He descended the stairs to wash his face and brush his teeth. He realized Arbeit was absent when he came to the last few steps on the final flight. How weird. He had not come home at any time during the night, either. Claude, however, quickly put his curiosity away. He freshened himself up and returned to the dining room. He greeted his parents, stroked his sister's head, pinched Bloweyk's face and toyed with him for a few moments, before sitting down.
He found his friends not long after leaving his house and the three walked to school together as always.
The diary occupied most of his mind, so he completely forgot to ask how the previous day's hunt had gone. In his defence, however, none of the other three brought it up either.
He tossed his bag on his table as he came to it in the classroom, collapsed into his chair, folded his arms over the bag, and fell asleep. Borkal knocked him over his head only a few moments later, however.
"What's wrong? Why so tired?"
"Yeah, well... I slept for most of the afternoon, so I couldn't last night. Now I'm tired... Oh, weren't you guys out hunting cats? How did it go?"
"Umm," Borkal's face was instantly red, "We got two cats, but couldn't tell if they were house cats or strays... We were still trying to figure it out when their owners came chasing after us. We managed to get away, but everyone knows me, so my dad gave me a good hiding when I got back because they'd gone and told him. He made me pay a thale to each of the owners."
Claude's smile vanished.
"You have to be kidding... Why did you shoot the poor things if you weren't sure if they were really strays? Where did you go hunting?"
"We went to the woods just outside of town. We shot at birds for a while, but we didn't get any so we went after a few cats. We found four fat cats in an empty yard. Eyke was so excited, and since we were in an empty yard we figured they were most likely strays, so we shot at them. We got two, but the other two were gone before we were ready to shoot again.
"We were just busy picking the two we got up when someone came at us with a cleaver. He was screaming something like 'cat burglar' now that I think about it."
No wonder they didn't bring it up on their own. Claude thanked his stars he hadn't gone hunting with them.
"Who told you fat cats are definitely strays? Only someone's pet could get enough food to get fat!"
"It's Eyke and Wero's fault! They're the ones that started shooting before we got a good look at the cats!" Borkal complained.
Claude shoved his fist into the other boy's ample stomach.
"It's your fault for eating so much. No one can possibly mistake you even if all they see is your silhouette!"
"I'm not fat! I'm just well covered!"
The language class instructor, also their homeroom instructor, Weckham, marched into the classroom at that moment. The instructor usually 'cared' for him a lot and often asked him to answer questions in class, regardless of whether Claude really needed his care or felt like answering the questions or not. So much for his nap, he lamented, yawning.
Instructor Weckham paid the same amount of attention to Claude as he expected. He was called on to answer a question twice during the class. One question asked him to translate Hebrai phrases, he found that one especially taxing, since he'd been doing much the same thing the whole night. Unfortunately, his immediate tire was gone by the time class ended and he knew it would be back with a vengeance later in the day.
Borkal and Welikro rushed to the toilet almost before class was dismissed. Eriksson and Claude loitered around the corridor, waiting for them.
"Look. Here come the girls. I wonder if we can see that crush of yours," Eriksson murmured, poking Claude's side with one hand and pointing at the oncoming flowers with the other. The two stared hopefully, longingly at the segregated girls' classrooms.
"The he-- when did I get a crush?" Claude asked, affrontation swimming in his voice.
"Huh? Have you forgotten already? We had this deep, philosophical discussion about the girls' beauty last year, remember? Wero said Bozina was the best, but I knew it was Porya. Boa pegged that wide-eyed Betty, and you mistakenly identified Kefnie."
Damn that useless brat of a predecessor! He hadn't even been in this world at the time, how could, whoever this Kefnie was, be his crush? His consciousness wandered for a moment, delving into his library of inherited memory, and finally returned with the entries he sought.
Bozina was the tallest of the four in question. Despite her youth, she already had a rather mature figure, which spilled in all the right places, if a little excessively at certain angles. Claude was certain that parts of her were going to get in the way when she lived out the heroic aura she had about her. He wasn't in the least surprised when he'd heard she'd signed up for the fencing classes, though he felt very bad for her chest and shoulders. No doubt several boys' parents were looking to pair her with their offspring, the elders did say fertility was in the hips, after all. He was also not surprised that Wero was the one that liked her. He was more interested in a woman that could give him lots of children, even at the expense of other things.
Porya certainly deserved her position near the top of the beauty hierarchy, but she was too coy for Claude's tastes. She played innocent while flicking her eyelashes at every other boy across whom she came. It didn't help that she tended to become quite sour if a week or two went by without any of her prospective suitors getting her a gift. He had no interest in women so set on benefits and so willing to sell themselves for it. Sure, she had not yet unveiled herself for a man, but if she was flicking eyelashes at this age already, and doing it so freely whilst normal girls found that very... loose, she would no doubt move on to other kinds of loose flicking very soon.
Betty, by contrast, was one of the smartest children in their grade, among both the boys and the girls. She had a very slight frame, and her eyes were far apart, almost a little too far, but they shone with a vociferous intelligence. Claude had to admit, however, that it might also just be the reflections off the globe-round glasses she always wore. He always wondered if, on her nose, under the bridge of the glasses, and on her ears, under the glasses' ears, she didn't have thick calluses. He could not imagine the thin, glazed copper frame that made up the non-lense parts of the glasses were comfortable, or light, for that matter, though the weight was more a consideration because of the thickness of the lenses themselves.
Borkal had unique tastes, though Claude had no inclination to criticise them. He could certainly have done far worse. Then again, she did appear quite a bit younger than he knew her age was...
Kefnie, the one his predecessor had so liked and thought of as the most refined of the four, was far from it in his mind. She had a decent appearance, and her figure was well on its way to matching Bozina, if a few years behind. The school's uniforms were unisex, but even under them, and ignoring the obvious female hairstyles and faces, one could tell she was a girl under her clothes.
He suspected, in fact, that Claude had less of an interest in Kefnie, than he had in how she looked in a uniform. A quick shudder ran through his spine as he was reminded of the gender-bender fiction he'd read in his younger days.
"Oh yes. You even vowed you'd come back from your service on an expensive horse and ride Kefnie right to the altar," Eriksson continued, carefully choosing his verb to be as allusive as possible.
"Did I really say that?!" Claude moaned, tugging on his hair.
He had no doubt anyone who survived their teenage years regretted innumerable things from that time in their lives, but he was equally certain he had far more than most. Not to mention that he was regretting what someone else had done, not even his own actions...
"Really. Wero and Boa were there, too. You can ask them, too, if you like."
Claude's face's red turned a few shades, from embarrassment to anger. Why did he have to suffer the humiliation for things he had not done? It was so unfair!
"Let's drop it for now. Besides, Porya is the best. I'll make sure I'm rich by the time we graduate so I can snap her up before anyone else."
"Oh no you don't! I saw her first. We all agreed she was mine!" Eriksson half-shouted, shoving his finger in Claude's face and wagging it furiously.
Claude had to fight not to chuckle. Eriksson's reaction would have been right at home in a discussion about who was going to buy which car in a dealership in his previous life.
Humour aside, however, the poor boy was really too foolish. The marriage wouldn't last a year, if it ever took form in the first place. She'd no doubt be cheating on him before they'd even said their vows.
"You can't treat a friend like this. I even helped you and Kefnie along! Not to mention that I've been asking around and heard what her family situation is..."
Eriksson's voice trailed off as though he was teasing Claude, expecting him to shake him around by his shoulders and demand he tell him what he knew immediately.
"Not interested," Claude replied, despite doing just that to Eriksson mentally.
He knew Eriksson would only hold back longer the more Claude played along, so instead he would simply just not play at all. It was a game, and it was no fun if he didn't play.
Eriksson played mysterious for a few more seconds before finally caving.
"Kefnie has a sister, Kesline, four years her senior. She's even more beautiful, I hear. The older boys call her the Tavern Queen. She works as a barmaid in The Mermaid by the pier. Blacksnake and Shark even fought over whose territory the inn was in so they could claim flirting rights over her.
"She doesn't have any other family, however, and the two live together. Her father was Seawhale's captain. You know about it being shipwrecked six year ago, right? Well, I hear her mother died of heartbreak not long after. The two live in that old two-story to the west of the docks. Apparently Shark's leader Ironaxe Hanba's younger brother is currently involved with Kesline. Kefnie wanted to help her sister out at work a few times, but Kesline insists she finish school first so she can get a decent job. She doesn't want her to be just another barmaid."
"She sounds like a good big sister."
"That she does. I got a glimpse of her last month when I tagged along with my dad when he went to The Mermaid for a meeting. She's got all the right dimensions, I'll tell you that. Too bad her face is locked in that scowl she always has. It's downright off-putting."
"Who do you think is more beautiful between the two?"
"Between the two sisters? Kesline wins by a kilometre. She beats her little sister in every category that matters. Then again, Kefnie still has four years to grow before you can compare her to how Kesline is right now... So it's not really a fair comparison."
"And what did you say it was you did to help me out with her?" Claude asked, with as much trepidation as curiosity.
"You really forgot? We fought for her sake." Eriksson said, puffing out his chest.
"Fought with whom?"
"Two new guys from the ships. Two brothers, apparently. They had just come to town. I hadn't seen them before that fight, at least. Kefnie came to that fishmonger next to my family's pier in the docks. The two were busy delivering the fish they'd sold to it and started teasing her. One had even grabbed her wrist and was beginning to drag her to the chapel saying he was going to marry her right then.
"When I saw what was happening I had some of our workers chase them down and give them a good beating. I even threatened to sink their ship if they made trouble for her again.
"I paid for the fish she wanted to buy and told her you liked her when she thanked me. I also told her about that vow you made to us that you would 'definitely marry her when you grow up'. She darted away with a tomato face. Heheheh..."
"I..." Claude started saying, then closed his mouth and lifted his knee into Eriksson's arse as hard as he could.
What the hell?! Why'd he go and do that? What a useless bun!
"Right, well, now I'm definitely marrying Porya!"
"Noooooo... You can't do that! I'll call you Boss if you want, even grandpa! But leave my poor Porya alone!"
"What are you doing?" Borkal and Welikro asked at the same time as they turned the corner.
"Nothing, just a small disagreement." Claude said as he shoved Eriksson aside like an old rag.
"Um, Boa, the girls left already."
"Come on! Surely my Betty couldn't have left yet!" Borkal half shouted as he leaned against the railings.
A disgusting chill ran down Claude's spine.
"Don't bother! She hasn't come out yet. Let's go back to class. Look. The instructor's coming! Let's go, class is about to start."
I bet you know where that came from, huh?