"Remember that old saying. 'If you want to steal properly, make your target give you their stuff voluntarily.'" ~ Unknown



"I protest! I express my strong objections House Norton as a representative of the Union! You have violated your promise to respect the sacred right to private property and lust after the wealth of the family members of the merchant guild members! You are limiting their freedom..." Count Kaet was fuming with rage as he glared furiously at Charade, his voice hoarse from his outburst.

Charade dug his ear with his finger.

"Lord Kaet, please don't be so emotional. I acknowledge your protest. Then should we continue to discuss the transportation of the captives after you pay for their ransom? If you send carriages over, then each carriage will have to pay a toll of one gold Forde. If you hire us to transport those captives, it will cost two gold Fordes each if you include the food they will consume throughout the journey. We have already discounted this by half for you, our old friend. If someone else had come, we'd charge them three gold Fordes minimum without even including food."

Kaet sank into his chair angrily. It felt as if his fist had caught nothing but air. Not only did he not strike his enemy, he even injured his back in the process. He clutched his face and sighed deeply.

Who's the merchant here? Didn't they say nobles only care for face and merchants only care for profits? Why is it the opposite with House Norton? Do they not care about their reputation at all? It's all gold Fordes, gold Fordes, and more gold Fordes in their eyes! They're more merchant-like than merchants!

He'd thought the negotiations were going well, initially. The sum of two million gold Fordes would include the ransom for all surrendered blademasters, gold ranks, high officials of merchant guilds and their family members, attendants, as well as the guards that came along with them, numbering around two thousand people in total. However, the bill he received caused him to jump with anger.

"I wouldn't believe even if you killed me that two thousand people consumed more than 800 thousand gold Fordes in the span of 50 days! 80 thousand is more like it! Show me your menu! I want to see what they eat daily!" cried the count.

"Apologies, Count Kaet, you should know the state of Morante now. Actually, we spent lots of effort to provide for the food and drink as well as the parties these esteemed guest of ours hold. I I'm sure you understand how much ingredients of that caliber cost. Apart from this bill, there are around ten other blademasters' tabs. That's another two million. We won't release the blademasters in question until these tabs are settled. You pay their salaries, so just deduct it from their salary."

"Ridiculous! You even set up casinos!"

"That's not a big deal. You understand how terrible it must feel to lose one's freedom. They are our captives because of your incompetence. These people have big but brittle prides, so we gave them things with which to entertain themselves so they suffer as little as possible."

"Stop! Just stop!" Kaet looked at the tabs and quickly noticed something odd. "Tell me, why are these debts only for blademasters? Why does no one else have any debt?

"We don't allow them to make any debts. We trust the Union will foot the blademasters' bill, but not for anyone else. You might just choose to leave them with us."

It sounded bad, but it did make sense. The Union was hoping to put the elites to work, the blademasters were worth the debts they had, but no one else would be worth it if they had large debts.

The negotiations finally closed. Kaet hoped he could strike while the iron was still hot and ransom the rest of the inner city's residents. Most were family members of the Union's mid-tier military and guild officials, so getting them back would improve the forces' morale.

Charade wasn't against it, but the negotiations dragged on once again. They eventually settled on one gold per child and elder, two for women, and three for youths. Charade was about to have men go out and count the people to get a detailed price, Kaet declared he'd pay a million regardless of their number so there was no need for a survey.

"Deal!"

Kaet's face nearly exploded when he saw the first batch, however. What inner city residents was this? These were fucking refugees! They didn't have anything but the clothes on their back, some didn't even have that! The only difference was they were plump and fat!

Kaet quickly learned what had happened. The three thousand leapt at him like he was their father. Some accused House Norton of intentionally jacking up food prices while others asked him to go back and take back the goods stolen from their peers. Some even asked him to treat them to a good meal.

He had to be escorted out of the crowd, only to realise his clothes had been stolen in the turmoil. Even his wedding ring had been stolen. He couldn't even get angry. He was completely numb. He didn't forget his duty, however, and demanded to speak with Lorist.

He'd been housed outside the city in a small compound. The compound was completely surrounded by guards and Kaet was not allowed to leave it, even for meetings, everything happened within the compound.

He'd initially complained, but was told it was for his protection since the city was very unstable.

The few people he was allowed to meet described seeing fires in the city frequently, and fishing ships frequently sailed past the prison ships to go fishing. Everything matched what Charade had told him so for a while he was convinced it was true. It seemed House Norton had not gained anything from the city and was now losing men and money by the day. Now, however, he learned what was really happening from the released captives.

House Norton had defaulted on their promise to respect personal property rights and had started taking the property of the inner city residents. Their schemes were clever, so it wasn't blatant robbery, but it was still against their promise. Kaet could not let them do this.

He planned to give Lorist an earful and demand everything be returned, lest he return to the Union and they take military action. Lorist, however refused to see him. Charade also stopped visiting for three whole days.

When he finally saw the scoundrel again, Kaet unloaded on him like a catapult. Charade just kept saying they'd not broken their promise. The people had chosen to give up their riches on their own by using the services they'd offered.

"Is your situation in the north so bad that two bowls of watered-down porridge counts as a decent free ration?" Kaet laughed, both furious and disdainful.

"It is!" Charade replied shamelessly, "You must not know how lucky they are to get even this much. Things are so bad they've even started eating the bark of the trees in and around the city! Anyway, that's not important. I'm here to talk about the fees for transporting the people. We won't be feeding the people we've released, they're in your care now. If you want to keep them here, you'll have to send food yourself, we can sell you some, 50 kilograms of potatoes is one gold Forde. If you want to send them back to your territory, you have two options. If you want us to send them off, you have to pay the fee. If you transport them yourselves, you'll have to pay the toll."

Kaet inhaled deeply and forced his anger down.

"One question. Why did you offer to transport the first batch for free? I thought the transport fee was included in their ransom."

Kaet was referring to the blademasters, gold ranks, nobles, officials, and their familis. The two thousand people were transported to the new border for free.

"Don't take me for an idiot. That was just two thousand people. We're talking about 100 thousand now. We don't get the carts and drivers for free. We have to recoup the costs."

"I already paid the ransom..."

"Yes, the ransom. That's all we negotiated and all you paid. We're talking about the costs of transport now."

"You... You're shameless! I... I protest!"

"And I acknowledge your protest. Now, have you decided? Will you use our services or your own and pay the toll?"

Kaet did not have the energy to get angry again.

"I... I demand an audience with your duke. I will complain to him personally. Is this what you Nortons consider sincerity? Barbarians are more sincere! You've been away from civilization and mingling with the barbarians for too long. You don't know how to behave properly anymore! I warn you, the civilized people of the rest of the continent will not stand for this, you'll pay!"

Charade shrugged.

"Frankly, His Grace only met you because you had ties with us from before the war. You're just a count, don't get too big for your station. Even if His Grace was not a duke, he is a swordsaint, he is far above you.

"As for us paying for this, you're welcome to march your armies here. We'd be more than happy to hand the city over. It's just that if we're imminently handing over the city, we might not bother with putting out all those fires. Ah, I'm rambling. Send a letter to the Union and ask them to come for the city. The winner gets to keep it, how about that?"

When he finished, he noticed that Kaet was shaking his head forcefully, his mouth shut.