"Jindoz, aren't you daring? You actually dare solicit Els to leave House Norton?! Are you taking us for granted?" yelled Lorist as he entered the council chambers.

Jindoz shrugged helplessly. Charlando whistled and glared.

"What? Can't I get my nephew to come back to help his brothers? Locke, my boy, don't think you're some kind of bigshot just because you're a duke and a swordsaint. If you're really that capable, why wouldn't you let Els come home? The guilds have left and his brother controls much of the Union. What ought Els do other than come back?"

Jindoz looked at Charlando, smiling bitterly. Lorist instantly understood the geezer was probably the one behind it all. He remembered one night the previous year when he invited all the Dawn Academy alumni who had joined Lorist to the Red Grace Inn for a reunion. Els and Reidy were there too. Charlando nagged on about Els and Reidy leaving home without giving the slightest care about their uncle. He wanted the two to come back home.

Both suggested Charlando go north with them instead, but the old man was stubborn and refused to leave. When Lorist and Charade tried to convince him, he, somewhat drunk, said he would never become a subject. He was a proud, independent, free Morantian. He would never be someone else's slave.

Lorist gave up at that point and left.

He thought that would be the last of such talk, but now the old geezer was going after his disciples and followers!

Lorist smiled furiously.

"Old Char, stop messing around. People have different goals and paths. Els and Reidy are doing great with me. Els has a family, and Reidy has a bastard and a woman he loves, though he has yet to marry. Els will also soon be made a count and get more land. What can you give him if he stays here, huh? Els was Jindoz's boss before he left, it would be inappropriate for him to be his subordinate, especially given how high he's risen in the aristocracy."

Charlando was the two's senior, but he was just a commoner.  Hierarchy and social standing didn't impede his serving Jindoz, but Else was different. He was a minor noble, he would, in fact, soon be a major noble. He could not serve under a commoner. He also still had great prospects with Lorist, he had little future with Jindoz even if he didn't mind being under a commoner. He also had a family back north, his wife certainly wouldn't accept having to give up her title as Baroness - soon to be Countess to be a commoner and a foreigner here.

"What's the problem? They're brothers! It doesn't matter who's on top or at the bottom!" insisted the old man. He acted like he was still a mercenary, taking up the burden of band leader and looking out for his comrades. "What's the big deal with count? It doesn't matter how much land he gets, it'll be in that shithole of a place called the Northlands! Look at Morante! It couldn't be more prosperous!

"And then there's that whole nobility thing! Slavery by another name! All you do is scheme against each other and plot how to steal more money from your poor slaves! Els is an honest boy, he doesn't belong in such a degenerate place! So what if he's a general? You're only using him! You'll throw him away like an old napkin once you're done with him! Don't take it personally, Locke, even if you can take care of Els for his whole life, what about your son, or your grandson? Can you guarantee they'll have the same temperament and beliefs as you? How will they treat his descendents? If they're greedy and scheming they'll have the power and authority to take everything for him or his descendants! Here that can never happen! This is where he belongs and where he can live the best life!"

Lorist didn't know how to respond. He couldn't help but be amazed at his imagination.

"You're letting your imagine go again, old man. I'm a swordsaint, I will live for hundreds of years, but of course I can't guarantee what my descendents will do. But you can't guarantee what the people who will rule after Jindoz will do either. Morante might turn into the old Union again in half a century, then what? The north is neither as desolate nor as chaotic as you think. Nor the aristocracy as lawless. Every system has its bad eggs, yes, but our are no more than yours.  I'd even say ours are less than yours.

"I'm disappointed with you, old man. You know nothing about the rest of the world. My lands house three million people. At least three times what Morante has. Els's dominion is in Delamock as well, the empire's breadbasket. He and Reidy don't have to oppress their subjects. Their tax income is over ten thousand gold Fordes a year."

"They dominions each have around 13 thousand serfs and their personal retinues are no less than a hundred men each. Els has three knights under him, pledged to him personally, and Reidy is training two squires. They levy just a one-half tax on their lands' produce and only have to give one-fifth of their taxes to me. Then they also earn a good salary for being in the military and have a lot of other benefits. Altogether they earn at least 20 thousand a year.

"When they retire, they'll go home and focus on their dominions. They won't have to worry about anything. Hell, even if their dominions earned them nothing they'll have enough money to live lavishy for the rest of their lives. Their children will get the best education on the continent, the same as my children. Hell, they'll at some point probably be in the same class as some of mine. They'll attend both Nico and later Dawn Academy. If they have the skills they'll go on to serve in the military or administration of the house just like their fathers. So even those that don't inherit their father's title and land will have a rich live. I might even take one or two as my disciples, or my disciples might take them themselves if they're good enough."

"Hold on. Just one-half tax?!" Jindoz interjected. That must be the lowest tax on the continent. It was normally six- or seven-tenths, and that was if the lord was feeling generous. The average was eight-tenths, leaving just barely enough for the people to survive, sometimes not. The Free Union's tax was six-tenths. The old Union's tax had been eight-tenths.

"Yes, I only take one-half of the produce, and only allow my vassals to take up to six-tenths from their land. My other taxes are at most one-tenth on things like trade and factory production. And I also run a lot of programmes that reduce taxes as subsidies. Only luxury goods are taxed at more than one-tenth."

Lorist had wanted to set the crop tax at just one-third, but Charade wouldn't allow it. They could go beneath the average a little, but if they deviated from the norm too much, rocked the boat too much, they'd be ostracised.

"Why?" asked Jindoz curiously.

"Simple. The more loose money the people have, the more they can buy. They will be happy and live better and the moving money will let businesses do better. The better the businesses do the more money can be taxed, and the more they will pay their workers, which we can tax as well, which gives the workers more money to spend again, and it all starts over."

"You're just playing fancy with words! Even if you're a benevolent lord, what of your descendants? It takes just one bad heir to undo everything because he will have absolute power! The people will suffer the most and won't be able to do anything about it. Only by making sure that everyone is equal, and we give as little power to any one person as possible, can we protect ourselves from those kinds of people, can we live truly free," mocked Charlando.

Lorist smacked his forehead. Charlando was a staunch believer in freedom and liberty, as were most of the people in the city. That was why Lorist didn't want anyone from here to become his subjects and move to the north. They would only be trouble. Even worse, they were blind to the reality of the old Union. They were slaves in all but name to the big seven and their crony guilds as well.

There was no true freedom in the world. Lorist didn't even believe it was a goal worth pursuing, a dream to have, a wish to desire, to begin with. The Grindia's history was mostly talk of the of the dark ages after the end of the magical era. There were no more swordgods or swordsaints made by magi and the humans constantly struggled against magic beasts. People only barely began recovering after they rediscovered how to cultivate battleforce. The first people to do so obviously became kings and their vassals.

After the dark ages the nobles fought to establish the new hierarchy. From a certain point of view, it could be argued that these nobles brought war and suffering to the people. But on the other hand, they also brought order and development. In the following millennium, the nobles even established strict chivalric customs.

"Char," Lorist said as he shook his head and sighed, "I don't know how you managed to get the prejudice you hold against nobles. The noble code and customs no longer allow lieges to command their vassals or exploit them as they will since a thousand years ago. A liege also can't simply threaten the safety of the lives or wealth of their vassals. Unless the vassal commits an unforgivable crime or if there's proof of rebellious intent that has to be verified by other vassal nobles, only then can a liege punish the offending noble.

"In some sense, nobles are their own watchdogs. We also hope for peace and order to be maintained. An anarchy benefits nobody. Also, have you so-called believers in freedom forgot about the days when the merchant guilds ruled over you before our house came to Hidegold Bay and conquered Morante? Do you think that rationing system is what freedom looks like?

"I believe that freedom can only come from orderly governance. That way, everyone's rights can be ensured. For example, the rules and regulations of the Free Union can protect the freedom of its citizens. That is not too different from the regulations we nobles use. If the nobles are kind, their subjects will be no different than free citizens. If the nobles are cruel, they will be akin to the Trade Union. No matter how much you boast about your freedom, you're still beholden to those who rule. No matter whether you have a noble ruling you or not, it's all semantics. In the end, you're just a subject like everyone else."

Charlando no longer argued. Even though Lorist was straightforward with his arguments, they still made sense. Jindoz, on the other hand, had a question. "Brother Locke, there's something that has always been on my mind. Even though the formation of the Free Union hasn't posed any problems yet, would a repeat of what happened to the Trade Union occur again when the rich and powerful are no longer satisfied with the privileges that they already enjoy and start demanding for more?"

Lorist laughed and understood why Jindoz brought the question up. "Of course, there's a huge possibility for that to happen. But that is something that will only show up in many years ahead. To solve it, it's simple. Simply implement a nobility system."

"A nobility system?" Jindoz said anxiously, "Isn't that exactly what the Trade Union did?"

"No, the kind of nobility system I'm referring to is different from what the Trade Union implemented," Lorist said with a dismissive wave, "The Trade Union implemented a landed nobility system, and that proved to be the downfall of Morante and the nation as a whole. What I'm suggesting is an honors system. The noble titles given will be a symbol for their status. For example, each title will come with a set annual income and those who bear the titles will have special manors to live in. The treatment afforded by different titles vary. Apart from not having a fief, there's not much difference between an honorary noble like that and a landed noble. That way, you can avoid the fragmentation of power and resources to the different fiefs like what happened with the Trade Union. You'll also be able to motivate people to strive harder and contribute to the Free Union to be awarded those honors."

Jindoz looked like he was both enlightened and confused. He muttered in deep thought, "Is that really possible?"
"Just find someone to discuss it when you get back. Get their thoughts on the matter. I was only suggesting it casually."

At that moment, Jinolio entered the rom and reminded, "Your Grace, it's time. Please head to the meeting room with the other two sirs. The council will begin soon."