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"Welcome to the dominion of House Norton, Your Highness," greeted Lorist as he saluted in the manner of nobles.

As Count Kenmays had predicted, Lorist was currently trapped in a very awkward situation. Even though the Andinaq kingdom no longer considered Lorist one of their nobles, the decision was made at the sole discretion of Queen Carey and didn't have anything to do with Second Highness Auguslo.

Lorist could only truly be considered a rogue noble if the second highness personally exiled him, or if he had indeed died and the queen had thus legitimately inherited the throne. The founding emperor of the Krissen Empire had also been exiled by his senior noble, and that also came at the cost of his peerage. Count Krissen, as he was known at the time, had spent all the resources he had and gathered all his forces to declare war against his former senior noble. His campaign began in The Northlands and peaked in Winston. What followed was a smooth-sailing war that ended with the founding of the Krissen Empire.

Lorist was troubled because he knew perfectly well what the second highness had come for. However, he was unable to refuse him outright. As the senior noble of the house, who had been driven out of his rightful seat of power, Lorist was obligated to fulfill his responsibilities as a vassal to stand at the second highness's side. In other words, as powerless as the second highness was now, Lorist could not just ignore him according to the noble customs. At the very least, he had to provide all the help he could.

This is going to be hell!

Lorist met with the second highness at Maplewoods thanks to his cousin sister Glacia. When Charade first received word that the second highness's cohort arrived at The Northlands, he wanted to restrict them to Northsea but Glacia made a ruckus about it. As she was also a member of the house, Charade couldn't exactly stop her. So, they set out from Northsea and passed by Poplar Town before finally arriving at Maplewoods. During the five days Lorist wasn't there, the second highness and the rest visited Felicitas' seven towns, Nico Academy, and would've visited the secret refineries and production grounds at Bladedge Mountains had it not been for Supervisor Camorra's interference.

The prosperity of the dominion greatly surprised the second highness. Everywhere he looked seemed to glimmer and Glacia didn't fail to take the chance to brag about her house's might. It was further exacerbated by Irina, who had little experience dealing with these matters. When she received the second highness at Maplewoods, she acted as respectful and obedient as she could and answered all of their questions, leaking all she knew or heard about the dominion. She even sent someone as a guide for the second highness's travels and allowed him to gain a better grasp of what House Norton was capable of.

"I really didn't think that the desolate Northlands would prosper under the rule of House Norton. This is truly eye-opening. I refused to believe my eyes when I traveled around the last couple of days. The seven towns at Felicitas looked so merry and populous, much like how the cities around the imperial capital used to be like. Lord Count, you truly are a genius for being able to manage your dominion so well, perhaps even better than the empire's better days!"

As the second highness expressed his thoughts about the Norton dominion, he approached Lorist and patted him on the arm like a good friend would to hammer home the 'friendly' relationship he intended to have with Lorist. Not a trace of enmity from the last time they met at the imperial capital was visible.

"Thank you for your kind praise, Your Highness. House Norton is only fulfilling our duties as per our oath to protect the borders of the empire. We have no intention at all to meddle in the internal affairs of the empire, and that is why our dominion was able to prosper in peace even in these chaotic times. After taking in many refugees who have lost their homes to the war, we were able to improve the dominion somewhat," said Lorist dismissively.

"I was in the wrong. I should've listened to your advice," said the second highness with a bitter laugh.

He let go of Lorist's arm and bowed to him, much to Lorist's shock.

Lorist hurriedly went to stop the second highness.

"Your Highness, what are you doing? This is not something I can bear!"

The second highness clutched Lorist's hand.

"Locke, I'm apologizing to you with all I can. It was my fault. I have been ridden with regret ever since I lost Frederika. If I had followed your advice and not rushed to reunite the empire and instead paid attention to the welfare of my subjects, I wouldn't have ended up like this. Now I can't even return home to serve the kingdom!"

Yep, you definitely had it coming, commented Lorist secretly.

However, it was true that the second highness was no longer able to return to the kingdom easily. He would no doubt be brought before Queen Carey unless he stayed within the Norton dominion. Given that the first highness, Queen Carey's father, had mysteriously passed away in his sleep, it stood to reason that she might act against the second highness secretly as well. Though, it was also entirely possible for her to do so for the sole sake of her throne.

"When I heard about your loss and disappearance at Frederika, I was truly frantic and worried. Back then, I wanted to send my troops to Frederika right away to look for you, Your Highness, and I made sure to ask those at the imperial capital for permission to mobilize my troops. But I was refused and warned not to meddle in this affair. They even recalled the third local defense legion from the borders of the Madras duchy to keep an eye on us. In the end, I had no choice but to recall my troops."

Lorist received the official notice from Howard and handed it to the second highness as he spoke.

"Your Highness, take a look at this. These are the two refusal notices the capital sent in response to my request. They didn't allow me to take any action to search for you, but thanks to the protection of Wargod Singwa, Your Highness managed to appear safe and sound before me. It really gladdens me that you were not harmed in any way."

Lorist had no option apart from playing the role of a loyal subordinate, but what he actually hoped for couldn't be further from what he said. He couldn't wait for the second highness to disappear from the realm of man. But now that he managed to survive and appear before him, Lorist had to at least act the part in front of others.

The second highness's expression changed as he released Lorist's hand and balled his fists. 

"Traitors... They actually ceded the kingdom's territory to those darned merchants for their own benefits... I will definitely not spare them. Brother Locke, to be honest, I've come here to seek your aid. I hope House Norton will be able to exterminate the traitors and restore order to the kingdom."

Lorist sighed as the second highness finally made his request. As the leader of House Norton, he had to give a formal response.

"Your Highness, let me ask you this first. What will House Norton gain if we deploy our troops for you?"

While it was the tradition for vassals to serve senior nobles on Grindia, the senior noble had to offer compensation proportional to the help they received. Otherwise, no vassal would willingly aid their senior noble for free. Given the way things turned out, Lorist could only see that he would be promptly rewarded for his efforts. Otherwise, he would be able to fulfill his responsibilities as a vassal by simply providing a few hundred sets of armor and gear to the second highness and nobody would criticize him for it.

"Locke, His Highness has agreed that if our house intervenes, he will make you the Duke of The Northlands. All the territory you conquer here will belong to the house," said Glacia happily as if House Norton had been offered a heavenly boon that couldn't be refused.

Lorist glared at her.

"Glacia, do you understand The Northlands' situation right now?"

She shook her head as expected.

"If that's the case, I refuse to mobilize any of my forces. The title of the Duke of The Northlands is of no use to House Norton at all. Your Highness, there are only four noble houses within The Northlands. Apart from us, the Nortons, Count Kenmays occupies the eastern part of The Northlands, with the southern part jointly ruled by Baron Shazin and Baron Felim. All three of them are our allies, so we will definitely not breach our alliance with them for no good reason. The title of the Duke of The Northlands is good as nothing to the house," proclaimed Lorist.

The second highness and Glacia were both stunned at the revelation. They didn't know that there were only four houses left in The Northlands that even formed an alliance. Not only would the title mean nothing to House Norton, it would also cause fractures to form within the alliance of the four houses. It's no wonder Lorist refused the second highness's request without debate.

"I apologize, Brother Locke. that was not my intention. I didn't think it would be this way," apologized Auguslo hurriedly.

"There is no need to fret, Your Highness. You can't be blamed for being uninformed, you have only arrived recently. The banquet to welcome you is already prepared. I hope you enjoy the delicacies The Northlands has to offer and rest well. We, on the other hand, will explore our options and see in what manner we can help you reclaim your kingdom."

Lorist was rather mad at Glacia's straightforward but thoughtless actions. The second highness's ignorance about the matter was also no doubt feigned. Even though The Northlands was relatively segregated from the rest of the continent, the four houses' alliance had been formed years prior. While the house actively restricted information flow, the three other houses were the opposite, so the second highness's claim that he didn't know about the situation was a straight out lie.

Hmph, even after you've lost almost everything, you're still trying to scheme till you get your way. You think you can get away with asking for my help while jeopardizing my relationship with my allies?! How much of an idiot do you think I am?!

During the banquet, Auguslo persistently tried to change the subject of conversation to helping him restore the kingdom, but Lorist excused himself from agreeing by saying that he had to discuss the matter with his knights.

Only after the troubled monarch drowned himself with booze and had to be sent back for a rest was Lorist finally free. He returned to his residence and bathed with Irina's aid as he considered how he should respond to the second highness.

Just as he was about to pull Irina into the tub for release and relaxation, a guard downstairs could be heard.

"Who goes there?!" asked he.

"It's me, Glacia."

"Oh, what business do you have here, Milady?"

"I want to see Lorist."

"I apologize, Milady. I'm not sure whether Milord has gone to sleep already. It's best not to disturb him this late in the night. Can this matter not wait till tomorrow?"

The one who said this turned out to be Els.

"Scram! I am Locke's elder cousin sister and I'm here to see him. Do you think I'm here to assassinate him or something?"

"Assassinate? Hehe, Milady, it's not like I'm looking down on you, but even if there were ten of you here, you wouldn't be able to defeat the lord. Either way, I still have to make a report first. If Milord's asleep, then you'll have to come again tomorrow."

"No way. I want to see Locke right now."

Lorist sighed as he got out of the tub, rubbed himself hastily, put on a sleeping gown, and leaned on the windowsill.

"Els, let her in."

Glacia quickly climbed upstairs and entered the room. Lorist handed her a cup of macks Irina had made.

"Drink some macks and relax. What do you need me for this late?"

Glacia sat down in a chair angrily.

"Your guard is far too insolent, Locke. He dared to bar my way."

"He's just doing his job, he did nothing wrong. He can't let you into my room just because you're my cousin. You're also a knight of the Andinaq royal family, after all. You're not a household knight of the house, even if you were born as a member."

Glacia had her mouth agape, but no words came out of it. Lorist was right. It was a commonly held protocol in many noble houses.

Glacia snapped out of it after a good while.

"Locke, you've truly changed. You no longer resemble the crybaby I used to know."

"I had no choice little choice in the matter," he laughed, "If I was like before, House Norton would've been wiped out long ago. The circumstances forced me to adapt. Do you know how it feels to be a 17-year-old child who lost all contact with his family, a child with no choice but to work as a mercenary? To fill his stomach and pay for education, that boy had to slaughter magic beasts and risk his life. He lived like that for seven whole years until the people from the house came over to find him. Only then did he find out that most of his relatives have all passed away.

"When he returned to his house's dominion, he found it in such a terrible state. Despite the Duke of the Northlands's ill intentions and the second prince who was waiting to pounce at the opportune moment, that boy managed to survive and defeat them both. After that, he focused his efforts on the development of the dominion until its current prosperous state. However, right now, a group of troublesome people just came over and asked him to send his troops to restore that guy's power, all without gaining anything in return. Do you think that person will agree?"

Lorist made a point to stop the conversation before it started, causing Glacia to be even more disturbed.

"Locke, isn't this a good opportunity for House Norton? If we help the second highness get his throne back, our name will be recorded in history and we'll be remembered for all eternity for our deeds," said she carefully, finally.

"Cousin, have you turned into an idiot?" Lorist asked," Why should House Norton sacrifice our troops for the ambitions of His Highness? If we actually do that, the other noble houses will regard us as complete buffoons. If His Highness can't offer us a worthy price, I will definitely not agree to deploy our forces. Even so, I'll lend His Highness a decent sum of money and give him some military equipment to fulfill the smallest obligation I have as a vassal."

"Locke, what kind of benefits do you want to agree to help His Highness regain his throne?" asked Glacia stubbornly.

"Well, I'll have to think about it thoroughly for a while. Before that, can you tell me how you managed to escape Frederika? I'm actually quite curious how it all transpired. Nobody was able to find the slightest trace of you at all. Also, how many forces does the second highness have? I heard that when you disappeared from Frederika, His Highness's personal guard of 5000 men perished. How did you evade the enemy's search parties?"

Glacia's expression darkened.

"When we conquered Frederika, we discovered a secret path leading outside the city, which could be what the first prince used to escape. When Frederika was encircled, His Highness brought the rest of us through the secret path. Back then, we had 6000 men, but now less than 2000 remain because we ran into the first prince, who had gone missing until now."

"What?! The first prince?!" exclaimed Lorist with surprise.

"That's right. We didn't expect that to happen either," said Glacia as tears streamed down her face.