William tightened his cravat before stepping between the guards of the Rurikton garrison. He entered without a word or glance of acknowledgement for their salutes, his blue tailcoat swishing behind him.
"That's Clockwork Bill for you, tsk", one of them tutted, after the officer had passed from hearing. The other man shrugged, shaking his head.
William briskly walked through the corridor, turned down hallways and ascended stairs, turning the heads of passing guardsmen and commissioned officers. Few of them had ever seen the captain out of his green and gold uniform until now, nor had they seen his cheeks quite that shade of red.
"Mister Goldwing?" asked Captain Fowler, as William passed by. He would rarely answer at the best of times, so what possessed Fowler to think he might get a response now nobody could guess. He shook his head, washed his hands of it and carried on.
William passed by the officers' mess and towards the administration offices, relievedly clasping his hand around the handle of his own door and pulling it open. There, he saw the back of a tall, slender, ageing man who was perusing through the documents he had left on his desk. There was only one man whom William submitted to and forgave for prying into his lists, sums and logs – even Colonel Augustus knew better. He cleared his throat – not to chide, but to let his visitor know he was there. The man turned, taking off a pair of small, round spectacles, and sat on the corner of William's pristine, shining oak desk.
"Ah, William. You're back."
"Father", he replied, humbly bowing his head.
Arthur Goldwing stared expectantly, shaking his head from left to right as though searching for something.
"Well, my boy?" he asked, snippy and intrusive. "How did you fare?"
William looked up to meet his eye and nodded matter-of-factly, as though reporting to one of his military superiors.
"Very well, my Lord, as far as my understanding goes. Her Ladyship is going to write to you to ask for another meeting."
Arthur slid off the desk and took a few slow steps towards his son, clapping his hands once - more of a victorious, scheming gesture than one of celebration or praise.
"You've done it? By Jennah, you've done it." He guffawed. "I don't know how you've done it, but you've done it!"
William stood rigid as his father slapped him on the arm. Only his eyes moved, following Arthur as he paced left to right, the older man considering the implications and inwardly cheering the victory.
"Your mother said you would", he continued, waggling his index finger. "She thought you might have a soft touch after all."
"I did what was required, sir", William droned.
"That you did, my boy. And a good job of it you've made. The Forraths are a proud, military family, if you discount what happened in the Ministry Guard. I wasn't sure Lady Louvet would take to a Mountaineer courting her daughter." He looked back up at William accusingly. "You're no Seraph, after all."
William had been painstakingly conditioned to withstand wounds – all except those from his father. Though his face remained deadpan, the failure weighed heavily on his heart until Arthur dipped his head and continued.
"But... If anything, you've had to work and fight harder for your place, to really get to grips with soldiering. Real soldiering. It's made a fine man out of you."
It should have been up to William to make up his mind - to decide if his ascension through the ranks of the regiment and all the hardships he'd been through had been worth everything up to this point - though not if you asked his father. The young man nodded dutifully.
"Thank you, my Lord."
"It's also uplifting to know that we can finally put the past behind us. James' foul legacy of failures has finally faded from conversation." He glowered at William and tried to justify himself. "It's because of him you've had to put up with so much."
William nodded submissively on cue.
"A man of your age ought to have his own regiment by now. My sons are proud Seraph, they should have been proud Seraph, not coffeehouse fops dragging the low-bred scum of this country into battle, but silver-plated heroes leading the best, under Her Majesty's eye - with real authority and responsibility. Lord Madusan has much to answer for, if he still lives. His creation has gone to the dogs."
William nodded along solemnly and looked down at his father's shoes. He was right. A captain of the Mountaineers held far less sway than even a lieutenant of Her Majesty's Seraph. His failure to secure a commission there had cost him dearly in parental contempt, and sentenced him to years of hard fighting to reach the level to which he had risen. His ascent had been paved with an endless stream of misery and distress, which had only hardened him into the unfeeling automaton he was now perceived as by his fellows and subordinates.
"But now", Arthur continued. "We can put the past to bed and look forward, towards the sizeable income you're going to bring into this family. For money, when correctly timed and properly applied, can open all the right doors for you."
Arthur scruitised his silent son before stepping into his personal space and patting down his shoulders.
"Meet with Lady Louvet's daughter again, as soon as you can. I don't want any other suitors vying for the position. You'll be out-charmed in a flat second." He continued to alter William's finely embroidered clothes. "Not your fault. No, not it. Not your fault at all!"
He patted his arms before rounding him and pausing in the doorway.
"I shall send word as soon as I've checked my letters."
"Very good, sir", William answered, looking over his shoulder, then turning to face his father with his hands behind his back. Arthur gestured to the table with an admonishing scowl.
"I suggest you review your sums. You were about to requisition ten thousand pints of rum for your company."
William blinked with surprise. It wasn't like him to make mistakes.