As Bluefeather was raging across Askilin, the flames of war continued to burn through the winter. The land all over the duchy was scorched. Countless refugees escaped on carriages with whatever they could. When the heavy snow fell, the roads were chock full of refugees carrying sacks, hurrying their beasts.
The toll gate Mazik set up by the pass began to bring in lots of income. He demanded astronomical fees. Each person had to pay a small silver and a small gold had to be paid for each carriage. They were Askilin coins, but they had roughly equal value to their Aueran counterparts. Two small silvers were equal to one thale, and two small gold coins were equal to a crown.
Most of the people were rich, so they could afford it even in their current downtrodden state. They were even willing to buy hot food at exorbitant prices.
It gave Mazik another great idea. He partnered with the village chief and erected a large tent next to the road within which he started a small tavern. He hired several villagers as cooks and servers and paid them two-tenths of the place's earnings. The prices were at least double the normal rate.
"Sir, I really don't understand why these people bother escaping. Don't they know going to Swansburg will only delay the inevitable? The two irregular corps will soon come and Bluefeather will take the city sooner or later as well. When Askilin is eliminated, what would they do in Swansburg? Await their death?" Myjack asked.
Claude was standing on the extended cliff with Gum and Myjack. They could see the carriages and people crowded below, paying tolls and moving through. The roadside restaurant was filled, too. They could hear the greetings shouted between familiar faces.
"Most of the townsfolk won't escape. The ones that even bother are afraid we'll come for them later. The three southern prefectures are famous for their mining and weapons industries. Perhaps these people are affiliated with them. It might not be far off to say they have deep, vested interests in those businesses. We've occupied the three prefectures, but we haven't bothered sweeping their industries clean because we don't have enough men. Bluefeather is still on the campaign trail.
"If they don't flee right now, they'll be charged with all sorts of crimes when the kingdom comes to deal with these refineries and weapons factories. They might even be sent to labour camps. The only thing they can do is run. They might just be able to live free for a little longer, or maybe they can escape to another kingdom. Not to mention they have ties to the duchy's lords and ladies. They might be headed to Swansburg in hopes they can reclaim their lost land and businesses," Claude explained.
"Then why are we letting them go? We can just capture them here."
"Haha, why would we capture them? We didn't receive any orders to that effect. Plus, clearing out and restructuring the industries is a matter for the kingdom's pen pushers. If the military butts in, we'll just be dabbling unnecessarily and even the king might take action. The generals probably don't want needless trouble. Also, letting them go benefits us, right?"
Claude was quite aware of this point. The job of the army was to fight wars, not to dabble in the jurisdiction of other departments such as the economy. He had heard Major Lederfanc mouth on about it a couple times now.
"Let's go, bring your muskets. We'll head to the wood. The chief said he heard wolves howling in the middle of the night. Let's go see if there really are any wolves. If indeed so, we should kill them all so they don't make trouble later."
There was no longer anything interesting to see at the cliff, so he turned and left.
Snow covered the whole wood and the hungry beasts approached the village to look for food. Claude had learned that in Whitestag. The snow was thick and heavy. He noticed some wolf prints at one point, but they belonged to a single wolf. Either it was old and had been left behind or it was a rogue loner. They ought to get it while they had the chance.
When Claude returned to the camp, he found a soldier waiting for him.
"Second Lieutenant Claude, we stopped a carriage earlier. A lady and her maids were inside," the soldier reported.
"What about them?" he asked.
What was Mazik up to this time?
"Well, we found this on the carriage," the soldier said as he handed over a package.
Claude opened it and his face darkened. Two disassembled Aubass Mark 3s were inside. They'd also been carefully and expertly taken apart, none of the parts showed any pry damage.
"Tell the sergeant-major to bring them to me. I have a few questions for them."
The soldier saluted and left immediately. The carriage rolled up a couple minutes later.
"Search the carriage thoroughly, Myjack. Confiscate anything suspicious."
Myjack saluted and vanished with Gum just as Mazik came up the stairs.
"Here they are, Sir," he said, stepping into the office.
"Bring them in one at a time. And call a scribe."
The lady entered first. She wore thick leather clothes, which did little to hide her curves, and a netted hat through which her voluptuous red lips shone.
"Off with the hat, please, Miss," Claude said, only mildly polite.
The woman's lips cracked into a gentle, if somewhat cocky smile.
"You should address me as 'madam', young man. But I'll not chide you for 'miss'."
She removed her cap and revealed her face. The scribe and Mazik were immediately lovestruck. She was the kind of beauty that sported an aura of both allure and dignity and wore a helpless expression that stimulated the male instinct to protect.
Claude was not moved, however. He'd seen more than his fair share of beauties her equal. Earth's evil asian arts (read makeup) could do wonders to even a subpar face. He had been quite the connoisseur of such beauty back then, though he never stopped being shocked at the hags they could turn into the moment their makeup came off.
Rapping on the table to chide the two gaping perverts, Claude pointed at the package.
"Madam, please tell me your name and background, as well as how you managed to obtain two of our muskets."
She was slightly taken aback by the lack of effect her looks had on Claude. She inspected him thoroughly, hesitated at the sight of Claude's businesslike, no-nonsense expression, then answered.
"I am Baroness Sonia Lou Vaksiri. I come from Pacasia and am on my way to Swansburg to visit my sick father. As for those two muskets, I purchased them from someone else. I wasn't aware they were military arms."
Pacasia was the prefectural capital of Pauralto, one of the three southern prefectures -- the capital of the regional industrial economy. The duchy's largest factories were also there, including it's smithies.
Claude smiled and stood up. He took out a document leisurely.
"Baroness Vaksiri, someone of your stature should know better than to weave flimsy lies. Nobody could've disassembled these muskets so thoroughly without great expertise. Just look at this part. It's incredibly difficult to remove it without damaging it. Normally, people would try to hammer it off, but the parts on these two muskets don't show signs of being hammered at all. I trust you purchased them complete, not disassembled?"
"You wouldn't be saying that if you knew who my father was," the beauty retorted, "He is Liboyd Milowski. You should've heard of him before."
Liboyd Milowski? Who the hell was that? Claude glanced at the other two in the room, but they also had puzzled expressions.
"Ahem... Madam... Who might your father be? We haven't heard of him."
The lady's face flushed furiously. She shot Claude a glance like she would a country bumpkin.
"My father is the most famous musketsmith on the continent! Many of the muskets he's designed have become standard-issue for many nations' armies! As his daughter, I've learned to disassemble muskets from my birth. It's not that hard to take your musket apart. My maidservants can do it under my supervision."
"Oh, you mentioned Master Boyd?" Claude finally recalled Master Boyd was the most famous armsmith of the duchy. Before Aueras came to the three southern prefectures, High Command had released a list of people that had to be treated cordially and sent to them directly if found. The kingdom wanted these talented people.
Master Boyd was third on the list, obviously a high-value target. Most of the people on the list were gone by the time the last of the cities fell, however. Master Boyd was one of them. He'd apparently gone to the duchy's capital for treatment of an illness.
If Baroness Vaskiri really was his daughter, then her possession of the Mark 3s made complete sense. She wanted to reverse engineer them and build on their secrets.
Even though Askilin had issued their own Falchston Type-185, they were still inferior to the Mark 3. The lady probably intended to take these two samples to her father.
"Baroness, do you have concrete proof of your relationship with Master Boyd? If you don't, I am sorry to say, then you will be staying with us for a while. We cannot let people go who have illegal possession of military material," Claude decided before ending the session.