'Natalie's third son, Fedra, worked in a small business: Woft. They dealt mostly with mountain goods from Kleibon and nearby villages. Natalie could get a position for her son there because her eldest son was the village chief.
When Claude bade Manrique farewell, he left with his large bag and hailed a coach to Haggler Haven. Woft was hard to find, however. Fortunately, Natalie had provided an address. It took about an hour to locate it. He waited another half-an-hour before he finally met Fedra.
Fedra was slightly fairer than his sister. He appeared a little slow, however. He didn't think much of his mother asking Claude to bring him his stuff. He didn't even thank him. Had Claude not reminded him, he would've forgotten to write a letter home as well. He scrawled a few words on a piece of paper and stuffed it in Claude's hands, annoyed.
Claude could only shake his head and put the letter away. The coach ride cost two royas, which Fedra didn't even offer to cover. Claude would certainly not do such a favour again. He would not go out of his way for something like this if the man didn't even appreciate it.
Claude took a walk around Haggler Haven, looking for a gift for Maria. Despite all his years in this world, he couldn't shake the custom of bringing gifts on rare visits. It felt wrong to show up on the doorstep of someone's you'd not seen in a long time without a gift.
Manrique's words were quickly proven true. Just three shops in Claude had already seen products from at least a dozen cities spread across the continent. He even ran into the famous Frostsaint fruit wine from the Icefield Peninsula in the continent's northwest. It was one of the three most famous wines in the world. Less than eight thousand bottles were filled a year, and most of them were quickly snapped up by the top royal and noble households. The price equalled its reputation. One bottle cost hundreds of crowns.
Claude seriously considered buying it, but decided he could spend his money on more fruitful things. It would certainly not be an appropriate gift. Maria, at the very least, would not accept it. He bought, instead, two bottles of less pricey, but still quite famous, wines.
He hailed another coach and headed for the eighteenth borough in the second ring. He stopped in front of Maria's residence half an hour later. They were stopped on the borough's boundary for inspection, but the officers were very friendly when they saw Claude, decked in full uniform, knighthood and all, and apologised for the intrusion. A rider was sent with them to escort them to Maria's residence.
The family had two residences in the borough. One was registered in her husband's name, and the other in hers. Her children and mother-in-law lived in Viscount Kartoff's manor, while she spent most of her time in her own. Her husband lived with her most of the time as well.
She preferred living on her turf, where she could call the shots. Deep connection with the king or not, she was always the daughter-in-law, the junior, to her mother-in-law in her husband's manor. In her manor, however, she could give the orders. It belonged to her personally, after all, not the family, and thus to the head of that family, her husband, as whose mother her mother-in-law had more say than her. She owned it personally thanks to the special permission the king had given her to inherit her father's title and properties despite being married into another family.
The baroness was not present, however. He was greeted by Rodan instead. He had run the real estate company into the ground, but Maria still trusted him, and so he now once again served as her butler.
Claude was brought to the guest lounge and Rodan tended to him personally. He informed the young captain that the baroness was currently in the palace and he didn't know when she would return. The king's old disease had flared up again and she was staying by his side. The illness had been getting worse in the last couple of years, flaring up more frequently and more intensely. Maria had, correspondingly, been spending more and more time at the palace to be with the king.
Claude had no intention to linger. He presented his gift to the butler and prepared to leave. The man would not let him, however. He said he wanted Claude to tell him how he'd made a success of the real estate agency. He was still troubled over its failure under his ministration.
Claude sighed, but indulged the old man with an explanation. The discussion was just reaching its peak when a lanky, middle-aged soldier marched into the room. Rodan broke off the conversation right there and saw to the man. Claude dropped everything immediately as well and snapped to attention, throwing a panicked salute. The soldier had two golden suns on his epaulette -- a lieutenant-general.
The viscount had a healthy-fifties look to him, six years Maria's senior. His curiosity was piqued by the sight of the butler and the young captain in such an involved discussion. Rodan quickly explained that Claude was his wife's old disciple, Claude.
Claude hoped this interruption would allow him to leave, but instead he was held back yet again. The viscount was most curious about his experiences in the war, and the acts that had won him his knighthood. He appeared very fond of battle, and it seemed his greatest regret was that his rank prevented him from taking part in them. He understood his duty, however. As the king's most trusted military aide, his duty was to protect the capital.
Kartoff, unlike his frontline contemporaries, seemed to understand the importance of Claude's ranger forces. He had a particular interest in their new tactics, especially their non-standard guerilla operations. The Battle of Wilf was another of his particular interests. He had read the reports, but he dearly wished for a first-hand account, which he made Claude give him in excruciating detail.
Towards the end of Claude's recountings, the viscount pushed the conversations evermore towards how to incorporate the Mark 3 into his royal guards' armaments. It gave Claude the courage to discuss his thoughts on the weapon's design, and, more importantly, the tactics he felt best suited to its strengths. He was particularly adamant that the old habit of firing in regular lines of troops had to be discarded.
The last war, for example had cost one million and six hundred thousand lives, one million on the enemy side, and six hundred thousand on the kingdom's side. The kingdom could not fight wars regularly if such would be the losses each time. They had to wait at least a generation for their population to recover, and the economic impact of losing a quarter of a generation's manpower was immeasurable. The kingdom could have won a complete victory, rather than the partial one they had, had they kept the war going another couple of years, but they'd been forced to end it early because they couldn't continue to suffer such losses. If they could fight in a way that reduced their losses, however...
Claude was quite surprised at how the viscount threw away all etiquette and consideration of their ranks once the discussion got underway. As far as he was concerned, they were just two men sharing their thoughts on a topic about which they were both passionate. He even made a passing offer to transfer Claude to the royal guard so he could spearhead the integration of the Mark 3.
Claude politely refused. It was a prestigious thing to serve in the royal guard, but, as his old commander had said, the nature of what they did made it difficult to climb the ranks. The only real way to earn merit was with years of service. Serving in a combat unit was far more dangerous, true, but it also made it easier to climb the ranks quickly and earn merits.
The afternoon aged quickly and Claude prepared to leave. The viscount would not let him leave before they shared a meal, however. He sent Rodan to his manor to fetch his children to join them. He hoped openly the two might hit it off with Claude and become friends. He left it unspoken, but not uninsinuated, that he wished Claude's stories to inspire the two to more ambition.
Claude sighed. Clearly the viscount was unaware of the history between him and his children.
Both were physically attractive, and knew it way too well. Both brother and sister were arrogant and behaved like they were superior to everyone else in the world. The brother, Hertinger, was more upfront and crude about it than his sister, but Christie's superiority complex showed as well. She pretended to be pedantically polite, but her motions carried a kind of quiet arrogance Claude found almost more offensive than her brother's crudity.
Kartoff, however, was their father, and, as all fathers, could only see their strengths.
The two children, at least, knew how to behave in front of their father, much as they did in front of their mother. The confusion was evident on their faces, however. Neither could understand why their father was so impressed by the country-bumpkin captain that shared the table with them. Neither recognised Claude, so they showed him the due courtesy without much protest.
Hertinger's face turned green when Claude was formally introduced, however, then red, then ash-white. Christie started bobbing around in her chair like an agitated cockerel. The viscount, once again, bless his blind heart, missed both their reactions, and encouraged the two to spend some more time with Claude rather than their bumpkin lay-about friends. He even praised Claude as one of the army's most talented officers and beamed about what a bright future he had.
Talk eventually, and surprisingly subtly, turned to Claude's romantic relationships, and the viscount lamented quite openly his marriage, saying he'd hoped something might blossom between him and his daughter. Christie nearly threw up when she heard that, but managed to keep it in, and her brother lost what little colour he'd regained in the half-an-hour that had passed since the formal introduction.
Dinner was finally served and finished, but Claude was dragged to the viscount's study just as he opened his mouth to excuse himself. The viscount wanted to hear about the battle of Squirrel. He was apparently obsessed with it. He wanted to know how a single clan could defeat five thousand men.
An officer came to fetch the viscount for a meeting of the royal guard halfway into their discussion. The viscount asked Claude to stay on for the day so they could resume their talks that evening, but Claude politely refused. He said he had an engagement with Lietuenant-Colonel Manrique's family that evening and they were expected back at the college the next day.
The viscount would not let him leave until he'd written down the rest of the unrelayed account, however, so he stayed on another hour to finish the account. He walked out of the study to inform Rodan of his impending departure, but found Christie waiting for him outside, a scowl on her face.
She burst into a tirade the moment their eyes met, ordering him to stop misleading her parents to get back her land. Claude nearly snapped back at her, but burst into laughter instead. She really was quite the narcissist. He ignored her and left, leaving notice with Rodan at the front entrance where he ran into the butler.