After finishing their discussion to send people to check out The Northlands with Academy Head Levins and Blademaster Claude, Lorist talked to them more about the condition of the Union before taking his leave. He did take a stroll around the academy sector and found that the academy head's words rang true. More than half of the academies there had already closed down, with only a few people left behind to guard the premises.
Even the food street at the sector that used to be full of students was incredibly quiet. Many shops were closed down with signs hung outside indicating that they were up for rent.
So, is this what the butterfly effect is about? thought Lorist as he stroked his chin. The two letters containing the secrets of glass production were like the wings of a butterfly that ushered in one of the largest changes on the whole of Grindia -- the rise of the Union into the largest nation on the continent ever to exist. Despite that, all that was only on the surface. From within, it did not look so good.
To Lorist, that result should have been ideal. It had given him the opportunity to take in the eighth-ranked academy on the whole of the continent into his dominion. Not only did the academy hold a special place in his youth, its establishment in The Northlands would raise the educational standards of the citizens there. Lorist was considered to be rather emphatic about the importance of basic education, given the number of basic learning centers he had opened within the dominion. If Dawn Academy does move to The Northlands, it would fill out yet another educational void.
The more Lorist thought about it, the more excited he got. He decided that he would support them in terms of both land and funding to ensure that their venture to The Northlands was a success. Even though the dominion looked rather prosperous, it was still in its initial development stage and still lacks any notable talent. Thinking back at the small number of literate officials he hired over the years, Lorist could not help but feel troubled.
By the time Lorist realized that he had walked aimlessly while immersed in deep thought, he found himself in a rather familiar place. Oh, I know, this place is two streets away from the mercenary guild. Back then, I would go there often to take up missions. Perhaps, I should go there for old times' sake.
The mercenary guild was quiet as expected. Lorist took a look around and did not find a single person he recognized. One round-faced female clerk came over to ask Lorist what he needed, making him reflect back at the indifferent attitudes of female clerks at the guilds so many years ago. Back then, the guild was filled with people to the point that one could not quite hear each other. Nowadays, all that occupied the hall were three cats. It was no wonder the clerk was so eager and sincere.
Lorist waved his hand and entered the hall, ordered a cup of ale at the bar and began sipping. Back then, every time after he completed a mission, he would get some drinks with friends and listen to the other mercenaries spout their tall tales and experiences. The bar was filled with mercenaries back then and the price of ale was rather high due to the demand. Even so, the mercenaries did not hesitate to get a good drink after a mission.
Now, however, only Lorist sat among the dozen tables in the hall, enjoying his drink alone. The round-faced clerk looked intently at Lorist, perhaps because of how relaxed Lorist look and the rarity of his long-sleeved robe. Maybe she thought that Lorist was there to submit a mission request to the guild. After all, one wearing clothing embroidered with platinum patterns around the sleeves' cuffs would definitely not be a rough mercenary. The price of the robe Lorist donned would be worth a month of busywork for the clerk.
Lorist raised his cup towards her and said, "Lass, you're making me embarrassed with your intent stare. Should I treat you to a drink?"
The young clerk blushed before she turned around and pretended not to hear Lorist's flirtatious comments.
Ah, at least it's better than before in this regard. Back then, anyone who flirted with the clerks would be rushed out by the guards of the guild. Lorist had seen his fair share of people getting into fights over the most trivial of things like that.
A mercenary in his fifties rushed into the guild hall noisily, submitted a mission report, before clutching a few silvers and heading towards the exit.
"Hey, Brother Gudd, where are you rushing to? Come here, let me treat you to a drink," greeted Lorist with a smile. That middle-aged man was one of his acquaintance who was a two star silver rank. During one of the man's missions, he had fallen rather gravely injured. While he recovered in time, the time it took to do so harmed his body and caused his battleforce to no longer be able to progress. So, he could only work as a low-ranked mercenary. Lorist recalled when he made and sold rucksacks that Gudd was one of the people who supported his business quite well, being a trustworthy and decent man. He even joined in on several missions with Lorist and Charade and taught Lorist many of the tricks of living the mercenary lifestyle.
The middle-aged man stopped in his tracks, looked at Lorist and said gingerly, "You are?"
"Hehe, Brother Gudd, have you forgotten me? I'm Lorist. Locke, remember?"
"Aha! So it's you, Brother Locke!" the middle-aged mercenary mused with joy, "Long time no see. It must've been ten years already. I really didn't think that I would see you over here. Back then, you became a legendary figure in Morante and the last I heard about you was how you were returning to your dominion to inherit the title and the land. I never thought that we would have a chance to meet again."
Lorist stood up and hugged the man warmly before ordering him a cup of ale.
The middle-aged man gulped his drink down, wiped the froth off his mouth and said, "Ah, it's still the same familiar taste. It's just a shame that I haven't been able to drink like that for more than half a year."
Lorist laughed and said, "Don't hurry. You can drink all you want. Boss! Can we have two more cups please? It's my treat, Brother Gudd, so make sure to drink to your heart's content."
"Thanks, Brother Locke. You're generous as usual," said the mercenary. He was not about to hold back either, finishing what remained of his cup of drinks. Lorist pushed the drinks that just arrived before the huge man.
"Well, why did you show up here today? Are you here because you have a mission request for the mercenaries?" asked the man.
Shaking his head, Lorist said, "Well, it's nothing important. I came to Morante for a trip a few days ago and thought back to the past. I still remember that I have a mercenary badge here, so I came over to hang out for a bit and have some of that good old ale. But I didn't thank that this place would become so desolate. It's completely different from the crowded hall I remember. Fortunately, I was able to meet you here, so my visit wasn't in vain."
"Sigh," Gudd muttered before taking a few more gulps, "Brother, we're still rather lucky. Good thing you came over here right now, because it will be closing down in the next year. There is no more mercenary guild. I, on the other hand, lucked out from being able to meet you and getting treated to some delicious drinks."
Gudd burped and said, "The mercenary guild no longer has any future in the Union. Brother, I bet you didn't expect that mercenaries will be gone completely from the Union. Well, even if some remain, they definitely won't be around Morante. There are no missions for us to do here, and even if there were, it's not something we can handle. At the subterranean caverns within the Urubaha duchy that's now the dominion of the Chikdor Merchant Guild, a new mercenary will be formed to facilitate expeditions into those caverns. I heard that the pay there is rather good. Most of the independent mercenaries have moved over there."
"Oh? The closing of the guild? What's with that? Wasn't the Union known as the nation of mercenaries? What happened to all those mercenary bands and the tens of thousands of mercenaries?" asked Lorist curiously.
"Nation of mercenaries? Haha, every mercenary has already gone their own way. Most of them have pledged their service to nobles. Did you know, Locke, the leaders of the top ten mercenary bands have all received a noble title, with the weakest of them being a viscount. The others are mostly counts. The leader of the fourth-ranked mercenary band called the Dragon's Talon, Lexinba, was even made a duke. He really lucked out over there. All mercenary bands have already dissolved, with most of the lackeys of the band leaders becoming knights. The lowest of them even have jobs as garrison soldiers.
"Did you know that the Union gave out 451 titles all in one go? Those who were capable were also enfeoffed land and the mercenaries that remained were recruited by nobles to become knights. Only less than a hundred of us mercenaries are left who all don't feel like lowering our voices and bowing our heads to others and only want to rely on ourselves to make a good living. Even so, I only got a large silver and three small silvers after working for half a month. I won't be able to feed my family with that, given the ridiculous prices of things lately," complained Gudd.
"No way, that's too many titles," Lorist mused with shock, "But at least that means that there is no more competition for missions, is there? Isn't that a good thing?"
"A good thing my ass!" Gudd yelled, "Back then, the merchant guilds in the Union from the neighboring actions would come over frequently to lodge requests with us. Everyone got their share of work. But now that the trade routes are no more, mercenary requests have gone with it. We have no choice but to secretly cross the borders for missions, and those who are captured would be either whipped or be accused of being a spy and hanged without trial.
"And that's not even the worst of it. We could just not take missions from other nations. However, there are only few missions left that originate from within the Union. Apart from the Falik Plains, every other piece of land of the Union has become the dominion of someone. If anything happens over there, they would just send people from their household to deal with it instead of lodging a request over here., The worst of it is how mercenaries like us have to pay a toll to cross into their dominions for a mission..."
Gudd downed a few more gulps, wiped his mouth, before pointing his finger at the guild and saying, "Brother, do you remember the boss of this guild, that old bastard Schlok? Even that stingy freak got made a viscount, with his dominion located within the territory formerly belonging to the Teria duchy.
"The mission I just finished was from within that bastard's territory. I hunted for a rabbit in the wilds for sustenance like the old times only to be caught by one of that man's subordinates who claimed that the firewood and prey I got was the property of their dominion and asked for reparations, forcefully taking two large silvers from me. Had I not said that I was on a mission from the guild, they would have paraded me around in public as a criminal too."
It appeared that some merchants had far fewer standards than most nobles. No matter how frugal a noble was, they would at least care about their reputation. But all merchants worried about was how much coin they had. Lorist wondered how much the citizens would be left with should a merchant noble apply their business practices on them. But there was nothing he could do about it apart from sympathizing with them.
"What are you going to do in the future, then?" asked Lorist. He knew that Gudd already settled down and had two sons and a daughter. When he left Morante, Gudd's children were only four to five years old, with the daughter being a newborn. His eldest son was only aged around 15 right now, living in a most troubled time.
Gudd said with eyes full of grief, "I don't really know. There's no more point in being a mercenary. Perhaps, I will work as the guards of those merchant guilds. All I need is a salary that I can raise my family with."
Lorist got up and stuffed a gold Forde note into the despairing man's pouch. Gudd was already half asleep, given that the ale he just finished was his seventh cup.
"My gift to your son is inside your pouch. Take a look at it when you get back. If Morante is no longer the place for you, you can come to The Northlands to look for me. Just go to the Peterson Merchant Guild and say that you're a friend of mine and they'll send you and your family to my dominion promptly."
Following that, Lorist got Gudd a carriage and told the coachman his address. He also paid for the fare and was confident that the family of the mercenary would take care of the rest after that.
When he went back inside the guild, Lorist told the round-faced clerk, "Get the person in charge over here. I want to purchase the Burning Blood Battleforce."
At least, that will be a good souvenir for my visit to Morante. Lorist still remembered that he once thought the hereditary battleforce of his house to be a fire attribute one. After he lost contact with his house and was unable to obtain a copy of the silver-ranked section of his technique, he spent lots of money purchasing many other fire attribute high-ranked battleforce manuals, only to realize that they were completely different from the technique of his house. After that, he bought many other manuals of different attributes but was still unable to continue his training. In the end, he started to work on the Aquametal Technique of his past life in desperation and ended up becoming Iron Locke, the Silver Undefeated.
The Burning Blood Battleforce was one of the most precious treasures of the guild, being priced at 15 thousand gold Fordes. It was one of the most expensive manuals in the whole of Morante. While Lorist did have an interest in the manual, the price was a little too high for him back then. Other than that, he did not even consider that his technique would be a blood attribute one. In retrospect, if he had purchased that battleforce manual, he could probably have broken through to the silver rank and would not ending training in the Aquametal Technique.
If Lorist had went down that path, he would not be able to fight enemies beyond his abilities and had to train slowly from the silver rank to the gold. Maybe he still would not become a blademaster even at his current age. The Norton house would not be as prominent as a result, unlike how mighty and prosperous it was in reality.
Lorist decided to buy that book because of what it could have meant to him. With 30 thousand gold Fordes on his person, that manual did not strike him as being too expensive. The person in charge had wanted to recommend a few more high-ranked battleforce manuals to Lorist, only to be rejected. Currently, the House of Norton had hundreds of different kinds of high-ranked battleforce manuals and that was more than enough to be awarded to the household knights. The extermination of the Hanayabarta kingdom alone netted them more than 50 manuals, so there was no point in buying extra copies of them. The Burning Blood Battleforce was different in that it was the second blood attribute the household had, apart from the Crimsonblood Battleforce which was passed down in the house for generations. The extra manual would serve as a good reference for his descendants for their training.
After leaving the guild, Lorist called for a carriage and headed to Selliguea District to see the crimson four-storey building. Lorist still remembered the girl that danced naked in the moonlight. It was her who had let him experience the wonders of first love and made him a man. Similarly, it was also her who had caused him heart-searing pain. Seeing her leave with another man was ever so disheartening an experience to recall.
Faced with the old building that was filled with rooms for rent, Lorist realized that he was much calmer than expected and was not shaken as he was before. There was only a fleeting feeling in his mind as he wondered how the girl that used to be the most important person in his life was doing.
Time flowed on, indifferent to the woes of man. At that moment, the memories that surfaced within Lorist's man was his finest and worst. The fairy-like girl and her two energetic maidservants were no longer there. Giving the crimson building one last look, Lorist sighed before he turned and walked into the alley.
The fruit stall at the opening of the alley was no more, replaced by a grocery shop. But the owner was still the sharp-tongued Uncle Girald, whose hair had whitened over the course of ten years. It seemed that his days were troubled ones as well.
Uncle Girald was surprised when he realized who Lorist was. He went on a long lecture about the changes to the area and people here, like the girl Lorist frequently bought fruit candies for, LIttle Loney, and how her grandmother passed away when she was ten. She had left the place with her father, who seemed to have become a knight of some duke.
Lorist chatted for almost an hour with Girald before he left, giving him a gold Forde note as a gift.
"Coachman, get me to Red Grace Inn," instructed Lorist.