"Alcohol is the world's greatest thief.  It can steal a priest's celibacy, a king's dignity, a soldier's discipline, and a warrior's skill." ~ Jinolio

On the 13th day of the 8th month, Lorist finally caught a breather after five days of work. The last batch of forced immigrants left for The Northlands. He could finally relax, so he rode out of the camp with Potterfang to check on the Union army's encampment.

The big-six guilds mobilized their main force to the frontlines in the last twenty days and set up camp 15 kilometers from Andinaq's. The main force should be firmly entrenched by now. Similarly, the various smaller guilds, associations, and so on, also gathered. About 500 thousand men in all. Most surprising was that Jigda had apparently sent a contingent of 50 thousand to stand by the Union.

Lorist didn't initially care about the Union's army. He was too occupied with moving his new subjects home. Unfortunately, it was not winter, otherwise they would have been far more obedient since death would be the only other option. But, it not being that, many tried to escape, more willing to take their chances in the wilds than submit to this invader lord. It took far more effort and men to keep the move going relatively smoothly.

Their numbers were also much greater than Lorist had anticipated. He was only aiming for 400 thousand people from Bodolger, but Potterfang swept Kanbona and Loze took tens of thousands prisoner after his battles with the Union. His subordinates had also cleaned out the part of Malivia they'd conquered, adding another 100 thousand to their burden.

800 thousand people, double what he'd prepared for, had to be moved. The Northlands would have a three-million-strong population by the end of this, even if they didn't move a single person in the rest of the war. This duke now had more subjects than many kings. With this increase came more work, though, way more than Lorist could handle, even with all the protocols already in place. He only had enough energy to care about the war again after everything was done and dusted.

He immediately noticed something off about the Union's deployment when he turned his attention to it. Auguslo, in his usual overconfidence, hadn't paid proper attention and had missed it. It'd already been over a month since he'd sent his message via the count. A reply was well overdue. He just kept on celebrating, however, and had yet to become sensibly suspicious.

The Union's main force had been in place for 20 days already, yet Auguslo didn't make any appropriate adjustments to his own force's disposition. He did nothing as more and more Union forces kept arriving. While there were no skirmishes being exchanged, Union were patrolling the area incessantly.

"Odd... Is the Union really planning to fight us properly?" mused Lorist, the enemy camp staring at him through his telescope.

"How can you tell, Your Grace?" Potterfang asked.

Lorist handed him the telescope.

"Take a look. Notice anything odd?"

Potterfang stared at the camp through the telescope, slowly shaking his head.

"The camp is built lightly. It doesn't have any of the features or styles you'd expect if they expected it to be a long term set-up. Specifically, they have no ditches, no palisades, no watchtowers. The fence is just a few poles and stakes fastened loosely with some string. They just came out of a long war, do you really think they'd either be this lax, or make such a simple mistake? Either they're going to march on us soon, or they aren't afraid of us marching on them."

Potterfang's face grimmed.

"You're right. This is as much a temporary camp as I've ever seen. They're either going to withdraw soon, or attack, either way, they don't plan to stay there for long. The setup is designed to deploy the troops as quickly and efficiently as possible, but as such has no defenses. Maybe they are willing to negotiate and the soldiers are just there to put up a front. Hence their laxness." Jinolio interjected.

Lorist stroked his head. He had no issue with such interruptions, quite to the contrary, he enjoyed it when others voiced their opinions.

"That might be. But I wonder… Does the Union really want to negotiate with the king? There would be no need for so many men if they did. It isn't cheap to deploy 500 thousand men, 100 thousand should be enough for negotiations. It's also been a month since we sent the message, and yet we've not heard back… Whatever. I should pay His Majesty a visit."

"Loze just left with the last of the immigrants. We only have Firmrock and my personal guard right now… Pog head to the rear and set up a stronghold on advantageous terrain. A good general is prepared for any outcome."

"As you wish, Your Grace." replied Potterfang.

Lorist headed for Auguslo, accompanied by Jinolio. It stood ten kilometers from his, he reached it in the afternoon. As expected, the camp's security was all but non-existent; the gates were wide open and soldiers were free to enter and leave as they wished. The sentries in the watchtowers were nowhere to be seen, probably sleeping inside, and the guards along the walls strolled lazily.

The sentries jumped when Lorist walked past. They and the ten or so dangling around saluted hurriedly. Fear was writ large on their faces; everyone know Lorist, and everyone know he was the kingdom's most powerful and feared man.

"Where is His Majesty?" asked Lorist.

"His Majesty is in the tent in the middle of the camp with the dukes and lords. Does Your Grace need us to announce your arrival?" asked one eagerly.

Lorist waved his horse whip.

"No need. Jinolio, tip them."

Jinolio took out a pouch and tossed it to who appeared to be the group's leader.

"His Grace just bought you guys some drinks."

"Thank you... Thank you, Milord."

The men bowed, the men on the periphery of this exchange looking on enviously. Duke Norton of The Northlands was known as a generous man. Whilst no one knew how much was in the black pouch, it was definitely not a small amount. It was probably at least a twelfth of their annual pay.

The camp was erected around a small hill, on which stood the king's tent. The hill itself contained a subsection of the camp completely cut off from it, separated by a thick palisade. The nobles couldn't mingle with the commoners after all.  Especially not the nobles' families, who had come to accompany them. The inner sanctum also contained many capture noble females of the younger variety. The king's harem, in plain terms.

Normally noble families were not involved in wars, it was shameful to involve the innocent, after all. If the family could not pay their captured loved one's ransom, however… Suffice to say that never happened, even if the family themselves became the ransom.

Most of the Union nobles were in a bad position. They had nothing with which to pay ransom, not only were their lands and wealth seized, even their families were taken as well, it all became part of what had to be ransomed, and nothing could be used to ransom for it. The few that had land and properties in parts of the Union yet unconquered could offer that, but many had sold their properties to purchase what they had now lost.

The banquets Auguslo threw so lavishly was as much a show of his newfound riches and a celebration of his success as a slap in his enemies' faces. It was all the more sweet because most had to watch their wives, sisters, mothers, and daughters bare themselves for, and be ravished by, their enemy.

Such vulgarity repulsed Lorist, however. It was just another reason why he didn't attend. His house had its own protocols for dealing with captured nobles. If they were cruel, they died in the gallows along with their whole family. He would rather kill innocents than let possible threats escape. If they were kind and upright, they were free to serve the house if they so chose to earn their freedom. Nobles were educated from birth; they were valuable resources. When they finally got their freedom, they had to choose whether to continue to serve the house, or leave and try to make a new life for themselves. Most chose the former.

Lorist refused the guards of the inner sanctum's offer to announce his arrival and moved in without his guards. Kenmeys emerged from the tent just as he was about to step in, a noble lady in his arms, her clothes disorderly.

Kenmeys shoved the girl aside when he saw Lorist.

"Haha, Locke! What brings you here today?" he asked, open arms.

"Don't come any closer! Go about your own business. I'm here to see His Majesty."

"I'm just asking out of curiosity. Why come see His Majesty?"

"Nothing worth neglecting your lover over. I suspect the Union is preparing to attack us. I am here to hear the king's opinion."

Kenmays sighed.

"You're too one edge, Locke. Come blow off some steam. There won't be a battle, they won't attack. We just got the Union's reply. They will send negotiators in three days. His Majesty is celebrating. Come, join us for a few drinks! The king was about to send you an invitation, anyway..."

Lorist was already inside. The tent was large, it could accommodate a hundred people easily. A number of nobles lay passed out on the floor, other were hanging around tables with wenches, making merry. Some were even making merries in the furthest corners. Duke Fisablen, his face flushed, sat like a baboon on a bench near the king, his hands plundering a half-naked wench.

Have some self-respect, you old coot!

Auguslo looked no better though. He downed a vase of alcohol sloppily, letting half of it soak his clothes rather than fill his stomach.

Lo-locke... Y-you're hee... Come... C-home! Cheers!"

Lorist turned and left immediately.

"Let's go. We're heading back." he murmured to Jinolio as he passed him.