"When a side is willing to fight to the death, then, no matter their disadvantage, they will win."

There were some things Lorist had to do, but couldn't let his three disciples handle. Though Reidy was loyal, he was far too straight-laced and dealt with things too straightforwardly. While Howard seemed like he could handle everything perfectly, Lorist didn't want to stain his hands, at least not this early in his life. Most of all, though, he didn't want Howard's impression of him to change. And Jinolio was simply still too young.

The other reason was that everyone knew they were his disciples. He had no plausible deniability if any of them were caught doing something. Their involvement in something immediately implicated him. He needed a pair of hands that were not associated with him that could be stained on his behalf, a pair of gloves, as it were. Tarkel was a suitable candidate, but he was too well-known. It was not at all uncommon for random people to recognise and call out to him whenever he was out and about.

Kriston was another candidate. He was neither well-known nor closely linked to Lorist personally. Also, his position as the head of the Bureau of Internal Affairs made such things part of his job description.

Kriston had visited the bastide on the day of Irina's death to investigate a drowning. They didn't finish in time to make it to the first town on the road back to the capital, so they stayed over for the night. He did not join his two subordinates in the tavern below to drink and make merry, but had his food brought up to his room instead. The waitress that took it up to him praised him as a gentleman on her return. She was a little baffled, though, at how the madam's nightly wailing didn't seem to bother him at all. When she asked him about it, he just said she had lost her mind after losing her child so he didn't want to make a fuss.

Moved by his compassion and understanding, the waitress almost jumped into his arms to hump through the night. Now back in the tavern, she was even considering waking him in the middle of the night to a beautiful moonlit surprise. For some unknown reason, however, she chose not to, and she was happy she did the next morning. Just imagine, she'd have been bobbing away whilst the madam was dying just a couple dozen meters away. The thought sent a shiver down her spine.

It had to be admitted, though, that the madam, for all her insanity, had picked the perfect time to kick the bucket. She died on the very night the biggest shot in crime investigation was staying in the bastide and could quickly solve the case.

Lorist took the folder from the baron and tossed it in the fire.  He didn't take his eyes off it until its ashes scattered up the chimney.

The peasantry were very disappointed by this turn of events. They thought the only reason Lorist had yet to execute his old flair was because he couldn't be bothered while he reorganized his forces. But they'd hoped he would get around to it eventually and give them a good spectacle. Why did the hag have to be so inconsiderate and die before the duke could deal with her properly? Everything was pointing in the direction of the lord executing her in a grand fashion. Her curses and wails had spread through the lands very quickly and everyone was waiting to hear about her dramatic execution, only to hear that she'd went and died of a heart attack.  God, how selfish.

Lorist buried everything in the darkest corners of his mind and abandoned the bastide all together. It might be the place his family had come from, but did orphans revere their shitty orphanage when they were adults? When Glacia asked what he was going to do with the bastide, he told her to let it sit for now. He would just give it to Helias when he graduated from the academy.

Helias, Lorist's nephew via his elder brother, would thus get the family's ancestral homeland.  Unlike his bastard cousin, the kid was revered and praised by everyone he met, even Lorist fancied him quite a bit. Leaving the bastide for him would be considered a great honor by both the kid and outsiders, and let Lorist rid himself of the place easily.

Glacia asked to be made commander of the garrison forces in Wild Husbandry. Most of the old garrison forces now banished from the Northlands were now in it and she wanted to once again be their leader. Lorist agreed but refused to let Koboshik go with her. She insisted however, saying that it could only do him good, and that, since he was now her foster son, Lorist could not stop her.

Lorist called for another house meeting near the end of the 11th month. This time the meeting dealt with the main projects and targets the house would be undertaking in the following year. The administration would mainly be occupied with settling the immigrants in The Northlands. They would also resume construction on the palace, delayed by the rebellion. Their new task was to build the various constable stations across the lands.

Camorra was now the head of the armory under the Ministry of Defence. The reconstruction of the artillery brigade and the establishment of the Bureau of Internal Affairs were not on the docket since they were secret matters.

Lorist returned to his room to relax a little once the meeting finished. Winter was coming. Apart from the household forces, most of the officials had already gone on break. Only the last vestiges of paperwork were left. Charade and Spiel would be in charge of the celebration so Lorist didn't have to worry about it.

Dilianna and Maria were pregnant again, so they were off his back, but Sylvia and his two other concubines rode him enough to compensate, determined to be pregnant by new years.

Two unexpected guests showed up with the arrival of the 12th month. Kenmays and Fisablen had travelled all the way from the plains across the kingdom for the celebration, well, officially, anyway. They'd actually come to get reinforcements.

Lorist suddenly remembered the kingdom was at war. News from the front-lines was grim. They were at a stalemate. The Union had launched five offensives in the last 7 months alone, three of which were repelled, but two of which had forced them to give up land for better defenses. They'd lost control of Krido and Ritt, Bluwek was their last stronghold in the region. If they lost that final city, they would be driven back to the empire's historical borders.

Kenmays was particularly sour. He only had a single legion, and it was the one Auguslo put in front of the enemy the most. He only had 18 thousand of his original 45 thousand left when he left the front-lines. His losses meant that, despite having made a lot of money from plunder, he only just broke even. As things stood, however, he was not going to get anymore wealth out of this since he couldn't plunder friendly territory -- and even if he did, it was already cleaned out -- and he was still losing men. If this continued, it would turn into a loss and he couldn't get out of it.

Whilst Kenmays had suffered pretty badly, he was not the only one with severe losses. Less than a dozen nobles still had more than half their starting forces. Shazin's two light infantry divisions were completely lost, and Felim's Pegasus only had a third of its original forces. Whilst Fisablen's two legions looked to be in a much better state, most of their men were new recruits; of the original soldiers, only a tenth were left, if even that.

"Is Auguslo intentionally trying to cripple his vassals?" asked Lorist.

Fisablen shook his head. Apparently even the king's legions had lost at least 50 of his original 300 thousand men, a full sixth of his army. That was before the last five attacks. He only had three legions left over when the two left.

"He's losing too many men too fast," sighed Fisablen, "All-in-all we've lost 200 thousand men. No one has not suffered and no one will not have it hard after the war is over, if it ever ends. We can still just barely afford the loss if we win, but that's not going to happen. The Union has the upper hand. If the king takes steps to withdraw they'll charge in and we'll lose.

As far as they're concerned we're the old empire reborn. They won't let us stay united. They'll throw peasants at us until we crumble, even if their cities are left empty. They won't even take a rest between attacks and plan their moves properly, they just keep throwing people at us hoping to bury us under their corpses."

"Aren't they suffering a lot as well?"
"Yes. They've lost at least 300 thousand, maybe even as much as 400 if you count people who died of their injuries. The problem is they can afford to take the losses, and they're fine with taking them. They're willing to rebuild everything from scratch, but they're not willing to let us live in peace. Their new territory has also seen centuries of peace so they have a good population they can afford to thin out.

"We're different. We've seen non-stop war for nearly a century. Our people are few and our land barren. We can't neither stomach so many losses nor replace them easily. Auguslo wouldn't have accepted your conditions otherwise. If he'd known this would turn into such a slugging match, he would not have started this war. Now he can't back out and he can't keep going. He's been forced to send his personal guard onto the field more than once recently. If this keeps up, the Union will really bury us under the corpses and just walk over them into the kingdom. And if they do, they'll turn every inch of land into a desert so we won't ever be able to recover.

"Auguslo's even willing to give back some of the land he currently controls to end the war, but the Union will have none of it. He's willing to give you jurisdiction over Yungechandler if you'll help us end this.

"What will I do with that place?"

"You've already invested in it under your agreement with Duke Forund, Lorist," Kenmays reminded, "While you never finished the work, you would still start off far better than if you worked on any other province."

"The Union's using inferior versions of your catapults. They're not as strong or effective as yours, but they can field them in enough numbers that it doesn't matter. They've been the main killers on the battlefield," Fisablen chimed in.