Oh, Princess Sylvia? Does she need anything? thought Lorist.
"Howard, how many years are left until our agreement with Fisablen expires?" asked Lorist, thinking that some change must have happened to the agreement.
"This year's transaction was completed without incident and next year's will be the last," replied Howard.
Time really flies. So it's already been four years since the agreement was signed, huh?
"What have House Fisablen been up to over these years?"
Howard shook his head.
"The salt merchant committee's largest target market is Wild Husbandry, Milord. The governor is Viscount Kristoph, and our informants are well aware of the situation. They were unable to infiltrate Eastwild, however. It's where the duke himself is, and his security is far greater. We were only able to get very rough and vague bits of information. The house has tried sending a group of spies into the province disguised as merchants before as well but they were quickly chased out.
"We did manage to learn that Duke Fisablen reformed his two legions and reorganizes the garrison force. Currently, the two legions total 46 thousand men. Coupled with the three garrison divisions he reorganized, his local defense legion, and personal guard regiment, he has a total force of 136 thousand people. The three garrison divisions are stationed in Wild Husbandry, Eastwild, and Southern respectively.
"Not only that, the Skywolf Legion commanded by Viscount Kristoph and the Tigerhowl Legion at Wild Husbandry launched large-scale military efforts against the grassland barbarians. According to the salt merchant committee's reports and Furybear's informants, almost a hundred grassland barbarian tribes have been eliminated. More than 150 thousand have been taken captive, most of whom are women and children. Duke Fisablen had his officers take the women as their wives. Apparently, everyone ranked squad leader and above were allowed to take a wife and a concubine."
Lorist sat down properly and asked, "How much is the three provinces' population?"
"Eastwild and Wild Husbandry's population is less than 800 thousand and the desolated Southern has only 160 thousand. Our forces alone have almost 300 thousand people."
Lorist waved his hand.
"Their house is far from being able to compete with us. Our next targets should be the Madras duchy and the Iblia kingdom. We'll rest for another year before we launch another campaign.
"I didn't think Duke Fisablen would be able to assemble such a large force. That old fox is definitely wary of us. It seems we will have to focus on gathering intelligence from Eastwild soon."
Princess Sylvia arrived on time, and as expected, Count Kenmays was present during the welcoming.
After the princess and her cohort settled down, Lorist arranged for a magnificent feast to welcome her.
The two hadn't met for several years and Princess Sylvia had grown even more beautiful in the meantime -- like a flower just blooming, the beauty of which was so glaring that nothing could obstruct it. Amidst her hopeful stares hid her sweet smiles. Even Lorist was unable to resist the dreamy allure of her emerald-green eyes.
During the banquet, Princess Sylvia announced the reason for her trip. She was here to negotiate the next arms deal between the two houses and to invite Lorist to the knighthood tournament her father was organizing at Iblia's royal capital during the 5th month of the next year. The tournament was to identify talent for the kingdom. The princess was sent specifically to request Count Norton's attendance.
When Lorist heard what she had to say, the first thought he had in his mind was that it was a trap. Everyone within Iblia knew that House Norton had led the three other houses of The Northlands to conquer Windbury City, capture the former king, the second prince of the Empire, Iblia, and send him to Andinaq's capital where he was finally sacrificed during the third prince's burial. Lorist couldn't help but feel suspicious of the invitation.
He was not afraid of an attempt on his life -- he would be able to escape unscathed without issue. Besides, as the leader of House Norton and the most powerful count in The Northlands, he would definitely bring with him a legion and Blademaster Shuss would he attend the tournament as well. Lorist was confident that he could fight his way out even if he fell into an ambush.
However, Lorist found that participating in the tournament would be incredibly boring. Frankly speaking, he believed his combat abilities had long surpassed those of most other knights., with the exception of Duke Fisablen, a rank 3 blademaster, who would probably last a few hundred bouts. Lorist would rather stay within the dominion and enjoy his time at his own leisure. Lorist was rather lazy for some reason and did not feel like leaving the dominion for the tournament.
Lorist did not refuse the princess's invitation outright during the banquet, however, even though Count Kenmays said that he would. Princess Sylvia did not take his comments to heart and merely expressed her welcome to the count, before turning to look at Lorist with hopeful eyes. Lorist could only put it off by promising that he would go along if the house did not require his presence at the time.
The princess pouted and threw a small tantrum at his answer. The banquet fell into a slightly awkward mood. Lorist was left with no choice but to end the banquet early.
As the host, Lorist was expected to invite Princess Sylvia into his study for a good conversation. He only made his invitation out of obligation, but he did not think that she would roll her eyes and walk towards the study without saying anything. She was followed by her teacher, Blademaster Xanthi, and the busybody Count Kenmays.
In the study, Count Kenmays plundered the wine stash as usual. Blademaster Xanthi sat on the couch in the corner, drinking the cup of tea Howard poured her. Princess Sylvia stood in front of Lorist's desk and stared at him with angry eyes.
Gosh, this is going to take a while, smiled Lorist bitterly, "Your Highness, please calm your anger. Look at all this paperwork on my desk, I truly am really busy!"
"Hmph!" snorted the princess before she turned around and ignored Lorist.
"By the way, Your Highness, I brought some souvenirs back for you from my last trip. I hope you like them," said Lorist with utmost reverence.
He hoped his offering would calm the princess' seething wrath.
In the drawer at the left of the table were five intricate boxes decorated with purple silk. The one at the bottom was the largest, which Lorist took out and opened, revealing a black-colored velvet cushion on which a platinum necklace was placed. At the center of the necklace was a thumb-sized emerald of immense clarity and glow. The necklace was accompanied by a matching pair of earrings and a jade bracelet.
The jewelry instantly caught the attention of Princess Sylvia the moment it was brought out; even Blademaster Xanthi could not help but walk to the princess's side to inspect the ornaments for herself.
As expected, women are a little like the dragons of legend: greatly attracted to shiny objects.
"Gosh, Locke, where did you get these babies from? They look like priceless heirlooms!" exclaimed Count Kenmays.
How should I respond to him? thought Lorist, rubbing his nose, This is one of the spoils I got from Hanayabarta. It used to belong to the queen consort.
There were four more boxes in the drawer, but the items he just brought out were the most valuable of them all. They were worth around 200 thousand gold Fordes. Had it not been for Princess Sylvia's alluring green eyes, Lorist would have forgotten about the emerald jewelry entirely.
Well, I better not say that I looted them from the corpse of a queen consort...
The jewelry in the four other boxes was also taken from the dead bodies of the other concubines. That was why Lorist hesitated to gift them to his lovers.
"Well, I robbed someone and got them," said Lorist.
Well, the target of my robbery was a whole kingdom, but some things are better left unsaid.
"Huh? Do you think me an idiot?!" Count Kenmays said angrily, "What kind of idiot would wear something that precious in broad daylight? Something like that would be precious family heirlooms that wouldn't ever see the light of day!"
"Seriously, I kid you not," Lorist said with sincere honesty, "I robbed a whole kingdom."
"Only the dead would believe you," Count Kenmays retorted, "Let's see what you have in the four other boxes in that drawer of yours, shall we?"
While the jewelry in the boxes were not as complete as the emerald set, they were still incredibly precious. Count Kenmays, Princess Sylvia, and Blademaster Xanthi were all filled with awe and amazement.
"Locke, my friend,... I would like to..." stammered Count Kenmays.
"Fine, pick the one you like. Oh, and, Blademaster Xanthi, feel free to choose one box as well. Everyone who saw these boxes get one. Is that fair enough?"
Lorist knew perfectly what the count was getting at, so he gave the boxes away generously. After all, the jewelry in the other boxes was only worth a few tens of thousands of gold Fordes, a far cry from the emerald set. The main factor of Lorist's generosity, however, was still the fact that the items had been looted from corpses, which was somewhat of a taboo for him, probably because of how he was brought up in his previous life. Count Kenmays and the rest, however, did not pay that any heed.
Princess Sylva really did not think that Lorist would give her such an expensive gift. With a face full of smiles, she said, "Elder Brother Locke, thank you so much for your gift. I love the emerald jewelry a lot."
"Great, as long as you stop being mad at me," Lorist smiled.
Lorist prepared to refuse the invitation for next year's knighthood tournament while the princess was still in a good mood.
"Well, Your Highness, I'm worried that I will be a little busy during the 5th month next year, so..."
"Locke, I'm already 24 this year..." muttered the princess shyly.
Oh? So what if she's 24? I'm already 34, thought Lorist thickly.
"Oh, the last time I met you, you were only 20. It's already been four years, huh? Time really flies. To think that you already broke through to the two-star gold rank! You really are talented. You should be able to reach three-star gold rank by the time you're thirty," praised Lorist.
"I'm going to be 25 next year, so my grandfather is organizing a knighthood tournament, for... You know... Do you understand now, you blockhead?!"
Princess Sylvia stomped on Lorist's foot.
"Ouch!" cried Lorist.
Princess Sylvia took the box and left.
Blademaster Xanthi got in front of Lorist and said with a slight smile, "That lass has been training hard in seclusion for four whole years and finally broke through to the two-star gold rank. Not only that, Duke Fisablen is organizing a knighthood tournament for her sake, yet she came all the way here to inform you. You don't need me to spell it out for you, do you?"
Seeing the blademaster leave the study, Lorist looked at Count Kenmays but only saw a bumbling drunk gulping down wine with abandon.
"What are you looking at?! I... I didn't think that th-the princess would actually fall for the likes of you!" barked the count with eyes bloodshot with rage.
"Me...?" mumbled Lorist as he pointed at himself with his finger.
"Yes, you! Don't you get the hints she's practically laying out for you?! The princess was right, you really are a blockhead!" Count Kenmays exclaimed, "Even though I'm far more handsome than you are, and have a better demeanor and aura, the princess still fell for you."
"Hey, I'll duel you with one hand behind my back. I can mop the floor with you after only three moves," Lorist retorted as he limped to the couch and reached out for his feet, "Darn, that lass's stomp sure was heavy. It still hurts even now."
"Hmph, you deserve it for being so dense. Her Highness already made it clear that the reason the duke is hosting the tournament is that she's already 24."
"Wait, so you're saying that the tournament's for picking a fitting suitor for the princess? Isn't that basically dueling for her hand in marriage?" asked Lorist.
"Dueling for her hand in marriage? Yeah, to think that you could put it so succinctly, blockheaded as you are," said the count as he nodded.
Lorist said curiously, "Isn't the princess the beloved granddaughter of Duke Fisablen? Why is there a need for her to find a suitor in such a roundabout way? There's no need for a knighthood tournament to be organized just for this, is there?"
Count Kenmays leered at Lorist.
"Once a bumpkin, always a bumpkin. Do you think that a person with the status of the princess can find a suitor that easily? Let me tell you, the matter of her marriage is far more complicated than our own. Even though there are many who strive for her favor and affection from all noble ranks, can a proper suitor be determined only based on that? The Iblia kingdom has a few dukes among their peerage as well, but are they qualified to marry the princess just because of that? Most of them are mere honorary nobles. Even a prince would not stand a chance.
"A person like Duke Fisablen has to take the matter of Princess Sylvia's marriage with great consideration, in terms of status, household might, and most importantly, how good a fit the couple is for each other. Otherwise, the couple would become a laughing stock for the other nobles. Given the princess's status, the ideal candidate for her husband would be someone who is in line to succeed a duchy, or a throne to the kingdom, or even a very powerful noble like you. Heck, when I look at it that way, you are qualified to be the princess's suitor after all."
"But... I'm older than her by ten whole years," mumbled Lorist.
"What's the problem with that? Do you know that Duke Melein's daughter was wedded to the third prince despite there being a 14-year age gap? 14 whole years!" exclaimed the count.
"Duke Melein's daughter and the third prince?"
"The three princes of the former empire also faced the same problem and weren't able to find suitable suitors. With the reputation of the first and second princes being rather bad, most powerful nobles weren't willing to form a marriage union with the imperial family, and the noble houses that were willing to do so did not even qualify given their low status. That was why the first and second princes had illegitimate children that further tainted their names. When the third prince was 30 years old, Duke Melein's daughter had already matured into a fine woman and the Melein household was willing to form a union with the imperial family. That's why the third prince was chosen to become the rightful heir to the empire. It was also because of that matter that caused the first and second princes to be dissatisfied with the manner in which succession was decided, as there was precedent where former emperors inherited the throne without empress consorts."
"Why were the powerful nobles not willing to be united with the imperial family?" asked Lorist, confused.
"It's simple. They would be ostracized by the other noble houses. After all, the imperial family is always at odds with the rest of the aristocracy, and those who side with the imperial family are also regarded in the same light. The imperial family is always hoping to strip away the powers of the noble houses so they don't become strong enough to threaten their rule. When the imperial family is strong, noble houses would ally together to protect their own interests. Not only that, should a mighty noble house unite with the imperial family, the influence of the imperial family would be further expanded and threaten the interests of the other noble houses. The final reason is that a noble house would be involved in the matters of the imperial houses, just like Duke Melein who was forced to participate in the civil war on the side of the third prince. To protect the rightful heir to the imperial throne, the Melein house had put in lots of resources and sacrificed much of their vitality, causing them to now be too weak to even protect themselves," explained Count Kenmays in detail.
"Then, what if the duke isn't able to find a proper suitor during the knighthood tournament?" asked Lorist again.
Count Kenmays shrugged and said, "Then, the matter would be even easier to deal with. The victor of the tournament would be a fitting compromise even if his status and family is relatively low. But, the catch is that the husband would effectively be married into the Fisablen house, and their descendants would bear the name of Fisablen as well.
"That's why, Locke, don't let the hopes and deep feelings the princess has for you down. No matter what, you have to attend the knighthood competition during the 5th month next year! Don't let the princess get married to some powerless lowborn!"