“Locke, do you think the king is behind this? You think Count Wecksas is only being used as a puppet?” asked Kenmays.

Lorist, Kenmays, Felim, and Shazin were heading to Jillin Harbor, the capital shrinking on the horizon behind them. They were accompanied by their family and forces. Their destination was Silowas, where they’d regroup and discuss what to do next.

The others were surprised that Lorist would turn his back on the king so resolutely. If Auguslo declared him a traitor, Andinaq would once again taste civil war. As his allies, they, too, would be dragged in against the rest of the kingdom.

“Actually, you can stand with the king and turn on Lorist if you want,” Kenmays told Shazin and Felim.

“We’re not idiots,” the two immediately answered.

It wasn’t that they hadn’t considered it, but, given the king’s personality, they would be used as cannon fodder. The king would never trust them. Siding with Lorist was the better choice. Even if they were wiped out, they wouldn’t have to worry about Lorist swallowing them. He would instead help them rebuild.

“Yes,” Lorist replied glumly, “You told me Andalou got into a trade war with you for the salt market last year, right? They suffered at least 100 thousand gold Fordes in losses. Think about it. That isn’t a small sum. Andalou should’ve been in bad shape. Tell, me, do they look hampered?

“Andalou isn’t like the Trade Union’s guilds. It’s a new establishment with shallow roots and even shallower pockets, or at least they should be, so how did they get out of this without collapsing? Someone is obviously footing the bill on their behalf, and who has that kind of money in this desolate kingdom besides the king? Then not long after you’re suddenly targeted by a blademaster? Tell me, what upstart guild can afford to order a blademaster around, much less after just suffering a crushing defeat?

“We can easily conclude who the mastermind behind Andalou is. Do you think a mere bastard child can plot against a duke like you? Can he take such a loss, not to mention sending a blademaster after you? Somebody is backing him. Do we even need to guess who?”

Kenmays paled. Lorist made him incredibly nervous.

“But why would the king want to lay his hands on salt merchant committee. I’m just a merchant. I didn’t touch any of his industries. I’m not a threat either.”

“You underestimate your importance,” Lorist smiled, “The war is over. Everyone knows we’ll have several decades of peace. Now that there are no more external threats, the king has to start considering internal ones. What, other than our alliance, could spark his worry? Nothing. If he wants to implement some kind of nationwide policy, he’ll have to go through us. He is desperate to break us up.

“I suspect he set his sights on salt merchant committee because you’re the sole common interest binding the four houses together. Shazin and Felim in particular are recovering quickly thanks to the kickbacks from the committee. They are rebuilding their militaries quickly as well. He first tried destroying the committee, now, failing that, he’s targeting you.

“It was only a wild guess at first, but when I learnt that the bastard child was harassing the nobles and saw how his guild could bring out a gold rank guard, my suspicions deepened. How could Andalou have such a strong force without the king? Even the committee only uses silver ranks.

“D’you remember the king’s fury when I had their guards killed? It was like a child’s toy had been broken. He was also way too keen to get an answer out of me. I knew it was him when I saw that. What else can I say at this point? Why should I care about his reputation? I’ll just leave.”

Felim, who had been listening from the side, nodded.

“Locke is right. What do you think the king will do next? Declare us traitors?”

“I don’t really care whether we’re traitors or not,” Shazin added, “We can win any war he starts. Other than House Fisablen, no one is willing to fight to the death for that man’s sake. Most will probably only voice their support while finding excuses to sit on the sidelines. I’m most worried that the king will try to catch us before we reach Jillin.”

Everyone fell silent. They didn’t have the forces to far the entire imperial guard right now.  It would be very bad if he sent his army after them before they got to Jillin. Lorist could cause him some damage, but even he could not win against an entire legion on his own. Not to mention their family were still here and could easily be turned into hostages against 

“If he really does something like that, we’ll turn against him for good. I don’t think he’ll be quite that reckless. He’d be betting his entire bloodline and legacy on very unfavorable odds, and he knows it.

“We should stay on guard just in case, though. We still have two days of travel ahead before we reach Jillin. I’ve left a few men at the gates to keep an eye on the enemy army. They’ll let us know as soon as the enemy begin mobilizing. If it comes to it, we’ll send our families ahead and hold the enemy at bay until they’ve reached safety.

“We can’t win a determined fight, but we can keep them busy long enough. We don’t have worry about Jillin’s garrison. They’re practically my men.”

Kenmays sighed.

“I knew you won’t allow the king to interfere with Jillin. Everything will be fine as long as the garrison stays with us. I doubt the legion is enough to hold us. Everything will be fine once we reach Jillin. We’ll secede from the Andinaq and make Lorist king.  We can settle our debt once we’ve stabilized the situation thereafter.”

It would most likely take the rest of the year to set everything up, but they could attack after winter and have half the kingdom in their hands in two years. Given their vast influence, they could easily turn the rest of the kingdom’s nobles to their side and wipe out the empire within five years.

Lorist shook his head

“It’s not time for something like that yet. People will think we were planning this from the beginning and believe the king’s claims that we are traitors, rather than the victims. We should do nothing but take up our defenses. We should definitely not act before he does. Our secession should be a reaction to him.”

Felim sighed.

“Locke, it’s not that I want to criticize you, but you’re too soft. Don’t worry so much about your reputation as a loyal vassal, it’ll do you no good once you’re a sovereign. If we declare independence after he makes his claim, people will believe we’re doing damage control. We’ll be the rebels that wanted to take over the kingdom but got caught out. No one will accept our declaration if we do it after the fact, and we won’t be able to kill the king without being labeled kingslayers.  If you declare independence beforehand, however, this will be a fair war between two kingdoms and we can kill that bastard without having to worry about being called kingslayers.

The guards Lorist had left at the city gates slowly caught up with them.

“The king is on his way, Your Grace,” announced the guard.

“Has the royal army been deployed?” asked Lorist.

“No. The king rides with only a small escort.”

“Maybe he wants to hold us down while the army deploys and catches up?” guessed Kenmays.

“Send our family ahead. We’ll following behind them a little slower and see what the king is up to.”

The group proceeded thusly for several more hours.  The king only caught up with them at sunset, covered in sweet and breathing haggardly.

“Why did you leave without a word? I investigated the matter more thoroughly and know you are not to blame for what happened. That brat of mine stepped out of line. You were right to kill his henchmen. I shouldn’t have thought you were insulting me when you killed them. Please, there are only two days left until the ceremony and it wouldn’t do for you to not attend. I was too stressed about the arrangements and let it get the better of me.”

Auguslo dismounted and took hold of Lorist’s reins as he spoke. He begged Lorist to return.  The group refused but the king wouldn’t let go of the reins. The two groups were left string at each others for half an hour until Duke Fisablen arrived with the rest of the attending nobles to persuade Lorist to stay.

Lorist stood firm, however, and the two groups were once again left staring at one another.  The standoff continued until midnight, when the last of Lorist’s men returned from the capital to report the army had still shown no signs of mobilizing. Lorist only gave in once he heard the final report.  He spoke with his three companions and agreed to return to the capital, but refused to send for their families.

Auguslo wasn’t very happy that the four dukes weren’t doing exactly as he asked, but he had to let it be, otherwise he’d get nothing. He was even more frustrated when each of the four only brought a hundred guards back with them.

Everyone could see the immense distrust in Lorist’s eyes and knew an irreparable rift had formed between the four and the king. It was unlikely that the king’s reign would be smooth going forward. A few even wondered if the emperor would live long enough to see his heir take the throne after him, if at all.