Claude went home with ten catties of whale that evening. The meat came from the tail of the first whale, a gift from Eriksson. It was supposed to be the best part of the entire whale; pure muscle and quite sought after by whale gourmets.
Eriksson's return gave Claude at least one companion for new year's. The three wandered around town looking for any opportunity for fun during the festivities. They even secretly took Eriksson's boat for a spin at one point for some fishing. They didn't get anything though. The lake's surface water was barren during winter.
Arbeit returned shortly before new year's. Claude hadn't seen him since their father had all but chased him out six months earlier. He at least appeared more mature. He didn't glare at Claude as much, though the boy could still see the hatred in his eyes.
Angelina and Bloweyk treated him like a stranger. Infuriated, he at one point kicked the by-now-no-longer-a-puppy. The family stared at him speechlessly. The no-longer-small thing had become quite beloved, so nobody came to Arbeit's rescue when the dog turned around and tore his pants to shreds.
Their mother only stepped in once the pup started going after his legs themselves. Arbeit nearly cried when he realised he'd been all but replaced by the dog. It was a dog! Even if they liked the pest, they shouldn't be chastising him for kicking a mere dog! Even his father comforted the dog instead of him!
His family forgave him, but the dog never did. From that day onwards, it growled at him whenever they crossed paths.
New year came round a few days after Arbeit's return and the town's families scattered the various shrines. Some went to the war god's shrine, some to the earth goddess' shrine, and some to the moon goddess'.
Everyone else did so as well. The townsfolk went to their guardian deity's shrine and waited for the new year's bells to ring. Morssen dragged Claude along to the war god's shrine. Madam Ferd and the younger siblings went to the earth goddess' shrine, naturally the dog went with them. Most of the youngsters and their mothers went there as well.
The teenagers and singletons went to the moon goddess's shrine to pray for romance and companions. It was an especially popular choice for teenage girls and young women, who dreamt of meeting their destined ones on new years. Couples formed on that night were said to be bound by destiny and would never break up.
Arbeit was one of the young men who went with the same purpose, though not all were intent on finding wives so much as mistresses. Claude had to fight back his laughter when he saw the peacock come out of his long-empty room. He vowed to pray a bird shat on the bastard at the worst possible moment.
For all his age, this was Claude's first new year since his arrival. He didn't lack memories, but none of them were his, so they all lacked the sense of authenticity of his own.
He was glad that one of the ways this world differed from the history of his original one was that religion never had a strong grasp on the population. The churches never got the kinds of power the old Catholic church had on earth, probably because the magi would never allow such an institution to be able to challenge or question their position at the top of the world, even with the gods. The religions themselves, which had remained largely unchanged since the days of the magi, which had probably been designed the way they were by the magi themselves, were very tolerant and accepting of competing beliefs. A big part of that, he thought, was the way each deity had been given a very specific, defined role in the religions. Each god had a specific place and purpose, and it wasn't rare to find a priest or priestess from one shrine, sending someone to another when their prayers didn't match the purpose of the shrine in question's deity.
The war god's shrine was the biggest of the three, but it was also the most popular, so, despite its size, it was already packed by the time Claude and his father arrived. The small plaza outside the shrine's main entrance was decorated with a panoply of flags and tents and there was a constant stream of people.
The tents were mainly the temporary setups of taverns hoping to make some extra money from serving the pilgrims, many of whom weren't from the town itself, but had come from the surrounding farmland and smaller towns for the occasion. They had to pay rent for the spaces, and the money was split equally between the shrine, the government, and the guards on duty.
This plaza also had a giant pyre in the middle sending tongues of flame into the night alongside the voices of the attendees as they chatted around it.
Claude's father wasn't here for the bells and the celebration, however. He went straight to the shrine's entrance with his son and was escorted inside by a number of priests. Claude realised how exclusive the inside of the shrine was for this occasion when he saw only bigshots from the town inside. Everyone greeted him and his father with equal respect and a few even stayed for a couple of words with him. He'd known his father was important and well-known, but he'd never realised just how much of a celebrity he actually was.
It took them half an hour to make it across the hall, which they did at a snail's pace thanks to all the eager greetings, and they disappeared into a quiet wing. It was far sparser in population, and Claude recognised every face in it. These were the cream of the crop, the top administrators of the region.
Baron Robert, Whitestag's mayor was among them, as was the school principal -- a recluse of a man -- the head treasurer, the chief inspector, and a number of equally important people from neighbouring towns. His father may be high enough in standing to sit among them, but he was clearly still their junior, as he was the one to greet each first. They started at the bottom of the unspoken hierarchy and worked their way up to Baron Robert. Claude followed his father in a bow to the noble before taking their seats on a bench to the side.
The atmosphere was stifling. Claude felt like his every move was being scrutinised. He prayed everything would be over soon, or they didn't have to stay for the whole event if not. He'd just settled in when he heard someone say a greeting to 'Sir Fux'. Everyone in the room, Baron Robert included, stood up and turned to the door, smiles suddenly on their faces, smiles which didn't all reach their eyes.
Someone laughed jovially. Claude turned to the man and saw it was the shrine's senior-most priest. He disappeared under a ball of robes and was talking to Sir Fux.
Another battle of greetings ensued as the top dog of the night entered the wing. Sir Fux was full of smiles and returned every greeting with the practiced grace any statesman would envy. Claude had to admit, however, he was amazed at how well the old man could remember information. He didn't just know every person that greeted him by name, but shot amicable questions about their families, sick nieces, wilting parents, or worried wives with greater accuracy and better timing than even the greatest hunter. Not even the seasoned Baron Robert was immune to those shots and a genuine, friendly smile blossomed on his face as he exchanged pleasantries with Sir Fux.
Claude was in the middle of trying to put his jaw back in place when he heard a familiar voice call his name softly. He turned around and saw Eriksson tucked away in a corner waving at him as subtly as the boy could. He tugged on his father's arm surreptitiously, and the man nodded without looking away from Sir Fux.
The two vanished as quickly as they could and slid out of the shrine.
Eriksson explained his father had dragged him into the main hall and he'd slipped away when he saw Claude and his father disappear into the elite's wing. He couldn't just go in to look for Claude, however; he didn't have the social standing, so he had to slip in with Sir Fux's cabal.
Claude finally realised how much of a young master he actually was. Even his friends stood on a lower mountain than he. So that was the class divide. Rich as any civilian may be, they could never stand as equals with a government official, and no government official -- those that weren't noble as well -- could ever stand as a noble's equal, no matter how high up in the government they were.
"Let's go to the moon shrine. Welikro's there too. I bet Kefnie is there too~" Eriksson teased, but Claude ignored him.
"Welikro's there because his father told him to keep an eye on his sister, we can't distract him," Claude chastised.
Claudeval, Welikro's savvy sister, had wanted to marry long ago. But her rough physique and even rougher personality meant no upstanding young man with options even looked in her direction. She was so desperate lately she would settle even for just a pinky promise.
The two headed to the shrine. Its plaza, and the pyre within, was somewhat smaller than the war god shrine's. The mood was much livelier than the war god's plaza, however, and music and song accompanied the flames into the night sky.
Yes, Claude thought, this place was much more suited to a youngster like himself.
"Let's go," Eriksson tugged on him, pointing at a light pink tent in one corner of the plaza.
"That's a tavern, right? We're still minors. Why would we go there? It's not like they'll sell us anything, anyway."
Taverns weren't above selling to minors, but only behind closed doors. This was too public, so they wouldn't risk trouble.
"They don't just sell alcohol there. They have milk tea and hot fruit juice as well. Not to mention the snacks..." Eriksson half shouted, nearly yanking Claude off his feet, "Come on! You'll be surprised~"