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Chapter 6 - Ascertaining the Inner Workings

My orbment, emptied bag and package wrapped in old magazine paper were laid out neatly on the table in front of me. The bracer sitting opposite me gazed alternately at my face and the items on the table as if trying to gauge my reaction to them. Constantly rubbing his chin between his fingers, it appeared to me as though he were making an effort to display his right hand, snugly fit within a leather gauntlet.

I had been led to the second floor of the lodge by the two men, and then, after they had painstakingly checked the layout of the floor, I was taken to the farthest room from the stairs. It occurred to me that the reason for the use of the makeshift space was due to there being no guild branch nearby.

The first man to sit in front of me was the lanky one. He told me his name, but I soon forgot which one was Clayton and which one was Pavel. About the time I had finished being frisked, the bracer wearing the gauntlets, Clayton or Pavel, whoever it was, returned and whispered something in his partner's ear. It seemed as though they were trying to locate Sister Carnelia, but having no luck.

After much probing on the subject of her and the jaeger corps, and after relating everything I had heard from her on the train, I turned the conversation around and, playing the role of the victim, inquired into her past history. (Though strictly speaking, I guess I was, in fact, a victim.)

'Her name is Selnate. Ein Selnate,' read aloud the lanky bracer from a pocket book he held just below eye level. 'Originally a constituent member of a jaeger corps, her present affiliation and activities are unknown.'

'In short,' added his partner pompously, 'she's not the type of person any upstanding citizen should be getting involved with.'

He reached out his gauntlet-clad hand and picked up the object bundled in scrap paper. Checking my reaction all the while, he unwrapped the paper, laying it out flat in the center of the table. Its contents turned out to be a lump of metal ingrained with a sort of clay-like substance.

I blurted out, 'I was on my way to a research institute with the item when everything happened,' and then threw in the address of some non-existent client for good measure.

The bracers took notes, making sure not to leave out any of the details of our conversation. Then, to dispel any lingering suspicions, I agreed to stay with them under their watchful eyes for the night.

The next day, I also found myself inclined to go along with them to the nearest guild branch in order to file a report about the events that happened back at the station, but I had no qualms over the matter. My greatest concern at the moment, after all, was not running into any more trouble.

I awoke as the sun came up over the horizon and day broke. With the advent of a peaceful morning, I sat up in bed and breathed a sigh of relief. The bracers who had stood guard the previous night were no longer present in the room, but the sound of their voices could be heard echoing out in the hallway beyond the closed door.

Slipping my arms through the sleeves of my jacket, I felt a sharp pain in my right elbow which brought back vivid memories of the woman from the day before.

Suddenly, a feeling of uneasiness came over me and still half-undressed, I began adjusting my orbment. After opening its back cover, I used a thin piece of tanned doeskin and started plucking out the quartz installed in each slot. It didn't take but five minutes to insert them each into different slots and rearrange their configuration with a set of light magic as my base. One by one, I replaced each screw until finally the metallic panel was back in place, and as a feeling of calmness set in, I rolled back over in bed.

It was at that time that a tall woman appearing to be a maid opened the door carrying a basin of hot water for the sink, with which guests could shave and wash their faces. After placing the small steaming tub on the table, the woman went quietly about her daily task of removing the bed linen.

Finding myself shooed from my own bed, I reluctantly headed toward the basin when just beyond the open door, I caught sight of two shadows cutting across the hallway in succession.

'They're here,' I heard myself mutter as the low tone of my suppressed voice reached my ears.

With only a bar of soap in hand, I remained unbelievably calm as I quickly shut and bolted the door. Then, pondering my next move, I stood still with my back pressed up against the wall.

On the other side of the hardened clay wall, the brief clamor of fighting ensued. Fumbling with the chain attached to my hip pocket I grabbed hold of the orbment I had adjusted just barely moments before.

It was two bracers versus the two others I had seen moments ago. Throwing myself into the mix with the two men from the guild would definitely put us at an advantage from a numbers standpoint. However, when I turned again to face the door, the voice of self-doubt came percolating through my closed lips in the form of a distant mutter.

'There were only two of them?' I murmured to myself.

If Sister Carnelia's words were to be believed, then one unit consisted of three people, not two. Again, I questioned myself inwardly, 'Then where's the third?'

The hair on the back of my neck stood on end as I realized my plight.

Something swung down over the top of my head, catching me around the neck, and the next instant I was flung to the ground. From the corner of my blurred and spotty vision came the inexplicable view of a woman with demonic bloodshot eyes standing over me, trying to wrench the very life out of me with every twist of the sheet she had wrapped tightly around my throat.

Clutching my orbment in hand, I activated it and fired off a burst of magic while lying half-asphyxiated on the wooden planks of the room floor. The destructive vortex of compressed air sliced deeply into my hip, but at the same time, caused the woman to double over before forcefully blowing her to another part of the room. Shreds of whirling linen flecked and sprayed with fresh blood blasted out through a gaping hole in the wall where a closed window once stood, leaving nothing behind but shards of broken glass and a frame rent beyond all repair.

第6回 仕組みの確認

テーブルの上には、僕の導力器(オーブメント)と、空にされたバッグと、あの古紙の包みが並べてある。遊撃士は僕の顔と卓上の小物とを、まるで見比べるように交互に眺めていた。いかつい皮手甲をはめた右手を見せ付けるように、しきりとあごをなでる。

僕が連行された先は、宿酒場の2階だった。遊撃士は念入りに間取りを確かめ、一番奥の部屋へと僕を通した。どうやら近くに協会(ギルド)の支部はないらしい。

最初に僕の前に座ったのはやせている方だった。名前を聞いたが、すぐにどっちがクレイでどっちがパヴェルだか忘れてしまった。身体検査が終わった頃に手甲をした方、つまりパヴェルかクレイが戻ってきて、相棒に耳打ちする。結局、シスターは見つからなかったみたいだ。

彼らの興味は、シスター・カーネリアと《猟兵団(イェーガー)》の方に集中していた。カーネリアから列車の中で聞いたことを全部しゃべると、僕は被害者づらして逆に彼女のことをたずねた。真実、僕は被害者だった。

「あの女はセルナート、アイン・セルナート」やせ型の方が手帳を読み上げた。「元は《猟兵団》の構成員で、現在の所属と活動内容は不明だ」

「まあ、善良な市民の付き合う相手じゃない」

もったいぶった調子で手甲の男は言い、古紙の包みに手を伸ばした。こちらの様子を窺いつつ、包みを机の中央に広げる。出てきたのは、粘土のこびりついた金属の塊だった。「研究機関に運ぶ途中」と僕はでまかせを言い、居もしない客の住所をつらつらと並べ立てた。遊撃士は残さずメモを取る。

そしてそのまま、僕は遊撃士たちと同宿することになった。駅での一件の調書を取るため翌日は支部に行くことになったが、僕の方に不満はなかった。どうやって朝まで無事に過ごすか、差し当たってそれが最大の悩みだったからだ。

僕は日の出と共に目を覚ました。平穏な朝の訪れに安堵の吐息をついたときには、もう遊撃士たちの姿はなく、廊下の方から彼らの声だけが聞こえた。

上着に袖を通すと、右肘が痛んで、あの女のことを思い出す。とたんに言いようのない不安を感じ、身支度もそこそこに僕は導力器(オーブメント)の調整を始めた。

裏蓋を開け、油なめしの鹿革でクオーツをつまみ上げる。別のスロットへ差し込み、軽めの魔法(アーツ)を中心にした構成に変えるまで、5分とかからない。1本ずつネジを元通りにしめ直していくと、ようやく気持ちが落ち着き、僕はまたベッドに転がった。

そこに宿の使用人らしき背の高い女が、洗面用のお湯を持ってやってきた。湯気の立つたらいをテーブルにどんと置くと、女は黙ってシーツを剥ぎ取りにかかる。ベッドから追い出された僕が、仕方なくたらいの前に向かったとき、開け放たれたドアの向こうを、2つの影が続けさまに横切った。

「来た」僕は自分の呟きを耳にした。片手に石鹸(せっけん)を持ったまま、信じられないような冷静さで戸を閉め、鍵を掛け、壁際に立つ。土壁の向こうで、怒号と肉のぶつかる音とがひと時に交錯する。腰の鎖を手繰り、いま調整したばかりの導力器を握り締めた。

遊撃士は2人、さっき見えた相手も2人。僕を加えれば数では勝つ。ドアの方へ向き直ったとき、どこか遠くで、また僕自身が呟いた。

「2人だって?」シスターは1単位「3人」だと言っていた。なら、もう1人はどこに――自分の問いに凍りついた僕の首に、何かが巻きつき、あっと思う間もなく後ろに引き倒された。青ざめた視界の隅に、シーツを引き絞る女の血走った目が映った。たらいを持ってきたあの女だった。手の中で導力器を唸らせて、僕は倒れたまま魔法を放つ。圧縮された空気が僕のふとももを切り裂き、女をくの字に折り畳んで窓まで吹き飛ばした。白いリネンと鮮血とが、風の突き抜けた跡に渦を巻いた。

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