"The raving lunatic is a great enemy, but a horrible ally."



Lorist's gut told him there would either be no negotiations, or very bad ones, the moment he say Viscount Penelope.

Jinolio said Peterson's vice-president had come with him. What did this mean? He was an old acquaintance of Lorist's. He could not have come just to talk about those old days, could he?

As expected, Penelope's tone was moaning when he greeted Lorist.

"Revered Lord Norton, I apologize for not having fulfilled my task. I did my utmost, but the Union will not negotiate. They will not stop the war."

"This is disappointing to hear, but your efforts are dearly appreciated. This is not your fault, Penelope, and I do not hold it against you."

Lorist invited Penelope to sit with a warm smile and had Jinolio serve him fruit wine.

What is the Union planning?

Invincible was gone and Morante and the plains were in his hands. Their army was at half strength at best. Most were their elites, but even they could not compare to his men. The Union only held onto what it currently had because he had no desire to plunge his men back into war. Were he willing, however, he could smash through their lines and crush them completely without too heavy losses.

They can't just be doing this just to spite me.

There had to be something more to this. They had to have a trick still left up their sleeve. What, however, Lorist could not guess. Maybe he'd just not taught them a harsh enough lesson. This continued stubbornness angered him. They should just lie down and accept their fate. They were making things unnecessarily difficult for him. They should really just sit down and hand everything over to him. They had no right to be this stubborn.

"I have another confession, Your Grace. My companions became ill on the way to the Union strongholds. They are too sick to return so I had to come back alone. They hope you will release their families so they can reunite soon."

Jinolio clicked his tongue. What ill? They were fully kitted for the journey and they were all silver rank. No silver rank would fall ill so easily. This was nothing but an excuse to get out of captivity. It seemed Penelope was the only man with a good conscience and a working moral compass.

"Such a journey must surely be tiring for feeble silver ranks. I could not expect such weak bodies to come back through the cold so quickly. Don't worry, I'll look after their families carefully and they can reunite safely once the war ends."

"That will do as well."

Penelope was not inclined to argue on behalf of people unwilling to fulfill their tasks to earn their freedom, so he dropped the matter unceremoniously.

"The Union refused to negotiate, but they are willing to keep in touch with your captives and yourself. That's why they've sent Count Kaet, Peterson's vice-president. I am told you've had dealings with one another in the past, before the war, that is. He's come to be the Union's ambassador."

"Vice-President Kaet. Why would he come? Jinolio, quick! Get my old friend in here."

"Yes, Your Grace."

 

"President Peterson was very helpful when I left Morante all those years ago. I dealt with Vice-president Kaet when we started trading with the Union years later. Do you know what he has come to discuss?"

"I'm afraid I don't, Your Grace. It is a matter of discussion between two enemy factions. I, a captive of one side would not be told, certainly not when I'm a defeated and disgraced admiral. I tried to convey your intentions for peace to the Union, but they were only interested in the particulars of my defeat. I'm being blamed for the Union's current state. Honestly, it's a miracle I was even allowed to come back and wasn't just executed on the spot.

The general's face slowly reddened as he spoke and his heart raced.

"They know nothing of what happened. They know nothing of the circumstances of my defeat. They were so convinced of their superiority and the certainty of their victory that they wholly believe I must be the most incompetent admiral ever to have sailed on the sea, or have lost on purpose."

It could not be denied that the admiral had suffered a historic defeat, but he could not be accused of incompetence. Had the fight been any less one-sided technology wise, Lorist would have lost. Hell, even with his overwhelming superiority on the technology tree the admiral had brought him to the brink of defeat. Had the admiral not charged onto his ship, but one of the others, the fight might well have ended in Lorist's defeat.

Lorist searched awkwardly for consoling words, to no avail. Luckily only a few awkward seconds passed before Jinolio brought the Vice-president into the room.

"Ahah! Vice-president Kaet, my old friend, it's been too long! Are you well?"

"It is a happy day to meet you again, Lord Duke!" Kaet exclaimed as he greeted Lorist, "I didn't think you'd become my guild's enemy. Now you've even conquered our old capital and chased out of the plains. You've done what emperors and an entire empire could not! The world never ceases to amaze me."

"Old friend. I never wanted to be the Union's enemy. I want more than anyone else to end this horrible war and turn everything back to how it was before the war. I want not to point fingers and put blame on anyone's lap. I just want this to end. I have returned to the front-lines for this sole purpose. I had hoped that with this attack I could bring you stubborn boys back to the table, but now you've turned me down again. Tell me, have you grown fond of war?"

"Sigh..."

Kaet didn't know how to respond at first. Once Lorist's words sank in, however, he blasted back with a livid reply.

"Andinaq started all of this. That blasted king marched his men into our lands. You are the aggressors here. You started this bloody war. You were the first to slaughter our nobles, the first to break the age old taboo! You yourself wiped out one of our guilds like dogs. You disgraced us and then you have the nerve to criticize us for not surrendering to you tyrants? Tell me Lord Duke, is your skin thick enough to deny your crimes? If so, I don't know how you get out of bed in the morning!"

"Oh?" an alien smile cracked Lorist's face, "I don't know how the empire's territory became yours. Auguslo, my king, waged a just war to reclaim the lands rightfully his by inheritance. You are the invaders, the foreign settlers. You are the greedy bastards stretching your dog claws into what is rightfully ours.

"Whatever... You merchants know nothing about nobility, and noble honor and prestige. You wear the clothes and spout the words, but you do not live the lives. You do not inherit anything, you know nothing about family heritage so of course you would think something belongs to you just because you could steal it. We're just teaching you how to be proper nobles. Land belongs to you because you have a claim hundreds of years old and a centuries long history and bond with the land, not because you managed to chase the true owners off the land.

"See what you did? I said I didn't want to argue blame, but now you've made me go down that road. I can't sit idly by and watch you monkeys mock us for having tails. I don't know what you're up to, refusing my offer of peace when you're on the brink of being wiped out completely, nor do I particularly care. Tell me, what secret mission do you have?"

"You..." Kaet wanted to argue, but Lorist gazed at him with a murderous gaze, and he knew the man was a swordsaint, so he swallowed his words.

He acted with restraint and respect in their previous meetings, but he always looked down on this little noble from the barbarian north. Now, however, the man was a swordsaint. And one that could go toe-to-toe with the Union's. He could not offend this man.

Kaet dropped the familiarity with which he'd behaved before. His countenance became far and cold. He bowed stiffly.

"I am Count Kaet Wesrena and I serve in this meeting as the Forde Trade Union's ambassador. I greet the bloodblade saint, Norton Lorist, Duke of The Northlands with the respect his title is due. I come to bring the Union's official response regarding your suit for peace."

"Go on."

"The Union is willing to speak of peace, but such talks will not take place as long as even one Andinaq foot stands on our land. We will speak of peace only once you and your king withdraw from our lands, including the seven provinces and the lands of our allied countries in the north, pay reparations for your transgressions, and admit to your crimes. The Union was not comparable to the Krissen Empire when we last fought, but we still won. The war lasted fifty years, but we won. This was has lasted just three, do you really think we will give in now? Do you really think we can not fight you for the next fifty years until you've bled white? Even if we have to fight you for a century, we will do so. The Union is ever victorious!"

Lorist, Jinolio, and Penelope's mouths scraped the floor.

Did this man still have his brains? This sounded more like their declaration of war than a call for peace. What gave the Union their confidence? No. This could not be called confidence. This was a delusion. A collective insanity had swept over the entire Union.

"Nonsense! Men!" shouted Jinolio.

Kaet was being too rude. He'd insulted Lorist. Ambassadors were generally free to speak to their counterparts as equal, regardless of any rank difference so they could openly convey their messages, but this was an insult. Ambassadors, as unfettered as their speech may be, could not shout at their counterparts.

"Duke Norton! I am an ambassador! This is the Union's reply!"

Kaet remained stock straight.

"That all? Nothing else?"

Lorist stared at Kaet with an interested gaze. He waved his guards down. He could tell the ambassador had just recited the message. These were not his own words. There was no point in killing the messenger.

"Huh? You're not going to kill me?"

"Kill you? Why would I? I am not your heartless comrades. I am not an uncultured, uneducated, barbarous merchant. Your reply is perfectly understandable. You can't expect an idiot to speak in proper sentences, after all. I forgive your mistake. You guys are just being sore losers. You want to fight until there's nothing left of you. Fine by me. I'll just wipe you off the face of the continent for good, then.

"A proper noble treats his guest, an ambassador even more so, with all the etiquette and decorum he has, even if the poor sod is a monkey. You don't have to worry, you just barely qualify as a monkey, so I'll treat you properly. Now, tell, me. I know you didn't come here just to give me that little babble. What else are you here for?"

"I'm..." Kaet shook violently, "We're still at war, but hostilities have ceased for the time being, so I've been sent to come get our captives. We are willing to pay a fair price."