Claude and Skri had finished their discussion about the funding of the castle renovations by the time the coach reached the arms factory. They had decided to withhold sixty percent of the mining product.
But to avoid angering the national treasury, Skri suggested they only do it for three years. They would simply have to finish the renovations within that time, with whatever they secured, then send everything on to the treasury again. It would be more palatable that way, at least.
As for the association, they would split fifty percent to the theatre instead of sixty to the national treasury per their previous arrangement. That way, they'd gain an increase of ten percent and save on the costs of shipping to Freia -- a far better deal than the previous arrangement.
Claude poked his head out of the coach. They had been stopped at the entrance of a valley. They had to go through a check at the outpost ahead before they could continue. Skri stepped out of the coach and told Claude the factory was defended by a keeper tribe that reported directly to Theatre Command. Every entry and exit had to be checked and registered.
A first lieutenant with two black stars on his epaulettes rushed over and saluted the two. He ordered his keepers to move the stoppers out of the way and let the generals, their coach, and attendants through. Claude waved the coach on, smiling politely at the officer. He preferred walking the rest of the way. Three hours were tough on the back and buttocks.
Skri said the factory was built there because of a lake atop one of the hills. It was a good water source. They built a waterfall which fed directly into a series of pipes which piped it to the various buildings where it powered the machinery.
The valley was quite expansive, probably around three hundred metres wide. It had been artificially flattened so as much of its surface could be used as possible. The middle of the valley was covered in buildings. They were completely cut off from the rest of the valley by a two-metre wall that ran all the way around the compound. Four keepers stood watch by the only gate.
"That is where the factory is," Skri said.
Claude could hear the rumbling of the factory's machines even from here. They completely drowned out the waterfall. He looked up and saw a cast-iron pipe some ten metres long hanging off a ledge. It stretched into the flat-roofed building at the bottom of the cliff.
"The main water pipe," Skri said when he noticed Claude's gaze, "The water flows from the lake up top. The momentum of the falling water is used to power the machines in the building there."
"It's an amazing sight," he exclaimed. He didn't think the people of this world knew how to use hydro power like that. He had thought they would use a water wheel underneath the waterfall, yet there was no waterfall to be seen. They had collected the water falling from the fall into the pipe and utilised it fully.
Skri cracked a laugh. "What's amazing about it? Compared to this, the truly amazing ones can be seen in the arms-forging factories in the kingdom. I was once posted at the second forging plant, the Valencis United Firearms Factories. The waterfall there is as tall as a kilometre and the cast-iron pipe is two metres in width. It's said that the flow of water can be used to power thousands of such machines to make the finest barrels for the most advanced firearms on Freia."
Claude didn't want to hear Skri praise how advanced their firearms allegedly were.
He pointed at the factory and asked, "Going in?"
"No," Skri said, shaking his head as he pointed in another direction. "We're going there. The chief machinist is quite a famous master gunsmith in Eastern Freia and has been created an honorary count by the kingdom. After taking up his post, he made his own research workshop and spends most of his time doing his own experiments there."
Claude noticed a small forest near the other side of the valley where Skri pointed. Within it was a three-storey wooden villa and a row of four log houses. The environment seemed rather good. The small forest was lush and green. However, the smoked and charred look of the wooden buildings seemed rather out of place. It was as if they had been burned before.
"Initially, this new chief machinist lived in the factory itself, but his carelessness during his experiments caused his lab to burn down twice, which the auditor had a lot to say about. He thought the experiments were a risk to the factory, so I sent for some of my men to build his lab and residence over there to suppress the conflict," Skri explained as they walked.
Claude wondered, "Why does it seem like you're taking real good care of the chief machinist?"
Skri laughed. "Because he's a famous gunsmith of whom I've heard for a long time. A certain former subordinate of mine also had really close relations with his daughter, you see. So, I did what I could to help, lest that subordinate complain I haven't taken good care of them..."
Claude didn't think much of it as they continued towards the wooden buildings. They entered the forest and saw a young boy wearing a grey riding vest reading a book under a rubber tree.
"Hey, lil' Mark, where is your mother and grandfather?" Skri asked in a friendly manner.
The boy looked up curiously. When he saw the two, he jumped excitedly.
"Uncle Skri, why have you come?"
As they approached each other, Claude suddenly felt his heart rate increase. He looked at the child's face. It felt deeply familiar but he couldn't place it.
"Grandpa is taking a nap. He should be up soon. Mom's in the lab," the boy said.
"Then Uncle here will go look for your grandpa. Call your mom over. We have an honoured guest tonight," he said, stroking the boy's head.
The boy looked at Claude curiously.
"Is he our guest? His shoulder mark is the same as yours. Is he a general too?"
"Haha, he's not just a general. He's the field marshal, my superior. Even I have to listen to his orders. He's come to visit your grandpa. Alright, go call your mom."
The boy jumped and went looking for his mother.
Claude looked at him go, puzzled.
"Is he the chief machinist's grandson? We're here to visit his grandfather because of the barrel consumption, right? Why did you ask him to get his mother?"
"She's the one breaking the barrels. She's an honorary baroness and a gunsmith. They are a family of three, so she brought her son along."
"I see. It's rare for the family trade to pass from father to daughter. But... breaking more than 800 barrels a year is a little excessive. I'm curious what experiments she's been up to."
"I'm not too sure, but I've heard her father mention she's trying to create a new type of musket, one that is completely unlike the traditional matchlock--" Skri pointed to the log house. "--Let's not dally. If you're curious, you can ask the baroness."
Claude soon saw the new chief machinist, the so-called master gunsmith.
"Good day, Generals, welcome. I am Liboyd Milowski, the new chief machinist," said a man in his sixties with white hair and black-framed crystal spectacles resting on his nose.
While he appeared quite aged, he had a decent sharpness about him. His behaved with the requisite elegance, yet felt approachable.
Claude instantly had a good impression of him. He noticed the man didn't announce his Title, whether intentionally or not. If he had done so, Claude would have to offer his greetings first. But since he only mentioned his post, he had positioned himself as Claude's inferior.
Claude was still a little troubled, however. He had heard the name before, but he couldn't say where. The two introduced themselves and took their seats. The old man's maidservant served tea. The red tea was adorned with lemon slices, honey, and a couple flower petals.
"Please have a taste. It's flower tea from our hometown. It's a little different from the tea you're used to. This has several extra ingredients to highlight the leaves' flavour," Liboyd introduced.
Claude took two sips.
"It's good. Sweet, fragrant, and refreshing. We don't just have straight tea though. As a child, I loved to add honey and milk, my siblings love it too. My father thought it a waste. Now that I'm independent, I can finally add whatever I want. Only I no longer care as much about sweetness as much. I much prefer the unadulterated bitter flavour of good red tea. I suppose that's the price you pay to grow up..."
"Well said, General. It is not an easy realisation for someone of your age to have," Liboyd praised.
Just as Claude wanted to humble himself, he heard a woman's voice come in from outside the room.
"Little rascal... If you drag me out of my lab and there are no honoured guests to attend to, you better worry for your arse. Eh? Why are there so many guards?"
Skri, who was standing at the doorway, recognised the voice. Gum greeted the woman and moved aside to let her in, her hand holding her son's.
"General Claude, this is my daughter, Sonia. The boy with her is my grandson, Marcus."
Claude's cup slipped out of his hand, followed a moment later by his jaw.
The woman appeared just as shocked by his appearance.
The room was suddenly empty, as if all the air had rushed out so you couldn't even hear a pin drop. Claude and the old man's daughter, Sonia, glared at each other, their hearts palpitating. The old man's gaze hopped between the two, not knowing how to interpret the scene. The child was just as startled and hid behind his mother. He poked his head out a few seconds later and glared shyly at Claude. Skri was the only one who continued sipping his tea as if nothing had happened.
"G-general... S-sonia... you two know each other?" Liboyd asked carefully.
"So you were the famous count gunsmith..."
Claude finally understood why the name Liboyd Milowski sounded so familiar to him. As for his daughter, he could not forget the woman to whom he'd given his virginity even if he tried.
His eyes drifted to the boy behind her and instantly recognised his family features hidden behind youth. They'd copulated about a decade earlier, and the boy looked about just that age. Moreover, Sonia definitely had not had a child back then, nor had she been pregnant.
"He's--" Claude mumbled, pointing at the boy.
"--my son. Marcus Milowski," Sonia said quickly, kneeling and hugging her boy.
Claude smiled resignedly. He knew what she feared, but he had no intention of taking his bastard from her.
"Why didn't you write me about this?"
"What would have been the point? You were just a first lieutenant last I'd heard of you," she said a little defensively, "The war had still been going. I had returned to Swansburg and my father was sick. When I'd noticed I was pregnant I'd already lost all hope of tracking you down and getting a letter to you even if I'd wanted to. The city'd already been besieged, and it stayed that way until the war ended a year later. I'd thought of writing then, but I heard about the great losses on the Canasian plains, where I also heard your unit had been sent. I assumed you were among the dead."
Skri stood up.
"Master Boyd, I believe it would be most appropriate for the two of us to talk outside. How about a tour of the factory?"
The old man snapped out of his haze and nodded apologetically.
"A brilliant idea. Please, let me show you around. Mark, come along."
Claude glanced at Skri. The puzzle pieces finally fell into place and he gave the man a harsh yet unangered glare.
"You set me up! Why didn't you tell the moment you found out?"
"And how would I have done that? Besides, until recently it had only been suspicions. I was only certain after I saw the boy's face. You were on the front at the time, so I put it on the backburner. I'd actually been about to schedule a trip here for you when you asked to come yourself."
Skri closed the door behind him as he finished the last sentence. The two were alone in the room now.
"I'm really sorry. It must've been tough." Claude said, stepping forward to his his former fling.
The woman shoved him away.
"Let's be clear, Marcus is mine. He is a Milowski and that won't change."
Claude didn't even know how to react.
"I have no intention of taking him away."