Manrique watched as Claude bumbled over with a large sack slung over his shoulder.
"What's this? You look like a refugee escaping with all your belongings..."
Claude smiled bitterly. He didn't think his old host couple would saddle him with half the house, all destined for their third son in the capital. He supposed it was better than them trying to push their daughter onto him despite knowing he was married, not much better, but better.
Despite its size, the sack wasn't that heavy. It was mostly clothing and blankets. The seasons were changing, and, despite their son being both an adult and a businessman who should be more than capable of looking after himself, his parents were doing what parents did best: acting like their kid couldn't blow his nose without their help. So they'd sent him the next season's clothing, an entire cupboard of it. The change of seasons was why Manrique was heading to the capital as well. He was going to see to the summer uniforms of the staff and student body.
Claude couldn't very well refuse his hosts, despite how unhappy he was to be saddled the errand boy title. Taking the sack to the capital was one thing, but to find their son in that haystack was asking too much. Nearly a million people lived in the city and the surrounding amalgamated and semi-separate towns and villages. Where was he supposed to find their son? Even with his search narrowed to just the royal guard, he still had dozens of outsposts and barracks to search.
Manrique had Lonkdor deliver their breakfast before they set off. Claude was both disappointed and somewhat relieved to see the meal much simpler than the one they'd had the night before. It was still extravagant, but at least it was within the range he could accept without feeling unduly envious of his friend. Their breakfast was made specifically for the road. A honeyed bread bacon sandwich, red tea, a bowl of wheat porridge, and a fried egg. On its own it didn't sound very extravagant, besides the honeyed bread, but both the porridge and the fried egg were spiced expensively, and Claude could taste the red tea was made of high-quality leaves.
They polished breakfast quickly, but unhurriedly, and finished the last of their preparations to depart. Only Lonkdor and Claude accompanied Manrique, the coachman went along as well, of course, but he didn't really count. Manrique had indeed pulled through. A man jogged over five minutes before their scheduled departure time with the signed papers approving Claude's inclusion in the escort.
They thus departed on time. Claude joined Manrique in the coach, while Lonkdor sat up front with the coachman, whom he would be relieving in a couple of hours.
Claude had the coach make a short detour to the staff entrance of the kitchen, into which he vanished for a short minute, and emerged with a large paper bag.
"It smells sweet," Manrique commented as the young captain took a satisfied seat.
Claude opened the bag conspiratorially to reveal half-a-dozen loaves of honeyed egg-flour bread.
"You can take one. Consider it a gift for the kids," Claude said.
"The bread from yesterday? How'd you get it? I asked for some this morning and was told they were finished."
Claude smiled mischievously.
"They were. I paid the cooks to make me these. I bought the ingredients as well."
"How much? I don't think they would have been willing to do it for cheap."
Manrique hesitated when he heard Claude had paid for everything. A treat for his kids or not, it was a little too much to ask.
"Don't be a stranger, man! Don't worry about the money. I wouldn't have thought about this if they hadn't served the bread yesterday. I was wondering what I should get your kids as a hello present when I thought of this."
Manrique smiled at the mention of his children.
"They'll love them, and I'm sure they'll love you. I was thinking of having a bite, but I would feel bad eating some of their gift. Keep it. You can give it to them yourself."
Kleibon was some forty kilometres from the capital, a full day's travel by coach. A full day ending at midnight. They would not get anything done today. They planned to head to Manrique's home to drop off their things, then stay in a room at an inn provided by the college.
Manrique would head to Army HQ the next morning to deal with his business, leaving Claude to do what he pleased. Claude planned to deal with Natalie's business first, then visit Baroness Maria. If he had time left after that, he would go book shopping. He hoped to return with enough to last him the year. If everything went off without a hitch on Manrique's side, they would depart the following day, if not, the day after.
They stopped at an inn for a quick lunch and switched out their horses. The road was unusually quiet, and they made good time, even making it to the capital an hour early. The city still only came into view on the horizon well after sundown, however.
"It'll be another hour or two before we reach the gates," Manrique said, "You used to be able to see the lake before you saw the city, but it's grown so much that you can't see the lake even from well within the city anymore. The king built the first city walls about a decade after the first stones for the castle were laid. They were designed to enclose the entire city, but by the time they were finished, the city had already grown so much, as had the kingdom, that everything inside had become the royal quarter, and the real city once again sat outside the walls.
"The second ring came several years later, but again, by the time it was finished the city had grown well beyond its boundary. Today the second ring marks the outer boundary of the inner city. Stellin I waited another five years after the second wall's completion for the city to finish growing before he had the third ring built. It covered 36 boroughs, and finally enclosed the entire city.
Of course, the city didn't stand still for long. By the time Stellin III came along, the city had double in size yet again. The cost of building another ring of walls would equal four years of the army's budget, however, and given how prone such projects are to going over budget, it was more likely it would have cost as much as a decade of the army's budget. The king decided it would be more prudent to defend the city with a strong army that would keep the enemy out of the kingdom entirely, rather than build a strong wall and let the enemy march all the way through his lands to the capital before facing them properly.
"He had to spend about the same amount of money on construction in the end, anyway. A powerful army was useless if it couldn't get to the enemy, so he commissioned the construction of the kingdom's now-famous road system. It was a prudent move, however, one that has since paid back its construction costs with interest. It allowed the kingdom to do away with powerful noble levies in favour of an army under the king's command.
"In recent years the city's finally passed the one-million-resident mark. It's still technically called 'Blackswan Castle', but no one uses that name anymore. Everyone just calls it the capital, or the royal capital, if need be. Even the government's official documents just use that instead, save the most official of archives.
"Despite the kingdom's massive road redo under Stellin III, the city's roads were still a tangle of swerving, swaying, and curling streets, most of which led nowhere until Stellin IX had much of the inner city torn down and rebuilt in orderly rings. The other city is still mostly a tangle thanks to it being an amalgamation of towns and villages rather than part of the actual city itself, save the large thoroughfares which were included in the road redo of old when they were still country roads connecting the settlements."
Claude had heard much of this in school, of course, but he let his friend finish the lecture he so clearly enjoyed giving. It wasn't all old news, luckily, Manrique was nothing if not an expert on the capital's history, and he seemed to take great pleasure in educating Claude -- the latter being the country bumpkin he was.
"The innermost part of the city, the part within the first ring where Blackswan Castle and the Rose Palace stand, is now known simply as 'the court'. The royals and their servants live there. The old inner city is split in half, one housing the government, including Army HQ. The other half houses the city's emergency stores in case of sieges, and the royal guards' headquarters, training facilities, and living quarters. It's off limits to anyone without express access. They call the area between the first and second curtain of walls the 'first ring'.
"The thirty six boroughs between the second and third curtain of walls has changed a lot since the reconstruction as well. The first and third boroughs house the government's lower officials and servants and their families. The second, fourth, and fifth boroughs are less important storage areas. The sixth borough holds the constabulary's headquarters and other facilities. The seventh to tenth boroughs are split between various keeper facilities, and house the keepers that watch over the outer city.
"The 11th to 22nd boroughs are open to the richest in the city. Not even most of the nobles can even afford a place there. Your baroness lives there. The 24th and 25th boroughs are dedicated to academies. It's known unofficially as 'Scholar's Quarter'. Ask the coachman and he'll take you to whichever academy, college, university, or school you wish.
"The rest of the boroughs are dominated by shops and various other businesses. Most of the city's people call it 'Haggler Haven'. Nobody knows the exact number, but I'm told over four hundred businesses are opened every day. Most of them close again within the year. It's not easy to make enough money to pay the high rent in such a competitive neighbourhood. The 32nd borough is especially tough. The port is there. The city's biggest river runs through there, too. It opens into Lake Bryanopest. The borough right next to it, number 33, is the capital's main distribution hub. If you can't find something in Haggler Haven, you won't find it anywhere in the kingdom, or -- I dare say -- on this side of the continent.
"Together, all 36 boroughs are known as the second ring. Outside of the third curtain of walls stand 72 sectors. Some of them are boroughs, part of the city proper, and some as any number of other things, part of the towns and villages. You wouldn't know the difference though, where one town ends and another starts is literally just a line on a map, the buildings certainly don't stop anywhere. It's all one big, continuous city. Twenty-eight of these sectors hold the city's factories, the biggest production centre on this side of the continent. My house is in the 41st sector, one of the boroughs. 122 Shortear-dog Street. We got the place after everyone was kicked out of the second ring."
Claude knew land seizure was very much a thing on Freia, but he'd not expected anyone to do it on the scale the kings of Aueras had. If anyone was unhappy about it, Manrique was not one of them, however. Claude wondered what compensation, other than the house, he must have been given to not be unhappy over the forced move.
"We're in the fourth ring now. Most of the nobles live here. Everything further out is farms and orchards. It's not really a ring, but everyone in the third ring calls it that so they feel like they're not the outskirts of the city.
"You see all those greenhouses? Most of them are brand new. Greenhouse farming became really popular last year, and many are still building new greenhouses this year. It lets us plant things that need a hotter climate than we have here, or grow our summer crops much earlier in spring, and much later into autumn. Those blackberries you had last night came from one such greenhouse. Naturally the produce is still much more expensive off season since they're still very rare."
Manrique watched the farmsteads and farmland roll by in silence for several minutes, then spoke again as they passed through the city gate.
"We're now entering the third ring. We should arrive in another ten minutes. Come to think of it, I've been away for three weeks. I wonder if the kids will be surprised to see me. Thanks again for the gift, by the way."
Claude smiled noncommittally. They were practically family, what was a loaf of bread between bond-brothers?
The night was pitch black, and had been for several hours, when the coach stopped in front of the lieutenant-colonel's home. His three children came running out of the front door several seconds after their father emerged from the coach. They nearly ripped him to pieces when they saw the bread. He quickly introduced Claude, making sure to mention he was the one that had bought the bread for them so they would rip him to shreds instead.
His wife was cut from the virtuous housewife cloth. She thanked Claude for the gift and the three children did as well, finally calmed by several stern glares from their father. The youngest, a girl in her sixth year, even gave Claude a kiss on the cheek.
Manrique and his wife's parents were already asleep, so Claude's introduction to them would have to happen another time. Their luggage was unloaded, and Manrique took Claude to the inn where he, the coachman, and adjutant would stay.
The inn had a weird name: The Boiling Steak. Manrique said their signature dish was grilled steak with boiled sauce, hence the name.
Though their trip was covered by the college, Manrique didn't order a feast. Everyone got the inn's signature steak, bread, soup, roast sausages, potato mash, and two mugs of blackwheat ale.
Manrique explained that, as much as he wanted to treat them, the college was very strict on any expenses on trips made on its purse. The people were to be fed, not treated. If they'd been staying at an inn outside the third ring, or just in one of the sectors that weren't boroughs, they could get much more for the same price, but this was officially part of the capital, and the capital had its own ideas on what was a fair price for food.
Manrique arranged three rooms, a guest room for Claude and Lonkdor each, and a storeroom for the coachman, then returned home. He had been itchy to get back since he'd greeted his wife with a kiss when they'd arrived. Claude doubted, tired and stiff as he was from the journey, he would get any sleep that night.
Claude, for his part, was just as tired, and would be doing nothing but sleeping. The women from the neighbourhood would not let him have that sleep easily, however. One came knocking every other dozen minutes, asking if he would like them to warm his bed, or some part of his body. He put an end to it with a somewhat aggressive 'Do NOT disturb me!' tag he drew and hung on his door handle.
Lonkdor was far less inclined to do just sleeping, however. And the moans of at least two women soon started leaking through the wall. It took a casting of Silence to finally give Claude the peace and quiet he needed to sleep.