Claude received a pleasant surprise as he walked into the cafeteria: though he was only a captain, as a student in the advanced strategy class, he enjoyed the same privileges as majors and above, one of which was to have meals in the officer's mess rather than the cafeteria. He happily let one of the attendants lead him to the mess, which sat adjacent to the cafeteria. They were still nothing compared to the food the likes of generals enjoyed, but they were far better than anything he'd had in the army before.
One of the biggest differences was that the food was freshly prepared, rather than reconstituted, dried ingredients, or some other form of treated preserve. He also received, for the first time, honeyed bread as part of his issued meal. He imagined he even tasted something akin to eggs. Did they use actual eggs in the dough? Gods, he didn't think the army cooks even knew what eggs were! And the wine!
His thoughts wandered over his five years in the army. He remembered how badly Skri had wanted that promotion to major. He'd treated it like a step into a new world, a whole new order. Claude had not understood why he was so obsessed with it, but he could understand it now.
He savoured the his food and drink for about an hour, then headed to Manrique's office. He immediately noticed Manrique's meal as he stepped in through the door. If his meal was a party compared to the meagre meals of the army grunts, then Manrique's meal was a banquet. Three bottles of wine accompanied his meal on the table, two yet unopened. Claude had enjoyed a healthy helping of food, but all the three dishes were served on one plate, Manrique's food was served a plate or bowl a dish, and he had six. The volume was about the same, but the extravagance of the food was evident at a glance. Everything was immaculately presented, carefully stacked in a fashion Claude could not describe as anything less than art, on dishes each of which was worth several months of his salary, at least. The cost of the ingredients and preparation of that meal might easily have fed a tent for a month or two, or have paid for a week or more's worth of the meals Claude had just had.
It didn't seem right. Wasn't Manrique a poor fellow weighed down by his humongous family? How could he afford such a meal? Claude doubted the college, despite the evident abundance of funding it had received, would provide such a meal. If for no other reason that if this was standard for people of Manrique's standing, then at least two dozen more such meals had to be served at each sitting. The cost was absolutely astronomical. Was he splurging to take his mind of some shock? Did he not have a family to raise?
"Ah, you're here. Come, have a drink with me," Manrique said casually, motioning to one of the chairs opposite him.
It was against protocol for Manrique to behave that way to a student, given he was a staff member, but the two were like brothers, so he didn't bother with protocol. Claude didn't play coy, either. He knew being a member of the advanced strategy class alone wasn't enough to get him all the perks he now enjoyed. They were, after all, awarded based on rank, not course attendance. Manrique had no doubt pulled several strings and called in a couple favours to make it happen.
Manrique poured him a glass of wine, then pointed at the dishes he'd yet to touch.
"Try some. They're good."
"Where'd all this come from?" Claude asked, his face a question mark.
Manrique stared at him, his face also a question mark, for several moments, then burst out laughing.
"It's not a trap! Haha! I didn't pay for anything, but it's all above board, well, mostly. It was supposed to be a special meal for some special guests we had here for the day, but they left before meal time. The kitchen was already working on it, so I decided not to let it go to waste. I've had it portioned out to everyone of the appropriate rank."
So that was where the honeyed bread was from. He'd thought it felt a little too extravagant, even for a major's meal. Well, that's not entirely accurate. Honeyed bread was not uncommon on the table of majors and colonels, but honeyed bread made with eggs was.
He shrugged and started helping himself, though he kept off the wine. He had one cup, but wouldn't let the lieutenant-colonel open one of the two other bottles. He couldn't head back to that house of females drunk, especially not with the nightly exploits of his upstairs neighbour.
He let Manrique have several cups of wine before asking for leave.
"No need!" Manrique said, slapping the table happily, "I'm going to the capital tomorrow, I'll bring you along as part of my escort. It's about time you met my children, anyway."
He was surprised to have his little quandary solved so quickly and easily, though not ungrateful. That said, even as part of the lieutenant-colonel's escort, he could not just leave, not even on his authority. He had to fill in the necessary paperwork and present it to his instructor. Most importantly, as he would be on the lieutenant-colonel's escort, he would have to pass a background check. Only once he did so, and his approval was passed up to General Miselk Kor Priest, and signed, could he leave. Given the military nature of the college, and the courses it offered, all leave had to be personally authorised by the principal, who, in Prince Hansbach's absence, was General Miselk.
The soonest the approval would normally be granted was in two days. Despite the background check, the procedure would actually be simpler than if he asked for personal leave. He'd have to provide a compelling reason and an itinerary of where he would go and what he would do, and the checks would be much more thorough. Since he would not be departing on personal leave, but on duty, he would be under less scrutiny.
"Come by tomorrow, I'll pull a few more strings and have your request fast-tracked," he said.
The two chatted for a while more while Claude helped the lieutenant-colonel polish the dishes, then he left. He walked past the officer's mess and the cafeteria, and saw the cafeteria's lights still on. He entered. All the students were gone, only the staff remained, cleaning up the last of the tables and washing dishes in the kitchen. He spoke to the cooks and convinced them to sell him some of the left-over honeyed bread. They gave him a couple loaves, well bandaged so no one would recognise the packages, and he departed for home.
The washing was not on the lines when he arrived. He doubted they had had enough time to dry, so he suspected the next morning would be another maze thread. At the very least, it was not raining. The last two days had been surprisingly rain-free; he had even seen the occasional ray of sunshine break through the ever-present cloud cover. It was the middle of the thaw, and everything was wet. The melting snow soaked everything. Then the water, on its way to the sea in streams and rivers and swelling lakes, evaporated and made thick, pregnant clouds -- the rainy season. Kleibon sat high on a plateau, however, and was spared most of the winter snow, the air too dry for much snowfall. The worst it got was some frost on the roads.
An oil lamp hung on a stick plunged into the ground beside the well. In its auburn light sat Doris, washing a large pan. Natalie sat beside her, just outside the pool of light, drying a stack of bowls and plates.
Claude realised the wells up here, so far from the abundant waters of his hometown, were very important to the people. If the household that hosted him was average, then the well was the centre of homelife here.
The thaw was well under way, but it was still cold. Despite that, the well's water was warm to the touch. It rested well beneath the surface, where the upper couple centimetres of soil froze from the winter cold. Down there, the ground stayed much the same temperature year round, which meant the water was cool in the summer, and warm in the winter. The evenings especially were still cold, and as if to emphasise that fact, a puff of water vapour, just dense enough to be visible, poured over the sides of the well's walls and flattened on the ground before fading away. He knew the family drew water from it every morning to bathe; he would too if he didn't have his own bathroom.
"You're back. What smells so good?" Natalie asked, turning around at the sound of the horse's hooves on the ground.
He half cursed himself. He should have known she'd have a strong nose for food. He reluctantly handed over his wrapped loaves. He'd hoped to stash them in his room for later, but he knew she would not let him go now she'd sniffed something good.
"Honeyed bread. Made with egged flour. They were meant for special guests, but they didn't show, so they were handed out to us. I bought some for you guys."
"Oh, Claude, Deary. You're too nice!"
Natalie wiped her hands on her apron and accepted the bag eagerly despite her polite verbal protest. The wrapped loaves had hardly touched her hands when her nose stole a thorough sniff.
"Amazing! Actual honey and egg flour! Must be expensive! Thank you, Deary. Please do let me know if you need something, okay?"
"Not that much. It's not so much the price than that it isn't on the usual menu. It's not that easy to find egg flour made anything where the army is concerned, and I doubt it's too common in such a small village, not honeyed bread made with egg flour, at least, so I thought I'd get you some as well."
Claude had been unsaddling his horse and walking him down while they spoke.
"Let the old man do that, Deary. You must be tired," Natalie said.
Claude was already leading the horse into the stable to settle him in with fresh feed and water, however.
"It's no trouble, Aunt Natalie. I'm pretty much done already."
"Will you bathe tonight? If so, I'll put the water on the fire right away," she continued.
Claude shook his head.
"I washed up yesterday and I haven't done anything to sweat. I'll be fine with a towelling and a brush of my teeth."
"Alright. I'll send Doris up to fill your tank later, then."
"I can do it myself, thank you, Auntie. I prefer it fresh from the well. The tank's water cools down a lot, and quickly, too. I don't mind it generally, but fresh well water is easier on the skin than cold tank water.
"That reminds me, I'm heading to the capital tomorrow. It's for a few days, maybe three."
He thanked the old lady and made for his room. He caught a wiff of the two women's gossip in his ear as he entered the house.
"Just look at him," Natalie said conspiratorially, "Young, handsome, and with a bright future. And he seems quite well off, too--" she shook the wrapped loaves for emphasis, "Oh, why did he have to be married already? He'd have been perfect for Bena."
The last sentence caught in Claude's ear and made him trip over the sill to his room and nearly plant his face in the floor. Luckily, his reflexes hadn't rusted and he caught the door frame on his way down, arresting his descent.
Damn, that woman was desperate to wed her daughter. Thank the gods he was already married, or he might never get her off him. He didn't know if he could have trusted her to not send her daughter into his bed in the middle of the night to entrap him.
He lit the oil lamp on his desk. It was a loan from the family, though he'd bought the oil himself. He retrieved a chivalric novel from his pocket, one he'd nabbed from Manrique's bookshelf, and started reading.
Manrique had quite literally picked it up somewhere -- he couldn't quite remember where -- during their last campaign, and had read it to pieces since during the long days of doing nothing. He said he knew the story so well he could write one just like it in his sleep, if only he weren't so lazy.
Claude wondered if that was not how all these novels were written, just a copy of one the author had read in another novel. All the stories were so much the same he didn't think it was unlikely. This particular novel was somewhat different, however; its magus wasn't evil. He was not a good man, mind you, but not being outright evil was already a massive step up by Freian standards. He cared little for the lives of non-magi, but he did not actively try to ruin their lives. He treated them indifferently, much like a king might the servants that ran his castle. They were part of the furniture as far as he was concerned, not to be admired or aided, but not to be actively harmed, either.
They were not worth mentioning or considering when they became collateral damage to a fight, however, something made abundantly clear when the magus wasn't bothered by the destruction of several villages during a fight with a dragon he encountered during an excursion to find precious magic materials. The fight gravely wounded both parties, ending in a draw with both's withdrawal to lick their wounds, during which time the protagonist, the descendant of a noble, showed up.
He'd heard of the dragon and had come to slay it. Most of the novel dealt with his escapades on that quest, including the many evenings he spent with beauties of every stripe and colour. It reminded Claude a lot of the 'webnovels' of earth, especially all the beauties that tagged along with the protagonist for little reason other than that he was the protagonist. The hero did barely any of the actual fighting, leaving it all to his women, who also won him the people's admiration.
Despite his familiarity with this kind of story, even he was flabbergasted when the novel had the magus' daughter join the hero to avenge her father's defeat. She fell in love with the knight at first sight -- of course -- and stole her father's most precious equipment to gift to him. Naturally their love could not be allowed. She was a magus' daughter, after all, so she just had to conveniently sacrifice herself to save his life during the big final fight.
Heartbroken, the 'dragonslayer' hero abandoned the other beauties in his party and went his own way, vowing his undying love over the girl's grave before walking into the sunset, still wearing the stolen equipment.
Claude's cheeks were burning from several hours of constant cringing when he closed the book. Truly the protagonist could be described with no word other than 'scum'. He relied on his looks to seduce beauties, and then made them do everything for him, and got away with it. That said, his beauties were not much better. They were all after him for the bedding and possible wedding afterwards. Gold diggers in the simplest form. Not to mention that they weren't even worth much as characters. They're brains all stopped functioning the moment combat started and they had to be commanded like zombies by the protagonist.
If only he'd known what trash the story was, he would not have wasted his evening on it. He slapped the book down on his desk irreverently, and started to get out of his seat.
A soft knock on the door stopped him half-way. He heard Natalie's voice come half-whispered from the other side.
"You're not asleep yet, are you, Claude?"