The atmosphere at the docks was quite merry, with military bands, honour guards, spectators, coloured flags and red carpets all over. The naval officers, local officials and the prime minister had been waiting for long. The welcome was surprisingly grand, which perplexed Claude somewhat.
Claude recognised the smiling prime minister; he had to get to know the old fox well. The man was the iron pillar of the king and had his deep trust. However, Claude caused quite a lot of trouble for the king and queen back then by marching his troops to the royal capital. It was thanks to the mediation of the prime minister that the matter deescalated on both sides. Claude should've been considered a person the royal family was wary and careful of, so what was the old fox trying to do by welcoming him in such a capacity?
Even so, the superficial pleasantries had to be played out. Claude disembarked from the ship and gave Blancarte a warm hug as if they were old friends who hadn't met for decades. After that, he surveyed the honour guard, greeted the naval officers and local officials, and gave a speech to the spectators with pointless platitudes praising the king before it all ended.
What came after was the official ceremony to hand the ironclad warships over. That was the third batch of six ships, and also the last batch. They had already given the kingdom six ironclad destroyers and four ironclad transport vessels before. This transaction marked the fulfilment of the arms deal between the kingdom and the region.
Those six ships had been completely overhauled by the region and covered in a new coat of paint. The ships of the region were black and grey, whereas the warships handed to the kingdom were painted in a beautiful bright silver, much to the naval officials' satisfaction. Upon entering the cabin, one would notice the exquisite cherry wood that lined the cabins. It was completely unlike the painted metal cabins of the region's ships.
"Why are your ship cannons different from ours?" Blancarte asked when he was on board for a check. The ship cannons of the six ships the kingdom received were clearly different from those of the region's. The region's cannons were completely encased whereas the kingdom's were heavy cannons that had their barrels half exposed.
"This is a requirement from your ministry of the navy. If you use the same cannons we do, you'll have to buy ammunition from us. That's why your side came to the decision to use these old cannons. At the very least, you'll be able to ensure your own supply of ammunition. After you improve your cannons, you'll also be able to switch them out to newer ones."
There were many things left unsaid, such as how one of the four ships in the first batch was disassembled by the kingdom's shipyards the moment it was handed over for the designers to draw up blueprints. It was said the kingdom had already captured four to five informants from other nations with copied designs. Some noble officers in the navy were also involved in the matter and suffered the king's wrath.
While Claude gave a pleasant-sounding excuse, his true words were left implied but unsaid. The iron warships could be handed to the kingdom, but not their new cannons. All of them were removed and the kingdom's heavy cannons were installed on them instead. Initially, the ministry of the navy objected to that change, but when Moriad told them they would have to buy ammunition from the region at the price of ten crowns per round for those new cannons, they immediately changed their minds.
The region's own first batch of ironclad warships used the same old cannons anyway, and the arms deal didn't specify that the new cannons had to be used, so the region didn't let that chance slip by. Once they showed the original blueprints of the ironclad warships to the kingdom and told them the new cannons were installed later, and that they would have to be bought with a few fortunes, the ministry of the navy became terrified of the price tag.
It would take around a hundred shots for a qualified cannoneer to be trained. With each ship having more than ten cannons, the cost of training cannoneers alone was enough to make their heads hurt. In the end, they decided to keep their old cannons.
That was all Blancarte commented on before the handover ceremony was concluded. The trained naval officers of the kingdom took over those six ships and flew the flag of Aueras bearing the mark of the Stellin royal family and the flag of their navy, officially marking the transfer of ownership. The crowd on shore cheered and waved the little flags and handkerchiefs in their hands at the ships.
"Lord Militant, let's get on the carriage. I'll take you somewhere," Blancarte said, waving Claude towards his carriage.
Claude entered the carriage and Fachselin got to the driver's seat beside the coachman. Gum and his band of mounted guards rode beside the carriage on both flanks.
The carriage rumbled across the cobblestone ground. Claude enjoyed the view through the windows. Unlike the rubble back then, he saw a rebuilt Whitestag. Those little wooden structures he saw back then were replaced with two to three rows of newly built buildings and shops. They were clean and beautiful, reminiscent of Whitestag's old facade.
"Do you want a cup of wine?" Blancarte offered as he pulled out a bottle and two silver cups.
"Thanks, but I'm not thirsty. Where are we going?"
"Your house. His Majesty had it built for you and sent three famous architects to work on it over a year. Construction just wrapped up before you came back. It really is a wonderful coincidence."
"My house?" Claude sounded rather surprised.
The first thing that occurred to him was the familiar red-bricked mansion. However, wasn't it destroyed during the civil war? Claude recalled coming to Whitestag to clean Morssen's grave a few years back and the building was no longer standing by then. The bombardments during the civil war felled the building and most of its materials were used to build temporary shelters by the refugees.
Claude had wanted to rebuild it, but Whitestag was in ruins back then and manpower was in short supply. They couldn't even find qualified builders. So, he gave up on the notion and returned to the region.
Right now, he was reminded by Svenson's report to him. During the 9th month two years back, Kefnie and Madam Ferd returned to Whitestag and sued Queen Christie to reclaim the part of the woodlands of the Ferds that was absorbed into the queen's estate of Normanley Wood. In the end, Fredrey I himself showed up and offered them a mansion in the royal capital as well as a manor in the outskirts of the royal capital in exchange for the rights to the absorbed land, resolving the matter out of court.
Claude rubbed his temples and found that there were too many things he hadn't dealt with to the point he had forgotten that Svenson didn't bring up the red-bricked mansion at all. All he recalled was that his father was posthumously given an honorary viscount Title by the king, which touched his mother greatly and caused her to move to the royal capital with Kefnie and his two children.
Claude slapped his forehead again. The latest news concerning his mother and wife came two months ago. Apparently, they had fought and separated for some reason. His mother now lived in the mansion whereas Kefnie moved to the manor in the outskirts. Svenson, Kester, the guards and the old servants followed Kefnie to the manor, leaving Madam Ferd alone to her own devices.
Having been troubled with so many matters in the region, Claude didn't really bother with that report. All he seemed to know was the conflict seemed to stem from the 30 percent of shares from the tobacco factory. It seemed like his mother was spending too much and wanted Kefnie to transfer those shares to her, which Kefnie refused. In the end, they fought and split on bad terms.
"You should go to the royal capital for a visit," Blancarte said, reading Claude's mind, "The fight between your mother and wife seemed rather serious. It's a hot topic in the royal capital now. You know the city folk and their penchant for gossip. Had it not been for His Majesty interfering, your wife and children might've been chased out of the manor by your mother."
"Huh?" Claude felt a headache welling up. "Why did they fight, in front of the king no less?"
"As prime minister, it is not my place to gossip about the family matters of nobles," Blancarte said in a serious tone, "Just send someone to the royal capital and you'll find out. Oh, you have an elder brother, right? He returned to your mother..."
Arbeit? He had been gone for who knows how long, so where did he pop up from? Claude was under the impression that his useless elder brother had died. Back when his father committed suicide, that fellow got a prostitute to hand him a signed statement that proved his giving up on the family inheritance before vanishing without a trace. His mother brought him up from time to time in tears when she was still living in the region, not knowing whether he was alive or not.
Basically, Claude and his siblings didn't miss him at all and treated him as if he were dead. Arbeit was far from the model elder brother to them and saw his siblings as pains in the arse who would fight him for their father's inheritance. Yet, when something befell their father, he scooted and never returned home since. And when their father committed suicide, he disappeared from Whitestag altogether.
The carriage stopped and Fachselin opened the carriage door. Claude stopped the troubling thoughts in his head and disembarked, the grand mansion immediately catching his eye.
They were at the original site of the red-bricked mansion. However, it looked completely different, being much larger than before. It almost seemed like a palace building. It had four storeys and five towers stretching tall, along with a grand, white facade supported by a row of white pillars and more than ten balconies. There was a garage in front of the main entrance and a fountain built in the middle of the courtyard. Neatly trimmed patches of grass dotted the courtyard.
It was so huge that it seemed to have taken the land of other neighbouring buildings from back then. Claude looked at the blocky grass patches and tried to recall how the whole street looked like back then.
"Look, isn't it quite similar to how it looked back then?" Blancarte said, "Naturally, we couldn't completely recreate your home, but we did our best to restore what we could so that you'll be reminded of your childhood here."
Claude smiled awkwardly. "I am really grateful for His Majesty's thoughtful gift and your efforts, Prime Minister. However, my old house is built with Hogg-style architecture and doesn't look like a palace at all. My father was but a small bureaucrat in this town back then. Do you think he could've owned such a grand mansion?"
"It can't be... But when our engineers showed your mother the design, she said it looked exactly like that, just a little older..."
"My mother said that?" It immediately clicked in his head. She must've thought that the old mansion was too unbefitting of their current status, so she claimed that it actually looked like the palace instead, not knowing that this insecurity only made it far more laughable.
"Let's go in and take a look," Blancarte offered.
The mansion was indeed beautiful, even more so than the white mansion in Normanley Wood. The hall on the ground floor was wide enough to hold a ball for a hundred guests. The first floor was where the guest rooms were, and the second and third floors were the main residential quarters. The fourth floor, on the other hand, was double the size of the attic Claude used to live in and even equipped with its own bathrooms.
Blancarte said that it took four servants, one gardener, one coachman and two cooks to maintain the mansion, which cost six crowns each month. However, since the butler of the mansion sent the bill to his mother in the royal capital, they hadn't received any reply. The workers of the mansion hadn't been paid in two months.
As the mansion was built by the king's men, the local administration could only pay the bare minimum to maintain the mansion and keep the workers fed. Someone still had to be sent to negotiate the matter of the salary with Claude's mother. After all, such a beautiful mansion would no doubt fall into disrepair with no proper maintenance, and that would be a slight to the king's reputation.
Claude had no choice but to bear the burden. He summoned the butler and told him he would set up an account in the local branch of the overseas bank and deposit 100 crowns there monthly as the salaries and bonuses of the workers. The extra money was to be used to maintain the mansion, and they ought to report to him if they needed more budget for certain reasons. As long as the accounts were clear, there would be no issue.
He then paid them three months' worth of salary and arranged for his subordinates to live in the mansion. Overjoyed, the butler and the other servants gave them the finest treatment. After Claude and Blancarte had a decent meal, they went to the study on the second floor. Fachselin opened two bottles of fine wine for them before leaving the room.
Claude lit a cigar and got straight to the point. "So, I believe that the prime minister of the kingdom wouldn't come all the way to Whitestag to welcome me and be my house guide, nor just inform me about my mother and wife in the royal capital. Give it to me straight. You know I hate going in circles or guessing games."
Blancarte toyed with the cigar Claude tossed him. "Alright. I heard you're here to deal with Shiks. Is that true?"
Darn it... Claude really wanted to curse out loud. The kingdom actually managed to get word of it before he even arrived and sent someone to meet him. Someone in the military administration must've leaked the news. Claude had only told the high-ranking officials of his plan and explained why they had to deal with Shiks. The meeting was classified and nobody beneath the rank of general was allowed to participate.
It was clear that some of the newly promoted generals were loyalists of the kingdom like Bolonik who obeyed their every command. Soon after their meeting concluded, the kingdom got word of it. He even suspected that their whole meeting transcript had been sent there.
He took a deep breath and said, "What? You suspect I'm trying to trick you? Don't worry. I don't intend to deal with the royal capital. I don't have that much ambition and I don't want to be a traitor either. I really did come back to deal with Shiks. It's their fault for not ending the war. The forces of the region are perfectly in their right to attack them."
"We're just curious, not suspicious of you. The ministry of the army's strategists conducted some sand table simulations and believe that there are only two ways you can attack Shiks: by sea or by land. Given that there are two nations separating our land from Shiks', the land route doesn't seem viable. So, the only possibility would be for you to send your troops by sea. They believe you'll send Thundercrash to the Shiksan mainland, but it would be suicide to send one corps alone. That's why His Majesty sent me to advise you to not be so rash."
Claude smiled. "I know full well what I intend to do. In fact, I'm confident about my chances. However, there are still some details I have to refine first. I won't send troops to attack Shiks immediately."