At noon on the next day, Kenzir arrived at Cardoj's camp, accompanied by a large number of nobles, all of them at least of the rank of viscount.
What surprised the soldiers was that they were surrounded by an entire division of thousands of men. Perhaps 'surrounding' wasn't the best word to describe this scenario. This well-equipped and well-staffed division was Kenzir's personal guard, and was the most elite unit in Lion.
Kenzir had hurriedly entered the central tent to find his sister, leaving the group of nobles aimlessly looking around. The prince had a reputation for his decisiveness and resolute character among the nobles, so they weren't too bothered by his actions. They simply gathered in twos and threes to chat.
"How did the princess come back?" asked a viscount, who was not well informed.
"If I'm not mistaken, a soldier brought her back." replied another nobleman.
"I didn't expect her to be able to return after being hunted down by Blood Red. The princess really is an amazing woman," flattered a minor noble. His rank wasn't particularly low -- he was a viscount, but he was just a small fry compared to the big guns around him.
The group of nobles standing in the centre of the circle expressionlessly observed those at the periphery gossiping. Where a noble stood within the circle was determined by their status, and their knowledge of the events that transpired. Those with the rank of count or higher knew about the princess returning with the help of a soldier under Cardoj. Those in the lower ranks were completely oblivious to the fact that the princess had returned.
Some of those better informed nobles even knew about Angelina and the soldier crossing the Bering Mountains before making it back to safety.
But these nobles did not speak. Firstly, they disdained talking to people who were lower than their ranks. Secondly, the two most distinguished ones in the centre of the circle had not spoken yet. How could they speak on their behalf?
The two at the centre of the circle were De Sandro and Marmen. Since Angelina appeared within the camp of one of Falcon's units, they would be the first to find out. Kenzir received word about her safe return from the two margraves via direct flame transmission.
"The princess was able to return safely thanks to Baron Cardoj," Marmen finally said.
"Of course, Cardoj has never failed us," Sandro chimed in.
A group of nobles around began to praise Cardoj in their small circles. After saving the sister of the heir to the throne, Cardoj could literally spend the rest of his days as a nobleman eating to his heart's content, enjoying life to the fullest and waiting for the inevitable end. He would be hitting a jackpot, assuming he hasn't already.
Cardoj was the lowest-ranked among this group of nobles. Despite being very competent and capable, the nobles didn't care much about these two attributes. What they were concerned with was power and heritage. Furthermore, these nobles were all above the rank of viscount. Every one of them belonged to an ancient family with a history stretching back at least three centuries. The Cardojs were only in their infancy in comparison, having just reached the fourth generation.
Back then, Cardoj had always played a supporting role. Yet now, he was mentioned by the two margraves, finally grabbing the spotlight. He was taking this opportunity to make himself acquainted with everyone. He knew that the two margraves were helping him set up connections with the others.
The baron rarely had the chance to socialise with the upper-class nobles. Moreover, those present were all in Kenzir's faction. In the future, when Kenzir inherited the throne, not all, but at least half of these people would be promoted, which would come with its fair share of family benefits. Cardoj was doing his best to elevate his family into the Faustian elite.
Everyone was more or less showering Cardoj with compliments, but he merely brushed them off with a humble 'you're too kind'. While it may have looked like he wasn't proud of his own merits, everyone knew he was going to be rewarded handsomely regardless. This 'crippled' battalion of Cardoj would definitely be the highlight of this war between the two countries. Cardoj, whose strength had been reduced, could still take one step further, or even reach the rank of viscount or higher.
Not long after, Kenzir walked out of the central tent and Angelina followed suit. The nobles standing outside promptly quieted down and greeted both of them in unison.
Angelina was no longer clad in the garments made of moonlight wolf fur. This time, she donned an unusually gorgeous court dress. Naturally, Kenzir had not come empty-handed; he had brought along a group of court ladies to wait on the princess. Though, Angelina did carefully put the moonlight wolf garments aside for safekeeping.
Kenzir was in bright spirits. His sister's safe return was probably the best news he had received in the past month. Although he was upset because of some negative developments on the frontlines, a slight smile still crept at the corner of his mouth.
The nobles outside were quick to notice this too. A few bold ones could be heard whispering quietly, "I think this is the first time we've seen Prince Kenzir smile since Margrave Woode's death."
Dinner was just as grand as yesterday's, if not more so. This time, the location of the festivities was in the camp of Kenzir's private division rather than Cardoj's battalion's.
The tent where Kenzir was treating the nobles to dinner looked far fancier than a regular tent. It was more like a portable palace, with chandeliers overhead, exquisite candle lighting, and maids and servants interspersed among the many nobles, tending to their every need. Locke, a humble bumpkin, had a rather eye-opening experience.
Indeed, Kenzir had invited Locke to join him for dinner with the nobles, and had made this invitation public. When this announcement was made, many of the nobles were left scratching their heads. Who was this man? Why had they never heard him in their circles before?
Only the two margraves and a few senior counts that supported Kenzir genuinely knew who Locke was.
At this time, in addition to the pompously dressed nobles, uniformed maids and servants came and went in the tent. Locke, a brutish soldier in leather armour, was really out of place here. Talking amongst themselves, the nobles whispered and pointed at Locke from time to time. It seemed that they had roughly guessed who the 'commoner' who had mixed in was. The maids attentively served tea and wine, and delivered lots of exquisite food that Locke had never seen before.
Although Locke was just a commoner, none of the nobles dared bother him and throw their weight around. Everyone here was smart enough to know that if Kenzir had publicly invited this ordinary commoner to dinner, he clearly mattered to the prince. It would only be a matter of time before Locke became significant.
But they didn't have the idea of fawning over Locke either. He was merely a commoner that's beneath them, which was enough for them to not want to talk to him.
Since no one approached him, Locke felt slightly relieved. To be honest, he wasn't feeling very comfortable due to the atmosphere. Everyone around him, including the maids who delivered food, looked way more prestigious than him. The soldiers on guard wore more exquisite armour and carried sharper swords than him. Did he even need to mention the elegant nobles?
Of course, Locke was not totally ignorant either. Watching Cardoj mingle with the rest of the group, he knew that he was trying to curry favour with them. This was the first time he'd seen the nobles in action with his own eyes. It turned out that Cardoj, who had always been mysterious and cold in his eyes, played this dirty game of politics too. This left Locke with a bag of mixed emotions.
Dishes were brought out one by one and served on the long tables in the tent. A jug of wine was also poured into goblets, but the guests continued talking among themselves. The banquet was not to be started without the presence of the host.
Locke pulled a maid aside and started bombarding her with questions. He asked everything about what the dishes were made of, or where the wine was brewed. He'd even gone so far as to ask about the chandeliers.
The maid patiently heard all his questions, answering them one by one. Then, it was her turn to ask Locke about how an ordinary commoner like him could make it into the prince's banquet.
Just as Locke and the maid were getting into the groove of their chat, Kenzir and Angelina finally made their entrance.
As soon as the prince appeared, the tent fell silent.
Kenzir had the demeanor of a king in the making. He announced, "Today is an important day of reunion with my sister. After four years of war, our kingdom finally reached the fifth year of war with Shalor. Although many of our comrades will never come back, they live on within us. Let us cherish the memory of Margrave Woode!"
The prince was an eloquent speaker. Every time he finished his sentence, the nobles would burst into applause.
Locke joined in the clapping as well, but he felt unexpectedly unsettled by the last sentence. What? Margrave Woode was killed in battle?!
How in the world could this happen? As one of the four margraves, Woode was the corps jarl of the Gale. Death in war was a regular occurrence, but how could someone like the margrave perish?
Kenzir's eyes were flushing red. As he talked, he unintentionally exuded a fierce aura, which Locke instantly recognised. Prince Kenzir was a high-rank Knecht!
Angelina, who was next to him, was also taken aback. It seemed that she had been unaware about Woode's death too, and she wasn't handling the news very well. Perhaps she was really close to him. It was supposed to be a joyous reunion between her and her brother, but alas, it was a bittersweet one.
Marmen, who had always been an old rival of Woode, seemed to have a dark cloud cast above him. To an outsider, they would've looked like sworn enemies, bickering over everything under the sun. However, the two of them mutually admired each other. Had they been regular people unburdened by their noble backgrounds, they would've made excellent friends.
The prince continued to talk, but the words went in one of Locke's ears and out the other. He was far too shocked by the death of Woode, a highly prominent figure. Through the prince's speech and the explanation of the maid, he was beginning to get the gist of what happened.