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<><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><> The Gauntlet had been thrown down. Never in my wildest dreams had I entertained the idea that the Marauders would fall for my trap so perfectly. They were the old guard, furious at an affront to their 'honor'. All it required was an easy sale of some Black Lodge Dragon armor to the Queen's troops. Just as I foresaw, instead of making their presence felt, after a raid and nothing more than a few broken bones, the Queen's troops left in a huff, ready to tell their monarch of the barbarians in western Varlyrio. Then I struck. The information on their camp had not come cheap, but it had come so easy I feared the worse. So instead of a march, I led shock troops, my lancers into the Marauder camp. In one swoop, I broke the reigning power over these wastelands for 20 years. But the treacherous line I would have to walk was only getting harder. The Company's forces were holed up in Fort Defiance. Thanks to the last Aarinstahrr, Fort Defiance was well supplied and had the geographical advantage of covering the only water for many miles. And while the last remnants of the Marauders were destroyed, here I plotted. I summoned the only two other stake members in the company, neither of which were particularly thrilled with the turn of events. "I suppose I needn't ask which part of you did the thinking about this particular decision." Corcoran played a soldier, a politician, a businessman, but none of them as well as he played a cynic. "My thoughts exactly." Raven Fernwood was a man of means and had taken a risk investing in Black Lodge given that the Company had just been taken over by an illegitimate son who had not been seen in years. But while he was a bigger liability than Corcoran, he was also more amiable to my ideas. "Read the dispatches coming from the Queen's court. We just bought ourselves the Queen's blessing for a business we just eliminated our main rival in." I smiled. "Perhaps you don't realize the-" "I damn well know what the Queen's hand means," Fernwood interjected. "I never swore fealty to some grant monarch. It's the last thing we need." "You think I'm putting all my eggs in a sovereign hundreds of miles from here? Think bigger. This is PR. I would never have taken down the marauders this easy if not for the fact that people hate them. We cannot let that happen." "Which is why I opposed expanding into protection in the first place," Corcoran complained. "No, stop and listen," I snapped. "The Wastelands bow to no king. But some law and order is required. And if we want a free Varlyrio, we need to be the thing keeping it free. The Queen's protectionism won't stop after she gets a taste of the money, let alone the power it holds. If we become the order around here, no Queen's edict will be enforced without our say-so." Raven Fernwood started to smile. "This could work." "Not only work, but this is a solution to more than one of our problems," I said. "All that we need is something, even the tiniest shred of legitimacy. Which is why you two are here. I need to know who to approach." Corcoran looked interested for the first time. "I may have an idea on that front. There are larger Trading Companies that pay for their own private armies, but don't particularly like maintaining them. If you can put on the face of a gentleman, they may just bite. I can get you the locations of their offices, but that may be the best you get." "Give me a few days, and I will have a proposal that they will tell their wives they came up with," I said. My partners shook hands and nodded. I had won the war. It was time to win the peace.