Hiromi had never dealt with frustration well. So she paced. It was just something to do with the energy in her body. She had been trying to tell her to calm down, but she couldn't. She had been walking the same path since she had got here. It was better then just sitting around. Didn't help that the whole place was so opulent. Others might have been awed by the lavish surroundings, so lavish that gilded didn't do it justice. And she might have been too, had she not been able to see through that..obtuse, grandiose display of power designed more to intimidate rather than impress. Not that she had been feeling either. Or been worried by the snide looks they had been getting since they arrived. She was used to that, the way they kept looking down on them, yet another sign that they weren't welcome here.
But that was pretty much their relationship with this country. Not really welcome. The Auric States and Crystal Dell had been allies for generations. Or at least not been at war with each other. Didn't make them friends. They didn't really interact beyond necessity. And that wasn't much. Even in trade they didn't deal much. Just another way they had always stood apart, people from her city had never really been trusted her. Or liked. And it was here she had sent Alice, sent her alone. She had....
'Are you going to wear a hole in the carpet.' Natsuki said. 'That won't get us seen any faster you know.'
'And you are just okay with this?' Hitomi said, a little of the stress and frustration she was feeling leaking into her voice.
'Of course I'm not okay with this.' Natsuki said. 'But what are we going to do about it? You know this is how it works.'
'Doesn't make it right.' Hiromi resumed pacing, not having anything better to do with the energy filling her body. 'None of it. This is just them making a point, making us wait. And you know it. We both know it. All because that little...'
'He is the king.' Natsuki said, not showing any sign of which way she meant that. Either that she was chiding her or just stating a fact. Most likely the former, even if she was one of the few who could do the latter.
'Their king.' Hiromi decided to not open that can of worms. 'And barely a week ago he was a prince. Now he is throwing his weight around just because he can.'
'That is the way that a monarchy works.' Natsuki said
'Doesn't give him the right to treat our people like second class citizens. So we have never been the closest of neighbours but..' Hiromi trailed off.
'And you are going to fix that today? And it's not that simple. This is how politics are played. It's annoying, but that's the way it is. He cannot appear to be sympathetic to us.' Natsuki said.
'He could show a little curtesy though.' Hiromi countered.
'Lets do the same. We are being admitted.' Natsuki nodded to where the herald had called their names, hanging back to let Hiromi go first. And not just from difference. Diplomacy had never been her strong point, something she was always content to let her deal with.
Hiromi was no more impressed by the surroundings in the Throne Room than she had been outside it. It was far too opulent for her tastes. Extravagant. Nor by the first sight of this new King. Then again, it wasn't hard to miss him. She fought back a scowl. That amour must have cost him a fortune. And yet, she couldn't help seeing it as an affectation. Forrainne was no match for his father, a pale imitation of the might he had carried with him. Not surprising since he hadn't reached his majority yet. But still, she had her doubts that he could ever reach those heights.
Other details caught her attention too. She couldn't miss the guards around them, lining the long approach. And clearly watching them. Hiromi made no reaction towards them. And Natsuki didn't either. The guards didn't worry her. And even if they did, she wouldn't show it.
'Well, I see that the power of your people is not legend. But I have to ask why you would come here so armed, and so guarded. Some might question your motives for bringing such guards into my palace.'
So, he was talking about Natsuki. Of course he was. But not just that. She knew it would ruffle a few feathers bringing a detachment of Trackers with her. But right now, she just didn't care. She needed them here. And that was enough.
'What reason have we given to make you think we are any threat to you?' Hiromi asked.
'Besides coming here so armed?' The king settled into his throne with slow purpose. 'I can't think why that would worry me.'
'Do we not have a right to protect ourselves? No one can take chances in the world.' Hiromi said evenly.
'And what do you feel you have to protect yourselves from here.' He asked.
Hiromi didn't rise to that bait. 'Your father always had welcome for us. And not with insulting questions. You might find some of his courtesy. For we have no time to trade insults or excuse ourselves for imagined threats.'
'My father is dead. And many of his deeds and policies swept away. But enough of these trifles.' He paused with a haughty stare that didn't affect her at all. 'Tell me why you came here.'
'We seek a colleague of ours.' Hiromi had expected that question and saw no reason to hide her answer either. 'We should have received word two days ago. We haven't.'
'And why do you think she was here?' Forraine asked, his tone almost bored. But she couldn't trust that either.
'Why should I not?' Hiromi continued. 'I trust my subordinate. Which is enough for me.'
'We have had no visitors from your city recently before you arrived. But by all means, search for your friend. I wish you well in finding her.' Forraine replied. But by all means, search for your friend. And I hope you find her.'
'Thank you. For your assistance. And your words. We will take our leave.' Hiromi said, making good on that and striding back along the line of guards. Neither Hiromi or Natsuki spoke until they were outside, Natsuki holding her silence until the palace doors were closed behind her.
'Well, that was interesting. He..' Natsuki began.
'Not here.' Hiromi cut her off. 'Let's find somewhere..louder. Somewhere with a drink. Or two.'
The tavern certainly was noisy, and busy. The low light making it very hard for anyone to spot them. Not that anyone was paying them attention. Hadn't stopped Natsuki from picking the table further from the door yet still being able to see it. Not to mention with her back against the wall.
She could survey the whole room from where she sat. Without seeming too either, to anyone watching it would just seem like she was any other patron, relaxing with an ale in her hand. Just like anyone else here, who came for a change of scenery, to be somewhere different, to live a different life, to experience something new. Which was what this place had been built around, to replicate a travelers tavern from ages past, which is what it had once been. One of the oldest buildings in the city. A touchstone to the past almost. She could see the attraction in that. Letting people get close to a history they couldn't live themselves.
She had to admit, despite all that, she liked this place. The decor. Much more to her liking. But right now she was more interested in the dark walls and the low lighting. And the music around her. All made it very difficult to be overheard. She was sure they just looked like a couple of travellers. How many people like them had this place seen? People not wanting to be observed.
She had other things to think on. She took one slow sip of her ale, looking around her one last time. Making very sure they weren't being observed. Only when she was sure did she speak. 'He wasn't telling us everything.'
'You think?' Hiromi said with a rare smile. 'How did he know we were talking about a woman?'
'Only one way. He must have seen Alice. Or heard word about her.' Natsuki didn't like to think what that meant.'
'I'm sure he did.' Hiromi said grimly.
'So, where do we start?' Natsuki asked, draining her ale.
'That depends on what our trackers found. I think we need to give them a bit longer yet.' Hiromi finished her ale with one last swig. 'Meanwhile, let's try some tracking of our own.'
'We are going to find a spy down here?'
'Not a spy exactly. Not anymore.' Hiromi splashed through the puddles that dripped from the tattered awnings overhead, cutting out almost all of the sun's rays. 'But no one knows more about the secrets in this city.'
'Secrets can be a dangerous thing, for the holders. And the seekers.' Natsuki said without takin her eyes off her surroundings, all too aware of the dark corners and alleys around then. Hiromi could tell she was alert as she was without having to look at her. Descending to this part of the city was risky but it was a risk they both understood.
'Dangers he is well aware of. And always looking out for them.' Hiromi replied.
Seems he missed one.' Natsuki put a hand out to stop her, the other gripping her sword. Hiromi didn't have to look far to see what she had seen. to see the wood strewn over the street like so much kindling. And the twisted hinges that had once held it, bend and warped from the force applied against them. But from within, or without, she couldn't tell. 'Let's hope it missed him. Maybe he wasn't here.'
Hiromi had only half been listening, moving carefully through the ruined door, her eyes already penetrating the gloom. Knowing that Natsuki would be at her side, not trying to talk her out of this. She was always there, protecting her. If only he had had such protection.
'Or maybe he was.' Hiromi whispered, her eyes now picking out the shape in the corner, now barely recognisable for the species he once had been. His head split by one savage blow. At least it would have been quick. 'Someone knew we were coming.'
'Oh, not you. He just knew too much. And we knew someone would come to learn what he knew.'
Natsuki had turned before Hiromi, her sword drawn with a whisper of steel full of silent intent. 'And you mean to do to us what you did to him.' It wasn't a question. But she got a answer anyway.
'Intend? Oh yes. But more than that. I intend to enjoy it too.' His wrapped face, hidden behind cloth and worked steel, couldn't hide the sheer that crossed it. 'Maybe you'll make for some sport yes? Sport for the three of us.'
Hiromi noticed the two other figures that dropped from the roof, rising up to thier full height, no doubt thinking that would intimidate them. Either that or show them they were out numbered. But they didn't know Natsuki. None of them saw her move. Just like the leader, the one fool enough to stand alone, had no time to react. His hand still hanging by his side as her sword slashed out, cleaving his head from his shoulders, his hands to never move again.
He might have been caught by surprise, but the other two had time to react and took it, showing no fear over the death of their leader. If he was their leader. And it wasn't like they could ask him. The clash of swords attracted her attention, her own sword now free from its scabbard. Not that she needed it.
Natsuki was on top of them before they had a chance to take even a step, her sword blocking them both at once, a sweeping strike that echoed with the clang of metal as blades met. Now, they had probably hoped to drive her to the floor with the force of that strike, but Natsuki was ready for that, twisting her weight instantly to let the blades slide helplessly to the floor. Then it was all over. A savage kick to the head sent one of her foes reeling, buying her enough time to run the other through with one clean thrust. He didn't even cry out, his face locked into an expression of surprise for all time.
The second had just about recovered from her kick by the time Natsuki was upon him, moving past her downed foe like anyone else would walk past a stranger in the street. She had to give him credit for trying to defend himself. Hiromi had seen bigger men floored by one of Natsuki's kicks. Not that it did him any good. He did manage to parry her first two strikes before a swift elbow to the nose left him staggering backwards, her sword finishing the job. A clean slash and he crumpled, dropping to the ground like a sack of grain.
'Seems we rattled somebody's cage.' Hiromi tried to keep her voice from shaking. Never mind the face she showed to the world, she always felt shaky after something like this. It's the adrenaline. Even now she can feel it coursing through her body. She had just gotten used to dealing with it.
'Seems that we did.' Natsuki rose from cleaning her sword with a casual ease that was as much of an affectation as hers. 'But whose, that is the question.'
Indeed it was. And a question with no real answers either. Not easy ones anyway. One thing was for sure, this was no chance encounter. 'Yes. But let's not talk about thus here. I think we have attracted enough attention for now.'
Secretly Hiromi was relieved to step back into the sunlight that failed to permeate the rats nest of alleys that stretched for miles around them. And to see the Clynn and his group of Hunters standing before her, grateful that nothing had happened to them. Not that the wolves couldn't take care of themselves. But she had brought them here. And if anything happened to them it would be on her shoulders. She didn't let those worries show as she approached, her mask of command back in place. 'Anything to report?'
'Yes ma'am.' His tone was unreadable, leading her to ask her next question.
'Good news? Or bad news?' She asked, almost dreading the response.
'Can't say exactly ma'am. But it's certainly concrete.'
Hiromi tried not to assume the worst even as her stomach lurched, just about managing to keep her face impassive. 'Show me.'
The walk to outside the city took only five minutes, but to Hiromi it felt like an eternity. Clynn's words, as vague as they might have been, really did nothing to reassure her. Didn't stop her imagining any number of horrible scenarios. Some almost too horrible to think of. But..if they had found her body, they would have brought it back, not brought her to see it. Her mind had been running through that rational loop pretty much non stop, accepting it for barely a second then retuning to worrying again, never seeming to accept the fact that she didn't know what was going on. And should just stop thinking.
'We picked up her trail here.' Clynn had stopped right at the edge of the dirt track that lead up to the cities western gate. At patch of dirt that didn't look any different to the snow covered land around it. And yet, she was sure that what had lead him here was not anything that could be detected visually.
'You have her scent.' Hiromi said softly, guessing that was what he meant by trail. That thought suddenly struck her as funny, that with all the technology at their disposal, the simplest means of tracking someone was still the best. That thought was better than focusing on the icy lump of fear that had dropped into her stomach, as icy a ball as the snow that lay around them. If Alice was out there in this cold waste of snow and ice, then she didn't want to think what that could mean for her..
'We have her scent.' Clynn punctuated that point by taking a deep sniff of the air, obviously registering something she couldn't. 'Not fresh, a few hours old maybe, maybe only an hour.'
'But you know where she went?' Hiromi asked.
'Oh, yes. Out there.' Clynn replied, his paw sweeping over the slopes of the mountain that towered over them, casting the city and them all alike in its shadow. A shadow made all the more ominous by the heavy clouds that hung over it, black and full with the premise of fresh snow.
'Up there?' Hiromi almost whispered to herself. 'Why would she go up there?'
'Can't say ma'am.' Clynn shrugged. 'But if she did, she must have made that choice with no option left. Hiding, running, who is to say. But those would be my guess.'
'Indeed. So let's find her first.' Hiromi said, her voice filled with a confidence she didn't feel. She almost felt numb, purposefully so. She couldn't afford to feel now. The fragile side of her pushed down, replaced by an icy focus. If she gave in, she would be no good to anyone.
'I think someone else might have done that first ma'am.'
Hiromi snapped her head up, flicking her ears around to the new voice before her head had fully turned. One of the Trackers, Dyone if she didn't miss her guess, was kneeling over something in the snow. Even from this distance she could see his fingers sweeping the snow away from whatever lay buried.
Buried. She tried not to think on that. 'What makes you say that?'
'Well, this guy didn't come up here hiking ma'am.' Dyone straightened up as she approached, giving her first glimpse of the body that lay beneath the snow.
She couldn't ignore his analysis. Or dispute it. While nothing in his clothes, or what she could see of them under the fallen snow, marked him out as different, something about him screamed soldier. He had certainly died a soldiers death, the stab wound to his neck obvious to see. And now that she was closer, she could see the almost crimson snow that lay around. The pure white powder having absorbed most of the liquid, the bright red turned to a pale pink.
'So, you think someone found her, she killed him and..then what?' Hiromi asked, her mask of detachment wavering a little. So much that she had to take a deep breath to reassert it.
'I think she was wounded herself ma'am.' Dyone pointed behind her. 'Look.'
Hiromi didn't have to look far to see what he saw. Blood. Another pool having seeped into the snow, yet a few feet away from the corpse. And still fresh. Her heart stilled despite her control. They couldn't have lost her now, not after coming so close.
'It's hers.' Hiromi had missed Dyone bending, running his fingers through the blood and taking a deep sniff.
'So, what happened here?' Hiromi asked, fighting to stay focused with all her will, to ignore the panic clawing at her mind. 'What did she do?'
'What would you do ma'am? Hurt and hunted?' Clynn didn't look up, his inscrutable gaze still locked on the snow, divining who knows what from it.
She tried to follow his thoughts. 'Well, I'd hide.' She didn't like to think of Alice hiding, curled up in this snowy field and slowly freezing to death. If she hadn't bled out first. She screwed her eyes shut, willing that image away. It took a few minutes before she opened her eyes again.
'Exactly.' Clynn hadn't taken his eyes off her yet not said anything. Calmly waiting for her to regain her composure. Obviously seeing how hard this was for her, respect for a officer who was having a hard time dealing with this. She respected that. And was thankful for it. 'And I think she did. See, over there.'
Hiromi didn't need his senses to see what he pointed at; a fresh trail of blood vivid against the White snow. A trail leading towards a small gully. Before even Natsuki could stop her, Hiromi half ran, half scrambled towards it. Slipping and stumbling until she stood just before the edge of the small gully, dreading what she might see inside.
And it was a good thing she had stopped short. Stopped short to find herself facing the point of a throwing knife, the paws that held it shaking like a leaf in a hurricane. Well, one paw. The other clutched to the owners side. Alice's side. Hiromi's gaze could only stay on Alice's face for a second, her eyes instantly drawn to the blood that pooled around her, having already soaked the wad of cloth she had used to try and staunch the wound as much as her uniform. She wasn't even sure if she could see her for a second. Turned out she was wrong though.
'Sure....took you...long enough.' Alice growled weakly, her arm dropping to her side, the blade digging itself into the snow with a soft 'shht.' Hiromi moved before Alice did, catching her as she fell sideways, her body limp and icy cold in her arms.
Alice hadn't said anything else as they hurried her back to the airship, Clynn scooping her up in his arms as if she weighed nothing. Hiromi felt drained now, all her adrenaline draining away. She had nothing to do with it anyway. She felt cut off, adrift. Helpless. Just standing back as Ryokan and his team worked on Alice, administering what little first aid they could here. Painkillers, bandages, fluids. And blankets. Hyperthermia could be as much of a killer as her wounds right now.
Hiromi wasn't really noticing much of anything. Not the sounds of the engines, the sway of the ship, even Natsuki's paw on her shoulder, the cheetah trying to silently offer as much comfort as she could. It wasn't as if she could think of anything to say that would make things better. She wanted to talk to her but she couldn't right now.
All she could think about what the small case that Alice had pressed into her paw before she passed out, the metal still cool despite the heated environment of the airship. She tried to think of it as a victory. But right now she wasn't sure it was worth the price.
Which just left her with a lot of questions. Questions that would have to wait until they landed. Whatever those questions were, whatever the answers, this was going to be the longest flight she had ever taken.