Chapter 73. Negotiations Begin
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So... Let's see what do we have. On one hand, dad and Abe and van der Klaases who probably have some idea who Klaus is, but not about our personal altercations. On other, Hiram, Alphonse and Klaus himself are aware that I ripped his head off, but all of them are keenly aware the circumstances of this incident are not in their favor. Admittedly, I have no idea which way Alphonse will jump. Hiram had not been aware of Klaus being back among the living - he acts well, but the physiological expressions of surprise are wholly different thing. Why would crownprince be kept in dark about their own spymaster? Hiram's loyalty is in question? Or there was some sort of miscommunication?

Hm. I wonder if Klaus himself wants to make things public. On one hand, he could arouse sufficient suspicion about me if he were to claim I'm a monster. On other, I've already been cleared by sir Zade before, did plenty of light magic in the Temple with literally hundreds of witnesses and shown propensity for using body morphing in combat. Which is all public knowledge, so Klaus knows it as well. Which, in turn, means he is aware I can laugh off his accusation fairly easily. He might make things stick if he pushes on with "I've been murdered", but he was caught trespassing with slave collar. That's pretty much a guaranteed death if caught by the house owner.

"Good day, your highness, your highness, your excellency, your grace, your grace, monseur van der Klaas, monseur van der Klaas." - he begins, his Albish impeccable this time around - "I have to admit, much to my chagrin, that lady Gillespie is not entirely wrong. The incidents she mentioned had occurred." Alphonse quirks his brow at this ... less then diplomatic admission, but motions him to continue. "However, they are not connected." - he does so, bowing - "Impertinent servant had been paid off by Merchant Guild to try and snoop around in lady Gillespie's papers while she's indisposed. Nothing unexpected, really, any merchant worth their salt would want to know the deal before it happens. Guards are, well... an oversight. They have been told to expect lord and lady Gillespie and presumed that means a lord and his wife, not a lord and his daughter. As for jungherr Falstaff, well... My condolences, lady Gillespie. He is quite an infamous womanizer. Vexing, I readily agree, but hardly malicious."

I peer at him curiously. "You know, I've been told that the reason for mistake among guards was that someone misspelled my name and they interpreted it as someone well known in the court... and consequently, clearly not me." - I offer.

Klaus shakes his head. "A plausible explanation, but I'm afraid a fiction. Captains of the guard are more then a little apt at concocting mollifying stories at the drop of the hat whenever their subordinates fail to exhibit proper manners." - he rebuffs - "Back to the topic at hand, do those explanations satisfy your curiosity, lady Gillespie? Yes, there were several minor faults that ended up coinciding. I can see how you might consider this to be the signs of overarching plan, but honestly, each of them is entirely independent mishap."

"So your advice is not to attribute to malice what could be sufficiently explained by ineptitude and ignorance?" - I drawl. He grins.

"Aptly said, lady Gillespie! Aptly said." - he agrees with a shiteating grin I want to punch in. I don't, but it's sorely sorely tempting. And then he continues - "I have already spoken with guildmaster about the servant, and there should be no more attempts of the sort. They've been properly remonstrated and will present a delegation to tender their apologies after this meeting. Guards had been sent out to patrol the city walls as a reminder to the rest of corps to pay proper attention. As for jungherr Falstaff, my apologies, but there is preciously little that can be done, at least by me."

Hm. Pretty standard politician's fare so far. Pin a part of blame on people I'd be expecting the most from, hide the other part in inconvenient place and phrase it as a punishment being done and flatly disavow the rest while making it look too toxic to touch. I have to admit, Klaus is a dab hand at court politics. Oh well. Nothing left for me but accept graciously and move on. Maybe with a little zinger that reminds Klaus I'm not actually duped by the act one bit. While I mull this over, Alphonse scoffs - "Falstaff? That lech? By all means, lady Gillespie, if you want a duel, I'll sanction one. Boy's long overdue some educational spanking."

"As amusing as it would be, your highness, I did already promise him to leave him be if he returns the favor." - I demur - "Though I give no guarantees for the outcomes if he decides to renege on that. Ah well, I suppose we can consider the matter closed. For good, hopefully, for now if there is another incident in the brewing." Klaus makes no expression as I say that, but something about him shifts at the mention of fourth cockup. Good to see, that. Exchanging glances with Abe and dad, I can see both of them nodding. Next phase. For a reason I'm not entirely sure of, Abraham insisted I should be the one who formally announces the initial gifting. At my request, the footmen bring in the crates unloaded from the ship just a little while ago. I didn't want Klaus or someone else getting too curious about the contents and left them on ship until the last possible minute.

"Finally." - Alphonse offers with a grin - "I've been trying to guess just what is that you brought the whole time." He leans forward... and then blinks when I rip the lid off the closest lid. As it so happens, this is the crate containing the hundred spearheads. It takes him and Klaus but a moment to peer in. Klaus tilts his head, looking like a stork that was fishing for a bug and caught a whole eel by accident. Alphonse merely looks surprised and giddy.

"A hundred spearheads forged out of ripple steel. A present." - I offer simply, as I rip the lid off the second crate - "Two thousands of arrowheads forged out of ripple steel. Also a present. Along with four more crates of the same. That should serve well as a strategic reserve." Alphonse nods quickly, his hands rubbing together in barely restrained glee. Ok, this is... a little more expressive then I expected. A show? Or he genuinely is that pleased about having a little something-something stashed away in case of neighbors getting cute? Hmmm.

"That's... more then a little generous, lady Gillespie." - Klaus offers dubiously from his spot behind the chair Alphonse is sitting on - "You must have emptied the storehouses of your county entirely to prepare this many."

Rory scoffs at the very idea, retorting - "Think again, lad. This here is but a three weeks effort." I.. would have shushed him if I had an idea he would pipe up so suddenly. Oh well. Given the moment of startlement on dad's and Abe's faces, they also had this very thought. Really, we kinda dropped the ball here. Abe, dad, Mihel? All quite used to negotiations by the dint of experience. Me and Marceu? Had a lot of education and some experience of our own. Rory, on the other hand, has only his lifetime of being blacksmith to call upon. Obviously he had no idea what should be put forth and what should be held back.

Klaus smirks. That's a point to him, yes. I wonder just how far he can press this advantage, though. "Truly? Only three weeks? Well, be that as it may, it is hard to imagine such a pace to be sustainable." - he ripostes - "Even the most dedicated dwarf can not work around the clock, after all."

"Ye'd think so, lad." - Rory rasps back at him - "Fortunately fer us, lady Gillespie is just as brilliant at organizin' things as she is in makin' new 'uns." Oh. Wow. He did manage to leave the things as vague generalities this time. Way to go, Rory.

"We're pursuing a policy of labor divergence in this matter." - I step in quickly to prevent Klaus from baiting Rory into exposing anything actually valuable - "As the vast majority of dwarven survivors are apt at stonecutting, mining or forging, we have arranged things to let all of them do just that. Gillespie county has more then enough farms and farmers to produce enough food for dwarves in addition to other populace, and letting all of the dwarves concentrate on the crafts they are experts in permits to set a very generous production pace."

"Labor... divergence?" - Alphonse repeats slowly - "Oh, I see. Setting aside a food surplus so that craftsmen could buy their food for cheap?"

"Nnnnot quite, your highness." - I reply - "You underestimate the magnitude of decimation dwarves underwent. Eruption of Red Mountain was just the start of problems, fugitives have... diminished prospects at finding good life, let's put it like this. At the moment, if I expected of dwarves to sustain themselves with farming or buy at the market prices, we wouldn't be discussing any trade deals today, because there wouldn't be anything worth trading yet. We allocate the necessary food and textiles and assorted sundries in order to allow dwarves themselves to concentrate every effort on rebuilding. It is due to this policy there is a surplus of iron today sufficient to entertain trading agreements."

Rory coughs from his chair - "Aye. T'is not the usual ways, but lady Gillespie here had some good arguments fer doin' it this way. Iffen mah kin started with the gardens and legume plots, we'd not last the winter gathered laike this, far too many of us woulda be stuck in the cold with nuthin' but tents. Thankfully, it be not like this now, we have plenty of stone and metal ta sell and build. More'n'ough ta repay the support."

Alphonse is... ambivalent, I can see. He clearly thinks the returns on my method shouldn't be all that different from what he suggested. Whatever, there's a reason why Champagne got the dwarves, not Kraut. Not giving him time to start waxing poetics on this lest someone says something, ah.. unnecessary, I pass over the papers regarding the initial offer on metals. "This is the amount of iron ingots, regular steel and ripple steel that we feel confident about delivering, and the asking price for it." - I tell him - "The prices in the listing are calculated on assumption the metal will be ferried on the ships through the Icy Ocean. Obviously, this is only viable in summer."

He frowns, looking over the paper. "It's... not as bad as we had feared, but.. still too much." - he muses - "We are interested in buying ripple steel obviously, but regular steel and iron are just not worth the effort of moving them through northern seas. But, I seem to remember there was a second part to this deal?"

Abe nods - "Indeed, and should we come to an agreement on this, the options for trading should expand significantly. But, first things first. I have requested of you to carry out the scouting of western end of Ashenvale, while we ourselves surveyed eastern half. What news? On our end, situation looks promising. The old tract is buried under the ash, but the layer is only knee-deep or less across the whole length of the road up to the Well-met Hill. It should be feasible to clear off the ash and repave the road using tar up to that hill. Past it..."

Klaus steps up again. "The situation is a little worse on our end, I'm afraid." - he offers smoothly - "While for the most part the old tract is barely dusted, the pass at Great Gate is entirely buried in ash. My scouts were able to circumvent the area by using mountain trails across the southern cliffs, but that path is not feasible for wagons. With some effort, it might be made passable to the horseback caravans, but it would still be treacherous and complicated road to take. Certainly not good for masses of goods like iron ingots or grain. The pass itself can not be crossed - ash is not unlike quicksands out there. I lost two men trying to feel out a path through with the poles and their findings were pitiful. Anyone descending into the pass will start coughing, then lose vision, then slip and sink into the ashes, if they were foolish enough not to turn back after the first or second misfortune. Once you are down in the ashes, it is the end. The second of my men had the foresight to tie a rope around his waist, but even so, while he was still alive when his comrades pulled him out of ash, he began coughing blood and expired overnight. Healer couldn't do anything useful for him."

"Healer wouldn't." - I interject absentmindedly, as I mull over the problem - "You need an air magic for that. Ash's an abrasive, it scours the lungs from inside if you inhale it. The only way to cure that is to pull all the ash out of the lungs with air currents first, and only then try to heal."

...Why does EVERYONE look like they just had a "take a note, this is very important" moment? Nevermind, whatever.

"I think I might have an answer to this problem, but in order to say for sure, I will need to survey the area personally. There are certain measurements I would need to take to be sure." - I offer - "Other then Great Gate pass, the rest of tract is passable, right? Well, this is not as bad as I was worried about."

"And suppose you come out there and find there is no good way to deal with the situation?" - Alphonse offers wryly - "What then? The deal's off?"

Abe shakes his head - "No, we discussed this. Even if Ashenvale is not traversible right now, we still offer instruction and assistance in training your own road layers, provided you commit to repaving highways like I did."

"Oh? That's quite neighborly of you, cousin, but why would you go to such pains for us?" - Alphonse inquires, his brow quirked - "What's your gesheft in this?"

"The best outcome is reopening of Ashenvale tract, obviously. If it's not an option, then I will settle for sorting out Southern Coastal tract. It might not be convenient enough to ensure the northern provinces can trade with each other, but at the very least the souths of our countries would have a route. I'm confident tar roads will improve the turnabout and profits, I'm already seeing a rise in trade between towns within Champagne along the highways." - Abe offers - "At the very least, if I can not buy Berlinger lager, I will have Zirich marzipan on the market."

Alphonse tilts his head. "Huh. So... The plan is to improve roads in any case, regardless of if Ashenvale can be passed or not?" - he drawls - "Very well. We the king of Kraut and the kingdom of Kraut do hereby accept this deal provisionally. We ask of lady Gillespie to examine the pass of Great Gate and report if it is feasible to reopen it in some way to permit wagon traffic through the area, and if not, if the mountain trails Klaus mentioned are suitable to be expanded for horseback caravans. Regardless of Ashenvale conditions, we do hereby commit a hundred laborers for the instruction and training on creating tar roads and accept the obligation to repave the highways connecting Berlinger, Lipzig, Nornburg and Zirich so that Kraut kingdom may enjoy the swift passage of goods and people from north to south and vice-versa. The Southern Coastal tract will be repaved jointly. Kraut kingdom shall oversee the western half of the tract till the half-way point between Nisa and Genia. Should Ashenvale be deemed passable, Kraut kingdom commits an additional hundred of laborers to the cause."

He pauses, draws breath and continues - "We would like to request that for the whole of Ashenvale construction, should it be undertaken, both Champagne and Kraut laborers are to be overseen by lady Gillespie as the instigator of this endeavor."

No pressure, huh?