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That last request was a given in Duke Fisablen's mind. When two noble houses unite in marriage, the household of the bride has a right to request the groom's house to exile their concubines so that they don't cause any trouble during succession in the future. At the same time, there would no longer be an incentive for the illegitimate children to harm the rightful heir.

That was the case with the third prince and Duke Melein's daughter's marriage. The third prince had four concubines prior to his engagement, with one of them being a daughter of a minor noble who had given birth to a son. She was unwilling to leave and propped her son up as the result of her efforts of serving the third prince. In the end, the former emperor had to poison her drink to ensure the successful union of the imperial family and the Melein house and send the two-year-old illegitimate son somewhere far away where he would never be heard from again.

The union of two noble houses through marriage didn't only show the favorable relationship between the two houses, it also related to the benefits those two houses would receive upon their union. The first two requests made by Duke Fisablen looked out for the interests of his own house. In terms of total cost, Lorist would have to pay out roughly three million gold Fordes to be allowed to wed Princess Sylvia.

However, the final request was made for the princess's own sake so that she would live a life of bliss, untroubled by the jealous wiles of the other women in the Norton household.

Lorist kept quiet the whole time after he heard the third request.



Duke Fisablen was in a very good mood when he said, "Servants, have some food served here. I wanna have a few cups with Locke right now."

"I apologize," Lorist said, "Your Grace, I won't be able to do it."

"Huh? What are you saying?" the duke asked disbelievingly while turning around. He still had his finger outstretched from when he instructed his servants, which seemed to be frozen in place like a withered branch.

"Your Grace, I am unable to fulfill your third request," Lorist said as he raised his head and looked at the duke solemnly.

Duke Fisablen stared fixedly at Lorist's face before he croaked, "Aha... ha... haha... Count... Count Norton... You're just joking around with me, right?"

Lorist shook his head and said, "I am serious. To me, they have become my women the moment I took them in as concubines, and I am their man. Men of the Norton house don't abandon their women. Not only that, I believe that Sylvia will understand and accept why I think so too."

Bam! Duke Fisablen thrust his palm harshly against the table, causing it to crumble into several pieces on the ground. Standing up, the duke exploded like a flaming volcano, "Whether Sylvia understands or not is her own matter. But are you really willing to refuse the request of I, of House Fisablen?"

Lorist stood up without showing any weakness and said, "I only care about Sylvia, not House Fisablen. I've already accepted the first two requests of your house, but I would never allow House Fisablen to stick their hands into the affairs of my house. You have no right to demand that I abandon my women!"

Duke Fisablen was so angered that fumes seemed to waft out from his head. "You... You requested to be allowed to marry Sylvia from our house, yet you're unwilling to give up on other women. Is this the 'care' you said you had for her?"

"Does that sound conflicting to you?" Lorist asked and laughed, "It's because I care for Sylvia that I want her to be my official wife, the matron of House Norton. She will have everything that she is due, but she has to respect the traditions of the Norton house as well. Should she become my wife, she will have to treat my other women well also. That is one of her responsibilities as the matron," declared Lorist now that negotiations have completely fallen off the table.

"You... You insolent little!" roared the duke, almost coughing blood into Lorist's face. What do you think the Fisablen house is?! You said that the most precious flower of our house has to take care of your other women after being wedded there? Ridiculous! If word of this spreads, how would I be able to show my face in front of others in future?! We are not like those other fallen noble houses! We are House Fisablen, the Lion of the  Northern Grasslands!

Duke Fisablen glared at Lorist with anger as the energies within his body coalesced. His right hand was already holding tightly onto the longsword hanging by his hip, as if he wanted to cut Lorist into two halves.

While Lorist seemed incredibly relaxed with both his hands down, his feet had already gotten into a steady position, ready to receive the duke's rage at any moment. If gazes and thoughts could materialize, the space between Lorist and Duke Fisablen would've been obliterated.

"Count Norton, give up on your concubines and illegitimate children. This is the request of House Fisablen, and is also the requirement you have to fulfill to take Sylvia as your wife. It is also your chance to express your sincerity to her. If you can't do that, I will take it as an affront against the Fisablen house. Do not test our patience. As her grandfather, I will definitely not allow her husband to have other women and children," said the duke after a long while as he greatly suppressed his anger.

"I'm sorry, Your Grace. I mentioned that I wouldn't be able to do it. This is not an issue of the union between our two houses. It's one of the responsibilities of a man. Abandoning one's women and children is a mark of shame for any man. That is something I'm definitely not willing to do."

All of a sudden, Duke Fisablen dispersed his threatening air and sat back down onto his chair in a crestfallen manner. Waving his hand, he said, "Count Norton, you should head back. I hope that you can consider the third request I made. Only after you consent to it will I allow Sylvia to marry you."

"Your Grace, you should consider this as well: if I give up on my concubines and illegitimate children for Sylvia today, what's to say I won't give up on Sylvia for some other women in the future? That's why..."

Before he finished, Duke Fisablen lifted an ornament on his desk and tossed it towards Lorist. "Scram! Get out of my sight right now!"

Lorist quickly took his leave. When he emerged from Rose Palace and saw Els and the rest waiting there, he stopped, stroked his chin and said, "Wait, why didn't that old guy cut me down immediately? That's weird, even when I said that before I left, all he did was throw things at me. Didn't they say he had a bad temper? And he's a rank 3 blademaster to boot, so he shouldn't fear me, should he? How weird..."

By then, Els and the ten-odd guards had walked up to receive Lorist, so he could only keep the thoughts for himself and ponder upon them when he returned to the inn.

Count Kenmays had been waiting in the hall of the inn for Lorist's return. The moment he saw Lorist enter, he jumped and pulled on Lorist's hand, asking, "Did Duke Fisablen want to see you because of your marriage with Sylvia?"

Lorist nodded.

"Did it work out?"

Lorist shook his head, shrugged, and said, "I don't think so, since I didn't accept his third request."

Stunned, Count Kenmays asked, "What were the requests?"

"The first concerned our house starting ten factories at Wild Husbandry Province so that they can produce enough daily necessities to sustain themselves," recalled Lorist.

Count Kenmays jumped as he said, "No way, we definitely can't do that! He's trying to cut out the salt merchant committee! Locke, daily necessities are what that province requires the most. Even though the profit per unit is low, the sheer volume of things traded is enormous! Currently, the salt merchant committee has a monopoly on the daily necessities market at Wild Husbandry Province and Eastwild Province, with two-thirds of our profits coming from there! That's because the products made at other places can't compete with ours in both price and quality, eventually stopping production altogether because of us. And hasn't the duke conquered the greater and lesser golden creeks? I was just about to charge them a bit more since they have started to mine gold over there."

Count Kenmays lost all his previous flair suddenly and said, "Well, Princess Sylvia's matter is what's important right now. At least we know that Duke Fisablen doesn't want us to mine gold coins from his dominion. Maybe they're interested in making a profit using our goods as well, hence his request for you to help him set up those factories. No matter, even if we lose that profit, we can think of other ways to increase them on other fronts."

"The second request was for my house to provide them with ten thousand sets of armor that my guards wear," continued Lorist.

Count Kenmays burst out once again, "That's going too far! This greedy old bastard is really shameless!"

The armor worn by the three thousand guards were admittedly different from those of the other household soldiers. Even though the household soldiers were armed with stainless steel armor, the defensive capabilities were slightly lower than the ones worn by the guards. Even though the design was similar, the color differed slightly -- the armor worn by normal household soldiers were lead grey in color while those worn by the guards were greenish-grey. That armor was exclusive to Lorist's personal guard.

Count Kenmays, Baron Felim and Baron Shazin all thought that the armor worn by the Norton house were same as theirs, being made of stainless steel, because they weren't able to tell the different metals used to manufacture them based on only the color. However, they did know that the armor worn by Norton guards had the highest defensive capabilities. Lorist told them that each set cost 180 gold Fordes and that the house had only managed to make a little over 3000 of them, before gifting each of the three two sets of armor made of the same materials according to their preferred design.

Yet, Duke Fisablen had asked for ten thousand sets in one breath. Count Kenmays complained, "Is that old guy nuts? No matter how large the lion's mouth is, even it would choke to death if it tried to swallow prey in one go. The marriage between the third prince and Duke Melein's daughter only involved a transaction of two million imperial gold coins that amount to only 800 thousand gold Fordes at most. Yet, he had asked you to pay such a huge price for marrying the princess. Is that why you refused?"

Lorist replied, "I've agreed to both those conditions."

"Ugh," Count Kenmays gasped, before he snapped out of his stupor and said, "Well, it's fine. It is fine House Norton is truly impressive, for you to be able to accept those conditions. Then, was the third request even more ridiculous?"

"Well, not really. His third request was for me to exile my concubines and illegitimate children before he would agree to the union between our two houses."

Count Kenmays stayed silent for a good moment before he patted onto Lorist's back and said, "I really want to call you an idiot for refusing a request that pales in comparison to the former two, but I feel relieved that you didn't agree to it somehow. I think Baron Felim and Baron Shazin would feel the same after they hear about this. We would no longer have to worry about the alliance between our four families to rift just because the Norton house got too powerful."

Lorist laughed bitterly and said, "But now, I don't know how I should answer to the princess for this..."

Count Kenmays laughed and said, "Locke, I can only ask you to grieve and move on. We'll always stand behind you and offer our moral support no matter what kind of chaos you cause."

"Good Sol, is that all you have to do as allies? Isn't it better for me if the alliance was called off, then?"

"No way, you're the unquestioned head of our little alliance. It was you who called for the alliance's formation, so if we don't leave it, you won't be able to back out either, unless you want the reputation of the Norton house to suffer and abandon all noble niceties altogether," said the count in a serious tone.

"That can't happen, I don't believe I can't dissolve the alliance when I choose to..."

A guard interrupted their joking around and said, "Milord, Duke Fisablen's messenger requests to meet you."

"Oh? Let him in," said Lorist as he wondered, what does the duke want this time around?

The messenger was but a normal guard instead of a noble. "Lord Count, I have come on behalf of the duke's orders to report that the banquet to celebrate the conclusion of the tournament has been canceled because the duke isn't feeling well. I hope my lords will understand."

Count Kenmays mumbled wide-eyed, "No way... The celebration must always be held for the nobles and knights for any kind of tournament. This is tradition, why would the duke call it off just like that?"

Lorist smiled coldly and said, "Well, I can't really blame the duke for being a little petty? After all, the swordsmanship and archery competitions were dominated by us, House Norton, with Loze taking the crown at the jousting competition and Baron Felim getting number two, Baron Shazin getting number five, and Els getting number seven. Not only that, not one of the rest are people from House Fisablen, so it's understandable that he has nothing worth celebrating.

"If he had agreed to the marriage union with us, he could still announce and brag about it. But now that I've refused his requests, he would never acknowledge us as the true winners of the tournament and give a free boost to the reputation of the four allied families of The Northlands. I think I understand now why he didn't draw his sword to flip out on me when I refused him. Hehe, so he's still holding the arms deal he signed with our house in consideration. He's afraid that we'll stop supplying him with the goods."

"Will you do so?" asked Count Kenmays.

"No," Lorist said, shaking his head, "This is an agreement we signed before he had a disagreement, and I will honor my word to him. That's because this concerns the reputation of House Norton and is not a matter I can decide based on my whim.

"Alright, let's pack up tonight and leave first thing tomorrow morning. I doubt we'd miss attending his little banquet. We can just hold our own when we return to The Northlands. I believe that many will be disappointed by the duke's neglect to host one, and perhaps might cause some kind of trouble while they're at it. Believe it or not, I think the duke will have to use his troops to chase the wandering knights away tomorrow, so it's best we leave early."

Morning the next day, Lorist and the rest left Windbury. As Knight Bonawar, who had just pledged allegiance to Baron Felim, had almost 200 members in his household, their journey was held back slightly. After meeting up with the division under Yuriy's care, they traveled for another six days and would cross Hendliff Suspension Bridge the next day.

A smoke signal could be seen in the distance as three mounted men rushed over. The moment they encountered Lorist, the three riders leaped off their horses and reported, "Knight Charade ordered us to inform you that Princess Sylvia has arrived at Firmrock Castle five days ago!"

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