Nobody could refuse the olive branch Maria extended their way. The former chief constable, the former treasurer, and Borkal's father all agreed to put their assets up as security for loans. They didn't have much to add after the convoy disaster, so they each only got a percent or two in shares.
Claude had thought about this possibility, however. Nobody was having a great day since the convoy's destruction. Their position was made even worse by the fact that they had not only lost their positions in the government, but that Robert was now calling all the shots on his own. He'd not taken kindly to their years of countermanding him at every turn, and he had an entire garrison under his belt as well. Not to mention that he had Sir Fux's backing as well.
One of his moves after taking power was to introduce two new taxes that affected mainly commercial enterprises. Most households were thus largely unaffected, at least directly, by the new taxes, but it hit the wealthier people in town pretty hard, since their wealth was inevitably tied to commercial enterprises.
His moves were quickly overshadowed by Maria's moves. Mainly her putting Normanley Wood up as security on a loan. Naturally it was something no one was supposed to know about since it was a proprietary, private transaction, but walls were very porous in Whitestag. The bulk of her money, along with the money of 11 other investors, was put into a new company, Normanley Real Estate. The news became even bigger once the new company started buying up every plot of land owned by someone who had even the slightest thought of selling -- especially plots and buildings near the main thoroughfares.
No one knew to what the baroness was up, but real estate became an expensive commodity overnight. Mayor Robert had even requested a meeting with the local representatives of the new company several times to get to the bottom of what was going on, but he was rebuffed at every turn. He eventually managed to got an explanation out of Rodan, however, who simply told him the baroness had decided it was time to clean up her hometown, especially the slums.
Though her co-investors from town could contribute little in terms of money, they did a great deal to smooth the purchases, which resulted in clean acquisitions all around. There were some with whom one couldn't reason, however, no matter how hard one tried.
"It's mostly people who don't have anywhere else to go or are too old to think about moving, even for a handsome sum," Thomas explained in the board of investors' latest meeting.
Claude nodded. He knew there would be people like this, however, and had thought about what to do a long time ago.
"Since finding other places to live is the big issue for them, just give them places. I had Rodan buy that plot of land a little further east in the slums, remember? Build some apartments there and move everyone there. Give them the apartments for free and pay them a smaller sum for their actual homes."
"Why not just promise them houses for once we're done with our little project? We won't have to build a whole new apartment block," someone suggested.
"It'd be cheaper to build a single apartment block than a bunch of houses. Not to mention that the area we're talking about is going to be built into a fancy neighbourhood, if we give them houses there we lose three ways. First off, we lose houses we could have sold for handsome prices, then we lose out because we have to build them houses of appropriate grandeur to the neighbourhood, and we lose future rent from the apartments."
Profit spoke louder than words, and everyone immediately agreed.
"Alright, I'll go talk to them again," Thomas said, turning to leave.
"A moment," Claude called, "If they still don't want to budge, offer them shop lots in the west of the slums. We were going to sell those off from the beginning, so we don't lose as much."
The townsfolk were positively bursting with curiosity at what Normanley Real Estate was doing. They didn't have to wait too long to get a peek at what was planned for the slums. The company posted posters and boards of their plans for the slums soon after finishing their acquisition of the entire area. The town practically exploded at the news, especially when it was revealed that most of the town's rich and elite had already purchased houses yet to be built.
Claude couldn't break away from his work. Fortunately, his mother had recovered and took over running the house so he was free to focus on things other than cooking, cleaning, and washing. He'd also gotten the company to a place where he didn't have to be actively involved too much. He'd left Rodan to run it in his place, and hired Kefnie on as his secretary.
An entire quarter of the town now belonged to Normanley Real Estate, and soon the new buildings started springing up like mushrooms. Claude focused instead on finding more talented individuals he could hire to fill various positions in the company.
The month flashed by while the crew reworked most of the town and the 5th month broke day. With it, Welikro came for a visit. The young man didn't waste words, he placed his ceremonial short sword in Claude's hands before even greeting him.
"What're you doing?" Claude asked.
Welikro loved this particular sword. He was almost never separate from it.
"I have to leave..." his friend sighed.
"I have to go to the capital. My dad offended Mayor Robert, and he's been setting Butcher Bill and his goons on us. My dad knows I have no future in town as long as that bastard sits in the mayor's seat, so he wrote an old commander of his about our predicament and he secured my enlistment in my dad's old unit. We're all leaving for the capital tomorrow when our passports arrive. I came by to say goodbye."
Claude didn't know what to say. He'd known Welikro's father had offended the mayor when he refused to play along with his schemes where the garrison was concerned, but he'd thought the score would have been settled when Kubrik was excluded from the garrison. He didn't think they'd keep making trouble for him afterwards, but Welikro explained they'd kept harassing his father whenever he went in to town to sell his catch, often confiscating everything on some technicality or a blatantly false accusation.
Claude's lightbulb went on and he finally understood why the man had not taken him up on his offer of investment. He wanted nothing to do with Whitestag anymore, especially not with any business in town since he would be leaving, and moving so far away as well.
"I should congratulate you," Claude said cheerfully, though his eyes betrayed his melancholy.
Borkal had also left, and ironically also for the army, and Eriksson had completely shunned him. Now Welikro was leaving as well.
"Your whole family is leaving?" Claude asked.
"Yes. The old commander my dad wrote also got him a job as a bodyguard for one of the nobles he knows. The pay's good, and we won't have trouble from that bastard mayor anymore, so we're all going. Not to mention Dad is hoping with a larger pool of men he can find a husband for my sister."
Claude wanted to give Welikro something in return for his precious sword, but he couldn't find anything.
"When are you leaving? I'll send you--"
"--No need, we're leaving first thing tomorrow morning. We've already packed. We won't even come through town. I'll write once I settle down. Don't you dare not write back!"
Welikro cracked a smile. A long moment passed, then he gave Claude a tight bear hug and left.
Claude sent him off as far as he would let him, then went and picked up his sister before heading home. His mother brought up her woes at trying to go to town to shop yet again during dinner. Claude was gone with the only carriage they had for the entire day. They did have another on the estate, but it belonged to the Sioris, and they were now using it all the time thanks to once again having to manage the estate on their own.
Claude decided to buy another carriage for them at some point.
Rodan had not taken up residence on the estate, choosing instead to live in one of the better houses the company had procured in town.
"I'll go look for a carriage tomorrow," Claude decided, "I'll have the carpenters and builders come build us a shed later, too."
Claude popped into his study for the first time in a while after everyone had turned in for the night. His progress with magic and herbal medicine had all but come to a halt since his family had moved in.
At least he'd finally dealt with the worst of the work where the company was concerned. Rodan could handle most of what was left.
He heard a knock on the door and opened it to find his sister, pale, behind it.
"Why aren't you asleep yet? Don't you have school tomorrow?" he asked, an involuntary, friendly smile blooming on his face.
"Tomorrow's Sunday," she answered.
"Ah," Claude's eyes wandered to her hands, where he saw her clutching the cookbook. "--Oh, there it is! I was wondering where it'd gone."
He reached for the book, but Angelina took a step back, clutching the book tightly to her bosom.
"There... there are blue words written in it..." she muttered.