Reidy looked at the snow-covered hill and suddenly sighed. He took out an intricate silver wine bottle and gulped down its contents, before sighing again.

"What are you doing, sighing here and there?" asked Dulles, the commander of the carroballista division, as he put down the map he was drawing.

"Nothing, really. I just miss my son," Reidy said with a bitter smile, "Sunirulu wrote me a letter, saying that our kid's already almost three and hasn't met me more than a number of times. She said that the child is incredibly naughty and looks just like I do. For some reason, I felt the urge to go home to see my son and hug him..."

Sunirulu was the maidservant of Lorist's lover, Dina Arriotoli. When Lorist went to visit her, Reidy didn't waste precious time and also hooked up with her. The problem was that he didn't want to take responsibility even though he did the deed. Sunirulu ended up giving birth to Reidy's illegitimate son.

Arriotoli was so mad that she went to complain to Lorist about it and when Lorist asked Reidy what he was up to, Reidy said he wanted to focus on training first, and that children would only wear down his determination. He said he would only consider settling down and forming a family until he became a swordsaint like Lorist.

Lorist couldn't do much about it. But at the very least, Reidy brought the mother and child to the manor Lorist gave him and let her manage the fief. Practically speaking, they were husband and wife in all but name. Even Reidy's servants address her as 'Madam Baroness'.

Dulles laughed and said, "It's no surprise. We've been out for up to three years after all. You aside, even I want to go home to The Northlands as soon as we can. Even though Morante is really developed, The Northlands feel more like home to me. Had it not been for our urgent operation, we here at Tigersoar would've been allowed to go back to The Northlands after the new year's. Some soldiers are already complaining and want to head home soon."

Reidy nodded. "I know. Let's just weather through this for a few more months. Come the 4th month next year, Firmrock will come here to replace us and take over the defense line. The Trade Union is already doomed and Peterson Merchant Guild will be founding a kingdom. So, there's nothing they can do to stir things up any longer. All we have to do is to secure the defense line and resist the Trade Union's deathly struggle. After that, we can leave the rest to Firmrock to wear them down while we go back to see our wives and children."

"Oh, Reidy, I've always wanted to ask... Even though you get along with her quite well, why don't you take her as your formal wife? You only need a ceremony to fulfill the formalities," said Dulles finally. The two of them had been acquainted for many years and had a rather decent relationship. Dulles's wife was Sunirulu's close friend and they kept no secret from one another.

Reidy shrugged, gulped down more wine and said, "You know Sunirulu's identity, right? She's Arriotoli's maidservant, and you know what kind of a relationship Arriotoli has with His Grace. And you should know that Arriotoli isn't one to just sit back; she's always been competing with Matron Sylvia by pushing for her sister, Fennazali to be His Grace's second wife.

Under those circumstances, if I take Sunirulu as my wife formally, how do you think the matron will see me? Maybe His Grace will even shove me to where Madam Arriotoli is. How it is right now is far better. Madam Arriotoli has nothing on me and Matron Sylvia and His Grace trusts me greatly. Sunirulu doesn't really mind this anyway."

Dulles had his mouth wife open from shock. "No way... You thought so much over a simple wedding? This is ridiculous! Who taught you all that?"

Reidy glanced at Dulles and said, "Do you really need people to teach you that? Just read more books. When I was by His Grace's side back then, I read many of the books he collected, including those novels about courts and knights. There are lots of depictions of how chaotic and scheming noble houses are and the more I read, the more my eyes opened to the truth. Think about it, House Norton has managed to develop from a small barony to what it is today. His Grace is also quite promiscuous and has so many women with him. I'm afraid that if any of them get jealous, then I will be embroiled in the storm that ensues. So, I'm just preparing myself for the storm so that I don't get involved in it in the future."

Dulles's was a face full of admiration. "Reidy, I didn't think you'd become so smart. When I first got to know you back then, you were still a rash brat, yet now you're able to see so far into the future. His Grace really has a good eye for a disciple. He must've known that you'll become quite a big deal in the future."

"Hehe, Dulles, stop with the flattering," Reidy said, smiling, "I'm not the same as you. You met your wife during the northbound journey. Come to think of it, it was His Grace who let you and some others pick a maidservant. You even had your eyes on Donna on first sight and picked her, and the two of you supported each other during the journey and eventually got married in The Northlands. What a perfect ending. But me... As His Grace's eldest disciple, I have to always watch my actions so as to not harm His Grace's interests. SIgh... Let's chat another time. Is the defense layout complete yet?"

"Oh, almost. Look at here, here and here. I've marked the 17 highest points in the nearby area on the map. If we occupy the high ground, we will be able to set up a perfect defense line," said Dulles as he showed Reidy the map.

They were in the province of Quadro and the date was the 31st of the 12th month. After initial negotiations with Count Mireitas, Lorist ordered Tigersoar, the sentry legion and the Free Union legion to mobilize and they initiated their assault during winter. Thanks to Mireitas guiding the way, they managed to take control of Jerotan and Chalbuk.

The Free Union forces were stationed at Jerotan to dismantle the fortifications and fill up the tranches. The sentry legion on the other hand took control of the whole dominion of Peterson with the cover of 'helping the Peterson forces defend Chalbuk'. As for Tigersoar, Reidy led them to Quadro to set up a defense line to defend against frenzied Union retaliation when they found out about Duke Peterson's betrayal.

Sinjik, a city in Chalbuk, was Peterson Merchant Guild's base of operations and it would also become the new capital of the Peterson kingdom.

Currently, there were a group of people at the south of the city preparing to send Count Mireitas off. Accompanying the count were Charade, Shuss, Park, and a regiment of a thousand guards as well as a rank 1 blademaster sent by Duke Peterson, Cystin. Mireitas used the deployment to deal with the landed nobles of Aligmai, threatening or goading them to become part of the Peterson kingdom and wiping out those who were loyal to the Trade Union.

The wheels on the carriages had already been swapped out for smooth blades of the sleds. Charade and Mireitas sat in the same carriage. Looking at the ambitious-looking count, Charade smiled and took out a document from his pouch that was made out of a black fur skin and handed it to him.

"What is this?" asked Mireitas curiously as he received it.

"This is the deed of Dauslyke Hotel and the six adventurer's taverns in the Falik Plains," Charade explaiend, "After the formation of the Free Union, everything belonging to the Trade Union was confiscated and made public property. When His Grace heard about how you, Lord Count, had been fighting to stop the war only to be mistreated, His Grace was impressed and he paid 200 thousand gold Fordes out of his own pocket to purchase the deeds formerly belonging to your household with the intent to return it as gratitude for your contributions towards peace.

"After buying the deeds back, His Grace also dealt with the paperwork and vouched for your household. Lord Count, you may send your men back to Morante and Falik Plains to take over the hotel and taverns and start your business once more. His Grace even said that you should feel free to ask House Norton for any help should you need it.

"Additionally, there's another agreement over here. His Grace said that even though Aligmai's terrain is not suitable for large military mobilizations, we still have to defend against the guerilla attacks the Trade Union will carry out. So, His Grace has decided to lend supplies enough for a division of troops to your household at half price to help you form a division of elite troops. The term of this 'loan' is ten years. If you want it, just sign here and we'll send the supplies and gear to your dominion and help with the formation of your own force."

Mireitas held the document in his hands and froze. He shuddered, before his warm tears streaked all across his face. "I'm sigining it! Of course I am! Please thank Duke Norton for his kind intentions on my behalf... House Mireitas will never forget this boon you have granted us!"

Not signing the agreement was out of the question. Even though Duke Peterson spent nearly ten days to bargain with Charade, he only got enough supplies and gear enough for two legions for a quarter price off for a loan that had to be repaid in ten years. However, there was an interest of five percent for that loan. On the other hand, to thank Count Mireitas for playing a part in convincing Duke Peterson to secede from the Trade Union, Lorist rewarded him with all the deeds to House Mireitas's properties in Morante and the Falik Plains and even offered them a loan with such great conditions. That was precisely what Count Mireitas needed in a time of trouble, and he cried tears of joy on the spot.

"You're welcome, Lord Count. House Norton will never mistreat its friends. Friends should help each other out after all. We only act for justice and the restoration of peace, so we will still require your aid in ending the war. Also, Lord Count, please advise us on which nobles in Aligmai would agree with our plans and which ones are loyal and have to be removed."

Mireitas rubbed his eyes and smiled gratefully. "Alright, Lord Baron. I'll give you an introduction of the nobles in Aligmai. There are 42 noble houses here, among them..."

......

On the 10th day of the 4th month, Duke Peterson seceded from the Trade Union with Chalbuk, Aligmai and Jerotan to found the Peterson kingdom. At the same time, he sent an ambassador to the neighboring nations and the Free Union with a request to be accepted as a member state of the Treaty of Midsouthern Nations.

The premier of the Trade Union, Duke Cobleit, heard word of that and fainted from blood loss through excessive vomiting. Forde, Riwald and the other minor guilds were fueled by rage and they gathered their forces and mobilized them to Chalbuk in preparation to punish the traitorous Duke Peterson.

The army ended up being severely wounded by the Nortons that lied in wait and suffered horrendous losses. Tigersoar gave pursuit while they were ahead and took 27 fortresses in Chalbuk in quick succession, raided everything there was to raid, and returned to the rear of the defense line.

Once Cobleit heard the news of their huge loss the moment he regained consciousness, he shut himself in his study and spent a day and night without eating before he gathered all the nobles and said, "We've already lost this war. Let's send people to surrender to the Nortons."

"No, Your Grace! We have to fight to the end! Otherwise, we'll have lost too much..."

"We still have one million subjects! Enough food! We can still build an army of hundreds of thousands! We'll defeat House Norton by swarming them in numbers! We'll eradicate the Peterson kingdom!"

"Traitors must be punished! We can definitely not make peace with traitors!"

Cobleit's words were like a stone that sunk to the bottom of the well. The nobles were strongly against his suggestion and everyone was still willing to fight and unwilling to take the loss in the heat of the moment. Some of the more rational ones merely kept silent.

"We must surrender and ask for peace!" the duke yelled with a raised voice, suppressing the rambling nobles, "Do you know what the consequences are if we prolong the war? Our complete and total annihilation! House Norton is tightening the noose around our next step by step without fail! Compared to us, they can afford to be more patient and watch as we take one step after another towards the gallows!

"Even though the Trade Union has existed for nearly two centuries, we have never been in such a dire situation! Right now, we still have a million subjects and enough food, but we lack good weapons and equipment! We can't let our soldiers go on the battlefield with wooden weapons, can we? Look at the Norton forces! Steel ballistae, catapults, cannons, you name it, they have it all! But we can only rely on hand to hand combat! We can only resist our enemies' attacks by throwing the lives of our soldiers at them!

"In terms of weapons and equipment, we're far too inferior. If the Nortons are fully armored knights, we are nothing but stick-wielding farmers! We need time to catch up, time to develop weapons that can match up to our enemy's. Only then can we restore the Union to its former glory.

"But what we need now is time. More crucially, we have a fatal lack of salt in our territory."

"What? Salt?" All the nobles were dumbstruck.

"That's right, salt," Duke Cobleit nodded with a pained smile, "Back then, we could easily get salt when we were at Morante. But now, we have to surrender and make peace with the enemy to be able to obtain that crucial resource. The salt we have can only last us three more months. You all know what it's like when we don't have any salt. The body would grow weak and feeble. If we don't make peace as soon as possible, we'll implode in half a year without the enemy even having to attack!

"I locked myself up in my study to go over this for a day and night about how our Union fell so low to this point. It all started when we made the wrong choice! We had forgotten our roots as merchants. The moment we decided to use war to expand our influence, we became like the very nobles we so frowned upon! We raided for wealth because it was so much easier to make profit than running a legitimate business. It could even be said to be cost free!

"But as a result, we turned our allies into enemies. Because we lost none of our battles, we forgot about compromise. We only knew how to kill and maim. The more territory we conquered, the larger our pride grew, and we always assumed that we were the victors, high up and aloof. Even though we encountered House Norton and lost to them one battle after another we still didn't snap out of it. In fact, we doubled down like chronic gamblers and placed all our hopes in a single victory, only to have our forces decimated so badly.

"It's about time we woke up. We are merchants, and we should use a merchant's wit to tussle with the enemy instead of a noble's war. Our only option now is to surrender and make peace while we still have a chance to. As long as we change our approach and fight the enemy with trade, I doubt that anybody else can match up to us, even House Norton.

"We will have to spend the near future in lots of pain and hardship. Our enemies won't let us go so easily and we might have to pay a huge price to make peace. But we are merchants. We can endure our humiliation to trade with our enemy. We shall hide our gripes and desire for revenge deep in our hearts and use our cunning and wit to make profit from the hands of the enemy. By the time we recuperate to our full strength, we can once again rise to glory!

"Now, let's pick a suitable ambassador for ourselves."