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Charade rushed into Lorist's study with a thick stack of documents. It had been a month since Duke Kenmays's visit and it was currently the 11th month of the year 1786.

In the office next to the study, Charade looked at his son happily. Freilyde was going through a bunch of official documents with a gloomy expression. Charade cleared his throat and waited for Freilyde to look up before he said, "Make an announcement that I've come to seek an audience with His Grace."

Freilyde's eyebrows lazily rose. "Father, just go in. His Grace said this morning that there wasn't a need to announce you."

Charade flipped out. "Darned kid, just make the announcement if I ask you to! His Grace is just being nice, but we subordinates have to always observe protocol, understood? Go, quick!"

Freilyde rose from his desk as he muttered, "This is so unnecessary... People like you who go about rules all the time just love to trouble other people..."

Soon, Freilyde darted out of the study and said, "Duke Norton invites you in..."

Lorist wasn't alone in the study. The head of intelligence of the house, Tarkel, was standing beside the desk.

"You're here. Well, take a look at these reports from the imperial capital first," said Lorist when he pointed to the documents on the desk.

Charade put down the folders in his hand and read out one of the reports. "His Imperial Majesty announced the reformation of Fiercegale Sand legion with a full 45 thousand men and will be stationing them in Malivia. It has so far been confirmed that the Trade Union will be supplying the legion's equipment through Andalou by selling each set at 30 gold Fordes, but the materials have to be provided as well. Currently, His Imperial Majesty hasn't paid a single coin for it and Andalou is bearing the cost for it. According to our informants in the palace, His Imperial Majesty ordered 100 thousand such sets of equipment. Is... Is His Imperial Majesty insane..."

It wasn't surprising for Charade to have such suspicions. What was Auguslo thinking/ Even though the Trade Union was the Krissen Empire's nemesis, Auguslo made an order for 100 thousand sets of equipment from them. It wasn't a small order and even at 30 gold Fordes per set would amount to three million for 100 thousand sets, not to mention the need to provide materials as well.

"What can you tell from this?" asked Lorist.

"I think the emperor is losing his marbles. It's a time of peace, yet he's trying to expand his military and tossing more money into this endless void. He's spending three million gold Fordes plus materials for 100 thousand sets of equipment! Did he forget how the Trade Union is our biggest enemy? He's giving them a helping hand!

"Not to mention, Fiercegale was involved in that scandal back then. Does he think that adding 'sand' to the name would make it a new legion? Stationing Fiercegale Sand at Malivia is him trying to replace Whitelion, right? Does His Imperial Majesty want to let Whitelion deal with bandit threats from now on and use Fiercegale Sand against outside threats?" questioned Charade.

"Read these reports as well. Andalou built a rather large refinery as well as a forgery near Flowater and preprocesses the raw materials so that the transportation costs are lowered and their efficiency heightened. They also footed the bill of three million gold Fordes for the 100 thousand sets of armor.

"These three million gold Fordes is said to be forced on Andalou by our emperor. As we increased the purchasing price, His Imperial Majesty lost one million gold Fordes this year and the previous year, so the losses were blamed on Andalou. As for the additional one million, that is the investment the emperor made in the guild, which actually only amounts to around 800 thousand gold Fordes. But he demanded for to be given a return for 500 thousand gold Fordes. What a great deal he got."

Lorist wore a mocking smile on his face. "I really applaud the talent this Selik of Andalou has. Not only did he manage to resist our high prices, he also managed to develop Andalou to this scale despite the emperor's greed. He truly is someone capable.

"I thought that our heightened purchasing prices will help stifle Andalou's cashflow and increase the costs of their transportation. After that, we can force His Imperial Majesty to blame his losses on Andalou and thereby restricting the trade with the Trade Union or cutting it off entirely. I didn't think they'd satisfy His Imperial Majesty's greed with quality equipment and manage to use trade with the Union to make up for their losses.

"I have to admit that our price hike strategy has lost its effect. Our emperor already gave Andalou the mining and managing rights of all seven mines in three provinces for the making of the 100 thousand sets of equipment..."

Back then, Andalou only had the rights to sell, so they weren't able to keep up with the Nortons in terms of purchasing price. But now, Auguslo gave the mining rights to Andalou, effectively ridding them of the need to buy the ores from anyone else. If allowed to continue, Andalou would definitely develop into a trade giant that could even influence the empire's policies. That should've been something a wise ruler would watch out for...

"Your Grace, how would we deal with this matter?" asked Charade with a furrowed brow.

"Deal? There's no way," Lorist said while shaking his head, "We don't have a say over the emperor's decision. How he wants to run his empire is his decision to make. As long as they don't directly cross our house's interests, we can do naught but watch from the sidelines. In fact, in the next few years, our house won't have any effort to spare on caring about other matters. We have no choice but to endure even if it means taking some loss.

"Currently, we have all our resources and manpower focused on Malek Defense Line in Montside. That is something that'll set our course for the next century to come. As long as it is complete, we will be rid of barbarian and magic beast attacks. Montside will be our backyard where our subjects can live their lives in peace and thrive. It'll become a firm power base for us in our expansion to the wildlands in the future."

Lorist pointed at the reports on the desk. "Actually, these reports don't just tell us about the affair between His Imperial Majesty and Andalou and their deals. If we look deeper, we can find out about even more secrets, such as what you guys think the 100 thousand sets of equipment imply."

Charade's expression changed immediately. "Two years to produce 100 thousand sets... Your Grace, that means that the Trade Union is most possibly using our water-powered machines. It won't be possible for them to finish the order within two years with manpower alone, and sell them at such a low price to boot."

"That's right," Lorist nodded and said, "This means that the Trade Union is recovering quickly. That's why they were able to research and implement these machines. Currently, our empire and the Trade Union have close ties with Andalou, so our arrangements against the Trade Union have been rendered useless. For instance, the exclusive salt deal Peterson carried out is for naught. They definitely wouldn't dare to stop Andalou from bringing in rock salt in large amounts. His Imperial Majesty is also going to station Fiercegale Sand in Malivia, obviously threatening Peterson to not interfere with future trade with the 

"Your Grace, do you think that the Trade Union will start to trouble the kingdom of Peterson in the next few years?" asked Charade.

"There's that possibility. The Trade Union has to first establish a route to the Falik Plains if it is to come back in full force. It has to reclaim Morante and Falik Plains, and Peterson is the first obstacle they have to overcome. But given the current situation, I doubt that the Trade Union will do something so irrational. If they become the ones to instigate conflict, they'll definitely become an eyesore for the neighboring nations. After all, the flames of war just stopped burning for a few short years. The nations are still on alert," said Lorist as he mulled over the maps on the wall.

"Tarkel, increase the scale of observation on the Trade Union. Send word immediately if any military reorganization is being taken!"

"Understood, Your Grace."

"Your Grace, it's too bad we're located too far away from Peterson and Falik Plains. We won't be able to do much if something changes there," bemoaned Charade.

"Hehe, no worries. Don't forget we have a piece of rented land in Morante. As long as we can help defend Morante, it's fine if we lose Falik Plains. Sometimes, I really find myself wishing that the Trade Union will launch the first strike. That way, we would have a reason to exterminate them completely with our forces to rid ourselves of this worry. Sigh, it's too bad that we won't have this chance anymore." If Lorist hadn't cared about the casualties of his troops back then, he wouldn't be troubled over such matters now.

The Trade Union was a restless cockroach that just won't die and would be revitalized with just a bit of sunlight. Given that they were now working with Auguslo as allies thanks to Andalou's mediation, the trade between them was growing larger and larger and even affected House Norton's position in the empire. Lorist wasn't able to come up with a solution to deal with it immediately either, since a trade dispute couldn't just be settled with force. If he suppressed others with his status as swordsaint, it'd only earn him the derisive laughter of others.

Tarkel arranged the reports before respectfully taking his leave. Lorist opened a bottle of blackcurrant wine and poured Charade and himself a cup each.

Charade opened the thick folders he brought as he drank from his cup. "Your Grace, here is a report from Camorra. He said that His Imperial Majesty released a public notice in hopes that Jillin Harbor will be able to increase the purchase of food, at least double the amount this year."

Lorist shook his head. "Our emperor is going desperate from the lack of money. Most of Jillin Harbor's purchases are transported to Morante to be sold there and His Imperial Majesty gets around one million gold Fordes from this. Write him a letter to say that Morante's market is only so big and they only require so much. Selling even more food there will only cause the price to fall and won't earn much profit anyways. Refuse his request."

Charade nodded. "Grandmaster Ciroba sent word from Montside that he isn't confident that this year's target for Malek Defense Line won't be hit. The original plan states that we should be able to complete 50 kilometers of the line this year, but only around 30 is complete so far. A large reason behind that is the lack of manpower. We need more young laborers."

Lorist furrowed his brow. That was a huge problem the house currently faced. Perhaps life in the dominion was too good that not many folks of The Northlands were willing to leave their homes to go to a desolate province like Montside to work. They were already able to find a well-paying job in The Northlands, so House Norton's original plan to recruit 100 thousand youth laborers for the project didn't go through as well.

"Currently, we only have 40 thousand workers there, 30 thousand of whom are Fiercegale captives. They were punished for five years of labor and around a thousand die each year. Mainly, it's due to falling to plagues or mountain barbarian attacks. The morale is really low. The other ten thousand are citizens who have taken root in Montside and they understand what Malek Defense Line means to the province, so a group of them want to help out. It's too bad that their numbers are too low," summarized Charade.

Lorist rapped on the table and asked, "Does Malek and the others have any suggestions on what to do about the lack of manpower?"

"Lord Potterfang suggested for us to increase the pay for laborers since anyone well paid enough can do a job well. He thinks that if we increase the payment by a few times, we'll easily be able to recruit enough workers from the dominion to work on the project. However, Spiel shot down that idea as he thinks that we can't increase the budget of the project. Being able to pay for the security of the project is already the best the house can do.

"Lord Malek on the other hand suggested for the various garrison forces in the various provinces there to make up for the lack. However, Lord Hector suggested that with the three main legions stationed there, the garrison forces shouldn't be used as laborers as we won't have adequate defenses should an urgent situation arise."

Charade continued to read through the folders, reading the suggestions and objections of the other officials of the house. When he reached the last page, he stopped and laughed. "Your Grace, Fiercetiger Loze brought up a really interesting suggestion. He says that we can work with Whitelion to clear out the bandits and using the captive bandits as laborers. That way, we won't have to go through the trouble of recruiting laborers."

"Whoa... That's something I didn't expect from him. A good idea for once," Lorist said with a chuckle, "Are there any other suggestions?"

"Yes," Charade replied, "the head of the internal affairs department, Lord Kriston said that we could forcefully conscript our subjects to solve this problem. Serving the dominion lord is their duty anyway, but we just haven't ever used this method before."

Forcefully conscripting subjects was the right of all dominion lords. They could decide how much time a subject has to serve them for free. Some more benevolent lords only made them work a month and provided free food and drink, while some more stingy ones would have their subjects serve year long without food. However, that would cause the rate of escape to soar. Noble houses that didn't use their right to conscript subjects like the Nortons weren't uncommon either.

Lorist contemplated in silence. After a while, he shook his head and said, "We can't forcefully conscript our subjects. That will hurt their trust and loyalty to our house and also displease those within our dominion. Since our predecessors have never employed such a right, we won't establish this precedent either. Let's think of other methods first."

"Alright, Your Grace. Actually, I think Loze's suggestion is rather practical..."