"Our most respectful greetings, General Welster." Claude and Duriaulo stood a the beginning of the curling mountain path near Squirrel Village to receive the investigative committee and show their respect.
The slightly white-haired Welster wore a straight face and returned a salute expressionlessly from horseback. Then, he waved and his adjutant yelled, "Dismount!"
The long line of riders stopped on the path and their riders dismounted.
"General, it's possible to scale the mountain on horseback," Duriaulo said as he stepped forward.
"No need. I've been riding for the good part of the morning. I just happened to want to stretch my body out a little." Welster looked at the path and continued without a change in tone, "Take us to your camp first."
"Yes, General Welster. Please follow me." Duriaulo had wanted to help take care of the general's mount, but the man simply tossed the reins to his adjutant, leaving the captain with empty hands. He awkwardly turned around and led the way.
The plot of land east to the village had been flattened by the keeper tribe. Four rows of tents were erected there for the ministry's investigation committee to stay in. Apart from providing the food and other daily necessities, the keepers were also in charge of maintaining security in the camp of the enforcer band. There were standard protocols when it came to the scope of an investigation committee. Everything from accommodation, food, and spending had to be done according to the regulations to the letter to prevent the slightest conflict of interest.
The distance between Squirrel Village and the mountain path was less than two hundred metres. Many of the men had arrived at the area designated for the committee.
"General Welster, this is the accommodation. The stables are further behind. There's a public washroom and a warehouse to the left. We've prepared enough hay for the horses as well as some firewood. To the right are the cafeteria and bathing area, and the main tent located in the middle is your office and meeting room. There's a map of the area around Squirrel Village inside. The greener parts further ahead are the pastures in front of the village where work horses and livestock can graze..."
Duriaulo dutifully introduced the general to the place. He had expended quite a bit of effort with the other keepers over the past three days to get the whole place in order. To make sure there were enough tents, he even took those from Claude's unit. Claude's men were moved to the wooden houses at the back of the village in rather cramped living conditions. That way, the accommodation of the committee would be spacious enough and be to their satisfaction.
Claude had no choice but to comply. He wasn't as good as Duriaulo when it came to hospitality. In fact, he was probably worse than a complete amateur. He didn't know the slightest thing about providing for an investigation committee headed by a general.
It was quite apparent that Duriaulo's efforts hadn't gone to waste. General Welster nodded with satisfaction when he saw the camp. "Captain Duriaulo, we appreciate your efforts."
The adjutant was quite sharp and the moment the general said those words, he instructed his men to move all their horses into the stables and ordered the band of enforcers to set up outpost towers and fortifications. He then took a few other ordermen to the central tent where the general would be spending the night.
Only 30-odd people remained by the general's side, eight among whom were field officers ranked major and above. Their shoulder marks had either two to three silver crescent moons. The rest were all junior officers. Quite a number of them were captains just like Claude.
A first lieutenant walked over and saluted Claude and Duriaulo before introducing himself as First Lieutenant Leonard from the logistics and communications unit of the royal guard. He had been sent to investigate supply matters. During the investigation, he required the two's cooperation with regards to purchases the committee would make.
As expected of someone from logistics and communications, it didn't take him long to act really familiar with Claude and Duriualo as if they were old friends. It was then when the first lieutenant brought the two to the higher-ranking officers and introduced them one by one. "These here are judiciary inquisitors from the various corps. From the Lasdonkrun corps, we have Colonel Balvia, from the Kugria corps, Colonel Colombit, from the Krusig corps, Colonel Majlir, from the Tordesass corps, Colonel Eidbowen..."
Irregular corps of Aueras were basically formed in designated conscription areas. In peacetime, only a folk of soldiers were kept on the payroll. Only after war broke out would they begin forced conscription and train their recruits for a short term before deploying them on the frontlines. That was the reason the corps were named after the prefectures they were from, though, generally, they were simply referred to collectively as irregulars.
Claude only just understood why Leonard introduced himself to them first. He wanted to introduce the two to the judiciary inquisitors of the eight irregular corps so that they could get off on a friendly note. Welster couldn't possibly do the introductions given how high his rank relative to theirs was. Claude was just thinking how he would approach the eight inquisitors ranked major and above. First Lieutenant Leonard's initiative was a great help. With his introductions, everything went on smoothly.
"Greetings, Sirs, I am the clansman of Frontline Command Independent Combat Unit, 1st Ranger Tribe, 1st Clan, Captain Claude."
"Greetings, Sirs, I am the tribesman of Royal Garrison Unit 0378 Mountain Path Keeper Tribe, Captain Duriaulo."
The two saluted the eight inquisitors nonstop and announced their unit, designation, position and rank. They had to do that once for every officer Leonard introduced them to as they saluted. They could only move on to the next one after the inquisitors returned their salute. After finally finishing the greetings with the higher-ranking officers, only the lower-ranking ones were left.
Remembering so many names at once, especially those of the eight inquisitors, was a tough task. There were still more than thirty other officers Claude wasn't introduced to yet and he suspected he'd forget a good half of them by the time he was done.
First Lieutenant Leonard was now introducing Duriaulo to the rest. Military regulations stipulate that when a junior officer meets a superior officer, the junior officer must salute first and report his details. It was too bad that while Duriaulo was a captain, he belonged to the kingdom's garrison and was considered a rank lower, around the rank of a first lieutenant. So, he needed Leonard to make the introductions first before he launched into the routine.
Claude was different. He was a captain and had the knighthood badge. He was automatically considered superior to the other captains and they had to salute first and make their introductions, just like the first and second lieutenants that came after them. Claude only needed to salute back without saying a word and he soon realised that the other officers seemed to be rather pissed at him for that.
Half an hour later, they were acquainted with all the officers. It wasn't surprising that the first lieutenants and captains were from the enforcer units of the royal guard and the irregular corps. The other eight second lieutenants were adjutants to the judiciary inquisitors.
Duriaulo told General Welster that he had reserved a tavern in the village to refresh the members of the committee. The welcoming banquet held during the afternoon would only be attended by officers ranked second lieutenant and above and the band of enforcers would be dining with the rest of the keepers in the cafeteria. As for dinner, the committee would cook their own food with the ingredients they got from the hosts.
While Squirrel Village's tavern was rather old, the traditional dishes served there earned brilliant praise from the members of the committee. The rather humble banquet worked wonders on their appetite and many of them thanked Duriaulo for his work getting it ready. Claude remained mostly silent throughout. He wouldn't go around talking to others and making merry like Duriaulo and only engaged in quick conversations with those who'd approached him.
After the feast, the committee members rested for an hour or so in their camp. Welster's adjutant, Captain Reinkel, notified Claude and Duriaulo to meet at the central tent at three in the afternoon for the first meeting. They would be discussing the investigation relating to the death of First Lieutenant Jiblik and Second Lieutenant Bechmil from frontline command. The corpses of the two and all other evidence had to be brought there for the committee to inspect.
Duriaulo didn't think Welster would move at such a quick pace. They began the investigation before two hours even passed after the banquet. However, he and Claude had made good preparations and didn't have to worry about anything. He gave the order for the corpses and other stuff they requested to be brought to the committee's campsite.
Claude and Duriaulo changed from the hosts to the investigated. Duriaulo first stated his testimony: two officers from frontline command came with a request for the criminals' release, which Duriaulo refused, so the officers forcefully kept him from leaving the office. Duriaulo's adjutant, Corporal Siegfried, thus went looking for Claude, who later rushed to the office with Second Lieutenant Moriad.
With Moriad and Claude there, Duriaulo could properly refuse the two officers' ridiculous request. They reasoned that they had received instructions from the ministry of the army to keep the imposters imprisoned before the investigation committee came over. But the officers began to react with anger at hearing that and Bechmil took out a short-barrel musket from his uniform and lit the slow match to threaten the three to release the criminals.
Moriad charged Bechmil while he wasn't paying attention and pushed the musket away, and Claude also went to his aid. They wanted to disarm the second lieutenant, but he held onto the gun stubbornly and bent down in an attempt to prevent the gun from being taken away. The short-barrel misfired right then, much to the fright of Claude and Moriad, who thought either of them had been hurt. They didn't think Bechmil would fall face-first to the ground instead. When they turned him over, they found a gunshot wound on his face. He had died on the spot.
The evidence presented for that was the short-barrel that had Bechmil's initials engraved on the handle. Any close acquaintance of his would surely recognise that as his personal belonging. There were traces of the misfire left on the gun. The serpentine of the gun was modified to be more sensitive and the slightest shake could easily send the slow match into the flash pan to set off the charge.
There were many witnesses as well, the enforcer tent being among them. They attested that Bechmil always carried around the gun with him and that they also heard a gunshot. But by then, they had been disarmed by Dyavid's band and were kneeling in the hall downstairs.
Claude and Moriad's testimonies were mostly similar and the investigation committee quickly came to a conclusion that Bechmil did, in fact, die from his short-barrel's misfire. There was a hole in his face the size of a bullet from the short-barrel musket, not the size of a bullet fired from a standard-issue musket. As such, Bechmil's death couldn't be blamed on anyone else. Nobody would like being threatened at gunpoint during official duties and the fact that he carried a concealed weapon on him only showed that he didn't hold good intentions in mind.
The only thing that the committee pressed on was why Claude brought Moriad along with his band after hearing about the situation from Corporal Siegfried and even ordering Dyavid to disarm the enforcer tent.
Claude's response was clear and simple. He and his tribe had just returned from being besieged by the enemy and was greeted with the news of Major Skri's arrest by frontline command's judiciary. After that, the incident with the four imposters coming to cause trouble for them occurred.
Then two judiciary officers came over with a tent of enforcers and even kept Duriaulo from leaving his office. It was a huge red flag because there was no good reason for judiciary officers to keep him confined if they were there on official business. Feeling suspicious, Claude ordered Dyavid to get his men to disarm and capture the enforcers.
The officers of the committee met each other's gazes and had to admit that Claude was right to suspect them. Duriaulo wasn't a criminal. He was the one in charge of the keepers there. Nobody on official business should have any reason to keep him confined in his office. Claude's response to disarm the enforcers was a right one as his orders were to defend Squirrel Village, which was considered to be the frontlines. He had to be extra careful.
Thus, the book was closed on Second Lieutenant Bechmil's death.