“We have a stowaway?” Chrom couldn’t keep the amusement out of his voice. “Can we do that?”
“A freeloader.” Though his expression was as neutral as ever, Chrom recognized that extra degree of furrow in Frederick’s brow, and the fraction more of frown he was wearing. His lieutenant was irritated. “Assuming the best. Thus far only food and silverware have gone missing. People have reported seeing the perpetrator, but he or she vanishes before we can trap them.”
“I saw it yesterday!” Lissa agreed, then immediately cringed. “Just a shadow out of the corner of my eye, slithery like a Seviper! I was outside the medic’s tent.” She hugged herself, shivering. “What if we’re being haunted? Not a Ghost type, but a real and actual ghost? Brr!”
“A ‘real ghost’ would not steal food,” Frederick pointed out.
“It could be trying to starve us, little by little!”
“We have a thief,” Frederick insisted. “Or worse, we could have a spy, collecting information about our numbers and strengths, to bring back to Plegia.”
“When do you think they arrived?” Chrom asked.
“At least three days ago.” Frederick shook his head. “Based on talk about the camp, however, it could be a week or more.”
“Three days could be a spy, but a week sounds like a stray. Either way, I want you to focus on this, Frederick. Reassign your other duties, use whoever you need to. Let’s get this settled – spy, thief – or ghost-” he added, at Lissa’s nod, “let’s catch it.”
“Understood. I will work out a strategy with Shion. They won’t be trouble for much longer.”
It had started simply enough. A day like any other found Rae taking charge of cooking dinner. Rucimim and Killian had been assigned to the task, but the Joltik threw random things in the food if no one was watching, and Rucimim was trying to do everything one-handed as he finished his latest read. Exasperated, Rae convinced Killian to retrieve the bowls and spoons from the supply cart while she kept an eye on the roasting vegetables, where she could remind Rucimim to keep the spit going if he forgot after pausing to turn a page. She half expected the Joltik to vanish, but he returned promptly with a stack of crockery.
“There’s no spoons,” he said.
“No spoons?” Rae echoed. That was ridiculous. They had over a hundred spoons. “They should be in the green crate.”
“There’s no green crate.”
“I packed it myself!” She grimaced. “Keep an eye on this. I’ll see if it shifted.” Killian shrugged, crouching next to the fire.
Rae trotted to the supply wagon, closing her eyes just before climbing in, that when she opened them she could make out the boxes and crates in the relative darkness. After a moment or two, she could see edges of color, just enough to help identify the specific crate she was looking for.
Killian was right: the green wood crate with their spoons and ladles wasn’t on the cart. Neither was the reinforced, double-thick box of knives and cleavers. That had definitely been there less than an hour ago! Where could they have gone?
She went back to the clearing. Killian had the handle of the skillet in hand, shifting it over the flames to help stir the contents. Rucimim had set his book aside, resting his eyes while he kept the spit going. “You’re right. Two of the crates are- what is that smell?”
Rucimim opened his eyes, looking at her curiously, then shut them again as he breathed in deep. “Bad beer?”
“Barley beer,” Killian corrected. “Aren’t you sick of bland veggies?”
Rae stifled a groan. If that was all he’d added they were lucky. At least cooking the alcohol ought to burn it off. “There’s nothing bland about rosemary and coriander,” she muttered. She’d have to put the mix back, and hope they could use it tomorrow instead. “And I smell pepper. A lot of pepper.”
“Yeah, right,” Killian “muttered” back, with a crooked grin. “That’s way too normal.”
“Just be glad I hadn’t put the spices in yet! Crack three cloves of garlic and add them for five minutes. Any more than that and the whole thing will just taste like garlic beer. Then break up the rest of the bulb and get it in the boar, along with the ground mustard and fennel.” The pair looked at her blankly. “When will someone who knows how to cook get this assignment?” Rae mumbled, going over to the prep table. She tossed three of the cloves to Killian, bringing the rest – along with the jar of powdered spices – to Rucimim. The Audino rushed to take the ingredients in his free hand before she could balance them on his book. “Somebody moved the utensils - I’m going to check the other carts. Be right back.” She leaned down, pretending to have lost her balance, and muttered to Rucimim, “Keep an eye on him!”
Thankfully, the green wood crate of spoons had just shifted over to the cart being used as the pantry, but the reinforced box of knives was nowhere to be found. At a loss, Rae went to Frederick to see if he’d had them moved. Daisy and Clara overheard the exchange. The Whimsicott took Rae’s arm in both hands, then lost her nerve as the much taller woman stared down at her. “Um…” Now she had Frederick’s attention, too. “Um, there was a box of knives over by the armory a little while ago,” she said. “We put it in the tent where no one would trip on it.”
The women led Rae to the armory; the manakete was relieved to see that it was the missing box. But her relief was short-lived. “Where are all the cleavers and carvers?! How are we going to portion the boar with no carving knives? It’ll take forever if all we have are paring knives!”
“I don’t… I’m- that is-” Daisy stammered.
“That’s exactly how we found it!” Clara said.
“I’m not blaming you! I’m sure it was already like this!” Rae assured them. “Normally this box is really heavy; I couldn’t pick it up at a dead lift. You didn’t shove it in the tent, right? There’s no trench. So they were gone before you found it.”
“Right,” Daisy sighed, relieved that the much bigger woman – and dragon, besides! – wasn’t mad.
“Let’s get what’s left back to the cookfires. Naga only knows what’s Killian’s done to it by now,” Rae grumbled. She hefted the box to her shoulder, balancing it with both hands. “By the way, do you two know anything about cooking?”
Daisy pulled the tent flap aside, then choked on her response. “Did… did you hear something?” she whispered, tilting her head. She’d thought she heard a soft, metallic sound from inside the armory. But there was no one in there besides them!
Clara aimed her ears forward, then turned them gradually in either direction. “Nope.”
Rae shrugged. “Just knives rattling.”
Maybe that was it. Still, she hurried away as soon as the other two were out. What she’d heard sounded far more like a sword leaving its scabbard, than knives shifting in a box.
When camp broke in the morning, all but two of the cleavers turned up in various tents - including three blades that tumbled from the top of a tent, nearly stabbing Ciaran on their way down. Also missing was all of the bacon they’d saved from last night’s boar, which led to half a day’s grumblings.
Nothing more went missing for four days; instead, the sightings began. It was thought that Apollo had the first sighting (though, being it was Apollo, some wondered if it wasn’t a vision). When the Xatu went to leave his tent that morning, he drew the flap aside, only to find another flap in his way. When he reached for it, the cloth vanished upward - but when he went outside, there was nothing on top of the tent. Edith swore that she, too, had seen the strange cloth blocking their exit.
Later the same day, Ao and Aaliyah were sparring outside the armory when there was a loud crash inside. They found Gabriel’s plate armor tumbled across half the tent. Catching movement out of the corner of his eye, Ao lashed out with the hilt of his sword, not wanting to accidentally maim an ally. He was startled when the hilt jerked downward, suddenly heavy! Then he saw, fitted into the hilt’s bindings, was a narrow boning knife, anchoring it to the ground. Before he could investigate further, Gabriel came into the tent, and blew his temper to see his armor scattered. Aaliyah tried to calm him down, but by the time they sorted things - both the misunderstanding, and the armor - out, all evidence of the intruder was gone. Even the boning knife.
The following morning, before breakfast, Makenzie and Tsu’ai met to compare folk dances from their respective countries. As Tsu’ai executed a graceful spin, her ears piqued: someone was humming the folksong that went with her dance! She stopped, looking at Makenzie: the Meowstic was turning her head about, trying to find the source, but none of the tents near them were occupied.
Later both Victor and Mina, and their Dragonites, saw a dark shape on top of Chrom and Natsuki’s tent, but the two wyvern riders weren’t together when they did. They nearly crashed into one another as they both dove to check on it; by the time Spirit and Abram recovered, the shadow was gone.
When she went to check on Esme, who had been badly injured in battle, Lissa shrieked as something “slithered” passed the tent just as she was going inside. Quintell rushed out at her cry, but could find nothing out of the ordinary. Being anchored by the trembling, terrified princess gripping his arm didn’t help him search.
On the third day, Padula heard a strange noise while feeding Starling - half whistle, half hum. When she asked if anyone was there, whatever it was went silent. She stayed still, quiet, listening, but after several minutes, all she heard were the rustle of feathers - a small bird, fluffing its wings. She’d just begun to think it might be Rory, Silas’s pet bird, when she caught the quiet shuffle of someone retreating on all fours. Rory definitely couldn’t do that!
Frederick took Chrom’s instructions with utmost seriousness. Before the sun was fully up, the entire camp was roused, with the excuse that Shion was going to put them through cooperation drills. No Shepherd was allowed to abstain - except Frederick, and the four people he had chosen to aid him. The five of them waited in the pantry cart, in case the intruder had run out of rations. Naturally, it wasn’t that easy, but at least it gave them a reason to have breakfast while everyone else was stuck in drills.
Finally, after the camp had long gone quiet, they came out from the sheltering wagon. “Sai, Zardon, I want you two to circle out of the camp, transform, and watch above us,” Frederick murmured. The two manakete nodded their understanding and hurried in opposite directions. “Zipporah and Howkin, I need you two to transform now. You should be able to hear and smell anyone still in the camp.”
The Shepherd’s camp felt as abandoned as it looked. Drafts drifted through empty tents; firepits smoldered, their ashes too damp with dew to blow away. The taguels and the knight stalked the deserted campsite, quiet as they could be, but nothing seemed to be left. The armory and the shelter for the mounts held no clues. The manaketes’ shadows passed overhead, but neither gave any sign of seeing someone else. Their spy appeared to be gone.
“It… strange,” Zipporah said to Howkin, as quietly as she could. “Cook fires… that way?”
“Other side of the camp,” Howkin agreed. “So?”
“So… you smell pepper, too?”
“Yeah…” Howkin paused. Fact was, pepper was all she could smell. “It’s a trick!” she realized. “Our noses won’t tell us anything.”
“Listen now,” Zipporah agreed. “Pepper does not fool ears.” The pair split up, trying to track where the smell was strongest.
Breathing through her mouth as the scent became uncomfortable, Zipporah nosed her way into the armory. There was absolutely no reason for the weapons tent to smell like pepper, and there had been hints that the intruder lurked in this area. Sure enough, if she held her breath, she could hear the sound of a heart at rest. Someone was in here, asleep. Her ears took her to a suit of plate mail on a stand, put together as if a person were inside. And in fact, there was a person inside. She pressed a paw to the midsection of the suit, then cried out as the entire thing collapsed in a racket of steel and silver. The leg sections tore apart, the arms bouncing away in separate pieces! The helmet tumbled in the opposite direction of the chest plate, bouncing off two locked chests! The taguel frantically back-peddled away from the collapsing suit, yelping as she backed straight into a (fortunately empty) weapon’s rack.
The sleeper was wide awake, now, their heart fluttering in a panic. Zipporah opened her eyes wide, realizing that the stranger had actually been sleeping in the suit of mail! But how, when the suit was nearly twice her size? The little woman had disheveled hair nearly halfway down her back, and a frantic look on her face as she struggled out of the chest plate. Her clothing was close to her body but not bindingly so, the dark and basic style preferred by thieves.
Finally getting to her feet, the woman stared at Zipporah, metallic eyes wide and dilated. Before Zipporah could say anything, the stranger grabbed something from the pouch strapped to her leg and threw it at the ground at the taguel’s feet. She gagged as a cloud of flour burst from the loose packet, along with burst of pepper, powdered so it would get in her nose and eyes! The thief fled from the tent, but ran straight into Howkin. Able to smell the additional pepper, even from outside the tent, the other taguel did not give the stranger time to re-arm herself, instead tackling her almost before she’d realized she wasn’t alone. The woman screamed, mouth wide and eyes squeezed shut, as she skidded a few feet on her back. Though she should only have had the air knocked out of her, she lie still, breathing raggedly through clenched teeth.
Her hair, in fact, only came to her shoulder blades. She groaned as she tried to sit up, leaving a fistful of feathers on the ground.
Their intruder was a bird type.
A very sullen bird type, especially with both vestigial wings badly sprained and halfway plucked. Though Lissa had seen to her injuries (with some reluctance), the stranger was still wracked with trembles, her hands squeezing the emptied scabbards bound to her arms. Frederick had removed the woman’s two swords, and a total of five knives scattered about her body - at her belt, on her leg, in her boot… and to each forearm. Then he left, giving Sai a chance to do a more thorough second check. The prisoner said nothing throughout both searches, though a strangled noise escaped her when Frederick removed her leg pouch. It hid three more pepper bombs, several small, sharp tools, and a chisel of some kind. She hadn’t stopped shaking, since. And he didn’t care. She was a thief or a spy, or both, and he would not allow her any chance of causing Chrom or Lissa harm. Neither of the royal children were allowed near her until Frederick was dead certain the only weapons she had left were her fingernails, which were dull and short. She had sat silent while Lissa tended to her injuries. Once the princess was gone, she pulled the lacing out of the front of her tunic in order to bind her hair into a knot. She didn’t seem to care that it left her sleeveless shirt opened nearly to her navel. Without a word, Frederick took the end of the woman’s scarf and loosened it enough to provide her more modesty before the prince arrived. Naga only knew what anyone would say if word got out that he or the prince had questioned a woman left to sit in that state. Spy, or not.
When Chrom entered the side tent they’d brought the prisoner to, he showed no hesitation or fear. He didn’t have to, knowing that both Frederick and Sai had searched her for weapons. Someone who relied on cold iron was no mage; such weapons were too cumbersome, and could interfere with casting. “Tell me your name,” the prince began. The woman looked at him, face a blank mask. “I promise we will not harm you, if you mean no harm. Can you tell me your name?”
She stared; he waited her out. When she finally spoke, the one syllable was enough to give away her foreign origins: “Su.”
“Is that your name?”
“It is what I am called.” For a bird, her voice was surprisingly tenor. Her accent lent it a rich timbre, full and rich as tree syrup. Chrom had heard the same accent from a couple of his other soldiers, but couldn’t immediately place it. Something from the continent of Valm.
“Why are you here, Su?”
She tilted her head in a modified shrug, not yet willing to chance moving her back. “I go where I want to be.”
“Then you want to be here?” She didn’t answer. “Why?”
“Answer the question,” Frederick warned her, when she still didn’t respond.
“It feels safe there.” She lowered her head. “The armor. The weapons. Metal. Blades.” A hint of a smile, sounding almost shy. “I do not remember… when, when last I slept so well.”
Chrom coughed, trying not to smile himself. Frederick frowned at him, not fooled. He did know she’d been found sleeping in Frederick’s armor, didn’t he? “Did anyone send you here?” he asked, when he got his expression straightened out again.
She shook her head - paused, then hugged herself and shook her head again. “No. No, no, I told you. I go where I want. I go here. I go to Ragna Ferox when summer is worst. I go to Plegia, when weather is cold.” She cringed away from Frederick’s scowl. “I migrate. I go where I feel safe.”
“And our armory makes you feel safe?”
“Sharp things have always made me feel safe.” She smiled weakly. “Boys and girls, they have dolls, toys, yes? Talismans. Warmth and safety. My talismans are chisels. Knives. Warm, and safe. And sharp.”
“Yes, the knives,” Frederick intoned. “Where did you put all of our knives?”
“It is my treasure,” she said, cryptically. “I return it, I am let go?”
“Do you want to go?” Chrom asked. Frederick frowned at him knowingly. Su looked reasonably confused. “If you agree to stop </I>moving</I> things where people can’t find them, I don’t see why you can’t stay. You’re very talented.”
“ Moving things’, sir?” Frederick echoed.
“Of course! She hasn’t stolen anything if she hasn’t left and hasn’t sold them. They’re just moved.” Su’s mouth fell ajar. “All I ask is that you put them back, and stop hiding. You’re welcome to stay,” he said, giving Su a smile. “I think you’d have a lot to offer us, if you’re willing.”
“Offer?” She shook her head slightly. “I have no money. As you say, I have… I have not sold your things. I carve wood, but nothing special. I have nothing for you.”
“You’re wrong. Tell me, how long have you been in our camp?”
She looked away, eyes scanning without seeing, as she calculated. “Six. Six days.”
“You have only the slightest idea the kind of people we are,” Chrom told her. She shrunk into herself, so he hurried on, explaining, “We have manaketes, filled with the wisdom of centuries, and all the tricks they’ve seen and done for themselves. Taguels, with senses none of the rest of us can even imagine. In sword wielders alone, the Shepherds have decades worth of weapon and tactics training. And yes, even tricksters and thieves who have already joined our cause. And you-” he concluded, resting a hand on her shoulder, “-kept any one of us from being sure you were here. You kept us guessing for nearly a full week.
“Stay with us. Return the kitchen knives to the right cart and any other blades can be kept safe in the armory. When the time comes, I know someone as quick and slippery as you are can pay us back a thousand-fold with information and intelligence from our enemies.”
“You… you think… I can spy for you?”
“I know you can. And I know, in time, I’m going to need you to. Not yet, and hopefully not soon. But I know you could do it right now, and if you stay and work with us, you will only be better at it when the time comes.”
“I…” Su looked bewildered, hopeful, terrified. The wood reinforcing one of her scabbards was starting to squeak from the force of her nervous grip. “May I… may I still sleep in the armory?” she asked.
“By it,” Chrom offered, before Frederick could answer. “Maybe later, but not yet.”
She looked crestfallen, but nodded anyway. “I understand.”
“Please. Will you show Frederick where you put our knives, so he can get them put away?”
“The yellow one.”
The men traded a look. “What?” Chrom prompted.
“The yellow… the beast. That is one of you, yes?”
“Zipporah,” Frederick realized. “She’s the taguel you attacked with a bomb made from our flour.”
“That one. Yes.” Su hugged herself again. “Allow me to make my apologies. If I am to stay, I must apologize. Then I will show you my treasure.”
“That’s fair,” Chrom allowed. “Frederick will accompany you. Zipporah might not realize you mean to apologize, and her husband might not want to risk letting you.”
Su shivered violently. “My blades. You will return them to me? Please? I cannot stay with none. It is not safe for me. I cannot stay if I cannot have my treasure with me.”
“You have to earn our trust,” Frederick pointed out. “Zipporah and Zardon won’t be the only ones worried if you go around camp with more points than a Nidoran.”
“No, no. No. I cannot. I cannot.” She was pleading to Chrom with her eyes before she asked, “My chisel. At least? My tools for carving. I whittle, it is harmless, please let me have those.”
“That chisel is nearly as sharp as Falchion,” Frederick noted doubtfully. “And it’s much too large for ‘whittling’ with.”
Su pressed her lips together tightly enough to turn them white. Closed her eyes, lowered her head, and stared down at her tightly crossed arms, her white knuckles gripping the empty scabbards. Quieter, she explained, “Bandits killed my papa.” She said papa with the lilt of a young child, the tone of someone who had lost him before she was mature enough to call him father. “He hid me in a chest… gave me his chisel, if… for if they found me. They killed him, but they did not find me. It is the last thing a good man… a very dear man gave to me. My greatest treasure. I would not bloody it unless I had no other choice. I have not yet bloodied it… and I will not. I only want it for… because my father gave it to me.
“It is my talisman. My protection from those who mean me harm. If you do not mean harm… if you truly mean well, please. Give it back.”
Frederick waited to be certain she was done. “Wait here,” he ordered, ducking out of the tent.
Su looked at Chrom questioningly, wrinkling her brow at his unexpected smile. “Frederick’s a good man. He’s gone to get that chisel for you. And probably your wood tools, too.”
“You think I can spy for you? Truly?”
“Yes. Truly. And the best part?” Chrom grinned, barely able to keep from laughing. “When you succeed, if anyone asks how I found out? I can say a little bird told me.”