"Conspiracies are the life-blood of nobility and the fairy tales of peasantry." ~ Unknown

Duke Fisablen revealed himself to the pair. He stood clad in a nightgown and slippers. Had no weapon. It looked like he two had just gotten out of bed to take a stroll.

Lorist patted Jinolio's shoulder.

"Why are you here?" he asked.

"Haha, I couldn't sleep. I decided to come out for a walk. The moon is beautiful tonight. I wandered over without realizing," the duke answered sincerely.

Lorist pouted slightly and glared at the duke oddly.

Who are you kidding, old man? Your villa is three buildings away. You're telling me you wondered by three buildings to my particular garden by happenstance, without noticing? And did so whilst avoiding my guards? Is this your idea of a casual walk? It's blindingly obvious you want to talk to me in secret.

"Let's head to the study."

Jinolio looked like a brute, but actually had quite sharp senses and a strong wit. He entered the study first and lit the candles before closing the curtains.

"Does Your Grace need anything else?"

"Bring us food… and a few bottles of wine from the cellar. You may rest thereafter, it's getting late," said Lorist.

Jinolio acknowledged and left. Duke Fisablen looked around awe-filled.

"Duke Kenmays is more respectful to you than he is to His Majesty. Apart from giving you the best villa, he even hid all the fine wine in the cellar. He made His Majesty stay in an inferior residence instead..."

Auguslo arrived unannounced a few days earlier. Normally, the most lavish residence should be offered to him. But because he came without informing anyone, Lorist had already occupied the best villa. Kenmays didn't bring it up and instead gave his personal villa to the king. Everyone was expecting a commotion but was left speechless. Nobody dared to get Lorist to move out for Auguslo, nor did the latter mind it. He told the other nobles that since he came late as a passing guest, there was nothing he could complain about since Kenmays had moved out of his own villa on his behalf.

Everyone knew Lorist wouldn't refuse to move out of his villa if asked, but would leave for The Northlands when he did. Auguslo could not let him do this, since his plot would not have time to be put into motion if that happened.

"Do you know how many bottles of wine Kenmays drank and pilfered from my place? It can't compare to how many you took, but it was at least half as much."

He offered the duke a seat, which the latter accepted. He'd interacted with the duke a few times now and knew that, despite being a rank 3 blademaster, he was a lustful alcoholic. He didn't know how he became a blademaster. He was just like Kenmays. He couldn't go into Lorist's study to drink there, but had his own ways. He would disappear sometime during the final night of the new year's celebrations and be found near the cellar.

Lorist hadn't bought his collection. They were spoils of war. Most were from his conquest of Hanayabarta. He'd brought back ten thousand bottles. He had wanted to split it with his men, but Charade wouldn't let him.  Even the cheapest wine was several gold Fordes per bottle; the most expensive could go for upwards of three thousand.

In the years since, between the celebrations and Lorist's normal consumption, there weren't many left.  And the last couple of years Fisablen had stolen a good portion of what there still was… He would steal at least three bottles every day while he was present.

Three hundred bottles went missing every time he visited. Spiel, who was responsible for keeping an inventory of the cellar, cursed the bastard to hell and back every time.

"Why are you here in the middle of the night?" asked Lorist as he pulled up a chair.

"Nothing, I was really just taking a walk."

"Do you think I'm gullible?"

Fisablen slumped into the couch.

"I had nothing serious in mind. I just wanted to ask why you won't take part in the war."

"Do you even have to ask that? Why would I send my men to die for the king? He gave you guys great deals, sure, but what has he offered me? He can't offer me riches, he's poorer than me. He can't offer me a promotion, I'm just one step below him.  And he will never offer me more land, not even in his testament. I will not accept talk of 'restoring the empire' and 'building honor through contributions'. I will not send my men to their deaths in a war that does not concern them."

"I see. You make sense," agreed the duke.

This was the keystone of any and every noble decision — benefits. Relations were only sour when there were conflicts of interest. Even if an exchange promised benefit, they would carefully weigh everything up, even if the other guy was their brother or father or son. People who honestly believed in loyalty and generosity were known as fools.

"What did His Majesty offer you?"

"I haven't agreed to mobilize," replied Fisablen.

"What?! Why not?"

Fisablen, whom Lorist thought would be the first to answer Auguslo's call, actually hadn't agreed to mobilize. Lorist's curiosity was piqued.

"I told His Majesty that if you don't deploy, neither can I. We've always considered each other great rivals.  How can I leave my home unguarded if all your forces are sitting on our border?"

"You… Pops, I am being roasted already. And now you're using me as a frying pan?!"

The duke hadn't refused because he honestly believed he couldn't leave his demesne open to Lorist.  He obviously didn't like the conditions and Lorist's refusal was just a good excuse.

"Well played. Then again, do you think His Majesty will believe you?"

"I don't know. I know I do."

Lorist gave the old man a thumbs up.

"Old Man, you're far too shameless. You've been coming to the new year's celebration and stealing my wine. Do you think His Majesty doesn't know? What kind of fool do you think he is?"

"So what? Don't forget, I'm Sylvia's grandfather. What's wrong with visiting my granddaughter? Besides, the king doesn't care about me drinking my granddaughter's wine, he's worried that we're working together now. I've already admitted to him that the alliance forces me to buy lots of daily necessities and refuses to sell me military equipment. He's asked me to endure and avoid conflict, to consider the bigger picture..."

Lorist was speechless.

As expected from the old fox. He managed to cut our relation clear with just a few words.  He even spun it so he is only attending our new year's celebration out of obligation. He made it sound like we're working together to suppress him. And of course that dimwitted fool believes him...

Lorist sighed.

"You really are frivolous. You were the mastermind behind the second prince's founding of Iblia, and yet the king believes you more than he does my loyal house. How ridiculous..."

"Hahaha..." Fisablen wanted to say something, but a knocked on silenced him.

Jinolio entered with a few bottles of wine. A couple of servants trailed behind him with some snacks. Lorist dismissed them when they were done.  Lorist poured himself and the duke each a cup.

"Tell me, what unacceptable offer did the king make?"

"He promised another 200 thousand civilians."

Lorist snickered.

"I figured it would be something like that. He can't come up with anything better than that. Don't forget that if House Norton ever falls, House Fisablen will be the next biggest thing on His Majesty's mind."

"That's why I used you as an excuse. If the sky falls, you'll be there to bear it for me. He actually thought he could get me to slave away for just 200 thousand people. He dreams big."

"Then tell me, what do you want?"

"I want a province in the inner kingdom."

"Ugh..." Lorist started so bad he almost flung his cup at his grandfather-in-law. "—Is that even possible? Dream on, Old Man. It's about time you went to wash up and sleep. You're drunk."

"Of course it's possible. The king will agree if you'll cooperate. I haven't even drunk a bottle yet. How could I be drunk?"

"That so? You sure sound like you're drunk. Think about it, you're just like me. We each have one hereditary title and two territories we only govern. Aren't we big enough already in his eyes?" mocked Lorist.

"That's why this is the perfect opportunity. We both know what he plans. It's entirely possible no huge conflict will break out. He's trying to pressure them to the negotiation table with his million-strong army. The plan has a decent chance of succeeding so the risk isn't too great.  The problem is we need benefits he isn't really willing to offer. He will, however, have no chance but to give in if we work together."

"I will not take part in this war and that's final."

"So you're not interested in Wild Husbandry?"

"Haha, and what of it if I am? His Majesty won't give it to me. What are you planning? Don't forget Wild Husbandry is technically yours."

"Something that will benefit us both. The king will come to negotiate with you again soon. Just tell him you want Wild Husbandry."

"You make it sound simple. How will I justify this?"

"Foolish kid! Just tell him you want it as a buffer between us. If you have it no one can attack directly at your core territories. It's entirely in line with your wants. As long as you insist, the king will eventually have to give in."

Lorist smiled.

"And you'll ask for an inner province as compensation for giving up Wild Husbandry. There's still one thing I don't get. You're developing the north-east very well. Why do you want an inner province? Splitting your house might make you an easy target."

"You'll understand the real troubles of a family head when House Norton's branch families get stronger. If the house were in an inner province I would have sent the branch families to the plains. But we aren't so I can't.

"My house has a thousand members at least. Naturally there are both good and bad apples.  And everyone is constantly fighting for a better footing. Even as the rightful lord and title holder, I can only do so much without the family's permission. I want to kick the bad apples to the inner province. Sending them there will make it look like we're strengthening our bloodline by spreading out, but it's actually a purge."

Duke Fisablen downed the last of the wine and stood up, holding two more bottles in his hand.

"Well, now you're informed, it's time I left. Just remember to insist on Wild Husbandry. The king will come to me and I'll deal with the rest. I won't give him a choice, hehe, he'll have to agree to my conditions as well. He has no confidence in this war without us!"

Fisablen left as unnoticed as he came. Lorist's study was illuminated until daybreak.