The letter said Borkal hadn't returned alone, but with 48 old and run-down seafaring ships, fishing boats, and smuggling vessels of disparate sizes. The ships carried 60 thousand refugees from all over the kingdom. They had nothing but harshly rationed sawdust-and-bark bread.
Of the gift-carrying band that had set off with him, only 37 had returned. Twenty four had not made it, including men from Borkal's personal guard. Most were lost in encounters with bandits. The most dangerous time had been when 400 bandits had encircled them on a hilltop. They had to fight a bloody battle to get away.
The reason Borkal took so long was the refugees that slowed him down. It was a result of Stellin XI not having restored order to the kingdom after the civil war. Instead, he focused on following up on grudges and old debts against the subjects that took Prince Hansbach's side. As a result, the kingdom remained on very unstable footing with many of its subjects losing their homes and becoming vagabonds. For the sake of giving the refugees a chance at a new life in the colonies, Borkal spent all his budget and the money of his household.
To gather enough long-distance ships, Borkal spent three months visiting various fishing villages at the kingdom's coastlines to buy, hire and retrofit a simple fleet. They finally left for Nubissia once the refugees boarded.
However, the voyage there wasn't that easygoing either. Two long-distance fishing boats were sunk and a few hundred refugees died as a result despite best efforts to rescue them. The worst was when they encountered the Blacksail pirates, though thankfully they didn't have much to pillage, with most of them being refugees. After the pirates searched the ships, they complained a bit before letting them go and even kindheartedly offered them some food and fresh water, including some green carrots and old pumpkins.
Claude spent three days at Port Vebator. Thundercrash 1st Folk would head to Castle Moknad after getting ashore there whereas Wolfang would follow Claude back to Lanu. Thundercrash 2nd Folk, on the other hand, would remain on the ships. Five days later, the ships of the Alliance's navy would dock at Port Patres in Robisto. All warships and transport vessels would be sorted out by the theatre there before being absorbed into the theatre's own fleet.
Claude and Eiblont returned to Lanu with Wolfang and Thundercrash 2nd Folk later. Within half a year, Lanu became a large construction area once more, with scaffolding everywhere, dust gathering all over the place and irrigation routes all dug out.
"Actually, it's a good thing Lanu was reduced to rubble!" EIblont exclaimed.
"Huh?" Claude didn't quite understand what he meant.
"You might not be aware, but General Skri ran into a huge problem here while expanding Lanu. Many homeowners in the old city were unwilling to have their homes rebuilt, so proper sewage couldn't be built. In the end, General Skri was forced to move the city centre to the east of the city and build an entirely new district. The sewage systems for both sectors are completely different. With Lanu almost entirely gone now, we'd be able to rebuild it into a cohesive whole according to proper city-planning principles."
Claude nodded his agreement. Skri had been thinking of ways to revamp the old city for a long time. Many large cities allowed ghettos to form and gangs to fester due to the separation of old and new city sectors. The tight alleyways of the decrepit areas with dense populations made security an absolute plague and nightmare. While the destruction of Lanu was a great loss, it had become a blank canvas on which to draw again.
Once he reached headquarters, Claude didn't see Borkal. He asked around and found that Borkal had gone to settle his family down. He had taken all his relatives and families of his company's workers to the colonies. Bolonik gave him half a month off to help them start their new life off.
While he didn't meet him in person, Claude could still read the journals and reports Borkal wrote. He discovered from those two sources that thanks to the civil war, the kingdom mainland was suffering from huge civil discontent and a variety of other socio-economic problems, bandits being a major one among them. Not only did the local administrators not placate the populace and solve their problems, they even started taking advantage of them. All they wanted to do was to gain Stellin XI's favour to secure their official positions while avoiding the great purge going on in the kingdom right now.
In fact, Borkal and the sailors from Storm didn't have much to talk about on the way back, given their sour relationship. Sometimes, Borkal suspected they would tie him up and toss him into the sea had he travelled alone. There would be no traces left behind. They could even explain it away by saying he jumped into the sea at midnight or fell off the ship accidentally.
That was why the eighteen days spent on the voyage were rather uncomfortable for Borkal. He constantly reminded his guards to be on their guard and test every aspect of the food and drink they received before consuming it. When they finally arrived in Whitestag, Borkal was completely stupefied to find only rubble. The grand city from back then had vanished like an illusion, remaining only in his memories.
Prince Hansbach and Prince Wedrick's forces had warred at Whitestag for more than a year, leaving no more than a handful of intact buildings. Only shabby wooden huts were left in the ruins. Borkal didn't find familiar faces. Many of those he encountered ran at the sight of his military uniform.
Whitestag's officials had completely changed and they were only concerned with the ten-plus warships of Storm that had returned, as well as the specialties the naval officers brought back from the colonies. Borkal, the representative of the theatre, was given a lukewarm reception and sent off on his way with two simple carriages to carry their gifts and luggage. There was no more help offered, so Borkal had no choice but to buy some 60 workhorses with money out of his own pocket for his cohort to ride.
In the end, the carriages and workhorses made them targets of bandits on the way. They were raided seven times in that journey, the most dangerous of which saw them encircled on a small hill by some four hundred refugees who turned to banditry. Borkal said he heard with his own ears those refugees screaming for their own to charge and kill them so that they could eat the workhorses they got.
Fortunately, Borkal's band of guards were handpicked elites with excellent marksmanship. Their nonstop shooting took out a hundred of the bandits at the front before they engaged in a melee, outnumbered three to one. The moment the bandit leader was shot dead, the rest of the refugees scattered, but that battle left the guards suffering seven deaths and leaving 18 injured.
It was only when they reached Ibnist Plains, on which the royal capital lay, that the security situation turned for the better. It was far better than that of the other prefectures, though it was a given since the area within the royal capital's jurisdiction was stationed with the royal guard corps. Few bandits would dare show up there. However, the paths around Ibnist Plains were set up with various checkpoints that stopped refugees from various areas to enter the plains.
Borkal's group passed the checkpoints relatively trouble free and spent a few more days before reaching the royal capital. They were about to rest at the mining association's branch in the royal capital, though they didn't expect all they saw was a bunch of burnt rubble when they reached the address.
According to others in the know, the first prince began raiding the business sector, Haggler Haven, because he had lost and had to retreat from the royal capital. The mining association's branch wasn't spared and their employees were possibly killed by resisting and angering the soldiers. To cover for their crimes, the soldiers probably set fire to the place to erase all evidence.
However, a few members of the mining association did manage to escape. When Borkal discovered them, they were nothing more than beggars. Thanks to the fire, the bank books hidden within the branch and seals were all reduced to ash. The funds of the mining association were swallowed up by the national bank as a result, and there was no way to get it back since the bank book, the only proof of the fund even existing, was gone.
War had done business in the royal capital much disservice. The survivors of the mining association had to watch after the rubble to make sure they would be found once the branch in the colonies sent people to look for them. As a result, they relied on working odd jobs or begging to make a living and stayed in a shabby hut built atop the rubble.
Now that they finally saw a representative from the colonies, the employees of the association let their tears flow and prayed for Borkal to take them home. Borkal had little choice but to promise them and take them along on the way back.
After that, Borkal searched for a place to spend the night, only to find that prices in the royal capital were easily three times higher than right after the five-year war ended. To save on that spending, he went to the royal guard's camp in the royal capital with the intent of lodging there. However, his request was rejected by the officers of the royal guard, who said nobody was to be allowed inside the camp without the king's permission.
In the end, Borkal went to the ministry of the army and spent three days to get a registration for an audience with Stellin XI. He also managed to get a camping spot at an empty lot beside a park near the ministry. It was a temporary camp made from simple wood logs now currently inhabited by many family members of the army. Residence there was free, but food and horse feed had to be paid for themselves. The ministry wouldn't be footing the bill for them.
After settling down, Borkal went around visiting people to get a grasp on Stellin XI and the kingdom's high officials' views on the colonial theatre as well as the war with Shiks, though he failed spectacularly in that regard. Stellin XI and his ministers and advisors seemed to have completely forgotten about the existence of the colonies and the war being fought there.
When Borkal went to visit them, they were all glad to receive his gifts. But upon mention of the colonial war, they would only offer thoughts and prayers as well as other encouragement without any practical help. In the end, one associate familiar with the kingdom's internal situation told him the truth that the kingdom couldn't afford to support the theatre even if it wanted to, given the current state of affairs.
Stellin XI was even more overboard. When Borkal got his audience, the king complained about the gifts being worthless and too plain and went on to accuse the theatre of holding the kingdom in contempt for not offering tax and actual gold tributes. He suggested that their gall must've been growing because they thought the kingdom couldn't get to them because it was a continent away, and proclaimed that once he, the wise and just king, got his kingdom in order, he would reorganise the kingdom's fleet to personally sail to the colonies to teach them a lesson.
Borkal got chastised for no good reason. He hurriedly explained that the theatre was still engaged in war with Shiks in the colonies, causing the wise king that still smelled of overnight booze to suddenly realise that he wasn't aware of what was happening at all. He asked a few of his ministers and got confirmation that Borkal was speaking the truth.
Even so, Stellin XI didn't apologise for what he said and doubled down, saying he didn't care whether the theatre was at war or not and demanding for the tax they hadn't paid in the past years to be paid in full along with a late fee as punishment. Once he said that, he turned and left in frustration while asking his butler about the preparations of the ball for that night.
The audience ended just like that. Later, Borkal became a frequent visitor of the ministry of the army and met up with the officials who had a say before Stellin XI, though none of them could help him. The king was all too busy organising his balls and banquets and had no time to spare for a messenger from the colonies.
It was then when Borkal realised that the ministry of the army was no longer the powerful institution during the reign of Stellin X. Instead, it had been reduced to nothing but a symbolic institution that had little more power than to relay the king's orders to the various garrison forces across the kingdom's prefectures. They weren't even able to cobble enough funding for their own operation. One administrative lieutenant-colonel Borkal was close with told him that he hadn't gotten paid in half a year. He only remained because he could get free food during lunch for his family.
Nowadays, of the kingdom's three main corps, the royal guard corps was in Stellin XI's hands. Reddragon belonged to the king's father-in-law, Lord Militant Duke Siegfeld. Griffon, on the other hand, elected their own corpsman, Hereditary Marquis Julius Hou Hadro, and answered only to him.
The three main corps of the kingdom were showing signs of serious corruption. They got all their spending directly from the national treasury instead of having their budgets determined by a survey by the ministry of the army like before. Even arms, ammunition and supplies were handled directly by the logistics units of the respective corps.
The fall of the ministry of the army caused their budget to be delayed time and again. It was said that most of the ministry supported Prince Hansbach to be the new monarch during the civil war, with many from their ranks joining his side. The ones that remained neutral or supported Prince Wedrick were the minority, and now, they could barely fulfill the usual tasks of the ministry.
For that, Prince Wedrick hated the ministry of the army. After defeating Prince Hansbach, he even sought to disband it, but his father-in-law stopped him. It was one of the kingdom's ministries, after all, and Aueras had to keep some degree of their dignity by not completely trampling over themselves lest they ended up the laughing stock of the other nations. Currently, the ministry of the army was the least prioritised institution in Stellin XI's government whose only function was to relay letters and stamp documents.
After staying for a month or so in the royal capital without any concrete goals, Borkal finally gave up. He went to the three sister prefectures to look for his family and relatives after leaving the ministry. On the way, he did some good out of the kindness of his heart, only to attract a large following of refugees behind him.
By the time he reached Whitestag, he found that the ten plus warships of storm had been summoned to guard the waters near Ibnist Plains. Stellin XI now seemed paranoid about troops being sent ashore straight to the royal capital like one of Hansbach's manoeuvres. He wouldn't want to pack up and scoot like before, especially now that he was the proper new king of the kingdom.
Without those ships, Borkal could only search for his own. In the meantime, the number of refugees only increased. He had no choice in the end but to seek his father out to convince him to sell the business to someone else and use all the money gained from the transaction to purchase ships and food for the voyage back to the colonies with his family and all 60 thousand refugees.