It wasn't just one lit, short-barreled musket. In fact, there were five, and not the usual designs, either. They'd been modified. The gun trained on the rat had three barrels. It reminded Claude of Oask's twin-barrel. All five of the guns' slow matches were lit -- their light blinding.
The guns were clearly custom made. The slow matches burned slower than to which Claude was used, and at a stabler pace. He inspected the five men carefully. They wore black bat-like silk robes. It was hot, but their hoods were pulled over their heads, almost down to their noses..
Another set of footsteps announced another five's arrival, all bearing the same modified muskets. One of them was a worker from Dunkro, the one called Ivago. Was Dunkro in cahoots with the gangs? Did they have their eyes on him?
Ivago scanned the alley, then pointed at Claude.
The five muskets turned to Claude immediately. Their apparent leader shoved his gun into the rat's face.
"Move aside!" he barked.
The two shivered and vanished into dark corner of the alley, hugging their heads.
"Don't try anything. Don't make the mistake of thinking we're the only ones aiming at you. If you tell me where that friend of yours is, I won't make things unduly difficult for you," the leader said, turning his gaze back to Claude.
Claude's face stiffened. These had to be the most ballsy people across whom he'd ever come. When did the government make it legal for just any fool to carry a musket?
If the government found out about this, the consequences would be beyond bad for the people responsible for keeping just this from happening. The city would be lucky if only the chief keeper and constable were executed.
Brawls between vagabonds was one thing, but armed gangs was another entirely. More than likely the entire municipal government would be purged. Claude would be surprised if more than ten percent of the current officials survived.
That did nothing to his current predicament, however. He had little choice but to go along with his captors.
"I have no friends in the city. I only know the coachman I hired to bring me here. I'm to report for duty in day or two. If you want money, I can give you what I have, but leave innocent people out of this."
"Money? You think we're here to rob you?"
The leader grimaced. He was actually taken for being a bandit!
"Apart from the money that man over there saw me withdraw from the bank, I can't think of any reason why you'd hold me up with such excessive force," Claude answered.
"Bullshit, you think we would go through this much trouble for a little coin?"
"A thousand crowns is 'a little coin'? Wow, you guys have a larger appetite than I thought."
"One thousand... Where did you get so much money?"
A thousand crowns was more than a lifetime's wealth, but this boy had withdrawn it from his bank account to buy whiteroot powder. How much more did he have in his bank account? He'd not been informed about this!
"I earned it myself. Everything's been legitimately earned and taxed accordingly. You can check with the bank if you want."
Why were robbers asking questions about his sources of income?
"Impossible! We've been trailing you from the moment you crossed the border, you've not had any time to get that kind of money!"
"Crossed the border? When did we cross the border? We were checked almost every day of our trip. I have the stamps on my passport to prove it."
Claude wondered if he'd missed something. Maybe Whitewood required a special permit to visit? Oask never mentioned anything about it.
The two went back and forth like this for nearly ten minutes before the leader finally decided something was off about the whole situation.
"We've found no traces of magic, Sir," one of the men said, appearing as if out of thin air.
The leader's eyes snapped back to Claude, then to the two men shrivelled up in the corner and the three men injured and unconscious on the ground.
"Check the three down there. Find out what took them down."
The black-robed man approached Claude, his gun ready to fire. Claude made way for him obediently.
The man spared him an approving, though still suspicious, glance, then knelt by the three.
"Two have heavy injuries. One's face has been all but caved in, the other's forehead is mush and his chest's been shattered. The third one is bleeding from the back of his head, so it looks like he hit it in a fall."
The leader stared at the three bodies for a moment, then glanced back at Claude.
"Who are you? Where are you going and whence did you come?"
"I'm Claude Ferd, a peasant from Whitestag. I've been conscripted by Bluefeather and I'm currently on my way to Kafreizit to report for training. I happened to pass through Whitewood on my way and stopped over for the night."
"Conscription, is it? Your passport. I'll have a look."
"A-aren't you part of a gang? Why would you check that?"
"W-who said we're a gang?! We're the kingdom's special operations force! Show him the badge!"
The man beside Claude got back upright and flashed a silver medal. Claude caught a glimpse of an engraving; 'Watchers in the Night'. The other side flashed for a moment as well, and it too had an engraving 'Special Operations Corps 2013'.
Watchers in the Night... That sounded familiar...
"Oh, you guys are the Watch!"
The leader's gaze cooled.
"Where did you hear about us?"
"My teacher told me."
"Who's your teacher?"
"Lady Maria, my apothecary teacher," Claude answered.
He took out his conscription order and passport and handed it to the black-robed man.
"Apologies. I thought you were part of some underground syndicate. I thought the shopkeeper was your eye and I attracted your attention because I revealed my money. These thugs tried to force me to buy shitty whiteroot powder. I had just finished teaching them a lesson when you arrived. I was wondering what kind of gang dared carry firearms in broad daylight..."
"See?" one of the others said, "I told you we shouldn't wear this odd getup. He thought we were a gang..."
"Shut up!" the apparent leader barked.
The target of the man's ire knelt on the ground and pinched some of the whiteroot powder, ignoring his outburst.
"Huh? You call this whiteroot powder? It's barely even talcum powder..."
"Apologies, it seems there's been a misunderstanding," the leader interrupted, handing back Claude's documents, "You're not the one we're seeking. Aight boys, time to go."
The barrels lowered and several Claude noticed peeking over the alley walls vanished as well.
Claude's suddenly realised how tense he'd been when he felt his body sigh and relax involuntarily.
"It's okay. But why would you mistake me for whoever it is you're seeking?"
"Because you bought ten boxes of the best whiteroot powder in the kingdom. We're looking for two magi from Siklos. One is young, the other old. They crossed the border nearby not too long ago. We'd tracked them from there to here, but it seems we'd lost them. We suspected they were here to buy materials, so when you showed up and bought the best whiteroot powder in town, we thought we'd finally found them again. That reminds me, why did you buy ten boxes of whiteroot powder? It doesn't make sense, especially not since you're just about to report for training."
Ah, so it was the damn powder! Doing something spontaneous for someone else really only brought trouble!
"I can't get good whiteroot powder back home. At best I can get decent powder, but it's about as expensive as the top quality stuff I just bought. I thought this would be great to help me practice concocting.
"I also bought it as a gift for my teacher. I'm enlisting with the military, but my teacher will be back in my hometown for a while shortly. I thought she would appreciate good whiteroot powder since she usually goes there to do experiments."
"This Lady Maria, is she the capital's Baroness Maria Fen Normanley?"
"Yes. Do you know her?"
"Of course I do. I even had a few interactions with her. She doesn't have the best temperament and she hates entertaining the Watch. One more question. Since she's your apothecary teacher, why did she let you get conscripted?"
Claude smiled bitterly.
"I only got to learn from her for a while before she had to return to the capital. My hometown recently got a new mayor. Lady Maria asked him to look out for me, and he decided that meant he should get me into the army. So he wrote a recommendation letter to Bluefeather, which they accepted and now here I am. The new mayor's Viscount Felidos, by the way."
"I know the viscount. He is an army nut, so that doesn't surprise me. Alright, you may leave. Any ideas on how we should deal with the thugs? I think one of them had an uncle in the constabulary."
Claude scratched his head.
"I don't know. I've taught them a lesson, so I have little interest in them now. You might as well just toss them in a labour camp somewhere for a couple years."
The scrawny man suddenly jumped up.
"I... I know where the two magi are..."