"What a cruel thing war is. It drives families together and lovers apart." ~ Tarkel
Princess Sylvia slept for almost five hours. When she saw Lorist seated beside the bed, she smiled happily. Lorist had the maidservants prepare a luxurious breakfast. He even fed the princess two small bowls of wheat porridge himself. He refused to let her off the hook until she finished another two pieces of bread and some milk.
As he stroked her long, platinum-blonde hair like he would a spoiled little girl, he said, "I want to feed you until you're nice and chubby like a little piggy. I won't let you stay this thin. Look at your hands... I can even see your veins. They're practically skin and bones. Sylvia, do you know how much it hurts to see you like this?"
Sylvia buried her head in his chest shyly. She hammered his chest at the mention of feeding her like a pet pig. Though, she did so with a delightful, satisfied smile.
Lorist was could only leave after having lunch with her and promising to join her for dinner. Even though Sylvia was acting incredibly clingy, she was still aware of his status House Norton's head and as Duke of The Northlands, titles that came with their share of duties. She had no choice but to watch him leave eventually, however unwilling she was.
It's always the hardest to be expected by a beauty.
Lorist sighed deeply. He turned back and smiled at Sylvia, waving at him from a balcony on the third floor, before he left in large strides.
Her situation is indeed rather troubling, thought he furrow-browed, She's naive, but no fool. She's surprisingly sharp...
From what the two maidservants had said the day before, Lorist surmised the princess probably realized the intention behind the duke sending her to The Northlands. She thought she had already been abandoned, falling from her position as a treasured princess to a token of apology. After the four houses attacked Iblia and fought House Fisablen, Sylvia had received lots of scorn and criticism from her house. Everyone saw her as a bringer of misfortune and the war's cause. According to the maidservants, all Sylvia could do was stay home as much as possible and avoid interacting with others. It didn't stop the rumors from reaching her, though. She cooped her up in her tower and spent her days there, hoping desperately the nightmare would soon pass.
If Sylvia's godmother, Xanthi, had been there, she would've had a much better time. It was too bad the blademaster had dug her own grave and pursued Reidy. In the end, the teacher came out to stand for the disciple. Given that Reidy was his eldest disciple, he didn't plan on reasoning with Xanthi. No matter who Reidy had killed, they deserved it. He set out to save Reidy himself and left her under the second highness' supervision. It had been a year since then already, and it had caused Sylvia to lose her strongest supporter, as well as the shoulder she leaned on.
The Fisablens were a large house. While Duke Fisablen was its head, he didn't have a say in every single thing. There were still a few elders that just wouldn't die, and a huge bunch of relatives. If the house had been in the inner parts of the empire, they would've split off and formed branch families long ago. But given that they were on the grasslands and faced the constant threat of the barbarians, strife and division would most certainly send the house down the road of demise. Its members had no choice but to huddle together for warmth. They had secured their land and legacy through unity. But it also resulted in problems, particularly the many malaligned goals of the house's many members. Some were loyal and willing to serve the house with all they had, others would take advantage of it when the opportunity arose.
In times of peace and prosperity, the members would get along just fine and share the fruits of their success. Anyone bearing the Fisablen name would be served delicious meat, or if not, some soup. But the house was now in a pretty dire predicament, with First Frontier exterminated, Third Frontier captured, and Fifth Frontier disbanded, and the reserve legion ruined. The four houses had stripped the elegant clothes off the former empire's most powerful faction and even dragged them across the ground. Be it the surface or the interior, those watching properly knew House Fisablen had utterly lost.
Even with Duke Fisablen's non-stop encouragement and his recruitment of the grassland barbarians to reform the reserve legion, the house's members had begun to hold varying opinions. On the great northeastern plains, barbarian cavalrymen were common as clouds. Rider or mount, as long as one was willing to pay the right price, they would charge to the frontlines for your sake. But the problem was that, while recruiting them was easy, feeding a force of 20 to 30 thousand was rather difficult.
In the past, when the salt merchant committee was trading daily necessities in large quantities, the house just had to sell the goods to the barbarians and profit. They were even able to use the supplies to hold tight control over the tribes and use them to conquer the golden creeks, causing the area rich with gold to fall to them. This spurred on rapid provincial development and caused the house's fame to rise even more. Those were the good old days.
All of the momentum the house had come to an end when they asked the four central duchies for reinforcements to eliminate Melein. On the surface, it seemed they'd obtained large numbers of young laborers by exterminating the duchy, given that they'd moved up to 300 thousand to their domain and had increased their might. At the same time, they established a trade route to the four duchies. As the house had been quite well-off financially, they formed two more frontier legions. The household's might and impressive military had given the duke with the ambition to take control Iblia's affairs.
"You were so blinded by your ambitions that you couldn't see the way forward clearly!"
One of the elders had criticized the duke thusly. The one who'd said it was the duke's uncle. The old man was a lustful alcoholic. Though he was almost a century old, he still hadn't passed on and met the Wargod. He continued to cause trouble for the duke instead. He even had seven children and held quite a bit of power. Woryo, Third Frontier's logistics officer, was his most pathetic son, and his youngest.
"Your carelessness and your pride made you ignorant to the fact that the four houses are guarded against us. When they eliminated Madras, you should've already been on alert. That way, our house's forces wouldn't have suffered such heavy losses!" the uncle had rebuked during a household meeting after the fact, bringing the duke much trouble.
He'd completely forgot that he'd been the most steadfast supporter of the duke's plan to conquer the northeast, busying himself with allocating his descendants to preferable positions.
"Why didn't you agree to the marriage to House Norton's head? Letting Sylvia marry the Duke wouldn't have been humiliating at all. He was already profiting greatly from his agreement to the first two conditions. You just had to ask him to chase his concubines and illegitimate children away! That's no doubt what made him see us as an enemy. Face... I wonder how much is our 'face' worth. Since when was Sylvia so high up she couldn't tolerate a few concubines?"
Had it not been for the duke's status as one of the strongest fighters in the house, being a rank 3 blademaster, the others might've ousted him already. After all, the duke's failures cost them a little too much. Many lost a close relative or two, especially those who'd placed them in profitable positions. None had expected it to end up a suicidal affair. They didn't hesitate to voice their malcontent at all.
Given that even the duke was forced into such a tough position, what happened to Sylvia was to be expected. Her father was the eldest son of the duke who had unfortunately perished in battle with the grassland barbarians. Sylvia had yet to be born. As her mother had heard the news of her husband's death right before her birth, she passed on right after making the delivery. The orphaned Sylvia was left to the duke's lover, Blademaster Xanthi, to raise, so she didn't have any close ties to many in the house.
Sylvia only reentered the duke's sights when she grew up and showed talent in battleforce training. She was one of the very few who showed such characteristics. Back then, the second prince, Iblia, came to Eastwild personally to ask the duke's support to found his kingdom. At that time, he entitled Sylvia with the title of princess and increased her status among her peers. Coupled with the intentional effort on the duke's part to make her into the house's face through the formation of her own personal guard, her status was unmatched and she came to be known as the most beautiful pearl of the kingdom.
With the aloof Xanthi's protection and the duke's deep care, Sylvia's life was simple and joyful. The dark side of the house had never been shown to her. That was why Lorist found her naive and filled with optimism and hope for the world. She was a cute and pure girl like an elf worth protecting. However, back then, Lorist wasn't in the mood for a romance and busied himself with the house's affairs. What he didn't expect was that his casual tone and the unique tales of being exiled by the house when he furthered his studies, as well as his loss of contact, left a huge impression on her.
As the godmother who'd raised her single-handedly, Xanthi was quick to realize Sylvia's fondness for Lorist. She herself was completely uninterested in him. In her eyes, he was an average-looking, good for nothing low-ranked and cowardly noble ten years older than Sylvia that only knew how to hide within his dominion despite having such an impressive military. He also trained in the weird and uncommon fighting techniques of the eastern martial monks.
Naturally, she would never acknowledge she was biased against Lorist because she was dissatisfied with losing a match to him. She believed he'd used her unfamiliarity with his fighting technique to catch her off guard. He even stopped fighting when he had the advantage and collapsed from fatigue the moment he stepped out of the duke's manor.
Despite her objections, though, Sylvia's interest in Lorist only grew. Following their subsequent interactions, her interest changed into admiration. Xanthi, seeing that the situation was turning grim, forced Sylvia to train in seclusion for four years in a hurry and hoped the passing of time would calm her mind and dull her love until it disappeared. She didn't expect that after four years, while Sylvia had managed to break through from the one-star gold rank to the two-star gold rank, her love had turned into a deep longing. The moment she heard Duke Fisablen was going to organize a knighthood competition, she hurried to The Northlands and expressed her desire to have Lorist participate.
What followed would become the two most painful and impactful experiences she had. First came the death of the 'little brother' and heir of Iblia she had raised. The little prince that was the result of a drug-induced copulation between the second prince and the queen orchestrated by the duke had died from a prenatal heart disease. The queen and the duke's coldness towards the matter caused Sylvia much grief. She ignored the duke's orders and returned to the dominion to attend the funeral for which not many others cared.
She then went to The Northlands to calm her mind. Lorist told her the second piece of bad news there: the three conditions the Duke had brought up. While he had agreed to the first two, he couldn't agree to the third because he was not a heartless person. The duke refused his proposal for a union with the house as a result. While the princess was disappointed, she didn't really take it to heart. She believed her grandfather was just worried she would have to suffer jealousy from the concubines after marrying Lorist. She believed that after returning to the dominion, she could convince her grandfather to agree to the marriage.
Sylvia spent her time traveling around The Northlands in peace. That was the happiest time of her life. Lorist accepted her feelings and accompanied her on the trip. He even brought her to Silowas, allowing her to experience a kind of beauty non-existent in the grasslands for the first time. Had it not been for Xanthi's watchful eye, she might've been so deeply submerged in the river of love she would've gone to Lorist's bed willingly.
However, what awaited her when she returned was the duke's rage. He had given her a curfew to prevent her from stepping out of Crouchtiger Castle. She begged her loving grandfather to agree to the marriage. She explained she didn't mind Lorist having a few concubines, but the duke told her it wasn't her decision to make, and that Lorist's refusal to agree to that condition was a slight on the house's reputation. Marrying Sylvia under these circumstances would damage the house's reputation.
She never imagined her loving grandfather would give her such an answer. Was the reputation of the house more important than her happiness? No matter how she cried and begged, the duke's answer to that question was the same: 'Yes'. As a result, he started a hunger strike. But thanks to Xanthi's consolation, she was saved in the end. That was also the driving factor behind Xanthi's rampant pursuit of Reidy. She had intended to offend House Norton intentionally and make the two houses enemies so Sylvia would completely give up on the notion of marrying Lorist.
In the end, Xanthi's wish was granted. While she didn't manage to make it back and ended up the second highness's prisoner, House Norton did end up becoming House Fisablen's enemy. Lorist led the four houses to crushed House Fisablen's frontier legions and the four central duchies' reinforcements.
Then came the blame of the members of the house on Sylvia. The matter of her failed attempt to marry Lorist had been made known throughout the house. It was inevitable that she would be criticized. What she didn't think was that her grandfather would actually present her to Lorist to make peace.
Marrying Lorist and being given as a gift were two different things. Marriage represented the union of the two houses and was a celebratory affair. However, giving her to Lorist was treating her like a female slave that could be beaten or scolded however her master liked. Her life would depend on his whims.
She never imagined this kind of ending for her. She thought about her cousin, Cacanne's, insult.
"What's so great about you?You just have a blademaster guarding you. Now the blademaster was captured by your lover and sent to the imperial capital's prison, you deserve what you get. So what if you got the gold rank after a few years of training? You're close to 28 and still single! You want to get married? Dream on, you harbinger of misfortune!"
Caccane was six years Sylvia's junior. Her paramour was one of the household knights serving First Frontier. Sylvia's own maidservant had seen the knight climb the walls into Cacanne's chambers in the middle of the night. Now that First Frontier was no more, it wasn't known whether the knight still lived. So, she directed her angst at Sylvia.
While Sylvia could pretend to not hear the curses house's members flung her way, Duke Fisablen's mission to head to The Northlands as an envoy was the biggest mental blow she could suffer. On the surface, she was there to provide a peace offering. Only, she was the offering she was presenting. Even though she could finally stay with Lorist, it was in the most humiliating fashion possible. She was filled with despair and completely isolated. The only reason she didn't crumble completely was her yearning to reunite with Lorist.
The moment she met him, she was elated. Hearing the sweet whispers of her lover finally made all the emotional tension that had built up inside her and which'd made her suffer insomnia go away. She fell asleep immediately and, by the time she woke up, Lorist felt a little off with how clingy she was being. The slight hint of despair that hid behind her two loving eyes made him feel even sourer.
He knew letting the naive, fairy-like girl stay with him like this wasn't the way to go. He wondered if he would regret the decision he was about to make.