Chapter 3
Bounty Head

Outside Xiaosong (Tieu Thong), Zhengzong Commandery

Even with a fresh dose of morphine, Coronel Obrado's jaw throbbed. A professional mercenary with over thirty years' experience, he was no stranger to taking a hit, but he had never had his jaw broken before, definitely not so badly that would have to be wired shut for a month. It went without saying that he was in a foul mood. He would find the man responsible and personally break every bone in his body.
His cook entered with a glass on a tray. The contents of the glass were mostly yellow, flecked with brown, green and red. The cook put a straw in the glass and offered it to the Coronel.
"Your breakfast, sir," the cook said.
Coronel Obrado took a wary sip from the glass. It was difficult to say if it was just the consistency that made it terrible or if it would have tasted bad anyway. He grimaced, which sent a fresh spike of pain through him.
"Is it not to your liking, sir?" the cook asked. "I took your favorite omelet and blended it so you could eat it."
The Coronel waved him off. He had the distinct feeling he was going to be losing a lot of weight over the course of the next month. Another sip from the glass pretty well confirmed it.
Teniente Valdez his adjutant was the next person to enter the tent. Unlike the cook, who simply came in, Valdez stuck his head in first and said, "Permission to enter, sir?"
The Coronel beckoned for him to come in. Hopefully he had some good news.
"Fifty-three men failed to report for morning muster," Valdez said. "I have their files here."
He placed the stack of personnel files on the Coronel's desk. Fifty-three missing out of some three thousand men at the end of a rotation wasn't too remarkable. The man who attacked him had to be a mercenary and there were two other outfits besides his own operating in the theater, but it would be a lot more difficult to get any cooperation from them. First he had to eliminate the possibility of anyone in his own house.
He began flipping through the files. Eighteen men from Compañía Alfa, seven from Compañía Bravo... And there it was. Cabo Primero Juan Batista Avilar Rodrigues. He'd never forget that face.
He angrily jabbed at Cabo Rodrigues' picture with his finger. Valdez leaned over his shoulder and adjusted his glasses, saying, " Compañía Bravo. I'll get Capitán Trieu. By your leave, sir."
The Coronel nodded and Valdez promptly left. The good Capitán would have a lot of explaining to do.

* * *

Mercenary units like the Regimiento de Rionegro were not like the regular army. Missing a muster or two would usually result in nothing more than a warning, maybe a minor dock in pay for the month. It was hardly anything that warranted the attention of the Coronel, but that was what Capitán Trieu was there for, according to the Coronel's adjutant.
Entering the Coronel's tent, Capitán Trieu saluted and said, "Capitán Trieu reporting as ordered, sir."
The Coronel lazily returned the salute. He was known for his precision and adherence to military protocol, but it seemed like he was out of sorts. Judging from the fact that his jaw was wired shut, he was likely under the influence of some powerful painkillers.
Speaking on the Coronel's behalf, Teniente Valdez took a personnel file from the stack on the Coronel's desk and showed it to Capitán Trieu, saying, "The Coronel would like a report on this man: Cabo Primero Juan Batista Avilar Rodrigues."
"Cabo Rodrigues is one of my squad leaders," Trieu replied. "He has a number of minor disciplinary infractions but an otherwise excellent service record. He joined the regiment shortly after being released from compulsory service and his third two-year contract was scheduled to end three days from now. I convinced him to accept a ten-year renewal with the promise of a promotion to sargento and a platoon sergeant billet. Or at least I thought I did until he failed to report for morning muster.
"It is possible that he was simply too drunk from last night's celebration or he may have been injured when the Regulars moved in. We're still waiting for a casualty report from town. It seems unlikely that a soldier of Cabo Rodrigues' caliber would have been caught up in anything like that, but a man's luck has to end sometime."
Teniente Valdez seemed to pay little heed to that possibility and asked, "Did Cabo Rodrigues visit Madam Eng's last night?"
"I would not know," Capitán Trieu replied. "The last time I saw him, he and his escuadra were at Master Vong's. It would not surprise me if he had, though."
"Did you not visit Madam Eng's?"
"No," Capitán Trieu said curtly. "I'm a married man."
"A lot of married men visit Madam Eng's, Capitán."
"Not this one, Teniente," Capitán Trieu said. Addressing the Coronel directly, he then said, "If you'll pardon me, sir, may I ask the point of these questions?"
"Coronel Obrado was assaulted last night by a man he believes is Cabo Rodrigues," Teniente Valdez said. "We would like him brought in for questioning and--if he is indeed responsible for the attack of the Coronel--punishment."
"That doesn't sound like Cabo Rodrigues at all."
"Does he make a habit of missing muster?" Teniente Valdez asked pointedly.
"No."
"Then perhaps there is more to Cabo Rodrigues than you realize."
It seemed unlikely, but the Capitán was obliged to do everything he could to resolve the situation, for better or for worse.
"I will speak with his squadmates to find out if they know anything and send someone to town to account for last night's casualties."
"The Coronel would like a report after evening muster."
Capitán Trieu nodded to the Coronel and replied, "Yes, sir."
"You are dismissed, Capitán."
Capitán Trieu saluted the Coronel and said, "By your leave, sir."
The Coronel returned the salute with slightly better form this time and Capitán Trieu exited the tent. He had a lot of work to do. Guilty or not, he wanted to wring Cabo Rodrigues' neck for all the trouble he had caused.

* * *

Coronel Obrado was awakened by a gentle shaking of his shoulder. It was Valdez.
"I apologize for the disturbance, sir, but Madam Eng is here and she wishes to see you. She is being quite insistent."
Tempting as it was to throw the old crone out of his camp, she might have some useful information. He motioned for Valdez to bring her in, then sat up on his cot and reached for his blouse. He was still buttoning it when Madam Eng waddled in, flanked by two of her boys. Madam Eng only spoke Viet, so one of her boys had to act as interpreter.
"Greetings, Conel," the boy said. "Madam wishes to express her regret at your misfortune. She would like to compensate you, but as your man damaged Madam's house and stole an expensive girl, she considers the accounts balanced."
The Coronel narrowed his eyes at Madam Eng, who gave him a sly, toothless grin.
Teniente Valdez replied, "The Coronel would like to know if you have any leads on the man responsible."
Madam Eng said something, then her interpreter said, "Madam wishes to speak to Conel about this. Conel wishes to put bounty on head of man, yes?"
The Coronel signed to Valdez, who then said, "The Coronel is prepared to put a bounty of 100 dan on the head of Cabo Rodrigues, if he is brought in alive, ten dan if he is dead."
The interpreter replied on Madam Eng's behalf, "Madam will add fifty dan for the return of the girl alive. She will not pay for dead."
That sounded good to Coronel Obrado. He nodded and Valdez said, "We will contact the Guild office tomorrow and post the bounty. Would you like us to draw up a formal contract for this agreement?"
"No need for paper," the interpreter replied. "Word is good as gold."
Madam Eng gave the Coronel another one of her smiles, the shriveled old devil. There was no point in trying to get her to split the fee for posting the bounty. He gave her a curt bow.
"The Coronel thanks you for your cooperation," Valdez said. "We hope to bring in these fugitives soon."
"Madam bids you farewell," the interpreter replied, "and prays her girl will be returned to her."
Madam Eng gave a nod even more slight than the Coronel's bow, a gesture of superiorty. Galling though it was, the Coronel bore it. In the very small pond that was Tieu Thong, she was the big fish and it would be a great nuisance to make an enemy of her.
With 150 dan on the line, there wasn't a bounty hunter on the planet who could resist. Dead or alive, Cabo Rodrigues wouldn't last long out there. The Coronel only hoped that Rodrigues was caught alive so that he could take his time paying him back. Relishing that thought was almost enough to make him ignore the throbbing of his jaw for a while.