Today was the last day of Year 575 of the Sacred Light Era. After today day, Claude would be eighteen by laws, even though his birthday was on the 18th of the 3rd month.
Claude would be a peasant as of the next day. He would have to pay his own head tax and other duties to the kingdom. He would no longer enjoy the benefits of his dignitarian father. Then again, his father was locked up in the military encampment. Even if he were as young as Bloweyk, he might still lose his benefits as they might depending on what happened with their father.
He supposed Freian families did new year much like old earth's Chinese did lunar new year. Everyone gathered together for dinner and to make merry. The dinner was there, but this year there was no merrymaking. The dining table usually sat 6 people on new year's, but this time it sat just four. Claude's mother was bedridden, not that she had the appetite to eat even if she were not ill, his father was a prisoner, and Arbeit dared not come home. In fact, the table would have sat just three if not for the snowhound.
Angelina had taken care of the chores that afternoon without prompt, cleaning even the stairs and floorboards. For her part, she was turning fourteen. Her final year in elementary school had also come to a close, and she was about to start middle school. Her mind was occupied now, however, with worry over whether she really would get to go to middle school, considering what was going on with her father. She attended school only because her father's status meant they didn't have to pay for the basic education. If he was put to death or even just stripped of his status, she would not go to middle school since the family wouldn't be able to afford it.
Claude had sworn up and down the east coast that he would pay for her school if it came down to it, but she didn't have it in her heart to accept that from him.
Bloweyk was turning eight, and the piggy had started taming his appetite as his sensibilities finally began to grow in. He'd caught up in maturity by at least 3 years following the business with his oldest brother. He now quietly and obediently looked after his pet and checked on his mother. He'd also stopped throwing tantrums if he didn't get exactly what he wanted; in fact, he'd stopped being such a pest with Claude altogether. Claude decided to reward him for his growth and had brought him his self-made tangram puzzle.
Claude made a light feast for the family, but now the three ate alone, in silence. Their mother was pecking at her food alone in her room. Claude had sworn to himself to pulp Arbeit until he stopped breathing, resurrect him, and do it a couple dozen more times before he got the chance to get away.
The main streets were quite busy, and every house was decorated.
Claude went to the storeroom and took out some old lanterns from the previous year, lit two candles and put them inside before hanging the lanterns out.
The family were ill-equipped to celebrate the new year's thanks to their father's arrest. They also didn't have the snacks they usually gave guests, though Claude doubted any would show up this year.
Last year around the same time, Claude was brought to the war god's shrine to await the ringing of the new year's bell. He later went to the moon goddess's shrine with Eriksson. His mother took Bloweyk and Angelina to the earth goddess's shrine. This year, the three shrines might be the same as they used to be, but Claude had lost all interest in participating in the festivities. He wasn't going to the three shrines to make merry.
Claude took his siblings to the study. His sister liked reading. She looked for something to dig into with her mind. Claude read stories to his little brother. Most of the children's books his father had bought were already torn to shreds, unfortunately; the picky little destroyer insisted Claude tell him new stories. He preferred knights and dragons.
Having no other choice, Claude could only pick a popular chivalric romance from the shelf, adding on his unobtrusive twist.
Time flowed quickly and new year's bell rang from the god of war's shrine. His sister put down her book and yawned.
"Happy new year, Brother," she announced.
"Happy new year, Anna," Claude said, his eyes still on his little brother, curled up in his lap, "Go sleep. I'm sure you're barely holding on. Blowk's already asleep and even the bell isn't waking him."
"Okay. I heard everyone say making a wish when the new year's bell is ringing will make it come true. I'm glad I managed to stay awake."
"Oh? What did you wish for?"
"Can't say. You can't tell anyone until it comes true, else it never will. Good night!"
Angelina headed to the bathroom to wash up while Claude took his little brother to the two's room. He stopped by his mother's room on the way back. She was still up, but lying as dead quiet as though she were asleep. He could see the tear streaks on her face.
"Mom. Want something to eat?"
Her head shook slowly.
"I can't. It's new year. Time flies, doesn't it. It feels like just yesterday I was still walking around with you in my stomach. Now you're an adult. It's not been long enough. It really hasn't..."
Claude got some warm water from the bathroom and handed a hot soaked towel to his mother from the bucket.
"Wipe your face, mom. Happy new year and stay healthy. Don't worry about Father. We'll be fine. I'm still here. I'll take care of Blowk and Anna. You just rest and recover."
Madam Ferd squeezed a laborious smile.
"Thanks, Claude. Happy new year. I wish you have a bright future. I guess we can only count on you now."
"Don't worry, mom. We're family. Rest. I'm going downstairs. Just pull the rope bell if you need anything."
Claude refilled Jemmy's food and calmed the horse, which was circling around nervously from the bell.
He returned to the east floor, Jemmy finally calmed, and put out his mother's lamp, then settled on the couch in his father's study. His pushed his awareness out into the building and sensed his sibling asleep a couple doors down. His mother had just fallen into her sleep as well.
He listened to his mother's uneasy breathing for half an hour until it calmed as she slipped into deep sleep, then changed into his spare pair of clothes.
The entire town would be out in the streets, near the shrines, for the whole night, so the keepers had pulled back from town and focused on the perimeter.
Snow fell incessantly, the ground already white.
Claude tightened his coat and pulled his cap down as far as it would go, closed the door, and marched off into the night.
He quickly came across a crowd around one of the smaller shrines, and faded into it. A couple drunken howls broke through the boisterous conversation every couple of minutes, but the crowd tolerated the merrymakers.
The men let loose properly on new year's, for this one night might be the only they could properly let go of the stodgy formalism so common to conservative rural towns like Whitestag. Most were heading for old street. There the harlots continued their ancient profession even on this night, or perhaps especially on this night, of celebration. It didn't sound like the prices Claude had heard before, either.
The old street, for all its shady lighting and quite literally shitty environment, was quite merry, which was quite out of the ordinary. The street was usually busy, even lively, but rarely merry. Claude even saw a couple keeper blues, clearly not here on official business.
Claude ignored all the invitation and temptations and just continued on his way. He stopped, finally, at one particular corner of the neighbourhood. This, was the information kiosk, as it was known. This was where one got any information you wanted about anything dodgy happening in the region. It was quite a popular spot for harlots and young street urchins, though, unlike everyone else, they left with fuller pockets than they arrived.
Speaking of pickpockets. Old Street was oddly devoid of them that evening. It was usually teeming with them much like the sewers were with rats, but he had not come across one yet. Unlike every other night, however, he actually wanted to run into one that night. Pickpocket or no, he decided, he could still get his information, so he, for the first time in his life, accosted a harlot.
He'd initially thought about looking for a Blacksnake, but they were all involved with women, and usually in groups of three or more, so that was out of the question.
His chosen harlot could tell him little of note, however. It seemed his taste in harlots had yet to be refined, so he turned back to the Blacksnakes. He gargled some wine, spilled a couple glugs on his clothes, then stared at the crowds intently for several minutes.
It didn't take long for a sly figure to sidle up to him, two burly men not far behind.
"What are you doing here?" the figure asked.
"What does it look like? Waiting for someone..." Claude answered as hoarsely as his cold throat could, "Those fools said they had a fun place for me, but they're up there--" He pointed in the general, drunk direction of the building behind him. "--with several whores. Bastards better not keep me waiting too long..."
"Why not enjoy a lady's company while you wait?" the man asked.
"Not interested. Women aren't interesting. Cards, on the other hand... Oh f*ck it. I'm going home!"
"A moment, friend. I know a good place, if you're interested."
"A good place?" Claude asked, his gaze doubtful, "No, you don't know me, so you don't know what I like. I shouldn't trouble you, anyway. I guess I'll just go have a drink or two back at the inn."
"Few people dislike it," the man promised, "I'm sure you won't be one of them. Come, it's just around the corner. It's pretty exclusive, not just anyone can go there, but we can get you in."
"Alright. I won't stay if I'm not happy though. And the heavens have mercy on you if you try to stop me..."
The man nodded happily and turned to lead the way.
"Don't worry, I'm a Blacksnake, and we run this part of town. No one will get in your way if you choose to leave, or make trouble for you if you choose to stay. Come, let me take you there now."