News arrived for Locke about Ramosa, the town the army last town before Entil, which they would reach in another fortnight. The campaign was behind schedule, and HQ wanted them to make up for lost time. They'd informed Locke's battalion that they were to be in possession of Entil by the end of the month.
Locke summoned Hans for a briefing that evening, after which the man left with his squad.
Giza was a ghost town this time of day. The buildings were barely more than ruins even if they were inhabited.
Hagen had been living quite comfortably as of late. He had never expected his wife could form close ties with such a prominent individual. It had of course raised his status by proxy. Before his recent run of good luck he had been a barman and proprietor, and it had trained him well in the art of reading the mood. The mood told him Shalor would face an early defeat, which was why he was now on the side of Faustian. He had little influence, however, so his position had been shallow, precarious even. Now, however, he had managed to grow some roots.
He staggered down the sidewalk drunkenly as he made his way to his lover. The war had destroyed everything, but it didn't affect the rich the same way, or even as much as, it did the poor. The sidewalk was not being cooperative, however, and kept bucking under his feet. Even more inconsiderate were all the bastard refugees littering the sidewalk. He spared every other one a firm kick.
A black silhouette bumped into him.
"Are you blind, asshole?!" he bellowed at the sudden presence.
His next curse died in his throat when his eyes made out some more details in the moonlight, and a moment later the dagger emerged from his throat where it had bisected his voice box. He collapsed with a wheeze and blood pooled as the darkness closed in.
Several figures emerged from the darkness behind the first and cleaned up before they all vanished back into the darkness. Others had seen the event, however, and gathered around the corpse where it had been tossed into the shadows. They were not there to help. They swarmed over the corpse for only a minute, then dispersed, leaving it naked.
A few skinny, pitiful husks huddled together, around a small wood fire, for warmth in a damp basement. Men and women, old and young, and the majority of them clothed in tattered rags, were shivering as Hans and his men came down the stairs.
The husks shuddered at their appearance and scattered to the far side of the fire. One of them, a scrawny, middle-aged man barely more than a bag of bones -- and a sorry one at that -- crouched in front of the group.
Hans simply tossed Hagen's head to him.
"You're in charge of the side streets and alleys now, but you're on the hook for a fifth more than last month. You'll be a head in front of someone else if you don't meet the quota."
"Is the Herr... not mad with us anymore?" the man asked, his eyes still question marks.
"We won't do anything as long as you keep up your end. If you don't..." Hans let the threat hang pregnant in the air.
"I will!" the old man shouted in distress, just barely resisting throwing himself at Hans' feet.
The group left in the same silence they had come.
"We earned a fortune!" one of the people shouted a minute after the men had left. The others, still huddled on the far side of the fire from the door, were all glowing eyes and glittering smiles.
The leader couldn't say anything. He had been the one to send a man to Suzanne's bar. They had been in a bad way since the man who was now protecting her had beaten them up for trying to muscle her out of her money. Things had only gotten worse as word had spread that they'd pissed off someone powerful, and even worse once that same person had gotten even more powerful with his promotion.
The leader had been a merchant once, and his brain had not completely rotten away. He had known Giza was their only hope for a decent life whilst they'd been roaming the wilds as highwaymen. The war had robbed travellers of their riches. The only people on the road besides soldiers were refugees who had nothing but the clothes on their backs, and often not even that.
He had worked his way up the petty crimes list, and with quite some success, but that had come to an end with their encounter with Locke. The loss of their ability to make money had caused several of his group, many of them women and children, to starve to death, but he didn't dare get angry at the man who had put him in that situation. He knew better than to foster a grudge that could only lead to his death and that of his friends and companions.
This was a great opportunity to put himself in a position of relatively significant influence, with all the benefits that came along with it.
Even so, there was still a line they couldn't cross.
Locke and Suzanne strolled around the city, relishing the foreignness of it all. She had never been to a big city, so she was way more curious than Locke. Even so, the typical hustle and bustle was nowhere to be seen. The few shops that were only selling food were also owned by the merchants from Cardoj's and Cashel's camp.
These stalls would exchange any items, including jewellery, coins, and armour plates that were picked up on the battlefield in exchange for rations. However, the only option offered was what they called 'coal cakes'. This arguably edible specimen was peppered with flecks of charcoal, hence its name. If normal cakes were made from the shells of wheat grains, then coal cakes were made from the scorched residue left from making such cakes. This stuff was even looked down upon by rats, but somehow, the Shalorians were scrambling for it.
Locke had eaten coal cakes before. The memory was enough to dry his throat. It also caused stomachaches. If it was continually ingested,people would collapse from weakness in just a couple days. While currant cakes could be used as a substitute for horse feed, coal cakes couldn't, unless one wanted to weaken and sicken the horses.
The Shalorians were not dumb, but they were left with no choice. Had they been living in a backwater like Giza, they could probably still forage from farms and woods. However, with the exception of a few fruit trees growing in some yards, food was hard to come by.
Most of the merchants who sold coal cakes knew Locke and he was greeted warmly wherever he went. One of the people guarding the store happened to be someone Locke drank with the other day, Sean.
"How do you have time to visit, Brother Locke?" Sean asked as he punished a refugee trying to steal rations.
Locke was indeed a strange platoon jarl. The other platoon jarls usually spent their time practicing impetus or enjoying themselves at home. Otherwise, they socialised with the baron and other platoon jarls. He was the only one that seemed to have nothing to do. He would either hang around with the lower-ranked soldiers or walk around aimlessly.
Jersson excused the behaviour on account of Locke's youth.
Solon merely thought that Locke enjoyed crowds.
However, only Yoshk got it right. "Locke was developing himself with his own potential," he once said. Be that as it may, no one really understood what he truly meant.
For months and years, Locke was away from home. At age 14, he was already scuttling around corpses. He wanted to live a better life more than anybody else. Yet living a life rife with hardship had planted a seed of misery deep within him. He wanted out. He wanted to do everything he could to develop himself.
The rest of the platoon jarls wanted to climb the ranks by drawing other platoon jarls to their side and forging connections with the higher-ranked officers. Although Locke knew of that way, he was not used to it as he was not the most sociable type. Nonetheless, he did not give up and chose an alternative.
He believed that since the squad jarls could reach their positions now, they wouldn't fare too badly in the future. They might not be of any use to him now, but what about later on? Hence, he did not want to neglect any of their potential.
This was why he socialised with the squad jarls that were not in his platoon as well. He was even close to a few squad jarls in Baron Cashel's unit. So, he chose to pay attention to the underworld of Giza which were not valued by any others in his camp. Although the tribute he could receive from them was less now, what about the future? Giza was a core stop on a main highway, so he was confident it would eventually be developed.
"Look around as you like," he told Suzanne with his hand wrapped around her waist.
"This is your woman, right? Brother Locke, you have a really good eye for women." Sean turned around and shouted at his caravan buddies, "Dak, where is the silver bracelet you kept yesterday? Bring it out for Brother Locke's woman."
The man ran out from the caravan and handed it respectfully to Locke. Locke played around it for a while before giving it to Suzanne, who could barely hold back her excitement. This was her first jewellery she received. She would hold it dear to her heart always.
It was actually quite valuable, especially compared to the other articles found in the smuggler, Korby's possession. He patted Sean's shoulders proudly.
Suzanne has always been envious of the jewellery Glace the others had. The sapphire on Glace's neck and the gold bangle on Laffey's wrist looked so exquisite in her eyes.
She happily played around the bracelet with her hands, her pure joy almost making Locke guilty, as if he had treated her badly in the past. He thought about the bracelet and earrings he obtained from the smuggler that day. Originally, he wanted to keep it as a present for his sister, but since Suzanne liked it, he decided to give it to her first.
As she already had a bracelet, he gave her the pair of earrings instead.
"Do you like it?" he asked.
If the silver bracelet was said to be fit for nobility, then the earrings were fit for royals. The elegant arc and the refined diamond formed a masterpiece of an accessory.
"I love it!" She kissed Locke in excitement and did not seem to mind the others around them. She was more and more certain choosing Locke was the right choice.