Chapter 6
On the Trail

Qingfengcheng, Zhengzong Commandery

A single commandery typically had at least ten flying fortresses to support both border defenses and the campaigns into the Unincorporated Regions. The headquarters of the commanding general of commandery theater operations was nearly twice the size of a standard flying fortress. It could house an entire army of regulars and the air assets to support them. Just one of these super fortresses would be more than enough to topple an enemy state, but the flying fortresses were meant to display the great power of the Empire to the people as much as they were to use that power against the enemy.
Major Kim Jun-ho was reviewing the maps of the latest campaign against Xiyue before delivering a report to his superior, who would then advise the commanding general on how to proceed once the ceasefire was suspended in a few months. It would be so easy to move this fortress right over the enemy's capital city Xu and either flood it with ground troops or bomb it out of existence, but the balance of power was delicate and just because they could crush their enemies, it was not always expedient to do so.
Part of him wanted to curse all the convoluted considerations that went into crafting their strategy, but if he truly hated it, he would have become an infantryman rather than go into Intelligence. No matter how much he might complain to himself at times, he enjoyed unraveling the problems around him and weaving them into solutions. There was only so much he could do in the end, but all he could do was his part. That was all anyone could do.
There was a knock at his door and unbidden, a common soldier stepped in and saluted him.
"Emergency dispatch," the soldier said, dropping the salute before it could be returned and pulling out an envelope from under his blouse.
Major Kim accepted the envelope warily. Several things were not right about the situation. First, only members of the Intelligence Division were permitted in this area. Second, few enlisted men worked in the Intelligence Division at the general staff level. Third, no enlisted man who did not want a flogging would enter an officer's office without first being given express verbal permission to do so, even in an emergency. This apparent soldier was not what he seemed.
Inside the envelope was a sheet of paper and on that sheet of paper was the seal of House Feng of Heigu. No sooner had Major Kim laid eyes on it than it lit up in blue-green flame. The paper was treated in such away that the flames consumed it without even burning the Major's hands.
"You see who I represent, Major," the apparent soldier said. "I need information. There was an incident in the border town of Xiaosong in Bantian County, Shannanxi Province. A certain prostitute was abducted from a brothel there. There is a bounty for a man called Rodrigues in connection with the incident. What can you tell me?"
An agent from House Feng had come all this way for a prostitute. Unlikely, but as he saw no conflict with his duties, other than the momentary distraction, Major Kim saw no reason not to oblige the Feng agent. Favors extended to the noble houses and their representatives were not always rewarded, but any slight was surely repaid.
"Give me a moment," Major Kim said, going over to his terminal. "The county inspectors in these backwaters are not always quick to upload the latest activities unless we hold their feet to the fire."
He searched through the bounties that had been posted in the past 72 hours. Basically, anyone could place a bounty on any one else, save for Imperial officials, and so long as the execution of that bounty did not present a conflict with the public interest--or certain properly connected private interests--, it would be approved. As a result, bounty hunting was a lucrative field for the Infernals, pursuing serious criminals such as murderers and thieves or simply the targets of petty grudges, like the paramour of some cuckolded husband's wife.
Rodrigues was not a particularly common name in this part of the world, so it did not take long to find the bounty the agent of House Feng was looking for. Juan Batista Avilar Rodrigues, a mercenary wanted for desertion, kidnapping, assault and battery, and destruction of property. The client was a Coronel Saulo Obrado of the Regimiento de Rionegro, one of the more prominent mercenary units operating in the theater. One hundred dan alive but only ten dan dead. It was a lot of money for an Infernal to be throwing around. There was also a fifty-dan bounty for the prostitute in question, but only if she was returned alive and undamaged. That must have been the condition of the co-client Eng Min-hong.
Major Kim made a printout of the report and handed it to the agent, saying, "This is what has been posted. If you want further details, you might try speaking with the clients. You could go to the bounty hunting guilds, but there's no guarantee they will cooperate with you."
The agent glanced over the printout, then folded it and tucked it away in his blouse.
"It will suffice," he said. "Your assistance will be remembered. If you would, pay attention to any developments as I may return seeking more information."
"I will do what I can, so long as it does not interfere with my duties," Major Kim replied.
"Of course," the agent said. "Farewell."
With that, the agent left. Major Kim could not help feeling uneasy. A runaway mercenary and a prostitute would not warrant the attention of one of the great houses. There was more to this case than what it seemed, but the Major did not want to get involved any further. He would keep an eye out for any chatter on the subject that came his way, but he would just as soon forget the whole thing.