"Love is eternal, but so, too, is the hatred born from it."

Lorist focused intensely. A large piece of snow-white paper sat on the desk in front of his, aptly called 'snow paper'. Physical training stopped being worth it once he became a swordsaint.

The largest difference between him and other swordsaints was that he didn't train in battleforce. He had his own path. He had reached the fourth stage of the Aquametal Technique, the limit of what he knew of the technique. Any further growth would come not from training his body and swordsmanship, but from polishing this technique.

He'd only trained it because he had been desperate. No one else had ever walked this path in this world, besides for him, this path didn't even exist in this world. He could not turn to anyone for guidance. He was forging a whole new path of cultivation, but he did not think he had the genius to really do it. He had no choice but to trudge on blindly now that he'd reached the limits of his understanding. He hoped to pass this on to his disciples or descendants eventually so his family's legacy could continue.

He used to be an avid xianxia webnovel reader. In many of them the great characters could cut through space and time and destroy things from worlds away. His luck, of course, was to be born in a place with an ailing martial tradition where a few meters was the best possible, and only for the people at the very pinnacle of what still existed of the martial path. Not even magi existed anymore, and he didn't know if immortals were even possible in this world.

Even if he lived for several centuries, maybe a thousand years if he had heaven's blessing and stepped beyond swordsaint, he was doomed to die, eventually. He had no chance to gain immortality. His fated demise was not what saddened him most though. It was actually his long lifespan itself. Not because he despised living long, but because he despised the idea of living long when everyone else he knew would not. The thought of having to watch all his friends and loved ones grow old, decay, and eventually die, of having to attend their funerals, and then watch their descendants walk the same path, irked him. With all the ones close to him dead, in his dying days he would have no one to stand by him as he died. His descendents living in his final days would not be close to him, he would be an old monster to them. A shadow of which they could not get rid quickly enough.

If this was to be his end, what was the point of it all? People built up fortunes and glory so they could enjoy it with their loved ones, and then die when everything was at its peak, surrounded by the ones for whom they cared, not to watch it wilt away or be passed into the hands of others and die alone.

He'd been in this world for twenty years now, his body nearing 40. He'd climbed from an abandoned third son to a duke more powerful than most kings, able to rival even the emperors of old, and a swordsaint, an entity that stood at the pinnacle of mankind's current power. The entire species knew his name. Only one man had more authority than him, and stood above him, but it was more accurate to say that Lorist was humoring the man out of his respect for House Norton's heritage than to say that the man was an overpowering ruler Lorist had to obey.

He didn't have to commit treason to become king, his power, both his own and that of his domain, made that possible. The Krissen Empire was weakened by long periods of conflict and was severely wounded before it finally collapsed. Auguslo had saved it from complete death, but the kingdom was only just barely holding on. At best it was still in a coma and it would take decades, if not centuries, for it to return to its former glory. Lorist had no interest in playing doctor, definitely not for that long. As the saying went, 'first build walls, then gather food, and finally claim the throne'. The kingdom possesses all 29 provinces of the former Empire, and Lorist ruled over a quarter of them. He should first develop them before growing his branches into the rest. The royal family was rotten beyond any hope of saving, it was already hollow. Lorist just had to wait for that rot to cause the bark and reveal everything. The royal family would collapse and, if Lorist worked hard at building up his lands, he would be in the perfect position to take the throne.

This was the biggest reason for his interest in the king's little scandal. If this wasn't handled well, it might be the very crack he was waiting for. It certainly would be a brilliant crack. Lorist's biggest competition for the throne would be Duke Fisablen, and if this scandal was the crack, it would crack him as well and make it much easier for Lorist to take the throne. It was not unheard of for kings and queens to have affairs. But that didn't mean it did not reflect badly on the family from which the queen hailed. Especially not since the first child to be born from her womb was as a result of the affair rather than being an heir. This was enough to potential make any future children she bore unworthy as heir regardless of whether their father was indeed the king. Her womb was sullied and could thus not dam heirs.

Lorist was very interested in seeing how the king would deal with this. If the rumors were true, then his queen had had an affair with his bastard. The rumors being true, though dubious, the child did have the imperial bloodline. It was truly strange, though, for his wife's eldest -- should she have any other children -- to be his grandchild rather than his child.

He could spend more time on this affair because he didn't have anything to do in Morante, his subordinates were dealing with everything. The only reason he was still here was to intimidate the Union. He couldn't leave before he'd faced and ended their swordsaint. He thus spent all his time on his disciples and his contemplations.

He'd taken up painting. He'd meditate using that. He suspected his choice was influenced by the fact that his grandfather had used it to contemplate his cultivation. He remembered seeing the old man practise calligraphy and ink painting stroke by stroke often. He didn't understand how it was done, but he recalled his grandfather saying one had to write and draw with a calm mind. Only then would the strokes be infused with one's soul and essence. So, Lorist chose the same method.

However, Lorist had forgotten one thing. There was a developed art culture on Grindia, it resembled the dominant Renaissance style of realism. Even their tools were similar.

Fortunately, he could use his dominion's paper. He started with a mountain by the sea.

Charade came rushing over the moment he heard Lorist was painting. He thought he had finally begun to appreciate art and joined him in his passion. He took just one glance at the what Lorist was trying to do and left. Outside, he complained to Reidy that whatever it was Lorist was doing, it certainly wasn't painting. He had expected a swordsaint would have at least some talent for painting, but Lorist was worse than a 2-year-old slapping paint on their faces and slamming them into the paper.

Charade completely forgot that a swordsaint could hear what he was saying.

Two days later, when Charade finally finished his tasks and was about to take a breather, Lorist called him in. Lorist told him he had neglected his training after breaking through so he was going to spar with him a little.

His suffering had begun.

"Forgive me, Your Grace... I have more than enough guards... The kinds of people that can fight through them to me so that I'd have to face them are too strong for me to overpower regardless of how much I train..." begged Charade.

"No. None of my gold-ranked knights can be this weak, it's embarrassing. You have free time, so I'll train you. You should be happy, very few have the privilege of being trained by a swordsaint. Since you're ungrateful, I'll teach you how blessed you are, come, three more rounds!"

"Just kill me already! I'll die if I have to go three more rounds!" Charade lay on the ground, refusing to get up. He finally realized something was off.

"Did I offend you?"

"Of course not. I'm just worried for your safety. What if you encounter a gold-ranked assassin when you least expect it? You have to have the strength to fend off a couple of strikes so your guards have time to reach you. You occupy an important position under me, so you're a big target. Take the Union, they might send assassins after you if they learn that you're the one managing everything."

"Impossible," Charade denied, "Even the Union wouldn't go that far. They won't offend you for me. And killing me wouldn't do them any good. I'm just the chief administrator, not the head of the house. Would it be worth paying such a huge price?"

"Didn't I say just in case? Don't you know prevention is better than cure?"

Reidy, standing nearby, couldn't hold back anymore and made some brush stroke movements with his hands. Charade instantly understood. He breathed in deeply and apologized.

"I apologize, Your Grace. I shouldn't have commented on your painting. But being offended at my comments won't change the facts. You have no skill at painting."

"Your evaluation is honest, but you don't have to apologize. I would not be offended by something so trivial. Now get up and let's get back to training. I won't stop until your stomach is gone."

Jinolio came to Charade's rescue a few moments later.

"A merchant vessel has entered the bay. It's one of the people we captured during our fight with Invincible. The captain wants to buy goods. He's also brought a few nobles with him. One is Duchess Prinna. She's asked to see you."

Charade struggled up from the ground. Now it was his turn to watch a show.

Should I meet her? Lorist's mind raced.

She used to be the love of his life, the first in two lifetimes. She was also the first to utterly shatter his heart. And now she'd returned to him not to apologize for what she'd done to him, but to open the old wound and slam the knife back in. She was here to ransom her husband, the man for whom she'd left Lorist. The man had taken her from him, and now it was her turn to take him from Lorist.

"You should at least meet her. She's an old friend, after all. Your history has been clean for 20 years. It is time to move on," Charade smiled. He was there to watch a show, and by the gods he was not going to let Lorist not give him one.

"I won't meet her. I'd rather miss her than meet her. You will deal with her, Charade." Lorist suddenly realized something. "Why didn't Kaet negotiate for that duke and his legion? Aren't they allies?"

"I've asked. He says the Duke never actually fought, not even when we clashed on the sea, he surrendered without upholding his end of the agreement, so they have no interest in ransoming him."

Charade knew there was more going on, and Viscount Penelope supplied him with the answer. The Union was either preparing to betray their alliance, or they had completely incompetent officials. If the latter, they must have thought of their allies as just mere subordinates, and didn't want to put in the effort to free incompetent trash.

"Are they still on Silowas?" asked Lorist.

"Yes," Charade answered, "Duke Lorf probably knows he lost the Union's favor. He asked to be left on Silowas. He must have sent a message back home with the merchants. I didn't think his wife would respond so quickly. I'm sure Wenna is here to beg you to let her husband and his men go.

"Then take her to her husband. I'll leave everything to you. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Since the Union has already scrapped their alliance, we ought to stir up conflict between the two."

"By your command."