Hi guys, here's the first release of the week! We have something extra coming by the end of this week, but this is all I'll say for now. ;-)

Lorist looked at the map of the former Krissen Empire for a good while before he shook his head.

"No. The war with Queen Carey cannot be dragged on. Only the second highness's restoration to power will give us enough time."

"Time?" Charade mused with squinted eyes, "Time for what, Your Grace? So far, everything is under control. There's no need to let the tiger back onto its mountain. Actually, controlling the second highness will be extremely beneficial to the house. We can even threaten Queen Carey to expand the kingdom's trade routes and force her to give us Jillin Harbor.

"Even if the second highness gets his throne back, he will still regard House Norton with caution and suspicion. Not only would we gain nothing, he'd also send his messengers to ask us for support shamelessly. The most important thing is that Duke Madras defeat is at hand. The Northlands will be connected to the Andinaq kingdom soon after instead of being separated by another power like before. I worry, Your Grace, that the second highness will be able to send a tax collection official to our dominion to collect all sorts of taxes when he becomes king.

"It would mean our house will have to give up hundreds of thousands of gold Fordes each year. We'll also have to publicly announce the farmland we have to the kingdom. Given the time the second highness spent at our dominion, he would've grasped that our chief income comes from production rather than agriculture and will seek benefits. He might even levy all sorts of new taxes.

"To our three allied houses, letting the second highness get his throne back isn't a good idea. They would also have to start paying taxes and find ways to prevent him from using their household forces to wage war against other nobles. As things are now, however, he is in The Northlands and doesn't have either power or soldiers. I strongly object to us dealing with Queen Carey. It's better to have her in power. At the very least, she's no threat to our house."

Lorist smiled bitterly before he poured another cup of fruit wine for himself and downed it in one gulp.

"You're right. But those are two relatively light consequences," Lorist said as he pointed at the map, "This year, we've exterminated the Madras duchy. The time we have left will only be enough to move its citizens. Next year, however, we're attacking Iblia. Duke Fisablen will be a formidable opponent and obstacle. That old man isn't just a cunning fox, he's a mighty lion. His title of war god is no joke. We can't afford to be careless at all."

Lorist sighed deeply.

"These days, I've been looking over some of the information we gathered on House Fisablen... We've severely underestimated the duke. Do you know how many men he has enlisted? Two hundred and forty thousand men, all full-time soldiers! He's not the war god for nothing..."

"What did you say? Two hundred and forty thousand? That's impossible... House Fisablen definitely can't feed so many people with the produce from Wild Husbandry and Eastwild alone. They physically can't produce the volume necessary," said Charade suspiciously.

"I'm not lying, it's true," Lorist said.

He pulled open one of his desk drawers and took out a thick folder.

"They don't need to rely on producing food. They can just pillage it from the grassland barbarians. When the barbarians eventually submit, he'll also gain access to an endless supply of livestock.

"Do you remember our first trade agreement with House Fisablen? Princess Sylvia asked for 100 thousand sets of cavalry armor number 103 when she paid the ransom for the five thousand cavalrymen. The total price was two million livestock to be paid in five years. Back then, I was elated to have the deal because it would force the duke to focus his efforts on the plains and bring him into greater conflict with the barbarians. I was sure he would suffer casualties in the process, which would lessen the threat he posed.

"I miscalculated. House Fisablen has been killing barbarians for a very long time.  So long, in fact, that the barbarians fear them. This is a report from Tarkel. He mentions, among other things, that he managed to procure a pair of eyes within the house. According to said eyes, around 30 thousand barbarian tribes have submitted and were already their vassals by the time they signed our first trade agreement. These tribes not only provide the house with livestock annually, their youths are also drafted into the house's forces.

"There's another report from Count Kenmays concerning the investigation he launched using the salt merchant committee into House Fisablen's purchases over the last couple of years. The count was incredibly pleased with the profits trade with the Fisablens was earning and our house also received a dividend of 12 thousand gold Fordes. Little did we know House Fisablen was reselling our goods to the barbarian tribes.

"Nobody could tell from the large order of salt and daily goods that the house was doing this. House Fisablen's territory had a population of at most 500 thousand. Yet, their consumption of salt and daily goods exceeded that of our own dominion threefold. We only had around one million subjects back then! I thought the duke was raiding the barbarians for the livestock, but in actuality, he was trading with them. Even after he sent his troops, he only made them yield to him instead of raiding or massacring them.

"His next move was indeed splendid as well. While we were worried he might be intending to start a new trade route by strengthening his house's relationship with the four central duchies, he was only setting up an insurance plan. Right now, the products sold to the grasslands are supplied by the salt merchant committee and we produce the products themselves. If we ever cut off our trade, House Fisablen would no longer be able to trade with the barbarians. What would they do if they have no resources all of a sudden? They'd arm themselves and start raiding again. It would send the dominion straight into fire and chaos once more.

"That's why Duke Fisablen banded with the four central duchies to end Melein. With the duchy out of the way, he would be rid of a troublesome foe and he would gain a new trade route. If we halt our trade with the duke now, he can procure what he and his dominion needs from the four duchies. As long as the great plains don't fall into chaos, House Fisablen can focus its efforts elsewhere. The greater and lesser golden creeks, for example."

Giving Charade, who was listening to his long lecture, a look, Lorist poured himself another cup of wine.

"Perhaps you think Duke Fisablen is only a powerful duke who's past his prime and only knows how to defend against threats. After I met him, however, I have this sense that he will be the most dangerous foe our house has, or will, ever face. I don't hate him because he didn't let Sylvia marry me. I only realized he is a true mastermind filled with ambition. Anyone who underestimates him will have hell to pay."

"Your Grace, it's not that I don't believe you, but, if the duke really is as you say, why did he not take control of Windbury when we captured the second prince? The city was in a state of chaos and nobody controlled it, yet he left after a few months. It shows he doesn't have the slightest bit of ambition -- he only strives for self-preservation. If he really were as you say, he'd use his forces to exterminate the nobles in the city and consolidate the kingdom's forces under his banner," argued Charade.

"This is where his cunningness truly shines. Think about it, what would be the consequences if the duke did as you are suggesting? His forces would have to suppress revolt after revolt by the nobles across Winston. Not only would it take him years to stabilize the situation, he would have to waste lots of resources and incur heavy casualties in doing so. Even if he succeeded in the end, he'd only be left with the province's war-torn remnants. What would be the point?

"Don't forget, when the Melein duchy still existed, it wouldn't hesitate to stab the duke in the back whenever it saw a chance. Should Duke Fisablen spread himself thin, Duke Melein would make his move. Do you think the four central duchies would give Duke Fisablen a chance to restore the kingdom? Viscount Kristoph had already suffered a loss at our hands at the time. Faced with our might, stepping down was the best choice he could make.

"After the duke returned to his dominion, he had Princess Sylvia come over right away, mainly to ransom his troops back while also signing a five-year deal. We initially thought it a show of amity by indirectly telling us that he harbored no hostile intent towards us. It made us put our attention elsewhere. Just like you said, we began to treat him like a harmless old man trying to extend his house's legacy.

"Now, however, I finally understand the old fox pulled a brilliant move with his retreat from Windbury. As long as he didn't act, Duke Melein wouldn't dare to invade. It essentially disarmed the Meilein duchy. Letting his daughter rule Windbury as queen also allowed the nobles of Southern and Winston to start fighting again, which spiraled the kingdom further into chaos. Even we thought we would be able to reap rewards after the two sides wiped each other out, so we began to wait.

"We were wrong. We were completely misled. It's all part of that old fox's plan. He knew better than anyone that as long as he was there, we wouldn't dare touch the ripe fruit that was the Iblia kingdom. It afforded him enough time to put his plan into action. When we were away at Hanayabarta, House Fisablen managed to swallow the greater and lesser golden creeks as they had planned. With the gold from the creeks, the duke finally revealed his true colors and turned his reticles back to the kingdom."

Lorist took a black folder from the desk and waved it around.

"This is the report Tarkel sent me about House Fisablen. It is a shame the sources he managed to bribe are only of low rank. They weren't able to procure more information for us, like how much gold the creeks produce each month. They don't know what the duke and his goons are up to either. But after seeing what they have for us, it's enough to let me think we should be on guard. House Fisablen's might isn't anything to scoff at!"

Handing the folder over to Charade, he continued, "You should take a look too since you don't believe what I said about them having 240 thousand troops. Our sources reveal that Duke Fisablen formed four Frontier Legions, each with 42 thousand men. It was the reason Princess Sylvia came over on her second trip to purchase another 70 thousand sets of armor 103. as well as 50 thousand sets of warrior-style equipment for another two garrison legions that each have 24 thousand men. One of those legions is stationed at the golden creeks, the other is at their main base in Eastwild, Crouchtiger Castle.

"Other than that, there is another reserve cavalry legion numbering around 28 thousand. They are formed from the barbarian youths that have submitted to the duke and play a huge part in attacking the other barbarian tribes that haven't submitted yet. Only those who perform well in battle will be enlisted in the Frontier Legion and be given equipment that our house made. It's also worth noting that more than half of the four frontier legions are made up of those barbarian warriors."

"You' mean to say Duke Fisablen's absorption of the barbarians into his forces' ranks have decreased the burden of the military on his own subjects?" asked Charade.

Lorist nodded.

"I thought the duke only had around 600 thousand subjects across both Eastwild and Wild Husbandry, so maintaining three Frontier Legions should already have been House Fisablen's limit. It's one of the reasons I didn't consider them a serious threat. If we ever attack the kingdom, the duke's forces will definitely disperse so as to not get on our bad side and watch the kingdom's end from the sidelines.

"I didn't think Duke Fisablen would have this move up his sleeves, doubling his forces by recruiting the barbarians. I always thought House Fisablen would have to station one legion at each of their three provinces, which would leave only one legion in reserve to engage in offensive operations and reinforce the others. I only just learned that all the duke's legions can attack together! The force of all 200 thousand light cavalry troops attacking together is staggering!

"Back then, House Fisablen didn't have enough funds and could only watch as we take in refugees from Winston and Southern while we wrote him off as harmless. Now the golden creeks have fallen into their hands and made up for their financial problems, they moved a hundred or so thousand youths straight to Eastwild right after conquering Melein.

"We all thought the duke held the knighthood tournament last year to find the princess a suitor. But after experiencing it for myself, I began to feel something was off. It was only after hearing about the Melein duchy's conquest that I realized the old fox's true aim is Iblia.

"After Melein's conquest, Duke Fisablen regained control of the kingdom and allied with the four central duchies. Given that we only have the two iron suspension bridges connecting The Northlands to the rest of the continent, it would be easy for the duke to keep us stuck here. The reason the knighthood tournament was held was to test the remaining strength of the nobles in the capital, to see if they'll prove troubling for him after he takes the city.

"Time is scarce for both us and the duke. The reason I insisted on attacking Madras was so we can open another way to leave The Northlands, expand our influence, as well as control Sanderson Hills, which is threatening to Winston. We might have a war in Winston the moment our trade deal with Duke Fisablen is completed.

"As much as I want to stop the arms trade as soon as possible, it's not an option. It's not a matter of breach of trust either. In fact, I worry that Duke Fisablen will storm Windbury, take Winston, and send his troops to The Northlands. We would be busy with the dominion relocation and remain unprepared. The moment the two suspension bridges are cut off, we can only circle around Sanderson Hills to launch our attack, which is exceedingly unstrategic.

"We have to take the initiative in the war with House Fisablen -- we have to strike first. We'll start with invading Winston, conquering Windbury, and sending our troops to Southern to ensure we retain the initiative. If we fight the duke in Winston, he would be able to receive continuous support from the four central duchies and the war will drag on for who knows how long. It would be a catastrophe for us."

After a short pause, Lorist muttered, "It's because of those contemplations that I want to send Loze and Tigersoar Legion to deal with the Andinaq kingdom. The ones that'll worry the most after the second highness regains his throne are the Union and the four central duchies. They'll definitely watch his every move and decrease their support for Duke Fisablen as a result. The duke won't be able to escape our grasp no matter how hard he tries."

Charade thought for a while in silence.

"Your Grace, it seems to make sense," said he finally, "but it's too complicated for me to comprehend as a whole so I can't tell what choice would be the best. At any rate, I still think restoring the second highness to his throne is akin to 'counteracting a poison with a toxin', as those herbalists love to say. He might end up being even more trouble for us than the duke."

Lorist smiled bitterly, "All I want is send him out of The Northlands as soon as possible lest he causes more trouble. Since he's still useful, we might as well let him do his thing after he gets his throne. Given his personality, he definitely holds a huge grudge after his humiliating defeat at the Union and the four central duchies' hands. Before he gets his revenge, I doubt he'd come for us. As for the taxes you mentioned, I'll have Count Kenmays ensure we get a three-year tax exemption for all four houses as compensation for the immediate deployment of our troops. He'll no doubt agree to it. As for what'll happen after three years, we'll cross that bridge when we get to it."