Claude was quite frustrated with how his family was constantly causing trouble. Why were they going back to Whitestag at a time like this? It was still nothing but ruins and the day it might be rebuilt was still years away. Not to mention, the old inhabitants of Whitestag had been scattered during the civil war. Kefnie and his mother would essentially be going back to a completely foreign town. He couldn't take care of them if something happened over there.
He had no choice but to rush to the nearest train station. The two women were heading to Port Cobius by train, from whence they would go to Freia by ship. Heaven only knew how they'd managed to get the tickets without even Svenson hearing about it. The first thing he heard of it was when they were marching their baggage out the door.
Claude called for his adjutant, Masonhughes.
"Send someone to the department of intelligence. Find out who conspired with those two damned women!"
Claude was stumped by the scene he saw as he barged into the train station. The two women looked like a pair preparing to go on vacation, not move to a new continent. They had reserved an entire train wagon. Several dozen people had also come to send them off, mostly ladies who frequented the manor. Butler Alek was there as well. He was busy listening to Claude's mother who was animatedly instructing him.
He forced a smile and ignored several people who turned to greet him. He squeezed past the ladies as inconspicuously as he could, but someone still managed to cop a feel of his groin before he made it through the crowd. He wondered if they were just indulging themselves, or trying in some twisted way to tempt him since his wife was leaving.
His mother's bright face darkened the moment she saw him.
"What are you doing here?"
"I'm confused. Why are you going back to Freia when things are so much better here?"
Much as Claude had come to dislike his mother, he couldn't just let her walk out without a fight, especially not with such a crowd now staring at them.
"I am going back to see your father. We haven't cleaned his grave in years," she said with a wistful expression, "Aren't you busy? Go back if you have nothing important to say."
"I've cleaned Father's grave several times," Claude said.
It was the truth. He'd cleaned his father's grave every time he'd passed through Whitestag. The cemetery was the only part of town untouched by the war.
"Why is Kefnie going with the children as well? Amelisa is too young for such a journey."
Kefnie hugged her daughter and turned away, still not willing to talk to him. Their daughter was very excited. She was just over three and very interested in the crowd. As for his 15-year-old son, Beuergarcy, he sat in the corner of the wagon, his face buried in his book.
"Kefnie got a letter from her sister, Kesline, saying the family had returned to Whitestag. Her husband Jerad is now stationed there. She wants to go see them and obviously she can't leave the children here alone," his mother said forcefully, "Go back. There's nothing for you here. Don't get in our way. I still want to talk to a couple people."
It had been just six months since Kefnie had heard from her sister again. The latter had been missing since Whitestag's fall. She had explained in her first letter that Storm had sided with Hansbach and dragged Jerad along. He came across an old friend of his from his days in the Shark gang. Together with a bunch of others they stole three ships and sailed for Whitestag. From there they fled with their families to an island Storm had conquered in the past and started a privateer fleet.
Jerad had been in the region on several occasions and checked on the family, though he'd never entertained the thought of asking for help. His companions would never have accepted Claude's help. They did not like either side of the civil war, but they liked the region even less.
Most of the men returned to the navy once the war ended. Stellin XI didn't trust them, however, and exiled them in all but name to the Ibnist Plains on patrol duty. They were also often unpaid. Various excuses for the delay in their salaries were always abundant. Jerad had considered deserting and returning to his life as a privateer and smuggler on numerous occasions, but Fredrey I eventually started thinking of them again, especially once the Union invaded.
Jerad's flotilla at the time only had ten light warships. The majority of the fighting happened on land, but they did have a couple opportunities to earn some merit, of which they made full use. The kingdom now finally had money again, and they'd started rebuilding the navy. Old veterans like Jerad were also quick to get promotions to fill up the swelling ranks of senior positions.
Claude had already been on frigid terms with his wife when the letter arrived, so she'd not shared the news with him. Kesline had written again once they'd returned to Whitestag and asked her sister to come for a visit.
Claude wanted to tell them to wait a little longer so he could finish his business and go with them, but his mother couldn't care less about what he had to say, and Kefnie acted like he didn't exist. Claude would have thrown a fit if they were alone, but his mother had been prepared for his possible attendance and packed the wagon with ladies who'd come to send them off. In the end, Claude was forced to leave them be.
"My lord..." Alek said as Claude stepped off the wagon.
Claude nodded a curt greeting.
"How are you doing, Alek? What did my mother ask of you?"
"I'm doing well, My Lord," Alek answered with a graceful bow, "The old and young madams told me they will be staying in Whitestag for some time. They asked me to arrange to have the tobacco factory's money sent to them every half a year."
Claude had left Kefnie in charge of his shares and assets in the region and given her three tenths of the tobacco factory so she would have money to manage the household. It was a substantial fortune, up to ten thousand crowns in a good month.
He couldn't believe they still wanted to keep his money even after running away. He had initially planned to drag them back to the manor, but they'd been prepared for him. He couldn't do that in front of so many bystanders. He'd become the region's laughing stock if he aired his dirty laundry like that. There was no stopping them now.
The train blew its whistle, ready to depart. The ladies bid the two women farewell and got off the wagon. Claude made to jump aboard, but Alek stopped him.
"Let them go, My Lord," he said with a shake of his head, "I heard what happened. I believe you were in the right, but there is no calming the madams' anger this time. Let them go and blow off steam in Whitestag.
"Don't worry, I have arranged an escort and guard for them. Staff-Sergeant Kester hired seven gunmen to keep an eye on them. They're all veterans who'd worked in the tobacco factory before retiring. You can trust their loyalty. Svenson has also let them have several servants. You won't lose track of them, My Lord."
Claude sighed and gave in. He'd clearly stepped on his mother and wife's tail when he'd thrown Tesoray into the army. They were enemies now in all but name. Alek was right, if he kept them here their hatred would only brew and ferment until it exploded. Best to let them go and blow off their steam somewhere else.
Claude left before the train finished its departure and returned to army headquarters. A report was waiting for him on his desk when he stepped into his office, detailing the itinerary of his family's journey and how they'd arranged it.
A councillor by the name of Blaius Willisdor had helped them. His family came from leather tanners and shepherds. They were the cofounders of a shipping company that operated between Port Cobius and Whitestag. They operated the only passenger ironclad on the route, and it was quite the talk of the town. The ship had just come out of drydock and was about to sail on its maiden voyage. Blaius had invited many of his relatives to join him on the voyage. He, his wife, Martha, and their children would take their ship to Whitestag, and from there go to the royal capital.
His wife was a family friend of his mother and wife, and always attended their soirees. She'd told the two women of the ship's voyage as soon as she found out, and the two had twisted her arm to get them tickets.
Blaius was all too happy to oblige, thinking it a great chance to build connections to Claude via his family, and even reserved a luxury wagon for their train ride to the port city.
That had been why not even Svenson had known of their scheme.
Claude put the sheet down, speechless. If Blaius knew what he'd actually done, he would be hiding behind a tree on the pastures where his family had once herded whatever it was they herded.
There was no stopping the women now, however. The proverbial ship had sailed, and soon the literal one will have sailed as well. He could only hope they'd come to their senses after cooling down, though he seriously doubted they would after they'd spent so many decades in their fantasies. Svenson was with them, so they would at least not want.
And with the guards and them being on an ironclad the voyage was as safe as any could be. They were also not sailing alone. They would be sailing with the military convoy that was taking 200 thousand new rifles and 10 million rounds to the mainland, a hundred warships in all. And then there was the flotilla of ironclads that would be sailing with them as well. And their route was one of the safest ones between the two continents.
Claude rubbed his head, sighed, and shoved the matter aside. He instead turned his attention to another piece of paper on his desk; an eagle message from Borkal.
He was reporting on the embargo and patrols along the western coast. There were no viable smuggling routes anymore, so they could not do anymore smuggling into the western colonies.
The embargo had been airtight for half a year by now, so there were no more region products in the markets. The legal products from places like Moloshik, however, could not replace them, and the situation had caused several serious riots. They'd all been quickly and brutally suppressed, however.
Borkal also reported that the pamigar youths' training was going very well. The materials they used were very expensive, however, and since they had to do everything in secret, Tazinger had been unable to keep up with the demand. Borkal requested Claude to send them a shipment of supplies to relieve their shortage so the training could continue.
Claude massaged his temples, feeling another headache threatening. This was derailing his plans again. The youths were supposed to source their supplies themselves, but that plan had gone down the drain almost immediately. Claude considered his options for a while, fighting back the headache that throbbed behind his eyes, then rang the bell.
Masonhughes came in a few moments later and Claude had him summon Councillor Anderclost Leigh Joist.
Anderclost was the driving force behind this current initiative. He'd been the one who'd forced through the decision to go to war against the colonies in response to the embargo. He had not originally been Leigh Joist, but he'd taken his middle name when he was made a hereditary baron. He owned 17 manufacturies, all producing daily necessities, and heavily reliant on the colonial market, which meant the embargo struck him the worst of all the councillors.
Anderclost arrived about an hour later. He was quite curious to know why he'd been summoned. The two had met on a couple official occasions, but they were only barely acquaintances.
"I trust you know to keep what is about to be discussed in absolute confidence. I'll hold you personally responsible if a single word of this leaves this room," Claude said, skipping the pleasantries.
Anderclost opened his mouth, but Claude waved it shut again. He waved him over to the map and briefed him on Operation Wildfire.
"We have a secret path into Moloshik by land. You can use it for your smuggling operations, but you must help us move some supplies. It's not that we can't move the supplies on our own, but it would be best if the army's name wasn't tied to it, should it be caught.
"If you're caught with the stuff, it won't affect our operation, but if we're caught, it'll start war before we're ready."
"Enough said, Lord Militant, I'll do it! Let me take care of it!" Anderclost exclaimed, slapping his chest enthusiastically.