Claude didn't take part in the viceroy's banquet. Hies two linesmen seniors had no choice but to participate, however, as they were the highest-ranked officers -- colonels -- of the first batch of reinforcements. They had to get Tyrrsim's cooperation for reserves and logistical support after all, and refusing an invitation from the viceroy was a quick and easy way to complicate things unnecessarily.
The high-commissioner, Baron Strassen, however, had excused himself from the banquet on account of his sickness. The local garrison's current state was also a total mess. Under such circumstances, Ranger had to have a proper talk with the viceroy to deal with the issue.
The two seniors took a third of the officers with them while Claude was to stay in barracks and monitor its setup and that of the defence perimeter. Claude was quite unsettled by the natives sneaking glances at them as he realised they seemed to see the tightly guarded facility as a place worth pillaging. They looked at it with greed.
Baron Strassen's adjutant, Captain Sinks, did come over. Claude mentioned the natives and Sinks said it was normal. They were just looking for chances to make a profit. They didn't even have to be paid in money. A piece or two of black bread was enough to purchase their labour.
There were, however, some precautions to be taken when hiring them. According to Sinks, they were thieves and liars. One careless slip was all it took to lose belongings and money. In the time Port Cobius' garrison had been camped outside the city, almost all the soldiers had received the attention of a nikancha or two.
Nikancha, in ancient Hez, were mix-bloods. The word was not flattering.
Whilst they had a name, they were not considered a race in their own right. The full-blooded natives were eitat. It means 'dark-red'.
The name for the nikancha existed only so they could be discussed with just a single word, and to make it clear they were not natives, as far as the natives were concerned. They were pale compared to their full-blooded counterparts, and extensive exposure to sunlight charred them, which never happened to eitat. Eitat also glowed in the sun, much like rust just before it melted and became iron again -- which the nikancha did not.
Sinks revealed the real reason of his visit after an hour's banter. He hoped Tribe 131 would sell some of their weapons to him so his line could be reformed. When Claude refused, he offered to buy at double the price and hinted Claude could even report a couple lost or damaged beyond repair and pocket the money.
It was strange. High-Commissioner Strassen shouldn't lack equipment. The kingdom didn't have gunneries on Nubissia, but each colony always had a stockpile of 20 thousand firearms. It was also topped up every three years.
Considering that Sinks had come to him after being refused by his seniors, there was definitely a hidden agenda. He tried to figure out the real reason Sinks wanted the firearms so badly.
While the man didn't act like a soldier, he was a perfectly qualified merchant and really tight lipped. He only said he had long heard of the more accurate muskets and wanted to switch out the old armaments he had for the Mark 3. Naturally, Claude wouldn't sell it to him just because he raised the price. Sinks left empty handed.
His seniors and their companions returned from the banquet a few hours later. In stark contrast to the excited officers who drank themselves crimson, the two linesmen were dejected. When Claude asked them about it, their explanations let him understand why Sinks was so desperate.
It was utterly preposterous! The high-commissioner had been illegally selling the 20 thousand muskets. Port Cobius didn't have enough firearms for two tribes. Each of the four towns was supposed to have a tribe, but the high-commissioner reduced them to two bands. On paper, however, they still had the full tribes. The surplus supplies and equipment was sold.
"How?" Claude gasped, "Doesn't the kingdom audit the colonies regularly? This should've been discovered years ago! How did he get away with it? Not to mention there must be a buyer. Who'd he sell it all to?"
Colonel Bolonik answered.
"Baron Strassen is Her Majesty the Queen's nephew."
That shut Claude up instantly.
The linesman of Line 034, Colonel Sevict, continued his comrade's explanation.
"Baron Strassen is the queen's most beloved nephew. He only got the post because she pulled strings. He's been high-commissioner for eight years now. The ministry sent people to audit the garrisons regularly before the war, but the auditors didn't do a thorough job in his case because of his connection with the queen. The audits stopped with the war, and haven't resumed yet.
"Baron Strassen's always wanted the viceroicy. He and the viceroy have never gotten along. The viceroy conducted an audit of his own accord and discovered the high-commissioner's corruption. At the very least he's not sold the weapons to other kingdoms. He's sold it out to the locals. Almost every household owns at least one firearm bought from him."
"He dares sell firearms to peasants?!"
Claude had never thought it possible. Firearms were tightly regulated. Peasants couldn't buy them, anywhere. Just being in possession of one without clear proof of a sponsor, even if it was just a very temporary thing, was severely punished. Several years of labour was considered light punishment.
"This is an overseas colony," Bolonik reminded, "Peasants have to forge a new way of life. The kingdom knows how rugged this place is, so they issue special permits for firearm ownership here. They have to be enlisted in the militia to be allowed firearms.
"The high-commissioner's been handing out permits and memberships left, right, and centre. He's been using the 'large militia' as an excuse for his reduction in personnel since he was found out.
"The fat linesman, Lieutenant-Colonel Avilad is the high-commissioner's trusted aide. He's been playing merchant for him. They've even submitted false uprising reports to cover the massive loss of firearms on occasion they felt someone was looking at their paperwork for too long. They've also been pocketing the pensions of the 'dead'."
"Why is the captain trying to buy muskets, then?" Claude asked.
"They have to rearm and reform the garrison. They have to double their current soldier count to get it to the 3500 required. Each town is supposed to have 800 garrisoneers. They barely have ten tents in the entire colony.
"While recruiting new soldiers wouldn't be difficult, they wouldn't be able to arm them sufficiently. Viceroy Cruz secret sent people to check out their arsenal and said that not a single intact musket was left within. In peacetime, Baron Strassen can hire the musket-owning peasants to pose as garrison troops to trick the auditors, and nobody would want to piss him off due to the queen's support anyway.
"But we are now at war and recruiting and hired men at short notice wouldn't be easy. The ministry of the army's auditors are also on their way. They will immediately notice the discrepancies and start asking questions.
"If the high-commissioner can get weapons from us and get his garrison close enough to the regulation amount, he might just be able to convince them to let it slide," Sevict explained.
"And did Viceroy Cruz tell you all that?" Claude asked.
The two seniors nodded with a gloomy look.
"His personal secretary even showed us the proof they found. According to their estimations, Baron Strassen gets around 12 thousand to 15 thousand crowns in profit from his corrupt practices as high-commissioner," Sevict said.
It truly was a big sum.
"Since the viceroy already has proof, why didn't he report this to the court or the ministry of the army?" Claude immediately noticed the catch when he finished the question. After thinking it through, he figured it out.
"Darn it, that bastard wants to use us as his scapegoats!" Claude cursed.
The two seniors smiled bitterly. Even Claude was able to figure out why they returned in a bad mood.
The old bastard Cruz truly was crafty. Since he was the viceroy, military affairs were out of his jurisdiction. With the proof of the high-commissioner's transgressions in hand, he could use it to threaten him and demand that he not cause trouble for him. But when wartime came around and Baron Strassen was going to be in trouble, the viceroy could hand over the proof to appear innocent and free from suspicion.
The viceroy would definitely not report to the court or the ministry of the army. After all, Baron Strassen was supported by the queen, and it wouldn't be hard to guess that the queen definitely had a share in the ill-begotten profits. If the viceroy snitched on the high-commissioner, he would effectively get on the queen's bad side.
Having spent so many years in the colony, the viceroy had many chances to make some extra income, and if the queen really sent people to investigate it, there would definitely be no shortage of people who would testify against him. It would be too easy to cause him trouble. A simple check of the colony's accounts would reveal some flaws in the alterations the viceroy or his subordinates made to them. Should that really come to pass, the personal wealth the viceroy accumulated after so many years might vanish with a puff.
That was why no matter how bad his relationship with High-Commissioner Strassen, he wouldn't provide any evidence of the latter's transgressions. However, Ranger was here to reinforce the colonies against the Shiksan colonial forces and reorganise the local garrisons. Strassen should be playing his part in aiding them, but his feigning sickness to protect himself was only a tactic to buy time.
The reason Cruz chose this point in time to take out proof was simple. He wanted Ranger's officers to cause trouble for Baron Strassen. That way, the queen only had her inept nephew to blame and perhaps be displeased with Ranger for not giving her face instead of blaming it on the viceroy. Since it was wartime, what the baron did couldn't be hidden forever, so it would be in the viceroy's best interests to hand over the proof so that he wouldn't be accused for being incompetent and punished for neglect.