Staff-Sergeant Siegfried, Captain Duriaulo's adjutant, hurriedly entered Claude's room. "Captain Claude, frontline command sent someone here to escort the imposters away. Our captain refused their request and they're in a standoff in his office..."
Claude knew that Duriaulo needed his support. He got up and notified a signaller to get Dyavid and his band to rush to the keepers' camp to forbid anyone from taking the four criminals away. Then, he followed Siegfried to the office. On the way, he bumped into Moriad, who tagged along with Claude to witness the commotion.
He didn't expect the noble officers to take action so quickly. It had only been three days since Perengue had left and the army judiciary had already sent someone to take custody of the four. Claude had been to Pacasia, a city in the prefecture of Pauralto, where frontline command was situated before and it took three days and two nights to travel from there to Squirrel. Even if they were traveling on horseback, it would take at least two days and a night.
It seemed the nobles had prepared in advance for Perengue's failure. Perhaps they had men from the judiciary put in a town nearby. Perengue had immediately departed to meet up with the rest. That was the only explanation for how quickly the judiciary's men showed up.
The corridor outside Duriaulo's office was lined with a tent of enforcers dressed in red uniform tops and black pants. There was a tri-coloured sash on each of their sleeves to denote them as enforcers of the judiciary. Claude could hear people yelling as he went up the stairs. "Captain Duriaulo, you have to let us take the criminals away..."
Two enforcers stood at the stairwell, perhaps having been instructed to refuse entry to the office to anyone. But when the two of them saw the shoulder marks of Claude and Moriad, they saluted and hurriedly went to the side. They were only instructed to bar the way of normal soldiers, not officers.
"What's going on?" Claude asked as he stepped into the office. Moriad closed the door behind them.
There were only three people in the office. Duriaulo was seated behind his desk without speaking a word and couldn't help but show a look of joy at the sight of Claude and Moriad. The other two should be officers from the judiciary in frontline command. One of them was a first lieutenant who looked to be in his late twenties and wore a moustache. He sat on a couch in the office and sipped away at his glass of fruit wine.
The other second lieutenant was rather burly and chubby. He was the one yelling just now and he stood before Duriaulo's desk. Most of the pressure Duriaulo was forced to endure came from that fierce second lieutenant.
"Who let you in?! Buzz off!" the second lieutenant spat without looking closely at Claude and Moriad's shoulder marks. He lashed out at them the moment he noticed them enter.
Claude widened his eyes. Before he had a chance to speak, however, Moriad charged up and rebuked the man.
"Are you dumb?! Where did you come from? How dare you ask a superior officer to buzz off? To think you'd have the guts to commit insubordination!"
The savage officer noticed Moriad's second lieutenant shoulder mark; he wasn't afraid of an officer with the same rank as him. But when he saw Claude's shoulder mark, he hurriedly saluted and apologised.
"Apologies, Captain, I didn't pay attention and thought my subordinates had entered. I am willing to accept punishment for my transgressions."
Claude glared at him coldly without returning to salute.
"Give yourself two slaps on the face and make sure not to do this again!"
The second lieutenant slapped himself without any hesitation and his face swelled red at a speed the naked eye could detect.
In the Aueran military, insubordination was not a light crime, but it wasn't crucial either. Usually, any officer caught doing so would be punished on the spot. It was almost common for the offender to be asked to slap themselves. Some more sadistic officers would intentionally cause trouble for the offender and get them to do handstands, bark like dogs or do a hundred pushups in public. It was bad to the point that top brass had to issue a notice to limit the scope of punishment a superior officer could deal out.
Claude turned to the moustached first lieutenant on the couch. He was quite quick and had put down his wine glass and stood at attention. The moment Claude turned to him, he saluted. "Greetings, Sir Claude."
Claude returned the salute.
"You know me?"
The first lieutenant smiled.
"Of course. I can't imagine any other knight captain standing before me but you, Sir."
Though they were of the same rank, Duriaulo was the junior. It was an unspoken rule that keepers were one rank below their combat counterparts. That was why Duriaulo needed Claude to deal with the matter. He simply didn't have the clout to deal with the two officers from frontline command. The first lieutenant was considered one rank above him because of the latter's status as a keeper as well as the fact that officers from frontline command were regarded a rank higher than the rest.
Claude, however, was different. He was a captain of 1st Rangers and under the command of the first prince. The tribe was an experimental independent combat unit and their ranks were on par with those of the officers in frontline command. He was also a bearer of the knighthood's order of merit. A captain of frontline command had to salute him, to say nothing about first and second lieutenants.
Claude nodded. "The two of you are from the judiciary of frontline command? Please show your identification."
"You..." The swollen-faced second lieutenant seemed to want to blurt something out. He seemed enraged, but he was rendered frozen by the strict glare of the first lieutenant.
"Of course. Please inspect our identification and officer certificates." The moustached officer was happy to comply.
Officer certificates weren't large and they simply contained the rank, name, age and unit of a soldier. The identification was at least double in size and had detailed descriptions of a person's height and appearance as well as the units they trained in as well as the posts they held in frontline command.
"First Lieutenant Jiblik Sha Levinster from frontline command staff..." Claude mumbled.
"It's yours truly, Sir Claude." The man nodded with a smile.
"You give it a look too." Claude handed the documents to Duriaulo and turned back to the first lieutenant. "Sorry, First Lieutenant Jiblik. We have no choice but to be careful. There has been an attempt to impersonate officers a few days back, which I'm sure you're aware of. So, we have to be extra careful with our checks. We don't want to be laughed at for repeating our mistakes, after all."
Jiblik smiled a little awkwardly. "It's only expected. It can't hurt to be more careful."
"What about yours?" Claude turned to the rough-looking second lieutenant and said.
The burly man wasn't of noble birth. He was called Bechmil Nitaya and was from the judiciary. However, he wasn't a staff officer, and was a disciplinary officer instead. He was the commander of the tent of enforcers out in the corridor.
Duriaulo gave the documents of the two a look and nodded to Claude.
"Alright, I believe you're truly from the judiciary. What business do you have here?" Claude took over Duriaulo's role as the person in charge.
Jiblik turned to Duriaulo and saw that he showed no reaction. He had given control to Claude. So, he could only smile helplessly. "Well, Sir Claude, we were conducting a disciplinary survey of the troops in the prefecture of Alfest and heard about this impersonation incident as we were passing through Rosa. So, we hurried here to take custody of the criminals so that they may be judged by the judiciary of frontline command."
Claude smiled. "Oh, is that the case? It's no wonder you lot threw a huge tantrum here in Captain Duriaulo's office. Did he refuse to hand them over? It's not actually his fault, you know. What we do with the criminals is up to me. Even if he agrees to hand them over, it's useless."
Jiblik's expression darkened. "Sir Claude, what do you mean by that? Are you going to get in the way of our official duties? This is a transgression of military regulation and you should be aware of the consequences that entails!"
"Official duties?--" Claude snickered. "--Then please show me the warrant and order to transfer custody of the criminals. Don't think you can take custody of them if you don't have a warrant from the ministry of the army and a personal order from the first prince himself."
"Sir Claude, please be reasonable," Jiblik said sternly, "Taking custody of criminal soldiers and giving judgment is the duty of the judiciary. We don't need a warrant or the order from the commander-in-chief. Please cooperate with us and hand the four criminals to us. Or else, we will charge you for obstruction of justice!"
"Obstruction of justice? That's a huge crime..." Claude didn't show an ounce of fear. "Don't think I don't know that the four criminals report to frontline command. You are just trying to shield your colleagues, not carry out justice. Are you trying to clean up after yourselves?
"If I hand the criminals to you, I doubt I'd hear a follow-up on this case. If we check in at a later date, there'd be no doubt no such record of this incident would exist. So, apologies, gentlemen. You better return to whence you came. This isn't something you can interfere with. It isn't a matter under your jurisdiction."
Jiblik glared hatefully at Claude. "Sir Claude, let me ask again. Are you really going to not cooperate with our assignment?"
"Hah, your assignment?" Claude shook his head. "I'm not obstructing anything. I am just requesting that you follow proper protocols. Please hand me a warrant and the order from the commander-in-chief. I will hand you custody of the criminals immediately."
"Very well, Sir Claude," Jiblik said with emphasis on each word, "You are now charged for obstruction of justice. I shall arrest you with the authority of the judiciary! Please follow me back to frontline command and cooperate with the investigation!"
"Bullshit!" Moriad snapped and sent a punch flying into Jiblik's face, striking him down on the spot. It happened so quickly that nobody could've seen it coming. Claude hurriedly hugged him and stopped him from escalating it further.
"You.... dare.... ack... hit me?" Jiblik clutched his face in pain. The punch seemed to have broken his nose. Blood flowed out of it incessantly. The man struggled to get up and roared with fury. "Arrest them! Second Lieutenant Bechmil, what are you waiting for?!"
"Yes, Sir!" The burly man didn't charge forward. Instead, he reached out with his right hand to his short-barreled musket. With his left hand, he swiped a struck a match against the desk and lit the slow match with it.
"Hands up!" Bechmil said with the gun trailed at Claude and Moriad.
Bang! A gunshot rang out within the office.
Claude looked at his own body in shock before he turned to Moriad. He didn't find any wounds on either of them.
With an audible thump, Second Lieutenant Bechmil was the one that fell to the ground There was a bloody bullet hole in his face. The short-barreled musket in his hand was dropped to the ground and its slow match was still lit, but it hadn't been fired.
Claude turned back only to see Duriaulo with a smoking short-barrel himself. He was looking at the corpse of Bechmil in a daze. Claude looked at him and Duriaulo struggled to explain, "I... I only wanted to shoot his hand... I didn't think it would hit his face..."
"You... you dared... you actually dared to kill Second Lieutenant Bechmil..." Jiblik was shuddering. A life was lost, and this matter was going big. He no longer cared about his hurting nose and shrieked with his finger pointed at Claude, "Men, come!"
The door was pushed open, but surprisingly, the ones who entered weren't the enforcers. Instead, it was the fully-armed Dyavid.
"Where are the enforcers at the entrance?" Claude asked.
"They were disarmed by us and are kneeling in the main hall," Dyavid replied without a care.
"What do we do now?" Claude asked Duriaulo.
The captain finally snapped out of it. He pointed at Jiblik and said, "Let's arrest him first. I'll write a letter to the ministry of the army to report on them for faking a disciplinary survey with the intent on forcing us to hand over the four officer impersonators..."