As the small carriage I have taken from the Prancing Pony finally arrives at the gates of Castle Vexstein, I realise the wisdom of Victor’s and George’s hike up the hill from the village halfway between Prancing Pony and Seventh Happiness. Taking the ‘official’ route adds two hours and (in my case) an overnight stop to the journey. However, I am here, rested and refreshed after a good night’s sleep and an excellent breakfast, and ready to face the rigours of the security at the first and second gates into the castle. Apparently security at the Brewery is even tougher! I’m not sure why they need such security. Maybe I shall find out when I interview Lord Smallweed, second most important person at Vexstein.
I am shown by a uniformed attendant to an ante-room high up in the castle. The view is stupendous – mountains with snow glistening here and there even though it is summer. Waterfalls cascading from high meadows perched on craggy cliffs. I am standing at the window taking all this in when a rustle and cough behind me draw my attention back into the room. “Lord Smallweed will see you now,” announces the attendant, and I am taken forward into a large, vaulted room.
Designed to impress
Lord Smallweed sits behind a large desk at one end. I am shown to a seat in front of him and invited to have a glass of water. I accept. The desk is neatly laid out with a writing pad, a blotter, an ink well with a quill pen laid carefully beside it. A small box bound in green leather sits at an angle to one side. The items look as if they have been measured to lie at precise distances and angles. It is a vast desk with not much on it. It might be designed to impress, but it has the effect of emphasising Lord Smallweed’s small stature rather than enhancing it.
He is prepared for the interview and launches into the answer to my first question before I ask it. The Business and House of Vexstein require a slight amendment to the customary lines of succession in the realms, he states. The family arrangement is that the Baron takes the role of king, to be succeeded by his eldest son, who is in turn succeeded by his eldest brother, the second son, who is then succeeded by the eldest son’s son, and so on. This is because the Baron is, of course, in overall control, while the eldest son is his deputy and chief executive of the Brewery. The second son is chief operating officer of the Brewery, which role will pass to the eldest son’s eldest son on the death of the current Baron. “In this way management of both the empire and the brewery are secured,” Lord Smallweed, the second son, says. It is clear when you think about it, but it sounds very formal and very rigid. That’s just how Vexstein like it. “Trained from birth,” is Smallweed’s terse response when I ask what education is needed for the role. I ask him to explain more about his day to day routine.
“Every day brings new challenges,” he responds. “I may need to handle the day’s Hearings for instance, or attend to management or sales meetings at the Brewery, consider our position in competition with other brews, or meet visiting dignitaries. It requires adaptability and fortitude.” It certainly sounds it. The castle’s Hearings are a sort of court in which residents of the castle and the surrounding community can bring grievances or problems to the Baron or his representative, for advice or judgement. Apparently they are held daily, which seems a lot of Hearings to me, but Lord Smallweed declines to discuss them further. I ask him to talk more about the Brewery and the competition it faces.
“We are often able to provide funding”
“The most important thing is to maintain our pre-eminent position in the market. We have the largest range of sales outlets of any brew in the realms, and we intend to keep it that way.”
I mention the acquisition of other brews in the regions as a means to secure that position.
“Well, yes, that is part of our business strategy. When a good product reaches a certain stage it can require more investment than the owner is able to afford to develop its market to the next stage. We are often able to step in and providing the funding to secure a product’s future.”
“Does that mean buying out the owner?”
“Only if it is appropriate to the product and the owner’s situation.”
Some might accuse Vexstein of riding roughshod over smaller brewers and ensuring that local brews never expand outside their immediate community, but it is obvious from this statement that Vexstein is keen to promote local brews, as long as it is within Vexstein’s expansion strategy.
How did he view the introduction of Wozna Cola in the domains?
“It was an interesting drink, but a mere herbal concoction, a passing phase. Not serious competition. A different market segment in fact.” He goes on to support the re-introduction of Wozna at some stage in the future, in line with the agreement of exporting Vex and returning with Wozna on the return journey. “We believe the western world is ripe for development and Vex will be well received there. Our business development personnel have undertaken substantial research into the market. We may well launch Vex there ahead of schedule.”
This is an interesting statement, since the timeline for re-importing Wozna is well documented. He declines to elaborate further, however, saying that it is a confidential business matter. Not so confidential that he doesn’t want to pique people’s interest, though.
“I have never had an embarrassing moment”
I move on to the rest of the questions. His most important contacts are his family and his business associates. He concedes that Prince Lupin is one of those business associates, but acts as if he would rather not consider him to be important. I ask him about Hugo, Lord Mariusz of Hattan. “A mere salesman,” he says in dismissal. Has he ever met Queen Eleanor of Arbor? “Who?” or a Rajah with an interest in a bottling plant at a place called Co-Runner? “Never heard of him,” is the response. I love the way he says all this with a straight face while his left hand twitches or is raised behind his ear – both signs of frustration or wishing to strike out at the mention of the names.
I ask him about his most embarrassing moment. He fixes me with his gaze. “I have never had an embarrassing moment.” I suspect when Hugo’s story, The Traveler in Black and White, is published, he will have many of them.
What would he most like to change and why? “I think it is time to tighten the loose morals that are developing in many castles, and to stamp on the nonsensical idea that females should be entitled to inherit. If I had my way every castle would be run on the same lines as Vexstein, all would be productive, and slackers would not be tolerated anywhere.”
What happens to slackers at Vexstein? “There are no slackers at Vexstein. If they don’t work hard at the task assigned to them they are exiled.” I wonder where they go but expect some have been reabsorbed into other castles after a brief career as a pirate. Being exiled is a disaster for most people. The nearest alternative castles are Humber and Hallam, neither of which I know well. I mark them on my list of castles to visit.
Is it worth asking who he would most like to say sorry to? I ask anyway and he gives the anticipated reply, “No-one.”
Who would he like to be with in a life or death situation? “One of my bodyguards, and if none are available, one of my secret service protégées.” He has protégées in the secret service? “Of course, how else is the service to be staffed!”
A warm, friendly person
He doesn’t come across as a warm, friendly person, but then he prides himself on the efficient way in which he manages his business. I wonder whether he has a softer side, and ask if he has any plans to marry. “Only if my brother had not produced an heir would I have married.” By choice or by custom? “Both.” I think the softer side is well hidden.
The final question then, and he nods and adjusts his seat, looking across to a clock suggesting that he’s spent as much time as he’s prepared to on this interview. Who would he want to be if he wasn’t Lord Smallweed? “Baron Darcy. The first Baron Darcy, who founded this wonderful empire. He’s a hero of mine. I think it would have been wonderful to live in those days.”
I ask if there are any pictures of him, so I can get more of a feel for the era. He leads me across the room, towards the door, and shows me a portrait that takes up the whole height of the room. You can see the resemblance in the facial features to the present Vexstein family. I am also taken with the background of the picture: people hanging from gibbets, people in stocks, the towers of Castle Vexstein with vulture-like birds flying around them. I take my leave. There is more to Lord Smallweed than meets the eye. Perhaps it is best not to find out what that is.