"There is no pain equal to that which two lovers can inflict upon one another. This should be made clear to all who contemplate such a union. The avoidance of this pain is the beginning of wisdom, for it is strong enough to contaminate the rest of our lives." ~ Princess Fisablen Sylvia
So sorry for the late release! There was a scheduling error and I only noticed it in the next day. This will be the week's third release.
After delegating the construction and mining projects at Goldridge, Lorist brought Howard and five hundred other guards to Firmrock. He thought about how Sylvia was waiting for him there and felt hesitation overwhelm. But, no matter what, he wasn't going to run away. There were some things that had to be settled. He understood the girl in love with him was the one most hurt by his conflict with House Fisablen.
They traveled without rest and arrived at Firmrock at midnight the next evening. It was already rather late and most of the inhabitants had already fallen asleep. After entering the gate, Lorist dismounted and instructed his guards to rest, refusing their offers of further escort. He and Howard take their mounts along the quiet path to the center of the castle.
The streets and alleys in the castle-town were illuminated by silver moonlight. Under its gentle embrace, the cool night breeze blew refreshingly.
Lorist stretched and relaxed his body, fatigued by two days of non-stop riding.
"Time really flies. Come to think of it, you're getting married next year," he said eyeing Howard, "I remember how small you were when I first saw you. Now you've grown into a magnificent young man. Oh, Howard, didn't your father-in-law write your father and I letters to prepare for your marriage? You said you would think about it back then. Have you come to a decision?"
Howard didn't respond. He just kept moving forward with his warhorse.
"Eh? Howard, weren't the two of you getting along well? You're always glued to her when she comes over. What's going on now? Having a spat?"
Howard looked straight at Lorist.
"Teacher, I want to put the marriage off for two years..."
"Oh? What's going on?"
"I've asked senior apprentice brother about this and he said I'm already at the two-star silver rank and can start learning the Dan Ocean Ki-refining Technique. You promised to teach me two years ago, but it slipped your mind when the war started. Brother Reidy said he could teach me, so I want to learn it first before marrying. He said that, given that I'm smarter than him, I could establish my foundation in two years of focused training."
Lorist only just recalled that he'd forgotten his promise.
"I'm sorry, Howard. I was far too busy and forgot about it. Since the household won't be caught up in anything for now, I'll teach you. As for your father-in-law and your father, I'll personally write them a letter to delay the marriage. I'm sure it won't be too much trouble."
"But Teacher, if I start training, I'll have to train in seclusion. Then, there'd be nobody to serve by your side," hesitated Howard.
"There's no need to worry about that," Lorist smiled, "Oceanic Legion's commander, wrote me a letter just last month to remind me of my promise. Howard, do you still remember your junior apprentice brother? Sunbaud silly firstborn? What's his name again?"
"Darn it. When I said I wanted to take him as my disciple, Senbaud seemed to be in so much pain, as if he'd ate a pile of fly-infested shit, cause he thought I was taking his son as a hostage to ensure his loyalty. But now, he's anything but reluctant. It's almost like he wants to dump his son on me. Last month, he wrote me a letter saying his son's now 16 and has awakened his battleforce. He asked me when he should send him over to be my attendant so I can start training him. Sol, I said I wanted to take him as disciple back then to erase some of his doubts. I didn't think he'd actually take it seriously."
He was aware of the matter as well. Senbaud was originally a pirate who'd been subdued and forced to serve House Norton after his attempt to raid Lorist's ship. But later, his forced service turned into willing service. It didn't take long for him to become loyal to the house either. It was simple; the more Lorist showed the true extent of his abilities, the more Senbaud respected and admired him.
"Teacher, that junior is far from silly. He's just a little bigger than most his age. It's not like you didn't read the letters he sends us. He has an incredible way with words," argued Howard.
"Tch. Come on, they were written by his mother. Didn't you see how neat and elegant the handwriting was? Men often write with large and sharp strokes, which usually result in messy writing that almost pierces through the parchment. Your father's handwriting is rooted to the parchment, and Loze's seems like it carries a hint of killing intent. Handwriting is a good reflection of a person. Do you think such a huge kid can have that kind of nice and tidy handwriting? It's just as ridiculous as a brute doing embroidery."
Howard had to admit that Lorist made quite some sense. What in the world did Senbaud's huge son eat for him to grow to two meters tall at the tender age of 16? Given his build, it's no wonder Lorist calls him 'silly brute'. However, he liked his junior quite a bit. Perhaps it was because of Senbaud's amazing skills in setting people up with each other. Apart from bringing his son along to the dominion for the annual reports, he also had him write to Howard in the name of being his junior to ask about things he should pay attention to about battleforce awakening. In time, Howard grew to like his straightforward, if huge, junior.
"Fine. Write a letter to the silly brute and have him come over. Since you aren't going to start your training immediately, give him a few pointers and evaluate his personality. Even though I also instructed Tarkel to pay attention to it and he hasn't reported anything bad about him, we only know about the surface. You should be able to get a better understanding of him after you spend some time together. If he's untrustworthy, I'll only have him as a disciple in name and won't treat him like you or Reidy."
"As you wish. I'll write him a letter and have the guards bring him here tomorrow."
The two walked in silence for a while before Howard spoke again.
"Your Grace, are you afraid of meeting Princess Sylvia?"
Now they weren't conversing as teacher and disciple, Howard changed his tone.
"I'm not. Why would I be?"
Howard stared at him suspiciously.
"Why would I lie to you?" Lorist continued, a little embarrassed and mad. I only wanted to take a slow walk because of how nice the moonlight is. It helps me relax after riding for two whole days. Also, given that it's already midnight, riding into the castle will wake everyone. Incredibly inconsiderate, isn't it?"
"Fine, fine," smiled Howard.
Lorist continued his walk discontentedly. No matter how long the walk took, arriving at the destination was inevitable. The path to the keep wasn't that long either.
After the guard brigade left with Lorist, the police brigade took over defending the keep. They were mostly retired soldiers who couldn't give up on military life completely. They all knew Lorist rather well. The moment the squad saw the two approach, they hurriedly greeted them and took care of their mounts.
"Don't bother, there's no need to open the main gates and wake everyone. We'll enter from the side. Have the servants boil some water, make us food and send it up to my study. We'll be there. Leave any and all reports to tomorrow," ordered Lorist as they got closer.
The guards' leader saluted and rushed off to carry out his orders. The two that brought the hot water, however, were two female servants. Lorist looked at them oddly. He usually had male servants on duty at night. Why would these two be on duty this time?
"Princess Sylvia is having trouble sleeping, Your Grace. We're on duty in turns at night to take care of her needs," explained one.
"Oh? Sylvia's losing sleep?"
"Yes, Your Grace."
"On which is she now?"
"The east wing's third, where she used to stay, Your Grace."
Lorist hurriedly washed and changed into some comfortable clothes. By then, the two maidservants had already brought two large plates of food over. After biting off a piece of honeyed bread, Lorist asked, "Um, how has the princess's appetite been in the past two days?"
"Your Grace, she's only eating very little. She said that she doesn't have any appetite and only has a bowl of soup every meal," replied the maidservant.
Lorist couldn't sit still. He turned to Howard.
"Get some rest after you're done eating. I'll go see the princess."
The keep was built against the mountains, split into four sections. The front was the main work area where Lorist's study, the guest hall, meeting hall, and the various departments of the house were situated. The rear wing was Lorist's personal area where his concubines lived. The west and east wings housed the main guest accommodations.
The two differed from one another slightly. The east wing faced had a beautiful view of the castle. Guests of high status tended to reside there. So far, apart from Princess Sylvia and the second highness, the others who lived there had some form of relationship with the house's three allies.
Sylvia was currently staying in a room on the wing's third floor. Lorist had had the room sealed after the princess moved in. It was now her personal quarters and wasn't used for any other guests.
Lorist stepped lightly. A reclining chair on the balcony greeted him as he entered the room. A person dressed in a snow-white linen gown lay on it, bathing in the moonlight as she hummed to the night breeze.
Lorist slowly approached.
"Didn't I say I don't want to eat or drink anything? Well… It's not your fault... I'll tell your manager about this tomorrow," said she clearly when she noticed Lorist's footsteps
"It's me, Sylvia..."
Lorist realized how hard it was for him to speak out. His voice was as soft as a mosquito's buzz, almost entirely inaudible. The princess, however, sunken into the depth of the recliner snapped up like she was struck by lightning.
"Is it you, Locke?" her voice shaked.
His voice was slightly louder this time. He took a few steps into the moon's embrace.
Sylvia leaped into his arms and hugged him with all her might as tears streamed down her face.
"I missed you so much..."
"What's wrong, Sylvia? Why have you lost so much weight?"
She was only half the size he remembered. Her face had thinned, but her two big emerald eyes were still just as alluring as he remembered. He hurt when he hugged her. She must've suffered a lot to thin this much.
"Nothing's wrong... I just couldn't sleep or eat."
Sylvia cried in her lover's embrace. Her eyes fountained rivers down her face and neck.
"Locke, Grandfather doesn't want me anymore... I can't go back to the house either... He said I shouldn't think of going back after coming here... Will you still have me?"
The usual proud and unapproachable princess was gone. Sylvia cried like a child who'd lost her way home, like a dog waving its tail desperately to please its master.
"Of course I will. Idiot, why wouldn't I?"
Lorist's heart spasmed as he stroked her hair gently and hugged her thin frame.
"My little fool, no matter what happens, I'll always be here for you. I'll stay by your side until our hair snows. I vow it."
Sylvia couldn't hear him. Her emotions flowed out of her like her tears, and drew her consciousness with it. She collapsed in his embrace and fell into a deep sleep. Her face, however, glowed lightly with a serene smile. Her petite hands tugged on the corners of his clothes, refusing to let go.
Her cries startled the two servants. When they entered the room, Lorist hushed them quickly and help him guide the princess to her bed. He pulled the blanket over her gently and turned to leave, but her hands, as thin and petite as they were, clamped on his clothes. They held on tighter than a magic beast's claws.
"Fine, I'll stay."
Lorist smiled bitterly and asked the maidservants to get him a chair. He would spend the night by her side.
"Well, can you tell me about why she can't go home? Speak softly. Don't wake her."
Having nothing better to do, he decided to ask the maidservants about the situation. As Sylvia's personal servants, they also suffered quite a bit. They told Lorist about how the princess was treated by her house and how the duke only allowed her and them to take their clothes when they left. Even the princess's guard was disbanded and absorbed into other units.
Lorist nodded. He understood Duke Fisablen's intentions in sending Sylvia here. He admired how ruthless and straightforward the old fox was.
Poor Sylvia, she doesn't know the grandfather that spoiled her so much has placed her on the table as a bargaining chip.
She wasn't sent here as an envoy, but instead, as a token of apology. He wanted the four houses to spare House Fisablen and not force them into oblivion. Lorist made a silent decision the moment he saw Sylvia's thin, sleeping face.