"A fool he is who dies without knowing his death was coming." ~ The Northlands proverb.
The special noble district wasn't far from Ragebear. From the city center to the first manor was just 15 minutes by horse. One arrived at the district's central lake immediately after crossing the moat outside the east gate. Stretches of green grass and fragrant orchards covered both sides of the road.
There was such a high demand for noble housing that the house was building eight special districts instead of four. These districts had the continent's most expensivea land. They were also the house's most profitable. Its sale alone had netted Lorist six million gold Fordes thus far. Charade and Spiel also nagged Lorist to build yet another two districts.
All that was left was to build the final districts around the gourd-shaped lake. Two of the eight districts were for nobles, two for high-class commoners, one for luxury commerce, and the final for a variety of services.
The four noble districts were completely sold. Half of the fourth district's manors were still being constructed, but the other three districts stood completed. Many of their windows already stood lit in the evenings. Only public facilities and final decoration work still needed to be done.
The high-class residential area was also already completed. Five-floor apartment buildings filled the district. Each unit had three bedrooms and two general purpose rooms. Merchant guild supervisors and high-ranking accountants or factory managers made up the bulk of the residents. A few nobles yet to get land in the noble districts also lived there.
Most attractive of all the districts was the luxury commerce. The house owned all the shops, nothing was for sale, only rent. Clothes, jewelry, accessories, ingredients, spices, and rare herbs lined the roads. If you couldn't find something there, you would not find it anywhere else on the continent, save maybe Morante itself. Of the two hundred guilds licensed to do business in the dominion, a hundred rented buildings in this district. The things sold there were the highest quality possible, but also twice as expensive as anywhere else.
The general district was much larger. The various facilities and sports arenas took up a lot of space. Northing was finished because they took longer to build. Though estimates said the district would be done by either the 7th or 8th month of the following year.
Charade and Spiel didn't know if they should turn the high-class residential district into a noble district or not. It would save the house a lot of money. They had to finance and build the apartment blocks, but nobles built their manors themselves. It wasn't that simple, however. They could fit many more people into the district through apartments, the overall sales income would be higher, and the businesses serving the district would do much better. They could make more money from renting shops.
Lorist took Howard and Jinolio with him to the second noble district where Count Lower's mansion stood. Nightingale Manor, as the count called it, was surrounded by many busybodies whom chattered in quiet hushes. Lorist discovered the roofs of the surrounding manors were filled with people enjoying either a cup of macks or tea.
Do they think this is a show?
Lorist dismounted located Charade. He was being crushed by the crowd and the angry Ovidis.
"Shut up! What's going on?" shouted Lorist.
Everyone saluted and shut up.
"Ovidis wants to force his way in, Your Grace." answered Charade.
"Why? Where's the hostage?"
"The mercenary is impolite. He insulted the house. I want to teach him a lesson," explained Ovidis.
Do you have a clear picture of the situation?"
"They have seven hostages, Count Lower, his wife and children, and two servants. Two other servants are dead and the rest escaped. Their captors are thirteen strong," explained Charade.
Lorist was pissed.
"How did thirteen armed idiots get into the noble district in broad daylight? Explain this, Ovidis."
Ovidis was in command of the city's guards. This was entirely his fault.
"They passed our patrols on Count Lower's carriages. The guards believed they were acting on the count's orders. They noticed nothing untoward. This is on me."
"How did Count Lower and the mercenaries become acquaintances? What demands did they make?"
Charade answered this time.
"They belong to a band called Crimsonflame. It's about a hundred strong. They registered with the house seven years ago. Usually, they operate around Twinmount Town. They only recently showed up in Northsea. We learned they often take on missions in the Magical Dragon Mountains and Blackmud Marsh, and occasional escort missions. Their commander is leading the group in the manor, he's a three-star silver-rank swordsman. Everyone considers them one of the top bands in the duchy."
Crimsonflame was similar to a band his trusted subordinate, Knight Jim, used to be in. Such bands were average in Morante, but since there weren't many mercenaries in The Northlands, they were near the top here.
"The leader is called Lind," Charade continued, "He used to work near the imperial capital and is an old acquaintance of the count. The count ran into him when he came to The Northlands to set up several businesses and hired him and his band. Wesde, the count's merchant guild, deals with furs and leathers, and run a shop in the luxury district. They need a lot of high-grade fur. The two worked together for five years and trust each other a lot. The band even invested most of their savings in the count's ventures. Count Lower accepted an order for horse armor and needed ironspine crocodile leather. He hired Crimsonflame to get it.
"The band was wiped out while on this mission. They brought back the leather, but only a few survived. They learned of the count's financial losses when they returned and panicked. Worried that their investments were all gone, they kidnapped the count to force him to pay everything back.
"Unfortunately for both them and the count, he does not have their money. It's all been invested in the products sitting in his warehouses. We understand he told them he couldn't pay them back now, but that his business hasn't failed yet; he needs more time. When they heard it would take them thirty years to get their money back, they lost it. He couldn't even pay the fee for their latest mission.
"The count believed his long history with the band and his close relationship with their leader would make them trust him and be patient, but that didn't happen. The group kidnapped him and brought him here, hence our current predicament."
"How much money do they want? Have you sent anyone to negotiate?" asked Lorist.
"I did. The count owes them four thousand gold Fordes. His partner's have agreed to pay the ransom and the mercenaries have calmed down somewhat, but they've become cocky."
"They're demanding ten thousand now instead. They say it's interest. When the count's partners agreed to mortgage his shop to pay the ten thousand gold Fordes, they increased their demands to 20 thousand and told us to scram. Apparently this is a matter strictly between them, the count and his partners and we have no place butting in. The captain even threatened to make trouble in the dominion if we don't leave them alone. This is an affront to the house I can't let this stand," muttered Ovidis.
"Where are the hostages now?"
Ovidis pointed at the manor.
"We knew they're in the guest hall on the second floor. It's the room with the balcony. The mercenaries have two men keeping watch. When Sir Charade went to negotiate, they brought the hostages to the balcony with blades pressed against their necks.
"The manor is encircled. Most are on the second floor, in the back. A few are guarding the sides though. They'll see us no matter which side we attack. Our best shot is to sneak in during the night," Charade interjected.
Lorist shot Charade a glance.
"If you understand the situation, why are you trying to go in?"
Ovidis lowered his head.
"I... I couldn't stand that the bastards insulted us. They recently violated the two maidservants in the guest hall by the windows so everyone could see. They forced us to listen to the two women scream in pain and them laughing like devils..."
Lorist stiffened. He patted Ovidis on the shoulder.
"I understand. I'll go have a chat with them. Stay here, don't follow me."
A path ran on the other side of the back gates. It was wide enough for three carriages and connected to a semi-circular plot of empty land. Three carriages stood parked on it, the gray-white mansion behind them. Its entrance protruded from the wall, the space above it forming a balcony large enough for two tables.
Two mercenaries sat on the balcony. They shouted at a man clad in a black cloak approaching the door beneath, bows partially drawn and arrows pointing at him.
"I am Norton Lorist, Duke of The Northlands. Bring your leader out," the figure said.
Its voice wasn't loud, but echoed throughout the manor.
Six people stepped out onto the balcony. A tall, lanky man stepped forward. When he recognized the face beneath the cloak, he shivered.
"It's... it's really D-duke Norton... Y-y-y-Your Grace... d-d-d-don't come here!"
Lorist's footsteps didn't stop.
The man's eyes widened and his pupils dilated.
"H-hostage... The hostages... B-b-bring them out now..."
Count Lower, his wife and children finally made their appearance. Two naked, weeping women were dragged out behind them, clutching scraps of cloth to try to cover up as best they could.
The tall man grabbed the count and pressed his sword against his throat.
"Y-you... Stand still! If you don't, I-I'll kill him..."
Lorist stopped five meters from the entrance and stared up at the group, sighing.
"You're Lind, right? I used to be a mercenary as well. I understand how you must feel. Unfortunately, you chose the wrong way to solve your issues. You even got innocent people involved. You have two options. Either surrender, in which case I guarantee you a fair trial, or continue resisting, in which case your friends and family won't even have a corpse to bury."
"I-I choose neither! Y-you can't fool me..."
Lind shook Count Lower around emotionally. The bruised man moaned in pain. A thin line of blood oozed out of his freshly cut skin.
"This bastard took the money we put our lives on the line for! We want our money back! Y-you can't threaten us! You might kill me, but I'll make sure they all die with us! They'll only survive if you swear on your ancestors you'll let us leave your lands with our money safely! If you don't they'll all die and House Norton will be a laughingstock! Are you willing to gamble with your house's honor?!" cried Lind.
Lorist was less than seven meters from his prey. They were well within Slaughter Domain's range.
I am the god of the space around me! It is my world!
A crimson veil covered his eyes.
"W-what did you—"
The mercenary's words were cut short. A wave of energy surged from below. It covered the balcony and everyone on it. The sky turned red. Lind's body only heard a single heartbeat in his ears before his body deflated like a sack of water poked with dozens of holes. He collapsed and life left him.
They weren't lying. The duke really is a swordsaint...
He hadn't believed a word of it at the time, but now, in his final moments, the truth was revealed to him. He died believing every word he'd heard.
Lorist sheathed his sword and smiled at Count Lower. The man stared blankly at his rescuer. Lorist waved at the crowd across the street and Howard come rushing over.
"Go. Don't spare anyone."
The family burst into tears. They cried like they'd just woken from a terrible nightmare.
"By your command," said Howard as he drew his sword and rushed into the manor.