Before leaving Steinburg, Sterne instructed Viktor to see through the ongoing rehabilitation. There is much to do aside from providing them with the most basic necessity. The walls need to be reinforced and the soldiers lacked training even on basic monster subjugation. The next tide of monsters is coming soon, they absolutely cannot let the city fall and let the people suffer.
Before formally going back to their designated areas, the mentors arranged a morning banquet for everyone to mingle. In the presence of three princes, the mentors and seniors everyone could barely relax. Low tables were divided into two sides facing each other under layers of gauze as a shield from bright sunlight, thick rugs and sitting pillows were spread out for comfort. With this ensemble, everyone will have the chance to meet and greet their peers openly.
Laius Ravencroft surreptitiously eyed the conspicuous group parallel their seat. A man surrounded by four ladies was the most eye-catching thing there is, he had to admit, the sense of aesthetics emanating from those five are high. They have been the focus of envious and admiring gazes since their arrival yesterday.
"The top scorer for this test is the young master over there. He did not only slay twenty of his prey but finished early as well."
"Sir Ravencroft came second?"
"No actually, he was only fifth. We know Sir Ravencroft's fragile beauty is not suited for these types of tests. But when it comes to crafting and magic casting I'm sure he will come out on top. Blattfield Earldom improved a lot under their leadership, he and Lady Regina made a good combination."
"Makes sense. Anyway, the top ten scores were all marvellous."
"It's a little sad for the Hallowed One candidates. After today, the Heraldic Order will check the progress of their improvement, if there is none… then they will be bitterly taken off the list. The only compensation is that they still have their honorary Lady titles which equal to relatives of royalty. The King and Queen wouldn't treat them badly and find them, suitable marriage partners."
"How lucky for them…"
Regina raised the cup to cover the smirk on her lips. She felt undoubtedly good today, there are only four of them remaining. There are Bernice, Anais and Odette if Maelys suddenly changed her mind, she had to go through the Heraldic Order first! Milcah Flumen lost interest even before this competition began, both of them are no threat to her. Besides, Sir Laius had been working hard for her sake, always making sure her position is stable.
Though she had no idea why he was eagerly helping her achieve her dream.
She noticed Bernice and Sir Taron had been quiet for a while now. Normally, Bernice would come regularly to toss out a few sarcastic remarks to taunt her, almost like a devotion, yet today she doesn't look like she had the energy to spare her any glance.
On the other side of the banquet area, around with so many people, Sterne was found by a familiar person.
"Milady," Sir Thais greeted giving her a respectful bow. "I'm glad to see you are doing fine. Congratulations on passing the test."
Sterne smiled up to the man before her. The gentle and warm air that Sir Thais always carry remained but why does he look so tired? It was only a few weeks but he rather looked thin and haggard, she suddenly felt the corners of her eyes grew hot.
"How are you?"
"Rest assured milady, I am perfectly fine." He said with a smile.
"You're not lying to me, are you?"
Captain Thais knew her distress. He could see it, the young lady had always been transparent with her emotions when it comes to people she cares about. Thinking of himself as one, he felt a surge of joy enveloping him, crushing the bleakness he felt these past two weeks. "The fief we were assigned is slowly recovering, it was a good thing. However, I also wish to see your progress, I'm sure milady and the rest have done splendidly as well."
"We're trying." She said in a small voice. Ah, so they have been busy. No wonder he lost weight.
He reached out his hand and patted her head. "You can do it. You've always been diligent and stubborn."
Sterne laughed softly. "I wish I could show you."
"I'll wait for the good news."
As they talked Royce eyed them with a sour face. Maelys saw this and let out a sigh as she began a casual chatter without a conversation partner. "Oh, it's a good thing Sir Wisteria found a chance to talk to Sterne. They probably missed each other a lot, he was supposed to be her escort but something unexpected came up. Hmm… she waited for him for many years but," she sighed again seemingly blind to Royce's tight expression. "I remember Sterne always talking… hey, Royce where do you think you're going?"
Odette's mouth twitch, "What are you doing?"
"Ahahaha~ adding spice." She answered covering her mouth with a dainty fan. Odette, however, could clearly see two horns poking from her forehead and a tail swishing behind her.
"Will that work? He's too shy. Stop teasing him."
Sterne was bidding Sir Thais farewell when Royce sprouted from behind with a glacial look and spat out in a cold voice, "Banquet is about to begin."
Sir Thais who was about to head back caught the piercing gaze pointed at him like a blade. If anyone were to receive this kind of hostility they might have cringed or get mad as well. But instead of answering back Sir Thais smiled sympathetically at the young man who wore the 'jilted husband' look clearly.
Poor lad. He thought lighting a candle inside his heart.
Royce did not understand the pitying look given to him. All he knew was that that doesn't bode well with him.
Almost three weeks have passed, the first two weeks were really hectic divided between rehabilitation and subjugation. On their sixteenth day, no monsters appeared from the northern and eastern forests.
Retraining the soldiers came in between the talks of the knights.
The captains divided the groups to each of their apprentices and scattered to different locations. The Nachtwald brothers, Royce and Quillon took in recruits as well and stationed themselves at the north side.
They were taught how to deal with the monsters in a fast efficient way. After seeing the repeated scene of bloodshed outside they could no longer bear to just stand by the walls and let the visitors do their jobs. The locals asked to be taught on their own accord. With this, new recruits will spring forth covering the huge loss they suffered for years.
"It feels a little lonely without those things." Dorn complained one afternoon when they were walking around the parapets. His eyes scanning the clearing outside.
"Why, you miss your real family? Don't worry, you wouldn't be lonely for long, the monthly tide is coming."
"You'll be seeing your kin soon, who knows they might decide to take you back." Freiin mocked him cheekily.
He visibly shuddered in disgust. "Don't say something ominous."
"You don't want to return to the forest? You're abandoning them? That's harsh."
"Compared to you, I'm much kinder."
"I'm not teasing you, I'm telling the truth. Didn't uncle Gorgon tell you that you're adopted?" Freiin continues with a serious face, "Too bad because the monsters don't care about your feelings. Maybe if you offer an arm they might become appreciative and take you back."
Dorn roared. "Ugh, what the hell!? Who likes those stinky bastards?"
Listening to them bicker made Sterne feel comfortable like they are just in Nachtwald having an afternoon walk. Viktor appeared from the nearest flight of stairs and approached them.
"The warehouse' freeze rooms are done, milady."
"That was fast, you just started last week. Thank you, Viktor."
"It's because the spell matrix you designed is simpler and easy to understand."
"How do the butchers like their new workplace?"
He smiled. "They are very grateful for it."
Thank goodness they like it. Now there won't be a problem stocking up a lot of meat. The freeze room has a function that stops the time of every item put inside, a perfect replica of the rooms in the garrison back in their fief. She had long heard from Royce that most establishments in other countries use the same kind of magic device but they were too old.
"About the Fortification of Steinburg manor, we have permission from Lord Allen. Would you like to try it this time?"
Viktor's shoulders went rigid and he became unable to speak for a while. Fortifying the whole structure eats up a lot of mana, but it will surely be a great experience for him and his subordinates. Sterne had long thought of this, she still has a few S-rank rune ores in her storage.
To her surprise, Viktor kneeled with his right knee down and bowed. The Magus' book he always carries pressed to his heart. "I-If it is what my lady asks of me, I will follow without hesitation."
She was taken aback, why is he being so solemn so suddenly? It was a little discomfiting. She was used to Viktor being grumpy and annoying. But she admits, seeing him kneel for once felt satisfying.
"I know you can do it! You and everyone else have fortified the border walls of Sleeping Forest and succeeded. Steinburg will be in your care."
"You're too kind, Lady Sterne. It is by your grace that we are able to get our hands on that precious ancient matrix."
Her cheeks burned. "Stop dawdling and hurry along."
He bowed deeply once again, in a graceful swift move he stood sweeping his robe to the side and hurry down the steps to start with the preparations. Her facial muscle strained while she fought hard not make silly faces out of embarrassment.
"Milady, if I may be blunt. Why are you so concerned about this place?"
Turning to Freiin, she composed her features first.
"A gut feeling. In a way I see Nachtwald's similarities with Steinburg, I thought it was about that at first."
"At first? Is there a deeper reason?"
She nodded. "Did you ever wonder why the monsters keep flowing out the forest?"
The three looked at each other.
"Each time they grow in number. Each time the one that comes out is more aggressive than the others. It doesn't bode well with me. I feel something big is coming and I do not want Steinburg to stay bare and unprotected."
This may be baseless apprehension, and she prays it remains just that but no matter how Sterne deludes or distract herself, the dark feeling deep inside her heart did not dissipate.
An explosion of light startled everyone else. The bells rang repeatedly engulfing the whole city with fear and anxiety. Viktor's announcement did not reach everyone's ears.
"It's alright, it's just magic activation."
The knights helped pacifying the people.
"There is no danger."
"Everyone please observe your surroundings. There is no threat."
It took almost half an hour to calm the frightened citizens. Everyone gathered at the unused garden of the upper ward of the manor while the others crammed in the bailey of the lower ward as they were told whenever there is an announcement or incoming attack. It was neither this time.
No long speeches of explanation were needed when they can all clearly see it with their own eyes. The greyed out walls, the moss clinging to them and the despondent shade that is known in Steinburg suddenly disappeared.
"I'm still alive, am I? What's this all of a sudden?"
"A miracle happened."
"It's different somehow."
"Somehow? The whole city looks different!"
They looked down on their feet, from side to side to the tan coloured stone that is both ground and walls. A quaint fortified city is reborn.
"This is Steinburg…?" The baron breathed in awe as he drank on the tremendous change in front of him.
The people are appalled speechless in a long while.
"One of the ten masterpieces of the dwarven lords. We only upgraded it to its true form." Viktor said rolling the kinks off his shoulders.
"This much is, this is unbelievable. H-How can I ever repay your kindness?"
"As I said, what we did is only a little upgrade. Steinburg City already had this potential."
The twenty-one mages lined up in front of him catching their breaths. Their hands were grimy with bone ash paint they used for inscribing. The people flooded and dragged them out the steps of the manor and tossed them up the sky.
The applause and words of gratitude drowned out their protest as they were dragged all over the city. It was the first time Sterne saw Viktor lose his composure and laughed loudly while being embarrassed. Too bad they weren't able to attend the banquet that night because of the fevers.
"It has the same mechanism as the royal castle." Prince Arthur said as they walked around the great house. "The earlier structure was close to crumbling but the upgrade made seems like it wasn't like that before."
"If there are ten of them, where could be the others?" Prince Siegfried asked.
The two of them looked at Sterne as if she holds the answer. The young lady shrugged her shoulders. "I won't know unless I saw it."
Please, the Herald's Eye doesn't reveal too much and her dreams only showed relevant events that have a direct effect on the kingdom's safety. Although Lost Recipe holds a lot of secrets and treasures, that doesn't include maps that will point her in the right direction.
Afraid to be interrogated, she switched the topic into exploring the new house.
The dramatic changes are heavily influenced by the dwarves love for both aesthetic and utility. The manor's image against the horizon with the backdrop of tall towers created such spectacular silhouette when viewed from a distance.
Following the old style of fine and delicate arts, the unused chambers and halls that were destroyed by weather and fire are now fully restored. The lower ward where the left round tower is serves as the residence of the knights just like in Nachtwald when restored. Aside from the upgrade, the defence of the city has fortified a hundredfold as well.
"Even the outer curtain wall is now fully fixed no need for a thousand masons. With this, the gates on the sides can be opened for people to resume planting the crops." Prince Siegfried remarked looking out the window.
Now that the rehabilitation of the fortress city is nearly done. They wondered about the people who left. According to Baron Steinburg, plenty of his citizens split into different groups to move into other fiefs who had fewer monster attacks while some chose to leave because they wanted to become independent. There is this one group who went west to the islets and established a fishing village. It had three years since then.
Since they decisively abandoned their land, they thought, those people would never return but they were proven wrong.
From the rooftop garden of the manor, while having tea intending to have a quiet afternoon. The approaching hoofbeats from below drummed repeatedly ending the serene atmosphere.
"Who's coming?" Odette asked.
"It's probably the supplies from Omnia." Sterne said.
"No, it looks like a cavalry-- more like bandits." Dorn said. "Let me check."
The new arrivals are nearing the stockade now but the bridge was not lowered by the guards. Dorn disappeared in a blink of an eye.
A few days before.
"Ha, so that idiot cousin of mine was given reinforcement by the kingdom?" The thirty-five-year-old balding chief of the island town spat on the ground.
"The people who went there to visit their relatives said that the nobles are inside the city helping the locals."
"That's baloney! Why would they care?"
"Those people also said that Steinburg looks quite lively now, even go as far as saying that it is new."
"New? That ramshackle of a dump?"
"It's true chief. I was there yesterday too!"
One of the fishermen butted in. "Some people from other villages started to go back. The other islands have little people left, the families moved back."
If what these people say is true then it won't take long for his founded town to crumble. They left that wretched land because it was barren. He leads them here for a new life now they are leaving him?
Animosity filled his heart. The place he created for himself was ideal, everyone looks up to him. Why leave now? The island is all they need.
"Damnit!" It was that spineless' baron's fault.
That lily-livered crybaby he used to punch in the face is trying to establish himself again? What can an idiot like him do? He is practically useless garbage.
Margrave, ha! He spat again. That was a distant title from the past. There was none of that left now. Boarding their canoes they crossed the small distance between the islands to the shore. The horses are waiting for them.
He needs to make sure himself.
Dorn came back with the bad news.
"Those are the islanders, they're demanding that the guards lower the bridge and let them in."
Prince Arthur's eyebrow rose.
"Demanding? Did I hear that right?"
"Yes Your Highness and they are adamant that Baron Steinburg shows himself."
"Who's the person leading them?"
"Werner I heard, he is a cousin to the baron they say."
"Hoo… let's see."
Prince Arthur stood, Maelys and Sterne followed along with Emilia while the rest stayed on the roof garden. There were no monsters for almost three weeks now, a long reprieve from the previous days of the gruelling encounter but then another kind of trouble comes.
Baron Steinburg has already come down to the bailey and sent a messenger to the gatehouse ordering for the bridge to be lowered. In less than minutes, horses galloped inside never even caring if the path is empty or if there are people standing on the side.
The woman carrying buckets of cow's milk to the dairy almost fell down. It was fortunate she was helped by a knight who stood nearby. Twenty mounted men came inside wearing animal furs and leather clothes in brown. Belts secured the swords on their waist and they sauntered toward the lower bailey as if they owned the place.
"What brought you back here, Werner?" Baron Steinburg began.
"Am I not going to get a greeting first?" The man with thinning hair asked. Lacking in basic manners, the person was picking his teeth while talking to the baron.
"My bad, should I say welcome back when I know exactly that you have no plans of doing so?"
"Don't get cheeky with me." Werner sneered, his eyes swept around the people beginning to gather.
His men laughed.
"What rude people." Maelys gritted her teeth.
"So it's true, the city looks quite new. Did the kingdom finally took notice of you?"
"On the first place, the kingdom has never turned their back on Steinburg as much as you did."
Werner doubled over laughing. "You're really stupid aren't you. The title ends with you, no matter how much you improve this place a new landlord will be given rights to govern this land."
"Did you travel all the way here just to say something I'm mostly aware of?" With the baron looking unaffected by his provocation, Werner's eyes grew more bloodshot.
"Very well, the islanders will come back." He said sniffing his nose rudely. "It will do you good if you find them a good place to settle in. Of course, that includes me as well. I might put in a good act and tell the new landlord of your great efforts."
"If the islanders would want to return I will welcome them back." The baron said patiently.
"No, you don't understand." Werner cut in. "They will come back when I tell them to come back. They follow me, not you."
That goes without saying that he wants to retain his position among his people yet he wants to enter the city once again. Werner has to set the garbage straight first, he needs to recognize who has the upperhand. Most of the people follow him, it was up to him to return half of the citizens. Allen should be licking his boots, not the other way around.
As usual, he still have that dumb blank look on his face. A garbage will always be garbage. He peered around at the gallery of people gathering and found a young lady with a snow white skin. His eyes raked her with an indecent gaze making the lady shudder.
"The Baron of Steinburg has no obligation to listen to your demands." Prince Arthur spoke among the crowd.
All heads turned to him and held their breaths. For the past few weeks of staying here most of them are already familiar with the royal siblings loitering around the city like lost chickens. Though they never asked directly, they heard it from the stories shared by the maids inside the manor that it was indeed the princes who came.
"You left on your own accord and established a new town of your own within the uninhabited islands. That means you are no longer a part of this fief. If you wish to return you need to file the necessary documents and wait for approval of the lord of the land."
"Shut up brat, what do you know?" Werner snapped insultingly. "You stay put in that corner and stop squealing like a girl. This has nothing to do with you."
Everyone's scalp prickled. A dark veil covered Prince Arthur's usually nice smile followed by sharp sounds of metal from drawn swords.
The Halcyon Knights are not taking this lightly. This is bad, he will be beheaded for insulting royalty. Sterne braced herself not to throw up, she doesn't want to see heads rolling down like a melon on the new ground. However, the prince raised his hand slightly for a halt.
Werner sneered ignoring the second prince. "More importantly, hey Allen, aren't you even going to offer us a drink? We've come from a long journey. We are parched." He continues to speak running his hand on his throat.
"I suggest you turn around and go back to your island." The baron said disregarding all manners of courtesy.
"You cannot drive us out just like that."
"Our talk here is done, you have made your point."
"You listen to this brat's word?" He shot a finger to the prince. "We used to live here. You know that! Are you going to ignore us now that you have recovered?"
"I will welcome anyone who is willing to join Steinburg once again provided that they abide by the rules."
A victorious smile crept upon Werner's face, he arrogantly swaggered around with a left hand on the hilt of his sword this time. He stopped right next to the baron and spew spittle as he spoke. "Abide by the rules, that's tough. There was none of that before. Did the people from the capital put flowers in the head?"
A diabolic grin came across his features. He knew Allen will not forsake the people.
"What if I don't tell them to return because you had grown odd ideas in your head, what will you do, huh?"
Silence passed between them. Only Werner remained noisy with the constant picking on his teeth. The guy has manners of a pig. A brief moment later the baron said, unfalteringly. "You are their chief if they abide your decision then I cannot force them."
Werner spread his arms arrogantly as he and his companions laughed once again. The sound full of scorn and malice reverberated throughout the bailey. "You're still a coward until now."
Baron Steinburg said nothing and remained impassive. His blue eyes just stared at the fiend.
To Werner, he has attained victory by ridiculing him in public, he knew he won't retaliate that's why he kept on going.
It felt good after all.
Why would he send the people back here? It will be his loss. For years he wanted to prove himself better and he did. They never once got haunted by monsters in the safety of the islands and just because the city has recovered does not mean they are safe from those demons.
He will laugh at them later when the next wave comes.
Werner move to mount his horse but before that, he went to the pretty lass that caught his eyes to grab her arm when a shiny object blocked his reach.
The blade is aimed right between his eyes.
"Move away, take your filth with you and do not ever return." The knight whom he recognized as a tower guard said.
"Oh, if it isn't you. Look how brave you have become." He tried to pull his sword out when the knight struck his hand pressing the sword back to the scabbard.
Seeing the cold glint in his eyes, Werner left with a bitter look. Baron Steinburg closed his eyes and held the side of his head. He then walked to where we are and apologized to Prince Arthur saying that he will receive any punishment he will give.
"Why would I do that? You are not the one who has wronged me." Was all he said giving an incredulous air. "You're too wound up baron. It will do you well to relax or else your hair will fall off just like that man."
The crowd started laughing as he turned to head back to the manor.