The chests of a few aristocrats heaved heavily in the dead silence of the hall. Kenzir could only imagine the mess that’d broken out in his absence. He studied his subordinates, a little relieved at the absence of old familiar faces.
It wasn’t a lie to say that the older nobles were more difficult to deal with. The younger nobles that acted like jesters in the court were of no concern to the king; he had to be extremely careful when dealing with the larger clans, though. They seemed to have control over everything in Faustia via invisible threads.
The four largest margrave clans were the royal family’s biggest supporters. Kenzir had already received their acknowledgement prior to his succession so they weren’t an issue. The counts, on the other hand, were his biggest headache.
Hyenas were useful in hunts. They had sharp teeth and lithe bodies that could benefit the lions when appropriately used. However, they’d end up harming their masters when they weren’t utilised well.
The complete integration of Shalor had expanded Faustian territory significantly. The kingdom was in the midst of its golden era and Kenzir was adamant about not being the cause of their downfall. Hence, every step he took was meticulously calculated and weighed.
The representatives of a few clans attempted to spark a conversation upon noticing their king’s prolonged silence. It was the best time to appease the king. The middle pillars of their clans were returning from war. Under normal circumstances, the knights were bound by the Hall of Knight’s tenet to watch their words. However, it became clear that the high-rank Knechts that failed to return were never going to show up again.
Higher battle resources weren’t the only benchmark of a clan’s power, per se. However, it was still an important factor to be considered in their fierce competition. Faustian couldn't wage a war against other territories in its current condition; the Sanctum and Hall of Knights were highly against the unnecessary depletion of talents. This bottleneck situation would remain unless an Erdritter or stronger would emerge in their kingdom once again. Their appearance would fuel the kingdom with sufficient strength, or perhaps an ‘excuse’, to expand their territory.
Since they were in no shape to invade others, perhaps it was best they paid attention to the domestic scene. War was an eternal dilemma; it wasn’t something that they could afford to walk away from or decline. Their refusal would point to elimination; no one in their right mind would want everything they’d done for the glory of their families to perish for a wrong move.
The families that’d lost their high-rank Knechts were all the more vulnerable. The other noble families were eyeing their every move like vultures. Yet, before they could feast on these clans, the lowly hyenas would have to present the best portion of their prey to the king. King Kenzir still held the key to their goals. In that case, Kenzir would enjoy its heart; the margraves would divide the flesh among their peers, and the bones would be left for the lower aristocrats.
Admittedly, Kenzir had more ambition before he became king. The reality of ruling a kingdom was far from his expectations. Several families were in precarious situations. Worse, some of them were the biggest supporters of his coronation, one of whose two high-rank Knechts had served as commanders.
Kenzir exhaled. Politics sure was a ruthless game of chess and he was now pushed to make a move. It was difficult, yes, but it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Kenzir had known his rules well enough to know which family was untouchable. He needed to let one of them go.
It was in the middle of their discussion when King Kenzir announced, ”The Griffin Clan shall move to the Sethlyne Province.”
“Understood, Your Majesty.”
Sethlyne had been a northern province of Shalor before the integration. It was a patch of mountainous terrain covered in dense forests. It didn’t have any valuable minerals and the local population was reportedly hostile towards outsiders, especially those of Faustian blood.
The Griffin Clan was bound to never return to the kingdom’s political nucleus. It was bone-chilling to see a count with considerable influence reduced to such a state following the deaths of their two high-rank Knechts.
“My utmost gratitude, Your Majesty!” The ailing Count Griffin bowed to his king. This was honestly the best scenario he could ask for his clan, given their current predicament. Their titles were at least retained and moving away meant another shot at glory.
Kenzir was indeed an ambitious and intelligent ruler. While many had thought that this was a ploy to disrupt the Griffin Clan and raid their wealth, only a few realised that it was a deliberate move to protect the family. The nobles were ready to get bloodied for the sake of interests and the thought had Kenzir rubbing at his brows to soothe a budding ache. At that moment, he felt incredibly envious of Margrave Woode.
Margrave Woode was around his age and they’d been great friends since their time in the military camps. They had often gone out on hunting trips too. While King Kenzir poured over courtly matters, Margrave Woode was most probably out seeking fun elsewhere if not entangled in a hoard of women.
Kenzir swallowed his frustrations and stood, quickly putting an end to the relentless discussion around him. “I will decide the fates of the Audi Clan, the Buessi Clan and the Clive Clan myself.”
That had certainly gotten everyone’s interest. The families mentioned were associated with another matter of their focus. The three were viscountcies that weren’t supportive of Prince Kenzir’s succession. The loss of their high-rank Knechts had turned them into vulnerable pawns that awaited a knife named destiny, which was why they weren’t summoned into the palace today. The families could only relent no matter what the outcome would be. They could only hope that King Kenzir was merciful enough to leave them a door open.
A qualified king should never resort to brute suppression and intimidation since doing so wouldn’t nurture Faustian’s prosperity. Currently, Kenzir needed to balance the forces in his kingdom. He still had a long way to go to become a good ruler.
“As you all may know, my sister has returned to the kingdom,” said Kenzir calmly, tone not giving away anything. The aristocrats listened quietly, eager to see what the king would do next. “This means that Faustian will see the emergence of a prince consort soon.” His words echoed in the hall.
It was a week later when the Felorian Palace was lavishly decorated in jovial red silk. The entire city was ready for a grand celebration. The peasants, who were already delighted with the new tax policy, had found another hot gossip to discuss: their beloved Princess Angellina was getting married today! They’d heard that her husband was a viscount named Locke and yet, not many had scoops about him despite their best investigative effort.
Prince consort…? Viscount…?
Old Locke and Tia felt like they were living in a fever dream. Their son and daughter had returned to them after three long years, and a series of royal titles and attention had followed without a break. The old couple could barely catch a breath!
“Madam, should I hang the ribbons here?”
“My Lord, this is some southern tobacco. I hope you’ll fancy it.”
“Viscount Warence awaits outside with gifts.”
The initially quiet house was bustling with activity. There was a line of representatives from clans of all ranks who were here to relay their masters’ blessings. Frankly speaking, Tia and Old Locke were growing tired of their enthusiasm.
Locke’s parents were cleaned and trimmed to be dressed in posh ceremonial garments for their son’s wedding. They waited in the mansion for their transport to the palace. They’d spent a little more than a decade living as Felorian nobles and no one could tell that Tia and Old Locke were peasants. Luxurious clothes, dainty meals, cumbersome but extravagant noble etiquette had allowed them the perfect metamorphosis; perhaps the servants of the house were the only ones that could tell that they were different from the regular uptight aristocrats.
“I can’t believe Brother Locke is a viscount and soon-to-be a prince consort!” exclaimed a massive man whose arms were thicker than a normal adult’s thighs. His hands were filled with callouses and his back was impressively straight. Locke’s friend, Hans, had been invited over from the Dor Province.
“Yeah, I can’t believe it either,” said Caen. He had sharp eyes and was comparatively thinner than Hans.
They were Locke’s most trusted comrades on the battlefield so it went without saying that they were needed here on his special day. There were many familiar faces from Maple Village and Quarryton apart from them both. Uncle Yushack, Karl and a few others gathered around Old Locke.
The peasants of Quarryton had long heard about their success story. They were well aware that Locke’s family had moved to the royal capital and had even become nobles. While they remain clueless about the details of the story, they felt incredibly honoured to be in the proximity of a prince consort’s family nonetheless.
“I can’t believe your brother gave me a viscount title without notice,” murmured Locke, hands warm around Angelina’s palm in their bridal carriage.
“Hmph! You should tell that to him, not me.” Angelina tilted her face away with a huff. She had taken a full week to recover from her grief. Plus, today was the most important occasion in her lifetime! She was about to be officially wedded to her beloved and they would soon start a new chapter together. The princess was elated, she was sure that her late father would’ve wanted the same for her too.
“Well…” Locke rarely felt conflicted but King Kenzir had always been an exception. His brother in law was excruciatingly difficult to read. The newlyweds began their half-day trip around the royal capital, receiving flowers and blessings everywhere they went. There was still a complicated aristocratic ceremony to attend in the palace later.
Locke thanked the heavens that he was mentally prepared for the fussiness. He grumbled a little about damned noble ceremonial procedures but the confident smile on his face had never faltered. There were hundreds of thousands of eyes on them and Locke couldn’t afford to lose his composure.