"Eyke, are you going to fish with Wero tonight?" Claude asked at school the next day.
The 10th month was coming to an end, but Captain Altroni and the fleet had yet to return. Eriksson was becoming more and more anxious and he kept complaining about lack of good sleep. He nowadays often dragged Welikro out onto the lake to fish in hopes he passed out from exhaustion.
"Yeah. You know I can only sleep on the boat these days. I keep getting nightmares when I sleep at home," Eriksson muttered, energy-less.
"It's fine. Your dad should be back in a couple more days," Claude said for the umpteenth time.
"Boa's been getting more involved with the family business, and you've been getting stuck in that wood of yours. The four of us hardly spend time together anymore. And we'll graduate and go our separate ways in just another twenty-odd days. Time really flies... It feels like just yesterday we were still pulling each other's hair as toddlers..." Eriksson's eyes glassed over as his mind sank back into old memories.
"Sigh. That's life, I'm afraid. It's not like we can just stop ourselves from growing up. Everyone goes through it. But I don't think we won't ever meet up again. How about this, I'll see if I can get a night or two loose to come fish with you?" Claude offered.
"Alright. Tonight, if you can. We'll wait until eight."
"Great. The wood's been unsettled for a couple of days now and we've lost one or two chickens in the coop. No one knows how. We've checked the fences but there are no holes, not even any sign anything's been testing it. I'm going to set a couple traps this afternoon to see if I can't catch whatever's taking them. I'll come over if I finish in time."
Eriksson wagged his thumb at Claude and dropped his head back onto his desk. They were both actually trying to catch up on some sleep.
Welikro was in dreamland already on the other side of Eriksson. Strangely, fishing had the opposite effect on the two boys. Eriksson got tired from it, but Welikro's energy levels went through the roof. He often stayed up the whole night when Eriksson took him out on the lake. That energy vanished once he got to school, however, so he often spent the whole next day asleep.
"What's up with the wood?" Borkal asked from the other side of Claude.
"I don't know, probably nothing, really. It's just we've lost a couple of chickens from the coop on the wood's edge. It's probably a fox, a wolverine, or an owl. Most likely an owl given that we haven't found any holes or testing spots on the fence and no footprints either. I'm going to set up a couple traps this afternoon. If I don't catch anything for a couple of nights, I'll camp out and shoot the thing myself."
"Too bad I don't have any time these days. I'd love to go hunting with you," Borkal sighed, "My dad gave me tons of work. I'm so damn busy these days I actually look forward to school. Can you believe that? School's become my calm place... Ugh, I really want to get together with everyone one more time before we graduate..."
Claude smiled at him bitterly.
"Yeah, hardly any time left until graduation. Can't believe we'll be adults in just another month and a bit. We can't be carefree and worriless anymore. And don't feel too bad, you're only a bit ahead of us. Come next year we'll all have our fair share of worries to deal with. Your dad's just giving you good training so you don't struggle to swim as much when he throws you in the deep end next year."
Borkal didn't respond. He understood the theory, but he didn't like being the subject to which it was applied. He scolded his younger self from a couple month ago for wishing his childhood away so he could become a merchant. That naïve little kid knew nothing about all the hard work involved in becoming a successful merchant.
Claude headed home after school. He only stopped by the villa long enough to change out of his uniform, then darted off to the coop. The Sioris were busy digging a small ditch around the coop's fenced yard. No one expected it to do a lot for the chickens, but they couldn't handle just sitting around doing nothing.
"Here, over here!" the old man said as he drew Claude to one end of the fence.
He pointed at a spot in the corner, and Claude saw the paw marks in the ground, half hidden under wet, late autumn leaves.
"We found the chicken feather stuck in the fence. Whatever it was must have pushed the planks apart here and gotten in. We found it only thanks to the feathers stuck between the planks. Those two planks are a little loose, so they flop back down once it's through."
Claude inspected the planks and saw the rusted lower nail on each plank had rusted through. Those two planks were hanging like curtains. A fox or wolverine could just push them aside and get in, catch a chicken and drag it out. The planks would flop down into their normal position once it was through, so as long as no one noticed its tracks, which the fallen leaves hid nicely, no one would know there was a spot for it to come through here. If not for the feathers it had left behind last night, they'd still not know.
"I'll fix it tonight and finish the moat," the old man said.
Claude shook his head.
"It ought to be a fox. Those things are crafty. Fixing the fence should make the chickens safe again for a while, but the moat is just a waste of energy. It'll just swing across, and it'll only be a matter of time before it finds or makes another way in. Our best choice is to get a couple of guard dogs."
"That'll have to wait until later though," Siori replied, "The good breeds are expensive and not reared in or around Whitestag. We'll have to go to the prefectural capital to get them."
Truth be told, the Sioris weren't cut out to be groundskeepers. They were too busy with their farm. The only time they really patrolled the estate was to pick berries and herbs. The most they managed to do for the estate on a regular basis was sweep out the manor every couple of weeks, and look after the two horses. The normal, day-to-day care only really got done now that Claude had taken over. He'd originally left everything to the two, thinking he would be mostly just Maria's representative to be consulted every now and again, but he quickly realised he was going to have to do most of the keeping himself.
They'd lost too many chickens lately. The couple was so desperate to put an end to this they were about to move into the coop with the chickens.
"You can stop digging the moat. Spend the time digging a couple pitfalls instead. Who knows, maybe we'll get lucky and catch the thief in one."
Claude wasn't as concerned about the coop situation as the Sioris. It was not his mistress' property, so he was not responsible for it, so he only offered some advice in passing.
Siori nodded and started filling the ditch in again. Claude brought him up to speed on his latest patrol while the man worked. The briefing concerned mostly things like where ripe mushrooms had sprung up since they'd last harvested, what the state of the stream was where deadwood was concerned, and so on.
He left the couple to their work once his briefing was done and headed for the laboratory. He set a few traps once the Sioris were done, made a simple dinner, then headed back to town. He was not going to meet up with Eriksson and Welikro, however. HIs target was Hurian's shop.
He brought a few more offensive tools and his money this time. He had handled the previous night's unforeseen encounter well, but he had no intention of being as unprepared ever again. Unfortunately he didn't have a suitable dagger. Welikro was far better equipped than he in that regard. That boy bought something sharp every chance he got. Though most had such unpractical designs Claude doubted they could be used in actual combat at all.
Well, he did have one dagger, now he thought about it. He had that black iron dagger. He had yet to figure out what its enchantment was, though. It was still better than nothing, he had guessed, so he had brought it along, tugged away snuggly in his one boot.
He took Jemmy and the carriage. He would much have preferred to go on foot for the anonymity it offered, but he could not carry everything back on his own, so the carriage just had to go. He took the smallest, most roundabout way he could, however -- no point in making it too easy for whoever wanted to find out whom he was. He eventually came to the Eriksson's family docks.
He'd suggested to go fishing with them that night so he would have an excuse for leaving his carriage there for a while, but made sure to arrive after their cut-off time so they would already be gone.
He left the estate at around half-past eight, and took forty minutes to get to the jetty. And indeed, the two were long gone. Pegg was the one to break the 'bad news' to him.
"Sorry, Uncle Pegg," Claude sighed, "I was kept busy longer than I'd expected. I might still have made it in time, but one of the carriage's wheels came loose halfway to town and I had to stop to fix it. It's okay, I knew I would be too late as soon as I felt the wheel come loose. Can I leave the carriage here for a while? Since I'm here, I might as well take a walk along the shore. I might even run into them and end up fishing with them for the night, anyway."
Pegg checked the carriage reflexively, his trained instincts not letting him take what people said at face value and verify everything himself. Indeed, one of the wheels was slightly ill-aligned and covered in dirt. Wheels didn't come of regularly, but it wasn't an exceedingly uncommon thing either. It happened mostly when the wooden pegs holding the wheel on the axle broke from wear or a sudden shock, letting the wheel come loose. Most people always had spares and the tools to make such a repair on hand at all times. It was a simple repair, after all. As long as you had a spare peg you just shoved the wheel back in place and hammered the replacement peg in.
"Alright. I'll keep an eye on it. When do you expect to be back if you don't find them?" Pegg asked.
"An hour or so."
"Need a lantern?"
"No, I'm fine. The moon is almost full tonight and I don't see any clouds. A light will hamper my sight instead of help. I brought a couple flares; I'll just light one if I see the ship. Thanks, though."
Claude grabbed his small pack and headed for the slums along the shore. He'd taken off and stashed his disguise in a small grove on a knoll just outside of town on the slum's side. He retraced his steps to it, found his disguise, and got dressed up.
Nobody was in the alley that night. While the nights weren't outright cold yet, they were thoroughly chilly, and nobody wanted to open doors and let out heat unnecessarily in shacks and shoddy buildings already leaked too much of it through cracks, gaps, and holes. The slums had it even worse since they sat in the gully between a line of knolls which acted like a wind tunnel and drew in the worst of the cold night breeze -- which was obviously why the respectable part of town hadn't been built there before the slum had sprung up.
He arrived at Hurian's shop about twenty minutes after leaving his carriage.