”Looks like this is a dead end too.”
Viviane frowned as she crossed yet another name off her lengthy list. Surprisingly, there were a number of departures from the fief on the day before the carriage’s arrival. Although most of them had alibis that were accounted for, there were a few names on the list that raised some red flags.
Neither Viviane nor Medrauta had slept during the night. Instead, they spent their time investigating possible suspects and compiling them into a list which would allow Riku and Sakura to help out much more easily. Though the foreign noblewoman was recovering from the poison in her system, Viviane’s initial guess had been correct.
Not only would Sakura require multiple doses of the antidote, but she would also require ample amounts of rest. Of course, Riku didn’t feel comfortable leaving her alone even in friendly territory, especially after being informed of the presence of a spy, leaving Medrauta and Viviane to do most of the work throughout the night.
Medrauta sighed as she rifled through a stack of papers detailing several lists of transactions that had taken place throughout the fief during the past week. The numbers made her head hurt, but she was willing to power through her discomfort to help her lady deal with the mountain of documents sitting on her desk.
Plus, the silver-haired knight was quite frankly done with traitors in the empire. Starting with Amelia, a whole string of sudden betrayals and uprisings had taken the empire by storm, most of them no doubt years in the making as part of whatever the witch’s grand scheme was. Shutting down yet another idiotic betrayal would be cathartic, to say the least.
Setting aside the numbered lists for now, Medrauta turned her attention to the list of individuals that the baron had provided. Around two dozen names were written on it, but only five of them really mattered as the list detailed everyone who had access to the war room and the maps within, including every scholar and tactician.
However, Medrauta’s experience as a squire in the Imperial Order had made her rather familiar with corruption, and she had learned that corruption generally started at the top. Because of that, she focused her attention on the five names at the top of the list.
Firstly, there was the baron’s personal advisor, Lord Henri. Next, there were the four baronets who controlled the other cities in the fief, Lord Jasper, Lord Othren, Lady Olette, and Lady Brenda. Lord Othren was the wealthiest of them all, excluding the baron’s advisor, but Lady Olette was the head of several businesses that operated both within and outside of the fief.
All of them had unique, distinguishable qualities that would make them possess possible motives for betraying the baron in a bid for power. Lord Jasper commanded the most troops, and while he didn’t exactly have the most influence or resources, he could definitely trigger an armed revolt against the baron, granting him a rapid rise in power that was far more secure than marching out against the acting duke.
Lord Othren did little outside of delegating work, but he had several investments and helped manage the fief’s banking guild. Of course, there was little he would want thanks to his affluence, but a wealthy man could always aspire to power.
Lady Olette was a woman of many talents. As a knight who inherited her family’s title, the young baronetess was forced to manage her family’s business ventures and expand them even in the midst of her military duties. While her position had given her great power, it also imparted a great deal of stress onto her daily life.
Finally, Lady Brenda was the most obscure noble among the baron’s inner circle. There was really little that Medrauta and Viviane could discover about her other than the fact that Lady Brenda often sequestered herself within her estate and committed most of her time to researching the history of Crests. Apparently, she was a well-known expert in the field and generally left alone. However, recent reports have stated that the funding she once received was gradually being reduced, perhaps fomenting frustration against the baron.
But those same qualities also made Medrauta consider whether it would even be worth betraying the baron due to how their businesses and citizens had flourished under his rule. The only individual who didn’t own any sort of enterprise was Lord Henri, but his position was second only to the baron’s and there would be no benefit in betraying his liege unless he sought the position himself.
Medrauta wasn’t sure who among the list was the most suspicious, but she had no idea how to go about scheduling an interview with any of them on such a short notice. Instead, she turned to Viviane, hoping to start a conversation that could slowly segue into the topic.
“By the way, Viviane,” Medrauta said. “Why’d you want Lady Sakura and Sir Riku to help us out? Lady Sakura needs to recover, right? I can’t imagine she’ll be much help here.”
“Not in the field, no. But that’s not why I want their help. Lady Sakura has a particularly useful ability, and while I might be the greatest detective in this fief, I’ll need her aid to solve this mystery.”
Medrauta raised an eyebrow. She was glad that Viviane held herself in such high regard when it came to detective work, but she somehow doubted that her lady was truly the “greatest detective” in this fief. Or any fief, really.
“And what ability might that be?” Medrauta asked. “Is it related to that ‘ki’ stuff you learned?”
Viviane nodded as she flicked through a thick business ledger. “Yeah. Apparently, I’m a prodigy, but I haven’t exactly figured out the finer points of it yet. I’m pretty good at circulating it and absorbing it, but when it comes to sensing, I haven’t quite got it down yet. Apparently, Lady Sakura can use ki to tell if someone’s lying due to fluctuations.”
“I... guess that kind of makes sense? It’s life force, right?” Medrauta mused. “Would it work if someone’s capable of controlling their ki and preventing it from fluctuating?”
“Probably not,” Viviane admitted. “But we won’t have to worry about that since no one else in the empire’s familiar with this technique anyway!”
Medrauta nodded. If Sakura’s abilities truly functioned to the extent that Viviane claimed, this investigation would pretty much be guaranteed to succeed. However, that didn’t mean they could be lax when it came to investigating the suspects. After all, they still needed to narrow down the list and find the right people to question. Not only that, but they would need to provide conclusive evidence of their condemned culprit as it was fairly obvious that an obscure foreign technique would not be accepted as evidence in court.
“...Right. So did you find anything of use yet?”
Viviane shook her head. “There’s one questionable payment I can pick out, but... I’m not too sure. Maybe the baron was feeling extra generous that day.”
Medrauta leaned closer to Viviane, peering over her shoulder. “Hm? Where?”
“Here,” Viviane pointed out a section of the ledger that she was reading. “It seems the baron spent seven-hundred silver on the day before we arrived. It says the expenditure was made as a payment for a bulk delivery of food, clothing, and furniture for the citizens.”
Medrauta frowned. “Perhaps he’s trying to make sure his people are safe even if he loses the civil war? Besides, I spoke with Riku a little earlier and he mentioned that the markets certainly are bustling. Apparently, the baron really did donate a bunch of stuff to the people.”
“Hm... I suppose that makes sense, then. But the numbers still seem slightly off.” Viviane sighed. “Food, clothing, and furniture... It shouldn’t cost more than two-hundred silver for the population of Dietrich...”
“I guess so...?” As a knight, Medrauta never really had to worry about any expenses since they were mostly taken care of by her knight order. Even at the academy, her grades guaranteed her a scholarship that basically eliminated any financial woes from her life. “Anyway, why the hell are we looking at business transactions? What does this have to do with departures?”
“We’re looking for mismatches in reported assets on or around the day of our arrival.” Viviane explained. “After all, you don’t think a messenger is going to betray the baron for free, right?”
Medrauta nodded in understanding. “In that case, I’ve got a better idea.”
The silver-haired knight stood from her chair with a satisfied smile. She’d not only found her escape from these infernal documents, but also realized a much more efficient way to discover the information that Viviane needed.
“Let’s take a trip to Dietrich’s criminal underground. I’m sure the payment was delivered through more... unorthodox methods. A few whacks and I’ll get ‘em talking.”
Viviane blinked, staring at Medrauta for a couple seconds before grinning. “You know what? That’s an excellent idea! Why didn’t I think of that?”
“Are you sure this is the right way?”
“Yeah, I’m positive.” Medrauta frowned as she peered at the map more closely. It was the middle of the night and the pair was now trekking through the streets of Dietrich after retrieving a map of the city in the castle’s library.
“Medrauta, this street literally leads to a dead end.” Viviane pointed out.
The silver-haired knight squinted at the map for a few seconds before nodding. “Yeah, because that’s where the hidden entrance is located.”
Viviane raised an eyebrow, setting her doubts aside and trusting her knight. Between the two of them, Medrauta was vastly more knowledgeable about criminals and their activities. Instead, she turned her thoughts to something else that she’d been curious about ever since the meeting with the baron adjourned.
“By the way, what’d Dame Marilyn ask you after everyone left?” Viviane turned to her knight, curiosity brimming in her eyes. After the meeting, Marilyn had asked Medrauta to stay behind, and although their conversation had barely taken a minute, both knights emerged from the room with grave expressions on their faces.
Medrauta pursed her lips, returning Viviane’s gaze with a hesitant one. For a moment, she was tempted to keep the details of her conversation a secret, but she quickly remembered that this was her beloved Viviane asking. If there was anyone who deserved to know, it would be her.
“Not much, honestly.” Medrauta admitted. “She asked me how I knew so much about witches and their magic. It’s not really something that’s covered in the knights’ curriculum at all, and the archives don’t have publicly available books on the subject.”
“So...? What’d you say?” Viviane asked inquisitively. She’d always assumed that knights were taught a lot more about witches than the nobles, but Medrauta had just confirmed otherwise.
“I said Padraig taught me when I was still a squire.”
“...Somehow, I don’t think that was the truth.”
Medrauta laughed. “That’s ‘cause it wasn’t, but I couldn’t come up with a suitable excuse. I... Honestly, I don’t know why or how I know these things. I just do.”
Viviane frowned. Hearing that was certainly concerning, especially given the fact that Medrauta’s sudden splitting headache was still fresh in her mind. “Do you think it might have something to do with your missing memories...? If we look into it a bit more, maybe we can make sure you don’t have any more of those seizures like back in the carriage...”
If there was one thing Viviane worried about the most, it was Medrauta relapsing into yet another seizure. Though her ki reserves were mostly replenished now, she certainly didn’t want her beloved knight to suffer so greatly again. After all, the mere sight had driven thorns into her heart.
Medrauta shrugged, dismissing the problem casually. It was clear that the full extent of her lady’s worry hadn’t been conveyed. “Maybe. Maybe not. Either way it’s not a pressing issue at the moment.”
Viviane nearly flinched. She squeezed Medrauta’s hand, causing the knight to turn and stop. “What do you mean it’s not a pressing issue!? Do you know how much I worried—”
“O-Okay! W-We’ll try figuring it out after this whole thing is over, Vivi! But for now we’re, uh, well, we’re here!” Medrauta gestured to the brick wall in front of them as she attempted to placate Viviane’s frustration.
“Hmph! I’ll hold you to that promise, Medrauta!” Viviane puffed her cheeks out in mock anger. “Now then, what’s so special about this wall? Actually, no. Don’t tell me.” She placed a finger on her knight’s lips, stemming Medrauta’s words before she could even begin to speak.
Viviane studied the wall intensely. Even from such a close distance, the wall simply looked like any other brick wall. Several gray bricks jutted out from its structure, but other than that, it was simply a wall. Finding nothing suspicious with the wall, Viviane shifted her gaze and found her answer below her feet.
In Dietrich, only the main roads and streets were paved, meaning that dead-end alleys like this were left as mere dirt paths. While the ground beneath Viviane certainly appeared to be dirt, a couple stomps quickly revealed that the dirt was nothing more than a facade covering up what seemed to be a trapdoor.
“Found it!” Viviane cried excitedly. “Now then... How do we open this?”
Medrauta smiled, finding joy in her beloved lady’s animated expression. She leaned closer to Viviane’s ear and wrapped an arm around her lady’s hips, holding her tightly. “Like this.”
With that, Medrauta reached out and pressed against one of the bricks that stuck out from the wall a little too much, causing it to slide backwards slightly and trigger a mechanism that opened the trap door beneath them, dropping the pair straight down into a tunnel that was surprisingly well-lit by an assortment of torches lining the walls.
“Hup!” Medrauta landed squarely on her feet as she held Viviane aloft, ensuring that her lady wouldn’t suffer the impact of the fall. “Now then, let’s—”
The sound of steel slithering against leather echoed through the tunnel as the trapdoor above Medrauta and Viviane closed. The torches flickered, four rough-looking men advancing toward the pair.
“Well, well, well. What do we have here?” One of the men smirked confidently, clearly ignorant of what was about to happen.
Medrauta sighed, setting Viviane down and stepping in front of her lady.
“We really can’t catch a break, huh?”