We stepped off the train in Oseri into a military zone. Soldiers were tromping this way and that, lugging their gear as they moved from place to place, while troop wagons and cargo wagons waited for their loads. Cavalry horses were already being off-loaded from a coach four positions up from ours, explaining the smell we’d been suffering since the capital (and still were suffering, to be honest.)
Did I just skip the entire trip? Yes. There isn’t much to tell. We rode overnight to the capital, where, thanks to arrangements made long-distance by Baron Anto, a Pendor house knight met us and led us to a military train headed north to Oseri. I didn’t even get a peek at the capital itself, except for what I saw out the window while arriving and departing.
The ranking officer on the military train was annoyed at us, since he’d been ordered to hold the train up so we could catch it. From his attitude, I doubt he knew who it was he’d waited for, but he must have been warned to be respectful, because I heard nothing from him after his initial rant about his broken schedule.
Our house knight escort, who had been similarly respectful-but-annoyed, commandeered a hackney coach (driven by a soldier, although it was obviously a civilian model) to bring us to the command headquarters. During the ride, I didn’t even need my fairy sense to tell that the town was deserted. Visually, it had a distinct ghost-town vibe, with closed shops and empty streets.
“They’ve evacuated the town?” I wondered as we passed house after house with closed doors and shuttered windows in the middle of the day. Many had graceful tile roofs, colorful and ornate, while the less opulent ones still had wood shingles. This was an affluent town. Not a single straw roof in sight.
“It appears so,” the knight agreed. “Perhaps some of the refugees in Narses came from here instead of the front.”
“I wonder why,” I mused. “I don’t see any damage.”
We passed an ancient-styled tea house on low stilts, with gold-lacquered columns holding up an intricate roof. Normally, curtains would have covered the entrances, but wooden sliding doors were drawn across them, and the shutters that would normally have been lifted to the rafters had been lowered to block the high windows that allowed airflow.
“There is serious danger nearby, My Lady,” he noted. “I’m sure it’s just a precaution.”
“Mhm,” I nodded, sending my senses out farther. There was seriously nobody in this town, except up ahead, where soldiers were apparently quartered in commandeered buildings.
“What bothers you about it, My Lady?” Chiara wondered.
“Well, in my experience, an evacuated town isn’t so… pristine. I don’t see anything discarded or knocked over, any signs of haste or… well, anything expected, at all.”
The house knight grew a slightly bemused smile. “My Lady is quite young. What sort of experience would you have?”
“I fought in Lang Doria,” I told him. “An evacuated town there was usually a mostly destroyed town. And even then, there would still be people left in it, who refused to move.”
The information that I was a war veteran threw him off a bit. He blinked at me, then finally responded with, “Well… I suppose what they’re facing here is different than an outright war. It isn’t the rebels threatening this place, from what I understand.”
“True,” I said with a nod. “The rebels would have to come through the Highlands to get to this place. Mother hasn’t told me anything about what is threatening this place, though. Do you know?”
“Your mother?” he responded, looking confused.
His expression confirmed that my real identity hadn’t reached down to his level.
I could sense that we were reaching the edge of the town, and the driver was encountering some traffic now. He reined back the team to slow the pace.
“Ah… don’t worry about that. What can you tell me about this place?”
“Only what I’ve heard at headquarters, My Lady. They had a wave of monster attacks bad enough the locals couldn’t deal with it. I couldn’t tell you why they evacuated. But it looks like we are about to arrive.”
The driver began turning the coach to parallel a wood stockade wall under construction. It was very obviously not replacing a destroyed wall. It was rising on newly broken ground. The soldiers were building it themselves; civilian contractors don’t normally do such work in Orestania. Probably due to a lack of politicians with greasy palms wanting to give lucrative military contracts to their donors.
“This town is on the frontier of a wilderness, and it didn’t have a town wall?” I wondered.
“There should be a lot of farmland between us and the actual wilderness, My Lady. When I’ve been here in the past, the monsters were nowhere near this place.”
It still felt like poor preparedness to me, but I didn’t know much about the prior circumstances. And it wasn’t unusual for towns to not have walls. Except for rare exceptions like Copen, Orestanian towns don’t usually have them.
The house knight located the headquarters for us and helped the driver and Ryuu carry our luggage there, handed off an envelope to the staff sergeant who had emerged to meet us. Knight and driver then bid us goodbye.
As the coach moved off, the sergeant approached, looking over the group in civilian dress with luggage who had been dropped in his lap. Addressing Ryuu, he waved the envelope and wondered, “I suppose the contents of this envelope are gonna tell me what to do with you lot?”
Putting a slightly imperious edge into my voice, I responded, “The contents of that envelope are for the commanding officer’s eyes rather than yours, Sergeant. They are his orders. Kindly bring us and that envelope to him.”
His brow wrinkling, the sergeant looked at the writing on the envelope, and I saw his eyes widen slightly.
When he looked back up, I gave him a tight smile and a small curtsey. “Lady Tia Mona at your service, Sergeant. These are Ladies Chiara and Dilorè, and our colleague Mr. Kowa.”
His manner had dropped into a slightly more respectful tone as he nodded and said, “Please follow me, then.”
We sat with our luggage in a waiting room while the sergeant got an aide to go inside with the envelope. It took about thirty seconds until the commanding officer came bursting out of the office.
He must have been one of those people who received the alert about me from the baronial council, since he clearly already had a description of me. He picked me out of the four of us immediately.
“My Lady Ti… Tia?”
I stood and curtseyed. “Tia Mona, at your service, Major. Thank you for seeing us.”
He nodded, then looked at the confused sergeant who had emerged from the office behind him.
“Find them housing close by and assign an orderly,” he ordered. “And have their luggage sent there immediately.”
The sergeant became immediately businesslike, saluting smartly and turning to go carry out the orders upon receiving the major’s counter-salute. He ordered a private as he passed her on his way out the door, “Guard their luggage until I return.”
Gesturing into his office, the major asked, “Would you and your people come inside, My Lady?”
Once inside and with everyone seated, he held up the letter that he had taken from the envelope.
“Perhaps I should have offered you the chair I’m using, My Lady. I sat here out of habit, but…”
As he hesitated, I asked, “May I guess that your headquarters ordered you to turn command over to me?”
He grew a smile that only reached one side of his face. “That is the case, My Lady.”
“That would be taking my mother’s orders too literally, Major,” I told him. “The largest unit I’ve ever been in command of was an undersized special forces platoon. I have no experience commanding a battalion. Mother told her subordinates to give me authority, but I do not intend to take military command.”
His eyes narrowed slightly. “I’m not certain how to interpret that, My Lady. Do you intend to have control, but leave the pesky details to me? If that is the case, I would like to do so under protest. I can certainly remain as an adviser, since I haven’t received orders to report elsewhere, but if you are to be in charge, My Lady, I recommend that you do so unconditionally.”
I nodded. “I understand, Major. If that were my intention, I would agree.”
His eyebrow rose. “Then how should I interpret ‘authority’, My Lady? If my position is left vague, the troops won’t know who is in charge.”
A female orderly had quietly rolled a service cart up to my side and begun pouring tea. I have always suspected that nothing in Owen’s kingdom moves without tea, not even an army.
I accepted a cup as I considered my answer. She served the others while I replied.
“I will send a dispatch to headquarters that I am delegating command duties back to you while I operate independently.”
He looked about to protest, so I rushed ahead. “In case my background isn’t known, I should tell you that I am a royal knight, currently operating independently under the king’s authority. That means I act as the king’s eyes, ears and arms where I see the need. Mother wants me to troubleshoot the Oserian Highlands, not to command soldiers. I need your full support, with no interference from your men, while I work. I will lend support to you as well, if I deem it more important than what I am doing, but you should certainly continue your operations as is.”
His other eyebrow had risen while I spoke. He glanced at the others, then noted with a slight quirk to his lips. “I’m not entirely certain what support four civilians can lend me, though.”
“We are hardly ‘four civilians’, Major. In the room with you right now are two fairy knights, two royal knights, and a trusted warrior in direct service to the king.”
His eyes lost focus for a moment as the information hit his brain. Until that moment, one pampered duchess’s daughter who had somehow acquired royal knighthood was before him with her three sidekicks. I had just rearranged that tableau for him quite a bit.
He blinked and noted, “That would be five people. I see four?”
For some insane reason, Lucy picked that moment to leave her stone. I had to suppress the urge to giggle at her unintentional act of making it five people. Somehow, I kept my face straight.
“I personally fit two of those descriptions, Major,” I stated.
Another confused blink. “But you’re a vampire…”
He trailed off as he remembered the rest.
“As you appear to have just recalled, my birth mother is the fairy princess Deharè. And yes, I am recognized as a fairy knight by my grandfather.”
The orderly suddenly fumbled the tea cup she was preparing to hand to Chiara. A small amount of the tea landed on Chiara’s sleeve, while considerably more of it landed on the girl’s own arm and hand. She yelped in surprise.
She must not have realized who I was until that moment.
“I’m, I’m terribly sorry, My Lady!” she stammered, moving to wipe Chiara’s dress. Chiara held out her fan to stop her.
“[Sea Goddess’s Authority,]” she chanted in Ancient Fairy, charging her fan with Water mana. The spilled tea floated off her sleeve and back to the tea cup. Then the rest of the spilled tea floated off the cart and the girl’s skin, following it.
“I should like a fresh cup, though,” she gently commented with a smile. The tea in that cup was probably dirty and lukewarm now.
“Th… thank you,” the girl stammered, fleeing toward the sideboard where more cups could be found.
Noticing her reddened skin, I ordered, “Before you do that, Private, please come over here.”
Her eyes becoming huge, she walked over to me.
I put my hand out, gathered mana, and chanted in my spiritual voice, [Healing].
The mana licked her arm for a brief moment, and the redness in her skin vanished.
“Better?” I asked with a smile.
Her eyes still wide, the girl nodded.
“So,” I stated, turning back to the major. “My mission here is to investigate what is going on in the Highlands, but my information is very vague. Have you been able to interview the locals yet?”
I was assuming he and his troops had only arrived themselves, given the bedlam at the rail station and the stockade wall under construction.
He shook his head. “No. That isn’t possible.”
“Not possible?” I asked, confused. “Why not?”
“When our first troops arrived, they had already disappeared.”