Drops fell from the sky. With them fell the smell of the sea.
"Milord, you should return to the cabin and rest. We know this route well enough to complete the rest of our journey with our eyes closed. We need not travel so slow, nor need we anchor for the night. We'll travel at full sail for as long as the winds allow. It only takes us 11 to 12 days to travel between the island and the Northlands. We'll reach Bullhorn Bay in another two days," advised Freiyar.
Clad in a black raincoat, Lorist stood amidst the raindrops.
"I'm fine," he said, "I only came to take a look and breathe some fresh air. You should go back to work. You don't have to worry about me."
The ship Lorist was on was a large-class three-masted merchant vessel. It was the commander of the Oceanic Legion's personal vessel, Freiyar's vessel. Freiyar had brought 28 merchant vessels and armed middle-class ships with him to the Northlands this time. They would take the stockpiled magic-beast furs to Soliwas to trade with the Peterson Merchant Guild as per their agreement.
Lorist was accompanied by Els and Dulles - Josk and Jim had been left with Charade. Lorist felt it prudent, since Freiyar and Senbaud were both constantly absent from the island with their fleets, to leave a gold-ranked knight on the island.
After Freiyar had been sent away, Lorist stood on the frontmost part of the deck. He watched the waves splash against the ship, and the rain fall gently. It was pleasant and relaxing. The news of the War of Glass and the second highness' ambush on Frederika finally let Lorist be at peace. There was no one left unoccupied to lust after Silowas island. Its development could finally proceed as planned.
Lorist hoped the two wars would drag on for as long as possible. Ideally, the Union and the second highness would exterminate the Teribo and Redlis kingdoms respectively. Once done with that they would hopefully turn on one another and fight over the Lormo duchy. The longer there was war occupying others elsewhere, the longer Lorist could spend developing his dominion in peace.
When I finish my research on cannons, I'll make sure to install them on my warships. Once my warships are fitted properly, even if a force like the Chikdor Merchant Guild once again turns its sights to Silowas, they will pose me no threat. My ships will turn theirs into floating debris, no two logs will still be lashed to one another once I'm done with them. No one will doubt who is the true ruler of the seas ever again...
As he finished the thought, a realization dawned on him; he would be incredibly busy once he reached the Northlands.There would be many things requiring his attention. It soured his mood to think of this.
Clad in a similar raincoat, Else emerged on the deck and leaned against a mast to Lorist's side.
"Locke, I've been feeling rather troubled these past few days. Do you remember sending me to deliver 1000 gold Fordes and a bunch of other gifts to Baron Dina's dominion? I just find it a little weird. When did you get to know the sisters from that barony? Not to mention their beautiful aunt. They also seemed to be on rather familiar terms with you. The elder sister, Dina, even cursed you for being ruthless.
"I really can't fathom how that happened. As the leader of your guards, I am by your side almost all the time, yet I can't recall a single moment you were free enough to become intimate with the sisters and it seems their aunt also has some relationship with you. She seemed quite concerned and interested when we were talking about you. Once they heard of your identity, however, they became quite wistful and sent us away after just the usual pleasantries. What's going on?
Lorist knew by now that when Els addressed him as 'Locke', he had the intention to converse as friends, not as lord and retainer. He seemed quite curious about the matter they were discussing.
Lorist smiled slightly when he heard about their change in behavior. Had he been a mere knight of the house, he would have been in the same social class as the two sisters, and they could marry him without issue, but Lorist was the patriarch of the family and the head of the house, on top of that he was no longer a minor noble, but a count. The two sisters could not become his wives without being nobility themselves, and they were nothing more than the siblings of a minor noble, a baron.
"It's nothing important. Didn't I go out with Dulles and Karitok when we were last in the capital? We attended a party and I met the two sisters and their aunt there. The girl thought me a knight and hoped I would ask her hand in marriage."
"Tsk tsk tsk, milord, you have quite a bit of fortune with females... In a single night, you managed to get the elder sister and her aunt to fall head over heels for you," said Els, once more addressing Lorist as his superior.
"Forget it. Let's not talk about me. What about you? You're not exactly young anymore. Weren't you getting along well with Master Mancheny's daughter? Should I bring up marriage on your behalf and have him wed his daughter to you?
Els had not expected to become the topic of discussion. He was stunned for a few moments.
"Well, Locke, I think it's better to wait for another year or two. I'll propose to her after I've broken through to the gold rank. Her marriage can be more glorious that way and I'll have my own manor. I can only be certain that she'll live well should misfortune befall me if things are that way."
Lorist patted on Els's shoulder.
He said angrily, "Don't be ridiculous. What misfortune are you talking about? With me by your side, you're guaranteed to live to your hundreds and experience the joys of family life."
Els looked annoyed and troubled.
"If you put it that way, Milord, I really can't decide who is actually guarding who..."
On the 11th day of the 3rd month, Lorist arrived at the Northlands. Freiyar had been correct, only eleven days had passed since their departure from Silowas.
Howard could be seen with red, swollen eyes, patiently awaiting Lorist's arrival. Lorist had sent Howard to the Northlands forcefully back then. It would have been too dangerous for Howard to be at Lorist's side if the Chikdor Merchant Guild attacked. Lorist would be on the front lines, he might even have to face blademasters. He felt it would be best for Howard to return to the Northlands.
Once on the pier, Lorist ruffled Howard's head.
"What's this? You're crying even though you're this old already? Sheesh, let's go to see the port city first. Have the carriage take a trip there."
The foundations for the city had already been completed in the highlands near Blackmud March. There were already two completed sectors, already populated. The people living there were mostly from Senbaud's fishing village and those who had moved over from Silowas. They were the lucky few who had the privilege of settling down in the city early.
The one responsible for the city-building project was none other than Grandmaster Ciroba. He had designed the city as grandiosely as he could. After making a few rounds in the area, Lorist realized there were around ten sectors still under construction. By the time the whole project was completed, the city would be able to sustain up to 60 thousand people and still have enough land for further expansion.
A massive residence for the dominion lord and a large garden square was to be built in the center of the city, as was the convention for most cities on the continent. It would take a few years at least to finish it. Most of the work was still being done on the foundations.
"Grandmaster Ciroba did a pretty good job. I must remember to give him and the other people in charge a reward."
Lorist turned to Howard.
"It the city named yet?" asked he.
"No, Milord. It's been decided to leave it up to you," said Howard.
"In that case, tell Grandmaster Ciroba he will have the honor of naming the city as a reward for his magnificent work. When the work is done, I'll have someone erect bronze statues of all those involved in the project. Also, remind him that he already has an embankment named after him, I don't want the city named as such as well. Have him think of a better name," instructed Lorist.
At the end of the previous year, the 50-kilometer long embankment, which stretches from Tortoise Hill to the mouth of the Azure River was finally completed. It had taken three long years and 200 thousand laborers to build. The embankment would not only prevent the river's flooding from interfering with the harvests from the new farmland at Blackmud Marsh but also served as a protective barrier between the land and the ironspine crocodiles that lurked on the far bank of the river.
The house spent over 500 thousand gold Fordes on the 50-kilometer long embankment. The main labor force had been the 50 thousand indentured servants that would finally complete their term of service at the end of the year. The house had also recruited an additional 70 thousand vagabonds to supplement the indentured servants. They brought their families with them and settled near the embankment. Blackmud Marsh had thus been turned into yet another center of food production.
Besides these two, the house's soldiers and garrison forces had to offer up three months of labor annually. The residents of Salus and Felicitas also joined the workforce for some extra money. Together, they managed to complete the embankment in just three years.
Grandmaster Ciroba had asked Lorist in his final report what the embankment should be named, and even offered to name it himself.
At the time Lorist couldn't be bothered to come up with a name, so he passed the privilege on to the grandmaster, who didn't hesitate to name it after himself. He even commissioned a large stone table to be placed on the embankment with its name. Many wished to object to the name, but when the grandmaster paraded Lorist's letter round, no one could oppose him.
Lorist had learned his lesson and forbade the man from naming things after himself. He couldn't afford to set a precedent and have every other narcissist name everything after themselves. As a form of compensation and motivation, Lorist was willing, however, to have a statue of the man erected in commemoration of his efforts.
During the remaining 20-odd days of the 3rd month, Lorist checked on the various military camps and the people within his dominion. He spent a day each at the Maplewoods bastide and Telesti's Nico Academy office before rushing to Firmrock castle to attend the annual general meeting of the house.
On the 5th day of the 4th month, Lorist arrived at Firmrock castle and the annual general meeting commenced.
The flow of the meeting was not unlike the previous year's. The only change was the absence of those who had remained on the island, most notable among whom was Charade, and a proposal to commend and entitle those with contributions.
After a briefing on the year's outcomes came the discussion of promotions and entitlement. Lorist announced that Potterfang, Fiercetiger Loze, Josk, Freiyar, Belnick, Malek, Terman, and Yuriy would each receive their own hereditary manor. The manor and its surrounding lands were to remain in the family even if their descendants didn't become household knights.
Lorist instructed Shadekampf to plan for eight new farm towns and eight manors to be built in the red-river valley. It was the land that had originally belonged to the Kenmays. He named the place Redriver. His proclamation caused many to wonder how House Kenmays would react to the, now official, occupation of their original dominion.
Lorist merely laughed it off.
"House Kenmays is now preoccupied with their dominion in the eastern Northlands. Practically speaking, they've abandoned the red-river valley for several years now. They won't develop land so close to our dominion. In fact, this move will make them feel more at ease. It will reassure them that we've truly buried the hatchet."
The final item on the agenda concerned the expansion of the house's military through the recruitment of the 50 thousand captives, those who had previously worked on the embankment and were about to complete their term as indentured servants. Despite comments to the contrary Lorist had made int he past, the second highness' 300 thousand strong army had unsettled him. It was anyone's guess whether the second highness would leave the north in peace, or return to wipe it clean after he finished with the Iblia kingdom. It was better to be prepared than not.
Potterfang's heavy-armored troops and Loze's pike cavalry troops were expanded to two divisions each. Dulles was also put in charge of forming another carroballista division. He needn't prepare any horses, however. Lorist wished to try out an idea. It if succeeded, Dulles's unit would be able to travel on foot.
After the meeting, Lorist had Grandmaster Sid, the person in charge of the refinery at Ironforge Castle, and Supervisor Camorra, who mainly dealt with the production of military equipment, arms, and armor at Windstorm City, stay back for two additional assignments.
The first regarded the idea Lorist had. He drew a design similar to a wheelbarrow and wanted Grandmaster Sid to test whether a steel ballista could be fitted to it. That way, there would no longer be a need for carriages and horses for the ballistae. They would still have the same levels of mobility and agility, however. Additionally, the wheelbarrow design allowed for the ballista to be dragged up hilly terrain to higher vantage points, which was much easier than moving a whole carriage uphill.
The other assignment was for a set of glamorous armor that was slightly weaker than Whitelion Legion armor in terms of defense. The armor was to be sold to the Union. Given the disposition of merchants, the better the armor looked, the more they would be hooked.
That same afternoon, on the frontlines of the Teribo kingdom, President Cobleit, commander-in-chief of the Union's army, saw that his force had already grown to the 150 thousand mark. With the passing of winter, he could finally stop arguing with other officers in his tent all day. He was finally about to release his ultimatum to the four nations' army. Should they not leave within three days to allow the Union passage, they would be attacked without mercy. The consequences after that would be borne by the allied army alone.
Given that the allied army had been able to stop the Union's forces in their tracks for three whole months, they could already be considered to have answered Teribo VII's expectations. Additionally, nobody wanted to antagonize the Union. Thus, the allied army promised they would retreat within three days, ending the stalemate that had lasted for three whole months.
At the same time in the occupied capital of the Iblia kingdom, the first group of soldiers belonging to the main body of the Andinaq kingdom's royal local defense army appeared outside the city.
Second Highness Auguslo, who watched their arrival from the walls, finally breathed a sigh of relief. For the past month, after his ambush on the city, he had not had a single night of good sleep. He seemed to have slimmed greatly and a thick beard could be seen on his face. The negotiations with the 70 thousand troops defending Kanbona Province had taxed him greatly, but he had managed to make them surrender. Now that his main army had finally arrived, what remained would be the capture of the first prince.
"Heed my orders, send an ambassador to Anderwoff's nobles. Order them to bend the knee and pledge allegiance to me, or face extermination."
"Yes, Your Majesty. Your will is my command. But what should we do if the nobles have other demands?"
"Are they in a position to make demands? It was they who joined the first prince in rebellion and forever disturbed the empire's peace. I'm already being incredibly merciful by sparing their lives and those of their family. Is that not enough? Tell them that if their behavior is to my satisfaction, the most they would face is a decrease in their peerage and relocation. I trust that this will be enough."
"Yes, Your Majesty. I will leave right away to pass on your decree."