Myjack welcomed him.
"Where are we going now?"
Claude weaselled into his coach with a heavy heart.
"Back home. I don't want to return to line HQ."
Myjack closed the door and informed the coachman of their destination. The coach jerked into motion and rolled down the street. Gum and the guard circled it protectively.
Ranger's HQ was in Grinosburg, the largest mountain city in the colony as well as a major centre of the mining industry. Claude had always suspected the reason Grinosburg was made the colony's capital was the two gold mines just outside its boundary. The former viceroy and high-commissioner must've listened to the mine's operators and owners carefully.
He recalled when Prince Hansbach came to survey Ranger. When the independent colony governments were being dissolved to form the new central theatre-wide government, the viceroy and high-commissioner were quite unwilling to part with their positions. The grapevine, or mine-cart as the case may be, had it that they had their fingers on a tenth of the mine's profits in return for their 'careful consideration' of their needs and interests.
Grinosburg was deep in the mountains. It was a tough destination, not to mention a long one. It was quite uncommon for colonial capitals to be anywhere but on the coast, even less common for them to be in such remote locations. Line 131's base had once been in Ferro, in the former Balingana some 150 kilometres from Grinosburg. With the theatre's restructure, however, the town had been merged into Robisto. One of Claude's first victories on Nubissia was the night attack on the town. They destroyed a whole line and took some three thousand captives.
Claude's home stood in Lanu, however. The family preferred the weather and view. Angelina had taken to frequent visits, well, as frequent as the trek allowed, and had dragged the family along on her latest one. Claude could not let them stay in inns during their visit, so he rented a quaint mansion in Lanu.
"Send someone to HQ with my orders. They're to pull back to Lanu and pitch camp outside the town," Claude said.
He had decided he would pitch his HQ in Lanu and make it the colony's new capital. It was a much more sensible choice to Grinosburg, both from a military, and from an economic and general governance perspective. He would never have made Grinosburg the colony's capital in the first place if it had been up to him.
The manor stood on the shores of a local lake, and he could see it perched on a small outcropping of land, overwatching the lake long before he reached it. Weyblon Manor was the summer home of a local mining guild chief. The chief had rented it to Claude for one crown a month. He already had a pleasant, if not friendly, relationship with Claude and hoped to improve his standing with the new overlord some.
The manor closed slowly, like a ship drifting to anchor in one of Nubissia's many harbours and the coach finally shuddered to a halt. Another stood nearby, resplendent in black with a stylised 'Wey' embossed on the door. Someone from the mansion's owning family was present.
It seemed the rich chased after the nobility as much in this world as on old Earth. The rich, being of common stock as they were, did not have family crests to place on their coach doors as the nobility did, but that didn't mean they wouldn't put something there to emulate them. The aristocracy were the cream of the crop, and the rich did everything in their power to emulate them. They bought equally extravagant, if not moreso, country mansions and extensive estates. They chased after the same fashion, styled their names and surnames after trends among the aristocracy; and emulated their family crests with emblems of their own which they pasted everywhere a noble would -- one of which was the doors of their coaches, hence the 'Wey' on the coach Claude noticed as he stepped out of his own.
Claude grimaced. He was technically renting the place, but Weyblon had made several visits in the couple of weeks since he'd moved in and had brought gifts well in excess of the rent he'd paid. He didn't know exactly what the man saw in him, but he clearly considered Claude someone worthy of his substantial investments. He supposed he could not fault the man's judgement. He was to become a major-general in just three months, and then there was also the matter of becoming field marshal -- the most powerful man on the continent.
Alek, the butler, was suddenly bowing to him. He didn't know how the man did it, but he moved so quietly that he appeared to appear and vanish out of and into thin air.
"Welcome home, Sir."
Again, he could not fault Weyblon's judgement. He'd been the one to recommend Alek to him. He was a former butler to royalty, though not the crown household itself, but to a closely related count's family. He was the third of three generations to have served the count. He would have been content to spend the rest of his life in the position, but the latest count was a spoilt brat. He made several ill-advised investments, despite his servants and advisor's desperate warnings, including Alek's, and bankrupted the family. The count naturally turned to the bottle as he drowned in depression despite Alek's best efforts to cheer him up. He found Alek's sincere efforts annoying instead, and chased him out of the castle not long after.
Despite being in the absolute right, Alek was blacklisted among the kingdom's aristocracy. He knew he would never find decent work again within the kingdom's borders, and no noble would hire a foreign servant, especially not one with relatively close ties to foreign royalty, so other kingdoms were not an option either. He thus turned to the colonies and came to Nubissia. Weyblon was quick witted enough to recognise the value in a former butler to royalty -- again, after a fashion -- and tried to hire him. Being a former butler to royalty, however, Alek had standards. He would only serve proper nobility. Weyblon eventually gave up on him, though he kept tabs on his location, should he have use, or need, of his services in the future -- which it turned out he did.
Normally, Alek would not have accepted serving a mere baron, and a new one at that, but Claude had gained a reputation during the previous war, and he was a new baron and a rapidly promoted military officer at a very young age. He still had a lifetime of potential, and a demonstrated ability to turn that potential into reality, so Alek was willing to bend a little and bet on him.
"Did Mister Weyblon come for a visit?"
"Yes. He came to visit Madame Ferd and Lady Kefnie. Mister Weyblon said you would be back today and hopes to meet with you. He is resting in one of the guestrooms," Alek answered, his posture elegant, yet subservient. A superb balance of dignity and self-confidence from his background, and humility in front of his lord.
"I will have something to eat, then a bath. I have much work to do thereafter so I will retire to my study for the rest of the afternoon. If Mister Weyblon is yet awake he can join me there in an hour."
The pair had made it to the mansion's front door while they chatted and Claude took off his outer layer and handed it to Alek. Normally, that would have been Alek's job, but Claude was not willing to have the man do literally everything for him. He was a grown man for goodness' sake. He could at least put on and take off his clothes on his own.
Alek had the kitchen staff warm up the plate they'd kept for Claude and Myjack from lunch and served it to them in short order. Kefnie joined them shortly after. She was pregnant yet again.
"You're back quickly!" she said as she stepped into the dining hall.
Claude usually returned for just one weekend a month and his last visit had been just the previous weekend.
He smiled and gave his wife a short but passionate kiss.
"I am, and for good this time. I've moved the line to Lanu."
Kefnie was overjoyed. She'd spoken less to her husband since their marriage than she had to him as just another boy in school back in Whitestag. While she was naturally proud of her man's success in his career, every promotion stole more of his time. She'd hoped he would be discharged after the war and spend the rest of his life calmly at home, perhaps running a small local business or taking a position in the local government. Life had not worked out that way, however. Instead of the rural, country housewife who managed a small vegetable garden, had a couple of chickens, maybe a cow, and mostly cooked and looked after the house and children, with a live-in husband, she was a baroness. She'd not touched a cow, chicken, or vegetable since moving to Nubissia, though she insisted on making her snacks and the kid's warm milk late at night herself, despite the servant's protests that a lady does not touch food with anything but a knife and fork, or spoon.
Claude returned to the table after fondling his wife thoroughly.
"Really. Where's Tesoray?"
Tesoray, their son, was born in Year 582. Six years had since passed and the boy was now at his naughtiest. Claude was seldom home, so his mother had spoilt him rotten. He barely even recognised his father, which brought Kefnie no end of unhappiness.
"He was stung by a hornet in the garden this morning. He's been crying most of the day. Mother had Anna come home and soothe the sting. He's asleep now."
Claude was actually happy the boy got stung. Naughty children learnt best when their antics backfired on them. And rather a sting or two now than a pregnant girl's furious father or the local authorities later. Kefnie was not as worry free as him, however. With his almost eternal absence she clung to their son with all her might, and any hurt he suffered was an injury to her; and she demanded -- in as much as Kefnie was capable of demands -- he have his guards sweep the grounds for a hornet's nest.
He almost wanted to tell her that they should instead protect the hornets from their son, since the brute already had a streak of vengefulness in him which did worry Claude somewhat, but he decided against it. He did not want to face a furious wife, sister, and mother the moment he no longer had a faraway HQ to which to escape.
Claude took a quick bath after the meal, then met Weyblon in his study in casual clothes. Nobility would have been deeply offended at not being greeted in proper attire, but Weyblon understood it was to be taken as a compliment. If he'd been greeted in formal attire, it would have signified that their relationship was distant and purely business. Being greeted in casual clothing meant Claude considered him a personal friend.
When Claude asked how he know of his return, he happily explained that he'd heard of Claude's summoning to the field marshal's headquarters and assumed it meant he would be returning home, probably because he'd been granted extended leave since combat was unlikely for the next year or more.
"Alright. That doesn't explain why, knowing of my return, you came to my manor. While I welcome any visit of yours, I know you better than to think this is just a casual visit."
Weyblon held off on answering until Alek had served them tea and left, closing the door behind him.
During their initial interactions, Weyblon had been very taken aback by Claude's distinct lack of the airs other nobles were so fond of putting up, but he had since grown accustomed to it and considered it a mark of the young man's good, sensible character.
"Lord. One reason, of course, is to congratulate you on your impending promotion to major-general and appointment to field marshal by the Lord Militant. I came unannounced because I wish to discuss a matter of a rather... personal nature."
Claude's heart sunk. He'd expected as much, but the man's tone told him it was something rather more substantial than he expected. He supposed the fact that the man wished to keep his visit as quiet as possible should have hinted at this possibility, but he had not given it much thought.
"Please, my Lord. You need not be so cautious. I doubt more than a handful of people on the continent know of this. I sourced this information from the capital."
Claude breathed a sigh of relief. He did not like the idea of their internal moves being so easy to discover that a mere local businessman could learn of it even faster than the man which it concerned. It turned out that Weyblon merely happened to have a well-placed source in the capital.
"You have a source in the capital too?" Claude asked.
"The guilds have an office in the capital. Every year, we send all the gold and silver we mine to the kingdom's bank.
"So when we heard of Ranger returning to the kingdom and the Lord Militant stepping down as field marshal, we were shocked and very worried. This does concern out safety most intensely, after all.
"Luckily my source had also heard that you had been pegged to replace the Lord Militant as field marshal, with the related staffing changes.
"I've spoken with the rest of the board, and we've also had discussions with the other guilds, and we feel you are more than capable of holding the colonies and governing effectively as field marshal."
"Just where does your glowing confidence come from?"
"The Lord Militant does speak quite highly of you every opportunity he gets. Your exploits have not failed to impress, either. Your earning of the order of knighthood during the last war was most impressive."
"You certainly do your homework," Claude resigned, "That still leaves the question as to the personal matter behind your visit."
"Indeed. Well... we also know of the settlers being sent over. The Mining and Commerce Board's chairman, Henderman, would like to discuss their placement in the colony."
"He has a proposal?"
"Yes. We know the idea is to have most of them start up farms. We hope to convince you of the benefits of having a portion of them settled around the mines instead. We've been making due with nikancha for some years now, but they can only do so much. If we are to expand our operations we will need properly educated subjects of the kingdom.
"It would also help to have a larger population of subjects from the kingdom in the cities. The nikancha have too many numbers in the cities and it's been detrimental to their continued growth. We're willing to help with financing for anyone who wants to start a business in the cities. We'll even provide free accommodation."
Population was wealth. The merchants needed customers, and the mines needed workers.
"I'll speak with the chairman and hear what he has to say. I don't promise anything, and at best I'll only allow willing settlers to move to the cities. I will not force anyone and I will not tolerate any coercion or false advertising."
Weyblon nodded gratefully. He knew this was the most he could do. It would be unreasonable of him to assume he could sell the idea to Claude. The best he could do was convince him to hear the chairman out.
"There is another matter. I'd like to discuss the possibility of the board and the organisations its members represent donating 100 thousand crowns to the war chest. We are most dissatisfied with the amount of support the kingdom is giving. Since we have benefitted from your, the Lord Militant's, and the rest of the army in the colonies' efforts, and have a vested interested in your continued success, we would like to do what we can to aid you in that regard."
Donating 100 thousand crowns for the military effort?! This was no small matter. Claude's mood warmed up immediately and he launched into a flurry of thanks, failing to notice Weyblon had emphasised new war theatre. It meant the money would not show up until Claude had taken over officially. Besides their vested interest in ensuring the kingdom maintained control over the colonies, they also preferred Claude over Lord Militant Miselk. The Lord Militant had lived an entire life back on Freia and had roots -- a family, business, estates, and an extensive social network -- back in the kingdom. Claude, on the other hand, had little tying him to the kingdom. He was young, he had earned his current rank and his future position as field marshal on Nubissia, and, most importantly, his entire family had relocated to the new continent. He was more a Nubissian than a mainland Aueran, and it meant he was far more amenable to their gentle ministrations, and, since his power base was on Nubissia, not in Aueras, it also meant he was more reliant on their support.