Souma and the others, who had spurred on the swift horses they borrowed from Menahem, soon caught sight of the Juda’s caravan which had left the city a while ago. But, instead of getting in touch with the caravan right away, Souma had his party slow down the horses, keeping a distance from the caravan.
They had no definite evidence that Juda’s caravan was smuggling marman children. Ultimately, they only suspected it to be so. Because the opponent would be one of Jeboa’s Committee of Ten, even Souma had to tread carefully.
Matching the decrease in speed with Souma’s horse, Shyemul got up from running on all four, switching to walking next to him.
“What are we going to do, Soma? Are we heading over to them?”
Just then Juda’s caravan had stopped with their wagons in a circle on a level ground a little distance away from the road to take a break.
It was common practice for caravans to make a halt away from roads to not block the passage of other caravans, but Souma still felt that they had separated themselves a bit too far from the road. In addition, it looked like the caravan was accompanied by awfully many guards, considering its scale. It was reasonable for a caravan to position its wagons and carriages in a circle to use them as bulwark against potential bandit attacks, but to Souma’s eyes it looked as if they were hiding the marman children away from sight. It gave him the impression that something was not quite right with this caravan.
But, Souma shook his head, “Let’s give up on that. As you can see, they’re extremely cautious. I feel like it’d be better to not approach them thoughtlessly.”
Even though they were merely advancing along the road while gazing at the caravan from a distance, Juda’s caravan watched their behavior with obvious wariness. The guards unwrapped the protective cloths coiled around the blades of their spears, as if they were preparing for battle.
“Soma, are we going to take possession of the load by force?”
As soon as Garam asked this, the other zoan warriors silently placed their hands on their machetes.
Around this time, Yoash had used up all his strength during the forced horse ride, which was unfamiliar to him, and laid limply on his horse, but hearing Garam, he jerked up in panic, and said, “Please desist from doing that. It’s an unwritten law that Jeboan merchants have the right of self defense. It’s going to turn into a battle.”
As of yet this world overlooked lawlessness outside cities. It was easy for caravans transporting lots of money and goods to get targeted as suitable prey of thief bands. And not only that. During hard times, even local lords attacked the caravans crossing their territory while pretending to be robbers. Because of this, it was an unwritten law that it was legitimate for caravans to repel groups approaching them carelessly with armed might.
“What, this amount of guards won’t pose any problem whatsoever.”
Zurgu boasted that they had to simply smash them apart if they resisted, but Yoash remonstrated him, “Even if there are marman with that caravan, it’s quite likely that they would get killed in that situation to silence them.”
If Souma secured the marman children, they’d become important live witnesses of the smuggling. Rather than risking for this to happen, it’d be better to do away with them. It was the prime example of Dead men tell no tales. Moreover, it was quite thinkable that they’d insist that Souma’s group, who had suddenly attacked them, pushed the marman corpses on them to make false accusations, explained Yoash.
“As if we’d ever do something so rotten!”
Yoash admonished Shyemul, who flew into a rage, taking it as a personal insult, “Without regards to the truth, the problem would be how society would think of it. To put it very bluntly, the society would heavily tilt towards supporting Sir Juda if they had to choose between the words of Sir Juda, one of the Committee of Ten, and Lord Soma, a complete stranger.”
Shyemul was about to flare up at Yoash, asking him who was supposed to believe such a stupid story, but she sank into a sullen silence when Souma, the person in question, indifferently told her, “In the eyes of society, I’m the boss of revolting slaves.”
“What should we do then?” Garam asked while being fed up with the troublesome ways of how humans handled matters.
“First, the maximum priority should be to secure the marman children. And, we ought to save the marman children in a place with as many people around as possible.”
Yoash explained that it’d be very convenient if other people, who could become witnesses, were present in case Juda’s side tried to blame the marman and Souma for having arranged this in advance, or if, in the worst case, a marman died.
“In short, you’re saying we should confront them in Bolnis?”
“I think that would be for the best,” Yoash agreed with Souma’s interpretation.
Bolnis houses many merchants, visiting from other cities. Not to mention all its residents. I doubt we’ll lack witnesses over there.
“Alright, let’s return to Bolnis as quickly as possible for now!”
Leading a group of elven court ladies, Eladia welcomed Souma who had returned to the lord’s residence after driving the horses.
“Lord Soma, please allow me to express my delight over your safe return.” After bowing elegantly, Eladia smoothly approached Souma, who had dismounted his horse, took off Souma’s overcoat, which had become dirty during the trip, with a fluent motion, and passed it to the court lady who waited next to her.
Souma smiled bitterly at that. He thought it was way too exaggerated to trouble someone else over something as simple as taking off a coat, but as usual, the coat was snatched away from him without him having any time to stop her. It caused him to think something as silly as, Wouldn’t she be able to go down in history as a great female robber if she were to become a bandit?
“We have grasped the broad situation thanks to the letter you sent us, Lord Soma. How shall we proceed from here on?”
Souma had asked a harpyian to deliver a letter, where he had briefly described the events so far, before he left Jeboa, and thus was glad to hear that it had reached them without a hitch.
“Given that the caravan is going to arrive tomorrow or the day after, I’d like to use the time to refine our plan. Could I have you look for the gatekeepers, who had been on duty when Juda’s caravans had passed through this city in the past, and summon them since I’d like to interview them.”
“As you wish. ―I have already called for the guard captain, so please feel free to speak with him whenever it is convenient for you, Lord Soma.”
Apparently she had already made some arrangements. This was very welcome to Souma, who needed as much time as he could get.
“Very well. I’ll go meet him right away. Please have everyone gather in the audience hall since I’d like to borrow their wisdom.”
Souma headed straight for the hall. There he received simple reports about the events during his absence from Michena and Solon who had already been there. In the meantime the man Eladia had called over in his position as guard captain showed up. He was a gruff, middle-aged man with a scary face, reminiscent of a bandit, and a messy beard growth. However, because the ones having called him over were the Divine Son of Destruction, rumored on the streets to wield terrifying demonic powers, and his close aides, his rough face was pale and his big body curled up as much as possible.
Seeing him like that, Souma hurriedly told him to be at ease, but that only caused the man to become even more nervous. Quickly giving up on this as inevitable, Souma cut right to the point, asking the guard captain about the occasions when Juda’s caravan had visited the city.
“I-I was damn sure ― I had always believed t-those caravans to be fishy, err, very suspicious.” Because of his nervousness, the guard captain explained while stammering and correcting himself.
According to him, Juda’s caravans had passed through the city without stopping on each occasion. That alone was already plenty suspicious. After all Bolnis would be the city the caravan had finally reached after several days on the road. The members of the caravan would likely want to take a rest in an inn with a feeling of safety behind the city’s walls. Moreover, they should desire to eat something warm and drink some booze to get a change from the provisions they ate on the way. And yet Juda’s caravans passed the city without caring about any of that. They went even as far as deliberately taking a short break right in front of the city, and passed through the gate after feeding and watering their big dragons. This behavior clearly told anyone that they didn’t want to stay in the city any longer than they had to.
Of course the guard captain was also suspicious of Juda’s caravans. Accordingly he had their cargo carefully checked each time, but he said that they didn’t find anything questionable during all of those inspections. He also insisted that there was not a single trace of a figure or shape that would resemble a marman.
“We checked the sound by knocking against the jars and barrels placed on the wagons, but they were doubtlessly filled with alcoholic beverages.” After finishing his explanation, the guard captain looked up to Souma as if asking whether they had made some blunder.
Souma expressed his thanks so as to clear away those worries of his, and send him back after giving him a small remuneration.
Once the guard captain had left the hall after bowing many times over like an obsequious person, Souma looked at everyone, and asked, “What do all of you think?”
The first to answer was Zurgu: “It’s as shady as saying there’s no fire despite the rising smoke.”
While nodding at Zurgu’s opinion, Garam expressed his own doubt, “I also agree with that. But, I’m curious how the gatekeeper folks couldn’t find anything despite carefully checking the cargo while suspecting something being wrong.”
That part had bothered Souma, too. The gatekeepers weren’t the only ones to suspect and check Juda’s caravans either. Even though another Jeboan merchant had thoroughly examined the caravans, he didn’t find any marmen. Souma felt uneasy about this.
“Maybe they’re using some trick to hide the marman children in the luggage or the wagons?”
When it came to built-in tricks, Dvalin as dwarf would know the most. Upon Souma’s question, Dvalin frowned with a sullen face.
“They could have come up with any kind of trick, but I won’t be able to tell if it’s possible unless I actually see the caravan with my own eyes from nearby.”
Although he was a craftsman of superb skill, even he would be hard pressed to see through some built-in trick in something he didn’t see, Dvalin complained.
But at that point, Jahangil roughly breathed out through his nostrils, interjecting, “Leave it to me. If I break all of it to pieces, I’m sure the marmen will come to light as well!”
He enthusiastically advocated this brute force approach as a very good idea. Certainly, if he completely pulverized the wagons and the cargo on them, they’d likely find the marmen too, just as he said. However, this would be only true under the prerequisite that the caravan was doubtlessly hiding marmen.
Without a moment’s delay, Eladia offered candid advice, “Lord Soma. Suspicions are ultimately just that. There exists a metaphor, stating 『Try to take the torch and you might burn your fingers』. Please consider this matter carefully.”
The 『Try to take the torch and you might burn your fingers』 mentioned by Eladia was a proverb passed down on the continent of Seldeas. Based on the blunder of burning one’s fingers when trying to take a torch illuminating the dark night and mistakenly grabbing into the flames, it meant that you’d experience something painful if you depended on something while just hoping for it to be so.
Jahangil unhappily hit the floor with his tail in quick succession, as if complaining about being blamed for the ingenious idea he came up with at great pains. But the elven beauty, whose graceful outward appearance misled others to not suspect the nerves of steel hidden behind that facade, indifferently took no notice of the fuming behavior of the mad dinosaurian warrior, who was feared by anyone.
“I’ve got the same opinion as the elven woman.” Solon said while stroking his long goatee. “Going by circumstances, there’s no doubt that the marman children have been abducted. However, if you blindly believe that they’ll transport them through this city, you might get the rug pulled under you.”
Solon’s comment was very reasonable. Jeboa and Holmea’s merchants had invested into a path that cut through Bolnis’ south for the sake of circumventing the city under the complete control of Souma. If they used that path, they wouldn’t need to pass through Bolnis.
However, according to what Souma’s group had heard, that path was a very narrow animal trail, meaning, it didn’t allow big carriages or wagons to pass through. Moreover, ever since the road paved with Roman concrete ― “Soma’s Road” had been laid out, that path hadn’t been maintained, let alone extended, and apparently fell into such a ruin that it was even difficult for people to walk on it. It was very likely next to impossible for the large wagons and baggage required to hide marmen to use such a path. However, drawing attention by having only the wagons head for Bolnis and transporting just the all-important marman children to Holmea along that path without passing through Bolnis was a possibility that couldn’t be excluded.
Souma ordered several harpyians to fly over to the southern path to monitor it. At the same time, he had zoan warriors patrol upstream and downstream of the river flowing through the center of Bolnis. And after he made other moves to prevent the caravan from trying to cross into Holmea without passing through Bolnis, Souma awaited Juda’s caravan while fully ready to receive them.
Juda’s caravan arrived at Bolnis two days after Souma. However, just as the guard captain had mentioned, they didn’t enter the city right away. They expressly stopped for a night in a place slightly away from the city gate, and only arrived at Bolnis’ gate on the next day.
There had been opinions about trying to launch an assault on the caravan’s camp outside the city, but Souma rejected those. He believed that Juda’s caravan might be on high alert. If they tried to raid such a vigilant place, success wouldn’t be guaranteed. In the end Souma thought that it was a better plan to go ahead as planned, and find the marman children at the city gate where many merchants waited for entry or departure.
A skinny, neurotic-looking man called Gros led Juda’s caravan this time around.
“Just what is the meaning of this?”
It was only understandable for Gros to ask this with a sharp, demanding tone. Limited to today, an unusually thorough cargo check was enforced at Bolnis’ city gate. Of course this was aimed at Juda’s caravan, but no one had the intention to foolishly spill the beans.
“We’re hunting for spies. Please cooperate with us on this endeavor.”
Considering it a possibility that the caravan might force its way through by brandishing the power of Jeboa’s merchant guild, if it was just the gatekeepers, Souma had shown up in person. What he used as reason for the thorough cargo check was a story about Holmean spies being on the way to infiltrate the city for the sake of causing disturbances inside the city. Of course Gros realized that this was a ruse with the true aim of the cargo check being their caravan. However, precisely because it was a story that couldn’t be denied under the current circumstances, where the tension between Bolnis and Holmea was on the rise, he was unable to file too powerful a protest.
And yet, Gros acted like a poor loser, saying, “We’re merchants of Jeboa’s merchant guild. Furthermore, this caravan belongs to Master Juda’s company, who is one of the Committee of Ten.”
The flags adorning the caravan were those of Juda’s company and Jeboa’s merchant guild. He implicitly suggested that Souma would turn all of Jeboa’s merchant guild into his enemy if he acted imprudently.
“Moreover, the wine here will be offered to Holmea’s royalty and noble lords. Please make sure to be aware of this.”
The wine barrels loaded on the wagons also included wine to be offered to King Warius. It was very likely that the hot-blooded king would reject the wine touched by the hands of Souma, whom he loathed as boss of revolting slaves, as undrinkable. This was yet another implied pressure, telling Souma to carry out the cargo check while bearing this in mind.
Even though Souma confirmed that, the check was carried out very thoroughly. Everyone had to step off the caravan’s lead carriage, which served as place to take a nap and storage for the travel provisions, and each and every bag stoved away on it was opened and examined. The five wagons pulled by big dragons behind the carriage had all the covers against rain pulled off, and soldiers checked each of the big wine barrels on the wagons by knocking against them and listening closely to discover any strange sounds. Moreover, they peeked underneath the carriage and wagons, and tapped the planks with the butt ends of their spears, confirming that there were no hollow rooms anywhere.
Gros continuously gnawed on his thumb as if to show his inner irritation about this harsh cargo check while watching all of it happen with glaring, bloodshot eyes. However, when the cargo check had taken a quarter koku (roughly 30 minutes), Gros’ patience finally snapped.
“You’ve examined it plenty already, haven’t you!? Isn’t it enough!?”
Although it was a big caravan using five big dragons, the places to hide marmen were limited. The soldiers had devotedly examined all the places that could be considered as especially suspicious. As they were already checking the same places over and over again, it was only reasonable for Gros to protest.
If Gros had been just any ordinary merchant, Souma could have made him shut up with his authority as lord. But this was the caravan of a committee member. If he made the mistake to brandish his authority as lord here, it’d likely result in him sully the honor of Jeboa’s merchant guild, which caused Souma to hesitate.
Moreover, the situation of performing thorough cargo checks had gone from bad to worse. Since they used the public stance that the checks didn’t specifically target Juda’s caravan, they had enforced the same cargo checks on other caravans and peddlers, but because of that, huge queues had accumulated in front of the gate, all waiting for their turn.
Once Souma soothed Gros that the check would be over very soon, he quickly separated from Gros in order to dodge any further questioning, and frantically wracked his brain.
Are there no marman children in this caravan after all? Or, is this caravan a decoy? Isn’t the real target actually heading to Holmea through another route?
Several hypotheses crossed his mind, but he had no clear answer for either of them. Souma’s thoughts continued to race.
“Hey, Soma, isn’t this slowly getting out of hand?”
As might be expected, even Shyemul had at least noticed how bad the situation had become.
“Yes, I know. ―Eladia, is there any message from Pipi?”
They had arranged that Pipi, who was leading the harpyians patrolling the skies, would contact them as soon as her group found a suspicious group trying to head for Holmea while avoiding Bolnis.
However, Eladia shook her head at Souma’s question. Because of this, Souma found himself ascertained that the marman children could only be somewhere on this caravan.
But, we haven’t found a trace of them. Just where the heck are they hiding the children?
Souma’s eyes fleetingly glanced at the load on the wagons.
“So it must be the wine barrels after all, huh…?”
The barrels were big enough to fit an adult. It’d be an easy task to fit a marman child in there. But, although they couldn’t check the interior by opening the lid, the barrels were filled with wine as far as they could tell from knocking against them. Even comparing the sounds by changing the knocking locations revealed nothing unusual, and it didn’t seem like the barrels used some hidden tricks like double bottoms either. If they wanted to investigate any further, they’d need to take the barrels apart after tipping out the wine.
Revealing a cramped smile, Souma sought approval from Shyemul.
“Taking this many barrels apart at this point would be impossible, don’t you think?”
It’d take time and effort, but above all, Souma didn’t believe that Gros would allow them to do that. In response, Shyemul sighed once, pressed her hands against her hips, and was about to say, “That’s obviously impossible, right?”
But, someone beat her to the punch.
“It’s an easy feat for me,” said Jahangil.
This dinosaurian warrior, who didn’t care much about others, had been following Souma all the time as if bored, without doing anything, despite having shown up at the location of the caravan’s cargo check. However, Souma had completely grown accustomed to Jahangil regularly loitering around behind him, and had completely forgotten about his presence after getting completely preoccupied with the issue at hand. The same applied to the people around them.
For this very reason, no one could immediately hold Jahangil back when he suddenly started to swing around the iron balls attached to his chains.
“W-Wait a moment! No, no, no, noooo!” Finally coming to his senses, Souma cried out, but he was too late.
At the same time as a hiss similar to the threatening of snakes or lizards escaped Jahangil’s mouth, the iron balls were thrown while tearing through the air. The balls gouged out the two sides of a big barrel, which had been placed on a wagon, causing an explosion.
Amidst the bellows and screams fluttering about due to the sudden event, Jahangil approached a barrel with a calm gait, thrust his hands into the smashed opening, where wine was still flowing out in a flood like blood, and yanked the hole open with all his might.
“Hmm? Not there?”
However, no marman was to be found there.