"Oh, Engelich, I thought hard about it for the whole night but I still don't have an answer…" Lorist sighed, "You should know that you're not an ambitious or victory-obsessed person, right? Your own survival is all that matters to you. Frankly, you're the kind that takes the path of least resistance. I find myself wondering how in the world you became a blademaster? Did you consume some kind of precious medicine?"
Lorist had called for Engelich to be brought to him early in the morning, mainly to give him something to do. He didn't feel it was okay to leave a blademaster free and unattended in the dominion. He also wanted an answer to the question he had been pondering the whole night.
Engelich smiled bitterly.
"Milord, I don't really know myself. To be honest, I was already a three-star gold rank by the time I submitted to you, but I encountered a bottleneck shortly after, and for years I couldn't progress no matter how hard I trained. I thought that I would stay like that for the rest of my life, so I didn't have any hopes of progressing any more.
"But after joining the convoy, I felt incredibly relaxed all of a sudden, as if I no longer had any burdens. I later came to understand that it was because Milord had eradicated the Sloph Slavers. I no longer had to work for others against my better conscience and it allowed me to cast off the burdens I carried with me. I was finally able to improve my circulation of battleforce, and it even became easier than before.
"Milord didn't send me on missions once we arrived at the dominion either, and instead allowed me to spend my time with my granddaughter and newborn grandchild. The sight of my daughter becoming the mother of another fulfilled the last of my wishes and removed the last of my regrets. I have no more desires or unfulfilled goals in life, as long as I can spend my life in peace with my granddaughter and her child, I will be satisfied.
"The child grew to be rather rowdy last year, so I got him a wooden sword as a toy. I realized just how blissful my life is when I saw him swing the sword around in the backyard and chase the butterflies. The realization gave me a profound insight. The blue of the sky appeared more striking than ever, and the fragrance of the flowers and plants seemed to be stronger and clearer than before. I could clearly discern every motion that occurred within a sphere that stretched out in all directions for ten meters...
"Fortunately, my observant granddaughter noticed that I had gotten some kind of insight and stopped our servants from entering our backyard. Every day, she would serve me my meals personally. I didn't feel anything particularly different about myself. I ate when I was hungry, drank when I was thirsty, and slept when I was bored, but I never left the courtyard - it had become my private universe, a world where I am completely free. I could even say that I was barely conscious of my own condition at the time.
"Later, my granddaughter told me that it was as if I had lost my soul during those three months. I was either tracing in the air or sitting on the ground like a statue. She said that I would not heed anyone's calls and repel her with the battleforce around my body when she tried to tug at me. She was so worried that she almost broke out in tears.
"Charade wasn't home either, so my poor little granddaughter had to deal with it all by herself. On the one hand, she was worried for my sake, and on the other, she had to take care of her child. I only regained my mind after three months and realized that I had broken through to become a blademaster. That lass was elated and had wanted to write a letter to Charade to inform him, but I stopped her because I didn't want to cause a commotion. Also, I didn't want people to come visit me out of nowhere."
Lorist finally understood that the old man had broken through not because of his swordsmanship, but thanks to his mental fortitude. That was why the moves demonstrated by Engelich after he broke through had so much control, precision, and stability - like the still water of a lake that would vibrate in a constant pattern the moment it was disturbed, seeping through every nook and cranny it could find. It was unlike other blademasters who had broken through thanks to their swordsmanship, which was reflected in the attributes of their battleforce. For instance, others would feel the chilling aura of a snowstorm when fighting against Lorist.
"I really didn't think that letting you be with your granddaughter would actually let you break through," Lorist mused, before he shamelessly claimed credit for Engelich's breakthrough, saying, "You should thank me, Engelich. It was I who had exterminated the slaver band and forced you into servitude. Had you not experienced all that, you would've died as a three-star gold rank."
"Yes, yes... It's all thanks to you, Milord. Thank you so much," said Engelich hurriedly.
Even after becoming a blademaster, he still felt like he was treading on thin ice when standing in front of Lorist. He found his bone-deep fear of his lord very curious.
"That's enough. Come over and take this," said Lorist.
He took a small box out of a drawer. Inside was a golden badge. It differed from the ones given to gold-ranked knights, it had a star-shaped diamond embedded in its surface. It gathered and radiated the light from the surroundings in such a way that it looked like a shining, twinkling star.
"You see, my grandfather and great-grandfather had always hoped that the household would be guarded by a blademaster. Even though they could never afford to hire one, they still had a blademaster badge forged and hoped that it would encourage the members of the house to train hard and become a blademaster one day. Well, at least they didn't stretch themselves thin by making a ton of these. Otherwise, I would have to dig out the diamond star and sell it."
Even though Lorist was uttering nonsense, he still carefully placed the box in Engelich's hands. Naturally, Engelich didn't regard Lorist's words seriously. He understood from Lorist's actions that he was officially the first blademaster in the history of House Norton. His fate from that day onward would be forever intertwined with that of the Nortons.
Handling the box as carefully as he could, Engelich gingerly retrieved the badge from the box and pinned it on his shirt. After that, he stowed the box in his pocket, retreated two steps, and bowed deeply to Lorist.
"Milord, I pledge my service to House Norton until the day I breathe my last breath, until the day of my death."
Waving his hands, Lorist said, "Sheesh, don't talk about breath this and death that this early in the morning. Your conviction is what that matters. I wonder if an old man like you can continue to scale the ranks and become a rank 2, or even rank 3, blademaster. Perhaps, you might even stand a chance to become a swordsaint."
"Milord, you're a far bigger dreamer than I am! I only hope that I can raise my rank one more time, but I don't even have the slightest thought of actually becoming a swordsaint."
After receiving the blademaster badge of the household, Engelich spoke more freely and relaxedly.
"Well, things like this are hard to predict. You are a relatively lucky one. Perhaps, one day you might just slip on a pile of dog shit and come to realize some immutable truth of the universe that allows you to break through and become a swordsaint."
Engelich laughed bitterly.
Milord's messing around again... If there were anyone who actually became a swordsaint by doing that, I bet there would be tons of people willingly stepping into dog shit daily...
"Well, there's that. I'll put an end to messing with you. Since you're a blademaster of the household, your salary will five thousand gold Fordes annually. You can collect it whenever you please from Supervisor Spiel. If you do manage to break through to the second rank, your pay will be raised to eight thousand, whereas the pay for a rank 3 blademaster is ten thousand. I bet you're already regretting it now. If you had told me about this the moment you made your breakthrough, you would've had an extra five thousand gold Fordes already."
Shaking his head, Engelich said, "No, I don't regret that at all, Milord."
"Is that so?" Lorist asked with a look of curiosity on his face, "I recall that you looked as if you were hanged when I confiscated your personal savings earned from working for the slavers, yet you're telling me that five thousand gold Fordes means nothing to you? Or are you saying that the amount of money is too low for you to even bother with? Well, I can't help you with that. I wasn't the one who set down the regulations for how much blademasters are paid."
"Milord, you have already offered me countless gold coins. I know that average blademasters only get paid three thousand gold Fordes annually. Over the past few years I spent at home, I came to realize that what I truly want is a life of peace. I only need enough money for my own purposes; more doesn't necessarily mean I'll become happier. All I need is my family. It's a shame I don't have much money with me right now. Otherwise, I'd be willing to pay you five thousand gold Fordes for a year's leave to spend with my family," said Engelich in a regretful tone.
"Forget it, Engelich. To think that an old guy like you would be as obedient as a mule that requires caning," Lorist said, "But, I like your attitude. It's precisely because of it that you were able to breakthrough to become a blademaster. Right now, I'll leave you with an assignment. Before we set sail in another ten or so days, give Reidy some guidance with his swordsmanship for two hours. Actually, make it an hour and a half. Also, help Howard establish his basic stances. When I saw you train yesterday, I noticed that your basic sword stance was incredibly firm and allowed you to manipulate your sword in a very peculiar manner. I hope you will be able to guide them in those respects."
"Understood, Milord," said Engelich as he nodded.
"Also, after training, come here. I will have someone arrange an office for you. You have to understand the battle strategies and the development goals of the house so that I can have you help out when I require it. I'll ask Howard to bring you to the training grounds at the rear hill now. When you come back, make sure to read through the information on Silowas. Look, they're all here," said Lorist as he pointed at a thick stack of beastskin documents in the corner.
Engelich wore a helpless expression as he was escorted away by Howard.
Lorist looked at the silhouette of the old man and mused, "Huh, as if I'd let an old guy like you slack off."
Count Kenmays's regiment of attendants and servants only arrived at Firmrock castle during the night. When he got off the carriage, he could be seen with two new beautifully-dressed maidservants.
Raising his brows in surprise, Lorist asked, "Have they changed again?"
Count Kenmays replied, "Yeah. Those two got pregnant and had to get married off to others. I had to pay out quite a sizable dowry for them too..."
Lorist nodded to the maidservants before he said, "Since they are pregnant with your child, why don't you keep them around as your concubines?"
"No way," Count Kenmays said, "Letting them stay after they have a child will cause them to have unhealthy ambitions. It'll bring me nothing but unrest. For their own sake as well, marrying them off is still the best course of action. I give them a yearly allowance as well. When the child is older, I'll adopt them and begin cultivating their talents. It's the best arrangement for everyone involved."
Good Sol, this guy is as calculating as people get. As expected of the descendant of a merchant family, thought Lorist as he smiled and invited the group into the castle.
When the two of them entered the study, Count Kenmays walked to the familiar wine rack and opened a bottle of fine wine. Taking on the role of host, Count Kenmays said, "Come, this wine is pretty good. Let's have a drink."
"Sol!" Lorist cursed, "I noticed that half of my wine disappeared after I returned from a trip at the end of last year. So, the culprit was you..."
"Old friend, good wine is to be enjoyed with good company. How would we enjoy the luxurious taste they provide otherwise?" Count Kenmays said before he asked curiously, "Oh, where were you? That supervisor and Potterfang were so tight-lipped. They wouldn't even reveal the slightest hint as to where you were and only said you weren't in the Northlands. Troubled, I dug around and found no record of you leaving through the suspension bridge of my family nor the one at the Felim House. Also, Duke madras has sealed off the crossing point at Metropoulos River. How in the world did you leave the Northlands? Did you fly away using your wings?"
Laughing out loud, Lorist said, "I went to the Andinaq kingdom and delivered the second prince there. During the 29th day of the 12th month, the third prince passed away and Second Highness Auguslo beheaded the second prince and used his head as a sacrifice during his father's funeral."
Count Kenmays exclaimed, "What did you say?! The second prince is dead?! I only heard that the third prince was dead, but nothing about the second prince being buried with him..."
Lorist nodded and said, "Charade went to the imperial capital on my behalf and he personally witnessed the second prince's head displayed beside the third prince's coffin. It was in a silver basin and his expression was anything but dignified."
"Good Lord Singwa... So the second prince is no more, just like that?" mused Count Kenmays in terror.
Lorist merely nodded.
Count Kenmays downed the wine in his cup in one go, shook his head in thought, and asked, "As per the usual protocol, given that the second prince is my senior noble, I should be mad at you for being the main cause of his death. Given that you acted out of your authority against a senior noble, I should declare war against House Norton to avenge the second prince. But I wonder why I feel some kind of hidden joy and relief right now?"
Lorist smiled and said, "You little bastard... You should be thanking me for relieving House Kenmays of such a troublesome character. Now that you no longer have a senior noble, you can do as you please. Isn't that better? If you still had the second prince lording over you, there would come a day that you would have no choice but to revolt. After all, the second prince's greed was such that he wouldn't even leave the bones behind when he eats.
"As for acting out of my authority, that's just bullshit. It's not like the second prince is my senior noble or anything. Since he dared to attempt to take advantage of us, he should have been ready for the consequences. Also, we did not kill him. That was the second highness. Since he represents the Krissen imperial family, it's well within his right to do so and that has nothing to do with House Norton."
The count made a thumbs up and said, "Since when did you get so sly? Isn't sending the second prince to the imperial capital basically sending him to his death? Also, I almost let you change the subject... The death of the second prince is no big deal. What I want you to tell me is how you traveled to the Andinaq kingdom."
Lorist pointed at the map of the Norton dominion on the wall and said, "Look at it yourself. Didn't I tell you this already? Second Highness Auguslo represented the Krissen imperial family and made me a count. He also enfeoffed Silowas to my house. A few years back, my household finally managed to build a port at our northern coast. Later, I had someone make me a ship and I departed from there. I even went all the way to Morante."
This time around, Count Kenmays mimicked Lorist's catchphrase before he hurried to stare at the map for a good long while.
"Locke, your house is going to be rich! With a naval trade route, gold coins will flow towards you incessantly! Merely the transportation fee will be more than enough for your house to live in opulence. Good Lord Singwa, shipping products by sea would save so much money when compared to transporting them by land! Brother Locke, no, Master Locke, let this one buy some shares... Please let me benefit a little bit from this!"
"Scram!" Lorist scolded half-jokingly, "Do you think making money is that easy? You didn't even consider the cost of the ships, hiring and training sailors, as well as the risks of setting sail. To be honest with you, I just received word that Silowas has been attacked by pirates and suffered heavy losses. I have to make another trip in ten days' time. So, I'm not sure if I will be able to make it back before the new year. That's why I asked you to come for this short gathering of ours. Naturally, I also have some good news to announce to you guys."
"Ah, I see. The risks of setting sail are pretty high, especially with new trade routes. Winds, storms, pirates, navigation errors, there's just so many things that can cause heavy losses," the count agreed, "But I still want to use your trade route to travel to Morante. I haven't been there even once despite how famous it is. Now that I mention it, it's kind of embarrassing."
"Maybe next year. Let me deal with the security issues for now. I'll bring you to Morante after that."
"Very well, then it's decided. So, Locke, what was it you said you wanted to announce?" asked Count Kenmays.
Lorist said, "I'll tell you all when the other two arrive. I don't want to repeat myself for no reason."
"Tch, it's one of your weird quirks again."
Baron Shazin and Baron Felim arrived the next day. As expected, Baron Felim brought his precious daughter over, so Lorist let Howard take a three-day leave to spend some time with his fiancee and improve their relationship.
In the study, Lorist had his servants bring out the golden-laced glass tea-set, the magnifying glass, and the white writing paper and gifted each of the representatives of the three houses with one of each. He announced that those were the products of his household and that he would let the salt merchant committee have the distribution rights for them. Additionally, he told the count that the Norton House was already able to produce glass and that he no longer required the Kenmays House to resell glass to them.
While Baron Shazin and Baron Felim were overjoyed by the announcements, Count Kenmays looked rather down. He had grasped the opportunity to stock up on glass as the war between the Teribo kingdom and the Union had stopped glass production almost completely. The count had intended to sell the glass he managed to stockpile for a higher price to House Norton, but it appeared that the plan was no longer workable.
Lorist told Baron Shazin and Baron Felim that it was time to raise their military strength. He announced to the three the second highness's conquests at the Redlis kingdom and expressed his concern regarding the second highness' possible intention to come to the Iblia kingdom. By then, 300 thousand soldiers would set foot in the Northlands. Lorist said that while he was a noble of the Andinaq kingdom, he wasn't sure if he could stop the second highness from taking action against the other three houses. They were vassals of the second prince and nobles of the Iblia kingdom, after all.
"I advise you all to be prepared just in case. Without a strong military force to fall back on, things might not go as well as you might think," said Lorist.