“——Alright, alright. I get it already; I know what you want. Let’s just talk it over a bit first, okay?”
The youth held up both his hands as he spoke.
He looked fifteen or so. Definitely not twenty.
Black hair and black eyes. Average height. A slender frame without a hint of frailty.
“As you can see, I’m clearly unarmed. I’m not here to disrupt anyone’s living, nor to poach anyone’s prey. I just wanted to see if I could find some stuff to sell. Let’s be honest here – money is pretty much the second-most important thing for daily living. I’ve recently been through some hard times, and unless I want to starve, extraordinary times call for some extraordinary measures.”
The other party ignored his long speech, and instead closed the gap between them in an instant.
He wanted nothing more than to retreat just as far, but found his back already pressed up against the wall.
“On that note, the very most important thing is, of course, life itself.”
Raising his head, he laughed disarmingly.
“And so – would it possible for you to just let me go?”
Again, the other party revealed nothing of its feelings.
It was, after all, an insectoid Void Beast in the shape of a large praying mantis. It was roughly twice his height: around three and a half meters tall. Its forelegs were like enormous sickles, and hideous mandibles sprouted forth from its triangular head.
“…How cold of you. Not one for hospitality, are you?”
Suddenly, he ducked as the Void Beast’s sickle-like forelegs slashed through the very spot his head had been a moment before.
That was a close one, he muttered to himself as he escaped forward.
The Void Beast blocked off his escape by situating its enormous body in his path. However, as a mantis, its body was raised well off the ground, propped up by its many legs – this roadblock still left some gaps. It didn’t look like running to the left or right were options, but if he could break through the middle…
He watched its bladed forelimbs close in on him, one from each side – would he make it in time?
Yelling, he pushed off the ground with all his strength.
Yuuki Takamigahara was a ninth-rank adventurer. A support specialist.
——To be honest, though, that description was a bit inappropriate. If you asked the person in question, he’d be the first to tell you that he had no aspirations about being an adventurer.
If you then asked him what he saw his occupation to be, he’d reply thus.
“Wealthy merchant. To be.”
“Man, it’s been a long time since I’ve failed like that.”
Yuuki sighed as he dejectedly plodded his way home.
He wore no armor. He was instead dressed in normal clothing you might find anywhere. From the looks of things, all he had to his name were the clothes on his back. A quick glance at his waist and back would reveal no weapon.
This was because his goal was not to hunt Void Beasts.
No, he ran a small shop along the main street of town where he sold assorted odds and ends. His inventory ranged from precious herbal medicines that could be harvested within the labyrinth to ores and other such things, and – of course – Reliquia.
The way Yuuki saw things, exploring the labyrinth was simply procurement of goods.
Accordingly, he shunned engaging Void Beasts in battle – retreat was his first policy. He took the utmost care to avoid setting foot anywhere a Void Beast called home. The moment he’d sense a Void Beast’s presence up ahead, he’d change direction. On the rare, unlucky occasion he’d find himself face-to-face with these monsters, he’d make a break for it as soon as he could. It was for this reason that he forewent armor, opting instead to travel as lightly as humanly possible.
The mantis beast he’d run into earlier had been unexpectedly hidden around a corner’s bend.
There was no getting around it – he’d been careless. If he’d done his utmost to keep his senses about him, he’d have heard it coming.
“I guess when your spirits are low, your ability to concentrate is as well…”
Entering the labyrinth earlier in the day, his hopes had been high. God only knew he needed it – recently, his luck had been abysmally poor. Forget Reliquia, he had failed even to find any hint of either the medicinal herbs or ores that he usually sold.
Given the rapidly fading condition of his light stone, he estimated he’d been in the labyrinth for roughly six hours; it would soon be midday.
If he didn’t head back now, it’d wreck his other plans for the day. He had other work scheduled for the afternoon. The wages weren’t bad, so there was no way he could afford to put it off.
“That said, I can’t just return home empty-handed. I at least need something…”
Muttering to himself as he scanned the area, he caught sight of something ahead of him.
Lifting his light stone for a better angle, he continued forward.
Perhaps the victim of a Void Beast, it was now nothing but ragged, tattered junk.
Or maybe not… a Reliquia which held Wisdivine energy, even if it was really just high-quality fabric, was still valuable.
Gently lifting the piece of fabric, Yuuki saw luxurious, golden hair laying beneath.
“…Not cloth then. A robe?”
It was the kind of loose-fitting robe that a cleric or priest might wear. The part he held now looked to be the hood.
Where there were clothes, there was, of course, a person wearing them.
“——It looks like she lost consciousness and collapsed here…”
He took her small body in his arms.
She groaned softly. She still lived.
She looked to be in her early teens. In the weak light of his light stone, and through the dirt smearing her face, he caught sight of delicate, beautiful features. The impression he felt from her was almost sacred.
Checking quickly, he was reassured to see that her condition was nearly the opposite of her ragged clothing – there was no evidence of grievous injury that he could see.
Looking ahead, he noted the single path of footprints. She’d likely stumbled along, before finally collapsing here as her strength gave out. That seemed to make sense.
“That said… What on Earth is a girl doing here all by herself?” Yuuki asked himself, head skewed in thought.
What should he do in this situation? Then again, it’s not like he had all that many options. Things being what they were, it wasn’t like he could simply continue on his journey of procurement.
Well, there’s no helping it, he sighed, lifting the girl onto his back.
The sound of her breathing echoing in his ear was both shallow and rapid, but it didn’t seem like she was in any immediate danger. The reason for her fainting was likely simply exhaustion and hunger. Thankfully, she was very petite, and he felt no added burden from carrying her on his back.
The journey back to the surface was otherwise uneventful. Emerging, the light of the midday sun stung his eyes.
Glancing at his surroundings, the occasional church knight standing guard or adventurer party could be seen.
Near the entrance to the labyrinth was a medical clinic for adventurers. As he considered depositing her into their care—
The girl on his back stirred.
“…Where…Where am I?”
“In town. We’ve returned to the entrance of the labyrinth. You collapsed within… Do you remember that?”
The girl suddenly forced herself up.
“A city! Oh, this is Solitus – my city! How joyous! Blessings be upon this city and its people! Come, my children, pay your respects to your patron Shinki!”
Her words were followed with an uproarious “Ahahahaha!”
At her sudden, unexpected, and strange behavior, Yuuki was left speechless, his mouth gaping open wordlessly.
——Eventually, he took notice of the crowd which had slowly gathered, their attention focused in his direction.
This city had been founded in honor of the world’s patron deities: the Heavenly King and his five subordinate goddesses – the “Shinki who Supports the Sky,” the “Shinki who Raises the Sun,” the “Shinki Crowned with the Moon,” the “Shinki who Scatters the Stars,” and the “Shinki who Guards the Earth.”
Reaching into the depths far below Solitus was a vast labyrinthine space, known more commonly as the Magna PortaGreat Gate.
Seeking those mysterious tools imbued with unimaginable powers – the Reliquia – an innumerable horde of adventurers with the utmost confidence in their own abilities raided the labyrinth day and night, testing themselves in the refiner’s fire.
Some dreamt of instant wealth.
Some sought to express their pious devotion to their patron Shinki.
Some sought only to fill their hollow stomachs.
As Yuuki continued along with the girl on his back, she alternated between making insane declarations and laughing heartily.
“Why the rush, my child? Tina wishes to gaze upon this fair city.”
Ignoring the mad ramblings of his baggage, Yuuki continued on until arriving finally at his home, the “Shoppe Boris.” Entering, he slammed the door shut and drew the bolt.
“So this is to be the temple wherein I shall dwell?”
The girl looked around excitedly, utterly ignoring Yuuki, whom was leaning against the wall, breathing heavily.
“Fat chance. This is my home.”
“Yours? ——No matter. You need not fear that I shall make any undue requests for extravagance. For where Tina is, even such is made a palace of the divine – yea, even a temple.”
She nodded lightly.
“…So, Tina’s your name then?”
“Yes, though to be most precise, it is ‘Albertina’. The sound ‘Tina’ fills me with the utmost delight, however. You have my permission to call me by this name. Speaking of which, first disciple of this Shinki, what is your name?”
“Yuuki. Ta, Tamiga… Tatamira… Takarami, Tara…?”
Crooking her neck in frustration, she at last bestowed him with a benevolent smile.
“It is a good name.”
“So you bit your tongue a bunch, only to just give up like that? ——Whatever, it’s fine. Anyway, you’ve been going on over and over with ‘Shinki this’ and ‘Shinki that’ – are you sure you didn’t hit your head and lose your memory or something back in the labyrinth?”
“How could that possibly have happened? Why would you ask such a thing?”
“Well, let’s leave that for another time. For now, you need to understand that the Shinki you speak of are an absolute existence to those of faith.”
“Guardians of the city, guides of the people. Yes, I know.”
“Hence the problem. Declaring yourself a Shinki in the middle of the city – people will think you’re insane!”
That wasn’t all – if she’d been seen by the deeply pious, she’d likely have become the victim of a little mob justice. Worse, if she’d been discovered by the Church of the Five Holies, then she’d have been labeled a sinner, and in the worst case, beheaded. It didn’t matter which eventuality actually occurred – none were pretty.
“I don’t know the particulars of your situation, but at the very least, you need to stop that kind of talk already.”
“In this city, a Shinki is not allowed to declare her status?”
For a time, she frowned in silence, seemingly unable to accept his words. Soon, however, the smile returned to her face. She seemed to have given up worrying about the matter.
“Alright, then. No point worrying about it now. Tina would like to rest now. Yuuki, I’d like to request a place to sleep!”
Entrances to the Magna PortaGreat Gate could be found scattered all around outside the city borders.
It didn’t need to be said that normal citizens were not granted entry. The entrances were all surrounded by thick, stone walls. These led to a metal gate which was guarded by knights of the Church of the Five Holies.
“Hmm? I thought you’d already left for the day? Did you forget something? ——Actually, are you feeling alright? You look pretty exhausted,” a guard Yuuki was familiar with asked him, as he arrived once more at the entrance to the labyrinth.
He really was worn out. Mentally, anyway.
“No, I’ve got some other work I need to get to.”
Yuuki answered just the first of the questions.
Behind him stood around a dozen youth. The youngest was barely a child of 10, while the oldest was 21.
“Given up the adventurer life to be a nanny, have you?”
“Like hell. This is a temp job the training school assigned me. Anyway, it’s like I’ve told you before: I’m not an adventurer, I’m a merchant. The only kind of magic I work involves numbers and money.”
“Well, you certainly seem lively enough. Looks like you’ll be fine this year?”
An innocent smile bloomed on the stern face of the young knight.
“I’ll be fine… Meaning what exactly?”
“Your name was on the church tax bureau’s list. Your taxes for the past year are in arrears, so do be careful.”
“Sensei, what does ‘in arrears’ mean?” asked the youngest child of the group.
“…It’s just one small way that the poor stick it to the man, Mark.”
“Make sure that your ‘sticking it to the man’ stays at a level where your store goods don’t get confiscated. ——Changing the topic a bit, what’s with the kids?”
“They’re here to observe, Commander.”
A cold voice cut in, coming from the female knight serving as second-in-command.
“The Adventurer Training School’s Eastern Branch has already sent over the seventeen required licenses. Please hurry them on through; they’re blocking traffic.”
“Oh my, you’re right. Well then, please head on through. Do your best to learn, alright? ——Oh, also, Yuuki…”
“The Oath Legions have apparently been involved in a major incident. I know you don’t really have anything to do with them, but these last few days, they’ve been even more neurotic than normal. Do me a favor and be careful, alright?”
In this city, the occupation of adventurer was held in high regard.
The Church of the Five Holies, which was devoted to the worship of the Shinki, was the dominant power in the city, and not only operated schools of academic instruction, but the adventurer training school as well. There was no age limit imposed, but generally speaking trainees were between the ages of ten and twenty.
Although it wasn’t strictly necessary to enroll to become a licensed adventurer, but it proved advantageous, both in terms of knowledge and practical experience. Pretty much all the adventurers of note these days were graduates of the training school.
Yuuki was here as an assistant, helping the instructor with assorted tasks such as managing the roll. With a large organization like the church as his employer, his wages were quite fair. Because his store had been struggling, this job provided his primary source of income.
Today’s job was a trip to the labyrinth. The idea was to give the kids a chance to visit the workplace of an adventurer.
Yuuki’s job, however, ended now that he’d brought the students to this point. The instructor from the Church was running a little late, though, and so Yuuki was his stand-in until he arrived.
Yuuki wasn’t entirely fond of the part of his job which required him to babysit a bunch of kids, but understanding that it was what he was being paid to do, he didn’t have anything to complain about.
For now, he needed to put the stranger sleeping in his house out of his mind, and focus on his work.
“Okay, listen up!”
After taking the children through the metal gate, he clapped his hands to draw their attention and spoke.
“This is the entrance to the labyrinth, Magna PortaGreat Gate. We’re going to wait here for a bit. The instructor from the Church will arrive shortly. At that point, training will begin, so you do not have the freedom to run around. ——Now then, please wait here.”
Though this was not the peak time for raiding, adventurer parties were nonetheless gathered nearby.
The area within the walls was a plaza roughly fifty meters in diameter. In the center lay a small building which looked like a chapel. Within was a series of steps leading underground, recessed about five meters into the ground.
The origin of the labyrinth, its entrance, and the timing of their construction were open questions.
The one thing that was understood was that plumbing the depths of this labyrinth was a worthwhile endeavor.
“The hell you doing?!”
A rage-filled voice roared.
A cowering boy had been surrounded by a large man and what appeared to be his adventurer companions. It seemed he’d accidentally run into them, in his excitement.
“Uh, um, I’m sorr——”
“What was that?! I couldn’t hear you!”
The armor of the large man bore the emblem of the “Star’s Oath Legion.” Yuuki frowned.
The “Oath Legions” were groups of adventurers who served directly under the Shinki. The cream of the crop, joining a Legion was the goal of many of an adventurer. However, as the requirements focused on overwhelming strength and ability, it wasn’t necessarily the case that a Legion member was also a person of character.
“You’re a trainee, right? Are you serious? Don’t tell me you think ‘sorry’ is going to cut it when you run into a Void Beast in here. Do you think they’d simply let you go with that?”
Yuuki sighed and walked over.
“Hey, sorry about that. Looks like the kids I’m watching have given you a bit of trouble.”
As he spoke, he tried to smile the friendliest smile he could.
The pupils of the man’s eyes flitted over to glare at Yuuki.
“Could you let him go with that? He’s already reflecting on his actions. Isn’t that right, Edgar?”
“Y-yes. Um, I’m really sorry about just now.”
The boy, lively with a heart full of mischief just a moment prior, now looked about ready to burst into tears.
“…Fine. I forgive you.”
“I really appreciate that. Right then, let’s go——”
“Hold it. I said I forgave the kid; I never said anything about his teacher. You’re his supervisor, so you’re responsible for his actions, right?”
It looks like things have taken a turn for the troublesome, Yuuki thought to himself.
“Well, that much is certainly true. So? What would you like me to do?”
“Spar with me for a bit.”
The man smiled, baring his yellow teeth.
“I haven’t had a chance to fight any Void Beasts lately, so my body feels a bit out of sorts. If we spar a bit without any weapons, it should be just fine. Isn’t that right, Teach?”
In other words, he was picking a fight. The man’s goal was to beat him to a pulp before his students. What bad taste.
“…Huh. Well, I guess it can’t be helped, can it? Alright.”
Yuuki sighed and slowly rolled his sleeves up.
“You know you’re going to regret this, right Jumbo?”
“We’ll see how long that confidence lasts.”
The man spat. From the looks of things, Yuuki’s refusal to be intimidated had soured his fun.
“Show him what’s what”, “Kick his ass” —— the man’s party members called out mockingly.
The bustling crowd of spectators grew. The adventurers were excited to spectate an event which they didn’t have to bear any responsibility for. Yuuki’s students, however, were filled with unease.
“Oh, right. There’s something I should say before we begin.”
Once the man had made eye contact, Yuuki continued.
“The first hit determines the victor. ——You get that, you brats? Watch carefully. Sensei’s going to show you how a real adventurer fights.”
“What did you say—?!”
His personality seemed the kind that could be easily baited. His face flushing in anger, he charged forward and swung his fist with all his might.
Yuuki took the full brunt of the blow directly to the face, and was thrown into the air. He spun a full rotation and a half before finally falling face-down to the floor.
“——What the hell? He sounded like he was pretty confident in himself, but he’s this weak?” the man mocked.
“Talk about blowing hot air, seriously. Can you really be an instructor like that?”
“Having a beansprout like you for a teacher, what’s their future——”
The man’s confident voice suddenly cut off mid-sentence.
This entire time, Yuuki had yet to lift himself from off the ground. Moreover, his body suddenly began to convulse disturbingly.
“Hey, hey, don’t tell me something’s wrong?”
“Maybe you hit him somewhere bad…?”
“…Shit, what’s happening now?”
The man and his party members worriedly discussed his condition among themselves.
Disregarding what went on within the labyrinth itself, the murder of someone out here was something that even a member of an Oath Legion would have to bear responsibility for. The laws forbade fights for personal reasons, something the Church knights from public security would not overlook.
“——I-I’ll let you off with that. Watch yourself next time!”
The man and his companions left those words as they hurried away.
The children encircled their fallen assistant instructor from a distance, not a one daring to make a move. Finally, one girl summoned up the nerve to approach.
Yuuki suddenly lifted his head, gasping forcefully. Flipping agilely into a handstand, he gently touched down on the ground once more. “Uoooh,” his students exclaimed in surprise.
“Sure-kill technique ‘Play Dead’—— The key to the technique is in the rotation of the body as well as the trembling of the hands and feet. If your opponent was just looking to pick a fight, they’ll definitely be frightened off.”
“You say ‘sure-kill’ but no one died…”
“Exactly right, Kaya.”
Yuuki nodded deeply.
“The target of this ‘sure-kill’ technique is the enemy’s desire to fight.”
Hearing his words, the girl didn’t know if this was a joke she was supposed to laugh at or advice that she could sincerely respect. Instead, her confusion made itself evident as a most complicated expression took hold of her face.
“Feel free to add this technique to your repertoire, but you guys need to remember that it only works if your opponent’s human. Don’t bother trying it on a Void Beast – you won’t survive the experience. ——Anyway, as I said beforehand, the first hit determined the victor. The other guy ran with his tail between his legs, wholeheartedly regretting his actions. In other words, it’s my victory. Hahahaha.”
Sticking his chest out proudly, Yuuki gave a jolly laugh. The crowd quickly scattered, bored by the result.
“…Um, so what we just saw – was that the ‘way a real adventurer fights’?” one boy asked, dissatisfaction evident on his face.
“Yep, that’s right, Beginning-class Trainee Edgar.”
“Alright, listen up. This is a good opportunity for me to teach you guys something. ——Let me ask you all something: what do you think is the foremost goal an adventurer should have?”
“Ooh, ooh, that’s to bring home a loooot of Reliquia as offerings to the Shinki!”
Kaya, who stood in the front, acted as the group’s representative in answering his question.
“A perfect textbook answer. Too bad it’s wrong.”
“Let me frame that question a little differently. Do you guys think the Duelists are pretty cool?”
Everyone nodded pretty much simultaneously. Moreover, a sparkle could be seen in the eyes of the boys.
“The strongest has gotta be the ‘Snow Blade King’.”
“He’s gone already. No, the strongest is the ‘Thousand-Eyed Witch’.”
“Oh, don’t forget the ‘Iron Claw Tiger’ and the ‘Black Demon’——”
“Right, right, I get it. Let’s just leave it at that for now,” Yuuki interrupted.
“I know you guys very much aspire to be Duelists. They’re strong enough to easily crush a horde of Void Beasts, to single handedly clear out the entire labyrinth. Plays and novels even star them in central roles. ——But let’s put them out of our minds for just a moment. The level they’ve attained isn’t something normal humans can emulate – trying to copy them is a shortcut to a bad end. No, the original purpose adventurers served was not that of the Duelists, who wander the land accumulating valorous merits left and right, and leaving behind a legacy that stands the test of time.”
He paused for a moment before continuing.
“What is the first and most important duty an adventurer carries? ——The answer is ‘to live.’ Even if you fail to bring home a Reliquia on a given trip, someone who survives to see another day might well bring home two the next. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been humiliated, or if you have to abandon what Reliquia you’ve collected – none of that matters. One thing, and one thing only, is of importance – you must not die.”
The majority of the kids were stunned.
At school they’d been taught to “gamble their very souls in order to bring back Reliquia for the Shinki.”
Though they saw the truth in his words, not one had previously so much as spared a thought along those lines.
“Now then, in order to continue living, what is the one thing that is absolutely essential? Beliefs? The blessings of the Shinki? Like hell. The second you enter the labyrinth, there’s only one thing you can rely on – yourself. Does that mean that what’s most important is strength, then? Well, that kind of thinking isn’t wrong. But great strength used at the wrong time, the wrong place, or for the wrong reasons is meaningless. That’s why this is my answer – ‘weigh the pros and cons’.”
This time, the trainees simply blinked vacantly.
“In other words, it’s important to understand before you act what the consequences will be: what will be lost, what will be gained. For example, imagine there’s an enormous Void Beast standing guard over a particular Reliquia. Do you fight it? Do you give up? Figure out some stratagem to lead it away? Ask for help? Every situation will be different, and it’s possible that at varying times, every one of those answers might be correct. If you’re clear on the extent of your abilities, and the time comes when you need to prioritize your own life, you’ll better be able to judge what you need to do. ——As you just saw, I carefully weighed my options just now, and here I am – still alive. If I’d won, would his friends have simply left me alone? This, too, was another way in which I won the larger victory.”
Yuuki watched as the expressions on the faces of some of the trainees changed. Eh? His words don’t seem to carry any persuasive power anymore. Forget him.
“The more precarious the situation, the more careful consideration is necessary before you act. It’s only when you’re left with no other option, no other recourse, that you should place your trust in the Shinki – in your faith. Truth be told, most of the time you’re better off not worrying about the Shinki at all. Whether you agree or not, there’s no harm in simply remembering what I’ve shared with you just now. ——Oh, just one thing: don’t tell anyone I’ve said this to you – I’ll get yelled at.”
Because the training school was run by the church, the instructors were taken from among the ranks of the faithful. If they found out what he’d said, they’d obviously be less than pleased.
“Oh, don’t worry about that; we won’t tell anyone. It’s just that…”
Looking guilty, Kaya pointed timidly at Yuuki’s back as she spoke.
Hmm? Yuuki turned his head to glance behind him.
Standing immediately behind him was the middle-aged, assistant head priest – today’s instructor – glaring murderously at him.
“Uh, don’t get me wrong!”
Yuuki leapt to his feet and straightened out his posture.
“When discussing things to pay attention to in the labyrinth, I may have gotten a little overexcited and emphasized certain aspects overmuch. I definitely wasn’t suggesting blasphemy against the Shinki! Not in the least!”
Returning to the training school, Yuuki was called in by the school head and subjected to an interrogation.
“I’ve received reports that you’ve attempted to indoctrinate the youth with blasphemous teachings. Is this true?”
This city was centered on its faith in the Shinki. Practically everyone living within its walls was a believer. When it came to the labyrinth, the Church taught that it was “a test given by God, an exalted mission given to the faithful servants of Deity.”
That their city was protected by the Shinki was an undeniable reality. Yuuki wasn’t one to look upon others’ beliefs with contempt, but he nonetheless felt strongly that these teachings pressured people to produce results. The way he saw things was simply more utilitarian and practical than anyone else. The world inside the labyrinth was anything but a fairy tale wonderland.
“This city only exists through the grace of the five Shinki. Accordingly, unity and harmony are the guiding principles espoused by the Church of the Five Holies; indeed, our very reason for being.”
The headmaster, who concurrently held the post of chief priest for the district, sighed.
“To be honest, you don’t seem to be that well regarded by either your seniors or your peers, Yuuki Tamakigahara.”
“Yes, I think so as well,” Yuuki replied candidly.
His relationship with church personnel was rather poor as his lack of faith was obvious at a glance.
“On the other hand, to be truthful, personally I don’t mind all that much. Faith is something that comes from deep within, and is a matter best left for each individual to decide for themselves. A formal inquiry into that won’t change a thing. ——Changing the topic a bit, your qualifications as an adventurer have you as a rank nine, correct? How would you like to take the qualification exam to raise that rank? I think it’d serve well to improve your reputation a bit.”
“…Actually, contrary to what you might expect, I’d love to take the test, but I’m afraid I just lack the ability.”
Yuuki scratched his head awkwardly as he replied.
“Then, at the very least, you could put a bit more effort into your studies as a trainee. It’d change the way others look at you. Your attendance is rather poor; weren’t you in the advanced class?”
“Ah, I’ve been a little busy recently for various reasons… You see, I think my true calling is as a merchant.”
“I know; you succeeded Boris’ shop. To be honest, though, your business skills are quite meager compared to his.”
As the gentle voice jabbed him where he was weakest, Yuuki finally fell silent.
“Well, you can’t change what can’t be changed. You’ve faithfully discharged your duties toward the Church. When it comes to knowledge about either Reliquia or Void Beasts, you’re definitely not lacking, and your evaluations from the beginning-class trainees are quite good. That notwithstanding, you could stand to take a bit more care with regards to interpersonal relationships; that’d alleviate my worries a little. ——You’re dismissed.”
Yuuki threw a “Thanks for your time” behind him as he left.
There were three training schools in this city, the eastern branch of which had an enrollment of some two hundred students.
There were three ranks of classes, beginning, intermediate, and advanced, and transitioning between them generally took two or three years.
The classes were roughly divided by age. Generally speaking, students entered at age ten, with students graduating from the beginning class at about twelve, from the intermediate class at about fifteen, and from the advanced class at eighteen. There were, of course, exceptions – students who had entered late, skipped grades, or had been held back.
The school building was shared between the three classes. It was small, but organized; the nature of their work focused on the training of one’s body, and so the time spent in class was rather limited.
As he exited the headmaster’s office, he was greeted by someone he knew well.
The one greeting him was a studious-looking girl who wore a shy smile.
“Finished with classes for the day already, Franka?”
“Ah, not yet; I have one left. I had a little time before it starts, so I was taking a light stroll when I saw you coming out of the headmaster’s office. Um…”
Franka paused for a moment before continuing.
“Hey Yuuki-san, are you hungry by any chance? If you don’t mind, why not join me for a bite to eat?”
As he hesitated, pondering how to respond, his stomach went ahead and loudly proclaimed its own thoughts on the matter.
Under the shade of the large tree behind the school’s lecture hall sat two people.
From within her book bag, Franka extracted a small cloth parcel. Unwrapping it, she pulled a couple pieces of bread within which were sandwiched slices of cheese, tomato, and cured meat.
“Here, please help yourself.”
Yuuki took a bite; it was crisp. The aroma of the toasted bread seemingly wafted directly from his nostrils into his stomach. The sweet and sour taste of the tomato and the saltiness of the cured meat and cheese made a joyous harmony as they slowly melted on his tongue.
Although something this simple hardly classified as cooking, it nonetheless was more than satisfactory at appeasing his hunger as well as appealing to his palate. Franka definitely had skill when it came to selecting ingredients.
“That’s great. ——You know, to be honest, I saw you earlier today. When you came by earlier to pick up the beginner-class students, you looked like you were in a real hurry; I figured you hadn’t had time to eat.”
“Well, you guessed right. Today… hasn’t exactly been my day.”
Yuuki sighed. Seriously, what a brutal day it had been: he’d been beaten, scolded by the headmaster, and earlier in the labyrinth, not only had he failed to find anything, but he’d instead brought home something strange.
All of a sudden, Franka leaned in.
“——Eh? Yuuki-san, you have a broken lip? It’s injured here.”
As he spoke, he suddenly realized – he’d been struck by a member of the Star’s Oath Legion.
“Ah right, I got involved in a little incident earlier. It’s nothing to be concerned about.”
“Don’t say that. Once it swells, you’ll change your mind. You won’t be able to eat like that—— Here, just a moment.”
Franka reached into her bag and pulled out a small, fingertip-sized stone.
This was the Reliquia known as a Divine Pearl. It was the literal crystallization of Wisdivine energy – the origin of all miracles. They formed the core of both the restorative and offensive skills employed by clerics.
Franka closed her eyes and placed her hands on Yuuki’s lip. As a result of their close proximity, Yuuki felt a soft, round sensation on his arm.
“——And done. It should be just fine now.”
The Divine Pearl turned to dust as she spoke.
“…Sorry about that. I know those things aren’t free.”
“Don’t worry about it. Yuuki-san’s always looked after me, after all.”
The young cleric girl laughed happily.
“I’ll just buy another from your store.”
Franka was both an advanced-class trainee adventurer as well as a frequent customer of his small shop.
She was only sixteen, but because she usually wore a sober expression, was rather tall for her age, and had an ample figure – or rather, an ample chest – she looked quite mature.
A few years ago, she’d gotten caught up in something from which Yuuki had rescued her, and the two had been fast friends ever since. Thinking back on the girl he’d first met, the girl standing before him now sure had grown. In more ways than one.
“So, how did your promotion exam go?”
“Oh, the results came out already – I passed. I’m now a fourth-rank.”
“That’s amazing. Grats!”
Franka delightedly expressed her thanks with a smile.
Most adventurers fell into one of three categories:
- Those who wielded weapons – swords, axes, lances, bows, etc., i.e. physical attackers.
- Those who controlled divine energy for offense, defense, and healing – the clerics.
- Those responsible for appraising Reliquia, possessed intel regarding both Void Beasts and the labyrinth, and provided all non-combat contributions – the support specialists.
Now, of course adventurers weren’t restricted to these roles, but adventurer qualification exams all focused on a single one of these areas at a time.
Franka was now certified as a fourth-ranked cleric.
For a person of her young age, this was an amazing accomplishment. Furthermore, she’d already attained a wealth of experience within the labyrinth itself, having successfully retrieved Reliquia on more than one occasion. Given her accomplishments, she ought to be able to join the ranks of a professional adventurer group, should she so choose.
She had only begun her journey as an adventurer three years ago. Her entrance exam had declared her potential as a cleric, and she’d enrolled directly in the intermediate class. She’d immediately stood out as a star student, and just a year later she matriculated from the intermediate class to join Yuuki in the advanced course.
“Yuuki-san, how’s, um… that going? Your promotion exam…”
“Ugh. Don’t ask.”
Franka recoiled a little as she apologized.
Yuuki was a ninth-rank support specialist. You might say he was the failure of failures of the advanced class. For reference, ranks nine and ten were well attainable for a hard-working beginning-class student.
“I’m joking, I’m joking. I wouldn’t get mad over something like that. I can’t seem to raise my rank and the store’s failing—— I guess I just lack talent.”
“N-not at all!”
For some reason unclear to him, Franka responded over-seriously.
“Because Yuuki-san, when it comes to Reliquia, you know so much! That’s why, if you were to take things seriously…”
“Well, I run a store, so that kind of thing’s no problem at all. No, I’m fine when it comes to appraising Reliquia; the problem is that I have no interest whatsoever in taking part in battle. The only reason I’m even a ninth-rank is because the rank nine and rank ten exams are written. If I wanted to raise my rank above that—— Well, it’d be problematic.”
The early levels of the labyrinth were mostly free of Void Beasts, constantly patrolled by Church knights, and even had maps for sale. It was only about as dangerous as climbing a mountain.
However, the deeper one went into the labyrinth, the more frequent one encountered Void Beasts, and the more powerful they were. As such, the formation of a party was an absolute necessity – and by extension, combat ability.
That’s why high-ranked adventurers, even support-oriented ones, had to train their bodies and hone their combat skills. In the advanced class, hand-to-hand combat training was a required course.
“I’m different from those who focus solely on raiding – I’m a merchant first and foremost. That’s why I’m fine with keeping to the early levels of the labyrinth: grabbing herbs and what Reliquia I can find while avoiding Void Beasts is enough for me.”
“Is that so…”
“Let me guess – someone was badmouthing me?”
The look on her face was more than an answer to his question.
She started to speak, but stopped partway through.
A group of seven or eight people, all of whom were fifteen and older and had well-developed physiques, wandered past the pair. The youth who looked to be the center of the group wore a cold expression.
These were the elites of the Adventurer Training School Eastern Branch’s advanced class.
Among their number was a particularly talented individual who had broken the record for youngest person to attain a rank-one adventurer status. Yuuki didn’t attend all that often, so he wasn’t entirely sure, but he assumed it was the central figure of the group. What was his name again?
One of the group spat as he passed by, mumbling the word ‘garbage’ under his breath as he did so.
Yuuki gave a wry smile, but held his silence.
It wasn’t just the instructors and church personnel that he had poor relations with; this, of course, extended to his peers in the advanced class as well. It seemed they disapproved of both his poor performance as well as his lack of faith in the Shinki. Behind his back, he was frequently known as ‘that godless piece of trash’, ‘greedy pig’, ‘blasphemer’, etc.; on occasion, their words would find their way back to his ears. It wasn’t like he’d met those people before either – gossip traveled fast.
“It can’t be helped. When they look at me, they see a slacker who misses out on class, only thinks about money, and, worst of all, someone who’s just a ninth-rank support specialist. From the viewpoint of those who seek with all their heart and energy to join the ranks of the Oath Legions, I’m nothing but a heretic.”
The Church of the Five Holies was responsible for coordinating all interactions between the people of the city and the temples wherein the Shinki dwelt – The Sanctuaries of the Five Shinki. The person known as the Patriarch stood at the peak of this massive organization which, in addition to its religious duties, was also responsible for city governance and law enforcement.
Within the city of Solitus, but one organization held influence on par with the Church – the Oath Legions.
The goal of the Legions was to find and present Reliquia as offerings to the Shinki, of whom they were direct subordinate organizations. Each individual Legion belonged to, and was directed by, a single one of the Shinki temples, and thus there were five Legions in total, representing the five Shinki.
Members of the Oath Legions were held in high esteem by others, and their wages and living expenses were very generous.
As one might expect, then, the requirements for joining their ranks were extraordinarily demanding. The right to even apply for a position among their number required at least a third-rank adventurer qualification, and so their numbers were small. The gate to becoming a Legion member was truly narrow indeed. It could be said that this was the aspiration of every adventurer.
After graduation from the training school, the most common path for an adventurer to take was to accumulate combat experience while simultaneously taking the Legions’ entrance exam. Of those who had yet to graduate, roughly only three people a year managed to pass the exam.
Such was the genius of the youth before him, who had attained a position in the “Sky’s Oath Legion” while still an intermediate-class student——
“I remember now. That’s Stefan Klose – the youngest child of the Kloze family.”
“The guy leading that group just now. He’s pretty amazing, right?”
“Oh, yes. Yes, he is.”
The girl nodded.
The Kloze house was a prestigious one, and many among their family had grown up to serve in the Legions, some of whom had even eventually become Commanders of the Legions themselves.
“If you’re seen together with me, you’ll be looked down up as well, you know?”
“I’m fine with that. But Yuuki-san, are you really okay with this?”
Franka frowned slightly as she looked at Yuuki.
“When it comes to raiding, or even just training… Haven’t you ever considered letting them see you truly go all-out?”
“Let’s wait until the store’s bringing in tenfold what it does now, when I can afford to hire store attendants – then I’ll reconsider.”
Skilfully evading her question, Yuuki swallowed the final bite of his meal and took a gulp from the canteen Franka handed him.
“——Thanks for the meal; it was exquisite.”
Resigned, Franka sighed.
“It’s nothing. ——If this can repay just a little of what you’ve done for me, then it was worth it. If it wasn’t for Yuuki-san, then even bread would be a luxury I can’t afford.”
“You don’t owe me a thing.”
Franka’s parents had passed away. The one who’d set her on the path of an adventurer she now walked had been Yuuki, though all that she had accomplished since were but the fruits of her own hard work.
“It was just a bit of marketing. The more adventurers there are, the more customers my shop will receive. Plus, you’re a frequent customer yourself, Franka.”
“That doesn’t diminish my gratitude. ——You know, ever since I first started here, it’s been my dream to some day go adventuring with Yuuki-san. Nothing could make me happier than to see that dream come true.”
“Sorry for disappointing you.”
Yuuki gave a bitter laugh and shrugged.
Every adventurer had their own way of doing things, though very few were loners like Yuuki. The majority were adventurers-for-hire who could be employed to enter the labyrinth as needed. Franka, too, as a member of a school-formed party, would occasionally take jobs as well.
Certain types of herbs and ores, and Void Beast meat and horns could only be obtained within the labyrinth, let alone Reliquia – all of which could be traded for money. Though the Church warned against the mindset which led to the hoarding of money, but from a practical standpoint, adventuring in the labyrinth was quite profitable indeed.
“It’s about time that I get going. Oh and Franka, feel free to drop by the store——”
Suddenly he remembered the unresolved situation facing him back home.
“Er, strike that. Forgot I closed up early today.”
“Is that so? I’ll come by tomorrow then. I’m going raiding tomorrow with Master, so I’ll drop by on my way back. ——Cya tomorrow then!”
Standing up, she gave a hearty wave and left.
Yuuki’s store was located in the outskirts of Solitus, in the corner of town known as “Labyrinth Way.” The small building with the sign which read ‘Shoppe Boris’ was it.
His inventory included the essential tools a labyrinth adventurer might need, as well as Reliquia and whatever else one might find within the labyrinth. The latter he both bought as well as sold; the sign hanging at the entrance read, “Whatever you find in the labyrinth, we’ll buy!”
The fate of Reliquia brought back from the labyrinth was twofold: they either became part of the discovering adventurer’s collection or were sold – to stores, the church, or the Legions.
Reliquia which were sold were either given as offerings to the Shinki, or placed in store inventories, awaiting the right customer. Correspondingly, Reliquia formed an important part of Solitus’ economy, and circulated frequently between buyers and sellers.
Yuuki faced a tough situation as a small business owner who lacked the necessary capital.
The larger stores filled every nook and cranny of the city, and, to ensure a constant supply of Reliquia, often had enterprising adventurers on retainer. Both from the perspective of inventory as well as value, a small store like Yuuki’s stood no chance.
That notwithstanding, Yuuki still had two ‘weapons’ when it came to business.
The first was his extensive knowledge of Reliquia; the other, the fact that he himself was an adventurer as well. If the store owner’s inventory had been found personally within the labyrinth, then the cost of obtaining those goods was zero.
It was for that very purpose that Yuuki had made his trip to the labyrinth earlier this morning——
And taken home something he’d never before picked up.
Returning home from the training school, Yuuki passed through his shop, and opened the door to private residential space.
——The bed was empty.
“… Where’d she go?”
She’d wanted to rest, and so he’d lent her his bedroom and gone to work—— Just where had she gone?
He’d checked the bedroom before leaving – she’d definitely been fast asleep.
His thoughts were abruptly interrupted by a small sound. His ears pricked up at the sound; it had come from the kitchen – no, from the food pantry.
Yuuki stealthily snuck his way in through the room’s doorway, catching sight of a small figure. With one hand, she lifted an apple near her mouth, suddenly removed it to arm’s length, before finally – as if falling victim to the siren call of temptation – giving it a ferocious bite.
Crunch! The sound of her biting into the apple echoed through the small room, and her sculpted features bloomed into a radiant, childlike smile. The apple’s juicy sweetness had seeped into her mouth.
“So uh, what exactly are you doing?” Yuuki called out, causing the girl to yelp in surprise before turning to look at him.
“Uh… Y-You’re back I see?”
“Just now. That apple——”
Frantically, Tina tried to hide the apple in her hands behind her back.
“Everything in the pantry’s mine, you know?”
They were all things Franka had given him a few days before. To Yuuki, who was currently weathering some tough times, these were precious, life-saving provisions.
“Well, um… It’s not what it looks like.”
The girl kept her hands behind her back as she shook her head vigorously.
“Tina didn’t steal any food! It’s just that, you know, after I woke up I was feeling a bit famished, so I thought I’d go look for something to eat…”
“And then I saw this place, and then the apple, and it… it really looked like it wanted Tina to eat it, so…”
“Um, er… Maybe you could consider it an offering?”
Her voice grew softer and softer as she spoke, likely because she felt guilty.
Well, considering she’d passed out in the labyrinth, a little hunger was unavoidable.
Yuuki tapped her lightly on the head, sighing as he thought to himself that he could treat her to a single apple. As he did so, Tina handed the apple to him, the evidence of her crime still marring its surface.
“…I’m sorry,” she said dejectedly.
“I know that this is your home, and everything here is yours. It’s just that, well, Tina found it too hard to fight off her hunger…”
The scene before him reminded him of a small puppy being scolded for acting up.
Interrupting them, her stomach suddenly growled noisily. Unable to help himself, Yuuki broke out laughing.
“It’s fine; don’t worry about it.”
“…You’re not mad?”
“You clearly feel bad about it already. The dining room’s over there. I’ll make a little something for you, so why don’t you take your apple and wait there, alright?”
He was the one who’d picked her up, so he was at least partially responsible for her welfare. A child’s meal portion shouldn’t be a problem.
Placing her bowl on the table, Tina exhaled deeply in palpable satisfaction.
What he’d prepared for her had been a simple bowl of porridge with salted meat. Yuuki wasn’t particularly gifted at cooking either; no, this was more a case of “hunger is the best spice.”
“The grain you used is really something rare. Tina knows nothing about it.”
“I used rice.”
“You’ve never heard of it? Well, actually, it’s not all that common here either. It’s still a relatively new import.”
The main staple here was wheat, followed by potatoes. Although the farming villages outside of Solitus cultivated a wide host of crops, rice was still pretty rare.
Between the apple and the porridge, the hunger of the self-proclaimed Shinki seemed to have abated.
“Allow me to offer you my thanks once more Yuuki Katamiga… Takagami…”
“Takamigahara, but you can just call me Yuuki. My last name can be a bit of a tongue twister, I know.”
“Yuuki it is, then. You rescued Tina from the labyrinth, and gave me food to eat; I thank you from the bottom of my heart. To be thanked in person by a Shinki is a rare honor for one of the faithful – you should be most proud!”
As she spoke, she proudly raised her head and stuck out her chest.
“With you, it’s heartfelt sincerity one moment and unabashed conceit the next. Anyway, you got one thing wrong – I’m no believer.”
“No, I’m not. On that note, I’ve been wanting to ask – who exactly are you?”
“I’ve been telling you this entire time, haven’t I? I’m a Shinki. ——Don’t worry, I’m not mad. Standing among the people and sharing wisdom is one of the duties of the Shinki, after all. There’s no way we’d get mad simply because someone’s rather unenlightened. Pretty great, aren’t I? I grant you permission to express your admiration.”
Tina nodded energetically.
“…Assuming for a moment you are a Shinki – which one of the five are you?”
The “Shinki who Supports the Sky,” the “Shinki who Raises the Sun,” the “Shinki Crowned with the Moon,” the “Shinki who Scatters the Stars,” and the “Shinki who Guards the Earth” – these were names known to all.
Tina’s answer, however, came as a complete shock.
“I have no idea.”
“You… don’t know? Why not?”
“I don’t know what I don’t know. I know the five appellations, but Tina honestly has no clue which of the five she is.”
“If you don’t even know that much, then how can you speak with such confidence… Er, more importantly, why is it you think you’re one of the Shinki?”
“It’s not ‘think’ – it’s the truth, so I’m sure of it.”
No progress whatsoever. Yuuki sighed, and tried a different tack.
“In that case, O Great Guardian of this city, Albertina-sama, why were you passed out in the labyrinth?”
“Just call me Tina. There’s no need to stand on formality.”
His sarcasm passing straight over her head, the young girl continued to speak.
“I was there because that’s where I was born.”
“Perhaps ‘came to be’ is a better way to phrase it. In the large room of the labyrinth, Tina first became aware of her existence. From that moment forward, I simply was.”
“So you didn’t lose your memories in the labyrinth?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“And, let me guess – the reason you can say that with absolute certainty is because ‘it’s the truth, so you’re sure of it’?”
Yuuki groaned in frustration as he scratched his head.
“Well, how long ago were you born then?”
“After I awoke within the labyrinth, I was caught up in something and I ended up wandering around the labyrinth… until I ran out of energy and collapsed. That was roughly, hmm, a day or two. That feels right, yeah.”
“Your footprints were quite clear, and judging from the dust around you, I’d guess you were unconscious for a day, at most…”
If she were to be believed, then, she’d only been born a maximum of three days ago.
“Even if you say that, no matter how I look at you, I can’t see someone who was born three days ago. You can talk, you know what an apple is… To be honest, your story is quite suspect.”
“I’m not lying. From the very beginning, Tina’s mind was filled with knowledge,” Tina pouted unhappily.
“So, right as you came into being, you already knew things?”
Yuuki pondered for a moment before continuing.
“I’m going to ask you a few questions. I want you to answer reflexively – don’t think about the answer. If you don’t know the answer, then just say you don’t know. ——What’s the name of this city?”
“What’s the nickname for the labyrinth?”
“Magna PortaGreat Gate.”
“The pentagram is a symbol for what organization?”
Yuuki illustrated with his finger on the tabletop.
“Ah – the Church of the Five Holies.”
“The new belfry of the Church’s Cathedral – when was it constructed?”
“No idea. I imagine it sounds pretty nice?”
“To get to the main plaza from this shop, what street do you need to take?”
“That I don’t know either. I’ve never visited the city before.”
For reference, the new belfry tower was constructed a month ago. To celebrate its construction, a large festival had been held. Also, one had simply to take the road directly outside the storefront to reach the plaza. These two things were common knowledge for anyone familiar with the city.
Yuuki had used these questions to gauge which domains her knowledge extended to.
She knew about apples, but wasn’t aware of rice, which had only recently been introduced. She knew of the Shinki and of the Church, but was ignorant of both the newly constructed belfry and local geography. Her command of the language was just fine; her phrasing was a little strange to be sure, but it was in keeping with her personality.
(In other words—— She possessed general knowledge, but lacked knowledge regarding the city layout and recent events.)
To summarize, her answers fell in line with what she’d been saying the entire time – that she had been born but three days prior. She’d started off with some generic knowledge, but had never visited the city, and it was only to be expected that her knowledge was deficient when it came to things that were easily changed.
These answers had been given spontaneously and without hesitation.
It didn’t look as if she’d prepared her answers beforehand as if reciting from a script, nor did such an action fit what he’d seen of her personality. While it was technically possible that she was a master liar who had Yuuki dancing in the palm of her hand, it was far more likely that she was simply a nutcase who sincerely believed the stories she had fabricated within her own mind.
“Is that all?”
“No problem at all. Answering the questions of the faithful is an important task for the Shinki. Don’t worry about it. ——On that note, what did you hope to understand by asking me those questions?”
Tina leaned forward eagerly.
“Whether or not you’re truly a Shinki. I think I’ll keep my answer to myself for now, though.”
“I’ve done nothing but speak the truth. To be suspected by my first disciple sure is discomfiting.”
“How can someone who’s doubting you possibly be your disciple? ——In any case, your collapse in the labyrinth was very unnatural. I just wanted to see if I could deduce the reason for it.”
Yuuki smoothly changed the topic.
“Actually, if you’re a Shinki, where’s your Duelist?”
Tina couldn’t answer, and her gaze wandered.
The DuelistsSword Apostles waited upon the Shinki. Standing guard over their wards, they possessed an absolute, superhuman strength. Each of the five Shinki had their own Duelist – this was common knowledge held by even the youngest child.
“If you can show me your Duelist, then even I’d have to admit that you are indeed a Shinki. Why don’t you summon him?”
“The Shinki must call forth their Duelists to safeguard their lives. This I know. To be sure, I could do so before.”
“At the time I came into this world, I had the divine energy to do so. Unfortunately, however, due to some… unforeseen difficulties, that power is now gone.”
WisDivine power was the power by which the Shinki brought forth miracles. Through the medium of Divine Spheres, human Clerics were able to work similar phenomena, if far more limited in scale – the so-called Orisons.
“…Is it that important that you know what happened?” Tina replied, her face divulging her reluctance to speak on the matter.
“Regardless of the reason, the fact of the matter is that Tina currently has not a whit of Wis left. As such, I am unable to call forth my Duelist.”
“I get it, I get it. So left without your Duelist, you were forced to make for the city, but got lost and passed out along the way.”
“Just so, just so.”
“In any case, with you unable to create any miracles, you have no way of proving that you’re one of the Shinki. It seems simpler to assume that you’ve lost your marbles.”
As Yuuki finished speaking, the self-proclaimed Shinki puffed her cheeks angrily.
“As soon as Tina recovers her divine energy, she’ll be able to both summon forth her Duelist as well as plenty of miracles! And I haven’t lost anything! What the Shinki must do, the identity of the enemy we must defeat – I remember it all!”
Everything else aside, she sure was spirited. Yuuki kept an eye on her as he mulled things over. Out of nowhere, he heard a small cough – Tina was intentionally clearing her throat in an attempt to bring back a more serious atmosphere.
“Now then, it’s my turn to ask a question. Yuuki, you are an adventurer who labors on behalf of the Shinki, correct?”
“Not in the least.”
His answer took her by surprise, cutting off her intended follow-up, and she fell silent, before suddenly asking——
“W-W-Why not?! Did you not rescue Tina from the labyrinth? Moreover, is the purpose of an adventurer not to collect Reliquia to offer to the Shinki?”
“My primary calling in life is as a merchant. Anything that can be found in the labyrinth I’ll buy, and anything that someone needs I’ll sell. At the same time, I sell all the consumables necessary for raiding the labyrinth. Although it’s true that I work as an adventurer as well, but that’s solely for the sake of stocking my store inventory. I picked you up by chance.”
“Well then, Merchant Yuuki, I have words I would bestow upon you. I hereby recognize thee as the first disciple of the Shinki Albertina, and grant thee the right to enter into my service.”
“My goal now is to restore divine energy with which to call forth my Duelist. For this, I will need Reliquia, and by extension, trustworthy souls to aid me in my task. Additionally, with this domicile serving as an interim temple, I will need someone to guide me and offer me counsel. Tina came into this world only three days ago; I lack the necessary experience.”
This was hardly a position to be envied. Regardless of how grandiose she had made it sound, it seemed she more or less just wanted a gofer.
Altogether belying her solemn demeanor, Tina’s eyes sparkled as she looked at Yuuki expectantly.
“There’s so much I want to say, I don’t even know where to start. First off, stop calling my house your temple.”
“… I can’t?”
She looked crushed. She knew that if he kicked her out now, she’d be left completely homeless.
“Don’t misunderstand – I’m okay with letting you stay here. Kicking you out would be a horrible thing to do.”
Her expression brightened in a flash.
Yuuki himself had been saved countless times by the generosity of others. It didn’t matter if she was a Shinki or just a person – she was in need, and so he’d help her. That he wasn’t likely to ever see remuneration for his efforts was of no consequence.
“A thousand blessings upon your kind soul! As expected from my first disciple!”
“I’m no one’s disciple. You need to understand one thing, though – the only thing I’ll give you freely without expectation of compensation is a place to stay. When it comes to collecting Reliquia or summoning your Duelist, you’re on your own.”
“Ah, I see…”
“To avoid future inconveniences, let me clarify that there are two reasons why I refuse to help.”
Yuuki sat in the chair opposite the young girl and began to explain.
“First, whether or not you really are who you claim to be, having a self-proclaimed Shinki by my side is dangerous. There’s a very high probability that your claims will be construed as blasphemy. In this city, the Church is one enemy no one can afford to have, least of all me. This will allow me to keep up the pretense that I was unaware of what you were doing – that I was simply giving you a place to stay temporarily.”
“… So you’re saying that it’s not necessarily because you don’t believe me?”
“Exactly. Now, secondly: I’m a businessman through and through. The very act of business is founded upon the principle of trade. If you want my help, that’s fine; what you want is your business. The question is, can you pay the price? I imagine you don’t have any money, do you?”
Tina bowed her head, crestfallen, though before long she raised it once more.
“I-If Tina regains her powers, she can reward you tenfold——”
“I have no interest in such an unreliable promise.”
Those who said they’d “pay you back when they got the chance” never actually meant it.
“The one thing I can place my trust in is cold, hard cash; doing things on credit’s out of the question. If you don’t have any money, then you’ll have to figure things out on your own. Your life is your own, take responsibility for yourself. Nothing in life is free – that’s the rule of this world. ——And that’s pretty much what I wanted to say.”
Yuuki knew that his words were ruthless, but he’d needed to say them anyway. Clarifying the terms from the start was an important rule to live by.
He’d originally expected Tina to lose heart, but instead, she frowned and, after a moment, spoke once more.
“In other words, if I can pay you… you’d be okay with helping me?”
“…You can look at it that way. Why? It’s not like you have any money.”
“Mm, it’s certainly true that Tina doesn’t have any money—— But she does have a plan.”
“Oh? By all means, please share.”
“Tina has something to offer you in trade – her body!”
Yuuki was so shocked he fell out of his chair.
“So? What do you say?”
“What the hell do you mean ‘what do you say’? O Great Shinki-sama, are you serious? Are you seriously serious? Do you have any idea what it means to ‘sell your body’?”
“Er, what it means?”
Tina stared blankly.
“Well, doesn’t it just mean to lend a hand when needed – to help out in whatever way possible? Whatever you need, it’s all okay. Moreover, if you give me Reliquia, I can even work miracles for you! Miracles! Just for you! To be able to purchase the services of a Shinki for mere coin – this is an amazing discount!”
“Hah… a brat like you; of course you didn’t know… Still, I have to say, this is my first time running into a goddess who’d discount herself like that.”
“Didn’t you say you’d buy anything ‘that can be found in the labyrinth’? I fall under that category. You can’t dispute that logic, so stop thinking so much, and just take the offer!”
“…For the love of—— how do I put this? Well, in short, I don’t deal in human lives here. Human trafficking’s banned by the city, you know?”
Tina acknowledged his argument with a nod before continuing.
“Sure, ‘human’ trafficking might be illegal, but Tina’s a Shinki, not a human. That makes it god trafficking!”
“I don’t buy gods either!”
“So you were lying earlier when you said you’d buy ‘anything’ as long as it was from the labyrinth?”
Tina pouted irritably.
“Tina was found in the labyrinth, so you ought to be willing to buy her. Or are you a liar? What kind of upright businessman is a liar?”
“The issue here isn’t ‘lying,’ but common sense… Actually, wait – if you’re something that I picked up in the labyrinth, then that means you belong to me already. In that case, it’s not your right to trade me something that’s already mine, right?”
“But didn’t you just say ‘your life is your own’?”
Yuuki was struck speechless. He’d been thinking of her as nothing more than a silly child, but she was unexpectedly articulate. The fact that he knew she neither bore ill intent nor was the least bit calculating only made it all the more difficult for him to counter her words.
Thinking for a bit, he asked, “…Hypothetically – just hypothetically – if I was unwilling to make the deal, I’m assuming you’ll just go to other shop owners and make them the same offer? You’d ‘sell them your body’?”
“Well, I wouldn’t have any other choice,” she replied without a moment’s hesitation. “Tina needs help, and money is necessary to get that help. But Tina has none.”
——Yuuki contemplated for a moment what would occur in such a situation.
This city had its fair share of black market dealers. Moreover… it also had more than its fair share of people with money who were quite fond of lively young girls.
In short, this would become a simple problem of supply and demand.
“Hmm? Is something wrong?” Tina inquired, surprised by Yuuki’s prolonged silence.
At long last, he finally spoke.
“I have no other choice, damn it. Fine, it’s a deal. I’ll help you as far as my ability allows.”
“Oh, so that means——”
Yuuki forcefully interrupted the joyous Tina, continuing, “There’s a condition – you’re not to tell anyone you are a Shinki, nor are you to speak a word regarding your purpose or knowledge of the Shinki.”
“One other thing: this contract only lasts until you are able to call forth your Duelist once more. In the event that that never occurs, then our agreement will end when we are both agreed. At the time of our parting, I expect to receive proper payment for my services. Even if you can’t pay me in cash, Reliquia will do. I’m not expecting anything like a Dragon Fang Gem here, but the higher the quality, the better.”
“Understood. Tina promises to do her best to repay you in high-quality goods. ——Just to check though, does this mean you’ve finally acknowledged that Tina is a Shinki?”
“I do not. Nor do I reject it, however. To be accurate, I don’t really care either way.”
“What do you——”
Tina’s expression was hard to read.
“I don’t care if you’re real or if you’re a fake – I’ll help you either way. I’ll work toward the goal of aiding ‘the Shinki known as Tina in recovering her powers.'”
The girl frowned slightly as she thought hard.
“…Although you still won’t acknowledge me, I’ll take that compromise. Alright then, from this day forth, Tina’s body is yours, and you will lend her your aid in turn.”
The deal was done. Yuuki nodded weakly.
Ahhh, just as he’d predicted – she’d already brought troubles upon him. Still, he was a businessman and a deal was a deal.
“Just for reference, just how much divine energy does it take to summon a Duelist?”
Tina closed her eyes as if sensing some unseen presence.
“Your storehouse is over there, right? If we were to add all the Reliquia you have in there together, we’d still be a long way off.”
“Oh? You can tell that kind of thing?”
“I need to be able to sense divine energy; I wouldn’t be able to work any miracles otherwise. Something like that is child’s play for Tina. ——That said, if you want to show your admiration, by all means, feel free. Come, come – praise me.”
“Let’s try a little experiment then.”
Yuuki proposed another trial, completely foregoing the opportunity to offer her any praise, leaving Tina rather disappointed.
“…An experiment? What do you mean?”
“To see whether or not you can really work any miracles.”
But how to do so? ——Just as Yuuki muttered to himself, Tina raised her voice and spoke over him.
“Before that, I have something to ask.”
“Even if Tina is now your property, she is still a Shinki. So what does that make you: Tina’s disciple or her master?” the self-proclaimed goddess inquired soberly.
Translator notes and references
Tina tends to speak in that archaic style translators often (attempt to) use Middle English to represent. Given the fact that I’m not Chaucer, it’s far too much effort for me to want to try.