"The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting." ~Unknown

"Aren't you being a little too sneaky, Your Grace? You're obviously trying to get him out of the house's central administration, yet you made it sound so appealing, what with his name being remembered across the centuries and how the project will heavily affect the house's future..."

Charade spoke while stretching after Hansk had marched out proudly.

"To be honest, we already have the departments ready for the project. We just have to carry it out according to the plan. Hansk's presence won't make much of a difference. We could easily put your name on the project instead. I'm sure he won't take to this kindly when he finds out."

"So would it be better to get into a huge argument instead? Didn't you see how jumpy he looked when he came in? If I really got into a fight now, it would unnerve the other officials, especially the older ones. I have to leave him some face either way," Lorist said with a shrug, "The old officials like Hansk think the house has reached the peak of its power. Now they think they've succeeded, they just want maintain the status quo, hence their vehement objections to the new policies. They believe stability is paramount, they don't understand we're still in an era of war. If we don't advance, we will begin to lag behind. The house might have control over The Northlands and influence over five other provinces but our enemies aren't going to sit around and do nothing. The old officials can't really see what's going on. They think we're safe.

"Hansk is the head of the officials and he is the leading member of the status quo faction. He thinks I don't know it, but the officials he promote are mostly those born in Maplewoods. He believes the older generation are more reliable even if they don't really qualify for their positions. He's also really apprehensive towards migrants. As a result, a lot of our policies and their execution are being held back because of friction in the administration. I'm sure you've read Tarkel's reports. The exposed corrupt town mayors of three towns in Felicitas were all people from Hansk's faction.

"Most of the officials who objected to my wedding with Sylvia are also from Maplewoods. At first, I didn't really mind it because I thought to have multiple factions in the house was nothing surprising. I was going to leave it unattended as long as it didn't affect our operations. Had it not been for Kedan's reminder, I wouldn't have been made aware of how influential Hansk has become. With but a call from him, two-thirds of the officials responded. He was the best person to be sent outside to supervise the construction project. Even if he knows my true purpose, he still has no choice. After all, I didn't lie when I said this plan will indeed be a huge development never-before-seen. His name will be chronicled in our history along with the never-before-seen carriage tracks."

"Your Grace, don't forget we've planned most of the development for The Northlands. With our 800 thousand captive laborers, the project will take at most three years. What will you do with Hansk when he comes back?"

Lorist smiled.

"Don't worry. Winston and Delamock are under our control. The two provinces will also require development. At the very least, carriage tracks must be laid to increase resource transportation efficiency. It is also the key to keeping hold of the provinces. After these two, there will still be our allies' territory in Southern and Sidgler. Hansk will be forgotten by the time he returns in no less than a decade. I'd like to see how much of a chance he stands in returning to the center of the administration."

Charade had his mouth agape for a moment before he forced himself back to normal.

"Locke, you're becoming more and more a real duke."

"I suppose I should take that as a compliment?"

Lorist laid back into his chair.

"In a flash, 14 years have passed since I returned to the north. People will change one way or another. If my old self from 14 years ago showed up in front of me now, I doubt I'd recognize myself. The citizens of Wildnorth were revolting and when I brought our forces to attack the town, I couldn't press my assault when I realized the ones guarding the walls were women, the elderly, and children. It ultimately resulted in my failure to take the walls. But now, I can order my soldiers to behead more than 100 thousand captives without batting an eye!

"What does it mean to be a noble? I came to understand it only after serving as a dominion lord for a decade. One cannot change the world with hot-blooded passion alone. You will be changed by the world instead. In my case, all I wanted was to defend my territory. But after being forced to retaliate against our enemies over and over again, I had you guys go around conquering with me, ending with the whole Northlands becoming our territory. Now I've taken the title of Duke of The Northlands, I realize I'm sitting at the edge of a volcano. If I don't expand and progress, all that awaits me is doom and ruin."

A knock on the door interrupted Lorist's long-winded dissertation. Jinolio entered and announced, "Your Grace, Sir Tarkel is here to see you."

Tarkel brought with him lots of information about the war between the Union and the mid-southern nations.

"Oh, so it was the mid-southern nations' army that loosed the first arrows, he? The Union is the retaliater?"

Lorist had thought the Union had lashed out first because the mid-southern nations tried to seal off their trade.

"Indeed, Your Grace," Tarkel said as he handed over a newspaper.

"This was the first large-scale conflict that had occurred between the two sides during the 11th month. The mid-southern nations' army attacked a Union camp. After killing around three hundred, they occupied the site. The Union promptly retaliated and the two sides struggled for control of the camp for more than 20 days before they retreated to their respective camps when winter came."

"How did their negotiations go down?" asked Charade.

"It wasn't conclusive. Three months ago, Falik Chronicles published some rumors about the negotiations," Tarkel said as he searched for the paper in question in stack.

"It says that the mid-southern nations demanded trade tariffs on any trade done by Union in their territories be raised from ten to twenty percent. The Union refused and requested the original conditions to be reinstated, which the other side refused in turn."

"How's the war looking?" asked Lorist.

"Here's a report Lundmorde wrote before the conflict broke out. As you predicted, he had been conscripted because there was a lack of herbalists on the front. Though he's on the front, his life is in no danger. We also sent two silver-ranks to serve by his side as his bodyguards."

Tarkel handed Lorist a few more letters.

Lorist browsed them quickly. In them, Lundmorde stated that -- apart from his bad luck that forced him to leave his seven wives unattended -- he was also worried about his 16 daughters. He asked Lorist to adopt them in case of his untimely death, as well as pensions for each of his seven wives so they could live out the rest of their lives without worry.

Just as Lorist was getting rather pissed at reading Lundmorde's pointless ramblings, the writer finally got to the point. Lundmorde summarized the situation after the war and said he noticed something odd. The two sides seemed to be putting on a show in that they didn't really go all out, both sides held some of their forces back. A few of the big-seven didn't even deploy their troops to the frontlines, and the mid-southern nations also seemed content with the situation. They bother to press the attack. The forces would be comprised of the armies of a few duchies or kingdoms and they would fare horribly against the Union's properly prepared defenses.

"The army's general is Duke Lorf Fustat, a rank 1 blademaster," Lorist muttered, "Sounds familiar. I think I've heard it somewhere before. Tarkel, do you have any information on this blademaster-duke?"

Tarkel shook his head.

"No, Your Grace. The mid-southern nations are too far away and we haven't yet been able to set up our informants there."

Charade answered after a moment's hesitation.

 "I know him. He was in Morante 15 or 16 years ago. He was only a Marquis back then and was at the one-star gold rank. He was there to take the most beautiful girl of Dawn Academy as his wife, a girl bearing the name of Windsor..."

Lorist felt a rush of emotions as the painful memories buried in the depths of his psyche resurfaced. He recalled the moonlit night when his first love stood by the side of the middle-aged gentleman, leaning in his embrace and speaking intimately. His heart was being shredded as he struggled to make it back to his quarters. The next day, the middle-aged gentleman showed up and politely asked him to leave the girl's home. While Lorist didn't remember how he looked, he did remember the golden phoenix badge he wore on his chest.

The girl was Lorist's first love in both his lives. He wondered if the elf-like girl who danced under the moonlight was doing well. She was the one who wedded Duke Lorf Fustat. Sixteen years had passed without a word from her, and time had healed his wounds and almost wiped his memories. He looked gratefully at Charade. Given that Tarkel was there, Charade had reminded him who the duke was in such a roundabout way. Alongside the recollection, he also remembered that Duke Lorf Fustat was no simple noble. Back then, he had ruined Lorist's plan of restoring his first love's noble house to glory and ended up winning the hand of his lover.

After reading through the rest of the squabbles between the two sides, Lorist furrowed his brow.

"This is really odd. Duke Lorf Fustat shouldn't be this incapable. As the general of 200 thousand, how is he held back by such simple defenses? If we were faced with something similar, we'd wipe it out in three days..."

"It does seem weird, Your Grace," Charade said in deep thought, "I remember the weakest of the big-seven, Chikdor, took the Urubaha as its dominion. It is near the Golden Coast and is sandwiched between the Union and Tedanini Mountains as well as the 24 mid-southern nations. It's only separated by one duchy from Jigda. Since the mid-southern nations formed an alliance, why didn't they wipe out the guild's dominion right next to them? It really seems fishy."

Lorist pulled on a string to ring a small bell and Jinolio came promptly.

"Do you need anything, Your Grace?"

"Head to the accounting department. Bring me the trade records for merchant guilds Peterson and Chikdor," instructed Lorist as he took out a rolled-up map of the continent.

"Immediately, Your Grace."

The records were quickly brought over.

After a simple look-over by Charade and Tarkel, Charade said, "Peterson Merchant Guild's trade records have stayed the same over the past half-a-year. There's nothing unusual about their orders. They haven't requested any additional military equipment. The good news is they paid back more of the debt as well. They now only owe about 300 thousand gold Fordes. They'll clear the debt in another year."

Not satisfied yet, Lorist asked, "Did they not ask us to sell them more food?"

"No, Your Grace," Charade said with a shake of his head, "Over the last two years, the two southwestern provinces and the imperial capital reaped great harvests. The Union occupies a few provinces of the former empire that neighbor the two southwestern provinces, so it's likely their harvests went well as well. The Union's food shortage should've been solved."

"Your Grace," Tarkel interjected, "Chikdor has been increasing the volume of their orders. Apart from buying two-thirds of our spice, they also increased the amount of daily necessities and luxury products. Our informants questioned their sailors and have found they were transporting the goods to the Romon Empire and the Khawistan Khanate. They even praised our goods for being quick sellers. There isn't nearly enough to satisfy the demand."

"Did they ask us to sell them more weapons?"

"No," said Tarkel with a shake of his head as well.

"I smell a conspiracy."

Lorist stroked his chin in deep thought. "Look at the map. The southmost Romon and Khawistan went to war after 30 years of peace. This time, they worked pretty well together to wipe out Kalia between them first before going all out against each other. The 24 mid-southern nations also went to war with the Union. The flames of war burn all over the continent. The northern part of the continent where we are has stabilized somewhat. It's really odd when you think about it."

Charade, however, thought of another question.

"Kalia was wiped out even though they had a swordsaint, and that very swordsaint's whereabouts are unknown. I wonder if Romon and Khawistan's swordsaints forced him away..."

"Sir Charade, there are four known swordsaints on the continent, right?" asked Tarkel, "All are in the south. Apart from Romon and Khawistan's swordsaints, there's just the missing swordsaint and Jigda's, correct?"

Charade nodded.

"Yes. However, Jigda firesoar swordsaint is said to have been living in seclusion for more than two decades now. He hasn't shown himself to anyone and nobody knows whether he's still alive or not. The Krissen Empire used to have two but they fell during the century-long conflict with the Union. The Union also had a swordsaint, he died alongside one of ours. The Union ambushed and killed the other, but they paid a ridiculous price, setting the historical precedent of burying a swordsaint with hordes of blademasters."

Charade was quite well-informed about historical trivia like this.

"Alright, swordsaints are too far out from where we are right now. The conflict between nations is still rooted in the military might of each. Tarkel, I hope you will pick a group of reliable informants and send them to the mid-southern nations. We have to get a better understanding of the situation, especially anything relating to their elites, such as the army's general, Duke Lorf Fustat and his household. I don't mind if it takes some time. The war will not end quickly. Even though it's quite far away, I still hope we can gain a better understanding of it."

"Understood, Your Grace."