Rodrick had been right when he had said that this inn had comfortable rooms. It was nowhere near as big as the room she had been in just that morning, but the bed was the softest thing she had ever had the privilege of sitting on and she couldn’t stop herself from running her hands up and down the fresh linens. She was sharing a room with Asha this time around, while Rodrick and Logan had a room further down the hallway.
Rena got up from her bed and wandered across the room, taking in the abundance of decoration the innkeepers had plastered all over the walls and furniture. Whoever was responsible for these rooms seemed to be extremely fond of marbled ducks and red carnations. On the singular nightstand between the beds there was a bouquet of the flowers although Rena had already touched it and figured out that they weren’t real flowers and made of tissue instead. Surrounding the flower pot were figurines of the ducks, in various sizes and shapes, ordered in a circle from biggest to smallest, leaving almost no room for anything else on the nightstand.
While Asha was unlacing her arm guards, Rena walked over to the window. From her standpoint on the fourth floor she could see over most of the city, although she could only really see the houses surrounding them, anything beyond that were just spots of dim light in the darkness. She opened the window and leaned out, looking over to her right to see the lights outlining the shape of the fortress.
“Careful with that,” Asha warned her, unlacing the front of her tunic and sliding out of it.
Rodrick had given them all simple cotton robes of his so they wouldn’t have to sleep in their dirty clothes. Asha slid hers on and its formlessness looked, quite frankly, ridiculous on her, the fabric tight around her upper arms while the chest and skirt were loose and too short.
Rena turned around to lean against the windowsill, observing as Asha rolled her shoulders and moved her arms, frowning at the straining fabric.
“I’m sorry we had to drag you into this,” Rena told her.
[Asha] “I’m using you just as much as you’re using me to get into the archives. There’s nothing to apologize for.”
[Rena] “Still, I’m sure you had other things planned for this week.”
[Asha] “You don’t have to worry about how I plan my time. If you worry about everyone else’s decisions all the time you won’t get anywhere in life.”
Rena nodded, unsure how to respond to that. She had simply wanted to be polite, she hadn’t expected Asha to dismiss her like this.
“Your uncle mentioned you were from the Grey Isles, right?” she tried again, hoping that this at least could lead them towards a normal conversation.
Asha folded her clothes together on the bed before walking over to one of the two chairs standing against the wall on the opposite side of the room and laying them down in a neat pile. Rena started to get nervous when Asha didn’t reply.
“How did you arrive here?” she continued, desperate to fill the silence in the room with something. “You mentioned something about a takeover earlier, has it something to do with that? I’m sorry if I sound ignorant but I didn’t hear anything about such events before.”
Asha took in a long breath and sighed.
[Asha] “We don’t have to talk about this. You can concentrate on what you want to get out of the archives, and I will concentrate on what I want to get out of them. There is no reason for us to discuss our backstories.”
Rena pressed her lips together and looked down at the ground, feeling the heat rise in her cheeks. She had already sensed that Asha was not the most talkative person, but she hadn’t expected her to outright rebuff her like this.
[Rena] “I’m sorry if I offended you.”
Her fingers dug deeper into the wood of the window frame, expecting Asha to put her in her place again but the room remained silent.
After a while Rena dared look up and saw that Asha was standing next to the chair, staring at her. Rena’s breath caught in her throat when their eyes met, a cold shudder running down her back.
“We should go to sleep,” Asha finally said, turning away from Rena and leaving her in utter confusion.
Rena didn’t know what Asha’s look had meant, if it had been a confirmation that Rena had in fact offended her, if Asha had wanted to tell her something but thought better of it, or if it had meant something completely different. The cold night air creeping in from the open window finally made her stand up and close the window behind her. She silently walked over to her own bed and picked up the robe Rodrick had given her, slipping out of her own dress.
“If we split up, we can cover more ground,” Logan suggested as they sat around a table in the inn’s tavern, enjoying the freshly made potato omelettes the innkeeper had just brought them.
“I don’t think we should wander around the city on our own,” Rodrick replied, darting a quick glance towards Rena.
[Logan] “Ok, but we can still split up. You two go check out the archives and me and Rena here go talk to the people in town. And then no one’s in danger of getting lost.”
He winked dramatically at Rena and the discussion instantly made her feel like she was six years old again and her parents were discussing whether she was allowed to go to her friend’s house at the other end of the town by herself or not.
“I can look after myself,” she replied and shoved some of the omelette into her mouth.
“I agree with this plan,” Asha said, having already finished the bowl of food in front of her. “It would just be a waste of time if we all stayed together. Splitting the tasks up can ensure that both get the needed attention. We should meet up again here for lunch to discuss what we have found.” She got up and looked straight at Rodrick. “We should leave now before we waste too much time doing nothing.”
Rodrick’s eyes widened in surprise as she simply walked out of the room and he had to gulp down the rest of his food before following her out the door, almost forgetting to make sure that the dog was following him.
“Always so eager,” Logan muttered into his mug, his eyes still fixed on the door the others had left through.
Rena kept her head down, bringing smaller and smaller pieces of food to her mouth so she wouldn’t run out and have to find something else to look busy with. She would have preferred it if she could have gone with Rodrick, at least she felt somewhat safe with him. Logan looked like he could get her into a lot of trouble and she didn’t know what she should think of Asha and her cold disposition. She dared to glance over at Logan but he seemed lost in thought, his eyes staring into the middle distance while he was absent mindedly biting at his bottom lip. Suddenly he perked up and turned to her.
“Ok so I think we should ask around with older people or at least those that have been here for a long time, because they are the most likely to have heard about the fires. Maybe try to find someone that’s from around where the villages burned down or has family there. Do you know where these other fires were?” He looked at her expectantly and she simply shook her head. “Yeah, me neither. So, we’ll have to start at the very beginning and figure out if anyone has heard of anything like that at all. Maybe ask some people who come into contact with a lot of folks or who wander around a lot. We can start here and then go to some other taverns, maybe some messengers, merchants if we’re lucky, but we also don’t have all day so we should concentrate on those who are more likely to know something.”
Before she could answer he had already stretched his arm out and was calling over the innkeeper. She was a stout woman with wrinkles and freckles covering her tan skin. As she walked over to them she wiped her hands off on her apron.
“What can I get you guys?” she asked when she came up to them, picking up Asha and Rodrick’s empty bowls.
“Hi, we’d love some more of your fantastic omelette,” Logan told her with a wide smile although Rena definitely wasn’t hungry enough for a second bowl. “I didn’t know they had such delicious traditions in the south, I definitely have to remember your establishment when we travel through these parts of the kingdom again. Also, I was wondering if you could help us out with something. Me and my friend here are apprentices to the great Master scribe Daelavic and we are on tour of the kingdom examining the humble heritages of our dear members of the royal council and their consorts, as our Master is working on an extensive history of our beloved country. Well, I don’t want to bother you too much with the details, I’m sure you are too busy for my ramblings, but as our Master has an audience with the administrator today he has asked us to investigate some other matter for him. Our research into the family history of Queen Harion has led us to these parts of your lovely province but we have hit a bit of a wall in our investigation. We know that her ancestors lived in a small town around here and that apparently some of her extended family still lived here up to a few years ago, however we don’t know the exact name of the town, we just know that it probably doesn’t exist anymore. Maybe due to ransacking or a fire or something of such sorts. I was wondering if you had heard about anything in that direction before, any towns that were destroyed in recent years? Although, when I say recent years this might have even been ten to twenty years ago. You can imagine how it is to operate on a scale of hundreds of years for your research.”
[Innkeeper] “Hmm, I’m not sure, don’t think I’ve heard of any villages just disappearing like that.”
[Logan] “Not even rumours or whispers.”
[Innkeeper, chuckle] “No, I’m pretty sure I would have heard about something major like that.”
[Logan] “Alright, thanks a lot, I guess we’ll just have to keep asking around then. It’s probably a dead end for our research anyway. Don’t tell our Master this, but in my opinion, there are more interesting stories to investigate than just having a list of family trees for all the royals.”
[Innkeeper] “Don’t disregard our small part of the kingdom. We’re more interesting than you Northerners could ever imagine.”
[Logan] “Oh no, I wouldn’t dream of it. I didn’t mean to imply that nothing ever happens here. How this whole city came to be, for example, is fascinating.” He waved his hand around vaguely.
She raised an eyebrow while holding the bowls in one hand and picking up the empty mugs with the other.
[Innkeeper] “I’ll bring you your food right away.”
“You didn’t have to lie to her,” Rena mumbled as the innkeeper walked away from their table.
“It’s always better to lie at first,” Logan answered, intertwining his hands and placing them in front of his mouth so that only Rena could see his face. “You can always apologise for lying later. You can’t make someone who wasn’t supposed to know the truth just forget about it.”
[Rena] “It’s still rude to lie to someone without a good reason, and I don’t think we have any reason to lie to these people. What would they even do with that information?”
He shrugged and looked away for a second.
[Logan] “They could rat us out.”
[Rena] “Why would they.”
[Logan] “Money. Favours. Information. Spite. The list goes on and on.”
She rolled her eyes and sighed.
[Rena] “I don’t know why you guys all think that the guards are going to throw us into prison just for wondering what happened to these villages. I’ve got a right to know what happened to my family.”
[Logan] “Yeah, sure, if the universe was fair they’d let you find out what happened and have closure, but that’s not how things work, and if something’s actually amiss here they won’t like it if you’re poking around.”
Rena looked away, her eyes drifting over the other people in the room enjoying their breakfast. She still believed that if they would just try to ask the guards for help, they certainly would help them, or at least leave them alone if they couldn’t help, but the others were so obsessed with thinking that even consider talking to the guards would mean doom for them. Before she could reply the innkeeper had come over again and placed two bowls of food in front of them.
“Thank you kindly,” Logan answered, his demeanor shifting instantly to the charming scholar he had played before.
Rena looked down at the steaming potato omelette in front of her and wondered how she was supposed to eat another bite of this, no matter how delicious it was.
“I just remembered,” the innkeeper said, frowning down at the table as if in thought. “When I was little I lived in a town east of here, North of Hollowtooth. There’s a bunch of small towns scattered across the land there near the border and since no one ever cared enough to put them on maps we had these signposts on the road that told people in which direction all of those towns were. This was about thirty, fourty years ago. I haven’t lived there in a long time. But I remember that over a year ago I went to visit my cousin because she was sick and I noticed that they had redone these signposts. Don’t ask me why or who is even responsible for these posts, but I remember that one of the names was missing. I kind of remembered it from my childhood because it was something silly. Miller’s Knee or Farmer’s Heel or something like that. It definitely had something to do with a body part. When I saw that it was missing I didn’t think much of it though. Some of these towns only have five people left living there, the town might have just died out. I just thought that if someone can find out what happened to it then it’s you folks.”
[Logan] “Thank you so much. That is great information. Definitely something to look into. If you don’t mind me asking, where are you from? So we could potentially go there and try to find our way to this missing town.”
[Innkeeper] “I’m from Dessta. You won’t find it on a map, but if you go up from Hollowtooth and follow the small roads you’ll stumble upon some signposts leading you to the town. Good luck finding a town that isn’t marked anywhere though.”
She knocked on the table twice and nodded to them before turning around and getting back to her work.
Logan rested his chin on his intertwined hands and looked over at Rena with a smirk, raising his eyebrows twice.
[Logan, whispering] “Told you it would work.”
[Rena] “I’m not exactly sure how this information is supposed to help us though.”
[Logan] “If we find out who is responsible for remaking those signposts we might find out why they had to be redone. And also, now we can go around asking more specific questions about this mysterious town that is suddenly missing. Maybe find a wandering merchant who goes to these small towns and see if they noticed anything about the signposts or the town.”
Logan started eating again while Rena warily eyed her bowl, dividing the omelette into tiny pieces before hesitantly bringing one to her mouth.
[Logan] “I think I saw the caravan of a merchant on the outskirts when we were coming into the town yesterday. We could try our luck there, hope they’re still nearby. Even if they don’t know anything, they can probably send us to someone who knows more.”
It took them at least two hours of being sent from one wandering merchant to the next to find someone who had operated in that part of the province before. They landed in the shop of an old cheesemaker who used to wander from town to town to collect milk from the goat and sheep farmers. She hadn’t been on such a tour for a few years, so she couldn’t comment on the new signposts, but she did remember there being a small town called miller’s knee. She hadn’t gone there often, especially not in the last decade since the only goat farmer in town retired, so she didn’t personally know what had happened to it, but after pressing her a bit on the subject, she seemed to remember that one of her contacts mentioned that something happened to the town. She couldn’t exactly remember what though. Something about a plague destroying all crops or a fire spreading from haystack to haystack one dry summer. Something that would have led the remaining inhabitants to leave their homes behind and move to a safer place.
[Rena] “So someone survived?”
[Cheesemaker] “Well I hope so. Wouldn’t that be a tragedy if everyone had just died. I’m sure they must have gone to live with their families somewhere.”
[Logan] “But you don’t know that for certain?”
[Cheesemaker] “No of course not, I didn’t know these people personally, I’m definitely not keeping up with their lives.”
[Rena] “But maybe you’ve heard about one of them relocating?”
[Cheesemaker] “I don’t think so, but also I don’t think that’s information I would remember. I come across so many people on a daily basis, I can’t keep track of all of their names or faces.”
[Logan] “The person who told you about this, do they live around here?”
[Ding of a bell]
[Cheesemaker] “No, no, he lives on the other side of the province now. Said he wanted to be as far away from this shithole town as possible. Now either buy something or let me get back to work.”
They tried one more spot on their way back. A message delivery service that advertised itself as servicing even the tiniest corners of the province. When they came in there were three people in the room, an older woman dictating a message to a younger woman to their left, and a guy who looked a bit older than Logan and who was sitting behind a table rifling through some papers to their right. Logan strode right up to the guy to their right, putting on the same bright smile he had used on all the other people on their journey.
[Logan] “Hi, my wife has sent me here to send a message to her great-aunt. She lives in a small town west of here near the border, but it’s so tiny I’m not even sure your service would deliver a message to it.”
“Which town?” the man said, barely looking up from his papers.
[Logan] “Miller’s knee. I believe it should be somewhere around Dessta.”
[Runner] “Yeah, that town doesn’t exist anymore. They tore it down about two years ago. Well, they tore down what was left of it.”
[Rena] “They tore it down?”
[Runner] “Yeah, yeah. Retrieved all the material that was still useful to build something else. They do that sometimes if the stuff isn’t needed anymore.”
[Logan] “So do you know what happened? Why did they tear it down?”
The man shrugged, rummaging through his pile of papers.
[Runner] “People got old, famine, sickness, a flood. Who knows.”
[Logan] “What happened to the people who lived there?”
[Runner] *sigh* “I don’t know, you’d have to ask the guards about that. I don’t keep track of every tiny town that suddenly disappears around here. Do you know how many of those there are? People don’t want to live in a town where they know the name and entire family tree of everyone else who lives there. They want to live in cities where there’s actually something going on. Same reason why you are here and why I am here. I bet you didn’t want to take over your great-grandfather’s goat farm either. Also, shouldn’t you be the one who knows what happened to their own family members?”
[Logan] *nervous chuckle* “Well, it’s on my wife’s side, so I definitely wouldn’t know. They’re a complicated family, a lot of fighting and arguing, you get me. I don’t think my wife has talked to her great-aunt in almost a decade, but we’re expecting our first child so she wants to get all the family back together.”
The man looked over at Rena and mumbled his congratulations. Appalled, Rena only just now realised that this situation must look like she was Logan’s wife. Didn’t she look way too young to be married and a soon-to-be mother? Reflexively, she violently shook her head to deny the allegations, too stunned to say anything.
[Logan] “Oh, no, no, this is my sister. My wife’s at home in her bed, she definitely shouldn’t be walking around anymore with the baby coming any day now. No, no, we’ve just been promoted to her errand boys for the time being.”
“I’ve got another question,” Rena blurted out, desperate to change the subject.
[Rena] “Have you delivered any messages to the South lately, around Mattak or Halvint?”
[Runner] “Not me but one of the other guys was there recently.”
[Rena] “Did they pass through a town named Oceansthrow? Did they say anything about it?”
[Runner] “Hmm, no I don’t think he mentioned anything about that town.”
[Rena] “Is he here? Would it be possible to talk to him?”
[Runner] “He’s out on business.”
“Thank you so much for your time,” Logan said before Rena had the opportunity to say anything more.
He grabbed her by the elbow and gently tugged at it, turning them around to walk out of the building.
“That was risky,” Logan whispered into her ear when they had exited the shop.
“I had to ask,” she hissed back and pulled her arm out of his grip.
[Logan] “Sure, but you could have been a bit more subtle about it.”
[Rena] “I’m not a professional liar like you. I can’t just come up with another random reason why I would be asking about the town in an instant.”
[Logan] *sigh* “Fine. So, if the other guy didn’t mention anything about the town, then it means the news hasn’t gotten out yet. And he didn’t seem to even recognise the name. If anyone had heard about what happened around there then it would be these guys.”
Rena frowned down at the ground as they kept walking to their inn. It had almost been two days since the fire, did news really travel this slow? She supposed it could be possible. That since she hadn’t notified the authorities about it, that no one else had bothered to do it either. That the people in Halvint had decided to deal with the situation on their own or that they had just been too busy to contact anyone else about it. She wondered if they were still cleaning up the ruins at the moment. If they were uncovering the bodies and burying them. If they had found out what had happened to the town, to her family. She wrapped her arms around herself, holding on tight, unable to keep herself from imagining what the town looked like in broad daylight. What her house looked like, what her mother and father and siblings looked like. She stopped in the middle of the road, her jaw trembling as she struggled to breath. She had abandoned them. She hadn’t even been able to stay long enough to bury them.
She had followed the first people who had talked to her on a wild goose chase instead of making sure that her family was laid to rest. As if the ruins of the town would just disappear if she didn’t see them. That none of it would be real if she wasn’t in the middle of it.
[Logan] “I suppose that he could have been forced to keep it quiet by the authorities, but I’m not sure how likely that really is. Seems to me that would take a lot of money and effort to keep people silent like that. But if they really don’ w…. Are you alright?”
He was already a few steps ahead of her, only belatedly realising that she had stopped. He turned around to look at her, waiting for her to say something, but when she didn’t move or answer he rushed towards her, grabing her forearms, crouching down to look her in the eyes.
[Logan, softly] “What’s up? Talk to me. What’s going on?”
[Rena, gasping] “I left them alone. They’re still lying there and I just ran away. I ran away because I didn’t want to see them anymore and I just abandoned them and let someone else take care of their bodies. No one deserves a daughter like me.”
[Logan] “No, no, no, listen, listen, you didn’t abandon anyone, ok? We’re here for them. We’re here to find out what really happened, so they can find peace in their death. This matters. What we’re doing right now matters. You didn’t run away, you’re running towards the truth, and that’s important. Don’t let your brain tell you that you’re not doing the right thing. There’s nothing more important than the truth.”
[Rena] “That’s rich coming from someone who keeps lying all the time.”
She wiped her eyes with the side of her hand, forcing herself to take deeper and slower breaths.
[Logan] “Yeah well, there are small lies you can tell people that aren’t going to change anything about anyone’s lives and then there are the big, evil lies that are trying to hide what’s actually important. I dabble in the first. The second ones are there for us to uncover them.”
[Rena, chuckling] “That makes no sense.”
[Logan] “No it totally makes sense. That guy I just told that my wife is about to have a baby isn’t even going to remember me by tomorrow. The Innkeeper might wait for a deep-dive into the family history of the royal council to come out at some point, but even if she waits all her life and nothing like that ever comes out her life won’t be different. She can just learn about those family trees some other way. But if the administrator or whoever is fabricating stories about what happened to these towns to cover up what actually happened then that will have serious consequences, because they wouldn’t cover it up if it wasn’t anything damning to them. Which means that thing can happen over and over again and more towns might disappear and no one will ever try to stop whatever’s happening because they just don’t know about it. You do see how that’s different, right?”
She pressed her lips together, nodding and, slowly looked up into his eyes.
[Logan] “You’re not abandoning them. You’re just making sure that nothing like this can ever happen again.”
[Rena, softly] “Yeah.”
[Logan] “Alright, let’s go back to the others. We’ve got things to discuss.”
When they strolled back into the tavern Rodrick and Asha were already sitting at a table, pouring over a pile of different papers.
“What did you find?” Logan asked as he let himself fall onto the bench next to Rodrick.
[Rodrick] “The staff at the archives were very helpful. They gave me a list of all the different departments and which kinds of decrees one would need for them. I had to insist a bit to get all of the information for the more classified records but I think I now have everything we need.
There are some departments that we might not get access to because they are restricted for anyone outside of the fortresses staff but I don’t think we would need to look through those anyway.”
“What did you find?” Asha asked, nodding in Logan’s direction.
Rena sat down on a chair opposite Rodrick, bending down to pet the dog who was sleeping underneath the table before sitting back up and craning her neck to look at the papers. One document seemed to hold a list of all the departments with their location, level of access and the name of the person who was responsible for it. The other papers were more detailed lists of what exactly could be found in each department. She carefully slid one of the papers closer to her. It was a list for the department of horse trading, and it contained a numerical list of districts under which different villages and towns were indexed. She hadn’t even known that the authorities kept track of horse sellers or that their province was divided into districts. What else had she never known about? How much did the authorities keep track of? If they knew about who bought and sold horses they also had to know about every single town that existed, no matter how small.
“So,” Logan sighed and leaned forward, interlacing his hands on the table. “There was a town called Miller’s knee east of here near the border that still existed a few years ago but doesn’t exist anymore now. People don’t seem to know or really care about what happened to it, also because apparently it was tiny and only old people lived there, but the guards came in to dismantle it and changed the signposts, so they basically erased it from existence. It’s not much but it’s a beginning. I’m sure they have the department of signposts or something, so we could hit that up, find out what it says. Maybe see if they have a town demolition department. If we’re lucky they’ll have a department of towns that were mysteriously destroyed and that we want to erase from living memory now.”
[Rodrick] “Asha, do you know which part of the archives you need to access for your investigation?”
[Asha] “It will probably have to be one of the departments with a higher restriction level, but I will have to look at the list to know which area holds the most interesting information.”
“Same here,” Logan said as he slid the list of departments closer to him, biting his bottom lip as he squinted down at the paper.
Asha looked down at the pile of papers in front of them, her fingers tapping against the table, her jaw clenching and unclenching as she considered their options.
She suddenly got up and said, “I’m going to get us some food. We’ll be here for a while.”