Black Iron's Glory - Chapter 187
The Whole Story
Claude described the incident with the other soldiers as honestly as he could. The only thing he didn't mention was how he dislocated the round-faced soldier's wrists. He explained that he was lining up for food, but, just before it was his turn, Corporal Enk came and yanked his collar. He was holding his canteen, however, and only had his left hand to try and push Enk away. So the three hands were entangled. Given that he wasn't as powerful as Enk, he was pulled out of the queue and tripped.
Sergeant Jem rushed in and tried to punch him. Claude lost his cool and dropped his canteen before tussling with Jem.
The rest of the gang came at him when he finished off the sergeant. But Claude was already dazed from all the hits and could only rely on his instincts. He eventually fainted and couldn't remember what had happened between the last punch he gave Jem and waking up in the infirmary.
The inquisitor noted Claude's testimony, stone-faced. He didn't ask a single question. He just took notes, only closing his little book once Claude stopped speaking.
"Not much different from the witnesses'. I suppose this much is to be expected from someone who graduated top of their class. Wasn't it a little too cruel to go all out against your own comrades?"
Claude smiled bitterly. He knew that he would be suspected for intentionally being harsh in the fight.
"I was only acting in self-defence, First Lieutenant Bikl--"
"Call me First Lieutenant Sidori."
Freia had a strict set of rules for addresses. Calling someone by their title and given name was considered a sign of intimacy. Using their family name indicated distance, either due to the nature of their relationship, or the lack thereof, or the nature of the particular situation.
Claude had wanted to use the man's first name to emphasise their comradery, but the inquisitor was intent on keeping him at a distance, emphasising instead their relationship as inquisitor and suspect.
"Understood. First Lieutenant Sidori, I regret getting into a fight with my seniors on the first day, but be assured it wasn't my intent. If you've read my file, you should know I'm a stellar hunter. I'm not trying to brag, just to explain why I couldn't control how harsh I reacted. I have honed my reactions into conditioned reflexes. I react to attacks without thinking."
"Couldn't you have given way and submitted to their demands to deescalate the situation? They are your seniors, officers even. You should respect their will as a recruit."
"I don't understand, First Lieutenant," Claude argued, "When I reported for duty, Second Lieutenant Chirp told me that I was a Bluefeather soldier. Corporal Kro also said I could use the mess hall and camp bath. I was queueing for food, however, those seniors said I wasn't a member of Bluefeather and shouldn't be allowed to eat there. Do they have a say in who is and isn't in the corps? Do their words overwrite Second Lieutenant Chirp's?"
The inquisitor was in a tight spot. Naturally, he wouldn't accept that Second Lieutenant Chirp was mistaken. In some sense, Claude was a pain in the neck. He wasn't truly at fault, but he did get into a fight on his first day. Both sides had to be treated, but Claude fought six people on his own. His combat skills were unparalleled, and he was unstable.
"I didn't mean it that way. I only believe that you could've taken a step back to go with their wishes. That way, you can avoid conflict from breaking out at all," the inquisitor said after some deliberation.
"Why should I take a step back as a member of Bluefeather?" Claude countered, "This is my first day here. As I was busy reporting for duty, I didn't have any lunch and I was hungry. When I arrived at the mess hall, the two hundred plus other soldiers there didn't have any problem with me. They saw me as one of them. But just before it was my turn, those select few came and demanded that I leave. It stands to reason that I ought to refuse such an unreasonable demand. What right do they have to say that I'm not a member of Bluefeather? I only argued back, and they were the ones who laid hands on me first. Even as I lay here in the infirmary, I don't think I have done anything wrong. I won't regret the consequences caused by my actions either. I think that the soldiers got injured by way of their own actions--"
Before long, the inquisitor stood up without a sound and put his notebook into his briefcase and prepared to leave. Before he opened the door, Claude called out to him. "First Lieutenant Sidori, I have another question. Why did those soldiers target new recruits for the officer training course like us? My comrades of the same tent came a few days earlier than me and they could only wait until it was almost time for the mess hall to stop serving to eat scraps to fill their bellies. If they went there early, they would be chased away by the same senior soldiers."
The inquisitor didn't make a sound before turning to leave.
The middle-aged apothecary chuckled and turned around. "That is a question I have an answer to, kid."
"You know why?"
"Of course--" the apothecary nodded, "--Do you know how many men Bluefeather has right now?"
"Around 30 thousand, right?" Claude answered, "A soldier standing guard at the foot of the hill told me that this isn't the main camp of the corps. The main camp is located on the west side of Gourneygada where there are about 30 thousand people."
The apothecary was slightly taken aback by the fact that Claude knew the answer to his question on his first day. "You're right. So, do you know about the recruitment drive at the end of the year?"
Claude shook his head.
The apothecary gleefully explained, "To fully man the corps, we have to recruit an additional 20 thousand soldiers. That is to say, there will be more than two thousand officer positions that will be filled in by promoting senior soldiers. The corps has decided that all staff sergeants will be promoted to master sergeants or sergeant majors. That would leave around eight hundred vacancies, so high-performing sergeants and corporals will be chosen for those positions and that is why the officer training course is carried out.
"But the sheer number of people recommending people for the course was unexpected. The military was faced with a dilemma because they can't turn down the important figures they have a good relationship with. In the end, they decided to split the course into two parts. One of them will be for senior soldiers who will graduate as sergeant majors. The other is for new recruits recommended to the force like you, who will graduate as master sergeants.
"Thanks to new recruits like you attending the course, the number of senior soldiers attending the course will have to be cut by half to make way for you all. A test was held for the senior soldiers and half of them were disqualified. The soldiers that troubled you fellows are among those who were disqualified. They are dissatisfied with the situation and they will look for opportunities to give you trouble.
"The corps isn't ignorant of the situation, either, but they have one eye closed to placate the disqualified soldiers and allowed them to vent to you new recruits. It's also to show you that your family backgrounds and whatnot won't do much for you in the force. Everyone is aware of the situation and won't cause a scene because of this, but who would've expected that a hothead like you would barge in and cause so much trouble on your first day and hospitalise six senior soldiers just like that. This incident will be trouble to deal with once it gets big and the upper brass is getting anxious over it as well."
Claude didn't know how to react to the apothecary's schadenfreude. Why was the old man so happy? It was like he loved watching his superiors freak out.
But at least, he came to understand the stance of the inquisitor. If he didn't handle the case of the brawl properly, it would cause a rift between the new recruits and the disqualified soldiers. Given that Claude had clearly refused to admit any wrongdoing, it caused the corps to be in quite the predicament. It wasn't easy to handle, especially after the senior soldiers lost six on one and ended up so badly injured themselves.
The door was pushed open at that moment. The healer Bell entered with a large basket and came to Claude's bedside. He took out a large bowl of wheat porridge from the basket. Seeing Claude's suspicious gaze, Bell said frantically, "Friend, I swear that I washed my hands properly before going to the mess hall. Don't worry. Look, I asked the chef to add an egg to your porridge. Doesn't it smell good?"
It did indeed smell of egg. He wasn't sure why the chef would go out of his way to give him one though.
"To be honest, friend--" Bell whispered near Claude's ear mysteriously, "--many people in the camp are happy that you beat up Jem and the others, the chef included. They have also been messed with by these very soldiers. Just because they joined the force a year or two earlier than us, they kept on flaunting their senior status and beckoned us to do this and that and beat us up for the most whimsical of reasons. Many people actually hate their guts.
"And those very same people are more than glad that you hospitalised them this time. When I told the chef that you were awake and fine, he happily added an egg into your porridge. Before this, when Jem and the others were on night duty, they would often go to the kitchen to ask for supper and if they weren't satisfied, they would start beating people up. Those of the kitchen are actually glad that you gave them a taste of their own medicine."
Claude found himself really unaccustomed to how intimate Bell was treating him, but he wasn't able to move freely at the moment. He even had to rely on Bell to feed him the food. He had no other choice but to let Bell continue to whisper into his ear.