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    It was our second day off since starting training. As planned, today, Kaede and I were heading to the adventurer’s guild for registration. After finishing breakfast and changing into our gear, we left the castle through the gate.

    “Alright, we’re off.”

    “Yeah, make sure to be back by 8 PM.”

    “Got it.”

    We greeted the gatekeeper and set off towards our destination without any detours. Kaede was wearing leather armor with knuckles strapped to her waist. The equipment was provided by the Empire. We had a choice of weapons, including one-handed swords, two-handed swords, bows, staves, and more. I chose a staff and a robe.

    We had already done some research on the location of the adventurer’s guild, and neither of us had a problem with directions. As we walked through the city, I couldn’t help but be amazed by the unfamiliar surroundings. The people, the mostly wooden buildings, the unpaved roads, and the occasional passing horse-drawn carriage all served as a reminder that we were indeed in another world.

    Kaede seemed lost in thought too, her gaze wandering around. It was understandable since everything we saw was so different from what we were used to. I wondered if we would encounter the typical troubles that adventurers in light novels often faced. Well, even if we did, I wasn’t too worried.

    We both had the proof of being knight apprentices, a document given to all summoned individuals from Earth. This document would be exchanged for a knight’s certification from the Steania Empire’s Ninth Knights, Leonia, in a year. Besides, the adventurer’s guild, while an independent organization not influenced much by any nation’s authority, had some respect for those under the protection of the Steania Empire.

    So, even if we were just apprentices, causing harm to someone under the Empire’s protection could lead to imprisonment as a clear act of hostility against the Empire. It was a bit like using the power of a tiger while pretending to be a racoon, but for now, we needed to focus on gaining strength. Besides, there was a level of surveillance and protection provided until we reunited with Rui, so we decided to utilize every resource available.

    Of course, even individuals belonging to specific nations could register with the adventurer’s guild without any issues.

    “We’re almost there,” I said after mentally checking our progress on the map.

    “Got it. It’s easy with you remembering the way,” Kaede replied.

    “Well, you should remember it too,” I teased.

    “Yeah, yeah,” she responded with a grin.

    Kaede and I continued walking, somewhat swept up by the flow of people. Soon, we spotted a three-story wooden building with a prominent sign featuring a sword and shield. It was the adventurer’s guild. There were clearly adventurers coming and going, some of them notably strong-looking, while others wore robes.

    As we entered the adventurer’s guild, I felt the piercing gaze of onlookers and briefly faltered. It seemed like everyone was curious about us, but I couldn’t afford to show any weakness. I steeled myself and walked forward. While maintaining a composed demeanor, I let my gaze wander, observing the surroundings.

    I saw people drinking at tables in the back, others reading notices posted on a board, a line forming at the guild’s counter, and individuals loudly recruiting for their parties. In a matter of seconds, I had finished scanning the guild’s interior and made my way to the reception desk. Although all the counters were busy, I chose one that seemed relatively less crowded and joined the line.

    After waiting for about fifteen minutes, it was finally our turn, and the receptionist greeted us with a warm smile. I couldn’t help but wonder if they were selecting employees based on looks, given how attractive all of them were.

    “Welcome to the Adventurer’s Guild. I’d like to hear your business.”

    “We both want to become adventurers. Could you assist us?”

    “Of course. Allow me to explain the rules and procedures for new adventurers. It may take a while, so please pay close attention.”

    The receptionist then provided a thorough explanation. However, it was so lengthy that Kaede, who was standing beside me, started yawning and stretching.

    I had done some preliminary research in the castle’s library about guild regulations, so I didn’t have any questions regarding the guild’s rules. We were only here to obtain our guild cards, but I decided to ask a question while I had the opportunity.

    “Is there someone named ‘Rui,’ a sixteen-year-old male, who uses this guild as a base?”

    “No, there’s no one by that name in this guild.”

    “I see. Thank you.”

    “You’re welcome.”

    It was a long shot, but worth a try. I had also checked for information about nobles in the castle, but some countries didn’t have nobility records, so I was at a dead end for now. I wanted to inquire about adventurer’s guilds in different regions, but I didn’t have the luxury of time at the moment.

    “Here are your guild cards. Please take them.”

    “Thank you.”

    Kaede and I received our guild cards and tucked them into our pockets.

    “With these, we’re officially G-ranked adventurers,” I remarked.

    “That’s right,” Kaede agreed.

    I nodded in agreement with Kaede’s response and turned my attention to the request board. Almost immediately, three individuals approached us—a group of two men and one woman.

    “Hey there, ladies. How about teaming up with us?”

    “No, join us instead!”

    “You two should back off! We’re forming an all-female party!”

    Their sudden invitations caught me off guard, but I had no intention of teaming up with anyone. We only had one day off per week for adventuring, so joining a party wasn’t a viable option.

    “We’re not looking to join a party right now. Sorry, and thanks for asking,” I politely declined.

    “Well, that’s how it is.”

    “Got it.”

    “Fine, then.”

    I gave a slightly exasperated look to Kaede, who seemed nonchalant, and then turned my attention back to the request board.

    “Hmm, considering we have to return on the same day, there aren’t many options, are there?”

    “Yeah.”

    “In that case, taking a low-risk, always-available request seems like the right choice. Among those, maybe gathering herbs is a good option?”

    “Or perhaps dealing with slimes or goblins?”

    Kaede made a serious suggestion after my comment. After considering both opinions, I spoke up.

    “It looks like we don’t need to register for the always-available requests, so let’s head out as we are.”

    “Agreed.”

    With that decision made, we left the Adventurer’s Guild.

    The city outskirts were quite a distance from the guild, and we had been walking for about an hour since leaving. However, due to our well-trained bodies, fatigue was minimal.

    Being the capital of the Steania Empire, the city was bustling with people. We skillfully navigated through the crowds, and as we finally entered a less crowded street, Kaede frowned and spoke with a hint of anger in her voice.

    “I’d heard about it, but it’s really terrible…”

    In this country, slaves of all races—humans, beastfolk, elves, dwarves, and demons—were common sights. However, among the slaves, human slaves seemed to have slightly better treatment compared to the others. The rest of the slaves appeared lifeless, their eyes devoid of spirit. It was a situation that words couldn’t adequately describe.

    As we walked, we passed a slave being beaten, and Kaede continued to speak.

    “Ah, I wonder what Rui-kun would think if he saw this situation?”

    “I’m not sure. He helped a bullied child once, and it ended up in a terrible situation… Seeing this wouldn’t put him in a good mood, I imagine, but I don’t think he’d unconditionally intervene.”

    As we discussed this, a young girl we passed by suddenly spoke up. At first, I thought I had misheard her, but her words were clear.

    “Rui…Rui-sama…?”

    It seemed she picked up the word “Rui” from our conversation. Maybe she knows my childhood friend! Thinking this, I quickly approached the girl.

    “You! You just said ‘Rui-sama,’ right!? That’s Rui, isn’t it? Do you know him?”

    Startled by my sudden questioning, the girl looked troubled and began to speak.

    “Eh… No… I can’t be sure that the ‘Rui-sama’ I know is the same person you’re referring to…”

    Indeed, she had a point. In my eagerness to find information about him, I must have gotten confused. Once I calmed down a bit, I observed the girl in front of me. To put it politely, she wasn’t exactly beautiful. Her clothes were torn in places, and her blue hair was unkempt. To be honest, she looked quite disheveled. The blonde woman with her looked the same. On closer inspection, I noticed they were wearing what seemed like slave collars, the kind I had read about in the imperial library’s books. So, these girls were slaves. Even though it seemed likely a case of mistaken identity, I was contemplating how to engage them in conversation when a man I didn’t know blocked our path.

    “Hey! What are you trying to talk to my slaves about?”

    Startled by his sudden angry tone, I tried not to show my unease as I replied.

    “Nothing special—just heard the name ‘Rui’ and thought it might be someone I know.”

    “Rui, you say?”

    As soon as I mentioned his name, the man’s demeanor changed. His gaze turned hostile, as if filled with intense hatred. Confused, I turned to Kaede beside me. She too looked bewildered. As we stood there, a woman approached us.

    “Calm down, Cross. But… the name Rui is quite rare, maybe there’s a chance?”

    So this man’s name was Cross.

    “Hey, you. We have heard a bit about this Rui guy from these slaves. Is he a sixteen-year-old male adventurer with silver hair?”

    “Eh!?”

    I didn’t know what his current hair color was… but a sixteen-year-old male. It didn’t seem like a coincidence. This thought struck me impulsively, and I found myself reacting to the man’s words without realizing it.

    “Huh? Seems like you know him?”

    “Really? Cross, you’re making a scary face.”

    “That goes for you too, Aisha.”

    The blue-haired girl and the blonde woman, apparently slaves, seemed to have something to say to the man and woman, Cross and Aisha, but perhaps they couldn’t resist because they were slaves. Sensing that something was amiss, I decided to retreat from the situation immediately.

    “Why are you suddenly creating such a dangerous atmosphere, mister? Aya and I haven’t done anything wrong.”

    “I don’t care about your circumstances. Fortunately, there aren’t many people around here. Hey, do you know what this is?”

    With a twisted smile, Cross pulled out two slave collars from his bag.

    “Black hair is rare, isn’t it? I’ve never seen it before… She might fetch a good price as a slave. Even if she’s not related to that man, we can have our fun before selling her off. Kukukuku, I’m looking forward to this.”

    At that moment, I felt a creeping sense of disgust. Cross and Aisha slowly advanced towards us. They showed no openings in their approach. There was no way we could escape… I glanced at Kaede, and she nodded, reaching for her weapon. It seemed she had made up her mind; her eyes were filled with determination. In my confusion, I felt like I was forgetting something, but this wasn’t the time to dwell on it. I firmly decided to resist as much as I could and readied my staff. But what about magic… Using it in the middle of the city could lead to disaster. What should I do? As I continued to ponder, Kaede’s shout pierced my eardrums.

    “Aya!! I’ll buy you as much time as I can, so run away quickly!! Even if it’s just you, survive!”

    “Idiot! There’s no way I’m leaving Kaede behind!”

    She’s just too kind…

    “Ha ha… I know.”

    Though I tried to act tough, there was no way out. Maybe I should just risk casting a spell. If the two of us could create an opening… I wasn’t used to a real fight to the death, not like a mock battle, and I found myself unable to speak properly. I couldn’t even chant for my magic. And the situation wasn’t waiting for us. They were slowly closing the distance.

    “Alright, I’ll circle around to the back. Aisha, you keep going from the front.”

    “Okay, got it.”

    Cross disappeared from in front of me. Where did he go!?

    “Look, I’ve already got the drop on you from behind. All that’s left is to put this collar on, and it’s all over.”

    I instantly turned around at the sound of his voice, and there was Cross, right behind Kaede. Such speed… there’s no way my magic could hit him. And that’s when I started to feel despair. Then, an unfamiliar voice reached my ears.

    “Hey hey, everyone, pay attention here. All eyes on me!”

    The voice didn’t carry any sense of tension. Behind Cross stood a person clad in black clothes and a black hood. There was no doubt that no one had been there just moments before. Who could it be? I couldn’t comprehend. Since Cross and Aisha also seemed surprised, it was clear they didn’t know this person either. Amidst the confusion, Cross addressed the hooded figure.

    “Who are you? Dressing so strangely. We’re busy here. Get lost! I’ll let you off this time. Come on, get out of here.”

    “Hmm, how kind of you to let me go. But, um, too bad! I can’t overlook you guys.”

    “What? Don’t mess with me, scum!! What are you talking about?”

    “You’re already surrounded. It would be wise to surrender.”

    Surrounded? Looking around, I couldn’t see anyone. What did he mean? I listened to their conversation while searching for an opportunity to escape.

    “What are you talking about? Surrender? What nonsense! Are you okay in the head? We’re two S-rank adventurers here. You want to make enemies with us?”

    “Heheh… S-rank, huh? By the way, do you guys know what these two ladies here are?” 

    The hooded figure pointed at me and Kaede and asked Cross. Clearly unable to anticipate the answer, Cross tilted his head. Indeed, no one would guess we were knight apprentices just by looking at us— and then it hit me. This person must be our guardian and overseer. I had completely forgotten about them since I had never actually seen them before.

    While I was piecing it together, Aisha, who had been by Cross’s side, was discussing something with him, occasionally glancing our way, probably about the hooded figure’s story. The hooded figure dramatically nodded before speaking again to Cross and his group.

    “Well, I guess you wouldn’t know. Those two are knight apprentices, planning to join a new order of knights next year, and we were guarding them. So that means— you understand, right? Oh, by the way, I’m Rouga, vice-captain of the Darklass Squad. We’re part of the Steania Empire’s shadow operations, known only to a few.”

    “Why didn’t you come out sooner if you’re their guardians? Trying to trap us?”

    “Pffft… you say the funniest things. We’re not interested in trash like you. We didn’t come out right away because we were calling in other squad members to surround you, and to confirm your guilt. We would’ve stayed quiet if you did nothing, but you committed a crime on your own.”

    At Rouga’s words, Cross and his group started to show fear. Aisha muttered, “Could it be, these young girls?”

    As I quietly observed the situation, suddenly six more figures dressed like Rouga appeared silently and surrounded Cross and Aisha.

    “Sigh.”

    Cross’s deep sigh echoed in the quiet space. He then looked at Aisha.

    Thinking they might have a way out, they instead threw their weapons to the ground.

    “Alright, we lose, we lose. We surrender. But, if possible, please be lenient with the punishment. We can be useful, you know?”

    “Good! Good! You guys are quite clever. But, when we judge, there’s no leniency. Attempted assault, attempted slave hunting, and those two girls there—are they perhaps illegal slaves? If so, the slave hunting isn’t attempted anymore, is it?”

    The girls with blue and blonde hair nod. They were illegal slaves.

    Looking back at Rouga, he casually announced:

    “Then the verdict is—ta-da! Death for the man and the woman joins the Darklass Squad as a comfort service member!”

    Death and… comfort service? Is that normal in this world?

    “I actually thought of keeping you alive for our use. But you’re an S-rank adventurer, and using you with a slave collar would be too conspicuous for the empire. We can’t use a criminal without at least a slave collar.”

    “Don’t worry! I’ll make sure not to stand out! I can really be useful!”

    “Me, me too! I’ll prove useful! Please…”

    Suddenly, I noticed Aisha’s legs trembling unnaturally.

    Cross and Aisha were said to be S-rank adventurers. If they are this scared, just how strong are Rouga and his team?

    “Hmm, but then again… If we make this incident public, the existence of these girls will also become widely known. After all, this was a slave hunt by S-rank adventurers. It’s a topic with more than enough sensationalism. We can’t keep it hidden forever, but it’s still too early to cause a commotion. So—that’s why I won’t spare your lives. Well then, goodbye. We’ll feed the man’s corpse to the monsters or something.”

    I didn’t see anything. Probably Rouga attacked, but… when I realized it, Cross’s headless corpse was there, his head rolling on the ground.

    And Aisha too, no blood from her body, but already lying on the ground.

    “That woman gets a slave collar then, and joins us as our comfort service member. Hey, Yaas! Take her to our squad’s waiting room! Tell the others they can have their way with her afterwards—but don’t break her, haha.”

    “Understood! I’ll take good care of her, hehehe.”

    The squad member called Yaas quickly took Aisha away.

    I tried desperately to comprehend what had just happened in front of me. My hand gripping the staff unconsciously tightened, and I realized I was sweating profusely.

    I knew from Mr. Stanley that the Darklass Squad was assigned to us as escorts and watchers, but I never imagined they would be this powerful.

    Cross’s crushed head. Aisha being taken away.

    What struck me was how easily life could be extinguished in this world.

    Cross’s body, with blood spurting from the neck, was frankly nauseating.

    But I couldn’t afford to dwell on that… I had to reacquaint myself with the cruel reality I had thought I understood.

    What’s notable is the strength of the Darklass Squad. Even if I could find a way to escape, honestly fleeing would most likely…

    No, not likely. Definitely, I would be finished. I can’t imagine any other outcome.

    To prevent that, I want to do something, but at this pace of training, I understand I can’t beat Rouga. I want to create some magical tools that could help, but realistically, it’s difficult considering my knowledge, skills, and materials.

    “Haah…”

    I let out a sigh unconsciously. For now, all I can do is strive to become stronger.

    —Then, I remembered the two slaves.

    This girl with blue hair, she might be the key to finding a way out. I must secure her custody no matter what.

    With that resolution, I recalled various books I saw in the castle’s library, especially those concerning slaves.

    I came upon information perfectly suited for the current situation. Yes, this should work!

    Gathering my resolve for a crucial negotiation, I approached Rouga, who still had his foot on what was Cross’s head, and started a conversation.

    “Rouga-san, thank you for saving us. We are truly grateful.”

    “Thank you. We are grateful.”

    I bowed deeply in gratitude, followed by Kaede doing the same.

    “It’s fine, it’s fine. This is our job, after all. Don’t worry about it.”

    I addressed Rouga with a serious expression as he casually waved his hand.

    “Rouga-san, I have something to discuss with you. May I?”

    “Ah, sure, go ahead.”

    “The Darklass Squad, as our escorts, took care of a man named Cross, right?”

    “Yep, yep.”

    “And you took Aisha without killing her. Considering that and the behavior of those two women over there, there’s something that comes to mind. The registration of the slave owner was undoubtedly—the male, I believe.”

    Pointing at the women, I explain my reasoning. After Cross was killed, the two women touched their slave collars and showed a slight smile. This gesture suggests that they are now freed from slavery.

    “Ah, I think you’re right about that.”

    Rouga glanced at the two women and confirmed my thoughts. This makes things easier.

    “So, those two slaves over there now belong to me and Kaede, right?”

    “Why do you think that when I was the one who killed the man?”

    “There’s a law regarding slaves that says when a slave’s owner is killed, the ownership transfers to the one who did the deed. In this case, it would normally fall to you, the Darklass Squad. However, there’s an exception—if the killing is an extension of an escort mission, the ownership transfers to those who were being escorted, right?”

    “Hmm, and then?”

    Rouga seemed to be smiling, almost as if he found the situation amusing. Sensing a good opportunity, I continued.

    “Therefore, in this case, the ownership doesn’t fall to the Darklass Squad who carried out the deed nor to the Emperor who ordered the escort, but to us who were being escorted.”

    I was glad I had researched the slave system when I first learned it existed in this world. However, if Rouga simply dismissed my claim, given our lack of power, it would be a difficult situation. Thus, I needed to convince him that I was a person of potential.

    “You’re quite knowledgeable. That’s exactly right. If you hadn’t brought it up, we would have just dealt with them since it’s too much trouble. But, you can’t bring slaves into the castle, you know? Oh, and about the comfort service earlier, that’s different. Those are the Darklass Squad’s toys.”

    “Yes, I understand that. We plan to make those two our slaves and have them engage in adventurer activities to earn money. Saving up will be useful for future purposes. I think it’s necessary for us to rise to prominence.”

    These two women could become extremely important to us. Even if we don’t get any information about our kind, as adventurers, they could travel to other countries and gather various information. And being free to move means—if we find our kind, they could act as messengers.

    Of course, we can’t let anyone, not even Rouga-san, know that we’re planning to escape from the empire or searching for our kind. The two women becoming our slaves are an exception.

    “Technically, those two are illegal slaves, so you could free them after taking them in. But you’re not going to… you’ll exploit them as slaves? You have quite the character. I think you’ll do well.”

    To ensure our plan, we needed to appear as self-centered individuals working for the empire’s interests.

    “I’m honored by your praise. We can’t miss such a rare opportunity to rise up here. We intend to be of service to the Steania Empire in the future.”

    Consciously maintaining a smile, I bowed my head without showing any hostility, considering the possibility of dealing with the formidable Darklass Squad in the future. This could be a turning point in our fate. 

    Rouga seemed satisfied, nodding repeatedly with a grin. Maybe he likes people who are unscrupulously ambitious, or perhaps it’s because one of the slaves, an elf, wasn’t freed.

    The weak-hearted me no longer exists. Even if others think of me as terrible or ruthless, I’ll use whatever means necessary to pave my way until I reunite with that person!

    “Okay then. After you inform the slaves that, we’ll go back into hiding,” Rouga said cheerfully.

    “After giving instructions to the slaves, we plan to return to the castle for today. We wanted to take on a quest at the adventurer’s guild, but it seems like it’s getting late.”

    Elated by my successful gamble, I walked towards the slaves with Kaede and Rouga.

    “So, we have something to discuss regarding your treatment,” I said to the slaves.

    “Yes.”

    “It seems you were caught by slave hunters, but instead of being freed, you’ll become slaves to these two. We’ll discuss later who your master will be. And of course, leaking what you saw earlier is not allowed.”

    The blonde-haired woman interacted firmly with Rouga.

    “Understood. We won’t tell anyone.”

    “And if you do leak it… well, you know what will happen, right?”

    Rouga suddenly exuded a dense aura of menace. It wasn’t directed at us, but it was still suffocating.

    How long will this last? Just when I thought that, Rouga vanished soundlessly, and all four of us left behind took a deep breath.

    Once a bit calmer, I spoke to the slaves.

    “My name is Ayaka Tendou. This is Kaede Yashima. From today, we’re your masters. The Steania Empire seems harsh on slaves, so you should address us as ‘master’ or add ‘-sama’ to our names. You can speak casually, but disrespectful language won’t be tolerated. Also, we don’t need any unnecessary trouble, so be careful with your actions.”

    I made sure to speak firmly, knowing the importance of first impressions.

    “I’m Kaede Yashima. Nice to meet you.”

    “Nice to meet you, Master.”

    “Nice to meet you, Master.”

    With Kaede’s greeting done, I spoke again.

    “Then, let’s talk about what we’ll have you do from now on. Follow me. There are things I want to ask too.”

    We decided to head to a shop we had seen on the way to the adventurer’s guild.

    “Aya, do you remember where the shop is?”

    “I remember. It’s imprinted in my mind.”

    “Good, good. I’m looking forward to it. What are you going to eat, Aya?”

    “That, I’ll decide when we get there. But Kaede, don’t eat too much, or you might gain weight.”

    “I know.”

    Despite my curiosity about the sweets in this world, I forced myself to focus on explaining the earlier events to Kaede.

    “Kaede, about what happened earlier… to achieve our goal, we need to use everything at our disposal. So—”

    “Don’t worry, I understand. Don’t look so anxious.”

    Kaede offered me a gentle smile. Despite my bravado, the fear of being despised by my best friend was daunting, and it must have shown on my face. Feeling her trust ease my anxiety, a wave of happiness and gratitude washed over me. I walked with a natural smile on my face until we reached our destination. Entering the shop, we looked around.

    “This place seems nice. Kaede, where do you want to sit?”

    “Let’s take the seats at the back; they’re vacant.”

    “Okay.”

    I whispered to her about where the slaves should sit.

    “What should we do about seating for the slaves?”

    “Well, we have quite a complicated discussion ahead, don’t we? It’d be easier to talk if they’re sitting too. People around might not like it, but can’t help it, right?”

    Pleased that we were thinking alike, I smiled at Kaede.

    “What’s with the sudden smile?”

    “Nothing at allll.”

    “Weirdo…”

    Ignoring her playful glare, I was genuinely grateful to have Kaede here with me.

    “Could you two sit opposite us, please?”

    “Yes.”

    After settling into my seat, I reached for the menu on the table, peeking into it with Kaede. Disappointed not to find ice cream or parfait, I scoured the menu with intensity. Then, I spotted something resembling hotcakes, labeled as “Cake.”

    No sign of anything topped with lots of whipped cream. Shocked, I almost banged my head on the table in despair. 

    Oh, the agony! I crave something sweet!

    “I guess I’ll go for the cake. Doesn’t seem like there’s anything better.”

    Shaking off my disappointment, I turned to Kaede, who also seemed on the verge of tears.

    “I’ll have the same as Aya…”

    “It’s sad, but can’t be helped… Haah.”

    Ringing the bell on the table, a waitress promptly approached us.

    “Have you decided on your order?”

    “We’ll have four of these cakes and four teas.”

    “Uh, are you ordering for the slaves as well?”

    Seems like it’s not common to order for slaves, but it would pain me not to. No changes then, we’ll order for everyone.

    “Yes, we’ll have four, please.”

    “Okay! I’m sorry for the unnecessary question. I’ll bring your order right away.”

    The waitress apologized and quickly left. At that moment, I realized we didn’t know the names of our two companions.

    “What are your names?”

    “I’m Lisa. Pleased to meet you.”

    The blonde-haired elf woman answered first, followed by the girl with blue hair.

    “My name is Airi. Pleased to serve you, Master.”

    Both looked like they could be stunning if they were cleaned up and dressed well. Unfortunately, they were currently disheveled, in tattered clothing and dirtied appearances. I wanted to buy them new clothes, but our budget was limited. Kaede and I had just two gold coins, our salary from the Steania Empire.

    “Alright, now that we know your names, let’s move on to—”

    “Here’s your order.”

    The waitress arrived with our cakes and teas.

    “Please enjoy.”

    “Thank you.”

    After she left, I turned to Lisa and Airi.

    “Feel free to eat while we talk. Can you tell us about the person Airi called ‘Rui-sama’? Lisa, feel free to add anything you know.”

    They nodded, and Airi started.

    “I served as a maid beside Rui-sama for five years since his birth. My parents knew his, and after they passed away, I was taken in by his parents. His parents have also passed away now—”

    Kaede and I listened intently, not wanting to miss a word.

    ◇ ◇ ◇

    “—and that’s everything about my relationship with Rui-sama and his personality.”

    Airi took a breath, signifying the end of her story, and reached for her tea. With Lisa’s additions, we gathered considerable information about “Rui-sama.”

    As I organized what we learned, I started planning our next steps. Using my brain like this made me crave sugar… but the cake we had was honestly not that great. It was more like hotcakes with honey, and the texture was quite dry… 

    Seeing Airi and Lisa called it delicious, I realized how much this world lacked sweets. Not much was available in the castle either.

    I needed to focus on the future plans, but found myself dwelling on desserts. Shaking off these thoughts, I realized I shouldn’t be pondering alone.

    We’re in this together, so I need to consult with Kaede. However, our conversation isn’t for the slaves’ ears, so we’ll need to speak quietly.

    I should remind them just to be safe.

    “Yes, Kaede and I need to discuss something, so please make sure not to listen to our conversation. Try to block your ears subtly, so other customers don’t notice. We don’t want to attract attention.”

    “Understood.”

    “Got it.”

    After confirming that Airi and Lisa had covered their ears, I whispered to Kaede.

    “What do you think about everything we’ve heard so far, Kaede?”

    “Hmm. Since Rui has been reincarnated, the characteristics like hair color that they mentioned might not apply. Though he was handsome in his previous life on Earth.”

    “Yeah, Rui was handsome—Kaede, you’re getting off track. Let’s focus, okay?”

    Kaede made a sheepish face at my gentle chiding.

    “Sorry, sorry. So, they said he’s now sixteen due to the time-space created by the spirit of time, right?”

    “Yes. Sixteen, but in reality, he’s lived less than seven years. Plus, there’s no mention of him having memories from a previous life.”

    “That makes sense, doesn’t it? Even if he is Rui, he wouldn’t go around telling people he remembers his past life.”

     

    She’s right. I wouldn’t reveal something that could cause so much trouble if I were reincarnated.

     

    “But they did say he was always a quiet and well-behaved child. Maybe he retained his memories from before reincarnation, and that made him more mature mentally.”

    “True. It’s not definitive proof, but it’s a glimmer of hope. We won’t know for sure unless we confirm it.”

    “In the end, that’s what it comes down to. We haven’t had any leads until now… It’s worth pursuing this possibility. We should consider other possibilities, but let’s proceed assuming this ‘Rui-sama’ is him.”

    “I agree, that seems like the best approach.”

    Clutching onto a wishful hope, Kaede and I concluded our discussion. I reached out to Airi and Lisa’s shoulders.

    “You can stop covering your ears now. Can you two contact this ‘Rui-sama’?”

    Their response was a grimace, and they hesitantly spoke.

    “It’s hard to say if we can contact him… If he hasn’t moved, he should be in Midoria, the capital of the Midgar Kingdom.”

    “Airi… Even if Rui is still there, how can we face him after what happened? What we said and heard…”

    “That’s true…”

    Noticing their sudden gloom, I inquired about the issue.

    “Did something happen between you and this person?”

    “Yes, actually… When we parted, Cross warned us that something seemed off—”

    Airi stopped, her face on the verge of tears. Lisa, who had been watching her, spoke up.

    “At that time—we had completely trusted Cross and his group. It might sound like an excuse, but those men had the skill of ‘acting,’ and we were deceived by them. But I… I went so far as to blame him, who was genuinely worried about us, and even told him I was disappointed.”

    “Upon hearing that, he gave up on us, saying, ‘I never want to see you again.'”

    Hmm, considering the story I initially heard, their meeting with that person was supposed to be a long-awaited reunion. If someone you’ve been looking forward to seeing expresses concern and you respond with disappointment, I can understand why they wouldn’t want to meet again.

    As Airi and Lisa looked downcast, I opened my mouth to speak.

    “To be blunt, that’s not our problem. It might be difficult for you to meet your acquaintance, Rui, but we need to verify that. We want to eliminate each possibility one by one.”

    Hearing my words, they looked up but remained silent.

    “Sigh”

    I let out a breath and continued.

    “After all is said and done, you’re reaping what you sowed. You have to take responsibility, right? Right?”

    “Yes. I understand…”

    “When you meet him, please say this: ‘I am Ayaka Tendo, with Kaede Yashima. We have come to this world. I really want to meet you. Thank you for saving me that time. And I’m sorry.’—You might not understand the meaning of these words now, but convey them exactly as I said.”

    Kaede took over as if to continue my words.

    “If he reacts to that—it means he’s the person we’re looking for. If that happens, please also tell him that Ayaka and I are in the Steania Empire. If there’s no reaction… then it’s either someone else, or… it’s him, but he’s not interested in us…”

    The latter half of Kaede’s words pierced my heart. That’s a possibility, isn’t it? Just the thought of him having no interest in me feels crushing.

    —But I can’t give up! I will—definitely meet him and convey my feelings!

    “You’re right… Our circumstances don’t concern our masters, and no matter how scared we are, we need to meet him again…”

    “Yes… that’s right… We need to see him again.”

    Wiping the tears in their eyes, the two of them looked determined.

    “Both of you, with that attitude, you should be fine.”

    My words were met with nods from Lisa and Airi. Despite their dirty clothes and disheveled hair, they somehow looked radiant.

    But… as frustrating as it is, there’s something I need to tell them.

    “Right now, we absolutely lack power. We’re currently training to improve our abilities, but our strength won’t increase dramatically. Our position will be stable for about a year, but after that, we’ll be completely incorporated into the empire’s army—”

    “Aya! When that time comes, we’ll just adjust our strategy and actions. There’s no need to think about it now.”

    That’s right, imagining a dark future only depresses us. I’m so grateful to Kaede for interrupting me with her reassurance.

    “Kaede, thank you.”

    “No, I should be thanking you, Aya.”

    With a full smile, Kaede looked truly grateful.

    My best friend… I love her so much!

    Calming my excited emotions, I turned back to Airi and Lisa.

    “Let’s meet at the Adventurer’s Guild every two weeks at noon. We don’t need to start gathering information on ‘Rui-sama’ right away. First, we need to strengthen our foundation, so you two should work as adventurers and earn money. We might have to leave this country eventually, and we’ll need funds for that.”

    “Yes, understood. Please let us know when it’s time to search for Rui-sama.”

    “Sure, I’ll give you instructions when the time comes. Also… yes. Feel free to use some of the money you earn to buy yourselves clothes and equipment. It’s useless if you can’t fulfill requests or end up dying because you’re not properly equipped.”

    “Yes, we’ll take care of that. Leave it to us.”

    Airi said that, thumping her chest confidently. Seeing her assured expression, I felt like we could trust them with this task. Satisfied, I gave further instructions.

    “We live in the Steania Imperial Castle, but we can’t take you there. So, you two should find a reasonably priced inn to stay at. Also, use this for your lodging and clothing expenses.”

    I took out a gold coin from my pocket and handed it to Lisa. They took it and nodded strongly while looking into my eyes.

    “That should cover all the instructions for you two. Kaede, is there anything else?”

    “Hmm, not really.”

    There’s a part of me that wants to check immediately, considering the risk of the person we’re looking for moving away. 

    But, our preparations are far from ready. Plus, we need to acquire enough strength for self-defense. 

    If we rely too much on others after reuniting, it would just be a burden to him.

    “So, that’s all for today. Airi and Lisa, you can start taking on quests from tomorrow. Rest up at an inn tonight.”

    “Yes.”

    “Understood.”

    “Shall we head back to the castle then?”

    After hearing Airi and Lisa’s response, I nodded to Kaede’s suggestion, and we left the place.

    After seeing off Airi and Lisa outside the store, Kaede and I headed back to the castle.

    I wonder who that beastkin girl they mentioned was, the last time they saw this person named Rui.

    No matter what difficult path lies ahead, I want to meet him again. 

    With words of love I want to convey, I continued to pray and hope they reach him.

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