As Lorist was loitering about amidst the Sea of Grief expropriating ships for himself, within a great hall within the Chikdor Merchant Guild headquarters at Morante City, a dozen high-ranking officials were arguing about the failure of the fleet to stop the Flying Fish of Dawn as well as their plan to take Silowas Island.
"I really don't understand why our guild wants Silowas Island as the location for our dominion. Apart from its wide area, what benefits does it bring to the table for the development of the guild and the future of the clan? Don't tell me that our clan is going to convert into those rural noble families that we look down upon so much? And are we going to give up our dominance of the trading routes near the southern seas along the Golden Coast in the meantime?"
The one who spoke so passionately was the second young master of the Chikdor clan, Saibyoeff. He had always been the one in charge of the merchant guild's armed fleet. He was the one who exterminated pirate organizations large and small, and guaranteed the safety of the guild's fleet on their voyages.
His extensive battle experience caused him to carry with him an air of military brusqueness. Given that the high officials of the guild mostly had aloof, calculative personalities, Saibyoeff didn't get along too well with them.
He was the one who objected most to making Silowas Island their dominion. He felt that it would slacken the control of the clan on the southern seas and have huge effects on the coastal nations near the Golden Coast. Silowas Island was located far to the north. If the Chikdor clan made that its dominion, it would take far too long for news to reach them should anything happen in the southern seas; they would have too little time to react.
"I hope that all of you can analyze the situation there clearly. The clan currently only has seven fleets. Apart from my own armed fleet, five of the other six merchant fleets' main responsibility is the trade voyages at the southern seas. Their operations account for roughly 80 percent of our profits. On the other hand, we only have one merchant fleet in the north and they deal mainly with the spice trade we have with the Shyarsia kingdom and other resources from the Hanayabarta kingdom. In total, this fleet only accounts for the remaining 20 percent of our profits."
Young master Saibyoeff casually held a small wooden stick up and pointed to the large map that was hung on the wall, and said, "Even though trade in the northern seas have the potential to be more profitable than that in the south, we must not forget that the situation here in the south took 170 years to set up. That's 170 years of effort and sacrifice made by our ancestors. Had we not had the dominance in the southern seas, there would be no way for us to be able to monopolize the trade routes to the Shyarsia and Hanayabarta kingdoms."
At that moment, Moribak, the third young master, stood up from his seat. He loathed his second brother the most. He felt he wasn't the slightest bit inferior to even his eldest brother, Serihanem, in terms of talent and capability.
Since you're the second in the family, I can understand if you don't wish to fight for the position as the successor to the clan, but why are you helping that good-for-nothing first brother become the successor? I am the one that suggested the northern expansion strategy, and the plan to take Silowas Island has also been approved by the high officials of the guild. Yet you're trying to sabotage my plan now? I will definitely not have that!
"Second brother, the situation is actually not as you have described. We are indeed the hegemons of the southern seas, but that's precisely why we need to expand our trade routes northward. There is no space left for our clan to grow in the southern seas. The north is the only direction our clan can grow in. Also, Silowas Island is a great and strategic location as a main base for our clan. By occupying that island, our merchant guild will have access to the whole northern coastlines of the territory of the former Krissen Empire. By then, the profits there will be at least 1.5 times that of the southern seas. I trust that the merchant guild only needs to add three merchant fleets in the north to meet the huge trade demand," argued Moribak, intent on winning the hearts and minds of the officials of the guilds with the promise of future profits at the north.
"Hahaha..." Saibyoeff laughed coldly and said, "Don't count your chicks before they've hatched. You can only see the potential profits this expansion would bring, but have you considered what kind of price we would have to pay and the risk we would have to take before any of these profits are certain? Leaving aside other matters, the winds and waves at the north are erratic and unpredictable. The weather conditions are even more whimsical. Can the Cursed Coasts of the north really compare to the southern seas and the tranquil Golden Coast? Merely filling up the reefs of the northern coasts will cost us huge amounts of manpower and money.
"While your idea to take Silowas Island as the dominion for the clan is not a bad one, look at the state of our two interception fleets now. Our guild spent so much resources and time and only managed to train four blademasters, yet you've already lost one of them on the very first interception attempt! That blademaster you lost is actually one of the cornerstones of our fighting strength, the big-seven merchant guilds of the trade union!
"I've already said this long ago. Even though the Krissen Empire has dissolved, with the nations formerly belonging to it being at war for so long, that was a result of the big-seven's painstaking efforts plotting and planning over tens of years. The Krissen Empire didn't just collapse out of nowhere like a rotting beam of some house.
"While the various guilds in the union want to gain the territory of the Andinaq and Redlis kingdoms for their own dominions, not one of them actually want to face off against the 300000-strong army of the Andinaq Kingdom's second highness. Instead they hope that he will waste his strength on taking out the Redlis Kingdom before the guilds sweep in and take advantage of the situation.
"'A camel that's starved to death is still bigger than a horse.' That's a saying that you will have to comprehend. Even though the empire is no more, that doesn't mean that the nobles formerly belonging to the empire no longer have power. You didn't even bother to check out the background of House Norton before antagonizing them, and look at the results of that! You've kicked on an iron plate you couldn't break and got injured yourself.
"Think about it, Silowas Island is the former principality of the Second Highness, yet he was willing to enfeoff it to some other noble just like that. Given the might of the second highness, Auguslo, there must be a reason for his actions. And yet you're over here running your mouth over how weak and impotent those nobles are. You even attempted to forcefully restrain the other party and force them to hand Silowas Island to the guild... What kind of daydreams were you having?"
"Enough, Saibyoeff. Stop speaking," President Chikdor, who was seated at the top, interjected, "Your younger brother is merely doing his best to ensure the prosperity of the guild. The difficulties we face so far are only temporary ones. We, the Chikdor Merchant Guild, are one of the seven big merchant guilds of the trade union. We can't actually retreat just like that, can we? While we probably aren't strong enough to take on a whole kingdom, a single landed noble should not be something that we find difficult to digest."
"Father haven't the failure of the interception fleets and the loss of the blademaster made you understand what we're up against?" Saibyoeff said with dissatisfaction, "Putting aside the development of the clan and the guild, purely from a military perspective, I can tell that you've antagonized a very troublesome person. The Peterson Merchant Guild already promised to do their best to mediate between us and said that they would help us buy Silowas Island from the hands of the count. We only have to offer him a price that he can't refuse."
"If that count is anything like the usual greedy nobles we've dealt with, then he would've agreed to negotiate the price with us. But this count didn't bother to even consider having talks and left on his ship without so much as a message for Peterson Merchant Guild. In other words, the count is intent on not letting Silowas Island go. We will have to be prepared to pay the price in blood and fire if we want to take that island.
"I must admit that third brother's preparations are rather thorough. Even though the first interception failed because our lookout wasn't paying attention, the second interception fleet is led by Admiral Pangid, and the third interception fleet is led by the incredibly-experienced Admiral Ari. I've investigated the battle and found that he did not make any mistakes whatsoever during the conflict. Additionally, the third interception also had blademaster Kumori guarding it. That was also why we were so confident with the latter two fleets.
"We thought that Count Norton would definitely be unable to escape us. He's taught us an unforgettable lesson with his methods. When faced with Admiral Pangid's second interception fleet, that count decided to use his ship's advantage in speed as well as the gold-ranked Divine Marksman that performed way beyond our expectations and burst through the blockade, causing us to lose one middle-class merchant vessel and her crew.
"Admiral Pangid then used the sea swallows to send a detailed account to Admiral Ari of the third interception fleet. Even though that was out of our expectations, Old Ari still made the perfect preparations to deal with the situation. He ordered his crews to lay chains between their ships. Other than that, he and blademaster Kumori each stood guard at different ships as a precaution against the gold-ranked marksman. To prevent Count Norton from employing the same trick again, blademaster Kumori even intentionally went to the leftmost large-class ship.
"All that should've made the plan perfect, right? But it turned out that Count Norton was actually hiding a trump card: which one of you would've expected him to be a rank 3 blademaster? In the end, that mishap cost us more than 500 sailors, three experienced captains, 11 silver-ranked swordsmen, two gold-ranked swordsmen, and a blademaster. Even I didn't suffer that huge a loss during the three years I combatted pirates at the Solar Seas!"
Second young master Saibyoeff then criticized angrily, "The results we have today showed that Moribak didn't bother to research the background of Count Norton at all before acting against him, and his mishap has caused us to treat a rank 3 blademaster as we would a powerless noble, causing the guild much loss and damage! He must be held responsible for this outcome!"
"What is your basis for calling that count a rank 3 blademaster?" asked Moribak with his face flushed red from anger.
"Well, if killing all 347 people on a large-class merchant vessel in less than 30 minutes doesn't count, I don't know what does!" roared Saibyoeff with an even louder voice.
Pointing at an old man with a solemn expression, he said, "Just ask Uncle Udi, a rank 2 blademaster, whether he can do the same. That actually happened before the eyes of almost 1000 people! There's no way it can be faked!"
The old blademaster merely laughed bitterly and shook his head.
"You've got an enemy for the guild that we can't afford to offend!" said the second young master while looking at his younger brother insultingly, "Father definitely did not give you free reign on settling this matter. Tell me, did you actually bother to research Count Norton's background?"
"I... Of course I did! What's so different about Count Norton from other nobles? He's only somewhat better at swordsmanship than the rest..." mumbled third young master Moribak as his gaze started to brighten.
"Imbecile... Is this how you operate? You acted upon your own assumptions and ruined it all... You didn't even bother to pay off someone from the Peterson Merchant Guild to get information on the background of Count Norton at all!" yelled Saibyoeff as he headed to a corner and took out a sack which contained many beastskin documents.
He held those documents and said, "After we failed to intercept him, I sent my men to do some research on that count. I bet none of you would have expected him to be a legendary figure in Morante City! Do you all remember the competition seven years ago held among the various academies? An iron-ranked instructor from the Dawn Academy actually defeated all the silver-ranked experts in the whole city. He defeated 3000 opponents without suffering a single defeat! He even got the moniker of Iron Locke, Silver Undefeated!"
It was at that moment that a commotion broke out among the seated men. The competition held seven years back was incredibly famous, even the Chikdor Merchant Guild had sent a number of silver-ranked swordsmen to compete. However, not one of them won, and those who returned even said that they had been bested by that iron-ranked instructor in terms of swordsmanship completely. They even admitted that there was no way whatsoever that they could win.
"That iron-ranked instructor is actually Count Norton," Saibyoeff was glad to see the looks of surprise on the faces of those present, "At that time, there was even a rumor about how two gold-ranked swordsmen wanted to show that iron-ranked instructor his place by assaulting him so that their junior apprentice brother would be able to defeat him in a match on the next day. In the end, those two gold-ranks intercepted him, only to end up as two nameless corpses that were found two days later by the city patrol.
"If he could not compete with gold-ranks, there is no way that sly fox at the Dawn Academy would allow him to challenge all the silver-ranked fighters in the city. The competition was very obviously a huge ploy. Seven years have passed since, obviously the count's swordmanship hasn't been stagnant all the time, it has definitely improved even more since then. What happened to the interception fleets only serves to prove it.
"However, when that count left Morante City to return to his dominion to inherit it as well as his title, I heard from the Peterson Merchant Guild that his family only controlled a barony back then. He formed a convoy to head to the Northlands with a few of his buddies at the academy and defeated the united noble army in the Redlis Kingdom, and even helped the Peterson Merchant Guild dominate the oceanic trade routes over there.
"The following reports only contain fragmented bits of information as our guild didn't plant any informants in the Andinaq Kingdom, but there are bits and pieces that suggest the second highness of that kingdom only came to power with the help of the count, which was how he was promoted from a baron to his current status in the first place. Silowas Island was also given to him as a hereditary dominion as a result of that promotion.
"According to the information we got from the Wessia Merchant Guild, that count is known as the Passive Raging Bear in the Northlands as he wouldn't cause trouble unless he is disrupted. The Duke of the Northlands was defeated by the forces of the count, which resulted in him losing his dominion. It is said that Count Norton had his forces raid the duke's dominion for one whole week and committed countless atrocities there. Following that, the king of the Iblia Kingdom, also known as the Second Prince of the former empire, led a force of 100000 men to admonish the count, only to have his whole army beaten to smithereens, causing the second prince to have to escape the royal capital in a haggard fashion.
"And here comes the good part," Saibyoeff said before he paused.
He held up a document, and said, "After the Second Prince was defeated, he was filled with rage and ordered his rank 3 blademaster, Zarinan, to attempt an assassination against the count. I'm sure all of you are informed of the reputation of blademaster Zarinan, who was said to be a quasi-Sword Saint that would break through if he managed to improve the slightest bit more. It ended up with his corpse being crucified and put on display half a year later when the forces of House Norton attacked the royal capital of the Iblia Kingdom to capture the second prince as payback for using such an underhanded method to get back at others for his own losses..."
"Wait a second, you said that these reports are all obtained from the Wessia Merchant Guild?" asked President Chikdor.
"That's right. The Wessia Merchant Guild bought two iron mines within the Iblia Kingdom, and they are very observant of the political situation there. Right now, the Iblia Kingdom is ruled by their queen and not one of the people there bother finding out where the second prince was brought. They treat him as if he doesn't exist. Count Norton managed to unite the three noble houses of the Northland. Their alliance has full control over the Northlands. It's very hard for anyone to enter their dominion to find out the true strength of House Norton. It is rumored that the count is busy developing his dominion, and, in hindsight, that rumor seems to be true. At the very least, he's managed to find a sea route from the Northlands to Silowas Island. That's how he came to Morante City in the first place."
Saibyoeff put the documents in his hand down, and continued, "Now do you know how grave a mistake you have made? My brother, you actually treated a noble house with a history of military achievements as the common, rotten and corrupted noble houses... Do you know the kind of price we would have to pay for your plan to claim Silowas Island for ourselves? Even if we manage to obtain victory at the very end, the losses we sustain would still shake us to the core and possibly force us to give up the dominance we have at the southern seas to some other merchant guild. It would also cause us to be unable to compete with the rest of the big-seven guilds, heck, we might even be at the mercy of those second or third-rate merchant guilds we look down on so much. Is that how low you would have us fall before you're satisfied, brother?"