"Conspiracy: the fear of the masses and the truth of the elite." ~ Unknown

Within the wide, illuminated meeting room hung map after map of the mid-southern nations. There weren't many people present, only Lorist, Tarkel, Charade, and Kedan, who had replaced Hansk. Reidy, Howard, and Jinolio remained seated to the side.

Tarkel was arranging some documents. He stood in front of one of the maps with a wooden pointer.

"The Union has swallowed nine nations, including Teribo, since the War of Glass. Not including Lormo and Mobia, which gave up their sovereignty voluntarily. It has become one of the largest nations on the continent. Most of the other nations have weakened since the start of its rise. Trade routes have been cut and borders sealed. Everyone around the Union is wary of its domineering attitude.

Four years ago, the big-seven guilds organized an effort to increase their sphere of influence by enacting regulations to restore order to trade and resolving some of its internal conflicts. They then turned their attention to their neighbors. They had hoped to smooth over their relationship and get the borders re-opened and be able to start trading again. The neighboring nations did not trust them enough to give them a chance, however. The Union has become the greatest threat to peace, so no one will give them a chance to get stronger."

Tarkel tapped the map in front of him.

"The middle part of the continent has formed its own loose coalition of kingdoms over the last 300 years. While there are frequent conflicts between the 34 member kingdoms, they always stand together when someone outside the coalition threatens them. The most recent such threats were the Krissen Empire, the Romon Empire, and the Khawistan Khanate.

"The two kingdoms that usually faced the last two were Kalia and Jigda. Jigda is separated from their opponent, the Romon Empire, by the Erimalaf mountains and the impregnable Madris Pass. They haven't actually fought much as a result. Kalia is the kingdom that's done most of the actual defending.

"Before this, the windstorm swordsaint used to represent Kalia. The kingdom was adept at balancing relations between the two superpowers and were supported by seven neighboring nations. Until recently, they'd been keeping the peace very effectively; it's been 30 years since the last conflict. Neither of Kalia's opponents were willing to sit by and watch their enemy take over the kingdom. Its fall to the enemy meant the enemy had the opportunity to raid the other kingdoms to the north. Neither side could afford to give the other a chance to gain so much and tip the balance in their favor.

"However, it wasn't the legendary windstorm swordsaint that caused Romon and Khawistan to refrain from invading. The two superpowers each had one swordsaint after all. There were also rumors that the windstorm swordsaint had a really bad relationship with the royal family. Someone involved revealed that the Union had been working on him for seven years before finally getting him to switch sides.

"That is the truth of Kalia's demise. Romon and Khawistan cooperatively divided Kalia's territory among them evenly before going into all-out war with each other. The war has been going for three years now and neither side has much stamina left. Romon currently has the advantage. However, according to intelligence reports from Romon, most of the nobles are asking the king to end the war.

"Jigda became the coalitions front line. Though the 34 stand together, they're actually divided into five factions.

"The Union leads the northernmost faction, the nations on their side are mostly those that fought alongside the Union against the Krissen Empire. In the south is the faction led by Kalia. The other factions are sandwiched in between them. It's almost impossible to figure out what geographical area each of the three controls because it's one big orgy of marriage alliances and chaotic borders. They send supplies, money, and the occasional expedition to whichever border nation is currently facing invasion from outside the coalition, but are nearly wholly occupied with their own squabbles and feuds.

"The old empire fought them and the union on the Falik Plains for over a century. The only reason the union didn't collapse was that the coalition kept on helping them out. The empire collapsed instead. With the threat to the north eliminated, the force that kept the alliance between the Union and the coalition going, disappeared. The War of Glass severed what goodwill still existed between the Union and its former allies, especially after its absorption of nine of the coalition's members. The Union has become another nation filled with ambitions for the coalition's territory, another enemy to fight."

Tarkel took a folder from his aide. It was a report by the Morante Daily from three years ago with the headline 'Coalition's army invades! 300 Union soldiers make heroic sacrifice!'

Tarkel waved the newspaper around as he spoke.

"This is how the conflict started. As the newspaper reports, it was the coalition's army that attacked one of the Union's camps first. We didn't think much about it at the time. And nothing came of it. A year later, however, the Union suddenly marched on the border and stood off against the coalition; 140 thousand men on the Union's side, and at least 200 thousand on the coalition's side.

"When I visited Morante, people in the loop obtained some fresh information. Some say this was because the coalition's army didn't prepare for war to break out at all. They had stationed their troops there only in defense. To the various nations, the Union was a force so huge they didn't dare offend it. Gathering 200 thousand men was only a show of force to have a better position in negotiations. Why would members of the coalition attack if they were too afraid of provoking the Union?

"I've discovered that the unit that attacked the Union first was sent by Jigda. After the war broke out, it used the excuse of the backlash from the other nobles for their drawing first blood to return to their nation. There are a few crucial things worth mentioning. The windstorm swordsaint's departure to the Union as well as the smooth division of Kalia's territory is highly suspect.

"Then, there's also the immediate outbreak of war between the two empires. It was as if they wanted to duke it out first before going for the richer coalition.

"Additionally, with Kalia eliminated, Jigda had to defend against the two, making them the most important and influential nation in the coalition. It's strange that the kingdom isn't worried about the two empires on their border. They were the biggest contributor of forces to the border with the Union before the war started.

"While it's one of the strongest proponents of the anti-Union sentiment, they're all bark and no bite. Apart from sending out the first unit to kick off the war, they haven't provided any substantial aid. Even when the Union's armies completely dominate the coalition, all Jigda does is complain about how incompetent the commanders are.

"Duke Fustat was appointed commander-in-chief and took an army of 200 thousand to face the Union. I think the damage Jigda has done to its neighbors is much worse than what the Union has managed.

"Duke Fustat has also been very passive as of late. He hasn't just completely ignored Chikdor's territory, he's also refused to send troops to reinforce his allies before they agree that he is in charge.

"Chikdor is exposed. It's too far from the Union for it to support the guild. It's also only a kingdom and a duchy away from Jigda. Duke Fustat could easily occupy the territory but he's not doing anything.

"And every time someone tries to bring it up, he either tells them his forces aren't organized yet or says he can't move out until this with Romon and Khawistan calms down.

"Then there's the very convenient coincidence that the Union and Jigda appear to be moving in concert. The Union occupied the kingdoms and duchies bordering them and immediately shifted the bulk of their forces to Chikdor's territory. It looks like they want to crush Duke Fustat's army.

"But now there appears to be a dance going on. The Union invades, takes over some territory, but just as it seems they're about to break through and completely ravage the coalition, Duke Fustat intervenes and pushes them back to Chikdor's borders. People have missed something key, though. Every time Fustat takes action against the union, he also annexed land from the kingdoms and duchies around him. He's already taken over five kingdoms. The Union magically knows where to attack to capture the kingdoms' heirs or rulers. They always vanish or die in the fighting. Fustat than takes over their lands to ensure stability. I have no doubt the kingdoms will be incorporated when the war ends.

"The Union's armies have suffered rather heavily in these engagements, that's why Duke Fustat hasn't garnered any suspicion yet. However, when I was in Morante, I discovered that the Union troops sacrificed weren't the big-seven's forces. They were all always from second or third-rate guilds and mercenary bands. The big-seven's forces will take a territory, then turn it over to the smaller forces to hold. The enemy will attack right after the big-seven withdraw..."

Tarkel used pointed at the map with the distribution of territorial control between the Union and the coalition.

"Because of these six points, we suspect the whole war is a farce, a show put on by Jigda and the Union so they can swallow the other kingdoms and duchies. Jigda might become another superpower like the Union by the end of the war."

That was the conspiracy Tarkel suspected. Everyone in the conference looked at each other, flabbergasted. It sounded a little far-fetched. If it really was so, then the continent was going to change drastically in the coming years. The formation of new superpowers would usher the continent into a new age of struggles. The warring states era would come to an end.

"Are the kings and dukes that blind? Don't they suspected anything at all?" asked Spiel.

"Maybe they do, but I can't be sure. This is all happening quite far away. Furybear can't stretch its claws that far yet. We can't get any concrete information. However, given the chaotic situation they are in, the kings and dukes are probably trying to rake in benefits. Maybe they haven't even considered that they would be the targets of others.

"Then again, it's not like there aren't any clear-headed people in the coalition at all. I visited the frontlines. I got to know the prince of Jekhano through Knight Lundmorde. The prince is quite bright and he also suspects Jigda of colluding with the Union. He was in the midst of his investigation into the matter when his unit was attacked. Fortunately, Lundmorde saved him.

"The prince had prepared to form an alliance with the surrounding nations to defend themselves against Jigda. They wish to break off from the coalition Fustat controls and form their own coalition to defend against both. Maybe they will be forced by circumstances to unite into another large kingdom. The only shame is that we don't have access to their trade routes. They really need military equipment and daily necessities, things we can offer in abundance," said Tarkel.

Lorist stood up.

"Let's adjourn the meeting for today. We've gained a basic understanding of the situation. The war is a little too far from The Northlands, so even if the conspiracy is real, it won't affect us in the near future. I am confident that, as long as we stay strong, we have no need to fear becoming embroiled in any storms."

"Yes, Your Grace."