Lorist was annoyed. He had thought he would have long since returned to the dominion. He had no interest in the empire; he was content watching from the sidelines. He didn’t even take his upcoming duel seriously. The old man was much weaker than he had thought. He expected his recovery would take two years, not four.

The old man’s domain was larger than his and he had more experience, but they were only enough to even the playing field. Their last domain clash had dumped both into thick gruel. Neither had full control of their domains. The simplest explanation was that it felt like his inertia had suddenly multiplied, everything felt less willing to begin or stop moving or change direction.

The challenge had been a great chance. Despite his injuries, he had won. It seemed their domains only affected the physical body, and techniques that left it, techniques that stayed within his body were completely unaffected. It might even be better for him to fight with fists rather than swords.

The fleet returned on the 33rd of the 8th. His thousand Ragebear knights disembarked awkwardly after a fortnight at sea. Their full number was three thousand, but only the one thousand silver-rankers were considered ‘knights’, the remaining two thousand were iron-rankers, squires. Their size did not reduce their cost, however, the three thousand men in the unit cost Lorist as much as the entire Firmrock.

With them had come the 500 cannons and 800 catapults and the supplies needed to operate them.

Charade had wanted Firmrock to come as well, but Lorist didn’t see the point. Ragebear was far more effective and fewer men deployed meant fewer losses suffered, in victory and defeat. Besides, Firmrock shone when fighting from defenses, and the whole point of this battle was to avoid fighting from atop battlements and behind palisades. The forces on hand were enough to hold the line, so Ragebear would be a more worthwhile addition than Firmrock.

Howard, too, disembarked. His project had finished two months earlier. Fort Howard was now Northsea’s safe harbor in the south and more than doubled its effective operating range from the homeland. From it, they could now effectively control all but the most southern of coasts, mostly those controlled by the two empires. Most importantly, however, it meant that the fleet was out of commission for far shorter periods while it resupplied.

Howards next duty had been to form three new brigades of artillerymen. That he’d finished a month ago.

His three brigades had come with him and were currently hauling the cannons off the ships. The hundred surviving cannons from the battle with Invincible was now back under their command, so each brigade had 200 cannons. They’d spend a few days near the city, breaking in the new guns, and then leave for Bluwek.

Ragebear took leave for the days the artillery brigades checked the cannons and left together with Lorist and Tigersoar.

Military camps dotted the landscape around the city. Banners of every color pigments could make flapped in the wind. The Trade Union occupied the southern, eastern, and western fringes of the area, whilst the city itself and everything north of it flew Norton and Free Union banners.

The Trade Union’s generals had been arguing for three days. Duke Cobleit walked around with a perpetual headache. The enemy sent a messenger with a letter from Duke Norton the moment they arrived. He duke said he would not be standing aside, nor reserving any force necessary for victory. He challenged them to a battle in front of the city on the 10th of the 10th, the same day he chose for his duel with their swordsaint.

The heated debate revolved around this letter. Should they accept this? The enemy had not fortified the city at all. They had no retreat plan, no intent on falling back and holding the city if they lost the fight. This could only mean that they were certain of their victory.

Half of the commanders were in favor of storming the city before the enemy had time to organize their forces. They outnumbered the enemy 3 to 1, add to that the element of surprise and they had little chance of failure. Why sit around and wait for a month? Why give your enemy the time he so clearly needed to prepare for a confrontation? Was war not also a game of time and organization? He had clearly lost on both fronts so it was only right to clean him out now.

Cobleit would have been of the same mind, were the sender of the letter in question anyone else, anyone but the infamously brilliant Duke Norton, anyone other than one of only a handful of swordsaints on the entire continent.

The duke had also followed an important ancient custom. He’d declared a date and a place for a battle between their armies. Much like the duel between swordsaints, it morally bound them to honor his call. They could ignore it if they wanted, but they would lose what little standing they had in the continent’s noble circles, and their standing was shaky enough as it was already.

A break of this custom would also give the duke an excuse to target their upper echelons. Were he someone else, this would not be worth considering, but he was a swordsaint, he had the power, he just lacked the excuse.

The nobles were not pleased to hear this. This was news to them. Until recently they’d been mere commoners, rich merchants, sure, but still commoners. They’d known nothing of the intricacies of noble custom and etiquette, of the unspoken rules that governed noble life, and most of them had never made the effort to learn once they became peers.

But they had their own swordsaint, didn’t they? If he was dumb enough to barge into their camp with a few hundred, maybe one or two thousand of his personal bodyguard, they could just send the windstorm swordsaint after him and crush his bodyguard with their own forces.

Naturally that fool of a duke had only bothered with noble custom because they had the perfect counter his personal involvement in the war. He was known for his unannounced attacks, among his many other barbaric tactics, he would have used one of them instead if not for the fact that they had someone that could match him.

They now thanked their lucky stars for paying the price to get the windstorm swordsaint on their side. Many had thought it a waste, and even those that had supported the idea, thought of it as just obtaining another laurel for their wreaths, something to solidify their position and give them greater legitimacy, no one had thought he would be such a crucial force.

“Where’s the windstorm swordsaint?”

In the nearby city. He’s stopped there to meditate and prepare for the duel. He said he’d join us shortly before the date for his due," Duke Chikdor answered.

“Why? Doesn’t Duke Norton need to prepare for the duel as well? Why can he lead a legion and come to the front-line already, then? If we don’t take Bluwek now, we’ll sweat blood to take it later,” clamored a deputy-general. He used to be a mercenary, and he didn’t understand the frivolous rules nobles had to followed. It was all just pretentious horseshite to him.

“Stop talking nonsense,” Duke Peterson interjected, “Duke Norton sent us an official challenge. Such is only issued to nobles. He’s acknowledged us as peers, we have to respond according to noble etiquette. We’ll be discrediting his acknowledgement and slapping ourselves in the face otherwise. He could then just storm in and kill us as bandits.”

“But... Don’t we have the windstorm swordsaint? Isn’t he afraid Master Magrut would do the same to his forces?”

“Fool, we’d be the ones who would have broken the rules first. Why would Master Magrut stand up for us? Even if he did, it would be meaningless since we would be dead.”

Duke Cobleit finally hammered the table. Why was it that the Trade Union’s expansionist policy only worked well with the Alliance, why did it fail in the north? Andinaq, besides House Norton, was a shell of a country, teetering on the edge of complete collapse. House Norton, and, specifically, its duke, was the only thing keeping them from falling off the cliff. The Trade Union should thank its lucky stars he was a vassal of a stupid king, and not king himself, otherwise they’d long since have been made corpses.

Fuck!  We should have gone to the negotiating table... thought Duke Cobleit.

Unfortunately that was no longer an option. The door to the table closed the moment the Free Union declared independence. They had to win the war or be replaced by that puppet state. If they did not shatter from defeat and become just a collection of duchies and backwater villages, they’d forever exist in the new Union’s shadow.

The tent fell into silence. It lasted several minutes. Duke Cobleit’s sigh finally broke it.

“Duke Norton sent that letter as a warning. Look at the date he set for our fight. It’s the same as the duel. He’s warning us to follow the rules, or he’ll come sort us out personally. I expect he’ll respect his loss as well and withdraw without complaint, granted to do as he wishes and follow the rules.”

“How are we supposed to stay here for a month? We’re bleeding money!” someone cried.

“Gentlemen, let me remind you. We are nobles. You wanted the titles, and now you have it. It’s time you started acting the part! Yes, we have to make sacrifices, but his recognition of our status means we can expect the perks that go along with being nobles. Proper treatment if caught, for one. We could ignore the rules when we fought the Alliance because we were certain of victory. Things are different this time. There is a serious chance we might lose. If we do after breaking the rules, we’ll be hanged. If we do but we followed the rules, you get to keep your heads and go home.”

“If only Master Magrut was here...”

Duke Cobleit laughed bitterly.

“He is a swordsaint, our swordsaint, but he is far from reliable. You should not bet on his aid.”

“What?! We pay him a million gold Fordes a year! Does he want even more?”

“I won’t hide it. Master Magrut originally refused to duel Duke Norton. He only agreed after we made several concessions. Besides many benefits and rewards -- among which is a province as a fief -- he will not fight the duke to the death. He will only keep him busy and out of the main fight.”

“How dare he be so greedy! We’ve wasted our money!” yelled someone angrily.

It was one thing to be an exalted swordsaint, but to be both a swordsaint and a noble? One title was equal to the other, so a commoner swordsaint they could stomach, but a noble swordsaint would be their superior. This was unacceptable.

“We have no choice. We will not win this without him,” Peterson interjected, “The big seven had already made the decision. As long as Duke Norton is out of the picture, we can win this fight. It doesn’t matter if he’s killed or just occupied, we just need him out of the fight. We outnumber the enemy three-to-one. A field battle, even if the enemy has time to prepare, is still better for us than a siege where we’d either have to starve them out through the winter, where we’ll be sat in cold tents and they in warm houses behind high walls, or storm the walls and suffer heavy casualties.”