Enjoy the 4th release of the week!

"The real act of marriage takes place in the heart, not in the ballroom, church, or synagogue. It is a choice you make." ~ Norton Lorist

Within the great hall of Crouchtiger Castle in Eastwild, the young Seirya knelt on one knee on the floor with soundless cries. In front of him was the coffin of Third Frontier's Commander, Galini Beloput. After much trouble and effort, he'd finally completed the bumpy trip across the plains to Crouchtiger Castle just as the snow began melting. The grief from being forced to surrender to the enemy made him unable to face Duke Fisablen and the rest of his family.

The duke didn't look too surprised, nor did he flip out with rage. He just circled the coffin, step by step, before finally sighing. He stretched out his hand to touch Beloput's icy face and mumbled.

"I doomed you, old friend. If I had made the decision to retreat to the dominion, you wouldn't have died like this. It's because I was too greedy. Even though we were in this kind of predicament, I hoped we could use Boblige to bargain with our enemy. To think it resulted in your death and the whole legion's capture..."

A look of defeat finally surfaced on the duke's face. Everything had gone against his wishes. Ever since he left Boblige and returned to the dominion, he'd led the various barbarian tribes on military campaigns, first to reorganize the half-beaten Fourth Frontier in Wild Husbandry, then to ambush Jaeger, before finally leading the 100 thousand barbarian cavalrymen to attack Pedro.

Back then, the duke thought there was much he could do to turn the situation around. He didn't think, not even for a moment, that he could turn the loss into a victory, he just wanted to make sure the kingdom the enemy took was nothing more than a ruin. He had acted like a spoiled child with the mentality of 'if I can't have it, you can't either'. The reason he allowed the grassland barbarians to raid and pillage was so he could cause as much trouble as possible. Nobody was supposed to profit. It had been the only way he could make their enemy wary of the house and not push to exterminate them completely.

He didn't think the barbarians would actually be so spineless as to lose all their morale losing just 30 thousand men against a fort defended by just three thousand. The moment they saw the enemy reinforcements arrive, the dozen chieftains began thinking of retreating for winter.

That was the moment he knew he was beating a dead horse. He decided to go all the way with his other plan: gather all the tribes that had submitted to him and launch an attack on the strongest tribe, Korinubi, the night before the retreat. Caught off-guard, the great tribe suffered a disaster. He then led his barbarians to the plains to plunder the spoils from what remained of the tribe.

The situation was set in stone. Since House Fisablen would be trapped in their dominion, the great northeastern plains, he would give the strong tribes a makeover so they wouldn't cause trouble for the house in its weakened state. At the same time, he could make up for the house's losses by sucking the life out of the tribes. Since the troops he used were the other grassland barbarians, the house wouldn't lose anything. He just had to throw a bone to a dog to bite another dog to death.

At the end of the previous year, he'd been far too busy thinking of how to deal with the alliance after stabilizing the internal situation of the dominion. The great plains stretched far and wide and he was confident the four houses couldn't set foot in his dominion easily. All conflict would be limited to Wild Husbandry. As for the border between Southern and Eastwild, the four houses' forces were busy constructing defensive infrastructure, such as moats, to cut off traffic. He predicted the four houses would defend the south and attack from the east. They were gradually limiting the space he could roam free and survive.

That was why Boblige was so advantageous, he could both attack and defend from there. They could mobilize their troops from time to time to stir up unrest in Southern. Many times the number of troops were needed to defend against these raids. As long as they could drag the war on for long enough, the alliance would lose their grip on the resources drained and would be forced to the negotiating table. He could then bargain for better conditions to manage the damage the war would do to him.

He hadn't thought, however, that House Norton would deploy their troops in the middle of winter and take the huge risk in circling Eastwild to the rear of Boblige and conquering it. They'd forced Third Frontier to surrender without a fight, a fatal blow to the house. The duke didn't blame Commander Beloput for committing suicide to atone for his mistakes. He knew there was no way they could resist and not surrendering would result in a needless massacre.

"You shouldn't have killed yourself, old friend," murmured he with another long sigh.

He left the coffin after giving the cold face a final touch.

"Rise, Seirya. You've fulfilled your duties, you didn't let down the honor of Fisablen knight. Tell me about the time the duke of The Northlands met you. I want to know every word he said in detail and guess his intentions behind allowing you to do this. Did he really do so because he admired Commander Beloput's courage?" asked he as he raised his hand to have Seirya stand up.

Seirya wiped the tears from his weather-beaten face, stood up, and reported his meeting with Lorist completely. He tried hard to recall Lorist's exact words.

After a pause, Duke Fisablen waved weakly.

"Seirya, you must've been worn out. Go groom yourself and rest for a few days. I will take your contributions to heart. You're still young. You're the house's hope. Train hard and remember this trial. The house will require you young ones' service in the future."

"Understood. I will train hard to serve the house," promised Seirya emotionally before he left.

Tap, tap, tap. The duke knocked on his desk with the middle finger on his left hand in deep thought. He cracked a bitter smile. According to Seirya's recollection, Lorist was obviously sending him a message. 'House Fisablen's time is over. All that's left is for you to decide whether you'll admit your defeat.' If he submitted obediently, they would be spared. Otherwise, Lorist would stop at nothing to kill of every last one of them.

"Hmph, you ruthless and scheming brat... Forget making me submit! You shan't be allowed to mess with House Fisablen!" humphed the duke loudly with ragged breath.

He described Lorist the same way he would the duke. Even though each had never heard of the other's insult for them, they were mysteriously of the same mind at that moment. The only difference was that the duke called Lorist a brat instead of a sly old fox. Each considered the other his biggest rival.

However, Duke Fisablen knew staying angry would do nothing for him. His house was tough only on the surface at the moment. Third Frontier's surrender was not as huge as First Frontier's complete defeat. Theirs was the truly harmful scheme. The legion's soldiers fought to their deaths rather than submit. The legion was eradicated as a result. Given that the four houses didn't declare war beforehand, the house was caught completely off-guard.

Third Frontier, on the other hand, was forced to surrender. The house would have to take out a massive sum to ransom the knights and house members back. The duke believed Seirya that his relative and distant nephew, Woryo, was the cause of the legion's downfall. But there was no point to being angry at him. Having his own clansmen take up positions in the logistics of each legion was the elders' will. They believed only that would grant them a firm hand on the legions to ensure they would remain loyal.

Not all members of the house were loyal and wanted to serve it. For instance, the duke's second daughter, Iblia's queen, was intent on going against his will. The moment he thought about his daughter who had just made her way back to the dominion, he began to have a headache. He didn't think a queen would be inspired to start a brothel and ruin his reputation completely. Even now she was making her way to the greater and lesser golden creeks, thinking there was gold to mine there and that she would definitely get incredibly rich.

He slumped down in his chair in his study for a long time and thought about how he could deal with his current predicament. The house would probably have to suffer a huge humiliation in the coming days and endure their anger as they spent the next couple of years in their dominion. The four houses had cut the roads and paths that led out of their dominion and the house only had two legions' worth of men, around 100 thousand. Second Frontier was stationed at the golden creeks and Fourth Frontier in Wild Husbandry. There was also another 20-thousand-metal-armored garrison legion and his thousand personal guards stationed in Crouchtiger Castle.

While the house still had 120 thousand men, it would take most of them to defend its three provinces. Fortunately, when the duke was dealing with the threat of the grassland barbarians at the end of the previous year, he'd picked 20 thousand to form a new reserve legion as a tool to use against the barbarians in the future. That way, even if the remaining tribes united to attack the house, they would have a way to resist them. However, while it had enough troops to deal with the barbarians, it didn't have enough to take on the four houses.

Having ample for defense but not attack. That was the situation the house was in. Second Frontier couldn't be mobilized either as the golden creeks were one of the foundations of the house's revival. Many of the house's elders suggested its headquarters be moved to Goldcreek, but the duke considered the fact that it was a little too far from the central area of the former empire and decided against it.

"Have Sylvia come over," instructed he an attendant outside his study.

The one most hurt by the war no doubt Princess Sylvia. She had thrown a huge tantrum and tried a fast strike because of her desire to marry Lorist. But the poor princess didn't think that her paramour would actually attack her house without even declaring war and bring his allies to attack Iblia, making her grandfather escape haggardly back to the dominion after incurring huge losses.

When the war broke out in the 5th month of the previous year, First Frontier was completely lost, Windbury was conquered, and the moment the duke returned to Crouchtiger Castle, Sylvia's days became incredibly hard. Some people secretly cursed her for being a harbinger of misfortune after hearing about First Frontier's defeat and worrying about their relatives' well-being. They believed bad luck would be present wherever she showed up. The last time she traveled to The Northlands for a trip, the second prince was defeated by House Norton and a 100-thousand-strong army was wiped out. Now, when she wanted to marry into House Norton, it ended with them exterminating the whole kingdom.

When word of the four central duchies aiding Duke Fisablen spread, the ones who made the curses were delighted when they believed the four houses were going to be defeated. Some even told the princess up front that the Norton kid would soon be captured and made a serf. She wouldn't have to be married so far away and could see her lover in the dominion all the time.

But word of the coalition army's loss soon spread. It had been a complete smack on the face. The mocking and subtle cursing turned into full-fledged rebukes. Sylvia had lost quite an amount of weight from weathering the stress.

"Sylvia, you lost more weight. Are they still causing you trouble?" asked the duke warmly when he saw her.

"No, Grandfather. I'm used to it, I'm fine."

"I'm sorry, Sylvia. This isn't your fault, the war didn't break out because of you in the first place. House Fisablen wanted to rise to new heights and become the northeastern area's hegemons. That desire is also shared by the four houses and it resulted in this war. This was an inevitable conflict from which neither side could escape," said the duke with much thought.

Sylvia nodded wordlessly. On one side was her lover, on the other, her house. She was numb to all the happenings, caught in the middle of it all.

"I want you to go to The Northlands, to House Norton's dominion."

"What?" asked Sylvia, wide-eyed.

"I've no choice," he said with a pained smile, "We've lost. The situation is set, there's no turning back. I hope you will have a good talk with that brat so he shows us some mercy and not cut off too much meat. We're still the main force against the grassland barbarians. Without House Fisablen, they will frequently invade and harass the empire's borders. Have the kid think about this well."

Duke Fisablen breathed a long sigh.

"Sylvia, as your grandfather, I regret this deeply. I shouldn't have refused his marriage proposal. Otherwise, the war wouldn't have happened… but it's too late for regrets now. I need you to do three things on your trip. First, ransom the members of the house and our household knights. Second, have the salt merchant committee lift the sanctions on daily necessities. The plains only have alkaline soil and no edible salt. The farmers are at their wit's end. I hope they won't sharpen their blades quickly. Lastly, think of a way to convince him to let us ransom Third Frontier's common soldiers. We will need them to resist and suppress the grassland barbarians.

The duke silenced for a moment.

"Go pack up your clothes and luggage. Bring as much as you can with you. I will let you stay there for good.

"Grandfather, you..." Sylvia was sent into a stupor. "This means..."

"Let's leave it at that. I will arrange your escort and the negotiators that will join you. You will set out immediately after the rainy season," said he without giving Sylvia even a glance.

He turned with a wave of his hand and left.