"The weak stand on principle because it protects them, the strong are pragmatic because it benefits them. So show me a principled powerful man and I shall show you a liar."

Lorist looked at the pale-faced archduke with an odd smile.

Kill you? Why would I? It's been 18 years. It's not like it was your fault either. That bitch left me for you because she wanted to. It doesn't really matter why she did either. She was the first one I loved, in both my lives, and she broke my heart for her greed.

First loves were the sweetest, but their pain was also the worse. While it didn't dominate his thoughts, the pain still ached in his heart. But it also revealed to him this world's true nature. Nobles were heroes and peasants were villains[1].

He'd never had the thought of getting back at the then marquis. And striking at him now would only make him seem like someone who was vindictive over things that should long since have been put to rest. Destiny was cruel and unpredictable. He'd never thought his former lover's husband would be in front of him now.

Were he still that same common mercenary Lorf would have given him a few gold coins and gone back to his wife to tell of the funny encounter. No doubt he'd have praised her foresight as she'd still be a commoner's wife if she'd turned him down. It might actually have spurred the woman on to work even harder for his favour.

That was not the timeline in which they lived, however. Lorist was a duke with the power of a king, perhaps even more if his swordsaint status was considered as well. He was a legend, a dragon amongst men. Archduke Lorf could not bend his neck back far enough to look up at him. Lorf was even less compared to Lorist now than Lorist had been to him all those years ago.

Lorist lost interest immediately, even as his ex-opponent in love's face continued to pale. He raised his cup with a smile.

"Don't worry, Archduke. I was just reminiscing on simpler days. Time had flown by us; eighteen years have passed and now we are involved in a continent-spanning war. Our last encounter saw me as just a lowly student-mercenary and you just a marquis. Neither of us are anywhere near where we were back then, though the rankings have reversed. Now you are an archduke and I am a duke-swordsaint. So much has changed. Here's to a past worth remembering. Cheers."

Lorf looked down at his cup to see it already empty. Wasn't it full just a moment ago? When had he emptied it? He couldn't even remember what it tasted like. When he sat back down a cold, wet shirt pressed against his back. Penelope, sat beside him, joined the toast.

"You mentioned you worked as a mercenary back in Morante? Could you tell us a few stories?"

Alcohol worked wonders on Lorist's tongue, so he quickly started reciting his autobiography. When his grand tale came to his fights against three thousand silver swordsmen, everyone's jaws met the ground.

"So Iron Locke, the Silver Undefeated was actually you?! Invincible sent hundreds of silvers to fight you. Obviously none won! I lost several hundred gold Fordes because you..."

Lorist laughed happily.

"Your ascension sounds much more plausible now. Iron Locke, the Silver Undefeated is still a legend in the city. I was just a two-star gold rank back then. If only I'd not been working on a breakthrough, I'd have loved to see your matches. You were gone by the time I emerged from my training retreat."

Penelope obviously spoke out of politeness. He hadn't been at all interested in meeting some nondescript iron rank. It was just a topic thrown around the dinner table and bar to liven up the conversation. He did feel it was a shame the young man returned to his homeland. If he'd stayed in the city, he'd have become the Union's first homebred swordsaint. He'd also have been one of its top nobles. Invincible would still rule the sea and might even have been armed with cannons! The Union really let their fortune slip through their fingers.

Lorist smiled silently. He had some idea what Penelope was thinking. It was great fantasizing but would likely never have happened. If he'd stayed in the Union, he would not have been under any of the pressures that forced his improvement. He'd likely just have spent his entire life as an instructor at Dawn Academy. The Union would also never have become the continent's largest power -- however brief their stint at the top ended up being -- since he was the spur that pushed them in that direction by leaking the techniques for making glass.

Penelope broke out of his reverie quickly.

"Milord, may I know how you plan to deal with Invincible?"

"I would have told you eventually, but, since you've asked... The top brass can pay a ransom for their freedom. We are all nobles so I'll adhere to custom. Lorf can ransom his legion as well. Granted they don't try anything or make any trouble for me or my men whilst we wait for the money I will not make trouble for him.

"Everyone will stay on Silowas Island until the war is over. Ransoming will happen thereafter. The fleet will stay there until the war is over as well. They can return once the Union pays their ransom. I will allow individual families to ransom their husbands, sons, brothers, and fathers as well.

"Those that don't have the money can earn their freedom. They can either serve in Northsea for a time, five years at least. They'll get half-pay in that time. If they choose not to, they can join my land-based forces for the same time, but they won't be paid, they'll only get room, board, and cloth. Either way, they'll be free to leave once their five years are up.

"You nobles may join me in Ragebear or stand by my side as I work to end this war quickly. You will be allowed to carry weapons as noble right dictates and keep two guards and two servants with you. Living conditions will unfortunately be less than ideal, this is a time of war, after all."

Such was the reality of feudal nobility. Nobles always had better treatment, even when captive. Their watchers still had to bow to them and speak and behave politely even though they were their prisoners.

Everyone was relieved. No one had wanted this. Everyone had thought it would end when the Union accepted Auguslo's offer for peace talks and sent an envoy. Those not at the very top of the Union's power structure were just as surprised by the Union's move as everyone else.

They'd also feared the duke would be as uncultured as his king. The bastard had declared their nobility void after the attack because they 'lacked the courage and decorum expected of nobles,' they 'knew only how to scheme and plot in the shadows like the lowly and shameless rats they were', and massacred thousands of nobles and their families as he marched across the plains.

The Union retaliated in kind and relieved thousand of Andinaq noble heads of their bodies when they counter-attacked. The three years of war which had now passed had engrained hatreds in the two sides' hearts that would remain for generations, even centuries even if the war ended today and never started up again.

Until their clashes with Northsea, Invincible had not seen any of the war, but news of the bloody battles and reprisals still reached their sails. Despite Lorist's assurances, they could not sleep easily. He did have a far greater reputation than his king though. He, at least, as not known for lying, breaking promises, and deceiving others, so his words carried more weight.

Lorf was also much calmer now. Lorist may be a swordsaint, but he had none of the pretension and arrogance Lorf had come to expect from people with that title. He was very reasonable, even likeable. It appeared that he treated everyone the same except when they acted in a way that made it necessary or appropriate to treat them otherwise. For one, he hadn't treated his captives as though he was looking down on them so far. Though he was bound to have different thoughts, that he kept them out of public was already a good sign.

"Duke Norton," Lorf said as he stood up, "may I contact my house so they can send someone to negotiate the ransom?"

"Hmm..." Lorist looked at Lorf and rapped his fingers on the table.

"I plan nothing, Lord Duke. I am fully willing to comply with what you've set out. I wish only for this war to an end as quickly as possible so the damage it wreaks can be limited as much as possible. I am still Jigda's Archduke and must tend to certain duties. I trust you know what I mean. We nobles are not truly free people. We must act in the interests of our houses.

"Jigda is far from this conflict and has no contact with Andinaq. We deployed only because of our friendship with the Union, not out of malice for Andinaq. We've not suffered any losses in this war yet and have not caused any harm to your side either. It could be said that we've not clashed with your house at all and as such have no grudge or bad blood between us. I wish only to explain this to my house clearly so they do not create conflict where there need be none. I also wish to keep my house from making mistakes and leaving themselves vulnerable to espionage from those that wish to take our place."

Most of the noble voiced their agreement. Everyone understood the predicament in which the archduke found himself. It wouldn't have been as pressing an issue had Serihanem not escaped. Word would have taken much longer to reach home and there would have been time to settle in and gain the duke's trust, but things were not that simple now. Serihanem had escaped and word was quickly on its way everywhere. Time was of the essence.

"Very well. I would be no less anxious were our roles reversed. You may send two servants back with the message, but they must return with your houses reply and negotiator. I will have a small boat ready when you are done."

Lorf bowed deeply.

"Thank you, Lord duke. May we never be enemies."

Lorist laughed heartily.

"While our reasons may be different, we do have that wish in common. I do not like war. If I had my way, I would live out my entire life without ever having to march onto the field. Unfortunately the world has not been cooperative.  A toast then, to a swift end to this bloody war!"

The banquet went on until the sun rose above the continent to the east. Everyone was drunk and merry. Lorist was cursed by his cultivation, however, cursed to be sober no matter how much he drank. He had his reasons for treating the nobles well. He was not one to bother with noble custom unless it was necessary. He cut corners where he could. No one would know what had really happened between him and the nobles out here, so he could have just killed them all. He didn't because he needed them to help keep the peace once he occupied Morante, and to force the Union to capitulate and surrender. Lorf was a great candidate to that end.



[1] Which is actually true. Villain comes from the Old French word vilein, and traditionally meant someone who was uncultured, uneducated, and boorish. Peasants were often referred to as villains and the language they spoke as vulgar (hence vulgar Latin and vulgar French). Which matches with the Latin origin of the word 'vulgus', which meant 'common people'.