Pegg stood at the entrance of the stone building with an old goatskin pulled over himself and watched a figure approaching slowly.
"That you, Claude?" he yelled when the figure was about ten metres away.
The figure stopped moving, then answered.
"Yes, Uncle. It's me."
"Didn't find Eyke's boat? What happened?" Pegg asked.
The figure-now-identified-as-Claude's gait was haggard.
"No, Uncle, I haven't. I've checked all up and down the shore. I have no idea where they went. I was heading back when I lost my footing and tumbled down the slope into the water."
Claude stopped by the carriage and swung his rucksack over the side, clambered into the driver's seat, took the reins, and urged Jemmy forward.
"Thank you for waiting for me. I would have liked to go fishing with the boys, but that's not to be, it seems. They'll probably be back tomorrow afternoon, so I might come say hello then. I might even have a hare or two when then," Claude said politely.
"Alright. I'll tell them you were here. Be careful on your way back. It'll be no less slippery for the carriage."
"I know, Uncle. I will."
The two parted ways and Claude headed back to the wood. The trip back went without incident, and he returned Jemmy to the stable with a full trough of feed. Carriage and horse stowed, Claude went to check on the Sioris, who were still watching over their coop. Well, turned out they hadn't been watching over their coop the whole time, only that they'd just come out to check after hearing some noises -- noises which turned out to be him arriving. The three greeted each other politely, then returned to their quarters.
Claude immediately searched for a spot to put his new stuff, both those bought and those looted. The material went on a table in one of his more sequestered rooms, while his late attacker's bow went on a hook on one wall. Claude admired it through one eye while he ministered to his wounds with a fresh bottle of potion.
Once he felt the pain from his guts and scratches numb enough, he took out a nice, thick woollen coat, strapped his new sword to his waist, fetched his original enchanted crossbow, and got out two bottles of gran wine.
He brought the wine because it was the easiest to distil into pure alcohol, which he needed for some of his experiments. He still had twelve left, ten after the two he took. He slipped the two he'd taken into a bag, then left, blowing out the light on his way out, and descended the hill.
He still had so much to do, and not much time in which to do it. Tired as he may be, he could not just collapse onto his bed right now. His eyes wandered to the half-obscured moon as he slipped from tree to tree and a sigh escaped him.
The trip to Eriksson's family jetty took 40 minutes by carriage, but two hours by foot. The road was completely deserted this late into the night, or early into the morning, depending on how one considered the time. His travel was unimpeded by the need to hide himself, except once when he ran into the town watch's night patrol.
He diverted from the path heading to the jetty just before reaching it, heading for the shore instead, then retraced his steps to the alley.
He stood in the grove again about ten minutes later. He walked through it gingerly, crossbow at the ready, his ears trained delicately on anything he heard that was not him, and arrived by the steep slope on the other side. He checked his surroundings several times, then slid down it.
His assailant's corpse lay at the bottom, covered under Claude's old bloody robe. He removed it now, folded it carefully, and put it aside. He cast Featherfall on the corpse, then dragged it along the sheer side.
He had yet to decide what to do with the corpse, but he knew he couldn't leave the corpse here. It would be discovered, and that would launch the town watch into an investigation that might end up asking uncomfortable questions about him.
He could tell the half-truth that he'd been attacked and killed the man in self-defence, but that would beg the question as to why he was in the grove in the first place. Not to mention Hurian would know his real identity from the investigation's focus on him, and the whole reason for doing any and all of this was to keep that a secret.
He couldn't make the corpse just cease to exist -- oh, how he wished he could -- but he could at least make it harder to find, and make sure it was found somewhere it wouldn't immediately point whoever was looking in his direction. If he really wanted to however, and was willing to pay for it, he supposed he could get someone in the docks to make it disappear. There were those who specialised in making sure unwanted things were never discovered.
The thought lingered in his mind for a while before he nodded and decided to do just that.
Mermaid's building was an L-shaped, three story building. The bottom floor was made of stone, while the two upper floors were of wood. The longer of its wings held its rooms, and the shorter wing, which faced the street, was its tavern section -- the first two floors, to be precise, the owner and his family lived on the third one.
Claude had never been to the establishment before, but Eriksson had done his fairest best to describe it to him, and Claude had remembered what the boy had said. The owner, Aleksim, was a big figure in Whitestag's underworld. He used to be a whaling captain in his younger days and had ended his seagoing years as a pirate. In fact, it was one of his outings as a pirate which had brought about his early retirement. Robbed of a leg, he could not stand as captain anymore. He used his life's loot to build the inn and settled on its third floor with his family, which ran it with him.
He'd built Mermaid on top of the dock's embankment, which served Claude just fine that night. He dragged the corpse from the hill down to the shore, then along it to the building's foundation by the edge of the water, beneath a small private jetty for the inn.
It took him forty minutes to drag the corpse to the tavern, and he was covered in sweet by the time he finally dropped the literal dead weight under the small jetty. Featherfall reduced an object's weight to next to nothing, but only lasted two minutes. Twenty minutes of constant casting had worn Claude's mana thin, and he'd had to carry the corpse's full weight the rest of the way.
Mermaid's lodging wing had two entrances; one right in the building's bend, and bathed in the tavern wing's light, the other at the far end of the wing, opening practically right onto the jetty. Both doors had a guard at all times, and no guest had either of the doors' keys.
Claude circled Mermaid twice and carefully inspected the terrain, trying to figure out which entrance to use and how to get the corpse to it without being noticed. The night was in its final hours, and he could just about hear the earliest of the morning birds begin to stir in their nests. He didn't have much time. The tavern was empty save a couple of regulars passed out in two of its corners. The bar was manned by only a single person, whose eyes were heavy and buried in his business of drying all the washed mugs and plates.
He was not going to pass for the corpse in the bright light of the tavern, and he'd rather not someone recognise him being somewhere he had no business being, at a time when he had professed to others he would be somewhere else entirely.
In the end he decided to use the entrance nearest the jetty. It was the darkest, and he might just manage to convince the guard he was the bearded man and slip by in and out before they saw through his disguise. He dwelled on the thought for a moment longer, then shrugged and took off his robe, pants, and shoes, and put on the corpse's.
He washed them in the water for several minutes until the dry blood dissolved and the stains slowly cleared. The smell vanished with them, and Claude smiled at his handiwork. He got out his bottles of wine and gave himself a healthy lathering, until the stench of alcohol alone was nearly enough to get him actually drunk. He took out a piece of charcoal, smushed it into coarse powder and rubbed it on his face. He still had half a bottle of wine left, which he emptied just a bit more for good measure before ascending the embankment.
He did his best impression of a drunk as he came over the side to the top, stumbling back and forth while his alert eyes inspected his surroundings, and headed for the door.
A metal gate covered the door, locked tightly. Claude rapped his fingers on it a couple times, then banged on it in an unsteady rhythm.
"Open up!" he shouted in a slurred a voice as he could.
The door's knob turned and the door swung out of the way to reveal a mountain of a man.
"Who are you?"
Claude covered his face with his free hand and squinted.
"Oooh... Ooh... I need... a key to open... 'm I right?"
He took out the bronze key and handed it to the man.
"He... here ya go... Key... O-open the door..."
The huge man checked the key for a moment, then smiled at Claude.
"Ah, Mister Edmigar, what are you doing out so late... and so drunk? Just a moment, let me get the key. That's your room key, it won't open this door."
Claude pretend-choked on a chug of wine, and coughed as much as he could, using the excuse to cover his face with his hand.
The huge man returned and unlocked the gate, swinging it open carefully to not hit Claude.
"You need me to take you up to your room?" the man asked with considerable concern.
"I... I ain't drunk... Gim... gimme one more bottle... you.. you drink too..." Claude stammered, shoving his half-empty bottle in the man's hand, who smiled at him when he heard the wine sloshing around inside it.
"Thank you very much, Mister Edmigar. Careful on the stairs!"
Claude smiled at the unbridled greed with which the man eyed the bottle of wine, which he quickly hid from Claude's gaze, lest 'Mister Edmigar' change his mind. Claude stumbled up the stairs, a greedy smile on his face as well.
He didn't run into anyone else on his way to the room, but he could hear everything, every wet, naughty thing the guests were up to behind their closed doors. He sighed, if only the inn had thicker walls...
He soon found 'his' room, slipped the key in, unlocked the door, and slipped inside.