❯ .hack//SIGN – Confusion All ‘Round ( Chapter 3 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]

« So. » Ginkan’s brows rose. « What brings a messenger of the Cobalts to our city on such short notice? »
Kamui hesitated. None of this, so far, had been right. Such fuss by Mac Anu, over a worthless little demon pickpocket. The fellow who had come to request its release did, indeed, appear to be the Red Lightning — several Cobalts had recognised him — but even so, he was not a member of the Crimson Knighthood anymore, so why should they have sent him after the creature?
And he had been adamant that Subaru was the one to whom Kamui should speak. She wasn’t overly concerned about following his orders, frankly, but that one had been backed up, more or less, by her commander’s curt « Well, do as he says. » But Ginkan was Lady Subaru’s right-hand man; surely, no matter how deeply this strange business was shrouded in secrecy, he would know of it.
If it really was the business of the Crimson Knights at all.
And if not…
Are we to give up a murderer merely on a whim of Mac Anu’s ruler, then?
After a few seconds of internal conflict she said, slowly, « We’ve had an… odd visitor, sir, in my village. He claims to speak for the Crimson Knights… »
She worked her way through the story as succinctly as possible, Ginkan listening in frowning silence. Kamui found herself subtly encouraged by the frown; it might have been wishful thinking on her part, but the expression seemed to have a faintly puzzled air about it, as if the man had not expected to hear any of this and was not quite sure what to make of it.
He remained quiet for a short time after she finished; Kamui tried not to let her impatience show as she waited. Look, it’s very simple, she thought. All you have to do is say ‘No, I know nothing of this; the man’s an imposter of some sort. A demon himself, perhaps, creating some sort of illusion — unusual, but not unheard of. Arrest him. As for the killer, do with it what you will.’
Instead he said, shortly, « This demon. What is its name? »
What? No, no. Her heart sank. That wasn’t the script… « It calls itself Sora, or some such. » Who cared what a monster was called? It was only trying to fool people into thinking it was human, and she wasn’t going to fall for that. She’d seen what happened to those who did.
« Describe him. »
Sighing inwardly, she held one hand out, somewhat below shoulder height. « About so tall. Red eyes; otherwise it looks like a skinny little human boy of ten or so. » She was damned if she was going to call the creature him. « Green hair, about shoulder-length. Oh, and it’s got a scar under one eye… the left eye. » She shrugged. « That enough, sir? »
« Yes. Thank you. » His face was expressionless. « We… have indeed been seeking the creature for some time. The Crimson Knights would consider it a great favour, were you to hand him over. »
By that time Kamui was more or less expecting the answer, but nonetheless she groaned inwardly. No. Damnit, damnit. « What’s it done to you? »
« That is none of your concern. »
Like hell it’s not. « Meaning no disrespect — sir — a Knight’s dead. A friend of mine, at that. » She swallowed. Grief hadn’t really sunk in yet, but it would eventually, she knew, and she wasn’t looking forward to that. « If we’re to give up his murderer at a simple request, I hope you’ll understand when I say I think that’s very much my concern. My fellow Knights are agreed on that, I can assure you. »
Ginkan’s tone was grave. « My condolences, lieutenant. But I hope you will understand when I say that this is not something of which I am free to speak. I can assure you, the matter is one of great importance, but… it is not widely known even to the Crimson Knighthood. I apologise, but I will say nothing further on the subject. »
She bit back a tired, exasperated sigh. None of this was right, or even anywhere close to it, but by many accounts this man practically ruled the city. Not someone to argue with, therefore. « Yes, sir, » she said grudgingly.
« Good. » He smiled faintly. « Well, then. It is late, and you have ridden far; I expect you will be waiting until morning to return home? You may stay the night in the keep, if you wish. »
« Thank you, no. » It was tempting; she was exhausted, truth be told. But if she slept now, the world could only look worse when she woke. Right now she was angry, and that was — for the time — keeping her going. If she stopped to rest, though, she wasn’t sure she’d be able to get moving again. »I’ll travel back tonight. Rather get the ride over with. »
He merely shrugged. « As you will. Do not let me keep you, then — have a good journey home, Lieutenant Shibayama. »
* * * * *
For a time after the young woman had left, Ginkan remained where he was, lost in silent, puzzled thought.
Certain of the Crimson Knights had, in fact, been hunting the demon-boy called Sora for some time now, but they had been doing so very quietly. Quietly enough, in fact, that — Ginkan had thought — the subject had been kept from Lady Subaru’s ears.
A few steps had been taken of which she probably would not have approved. They’d been necessary steps, as there seemed no other way to find the accursed creature, but they would undoubtedly have led to arguments had she heard of them, and Ginkan disliked arguing with the Lady. She already had more than enough to worry about on a daily basis; putting any further burden on her shoulders always seemed unfair. Best to deal with problems quietly, therefore.
And yet — somehow — she must have learned of the matter, if she had sent Crim after the boy. That, he could not understand at all. Why would she have done such a thing? Why had she said nothing to him…?
He shook his head, attempting to dislodge his confusion. The thing he ought to be thinking of now was what to say to her. The question of why she’d handled the matter so, he glumly suspected, would soon be secondary to the problem of explaining his own actions.
Come morning, he hoped that one would look less complicated, but, somehow, he rather doubted it.
* * * * *
Kamui left the keep in no better temper than that in which she’d entered, but with a good deal more confusion raging in her head.
Ginkan had not known of this. She was almost certain of that; he’d listened silently, but with… what? A look on his face, some odd edge to his manner, an indefinable air about him which suggested all of this was utterly unexpected news to him.
A lot of good that is. The whole thing felt wrong, she knew it was wrong; he might have known the name of Sora, but he hadn’t quite expected to hear it from Kamui’s lips.
And if I go back and say all of this, the commander’ll say « And have you anything to support this feeling? » She hadn’t, of course. Her word, against Ginkan’s, would be quickly dismissed as wishful thinking — youthful anger at best, perhaps, wanting only to get its own way.
And in truth, are you so sure it isn’t?
So what was she to do? Say nothing? Something was wrong with all of this, had been from the start. Someone ought to look at it a little more closely.
Well. She had a long way to travel; time enough to think on the road. Perhaps, with any luck, she might have her thoughts in order by the time she made it home.
Not, she reflected bleakly, that this has been my day for luck.
Over the clamoring of her thoughts, she barely noticed when a man stepped out of the shadows lining the street, and so she almost jumped in startlement when he spoke. « Ah, there you are — Kamui, isn’t it? One of the guards on the Gate told me you’d come through. »
In the dim light it took her a moment to recognise the unexpected figure, but when she did, she stared. « Sir? W-what are you– »
« All in good time, lieutenant. A word with you, please… »
* * * * *
Sora stared at the far wall of his cell, and tried to think.
That was proving a difficult task. There was a limit, he felt, to how much time a person could reasonably be expected to stand in one place and stare at a wall, and in his case this limit was around the five-minute mark. Near as he could tell, however, he’d now been here for the better part of a day.
He winced, trying to shift position without setting off the thrice-blasted spells that still held him in place. Not, he reflected, that it made all that much difference at this point. Even discounting his injuries, and the hours of sheer nightmarish boredom, simply trying to hold still for so long had not been a lot of fun; his muscles ached with the effort. Y’know, they could have just told me to stay put…
Well, okay, not that I’d have paid any attention, but they don’t know that. I mean, here they’ve got this poor little homeless kid. Already injured. Barely staying on his feet, in fact — and, sheesh, I can’t imagine why, he only got nearly eaten by a bloody dragon — er… never-you-mind why. Looks like he prob’ly hasn’t eaten in days, reduced to petty thievery to survive, ekcetra, ekcetra. And what do they do? They attack him. With swords. And stupid, stupid, stupid light spells.
The boy made a disgruntled face at the wall. I would’ve won, too, if not for the spell. Which fact, he had to admit, couldn’t really have helped the helpless-little-kid image very much.
Well, in any event, that probably didn’t matter now. Apparently, he was getting out of here. He had to admit, he was kind of confused about that.
It wasn’t that he was surprised that the Crimson Knights had sent someone after him. Not surprised as such. The last time he’d been in Mac Anu he had gotten bored and gone looking for ways to amuse himself, and the results had been fairly spectacular even if he did say so himself.
So, no, not surprising that they should want to have a word with him. Slightly more surprising that they should have found him, though. Or even worked out, with any degree of certainty, who he was. Sora hadn’t thought he’d left any witnesses alive. Still, there were ways to find things out without seeing them firsthand. Right at the moment, he had more important things to worry about than how — or at least more important than that particular how. How do I turn this to my advantage, now, that was a much more interesting question.
They’d be traveling to the Gate on foot. All other options involved riding grunties, but they were particular creatures, choosy about whom they carried. Sora had never met one yet that would willingly come within fifty feet of him. If Crim had had one of his own, he might have been able to talk it into putting up with a demon for a few hours, but he didn’t, and the Knights weren’t about to lend any to the cause.
This was absolutely fine with Sora. If he was to walk so far, he had to be able to walk so far, which meant that Crim had gotten rather abrupt with the commander on the subject of sending a healer round to patch up the boy’s injuries. It also meant that he’d get rid of these enchanted chains. The importance of that one, Sora thought, really couldn’t be stressed enough.
Of course, there was a difference between being able to walk and being able to make a successful break for freedom. And even if he managed the latter, he had nowhere to go but to the Gate. Which the Cobalts guarded pretty much all the time. Sora didn’t really feel like staying in hiding long enough for them to forget his face. That might be a while.
On the other hand, if he waited around until Crim and any other guards had gotten him as far as Fort Ouph proper…
Then he might have a shot at getting away. Most people found Gate travel slightly disorienting; for a brief moment or two after stepping back onto solid ground, they’d be off-balance. Sora was no different, granted, but if he was prepared, he might be able to get back through the Gate as soon as they were through, and then he’d be happily on his way to Gadelica or somewhere before anyone else had gotten past « Wait, what the–? »
All right, so it would require very careful timing, but Sora knew he was quick, and it probably wouldn’t be a move anyone was expecting. He didn’t think they’d realised he had come through Chaos on his own; navigation wasn’t a common skill among grown-ups, let alone ten… ish… year-olds. And once he was through the Gate, tracking him wouldn’t be possible. If they wanted to find him they’d have to split up and head to different planes, and by the time they’d worked out who was going where, Sora could be well out of sight.
Of course, he could head back to his home city; the Knights didn’t even know that place existed, let alone how to get there. That would probably be more trouble than it was worth, though. Sora liked trouble, ordinarily, but he had to admit there was such a thing as too much of it, and anyway, trouble was only fun when he was causing it for other people. If he went back home it would probably be the other way around; he’d been away more than two years now, but some his old… friends… had even longer memories than the Cobalt Knights did.
No, Gadelica was probably a safer bet. Of course, as the one Gate City in which nobody bothered much about demon-kin as long as they didn’t kill anyone, it was also the most obvious place for him to go, and certainly the first place the Cobalts would think to look. On the other hand, it was also one of the few places in the World where the Cobalts and their views were not entirely popular. They wouldn’t simply be allowed to barge in.
On the other other hand, he’d be bound to cause some comment himself. The Cobalts might be stupid enough to take these bloody chains off of him, but it was probably too much to hope that they’d leave him entirely unbound. Wandering into Carmina Gadelica with his hands cuffed behind his back would probably require some explanation.
On the other-to-the-third hand, though, some people would believe anything. It oughtn’t be too difficult to convince someone that he’d just been minding his own business when the Cobalts had attacked him. It was true, anyway. Well, almost true. Nearly.
All right, nearly almost half true, but still, close enough.
It would work. It was bound to work. He’d manage it. Somehow.
Sure.
Piece of cake.
* * * * *
It was early the next day, only a couple of hours past the end of Fort Ouph plane’s brief nighttime, that Crim, for want of anything better to do, wandered back to the Cobalt garrison.
He nodded amiably to the guard standing outside its gates. « The messenger back from Mac Anu yet? »
« N-no, sir. »
« Ah, well, then. » Without invitation, he settled himself on the low wall which ran along the road to the garrison. « I’ll wait here, shall I? »
The young guard hesitated. Strictly speaking, loitering outside the gates was discouraged, but he was loathe to mention this to the one-time leader of the Crimson Knights. That was not someone with whom he was being paid enough to argue. Nonetheless, he made a half-hearted attempt. « It will likely be several hours yet, sir. No doubt she stayed the night in the city; it’s a long journey, after all. »
Crim heard the hint, and did not take it. « It’s a nice day. I don’t mind waiting. »
« Yes, sir, » the guard answered reluctantly.
It was in fact only a few minutes later, however, that a grunty’s heavy footfalls were heard plodding up the road, and Kamui came into view. The grunty looked exhausted; Kamui must have stopped in Mac Anu for almost no time at all, to be back so quickly, and even then she must have insisted on a fairly quick pace the entire way. Crim’s eyebrows rose at the glare it sent her from behind her back after she dismounted. One grunty would be looking for a new rider soon, if the young woman wasn’t careful; they were loyal and devoted creatures, yes, but they would only put up with just so much, and by the looks this one had had nearly enough.
At the sight of Crim, Kamui’s face contorted into an annoyed scowl to equal that on the face of her mount. Crim, privately hoping that her annoyance was a good sign, returned a blank, friendly smile. « Welcome back. You made good time. » To the disgruntled grunty, he added as an aside, « My thanks for your haste. » Its only response was a vaguely scornful sound somewhere between a harrumph and a snort, but its expression became somewhat more conciliatory. « What word from Lady Subaru? »
He was not disappointed. Still glowering, she bit out the words, « Congratulations. The demon goes to Mac Anu. »

.hack//SIGN – Waking, Dreaming
.hack//SIGN – Then Again, Maybe Not