"Do you understand why I did it?" Morssen asked, watching the busy stall from his study window.
After having lunch, he asked Claude to follow him upstairs, intent on having a talk. Perhaps he wanted to know what his son thought.
The study was empty, as expected. Anything that could be sold had been taken downstairs. Only a thick desk, a cruddy old chair, and an old beastskin couch were left. Claude suspected that, had the chair and couch's furs not been damaged by exposure to sunlight, his father would have sold them as well. As for the desk, it was too heavy for his father to move alone.
Claude nodded a shrug.
"I kind of understand, but I think you're going too far."
His father turned from the window and walked to his desk. He took out the silver box in which he kept his tobacco leaves, and his ivory pipe, and stuffed it with a pinch of dried leaves. He could part with everything in the house, but those two things he could not let go.
"I'm glad you understand. It shows you have a far sharper mind than your brother and better foresight." His father nodded and lit the tobacco in his pipe, puffing a couple times. "Arbeit never understood one thing. I've been released without charges and only fired, but it doesn't mean everything is over. The bad luck still hasn't left our family.
"The convoy's misfortune took with it all my investments. I was too optimistic, blinded by the money I could make, and ignored the risks. It's bad enough I've lost everything, but I've ruined Thomas and the rest's lives as well. If I'd turned in my discovery from the start I might be a noble now. Instead... look at me."
Claude's father puffed on his pipe bitterly. Claude didn't know what he should say, nor how to console his father. The man's brooding soon faded, however, replaced by a bitter smile.
"It's too late to talk about that now though. Regret has no cure. Just learn from my mistake. Don't be greedy."
"It's not that we don't have any money. But I did bet most of my life's savings on the convoy. Three hundred and fifty crowns out of my pocket and another 150 in a loan from the bank."
Claude gasped. He'd never imagined his father, a mere low-level bureaucrat, could have amassed such a fortune. No doubt his title must have come with many... unofficial benefits.
His father shook his head.
"I've not taken a single penny in bribes in all my years as town secretary. I've earned every fenny honestly."
"I wasn't thinking that at all." Claude let out cold sweat.
Morssen took another sighing puff.
"Arbeit always thought he would inherit those shares. He didn't think the shares would become a dagger once I lost my position. I don't want any trouble, so I've sold it all. Got about 400 crowns out of it. It'll help me pay back the loan."
Claude didn't know why his father was discussing all this with him rather than his older brother. He was not the principle heir of the family, after all.
"The 2nd month is half past us now. News of what happened to the convoy should be released officially at the end of the month. We'll have to face another storm when that happens. I doubt no one in town will want revenge for what happened to the men in their family that joined the expedition.
"Baroness Maria mentioned it in her letter. I'm sure she's told you as well. The king's decided to tell the world what happened. If we don't handle this properly, our family will never have a home in Whitestag again."
Why was his father still so fixated on the family's reputation? Then again, unlike so many, he was actually facing the music of his failures.
"Arbeit doesn't understand how dangerous the situation is. He thinks all of this has nothing to do with us, especially not as far as finances are concerned. He wants to just ignore our responsibilities to the families, to not pay the pensions we owe."
His father grimaced.
"He's lost that intelligence I so admired in him, it seems. He'd been fighting my choices with regards to the family's finances every step of the way without thinking about whether I'd be able to hold onto them if the town came after me. I might if not for Baron Robert. He's always seen the three of use as a thorn in his side. He'll fan the flames until we're all burnt to a crisp.
"He's wanted to be rid of us for years, he'd not going to give up the opportunity to do us in for good. He'll no doubt try and strip us clean."
"So selling everything we own is your self-preservation?"
"Self preservation..." His father thought silently for a moment, then nodded bitterly. "Yes. You don't know half of it. Without my position, my words no longer hold weight. Even though people still address me politely and respectfully, they're actually mocking me secretly. If I were still the chief secretary, those shares of mine could be sold for some 700 crowns, but I only got around 400 for them, and that's thanks to them taking our past relationship into account and not giving me any trouble. Looks like my sweet words to them over the years haven't been wasted.
"What comes next for our family will be another period of hardship. We're not just doing this for show. We really have to show that we've done all we can to help the ones who lost their family members and ended up living such difficult lives ourselves. That would mean that all we're left with is this mansion of ours. We'll have to rely on the rent provided by the house your grandfather left us to survive.
"Leaving a good reputation for ourselves in town will make Baron Robert more wary. And given that our household has fallen so low, he wouldn't need to trouble himself with us either. Only after the whole matter with the trading fleet passes can we have a chance of rising from the ashes.
"If the king decides to expand on the new sailing route, we will gather funds one more time to buy a merchant vessel to once more sail to Nubissia to trade. Perhaps I might join the voyage and eventually become one of the biggest maritime traders between the two continents."
Claude smiled. It was fine as long as his father hadn't given up on fighting. He was most worried that his father would be depressed from losing his position and become a chronic alcoholic like his grandfather. It looked like his worry was for naught. His father was still alert and aware and knew what he should and shouldn't do. He still had plans and confidence for the future.
"Oh, by the way, I've called you here to discuss your future with you." Morssen finally recalled what he called his son for in the first place.
"I'm sorry, son. It looks like the plan for you to go to the Tyrrsim colony is for naught," Morssen said after a long moment's pause.
Claude was relieved and wondered why his father was so hesitant about it. Whether he could go to Nubissia to join the unit of a godfather he hadn't even met was something he put behind him long ago. The moment the incident that happened with the trading fleet came to light, he knew that he wouldn't be able to go. The new route was occupied by pirates and before the kingdom cleared them out, there would be no way for Claude to board a ship there.
"It's fine, Father. I don't really mind that. For now, I'm quite happy with working at the wood. I'm not looking forward to enlist," Claude said honestly.
Morssen shook his head. "That's not what I'm worried about. You're already an adult and you're registered as a peasant. While you may be able to avoid forced conscription for the military given your status as supervisor of Normanley Wood, given that you're the number-one graduate in your school's physical stream, you'll end up receiving an order to enlist. You won't be able to avoid it."
Physical stream students like Claude were the best candidates for enlistment into the military, not to mention the grades with which he graduated. In a time of line musket formations, students like Claude were the prime candidates for low-ranking officers. They were also the type of officers that suffered the most casualties in a war. Even Maria wouldn't be able to protect him from enlistment.
"We'll see when the time comes. We can't be sure when the order to enlist will come and I'm sure there's some way we can go about it. And even if I'm enlisted, that doesn't necessarily mean I'll be posted to the battlefield. And even if that's the case, that doesn't mean my luck will necessarily be bad." That was the best he could come up with to console his father.
Morssen glared at Claude solemnly and seemed a little angry. "You definitely didn't read the letter Lady Maria wrote you. Didn't you notice that His Majesty still hasn't decided on which proposal to choose? If the original plan is kept, you will be enlisted directly in half a year. I hope that the king chooses to work on the new sailing route instead. That way, the enlistment drive will commence a year later. That means that you'll only have one year to take the test to become a certified herbalist to avoid becoming cannon fodder on the frontlines!"
It was Claude's turn to smile awkwardly. Could he really become a low-ranked herbalist in one year's time? He wasn't confident in doing so, unless he stopped training in magic and working on his experiments and instead focused all his energy in learning herbalism under intense guidance by someone in the field. Perhaps, then, he would have a decent chance in succeeding.
"I understand, Father. I'll work hard on my studies when I go back," Claude said.