On the next day after returning from the island, Souma immediately asked Yoash whether he had an idea who might have kidnapped the marman children.
“You’re asking me?” At first Yoash looked flabbergasted, but then he added as if utterly stunned, “The ones being suspected of the kidnapping are Jeboan merchants. So why would you ask me about it?”
It was only understandable for Yoash to sound somewhat as if scolding Souma. Souma’s question was like asking him to expose his family’s secrets. Souma was well aware of that, too. But he didn’t have anyone but father and son of the Shapiro Company whom he could rely on in Jeboa. Even though he knew that it was somewhat unreasonable, Souma had no choice but to depend on Yoash if he wanted to quickly form a friendship with the marmen.
Yoash shrugged his shoulders and lightly shook his head, as if lamenting over his fate.
“Well, I’ll tell you about the things you could immediately find out if you listened to the gossip in the city.” After making such a preface, Yoash continued, “Very likely it’s Juda’s handiwork.”
Souma recalled having heard that name before. It was one of the committee members who had shown his disagreement over forming a friendship with him. However, his opposition gave Souma the impression of being a more toned-down, conservative approach than Cornelius and Jakob who belonged to the same faction. He wondered whether that might have just been an act with Juda skilfully moving behind the scenes in reality.
Once he honestly voiced this opinion, Yoash answered with a wry smile, “What a thing to say! Calling it acting is preposterous! Sir Juda is a straightforward gentleman!”
According to Yoash, Juda wasn’t a very resourceful merchant to begin with, and only became a committee member thanks to his father.
Juda’s father was a great man who could be very well be described as a hero. He became one of Jeboa’s leading, wealthy merchants after expanding the small liquor store he had inherited from his father, Juda’s grandfather, into a successful big trading company. However, the third generation’s Juda, who inherited the company afterwards, lacked decisiveness and was a weak-minded man. Business occasionally required a merchant to go on the offensive. However, the current Juda only focused on protecting his current assets without trying to take any risks. Although he didn’t produce any huge blunders, his business had been shrinking for some time, until it had reached a point of being close to total decline.
“We had assessed that Sir Juda would soon go bankrupt. ――However, not only did Sir Juda rally his business after procuring huge amounts of funds from somewhere, but he even obtained the position of being Holmea’s royal family’s purveyor when it came to liquor. His business became even bigger than it was before. Of course, this also piqued our interest.”
Even though they were fellow merchants of the same guild, they were still business rivals after all was said and done. If their rival suddenly procured a big amount of funds, it was only natural for them to investigate the investors. Although Juda had done his utmost to cover his tracks, it was next to impossible to hide it from the eyes of cunning, clever merchants.
“Slave dealer Piermont.”
After a theatrical pause, Yoash mentioned the name of a man whom Juda frequently started to contact since having obtained financial support.
“Piermont is a slave purveyor of Holmea’s royal family. He doesn’t have an overly good reputation. It’s even rumored that he’d slice off people’s flesh if they can’t pay back the lent money. It’s impossible for such a man to lend money without any motive.” At that point Yoash lowered his voice, “We’ve reached the conclusion that Juda might be cooperating with the smuggling of the marmen as collateral.”
“If you’ve discovered this much, you’d immediately know by investigating the caravans of that Juda guy, wouldn’t you?” Shyemul butted in.
Yoash replied with a bitter smile, “In fact, there was a person who had the very same idea, but…”
It was one of Jeboa’s wealthy merchants who had been trying to get a seat in the Committee of Ten for some time. Using various excuses, that merchant got Juda’s caravans examined on a regular basis in order to get Juda booted out of the committee.
“And yet, Mr. Juda is still a member of the committee, which means…”
Yoash nodded at Souma’s implicit question, “Indeed. No marmen were found among his caravans.”
Distrusting one of the committee members, who substantially ruled over Jeboa, and going even as far as stopping his caravans to examine their cargo; it was said that the merchant searched for the marman children with bloodshot eyes. However, he couldn’t find a trace of the missing children. The merchant had schemed to use this scandal as a plot to become a member of the committee, but after earning himself a demand to pay reparations and to apologize for his actions by Juda instead, that merchant was forced to leave Jeboa, virtually being banished from the city.
“Because of this event, Jeboan merchants nowadays hesitate to voice doubts about Juda’s integrity,” Yoash explained, adding at the end, “He’s suspicious, but no definite evidence has been found so far. Thus everyone flinches away as they might end up getting exiled themselves if they pick a fight imprudently.”
“Mr. Yoash, do you personally believe that Mr. Juda smuggles marmen children?” Souma asked Yoash for his opinion at the end.
“Ultimately it’s just my personal opinion, but――” After starting with this preamble, Yoash stated, “――he’s black, exceedingly close to pitch-black.”
If it came to transporting marmen who were unable to move on land by themselves, it required a reasonable extent of transportation efforts such as wagons and manpower. If someone were to provide all of these just to transport marmen, it’d be like announcing to the public that they were smuggling marmen. Besides, transporting all of the kidnapped children at once would likely get discovered, whereas transporting one or two would be unprofitable.
You can very likely expect that four or five children are being transported at once. However, even just a mere four or five marmen children would be next to impossible to handle with a small caravan if it comes to securing a place where they can be hidden away. In other words, for the sake of smuggling marman children, you’d need a caravan big enough to hide the children on top of not being suspected of anything even if the caravans head to Holmea many times.
“And Sir Juda possesses caravans like that.”
According to Yoash, he regularly used caravans that assembled many wagons fully loaded with wine barrels for Holmea’s royalty and lords, which were pulled by big dragons. Those were the perfect caravans for smuggling marman children.
“However, just as you said moments ago, no children had been found even after a thorough examination of the caravans.”
Yoash shrugged his shoulders as if to throw in the towel. Having listened to all the suspicions about Juda, Souma folded his arms with a humming, and brooded.
The more I listen, the clearer it becomes that Juda must be involved in the marmen kidnapping. That’s also why the merchant, who’s appeared in Yoash story, had Juda’s caravans checked with the resolve of him going into ruin over it. However, despite going this far, the children weren’t found. Just where is he hiding them?
When everyone was deep in thoughts, pondering about the situation, Zurgu spoke up, “If you don’t find the marman brats inside the caravan, wouldn’t it be just fine to grab the brats before they get loaded onto the caravan?”
They didn’t know what method Juda used here, but if the children were hidden so ingeniously that they wouldn’t be found even with a thorough on-the-spot investigation, you just needed to find the children before they got loaded. Everyone looked at Zurgu with eyes full of praise for an idea that might as well be called a game changer. Even Garam was no exception to that. But once he noticed Zurgu looking at him while puffing up in pride with his nostrils widening, as if touting his own greatness, Garam got pissed off.
“…I guess even a blind idiot may perchance hit the mark.”
“Hey, Garam, are you picking a fight with me, or what!?”
Ignoring the two who had suddenly started to glare at each other while bumping their chests, Souma got on with the conversation, “I think there’s some truth to Zurgu’s view. Besides, the kidnapped children should be stowed away in a place close to the city ― and the sea. If we can narrow down the potential hiding spots, it should be possible to search them.”
The marman children were kidnapped for the sake of selling them as expensive slaves. Because of that, the kidnappers had to take care of them so that they wouldn’t get injured or die. And this also meant they had to keep the children at a place allowing them to soak in ocean water and provide fish the children could eat. The further away from the ocean they hid the children, the more likely people would spot them as it’d require quite some effort to transport the necessary fish and ocean water. Considering that, it was very unlikely for the kidnapped children to have been hidden in a place too far away from the ocean or the coast.
“Doesn’t Mr. Juda possess some warehouse at the port or a big mansion where he could hide the children?”
Even while agreeing with Souma’s train of thought, Yoash denied his question, “I also think that it’s going to be a place close to the sea, but he probably won’t hide them in one of his mansions or warehouses.”
Marman children were valuable merchandise, but at the same time they were similar to a bomb that could rip Juda apart at any moment. Yoash couldn’t believe that a coward like Juda would keep them close to himself for a long time.
“If it’s a place outside the city of Jeboa, there are several rocky coasts which are out of public attention. If I were Sir Juda, I’d hide the children at one of those until right before the caravan departs.”
A small carriage allowing for around one person to be hidden would be let through at a small city gate if it arrived from the city outskirts while bearing the mark of Juda’s company. Moreover, it was also an option to transport the children under the cover of night after paying some hush money to the night watches. Yoash believed that Juda would have the children stuffed into the caravan after meeting up with the caravan outside the city where no one was looking.
“In that case, our objective has become clear.” With those words, Souma looked at the faces of everyone. “Let’s carefully search for rocky coasts that are very likely outside public attention. We’ll find the children before they can be loaded onto the caravan.”
Everyone nodded at that, acknowledging the plan of action. But, at that moment, one of the mansion’s servants rushed into the room in panic. The servant bowed to Souma’s group once, and then whispered something into Yoash’s ear. In response, Yoash’s face visibly froze.
Once Souma asked while having a bad premonition, Yoash coughed lightly as if to conceal his internal agitation, and replied, “A strange fire has occurred at a rocky coast near the city. It looks like a cave with traces of someone having been hidden there was discovered in the remains of the fire.”