He never had a chance.
When Medrauta and Viviane arrived at the messengers’ stables, they found the place empty. Aside from the horses that stood in relative silence, the early morning atmosphere around the gate was just as lax as they’d thought it would be. Even the nearby guards barely gave them a look as they made their way to the building, much less verified their identities.
The lack of vigilance worried Medrauta, especially as the baron’s forces were due to march in the following morning. However, the state of the fief’s guards were the least of her concerns at the moment. A quick inspection of the stables told the knight that all the horses were accounted for, and as far as she knew, the only other stables inside the city walls belonged to the soldiers.
Though Medrauta’s instinct told her that the traitorous messenger hadn’t arrived yet, Viviane certainly wasn’t planning on leaving it up to a hunch, and Medrauta was inclined to agree. The knight settled herself comfortably in the stable’s loft, lying in wait for her prey while Viviane headed to the gate and questioned the guards.
While Medrauta wasn’t exactly known for her patience, she didn’t have to wait long. The large double-doors of the stable creaked open soon after the knight had established herself in her perch, a man poking his head through the entrance and casting furtive gazes around.
Medrauta looked down at him with a raised eyebrow, finding it rather amusing that the man chose to look in every direction except up. The man quickly slipped into the building and closed the door behind him as quietly as he could, wincing as the rusty hinges creaked. A nearby horse whinnied, probably in an attempt to greet its partner.
Thank fuck, it’s empty. The man heaved a sigh of relief as he continued casting furtive glances around, keeping a close eye on the door as he hurried to his horse’s stall in an attempt to untie its bridle from a wooden pole. He’d managed to sneak in while the guards were changing shifts, but it wouldn’t be long before the new guards arrived. He let out a sigh of relief as it finally came loose, moving to unlock the door of his horse’s stall. In a matter of seconds, he would be free and riding through the city’s front gate, but unfortunately for him, he never had a chance to begin with.
Medrauta leapt down from the loft just as the stall door’s latch slipped free. Landing directly behind the man, the knight wore a smirk of victory on her face as she’d caught him red-handed. Based on the sheen of sweat that coated the man’s nape and his suspiciously hurried actions, Medrauta was pretty sure that this was the person she was looking for.
“Alright, I think that’s about enough.” Medrauta said as she clapped a hand on the man’s shoulder, causing him to let out a startled yelp.
“W-Who the hell are you!?” The man shouted, stumbling backwards and nearly bumping into his horse.
“The person who’s gonna kick your ass if you don’t start answering my questions,” Medrauta dragged the man out of the stall, throwing him against the ground and away from the stable door. She fixed the man with a hard glare as she advanced toward him menacingly. “Question one. What the hell are you doing here this early in the morning?”
“F-Fuck off!” The man stammered as he backed away from the knight. His eyes darted around rapidly, making no attempt to hide his panic. “I’m not answering shit!”
It was fairly obvious that the courier was merely stalling for time as he attempted to engineer a plan to escape, but with Medrauta standing squarely in between him and the doors, he could find no safe routes that would allow him to avoid the knight.
Medrauta drew her sword, the sound of its blade scraping against her leather scabbard ringing loud and clear inside the stable. She had no intentions of playing cat and mouse with the man, and though she didn’t intend to actually use the weapon on him, the knight found the sharp implement a rather useful tool in persuasion.
She pointed the sword at the courier, eliciting a fearful yelp from him as his back thumped against the stable’s walls.
“I know who you are, Marcus Orough. Now stop wasting my time.”
Marcus gulped, his gaze flicking back and forth between the knight’s sword and the knight herself. “L-Look, I swear I don’t know anything! I-I’m just a messenger!”
“So you say, but you also accepted a pretty big payment of five-hundred silver a couple days ago for a supposedly unknown job.” Medrauta said with an air of finality, her words draining the color from Marcus’ face. “We already know what you’ve done, Marcus.”
Marcus’ shoulders slumped in defeat. Although he had been desperate to hide his traitorous deeds, a single look into Medrauta’s unwavering stare told him that the only reason he still drew breath was due to the knight’s mercy. “...What’s the point in asking me all these questions then? The baron sent you to execute me, didn’t he?”
“Like you said, you’re just a messenger. As far as I’m concerned, the baron has no interest in executing you. However, I certainly can’t say the same.” Medrauta’s blade inched closer to Marcus’ neck, causing a bead of nervous sweat to roll down the man’s cheek. “So here’s the deal... You tell me what I need to know and I’ll let you live. Sound good?”
Marcus nodded. Faced with the choice of imminent death and betraying his employer, he chose the latter. After all, he had a lot more experience with treachery compared to death. “Alright... W-What do you wanna know?”
Medrauta sheathed her sword, seeing that Marcus had committed to answering her questions. There was no need to keep threatening the man now that he had surrendered, and even if he suddenly changed his mind, Medrauta had no doubt that she could easily catch him again.
“What were you delivering this early? Battle plans?”
Marcus shook his head. “I... I dunno. Honest! I was just given an envelope and told to run it all the way to Revelo fief and stay there.”
Medrauta held her hand out, fixing Marcus with a hard gaze that brooked no disagreement. “Hand it over.”
Marcus reached for his bag, and though he paused for a moment, the knight’s razor-sharp glare inevitably overpowered his hesitation. Coupled with his verbal agreement to cooperate with Medrauta’s investigation, Marcus ultimately handed the thick envelope over to the knight.
“M-May I leave now?” Marcus asked tentatively.
“No.” Medrauta said simply, her single word making the man flinch back in fear.
She pursed her lips as she inspected the envelope, making a note of the blank wax seal that held it firmly shut. Usually, wax seals were stamped shut with a signet ring which served to create an impression of the sender’s coat of arms in the wax and make the letter’s origin easily identifiable.
A letter without a proper identifying seal was highly uncommon, and even commoners who did not possess a coat of arms would have the seal stamped with their home fief’s coat of arms. In other words, this unstamped envelope was beyond suspicious.
Medrauta flicked the envelope open, perusing its contents rapidly. Though she was by no means a rapid reader, it didn’t take her long to spot a few familiar looking maps interspersed between a few correspondences. Satisfied, Medrauta shoved the envelope into a pouch hanging by her hip.
“Who gave this to you?”
Marcus shook his head. “D-Dunno... He comes cloaked and hooded every time—”
The stable’s doors creaked open, causing Marcus’ eyes to immediately dart over to the entrance in fear. Now that he had betrayed both the baron and his mysterious benefactor, it wouldn’t bode well for him to be visited by proxies sent by either party. In desperation, he attempted to hide behind Medrauta, hoping that the knight would protect him if the sudden intruder was indeed there to take his life.
“Everything okay in there, Medrauta?” Viviane asked as she slipped through the doors, closing them behind her. “Who’s that cowering behind you?”
“That’s our guy,” Medrauta said, jerking her thumb in Marcus’ direction. “I’ve intercepted the documents he was meant to deliver, but it doesn’t sound like he knows anything about the mastermind.”
“Ah! So you’re Marcus, huh?” Viviane asked as she approached her knight, inspecting the trembling messenger with curious eyes. “Why’d you betray the baron?”
“Huh?” Marcus blinked, not expecting her to actually care about his motives. Medrauta’s line of questioning had been fairly practical and to the point, the knight making it clear that she only cared about catching whoever was behind this whole operation. “Well, uh... five-hundred silver was a lotta money, and with the whole lockdown lately coupled with the war up north... Coin’s tight, miss.”
Viviane nodded. “I see... So it’s a matter of money. Well, there’s only a couple individuals who’re that wealthy in the fief, but thankfully they’re all in the city as a part of the baron’s war council. How many times were you paid?”
“Three, miss. All the same amounts,” Marcus answered quickly.
Though Marcus had been nervous when Medrauta was questioning him, Viviane’s demeanor and presence was somehow disarming. Perhaps it was how the blonde noblewoman spoke gently or how she carried herself elegantly, but Viviane’s attitude made Marcus all the more willing to divulge any information he knew.
“So pretty much fifteen gold coins, huh...” Viviane mused. “And did you see the person who paid you? What did they look like?”
Marcus shook his head. “No, uh... I was just about to tell your partner here, but the payments were all made by someone who was all dressed up in a heavy cloak and hood.”
Viviane nodded several times as she digested the statement. “And their cloak... Do you know what fabric it was made of or at least remember the color?”
“I dunno anything about fabrics, but the cloak was dark green, miss. I’m not sure how that’ll—”
“Aha! I knew it!” Viviane announced triumphantly before turning to Medrauta. “C’mon, let’s go tell the baron!”
Medrauta blinked, staring at Viviane blankly. “Uh... What? Sorry, I’m not really following at all. What does the intermediary’s cloak being green have to do with anything?”
“Nothing! But it’s dyed, Medrauta!”
A long silence hung in the air for a couple seconds as Medrauta pieced the parts together. Dyeing fabric was still relatively expensive in the empire, and while commoners did possess some dyed clothes, it was extremely unlikely for them to spend their hard-earned money on a dyed cloak. Surprisingly, nobles were of the same mentality.
Unless they were ridiculously wealthy, a noble wouldn’t waste their money on a simple cloak. Instead, they would be more likely to invest their resources into a beautiful dress, a parure set, or some other fineries that they could show off at social events.
In other words, this meant that there were only two possibilities for the traitor’s identity: Lord Othren or Lord Henri. While Lady Olette was certainly a successful businesswoman, she reinvested most of her earnings back into her businesses, a practice that forced her to both live and dress modestly.
Lord Othren’s wealth was generational and it only continued to grow thanks to his financial advisors’ handling his investments, allowing him to live a life of luxury where he did nothing but relax in the confines of his expansive estate. Meanwhile, Lord Henri was so trusted by Baron Dietrich that he was allowed to dip into the baron’s own treasury when making personal purchases.
Based on the hefty sums that Marcus received and the expensive attire that even their mere middleman wore, it would be impossible for the culprit to be anyone other than those two.
Viviane grinned upon seeing the realization dawn on Medrauta’s face. “Think we’ll get it right on the first try?”
“With you at the helm? Probably.”