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Author's Chapter Notes:
Stately Vandenberg Manor...
Maximilian Vandenberg. Or ‘Max’ for short.

In between Rawne’s men’s periodic patrols of the mansion, Sebastian continued to explain their current situation. About the origins of the Vandenberg family fortune. About Albert Freedan.

“He’s an accountant from New Cali, or so he claimed,” Sebastian explained. “He arrived almost ten years ago, very quickly worked his way up the ranks, and in only a few years became Master Percival’s closest advisor. For years, we thought he was a loyal partner, and he’s always had a sharp mind for business. Once, I would have thought him a good teacher for the Young Mas— er, you— now that you are coming of age to take your place in the family business…”

“What happened?” Max asked. Both Sebastian’s tea, as well being up and moving around, helped clear his head, and this was but one of many questions now racing through it.

“The earthquake,” Sebastian sighed. “Though now I fear Freedan was likely plotting against us all along, he started moving as soon as the dust settled. At first, it looked like he was carrying out Master Percival’s plans to help with the rebuilding and relief efforts, but as time went by, we ran into more and more delays. Money started disappearing. And that mercenary Aden Rawne appeared, as well.

“By that time it was becoming apparent that all those men Freedan hired to help with the repairs weren’t laborers at all, but mercenaries, too. When Master Percival confronted him about it, Freedan said that the sites needed to be protected from Squatters, but the whole reason they’re causing so much trouble in the first place is because sections of Alta never got rebuilt, even after two years…”

“But what happened to the money?” Max wondered aloud.

“Anymore, I’m certain he’s been embezzling funds for a long time, even before the quake. Freedan became more and more secretive about the bookkeeping, and I have no doubt he and Rawne mean to take over Vandenberg Trading. Of course, our investors here in Konosha have become quite concerned in the last year or so, and while Master Percival was busy meeting with all of them, Freedan took advantage of his absence to take control of a greater part of the company, even as all of our old allies began to turn against us. It all came to a head ten days ago, when they took up the matter with the Assembly, wanting to dissolve Vandenberg and divide up the remaining fortune to pay off old debts Freedan has been shortchanging them in Master Percival’s name.”

“And that’s when… Percival disappeared?” Max made no attempt to conceal how much that bothered him. Found he was increasingly wishing he had Shades’ head for politics, or Justin’s for scams and shenanigans, to consult right now. “Don’t tell me Freedan did something to him?”

“No, that’s not what worries me,” Sebastian replied. “I know where he went, and that’s the real problem, because I’m sure Freedan knows, as well. Since then, he’s been parading around the place like he already owns it. As if he doesn’t expect to see Master Percival ever again. And, even worse, he doesn’t seem to regard you as any sort of contender for control of your own inheritance.”

“Why is he so sure he’s seen the last of him? Where did he go?”

“The Lower Ruins,” Sebastian reminded him. “Remember what I told you about how the Van-denberg fortune started with a treasure from the ruins underneath the city? Both the company and the family fortune started with that artifact. Ever since the quake, Master Percival kept talking more and more about launching an expedition down there, for the first time in generations, to finish what his an-cestor started, but the Assembly wouldn’t hear of it.

“As the company’s situation became more and more precarious, he spoke even more wistfully of fulfilling Edric’s dream of finding ‘the rest of’ the treasure. Even took Edric’s journal with him. I tried to keep the… Young Master from finding out, but it seems he knows his father all too well. I think they both believe another treasure could turn things around…”

As Sebastian spoke, Max gazed upon the paintings on the den wall, lined up in chronological order: Founder Edric, Hanlund, Rumpert, Elward, Chadwin, Chauncey, Percival, according to the bronze plaque on each one. Arranged so that there was a blank space on the wall, waiting for Maximil-ian when he was ready to take the reins.

Though this Edric bore no resemblance to anyone he knew, as the generations progressed, he couldn’t help noticing how the last two looked like they might be distantly related to his own father. Cousins, maybe. A line of thought that led to his next question:

“Sebastian, what happened to my… Maximilian’s mother? Why isn’t she here?”

“I’m sorry,” Sebastian mumbled, chagrined at forgetting he would also have to relate this part of the family history, as well, “the Young Master’s mother, Lennay, took ill and died when he was still very young… And I fear now, at this rate, he may soon be without a father as well, if not already…”

“I see.” Max nodded solemnly, trying to shake off the unexpected burden of wondering if his own mother was still alive and well back in Layosha. Shaking such thoughts off with an effort, he got back to the matter at hand. “We need to tell my friends what’s going on. They might be the only allies we have left.”

“That may be,” Sebastian replied, “but it will be easier said than done. Anymore, Freedan con-trols most of the company’s personnel, as well as the manor staff, and the rest are afraid of Rawne and his men. I fear his plans to take over the company have only sped up these days, and neither you, nor the Young Master, will be able to stop him at this rate. Do you really believe just two people can make that big of a difference?”

“Yes,” Max told him, the certainty in his tone taking the butler aback for a moment. “Though I don’t like the idea of just dragging them into this…”

“Exactly what the Young Master said,” Sebastian remarked, “which was why he decided to go it alone. Even if most of the family’s oldest friends had been turned against us, he still didn’t want to en-danger them.”

“Of course,” Max conceded, “unless his friends had experience fighting pirates and mercenaries and security robots, it was very wise to leave them out of it.”

“Young Master Maximilian always rebelled against his sheltered upbringing,” Sebastian sighed, “insisting on practicing climbing and sailing and swimming. Then again, so did Master Percival in his youth, so I imagine that was why he indulged his son’s hobbies, however reluctantly. The Vandenbergs started out as a family of explorers, which surely explains their long-standing penchant for collecting contraptions and exotic objects from other realms, like that glider… Though I fear it may have distracted him from studying to take his place as the next head of the family.”

“I can’t speak for them about challenging Freedan,” Max cautioned him, “but my friends will at least want to help me. I don’t know how long I can pretend to be someone I’m not, and I don’t like the odds of anybody going down there alone if it’s as dangerous as everyone says… Wouldn’t it be better to go down there and help him out?”

“Perhaps,” Sebastian shook his head in grave thought, “but as much as I want to help my Young Master, I worry that Freedan would just find a way to take control of the whole thing without anyone from the Vandenberg family here to represent it.”

“So the real question is, how long can we keep it up?”

Max stood there for a long moment before retiring, pondering both the outer beauty, and inner darkness, he had found in this place.