The prince looked up, and Claude realised he didn't look as young as he'd initially thought. He was at least in his late thirties. Claude could see the slightest hints of wrinkles starting to reveal themselves at the edges of his face. He was pale and somewhat gaunt. His bloodshot eyes made him look like a black company employee.
The prince didn't speak. He spared Claude only a glance, then poured himself some more wine, and took a sip. He raised his chin and stared down at Claude for a long, contemptuous moment before he spoke.
"You are Claude Ferd? My aunt's student from Whitestag?" he asked.
Aunt? It took Claude a good four seconds to realise the prince was talking about Baronnes Maria. So even the king's children saw her as the king's sister. It had to be more than just alleyway talk if even the king's children were recognising her as the king's sister.
"If Your Highness is referring to Baroness Maria, then yes. I am her student. She has given me much guidance," Claude replied after a salute.
"Mhmm... My aunt said you had a great talent for herbal medicine. You don't look like much to me. You're barely even a soldier. It seems you are set to disappoint her greatly. What a waste of her kindness. She even asked me to look after you..."
Claude didn't have anything with which to reply. The prince had turned out to be a bully, a shallow person who thought the world of first impressions; so there was no point in trying to change his mind.
"I thank Her Ladyship for her concern. An untalented student has indeed let her down. I would beg to differ regarding my soldiering, Your Highness. I am doing quite well, I need no special consideration," Claude refused politely.
The prince heard none of it.
"How about this, I'll talk to General Feliput and have him transfer you to me as a guard. I'll have him promote you to first lieutenant as well. That should fulfill my obligation to my aunt."
Claude's expression changed.
"Your Highness, please. I said I don't need special consideration. I am doing well enough as it is and I wish to walk forward on my own strength and merit."
His voice carried further than he'd intended and the whole tent shut up.
The prince's face darkened. He never expected a common brat to turn down his benevolence, much less do it so publicly.
"You... you really..." he stammered, glaring at Claude.
Now he'd done it, Claude thought, he'd really just gone and pissed off a prince. He bowed deeply.
"Please tell Her Ladyship that I regret having to turn down her kindness. Regardless of how it came to this, I am now an enlisted man. As such I wish to serve the kingdom properly. I do not wish to exploit her goodwill for gain. It is unfair to my comrades and subordinates. I hope my determined service will earn Your Highness' forgiveness for any slight I may have caused."
The prince's expression softened.
"Forgive me for being so uncouth, Your Highness," Claude quickly continued, "I fear my presence will sour the evening, if you would kindly permit me to take my leave, I would be in your debt."
The prince opened his mouth, but said nothing. He waved and turned his back on Claude. Claude bowed again and headed for the exit.
"Is Your Highness going to let this insolent brat just walk off without punishment?" someone asked before Claude could get out of the tent.
Claude wavered for a moment, but the prince snapped on the man quickly.
"He's a country bumpkin. He's never even set foot outside his little village. I am not so ingracious as to punish him for something so trivial. I may not know why my aunt has taken a liking to him, but she has, and I am not just going to break her pet."
Claude wiped the sweat from his forehead once he was outside the tent. He cursed Maria under his breath. Why did she always have to interfere? She did nothing but make more trouble for him. He appreciated the thought, but it should stay as that, a thought. He didn't need her meddling in everything he did. And what had possessed her to ask such a bastard to look after him?
He'd heard the man was an arrogant slob. He surrounded himself with yes men and struck down anyone who dared so much as hint that he might possibly consider disagreeing with him.
It might seem like a good idea to put him next to the prince; there could be few safer places after all, especially considering the prince's character, which Claude suspected meant he was not likely to go charging into battle; but it was a step back for Claude, not a step forward.
He might have taken the offer had he been just a grunt, but he had already started climbing the ladder and gotten himself a decently cushy position which still offered him ample opportunities to gather up the merit necessary to climb even further. If he stayed by the prince's side, he would never take another step up the ladder. That would be as high as he would get.
There were two kinds of military titles in Aueras, official ones and honorary ones. Official titles were held for life because they were earned with sweat and blood. Even in death they accompanied you. Honorary titles were temporary grants that were lost the moment the position was no longer needed. The title he would gain from a transfer to the prince's personal guard was one of the latter. He would only hold it for as long as he was on campaign with the prince. Once the campaign ended and the prince returned to the capital, he would lose it and once again be just a sergeant-major.
Honorary titles, while often used for military personnel as an easy temporary fix to a problem, were primarily a reward for civilians who aided the war effort in some other way. A master craftsman lending his services to make arms, or a businessman donating funds to the imperial war chest might be rewarded with a special title which entitled them to certain privileges and benefits while the war was on.
The three generals in the tent, for example, were but honorary ones. They were in reality of much lower rank, but it was seen as unfitting for the prince to be surrounded by people of such low rank, so they were given higher honorary titles. Honorary titles were easy to distinguish from genuine ones. The shoulder ranks were typically far more pompous than the utilitarian designs of true ranks.
Much the same had been done for all the men in the prince's royal guards. He'd given them all honorary titles of at least second lieutenant level since the prince thought it was beneath him to have mere grunts serving as his guards.
Claude was not inclined to walk into a snake nest like that, and much less so if it didn't benefit him at all. He was not someone with a slave fetish and had no desire to be someone else's lapdog.
Considering his already much safer command, the additional safety offered by the position the prince had offered had little value to him. On top of that, he had worked so hard to not take any further favours from the baroness, so he was certainly not going to accept such a clear, public favour now.
The prince stayed in bed until well into the afternoon of the following day. They barely finished breaking camp by sundown. They only marched a couple kilometres before having to pitch camp again.
The day after was the same. Bluefeather's officers had nearly started pulling out their hair. Luckily one suggested they just get everyone coaches and carriages so the prince's state couldn't hold them up any longer. They did so, and, while they could still only travel a couple hours every day, they made at least three times the distance.
Despite that, it took them a fortnight to make it to the Audin Mountain Range, despite the journey being supposed to take just five days. Everyone expected the rest of the year to be spent crawling over the mountains, but high command had prepared well and got the prince a palanquin so he couldn't complain about being too tired to continue.
Claude understood well Bluefeather's angst. The mountain range held 80 thousand captured enemies that could not be brought into the kingdom until the prince had formally accepted their surrender. The same went for the city of Eimiss beyond the mountain range. Its formal surrender had to be given to the highest ranking person amongst the forces operating in the area, which was the second prince.
Beyond the city lay many more surrenders for the prince to accept. The rest of Bluefeather had been clearing out the duchy in short order while they'd been crawling along and had already taken the duchy's two port cities. Only the duchy's capital, Efenasburg remained.
They could only do so much without reinforcements, however. The men were tired after a month of fighting and constant marching. They didn't have the strength to make the final push without a rest. If they were to take the duchy before enemy reinforcements could arrive, they had to get fresh units up to the front.
A portion of each of the two folks had been left behind to occupy the captured cities, so at the very least they had to get to those cities and relieve the rested units of their duty so they could rejoin their folks and bolster them for the final assault.
As they were speaking, the duchy was mustering with all its might, so every day's delay made final victory a more expensive prospect.
The prince didn't care about any of that. His only concern was trying to make this miserable chore he'd been given by his father as entertaining as possible. He would have preferred to stay in the capital, but he didn't dare disobey his father.
His vanity was even worse than his sloth, however. He had the entire force stop several times during their crossing of the mountain range so he could pose atop the ruined fortifications for a painter to immortalise his heroism.
At one point he also had the entire column halt for several hours while he hunted down a rabbit he noticed on the side of the road. His entourage was all too happy to join in as well. They were there to gain his favour so they could earn some treasure on this campaign.
For all the hair Bluefeather's command was losing, however, they could do nothing about the prince's antics. They wished they could have had the stoic first prince, but at least the second prince was only slightly too fun-loving. He was still a better burden than any of his younger siblings. The third prince was a born troublemaker, the fourth prince a coward, and the first princess a stingy wench. He was at least more inclined to obey his father than any of them.