Black Iron's Glory - Chapter 324

Claude checked beneath his pillow. The ten coppers he had left there that morning were untouched. He had left six riyas unattended the whole day, and they had not been touched. This was the third day he had done this, and the third day he had found all ten coppers right where he had left them. The thief apparently only stole food, not money. How very peculiar.

Classes had now been ongoing for a week. He had sifted through heaven only knew how many classified documents from the archive. His hair had stood on end at some of them. One in particular had struck him quite hard. The report detailed the conquest of a small enemy fort on a nondescript hill somewhere near the coast in the east. The fort was defended by just a single band of men. Despite that, the attackers, who outnumbered the enemy several times, lost and entire clan's worth of men taking the hill. The officers had marched their men up the hills in close formation, in line of battle, muskets rested against their shoulders, through musket and cannon fire, without so much as shooting back, until they were just a couple dozen paces from the enemy, then opened fire. This would have been bad enough back when no one knew any better, or had any alternative, but this was months after that particular unit had been issued the new Mark 3s and trained in the new tactics. The officers had absolutely no excuse for what they did. There was absolutely no reason for them to march their men to their deaths. They had both the weaponry and the tactics to take the hill with minimal losses, but they'd chosen to march their men into hell.

Claude was absent for the entire day. He left just after sunrise, and returned well after sunset. It had taken him just two days to notice his food vanishing. He couldn't believe that he stole only food, however, namely, all the snacks he had brought with him from the capital. His egg rolls, his jerky, even his dried fruit, everything had been stolen. He wasn't particularly angry about it; he had bought it only because he had been worried he would be hungry the evening of their return, but it was still his food.

Not everything had disappeared at once, however. They were being consumed in bits and bobs every day. He knew exactly who it was; it couldn't be anyone but Halbena. She was the only one that came into his room. He had decided to test her before confronting her. If she stole food, she might steal money, so he left a couple coppers under his bed, where he knew only she would look when she changed his sheets. She had not taken the bait, however. It appeared she was just an uncontrollable sweet tooth, not that it made the fact that she was stealing any less of an offence. That said, he didn't want to ruin their relationship over some sweets, so he decided to just let it be.

Having put the matter of his little thief to rest, his thoughts returned to the class. He was quite surprised by how much he enjoyed the advanced strategy course. His classmates did not look down on him. Thanks to his little demonstration in the first class, they respected him as their equal and often asked his opinion or turned to him for advice.

He had also come to respect his classmates. He had originally thought they would be somewhat smart, but ultimately merely arrogant, nobles, but they proved to be as intelligent as him, if lacking the advantage of a previous life in a world where the tactics they were trying to develop were already outmoded. Their analyses were well thought out and logical, however, and he very much enjoyed debating the finer points of doctrine with them on those occasions they had differing opinions. The debates had refined his understanding as well and pointed out several shortcomings and blind spots he had missed until then.

The 3rd month was soon upon him, and with it came the rainy season. Class was dismissed for the month, so Claude took a pile of books home with him to read and reference while writing his paper. Most of the material concerned supply and staffing for his old ranger tribe. He had not known the full extent of the damage that blasted lieutenant-colonel's damned counter-scouting operations had done. They lost the equivalent of two whole tribes during the time they were under his command.

The fool recruited complete amateurs and gave them the army's most advanced weapon, then sent them off to die and hand over that same weapon to the enemy. Eventually volunteers ran out as everyone got to know what happened to 'Rosley's Bastards'. That didn't stop the man from getting his meat. He switched to taking on rule breakers. He turned the ranger tribe into a penal tribe. Rosley's Bastards became Rosley's Victims.

Claude was certain he would be long dead if he hadn't taken the bastard out during the attack on Wilf. Hell, not only he, but every other poor bastard in the tribe with him at the time would be dead.

He had, however, and with the bastard's death, the tribe fell to Claude, at least temporarily. He'd taken immediate action, and it had saved the men's lives. It had also been the first step on their long march to glory.

He intended to report everything he remembered of the war, especially the period between Rosley's death and the tribe's expansion to four tribes during which he had overhauled the tribe's operation.

He already had a rough draft in his head before he started poking around the archives. Now he just needed to statistics and references to flesh it out into a full paper. That was the most boring part of it, however. Coming up with the narrative and decided what to say where was interesting, but doing the finger work to actually write it down and add references and the like... that was soul-breaking work.

He woke up the next morning to the soft drone of a gentle grey drizzle, and just stared at the ceiling, unwilling to get up and start writing the paper. He considered going to campus to get breakfast, but he didn't feel like making the trip just for food, especially not in this weather.

He wondered what was cooking for breakfast, then realised he had not told the landlady whether to make food for him during the rainy season or not. He counted pennies in his head quickly, deciding whether he had enough to pay for the food.

He sighed and shoved himself out of bed laboriously. His door clicked, then opened slowly. It came to a creaking halt and a figure jumped in.

Claude stared at the figure for a dazed moment. Had he not locked his door the previous evening?

The figure was Halbena, of course. Her feet had barely touched the floor but she was already making for the table by the window on which his bag of snacks lay. The once bulging bag had been reduced to a mere shadow of its former self. Only a couple of the things were eaten by Claude, the rest had gone down his snack thief's throat.

Now only a small metal box with a couple pear-syrup candies. It was probably the capital's most famous, and expensive, delicacy. Each box cost an entire thale.

The girl's hand flicked out expertly and snatched the box. Her finger snakes inside and extracted a single candy. It slipped into her mouth and she closed her eyes and savoured the sweetness. Her face saddened several long moments later, and she replaced the box in the bag.

Claude had to fight to keep his laughter in. He had bought four boxes, three of which had gone to Manrique's children during his visit. His eldest daughter had given him one of her candies to say thank you, and when she had done that, he saw there were only ten candies in each box. He knew there weren't more than three left in his now. They were very delicious, so he could understand why the girl restrained herself and had only one.

She turned around to get started on the room... and froze as she, finally, noticed him. She screamed as if he were the thief. Her voice was so shrill it made his ears ring, drowning out the voices of concern raised from elsewhere in the building.

The house's three other occupants stormed into his room at almost the same time. Their eyes immediately fixed on him, still in bed, and glared death his way.

"What did you do to Bena?!" Zasrak bellowed, his fists already coming at Claude's face.

"Bena, what happened?" his wife asked as she consoled her daughter.

Doris' eyes darted between the two a couple times, then she clicked her tongue and shook her head, disappointed at Claude's low standards.

Claude blocked Zasrak's fists easily, his own face reddening in fury.

"What did I do?!" he hissed venomously, "Ask your daughter what she did! I was just laying in bed when she barged in and started screaming! My ears are still ringing!"

He very nearly spilt all the eggs, but then decided not to. Girls like sweets, he knew it all too well. Immoral as it was for her to steal from him, the guilt she now felt, and the shame of being caught red handed -- or yellow mouthed, as the case may be -- was enough for him.

Halbena finally calmed down. Everything from her shoulders to her ears and hairline was red, but she could finally think straight again.

"W-why aren't you at the college? You surprised me!"

Claude gave a curt explanation, making his displeasure at her thievery known to her through his tone, though he said nothing. Despite Claude being the victim, Zasrak behaved like he was a criminal who'd escaped justice and barged out of the room coldly.

What was with the damned old bastard? What did he think Claude was? He didn't even apologise for trying to beat him up without giving him a chance to explain himself. The old fool better not have anything to say about Claude not being polite in the future. He'd get more than an earful if he did.

Natalie caught the anger in his eyes and apologised on her husband's behalf for how they'd behaved, and scolded Halbena thoroughly. She also sent Doris downstairs to prepare breakfast for him.

Claude latched onto the chance to change the subject and the two settled on remuneration for the meals. He asked that the food be brought up to his room. He didn't want Zasrak to sour his meals with his sour face.

Natalie left with her daughter after collecting the laundry. Claude offered a generous thale for his food as they left. He did not expect anything more than what the family would eat, a plate of healthy food was enough for him. He'd lived on army rations for five years, so even just fresh vegetables would be an improvement.

He got more than that for breakfast: two eggs, black bread, a portion of salt, butter, and a bowl of porridge. He was about to ask if they had sausages, but noticed Zasrak staring death at him through the window from outside.

His appetite deserted him instantly. Damn that old man! He nodded to Doris and blurted a curt thanks before waving her out. She left without a word. She returned a quarter of an hour later to collect the dishes. Despite his best efforts, Claude had only finished the eggs and porridge. He asked her to leave the black bread. He would have it a little later.

As the girl closed the door and her footsteps and the wooden clonk of the dishes faded down the corridor, he noticed the sound of sawed woodwork from outside. He glanced through the window and saw the old bastard working on something. He had not thought the old man knew carpentry. He was not interested in the old bastard or whatever he was up to, so he focused his attention on his work.

Lunch came, he ate, and the dishes were fetched in much the same way breakfast had transpired. Claude wanted to take a quick nap, but the old bastard was still at it in the yard and the noise kept sleep away. The sound finally stopped, but just as Claude felt sleep finally envelope him, the bastard started hammering at something by the stairs, and the sound reverberated up and down the walls, waking him again.

He slapped the wall and got up to make some red tea. Doris was the only one in the kitchen. She sat in front of a dead candle, her mind elsewhere. Her one hand rubbed a stick about the thickness of a cucumber. What on earth was that for? It didn't look like a rolling pin.

She only responded to his calls with the third one. Her face reddened when she noticed him and she fiddled with the stick, desperate to find a place out of sight to put it. She only calmed down after she stuffed it in a drawer and slammed it shut, taking a deep breath as she did so.

"What do you want?" she asked as calmly as she could.

"I want to make myself some red tea. What's Zasrak up to?"

Her face reddened slightly at his question.

"He made a door for the stairs. He wants to lock it at night."

The f*cking arsehole! Claude nearly shouted it, but caught himself and contented himself with blasting his thoughts at the old geezer and hoping it would give him a heart attack.

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