"Suffer not a harlot to live."

"I will not be at the king's reception! He's a murderer!"

Sylvia was near thirty, just a few weeks off, in fact, but she still behaved like a little child. She threw a tantrum when she was told she was expected to attend the banquet and refused to go.

"Fine, you don't have to go. Fennazali is struggling with her pregnancy, so go look after her," Lorist said, finally giving up.

He'd been kept up every night for nearly three months and had only gotten rid of one of his women. Sylvia and Daisy were still pestering him nightly.

"Where's His Majesty currently?"

"I don't know," Jinolio replied, "His Majesty came to Morante disguised as a messenger. He didn't stop in any of the towns or cities along the way. We wouldn't have known he'd arrived even now if Reidy hadn't bumped into him. He should be bringing the king around soon."

Falik Plains was nothing but ruins. Mostly abandoned for three years now, it was rife with pests. One was stray dogs, which roamed the abandoned farmlands and villages looking for mice, rats, cats, and even human corpses, anything meat-like to eat. It had gotten so bad in and around Mass and Gypsy that Reidy had to go clear the packs out.

"Fine. I'll go look for them along the road. I hope I can bump into him quickly and get things over with."

Auguslo was inspecting the largest of the city Markets when Lorist found him. Reidy stood beside him. Twenty royal guards dragged horses along not too far away.

Lorist dismounted and greeted the king with a shallow bow.

"What brings Your Majesty here?"

"Oh, Locke, brother, you're here!" the king said, turning around, "I didn't think you'd get Morante back into shape in just half a year. It's nothing like when I was here last. No wonder you're so often called the kingdom's interior minister. What do you think about becoming the empire's first chancellor? I'll hand all internal affairs to you. I know you won't disappoint."

Lorist laughed bitterly.

"Please stop joking, Your Majesty. Do you know how much money House Norton had to invest to get it to where it is now? I've put 14 million in so far and I'll probably have to put in more over the next two or three years! My treasury is empty and I have to sleep with my sword under my bed otherwise my financial advisor will kill me in my sleep."

Auguslo almost slipped.

"How much?! 14 million?! Are you that rich?! You should lend me that money instead!"

"Rich my ass. I was forced! This whole campaign's been nothing but a massive loss! My fleet was ravaged, and I made nothing from Morante either. I had to bring everything I got from Invincible here to feed the people. I basically had to lend everything I made from Morante right back to it, as well as everything I made from the Union in the ransoms."

"I don't understand… Locke, I thought you were going to force the Union to negotiate for the city. Why are you investing in the city if it'll be back in their hands in a year or so? Do you plan to keep everything?"

Auguslo had to know. He could not allow Lorist to take Morante and Falik Plains. The duke would then have more land than he and all the other noble under him had! He could still exercise some measure of control over Lorist as long as he was based in the Northlands. While it was a great defensive location, it was also easy to cut off from the rest of the world if need be. It also helped that it was close by and he could thus quickly respond to anything happening there. If, however, Lorist made his primary title one based in Morante, and moved his family and headquarters here, the king would have no control over him. The duke could easily seceded and declare his independence and Auguslo would be unable to anything about it.

"You're Majesty's over-thinking," Lorist waved his hand, "How did you get the impression that Morante's people would accept being ruled by a foreigner, and a noble at that, much less the man that took their city from them? Even if we could maintain control, we'd never have any peace. I have no intention of taking such a troublesome place.

"As for our investment. It wasn't really by choice, but that's something to discuss in private."

The group returned to Lorist's study where he explained everything.

"What?!" Auguslo cried, "You're forming a new Union?!"

"It's not that simple, Your Majesty. We're forming a Free Union. Unlike the Trade Union, the Free Union has no large merchant guilds, and none have any say in its governance. It governed by a body the people will choose themselves periodically. They won't let another monopoly form. SO we can expect a competitive, high-profit market to emerge in the next decade," explained Lorist.

"What good is this to you?"

"Don't forget the old Union is still watching from the sidelines. They refuse to surrender. Even when we offered a mutual peace, they continued to be obstinate. They made demands we could never accept. When negotiations failed, they declared they'd fight us to the last man, that this war would not end until every last one of them was a corpse.

"I have no confidence in securing a peace deal. So, I decided to make Morante and the plains into a new Union that will be a buffer between us and the old Union, deny them access to the markets and trade routes, and be our ally and give us access to these markets and trade routes. The 14 million is to get the new Union on its feet so the old one can't just stomp it as soon as we withdraw.

"Isn't Morante and the plains mankind's bastion of freedom? I don't think they'd fight against the Union at the behest of a foreign noble," Auguslo interjected.

"That Union stopped being the government of freedom when they became nobles. The new Union is now the bastion of freedom and the people won't let the old one get control again," Lorist countered.

"But why would the Union refuse to come a reasonable agreement?"

"Simple. They have money and a monopoly of most of the market in the Alliance. They believe they can hold out until we collapse. They want us to beg them to take back Morante and the plains. They'll march in and take back everything, demand we return the provinces we took back, and demand complete monopoly of our entire economy.

"This war is not just kill or be killed for our soldiers.  It's kill or be killed for our kingdom as well. We're in at least as bad shape as they are, but we cut them off from their maritime routes, so they have to move their goods by land, which is prohibitively expensive.

"We're willing to invest in Morante so that we can get a harbor and a market halfway down the coast.  This will give us access to the southern half of the continent. It'll also destroy the old Union's monopoly. We just have to keep them out of Morant and away from the coast for a couple of years and they'll wither away on their own."

"I'm grateful for your service," the king said as he leaned forward on his chair, his elbow digging into the table, his chin rested on his hands, a serious expression on his face, "Few sovereigns could ask for a better vasal. If you can make things go as you have described to me now, you will be the greatest man in the empire's history besides its emperors, and your house the greatest besides the royal family. Is there anything I can do to help?"

Auguslo wanted part of the credit. He, as the king, could not be just a bystander in this historic moment. If that really happened, there might actually be calls for Lorist to become the new empire's emperor rather than him.

"We hope Your Majesty can help." Lorist had given his explanation precisely for this. "I know the kingdom is in bad shape right now, so I will not ask for what it cannot give. I ask only that Your Majesty send a light legion to Malivia in support of the new Union's forces--"

"That is reasonable. It shall be done," Auguslo quickly agreed. This was exactly what he hoped. This way he could claim an active role in the victory without having to make any actual sacrifices.

"... And I hope you can give me Jillin Harbor."

"Jillin Harbor? For what?" the king asked, his guard rising.

This was to be expected. Jillin Harbor was not far from the capital. If Lorist was given control of the city, he could land forces right in the king's backyard without any resistance, and, before anyone could react, he'd be in the capital. It could not be so he'd have a staging ground for trade and force transport further south, he already had Silowas and its harbors."

"You're Majesty's overthinking things again. I don't want the title, I just want the governorship."

"What governorship?"

"Governorship would be similar to the honorary titles you gave me before. I get to govern the land as if it were my own, but, unlike with honorary titles, the title dead for the city and the surrounding land remains with you. Think of it like me renting the harbor and the city from you. I will pay a fixed tax to you every year as well, regardless of how profitable I make the city or not."

Auguslo moved to the map on the wall and stared at the city for a long time.

"I cannot see the shop no matter how much I stare," he finally said, "Tell me, Locke, what do you plan to do with the city?"

"I want to make the city, specifically its harbor, the biggest, busiest, and most prosperous this side of the Golden Bay. I want to make it the first stop for any goods coming from the south. Everything will come here from the south, then from here it will go wherever else it wants in the kingdom and eventual empire."

"I can give you the governorship on two conditions," the king said, slowly, "You may not move any of your men into the city. Any disembarkation or travel through has to get my approval beforehand, like it would be if you had nothing to do with the place. I will provide the city guard, which will be independent of you but will cooperate to keep the peace. And I don't want a fixed tax for the city. If you're going to develop the city, it means it will become far more profitable than it is now. My tax will be half of the profits."

Lorist smiled bitterly, but nodded.


The big topics covered, Lorist poured them fruit wine.

"I heard you were going to survey the provinces. Why are you here?"

Auguslo downed his cup and held it out for Lorist to refill.

"I'm here to explain the scandal. I know you know of what I speak."

Lorist handed Auguslo the bottle.

"It is not my place as your vassal to comment on your personal affairs. It would certainly be hypocritical of me since I demand my vassals not comment on my personal affairs. However, my wife is Her Late Majesty's cousin, so I must speak and ask on her behalf. Your Majesty neglected the queen. Even with the scandal, did you and Duke Fisablen not go too far? Is the queen's paramour not your son? Her child, though not your offspring, is still of your bloodline. Could you not spare the queen 'till she birthed the child and punish her appropriately thereafter?"

Auguslo downed the bottle.

"It is not that simple, Locke. Were I certain the child was Wecksas', I would have let it come into the world, but the queen had two other lovers -- of which we know, at least. There was no certainty who's bastard it was. I had to preserve my bloodline's purity. I could not risk the possibility of someone from a bastard bloodline climbing into my family tree."

Lorist broke.

This... queen… deserved everything she got.

"If I may ask then, Your Majesty, what agreement did you reach with Duke Fisablen?"

"He apologized personally and was the one who sent that woman on her way. I will do my survey later this year and the duke promised to have a new wife ready when I pass by there. He'll adopt his choice as his daughter before I take her as my wife."