Chapter 14: An Alliance of Interests

Zhen Jin had retained memories of general knowledge which included information about the Wisteria Merchant Guild. On the Sheng Ming Continent of the human race, there were six great merchant guilds. Each one of which was a powerful behemoth of great age and backed by great nobles. Their businesses were spread across the high mountains, jungles, waters, and deserts.

Over the last one hundred years, one guild had miraculously soared to prominence, leaving the others in their dust and quickly became second only to the six great merchant guilds. This was Wisteria Merchant Guild. Wisteria had absorbed many middle and small guilds, and even individual shops and independent merchants were generously recruited. It had a tremendous scope and influence on the middle and lower markets. 

However, because they lacked patronage from the upper class, the great nobles of the Sheng Ming Empire coveted their profits and chose to meddle. The guild was suppressed and its president accidentally fell off his horse and died. It was then torn apart and divided between the nobility.

“After my father’s accident, there was only his daughter, myself, remaining. I was unwilling to give up. If the lifework of my father, grandfather, and of forbear generations were destroyed in my hands, then I would be the most unfilial descendent. 

“Many of the elders of the merchant caravans were also unwilling to surrender, so they rallied at my side. But no matter how much wealth we had, it was no opponent to power. My father’s death made me realize that I needed to enter the corridors of power in the Empire. 

“Based on how our guild previously developed, the more wealth we accumulated, the more we grew, and the more we spiraled down to our death. So the caravan and I collaborated carefully to find a suitable partner. Eventually, I met you, my Lord, and we found our situations compatible.”

Suddenly, as if a lightning bolt struck him, he understood what had happened. Although he remembered little, he knew the majestic Emperor Sheng Ming of great talent had unified the entire human continent and named it Sheng Ming Continent. The final part of his conquest was the annexation of the South, and the decisive battle of which was the annihilation of the Order of Cold Firs.

When the Empire’s subjugation army became trapped in the high mountains, their conquest fell into an impasse. The Southern nobles who had surrendered in the early stage saw hope in it and secretly liaised with those who were still resisting and reached an agreement. 

When the Fifth Order of the Temple withdrew from the front lines to recover from the battle, the surrendered Southern nobles deployed the Cold Firs, who were the foremost military order of the South, to ambush the Fifth.

The Cold Firs destroyed the Fifth Order, however, they were defeated by the subsequent Templar Knight reinforcements. They were routed and the Southern nobles promptly sent reinforcements. As a result, a huge breach formed in the formerly well-fortified defense line. The Imperial forces reacted extremely quickly as the frontline military orders joined forces and mobilized a frontal assault and completely routed Southern nobles’ defense line. Consequently, the Southern nobles were defeated with great losses and could no longer resist the Imperial army and either died in battle or surrendered.

The treacherous Southern nobles were also subject to ruthless purges. The House of Bai Zhen was a part of them and at the time, the Cold Firs had a significant number of Bai Zhen members. Although the family survived the purge, its territory, wealth, and army were reduced significantly. In the period that followed, they were suppressed and ostracized by Imperial nobles on all sides.

Naturally, the Bai Zhens were unwilling to be ruined. On the one hand, they began to gather other families in similar situations to form alliances, and on the other hand, they began to actively delve into Imperial high society. The Bai Zhens sending Zhen Jin into the Order of the Temple was one of the results of their efforts. 

The Order was the ace among the military orders of the Empire, directly subordinate to Emperor Sheng Ming and was the largest military force under his personal command. The Templar Knights believed in the Emperor and professed their faith in him alone and were naturally fully loyal to him as well. Thus they were the most trusted by the Emperor.

Generally speaking, there were few great nobles who held power in the Empire and they would not send their children into the Templar Order. Having their children profess faith in the Emperor was equivalent to raising ingrates in the family. The nobility believed in benefits, and most of the time, the family’s benefits were above everything else. 

The small, middle, and court nobility, and a few members from the great nobility attached to the Emperor’s faction would choose talented children of their family to be sent into the Templar Order. Zhen Jin joining the Templar Order despite being the sole heir to the Bai Zhens was the family offering their most sincere expression of loyalty to the Emperor.

This diplomatic act succeeded in easing the external pressure on the Bai Zhen House, however, it was inevitable and predictable that Zhen Jin would suffer the same treatment his family was subject to by the other Templars. After all, the Cold Firs had almost slaughtered the Fifth Order, and who among the nobility did not have relatives? There was a long and deep entrenched animosity between Zhen Jin and his fellow Templar Knights.

It was quite a wise decision to send the heir to the Templar Order. It would be in the family’s best interests to completely defer to the Emperor’s political faction. Zhen Jin recalled his father, and it was clear the middle-aged man had the wisdom and decisiveness of a family head. The suppression and ostracization should’ve been expected by me when I joined the Temple, so, at the time, I chose to endure silently.

Zhen Jin thought of the second memory he recollected. In his memories, Qing Kui took the initiative to start quarrels with him and deliberately made things difficult for him. Qing Kui’s motives were understandable, perhaps one of his relatives from the Fifth Order had been killed.

As for Zhen Jin’s own actions, a judgment could also be made. Even though his talent was extraordinary, he did not make a name for himself, instead, he chose to hide his gifts and focus solely on cultivation. He usually kept a low profile to prevent his political enemies from suppressing him or killing him before he became a threat. He became a Templar Knight to seek allies among the Emperor’s faction and not to make enemies. As the family’s future head, he had joined with a diplomatic objective.

There was never a shortage of opportunities for friendships in the army. When faced with great external pressure, Templar Knights were forced to trust and rely on each other and these life-and-death experiences would go a long way to dissolve old hatreds. 

Through this method, the Bai Zhen House could free themselves from their political plight and become a member of the Imperial faction, however, the Bai Zhen House could only be described to have barely established themselves firmly and were still considered down and out. How could they expand their territory, increase their wealth and strengthen their power?

The human continent was already unified by Emperor Sheng Ming and the four seas were at peace. There were not many opportunities left and this was where humanity’s large-scale offense against the beastman continent became the perfect opportunity for many nobles to expand their family’s territories and establish their own military successes and exploits. White Sands was the Bai Zhen House’s opportunity so Zhen Jin was sent to compete for the position of city lord.

By standing in Zi Di’s shoes, he could also understand her perspective on things. With Wisteria Merchant Guild divided up among the great nobles and the president dead, if the elders were capable of bowing their heads, they would have long since surrendered to these great nobles, so those elders who rallied behind Zi Di were naturally hostile to these great nobles. Due to this, she could only rely on the members of the Emperor’s faction.

Of these members, those with formidable power did not take a fancy to her remnant portion of the guild. Perhaps the complete Wisteria could have moved them, but the guild had long been sundered. Those with moderate power also had misgivings. Her group could be said to be the core of Wisteria, recklessly accepting them was to incur hostility from the great nobles. They needed to carefully consider the gains, losses, and risks involved. Those of weak power, such as the court nobles, who did not even have a territory, had no way of providing for the guild members.

Simultaneously, Zi Di, as the new leader, had her own worries. She tried her best to not choose a strong noble to rely on. After all, she was only a mage of Iron cultivation. Cooperation with a noble too strong would most likely lead to them annexing the remnants of Wisteria in the future. After careful consideration, Zi Di settled on the House of Bai Zhen.

The current head of the Bai Zhen House was a Gold powerhouse, however, he suffered a grievous injury earlier in his life and lost his right arm. The Bai Zhens had a long history and due to their current circumstances, they had a shaky foothold and desperately needed to explore new horizons and develop because they had been stripped of their territories and their currently available lands were poor in natural resources. Furthermore, they were being ostracized by surrounding territories. As a result, the Bai Zhens needed the channels available to Wisteria and valued the guild far more than any other family.

The crucial factor was that the Bai Zhens were willing to pay the price and did not hesitate in promising marriage with the heir apparent. After the agreement was signed, a betrothal ceremony was held and news of it was spread widely. 

All these factors and more miraculously created the young betrothed couple of Zhen Jin and Zi Di. They both had their own predicaments but they also strongly needed each other and this was not just their wishes but also of the forces behind them. How else could Zhen Jin, a nobleman, ever be betrothed to a woman of such a lowly bloodline?

Despite being the heir apparent to the Bai Zhen House, I was first sent to the Temple and now to the frontlines of the battlefield in White Sands, bearing the great risk of the heir dying in battle. This is a gamble! It’s also the same for Wisteria Merchant Guild. Neither of us can back out. It's no wonder Zi Di always stood by my side! Zhen Jin pondered deeply and finally understood the intricacies of the ulterior motives involved. Looking again at the young girl before him, he felt he had become intimately closer to her.

He was not averse to this alliance of interests, instead, he highly approved of it. An alliance forged on mutual interests was usually more reliable than one on affection and besides, love could always be nurtured. Moreover, with their connection by marriage, he understood that Zi Di would be his most reliable ally in the future.

Zi Di continued, “We boarded the Hog’s Kiss and, if plans were to be followed, we were to land on the beastman continent, however, during our voyage, we were inexplicably shipwrecked and ended up on this island.”

Zhen Jin muttered, “So, what we need to do, now, is to not only save our own lives and escape but also to gather more subordinates. Zi Di, how many troops and reliable retainers did I bring?”

When faced with this question, Zi Di uncharacteristically hesitated. She deliberated for a moment and said, “My Lord, when we left, we mainly took the core armed forces of Wisteria Merchant Guild and hired two reputable mercenary companies.”

Zhen Jin was startled. He had not misheard. His own side had no retainers or troops. He was only the commander of one. Without any alternatives, he could only rely on the forces of the Wisteria Merchant Guild and the two mercenary companies. Compared to the mercenaries who worked for money, the armed forces of Wisteria were now the force most under his command.

This was too embarrassing! Despite being the sole heir of a landed noble family, he had to, at the risk of his life, go fight for war on the frontlines without, unexpectedly, a personal army!

“Has the Bai Zhen House fallen this low? But there not being a single retainer is inexcusable.” This abnormal situation made him frown.

Zi Di explained, “There was indeed a group of personnel dispatched from Lord’s family, however, they encountered bandits en route and were annihilated. At the same time, tracks of goblins and ogres were frequently sighted around the territory of the Bai Zhen House. 

“We feared the other competitors would arrive at White Sands before us and gain advantages by being early, so we put on a façade of staying while disguising our identities and set sail in secret.”

Zhen Jin’s pupils contracted as he coldly snorted, “It seems the competition for the position of the City Lord of White Sands is quite fierce.” To think a nobleman’s elite troops would be wiped out by so-called bandits during transit. 

Moreover, the present-day territorial borders of the Bai Zhen House were since long ago the heartland. How could there be space for goblins and ogres to exist there? As he thought of something, he asked again, “Who are the ones competing against me for the position of city lord? Were they on the same ship as us?”

Zi Di shook her head. “There are two others and they are both your colleagues, my Lord. And no, they did not travel on the same ship as us.”

Zhen Jin did not speak. He pondered. This answer implied they would not have to face strong competitors with malicious intentions on the island, but at the same time, it was very possible one of these competitors had a hand in the shipwreck.

Zi Di soon added, “Nevertheless, my Lord. Journeying together with us was a priest of the Temple named Jia Sha. He is the examiner of this city lord competition. It is very likely he is still alive. If we can find him and give him help, that would be for the best.”

“Jia Sha?” he slightly raised a brow in thought.