"Milord, Count Chujway definitely knows about our might. He seems to be quite fearful of you. But what I don't understand is why Forund's little prince, his knight, and that blademaster don't seem to know about the situation.
"Didn't you provoke them to send someone to avenge the knight? I saw Count Dalek was just about to stand up but Count Chujway stopped him almost reflexively," said Howard.
They were currently on their way to the inn. After Lorist's killing of the gold-ranked knight, Henriman, everyone present was completely flabbergasted. Even Duke Fisablen, who was prepared to enjoy his show, had his eyes popping out of their sockets as he stared incredulously at the knight's corpse.
In one move, one instance of crossing figures, the knight's throat had been completely obliterated. Only the most agile body movement, and lightning-fast reactions, could make a three-star-gold-ranked knight like him lose his life so helplessly. Even if Baron's Felim and Shazin were confident they could beat the man, they certainly couldn't do it in any less than a few hundred exchanges. They might have to trade an injury or two.
Duke Fisablen was completely shocked, Blademaster Rimad stared terror-stricken at the corpse, while Blademaster Shuss watched admiringly. The last sparred with Lorist regularly, so he could see that Knight Henriman's frenzied charge was what had sealed his fate. Lorist merely gave a small step forward to mess up his position. The momentum Henriman built up along the way prevented him from pulling out of his attack; he could only watch as Lorist's hand reached for his throat... and crushed it.
This is absolutely sublime, Shuss had thought, awed by Lorist's movements.
Blademasters at that level had to be close to becoming swordsaints. Lorist was only 34. People able to reach the gold rank at his age were already considered absolute geniuses.
But Milord is no genius... he's a monster. He's already a quasi-swordsaint at such a tender age, it would be more surprising if he didn't advance to the swordsaint rank than if he did...
Josk urged his horse to Lorist's side.
"Did Milord notice that Count Chujway tried to make it sound like the four duchies were the conflict's victims, unlike those arrogant Forund idiots? I think Howard has a point; the count definitely knows our house well."
"Hehe, you've noticed it too? Well, how about this... Take a few guards when we get to the inn and invite the count over. I have a few questions for him," answered Lorist.
Lorist had smiled after killing Henriman and asked the little prince whether he would like to send someone to take revenge but the young man was already so terrified that his bladder let loose as he shook his head. Lorist felt there was no point in staying any longer and bid the duke goodbye. Duke Fisablen knew that Lorist already had an inn reserved near the south gate, so he didn't stop him from leaving.
Not far from the gate was an inn called Anna's Abode. It was five storeys tall. The first floor was a tavern and the four above it rooms. Anna's Abode was quite well known in Windbury, not for its service, but for the tragedic story linked to it.
During the fifth emperor's reign, Windbury was a city that had just recently developed its livestock trade. There used to be an old grocer's where Anna's Abode now stood. Its owner's daughter, Anna, was a mute. She was a gentle and sweet girl who frequently took in stray animals and even looked after orphans.
When Anna grew up, she was married to a hard-working young lad and the two ran a humble little grocer together and adopted just over ten orphans as their own. The couple eventually saved up enough money, along with their inheritances to build a two-story building. The lower floor was made into a tavern and the upper floor into rooms which they rented. Because of their sincere and honest service, their business fared rather well and Anna also had more than enough money to rear the stray animals and orphans she so frequently took in. The couple eventually expanded the building to five floors.
Unfortunately, the expansion drew the attention of several greedy nobles. They charged her husband with smuggling, had him arrested, and threatened Anna with his life should she not sell the business and the building to them for one imperial gold coin. She had no choice but to accept.
When they received word of her acceptance, the nobles did indeed return her husband but as a mutilated corpse. Anna's mind crumbled when she saw her husband. She knelt at the city's hall for three days and nights straight before letting out a despairing cry and banging her head against the flag pole's stone base to her death.
During her three-day catatonia, there were thousands of citizens who surrounded the city's hall and offered her food. She touched none of it. She did not move when others advised her to either. The citizens rallied together to make sure the city administration gave a satisfying resolution to Anna's case, but the mayor just holed up in his manor. Unfortunately, before the people could pressure the mayor into taking action, Anna committed suicide.
Her death sparked the first recorded civilian revolt in the empire's history. Countless angry citizens and merchants set fire to the city's hall. They broke into the mayor manor and hung him. When word of the revolt reached the imperial capital, the enraged emperor sent someone to investigate the matter. The most laughable part was that the first ambassador was bought off by the nobles involved in Anna's case. He put the blame for the whole matter on the mayor. The protesters, however, refused to accept this conclusion and flooded the city with armed bands.
In response, the first ambassador ordered the nobles of the province to mobilize their forces and suppress the revolt. The nobles outside the city, however, refused to take action. They were convinced the fault lay not with the citizenry, but the greedy nobles. When word of their refusal reached the emperor, he ordered the imperial family's knights deployed and tasked the brigade's commander with the issue's resolution.
When the knights arrived at Windbury, the armed bands surrendered and opened the city gates right away. They also submitted a letter of complaint that detailed the chain of events and requested the nobles be punished.
Confronted with such a clear statement of fact, the imperial knights took immediate action. They killed all the nobles involved, around two-thirds of the nobles in the province were stripped of both fief and peerage. The first noble ambassador sent to deal with the situation was also hung as a result.
In the history of the Krissen Empire, Windbury's revolt was quite a well-known event. It was also the first confrontation between the imperial family and the rest of the nobility. While the imperial family weren't able to stop the nobles from governing their own territory, they definitely wouldn't allow them to stretch their hands into imperial territory. Windbury and a few other major cities were under the imperial family's control, and the nobles enjoyed decreased tax rates for conducting business there. Their intent to procure the citizen's businesses there was akin to reaching their hand for the imperial family's profits.
Because of the incident, Krissen V suspended many business operations the nobles had in the city and that was why many considered Krissen V's 35-year reign the empire's golden age.
Nowadays, Anna's Abode was run by the couple's relatives and descendants. Even during the second prince's reign after Iblia's founding, nobody dared to reach their hands into the inn's business. To the nobles, the building was a disaster waiting to happen, so the demographic of the inn's customers was dominated by merchants and mercenaries. Almost no nobles bothered to stay there.
Anna's Abode's business had suffered quite a lot in recent years, though. So much so that they were just barely hanging on. Lorist didn't mind, however, and reserved the whole inn to accommodate his entourage.
"Milord, Tarkel and Reidy have been waiting a good while for you," reported Howard.
"Oh, have them come in right away," Lorist said as he wiped his face, "Also, have the servants bring a bathtub and some hot water. I want to soak for a while."
The two soon arrived. They had been at Windbury for two months already, first to set up Furybear's intelligence center, then to check whether the duke had some hidden agenda with the knighthood tournament.
"How are things going?" inquired Lorist.
"Milord. We've united the city's three underworld syndicates into one organization and its new leader has already pledged allegiance to Furybear," Reidy informed, stepping forward.
Lorist pinched his nose.
"The smell of blood on you is thick."
Reidy shrugged, a gesture he picked up from Lorist.
"Had no choice. There were too many that knew too much for their own good. I had to send them back to Singwa's paradise for eternal rest."
Lorist turned his gaze to Tarkel, who reported, "Milord, the one backing Lunika, one of the three syndicates, was Viscount Vizinska. He was a noble from the Southern and in the queen's faction. The queen trusted him deeply. Reidy 'helped' him fall from his horse. He's dead.
The queen thinks her father, Duke Fisablen, had a hand in it and their relationship is rather tense for it. Despite no longer having Viscount Vizinska's support, Lunika thought they could continue their rule on their own merit. Sir Reidy tried to negotiate with them last night but it didn't turn out well. So far, about eight of Lunika's leaders are still alive. Sir Reidy killed the other 34."
"Did Duke Fisablen make any noteworthy moves?"
"Nope, we've been investigating him thoroughly for the past year but we haven't notice House Fisablen doing anything suspicious. The duke's probably genuinely trying to host the tournament. He spent around 50 thousand gold Fordes to demolish the city's slums and built four large, square stadiums for the tournament. Some of our informants have infiltrated the mercenary groups defending the four stadiums and are monitoring everything. They'll report any sudden changes they discover."
"You did well. How are the nobles reacting to the queen and duke's relationship?"
"Apart from the queen taking ten thousand gold Fordes from the duke's pockets after a huge argument, the other nobles obediently cooperated with the duke for this knighthood tournament. While they couldn't provide any funds, they did provide their supervisors and manpower to help out. Some of them even helped the duke with his resource purchases."
"And is the intelligence center set up?"
"We’ve already set up three and none of them know of the other's existence. We can cross check the reports they submit to verify their accuracy. We did encounter some difficulties; we weren’t able to set up messenger-falcon stations. They are too easy to discover and might incite the nobles' greed, who I worry will capture our falcons and sell them. The best solution for this is to set the stations up outside the city at the late Viscount Vizinska's manor. The manor's quite perfect, actually. We can't do it without revealing our identities, though," replied Tarkel.
Messenger falcons were part of the plan, suggested a few years earlier, that involved training falcons to deliver messengers over long distances. After a few years, they were finally able to procure a good breed, which they termed messenger falcons. If a station was set up at Windbury, news could reach the messenger-falcon station at Northsea in a day, as opposed to the dozen it would take for the message to be delivered by horse.
"Aren't there any nobles in the city who support our house?"
"We did not find any, Milord. The nobles here are mostly brain-dead idiots who don't care about what's going on in the outside world. They only care about their meager little plots of land. Their impression of our house is still the same as a few years ago when we attacked the capital and captured the second prince. Basically, they are afraid and distrustful of us."
"Forget it. Let's think of another way. What will you do next?" asked Lorist.
"The plan is to head to Melein after we finish things here," said Tarkel.
A knock on the room's door interrupted -- the servants had arrived with the bathtub and hot water. Reidy brought the tub in and helped mix the water.
Lorist stripped right in front of the two and crawled into the tub before he splashed some water on his face. Reidy rubbed Lorist's back with a clean linen cloth.
"Alright, Reidy, just give it a simple scrub," Lorist said as he placed a cloth over his face, "Tarkel, I saw a few nobles from the four central duchies at the banquet. I'm rather interested in why they came. Check on them during the next few days and go to the four central duchies after the knighthood tournament. Set up intelligence centers there before you go to Melein.
"I have a feeling the four central duchies will become an obstacle. We have to be prepared and understand their intentions as soon as possible. Also, I've already had Josk ask Count Chujway to come over. When he's here, pretend to be an attendant and observe what kind of person he is. I hope he will be sensible and not reject my request."
"Yes, Milord. By your will."