"Taking an ally is unlike taking a friend.  A friend you stand by through thick and thin, it is a choice made based on emotions.  Taking an ally is a business transaction, you take them for the benefits they bring. An ally that is not a boon, is not an ally." ~ Unknown

"Did you guys come to an agreement?" asked Lorist faintly.

They were in one of the most lavish mansions in the Windbury's noble district. It originally belonged to an Iblian count from Southern but the mansion was sealed after the count received the death sentence for treason four years ago by Duke Fisablen. While Lorist could stay at Rose Palace given his status, he didn't want to mingle with the king, so he chose the mansion as his lodging instead.

It was already almost evening by the time Charade returned. He realized Lorist was seated in his dark study watching night fall. When he heard his question, he undid his cloak and handed it to Jinolio.

"Get me a bottle of wine. The tea I drank all afternoon left no taste in my mouth at all.

"Your Grace, we have come to an agreement. Duke Fisablen is willing to pay one million gold Fordes' worth of horseshoe gold as ransom for the Third Frontier's 40 thousand soldiers. However, he asked they all be armed properly," said Charade as he got a chair and sat beside Lorist.

"Hehe," Lorist chuckled coldly, "It seems House Fisablen still has quite deep pockets. Even though they just gave the second highness a million, they can still take out another for the ransom. It seems we'll have to increase our goods' prices even further. However, his idea of asking us to supply his soldiers with gear is a pretty decent one."

House Fisablen's third frontier legion's soldiers were originally armed with riding armor 103 which they ordered from the Nortons. Each set cost 65 gold Fordes. Following the legion's surrender, their gear was confiscated, but now, Duke Fisablen intended to resupply his whole legion and purchase their freedom with one million gold Fordes. The plan did indeed merit praise.

"Your Grace, this agreement will only pass if you acknowledge it. If you don't, we can continue to bargain. We're not the ones in a rush anyway."

Lorist shook his head slightly.

"It isn't that simple. What do our three allies say?"

Charade received the cup of wine Jinolio poured and enjoyed a sip.

"Count Felim and Count Shazin think since we're all nobles of the kingdom, not to mention our status as allies about to go to war together, we should spare House Fisablen instead of tightening the leash. Duke Kenmays tried his best to negotiate on our behalf, but Duke Fisablen harped on about it already being his baseline and that there was no more room for negotiation; they can't bring out even a single gold coin more than they've already offered. As for His Majesty, he will naturally speak on Fisablen's behalf. He had indicated on multiple occasions to accept what was offered without going overboard."

Lorist sighed.

"Whatever, there's no need to be so calculative at this point, lest others hail us as being stingy. Third Frontier is different from those we've caught in the past. Their family members live in House Fisablen's dominion, and, given that they were forced to surrender, they haven't really been convinced of their loss. They believe we won with underhanded tricks. It's especially the case with their general offing himself after the surrender to bear responsibility for his mistakes. The soldiers loathe us and are filled with the desire for vengeance, we can't use them in our own forces. The longer we keep them, the larger their hate will be. It's best we just let them go."

"Aren't you afraid you're releasing the tiger into the wild? Those soldiers will be quite the formidable force if House Fisablen goes to war with us."

Charade wasn't fond of the idea of releasing the 40 thousand veterans.

"Hehe, a formidable force? Just by themselves?"

Lorist laughed heartily.

"I admit their mental fortitude and morale will make them more powerful in the face of our forces in the future. But so what? Are we afraid of them? True might is not defined by morale, but good equipment, decent fortifications, and coordination over the long term through harsh training and confidence built by numerous battles. When they face us on the field again, they will be defeated again. They will be crushed and left with nothing. What other might could they possibly have?"

Charade gulped down the rest of the wine.

"Alright. We'll do it as you wish."

"Wait a second," Lorist said, "Don't let Fisablen off so easily. Ask Supervisor Spiel about the worn out armor and weapons we got after exterminating Madras. I believe they're gathering dust and moss in the storehouses. Give that to the legion and tell them that we'll sell them riding armor 103 at a discount. Fifty gold Fordes each should do. We'll outfit them with that if they can bring out another two million. If he's not happy, he can come to me."

"Your Grace, isn't this a little too insidious? Duke Fisablen will definitely spew blood. You're practically giving his face a slap... Nevermind. After all the agreement only stipulates we give them equipment, not what kind."

Lorist breathed a long sigh.

"I didn't want to do this either. I'm afraid the king will spread word of us not taking the bigger picture into account and House Fisablen will hate us all the way to the bone, but I really can't afford House Fisablen regaining their strength. Forget about the king, House Fisablen is our biggest threat."

Charade stopped laughing and sighed as well.

"Are you still mad at Count Felim and Count Shazin? They're our allies but they're dragging us into the mud. Maybe we should consider dissolving the alliance. Actually, there are many in the house who think that, had it not been for the alliance, our influence would have grown even more."

Lorist stood up and walked to the windowsill. He looked at the peaceful scene outside, at the houses and streets.

"Do you think so as well? That the alliance is a burden rather than a boon?"

Charade shook his head.

"I don't think so, but I feel you think a little too highly of our allies. Actually, even their combined might can't rival ours. Ever since our attack on Madras and Iblia, there are some in the house who started feeling you take care of our allies far too much. For instance, you allowed House Kenmays to occupy their own province and even form their own maritime trading fleet, giving them a huge cut of the profits of maritime trade in Northsea.

"As for Count Felim, not only did we send out troops to retake his dominion, we were also willing to go to battle for his sake, sacrificing tens of thousands of our loyal soldiers in the process. Many officials and knights believe we suffered quite a bit of loss after our conquest of Iblia and House Felim managed to profit a lot.

"There's also Count Shazin. He was just a gold-ranked knight when we met him. If not for our support, how would he even be qualified to be brought up in the same sentence as us?

"I don't personally endorse these views, but I believe you do in fact look after our allies a lot. But I believe you have your reasons, reasons beyond my short-sighted view."

Lorist chuckled.

"Alright, enough with the flattery. If you're trying to flatter me, at least make it seem more convincing. I don't think you don't have any talent for flattering though.

"Maybe you might not believe this, but at first, I didn't really regard the alliance with that much importance. I only wanted to establish a method by which to export our produce. Putting the alliance aside, I was more concerned with the salt merchant committee. I had hoped we could export our goods to other provinces through the committee. The reason I drafted the alliance at first was to put our allies' mind at peace," said Lorist with a lowered head as he paced about.

"Put their minds at peace?"

Charade was quite surprised, this was the first time Lorist had revealed his true motives.

"Yes. We all just happened to have the same goal of trapping the second prince. After that, we managed to eliminate the First Legion. We also sucked all the landed nobles across The Northlands dry apart from our three allies with the excuse that those nobles worked with the second prince to attack our house.

"Think about how The Northlands would have ended up had I not formed the alliance. It's obvious that the three houses would have united against us. Since we wiped out all the other nobles, the three would have had no choice but to fight an enemy like us as one. Though we can mobilize our forces to defeat them, it would come at a great cost and The Northlands will be even more chaotic.

"That was why I formed the alliance. We will all stretch our influences outward and face the threat of Madras and Iblia together. It helped us gain the precious time we needed. What I didn't expect, however, was how that Kenmays was actually able to run salt merchant committee so well and tied our four houses together with the profits he made. That's why the alliance still exists."

Lorist had already paced about half the room.

"At first, I didn't really regard the alliance much importance. It was after Silowas was attacked and our expedition to exterminate the Hanayabarta kingdom that I realized the alliance's importance. If we didn't have our three allies separating us from the outside world, we wouldn't have been able to develop as steadily and rapidly as we have.

"The Northlands is truly too large. It's a province, but its area is three times that of Delamock. Given how strong house was back then, even if we managed to control the whole Northlands, we would've attracted lots of other hungry factions vying for what we had. Especially given that there are only three ways from The Northlands to the rest of the empire. If those were sealed off, we would lose touch with the rest of the empire. In one sense, it makes it easy to defend, but also hard to rely on others. Bullhorn Bay can reach the outside world now as well, a maritime trade route alone isn't enough to export our produce.

"We might have the strength to hold The Northlands for ourselves, but we have to rely on our allies. Even if we want to occupy the whole province, we have to use dominion relocation instead of tearing up the alliance with military force. House Kenmays was one of our earliest enemies. When I first returned to the dominion, they were laying siege at Maplewoods. Back then, House Norton was turtling up and could only endure their attacks unable to fight back.

Logically speaking, I should hate House Kenmays to the bone, right? But Duke Kenmays's father turned out to be quite the far-sighted man. He instantly made the decision to avoid the brunt of my troops and went to the eastern Northlands to lay his foundations anew out of my grasp and even apologized sincerely. Later, I realized Kenmays himself was quite the talented man, not unlike yourself. You're better at taking the larger picture into consideration; Kenmays at business and social relations. It was my admiration for his talents that made us friends.

"Among our three allies, Duke Kenmays is the one with the most foresight. He knows as long as he can sustain the alliance, House Kenmays can transition smoothly from a merchant family to a proper house. That is why he toils away to run the committee. At the same time, as the influence of our alliance increases, salt merchant committee's reach grows. It's is a win-win for Duke Kenmays.

"I've heard a local saying that goes, 'A fence requires three posts, a good man requires three helpers'. Even though House Norton has a legacy over three centuries old, we were still a small house at the rural borders of The Northlands and couldn't compare to the ancient, powerful noble houses. In the days of the empire, we were synonymous with loyalty, and that's the reason we stubbornly support the imperial family's true heir, the Andinaq royal family. While taking up the burden is easy, putting it back down is not.

"You should know best how wary the king is of us. We can't go any higher under his wing either.  We already have the highest possible vassalic title. Unless we found our own kingdom, which is impossible, there is no ladder left to climb. The second highness wouldn't allow it either. If we rebel, our reputation, earned over two centuries, would be ruined in a single moment. That's not something we can afford. 'Traitor' is not a pleasant lable to have and I don't want to be scorned by thousands either.

"The alliance is incredibly important right now. Think about how we made the king suffer through cooperating with our allies. We managed to rake in huge gains and the king got nothing. In his eyes, the four houses are one unit and he can't target any us individually. All he can do is try and destroy the alliance.

"Without the alliance, he only needs to deal with us. Using rumors, he can destroy our reputation. But now we have our allies, he has to think twice before pulling something like this. That's also why I was enthusiastic about forming the alliance in the beginning. No matter which house the king decides to take on, he has to consider the three others' retaliation.

"The duchies are bait and we have no choice but to bite. Count Felim has always wanted his house's glorious name restored and given that development of his dominion is bottlenecked, it's no surprise he has turned his attention to the duchies. Count Shazin has always been rather bad at managing his dominion and it's only reasonable for him to want to increase his wealth with plunder. The two swallowed the bait, so we have to stay with them through it all. Just like you said, our invasion will bring us benefits as well. This is a step we have to take to protect the alliance. We shouldn't allow a rift to form so easily.

"I didn't imagine that bastard would bring that fox into this, though. That old fox wants his men back to rebuild his forces. Count Felim and Count Shazin have their vision blurred from the potential benefits. they didn't speak out against his request because they feared the invasion would be called off. That's why I agreed to release them. The only con is that we lost free manpower. We'll have to stop many of our ongoing projects."