As for where Claude, the actual protagonist of this story, fit into it all, he lived in the attic, while his parents and siblings lived on the second floor of their apartment. His elder brother, Arbeit Ferd, lived on the first floor. It had a guest room and a study, but the study was only for his father and elder brother’s use. Claude had to have permission from one of them to enter.
Both floors had washrooms and toilets. Claude usually used the first floor’s, too many used those on the second.
He headed down there once again now. He met Arbeit leaving the washroom as he entered. The man was stroking his chin happily. He enjoyed shaving too much.
“Morning, Arbeit,” Claude greeted.
Arbeit glanced at him and hummed before heading downstairs.
Claude didn’t mind, though, it was how his brother usually acted.
He didn’t have the best of relationships with his elder brother. Mainly because his elder brother didn’t think highly of him. Arbeit was his parents’ pride and joy. He graduated first of his class from the town’s middle school and was pegged immediately after to become their region’s only council representative, Sir Yarisla Fux’s, assistant.
(Author’s note: Sir isn’t a formal noble title, it is used for knights and baronets, who straddle the divide between the nobility and the dignitry. It’s the greatest award a dignitarian can be awarded without being promoted to nobility. Knights and baronets are all but guaranteed to eventually be promoted to full nobility.)
Arbeit has also always considered himself the family heir and saw his siblings as only pretenders to his throne.
It almost made sense for him to behave that way as Morssen’s firstborn. He had inherited his father’s selfish and petty personality, the only difference was that he was still young and didn’t know how to hide it. His father concealed his vices as virtues, everyone thought he had great vision and wit instead. Arbeit, however, put everything on display for what it was. He also didn’t understand the idea of investment and believed he had to take everything he wanted in one step. He couldn’t do small things now for bigger rewards later, everything had to come back to him immediately.
Claude’s former self feared his brother, but his current self was completely apathetic, if anything, he was glad to have such a relationship. His former self hid inside himself so much because of his tension with his elder brother that no one really knew him for anything else, which gave the current Claude more freedom to be himself as he didn’t have any old personality traits to conform to.
Morssen was too busy working towards his own ambition to care about his younger children. He barely even glanced at his son, even whilst the kid had been gravely ill. On the contrary, his son’s illness only solicited anger at how weak he was. His mother, almost as if she was trying to compensate, spoiled him completely. She was so enamoured with her child that she didn’t even put his odd behaviour to mind and quickly accepted it as normal. His younger siblings were too young to know what was going on so he had little to worry about there.
Their kitchen and dining room were on the ground floor. Having finished his wash-up, Claude descended the stairs to find his father and elder brother seated by the table. His younger sister, Angelina, 12, brought them their food from the kitchen. Arbeit treated her like a servant, even having her bring him the salt and butter rather than fetching it himself.
“Morning, Father,” Claude greeted.
Morssen put down his copy of Whitestag Dawn and frowned at Claude before nodding slightly. He turned his attention to his food immediately, sprinkling a little salt on his eggs for eating.
Arbeit snatched the newspaper from his father and began reading out of the corner of his eye as he spread butter on his slice of bread.
Whitestag Dawn was a newspaper by the rich tycoons in town. They hoped it could emulate the three newspapers in the prefectural capital and bring them profits and a good reputation. It was too bad that, while there were more than 60 thousand permanent residents in Whitestag, only a thousand subscribed to the paper, barely enough to cover the costs.
It was always just an issue away from bankruptcy. Most of the journalists had been let go, and they relied instead on reprinting stories in the capital’s newspapers. Most of the news in the newspaper was thus old news, at least for people in the know.
Lately, rumours had been spreading that a few were even looking for people to buy out their shares, even if at a small loss. One had even asked Morssen if he were interested, but he had yet to decide.
Claude went to the kitchen after his sister. He found her scooping out milk with a copper ladle.
“Let me, Anna,” Claude said, lifting the pot to pour the milk out, “Where’s Mother?”
“Bloweyk is making a fuss. She went to calm him down,” Angelina answered.
Bloweyk was their youngest sibling, just six years old. Morssen was nearing 50. His wife gave birth near the age of 40, she would likely not have anymore children, if she did, chances were she wouldn’t survive the pregnancy. Her last birth was already so dangerous, which was why they two loved their youngest so much. He was the family’s little boss and got whatever he wanted.
“Alright. Go get some food. You have to go to school as well after you finish breakfast,” Claude said before he took the milk-filled jar to the table.
Stellin IX’s education reform let girls also enrol in elementary and middle schools, even the peasants’ daughters could, as long as they could afford it. Morssen was rather open-minded in that regard and was putting in a lot of effort to see his daughter properly educated.
“Fill it,” Arbeit ordered, pointing at his glass.
“You have hands, right?” Claude spat back, stopping his little sister from obeying, gently pushing her into her chair instead, “Ignore him. He thinks he’s the young master. You are his sister, not his maidservant. He has no right to boss you around.”
“What did you say?” Arbeit snapped, putting down his bread and the newspaper.
“You didn’t hear me? Are you going deaf already? How will you do your job as Sir Fux’s secretary? You should stop by the shrine and have a priest look at your ears.”
Claude glared at his brother fearlessly, his hands smoothly going about their business buttering a slice of bread.
Arbeit rose from his chair, fuming.
“I what? D’you want to fight me or something? Man, what courage…”
Claude did his best to appear an obedient child after he took over. It shocked his parents quite a bit. They thought he was turning over a new leaf after the illness. He’d even begun improving his relationship with his two younger siblings. No matter what he did, however, his elder brother, Arbeit, kept antagonising him. He found something wrong with everything he did and always took the opposite side of any argument or opinion to have chances to fight with his little brother.
He had once wanted to read a book from the study when his parents weren’t home. He had to have his brother’s permission to enter the study, however, which the latter just wouldn’t give him. His little sister eventual criticised her biggest brother for being unreasonable, and the latter then slapped her across her face.
Claude’s vision turned red when he saw his sister tumbling to the ground. He had still been recovering from his illness, but he jumped on his brother and wrestled him with every ounce of strength he had. The two were four years apart; Arbeit was a good head taller than Claude, but the young boy was actually stronger. He had at first thought he would be beaten up for sure, but it turned out Arbeit had a big bark, but couldn’t even gnaw. He only had to give the bastard a few punches before he curled himself into a ball in the corner and started yelling for help.
His body’s former owner, for all his flaws, was at least good at fistfights. His love for brawls also appeared to have lingered in the body as Claude felt a rush of adrenaline every time he felt his fist connect with some squishy part of his brother. He only stopped once Arbeit was a shivering tenderised steak.
His parents scolded him for a whole hour when they got home, but Arbeit had not gotten physical with either him or his younger siblings since. For his part, Claude also started looking down on his elder brother. Whenever they got into an argument again, he would subconsciously lift his balled fists a little so his brother could see them. ‘If you won’t let me win with my words, I’ll beat you with my fists until you give in’.
Arbeit immediately pulled out the moment he saw his little brother getting antsy. His defeat had scarred him, but asking his parents to intervene would ruin what little pride he had left, so he could do nothing. Today as well, he quickly shut up and sat down.
“I suppose you can’t hold savages to civilised people’s standards.”
Morssen coughed a few times, unable to ignore what was going on. This was far from the first time he had seen his two eldest sons butt heads. He had tried disciplining them, but they just kept going at it. The two couldn’t be in the same room for more than a few minutes without fighting over something.
“Your mother overcooked the eggs,” Morssen complained, feigning ignorance, “Pour me a glass of milk, Claude.”
“No, thanks. Milk is best as-is, freshly heated. Honey makes it too sweet, and it’s bad for the teeth,” his father answered.
“I want honey,” Angelina chimed.
“Okay, but you have to rinse your mouth after breakfast. Dad’s right, sweet things are bad for your teeth,” Claude smiled, adding two spoons of honey to his little sister’s glass of milk.
Morssen shook his head. His son came out of his illness a different person. His grades nearly doubled immediately after he went back to school, he suddenly had an interest in reading, and he had stopped making trouble with his gang. He also suddenly had a deep affection for his little siblings. The only thing that had not improved, and had in fact worsened, after his recovery, was his relationship with his older brother. He looked for every excuse to fling a fist or two at his brother.
“Your brother is right, Arbeit. You should do a few things yourself as well. Be proactive, don’t wait to have things done for you.”
Both Claude and Arbeit nearly fell off their chairs. This was the first time in probably a year that their father scolded Arbeit. But things got even stranger.
“While your brother’s grades can’t compare to yours, he’s a decent older brother to the young ones. He takes good care of Angelina.”
Morssen had always considered Arbeit his greatest pride. Sir Fux had praised him a number of times when the two met and was apparently relying on his a lot these days. But the boy was petty and had a greedy streak to him. He didn’t really care about his siblings either. He’d reminded the kid a couple of times to appreciate his family more, the boy didn’t listen. And now that Claude was standing up to him, he was growing further and further away from his siblings.
Claude wasn’t innocent, however. He kept provoking his brother at every opportunity. It seemed he wanted nothing more than to beat his brother up.