“Could you describe him to us?” I asked urgently.
“His name is Ronnie. I’d say he’s probably a little older than you, miss.” The innkeeper looked at me. “Chestnut brown hair, curly, and amber eyes like my lord mage there. Forgive me for asking, but I don’t suppose you’ve seen him?”
Once again, we looked at each other. Had we seen such a person? I hadn’t, at least not since we’d arrived at the inn.
“You haven’t, I take it.” The innkeeper sighed. “Well, Ronnie works in the kitchen anyway.
He doesn’t come out to where the guests are very often.”
Eric scratched his head, ruffling his hair. “When was he last seen?” he asked.
The innkeeper held his chin for a moment, tilting his head slightly. “I’d say…this evening, perhaps?”
“It was around dusk,” one of the other staff confirmed. “When I came to ask him to help set the tables, he was already gone.”
Miss Maria had disappeared around dinnertime. Ronnie had disappeared around dusk. Which meant that Ronnie had disappeared first.
If they had disappeared at the same time, it would have been possible that Ronnie took Miss Maria somewhere. But if he had disappeared first, then either the culprit was someone else, or they were completely unrelated incidents… We didn’t have enough information right now to be certain.
Brow furrowing, Eric asked, “Does Ronnie live here? Have you contacted his family?”
The innkeeper patted his generous belly as he replied, “All of my staff are live-in, Ronnie included. They’ve a day off every five days, but even if they sometimes spend the night elsewhere, none of them rent houses. They live here. Ronnie’s hometown — ah, what was it? They do say that memory’s the first to go as you get old. Ulisse, do you know?”
“Pretty sure he said it was Tello. You know, the food stall town.”
As I tried to hide my surprise at hearing the familiar name, the man the innkeeper had called Ulisse scratched his head and sighed. “Kid was always saying that when he’d made some money he’d go home to Tello and open a shop with Gisella. When I suggested he might as well open a shop here, he insisted he was going to go back to Tello.”
While I’d been distracted by the mention of Tello, Eric had taken an interest in the woman’s name they’d mentioned. “Gisella? Who’s that? What’s her connection to Ronnie?”
“Hm? Ah…Gisella’s Ronnie’s girl. She works for a merchant house that comes here often,” Ulisse answered. “Beautiful girl, type you don’t see out here in the country much.”
“If they’re lovers, maybe Ronnie is visiting Gisella?” Eric suggested.
The innkeeper and Ulisse looked at each other significantly. Then, in unison, they sighed, shoulders drooping.
“In fact…Gisella went missing a few days ago.” “What!?”
Another missing person! The innkeeper’s troubled expression deepened further; perhaps he’d noticed how we’d keyed in on the word “missing.” But Eric didn’t seem to notice the innkeeper’s expression, or perhaps didn’t care; he continued asking questions, “Do you think they eloped?”
“I doubt that,” the innkeeper said. “They were a fine couple, and the Gorgonne family — those are Gisella’s employers — weren’t particularly opposed to it, or so I heard. Neither Ronnie nor Gisella have parents. There’s not much reason to elope when there’s no one opposing the marriage.”
“Ronnie’s been awfully down since Gisella vanished,” Ulisse commented. “He even talked about quitting the job to go looking for her. That kid never was good at thinking about anything that wasn’t right in front of him… Maybe he took off to search.”
If someone important to you is suddenly gone… Feeling a chill running down my spine, I clenched my fists.
If they simply vanished, rather than dying, of course you would want to go looking for them. No matter what you left behind. If it was possible to get them back, of course you would want to, no matter what. Thinking of how Ronnie must have felt, I bit my lip.
Meanwhile, next to me, Eric recalled our assignment from Sir Agliardi and turned to the innkeeper. “Actually, we had a request to make. It seems His Highness wishes to look at the ledger… He would also like to speak to you. Could I ask you to accompany us?”
“Well, I don’t…” The innkeeper hesitated. After all, we were asking him to produce the ledger that he normally wouldn’t show even to his staff.
“Oh, and not just the ledger. We would also like to see the documents from when you hired Ronnie. Is that all right?”
I honestly thought he was going to say no, but to my surprise, he said reluctantly, “Well…normally I wouldn’t be able to show you those. But if His Highness is willing to let me take them directly to him, I suppose I can make an exception.”
“Great!” Eric cheered. “Then, sorry about this, but can we ask you to bring them immediately? It’s a very urgent matter.”
In no time at all, we were walking back to His Highness’s room, accompanied by the innkeeper, his ledger in his hand. When we arrived, Sir Celes and the others had not yet returned, but Sir Agliardi and the prince were waiting for us.
“Ah, I see you brought the master himself. Have you explained the situation?” Sir Agliardi asked.
“Not yet,” Eric explained. “I thought it might be better for you to do it.”
“I see.” In an instant, Sir Agliardi’s hard expression was replaced by a kind smile, as he beckoned the hesitant innkeeper to enter the room. “I am sorry to put you to the trouble, good sir. This will be a somewhat complicated discussion, so please, come in. You two as well,” he added,
beckoning us to step inside quickly.
Once everyone was inside, Sir Agliardi led the innkeeper to sit on a sofa facing His Highness. Then Sir Agliardi sat on a third chair, so that the three of them formed three sides of a square, and immediately launched into the heart of the matter. “I must ask that you keep this a secret, but…the Sacred Maiden is missing.”
“We lost track of where she was after dinner,” Sir Agliardi explained. “Did you see her at the entrance? The door leading to the main road is the only way to get to and from the guestrooms, correct?”
“Ah — yes. That is correct,” the innkeeper replied. “There is a back door opening onto the alley that I and my staff use, but…well, to be honest, it’s not a very safe area, so we do not allow our guests to use it. We’ve occasionally had requests — there is a brothel nearby — but we always turn them down.”
So there was a back door? Come to think of it, the inn’s staff could hardly come and go through the same door that the guests used.
“I only watch the front door that the guests use, but since sunset, the only ones who have left the inn were members of your group, my lord. Two of the knights, and the young lady here.” The innkeeper glanced at where I stood in front of the door, next to Eric. I did remember him seeing me off when I stepped outside for some air.
“The ones who used the front would be Reynard and his brother,” Sir Agliardi murmured. “Then, if you know who has used the back entrance since this evening, could you tell us?”
“Including myself and my family, there are seven people who work here,” the innkeeper said. “But we don’t use it much in the evening. We’re too busy preparing dinner for our guests, you see. My wife might know, but…”
“In that case, forgive me, but could we check with her?” “Ah… Yes, my lord…”
Sir Agliardi waved for the innkeeper to sit back down when he went to get up, and turned to Eric, who was yawning next to me. “Eric, I’m sorry, but could you call the lady? Lucia, stay here.”
“No problem. Oh, Lucia. Tell the commander about what we heard earlier. Thanks!” Waving a hand sleepily, Eric disappeared through the door.
Once he’d left, I explained what we’d learned to Sir Agliardi, “It seems that there are several other people who have disappeared in this town. One was Ronnie, who works at this inn. The other was Ronnie’s sweetheart Gisella. She vanished several days ago, and Ronnie disappeared this evening. Miss Maria seems to have been the most recent disappearance.”
They must have suspected that Ronnie and Gisella’s disappearances had something to do with
Miss Maria’s. Both Sir Agliardi and the prince suddenly leaned forward.
“What do you mean?” Sir Agliardi asked sharply.
I explained as much as I could recall of the connection between Ronnie and Gisella, along with everything we knew thus far of the incident.
As I spoke, the innkeeper nodded. “As she said, my lords. Gisella disappeared three days ago. We only learned about it because her lover Ronnie asked my head cook Ulisse for time off suddenly. I don’t know if the Gorgonne family is keeping it quiet or what, but folks in town don’t seem to have heard any rumors about Gisella’s disappearance. She was a favorite of the head of the family, so I suppose if people heard about her disappearance, they’d suspect foul play.”
“I see…” Sir Agliardi trailed off into silence, deep in thought.
Two missing lovers. Could Miss Maria’s disappearance be connected to theirs, somehow?