Lorist froze up the moment he heard that just as he was reaching for his bottle of wine. Snapping his fingers, he gestured for the waitress to come over and smiled towards the black-clad woman. "I wonder if you had lunch already? Would you like some mutton steak? The steak tastes magnificent when accompanied with the red wine they serve. Do I have the honor of dining with you?"
The black-clad woman's surprised look could be seen from the semi-see-through black veil she wore on her face, as if she was wondering what Lorist was plotting for suddenly offering to treat her to lunch the moment she mentioned the dominion of the Norton Family. But when Lorist spoke of the deliciousness of the food, she could be seen swallowing twice in anticipation.
However, she resisted the temptation of food and nodded slightly in apology. "If it wouldn't be convenient for you to let us travel along with your convoy, then so be it. It's my fault for interrupting your meal, please forgive my transgression."
"Wait a second..." said Lorist as he stretched his hand out to stop her. "Please wait a moment, miss. Let me introduce myself. I am Norton Lorist of the Norton Family of the Northlands. My men are looking for more horse carriages to form a convoy to return to my family dominion. Here is my family badge."
Lorist then placed a golden badge onto the table that had an engraving of the insignia of the Roaring Raging Bear on top of it with a complicated laurel pattern on its back surrounding Lorist's name. This was the proof of Lorist's identity: any noble who had received formal education and training as one would be able to tell whether it was genuine or not at first glance.
The woman uttered in surprise and clasped her mouth from behind the black veil. She didn't expect that she would meet a person from the family of the dominion she wished to head to and didn't know how to react.
"Miss, are you okay?"
A butler who looked to be in his fifties and a maidservant looking to be in her mid-teens stood up and came over from a table nearby.
Quickly hugging the black-clad woman, the maidservant glared at Lorist with a fierce expression as if he had committed some unforgivable sin.
That butler on the other hand stood in front of the two girls.
"Hehehe..." Lorist started to laugh as he thought, this old man's aura... Hmm, he's of the Iron rank. What a loyal person, not bad...
The woman hurriedly snapped out of her stupor and said, "I'm sorry, milord, they're only worried for my safety..."
Lorist waved casually and said, "It's alright, I understand. Now, can you sit down and tell me what business you have at my family's dominion?"
The maidservant narrowed her eyes and looked at the badge Lorist had placed on the table. "Is this badge really made of gold?"
After that, she took it up and gave it a huge bite.
"Don't..." said Lorist with much urgency, but it was too late.
As expected, the moment the maidservant's teeth collided with the badge, she tossed it away and started groaning in pain.
"Milady, this man is a fraud! His badge is not made of gold at all.." accused the maidservant in a pained voice.
The woman in black facepalmed as if she didn't know what to do with her rowdy maidservant...
Resisting the urge to laugh, Lorist picked up the badge the maidservant had dropped and circulated his Battle Force before saying to the maidservant, "Young lady, no family badge will be fully made from pure gold only. There are two proper ways to distinguish real badges from fake ones. First, look at the patterns and engravings at the back of the badge. The second way is this..."
Lorist allowed the Battle Force that flowed within his veins to slowly enter the badge. After a while, a thick black mist gradually formed above the badge and morphed into a shape of a bear roaring towards the skies.
"How mysterious..." said the young maidservant as if she had forgotten the pain in her teeth as she stared wide-eyed at the smoke projection of the bear within the air.
"This happens because a special material that allows for Battle Force to circulate is present within the badge. Coupled with the intricate patterns carved onto the surface, this phenomenon occurs easily when Battle Force is input into the badge. Every noble family badge can be differentiated using this method as each family has their own unique combination of materials and carvings that is kept secret from everyone else to prevent fraud from being easily committed. That's why, impersonating a noble is definitely no easy task," explained Lorist with a smile as the smoke projection of the raging bear floating atop the badge slowly dissipated.
"I'm really sorry, milord. Little Vinny was really too rude..." said the woman while she removed the black veil that covered her face, revealing her long maroon hair, delicate and pretty face, her large, intelligent-looking eyes, small, thin lips as well as her smooth, rounded chin. However, her skin tone was slightly paler than most.
"It's no big deal, she's a cute little maidservant. So, beautiful lady, do I have the honor now to treat you to lunch?" asked Lorist politely once again.
"Food? Count me in! I want some roasted chicken drumsticks, some beef steak, bacon and some egg tarts with pudding..." Before the black-clad woman could reply, the little handmaiden by her side had already started ordering what she wanted excitedly.
"Vinny..." said the woman as she gave her maidservant a glare.
"But mistress... Vinny has been eating nothing but potatoes for half a month! Vinny wants to eat meat..." said the little maidservant as she looked at her mistress with her large and pained puppy-dog eyes.
The woman's face instantly flushed red with embarrassment.
"Little Vinny, go sit down with the butler at that table and order whatever you like, okay? Don't worry, I'll pay for it," said Lorist as he motioned for the waitress nearby to come over. "Please get this lady here a set of roasted mutton steak, some fruit salad with buttered mushrooms and a bottle of red wine. Also, please satisfy the demands of that little girl over there as well, okay?"
"Yes, milord. It will be done promptly, please wait for a bit." The change in the waitress's attitude was quite apparent after she got to know Lorist's status as a noble.
"Oh, I haven't asked your name yet, young lady."
The black-clad woman had already returned to her previous calm and said, "It's my fault for not introducing myself first. I'm Nico Telesti, adopted daughter of Nico Albess. I'm also her student..."
"Nico Albess? That name sounds familiar, let me think..." Lorist sunk into deep thought for a moment and said, "She's a famous scholar back in the days of the former empire who specialized in ruin exploration. Being an influential professor, she is also awarded an honorary title of nobility as a dame and has written many research publications concerning the relics of the Age of Magic..."
"Ah, why are you so informed about her, milord?" said Telesti with an astonished expression.
Lorist laughed and said, "That's simple. When I was studying at Dawn Academy back in Morante City, ruin exploration was also one of the courses I had picked up. Most of the material we used in the course were written by your mother. To pass the course, I had to memorize so many of the books your mother wrote by the word! Thinking back, the days of book-memorizing were rather painful ones..."
"Hehe..." Telesti laughed out. "That's because you only did that to pass your course. If you were truly interested in the subject, there would be no need to memorize the books by way of rote at all. The books my mother wrote were incredibly well-structured in a way that would allow you to understand most of the concepts by deriving them from the foundational ones. The fact that you had such a hard time memorizing them meant that you were not properly interested in learning about that field at all."
"You have a point. After I passed the exams, I forgot almost everything that I had memorized. Oh, how is Dame Albess doing by the way?" asked Lorist.
Telesti's expression suddenly turned sullen as she started tearing up. "My mother is no longer of this world. Three years ago during the First Prince's ambush and the Third Prince's retaliation, the imperial capital had been totally decimated. During that conflict, my mother had encountered some raiding soldiers and died in an effort to protect the results of her research. After that, I collected the manuscripts of my mother and some other research documents and left with Vinny and my butler to the War God Shrine's nunnery and managed to evade the effects of the war. When the war ended, I went back to my residence only to notice that it had been completely pillaged with nothing left. The situation has been quite terrible in the imperial capital during those two years and there was no way I would be able to survive there as a scholar. That's why I decided to heed my good friend's advice to head to the Northlands."
Lorist said solemnly, "Please accept my condolences."
"It's okay..." Perhaps it was due to the hardships she had experienced, the pale-faced scholar managed to acquire a strength of perseverance that not everybody had. "Actually, the other reason I decided to go to the Norton Family's dominion apart from my friend's advice is to continue my mother's research. My friend is called Norton Glacia. According to her, despite the relative ruralness of the Norton Family dominion, there is no need to worry about the flames of war encroaching that place and that it would be safe for me to continue my mother's research over there."
"Norton Glacia? My cousin sister?" At that moment, an image of a chubby little girl showed up in Lorist's mind. However, it wasn't a pleasant memory as at that moment, that girl was grabbing at his cheeks and twisting it to make different weird faces. In his memories, he was crying really hard at being played around by that girl.
Back then, Lorist's mother was still alive and he was only 5 years old. That chubby girl was the daughter of his Second Uncle and she had come along with her mother to visit the family. That was when Lorist ended up being her beloved toy.
What a terrible memory! Lorist shook his head and shoved those memories back to the depths of his mind and said, "Do you have any news about my Second Uncle's family? Can you tell me how they are doing right now?"
Telesti shook her head and said, "It's been two years since I split up with them, so I have no idea how they're doing right now. However, milord, I can tell you that your Second Uncle has already passed away. 7 years ago when the First Prince started his rebellion, the royal guard knight legion your Second Uncle had served in as its vice captain was ambushed by the rebellion army and had been completely wiped out. Your Second Uncle wasn't exempt from that either. When the news got to your aunt, she cried herself to sleep for quite a number of times."
Lorist clenched his hands so hard that veins started showing up on his arms. "It's that damned First Prince again. I'll definitely remember this and settle it with him one day..."
"Glacia is a genius in Battle Force training and she had already reached the Two Star Silver rank at a young age of 20. My family was a neighbor of your Second Uncle and Glacia came over to my house frequently to play. She was like an elder sister to me. After the death of your uncle, Glacia joined the army and said that she wished to avenge her father. However, she came back within a year and angrily complained that the Third Prince only wished to retain his position as the king of the Andinaq Kingdom and didn't take any real action against the First Prince's forces. She felt that a person like that wasn't worthy of her service. But after a while, she got quite close to the second son of the Third Prince, the Second Highness, and formed a small squad with him whose only purpose was to cause trouble for the First Prince.
"The last time I met her was two years ago when the civil war was about to end and the Third Prince was already having peace talks with the other dukes. When she returned to the capital, Glacia came over to my house and told me that the Third Prince had disbanded the Whitelion Legion that the Second Highness commanded to prevent further conflict between the Second Highness and his elder brother, the First Highness, and also exiled the Second Highness to his own dominion. Glacia said that she was going to follow the Second Highness back to his dominion together with her two brothers and her mother," explained Telesti.
"Why didn't she invite you to go along?" Lorist asked, curious at how his elder cousin sister had asked her scholar friend to travel to the Northlands instead of following her along to the Second Highness's dominion when the risks of traveling to the Northlands were far higher.
"She did, but I refused," Telesti said. "Two years ago after the peace treaty was signed, the citizens of the imperial capital thought that the days after the conflict would be much better and peaceful. But in actuality, it was much worse as the price of food and other fundamental supplies had risen to unimaginable heights due to a huge shortage. The security of the capital also got progressively worse as many people gradually started to make a living as bandits or thieves. And even though the war had ended, the conflict between the dominion lords didn't stop at all but rather increased instead. That's why I decided to seek refuge from the Norton Family given the terrible state of affairs at the capital.
"One huge factor for my decision to go to the Northlands was its benefit to my mother's research. There is a place called the Black Swamps within your family's dominion, right?" Telesti asked.
"Are you talking about the Blackmud Marsh?"
"Yes, the Blackmud Marsh. After many years of research, my mother theorized that the Blackmud Marsh could have some remains or relics from the end days of the Age of Magic. However, she couldn't pinpoint exactly where they were. I hope to be able to go there to see that place for myself and also restart her research too. If I manage to find the relics she had mentioned to be there one day, I'm sure I would've fulfilled the hopes she left to me before she departed to the afterlife." Telesti's eyes let out a completely different aura the moment she started talking about her mother's research.
Upon hearing that, Lorist pursed his lips in doubt.
"It's true, I'm not kidding you! I also believe my mother's hypothesis about there being relics at the Blackmud Marsh that has yet to be discovered by anyone. Glacia knows about my mother's works as well, that's why she wrote this letter of recommendation for me," said Telesti in an annoyed tone as if she was about to cry from Lorist's doubt towards her mother's findings.
"Oh, it wasn't that I doubted your mother's findings," said Lorist hastily to console the young female scholar. "I only think that the Blackmud Marsh might not be as accessible as you may imagine it to be. It is one of the most dangerous places in the Northlands as it is the main habitat of thousands of Ironspine Crocodiles. I recall that someone back in my family had reported a sighting of one that was easily over 40 meters in length. There is no way that you'll be able to approach the Blackmud Marsh without having at least a Silver rank in Battle Force training."
"Is that so..." said Telesti with a stunned look after hearing what Lorist had to say.
Did you think that you would be able to enter the Blackmud Marsh as you please to search for ancient relics? If it were that easy, wouldn't someone else have found the relics long ago? What a naive young girl...
"How about this, Miss Telesti, as the family head of the Nortons, I welcome your joining us on our journey to the Northlands with our convoy and consider you a guest of my family. You will be allowed to stay for as long as you please in the family dominion to work on your research however you please and we will provide for everything you may need during your stay as best as we can to your satisfaction," said Lorist.
At that moment, Lorist saw the bitter-faced garrison captain rush into the inn hurriedly. Upon seeing Lorist, the captain made a respectful greeting and said, "Milord, the local dominion lord, Viscount Kermas has just arrived. He wishes to have a meeting with you."
Lorist gestured for the garrison captain to wait and said, "Miss Telesti, the convoy will be leaving within two days. Because of some reasons, we might need to travel far without resting. If you have anything you need help with, please don't hesitate to tell us about it to avoid slowing down the journey, okay?"
The young female scholar's face turned flush-red again as if she was unaccustomed to asking help from others. After hesitating for a while, she finally said that her party of three had two horse carriages, but they still required 3 work horses to pull them.
Lorist nodded and said, "Please don't worry, Miss Telesti, I will definitely arrange that for you. You just have to wait for news of the convoy's departure. Please forgive me from excusing myself as I have to go meet the local dominion lord right now. Oh, your meal is here. Please enjoy it. If you need anything else, please don't hesitate to tell it to the waitress over there. Don't hold back, the bill's on me."
Lorist then stood up and made a gesture of apology before informing the inn owner to take special care of his three guests and leaving with the garrison captain.