"What they don't know, can kill them easier." ~ Blademaster Shuss
"Tell me what you know," said Lorist, staring out of the window.
There were three people in the study. Charade sat on the sofa, Baron Kriston sat in front of the desk. Kriston had been a security chief on Silowas when he joined Lorist and took charge of the duchy's security forces. He was made an honorary baron two years ago for his contributions in this capacity.
The third person was Supervisor Doboff, the man in charge of the eastern part of The Northlands. He used to be the mayor of Twinmount Town, but, given his contribution to the house in discovering barbarian gold mines, had been raised to a high-ranking official in the house.
Lorist's interference resolved the hostage incident. His men slew the mercenaries on the spot. He'd served in a mercenary band in Morante so he understood their feelings. Anybody would be enraged if someone lusted after their hard-earned wealth. However, they picked the worst possible method to take revenge. Though they only wanted to take back their money, they forced House Norton to kill them by challenging their honor. Lorist had given them a chance to receive mercy; as long as they surrendered, they would be tried fairly. Crimes must be punished. They might have survived at least. Unfortunately, they had refused his magnanimity, so he had to kill them. He could not let the house be ridiculed, its reputation must be upheld.
"Yes, Your Grace," Doboff answered, "Most mercenaries gather in Twinmount Town. Many form parties and settle in the duchy. Most choose the life because they lust for adventure and abhor servitude. Some are retired soldiers, many of whom served the house. They are more skilled with the sword than the sickle, so they become mercenaries; they dream of becoming finding a great treasure and becoming rich overnight.
"Foreign mercenaries have to register for licenses to enter the wilds and sell their catches. Some go to hunt, some to gather, some to peddle wares to the barbarians."
Charade looked at the thick stack of documents.
"We have registered three thousand seven hundred and sixty three and more than sixty parties to date. The small ones tend to be around ten strong and the largest around a hundred. Crimsonflame is considered one of the strongest eight.
"Two-thirds of the mercenaries are foreigners. Some of our retired soldiers occasionally tag along without a permit."
"Chief Kriston," Lorist called, "Are these mercenaries doing anything illegal? How frequent are conflicts between them and my subjects and how are they settled?"
"Conflict is infrequent," Kriston explained, "Normally, the settlements are not in favor of the mercenaries. The towns and villages' garrisons do not like them. They keep a really close eye on them when they're in town.
"Our garrisons are mostly well-trained and seasoned veterans from the army. The house is also famous for its strict handling of any offenses, so the mercenaries are very careful not to step out of line.
"Such conflicts are usually dealt with as civil security issues. Even when the garrisons step in on occasion, they generally hand things over to the local officers. It's rare for cases to be concluded in the mercenaries' favor. They never break the law with their rulings, but they definitely favor your subjects."
"We may have solved the current predicament, but it's clear there is a greater threat. We have failed to oversee and regulate the mercenaries. You three will come up with a solution. Find an effective way to manage the mercenaries."
" Will you start an organization similar to the mercenary guild, Your Grace?" asked Charade, shocked.
"Yes and no. You and I have had some dealings with the mercenary guild in Morante. Though it acts as an intermediary that provides services to mercenaries, it is more like a business that tries to make money off them. The organization I envision will harness their strengths and fight for their rights. We both used to be mercenaries, we understand their pains, let's offer help wherever we can.
"For example, in the future, conflicts between mercenaries and our subjects will be dealt with by this organization. Take, for instance, this incident involving Crimsonflame. Instead of taking matters into their own hands, they should be able to lodge a complaint with the organization and have their case resolved through them instead. Publish a notice that only those who register with the organization may work as a mercenary. It is illegal to work without registering. Non-compliers will be sentenced to three months' unpaid labor.
"Also, any request made by guilds or individuals have to be handled via the organization. House Norton will not be involved in resolving any disputes. I couldn't care less if mercenaries are killed because they took matters into their own hands rather than work through the organization.
"Figure out how this organization has to work. After you create it, appoint Supervisor Doboff as its manager under Charade. Kriston, you will also handle its judicial elements. You have to be fair and unbiased. Don't let either party's relation to us, or lack thereof, influence your judgment.
"I must stress that they work as an extension of the house. All mercenaries must answer any calls we put out in emergencies."
"Understood, Your Grace."
Ten days later, the mercenary organization's formation was announced. It was to be called the Assembly of Free Mercenaries, colloquially known as the Assembly. Its headquarters stood in Northsea, with a branch in Twinmount Town. Doboff acted as its chairman, with Kriston its chief enforcer.
Blademaster Shuss arrived on the same day. Lorist couldn't be bothered with a banquet; instead, he dragged him to the training hall for a duel as soon as he set foot in the castle. The two fought for who knew how long.
The fight finally ended when Shuss could go no further.
"A rank 2… blademaster… like me… is a child.. compared to.. Your grace… I couldn't attack… at all..." the blademaster gasped.
"Your swordsmanship improved a lot," Lorist consoled, "You relied on courage and savagery before you broke through. But now your killing intent is hidden and makes you even harder to deal with. I fought Duke Fisablen but even he was not as imposing as you. A fight between you two will be a draw at worst."
Shuss calmed his breathing.
"Can you deploy your Slaughter Domain, Your Grace? I wish to experience it for myself. Word of your domain has spread throughout your dominion after the hostage incident. Count Lower keeps telling everyone you're a swordsaint. He said you enveloped them in a blood-red world. He blinked, and everything was back to normal, save all the mercenaries being dead."
Lorist's lips curled into a troubled smile. He had used his Slaughter Domain to rescue Count Lower and his family. He couldn't help but enveloping them with it when he acted. It appeared the count had blabbed about it to his friends. Lorist could have explained it as a hallucination if the count were the only one who'd experienced it, but his wife and children, and the two servants, had as well. Sharp ears heard the rumors and sharp minds guessed at his true strength.
Tarkel had rushed over to ask him about the blood world.
"Why do you ask?" he'd replied.
"I'm going to publicize it, of course!" the man had answered, "The more impressive Your Grace's reputation, the more stable the house. The nobles who sided with us will also feel safer and our subjects will be even more loyal."
Lorist didn't think Shuss would want to experience it as well.
"Alright," he surrendered.
Shuss took up a defensive stance.
"Ready, Your Grace."
A gust of wind slapped Shuss across the face. He closed his eyes for a moment. When they opened again the world around him was crimson. It almost felt like he was standing in the middle of an old, arcane temple. He had done his best to prepare, but he was still overwhelmed and unnerved. His mind didn't dull, but his body was heavy and unresponsive. The world vanished just as he prepared to try to move. His gaze returned to where his lord had been standing before it all started, only to feel a cold line across his throat. His lord's sword was pressed against his throat.
He dropped his sword, his expression somewhere between depression and despair.
"Is this... the domain? It's too weird... It ended before I could react..."
Lorist returned his sword to its scabbard.
"I don't know if it's a domain or not. I can keep it up for a few minutes at best. My body can't handle any more. I don't know if a swordsaint's domain is supposed to be like this. It's not like there are swordsaints lying around I can ask. I named it my Slaughter Domain because it's the most accurate way I can describe it."
"This is definitely a domain," Shuss said as he plopped his rear on the ground, "I've heard a few slave instructors talk about swordsaint domains. One had personally experienced one. He said Jigda's firesoar swordsaint demonstrated it once. He said it was like his body was dumped in an oven and the entire world was burning. He was so frightened he pissed himself."
"So the firesoar swordsaint's domain has the fire element, right?"
Don't tell me my Slaughter Domain is thanks to my battleforce's blood attribute...
"Yes. His battleforce attribute is fire," Shuss affirmed as stumbled to his feet, "I didn't think Your Grace had become a swordsaint at such a young age. Grindia has never seen such a young swordsaint. This is definitely an occasion worth celebrating!"
Lorist waved Shuss's comments away.
"It's nothing worth bragging about. Keep it a secret for me. I don't want unnecessary chaos. Everyone is just guessing right now, all hell will break loose if you give them certainty. Keep this to yourself. I don't want lines of people begging me on their knees to be my disciples."
"I understand. But please share some pointers with me from time to time, Your Grace."
"Of course. You're one of my people. I'm confident you'll become a swordsaint too, in good time."
On the 10th of the 7th, Lorist brought Sylvia, his concubines, and his children to Delamock for a survey and accepted Kenmays's invitation to the party in Sidgler.
After touring Delamock, he stayed at the Dina barony for ten days. He suffered greatly at the hands of his wife and his lover, both wrapt with jealousy. He snapped when his attempts and appeasing them failed and rammed them into the bed for a whole evening.
They arrived at Platinum Beath on the 12th of the 8th. Kenmays organized a grand banquet. There were many familiar faces in attendance. Dukes Handra, Shabaj, and Fisablen were just a few of the names.
"Everyone," Kenmays toasted, "let's eat and drink and make merry!"