According to the second lieutenant who had transported them, more than three hundred officers who had distinguished themselves would given awards. However, the man didn't mention the number of guests.
Claude only found out after he entered the hall how huge the venue was, not to mention the incredible decorations. The second lieutenant mentioned that this used to be where the city guard trained. The first prince had erected a roof over the venue for the banquet.
Claude couldn't tell that it was a training field at all. He even thought it was a palace. It was as large as one, at least. The ground was laden with smooth and beautiful tiles which probably had heat piping going through them underneath as it wasn't the slightest bit cold, despite the vast space.
However, that large hall was filled with people. Apart from those dressed in Aueran military attire, there were several middle-aged to senior men in black formal wear, chaperoned by many a dolled up beauty.
"These are the big figures and their relatives. His Highness has high hopes on the prosperity and stable development of the three southern prefectures and wishes they will become a military-industrial region. They've aligned themselves to our kingdom and are willing to support our efforts, so His Highness has invited them to the ceremony. Those ladies are their family. If you are unmarried, it would do you well to get to know them. Who knows? You might marry into an affluent family."
The meaning behind the second lieutenant's words was clear to Claude and Lederfanc. He meant to emphasise that those beautiful chaperones were the relatives of the bigwigs, not maidservants. If they were serious, perhaps they could court the ladies. But it would be best not to take them for a casual fling. The second lieutenant had subtly reminded them to not cause any trouble for the first prince, lest they all get in trouble.
The celebration was indirectly a large mixer. The best way to get the three prefectures' bigwigs on Aueras' side was to bond them to loyal nobles and other major figures through marriage. While it would be preposterous for people of their status to even consider marrying into the Stellin royal family, taking a step back and forming unions with promising officers from the kingdom was still a good idea. In some way, it would also be securing insurance for their households.
The second lieutenant left after he took the two to register. They were each handed a piece of paper of their positions, which they had to remember. They would have to get in place immediately when the celebration begins.
Since there was still time, Lederfanc brought Claude to the side of the venue and got them both some fruit wine. From time to time, officers they were acquainted with came to greet Lederfanc, but his eyes had always been trailed on the beauties who had come to observe the ceremony.
Claude asked, "Feeling like it?"
Lederfanc nodded frankly.
"A little. I'll be thirty in another year. I'm not young anymore. After hearing what the second lieutenant said, I suddenly have the urge to start a family. After my promotion to lieutenant-colonel, I'll have established myself and be a worthy husband.
"Well, there's much we can't predict. When I was still in the war college in my twenties, I enlisted in the army as a second lieutenant. I was only promoted to captain at the age of 27 and can be considered the more high-achieving among my peers. As I'm in charge of logistics, I would only be promoted to major soonest by the age of 35. I had been counting on that promotion before I return home to find a woman to marry to answer my family's expectations.
"But later, His Highness noticed me and took me in to be one of his attendant officers. I was placed in charge of matters relating to auditing, and two years later, I was promoted to be the logistics officer of the experimental ranger tribe His Highness formed. The rest went rather smoothly. Thanks to you, Claude, I was promoted to major and made the tribesman of 1st Rangers. And now, I got promoted to lieutenant-colonel again thanks to your efforts. It still feels like a dream to me, to think I would be promoted twice in just two years.
"Thanks to this, I've reached my goal four or five years ahead of schedule, and I can probably get a woman with better status and standing. Now, it doesn't just have to be a town girl. The bigwigs' women are good matches since their families are owners of farms and the like. They probably own some shares in the military factories, or have their own workshops. These women come from rather wealthy and influential families."
Since Lederfanc had decided on looking for a mate, Claude checked out the women with him and offered his comments. However, all Lederfanc wanted was someone virtuous who could look after the house. It was too bad that he wasn't able to see any that sparked his interest right away, however.
Just like that, an hour passed. The celebration was just about to start. Claude and Lederfanc hurriedly got into their positions and stood at attention.
The 300 plus awardees stood in a neat square in the centre of the venue whereas the guests flanked them. The women would shoot dazzling stares at the officers standing at attention, but none of them responded to their flirtatious glances. The young officers all looked like wooden statues with their stern expressions. They only glanced at their sides from time to time without turning their heads.
The proceedings of the ceremony were rather similar to those in Claude's old life. One general went on stage first and introduced himself as the head of frontline command. He was the one who was in charge of recognising the merits earned by the officers present. After a long, drawn-out 20-minute speech to recount the amazing performance of their army during the past year, he announced in a bright, loud voice, "Let us welcome Prince Hansbach Tam Stellin to host the award ceremony!"
The guests applauded the announcement and the flashy women curtsied while the officers saluted.
The first prince stepped onto the wooden podium with ten plus generals following behind him. They stood behind him in a long row and left a space in the middle.
The prince didn't drone on like the head of frontline command. He only gave simple praise to the army for its achievements and announced the start of the ceremony.
Two first lieutenants stepped up to both sides of the podium and began to announce one name after another loudly and stating what they were promoted for. All named officers had to march up the podium to obtain the shoulder mark from the prince and the generals personally. At the same time, more than ten second lieutenants walked onto the platform with a silver platter covered with a red velvet cloth and stopped beside each general. There were stacks upon stacks of shoulder marks on the platter.
Lederfanc was among the fifth batch to be called out. He was promoted for good command and responsibly defending his post. Claude noted that his shoulder mark was given to him by the first prince. After that, the prince even patted him on the shoulder full of smiles and spoke a few words to him. Before he stepped off the stage, he couldn't hold back his tears from being moved and bowed respectfully.
As the award ceremony (read: shoulder mark exchange) went on, Claude suddenly noticed a troubling fact. There were many captains like him in the venue initially. But as it went on, one after another was called out and eventually, he was the only one left. The next ones to be promoted were the majors, lieutenant-colonels and so on. Some officers began to notice Claude waiting around for his name to be called and suspected him for being some ruffian who didn't earn anything and intruded his way into the ceremony.
It occurred to him that those participating in the ceremony were at least of the major rank. They couldn't award every single officer promoted throughout the army, after all, since there would easily be thousands among the hundreds of thousands of Aueran soldiers. The prince wouldn't be finished even if he kept on giving out shoulder marks till tomorrow night. Fortunately, the ceremony with only 300-odd officers passed quickly. There were ten plus more generals other than the prince himself and each person only had to hand out some seventeen shoulder marks in total in an hour.
Claude stood for so long that his legs were beginning to feel sore. He began to envy the guests and beautiful women that were observing the ceremony. Seats were prepared for them and most of them were seated and giving cursory applause to the officers on stage.
Eventually, the two first lieutenants who named the officers stopped. After the last batch of officers exchanged their shoulder marks and got off the stage, a general announced that the next ones to be called out were recipients of the knighthood order of merit.
"Captain Claude Ferd of 1st Ranger Tribe, please come to the stage."
When he heard his name, Claude took large steps forward and ignored the envious officers staring holes in the back of his head.
When he reached the stage, he saluted the first prince first, as Lederfanc had reminded, before saluting the generals. Finally, he turned to the officers he'd left behind beneath the stage, and saluted them as well. Courtesies done, he turned to the first prince once more, his back straighter than a bullet's path.
"Good. You're young, courageous, and thoughtful. That's why you achieved something amazing. I have my eyes on you. You have to strive even harder in the future."
The first prince patted his shoulder warmly.
Claude tapped the heels of his boots together.
"I offer the kingdom my loyalty and Your Highness my service!"
It was just the standard chant. Claude found them distasteful, but protocol was protocol, and he couldn't break it so openly on such an occasion.
A general came to their side and opened a scroll before he read out the achievement which had earned Claude his knighthood. His bravery was highlighted regarding his continued resistance despite his severe outnumberment. He led his 170 men to the complete defeat of 5000 enemies. It was a victory nothing short of a miracle. The general made sure to emphasise how the report about the battle had been independently verified under the strictest of scrutinies.
The first prince smiled as he put on a purple-gold sash over his left shoulder. Then, he pinned a gold knight medal the size of an infant's palm on the sash before patting Claude's shoulder in encouragement. Claude saluted again, but said nothing. He couldn't bear to repeat those embarrassing lines and instead feigned emotional agitation.
The ceremony hadn't ended yet, so he couldn't just get off the stage. There were three other knighthood recipients down the stage and he could only leave after they received their medals too.
But the mention of the second recipient's name almost stupefied him. He thought he was hearing things. It was only until that man of beastly physique stepped on stage and walked to salute the prince that Claude came to understand he wasn't dreaming. The one who stood before him was his playmate in his youth, his best friend, Welikro Fezka.
It really was him...
Claude stared stupidly at Welikro saluting the prince, the generals, the officers down the stage and him.
Before Claude returned the salute, Welikro stepped forward and gave him a bear hug with a bright, sunflower-like smile. He hugged him so hard he almost cried.
When he snapped out of it, he couldn't care that he was on stage. He hugged Welikro back.
"Why are you here, brother?! This is the last place I thought I'd see you!"
"You two know each other?" the first prince asked.
"We grew up together... We had to part ways when his family moved to the capital. I haven't seen him since I enlisted. It's been four years now," Claude answered.
"We went to school, hunted, and fished together. We even shared first place in our final year," Welikro added proudly.
"I see. You two must be excellent brothers, then. I didn't think the middle school from your hometown could produce two students as talented as yourselves--" The first prince didn't imagine the sheer benefits Whitestag Middle School later enjoyed thanks to his words. "--And how coincidental this meeting must be. And for both of you to be knighted on the same day as well! Truly a tale with which to regale the men. Leave the catch-up for after the ceremony though."
The two hurriedly stood at attention once more. The general read out Welikro's achievement. He was being knighted for killing 426 enemies with his musket, most at a distance greater than 150 metres. He'd been nicknamed 'Divine Sniper' by the men in his royal guard unit.