Cornelius’ mansion faced Jeboa’s main street. It was a big palatial residence, possessing a round, dome-shaped roof with an exotic flair, and walls plastered with pure-white mortar.
Cornelius and Jakob were sitting on the balcony of the second floor with a small table between them.
“Did you hear the rumors? That brat called Divine Son of Destruction or whatsoever is going to carry out a large-scale mountain hunt to exterminate the bandits.” Jakob asked with a broad grin.
In response, Cornelius coldly retorted, “It’s just rumors.”
Cornelius had also heard about the Divine Son of Destruction calling out to several mercenary bands through the Shapiro Company. However, it’d be impossible to immediately gather enough mercenaries for a large-scale mountain hunt. Also, with a mountain hunt being a fairly long endeavor, the gathered crowd of people would trouble the vicinity.
“Well, well, if we had known that it’d turn out like this, I wouldn’t have needed to go out of my way to spread rumors about the bandit subjugation.”
Cornelius agreed verbally, but his face betrayed that he wasn’t overly happy about it.
It was the usual for Jakob to trip up business rivals through false rumors to force them into ruin. Given that he also used such underhanded methods, he didn’t intend to blame Jakob for this. However, Jakob’s bold bragging went beyond his limit.
Without knowing of Cornelius’s feelings on this matter, Jakob cheerfully continued, “I heard that he defeated General Darius, but in the end it looks like that was just pure luck. If a mountain hunt is being announced in such a grand manner, I’m sure the bandits will be long gone by the time they manage to get started.”
Even though Cornelius gave suitable answers to keep the conversation going, he didn’t feel fully satisfied with the direction things were taking.
Just as Jakob said, that Divine Son of Destruction has defeated Holmea’s strongest general, the famous Darius, even if it might have been by fluke. It’s unthinkable that such a guy wouldn’t notice the possibility of the bandits’ henchman lurking in this city. He probably has some kind of objective, doesn’t he? No, that in itself might already be an overestimation of his abilities.
As Cornelius was indulging in such fruitless thoughts, a servant rushed onto the balcony. “M-Master, I’m terribly sorry about disturbing in such a rude manner.”
“Why are you so flustered? Tell me, just what happened?”
After bowing and apologizing to Cornelius, who rebuked him for acting so impolitely in front of a guest, his servant whispered into Cornelius’s ear. At first Cornelius scowled, his eyebrows furrowed, but soon his eyes widened.
“…! Is that really true!?”
“Yes, it is a fact. It has turned into a huge commotion in front of the city gate. Since I have seen it with my very own eyes, there is no doubt about its veracity.”
Just as the servant said, the residents of the city were heading towards the gate along the street beneath the balcony, with several of them even running.
“What might have happened, Master Cornelius?”
Cornelius answered Jakob while still half in doubt, “It looks like the Divine Son of Destruction has captured the mountain bandits.”
“What was that!?!?” Jakob jumped to his feet, knocking over his chair.
When Cornelius and Jakob reached the gate, the place was already teeming with people, having come to take a peek at the captured bandits. In the middle of the crowd were several covered wagons boarded by zoan, followed by men, who looked like the very definition of bandits, being pulled in a row with their hands tied.
“Oh, hello, Mr. Jakob and Mr. Cornelius.” Spotting the two, Souma lifted a hand with an openhearted smile.
Once he did, the crowd naturally split apart, freeing up a path for the two merchants. Now that it had come to this, they couldn’t afford to ignore him. While making sure to have the crowd suppressed, Jakob and Cornelius walked up to Souma.
“As promised, I have caught the mountain bandits for you.” With a friendly grin, Souma pointed at the bandits tied to a wagon as soon as the two arrived in front of him.
While looking daunted by that, Jakob shouted, “A-As if anyone would believe you! Are these men truly mountain bandits!?”
He was insinuating that Souma might have caught some random refugees or some such, and told them to pretend to be bandits. However, at that point Yoash suddenly appeared from the side.
“There is no doubt about these men being mountain bandits. I shall guarantee so in the name of the Shapiro Company.”
It’s unthinkable that the Shapiro Company would support a lie that would be exposed in no time. In that case, it’s pretty certain that these captives are bandits.
Until now they had attempted to catch the bandits many times over, but it always ended in failure. Confronted with the question of what clever scheme he might have used here, Souma readily answered, “We just lured them out by creating a fake caravan boarded by the zoan instead of wares.”
No matter how skilled as hunters the zoan might be, even they would find it a difficult endeavor to discover the bandits, who could be just anywhere, with no more than thirty men. In such case, they just had to get the bandits to come to them. For this purpose, Souma borrowed several covered wagons from Menahem, and had the zoan hide within. Then he had the wagons make a roundtrip while flying the merchant guild’s flag.
“You think I’d believe such a fairy tale?!?”
However, Jakob refused to believe him. After all, the idea of flushing out the bandits by having mercenaries board empty wagons had already failed in the past.
“If catching them with a trick like that would have worked, we’d be done with this long ago! I-It must be a lie after all! Obviously! Besides, didn’t you say that you’d do a mountain hunt in the first place!?”
In contrast to Jakob who was fuming in rage, Souma remained quite indifferent as he answered, “Mountain hunt? Ah, that was a lie.”
“I mean, there would be no point in using a method that didn’t work for Jeboa’s army in three attempts, right?”
“Why did you lie about this then!?”
“Of course to not let the bandits get away.”
There was no doubt that the merchant guild didn’t manage to catch the bandits after doing mountain hunts that even involved Jeboa’s national army because the information about the plans got leaked. Moving the army in Jeboa required a vote by the Committee of Ten before requesting it from the king. Increasing the time needed and the number of participants in the whole process would only increase the probability of the information being leaked to the outside. Moreover, if one looked at the fact that the mountain hunt had failed three times, it couldn’t be only attributed to an information leak either. Very likely the bandits had their goons enter the city, or created local collaborators, allowing them to actively gather information.
If Jakob were to spread the news that they had requested a mountain bandit subjugation under such circumstances, the bandits would naturally learn of it right away, and conceal themselves, just like they had done so far. In such case it’d become difficult to succeed in their subjugation. After all 2,000 soldiers of Jeboa didn’t manage to find the whereabouts of the bandits who numbered a mere 20.
Then again, turning it around, it wouldn’t be any problem to take care of a mere 20 bandits as long as one succeeded in discovering their hiding place or luring them out. However, it’d have been hard to make Jakob stop spreading the rumor. Rather, if he had learned that Souma’s group was troubled by this, he’d gleefully increase his efforts in spreading it.
Furthermore, trying to contradict the rumor would have been a bad move as well. Anyone somewhat informed about Jeboa’s state of affairs would have at least heard as much that Jakob hated Souma. Being fully aware that this piece of news would reach the bandits, Jakob publicly announced that Souma’s group had been requested to subjugate the bandits. Had Souma’s group become desperate, denying that rumor, it’d instead confirm the rumor, the stronger they actually denied it. Therefore Souma didn’t contradict the rumor, but went with a lie that bent the truth a bit. He openly announced that the Divine Son of Destruction would gather mercenaries for the sake of carrying out a large-scale mountain hunt.
In this era it was common that information would be passed on verbally. While Souma’s lie, which had been circulated as a kind of subsidiary to Jakob’s rumor, kept being passed on from one person to another, it gradually transformed into a piece of information with a high level of credibility while at the same time reaching the bandits’ ears.
“Why didn’t the bandits run away then!?” Jakob yelled.
He understood that his own, malicious rumor had been used against him, but he didn’t comprehend how it prevented the bandits from running away.
“Look, it’s a large-scale mountain hunt, right? It’d be unclear how long the preparations would take. Besides, even the bandits need to prepare themselves to escape, don’t they?”
Jakob could only mutter, “Ah!”, in response. If the mountain hunt could have been carried out on a short notice, the bandits might have escaped while leaving everything behind. But, according to the rumors, the whole undertaking was still at the stage of gathering mercenaries. In such a case, the bandits should have believed that the preparations would still require a lot of time, giving them plenty of time before the actual mountain hunt would take place.
In addition, the rumors said that several mercenary bands would be gathered, and that the hunt would run over an extended period of time. But that would turn the bandits’ funds during their hiding into a problem.
It was only natural, but even the bandits had to eat while hiding, and that alone would already require a fair amount of cash. Moreover, if it came to thugs who would commit crimes such as banditry, it would be a pipe dream to expect them to lead a modest, frugal life during their hiding. Some of the bandits would also be lavishing the money, believing in a short, but merry life. If those bandits were to be caught after causing unnecessary trouble over money worries, the bandits as a whole would be in danger of having their location exposed.
For the sake of avoiding such issues, the bandits had to hold onto a certain amount of money to pay off their members.
Because they wouldn’t be able to earn any money during their hiding, as they guessed that the mountain hunt would last a fairly long time, the bandits were stopped from running away right away.
“But you see, the bandits were also troubled when they tried to earn enough money before their escape. After all no merchants would try to pass through their territory during such the preparatory phase.”
Jakob flared up at Souma’s words, “There’s no way that merchants would stay away so conveniently!”
The road infested by the bandits was an important trade route between Jeboa and Bolnis. Even if only for one day, it would be impossible for no merchants to travel on it.
Souma grinned, disclosing the trick behind it, “Hmm, think about it, just how many merchants would deliberately hire mercenaries for a big sum of money to leave the city, even though the bandits would be gone in a short while anyway?”
If it was a place where bandits could appear, merchants had to prepare for such a possibility. However, if they hired mercenaries as escorts, they had to pay a rather high amount of money. Hence it’d be more profitable to wait for the bandits to lay low because of the mountain hunt, as long as it wasn’t an overly urgent business. Moreover, having received Souma’s instructions, Marchronis had held the merchants about to head to Jeboa back in Bolnis.
All of this must have caused the bandits to panic. Even though they had planned to earn some cash before disappearing, no targets were to be seen on the road. The bandits must have been torn between waiting a bit longer, and giving up and disappearing before the mountain hunt started.
“What if a caravan flying the merchant guild and seemingly loaded with many valuable goods were to travel along the road at such a time?”
Usually, even the bandits might have cautiously ascertained their target first. But, according to their goons hiding in the city, Souma’s group was in the middle of gathering the mercenaries needed for the mountain hunt. Putting it another way, the folks that would try to catch them hadn’t even left the city yet. The bandits would be impatient in their wish to quickly obtain the funds for hiding out, and negligent in their belief that their enemy wouldn’t show up yet. Thus they didn’t have any other choice but to attack the caravan.
However, the ones boarding the caravan were harpyians and the brave zoan warriors led by Garam and Zurgu. Once the bandits showed up to raid the attack without being aware of that, the rest was simple.
No human could run away from the zoan who had faster legs than horses and possessed hunting techniques allowing them to chase down and kill prey on the vast plains on a daily basis. On top of that, no human could shake off harpyians who would track their targets from high up in the sky like reconnaissance planes.
Thus the bandits were caught or killed without a single one of them managing to get away.
“It’s something similar to waiting for a rabbit to run into a stump, even though it’s an obvious trap. But rather than that, it’s crucial to create a situation where the opponent cannot help but fall for the trap.” 1
Someone lightly tugged Souma’s sleeve as he was explaining all that full of pride. When Souma turned his eyes in the direction of the source, he found Shyemul next to him.
“What’s wrong, Shyemul?”
“Rabbits running into stumps, what’s that about?”
Even though it was only now, Souma realized that no one in this world would understand a proverb about “waiting in vain.”
“Umm…it’s a story about a farmer, who had watched a rabbit die after running against a tree stump by accident, thinking that it’d be more beneficial to wait for more rabbits to die in that way than diligently working on the fields. He quit his farm work and kept watching the tree stump, but in the end no other rabbit ever encountered the same fate, while his fields rotted away at the same time.”
“Such a stupid rabbit really existed?”
“Eh? Probably. At least it should have? Huh? Hmm, is it possibly a fictional anecdote then?”
Jakob and Cornelius ended up dumbfounded seeing Souma being all flustered because of Shyemul’s simple question, completely contradicting his well-reasoned explanation up until now.
Yoash, who got somewhat panicked by things having come to a standstill, praised Souma with exaggerated gestures, “Oh man, nothing less of Lord Soma. As soon as you used your wit that brought even General Darius to his knees, the likes of mountain bandits didn’t even register as dirt beneath the soles of your shoes any longer.”
He spread Souma’s might to the surrounding people of Jeboa, all for the sake of creating a current where the people would believe that it’d be beneficial for the city to form friendly relationships with Souma.
Cornelius, who came back to his senses because of that, lightly clicked his tongue in his mind.
Right now, the Divine Son of Destruction has been speaking as if he’d seen through all of the bandits’ actions, but that’s a lie. It’s an impossible feat for a human to pull off. Very likely he’s only set up plans covering various possibilities.
Just as Cornelius suspected, Souma had taken other measures as well. For example, he ordered a monitoring of the people coming and going into Jeboa and Bolnis.
If the bandits had tried to immediately hide themselves, fearing a mountain hunt, only big cities, which weren’t liable to suspect outsiders from the get-go, would be possible options. Accordingly he had the information of the people entering Jeboa and Bolnis checked to see whether any suspicious group of people with no records of having left Bolnis tried to get into Jeboa and vice versa. But, being capable of doing something like this was owed to Souma commanding harpyians, the fastest race of this era, who were so quick as means of communication that it’d be ridiculous to even compare them to horses.
Also, even the rumor about gathering many mercenaries had been propagated for the sake of deceiving the bandits, which actually were army deserters, so that they’d believe that it’d be a good guise for hiding among enemy ranks.
Souma deliberately hadn’t mentioned those things, but he had repeatedly revised his plans in preparation for the decoy caravan’s failure.
Cornelius perceived that it had been impossible for Souma to see through everything, but he still didn’t look down on Souma. On the contrary, he actually felt admiration for such a young man being able to come up with such a multi-layered plan.
Next to Cornelius, Jakob had been trembling in rage over the humiliation. What made it even worse was that he had believed that he’d be able to make his opponent surrender, but then ended up helping his opponent instead.
“Ah, right. Mr. Jakob, I’d like to request something from you.”
Being urged with a look by Souma, Shyemul handed a piece of paper to Jakob.
“Those are the names of the traitors we found out after interrogating the bandits on the way. It looks like they accepted goods and money from the bandits in exchange for information about Jeboa’s movements. Could I ask you to arrest and punish those people?”
Jakob looked as if he wanted to ask why Souma went out of his way to expressly ask him to handle it, but the second he unfolded the list of names he had received, his eyes flew wide open. He immediately stuffed the list into his pocket as if it’d be a disaster for anyone else to see it.
“Can I leave it to you?”
Once asked by Souma for a second time, Jakob fervently shook his head up and down, with his flabby chin shaking. “I-I shall definitely take care of this! ――Well then, I’m a busy man, so please excuse me!”
Cornelius had a rough grasp about what had happened after seeing Jakob stomp away.
The names of Jakob’s relatives or employees must have been among the traitors divulged by the bandits. If it were to become known that his relatives had been cooperating with the bandits who had been attacking merchants affiliated to the merchant guild, it’d spell Jakob’s ruin. The Divine Son of Destruction deliberately entrusted the punishment of the traitors to Jakob so that it wouldn’t turn out like that. With this Jakob owes him a big favor, which will make it impossible for him to take an aggressive stance towards the Divine Son of Destruction for a good while.
Cornelius hid a sigh. The one sighing in the same way was Yoash.
Yoash believed that the measure against Jakob was too soft.
Going by Jakob’s nature, he’ll likely remain quiet for a while, but once he’s erased all evidence of his relatives being traitors, he’ll definitely start to boldly attack Soma again. Rather than allowing this to happen, it’d have been smarter to make Jakob fall by revealing the identities of the traitors right away. This would also work as warning towards the other committee members. By just insinuating that traitors could be found at their places as well, none of the other committee members would be able to go against Soma any longer. This should be the most beneficial outcome to Soma. Even though Soma should have understood as much as well, he hasn’t chosen this path. Or maybe he couldn’t choose it. Either way, it’s doubtless that Soma allowed a good opportunity to pass by unused, Yoash assessed.
Going by Souma happily chatting with Shyemul, it was obvious that he rejoiced over having been able to clear this unreasonable request, and that he expected the negotiations with the Committee of Ten to become easier with this. However, Yoash believed that things wouldn’t turn out as Souma was hoping.
Yoash’s assumption was based on a certain condition, which Souma didn’t know of and Yoash couldn’t speak of, playing a role in Jeboa.
As Yoash was pondering how things would turn out from here, Menahem belatedly arrived at the gate after hearing of Souma’s achievement. Contrary to Cornelius’ bitter expression, Menahem greeted Souma with a relaxed smile curling on his lips.
He said in a clear, loud voice so that the surrounding people could hear him, “Master Cornelius, Lord Soma has subjugated the bandits who caused so much grief to our guild’s members. Shouldn’t we officially invite him to the meeting of the Committee of Ten, and formally express our gratitude for this grand achievement?”
Cornelius had no choice but to nod as Menahem’s suggestion.