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Here's the third regular release of the week! If nothing goes wrong, there will be six releases this week in total to make up for the chapter I missed last week.

Please note that this chapter is still unedited.

"Respectful greetings to you, Lord Count. This one is Serihanem of the Chikdors. I have come to express our peaceful intentions on behalf of the Chikdor Merchant Guild." The one dressed in the standard noble attire of the Union, Serihanem, bowed respectfully to Lorist before he presented his list of gifts.

Howard received the list and placed in on a small table beside Lorist, who gave it a glance and saw assortments of jewellery, fashionable clothes, high quality armaments, wine, and even four zeno horses. All of them combined were easily worth over 30 thousand gold Fordes. Lorist thought back at the times when he toiled so hard only to earn a little more than eight thousand gold Fordes a year. To think that the gifts by the Chikdors would easily rival the wealth amassed by a silver-ranked swordsman over 30 years of hard work.

"Please, take a seat," Lorist said as he waved his hand, "As the first young master of the Chikdor clan, I wonder what business do you have with me for you to make such a long trip all the way to Silowas."

Serihanem smiled bitterly before saying, "Lord Count, you should know better why I've come. To be frank, my third brother's reckless actions has caused your house huge losses and put us on a hostile standing. Back then, the guild was mainly focused on the war with the Teribo kingdom and didn't have any opportunity to make it up to you for that incident. That's why our misunderstanding grew even deeper, causing our guild even more losses.

"I have come on this trip in hopes to resolve our differences and form an amicable relationship between both parties. I hope that you will be forgiving and release the crew members of our northern fleet. The guild is more than willing to pay their ransom to get them back. Lord Count, please don't refuse my earnest request. I understand that the Norton house has exterminated the Hanayabarta kingdom and did the most righteous deed of liberating more than 400 thousand slaves. I hope you will be able to extend the same vein of mercy to our honest and hard-working sailors as well who only want to make end's meet for their families.

"They are only serving in the fleet because it is their job. I'm sure their families are eagerly awaiting their return. Lord Count, if you have anything you're dissatisfied with, please don't hesitate to tell me about it. The Chikdor Merchant Guild will definitely do all in our power to ensure that you are compensated in full. The main reason for my trip here is for the release of our sailors so that they can be reunited with their families."

Lorist looked at the man who was only a few years older than him with scrutiny. The man presented himself as frank, honest and sincere and would easily be able to make others feel like they can get along with him well.

"Please sit down, Sir Serihanem," Lorist beckoned for the man to sit again, "I believe you of all people know why I am so particular against men of your guild. To be honest, the Norton house is practically at war with the Chikdor Merchant Guild. The only difference is that no official declaration of such conflict was made. Let me also add that all of this started because of the guild in the first place."

"Lord Count, please just address me with my name. I am most undeserving of being addressed with such a respectful title," Serihanem said as he raised both his hands, "I understand your point. Apart from coming here to ransom our sailors back, I've also come here in an attempt to resolve our conflict. The Chikdor Merchant Guild does not in any way wish for war with the Norton house.

"I believe that you know that we originally intended to have Silowas as our dominion. But now that we already have the Urubaha duchy as our territory, the main cause for conflict between us is no more. I have come here to ask for your forgiveness for our actions in the past so that we can start anew with a relationship that will benefit us both, instead of one that will dye the seas with blood of the innocent."

"Serihanem, even though you said you don't wish for the innocents' blood to dye the sea, do you know how much blood of the innocent islanders at Silowas was spilled? Did you know why our house mobilized our troops to exterminate the Hanayabarta kingdom?" asked Lorist with a stern tone.

"Lord Count, I am well aware. That was caused by the actions of my reckless third brother when he was drunk at a banquet at Hanayabarta. However, I can assure you that the leak of intelligence about Silowas was purely accidental. My second brother and I have always been against our third brother's plan to take Silowas. To the guild, Silowas is too far from the southern seas which we control. Apart from its convenience of being an island, it is not suitable at all to be the dominion for our guild.

"Not only that, we were involved in the War of Glass at that time and have since put our northern strategy on indefinite hold. It was that which caused my third brother to feel incredibly frustrated and resulted in his trip. It was after that during the banquet at Hanayabarta when he unconsciously blurted out the status of Silowas in a drunken fit, which caused the slavers and nobles of the Hanayabarta kingdom to set their sights on the residents of your island. This is definitely not something we could envision happen...

"It's not that I'm trying to push responsibility away from us. We were also worried during the end of last year when our northern fleet didn't return from their voyage. It was not until the 3rd month when we were able to get hold of information of the extermination of the Hanayabarta kingdom by your house and that our northern fleet has been held captive. My father then questioned our third brother promptly about the issue. At that time, even my third brother was unaware of what was happening. It was the attendants that served him who recalled that he accidentally leaked our northern plan when he was drunk at the banquet.

"For that, my third brother had suffered two harsh slaps from my father and was exiled to the wastelands of the Urubaha mountains. My father said that since it was the fault of my third brother that your house suffered such huge losses, we are willing to give you all the ships of our northern fleet as compensation. All we ask for is that our sailors be allowed to return.

"Lord Count, regardless of whether my third brother leaked the information, surely nobody can refute that the slavers have already been targeting the 200 thousand refugees at the two southwestern provinces of the Andinaq kingdom. Your house's bringing in of more  than 60 thousand of them for the development of Silowas would have alerted the slavers about it eventually. All my third brother did was say the wrong thing at the wrong place. He was merely venting his frustration without the intention of causing trouble for your house."

"Well, aren't you a talkative one," Lorist said as he looked a the round-faced Serihanem while shaking his head, "Well, the matter has already been over for a year, and there's no longer a point in pursuing whether the third young master was intent on causing trouble for us or not. The slaver traders and slaver bands of the Hanayabarta kingdom have already attacked Silowas and made hell of it, and the house has already repaid that debt in blood by eliminating the kingdom and slaughtering their civilians to build the Dread Monument so that future generations won't forget this lesson.

"As to why we captured the northern fleet, the main reason for that is because the Norton house is on a hostile front against your guild. It was your third young master that harbored hostile intentions towards us and dreamed of making Silowas the dominion of your guild through the execution of your northern strategy. Other than that, it was your northern fleet that happened to make its way to Port Nupite. It's not like we sought them out intentionally to capture them in the first place. Fortunately for you, they were smart enough to surrender without resistance, so all we had in store for them is three years of labor.

"I want to stress that the House of Norton is capable of being reasoned with. We won't oppress those weaker than us. While we appreciate peace, we do not shy from war either. If the Chikdor Merchant Guild truly wishes to cease hostile relations with us, I am more than happy to allow that. However, I must first see the sincerity in your actions. While it was you who started the conflict in the first place, it's not up to you to end it at your convenience. I would like to know what kind of price your guild is willing to pay for that to happen."

Serihanem took a deep breath before he stood up. During the start of the 3rd month, more than ten ships that had been returned following the expropriation returned to Hidegold Bay. Up to a thousand liberated slaves brought word that the Hanayabarta kingdom has been ended by the Norton house, as well as how the young count heading the house ordered for the genocide of the civilians and nobles of the kingdom to construct a human head pyramid that was made up of more than 170 thousand human heads at Port Nupite.

That news shocked the whole Union. Following the gradual release of expropriated ships, and the slaves that traveled on board them, word of those incidents spread far and wide. It did not take long for the fame, or notoriety, of the Nortons to skyrocket.

In the history of the Grindian continent, massacres during wartime were not uncommon. However, there has never been a precedent in which a whole kingdom's civilians were killed off. The slaughter committed by the Nortons was nothing short of cruel. Even the chroniclers, historians and journalists of the continent were afraid to make their way to the Hanayabarta archipelago to see all that for themselves in fear of having their own heads stacked up on the human head pyramid.

However, when one of the alumni of Dawn Academy revealed that the current head of the Nortons was no other than Iron Locke, the Silver Undefeated, the academy began to swarm with journalists, much to the dismay of Academy Head Levins. In the end, the old fox wrote a recommendation letter for all the pestering journalists and guaranteed that the Norton house would definitely not cause trouble for them with the letters in hand. Only after that were the journalists daring enough to go to Hanayabarta for a visit.

Thus, the journalists found a few of those formerly expropriated ships and traveled aboard them to the archipelago. After a round trip of a month and a half, they began huge coverage on the incident during the 5th month about everything from how the enmity between the Nortons and Hanayabartans built up all the way to how they ended up conquering the capital. The journalists and scholars were warmly welcomed by Governor Hector and brought on a tour across the island, causing them to cast the Nortons in a more favorable light.

When they reported on the human head pyramid and depicted pictures of it, they did not fail to mention the touching tale of how Governor Hector had begged the count by kneeling for seven hours straight to spare the 12 thousand females. However, that did nothing other than cast Count Norton as a cold-blooded despot.

All of the reports were gathered by Knight Lundmorde who had his own pediatric and gynecological clinic at Morante and delivered to Lorist. When Lorist read the reports, he did not put them to heart, as he was well aware that this was the reputation he would gain when he made that order back then. Sometimes, only with cruelty will the enemy fear oneself and think twice before causing trouble. Lorist was curious to see whether there were any other enemies who would face the forces of the Nortons with confidence.

During the whole chaotic affair, the Chikdor Merchant Guild had kept a low profile and only observed from the sidelines. They knew that something was off when their northern fleet did not return at the end of last year. Even the scout ships they sent were nowhere to be found. Actually, the scout ships that flew the flag of the Chikdors had ran into Flying Fish of Dawn and Windstrom when they were on patrol. Three of the ships were captured with another two sunk, with not even one successfully return to send word of the situation.

The Chikdor Merchant Guild originally intended to have the southern armed fleet to be sent to find the whereabouts of the northern fleet, but by the 3rd month, the expropriated ships had been returned and they began to understand the situation based on what the slaves said. The capture of the northern fleet by the Nortons at Hanayabarta was no secret; many of the captains of the expropriated ships were able to provide reliable information about that matter.

Fortunately for the Chikdor Merchant Guild, the northern fleet did not incur any losses. They only fell into a trap and was forced to surrender. It was later discovered that they had been sent to Silowas to work as laborers. By then, no one in the guild even dared to mention the northern strategy again. Even the third young master, Moribak, kept completely quiet. If he knew earlier how much might the Nortons possessed, he never would have dared to propose taking over Silowas in the first place. They had exterminated the Hanayabarta kingdom, a full-fledged kingdom! Other things aside, the blademasters that had died by their hand numbered 14 without any losses on the side of the Nortons. The news of 170 thousand civilians being beheaded and stacked up on that human pyramid brought chills to the third young master.

When President Chikdor learned that it was his third son that had accidentally revealed the information about Silowas and incited the interest of the slavers, he gave his son two harsh slaps and ordered him to head to the dominion of the guild at the Urubaha duchy and never leave. After that, he launched an urgent meeting with the other higher-ups of the guild to discuss how they would end hostile ties with the Nortons as soon as  possible, resulting in Serihanem being sent on this mission of peace.

"Count Norton, our guild is willing to spend 200 thousand gold Fordes to ransom the sailors of the northern fleet back as a token of apology to your house. Other than that, we are intent on purchasing 56 thousand sets of equipment of the stainless steel model 107 variant at your set price of 89 gold Fordes each without any need for discounts over the next three years. We'll pay the sum in full every time we receive a shipment, is that alright?"

Serihanem secretly sighed and thought, had it not been for the six million gold Fordes we found at the treasury of Duke Urubaha, the guild would not have benefited one bit even though we acquired the whole duchy as territory. Sigh, the spice and other goods on the northern fleet confiscated by the Nortons cost easily more than 1.5 million gold Fordes, and we still have to spend such a huge sum to ransom our people back... If only we knew better...

Lorist tapped on the table by his side in thought.

"Have you seen the blueprints of the armor set ordered by the Peterson Merchant Guild?" asked Lorist.

"Yes, we have, Lord Count. We also know that they are produced by your house. It is far superior than those produced by the Wessia Merchant Guild, both in terms of design and defensive capabilities. After making the Urubaha duchy our dominion, the two armies-for-rent of the duchy will be reorganized into a proper garrison legion of 48 thousand men to defend us from enemies. That's why the guild is willing to give this business to the Norton house as a sign of our goodwill.

"Other than that, we are also willing to give up the trade route to the Shyarsia kingdom for spice to the Norton house. In the future, we will purchase spice from your house at Silowas. Additionally, this is one of the plans my third brother devised for the northern strategy. With this floating box port plan, I'm sure that the Cursed Coasts would no longer prove troublesome to you."

Serihanem brought out another document which Howard received and checked, before handing it to Lorist.

Lorist inspected it and found that it detailed a flexible port made by linking floating boxes meant to be deployed on shallow waters around the reef area. Serihanem was correct in that it would be able to neutralize the troubles of trading along the Cursed Coasts. In the event of stormy weather, the linked floating boxes could even be retracted and made into wave breakers and filled with earth to make a permanent port.

Finally, Lorist revealed a smile and said, "Alright then. I am willing to reconcile with the Chikdor Merchant Guild on behalf of the House of Norton. We will cease all hostilities with your guild and engage in a peaceful relationship."

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