The Land of the Free Nobles was peaceful for the whole of the 6th month, almost like it had been forgotten. The area next to the Viridian Mountains was more deserted than forgotten, however. The region was littered with desolate shacks. The only motion came from the odd cloth fluttering in the wind and waves dancing across the weed-choked fields. The drains so meticulously maintained before the war were overrun by grass and choked with dirt.
The only place where human footprints still dented the soil was Count Krilaus' county. The farms and orchards were tended and various crop younglings poked out of the soil. Several dozen figures were logging on the edge of the forest in the foothills of the Viridian Mountains and three towers of smoke trailed into the sky from charcoal ovens.
Claude admired Captain Skri's thoroughness. He didn't doubt he could do no less; he hated handling such things personally. He didn't mind accompanying the captain on his survey, however. Good news waited for them at the castle when they returned: all the tribe's officers had once again received a first-class merit. Captain Skri finally had enough merit to be promoted to major.
The two captains emptied a barrel that night. Skri spent the last half of the barrel recounting his life story to Claude, who listened tipsily.
Skri came from a noble family. His father was a viscount. Skri himself was but a bastard born from an affair the viscount had had with a married woman. Her husband had been in Nubissia for four years already at the time. She disappeared from her house for the duration of the pregnancy and left him with his father shortly after his birth.
The viscount acknowledged Skri as his bastard, but did little if anything more. His status was inferior to even the chimsweep and his step-siblings enjoyed bullying him with alarming frequency. Being a bastard, he was gifted neither a middle name nor a sobriquet.
His grandmother was far more positively inclined towards him, however. She gave her legitimate grandchildren thorough beatings whenever she caught them belittling Skri, even well into his teenage years. She even personally funded his further studies at the war college.
He graduated shortly after turning twenty and joined the royal guard. His mother passed away not long after in induction. He had a major falling out with his step-siblings at the funeral when they tried to cut him off from any inheritance, afraid he might try to come after the portions she'd left them. He renounced his surname then and there, and had not spoken or written a single word to or about them since.
He served the royal guard loyally for eight years before finally reaching the rank of captain and gaining the first prince's favour. The prince took him under his wing and made him his personal aide. He still remembered the prince's words: 'What your surname is, even if you have one or not, doesn't matter. The surname doesn't make the man, the man makes the surname. Create a legacy with your deeds that you may leave an honourable surname to your descendants.'
Those words had sealed his fate. He knew in that moment that his loyalty belonged to the first prince for all eternity, whether he wanted it to or not. His career stagnated, however. For all the honour it was to work directly under the first prince, it cut him off from all possibilities of promotion. He'd served the first prince for six years before taking this transfer, and he'd only earned a single first-class merit, which he got only because he earned a second-class merit for each year of loyal service. If he'd stayed by the prince's side, it would have taken him another three years to earn a promotion to major.
The comrads he'd left behind on the battlefield, however, had long since surpassed him. Many had fallen, of course, such was war, but those who hadn't, and hadn't been sent home on stretchers, were ranks above him now. Lederfanc was only the one with the most frequent contact with Skri. He valued his safety very highly, which was one of the reasons he'd not asked for a transfer earlier, but Lederfanc's latest promotion finally overcame his natural aversion to danger and made him finally apply for a field command.
The prince granted his request and gave him 1st Rangers. The prince had told him that, while it was one of the most dangerous positions he could get, it also gave him the greatest shot at a rapid climb up the hierarchy. The prince's words had proven prophetic indeed. He'd had this command for just six months now, and already he'd equalled his merits over the previous six years.
Skri had drunk too much this evening. He had probably done so out of relief at finally getting a promotion. Six and a half years it had taken him, so long it felt almost unreal. He doubted he'd make colonel by fifty if he hadn't taken a field command. He would not have had to worry about his old days if he retired with such a rank. A farm and a comfortable retirement would have been all but guaranteed, but he had greater ambitions.
Claude shifted around awkwardly as Skri apologised to him for butting in front of him for the position of tribesman. He'd felt really bad for it, and it was quite awkward for him, who was, Claude's knighthood considered, his subordinate's junior. It would have been another thing if he'd been a major when he came in, as he'd have been at least Claude's equal, but he'd been but an unknighted captain when he took the command.
That had been the primary reason why he'd unquestioningly accepted all of Claude's suggestions. Near the bottom of the barrel he admitted he felt inferior to Claude even when it came to combat. He did not think he could match Claude in a fight. On top of that, he didn't think he could match him on the field of battle either. He'd scrutinised every comma and period in the report on the Battle of Squirrel Village, and he had come to the conclusion that he would have lost had he been in Claude's shoes. He didn't even think he could have held on for a week either.
Claude could only smile awkwardly. He didn't care for the higher position. He'd only felt miffed because he felt he'd been somewhat cheated out of a command all protocol said he should have been given, not because he had particularly desired it. In fact, he felt as relieved as miffed at not being given the command. His workload increased with every promotion, and he was getting fed up with it. Both his previous and current superiors had extensive experience with large and intricate workloads and commands, Lederfanc because of his background in logistics, and Skri because his background with the first prince. They also had a far more extensive network of connections to lean on in a time of need.
Claude had but three years of history with the military, and no special background preceding that. The only person of consequence he knew was Baroness Maria, and he was loath to get her involved in anything.
He could not deny, however, that he was the core of the 1st Clan. In fact, it was no overstatement to say he was 1st Clan. The offers were unwaveringly loyal to him, and his men had absolute, unquestioning faith in him. If he marched into a forest fire, they would charge in with him without wavering.
The same could not be said for the other three clans. Their commanders were new to the unit and had stood as Claude's equals the entire time. They'd never taken a single order from him, despite most of their movements being his idea, their orders had always come from Skri, and from Lederfanc before him. Claude didn't doubt he could whip them into line eventually, but he felt the time would be better spent tiring out his Sheila.
Speaking of her, he'd gone to town with Myjack and Gum after the battle for Squirrel, and bought everything the girl needed for her new abode. The two finished a bottle of wine in a couple of minutes, then exchanged another bottle's worth of saliva before the girl surrendered her purity.
Claude was quite fond of his otherworldly lover. Whether it was true love or not he didn't know, however. His wife had cheated on him in his past life, and he'd never had any close relations with a woman again before his transmigration. Intercourse had lost all emotional meaning to him. And he'd especially dismissed the thought of ever feeling anything akin to love again.
He'd found familial love soon after transmigrating, however.
He shared a deep brotherly love with Welikro and Borkal. Kefnie was a difficult case, however. She was clearly deeply fond of him, but, while he found her quite likeable, he felt nothing that could begin to be called affection or love. That was not to say he didn't find her quite attractive; she was delicately refined, pleasant on the eyes, and had an innocent, if not naive, heart. His mother certainly considered her the perfect daughter in law -- even though they were not married.
For all his appreciation of her virtues, however, she did not move his heart. He'd betrothed himself to her only out of pity and a vague sense of duty after she'd discovered his being a magus and yet still confessed her love. Had he not met Sheila, he would have wedded her without a second thought and probably eventually grown fond of her, if not ever truly loved her.
He had met Sheila, however, and while he could not say he loved her, he did feel his heart beat faster whenever they were together. And that fact troubled him deeply now. If he were only one thing, he was a man of his word, but he and Sheila shared a bond he and Kefnie never could. They were both magi, they stood on the same mountain and looked out over the same valley. Not to mention that together they could both walk much faster along the path of magic. If he married Kefnie and was eventually found out as a magus, she would be doomed. Sheila, at the very least, stood a much better chance of escaping if it came to that.
That reality chilled any inclination to military ambition he had. The higher he climbed the more he would be under a microscope, and thus the more likely he was to be found out. He had no particular sense of loyalty to the Stellins, either. They were only the devils he knew, which was preferable to the devils he didn't. He was only in the army in the first place because that damned mayor just had to be a busybody.
He would much rather have stood guard in Squirrel for the rest of the war and requested an honourable discharge the day after the peace treaty was signed. He had outdone himself, however, and became too valuable as a frontline commander. He supposed he did have to count his blessings, however; he had at least avoided the heaviest fighting the war had to offer.
Maria's letter and subsequent interference -- of her own damned accord -- had given him a quick promotion, a comfortable command, and then put him with the second prince, which had kept him out of the bloody sieges Bluefeather conducted during the initial offensive.
His abandonment by Bluefeather had been another blessing in disguise. It had given him the chance to catch the first prince's eye, who'd put him in a unit where he could best put his ideas on warfare to use, and develop an approach to combat and battle that kept him and his men as safe as was possible under the circumstances. Lieutenant-Colonel Rosley had definitely not been a blessing, however, but his tactics had kept him alive even when the bastard had sent him into the thickest freys he could find.
The worst situation, by far, which was the direct result of the bastard's machinations, was his marching on the enemy camp in the middle of the front row of the unit's formation. He'd made it through, wounded as he'd been, however, and it had secured him his next promotion.
Things had gone smoothly, minus a couple bumps here and there, since. He'd hoped to keep things as they were for the rest of the war. Life was not known for being obliging, however. At least he'd avoided taking over the entire tribe, miffing as the way it had happened was.