The Knights of Aevis
The knights' encampment to the east of Kalsath was a semi-permanent construction: Some walls surrounding a barracks, training yard, mess hall, and so on. The front was facing the city, secured by a metal gate which was usually open; in the back were the tallest, most solid walls. The knight standing guard in front of the gate was a fair-skinned Perron man with a short, upward-curled tail and floppy ears hanging over his hair, all of which shared the same pattern of dark brown with bright spots of varying sizes all across it. His dark red eyes watched the mismatched pair approach with some obvious suspicion, and he kept a tight grip on a spear in his left hand, its base barely touching the ground while the tip pointed up to the sky. Eventually, once they were only a few yards off and it was clear they meant to approach, he called out "Who goes there?" in a voice loud enough for them to have heard before leaving the town's walls.
The werewolf stopped, crossing her arms. He was taller than her, but only just. "New blood? Tell Captain Estavan Varga's here," she said.
"Hmph! As if some mangy mutt and—what, a rodent vagabond?—have some business with the Captain," he said. "Leave now and spare yourselves embarrassment." To emphasize his point, he lifted the spear slightly and tapped it on the ground a couple of times.
"He hears you talking like that and you'll be the one embarrassed," she said. "'A knight respects all, suspects none, and strikes out only when struck'. You actually try to use that thing and I'll have every right to defend myself."
"So you can recite a snippet of the code," he said, rolling his eyes. "Surely you know better than to threaten a knight of Aevis."
"I'm informing you of my rights, is all. I don't think I've much to fear, either—holding your arm out like that all day will leave it too stiff to wield a dagger well, much less that spear."
The knight growled. "I won't be provoked! Leave or I'll raise the alarm."
"Raise it then," Varga said, waving a hand out toward him. "Long as the Captain comes, I don't much care."
"There is a problem?" A high, male voice came from behind the knight, bearing a distinct Friedish accent. At once he half-turned back, saluting with his free hand, to the voice's owner—a somewhat shorter Perron with raised, rounded ears and distinctly bright-blue hair and fur, wearing what appeared to be ordinary noble dress, with a sheathed sword hanging from his left hip.
"Captain! These two—"
"Ah! 'Allo, ma cherie!" The captain's face lit up immediately when he noticed Varga, and he briskly walked up to the visitors. "It has been too long. How have you been?"
"Still breathing," Varga replied flatly, placing her hands neatly into her trenchcoat pockets.
"Hahah! Indeed, as one can hope. And who is this?" he added, turning toward the short Lagomai girl with her.
"This is Alice. She found her brother in an alley this morning, run through by a sword with this hilt." She drew out the notebook as she spoke and pointed the page Alice had drawn on his way. The effect was immediate, the knight letting loose a short stream of what were probably Friedish curses under his breath. This appeared to help him compose himself, as he quickly straightened up again, his expression severe. "Please. Come inside, and we will speak more of this."
While leading them through the gate, he took a second to face the guard. "Sarcas! Lean that spear against a wall instead of brandishing it at the citizens as though they were at war with you."
"Sir!" The guard saluted, and sheepishly shuffled over to do as he was ordered.
"Ah, forgive this rudeness," the Captain said toward Alice. "Just shipped here from the capital last month. Such things they fill squires' heads with about the borderlands."
"I'm used to it," Alice said after a second.
"Hm. That is even worse." He sighed audibly.
"Yes!" he said a bit louder, drawing himself up again. "Not to waste any time, allow me to introduce myself. I am Estavan Delacroix, Captain of the knights guarding Kalsath."
"Alice," she answered—although he'd already heard that.
"Would that our meeting were under more pleasant circumstances," he said, giving a slight, flourishing almost-bow toward her mid-walk. "Now: Has this been reported to the guard?"
"They know," Alice said.
"If you haven't heard from them by now, I imagine they're still busy cleaning the blood off it," the detective added. "Thought it'd be better to look into it myself."
"Indeed," he nodded seriously. "Let us see who is missing their weapon now, shall we?"
By now they had more or less reached the center of the camp; here was the tallest building in it, which had stairs leading up to its front door. Standing near it was another Perron knight, a woman with short blond hair and fur, stubby ears and a tail too short to be seen from the front, wearing full plate armor minus the helmet and a sword sheathed at her side. Sir Delacroix turned to her. "Lieutenant."
"Sir." She stood slightly straighter—if it were possible—keeping her hands to her sides.
"Call for a brief inspection. All who wield the sword. Bring any stragglers yourself."
"Right away." She nodded curtly, stepping away to get to work with her arms still rigidly at her sides.
"I have tried many times to instruct the guard here on proper investigation," Sir Estavan said. "They will not hear of it. Out of our jurisdiction, they say. Nobles—real nobles, they say—pay their wages, so it is none of the knights' business how they keep order in Kalsath. Well, this—this is our business, and it will be seen to properly. If there is an attempt to deceive me in delivering that sword, I will have words with those 'real' nobles." Varga looked Alice's way and nodded slightly; she wasn't exactly sure what to make of it. Agreement? Assurance? At any rate, this was much more effort already than she'd expected anyone closely associated with Aevis to make.
While they assembled—fairly efficiently at that, although there were clearly a few stragglers—the Captain turned Varga's way. "You have never had a chance to meet my knights, no? It would be good for a stranger to ask questions in this case." She nodded and walked over to the knights, making a sort of tour around them and casually glancing at each—sizing them up, determining whether or not they had a sword on them.
In all there were ten to fifteen who wielded swords; most were wearing them. From his own perch at the top of the steps, just in front of the door to the central building, Sir Estavan could tell whose were missing. "A matter most grave has come to my attention," he said. "You will note two guests present in this camp. Answer their questions as if they are mine.
"Reese! Hector!" A dark-skinned Ketshi man with black fur in what appeared to be casual commoner's clothes and a satyr with light brown hair and fur, his hair and beard unusually well-trimmed and his fuzzy legs covered over with leather armor, stepped forward. "Where are your swords?" the Captain demanded.
The former appeared surprised, patting both his sides. "Aah, I thought I just had it. Must've left it in my quarters," he said.
"The forge, sir," the satyr replied afterward.
"Go and get them, bring them back to me. Tell me immediately if they are missing," he said. "The rest of you are dismissed, for now." As the crowd dispersed, Reese headed for the barracks and Hector toward a small forge the camp had, Varga headed off to follow the former. Uncertain what else to do, Alice stayed where she was.
Sir Estavan's voice surprised her, making her jump a bit, as he came up next to her again. "Rest assured, we will get to the bottom of this, and soon."
Alice looked at him, then at Varga, then back his way again. "...How do you know her?"
"Ah, it is surprising, no? Indeed, I can tell you Miss Varga is far more honorable than most of her kind," he said. "My first encounter of her was as a member of the grand jury for the trial of the so-called 'Wild Corps'. You have, heard of this?"
"Hmm. A heavy thing," Sir Estavan said, nodding solemnly, "perhaps the details too much for young ears. But suffice it to say that her testimony helped put away many villains most foul. It was all the more difficult to give when these had once been her comrades in arms. How did you come to know of her?"
"..I think she killed my parents during the occupation," Alice stated bluntly. "My brother was sure of it."
"..I see. My deepest sorrow for that," he said. "Had you seen what I did that day, it would be easier to understand. When surrounded by corruption so powerful, even doing a little good is most difficult. Rest assured, at least, that those who pressed her into such actions received due punishment." She had the feeling Varga wouldn't exactly agree with his description of events.
"Anyway—" he took a quick breath. "When the trial was over, I approached her and introduced myself, expressing my gratitude for such an honorable act and offering my help, should it be needed. This it was, more than either of us could know at the time. The terms of her release included half a year's probation, throughout which no crime must be committed, you see. Many attempts in that window, spurious all, were made to associate her with acts of violence and theft. The guard occasionally would fail to investigate properly these crimes, and it fell to me to show them that which was obvious. I regret that we were unable to identify the reason, but these ended with the probation." He sighed and shook his head. "I had thought the guard may have learned their lesson as well, but it seems they never will."
"You're the first person I've heard suggest anyone like me or my brother deserves justice," she said.
"All people have Aevistella's love," Sir Estavan said. "His Eminence is..aah...poor at expressing this, and many are led astray. If a lasting peace is ever to be made without threat from another party, this seeing of others as 'other' must end."
The Lagomai shook her head slowly. "Speaking of that...what are you doing working for Aevis?"
"My accent? Yes, I was born to Friedan, and hold some love for the coalition yet. But I believe the teachings of Aevistella with all my heart, and I am willing to put up with more than a few small minds to serve my goddess."
As Varga approached the Ketshi, another knight ran up next to him a bit quicker. She was fairly tall, very curvy, with bright red shoulder-length hair, tall spiky ears, and an especially thick tail, and wore light, loose-fitting clothes; some might have mistaken her for a Perron, but the detective knew a Kitsune when she saw one. "Foolish cat, I do believe your carelessness has made you a suspect," she said, placing a hand on his shoulder and pointing at the approaching werewolf. Reese turned to look and stopped, letting Varga catch up to them.
"Well, I'm always asking for more excitement," he replied. "Reese Kazte," he added, offering out a hand.
Varga looked at it for a second before taking it and giving a brief shake. "Varga. You know a Rion?"
"Hmm, I do believe I've got a half-sibling by that name. We're not very close, being almost a century apart in birth."
"This one's in his second life," the Kitsune interjected. "Thought it'd be fun to be 'honorable' after playing the wildcat with his first youth."
The werewolf turned slightly toward her. "You are?"
"Ah, yes, Yvonne Isugal," she said with a slightly motion of her legs vaguely resembling a curtsy. "Main healer for our little outfit. I'm going to be generous and assume the Captain's instructions about you extend to me, also."
"Really. How many tails you have?"
"A lady never tells," Yvonne replied. "Ooh, alright—more than two."
"How'd you two meet?"
"Assigned to this very unit near the start of the war. Sir Estavan has an unstainable reputation among the knights, you know," Reese said. "Gets all the oddballs like us, because he knows how to use us effectively. We made quick friends; you know the saying: 'A cat must live nine lives to ascend, and a fox a thousand years'."
"You do seem a little out of place yourself," the Kitsune commented. "No wonder he likes you. Hasn't he extended an offer to join?"
"Few times," Varga replied. "Told him I might as well be cursed to burst into flames if I wear another uniform."
"Hahah! That'd be a great one to try someday," Yvonne said. "Once I tire of being a knight, I mean. Harmless fire, of course; I'm no loathsome Gumiho."
"Not to cut this short, but I do have orders," Reese said. "Surely it'll clear my name if my blade's where I say it is, eh?"
"Go on and look for it," Varga said, waving. She took a moment to produce her notebook and start writing in it. At the same time she said, "You'd know if someone were injured last night?"
"If they needed healing, I would. But alas, nobody's come to me for that at all today. If this 'missing sword' business doesn't pan out, I'd be happy to do some surprise checkups for you," she said.
The detective's eyes flicked up off her notes to give the Kitsune a brief glance. "You plan on warning every suspect?"
"Reese is a friend," she said matter-of-factly. "Come now, you know knights of all people wouldn't keep me around if I weren't trustworthy. The only scheme I'm running right now is innocently hinting about pranks I could do but never have, just to keep the straight-laced ones on their toes. And the longer I do nothing, the more it scares the newbies! You should see Sarcas's face around me," she said with a delighted chuckle.
Varga put away her notes again, exhaling a small sigh; this sort was nicer than demons, but just as tiresome to talk to sometimes. "I'll keep your offer in mind. If his sword is missing, though, I'm sure you had an opportunity to take it."
"Pffsh. Reese's room is a perpetual mess. I'd not step inside if his sword weren't on him for fear it would cut my feet through my shoes," she said. "And we're not that kind of friends, either. But, do keep me in mind. I despise murder as much as the next person." With that, Yvonne floated off in another direction, finding another target to pester.
Alice thought of something. "Would there be any record of who was out of the camp last night?"
"Of course. However, it is not uncommon for many to be," the Captain said. "The knights are trusted much more than common soldiers, and while we are prepared for an attack, this is meant to be a time of peace. Some even live in Kalsath proper, such as Lieutenant Rothgar, with her teenage son. His father was lost to them in the war, you see. Ah, at any rate, no less than half of those who wield the blade were away last night, Sir Reese and Sir Hector among them."
Sir Estavan turned his head forward, and looking that way, the Lagomai found Varga approaching them. "Done already?" he asked.
"Thought one of you'd go after Hector."
"Ah, well, I must oversee things here," the Captain said, sounding slightly embarrassed. "But he is not going anywhere, so there is not too much the hurry."
"Anyway, just thought of something." Then, toward Alice: "Where's his sword? You take it?"
It took her a moment to catch up to who Varga meant. "..No. It was, he had it the last time I saw him..alive."
"What about when he wasn't?"
She thought about it, squinting slightly and 'seeing' the image in her head again. "It..his sheath was still there, but the hilt wasn't in it. Someone took it," she realized aloud.
"Right," the werewolf nodded, pulling out her notebook and scribbling in it briefly. "It's a good blade, could've been a looter, but then why leave the sheath behind? Maybe our killer isn't missing a sword after all."
This conversation was interrupted by some loud galloping as the satyr knight returned quickly to his captain. "Sir!" He stopped just inside shouting distance, saluting.
"My weapon is missing. I left it on the rack for the smith to work on early this morning, but he says he hasn't seen it."
"What, exactly, was its condition?" Sir Delacroix asked.
"Some nicks here and there. Dull point. I'd know it if I saw it."
"Hm. come here and wait. Severa!" The Captain looked around.
"Sir." The armor-clad knight from before—the Lieutenant—came up around the building behind him.
"Order the knights who wield the swords to present their blades to Sir Hector. If he reports one of them to have his sword, bring them to me."
"Right away, sir." She started off.
"And not to leave myself out," he said, drawing his blade and holding it vertically where the two camp guests could see it. "My blade. Unblemished, sharp tip."
"Gold on the guard," Varga pointed out.
"Ah—right you are." He nodded, sheathing it again with a slight, seemingly unconscious flourish. "We should also discover whether anyone else was near the forge. Come, please."
The three of them started off past where Hector had been, while the Lieutenant took the satyr over to a more open part of the camp, barking orders out to the knights again to gather up. About halfway there, Yvonne came up next to them. "Pardon me, sir. Reese found his sword, but he's been detained by Severa."
"Thank you, Isugal," he nodded.
"If you'll excuse my presumption, I also picked up a little of your conversation earlier. I believe her son's been in the camp this morning; if I'm not mistaken, he was also hanging around the forge a short while after sunrise."
"Oh?" the Captain held up a hand, stopping; the others did the same. "And where would he be now?"
"I don't imagine far. No school today, after all."
At this point, another Perron knight, a short woman with dark red hair, ran up to them. "Captain!"
"Sarcas sent me," she said, saluting. "Man from the town guard's at the gate, says he has something to deliver."
Sir Estavan's expression darkened. "...Right. Dimissed. I must see to this," he said to Varga, starting off that way.
"I'll go double check with the blacksmith. You look for the kid," the werewolf said. "If you don't mind. Probably has some resemblance to his mother."
"Yeah, okay," Alice nodded. It was a little uncomfortable taking orders from her, but it was better than standing around wondering what to do.