On the 3rd day of the 5th month at the Union camp located at the frontline of the Teribo kingdom, President Cobleit freaked out and went on a rampage. Without caring about the onlookers, he began cursing loudly in his tent.
He wasn't cursing at the people in the tent, however, nor the troops that wouldn't listen to his orders, not even the enemy who defended the citadel opposite his camp. Teribo VII was not the target of any of his insults. He was actually cursing at his distant uncle, the famed and stubborn rank 3 blademaster, Duke Urubaha IV.
He's basically slapping me squarely in the face! All I wanted was the use of his forces to conquer the Teribo kingdom. I even offered him such a good deal, not only would I pay for the forces, he'd even receive a lot of benefits! But instead, he goes and pulls this!
It was no wonder that the president was bathed in such extreme fury. Two months earlier he had written a letter to the duke asking to employ the duchy's army. The Union was willing to pay handsomely for their use. The president considered the benefits and promised business with the Twinhead Dragon Merchant Guild offered to the Urubaha duchy reason enough for the latter to stand on the Union's side, even without the familial ties they shared.
In Urubaha IV's reply, he expressed his support for the Union's actions and emphasizes how he loathed Teribo VII's actions. He noted with regret, however, that one of his armies had already been rented and could, thus, only be given to the Union when they returned.
At the time, President Cobleit was incredibly happy with the response and even showed the letter off to the masses. The duchy's support lent further credence to the justice of their cause against the Teribo kingdom.
After forcing the four allied nations' army to leave, the president prepared to attack two more of the kingdom's commanderies. Their defenders retreated or surrendered without resistance, so the Union took the two commanderies over with ease.
However, just as the president was about to strike once more, to capture Teribo VII and conquer the rest of the kingdom in one go, his army - a ragtag bunch of nitwits - stopped following his orders and instead went raiding and looting for more riches.
Before he even had the chance to punish them for their insubordination, he received several distress calls. Some gold ranked swordsmen and some mercenaries had been captured or assassinated while they were out raiding. In barely any time at all, 14 more gold-ranked swordsmen and mercenaries became headless corpses. Their heads popped up in the Teribo kingdom shortly after in exchange for the rewards promised by its king.
With no other choice, President Cobleit launched another anti-assassination initiative and gathered up all the soldiers in the two commanderies. They all moved to the army's camp. It took him a month of hard work to reorganize the troops and implement new regulations. Only thereafter did he set out once more. The army hadn't even marched for two days, however, before they came upon a citadel blocking their path.
The president could have dealt with them using temptations or threat, had they been the kingdom's troops, but Teribo VII knew very well how unreliable his forces were and had hired another army to man the citadel. This army was none other than the one promised to the Union by the Urubaha duchy, the Crimson Legion.
The legion was rather small, at just 24 thousand men, but it was very well known, especially amongst the neighboring nations. They had been used to suppress many uprisings, had swept entire provinces clean of bandits, and had even helped the successor of a small kingdom regain his throne. They were famous for their loyalty, reliability, hardiness, and determination.
President Cobleit had wanted to hire one of the duchy's armies exactly because of this reputation. Other than that, they followed orders strictly and didn't charge much to employ: the legion only cost 100 thousand gold Fordes to rent each month. With a rented army that would obey all his orders, the president felt that he could keep the ragtag bunch in check while simultaneously showing them how a real army should behave.
Little did he know that the army he had wanted to hire had become his enemy's reinforcements and even stood right in his path. The surprise almost caused the president to spit out blood in anger.
Two days later, the truth of the matter was presented to President Cobleit. As he had expected, Teribo VII had offered Urubaha IV over three times the normal rate, he had paid 1 million gold Fordes for just three months of service. The offer was so irresistible that Urubaha IV didn't care for his promise to the president and the Union, and gladly took Teribo VII's side in the conflict.
The Crimson Legion had been ordered to defend the citadel to their last breath. Should the citadel fall, their men would perish too. In fact, the duke even hoped that this would be exactly what happens. His deal with Teribo VII stated that if he lost the legion, the king would pay an additional 5 million gold Fordes as reparations and he would replace all the lost military equipment. Human life was the least valuable thing in the duchy to the duke. It didn't matter how many soldiers he lost, he could always just recruit others to replace them.
The president cursed his uncle for being so unfaithful and greedy. If it was for money, the duke would ignore his family's pleas for help without reservation. The care the Twinhead Dragon Merchant Guild had shown to the duchy had also been conveniently forgotten.
No one in the tent tried to interfere, they all understood the president's troubles. Even though the Union had around 150 thousand troops that also had experience fighting defensive battles, it would be a long stretch to ask them to mount an assault. Asking them to conquer the citadel was akin to asking them to jump off a cliff. It was especially true given the Crimson Legion's reputation for being incredibly tenacious defenders.
Perhaps, the saying that 'the battlefield is the best place to learn' made sense. Should he actually force his men to attack the citadel? Even if he succeeded, he would suffer huge casualties. How many of his men would each of the Crimson Legion's soldiers kill before falling? They would definitely not surrender. They followed orders to the letter, and they had been ordered to hold the citadel or fall with it. Three per soldier? Four? Maybe even more? Would incurring such a huge loss just from attacking a citadel be worth it? The president knew that if he lost half his troops, he would lose the whole army. The rest would have no courage left and scatter.
But what would happen if he didn't attack? If he turned back, he would be the laughing stock of the entire continent, the general of 150 thousand soldiers defeated by 24 thousand in a citadel, and without a fight to boot. Rumors would spread quickly that he had chickened out in front of the legion, his reputation would be ruined. And yet he couldn't attack. The citadel's defenses had almost no flaws. The moment he launched an attack would be the moment the land would be submerged in a sea of blood and a field of corpses. If that happened, some would no doubt criticize the Union's war as nothing more than a millstone used to grind away at the smaller merchant guilds to keep the big-seven in power. There was no good way to deal with this!
President Cobleit's hatred for his uncle seeped into his bones. It was as if all past favors and their familial relation didn't matter in the face of money.
After a long sigh, he slumped back into his chair. Shortly after he realized there was still someone in the tent. It was the third young master of the Chikdor Merchant Guild, Serihanem.
"Oh? Why are you still here?" asked President Cobleit curiously.
Serihanem bowed respectfully and said, "President, I have an idea that might not require us to attack this citadel."
"Oh, what is it then?" asked the president, reinvigorated.
"Well, can we confirm that the only orders the Crimson Legion received were to defend the citadel itself?" asked Serihanem.
President Cobleit nodded.
"They have no orders to take offensive actions, right?" asked Serihanem in another effort to confirm the facts.
"None whatsoever," replied the president.
"Then it'll be simple. President, I would like to be sent to the citadel as an ambassador and meet with the legion's commander. Please give me permission to do so," requested Serihanem.
"What are your intentions?"
"Perhaps, we can help them reinterpret the definition of 'defending the place to their deaths'," said Serihanem, before he revealed a sly smile.
Two days later, the Union's 150-thousand-strong force bypassed the citadel and continued their assault. First young master Serihanem and the commander of the Crimson Legion stood at the citadel's gates and observed the Union's forces march westward.
"Thank you, Commander Seria. I must tell you once more how grateful the Chikdor Merchant Guild is to you. Perhaps, we will be able to have another chance for cooperation," said Serihanem sincerely.
Commander Seria of the Crimson Legion was a rather bulky man in his forties. He was also a two-star-gold-ranked knight.
He shrugged his shoulders and said, "There's no need for you to be that thankful. We're only acting with our own interests in mind. Just like you said, nobody actually wants to die, and neither do I want to see the young lads in my legion sacrificed for no good reason. Also, we didn't disobey any orders by doing this. We did in keep the citadel secure and didn't let it fall into your hands. As for your circling around the citadel, that has nothing to do with me. It's not that I received an order that required me to prohibit your troops from doing so."
On the 11th day of the 5th month, the Union's forces successfully passed around the citadel defended by the Crimson Legion to continue their invasion. Teribo VII lost his cool the moment he received the news. He hurriedly offered more money to the neighboring nations to send reinforcements and sent some men to find out what the heck the Crimson Legion was up to.
All Commander Seria did, was bring up the orders he had received. He responded proudly that he had managed to keep the citadel from falling into the hands of the enemy, and that he didn't violate any orders he received at all. As for where the troops of the Union had gone, they were none of his concern and not what he was responsible for.
Teribo VII was infuriated when he heard received the commander's response. He wrote a letter to Urubaha IV. As a result, Urubaha IV mobilized his other army-for-rent, the Tricolor Sword Legion, to the kingdom to stand with the four allied nations' army, officially taking the kingdom's side. And so began yet another stalemate that lasted for three more months. As for what transpired after that, that's a topic for another time.
On the 14th day of the 5th month at the Hanayabarta kingdom's port city of Nupite, more than 30 vessels belonging to the Chikdor Merchant Guild anchored. Countless badly-dressed slave youths could be seen busy moving cargo around like trails of ants.
One of the aged slaves slipped and fell. The cubic parcel he had been carried smashed into the ground. The crisp sound of something breaking rang out. The slaves around him looked at the scene with terror and quickly left the area, lest they be involved in the trouble that was to come.
The slave who'd slipped sat on the ground and revealed a cathartic smile on his face. Quickly, a few angry-looking men rushed over and pinned him to the ground. One of them tugged on his hair while another swung with his sword. Head and body separated. Blood fountained from the slave's bare neck.
"What a merciful end for an animal like him. What a clean and painless death!" the leader of the group said before he spun the parcel around and saw the marking on it.
He cursed, "This is something that belongs to Master Wazk! Dammit! We'll be reprimanded for this again... He might even force us to reimburse him, this is going to be expensive! Cursed slave, have a few of them come over and impale the head on a stake! And toss that filthy corpse into the ocean!"
It was a common site for the Chikdor Merchant Guild's men. This kind of thing happened quite often in this country built on slaves and was nothing to marvel at.
Within a luxurious building in Nupite, the third young master of the Chikdor Merchant Guild, Moribak, was receiving the local lord's hospitality. He was accompanied by more than ten other slave owners and traders ranked at the top of the port's hierarchy.
The fleet had started their journey on the 12th day of the 4th month. They had first stopped at the Shyarsia kingdom to purchase half a year's worth of spice and sell some of their own goods, before heading to Nupite. They had already been traveling for about a month and Moribak felt incredibly worn out. He had no choice but to stay energized the best he could to deal with these influential slave owners and traders.
The slave traders, their mouths loosened by the alcohol, complained about the difficulties of their business over the last year and how their 'stock' had been than satisfactory.
Moribak asked curiously, "What's causing such a huge change in the slave trading business?"
There were many different responses from the different traders but they all had one thing in common - the sudden rise to power of Second Highness Auguslo.
One of the slave traders began to tell his story of the better days of the past.
"During the years when the empire was embroiled in civil war, the nobles of the former empire were extremely welcoming to us and treated us like princes. Those nobles were more than happy to sell their captives, disobedient folk, and refugees to us. Back then, a young captive only cost one small silver. If we put ourselves through a little trouble, we could even hire mercenaries to capture the refugees to be traded for one gold coin after another..."
"That's right. It's a shame that the war ended too soon. It only lasted seven years! Sigh." another trader complained, "But even so, business was still good back then. There were many nobles who wanted to deal with us. We easily transported the goods from the Redlis kingdom to the Lormo duchy and each trip would net us a few thousand gold Fordes.
"To think that the Redlis kingdom's king, the first prince of the former empire, would actually be defeated by his nephew, the second highness of the Andinaq kingdom, and be forced to cede two provinces to his nephew. Our trade route through the two provinces has been cut off."
"Do the first prince and the second highness not want to deal with slaves?" asked Moribak.
"Third young master, you don't understand. The three princes have different attitudes towards the slave trade. The second prince, the king of the Iblia kingdom, for example, doesn't support slavery on the surface but allows it to continue in secret. He's the one that was the easiest with whom to strike a deal. Naturally, we didn't forget to give him some benefits for his cooperation. Back then, we could sell slaves in broad daylight within the borders of his kingdom.
"The first prince, on the other hand, is different. He would simply play dumb. Occasionally though, he would send his soldiers to demand a generous donation from us. Every time we pass through his territory, it's as if our skins are being scraped clean. Even though we did profit, the margin was very low.
"The worst one is the second highness. Back then, he was still rather amiable after the third prince became bedridden. There was once an occasion where we docked at Jillin Harbor of the Andinaq kingdom with the slaves we got from the Iblia kingdom. We were only fined a small amount of money after we were discovered. But after the second highness came to power, we were in deep trouble the moment we were captured by the kingdom's troops. Offenders would be beheaded without question. The second highness even claimed that his people weren't goods to be traded.
"I think that there's something wrong with his head. His people are starving and barely surviving. At least they would be able to continue living as slaves. People don't want to deal with Second Highness Auguslo only because of his 300 thousand soldiers. He'd rather have the three to four hundred thousand refugees at the two provinces near the southwest starve to death than allow them to sell themselves into slavery. If we had gotten our hands on those slaves, we'd have profited greatly!
"Wasn't Durik going to head to the southwestern provinces and trick the refugees there to come with us? He pretended to be a merchant from Morante and managed to gather around 1000 people, only to be exposed as a slave trader and hanged along with his attendants."
"Oh, third young master, has the second highness begun fighting with the first prince? I hope that we'll be able to reap some profit when they enter a stalemate," said another slave trader.
"Sigh, stop dreaming. When I left Morante, I heard that the second highness had successfully crossed the Cloudsnap Mountain Range to ambush Frederika. The first prince was forced to escape haggardly. I suspect that by the time I make it back, I will receive word of the Redlis kingdom's extermination. With the second highness having so much power, it's best if you don't get your slaves there," said Moribak.
At the same time, he told the slave traders and owners of his original northern strategy.
"It's a shame that the plans won't be executed now. My guild's higher-ups are terrified of the count just because of the loss of one rank 2 blademaster and 3000 other soldiers... Now that the whole political climate has shifted, there's no more hope left."
Most of what Moribak said flew in one ear of the slave traders and out the other, however.
One of them asked, "Third young master, you mentioned that this House Norton is undertaking huge development efforts and even brought more than 50 thousand refugees to their island?"
"That's right. That bastard no longer has to fear my clan's attack on Silowas. So, he gathered up around 60 thousand refugees from the two southwestern provinces and began developing the island," mumbled Moribak before he passed out from the alcohol's influence.