On that day, an emergency meeting of the Committee of Ten was held in the official residence of Jeboa’s merchant guild. The reason for this meeting was the information that the Divine Son of Destruction had caused damage to Juda’s caravan in Bolnis the other day.
Leaving aside the time when it had just been established, nowadays Jeboa’s merchant guild had grown big enough to influence all of the trade in the West, and such an act of violence towards that guild was unprecedented in history. Just that alone caused the committee members to uniformly wear hard expressions as they trickled into the meeting room one after the other.
However, just Jacob alone, the guy who got cornered by Souma over the matter with the bandits, acted differently. Something like him expressly heading over to Menahem of the Shapiro Company for a greeting, whom he usually hated to the teeth, clearly showed how cheerful he was.
And after all ten committee members had finally assembled, just when they were about to start the meeting, Olga, the ambassador of the marmen, entered the meeting room.
“What’s wrong all of a sudden, Lady Olga?” The eldest, Kajaphas, asked for the reason for Olga’s visit.
“You people don’t know either?” But, Olga only furrowed her eyebrows in response. “I received a message from a harpyian, who identified herself to be a messenger of Sir Soma Kisaki, asking me to attend this meeting, so I came here without a moment’s delay, but…”
The committee members, who could now fully understand Olga’s confusion, looked at each other, and smiled bitterly. They suspected that the Divine Son of Destruction planned to get Olga, who was friendly towards him, to support his case. But, people like Jacob sneered at this in his mind, certain that Jeboan merchants weren’t as easy-going to bury their hatchets over something of that level.
At that moment, sounds of people clamoring could be heard from outside the room.
“Please wait a moment! To trespass without even requesting guidance is far too rude!”
The meeting room’s door was inwardly slammed open, accompanied by that voice.
“…Oh, it looks like the Committee of Ten and Ms. Olga have all assembled.”
It was Souma who had driven his horse day and night to attend this meeting.
While pretending that he couldn’t help feeling very disappointed, Jacob called out to Souma who stood in front of the door while being not only accompanied by zoan and dwarves, but even a ferocious dinosaurian, “Oh my, oh my, Lord Soma, things sure have developed into a terrible direction this time.”
However, without even taking notice of Jacob, Souma looked at the face of each person in the room, one-by-one. And then, as soon as he discovered the person he was looking for, he roared in anger, “Juda!”
This was a bizarre spectacle for the other committee members. Souma, who ought to apologize for having destroyed Juda’s valuable cargo, openly exposed his wrath while Juda’s face turned pale instead.
“Do you remember having seen her face!?”
When Souma turned sideways while asking, Jahangil stepped forward, and put down the big cask in his hands.
A young marman girl was sitting inside that cask. Her wet silver hair clung to her body, and her face, which still had traces of innocence left, seemed sunken in, probably due to exhaustion.
As soon as he spotted that girl, greasy, cold sweat formed all over Juda’s face. Meanwhile the other committee members felt puzzled just why Souma had brought that marman with him.
The one abruptly crying out was Olga. She completely forgot that she was in a bucket with water herself, and tried to move towards that girl, resulting in her falling out of her bucket. Mixed with the sound of water spilling over, you could hear the thud when her body heartily hit the floor, but seemingly not even noticing the pain, Olga tried to crawl by using both her arms, carrying her body towards the girl she had called Admetey.
“! Elder sister!”
Admetey used her arms to raise herself out of her casket, and frantically crawled towards Olga. And then, without paying any heed to being watched by others, Olga and Admetey tightly hugged each other.
“Just what is going on here…?”
The committee members, who couldn’t grasp what was happening in front of their eyes, looked at each other, uncertain how they should react.
Souma had watched Olga and Admetey’s emotional reunion, but once he noticed the committee members murmuring, his expression became grim, and he spat out, “She’s a girl we took under our custody after discovering her on Juda’s caravan.”
Souma’s voice wasn’t loud by any means, but it thundered through the committee members like a lightning strike. The turmoil of the committee members, who had originally gathered to condemn Souma, was extreme. The city of Bolnis, which lay in the sphere of Souma’s authority, had declared an abolishment of slavery. Not only had Juda tried to smuggle slaves through that place, he even did something as outrageous as kidnapping marman children.
“But, where? We have never heard about any marman children being on his caravans.”
A simple cargo check had been carried out even at the time when Juda’s caravan departed Jeboa. It was unthinkable for the other committee members to not learn of it, if marman children were to be found on the caravan.
While clearly sensing how the eyes of the merchants focused on him, Souma plainly stated, “They were inside the bellies of the big dragons.”
Unable to understand the meaning of Souma’s answer, Jacob and the others could only return silly noises like, “Haaah?”
Feeling irritated by Juda’s cowardly, criminal trick, and the Committee of Ten, which had allowed him to get away with it so far, Souma clicked his tongue, and then put it into words even they could understand.
“They had the big dragons pulling the wagons swallow the marman children, and smuggled them through the city like that.”
The marman children hadn’t been hidden in the wine barrels or wagons. They had stuffed the marman children into the sturdy leather bags, which Souma’s group had found in the cave, so that the dragons wouldn’t digest the children, and had the dragons swallow the bags whole.
“No, no, please wait a moment. That’s too much of a stretch, even for a lie.” Jacob frantically put up a resistance.
Jacob also knew about big dragons, which served as important means of transportation. He also was aware that they were capable of swallowing a calf whole, and that they would simply spit out skin and bones they couldn’t digest. But――
“There’s no way that they’d be able to survive that long inside the stomach of a big dragon!”
If Souma’s claim were to be true, it’d mean that the children had to stay inside the dragons after being swallowed inside the city of Jeboa until passing the cargo check and leaving the city, and likewise they’d need to enter the dragons again before Bolnis’ gate, and last all the way until the dragons would exit the city on the other side after passing through two cargo checks.
However, if it took this much time, it was impossible for the children to remain safe and sound, even if they might have been crammed into leather bags that wouldn’t get digested. After all, breathing would be a problem. Even if the leather bags possessed some air, it was unimaginable for it to last. Also, even if the bags had contained enough air, the children should have died from breathing issues as their chests would get crushed by the constricting gastric walls trying to digest the food.
Having this pointed out, Souma called out to Olga, who was still sharing her emotions with Admetey while hugging her.
“Ms. Olga, what do your people do about breathing underwater?”
“Breathing?” While confused by Souma’s strange question, Olga replied, “We don’t breathe underwater. We simply hold our breath.”
The committee members blankly stared at Olga for a while, unable to grasp the meaning of her words. They had believed that marman breathed underwater just like fish.
“How long can you swim while holding your breath?”
“Let’s see. It’s possible for us to swim underwater for half a toki. However, if it’s just floating, we can hold our breaths for a lot longer.”
Souma nodded at her reply, apparently being the only one to understand. At first, Souma was also convinced that the marmen were breathing through gills. But, that was something he had arbitrarily decided himself.
Although the marmen were unable to freely move on land, they didn’t look like they were suffocating. Due to that, Souma wondered whether the marmen had actually built their houses at the coast to come up on land when relaxing instead of staying underwater. These facts pointed to the marmen not breathing through gills. Or in other words, marmen breathed with lungs.
Considering it like that, Souma could also agree with Tethys’s story about many marmen being swallowed by the ocean to never rise again after they got exhausted from swimming when being banished from the eastern seas. And Souma knew about sea dwellers who could live in the sea like fish despite breathing with lungs.
“So you were sea-dwelling mammals, just as I had expected…”
Sea-dwelling mammals referred to mammals like whales, seals, and similar.
Thinking back on it now, there were more than enough hints to be found anywhere. For example, their tail fins. Fish have vertical tail fins, and they swim by shaking their bodies left and right while using that fin. However, sea-dwelling mammals have tail fins that are horizontal to the body, and they swim by waving those fins up and down. It’s because mammals, who climbed on land in the process of evolution, adapted their skeletal structures so as to move their bodies up and down, and not sideways, for the sake of scaling the land with its undulations. Even after returning to the sea, that skeleton didn’t return to its original structure, and sea-dwelling mammals started to swim by moving their tail fin, which had transformed into legs or tail, up and down. And the marman tail fin has the very same shape as that of sea-dwelling mammals.
Moreover, hadn’t a far more obvious proof than going by such complicated theory been placed in front of my eyes?
Their breasts. The fact that marman women possess breasts on their chests is the best proof for them being mammals.
Also, it’s not that rare for some of the sea-dwelling mammals to be capable of swimming for close to an hour without taking a breath. The reason for them being capable of that is a protein called myoglobin. This myoglobin has the duty of storing oxygen, and sea-dwelling mammals, who have plenty of this protein in their muscles, can store oxygen within their muscles as if having compressed gas cylinders in their bodies. Also, because they can empty their lungs by storing the oxygen in their muscles, they can also act in the deep sea without getting their lungs crushed by the high water pressure down there. That’s also the reason why sperm whales can prey on giant squids in the depths of the sea.
Wouldn’t the marmen be able to survive for a long time even inside a dragon’s stomach, where they can’t breathe while being pressured by the gastric walls, if they were equipped with the same traits as sea-dwelling mammals?
That was Souma’s conjecture. Of course, no one could guarantee that his knowledge about Earth’s animals could be applied to Seldeas. In addition, it was a world where gods existed. It was quite possible that rules Souma didn’t know of existed.
However, if the marman children were really hidden inside the dragon’s stomachs as he had guessed, it’d be terrible. Even if it was fine for marmen to not breath for a long time, that only applied for times of a composed, mental state. If people felt fear or stress, their heart rate would go up, and their breathing would become faster as well. In a situation where they already had wasted more than half a toki for the cargo check, they couldn’t put this off for even a single second longer.
Considering all that, and resolving himself for the case of the marman children not being in the stomachs, Souma had his men cut the sturdy leashes binding the big muzzles of the dragons, and got them to spit out everything in their stomachs.
“All of the five dragons spit out one marman each, including the girl over there. But, two among them were found to be already dead.”
Juda’s body jumped with a start in response to Souma’s words. But, unable to calm his rage with something of this extent, Souma struck the table with his fist, and howled, “How dare you to have come up with such a heartless and awful method, Juda!”
Juda, whose face had already passed the state of being pale and entered the category ashen now that he had apparently accepted his fate, shivered violently, unable to even get up from his chair.
Jacob protested in Juda’s stead, “This is a terrible insult towards the merchant guild! It’s obvious that you’re lying about smuggling marman children after putting them into the stomachs of big dragons! Right! D-Do you have any proof that you didn’t arrange this story with the marman girl over there!?”
It was an unsightly objection. But, it’d be a huge scandal for one of the Committee of Ten to smuggle marman children. In order to protect the honor of the merchant guild, they couldn’t afford to admit this to be true, going as far as labeling it as a possibly false accusation.
But, that was the merchant guild’s logic.
Even Souma felt uncomfortable with this nasty objection of Jacob, but there was someone else present who not only felt a far deeper discomfort, but even rage.
“You bastard, are you saying that this girl is telling a lie!?”
It was Olga. Following Souma, she dropped an even worse bomb between the Committee of Ten.
“This girl is Her Majesty Tethys’ daughter, Third Princess Admetey!”