No words could describe Claude's feelings when he reunited with his family. The moment he stepped into the building, a large, white dog half-a-person tall leapt onto him and pushed him to the ground, licking him incessantly with its large tongue.
Gum, following behind, jumped at the sight and drew his shortsword. Fortunately, Myjack was paying attention and realised Claude wasn't being attacked. The dog was just being friendly. Pegg didn't seem surprised and called the dog.
"Pluto, move away. Don't stick to your master like that."
It took considerable effort on Claude's part to push the dog away. So this was what had become of the little pup after he'd left. He didn't think it would still recognise him after so many years. He wasn't going to complain, however.
His mother emerged from deeper in the house to see what the commotion was about.
"Apologies, Mister, this is our house pet, Pluto. You're not hurt, are you?" she asked apologetically.
Claude shook the dog by his head.
"It's me, mom. I'm back. Pluto's just saying hello."
"Claude?" his mother asked incredulously.
Her eyes inspected him earnestly for a long moment, then at once shone like suns and bled tears like torn arteries.
"You... it's really you... you're back!"
Claude barely had time to come upright again before his mother leapt at him much like Pluto had done a few moments earlier.
"It's me. I'm really back."
His mother's lips moved but nothing, not even a slight whisper escaped her mouth. Her cheeks, now soaked from her tears, were quickly blossoming crimson. Her arms clenched him as though he would die if they let go.
Pluto had said his greetings, so his attention turned to the two new figures. He circled them cautiously, suspiciously, his nose twitching warningly as he sniffed the air about them.
"Who's that?" a clear voice asked.
A large-eyed beauty stepped out of the kitchen, frying pan in hand. Her steps halted when she saw Claude's face, then the pan dropped to the floor.
The words were more implied than said, but Claude had been staring right at her as she had.
"Yes, I'm back," Claude finished for her.
He let go of his mother, then led her to the dining hall.
"I didn't think our little crybaby would grow into a beauty so quickly. You're still as clumsy as always, I see. Look at the mess, Anna. You broke the pan!" he said, half teasingly.
A set of stuttering steps echoed down the stairs for several seconds longer than they should before a handsome young man emerged from the stairway. Though the face had nothing of the fat it had when Claude had last seen it, he recognised his little brother. Bloweyk was fourteen now and working on his second year in Whitestag Elementary. He'd only started attending school the previous year because he could no longer take his sister's beatings.
Though he'd heard the man hugging his mother and sister was his brother on his way down, he still stared at him as he would a stranger. He fought to match the memory of the brother he had to the face he now saw. It took him several long moments, to pick out the eyes, chin, lips, nose and ears as familiar and finally accept that the face was indeed that of his brother. When he did, his face blossomed, almost literally as much as figuratively, and he immediately started pestering Claude for his war stories. His eyes wandered to the three green stars on Claude's epaulette every other breath he took.
Myjack and Gum retreated from the house tactfully after they'd been introduced and contented themselves with offloading the carriage. It would have been a tall order to find the correct wooden boxes, but Claude had taken care to mark each appropriately. The most important boxes were sent straight to the study, which had become Angelina's laboratory after the family's return to the mansion.
The boxes filled one entire corner of the office from floor to roof. His mother, now cooking for the three, spoke her questions from the kitchen as she listened to the two marching up and down the stairs again and again. Foremost on her mind was the cost of it all. Claude told her he'd paid five hundred crowns, or there-abouts, offhandedly. Such prices had not been significant in years, but his mother collapsed to her knees when she heard it. The family may have an amount of wealth now, but she'd still spent the vast majority of her life counting every penny, and her perception of 'excessive' had yet to adjust. Claude had to spend the next two hours listening to his mother's more-than-impassioned lecture on his 'frivolous' spending.
Angelina, who'd gone out to do some shopping, returned near the end of the second hour and calmed her mother. Claude was quite disappointed in his mother's inadaptability, and most annoyed at how little freedom she was willing to grant her grown son when it came to his own purse.
The two women of the household busied themselves in the kitchen for another two hours, after which a feast unlike Claude had had in years was served. No amount of food, however, was too much for Claude. He may have largely finished growing, but his appetite had yet to realise it.
Claude's mother had not yet found out that Claude's two companions were his subordinates and treated them as his good friends, and her dear guests.
When it came time for everyone to sit at the table, however, the two simply refused to take their seats. The two's obstinacy forced Claude to introduce them properly as his underlings, including the whole story behind their accompanying him. Instead of convincing his mother to let them be, however, it made her even more determined to treat them to the best she had to offer, and the two eventually caved and took their seats.
Neither Claude nor Gum held back, but Gum was far more capable an eater than his captain. So much so that even Bloweyk, who had always had an appetite, an appetite made even stronger by his current age, couldn't help but pat the man's stomach to try and figure out where all the food he gobbled down went.
With those two stuffing themselves, the feast didn't last long. Claude began recounting some of his tales as Gum polished the last of the serving dishes. He told them much of his life over the last five years, glossing over his promotion and knighting as much as he could. His mother, ever the devoted wife -- and, now, widow -- didn't fail to mention the pride she knew her husband would have felt for his second son had he still been around several times. At least the grief that had ruled her voice whenever Claude's father came up before he'd left had now gone. Instead she spoke of her husband with only nostalgia.
Claude had thought his mother would be the one to eventually bring up he-who-should-not-be-named, but instead it was Angelina. Claude had almost completely forgotten his brother had ever existed. Even after his explicit mention, which soured Claude's mood more than he let show, he could only barely recall the vaguest of images of his brother's appearance. It seemed his mother had been tactfully avoiding mention of him, because the moment he was brought up, she was quick to take up the topic. She mentioned with some pride -- which soured Claude's mood even more -- that her eldest had been doing quite well for himself in recent years.
He'd not returned once, though he'd written two letters in the last three years. He'd taken up service under a count, his busy days the excuse for his lack of a visit. His last letter, which had arrived at the end of the previous year, had contained a ten-crown note. He'd said it was his life's savings thus far, a gift for his mother. He did not say as much, but it was a downpayment on the heartache he'd caused and the money and valuables he'd stolen.
Just mentioning the letter made Claude's mother tear up some. She gushed, as Claude knew every mother had no choice but to, over her eldest. She was overjoyed that he'd righted his life and was walking a good path again. She had kept both his letters. They sat in the drawer in the small cabinet by her bedside.
"Did you write back?" Claude asked.
"Yes," Angelina said before her mother could answer, "She's written back several times. He'd not replied to any of her letters, however. He said in his second letter that he was always travelling with the count so he wouldn't see any letter she may write until the end of the year when they returned to the estate for winter though. I think he'd gotten one or two last winter before leaving again, because he asked her not to send anymore until they would arrive when he was back because the servants read them while he was gone and would always tease him. She's not written to him again yet."
Claude nodded. His mother may be a quick forgiver, as he supposed mothers had no choice but to be, but he was not. He didn't wish misfortune on the man, but he had no interest in his life, nor did he ever want to see him again, reformed man or not. He did not think the man had any reason, nor any business, to return. He had nothing to do with the family. Bloweyk had inherited everything, so there was nothing for him here.
Claude finished his plate and headed for the study to get out the gifts he'd prepared. His father had killed himself over the gifts' value in debt, yet now Claude could casually spend it on gifts. To Claude it was proof of how well the family had recovered and flourished. To his mother, however, it was an act most unfilial. A spitting on his father's grave of a kind, to so frivolously spend the money his father had died over.
"It's all antiques, mom. Look at this silverware. They've over 200 years of history in Duke Rimodra's household. They were made by Grandmaster Fandro himself.
"This tea set belonged to Duke Sidins' wife. They're three centuries old. The painting 'Afternoon Tea' even has the set in the painting."
Claude made sure to start with the most expensive, and valuable, things he'd bought. Much of the rest may not have much value in a couple years or decades, but they had true history. They were an investment more than anything. If the merchant from whom he'd bought the two sets had known they were originals, he'd not have been able to buy a single cup or knife for all his 500 crowns. The man was convinced they were forgeries, however, particularly good ones, perhaps, hence their price, but forgeries nonetheless.
Claude knew better, however. His Eye of Appraisal laid the truth bare. The fine, almost microscopic scratches and signs of wear on their surface despite the most cautious and gentle care they'd been no doubt shown over the centuries, were plain to his eyes. They were such a steal for their listed prices Claude didn't even bother haggling. He bought them upfront and couldn't suppress his grin as he walked off with them.
"I had someone appraise them on the way back. They're the genuine article. They're worth thousands of crowns each."
"B-but... even so, they're too expensive--" Her anger at Claude's frivolous spending had vanished, but in its place was a distraughtness he'd not seen in more years than he could count. "I can't keep this in the house. If anyone finds out about this, they'll come for them! I'll need to hire a guard, no, several!"
"No need. They're not the kind of thing you take out for every afternoon tea, or every evening's dinner. Just stow them safely. If you really don't want to use them, then just keep them as family heirlooms."
Claude didn't care much for the items. He didn't even care much for money anymore either. It only interested him in as far as it could fund his research and study of magic.
Everything else were gifts as well. His mother got a ruby necklace. He was certain it came out of the Sidins jewellery box. Angelina got a diamond crown. One of the dukes, Claude didn't know which, had once given it to his daughter as a coming-of-age present. Bloweyk received a golden ceremonial scimitar one of the Canasian dukes had given one of his vassals as a wedding gift.
Claude had gotten himself a shotgun designed and made by his ex-lover's father, the famous gunsmith. The family as a whole also got another 56-set of silver crockery. The set was less impressive and valuable than the set he'd designated the family heirlooms, but that might just be enough to convince his mother to actually use them, if only on the most prestigious of occasions and for the most esteemed of guests.
Claude had not made a single purchase where he'd paid the equal of the item's worth. He'd spent about 400 crowns on the rest of the stuff, including things not mentioned, but all-in-all they were worth at least 1500 crowns. Far more valuable than everything he'd bought for the family combined, however, were the magical items he found in the black market.
The show and tell finished. His mother and sister packed everything away carefully again and stowed them in various safety-holes around the house. The most valuable were taken to his mother's room, though Claude wondered if she would be able to get any sleep with such valuable things in the same room.
The set of 56 was to be put on display in a cabinet Angelina would order from a local carpenter. Claude realised that Angelina did indeed run the household. Their mother had given up her position as matriarch, and Bloweyk had no strength to complain even if he wanted.
The time had finally come to talk about accommodation.
Bloweyk had taken over Claude's old attic-room. His mother had the old main bedroom, and his sister now had sole occupancy of her and Bloweyk's old room. Myjack and Gum were given Arbeit's old room, and Claude relegated to the study on a mattress. Myjack and Gum had wanted to object to sleeping better than their captain, but they were given no chance to speak.
Claude's mother and sister tidied everything up while the four men left the house to go looking for clothing for Claude's two companions.