Year 593 of the Sacred Light Era was soon upon them. After the new year's eve celebrations, Claude was still busy hosting guests and attending banquets. He felt his stomach bloating up from the half a month of celebrations, so he made up his mind to go to the army training grounds to work out. He didn't want to carry so much meat on him like Borkal.
He left the cigarette business entirely with Alek. Since Kefnie was now technically a countess, she couldn't show up personally to deal with the matters and had to host their guests at home, especially the local rich and powerful. Ever since Bloweyk's mother started his wedding arrangements, all sorts of women from affluent families would doll their daughters or nieces up before coming to visit. Bloweyk left home for camp three days after the new year.
So, all Kefnie could do was supervise the finances while leaving the construction of the factory and hiring of the workers to Alek. Kester was working as his aide to ensure the safety of the factory. Even Zakrassen was asked to run errands day in and out by Alek. He had been sent to Aduras long ago to purchase tobacco.
Claude went to the camp in Port Vebator. He only stayed there for three days before receiving an urgent eagle message from headquarters, summoning him back to Lanu.
It seemed like an urgent matter, but the letter didn't state what exactly it was. It took Claude five days to sail by ferry back. When he arrived, he was told of something he found hard to believe.
"What? The first prince is dead? He was assassinated?"
The one who brought the news was Borkal. He remained at the western coast to make sure what he heard wasn't false, not bothering to return to the theatre for new year's eve at all. It was too bad his efforts were wasted. Word of Prince Hansbach's death came from the smuggling sailors as they made their stop in Nubissia. Oddly enough, no newspaper in any of the colonies could definitively prove the matter. Now, Prince Hansbach's death was nothing more than a rumour, a folk tale, which everyone in bars and taverns spoke about. Guessing the reason for his death became a sport, and no official sources came out to confirm or deny anything.
"There are seven versions of the first prince's death being spread around. The only thing that's certain is the time and place of his death. It happened last year on the 24th of the 9th month at 11 at night within the newly conquered territories, specifically, the most developed city in Rimodra, Port Frolic. It occurred in the core manor when the first prince moved in.
"Four more legitimate-sounding ones state that the first prince was assassinated, but the one behind the assassination and the motive for it were different. The first one said that he forced a commoner beauty to wait on him, only to be killed by her in his sleep. The beauty was said to have been missing ever since. The second version said Prince Wedrick, the king we've pledged our allegiance to, had sent a team of magi to assassinate His Highness for the throne. This sounds more credible.
"The third says that since the first prince retreated from Whitestag after his loss, his men felt really distraught and killed him while he was drunk and cut off his head in hopes of gaining the kingdom's forgiveness. The final version says that the one behind it is the resistance of old Rimodra that sent a few girls whose parents were killed by the Aueran army into the manor as maidservants. When they saw the first prince drunk, they did the deed to avenge their parents. This version sounds like a myth if you ask me."
"The other three are ridiculous," Borkal added, "The first had the first prince heavily injured during his retreat to Port Frolic to the point that he couldn't be treated. It doesn't sound quite possible, as the day before the first prince's death, he even took some men to patrol the camp and gave a speech about how they'd rise from the ashes. He couldn't have ridden on horseback to survey the camp if that was the case.
"The other two cite suicide and a misfire respectively. The suicide version described the first prince as feeling too humiliated by his loss. He drank to drown his sorrow, only to slit his own jugular vein when he thought about the predicament he was in. The other said the first prince played around with a revolver while drunk and accidentally pulled the trigger, shooting himself through the forehead. These two versions are impossible since the first prince is sure to have attendants around to stop him from messing with blades and guns while drunk.
"Prince Hansbach drew a lot of attention in starting the civil war to fight Prince Wedrick for the throne. Usually, newspapers in the colonies at the western coast have pundits commenting on the news. Lately, Prince Hansbach was said to have retreated from the three southwestern prefectures after a loss to Port Frolic. Whitestag, now reduced to ruins, has been reclaimed by Reddragon.
"What's weird is how Prince Hansbach ceased to do anything else after his retreat. Then came news of his death, but only in the form of rumours. There's not a single official notice made about the death itself. I asked a few people in charge of the publications, and all of them said they were waiting for proper confirmation. However, it's not easy to enter the newly conquered territories and leave, so news came out the whole time. Even they can't be sure about the death's truth."
Borkal had given his best effort. He collected lots of newspapers, all of which had something to report and comment about the retreat of the first prince during the 8th month last year. The papers were dated for the 11th month. It was normal for the newspapers to report on news three months back. The two continents were separated by the wide Tranquil Ocean, after all.
Claude picked one of the papers up and read up some details on the retreat. One pundit said that the two princes had been in a war of attrition at Whitestag for a whole year and both sides were no longer able to hold on.
So, the first prince spent a month to retreat from Whitestag with his men and their families. In fact, Prince Wedrick had intentionally let them go. Had he chosen to attack Whitestag in the month it was encircled, the first prince would have no choice but to retreat alone. The month was rather slow and neither side got into any huge conflict, which was rather weird. It was as if they've achieved some kind of understanding.
The pundits believe that Wedrick probably couldn't exterminate Hansbach and all his subordinates, so he decided to let them retreat to the new territories conquered during the five-year war. After all, Hansbach was the one who technically conquered it. Since the kingdom couldn't directly administer it anyway, it would be better to let Hansbach go there to found his own kingdom. Perhaps in a few decades, the two kingdoms could reunite into one.
"What do you think about this?" Claude turned to the rest in the room.
Bolonik furrowed his brows. "I believe it should merely be a rumour. There's no way Prince Hansbach will be assassinated so easily. It should be something an anti-Hansbach faction is spreading to cause more trouble for them. If the first prince really got hurt during the retreat, it should've been visible when he made his public appearances. Injuries of such calibre don't recover quickly."
Skri shook his head and said, "No, I believe the assassination is confirmed fact. It's incredibly possible that His Majesty sent someone to assassinate his own brother. Otherwise, the rumours wouldn't state the place and time it took place that clearly. The assassination there definitely caused quite a commotion among the people there to the point that word of it couldn't feasibly be kept secret.
"Port Frolic is the largest and most well-developed port city in Rimodra. That's why the ships that sail to Nubissia like to stop there to purchase goods. I believe the sailors that stopped there that night noticed the commotion from the core manor and started rumours about the assassination in the taverns at the docks.
"However, I agree with General Bolonik that there's no way the first prince would be that easily assassinated. If something really happened, the first prince would only be injured, not killed. That's probably why there's no official confirmation for the rumours. The first prince's forces are probably searching the port city for the perpetrator and his accomplices. That's why the publications were prohibited from reporting on it."
Skri's guess sounded more logical, but what Eiblont said immediately changed their views on the matter. The whole conversation was derailed.
"I'm not interested in whether he's dead or not at all. He's not the lord we've pledged our allegiance to, so his assassination doesn't really matter. What I'm bothered about is how we haven't received contact from the kingdom since his retreat. There should be nothing stopping the mainland from contacting us after Prince Hansbach retreated from Whitestag, right?
"Yet, it's been five months since then. It's the 1st month now and the first prince retreated during the 8th month, so why has the kingdom not sent a single ship to us? I doubt they aren't able to find a single long-distance ship at all. No matter how busy they are with the war's aftermath, they should have settled it all within two or three months. Yet, we haven't gotten a single ship. I wonder if the kingdom has forgotten about us completely."
Everyone's attention was now focused on that. The newspapers already published confirmation of the first prince's retreat from Whitestag during the 8th month, following which it was reclaimed by Reddragon. Yet, not a single ship sailed to reestablish contact with the colonies.
Birkin said in an eerie tone, "It's obvious that the kingdom doesn't want to carry a burden like us right now since our fight with the Shiksans isn't definitively concluded. If the kingdom sends people here, they'd soon receive a huge call for reinforcements.
"So, they'll pretend to forget about us until our fight with the Shiksans is over. Then, they'll sweep in and claim power. They only want to scour wealth from the colonies, not distribute wealth here. Perhaps it's better for us to not have contact with the mainland at all."
That last sentence was pushing the envelope. Claude glanced at Birkin, surprised that he could evaluate the situation with such stunning clarity.
When Skri had a little too much to drink during his visit to Ferd Manor on the second day of the new year, he had a personal talk with the other four generals about the theatre's future. Skri's view was quite pessimistic.
He said that after the war with the Shiksans, reestablishing contact with the kingdom would mean a brand new, clean slate for everyone. If Prince Hansbach won, perhaps the colonies could resist a little longer.
After all, the theatre had pledged allegiance to Wedrick. They could fight Hansbach with that reason until Hansbach negotiated to absolve the theatre from any crimes and be accepted back into the kingdom.
If Wedrick won, on the other hand, it would be terrible for the theatre. What the theatre was doing amounted nearly to treason, whether it be the founding of the overseas bank or the development of the military industry. It was far beyond their rights to do so.
The colonies were places for the kingdom to gather resources and wealth and to sell their products. The kingdom had no plans of treating the colonies like the mainland, so it didn't want the colonies to have any ability to resist the mainland.
While the theatre was doing something arguably treasonous, it was something it had no choice in. The civil war on the mainland and loss of contact cut off all support the colonies could expect from the kingdom.
For the sake of defeating Shiks and ensuring the sovereignty of the colonies, it had to develop the local economy so that enough taxes and funding for the military could be secured.
Even though the five greats of the theatre ensured the colonies to be in one piece and defended the kingdom's honour, after the colonial war, no matter Wedrick or Hansbach won, they would want to reassert control over the colonies. By then, the five generals would either be exiled or retired. If they didn't rebel themselves, they wouldn't be able to avoid such a fate.
Skri suggested that the one to rebel would probably be Claude, much to the latter's surprise. So, he demanded to know why he thought so.
"Simple. You're the youngest and the most prideful. You can't take any slight sitting down. You also have the highest repute in the army, both among Thundercrash and Monolith. You also have the final say in the headquarters when it comes to training and the colonial war. Most importantly, you've always lacked the sense of submission towards the Stellin royal family. So, you will definitely fight back against any unfair treatment, whereas we would just take what fate hands us."
Skri later went on to analyse the other generals, himself included. Bolonik was a traditional military man. He received traditional patriotic education and humbles himself before the royal family and would obey any kind of unfair orders so long as it came from the top. While his wife and children were in the colonies, his household as a whole lived around the kingdom. His parents and siblings were mainly farmers who were proud of what he had achieved. There was no way he would give up on his family.
Birkin's family and household already moved to the colonies, so he didn't have much to worry about. But his relationship with Bolonik had always been rather good. So, he usually followed in Bolonik's footsteps. He would also take what punishment the kingdom had for him.
Eiblont was also a traditionally educated soldier. But unlike Bolonik and Birkin, he used speech to express his frustrations. However, he wouldn't dare to actually mount a resistance himself, no matter how troubled he was. But if Claude led the way, he would be the first to join. Eiblont needed a brave leader on whom he could rely.
As for Skri, he admitted that he wasn't a talented commander. The only thing he could count on was his logistics management skills. He didn't have any right to command the troops himself, so he was of the least threat to the royal family. Perhaps his fate wouldn't turn out that bad at all. If Hansbach won, he might spare Skri on account of their old relations. But if Wedrick won, then there was nothing but exile and retirement for him.
When Claude awoke the next day, he recalled the talk with Skri for two gruelling days. What was the point in bringing that up? However, he noticed that Skri acted rather normally in the following days, so Claude thought it was merely a drunken rant. He didn't think he would hear Birkin bringing up something like this today.
Bolonik's expression seemed a little dark, hinting at his understanding of the subtext of Birkin's words. He sighed and rebuked, "We are discussing whether the assassination of the first prince is real. Don't steer the conversation away. The kingdom is in chaos due to the civil war. Didn't you read that Whitestag is in shambles? The first prince definitely sailed away with all the ships during his retreat. I believe the kingdom wasn't able to get any ships to contact us. They should restore contact with us in a few more months."
Claude shook his head. Bolonik's opinion was too far fetched. He tapped on the table and said, "If the kingdom doesn't have any ships, we'll take the initiative to establish contact. Don't we have a few long-distance warships the remnants of Storm docked at Port Cobius in Tyrrsim? Our theatre didn't have enough funds to restore Storm to a fleet. Now that Whtiestag is reclaimed, it's time we sent those ships back to the mainland.
"We'll let those ships of Storm rejoin the kingdom's navy while sending an ambassador to the royal capital in hopes that they'll provide us with support in the colonial wars."
"Claude's right. Since the way is clear, we should take the initiative. The naval officers aren't willing to join a fleet under our theatre and even want us to pay them to patrol our waters anyway. Are they really from our navy or just some mercantile sailors?
"We can use this excuse to get them to scoot off back to the mainland lest they demand us to fund the restoration of Storm or something without even considering whether we even have the authority to do such a thing," Skri said in full agreement.