"If the enemy tower is faltering and you can strike at it's foundation, pummel it into dust."



"Duke Norton, I, Serihanem, pay my utmost respect as the representative of Chikdor. I hope you will always be with good health and that things go according to your will," said Serihanem as he saluted respectfully.

"No need courtesy, Young Master Serihanem. You and I are old acquaintances; we can skip the pleasantries. I've always appreciated your talent. It's a shame you caused me quite a bit of trouble in the Battle of Cape Romani. The things that followed made me regret being unable to come to an agreement with you. I believe that if you had been by my side, you would've checked for loopholes in my security so people would not have escaped like that." smiled Lorist.

"I have embarrassed myself, Lord Duke. I did my best but couldn't change the outcome. In the end, I couldn't help but escape. The war has worn us down and we could not have afforded my ransom. I had a duty to avoid putting my guild in that position. I survived thanks only to your benevolence. Thank you for your grace."

"Haha, you're pretty good with words," Lorist smiled again, "Alright, let's talk business. Is Chikdor interested in breaking off from the Trade Union?"

"To be frank, Chikdor does want to break off. But we are one of the big seven. Our survival depends on the Union. Everyone knows we specialize in naval trade, and your ban keeps us from applying our only trade. Land trade is neither our specialty, nor in our hands. The Union controls it. Our largest market is also within the Union. Without our fleet, we can't trade, without the Union's market, we can't trade, and our domain cannot sustain us as it is now. We wish more than anything that we could take you up on your offer, but it would be signing our own funeral slips."

Lorist snickered to Charade and stretched out a hand, opening his palm. Charade unwillingly took out a gold Forde and handed it to the duke.

Serihanem gazed at the exchange, perplexed.

"What is this?"

"Nothing. I just won a bet. He thought you would agree in principle but put forth many conditions. I thought you would turn me down because of your difficulties."

"Uhh..."

Had this happened anywhere else, it would be a gross offense. But he couldn't get on his horse in front of this swordsaint duke. He had no choice, Chikdor was at a disadvantage; he had to endure.

Lorist tossed the coin in the air before returning it to Charade.

"Let's not play games. Charade should've won. The fact that you came to Morante shows Chikdor is interested. You are smart and I'm sure you can tell the old Union is beyond salvation. Your forces wouldn't have raided Wessia's dominion if you could not. You know what this means for the Union. Treason.

"To me, you are part of the Union, one of its claws, if you will, and our foe. We remember your aggressions along the Golden Coast. Our ban is in response to that. This is your only chance to make up for that mistake. It's really simple. Break from the Union, declare your independence.

"I'm not trying to trouble you, but there will be no games. You either do as we say, or there is no deal and you will continue to be our enemy -- with all that entails. And the Union will be wiped out. I have tried many times to negotiate, but they have refused, so I have no choice but to end them.

"You are no fool. What are your demands. Be quick and concise. If they are reasonable, I will consider them."

Serihanem blushed.

"You speak the truth. We have pushed countless times to end the war, but the other guilds will have none of it. We lost Invincible, which lost us our right to raise our voices during the meetings.

"We have no desire to stay in a country in which we have no voice. But it's not that simple. Especially not considering the history we have with you. Many don't trust you. They believe you will go back on your word and wipe us out the moment we secede from the Union.

"I am here to understand your intentions and make the final decision. We are weak, so we cannot stand on our own if the Union comes after us. We will only take up your offer if you will back our independence and defend us against any reprisals from the Union."

Lorist nodded.

"That's more like it. We are willing to guarantee your independence. Don't worry; I do not break my word. Sort out the details with Charade and we can get things rolling."

Charade returned two days later.

"This is the agreement. I believe they have more ambition than just gaining independence."

"And?"

Charade got to the map on the wall and pointed at the guild's territory.

"Chikdor doesn't want their original dominion when they declare independence. They want the land here. The land used to belong to the Duchy of Lauderta and the Kingdom of Engislun. If they get that, they'll possess seven provinces' worth of land. They'll be able to stand with the empire as an equal.

"When I asked why, Serihanem said that their dominion has little potential for growth. It's mountainous and has little surface area fit for farming, forestry, or any other economic activity. They will only have a good prospect of a bright future if they have lands with open, flat plains. I have acquiesced and made that territory part of their kingdom in our guarantee."

Lorist smirked.

"Having ambition is fine. I would be wary if they did not demand more territory. Everything around them is Union territory, and everything they want is Union territory, so I don't care what or how much they want. The more they demand, the greater the damage to the Union, and the better for us. Besides, they'll only get to keep what they can defend anyway. I actually think they're being a little meek with their demands."

"I don't understand why you're willing to help them," Charade griped, "They are our enemy. They've cause us much pain and suffering. Now, however, not only are you not getting back at them, you're rewarding them? This does not feel right."

"I understand, Charade. I have no choice. Look at the map. Morante and Chikdor areseparated by 500 kilometers of mountains. Their land is almost entirely mountains. They cannot stand with the land they have and I have no intention of putting my men on their soil, not as an ally, and certainly not as an enemy.

"We know what Serihanem hasn't said. You saw Tarkel's reports. Their dominion used to be the Duchy of Urubaha and the people are mostly poor and foolhardy. Apart from those enlisted in Duke Urubaha's rental armies, most became pirates. 'Seven of a pirate's fingers are Urubahan' as the saying goes.

"Chikdor brought down the piracy and put most of them in their navy. Now they no longer have a navy, however. Everyone is back to piracy. If we do not curb this, our trade with the south will become very costly.

"If we can get them to keep the peace in the south, then we have no issue. And that's only part of it. We can also use Chikdor against the Union. If Chikdor leaves with the lands they want, the Union will collapse. They cannot survive a blow like this, not in the state they're in already."

Charade nodded helplessly.

"Is this 'choosing the lesser two evils', and 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend'? Whatever, you don't have to mind me. Look at this. Everything we can do is signed. I can't guarantee they won't be threatened by the windstorm swordsaint in the future though..."

"No issue. I'll write them a letter they can show the old man. He will give me face and stay out of their business."

"Alright then, Your Grace. There are these as well. I've agreed to let them reform their trading fleet as long as they abide by our rules. They've agreed. I've also given them a similar exclusivity deal to the one we gave Mermaid.

"The other thing is… Serihanem asked that we strike the Union and damage them enough to give Chikdor cover to declare 

"Alright, I have no problem with that," Lorist answered, "It's natural to have doubts. We have little ground for trust right now, so it's understandable. The legions will be here in a few more days. Set up a meeting with the Free Union council."