Viscount Eidis brought the two excited sons of his and 20 mounted guards along. Besides Viscount Zindler, Barn Klaus and Baron Wade brought all their children and 50 guards. To the four nobles, being able to gather up roughly 70 men was already their best. The four stared at the Northlander soldier's armor. They realized that even the knights of their household, which they cherished dearly and looked after as well as they could, did not even have equipment as complete as the Northland guards. The realization took quite a bit of wind out of their sails.
Viscount Eidis's elder son, Warridge, was the 'boss' of the other youths that followed along. In a fit of dissatisfaction, he actually challenged Els to a duel. Thus, a small sparring match was organized at noon between the descendants of the four Winston nobles and Lorist's guards. What Warridge did not imagine would happen was that his comrades actually fared rather badly from even the most common of the guards. In the end, he joined the fray himself and managed to fight Patt to a draw. Throughout the whole fight neither could gain even the smallest advantage over the other. However, Patt was still a two-star silver rank, having been unable to train when he was recovering from his injuries, while Warridge was a three-star silver rank.
Eidis and his fellow nobles seemed to have predicted such a result and were pleased that their arrogant children got put in their place. At the very least, they would reflect on their actual capabilities and not engage in any reckless or risky behavior during their travels.
It took at least a full day to reach Windbury. The scenery along the way seemed more normal than before, with the occasional noble's carriage or group of mounted knights passing them by. There were also many carriages that transported various kinds of resources to the capital, as well as some roaming knights that dressed just like normal mercenaries.
When Lorist's group resumed their travels, those in their way immediately stepped aside to make a path, even the nobles stood at the roadside and bowed respectfully. It appeared that the flag of the Raging Bear attracted the most eyes and bows.
From time to time, nobles on the side of the road would call out to Eidis. Count Kenmays was also rather busy with greetings as the number of nobles he knew did not lose out to that of the viscount. With Lorist's permission, their whole group slowed down as many other affiliated nobles wanted to travel with them. Lorist felt that Kenmays had a point when he said it was better to travel leisurely and arrive at the capital the next morning, rather than rush all the way there to arrive during the night. It would be easier to take over control of the southern gate's guard stations in the morning as well.
What Lorist wondered about was how Kenmays did not know Viscount Eidis despite the depth of his knowledge of Iblia. Even though he was entitled by the second prince and had a mercantile family background, he had quite a large network of acquaintances, as was apparent from how eight or nine out of ten nobles they passed knew him. So, why did he not know Viscount Eidis?
"Well, I've heard of Viscount Eidis before," Kenmays laughed, "but we've never met before. Frankly, I am a noble of the kingdom, just like Baron Felim. We are both in King Iblia's faction. Baron Felim knows the nobles of Southern well and is on bad terms with the queen and her faction of nobles. However, Viscount Eidis and the rest belong to the Winston faction, nobles who are known to form alliances for their own protection and staying neutral on most matters. They are also rather powerful as a whole. As long as the second prince didn't threaten their interests, they'd maintain their neutrality. They don't normally interact with the queen's faction, so it's not weird for me to not be acquainted with him."
Sheesh, to think the nobles of a small kingdom like Iblia would have so many factions, thought Lorist, frustrated.
Count Kenmays proceeded to explain that only two factions remained after Lorist captured the second prince, which were those of the queen and Winston. Without the second prince in the picture, the nobles of Southern had no choice but to join the queen's side, changing their former aim from developing their own dominions to causing trouble for Winston's nobles. Most of the conflict and provocations Viscount Eidis and his fellow nobles received were from the nobles of Southern.
The number of people on the road increased as they neared Windbury.
When the rest saw a flag that depicted a round horseshoe with a sword pierced through it, Baron Felim, who was usually calm and collected, exclaimed, "Is Bonawar going to the capital as well?"
Just as the Felim left the group and attempted to catch up, the people bearing the horseshoe flag sped up their course and quickly disappeared.
"Who's that Bonawar you mentioned?" inquired Lorist.
"That's one of the second prince's former generals. He served him during the first years after the kingdom's founding," explained Felim, "He's adept in battle and comes from a famed family of knights. He is also a gold-ranked knight. Two of the second prince's three victories were thanks to him. But, when the kingdom was founded and he was awaiting his entitlement, the second prince actually demanded a sizable donation from him. He left in a fit of rage and disappeared for good. I didn't think that he would show up here to participate in the knighthood tournament..."
Lorist nodded before he patted Felim's shoulder.
"Oh well, it's obvious that Bonawar doesn't want to interact with a huge group of nobles like us. Don't worry, you'll have your chance to meet him at the capital."
In the evening, Lorist instructed everyone to set up camp earlier than usual at a small mound not far away from the main road. During the night, when Lorist was about to start his patrol, he realized that a regiment of troops was rushing towards the capital with lit torches. When they neared, they were surprised to find such a well-guarded camp. After hesitating for a while, a few of the riders brought their torches towards the camp and requested the people at the camp identify themselves. After a squad of patrolling guards told the riders the camp was set up by nobles intent on participating in the tournament, the riders returned to their group and resumed their journey.
The night was cloudy. The dark grey puffs obscured the silver moon's brightness. Perhaps it would rain the next morning. Lorist watched the group pass by and disappear into the distance from a vantage point on the mound.
A few thousand cavalry soldiers and more than 40 carriages... Was that a merchant convoy, or one belonging to a noble?
Just as he was about to finish his thought, the squad of patrolling guards came over and reported that the group that just passed them were from the Forund duchy. It appeared the duchy's young prince would be participating in the tournament as well.
Oh, I see that word has traveled far... Even those at the four central duchies got wind of it. It goes without saying that the prince is intent on forming a union with House Fisablen. Sol, even though the four duchies' army just destroyed the the second highness's at Redlis, they're clamoring for a union. It truly is rather smart of them to garner support so aggressively. If I allow it to happen, the four duchies and the Fisablen duchy combined would be like five huge mountainous obstacles blocking my way… I must not let it happen.
Originally, Lorist did not care too much about whether he would succeed in winning the princess's hand. But, when he realized that there were others competing with him, he felt as if he had been crossed somehow and resolved to not let others soil his princess.
Noon the next day, when Lorist's group was roughly 5 kilometers from their destination, a loud horn tune was blown. The guards sent to check it out came back and reported that Duke Fisablen was on his way with more than a hundred mounted guards to receive The Northlands' four great nobles. Not only did the news surprise Lorist, Viscount Eidis and the other Iblian nobles were also shocked. Given Lorist's title and the other nobles' weak understanding of their might, it was as if the duke's welcome was a departure from normal etiquette.
Tch, that old fox is roasting me on a fire.
Lorist knew well that the duke had come to receive only him. 'Welcoming The Northlands' four great nobles' was just an excuse for the duke to see for himself the might of Lorist's house.
Given how I see him as a potential enemy, there's no doubt that he also thinks of me the same way. His subordinates suffered quite a loss at my hands, after all. Also, had it not been for the fact that I provided them with military equipment, that old fox might not even have thought of reaching his hands into the greater and lesser golden creeks...
This was Lorist and Duke Fisablen's first meeting. Under the gazes of the Iblian nobles, Lorist dismounted when the duke approached on horseback. Count Kenmays, Baron Felim, Baron Shazin, and their guards followed suit. The Norton's three allies stayed slightly behind Lorist of their own accord, whereas the guards of all four houses got into formation on two opposite sides, forming two rows of ten square formations facing each other, each numbering 500 men.
It was said that Duke Fisablen was well above his seventies. However, given that he was a rank 3 blademaster, he looked only around fifty. Alert and sharp, he saw Lorist and his cohort dismount and spurred his horse forward. He made his way through the hundred plus guards in front of him. He quickly arrived before the group and hopped off his horse with a hearty laugh before setting his gaze on Lorist.
"So, you're Count Norton. I've long heard your impressive name," said he jovially.
Lorist clutched his chest with his right hand and bowed slightly. It was the former empire's standard greeting.
"House Norton of The Northlands greets the Empire's Duke, Wargod of the Plains, Your Grace, Duke Fisablen. Let me first offer my most heartfelt congratulations on your recent successes at the plains."
Duke Fisablen stretched out his hand and patted Lorist's shoulder.
"Hehe, the Raging Bear of The Northlands, House Norton, has protected the empire's borders of for generations. I've long heard about your prestigious name. It is my pleasure to have you and your allies attend the tournament."
"Your Grace, it's our honor to partake in your knighthood tournament," said Lorist politely.
"There's no need to be so humble," the duke said, waving his hand casually, "I really meant what I said. Let me guess, this elegant and cultured person must be Count Kenmays, am I right? I've heard so much about you, but I've never had the opportunity to meet you in person. Seems like that wish of mine has finally come true."
"It is my pleasure to meet you too, Your Grace." returned Count Kenmays.
"And this collected person here with the visage of a true knight must be the descendant of the House of the Pegasus, Gold-ranked Knight Baron Felim."
Baron Felim smashed his right fist on his breastplate, making a knight's salute.
"House Felim pays our respects to the Lord Duke!" announced he.
Baron Shazin also did the same.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Lord Duke. I am Hennard of The Northlands' House Shazin. I pay my respects to House Fisablen, the renowned riders of the grasslands!"
Duke Fisablen laughed and knocked on Baron Shazin's breastplate
"What a fine man," praised he.
All the Iblian nobles greeted the duke afterwards, the latter only hummed and nodded in response before turning his attention to the guards.
He turned around and questioned Lorist, "Count Norton, is this your household's force?"
No shit. Can't you see the Raging Bear crests on their breastplate? Lorist snorted inwardly.
But he understood the duke's intentions.
He nodded and replied, "Your Grace, you are the famed Wargod of the Plains. Please rate my troops and give them some pointers."
"Attention! Pay our respects to His Grace, Duke Fisablen!"
Every time the duke passed by a square formation of troops, the regiment leader would call out in that exact manner and his subordinates would salute the duke in unison.
Duke Fisablen returned each salute, nodding as he did so.
Duke Fisablen stopped at the last formation after he finished his salute and knocked on the breastplate, helmet, and pauldrons of one of the guards. He turned to Lorist, who had accompanied him all the way.
"Kid, are you making a fool out of me? Even I can't train troops that disciplined!" he exclaimed, "Every one can become, at the very least, a squad leader in my household, perhaps even a company leader. Other things aside, they are far better equipped than even my own knights.
"Tell me honestly, are all your soldiers equipped with steel armor? The feeling I got from knocking on it is a little different... The defensive capabilities of your troops' armor are far higher than the equipment you sold me..."
As expected of an old fox. Even Count Kenmays didn't realize that my troops were armed with steel, yet Duke Fisablen was able to tell at a glance.
"Well, it's not strictly steel armor. We also added a steel mesh beneath to increase its structural integrity. However, the manufacturing costs are at least double as a result. I thought that mass production would allow me to decrease production costs, but after making 3000 sets, I realized the cost was still sky high, so I called for production to cease immediately. The armor sets they are wearing cost more than 180 gold Fordes each. Only my personal guard is equipped with this armor. We are far from capable of doing the same for the rest of our troops."
To prove his point, Lorist pulled out the steel mesh beneath the armor of one of his guards for the duke to see. A mesh could indeed be seen through the gaps of the greyish-green armor. The duke scrutinized it and gave it a few more knocks suspiciously.
Apart from that small interlude, Duke Fisablen was full of praises for the Norton forces. He did not fail to give credit to Count Kenmays, Baron Felim, and Baron Shazin's guards either. After a good while of pleasantries, they finally got back on their mounts and followed the duke into Windbury.