The banquet continued as planned two days later. Duke Fustat and his wife attended as promised. During the proceedings, they brought up the duke's request for military equipment and Lorist agreed.

Sylvia, Fennazali, and Daisy attended as well, which saved Lorist from having to alone with Prinna. The best she could do was shoot him a begrudging glance to him from time to time. He, of course, never saw anything even when he was practically looking right at her. He instead discussed how Jigda took advantage of the Union and swallowed six kingdoms with the duke.

The duke casually admitted it was all part of his plan. Jigda had no choice but to borrow the Union's tactics and absorb nations once they started applying pressure on the alliance. Romon was threatening to invade and Khawistan was not far behind. The kingdom had to grow rapidly and become a force capable of giving the two empires enough of a fight to make them hesitate and think twice. Lorist's interference with the was between Andinaq and the Union ruined the alliance, however.

Luckily Fustat had been leading the kingdom's forces accompanying the navy, another commander might have chosen to go to war rather than surrender. Now his family had paid the ransom, the two sides could part amicably, and the kingdom didn't have to worry about a war with Lorist and his frightening armies. Despite their friendly conversations, neither was willing to ally with the other. Their lands were just too far apart. They could not offer each other effective support, and would instead just get dragged into a war in name in which they could do no actual fighting.

The banquet continued late into the night. Lorist's women only left for their bedrooms once they had promised to accompany Prinna around the city the next day. The group spent most of their trip talking about the duchess' business endeavors in her youth. Lorist had Reidy accompany them.

Charade and Duke Fustat concluded their negotiations several days later. The deal was for 100 thousand sets of armor and weaponry and two brigades' worth of catapults and carroballistae.  The latter two would make Jigda the strongest military force where siege was concerned on their half of the continent.

Duke Fustat was damn rich if he could throw away that much money so easily. Either that or he was in a very difficult situation.
Charade said that according to Duke Fustat, Wessia Merchant Guild, which he had recently exterminated, had monopolized the arms trade in the region. No one in the region had the mineral wealth to compete with them.

Wessia insisted on taking the old empire's territory as its dominion. It wanted all the mines there. They not only took all the mines, they also kept an iron grip on forging techniques and talents. They recruited or abducted every promising smith in their sphere of influence, and killed those they couldn't get.

Firebird's equipment came from Wessia and had cost the duke four million gold Fordes. With with Wessia gone, Lorist was the only major arms dealer left on the continent.

Lorist had always wondered why he could never sell his clearly superior equipment, now he knew. He had tried to work through Peterson, but Wessia vetoed the deal. They would never let any competitor, much less such a major one, get a foothold in the market.

Charade realized this as well, and understood his lord's intentions immediately, which was why he had pushed to sell them everything they needed at a reasonable price. This was their ticket, their chance to get a foot in the now empty market and swallow everything up.

The Union was already moving to get back into the market, but with how secretive Wessia had been, and how utterly they'd been wiped out, it would take years, even decades, before they had a comparable guild up and running, and by then the entire market would belong to Lorist.

Prinna had Sylvia tell Lorist she wanted to meet him. She had noticed a business opportunity in Morante and wanted him to give sole distribution rights of Norton goods in the southern half of the continent to Mermaid.

Lorist refused. He was fine with the arrangement in principle, though only for Jigda, but would not see that woman no matter what. He instead sent Charade to deal with her in his stead.

Northsea only had enough strength to control down to the southern seas, it could not take control of Sunshine Seas or the Golden Coast, so he had to allow free trade there, at least for the time being. Lorist had every intention of shutting such trade down as soon as he had the power, however. He would not let anyone do any trade that was not regulated and taxed by him.

Besides, letting trade run rampant had its benefits. For one, it would help speed up Morante's recovery. He would also not go as far as to monopolize the actual trading itself. He had no trouble with letting independent merchants have their share, but they could not be allowed to trade where he could not regulate and tax it.

For another, he could use a healthy independent merchant industry to further his spy network and also cut the Union out of their old home turf. The Union's guilds were not settled enough as land barons yet, they had to rely on trade, so without it, he could starve them without having to go to war.

Prinna's gotten sharp over the years. She saw the market immediately. She doesn't understand that monopolizing this will make her guild a public enemy.

Charade refused to budge, he could be really stubborn when it came to money and wealth. Prinna eventually gave up and settled on just the Jigda market.

The duchess handed Charade a half-book of a letter before she left with her husband, making him promise to hand it to Lorist personally and make sure he read it.

It turned out to be a complaint about his distance to her. Her age showed as she nostalgically recounted their love affair like an old maid on her deathbed telling her great grandchildren about her wild, long-forgotten youth. One of the worst things she said in her letter, was that she'd have stayed by Lorist's side if she could do everything over, even if it meant she'd have lost her home. She wrote an extensive allusion to Lorist's marriage, talking about the happiness she saw in her replacement, she even hinted at being jealous of her once or twice.

She didn't forget to gripe about Lorist's refusal to give her a good deal despite being an ex-lover of hers, her only one, in fact.

From there she launched into a long fantasy about opening up her old shop in Morante and a branch of the guild. At the very end, she spoke of her various ideas for opening a second branch in his lands to the far north.

Women...

Lorist dropped each page into the fireplace in his office as he finished reading it. If a druid or apothecary ever invented medicine for regret, the women in a single city would give him enough business to retire.

No matter how much Lorist might want to deny it, that little fairy in his memories, the little witch that had danced on his heart, his first love, would always have the sweetest place in his heart, even if it was now vacant. Even Sylvia, for all her charm and love, even if they were to be together happily for several centuries, could never take over that place, could never match this woman in his heart. And it made him furious.

The merchants started pouring into the docks a few days after the duke and duchess left. Soon businesses -- some buying and selling the merchant's goods, some serving the sailors, and others serving the workers working in the new businesses in, around, and near the docks -- sprung up almost daily. The city slowly came back to life, nightlights grew outward from the docks like long tendrils, like a glowing plant slowly extending its roots into the surrounding city.

A letter arrived from Cape Romani as well, from Howard. Three months had passed since he'd been left with the indentured workforce and things were finally coming together. The reef had been filled and had had enough time to set and dry. It was not finally time to start construction on the castle-port-town proper.

Most of the letter was a list of the materials the next phase of the project required. Lorist felt the boy's enthusiasm ooze out of his every pen stroke. He clearly wanted to build a grand citadel. Lorist was willing to indulge his second disciple a little -- a reward of sorts for all his hard work over the years, especially since they'd gotten involved in Auguslo's war again. He even decided to let him leave his name on his first great project as his disciple. He crossed out Howard's suggested name, 'Fort Romani', and wrote in 'Fort Howard'.

The next three months passed quickly. Falik Plains saw no conflict in that time, it was completely peaceful. The Union had not made any effort towards making peace, but they also didn't launch any offensives, not even skirmishes. An eerie peace reigned over the continent.

The front-lines may have been free of conflict for the last three months, but they were far from quiet. Pickaxes, axes, saws, shovels, and hammers clanged away day and night on the Trade Union's side of no-man's-land. Long, zigzagging lines were slowly criss-crossing the entire front, just like it had in Mauvlin several years earlier. The Free Union's side, on the other hand, was completely open. One could walk without paying attention to the ground from the citadels to the enemy front. Nothing but open, flat plains ran from horizon to horizon there. The only places evidence of military activity could be seen was on the various citadels' walls, where heads constantly moved back and forth across the crenels between the merlons, and in the barracks, training yards, and muster fields where men constantly shouted as they trained.

Lorist had no interest in the enemy's plots and plans, however. He just did what was necessary to keep his men fit and alert, and left the rest up to fate.

The Trade Union had started spreading rumors of the violence they believed was going on in Morante two months earlier, probably to drum up support from their subjects and from the remaining kingdoms, principalities, and duchies from the old alliance. Rumors spread like wildfires, and soon the entire continent was ablaze. House Norton was soon known to be killing tens of thousands of Morantians every week. Drinking babies' blood and eating young ladies' flesh after taking their innocence. They were crucifying anyone they didn't like and stoning whores who dissatisfied them. The city was always burning, and the entire plain in which it stood was constantly covered in a haze of smoke and the sickly sweet stench of death and rotting human flesh. A few even claim to have family members who'd seen Norton soldier do despicable, vile things to the corpses of young boys and girls, defiling them so badly that even the gods, even with their infinite mercy, could not accept their scarred, deformed souls into the heavens and they were left to haunt the city and the surrounding plains for all eternity.

The guilds owned all of the city's newspapers. They had closed when the city fell so no one had news directly from within the city. Similarly everyone in the camps had been kept in the dark about what was really going on in the city. They also hated House Norton for robbing them of their wealth and were all too happy to believe and spread, even exaggerate the rumors as they heard them.

As oblivious as the outside world was to the truth of what was going on within the city, so were its inhabitants to what was going on in the outside world. The first news of this came through the merchants sailing into and out of the city's harbor by the dozen every day now. House Norton didn't even lift a finger to counter the rumors. The Merchants, having a vested interest in people wanting to trade with the city and buy House Norton's goods, fought the rumors at every chance they got.

Even Duke Fustat did his bit. He wrote to every noble he knew and every merchant his wife knew to tell them what was really going on. Whilst this curbed the rumor's spread, people loved gossip and a new story made the rounds every couple of weeks. Luckily, people grew bored with a rumor just as quickly as they got excited by it, and they quickly vanished again, to be replaced by a new rumor a few weeks later.

Knowing all this, Lorist decided to just let whatever was destined to happen, happen, and instead focused his energy on helping to get the city back on its feet. He was training the city's new guard in policing and law-enforcement when he received news of Auguslo's impending arrival.

It was a surprise, but nothing really worth worrying about, only, he had come practically alone.