The ashen-colored birdie – Part 2
If unauthorized, not even the nobles could step into the top level of Listina, where guards were always patrolling.
The Holy Kingdom of Richtert’s castle was snow white, and people prayed in the cathedral of the Goddess Filia, who they worshipped.
It was the territory of important entities like the royal family, a place that people of the slums, like Takumi and his comrades, could visit only when the stars aligned.
If a devout person was allowed entry, it would surely start crying tears of joy.
But for Suzuran’s members, who were walking through the castle’s corridor that was filled with a gloomy atmosphere, that wasn’t the case.
“Uuuah… Totally unsettling…!”
Karin and Kunon were indifferent to the cathedral and the royal castle, and trudged forward with a depressed look on their face.
“…Hey, you two. We’re about to arrive, so keep yourself together.”
“Elsa is right. It’s still a sort of public buffet, you know?”
The slums’ captain of the guard and Mirta rebuked them, who answered half-heartedly, so Elsa decided to ask Takumi.
“Hey, you’re their master, right? Tell them something.”
“There’s not much I can do… Girls, why are you even like that?”
“Can’t you tell…?”
Karin grumbled with downcast eyes, her lips pressed in a thin line.
A long slit on her burgundy dress showed her cleavage, and since she was used to hide a lot of skin, that outfit made her feel terribly uneasy.
“…I said I’d come too, but I never agreed to wear a dress.”
“We can’t help it, Karin. We might be tasteless guys from the slums, but we can’t just come here wearing casual clothes. There’s a dress code we should respect for this kind of occasion.”
Elsa was clad in her usual work clothes, as she was there as a guard, and Mirta was wearing the same outfit, coat included, she had when she did her speech to become the leader of Suzuran.
“…You are dressed as always, though.”
“Well, I usually take care of my look. Also, putting aside me being a slave merchant, I’d win the antipathy of nobles if I was dressed too flashy.”
Appearance was essential for people with a certain social status.
If one was to dress more pompous than someone with a higher status, he would’ve been shunned, but if the opposite happened, the nobles would’ve been pleased. Or rather, things would’ve been easier to handle.
“I understand, but… It wasn’t necessary to show my chest and legs. If I had to wear a dress, wasn’t something like Mirta’s outfit fine for me?”
“Well, given her role, that kind of things fits her pretty good.”
“Yeah. She doesn’t fail to be girlish, and it’s not like she will flirt with men. Even though she is a woman, she should still dress like a major company’s leader… That’s why I said ‘her role’.”
The girl they were talking about was walking firmly in front of them, her back straight.
“There’s quite a lot of male chauvinism in Richtert’s tendencies under many aspects. They’ll be pretty worried now that a woman will have to deal with the public finances.”
Men didn’t discriminate against women, but females usually had a lower social position.
Still, the highest authority of Richtert was the queen. She was treated as an exception because she was supposed to be a descendant of the Goddess.
Also, she was the symbol of the Holy Kingdom. She had decision-making power, but most of the real power was in the hands of the three overlords, so she wasn’t particularly involved in national politics.
“If we keep bringing good results, people will have a better impression of women, and more career paths will open for them.”
He wasn’t thinking only of the present, but he even kept the future into consideration. After Takumi explained all of that…
“Weren’t we talking about my dress?”
“Listen, I liked that one, okay? I wanted to boast about you to the nobles.”
“Couldn’t you keep that idea to yourself…?!”
He started to whistle and ignored her while she tried to shrink in her tempting dress.
“It won’t kill you to dress like that every once in a while. If you feel too embarrassed, just stay quiet behind me or Mirta.”
“…Remember, Takumi. You’ll pay for this.”
“I’m looking forward to it.”
He smiled at her resentful gaze, and then looked at her side.
Kunon was dressed up as a slave merchant’s apprentice, and wore a hat to cover her ears. She was muttering her discontent with her cheeks puffed.
“Takumi, I never agreed to come here!”
“This is what you get for falling asleep.”
“That’s because Captain’s lap is comfy and cozy! Also, I hate formal gatherings!”
“You only have to act as our bodyguard as usual, and you don’t have to care much about your behaviour, so go eat something if you’re bored.”
“Oh, can I? All’s fine, then!”
She raised her thumb and returned to her normal self. Thank Filia she was easy to handle.
“Have you finished your talk? We’ve arrived, so try to not cause any problem.”
Elsa butted in, and after she gave orders to some guards, the massive door in front of them opened.
There was a lot of extravagant furniture lined up in the vast room.
The curtain’s fabric was embroidered with gold and silver threads, and the beautiful, polished marble that composed the floor and walls wasn’t only a sight for sore eyes, but also reflected perfectly the light, enhancing the visibility in the room.
“Wow… so this is a buffet, huh?”
A lot of people friendly chatted among themselves, glass in hand, but a treacherous, dusky feeling drifted in the air.
For example, the nobles surrounded the most influential among them, who kept showing their power and dignity by dragging more and more people in their little crowds while trying to show off their accomplishment with their oratory skills.
Those who formed the crowd faced them with toady smiles.
But the shepherds were ambitious, so they didn’t only make sure to keep control of their flock of sheep, but also take any opportunity to steal more from others.
Those who were trying to trade were talking about business related matters.
They carefully chose their words while playing with the abacus in their mind to achieve the greatest profit possible.
That was the falsehood and distrust that jumbled together at that place.
“I cannot guide you any further, as I must go back with the other guards to patrol the perimeter. Please, remember to not be rude to others…”
“Elsa, we already have a problem.”
Takumi interrupted her, then pointed at his side.
“Kunon smelled something good and disappeared.”
“…Seriously, why did you let that irresponsible wolf girl free…”
With a slightly teary voice, Elsa shrugged her shoulders and started searching for the lost child. She grumbled often, but in the end, the nice guard honestly cared for them.
“Well then, time to…”
The moment Takumi opened his mouth, a voice reached them.
“Are they not from the new company?”
Those words were spoken so loudly that they reverberated in the entire room.
“As revolting people of the slums, they still had the courage to show their face here?”
“Is that not exactly because they are from the slums?”
“Yes, probably. The lack of intelligence and grace brought them to a place they do not belong to.”
“Indeed. They will make this place reek of black water.”
“The Fairstadt are supporting them, is it not? I had some expectations for Lord Lux despite his young age, but now I shall change my opinion on him.”
As soon as they entered, a lot of people started to mock them one after the other.
It was only natural, as those who came from the slums were the lowest in the social hierarchy.
Normally, nobles wouldn’t even have looked at them, but now that the guards accepted their help and they even became a major company, the nobles showed their true nature.
For those who thought only about their personal authority, the inhabitants of the slums were but unsightly garbage.
Still, Takumi grinned.
“Maaan! I’m so glad they insulted us!”
“Ahahah… You know that you shouldn’t be happy of being badmouthed?”
“Well, my sensitivity is pretty distorted. Anyway, I didn’t expect you to remain calm.”
Usually, Mirta would have been disheartened if anyone mocked her company, but she was now smiling.
“I am here as the Leader of Suzuran, so I cannot let anyone see a shameful side of my persona, do you not think so?”
She didn’t appear as a simple girl, but as a real leader standing above others, and Takumi smiled satisfied at that sight.
“Nice reply. Shall we introduce ourselves?”
She nodded slowly and started to walk toward the nobles who mocked them until now.
She ignored the voices stirring around her, and stopped in front a middle-aged man, then bowed politely to him while holding the hem of her dress.
“This is the first time we meet. I am the leader of Suzuran, Mirta Famille. You are the Count of Lingen, Alfas Hilbert, am I right?
“Y-Yes… indeed. I appreciate your politeness.”
“Today, I do not stand in front of you only because we received the invitation, but mainly for the great honour of introducing myself to you gentlemen.”
She spoke with a meek smile, and the man’s expression warped in embarrassment, but it wasn’t because she could talk so politely even as a mere resident of the slums.
“…Famille, you say? Forgive my rudeness, but what about introducing yourself to someone more important than me?”
He didn’t mouth those words humbly, even though, compared to other dukes, he wasn’t but a lad living in a warehouse, and but a drop in the sea compared to the lords and princes who were attending the buffet.
Still, Mirta showed him a graceful expression.
“I am grateful for your suggestion, Sir Alphas, but as an inhabitant of the slums, I consider every gentleman here as equals.”
“…I see. Your attitude is laudable.”
He was slightly shocked by her behaviour.
She just showed everyone that it didn’t matter how powerful the other party was, they all reserved the same respect.
After that, the derision and hostility hung in the air dimmed.
“Lady Famille, it is surprising to see someone so young as the leader of a company, and it is incredible that it became a major one because of the unforeseen accident of the other day.”
“My title is real but also a sort of decoration. This man, Takumi, was the first to support me, and many others followed his lead to make me reach this position.”
The young guy who stood behind her stepped forward.
“Very honoured to make your acquaintance, Sir Alphas. I am a slave merchant and a member of Suzuran as well. My name is Takumi.”
Instead of acting arrogantly as usual, he bowed his head and spoke elegantly. Still, the noble’s face warped in disgust when he heard his occupation, and looked at him annoyed.
“A slave merchant…? Many members of other companies try to make a profit at these events, but it is the first time that someone so vile attends one.”
Slave merchants traded human and demi-human’s lives, so Alphas couldn’t hold back his disgust.
Not only nobles and normal citizens tried to avoid any contact with them, but also fellow traders sneered at them behind their back.
But Takumi smiled.
“You are absolutely right… but every person allowed to participate at this buffet, starting from you, has some great abilities.”
“Are you insinuating that the same goes for you?”
The man’s face started to redden out of anger, but the slave merchant kept talking.
“Sir Alphas, might I ask you how you see the elf who is glancing at us?”
A ladylike Karin, who stood behind Takumi, cast her eyes down as the man’s expression distorted.
“…I cannot believe you brought a demi-human with you…”
“Why is that? Do you see this elf as a simple demi-human?”
“What are you saying? What else might it look like?”
Without grasping the meaning of his words, the noble looked at him with a puzzled expression.
“Slaves are like ore. They have the potential to become gems if polished and refined properly. Elves are seen as disgusting sex toys, but as you can see from this beautiful maiden, stating that she is not different from the others might represent a serious lack of aesthetic sense.”
Looking at the graceful girl who still hadn’t lifted her gaze from the ground, Alphas was at a loss for words, and Takumi took the chance to continue.
“But sometimes, I value my articles way more than mere gems.”
“Do you value them more than gems? That is quite the outrageous thing to say.”
The man shrugged his shoulders while laughing, but Takumi was unflappable.
“Let me give you an example. Ten hired employers fill a leather bag of ore each, but a demi-human alone can instantly find where the most precious stones are hidden. In such a case, only one person could do the job, am I right?”
“The next step of your bragging will be a delusion?”
“No, since those kinds of demi-humans exist. I know quite a lot of them given my job, so I understand very well the weight of my words.”
The noble’s sidelong glance revelead a slight hidden interest.
Takumi chuckled within his heart and kept talking.
“With such a demi-human, the working process would speed up sharply and become faster than having those ten employers handle it… That would mean that for you, wise Alphas, and many others, hiring demi-humans would be evidently better.”
“…If you speak the truth, I would almost say that I agree with you. The value would indeed be greater than a gem.”
“Thank you for understanding. I try to grasp the abilities of my articles in order to offer my clients what they need. This is the kind of slave merchant I am.”
Alphas brought a hand to his chin with interest.
“There are plenty of demi-humans with useful abilities. For example, drakonids are great miners, since they can survive if the site caves in thanks to their sturdy scales. A bird-man could read the wind current into the tunnel and dig a hole to let the poisonous air drift away. Thinking about it, have you ever heard that the number of miners dying in these circumstances is lowering?”
“…This is enough, I understand how good you are. I already looked into the background of the people in the remote regions.”
“Oh, please, I was only talking about a common accident in the mines.”
The noble smiled wryly at Takumi’s bright grin.
There were many casualties among miners because of poisonous gases or other accidents, and a few years back some happened even in Alphas’s territory.
The mine was currently closed due to the gas, and the work couldn’t proceed.
That was why his noble’s rank declined.
“If you are interested in the services of slaves, feel free to speak to Suzuran, our company. I will arrange our meeting ahead of time.”
“I will come when I find some free time. Despite my hate for slave merchants, I can at least trust someone competent like you.”
After that, the noble smiled friendly and walked away.
“Done, got a new client. Gonna keep this up.”
“…Seriously, you are like a swindler. You never stop talking.”
“You can’t sell if you don’t know how to talk, Karin. Thanks for helping me, though.”
“You wanted to use me like this from the start, huh? If standing quietly is all I need to do, I feel a little better.”
She let out a light sigh mixed with gratitude and shock.
“Well, there’re six other potential clients left. Let’s start with the lowest ranked and see if we can get closer to the subordinates of the leaders… mh?”
As Takumi was reorganizing his thoughts, he felt someone grabbing his sleeve, and once he turned his head, he found a little girl looking up at him. She looked very little, maybe she wasn’t even ten.
He guessed that she might have been the daughter of some attendant of the buffet.
“Yes? Can I help you in any way, young lady?”
Takumi made sure to keep talking politely as he bent to look at her. Her ashen-colored eyes were scrutinizing him.
She nodded, and her silver, almost transparent twin-tail swayed gently.
“You are a slave merchant from Suzuran, right?”
She spoke with a slight lisp, but her tone was hard and totally unfitting a child.
Takumi noticed that she was different from the people around them, and looked at her attire. It reminded him of western clothes.
It was blue like the sea and the sky, and the white seemed to resemble purity and honesty.
Then, the girl opened her mouth again.
“I am Lise Crest… Archbishop of Filia’s holy doctrine.”
Her gaze sharpened as her tone grew heavier.
“On behalf of Her Highness the Queen… I was ordered to take Takumi, one of Suzuran’s slave merchants, away from here.”