There were not many rifles aboard Brent, and even fewer members of the crew knew how to use them with any confidence. Harkness had been joined by seven men, all older men, who had spent their lives at sea, and did not have families back home to mourn them. They were in various degrees of disrepair (grey hairs, old ankle wounds, bad backs and just plain old age), but they were willing to help Harkness, which was what counted.

Brent began to swing around just as the first 28-gun port-side salute lit up the darkening sky. That single salvo would have punched huge holes in Brent’s hull – but her quick turn saw her avoid every last one of the weighty cannonballs.

Glorieuse continued to close, now doing so at some speed as the wind was against Brent. What the crew of Glorieuse had not expected was for the galleon to raise her sails and swing hard toward her.

There was no time for the crew of Glorieuse to prepare another volley. Brent’s port quarter slammed hard into her own – shaking both ships and rattling their crews, but Brent’s crew had been prepared. Whilst several of Glorieuse’s crew were shook off their feet, Harkness leaped across from Brent and, landing with a thud on Glorieuse, immediately opened fire with his rifle.

His fire was joined by that of his fellows, who were also climbing across to board the Antyan vessel. Some of Brent’s crew were also firing from the rigging of the ship, trying to keep the crew of Glorieuse from getting organised.

Shouts and screams greeted Harkness as he glanced around the deck of Glorieuse, looking for the entrance to the armoury. The green-jacketed Antyan officers were quickly getting themselves back to a firm footing and so he moved quickly, kicking out at a guard that tried to get in his way and knocking aside the other man’s sword with his rifle. One of his own men fired off a shot that put down a guard trying to stab him in the back and as Harkness looked back at Brent, he saw Captain Wade’s next surprise for the Antyans.

Barrels, some empty, some filled with fermenting alcohol, were tossed onto Glorieuse’s deck, men with flaming torches lighting them as they went. Fire was every sailor’s worst enemy, a thing of much fear, and it would at the very least buy Harkness some time.

Some of Glorieuse’s crew were firing back, and Harkness heard the screams of his colleagues as lead pierced flesh. Those who had joined him were trying to find different ways below deck, diverting Antyan attention still further – Harkness himself smashed an onrushing Antyan guard in the nose with his rifle, and then swung a punch that sent the man sprawling. He kicked at one of the doors to his right, that he hoped would lead to the stored gunpowder.

When the door would not budge, Harkness shot the lock with his rifle. That had the desired effect.

Charging down the stairs, Harkness nearly made the mistake of not looking where he was going. A guard was coming up them, baynet fixed to his rifle, and Harkness almost impaled himself upon it. Instead, he stepped to his left, and slammed the business end of his own rifle into the other man’s chest. The man stumbled, and tumbled back down the stairs, bashing his head upon a thick wooden chest at the bottom. He groaned, semi-conscious, and Harkness drew his sword. The Antyan would not be given the chance to wake up.

The lighting revealed that he had, by sheer luck, found the armoury. Barrels upon barrels of potent gunpowder and stored round shot were neatly lined up along the walls. It was time to complete his mission.

Harkness reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew a pack of matches. With a sigh, he scratched one against the side of the box and took in the significance of the flame for a split second, before laying the match to rest beside one of the barrels. A shudder told him that Brent had disengaged from the Antyan warship and was starting to sail away. That was good; Harkness lit more matches, placing them by barrels, but not-so-close that they’d go up straight away. Brent needed a little time.

Then the very air seemed to take on a chill. The flames that were starting to lick their way up the wooden barrels and across the floor seemed to waver, but Harkness could see no reason as to why, and nor could he fathom why the hairs on his neck stood on end and his heart started beating faster. From the corner of his eye, Harkness thought he could see something… but when he turned to look, whatever it was was still only in the corner of his eye.

Until a shadowy hand reached out and placed black bony fingers over one of the fires, extinguishing it.

For a moment Harkness recoiled in shock and fright. Something was stepping into view, black as night. By his reckoning it was as tall as a man, but the wispy, smokey figure didn’t have a face – so why could he feel a pair of eyes looking right into his, piercing his very soul?

The… thing, then stepped onto another batch of flames, and Harkness realised its intent. The remaining fires were beginning to gather pace but if the creature put them all out…

“Not another step demon!” He cried, aiming his rifle right at it. He had no idea if it would even know what a rifle was, let alone if it would hesitate, but he had to try.

The creature did seem to stop for an instant, as though it heard Harkness and was weighing up its next move – but then it started forward again, and Harkness, despite the increasing fear in his stomach, squeezed the trigger.

The bark from his rifle was accompanied by a bright flash as a pellet shot through the air and pierced the blackness of the demon. It actually staggered a little, and Harkness could see little droplets of black fluid spill to the floor. Then it let out a low, scratchy sound, like a cross between a hiss and a shriek, and began forward again.

Harkness screamed – he summoned up every last drop of courage and charged forward, dropping his rifle and drawing his cutlass again. He swiped from right to left at the creature’s midsection, and though there appeared to be nothing there, he certainly felt the blade go in, and sweep back out. The demon let out another cry, but did not go down – instead, a black hand crashed across his face, sending him sprawling, and sent his sword scattering.

The creature started forward, once again bent upon putting out his fires. Harkness, despite blood leaking from a small wound on his left temple, snarled and scooped up his rifle, swinging it round and trying to smash it around the demon’s head. The creature brought up an arm to block the blow, and kicked out, catching Harkness in the stomach. He grunted, but refused to fall, and poked his rifle at the monster’s chest, feeling it connect and seeing it stumble.

Now the remaining fires were gathering pace and the barrels were not going to hold out much longer. He only had to distract the thing for a little longer…

He hurled himself at the creature, punching and kicking as hard as he could. It made strange rasping sounds as it fought back, kicking him so hard he skidded across the floor, the breath knocked from his body.

A surge in the flames caught the attention of them both. The gunpowder was about to go up – Harkness was certain of that, and ready for death. Was the demon prepared to die for its cause?

Apparently not. As Harkness watched, it spread its arms wide, and the space in front of it shimmered like water on a lake, the edges swirling around. Shapes were starting to take form within the large oval portal – it was escaping, and Harkness would not stand for that.

“You’ll not find solace from me, even in Hell!” Harkness yelled, and as the creature tried to step into the gateway it had made, Harkness jumped it. The two of them wrestled, with Harkness punching it repeatedly in the face. As they rolled, they teetered on the edge of the abyss, and as the powder finally ignited, the explosion blasted both of them through…

Back to Kingdoms of War

Brent was slicing through the waves at some speed, with the wash and foam and spray taking on new life as it swept over the deck. Captain Wade’s crew worked diligently, as he had come to expect, but as the sun finally began to set, and amber light bathed them, he was fearing the worst. Behind them came what they now could tell was a fourth-rate Antyan warship, which meant it had at least forty-six cannons and a crew well-trained in how to use them.

Would they simply blow an unarmed merchant galleon out of the water? Or would they try and convince him to heave to and surrender? Every second spent trying the latter was an extra second closer to possible friendly vessels, so Wade doubted they’d be so generous as to offer that chance.

He looked up at the masts, and the sails, and then to the darkening sky, and wished the Gods would somehow offer him a little favour – such as a sudden and unexpected bolt of lightening to the Antyan masts. No such favour came.

“We won’t make it, will we?” He said quietly to himself. One man however, Lieutenant Harkness, heard him.

“I don’t think so sir. They’re just too fast.”

“Could we take those bastards with us? Ram them?”

Harkness shook his head. “They’ll have an iron reinforced hull and copper plating – we’d damage them but that would be all.”

“Then we keep running, and hope that someone friendly spots us before it’s too late.”

****

The chase had lasted over an hour by Captain Vipond’s reckoning. At least it was finally drawing to an end. His crew were eager to attack, as they had been for weeks – theirs was a risky move, but for Antya to move out of Eshurg’s shadow, risk had to be taken.

He had to admit to himself that seizing unarmed cargo ships – and especially destroying them – was distasteful. The sailors his vessel now bore down upon were not naval officers, prepared to risk their lives – they were innocent bystanders that were about to become the first casualties of war. Unfortunately, if they raised the alarm, it would place other, more important operations at risk – and he had a duty to protect his nation and prevent that.

The Captain’s Office was small by the standards of the larger ships of the line he had served on, but huge compared to that of his last command. Vipond sat behind a magnificent mahogany desk, sipping the best brandy Antya had to offer from a glass completed by golden swirls. He ran a hand through his short brown hair and scratched the scar on the bridge of his nose (why does it always itch when battle was due?)

Then came the knock at the door.

“Enter.” His voice boomed.

“Captain…” Commander Gagnon, actually an older man than Vipond, and tall enough to have to stoop ever-so-slightly to get through the door, entered. His cutlass caught the light from the newly installed electric lamp and it gleamed where it had been polished. “We are in range.”

“Well then…” Vipond stood. “Let us complete this quickly.”

****

“They’re getting men into position.” Lieutenant Harkness said quietly. “Getting ready to fire.”

“I say we let them light their cannons then swing hard to port…” Offered up Navigator Grant, a burly man with long ginger sideburns that never seemed see a razor. He stood at the wheel, ready to act upon his idea. “Should see to it we avoid the first volley, at any rate.”

Wade pondered the suggestion. Hard to port would work, but it always leave them dangerously out of the wind’s course. “The enemy will be able to line us up all too easily soon after – we’ll lose valuable momentum.”

“We won’t have any momentum if we’re dead.” Replied Grant, a trace of gallows-humour about him.

Something was coming back to Wade. “What if we swing completely about? They’ll come past us, we smack into the side of them? They won’t be expecting that. We just need to exploit that somehow.”

“We’ll end up entangling our sails and getting stuck. They’ll board us and cut us to pieces.” Responded Grant.

“Not necessarily. We’ll have the element of surprise and if we raise our sails…” Harkness thought for a moment. “We have rifles and swords aboard. I can lead a boarding party and ignite their powder magazines. Brent pushes off and returns to full sail and should get clean away.”

Wade shuddered. “How will you get to the magazine before they kill you?”

Harkness smiled thinly. “I know my way around a cutlass sir…”

“… and it would be a suicide mission! I would have to give the order to push off almost as soon as you and your team are on board that ship.” Wade did not sound happy.

“Sir, if we are destroyed or killed, Antya will blockade Eshurg successfully for at least a few weeks, seizing cargo and coin that will be turned to their own war effort whilst ours suffers. If we can warn Eshurg, we destroy their advantage and could even end this war before it even begins. If I have to give my life to protect the people I love, I’ll do it – but I’ll take those bastards out with me!”

Wade looked away, considering his options. Harkness was right, but Wade would be asking him – and anyone who helped him – to sacrifice their lives. He hadn’t signed up to the merchant navy to make this kind of decision!

He looked back at that young man, unable to keep the sadness from his eyes. “Very well, ask who of the crew will join you. We’ll try and create a distraction too, to help you. Get ready!”

Chapter 5

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The imposing sight of several ships of the line was an unwelcome sight to the merchant galleons that were cutting through the waves at a ferocious rate of knots. The hope had been to make it to Jerry Peak before nightfall, and then sneak away into the night, but the sun had not yet sunk below the churning waves, and in the distance, Captain Francis Woodgate could see the dark red hulls of warships – warships that bore the green and golden-starred flag of Antya.

“Can we avoid them?” He asked his First Mate, Sebastian Rivers.

The taller man rubbed his itchy stubble. He kept finding grey hairs among the black, most displeasing for a man barely into his thirties. His one good, left eye surveyed the scene.

“I doubt it Cap’n. They’re too quick, and they’ll have spotted us for sure.”

Spray swept over the deck as the ship rocked a little, but neither man lost their footing, and neither man minded the cooling spray. Little damp patches were peppering Rivers’ ‘uniform’ (if you could call a dirty white shirt and old black trousers a uniform), but it ignored them.

Woodgate looked grim, his strong jaw set tight and grey eyes looking grim. “We can’t fight them – we have no weapons. Nor can we return to port.”

“Aye, tis a bad place to be in Cap.”

“I’ll be damned if I surrender my ship to those pigs.” Muttered Woodgate, more to himself.

“You’ll get no complaint from me or the crew Cap’n. We’d rather go down fightin’. We have muskets and rifles aboard ship.”

“And hardly anyone aboard knows how to use them properly. We’d be slaughtered. Damn them!”

Woodgate was not a man who compromised. He hadn’t become captain of his own ship by meekly backing down at the first hint of trouble. His unwillingness to tolerate dissent or slack work had sometimes led to dirty looks from his crews, but his willingness to muck in, to put in a shift, and his business acumen, had earned himself respect and his crew extra coin. That they were willing to risk death was unquestioned – but it wasn’t fair of him to ask that. He might not have had a family back home, but a lot of the Furor’s crew of some four-hundred sailors did.

“What if we signal another of our own? Get one ship to break off and head back to the Western Territories? They can get help.” Woodgate was talking to himself. Rivers looked at him.

“Would they get there before one of those bastards ran ’em down?”

“If the rest of us create a distraction they might. Have one of the crew raise the Semaphore. We need to get into formation, and quickly.”

****

Captain Henry Wade took note of the incoming Semaphore message and silently thanked and cursed Captain Woodgate. He had no desire to be in the clutches of the Antyan Navy, but fleeing for friendly ports with warships possibly bearing down after him wasn’t his idea of a plan.

He watched as the rest of the fleet – some twenty large galleons – began to form a line, spreading out to conceal his own vessel. It would be an unusual formation to the approaching Antyan ships – there was no reason for merchant vessels to sail in such a manner – but there was nothing in the Book that said they couldn’t do it.

His own vessel, the Brent, began to swing around as quickly as possible. The wind was, for the moment, in their favour – they could pick it up and get a boost back to the Territories – whilst any Antyan ships that spotted them would have to get around the rest of the merchant fleet. It was time to run, and run fast.

****

“There, there!” The lieutenant shouted. The Antyan officer, dressed in impeccable green and gold jacket, held the eyepiece and snarled at the sight of one lone vessel speeding away from the rest of the Eshurg scum. “One of them seeks to return to harbour!”

Captain Gaubert Vipond of the fourth-rate ship of the line Glorieuse moved his brawny frame to the port side of the ship, and took the proffered eyepiece. One quick look was all he needed. The Eshurg merchants were running, to try and warn their forces of the blockade. That could not be permitted.

“Give chase! Full sail!” He barked. Around him, his officers began to repeat his commands, and the crew erupted in a frenzy of organised excitement.

“Ready cannons! As soon as we close to range, open fire!”

****

Well, so far, so good. Brent was making good speed – though she was a large and heavy ship (especially laden with cargo), she had many sails, proper, large cotton sails that could catch even the slightest breeze. Wade smiled, feeling the spray of the ocean in his long brown hair, and the wind against his weather-worn cheeks. He wished the wind would batter out the lines of age from his appearance, but there was little doing about that.

“Captain Wade…” Behind him, a younger, and probably smarter, man stood to attention. Like his captain, lieutenant Jim Harkness wore a brown jacket and had it buttoned up to the top. Wade quietly envied the short, well-kept hair of blond hair, and the man had a face not yet marred by age or worry. His high cheekbones were something Wade particularly coveted. The deep blue eyes completed the look.

“Yes Lieutenant?” Said Wade as he turned around.

“An Antyan warship is trailing us sir.” Harkness always managed to sound calm.

“I see. Can we reach the Territories before they reach us​​?

“It will be close sir. The crew is giving it their all but I can’t guarantee it.”

Captain Wade sighed. “Well, we shall just have to hope for a lucky break.”

Chapter 4

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“Lord Ashton is here to see you your Majesty.” The guardman, looking resplendent in his green jacket, buttoned all to the way to the top, stood to attention. His eyes, even though he and the Queen were alone in her official office, were always alert. The big glass window on the east side of the room always drew the majority of his attention. The risk of an assassin breaking in there was only marginally greater than elsewhere (thanks to the guards outside), but the Queen’s personal bodyguard did not like any risks, and had privately desired to board up the window. He knew the Queen, being as stubborn as she was, would never agree to that.

“See him in James.” The soft and gentle voice that had lured many a man to a false sense of security spoke.

“Yes, your Majesty.” James bowed, then ushered himself out of the office, and bade Lord Ashton in.

There she sat. Her office chair was a thing of Spartan beauty, a simple piece of wood with a plush maroon cushion but nothing like the ornate and beautiful golden throne of the palace. Her office too, was not what he ever expected, despite being a regular visitor.

Simple cream paint covered the walls and a large portrait of her father, the dear King Edward VI (in full military trim, with gold sash and sword) covered the west wall. Behind her was a map of her kingdom, and her desk ( a simple beech product) was nowhere near as large or fancy as his own. The chair in front of the desk looked marginally more comfortable.

Suddenly Ashton felt overdressed. He always made a point of wearing military dress uniform when meeting the Queen – impeccably clean black jacket, gold buttons done up completely, several gold and silver medals gleaming, and gold shoulder sashes provided a dab of extra colour. Brown shoes (polished to within an inch of their lives) completed the look of a man who took great pride in his appearance.

Queen Anna II did not go to the same elaborate lengths. A simple light blue dress, patterned ever-so-slightly with birds, was all she needed. Sorrowful blue eyes looked at him as she pushed a wavey lock of brown hair out of her face. For a moment Ashton forgot she was the Queen, and saw a young woman, young enough to be his daughter (hell, granddaughter!).

“Good afternoon Antony. How are your wife and children?” She asked pleasantly.

“They are well your majesty. My wife reminds me that we will have been married some thirty years next month.”

Those blues held a brief sparkle of happiness. “I imagine she will expect a gift or two.”

“That is distinctly possible your Majesty.”

“Please…” Queen Anna gestured to the chair in front of her desk. “Sit down Antony.”

For a moment Ashton hesitated, always reluctant to relax in the Queen’s presence. He relented after a second, squeezing his frame into the seat.

“You look worried Antony.” Obviously his furrowed brow wasn’t doing much to disguise his concerns.

“I’m afraid I am your Majesty. I bring bad tidings – a letter, from the First Sea Lord of Antya. Quite why he wrote to me is beyond me, but it is a disturbing letter in both content and tone.”

Queen Anna sat up in her chair and clasped her hands on the desk. “How so?”

Guilt ran through Lord Ashton’s body. This young woman had inherited the burden of leadership when she was far too young for it, and didn’t deserve to be dealing with a diplomatic crisis, let alone the threat of war. His eyes flickered to that portrait of her father, and not for the first time, he wished King Edward were still here. He had been a good father and a friend, and Ashton knew both he and the Queen missed him, very much.

His eyes returned to the Queen’s. “Antya believes we are using our links and trade partners in the west to build up anti-Antyan sentiment, stifle Antyan trade opportunities, and… that we are transporting weapons with which to directly threaten Antyan interests. They are threatening a blockade of our merchant ships and the seizure of our vessels if we do not grant them considerably greater access to the western trade hubs.”

Queen Anna sat back. “It’s no lie that our sailors do not like Antya and probably sing colourful songs about them when drunk in local bars. We’re not exactly encouraging people to like Antya, after all.”

“True your Majesty. However, it is not official policy of any office in government to promote or encourage such sentiment. Nor are we preparing to attack them, as their letter implies. This blockade, if it goes ahead, will be bad for us your Majesty. Very bad.”

“And if we grant them what they want, how does that affect us?”

“I am no economist your Majesty, but right now we get a lot of revenue from the western empires. We get a significant share of the unique crops and goods from that part of the world. This in turn, allows us to barter and trade from a position of strength, and that in turn allows us to fill our coffers, build more ships, equip our navy and army with the best weapons, and so on. A dent in that, coupled with a growth for Antyan interests, could undermine our position of strength considerably.”

With a thoughtful look, the Queen stood, and turned to face the map behind her. She traced the lines of her kingdom with a fingertip. The isles that made up the Eshurg Kingdom were at once bolstered by their very nature and hampered by it – traditional land-based attacks were pointless against the three islands, but a blockade could lead to starvation and poverty before long. Eshurg depended on its merchant fleet, not only to remain powerful but to stay alive.

The the east, some two hundred miles away, the coast of Antya loomed. Unlike Eshurg, Antya shared land borders with other nations – and their relations with those nations was not always friendly. Expansion to other territories, and the benefit that could bring, was almost certainly vital to Antya’s long-term defensive plans… but the Queen had no desire to yield to those plans, not if it meant compromising her kingdom. She turned, to face Lord Ashton. Her eyes were resolved.

“You know what the Antyans desire in the long-term, don’t you?”

Ashton nodded. “Security. They’re not exactly having much joy with the Frequestians right now. They need resources and money to raise more armies if the need arises.”

“And something that undermines us at the same time can only be good for their long-term ambitions. Weaken us without firing a shot, whilst simultaneously putting down another enemy.”

“Yes your Majesty. I suspect their end-game is war with us – and if we cow to them now, that war will be so much harder to win.”

The Queen’s eyes became harsh. “If we refuse to acquiesce to their demands, what then? Have they the means to blockade us successfully?”

Ashton shook his head. “No your Majesty. They can hurt us, certainly, but our navy is bigger than theirs. It would be an uncomfortable diversion of our fleet, but their fleet is going to have to divert too, if they are to follow through with their threats. If they try to seize our ships or hold them in port, we can blast through their forces.”

“Which means war now, instead of later.” Her voice sounded heavy.

“Unfortunately so your Majesty. A war now though, is one we have a much greater chance of winning. It would not be easy, and I cannot predict what sort of casualties we’d face, but I am confident of victory.”

Queen Anna sat back down, looking at her hands for a moment. When she looked up at Lord Ashton, she did not look so young anymore.

“Inform the Antyans that we will not accept their demands, and inform them that if they proceed with their plans, we will consider an act of war and respond appropriately. In the meantime, I want our navy fully prepared to sail at a moment’s notice.”

“Yes your Majesty, it shall be ready.” Lord Ashton nodded.

“Very good. Is there any other business?”

“No, your Majesty.”

“Very well. You are dismissed Lord Ashton.” As he rose from his seat, the Queen uttered one more sentence. “And Antony… enjoy your anniversary.”

Lord Ashton turned, smiled, and bowed. “Thank you your Majesty.”

The guardsman opened the door from the other side, and Lord Ashton slipped out. The Queen sat there, heart full of regret that she could not find another way.

Chapter 3

Back to Kingdoms of War

Lord Ashton of Brixley studied the lines on the letter that now sat on his expensive oak desk, and looked at the blank piece of paper beside it, fountain pen in hand, poised to write a response. The gold tip nearly – nearly – pressed to the page, but restrained himself, remembering the sage advice his teacher back at the academy had given him – ‘never write in anger’.

It was hard advice to follow, especially as he read the letter again, feeling the anger swell in him even more, despite knowing the words to come.

Damn the arrogant Antyans, and damn their demands! They had no right, none whatsoever, to the sea lanes they coveted. They knew that, but still pressed anyway.

Ashton stood and moved his portly frame around his desk, and gazed at the bookcase. Behind tempered glass resided entire volumes of exquisite bound novels; some reminding him of his childhood, others were documents of wars and battles gone by – tactical and strategic masterpieces from his predecessors. In his reflection, he wished he had taken the time to maintain the physique of his younger days – he had been lean back then, but now, years of over-indulgence had caught up on him – his chin now had a chin of its own, and his face was permanently red from too many glasses of brandy.

My moustache needs a trimhe idly though to himself. His hair was rather in need of cutting too. Curly ginger locks were unbecoming of the Lord of the Eshurg Navy.

He wanted to open up the case and take a look at them – especially the ones about warfare. Oh how he wanted to stick a round of grape shot up Antyan arses…

Deep breath Antony, deep breath… he steadied himself, knowing full well her Majesty did not desire war. It was in everyone’s best interests to find a diplomatic resolution to the crisis.

Still, as he sat back down and read the letter a third time, his fury boiled. The gall, the nerve, of the Antyan government! They had never liked Eshurg or its stranglehold over the western sea trade routes, but Eshurg had worked hard to create and protect those routes, and spent the best part of a century developing good relations with the empires beyond the Crest Islands. Why should they give up any of that?

Illegal goods, weapons shipments, the undermining of Antyan reputations and status in the west… it was rubbish. Eshurg had never shipped weapons to anyone, let alone people with anti-Antyan sentiment (well, not that Lord Ashton knew of, at any rate). And he knew the Antyan ambassadors in that part of the world were not shy of undermining Eeshurg influence whenever they had the chance! Posturing was part of the game after all… but Eshurg had never sought to stifle Antyan activities; instead, they sought only to counter the more extravagant and outrageous claims. Like claims of illegal goods and weapons shipments. Claims Antyan officials were making more and more.

Hence their desire to demand more access to hard-won trade routes. Ashton wanted to write two very blunt words to the Antyan embassy, but he restrained himself. No, he decided. The Antyans will not manipulate their way into our trade routes, greedy dogs…

Chapter 2

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