With the hunting trip over, all who ended up participating in the expedition were set to leave at their leisure in Calla.
Shirou saw to it that there would be no problems whatsoever, and that normal operation were carried out without any traces of abnormalities. This was too unsure that no suspicions would arise while staring at the figure making his way out of Calla to meet up his 'fellow travelers.'
Sighing, Shirou didn't have to guess who it was that gracefully appeared beside him from a thicket of shrubs that were part of the trees which lined Calla's outer walls.
Her red pupils shimmered in the light, her long black hair bouncing with each displeased step as if she was cranky.
"We're really just letting him go?" Akame thumbed the pommel of her sword, never taking the distant figure out of her view. "He's too carefree now that he's out of enemy territory. This is the best time to strike."
On this point, anyone could agree; however, doing so would make all prior preparations worthless, and thus served as a restraining anchor.
Soon, Nyau's figure could no longer be seen, and there would be no point in giving chase anymore as doing so blindly may lead to detection.
Beside him, Shirou noticed Akame tense before slumping her shoulders and knitting her brows. Obviously, she didn't feel too comfortable with this as it went against her instincts as an Assassin.
Letting go of loose ends was the same as leaving an avenue of death open and uncertainty open. Moreover, while most Assassins generally cared immensely about their own lives, Akame was the sort to care about those around her.
As for why? Well, only Akame would know, but it may have to do with a feeling of isolation and guilt.
He'd never asked her, nor did he find himself willing to broach the subject if only for his own curiosity. Still, this didn't mean he couldn't guess what she was thinking.
"Don't worry about it too much," he spoke up, causing her to glance at him unsurely. She was never much of a speaker, and he had to get used to understanding what she was feeling by the subtle changes in her expression. "This town won't die; the people won't die; and you certainly won't die from letting this man off. If anything, it would be my fault so if you've grown fond of this place and this land, I will be the first to protect it."
She stared at him now, yet evidently, he didn't know her as well as he thought he did because his words only made her expression stiffer.
"There's still time," she said in monotone. "I'll go after him."
She bent her knees and prepared to pursue, traces of decisiveness flickering across her features while she formulated the quickest route to her quarry. However, the fastest route didn't mean the most concealed one. She would go in for open confrontation, and he could see this in the way she was making no effort to hide her bloodlust.
Nyau would surely be alerted.
"You're a fool," she whispered under her breath as he tried to reason with her. Of course, he didn't quite make out her words due to the glare she was leveling on him, but he was certain that it was due to something he did or said.
What? What did he say wrong?
Sadly, it wasn't something that Akame was willing to point out, but rather just remained disappointed in while cringing.
It would make no difference if the person himself couldn't come to the realization.
She took off without a moment of hesitation, and unwilling to use forceful means on her, he didn't stop her.
Just as Akame was about to disappear into the canopy of trees…a figure emerged to stop her.
"What do you think you're doing?" Elaine asked plainly on the branch across from Akame, effectively barring her path forward, and any time wasted now was precious.
Akame would rather not be having this conversation at all, but Elaine was quite happy to do so.
"You want me to move, don't you?" Elaine observed Akame's eyes darting from left and right, looking for any suitable footholds to dart passed her, but would Elaine let her?
It wasn't known explicitly, but all members of the Buckerfield family were trained and educated extensively since young as subordinate guards of the Imperial Line. Elaine was no different to this, and she'd only worked harder after her unwillingness to follow tradition was swayed by her emotions towards Shirou.
He was her kind-hearted and naïve future lord, and that was enough of a reason to make him more worthy of her trust and adoration than any other.
Elaine was just as physically fit and able as Akame.
Should Akame try to get passed her, she'd immediately intervene.
There would be no getting passed her without a fight, and a fight not to the death would cost even more time.
Akame clicked her tongue, but Elaine knew just the right words to say.
"Aside from Shirou, I've explained everything to everyone already. You of all people should understand why we have to let this man go, or is it because my lord said something to tick you off?"
Akame flinched before easing her stance and balling her hands into fists. "Why can't he just be more selfish?" She muttered, her voice carrying in the wind.
Elaine didn't know how to respond to this, as it was something that she herself wished Shirou to understand.
Akame pressed Elaine, noticing her brief moment of hesitation.
"Tell me," she whispered flatly. "Why must a lord be the first to act for his people and not the other way around?"
It was the wrong question to ask as it was the very question Elaine had dwelled over for years.
"Because that's who Shirou is," Elaine said wearily, a soft hollow laugh escaping her lips before she removed her glasses and rubbed her eyes. "Why do you think we act first and only tell him later or not at all? The only reason he got caught up in this mess is that he entered the forest when we asked him not to for the longest time, but there's no use lamenting the past. It's time he learns his real birth rites, and what you're doing right now will only implicate matters further."
Elaine shook her head slowly before giving Akame a meaningful stare; one of sympathy and understanding.
"If you really care about my lord's well being, I need you to stop this," she implored. "Besides, you're thinking of this the wrong way. The people before the lord? Who says we have to follow his script? When does any assassin or crook like us here in Calla follow a script?"
Akame suddenly blinked in realization at what Elaine was hinting at.
Suddenly, she stopped resisting.
Somehow, Shirou felt like Akame and Elaine had suddenly bonded over something he'd be having a headache over, but there was no way to get a straight answer from either of them.
Akame just stays silent while Elaine gives him a wayward smile as if an older sister looking down on the naïve little brat.
He wouldn't pry into it as he had no hope of finding out anything when women wanted to keep something secret without force.
Elaine nodded at Akame who shrugged back and left, leaving him and Elaine alone by the edge of the forest at Calla's walls.
Wordlessly, Elaine began walking, the 'follow me' gesture implied when she pushed up her glasses with her index finger and cleared her throat.
He matched her pace soon after, the two walking in tranquil silence shoulder to shoulder.
"How many years have we known each other, and how long have you spent in ignorance?" Elaine asked reminiscently. There was a light tug on her mouth that curved her lips upward no matter how hard she tried to keep a straight face.
She laughed at his all too serious one as she all but admitted that she'd been keeping secrets from him.
"I knew you since we were four and you kicked me in the face because you didn't want boy 'cooties,'" he answered in deadpan, causing Elaine to splutter that she was going through a phase. In any case, he continued uninterrupted. "As for years of ignorance? Is it wrong for me to say that I just trusted you not to harbour anything untoward against me or the town?"
Elaine's cheeks reddened, but she didn't let simple compliments rattle her. "And I've proved well of your trust. How else do you think this town functions so well despite having its new lord constantly out on adventure? Obviously, you still haven't changed: No sense of propriety to enjoy the efforts people put to keep you out of danger. Instead, you walk into it on your own."
He stopped for a moment as he considered Elaine's point. Even if he had been kept in the dark about certain matters, it would be a lie to say that he didn't understand that it was done for his own sake. Doing so would only be hypocritical. In which case, why deny it?
"I suppose you're right," he conceded, watching Elaine preen, but not for long. "Then again, we'd be the same then."
Elaine cocked back a brow. "What do you mean?" She asked curiously.
He looked at her side-profile up and down, noting her lithe yet flat figure before their eyes met and he snorted. "Clearly, you haven't changed either."
Elaine wasn't dumb.
D-Did he just…
She froze almost indignantly. "When did you learn to snark?"
"I thought you knew everything about me?" He retorted. It was only due to their close relationship and his knowledge that she was sensitive to her lack of physical development that he dared to rib her in this matter.
You know what they say about childhood friends? You know all their weaknesses.
"You're insufferable." Elaine gnashed her teeth in annoyance. "I bet you still go around saying you'll be a super hero or something whenever your father wanted you to be hunter."
He coughed blandly. "It's Ally of Justice," he corrected her.
The two laughed, but Shirou quickly noted the solemness that came over Elaine's features and grew more attentive.
"Do you still have that emblem I gave you?" She asked with a side-eyed stare.
He took the emblem out from his side pocket and held it in front of him for Elaine to see.
"You going to tell me what it's for now?" He inquired, watching the way Elaine looked like she wanted to clam up but still remained steadfast.
"An Ally of Justice, huh?" Elaine spoke off tangent. "What if I told you that you could be one and there were hundreds if not thousands upon thousands that are in need of saving?"
He didn't answer, but the look Elaine could see in his eyes must have said it all. She hesitated if only for a moment.
"What do you think of the Empire?" She asked another question.
"I think I've never seen it," he replied honestly. "I've heard plenty of negative things about it though, and the fact that it got so bad that they've started a civil war."
He grimaced thinking of all the bloodshed this had definitely caused.
Elaine observed him silently before placing her hand over the emblem in his own, and immediately pulling away when a fiery light attempted to burn her.
His eyes widened. A dense magical energy had been the cause of the phenomenon, but the thing was, why didn't the same energy reject him as it did Elaine.
"That must have gotten your attention," Elaine said with a wince while nursing her tender palm. "I knew it would hurt, but there was no other way of convincing you of its authenticity. What you hold in your hand is the token of the Empire's Imperial family."
He inspected the emblem in his grip while Elaine continued speaking.
She looked right up at him, and him back at her.
"This token can only be held by the bloodline of the Imperial family," she said with a nod before stopping in place and taking a knee in front of him. "You are the lord of Calla, but also a hidden prince of the Empire."
He didn't how to feel about the sudden news. He may have just been able to brush off Elaine's words as nonsense had she not inflicted pain to herself to prove a point.
The way she acted now was almost imploring.
"Should you so deem it, you have just as much right to rule than your misled cousin, the child Emperor leading your great grand uncle's kingdom into ruin," Elaine said with passion.
The atrocities that occurred in the Empire's capital were no secrets to him, but it took on a whole other meaning when said atrocities were allowed under the jurisdiction of relatives. By blood alone, he was part of the equation; his inaction sentencing numerous innocents into hardship.
Elaine saw him as the kingdom's hope.
She bowed her head lower.
"Calla's resources, its people, and purpose was not only for a second chance at life for the Empire's outcasts, but to function as a central hub of your ancestor, the brother of the First Emperor's, loyalists and generals," she elaborated.
Sucking in a deep breath, she willed herself to remain firm and keep her voice free of emotion, as in the end, the choice didn't belong to her.
"Your father knew of this secret, but forbid us from divulging any of it to you on the grounds of letting you live a peaceful life. However, there was another condition: Should you ever develop into a man worthy of leading and changing the era, then it's your duty as a member of Imperial blood to set the Empire straight. Your father didn't have the capability, but ever since you were a child, everyone thought you were different. This was more so after your father's death."
A light of expectation gleamed over Elaine's pupils.
"Out of loyalty to your father, we didn't act and watched as you went through your difficulties with minimal participation to judge whether you qualified or not. I am here now to inform you that you have indeed qualified," she said.
Silence reigned between them for the longest moment, the two childhood friends meeting on equal ground for the first time.
There didn't have to be any secrets regarding him anymore, and this was why he could see how much Elaine had been shouldering for him. He had no doubt that if he refused, she'd still do all in her power to see his wishes through.
She'd always been the attentive one.
"What did you have in mind?" He asked her.
All but verifying which decision he'd made even without a firm answer.
A travelling wagon used to ferry travelers to and fro across the Empire's various towns could be seen rolling down a wide dirt road in the direction of the Empire's Capital.
Inside, Shirou sat on the far end while accompanied by Leone and Selka who'd been forced out of her prided Hunting armour and into a modest robe with a hood that could hide her alluringly exotic features. Obviously, she wasn't quite happy with this as she found her mobility restricted, but Elaine had asked him to compliment her which somehow managed to convince her to continue wearing it.
Leone was in her normal attire while he was dressed in moderate thin tunic and stitched trousers to look his part as a fairly well-off individual accompanied by his 'maids.'
If it wasn't already clear, he was on his way to visit the Empire's capital.
The reason Elaine had allowed the spy to leave was to help het word out about his existence. Apparently, the last time she tried to do this with a less reputable Empire solider, the news had effectively been silenced. This was contrary to what was needed as the news of another legitimate Emperor would sway public opinion and may even reduce bloodshed.
Even after allowing Nyau to leave Calla, Elaine still thought it wasn't enough as proof was necessary to consolidate rumours into facts.
What better way to announce the presence of a prince of the Empire by paying a visit to the Imperial Palace with the token of the Imperial Bloodline in hand?
Even if the corrupt politicians tried to cover up the news again, news will inevitably reach the obstinate members of the Empire's old generation and even Revolutionary members. Said Revolutionary members may not have pure motives, but in the short term, their aid could be useful before a fallout.
Knowing what Elaine had in mind, he'd agreed after some thought.
This would be his first time visiting the Empire's capital, and also the first time he could see for himself what needs changing and what can stay the same should he assume the role of taking over the place.
Of course, he couldn't act belligerently out in the open. An entourage was out of the question, and Elaine had opted to send him with the bare minimum of protection to reduce suspicions.
Honest, the Prime Minister, was likely still on edge after Elaine's first failed attempt.
After Shirou had made his way into the Imperial Palace, Elaine would send an advance group to escort him out in case Honest ignored his image in front of the child Emperor and tried to kill another member of the Imperial Family.
Precautions were always necessary.
Now as for who got to go with him, well, the choice was simple.
Elaine had asked for Najenda's recommendation after years of sending operatives to spy on the Empire's Capital.
Leone and a person named Sheele still in the Capital was the result.
Selka on the other hand was taken along as extra protection. Her short stature was deceiving in that it belied an immense strength without need for a visible weapon. Moreover, it made her unassuming in a crowd unless provoked, something that someone of Bulat's frame or Lubbock's cautious temperance couldn't replicate.
As for Akame, well, her face was on wanted posters so there's no way she could just move in public.
"We'll reach the capital by the evening," Leone informed him lightly. She had experience and had worked as a spy long enough to develop a keen sense of traveling.
He nodded in understanding. "Then it's best we eat a meal to keep our strength up."
Leone perked up, and Selka who was keeping a constant vigilance on the surroundings diverted her attention.
Needless to say, but no had eaten yet. While travelling on wagon, there were no stores to just buy food from, nor animals to hunt who would be stupid enough to idle by the dirt roads. Rations were all that most travellers had on hand, but not Shirou.
In Selka's eyes, Shirou was practically born to be a hunter with how effective he was at sighting distant prey and wild berries and edible mushrooms and vegetables.
Moreover, she nearly salivated at the memory of the food Shirou had cooked prior and stored in little boxes he called a 'bento.'
She was quite eager, but at the same time, too conscious of her image in front of him to reveal her impatience…in more ways than one. What did she have to do to get him to notice her more? The clan's customs made it sound so easy. All a woman had to do to get a man's attention and convey her feelings was initiate contact; the bolder the contact, the fierier a woman's emotions and yearning.
There was no way a man should be able to misunderstand the woman's intentions by then, but Shirou seemed like the type to do so.
She'd die of embarrassment if it ever got out in the clan that she 'initiated contact' and was completely misunderstood. She'd be the first in the history of Heiwa then. Unconsciously, her gaze focused equally on the bentos in Shirou's hands and at his waist.
W-Would she really have to go that far?
The number of women increasing around Shirou was pressuring Selka day after day relentlessly.
The woman of Heiwa should be direct and bold. Fool was she to let other competitors to get a jump over her, but the hardest part of anything was starting.
"Here," Shirou handed her a bento, instantly redirecting her focus.
Right. Food first.
If Shirou noticed the conflict in Selka's gaze, he didn't have time to address it as the scent wafting off of the bentos he gave to himself, Leone, and Selka drifted towards other passengers on the wagon.
This wagon counted as public transport, and so as to not draw suspicion, everyone had first travelled to a known village and began their journey to the Empire from there.
Presently, they were sharing the wagon with three girls and a man everyone had come to realize was a slaver based on how the three girls addressed him.
Said man seemed highly interested in the scent of the food as he'd never smelled anything like it before. The man had light brown hair, amber eyes, and a formal suit with a jacket and tie over a pinstripe shirt and black suspenders.
"I'm Bach," the man tried to strike up a conversation, his smile making him seem harmless, but Shirou's reply was curt unwilling to get to know the man and just grunting.
Slavery was legal in the Empire, but it didn't mean that it was an occupation that her respected or admired. As it was, it was enough to just tolerate things until he could gain his position of power and then abolish it then.
Naturally, with his cold shoulder and their impression of Bach's occupation, neither Leone or Selka were inclined to interact with the man at all.
Grin stiffening somewhat, Bach coughed before returning to his seat. However, the smell was almost unbearable considering that the normal rations Bach had were almost tasteless. Still, for the sake of Bach's dignity, the man was able to bear with it.
The same couldn't be said for the three girls in Bach's company who kept staring.
It may have been a point in Bach character that he didn't paint a horrid image of himself by mistreating the slaves. They didn't seem very oppressed if anything, just curious rather than restrained.
Sighing, he rummaged through his burlap sack and took out another three bentos before gesturing at the three slaves, much to Bach's chagrin.
Bach appeared as if he had the mind to protest this treatment, but on second thought, he unexpectedly let it go and simply nodded at the slaves.
Shirou's impression of the man improved slightly. At least compared to other slavers he'd heard about, Bach had better morals.
Assured after Bach gave them permission, the three slaves gingerly approached to take the offered bentos.
The slaves were name named Fal, Luna, and Air, each wearing different yet stylized versions of the same clothing.
Fal was something of a tomboy dressed in a yellow rain coat with a hairband over her head to keep her neck-length golden-blond hair in place. She was ready to take action at a moment's notice should danger arrive. At the very least, the wariness she displayed towards strangers was much better than her other two friends.
Luna was the name of the girl in the blue rain coat with animal ear motifs over the hood pulled up over her head. Her large light-blue eyes gave her an innocent and carefree look while the bangs that framed her dark-blue hair made her face look smaller, giving her a demure vibe.
The last slave was called Air. She reminded Shirou of Mine with her pink hair, but the tone of Air's hair was a darker shade, long and parted down the middle covered by a matching hat and pink rain coat.
"Here," Shirou offered again, watching the three girls hesitate. "I made it earlier, so it's best to eat while it's still warm."
The three girls obviously had their reservations, but tempted by the smell and reassuring expression on his face, they eventually succumbed to temptation.
"Thank Mr. Chef," Luna was the first to gather the courage to take a bento in hand, and find a seat across from Leone and Selka. Air and Fal soon did the same.
None of the three girls went back to sit with Bach likely conscious of the fact that Bach wouldn't feel comfortable with them eating better food while Bach only had rations.
"This is…I've never tasted anything like it," Luna's mouth hung open in a daze while Fal and Air didn't even respond. The two had taken after Leone and Selka's example and tried to eat as much as they could as they could all see him preparing more.
Food wasn't exactly a problem with his capabilities, and if they ran out early, he could go hunting.
This fact was noticeable to everyone and obviously Bach felt put out, but Bach had nothing to say.
Shirou didn't say anything, but something about Bach rubbed him the wrong way, his intuition warning him of a snake. Still, he wouldn't jump to conclusions and use his own observations to decide. Right now, Bach didn't seem like a bad person, so eventually, he did end up giving a bento to Bach who grinned in thanks.
For a time, the entire wagon was free of chatter and filled only by the fervent clinking of utensils accompanied by stunned faces the moment the food touched the mouth.
One of the things Shirou actively prided himself on was his cooking.
This was to say, he was practically a master at the art, and given that this new world was in a regressive state compared to his old one, his cooking was far more innovative than the standard.
"Thank you for your kindness," Air spoke on behalf of herself and her friends.
"Ya, what she said," Fal piped up while licking her fingers clean.
"We never got to eat like this in the village," Luna mumbled softly before putting down her empty bento box.
Shirou listened attentively with Leone and Selka, and all of them could infer what must have happened to Fal, Air, and Luna to become slaves.
They likely got sold off by their village elders or parents to pay off debts or heavy tax.
Grimacing, Shirou added one more thing on his list of 'need to fix when in power,' list. Selling humans into slavery even for money or the sake of a village was just atrocious.
In any case, after eating, Air, Fal, and Luna appeared comfortable enough to remain seated nearby.
It's said that people can bond over food, and this was clearly the case as even Bach had decided to sit just a little bit closer.
"Do you think the rumours are true?" Air asked open-endedly. The question itself was asked towards Luna and Fal, but it was free for others to jump in. Travelling in silence was just boring after all.
Rumours? Shirou found himself curious.
He'd never spent much time out of Calla and anywhere near the Empire's Capital, so this was a learning experience for him.
"It's probably not true," Fal was the first to deny with a huff, pulling her knees to her chest. "If that rumour was actually true, then why were we sold?"
Luna pursed her lips, trying to remain optimistic. "Maybe because our village heard of it too late? We only heard of it on the road, right?"
Air nodded while a trace of excitement alighted in her eyes. "It's rumoured that if you keep heading east and proceed through a large thicket of trees leading into a deeper forest, you'll see large towering walls made completely out of steel and shaped as swords. Past those walls is a paradise where anyone can start a new life or find jobs to support their villages rather than go to the capital."
Leone was suddenly showing an expression of interest, her pearly whites flashing him a knowing smirk before that smirk faded.
"Now now, there's no need to think about such places even if it exists," Bach interrupted. "What I need you three to focus on is to prepare yourselves to be good slaves to your new owners once we reach the capital. Besides, what town in the Empire accepts slaves without a master?"
It was like a bucket of ice had been poured down Leone's back at those words.
Right. These three girls were slaves.
Selka crossed her arms and sneered as her mood plummeted at the reminder.
Meanwhile Shirou frowned at how smooth Bach sounded without a shred of guilt. This was the thing about slavers. Slaves were business and nothing more even if they were treated well.
The wind had been cut off from Air's sails and she deflated at Bach laid out their reality. Fal and Luna tried not to seem discouraged, but it would be a lie to say that they didn't have their own apprehensions about who they'd be sold to in the capital.
Shirou no longer looked at Bach in friendly manner.
"That town exists, and its name is Calla," Shirou spoke up towards Air, Luna, and Fal, watching as all three perked up. "Whether or not it would accept slaves isn't something that's set-in stone either."
Air shuddered, sharing a glance with Luna and Fal. "I-Is that really true? Mr. Bach doesn't that mean we don't have to go to the capital? We can make money there in Calla and pay back our identities!"
It was nearly indiscernible, but Shirou saw it when Bach sharpened his eyes in annoyance. "I'm afraid you've all already been sold so you'll have to discuss this matter with your new masters. There's nothing I can do."
Bach sighed in sympathy, his mannerism and conduct impeccable, but there was an underlying trace of deceit beneath. No one noticed this though, and didn't speak much more on the matter while Fal, Luna, and Air grew too solemn to speak much more.
No one would want to be a slave, but the thing about slavery was that it was hard to get out of.
Seeing how dour the mood had become, the rest of the trip was spent in silence.
It was just another evil that had to be rectified by him in the future.
The wagon had eventually stopped directly in front of the capital's main street, and all on board departed. Oddly enough, the direction everyone was going appeared to be directly the same. This continued for the entire first walk in to the capital.
As it was, Shirou's brow twitched as he recalled what Elaine had said about making arrangements for him at the capital.
How was this supposed to be covert?
"Ooh. You're staying here too?" The look in Bach's eyes changed all of a sudden while regarding him, Leone, and Selka. "I didn't know we were travelling in the company of such esteemed individuals."
It was one thing to deal with some penniless travelers, and another thing entirely if said travellers were rich especially for a slaver.
Bach's changed attitude towards them said it all.
In front of Shirou and everyone else was one of the most expensive inns in the entire Empire:
The Young Enthusiast's Inn.
Shirou, Leone, and Selka stood at the reception hall while Bach and the other three girls parted ways with them at the desk likely to check in with a reservation into their own specific room.
"See ya mister!" Luna said in departing, her hand waving lightly.
"The food was decent," Fal tried to play things cool as she left, but the blush over her cheeks gave her away when Luna stared flatly at her.
Fal had been the one to scarf down the most out of the three of them.
Air was the last to leave from Bach's group. She seemed hesitant, yet hopeful while meeting his eyes fervently.
"Does such a nice place actually exist?" Air asked softly.
Calla? He knew exactly what she was asking about.
"Of course," he answered cryptically. "Its lord may even be closer than you think."
Air didn't understand what he meant and once more smiled in thanks, nodded, and then ran off to join her friends and Bach.
"I don't think I'll ever understand what the Empire sees in slaves," Selka said in displeasure. "A Hunter may kill their enemies, but to humiliate and degrade them is a sin. It's almost sad that the way we Hunters treat enemies is better than how the current Empire treats its own people."
Selka was reminded of her own hardships while empathizing with the three slaves' situation. It was natural that she'd kept mainly silent in their time together.
"Mhm," he hummed in agreement, the air growing somber in melancholy.
Leone would have none of it though after enduring it for so long during the trip.
"Alright, alight enough of this!" Leone directly wrapped one arm around Selka's shoulders, and the other arm to put Shirou in a headlock; preventing him from escaping and simultaneously pressing his face next to her bust with no way to determine if it was an accident or not.
As far as Selka was concerned, she became somewhat weary of Leone. Using Heiwa's traditions as a basis, was Leone trying to give her a sign?
Her mood sunk further.
In any case, Leone's mind was already made up. "To the bar! Drink the feelings away!"
Without much resistance, the three ended up seated on a table by the corner, each with a mug of foaming beer in front of them. Selka was drinking moderately while Shirou decided to just drink down the entire cup.
"Hey I didn't know you had it in you!" Leone was all smiles, waving a hand to call out for another drink. "Compete with me!"
"I'd rather not-"
Another mug was shoved into his hands. He'd only drank the beer in one go so as to be done with it, not get another. Speaking of whish, Leone was being a bad influence on Selka.
Leone grinned slyly gesturing to his empty cup at Selka, and then pointing at Selka's still half-empty drink.
"What's the matter, can't keep up with your man?" Leone goaded.
It was naked provocation, and Selka was falling for it.
Liquor was something Selka hardly had as it impaired her senses as a Hunter, therefore…she was a natural light weight.
Shirou could see the ends of Selka's cheeks flushing as she slowly grew tipsy, but goaded on by Leone, and feeling flustered, she took her mug of bear and chugged it down.
Selka mustn't have enjoyed the burning sensation because she began dry heaving with a face that practically screamed 'can't vomit, won't vomit.'
Shirou pinched the bridge of his nose.
They weren't here to just drink to begin with. They were supposed to meet up with someone, weren't they?
"Sheele! Over here!" Leone called boisterously, a mug of beer in one hand and a chicken drumstick she'd ordered in the other.
From the corner of his view, he saw a slender woman with long purple hair and square glasses looking awkward as Leone corralled her. She was in a sleeveless lilac cheongsam with white laced boots.
Based on the look on Sheele's face, she must have known Leone would be at the bar. While walking over, she practically tripped after stubbing her foot on the side of a occupant's table.
Apologizing profusely, Shirou's first impression of Sheele was just how harmless and clumsy she seemed. Was she really an Assassin from Night Raid?
He was really having his doubts at the moment as Sheele scratched sheepishly at her head.
"Leone, glad to see you," Sheele said while taking a seat.
She then looked towards him, and then a drunk Selka who was similarly staring at him far too intensely to make him feel comfortable.
He decided to consciously pretend that Selka's eyes weren't trained on his pants.
She was drunk, and that could explain it all, he decided.
More importantly, Sheele was the inside informant of how things were in the Empire's Capital, so it was important to get information from her to decided how he would go about his task.
While Leone filled Sheele in on certain things she'd missed, he turned his attention away for just a single moment.
He immediately regretted that choice.
When he turned to look back at Sheele and Leone, it was to see Sheele passed out with Leone staring abashedly at him in guilt. In front of Sheele was a half-drunk mug with an acutely strong scent of alcohol.
"She ugh, drank the wrong cup," Leone hurriedly explained. On the label of the alcohol bottle, it said SPIRYTUS 96%
"It was supposed to be mine…" Leone trailed off at his flat stare.
Sheele was an even worse drinker than Selka.
"I'll take her and Selka to our room," Leone blushed, mortified that she'd underestimated Sheele's clumsiness again after so long. She coughed. "Besides, this clearly isn't the place to discuss matters."
Finishing her pieces, Leone quickly shouldered both Sheele and Selka before high-tailing it out of there before coming back not even a second later to pick up her bottle of alcohol. "I-It would be a waste if I left it?" she tried reasoning.
"Just go," Shirou scratched at the back of his head. From where he sat, he saw Selka trying to slink back towards him, but perhaps because she tipsy, Leone easily overpowered her and dragged her off.
Left on his own, he smiled wryly. Maybe taking Leone on Najenda's recommendation wasn't the best idea.
Sometimes he really wondered how professional Night Raid's members could be, but then again, Leone was correct in that a bar wasn't a suitable location to discuss private matters.
Moreover, if her goal had been to take his mind away from the slaver from earlier, then she'd certainty succeeded.
Smart woman, indeed.
Mulling over his thoughts, he got up and decided to wait until the girls sobered before going to the assigned room Elaine had reserved for their use. His instinct warned him that something untoward may happen to him in someone's drunken stupor, so it was best to wait.
Besides, it was Selka.
Drunk as she may have been, her body would instantly wake into action at the first sign of danger, thus was the constitution of the people from Heiwa who hunted Danger Beast for a living.
The Young Enthusiast's Inn was rather spacious and lavishly decorated. Glancing outside the main street, he couldn't help but notice at least a dozen homeless trying to keep warm using thin cloth.
All this money spent on luxury and goods, and nothing was being done at all for people who needed it most. How could he not consider this a waste?
This was his first visit to the Empire, and already he saw many things that didn't sit well with him. Still, for a cesspool of human filth as many had described it as, he couldn't help but feel that what he'd experienced so far was rather tame.
Touring his way around the inn, he decided to make his way to his accommodations after waiting for long enough. Sheele should be awake and sober enough to divulge the necessary information by now.
As he walked, he quickly took notice when the number of guests continued to dwindle the further down he went on the east floor where a sign was posted reading 'private.'
It was understandable that not a lot of people were around given the sign, and it was around this time that he realized that he may have been walking in the wrong direction of his room.
Turning around to backtrack, he abruptly stilled, his ears perking up in alarm.
A scream, high-pitched and despairing and eerily familiar in tone.
Slowly, he craned his neck and looked towards the direction of the sign that said 'private' and the room that it led inside.
His nose twitched.
He smelled blood.
"The Empire may seem normal on the surface, but it's fraught with hypocrisy and freaks with too much power. Be careful, and prepare yourself for anything you see. Maybe in the end you'll understand why this world may need an Ally of Justice."
Elaine's warning returned in full.
No way. It couldn't be.
A sinking feeling took root in his gut while his legs carried him forward directly passed the 'private' sign and right up against the door.
He tested the knob.
Locks didn't matter. The knob gave way with the groaning of metal.
His enhanced strength allowed him to brute force the door mechanism and swing the door open from its hinges. It creaked open, revealing a long corridor that opened to a brightly lit room.
Instantly, the sound of sobbing became distinct, mixing in with muffled screams and agonized whimpering.
Something was wrong, very wrong with this setting.
He hurried his pace, and once he reached the brightly lit room, he felt at a loss for words at what lay before him.
A group of black-clothed men, three girls, and Bach who looked startled upon seeing him.
"M-Mister," Fal was crying while laid out on the floor, her white knuckled grip trembling from the pain she was enduring.
Both of her legs were broken, bent oddly at the knees and purpling at the sudden loss of blood flow. The men behind her who had traces of fresh blood on their hands looked entirely unfeeling for their actions.
Luna was held in the arms of another man while Air was frozen stiff in shock nearest to him by the room's previously sealed entrance.
Instantly, everyone just seemed to freeze as Air moved and grasped his sleeve in panic, her grip trembling. She opened and closed her mouth, but no words were coming out, but her silently plea was damning.
"Now now you shouldn't be touching such a distinguished gentleman." Bach acted quickly and grabbed Air, tossing her like a rag doll onto the floor while trying to keep everything civil.
Bach glared at Air. "This is the capital; you'll only trouble gentlemen like this with your actions."
Bach then looked awkwardly at Shirou. "I assure you that this is all legal business here," Bach insisted.
"M-Mr. chef…!" Luna called out pleadingly, her appearance exceedingly frail as she shirked back from a man approaching her face with a knife, but was forced to remain in place by the person behind her. "T-They broke Fal's legs and said that fat sicko wants my eyes! Help, help please!"
Shirou's complexion darkened, steel entering his features as fury raged at the inhumanity.
"Legal. Legal, I assure you," Bach sneered, his façade of amicability washing away in his annoyance.
Shirou didn't reveal any intention of leaving.
Bach felt like he understood why, realization dawning on his features as he clicked his tongue and reached for a bundle in the pocket of his inner suit. "Fine I get it. I know your type: shrewd and well mannered just like myself."
In Bach's hands was a considerable sum of cash which he kept pulling more and more of each second in hopes to satisfy Shirou. Hush hush money and all that.
The hope in the three girls' eyes seemed to dim with each addition of bills, and Shirou's continued silence.
In truth, Shirou was seething; his inaction born from shock at the audacity of the man in front of him. Bach didn't dare to attack him due to the impression that Shirou may be someone of influence to stay in the Young Enthusiast's Inn.
Shirou looked down towards the offered cash, then back up at Bach's grudging face.
It was one thing to hear about corruption, and it was another thing to see it entirely.
"Remember Shirou. Low profile. You can't alert the Minster of your presence too early or that fat bastard will do all in his power to stop you from reaching the palace."
Then what? Was he supposed to just let this go?
"Is this still not enough?" Bach grew more and more unsatisfied as time went on. He was a businessman. He wouldn't offer more than he'd profit. "Then how about now?" This was Bach's final offer.
Shirou ignored Bach completely.
He glanced at Fal's form, then stared back at Bach and his associates. There was no way he could leave this alone.
Their cruelty really wasn't something that money could buy.
His mind was made up.
Elaine made him promise to keep out of trouble until it was time to leave the Empire, but perhaps there was another method still at his disposal?
It was true that he had certain limitations preventing him from acting however he wished, but this didn't mean that the same was true for everyone.
"Selka," he called out for a single name almost imperiously much to the confusion of everyone.
However, the ceiling suddenly caved in and a not-so-subtle figure emerged.
An eye for an eye may make the world blind, but blind monsters were in everyone's best interest.
A single order was given.
"Break their legs."
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