"I'm leaving Whitestag," Borkal said.
Claude didn't really pay it much heed. It was normal for Borkal to leave town during winter to survey their business holdings in the three southwestern prefectures.
"Going to survey the shops again?"
"No, I'm going to my aunt's in Simlock. Dad's not going, he's waiting for the trading fleet," Borkal said sadly, "I don't know how long I'll be away. I might not be back for several years."
"Huh? What do you mean?"
Were they going to be apart for good?
"My uncle pulled some strings and I'll be going to Banjilia, Simlock's capital. I'm joining the keepers there. Dad will only allow me to be discharged after I gain enough dignity to become a dignitarian. I'll only be joining the keeperage's logistics department, so I'll be doing paperwork. It's very hard to gain dignity that way, so I'll be very long before I can become a dignitarian. But I'll be safe."
"When are you leaving?" Claude asked.
He didn't bother trying to protest or saying they could somehow keep this from happening. It was obvious Borkal's future was set in stone and there was no stopping it. He didn't expect that out of everyone Borkal would be the first to join the military; he had thought it would be Welikro.
"Noon tomorrow." Borkal looked down and kicked a stone on the ground. "I'm going to see Eyke later. I saw his mother. Instructor Weckham handed her Eyke's certificate. I was going to ask about Eyke, but she left as soon as she had his certificate. I want to go check on him before I leave. Even if I don't get to see him, I would've at least tried. I feel bad for not being able to help find him."
"It's not your fault," Claude said as he patted Borkal's shoulder, "Eyke got into trouble because of his own fault. None of us thought that he would be brave enough to sail in his little modified fishing boat out to open sea. It happened so suddenly and Wero and I were so anxious about looking for him that we forgot to notify you about it. You don't have to feel bad for it, it's our mistake."
Borkal nodded, but he didn't respond. He continued to kick the stone on the ground moodily and seemed to be in a real sour mood.
"It's going to be fine, Boa. Even if you go to Simlock, we are still the best of friends. Even though we won't be able to meet, you can still write to us. As long as we know each other's whereabouts, we can easily write back," Claude consoled.
"Alright. I will write to you guys," Borkal muttered, "I still have some things to take care of, so I'll go back first. Bye, Claude."
Borkal turned to leave. Claude could see the boy wipe his face with is back turned. It looked like he was crying. However, Claude could only watch as he left. They had graduated and would turn 18 the next year. They were adults and had to be responsible for themselves; there were no exceptions.
Borkal would be leaving Whitestag tomorrow morning. Claude didn't know whether he would be able to meet him again in the future. His father had told him about the plans he had in mind for him for the future, so after the trading fleet returned, he would be going to Tyrrsim in Nubissia the next year to see his viscount godfather, whom he hadn't met before, and join the military there. He didn't know when he would be back in Whitestag either. The days he could continue spending in the wood were numbered.
Claude didn't want to go back to school to participate in the celebratory banquet. His carriage was parked at home and he had gone to school with his father in the town hall's carriage. All he wanted to do was to walk on the path he took to school for the past three years with his mates and immerse himself in the melancholy.
After he got home, his mood only recovered after being pestered by his younger brother and the snowhound. Angelina's school break also started and she was currently helping their mother cook. She asked whether Claude had eaten, to which he shook his head. His mother nagged him about not getting a good meal at school since the food at the banquet was definitely much better than what was served at home.
After having a simple lunch, Claude played with the snowhound and Bloweyk by using a small wooden ball for a game of fetch. Bloweyk seemed greatly humoured by it and clamoured loudly. It was only when Madam Ferd went over to get him to go take his nap that he went upstairs unwillingly.
Angelina on the other hand was reading quietly in the dining hall. She was already fourteen and was growing more mature and well-behaved by the day, just like a graceful young lady. Claude went over to stroke her head, much to her anger, since that messed up her hair.
He took a look at the book in her hand. it was a small encyclopedia about the various maritime lifeforms that were discovered. However, the book didn't cover the behaviors of those organisms, and focused instead on their economical value, such as which types were profitable and fetched better prices.
Having greeted his sister, he drove his carriage back to the wood. He decided that from that day onward, he would hunt properly for more funds for his alchemical experiments.
In the coming days, Claude's life turned really busy and fulfilling. He hunted at the wood and set up many snare traps at the southern hills of town. With Jemmy, he could cover a much larger area during his hunts.
The only thing that wasn't quite to his satisfaction was that Pjard stopped buying any more animals after being sold around 50 of them. However, he did manage to make seven thales from the transactions. His family also got quite sick of eating hare and turkey day after day, and his sister even nicknamed him the turkey slayer. In the end, Claude decided to make the ten plus animals that remained into smoked meat and jerky, hanging them from the eaves of his villa.
Apart from the hares and turkeys he hunted, Claude also got a large gray wolf, three wild goats, two large boars, one red-pelt fox, and two hog badgers. Claude sold them at the open market and managed to save up to three crowns in total.
Given how busy he was at hunting, Claude forgot to pay attention to news of the trading fleet. The atmosphere in Whitestag only got more ominous as time went on. Rumours were spread in the taverns and Morssen had stopped smiling a long time ago. His mood at home got progressively worse alongside his smoke addiction. Madam Ferd would also space out often, thinking about something beyond Claude.
Claude only had his mind fixed on hunting. Apart from bringing some prey back home, he didn't interact much with his parents and would return to the wood after dinner most nights. Morssen also wasn't willing to talk to Claude about his venture. The way he saw it, Claude was merely a child and he was already doing a good job if he could take care of the wood.
There was only a week remaining until the new year. Claude rode down the hill on Jemmy. On the horse's rear was the carcass of a matured cloud leopard, Claude's spoil during this particular hunt. The cloud leopard had come out to hunt when the snow stopped falling and tried to go for Jemmy. In the end, the hunter became the hunted. Claude merely used a simple Mental Shock spell to render it helpless from being shot squarely in the head.
Claude felt rather excited about it too. He didn't think that it would snow heavily for three days and when it stopped, he thought of going uphill to see whether he could find any deers or goats. He didn't expect to be attacked by the cloud leopard at the foot of the hill. Fortunately, he was prepared and cast Mental Shock the moment he saw a shadow leaping for him, before shooting it with his gun.
Claude brought the carcass back to the wood on horseback. After selling it in the open market the next day, he would have saved up around five crowns in total. It was enough for a box of whiteroot powder. Last time, Hurian sold him one box for seven crowns and he had foolishly agreed to that cutthroat price.
He didn't think he would find whiteroot powder for sale at the open market for only 18 thales a box, which amounted to about three crowns and three thales when converted. It was nearly half the price of what Hurian offered. The thought of that gave Claude the urge to skin Hurian alive. He had only earned around a crown after hunting hares and turkeys for nearly a month.
He put his matchlock gun in his hut and fit the carriage onto Jemmy. He loaded the carcass onto the carriage. Just as he was about to head to town, he bumped into the old couple, who were on their way back from selling coal. They were driving the old carriage which was emptied of coal sacks. It looked like their business went pretty well, given how early they returned after they left to sell their coal after the snow stopped.
However, the couple looked a little odd, as if they had something they wanted to say. Claude didn't really mind it and politely said, "You guys may pass first. I'll move to the side."
As the carriages passed each other by the sides, Siori turned around and said, "Supervisor Claude, the town is full off passing soldiers. Please be careful when you go there."
Soldiers? It's going to be the new year in a few more days. Why would any army come to town at a time like this? Did they have nothing better to do than to spend new year's here?
When he reached town, he realized they weren't just passing soldiers. Instead, it was a blockade. There were many soldiers dressed in dark blue uniforms stationed on almost every street of the town. They weren't armed with the Aubass Mark 2, but rather, the slightly dated Kemley Mark 3 matchlock.
They weren't soldiers in the standing army, but rather the keeperage of Baromiss. Why would they suddenly be posted at Whitestag?
On further observation, it didn't seem like there was much trouble, given the aloof expressions of the soldiers. They weren't that disciplined either and some would even chat merrily with the women who were there to see the commotion. However, they didn't reveal the reason they were there and only said that they were there to temporarily put Whitestag in martial law.
Claude's carriage was stopped by two soldiers. When they found the carcass of the cloud leopard within, they caused quite the commotion and got the other soldiers nearby to come take a look. After that came a military officer which displayed a most amicable attitude. He took a look at the carcass and asked Claude for his identity. When he was told that Claude was the supervisor of Normanley Wood, he hurried the other soldiers away and let him pass.
Claude gave it some thought before heading to the old tavern and calling Pjard out to check on the carcass.
"How much do you want for it?" asked Pjard as he cast a pitiful look on Claude.
"I just hunted it fresh this morning. Feel it, it isn't even hardened yet. Just name a price. If it's appropriate, I'll sell it to you and won't bother bringing it to the open market," said Claude excitedly without noticing Pjard's gaze.
"Eight thales then. The pelt alone is probably worth a crown, but the meat and bones are not worth much," offered Pjard fairly after some thought.
"Deal, this cloud leopard is yours." Claude was quite happy that he got that price for it. He thought that it would only sell for around six or seven thales at first.
Pjard called some servants from the tavern to move the carcass inside before he handed the money to Claude. "You haven't gone home yet, have you?"
"I haven't," said Claude with a nod.
"Go back, then. Your father was arrested this morning," said Pjard with a sigh. He just informed him about a nightmare.
"What?!" Claude stood there, frozen in place.