Here's the fourth release of the week. I wonder if anyone has made some maps for the submission of the competition yet? The deadline for the competition is release time tomorrow, which is 2300 hours GMT +8!

Lorist was well aware what the second highness was thinking about. It was almost certain that he had his sights set on House Norton's carroballistae. What Lorist didn't understand was on what basis the second highness thought the house should help him? In every business transaction, there would always be profit for both parties. What would House Norton gain then if he helped him reunite the empire?

In terms of contributions, House Norton easily trumped all the kingdom's other noble houses and there was no longer anything the second highness could provide that they didn't already have. Did the second highness intend to rely on a heartfelt conversation to convince Lorist to send his warriors to their deaths for his ambitions?

House Norton's current rank didn't come from nothing either. Instead, it was through the great contributions their house made to the kingdom, which the second highness understood as well. However, the monarch had always been wary of the Nortons. He was convinced House Norton would have the might he required to reunite the empire after taking a tour through their dominion.

That was also the thing that troubled Lorist the most. He had already made it clear that the second highness' choice was wrong and that all the fault lay with him alone. Had it not been for his rampant effort to raise the kingdom's military, Andinaq would've developed even faster than The Northlands. Whether it be living conditions or economy, it would have been far better than The Northlands was now. But the second highness actually gave up such a precious opportunity in favor of single-mindedly reuniting the empire.  He lost everything in a single setback as a result.

Lorist was incredibly dissatisfied with the second highness' attempts to leech off his house now that he had ruined his own kingdom.

You've regained your throne and control of the kingdom, this is your second chance. I'd like to see if you will let it slip through your fingers a second time. Will you develop the kingdom quietly for a decade like we did or build a poor army and tire your people out even more than they already are?

The second highness also understood the subtext of Lorist's words perfectly. He had already failed once and only managed to convince the four houses to serve him by signing that humiliating contract. Even the restoration of his throne was thanks to House Norton. While it seemed like the kingdom was strong once more in the view of outsiders, while the kingdom's territory had increased three-fold, while the kingdom had defeated and incorporated the former Madras duchy, the second highness felt no sense of accomplishment. At the end of the day, Madras wasn't taken by his own efforts. He felt unaccomplished, left out, and even a little humiliated.

The second highness also understood that making empty promises would not budge Lorist in the slightest. Lorist was no idiot and wasn't displeased with the current situation at all. Even though a king like him had to maintain some degree of autonomy, what he did to Lorist previously had caused the latter to view a liege like him with caution. In the current situation, the second highness couldn't force Lorist to abide by his will, given that the house's might and their army was beyond reckoning with. He felt a constant pressure from them. Apart from doing his best to get on their good side or turn against them entirely, the second highness could do nothing else.

After a long period of consideration, he decided he wouldn't prioritize either military or development. Instead, he requested House Norton give him aid as sincerely as he could without putting up any airs. Lorist exhaled and began to bargain with the second highness. He knew the monarch had confiscated a huge amount of wealth from the noble houses he exterminated, so instead of letting him sink it all in the endless abyss of war, it would be better for it to be used to improve the house's income.

After a whole night of arguing, the sky began to brighten once more. The two finally came to an agreement at daybreak. As Lorist had expected, his liege would put most of his efforts into the military and didn't care much for development at all. Even the few factories he agreed to build produced arms and military equipment. But Lorist couldn't be bothered to interfere so long as he could weasel a huge sum from the man.

The second highness was also rather satisfied with the arrangement. He had never imagined he could source most of his military resources from the Nortons at such a low cost. A good portion of the gear was even better than what any factory he built himself could ever produce. According to the second highness's current plan, he would invest the ten million gold Fordes he had into the military to further strengthen his standing, only had to spend around 400 thousand gold Fordes to purchase the equipment and resources he needed, which was worth more than 600 thousand gold Fordes. It also included the catapults of which he dreamed, much to his delight. He was so enthralled that he held dearly onto Lorist's hand, seeming unwilling to let him go even as the latter was about to leave. The other onlookers felt a chill run down their spine.

On the 19th day of the 12th month, Lorist bid farewell to the second highness, who was still unwilling to part. He left the army camp and sent an eagle to the regiment led by Blademaster Shuss and Patt he had stationed at Egret Basin. They were ordered to withdraw to Vanades and await his arrival.

On the 22nd day of the 12th month, Lorist and company arrived at Vanades. They began their journey once more after a day of rest and arrived at the lower stream of Metropoulos near the floating bridge. After crossing the river, they traveled at a leisurely pace and eventually made it back to Firmrock Castle on the evening of the 34th day.

"Thank the protection of Wargod Singwa. My prayers have been answered," Charade exclaimed as he tugged on Lorist's sleeve, "Your Grace, I was worried sick that you wouldn't be present for the first celebratory event our house is hosting on new year's. Just imagine what it would be like if you missed such a grand gathering with all your vassals and knights. It would most certainly be the most disgraceful moment of the house in its three-century-long history."

"Stop complaining," Lorist snapped, "Didn't I make it back in time? I know I can't afford to miss this event but if I didn't go there myself, we'd have more than Reidy to worry about. His Majesty was in grave danger as well."

"What? What does our bloodthirsty king have to do with this?"

Since the noble houses' massacre, the second highness had gained yet another moniker among the knights and nobles: The Bloody King.

Lorist detailed his rescue of Reidy and the second highness.

"It's such a shame, why couldn't you wait a few moments longer? Having Reidy escape during the chaos caused by the heroic death or capture of His Majesty would've been the best outcome."

"What are you talking about?!" rebuked Lorist, "He's our king, the sole inheritor of the blood of the Krissen imperial family! Who would dare kill him? Don't forget that 'kingslayer' isn't a title just anyone wants to bear. All Xanthi and the other blademasters wanted was to capture him alive and send him back to the duchies. If that really happened, it would be troublesome for us too. As the kingdom's highest-ranked duke, we would've had to ransom him or deploy our forces to free him. It would severely disrupt our plans. I'm glad I managed to arrive in time to sort this out before it became a problem."

"I was just speaking my mind," Charade said, dissatisfied, "Your Grace, tomorrow's the last day before the new year celebration. The high-ranked officials, household knights, and vassal nobles are already here. Duke Kenmays, Count Felim, and Count Shazin are also here. Additionally, all the ceremonial preparations are complete, including the badges for the vassal nobles, new and old. Do you want to give it a check?"

"There's no need. I've already seen the drawings. It'll be fine as long as it doesn't go against any regulations. I'm very much assured about this since you're the one in charge. If there's nothing else, I'll go get some rest. Also, tell Duke Kenmays, Count Felim, and Count Shazin that I'll dine with them tomorrow afternoon," said Lorist before he headed for the rear of the castle.

"Your Grace, I understand your trip has been rather tiring, but I'm afraid there's something I need your decision on immediately," said Charade as he flipped open a folder.

"What?" asked Lorist as he stopped.

"It concerns Viscount Eidis, Viscount Zinderson, Baron Klaus, and Baron Wade from Winston," Charade said with an odd expression, "They came over to pledge their allegiance and even brought some of their family members to be political hostages. Look, here's the pledge letter they wrote."

"What did you say?" Lorist asked without receiving the letter.

He stared at Charade, confusion written on his face.

"Aren't they Iblian nobles? I recall staying at Viscount Eidis's little town for a night when we went to Windbury last time. Why has he brought his three allies over?"

"Your Grace, they really are here to pledge allegiance. This is the letter they penned. I already told them you weren't present and asked them to come back after new year's but they refused to listen and insisted on meeting you no matter what. They've already been waiting up for two weeks," said Charade after he successfully stuffed the letter into Lorist's hand.

Lorist gave the letter a quick read as the attentive Howard hurriedly brought over a candle from the wall.

After reading the four pledges, Lorist ordered, "Charade, have them meet me in the study in an hour. I'll take a bath and have a meal in the meantime. I'll ask them why they want to pledge allegiance to us in such a hurry later."

Lorist turned to Howard and patted his shoulder.

"Didn't you hear Sir Charade say Count Felim is here? Your beautiful fiancée is no doubt here as well. I'll do fine without you for a while, wash up and meet your little wife. Be sure to behave during the night, okay? You're still young after all."

"Your Grace!" scowled Howard angrily.

He only did so for a moment.  He couldn't resist the urge to see his fiancée and ran off, tomato-faced.

Charade laughed himself to tears.

"Don't forget to have Reidy come here!"

As Lorist's study was filled with classified documents, servants were not allowed to clean it up. The ones who carried out that task were usually Reidy, Howard, Els, Patt, or even Jim, the people Lorist trusted the most. However, since Reidy entered seclusion training, Els formed his own family, and Jim was sent off to carry out a secret mission at the gunpowder research lab following his recovery, Howard was the one put in charge of cleaning the room. Now that Howard's been given a short break, Charade asked Reidy to replace him for the moment. Otherwise, Lorist and he would have to clean the study on their own.

After bathing and having something to eat, Lorist headed to the study and saw Reidy finishing up with the cleaning. The fireplace was lit, its heat erasing the cold that had built up during the owner's month-long absence.

Seeing Reidy making some macks, Lorist started thinking.

Howard has a fiancée already, and Els is married, but Reidy's still single... Maybe I ought to ask him if there's a girl he's interested in. It's about time he found himself a wife...

Before he finished his thought, the door to the study was given a knock. Reidy opened it and let Charade and the four nobles enter. They all wore expressions of delight and disbelief, as if Lorist had returned and offered them lifeboats when they were sinking.

Lorist stood up and apologized sincerely.

"I'm really sorry to have made you wait so long. I had to deal with an unexpected incident concerning my disciple and only just made it back. I heard you've been waiting for more than ten days and even wrote a letter of pledge to the house. Could you please let me know what has driven you to do such a thing?"

The four nobles greeted Lorist respectfully with a salute, which Lorist graciously returned. They breathed sighs of relief.

Viscount Eidis stood forward to represent the rest and explained with a troubled smile, "Your Grace, our four houses have reached the end of our line. We have no other way to survive but to pledge our allegiance to you."

Following the viscount's explanation, Lorist and Charade understood that the four houses had been forced into their current predicament by Duke Fisablen. Either they accepted the duke's conditions or they watched as their houses were torn apart. Only through pledging their allegiance to a powerful house like the Nortons could they survive.

The 20 thousand cavalry the duke brought with him to Windbury for the knighthood tournament last year didn't leave once it was over. Instead, they dug in. After Melein, the biggest threat to House Fisablen, the duke turned his sights to Windbury.

He brought another 20 thousand men, he clearly wasn't messing around. There was already a legion's worth of frontier cavalrymen stationed at Windbury. With this legion in hand, Duke Fisablen lashed out at the nobles in the capital cruelly. He didn't bat an eye. Every day, there were nobles either killed for treason or sent to the dungeons. Unlike the second highness, however, he didn't kill the nobles off all at once. Instead, he wore them down over the rest of the year. Even though it was no different from the second highness's act which destroyed his reputation, the duke had employed a milder method that didn't evoke nearly as big a reaction despite the fact that the number of noble houses he exterminated wasn't that far off from the second highness. It was as if he was simmering the nobles to their deaths slowly and patiently.

Lorist had already been informed about this thanks to Furybear's informants. Since he was going to attack the capital himself anyway, he was more than glad that Duke Fisablen would dirty his own hands on his behalf. Not only that, he could even improve his reputation by defeating Duke Fisablen and conquering Windbury by claiming he did so to fight for the honor of all nobles. All he had to do was find some of the exterminated houses that managed to escape and give them aid to carry out a smear campaign against Duke Fisablen. The duke's reputation would definitely be ruined. This was also why Lorist ignored the incident and only instructed his men to quietly collect evidence instead of interfering.

But after Duke Fisablen exterminated all the noble houses in Windbury, he turned his sights to Winston.  He decided to offer them a chance to pledge allegiance and have their dominions moved to Southern. It caused quite an uproar. The nobles decided to band together and resist him. Duke Fisablen was waiting for exactly this all along and declared them traitors immediately. He attacked with his full force and exterminated more than 20 noble houses in the span of two months. All the men were hanged and the women were given to the Frontier Legion soldiers and grassland barbarians that distinguished themselves during the campaign.

Even though Viscount Eidis and his three allies didn't rebel outright, the order they received required them to move to Southern in the coming spring, which was before the 5th month, with no more than a thousand of their subjects. Their current dominion would be managed by the duke's house. Southern's current desolate and bandit-ridden state was well known. Going there with only a thousand subjects was practically suicide. They would be torn apart like a raving wolf's prey. It wasn't even certain that they'd make it to their new dominions.

"Your Grace, this is why we want to pledge allegiance to you. We understand Duke Fisablen started killing the other nobles off in preparation for the conflict with The Northlands' four houses. Last I heard, Duke Fisablen was going to bring all the youths across the many dominions in Winston to Eastwild. Their other family members would be gathered at the capital. He's planning to build a citadel at Dawoktown as a buffer for Windbury and the main point of resistance against you."

Lorist nodded.

"I'll gladly accept your pledges. House Norton now considers your houses vassals and will move your dominion to Delamock without any demotion. As for the family members you sent over, I will let them serve in my personal guard. I wonder if this arrangement is appropriate?"

The four nobles revealed expressions of elation as they knelt instantly and pledged loyalty to House Norton in the name of their ancestors. They were incredibly respectful and thankful when they left.

Charade looked at Lorist suspiciously as he waited for them to leave.

"Locke, tell me, what are you up to this time?" he asked when they were finally alone.