Ch. 5 War Chest
Captain Hunks took a single puff on his pipe, though he knew it cost him. Lately he’d developed a cough from deep within his chest that refused to leave. He’d known for a long time that smoking was unhealthy, but after the war tobacco was considered a luxury as rare as caviar.
Worse, the tobacco industry was also a big lobby in the government. Money talks. His now ex-wife begged him to give it up, but he couldn’t, at least not back then. He’d tried to explain to her his suspicions of the drug effects of tobacco, which he thought were much like the effects of alcohol. He tried to tell her that he couldn’t just quit, but his words fell on deaf ears. Well, by then they’d both stopped listening.
It could be worse, he supposed, at least it’s not Himmel. It really was terrible, the weapons invented purely for war. Not all weapons were so blatantly obvious, like tanks and guns. He thought about chemical warfare, like Grau Wulf’s insidious K-3, designed specifically to harm the weak and helpless. At the time the Empire was so paranoid it considered every Republican to be hostile. Hunks hated to admit it, but the Empire’s fears were not unfounded at all. He had lost count how many times they had come across Republican civvies only to find that their homes, vehicles and ordinary household items were wired. Many of his comrades died that way.
Psychological warfare was by far the most dangerous. Leaving bodies strung up in trees, ears and thumbs taken as trophies…shit. Anything to intimidate or demoralize the enemy could be used. And Hunks did. Major Connery used to throw it in his face whenever he could, using it as leverage until it no longer worked. Hunks wanted nothing more than to wash his hands clean of it all, but he knew he couldn’t. Hunks was no angel in the war. There were none.
His thoughts touched upon Cpl. Oland. That poor young man…well, younger than Hunks anyway. He knew Oland’s scars ran far deeper than skin. He’d always hoped Oland would turn to him for counsel, but the stubborn ox never did. Perhaps Hunks only served to remind him of the past. Oh, the Corporal was always respectful…but he could never quite meet the Captain’s eyes. Probably didn’t like what he saw. His other subordinates didn’t know, and were too smart to ask. Even Lt. Malvin had left it alone.
He then thought about the coded messages in letters and how newspapers were instructed to exaggerate, even lie outright, to fool the enemy. Hunks knew that even though the war had been over for years, the newspaper hadn’t changed back at all. The truth is never safe…but then, it didn’t have to be. It might take another decade or two, but it wouldn’t be suppressed forever.
Hunks was so tired. He was tired of all of it. The lies, the twisted politics, the paranoia that cloaked everything and everyone in the Empire…he was sick of all of it. He stretched his shoulders and stood up, looking out the window as he often did. He knew his retirement was quickly approaching, but he couldn’t give up yet. His Imperial Majesty’s subjects were still suffering. If he was tired, imagine how they felt! Not only that, but his subordinates, especially the rookies, still needed guidance.
Besides, he knew he had one last mission to fulfill. It wasn’t tracking down Professor Carlton, even if he was still alive, which Hunks doubted. It was helping Alice, now Contessa Malvin, to find Cpl. Oland. Fortunately, finding Carlton worked well with that because Alice told him Carlton apparently had worked with the Mad Minstrel’s spy network. It was he who sent the men who destroyed the Duke’s special tank so it could never be reproduced. The Mad Minstrel was originally a Republican noble, and though she had been cast out of her homeland, Hunks figured she’d return in one of her many guises. It would be just like to be under the Republic’s very nose...
Unless that’s what she wants everyone to think, he chuckled to himself. One never knew with Lady Kavi.
Lily could feel his eyes on her again. Ever since their adventures in Rodelia, she began noticing Oreldo’s attitude toward her and change. Almost overnight he’d matured and become reliable, even punctual most days. Of course, he’d still tease her and coat his words with sarcasm, but his actions were sincere. His actions were also largely underhanded, but because of that, he avoided a lot of red tape as well. He studied Hunks’ tactics as well as employed his own street smarts.
Alice’s methods were honest, but they were also much slower. Well, to each his own, she supposed.
Lately, Oreldo’s teasing had become less annoying and more…what? He still called her Airhead every so often, but an affectionate tone had crept in his voice. She’d caught him watching her, even sneaking a look when she practiced piano in the rehearsal room. He’d pretended to be drunk and claimed to have gotten lost on his way to the barracks, but Lily had known better. She’d seen the look on his face when she’d played Mozart. He’d been blushing, but she knew it wasn’t because of alcohol.
Lily had mourned the loss of Alan for a long time. She even traveled back to Rodelia once to lay flowers on his grave as a last goodbye. Every time she found herself grieving, there was Oreldo, handing her a box of tissues, giving her privacy, or even just a small hug, before hurrying away to do paperwork. Martis, Hunks, and even Conrad had comforted her also, but it seemed to Lily that Oreldo went a little further than necessary.
Sometimes she wondered if it was all in her head. After all, this was Oreldo, the ladykiller, the one who flirted with nearly anyone who was female. Many girls would swoon in his presence, though occasionally there would be one or two who slapped him instead. However, he never flirted with Lily. His teasing never stepped over the line. She wondered why. He went to the local pub less frequently, but that could just be because of the extra responsibilities he’d taken on after Alice had left to join the Imperial Council.
Alice…Lily missed her and Oland terribly. After hearing Alice had finally found a way to venture into the Republic of Frost, Lily debated joining her on the excursion. However, Hunks asked her to stay, citing he needed an extra pair of hands to help out with the rookies, and Private Conrad, in particular. Poor Conrad would resent being left behind. So far, Lily had done a fair job of reining him in, teaching him that not all fights were won with fists. Training him and Figaro had proved to be challenging but rewarding.
Also, Hunks had wanted her to continue investigating Marquis Hoost, linking him with embezzling, bribery, prostitution and extortion. Everything was circumstantial so far, but since he’d been there at the ball when Lord Taylor was, Lily figured the two were linked via the Silver Wheel.
Her research into the legend of the Silver Wheel was frustrating, to say the least. She was as cautious as she knew how to be, careful not to disturb the waters any more than necessary. When Conrad found out what she was doing, she had to grab him before he charged to the Hoost manor. Lily winced. Another mistake like that could cost lives. She brought Conrad in only so he wouldn’t look into it for himself and possibly get killed for his efforts.
She felt a cold nose touch her hand. She looked at the time and realized she was late for taking both Mercury and Figaro out on their daily walk. She called to Conrad, and together they went to face another adventure. Figaro’s youthful energy often rubbed off on Mercury and Conrad. Lily knew that for this mission, she would need every ounce of her wits!