Are we lost? I hope we're not lost…

One set of trees didn't look much different from another. Once in a while, they would cross a brook, but those mostly looked the same as well. Florine gripped her reins tightly as the Soul Eaters trotted along, hoping that they knew where they were going.

But what if they don't?

If they kept going west, they would surely reach the ocean. But were they even going west? Even if they did reach the ocean, there was no guarantee they would end up near the Holy Kingdom of Roble. Maybe they would end up too far south and then turn south, ending up lost forever.

How did Ludmila manage to get around in the wilderness? For that matter, she never seemed to get lost anywhere she went, even if she had never been there before.

Her destination was two hundred kilometres from where she had parted ways with her friend, but she couldn't tell how fast the Soul Eaters were going. It wasn't a road, so they moved erratically as they negotiated the hills and valleys along the way.

Florine sucked in a breath as her Soul Eater leapt off of a cliff. She squeezed her knees together, but it wasn't a live horse so she ended up wrapping her ankles around two of its ribs. The Undead steed landed without breaking stride, then it turned a crimson eye at Florine. She suspected it was just trying to show off.

Was it going to be like this every day? She hoped not, but she suspected that it would be. About twenty races had survived the demonic occupation of the Abelion Hills, but they were divided into roughly one hundred-twenty tribes. The Administration had an 'office' in the same place where the Ministry of Transportation offloaded cargo, but she couldn't expect the Demihumans to travel for days and weeks to come and see her.

The obvious solution – or perhaps the familiar one – was to have an itinerant court, much like many Nobles did. She would travel around to hold court with each tribe, develop a rapport with the local leaders, and gain an understanding of their needs. It was unlikely that the Demihumans would be familiar with the practice, but that much at least she thought she could make work.

Or would it make her seem weak? At least amongst Humans, the most powerful made others come to them, then impressed their importance upon petitioners in various ways. Demihumans most likely thought differently, though she couldn't say how.

According to Lady Albedo's materials, the tribes of the Abelion Hills submitted to the Sorcerer King on account of his raw might, which he used to liberate their lands. Beyond that, however, there was no indication whatsoever as to how they viewed their new political ties.

Thus far, there was verbal gratitude, but no record of tribute being offered. At the same time, she wasn't sure whether it was a common practice or under what conditions it was practised. The tribes showed no sign of 'misbehaving', so that at least showed they continued to respect whatever it was that made up their respect for the Sorcerer King and his government. Or maybe it was just the Sorcerer King himself.

Or maybe they respect strength and nearly everything that the Sorcerous Kingdom deploys is ridiculously strong…

That would be the worst case for her. If they respected the government because of the Sorcerer King, she might be able to leverage that association. If they were behaving because everything was stupidly strong, there was no way they would pay any heed to the weak little Florine Gagnier without her resorting to forceful measures.

An hour later, the forest gave way to a large river, which they forded just past the mouth of a wide canyon. The opposite shore had been cleared at some point in the past, though the brush was starting to grow back. Her Soul Eater turned south, following the rocky riverbank, occasionally stepping into the river to avoid clumps of bush and low-hanging branches.

Things grew more arid the further south they went, and, eventually, the forested scenery was replaced by a broad valley lined by dry hills. In the distance, inside the wide bend of the river, she finally spotted what looked like a camp of some sort. Upon getting closer, it appeared to be a cargo lot operated by the Ministry of Transportation.

Florine checked her pocket watch to see how long her trip had taken. As she approached the camp, the black portal of a Gate spell opened in a trampled field near the rows of half-sized cargo containers. She stared as Lady Shalltear came through at the head of a long line of cargo transported by Death Knights.

"Oh, if it isn't Florine," Lady Shalltear said. "You've finally arrived."

Florine dismounted and lowered herself into a curtsey.

"Good evening, Lady Shalltear," she sighed.

"Hm? What's wrong?"

"I should have taken a Gate here," she said.

In hindsight, it was obvious, but she just went with the flow. Deliveries of supplies happened several times daily between E-Rantel and the Abelion Hills.

Lady Shalltear came up and gave Florine a hug.

"Aw, are you tired? Would you like to sleep? With me?"

"I've been riding for six hours, my lady. Please don't squeeze my butt so hard."

"Mortals are so fragile," Lady Shalltear parted from Florine. "You should hurry up and use that race change item."

"I still have no idea how this thing works. Could you at least tell me–"

"Finding out is part of the fun," Lady Shalltear smiled. "Now, what did that gorilla send you here to do?"

Florine straightened her skirts and pulled a folder out of her Infinite Haversack.

"Ostensibly to do what I did with the tribes around the Azerlisia Mountains," she flipped the folder open and took out a map. "But…"


"I think there have been some flaws with the way I've been doing things so far,"

"Oh my," Lady Shalltear's crimson gaze flared, "how brave of you to say so."

"Brave, my lady?"

A Vampire Bride in a postal officer's uniform came up behind Lady Shalltear with a clipboard. Lady Shalltear received the clipboard and scanned through the attached documents.

"I don't suppose you've met the other Humans that have been working for her, have you?"

"You're probably not referring to the House of Lords…"

"No. They aren't Nobles; simply those whom she has wrangled into one venture or the other. None of them would dare think of reporting any errors to her."

Florine frowned at the ridiculous claim.

"That's a huge problem," she said. "Why wouldn't they report problems to Lady Albedo?"

"Most likely because they fear her…or, more accurately, they fear what she will do to them upon hearing their reports."

"If they fear her," Florine said, "then that's all the more reason they should be reporting those problems. Lady Albedo hates that sort of thing."

"You're not wrong," Lady Shalltear shrugged. "I was actually wondering if you could shed some light as to why Humans could be so laughably stupid. It's as if they want to be torn apart."

She pondered the problematic behaviour. It was unthinkable as an official of the Sorcerous Kingdom, but…

"These Humans that are working for her," Florine said. "Which country are they from?"

Lady Shalltear tilted her head, giving her a curious look.

"I would have thought you would name the obvious choice."

"Unfortunately, there is no obvious choice, my lady."

"And why is that?"

"Because the behaviour you are describing is symptomatic of a corrupt society – lying has become a survival skill. Aside from the Sorcerous Kingdom and the Draconic Kingdom, there is no Human society that we have interactions with in the region that doesn't display a significant amount of systemic corruption."

"Even the Empire?"

"I can see why people might think that," Florine said, "but yes, even the Empire has a high degree of corruption. Emperor Jircniv's purges are akin to trimming a garden and similarly do nothing more than scale back growth. Corruption, however, is rooted in culture. Any society that promotes destructive factionalism and rewards people for lying and keeping their heads down invariably gives rise to corruption. I don't know if it matters, but my recommendation would be to dismiss these individuals immediately. Something irreparably stupid will inevitably happen otherwise."

"Hmph. It's no wonder Albedo entrusts things to you and your friends. I've told you this before, but we've realised that there are a great many lickspittles out there. Individuals such as yourself are a rarity to the point of being impossible to find. In the case that we're discussing, there are only poor choices. Albedo expresses her frustrations, but, at the same time, she insists that things are still under control."

Florine highly doubted that. It wasn't a matter of trust or Lady Albedo's exceptional capabilities. A machine didn't work if the parts didn't work, as Liane would probably say. So long as one relied on others for anything, they were vulnerable to whatever those other people did.

Everyone had a little bit of trust and a little bit of authority in whatever they did. Breaches of trust and abuses of authority added up, and, eventually, someone would have to pay an outsized penalty for them.

Lady Shalltear returned the clipboard to the postal officer. She came over to wrap her arm around Florine's waist, leading her away from the cargo lot.

"I have no idea what Albedo has planned for the future, but you have your own task ahead of you, yes? What were those flaws that you mentioned?"

"It's hard to put in words," Florine said, "but something like unintentional bigotry. I've been going around with the assumption that our systems were the correct systems without ever really considering some very fundamental things about the other party. I think I know why Ludmila calls 'integration' a dangerous word, now."

"What's wrong with the Sorcerous Kingdom's systems?" Lady Shalltear asked.

"They're still being refined, for one," Florine answered. "A year ago, the Sorcerous Kingdom was populated by roughly a quarter million Humans. Now, it has a population of three million and there are still only a quarter million Humans. Yet, our systems are still for the most part made to govern Humans. Lady Albedo wants our government to run as smoothly and efficiently as possible, but we can't do that if we go around assuming everyone is Human."

It felt like a strange thing to say considering that none of the Royal Court's ministers was Human, yet, they were undeniably very Human in their approach to things. At first, Florine thought that it meant that different races weren't so different, but then she found that most of the subjects of the Sorcerous Kingdom did not behave as Humans, nor did they perceive the world the same way.

The Abelion Hills didn't have a Human population, so trying to run everything as if everyone was a Human was undoubtedly unwise. Hopefully, her work around the Azerlisia Mountains could be amended after she was done here, as well.

Florine looked around as they crossed into a landscape of scorched and blasted stone. Here and there, vegetation poked out from the ashes of whatever came before. Death-series servitors patrolled the perimeter, and, at the centre of the area, a small collection of tents had been raised.

They arrived at a large pavilion, where an Elder Lich and a Vampire Bride lowered their heads in greeting. Florine peered at the Elder Lich, her eyes settling on a pair of pins fastened to the collar of its black robe.



"I'm so glad to see you!" Florine blossomed into a smile, "This makes things so much easier."

Isoroku was the Elder Lich who acted as her adjutant while she worked with the northern tribes. It took a while for it to grow accustomed to working with Florine, but things between them went quite smoothly after a few weeks together. She commissioned the pair of silver pins on its collar to help her distinguish it from the other Elder Liches. They were the numbers '5' and '6', as the Elder Liches were identified by their summoning order and Isoroku apparently meant fifty-six.

"This child doesn't have a name," Lady Shalltear gestured to the Vampire Bride, "but I've assigned her as your attendant for the duration of your duties here. She will serve as your handmaiden or bedwarmer or whatever else you please."

Florine blinked at the introduction. The Vampire Bride didn't.

"Erm…can she serve as a liaison for the Ministry of Transportation, as well?"

"That's what you want?" Lady Shalltear gave her a disappointed look, "Well, yes, she also happens to be the head official for the Ministry of Transportation here."

"Thank you for your consideration, my lady."

"Mhm. Anyway, that shipment should be just about done so I need to get going. Please try and get everything sorted out here as soon as possible so I don't have to deliver meat three times a day. It's quite restrictive on my schedule, you know?"

"I will see what I can do about that," Florine said, "but, realistically, that probably won't happen until the highway from Warden's Vale gets here."

Her liege let out a sigh and wandered back the way that they had come. Lady Shalltear was always ecstatic about any duty to His Majesty, so she was now probably framing her work here as slaving away for Lady Albedo.

Florine took a deep breath, releasing it slowly before entering the main pavilion with Isoroku and the Vampire Bride at her shoulders. Six Elder Liches stood silently around the table within.

"Good evening, everyone," Florine said.

The Elder Liches lowered their heads in greeting as she joined them at the table.

"Are there any developments that I should be aware of before we get started?"

"The situation remains unchanged in the Abelion Special Administrative Area," Isoroku replied. "What is your command?"

"Before anything else," Florine said, "we must adopt a more comprehensive format for our documentation."

The Elder Liches exchanged looks at her statement.

"Was the current format not devised by you, Lady Gagnier?" Isoroku asked.

"It was," Florine nodded. "Improvements have been made. Going forward, our work cannot rely on such simplistic methodologies. I understand that many of you are probably fresh out of basic training, but I hope you will be up to the task."

As one, the Elder Liches seemed to straighten, as if galvanised by her challenge.

"It looks like you're willing to try, at least," Florine smiled tightly. "Let's take a look at our most up-to-date map. Bring out our logistical reports for the last week, as well."

A scroll as wide as the table was unfurled and weights were placed at each of its corners. Florine narrowed her eyes at the same thing that she had noted in her meeting with Lady Albedo, which was the array of straight lines marking tribal territories. It was as if she was trying to turn the Abelion Hills into another Duchy of E-Rantel.

Thankfully, the way that Humans divided their territories accounted for a few essentials. There were many places with odd projections that attempted to accommodate the central administration's formulaic way of doing things, providing each tribe with access to water, forest, fields and, of course, the transportation network.

"Are the roads being laid in respect to these territorial divisions," Florine asked, "or the other way around?"

"It's a mix of both, Lady Gagnier," the Vampire Bride replied. "The main roads are planned along what our land surveys have determined are the most efficient routes, with service routes extending to the territories that they can't reach."

"Who did the survey work?"

"Lady Aura."

Since that was the case, there was likely no better way to lay the roads. That was a secondary problem, however.

"When were these territorial divisions determined?"

"One month ago, Lady Gagnier," Isoroku replied.

"So you're saying that everyone was moved into these territories marked here last month?"

"Over the course of the last month," the Elder Lich told her. "Some tribes were much slower than others."

Was relocation even necessary? She could see the logic behind it, but the tribes probably didn't.

"Do we have a map of how things were before?" Florine asked. Several smaller maps were brought out.

Florine furrowed her brow as she tried to make sense of them.

"Were there problems with reporting? These look like no one can agree where anything is."

"No, my lady," Isoroku answered.

"Then was it some sort of seasonal migration?"

"Unknown. The Special Administrative Area is too large to surveil with our current assets."

The Special Administrative Area was subject to the same laws as the Duchy of E-Rantel, so the tribes probably weren't waging war on one another. Aside from them attempting to move around, she couldn't imagine what else they were doing…but that activity came to an end once the administration repainted the map.

"Did the tribes say anything when they were relocated? Any protests or petitions?"


What's with this utter lack of communication...

In part, it might have been because they were dealing with the Undead. Most people expected to be mercilessly slaughtered by them, and the Gan Zu tribe minimised contact with the Undead sentries posted around their territories.

The fact that the Undead administrators only cared for the tasks outlined by their work was probably the bulk of the problem. Anything that lay outside the bounds of their training was left to the discretion of living administrators, and the processes they observed were then sent for review by the central administration to create new processes.

"This probably won't work," Florine tapped the first map. "Has the construction of these roads started, yet?"

"No, Lady Gagnier," the Vampire Bride said. "Gating both supplies and construction materials is prohibitively mana-intensive. We're waiting for the highway from the Sorcerous Kingdom to connect with this region."

If Lady Shalltear already knew that, why did she ask me to speed things up?

As a Noble and a Merchant, she might be able to improve the logistical efficiency of their operations, but that required infrastructure in the first place. Was she suggesting that a Skill or Ability might exist that mysteriously moved things around without needing the means to move it?

"It's good that we haven't started on that yet," Florine nodded. "Once we correct the territorial boundaries, we would have needed to redo everything anyway."

"How shall we begin?" Isoroku asked.

Florine cleared the old maps away and stared down at the first again. Her eyes traced the projected path of the new highway, which was arrogantly placed. It was being laid with a single objective – to connect the Sorcerous Kingdom to the Holy Kingdom of Roble – cutting a nearly straight line through the Abelion Wilderness.

"We'll start along the new highway, first," Florine said. "Where are we right now?"

Isoroku leaned forward and tapped a bony finger on the map. Florine tilted her head slightly.

The Dale of Defiance…

"Why is it called that?" Florine asked.

"Unknown," the Elder Lich answered. "The local tribes refuse to approach the area, so it was an ideal location to set up our base of operations."

"I suppose we'll just have to ask around," Florine said. "Let's start preparing the new document templates. We have a lot of work ahead of us."

That was most likely a colossal understatement. Every race had different needs. Even if two tribes were of the same race, they probably had different histories and cultures. If she was to achieve His Majesty's mandates for the Sorcerous Kingdom while also satisfying Lady Albedo's desire for order and productivity, Florine needed to lay the foundation for a system that transcended racial and cultural boundaries without trampling them flat.

She had a few clues as to how to do so, which mostly revolved around her background as a Merchant. As Ludmila asserted, the concept of currency and markets facilitated many things, as they provided a 'shortcut' for any race or culture to translate 'value' into their respective comprehension.

More importantly, they created a platform through which ideas could be exchanged and different peoples could learn how to interact with one another. This was how Ludmila employed them: as a way to move goods around fairly and the means through which a collective culture might be achieved. It wasn't an unknown idea by any stretch of the imagination, but Ludmila's focus on those aspects of the market did indeed result in a novel approach.

Florine flipped through the logistical reports, occasionally glancing at the map on the table for reference. The trading post network that she established for the Demihuman tribes in the north would probably be just as effective for that task in the Abelion Wilderness. What she had to be watchful for was the rise of competitive tendencies that might lead to detrimental outcomes.

"You mentioned that our assets are insufficient for surveillance in the area," Florine said. "What about our ability to maintain security and uphold order?"

Isoroku glanced at one of the other Elder Liches, who quickly went away and returned with a small binder.

"The presence of the Royal Army is limited due to geopolitical concerns," it said as it placed the binder in front of her.

"Geopolitical concerns?" Florine frowned.

"Namely, the polities to our south," the Elder Lich told her. "There are several kingdoms nearby in the Great Forest of Evasha. More importantly, the Slane Theocracy borders much of the wilderness."

"Have we had any run-ins with the neighbours, yet?"

"None. However, as mentioned, our assets are limited so we are not fully aware of their activities within our jurisdiction."

A sense of dissatisfaction suffused the Elder Lich's voice. Considering the amount of control and awareness they usually enjoyed, its displeasure over the situation was understandable.

"Are you from the Royal Army?" Florine asked.

The Elder Lich nodded.

"For the time being," she said, "our needs should revolve around domestic policing. Do we have any leeway when it comes to that?"

"The Southeastern Army Group has several hundred infantry squads prepared for those purposes," the Elder Lich seemed to brighten. "Shall I request their deployment?"

"Er…not all of them. We'll bring them in as our needs demand them. How many of our new citizens live in those border areas?"

"Distribution of the population is as shown on the map," the Elder Lich said. "The entire population along our borders have been relocated to avoid unwelcome complications."

"I see. Being careful around the Theocracy is prudent. We'll have to see if caution near Evasha is warranted."

Isolating themselves from Evasha would do more harm than good if the existing relationships weren't belligerent in the first place. It was a priceless opportunity to peacefully expand the Sorcerous Kingdom's influence southwards. Maybe they could even find out what was going on with the Elves.

Speaking of expanding influence…

"I'd like to know more about our situation along the western border," Florine said. "I've heard some disturbing rumours about the state of the Holy Kingdom of Roble."


"My sources say that order is going downhill. The late Holy Queen's efforts to promote progressive policies and stamp out corruption are being reversed by the new Holy King. We don't want the product of that spilling over into the Abelion Hills."

Plenty of discontent surrounded Queen Calca's ascent to the throne of Roble, but the root of that discontent made itself overwhelmingly clear now. The Holy Kingdom was perceived as a bastion of the Faith of the Four, but it was evidently far from the goodly realm that people made it out to be.

"Should we increase security along our western borders?"

"Do we have any traffic from the Holy Kingdom?"

"Not officially."

"And unofficially?"

"Several groups have established themselves near the fringes of our territory," the Elder Lich replied. "The Sorcerous Kingdom's political stance toward the Holy Kingdom gives rise to questions as to our approach to their citizenry."

"Have they engaged in any illegal activities?"


"Then let's find out while we make our preparations here," Florine said. "Bring in ten squads from the Southeastern Army Group and reinforce our patrols along the western border. We may now have political ties to the Holy Kingdom of Roble, but our laws still make no distinctions between those who would challenge them."