The home stay Manrique arranged for Claude was in the east part of the village. It was quite far from the college. So much so he would have to make a 15-minute walk every day. Manrique did, however, say he could prepare a horse for him. As for the three race horses with which Claude and the others had come, they had been sold to the college for the standard market rate. Claude wouldn't have to worry about looking after the animals.
Ranger folk would be a mobile strike and rapid-response force. As such, all soldiers and officers had to be competent cavalrymen. Unfortunately, most of the men attending couldn't ride to save their life. They were thus required to attend an additional equestrianship course. The college had yet to receive proper warhorses, so they cobbled together a stable of farm horses and coach horses from the region.
The trio's horses had been bought for that exact purpose. Manrique was struck by another idea as he handed over their horses to the college's stables. All the students were travelling by horse one way or another, so why not buy their mounts instead of going to the markets in the capital once the local supply was exhausted?
"You'll be staying here, Sir," Second Lieutenant Lonkdor, Manrique's adjutant said, pointing at the largest building in the village -- an L-shaped stone building.
Its longer side had four rooms, the shorter, two. The inside square held a well and a small stable.
"Is this the chief's house?" Claude asked.
"It belongs to a powerful figure, yet, but not the chief. The owner's the chief's father. I heard he's... eccentric. His wife's happy to have a renter, finally. The place has been empty for a while."
"Does the chief not live here?"
"The chief's a retired veteran, a dignitarian. His father's a peasant. His status, both as village chief, and dignitarian, means he can't live under his father's roof, where someone who's neither the chief nor a dignitarian, calls the shots over him. He lives on the village's outskirts, on the other side of town. His parents live together with his brothers and sisters. The eldest of the remaining brothers is in the army -- in the royal guard to be precise. The youngest didn't have to serve because his two older brothers filled the family quota. He moved to the capital a couple years ago and is running a business there."
The two dismounted. The yard entrance was closed.
"Anyone home?" Lonkdor called, waving over the fence.
Four people emerged from the rooms a couple moments later; a man and three women. The man was at least sixty, his face as stiff as tanned leather. He didn't seem cheery, though Claude doubted one could tell even if he were. He'd clearly been busy shuffling manure in the stable.
A fat woman in a tired apron, at least fifty, stood beside him. The stench of reused cooking oil clung to her like stink on shite. Her face smiled jovially, however, and she half-stomped half-rolled over to them enthusiastically.
"You're here! And is this the young one to lodge with us?"
Lonkdor nodded reservedly and introduced Claude.
"He is Mister Zasrak, the landlord. And this is his wife, Madam Natalie.
"Nice to meet you, Mister Zasrak, Madam Natalie. I apologise in advance for any trouble I may cause," Claude said politely, bowing gracefully to the old couple.
"Why are you here if you know it's a bother?" he heard the old man mumble under his breath.
What? Wasn't his wife most welcoming? What had bitten his little brother? His wife shot a surreptitiously furious glance at him and he swallowed the rest of his ramblings.
"You're too polite, Sir," she then said, "It's our honour to host someone of your station. Don't call me Madam either. We're just humble village folk. It's too grand for a humble little peasant. Call me Auntie instead. Please come to me if you need anything. And let me introduce you to my second daughter-in-law, Doris... And this is my daughter, Halbena."
Claude had ignored the two girl's presence thus far, but now he had to interact with them. The two were still taking their last steps off the stairwell when Claude's eyes surveyed them. The elder must be the daughter-in-law. She appeared 25. Quite a catch, if Claude said so himself. At best a 7 out of 10, however. She appeared to be of the lively kind, as her eyes flirted with him longingly, while her tongue surreptitiously hinted at what euphoria they might conjure.
He was not surprised. Her husband, the second son, was away in the capital, and had probably been for months, if not a year or more. Women might not in general be as driven as men, but a year was plenty of time to build up a voyeuristic longing. Though Claude doubted she had kept herself all that time. He wondered if that might be why Zasrak was so unenthused at his presence.
The younger had then to be the daughter, her generation's youngest. Claude guessed her at twenty. She was quite fair skinned, probably also the pampered one. She had her mother's figure, however, again, probably the pampered one, though Claude could see a beauty hid beneath the fat.
Claude bowed shortly, but with the appropriate show of respect.
"It's my pleasure to meet you two beautiful misses."
The one which had to be Doris giggled.
"I'm not a miss. Call me Madam."
Claude glanced awkwardly at Lonkdor. Madam what though.
Auntie Natalie stepped in to save him.
"Let's not trouble him. Just let him call you by your name. We are village folk, after all."
Lonkdor coughed dryly.
"Ah, umm... Is Captain Claude's room ready?"
"Been for a while now. We scrubbed it thoroughly. All the furniture, doors and windows have been scrubbed as well. Come with me."
They were brought to the short side's ground floor. Two doors led to two suites. Each had a bedrooms, washroom, and bathroom. The last two could hardly be called that by modern terms, but it was better than shit-laden nothing.
"My eldest used to live here. He moved in after his marriage. Didn't stay for long, though. The other two are on the first floor."
While it was on the ground floor, the room didn't feel moist. It was likely the waterproofing, which was uncommonly thorough. The floor had been covered in wood tiles. The wood from which the tiles were made, had a wonderful smell, and a day or two in closed space really brings out smells.
The only downside was the lack of decoration. Nothing but wooden beams. The room above's floor wasn't even hidden by planking. Sound carriage aside, it made for a very dusty lower room.
When he asked Natalie about it, she said people didn't live on the ground floor frequently, so they never bothered improving things.
"Alright. I'm quite satisfied with the room. I'll be moving my things over at night, so I'm afraid I'll be bothering you all starting today." Claude thanked Natalie for the guide. Lonkdor had told him that while her husband was the owner, she was the one who called the shots, so he only had to know how to handle her.
"No problem. Sir, why don't you have dinner with us?"
"There's no need. Our college requires us to eat at the cafeteria. Also, just call me Claude. Sir sounds a little too formal," he politely refused.
Lonkdor stepped forward and asked about leaving Claude's mount in their stable. They settled on a monthly fee of a thale for the horse's feed.
The two bid the family farewell when all was settled. Claude would be living in with them from then on. Currently, he was on his way back to pack his stuff up. Classes started tomorrow, so his tent on the field would have to be reclaimed.
"That old guy looks like he doesn't like me there," Claude said.
Lonkdor nodded. "Don't mind him. He's a little old fashioned. Perhaps he's worried you'll tempt his daughter and daughter-in-law. Didn't you notice the look on Doris' face? She looks easy to seduce. You'll surely have plenty of chances in the future. His wife also looks like she wants her daughter to marry an officer so their family has someone to rely on."
Claude laughed. "It's too bad, then. I just got married less than half a year ago, so I'm not interested in their younger daughter. My wife's also three-months pregnant, so I worry for her health."
"Congratulations," Lonkdor said enviously, "Not only did you get the rank of captain and a knighthood at such a young age, you're also going to be a father! You really are a winner in life compared to me!"
When they reached the college, Claude was bear-hugged by a few others before he even got a chance to pack up.
"Why did you guys only just arrive now?" Berklin, Dyavid and Moriad were the ones with their arms around him. Claude angrily asked, "What's going on? I thought you didn't want to see me, you know. You didn't even come to my wedding."
"What? You're married too, Chief?" Moriad asked oddly.
"Huh? Yeah, I am... Wait, didn't you guys receive the invitation I sent out? I wrote to you all during the 8th month last year to invite you to my marriage, but not one of you came! I thought I was being avoided or something..."
"No, Chief!" Dyavid cried, "We didn't receive your letter, cause we weren't at home! We didn't even know you were getting married!"
"You weren't home?" Weren't they going to show off after going home to the royal capital? What were they doing during their three-month break? "Where have you guys been then?"
"Chief, it's not their fault. I dragged them with me. They didn't go home because of me," Berklin admitted.
"What were you up to this time?" Claude wondered.
"Chief, Berk got married too," Moriad said, "Actually, he eloped with his wife. We didn't go home because we wanted to help him hide from his wife's family's pursuit..."
Elopement? That came as a bigger shock than Berklin's marriage. "Oh, tell me the details. Is the matter settled?"
"Chief, do you remember Aboyev?" Dyavid asked.
"Of course." Claude nodded. That was his good friend and one of his 'minions'. He was the youngest but the most cheery of them all. The four nobles joined the army together, yet Aboyev fell during the attack on Wilf Stronghold. A bullet penetrated his eye and exited the back of his head. The only fortunate thing about that was he probably died in an instant without suffering any pain.
"Bov was a twin. He has an elder brother and a twin sister," Moriad explained.
Both Aboyev and his twin sister were illegitimate children. Even though their father acknowledged his blood relation with them, they weren't accepted into the family. That was why their names didn't bear the sobriquet of the main family.
When Berklin went home to visit, he found that Aboyev's twin sister was about to be forcefully married to an old fellow about fifty years of age whose wife died recently. That was when Berklin bravely stole her away, earning himself the ire of the old noble and Aboyev's family.
When they had nowhere else to go, Berklin brought the girl to the military camp to seek help. He happened to run into Dyavid and Moriad and was finally safe. The two of them thus helped hide Berklin and Aboyev's sister while trying to threaten and persuade their pursuers.
Aboyev's family was quite pleasant to talk with. A family that had fallen from grace had nothing much behind them anyway. Even though Aboyev was dead, at least his good friends became commissioned officers of the kingdom. It was quite a worthwhile deal to purchase their friendship for the cheap price of a girl borne out of wedlock, especially since the one who stole her away was a first lieutenant of the kingdom. As such, they came up with an ultimatum. Berklin would have to take Aboyev's sister as his wife and they would have to deal with the old noble themselves without the help of the family.
However, the old noble was rather lustful and ignored Moriad and Dyavid's attempt at a conversation. He insisted that since the bride's family had accepted the bride price he paid, they had to hand the bride over. He didn't care about feelings and emotions. He only wanted Aboyev's sister for her body, not her heart. He also attempted to frighten the young second lieutenants with his status, citing that his nephew was a colonel in the army's logistics department.
"What happened then?" Claude was already invested in the story. He had to know its ending.
"We had no choice," Moriad said with a shrug, "Since words didn't work, we resorted to our fists. We kept an eye on the old noble for three whole days and finally waited until he was alone having fun with the tavern girls. The moment he left after his session, we beat him unconscious and put a linen sack over his head before bringing him to the back alley and giving him a heavy beating. We stripped all his valuables and made it look like robbery, something that's all too common in the royal capital. Nobody will ever find out what really happened.
"Then, we took Aboyev's sister and Berklin to the three southern prefectures and had them wedded at a moon goddess shrine, before raising enough money to buy a home next to where Lieutenant-Colonel Lederfanc lived for them. With the Lieutenant-Colonel's wife taking care of the girl, she is safe when Berklin is here training with us."