Chapter 71. Kraut Hospitality
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As far as Abe and Mihel were concerned, I put the issue with cooked books out of mind for now. I did not see any need to disabuse them of that misconception. What actually happened is that I activated all of my instances in every single place I held a legitimate business registered in merchant guild. Each of the places had been shortly visited by "messenger" with a note from me to be on lookout for anyone claiming to be madame Konistan, and if such a person made an appearance, direct them to the backroom and wait further instructions. I'm... going to see who shows up, what they will claim, what the reaction of staff on site would be. A lot of this is annoyingly vague. It might be a naively straightforward grab for cash. It might be something more devious. For example, I wouldn't be surprised if the mysterious madame Konistan attempted to sell off some of the businesses she "owns" to assorted nobles, thus sparking a conflict between me and them. They'd be annoyed their "legitimate" deal is being challenged, and I'd be annoyed someone is trying to lay claim to my business. Which, in turn, would end in one of two ways. Primo, I concede to their demands to keep the peace, and secundo, I spend some of my political capital in order to take the ownership back, stifling the new "owners" in process. The very fact that deal had been conducted by someone not really invested with authority to make it would be secondary at best. A cause for losing party to lean on merchant guild to reimburse their losses, but not much else.

Oh well. Until I get my hands on one or several of the witnesses, nothing more to be done here. Let's see... Oh, yes, Academy. I dutifully update the girls on the situation. So far, so good. The news about forged entries in the guild ledgers prompts some worry, but I deflect that with assurances that all is good. Bridgit demonstrates her bullshit abilities by using me as a "guide" to be present both on the airship and in Academy, much to the delight of other girls. Lily-Anne ventures an idea. A fashion shop. While it has it's merits, I'm unsure if I want to bother. So we come to Solomon's decision - it's going to be Lily-Anne's project. I'll pitch in with the resources and help if necessary, but the ideas, the management and the ownership would be all hers. I'm ashamed to say I realized the true purpose of her suggestion only after agreeing to it - she wanted to make a personal appearance in the merchant guild at my side to rattle whoever made the corrections. I'm not sure how effective it would be, but why not? I am already keeping an eye on all businesses.

Moon Unit appears to be... frazzled, now that I think of it. Questioning her reveals that rumors of her book-copying machine had spread among the students, and she is beset with people vying for her attention because of that. At first, she was having fun with the attention, but right now it's getting nasty. Thankfully, my earlier, ahem, "admonitions" had taken root among the students and no one attempted to get physical with my waifus, but she is starting to see some... less then friendly jostling between the students over her services. As in, a clique massing up to bar everyone else from access. And, what's even more annoying, pretty much any noble wanting to use the thing intends to pay in "favor", which is entirely unstable form of currency. The higher they are on totem pole, while at it, the more firm the belief their attention is all the payment one needs. Last, but not least, there were some disturbing rumblings being made from the offspring of marquises and dukes. Which we have a grand total of five, across all three years in the Academy. Rumblings, of course, are about one of them "poaching" Moon Unit from me, now that she had "proven her worth". It's not going to work, obviously, but the hassle of putting those peeps into place could be... annoying.

In the end, me and Moon Unit visit dame Apricotte, who is in equal measures intrigued and consternated by the issue. She summons the librarian, who is quickly appraised on situation and... shows his restraint is only barely sufficient not to rub his hands in glee. We arrive to a bargain pretty quickly. Academy library will set aside a place for four copy machines to be placed in, a fifth will be installed in librarian's office exclusively for the needs of library, Academy will charge students for service and tithe a cut to Moon Unit in perpetuity. And they DO mean in perpetuity. For as long as Academy exists and owns those machines, Moon Unit or her descendants will receive a tithe from the charged fees. In a way, this is pretty nice, I like the idea of my wives each having their own independent revenue sources that can not be easily cut or targeted by association with me.

Roxolane seems to be very distracted and busy with her research into portals, and... I might be off the mark here, but if my guess is right, she is intentionally pushing herself into her work to avoid thinking about her parents, because unless Ivan had run into some kind of unexpected problems on the road, they should be calling any day now. I did try to ensure he would get back as safely as I can, mind - he has a brand new sabre and a letter of passage from me, which should be pretty influential in Champagne, at least. I did stash a little instance among the things he got, but that one is in deep dormancy, and barring Ivan's lifesigns dipping into critical or a stay in single location for more then a few days, it will remain dormant. Just like the instances in hashishin heads, which are getting pretty ripe. I'm guessing a wounded man with oijan features might have a hard time securing passage on a ship these days.

___

As we near the final approach, a crowd begins to gather. Per earlier negotiations, Hiram was given the location where Alphonse wants the landing. I have to admit, the place is picked pretty well. Not sure what they use this plaza next to palace for, though. Military parades? Fairgrounds? Anyway, by the time I maneuver airship to hover above it, there is a crowd watching, a chain of guards around the landing site keeping the people out of it and a delegation that is obviously there to meet us. Including the king himself, apparently. Alphonse is old, I have to say, he looks the part for his seventy four years. If I recall correctly, the reason for such age disparity is because Alphonse's first wife gave him no children.

Much to my enjoyment, the descent and landing goes off without issue. Abraham obviously leads the way, he's the king, he has to take the first step. Hiram follows him. Me and dad are next, filing off to the left of Abraham. Mihel and Marceu are next and park themselves to the right. Servants bring up the rear. Obviously, there is an instance of me hidden on the ship, and as soon as we're all off, the door closes up and the ship hovers back into the sky, hanging there at about fifty fathoms. Far enough to make it complicated reaching it without me helping, close enough to be seen at all times. Rafiqa is still aboard, per agreement with Hiram, she will be brought to the palace once the crowd disperses. Which means late in the evening, apparently. She's surprisingly content to lounge around there, though. Might have something to do with the fact she has a stack of books to read and a basket of snacks from me.

Abraham and Alphonse exchange greetings which are surprisingly modern in their appearance. I didn't expect them to just have a handshake and say hello to each other. Apparently, Kraut don't stand on ceremony much... Nevermind, here are the fanfares and the announcements. Golly, Abe has a lot of titles... But then again, Hiram isn't a slouch on that either. Now's dad's turn... oh, huh, I almost forgot he actually holds a couple of subordinate viscountcies and baronies himself. And now's my turn... wait, WHAT? Since when I'm the "White Witch of The North"? Good grief, where did this moniker came from? Me and Hiram exchange the befuddled glances, it's obvious he is just as puzzled by it as I am. I, sadly, can't perform the same exchange with Abe, he has to maintain face time with Alphonse. Bother. Bother bother bother bother!

The instance of me on the ship splits. While I leave enough to maintain surveillance and control, the rest of split mass slithers upwards through an airlock into the envelope. Controlling instance shifts things around, flooding this section of envelope with air while dropping pressure in the rest of them to compensate. Then, I start shifting mass to the instance in envelope, and in the same time splitting it into little instances. The "speck of grain" big. Once I have enough to my reckoning, the envelope is depressurized again, venting the mass of me all over the palace and surrounding city. If that's how shit's gonna happen, I have no qualms about instituting total surveillance in Berlinger. The flecks are transparent and almost invisible. Once on the ground, they will gravitate towards each other and away from the light, clump up in dark spaces until they're big enough to shift out some pseudopods, and then secrete themselves into convenient spots for surveillance and eavesdropping.

As we are being directed towards the carriages, I end up sharing one with dad, van der Klaases are in other one, Abe has one all to himself and Hiram rides with his dad. No doubt using the time to report to him on matters Alphonse wants to ask in privacy. Too bad for him I bugged Hiram before we even left Parsee... Well, that is, if I can comprehend their language, that is. It's almost german, which I have some passing familiarity with, but not really, and figuring out anything but the gist is hard. If my guesses are right, Alphonse inquires about me, and Hiram is in turn inquiring about the weird announcement of me. I might be not grasping this one quite right, but it is entirely possible Alphonse himself is in the dark about the reasons for announcing me like this? Weird.

Much to my relief, the ceremony in the field had been mostly it, as far as the ceremony is concerned. Once we reach the castle, everyone is swarmed by servants and taken into separate rooms to "recuperate" after the trip. Largely unnecessary, but that's how people are used to roll. There will be lunch served in-suite for everyone as they desire and generally the morning is set aside solely to be pampered by castle servants. First public appearance is dinner around three o'clock, there will be more of ceremony before it, then after it there will be the discussion we came here for, and it will last until the six in the evening, if needed. The provisions are made for several days of discussion, presumably so that issues that arose in the middle of discussion could be addressed and people back home informed. Not bad, I suppose. Not bad. Hopefully, there are no specific hitches and we will be able to agree on everything within one meeting, but...

On further consideration, after taking in the present amenities in the room, I tell the servants to draw me a bath. On itself, it is not a problem, even though the bath itself is, from my point of view, antique and has comparably antique accommodations. The problem, however, arises once I have the bath filled up. And the problem is overly solicitous servants.

"...but lady! You will surely require assistance..." - we've been at it for a few minutes. I told them to get out, they objected. Oh, they've been impeccably polite, I'll give them that, but for some fucking reason they just can't grasp the idea that I find ONE personal maid to be sufficient help and have no wish to disrobe in front of six strangers who will spend the entirety of bathing standing around.

"For the last time, I have my personal maid who is more then sufficient as far as attending to my bathing goes." - I snap back, getting more irritated by the minute - "Now, look. I've tried to be nice about this, since I'm a guest and all. But you are seriously trying my patience here. So, for the last gods-bedamned time - GET OUT! And do NOT come back until Bridgit comes out to fetch you. I see any of you trying to barge in, and there will be much wailing and gnashing teeth, do you understand?"

By that time, the servants had gotten the hint and cleared out of the room entirely. Except for this one. And... she's going to object again? Ok, this is getting annoying. "Lady, please, be reasona...gurk!" - she begins, cutting off as I grab her by the throat and lift her off the floor. Yep, you've done goofed up, gal. Struggling now is futile. Entertaining, but futile. Bridgit helpfully closes the door securely.

"You're not one of the servants actually." - I muse, squeezing her throat tighter when she tries to gurgle something - "No servant would be quite so brazen. So... You might be hired by one of the nobles from here or Champagne to sabotage me in some way. There are people who stand to lose from this treaty. But, I find it hard to believe they'd entrust something so delicate to a bumbling amateur. Which leaves us with other option. You're one of Klaus' charity cases. Not really apt for fieldwork, but too enthusiastic about spying to fob you off to do something else. You probably thought this is going to be your big break? Sorry to disappoint, but you're the sacrificial goat. Your boss put you here specifically so I'd see a spy and stop looking further. Well, this is not going to work. So, out you go. Tell your boss he's gonna try a lot better then this. Oh, and if I see you in my vicinity once again? I will simply have you whipped like an impertinent servant you so flawlessly imitated. For future reference - if you want to pretend to be a servant successfully, RUN THE FUCK AWAY when you're told to get out. Domestics who disobey direct orders usually find themselves whipped raw and chucked out of estate in short order."

I nod to Bridgit to open the door, walk over to it, set the moronic woman down, turn her around and accelerate her out of the doorway with a nice simple kick to the backside before she regains enough of her wits to mount any kind of ill-conceived objection. Guards turn to me with questioning expressions. "I'm... impressed." - I tell them - "Unpleasantly impressed, but impressed all the same. Not even hour in the castle, and I already have servants trying to get fresh with me. Kindly make sure this particular one does not enter my rooms again, I have low patience for willful stupidity. Oh, and in case you get, ah... confusing orders regarding who gets to visit my rooms, be sure to remind the people talking that I won't hesitate to move back to my airship if I find the hospitality lacking."

The situation leaves me disturbed. This is yet another stupid attempt to raise my ire. There's been too many of those recently. Am I being targeted? Could it be that all of this stupidity is just a smokescreen? Or maybe it's an attempted death of thousand cuts? Bury me under a mountain of petty issues? In either case, who's behind this? A successor to Klaus? As enticing as it would be to blame all that happens on Kraut spy network, it makes no sense. Alphonse wants this deal, he would expressly warn his spymaster from messing with me out of fear I might reconsider. Salaadin trying to mud up the waters for me? Possible, but Oija was never particularly subtle in their approach. They either threaten by military might or assassinate. Political machinations are uncommon fare for southern mentality. Which, I have to say, is ODD for me to think, because I'm used to thinking of arabian-like cultures as cunning, cagy and calculating, not blatantly blunt like oijan culture in this environs seems to be.

Considering this much, I absentmindedly mess with the bath. It's... much more metally massive then it needs to be. Let's see... Lift the water out, levitate the bath, examine the adornments. Heat up, ward off heat, redirect, split off nitrogen, inject the nitrogen into the mix under pressure to foam the brass up, reshape retaining the form and adornments but increasing size and volume, cool, set down, dump the water back in... Conjure additional water at near-scalding temperature to offset the barely lukewarm bathwater, dump in... There we go, nice hot bath. Bridgit shakes head at me and blinks away, returning in a moment with the jar of bath salts I came up with in a spare time. Need to send the recipe to mom sometime, she could use another cosmetics line expansion soonish. My delightful maid shakes out a couple handfuls of the bath salts in and caps the jar, rolling up her sleeves to stir the salts in.

"MMm... Bridgit, I made the bath bigger for a reason." - I remark, as I ooze out of my dress entirely, reforming myself into a naked form next to the bath. She peers at me, blushes, then blinks out of her clothes. Conveniently, right into easy groping distance. What could I do if not grab her by the hips and lift her into the bath, really? Stepping right after her, I sit down, and pat my lap invitingly. She giggles, settling down carefully, her back pressing against my breasts as she leans on me.

"Mistress, are you planning to spoil me all your life?" - she teases, wiggling against me as she settles down.

"Why not? Such a delightful Bridgit, and all mine. Why shouldn't I spoil you to my heart's content, mm?" - I tease back, as I wrap my hands around her midsection and kiss her neck softly - "Mine, all mine."

She draws in a shuddering breath, like she always does when I act possessive towards her and confirms softly - "All yours, mistress."

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