‘If only a stakeout wasn’t so boring!’
Initially, I hoped to quickly track the movements of the supposed perpetrator and stumble upon some big, revealing secret. And then, Ludmila and I would ceremoniously leap out with a ‘So, you were the culprit!’ before taking them down.
However, the list of targets that we followed were showing little signs of suspicious behavior. The castle guards were mainly commoners who rarely had ties with nobility. Since they were provided with their own quarters in the castle, they didn’t return to the domain of any given lord. Even if they did once serve a lord elsewhere, all but the youngest had already sworn an oath to the royal family for quite some time.
Katalina’s list of magicians with infiltration-type familiars was only giving us dead ends. Frankly, I had a hard time believing that any of the guards would openly be against the Queen in favor of some lord. Even those that served the least amount of time could be heard fawning over the charms of her intelligence and beauty. Having them be a willing sacrificial pawn to guide a lord’s familiar seemed rather unlikely.
As to how I was able to spy upon their conversations, that was all Ludmila’s doing. She could easily mask her presence in the same room as her targets. Even with my ‘Eyes of Providence’, her form was merely a slight smudge of residual mana, so only those with the sharpest of detection could notice the extra person. In addition, she could make herself appear as a low-leveled town girl or maid by masking her mana trace.
Ludmila had a communication device on her, which allowed me to hear the nearby conversations. Occasionally, she discreetly whispered tidbits to fill in what I couldn’t see. What a capable spy.
With this overpowered combination of speed, stealth, and information collection, I was left with just standby duty somewhere close, in case the culprit tried to escape.
I stifled a yawn as I heard the clinking of mugs at a bar, coupled with the mindless chatter of young men talking about their love lives. They were busy comparing their girlfriends’ best features with those of the most prominent ladies in the kingdom.
“Lucy has such a brain. Though not as great as our Queenie, but she’s got a knack for crafting stuff.”
“Hey, hey, don’t count out Remilia! She rides the wind just about as well as the Valkyrie. You haven’t experienced the euphoria of a gentle, cool breeze welcoming you home after a blistering hot day of work!”
I must’ve involuntarily groaned as Ludmila suddenly whispered to me.
I had no way of knowing, but Ludmila had been standing literally behind one of the guards. Thankfully, the noise of the bar’s atmosphere was enough to drown it out. Despite being able to reach out and touch the closest man, they were oblivious to the hidden girl next to them.
Ten minutes later, the men got up to leave, simply heading back to their own bedrooms in the castle to turn in for the night. I sighed as I made a note that nothing suspicious had occurred for these targets as well.
“Tracking complete,” Ludmila said flatly.
That was the cue that she would stop and return to my position. Sure enough, her form appeared out of thin air not long after. By now, I had grown accustomed to her ninja-like prowess. Barely bothered by it anymore, I simply scanned through the list of targets and my notes.
We had nearly crossed off the entire list in the span of a week. Judging by their movements and actions, the only red flags came from the merchants that occasionally visited, as most of the guards seemed to wear their hearts on their sleeve. While I couldn’t discount any intentional acting on the part of these men, it was far more likely for merchants to display a mask that covered their greed and ambition.
Of the merchants listed, my pen hovered over three names.
A merchant named Greggor worked exclusively for Earl Hohenheim who had been neither a supporter of the crown nor the Valkyrie, choosing to seclude himself from the ordeal altogether. There were suspicions that he had aspired for a higher nobility title, but ultimately, those were just rumors tossed around. The man himself was plenty secretive, his domain being one that bordered the Northern Country. As a result, Greggor also operated discreetly, making his every movement suspicious to begin with.
The next name was Ivanov, also a merchant that worked within the Hohenheim territory. He had happened to visit the castle the day before Katalina noticed the stolen blueprints. Following him when he pitched his goods next, Ludmila and I stumbled across a meeting between Greggor and him. The fact that two merchants from the same region were striking deals in some secluded alley was something that brought instant alarm..
Lastly was Favian, who I had met not long ago. Having profited greatly from the eggplant dishes in his home region, he had gained enough money to start up a delivery service in the capital. Despite his weaselly appearance, he did everything he could to be the textbook merchant. I felt somewhat guilty putting him on the list, especially since he had been doing his best to support the lord-less region that he hailed from. He happened to be at the castle, with carts of eggplant in tow, the same day as Ivanov before setting off to his normal trade route that included the region of Hohenheim.
Thus, all three of them were connected to Earl Hohenheim, who happened to possess a bat-like familiar that was capable of snatching the blueprints and flying back to stash them in someone’s cart..
I sighed as the signs were somewhat obvious. We had to do some more digging into these three, especially on the point of how they coincided with Earl Hohenheim’s intentions. With that, Ludmila and I set off for that domain.
As we approached the gate leading out of the Capital of Faulkner, the familiar form of a merchant, sitting upon his cart, was parked in the exit queue. With a lazy expression on his face, the buck teeth and pursed lips made him easily recognizable. By sheer coincidence, we had bumped into Favian.
“Oi! Making another round of deliveries?” I called out to him.
Perking up and looking side to side, like he had been half-asleep, Favian turned toward us. A look of surprise popped onto his face. He waved, beckoning for us to come over.
“You betcha! These little purple bulbs have been selling like mad ever since your little cooking show, Mr. Chancellor. And I have you to thank for that!” A weaselly smile crept upon his face. Normally, such a smile would make people cringe in caution, but I had grown accustomed to the devilishness of business expressions.
“Well, that’s good to hear. The two of us are making a little trip to the Hohenheim domain. Got an errand to run.”
Favian’s eyes lit up. “Oh really?! Why, I happen to be heading there myself! It’s actually the last stop before I circle back around to Minsk to drop off the traded goods.”
Taking a glance in the bed of his cart, I saw that most of the crates had been crammed full of various supplies and fresh goods. Since it was near the end of his loop, his supply of eggplants had dwindled to the last few bags. As he rolled the cart forward to catch up to the next person in queue, the distinct clinking of wine bottles and jarred preserves echoed from within. Bales of processed rice and wheat, a small pile of magic tools, and some other high-end goods were crammed together to limit shifting around during travel.
At the front of the cart, there was a lack of horses pulling it. That was because Katalina had invented a self-propelling system that ran using mana. The new design had been undeniably useful after many horses were lost in the demon attack.
Perhaps, I had scanned his cart for a bit longer than intended, as Favian mistook it for a different interest.
“Say, did you want to hop a ride with me? Got plenty of space up here on the driver’s perch. The little miss might find the rice sacks a bit more comfortable though…”
I glanced over to Ludmila, who expectedly shrugged and narrowed her eyes. That was her sign that she would leave it up to me.
‘We ARE supposed to keep an eye on him for anything suspicious, right?’
Frankly, if he had been involved in the incident, a bit more caution would have been observed. But here he was, offering us a ride and giving us the chance to prod him for more info. There was no harm in chatting with him, at the very least. It was my chance to do something, rather than letting Ludmila do everything.
“Sure. Not like we are really in any rush. I was just thinking of checking up on how you’ve been anyway.”
“Aw, shucks. Nice of you to worry about me. But I’ve got plenty of this to watch over me.” Favian patted his side, where a bag, fat with coins, was tied to his belt.
Ludmila and I climbed up onto the cart, with me sitting next to Favian and Ludmila plopping herself against the bulging cloth bags. When it came our turn to pass through the gates, the guards paused momentarily, seeing the emblem of the Chancellor pinned on my chest.
“Just ignore that I’m here and continue with your duties.” I smiled at them.
Perhaps it was the pressure of being judged by someone high up, but the guards diligently and thoroughly checked the cart’s contents. I pretended to rest back against the perch, but mentally, I noted the items in his cart.
“…wine, spirits, apothecary goods, parchment, ink, irrigation tools, Light Box, Ice Maker, elemental stones…”
As the guards flatly listed the items and made notes, I turned to Favian.
“Some souvenirs for the folks at home?”
“Ah, you betcha. Already, I’m in charge of delivering many special request items. Especially since I make my rounds through the entire kingdom, there’s always something that someone wants to request.”
Before long, the inspection had wrapped up, and the cart headed off towards Hohenheim. With the kingdom slowly recovering from the turmoil from before, the trading routes had become safe once again. The bandits that used to target the merchants of Faulkner had pretty much packed up and left the business.
That was particularly true of this cart, which bore the seal of the Valkyrie on its side. After all, who would dare to rob a merchant who had ties to Marchioness Faulkner? Aside from the risk of facing her wrath itself, her relationship with the Queen would essentially guarantee a swift and harsh judgment should anyone dare to lay a hand upon her subordinates.
Of course, Favian had been granted such a distinction after I put in a word to Dengel about the eggplant supply in Minsk. Because of that, he had become the representative of that town, carrying the Valkyrie’s seal wherever he went to do business. Though a small cut was taxed from his sales, the seal of quality more than compensated for that, ensuring that Favian’s transactions would rarely be disadvantageous.
Along the way, we made idle chatter, mostly about various opportunities that had popped up and rumors that we heard. Every so often, Favian would stop briefly to fetch the Light Box in the back and capture a picture of the nice scenery around us. At one point, he even turned the device around and snapped a picture of us riding on the cart.
He took a gander at the selfie that popped out, slightly lamenting that our faces spilled over the edges of the picture. A suggestion nearly erupted from my mouth before I clamped a hand over it in haste.
‘C’mon Claude, this world probably DOES NOT need selfie sticks!’
I smacked myself mentally for the close call. It would have to wait until later, after I had plenty of time to question the potential ripple that it could create in society.
“Say, Mr. Chancellor.”
“Claude is fine.”
Favian looked a little uncomfortable with the correction, but he simply continued with his question.
“Have you heard about the rumor going around Hohenheim, by any chance?”
I shook my head, indicating that I hadn’t. Behind me, Ludmila’s eyes narrowed. I could feel a slight shift in the focus of her mana as her attention locked onto Favian’s previous words.
“Well, it seems like the Earl is gathering up a bunch of elemental stones and such, from whoever can sell it to him. Because of that, the price for them has jumped quite a bit.”
“Since when?” I immediately asked.
“About a week or two ago, I suppose. I might be a little late, but I was hoping to cash in on that rumor myself.”
I looked behind me, taking note of the bags of stones. The guard from before had also listed them in Favian’s possession. It didn’t take a lot to piece together the relevance. Katalina’s inventions required magic stones as the core. And if the Earl was suddenly rounding up a supply of them, then the chances were likely that he had acquired the blueprints for them and was building up his armory..
“I see. Then, I guess it’s my duty to check in on him while I’m there.”
I silently thanked Favian for the information, which made this trip already worthwhile. Soon after, he asked me to take a turn at driving, bartering mana expenditure as the fee for the info. I happily obliged, watching him pull out the picture that he snapped before. Grabbing some ink and parchment, he proceeded to trace the scenery that he captured onto another canvas.
While the Light Box could capture the basic outline of the scenery, it was lacking in depth. After all, there was a limit to how much detail could be transferred, so it couldn’t recreate the real thing.
Yet, I could see what Favian was trying to do. Between the occasional glances while driving, I noticed him filling in vivid detail where the Light Box picture was missing.
In barely any time, he was able to recreate the wondrous ambiance of the place we stopped at, adding a bit of his own artistry to it. Aside from it being black and white, it was almost like I was standing before the place again. Despite the rockiness of the ride, nature’s beauty had been jaw-droppingly captured. Who knew that he had such a gift?
After compliments spewed out of my mouth from the sight, Favian sheepishly scratched his head. Then, he moved on to crafting yet another masterpiece, as we coasted through the countryside for some time before reaching the gates of Hohenheim.