Claude and his keepers spent new year's eve of 577, in the pass. Had it not been for the logistics department sending them two cartloads of special gifts, he would've forgotten it even was new year's.
Eimis' keeper tribe's acting tribesman, Captain Wardlov, had a short fuse. He was an attentive superior. It took him a while to cool off after realising how badly he'd been screwed over by Major Jebson, but he eventually did and came by for a visit. Claude took the opportunity to ask for a munitions budget to continue their training. He argued it made no sense to not continue their firing training since that was all at which they were good.
They didn't only have to watch the people crossing the mountain range. They patrolled the mountains from time to time as well. Snow had been coming down as well and the days were getting cold. Luckily, their new year's gifts included their winter uniforms. Claude also had the men build snow walls around their post to keep the wind out.
Also among the gifts was a bottle of fruit wine, two pieces of jerky, and two random pieces of fruit for each soldier. It was meagre, but the city was housing 300 thousand soldiers, so he guessed he shouldn't expect much. That said, he couldn't be happy with just this, so he bought supplies for a feast out of pocket: two sheep and two barrels of blackwheat ale.
The convoys started coming over the pass again on the 13th of the 1st month the next year. Countless carriages rolled through their checkpoint every day. Even the nights weren't quiet. Apart from checking whether they had valid papers, Claude's keepers also had to keep the pass in working order, which meant cleaning up the snow.
On the 14th of the 2nd month, the royal guard finally rushed in from the capital. Their keepers took over the pass and relieved Claude and his men. Claude had wanted to see if he could spot Welikro, but a single line was up to five thousand men and took a long time to pass by. He soon found himself worn out. Since his men now had nothing to do, he took them to the woods nearby for a little practice. As actual troops were crossing, Claude didn't allow them to use live rounds. He only had them practice reloading and aiming.
Several mounted officers passed by a while later, and stopped to watch Claude's men as they practiced reloading prone.
Claude called a break an hour later, and a guardsman rode over and told him to follow him to the first prince.
The first prince? Lady Maria couldn't have asked him to watch after Claude as well, could she? No, he had to be overthinking it. The first prince didn't know who he was. He was probably just curious about this unorthodox training.
The first prince, Prince Hansbach, was in his forties. He currently wore the standard royal guard uniform, sans rank insignia. His surrounding officers made it impossible to mistake him for a normal guardsman, however. Their decorations were blinding. Every rank from first lieutenant to lieutenant-general was represented, honourary and official. Half were above majors. Claude had to salute them each one-by-one before he could come to attention and await the prince's address.
"You're that keeper band's bandsman, yes? What's your name?" the prince asked gently.
"I am just their acting bandsman. My name is Claude Ferd."
Hansbach pointed at the guns in the hands of Claude's subordinates.
"I want to ask about the Aubass Mark 3s you were using. Did your superiors force them on you?"
"No, Your Highness. We requested them."
"Oh? I heard many say they're failures and have no use for them."
"A firearm can only be as good as the man wielding it, Your Highness. Those used to the Mark 2s struggle with the Mark 3 because of the changes it makes. Rather than thinking to improve themselves, however, they blame their muskets and refuse to use them. Some have even taken to calling them kink-necks.
"My men know no previous firearms. They know only the Mark 3 and so they have no prejudice against the new design. The weapon's greater accuracy is also ideal for my men since they mostly do sentry or patrol duties and we're not expected to deal with large numbers of enemies," Claude answered carefully.
"Haha, kink-necks!" the prince chuckled, "Reddragon and Griffon call them head-tilters. Kink-necks sounds much better. You talk sense. It's just a matter of getting used to the muskets. How accurate are your men?"
"We can hit an apple up to 50 metres, and a melon up to 80. At a hundred we can hit a man every time easily. Beyond that it gets difficult. It's not my men's fault, however, the problem is the muskets."
"Accurate to a hundred meters? Have them demonstrate with live rounds."
"That won't do, Your Highness! Your safety is our priority!" a lieutenant-colonel cried in shock.
"It's fine, they're our men, not assassins. Don't I have you by my side if something happens, anyway?" the prince smiled nonchalantly, waving the man off.
"Your Highness," Claude chimed carefully, "Your men are still passing by. The sound of musketfire might halt them and hold up the march."
The prince couldn't hold back several short laughs.
"It's fine, they're the royal guard. It would be hilarious if they were halted by a couple shots. I would strip them naked myself and tell them to go back to their mommies."
The officers laughed with the prince.
Hansbach recalled the training.
"Um, whats-your-name... Tell me, why do you have your men reload prone?"
"It's Claude Ferd, Your Highness," Claude answered, somewhat awkwardly.
"Yes, Claude, apologies. Your name's a little too common to remember so easily."
The prince appeared quite approachable, unlike his little brother.
Claude smiled it away and answered his question.
"My men don't fire in volley. They are sharpshooters. They target and fire individually. The key to this tactic is remaining hidden until you fire, and being as small a target afterward. It's rather difficult to do when you're standing upright, and doing so shoulder to shoulder with forty or fifty other people just like you. Lying down lets you do both, so that's what I had the men do."
The prince sank into deep thought for several, long, silent moments.
"Quite a well thought out tactic. Many men fall before they can even fire, and yet more fall after their first shot and before they could finish reloading. Anyway, let's see your tactic in practice."
Claude did as he was told. As his men loaded, Claude noticed the prince's escort closing in around him in a cordon that should protect him from a stray shot or some other danger.
He had each man fire ten rounds, then retrieved the target papers. Most of the shots were neatly clustered around the centre. Even though the targets and target papers were different, they admitted that only the best of the senior soldiers in Reddragon and Griffon could match it.
Prince Hansbach was quite satisfied with the results, but Claude felt the opposite. The troops who hadn't been training much since their stationing on the pass had worsened substantially. It was awkward that the prince forgot Claude's name, but he made sure to ask him for it before he left.
"I thought the first prince would reward us with something for our good results. I didn't think it would be all lip service. How stingy," Berklin complained.
"Dream on," Aboyev chipped in, "He's the first prince, you know! Do you think he'd take gold coins out of his pockets and hand them to us? That's something merchants and rich tycoons do. If he wants to reward us, he'd send someone to bring whatever it is to us tomorrow as a surprise. It's already quite something to earn his praise."
Claude had thought about the prince's interest as something spontaneous anyway, so he didn't think much about their encounter. He didn't think Captain Wardlov would rush to him on horseback the next day.
"Did you do something wrong yesterday?" he asked even before his horse had come to a complete stop.
"Mistake? I don't recall anything like that. I didn't do anything," he answered, puzzled.
The captain looked like he was about to explode.
"Didn't do anything?! Then why did Prince Hansbach send people to wake me up in the middle of the night to give him your unit's dossier? I would've come looking for you then if the gates weren't already locked!"
Huh? The prince asked for their dossier? What on Freia could have prompted such interest?
"You really have a fool's fortune--" Wardlov shot Claude an envious glance. "--It's incredibly obvious you've earned the prince's favour! You're going to have a bright future, my boy. Heck, if I didn't trade two bottles of my precious wine for you, you wouldn't have this chance at all! Don't forget me when you're big."
Oh, come on. Why did he always have to bring up those damned bottles of wine? If he really was so sore over it, Claude would just give him five. The bigger concern was the prince's sudden interest in him and his men. Surely he didn't have the intention of making them his guards? He already had so many men.
Two days later, however, Claude received a formal notice of transfer to one of the prince's ranger tribes.