Vanades City was the largest city of the Madras Duchy and was also the main business hub with the largest collection of goods and resources available for purchase. The main reason for its prosperity was its incredibly strategic location between the main highways from various locations. To its south was the Andinaq Kingdom, to the north was the Northlands, to the east was the Farkel Duchy and the Shabaj Duchy and to the west was the capital and center of administration of the Madras Duchy, Shaliske City. Being conveniently located at the center of all those places, Vanades City flourished as the trading hub of the Madras Duchy.
Lorist and his mounted archers squad had traveled for 5 days straight and covered around 500 kilometers of ground to arrive at the city.
Right now, they had no choice but to stay within the city for a day for two to gather some news and information as well as let the horses rest, since they had worked hard to travel up to 100 kilometers of distance every day for five days straight and were already reaching their limits.
After renting a campsite at the southern suburbs and settling the mounted archers down, Lorist left Pete in charge and brought Patt and 5 other guards to enter the city and look for an inn.
The last time when Lorist brought Ovidis and his smaller convoy to the Northlands, he had stayed outside Vanades City for only one day and left in a hurry after Shadekampf bought the necessary supplies. This was Lorist's first time entering the city. Compared to Morante City, where he had stayed for ten years of his life, Vanades City wasn't all that big. However, the mercantile atmosphere there was not one whit inferior to that of Morante City as evidenced by the narrow streets that were filled up with stalls on the side with crowds so dense that brushing against others while walking through the streets was but a common occurrence. The incessant bargain calls of the stall owners made Lorist feel that he had returned to the familiar Morante City.
Perfume Beauty Inn was located at the southern district of the city along with many other high class inns. It was also a favored gathering spot for nobles and big merchants. Even though the cost of the services provided was rather high, it was still able to attract a healthy number of customers.
Lorist reserved four rooms within the side building of the inn. After taking a bath, he sent two of the guards to inform Pete of his place of residence within the city and brought Patt and the four other guards downstairs for a meal. They occupied two huge tables and listened to the conversations around them as they enjoyed their food.
After listening for a while, Lorist was rather disappointed because even though the merchants were talking about how the road to the Andinaq Kingdom was sealed off, it was mostly filled with complaints and guesses of when the blockade will be lifted. The rest of the conversations were mostly about the goods they were trading and whether to return the way they came.
Lorist continued to eat and raised his head occasionally. After a while, he noticed that Patt was looking at the spot behind him. Surprised, Lorist turned back to look before breaking into a smile.
Behind him was a small lounge where many elaborately dressed women sat. From time to time, the guests of the inn would pick the ones of their fancy and negotiate a price for their services before they brought them into their rooms.
"Hehe, you're feeling the urge? If you'd like to do it, you can go pick one. It'll be fine as long as we leave by 11 tonight," Lorist said as he looked at the sandglass on the counter and continued, "It's only 7 right now, and 4 hours is plenty of time..."
With a blushing face, Patt said, "I wasn't... I was just curious so I looked..."
"You really don't want to?"
"No, I have to protect milord by staying by your side," Patt said as he shook his head resolutely.
"It's really safe here and we're just a 'merchant convoy'. Nobody here recognizes me and as merchants, if you don't pick a woman when you're at an inn, you'll stand out even more. Look at those other four. The moment they saw the women, they fell into a daze. If you really don't want to have some fun with them, you can accompany me out on the street for a stroll. I was thinking of getting a few more detailed maps for our travels. Give the guards one gold Forde each to pay for the services of the women so that we look and behave like normal merchants," Lorist said.
Patt handed the four guards one gold Forde each, causing their faces to redden with excitement. Patt reminded them to not expose their cover and told them to leave the inn by 11 at night, to which the four guards nodded fervently. Had Lorist not been there, they wouldn't have held back and would be rushing to pick one woman to accompany them for the remainder of the night.
Lorist then left the inn along with Patt and visited two night markets and bought a few maps and travel journals when he reached the bookstore. What surprised Lorist was that the bookstore actually had the blueprints of the fortifications of Lichtana Citadel for sale. The owner of the bookshop said casually that after the blockade was put in place to restrict entry for people outside, Lichtana Citadel became a hot topic for many and some who liked to theorize about battles would buy one of those blueprints and discuss how the citadel would be defended or attacked.
"This fortification blueprint is replicated directly from the one within the archives and it's a bestseller. Mister, would you like one yourself?" asked the owner of the bookshop.
"Alright, I'll have one too so that I can think of the best way to attack the citadel when I have nothing better to do," Lorist said.
"Well, the citadel is only an inanimate structure. The real defenses are managed by the guards who are alive and adaptive. As long as the Ironguard Legion is there, the Lichtana Citadel will not be conquered," said the bookshop owner proudly and confidently as he rolled up the blueprints along with the maps and handed them to Lorist.
Lorist merely nodded at the owner's remarks.
When he returned to the inn, Lorist holed himself in his room for two whole days as he analyzed the terrain and maps of the path from Vanades City all the way to Lichtana Citadel. He also instructed the server of the inn to find him a guide who was familiar with the route to the Farkel Duchy so that he may better understand the situation over there. On the other hand, he had the guards visit the many inns within the city to gather more information about the situation of the blockade without drawing too much attention.
To the servers of the inn and the other merchants staying there, Lorist was merely a noble of the Redlis Kingdom who was worried about how he would return home.
On the third day, Lorist checked out of the room and returned to the southern suburbs where the camp of the mounted archers was located.
At night within the tent, Lorist gathered Pete and Patt to plan for the journey to come.
"We will be leaving tomorrow morning and will be heading west along this road towards the Farkel Duchy. This is a mountainous area with rather complicated terrain and I've heard that bandits would show up near that area. However, ever since the border was closed off, this route has been seeing quite a lot of traffic from mainly merchant convoys and the Madras Duchy also stationed a regiment of garrison soldiers there to police the area and maintain its security. So, there has been no news about bandit encounters for a month or so.
"It will take us about half a day to arrive at the small mountain village here. According to the information I've gathered, a company of garrison soldiers is stationed there because there is a path near the village that stretches through the forest to a hilly area. Over there, the path forks into two new roads, one of which leads directly to Lichtana Citadel and the other to Egret Lake.
"We have two choices at the moment. First, we can choose to cross Egret Lake to reach the Andinaq Kingdom. I'm just worried that we won't be able to find a ferry when we reach there and our numbers, horses and carriages would definitely pose a problem. Fortunately, the paths along the way is wide enough for all of us to travel on. The other choice is to use the path heading to the citadel and make our exit through there.
"Lichtana Citadel is constructed upon the Liden Mountains that stretch all the way to the coast at the west and that is a route we won't be able to use. At the eastern slope of the mountain on which the citadel stands is the route connecting the two nations. That path is sandwiched between a few small hills and it is around 500 meters away from the citadel. The hills are called the Bread Hills by the locals because they resembles small pieces of puffy round bread right out of the stove of an oven. There are reports that a military base is built there with a regiment of Ironguard Legion soldiers stationed to guard it from both sides of the path.
"Further ahead the Bread Hills is the Egret Lake which is around 50 kilometers wide. That is the natural border between the Andinaq Kingdom and the Madras Duchy. However, apart from the route through the hills, the rest of the place is covered by a huge forest. I didn't hear anything about a second path leading to the lake.
"Currently, quite a number of tower outposts have also been erected at the 500-meter stretch between the Liden Mountains and the Bread Hills to completely secure the border. Patt told me that the base at the Bread Hills is also equipped with ten proper ballistas just like those at Lichtana Citadel which have a firing distance of up to 300 meters. Even if the tower outposts are destroyed, the citadel and the base can still cover that path with their ballista fire.
"That's why, we will not use this path unless worst comes to worst. If we do, we will definitely be paying a huge price at our own expense. When we arrive at the village in the mountains tomorrow, we have to make sure to inspect the security of the patrolling guards and check whether we can slip by the place without being noticed. If we truly can't, then we have no choice but to cross it by force and abandon our mounts and carriages to cross the lake."
During noon, Lorist brought his men to the village and was allowed entry after showing the badge of the Tebri Family to the garrison soldiers there. Outside the village, three merchant convoys could be seen parked there as their men had their lunch.
After finding an empty spot, Pete instructed the mounted archers to start cooking. The villagers also brought out their homemade liquor and food and offered them up for sale. It seemed that the blockade had unexpectedly given the village a huge boom in business as the villagers had profited quite a bit from the merchants who were willing to purchase their hunted or picked goods, thus putting smiles on all the villagers' faces.
After having lunch and resting for about an hour, Lorist instructed his men to pack up and prepare to depart. That was actually a secret signal to make battle preparations as there was no way they would be able to slip by the path that was defended by a squad of garrison soldiers unnoticed. They were about to barge their way through.
As they were packing up, loud noises poured out from the gates of the village as a squad of proud garrison soldiers marched out with 8 captives who were dressed like mercenaries.
Patt went over to look and his expression stiffened all of a sudden. Heading back to Lorist, he said, "Milord, bad news. The captives are actually Reidy, Jim and the rest..."
"Huh? What did you say?" Lorist asked, shocked. He turned to look and saw that the captives who were restrained and tied up were indeed Reidy and Jim. Jim's shoulder was even bleeding. It seemed that they were not apprehended without a fight as the rest of the men who dressed like mercenaries seemed injured as well.
The company leader of the garrison soldiers emerged from a wooden hut with unkempt clothing as he muttered and complained. Two crimson-red kiss marks could still be seen on his exposed chest and it was obvious that the apprehension of the captives had disrupted his pleasant time.
The company leader looked at the crowd of people who were taking interest and told the squad leader something before ordering Reidy, Jim and the other captives to be locked into a nearby stone building.
Lorist walked up to them and asked with a curious voice, "Hey, captain, what's up with these captives? Are you catching slaves?"
"Slaves your ass..." cursed the company leader, before he suddenly recalled that he was talking to a noble. Even though Lorist wasn't a noble of the duchy, he was, after all, a 'viscount', and his status far exceeded that of the company leader. Quickly adjusting his clothes, the man said, "I pay you my greetings, Lord Viscount. These men have actually attempted to sneak past the border by crossing the Egret Lake. They were captured as per the Lord Duke's orders."
"How do you plan to deal with them? Sell them to slave traders? They look like healthy young men and I think they would fetch quite a good price," Lorist said.
Darned noble, to think that you're also a part time slave trader, thought the company leader before he said, "We don't engage in slave trade. People who sneak through the border like that will be given a trial during the night and beheaded in front of a crowd. Look, milord. The tree to the east is where the heads of such people are hung."
Lorist only just noticed a huge tree at the east of the village where no less than 30 heads were hung.
"It's such a shame, and to think I was going to offer a good price for them..." Lorist said as he made a disappointed expression.
"Please forgive me, Lord Viscount. We can do naught but obey the orders of the Lord Duke. I'll have to take my leave now and I wish you a swift journey as well," said the company leader as he saluted before he left.
Lorist walked back with a dark expression and told Pete and Patt, "Think of an excuse for us to stay here until the night. Inspect the defenses of the village during the afternoon and we will act at night to wipe them out and rescue Reidy, Jim and the others."
Pete said, "Milord, why don't we just attack now?"
Lorist shook his head as he said, "We can't, there's too many people right now. There are already about six merchant convoys nearby and we will not be able to prevent news of our assault from spreading out if that's the case. The guards near this area will be able to react instantly the moment they hear about our attack and surround us completely. We only have a squad of men while this place is defended by a whole regiment of soldiers. I don't wish to sacrifice the lives of hundreds just for saving the lives of a few men.
"However, during the night, the convoys will have left because there's only half a day's worth of travel from here to Vanades City. Most of the people coming to this village wouldn't be staying for the night. That way, we won't have to worry about alerting the rest of the soldiers in the area when we wipe out the enemies here."
Within the hut the company leader entered was the most beautiful woman of the village who was a young widow. Usually, many young men of the village would flock around her, but they stopped doing so after the arrival of the company leader.
Just as he was about to resume his quality time with the woman, he heard his door being banged on loudly once again.
"What the heck is going on this time?!" roared the company leader in rage. His formerly erected member had been startled into limpness from the sudden banging on his door.
"Captain, the Lord Viscount who was talking to you just now fell off his horse just as he was about to leave and seemed to have broken a few bones. Now, they can't leave because the viscount is out cold. His men have already sent someone to Vanades City to look for a herbalist and the rest want to set up their camp within the village," reported the guard outside.
"Haha, that's great news. That cursed slave trader viscount got what was coming for him," said the company leader happily. "Make sure to inform the men to behave within the village. I will visit the viscount myself during the night. If there's nothing else, stop interrupting me and scram!"
After that, he lowered his head and said to the lustful widow beneath him, "Now, precious... Help me up again with that wonderful mouth of yours..."