"Is that him?" Claude asked as he looked down from the second floor of the headquarters building. He was pointing at a middle-aged nikancha man. He seemed to be in his forties and was slightly chubby, especially in the face, which made him look particularly harmless and missable. Nothing about him was particularly noteworthy.
"Yes, General," the new head of the intelligence department, Colonel Fodres, replied. The last department head, Colonel Kefist, was quite unfortunate. During the magi assassination incident, he wanted to curry favour with the field marshal, General Aljess, and remained really close to him. He was among the first officers to be killed.
Claude had wanted to let Borkal take over the department since his lieutenant-colonel rank would just barely qualify him for it. However, Borkal refused the appointment. He preferred to work on the field with different identities. Becoming the department head did give him a nice position and status, but he didn't want to stay in his office all day long processing information reports. So, he didn't hold back and told Claude he much preferred working as a shareholder of the wild-bull company. He found the days of doing business and counting money to be rather pleasant.
Colonel Fodres used to be Bolonik's aide, who used to serve in Monolith as head of its intelligence and communications department. After Kefist's untimely death, Bolonik decided to promote him to be the acting head of the war theatre's intelligence department in headquarters. Currently, he was being briefed on his mission to leak top-secret information to the nikancha.
Fodres nodded and pointed at the nikancha standing next to the stables. "He's called Chanionio, aged 43, and is someone from one of the six largest tribes in the nikancha nation, Chabak. He's one of the few nikancha that can read Hebrai script. It's said that he used to stay with his mother, who was a live-in servant of a teacher from the kingdom. As the teacher taught his own two children, he didn't mind letting Chanionio tag along. When he grew up, he was hired for a decent salary due to his ability to read.
"Even though he looks trustworthy and honest, he's actually like all the other nikancha. He's just as cunning and opportunistic as they come. Every time he's hired, he'll work obediently for a period of time before showing his true colours. Eventually, he was discovered stealing from his employers and punished for that. In time, he gained ill repute in Port Vebator and people weren't willing to hire him any longer, so all he could do to make ends meet was write letters for others and be a guide at the docks.
"During the third colonial war, he was captured and enslaved by the Shiksans. He was appointed a small-time supervisor of a farmer labour camp for his skills in reading and arithmetic. During his time in the job, he got acquainted with Chabak's elders and chief and helped them a lot during the revolts. During the founding of the nikancha nation, he was appointed by the council of elders to be a chief secretary of logistics. He is the one secretly conducting the arms deal."
"So he's the person in charge of the merchant convoy? That can't be right. He looks no different from a normal stableman..." Claude looked at the nikancha man and couldn't see anything that marked him to be a merchant convoy supervisor, whether it be his getup or behaviour. He was what everyone thought a stableman would look like.
"It's true, General. We are not sure why he wants to hide behind his convoy," Fodres said, "During the first time this convoy came to headquarters to trade for ammunition, they seemed rather interested in our standard-issue gear, such as our water bottles, powder horns, and waterproof slow matches. They said they hoped they could mimic our force and form a standardised, modern military.
"After a request was made to the logistics department, approval to sell those items was granted. However, their supervisor said they had to think it over because of the price we were offering them for. Perhaps they could only decide after sending someone to ask the person in charge for a concrete decision. That alerted the officers of the logistics department and they reported the matter to us. Through covert observation, we found that this middle-aged nikancha man dressed like a stableman was the one making the decisions. We began investigating this and Colonel Borkal was the one who uncovered every detail about this Chanionio in the nikancha nation."
"Are you sure Chanionio is the one we need?" Claude asked.
"Yes, General. Chanionio always comes with the merchant convoy to Lanu and would collect the newspapers distributed in our colony to send them back. He has a lover who works as a maid in Lanu that collects the papers for him. We suspect that he secretly spies on our war theatre. Perhaps the nikancha nation is just as wary about an attack from us."
Claude nodded. "Alright. Then we'll start the operation immediately. It's about time I got on stage."
Soon, Claude took his aide, Lieutenant-Colonel Anders, as well as Gum and his guard unit downstairs. He headed towards the stable and every officer that ran into him saluted him.
"Old Pieck, what in the world is wrong with my Black Lightning?" Claude yelled towards the stable.
An old man wearing an old uniform without any shoulder decorations squirmed out of the small building. Those who know Pieck would know that he was the most competent veterinarian across the whole war theatre. While he didn't look like a proper soldier, the five generals of the war theatre would sometimes ask him to come along for drinks and chats.
Pieck rolled his eyes at Claude. "What's it with all the yelling? It's all your fault for going all over the place with your horse but not caring for it. You just let it graze anywhere it pleases, don't you? It must've eaten some windbell grass, which looks deceivingly similar to horseshrub grass, save for the two additional leaves and its purple buds. It's a horse, you know, it can't tell the difference between the two. It must've eaten enough to cause digestive problems. Now, it can't even gallop properly."
"It'll be fine, won't it?" Claude asked worriedly.
The old man proudly proclaimed, "Who do you think I am? With me caring for it, it will be fine. However, it needs a few days' rest. I need to make sure it gets the nutrients it needs to soothe its weak stomach. It should be fine in four to five days."
"Oh, I thought it was fine apart from defecating a little more than usual. I wanted to take it along immediately. You know Black Lightning is my favourite mount. It almost seems to know where I want to go with only the slightest motion..." Claude said in a defeated tone.
"Forget it. You can't take it along in that state! It's been pushed too far this time, and it would've ended up crippled for good if you rode it any longer! It wouldn't be able to serve as a war horse again if that had happened!"
"Whatever..." Claude seemed a little guilty after being chewed out by Pieck. Turning to Anders, he said, "Anders, go to Weyblon Manor and get my horse, Greenflower, here. I'll be riding it for the next few days. Tell Kefnie that I'll be checking on the troops' training for the next few days, so I won't be going home. By the way, have her pack some change of clothes and a sleeping robe for me, and go to my study to bring me the book titled 'Battles of Welink'. I was halfway through it. Also, I'll need a few bottles of wine too."
"Yes, General," Anders said, before he looked troubledly at the two items in his hands. He held a black, leather document briefcase in his left and a scroll in the other. The grey leather cover of the scroll was marked with 'top secret'.
Claude stretched his hand out. "Give me that scroll. You can't take those out. Just head to my home without them. I'll put the scroll in my carriage later."
Anders handed the top-secret scroll to Claude before saluting and leaving through the main gates of headquarters with his own horse.
Claude turned to Gum. "Gum, instruct the guard tent to get ready for departure. Stop the carriage outside the entrance and wait for me."
"Understood, General," Gum said before he left.
"Take me to Black Lightning," Claude said to Pieck, "I'll be away surveying for a few days and I'll find it hard to get used to its absence. The other horses really aren't attuned to me. Greenflower always has a temper when we're making long trips. It's so much trouble..."
Pieck shook his head. "I've seen Greenflower myself before. It's a good horse, but it was spoiled by a noble stableman, which resulted in its short temperament, making it unfit to be a war horse. It can only run fast on the race track. You really shouldn't give it so much trouble, General. It's a gift from someone else, after all.
"Come, Black Lightning's over there. It's not a racehorse, but it makes a good war horse due to how well it can read its rider. Also, bring me the sack of dried wheat next to the pillar of the stable there. I'll go get some eggs. It's feeding time, so you can use it to get better acquainted with Black Lightning. I'm sure it'll miss you when you're away, hahaha..."
Pieck went to the building next to the stable for some eggs and Claude went to fetch the sack of wheat hanging on the pillar. As the sack was a little heavy, he couldn't lift it with only one hand, so he put down the top-secret scroll into an empty manger and hauled the sack with both hands down from the pillar. Pieck came out with five eggs and called Claude to come to him.
Chanionio managed to witness the whole thing from the other side of the stable. He eyed the scroll in the manger and turned to look at Claude and Pieck feed the brilliant-looking, black war horse. The stable was for the generals' mounts.
Not long after, a guard hurriedly ran to Claude and reported, "General, the carriage is ready. You may depart now."
Chanionio watched as Claude bid Pieck goodbye and turned to head towards the main entrance. Soon, a carriage came driving over, escorted by a tent of guards.
He forgot the top-secret scroll... Chanionio thought anxiously. He recognised Lieutenant-General Claude and had heard of his many legendary achievements. There were many who called him the second-in-command to Lord Militant Miselk. It was even said that he was more aggressive than Miselk himself. Since his joining the military, he had never lost an attack he participated in.
However, that very general had just committed a grave mistake. Perhaps he was used to travelling empty handed, since his aides and guards would always be there to help him. He would never have to carry any documents or briefcases himself. Now that he had sent his aide away and left the top-secret scroll the aide left with him nearby when he busied himself with his horse, he forgot about the scroll completely and hurriedly left on his way once the guard came to announce the carriage's arrival.
It was all too common. Chanionio noticed that his employers often did similar things. Once things got rushed and complicated, they would forget where they placed their things. Chanionio managed to earn quite a bit due to that very trait of his employers. It was a shame that they often recalled what they lost sooner or later and would always end up doubting him. Oftentimes, he would be captured red handed and punished with the evidence in tow before he had a chance to deal with what he had stolen.
This time, he hoped that the general would forget the matter for as long as possible. He stood up and approached the empty manger. There was a large pile of grass feed next to it. Chanionio picked up an empty rattan basket, looked around to make sure nobody was watching him, and slipped the scroll into the basket before filling it with grass. He then took the basket to feed his convoy's donkeys.
Chanionio made four trips as a normal stableman would. The other three stablemen of the convoy also started to feed the rest of the donkeys as usual. After that, Chanionio took his large donkey to the main entrance and headed for the south of the city. The guard recognised him and greeted him. The guards there knew that the nikancha stableman had a nikancha lover working in the city as a maid. Every time the convoy came, Chanionio would be seen heading downtown to look for her.
He only returned to the courtyard of headquarters in the evening, seeming a little flushed from alcohol. There was a large stack of newspapers on the back of his donkey dating back a few months. His actions were no different from that of other merchant convoys'. The guards knew that this nikancha stableman could read and liked newspapers to a fault. His maid lover often compiled them for him.
Chanionio's explanation was that he loved the gossip columns and the chivalric novel serials published in the newspapers. He would earn lots of respect after telling those stories to his fellow countrymen in the taverns and could earn a free drink or two. Chanionio seemed rather calm, perhaps noticing that nothing in headquarters was amiss.
The evening was the other time they fed the donkeys. Chanionio and the other three stablemen worked for quite a while before finishing the round of feeding and went to the mess hall in the headquarters for food. As the convoy dealing with ammunition between the nikancha nation and the war theatre, they enjoyed free meals at war theatre headquarters.
After an hour or so, a carriage escorted by a tent of guards returned in a hurry and stopped at the entrance. Claude charged in with his aide and dismounted guards. The nikancha and soldiers in the courtyard looked at them in surprise, wondering what was going on.
"It should be here. I recall that you, Anders, handed me the top-secret document. But somehow, I forgot about it when I boarded the carriage. I can't seem to recall when I let go of it," Claude said with a sullen look.
Pieck came over and asked what was going on. After hearing Claude's explanation, he scratched his balding head. "General, I recall that you weren't holding anything when we fed Black Lightning."
Claude slapped his forehead. "I remember now. When you had me take the sack of wheat over, I left the scroll in the empty manger."
He ran to the manger and found the wrapped scroll there. Breathing a sigh of relief, he said, "It's fine. It's right here. I was worried for nothing. Let's go back to Weyblon Manor for the night. We'll start our survey tomorrow instead."
Claude left like the wind. Nobody noticed Chanionio's relieved breath.
"Did you check it?" Claude asked.
"Yes, we did, General. The secret document has indeed been tampered by Chanionio. The wrapping is slightly different and the two most crucial newspapers pages the western coast of all seventeen are missing. They're all related to the Shiksan lease of Cape Loducus and projections of the upcoming war. The report I drafted with an analysis of how the situation will develop also shows signs of being traced. I'm sure somebody copied it," Fodres said with certainty.
Claude nodded. "Then, we'll just have to wait patiently. The nikancha should be coming to us for help after receiving the news. We can't do anything that'll make them suspicious for now. There's no need for us to take the initiative to offer them help either. Just keep them in the dark about this and deny any rumours and news about Shiks."
"We understand, General. Rest assured."