The sound of the carriage wheels gradually faded away as Lorist stood by the windowsill of his room on the fourth floor, looking at the dark alley nearby in silence.
"Milord," Tarkel's voice behind him rang out.
"How does it look?" asked Lorist without turning around.
"Milord, it looks like that Count Chujway didn't tell the complete truth. He said that he had gotten word about our house from the Union and had seen the head pyramid at Hanayabarta for himself, hence his fear. As for the matter of the allied army being deployed at Frederika, he told us a half-truth. His claim that he didn't find the second highness should be true, but the reason they allied up with the Union was probably fake.
"Milord, when I was standing behind him, I could quite clearly see that he would clutch his pants with his left hand under the table when he tensed up. I saw him do that when you asked him about the agreement the four central duchies reached with the Union, and he clutched his pants when he gave his answer where you wouldn't see it.
"He also did the same when he said that he had come to Windbury to see the knighthood tournament. I feel it's rather weird for him to want to lie about a small thing like that though. Perhaps he said that because he knows that you've come over to take Princess Sylvia's hand in marriage and lied because he was afraid because he came for the same reason? Hehe, Milord, I see that you have quite a lot of rivals..." Tarkel knew that his lord wasn't one to fuss over trivial things, so he didn't hold back his laughter.
"Speaking of Princess Sylvia, do you know why she left Windbury in a hurry to go back to the Fisablen dominion?" asked Lorist without turning back.
"I'm not sure, Milord," Tarkel replied, "I heard from a few guards of Duke Fisablen that when the princess left a week ago, she got into a fight with the duke. It's said that it was something about having the duke call the knighthood tournament off, but the duke wasn't willing to do so. The princess went to the queen weeping. But it only ended in another confrontation between the two women, so the princess hurried back to Eastwild with her escort and Blademaster Xanthi. The duke has sent three messengers in the last two days to have her come but he hasn’t heard anything from any of them yet."
"Don't tell me something happened at Eastwild? It can't be, if that were the case, the first one to worry would be that old fox himself. Since he’s still here organizing his knighthood tournament, there shouldn’t be anything wrong in Eastwild."
"I'm sorry, Milord. We were unable to send our informants into Eastwild. This is my mistake," said Tarkel.
"No, it's not your fault. Eastwild is House Fisablen’s dominion and there isn't any large city like Windbury over there. It's no surprise they are able to restrict flow of people into and out of the province. What you need to do is use the month of the tournament to see if you can bribe a few of the duke’s to serve as our eyes and ears."
"Yes, Milord. I will do my best."
"Also, investigate the nobles from the four central duchies. I feel they didn't just come for as simple reason as winning Princess Sylvia's hand in marriage."
"What did you say?!" exclaimed Lorist, shocked.
"It's true, Milord. The Little Prince and his blademaster left with their thousand guards during the night. They even left the four carriages' worth of gifts they had prepared as the princess’ bride price. Duke Fisablen said that since the princess wasn't wedded to any of them, he will give the gifts to you as compensation for your victory at the banquet yesterday. They're going to send them over soon."
“We originally tried to start working our way through the little prince and the counts from Sabaj and Handra’s servants and attendants,” Tarkel continued, standing in front of Lorist, “but they are the quiet and alert types that don't frequent the tavern at all. We weren't able to get any information from them.
"The prince, on the other hand, brought an escort of more than a thousand people, among which
about a hundred were servants and attendants. They were the easiest from which to extract information. All we had to do was force feed them three cups of horse urine and they would let everything loose including how they peeped at their mothers bathing when they were small. But it's too bad that you scared them away yesterday. Count Chujway must've told everyone about the might of our house and caused them to leave during the night."
“Ugh," Lorist groaned, "Whatever. Since the tournament will take place over a month, take your time to get to the servants of the two counts that stayed. Perhaps some of them might accidentally leak something that we need and allow us to understand their reasons for coming. We'll leave it to fate."
At ten in the morning, Duke Fisablen brought the four carriages over to Anna's Abode.
When he saw Lorist, he laughed out and said, "Lord Count, you really surprised me yesterday. I didn't know your house managed to exterminate an entire kingdom. How impressive."
“You praise me too much, Your Grace. It was but a pirate lair that called itself a kingdom despite no nation on the continent acknowledging it. Everyone knows that had it not been for their attack on our dominion, we wouldn't have bothered with them. If it were Your Grace, you wouldn't need to deploy all your forces like we had to; you would only need to send a division to crush them completely. Your conquest of the greater and lesser golden creeks is the achievement truly worthy of awe and praise,” replied Lorist humbly.
His words had obviously struck a good chord with the duke, for he smiled like a blooming flower.
"Haha, not bad, not bad...” the duke chortled, “I'm starting to admire you more and more. Even though you're this young, you are not only quite calm and collected, your personal strength is also worth reckoning with. Very good."
After his generous praise, the duke recalled why he had come.
"Oh, Lord Count..."
"Your Grace, you have seniority. Please just call me Locke. Lord Count is a bit much," interjected Lorist.
“Alright, then I'll call you Locke. Well, it's like this. Since you won the duel yesterday, Little Prince Doke should've given you compensation for your victory. However, I received word that he had to return to the Forund duchy urgently and had no choice but to depart during the night. Before he left, he left the compensation he owed you to me and asked me to apologize for his breach of etiquette on his behalf."
Lorist nodded as he listened to the duke spouting his nonsense like it was what really happened before he praised the duke's trustworthiness for keeping his word. In actuality, both of them knew these were the goods with which the little prince intended to propose to the princess. He had not left them for Lorist, he was just in too much of a hurry and couldn’t take them with him. Them being made compensation for Lorist was purely the duke's doing.
Lorist wondered why the duke bothered to cover up for the little prince. According to Tarkel's report, he had left during the night without even saying farewell. It was said that the duke only found out about the prince's departure in the morning as well and called him a coward in front of his own guards. The gifts packed in the four carriages must have been left behind intentionally as compensation for the duke's troubles, but Lorist was sure that the little prince hoped they would end up in Princess Sylvia’s hands.
So why is the duke giving me these gifts instead? He has no reason to stand up for the little prince and cozy up to me on his behalf. He easily could've kept the gifts for himself and even spread the word that the cowardly prince didn't bother to compensate me for my victory. It would ruin the little prince’s reputation! Don't tell me Duke Fisablen has something he needs from Forund? It can't be, it should be the other way around...
A smile could be seen on his face as Lorist racked his mind over the matter.
“I didn't think Little Prince Doke would be that attentive to noble etiquette, as expected of a prince from Forund. Actually, he could've sent a servant over to pass the message. There was no need to have Your Grace come."
Duke Fisablen's face twitched when he recalled Count Chujway telling them how House Norton exterminated Hanayabarta, had almost everyone, save around 30 thousand young women, beheaded, and used their heads to build a pyramid. Everyone had been completely stunned, some even doubted the truth of the count’s words. Count Chujway swore what he said was entirely true and that he had personally seen the pyramid and had fallen ill for a few days at the sheer terror it inspired. He saw the pyramid every time he closed his eyes and heard the heads snicker and laugh. That was why when the duke saw the man who had ordered such a monument’s construction, he wondered how cruel a man must be to be able to give such an order. It was also the reason he treated Lorist so carefully.
Had it not been for Count Chujway coming to tell me about Little Prince Doke's escape this morning, an escape which would compromise my plan, I wouldn't come over here to clean up the prince's mess for him! What would I do if your forces interfered with my plan?
The duke patted Lorist on the shoulder lightly.
"No worries, there's no need to be so polite. Right now I'm the host and you were willing to spend your precious time to come here to be my guests. Naturally, I have to tend to your needs and solve the problems you have. This is but a simple matter for me to settle.
“The opening ceremony will begin the day after tomorrow and I'm planning to host another banquet before the ceremony. I am inviting all the nobles to attend and pray for the tournament’s success. Locke, you must not turn down my invitation."
"Naturally, Your Grace. I shall most certainly attend."
"Alright. It's a promise. I will send someone to escort you there tomorrow," said the duke, smiling.
The tournament finally began the day after the banquet but Lorist felt a little bored as he could not participate personally. Since he could kill a three-star-gold-ranked knight instantly, it didn’t make sense for him to compete against other gold and silver ranks. Lorist wasn't thick-faced enough to do so either. It was especially the case after the duke secretly made a personal request that Lorist not compete which Lorist agreed to without argument. He could only send his subordinates to participate on his behalf.
The knighthood tournament was rather traditional. It involved archery, swordsmanship, and jousting matches. The archery and jousting matches did not discriminate between battleforce ranks. Gold and silver ranked competitors participated in the same category. The swordsmanship competition, however, separated the two ranks. The separation didn’t hold for the winners of each rank, who could fight one another if the silver winner wished.
Lorist could only bite his teeth when he saw Reidy defeat the silver ranks in his category with one or two moves.
Gah, Reidy's disguising himself as a pig to feast on tigers... Even two-star gold ranks aren't Reidy's match, not to mention these puny silver ranks...
It went without saying that Josk dominated the archery competition. He didn't even have to try hard to win. Originally, there was a good number of those participating in the archery competition were there to try their luck, but they gave up on the notion after seeing a ridiculous anomaly like Josk participating, lest they embarrass themselves unnecessarily.
The jousting matches were the most popular section of the tournament. Apart from the silver-ranked guards, their leader Patt was the first one to be eliminated. Baron Shazin and Baron Felim both won nine straight rounds and had already qualified for the next phase. As for Els, he was resting near the stadium. He had already won six rounds and only needed three more victories to qualify as well.
The jousting matches’ rules were mostly similar to that of the normal duels. Participants had to own a knight's badge and bring their own mounts, armor, lances on spears as well as a longsword or some other secondary arm. Only after being checked could one participate. Should one lose in battle, one would have to surrender their mount and equipment to their opponent or pay a ransom of equal value. However, one could participate again after a loss if one was rich enough.
The o e who had been faring the worst among Lorist’s group was a guard named Loji. A two-star silver rank, he had already lost four times successively. As his equipment belonged to the house, he could not surrender them and had to pay the ransom out of his own pocket. Given that the armor was appraised at 100 gold Fordes, Loji owed 350 gold Fordes already.
Seriously, even though he knows he isn’t capable, he still wants to compete... Is he trying to give away money for free? thought Lorist angrily.
He forbade those who lost once from participating again.
"How many other guards owe money?" asked Lorist.
"One hundred... One hundred and forty one..." answered Patt with a troubled expression.
"What?!" Lorist stuttered, "Why are there so many?"
"Milord, well," Patt lowered his head and explained, "Apart from ten or so who lost in the first match because of bad luck, the rest lost after winning a few rounds. However, the value of the equipment they wore caused them to be in debt despite their former victories..."
Good Sol, thought Lorist, the ones my guard defeats only own equipment that amount to roughly 40 gold Fordes, but they have to pay out 100 gold Fordes if they lose... It's no wonder so many received challenges, even some gold-ranked knights shamelessly challenged my silver-ranked guards... With them getting a hundred gold Fordes for each win, they're treating me like a money tree, aren't they?
"Those who wish to compete aren't be allowed to use the equipment of the house!" declared Lorist.
"Milord," Tarkel called out as he arrived in front of Lorist, "We discovered that Duke Fisablen's subordinates are recruiting the knights that lost all their equipment and gold coins."
"Oh?" Lorist wondered with frustration, knighthood tournaments like this are the ideal place to recruit household knights, however, one would usually recruit those who performed well. What would Duke Fisablen gain from recruiting those who lost?
"Do you know why?"
"I think they're not recruiting household knights, but rather people to join the Fisablen army. They will only gain a chance to be promoted to the position of a household knight after five years of good service," replied Tarkel.
Since it was just normal soldier recruitment, Lorist wasn't too concerned.
“What about the two counts from the four central duchies? Have they been making any moves?"
"Count Dalek participated in the jousting section and so far has a win streak of nine. He’s waiting for the next phase to begin. Count Chujway hasn’t participated. It seems he’s only here to support Count Dalem. He seems to be acting normally even in private. Other than that, the messenger Duke Fisablen sent to Eastwild is back. It seems Princess Sylvia still isn't willing to come over. The duke broke a gold chalice when he heard the news. There's also other, rather bad, news, Milord..."
"Out with it!"
"Did Milord notice a gold-ranked knight competing right now who moves rather familiarly? Your commander, Sir Loze, snuck into Windbury secretly to participate in the tournament. To prevent you from noticing, he’s wearing his own weapons and armor. Had it not been for the golden tiger insignia on his armor, I might not have even taken note of him since he is lumped together with the other wandering or freelance knights in the tent in the far corner of the
"Good... Good Sol!" Lorist cried out before gritting his teeth, "After returning to the inn tonight, I
want to see this fellow who's showing off at the stadium before me!"