ground."

Count Kenmays took another sip of the wine in his cup before walking to the map.

"So which province are you going to make my dominion?"

"This one," Lorist said as he pointed at Sidgler, "This is the old lair of Duke Madras and I am going to let this place be your replacement dominion. You should know well the advantages this province provides. It's easy to defend and incredibly hard to attack, with the only passageway to the outside world being Xith Citadel. Additionally, Platinum Beach is also there with no other landed nobles around either, so you won't have any trouble to deal with in the future. That's far better than your current dominion in the eastern Northlands."

Kenmays grit his teeth before he said, "That's not enough. It'll be hard for me to answer to the rest of the house if all I get is Sidgler Province. However, if you can do Delamock, then there's no problem."

“That won't do,” Lorist said, shaking his head, “I need to split Delamock into multiple smaller fiefs, so I can’t hand it to you."

"Fiefs? Are you going to found a kingdom?"

"No. There are still 17 nobles staying at Firmrock Castle. It’s because we conquered their dominions. We owe them new fiefs. I'm not going to let them have their new dominions in The Northlands, so Delamock’s land will be enfeoffed to these nobles. The land there is rich and fit for agriculture, so I'm sure they'll be happy to agree. Additionally, the household knights that gain enough achievements will be made vassal houses one day, and I plan to give them fiefs in Delamock as well, " explained Lorist.

"I see. My house is also taking care of five Northlander nobles deprived of their dominions. Why don't you make similar arrangements for them and give my house Vanades? They would agree to a relocation if that's the case," said Kenmays, attempting a compromise.

"There'll be no problem with moving the five nobles to Delamock,” Lorist said, shaking his head, “But I can't hand you Vanades. It’s the largest city in the duchy and the largest trading hub in the entire northwestern area. There’s no doubt that it will become the center of our dominions’ trade once we take it. I can’t let your house have sole control over the city. I can let you be the city’s custodians. You can have it for the first five years, and, if you do well, you can keep the position for another term. Additionally, I'll make it up to your house and construct a port for you at the coasts so you can form your own trading fleet.”

"Are you serious?” Kenmays said, wide-eyed, “You can actually make a port at the Cursed Coasts? You're not kidding me, are you?"

Lorist took out a rolled-up diagram from his scroll bin and handed it to Kenmays.

“See for yourself. This is the blueprint for a wooden-box port that allows offshore activities. My house already has two at the Bladedge Mountains and they're holding up pretty well. Your house can also use this flexible port to trade and ship things across the sea. However, if you want to build a more permanent port that can weather the strong winds, you still have to reclaim the land for a proper structure to be constructed."

Kenmays held onto the blueprint like he would a delicate heirloom.

"Alright, I'll agree. When can we relocate?"

To the count, born to a line of merchants, controlling a trade route was akin to gaining a way to generate incessant profits. It was far better than their gold mine at the eastern Northlands which would run dry sooner or later anyway, so he was more than willing to make the trade.

"There's no rush. We still need a bit of time but I can promise you the relocation will happen next year," said Lorist.

"Do you need me to do anything? If you need our forces on the battlefield, feel free to let me know," offered Kenmays generously.

"No, I won't be needing it. Our forces will take Sidgler and pass it to you in good condition. All you have to do is to fortify your new dominion, then station your troops at Vanades to keep the Andinaq kingdom's soldiers in Yungechandler in check.  You'll have to watch out for attacks from Farkel and Shabaj to your east. Even though the only connection between the two nations is the 500-kilometer path through Egret Lake, you can't be too careful."

"No worries. While our forces aren't good at attacking, we're more than capable of defending ourselves. What of Baron Felim and Hennard's arrangements then?" Kenmays inquired.

Lorist tapped on the southeastern area of Delamock.

"After conquering this, I will give it to Hennard. Since both he and Baron Felim are nobles with military backgrounds, unlike you, their forces will be relatively better in offense. Sanderson Hills is the two provinces’ point of intersection. If Hennard is there, he can attack Winston and reinforce Vanades should it come under attack.

"At the same time, I will construct a few floating bridges over the Metropoulos River’s northern streams to link The Northlands to Delamock. You don’t have to worry about how I’ll come to your aid in the future. As for Baron Felim, his dream is to reclaim House Pegasus’ old dominion in Southern, which they had occupied for over a century previously. We will help him fulfill his dream.

"Southern’s been completely ruined by the wars. If Baron Felim wishes to restore the glory of House Pegasus, he'll need to invest a lot; he’ll need our help as well. If we can occupy Southern, we’ll have caged the lion called Duke Fisablen. By then, we won't have to worry about that old fox causing us trouble anymore. As long as we can cut off the dominion’s trade, the old fox will have no choice but to play nice."

“What do you plan on doing with these two?” asked Kenmays, tapping on Winston and Windbury.

"If everything goes well, Southern will go to Baron Felim. I will use Winston to settle in the nobles that join our faction. When we attack Madras, there's bound to be nobles who surrender. I will relocate their dominions to Winston. I also plan to make it the trading hub of the southeastern area like Vanades to develop the land surrounding it," said Lorist.

"Locke,” Kenmays said, eyes flashing, “You should found a kingdom after you conquer Madras and Iblia. The Norton Kingdom... I can't help but think about how splendid that sounds. Naturally, I would be willing to become a Norton noble."

Lorist exploded with laughter.

"We'll see. It's not too late to consider it after Duke Fisablen properly submits. For now, we only have to focus on taking Madras and ensuring the first phase of our plan succeeds. When Hennard and Felim arrive, we’ll have another formal discussion. We'll require their cooperation, after all."

"Locke, I'm actually quite curious what gave you the confidence that you'll be successful in taking Madras. Don't be mistaken, Madras is no turtle. It's a shriveled up porcupine. If we get dragged into a drawn-out war, even if we end up winning, we’ll lose far more than we gain. It would be even harder for us to deal with House Fisablen in the future if that happens," said Kenmays.

"Don't worry, I have my own methods. When Hennard and Felim come over, I will bring you all to see our secret weapon," said Lorist as he nodded again, confidently.

"What secret weapon?"

"You'll know when the time comes."

"Come on, Locke, don't be so petty! Can't you tell me about it first?"