Clang-clang-clang-clang! The clashing of swords sliced the air.
Lorist returned his sword to its scabbard and nodded in satisfaction.
"Not bad, you've improved quite a bit. Given your current swordsmanship, You should be able to take on a one-star-gold-ranked knight. You have to try harder, got it?"
Reidy held his hand in front of his chest respectfully and said, "Yes, master."
Lorist noticed that Reidy had improved at an incredible speed of the past year. After he began his training in the hall at the back of Firmrock castle's mountain, Reidy did nothing else for a long time. Not only had he broken through the third stage of the dan ocean ki-refining technique, thus reaching the bright stage, his swordsmanship had also improved by leaps and bounds.
"You should start stabilizing your power at the third stage before traveling to get some experience. Breaking through to the fourth rank in the dan ocean ki-refining technique requires actual insight, not just mindless training. Perhaps, you might even have to experience a few a life-threatening situations first. During normal combat situations, you need to be far more clear-headed and maintain a calm demeanor - you must not be enraged easily, understood?"
"I understand. Thank you for your teachings, Master."
Lorist was just preparing to return to the central castle with Howard after he left the training grounds when Else showed up.
"Milord, Knight Tarkel and Supervisor Camorra are both waiting for you in the guest lounge."
Nodding, Lorist said, "Have them enter my study. You should come along too."
Time had really flown by. When they had last met, Lorist was just a person in charge of a convoy heading north to return to the house's dominion. They had even been attacked by Count Cobry's spear cavalry on the way. It had ultimately ended with the defeat of Count Cobry and with Lorist occupying the Northwestern Province's city, Geldos.
Back then Tarkel had merely been a guard for one of the prison camps in the city. He was a two-star-iron-rank and cowardly as a mouse. Lorist was convinced that he had his talents and dragged him to the northlands forcefully. On their arrival, however, Lorist was swamped with urgent matters and forgot to tend to Tarkel. The latter was forced to join Yuriy's light cavalry scouts just to make a living and look after his family.
The time he had spent with the unit had changed him completely. There wasn't a trace of his previous cowardice left, and in its place was a rare bravery. The many life-threatening battles he had experienced had also pushed him to the peak of the iron rank. He was now courteous and respectful towards others. When Lorist finally got round to Tarkel, he immediately made him his personal attendant. A year later, having broken through to the silver rank, he was taken in as a household knight.
Lorist had sent Tarkel all over the place on one task after another over the next two years. The tasks themselves were thought eccentric by most, one of the longer trips lasted a full three months. Tarkel was required to write a report on every location he visited, including any personal thoughts or opinions he might have on it for that particular trip.
Tarkel and Supervisor Camorra both gave a knight's solute as they entered the study on the second floor of the castle.
"Good day, milord," greeted they in unison.
"Good day to you too," Lorist answered.
His gaze settled on Tarkel first.
"You've done rather well for the past two years. I see that you've been rather industrious with your battleforce training as well. You're already at the two-star silver-rank?" asked Lorist surprised.
"That's right, Milord. After receiving the battleforce manual from you, my training progressed even faster than when I was using the manual given to me in the military," replied Tarkel gratefully.
"That's because your battleforce is fitting for the technical manual I gave you," said Lorist as he smiled.
His gaze shifted to the silent Camorra.
"Camorra, if you want to awaken your battleforce, I can give you a hand."
The supervisor made a bitter smile.
"Milord, please stop joking around. I'm already in my mid-forties. I was informed that people over 35 can no longer awaken their battleforce."
"That's a common misconception," Lorist retorted, "Ten years ago when I was studying at Morante, I heard that someone managed to awaken their battleforce at the age of 48. Naturally, it was also rumored that the man used lots of precious medicinal supplements to help him out. It no doubt cost a fortune, but if you desire to awaken your battleforce, I can definitely be of help. It'll take a while, however, at least three months and possibly even a whole year. It won't be easy, you'll have to change your habits and daily routine according to my instructions if you want to succeed. Do you wish to give it a try?" asked Lorist out of nowhere.
Camorra's expression turned glum. He was silent for a time before lowering his head
"Please show me the way."
"Very well," Lorist said as he took Camorra's pulse, "You've lived quite a harsh life in your childhood and that has caused the growth of your bone structure to be slightly stunted. In your youth, you toiled hard for most of your life, resulting in a rather weak foundation. However, your life improved markedly when you reached your middle years. Despite that, you did not slip and managed to keep healthy habits resolutely, though you do seem to be experiencing some anxiety and stress that has accelerated the loss of your hair, as well as a lack of good sleep. You wake up in the middle of the night and find it hard to go back to sleep, right?"
Camorra looked at Lorist like he was a ghost.
"Mi-milord... Y-you were able to diagnose my sleep condition j-just by taking my pulse?!" stammered he.
"Of course," Lorist said with a smile, "Actually, that part was a lie. I got to know about your sleeplessness simply by asking your guards. They saw the lights in your room lit every night as they did their rounds.
"Despite this, your physical condition is still passable, save for your anxiety that deprives you of good sleep. How about this, hand most of your tasks to your aide and take half a year off. During that time, attend the training camp with the new recruits so you can receive some military training. Make sure you only do half of each of the exercises, though. I'll also give you a set of prescriptions. Work and rest as the routine of the camp dictates. If you can do that, I am confident that you will have an 80 percent chance of awakening your battleforce. Now, go."
Camorra spent a while in deep thought before replying.
"Alright, Milord. I will do as you say."
Clapping his hands, Lorist said, "Alright. I've called you guys here today because I have something I need your help with. Els, don't just stand in the corner, come over here."
"Our house is growing more prosperous by the day, but we still have a major shortcoming: our intelligence network. When we stay in the northlands, we won't be informed about what happens in the outside world. But now that we have the route to Silowas, we have a window to the outside world. We can gather a lot of information now. Just recently we learned of the War of Glass and the second highness' attack on Frederika.
"Our news is still too out of date, however. The slow speed at which news travels to us puts the house at a serious disadvantage. I intend to remedy this situation. I'm going to set up a department with the sole purpose of gathering intelligence. I want to speed up the rate at which we receive news about the happening on the continent enough so that we will always have enough time to prepare and react to anything that concerns us. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
The three of them stayed quiet.
Camorra finally broke the silence after a while.
"Milord, are you saying you want to send spies to various regions to gather intelligence?"
Tarkel smiled bitterly.
"Milord, that is difficult to do. Putting other things aside, just hiring and training the spies will cost us an incredible amount of money. The old empire had 29 provinces, each had a unit of spies infiltrated into the province's higher tiers of society. It requires a lot of money to do something like this."
Els gave it some thought.
"Milord, if it's just the house's dominion, I can promise you that nothing will escape our ears, just like how it was at Morante, but it's a whole different story outside the dominion. The chaos outside the dominion makes it hard for us to ensure the safety of our spies. It won't be worth it for them to lose their lives just for some reports.
Lorist shook his head and stood up.
"You are mistaken. The kind of spies I want is not the kind you're imagining. Currently, almost all spies on Grindia have to infiltrate high society as nobles and attend their parties and functions, hoping that they'll chance upon some valuable intelligence. Or, they would simply be free travelers who spend most of their time in taverns to gather information and report the presence of suspicious persons. That is not what I want."
"Tarkel, do you know why I was so interested in your skills when I met you that year in Geldos?" asked Lorist.
Shaking his head, Tarkel said, "Unfortunately not, Milord. That year, I didn't even think that I would ever break through to the silver rank. I was merely working for food and spending my life doing nothing but lazing around. I thought that the rest of my life would be the same. I didn't think that you would fancy me talented. Naturally, I am now very thankful for what you did back then. If you didn't force me to come along, I wouldn't be the knight I am today."
Lorist chuckled and said, "Did you know that it was your gossip that convinced me of your resourcefulness? I totally didn't expect that a normal guard like you would know Geldos like the back of your hand and answer any question I had for you. You told me everything. From who had a grudge against whom to what resources had arrived in the past two days and where they were stored, you knew it all! You were just a normal guard for a prison camp, not Count Cobry's chief supervisor! It was then that I realized that you're naturally talented as a spy. It was because of that realization that I forced you to follow me to the dominion.
"Surely you won't deny that you're naturally more curious than most, right? Tarkel, during the past two years, I have assigned you to work on more than ten different occasions. You had to do something different every time, yet you still adapted flawlessly and integrated into your new working environment without fail... You even build up quite the list of new friends and contacts. You would be swimming like a fish in water in your new environment in less than a month, not to mention your friendly relations with your colleagues. If I didn't know otherwise, I might have thought that you had been working each job for several years...
"This is the talent of which I speak. You are a natural spy, and you don't have a loose mouth either. Every time you move to a new workplace you start as a blank slate. Not a word of your previous job escapes your mouth. This is a quality I greatly admire.
"The department I am thinking of forming isn't one that will spy, but one that will simply gather intelligence. You can even call it the investigations department if you want. They will require some form of spies, yes, but they will be designated as 'intelligence operatives'.
"I believe there will be people at every place that know their base very well, just like you when you were working at Geldos. Tarkel, your mission is to scout them out and hire them. Make them into our intelligence operatives that will send us important information about the area.
"As for information from the noble circles, we don't have to get a person to mix with them. We can just bribe their servants and attendants. The information we get from them is sure to be more reliable and detailed. It's just like how Camorra paid off one of Count Kenmays's personal attendant that one time.
"I believe someone who qualifies to be an intelligence operative should have some sort of influence in their area. Look at tailors, inn owners, fishmongers, or even the commanders of garrisons. No one will suspect them of being informants, so they won't take note when they see them contacting our people. They'll be interacting as friends or acquaintances would.
"If nobody meets those criteria, we can train some ourselves. There are many of our house's soldiers who have retired because of some injury or other. If they are still willing to serve the family, we can train them to gather intelligence. Have them master a trade and move them back to their hometown where they can set up some kind of shop. Just like that, we'll have another source of information."
Lorist paused as he opened his drawer and took out a thick stack of beastskin documents.
"These are some thoughts I have concerning the intelligence and investigation department. Read this when you get back and tell me your opinions the next time we meet.
"My wish is for the three of you to be in joint command of this new department. Tarkel, you'll be responsible for the management and placement of our informants, Camorra, you will work on sorting and analyzing the reports, and Els, you'll be heading the operations department. You'll do 'fieldwork' and cooperate with Tarkel and do anything he requires."
"Operations department?" Els questioned, "What's that?"
Lorist made a cut-throat gesture and said, "During the selection process for informants, Tarkel might run into some deep trouble. Some local crime syndicates might try to interfere, some local hooligans might get int he way, or people our informants bear grudges against.
"Tarkel will compile a list of those that are obstacles to our operations and you will eliminate them. You can pick people to fill the positions from your guard brigade. For now, keep it small and have at most three squads of men."
"Understood, Milord," acknowledged Els.
"I'll be skipping out on the training camp, in that case, Milord. I must first finish the protocols for the organization of the reports for the department," said Camorra.
"No, your tasks are not that urgent. Just go to the training camp to prepare for your battleforce awakening. Take note of quick-witted recruits that are potential intelligence operative candidates as well. After you make sure they are of the reliable sort, have them transfer to the new department for training to form its foundations. We will send them out in the future as required. After all, Tarkel alone can't go everywhere to set up our intelligence-gathering facilities, can he?" said Lorist.
"This matter is not that urgent, we should take it step by step. I will be satisfied if we can have a preliminary intelligence network covering the former empire's territory set up within three years. The house will provide all the funds and resources you require. But before that, we still face one huge problem. How will the informants send their reports? Given the chaotic state of the lands, messengers traveling on horseback aren't that reliable, as Els has mentioned, they're relatively slow as well. By the time the news reaches us, it will already be out of date. Tell me, do you have any thoughts or suggestions?" asked Lorist.
"Milord, can we breed sea swallows on a large scale and use them to pass letters just like how ships at sea communicate?" asked Els.
"That won't do," Lorist said, shaking his head, "I've already asked Senbaud about this and according to him, sea swallows have too many limitations. Firstly, a sea swallow will have to be hatched and raised on the ship for it to treat it as its home. If we want it to travel to another ship, we must bring it there in a cage and release it so it can fly back to the ship it was hatched on. Also, the distance can't be too great. They'll be useless for trips greater than 35 kilometers."
"Milord, I've read in the books that the magi used owls and crows of some sort to transport letters. Perhaps we could experiment with them?" suggested Tarkel.
Rolling his eyes, Lorist said, "It's not like you're a magus. Do you know how to train them? Perhaps, there's some relic that contains information about it?"
Tarkel didn't say anything else.
"Milord, perhaps, we can use hen harriers to deliver letters," said Camorra.
"Yes, milord. I know an old hunter who happens to be know how to train hen harriers. I've seen him tie several types of medicinal ingredients to the claws of the birds and have them deliver it to his son's shop in a city 50-odd kilometers away," explained Camorra.
"Very well, have somebody ask around. If hen harriers can indeed be used for communication, we will begin breeding and training them en masse. The house is willing to invest a lot of money in this endeavor. Perhaps when we do have hen harriers that can deliver letters, the forces of the house can react more swiftly to sudden changes on the battlefield."
Lorist hoped sincerely that hen harriers proved useful. If they did, he had no qualms investing unlimited amounts of money.
"Milord, I have another question," Tarkel said, "What will this intelligence investigation department of ours be called?"
"A name? The KGB? The CIA? The NSA? How about the Stasi or the Gestapo? Maybe MI6?" Lorist mumbled the names of the intelligence agencies of Earth that were known to him as they flashed in his mind. None of them felt adequate, however, so he settled on an alternate phrase for 'Raging Bear' as pronounced in English.
"Furybear. We'll call it Furybear then."