"Most schemes of political improvement are laughable things." ~ Norton Lorist
"What?! The second highness broke through to become a blademaster?"
After some thought, Lorist instantly came to an understanding. So the second highness had been cooped up in his palace for the past two years because he was making a breakthrough. No wonder he hadn't bothered to take advantage of the conflict between the Union and the mid-southern nations.
Charade took out a greyish-white silk cloth filled with words.
"Your Grace, this is the eagle message we received from the imperial capital. It says the second highness ended his seclusion three days ago. First, he secretly had an audience with most of his subordinates and officials to gain an understanding of the situation of the kingdom before he announced he had broken through to become a rank 1 blademaster. He will hold a large banquet in celebration tomorrow."
Lorist received the cloth, and tossed it aside after reading it.
"I wonder if he is a favored child of the plane... He has a freaking pest's vigor and won't die no matter how he's beaten. Although it seems like things are going south for him, he just pops up energetically out of nowhere and starts causing trouble. I was wondering why he was behaving so well when he was cooped up in the palace. I didn't think he had actually broken through and become a blademaster."
Charade, having spent lots of time with Lorist, knew he was referring to the second highness as a cockroach but he still asked out of curiosity.
"Your Grace, what is this 'favored child of the plane'?"
"Well, it doesn't mean anything complicated. Word is that there are some people exceptionally lucky across the multiple planes. No matter what danger they encounter, they will emerge safely and even make unexpected gains. For example, during a time of chaos, there will be a few exceptionally lucky people who manage to start great upheavals. Such people would eventually be known as legendary heroes. There are some who call them the plane's favored children. It's like they are loved by the plane on which they live itself."
"Oh," Charade mused, "He's considered a plane's favored child? I don't buy it. If not for the fact that you gave him Whitelion's equipment and the funds he needed ánd mobilized our troops to restore him to the throne, I doubt he could have regained his position. I told you he's not one to sit around and do nothing. I wonder how gleeful he must be now he's broken through to being a blademaster. Our peace will soon be disrupted."
Lorist nodded with a smile.
"It doesn't matter. Whether the second highness is a blademaster is irrelevant. He's a smart fellow. He won't target us. The same can't be said for the duchies and the Union. He might soon deploy his troops to reclaim a few provinces while the Union's at war. We just have to wait for the plot to unfold, though."
"You think the second highness will really mobilize?"
"Of course. It's been three years since he reclaimed his throne. I'm surprised he hasn't deployed his troops even once in the past three years. Though he spent most of his time training in seclusion, he did manage to succeed. Now the kingdom's situation is stable and his subordinates and troops have become rather well-trained, and, given how the Union won't want to fight a war on two fronts, there is no way this king won't cause trouble. His advancement will only make his attacks even more ferocious."
However, Lorist's guess was mistaken. Three days later, he received another eagle message from the imperial capital.
"What? The second highness will survey the kingdom? What the hell is he doing? Isn't this the time to mobilize his legions and reclaim the provinces? For him to survey the kingdom at a time like this... Is this really the second highness we know? He couldn't be an impostor, could he?"
Lorist was completely flabbergasted. He even suspected the second highness had been replaced. It wasn't weird for him to spend two years cooped up in the palace, neither was it odd for him to want to survey the kingdom afterwards. But, the eagle message staid he wasn't going to survey the provinces under his control. Instead, he was going to visit Sidgler, Delamock, Winston, and Southern.
What in the world is this bastard planning?
Sidgler was House Kenmays's dominion and Delamock and Winston territories of House Norton according to the agreement signed between the alliance and the second highness. Southern was Count Felim's domain. Why didn't the second highness survey the provinces under his control? Why was he going to go to places not under his jurisdiction? Lorist definitely wasn't going to believe the second highness didn't have something else in mind. Maybe he regretted the contract and believed he had better bargaining power now he had become a blademaster. If that were so, Lorist wouldn't mind teaching him a lesson. Rank 1 blademaster aside, he wouldn't even regard rank 3 blademasters. But, after some thought, he believed the second highness wouldn't be so irrational as to put up airs in front of him just because he had become a blademaster. Lorist had defeated Xanthi a rank three blademaster in front of the second highness' own eyes.
"Did the second highness make any other odd moves?"
Charade read the letter again. He shook his head.
"None, Your Grace. He only announced he was going to survey these four provinces. I wonder why he didn't include The Northlands. Is he planning something against us?"
"Impossible," Lorist said as he stood up and went to the map on the wall to check out the route announced.
"Based on the might he currently has, going against us is a pipe dream. No noble would answer his call. They aren't idiots. If the second highness really thinks they will rally behind him just because he's a blademaster, he wouldn't be the second highness we know. Also, there's no way he'd make his moves this public if he's truly going against us. I suspect he has other intentions. He didn't announce he would survey The Northlands, since Delamock and Winston are under our control, it won't be out of the ordinary for us to send a squad in the name of escorting him. He's our king after all. We'll make out what he's planning when we follow along."
"Who will you send?" asked Charade.
Logically speaking, Lorist was the most appropriate person to receive the second highness. However, he couldn't be bothered with meeting him, especially after the breakup between the second highness and Glacia. Lorist was filled with more animosity towards the little king than ever before. It wasn't unwarranted either. Glacia had followed the second highness into the battlefield at the tender age of 18. Not only had she been loyal, she had even been his lover. But they broke up after spending 20 years together. Not only was it uncalled for, it showed the second highness's hostility towards the house. Perhaps it was out of concern of House Norton that the second highness refused to let Glacia become queen.
"Do you want me to go?" Charade thought he was suited for receiving the king given his status as baron and the house's chief knight and administrator.
Lorist shook his head.
"You won't do. Don't forget your identity."
"What about my identity?"
"You're a gold-ranked knight. I'm worried he will ask you to spar with him. Given that he's now a blademaster, he won't have much trouble showing off in front of you. And since you can't really refuse him, I don't want to see you return with a missing limb or two. It's not like I can avenge you if he claims it was a sparring accident. That would be really troublesome."
What Lorist was describing wasn't without precedent. When Duke Loggins went to pay the second prince, a visit, his gold-ranked knight was messed with by the second prince's blademaster. In name, the blademaster claimed it was merely to give pointers. But it was actually a planned humiliation. It made the duke lose a lot of face and even think several times over making his duchy independent, ultimately his house was exterminated.
There was a good chance Charade would be challenged to a duel in front of the other nobles so the second highness could show off his abilities. Losing face was not really a huge deal -- the second highness wouldn't dare go too far -- but, given Charade's poor swordsmanship, the worst result would be him suffering wounds. It was quite likely the second highness would deliberately try to wound him knowing how important he was to the house. He would excuse himself by saying he was still unable to control his power after just breaking through and make it up to Lorist for heavily wounding Charade. Even if Lorist wanted to lash out, he wouldn't be able to and would have to swallow the loss.
"What if I have my father-in-law go along?"
Again, Lorist shook his head.
"Forget it. Even Engelich can't protect you. The second highness has other blademasters as well. What was that guy called... The one I met when I went to save Reidy... Manst or something... I think he's a rank 2 blademaster. If you bring Engelich along, he would have to face Manst if he stands up for you. Since the second highness definitely can't face Engelich, he will have good reason to duel a gold-ranked knight.
"I have a good candidate in mind," said Lorist as he pulled on the rope connected to the bell.
"Jinolio, where's Reidy now?"
"Your Grace, First Senior Brother went to Firmrock to check on Second Senior Brother."
"Send an eagle. Have Reidy come over. I have something I need him to do."
"Understood, Your Grace."
"You plan to let Reidy go?"
"Yes. Don't look down on him just because he's a silver rank. His training in my technique allows his swordsmanship to rival that of a rank 1 blademaster, maybe even exceed it. If the second highness wants to mess with him, he'll definitely be in for a pain. And Reidy is my personal disciple, no one can say I haven't honored the second highness. I'll just have Reidy take a thousand guards along so others can't say I didn't do what was due. Pajik is a three-star silver shielder so the second highness won't cause trouble for him. Also, you can prepare a gift for the second highness to congratulate him for his breakthrough."
"Understood, Your Grace."
Three days later, Reidy and Pajik took a thousand guards to Vanades in Delamock to await the second highness's arrival before escorting him around for his tour.
Lorist pushed the matter to the back of his mind and stopped caring. As a result, Kenmays hurriedly brought a squad of men to Ragebear ten days later.
"Why have you come? Wasn't the second highness going to survey your dominion?" asked Lorist curiously.
"Don't even bring it up. That guy's there to show off. I have no intention of meeting him," said Kenmays angrily.
"He asked your gold-ranked knight for a duel?"
"That's fine, right? What's wrong with a gold-ranked knight losing? If he can't defeat one after breaking through, it would truly be a joke. Also, why are you avoiding him?"
"It's no big deal if my household knight loses. The problem is His Majesty hasn't come to us just for a duel. He's here to have us deploy our forces."
"Deploy? Against the Union?"
"No, against the four central duchies."
Lorist's eyes sparked. The second highness had been targeting the four central duchies all along. No wonder his route was so weird. Going through Southern and attacking the four central duchies truly was unexpected, but there were lots of benefits. Mainly, after supporting House Fisablen and fighting the four houses, they had suffered a huge loss and hadn't recovered yet. This would be a good opportunity to exploit.
An attack from Southern would also come out of nowhere. Even though the four duchies had already withdrawn their troops, they were still quite tight on the border. But, since they knew the four houses were more concerned with House Fisablen, they weren't in a rush to attack in fear of House Fisablen launching a surprise attack out of nowhere. After all, the duke bore the moniker Wargod of the Plains. The four houses wouldn't dare be so careless.
The part where the four central duchies faced the second highness was the swamp around Egret Lake. It was not suited to offensives since the four central duchies had greatly fortified the defenses there and even built a fort. As for the border between the duchies and the two southern provinces, they neighbored the Union. One would have to first breach Kanbona, Bodolger, and Anderwoff before one could push the duchies' border. It was a much longer route.
It appeared the second highness intended to first take care of the duchies as the Union fought their war before reclaiming the empire's provinces the Union took a few years earlier. Given that the Union was caught up in another conflict, they couldn't provide support to the duchies. Since the kingdom had the strategic location at their borders facing the Union, the second highness could transfer Whitelion to Southern and attack the duchies without anyone noticing. He obviously wanted House Kenmays's forces to join the offensive.
"Did you agree?"
"No. I managed to avoid him with the excuse of having gone to Northsea to meet a lover. My father was the one who received him and he didn't agree to anything either. He just said he would consider it. The moment His Majesty left, I rushed over here to meet you and hear your thoughts."
"Alright, I have to think this over."