"A true leader is not a perfect man — for no such man exists — but one with the awareness to recognise his shortcomings and faults, the humility to admit them to himself, and the wisdom to surround himself with people who can make up for them." ~ Duke Forund

It was Duke Forund's first visit to The Northlands. He was shocked when he traveled through Delamock. He couldn't believe his eyes when he saw the various fiefs' clearly defined borders, the wide expansive streets, and the farmland beside the road where criss-crossing irrigation routes could be spotted; it all completely turned up-ended his previous impressions regarding the province.

Wasn't the highway supposed to be the empire's worst? The most costly, the longest, and the most indirect? I heard that in order to not infringe on the various nobles' lands, its construction was changed multiple times. It snakes across the land like a drunk reptile. I heard it was so expensive that all the nobles involved were rich by the end... What's with this flat and wide highway? Did Duke Madras build it?

He hadn't passed through Southern, Winston, or Delamock on his way to Yungechandler. He'd instead gone through Egret Swamp. It was a harder road to travel, but twice as fast as the alternative. The other dukes had also passed through the swamp.

Kenmays had told him that everything he saw was thanks to Duke Lorist's efforts.

After conquering Madras, the duke had relocated all the nobles to Winston and invested nearly two million gold Fordes and 100 thousand captive soldiers in the new highway's construction. It had taken two and a half years to finish. He also built irrigation channels. Once they were finished, he redrew the various domains' borders before sending over the fiefs' new lord.

"... Why would House Norton invest so much money in developing a territory only under their jurisdiction?"

Duke Forund was completely speechless. Had House Norton really splurged two million gold Fordes on a province they only governed, but did not own? Who knew how many years it would take to recoup their expenses? While they controlled the territory, it belonged to their vassals. All they got from the land was a tenth of its agricultural and resource yields in tax.

Usually, highway projects of such magnitude were undertaken by kingdoms. House Norton could rightly demand financial aid from their king. However, when he thought of the king's personality, he knew it would never happen.

House Norton really is rich...

Kenmays laughed.

"You think this is a huge investment? You might not know this, but House Norton invested nearly twenty million in The Northlands and another twenty on their military. How do you think their elite troops were born? Pure money!"

Kenmays believe Lorist spent too much on his forces in the same vein Lorist believed he spent too much on leisure. He had heard Lorist mention before that half the house's annual income was spent on its military. Lorist had to be paranoid. He spent so much money on his military that it exceeded even the kingdom's military strength, no wonder the king was jealous.

He could easily estimate House Norton's income. This was how he came to the conclusion that they spent at least three million on their military every year. Then again, the shade was always the best under a big tree. The stronger House Norton was, the more assurance he could get from hugging Lorist's leg. He could rely on the great tree to earn his money in peace without worry of anyone else setting their sights on House Kenmays.

Duke Forund was completely dumbstruck.

"So... so much gold... How did they get so much money?"

"They took it."

Kenmays understood Lorist's background well. He had heard many stories about the northbound journey several times while drinking with Charade, Loze, and a number of others, and knew they had raided the whole way to The Northlands.

"You're joking, right? How could they possibly take so much money?" Duke Forund shook his head.

"Hehe… When that fella was still studying in Morante, he formed a convoy to return to The Northlands to inherit his title. On the way, the nobles wanted to take advantage of him, so he slaughtered his way through their fiefs. In the entire journey, he never lost a single battle. He raided everything he could along the way. His convoy grew powerful enough to clean out all of Andinaq at His Majesty's request when they came to the kingdom's borders. He was the one that helped His Majesty ascend to the throne.

"You can only imagine how much he must've taken. He cleaned out nearly a hundred nobles! They continued raiding through Madras and the Duke of The Northlands' door. They took everything — from gold to men and women, to even the young and old. They even raided Windbury. The biggest incident was when he completely annihilated the slave kingdom Hanayabarta. That alone should have netted them at least 30 million gold Fordes."

Duke Forund's jaw dangled on his feet.


"What would I get by lying to you? Even Lorist and his goons talk about everything in broad daylight. Just look at their expressions when they mention raiding. You'll never understand how terrifyingly efficient Lorist's men are at raiding. The places they've raided are cleaner than fresh parchment when they're done."

Kenmays spoke of House Norton's raiding with a tone of mocking and envy. He licked his lips.

"That fella even robbed me of my 100 thousand gold Fordes..."

Lorist had just returned to The Northlands at the time, without his convoy. The first house he dealt with was House Kenmays. Not only did he set fire to their viscounty, Redriver Valley, he even swept it clean of everything and anything valuable. Not even Kenmays's 100-thousand-gold-Forde stash in his secret room was spared.

Though he now ran the salt merchant committee and dealt with millions of gold Fordes and spent more than 100 thousand gold Fordes on his luxurious life every year, the thought of his lost stash still drove knives into his heart. It was money he had siphoned from the house's guild over a decade! Even his father didn't know of it.

That he had never benefited from all his hard work pained him eternally. The thought of him living so frugally after joining the guild to put each and every coin into his stash after wiping it clean only for it all to end up in Lorist's hands enraged him. He couldn't wait to fight Lorist at the time even if it meant losing his life. Regardless of the casualties his house suffered, he insisted on reclaiming Firmrock Castle. His stubborn insistence nearly led to a revolt.

However, his greatest trait his ability to keep a clear mind when dealing with official matters. After he understood he couldn't match Lorist, he heeded his father's advice and changed his tune completely, turning from Lorist's enemy to his friend. He even hurriedly submitted to him and ended up getting his current impressive position, allowing House Kenmays to get the whole of Sidgler.

Duke Forund had properly stepped into The Northlands when he put foot to ground on the north back of Metroupolis. Along the way to Ragebear, he finally got to see the changes brought by the tens of millions of gold Fordes' investment.

Is this really the rural and desolate Northlands? It's all endless stretches of livestock, farmland, highway, and tightly packed villages...

He felt the same awe now as he did when he first visited the great Andalou Plains where the imperial capital was. Actually, the awe from that visit couldn't compare to the awe he felt now. The closer he got to Ragebear, the busier it got. It was already winter and large feather-sized snowflakes drifted down from the white heavens but the streets were bustling and merry.

Kenmays told him gleefully that the southern part of The Northlands wasn't the most prosperous in the region. The truly rich areas are the older Norton lands like Felicitas and Northsea. The former was one of the first areas to be developed and the latter was part city. Apart from having a mansion in Ragebear, the largest mansion in the eastern special noble district, Kenmays also boasted the largest building in Northsea.

House Norton is incredibly rich.

Forund was quite assured he could borrow some money. However, after hearing Kenmays's introduction of The Northlands, an idea suddenly popped into his head. He had to ask the duke if he could survey his domain to see for himself what results House Norton's investments had wrought.

The annual celebration was the largest House Norton had ever hosted, both in terms of budget and attendance. More than 1500 nobles and their families were attending. Lorist felt Ragebear's inner city was a little too cramped. It seemed an expansion was in order, he might even need to replace his castle with a palace!.

The budget was much larger this time to accommodate the many high nobles attending. There were the four dukes from the alliance and Duke Fisablen and his lover, Blademaster Xanthi. They were in a great mood. He also seemed to have the intention to build a manor in the noble sector to be close to his granddaughter and great-grandson, though he hadn't made the choice yet. Tradition dictated that Lorist should be the one offering him a manor near his descendants. It had to be at least as grand, if not grander, than Kenmays's.

Duke Forund was also participating in the celebration. Though they used to be enemies, he had submitted to Auguslo and they were now all fellow vassals of the king. Lorist couldn't just turn him away at the door. Quite the contrary; it was proper etiquette to hold a grand reception to celebrate a former-enemy-now-friend's first visit. They had been fighting the day before, but now they had to welcome each other with smiles and open arms. This was all too common in the world of nobility.

As for Duke Forund's request which Kenmays brought up, Lorist agreed to it without a second thought. Naturally, that money wasn't going to be lent out without compensation. Money lending among nobles was not so different from high-interest loans. There would also be a different interest rate it the loan was paid back within the stipulated date. For nobles on good terms, the rate was usually 9:11. In other words, one would have to pay back 11 thousand gold Fordes for a loan of ten thousand, of which only nine thousand was paid out.

Stingier nobles would charge it at a 7:13 rate. Only seven thousand gold Fordes would be given out for a loan of ten thousand. And 13 thousand had to be returned in the end, almost double the amount lent in the first place. However, the rate Lorist charged Duke Forund was 9:12 for a period of three years, much to the latter's delight. After that, the duke brought up his intent to survey The Northlands after winter before signing the deal of the lone. Lorist agreed to that without much consideration at all and even tasked Reidy with the duke's safety.

The duke began his tour with the rainy season's end. Reidy escorted him with a squad of guards. The trip lasted around two months. Upon his return to the capital city, he asked to meet Lorist again and requested new terms. He hoped the house could give him manpower and skilled laborers in addition to a loan. He was willing to greatly increase the interest on the loan to compensate for the additional labor.

The deal had changed drastically. It was no longer a simple loan. The duke was now asking House Norton to send experts to survey his domain and propose a detailed plan for its development. He was basically asking the house to develop his lands on his behalf. This was the first time such a request had been made in the entire history of the continent.

His request caused quite the uproar in the House's management. Approval and disapproval echoed in the halls with equal fervor and volume. The biggest doubt was whether the duke was capable of repaying the loan at his proposed interest rate. He was practically bankrupt and his lands weren't worth much at all at the moment, hence his request for a loan to have it developed. Despite the risk, however, if the loan was allowed to sit for long enough, and the development was successful, they could repay it, though it would take several decades.

Lorist's impression of the duke was rather good. The duke hadn't burnt his stores of resources when he abandoned his dominion. He was so beloved by his people that a hundred thousand volunteered to follow him when he announced he would be leaving the duchy permanently.

Lorist was even more impressed that he was willing to incur such a debt so he could develop his lands. Though he had every mind to provide the duke with what he needed, he could not make such a heavy decision without first seeing what he had to work with for himself. He and the duke agreed that he would first survey his land before making his final decision.

On the 3rd day of the 7th month, Year 1785, the duke of The Northlands mobilized his experienced men to do a complete survey of Yungechandler and initiated the first joint noble dominion development venture in the continent's history.