"The worst kind of enemy a man can have is another man with nothing to lose."

 

Really sorry for the mistaken release. We've chosen to release this chapter as well (making it a double release on the site) so that the chapters can be read in order, so there will be no public site release tomorrow. We apologize for the inconveniences caused.



Duke Cobleit rushed into his study furiously. The meeting had not gone well. His rage made the servants walk on eggshells, afraid the duke would vent on them.

The duke wasn't so petty, though. He had no desire to vent on his servants. Doing it would not help him and it would damage his reputation. He would be much better served turning his anger into a driving force to find a solution to the problem. He needed to convince the opposition to give up their power and centralize under his command.

"Are those blind fools making you angry again?" asked an eerie voice.

Cobleit started. He lifted his gaze and saw a man clad in black in the corner of the room. Only his pale white face was visible. He smelt bloody and medicinal.

"Why are you here? Isn't it inconvenient for you?" Cobleit asked.

"Same old same old, I didn't die so I have to live with this suffering. I thought of ending it a few times, but I can't forgive that bastard to turned me into this, so I can't die. I will drag him with me when I finally go."

A sinister smile flashed across the pale face.

"I'm sorry, Krilos, it's because of my incompetence. I failed to keep my promise. I couldn't bring your archenemy to you and I'm afraid I won't be able to for many years. Maybe not for the rest of my life."

Cobleits cousin lowered his head. He'd taken the swordsaint to the peace negotiations all those years ago as Twinhead Dragon's vice-president and representative. He had volunteered for the honour. It would have been a great achievement and would have ensured he became a duke as well, but alas Lorist intervened and ruined his plan. No, he hadn't just ruined his plan, he had ruined his body and his heart.

Nobody expected he was a swordsaint. He fought off the windstorm swordsaint, even horribly injuring him. Krilos and his companion blademasters were caught. The blademasters were torn to shreds by Andinaq's nobles. Krilos was only spared because the enemy king had an even worse fate in mind for him.

The king refused to acknowledge Krilos as a noble.  He instead treated him like a charlatan. He stripped him naked, stuck feathers on him, and sent him back to the Union on horseback.

His treatment was worse than the old folk punishment. The feathers would normally be glued with honey. It could easily be washed off. Auguslo, however, broke all his limbs, destroyed his cultivation, and glued the feathers to him using laquer. His other injuries aside, the lacquer burnt his skin, it caused painful and itchy boils to form which would drive the victim mad. If they scratched the boils, however, the lacquer would get under the skin and fester, if it didn't kill him it would certainly force the healers to amputate the limb.

It was the greatest humiliation any one man had ever suffered. Before the ordeal his reputation was that of a graceful, well-spoken gentlemen adored by Morante's women. After, however, he was not just the Union's greatest laughingstock, but also its greatest shame. He had been forced since to listen to thousands call him "pigeon".

His physical pain was no small burden either. Had he still had his cultivation, he could have completely healed his limbs with just a few potions, but his weakened body could not handle them. He still took them to heal his limbs, otherwise he would never have been able to leave the bed again, but they ruined his nerves such that he was in constant pain in every cubic centimetre of his body.

Removing the feathers was just as bad. The raw lacquer could have been washed off it he was found and treated before it had set, but he was put on horseback in the cold plain air and sent off on a long trek to the capital. The lacquer had long set by the time he was found. With the lacquer set, the only way to remove the feathers and lacquer was to rip the skin off as well.  It took months. His body was already weak because of his injuries and destroyed cultivation, so it couldn't all be removed at once. Instead it had to be removed bit by bit over time. As a result, Krilos not only had to live with at least part of his body constantly burning for several months, but there was always a patch of skin that had recently been ripped off and was either bleeding or yelling at him in painful complaint.

Even worse was that the lacquer had soaked into his skin and damaged the flesh underneath.  His skin grew back deformed and discoloured. His entire body was a giant scar. The lacquer's work, combined with the side effects of taking a potion meant for Blademasters, was that the nerves under his skin flared up every now and again, plunging him once again into the pain he had felt when the lacquer was applied and later torn off. His damaged skin was also not just deformed, but also malgrown. It split frequently, causing him to bleed and later form puss-filled blisters as his weakened constitution couldn't fight off the infection effectively. Coupled with his damaged nerves, it meant that any physical contact with anything, even just the air moving over his skin gently, felt like knives being shoved into his flesh. This condition was unheard of, so no one new how to treat it. The healers had tried a number of treatments, but most only made it worse.

Krilos shuddered all of a sudden. His black robe shook with him and he bit his lip so hard he split a piece off, causing a thin trail of blood to run down his white face. A wave of guilt washed over Cobleit. Krilos's nerves were acting up again. The worst feeling was knowing that he was both responsible for his cousin's current suffering, and being unable to do anything or him. He couldn't even hold his hand and comfort him, the touch would make things only worse.

"I... I don't blame you..." Krilos spoke finally, what little colour his face did have slowly returning.

"You advised me against going. You wanted to end the war the good old way. I was the fool for insisting on going ahead. I have only one person to hate. He didn't just torture me, what he did should be a crime against all of humanity. No one could ever do anything to deserve this humiliation and torture. He should at least have executed me in a manner fitting of my status as a noble. But no, he instead denied my right to a dignified end and humiliated me in the worst way possible.

"I live for the day I watch him suffer the same fate and that day only.

"That said, you do disappoint me. Not for being unable to keep our promise, but or still lacking the resolve to make tough decisions."

There was no anger, no resentment in Kirlos voice, but that made him sound even worse. It made the hairs on Coblet's entire body stand on end.

"What's wrong? Why are you suddenly bringing this up?" he asked.

Krilos had isolated himself since his return. Apart from discussing the state of the Union in Cobleit's personal study and planning his revenge, he tended his wounds in his room and occasionally stalked the mansion at night. He had become the mansion's ghost, haunting it like a ghoul.

Krilos had been the one to work behind the scenes and organize the new forces after the defeat at Bluwek. He was also the mastermind behind Cobleit's bid to federalise the Union.

"I came to tell you I am leaving. I am leaving the Union as well."

"What? Where are you going? What will you do?"

"Since I can't get revenge using war against the kingdom, I'll get it with my own hands."

"You can't leave. I won't let you take such a risk. Your battleforce still hasn't recovered and you're often tortured by the pains. You know there's no way you can go to the enemy capital in your state. Your enemy isn't just any noble either. He's a king, soon-to-be emperor, in fact. Do you really think you can get past everyone that will be around him all the time? Not to mention that he's a blademaster.

"How would you take your revenge, anyway? Assassinate him? Killing a king will condemn your soul to the abyss for eternity. You'll not just be condemning yourself, but all your descendants as well. Your entire bloodline will be denied entry into the heavens. No deity will accept a soul connected to a kingslayer by blood. Only kings can kill kings. I promised you could torture him all you want when I bring him to you, but I never said you could kill him, and that's why."

A wry smile cracked Krilos's face.

"I won't kill him. I won't let him of that easy. He will go through the same thing he put me through, and I'll force him to live with this pain for decades until he finally croaks of old age. How many years have I waited, though? It's been five years, and now with the Union in ruins, how ma more will it be? You just told me yourself you can't do it anymore."

"If we work together I'm sure we can find another way. We'll restore the union. Twenty or thirty years, that's enough time to get back to where we were and take our revenge. You need to be patient. We still have time. I will keep my promise."

"Cobleit, don't spout that propaganda at me. It's good enough to fool the merchants and the other guilds, but you and I know better. I don't think any of the guilds believe it either. If they did, you wouldn't have stormed in her like you did. Let me guess, they rejected your later proposal, right? They've turned on you and are vetoing everything you propose."

"...I don't understand why. We're in the worst place we've ever been, but they're still being prideful and stubborn. We had to cough up so much to end the war, but now our new neighbors have formed a chokehold on us and are slowly squeezing the life out of the Union. We can't be stingy now, they can hoard all the money they want, but it will mean nothing if the Union collapses. They know we are in no position for a war, but they are demanding I tear up the peace treaty and go to war against our neighbors. Did they forget that they are part of the Alliance now?  If we start a war against them, we're starting a war against the whole Alliance.

"So what if they have the exclusive rights to sell salt? Can the price be any higher than gold? We have to rebuild our economy now, no matter the cost. We must endure. We lost Falik Plains and Morante, but we still have Quartz Mountain. Teribo grew into the powerhouse it was because of that mountain. We can do it too.

"I've given them a way to get rich without losing a single life, but they still want war. They won't let me put into motion anything that could improve our position without going to war."

Reaching an understanding with Andinaq despite the consequences had caused Cobleit's status to fall heavily. The exclusive salt deal between Peterson, Zikdor, and their other neighbors added salt to the wound, literally. His opponents demanded war with their neighbors to win back the Union's honor and were vetoing every policy Cobleit proposed in an effort to force him to go to war.

"I told you there were too many merchant guilds in the Union years ago. But you didn't want to listen. Now look what that's got you.

"If I were you, I would cut them all out. You have to excise the boils before they burst or they'll spread their puss and only make things worse. If you let this continue, the Union will fall apart. Duke Forde Morante founded the Union 186 years ago on the plains with only the big seven. Now, you have more than 30 guilds. It's too many.

"Whether you object or not, I will leave for the enemy capital. There have been some developments that have piqued my interests. Before I leave, let me take the blame for you one last time. I know you're a good person and can't take that kind of action, so I'll do it. You just have to clean up the mess and declare me a traitor. That should keep you clean. Just give me your insignia. You don't have to worry about the rest, just let me decide."

Krilos left with Cobleit's command insignia shortly after.