Duriaulo didn't lie. The third day after Claude finished the letter for Maria and handed it to Myjack to take it to the royal capital with Gum, an inquest arrived to investigate 1st Rangers' time in Count Krilaus' castle. They were really there to cause trouble.
"Good day, Captain Claude. I'm Lieutenant-Colonel Vaoli, I'm in command of this inquest," a fat middle-aged officer with a friendly smile greeted.
"Sir!" Claude returned as he stood to attention, hand shooting to his chest in the standard salute.
"No need for formalities--" Vaoli waved a casual salute as he spoke. "--This is Captain Darik, First Lieutenant Halchik, and First Lieutenant Sids; staff officers under my command. They're here to verify the battles and double-check the traitor's reports of meritorious achievements."
Claude swept his gaze across the three, then nodded in acknowledgement of their existence.
"Why aren't you saluting us properly?" the slender Darik snapped.
Claude felt his eye twitch imperceptibly in annoyance, but he didn't respond. He'd never heard of an officer saluting his juniors first, even if they were of equal rank, the one most recently promoted -- and thus the most junior -- would always salute first.
Claude shot an indicative glance at the captain's rank insignia on his epaulette, then at his own. They may be of the same rank, and the other might even hold the office longer than him, but he was a knight, and thus had seniority. Even the lieutenant-colonel could only count as his barest senior because of the time he'd held his rank.
Darik was either dense enough to miss the hint, or arrogant enough to ignore it.
"Captain Claude, we may hold the same rank, but I am the senior officer. Both in terms of the respective times we've held the rank, and in terms of the authority of my charge. I come under the personal direction of frontline command, placing me several leaps above you in the chain of command."
Darik stepped forward, a stern brow tensed intimidatingly. His two first lieutenant aides moved in lockstep with him, their eyes also trying to set Claude alight.
Claude didn't spare them so much as a second glance. He slapped his chest in their general direction absentmindedly, just below his badge of knighthood.
"Ugh..." Darik and his two lackeys choked down the rebukes they'd been ready to spew at him for his half-arsed salute and quickly slapped their chest as their backs straightened and their necks stiffened. Even Skri, when he was still a captain, had to salute Claude first even though he was his direct superior.
Claude slapped his chest absentmindedly again, this time in salute, though the action was all but identical to the previous one as he'd pointed out his nobility. His lack of proper decorum infuriated the three officers, but they had little choice but to swallow their anger. The lieutenant-colonel, for all his ill intentions, did know when to take a step back and stepped in to ease the tension.
"Let's get down to business. Captain Duriaulo allowed us to use his office, so let's move the discussion there."
The office was set up like an interrogation chamber. Vaoli sat behind a table to the left, Darik and his lieutenants sat behind another to the right. The three wore stern expressions, much like Claude expected a party of inquisitors to have when interrogating a criminal back on earth.
Claude sat on a chair in front of the three, no table to ground himself. An archivist flanked him on either side while Captain Duriaulo sat in one corner of the room as witness to the propriety of the proceedings.
"Let us begin," Lieutenant-Colonel Vaoli said as he knocked his table to gather the room's attention, "Captain Claude, please tell us everything you remember about the time 1st Rangers spent in Count Krilaus' castle. I would recommend not omitting anything or changing your story. We will compare the account you provide us today with your previous reports and the accounts of others."
Claude had no reason to lie, so he recalled their campaign in as much detail as he thought relevant over the next hour and a half. Most of his time was spent on the period of the siege leading up to Major Skri's decision to withdraw. No one interrupted him or asked any questions. The only other sound in the room for the whole hour and a half was the two archivists' pencils scratching in their notebooks.
That sound was incessant; as irritating and distracting as any interruption might be. It was so monotonous, so uninterrupted, that it bored into one's head and drilled little tunnels in one's memory. So much so that any question, any comment, any interruption that would halt those damned wooden torture devices soon became desired, even wished for.
Luckily Claude's account only continued for an hour and a half, and the pencils stopped scratching at his sanity when his words stopped flowing as well, otherwise, he might just have shot several fireballs at them and damned be the consequences.
He sat in blissful silence with everyone else while they then waited for the two devils to go over their scrawlings and make sure they'd not made any mistakes, then cross-check their records with one another. It took about half an hour, but they eventually nodded to one another, then to the 'interrogators', and handed the two transcripts to Claude to sign before pushing them onto Duriaulo to sign, and finally handing them to the three interrogators, and then Vaoli.
His initial testimony complete, the true interrogation finally began.
Vaoli sat with one of the transcripts in his hand as he began his portion of the questioning. His other hand rapped the table rhythmically, the sound soon becoming just as drilling as the archivists' scratching.
"Captain Claude, I admire your tribe's bravery. I can guarantee the kingdom will take most careful note of your efforts and sacrifices. I must ask, however, are you certain your report is wholly and solely the truth? Your account that you had no choice but to withdraw from the castle, for example. Personally, I believe you were more than capable of holding it with a little more effort. You've pulled off more impressive feats under worse circumstances, after all."
And there was the first trap.
Claude saw it coming a kilometre away, so he merely shook his head calmly.
"Impossible. We'd have to have held out until the fourth month -- a deadline we'd not even known existed at the time. We'd have run out of ammunition in another month. Sure we could have kept on fighting with our bayonets, but we'd be dead in another week. Even if we somehow managed to hold on, we'd have starved to death by the end of the third month. Major Skri, myself, and the rest of the command ran every scenario and it all ended with our deaths long before any relief could make it to us. Withdrawal was the only option. Soldiers can't fight on an empty stomach."
"Impossible? On an empty stomach?"
The short first lieutenant, his name was Sids if Claude remembered correctly, chuckled.
"You think otherwise?" Claude snapped, his eyes shooting sparks at the little man.
The little turd was at most Claude's age. People who were lieutenants at his age tended to fall into one of two groups. They were either geniuses with incredible talent, such as Claude, though he would never admit it, not even to himself, or they had extensive, powerful backgrounds. Sids didn't strike Claude someone as an intelligent man.
"No," the high-nosed turd answered, "Your dossier says you graduated middle school as a physical course student. Even if you flunked every subject in school, surely you know the story of the Seventeen Braves, or do you need a reminder about even that?"
Sids paused for half a moment, but continued just as Claude started parting his lips to retort.
"Let me give you one anyway and spare us all some time and embarrassment. The Seventeen Braves were warriors of the kingdom many centuries ago. They were trapped on a peak in Fiendtiger Ridge and ran out of food. They had a workhorse with them, however, so they slaughtered it and used its meat to continue fighting for another twenty days. On the twentieth day, just as they were about to be overrun, reinforcements arrived and cut down their besiegers.
"They had no food, and yet they continued on. They butchered and ate whatever they could. Had they been forced to hold out even longer, they would no doubt have eaten their dead enemies as well. Surrender or withdrawal simply wasn't an option for them, they would not take it even if it was offered to them on a silver platter. They fought to their end, their very nearly real, final end for their kingdom's sake. How can you call yourselves soldiers if you withdraw months before you were even anywhere near running out of food? How can you withdraw at the mere possibility of having to become creative to feed yourselves sometime in the future? The braves held on until they were relieved. You, on the other hand, gave up before you were anywhere near a precarious position and gave up on not just the castle, but vast swathes of territory which was the kingdom's by right of conquest! The braves slaughtered their last workhorse, and then kept fighting for another 20 days. You, on the other hand, ran away with your tail between your legs while you still had thirty workhorses! Starvation my noble arse! It's nothing but a convenient excuse for your cowardice!"
Claude didn't get mad when he and his men were called cowards to his face. It wasn't that he wouldn't be made absolutely livid at the suggestion, he was simply too dumbfounded that someone would dare make that suggestion to his face to get angry. He couldn't believe such a brainless imbecile could become a first lieutenant no matter how strong of a background he had. Was he one of the gods' children? Sure anything less would have seen him kicked out of the army a day after he showed up for training.
He certainly had never seen the battlefield. Hell, he'd probably never even read a single textbook on logistics in all his short years in the army at all. No military commander worth even a single pinch of salt would use a romantic epic more fairytale than even legend as a reference by which to judge the real-world performance of an actual military unit. Not to mention that the seventeen braves were in their predicament in the first place only because they'd obediently followed a beyond-stupid commander. If the Tale of the Seventeen Braves was a tale of anything, it was of the prices rank-and-file soldiers pay for the stupidity of their superiors.
Forget about the food, they'd have been dead in less than a week had there not been a fountain near the tip of the peak. They could have all the workhorses on the continent, but without water they wouldn't last five days just sitting around, nevermind fighting. They'd only held out because the enemy was in as bad a position as they were, and didn't try too hard to take them out, settling instead to wait them out further down the mountain where they had ready access to food and water.
On top of that, the braves were just seventeen people. 1st Rangers were 800 people strong when they marched out of the castle. Thirty workhorses sounded like a lot, but they vanished quickly when they had to feed 800 hungry, fighting mouths. If they took the numbers in the story as gospel -- now there was a term Claude hadn't used in a long time -- the 30 workhorses would extend their supplies by a month at most. If referencing a romantic wasn't proof enough of the lieutenant's stupidity, then him thinking they could hold out for months on just 30 horses definitely was.
Claude stared at the high-nosed turd, properly stared at him, for several, long, imbecilic moments, then sighed.
The hopelessness in his sigh must have been exceedingly obvious, because the little turd slammed the table with as much fury as his tiny little body could muster.
"And that sigh? Do you think I am mistaken? You reveal your cowardice during the most crucial moment in the war, and still have the gall to sigh indignantly at me when I point it out? And that after using such a stupid excuse as lack of food?! Where do you get the face to brag about your kill count? I really want to know. I'm beginning to wonder if you've ever even fired a single shot in combat at all and haven't just made up all your stories of glory to feed your delusions of grandeur!"
"If you've made up your mind already, why waste my time with this farce of an investigation? Go ahead and write your little report and mail it to your little masters," Claude spat coldly and deliberately.
Claude had the little turd by the sack. For all his bluster, he was barely a third-rate figure in the room. He had no right to write or submit any reports of his own. He served only as an aide to his superior and was only to write in confirmation of his superior's findings. Everything just now had truly been nothing but him blowing hot air. If this was not him dancing exactly to his masters' tune, he would have been shut up and kicked out the moment he opened his mouth. His short little career would have ended right there and then, if not his life. If there was only one thing the military took seriously, it was the giving of merits, and the reports on which their award was decided.
Even Rosley hadn't dared to misreport Claude's achievements. The best he could do was underplay their significance or importance, or downplay the danger under which they were achieved. The closest he'd come to truly misreporting the young officer's achievements was attributing kills he'd gained to his subordinates to even out the scores.
"Let's get back on topic, shall we?" Darik's other lieutenant, seated on the other side of him, said. "Your report states you abandoned the castle because of your lack of food and other essential supplies. I've run the numbers, and based on what you had with you when you returned to our lines, you still had more than enough to last all the way up to the 4th month. You could have lasted into, and possibly even beyond, the 5th month if you'd rationed properly."
Claude did not like it when people tried to poke holes in his version of events with malicious intent, but he was open to honest commentary and criticism, so he invited the lieutenant to continue.
"At the end of the 10th month you still had enough food to last three months at full ration, correct?"
"You held out until the 2nd month before withdrawing because you say you didn't have enough food or ammunition left, correct?"
"And there's the problem!" the long-faced lieutenant shouted as he slammed his table, "Why didn't you start rationing the moment you realised you were cut off from your supply lines? Why didn't you, for that matter, start rationing the moment you noticed the enemy was preparing to come for the castle? You continued to feed your men full ration, three meals a day plus snacks. You could easily have extended the life of your supplies by another three, even four, months if you'd cut back to two meals a day! You are either completely incompetent, or you never had any plans to fight a long defence. Your cowardice was to only try to hold out as long as normal rations and operation was possible, and then running away the moment things started getting a little difficult because of your own shortsightedness and incompetence."
Claude had to relocate his jaw a second time. The little turd was bad enough, but at least he didn't try to hide his stupidity behind faux careful thought. Claude had to glance to Duriaulo to make sure he wasn't just being toyed with, that this wasn't some grand joke. The man only lowered his head slightly, while the archivists behind Claude continued to scratch away at new notebooks, their shoulders trembling from the effort to stifle their laughter.
Claude's eyes eventually returned to the first lieutenant, an expression of wonderment and honest admiration on his face.
"What is your name, my good sir?"
The first lieutenant was all too happy to answer him.
"First Lieutenant Halchik Lor Wardony. I have thoroughly exposed your schemes, so come clean quickly."
"You've certainly exposed something, First Lieutenant Lor Wardony, though I doubt it is what you believe it to be."
"What have I exposed, then?" the first lieutenant asked, sniff coming to his nose a moment too late.
"You've exposed this whole thing as a giant jester's performance. How on earth is two bowls of porridge and two pieces of black bread supposed to be enough to keep a fighting man fit for months on end?"
Claude had prepared himself for some extent of intellectual gymnastics during the interrogation, but he'd not expected his interrogators to not have a single bone in their entire body. What the hell did they think a soldier was?
"Why not? Any soldier loyal to their kingdom should be more than satisfied with that much. The refugees in Rimodra eat even less and they're still running to us with open arms--"
"You motherf*cking piece of shit! Are you seriously treating our men the same you do refugees?!" Claude burst, shooting from his chair in an instant.
If this f*cker ever set foot on the battlefield he'd be the first one shot, from behind, by his own men, first through each knee, then through each elbow, then through his scrotum -- not that that would do any damage since he didn't have so much as a single hair down there, nevermind balls -- and finally the back of his head. Claude doubted the final shot would kill him, though, because he didn't believe the fool had a single brain cell.
"Captain Claude, show respect! First Lieutenant Halchik has worked hard for months to take the best care of the Rimodran refugees possible under very limiting circumstances. If anyone can talk about how long rations can last, it is him. It is true that 1st Rangers are not refugees; they are soldiers, well-trained soldiers... Which is exactly why they should be able to last just as well on even less!" Captain Darik said as he stood up in rebuttal.