"Sir, why did you let them off just like that?" Mazik asked after they left.
After the questioning ended, Claude instructed the signaller to take the three women to an empty guest room on the ground floor.
"What else do you want me to do?" Claude countered.
He pointed at the musket parts in the bag.
"If the baroness' father really is that master smith, Liboyd Milowski, then we can't afford to offend her. Her father is a talent sought by the kingdom. If he refuses to serve because of us, we'd be harshly punished. Best stick to protocol and not make any mistakes.
"As for the parts, I doubt there's a need to pursue it. Many of our men are armed with Mark 3s now. I'm sure the enemy already pilfered more than a few during some of the disasters since the war started. They wouldn't have made precision muskets like ours overwise. I'm not surprised Liboyd would go after our muskets given his reputation for curiosity. Even if High Command found out, they'd just gloss it over to stay on his good side. In fact, they might even feel proud that one of their muskets caught his eye.
"And it's not that big of a deal of the baroness is lying, either. We don't know the smith personally, so there's no way we can verify what she's saying. I've kept them here to cover our bases until we have clarity on the situation. Once we do, we can either handle things appropriately, or punish her quickly and be done with it. Best treat her cordially until then though."
"Sounds much more comprehensive. And here I was giddy that I might've caught an enemy spy and get a promotion to second lieutenant."
Claude revealed a troubled expression for a moment.
"By the way, it has been a month now. Why haven't our rewards for taking Blackmaple come yet? Nobody's even mentioned our effort since then either."
He sounded more annoyed than he really was. He knew people's minds were elsewhere, namely Bluefeather. They had conquered three prefectures in just a month. They'd stabbed deep into the enemy's back. The enemy's situation was quickly becoming dire, so much so that victory might be just a couple months away.
Claude wrote an official report about the baroness and sent it off with the signaller.
Communiques were generally sent about using three methods. The most urgent and time-sensitive travelled via eagle. They were rare, expensive, and difficult to train, however, so they were reserved for truly important messages. Short messages and bulletins were sent using carrier pigeons. They couldn't handle larger mail items like whole letters, however. The final, and slowest was by horse dispatch. Even in ideal conditions, however -- perfect roads, post stations every couple dozen kilometres with fresh, quality horses, and good weather -- horses could only take the message a hundred or so kilometres a day, and ideal conditions were not all that common.
The wooden building that served as his HQ had two floors, and four rooms to each. It used to belong to Baron Norwelik Wey Frinslan. He often went there for hunts. The four rooms on the ground floor were single suites with their own bathrooms. The largest was the dining hall where the noble hosted feasts for his guests. Beside it was the kitchen, a storeroom, and a servants' room.
Claude lived in the leftmost room on the first floor. As his attendants, Myjack and Gum had wanted to stay in the servants' quarters but Mazik chased them upstairs. An officer's attendants had best be near him to respond to his calls quickly. Mazik took the servants' quarters. Though Claude wanted to invite him upstairs with the rest, he said staying downstairs would be better for a bandsman like him as it would be more convenient for his night watches.
Nobody was willing to stay on the first floor with Claude apart from his two attendants, probably a sign of how large the gap between ranks in the military was. And, while Mazik was a sergeant-major and bandsman, he was far from a commissioned officer. He found it hard to let loose around his commander, so he chose to stay downstairs.
The two signallers occupied the storeroom. Each had three carrier doves and they required a quiet room so their doves wouldn't be agitated. That left two rooms vacant. Claude used the second room from the right as his study and office. The remaining guest room was there for any visiting officers. Now it belonged to the baroness and her maids.
As for the healer, two squads of cannoneers and the rest of the band, they were settled in the two-storey stone warehouse nearby. The outpost had to be manned by a tent at all times and the camp also had to be watched, so there was more than enough space for the 60-odd soldiers to live comfortably.
It was still winter, so it was still inadequate for laying foundations for construction. Claude had planned to renovate the base after the rainy season. The path the outpost was built on was connected to the Great Plains of Canas and Eastern Askilin, after all. It was the border of three territories. Though mountain paths were hard to move troops across, the precedent set by Bluefeather caused Claude to not dare to let his guard down. He couldn't afford to give the enemy a chance to use their tactics against them and get him into trouble.
So far, all Claude did was send some mounted scouts around the mountains for some reconnaissance. If any enemy was detected, they had to retreat and make the report immediately instead of throwing themselves into the fray and dying in vain. All they were ordered to was to set up a checkpoint at the path and exterminate any insurgent elements, after all. There wasn't anything they could do against a full-on assault by the enemy and retreating was the optimal choice.
Hopefully, the enemy wouldn't make their move until after the rainy season. If they were still going to stay there beyond that, they would have to properly fortify the base so that they could at least hold their ground against an enemy clan of troops. Claude had surveyed the land lately and thought up some plans to modify the base into a small stronghold. Should the enemy dare to attack them after that, they would merely be handing Claude a free achievement on a silver platter.
The door to his room was knocked on. Claude pulled the legs he laid on the table down and realised that he had been thinking for so long that it was already the evening. It should be Myjack outside waiting to send his food in.
The door opened, but the person who entered wasn't Myjack. It was the baroness. The beauty was pouting and seemed rather angry. She held a plate of food in her hands.
Claude stood up and apologised.
"Apologies, Madam, how could my attendant have a lady do his job? I will punish my lazy attendant at once..."
The woman stared at him, jaw-dropped, for a moment, then laughed.
"Pfffft! This food is mine, not yours!"
Why would she bring her food to Claude's room?
She put the plate on the table and pointed at Claude.
"You stopped us here only to treat us like this?" she chided.
Claude glanced at the food. It was standard rations: two pieces of bacon sandwiched between two slices of blackwheat bread, a smoked sausage, a cup of red tea, and a plate of beef jerky potato stew. Even a second lieutenant had to eat it, though he had the luxury of an additional fried egg and a couple fruit.
"What's wrong? Does it not suit your taste?" he asked.
"Of course not!" she glared, "We're willing to stay here to clear our names, but we will not be treated like commoners! This food is barely qualified to be fed to my maids! I will not have it! You will serve me food fitting my person."
Claude's head throbbed. What the hell was she thinking? She was a detainee, she should be happy she was getting any food at all!
He would have preferred to chase her away, but he couldn't, lest his superiors decide she was worth a personal investigation and come to find her absent. Mazik had really made trouble for him. If the lady really was the daughter of that smith, he would have to endure and please her even if it infuriated him.
He came to attention and bowed slightly.
"Apologies, Milady, it was my mistake. I shall rectify it immediately. Please wait a moment. I will prepare a fitting meal."
The beauty's eyes sparkled.
"You're a noble too?"
Claude's greeting was so on point it got her wondering.
He shook his head, however, and yanked on a bell chain on one of the walls.
"No, Milady. I am of common birth, but my herbal medicine teacher is a noble, a baroness, in fact. She made me learn etiquette as part of my studies since she expects me to become a noble eventually. I've only just been promoted to second lieutenant, so I'm at best a quasi-noble."
"Your orders, Sir?"
"Bring a bottle of fruit wine from my room, and light the candelabra. I will treat the baroness to dinner here--" he turned back to the lady. "--Please have a taste of some wine from my personal collection while I have someone prepare dinner."