Locke scowled and began inspecting the people hunched over in front of him. Their faces were speckled with black spots of cement. Their frizzled, yellowing hair was likely a consequence of several days gone by without cleaning. The shabby clothing they wore and their unkempt appearance made them seem hardly like women at all.
Gulas beamed flatteringly.
"They're a gang of second-hand traffickers. When we broke into the city, I saw them sneaking around, so I took a few brothers and captured them. I didn't expect it to be a good catch! Look, those boxes are all jam-packed with goods -- the place is overflowing with way too many riches!"
Gulas kicked open one of the wooden boxes to reveal glistening jewellery and coins of gold and silver.
It finally dawned on Locke that one of the unwritten rules for looting was that the men had to surrender half of their earnings. A fifth went to the battalion, and the rest went to the platoon jarl. The other half was theirs to keep. The excuse for this arrangement was that the men were 'incapable of getting good exchanges for their loot'. Lock doubted this was true, or at least, it would not be true without careful interference by their superiors to force them to hand over that half. Even if they could make all the exchanges at fair rates, the wealth they'd accrue would make their superiors very jealous, and jealous superiors had a tendency to 'lose' the ones that roused their jealousy in battle rather quickly.
Locke had rarely heard of soldiers ever managing to find large stashes. Those merchants and wealthy households always fled before the arrow hit the target. Those that didn't, were usually captured and cleared out by the top officer's men long before the common grunts got their turn at the game.
"Not bad," he complimented.
He had never made such a fortune before.
"Hehe," Gulas chuckled with the grin of a toddler.
Locke glanced at the burly man. He had not expected him to be so pesky about details. It seemed he had misjudged this particular book by its cover.
"You can hand in the portion we're supposed to surrender yourselves. Trade my portion for thalers as best you can. You can trade the rest in with Henry."
Locke kept his word, and it would be good to be on Henry's good side. Especially since he was the main exchange for any of the battalion's loot. Having his liking might just ensure he could get decent deals even if someone with connections wanted to spite him to settle a grudge.
"Who's your senior?" he asked, turning to the captives.
His eyes settled on the one squatting nearest to him. He could sense the deference the other showed him, even if they said nothing. Whoever was beneath all the dirt and cloak, was a scrawny fellow, but everyone's gazes flitted to him momentarily at the question.
"So, it's you."
Locke's tone turned the statement into a question. The man was a bag of bones. He could easily be overlooked, and would have, if not for the intelligent glint in his eyes.
"Yes, Herr, I'm Korby.
He was the very model of timidity in bearing, but his voice was crisp and clear when he finally spoke.
"I am a well-known merchant in Farlans. Herr, if you spare my life, I can make you rich."
"Hah, a mere smuggler dares call himself a merchant," Gulas scoffed.
Locke's interest was piqued, however, but he wasn't interested in the man's talent. He was intrigued by his affluence. A sudden thought hit him. Certainly, the smugglers would not be running their business alone. They must have a group. This smaller group consisted presumably just the looters, which meant that there had to be a receiver for the goods somewhere. If he could trace their activity and track all of them down in one go, a pleasant surprise might await him.
The gangly man started fidgeting anxiously. He strongly dreaded that the soldiers would see no value in him and kill him. "I can even appraise objects. I've worked in jewellers' and pawn shops since my youth. I've managed to cultivate a pair of keen eyes and can help you identify treasures."
"Korby, right? Could you help me take a look at this?"
Locke recalled the maid's bangle he had confiscated the previous day and handed it to the man for appraisal.
Korby hastily rubbed his palms on his shirt and accepted the gold accessory. He examined it repeatedly under the light, he even flicked at the bracelet with his finger like a professional. His face turned to scorn. The others might not have noticed, but Locke -- who hadn't once looked away from the man, caught it.
"So?" he asked, his face a mask.
"Herr, this... this..." Korby stuttered.
"Just speak your mind," Locke urged with a tinge of impatience.
"Herr, from what I see, this bangle is not top grade. Although the weight is not much different from an authentic one, it doesn't have the texture of gold. It's probably mixed with copper and silver to add to its weight. My guess is the gold colour comes from a finish of gold powder. I can't see if there is any gold mixed into the alloy itself without my equipment, however," Korby said confidently. "I'd say it's worth five silvers at most."
Five silvers could be swapped for one or two thalers. While it would've been significant to Locke a couple weeks earlier, he cared little for it now.
He took the bracelet again, somewhat irritated. He had thought the women were of some background, but it seemed he might be mistaken. He supposed that since this particular item had been liberated off the maid, it wasn't too surprising it wasn't true gold, and it didn't reflect too much on the others, but he knew he was just trying to comfort himself.
Gulas was sharp. Sensing Locke's grim mood, he quickly threw his foot at Korby.
"Hurry up and take out the good stuff you have! Show it to Brother Locke."
Korby gathered that the lives of his gang members rested wholly in the hands of the commander, and he immediately dove into the heap of boxes. Finally, he pulled out a pair of intricate earrings and a dark-green bangle. "Herr, these are the best items I have. A noblewoman supposedly pawned them off at my place. I've never seen such exquisite earrings in my life, and if I'm not mistaken, this bangle is carved from onyx gemstones. The onyx gemstones used for such a large bangle are definitely not small. Typically, these gemstones are made into high-class rings."
The pair of earrings were fine indeed -- the gemstones on it alone were of immeasurable value. Though Locke did not see anything peculiar about the bangle, he did not doubt its worth since Korby seemed to attest to its rarity. Locke did not say much as he put the two items away.
There was no point in staying any longer. Before he left, Locke instructed Gulas, "Keep him alive, he'd likely prove useful to me."
Locke strolled around the city, making a mental map of the chaotic cityscape. It was rather likely that the situation would simmer down once the baron ordered them to stop harassing the civilians.
Locke then paid a visit to his original squad. Hans was ransacking a grocery store alongside his comrades whilst Caen sat perched on the roof as his mind drifted off. Caen had always been this way -- he only ever acted like a twit and absolutely loved stealing credit -- but Locke was certain that he was the kindest person in the troop. He never participated in looting. When asked once, he told Locke that seeing the Shalorian civilians reminded him of his days as a beggar. Everyone silently acquiesced to his behaviour and even went the extra mile to count him in when they split their spoils.
At noon, the baron's orders came from the main city hall. The troops were ordered to stop 'searching' and stand by at the western district.
The western district was the area that suffered from Baron Cashel's caster's bombardment. It was now a barren piece of land, ideal for the soldiers to pitch their tents.
A majority of the soldiers had not been able to get a good night's sleep. They immediately dropped to the ground right after the tents were pitched.
Locke also bumped into an acquaintance from Baron Cashel's forces, Sean -- another common-born squad jarl who had once fought hand-in-hand with Locke. From these encounters, they had established quite a tight relationship.
"Oh, you guys are here too!" Locke greeted him. This was a world of strict hierarchy. Locke taking the initiative to greet was a sign of desire to make friends.
"That's right. Brother Locke, I'm ecstatic that you got promoted. I happened to lay my hands on some good wine yesterday. Why don't you come over tonight? I'll host you." Sean was utterly flattered that Locke still remembered their friendship. Although the two were not in the same unit, it was a fact that Locke's position and rank were both higher than his. There was no harm in having friends in higher places.
Any person who had been in the army for at least a year would know that the most reliable person on the battlefield was oneself, followed by one's comrades. This truly amplified the importance of friendship.
"Sure thing." Locke patted Sean on his shoulder and laughed heartily. He knew from experience that he wouldn't be occupied until tomorrow afternoon. Locke's injury from yesterday would not affect him if he were to drink thanks to his impetus.
After showing his face in the battalion, Locke returned to his little courtyard. He held a chicken in his hand which Hans had gifted him -- a true brother!
In the courtyard, Laffey was busy sweeping away, but she appeared pretty downcast without any apparent reason. Kristin was sitting by the door frame as she fiddled with her fingers -- she seemed to be in a much better condition. Glace should be in the house. They were not stupid enough to attempt escape. Locke was confident that they would not be able to escape the city relying solely on the maid's meagre combat skills. It was near, if not completely, impossible.
Catching Locke on his way in, Laffey adopted a vigilant posture. However, Locke simply disregarded her and strode right past, tossing the chicken at her as he passed. "Can you handle this?" Locke asked.
"Yes," answered Laffey in a trance, her mind still working its gears to comprehend the situation.
"Big Brother!" Kristin was exhilarated to see Locke return.
Locke ruffled Kristin's hair. He had somewhat taken a liking to her as well. Under normal circumstances, the soldiers who caught Shalorian nobles would hand them over to their superiors and wait for compensation or bounty, but Locke had no such plans. Though they were still reluctant to admit their identities, Locke didn't mind. Ever since he laid his eyes on them, their fates were already in his hands.