As promised, when Duke Fisablen arrived at the southern gate, the soldiers stationed there quickly gathered together following another bout of the tune of welcome, before turning away and leaving the gate unattended. Only three soldiers remained to receive everyone.
"Count Norton, you may have your soldiers take over the defense of the southern gate. Those three are just here as guides and you can ask them should you require any guidance or assistance. They are well-versed with the gate and surrounding wall's layout," said Duke Fisablen as he pointed at the three garrison soldiers with his horse whip.
"Thank you, Your Grace. You are far too kind," smiled Lorist.
Patt took a thousand guards and quickly had them take up positions with the help of the three garrison soldiers.
"Oh, also, I am holding a welcoming banquet at noon for Forund's little prince, as well as Count Dalek from Shabaj and Count Chujway from Handra. I hope the four of you will attend it to for my sake. Organizing the knighthood tournament has put quite a dent in my finances, so it'll be great if you can be welcomed during the same banquet instead of having to organize another one," invited the duke with a chuckle.
"Oh, we'll be in your care then. We're more than glad to make some new friends," said Count Kenmays after giving Lorist a look to ascertain his intention.
"It's great that we'll have the opportunity to meet them. I've long heard about how the four central duchies are the most prosperous of all the dominion in the former empire. It's about time we nobles from The Northlands got to know what the trends in the central part of the empire are, so I hope you can introduce us."
"Hahaha," laughed the duke happily as he looked at Count Kenmays, "Introductions are in order of course. I didn't think that this little tournament of mine would actually attract the attention of the four central duchies. Their sudden arrival is one of the reasons I'm unable to host a banquet for your sole sake. I hope you don't mind. Let's go, the banquet's already prepared. We're just waiting for you to begin."
The banquet was being held at the Rose Palace's pavilion where the second prince used to live. When Lorist and his companions arrived, there were more than ten people in front of the pavilion waiting for the duke.
Forund's little prince, Doke, looked to be 24. Clad in noble robes embroidered with gold thread, the little prince truly looked graceful and handsome. Lorist couldn't help but think the prince was far better looking than he. Not only was he young and handsome, he was just a white mount short of ruling many maidens' dreams.
Beside Doke were two people, one of them a red-faced old man, whom Lorist recognized as a rank 2 blademaster whose abilities should be close to that of Shuss. The other was a three-star-gold-ranked knight which Lorist didn't care much for. As for Little Prince Doke himself, he was only at one-star silver rank and looked rather arrogant.
I bet this baby-faced Little Prince is going to rely on his looks to gain Princess Sylvia's favor. Well, he might possibly win if this were the world of my previous life, but it's a shame that the lass has 'a man who can defeat her in combat' as her criterion for a partner. This poor prince stands no chance at all, thought Lorist with envy while he revealed a superficial smile and greeted the other nobles pleasantly.
Count Dalek of Shabaj was a man of huge physique and seemed to be in his thirties. He was a two-star gold rank and had a rather quiet personality. Lorist took note of a trace of disdain the Count revealed in his eyes when Duke Fisablen introduced him and the rest as nobles of The Northlands.
Count Chujway of Handra, on the other hand, felt like a younger clone of Count Kenmays. He was better in terms of battleforce training, however, being a one-star-gold-ranked knight. He was sociable and charismatic and the duke treated him even friendlier than he did the Little Prince.
When Lorist was being introduced, Count Chujway asked in a cautious tone, "Lord Count, may I inquire whether Silowas Island is House Norton's?"
Lorist smiled and nodded, before following Duke Fisablen to the next person he would be introduced to. As he continued on, he noticed that Count Chujway's gaze lingered on him for an unnaturally long time.
Apart from the four central duchies' nobles, there were another three Iblian nobles present. While Lorist only barely recognized them, Count Kenmays was incredibly well-acquainted with them and even gave them hugs when he greeted them. After the introductions, Lorist realized that he had in fact interacted with the three previously. Back when he attacked Windbury, the three had represented the queen to negotiate with him.
The final two were introduced as the gold-ranked household knights of House Fisablen. One was called Blud and was a three-star gold rank, and the other was a two-star gold rank called Loseff. The two looked to be the duke's personal aides. Oddly enough, Viscount Kristoph, which Lorist had looked forward to meeting again, was not present. The duke mentioned that he was stationed at Goldcreek.
Upon entering the pavilion, Lorist realized that the banquet was in the long-table style. There were 20-odd smaller long tables arranged into two rows, much like the banquets Lorist saw before in movies of the 'Romance of the Three Kingdoms'. The only difference was that the corners of the tables were not rounded. Each table was covered with a white linen cloth and a row of round wooden stools sat on each side of the table.
Duke Fisablen naturally occupied the seat in the center of the table. Lorist was seated to his left, followed by Count Kenmays, Baron Felim, Baron Shazin, Blademaster Shuss, and Josk. Els, on the other hand, refused to sit together and joined the 500-odd guards outside, who were served hot soup, meat, and alcohol.
Standing behind Lorist was Howard, and Lorist couldn't help but notice that there were two impeccable beauties serving Little Prince Doke from behind. Count Chujway did not bring any servants with him, contrary to what his likeness with Count Kenmays might suggest. He sat alone and smiled back at Lorist when he noticed the latter's gaze.
The moment they settled into their seats, a large number of maidservants and attendants began serving the dishes. Some half-naked and muscled servants hauled a large rack with a half-ton heavy calf on it around. The calf was roasted on demand, fresh for the meal. Servants would even slice a specific piece requested by one of the nobles. A group of maidservants carrying various musical instruments performed in a corner nearby.
Duke Fisablen raised his golden cup and announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, I welcome you all to the Royal Capital of Windbury. This toast is for those who came all the way to participate in the knighthood tournament! House Fisablen is incredibly honored to receive such high regard. Cheers!"
The duke gulped down the wine in his cup before he said, "That will be all. Let the feast begin!"
Various cries rang out from the crowd that stood up to return the cheer.
"Thank you, Lord Duke!"
"Your Grace, you're being too humble!"
"You truly overstate your praise for us!".
Lorist stood up and mumbled his own share of pleasantries. Just when he was about to sit down, he heard Little Prince Doke say something to the duke.
"Your Grace, I've long heard that Princess Sylvia is the number one beauty in the whole of Iblia. I wonder if she will be present to meet us? I've been yearning to see her for myself for quite a while."
I knew it! He's here for the sole purpose of the princess!
"Hahaha..." the duke laughed heartily, "Your Highness, there's no need to be impatient. Something happened in my dominion a few days ago that required the lass' attention, unfortunately. She will be here in three or four days and I will introduce her to you all when the time comes. But let me warn you that as a result of being spoiled too much, she's developed quite a temper. I hope you will tolerate her."
Doke sat back down with a disappointed expression.
Lorist finally understood why he hadn't seen the princess since his arrival, not even during the banquet.
"Your Grace, I heard the knighthood tournament is an event held to find the perfect suitor for the princess. Is that really the case?" said Count Kenmays, standing up.
Duke Fisablen sighed lightly.
"That is indeed so. Time really flies. Sylvia has grown into such a fine lady. I can still remember when she was small like it was yesterday. She looked so weak when I cradled her in my arms. Now she's grown into such an amazing gold-ranked knight. Since she turns 25 this year, I will no longer let her delay this matter. This tournament is indeed related to her marriage. It's all her fault for setting her sights so high that so many of her other admirers were unable to match up. I have no choice but to use this method. I hope she will find a fine man to marry during this tournament."
"Your Grace, Princess Sylvia is the finest flower of our Iblia and also the most precious gemstone to ever grace our eyes. Her marriage is naturally something worthy of much consideration. What would happen if Her Highness picks a suitor of which you do not approve? After all, Her Highness is already an adult and no doubt has her own views on things. Also, if the one you find worthy to be her husband is not to Her Highness's liking, she would not live a life of bliss either," elaborated Count Kenmays a little hesitantly.
Nodding, Duke Fisablen looked at Lorist.
"You're right, Count. I've promised Sylvia that she'll have the final say. The only condition I have for the person of her choice is his sincerity to form a union with House Fisablen."
"Hehe, Blademater Fisablen, I don't agree with this notion, however," said the rank 2 blademaster who was seated beside Little Prince Doke, "We are nobles, and the marriages of the descendants of nobles have always been decided by their parents. Only commoners will be allowed to pick and choose one's spouse after spending a good while understanding each other like what the Lord Count mentioned. As nobles, we enjoy the wealth and power that comes with the household names we bear. However, the matters of our marriage are no longer a matter of our own choice. We have to consider the household and be prepared to make sacrifices for the best interests of the house. Personal bliss and happiness should not be something we factor into the equation."
"That's true, Blademaster Rimad does have a good point," said Duke Fisablen as he stroked his mustache.
"Your Grace, what if the person Princess Sylvia fancies is also someone who will benefit the Fisablen house and will become a worthy ally? Wouldn't that be the perfect scenario where everyone ends up happy?" retorted Count Kenmays.
"Hahahaha, this count speaks sense! That way, the perfect candidate for Princess Sylvia would be our very own Little Prince Doke. Your Grace, just look at how talented our Little Prince is. He's both handsome and proficient in combat. Last year, when the four central duchies' army was deployed to Frederika, it was His Highness who led the soldiers into battle! In the end, not only did we manage to exterminate the remnant forces of Second Highness Auguslo, our little prince also attained quite a number of military contributions.
"If Your Grace is willing to form a union with Forund, given how the four central duchies have backed each other, House Fisablen would get four allies for the price of one! Surely, this arrangement would be the ideal one that even the Silvermoon Goddess herself would approve of. Even though our little prince's talent in battleforce is not as amazing as that of Her Highness, given how learned and famed he is in our duchy, I'm sure Princess Sylvia would find fancy in His Highness's many talents."
Not one of those present expected rank 2 blademaster Rimad would actually spout such embarrassing words in public. Even Duke Fisablen seemed a little startled by his audacity. Little Prince Doke acted like it was the most natural thing in the world to have praises sung about him in public, which was apparent from his raised head. It seemed like he was studying the empty ceiling intently.
Lorist lost control of himself completely and laughed.
Oh my, the Little Prince is nothing but a spoiled brat... I'm sure he's heard so many sycophantic praises that he's gotten completely full of himself!
A low voice rang out on cue with Lorist's laughter.
"Oh, the Little Prince led his troops on the battlefield himself, you say? That can't be right, why didn't I see House Forund's standard when I called for reinforcements?"
The one who spoke was Count Dalek. Even though the four central duchies were allies, Count Dalek didn't have to give the little prince any face as a noble of the Shabaj duchy. While he wouldn't care if Blademaster Rimad only wanted to make his little prince seem better, he had an issue with the blademaster's exploitation of the battle for Frederika.
"Hehe, Dalek my friend, everyone knows that you lead the main forces and were the first to breach Frederika's walls. However, Shabaj was only occupied with attacking the north gate, Forund took care of the south gate. It's no surprise that you weren't able to see us," countered the three-star-gold-ranked knight that came with the little prince.
However, Count Dalek gave him a weird look.
"The south gate? Wasn't that part occupied by the Union? What business did you have over there? It's no wonder we were only able to spot Forund troops after we beat the Union."
"Pffft!" Baron Shazin and Baron Felim couldn't help but spit out the wine they had in their mouths.
The gold-ranked knight wasn't able to step down from his 'podium', so he directed his anger at his new targets.
Staring at the two barons angrily, he yelled, "What's so funny?!"
"Oh?" mumbled Baron Felim as a cold look flashed across his eyes.
He didn't fear Forund in the least, but just before he was about to make his retort, Baron Shazin stole the spotlight
"I didn't know we needed your permission to laugh during Duke Fisablen's banquet!"
The moment the statement was made, the three-star-gold-ranked knight snapped out of his anger and realized that he was attending a banquet hosted by the duke. He wasn't in Forund and couldn't afford to act brashly. Stealing a glance, he saw that the duke wore a dark expression. He turned to the house's knights and could see their deathly stares aimed straight at him.
At that moment, Rimad stood up to defuse the situation.
"Come on, even if the wine served by the duke is that good, you shouldn't have gotten that drunk! How embarrassing. As a gold-ranked knight, you should be preparing for the upcoming tournament instead of mouthing off at other people. Your Grace, we're very sorry about this."
Duke Fisablen waved his hand.
"It's no big deal. I heard you guys conquered Frederika last year and eliminated the second highness' remaining forces. Can you tell me more about the battle?"
"I would be glad to, Your Grace," answered Rimad.