Black Iron's Glory - Chapter 126
Claude rode Jemmy around town and found the keepers from the prefectural capital had captured nine people in all, including Borkal's father. If Claude remembered correctly, they were all guests his father had invited to dinner. They'd all been involved in the business with the trade route to Nubissia.
It was certain they'd been arrested in relation to the fleet as well. They were the masterminds behind the endeavour, and now they'd all been arrested. The chances of it being mere coincidence were miniscule beyond belief. He didn't know, however, if the fleet's failure to return had something to do with the navy as well, or if something else had happened to them and that was what had prompted the arrests. He didn't know how the fleet, their activities, or the new trade route could endanger the crown, either. They were just sailing to the colony to do business, after all. The worst they were guilty of was tax evasion, if they didn't declare their trades, of course. The loss of a little tax was hardly an endangerment of the crown, however. Maybe the fleet had stumbled onto some grand national secret along the way?
Whatever it was, however, it certainly had something to do with the fleet and their new route. And if it really did, then there was next to nothing he could do for his father. He would only make things worse for himself and his family if he got involved. The best he could do was find out as much as he could, take that information back to his family, and figure out how to weather the coming storm. That wasn't to say he wasn't going to take a chance to help his father if one came along, but going looking for one, or worse, trying to make one, would only put the rest of the family, himself included, in more danger than they already were.
He stopped by Pjard at the old tavern first to ask for news, but he couldn't help. He knew only what the rumours said; that Morssen had been arrested and taken from his home along with a number of the town's other major figures. He told Claude to go see Kubrik. Apparently the keepers were in town to stay, and were going to build a garrison on the outskirts of town. They'd drafted a couple of locals for the construction work, and a couple for garrison duty itself -- Kubrik was in the latter group.
Kubrik, of course, was Welikro's father. Claude didn't doubt his draft had everything to do with his skill with the bow and musket. If the the town's leadership had been charged with treason, he didn't doubt they'd be suspicious of what other treasonous activities were going on in the town. They might just be thinking of something like rebellion. If that were indeed the case, it wouldn't do to let them have such an excellent marksman.
The town's hunters had formed a guild about two hundred years ago. They were very territorial over their hunting grounds, and disputes were frequent and regular. The guild was established mainly to regulate who hunted where and resolve any disputes, but it quickly evolved into a union of sorts focused on representing the hunters' interests with the local government and providing other benefits to its members. It had slipped into decline over the last forty or so years as farmland replaced much of the hunting grounds and most people of the last two generations either took up more commercial occupations that kept them in town, or went to the city. Just ten of the town's youngest generation were seriously considering becoming hunters, and no one expected any from the next generation to take up the occupation.
That made the keepers a tempting option for the town's hunters. They were well-versed in the skills the keepers wanted, and it offered a steady, fixed income and a way to climb higher than their station in life -- something the guild could never offer. Most of them were former soldiers to begin with, and, though most were also dignitarians, few had an actual decent station, being a hunter could not compare to being a soldier, or officer of the crown. And they could easily become officers if they weren't just given the rank from the get-go. The crown did prefer retired veterans for commissions rather than fresh recruits. It was thus more likely for them to be be commissioned than drafted.
Claude made for Welikro's house with all haste. It stood at the far foot of the first hill west of town. Luckily Welikro was home, in the middle of butchering two hares. He had a small stack of wood ready to be lit nearby.
He saw Claude coming a while off, and stared at him, confused and somewhat suspicious. He knew Claude well enough to know his current haste was not a good sign, but he'd just return from his hunting trip and had not heard anything about what had happened in town.
"Is your dad home?" Claude asked between light whinnies from Jemmy and gasps of his own before he'd even come to a complete stop in front of his friend.
"My dad?" Welikro asked, then shrugged, "Don't know… Sis!!!" he shouted suddenly, "Dad home?!"
He didn't wait for an answer, immediately turning his attention back to Claude.
"I've been in the hills till just a few minutes ago, so I've no clue. Why are you looking for him?" Welikro asked, eyebrows raised in suspicion.
"Well, I..." Claude began, but Welikro's sister poked her head out of the window on the first floor.
"Oh, it's lil' Claude. Dad's gone to the mayor's office. B'n summ'ned ‘n all that. Left this morn'n. Hav'n't seen'm s'nce. Try any of the bars ‘n town. He'll pro'bly be there drunk, as usual. If you're hop'n to cath'm sober, I'd come back t'night, late… That reminds me. It true your dad's b'n arrested?"
Claude nodded bitterly. Welikro's eyes turned into saucers at his sister's words.
"Why's your dad been arrested?" he asked.
Claude just winced in his direction, a sad smile on his lips.
"For endangering the crown, apparently. I don't know what he did, and I've not been able to find out anything more since I first heard. Dad's not the only one, either. Boa's dad's been taken, too, as well as seven others."
"Something to do with the trading fleet?" Welikro asked.
Hunter's son or no, he had a few working brain-cells, and they were all currently doing overtime.
"I think so. Can't think of anything else this might be related to."
He bit his lip secretly. He was not used to information being this scarce, but he had little choice but to live with it. Electricity was still at least another 100 years off, longer if the progress since the war was any indication, and anything resembling the internet yet farther still. Newspapers already existed, but they hadn't had enough time to collate the stories and publish them, though most of it would be the same rumours and hear-say he'd already heard, and he didn't have the patience or time to wait.
"You want to ask Dad about that?" Welikro asked, "How can he help though?"
"The keepers have taken over the town and they're building a garrison on the outskirts and manning it with drafted locals. They're no doubt going to start with the hunters. That's probably also why he's been called to the mayor's office.
"With your father in the garrison, he can come and go from there as he pleases, and get more information than we will be able to. I wanted to ask if he could help me figure out what was going on."
"I'll ask him for you when I see him," Welikro nodded, "Want to wait for him? You should stay for lunch at least.--" Welikro swung the rabbit with which he'd been busy when Claude arrived. "--We're having rabbit!"
"I'm fine, thanks. I really need to get home. Mother's lost it, and Blowk isn't much better. Anna's holding it together, but she's not far off from losing it as well," Claude said, turning Jemmy around, "Can you ask around town as well, please? Since your father hasn't been arrested, people might be more willing to talk to you."
"I'll ask around."
The words lingered heavy in the air for a moment, then Claude darted off and Jemmy's hooves drove them away.
Claude cooled and dried Jemmy off when he got back home and left him in the backyard with a bucket of feed and another full of water, then headed inside. He stopped in the kitchen long enough to make noodles, then headed upstairs to check on his family.
Angelina lay on her bed. She stared at the ceiling for all of her brother's brief, until he mentioned nine other people were arrested, at which point she darted up. Claude consoled her. It was better if more people were involved. The town might have shut up about it if it had been just his father, but with so many people, and so much of the town's strength, taken from it, the people would start demanding answers, and sooner rather than later.
Claude wasn't about to take the chance that the fire in them would die out before they got to doing something, either. He planned to stop by and ask them about what happened after lunch, and maybe drop a few hints that they should try and put some pressure on the keepers together. Polite pressure, of course, but pressure nonetheless. His mother stopped him when he was about to head out, however. She said the keepers might just decide the gathering was another sign of treason and take action.
Claude hadn't thought about that. Paranoid at heart as he was, his paranoia had never really been of the kind that could let him see how others might be paranoid as well. He supposed when it came to looking after the family, few could compete with his mother, least of all himself. She'd never had a formal education, having been too old to be sent to school when it was opened to girls as well. Her life's ambition had been to be a loyal housewife and a mother of her mother's calibre. Her family was her life, and distraught as she might be about her husband's arrest, she was not about to let it tear the rest of her family from her one way or another.
That said, thanks to that very same lack of education, she didn't know much about the kingdom's laws. Claude did, however. It was not illegal to gather peacefully, nor could the mere fact that a group of people had gathered be used as grounds for arrest or judicial action. Claude explained this to his mother for nearly an hour, but she eventually caved and let him go.
The rest of the afternoon was spent going between the various families, but Claude got nothing out of it. No one knew even as much as he did, much less more, and they were all scared so shitless they could go a year without using the outhouse. They were nowhere near a state of mind that could be used to put pressure on the keepers. Two had even already splintered, the children, both a few years older than Claude, fighting over what had not yet even been confirmed to be inheritance, and another's wife had simply vanished with everything not nailed to the floor or physically built into the walls.
Borkal's family were the only other ones who'd also started taking action. His mother had already sent letters by horse courier to her and her husband's extended family to ask for help. Borkal's family was still fine and his mother wrote a few letters to some of her acquaintances to send help for her husband.
Despite the bit of good news, Claude achieved nothing with the afternoon. In fact, it felt like he'd just slipped back four steps. He trudged home, leading Jemmy by the reins on foot and made dinner. He walked Jemmy to Welikro's house again afterwards.
Arbeit had yet to return when he'd left.
Welikro's father burst into a bout of swears and curses that lasted almost ten minutes when Claude asked him about the garrison. Luckily everything was aimed at the mayor, Baron Robert, not Claude, though that did little to keep the spittle from painting his face as he sat quietly, waiting for the man to calm down.
It turned out it had not so much been a commission into the keepers as an order for him to work as a civilian contractor under the keepers in town. That was even worse than being drafted. As a contractor, he had none of the perks of being in the military, he was even lower than a greenhorn, as-yet-untrained recruit, but he had all of the same responsibilities and duties. On top of that he'd been told to get 224 others to agree to the same set-up!
Even worse was that they were to focus on preparing the town's defences against a seaborne pirate attack. A pirate attack! On Whitestag, the town that sat a day and a half's sailing from the ocean on a lake, connected to the sea by just a relatively small causeway around an island! They could literally just dump a bunch of logs in the causeway and stop anything and everything upwards of a skiff getting into the lake at all. What need was there for a garrison and 227 men, contractors no less, to man it?
Kubrik might be a hunter, but he, like his son, had a couple bright brain-cells. He knew it had to be an excuse to cause a split between them and the town. The keepers wanted to make sure he and his fellow hunters didn't join any unrest that might start up in town because of whatever they were up to, and they even planned to use him and his friends to put any such unrest down! They were ordering him to be their boot!
There was an alternative, however. That there would indeed be a seaborne assault on the town, but one sustained enough to need such extensive countermeasures. The only force that would do something like that, however, was a foreign military. Everyone knew war was never far off. Skirmishes along the borders were a constant item in the newspapers, so frequent and regular were they that a couple newspapers had actually started regular columns dedicated to reporting on them, mostly satirically. But everyone had grown so used to them that they'd eventually put the thought, unforgotten but unattended, in the back of their minds.
No one else was happy with the setup; Kubrik more-so than almost anyone else. So much so, in fact, that he'd all but threatened the mayor with a report directly to the prefect. Things had only gone downhill from there and he'd left with everyone else called there in a near storm.