Lorist pushed open the tent's flaps and entered it.
At that moment, everyone was stunned followed by a burst of excited laughter.
"Mi-milord... Why have you come?" Charade cried out excitedly as he jumped in surprise. He was so shocked by Lorist's surprise visit that he had knocked the table in front of him over when he jumped, causing a mess of ink, pen and beastskin to manifest on the ground.
Lorist laughed before he said, "I'm here to bring you all back home."
Even though it was just a simple sentence, it caused half of the people within the tent to tear up immediately. Some of them were so moved that they even cried uncontrollably.
Dulles was one of the Dawn Academy students who had willingly followed Charade to join the northbound convoy. He was also appointed by Lorist to fill an important role and was made into the captain of the carroballista unit. He had traveled and weathered through the hardships with the rest of the convoy from the 2nd month to the 9th month, 7 whole months. Having been stuck in their current predicament, Dulles started to feel even more hopeless. However, when he heard Lorist's words, he had been so moved that tears trailed down all over his face.
Lorist gave Dulles a hug before he told the rest within the tent, "Nothing and nobody can obstruct us on our way back home. It must've been rough for you guys to have made your way here. Right now, the only thing between us and the Northlands is the Madras Duchy. I'm not bothered by a single Ironguard Army. Even if they're all iron men, we will still bash them into smithereens."
Lorist continued to hug the rest of them one after another. By the time he reached Potterfang, the man who was the first to pledge his loyalty to Lorist, Potterfang teared up and said, "Milord, it's all because of our incompetence..."
Lorist interjected and said, "No, you have all done very well."
The last one Lorist greeted was Charade. When he saw the fatty, he noticed that the pot belly he used to have had vanished and the once rounded and puffy face had become slightly more firm and chiseled. Charade's cheeks also seemed to have sunk deeper inside and he no longer looked bouncy and chubby. Wrinkles could be seen on his forehead with a few strands of white hair growing out from his bangs. It was apparent that the stress and burden he had bore had a lasting effect on him.
Lorist spread both his arms and hugged Charade tightly before he said, "Brother Charade, it must've been tough..."
Charade merely sobbed quietly without saying a single word.
After they all calmed down and returned to their seats, Lorist announced his decision that he would hold a grand banquet tomorrow to knight the officers of the convoy who have made significant contributions to officially make them the knights of the Norton Family.
Lorist smiled as he said, "Originally, I planned to award you guys after you all arrived at the Northlands. However, now that the convoy has expanded this much, it really can't be excused if I don't promote those who have done well into the ranks of our family knights. For now, I will knight a group and there will be another knighting ceremony once we return to the family dominion. I hope the rest of you can come up with a list of candidates with contributions and discuss whether they qualify with Charade. However, you must also notify them in person if they are selected. If they believe that better opportunities lie elsewhere, we won't force them to join us.
"After tomorrow, the convoy will undergo a reorganization and it will start to get really busy. However, our efforts will help ensure that our journey ahead will be a less arduous one. Everyone, I hope you can persevere for a little bit more. Even though we still have quite a number of troubling things to settle, they shall not obstruct our journey back to the Northlands, our home. I have confidence that I will be able to bring all of you back. However, I'm only a single human and not a gigantic titan nor a flame-breathing dragon. I will need all of your help and assistance to bring a convoy of this size back home. So, I am in your care."
Lorist stood up and the rest within the tent bowed towards him respectfully.
As night encroached upon day, the once noisy campsite gradually quieted down. Countless people fell into deep slumber while basking in the gentle light of the Silvermoon.
Only Lorist, Charade and Potterfang remained within the tent. Reidy had left once he made them some macks and stood guard outside the tent.
"Your biggest mistake was your greed which the Second Highness didn't fail to exploit. Had you refused the Second Highness's request after the battle at the Green Plains and led the convoy up north, I'm sure that no one would dare to bar your way. I know that part of the reason you agreed to it was because of my elder cousin sister. Additionally, I'm sure you have benefitted quite a bit back from the time and Geldos City and thought that the convoy can't hurt to have more resources. However, you forgot one important thing: the more resources you have, the more burden it will be on the convoy..."
Lorist was currently analyzing and criticizing Charade's mistakes.
"Our convoy is not unlike a gigantic snake. Even though it is huge, it is also quite agile. Occasionally eating a rabbit or a goat wouldn't cause it to lose its agility. However, if you force it to swallow a few bulls at one go, it will stop moving altogether. In that situation, our convoy would become the ideal prey for other predators.
"Disposition determines fate, Brother Charade. You are a talented man and I've personally witnessed it back at the Sloph Bastide. Baron Miranda was also extremely full of praise for you. However, your greedy and miserly personality has caused you to miss out on the big picture. You were only focused on getting all the benefits without being willing to give any of the opportunities up and that trait is ideal for the Second Highness to exploit you to his advantage.
"The other mistake you made was that after you cleared up the nobles of the three provinces of the Andinaq Kingdom, the Second Highness got all the benefits while you had to shoulder all the fault and blame. Did you know how surprised I was when I heard rumors about 'Charade the Demon'? Even if the nobles had obstructed the convoy and even attempted to rob it, you shouldn't have acted to emotionally. Think about it, if you hadn't hung the nobles personally and merely captured them and handed them to the Second Highness, he wouldn't have been able to lay all the fault on the convoy and would instead have to trouble himself over how to take care of the rebellious nobles himself."
Lorist lifted his silver cup and took a sip of the macks that was slightly cooled.
Charade muttered, "It's completely my fault. I've always felt that something was off and had a hint that the Second Highness was exploiting me somehow. However, I wasn't able to see where went wrong myself and only understood after you explained it to me. Locke, you've changed quite a bit as well and you've started to see things so distant in the future from now. You're turning more lord-like by the moment."
Lorist laughed out and said, "I have no choice, people change after all. After becoming the dominion lord, I experienced the burdens and pressure firsthand that came with the position and all that forced me to adapt. Brother Charade, you don't have to feel too bad about yourself either. As the chief supervisor of the convoy, you are no doubt the best candidate I could ever hope for. However, as the leader of the convoy, you're still rather lacking because you lose sight of your goals a little too easily just like Potterfang here. While you, Potterfang, may be a great general, you wouldn't be a fitting leader. I can see that the two of you have already done your best to bring the convoy all the way here by yourselves and even expanded it into what it is today.
"Then again, I am also partly at fault for this. If I had given you guys a deadline to arrive at the Northlands, all this might not have transpired. I understand that you have gathered the vagabonds because you considered the lack of manpower the family was having. Given the current situation, as long as we are able to bring them all back, within a few years, we will be able to turn the dominion into a haven amidst the chaotic times of war where people can live without worry."
"Then, what should be our next step?" Charade asked excitedly. Lorist's arrival made him feel that burden he bore lightened up significantly. The past half a year of planning and worrying had fatigued him both mentally and physically. He was worried that If he were to go on like that for another 6 months, he would first die from the exhaustion before arriving at the dominion.
"There's no rush," Lorist said. "I've already heard about the situation of the convoy briefly from Reidy. It's fortunate that you guys are here to ensure that the convoy hasn't disintegrated in the midst of all this trouble. The reason I am going to promote a few members of the convoy is to calm their hearts and minds for now. Start working on the list tonight and ask the candidates tomorrow about what they think about joining the family knights. 'Know yourself and your enemy, and you will never be defeated', these are the words of an ancient scholar who lived a few millenia ago. I personally think that it makes a lot of sense."
Upon hearing that the new family leader of the Nortons had arrived at the convoy, the Second Highness left at noon the next day with Glacia to the campsite.
Lorist held his right fist to his chest with his left arm behind his back and bowed down slightly to the Second Highness. This was the traditional salute of a junior noble to a senior noble.
The Second Highness was extremely elated and he hugged Lorist after he returned the salute to express his friendliness.
After that, it was Glacia's turn. She still remembered how Lorist looked back then but she couldn't bring herself to believe that the crybaby from her childhood had grown into a fine young man with such a stellar physique who had also assumed position of the Norton Family head.
After hearing about the recent situation of the family and recalling the harsh experiences of the past, Glacia hugged Lorist and cried for a while. In the end, Lorist teased her by asking when she would marry the Second Highness and give birth to a healthy baby, causing her pout and stretch her hand to pull onto Lorist's ear, forcing him to beg for mercy.
After messing around for quite a while, they started to talk seriously about the matters at hand.
The Second Highness sounded casual and straightforward as he told Lorist about the troubles the convoy was facing and gave his opinion that the convoy would only be able to last four more months with its food supply. He also stated that the Andinaq Kingdom would not be able to sustain more vagabonds in its current state. When food runs out completely, the convoy would no doubt crumble and the chaos that resulted from so many people panicking would cause the Andinaq Kingdom that had just settled down from the recent conflict to fall into another period of instability. The Second Highness requested that Count Norton solve the problem of the convoy right away lest the worst case scenario comes to happen and cause both parties grief and loss.
Lorist merely laughed and politely pointed out that he had only inherited the title of a baron and cannot be called a count. He even instructed Reidy to return the certificate that signified his status as a count back to the Second Highness.
At that moment, everyone within the tent was completely flabbergasted. Lorist's refusal of the elevation in rank from the Second Highness was something that no one had been able to predict. Could that be a gesture that signified the Norton Family's refusal to continue serving the Second Highness, and by extension, the Andinaq Royal Family?
After recovering from the shock, the Second Highness asked Lorist whether he had done something wrong or disrespectful or if the Norton Family had refused the promotion because it intended to dissociate itself from the Andinaq Royal Family altogether.
Lorist said with a serious face, "The Norton Family prides itself in its oath that any of its members would not bend their knees to anyone apart from those of the Krissen Imperial Family or the elders of the Norton Family. The Andinaq Royal Family is indeed the rightful heir to the legacy of the Krissen Imperial Family, and that is recognized publicly as well. So, the Norton Family will not go against its oath and will naturally continue to serve the Andinaq Royal Family. However, the Norton Family is unable to accept the elevation conferred upon us by you, the Second Highness, because that is akin to sullying the pride of a landed noble family like us with an honorary title. To us, this is not an elevation but rather an insult. That's why we humbly refuse your offer."
Charade was the first one to understand the implications of that statement and he hurriedly gave himself a harsh slap to his cheek as he had made a grave mistake in accepting the elevation in rank conferred by the Second Highness on Lorist's behalf the first time around. Had it not been for Lorist's reminder, he would have accepted the title of the count on behalf of the family and that would potentially cause the Norton Family's status to fall from that of a landed noble family to an honorary one.
Els and Terman gave Charade weird looks and wondered why he slapped himself so hard. Charade proceeded to explain his mistake to them in a low voice.
Normally speaking, a landed noble's elevation in title must be followed by either enfeoffment of another piece of land to add to their original territory or a complete move from the original territory to another bigger one befitting of the new title with the original territory returning to the hands of the senior noble.
Currently, the conferment of the title of a count to the Norton Family would cause it to bear a count's title without having the territory to back it up. If Lorist had accepted the title, in accordance to the law of nobility, that would be equal to surrendering his original status as a landed baron back to the Second Highness in exchange for the honorary title of a count which had no real bearing and right over any dominion or land.
Sol, this fellow really is devious, Lorist thought. Apart from Charade whose impression of the Second Highness could only worsen at this point, Els, Terman and the rest within the tent gave the Second Highness looks of distrust.
The Second Highness himself on the other hand was shocked as it was not his intention to lay such an elaborate trap for the Norton Family and it was nothing more than a silly mistake on his part. He believed that if the Norton Family dominion was not so desolate, the area it actually covered could be considered to be equal to the combined areas of two whole counties. He had elevated the status of the Norton Family because he believed that given the existing territory of the Nortons, they could be considered to be ruling over a county and the Second Highness himself wouldn't need to enfeoff any additional land of the kingdom to them. He also thought that giving the Norton Family a higher title would allow them more freedom to act within the Northlands so that they would be able to aid the Second Highness to act against the Duke of the Northlands who was under the rule of the Second Prince.
The fact that such a loophole that allowed a senior noble to claim a junior noble's dominion by means of conferring a title with no substance to a landed noble existed completely eclipsed the Second Highness. That kind of elevation was nothing but an insult to landed nobles and some who reacted more strongly over something like that might even bear a furious grudge against their senior nobles for such a transgression. Lorist's behavior could already be considered rather courteous and low-key.
The Second Highness himself stood up and bowed towards Lorist as he apologized. "This is completely a mistake on my part and I wholly apologize to you for it. As a token of my misgivings, I am willing to enfeoff the whole of the Northlands to the Norton Family..."
Lorist rudely ignored the Second Highness and continued to twirl the silver cup in his hand nonstop.
Glacia, who was seated behind the Second Highness could no longer stand it and stood up as she said, "Locke, you're far too insolent. His Highness has already admitted his mistake and apologized and is even willing to give the whole of the Northlands to the family! What more do you want?"
Lorist laughed and said, "As expected of a good woman who sticks up to his man! Alright, Cousin Glacia, please ask the Second Highness whether the Northlands is under the rule of the Andinaq Kingdom."
An atmosphere of silence filled the whole of the tent and even Glacia was made completely speechless. The gazes of everyone present were currently focused on the Second Highness as they awaited his response.
At that moment, the Second Highness felt like slapping himself in the face just like Charade did as he had made yet another grave mistake. Given that he had long wanted to reunite the empire and restore the Krissen Imperial Family back to its former glory, he had unconsciously promised the Northlands to the Norton Family and forgotten that the Northlands was in fact part of the territory of the Second Prince's Iblia Kingdom and not his Andinaq Kingdom.
As he pondered over the issue frantically, cold sweat built up on his forehead. If word of him promising the land of another kingdom to a noble family spreads out, the Andinaq Kingdom would definitely become the joke of the decade. Additionally, that promise of the Second Highness would be taken as an example of how empty his words were which don't hold any real weight. More importantly, that would further push away the Norton Family which was currently of most aid to the Andinaq Kingdom.
With a flash of insight, the Second Highness suddenly came up with a solution. Slightly smiling, he said to the rest within the tent, "Of course. I intend to offer up the whole of the Northlands to the Norton Family as a token of my apology."
Everyone was surprised with Glacia even exclaiming in shock, "Your Highness... You..."
The Second Highness waved his hand before continuing. "I haven't finished what I have to say yet. That was just to make up for my mistakes and it is not an additional enfeoffment. I have also decided to enfeoff my own principality to the Norton Family to add to their existing territory to fit the elevated title of the count. As for the Northlands, while it is still not under my rule yet, I promise that when I exterminate the Madras Duchy, if the Norton Family has already taken control of the Northlands, I will confer upon the Norton Family the title of a duke and make the Northlands the inheritable dominion of the Norton Family for generations to come."
Lorist smiled as he thought, so this Second Highness is quite quick-witted after all. He managed to turn the whole awkward situation around with but a few words. If the Madras Duchy truly were exterminated and taken over, then the Northlands would be able to connect directly to the Andinaq Kingdom and if the Norton Family has taken control of it by then, then the Northlands would naturally fall under the rule of the Andinaq Kingdom. That way, the promise of the Second Highness to grant the title of the duke to the Norton Family would no longer merely be an empty one.
However, Lorist was quite curious where the principality of the Second Highness was. Given that the territory might be even larger than that of a count's, why was the Second Highness willing to give it away?
Charade handed a map over to Lorist and pointed to a spot on the map while silently cursing out. "This Second Highness truly is devious. Milord, it would be wise for you to be more careful."
Lorist turned to look at the map and saw that the principality was actually a small island separate from the main continent. While the area was indeed roughly that of a county's, more than half of the island was covered by mountains and beaches and not much land could be used for agriculture. It was no wonder Charade was still mad.
Lorist laughed before he said, "Alright, since the Second Highness has already said so, then the Norton Family will accept the conferment of the title of the count by the Andinaq Royal Family."
The Second Highness proceeded to wipe off his nervous sweat and returned to his seat as the atmosphere within the tent returned to its former calm.
 Words by Sunzi in his work, 'The Art of War'.