On the 25th day of the 7th month, Lorist brought his family on the ferry ship, Blue Seagull, to head to the imperial capital to attend Auguslo's grand ceremony.

When they passed House Kenmays's domain, Sidgler, they stopped at Platinum Beach for half a day to pick up Duke Kenmays.

Blue Seagull was a new long-distance ferry ship made in the shipyards at Bullhorn Bay. It had 124 guest cabins in total and each round, it could carry up to 470 passengers. That was the first ship to exclusively transport passengers in the history of Grindia. Lorist already ordered three more such ships to be built to kick off the ferrying route from Northsea all the way to Hidegold Bay instead of using transport ships for that purpose.

This was Blue Seagull's maiden voyage. It would first sail to Jillin Harbor before continuing on to Hidegold Bay. Kenmays was given one and a half cabins because he unexpectedly wanted to bring two thousand people to the imperial capital. Fortunately, he also used two LLDAM-class ships of House Kenmays to ferry most of the others so that Blue Seagull wouldn't be overloaded with people.

"Locke, are you only bringing so few people to attend the ceremony?" asked Kenmays after he embarked.

Puzzled, Lorist asked, "What? Is there something wrong with that?"

He only brought a squad of 100 guards, his wife, lovers and children as well as around 200 servants. Put nicely, he was traveling light, but it could also be seen as him being stingy. Unlike the Duke of The Northlands, Kenmays brought more than two thousand people as was fitting for someone of his status. But since Lorist didn't really see grandeur with much favor, he preferred to travel with a smaller cohort.

Kenmays gingerly said, "Even though you're a swordsaint and won't have to worry about your personal safety when you travel, you at least have to bring a thousand guards out with you. Don't forget that dukes like us have to bring a thousand men from our forces to join parades for an event like these to show our loyalty to the king."

"That won't be a problem," Lorist said with a smile, "I can just bring a thousand garrison soldiers from Silowas to join the parade. Since we're only putting up airs, nobody will take this seriously. Given that our forces have only just returned during the end of last year, they're having their vacation now. So, I really shouldn't pick any of them to join the ceremony."

"Well, I suppose that works too." Kenmays nodded. "It's no wonder I didn't see Charade and Potterfang joining you. The subordinates of other lords on the other hand were scrambling for a chance to go mingle in the imperial capital."

"I already asked them to come with me, but they didn't want to. Perhaps they would rather spend time with their family than attend this ceremony. They've been out of home for three years after all, and they desperately need the kinship. So, I only brought Reidy and Jinolio with me as well as Patt, the commander of my guards."

Kenmays sighed with understanding. "I know. Three years back when I brought my ravaged forces back to Sidgler, I didn't feel like going anywhere at all and wanted to laze around at home. But you're different. You returned as a victor while we returned merely as bloodied survivors. I ate nonstop after I got back and laid with my maidservants like there was no tomorrow. It's only half a year later that I calmed down and took the reins of my house and trading guild again."

Lorist didn't say anything else. Back then, everyone was duped by Auguslo into thinking that the million-man army alone was enough to force the Trade Union to agree to return the two occupied provinces to Andinaq. Everyone thought they were just going to bring their forces for a walk in the park to get what Auguslo promised them. They didn't expect the Trade Union to completely disregard their enemy and choose to instigate the conflict themselves instead, leading into a three-year war that was bloody on both sides.

Lorist and the Union's swordsaint fought to a draw and left the frontlines, and then there was the revolt in the dominion. In the end, the three Norton legions had to return to the dominion to quell the problems, leaving the rest of Andinaq's forces to fend against the Union forces alone on Falik Plains. Thanks to the incessant human wave tactics  the Union used which were enabled by their constant stream of recruits from the southern Union provinces, the noble army suffered great casualties and could barely hold the line.

Fortunately, Lorist led his forces back to the battlefield after he recovered from his injuries. First, he eliminated Invincible Fleet and sailed to Hidegold Bay to take Morante, turning the tables of the war in one move and forcing the Trade Union to leave Falik Plains, saving the skeletal noble army from total collapse and sending them back home. After that, they defeated the Union and forced them to surrender.

It could be said that had the Nortons not fought those battles, the upcoming ceremony would never see the light of day. Kenmays was well aware of that fact and he regretted being coaxed by Auguslo so easily for the benefits he promised. He joined as a result of impulse and a clouded mind and ended up losing half his total forces.

"It's always too late to regret!" Kenmays exclaimed, "You've said once that our king has ravenous ambition and doesn't know when to stop once he tastes success. I've forgotten that advice of yours almost completely back then. Had we not continued our assault on Falik Plains after exterminating more than half of the Union forces, we would probably have been able to restore peace with the Union. But our king wanted us to conquer Morante and shed its blood no matter what and ended up involving us in that bloody war. Every noble house that participated paid heavy consequences...

"Thankfully you were willing to come to our aid and bring us back from the swamps of blood. After our return, every noble in the kingdom knows that being able to return from Falik Plains would be difficult had the Nortons not stepped in, to say even less of holding this ceremony. If we had lost, the Union forces would have swarmed in with their momentum and whether the kingdom would still exist would be a question in itself, because we had already lost all our ability to resist back then..."

"The war is already over and the time of peace is upon us," Lorist interjected, "You didn't ask to travel with me just to complain about the bloody war, did you? What's past is beyond us, and the best we can do is to learn not to repeat our mistakes instead of dwelling over them. Tell me what you truly came here to say. Given how much you love the festivities and fun, you would've gone to the imperial capital long ago instead of waiting to join me."

Kenmays smiled bitterly. "Don't regard me like you did before. Ever since I returned from Falik Plains, I've lost interest in those balls and parties. But you were right in that I had a good reason to come with you. First, I want to thank you for agreeing to the launch of the business school branch of Dawn Academy in Vanades. This is great news for the city and the trading guilds within. Those guilds that want to expand will no longer have to worry about finding a place to cultivate their talents now that the school is going to launch and they'll be able to develop more smoothly without falling into common pitfalls with more educated people joining them."

Claude's meeting was around ten days ago and Kenmays had received word about it. His gratitude came as no surprise.

"Don't mention it. You developed Vanades rather well yourself, turning it into the trading capital of the empire. I was considering how I should reward you for that. However, I am curious about one thing. How did you convince those merchant guilds to set up branch in Vanades?"

That was a question Lorist had been dwelling on for a while. As he remembered it, even though Vanades was a prosperous trading city under Madras's rule, it couldn't be compared to Morante in terms of scale. The main reason for that was that Duke Madras mainly used Vanades to trade food. Ever since the extermination of the duchy, Lorist took the city under the house's rule.

After that, House Kenmays moved their dominion from the eastern part of The Northlands to Sidgler. Lorist negotiated with Kenmays and let him take the role of the mayor of Vanades, leaving all the trading guilds in the eastern part of The Northlands for him to operate. Salt merchant committee would also have a good place to take root and grow.

What Lorist didn't expect was that during Kenmays's term as mayor, not only did he manage to attract many merchant guilds to move to the city, he also made the city into the largest market in the northwestern area of the empire. Every year, House Norton earned around 400 thousand gold Fordes from Vanades, three times more than what they got from the largest livestock rearing grounds in the northeastern area, Windbury.

Kenmays cracked a smile. "Actually, the prosperity in Vanades is thanks to our king. Back when he was waging war against the four central duchies, His Majesty raised the taxes of all merchant guilds within the kingdom to 30 percent. Coupled with the other miscellaneous taxes like tariffs and tolls, the guilds effectively paid up to 60 percent of their total profit. Every sale under those conditions would be a loss, so they were forced to move away from the imperial capital.

"Vanades became the ideal choice for most of those guilds because it was under the rule of House Norton, so the taxes only amounted to around 40 percent. Since House Norton's territory was part of the commonwealth of our four houses, they only had to pay toll once. If they were based in Norton lands, they would also receive better treatment in the other provinces of the kingdom instead of being troubled to give away more of what they had.

"So, eventually, all the merchant guilds chose to move to Vanades. The more merchants there are, the merrier the city got. I used to be a merchant myself and I understand their needs well. So, I increased the security to maintain order in the city and cleared the trade routes of bandits and robbers to make the merchants feel safe. I also invested money to develop basic infrastructure to improve hygiene and provided protections for all trade conducted in the city. The city started to develop rampantly after that."

Lorist nodded and praised, "I didn't think you were so good at administering despite being a merchant apart from your amazing social connections and womanizing skills. Oh, apart from thanking me for the branch school, was there any other reason?"

Kenmays's face turned gloomy. "Yes. I also chose to travel with you for my safety."

"You mean.."

Kenmays slowly opened his robes and revealed his upper body. There were thick bandages wrapped around him with traces of fresh blood. Lorist finally realized what the odd smell he sensed was.

"During the past two months, I've been involved in three assassination attempts, and the most dire of them all is the one that happened this month The assassin knew that he wouldn't be able to get close to me, so he threw his longsword at me from a distance and made the wound you see here. That's why I wanted you to come as soon as possible. I could only relax after actually meeting you. Now, I won't have to worry about being assassinated anymore," said Kenmays painedly.

"Who did this? Did you catch the assassin? Why didn't you ask for help earlier?" asked Lorist angrily.

Kenmays shook his head. "I don't know who did it, but the assassin was a rank 1 blademaster. Even though our guards weren't able to capture him, he couldn't do anything much to me either. As for asking for help... I'm not shameless enough to ask a swordsaint like you to deal with something like that. House Kenmays would become a laughingstock among the other houses once word of this gets out."

"You'd rather suffer for the sake of your reputation?" Lorist thought for a bit with his brow furrowed. "This sounds weird. Why would they send a blademaster against you? Given your status and connections, there isn't a good reason why they would send a blademaster after you. You don't play that important a role in the kingdom anyway, so it'd be a waste to send a blademaster to kill you on three attempts.:

Kenmays objected, "Hey, what's with the slight? Did I say anything bad about you?!"

Lorist ignored his complains and continued to guess. "They're not giving up even though they weren't able to do much. After the first attempt, you must've increased your guard, yet the blademaster came back twice more. Nobody would do that unless they had a huge grudge against you. Did you put a green cap on some noble after cheating with his wife and not cleaning up properly or something?[1] Perhaps that'd be a reason why someone would hire a blademaster to come for your life, at least, I think it's the most probable scenario."

"Don't joke around. What does putting on a green cap mean anyway? I like green caps. That aside, I'm sure it's not what you're thinking. I think somebody was trying to kill me because of the salt merchant committee."

"Salt merchant committee?"

"That's right. Do you remember Knight Wecksas, the one who cheated with the late queen? That bastard child of the king."

Lorist nodded.

"He was eyeing the market your house was trying to build in Jillin Harbor last year, right? Last year, he was made a count and give land in Majik, far away from the imperial capital. However, Wecksas hugged the leg of the king and bawled. He was allowed to stay in the imperial capital in the end, but his post as the commander of the royal guard was stripped from him.

"After that, Count Wecksas started a merchant guild called Andalou and I don't know how he did it, but he got the rights to the two salt mines in Koribia from His Majesty. So, during the latter half of last year, salt merchant committee got into a trade war to gain market share of salt in the kingdom. We lowered our prices so badly and won in the end, causing Wecksas to lose near 100 thousand gold Fordes," said Kenmays gleefully.

"So you suspect Wecksas to be the one who sent the blademaster after you? That can't be possible. He wouldn't be able to hire a blademaster with his status, and he must know that there's no salvation for him if he gets found out. The king will not be able to bear that kind of responsibility and Wecksas wouldn't be so reckless. I still maintain the cause to be your promiscuity," said Lorist doubtfully.

Kenmays sighed. "I knew you wouldn't trust my gut feeling."

"Don't worry, you won't have to worry about being assassinated from now on. When we're at the imperial capital, I'll get Reidy to protect you from the shadows. If the blademaster comes again, we'll capture him and find out who sent him."

"Alright. Thanks, Locke."


[1] Wearing a green cap is a popular Chinese saying of being cheated on. It's a reference to people losing their lovers to other men during their time in the military, hence the green cap.