The next day, the air was slightly moist and chilly.
Having finally reached the road that led to Subaru-hime’s castle, the group was nearly at the cliff-side castle located beside a waterfall.
The stone-paved road was still well-maintained despite the many years it had weathered. There were piles of vivid-colored leaves lying along the roadside, but the road still gave off the impression that it had been swept only a few days ago.
On closer inspection, the stones bore traces of wheel tracks, vestiges of the horse-drawn carriages that had once passed through here. But there was no longer any sign of carriages in this land now.
It’s already been a year… since our last visit to the Witch’s Valley.
Upon reflection, this road was filled with scary memories for Homura, as she could still vividly recall how it felt when she had desperately run from the terrifying witch-like Subaru-hime and faced off against the pack of wolves.
—Suddenly, a group of animals appeared from behind a low ridge ahead.
“Ah.” Saho was the first one to notice them and speak up.
Nanakubo followed his gaze and stiffened.
“What’re those? Dogs? Wolves? They’re huge!”
“Those are the native wolves Subaru-hime breeds and rears at the castle, right?” said Hayase, as he slowly pulled back his hand which had reflexively moved to his bow.
Homura turned around in front of the others and wagged her finger fussily.
“No, no. They aren’t reared animals, but rather Subaru-hime’s precious family,” she said pointedly. “Besides, their leader Yukiwarimaru is much bigger. Don’t let yourselves get shocked by just this.”
“Why are you acting so smug and superior?” retorted Nanakubo. “Haah. So they’re basically familiars. I was really nervous for a second there.”
Homura nodded and then called out to the wolves.
“Hey, is one of you Kirimaru? Or Kosuke!? We came back to visit!”
The rest of the group gulped in silence.
The wolves reacted to Homura’s voice.
Two of the wolves immediately ran forward while wagging their tails happily.
Several more wolves appeared from the trees that had stood along the roadside for centuries.
Homura was happy and excited that they reacted as she’d expected.
“See, they remember me!”
—But as Homura held out her hands in greeting with a beaming smile, the wolves ignored her and instead jumped at Misasagi-senpai.
They stood up on their hind legs and draped themselves over Misasagi.
They were so attached to Misasagi that it was hard to believe that it had been a year since they last met her.
“—It’s good to see you again.”
Though surprised at first, Misasagi happily patted the heads of the wolves.
“…Huh…?” Homura tilted her head in confusion.
“I don’t think these two are Kirimaru and Kosuke,” remarked Saho from the side.
“You can tell, Akiho-kun?”
“Of course. There there, there there!”
Saho put down his bags and hugged one of the wolves that approached him out of curiosity. The wolf showed no signs of displeasure and actually seemed to enjoy being hugged by Saho despite meeting him for the first time.
“There, there. This one is Juuzou. That one is Kamanosuke. And that one there is Kosuke… That one’s Seikai! And you’re Rokurou!”
The path was now filled with giant wolves.
“Amazing, Saho,” said Touya, impressed. “This is your first time meeting them, right? You remembered each and every one of their names just from the photos and reports we brought back?”
Meanwhile, Homura was glaring at Saho with narrowed eyes.
“I see, Akiho-kun. Your real objective wasn’t Subaru-hime, but these guys…”
Homura grabbed the nearby Kosuke (probably) and squatted down to protest to the wolf from the same eye level.
“Hey~, you guys still hold a grudge against me, don’t you!? Because I sprayed you with tons of tear gas, right!? Right?”
Kosuke (probably) lowered his nose with a troubled expression and shrank away from Homura.
As Homura was filled with lonely disappointment, she heard a shout from behind her.
“H-Homura-san, s-save me!”
“What’s wrong, Ame-chan? Wait, what’s that cub—? Hyaaaah~”
Hearing Ameno’s weak cry for help, Homura turned around and then came to a complete stand still with her hands over her chest.
A pure-white wolf stood at Ameno’s feet. It was still just a little cub.
Its small fangs were biting Ameno’s shoe as it growled and refused to let go.
“Hyaaaah, what’s this fluffy creature~? I-It’s so cute it pains my heart.”
“Are you trying to eat me!? I’m sorry, please don’t eat meeeee! I have low nutritional value!”
Since Homura wasn’t making any move due to cuteness overload, help eventually came from beside her.
“Wow, this little guy’s so cute! Here we go.”
Kamikoma-senpai let out a cry of joy upon seeing the cub.
She picked up the cub with experienced hands, finally freeing Ameno from the small fangs.
Though the cub was docile towards Kamikoma as she held it, it still continued to glare and growl at Ameno.
Homura had no idea what was making it so on guard, but she unconsciously sympathized with Ameno.
While happily looking over the cub, Kamikoma made a pose with it in her arms!
“A Wolf-chan Taking Along Its Child1!”
“No, no, it’s the opposite in this situation,” interjected Touya as a stalwart fan of period dramas.
“Normally, it’d be unwise to do this kind of casual skinship with Nutellan animals, but… it’s okay in this situation, right? It’s only half-wild—oh, it’s a boy—and we’ll be staying at the castle anyway.”
While making such excuses to herself, Kamikoma rubbed her cheek against the wolf.
“L-Let me hug him too.”
Homura ominously approached.
Touya and Misasagi also walked over to Kamikoma and the cub in her arms with great interest.
“This is a new face. Since his fur is pure white, could he be…?”
“Erika-san’s—Suzuran’s little brother.”
Touya and Misasagi exchanged looks.
Upon closer inspection, there was a familiar grey spot on the cub’s brow.
Eventually, Misasagi-senpai took the lead and the Exploration Club members departed for the castle accompanied by the wolves on either side.
The white cub kept chasing after Ameno while weaving between their feet.
The others laughed at Ameno’s cries as she ran away from it, but Nanakubo murmured quietly as she watched the restless cub.
“…Yeah… Genshiko2 isn’t around anymore…”
After leaving the forest, they arrived at a wide open valley.
There was a rest spot located near the castle.
There, a golden-haired witch wearing silk clothes greeted the Exploration Club members from where she sat at an outdoor table with her face turned to the side.
Upon seeing her off in the distance, Homura called out to her and waved her hand.
Homura had finally grown accustomed to that fantasy appearance of a blond-haired, blue-eyed woman in a Japanese kimono.
…However, there was something off about her right now.
The witch princess merely watched them from her chair without moving until they reached where she was.
Homura faltered, worried that she might be unwell.
Subaru-hime faintly opened her eyes and gazed at them with harsh suspicion.
She looked over them all and then spoke placidly.
“Ye seem to have quite a lot of baggage. Who are ye? Traveling artisans? On what business have ye come to visit this castle?”
H-Has she forgotten us…!?
Homura wasn’t the only one struck by bewilderment.
Nanakubo and the others who were visiting this place for the first time looked at Misasagi pleadingly.
Misasagi tilted her head slightly in puzzlement and carefully gazed over Subaru.
At that point, most likely by unconscious reflex, Touya’s hand went to the sword on his hip.
Noticing that, Homura restrained his arm.
“Y…Yeah, I know.”
—After a few short seconds where Homura kept her hand on Touya’s arm, Subaru-hime’s expression relaxed into a smile.
“—A mere jest. Welcome back.”
Everyone breathed out in relief at once upon hearing that.
Homura reflexively slapped Touya lightly on the back. Touya smiled wryly.
“Wasn’t that a bit too mean-spirited?” chided Misasagi.
“Ye have not shown yeselves hither for a long time since then, so I wast sulking a little.”
Without showing much shame for her joke, Subaru rose from her chair.
Her wooden clog clattered against the ground and her long hair fluttered in the wind.
Subaru looked them over once more.
“I see lots of new faces among ye. I am Princess Iotsumisumaru, the lord of this castle. Mine name is quite long, so ye may call me Subaru.”
After exchanging glances with Misasagi, Kamikoma stepped forward and greeted Subaru-hime.
The sight of Kamikoma’s dignified demeanor made the other club members naturally straighten their backs as well.
“We apologize for not contacting you in so long, Subaru-hime. I am Kamikoma Sachi, a 2nd rank investigator sent from Earth by the Japanese division of the UNPIEP. I have been entrusted with leading this investigative team. We consist of eleven members from Seiran High, Hiyoshizaka High and Nagumo High. Starting today, we’ll be staying here in your castle for the next seven days. Though we might cause trouble for you, please look after us.”
“““—Please look after us!”””
Following Kamikoma’s lead, everyone bowed their heads and greeted Subaru-hime at once, their voices echoing through the valley.
Homura bowed her head along with the others.
Subaru nodded at them in satisfaction.
“Umu. There is no need to brace yeselves so much. Please enjoy ye stay hither as if t’wast a noble inn.”
While they exchanged words, the wolves were quietly sitting slightly off to the side.
Only the cub came restlessly sprinting over to them, catching Subaru’s attention.
“Hey now, do not be so rude, Hatsuyuki.”
The cub barked shrilly in response and ran over to Subaru.
Subaru picked him up into her arms and spoke gently to Homura and the others.
“Then, shall we be off? First, ye should put down thy luggage and relax yeselves in the castle. Please leave any tools ye need in the construction of thy base camp in the castle’s stables where tis easy to come and go.”
Picking back up the luggage they had put down while exchanging greetings, the Exploration Club members followed after Subaru.
The castle watchtower, which was erected as if hugging the jutting cliff, immediately came into view once they climbed over a gently-slopping hill.
However, Homura’s attention was fixed on the cub hugged to Subaru’s chest.
“Umm, umm, Subaru-san. Sorry for asking right after our reunion, but is that cub Yukiwarimaru’s…?”
“Hmm? —Ah, I see. This is thy first time meeting this little one, Homura.”
Subaru looked down at the cub in her arms.
“Indeed, this one is Yukiwarimaru’s child. The father is likely Koroku. I plan to eventually name this child Yukiwarimaru as well once he hath matured. Until then, his childhood name shall be Hatsuyuki.”
“Hatsuyuki-chan—Haa~, his name’s cute too.”
Homura smiled in innocent joy.
“So, where’s his mother Yukiwarimaru? I haven’t seen any sign of her so far.”
“This little one is not her only child. She is caring for her other children within the castle at the moment. However, this child immediately dashed out to join the rest of the pack despite still being too young to hunt,” explained Subaru with a troubled expression. “Hmm. Mine hands are occupied with this little one. Could one of ye carry that basket?”
“This? Wow, this is pretty heavy. Hey, Akiho, help me with this thing,” said Hayase as he picked up the basket next to the table.
“What’s that?” asked Homura.
“Harvest from the mountain. I went mushroom-gathering within the mountain this morning. I figured that ye would be arriving soon and would be feeling quite hungry upon thy arrival.”
The basket was filled with heaps of mushrooms whose color varied between tawny brown, white and bright yellow.
“Thank you for all the consideration you’ve shown us.”
Next to Homura, Misasagi-senpai bowed her head in gratitude to Subaru, who smiled broadly.
“I may have picked a bit too much.”
“It’s fine, we can just boil them all together in a cauldron… just like a witch, haha,” said Homura.
“A cauldron? It would be better to fry the mushrooms than boil them. They are quite tasty when cooked with rice. Do thee like rice, Homura?”
“I love mushrooms with rice!” affirmed Homura with a vigorous nod. However…
“What tis the matter, Hatsuyuki?”
A shadow suddenly passed over Subaru’s gentle expression.
“Wait… this presence is…”
Subaru turned back to look at the others, who had just started to follow after her.
Subaru directed a sharp, searching gaze at Ameno.
“—What are thee? Thee are not human. Are thee a ‘puppet’!?”
Though starlted by Subaru’s intense questioning, Ameno replied.
“You’re talking… about me, right? I’m a robot. My name is Fujimori Ameno. Nice to meet you, Subaru-san. Just as you say, I’m not human.”
Ameno politely bowed in greeting.
Subaru turned her questioning gaze to Misasagi next.
To make matters worse, Hatsuyuki jumped down from Subaru’s arms and stood in front of her with a growl, as if to face off against Ameno.
After reassuring the confused Ameno through eye contact, Misasagi explained the nature of a robot in simple terms.
“—So she is a mechanical doll, in other words. And one given life, at that? Is Earth filled with such things?”
Subaru was clearly shocked by the information.
Misasagi was about to correct Subaru’s hasty conclusions, but Kanae spoke up first from the side.
“—Including Ameno, there are still only three robots that are recognized to have self-awareness. All of them possess spirit stones from Nutella within their cores.”
“Hey, Kanae, don’t just spout off classified information like that—” frantically shouted Nanakubo.
But even after hearing that, Subaru’s wariness didn’t fade.
“I cannot allow any mechanical doll that moves without human commands into my castle. There is a detached dwelling for puppets beside the orchard. This one may stay there.”
“Eh… wait, Subaru-hime?” said Nanakubo worriedly.
“Very well. I’ll follow your directions, of course,” said Ameno with an obedient nod.
“No way, Ame-chan…!”
“Don’t worry, I have no problem with it, Homura-san,” Ameno crisply replied.
Misasagi, who had been silently listening until then, chose that moment to speak up.
“By detached dwelling… you mean the farming tool shed we saw on the way here, correct? In that case, I will stay there as well. I can take care of my meals and bedding myself, so it won’t be a bother for me.”
“Eh, president? Why?” asked Ameno in surprise.
Homura and Subaru-hime were startled as well, guessing Misasagi’s intentions.
“…Mayo. What tis the meaning of this?”
Subaru knit her brow in clear confusion at Misasagi’s firm attitude.
“Then I’ll do the same,” said Touya as he went to stand next to Ameno as well.
“—You too, Takumi-san?”
Finally realizing that the situation was getting complicated and that she herself was the reason for it, Ameno’s expression gradually turned pained.
And, following the flow of events, the eyes of the other Exploration Club members turned to Homura, the last member of the Seiran High club.
Though fearful of the unsettling mood, Homura roused herself to action by telling herself that this level of trouble would be resolved quickly.
“E-Err… Then I’ll stay at the detached dwelling too… Kuh… My mushroom meal…”
Homura walked over to Misasagi and the others while clearly conveying her lingering regrets over her choice.
Unexpectedly, Nanakubo was the one who panicked at this turn of events.
“Hey, hey, hey, Seiran club president. This is bad. You gotta back down here.”
That whispered warning didn’t seem to reach Misasagi’s ears, however.
Subaru spoke in a firm tone.
“Listen, Mayo—If thee are a Misasagi, thee should understand. A young lady of your status should not lodge with a puppet.”
Even so, Misasagi didn’t back down.
“This has nothing to do with the Misasagi family. Ameno-san is a precious fellow club member to me. Our relationship is much closer than that between lord and retainer you’re thinking of, Subaru-hime-sama. If you won’t allow Ameno-san into the castle, then naturally I will follow her.”
“I cannot allow that. Please do not trouble me like this.”
Subaru’s bewilderment increased in the face of her family descendant’s obstinacy.
“Hmm… So we’re faced with culture clash right from the get go, huh…?” groaned Kamikoma with folded arms.
Nanakubo walked over and whispered into her ear.
“Hey, Koma-san. This is really bad. Without Misasagi Mayo, our negotiations are going to suffer badly.”
“…Even if you say that, when Mayo gets like that, she never backs down…”
Nanakubo was flustered by Kamikoma’s swift resignation.
Subaru turned to face the other club members.
“Are there none among ye who can convince Mayo? Or are ye all of the same mind?”
Everyone seemed to have their own thoughts on the matter, but they all awaited the decision of this expedition’s leader, Kamikoma.
Kamikoma tried to change Misasagi’s mind in a laidback manner.
“Mayo, it’s like they say, ‘When in Rome’. Besides, Ameno isn’t the kind of girl to hold a grudge, right?”
“…Would you be able to say that if Taga-kun was treated the same way?”
Perhaps having expected that immediate rebuttal, Kamikoma merely scratched her head in exasperation.
Finally turning a bit serious, Kamikoma was about to speak up again, when—
Homura timidly raised her hand.
“Err… Subaru-hime, you let Yukiwarimaru into the castle, right?”
“Then how about you just treat Ameno-chan as Misasagi-senpai’s pet…?”
Subaru and even the other Exploration Club members wore puzzled expressions at Homura’s suggestion.
“Yes. Umm, on Earth we refer to pets as ‘part of the family’. I’ve never raised a pet myself, but, ah, wasn’t there some lord who really loved dogs?”
Homura turned expectantly to Touya, who reluctantly gave her a hand.
“The Dog Shogun—Tokugawa Tsunayoshi. It’s true that he raised dogs within his castle.”
“Right, right, that shogun. As expected of Touya-kun! In other words… If Ameno-chan’s a pet, doesn’t she get the okay to enter the castle?”
Homura peeked at the castle’s master with a tilt of her head.
Astonishment still clear on her face, Subaru spoke.
“I swore that I would lend ye mine aid. Tis an oath I swore to my departed father. I would never forget it… Does that ‘robot’ eat and drink? —No? Then she really is just like a puppet.”
After some thought, Subaru stared at Misasagi’s unwavering eyes finally sighed.
“Very well. If ye all are so insistent, ye may let the ‘robot’ stay in the stables with your luggage. Unlike the detached dwelling, there is not any chilling wind there. Tis easy to climb the stairs up to the castle watchtower from there as well. That should be satisfactory enough.”
Pausing for a moment, Subaru then spoke emphatically.
“However, keep this in mind—make sure the ‘robot’ stays away from Yukiwarimaru.”
“From Yukiwarimaru…?” asked Misasagi.
“Yes. Yukiwarimaru is wise, but she is now a mother as well. She might forget her proper judgement before her cubs. If that happens, t’wont end with mere play-biting. I will make sure to stop Yukiwarimaru from approaching the stables and that ‘robot’ as well.”
Subaru turned her heels to resume heading to the castle, but she sent a last side glance at Misasagi.
“Understood, Mayo? This matter is settled.”
“Yes. Thank you very much.”
Misasagi bowed deeply at Subaru’s back.
“…Accompany me with Kamikoma-dono. I will guide ye through the castle ahead of the others. The two of ye may discuss how to assign bedrooms to the others.”
“Yes. Let’s go, Koma-chan.”
“Roger that. Ah, I felt my lifespan shorten just now.”
Upon hearing Kamikoma’s grumbling, Misasagi’s attitude completely changed as her head drooped.
“I keep telling you not to call me Koma-chan.”
—As the two club presidents went off with the witch on that note, the remaining club members all breathed sighs of relief.
Homura nestled up to Ameno to cheer the robot girl up.
“I don’t know what the stables are like, but at least we’ll be staying in the castle together. Isn’t that great, Ame-chan?”
“Yes. Sorry for causing all this trouble…”
Touya, who had begun to lead everyone to the stables, turned to look back at Ameno.
“There’s no need for you to apologize, Ameno. Having you alone excluded like that is just too unreasonable. And what was with that warning about Yukiwarimaru?”
“It’s fine, Takumi-san. I don’t mind what Subaru-san said. It’s true that robots and humans are fundamentally different, so it’s only natural.”
“But… don’t you always get mad at Mori-chan about comments like that? Like when she said we should put you in the car trunk as a joke.”
“Ah, now that you mention it,” said Ameno with raised eyebrows.
However, she then drew her hands to her chest and continued speaking.
“But now, I’ve been acknowledge as a full-fledged member of the Exploration Club, so I don’t wish for anything more. This is completely different from jokes made on Earth. If it’s for the exploration efforts of the club, I will do anything I can,” said Ameno proudly. However, her gaze was drawn to the little cub chasing after the hem of Subaru’s kimono with his little paws. “…Still, being hated by Hatsuyuki-san… does make me feel a bit lonely…”
“Uuu, you really are a brave and splendid kid.”
Homura soothingly patted Ameno’s head, while Touya watched in exasperation.
“You’re no replacement for Hatsuyuki, Hinooka. And you just called her a pet, remember? That’s plenty rude as well. Apologize to Ameno.”
“Yes, I’m sorry. You can hug me in place of Hatsuyuki, you know? Go right ahead.”
“Then I’ll oblige. Ahahaha. Still, I wonder what kind of animal Homura-san would be best compared to?”
“…Since she sleeps all the time for no particular reason, how about a sloth?”
Even while chatting with Ameno and Touya and noisily complaining, Homura sensed a silent gaze directed at them from behind her back.
When she turned around to look, she spotted the source of the gaze.
…Again… right, Kanae-san?
A sharp, challenging light hidden within the depths of sleepy half-lidded eyes.
It was definitely coming from Kanae Yuri.
Shortly after, a small group gathered at a table along the terrace of the castle watchtower.
The lord of the castle, Subaru-hime, sat at the head of the table, accompanied by Kamikoma, Misasagi and Nanakubo.
The sunlight here was nice and warm, but the wind blowing from the elevated marshy grasslands beyond the cliff was already as cold as winter.
Now then, at the moment, Nanakubo was feeling bored out of her mind.
The blond-haired half-Japanese woman in the kimono was leaning forward and proudly recommending pickled vegetables and tea cakes to the rest of them, so, despite thinking to herself that the woman was acting just like an old granny, Nanakubo patiently listened along with the other two girls.
Occasionally, they could hear angry shouts from Saho Akiho and Homura down below.
When words like “Granny, granny, ero-granny” echoed loudly through the valley, Kamikoma glared sharply at the pickled vegetables and stabbed them with toothpicks, her gaze promising severe scolding later. The guys down below shouldn’t have the time to be playing around anyway.
However, Nanakubo simply shrugged off by the carefree attitude of the younger club members, figuring that they were still high schoolers at the end of the day and were acting like they were on a school trip, a mindset which actually relieved her compared to the alternative.
—She returned her attention to the conversation at hand.
“Before we look at the construction plan for the base camp, there are some things I would like to give you.”
Kamikoma opened the discussion in a formal tone.
“First, this is a handwritten letter from Misasagi Yoshihiro as a representative of modern Japan. As you know, he is a descendent of your uncle and Mayo’s father. Councillor Yoshihiro has served in important offices consecutively within the Japanese government for many years now. His knowledge of Nutella is especially deep among current politicians, and he is greatly trusted by the prime minister who governs our country as well. Please accept it.”
Kamikoma respectfully handed over a folded letter, written on traditional Japanese paper using an ink brush, and Subaru graciously accepted it.
On the back of the weighty letter was a wax seal. Subaru nodded with an impressed expression.
—When Subaru asked, “What is the exact nature of Yoshihiro-dono’s work within the government?”, Misasagi vaguely replied, “His post is similar to that of the Shogun’s Council of Elders or their assistant officials in the Tokugawa shogunate.” Describing the full details would likely take some time, so she left it at that for now.
Next, Misasagi took out another letter.
“This is a letter of greeting from the advisor of our Exploration Club—Fujimori Chiayu, an exploration director. This contains an official correspondence from UNPIEP… think of it as a diplomatic document. It touches upon the details of our plans to construct a base camp here as well. Fujimori sends her sincere regards.”
“Hmm, I have indeed received it. If there are any words I do not understand, I shall ask for thy aid.”
Fujimori’s handwritten letter was no less thick than that of Councillor Misasagi.
Misasagi then took out yet another letter.
“And this is—”
“There is more?”
“Yes,” said Misasagi with a grin. “This letter is from Suzuran. Please take it.”
Misasagi held out a run-of-the-mill letter patterned with a girlish design, completely different from the other stiff and formal letters.
It was addressed “To Subaru-sama” in calligraphy pen on the front.
“Her writing is unpolished as usual.”
Subaru smiled wryly as she stared at the letter’s handwriting.
“Suzuran-chan’s writing is quite fast and skillful compared to other kids her age, you know,” said Misasagi.
Subaru’s expression brightened upon hearing that.
“I-Is that so? —Ahem. She calls herself Ono Erika now, correct? Knowing that wild girl, she is probably causing trouble for her mother and others around her. Still…”
Subaru wore a gentle yet somewhat sad smile.
“…Is she in good health?”
“Yes. She’s the picture of health and vigor. Suzuran-chan also told me some things she wanted me to pass on to you. I’ll tell you when we have time later. And give you some photos as well.”
“I am just glad to hear that she is healthy. I shall look over these letters later. Thy time here is limited, correct? We must not keep thy attendants waiting. Let us work out the details of the ‘base camp’.”
Though she said that, Subaru was clearly itching to read the pile of letters, which made Nanakubo and the others feel somewhat apologetic for the trouble.
The first items of their meeting were—
-Which of the proposed sites near the castle would be suitable for the base camp?
-How many building materials would they be able to procure on site?
-How should they divvy up food duties during their stay here?
They carefully discussed these issues one by one.
Subaru listened attentively and showed surprisingly quick understanding on the issues in question, and even when words and concepts that didn’t exist in the Edo period were brought up, she managed to immediately get the gist of them once they were explained to her.
Nanakubo couldn’t yet discern whether her flexible comprehension ability was a special trait of Nutellans or a personal skill of Subaru herself.
While Nanakubo was distracted by such thoughts during the meeting—
“Incidentally, does Nanakubo-dono come from Kamigata3?”
“—Huh? Kamigata? Ah, yeah. Kansai is the Ebisu of Naniwa4.”
“So I was right. Fufu. I have quite the discerning eye, do I not?” said Subaru proudly.
“Haah. Subaru-hime, did you come here on an oxcart from the palace on the Moon?” retorted Nanakubo sarcastically.
“Indeed. I basked in so much moonlight that my black hair turned completely gold.”
Nanakubo was taken aback by the princess’ occasionally odd behavior since she could never tell whether the woman was joking or just being a natural airhead, but the Osakan girl didn’t let it shake her and kept her inner thoughts cool and calm.
The results that Nanakubo was personally trying to bring back from this mission weren’t something small.
In fact, the construction of the base camp was merely a supplement to her true mission.
While remaining conscious of the important duty that Representative Tenryuu and Vice-President Oozore had entrusted to her, she vigilantly waited for the right opportunity.
The next morning.
After spending the night at the castle, the eleven Exploration Club members had a brief breakfast and then gathered in a plaza near the castle as a thin fog hung in the air.
This was a meeting to explain their work plans for the next week.
Kamikoma and Misasagi had stayed up late last night to come up with this plan.
Both of them had previous experience constructing base camps and they had Subaru’s support this time, so that made things much easier. Based on the yawns Momoyama was letting out, it seemed he had helped with making the plan as well.
—The site to construct the base camp was pretty much decided now.
They had selected a deserted building on the other side of an irrigation stream from the inner citadel of the castle.
It was a two-story stone building with a stable foundation, but part of the building was quite damaged, which made it difficult to use as it currently was.
“Twas a workshop in the past. Twas already abandoned when I was a child. There are ferns growing in rooms with collapsed roofs and it has been left abandoned to nature, but I hear that ye have confidence in your repair skills. Feel free to modify and use it as ye see fit.”
After giving minimal advice, Subaru stood back and watched them without giving any further instructions.
…Subaru’s appearance was quite different from usual today. The sleeves of her kimono were tucked up with cords and her long hair was tied up with a working bandana around her forehead. Despite her words, she was clearly eager to help.
Misasagi explained today’s work while looking over the rough design of the base camp that Momoyama-senpai had drawn.
Their first job was to clean the entire building.
Though it was called cleaning, it was a huge endeavor that involved breaking down stone walls and digging up the ground. It seemed the first-year female members wouldn’t be participating until they reached the stage of working on the building’s interior.
While Misasagi explained this, Homura was in a bad mood that had been plaguing her all morning.
That was only natural, since she hadn’t gotten to bath for two nights in a row, and she hadn’t even had the time to wash her hair this morning, having to settle with merely washing her face with cold water.
“I’m surprised you’re in such good shape this morning, Kanae-san…”
“Why? Because we slept in sleeping bags last night?”
Next to Homura, Kanae coolly replied to Homura.
“Well, that too…”
If they had been staying outdoors, Homura would have been able to resign herself to it as unavoidable circumstances… But it was apparently hard to endure when staying in the castle which was technically a place of civilization.
“Well, I have some good news for you, Homura!”
Picking up on the explanation from Misasagi, Kamikoma pointed at Homura.
“We’ve gotten Subaru-hime to open up the castle’s bathroom for us. Apparently, it’s an open-air bath that can fit up to ten people.”
“A bathroom!? And an open-air bath!? Really!?”
Homura wasn’t the only one who cheered at this piece of news.
“However, she apparently hasn’t run any hot water through it since Suzuran returned to Earth, so could you go to clean it after this with Yuri?” asked Kamikoma.
“U-Understood. If that’s how it is, I’d be happy to,” agreed Homura.
To Homura and her sister Tsuyu, bath cleaning duties were an annoying chore in their family, but it was a very different matter when it came to the chance to take a proper bath on Nutella. However…
“I’m fine with just using a small tub like last night instead of such a needlessly huge open-air bath, though.”
Homura’s eyes widened in surprise at Kanae’s unbelievable declaration.
“Hey, hey, Yuri. At least help so that us guys have something to look forward to after our hard work today,” said Hayase in a reprimanding tone.
“You sound like an old man.”
Kanae turned her face away defiantly. Kamikoma spoke up in calm voice.
“This way we won’t have to worry about Akiho peeking on us, though.”
Homura stiffened at those words.
“Ah… Akiho-kun, you peeked on us last night!? Really!?”
“No, I still haven’t done any peeking yet. It was too dark last night,” replied Saho nonchalantly.
“…Very well. I will help clean the bath.”
After briefly staring at Saho who stared back blankly, Kanae reluctantly agreed to the request.
With that settled, Homura and Kanae left the others and headed back to the castle.
The remaining club members headed to the deserted building.
On the sloping land in the middle of the path head, there were a series of rice-fields that had already been harvested and been drained of water for the season. Various piles of bundled rice straws could be seen among the fields.
Rice straw was a handy material useful for making roofs and sleeping cots, so Kamikoma looked positively gleeful at the sight of them.
“If this was before the harvest, these fields would be a cluster of crop heads5.”
“Ah, now that you mention it.”
As Touya reflexively replied, he vividly recalled when he and Homura had previously reached this castle by following the vestiges of paddy fields. He had wondered why Homura had been knowledgeable about plowed field flowers, but now it made sense considering the connection to her name.
“Nutellan paddy fields, huh… This is quite the precious sight, in a certain sense,” remarked Nanakubo to no one in particular.
“Amazing. The selective breeding here is done with terrifying skill and precision,” whispered Momoyama.
“Hmm, so you get it, Momoyama-senpai. The crops look ordinary, but they’re probably strong against disease, right?”
“Yeah, so it seems. Normally you wouldn’t be able to farm rice paddies in this kind of climate.”
“Ah, I see,” said Nanakubo with a nod. She calmly looked at the leftover harvested rice heads that had been left to the sparrows in a corner of the field. “Hey, do you think we might be able to make a granary if we borrowed those rice seeds…?”
“Those rice seeds look unbelievably golden. The gene resources on Nutella all seem to be that way. Speaking of selective breeding, India managed to spectacularly keep away famine by applying similar breeding methods to wheat and rice. A superior version of staple foods has incalculable value for countries with overpopulation problems and even those without such issues…”
Nanakubo shrugged her shoulders at this state school-level self-murmuring.
“Haah. It sounds really difficult and troublesome—by the way, Subaru-hime, did you harvest all these paddy fields yourself?”
“Indeed. I shall teach you how to utilize them at a later time,” said Subaru.
“Ah, those things,” said Touya in realization, and Subaru smiled in response.
“Sounds like there’s some secret to it. How suspicious.”
The worrisome issue of bathing (and laundry cleaning) had also been resolved with the opening of the open-air bath.
With both clothing and shelter taking care of, the only necessity of life left was “food”.
The first order of business was staple foods, like grains, potatoes and vegetables.
Those had already been supplied and stocked up by Subaru in anticipation of this mission, so there was nothing to worry about on that front. However, relying on just those would be insufficient and unsatisfying, so they wanted to stock up on sources of protein as well. There was no such thing as a high schooler that disliked hamburgers.
They had already cooked the last of their hunted deer meet last night.
Right before they headed to the deserted building, Misasagi made a proposal.
“Let’s think of as many means of food provision as possible. Since the immediate area around the castle supports the wolf packs, all notable large animals have been hunted to the point where there’s none left. Subaru-san said she would provide some of her household chickens, but we should leave that as a last resort and provide for ourselves first. Since we have to take the future into consideration, our choices are limited.”
“And the faster the better. The most reliable food source is fish. I’ll go myself. It’d be just perfect if there are eels as well.”
Misasagi nodded at Nanakubo’s swift suggestion.
“Yes, that would be a big help. Let’s start with that. As for who to accompany you…”
“What, are you worried how the construction work today will require a lot of heavy lifting? But having Taga-kun around should be enough for the most part. So Touya, how about you come with me? You know the rivers around here, right?”
“Yes, to a degree.”
Touya actually wanted to participate in the construction work, but he convinced himself that planning out and securing food provision were also important in order to use this place as a base camp in the future.
“Looks like you’re in agreement. Nanakubo-san, Touya-kun, we leave this matter to you,” said Misasagi.
“Sure. But first, we should get a look at the planned construction site.”
At that point, Ameno raised her hand.
“President, can I accompany Nanakubo-senpai and Takumi-san too!?”
“No way,” said Nanakubo bluntly.
“Eeh~, please let me do it.”
Ameno was overflowing with eagerness, but more than that, she just wanted to look around at various places.
“This is your first mission, Ameno-san, so you’ll be staying by my side as much as possible.”
“…Yeah, I guess you’re right. Taking care of the construction is most important right now.”
As Ameno slumped in disappointed, Misasagi spoke encouragingly.
“If the camp construction proceeds smoothly, we can go hunting together later.”
“I see, understood. I’ll work hard!”
—Meanwhile, with Homura and Kanae.
After separating from the others, the two of them returned to the castle.
They reached the bathroom following Subaru’s directions and immediately began cleaning.
The huge bathroom seemed to be made entirely of stone, with glass panes on part of the ceiling and ornamental tiles on the floor. There was also a thick cypress plank on one side of the bathtub.
The bathroom, located in the castle watchtower, had a fantastic and calming view that any bath-loving Japanese would enjoy. Undoubtedly, the original inhabitants of this castle must have cherished this bathroom.
The fog draping over the land gradually faded and the clear blue sky began to peek out above. Homura sighed in admiration as she gazed over the land around the castle which glittered under the several beams of sunlight that shone down.
“Hah… what a wonderful view. It’s like a spa or hot-spring hotel…”
Homura was suddenly struck by the idle thought that this might reflect the tastes of Subaru’s father Misasagi Yoshizumi, a Japanese man from the Edo period.
Homura had been quite surprised when she’d found that the bathroom had not only a huge bathtub that could fit ten people, but also a cold bath for cooling off and a sauna that drew in hot air from a kettle.
“Then, I’ll do this side, okay?”
Kanae declared which area she would take charge of to Homura while holding a pig-hair brush with a long handle that resembled a modern deck brush.
Homura hurriedly nodded back and picked up a wooden washbasin and a tool that resembled a scrubbing brush made of collected plant fibers.
The two of them first folded up the sleeves of their clothes and got started, but more algae and liverworts went flying off the floor than they expected. Naturally, she hadn’t prepared a swimsuit. With no other choice, she and Kanae tied up their hair and switched to wearing T-shirts they wouldn’t mind getting wet, with only their underwear on underneath.
I don’t know whether to say ‘as expected’ or be surprised at Kanae-san…
—Kanae’s bodylines were fully exposed now.
Homura had been able to vaguely tell when the other girl was in her exploration outfit, but Kanae Yuri really did have amazing proportions that rivaled that of Misasagi-senpai. Though her height was the same as Homura’s, when it came to a comparison of various individual parts…
Mrgh, she’d be able to give Kurama-san a good run for her money?
Homura’s gaze kept getting drawn to Kanae each time she went to draw water into her basin from the castle’s interior aqueduct. She considered it payback for how she hadn’t had the time to carefully look at Kanae during the race.
Her long limbs and slender ankles were further emphasized by her small face, making her beautiful enough to die for in Homura’s eyes. However, unlike Saho and Inari’s tails, which tended to move around energetically all the time, Kanae’s thin, pointed tail displayed no emotional reactions. It was currently jutting out casually from Kanae’s underwear and wrapped around her thigh.
Saho had said that she also grew horns at night, but Homura had yet to actually see it for herself. In the first place, was it really okay for Kanae, having horns just suddenly sprout from her head? And what was the best way to describe her appearance? If Homura had to choose, it would be…
As if she’d read Homura’s rude thoughts, Kanae suddenly turned around to look at her.
“…What? Work seriously. This won’t be the end, you know. We’re probably going to get assigned more work this afternoon.”
Homura panicked in the face of Kanae’s murder-filled gaze.
Kanae had acted as if she found the whole thing a bother and displayed little enthusiasm during the meeting, but once she started working, she worked efficiently.
She really wasn’t a good match for Homura, who reacted in surprise and excitement to every unusual item she saw in the castle and was trying to enjoy this cleaning work in her own way.
However, Homura couldn’t bear the discomfort of silence between them.
“—Kanae-san, what kind of Trans are you registered as?”
“…Don’t bother asking me things you can easily find out by looking it up on the collab.”
The Exploration Club’s volunteer-operated online collaboration software, which Kanae herself had helped program, had self-introduction summaries for every club member. However, this place didn’t have Internet connection, obviously.
“……Haah… I’m a TSPC-type Diabolo6.”
“What’s a ‘Diabolo’?”
“Like I said, look up that kind of thing yourself.”
They kept their hands working even during this curt conversation.
However, their conversation gradually died off and they returned to total silence. Only the sounds of their brushes echoed through the bathroom.
Suddenly, Kanae lifted her head.
“…I just remembered. There’s something I’ve wanted to say to you.”
“What is it?”
“In terms of perfection, Champon7 noodles are the best.”
Homura was startled by this unexpected statement.
“I’m saying that I don’t acknowledge Sapporo’s salt ramen as the most perfected dish.”
So she was talking about ramen. Now that she mentioned it, that topic had come up in conversation during her visit to Toneri’s lab8.
“But come on, this is Champon you’re talking about. Isn’t it a completely different dish?”
“Not Champon, Champon noodles.”
“Are you talking about the instant noodles kind? Do you usually eat those, Kanae-san? Where do you buy them?” asked Homura relentlessly, straying from the main point of the conversation.
“They don’t sell them at convenience stores. Right, I guess you don’t see them much in Kanto—Well, though it’s not a match for Champon noodles, I suppose the Sapporo miso ramen that they sell next to it on the shelves might be equal to its sister product cabbage ramen.”
Kanae aggressively thrusted her brush across the web stone floor.
Homura used her foot to stop the washbasin that came sliding fast at her from Kanae.
“No, no, I can’t overlook what you just said… It’s true that miso ramen has some amazing applications. I admit that. There are times when even I want to eat lots of it. But in terms of perfection as a product, salt ramen definitely wins by a landslide.”
As she gave this mysterious explanation, Homura sent the washbasin sliding back at Kanae.
“I’ve actually eaten all of them and had the chance to analyze and compare them, you know?”
“You went that far? In that case, I’ll do the same when I return home. Can I buy that Champon stuff on the net?”
“I told you, it’s called Champon noodles!”
The washbasin relay continued, until they eventually realized that their hands had stopped working.
Returning to their senses, they went back to cleaning.
After the silence resumed for a while, Homura tentatively spoke up.
“Hey, Kanae-san… Would it be alright if I called you Yuri-chan? And I’d be happy if you called me Homura too…”
“…I don’t mind.”
“Really!? Thank goodness. It’s just, Akiho-kun always calls you that, and Misasagi-senpai also—”
The moment she heard Misasagi’s name, Kanae’s expression greatly stiffened, and Homura belatedly realized her mistake and freaked.
As if to take advantage of Homura’s panic, Kanae leaned against her brush handle with a sadistic gleam in her eyes.
“I don’t really care if you call me Yuri or Yuri-chan. If you feel self-satisfaction in talking over-familiarly to others like that, fine. If you want to appeal to everyone that you’re not isolated in the Exploration Club, be my guest. I won’t lose anything by you using me like that.”
“……That wasn’t my intention…” Homura began to say, before shaking her head. “…Sorry. I did think that way a little.”
Homura sat down on the edge of the cypress bathtub she’d just finished cleaning.
“I guess I’m feeling impatient. The more I plunge into Exploration Club activities, the more I feel the distance between me and the other kids in my class widen bit by bit. I can’t attend my friend’s concerts either. I sometimes wonder whether it’s really all right for me to be here…”
Walking right up to Homura, Kanae then spoke words that seemed to claw at Homura’s throat with sharp nails and tear out her heart.
“Seiran must be quite an easygoing place. I can tell just by looking at you, Hinooka-san.”
Kanae’s smile became even colder.
“Are you mad, Homura? Are you fine with this? You’re staying silent because you can’t fool yourself, right? To you, the Exploration Club is probably a fun group of friends. But it’s different for me. However, as long as you don’t get in my way, I’m fine with playing along with making the precious memories you value so much.”
Kanae was provoking her on purpose. She’d even discarded her usual cool attitude. But Homura didn’t think that Kanae was getting anything of value out of conversing so challengingly towards someone like her. So then why? That question plagued Homura.
“Kanae… Sorry. Y-Yuri-chan, what is the Exploration Club to you, then?”
Despite the vagueness of Homura’s question, Kanae answered immediately.
“—‘Maybe there’s something else besides this.’ I’ve never had the time to think deeply about things like that. From the start, I’ve never had the option of wondering to myself sometimes.”
Reality? This is reality?
Homura couldn’t hold back her shock at Kanae’s attitude and words, which stabbed right into her soul. Even so, as if the retort came naturally, words that had been lurking in Homura’s heart for a while now came out of Homura’s mouth.
“T-The Exploration Club isn’t the only reality…”
Those words came from the currently absent Inari Sunao—“Don’t let yourselves be misled by the impression that Nutella is the only reality.” Even now, Homura still didn’t understand the true meaning behind that warning…
“Look who’s talking big now.”
With a derisive snort, Kanae backed off.
Homura was a bit relieved. If Kanae’s eyes had closed in on her any further, she didn’t know what her mouth might say.
The two of them went back to cleaning. After a little while, Kanae suddenly murmured, “But still… If you keep your meddling to the level of taking my soy sauce…”
“Let’s go to a ramen shop together,” replied Homura.
—After briefly exchanging grins, the two of them resumed cleaning
Now then, back to Misasagi and the others.
They were just learning about the lifestyle of Nutellans through Subaru-hime.
Four human-sized puppets appeared in front of the deserted building the group was waiting at. They carried stripped cedar logs on their shoulders. The club members greeted the puppets with a mixture of surprise, curiosity and some unease.
“These are puppets.”
There was no trace of ostentation in Subaru’s words.
Misasagi and Touya were already familiar with these wooden puppets.
At first glance, they resembled the kind of dolls used for rough sketches in art, but these ones were more elaborately made. Gears were deftly attached to their knees and shoulders, giving them the same freedom of mobility as humans.
The four puppets had easily carried the heavy logs, which even an adult might break their back carrying, across the slope to reach here.
“From right to left, their names are Kumagorou, Hachigorou, Sadakira and Gonsuke. They have wooden tags around their necks to display their names.”
“Yeah, I can somehow manage to differentiate them,” said Kamikoma while holding back laughter.
This was because the puppets each had a distinct humorous face. Seeing corn mustaches and other similar accessories attached to the smooth and curved wooden surface made them look like something right out of a puppet show.
“S-Suzu was the one who did all that graffiti. I left them like that because it would be a pain to clean them off. Pay it no mind.”
After clearing her throat in embarrassment, Subaru gave orders to the puppets.
“Put the logs down on that vacant land over there and stay on standby.”
“She mistook me for one of those things…?” said Touya depressingly.
Next to him, Ameno looked at the puppets with a complicated expression.
“What’s wrong, Ameno? You okay?” asked Touya.
“Ah, yes. It’s just… seeing these things fills me with a strange feeling.”
Touya quietly looked at Ameno.
Kamikoma then asked Subaru another question.
“Subaru-hime—We’re quite grateful for this, but aren’t these tools used to support your daily life? Is it all right for us to borrow them?”
“Tis fine. Ye should grow accustomed to it, if ye are to build a base in this land.”
Subaru immediately began explaining how to use the puppets.
“They do not simply obey any commands they hear, but respond to certain code phrases related to specific jobs. I informed Mayo of the code needed for construction work—bag carrying, sawing, wood-chopping, stone-gathering, weeding, drawing water, tilling the rice fields, tanning leather, and rope-fastening. There are other code phrases, but they won’t accept them from anyone other than me.”
Nanakubo folded her arms and expressed her honest amazement.
“So they’re macro-registered. Seems like the kind of gadget that Kanae would like.”
“This is just a hypothetical, but what if we give the wrong order and the puppets go berserk?” asked Hayase.
“Tis good to be cautious—but even if thee gave them a sickle and ordered them to reap the harvest, they would never cut a person standing in front of them. They would automatically avoid thee, and if that were not possible, they would come to a stop. Of course, if thee try something like putting thy hand beneath their hatchet as they swing it down, you would certainly be hurt. Do not try anything rash.”
Hayase nodded in understanding, and Subaru continued with her explanation.
“…This should never happen, but if they should refuse to listen to ye even if ye grab their arms and order them to stop, ye should immediately destroy them without hesitation. But that too is a difficult feat—Kumagorou.”
The puppet in question walked over to stand in front of Subaru.
After a moment of slight hesitation, Subaru revealed one of the puppet’s greatest secrets.
“There is a ‘stone of power’ imbedded in the wooden tag around the neck. If this is removed from their bodies, the puppets will return to being mere wooden dolls.”
She took off the tag, causing the puppet to let out a light creak and collapse to the ground.
Subaru then handed the tag to Kamikoma. Kamikoma and Nanakubo carefully observed it together.
“‘Stone of power’, huh… Looks to be a Rank Three or Four stone,” said Kamikoma in a whisper.
“…Can’t believe she just handed over something so valuable. So this is the core of the puppets. Automatons that run on spirit stones. Seems like their Ameno’s senpais.”
“U-Umm…” Ameno spoke up timidly. “…The puppets are able to understand our words quite well. If they can understand words, can’t they talk as well?”
That was a natural question.
However, Subaru’s response was extremely cold.
“They do not ‘understand’. They have no will, nor hearts that feel. They merely repeat the actions that they were first taught upon creation. They cannot do anything else. Even if they are broken, they can be repaired. There is no need to show them consideration like a human. However…”
Subaru took back the tag and returned it to the puppet’s neck, causing Kumagorou to immediately stand back up.
“Puppets are convenient tools, but treat them carefully. Absolutely do not try any mischief on them like Suzuran.”
—After seeing Misasagi and the others start the construction work on the deserted building, Touya and Nanakubo headed to the waterfall upstream of the nearby river together.
First, they climbed the cliff path behind the castle and set traps in various places along the river as they went.
The traps consisted of netted wicker baskets for capturing fish that they’d brought with them from Earth.
“You think we’ll catch any fish?” wondered Touya.
“We’ll catch lots, I guarantee it. Nutellan fish are complete suckers for this kind of thing. There have been times when baskets got so full that they broke and the fish all ran away.”
“Heeh~…Wait, isn’t that pretty bad?”
Even after finishing with the traps, Nanakubo continued climbing the path along the river.
She seemed to be carefully observing the mountain path, which was unusually maintained for a path on Nutella.
“There’s a rope bridge ahead. The path continues up to there.”
“Really? I can’t believe there’s still such a nice road to be found on Nutella.”
Nanakubo crouched down and looked at the rocks lining the side of the road.
“…By the way, Nanakubo-senpai. I see that you still keep your glasses on.”
“Idiot. If you took away my glasses, the only thing I’d have left is my beautiful looks. Just kidding. It’s unfortunate, but even the magical land of Nutella can’t cure my nearsightedness. That’s how just goes to show how amazing I am, I guess. Well, in exchange for that…”
“Well, whatever. You’ll figure it out soon enough. Oh, chestnut trees. There really aren’t any large animals around here! Let’s take as many nuts as we can carry. All right, it’s chestnut picking time! Come on, don’t just space out, Touya, take out a basket and tongs.”
Nanakubo energetically ran across the fringe of the mountain ridge and spent a while simply kicking at the trunks of chestnut trees.
“Hey, that’s dangerous—Ah, I told you so.”
Though embarrassed at the childlike vigor of his senpai, Touya took out tools from his sack and began to make preparations.
While waiting for the catches from their traps, Touya and Nanakubo used their shoes to crush the chestnuts they gathered and passed the time by taking out the burrs from them.
After a while, Nanakubo made a confession.
“The truth is, I’m not suited for plain work like remodelling a dilapidated building.”
“Wait, was the real reason you chose this job to get away from the castle?”
“Since I’ve come all the way out here anyway, I have to confirm the topography of this area and the like with my own eyes. We might find Nutellan ruins outside of that castle, you know.”
“What, if that’s the case, you should have brought Ameno along.”
“…Well, it’s not like I don’t understand her feelings. Even for a robot, she must be happy coming to Nutella for the first time.”
Nanakubo suddenly looked up at the Bagel in the sky.
Touya glanced at Nanakubo from the corner of his eye while continuing to crush the chestnut burrs.
“There we go… You know, maybe we could have asked those puppets to remove the chestnut burrs instead. And they could serve as convenient sources of motive power. Like, they could charge a dynamo with their arms or power cycle cars with their legs.”
“…But that’s a problem in its own right. They pretty much negate the entire reason for Ameno’s existence.”
Touya got angry at those words.
“No, impossible. That could never happen. Ameno can analyze a situation with her own judgement and can even converse better than some humans, so they’re completely different.”
“Really? Ameno is too capable. So much so that I’d want her as my little sister. A humanoid Nutellan investigation unit might be good for publicity, but the higher-ups back home don’t think that way. They obviously prefer tools that don’t talk—Wow, these burrs are hard.”
“It’s easier if you step on them with your heel—The higher-ups, huh? You mean people like our club’s advisor Fujimori-sensei, right?”
“Fujimori-san is different. She’s the exact opposite, actually.”
“…How is she different?”
“Stupid. Use your own head to think about that. Regardless, if they manage to perfect the technology to turn low-rank spirit stones, which are easier to find, into robots, Ameno will be out of a job. You don’t need the engine of a Ferrari for something that can be done with a scooter. That princess probably already knows that technology, too.”
“……Is that so?” asked Touya dubiously. “I don’t really—”
Seeming to have noticed something, Touya suddenly stood up.
His gaze was glued in the direction of the mountain ridge.
A pack of grey wolves that they hadn’t seen among the others this morning was running through the autumn-colored forest.
Leading the pack was Yukiwarimaru.
Her pure white fur shone like sunlight within the darkness of the forest.
As the two of them followed the magnificent wolf with their eyes, the pack changed direction and ran over to the two humans.
“Why are they coming over here…?”
Like yesterday’s reception, the wolves showed no hostility.
However, their leader Yukiwarimaru came right up close to Nanakubo while carefully staring at her, and then suddenly brought her nose up to sniff her chest.
Nanakubo was speechless before the impact of seeing a huge wolf right in front of her.
As she instinctively back away, Yukiwarimaru circled around her as if to observe her in greater detail. The giant wolf only showed interest towards Nanakubo, not even glancing at Touya.
“Hey, wait… Stop…”
Overwhelmed by the sharp glint in the wolf’s eyes, Nanakubo staggered and fell on her behind.
But eventually, Yukiwarimaru moved her nose away and moved off to return to the castle with her pack.
Now alone again, Nanakubo sank down to the ground with a slump and Touya simply stood there in daze.
“Phew… I thought I was gonna be eaten.”
Touya also breathed a sigh of relief and then approached Nanakubo in concern.
“She was probably already full. She likely stored food for her children in her stomach.”
Parent wolves had the habit of spitting out their stomach contents to feed their cubs.
“But her behavior just now was a bit odd,” said Touya in a puzzled tone.
Nanakubo pressed her hands against her head to calm down her rapid heartbeat. Finally noticing that her current position left the interior of her skirt partially exposed, she frantically fixed her posture and sat cross-legged to hide her embarrassment.
“Hey, Touya… Does that big white wolf have the ability to sense magical energy?”
As the hand he raised to help Nanakubo stand up fell back meaninglessly to his side, Touya shrugged.
“Her name is Yukiwarimaru… But yeah, I did get that impression from my previous encounter with her. I think she can sense magical energy.”
“Amazing. I suppose she ain’t a familiar for nothing. It gave me quite a start when that little cub barked at Ameno yesterday too.”
As she spoke, Nanakubo suddenly unzipped the front of her exploration outfit and slightly exposed part of her chest. She grinned at the dubious face Touya made.
“Just kidding,” she mischievously said.
Nanakubo took out a thin chain necklace that hung from her neck. At first confused, Touya then widened his eyes at the precious item attached to it.
“That’s a Transport Ring! Is that the one for the Nutellan deserted island?”
“Bingo. What, you already know about it? Damn that Homura… But yeah, this is the Transport Ring for transporting from Ufara Beach on Iriomote Island. I brought it with me on a hunch.”
Nanakubo didn’t say anything further about it then and there.
—A while later, Touya and Nanakubo returned to the area around the castle.
Just as Nanakubo had declared, the traps they set in the river caught an astonishingly huge number of fish.
They triumphantly returned to the others while carrying netted baskets filled with fresh salmon in their hands and baskets of chestnuts on their backs.
Along the way to the castle itself, they passed by the deserted building in the middle of construction, and Nanakubo called out to the busy club members.
“Hey, we’ve got a big catch! There weren’t any eels, but we caught lots of salmon and river shrimp!”
Unfortunately, the other members were too exhausted to think of hunger and merely weakly replied in tired voices. Touya felt a bit guilty over having been the only one taking it easy. Nanakubo called out a second time.
“Koma-san! President Misasagi! It’ll be raining starting tomorrow night!”
Upon hearing Nanakubo’s warning, Kamikoma looked up at the sky with a dust-covered face.
She slapped the back of Saho who was drinking water next to her and spurred on the others with a shout. “Hurry up, you guys!”
Calming down Kamikoma, Misasagi added a comment of her own.
“It’s fine if we don’t push ourselves. But we have to rethink our construction plan.”
The sun was starting to set as well.
They decided to end work for the day.
Last night, Homura and the others had slept in sleeping bags within a castle hall that Subaru prepared for them. They’d all slept together in a huddle, gender differences ignored. (Ameno had slept in the stables alone, though.)
Most of the castle’s rooms were made of marble, but this hall had pine planks covering the floor, similar to a huge kendo hall.
However, it seemed that tonight would be different. Homura, Kanae and Ameno, who joined up with the two girls in the castle, had arranged for a bedroom for female club members. They didn’t have any soft and comfy futons, but they had set rice straw over the floor where there had originally been iron bed frames, covered the straw with the sheets they’d brought from Earth, and created rice straw beds that mimicked the wheat straw beds of Medieval Europe.
“Sorry for this. The only proper sets of bedding I have are the ones for myself and Suzu. I apologize for the inconvenience.”
Subaru apologized as she came into the room, but Misasagi shook her head saying, “Not a problem.”
Illuminated by oil lamps, the room was filled with the fragrant smell of rice straw.
“We’re only using this room temporarily until we move to the base camp, so it’s more than enough,” said Misasagi. “We have our own sleeping bags too.”
“What kind of futon do you use, Subaru-hime?” asked Homura from the side.
“What kind, thee ask? One made from the down feathers of waterfowls, naturally.”
“All right! From now on, I’m living in this castle!”
“Don’t get won over by a mere down quilt futon,” retorted Nanakubo.
Smiling at their boisterousness, Subaru sat down on a nearby bed.
She caressed it with her hand while murmuring.
“Ye truly are quite skilled and efficient, in both house-building and food provision. Ye even flawlessly used the puppets despite seeing them for the first time.”
“Thank you for the compliment,” said Misasagi with a bow of her head.
“What of the male members? I did not see them in the hall,” asked Subaru.
“They’ve gone to the open-air bath that Homura-san and Kanae-san cleaned.”
“What, the boys went in first? Isn’t the saying ‘ladies’ first’? Well, whatever,” grumbled Nanakubo as she immediately went to lay with her limbs splayed out on one of the beds.
Kamikoma then jumped backwards and flopped right on top of her.
“All right, let’s rest for a bit and then go prepare supper. Let’s all work just a little bit more~”
“Eh, then when are we going into the bath? And after I worked hard to clean it too…”
“Don’t lament yet, Homura. Those guys worked hard too,” said Kamikoma with a wry smile to the discontent Homura. “Can you go call Kanae and Ameno before we go to the kitchen?”
“Ah, Koma-san.” As Koma stood up, Nanakubo called out to her. “I’ve already prepared the fish and cuts for cooking in the kitchen—We’ll be having grilled salmon with chestnut rice tonight. I can’t wait~. Can we make the shrimp into tempura? Do you have oil for deep-fried food, Subaru-san?”
“Yes, feel free to use the sesame oil in the kitchen.”
“Heeh, that’s great. That steamed rice with wild plants we had yesterday was tasty too. This place really is just like a traditional salon restaurant. Do you accept cash?”
“It really was quite delicious, so much so that I can’t believe it was made with mushrooms,” agreed Homura.
“Is that so? Then perhaps I should open up an inn here,” said Subaru proudly.
Just as Homura was about the leave the room with the others, Homura suddenly came to a stop.
“Err, by the way, where’s Kanae-san…?”
“She apparently went down to the stables,” said Kamikoma.
Kanae seemed to have gone over there at some point without Homura noticing.
Homura felt herself terribly heartless for having left Ameno down there.
From the other end of the room, Misasagi sent Homura a wink that seemed to say, ‘I leave it to you.’
Subaru silently watched this little exchange between the girls from the side.
After having a lively dinner—
All the female members headed to the long-awaited open-air bath.
It couldn’t be kept heated twenty-four hours day like with boilers on Earth. Bathing time was precious here due to requiring the use of a hot water kettle heated by fire. Incidentally, Touya was in charge of heating the hot water kettle after winning at rock-paper-scissors, while the other boys were on after-dinner cleanup duty. As for which job came with the best benefits… That depended on the person in question.
Within the castle tower, the bathroom was dimly lit, with the lamps in the changing room purposefully placed far off.
The Bagel, now on the dark side of Nutella, shone brilliantly above the silhouette of the nearby mountain ridge like a tall, pure-white mountain range in the night sky.
“This bath is great!” exclaimed Ameno in wonder as she gazed at the open-air bath with its superb outside view.
The other girls were sitting on washing stools, while Ameno was standing around looking here and there in a towel.
“Ameno, is there any point to you taking a bath?” asked Nanakubo while narrowing her eyes due to her near-sightedness.
Ameno laughed bashfully.
“I’m basically maintenance-free… and dirt falls off me as long as I bask in light… But I’ve been looking forward to this bath. So that’s why I’m here.”
“Fine with me. Feel free to wash off as much sweat or machine oil as you like.”
“Yeah, Ameno-san does deserve a reward for all the hard work she’s done,” said Misasagi.
“Not at all, president. I only did as I was instructed. I still have a long ways to go…”
“For some reason, hearing that really hurts my ears.”
Homura dumped hot water from a wooden bucket over her head and then placed her hands on Ameno’s shoulders to push her over to the washing area.
“I feel really bad about not being with you so much today, Ame-chan. Come on, let me wash your back.”
“I-I’m just fine, thank you. You’re the one who worked hard cleaning and setting up the room, Homura-san. Ah, and you arranged a bed for me…”
“Still in the stables, though. Shall I go sleep there too? —Oh, I found a twig in your hair. I have to make sure to wash it thoroughly.”
Homura had helped make a bed for Ameno down in the stables.
“Please don’t start talking like Akado-san.”
“Eh, what’s that supposed to mean? Ah, and also… Y-Yuri-chan helped make your bed too. Right?”
Ameno immediately expressed her thanks, but Kanae kept her back to them and showed no reaction. Her pointed tail didn’t twitch either from where it hung from her tight butt. A stray cat was more civil and sociable than her. Homura shrugged and turned back to Ameno.
“Is this your first time in an open-air bath, Ame-chan?”
“Yes! Ah, but I do know about them.”
“So you can tell this one is unique?”
“Yes. Its design is quite different from the standard ones in Japan. At first glance, its style looks Japanese, but the basic design is similar to the traditional Roman-style baths, like how the ventilation is constructed or how it receives water from upstream of a waterfall.”
“Roman-style… Wait, so this is a luxurious Roman bath? Like… what’s it called again? ‘Thermae Romae9’?”
“Yeah, that. A thermae.”
Kamikoma spoke up as she dipped her feet into the bathtub with Misasagi.
“Public bathhouses, or thermae, have been discovered in several ruins in this area, particularly in places using marble construction. Based on the remaining evidence, they seem to have been pretty important facilities within each town.”
“Heeh, so Nutellans went to super-bathhouses too. That’s a bit unexpected.”
“It’s a logical custom,” murmured Kanae.
“Yeah, you can just leave the hot water kettles inside the house and avoid accidental house fires,” said Nanakubo.
“That’s the reason? Hmm… I think it’s because they really enjoyed the baths since it revitalized their spirits. If not, there’s no way they’d keep maintaining it.”
For once, Homura expressed an unexpectedly serious opinion.
Soon, someone new appeared in the changing room.
Homura reflexively stiffened at the silhouette and sounds in the other room, thinking, Did one of the boys (or rather, one boy in particular) come to peek!?, but such caution was unnecessary. Rather, the person in question was one that filled her with even more tension than a mere boy.
The glamorous silhouette behind the thin veiled entrance to the changing room behind was none other than that of this castle’s mistress.
“—Pardon mine intrusion.”
Her nearly transparently white-skinned naked body was covered by a madder-red dyed cotton bathrobe.
“S-Subaru-san? P-Please come in.”
Homura wasn’t the only one startled by Subaru’s appearance.
Naturally, there was no way they could deny her entry here. Homura glimpsed Ameno tensely correct her posture on the wooden stool in front of her.
“The temperature seems good,” said Subaru.
“Thank you for letting us use this bath. It’s really recharging our spirits for tomorrow,” said Kamikoma.
Subaru nodded proudly several times. Her behaviour seemed a bit off.
She suddenly looked at Homura.
“—Tis Ameno here?”
“Ah, yes!” replied Ameno as she sprang to her feet.
“Wash mine hair. I leave the hair-combing to thee as well.”
After unilaterally declaring that, Subaru sat down in a corner of the washing area.
“Yes, it’d be my pleasure.”
“Wait, wait, wait, Ame-chan? And Subaru-hime too—”
How can you just obediently go along with a sudden request to wash her hair? Such flustered thoughts filled Homura, but before she could do anything, Misasagi quietly touched her arm and held her back. She leaned out of the bathtub and subtly shook her head at Homura.
Homura was left consumed, unable to understand Subaru and senpai’s intentions.
Meanwhile, Ameno readjusted the towel around her chest and faithfully followed Subaru’s order.
“Then, please excuse me~”
First, Ameno ran her fingers through Subaru’s braided hair and carefully untied the braids so as not to cause any pain. Subaru raised her chin aloofly and let Ameno do her work.
Still wearing a concerned expression, Homura moved her stool over next to them.
After exchanging looks with Ameno, who was enthusiastically handling Subaru’s hair, Homura timidly spoke up.
“Umm~, Subaru-san, this might just be a trick of the lamplight, but isn’t your face a bit red…? Did you go in the sauna earlier?”
“‘Sauna’? The steam bath, thee mean? No, I have not.”
“…Ah, this scent… Were you perhaps drinking alcohol?”
A sweet scent wafted off the red-faced Subaru that wasn’t just from her makeup.
“I… I am not drunk. I did have a bit of sake after dinner, but I am most certainly not drunk.”
—She’s drunk, mentally retorted Homura.
Looking behind her, Homura saw that Kamikoma and Misasagi, who were peeking over at them in interest from the bathtub, were nodding as well, clearly thinking, She’s definitely drunk. and …She’s drunk. respectively.
“You’re drunk!” Nanakubo harshly pointed out with her actual voice. “Weren’t your legs unsteady when you came in?” She showed no mercy at all.
“…T-Tis not a problem. I will be going to bed immediately after this.”
Subaru remained still as Ameno treated her hair. Once it was unbraided, her long hair was lifted up and dipped into a small washbasin filled with hot water.
“…Thee seemed quite accustomed to this.”
“Eh, really, Ame-chan?” asked Homura.
“Yeah, washing hair and helping others bath is an important job of mine. Akado-san’s grandma complimented me on my skills!”
“Ah, I see. Now that you mention it.”
Homura recalled that Ameno wasn’t just a Nutellan investigation unit, but was also used as a caretaking robot.
“But this is my first time washing such long and beautiful hair… I wonder if I can do it well?”
“Yes! —Does it itch anywhere?”
“……Like I said…”
Ameno’s nervousness seemed to have faded a bit as she did work that she was used to.
Homura spoke while washing her own body next to them.
“Subaru-san, did Suzuran-chan use this open-air bath a lot?”
“Indeed… is what I would like to say, but that child always hated taking big baths even when she was covered in dirt from running out in the fields. During summer, she always went to the river to bath. Though, once the season turned this cold, I made her give up and use this bath. I lured her in by floating apples in the bath.”
“Heh, an apple bath, huh? Sounds wonderful.”
The faint smell of alcohol wafting off Subaru also had the scent of apples mixed within it.
After Ameno finished washing Subaru’s hair, Homura went over to the huge bathtub with the two of them.
When Subaru removed her bathrobe, it revealed a spirit stone hanging against her chest from a leather strap.
Kamikoma and Nanakubo widened their eyes in surprise, but Homura was completely fascinated by the sight of Subaru’s beauty.
Subaru sat down on the edge of the bathtub with her back to the stone wall. She calmly gazed over the faces of the others girls, illuminated by the Bagel’s light, and the night sky filled with twinkling stars while cooling off her body, which was plenty hot from the heat of the bath.
Her drunkenness seemed to have faded a bit.
She gave off the impression that she didn’t have a strong alcohol tolerance nor drank very often.
Subaru suddenly murmured to herself.
“This makes me remember mine days as a young girl.”
“Your childhood, Subaru-san…?” questioned Misasagi.
Subaru nodded. Her gaze drifted towards the distant land surrounding the castle.
“Downstream of this river and far beyond the mountains, there was a village called ‘Douvre10’ where the main roads intersect. I spent a short season as a young girl there.”
“Douvre… A Nutellan village…” Misasagi’s breath caught reflexively. “If you spent time in that village, then does that mean it was like the boarding houses in our culture—or in Edo period terms, a clan school?”
Subaru nodded at Misasagi’s question.
Both Kamikoma who was sitting on the edge of the tub next to Misasagi and Nanakubo who was in the middle of stretching looked at Subaru with sharp gazes that didn’t suit the atmosphere of the bath.
“Indeed, though it was a meager place that would likely disappoint thy expectations. Various people from this area gathered in Douvre.”
A clan school was a public educational institution where the young children of samurai families enrolled and received harsh instruction in both the literary and martial arts.
“Originally, Douvre was a village founded by retainers of our clan who worked at this castle. There, mine aunt—mine mother’s younger sister—was appointed as magistrate as part of her clan duties.”
Both sorrow and nostalgia were mixed in the tone of Subaru’s voice.
“Magistrate?” said Homura with a tilt of her head. “Does that have something to do with magic?”
“Err, a magistrate is what we would call a judge in modern terms,” explained Ameno.
“Then, your aunt was a pure-blood Nutellan… right?”
Subaru nodded at Kamikoma’s question.
“—I lived in Douvre for a time with mine aunt as mine guardian, where I studied and made a modest number of friends. Though mine aunt was called a magistrate, it was basically a leisurely honorary position. Because of that, mine aunt also served as a teacher there. I learned many things from her alongside mine friends. Mathematica was one of those subjects she taught me…”
As she said that, Subaru’s hand softly touched the spirit stone over her chest.
“Mathematica? What’s that?” said Nanakubo curiously in response to the strange-sounding word. “…Ah, I get it… Mathematics? What’s with the sudden use of English!?”
“It’s Latin. It’s the root word of mathematics,” murmured Kanae.
“I-I knew that.”
Subaru chuckled. She silently dipped her fingers into the bath.
“At first… I merely learned small child’s play like this…”
“Ah,” said Ameno as her breath caught.
In front of her, a small sphere of bath water floated up into the air from the water surface.
The sphere silently hovered and turned into a lens that reflected everyone’s faces.
Upon closer inspection, there was a thin string-like pillar connecting the bottom of the sphere with the bath water.
It was a modest display of magic on Subaru’s part.
It’s similar to Oozore’s spell… but…
Homura felt something out of place about that mysterious display, but she wasn’t able to immediately put it into words.
Misasagi scooped up some bath water with her hands. Spheres much smaller than Subaru’s formed within her palms, and they jumped up into the air.
This was one of Misasagi’s spells. Controlling water was her specialty.
The small spheres of water flew over to touch Subaru’s sphere and stuck to it like magnets, circling around like satellites around a planet.
The next day, the construction of the camp proceeded smoothly as well.
But the fourth day of their stay at the castle was filled with rain right from the start of the morning.
Just as Nanakubo had said, the strong-winded rain that had started late the previous night kept coming down all day.
In anticipation of the rain, they had left some indoor work to do for today, but once they finished those, the club members were left bored with nothing to do.
As such, the boys were amusing themselves with card games in the hall to pass the time.
However, the club presidents apparently had other plans for the rain-filled day.
After finishing lunch preparations and joining the card game group for a while, Homura heard Momoyama-senpai said he had business to take care of at the castle watchtower, so she forcefully asked the older senpai to let her accompany him as he left the hall. Naturally, her objective was to participate in the club presidents’ meeting.
On the watcher’s terrace were Subaru, Misasagi, Kamikoma and Nanakubo.
“Oh, you came, Momoyama-kun. But why’s Homura with you?” asked Kamikoma in exasperation.
“I don’t play games I definitely can’t win.”
“The heck does that mean?”
The swells of rain clouds were passing swiftly over the mountain ridge.
There were the usual tea set and teacakes on the terrace table.
“This is?” asked Homura.
“Pastries made of soy flour mixed with honey. I thought it would fit the tastes of young girls such as ye,” answered Subaru.
“Soy flour rice cakes! Thanks for the treat!”
“Just what exactly did you come here for anyway?”
On the table in front of the smiling Subaru was an open album.
Subaru was looking at photos that Misasagi had brought with her. Homura peeked at them curiously.
Subaru widened her eyes at the photo of Suzuran nervously wearing a middle school uniform.
“Hoh… This is quite… No… Anyone can look good with the right clothes. She doesn’t look like that wild girl at all,” said Subaru with a sigh of amazement. “So the woman beside her is her mother? She seems like a very kind woman.”
This was the first time Homura had seen the mother in a while as well. She was smiling with one hand on Suzuran’s shoulder. She seemed happy and healthy. Her hair was a bit longer now.
Subaru picked up another photo.
“Are these Suzu’s friends?”
“Ah, they’re her classmates at school, I think. Err, basically, her fellow students who study at the same temple school, I guess?” explained Homura.
“If you’re going to use temple schools as an example, you should bring up Fudeko11. Anyway, these two seem to be particularly close to Suzuran,” said Misasagi.
Subaru’s expression was filled with complicated feelings as she looked at the photo.
In the center of the photo, the short-statured Suzuran stood wearing a school uniform, with a tall, kind-looking and gallant girl and a docile-looking glasses-wearing girl about the same height as Suzuran nestled up to her on either side in the same uniform.
“Suzu-chan must have it tough…” Homura involuntarily leaked out her frank thoughts.
“Indeed,” said Subaru with a lonely nod. But at the same time, Homura was relieved to see this.
“But all girls have it tough, really. But if it’s Suzuran-chan, I’m sure she’ll be fine.”
“I see… If someone such as thee says so, it must be so.”
“Yeah… Wait, what’s that supposed to mean?”
“There is no hidden meaning to mine words.”
Even after putting the album down, Subaru kept glancing at it as she readjusted her sitting posture.
Kamikoma and Nanakubo turned around to face her and carefully broached the main topic of this meeting.
“—Ye wish to embark on an expedition towards the coast? That is thy next ‘mission’ then?”
“We members of the Hiyoshizaka Exploration Club mainly do long-distance expeditions to the northeast. As a result, we’ve neglected to explore our nearby surroundings.”
Subaru listened and urged her to continue.
“Momoyama-kun, please take it out.”
At Kamikoma’s order, Momoyama took out a huge map and spread it over the table.
Momoyama began to explain in a slightly nervous tone.
“This is a map of this local area. It’s made from the investigations results of both the Hiyoshizaka and Seiran clubs. This is the valley where this castle is, and this is Seiran High’s former base camp. This is the Hiyoshizaka High base camp—and the coast is on the northeast side of this map.”
The northeast area in the upper right corner of the map was almost entirely taken up by blank space.
Subaru looked over the map and nodded, impressed.
There were short, intermittent coastlines drawn here and there. But the investigated areas stopped and became interrupted partway through.
“The foundation of the areas drawn in faint colors is made from conjecture based on observations from Hollow Axis telescope satellites—basically telescopes that we launched into Earth’s sky—but as you can see, the telescopes can only distinguish between the coast and mainland at most, so we don’t have much information on the topography there.”
“The mountain range along the northeastern seaside is steep and precipitous for the most part,” said Subaru.
“…Yes. It’s impossible to move along the coast. In order to map any further past this, we need a large-scale boat. But we’re still not capable of making one here…”
Subaru turned silent.
Momoyama asked Subaru with a pleading gaze.
“Subaru-hime. Do you have a map of this area?”
This was Homura’s first time seeing the normally calm Momoyama-senpai so desperate.
“…Completing the making of this map is thine job. Tis fine to simply relinquish that to someone else?”
“What you say is true.”
Homura finally understood the intentions of Kamikoma and the others.
—This was something that happened right after the beginning of their stay at this castle.
Kamikoma and Misasagi had strictly warned the other club members to never enter any unused area of the castle. Naturally, Subaru’s personal room was out of the question as well.
That was an important rule needed in order to foster trust between them and the princess.
Even so, during their brief glancing around as they walked through the castle, they hadn’t seen any rooms that looked like a ‘library’, where there might be records of Nutellan culture and history—as well as maps of Nutella.
Kamikoma picked up talking after Momoyama.
“We deeply want to venture beyond this area. Even a little bit of information would be appreciated. If we have a detailed map of this area, we can lower the risk of danger on our expeditions. I know that this defeats the purpose of our work as investigators, but…”
“…Well, let me be blunt. Do you have a Nutellan globe model or word atlas, Subaru-san?” asked Nanakubo, getting straight to the point.
Her question was so frank that Kamikoma and Misasagi jerked in surprise, but they couldn’t deny that it was their wish as well.
This was probably the dearest wish of not only Japanese investigators, but of all investigators attached to the UNPIEP.
Subaru remained silent as she looked at the map.
Homura timidly reached out a hand to the plate of teacakes, but her hand was slapped away by Kamikoma.
“Aagh, t-these are quite tasty, you know?”
Watching as Kamikoma slid the plate away further down the table, Homura inwardly moaned, The teacakes didn’t do anything wrong!
Ignoring this little skit, Misasagi calmly spoke up.
“Subaru-san, the town of Douvre that you spoke of… is this town here, correct?”
Misasagi took out several black-and-white photos and timidly handed them to Subaru, whose eyes immediately locked on them.
Though Misasagi called it a town, all that was left were abandoned ruins that consisted mainly of stone blocks scattered here and there.
“We found this site during a past expedition. We could tell that this town was lost in a huge fire. This happened several hundred years ago… Naturally, there was no one left living there.”
Determining her assumption was correct based on Subaru’s reaction, Misasagi continued.
“—This is where it is on the map.” Misasagi pointed at a spot on the southern part of the map. “I discovered these ruins during a Seiran High expedition alongside the previous club president… and another member called Inari.”
Subaru silently nodded.
“…Indeed, this rubble is the remains of Douvre.”
Homura was shocked at those words.
A single tear slid down Subaru’s cheek as she looked at the photo.
“I already knew that. There is no way I could forget. I was the one who burned Douvre to the ground, after all. Since then, I have never stepped foot there again.”
Homura and the others gulped at that shocking confession.
“What about your aunt who was a magistrate there…?”
Seeing through the fear behind Misasagi’s question, Subaru shook her head.
“…She did not die in that town. Mine aunt departed to a far off land along with the others from this castle.”
Homura didn’t know what had happened in Douvre, but she was relieved to hear that at least.
Subaru continued speaking.
“Are ye saying that ye wish to see even more abandoned towns like Douvre? That ye want maps no matter what?”
Subaru looked at Kamikoma and the others with a cross-examining gaze.
“—No, even if ye had maps, all the roads have fallen into ruin and become unusable. I have used spells on the stone-paved roads connected to this castle to prevent tree roots from extending through them. However, in the hinterlands where such repairs have not been kept up, the roads have long since been in a sea of stone weeds and cannot be distinguished from the rest of the wild fields.
“We’re fully aware of that. Even if we take into consideration the unpredictability of changes over the years, we can’t afford to overlook any measure of security we can get our hands on. If you have any maps, they have plenty of value to us.”
Kamikoma spoke with the utmost seriousness and sincerity. Momoyama agreed with her enthusiasm and drew closer to Subaru.
“In four months of Nutellan time and three weeks of Earth time, we will return here. We want to begin our expedition to the coast then.”
“That will be right in the midst of the heaviest time of snowfall.”
Momoyama elaborated further.
“We’ll be using snowshoes and sleds, so the snow is actually convenient for us. Thanks to that, we can gently cross the most dangerous swamps in the mountains and streams that would be fast-moving and exhausting in the summer.”
“However, winter changes the landscape drastically. Tis not just the issue of getting lost, there are yet other dangers… but I suppose ye want maps as insurance against that as well.”
Subaru emphasized the dangers to show her resistance to the idea.
But even so, Kamikoma and Momoyama nodded.
Meanwhile, Homura was getting a bit excited at the conversation as she recalled photos of Himekawa and the members from Tomakomai Denpa playing winter sports.
“Heeh, so the next mission is a winter expedition on Nutella. Sounds fun. Can we do snowboarding too?”
Momoyama frowned with a troubled expression at Homura’s question.
“Umm, that might be a bit difficult.”
Homura titled her head in puzzlement, so Misasagi gently explained it to her.
“Hinooka-san, we Seiran High members will continue to work on the base camp construction here. It’s not a job that we’ll be able to finish over the course of one mission. The Hiyoshizaka High members have their own duties to take care of.”
“I-I understand that… but…”
In truth, Homura had been thinking of everything in a very carefree manner.
Nanakubo was the one to deliver the final blow.
“Besides, Hinooka, you’re still a novice-rank investigator, right?”
“Yes, that’s true. What of it?”
“Novice-rank investigators can’t participate in winter expeditions. You have to be at least 5th rank and have a club president traveling with you. Ideally, you’d have to be around 4th rank to receive permission to join an expedition. You can’t go either way.”
“Eh, no way. But Fujimori-sensei said that ranks were simply something that the government arbitrarily decided.”
“We’re talking about the mountains in winter, you know? You wanna die? This is different from a sky trip while staying at a hot spring inn.”
Momoyama gazed sympathetically at the depressed Homura. He then looked over at Misasagi worriedly.
“But still, Misasagi. This is a mission in Seiran High’s designated area of explanation. Are you really fine with leaving this expedition to us?”
After a short silence, Misasagi nodded, looking forlorn.
Homura recognized the smile on her face.
Homura was brought back to herself by their conversation and started to ponder over the meaning behind it.
After a period of contemplation, Subaru finally spoke up in a solemn tone.
“I understand thine request, Kamikoma-dono. I shall grant thee my maps. However, I have one condition—”
Kamikoma reflexively gulped.
All the Exploration Club members corrected their posture and listened carefully to Subaru’s condition.
Chapter 16 END
(1) “Wolf Taking Along Its Child” is the direct translation of a Japanese title more commonly known in English as “Lone Wolf and Cub”, a famous Japanese story that started out as a manga in the 1970s and had several adaptations into films and televisions series.
(2) Genshiko is a name that literally means “Phantom Limb Tiger”, which is part of the title of this Volume, “Phantom Limb Tiger of the White Peak”.
(3) Kamigata: The old name for the Kansai region in the Edo period.
(4) Naniwa is the old name for the Osaka region. Ebisu is a district in Shibuya ward, Tokyo, which is renowned for its bars and restaurants, and is also the name of a Japanese god of luck.
(5) The Japanese word Misasagi uses for “cluster of crop/plant heads” here is “Homura”, the same as our female protagonist’s name in both pronunciation and kanji spelling.
(6) TSPC, mentioned in the previous volume, stands for “Trans Spirit Possessed Case”, a sub-category of Trans among investigators. The kanji beneath the English word Diabolo reads as “demonic race”.
(7) Champon is noodle dish that is a regional cuisine of Nagasaki, Japan.
(8) Reference to a comment Homura made in Vol 2-1, Chapter 11.
(9) Thermae Romae: roughly translates to “Roman bathhouse”. Thermae were large facilities for bathing in ancient Rome. (Also, Thermae Romae is the name of a manga about a Roman architect who discovers a time tunnel to a modern Japanese bathhouse and uses the innovations he finds there to create his own spa in the past.)
(10) Douvre: pronounced “DOU-BU-RE” in Japanese. “Douvre” is simply my best guess on its English spelling since the pronunciation sounds somewhat French. (Another possibility is “double”, but I went with “Douvre” to distinguish it.)
(11) Most likely referring to Ishii Fudeko (1861-1944), a pioneer of modern education for Japanese girls, and one of the first founders of welfare for people with mental disabilities in Japan.