"Throw war to the dogs, I'll none of it!" ~ Norton Lorist



"Whoa..."

The bikini-wearing maidservants shocked even the usually steady Auguslo. His gaze wandered to Lorist.

"I finally understand why you didn't want to wear those gaudy robes... Stripping is very troublesome, yes?"

Lorist did not expect the king to say that.

"This is Platinum Beach, they are House Kenmays maidservants. Are you okay doing the deed in front of so many even if the servants are willing."

Auguslo shrugged.

"You can find a way. The tents around the beach must be your lodging, correct? They are most alluring in their current garb. They match the scenery perfectly."

Auguslo was a few centimeters taller than Lorist. The two had the same fit figure. However, compared to the scar-ridden duke, the king's handsomeness and fair unmarred skin caught the maidservants' attention far more effectively. When they learned of his identity, they stepped forward to serve him with fire in their eyes. They flirted with everything they did, whether it was walking, replacing a tray, or filling a glance. It was quite likely that, if not for the many guests, they would have dragged him to a nearby tent themselves.

Auguslo didn't try to resist or object either. Lorist just sat, giggles swallowed, watching the play. Since Auguslo had said they were here to have fun, they did as they pleased. Only Lorist stayed to accompany him. No noble worth his wit would step in and interrupt the two most powerful men in the kingdom. Perhaps they were discussing something paramount.

Lorist dismissed the servants when they were done.

"Locke, do you really like to see me make a fool of myself?"

"I don't. You are the king. The servants don't meet someone of your stature often. Their enthusiasm is understandable. Besides, it didn't look like you were objecting much. I can't match your fair skin, anyway. My hard life has left me scar-ridden, so it's only natural that they have more enthusiasm for you than me."

"Haha, you like to joke, don't you?" Auguslo laughed dryly a couple of times, "Oh, I heard House Norton lent Duke Forund seven million gold Fordes to develop Yungechandler. The term is ten years and ten million gold Fordes will have to be repaid?"

"Yes. I must apologize in advance if Your Majesty would like to borrow money as well. This loan took up most of our funds. We will not have any money to lend until this current loan is repaid."

Lorist wasn't the least surprised Auguslo got wind of this deal.

"That can't be. Seven million is enough to dry up your treasury? I could have offered to double your loan in ten years."

"Don't make these kinds of jokes, Your Majesty. I'm sure you understand I'd never lend you money, even if you are the king."

"Why not?"

"Duke Forund borrowed money to develop the economy of his dominion and improve the lives of his subjects. In ten years, our products will have a market in a developed province. If I lend money to you, you'd use it for war. It's a massive risk. You might break even if you win, but I lose everything if you don't. Duke Kenmays did tell me we could double our loan in three years if you win, but the risk is just too great.

"Business, too, is war. While there are many that can imagine its profits, most either can't or won't think about the risk of failing. Take the merchants and nobles who invested blindly into the factories in my dominion. Many suffered heavy losses and three even committed suicide because of their debts. THat's why Duke Kenmays only resells materials

"Sometimes, when there are too many products, they will cause economic disaster. That is why I am willing to spend ten years to build up a market. We want another outlet to sell our products. The money we loan will go towards this goal.  It is a safe investment. We're not even giving them much of the money immediately. They're getting it in steady installments over several years."

"Fine.  Please don't lecture economics now. I was just bringing it up casually. I won't really borrow any money. I know you won't give me any face, I won't bother to ask. You are the man that brings me the most sleepless nights, but I cannot help but admire your single-minded dedication to developing your fiefs. I must admit not even a king can match you in that regard."

"You praise me too highly, Your Majesty."

" But... do you really think so badly of my efforts? You know what I'm talking about. Be frank."

Lorist shook his head.

"The Union is now very powerful, they're a match even for the Empire during its heyday. The difference between the kingdom and the Union of today is no different from the Union as it was compared to the Empire a century ago. We cannot match them, Your Majesty. You have received up-to-date reports from the Union, yes?"

Auguslo 

"Even you must be surprised by their war with the coalition's outcome. The four year war didn't just not bring them to their knees, they came out victorious.  They almost doubled their strength and have a new ally of about equal strength. The most important thing, however, is they forced the trade routes open again. Their economy is back on track and their coffers filling up once more.

"They have the windstorm swordsaint and nearly a hundred blademasters now. Andinaq had less than twenty blademasters by comparison and no swordsaints.

"Each of the seven main guild shave their own armies and they've been trained into elites in this war. The smaller guilds are weaker, but together they still contribute 300 thousand men. All-in-all the Union has at least half a million soldiers.

"Even with years of preparation you've only gathered 300 thousand, and they're nowhere near as well-trained as their Union counterparts. If you threw in every garrison under your command in the kingdom, you'll only match them.  If myself and the other dukes join in, you have 800 thousand. But they can't match the Union's experienced troops.

"At best we'll be on par. But it's more likely that, even with a 300 thousand lead, we'll be fighting uphill.  On top of that you have to remember that the Union has vast stretches of developed land with a strong economy, our lands — save The Northlands — have been ravaged by war and can't support a prolonged war. You need at least a decade of focused development to fix that."

Auguslo's resolve wavered, though only momentarily.

"No, Locke, you're wrong. Now is the best time to strike. I cannot miss this. We might catch up to where the Union is now in ten years of development, but they will have continued to strengthen as well. The gap will only get wider. I must use this chance to take back our provinces and restore the empire!"

"Oh? Best time?"

"The Union will continue to view us as an enemy, a threat, even if we make no moves to take back our land."

Auguslo's words were true. The Empire had shattered into three kingdoms and numerous duchies and had no official heir, but the Union always held more suspicion and caution for Andinaq than the other splinters. Trade embargos were everywhere. Auguslo was also incredibly hostile towards the Union.

"You know the situation in that part of the continent. The fighting has stopped, but a true end to the war is still not certain. Until negotiations finish, the majority of the Union's forces will be in Chikdor lands, thousands of kilometers away from the Union proper. Three of the Union's four main legions will return and strengthen their borders with us."

"It's simple. When Andinaq wiped out the four central duchies, Madras, and Iblia, the Union's trade routes there were cut off. They will try to force us to open the trade routes. You know my temperament, do you think I will yield? This is not a war we can avoid, and now is the best time to strike.

"Even if I were willing to open the trade routes, it would have to be to a fair deal, and we both know they would never give us that. Certainly not now that they think they are so powerful."

Lorist had to admit that Auguslo spoke sense. It seemed the king was not as blind as he had first thought. The question was why House Norton should participate in this war. Sacrificing his subjects for the king's ambition was foolish. The king could offer him nothing to make it worth his while. There was no rank above duke that was not king, so there could be no promotions. And praise was far from enough.

"I'll admit you have good reasoning behind your decision, but I will have no part in this war. My ambitions do not stretch beyond my borders as yours do. My oath is to ensure a good and peaceful life for my subjects. I have lived by this oath from the moment I set my first foot on the road back home from Morante and I will not break it now. I will live in peace with my wife and watch my children grow up.

"Even if you manage to convince my allies to take up arms, mine will stay in the armory. I remain convinced this war holds no benefits for the kingdom. Of course, if we are attacked I will defend the kingdom, but I will not march beyond its borders. It is unwise to start a fight we cannot win."

The king was severely displeased. Luckily no one had heard this refusal, so his reputation was not harmed. He had prepared himself for this as well. He knew the duke was not easily persuaded. A smile returned to his face naturally.

"We came here to have fun, so let us not spoil the mood with serious talk. Come, let us drink some more. I heard you swim pretty well. Care to teach me?"

"I'm glad to be of service."

Auguslo was really busy in the following days tending the other nobles. This was supposed to be a vacation, but Lorist felt the atmosphere slowly stale. Even the nobles' families slowly lost their relaxed moods. A few nobles packed and returned home. Their grim expression betrayed the thoughts on everyone's minds: war was on the horizon.

Lorist was quite curious. The 9th month was on them. Rallying the army would take at least two months. It would be well into winter before they could do anything.

Don't tell me Auguslo is planning to start the war in mid-winter? Surely not. Even if he purchased all the beastskins from me to make winter clothing, he can only make 30 thousand sets at best. Going against the Union with just that is suicide.

Kenmays, Felim, and Shazin came to visit him. He could tell they'd come to an agreement with Auguslo.

"I will not discuss the war. I already refused the king directly. I will not listen to news of the war either. I will not take part and that's final."