The entire matter with Wakoku hadn't played out as expected. It was smooth and without any real complications, but this was logical as Shirou was no longer as inexperienced as he'd once been. Now, everyone was just on their way back to Calla.
The only real issue was the way Akame would constantly glance at him as if worried that if she left him for too long, he'd no longer be the person she knew.
He sighed. The way back was quiet at least. Akame seemed to be lost in her own thoughts, and everyone else appeared content to just listen to the sound of crunching leaves beneath their feet. However, Lubbock was never one to just keep silent if he could help it.
"Y'know, you're kind of terrifying, right?" Lubbock said tiredly. "As an Assassin, you could kill targets from miles away, and you also kill with startling proficiency. Compared to your normal self in Calla, which one's the real you? I mean-"
"Akame, what the hell?!" Lubbock winced from having his back clapped violently. The former merchant's son wasn't as keen for physical training as Bulat so he was quite skinny and didn't have the muscle mass to endure many blows.
"You don't know anything," Akame glowered, leveling Lubbock with a stern glare to shut up and as if the issue wasn't worth anyone's time. For a second, she almost seemed scared.
Feeling like he was stepping on a landmine, Lubbock changed the subject and glanced at their newest tagalong: Raiko. "Why is she coming back with us?" He asked.
"Wakoku needed a liaison," Raiko replied professionally. "I am that liaison. A word of warning though, but Wakoku's leaders must be planning to toss you to the wolves in a figurative sense. They may very well allow Empire and Revolutionary spies to know that Wakoku's clans are unifying under a Blessed Son once more."
It was only going to be a matter of time from there.
"Do you have a plan?" Raiko deferred to Shirou for his judgment. The Empire would be a strong enemy, and if the Revolutionaries decide to join, it would become all the worst.
Shirou only hummed in response. Based on Raiko's tone, neither the Empire or the Revolutionary Army would take this news well. Fortunately, he had a back up plan if things ever turned for the worst. There was one simple method that moved all without the threat of death or violence that both astounded him at its effectiveness, and disillusioned him to the characters of others.
It was a simple commodity and medium of exchange iconic to any world.
Money. Lots of money.
The time for conflict was quickly coming to a head.
It would be another few days before they reach Calla again.
The things we may take for granted may be the difference between life and death for another. Many people are born in different circumstances. Some are born from poor villages with good people and aspire to aid in the village's livelihood, others adapt to the harsh conditions of the slums, begging for food or stealing when able. Then there are those born into a life of luxury and comfort in the Empire innocent only in the ignorance of the malpractices done by their predecessors.
What do all these things have in common? They all rely on a single medium of exchange that determines whether a settlement prospers or goes into ruin. It's called money.
With money, comes food. With money, comes status. With money, comes greed…
Money was and always is a double-edged sword.
Shirou had heard of good people corrupted by the profits they make. The reputation of Merchants themselves within Calla, the Empire, or even Wakoku was scorned by the common man and woman.
Merchants only did trade with those that they deemed 'capable' of trade. This meant noblemen and women of the aristocracy, or prominent military figures. This also meant expecting rich merchants to just enter Calla's streets, a formerly backwater settlement, any time soon was illogical.
In fact, with word spreading that a mass exodus of poor immigrants were travelling to Calla, most Merchants turned the other way. To them, Calla circulated in their networks as a 'town of the poor.' They'd even heard something as silly as feeding people for free. It would only be a matter of time before resources grow scarce. What business prospects could possible exist there?
Another rumour circulated by the Merchants, was that instead of money for labour, a majority of immigrants paid their meals through their crafts or work assigned by the town Lord's advisor.
Much of the rumours about Calla were obscured by a biased derision of the barren hinterlands surrounding the settlement's dense forests. Furthermore, there were no proper roads, only dirt paths still covered with foliage with the chance to encounter wild Danger Beasts.
Like it or not, if Calla was to prosper into something greater for its inhabitants, it would need the help of third-party Merchants to bring in trade and a supply of income. Merchants may be detested by the common populace for scams and refusing to do business, but their contribution to an economy was irreplaceable.
One thing that Shirou understood impeccably, was that he was no merchant. The methods and means to attract them went largely over his head. All that he really knew was that Elaine had asked him to leave it to her. In the meantime, what she advised him to do as a Lord was to focus on his ties with his citizens.
The fact that Shirou had left to Wakoku unannounced and was now coming back with a defeated looking Lubbock and a title of 'Unifier' was something that no one expected.
His reputation was soaring day by day to the point that he couldn't remember the last time he'd been able to relax outside without someone recognizing him. It was only after losing his ordinary lifestyle that he began to miss it. Now, all that was left was responsibility after responsibility.
"I'll be leaving from here," Lubbock said glumly. From the returning group, he was the one who trailed at the back looking mentality exhausted and out of his depth. "Bulat-"
"I know," the Ex-Military Assassin spoke up with a small grin from the middle of the crowd where he stood out as much as Shirou for his tall stature. "Najenda, right? You need me to help smooth things over?"
Lubbock sighed deeply, his soul leaving his body. "I was tasked to oversee this mission, and things have now become a lot more complicated. We left to end conflict, not to potentially start a new national war…"
Shirou inwardly flinched at the comment, but couldn't say anything in his defense. Whenever he planned anything, nothing ever seemed to go right, and now he had even more things to do.
"We'll be off," Bulat said wryly while patting Lubbock on the shoulder good naturedly.
"I'll be taking my leave here too," Raiko spoke up. She'd guided them all the way back from Wakoku and Calla was now within view over the horizon. "It hasn't been long since our conflict, so seeing me around will likely not put your people at ease. I'll be around though. If you need me or if you need to relay a message to the other clan leaders, blow this wooden whistle."
Raiko gifted Shirou with a strange ornamental-type whistle. It almost looked like a miniature flute. "Grant us providence," Raiko made a gesture with her hands and inclined her head, before grunting and vanishing into the trees.
"There goes half the party," Leone whistled, her hands clasped behind her head and elbows pointed forward. She looked more than eager to return to Calla for some rest. Trekking through the wilderness was doable, but it didn't mean that it was always comfortable.
Ahead of Leone were Akame and Selka who walked on either side of Shirou. Akame was absent-minded while Selka kept sneaking glances at Shirou, her mouth opening then closing inaudibly. The girl's straightforward attitude was conflicting with her goals here since Selka wasn't generally very outspoken. In Heiwa, when you wanted something, you'd go for it, but Selka also knew that the customs of other people were different and she was doing her best to be considerate.
Leone would have drawn amusement from the scene especially when it was Akame who noticed Selka's efforts and grimaced, and not Shirou; however, the situation wasn't one to be taken lightly.
"I'll give it a week or two at most to prepare," Leone spoke up softly, her forehead creased in concern. "Empire and Revolutionary Army spies will have sent word of Wakoku's changes by then. From there, it won't be long until they investigate and discover the truth."
Selka hummed in thought, before shrugging. "Why would that matter? Wakoku has no ongoing conflicts with the Empire and its civil war."
Not for the first time, Leone noticed how naïve Selka could be. Just because there were no conflicts now didn't mean that the Empire couldn't fabricate some excuse for war. Neither the Empire or the Revolutionaries would permit the existence of a neighboring power that could threaten their kingdom. Moreover, there was the matter with Shirou's blood ties to the Empire's imperial throne.
Change would occur in this land, and Shirou and his family would be at the center of it.
"Trust me," Leone said solemnly. "The Empire will surely come, and therefore we need to get ready. Shirou, you didn't exactly say anything about a plan yet. I can offer my espionage skills if needed."
Leone was one of Night Raids best informants and information gatherer. At this point, she'd investigated enough Empire nobles in power to know their tendency to suppress threats to their rule and Honest was at the top of the list.
"And Selka, by prepare, I mean we'd need an army," Leone stated her views bluntly. "Night Raid is an Assassin organization that fights in the shadows, but compared to an army in open conflict, we'd be crushed- even you Akame. You should remember your last attempt to fight a group on your own."
Akame pursed her lips at the reminder, and chose not to reply.
Someone else did instead.
"My thoughts exactly, and I've started on recruitment."
Shirou stiffened, a shudder going down his back as Elaine came within view guarded by her brothers who were acting as escort in the distance. Each of Elaine's brothers were handsome but were large bodied and had biceps the size of Leone's head. Compared to Elaine, the Buckerfield family genetics was skewed.
They each nodded once at Shirou and said nothing else in fear of drawing Elaine's temper. She was mild mannered at most occasions, but when she snapped or grew frustrated, the Buckerfield family women become monsters. To say that Elaine wasn't frustrated that Shirou did something on his own again without consulting her or asking for help was an understatement.
"Hello Shirou," Elaine pushed up her glasses, a glint of steel reflecting off their surface. "Odd meeting you here especially since I don't recall you telling me that you were going anywhere with Assassins and a naively innocent Huntress for company."
Elaine glanced to Leone, Selka, and Akame with a raised brow. Leone whistled to the side, Akame didn't care, and Selka grumbled at her description.
"Funny story that," Shirou scratched the back of his head wryly, a droplet of sweat trickling down his brows. "How should I explain this?"
Elaine pinched the bridge of her nose and shook her head. "You don't have to. Our spies in Wakoku have already summarized the gist of things and I simply waited here until you came by."
Shirou blinked in honest confusion. "We had spies in Wakoku?"
"There's still a lot you need to know about your family, but you suddenly left while I was gathering the old generals to explain the situation." Elaine shook her head. What was past was past, and right now Leone was right about needing an army. With the amount of new blood entering Calla day after day, there shouldn't be a lack of personnel. All that was left was instilling a sense of comradery and respect for Calla and its Lord.
Elaine stared Shirou right in the face.
"I'll help explain everything later, but right now, I have a task for you."
There goes any chance he had at resting.
No matter the size of an army or how efficient its organization, nothing matters if there is no loyalty or devotion. Therefore, there has to be a beginning for everything.
With the amount of people entering Calla day by day, some were impoverished while others maintained good enough health to seek out work like they'd intended from the start.
One of these people was named Tatsumi. Initially, he and two other friends were to look for work in the Empire to garner funds for their village, but due to a delay on Tatsumi's part, they'd ended up going to Calla. Word had spread even to Tatsumi's village about a better place to seek opportunity than the Empire's capital.
Due to Tatsumi's delay, his friends, Sayo and Ieyasu decided to wait since Calla was closer to travel to than the Empire's capital. The three of them had set off, met difficulties, and here they were now.
Tatsumi felt as if everything was just so surreal ever since arriving in Calla. Everyday he saw new faces from people of different lands all milling about for the same purpose of finding meaning in their lives.
"I really still can't get used to this," Ieyasu said while chewing absently on a piece of dried meat jerky. "My stomach has never felt so full, I'm not constantly exhausted, and now there's even work to do that doesn't seem very dangerous."
"Shut up and eat. If you have time to marvel than you have time to stuff your face," Sayo said from between mouthfuls of a type of flavoured bread found in Calla. They had all sorts of unique flavours and cuisine here that she'd never seen or heard of before. The bread she was scarfing down was called 'melon bread' by the locals. "The elder said to never waste an opportunity to eat because you never know when the next meal comes."
Tatsumi chose not to comment on the fact that Sayo was carrying a bag full of assorted bread and dried fruit. She was already on her fourth piece and she was showing no signs of stopping. Whatever reason she used to justify herself, he knew well enough that she was a sweet tooth, and sweet things were rare in the village. She must be feeling like she'd found her own personal heaven, and the thing was, food was free for able-bodied men and women so long as they offered their services in labour.
Tatsumi smiled wistfully. 'Labour' was a loose term at the moment as carrying wood and hammering planks was child's play for him, Ieyasu, and Sayo who could combat against Danger Beasts. The food in Calla was basically free for them, and now, there was talk of actual payment that they could use to help their struggling village. That, or stockpile food and haul it back.
"Guys, focus," Tatsumi reminded his friends who began bickering the moment Ieyasu commented that Sayo could get fat if she stayed here.
Presently, they'd been promised a stable income by participating in an excursion to drive out the Danger Beasts surrounding land by a river basin. The more immigrants came to Calla, the greater the need to expand and acquire resources. This was one such mission and the travelling group numbered almost two-hundred.
Unlike Tatsumi, Ieyasu, and Sayo, most ordinary people can't face Danger Beasts on their own, therefore they find safety in numbers. Still, none of the ordinary people in the group were panicking, and Ieyasu was one of them.
Known to only a few, but there was speculated to be a rare-earth metal deposit near the mouth of a nearby delta at the mission location. Such news would surely attract Merchants no matter how backwater they thought a settlement was which meant that the area had to be secured.
"Focus? We'll be fine," Ieyasu grinned leisurely while pointing a finger forward. "Did you not hear? We're going with those Heiwa Hunter people. I saw one of them punch a tree down to make a bridge over a creak. If I were to do that, I'd need a couple swings with my sword. We're getting paid, and we're in good hands. What's there to worry about?"
"The fact that a freeloader came from our village," Sayo quipped. "We pull our weight and prove ourselves to get as much support for our village, right Tatsumi?"
"Of course," Tatsumi had been feeling somewhat indebted to the people in Calla so the least he felt like he could do was perform at his best.
"See that, Ieyasu? You should learn some humility from Tatsumi."
"And you should stop eating so many sweet buns before you're hips expand."
Sayo paused in her chewing, discreetly pinching her sides and hardly feeling any flab. She'd be fine. "You're just jealous I got them all before you and won't share. Here Tatsumi, you can have one."
Ieyasu swallowed as his eyes trailed the sweet bun Sayo had given, making Tatsumi feel bad for his friend. Knowing Sayo, she would have shared with the both of them but now it seems like Ieyasu wouldn't be getting any.
Just as Tatsumi debated splitting the sweet bun in half for Ieyasu, a kind looking young man tapped his shoulder.
The man was rather small in stature with a small build, blond hair that framed his face, and golden eyes. He had a cat-like appearance with slitted pupils, sharp fangs, and swept bob-cut hairstyle.
"Excuse me," the man said politely after getting Tatsumi, Sayo, and Ieyasu's attention. "I'm fairly new to town and aren't quite sure about a lot of things. Can I stick next to you guys? You all seem to have been here for much longer."
Tatsumi, Ieyasu, and Sayo thought nothing much of the request. There were several other people that the man could ask for help, but it wasn't as if they going to run him away just because the man was the closest to them.
"Did you just immigrate, here?" Sayo asked kindly.
"Yes," the man nodded. "My name's Nyau and I came with the most recent group from a destitute village south of the Empire's capital. I came to check if all the rumours about this place were true before reporting back my findings to my friends and seeing what we'll do from there."
Sayo nodded at the explanation. After all, it was similar to them. Initially, they'd come to just check out Calla based on the rumours, but have now decided that it's a better place to earn a living. Ieyasu would be returning to the village soon to bring back the news and hopefully bring along more people to reduce the burden the village elder had in providing food to everyone.
"Then why are you here?" Ieyasu asked curiously, taking a bite out of his jerky and relishing in the flavour of meat. "You should have stayed in Calla to see around first if you're new. That's what most people do anyway."
"That's uhm," the man scratched at the back of his head. "I sort of saw you all walking out of the town near the entrance point and thought that I was supposed to follow. Was I not supposed to?"
Tatsumi, Ieyasu, and Sayo perked up, coming to the conclusion that Nyau had simply made an error in judgement.
"Well, since you're already here, you should stick close to us. We'll watch out for you in the case of danger," Tatsumi offered while stretching out a hand.
Nyau smiled, reaching out to reciprocate Tatsumi's gesture. "Then I'll be in your care."
The group fell into a comfortable pace and idly talked about their own experiences and travels. Tatsumi spoke about his training, while Ieyasu and Sayo spoke fondly of their village life. Of course, Nyau was the most curious about Calla much like everyone else had been when they'd first arrived.
"Make way!" A half-naked man wearing a fur wolf pelt around his waist called out before punching down a tree in a show of sheer strength before picking it up and hoisting it over his shoulder. This action was mirrored by about a dozen more of them and by a slender athletic looking girl who carried the large trees just as easily as the others. Said trees were used to create a wide bridge for everyone to cross a river delta.
"Heiwa?" Nyau muttered in recognition, before his mouth dried when he noticed another group of people stealthy following the convoy up in the trees almost entirely out of view. Their distinct netted clothing and loose garments denoted the people of only one clan. "Jinsoku?"
"Hmm, I didn't notice those guys." Sayo sighed. "Looks like its going to be even more difficult to stand out and earn attention."
"Why are people of Wakoku in this village in the middle of nowhere?" Nyau asked, palms growing clammy. Tatsumi, Ieyasu, and Sayo all tilted their heads in response. Right. Country people. "Forget it. I was just talking to myself from something I read in a boo-"
Nyau's eyes abruptly widened when he noticed the sole female Heiwa Hunter's daggers suddenly light up in flames before she scaled a small rock cliff face. The super heated daggers melted through the rock like butter before cooling and forming grips for the lithe Hunter to hoist herself up from. A moment later, and Nyau felt as if his understanding of common sense was wrong when each Hunter of Heiwa produced similar feats with different weapons. Some had wind properties; others earth, or elemental. Each seemed unique and carried their own effects far beyond any normal weapon of steel.
"I still get jealous every time I see them," Ieyasu grumbled enviously from the side. "I heard if you qualify to become a Hunter, they gift you one of those weapons from a stockpile."
"S-Stockpile?" Nyau looked utterly bewildered. "Shouldn't such Teig-weapons be rare? I've never even seen or heard of those types."
"I'm sorry, but we wouldn't know," Tatsumi rubbed his nose with his thumb. "All that matters is that every Hunter will certainly get one which is why we all applied since being a Hunter doesn't mean we'll be restricted to Calla."
"!" Nyau shut his mouth and started brooding, prompting Tatsumi to shrug at Ieyasu and Sayo, not knowing if he'd said anything wrong.
There were only a set number of Teigu in existence, and most were accounted for…aside from the lost ones. Lost Teigu, or perhaps inferior Teigu made in Wakoku? More to think about.
Composing himself, Nyau asked one final question before the group reached the mission area while escorted by the Hunters of Heiwa. "Say, is it true what they're saying?" He whispered.
"Who's they? And what are they saying?" Tatsumi asked, more than willing to answer. Nyau had the same look on his face as every new resident in Calla: namely disbelief. If by answering, he could assuage whatever was on Nyau's mind, then what was the problem?
Nyau cleared his throat and coughed into his hand, a solemn air surrounding him. "I heard in the crowd that the Lord of Calla's supposed to make an appearance?"
"Oh, Shirou? He's coming? All the more reason to work had Ieyasu. Don't you dare slack off!" Sayo beamed at the news while smiling fondly. "He's a good lord. A lot of people see him in town from time to time doing his best to help others even though his status is far above our own. Knowing Shirou, it's probably true that he'd come just because he looks the type to worry needlessly."
The impression Sayo, Ieyasu, and Tatsumi had of Shirou were based on the few times they'd seen Shirou at the market place. "Is there anything else you'd like to know?" Sayo offered kindly.
"No no, just being able to come along to see the famed Lord of Calla is more than enough for me," Nyau said sheepishly, content that the information he'd heard was affirmed. However, he still felt overwhelmed with what he'd already seen.
At this point, there was only one thought in Nyau's mind as he fixated on the word 'stockpile' and his discovery of Wakoku's clans in Empire territory:
Calla…Calla was formidable.
Thanks for reading! I had a headache today so I decided to end it here and sleep to feel better in the morning.
Thanks to my newest patrons: Sandi Z, Morrom, and Jason T!
Next update: Huntsman V2
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