I suppose I heard him correctly the first time, and simply wanted for his words to mean something else.
“Perhaps you mean to say, all of them had already evacuated?” I asked.
“Ah… I’m sorry, My Lady, but that is not the case,” he stated, dropping his head in apology. “We…”
He hesitated, then stated, “Frankly, we don’t know what happened to them.”
“There must be some clue where they went,” I insisted.
He shook his head. “We did find some preparations in the houses for evacuation, such as half-packed luggage, so they were certainly planning to leave, but… well, that luggage is still there. Nearly all houses and businesses have their storm shutters closed, as if they were preparing to leave for a long absence. In some houses, you can find half-eaten meals at the tables, or cook-pots still on the stoves. We had to put out several house fires when we arrived, and the cause always seems to have been untended cooking flames or frying pans caught on fire.”
Lady Chiara probed, “What about signs of panic, or struggle, or forced entry?”
As a royal knight, she might have been trained for undercover or spy activities, but she received the same basic investigation courses as Tiana had. It was natural that she joined in.
“We have yet to find any hint of captors invading or of captives resisting, at all,” he stated. “Last night, we sent a dispatch to headquarters, requesting criminal investigators. I thought you were them when you arrived, frankly.”
Chiara and I both had some training, but we were by no means skilled investigators. I shook my head to deny it, even though he had obviously already figured it out.
“You’re speaking as if people literally vanished!” Chiara protested.
He gave a patient nod. “That is what I am saying, Lady…”
He let his voice trail, and it dawned on me that I had yet to introduce anyone, nor even get this major’s name.
“My apologies, Major,” I stated, then gestured to each of my companions in turn. “May I introduce Lady Chiara Birthe of the Royal Knights. Also, Lady Dilorè of the High Forest and Mr. Ryuu Kowa, royal champion and direct vassal of the King. And kindly keep it within your office for now, but I am Lady Tiana Pendor of the Royal Knights, First Daughter of the Duchess of Pendor, and Fairy Knight as Tiana of the High Forest. Might I have the pleasure of learning your name as well?”
The major grew a wry smile. “The fault is mine, My Lady. I allowed myself to become distressed over suddenly being relieved of my duties and skipped introductions. I am Major Pell Torset, second son of Baron Torset, your mother’s vassal, at your service.”
I lowered my head briefly. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Major Lord Torset.”
He gave a dismissive wave. “Just ‘Major Torset’, My Lady. And no ‘My Lord’s for me, if you would. My wife is a commoner and I won’t inherit any position, so I am as good as a commoner myself.”
Many second sons cling like a barnacle to the bitter end to their ‘Lord’ suffix, especially among the sons of barons and baronets. Only a few of them, those with military or government accomplishments, will receive their own titles, or when misfortune strikes, replace their older brothers. The great majority are one generation away from common citizenship, and unwilling to accept it.
This guy’s attitude was refreshing in comparison. I smiled and nodded.
“Major, then. So the populace of the entire town simply vanished?”
He inclined his head forward. “That is what I am saying, Lady Pendor.”
“If you would, please stick with Lady Mona, Major,” I requested. “I don’t need every soldier I encounter reacting like the good Private.”
The orderly, now rolling her cart back to the sideboard, stammered, “I’m terribly sorry, My Lady!”
“It isn’t your fault, Private,” I smiled, wondering if I should use a mild dose of vampire charm on her to calm her down. But I remembered Sidis and decided against it.
“So, we have no clues at all,” Chiara mused, “We really can’t do anything except randomly search for enemies, can we? Unless one of us has some sort of forensic experience?”
“Lady Dilorè would be the closest to that,” I replied while hooking a thumb toward my cousin.
“Me?” Dilorè replied, her eyebrows rising.
“You at least have experience working with your mother,” I explained. “That was scholarly survey work instead of criminal investigation, but looking for stuff is still looking for stuff.”
She chuckled. “That’s quite a stretch, Y… My lady.”
I would have strangled her if she said ‘Your Highness’ there. She only just narrowly saved it.
“I’m not implying we’ll do it that way. We don’t know enough yet to properly divide the work up, anyway,” I said, then turned back toward Major Torset. “The initial information I received was that the locals encountered a sudden surge of monster attacks. Where did that information come from?”
“The report from Viscount Oseri that accompanied the request for troops described attacks on outer villages, and a sharp increase of higher class monster sightings, My Lady. I’ve sent a few patrols out to check on the outlying villages, but when we arrived at an empty town, I decided to concentrate on fortification first.”
I nodded as I chewed the information over. With no townspeople to protect, prioritizing his troops’ safety in the face of an unknown danger made sense.
“And as for the Viscount…”
“He is one of the missing, I’m afraid,” Torset reported with a rueful nod. “His estate is as unoccupied as the rest of town.”
Chiara spoke up once again. “My Lady, Ryuu and I can look around the town for anomalies, but Lady Dilorè and you would accomplish much more as fairies than as detectives.”
I suppressed a smile at the ‘Ryuu and I’, without a ‘mister’ for him. I had specifically avoided peeping the previous night, so they might have simply been doing Dorian language lessons, but the familiar address from an Atian-born noble girl hinted that the teacher-student relationship had grown closer than that.
After musing for a moment that I should alert Ryuu about Chiara’s uncertain future, I focused on her comment and grew a frown.
“I wanted to keep our fairy knight status hidden for now,” I noted, hesitating to go that direction.
Ryuu spoke up at last. “It’s a bad time to hold back. You have hundreds of soldiers facing completely unknown danger here.”
I blinked, looking over at him. The temptation was to think he just wanted to ogle my cousin and me in bikini armor again, but I realized that he was right. Not flying around the area to spread my fairy senses as wide as possible might result in Major Torset’s battalion meeting the same fate as the townspeople, whatever that was. Rapid, detailed intelligence was of utmost importance right now.
I pressed my lips together, then nodded. “Mr. Kowa, you make an excellent point.”
Looking back to our host, I stated, “Which means my cousin and I shall need those quarters as soon as possible, Major. We need to gear up.”
# # #
Rather than waste time erecting an encampment when he had a wall to build, the major had commandeered the empty houses around the town perimeter. We wound up with a traditional Dorian dwelling… and Ryuu’s eyes were almost bulging as he entered a house that could have been in Japan.
The team of soldiers who got us moved in had pulled back all the storm shutters around the courtyard, exposing the courtyard porch and letting sunlight in on polished wood and tatami floors. The inner court itself wasn’t the Japanese rock garden the design might have featured, but a simple lawn with a rock path through the middle. The house’s outer walls had high windows at the top, which would also let in light if the soldiers had gone through the effort of raising the shutters, but we stopped them from going through the effort. We didn’t intend to spend much daytime indoors.
The design wasn’t precisely Japanese. Frankly, Dorian styles can sometimes be more Chinese in character, sometimes skewing Korean, and this house was somewhat in-between all three. But it was familiar enough to our hero. He was smiling and shaking his head at Chiara as she worriedly stuck by his side, making sure he took off his shoes and other details. I could tell with very little effort that the environment was more familiar to him than it was to her.
I didn’t have time to enjoy the spectacle though. Once we had located the bedding and the folding screens, we shooed the soldiers out of the house and Dilorè and I quickly donned our armor.
I had dutifully packed Melione’s cloak and other ‘essentials’ in my luggage, even though she hadn’t been at the Fairy King’s Castle to witness, but those were contents of my travel pack. I had no plans to travel, so the pack stayed behind. I wore only my armor and my sword harness, now featuring holsters for the Starfire Jade Writing Brush and my combat fan thanks to the ridiculous efficiency of my footman Khaulmar.
The room I was in featured a gorgeous cherrywood vanity (built low for a kneeling woman to use) at the back of which a tall mirror stood, in which I could see myself nearly head to toe once I stepped back to the middle of the room. Suddenly, rather than an embarrassing display, the imposing sight of a fairy knight stared back at me, baring her vitals as a blatant dare to her opponent.
Her arms and legs were denied to her enemies, covered in armor as if to say, I won’t let you draw blood so cheaply. If you have the will to fight me, come at my body and don’t even look anywhere else.
I think it was the first time I saw that woman in the mirror through the eyes of a fairy knight.
With my sabatons in hand, I exited my room and made my way to the sunken entryway also reminiscent of a Japanese house. Dilorè was already waiting in the front entry, as were Ryuu and Chiara, now better fitted-out for work. Ryuu was in his fighting leathers and Chiara now wore a conservative tea gown. She was the image of an Atian office lady, except for that fan tucked into her sash, and her rapier hanging from her hip.
I hadn’t questioned it until now, but this was equipment she’d not had in the Tabad. Perhaps Khaulmar had spent some of my household budget on her.
Ryuu’s eyes were taking both fairy knights in, head to toe, and I wanted to glare at him, but I ignored it instead. I had to admit, after having just seen myself in the mirror, that Robert would have been doing the same thing.
Okay, maybe I still would. I no longer have any questions about which way I swing.
“We’re all ready to head out?” I asked as I went through the ritual of donning my sabatons while avoiding both stepping on the entryway floor and putting my shod feet on the raised wooden floor. When you watch anime, they don’t do a good job of showing how tricky this can be.
Ryuu raised his chin briefly, then stated, “I don’t see any point in staying inside.”
The soldiers had located house keys for the place, which I left in Ryuu’s hands. Dilorè and I could easily fly into the inner court, after all.
“Hang on,” Dilorè said, and pulled a pendant out of her belt-wallet. “Could you call out Lucy?”
“Out!” the spirit herself declared as she appeared before I could say anything.
Dilorè held the pendant out to Chiara as she asked Lucy, “If Her Highness wants to call this woman, can you speak to her through this?”
Chiara accepted it and put it on while Lucy flew up close to it and studied it with her hand on her chin.
“Talk!” she declared finally, and returned to hover near my shoulder.
After a brief, perplexed frown, Dilorè shrugged. “I think that’s a yes.”
“We’ll stay in touch,” I told Chiara. “We won’t know how long this will take until we’ve had a look around.”
It seemed like we had a plan, so I grew my wings and rose into the air.