"Greetings, Sir Claude," a handsome first lieutenant said with an elaborate salute.
"Greetings." Claude hurriedly returned the salute and looked at the carefree first lieutenant. He didn't think there would be such a young and heroic-seeming officer in Squirrel Village. "You are..?"
"This is First Lieutenant Perengue from frontline command's combat strategy office," Duriaulo introduced.
Another staff officer from the strategy office? Claude shot Duriaulo a glance, implying the question of whether he checked his papers properly.
Perengue understood what that meant and automatically took out his identification and officer certificate. "Captain Claude, please verify my papers."
Duriaulo cleared his throat. "There's no need. Captain Claude, I know First Lieutenant Perengue and he's hailed as a genius of our kingdom's young talent in frontline command."
Claude hurriedly changed his outstretched hand to receive the documents into a push. "Since Captain Duriaulo vouches for you, there's no need for a check. Forgive my rudeness, First Lieutenant Perengue. The recent incident forces me to be more wary than usual."
Three days after the four fools were arrested, Claude was just about to take a nap after dining in the tavern of the village chief. But Duriaulo sent his orderman to invite him to his office. Claude knew why he was asked to come when he saw the first lieutenant.
"It's understandable," he said with a warm smile, "Anyone would be extra cautious after experiencing something like that. Even though the war's over, the troops are still deployed and near a million men are still at the frontlines. It's only inevitable that misunderstandings occur, and the most worrying thing is how some would take advantage of the situation to cause trouble and interfere in matters that have nothing to do with them and make a whole mess out of it."
Perengue gave Duriaulo a look as he said that. They appeared to be on unfriendly terms.
Claude agreed. "That's right. First Lieutenant, truer words haven't been said. Even though the peace treaty is signed and the war is over, some people still dared to besmirch our tribe while their superior officers were occupied. I heard our tribesman, Major Skri, was arrested by the staff of frontline command and accused for losing the kingdom's territory. It's just that, an unsubstantiated accusation. Our whole tribe is dissatisfied with how this matter is handled and we'll bring this case to the ministry of the army, or even to His Majesty, if we have to."
"Umm... About that..." Perengue was taken aback. He didn't think Claude would change the subject to Skri and imply that the crooks Perengue mentioned were the ones who accused Skri.
But he reacted rather quickly. "I wonder if that could've been a misunderstanding? I heard about this matter in frontline command and Major Skri himself pleaded guilty to the charges and bore all responsibility. This case has already been closed and the decision cannot be overturned."
"Closed? Haha..." Claude gave a few wry laughs. Had Skri not wanted to protect the rest of the tribe, he wouldn't take all responsibility himself. But Claude didn't intend to continue the banter with Perengue. "So, First Lieutenant Perengue, what assignment are you here for?"
"Oh, assignment? I'm not here on an assignment. I'm actually here because I have some personal matters I need Sir Claude and Captain Duriaulo to help me out with."
He made sure to emphasise Duriaulo's name. It sounded like he was gritting his teeth as he said that. Their relationship was definitely more complicated than it appeared.
Claude wasn't interested in prying into their matters. He gave a curt wave and said, "You give me too much credit. First Lieutenant Perengue, we don't know each other well and I'm sure you have far more acquaintances in frontline command that can help you out. I've only been crawling about at the frontlines and was fortunate enough to achieve what I have. There isn't much I am capable of helping you out with. I'm sure seeking me out for help was a mistake."
None of them were fools. They were merely feigning ignorance. However, Perengue didn't think Claude would refuse him so cleanly.
"I still require your assistance with this matter no matter what," Perengue said in a solemn voice and a hateful tone while glaring fiercely at Duriaulo, "Captain Duriaulo mentioned that you have to agree to this matter, or he wouldn't have the authority to give me a response."
"Oh? Is that what he said? He's merely being polite. Don't listen to him. He calls the shots here. It wouldn't be appropriate of me to interfere with the matters of his keepers. The rest of 1st Ranger Tribe is stationed in Squirrel Village and is only helping out with defence. All other matters are handled by the keeper tribe, which Captain Duriaulo commands." Claude still firmly stood his ground. He refused to involve himself in their grudge.
"Let me be direct, Sir Claude. I'm here for the four people you arrested. Sids Van Rulmke is my cousin. He's still young, foolish and impulsive. We weren't aware that he had stolen First Lieutenant Hendlir's uniform to impersonate an officer and cause your tribe trouble. It's only an impulsive act on his part and he definitely didn't mean to infringe on your dignity. Youths are always wilder than most. I'm sure we have done stupid things when we were younger too, so I hope you can forgive their brash actions and let me take them away. I promise to teach them a lesson they'll never forget."
Perengue stated his intentions clearly and took a few steps forward, took eight gold notes out of his pocket and placed them on the desk. Each note was worth a hundred crowns.
"This is but a token of our gratitude for your understanding and tolerance of my cousin and the other three's behaviour. As long as you let them leave with me, I promise you will earn the friendship of our families," Perengue said with his finger pointed at the notes.
Claude looked at the notes and shot Duriaulo a helpless glance. He was wondering whether Duriaulo had a personal agreement with Perengue and pushed Claude out to make the call. Perengue wouldn't dare to bring out those notes so directly before Duriaulo like that. Knowledge of bribes was best kept to as few people as possible. One extra person knowing about it increased the risk of exposure exponentially.
Duriaulo understood the meaning of that glance and shook his head with a bitter smile. "I already told him that this matter isn't up to me. The four had come here to cause trouble for you and your tribe, and we've already reported this to the ministry of the army and are awaiting an investigation from the top brass. Yet, he still hasn't given up on it and insists on meeting you. He said he wants to earn your forgiveness personally and allow the four to leave and wants me to report that the four escaped due to our inadequate security. The notes are the price he's willing to pay us."
Eight hundred crowns would definitely be a huge sum to the common bumpkin. Claude believed that any other officer of the tribe would be willing to risk their lives for such an amount. But that kind of money didn't hold any attraction to Claude. He has more than a thousand crowns in his bank account and couldn't spend it on the frontlines. There's no point in having money if one didn't live to spend it after all.
Claude pointed at the gold notes and knew that he would have to give Perengue a clear answer. "I don't need money. If you can release Major Skri and clear his name, I will release the four, even if it means I have to be held accountable for their 'escape'."
Perengue pondered for a moment and shook his head. "That's not something I can do. Major Skri's case is set in stone. Our families aren't able to change that fact."
"Then there's nothing I can do," Claude firmly said, "I can only do things the official way. Please take your money back, First Lieutenant Perengue."
The man silently stepped forward to collect the notes. After opening the door, he turned back and saluted Claude. "It's a pleasure meeting you, Sir Claude."
After he left, Claude turned to Duriaulo and asked, "Hey, what does he mean by that salute? Is he saying that their families will take it out against me?"
Duriaulo didn't know how to react. "You're overthinking this. Those four fools already said that you are one of the peasant officers on their list to suppress. What difference does their ire make? Don't worry. The families of those four and Perengue don't have that much influence in the army.
"As for what the noble officers can do against you, it'd mostly be slightly tougher hurdles and obstacles, such as more difficulty obtaining merits and promotions. Don't worry. They won't dare to harm you directly in the army. That would be overboard and they'd be in huge trouble if that happened. We peasant officers number far more than them after all.
"As long as you take care not to break military regulation, those noble officers can't do much to you. If they want you punished, they'll need a good reason. Given that you're not under the spotlight, just stay here without a low profile. They won't be able to do much if you're not deployed anyway. It's too bad that the war's over. If you can gain more merits and get promoted to major and above, those noble officers ranked captain and below won't be able to touch you."
That made quite a lot of sense. Claude nodded and his mind wandered back to Perengue. "By the way, does he hold some kind of grudge against you? There's something about the way you look at each other."
Duriaulo sighed and nodded. "That fellow used to be my neighbour and grew up with me. We were even schoolmates. I have a sister four years my junior and one year his. Everyone calls them a match made in heaven and my parents saw him as a son-in-law.
"Back then, we were still young and thought those happy days would go on. But his father, a viscount of the kingdom, betrayed the new nobility to join the old nobility after he caught the eye of some of the old noble families and had an opportunity to enter their monopoly of the military industry.
"That was a huge blow to us merchant nobles. Their whole family was seen as traitors and everyone cut off contact with them. They soon moved away and truly became turncoats. Perengue was fourteen that year and transferred to the noble youth military school. We didn't see him for the next five years to come.
"When I later graduated from the youth military school and joined the royal guard for training, I met him again. There was a group of noble officers there to train in the royal guard just like us. As our factions are natural rivals, we got into lots of conflict. One time, we decided to entrap those noble officers and manage to get them demoted a rank below us peasant officers. That made them the most humiliating batch to train at the royal guard.
"Later, that fellow approached my sister for revenge and managed to rekindle their lost feelings. My sister wouldn't marry anyone but him. Right when our parents were forced to let her go on with the marriage, word came that he was engaged to a girl from an old noble family. My sister fell really sick and almost couldn't be saved.
"So, I got a few friends to beat him up. That fellow didn't resist or beg for mercy and only clutched his head and let us beat him. He said he really did love my sister, but his father forced him to get engaged to the girl from old nobility and said he didn't have a choice."
It occurred to Claude that these nobles' youth stories could be written into epic sagas. It sounded particularly dramatic. "You nobles really can't catch a break, huh? You get involved in drama wherever you go..."
"Well, the noble circle in the kingdom is both large and small at the same time. The relationship between families over a few centuries do play some part at the end of the day. I rather envy you, in fact. At least you live a free life. Unlike us, you don't have to take every step with the prosperity of the family in mind. First Lieutenant Perengue had tried to coax us softly with gifts. But we have to be ready for the harsher ones to come."