"Never be blindly loyal to your superior. He is using you for his benefit, so use him for your benefit."



In terms of appearance, Duke Nikolas, Mayflower’s president, could be considered the ugliest among the presidents. He had a long, horse-like face and two small eyes which he liked to squint at others. It made it appear that he was always scheming. Everyone called him ‘old snake’ behind his back as a result.

His eyes had, in fact, lost him the position as the Union’s premier. Duke Cobleit had the look of an upstanding old man. That damned goody-two-shoes-looking bastard.

Those that knew Nikolas, however, knew his looks belayed his true personality. He was sincere and gentle, and treated servant and noble alike respectfully. He never discriminated based on status. Among the guilds, Mayflower had the most loyal staff and anyone who interacted with the duke would disregard his appearance and be drawn in by his charisma.

Currently, Nikolas was subsumed with the map on his desk. He closed his eyes from time to time, falling into a kind of catatonic state of deep thought. House Norton had suddenly picked his lands as its target. He wondered whether their aim was to sweep through his territory or something else. Perhaps they were trying to push the Union into another stalemate to delay its recovery. Or were they just intent on pillaging some riches? HIs land was rich with gold and silver and they had concentrated their attack on the mining hotspots in Feldunba.

Captain of the Guard, Cyros, entered quietly, two letters in his hands.

“Your Grace, I have a report from Fort Linston. The front-lines have been quiet since the last assault. It looks like they’ve given up. They haven’t fired a single cannon shot in three days.

“I also have a message from Morante. Our informant says Duke Norton is heading to the front-
“Oh?” Nikolas raised his brow curiously and read the two letters.

His gaze returned to the map, which he surveyed for a few moments, before his eyes widened.

“Start the migration plan immediately! I want everyone ready to leave in three days!”

“But the front-lines are stable, my lord?”

This plan would see them abandon Feldunba entirely. But was there a need if things were stable? They’d given up so much to get the region, and then invested even more to develop it.

“The quiet front-lines mean nothing good. Just do it. We won’t get to leave at all if we don’t do it now.”

“Understood, my lord.”

Cyros immediately left. He was a loyal man. He obeyed his lord’s orders even when they weren’t understood.

However, Mayflower’s vice-president, Count Abraham, soon barged into the room.

“What’s going on, brother? You think the situation is bad?”

Nikolas nodded tiredly.

“Duke Cobleit just ask us to hold the Nortons back for half a month? Everything’s stabilized and the front is quiet. We can just sit tight until the reinforcements arrive.”

“It’s not that simple,” Nikolas countered, “That geezer isn’t going to do us any good. Think about it: he knew about the sandbag trick before this invasion even started, but he waited until we were about to crumble to tell us. We have only Fort Linston left. Once that fort falls they have a clear charge into the open plains and we’ll never stop them. They’ll wipe us out overnight before we can even get our pants on.”

“Didn’t the duke say we can still dig trenches to slow them down? We just have to hold on until reinforcements arrive,” insisted Abraham anxiously.

Nikolas sighed.

“Brother, I understand your feelings. But, whether you want to accept it or not, that bastard won’t send in his reinforcements until we’ve been sufficiently weakened. He wants to grind us into dust using House Norton as the grindstone so we won’t be a threat to his rule.”

“But... Fort Linston won’t fall that easily! We’re doing just fine against their cannons, aren’t we? And they won’t try to brute force it with numbers, it’ll be a bloodbath even they can’t afford. I’m sure they’ll grow impatient and move on and be someone else’s problem soon.”

“You’ve forgotten that they have a swordsaint. Fort Linston can defend against cannons, but it stands no chance against a swordsaint. It would have been fine if the duke had stayed in Morante, but I just got news that he’s heading for the front. He’s coming to take out Fort Linston himself. I also doubt he’d have come if they were just interested in a little pillaging.”

“That... that can’t be,” Abraham gasped, “Duke Norton is a swordsaint! How can he get involved in a war between normal people?! Master Magrut would never lower himself like that!”

“People are different, so are swordsaints,” Nikolas smiled bitterly, “Can the Magrut really compare to Duke Norton? Can any of the swordsaints really be used to judge Duke Norton? They’re all only associated with kingdoms and empires for the benefits. They have no reason to get involved in wars like this. If their kingdom or empire is destroyed, they can just attach themselves to someone else. Duke Norton is different. He is a noble with land to his name and a noble reputation to uphold. He has a vested interest in seeing his side win all the time. And he’s a tenacious one, just look at how he clawed his way to swordsaint and duke from iron rank and baron on the brink of losing his land and his title.

“And now that fool Cobleit went and gave Magrut a title and land at the other end of the country. Do you really think Magrut will ever leave his territory again? Do you think he’ll ever take to the field against Duke Norton as long as the duke doesn’t threaten his territory directly?

“Other swordsaints might want to stay aloof because actual fighting is rarely beneficial for them, but Duke Norton is different. He’s always led his men from the front, he’s always been the first one to charge into the enemy formations, and now he has every incentive to continue doing that. If this were before the War of Glass, we might have had the option of wearing him down and killing him in exchange for dozens of blademasters and one or two hundred gold ranks, but we don’t have the numbers for that anymore.  I doubt we have more than two dozen blademasters altogether, if even that, and our gold rank numbers are similarly abysmal.”

Abraham stood sadly. There was no way he was going to change Duke Nikolas’s mind. It stung badly. He had been responsible for Feldunba’s development and had invested the better part of fifteen years into it. It could even be considered his life’s work. But he trusted his older brother’s judgement implicitly, so he didn’t make a fuss.

“Where will we go? Even if we manage to get everyone out and no one scatters and leaves us, Cobleit will blame us and won’t let us settle somewhere else. He’ll probably take our army and leave us to rot.”

“You think we’ve going to that old bastard?” Nikolas asked as he stared at the map intensely, “We’ll go south.”

“South?”

“Yes, south. You remember the letter Duke Chikdor sent us last month? He said he was going to declare independence at the end of the year. I thought the letter was sent to provoke us, but then I started thinking. If that were his goal, then why send the letter to me and not Duke Cobleit?

“I finally understood his intent when the Nortons started pouring across the border. He’s offering us a chance at peace. If we pack up and head south, and make sure to cut ties with the Union, Duke Norton will leave us alone. It’s good for both of us. We get a new domain, so we get to continue existing, and Duke Chikdor gets a much needed ally. He wants us to seceded from the union and found a kingdom alongside him.”

Abraham stared at his brother blankly, his mouth agape.

“No way... You got all that from that letter?”

Nikolas nodded.

“Once we’re finished with the preparations, you’ll take the men to Casirota. If anyone asks what you’re doing, tell them you’re clearing out a piece of land so the young, the elderly, and the women can hide there until the war is over. It should be obvious to everyone that the Nortons will target Tenelik and Sylugnika once they break through Fort Linston. They want to cut the Union in half and that’s the best way to do it. We have to go to Sylugnika immediately and send an ambassador to Duke Norton. We’re ask for a short truce and negotiate our withdrawal from the region and the conflict. I don’t think the duke will have a problem letting us go.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. I wouldn’t be willing to make a move this daring otherwise. Duke Norton doesn’t care about the south at all. He just wants to cut the Union off from its trade routes. Getting us to back out so they don’t have to fight us, while adding another obstacle to the Union’s recovery will be a welcome development for him.”

Abraham bowed respectfully.

“I understand. I’ll get everything ready.”

......

The men were in the dumps when Lorist arrived. Ovidis had arrived two days earlier and, based on his experience and some experiments with some trebuchets constructed on the fly, it wasn’t practical to fling gunpowder sacks into the fortress. The largest obstacle was the fort’s location on elevated ground. They had to be within 200 meters of the fortress to get the sacks over the wall, but that would expose them to too much counter fire.

“We cannot push through without taking the fort, Your Grace, and we can’t do that without heavy casualties.”

Howard described the situation on the sand table. Lorist couldn’t help but admire the expert placement and design of the enemy fort. It was the greatest use of a fort he had ever seen. Even with his cannons, it was still a near impossible task to take it.

“I will take charge.”

If he couldn’t take it with cannons, or blow it up with gunpowder sacks, then he would just barge in himself and slaughter his way through. What use was being a swordsaint if he couldn’t flex his muscles to solve sticky situations like this? His men refused vehemently, however. Their self-esteem would not let them allow their lord, a swordsaint no less, take the field because of their inadequacy.

“Don’t worry, I’m not going to risk my life alone. Reidy, Els, pick out a few capable knights. We’ll take a few gunpowder sacks as well. After we get on the enemy walls, we will destroy their weapons. Howard will then roll the cannons up the hill and blast his way through the main gate.”