"A lord's worst enemies are not his rivals — they are his in-laws." ~ excerpt from Principles of Nobility by Duke Fisablen
"Be more wary of your in-laws than your mortal enemy. You at least know what your enemy has in mind — you have no such certainty with your in-laws." ~ excerpt from Treatises on War by Norton Lorist
Howard stood with Tarkel before Lorist and said, "Milord, the results of the investigation are in."
Lorist handed a signed document to Charade, his face stone cold.
"Tell me who had a part in this."
Howard opened the blue folder and took out a piece of paper.
"Knight Ziwek's wife, Lady Moya, Supervisor Youkiz's wife Seshla, Miss Krado and Knight Lambord's wife, Lady Darley. They are the ones who visited the Malek household the most. As Milord said, they visit at least three times a week with the express aim of getting on Madam Malek's good side. They all used to be Irina's maidservants from Maplewoods. Even Supervisor Youkiz was a bastide servant."
"What's going on with Ziwek and Lambord? Why have they taken Irina's maidservants as wives?"
Lorist snapped his quill in fury and dropped it. He recalled that the knights used to be refugees. They had joined the northbound convoy. They served as guards and were eventually taken in as household knights when they broke through to the silver rank and made captains of Firmrock regiments. Lambord was even going to be promoted to major for his contributions.
"Ziwek and Lambord were guards when they got to know their wives. They had asked Irina for the hands of her maidservants in marriage, but were refused. Four years ago when Young Master Lysecott was sent to Baron Malek's manor, Madam Irina agreed to the proposals. Their wives asked them to move to Redriver, which is near Baron Malek's manor.
"I recall Ziwek had boasted in a tavern that his new wife was really attentive. Firmrock was stationed in Redriver at the time, so the move wasn't an issue. He said his wife sold her house in Felicitas to move to Redriver because she wasn't willing to stay far away from him. So, moving would make it more convenient to visit her when he was off duty. After Madam Malek was acquainted with the two, and Supervisor Youkiz's wife, the visits became more frequent and they would often have tea and snacks together.
"The informants in charge of recording Young Master Lysecott daily life didn't notice anything untoward. Since they were wives of household knights, they also tried not to pry too deep and avoided them. As a result, they didn't keep a close eye on their interactions with the young lord. When I went to investigate, the two informants only recalled that the ladies seemed to have a good relationship with him."
Tarkel's became quieter as he spoke. It was a huge blunder. Lorist had strictly ordered that Irina not be allowed to interfere with Lysecott's growth and education, yet a small detour was enough to continue with her meddling without anyone noticing. Had it not been for his suspicions, no one would have known. This was a slight on Tarkel, who was put in charge of the house's intelligence network.
"Who is this Supervisor Youkiz?"
Howard checked the folder.
"Youkiz used to be Maplewoods servant, He was a favorite of Supervisor Hansk. His first wife was also a bastide servant. She died in childbirth. Youkiz is a responsible and reliable fellow who does what he is told properly.
"After Young Master Lysecott was brought to Baron Malek's household, Supervisor Hansk suggested Madam Irina let the kitchen's chief maid, Seshla, marry Youkiz as his second wife. At the same time, they made him the chief supervisor of the servants working across eight different manors and used it as an excuse to acquaint him with Madam Malek. Given his wife's culinary talent, Madam Malek invited her over frequently. Lambord and Ziwek's wives were also introduced to Madam Malek through Seshla."
"That's enough!" Lorist roared as he slammed his table.
Documents, a few ink bottles, and some utensils fell to the ground.
"Very impressive. They managed to weave such a huge net without anyone noticing. It's no wonder Lysecott didn't change at all. He even learned how to put up a front..."
Lorist paced around in the study. Charade, Tarkel, and Howard remained silent. They knew the flames of wrath burned in Lorist and they didn't know when they would explode.
"Chief Supervisor Charade, how do you think we should deal with this?"
"Your Grace, is there a need to go so far? You've already all but disinherited Young Master Lysecott. As for Lambord and Ziwek, they are entirely unaware of this. Even Supervisor Youkiz is just a loyal and honest servant.
"This is a conspiracy of their wives under instructions by Irina. No one in the house will accept the punishment of innocent bystanders. Even if it is by your order. If you punish their wives—" Charade paused, "—Your Grace, they are not wrong to worry about Young Master Lysecott. There is no good excuse to punish them. Instead, this would affect your reputation and become a scandal..."
Charade was right. This was not something that could be brought up publicly. No matter who it was, they would believe Irina was only looking out for her son, which was only to be expected.
Lorist continued his pacing, dissatisfied.
"Charade, transfer Ziwek, Lambord, and Youkiz to Hanayabarta for ten years starting next year's 5th month."
For the second time in his life, and the second time in as many weeks, Lorist was exiling people under him in all but name. Hanayabarta was far from the continent, at least a month removed by sea. Charade shook his head exasperatedly. He did not protest, however, he knew there was no further compromise to be made.
"By your command, Your Grace. How shall we treat them?"
"Like everyone else," Lorist replied, before he turned to Tarkel, "The house will likely not deploy any forces for the next two years. We need to let our forces rest and recuperate. It's okay to relax foreign intelligence a little. I need you to help Howard set up an internal security department. First, we have to deal with the various relations within our dominion. Give me a list of everyone who has close relations and frequent contact with the bastide. I'm sure Hanayabarta will appreciate a few more helping hands."
"Understood, Your Grace," replied Howard and Tarkel together.
"Your Grace shouldn't cause such a ruckus over this," Charade advised when the two had left the study.
Lorist sat down and clutched his head.
"Sigh, you don't understand. I already knew something was off when so many people opposed my marriage to Sylvia. The net was woven right under my nose without my noticing. I am shocked. I never expected the little birdie to grow into such an ambitious and scheming wench..."
Charade kept his mouth shut, pretending he hadn't heard anything. After all, this was one of those family matters Lorist was so touchy on. He considered it wholly inappropriate and unacceptable for anyone else to have an opinion.
Lorist looked at Charade's feigned ignorance and laughed.
"That's why I want to cut off all her tentacles. She really doesn't understand what's at stake. She dared to use her maidservants to rope in my household knights. Since she likes it so much, I'll let her weave her net in Hanayabarta.
"You don't have to pretend you can't hear me. I need you to keep an eye on them. Have Howard and Tarkel first investigate the staff in Cherry Blossom Ridge. I don't want anyone with any connections, even if they're two degrees separated through family or friends, with the bastide or anyone in the bastide. Same goes for anyone brought up the ranks by Hansk. Move them somewhere else. I want nothing that can endanger Anderbael or Sylvia anywhere near them."
"Understood, Your Grace," Charade nodded.
Lorist finally sat back down.
"New year's is in a few days, our celebration will start soon. I bet Felim, Kenmays, and Hennard will arrive tomorrow. Is everything ready?"
"Don't worry, Your Grace. We're more than prepared. They might not stay in the mansion, though. Their private manors were recently completed in the special noble sector. Naturally, Duke Kenmays's is the grandest in the city. Rumour has it he plans to host non-stop banquets all through the winter after our new year's celebration ends."
"He's always like that. He loves enjoying himself and making merry. He could maintain another legion with the money he splurges on banquets and feasts."
Lorist sometimes envied Kenmays's hedonistic life. He didn't have any worries at all. Apart from running the salt merchant committee, he didn't have to deal with anything as Lorist took care of everything else. There was nothing Kenmays had to fear.
Year 1784 soon arrived. The house held a grand celebration which lasted for seven days straight. It was the first celebration in two years, so there was quite a bit of ceremony to get out of the way. The duchy had 14 new landed barons and seven honorary barons to enfeoff and entitle. There were also a hundred foreign honorary nobles who'd converted their titles in the last two years.
The house hosted a second banquet after the first ended. Howard and Katrina were the guests of honor this time. Everyone was celebrating their marriage. Felim had declared in front of everyone in attendance that he was giving a new viscounty around Boblige to his daughter. Thi enraged Duke Fisablen and made all the other nobles envious. Luckily the old man kept himself under control and didn't cause a ruckus.
Lorist had not expected the duke to head to The Northlands to attend the celebration, but it wasn't an unpleasant surprise. It wasn't like he could stop him anyway. Even Sylvia couldn't keep him from coming — he was playing the role of Xanthi's chaperone. The girl had no desire to see the old man, but she had little choice but to exchange pleasantries with him. She was still very close to her adoptive mother, but the woman's tense relationship with her husband troubled her.
The whole thing was awkward for Lorist. He had to be polite during the war for the sake of appearances and to keep military cooperation going smoothly. That, and he couldn't be seen to be disobeying his king's orders to get along with his rival. They had helped each other out a few times but he still considered House Fisablen his greatest threat.
What made things even more awkward was that the old man had switched gears completely with Anderbael's birth. He no longer acted like the rival proper as he should; he was now a pitous grandfather-in-law. The sudden and extreme changed completely unnerved Lorist. The only thing he could do to ease his discomfort was to mock the old man for his thick skin. He couldn't believe his rival was now suddenly acting like his senior. Even so, it wasn't like he could chase him away. He gave in and welcomed them with a smile and hospitality.
His visit wasn't just awkwardness, though; he brought with him a two million gold Forde order. He couldn't be bamboozled as he had been last time, however. He absolutely refused to purchase anything at the five-fold increase in price he had to with their last transaction. He demanded market price and wouldn't accept a copper more. If Lorist couldn't satisfy him he would make the deal with Auguslo instead.
The king had just reclaimed eleven provinces. Territories like Handra, Forund, and Farkel had pretty developed handcraft industries where daily necessities could be produced. Though Lorist had swept Farkel's craftsmen clean, if Fisablen really gave the order to him, it would spur the economy on and the king would benefit a lot.
He's a real fox, that bastard, thought Lorist.
House Fisablen's submission and return to the kingdom had completely ruined his plans.
He knew the Duke Fisablen had offered the order as a gesture of friendship. Kenmays was chomping at the bit to close the deal. They wouldn't make as much out of it as they had last time, but it was still 400 thousand clean profit.
This wasn't the only hit the duke would get in on him, though. They had barely finished talking about the first order when the duke hit with his second offer. He offered to allow the salt merchant committee to send an annual convoy to the eastern plains to trade directly with the barbarians. He would obviously handle the convoy's security, but other than that he would have minimal involvement.
Kenmays almost wanted to bite off Lorist's leg so he could run around hugging it all day. His eyes bled the blood-wine mixture in his veins.
"Do you have any idea how much money we'll get from this?"
Lorist kicked the leech away.
"Fine, you win. I agree."