This time, Claude didn't use the temporary pass through Pikleit Mountains to go to Efenasburg. He, instead, travelled along Rimodra's main road. If he had gone home by sea he could have saved an additional couple days, but the port cities in Askilin and Rimodra lay in ruins.
The war was over, but the two dutchies' navies hadn't accepted the peace and returned home. They'd instead either become pirates or pledged themselves to Canas. While this meant Aueras' navy was the only cohesive force in the region, its ships had been badly battered in the many battles, and its crews were exhausted. It would take months for the crews to be cycled through leave and recuperate, and years for the ships to rotate through drydock for repairs. The pirate bands would thus go unopposed for the foreseeable future, and the ocean, the coast, and any islands in the region were impossibly dangerous.
The little band thus had no choice but to travel on land. No one would come out well at the other end of an engagement with pirates, but three Aueran soldiers, one of whom being a commissioned officer, would fare even worse. Claude was not strapped for funds, however, so he purchased three fit horses and the three set off at a brisk pace.
Claude had hoped to take his Canasian war horse, but while it was his property within the military, it was still ultimately military property. He could not use it when he was on leave. It would have been a different matter if he were a major. Majors and above were entitled to fully private spoils from the war, even items that would normally only nominally be theirs, such as war horses, could be truly theirs, if they were willing to purchase the full rights.
The roads were full for days. Tens of thousands of men were marching away from the front. Men split off at every junction as various units returned to their disparate headquarters. Despite the evident exhaustion and war weariness on their faces, the men were in general high spirits. Dozens of different folk songs in any number of accents and dialects could be heard jostling for dominance among the men. Particularly popular were the songs of various male conquests in the bedroom, and in various other rooms in the house, and on various items of furniture.
One song silenced every other one at one point, however. It wasn't a particularly happy song, nor was it sad per se. The song was about a lone, tired soldier marching home at the end of a nondescript war. He sang about his trials and tribulations, but mostly, the song was about everything he missed from home. About his little brother and sister who used to play in the backyard of his small townhouse. He wondered if they'd grown up well because he'd been away from home for so long. It was about his mother, always cooking, washing, or cleaning. He wondered if she'd turned grey in the years he'd been gone, about what food she would prepare for him once he got home. How he longed for her to hold him as she had when he was a little boy. It was about his father, how he'd always been so hard working, distant from, though not cold to, his children. He reminisced on the warm pride and serious worry in his father's eyes when he'd bid him goodbye on the docks. It was about his sweetheart. He sang a short verse about her beauty, how he'd explored it all that final, sweet evening before his departure. But more he sang about how he wondered if she would still be waiting for him after all this time, and how he longed to hold her in his arms again.
The song reverberated like thunder up and down the column of men. Dozens broke into silent tears as they walked, overs sniffed secretly. A couple openly wiped the tears from their eyes. The men were proud of what they'd accomplished, but more than anything, they were tired. Tired of fighting, and tired of dying. They wanted to go home, to hug their children, kiss their wives, and eat with their parents. There was much glory to be had in war, but there was far more sorry that had to be paid, and these men had paid their share twice over and twice again.
Claude had wanted to buy Rimodran specialties for home, but there were none to be found. The towns were either entirely abandoned, or the people were too busy struggling to find enough food to feed themselves to worry about making trinkets and delicacies for their conquerors.
He couldn't even find a single open tavern. He asked Myjack how they'd fed themselves at one point, and the boy told him they'd had to eat bread and drink water. They only had warm food when they stopped over at military camps, for which they had to pay. The current sorry state only continued back to the old border, however. The entire war had been fought on enemy territory, so the old territories were still wholly intact.
Claude's little band carried themselves with the gate of soldiers, so everyone knew what they were, but they wore civilian clothing, which made what they were doing equally obvious. The men stared envious daggers at them as they passed. When they stopped for a quick lunch on the last Rimodran leg of their trip, a couple officers from the local irregular corps told them they had to stop in Efenasburg. It had developed the kingdom's largest black market. Claude wasn't against the idea, since he had yet to find something valuable to take home.
The most senior of the irregulars, a captain, told him that he'd gone to the market the last time he'd been in the city. He'd seen stuff on the stall shelves he'd never seen before. He'd been unable to figure out what a couple even were. One of the peddlers told him he was selling wares pilfered from the houses of a couple nobles further north. He'd bought most of them from soldiers who'd smuggled them back from the front lines. One of the items was a beautiful vase with intricate gold and silver lacing. He recognised the name engraved on it as the famous gold and silverware craftsman Evanson. He so wished he had the money for it. He was certain he could convince several of his hometown's most beautiful girls to marry him just to be able to say they lived in the house with that vase. He didn't, however, so he could only watch as a fat noblewoman bought it for a seventh of its true worth.
Efensaburg was Sidins' old capital. It was no longer a capital, but it did at least still serve as the headquarters of the portion of the army under Prince Hansbach's command. It was also still serving as the main supply centre for most of the forces in the west. As the duchy's capital, it had been the most prosperous city in the duchy, but now, it had been reduced to a large way station for withdrawing troops.
Many of the soldiers chose to sell their smuggled spoils there. Coins were far more practical, and far less suspicious, than various objects. Men who'd failed to bag something themselves bought them in turn with which to brag at home. Technically the spoils belonged to the royal family, so their sale and purchase was illegal, hence it being a black market. Everyone knew controlling the many thousands of men trying to buy and sell, and the many hundreds of merchants looking to make their fortunes in the back alleys and ruins in the city was impossible, so the army settled for collecting a little side charge to leave the merchants alone.
The setup intrigued Claude quite a bit. He'd not gotten much in the way of spoils during the war. The only real thing he'd gotten was a set of cutlery and crockery. He'd taken it from one of the noble manors around Count Krilaus' castle, but he'd left it behind with Sheila. He had also gotten a beautiful ceremonial sword after one of the battles around Squirrel, but Sheila had claimed it immediately. The only other things were six bottles of rare vintage wine he'd also taken from that manor. They were already spoken for by various people back home.
He had nothing to keep for himself as proof of his exploits, so he supposed now was as good a time as any to buy himself something, hopefully something unusual, or something that would fit well into one of his many war stories.
He thanked the captain and saw him off. Myjack and Gum decided to accompany him. They'd not gone by Efenasburg last time since it was out of the way to the capital, so they were also curious to see what it had become. It would also be a good chance for Claude to visit Borkal.
The three set off again after finishing their lunch, and saw Efenasburg's lights on the horizon just as the last rays of sun were fading into night. They asked around near the gate and settled on a high-class inn near the old commercial quarter. Claude treated them to a grand feast of a dinner, then turned in for the night after a thorough scrubbing in the bath.
Claude was awoken by the clatter of wares and the shouted chants of various merchants leaking in through his room's window which overlooked the large avenue in front of the inn. The street, all but deserted when they'd arrived the previous evening, was beyond crowded. The avenue, one of the largest in the city, could handle six carriages abreast one another, but there was hardly space to sneeze at the moment.
The moon hadn't even climbed a third of the way up into the sky, but some people were already drinking. Myjack and Gum were already up and were having breakfast downstairs. Claude joined them just as the inn's proprietor was explaining that the streets usually looked like that.
The three finished breakfast and Myjack and Claude read a couple newspapers. Gum pretended to read, but he mostly just mouthed the letters he recognised, which weren't many. After they finished the three headed to the logistics headquarters and asked around for Borkal. Claude had met up with Welikro during the award ceremony the year before and he'd mentioned that he'd run into Borkal in Efenasbrug. Two years had passed since then, and there was no telling if he was still there.
The three headed to the office on foot rather than on horseback. The street was too crowded for horses. The proprietor had told them it would be a bad idea. He'd seen a lieutenant-colonel forced to pay almost all his savings for the things his horse broke when it turned and pushed over a stall's shelves.
None of the staff knew where there Banjilia keepers were. They'd been moved long before any of the current staff started their stint in the city.
The local keepers sent to the frontlines were used mainly as garrison forces. Their old names were thus often replaced with just a code. It was done to keep them safe from reprisals from old enemies when they were moved to new locations since they were often used to quell civilian uprisings.
A serial murderer had struck in a particular city several hundred years earlier. He killed off everyone in more than ten households. The investigation revealed that they were all the families of a particular keeper unit's men. The unit had put down an uprising in a newly occupied territory most cruelly a couple years earlier.
One of the children orphaned by their actions took matters into his own hands and started killing their families. He'd made friends with many of the then-retired soldiers while he'd found out everything he could about them. He'd struck started his killing spree on the 25th anniversary of the massacre they'd conducted on his hometown.
The kingdom was so shocked. When he was finally caught and put on trial, he said he didn't feel a single morsel of remorse over his actions. He only regretted that he couldn't kill more, or inflict more pain on the bastards who'd massacred his entire town, and made him watch as they first raped, then tortured, and finally killed his entire family.
The kingdom responded by giving their keepers numbers when they were moved into troubled areas so they could remain anonymous and wouldn't face similar retribution for their cruelty. Duriaulo's tribe, for example, was the Leist Keepery, but when they were moved to the newly occupied territory, they were given the designation KT0378, Keeper Tribe 378.
No one knew what code Banjilia Keepery had been given.
Thus unable to track down his old friend, he could only pray for him as he returned to the central plaza.
That night, Claude met a number of officers from irregular corps there to buy some spoils from the black market just like him. The officers had complained that the goods' prices rose by a third, possibly due to the sudden influx of traffic thanks to the mass retreat of the forces. The merchants wouldn't miss the chance to overcharge the masses of soldiers during this rare event.
What was worse was the increasing number of counterfeit products in the black market. Many items alleged to have come from noble families were actually forgeries. The merchants would try their best to fabricate an interesting and moving story to market their products as genuine and earn their customers' confidence.
One officer said that he saw more than fifty obsidian smoke pipes there. All the hawkers said that theirs was the one used by Duke Sidins himself and the officer could recite seven different accounts of how the pipe made its way into said hawker's hand, each one unique and plausible.
Claude recalled that someone tried to sell him one such pipe, but he wasn't interested in the slightest. If his father was still alive, he might've considered buying one. Now, he could only get gifts for his mother and siblings.
Claude spent two days shopping in the black market and bought quite a lot, all worth more than five hundred crowns in total. Myjack had to remind him to stop, or they would have too much luggage to travel. The goods we all stuffed in the carriage before they resumed their journey.