Black Iron's Glory - Chapter 499
Conversation on the Train
"Look at all of this, Teacher. This is what we've done in the last couple of years. The autonomous region is vibrant with life compared to the mainland. We just need to guide it properly and split the fruits of our labour fairly. The people will work hard to better their lives of their own accord if they share in the profits," Claude said to his teacher as the train chugged along.
He'd gone to Port Cobius personally to welcome the countess, his old teacher. They'd gone to Ankanor by coach, and now rode one of the new train lines. She'd been in awe at every turn at the glories of the former colonies. Even the most developed land in the capital felt like mud huts compared to the glories of the new world. The train, especially, had floored her. She'd heard of it, but no story could do the giant huffing, puffing, whistling iron snake justice.
Maria had come on the king's behalf, accompanied by her eldest son, Hertinger, who sat in one corner of the cab dressed in a royal guard captain's uniform. He'd been wearing one of the knockoff revolvers but Gum confiscated it when he boarded the train. The young man wasn't brave enough to put up a fight over it, so he'd handed it over obediently, if unwillingly.
It all happened in front of the countess' eyes, but she could do nothing but sigh. Claude was her son's junior by several years, but the latter was pathetic compared to the former. Had she devoted more time to her children's education, she might have been able to salvage a decent man from the spoilt youth, but it was too late for regrets. At the very least, had she taught him proper manners he could have had blood ties to Claude through his sister and have enjoyed the latter's favour.
She and her former disciple had an honest conversation about the kingdom, or the 'mainland', as she'd heard the people call it, as if the autonomous region was something separate from the kingdom, which she could not deny was the de facto state of affairs, pretend otherwise as everyone might. They discussed at length the reason behind the kingdom's fall from grace. Her former disciple was quite ruthless when discussing the former colonies' self-governance. It was all but a foregone conclusion, an inevitability, as far as he was concerned. Even if the last couple of wars had not happened, if Shiks had not fought with them over the colonies, if the kingdom's war of succession had never happened, and if the Union had not come for the kingdom, the colonies would still have grown more powerful over time and eventually asserted their right to govern themselves.
He did reassure her that, if the king gave them their autonomy without a fight, and didn't try to undermine it, he had little to worry about regarding them pushing for actual independence. The kingdom had lost the people's favour because it had tried to treat them as a farm or a mine, something it could wring dry for its own benefit without considering how it affected the people living there. After the previous war, it had tried to wring them for money and resources to rebuild its economy, and the people had wanted to rise up in rebellion.
If not for the war with Shiks in the colonies, there would have been an open rebellion within the year, and the kingdom might well have lost the colonies entirely. That war had been a blessing in disguise. It had brought in Ranger, and with it Claude and his people. They'd been able to gain a firm hold on the reins of power through their achievements, and were keeping the colonies firmly loyal to the kingdom, though they understood there was no way to keep them under the mainland's foot if they wanted to keep them from demanding complete independence.
They'd tried to keep the colonies happy with their lot, but the war had forced them to develop the local economy and industry to finance and supply the war effort since they were too far from the mainland to rely on them for everything. Not to mention the civil war had broken out and had all but cut them off from any aid that might have been forthcoming had the mainland power structures been intact and fully functioning. What they did get was two million migrants, mostly soldier families.
These families they put to work immediately, and they, alongside the earlier settlers, had built everything the countess could now see on their own. That, coupled with the lack of support they'd gotten from the mainland, and their eventual total victory over Shiks, with a healthy dose of flame fanning by local factions, had convinced the locals they were better off without the kingdom entirely. The colonial government under Claude (effectively, if not nominally) had been forced to make some concessions.
Claude admitted he'd not made the decision in calm consideration. He'd had to make it in the spur of the moment, but only because the mainland had forced his hand. Stellin XI's attempt to purge him and his peers had forced him to break with the mainland immediately and with total effect.
It had actually also been the reason why they'd been able to break with the mainland's government so cleanly. Whilst the independence movement had a lot of steam and power, the loyalist lobby also held considerable sway. The latter had been either silenced or turned by the king's attempted purge and so there'd been no opposition to the move for autonomy.
That all the soldiers' families lived in the colonies was another reason there'd been no pushback. Everyone that might have been in a position to resist, were on Claude's side. The colonies were more home than the mainland. Their livelihoods and families were there, they'd fought and bled to protect the land and the people, and they'd built it into a flourishing paradise from a desolate wasteland.
Claude was also clear that there was no chance the region was ever going to renounce its autonomy. Life had only gotten better since they'd become autonomous, whilst the mainland had become the wasteland the colonies had been before their arrival. No one wanted to return to the days before the war.
The biggest issue was that the current king had declared them all traitors. That was simply not true. The former colonies had made no move for independence. They'd only declared their autonomy from the mainland government because they felt it was incapable of properly managing their affairs. They were also more than willing to help the mainland, granted their demands weren't unfair and impossible to reasonably meet.
Maria disagreed. She felt true Auerans would be willing to sacrifice their luxury and fortune to preserve the kingdom. They were committing treason in all but name.
Claude simply smiled resignedly at her. There was no resolving this difference. It stemmed from their different positions in the world. So he simply informed her that as far as the local government was concerned, they'd more than fulfilled their duties to the mainland and the crown. Their donations of food, about a million crowns' worth, 200 thousand old muskets, and old light-infantry cannons, worth about 3 million crowns in all, was more than fair. It was certainly more than the kingdom had ever done for them a dozen times over.
He spoke with her more openly in a personal capacity on some matters than he would in his official capacity. He was quite candid about their financial situation, and why the kingdom was seeing so little of their money. It was mainly, according to him, because the old nobility was pocketing at every turn along the way, leaving the crown with nothing but crumbs.
Especially before Claude had come onto the scene, the old nobility back then purchased about seven tenths of all the resources the colonies produced, at basically cost price, sometimes even less, then marked up the products their family manufactories and processaries produced to ridiculous levels.
Eventually, the old nobility wanted a piece of the raw-resource-production pie as well and used the local prefectural permits to their advantage to fight the new nobility's monopoly, causing a heated conflict between the two factions.
Claude had always thought the new nobility were champions of free-trade ideals, but they were nothing more than another faction of nobles squabbling with the old nobility in trade. Their true goal was a complete monopoly on intercontinental trade, as was apparent from the trade conditions they refused. There wasn't the slightest bit of goodwill at all. The main factor of the kingdom's downfall had a lot to do with this factional conflict.
Had Hansbach taken the throne, Aueras would've remained strong, even if it meant the old nobility's influence would be chipped away. However, the new nobility pushed Wedrick to the throne while the old nobility watched from the sidelines, causing Hansbach to storm off and start the civil war. Claude had no doubt that the civil war was what had ruined the kingdom.
Hansbach's greatest weakness was his self-conceit. He didn't even have a clear target when he marched on the kingdom. He believed he could conquer the kingdom alone, and solve all the problems that popped up along the way, including dealing with the nobility. So, after his conquest of the capital, he purged old and new nobility from his armies, forcing the old nobility to side with Wedrick.
In the end, the clash obliterated both sides and bled the kingdom dry. Hansbach retreated to the new territories after his loss, only to end up assassinated and wiped off the rest of history's pages. Even so, the old nobility didn't feel much better, despite having won the war. The civil war had brought them nothing but losses. After Wedrick ascended as Stellin XI, he favoured the new nobility heavily instead, tossing the old aside.
They soon came to regret their decision. Stellin XI was by no means a wise ruler and was turning into a ruthless despot day after day. The new nobility were getting bolder and bolder like wild dogs. To make up for the losses they suffered during the civil war, they used their roles as debt-collecting ambassadors the king gave them to capture the so-called supporters of the first prince, causing great civil discontent and an ever-debilitating problem of bandits and refugees.
And so, the old nobility decided to stage a coup and make Fredrey I the new Aueran king. While they delayed the coup for a whole year when the region's forces were pillaging the kingdom for industrial equipment and refugees, they eventually made use of Stellin XI's father-in-law, Duke Siegfeld, to send Reddragon to test out Thundercrash's might, only to get the conclusion that they were unbeatable.
Why, then, did the region's ambassadors sent to the kingdom to congratulate the kingdom for the coup's success given such cold reception at the royal capital while they were trying to mend relations? It was simple: the old nobility, now holding all the power, saw the region as traitors. They wanted the glory days of colonial exploitation to come back. It was as if their parents were killed once all that exploitation stopped. They simply couldn't give up on that exorbitant amount of wealth that didn't belong to them in the first place.
Claude asked Maria whether the region was being ridiculous by asking for something so simple. The kingdom was already a continent away, taking half a month to sail from there to the region. Under such circumstances, some level of autonomy was required for smooth promotion, administration, taxation, development and military operations in order for the region to develop. If everything needed to be approved beforehand, policies helpful to the region could be endlessly delayed.
The ambassadors were intentionally trying to cause the region trouble, hence why they ended up deported. They were playing silly word games, thinking they could get away with it. If the region agreed to those terms, they would be no different from normal colonies.
Additionally, official permission for trade to continue with the kingdom didn't make much of a difference. As long as the rights to trade locally and set prices were held in the hands of the new and old nobility, the region would have no say over how much and where their goods could be sold. The ambassadors insisted the region's companies to cooperate with mainland companies and factions as obedient producers of goods only.
Perhaps they thought the region would be thankful for those two conditions, so they demanded a ludicrous additional three million crowns' worth of food and goods, five million crowns' worth of urgent supplies and 1.5 million crowns in taxation and tribute annually.
Claude said he really didn't understand how they saw the seven million citizens of the region. Did they think they were slaves?
The region only agreed to pay a yearly 400 thousand crowns in taxes and tribute just because the immigrants still saw themselves as Auerans and acknowledged the kingdom for being the fatherland of the autonomous region. They maintained a similar foreign policy as the kingdom, considering its enemies their enemies as well without harming the kingdom's interest in the slightest.
Was not being willing to give the old nobility supplies for free and demanding a reasonable price going overboard? The region's miners weren't slaves and had their own families to feed. Their work was properly compensated for. What right did the old nobility have to lay claim to the region's resources? It wasn't even a matter of contributing to the kingdom. Didn't they themselves make profits off the kingdom for producing its weapons?
Incidentally, they also had the gall to demand the designs for the new rifles, 200 thousand already-made rifles, and ammunition! Was the king going to blame the autonomous region if they lost the war?
Did they even understand the implications of such a demand? The rifles alone were easily worth five million crowns, not to mention the munitions! The region had only funded their own arms upgrade with massive debt. They still had two million crowns of debt!
The mainland couldn't care less about them, though. They just wanted money, resources, and arms.
Even Maria was shocked at the rifles' cost. Claude's patient explanation left her speechless. She couldn't help but come around to his side, at least partially.
"Well, I came to ask for your men to come save the kingdom," she said finally.