"When heaven gives you a chance, do bloody well take it!" ~ Count Mireitas



Duke Peterson looked distraught. The decision he was about to make would decide his guild’s survival. He never imagined he would be pushed into such a corner, even less that the one pushing him would be an ex-Dawn Academy instructor. The man was now both a swordsaint and a duke. At the time they’d been worlds apart, but thanks to the duke’s penchant for treating everyone with a friendly grace, they had been on friendly, if not close, terms. No one would have thought such a minor figure would blossom into the continent’s most influential and consequential man in just a decade and a half.

He stood at his office’s window, staring out at the home he had built for himself, his family, and his guild, a letter from this ex-instructor clutched in his hand. It contained just three words, written in his by now iconic simple handwriting: ‘You are next.’

Sweat poured out of his forehead at such a rate that it threatened to overflow his eyebrows and flood his eyes. He swore he could feel the swordsaint’s murderous intent stabbing at him from the straight-lined characters. It left him with just two options, either walk the same path as Chikdor and Mayflower, or charge full-speed into the dead-end at the end of the road on which he was currently. He wanted to comfort himself with the dozens of fortresses he had built and the hundreds of kilometers of trenches he had dug, but he couldn’t.  A small, nagging voice at the back of his head kept screaming, ‘it isn’t enough!’

His regret stabbed him constantly.  If only he had pushed for peace with Duke Cobleit and the other guild leaders, if only he’d been stubborn in his insistence that they capitulate, this would not have come to pass.

But he had not.

The choice might seem obvious at first, death of kingship, but life was never that simple. If he stayed with the Union he had little doubt he would be a head on a stake in no more than two, maybe three, years. But he had no certainty that he could successfully secede from the Union either. His dominion was in the heart of Union territory, right next to Twinhead Dragon. He would be wiped out the moment he declared independence.

He couldn’t stand it. When had his guild become a pawn in others’ schemes? When had it lost its glory, its pride?

Duke Norton had moved his forces into Mauvlin, the perfect place from which to invade his territory. His territory occupied Chalbuk, a province-sized piece of land right next to Twinhead Dragon’s land, Leolika.

Peterson had to defend Jerotan as well now. Cobleit put him in charge of the province, which stood between Peterson’s territory and the land now occupied by Duke Norton.

Peterson was truly stuck between a rock and a hard place. His scouts told him the duke’s forces were building up at a rate that suggested they would attack in a year’s time. The knowledge did little for him though. The Union could have all the knowledge in the world, but they could not act on it. They barely had the men and the money to man their defenses, much less walk out onto the battlefield in any significant number. Their only hope was that, by some miracle, the duke lost interest in them or just forgot to give to order to attack, failing that, they could only hope their fortresses would drag the conflict on long enough that the man got tired of it and decided to go home.

Peterson didn’t put much stock in that hope. He knew the man too well to be that naïve. The duke was not easily provoked into action, but once he was, he always, always, saw things through to the end. It didn’t help that he had the force to end them six times over either. He had single-handedly all but wiped out the greatest nation Grindia had ever known - save the ancient magi empires, of course.

It didn’t matter whether the strategy worked on not either. They would not tire the duke out before Chalbuk, and with it Peterson’s guild, his life’s work, was conquered and destroyed. And with the hatred the continent had for everyone associated with the Union, if he was forced to start over from scratch, he would never stand back up again. No one would let him.

And it wasn’t like one choice would ruin him and the other would save him. If he stood with the Union, he would most certainly be wiped out, but betraying it had only a slightly smaller chance of leading to his destruction.

A knock on the door woke the duke from his rueful silence.

“Enter.”

A spindly servant stepped into his office.

“Count Mireitas is here, my lord.”

“Send him in.”

The servant bowed and disappeared again.

House Mireitas was a reputable house in the Union. They concerned themselves primarily with the hospitality business; a rare voice for peace. The wars and sanctions that resulted therefrom had ruined their industry. They had been forced to close most of their inns and taverns, and were hanging on by the skin of their teeth. They were most furious about losing their pride and joy, the jewel in their proverbial crown, Dauslyke, the famous Morantian hotel.

Mireitas stomped into the study grumpily.

“Why didn’t you turn down Cobleit’s suggestion to merge the dominions? That bastard has nothing but his own profit in mind. Do you really want to lose what little you have left, Zack?”

Ah, how nostalgic. Few of the people who called Peterson by his nickname were still alive. Hearing his childhood nickname had become a sad rarity. Mireitas was the only one he still saw with some sense of regularity that used that name. They practically grew up together.

“Sigh, you have a bad temper these days.” Peterson complained, “Cobleit was forced into this position by the war. We have just seven provinces left. We can’t afford to have our economy and governance as fractured and dispersed as it is now. Everything has to be directed by a single, unified vision.”

“Who do you think you’re fooling? Do you really think we stand a chance?” Mireitas snorted, “We’ve done nothing but lose, men and land alike, since this started. We had 37 provinces before the war, now we have 7, and who knows for how long that’ll hold? Your pride, and that bastard and everyone else like him’s pride is destroying us. Chikdor and Mayflower seceded because you are all blinded by your arrogance and refuse to do the sensible thing! We lost our newest forces to a man as well! How many more people need to die; how many more fortresses need to burn; how much more land needs to be lost before you fools will finally wake up?!”

“People must have hope, Meed. We all know how unrealistic that hope is, but we need it. Besides, we’re not out just yet. I’m busy recruiting more men and soon I’ll have another legion ready for the war. The duke must be getting tired of this constant war. He’s not been back home in years, he’s not seen his wife or concubines, or any of his children in years. We just need to hold out a little longer. We held out against the empire’s constant invasions for sixteen years. We still have a number to a go before we reach that point in this war.”

“So you really do eat shit, huh? I didn’t want to believe it, but it seems you gobble Cobleit’s shit up like it’s rosewater cake! Yes, we were the continent’s largest nation, but for just three years, then we started digging our grave, and that bastard was the first to pick up a shovel! Have you taken a look at a map lately? Why did we hold out for 167 years against the empire, hmm? We had extensive trade networks across the rest of the continent to fund our war, and we sent our allies out to do the fighting.

“This time we have neither trade nor allies. Not to mention that we’re not facing just one enemy, nor that our principle enemy this time is worth ten Krissen Empires, even without all the other champing at the bit to dig into us!”

“Ahhh...” Duke Peterson was speechless.

Indeed, they were completely surrounded, both by land and by enemies. They barely had the manpower to hold on, but it would have been okay if they had the supplies, but they didn’t have that either.

“The only thing we have in some measure of sufficiency is salt. And that’s what Cobleit is after with this merger of his. He wants to take your salt.”

Peterson was taken aback.

“I am completely baffled by this stupidity of yours, Zack. You weren’t this stupid when we were back in Morante.”

With Chikdor and Mayflower’s secession, and with the Alliance joining in on the Union dogpile, the Union had been completely cut off.  There was no one to turn to, no nation they bordered that was not an enemy. There was no one with whom to trade. Their only option was becoming self-sufficient, and that was only possible by unifying under a single ruler.

The landless guilds had nothing to lose, so they were staunch supporters of the move, but the guilds with land were absolutely opposed to it. Cobleit only got them to agree after promising to pay them back one and a half times what they would lose after the war was over.

A few of the smaller landed guilds, however, were still furiously resisting the change, Count Mireitas and his house was one of them. He’d lost his entire hospitality business, all he had left was his land. His guild had made the complete transition from guild to house. But now, just as he was finally beginning to tread water again, his former friends and allies were going to take that away from him as well.

“Look at the bigger picture, Meed. House Norton is at our doorstep. If they attack, even if we successfully repel them, we’ll either lose our territory, or it’ll be so ruined that it won’t be worth anything. Isn’t it better, then, to get guaranteed compensation?” Peterson countered.

“Compensation my ass! You still trust that bastard? He’ll only give us a five of our due now, the rest we can only get after the war. He’ll no doubt conveniently forget about that once the war is over, if we’re even still standing then.

“Have you completely lost it, Zack? Have you finally cracked? Tell me, if we keep fighting and somehow stay alive, how long will it be before this war ends, hmm?  A decade, two, three, five? A century, maybe? Maybe two?” Mireitas slammed his fist on the desk.

Duke Norton’s letter flapped open on the table.

“Oh, what’s this? ‘You are next’? Who wrote this? Lorist... Bloodblade Saint...”

“I have no time to worry about your concerns, Meed. This letter, Duke Norton, the Bloodblade Saint, wrote it. I am next on the chopping block!”

Mireitas burst out laughing.  He had to clutch the chair’s armrests to keep himself from falling off.

“So the gods haven’t completely abandoned us! Wonderful! This is our chance!”