"Hey, Claude, are you going home?"
The keepers already recognised Claude from his frequent running across town in the past few days, but it was also partly due to how sociable he was. During his patrol in the wood in the morning, he discovered some frozen hares and turkeys that were caught by the snares and gifted some of them to the keepers. While they were tasked to enforce martial law and enjoyed rather decent meals, free food from the wilds was still very welcome.
The one who greeted him was a second lieutenant called Abram. His tent was in charge of maintaining order in the southwestern side of town. When he saw Claude driving his carriage out of the wood and down the hill, he would wave to greet him for a talk.
"Good morning, Second Lieutenant." Claude drove the carriage over to him and parked it. He removed his scarf and said, "It's the last day before the new year tomorrow. What are you all so busy with?"
Abram shrugged with frustration. "We have no choice. Orders from above necessitates that we keep alert even as new year is upon us. We have to defend against the pirates that are heading the town's way, so we're busy fortifying the walls of the town and the streets. But just look. We're unable to even dig properly now that the ground is all frozen up. We have to clear the snow away first and warm the ground with fire before we can make trenches. I doubt we'd be able to finish by today."
Claude received a cup of hot red tea from the second lieutenant and smiled. "Tell me. I knew you had something in mind when you called me to stop. Is there anything I can help with? I'll do my best as long as it's within my capabilities."
Abram shot him a thumbs-up. "Aren't you the supervisor of the wood? I want to ask you whether you have some timber there we can borrow. It'd be much faster for us to make wooden barricades than it is for us to dig trenches."
Claude shook his head regrettably. "If you've been asking around, you'll know that the no tree has been felled in Normanley Wood for the past two decades or so. No timber is produced there either. Even though we have some aged wood, it's far from enough to be used to make barricades for the streets and the walls. And without the baroness' permission, it won't bide well for us to fell trees there. I'm afraid I can't help you with that."
"Sigh, looks like we won't be able to avoid the fate of digging trenches," Abram said with disappointment, "We were thinking of felling some trees nearby the town, but the town hall forbade us from doing so and said that the trees were public property and that we had to pay the town for every tree felled. We didn't include that in our budget. The soldiers are already frustrated enough that they have to work through the new year's, and it'd be going overboard to ask them to pay up for the materials we need."
Claude looked at the five soldiers nearby. They were using iron shovels to dig the warmed-up ground and packing the dirt into sacks, which they stacked up into walls about as tall as half a person. But so far, they only had ten or so of those sacks. It was no wonder Abram was so troubled about not being able to borrow wood from Normanley Wood.
"Are the barricades you build going to be permanent ones?" asked Claude.
Abram shook his head. "How would that even be possible? No matter how stupid the higher-ups are, they wouldn't give such an order. We'd have to factor in the blueprints for permanent fortifications and hire professionals for the construction. It's not something stacking sacks of dirt together can achieve. Since we're going to retreat anyway after your town forms a garrison clan, we'll be leaving the fortifications to them. Whether it turns out good or bad won't matter to us."
Claude pondered for a moment before he said, "Since that's the case, there won't be a need for your comrades to dig up trenches. It's the winter season and snow will fall quite often. You can simply stack the snow up into walls. Press the snow into bricks and stack them up before sprinkling them with water. They'd be harder than metal once it freezes up. Not only is this much faster, it provides much better defence. If there really is a shootout, the bullets won't be able to shoot through these frozen bricks."
He finished his tea in one go and returned it to Abram. With a smile, he said, "As for the duration these ice walls will last, I think they'll only start to melt during the 2nd month. By then, the garrison should've been formed already and you'll be moved back to the prefectural capital. The defences here will no longer be your concern."
Abram wore an expression of awe and joy. He gave Claude a deep hug. "Thank you, Claude! You're a true friend! You're far too smart. I can't imagine how you came up with something like that so quickly. I'll get the soldiers to stop digging and do as you say!"
Claude continued to drive the carriage towards home. He was in a good mood after being showered with praises by Abram. However, he thought that the quality of military officers the kingdom employed left something to be desired, given that they weren't able to come up with such an elementary idea. Even though they were firearms-wielding troops, they were trained to become blockheads that only obeyed orders and didn't know how to think outside the box.
But his mood took a complete turn when he reached home. Angelina cried as she told Claude of their troubles. Arbeit had barged into the home this morning and gave the snowhound a harsh beating, sending it flying to a corner on the ground and rushed up to the second floor. He then broke into his parents' bedroom and ransacked it, leaving with his mother's jewellery case.
Though Madam Ferd tried to stop him, she was pushed aside and couldn't get up from the fall. Arbeit then vanished with the jewellery.
Fuming with rage, he really wanted to head to town immediately to find that pitiful excuse of a human, but he had to see to his family first. The snowhound's hind legs were broken and Bloweyk hugged it as he bawled. His mother was bedridden and couldn't get up due to the pain in her waist. Angelina, on the other hand, was fine, but she was at a loss for what to do. Fortunately, Claude returned, and she finally had someone to rely on and stopped panicking.
After getting her to make breakfast for the family, Claude drove to the apothecary and invited the sinister-looking herbalist to his home.
The snowhound was fine. After having its legs fastened to a stick, Claude fed it some perfect-quality first-grade healing potion and applied some topically as well. It recovered within three days and could run and jump around as usual. The truly troubled one was his mother, whom the herbalist said had only sustained some light physical injury such as a sprained waist. She would recover with some ointment in a day or two. What was truly concerning was the worries that weighed heavily on her mind. She was in a constant state of anxiety and her body was affected by her shock. She would recover a good amount of rest before recovering and had to regularly consume supplements.
After the old herbalist left, Claude went to the kitchen and made three steamed eggs, one each for his mother and two siblings. After feeding the snowhound, he tossed it a bone to nibble on to make up for some calcium so that its legs wouldn't break as easily the next time someone hit it with a stick, and that someone was the physically weak Arbeit. It was embarrassing to even think about.
He excused himself by saying he was going out to buy some things and drove his carriage to town to locate Arbeit. After asking the soldiers on duty, he got confirmation that Arbeit hadn't left town yet. So, he went to the jewellers' and some other shops to ask whether Arbeit pawned any of the jewellery there.
There were three jewellers' in Whitestag, but more than ten common shops in town. He spent more than two hours to do a full run through all of them, but none were said to have been visited by Arbeit.
Where's could that arse be now? Claude wondered. Arbeit actually broke into the house and robbed his own mother of her jewellery. It was apparent that he desperately lacked money. Otherwise, he wouldn't resort to such extreme measures. He wouldn't have to worry about food or drink at Sir Fux's, since he was his personal secretary.
That's right, after Father was arrested, that arse didn't reveal anything about his situation. Whether he's still working for Sir Fux is still unknown. Claude drove to Sir Fux's manor in the southwest of town and asked around. The butler that worked there said that Arbeit had applied for an extended leave, with the reason that he was busy dealing with matters following his father's arrest. Given that he was supposedly in charge of the Ferd household in his father's absence, Sir Fux agreed to his request for a leave.
Ptoooey! Claude spat on the ground harshly after he returned to his carriage. Isn't he putting up quite the serious persona in public? Even his excuse sounds so grand and noble! Has he fulfilled any responsibility as the head of the household? Where the heck did he go to ‘settle matters' after Father's arrest?!
Maybe I should approach this from another angle... Where would that arse go after he got the money? The scene of Arbeit bargaining with a woman in the old street during the night he went shopping for magic items appeared in his mind.
Hmm, he'd most definitely go to the old street after he has money. But the first time, he already cheated mom of around 16 thales. That's around three crowns in total! That should be enough for him to frolic around for a month or two. Even if he goes all out every day, it'd last him at least two weeks. The prices there are quite cheap after all, and even the most beautiful harlots cost only one riyas a go...
But he ran out of money after only three to four days and came back to try to cheat mom of her jewellery, only for his ploy to be thwarted and taught a lesson by me. Yet, he dared to come back to rob us in the morning when I wasn't there... What in the world gave him those guts? What could possibly force him to take such desperate measures?
The only possibility was if he got caught up in gambling or drugs. Arbeit was indulgent in sensual pleasures, no doubt, but 16 thales should've been able to last him quite a while at the old street. It wasn't possible for him to spend all that money within a week. When Claude was beating him up yesterday night, Arbeit's body didn't seem particular feeble or expended, so he probably wasn't using his money for that.
Drugs was even more implausible. The technology and culture in this world hadn't led to the discovery of recreational substances yet. There wasn't the slightest trace of ecstasy and similar hallucinogenic drugs in this world, so it wasn't possible to procure any of them, so it could be eliminated as a factor.
All that remained was gambling. Only that could cause Arbeit to lose all the money he had in that time and force him to go back home to try to cheat his mother for more. But Claude didn't know where his brother was gambling, whether it be an underground gambling den or a group of shitty friends. If it was the latter, there was no way Claude would be able to locate him. Who knew which corner he would hide in during the night?
But after some thought, Claude believed that it was highly possible for Arbeit to gamble in underground dens. After all, he didn't pawn the jewellery he stole from his mother at the hops. If he was gambling with his friends, he wouldn't be able to use those jewelry. Instead, the underground gambling dens usually provided a service to pawn items away for money. It was most probable for Arbeit to try to use the jewellery he stole to make a comeback through gambling.
Then again, he could simply be involved in a high-interest loan. That was probably what instilled the courage in him to break into his own house. Claude coldly analysed each possibility in his mind.
Regardless, the current issue was that Claude didn't know whether there was an underground gambling den in Whitestag. He hadn't heard of there being any. In Aueras, setting up private gambling sessions was a huge crime that was punished with hanging. It was only normal for Claude to not know of any. He had to find and insider for more information.
 Military unit of Freian militaries. A tent of troops number 10-12 men, just enough to fill up a tent, hence the name.