"Old friends are the best gift-takers, new friends, the best gift givers."

I have to jump out of this pit, thought Lorist.

He did what he could immediately and invited Penelope and a few Union nobles to a banquet. After restating his reason for occupying the city, he spoke about the current state of affairs. Since hostilities on had ceased, it was a good time for negotiations to begin. He hoped those present would head to Mauvlin and tell the Union higher-ups to come negotiate.

Lorist also talked about the war.

"This is a war without a victor. Just look at the plains. It's been reduced to a wasteland. We can't hear the herder songs anymore; we can't see the farmers harvesting their crops; nor can we enjoy the sweet fruit of the orchards...

"This war must end. It has only brought destruction and pain. I refuse to believe the city I've lived in for so long is now bereft of life and hope."

Two perfectly, a little too perfectly, timed tears ran down his cheeks.

The crowd was moved by his speech and vowed to bring the Union to the table. Lorist thanked them. He promised that everyone would leave the city and the plains once the war was over.

After sending off the group, Lorist dunked his head straight into the water basin Jinolio brought. Too much powder. He'd put too much powder on his face. He couldn't stop tearing up and his eyes were swelling. Thank the gods they left so quickly.

Lorist weathered seven anxious days until Charade and Spiel arrived with his requested officials.

It had been two decades since the man had left Morante. He now finally stood on the soil of his homeland again. Charade's actual homeland was the now-defunct Teribo kingdom, but he spent most of his childhood here and knew this as his true home.

He'd looked forward to showing it off to his country-bumpkin peers, but Lorist, like a clingy wife, wouldn't let him have the time.

Lorist hid nothing from the group as he briefed them.

"What?! So we get nothing from this?! We just added another burden to our load?" shrieked Spiel. During his voyage to Morante, he had dreamed of getting tens of millions of Fordes into the house's treasury. What shitty city is this?! So much for the number one trading city on the continent!

Charade furrowed his brow. Morante's change was nothing like he'd envisioned. The city felt nothing like the homeland for which he yearned, which he'd tried to recreate in the new place he lived. It was completely foreign to him. Deep down, beneath his love for money, beneath even his loyalty to Lorist, he was a Morante man. But this was not his Morante, not anymore.

After reading the inventory and a few other documents, Charade spoke.

"Your Grace, give me three days. I'll form a unit to investigate the city. Let us decide what we will do afterwards."

Lorist smiled bitterly.

"I regret it now. Had I known, I wouldn't have refused His Majesty's request and left Morante and the five citadels in his care before returning to The Northlands. How nice it would have be to push everything onto him.

"I'm to blame. I shouldn't have used peace as our reason for conquest. We can only wait for the envoys to return and then negotiate the deal. We can only hope to minimize our losses."

Charade laughed dryly.

"Things aren't quite as bad as you think. Look here, isn't there good news too?"

Lorist read the document Charade put on the table. It was a report from the camp that held the captives from the inner city. The tavern there was finally open and was earning tens of thousands of Fordes every fortnight. Part of it was thanks to the decrease in free porridge. Each bowl was diluted with water. The hungry captives had no choice but to buy pricey bread.

"On the one hand, we have to keep our promise as nobles to not infringe on the captives' sacred right to private property. On the other, we have to find a way to suck them dry. This is just a small hustle. Our real problem is the million Morantians with nothing to occupy their time. They've started fighting out of boredom and I doubt a revolt is far off," said Lorist.

"I understand. The issue is finding suitable jobs. But we're not planning to occupy the city for long, so we can't invest too much."

"That's the gist of it. This will only work out if we use the food-work rationing system they had before. We'll pay them with food. The problem is they'll never trust us. We can try to force it, but they'll just riot. We can't pay them in gold either, though--"

Jinolio, burst into the room to report that Els had asked for an immediate audience.

Lorist then left to meet him. Els jumped to his feet to salute Lorist as he stepped into the study.

"Your Grace, can you follow me?"

"You're a close friend, Els. Don't act so formal. Let's go. Jinolio, tell Charade to head to Red Grace Inn and wait there. We haven't seen Old Char for quite a while. It'd be a good place to gather."

"Sigh... My uncle's inn has become one of the rationed inns in the city. Each customer can only drink a cup of wheat ale a day. Even the head chef, McDuffin, left with another viscount because there wasn't any more food to cook," said Els, crestfallen.

"You met Char already?"

Els nodded.

"I went there with Reidy. Uncle looks a lot older now, and he refuses many invitations from nobles who want him to be their knight. He's staying with his kids in peace. Aunt Louise takes care of the inn herself now though they serve nothing but a cup of ale. Reidy and I asked them to move to The Northlands instead. Our lands border each other and they can choose to stay anywhere they want. But Uncle refuses. He doesn't want to leave Morante. I tried to argue, but he chased me out..."

"Can I come with you?" asked Charade as the two stepped out.

Els hesitated for a moment.

"...Alright. But we can't attract any attention."

Els brought the two to the headquarters of his old syndicate. It was a three-story building next to a district with a large garden. An intricate angel fountain and a small forest of thirty or so trees stood in the middle of the garden.

According to Els, it used to be the property of a Teribo noble but it was confiscated by the Union during the War of Glass. It was auctioned off to Jindoz who bought it to use as the syndicate's headquarters.

Jindoz was no noble, but he was in charge of the taxes of three districts and quite well-known in the city. He was waiting for them at the entrance when they arrived. Lorist realized he was alone after entering. Jindoz didn't say a word. He just nodded before taking them to the kitchen. Lorist felt something was off, but followed quietly.

After entering the storeroom next to the kitchen, Jindoz lifted a trapdoor and revealed a ladder. Els climbed down.

"Your Grace..." said Charade, hesitation written on his face.

"It's fine."

The ladder led to a dark room connected to a tunnel. Several burning torches lined the walls into oblivion. Jindoz was the last one to descend and closed the trapdoor before leading the way.

"A subterranean waterway and the syndicate's private tunnel. Thanks to the rationing policy, they've had no choice but to use these routes to smuggle food and supplies," explained Els.

"What are we doing here? It's not like we're trying to smuggle anything. We didn't stop them from doing what they do either," protested Charade.

"Jindoz wants to give you something. There are lots of eyes on the surface and he's worried this will be bad for the syndicate if others find out. He has to hide it here," explained Els.

At Jindoz stopped in that moment and whispered over his shoulder.

"We're here."

They were near a hole dug in the ground, probably to use as a temporary store during smuggling operations. It was four by four meters. There were no supplies inside, just two dead-drunk men.

"Who are they?" asked Lorist.

"The bearded one is Riwald's chief supervisor. He used to be in charge of the rations. We had to kneel and beg in front of him to be given scraps. He was summoned back to the guild's dominion last year. The man behind him is the gold-ranked captain of the guild's guard. He's well-known in the city," replied Jindoz coldly.

"Why are they were in such a state?" asked Charade.

"They came to me and asked me to stir up a revolt. If we did well, they'd submit a request to the Council to make us nobles. I heard they came to us first because we had some ability to fight. I fed them something special when I treated them to a drink, and here we are."

Lorist looked at him with deep interest.

"Jindoz, why didn't you do as he asked?"

"I don't want to be cannon fodder. Not for them. They aren't nobles, but they offer it to us? They can't promise what is not theirs to give! Who would be that stupid? Most importantly, many in the outer city are family. I don't want them to get involved in this. It's easy to stir up a revolt, but people will die while they get to hide.

"They said they were only the first to be sent and there would be more later, so I thought they would still be of use. I'd have buried them alive long ago, otherwise. I'm not trying to get on your good side. We did this because of our brother, Els. We don't want a revolt that will kill many people," said Jindoz with the same cold expression.

"Thank you, Jindoz. I know you don't consider me a brother, but I see you as that loyal, passionate and sincere friend I made all those years ago," said Lorist.


Jindoz froze and turned to see Els laughing.

"Just take them away. You can't go back the way we came. Someone will be watching. I'll take you to the other exit. It's in a derelict corner of an old slum outside the city."