Who would want to kill Kenmays? Lorist dismissed it as a result of the duke's promiscuity, but he couldn't stop thinking about it. Lorist didn't even consider Kenmay's hypothesis. Everyone knew Wecksas was only a bastard. Auguslo had an heir now, so the bastard was worth very little, if anything.

While he was now a count, what little authority he had stemmed from that title, not from his connection to royalty, Auguslo had severed all of that. Wecksas started his guild to keep him busy, in part, because even he got bored of just sitting around in the city. Perhaps he was trying to take advantage of what little connection he had to the imperial bloodline to make money. Lorist had never taken him seriously and it wasn't like the brat could hire a blademaster, he had neither the status nor the funds.

Could the mastermind be Auguslo instead? He was the most likely candidate. It would be the perfect way to break the alliance apart, or at the very least cut of its best way to project and gather further influence within the empire. The alliance was the largest faction in the soon-to-be empire. Even Auguslo had to think six times before doing anything that was against their interests.

Lorist shook his head. He didn't know whether his guess was right or not. He knew Auguslo had the temerity to do something like this, but on the other hand he didn't think he was irrational enough to believe this could work. Besides, sending blademasters to assassinate people was a massive taboo. The risk of it becoming known that the emperor had tried to assassinate his vassals was too great, as was the damage it would do to his reputation. The empire would crumble overnight, all the dukes would declare independence at best, or march on the capital to depose him at worst.

Could someone be fanning the flames to get us to fight amongst ourselves? Maybe the Trade Union? No, couldn't be. They were still licking their stumps where arms used to be. They didn't have the men or energy to spare. Cobleit was even less likely to be this stupid than the emperor.

Lorist rubbed his temples. A headache was coming.

Reidy sat opposite him in the luxurious cabin. The two had been trying to figure out what was going on and how to deal with it since that morning. Nothing had come up yet, 

"It can't be the duke. Why'd you even bring him up?" Lorist rebuked, "Fisablen has only three blademasters, including himself. Xanthi and Kristoph are the only other blademaster in his faction. House Fisablen hasn't recruited blademasters for years and they haven't produced one since Fisablen either. They're in the king's camp as well so they wouldn't act without his say so. Not to mention they'd gain nothing from Kenmays' death. The old man isn't dumb enough to offend me by doing something that benefits him none."

Reidy just shrugged his shoulders.

"Your Grace knows I don't like to get stuck on such difficult things. You're the one insisting I sit here with you. It's the king as far as I'm concerned. He's the only one with the funds to recruit blademasters and enough reason to do something like this. Duke Kenmays did mention the blademaster was foreign to him, and he knows all the blademasters in the kingdom. Didn't the king recruit two new blademasters last year? Maybe it's one of them."

Lorist still shook his head again.

"Even less likely. The king won't send his blademasters out to do something like this right after recruiting them. Kenmays is already familiar with the new ones anyway, he's certain its not one of them either."

"It's too weird. I wouldn't have believed Kenmays if not for the wounds on his body. Who would want someone as inconsequential as him dead? Kenmays isn't the only person in House Kenmays either. If he dies, someone else is ready to fill his shoes. The king most certainly wouldn't get anything from it. Maybe there really is a third party behind in all of this."

"No, it's even less likely that this is someone wanting to settle a personal grudge against Kenmays or someone in his family. He is a serial womanizer, but he never forced them and he never took married women. Certainly none of them had strong enough backings to do this, much less strong enough that their family might want to kill Kenmays because it was a humiliation."

Lorist rapped the desk with his fingers.

"And you're wrong about Kenmays being inconsequential. That's probably why someone wants him dead. I'm the strongest noble and my house is the strongest house in the empire, maybe even on the continent. Even the king can't go against us directly. This is prettymuch the only tactic he has if it really is him."

"But we don't need their help anymore. If anything, we're propping them up."

Lorist nodded.

"You're right, but that's only because our dominion is far more developed than theirs and they can't keep up. Do we tear our agreement up for that, though? House Norton is not so disloyal. We have no quarrel with one another and our best strategy for gaining more influence is to work together, especially since the king will do everything he can to undo us. So, if the king wants to deal with us, Duke Kenmays would be the best place to start. Don't underestimate him just because he's a womanizing merchant. He's the economic core of our alliance. Even I didn't think the salt merchant committee would become the centre of our alliance, and he's at its head.

"The salt merchant committee is the largest buyer of our products and our representative in the kingdom's market. The committee is also the backbone of Houses Felim and Shazin's income. Without it their domains would collapse in a year. House Kenmays has bet everything on the committee as well, it's what makes them worth keeping in the alliance, and their continued existence, much less their continued affluence, depends on being in the alliance.

"The better Duke Kenmays manages the committee, the more stable his house is and the longer our alliance will last. If the king is trying to destroy the the alliance, killing Kenmays is the best way to do it. The committee would collapse without him, and with it, the alliance.

"That's why I'm so furious about this. Our enemy, whoever it is, is targetting our weakest link from the get go."

"So Your Grace believes that, if Duke Kenmays isn't with us, Duke Shazin and Duke Felim will abandon us?"

"It's possible, though I can't be sure what will happen. None of it would be good, though… I know what you want to say. You think that, since we are so powerful, we don't have to take our allies seriously, right? You still have much to learn. Every noble must consider their interests first before they think about what would benefit their liege, allies, or kingdom.

"Without Duke Kenmays, the other dukes will have reevaluate whether the alliance is worth maintaining. It's true that we will decrease the pressure from Fisablen, but Felim worries that his house will be made our vassal. He won't allow it. They know how strong we are, but he doesn't want to stop being my equal. If he leaves, he'll switch sides.

"Unfortunately being too strong compared to your allies will make them weary of you rather than trust you more. Felim's lands are in Southern, right next to Winston. That's also where our first line of defense against Fisablen is. If he switches sides, we will be forced to garrison our border with him. It'll drive up our military costs and bog down our men. Our land trade with the Alliance will also be cut off.

"It's good to maintain the alliance. That's why I was willing to keep it for so long. You will go protect him for the time being. Wait in the shadows for the assassin's next attempt, and kill him.  If you can, take him alive and find out who's behind this, but he cannot be allowed to get away no matter what."

"Rest assured, Your Grace. Duke Kenmays will not be harmed."

The voyage went smoothly and they arrived in Jillin harbor eleven days later. Lorist, Duke Kenmays, and the others stayed there for a day to wait for the guards from Silowas to arrive. They left the next morning after the men arrived and came ashore.

They arrived on the 4th of the 8th, a day ahead of schedule. Auguslo was quite gracious. He sent Knight Ripleid, general of the royal army, with a thousand ma regiment to escort them to the capital and waited for them by the city gate personally. Most of the kingdom's nobles already present waited in an entourage just inside the gate as well. Lorist had to dismount early and put up a courteous act, it pissed him off quite a bit.

He didn't like being cornered like this, but he had no choice. Auguslo had personally welcomed him. It was the biggest gesture the king could make and it would be unacceptable to not return the gesture in equal measure. He had to enter the city on foot.  But it also signalled a submission to the king, an admission that he was a loyal dog and follower. It was made even worse by the fact that the king didn't refer to him using his title, but called him 'Brother Locke' instead. Others would see it as the king not caring about his title at all.

But there was just five days to the ceremony, so this was not the time to fight back. The whole city was decorated and everyone was watching.

Auguslo was happy to see Lorist had brought his family and lent him a grand villa near the palace and hosted a grand banquet to welcome the two dukes that very night.