Just when Souma’s group was about to head out for a search, they received news about a strange fire occurring in a cave and traces of people having been hidden in there. Of course this caused a commotion to break out in the room.
“Soma! Is this possibly…”
Even without being told so by Shyemul, Souma’s intuition told him that this incident was connected with the kidnapping of the marman children.
“Mr. Yoash, I’d like to take a look at that cave. Could you please arrange everything to that effect?”
Yoash readily gave his consent, and efficiently arranged for a carriage and a guide. Soon Souma, who boarded the carriage together with Yoash, let the horses gallop towards the coast.
According to the guide, the fire occurred in a place that was usually deserted, at a part of the coast somewhat distant from any fishing villages or the main road. However, when Souma and the others got there, many people had already assembled at the location – fishermen who caught wind of the fire, and soldiers who had been dispatched by the city to make sure that no one would trespass the site.
Souma worried how he’d get the soldiers to allow them to check the site, but this proved to be a needless anxiety. The fishermen, who had never seen zoan before, opened a path just from Souma and the others approaching, as if the ocean had been parted by a prophet. Zurgu, who was pleased by their reaction, further scared the fishermen by baring his fangs and looking at them with a ferocious smile on his lips. However, as could be expected, that didn’t seem to fly with the soldiers. Instead it caused them to ready their spears, blocking Souma’s way in obvious alert.
However, as soon as Yoash stepped in front of Souma’s group and mentioned the name of the Shapiro Company, the soldiers’ behavior went through a complete transformation. They lowered their spears, bowed with flattering smiles, and even opened up a path for Souma and the others.
While admiring the authority of the Shapiro Company as it was given for their seat in the Committee of Ten, Souma passed through the row of soldiers with the zoan in tow, just to have his nose tickled by a smoky stench that hung in the air.
The fire site seemed to be a cave facing towards the sea. Its entrance was in a blind spot, at the base of a small cliff protruding out towards the rocky shore, hidden from the path following the coast. The air filled with the smoky stench seemed to drift in their direction from the cave.
Once they stepped inside, they found the place to be surprisingly spacious. Going by tracks looking as if the rock wall had been whittled down with chisels, it looked as though the cave had been artificially expanded. There were traces of intense burning at the cave’s entrance and in the area around it. But maybe because the quick discovery and extinguishing of the fire, or maybe because the fire ran out of oxygen as it burned so intensely at the cave’s entrance that it actually shut out fresh air supply, the hay, which had been spread out on the floor as cushioning, remained more untouched by the fire the further you headed into the cave.
Once Souma brought his nose close to a part of that hay which had taken on a darker color as if having become wet, he noticed that it stank of oil in addition to its smoky smell. That was proof for this fire not having been accidental, but instead arson following some kind of intent.
“Hey, Soma, come over here for a moment.” Being called over by Shyemul, who had gone deeper into the cave, Souma pointed his feet her way.
The cave’s inner part was partitioned by gratings consisting of thick wood pieces and tied together with ropes. When Souma stepped through a door that had been added into the grating, Shyemul pointed on the ground while kneeling on one knee on the opposite side.
“Look. Water has accumulated here.”
Shyemul’s finger pointed at a puddle of water that had accumulated in a depression, obviously dug out by people. Once Souma thrust his hand into the water, he discovered it to be unexpectedly deep. His fingers finally hit the bottom of the depression when his whole arm up to his shoulders was already underwater. After pulling his hand out, Souma noticed that something had caught onto his hand. Holding it against the light flowing in from the cave’s entrance, he immediately identified it as a single, long and glittering strand of silver hair.
“Surely this isn’t a bathing area, is it?” Souma said in jest.
In response, Shyemul’s nose twitched, “Don’t be silly. This smells like ocean water. As if anyone would go out of their way to build a bath filled with ocean water.”
Shyemul said this with verve as she recalled how playing in the waves while excited over encountering the ocean for the first time was great at the beginning, but immediately turned into a tragedy when the water dried out, making the fur across her whole body sticky.
Souma agreed with her on this, “Figures. ―This is probably the place where they had temporarily confined the kidnapped marman children.”
Otherwise, there would be no point in explicitly digging out a basin beneath sea level to create a bathing area where ocean water would seep out.
“Soma, there’s something strange over here.” Being called over by Garam who had been examining another area, Souma headed over, just to be handed something weird.
It was a big, tubular bag. The bag itself was made sturdily with several layers of thick leather sewed together. It was a bit smaller than Souma, but at this size, Souma suspected that a small child might completely fit in.
Touching the bag’s leather, he could sense something with a hard texture through his fingers. Once he checked it more closely, he could see how sturdy iron rings had been sewed between the leather patches. Several of those metal rings had been inserted into the bag, turning the whole construct into something similar to bellows.
When Souma put a hand into the bag, he perceived that its inside was wet. And after withdrawing his hand, it smelled like the beach.
It was way too big to be a waterskin. Besides, no one in their right mind would pour ocean water into a bag used for drinking.
I guess this was used for transporting the marman children.
“It sure looks like they’ve been in quite a hurry.” Shyemul while surveying the area from next to Souma.
Just as she said, anyone could guess that the previous inhabitants of this cave had vacated it in a rush, going by how not only those suspicious leather bags, but also wooden chairs, tables, and bowls were scattered all over the carpet of hay.
“It’s probably because I reached the marman island.” Souma guessed.
Souma, who had advocated an abolition of slavery on many occasions, had come in contact with the marmen who had many times complained about their children being kidnapped as slaves. It wasn’t strange for the kidnappers to think that both sides would have some kind of discussion about the kidnapped marman children.
“But, it’s not like we discovered this place. Wouldn’t it have been smarter to desert this place after secretly destroying all evidence first?”
Shyemul’s question was very reasonable. Souma getting in touch with the marmen took place just yesterday. Even if he had been asked to save the kidnapped children by the marmen, it’d be impossible for him to locate this place right away. And yet the kidnappers escaping while being this sloppy about the destruction of evidence was far too hasty, no matter how you looked at it.
Souma brooded on whether something had bothered them, and suddenly experienced a flash of insight.
“Maybe this is just a diversion!”
Setting the cave on fire wasn’t for the sake of destroying evidence. Aren’t they trying to carry the marman children out of town while we’re turning our attention to this cave due to the fire?
Having reached that conclusion, Souma rushed out of the cave.
“Hurry, we’re going back to the city!”
Shyemul and the others followed Souma in a hurry. They boarded the carriage with a sidelong glance at the soldiers who were dumbfounded by their sudden action, and spurred on the horses. After some time that felt much longer to Souma than their journey to the cave, they finally reached the city, and Yoash immediately went over to the main gate’s keepers to ask them for Souma.
Souma watched the back of Yoash as he talked with a gatekeeper while feeling the fire of impatience raging in him, but just when Yoash turned back in the direction of the carriage after having finished listening to the information, Souma had already jumped out of the carriage, unable to bear it any longer.
“Mr. Yoash, what did he say?”
Yoash shook his head at Souma, who asked full of excitement, with a bitter expression, “We were too late. It looks like Sir Juda’s caravan departed the city just a little while ago.”
Souma cursed, “Damn it!”, in reflex. He felt irritated at himself for having completely fallen for such a simple diversion. However, he knew that it wouldn’t change anything, even if he regretted it now. After rallying his spirit again by believing that he had to take action, Souma quickly headed back to Menahem’s mansion.
Even if he were to chase after the caravan or take other measures, the committee member Juda would become their enemy. He had to consult with Menahem who was also a committee member.
As soon as Souma stepped into the mansion, he requested a meeting, and Menahem, who ought to be busy, immediately granted his request. However, once his son Yoash explained to him the chain of incidents, Menahem’s face turned grim.
Just the fact of Souma, who was on close terms with him, suspecting Juda, a committee member, of marman abduction would already fan the criticism against the Shapiro Company. And not just that. Should Souma stop Juda’s caravan and force a cargo check, things wouldn’t end at the level of criticism anymore. Menahem saw a great value in Souma, but he had no intention to cooperate with him to the extent of risking his own position within the merchant guild.
Yoash called out to his father who was deep in thought, pondering how to handle this, “Father, it’s a bit sudden, but let’s go ahead with what we talked about the other day.”
Menahem’s eyes widened slightly at his son’s words, and then, after thinking it over for a short while, he nodded once.
“Very well. ―Yoash, as of now I’m disinheriting you.”
With this Menahem had opened himself the option to claim that he had already cut off all relationships with his son Yoash, even if the company was blamed by the merchant guild for Souma’s actions having caused troubles. It was a move that would be easily seen through, but having or not having prepared such an excuse in advance would make a huge difference.
“Father, I’m sorry for asking something unreasonable. I’ll come to pick up my farewell gift on another day, but could you lend me several horses for the time being?”
“Fine, take as many with you as you need.”
Souma and the others were surprised by Menahem and Yoash suddenly cutting their familial relationship. Moreover, not only did Yoash, the one supposedly disinherited here, accept it very calmly, but he even requested a farewell gift, and to top it off, Menahem readily consented. Souma’s group ended up confused, not knowing how they should react to all this.
As they all looked baffled, Yoash scolded them, “What are you spacing out for? Come on, hurry, we’re going to chase after Sir Juda’s caravan.”
No sooner than finishing that remark, Yoash rushed out of the room. Souma’s group, who got infected by his activism, followed. However, when he had approached the room’s exit, Souma came to his senses, and quickly looked back at Menahem.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Menahem. I’ve caused you nothing but troubles.”
Menahem open-heartedly laughed at Souma who honestly apologized while deeply bowing.
“No kidding, you’ve been a real nuisance. The next time we meet, you will have to at least teach me how to make that food called 『Ice cream』.”
Souma returned a smile at Menahem’s joke, “Okay, as a bonus I will also teach you how to make pudding!”
“I have never heard anything about some paddin, but I shall look forward to it.”
Being seen off by Menahem, Souma rushed out of the room.
A palatial residence in Holmeania, the capital city of Holmea.
In a room situated deep in the residence sat a man with a thick beard, a grim face, and short, curly, dark brown hair. Even though the sun was still high up in the sky, he cheerfully gulped down his wine while being waited on by many female slaves. His face teemed with complacency as he occasionally reached out a hand for the breast of a half-naked slave, or raised a flirtatious voice.
This man was Pilemon, the slave dealer serving the royal family and the owner of this residence.
One of the clerks working for him entered the room, reverently holding a letter.
“Master, a letter has been delivered from Jeboa’s 『fisherman』.”
Pilemon grabbed the letter in annoyance, but once he scanned its content, he grimaced sullenly. And after waving off the slaves, he ordered the clerk to bring him water to sober up from his drunkenness.
“Is it some kind of bad news?” The clerk asked as he handed fruit water chilled by the water drawn from a well.
In response, Pilemon bared his displeasure, and spat out, “Bolnis’ slave leader’s apparently visitin’ Jeboa.”
Bolnis’ slave leader ― in other words, Souma. This letter had been sent by Juda when Souma’s group arrived in Jeboa.
“It’s sayin’ that he want to hold back on catchin’ 『fish』 for a while, and dependin’ on the circumstances, he’d like to move up the schedule and ship the goods ahead of time.” Pilemon snorted lightly as if slighting what he just read, and burned the letter in the flame of a nearby candle.
The clerk said with a compliant smile to Pilemon, who had been thoroughly trampling the burned rest of the letter underfoot, turning it into small scraps, “That Juda guy is far too cautious.”
It just means a retard, who doesn’t even know that marmen have been smuggled through the city ruled by himself, has visited Jeboa. No matter how you look at it, it’s way too impertinent for Juda to ask for a stop on such important business because of that.
Pilemon laughed at the clerk, who thought all that, “Sure, Juda lacks all business sense. However, he’s got just one thing I value in him.”
When the clerk asked what that could be, Pilemon answered, “His cowardice.”
Pilemon burst into an evil laughter, apparently unable to hold back any longer.
“If that guy believes somethin’s slightly dangerous, he’ll immediately scoot. He’s an utter scaredy-cat. However, in this kind of dangerous business, such cowardice is important as well. Up until now we managed without gettin’ exposed. But, it’s not said that it’ll work out the next time as well. Humans tend to quickly forget to be careful.”
Due to the clerk looking like he couldn’t quite agree, Pilemon said with a proud face, as if having come up with the perfect example, “Even gambling’s the same as well, right? Rather than continuin’ to lose all the time, it’s much scarier after you’ve won big once. You’ll end up believin’ that the next time’ll work out just fine since you’ve won so much cash before. However, morons believin’ shit like that end up floatin’ in a river by the next mornin’.” Pilemon started to laugh loudly while holding his sides, seemingly very satisfied with his example.
However, the clerk had his hands full to somehow keep up a cramped smile with his stiff face. After all, it was Pilemon’s usual trick to pull a business rival or the son of a noble, rich family into a gambling den, let them win big for a while, and then rip them off all their fortune. Exactly because the clerk knew about all the people who fell for this trick and then hung themselves or got sold into slavery by their families, he had troubles to find it funny.
“However, if you want to make a livin’ with business, there’re times where you gotta cross a bridge even while knowin’ of its dangers. That guy doesn’t have the backbone to do so. That’s why he’s such a sucker as a merchant.” After saying so, Pilemon got up from his seat with some effort. “If he’s as scared as the letter suggests, marman slaves’ll likely be delivered in the very near future from Juda. I guess I should arrange for a ship headin’ to the empire ahead of time.”
“You think they will be delivered safely?” The clerk asked with a pang of anxiety upon Pilemon hinting that the next time wouldn’t be guaranteed.
Thereupon, Pilemon laughed smugly, “I think it’s gonna be okay for a while. Even the bird god’s eyes wouldn’t be able to see through us transporting the goods while hidden in such a place.”