A month later on the way to Johanniston, Locke sat in a carriage opposite Irene. "This wasn't the mission you initially told me about!"
"Oh, please!" she begged coquettishly, "I had no choice! I was desperate!"
Locke rolled his eyes. The investigation at the mines within the Ferish domain was as good as gone now; they were on a mission to help Irene avoid a marriage meeting instead. Irene had been born in a small area in Southeast Aomar and her grandfather was a powerful local viscount who had recently fallen from grace. By now, their father only managed to retain a baron title that allowed them to only rule over a few towns and one small city that could only be counted as such.
Even though their household might have shrunk considerably, the legacy of their grandfather still remained. In terms of finances, they wouldn't have to worry about it for the rest of their lives. It was only thanks to that that her parents managed to send her to the imperial capital, spending lots of money with the intent of getting her to mingle with powerful imperial nobles living in the core of the empire.
If everything went according to plan, Irene was to return to Johanniston after her graduation to take over the family business and succeed her father as a baron to manage their fief. However, that wasn't what she wanted. There was no way she would be returning to the rural backwater after studying in the capital for two whole years. Spending the rest of her life there knowing what she would be missing out on would no doubt drive her insane.
Irene's parents, however, were reasonable people. Had she been an only child, there was no way they would let her go to Princeton. They could definitely raise their son to be the heir as well. However, the reason Irene needed Locke's help this time around was her uncle.
"What the hell did they mean when they said Viscount Shimak's son fell in love with me at first sight? I haven't met William Shimak even once in my life! It must be my uncle's fault. He's always talking about restoring our family to our former glory or something! I don't want to get married so soon. Locke, you have to help me out!"
Irene begged him as she held her hand and teared up. Whether they were real or not, he couldn't tell.
"Fine, I got it!" Locke answered with some annoyance. He felt rather miffed at being used as a shield without any warning beforehand. However, Irene was the only one he could truly call a friend in Princeton Academy after his time there, so he felt like doing her a favour wasn't too big a deal.
According to her, her uncle Byzalle on her father's side had also inherited a baron title but still kept on pining for the title of viscount their family used to bear. Viscount Shimak, on the other hand, was among the few viscounts who wielded true power in the province of Johanniston. A century or two ago, Irene's family was probably on the same level as the Shimaks, but their fall from grace had put quite a lot of distance between them. The line between the few viscounts and the many barons in the province was a clear divider between their standing.
This time around, Irene's family had received permission from the Shimak household that if she agreed to marry the eldest son of their household, they would agree to make a proposal to restore her family to the rank of a viscount house in the next noble assembly of the province. These benefits were tempting, not just to her uncle, but also her parents. Nobles and household pride came hand in hand, after all.
And so, they summoned Irene back in a hurry before her studies had even ended. While the mines were indeed not made up, they were rather close to her family's fief. It was only a day's travel away.
"How do you intend to have me help?" Locke asked. Surely she wasn't expecting a mid-rank Knecht like him to fight off her suitor, right? Even though mid-rank Knechts were considered rather powerful in Faustian, they were only just average in Aomar. An average viscount could easily afford to hire a couple mid-rank Knechts as guards.
"Ahem..." She cleared her throat before she said, "Locke, be my fiance!"
He spat his tea out and almost hurled the teacup away.
During the evening three days later, they arrived at their destination, a place surrounded by the beauty of nature. The humidity in the air and earthy smell reminded Locke of his home, Maple Village as he was reminded of the fact that a year had passed since he left it.
Even though it was the 11th month, it didn't snow in Aomar as it would in Faustian. Aomar only saw heavy snowfall during the 12th to 1st months. Despite the lower temperature, the plants were still fresh and green. It appeared that the farmers had begun to plant winter wheat after their autumn harvest.
"Irene, my dear niece, you're finally back!" said a cheerful voice nearby. A group of people came swarming towards them, led by a tough old man with silvering hair. Behind the man was a well-dressed middle-aged couple who bore a striking resemblance to Irene.
She ignored her uncle's greeting and ran towards the middle-aged couple. "Father, Mother!"
"Oh, my precious daughter, you're back!" They spoiled her like a child, forgetting that they were out in public, probably due to not seeing her for so long. Apart from them, a young boy and an even younger girl greeted their older sister.
"Who might you be?" the silver-haired man asked, having immediately taken note of Locke when he got off the carriage with Irene. While the capital was progressive enough to let matters like these slide, unmarried men and women wouldn't be allowed to sit in the same carriages in small places like these.
"Nice to meet you, Uncle Byzalle, I am Locke, Irene's schoolmate." Locke called him 'uncle' as Irene's 'prospective husband' and shook his hand.
"Oh, greetings!" Even though Byzalle was still a little taken aback, he shook Locke's hand all the same. After all, those who managed to get an entry into Princeton Academy were not simple folk by a long shot. He was taking Locke's background into account.