"I find it amazing how people can change their behaviour.  One day you mean something in their lives, and the next its like you don't exist." ~ Second Highness

Grandmaster Sid's surprise didn't really shock Lorist much. The experienced smith had developed another type of steel he had named Sid 303. Lorist noticed Sid was gradually developing the traits Ciroba had when it came to naming things after himself in an attempt to be remembered for generations to come.

According to Sid, Sid 303 boasted the best elasticity of all the steel types they'd been using so far. It was extremely suited to fashion spring plates and ballistae arms. And the results of their experiments showed ballistae made with the new material could be fired even further with even more force. The maximum range was at around 400 meters.

Lorist also realized that Sid was really intent on having him replace the arms of the ballistae with his new material, but he refused in the end. So far, the house's carroballistae were still far ahead of the other factions'. Even if other people could obtain a few, they would still be unable to forge similar steel arms. There was no need to spend unnecessary funds to upgrade them. But even so, the new material was still a decent step forward in their overall technological advancement.

As opposed to Sid's disappointment, he was more interested in the new forging kilns that allowed for the creation of the new steel. After two years of experimentation, the grandmaster had finally managed to come up with flame-resistant bricks he used to make a kiln that could refine black iron in extremely heated conditions. Sid 303 was created precisely through those kilns. After black iron was sent into the kiln and melted, Sid performed numerous tests by adding in various different metals before finally coming up with the recipe for the new material. To be more precise, Sid 303 was an alloy of different metals.

As Lorist wasn't educated in the ways of metallurgy, he wasn't interested in hearing Sid's lecture about the crucial points to look out for in forging metal. Instead, he found it a huge shame that the people of Grindia didn't use any form of coal or petroleum. He didn't know whether it was because they hadn't discovered other sources of fuel because logs were far more readily available. Grindians used mainly wood and charcoal for metallurgy and when they needed to raise the temperatures, they would resort to powdered fire crystals, but the temperature wouldn't stay high for long. That was one of the reasons Grindians couldn't develop their technology quickly.

"Grandmaster, I'd like to ask you about the compact crossbow you showed me. I wonder if there're any improvements that manage to lower the production cost?"

An awkward expression appeared on the grandmaster's face.

"Apologies, Your Grace. As the cost of producing the compact crossbows was too high, the moment the house canceled their order, Grandmaster Fellin and I stopped researching it. I was busy testing new steel alloys while Grandmaster Fellin was caught up with a huge order of 20 thousand longbows. We were both far too busy with other things..."

The construction of each standard longbow took up to two years. The wood required would have to undergo multiple rounds of soaking and drying and it was a really cumbersome process overall. Lorist recalled the longbow order was made for the local defense brigade's longbowmen. Given how the two grandmasters must have presented the compact crossbows after they did their best and exhausted every idea they had to improve it beforehand, he could understand why they weren't willing to continue pouring their efforts into its development.

"I recall you mentioned the reason the cost was so high lay with the materials, right? Given the variance in elasticity in the steel you used to produce, only a small portion could be used. Their small size meant a lot of materials would be wasted after making the small individual parts. Those were the factors that inflated the cost, right?"

"Indeed, Your Grace," Sid admitted, "Because of the unstable kiln we used back then, the steel we produced would vary in some form or another even if identical ingredients and amounts were used. Additionally, the elastic nature of the steel isn't obtained simply just through repeated forging. For instance, while we can fashion mithril into steel, the material would lose its elasticity after forging, so it's not easy to find materials suited to make compact crossbows, hence the immensely high cost. Out of ten forging attempts, only one or two would be successful."

"Since that's the case, now that you've developed this new kind of steel, why haven't you considered using it to make compact crossbows? Since Sid 303's recipe is already set and stabilized, making mass production possible, I suppose this could greatly decrease the production cost."

Sid appeared stunned before he snapped with ecstasy.

"That's right, why didn't I think of it?! I was too fixated on the carroballistae I forgot the house was looking for a weapon to replace longbows... Your Grace, I'll look for Grandmaster Fellin right away and improve the compact crossbows immediately..."

"Wait, Grandmaster Sid, there's something else," Lorist said as he stopped the man, "Go discuss with Grandmaster Fellin. If the elasticity of the steel material really is this amazing, see if you can fashion it into a bow which can be wielded and fired on horseback. Then, compare it with the longbows we use. Since Jaeger was just reformed, we require a weapon that can be fired on horseback and isn't inferior to longbows."

"Understood, Your Grace. We will come up with a weapon the house can use soon. We'll work till our deaths if it means we can be of use to the house!" said Sid excitedly.

Lorist facepalmed as he watched Sid's figure disappear into the distance. To be frank, he wondered if he had set the technological tree in the wrong direction. Ideally, he would've liked to develop firearms. But nobody was willing to get into researching them. Sid and the rest were going further and further on the path of cold projectile weapons like crossbows to the point they managed to come up with new highly elastic steel, yet they weren't willing to foray into the field of firearms at all.

Nowadays, the carroballistae of House Norton already stood at the forefront of ranged weaponry thanks to Sid and the rest's efforts. But now, they were going far deeper down that path and even researching how they could improve bows and crossbows to increase their power and range. Even though he had already provided some concept drawings and designs of firearms, the grandmasters showed no interest. He wondered if he should start a new research division specifically for firearms research, but the number of talented people required wasn't easy to find.

After leaving the black iron refinery, he checked on Ironforge Castle. It was the central weapons production plant the house had set up at Bladedge Mountains. The weapons and equipment produced at Sid's would be sent north for polishing and inlaying to make the standard equipment set used by soldiers. It was a huge production plant manned by three thousand workers. Apart from bearing the burden of providing armaments to the house's forces, they were also tasked with providing arms for the house's allies.

The person in charge, Baron Camorra, had been waiting outside for quite some time. So far, the most important assignment Ironforge Castle had been given was the production of the 60 thousand sets of light cavalry armor Jaeger required. The armor was based on Sid's latest designs, with some adjustments after surveying the Jaeger's men and considering their suggestions. Sid basically redesigned the whole thing and made quite a number of changes. The armor's color was also changed from black to grey.

Last year, Camorra was in charge of logistics and support during Iblia's conquest and had performed wonderfully, earning Lorist's praise. Even though the war was now over, the large defensive infrastructure projects had just been started, so Camorra's duties as chief logistics officer were yet to finish. Though his job did get much lighter as the situation wasn't that urgent. Camorra appointed an aide and had him stay in Windbury while he made his way to Ironforge to welcome Lorist for the inspection.

By the time Lorist made it back to Firmrock after the inspections concluded, it was already the 7th day of the 8th month. After visiting Howard at the training grounds, he went to his study and noticed Charade was waiting for him on the sofa with another huge stack of documents. This time around it was mostly about Northsea's and Jaeger's budgets. There was also another letter addressed to him sent from Roaring Bear. It was actually a correspondence from Sylvia. She mentioned that she loved the scenery around Cherry Blossom Ridge, which he had given her as a gift. There were a few things she wanted changed, so it would take a few more days before she returned.

"Have the invitations been sent?" asked Lorist as he signed the documents.

On Grindia, noble wedding invitations usually had to be sent out half a year before the wedding. It was especially so for someone of Lorist's status, being head of House Norton and Duke of The Northlands. Not only would he have to notify all the house's vassals, even the entire kingdom's nobles had to be invited. It wasn't an issue of familiarity, but rather of noble pride. Fortunately, the second highness had wiped out most of the peerage a few years earlier and left barely any remaining. For once Lorist was thankful to the second highness. He didn't have to worry about having to interact with nobles with whom he wasn't familiar.

As the wedding would take place in the 11th month, the messengers had to be sent out at the end of the 6th or the beginning of the 7th. Some powerful nobles on Grindia notified their guests almost a year in advance because of the time needed to travel across the continent. Additionally, the guests required time to prepare a wedding gift. However, it wasn't too troublesome in Lorist's case since House Norton's sphere of influence mainly covered the northeastern area of the empire.

"Most of the invitations were sent successfully. However, only a few nobles from the capital will attend. Almost all the nobles the second highness entitled claimed to have too much to do and expressed their regret. They did say they would send gifts to congratulate Your Grace's marriage, though," replied Charade.

"Did the second highness have anything to say?"

"That's actually the weirdest part," Charade said with a furrowed brow, "Our messenger couldn't meet His Majesty. The messenger said after the palace staff received the invitation, he was told to rest at an inn and await news. But when evening came, someone was sent over to relay that His Majesty was far too busy with other matters and wouldn't attend. He did mention that he would send messengers over to give his blessings. It really made me wonder after hearing what I did from the messenger. I can't help but think the second highness is up to something. What could take up so much of his time that he couldn't even spare any time to attend your wedding? Also, the kingdom seems rather quiet, as if His Majesty went into hiding. He actually didn't even meet our messenger face to face. Talk about being rude..."

Lorist put down the documents in his hand.

"I wonder if you've heard news of the Union going to war with the mid-southern nations? Lundmorde was conscripted and sent to the frontlines as well. It'll take more time for us to gather reliable information. However, what rouses my suspicion is how the second highness is laying low despite the situation. There doesn't seem to be any abnormality in the capital at all. Logically speaking, His Majesty should be taking the opportunity to rub more salt in the Union's wounds. he's always been all about reuniting the empire, and now the Union occupies quite a number of the empire's provinces, why is the second highness letting such an opportunity go? I can't figure it out. It all seems too weird."

"Ugh... I haven't heard of this at all. Oh well, it's got nothing to do with us anyway," Charade said as he shook his head, "We're too far away from the Union, it's no surprise the news is delayed. However, the second highness's two legions should be standing off against the Union at the border, so he should have received the news long ago. If it really is as good an opportunity as you suggest, then it truly is weird that he hasn't made any moves. Hey, do you think he isn't in the capital? That'd explain how he didn't show up to meet our messenger."

Lorist looked stunned. What Charade just said seemed to set his thoughts down a completely different path. He pulled on the bell rope to summon Jinolio.

"Jinolio, send someone to get Tarkel."

Tarkel soon showed up.

"Tarkel, send some messages through our eagles to the capital. Order our informants to investigate how long it's been since the second highness showed up in front of anyone. Who is in charge of the kingdom right now? Find out if anything odd is going on in the palace."

"Understood, Your Grace. I will get to it immediately."

Three days later, Tarkel met with him once more.

"Your Grace, here's the report our informants sent back. It's been more than a year since His Majesty appeared publicly. According to the maidservants, they haven't seen him for quite some time now. However, they did confirm that he's been residing in a section of the palace guarded by his personal guard. Nobody's been permitted to disturb him. Word is that he's been afflicted with some weird disease, hence his self-imposed seclusion. However, the palace supervisor and the three other ministers were allowed to see him. There were some documents signed during that time and the manner in which matters were dealt with largely stayed the same. So, the kingdom's situation has remained stable."

"A weird disease?" Lorist wondered as he stroked his chin, "Impossible. What kind of disease can make a three-star gold-rank fall so sick? It's almost impossible. Maybe he was poisoned or assassinated?"

Tarkel gave it some thought.

"Assassination doesn't sound too probable. Otherwise, the kingdom would've fallen into chaos long ago. It doesn't seem like poison either. If that were the case, the palace would be hiring lots of herbalists just like when the third prince was poisoned. All the herbalists in the kingdom were summoned to the palace. However, there's one thing worth noting. Your Grace's cousin sister, Glacia, seems to have lost the highness's trust and has been relieved of her duties. Currently, she's living alone in her private residence."

"Oh?" Lorist mused with a furrowed brow, "Is this true?"

"It is. Miss Glacia didn't seem willing to divulge any details. She did say she would travel to The Northlands and attend the wedding, though."

Lorist paced around, head lowered, and wondered about how odd it all was.

At the very least, it's certain the second highness is staying in the palace. Whatever, there's no point wracking my head. The truth will come out one day and I'll know up to what the second highness has been.

"Leave it be for now. Have our men watch the palace and report anything out of the ordinary immediately."

"Understood, Your Grace."