Madam Ferd, who had brought little Blowk into her arms and was busy feeding him, expressed her dissatisfaction with Arbeit.
“Arbeit, you are our eldest son, yet you haven’t carried out your responsibilities as an elder brother at all. You didn’t even bother to hold Little Blowk, he doesn’t like you either and always cries when you get close to him.
“Claude, on the other hand, has changed a lot since he recovered from his illness. I often see him reading in a corner and his grades have improved. When I bumped into Instructor Weckham from his middle-school the other day, he couldn’t stop telling me how impressed he was with Claude. He has much more mature now and frequently helps out with the chores. Not to mention how much time he spends looking after Anna and Blowk. They both like him a lot and always ask him to read them stories.
“You’re the only one that seems to have a problem with him. He’s your younger brother, not your opponent! You’re a grown-up now and have a proper job, but that doesn’t mean you can boss your brothers and sister around. You even treat our home like a hotel. You only come back for food and to sleep. I often don’t see you for several days! And I’ve heard you even tell Anna to wash your socks and underwear. She’s only twelve!
“I don’t want to know where you spend all your money and I won’t ask you to help with the bills, but, at the very least, you could hire a maid to clean your stuff. Anna isn’t a stubborn child, so she won’t say no to you, but if Claude finds out, he’ll not let it go.”
“Let’s not sour breakfast, dear,” Morssen interjected, “Arbeit, hire a maid to take care of your laundry.”
Arbeit nodded stiffly.
Morssen took out his beloved black-mulberry-wood and elephant tusk pipe, a pack of tobacco, and a flint sparker. He packed his pipe lovingly and struck the sparker a few times, sucking on the pipe until he could comfortably puff smoke. He drew a deep breath from the pipe and leaned back into his chair.
“I chose this path for you so you can become a government official. You enjoyed enjoy the benefits of being a dignitarian because I am one. But only until you’re 18. You’re twenty now. You’re just a peasant secretary now. You have to work for your dignity on your own now.
“I recommended you to Sir Fux to make it easier for you. If you win his trust, he can put in a good word for you and shorten the time you have to work by half at least. I can’t help you with that anymore, it’s all up to you now.”
Morssen took another puff, blowing the smoke out through his nose.
“Claude is different. He’s not a very smart kid, but he’s good with his body. He’ll graduate next year. He still has two years before he becomes a peasant. We’ve decided to sent him to Nubissia after he graduates. Viscount Jerrihausen Van Cruz, Claude’s godfather, is the governor of Tyrrsim there. He will serve his term in the army under him.
“You don’t have to worry about Claude taking away your share of the inheritance. He has a chance to gain great glory in the military, but it’s a dangerous career. I am like you, I don’t have the slightest adventurous spirit, nor courage to stand on the battlefield. I chose to become an administrative official to avoid that.
“If things go well for Claude, however, he might even come back a noble. Plus, if nothing happens to him, he’ll make it up the ranks much faster than we can. Tyrrsim is newly occupied territory and there is still a lot of conflicts there, so it’s the perfect place to rack up dignity and nobility. It’s not an all out war, however, so it isn’t too dangerous. In fact, things are more dangerous here. Nasri is rearing for another war, which is why I’m sending Claude away. I don’t want him to get dragged into that.”
Morssen put his pipe down, sighing. An unspoken rule in the kingdom was that every physical training course student was a reservist.
Dignitarians couldn’t pass on their social status to their offspring, their children became peasants when they turned eighteen.
Claude’s footsteps echoed down the stairs.
“I’m heading out!” Claude yelled as he burst into the room.
He gave Blowk’s cheeks a final pinch before dashing out of the house.
Blowk opened his mouth, ready to cry. Madam Ferd hurriedly stuffed some fried egg into it, making the piggy cough. He completely forgot about the slight pain in his cheek and chewed.
“Baby, eat lots of egg and grow up quickly,” Madam Ferd smiled.
“I don’t want eggs. It’s not sweet.”
Blowk complained, shaking his head like a Japanese pellet drum.
“Eggs are usually eaten with salt. When did they become they sweet?”
“Whatever, just put some honey on them. Don’t forget to brush his teeth afterwards,” Morssen said as he stood up, “I’m finished too. I’m off to city hall.”
“Oh, Bennie…” Morssen said as he took his hat from the rack, “I talked to Laor. He’ll send someone over to take care of the cesspool. Just hand the workers a tip. Also, we have guests tonight and someone will drop of a package at noon. Just set it up, I’ll handle everything else. Pjard will send someone to cook.”
Madam Ferd nodded. “Alright, dear.”
Morssen approached her and knelt down to give Blowk a kiss. He turned to Arbeit.
“You have to be here for dinner. You know our guests, but you must be humble so they get a good impression of you, okay?”
Two boys, dressed similarly to Claude, awaited him outside the shop opposite his house.
“You’re here! Where’s Boa?” Claude asked, crossing the street.
The taller one was Welikro Fezka, the son of a hunter, named Kubrik. His father was a veteran of two wars, he was a lucky one who made it through both unharmed. The cost thereof, however, was that he didn’t earn any decent dignity. He ascended to the dignitry after the usual fifteen years of service and returned to Whitestag to find a wife and start a family. His eldest child was a girl, his youngest thus far was Welikro, two years his sister’s junior.
The one next to him was Eriksson Altroni, a tad shorter but stockily built. His father was a sailor and his family owned a fishing boat called the ‘Shark of Red Sea’. It was occasionally used as a transport ship and was known quite well in town as a result.
“He’ll come later. Did you get the money?” Eriksson asked.
Boa was a boy’s nickname, Eriksson’s was Eyke, and Welikro’s was Wero. Boa as the town’s wealthiest merchant’s son, Borkal Bodeman. The three were Claude’s good friends and yearmates in middle-school.
His former self’s illness was actually their doing. The four went ice fishing during the previous year’s winter. Incautious as teen boys their age were, Claude fell through the ice into the freezing water. His three friends pulled him out and took him home, but he fell ill shortly afterwards. The three had yet to go to his house since, they were too afraid of his parents.
“Yup, I got it. Dad gave me a thale. What about you?”
“I also got some. Mine tossed me a thale when I told him,” Eriksson smiled happily.
“What about you, Wero?”
“My sister said we didn’t have the money, so she gave me two goatskins to sell instead. She doesn’t care how much I get for them, though,” Welikro answered shyly.
Claude finally noticed the puffing sack by Welikro’s feet.
“No worries,” Claude consoled, “You don’t have to worry about the fee as long as we’re here. We’ll figure something out if the pelts don’t make enough.”
The four had already decided to share horses since it cost a thale per horse. It was much more effective use of their money, not only did they save some, but the horses wouldn’t stand idle when they weren’t taking lessons.
“I’m here!” Borkal, a chub, yelled as he came running.
He stopped mid-sentence at a biscuit stall.
“I want a biscuit, that one–”
“Cut it into four pieces!” Eriksson shouted quickly.
Claude walked up to Borkal and slapped his wobbling belly.
“You came here without breakfast? I think it’s about time you lost weight. You won’t die if you starve a bit.”
“Come on,” Borkal moaned as he swatted Claude’s hand away, “I woke up late and had nothing but a cup of tea. I ran all the way here too, I deserve a biscuit!”
“Two sunars, thank you,” the stallkeep smiled, handing over the quartered biscuit.
Each took a piece without hesitation. Borkal kept complaining as he paid.
“You are going too far. You’re robbing me of my breakfast.”
Eriksson swallowed his bite quickly.
“Claude’s right. It’s about time you lost some weight. Eating less is good for you.”