「That most suspicious part is the reason for the tax increase, 『the Kuna rice’s poor harvest』.」
The group gathered in a room as usual, and the Princess started off with that. Compared to the beginning of the investigation, her suspicion had grown greatly.
「The rainfall report in Ebodolk province for the past three years is strange. It might just be a weather abnormality, there are enough elements to suspect that the numbers had been edited. This report of low rainfall might be forged to make the story of 『Kuna rice poor harvest』 more convincing.」
「Going deeper, the Kuna rice’s poor harvest even turned into a reason to hike the tax rate… In other words, the Princess concludes that the low rainfall and Kuna rice’s poor harvest is a lie— a foundation he laid in order to increase the taxes in a natural way?」
When he heard Ikuta’s question, Princess Chamille nodded firmly. On the other hand, Matthew tilted his head and groaned.
「Faking low rainfall and a poor harvest of Kuna rice… Is that even possible? Even if he changed the numbers on documents, the local residents could still sense the truth behind the situation, right?」
「It is natural to have doubts, but that isn’t so, Matthew. Even though a person could more or less tell how much the annual rainfall is, they couldn’t grasp the rainfall for the entire Ebodolk province. Because, normally speaking, the senses of a human are constrained to a narrow area.」
「That might not be true, especially for farmers who had to tend to a field that’s tens to hundreds of times their own homes. And the condition of the crops and harvest would reflect on the rain amount too. Those who owns vast swathe of farmland can sense how much the annual rainfall is.」
Since the subject was his hometown, Matthew’s rebuttal sounded very convincing. The dark haired youth felt glee welled up in his heart as he nodded.
「That’s correct, Matthew. Someone who owns a lot of land can say with a lot of confidence how the rainfall for a big area is— However, there aren’t that many of them, right?」
「Of course, there aren’t many of them. There’s probably just a handful in the entire province.」
「This means that it wouldn’t be too difficult for Viscount Hamatoll to coordinate their testimonies ahead of time.」
Matthew was stunned for a moment, then clicked his tongue and said:「I see.」 After getting their agreement, Ikuta continued:
「More specifically, most of the big landowners in the Ebodolk province are farmers growing crops─ in other words, the main producer of the Kuna rice. He just need to match sure their testimonies regarding rainfall matches, and then buy the rice at a slightly higher price, and he can pull off the poor harvest farce. As for the rice he bought… If it was me, I will hide it in a place where it wouldn’t be found at first.」
「After all, the market price for rice will obviously increase during a poor harvest… After the price of the merchandize had been jacked up, he just need to carefully pick buyers to earn more profits.」
Yatori nodded repeatedly as if she understood everything. At this moment, Haro suddenly raised her hand hesitantly.
「Erm… I understand from your explanation about the Kuna rice’s poor harvest, but why did the governor imposed a 『levy targeted against women』…?」
When she heard that, the Princess crossed her arms and started pondering.
「Hmm, that is true… Collecting taxes in such a manner would force all the single ladies who can’t pay the levy to flee from this province, and decrease the tax collected on a whole. The governor can’t be a retard that will miss this logic. In other words, Viscount Hamatoll has a reason why he wants to keep the status quo even at the expenses of collecting less taxes.」
The Princess postulates that this was the main reason behind this incident. However, she couldn’t deduce the actual content. The only thing she could do was to work from the part she did understand and gradually clear the obstacles.
「─ Alright, let’s split into two teams. Major Sazarf, Matthew and Torway, I need you to obtain evidence that the poor harvest of the Kuna rice is a forgery. It will be great if you can confiscate the actual product. Matthew will be a huge asset with his local knowledge.」
After laying out the instructions to the three of them, Princess Chamille turned to the other trio.
「Yatori, Haro and Solork. You will follow me to Mactech, I want to know how the harlots make their escape in the middle of the night. Depending on the results, we might get a glimpse on the true intention of the imposing the 『levy targeted against women』.」
Her voice was no longer hesitant as she gave her orders. From the way the Princess acted, it was clear that she didn’t just have a brilliant mind and completing tasks— her leadership as a ruler could also be seen.
「That concludes my orders─ If there are no objections, let’s get moving!」
The seven of them got up from their chairs or beds and got going.
After Sazarf, Matthew and Torway received their orders to 「obtain evidence that the poor harvest of the Kuna rice is a forgery」, they decided to head to the nearest warehouse in the province.
「If the harvest really is poor, then there shouldn’t be much rice in the warehouse… But if that was fabricated, the large quantities of rice he bought under the table might be stored in these warehouse.」
「But if everyone knows about the warehouse, then keeping it here isn’t really hiding it, right?」
Matthew retorted calmly as he walked along the path in the night. Sazarf sighed:
「You need to heat up the atmosphere, Second Lieutenant Matthew… The girls has all been taken by the other team, I won’t be able to hang on if I hear too many depressing things.」
「To be honest, I’m relieved that I don’t need to visit the red-light district again…」
「Fuhaha, I will bring you there personally next time, First Lieutenant Torway.」
「Huh! You… You don’t have to take me there…!!」
「Don’t hold back, it’s actually a great place… Hmm? This looks like the place.」
Far shining light was projected from the entrance of their destination, and was blinding to people who had gotten used to the dark. Sazarf took out his partner Kii from the pouch on his waist, and sent light signals indicating that they were friendlies. The soldiers who noticed the visitors rushed over immediately.
「It’s the middle of the night, where are you people from!?」
「Excuse me, we need to trouble you with something… Ehh? Aren’t you Sergeant Nigant?」
Matthew was planning to ease his way into the topic, but saw a familiar face and called his name. The middle aged man named Sergeant Nigant was stunned for a moment, and then held Matthew’s hands with all smiles.
「Ara, I was just thinking that you look familiar, aren’t you the young master of the Tetzirich house!? You should have told me since you are back! I heard the news that you performed splendidly in central and the north!」
「… Huh? The young master of the Tetzirich house? That’s not possible, he should be chubbier, right?」
「Retard, how many years ago did you think that was? And you can’t address him casaully as Young Master anymore! This is the 『Imperial Knight』 and hero of the northern rebellion, Sir Second Lieutenant Matthew Tetzirich!」
It seems that Sergeant Nigant wasn’t the only person Matthew knew, and he was quickly surrounded by a group of soldiers he knew from old times, and they started touching him in a joking manner. But being treated like a kid probably felt embarrassing, so Matthew quickly cut off their welcome and got down to business.
「S-Sorry for telling you so late, but I’m here today to ask a small favor.」
「Haha, what is it? Need to borrow the toilet? Young master, you peed in a field in the past, and got lectured for it, correct!?」
「Don’t dig up unnecessary things from the past! That’s not it—」
They were as close as family, which made it hard for things to progress instead. Seeing how flustered Matthew was, Sazarf tapped his shoulder gently and took a step forward.
「Pardon me for disturbing at this late hour, I’m a Army Major Senpa Sazarf…」
When they heard this name and the rank of a Major, the rowdy soldiers stood up straight immediately.
「You… You are the overall commander of the rear guard mission during the Northern Rebellion!? I apologize for our poor reception…!」
「No, we should be the one apologizing for the late night visit… But we do have permission from Colonel Tetzirich. These are the orders, do take a look.」
In order to let them see it clearly, Sazarf let Kii illuminate the document he presented. Sergeant Nigant who read the content of the document looked troubled.
「Major Senpa Sazarf, Second Lieutenant Matthew Tetzirich and First Lieutenant Torway Remeon, just for tonight, will be omitted from the prohibited list of the warehouse protection garrison…?」
「Which means you don’t need to worry too much and let us in. Sorry about that, but we can settle our matter in about an hour.」
「Please… Please wait, all of you are going to the warehouse?」
「You don’t need to know that, but I will be frank, we will be doing so.」
「But that won’t do. The duties of us soldiers are to protect the warehouse. Unless there is an emergency, only the authorized officials may enter the warehouse. You will be trespassing if you did that.」
「Since there is an official orders, you won’t be prosecuted for this, I can guarantee that. So don’t say anymore and let us through. I’m really sorry about this.」
「… The officials will be here tomorrow morning, can’t you wait until then?」
Sazarf shook his head silently. Sergeant Nigant and the others could tell the trio were forced by their circumstances, and after hesitating for a while, they opened a path with a sigh.
「… Since you have already gotten permission from our Commanding Officer, then please proceed. For the next hour, we will pretend we didn’t see anything, and become strawmans as you wished.」
To avoid the stored items from being stolen, the warehouse was built in a small base. After getting the reluctant approval of the unit commander, the others turned a blind eye to Matthew and his group, allowing them to approach the target building without any problems. However…
「It’s barred and locked, Major.」
「Hmm… That’s a problem… But it would deviate from the contents of the orders if we ask them to open the locks.」
Sazarf scratched his head hard in the face of the locked sturdy door of the warehouse. But when he shifted his gaze up, he found an opening they could exploit.
「Hey! There’s a window up there, can we go in from there?」
「That’s rather high, more than 3 metres off the ground. And from its size, I don’t know if someone can fit in through there…」
Matthew who was thinking about his own body size had a troubled expression. And so, the two of them naturally focused their gaze on Torway who was both tall and slender.
「Give it a try, Torway. I will let you step on me.」
Matthew sighed as he went to the wall and bend over. Torway was a little hesitant, but made up his mind after Sazarf lent him his Luminous Sprite as a light source for the warehouse and Matthew urged him to hurry up.
「… Alright, I’m doing it, Mchan. Mmh… Ughh...!」
The youth stepped onto the back of his friend, and jumped for the window that was still far from his reach. After getting his hand on the window ledge, he pushed his upper body through the window to observe the inside. And of course, it was completely dark, so Torway took the Luminous Sprite from his pouch with one hand, and shone it at a wide angle.
「It’s high up… we should use a rope to be safe.」
Torway put Kii back into his pouch, then took out the rope tied to his waist. He dangled one end down, and threw the other end to Sazarf. His supervising officer who realized his intent held on to the rope tightly, and Torway slid the rest of his body through the window too.
He flipped forward while grabbing the rope, and stepped onto the wall with his feet. And now, he just needed to lower himself along the wall. Considering the cliffs he had to climb in order to secure the position to snipe the Phantom Unit, this was a cakewalk for Torway.
After landing in the warehouse that was so dark he couldn’t even see his own hands, Torway took out the Luminous Sprite Kii from his pouch and placed it on the ground, letting it lit up the surroundings. He could see large sacks filled with grains stacked inside the warehouses. They were probably stacked away from the window to make infiltration through the window more difficult.
「With Mchan’s body shape, it would be dangerous for him to come down in the same way… I better prepare a place for him to step on.」
Acting so considerately was just like Torway. He started stacking the sacks of grain near the window for the sake of his friend.
About ten minutes later, Matthew who used his friend’s consideration as a cushion in place of a stepladder successfully infiltrated the warehouse.
「That hurts… Damn it, we got the task allocation mixed up, this sort of things are Ikuta’s expertise.」
Matthew nursed his waist and stood up. Torway helped him up with a smile.
「No, you are up next, Mchan. I can’t tell the grains apart anyway.」
When he heard what Torway said, Matthew looked at the interior of the warehouse that was lit by Kii’s wide angle lights. At first glance, sacks were placed everywhere, but on closer observation, that wasn’t so. The empty spaces were very prominent too.
「This is wheat, that’s chickpea, and those are lentil…」
Matthew wasn’t satisfied with checking the markings on the sacks, and carefully felt the contents through the sacks with his hands. If the poor harvest of the Kuna rice was a scam, then it might be stored here and while disguised as another grain. He could tell if it was rice with just a touch.
「… There’s no time to check all the sacks, but there aren’t any of them that are unmarked or with the with contents that didn’t match their description.」
「What about the Kuna rice sacks? Are there many of them, or few?」
「I think the storage amount can be considered few. After all, the rice sacks aren’t too prominent compared to the other grains.」
This would obviously happen if there was a poor harvest. So the Princess was just too suspicious after all─ As Matthew was starting to have doubts, he heard creaking sound below his feet. He seemed to have stepped onto something.
「… What is this? Rice that had fallen out?」
That objects illuminated by the wide angle light were small brown grains─ coarse Kuna rice with its hull removed. Common sense would dictate that these grains had fallen out of a sack, but the strange thing was, there weren’t any sacks near them. These isolated grains were found in a space that was otherwise empty.
Feeling that something was amiss, Matthew picked up a grain of rice and hold it up to let the light shine through it. He then threw it into his mouth and chew on it. Torway observed that Matthew’s brows were getting more and more furrowed.
「… Strange, this is new rice.」
「This is recently harvested rice. Because the taste and texture of new and old rice are different. I can tell the difference even if they are raw, and the difference will be even obvious when they are cooked.」
Matthew explained as he searched around him. The presence of these grains implied that this empty space had more meaning behind it.
「… Are there new rice placed here not long ago? And a large quantity of them. And they were moved for some reason, leaving just a minuscule amount of grains behind…」
Matthew muttered. As their deduction went deeper, their expressions became more stern.
On the other side, after the Princess’s group arrived at Mactech again and found an inn, she issued orders her entourage.
「First is Solork, I want you to collect information about the harlots.」
Like the previous time, everyone had taken off their uniforms and put on casual clothes. Ikuta who was never fond of the imperial military uniform acted like this was a great chance, and even intentionally put on his shirt sloppily. He showed no signs of being a soldier at all.
「What kind of information?」
「How do harlots who owes too much money flee out of the province. I need the specific details regarding that, and we are here to find out about that.」
「I see… which means to say the infiltration restriction has been lifted… Am I right?」
Seeing the youth ask with obvious excitement, the Princess reached out her right hand with a smile.
「Hand over your wallet.」
「I’m asking you to hand over the wallet in your pants pocket, hurry up!」
Forced by the girl’s intimidating aura, Ikuta reluctantly handed over his wallet. Princess Chamille checked the contents as she gave the next orders.
「Yatori, Haro! Search Ikuta! He might be hiding money somewhere else on him!」
The flame-haired girl carried out the instruction without missing a beat. Haro was a step behind, but she also started searching him after saying: 「Sorry, Mr Ikuta.」 After inspecting every nook and cranny, even the spare change in Ikuta’s pocket was confiscated.
「Okay, this is today’s search fee, use it carefully.」
With a few clinks, the youth receive ten odd coins. Ikuta frowned and looked at this spare change carefully.
「… Princess, this is barely enough for three beers, and nowhere near the price of hiring a prostitute.」
「That’s great. If you look around the red-light district, you can find harlots heading to the inn after finishing their work. So gather your intel from there. This isn’t like the previous time, you don’t need to find many people and listen to them. It’s an easy mission if you use your gift of the gab, right?」
「The harlot’s attitude towards men is terrible outside of working hours! You want me to get intel out of them without even buying them a drink?」
「It’s fine, you can definitely do it, I believe you. Go on then!」
The Princess refused to let Ikuta continue his protest, and chased him out mercilessly. The youth grumbled as he was leaving. Princess Chamille remembered something and called out to him.
「Oh right, Solork. I forgot to tell you that you need to report back every 5 hours. I will give you more funds when you come back, but if you don’t come back in time, I will send Yatori out to patrol.」
「You don’t trust me at all!」
After seeing the back of the cursing and swearing Ikuta disappear in the distance, the Princess sighed heavily.
「That guy is really… If I don’t do this, he will definitely splurge the excess funds for his own amusement.」
「I think this is an appropriate decision, Your Highness.」
Yatori replied immediately, while Haro giggled. Princess Chamille cleared her throat, then turned to face the two of them.
「… Okay, we don’t have time to dally either. While Solork is out on his mission, we have things we need to do.」
「What? So noisy, scram!」
「It’s resting time, no man allowed~」
「Uwahhhh! Why why why does this always happen to me!?」
With bad tempered or drunk and sobbing harlots as his opponents, Ikuta persisted in such a tough battle that last over four hours, for three whole times. If there was an audience observing his fight, they would definitely praise him for his tenacity. But the sad thing was, he ended up alone after all that.
「I’m back… Ikuta’s back…」
Ikuta returned to the inn where the Princess’ group were staying in, and knocked the door. As every failed attempt result in bruises and scratches, his face was in a terrible state.
「Oh, Solork. Sorry, we are busy right now, so wait for a bit.」
He was refused entry. With no other choice, the youth decided to wait and lean his back on the door.
Tens of seconds later, the door behind him was opened suddenly. Ikuta who had leaned all his weight on the door fell backwards into the room.
「What are you doing, get up.」
Urged by Yatori’s nonchalant voice, Ikuta got up wobbily and looked inside the room. The youth’s eyes were wide open because of the unexpected scene that awaited him.
「Ah, welcome back, Mr Ikuta.」
Before him were two beautiful and lovely ladies covered in translucent sari. Their boldly exposed cleavage drew attention to their bosoms, and the lipstick covered lips felt moist and lustrous. Their voluminous hair flowed onto their bare shoulders, and silver accessories were adorned onto their ears and neck generously, lending them an air of mesmerizing sexiness.
「E-Erm… Please don’t stare, it’s embarrassing…」
When he saw that bashful smile, Ikuta finally understood that the two of them were Haro and Yatori disguising as harlots. Questions like why they did so were tossed aside by Ikuta, and his first reaction was to walk towards Haro, and said while holding her hands eagerly:
「… I’m buying!」
「She’s not for sale!」「We are not selling!」
The top of his head and hips were hit by Yatori’s punch and the Princess’ slap aggressively. The pain calmed Ikuta a little, and checked out Haro’s entire body again after taking a step back.
「Hmm… This is wonderful… I want to take her home right now…」
「You are actually reacting as I expected! Do I need to hit you again to wake you up?」
Seeing the Princess lifting a chair above her head with veins appearing on her forehead, even Ikuta shook his head out of fear of his life. He wasn’t a masochist, and had enough of being beat off by women.
「I get it, I really do…! Then, what’s going on here? You seemed to have spent a lot of effort to dress them up.」
「Before I explain, Solork, let me ask you about your effort. Have you gotten any reliable intel on how to escape from the province?」
「If I come back empty handedly after all this time, even I will want to cry… As for the means, some of the loan sharks actually take on such requests. It’s not to the extent of making a name list, but I have gotten a few names too.」
Princess Chamille nodded with satisfaction in response to this report, and shifted her gaze to Yatori and Haro.
「Alright then, we will try to do an undercover investigation too, it’s time for you two to do so while disguised as harlots.」
「I… I’m so nervous!」
Haro clenched her fists tightly. Ikuta finally understand what the Princess was planning.
「I see, you want the two of them to disguise themselves as harlots, and experience the trials of fleeing by night personally?」
「According to you, this is an infiltration investigation, Solork. We can then come into direct contact with the actual people involved in assisting with the escape.」
「Yatori will negate the high risk of this plan huh… I think it’s a good plan, but there’s a problem─ I will be frank, can you two really disguise yourselves as harlots?」
When she heard this forthright question, Yatori lowered her head a little troublingly.
「It’s easy to say that I’m alright… But to be honest, I’m not confident at all.」
「It’s fine, I will cover for you! Despite how I look, I’m actually great at acting!」
Haro took on the responsibility energetically. The introverted Haro displaying such enthusiasm was a surprise to Ikuta. Princess Chamille looked uneasy when she saw how energetic Haro was.
「Is this really fine…? The original plan is for Yatori and me to infiltrate…」
「I strongly object! How can the Princess do something so dangerous!?
「I concur. Your Highness, it is the duty of the knights to risk their lives to complete missions. Please leave this to us.」
Yatori showed no hesitation either. Not shying away from areas outside of her expertise was one of her many good points.
「I understand, I will leave it to you two then. Princess, you have prepared the supporting personnel too, correct?」
「Yes, I asked Colonel Mirtog to have one platoon on standby in the inns around the vicinity. Since we don’t even know how many enemies there are, the best course of action is to prepare for it.」
「I can rest easy then── Alright then, I have one last suggestion.」
Ikuta stared at the glamorously dressed duo, and said with a wry smile:
「… The makeup and dressing has to be redone. Both of them are already good looking, being dressed like this won’t make them look like harlots who can’t even make a living. They have to look more tired and desperate.」
「Ah── That… That’s true. I overlooked that and got too into dressing them up…」
When she noticed the serious problem, the Princess reconsidered their dressing. Ikuta was about to leave after glancing at her, but he spoke again when his hand barely touched the door handle.
「Oh right, one more thing── Hey, Yatori.」
The flame haired girl who was called turned around. The youth kept his back to her and glanced slightly to the side, and then said nonchalantly:
「You are very beautiful, and I the thought of buying you with money didn’t occur to me at all.」
Time froze except for the two subjects. Yatori didn’t react for a moment, and then smiled.
「Is that so? Thank you.」
Her response was short and had a hint of warmth. Ikuta didn’t say anything more, and just scratched his cheek before leaving and closing the door quietly.
In the room shrouded by silence, Haro looked at the girl beside her and said quietly:
「… I’m so envious of Ms Yatori.」
「Cool your head a little, Haro.」
「No, what happened just now made me really envious─ Because that Mr Ikuta… who will hit up any girl directly, complimented your beauty with his back towards you. It was obvious to everyone, even himself, that he was doing so to hide his embarrassment, but he still couldn’t help complimenting you.」
It was rare for Haro to express her opinion so forcefully. But the one who was deeply affected by these words weren’t Yatori herself, but the Princess who was listening by the side.
「… Dress… Which dress should I pick?」
She pretended to be fine and opened the closet, but she was unable to turn her head back. Before the Princess was confident that she could control her facial expression, she repeated the meaningless action of taking out and putting back her clothes.
There weren’t many people in the Mactech red-light district who hadn’t heard of the money lender Hazotto of the Gironji third zone.
「Huh! What the hell is this! This much isn’t enough to pay the interest!」
And of course, he was infamous for his notrierity. That’s because he would collect three times the amount after lending out the money for a month. In other words, he was a loan shark. He was loathed by everyone, but demand for his services would never die out. Hence, Hazotto could survive by feeding off the greed, misfortune and foolishness of others. This had never changed.
「You have to pay back the money you owe, that’s obvious! Are you looking down on me? Huh?」
For Hazotto, up until recently, the desperate harlots fleeing in the middle of the night was still a serious problem. That meant a debt remained uncollected. Lending someone money and not getting it back along with the interest─ there was no greater tragedy in this world for Hazotto.
「It can’t be helped, I will let you off this time! Come back here two weeks later with the interest!」
The woman who shrunk her shoulders out of fear of his angry yell left this shady place dejectedly. Hazotto who was in this barren room with two chairs and on etable glared at the back of the woman as she left, and took a big swig of beer.
「Hmmp… She’s probably going to fly soon.」
He wiped the corner of his mouth with the back of his hand and muttered. But he didn’t sound worried. Because unlike the past where it was all over once the debtor escaped out of the province, he had other means of clawing back the money.
「I can probably try coercing her the next time…」
When Hazotto was thinking about when he should make his move when the door at the entrance was knocked.
In response to his words, two woman entered the room. One was a red haired girl with a tight build, the other was a tall girl with marine blue hair. Hazotto didn’t know their faces, but from their sari that left little to the imagination and incredibly thick makeup, he could tell that they were harlots. More importantly, they were both high quality goods.
「This is a money lending business, how much do you two need?」
Hazotto said as he sized them up with his gaze. The taller girl took a step forward and answered.
「Erm… Well… We… don’t want to borrow money…」
「Huh? You don’t want money? Then why are you here? Make it clear!」
「I want you to help us flee from this province… I heard that this place accepts such requests.」
Hazotto smiled wryly in his heart when he heard that. Such cases had been on the rise lately. He didn’t need to proposed it himself, and the prey would visit after hearing the rumours.
「… Who did you heard this from?」
「A certain lady from the red-light district… But she asked to remain anonymous.」
She was talking about a co-worker, but the terms she used seemed so distant─ Hazotto was confused, and the tall girl explained after noticing his doubt.
「E-Erm… Actually, we are not officially a part of the red-light district yet.」
「What are you saying?」
「Because we were having a tough life, and we thought our only option was to earn money with our body… But I heard that we can find work easily if we move to the neighbouring province. On top of that, the taxes here are high, so…」
Hazotto finally understood after hearing that explanation. He thought that the air around the two of them seemed too innocent for harlots; but since they had yet to work in this line officially yet, he could understand. They probably decided to go down this road but couldn’t muster the courage to step over the final line, and happened to heard about a way to escape out of the province at that moment.
── They think they have a chance to avoid prostituting themselves? Fufu, how naive.
Hazotto suppressed a smile as she thought about how to slaughter the lamb that had come to him. They were both young with impeccable good looks, and would definitely fetch a high price if he sold them to 「there」... Normally, he would only offer this final choice to debt ridden harlots who had been pushed to the brink, but they approached him because they wanted to flee from the province, and wouldn’t borrow money from him. Most importantly, if he messed up and they got crushed by the workload, the high price they could fetch would plummet.
「… Are there any outstanding problems in this city? Did you borrow money from elsewhere?」
「No, feel free to check.」
「Good. Can you prove that you are not sick?」
The two women nodded at each other, then took out a board from their bags.
「This is the inspection proof. The grandma in the inspection counter of the red-light district did the inspection.」
「Hmmp, so you came prepared.」
Hazotto wanted to use the excuse of inspection to make them strip, but could only receive the two boards a little disheartenedly. He read the words carved on the square board carefully.
「Schalke and Lency, age 19 and 22… The checker is Zamikka that stinky grandma?」
Hazotto thought about that old woman known for her pettiness and short temper, and frowned. But contrary to her bad temperment, her skills as a checker was reliable, so he can trust her appraisal. But the truth was, these things were borrowed from harlots that Hazotto weren’t acquainted with─ After spending some time inspecting it, Hazotto returned the board to the two of them
「Okay, everything seems fine so far. But I will need to prepare on my side too, so come again in three days.」
When Hazotto finished speaking, the red haired woman used this chance to interject:
「We have a request. No matter what means of transportation is used, we want to do so together. If this condition isn’t met, we will call the whole thing off.」
Hazotto frowned when he heard her speak so arrogantly. But on second thought, unlike the usual people, they were debt free. He would lose all the money if they ran off, so he had to take it even if they made some wilful demands. After all, they were his important clients until the moment he traded the two of them for money.
「… Ugh, alright alright, I will arrange it as you wish.」
With a humble attitude that could only be described as a miracle, Hazotto nodded and asked them to prepare the 「administrative fee」. This fee wasn’t a big sum, but he will get the real bulk of the deal some time later.
Three nights later, the two of them headed to the suburbs where the carriages were stationed, and got on an old carriage that was waiting there. They left Mactech and headed west, advancing slowly by the far shining luminous Sprite on the carriage.
Including the driver, there were three men, as well as the two women dressed like harlots. Yatori and Haro took turns to sleep in order to keep their guards up, and spent about four days traveling by carriage tensely.
When they finally reach the border of the province, a small settlement that wasn’t big enough to call a village appeared before them. The carriage stopped there, and the two women alighted as instructed. They followed the men into a small house far away. Yatori casually stretched her limbs that had grown numb from the carriage trip.
They entered as instructed, and four men was waiting for them inside. One of them had a machete on his waist, while another was holding an Air Shooter loaded with a Wind Sprite. The other two sitting in the chair around the table weren’t armed── After Yatori assessed the enemies combat prowess, she waited for the right moment to act.
「These two? The goods this time sure are young.」
「But the goods are high quality this time. Anyway, you two, stand side by side over there.」
After standing in place as ordered, the men checked them out without holding back. Before the men spoke, Yatori took the initiative and asked:
「Are you the ones who will help us to arrange for our migration to the other province?」
「Yes, that’s right. I’m responsible before leaving the Ebodolk province, and this man will take care of you after you enter the Kuntsui province.」
From the way they spoke and acted, Yatori could tell that the group before her was different from the men she had been in contact with these few days. Haro who felt the same asked the crucial question boldly.
「We can get official permission to migrate….? I heard that only the authorized officials can grant an entry pass…」
「Are you referring to this?」
The man took out something as he answered. It was several entry permit that had been endorsed with some kind of large stamp. The front page states 「Provincial authorization permit for migration」, only the name field was blank. This was the so call 「Entry Permit」, which was indispensable when moving between provinces.
「We have made the preparation for that, so you don’t need to worry about it.」
「─ I see.」
This was a permit that should be issued by authorized officials, and the men before her were in the position to safekeep these documents on their person. This was enough to prompt Yatori to take action at this moment.
「… Excuse, that gentleman over there.」
With her mind set, Yatori turned and spoke to the man holding the Air Shooter, and was greeted by a surprised gaze.
「Can you pass me that water canteen? My throat is a bit parched…」
The man had no reason to turn down such a trivial request. He used the hand not holding the Air Shooter to remove the large canteen hanging from his shoulder and walked right over without any signs of wariness. The corners of Yatori’s mouth raised to form an arc.
Yatori reached out both her hands to take the canteen. After performing such a natural reaction…
She offered her gratitude as she grabbed his wrist instead of the canteen— before he was even aware of this fact, that man’s vision was already upside down.
The man lost his conscious after his back hit the ground hard. When Yatori grabbed his wrist and move into his chest, she threw the man with an over shoulder throw. Before the other three could grasp the situation, Yatori rushed the man with a machete on his waist.
「You… You bitch, what are you…!」
The man only drew his machete halfway out of its sheath when Yatori stopped his wrist with her right hand. She then twisted his arm, and threw him onto the floor with an arm lock. As the man fell, Yatori dislocated his shoulder mercilessly.
There were terrifying sounds of bones being dislocated along with a scream, but a sharp whistle drowned out both these noises. It was Haro who blew the whistle as a signal. The other two men got up from their chair frantically, but Yatori blocked their paths immediately.
「Give it up, this house has been surrounded.」
But they didn’t even have the chance to surrender. Less than five seconds after Yatori gave her warning, a large group of armed soldiers swarmed in.
「Fufufu… This luster, this brilliance… Fufufufu…」
Deep inside the governance building, there was a personal office for the governor. It was a big room filled with high end furniture, and Viscount Thezeni Hamatoll was polishing a small porcelain vase carefully.
「─ Pardon my intrusion. Business hours are over the day, Lord Viscount.」
Even after hearing the report from behind the door, Viscount Hamatoll didn’t stop his cleaning, and instructed the employee to enter. The First Class Clerk thought poorly of his superior who neglected his work and focused entirely on his hobby, but still reported in a calm voice:
「The documents that requires your approval are all here, please sign and stamp it after reviewing them.」
「Just put them there.」
After Viscount Hamatoll said that, he pointed to a basket in the corner of the room. The documents that were submitted in the afternoon were still lying there untouched, and the First Class Clerk placed the new stack of documents on top of them without betraying any emotions.
「Well then, allow me to take my leave...」「Clerk Hidashu.」
The clerk who had finished his task was about to leave when the voice of the Viscount came from behind.
「What about those?」
Without any indication of the subject, the Viscount who continued polishing his porcelain vase asked a question. But Clerk Hidashu had gotten used to working under this boss, so he managed to discern the Viscount’s intent.
「… We have taken care of it as per your orders. It has been shifted from the current storage place to an underground warehouse further to the north.」
「Good─ really, that Third Princess is annoying. I wonder why did she appeared so suddenly and waste so much of my time.」
The Viscount clicked his tongue in disgust, and the clerk felt uneasy as he recalled that uninvited guest.
「… As per the Lord Viscount’s orders, we have not put a temporary stop to the deals. Is that really fine?」
「It’s the high season right now, this can’t be helped... I don’t know what that little brat is probing, but it’s impossible to see through what we’re doing in just a few days. Even if she found out about the rice, I can brush it off with an excuse.」
「But if the officials working on site got caught…」
「Shut up! I said that is impossible! Enough, leave me!」
After hearing the angry roar of his supervisor, Clerk Hidashu bowed with a face that didn’t look convinced at all and left the office. The Viscount sat down heavily and snorted unhappily.
「Useless, every single one of them…」
He grumbled. The Viscount calmed his emotions and started polishing the porcelain vase again. However, less than two minutes later, the sound of flustered footsteps filled the corridor.
「What’s all that racket!?」
He lift his head with annoyance, and frantic knocking came in the same time.
「Lord… Lord Viscount! We have guests! The Third Princess has honoured us with her visit along with her escorts!」
Viscount Hamatoll immediately stopped his polishing and got up from the chair.
The Viscount hurried to the guest room and found the blonde girl waiting there with her knights. This was a repeat of their previous meeting except for two difference. First, one of the members of the Knight Corps, Torway Remeon, was absent. Second, the Princess Chamille has a tense air about her.
Viscount Hamatoll bowed and took a seat in the chair opposite her before saying timidly:
「This… Your Highness… If you wish for my presence, you can just summon me over at any time. I will ask the servants to prepare tea—」
「No need, I’m not here for tea and idle chatter.」
The Princess refused with a determined tone, and the atmosphere was obviously different from last time. The ominous feeling in Viscount Hamatoll’s heart grew, but he still forced himself to smile.
「Pardon my insolence— is there anything pressing matters you need to attend to?」
「I’m here to expose your schemes, let’s start with the conclusion— the Kuna rice’s harvest isn’t poor at all.」
Princess Chamille skipped over the social niceties and attacked the core of the enemy. The Viscount’s smile turned stiff.
「In the basement of an abandoned building about 20 km northwest of the Fourth Granary, a portion of the rice that was probably shifted out from the granary was found there. The labels indicating their origins had been torn off, but the grains are glittering new rice, so there is no mistaking it.」
How did you find it so quickly— The Viscount barely stopped himself from saying that. However, the Princess spoke in the stead of the Viscount anyway.
「Don’t you think it’s incredible? Why was it found so quickly… It’s true that there are plenty of place to hide the rice in the province. Even if we can get the support of Colonel Mirtog’s soldiers to search, there is a limit to the manpower we can mobilize. If we are to search every suspicious house everywhere and pry up all the floorings, there won’t ever be enough time.」
「Hence, I intentionally give up the initiative. Instead of searching for the hiding spots, we looked for the people that would visit them, picked a few obvious path to ambush and keep up surveillance. I was hoping that you will take some action after my interrogation earlier.」
The governor who realised he made a mistake twisted his lips. To be careful, he ordered the rice to be moved to another hiding spot— and that was the move that brought him down. The Viscount finally understood that.
「Assuming that the cargo would be moved by wagons, I chose the main roads and set up roadblocks there, using the reason that we are looking for bandits. And we hit a jackpot— and of course, we didn’t arrest the rice wagons on the spot. We let them pass through the roadblock and tailed them to the secret warehouse. I believe that isn’t the only secret warehouse, correct?」
「… You misunderstand—」
「It’s still too early for you to explain, Viscount. I’m not here to accuse you of embezzling the Kuna rice.」
Viscount had prepared all sorts of excuses, but they fell on deaf ears because of what the Princess said. She cast her icy, piercing gaze at the governor who had turned stiff.
「The poor harvest of the Kuna rice is a farce. Therefore, the tax increase that supposedly happen because of that happens for another reason, correct? Including this incident, I’m here today to expose your scheme.」
「The whole matter is complicated, so I will go about in sequence— basically, the thing I felt strange from the very start is the imposition of the 『tax targeted against woman』. Levying heavy taxes against women who earn less than men is not an effective way to generate more taxes. Just increasing the taxes in a normal way makes more sense. I’m sure you are aware of that too? So I have to rack my brains… What do you need to do to make this situation benefit you.」
The Princess expressed her thoughts smoothly. The logical light in her eyes pressured the man before her.
「And of course, just thinking about it wasn’t enough. I headed to the red-light district which is hit by the taxes the hardest, and observed the situation there— When I heard rumours that women burdened with debts there were fleeing out of the province, I finally found the correct line of thought… I won’t find the truth in the Ebodolk province alone. Because this scheme is only possible by going beyond the Ebodolk province and colluding with the neighbouring Kuntsui province.」
Princess Chamille paused to gather her thoughts, then continued:
「Back then, I remembered… According to the official records, the Lucini flu epidemic has been running rampant in the Kuntsui province since five years ago. It’s not fatal, but it is very contagious, and the symptoms include fever, headache, stomachache and others. Those who are malnourished might even become susceptible to dangerous life threatening diseases. Another trait of the disease is that women catch it easier than men.」
The Princess clenches her hands with a gloom on her face.
「Because of this disease, the population of women in the Kuntsui province had fallen drastically. And of course, it’s not possible to raise the next generation without women— the sense of impending doom has probably reached its peak… Viscount Hamatoll, that’s what caught your eye.」
Her tone changed from sorrow to fury, and she looked at the governor with intense eyes.
「And now, the residents of Kuntsui province wants women even if they have to pay a large sum for them. In other words, women can be sold for a high price. Sensing a business opportunity from this, you tried to sell them to the neighbouring province while keeping the entire thing low key. This is the real reason why you imposed the levy against women!」
The investigation has finally reached the core of the matter. The Viscount’s knees started trembling like mom’s spaghetti.
「You lured the women troubled by debts to flee to the Kuntsui province… Even harlots are a source of tax income, but when you learned about the situation in the Kuntsui province, you thought of a more efficient way to sell them for money.」
「… Ughhh… Ahhh…」
「The actual process is like this— the harlots who can’t raise the money to pay for the taxes will turn to the loan sharks. Their debt will keep increasing until it is impossible to pay it all back. When the loan shark determined that it is impossible to collect any more money, they would suggest that they migrate to the Kuntsui province… Even though the loan sharks has to relinquish this debt, that’s not a problem because the mastermind will pay an administrative fee to the loan shark that is taking part in human trafficking as the middleman. It’s not a big sum, but it’s advantages to the loan shark. It’s just a trivial amount, but they are happy that someone is buying a client they couldn’t squeeze any more money from.」
Just saying it felt revolting. The Princess bore with this discomfort and carried on:
「The harlots who were sent to the province boundaries by the loan sharks would be sold to the buyer in the Kuntsui province without even knowing what was happening to them… The buyer will probably resell the women to another trader. Anyway, the mastermind will get the profit earned here. Aside from the small fee for the loan shark, the bulk of the money will stay in their hands. And it is a substantial amount, because the clients in the Kuntsui province suffering because of the Lucini flu epidemic wants to buy women even if they have to pay a high price─ anything wrong so far, Viscount Hamatoll?」
The Princess who had been giving a long speech up until now stopped for the first time and waited for a reaction. After a long pause, the Viscount who finally got the chance to speak pulled his faltering fighting spirit together and started proclaiming that he was maligned.
「This─ This is outrageous! All this is baseless nonsense! You are accusing me of making money from human trafficking? Where is the proof!? Pardon me for saying so, but all these accusations are just Your Highness’ speculation, correct?」
In response to his counter argument, Princess Chamille took out a thin object and flinged it hard onto the floor.
「I won’t confront you so directly if it is just speculations… You should know what this piece of board is, correct?」
Viscount Hamatoll squainted his slightly myopic eyes, and stared at the object by his feet.
「This seems to be… the provincial entry permit issued by government officials? What’s wrong with it?」
「This is confiscated from the human traffickers at the province borders. Does the name Second Class Clerk Makinro Tangona ring a bell?」
「This board alone is too weak as evidence. You might claim that this was stolen or a counterfeit. However, the ones conducting the human trafficking is a staff working in this bureaucratic building. We have him under custody right now. How are you going to defend this?」
Viscount Hamatoll couldn’t believe it. In such a short period of time, the investigation has already reached the province borders where the trade was conducted…
「… That’s… That’s done by my subordinate behind my back! I swear by the patron god Alderamin, that I’m completely uninvolved with this matter!」
「You want to push the responsibility to your minions? We have already gotten the testimony from the Second Class Clerk of your involvement in human trafficking.」
「Because his sentencing will be more lenient if he claims to be working under my orders, that testimony is just a sham! Your Highness, it’s such a shame! Compared to the words of a direct descendant of the noble House Hamatoll, Thezeni Hamatoll, the House that has served the Empire for 400 years, you give more weight to what a commoner Second Class Clerk says?」
「Pushing the responsibilities to others to claim leniency? Your position is no different from him. In that case, the testimonies from both sides can’t be trusted… But this incident involves two provinces and too many people, it’s unnatural to assume that a mere clerk is behind all this. Isn’t it more probable for someone with the corresponding status to plan and run the actual operation?」
The sound of the Viscount gritting his teeth could be heard. No matter what the Princess said, the option of admitting the truth didn’t came to mind.
「So you want to force this crime onto me no matter what…? In that case, I have no comments! This humble one will also investigate the human trafficking incident. If Your Highness have no other pressing matters, I will need to ask you to leave!」
The Viscount expressed his refusal angrily, but Princess Chamille could already tell his intentions. He wants to chase outsiders away, then destroy the evidence. If they don’t resolve this right now, it will become problematic— that was what she thought, but she was hesitant to make her next move. At this moment, the raven haired youth interjected:
「Isn’t that fine, Princess? Since the Viscount already said that, let’s go back.」
「Solork…? No, but…」
「Since the Viscount claims that he knows nothing about human trafficking, that must be so. But even so, we will need to interrogate the criminal who lied again. If he continues to lie, we will have to start torturing him. What do you think, Matthew?」
「Ohhh─ That’s true, let’s do that. We already caught the criminal after all.」
The Princess was stunned by their conversation. The Viscount also said in a panic.
「W-Wait a minute, you are the son of Colonel Mirtog, right? If the military apprehended our staff, I hope you can hand them over to us. Because prosecuting crimes does not fall under the jurisdiction of the army.」
「Ehh… No, we can’t do that. Because the Kuna rice managed by our unit is involved.」
Matthew shook his head. Ikuta ignored the confused Princess who couldn’t tell what they wanted to do, and continued their act.
「The food inside the Fourth Granary are meant to be rations for the military during emergencies. Lord Viscount, you know that, right? As the food was moved without permission, that would mean embezzlement of military supplies. In that case, this should be handled as a military matter.」
「The connection between human trafficking and the embezzlement of Kuna rice has not been established yet! I’m telling you that my side will investigate all these matters, don’t you understand!?」
「Even if you say that, we have already obtained information about the Kuna rice from that clerk, and he knows about the secret warehouse too… Given the current situation, it’s unnatural to insist that these two incidents aren’t related, correct?」
The Viscount was stumped. The Princess understood at this point that Ikuta and Matthew’s concessionary attitude was for the sake of launching an attack from another angle.
「Speaking of extraditions, we will probably be submitting requests to you. Aside from the testimony that 『I did everything according to Viscount Hamatoll’s orders』, Clerk Tangona has yet to give up the names of any other accomplices. But we can’t ignore the possibility that his colleagues are also a part of the plot. If new names comes up during the interrogation, we will need to bring them in for questioning.」
「The suspects we find might all claim to be 『acting on Viscount Hamatoll’s orders』. But those are false testimonies, right? In that case, we have to put them through harsh interrogation to get the truth. Sigh, what a pain…」
Ikuta crossed his arms and groaned in pretense. After a while, the youth made his next move.
「… Ah, but how about doing it this way? Can you investigate on your side, and hand over all your suspects to us in one go. In that case, it will save us the trouble of coming over to pick them up whenever a new name comes up.」
When the tension reached its climax, Ikuta proposed a compromise that was surprisingly advantagous to the Viscount. The Viscount couldn’t decide how to response.
「Of… Of course, we will perform an investigation on our side too…」
「Yes, we will be counting on you. As for us, since the matter has gotten so big… Matthew, what did your father say?」
「He won’t let the matter rest unless he apprehend the entire criminal gang. That’s what he thinks, Lord Viscount.」
Catching what Ikuta was trying to do, Matthew answered immediately, Ikuta continued with a satisfied smile:
「─ Alright then, since the Lord Viscount is not involved with the human trafficking scheme, then the mastermind must be someone else. In that case, a possible scenario would be many high ranking officers conspiring together to pull this plot off… That would be a more reasonable script, correct? The Princess will accept such an outcome too.」
「… Oh, I understand now.」
Viscount Hamatoll who felt he had the good end of this deal crossed his arms and started to think. If he chose and offer up sacrifices of enough calibre, the other party would let the matter rest─ the Viscount who interpreted the proposal that way thought it was great that his subordinates were absent.
On the other hand, Princess Chamille who was watching him felt a strong displeasure tumbling in her chest. Making the Viscount’s subordinates the scapegoats for the entire matter— she would never accept such a farce… However, the Princess knew that Ikuta and the others wouldn’t want things to end like that. They must have laid some sort of trap behind this conversation.
「It will be fine, Your Highness.」
Ikuta placed his hand on her shoulder and reaffirmed her trust. The Princess made a snap decision and nodded.
「… I understand, let’s do it that way.」
Viscount Hamatoll was relieved to hear her say that. His opponent was saying: 「We will stop pursuing the truth behind this matter, so offer me a price that will let me save face」─ in other words, they want to resolve the matter through negotiations.
For the Viscount who didn’t want others to probe his thoughts, this was the best way for him to exit the stage— After all, he wouldn’t lose too much even if he deserted all his subordinates. However, it will be problematic if they said anything unnecessary when they got handed over. In that case, it would be better to let people in 「that trade」 handle it.
「… If the suspects I hand over… are corpses. Would that be fine?」
The Viscount asked as he consolidated his thoughts. This was just a natural question for him. But Matthew and Ikuta both raised the corners of their lips. The next instance the door behind the governor who didn’t realized he had been master baited was kicked open.
「Are you selling us out to save your own hide!?」
A shrill voice rang out. First Class Clerk Hidashu barged into the room with a disgusted face and shouted. The Viscount turned around in surprise. This person— was the man the Viscount planned to sculpt into the mastermind of the human trafficking scheme, the head of the high ranking officers who had authority on par with the governor.
「Stop kidding me! If you are selling me out, then I will confess to everything! Be it the Kuna rice embezzlement or human trafficking, all these are done by your orders!」
Clerk Hidashu shouted with a shrill voice as he pulled out a document and showed it to everyone. It looked like some kind of contract, and seemed to be endorsed by Viscount Hamatoll himself.
「Look! I have plenty of evidence with me! We might be the ones who did the dirty work, but you are the one who gave the instructions! Don’t think you can get away with this!」
The Clerk who lost his cool because of the betrayal exposed his superior’s crimes loudly. The Viscount wanted to make excuses, but he saw another person behind his yelling subordinate. A tall handsome youth who was just standing there since he had nothing else to do— the only member of the Knight Corps who was absent, Remeon‧Torway.
「… You… You brats! Is this your plan from the beginning…」
The Viscount only realized he was fooled at this moment. But it was too late now. No evidence could trump the testimony fo his closest aide. And the truth was, the Princess never wanted to resolve the matter through negotiations in the first place. The Viscount had lost at the very moment he misunderstood this.
「… I see. I wasn’t informed of this in advance, so that was the plan.」
Princess Chamille’s stared at the governor with a sharp gaze. Viscount Hamatoll who was trying to get his subordinate to shut up turned around with a stiff face.
「Your… Your Highness… This is…」
「Enough, I don’t want to waste the time that has been saved.」
The Princess said with disdain, then stood up and announced coldly:
「Viscount Thezeni Hamatoll. You abused your station to amend the laws, and even got involved in illegal human trafficking. Prepare yourself for the appropriate punishment. However— before all that, I want to clarify something. Why did you do something so foolish?」
Both the crime and the criminal had been revealed, and the situation has progressed to questioning the motives. The Viscount realized there was no way for him to cover up his wrongdoings, and his eyes turned bloodshot and started wavering.
In this dangerous situation, the Viscount panted a few times— he suddenly picked up the porcelain vase on his table, then took large strides towards the Princess.
「Please… Please accept this! This is the highest quality Shena white porcelain! Just one vase cost 1,000 gold coins!」
「If that isn’t enough, are you interested in paintings? Or sculptures? Maybe gold accessories? Pray tell me whatever you wish for, this humble one will prepare it for you…!」
The Viscount rambled on with a toady smile, and the Princess’ face grew even stiffer.
「This… You are trying to bribe me, right…」
「Bribing is such a offensive way of putting it! I just want to show my sincerity—」
Spurred by the displeasure welling up within her, the Princess swung her arms out of spite and smacked down the porcelain vase offered by the Viscount. The vase made by famous artisan smashed into terrible pieces by the Viscount’s feet.
「Showing your sincerity through bribes… Why don’t you understand that such a thinking is a mistake!」
The yell was almost a scream. At the same time, the self restrain of the Viscount who was looking at the debris of the white porcelain broke down.
「What─ What’s wrong with that!? You ignorant brat raised in a glass house, as if you know everything! Those hookers use the excuse of being single and don’t pay taxes properly! Their existence themselves disrupts public order, and give birth to bastards wilfully! There are a tumor for the entire province!」
He threw his composure and etiquettes out of the window. The ironic thing was, this was the first time that Viscount Hamatoll said what he really thought without any falsehood.
「That’s why I went out of my way to lure those vermins to the neighbouring province that needs women! There is no reason to fault me for getting some kickback for this arrangement! The basics of governance is to provide adequate supply to handle demands!」
Showing a strong but illogical attitude was the Viscount’s biggest mistake of his life. The Princess felt something inside her snapped.
「… You… are calling…」
The girl muttered with her head low, and her tightly clenched fists were creaking.
「… You are calling the action of trading the people you should be guiding and protecting for money… governance!?」
The Princess raised her hands and snatched the crossbow on the dark haired youth’s shoulder. She pulled the bowstring taut and loaded a bolt. She had learned how to use some weapons during her time living in a military base.
The Viscount backs away out of fear of the killing intent. The Princess took aim at his chest.
「S-Stop! Even a royal can’t lay their hands on a governor…!」
「Wrong! Not only did you enact laws for your personal gains, you even tried to bribe a royal! These insults is enough for me to execute you!」
Her finger was on the trigger. The Viscount was intimidated by her fierce aura, and kept backing away until his waist hit the table hard, then fell on his butt. The Princess adjusted her aim downwards to match her target’s movements.
「Huff… puff…! S-Stop...!」
「Are you afraid!? That’s right, be afraid! After all, if you know where you will fall into, you will understand that you won’t get any peace after you die!」
Her words were quivering… How easy it would be if she just needed to accuse the man before her? However, the Princess knew the truth. She knew where the root of the corruption lies; and that the rotting of the leaves were merely a reflection of the Eternal sprite Tree’s condition.
「But don’t worry, I will be joining you there in the future— so go there first and burn in hell as you wait for me!」
She squeezed the trigger. The loose bolt flew in a straight line through the air, and pierced deep into its destination.
「… Huff… Ahh… Uwah…!」
His entire face broke out in cold sweat, and his pee wet the carpet… The bolt hit slightly to the side of the Viscount’s temple, as he sat on the ground with his back to the table. If it landed just 2cm to the left, he would be dead.
「… I didn’t want to stop you either…」
The hand of the youth who created this 2cm gap was still gripping the crossbow from the side. Seeing the Princess glaring at the Viscount as if she was trying to kill him with her glare, Ikuta advised her with a soothing and serious tone:
「But if you execute the Viscount here on the ground of Lèse-majesté, be it justified or not, might harden the parliament’s attitude, since their members are aristocrats like him. During this period when we are going to set up and operate a new Regiment, doing so isn’t wise.」
「The human trafficking incident is over. Since the truth has been uncovered, it is your win, Princess… You don’t have to bloody your hard earned victory, please stay your hand.」
Her worked up mental state gradually calmed down. The youth’s palm covered the Princess’ hand that was holding the crossbow. The warmth from his skin slowly soothed her stiff fingers.
「Yatori, Haro, please take the Princess away─ We will handle the rest.」
Ikuta said right after taking gently taking the crossbow from the girl. Yatori and Haro nodded and supported the girl from both sides as they left the room. The three remaining Knight Corps members looked at each other, and then shifted their gazes on the two bureaucrats.
「Alright then, Viscount Hamatoll and First Class Clerk Hidashu. I know you are tired, but please cooperate with us. I will acting on behalf of the Third Princess now.」
Ikuta said calmly. After Princess Chamille’s hard battle, they had all the initiatives now. The youth approached the dazed Viscount Hamatoll and squatted down to his eye level.
「First of all, that problematic insidious law─ levies targeted specifically towards women, please rescind that. Stop all the human trafficking immediately. And return all the embezzled Kuna rice to the market. You will take on all the debts of the women who were sold to the Kuntsui province too. You understand that you don’t have the rights to refuse, correct?」
This was an open threat, but the Viscount had no other option aside from nodding.
「Very good Sir. Next, I want you to promise that the operations of this building will be legitimized, at the very least, no gambling dens in broad daylight. I think you can have the chance of escape being executed for Lèse-majesté if you fulfill these conditions.」
The governor could only nod weakly, but Ikuta pressed on with his attack.
「What I will say next isn’t mandatory, and is just a request─ But if you want to protect your status as a noble, I will advise you to listen carefully, Lord Viscount.」
When heard that, the Viscount who was no different from an empty husk lifted his head slightly.
「If you limit your sights to the Ebodolk province alone, the money made from the rice isn’t bad─ but do you know? Another type of crop, corns would be trending soon?」
The sight he saw after raising his head was the face of a delinquent youth ready for negotiations.
In the evening of a certain clear weathered day, a small party was held in the Tetzirich manor. Inside the vast property, many invited guests of varying gender and age, civilian and soldiers were gathered here. This was an outdoor buffet held for friends and family.
Campfires were lit all over the place, and around each of them were people cooking skewered meat and using heated iron griddle to fry rice. Under the bright orange dusk light, the people chatted as they enjoyed the food, and the sound of laughter was ever present.
「─ I see, so that’s what happened.」
Colonel Mirtog was looking at this scene from his private chambers on the second floor of the manor as he listened to the report by Princess Chamille and the Knight Corps. From embezzling the Kuna rice to create the farce of a poor harvest, the real reason for imposing taxes specifically against women, until the human trafficking to the neighbouring province… The Princess spent a lot of time to explain every detail of this incident.
「As all his schemes has been uncovered, Viscount Hamatolls plan has been completely stopped. The Viscount will have to pay back the debt on behalf of the harlots sold to the neighbouring province, and the Kuna rice that was hidden will be returned to the market with the excuse of shortage in declaration. The taxes will be reverted to the old system─ from this result, I conclude that the bonds holding the Colonel back has been undone. What do you think?」
「I’m very glad that things turn out this way. But to think these crimes were all directed by the governor himself… It’s fortunate that Your Highness has uncovered the truth. Your have my most sincere gratitude.」
Colonel Mirtog bowed deeply with a smile on his plump face. The Princess nodded to accept the Colonel’s gratitude, but her expression had a hint of melancholy.
「I’m happy to be of assistance… But Colonel, may I ask something?」
「Yes, how may I be of service?」
「Regarding Viscount Hamatoll’s schemes─ the gist of what I told you earlier, did you know about it right from the beginning?」
The air froze. Instead of a question, her tone was closer to affirming something. After a few seconds of hesitation, Colonel Mirtog nodded.
「… It is as you say. This is troubling, I have no excuses for myself.」
「So it’s true… Luck did play a part, but an outsider like me managed to uncover the truth in such a short period of time. So a resident in Ebodolk province like you who is aware of the situation here is definitely aware of this incident…」
The Princess replied with a lonely attitude, and Matthew who was behind her took a step forward.
「… If you knew, why didn’t you tell us right then? We could have saved the time and effort in investigating this matter.」
「Matthew, sorry for keeping you in the dark too… Indeed, telling you everything is a way too. However, I couldn’t make up my mind. The reason is, doing so will be admitting that I’m turning a blind eye to Viscount Hamatoll evil ways even though I knew about it.」
Colonel Mirtog endured his son’s gaze and explained with a bitter expression:
「It’s a fact that I didn’t expose his plot despite knowing the truth. You might even suspect that I colluded with him. So first of all, I need to confirm that the Princess is a smart and far sighted person… and not someone who is blinded by short term gains. This is the reason why I have to let you resolve this incident by yourself… without involving house Tetzirich.」
「Dad, is that why you didn’t say anything…? I can understand the rationale, but I can’t accept it. You used the authority of Her Highness to resolve the issue, but privately, you… that’s too despicable!」
「You are right, Matthew. I placed ‘honesty at a lost’ and ‘being despicable with benefits’ on a scale, and chose the latter. I’m ashamed of my lowly greed… As a father and a soldier, this is a great shame.」
Colonel Mirtog turned to the Princess, got down on his knees and lowered his head. Seeing the Colonel accept his son’s accusation without flinching, Princess Chamille shook her head in silence.
「Please don’t mind, I’m not blaming you… I’m aware of the position you are in, and it’s hard for you to step up and fault Viscount Hamatoll for his actions. Aside from maintaining cordial relations with the residents, you also need to be on good terms with the governing officials in order for the military to operate here smoothly.」
「I can easily imagine how troubled it must be for the soldiers caught between the citizens and bureaucrats. However, you still see my visit as an opportunity and made use of it despite your dire position… I don’t think I had been tricked, and want to compliment your tenacious character instead.」
Princess Chamille walked towards the Colonel who remained kneeling, and took his hand. He then pulled him up and looked into his eyes from a close distance and said:
「No need to continue apologizing, this will make me feel bad.」
「After going through this incident, I have evaluated your capability, Colonel Mirtog Tetzirich. You are definitely a candidate capable of taking on this heavy responsibility. The operation of the Regiment involves the lives of many soldiers, us, and 4,000 Shinaak tribespeople… I will be counting on you for that.」
Her eyes shining with determinations stared right at Colonel Mirtog. Encouraged by this light, the current head of the Tetzirich house straightened his back, and performed a simple salute that had heavy implications behind it.
「I hear and obey the Third Princess orders─ Imperial Army Colonel Mirtog Tetzirich solemnly swear to devote my all to the operations of the Regiment as long as I still draw breath.」
After the report was completely, the Princess and the members of the Knight Corps decided to join the outdoor buffet on the recommendation of Colonel Mirtog. Everyone stepped out of the manor, and the commoners who noticed the Colonel coming approached with wine glasses in hand.
「Isn’t that the Colonel? We got to live a good life thanks to you.」
「The young master is all grown up! He must have inherited that belly of his from his father, hahaha…!」
Everyone spoke to them intimately. Both the Tetzirich father and son were overwhelmed with just the greetings. Not wanting to disturb them, the other Knight Corps members and the Princess left the scene quietly.
「The Colonel and Mchan looks busy, let’s help ourselves then.」
「That’s right! My stomach is already rumbling.」
「Me too. I will get the beverages then.」
After things became like this, Torway, Haro and Yatori took action. Outsiders must be very prominent here, and they were assaulted by the locals with questions whenever they went near a group. The three of them would probably take a long time to accomplish their goals.
「… You seemed to have given the Viscount very harsh conditions?」
Drowned out by the noise around them, Princess Chamille said to the youth beside her in a quiet voice. Ikuta responded with a nonchalant face:
「Yes, I used that chance to squeeze the most of him, the future of the Shinaak tribe is at stake after all. Unlike the princess, I’m not opposed to acting like a delinquent.」
「You don’t need to act like the bad guy. The mastermind behind this incident is me after all.」
The Princess concluded in a strong tone. Seeing how stubborn she was, Ikuta sighed softly.
「… Indeed, the fundamental idea of asking 『Colonel Mirtog to take charge of the unit』 didn’t came from me, but is proposed by the Princess. I offered my assistance since it suits me just fine… But all that is just one part of setting the scheme for 『that』, correct?」
Ikuta asked as he reminiscing the past─ when the Princess confessed her wish inside the carriage when they were alone. The Princess’ wish that went beyond common sense… To guide the Empire that was on its last legs towards a worthy defeat.
「I won’t tell you before you make your decision.」
The girl rejected him coldly. Ikuta expected such a reaction and didn’t press the issue. After their conversation stopped here, they changed to another topic.
「Speaking of which, holding a party open to commoners in the manor of the unit commander… As expected of the Tetzirich house.」
Ikuta was impressed as he watched the Tetzirich father and son warmly receive the neighbouring residents. As they weren’t too far away, he could catch bits of their conversations.
「There seems to be more homeless people in town recently…」 「Pack of wild dogs are attacking our livestocks, can you help us?」 「Because of the cotton imported from the neighbouring provinces, the price has plummet…」 「The daily pay for temporary labour is too low, it is troubling─」
Centered around the troubles of daily lives, they chatted about a wide range of topics. The Princess who was watching the same scene suddenly said:
「Don’t you think this is strange? The problems that should be handled by the governing officials are being entrusted to the soldiers as if this is only natural.」
「The problem is that many imperial citizens don’t find this strange at all.」
When she heard Ikuta’s sarcastic comment, Princess Chamille nodded with a serious face.
「… That’s right, this isn’t just happening in the Ebodolk province. There might be some differences, but this is a common sight all over the Empire. The commander in the north who has the backing of aristocrats was acting as the defacto governor, although that is a unique example… But a similar structure can be found in all the territories and provinces. The citizens would rely on the military for all sorts of things, and the soldiers become the ones tending to the citizens request while the aristocrats leeched above both parties. Such a social structure is commonplace in the Empire.」
Ikuta listened to the Princess and stole a glance at the side of her face. Even though there was a bustling scene before her, the girl seemed to be looking far into the distance at a foreign nation.
「I spent most of my time between three and twelves years old in Kioka. I mentioned that to you before, right? But I was really busy when I was being used as a political bargaining chip. Whenever there was an political crisis, I would be chased out, so I spent a lot of time traveling back and forth between Kioka and the Empire… And I would pass through the eastern territories during my journey─ which is now the 『former』eastern territories. You can probably imagine, that was the eastern territories that had been half abandoned after the migrants were sent there to develop the area as part of our national policy.」
The Princess closed her eyes and the scene from the past played back in her mind. Her voice started quivering from henceforth.
「I could tell how terrible the living conditions were just by looking from the carriage window. Their eyes were bloodshot, they were so thin that their collarbones were showing, their gums were swollen and their teeth had all fallen off… To me, the people ravished by hunger and illness looked just like another species.
They only passed by from a distance… But during one trip, they stopped at a village to replenish their supplies, and the entire convoy was surrounded by hungry citizens.」
The girl hugged her shoulders as if she was shivering, but she dug up her memories stubbornly.
「I didn’t know what they wanted, probably just some food and medical supplies. But the escorting soldiers probably don’t want the royals to feel uneasy in future trips, and sternly rejected their request. They even shouted 『Back off! This is the convoy escorting the esteemed Third Princess!』 and something like that…」
A sudden gust of wind ruffled the girl’s blonde hair and covered her tense face.
「I felt really uneasy when I heard those angry shouts… Compared to being surrounded, I felt pained by my own powerlessness. Towards myself who couldn’t offer anything to the starving citizens, I felt despair and insignificance. I couldn’t stand it being unable to offer anything to the starving citizens, and the feeling of insignificance and despair.」
Ikuta gritted his teeth when he heard that… While the royals living in the Empire became more and more corrupt, only the Third Princess who was raised in Kioka was nurtured into a ruler with the right sense of values. It was so ironic that it was revolting.
「─ That’s why, I… I decided to get down. I alighted from the carriage and came outside…」
Her limbs started trembling, and her speech was stuttering, as if her body was refusing to go on.
「… When I appeared before the crowd, their gazes all focused on me. It was obvious that will happen, but, I was still afraid─ Because I thought they would blame me. In the place where the results of poor policy planning was running rampant, it was only natural for a royal who just waltz in nonchalantly to be admonished by them. So I was prepared to endure anything that they throw at me…! To accept all their frustrations and hate, and understand how much of a failure I was─ And then think carefully about what I can do for them─」
In contrast with the words gushing out from her mouth, the girl’s quivering reached its climax─ and the next instance, she quiet down as if all that was a dream.
「─ But no one accused me.」
Ikuta then saw… the Princess’ lips showing limitless self mockery.
「No accusation. That’s right, nothing happened. I was mentally prepared and my body was tense, but their gazes swept by me without stopping─ They started pleading with the soldiers again. Yes, that’s right─ I couldn’t even get any of the blame. The noises grew louder as they ignored me, and I stood there in a daze without anyone acknowledging my existence…」
This memory branded a wound that would never heal in the girl’s heart, and her eyes that had lost their light wandered at the cloud in the air in the distance.
「In the beginning, I thought I was ignored because I was just a child… But even when I despatched an older nobleman to mediate, the results were the same. The people only focused on the soldiers, and didn’t even look at us. I quickly realized─ the citizens didn’t expect anything from me. No, they already expect nothing from the nobles who rules by the authority granted by the royals, or the royals of the Eternal sprite Tree themselves.」
「Thinking about taking responsibilities was just a lack of self-awareness. I had already lost the rights to take the blame. Despite the endless stream of terrible policies, the people didn’t even feel that they had been 『betrayed』 by the nobles and royals who were the cause of all these problems… Because the people never trusted them from the start. Because they had given up, and think the rulers of this country is just an existence of this level. There are few that realize this─ but in this country, 『respect towards those of high standings』 is equivalent to 『complete lost of faith』. Do you understand, Solork? The people might revere the nobles, but don’t trust them. Even if there are respect, they expect nothing. The people fear us like gods, and expected nothing from us, just like the gods.
Since 『The Three Loyal House』 served the royals and rebuilt the nation, all the crisis were resolved by soldiers. The nobles and royals not only rely on the soldiers, they even leech on them while living in peace and leisure. But they didn’t forget to throw their authority and weight around, and induced fear and respect to the citizens that didn’t match the facts… And the heir of this corrupted bloodline is me. It’s impossible for me to possess the dignity and sense of responsibility that befitted such a station…」
The youth didn’t know what to say to the Princess, and she continued holding his hand tight. So tight as if she didn’t want to let the youth go.
「That’s why, Solork… When we first met, you displayed negative emotions towards a royal like me… For me who couldn’t even gain the hatred of the citizens, that disdain of yours saved me.」
The Princess felt that even hatred was precious to her. Ikuta finally understood why she continued holding on hopeless confusion and lived a hellish life.
「But even so… Since the day we met, I can’t do anything that made you happy. That’s the only thing I can’t apologize for… But at the very least, you still hate me right? Your hatred towards me is still hidden deep inside me, along with your will to punish me for my sins─」
Just like that time when the youth faced the dead, he had no words... The only thing he could do was hold the girl’s trembling hands. And held them tight as she wished, bonding them together so they won’t be apart.