Lord Aldrich Moltke takes a sip from his wine and scans the room. Much of Rolgaran nobility is here, those both important enough to be invited and not important enough to have anything of value to do. He sniffs disapprovingly.
The wealth on display is significant, but ultimately tasteless. The construction itself was of finely made, but subtle melding of marble and wood, befitting the tastes of its previous owners. But the adornments. Tapestries done in gold threads, urns in expensive metals, so studded with gems it was difficult to tell precisely what kind, and the food. He sniffs again. All imports, with not a traditional Rolgaran dish to be seen.
What is it the Caulvins call it? Nouveau riche? We should never have allowed the merchants to amass such wealth, no matter their contributions to the war efforts.
He politely takes a nibble of some kind of meat, covered in indecipherable spices. Despite himself he lets out a soft grunt in appreciation.
Well, I can’t say it’s all bad I suppose.
He feels a slight touch at his elbow as a passing acquaintance tries to catch his attention. She was wearing a fetching, if simple violet dress. It seemed to him it was almost out of place in the present company, even if the craftsmanship was exquisite. What was her name? Therese? One of the lesser houses I believe.
She begins speaking before he can quite recall. “Lord Moltke! What a surprise to see you here. You’re almost never in the capital!”
“Yes, I had the great…fortune to be away from the front when Mr. Gossler’s invitations went out. He’s certainly gathered quite a collection of the young nobility here, hasn’t he? Looking around I sometimes feel I’m the only one here who can even grow whiskers!” he says, forcing out a booming laugh. To his sometime regret, he’d cultivated a reputation as a loud, boisterous reveler at a similar soiree some thirty years prior, and shaking it would likely entail burning some bridges he couldn’t afford to. And so, appearances must be kept, even if his taste for fine food and alcohol had quite faded with a chronic case of the gout he’d suffered with for years.
His new companion throws back her head and laughs in kind, blonde hair flinging backward and almost escaping from its loose braid. She catches some scandalized looks from the other women around her, but if she notices them, she doesn’t deign to acknowledge their presence.
Still chuckling, she agrees. “There’s barely any real men among this group, it’s true. I’ve known most of them since I could barely walk and some of them haven’t changed a bit since!”
In a flash it comes back to him. Ah, the Wattenburg girl. I’d heard she was eccentric, but it hadn’t come across the last time we met.
“You bear no fondness for your peers, I take it?” he says diplomatically, though inwardly agrees with her assessment. Most of the young lords and ladies here came for nothing more than to get drunk on others’ wine and trade idle gossip. Certainly they might couch it in terms of ‘making connections’, but none her head any grand designs, or even particularly petty ones at that.
Aldrich feels a frown creeping its way onto his face again but stops before it makes him look more than mildly constipated.
“By your face you share my assessment, even if you will not do me the courtesy of agreeing openly.” Therese says, though more quietly. A flash of annoyance cuts through him, but he throttles it. He still remembers the zeal of youth, and the girl was barely sixteen, if that. Instead, he moves to gently admonish her.
“Speaking your mind is all well and good my dear, but know the time, place, and purpose. Quite honestly you’ve given me little indication you’re any different than your peers, save that you wear your opinions on your chest rather than keep them to yourself, as politeness dictates.”
She looks disappointed.
“I thought you might understand a little better. The way everyone talks you’re ‘no nonsense’ and ‘a real patriot’. Who cares about being polite to people like this?” she says, gesturing at the room. ‘They’ve never done anything for this country and probably never will. Except letting people like Gossler get fatter and fatter.”
“Not that I don’t agree with you, to a point,” he replies, keeping his voice low even as her own rises a bit once more “But you have to know how to play the game to accomplish anything. And not to put too fine a point on things, but again, what are you doing differently?”
She lights up, as if just waiting for this opportunity.
“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. My father says you’ve got a lot of pull in the army for a Major. I wanted…” she trails off, looking uncharacteristically subdued for a moment before rallying. “I want to join your company!” she declares proudly.
Aldrich is taken aback, expecting almost anything else to come out of her mouth. It takes him a moment to find a response. “I-“ he begins, before finding himself cut off.
“You? Join the army. You’re insane, Therese. Not that that’s any shock.” One of the ladies nearest her pipes up, putting on her best sneer. “Though if the rumors I’ve heard are any indication, spending your time surrounded by a bunch of-“
“Stop talking now, before you say something you’ll regret, Miss.” Aldrich interjects, finding his footing again. “I’ll not have you impugning the honor of one of your fellow ladies, nor the honor of the men under my command, for that matter.”
She turns the sneer on him, opening her mouth to reply, before a man -presumably her date for the event- puts his hand on her shoulder.
“Leave them my dear, it’s not worth it. Let’s go dance, the band is about to strike up again.”
Aldrich puts his hand to his head and indulges in a small sigh. This whole ordeal was always expected to be a headache, but not to this extent, and certainly not before he was inevitably drawn into conversation with Gossler.
“Your desire to serve this country is commendable Miss Wattenburg, but you know as well as I do that is impossible. The army is no place for a woman, much less a young lady like yourself.”
She bristles. “And who decided that?”
He is saved from having to respond for a moment by another interruption. “Champagne, my lord and lady?” a soft voice offers. Aldrich looks down to find the source, another frown coming to his face. Aldrich had seen several similar servants running around Gossler’s mansion. Sallow skin and slanted eyes marked them all as Daluni. This one was even shorter than his kind’s already short stature, and younger than the others he’d seen serving the guests. His bare fuzz of brown hair also marked him as out of the ordinary. He must be fresh from his homeland.
Aldrich feels a mixture of disgust and disappointment looking at the boy; he represented everything wrong with Gossler’s kind. Unchecked wealth, completely unconcerned with the common good. The expense of importing Daluni as servants was exorbitant, and actively took food out of the mouths of Rolgarans who would jump at the chance to serve at these events. The boy was as much of a trophy as all of the other gaudy accoutrements of Gossler’s estate.
Nevertheless, there was nothing he could do about it but take a glass and send the boy on his way. He gave Aldrich a short, fluid bow and took the Major’s nod as dismissal.
“Well?” a frustrated Therese demands, having barely taken notice of the servant.
“You know as well as I do that no one person decides these things Therese.” Aldrich sighs. “The closest is the king, and you overestimate me if you believe I have his ear, much less to the extent of convincing him that overthrowing the natural order of things is to the best interests of our nation.”
She bristles again, breathing deep as though about to launch into a tirade, but is again interrupted before she can even start as the band suddenly increases in both tempo and volume.
Our illustrious host has arrived, it seems. The Major thinks to himself sourly. He’d have a hundred conversations with idealistic, if misguided young people to stave off meeting the slug hosting this party, but it seemed the hour would soon draw nigh.
Gossler entered, descending the stairs at the head of the room. He showed more taste in the dressing of himself than his abode, but only slightly. If the golden threads trimming eye searing brightly died silks of many colors draping him didn’t speak to his obscene wealth on their own, the sheer amount of them required to cover his equally obscene bulk would cover any gap.
He opened his arms wide once descending the staircase, either pausing for effect or to subtly catch his breath, Aldrich wasn’t sure. Perhaps both.
After a moment, he speaks. “Welcome, friends, to my humble abode. I trust you’ve all been enjoying yourselves?” to that, a chorus of affirmation and raised glasses greet him, smiles real and feigned plastered on nearly every face. Aldrich didn’t bother; his dislike of Gossler was well known to the man and hadn’t stopped him from bother the Major yet.
“Dreadfully sorry I couldn’t make it here earlier. I would like nothing better than to spend every waking hour with such distinguished company, but alas, it feels as though there is never an end to the work to be done.”
A chorus of indistinguishable commiserations erupts at this. From a room full of people who’ve never done a day of work in their life. Aldrich thinks to himself. Begrudgingly, he must also admit that despite all of Gossler’s flaws, the man was no shirker. He likely was tied up in some business until just moments before. Reportedly the man slept barely four hours a day and worked almost every waking minute when he wasn’t attending one of these parties.
Gossler makes a show of scanning the crowd and Aldrich nearly winces. Despite almost certainly spotting him instantly with the way the Major’s stature stood out in this crowd, he does several sweeps before his eyes settle on Aldrich in mock surprise.
“Ah, and there he is! Our guest of honor!”
At this another round of applause breaks out, though it is decidedly lukewarm.
“Welcome, Major Moltke. It is always an honor to have you grace us with your presence. But, I have kept you lords and ladies from your revelry too long. Back to it, with my blessing!” he calls, clapping his hands. The band resumes their more sedate musical style, and after a moment the dancing resumes.
Gossler himself moves swiftly through the crowd, graceful despite his size. In a distressingly short amount of time he is before Aldrich, and Therese has made herself scarce in the kerfuffle. Finding himself without an excuse to put it off any longer, Aldrich addresses his host reluctantly.
“Greetings, Mr. Gossler. And thank you for your warm welcome. Though it is hardly necessary to single me out. I’ve never been much for people fawning over me.”
Not that any in this crowd would, unless they wanted something from me.
Gossler waves a meaty hand. “Nonsense, Major. A soldier, nay, war hero such as yourself deserves such a welcome, and more.”
Aldrich grimaces but doesn’t respond.
“You know as well as I do that I was just doing my duty.”
“Perhaps, but sometimes that’s all one needs to do, and more than many would. People might go on about the value of duty, honor, and all of those other pretty values, but few actually live up to them.”
Privately Aldrich agrees, though he’d never admit it to the man. But he also wasn’t one to upsell himself on something he would have done regardless of the circumstances.
“Now, I do hope you’ve enjoyed yourself, but I was hoping we’d have a little time to chat about a certain business opportunity I’d like your involvement with.”
Aldrich is visibly surprised at this announcement. Gossler often invited him to these events, but never for anything substantial. Usually he only had to suffer through a short public discussion with the man and his being paraded around like a prize for a moment, and then he was free to leave these interminable parties.
As much as he dislikes the idea of spending time alone with the man, Aldrich has little choice but to agree.
“I would be…happy to, Mr. Gossler.” He reluctantly agrees.
“Excellent. I’ll have you brought to one of my private chambers in just a moment. I’ll send one of the servants to fetch you once I’ve dispensed with the requisite meeting and greeting of the other attendees.”
To Aldrich’s temporary relief he bustles off, and Therese likewise never reappears, though he’s sure he’ll run into her again eventually.
Just as Aldrich is starting to get even more bored than before Therese showed up, the young Daluni boy from earlier appears. Or at least, Aldrich is fairly certain he is.
“Master Gossler will see you now. Please follow me.” he says in subdued tones.
Aldrich nods. “Lead on, then.”
The boy obeys, gliding off. Aldrich frowns at the sight. Something about the way he walks niggles at Aldrich’s brain, as though it were familiar in some way but he couldn’t quite place it.
Aldrich doesn’t have much time to ponder it before the boy stands in front of a door, opening it outward for Aldrich to enter. The Major puts it out of his head for now. Whatever Gossler has to talk about is likely more important than a Daluni servant’s strange gait.
Gossler himself sits in a comfortable armchair in a surprisingly appointed sitting room. The air is cozy, with a fireplace burning lightly to the north of the room. The room itself is out of sorts with the way Gossler usually presents himself, the man’s current garb clashing with the subdued, refined atmosphere of the sitting room.
“Come now, don’t look so shocked, Major. I can’t have all my rooms appointed the same way I arrange them to amuse the children outside.”
“Quite frankly, Mr. Gossler, I had assumed the décor outside matched your own tastes.”
The merchant frowns. “I knew you held a dislike for me, but I’d thought you a more discerning man than that. Appearances are important, but I didn’t think I’d cultivated that one so well it would fool a man with more worldliness than my usual guest.”
He shakes his head. “No matter. Hopefully we can put that past us, as I do truly have something important to speak with you about.”
“And what is that?” Aldrich asks, though he’s half-figured the answer by now. Gossler was a war profiteer; a weapons merchant most commonly, but a procurer and purveyor of everything the military needed to keep running. There was little he’d want of an army officer other than to make a deal about some kind of weapons transaction, the only question was…what, exactly, he could be peddling that the army needed?
“You should know by now that I am a very rich man, Major Moltke…or may I call you Aldrich, to speed things up?”
“You may, if you have anything more to offer besides self-aggrandizement.” Aldrich says, a bit annoyed at the man’s stating of the obvious.
“Yes, of course. My point is that when you have as much money as I do, you need something to do with it. Once you’ve bought all the things you want, money that is left lying around is just valueless. Some find creative ways to waste their money, and others invest. In people, enterprises, ideas, you name it.”
“I am an investor, Aldrich, and I dabble in all three. In this case I come to you bearing the fruits of an idea: the results of years of research and painstaking refinement.”
“What would you say if I offered your company the honor of being on the cutting edge of military technology, going places no soldier has ever been able to go?”
Aldrich is intrigued, and doesn’t bother to hide it, but does his best to sound skeptical. “It sounds like something too good to be true, Mr. Gossler. And even if it were, you know I’d have to get special dispensation from the Lieutenant Colonel, or even the Brig for such a deal. Why not approach them directly?”
Gossler gives Aldrich an exasperated look. “We can dispense with the false modesty, Major. No one important is around to hear you underplay your influence. You and I both know that a recommendation from you is enough to sway most of the army’s hierarchy, even after your demotion. Your authority is diminished on paper, but barely so in practice.”
Aldrich gives him a wry look, but doesn’t challenge him. It was true enough that he was still trusted implicitly, even if his explicit commands no longer held the weight they’d had before his ‘war heroics’.
“Fine, let’s hear it then. What are you offering, Mr. Gossler?”
“Simply put, Major, I’m offering your company the ability to strike anywhere, at any time, without threat of retaliation.”
“And how exactly do you expect to accomplish that?” Aldrich asks, growing irritated at the beating around the bush.
“I’ll give your men the ability to take to the skies.” The merchant says with a smile.
Pingback: 1.15 | Orphans
Our first non-Xu viewpoint chapter, which was a difficult but fun write. Hopefully gives a bit more of a glimpse into Rolgar’s current sociopolitical state, which will be important going forward.
The now obligatory vote link is here, and as always I appreciate comments. Particularly any criticisms on this chapter and if it’s too jarring a shift from the previous. It went through a few revisions, and started as a continuation of the last chapter (which really didn’t work for me), morphed into an Epilogue, and now occupies a weird state in my head as a combination of an Epilogue for Book 1, and Prologue for Book 2.