"Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of the gods upon the children of disobedience." ~ A long lost holy scripture.
No one expected the second highness would cause so much commotion during his survey.
"Your Grace, His Majesty organized a large banquet at Kobo yesterday. He invited all the landed nobles we entitled. He didn't poach the nobles under our jurisdiction but promised those who were willing to pitch in to help the kingdom's war against the four central duchies would receive great rewards. They might even get promoted and have their dominions relocated," recited Charade the letter Reidy had sent.
Lorist didn't react at all. Charade looked at the letter again and digested its contents.
"Your Grace, if the Delamockan nobles are willing to go to battle for the second highness, what stance will we take?"
"Let them be," Lorist said as he stood up from the couch, "Such Nobles can only take around one or two hundred men. What help would they be? They might, in fact, make some contributions and be promoted and relocated, but isn't that a good thing? At the very least, we'll get their dominions back."
Lorist wasn't off the mark in that sense. Most of the current Delamockan nobles were relocated from The Northlands and Winston. House Norton only had them under control, unlike nobles entitled by the house as vassals like Potterfang and Charade, basically an extension of the house.
Delamock was a province controlled by the house. Like Winston, Lorist could entitle landed nobles or relocate others there. But he couldn't make the territory of the province his own. And though the second highness was the king, while he could promote those nobles, he couldn't increase the territory they occupied as it was power reserved for those in direct control of a province. All he could do was relocate the nobles and give them dominions elsewhere, taking the nobles under his direct rule out of the areas Lorist controlled.
As Lorist had put it himself, he couldn't be more willing to let the second highness do just that. If he relocated the landed nobles, the territory left behind could be used to entitle new nobles and increase the number of his direct vassals. It would only serve to increase his house's influence. Not only was it a good thing, it also decreased the number of unpredictable variables with which he had to deal. However, such good things never fell from the sky. It was no longer the time when a knight with a hundred scattered soldiers could be considered a strong force. Those who rushed to answer the second highness's call were only going to become meat for the grinder.
"That's true, let's see how many the second highness can rile up. I believe they'll begin to hate this king after they suffer huge losses on the frontlines. Without our forces, those nobles won't be able to glean any benefit by tagging along," snickered Charade.
The second highness's tour progressed quickly. He stayed for just a day in Shazin's dominion before heading straight for Winston. Similarly, he held a banquet there and offered the same call to arms. The second highness's promise was received with loud cheers. The Madrasan nobles felt rather beaten by the demotion and decrement of their territory, and the second highness had come to give them a chance to rebuild their glorious names. They couldn't wait to grab the chance.
On the 29th day of the 11th month, the second highness reached House Felim's dominion in Southern. After some talks, he casually went to the border where Firmrock was for a visit before he returned to the imperial capital. Though Felim offered to accompany the second highness, the latter refused politely. He wasn't going to bring many people with him; he was going to make a quick trip with ten knights. Since Reidy and the thousand guards were by the second highness's side, and given how safe the border was with Firmrock there, Felim didn't mind and wished him a smooth trip.
"What did you say?! The second highness rushed into Eastwild, House Fisablen's dominion, with only ten knights?!" Lorist jumped with surprise.
The news was far too surprising.
Charade smiled bitterly.
"It's true. We are all dumbfounded. Reidy wanted to enter Eastwild with the guards but he was stopped by Potterfang. They are now awaiting your orders."
Lorist was seething.
"How did Reidy allow that to happen? Why didn't he stop the second highness?"
Charade looked at the silk cloth letter in his hand.
"Nobody could have predicted this. The second highness acted completely normally. After he arrived at the border, he checked out the defenses before he dragged Potterfang along and talked about the tactics we had used to retake Southern. In the afternoon, he discovered a herd of wild goats and said he wanted to add something to the night's dinner. He didn't allow Reidy to follow him, saying it'd scare the goats away. He rode forward with his ten-odd attendants. It was near evening and they quickly vanished. By the time Reidy and Potterfang realized something was off, the second highness was already long gone."
"Wait a second, what about the goats?"
Charade didn't know whether he should laugh or not.
"What does this have to do anything? They're fine. Reidy realized something was off because the goats were completely undisturbed."
Lorist's expression was dark.
"The fact that the wild goats are fine means the second highness was merely looking for an excuse to leave, nothing surprising. It must've been something he's plotted for a while now. His visit to Southern and going over the tactics with Potterfang as well as his desire to hunt the goats are all excuses. I suspect his rallying of the nobles for the war against the four central duchies is nothing but a front he put up to divert our attention to ultimately allow him to enter Fisablen's dominion."
"But, but Your Grace, even though House Fisablen has signed an armistice with our alliance, the kingdom is still their enemy! Isn't the second highness serving himself up on a platter and seeking his death? Even if he's now a rank 1 blademaster, Duke Fisablen's rank 3. It would be far too easy for him to take the second highness's life!"
Charade didn't understand what was going on. Lorist leaned into his chair heavily and breathed a heavy sigh.
"You don't understand. He's not in the slightest bit of danger by going into House Fisablen's dominion. There's no way the duke will harm him. After all, the second highness is still a king. If House Fisablen really harmed him and became kingslayers, we could completely ignore the armistice and uproot them in the name of avenging the king. That old fox will not give us such an opportunity.
"I'm worried about why the second highness went to Fisablen without telling us. Is he going to start opposing us? It would be a valid reason for him to team up with Fisablen. With one in the east and the other in the west, there's no need for us to worry about them if they're not working together. But it'll be troublesome if they join hands. No, I have to head to the border immediately to see if there's something I can do to fix this."
Lorist grit his teeth. He really felt an urge to kill. If he could stop the second highness and the rest in Eastwild, he wouldn't mind killing them all and blaming House Fisablen before using it as justification to ignore the armistice and destroy them.
Since you're dense enough to take me for granted, don't blame me for not holding back. Even though you're king, you always have your eyes on me. You can't blame anyone for your misfortune if you actively seek death.
As Lorist saw it, the second highness was obviously trying to get House Fisablen to work together with him. As for who they were joining up against, it couldn't be more obvious. Who else was there apart from him? Since that was the case, he believed the one who struck first would have the advantage. He didn't really hold the taboo other nobles did against kill kings. If he managed to kill them all in Eastwild, who would be left alive to tell the tale? Since House Fisablen would be there to bear the blame, what was there to fear?
"But, Your Grace, it's already the end of the 11th. Winter is upon us and even if we deploy our troops, it'll be too late."
"There's no need to deploy. I will head there alone. I'll first stay with Firmrock for a few days to see if there's any lead I can follow."
"No, Your Grace, you can't go alone," Charade warned, his hand holding Lorist's sleeve, "You are the Duke of The Northlands and head of the house. You can't take this kind of risk! The new year's celebration will take place in a month and you cannot be absent! Otherwise, everyone will be unnerved..."
"It doesn't matter if I'm not there. It's not like we're going to entitle anyone."
"No, Your Grace, you really can't go."
A knock on the door interrupted their back and forth. Jinolio entered.
"Your Grace, there's a message from Firmrock."
The second letter said the second highness left Potterfang a note in his tent. The note asked them to not panic and said he had indeed left for House Fisablen. E asked Potterfang to not worry about his safety. The second highness mentioned that he had taken Blademaster Xanthi as his teacher and that he could break through thanks to her acute teachings. He had wanted to send Xanthi back to House Fisablen and would stay there for the winter and return the rainy season. Nobody had to be sent after him.
Upon reading the letter, Lorist's anger subsided. He really felt he had brought it upon himself. Why did he have to leave Xanthi in the second highness's care? It would've been much better to lock her up in a dungeon somewhere in his dominion.
I didn't think the second highness would take that old witch as his teacher and even break through. He must've been goaded to go. I'm really making one misstep after another. It's all my fault for not noticing the subtle changes.
With this in the picture, it was even more troubling to cause trouble for the second highness. Duke Fisablen, the old witch, the second highness, and Manst were all blademasters. Going into their headquarters, Crouchtiger Castle, alone was a fool's errand. He'd lost all intent on heading to Eastwild on his own.
"Tell Potterfang I've been informed. He doesn't have to deal with the second highness anymore. Have Reidy sent back as well. Don't let him wait there like an idiot."
"Understood, Your Grace," said Jinolio before he left.
"What will be our next move?" asked Charade.
"Now we prepare," Lorist said, "We'll use generals to deal with soldiers like we use mud to deal with water. I'd like to see what the second highness can do with House Fisablen. I don't mind wiping them out if they force our hand. We'll strike whoever lashes out first."
Ten days later, Felim and Shazin rushed over. Kenmays -- who had just received the letter -- also made his way over as quickly as possible. They were there to participate in the new year's celebration and to discuss the second highness' sudden visit to House Fisablen and how it would affect them.
"I believe Lorist's guess is correct. It's obvious the second highness is trying to recruit Duke Fisablen by going there and taking the house under his wing. Though we don't know what kind of price the second highness will pay to win the duke's loyalty, with Blademaster Xanthi guiding him, he will succeed. The duke's submission will also cause his reputation to soar," surmised Kenmays acutely.
"Do you think that the second highness's rallying of the landed nobles is merely a ruse to distract us from his true goal to visit Fisablen?" asked Shazin.
"I'm not too sure. I didn't meet him when he came to my dominion after all," said Kenmays as he shook his head.
Lorist's eyes brightened.
"Hennard, did the second highness promise you anything when he made his request?"
"He did. he said if we exterminated the four central duchies, I would free to pick a province as my hereditary dominion. He also said he'd make me a duke."
Lorist then looked at Felim.
"He said he would promote me to duke and make Southern my hereditary dominion instead of most of it being merely in my control."
Charade shook his head on the side.
"Our king is behaving like he always does. He's still promising things that don't belong to him."
"Are you persuaded?" asked Lorist.
"If it were only that, I wouldn't even bother with him. But he pointed out that the bottleneck to Southern's development was the lack of manpower. If we attack the duchies, we can bring in large numbers of people to develop the province. I'm a little tempted, but I'm still considering my options," answered Felim.
"I'm tempted," Shazin admitted, "You know I'm not into developing my dominion. But can still gain wealth through pillaging in war and it's really attractive. I was hoping to claim a mine or quarry as well. My descendants can only really have enough wealth if I did. The two silver mines and the copper mine in Sanderson Hills produces a tad too little..."
It wasn't wrong to say House Shazin was the most financially tight of them all. After taking Sanderson Hills as his dominion, Shazin was surprised to find that the mines' annual profit totaled just 300 thousand gold Fordes. While other landed nobles would consider it a fortune, for someone with a huge force like him, it was just barely enough to cover his military expenses. Had it not been for the bonuses Kenmays often gave him, he would have to consider downsizing his military.
"What about you?" Lorist asked Kenmays.
"Father says the second highness promised to let us trade unobstructed across the kingdom and he would even halve all our taxes for three years if we agreed to deploy our troops. I don't really mind since my title can no longer be raised and our house has already occupied the whole of Sidgler. Even though it's rural, it's safe and we don't have much ambition anyway. Starting new trade routes across the kingdom isn't appealing either and I can't be bothered by the meager tax savings I'll get. I'd rather he lock up our trade routes. I can simply travel by sea to access other areas for even better profits. But his offer is extremely attractive to the house's business my father runs. He wrote to me and hoped I would agree."
Lorist contemplated in silence.
"I believe the second highness wasn't lying about going to war with the duchies just to hide the fact he was planning on visiting Fisablen. First, he offered all of you different, but alluring, rewards. Second, he also made similar offers to the nobles. If he was lying about it, he would default on his promise and his reputation would fall greatly. But now he's gone to Fisablen, I can't really be sure what he's planning. It'd be best if we talk about this again when he comes back. There's no point in panicking now. I will meet him personally when the time comes."