"Why would you have a short-barrel musket here?" Claude asked the blank-looking Duriaulo after Dyavid and a few other troops took Jiblik away.
"Oh, this musket..." He just realised he was still holding the fired gun and hurriedly put it back in his drawer. "This was given to me by my father before I enlisted. Even though I was made the tribesman of a keeper tribe and stationed here, I don't have to fight on the frontlines with my life on the line. My father still insisted I keep one musket around to protect myself. I usually have it stored in the drawer and I lit the slow match when Second Lieutenant Bechmil aimed his gun at you..."
He still seemed a little dazed. "I swear I was just aiming at his hands. I was trying to shoot his gun away. I... I didn't think it would hit his face."
Claude counted his blessings that he wasn't standing opposite Duriaulo when he made the shot. There was less than five metres, but he still managed to miss the hand and hit the face. That accuracy was appalling to say the least. If Claude and Moriad were a little bit less fortunate, they might've been hit as well.
"Alright, let's put away the matter of your aim. He's already dead, so we should consider how we ought to wrap this up. Are you sure your reasoning just now will work?" Claude asked before he got Moriad to pour the captain a glass of wine to calm him down.
"What did I say just now?"
Claude understood that Duriaulo had said what he did in a panic and forgotten it. "You said to send a carrier eagle to the ministry of the army reporting that Second Lieutenant Bechmil and First Lieutenant Jiblik were using disciplinary patrolling as an excuse to try to extract the four imposters from us and tried to force our hand when he denied their request."
Duriaulo picked the glass up and finished the wine in a few gulps. "Thanks. Get me one more glass, please."
After finishing the wine, his eyes regained some clarity. He gave it some thought and said, "We have to get the story right and make sure there are no loopholes. Let's emphasise that the four imposters were from frontline command, and that Jiblik and Bechmil wanted to force us to hand them over without a warrant and the order of the commander-in-chief. Let's say we refused them because we suspect they have ties to the four imposters.
"We have to make sure to state that we agreed to hand the imposters over if they produced the proper documentation. But they didn't and tried to come up with a ridiculous reason that staff officers from frontline command didn't require such documentation. We, on the other hand, think that since the war is over with the signing of the peace treaty, frontline command no longer holds that kind of authority and all orders must come from the proper chain of command with the ministry of the army at the top, so we refused their request."
Claude slapped his thigh when he understood the idea. Duriaulo was trying to redirect the blame. The death of an officer from frontline command could be spun as the natural consequence of the power struggle between frontline command and the ministry of the army. The bigwigs in the ministry would side with them because if they didn't, it would mean tolerating frontline command still holding authority over near a million troops. Were they going to restart the war? Would it be a civil war this time? That would only stroke the paranoia of the bigwigs, especially with the first prince in his self-imposed house arrest and frontline command having free rein to do whatever they wanted.
Claude truly admired the scheming of these nobles. Be they old or new nobility, mind games like those were in their blood. He was quite nervous about Duriaulo shooting a disciplinary officer dead since that would no doubt cause a huge chain reaction.
But after some gulps of wine, Duriaulo managed to calm down and think up a plan to wrap up the incident. If his explanation were to be believed, not only would be completely innocent, he would be doing the ministry of the army a service. After all, he thwarted the scheme of frontline command to take the four officer imposters back and defended the dignity of the ministry of the army, which was the rightful highest authority of the army.
"Right," Duriaulo said as he picked up the second glass of wine, "So they got enraged after our refusal and aimed a gun at us to force us to hand the prisoners back. We had no choice but to resist to defend ourselves and got into a melee. Second Lieutenant Bechmil's gun misfired during the melee after we managed to grab onto the barrel and pushed it away, so he ended up shooting himself in the face and died on the spot."
Now, he managed to push away responsibility for Bechmil's death to the dead man himself. It wasn't uncommon for short-barrel muskets to misfire in fights. It was all his fault for taking his gun out to threaten others in the first place so nobody could be blamed for it.
Corporal Siegfried went upstairs with a bucket of water and wiped away the blood of the dead man.
Claude looked at the bloodstains as they were wiped away and got the half-emptied bottle and began gulping down its contents. When he put it back down, he said, "That's a good story, but don't forget about First Lieutenant Jiblik. He has hands and a mouth too. How would we deal with that loose end?"
Moriad put himself bravely forward. "Sir, leave this to me and Dyavid. I'll make sure he gives us a satisfying testimony."
Claude was hesitant about it, but Duriaulo nodded with satisfaction. "Alright, we'll leave this to you. You're a witness too, so if Claude and I get into trouble, you won't be able to get away either. You also punched the first lieutenant just now, so if he regains freedom, he'll definitely get you back for it. I don't doubt that in the slightest. Corporal Siegfried, please notify the signallers to come. I want to send a secret message to the ministry of the army immediately."
Moriad and Dyavid had long been interested in 'taking care' of noble officers like those; it was a trait that lingered during their gangster days in the royal capital before their enlistment. Even though they were members of noble families, they were seen as no better than commoners and would often get into conflict with their peers of higher status. They would only be able to endure the humiliation in those cases and wouldn't even dare to tell their family members about it.
Claude got them together and passed on the secret skills of waterboarding, through-book hammering, honeyed-foot goat-licking and so on. He was worried those two would be too rough-handed and leave visible marks of harm on Jiblik that would inspire suspicion. The two of them were once more shocked at how Claude wasn't how he passed himself to be before they excitedly rushed to try out their new tricks on Jiblik.
The carrier eagle Duriaulo used wasn't the one assigned by the ministry of the army. Instead, he used one reared by his own family. Even the carrier eagles of his signallers were from his family. That was so that the new noble families could keep better in touch with each other. Usually, the carrier eagles 1st Ranger Tribe got were from frontline command.
It would take around a day and night for the eagle to reach the royal capital. Usually, carrier eagles from the top brass took only three hours to arrive at frontline command. That was why Duriaulo decided to wait one day to report the matter. It would be best to get Jiblik's testimony first to clear him of any suspicion while not having to wait too long for the ministry to reply.
Claude made some estimations and found that Myjack and Gum would require another two to three days to reach the royal capital to hand his letter to Maria before it would be handed to the first prince, and that was assuming no incident during the journey happened. That was why Duriaulo wasn't counting on the first prince to deal with this matter. It wasn't even certain that Claude's letter would spur the prince into action to take care of the mess that was the frontlines anyway.
Moriad and Dyavid only spent a night to get Jiblik to yield and write up a testimony they were satisfied with. It was more or less the same as Claude's guess. Jiblik and Bechmil had come with a tent of men to try to force them to release the four imposters so that the noble officers wouldn't be at risk. What they expected to be an easy assignment, however, took a huge turn when Bechmil was shot dead and he was arrested.
But when Duriaulo read it, he got Moriad and Dyavid to take the first lieutenant for another spin to rewrite one that implicated him and Bechmil to be the accomplices of the four imposters, and that they had come to save them. There was, however, no need to directly state the names of any officers from frontline command.
Soon, the new testimony was done. Jiblik admitted that he and Bechmil had come to rescue the four imposters. In the testimony, however, when Jiblik was forcefully questioned whether he had accomplices in frontline command, he bit his tongue to kill himself regrettably.
Duriaulo said that he would use a carrier eagle to send the testimony to the ministry of the army as well, hoping that they would be able to receive a direct order from them to refuse the unreasonable requests of frontline command.
By then, a day and night had passed since Bechmil's death and Jiblik had also taken his final breath. Corporal Siegfried used some water to clean up the bare, honey-covered feet of the poor lieutenant that was forced to laugh for the whole night and put his socks and boots back on. Then, he took the goat that licked the feet for the whole night away from the basement room with the corpse.
Duriaulo used Claude's name and his own to make the report about Jiblik's death to be sent to frontline command and copied a few more to send to nearby units using carrier pigeons. He told his new nobility compatriots to spread the matter among the peasant officers so that as many knew about it as possible.
As expected, Jiblik and Bechmil's death caused chaos and turmoil in frontline command. When the noble officers read the report for the first time, they thought it was a drunken prank by someone. Only after they confirmed the news did they react with wrath. After countless discussions, they decided to declare Duriaulo's keepers and Claude's 1st Rangers traitors to be exterminated.
But by the time they came to the decision, the noble officers found they no longer had the authority to mobilise troops. All corps, local keepers and garrisons could no longer be ordered to do anything unless there were orders from the ministry of the army or the commander-in-chief. Frontline command had neither, and even the noble officers among the top brass didn't dare to act out of their line to attack Squirrel Village with the units under their command.
It wasn't something those noble officers could decide on. Anyone that acted carelessly could be declared traitor to the kingdom. Mobilising troops to attack friendly units could easily be construed as an act of rebellion. Additionally, without the first prince's orders and the ministry's permission, the peasant officers subordinate to the noble officers could refuse their superiors' orders to attack Squirrel Village and even strike back at them for having corrupt motivations.