"I went to check Morante's financial records while we were doing our investigation. Can you believe they've collected just 7.6 million gold Fordes in tax over the last three years?"
Charade opened a large sky-blue folder.
"It's all documented here. It's ridiculous. Back when His Grace and I were still students here, the Union collected 30 million every year. The greatest year was 69 million. Now it's just a fifth of that.
"Why? Simple. The Union is run by merchants, but the aristocracy has certain unavoidable consequences inherent in its structure. The Union used to rely purely on trade. But after it started expanding aggressively, trade ceased. It forced the Union to rely mostly on raiding and plundering. At the same time, these riches were sent to and hoarded in the guilds' new dominions, rather than being invested in Morante and put back into circulation.
"It's pretty good that we got even just four million Fordes from the city. It was almost exclusively meant to fund Invincible. My investigation revealed something else as well.
"I was told that when the high officials and the nobles were about to surrender, they tried to have the people leave their possessions behind and take as much of the money instead. If they claimed it was part of their personal property, we'd let them leave with it. They could then return it at a later date once we were gone. Luckily most of the civilians refused and took their personal stuff with them instead.
"Morante is full of riches, but most of it is not in the guilds' safes and coffers, but distributed amongst all the inhabitants. If things are still anything like what they used to be, every household should have about 40 gold Fordes stored away somewhere, whether in actual coinage or in valuable heirlooms. Take Sir Els's old friend, Jindoz. His syndicate earned nearly 100 thousand by smuggling meat into the city.
"The Union didn't resort to rations and handouts because nobody had any money, but because there weren't any resources. They tout their ideals so proudly, but they've nothing but slaves by some other name.
"Reinvigorating Morante's economy can be done. We just need a bit of money and some supplies to kickstart the market. Everything else will follow on its own. If we pump the four million we got from the city back into the economy and make our products available in the market, everything will be done."
Lorist rapped the table with his fist and stood up, stopping the chatter that followed Charade's declaration.
"Raiding and taking wealth is the easiest way to get rich. But as we take wealth away, we also gain grudges and animosity. I eliminated Hanayabarta, executed all its inhabitants, and built a pyramid with their skulls. I plundered their storehouses, coffers, and safes. I erased a kingdom built over a century. I feel no shame, I feel no guilt, I sleep soundly at night because they deserved everything I did to them and more. But we cannot do this everywhere we go.
"You've all heard Charade. Morante's wealth isn't somewhere we can conveniently take it and slip away. We'd have to pry it bit by bit from the hands of the city's people. I know you're itching for a fight, Loze, but how will this get us anywhere closer to a peaceful continent? And I know you would love to fill our coffers with the money we take from the city's people, but with the trade network Morante offers and the markets it has destroyed, where would we sell our products to make a profit in the coming years? We may on occasion act like bandits, but we must not let our foresight be that of bandits as well. My family did not survive for three hundred years by plundering everyone around them. We do not have the history of bandits, understand?
"I am ashamed that rather than banditry being a last resort, and you all jumping at a plan that meant we didn't have to steal from people, you all oppose the plan like a thief being told to do some honest work. You disappoint me, Loze… and all of you that stood with him and supported his call for plunder. Think carefully about the principles on which our society and our position in it as nobles is founded. I want a reflection in writing from each of you. Jinolio, you'll handle taking them in, report to me when you have them all. If anyone doesn't know these principles, please come to me and I'll happily drill them into your thick skulls."
Lorist didn't shout or yell, but his words exploded in his men's ears one by one. Their faces were so red one could swear they were bleeding under their skin. Everyone reflected on his words and quickly realized why he was so angry. Plundering the nobles and the leaders, plundering government coffers, and plundering the peasantry were two completely different things. They'd taken the city from the merchant guilds, so it was fine to take everything they owned, but the peasantry were a different matter. Shamelessly stealing them dry would stain Lorist's name and that of his house forever. It wasn't unlikely that he'd become known as the Bandit Duke.
It wasn't really so much that they'd be plundering the peasantry, it was not uncommon for invading armies to clean out the cities they invaded, nobles and peasants alike, but none did it after giving their word that they wouldn't. Keeping one's word was one of the most fundamental principles to nobles, it was the basis of all their authority and standing in society. Their word, their honor was everything. If Lorist stole from the normal cityfolk after vowing not to, and did so without a valid reason for breaking his word, he'd have no reputation left and no way to ever reclaim it because his very integrity as a noble would have been destroyed and no one would ever trust him again.
It would be even worse because Lorist had claimed he'd come only to end the war and bring peace to the ravaged lands where nobles fought for their own ambitions and bled their people dry. On top of all that he had vowed not just as one of the highest ranking nobles on the continent, but as one of it's less than a handful of swordsaints. He stood at the continent's peak in nearly every way, and his honor was held in far higher esteem than anyone else's. To break his word would mean the longest fall from grace ever recorded in Grindian history.
"Money is not like food or clothes or tools. It doesn't have any worth sitting in a coffer. It's only value is in being exchanged for other things. It's only worth something when it's flowing in a market, changing hands all the time. Sigh, talking to you feels like talking to a brick wall.
"I've gone through Charade's proposal, but we can't rush it. We mustn't agitate the Union unnecessarily before we know that they aren't willing to negotiate. Neither can we just sit around and wait for word that may never come. So, I've decided to take the following steps while we wait."
"First, we'll pass the Saw's we captured from Invincible out to the shipyards and hire technicians to turn them into fishing ships. Then we'll put them up for sale. We will encourage the peasants to buy them and start fishing. At the same time, we'll issue permits for fishing in the sunshine seas under Northsea's protection.
"If no one is willing to buy the ships, we'll recruit sailors. I don't doubt that things will pick up once the boys make a few successful trips. Also, the confiscated linen ropes can be used to make nets.
"Second, we'll form two garrison divisions by picking elite soldiers from the captives and let them take charge of patrolling the outer city. Potterfang, Els, that's your baby. We'll source their equipment from Firebird. If they are satisfactory, I will form a few more to replace our forces in the citadels on the plains.
"Third, we'll restore the farmland around Mass and Gypsy and start planting again. We will form granges and hire willing people to build them and sell them to the people left in the city once they're done.
"Pay everyone we hire in half-portions of money and supplies. We'll take the money for everything out of our plunder from the inner city. It should go without saying this isn't charity. I have every intent of making every copper and then some back once things are up and running.
"I have also ordered Northsea to move all the goods here from Silowas. I've seen a good opportunity to sell our stuff here in Morante. Most of the merchants we used to move our spoils to the island purchased a lot of our stuff before heading back. They have expressed their interest in continued trade with us, but complain that Silowas is too far and the seas too dangerous weather wise.
"Since they feel that way, we'll just move trade from Silowas to Morante. We'll ship everything from my lands to the island, and from there to Morante where we'll sell it to the merchants. We couldn't do this before because Chikdor and Peterson wouldn't let us, but they're completely out of the picture now so we can trade directly with the merchants.
"Moving trade here will jumpstart the economy whilst giving us direct access to the southern half of the continent. Both sides thus benefit greatly from this arrangement.
"Finally there's the question of who'll be my ambassador here and handle things on my behalf. I've put Charade in charge of that. He'll work with the council to set up the new government and put everything in place to get the city running again. Once the city is working again, we'll hand the plains over as well. Even if we don't declare this new Union officially formed, by setting up this 'interim' government in the meantime, even if our negotiation go through, we can still cause the Union trouble."
Lorist, Jinolio, and Reidy visited the slowly awakening commercial districts in disguise several days later. Life was slowly returning to the place and footfalls grew ever increasing in number with every day that passed.
The first of the products imported from The Northlands was finally hitting the stalls and shelves. It was a great set-up. Even if products were sold at three times what they'd cost back home, it was still considered cheap here and would sell out quickly. Lorist expected the first batches to result in a stampede sale as people stockpiled everything they could get their hands on, since they didn't know whether this was a once off thing or whether it was here to stay. Things should settle down in a few days and a more normal, healthy sales-rate should take hold.
Lorist was forced to swallow his words in laughter when Tarkel reported some of the discussions he'd overheard in the city. It turned out people weren't stampede-buying because they were unsure of whether it would last, but because everything was so cheap.
Peterson had bought its flower from Lorist at five times the kingdom's price but could still sell it for double that here because of the shortage. This had gone on for years so everyone had come to expect that to be the normal price. A market used to threefold the price they were now getting would naturally soak it up like dry earth soaks up the first rains of the season.
All the hatred towards him and his people built up because of their killings and gruesome displays were slowly beginning to fade. It would still take quite a bit more for them to become just normal foreigners again, but at least things were beginning to head in the right direction.
This slow change was helped along when the first payment cycle came around and Lorist's people paid everyone their full salaries on time.
A non-descript figure grew out of the crowds and whispered something in Jinolio's ear before melting back into the masses.
"Your Grace," Jinolio caried over the message, "Viscount Penelope is back. It's just him out of the group we sent though. He's not alone. It seems he has a Union ambassador with him. It's Peterson's vice-president, apparently."