"…and so for completing his muster ahead of all others, Count Sleibnitz wins the right for his regiment to be the First of the Line with all the honors and customs pertaining thereto."
General Count von Raupen-Schlepper put the document down on his desk, picked up his pen and signed it. He refrained from writing with his usual flourish; if anything he had difficulty signing the document at all, such was his annoyance.
He looked at the assembled officers over the tops of his pince-nez, and considered how he should handle the situation. Oberst-Inhaber Count Sleibnitz stood at attention, his cocked hat tucked at a precise angle beneath his left arm. Of middling height, thirty, blond, with chiselled features and piercing blue eyes, the man reminded Raupen-Schlepper of a coiled spring, all blue steel and suppressed energy. His sky-blue uniform was new and immaculate, his bearing soldierly. A trace of a smile hovered around Sleibnitz's lips. Had it been any other man standing before the General Intendant's desk, he would have punched the air and crowed with delight at winning such a prize. As it was, the suppressed energy radiating from the man was all the more unnerving.
It was a marked contrast to Sleibnitz's rival, Oberst-Inhaber Wöhl. A plump, dark little man of fifty or so years old, he bore an air of perpetual worry that had deepened in the time the meeting had progressed. Raupen-Schlepper eyed him with genuine concern. Wöhl's face had turned a distinct puce and his eyes were mere slits in his face.
I'm getting too old for this scheisse! He thought. "Gentlemen," he said aloud, directing his attention to all but Sleibnitz and Wöhl, "I thank you for attending this meeting. May it prove an auspicious one for Hetzenberg arms."
The officers clicked their heels and withdrew, some with obvious reluctance until they were shepherded out by his ADC, Captain Scharf. Raupen-Schlepper knew he wasn't the only one to sense the atmosphere in the room. Rivalries between officers and regiments were nothing new, but that between the Oberst-Inhabers of the new First and Second regiments of the Line promised to be a classic.
Raupen-Schlepper looked at the men. "Colonels, while I have you here in my office, the Großartiger Armeerat has directed me to inquire into the methods of recruiting your regiments."
"I have a number of complaints, General!" Wöhl said, stiffening on cue. "The methods used by my colleague here were devious and underhand!"
"My regiment followed the army guidelines with strict probity," Sleibnitz protested, his expression one of hurt surprise. "Is my colleague implying that I had something to do with his regiment's tardy muster? Not one of my recruiting bands ventured outside their designated areas."
"I'm sure you did have something to do with it all!" Wöhl turned to Raupen-Schlepper. "General, my recruiting sergeants were doing well. I received messages that they had gathered dozens of men ready to march to my depot. They kept within the boundaries of my recruiting area, yet they vanished for weeks before returning empty-handed! They claimed to have been arrested for violating the conscription code by straying into Count Sleibnitz's territory! Each spoke of confusing directions given by local guides, of signposts that had been tampered with. The recruits they'd gathered were marched away to Sleibnitz's depot to swell the ranks of his regiment. I'm certain sabotage lies at the bottom of it all, and that this man is responsible!"
Wöhl's finger quivered with rage as he stabbed it in the air at Sleibnitz. His face had turned from puce to deep purple, and to Raupen-Schelepper's jaundiced eye he looked like a plump outraged Burgermeister who'd discovered his wife was having an affair.
Sleibnitz's reply was calm, even icy. "My recruiting bands did not venture outside their areas…"
"No, but your agents bloody well did!" Wöhl roared.
"What agents?" Sleibnitz glanced from Wöhl to Raupen-Schlepper. "I appeal to you, General! Can my colleague provide any scrap of proof to back his wild allegations?"
"Can you, Oberst Wöhl?" Raupen-Schlepper asked quietly, forestalling another burst of temper.
Wöhl quivered for a few seconds them turned aside to stare out of the window at the parade ground below, his arms folded across his chest almost as if he were trying to prevent himself from exploding. "Bah! Of course I can't," he growled. "Sleibnitz was careful to cover his tracks!"
"Then this matter will go no further. No further, Colonel Wöhl! Colonel Sleibnitz!" Raupen-Schlepper said. He tapped his desk. "We stand at the beginning of a long and dangerous time for our Duchy. The Duke will be most displeased to hear that rancour is already breaking out between the officers of his army. There will be no duels, no slanders; no reprisals for slights imagined or otherwise. Do I make myself clear?"
Sometimes I'm nothing more than a bloody schoolmaster disciplining unruly schoolboys! He thought.
"I'm sure my cousin will have no grounds for worry on my part," Sleibnitz said, his tone smooth.
"I'm certain His Grace will not. Oberst Wöhl?"
"As you wish, General," the man replied between gritted teeth.
"Very well." Raupen-Schlepper tried for a note of conciliation. "Gentlemen, you have your regiments. Both of you have made excellent progress in filling their ranks on time, in spite of any… difficulties. Return to your men! Train them as well as you can, and I'm sure your methods will prove exemplary. Put aside your differences, for the sake of our nation and the service of our Duke!"
Sleibnitz clicked his heels and bowed. Wöhl followed suit after a moment. But when Sleibnitz turned and offered his hand, Wöhl turned on his heel and departed the room without a backward glance. Raupen-Schlepper glanced at Captain Scharf, who took the hint and followed Wöhl out the door. The General could hear his aide's courteous tones as he began the lengthy process of calming the outraged officer.
"Well," Sleibnitz said ruefully, looking at his extended hand. He lowered it and smiled. "I shall depart also, General. If I may have my commission?"
Raupen-Schlepper picked up the document and held it out. He twitched it away just before Sleibnitz took it. "Is there any truth in Oberst-Inhaber Wöhl's accusations?"
Sleibnitz's eyes glittered. "Oh, there may have been some small infractions on the part of my staff. They're so very keen to enhance the prestige of their regiment and enter the war. I shall make inquiries when I return to the depot."
Raupen-Schlepper handed him the commission. "I shall be watching your career with close attention, Herr Oberst."
"I'm flattered, General."
"Oh, it's not a compliment." Raupen-Schlepper leaned on the desk and glared at the younger man. "Behave yourself and serve your country, and all will be well. But give me any excuse, any shred of impropriety in your conduct, and I shall bring you crashing down, Ducal cousin or not!"
Sleibnitz's smile slipped. For a moment their eyes locked, and at that moment he looked like a blue-eyed Bengal tiger Raupen-Schlepper's father had brought back from his travels many years before. It was caged and restrained, but still had that aura of latent power. It was perfectly capable of killing a man in an instant if a mistake were made. He had seen some dangerous men in his time but the one standing before him now was the worst.
But he himself was not lacking in courage or a willingness to make heads roll. "Any excuse, Herr Oberst. Any excuse."
"Just so, General." Sleibitz clicked his heels and bowed.
He left, and Raupen-Schlepper sat down heavily in his chair feeling drained.
Captain Scharf entered, looking thoughtful. "Oberst Reignitz of the Bishop's Horse is here to see you, sir," he said.
"Oh, God!" Raupen-Schlepper sighed. "Very well, Ludwig, show him in then have some coffee and cake sent up, if you please."
The ADC departed and Raupen-Schlepper stared out at the parade ground. The late autumn sun flooded the expanse of ground and lit the trees at the far end by the river with glories of gold and auburn. He wished he was out there, walking by the river with his wife and grandchildren. Instead, he was faced with a potentially long and difficult war, made all the more difficult by contrary and fractious officers. Once, it would've been a challenge and he'd have relished it. Now? Now I'm getting too old for this scheisse! He thought.