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  Infiltrating the Gustav Domain  

It had been around a month now since the Seven Luminaries took over Dormundt. Shinobu Sarutobi and Elch, for their part, had just made it into the Gustav domain. The shallow snow on the footpaths crunched pleasantly under their feet. Up ahead, they could make out a small village. Shinobu suggested they find lodging there, and Elch readily agreed. It was only just past noon, but in order to sneak past the checkpoint, they’d spent the previous two days sleeping in the snow-filled forest. It was doing a number on their stamina.

From where they stood, the village looked like it couldn’t possibly have more than a hundred residents. It might not have had proper inns, but for some coin, the two could likely guarantee a room of some kind over their heads, at least. With that thought carrying them forward, Shinobu and Elch made their way onward. Eventually—

“No way…”

“What is this place…?”

Arriving at the village, they couldn’t believe their eyes.

“Th-this is…nuts. And this is just a little farming village?”

“Merely by crossing the border, it’s like we stepped into a whole other world…”

They knew about all the commoners who’d tried to flee from the region, so the two of them had envisioned the Gustav domain as some sort of awful hellscape. Sure, they’d heard it was the most beautiful place in the whole empire, but it was assumed that only held true of the big cities. They’d expected the smaller villages to be ruins filled with worn-down farmhouses.

However, that assumption stood in stark contrast with the scene before them. There wasn’t a speck of dirt anywhere to be seen, and all the farmhouses were covered in pastel coats so bright, it seemed as though they’d just been painted.

Furthermore, the streets were all neatly paved with milky-white stone brick, and streetlamps were installed at regular intervals. To top it all off, the town square was adorned with an intricately carved fountain.

The two travelers were dumbstruck.

“This is unreal, El-El. I mean, look! All the houses have glass windows!”

“Yeah, and they even have a fountain… Who knows how much that must have cost…?”

It was like being in some sort of high-society garden. Yet, in spite of that, it was just a common farming village. The splendor of the buildings wasn’t the only impressive thing about the town, either. As they wandered about gawking at their surroundings, the passing villagers all called out to them.

“Good day!”

“Good day! Fine weather today, no?”

“Good day! Welcome to Coconono Village!”

Each villager bore a sociable smile and offered Shinobu and Elch cheery greetings. The people were just as amiable as the scenery was pleasant. More than just smiles and welcoming attitudes, their clothes were nice, too.

These weren’t the bundles of cloth the Findolph and Buchwald villagers wore to stave off the cold. No, these were colorful, well-coordinated outfits and dresses. The fabric wasn’t just plain linen, either. It was adorned with lace and gold trim. Nothing too outlandish but still was nothing peasants should have been able to afford. In fact, not even nobles would own items like that unless they were dedicated fashionistas.

“They still seem like commoners, but it looks like they’ve got it pretty good here.”

“Yeah. So it does…”

The two both let out amazed remarks about the Gustav domain’s unexpected wealth. Then, they heard a voice.

“Look, we have guests! Emelada, over here!”

An elderly hyuma man called after a young byuma woman and a girl of about ten, both with bear-like ears.

“Good day, travelers!”

“Good day!”

The woman and girl both offered Shinobu and Elch small bows. Other villagers had passed them by and gone on their way, but these three stopped to greet them. The two weary travelers stopped in turn and returned the greeting.

“Good day to you, too. I gotta say, you’re all real friendly here.”

“As a small rural village, we don’t have much to offer visitors, so the least we can give them is hospitality.” The young woman smiled as she made the jest, then gave them her name. “Oh, I should introduce myself. I’m Emelada, and this here is my daughter, Milinda.”

“These two run the town’s inn. The sun’ll be setting soon, and the next town over’s a fair bit away. Why don’t you stay the night at their place? You’re the only customers today, so all the rooms are open.” It appeared the old man had gone and summoned the proprietor of the local lodgings for them.

“Wow, thanks for the help! Staying at an inn was our plan all along, so you saved us the trouble of having to look for one.”

“Oh, is that so? Well, glad to be of help.” The toothy grin the elderly hyuma flashed them was oddly white and shiny. When Shinobu looked, she could tell his teeth were artificial. They seemed to be carved from ivory or the like. The technology to mass-produce such things didn’t exist in this era, so they must have been as valuable as jewels.

How was this tiny village able to sustain such a high standard of living? As questions swirled through Shinobu’s mind, young Milinda happily called out to her.

“Hey, miss, mister. Are you two married?”

Elch’s cheeks went scarlet. He immediately opened his mouth to deny it.

“There’s no—mmph?!” However, Shinobu clamped her hand over his mouth.

“Tee-hee, yup! We’re a traveling entertainer couple!”


“It’s too fishy to have a young guy and gal traveling together if they aren’t married. Just play along.”

“O-oh, okay…”

After Shinobu whispered in Elch’s ear, he realized the ninja-journalist was right and quickly agreed to her cover story.

Not a moment later—

“Wow, that’s great! Hey, fellas! Apparently, these two are traveling entertainers!”

“Whoa, seriously?!”

“That’s so cool! What kind of tricks do you do?! You gotta show us!”

—the two found themselves surrounded by excited villagers.

The old man who introduced them to Emelada and Milinda made them an offer.

“What do you say? Would you be so kind as to show us your stuff? There’s no fieldwork to be done this time of year, and we don’t get too many merchants, neither. Most of us are bored sick. If you put on a show for us, we can repay you with food and booze!”

“Are you sure?”

“Oh, please do. My daughter would love it, too. I’d be happy to let you stay the night for free in exchange.”

Had they just offered free room and board? Shinobu gleefully accepted.

“You guys drive a hard bargain, but sure, we’ll do it! Right, El-El?”

“Uh, sure…?”

“Huzzah! Everyone, make preparations for a feast!”

“You got it! Today’s gonna be great!”

And thus, the two of them ended up trading a display of their talents in exchange for free food and a place to sleep for the night. The part about them being traveling performers was a lie, but they did both possess specialized skills.

Shinobu elected to juggle some borrowed pottery while balancing atop a ball, while Elch showed off his masterful archery by performing tricks such as shooting a snowball off of his companion’s head. Both were met with hearty applause from the villagers. The young Milinda was especially enthusiastic, hopping up and down and clapping so hard that Shinobu and Elch were worried the girl was going to hurt her hands.

As thanks for their performance, the villagers threw them a lavish feast. There were meat skewers dripping with juices, stew full of hearty sustenance, and plenty of sweet beer to go around.

At the villagers’ urging, Elch downed tankard after tankard of the drink. Before long, he noticed his head feeling fuzzy and his body feeling hot. It went down so easy, the young man hadn’t noticed it at first, but the beer must have been fairly strong. The smiling villagers praised them for their skills and refilled their steins.

It was unclear if Shinobu realized it was alcoholic or not, but the atmosphere being lively, she was gulping the stuff down like there was no tomorrow. Elch, swept up by the mood, emptied his own mug in kind. By the time the sun started setting, the two of them were well and truly plastered.

After the lively reception dinner, Milinda and Emelada led their inebriated guests to the inn. In keeping with the rest of the village, it was built from tidy red bricks and boasted an impressive chimney. Off to the side, it had a wooden stable to accommodate visiting merchants. An unmanned wagon was resting inside, almost ornamentally.

“Wheeee… The world ish melting… Like cheeeese… Hee-hee-hee.”

“C’mon, Shinobu, keep it together… Hic…”

Elch tried to tell off the journalist, who had gotten so drunk he’d had to carry her to their lodging on his back. However, the beer had made his face so red and his gait so tottering that it looked like he needed the advice just as badly as she did. Emelada gave a concerned bow as the pair approached.

“Are you two all right? I’m so sorry. We tend to get a little carried away here.”

“No, no… I’m fine…” Elch groaned.

“Yeah, I’m jusht peachy! I can keep going all night! …Urp.”

“Hey! Don’t go throwing up on my back, you hear!”

Struck by an ominous premonition, Elch set Shinobu down. She covered her mouth, face pale.

“Hwehhh… Why doesh it feel sho good and sho bad at the shame time?”

“’Cause you were downing the beer like it was water, that’s why. Not that I’m anyone to talk, mind you.”

“Urrrgh… I’m gonna go outshide to get shome air…”

“Oh! Th-that door doesn’t go outside!”

Shinobu staggered straight toward the wooden door in front of her, but Emelada quickly stopped her and lent her a hand.

“The door outside is over here. Milinda, Mom’s going to keep an eye on Shinobu, so could you be a dear and show Elch up to their room?”

Milinda nodded.

“Thank you, darling,” Emelada replied as she led Shinobu outside.

“And shank you, Msh. Emelada. You’re sho nishe…urp!”

“Oh my! P-please don’t throw up until we’re actually outside!”

“Is…she gonna be okay?”

Elch turned around, worried, but Milinda called for him and bade the young man to follow her. The girl led him up to the second floor.

“Here’s your room.”

“Ah, thanks… I had a bit too much to drink, too, so I’m gonna go ahead and lie down. Standing makes me feel faint.” Elch sat down on one of the room’s two beds as he thanked Milinda. As he did, though, he noticed something.


There was a hint of trepidation in the byuma girl’s expression. Her smile from before was gone…and her eyes were swimming as though she was agonizing over something. Then…


Milinda looked at Elch as though she’d made up her mind.

“You have to hurry and get out of—” She was trying to tell him something. However, the girl wasn’t able to get the end of her message out. Emelada had come up the stairs with Shinobu in tow.

“Thank you for showing our guest his room, Milinda.”


The moment Emelada showed up, Milinda went silent and scampered down to the ground floor. Emelada, who was lending Shinobu her shoulder, took her place.

“Is Shinobu…er, my wife okay?”

“Oh, she’s fine. Once she threw up, she seemed a lot better.”

“It feels like I’m floating on a cloud…” The moment Shinobu made it into the room, she plopped herself drunkenly onto the floor. The High School Prodigy might not have needed to throw up anymore, but she still looked pretty wasted.

“Sorry for all the trouble…”

“Oh, not at all. If anything, it’s our fault for encouraging you to drink so much.” Emelada chuckled wryly. “But please, make yourselves at home.” She gave the pair a slight bow, then exited the room and closed the door.

After Emelada had left, Elch summed up his thoughts on the village. “Y’know, I was worried about how things’d go after we made it over the border, but this village actually seems really pleasant. Their buildings are nice, their clothes are fancy, and everyone’s really friendly… I’d expected all the commoners to be wearing shabby stuff like we do, but I guess things are just different here, huh.”

From what he’d heard during the feast, the villagers were largely wheat farmers. As they’d happily explained, they didn’t have much income, but because of how well Emperor Lindworm von Freyjagard and Lord Oslo el Gustav kept the peace, they were able to live in comfort despite that.

Honestly, Elch had trouble believing it all. He could never have imagined commoners in the empire being so blessed with luxury.

“It looks like they’ve got it pretty good here, so I dunno how excited they’ll be about the Seven Luminaries’ teachings. Got any backup plans?” Elch had directed the question at Shinobu.

However, instead of an answer—

“Zzz… Zzz…”

—the only response he got was snores.

When he looked, he saw her lying facedown on the floor.

It appeared she’d never actually made it onto the bed.

“Wait, are you seriously asleep…? Man, what am I gonna do with you?” Elch sighed in exasperation, then drunkenly tottered over to Shinobu to lift her onto the bed.

“C’mon, now. If we don’t at least get a blanket on you, you’re gonna catch a cold.”

The next moment, though, something unbelievable happened. Shinobu’s arms shot up and wrapped themselves around the back of the young man’s head. When she yanked him toward herself, their lips met.

“Mwah.  ”


They pressed deep against each other. The girl’s mouth was hot from the alcohol. Elch froze up, unsure how to process what was happening. What was going on? Should he have done something? However, he quickly returned to his senses and pushed Shinobu off. He voiced his objections with a bright-red face.

“Wh-wh-wh-wh-what’s the big idea?! Y-you! Drunk or not, y-you can’t just—?!”

“Well? All sobered up now?”

“Huh…?” Elch found himself at a loss for words. This wasn’t the reaction he’d been expecting at all. He’d thought that Shinobu was so plastered that the girl didn’t know what she was doing. Judging by her expression, however, she didn’t seem intoxicated in the slightest.

“You…aren’t drunk?”

“Of course not. It’d take more than that to get a ninja sloshed. Besides, I made sure to take a liver supplement beforehand.” Shinobu’s tone was the same as ever. She was well and truly sober. But if that was the case, then why…?

“Why the act, then?”

“If I didn’t fake it, they’d have kept bringing out drinks until I really was wasted. Didn’t you notice? The villagers were all trying to get us to live it up, but they barely touched their own drinks at all.”

“Wait, why?”

“That’s what I wanna know. Why were they so insistent on getting us drunk? Plus, their houses and clothes were clearly expensive, but all the people… Why do they look like they’re starving?”

“They do?”

“Their heavy winter clothes did a good job of hiding it, and they were using makeup to make their faces look presentable. Their skin was all dry and ragged, though. Even an amateur could make out the jaundice in their eyes.” Such symptoms were typical of malnutrition.

The first time Shinobu had set eyes on the villagers, she’d caught on immediately. Something about the village was fishy.

“…It wasn’t until we got to the inn that I realized why everything was so weird. C’mere.”

“Wh-where are we going?”

“Through that door I tried to go through before… Don’t worry. When I was pressing my ear against the ground earlier, I made sure our two hosts were gone.” Shinobu left the room and moved briskly toward the door in question. It was down the stairs and past the service counter.

When opened, the two found a stairwell leading down. Using Shinobu’s smartphone as a light, the pair began their descent. Before long, they found themselves in front of yet another door. Shinobu paused before it and turned to Elch.

“El-El…no matter what we find here, you can’t scream. Got it?”

“O-okay.” Elch nodded, and Shinobu pulled the handle toward herself.

Elch felt a cold sensation run down his spine. The cause was easy enough to deduce: the smell. The moment Shinobu opened the door…the rank smell of blood assailed his nostrils. The young man’s eyes went wide as morbid curiosity made him wonder as to the source of the horrible odor. The kunoichi -journalist shone her light into the room.


“ ???!!!”

“This here…is the village’s secret.”

—they saw them.

Cast in the light against the dark background were brutalized human corpses dangling from the ceiling.

The room felt eerily cold.

Elch’s voice trembled at the unbelievably gruesome spectacle laid before him.

“Th-those are…people?!”

“They probably employed a bunch of different lies to lure travelers to the inn, got them drunk so they couldn’t fight back…then brought them down here.”

“Wh-why would they do something like this?! Ah—” Suddenly, Elch remembered wondering how a simple farming village could possess such wealth.

“That’s it! They kill travelers and take their money! That’s why they seem so rich…”


“That’s what I thought at first, but it looks like money wasn’t the only thing they were after.”

—Shinobu rejected his hypothesis as she stepped into the cellar.

She cast her light on one of the suspended corpses’ ankles. It looked to have once been a man but was missing a head and one of its hands.

“Look. See the deep cut on the ankle? You’re a hunter, so you know what that means.”

The question sent a chill up Elch’s spine. He did. Cut off the head. Slice through the vein in the ankle. Hang upside down.

There was no mistaking that process.

“…They’ve had their blood drained…”

“That’s right. And the organs were removed cleanly, so they’re definitely being prepared for consumption… This village is a den of murderers, right down to the bone. Literally.”


Unable to take it anymore, Elch dropped to his knees and ejected the contents of his dinner.

“Yeah, probably better just to get it all out of your system. Guess I beat you to the punch a bit there.”

“This is sick… So wait, do you think what they fed us was…?”

“Nah, we’re fine there. That was all horse meat.”


“Remember that abandoned wagon by the inn? It probably belonged to one of these guys. The villagers used its horse to throw us that feast. If they fed us people and scared us off, it’d defeat the whole purpose. Besides, trading the horse flesh it takes to fill a couple bellies for two whole bodies’ worth of meat is a pretty good deal.”

“Urrrgh…” The idea of using hyuma and byuma as food filled Elch’s throat with bile all over again. How could people even do that? Elch thought back to the smiles the villagers had been wearing all afternoon. They’d seemed like decent people, not barbarians.

Then, it hit him.

As he was thinking about the villagers’ faces, he finally realized something. Everyone else had been smiling from beginning to end, but Milinda’s expression had wavered for a moment.

Wait, was she…?

Had she been trying to warn them? However, the young man’s train of thought was soon interrupted. A shrill, ear-piercing whistle shattered the air.

““ ?!””

As the two of them looked up in confusion, they heard a voice echo down from aboveground: loud, male, and booming.

“Silver Knight Jeanne du Leblanc is here for an inspection! Show yourselves!”

“What’s going on?”

“Dunno. Guess we’d better go check it out…!”

After emerging from the inn’s cellar, Shinobu and Elch sneaked out the back entrance and looked toward the central plaza’s fountain from their concealed spot. A most unusual scene greeted the duo’s eyes.

Some dozen-odd armored soldiers were taking the villagers and lining them up. Emelada, her daughter, and the old man who’d introduced them to Shinobu and Elch were among them.



When the conspicuously large soldier shouted at them, the villagers chanted a reply in unison while wearing the same radiant smiles with which they’d greeted Shinobu and Elch.

“““We are grateful for your visit!”””

“““It’s been another day of joy and good fortune for us common folk!”””

“““And we owe it all to His Majesty, the Emperor!”””

With the villagers’ practiced mantra completed, the red-haired, silver-armored woman who’d been waiting behind the soldiers dismounted from her horse and strode over to them.

She swept her razor-sharp gaze across their lineup.

“Indeed. I am here today to judge whether or not you present in ways befitting subjects of His Grace… Last week I inspected your village itself, and today, my focus shifts to the appearances and smiles of you, its people. Now, straighten those backs!” The order was issued with a dignified tone.

“““Yes! Thank you!”””

The villagers all stood at attention, their backs held unnaturally straight.

The female knight looked each villager over from head to toe, her eagle eyes sparing no detail. After her inspection had gone on for a bit, she ordered those assembled to turn around and repeated the process.

Once the knight was satisfied—

“Very well.”

—she would utter a short assessment before moving on to the next in line.

It was like watching someone appraise goods.

“…Oh, huh. I think I get what’s going on,” Shinobu said.

“You do?”

“I’m just spitballing, but I think this village…no, this whole domain is being forced by its lord to keep their towns pretty, their clothes fashionable, and their faces bright.”

“B-but what does that even accomplish?”

“I dunno, but…it’s not too uncommon for people with absolute power over others to go and do stuff that doesn’t really make any sense.”

Earth had no shortage of examples. There was a shogun who’d enforced an egotistical set of laws called the Edicts on Compassion for Living Things. Elsewhere, a countess kidnapped serfs and peasant girls, subjected them to sadistic torture, and bathed ecstatically in their blood. Plenty of rulers went and did things that seemed irrational to people with normal dispositions.

Compared to them, that sex maniac Findolph looks like a friendly old man. As Shinobu grinned sarcastically at the thought, a sudden question caught the pair’s ears.

“What exactly is this, girl?” The knight’s hard question was directed at one person in particular.

“Milinda…!” The girl from the inn where Shinobu and Elch were staying.


“The hem of your dress is soiled… One’s clothing must be pristine and beautiful, never frayed or stained. Such is the basic requirement for citizens of His Grace’s empire. It is my duty to punish those who cannot fulfill such basic requirements.”

“Ah… I…”

As the knight solemnly issued her verdict, Milinda’s whole body began shaking pitifully as tears rolled down her cheeks.

Her mother, Emelada, quickly moved as though to shield her—

“P-please wait, my lady!”

—and offered the knight a plea.

“A child’s failing lies with her parent. Please punish me instead…!”

The woman’s reply, “No,” was short and final.

“Parent, child, it matters not. Our lord commands that the guilty be punished—You. Prepare her.”

“Yes, my lady!”

“Mama! Help me, Mama!”

“Milinda! Please, I beg of you, have mercy…!” Emelada made another desperate petition. However, her words fell on deaf ears.

“Your smile is slipping.” The voice of the female knight was like cold steel—utterly devoid of mercy.


“The citizens under His Grace’s protection must always smile as proof of their gratitude. Our lord has decreed that as law… I am willing to overlook your fault thus far as that of a concerned parent. However, there will be no second chances. If you persist in your whining and obstruction of justice, I will have the heads of you and your daughter both.”


“Smile.” As the knight spoke, the woman moved her hand to the sword at her waist.

If Emelada failed to comply, her life would end in a single slash. Her daughter, Milinda, would be next. As such…Emelada had no choice but to forcibly raise the corners of her mouth into a stiff smile. All the while, the soldiers were binding Milinda.

A brawny one held the poor girl’s head still while the others drove a pair of stakes into the ground, wound a rope around them, and used it to bind her legs. Milinda sobbed and tried to flee, but there was only so much a child’s strength could accomplish. A soldier with a lash made from a series of leather straps stood behind her.

“Keep the strikes to her buttocks. If you hit a girl that small in the back or the chest, she’d die before you got to the thirtieth lash,” the knight commanded.

“Yes, my lady!”

“Now, begin the punishment.”

A dry crack echoed through the twilit winter night.


Immediately thereafter, it was joined by a young girl’s scream. No matter how much Milinda cried, however, the soldier didn’t stop. The lash struck her clothed behind.

“Milinda, be strong! You must endure this!”


Her skirt ripped a mere three strikes in, and by the fifth, her skin was broken and raw.

“Th-that’s awful…! All that, just ’cause her dress was a little dirty?!” Elch rose to his feet. However, Shinobu grabbed him by the shoulder to restrain the hunter.

“Wait up. What’re you doing?”

“I’m gonna save her! I can’t just sit here and watch this!”

“Those people were trying to trap us and eat us like livestock, remember?”

“Yeah, but…! But that kid tried to warn me! She tried to tell me to get out of the village!” Elch hadn’t heard the end of Milinda’s sentence, yet he was sure of it. That’s why he wanted to save her. As they were talking about it, though…the screams finally stopped.

“Ahh… Uhh…”

“Milinda?! Milinda! Stay strong…!”

The little thing’s knees gave out, and a dark stain began spreading around her groin. Shinobu and Elch both had keen vision and could spot that Milinda’s eyes had rolled back and that the girl had lost consciousness. If things continued like this, her life was in danger!

“—! All right, screw this! I don’t care what you say; I’m going!” But when Elch tried to stand again, Shinobu grabbed him by the shoulder once more. As he glowered angrily at her, she spoke.

“I get how you feel, El-El, but I have another idea.”

Watching Milinda crumple to the ground, the soldier who’d been whipping her stopped.

“Milady, she’s passed out…”

Jeanne, the red-headed knight, remained implacable. “…Continue with the prescribed number of lashes.”

“Yes, my lady!”

“No, noooooo! Stop, just stop! My daughter’s the only thing I have left of my late husband! She’s our future. Please stop hitting her!!!!” Emelada’s screams grew ever more frantic.

That moment, though, a star-shaped chunk of metal came flying out of the distant thicket and embedded itself in the lash-wielding soldier’s hand.



“What’s going on?!”

“All right, all right, that’s enough of that. The girl’s gonna die if you keep that up, you know.” The sudden attack sent a stir through the soldiers. They all turned toward the source of the voice.

It was a girl with peach-blond hair and a long, fluttering skirt. Shinobu Sarutobi, prodigy journalist.

“Who are you?! You don’t look like one of the villagers!”

One of the soldiers drew his sword threateningly and prepared to charge Shinobu. However, Jeanne stopped him.

“Stand down.”

“My lady?”

“That peculiar star-shaped throwing weapon is a shuriken. It’s a tool used by the Yamato ninjas. There’s no telling what could happen if you charge in recklessly.”

“Ninja?! You mean…she’s one of those?!”

“She wasn’t just a traveling performer…!”

Hearing the word ninja seemed to strike fear into the villagers and soldiers alike. In fact, the only one who seemed unfazed was Jeanne. She strode toward Shinobu.

“I thought all the ninja villages had been burned to the ground, but it seems there was a survivor. Why show yourself to us, though?”

“I told you, didn’t I? I wanted to stop you from killing the girl.”

“You wanted to save the child? How foolhardy.”


While the red-haired knight was speaking, soldiers moved to surround Shinobu. Once they’d cut off any avenue of escape, Jeanne drew her sword.

“Unlike samurai, ninja are supposed to remain hidden and strike from the shadows. Now that you’ve shown yourself and let us pin you down, you’re powerless.”

Shinobu was indeed encircled by swords on all sides. However, it didn’t look like she felt cornered in the slightest.

“How ’bout this, lady knight. Wanna make a deal?” Shinobu grinned like the Cheshire cat as she twirled a kunai around on her finger.

“A deal?”

“Yup. You’re right. I can’t win against this many people when we’re out in the open…but I’m taking at least half of you down with me. And you’re first on my list.”


“But if you promise not to hurt the girl anymore, I’ll come along quietly. Whaddaya say? Not a bad offer, right?”


Jeanne hesitated, her sword still pointed at the ninja. After a moment, she called to her subordinate holding Milinda’s head down.

“Very well. I accept your condition… Release the child.”

“Are you sure, my lady?”

“Make it snappy.” The soldier did as he was bid. Seeing that, Shinobu tossed her kunai off to the side.

“Thanks kindly.”

Now that she was unarmed, the soldiers rushed at her, kicked her to the ground, and stripped her of her freedom. After making sure the iron manacles were secured around Shinobu’s wrists, Jeanne gave an order.

“We’re going back to Count Blumheart’s castle. Bring the ninja.”

“““Yes, my lady!”””

Clapped in chains and in the custody of Jeanne, Shinobu was carted off to Castle Blumheart.

A few minutes earlier, back when Shinobu had stopped Elch from rushing out.

“W-wait, you’re gonna go?!”

“Yeah. Here, hold on to my phone and ninja tools for me. Oh, and later, let Tsukes know that I got captured on purpose. You know how to use my phone, right?”

“I—I do, but couldn’t the two of us just take them out without getting taken prisoner…?”

“No, no, you’re thinking about it all wrong. We’re on an espionage mission. If I let them catch me, I’ll be able to make it all the way into their base without lifting a finger. I can’t pass up on an opportunity like that… Oh, don’t look so worried. I’ll have you know that jailbreaks are my specialty.”

This was how they decided Shinobu should allow herself to be captured in order to sneak deep into enemy territory.

Elch, who’d been left alone in the village, helped Emelada carry Milinda back into the inn. The little byuma’s wounds were brutal and would likely leave a lifelong scar. Fortunately, though, her breathing eventually stabilized, and she drifted into a quiet slumber. Emelada dropped to her hands and knees, thanking Elch between relieved sobs.

“Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you…! You saved my daughter…!”

“I’d like to thank you, too. I don’t know what we would have done if you hadn’t been here…,” the old man who’d first introduced the mother and daughter added.

However…after seeing what was in the cellar, Elch had no desire to accept their gratitude.

“…I don’t need your thanks.” The hunter decided to cut right to the chase. “Not when you were planning to kill and eat us.”

Emelada’s and the old man’s faces went pale.


“H-how do you…?!”

“We found the cellar. It made me chuck up my dinner, so I’m nice and sober now.”

“…I’m so sorry.”

“I don’t need your apologies, either. I just want an explanation. Why’d you do it?”

As Elch cut off Emelada’s apology—

“…It’s a simple thing, really. It was the only way we could survive.”

—the old man answered.

“There’s nothing else in the town to eat, see.”

In a resigned tone, he explained to Elch what had happened to the village. Originally, Coconono Village had made their living harvesting grain. They hadn’t been rich by any means but were blessed with fertile land, so they were able to live modest lives free of want. However, once Gustav was granted control over the domain in recognition of his efforts destroying the Yamato Empire, everything went to hell.

The duke ordered that the land was to be made into “a garden befitting His Grace’s majesty,” decreeing that all the towns and villages in the domain undergo beautification projects. The citizens were forced to rebuild their old houses, repaint them at regular intervals, install glass windows, and wear tailored outfits the likes of which were normally reserved for nobles. All the expenses for these fineries came out of the citizens’ pockets, of course.

Such imperatives quickly drained the coffers of the people. Complicating things were the regular inspections by the soldiers. These check-ins meant the commoners couldn’t get dirty, preventing any decent fieldwork from getting done. While their expenses increased, their productivity dropped off a cliff. As a result, the people fell into famine and destitution.

Then, to make matters worse, Gustav decided he wanted to build a monument and give it to the emperor to commemorate his conquest of the New World. He immediately commissioned a sixteen-foot-tall solid gold statue of Emperor Lindworm.

However, the heavy taxes its construction demanded would have been crippling in the best of times and marked the final nail in the coffins of the commoners. The people of Coconono were no exception.

“At that rate, the only fate that awaited us was death by starvation. But the mayor gave us an order… He told us to ply travelers with alcohol, offer them lodging, kill them, strip them of their possessions…and partake of their flesh.”

“…!” Elch was struck speechless by Gustav’s atrocious governance. No matter how hard the commoners worked, there was no way they could pay for a gold statue, cosmetic upkeep on their villages, glass windows, and fountains while still having enough to feed themselves. The situation was impossible no matter how you looked at it. And yet…

No matter how bad you have it, there are still things you just can’t do…! The sins the village had committed were utterly inhuman. They were the acts of savage beasts who had cast aside morals and reason.

“Lemme see this mayor of yours! I need to give that jackass a piece of my mind!”

“…That’s not possible.”

“Oh yeah?! And why not?!” As Elch snapped at him, the old man replied in an exhausted tone.

“The mayor…my son—Emelada’s husband…left us those instructions in his will. As penance for the savagery he’d suggested, he offered up his flesh as the first of our new meals…”

“…!” Elch was stunned quiet yet again. How must Emelada and the others have felt eating his body to prolong their own lives? Just thinking about it left the hunter from Elm at a loss for words. The silence was broken by the old man’s weeping.

“Why…? Why did this happen to us…? Our houses were run-down, our clothes were shabby, and we were always covered in dirt…but sharing simple meals with our families was all the happiness we needed… Just that was enough to make us joyous from the bottom of our hearts. But now…not even our smiles are our own…”

There was nothing to smile about, no happiness to be found. Yet they’d been forced to spend their days beaming. It had stretched the old man’s spirit to its limit.

That was why—

“I’m just…so tired…”


—the old man pulled a dagger from his coat pocket and stabbed himself through the neck.

Or rather, he tried to. Elch had grabbed it by the blade in the nick of time.

“…Please don’t stop me. Just let me die.”

“That’s not gonna happen.”

“…You would have me keep suffering…?” The old man spat the words like a curse. Elch responded by shaking his head.

“That’s not it. I just don’t want you giving those bastards your life on top of everything else!”

Once again, it became clear to Elch how important their battle was. They needed to change the world. The continued existence of a world that let things like this keep happening was unforgivable. Thus, the young hunter swore an oath to the old man and all the other citizens of this domain.

“I can’t do much about all the stuff you’ve lost…but I swear, we’re gonna help you get your smiles back! That’s what we’re standing up and fighting for…!”

Evening turned to night.

Jeanne had taken the captured Shinobu Sarutobi to the castle of Count Blumheart, the man Lord Gustav had entrusted with managing many of the domain’s towns and villages, including Coconono.

At the moment, Shinobu was in the castle’s underground dungeon, stripped down to her underwear and chained to the wall by her wrists. Likely, her cell doubled as an interrogation room. Other than the ninja, it was home to a number of ghastly objects.

Whoa, they’ve got a Spanish donkey? I’ve never seen one in person before. Looks pretttty nasty. And is that one a scavenger’s daughter? I think so.

“Heh-heh. Scared?”

“Get ready, ’cause we’re gonna be using all of them.”

The two guards outside the cell cast vulgar gazes up and down Shinobu’s body. The girl ignored them and began planning.

Now then, what to do?

It was a shame they hadn’t taken her to the actual lord’s castle, but there was still probably valuable information she could get here. The question was, how best to go about it? If Shinobu wanted to, she could force her way out whenever she pleased…but in doing so, her captors would go on high alert, making it harder to scour the castle for intel.

The journalist decided it would be better to lie low and wait for a chance to stage a stealthier breakout. After which, Shinobu could sneak into the count’s chambers and take him hostage. Pumping that man for the information she needed on Gustav would probably be the easiest way to go.

Suddenly, something interrupted the young woman’s train of thought. She could hear the door leading out of the dungeon opening, and her jailer, Jeanne, entered with a bespectacled byuma maid in tow. The maid carried a large wooden box.

“Elaine, set the tools down over there.”

“Ah, yes, milady…! There we are.” A loud, metal clang rang out from inside the container as the maid set it down. Within were pliers, a hammer, a saw, and a variety of other normal-looking tools. However, all of them were covered in dark red rust.

Shinobu could tell they hadn’t been used to build anything. These were implements for taking people apart.

I figured she wouldn’t be coming around today ’cause of how late it is, but I guess she’s pulling overtime. Lady cares about her job, I’ll give her that. I would’ve preferred she didn’t, but oh well.

However, even in the face of all those cruel utensils, Shinobu didn’t flinch. The girl was no normal high schooler. She was an honest-to-god kunoichi and a member of a proud line that stretched all the way back to the Sengoku period. Shinobu had trained to resist any conceivable form of torture. Such experience had given the girl confidence. Tools of that caliber had no chance of breaking her.

Guess I just gotta grit my teeth and endure it for now, huh.

There seemed no urgency to act until the damage to her body looked like it might impact her ability to break out. As Shinobu settled on her strategy, the two guards opened her cell.

“Hee-hee, want us to get started right away?”

“This is gonna be good.”

However, Jeanne gave them a new order.

“You two, outside.”

“Huh? B-but, Captain, won’t it be dangerous with just you?!”

“I’m a woman, too, you know. Even I have my qualms about letting men leer at a lady in agony.”

“She’s the enemy. You don’t need to show her mercy like that…”

“Don’t mistake this for what it isn’t. I find it objectionable, nothing more. Now leave…before I make you.” With that, Jeanne drew the silvery metal whip from her waist and cracked it by the guards’ feet. The strike drew fractures in the stone brick floor.


“Y-yes, my lady! Please, take your time!”

The guards shrieked and noisily clambered up the stairs leading out of the dungeon. Shinobu grinned sarcastically at Jeanne’s decision.

“I might not look like I’m in much of a position to be saying this, but aren’t you taking this ninja a bit too lightly?”

“Not in the slightest,” the knight replied with a faint smile as she approached Shinobu…

…and unfastened the restraints around her wrists.


Jeanne hadn’t just unlocked one side but both of them. There was nothing binding the young kunoichi -journalist anymore. Topping off this unusual turn of events, Jeanne even knelt before Shinobu and offered her a bow.

“You have my deepest thanks for saving that girl. You do your Yamato brethren proud.”

“…Beg your pardon?”

Wait, what gives? Shinobu was unable to hide her confusion at the thoroughly unexpected conclusion to her imprisonment.

As she gawked—


“Ah, yes, right away, ma’am.”

—the knight ordered Elaine to give Shinobu all her clothes and equipment back from where they’d been concealed, beneath the torture implements.

“It’s winter, so if you stay like that too long, you’ll catch a cold. I believe these belong to you.”

“…Wait, what’s going on right now?” Shinobu asked, still totally baffled.

Jeanne rose and clenched her fist in front of her chest.

“Allow me to introduce myself once more. I am Jeanne du Leblanc, a Silver Knight in service to the empire and to Count Blumheart. I am also a member of the Blue Brigade, an organization that fears for the future of the Gustav domain. You, who traveled far from Yamato to infiltrate this land, and we of the Blue Brigade share a common enemy—the Fastidious Duke, Oslo el Gustav.

“It is said that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend.’ Ninja of Yamato, won’t you lend us your dauntless courage that we might save the suffering people of this land?”

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