"People think international politics is like a game of chess, with everyone sitting nicely on their side of the board.  Everyone figures out their strategy, makes their move, and waits for the other side to respond. This is nothing like international politics.  You want to screw your opponent as quickly and bloodily as possible, he should never even have a chance to react." ~ Norton Lorist, after that fateful meeting with the king, his sworn enemy cum peer Duke Fisablen, and supposed-to-be allies.



The horn blared loudly outside Windbury. Lorist organized a grand reception ceremony for King Auguslo, Queen Cacanne, and Duke Fisablen. Standing beside Lorist was Duchess Sylvia. Her godmother and teacher, Blademaster Xanthi, would be there to see her. Sylvia was incredibly excited and pestered Lorist to attend the reception with her no matter what.

Kenmays and Shazin were also present. Felim had left with Loze to escort the king over.

Charade and the acting mayor of Windbury, Viscount Eidis, stood behind Lorist. The two were engaged in a low-volume, heated debate. Viscount Eidis understood well the reason Lorist had appointed him as acting mayor. Lorist had hoped trade would restore Windbury to its former glory as the center for livestock trade. He was arguing with Charade because they had different opinions on how to redevelop Windbury.

Charade believed the trading center should be located outside the city to avoid affecting hygiene and the citizen's quality of life. Letting large quantities of livestock into the city would have severe effects on the environment. It was the main reason the king had killed the livestock market in the first place. Viscount Eidis, on the other hand, believed that, since the population relative to the available land was low, allowing trade to commence within the city would improve safety. As for environmental pollution, he believed limiting the livestock to special trade areas would prevent it from affecting the citizens too much.

Charade countered that the ratio of citizens to land might be low now, but it was in no way guaranteed to remain that way, especially not if the markets were reopened. There would be merchants flocking to the city after hearing word of its developments and settle down. Thus, as a measure of careful planning, keeping the livestock outside the city would save them the trouble of moving everything out later when the population increased, saving them much trouble in the long run.

But Eidis saw limiting trade only to the city outskirts a huge threat to safety. Charade proudly proclaimed there was nobody in the region that would dare provoke House Norton. As long as the forces existed, safety wouldn't be a concern.

Though Eidis was still filled with doubts, he yielded to keeping the trade outside the city due to Charade's overbearing. It, however, didn't stop him from having doubts on the time required for Windbury to regain its former glory. Seeing how gloomy he was, Charade secretly told him about Lorist's decision to attack the duchies and said the skilled workers and leather merchants they would force to migrate would be moved to Windbury. With the city's restoration to its former prosperous state guaranteed, Eidis's mood turned for the better. A light cavalryman appeared in the distance. He took out his horn and blew a long note. The king had arrived.

"Music!" instructed Eidis.

The band started playing. They played the tune used during the most formal of welcoming ceremonies for one's liege. Lorist was seated on his horse with a neutral expression on his face. Sylvia looked really expectant. It seemed she had really missed her godmother.

A handsome horse galloped in the distance. The moment the king heard Lorist was there to welcome him, he hurriedly rode ahead. He shouted before he was even close.

"Haha! Locke, my friend! Long time no see! I've missed you to death!"

You didn't miss me to death. You want to miss me after I die, thought Lorist.

However, he had no choice but to dismount and salute.

"Your Majesty, your loyal servant offers his greetings!"

The horse reared on its hind legs when the king pulled its reins. The second highness leaped off and took wide steps towards Lorist before giving him a hug.

"Locke, my friend, are you doing well?"

Lorist hugged back warmly.

"My king, seeing you safe brings peace to my heart," smiled he, "You should know I've been very worried since I heard you'd traveled into Fisablen's dominion... I couldn't eat or sleep well… Luckily I can finally rest assured. As the king, you shouldn't be taking such risks..."

The Auguslo glanced at Lorist's face blushing healthily.

Is that how a sleepless person with no appetite looks? I bet you can't wait for me to go back, huh? thought he.

In spite of his malcontent, he made the effort to look apologetic.

"Alright, Locke, we both know you would've stopped me if I told you I was going. As this matter is tied closely to the kingdom's future, I had no choice but to make the trip. Fortunately, Duke Fisablen was wise enough to change his ways and rejoin the kingdom. My rash actions paid off in the end."

Lorist didn't even bother to smile convincingly as he looked at the dismounting duke and the blademaster behind the king.

"It truly is a fortunate affair, Your Majesty. You were actually able to recruit the mighty Wargod of the Plains. It really is beyond expectation. I was preparing to uproot House Fisablen for good should you suffer any misfortune..."

Not only were Lorist's words incredibly rude, he also spoke them quite loudly. It was obvious the duke and blademaster had overheard him. The duke merely shuddered without a change in his expression. Xanthi, on the other hand, barked angrily.

"Would you have the guts?!"

Lorist laughed heartily.

"Well? What do you say, Blademaster Xanthi? Long time no see by the way. I see you've been having quite the good time at the imperial capital."

The look on Xanthi's face was both angry and fearful. She suddenly recalled being taken prisoner in just a few strikes. Since then, she had developed a phobia of the young man. Even when Duke Fisablen was beside her, she didn't dare draw her sword and start a fight. Fortunately, Sylvia pulled Lorist harshly before leaping into Xanthi's embrace to resolve the tension.

"Well," the king spoke, "Locke, I know the relationship between your house and that of Duke Fisablen is a little strained, you two even being at war just a year ago, but given that the duke has returned to the kingdom and is willing to put in an effort to unite the empire, and that you've already taken Duchess Sylvia as your wife - you're know in-laws - you should be more tolerant. As Duke of The Northlands, you should act as the role model for all other nobles. I hope Houses Norton and Fisablen can once again have amiable relations so the kingdom's citizens can spend their lives in peace and stability."

Lorist really felt like punching the king in the face.

Now you have what you want, you're advocating peace? You think it's really amazing to have House Fisablen doing your bidding, huh? Who knows what that old fox is planning. Do you really think House Fisablen would submit and return to the kingdom so easily? That old fox is already looking for a way out.

He cooled down after seeing the king's sincere expression. He was well aware that Auguslo knew what Duke Fisablen had in mind, it was just that he didn't mind. In fact, he couldn't be happier if the two houses were on bad terms. He was more than willing to ensure the alliance always had trouble with which to deal. Since he could sit stably in the capital and watch the battle, he couldn't wait for the two houses to tear each other apart.

Lorist bowed slightly.

"House Norton is willing to follow His Majesty's orders. As long as House Fisablen follows the alliance's regulations, we will naturally not consider him an enemy. Being able to get along will benefit the citizens."

Hehe, House Fisablen will just have to wait a little longer to be squashed. Our regulations will do what our weapons now can't.

Lorist wasn't going to just let House Fisablen off the hook. He couldn't be bothered to care whether the duke's granddaughter was the queen or not. He wasn't about to wait for the 'Snake and the Farmer' to happen. Once the beast was locked in a cage, it shouldn't be let out ever again.

"This..."

The king was speechless. Lorist was obviously not going to listen to him and let House Fisablen off the hook. However, it wouldn't be appropriate for him to flip out at the moment. Fortunately, Kenmays, Shazin, Charade, and Eidis came up to offer their greetings, stopping Lorist from saying anything else that might push the situation out of control.

The carriage in which the queen rode finally arrived. Queen Cacanne stepped out. Lorist went up to greet her all the while checking her out. She was quite the beauty; it seemed the Fisablen genes were rather good. The men were handsome and the women beautiful. Sylvia was a step above Cacanne, though. Cacanne's arrogant and stuck-up expression gave Lorist the urge to laugh. He also noticed that Sylvia was standing to the side whispering something to Xanthi without bothering to greet her grandfather and cousin.

After some commotion, everyone returned to their respective carriages and mounts and headed to Rose Palace under Eidis's lead. Since Windbury had come under Norton control, the palace had become a temporary noble abode. Apart from Lorist, nobody was allowed to enter. Now that the Auguslo was there, Rose Palace naturally became his residence. Eidis had had a grand banquet prepared.

After enjoying the delicacies, Kenmays stood up to ask the key question on behalf of all the nobles present.

"Your Majesty, forgive my abruptness, but you mentioned you were going to attack the duchies. Is this true?"

"Of course," the king replied seriously as he put the golden cup in his hand down, "I spoke the truth. The rewards I promised are still up for the courageous to take. I also have an announcement to make in this regard. Duke Fisablen, the Wargod of the Plains, will also deploy his troops for this endeavor. So far, there are only some minor details that have to be discussed. Once these negotiations conclude and the military preparations are ready, we will launch our attack. As the king, I hope I will have the fortune to witness the brave contributions of all the nobles on the battlefield as they fight and contribute to the kingdom."

Auguslo's words inspired loud cheers from the seated nobles. Lorist toyed around with the cup in his hand as he contemplated the king's revelation about Duke Fisablen's participation. Unconsciously, his eyes drifted to the duke and saw him raising a cup to him in a toast before he gulped down the wine.

Interesting, old fellow. I wonder what in the world you're up to...

When the banquet ended, the king asked Lorist, Fisablen, Kenmays, Felim, and Shazin to stay behind. He hesitated for a moment but eventually asked Charade to join them as well. Lorist knew the true meeting was about to begin.

After they took their seats, Auguslo came clean with his strategy. His plan was to mobilize the 56-thousand-strong Whitelion Legion. It would be moved to Southern before launching the invasion. The first step was to reclaim the provinces that used to constitute Melein, Messen, and Rimad, and use them as the main base and springboard for further offensives into the core of the four duchies. As it was rather far away, he hoped to first seal Southern and Rimad's border and wait for Whitelion's arrival. The operation was slated for the 8th month.

"Duke Fisablen, weren't you going to lead your frontier legions into battle? Can you tell me where you will attack?" asked Lorist, looking straight at the duke.

Duke Fisablen didn't reply or say anything.

Auguslo stepped in.

"It's like this. House Fisablen will mobilize two legions. They will join in after we conquer Messen. Messen is connected to Shabaj and Forund, so I plan to divide our forces in two. Whitelion will work with the frontier legions to attack one duchy while you and the four houses attack the other. Attacking on two fronts will make the duchies unable to regroup and resist. We can only take the duchies down in one move like this."

Lorist laughed coldly.

"It seems House Fisablen really is going to do its best for His Majesty's sake, for them to be willing to mobilize the only two legions they have left. What a rare breed of loyalty."

"Well, Locke, this is the part where we need your agreement," the king said sincerely, "Right now, House Fisablen is just like House Norton, a vassal of the kingdom. Since you two have signed an armistice, as king, I hope the two of you can make up and work together to reunite the empire.

"I hope you will release Third Frontier's captured soldiers so the duke can rebuild the legion. Since you know House Fisablen only has two legions left, you should also know that they will be the grassland barbarians' primary target when they send out both their legions. I hope you will be gracious and give the captured soldiers freedom so they can contribute to the empire's reunification."

Ah, old fox, so this was what you were planning.

Lorist merely smiled coldly without speaking. The king kept going on about thinking of the big picture for the sake of the empire, and that it was all only to be used to attack the duchies. Lorist looked at Shazin and Felim; the two had their heads lowered. He then shot Kenmays a glance and saw the latter was inspecting the teacup in his hand with intense focus. He suddenly felt his heart go cold. He waved smilingly to stop the king's rambling.

"Alright. I agree to release Third Frontier's soldiers. But House Fisablen must make our losses up to us. I'll leave the details to Baron Charade and Duke Kenmays. I am feeling a little unwell and have to excuse myself."

Lorist then left swaggeringly.