"Negotiation in the diplomatic sense assumes both parties are more anxious to agree than disagree. We weren't anxious at all." ~ Duke Kenmays, in his memoirs, Rise of the Empire, regarding the negotiations between his alliance and House Fisablen.

After sending Sylvia and the concubines off, Lorist prepared to head to the eastern part of The Northlands. But before he could, he received an urgent letter from Kenmays. After more than a month of negotiations, Kenmays and the envoys Duke Fisablen had sent over had finally come to an agreement regarding resuming trade between the salt merchant committee and the Fisablen dominion. Kenmays, Felim, and Shazin would hurry to Firmrock in a few days to meet with him so the agreement could be formally signed and take effect.

Lorist had no choice but to delay his journey; he waited at Firmrock. During the day, he would visit the training grounds behind the mountain to guide Howard in the Dan Ocean Ki-refining Technique while he gave some pointers to Reidy and Jinolio in the ways of the sword. At night, he would sit quietly in his study and read scrolls and documents. Now that the women had left his side, he suddenly felt the world was much calmer.

Kenmays and Shazin arrived after five days, as expected. Felim's arrival was late by a day. Apart from Kenmays expressing his disappointment at Sylvia's absence, he got into the negotiations pretty-much immediately.

"I've upped the prices of 47 products, it's just too bad they aren't big sellers. Don't worry, though, you'll each still get about four hundred thousand each," said Kenmays.

Though he was a duke, he was ever so excited about what little profit he would be gaining from the deal. Naturally, the announcement wasn't directed at Lorist. House Norton only had a ten percent share in the committee, not much at. That they had obtained tens of thousands as dividends over the last few years was already rather good. Like Kenmays had said, quantity was king. House Norton's income came mainly from the production of goods in the factories within their dominion, the good were eight-tenths of all the salt merchant committee's trade stock. That part alone already made the house a hefty sum and its share of three-tenths of all the factories in the dominion would further add to the benefits. It didn't even include the tax yet to be levied.

However, Felim and Shazin's eyes shone brightly upon hearing the figure. Their forces cost them quite a lot to maintain. Even though the soldiers weren't nearly as well taken care of as the Nortons', the costs still amounted to 500 thousand in any given year. With the dividends, their military expenses wouldn't be that huge a burden. While House Norton and House Kenmays contributed financially to the dominion relocation of the two other houses, the help didn't extend to the next year.

Felim looked at the agreement with slight disappointment.

"Why is there no agreement for a ceasefire?"

Even though Felim had already reclaimed the house's old dominion in Southern, it neighbored House Fisablen's. Firmrock was still there holding a tight defense line against House Fisablen's forces and the grassland barbarians. The conflict hadn't yet stopped. Only a ceasefire agreement would allow Felim to rest assured. Otherwise, he couldn't be confident enough to develop his dominion. He would have to mobilize his forces at the slightest commotion.

"Well," Kenmays stammered, before he said embarrassedly, "I apologize. It completely slipped my mind."

He had, in fact, forgot about it. He'd only worried about the prices of products during the negotiations. For example, 50 kilos of salt originally cost one gold Forde, but the current price was five gold for 50 kilograms. Given that the four houses were the victors, Kenmays wanted to get back at House Fisablen as much as he could.

"Don't buy it if you don't have to. I'm sure the plains have lots of salt lumps through which you can crunch." he had said, arrogantly.

He was in a strong position in the negotiation. He completely forgot how great it felt to have all the power. It was common knowledge that salt lumps would cause disease for livestock if consumed after dilution in water. It was, even more, the case with humans; death was a common occurrence. Now House Fisablen was trapped on the plains and had their trade routes cut off, they had no choice but to purchase salt from the four houses. If House Fisablen felt it was too expensive, they didn't have to buy it and could feast on unseasoned food. It wouldn't take more than three months for a huge commotion to break out in the dominion after the supply of salt was cut.

Looking at the envoys' angered and unwilling face as they agreed to the sky-high price, Kenmays felt incomparably elated.

So what if you've occupied the greater and lesser golden creeks and have gold mines in your hands? The gold you dig up will end up with us anyway.

It made him forget the most important point: the ceasefire treaty. In other words, both sides were still in a state of war even if no conflict had broken out between them in a few months.

"Where are the envoys now?" asked Lorist.

"He followed me to Firmrock," answered Kenmays hurriedly, "The negotiation will require your agreement before it can be formalized. Also, the location of the transaction still has to be determined. Also, the two envoys say they want to have an audience with Princess Sylvia."

"Have them come to my guest lounge. I will speak with them," Lorist said before he turned his head to Shazin and Felim, "You two should come along. If Duke Fisablen really admitted his loss, then he will agree to a ceasefire. It would be a relief to him as well since he would no longer have to station any troops on the border."

The two envoys the duke had sent over to negotiate were two old men. The first was tall and had a white goatee. He introduced himself as the house's chief supervisor, Fisablen Aridok. Lorist had heard from Sylvia's two maidservants that Aridok could only barely be considered a member of the house. Though he bore the Fisablen name, he was from a distant branch family. Despite that, he was incredibly loyal to the duke and held his trust. The duke often let him carry out sensitive assignments.

The other was short and fat and felt approachable, with a beaming smile. He introduced himself as Napole; he had no surname. Lorist quickly recalled coming across the name in a list of important people in House Fisablen. Not only had Napole been on the list, he had also been marked for extra attention.

According to the reports, his father was the leader of a small grassland tribe, while his mother was one of the nobles. During one of the raids, his mother had been captured to be a sex slave for the father and Napole was born from their escapades. The tribe was soon swallowed by a larger one, and his father died. His mother was violated to death, leaving Napole a lone orphan-slave. When he turned 16, he secretly contacted Duke Fisablen and orchestrated the large tribe's extermination. It was the first and crucial victory the duke achieved during his expansion of the empire's territory and the formation of Eastwild.

Oddly enough, Napole didn't have an official position in the house. He was a rather mysterious figure. But he was the author of most of the plots Duke Fisablen used against the tribes. Including the reselling of goods purchased from the salt merchant committee, the roping in of the subservient tribes, and the enlistment of barbarian cavalrymen from said tribes to deal with the other tribes that refused to submit. Everything had something to do with the short, fat old man.

As Lorist checked out the two old envoys, they did the same to him. Their gazes soon focused on Lorist alone, despite the leaders of all four houses being present.

The new Duke of The Northlands is really average-looking. His height and looks are average and unappealing, just like any guy one might come across in the street...

In actuality, Lorist wasn't nearly as charismatic and naturally good-looking as Kenmays. Neither was he handsome like Shazin or heroic and dignified like Felim, but the two envoys were brighter than most and didn't easily judge people on their appearance. Additionally, they had heard about the duke's thoughts on the four houses. The duke specifically stated that the truly threatening one was House Norton, or, in other words, Lorist.

And, frankly, the duke didn't really regard the other three seriously. Back in the day, the three houses wouldn't even stand a chance to queue up in the line to kiss his arse even if they wanted. House Kenmays was originally a clan of merchants that had purchased a title from the second prince. The duke considered them nothing but rich imposters. They didn't merit attention.

While House Felim had been quite famous a century earlier, they were a shell of their former selves now. Count Felim fought for the second prince and died on the battlefield during an ambush. It ended with them having to pay to keep their status as landed barons. They couldn't even make the slightest sound as the second prince sent his men to desecrate their ancestral burial site to look for hidden treasure.

As for Count Shazin, his background was even more unworthy of mention. Being a gold-ranked knight that formerly served the old Duke of The Northlands, Loggins, he was ordered to attack House Norton and was taken captive. After that, Duke Loggins made a huge mistake by putting the responsibility on Shazin's loss. As a punishment, he forced Shazin's father to hand over his fief and become their vassal so they wouldn't be labeled as traitors. In the end, when Duke Loggins gathered the Northlander Army to take on House Norton, Shazin sat quietly and watched as the army was dominated and massacred. He even launched his own attack out of nowhere by allying with the enemy and sweeping Duke Loggins' dominion, clean. Not only did Shazin manage to get a huge sum of money, he also inherited most of House Loggins' forces.

Had it not been for Lorist, the other houses would be just a mess. House Fisablen wouldn't have a hard time dealing with them. It would be no different from how he dealt with the Southern nobles that occupied Windbury. But with House Norton's protection, the alliance became a solid and mighty union that everyone had to regard cautiously. So great was their might that they could give even the Andinaq kingdom a run for its money. Their ability to exterminate Madras and Iblia was testament.

And the key to the alliance was House Norton. The one whose decision had real weight was Lorist. It was what the duke told his envoys to remember.

"Please take a seat," Lorist said forthrightly, "Let's not beat around the bush. I want to know of Duke Fisablen's intentions. Is he willing to cease hostilities, or does he merely want to buy time and resist the four houses stubbornly without admitting defeat?"

Aridok rose from his seat and saluted.

"Revered Duke of The Northlands, whether the hostilities are to be ceased is up to you.  If you stop invading our lands, hostilities will cease. Everyone knows it was the four houses that started this war. You attacked First Frontier without declaring war first. The duke was forced to resist as a result. Even though we are currently in a disadvantageous position, we will not submit to threats of force. Just like how we defeated Jaeger in Wild Husbandry, we are confident we can obtain victory in the end."

Lorist laughed.

"Ever the stubborn ones! Your mouths are harder to crack than a duck's bill! Very well, if you don't admit defeat, all the better for us. I've always wanted to bring my forces to House Fisablen's grasslands for a stroll. Worry not, we will carry out our deal according to the trade agreement. War is war and business is business. As long as you have the money, I won't stop the goods."

"I object, Your Grace, your actions oppress a prestigious house of the former empire. This is an act all nobles scorn. Not only will you be unable to execute your plans, House Norton will also be denounced by the peace-loving and nobles..."

"Oh, really?" Lorist said with a cold laugh, "The former empire is gone, lost in the ashes of the fire set by the three princes themselves. Let me remind you that the four houses side with Andinaq. His Highness Auguslo is the true heir to the throne and House Fisablen stands with a traitor prince. You call our attack unrighteous, but, to us, we're merely trying to quell a rebellion. In contrast, the actions of your duke in the capital of Windbury is the issue more worthy of spreading and scrutinizing..."

Supervisor Aridok was completely speechless.

However, Napole stood up immediately.

"Revered Duke, our duke doesn't wish to engage in war. He has always believed his true enemies are the barbarian tribes on the northeastern great plains. Actually, our duke was most pained by the war that broke out between us. If our duke is willing to cease hostilities, how would you treat House Fisablen?"

Lorist shrugged.

"Given the history between us, military negotiations and talk of trade in military equipment are out of the question. If House Fisablen really wishes to cease hostilities, keep your forces no less than 50 kilometers away from the border. If there is any incident that requires our attention, you must first inform our border guard. All your trade deals will also have to go through salt merchant committee. At the same time, your house's military affairs will be transparent. If there is any movement you want to undertake, you must first inform us. Other than that, Wild Husbandry is important to the safety of The Northlands, so we want to have the rights to station troops there for our safety."

"Not possible. Why don't you retreat from the border? Why can't we station any troops in The Northlands?" objected Aridok with a furious start.

"Simple: we're the victors," Lorist said with the heavy hand of the winning side, "Does Duke Fisablen want peace… or war?"

Though Aridok had wanted to argue, Napole gave his arm a grab. The tall geriatric shut up and lowered his head.

"Your Grace, we have already sent Princess Sylvia over as proof of our intention," replied Napole humbly.

Lorist stood up.

"Since Duke Fisablen's mind is made, then you may discuss the details of the ceasefire with Duke Kenmays. But I have to say I'm not in favor of how Duke Fisablen treated Princess Sylvia."

"Your Grace, we would like to pay the princess a visit. I wonder if we may?"

"Apologies, Sylvia has made her way to the duke's manor in Roaring Bear. You should know where it is. She's gone to check out her new residence. Also, I'd like to mention that I will be holding my wedding ceremony there in the 11th month. Sylvia will be my wife. She will become the matron of House Norton. I extend my heartfelt invitations to Duke Fisablen to visit so he may participate in his granddaughter's grand wedding. I will graciously await his arrival."

After Lorist finished, he turned and left coldly.