Riding towards the Mathers domain, they encountered the traders’ camp a few hours into their journey.
‘Alright, I’d better be careful about this one…’
Subaru gripped her land dragon’s reins slightly tighter as she went over her plan. It was entirely possible, perhaps even likely, that the Witch Cult had caught wind of the notice she had sent out requesting transport. While she had never actually mentioned the cult itself in said notice, only stating that there was a minor disturbance in the forest, likely witchbeast in origin, there was no telling how they might react.
‘If Ram hasn’t contacted me, they haven’t resorted to drastic measures just yet. Even so…’
“If I may have a moment of your time, Schwartz-san.” Julius addressed her as he rode up next to her, interrupting her train of thought.
“Sure. What’s the matter, Juli?”
“It is simply that I heard of the White Whale’s subjugation and wished to offer my congratulations.” he said with a genial smile, though he then suddenly feigned an expression of deep thought, “But I wonder, was it you or your friend Natsuki Subaru who was responsible for that endeavor?”
Subaru simply sighed in response. She might have enjoyed this sort of thing were the circumstances different, but her entire body felt heavy right now and it was taking all she had to keep going.
‘Really, to think I’ll have to fight Petelgeuse in this state…’
“Sorry, I’m not really in the mood to play along right now. I’ve got a lot I need to think about.”
“My apologies.” Julius replied, switching to a more serious tone, “I am aware of the tremendous pressure you must be under, and I am certain the thoughts running through your mind must all be of great importance. Even so, you appeared terribly tense and I thus wished to ease your anxieties even if only marginally.”
“Well, I appreciate it.” Subaru offered him a half-hearted smile, “But I think this is definitely the sort of thing I ought to be at least a little anxious about.”
Indeed, she was responsible for dozens of lives right now. How well she could direct them would determine whether or not they lived or died. Worst case scenario, their current strategy could fall apart just like the plan to strip the whale of its horn.
“You are correct, of course. Still, I am confident that your meticulous planning and excellent instincts will lead us to victory just as they did against the White Whale. Your preparations were perfect, failure is not even a possibility worth considering. Once all of this is over, I would like to share a toast with you.”
“That’s a hell of a thing to say considering you’ve seen the way my last plan worked out. I think the hundred or so soldiers we lost to the White Whale might have a thing or two to say about my meticulous planning and perfect preparation.”
Subaru was a little amazed he could raise so many failure flags in a row. They probably didn’t have such a concept here, but still. Also, she didn’t drink, so that wish of Julius’ wouldn’t come true no matter how well things went here.
“While the failure of our strategy to seize control of the White Whale was unfortunate, that is hardly something you can be blamed for. Both Anastasia-sama and Crusch-sama agreed to the plan, and I myself believed it was worth attempting. Furthermore, it is a fact that you were the one who ultimately brought down the White Whale. While I do not intend to diminish the efforts of Crusch-sama and Wilhelm-sama or those of the brave soldiers that fought at our side, that is not something anyone can deny.”
Julius’ strangely passionate defense of her left Subaru slightly puzzled, but she didn’t feel like arguing anyway, so she decided to give in.
“I had a lot of help with that, from Rem most of all, but… Well, I’ll accept your sentiment as is. Thanks for trying to cheer me up.” Subaru then glanced at the traders’ camp and stopped her land dragon, hopping off it.
“By the way, Juli.” she continued, looking back at him, “I don’t really want to meet with the merchants or the residents of the manor in this state. Think you can do something for me? Leave the cape as it is, though.”
Subaru was currently covered in grime and the White Whale’s blood. Much of her uniform was stained with splotches of dark red and black, with her cape having darkened so much that one could no longer even make out Roswaal’s family crest on it. Her hair was sticky and knotted together as well, which felt disgusting.
“Certainly.” Julius responded. “Alo, Kua.”
He sent out his wind and water spirits, quickly cleaning her off in a gentle whirlpool after which his fire and water spirits worked together to dry her off.
“I see… So it was the fire spirit that you left in me.” Subaru noted.
“You were aware?” Juliius’ eyes widened slightly in both surprise and embarrassment.
“Well, I don’t really mind, which is why I didn’t bring it up before. Don’t worry about it, although…” Subaru suddenly smirked, “I do hope you won’t attempt to slip anything else into me without my knowledge.”
“I am certain I have no idea what you might be referring to.” Julius replied with a smirk of his own as Subaru entered the traders’ camp to speak to them.
There were fifteen of them in total, which would more than suffice to transport the roughly one hundred inhabitants of Irlam along with the manor’s residents. Looking around, however, she was disappointed to find that Otto wasn’t among them.
‘What happened to that guy? Even if he was the type to skip out on a job, which I don’t think he was, we haven’t even paid him yet…’
Subaru had more important matters to worry about right now, though. She gave the merchants the usual spiel about a minor disturbance in the forest which she brought some forces to investigate, due to which they would need to evacuate the village, and so on. Of course, she made sure to introduce herself as Natsumi Schwartz.
As she spoke, she noticed a particularly aggressive one seemed familiar to her.
‘Where have I seen this guy before… Oh, right, Otto’s buddy from the first loop.’
She recalled that this skinny guy was consoling Otto back in that tavern where she first met him. But that wasn’t all…
‘No, that’s not all, I’ve definitely…’
Subaru’s breath hitched for a moment when the scene of Ram’s death flashed across her mind. Not just her death, but the dozens of dead cultists surrounding her. Most of the bodies had been mangled beyond recognition, so she couldn’t be sure, but she definitely felt like this guy was among them.
‘So he managed to make it back to the manor almost as fast as me and Otto… Does the White Whale really not target cultists after all, or is he just that crazy?’
Subaru found it difficult to imagine that a beast like the White Whale would know the difference between someone who simply smelled of the witch like her and an actual cultist like this guy (presumably).
If the Witch Cult had truly caught wind of their scheme, it would make sense to infiltrate their operation with a few members of their own. In which case Subaru simply needed to turn this to her advantage.
Reaching an agreement with the traders, Subaru walked out and approached Felix, addressing her in a whisper while also using her sound magic to keep their conversation private.
“Felix… There’s cultists among the traders.”
“What was that?” Felix replied, her ears standing at attention.
“It’s pretty obvious considering we didn’t really make a secret of our plans to evacuate the village. That guy calling himself Kety in particular is almost certainly a cultist. You could probably learn a lot by examining him.”
“Hm, you mentioned that all of the cultists have magic crystals embedded in them, and the fingers have special traps, right?” Felix’s eyes narrowed in thought.
“That’s right. WIth your skill, I’m sure you can discover such things right away. I’ll be counting on you to expose the traitors among us.”
“Alright.” Felix answered with a nod, “I’ll have a look.”
“Of course, don’t let them know just yet. We should watch them for a while to find out how they operate.”
“And then I’ll incapacitate them for questioning. Of course.”
“And we’ll need to examine the carriages carefully too… It’d be way too reckless to bring a cultist’s carriage into the village just like that, there’s no telling what sort of traps they might have installed in there. Fortunately for us, we should be able to do that pretty easily under the guise of appraising their merchandise.”
“Right. You should get Juli and the others on that too. I’ll go and speak with the traders for a bit, make sure they are who they say they are.”
Deciding that Julius on his own would be enough, Subaru stealthily conveyed her intentions to him and had him come over to examine the merchants’ carriages, It was his responsibility to check for magical traps while Subaru looked for physical ones.
Entering each carriage, seemingly to get a better look at the merchandise within, she was in truth using the vibrations generated by her movements to examine the construction of the carriages, checking for hollow spaces and the like where sabotages could be set up.
Arriving at Kety’s carriage, she of course found a hollow compartment just as she expected, beneath the floorboards in a corner of the carriage.
‘Alright, Nox and… Ia. Is there anything dangerous in there?’
Subaru and Julius’ fire spirit, which she learned was named Ia, had some difficulty conveying their thoughts to one another since they weren’t contracted. They were managing well enough, however.
‘I see… Fire stones, huh. A simple plan.’
Within the hollow compartment was a bag made of witchbeast hide that had some sort of strange spell inscribed upon it. It seemed that the fire stones contained within said bag were building up heat, and were set to blow at the command of the cultists.
‘In other words, this should be safe for now. They would likely want to wait until they have Emilia close by to trigger it, or at least several vulnerable targets if they end up in a bad spot in the coming battle.’
Subaru couldn’t do anything about the fire stones without being noticed, and neither she nor Ia possessed the skill to stop the fire stones from going critical.
They would simply have to station the carriages a safe distance from the village, bait Kety into contacting his comrades, and then apprehend him and remove the fire stones from his carriage. Simple enough.
Kety’s carriage was the only suspicious one Subaru found, and Julius detected no traces of magical interference either, so the rest seemed to be just fine.
‘Alright, that’s good… We still have fourteen good carriages, and this one should be usable too once we remove the fire stones. Excellent, this should work out.’
Having successfully linked up with the merchants, the first phase of their plan was complete. Assigning thirty soldiers to escort the merchant caravan, they set off towards the manor once more.
‘The next step is going to depend on Felix… Well, I’m sure she’ll come through for us.’