Claude regretted his decision the moment he set foot back in the yard. Doris and Halbena were washing a hill of clothes by the well. The air was unmanageably awkward, especially for Doris. Her face was red the moment she heard his footsteps and she buried it in the washing, staring at the shirt she was scrubbing as if it would devour her if she took her eyes off it for even a moment.
Claude was happy to see she appeared to have at least a hint of shame, unlike how Lonkdor had described her. Modest women, which she was still far from being, were worlds better than shameless whores. Claude wondered now if she'd only been teasing him when she'd licked her lips during their first meeting. She might have hoped for the young officer to let slip a slight blush, or perhaps even a soft, surreptitious swallow of lusting saliva and give her a delightful boost in confidence.
She had clearly, Claude now knew, forgotten about his residence in the room beneath hers. He doubted now that she would have been so brazen had she remembered. She had, however, and the memory of his cough coming muffled through the floorboards, much as her moans had floated down through those same boards to him, drove the blood to her neck, face, and ears.
Despite his complete innocence in the matter, Claude found himself blushing slightly as well. He managed only the curtest of nods and humphs in her direction before marching on.
Halbena was not burdened by the shame that had tamed her sister-in-law, however, and called out to him as he passed.
"Why back so early?" she asked boldly, though not lacking the appropriate politeness.
"The opening ceremony's done and I don't have any classes for the time being."
Claude spoke as he tied the horse to a post by the stable's entrance and started undoing the saddle leathers.
"Are your parents home?"
"Father is checking on the winter wheat. Mother's at the neighbours'. Do you need something from them?"
"Not really. I was just wondering where they were. I'll be in my room."
Claude put the saddle away, untied the horse, gave it a quick walk around the yard to cool it off, then stowed it as well before heading back to his bedroom. He stuffed his undergarments into a wooden bucket, thanking his lucky stars the girls hadn't seen them, and undressed. He wished he could just toss the damn thing off, but he had to wear it again the next day and he would be damned if he had to iron and straighten the thing again. He bore with the discomfort and took everything off carefully, piece by piece, making sure to stow each careful so it would need as little work the next morning as possible before he put it on again.
He'd been spared this chore, amongst countless others, thanks to the perks his rank brought, namely that he had an orderman to do it for him. Myjack had taken to his role so well Claude was convinced he had been a born-and-bred servant in his previous life, a butler perhaps.
He did not, however, have that luxury anymore. He was back in college. His military rank, and all the perks that went with it, were effectively suspended until he completed the course. He was just another cadet until he graduated. His rank was not forgotten where his chores, and his damned uniform, were forgotten, however. He still had to look just as immaculate, which meant he had to do all the gods-forsaken chores Myjack had taken care of before.
He picked up the bucket and headed for the yard again, but froze at the door. Right, damn idiot! The two girls were still washing! If unveiling his undergarments to the two young women, girls really, was not enough, they were no doubt going to think it was all just an excuse to spend more time with them. The last thing he needed, or wanted, was those two thinking he had the hots for one, or both, of them.
He slammed the bucket down on the table by the window and plopped himself down in the adjacent chair, guiding his thoughts out of the town and across the full extent of the kingdom to the capital and his former mistress. There would be no mending the relationship between his sister and the baroness. It wasn't that the event was so severe that it was impossible for them to put it behind them, both sides were just too stubborn to do so, and he, the third wheel in all of it, had little interest in mending things. It provided too much of a convenient excuse to sever ties with his former mistress. They were still on neutral, if no longer good, terms, however. Neither side had hard feelings towards the other. They both recognised the other's difficulty in the situation and had settled on an unspoken neutrality between the two sides. He supposed he should go to see the baroness. They may no longer be mistress and servant, but they were still teacher and student and she had taken good care of his family. He owed her at least a courtesy call.
It would also give him a good opportunity to buy books from the capital's sizeable bookstores. He didn't have so much as a scrap of paper to that effect with him at the moment, and his life felt uncharacteristically empty without it. He'd lived without books for five years during the war, and it had not bothered him then, but this was the first time in his civilian life that he'd been without at least one he was reading. The feeling was compounded further by his ample free time, which he had nothing with which to fill. The rainy season was also about a month away, and he would have to spend most of it indoors, which gave him yet more time to kill.
It was all fine and good, but he didn't think it right to ask for leave on the day the college opened, and his first official day at it. He could at least wait until its second day of operation, not that it really did anything for the shamelessness of the request, but it would, at least, make him feel better about it.
A petite hand pushed the door to his room open while he was caught up in his thoughts and Auntie Natalie's voice came in through the crack.
He had to catch himself before he said something inappropriate. He was a young man alone in his room, gods damn it! How could she just barge in without so much as a knock? What if he had been in the middle of changing, or some other thing that required his nudity. He pinned a warning to lock his bedroom door at all times in his mind.
A slight smile cracked on his lips, however, hiding his inner monologue.
"You're back, too. I had nothing to do at the college, so I came back early to catch some more shut-eye."
Natalie noticed the bucket and she gazed at it for half a moment before turning her eyes back to him.
"Were you about to go do some washing?"
Claude gave her a shy smile.
"Doris and Halbena are already at it by the well. I'll do mine when they're done."
"Nonsense! Go and get it done now. It's fine--" A scheming smile flashed across her eyes as her lips parted into a toothy grin. "--Why don't you let Bena wash it for you? Young men like you are no good at washing, anyway. My husband, the old man, just rinses his clothes and calls them 'washed'. Honestly, I swear men have the patience of flies!"
"Bena!" she shouted into the yard, "Come here, girl!"
"Please, Auntie, I'm fine doing it myself."
"Nonsense!" she said in a more insistent tone, "You're family as long as you stay here, so let Bena take care of it. Speaking of which, how old are you? Where are you from? How's the family?"
Ugh, she was pushing her daughter on him.
"I'm from Whitestag," he said helplessly, "Turned twenty-four last year, and I married before coming here. My wife's a childhood friend, and pregnant with my first."
Half of the warmth vanished from the woman's face at the mention of his marriage.
"Why so early..."
She said it like he had wronged her by getting married and it stopped his next words on his tongue. Thankfully Halbena arrived before the awkward moment could stretch for too long.
"You called, Mom?"
Natalie forced a smile and pointed at the bucket on the table.
"Help Claude with his laundry," she said somewhat stiffly.
"But I still have so much left to wash..." the girl complained.
"Please," Claude chimed, "don't trouble yourself. I'm fine washing them myself later."
"See? Even he says he doesn't need my help," Halbena said, grateful for the chance to get out of more washing.
Natalie ignored them both and stamped her authority as the house's matriarch down mercilessly.
"Lassie, are you getting bold? Claude's our guest. I said you're going to help him with his laundry, so you're going to help him with his laundry. I'll not hear another word--" she said imperially, clutching her daughter's arm firmly.
"Ouch! Let go, Mom! That hurts!" the girl squealed.
Claude didn't know what to do. Both women were in his room. Natalie might have reason to discipline her daughter, but surely she could do it somewhere else. Didn't she know it was impolite to do such things in front of strangers, a young man and a guest even.
"Please, Auntie, I already said I'm fine doing it myself."
"--From either of you," the woman added imperatively, eyeing Claude, "Please don't concern yourself with this, Claude. This lass here needs to learn to obey her mother when she speaks, so she will wash your clothes today."
"Okay, okay!" Halbena begged, squirming at the emphasising clench of her mother's hand.
Satisfied, Natalie let go.
"Next time, don't argue with me. I shouldn't have to keep disciplining you like a little girl, you're old enough to have a sense of propriety."
Halbena rubbed her arm and inched towards Claude's bucket unwillingly, pouting.
Claude watched the older woman watch over her daughter like a hawk and sighed.
"How much would you charge for doing my laundry every day?" he asked the defeated girl.
Her eyes widened and she yanked her head around almost fast enough to crack a vertebra.
"Of course. What kind of man would I be if I took advantage of your hospitality?"
The girl's sullen face blossomed into a bright smile.
"How much laundry do you need washed?"
"I don't know exactly. It'll depend a lot on what my schedule is like. It'll be at least one set of clothes a day in the summer. My bedding will need a wash every couple of days as well."
Claude almost jumped on the chance to pass off the most hated of his chores to someone else, even at the cost of a couple coins.
"Uhm... How about three riyas a month? I'll wash your clothes and clean your room every day," she said, adding the last sentence very quickly, growing anxious to secure his agreement now the thought had taken root.
It was a fair offer, cheap, even. He earned a crown a month, roughly seventeen times what she was asking for a month's washing and cleaning. It sounded like a lot to her, and it was, considering the average peasant household made at most two thales a month, but for him it was barely pocket change."
"Deal. I'll pay at the end of the month."
"Okay!" the girl chirped happily.
She shot her mother a victorious glare as she headed for the door, bucket in hand.
"I'm working for this money myself, so it's mine. I won't give it to you," she said over her shoulder at the door before turning to Claude one last time.
"Please pay me directly. I won't accept it paid if you give the money to someone else."
Claude nodded wordlessly. She smiled, spun on her heels, and was out of the door and down the corridor before her mother could say a word. Natalie stared at her, her jaw halfway to the ground. She rubbed her hands on her skirt, embarrassed.
"She's very money-minded..." she murmured apologetically.
"It's fine. I worked for my allowance when I was staying home, too. She is right to be proud of working for her money. I'm grateful she offered to clean my room as well. It's worth every fenny."
"Very well, I'll not get involved with your arrangement. Please have a good rest."
Natalie left quickly, closing the door behind her, her piece said.
This once again confirmed that money solved all problems, especially where Zasrak's household was concerned. Well, 'especially' wasn't really the right word. They were very much average in that regard.
He lazed about for a couple hours, spending most of the time meditating. He managed two cycles before it was time to head back to campus for dinner.
He noticed his clothes on the washing line as he stepped into the yard, his undergarments included. The household's clothes covered the yard like a forest, soaking the ground beneath and making puddles everywhere. The lines criss-crossed the yard, turning it into a maze. It took Claude quite a while, and a lot of careful manoeuvring to get his horse to the gate without dirtying any of the laundry.
"Where are you headed?" Halbena asked as he passed through the entrance.
She stood facing the road, leaning against the fence, a baked black potato in hand. She looked like a naughty kid with a hand full of stolen candy.
"To the college for dinner," he said, mounting his horse, "I'll be back in about an hour and a half to two. Why are you eating out here?"
"Mom's fault," she answered in a conspiratorial tone, "I'm starving after all that washing. But she won't let me eat. She says I'm too fat and need to eat less. I had to roast this secretly and eat it out here like a street urchin."