Instead of finding solace, the situation only grew more intricate, intensifying the unease in Elise’s gut. This sensation was foreign to her.
Elise firmly pressed her hand against her chest and unfurled the emperor’s letter.
“What does it say?”
The three influential figures of Rotiara leaned in, their faces etched with anxiety, awaiting Elise’s revelation. Calmly, she perused the meticulously crafted characters and distilled their essence into a single sentence. “It states that the tribute sent from Rotiara to the Van Yela Imperial Palace last autumn differs from previous years.”
“What? That can’t be true!” Sobeul, an aide to Rezette, exclaimed in disbelief, clutching his cheek. “We paid utmost attention last year!”
The backstory unfolded as follows:
The Rotiara domain, known as Van Yela’s granary, was a prolific producer of various commodities. Its fertile plains yielded bountiful wheat, the Grenthern Mountains provided an array of herbs and fruits, fertile fields bore ample vegetables, and extensive sheep farms produced valuable wool. Some of these goods found their way to the capital, Opel, every quarter, while others were dispatched to domains throughout Van Yela, fetching substantial prices.
Of particular significance was the tribute dispatched to Opel. Instead of conventional taxes and military conscription, Rotiara was required to send its distinctive products, with harvest quantities meticulously recorded and distributed each year. Rezette’s irritation was not to be trifled with in case of discrepancies; Alfred had once remarked that Rezette could be exceedingly vexing in such matters. Hence, Rotiara regarded the autumn harvest festival with paramount importance and grandeur.
The previous year’s harvest festival had coincided with the Duke’s absence from Rotiara due to the ongoing war. Alfred and Sobeul exchanged pallid expressions, for they bore the responsibility of managing the domain in Rezette’s absence.
“Could there be a possibility of a counting error, Sobeul?” Elise inquired.
“When His Grace departs the castle, he examines the accounts with an unprecedented level of scrutiny. Every detail is meticulously transcribed and reported,” Sobeul responded.
“I understand.” Even when residing in a remote mansion en route to Van Yela, Rezette would seize any opportunity to peruse documents scribed on parchment, most of which hailed from Rotiara. Could a man with such a keen sense, even after days without sleep, have negligently glossed over these documents?
“If the Duke himself confirmed this matter, there can be no doubt,” Elise conceded. “So, what could possibly explain the shortfall in tribute upon reaching the Imperial Palace?”
“Undoubtedly, someone intercepted the tribute while it was en route from Rotiara to Opel,” Alfred asserted, a conviction shared by Elise.
She concealed the emperor’s letter beneath her palm. “To thoroughly scrutinize all past documents and identify the culprit, we must launch a comprehensive investigation. Typically, such incidents originate from within.”
“All the administrators in Rotiara have verified identities, personally chosen by the Duke, and possess extensive experience in their roles. Hence, for now, we should commence our inquiry with the newcomers…”
“I’ve witnessed many turncoats in Argan, individuals who betrayed the Emperor’s trust,” Elise remarked softly. Alfred, Sobeul, and Lady Petisson fell into a contemplative silence. “The reason for Argan’s defeat in the full-scale war against Ugel is no mystery. It’s because someone from Argan’s inner circle leaked our tactics to Ugel. This is common knowledge.”
The traitor in question held a prominent position within Argan. He was the offspring of a man who had occupied a high-ranking post since the reign of the previous monarch and had been Andrei’s childhood friend. This individual had defected to Ugel, trading Argan’s military secrets for a share of the conquered territory.
“He’s gone into hiding. Most likely, he’s in the Ugel capital, anticipating the moment when Ugel carves up Argan’s territory like a piece of cake. What a foolish man,” Elise mused.
Could someone who had betrayed once be trusted not to do it again? Would Ugel truly spare a spy from an enemy nation with a history of treachery?
While the Ugel people were often considered barbarians, they were astute and calculating individuals who could instill fear in neighboring nations simply by branding themselves as such. After all, they had survived for centuries in a desolate desert without a homeland to call their own. They couldn’t afford to be foolish.
“In any case, the essence of my message is to not disregard the possibility of an internal traitor. Traitors are often closer than we think.”
“I will keep that in mind,” responded Alfred.
“It would be prudent to identify them as swiftly as possible. At present, it’s just wheat and herbs, but who knows what else from Rotiara they might attempt to divert, and where they might divert it to. We must seal this breach before it widens.”
“Yes, Your Grace,” agreed Alfred, a determined gleam shining in his eyes.
“So, could you please start by rechecking the reports submitted by Sobeul and me?”
As Elise responded, he promptly nodded.
“Since the Duke isn’t here!”
“Well, that’s true, but… It’s not that I can’t do calculations, but I don’t know anything about managing a domain, Alfred. When I was in Argan, I only saw official documents over people’s shoulders a few times.”
“Perhaps these official documents you mention are budgets or policy proposals from the Argan royal palace… is that correct?”
Andrei, whenever Elise wasn’t feeling well, would always bring work to her bedroom. He even taught his sister how to review financial statements when she was feeling restless.
Sobeul nodded eagerly with a hopeful expression.
“Then you should be able to review them sufficiently. After all, all the accounting ledgers from the northern region are based on the southern style!”
Elise needed to practice her magic, and on top of that, reviewing Rotiara’s financial records? When she hesitated, Alfred intervened urgently.
A determined spark ignited in Alfred’s eyes.
“So, could you please start by reexamining the reports that Sobeul and I submitted?” Elise was taken aback by the request.
“Me?” She replied, a hint of surprise in her voice.
Elise hesitated for a moment, considering her capabilities. “Well, it’s true that I can handle calculations, but I don’t have any experience in managing a domain, Alfred. During my time in Argan, I only caught glimpses of official documents over people’s shoulders a few times.”