The day after that night of Rakugo, the rain still had yet to abate.
Since their time here was limited, Kamikoma and Misasagi decided to resume work even if it meant getting a bit drenched.
One particularly dangerous job involved bringing down heavy stones from a wet scaffold set up along the building.
“I see ye are working hard.”
Subaru came out to check on them in the rain. She held an old-fashioned Japanese umbrella above her with the small Hatsuyuki following along at her feet.
“What, it’s just the princess…” complained Saho with a sigh. “I need Hinooka-san or at least Yuri-chan to come and bring us provisions, or else my motivation and vigor won’t rouse! My vigor in particular!”
“Keep your voice down, will you?” admonished Touya.
However, both Touya and Hayase felt similarly groggy from this hard work. Taga-senpai was demonstrating his incredible toughness as usual, though.
Unable to just sit back and watch, Subaru offered to assist with their dangerous work.
She used code phrases that she hadn’t taught the Exploration Club members and made several puppets do the work in their stead.
Despite having several puppets doing completely different actions simultaneously, she skillfully made them work in coordination with each other. Achieving such precision and coordination was impossible with just the code phrases that she’d taught the club members.
“You know… it’s kinda scary to watch…” murmured Saho as he watched the puppets work while drying his drenched hair with a towel that Ameno had provided.
Touya privately agreed with Saho as he watched alongside him.
The puppets typically carried long saws and scythes for their work in the fields.
Subaru had told them that the puppets weren’t dangerous to approach, but the sight of them silently working with bladed tools in their hands inevitably filled Touya and the others with an indescribable unease.
And now, those puppets were carrying and tossing bundles of rock.
If those rocks were thrown at Touya and the others—
Or if the puppets came at them all at once with their blades—
…And if the one who did that wasn’t a puppet, but Touya himself while under mind control… When that thought suddenly hit him, Touya was struck by a chill that wasn’t just from the cold rain.
Touya was brought out of his immersed thoughts by a sharp voice.
Hatsuyuki suddenly ran forward.
Subaru immediately shouted the code phrase to halt the puppets.
However, she couldn’t stop the soccer ball-sized rock one of the puppets had just thrown.
On top of the unsteady ground filled with mud and pebbles that had just recently been cleansed of weeds, Ameno took action before anyone else.
She swiftly jumped in front of the wolf cub and bent over him as she slid across the ground, acting as a wall to protect him.
The rock bumped against Ameno’s stooped back with a sharp clang and ricocheted off to land on the ground a few feet away.
Hatsuyuki, unable to understand what was happening, let out a bark of surprise.
As the other club members gathered around Ameno, concerned about possible injuries—
“Are you okay? Are you hurt?” Ameno spoke to Hatsuyuki as if facing a human being.
However, Hatsuyuki just noisily barked at Ameno and wagged his tail threateningly before running off in the rain.
As Ameno patted her chest in relief at Hatsuyuki’s lack of injuries, several club members called out to her in worry.
However, Ameno herself was completely nonchalant about it.
“Yes. I’m… fine… I think? My skin coating might have gotten a bit torn and peeled, though. I’ll check it over later.”
Ameno moved around her body to confirm it was in working order.
“You would have gotten a bone fracture or worse from that if you were a human.”
“I’m fine. My body’s hardness increases on Nutella—”
Ameno’s explanation was interrupted by a hysteric voice.
“Ugeh, how could you, Ameno-chan?”
The idiotic voice came from Saho.
“What’s wrong, Saho? Ah, were you hit by the mud splattered by the rock?”
Saho’s front body was covered in mud. His rain jacket would wash off quickly in the rain, but his face, which he had just wiped down a few minutes ago, was in a miserable state.
“Sorry, Akiho-san. My calculations didn’t go as far as to include you.”
Ameno bowed her head apologetically.
“Got that right. Well, as long as that cub is safe, I suppose I can deem it an acceptable cost,” said Saho.
“Why are you wearing a self-satisfied look when you didn’t even do anything?” retorted Hayase.
Subaru apologized for Hatsuyuki and her own ineptness in looking after him.
And, surprisingly enough, she apologized to Ameno too.
“Are thou truly unhurt, Ameno?”
“…Y-Yes. Sorry for worrying you.” Then, Ameno seemed to realize something. “Ah, I have to report this to Chiayu-san and tell her that I can serve as an effective countermeasure against falling rocks as well. Is it because I was built sturdy enough to withstand great falls?”
However, in contrast to Ameno’s light-hearted attitude, Misasagi wore a long face as she called out her name.
Ameno looked up at the club president with a curious expression.
“What’s wrong, president?”
“…Ameno-san. I won’t criticize you for taking action right away. But your choice of action was mistaken. You mustn’t sacrifice yourself like that.”
Ameno tried to speak, but she swallowed whatever words she was going to say at the sight of Misasagi’s serious gaze.
From the sidelines, Touya could also tell that Misasagi wasn’t acting like her usual self.
“Please correct your evaluation values when calculating your own worth from now on. Understood, Ameno-san?”
“Yes… understood. I’m sorry.” Ameno bowed her head apologetically.
Subaru called out the president’s name in a tone that was both questioning and rebuking.
But even in the face of that, Misasagi merely bowed her head and apologized for the disturbance, refusing to open up her heart on the matter.
“All right, let’s take a short break, shall we?” interceded Kamikoma as she slapped the shoulder of the mud-drenched Saho.
The male club members, due to being so filthy from work, didn’t go to the guest hall and instead headed directly for the open-air bath.
Homura, who had a massive pile of laundry pushed onto her, spoke up in protest. “Isn’t this gender discrimination?” Next to her, Kanae retorted, “Then would you be fine with letting the boys wash your clothes and underwear?” before pushing Homura to get to work. The same scene had been repeated every day for a while now.
The morning of the next day.
Kamikoma and Misasagi had been called to Subaru’s private room in the center of the castle.
“It took some time, but here is the map I promised ye.”
It was a beautifully drawn map.
It was splendidly drawn following the notations and style of modern maps with near perfect accuracy.
Subaru’s castle was located a little to the south of the map’s center, while the northern section of the map surface displayed the unknown territory that Kamikoma and the others wished to explore.
The geographic area and range shown on the Exploration Club map that Kamikoma had supplied to her was perfectly reflected on this map.
“…D-Did you make this yourself, Subaru-hime?” asked Kamikoma after reflexively staring at the map in silence for almost a minute.
“Indeed. This was the first time in a long while that I have taken up a brush with such zeal, so I am a bit tired.”
Subaru nonchalantly responded to Kamikoma’s amazed voice while rubbing one shoulder.
“It’s as detailed and elaborate as a print-out.”
The map had been smoothly drawn using a fine brush, ruling pen and quill pen on top of traditional Japanese parchment, exuding polished refinement worthy of a work of art.
“A ‘print-out’? Well, I can do this much even without using any spells. I emulated the notations and design from the map ye showed me. Kneading dyed patterns into fabrics is far more taxing than cartography of this level.”
Subaru spread out the map in front of Kamikoma and Misasagi.
“I reproduced the terrain of this area to the extent of my knowledge on it.”
“You mean you didn’t draw it based on other books, but rather relied only on your memory?” asked Kamikoma.
“Indeed. However, unfortunately, this is an old map. Some mountains may have crumbled away, and some rivers may have dried up. As I told ye before, the old roads have been overtaken by the forests. If this map will still be of help even with that in mind, then please go ahead and take it.”
“Thank you very much.”
Kamikoma respectfully accepted the map.
“You mentioned an ‘Atlas’ before. I have heard that term in the past. However, I have no great collection of maps like ye are hoping for. The books in my library are merely part of my private collection. And even the ones I have are limited in number—the People of Sagacity who lived here took all books with them when they left. And the books they did not bring with them…”
Subaru’s words trailed off, but Misasagi and Kamikoma could guess the rest of her sentence.
They burned and disposed of all the books they didn’t need when they left.
This explained the reason why, despite investigators finding many Nutellan ruins across the world, no books or documents that described their culture had been found.
“Going so far as to erase all traces of their lives here… Just where did the People of Sagacity go?” Misasagi meekly asked, knowing full well how impertinent her question was.
That was a question that touched upon a taboo within Subaru’s heart. Subaru glared at her harshly.
However, Misasagi and Kamikoma’s eyes merely displayed pure curiosity at the subject.
Eventually, Subaru spoke gravely, as if to convince herself of her words.
“I have yet… to determine whether I should tell that to ye.”
“It is not just out of a sense of duty towards my ancestors. If I reveal the truth to ye, it may push ye into even deeper danger. No, it definitely will.”
Subaru’s worry and anguish were grave. Though Misasagi had resolved herself to ask the question as an investigator, seeing Subaru worry and fret like this filled the young girl with bitter feelings of guilt.
“—Please inform Yoshihiro-dono and Fujimori Chiayu-dono that I remain silent because of such circumstances. I swear that it is not because ye all were incompetent or anything of the sort. So could ye please be patient and wait until I have come to a decision?”
Misasagi respectfully bowed her head and offered thanks.
“No… I didn’t think that this matter would worry you so much. I fully understand your words and intentions, Subaru-hime.”
Accepting Misasagi’s thanks while still showing visible conflict on her brow, Subaru spoke up once more.
“There is some information I have to impart to ye along with the map—”
Discerning from her demeanor that this wasn’t a pleasant piece of news, Misasagi and Kamikoma devoted even more of their concentration to Subaru’s words.
“I am not the only one who still lives on this vast planet. There are those who travel the land, never remaining in one place for long.”
“…As I thought… there are others,” murmured Kamikoma.
Subaru’s confession filled Misasagi with unpleasant feelings.
The first encounter with Subaru had been sensationally reported by the media on Earth. However, certain veteran investigators had instinctively sensed that the issue was just a matter of time.
It was just as Inari had said half-jokingly to Touya and Homura.
And most likely, just as many Exploration Club members had silently thought this during the SA presentation.
“When Hinooka-san and Touya-kun first encountered you, Subaru-hime—you called them bandits and grave robbers, apparently. Suzuran called them thieves as well.”
“…If ye have already heard that much, then that makes things faster. Yes, that is right. They hold no respect or reverence for the People of Sagacity. Not only that, they hunt those who appear on this planet from the Tengu-Kakushi befalling them.”
“……Hunt? They hunt people?”
Kamikoma’s eyes widened at that dreadful statement.
“Those who come here through the Tengu-Kakushi are considered treasure troves. My father once fell into their hands as well, but he managed to escape from them.”
Misasagi’s mind quickly process that information and its implications. If these grave robbers had been running rampant across Nutella since that far in the past, the People of Sagacity’s power and sphere of influence must have already greatly declined by the time Subaru was in her infancy.
“Ye said that it has been sixty years here since Nutellan investigators from Earth have been visiting this land, correct? That would be ten years ago on Earth. Ascribing the fact that ye haven’t encountered those grave robbers in that time as simple luck… isn’t possible.”
Kamikoma crossed her arms as she thought in silence.
She was of the same opinion as Subaru. She didn’t think that they had avoided contact with these so-called grave robbers during their sporadic visits to Nutellan out of sheer luck. Rather, it was more natural to think that these grave robbers were purposefully avoiding them.
“Unlike those who come here through the Tengu Kakushi, ye all move in groups. Even if those grave robbers happened to come across ye by chance, they wouldn’t recklessly lay their hands on ye.”
Subaru rolled up the map and handed it to Kamikoma.
“I shall leave it to thine judgement whether or not to inform your comrades of this. Remaining vigilant would require you to carry weapons. That might spark unnecessary conflict among ye.”
Now the two club presidents understood why Subaru had called just the two of them to her room. This wasn’t an issue restricted to just Japanese investigators. Currently, investigators were only permitted to carry weapons for the sake of self-defence and animal hunting on Nutella, but if they came to carry more powerful weapons on them, it would go violate the “forbidden military use” article in the Sriharikota Treaty which established that only peaceful ventures were permitted on Nutella.
“However…” Subaru spoke up once more. “Ye will all eventually head off to far-off lands that even I know nothing of. So… please listen and take this much to heart—ye have already had plenty chance to see the puppets of my castle, correct?”
Misasagi and Kamikoma nodded.
“If ye ever encounter any bronze puppets, run away without question. Understood?”
All of Subaru’s puppets were made of wood.
“Only death awaits in lands where those who pull the strings of bronze puppets lie.”
Now then, at around the same time that the club presidents were meeting with Subaru.
While the other members were taking a short rest after breakfast, Homura was called out to meet with Nanakubo.
“It’s just as you predicted, Nana-senpai! The sky’s all cleared up now.”
There was a break in the rainy weather and the sky had cleared up, but at the same time, it had quickly gotten cold.
Homura pulled her rain jacket close to herself, wearing it in place of regular cold-weather gear.
“Quit it with calling me ‘Nana’ already. I know you’re doing it on purpose…”
Nanakubo seemed to be in a peevish mood. Apparently, she had really wanted to attend the meeting with the two club presidents.
She was currently sitting slovenly on a chair in a rest area located amidst the orchards outside the castle.
Possibly in an attempt to cheer up Nanakubo or perhaps simply due to her airheaded nature, Homura chatted cheerfully.
“Oh, a rainbow! It’s a rainbow, senpai! So pretty~”
“Now you’re making a fuss over a rainbow? They’re not that rare to see, you know.”
Despite her grumbling, Nanakubo looked up at the rainbow rising across the surface of the morning mist, before letting out a sigh.
“Damn, I forget my camera at the castle,” said Homura. “And just when it’s the perfect time to use the Turret Filter that Ecchuu Takaoka High made. Should I hop inside and get it?”
“Give it up. That’s just a waste of precious film. There’s no point in taking pictures of rainbows or the fall leaves. Do you know just how much film used on Nutella costs?”
“But if I took a picture of the Bagel and the rainbow together, it’d be a super-interesting photo like the Double Bridge at the Imperial Palace1. There’s a primary rainbow and secondary rainbow, right? And with the Bagel, that would make a triple bridge… Wait, huh? Could it be impossible angle-wise?”
“…If you wanna take that kind of picture, you’d have to go to a continent at a lower latitude. Even then, a photo of a rainbow and the Bagel laying perfectly side by side like you’re probably thinking of would be impossible.”
“Oh, you sure know a lot. So, what did you call me out here for? Are you going to work me hard with some job again…?”
It was at that point that another first-year member came to join them. It was Touya.
“Huh, Hinooka? You came too?”
It was clear that Touya had also been summoned here by Nanakubo.
He seemed to be in a good mood over the clear weather, and he was wearing far lighter clothing compared to the shivering Homura.
“Woah, really, Touya-kun? You just nonchalantly come whenever a senpai calls for you? How indecent.”
“Hey senpai, what’s your opinion of this girl’s head? Personally, I think some questionable ero-app has been installed in her brain.”
“Don’t get me involved. Geez, what’s with you two?” said Nanakubo in exasperation. She motioned Touya over irritably and then moved onto the main subject. “…Well, the truth is, I only have business with Hinooka, but due to certain circumstances, I called you as well, Touya.”
“I don’t like the idea of making cliques and factions, though.”
Touya’s guard was clearly still up towards Nanakubo.
“That’s not what this is. Besides, I’m talking to you guys on Oozore-san’s behalf.”
Homura straightened her back upon hearing that name. Originally, vice-president Oozore should have been the one to come on this mission instead of Nanakubo.
“If you have some business with the first years, why didn’t you call Kanae and Saho here too?” asked Touya.
“You really know how to hit where it hurts. Saho looks like he has loose lips, so he’s no good. As for Kanae… well, her circumstances are a bit…”
“But she’s more tight-lipped than Hinooka, isn’t she?” said Touya.
“Guh.” Homura pitched forward while holding her chest, feeling the damage from that indirect insult.
Nanakubo picked up some dried leaves from the ground and scattered them on the thick tabletop in front of her. The slightly wet table was now decorated with vivid colors.
“I’m going to teach you a new spell. Learn it during this mission before we return home.”
“A new spell…?”
Hearing that finally made Homura interested in listening.
“Yeah. It still hasn’t been entered in the Exploration Club’s library. It’s a brand-new spell—Do you remember Suou-san?”
The two first-years sat down while Nanakubo stood up as she spoke.
“Yes. She’s the female club president of the Nagato Fisheries School, right?” said Touya.
“The one who used that orca whale called Bobby-kun! She uses a school of orcas, right?”
“This has to do with that school of orcas. Those orcas migrate through Nutella’s ocean. It’s estimated that they travel a total distance of seventy-five thousand kilometers in a year.”
“T-That much…!? Isn’t that twice the circumference of Earth?”
“But wouldn’t that mean that they spend practically the entire year moving? Even if you excluded the time to take to hunt and their breeding seasons, they wouldn’t have the time to even sleep in that case.”
“No, it’s still insufficient. Even with all those things excluded, it’s still a distance that’s absolutely impossible to cross in a year. The physique of Nutellan orcas isn’t that different from the Earth species. Their highest speed is eighty kilometers per hour. However, by our calculations, the speed necessary to migrate over that distance is two hundred kilometers per hour.”
“Eeh, two hundred kilometers per hour!? Isn’t that as fast as a bullet train?” said Homura.
“Earth tuna can apparently swim up to a hundred and sixty kilometers per hour, but even that is only in momentary bursts. Normally, they only swim at ninety kilometers per hours or less—however, Bobby and the other Nutellan orcas can cruise at two hundred kilometers per hour for several days in a row.”
After glancing at the two first years, especially Homura, to make sure they were following along, Nanakubo continued explaining.
“S-So then?” asked Homura.
“—This speed is impossible for any living being. Therefore, people theorized that themigration of the orcas aren’t annual, but rather biannual. Well, this theory was also debunked as impossible in the end.”
“So the truth of the matter is different?” asked Homura.
“That’s right. Bobby’s school of orcas used magic. It’s a liquid-type spell, which decreases water resistance and crates propulsion by moving the ocean water itself. And on the scale of the entire orca school, at that.”
“Wow… so it’s a restrictive-use Icosahedron spell that controls liquids…”
“That’s super-conductive propulsion,” exclaimed Touya with wide eyes.
“What’s that?” asked Homura.
“No, never mind,” said Touya.
“If a living human were on top of something as fast as a bullet train while it crossed the sea, they would normally die. Suou-san really did something outrageous… But well, thanks to that, we figured out how the orcas migrate.”
As Nanakubo praised Suou half in exasperation, Homura leaned forward over the table.
“Then the new spell you spoke of is that magic which decreases water resistances and lets you swim fast?”
“Right, right. I’m here to turn you into a master swimmer… is that what you thought I’d say? Why should I have to come all the way here just to teach you that kind of spell? It’s useless on land.”
Touya spoke up next. “Then, is it a weather forecast spell?”
Nanakubo clasped her hands and put on a flirtatious act.
“Nice, Touya-kun. You did well to realize that. I’m so impressed!”
“Ugh, gross,” said Touya, drawing away from Nanakubo.
“What!? Well, regardless, that’s wrong too. Weather forecasting is a unique ability of mine, and it’s not something that you two can copy. Sorry, here’s your consolation prize.” Nanakubo tapped the table.
“What, that’s not it either?”
“Unfortunately not,” said Nanakubo curtly. “All right, I’m going to talk seriously now. Listen well—First, there are very few animals that can use magic. It takes great cost for animals, who are always struggling just to survive, to acquire magic, which even humans have trouble learning. That goes for passing it on to their children too.”
The costs involved consisted of unique characteristics that became apparent when an animal tried to learn magic, like, for example, the calorie intake needed to maintain their large physique, the danger of taking the initiative to fight enemies, or their naturally short lifespans.
“However, it’s a different story for animals that live in herds. They just need to have one of their members take on the cost of acquiring magic. Yukiwarimaru is probably an example of that.”
“What about Bobby-kun?” asked Homura.
“That’s just it. Bobby is the leader of his orca school. As such, he can use magic. But accelerating his entire school to two hundred kilometers per hour is just plain impossible. The Wizard Oozore-san can walk on top of water, but even he can’t apply that spell to other people. And Bobby’s school keeps migrating for several days at a time at those speeds.”
“In that case… Is it a long-lasting spell…?”
Nanakubo’s expression turned impressed at Homura’s idea.
“I’m surprised you figured that out. Hanayashiki, the club president at Hyougo Nadahama High, also thought of that and went to investigate the secret of the orcas’ magic with president Suou… But this turned out to be wrong as well. It isn’t a long-lasting spell.”
Nanakubo made a menacing expression as if she were telling a ghost story.
“Each of the orcas shared the burden of providing the magic power for the spell. In other words, it’s a spell that only works when casting the incantation as a group. Bobby is merely the central hub for performing the spell.”
Nanakubo arranged the leaves on the table as orca models.
The big leaf at the head of them was Bobby, while the small leaves were the other orcas in his school.
“This isn’t like some tv show where they all cast the same spell to perform a ‘power-up’ or anything simple like that. They each cast different spell patterns which combine together to form a huge spell—so, while casting the spell, the orcas all serve as a single brain. They basically act as a single living organism.”
The leaves on the table were arranged in a manner where their edges slightly overlapped each other, forming one giant silhouette. This was a model of how Bobby’s orca school looked as they swam through the ocean at tremendous speeds.
“…Calling this ‘group magic’ doesn’t do it justice. Some have been thinking of calling it colony magic, but that doesn’t really fit it either… No lifeforms that possess such a survival strategy have been found on Earth, so we don’t yet have the right language or concepts to describe it. I guess the best analogy would be groups of migratory birds that use updrafts in the air? Something like that. After discovering this, the migratory birds on Nutella are also worth looking into… Upsy-daisy…”
Nanakubo then reached into her shirt and took out the Transport Ring she’d shown Touya a few days ago.
“Ah… that’s… the ring from Iriomote Island…”
Homura was surprised since it was her first time seeing it during this mission.
She looked over at Touya next to her, who nodded to affirm his prior awareness of the ring.
“Sorry for the long preface. It’s finally time for the main subject! President Hanayashiki analyzed the magic that president Suou experienced using a brain-wave scanner and made an incantation that applies the spell to the Transport Ring. Using this new spell, we can freely transfer magic power from one Transport Ring to another—do you guys understand the meaning of this?”
Nanakubo suddenly paused after saying all that in one breath, leaving the two first-years time to parse through her explanation.
Eventually, Homura tentatively spoke up.
“…Umm, transferring magic power between Transport Rings… Well, it seems convenient at first glance, but the use of magic is limited to Nutella. I don’t think it’s all that useful, you know?”
Touya spoke up next.
“But if there are two club presidents who carry their own Transport Rings like on this mission, they can lend each other magic power and increase the number of members that return to Earth at a time, right? Then the Hiyoshizaka High members wouldn’t have to go all the way back to their distant base camp to return.”
“That’s true. But is that really so ground-breaking? It only reduces travel time by a few hours in Earth-time.”
“Hinooka, you’re really strict with this kind of thing, aren’t you…?” said Nanakubo, oddly impressed. However, she then put the Transport Ring on her finger and held it right in front of their noses, as if to give a hint.
Homura and Touya seemed to realize at nearly the same time.
“If we use the surplus magic power of that lost Transport Ring—”
“We can freely travel between Nutella and Earth… right?”
Homura and Touya exchanged glances.
Nanakubo nodded vigorously and sat back down on her chair.
Yes, that’s right—
The residual magic power within Transport Rings could be an important factor that decided life-and-death in emergencies. And there were rings for investigating exploration activities that breached the international treaty, like what was uncovered in China. Because of that, the residual magic power in every Transport Ring was strictly monitored and managed by UNPIEP headquarters, and sometimes inspectors like Meiville were sent to investigate possible infringements.
The Transport Ring that Nanakubo held, which was also illegal in its own way, had an enormous amount of magic power stored up within it, but since its coordinates were originally set for use on Iriomote Island, it could only allow travel to that isolated and uninhabited Nutellan island.
If that magic power could be freely transferred to another Transport Ring—it was a different story.
“That’s right. With this, we can do it. We can freely travel to Nutella! We can do it in secret from the UNPIEP and the Japanese government. There are plenty of ways to fool the entry records to the Transport Rooms in the club buildings. Even transporting from right outside the club building isn’t much of a problem, as long as we bring the Transport Rings outside. Right now, it’s under strict surveillance, but you guys have also had opportunities to sneak off with one, right? —The real issue is the Transport Ring and its magic power.”
True. Homura herself had accidently brought her club’s Transport Ring outside the club building after that emergency escape from Nutella without realizing it.
Touya tilted his head in deep thought.
“Why is Oozore-san telling us this through you, Nanakubo-senpai…? Why tell us this secret when it hasn’t yet been made public in the club’s library?”
Nanakubo rested her chin on her hands with a slightly lonely look.
“…I wonder why. I don’t know either. Geez, I wish he would have told me.”
Homura worriedly asked a question next, making a troubled face while holding two leaves against her eyebrows in a weird pose.
“I-It couldn’t be… part of a plot to take over Japan, right?”
“Of course not. No matter how full of ourselves we may act on Nutella, we’re still just high-schoolers in the end. What could we possible do on Earth? If Inari heard you say that kind of nonsense, she’d punch you, you know?”
Homura could only laugh weakly in the face of Nanakubo’s menacing look.
Nanakubo then showed a melancholic expression that she normally never displayed and murmured as if trying to convince herself of her words.
“What I want to change is the Exploration Club… I’ll definitely change it.”
Those unconsciously murmured words made Homura and Touya’s feelings take a downturn as well.
Still, the exact nature of each of their feelings differed. Homura felt as if Nanakubo had become someone more familiar and understandable to her.
……Nana-senpai… Like I thought, she’s lonely…
It showed how their senpai lay at a place the two of them had yet to reach, despite only being a year older than them. But at the same time, Nanakubo’s expression was that of an ordinary young girl who was struggling to do her best beneath the shadow of the club presidents, whose existences were so huge within the Exploration Club.
However, perhaps she had unexpectedly liked Homura’s earlier joke, as she then lifted her head back up with a grin.
“Taking over Japan aside, I do approve of the idea of spreading this spell to every school’s Exploration Club as common knowledge. It will serve as a strong guarantee for us investigators.”
“Guarantee? Ah, you mean insurance. I can help get it for you cheap, you know~”
“What, you mean your father’s an insurance man? That occupation is the exact opposite of investigators. I’m surprised your father let you join.”
Homura just smiled, holding back from explaining all the complicated details of her joining the club.
Putting aside her disbelief, Nanakubo continued her explanation.
“Well, this is basically a trump card. In emergencies when we need to send teams to rescue people stranded on Nutella, we can borrow magic power from other rings if the Transport Ring for the designated coordinates has insufficient power. Well, the secret would definitely be revealed if we did that, though.”
Nanakubo slapped her knee and stood up.
“In any case, the premise is that there needs to be at least one person who can use this new spell at each school, otherwise there’s no point in forming a network like this. I intend to tell the same thing to Koma-san—Now then, let’s begin the fun study time. Shall we start from the basic principles for Homura to make up for her rickety foundations?”
“Ugh.” Homura visibly drew away.
“—Have you ever wondered why the Transport Rings can refill their magic power on Earth?”
While absentmindedly staring at the red-dyed ring amidst the thick clouds in the sunset sky, Subaru soaked her feet in the open-air bath alone.
The bath water comfortably massaged her cold feet amidst the silent evening air.
“Both the day and fall are coming to an end… We are already at the threshold of winter.”
Though bathing by herself like this was a common occurrence in her everyday life, she felt a certain sense of satisfaction in it.
At the same time, she was thinking over the menu for tonight’s dinner, wishing to prepare a special handmade dish for those young Earthlings who would be departing the castle tomorrow.
In the midst of her contemplation…
“—Subaru-san? Are you in there?”
A shy voice came from the changing room.
“Homura? —Thou may come in if thou wish.”
“No, I’ll stay here… Umm…”
“What is it?”
Homura had entered the changing room wearing a shirt with scrunched-sleeves, having been in the midst of tonight’s cooking preparations before coming here, but she felt diffident towards Subaru and didn’t enter the bathroom itself.
She spoke through the screen door separating the changing room and bathroom.
“Umm, Subaru-san, has anything strange happened to you?”
“Hmm, something strange… I did see some night herons fly off to do some evening fishing.”
The phrasing of Subaru’s comment was too difficult for Homura to fully understand, but the implication that nothing odd had happened recently got through properly.
“Hah… Is that so? No, I apologize for bothering you during your bath.”
Subaru nodded at the girl’s polite apology.
Homura left the bathroom while seeming to mumble something to herself. Following her departure, the sound of Kamikoma’s harsh voice giving her direction came from down the hallway.
After soaking for a while longer, Subaru rose from the bath and sat down on the edge of the tub, putting on a thin bathrobe over her wet and heated body.
She then looked up at eaves of the castle roof above her head and quietly called out.
Without making a sound, a huge creature nimbly scaled down the castle wall and landed on the stone ledge of the bathroom that looked over the valley below.
It was Yukiwarimaru, illuminated by the red light of the sunset.
Caught in her fangs was the scruff of one boy, hanging pitifully from the wolf’s mouth.
If Yukiwarimaru loosened her jaws even slightly, he would be sent tumbling down to the ground far below.
“Now then—Was Yukiwarimaru rearing such a cub?”
The boy wore a bitter face at Subaru’s attempt at feigned ignorance.
It was Saho Akiho. He was in quite a bit of pain with his neck strangled by his shirt and unable to move an inch.
“Ah… Hello there,” he replied weakly.
Though she was wearing a bathrobe, Subaru was practically naked in the thin fabric that perfectly showed her body lines. The way her long hair was tied up behind her head to prevent it from getting wet only enhanced the indecency of her appearance.
“Ah, you’re not going to scream out in embarrassment, princess?”
“Well, if I made a ruckus, those anxious girls might run back here.”
“Eh, wouldn’t that be really inconvenient for me? This is bad. Someone might just end up MIA from our group during this mission.”
Despite his predicament, Saho’s tone was ridiculously calm.
He was currently dressed in a light shirt and a pair of rolled-up trousers while bare-footed. His appearance clearly demonstrated his intent to climb the nearly vertical outside wall of the castle.
While swaying in the wind beneath Yukiwarimaru’s jaws, he blatantly stared at Subaru, fully taking advantage of his situation.
Having herself stared at so openly, Subaru nonchalantly covered her chest with her arms and turned her body away.
Her cheeks might have been slightly red from more than just the heat of the bath. But it was impossible to tell for sure in the evening light.
She nodded as if impressed.
“Hmm. This might be a good opportunity.”
“Yeah, I thought the same thing. Now’s the last chance to talk while there’s still daylight. It will be impossible after tomorrow, right?”
Subaru smiled at the way Saho’s mouth never seemed to stop talking.
“True—I heard there was someone who called me an old woman well past her prime. Would that happen to be thee? Mr. Peeping Yonosuke2.”
Subaru’s tone was jesting, like when she acted out Rakugo.
Despite himself, Saho Akiho felt a bewitching charm in Subaru’s pleasant smile and was struck by several urges at once.
Put plainly, he was a bit miffed, but the situation being what it was, all he could do was endure the suffocation his neck was being subjected to and croak out some words.
“Eh? No, I’m not Yonosuke, I’m Saho. Saho Akiho.”
Subaru chuckled at the way he desperately pushed himself to retort.
“…Hmm. It is true what they say about people being wolves to other people. But it’s also said that a wolf should be allowed to give an excuse for his actions. What business do thou have with this old woman—Saho-dono?”
Subaru gave a small wave of her hand.
With that, Yukiwarimaru finally moved and dropped Saho into the bathroom.
Under the stare of Yukiwarimaru’s reddish-brown eyes, Saho resignedly sat cross-legged atop the stone ledge.
“I’ve heard animal proverbs like that before. There’s also the saying ‘a cliff to your front and a wolf to your back’, right? Well, whatever, let’s get down to business. Princess, you didn’t say anything when you saw my cat-person form, or when you saw the color of Yuri-chan’s skin either. You only treated Ameno-chan, who should look like a normal human, as a puppet.”
“Thou speak of the first day ye arrived here. What of it?”
“Yeah, you see, I was able to figure it out from that. The people who lived on this planet were limited to just standard humans. Well, I suppose I can’t really say what’s ‘standard’, though.”
“That is not reason enough for thee to sneak into this bath.”
“No, it is—uwah!”
Saho got down from the ledge and tried to step forward, but Yukiwarimaru’s jaws latched onto his trousers and pulled him back immediately.
“Ouch… Anyway, we have no definite proof yet that you yourself aren’t a Trans with the special characteristics from animals and spirits.”
“…I see. So thou came to confirm the truth of the matter. And thou insist that you are not some fool who came here with lecherous intent towards me?”
“As if I’d ever do that,” said Saho with a shake of his head.
“Hoh…? Would it not be sufficient to ask the other girls to confirm for thee?”
“Girls are the least trustworthy when it comes to reporting on their fellow girls. Who knows whether they’d truthfully answer if I asked? Besides, there are types of Trans who change at night—”
Subaru interrupted Saho’s attempt at defending his actions.
“Very well, I do not mind if thou do so.”
“Eh?” Saho gaped at Subaru’s words.
“I said I do not mind. Besides, I have yet to properly thank thee for before. Remember, thou risked thyself to block the mud from hitting me.”
—She was referring to the accident where Ameno protected Hatsuyuki from a rock dropped by a puppet. The deflected rock sent mud flying high through the air, but Saho stubbornly bore the brunt of it. Subaru had apparently carefully seen his actions then.
“Ah… Back then, I saw the rock heading towards you and thought it’d be real bad if it hit, so my body just acted on the spur of the moment. In the end, I got covered in mud. Well, I was more worried about Hatsuyuki, but Ameno-chan was faster than me, so—”
“Indeed, I hear that thou have often played with my wolves, Saho-dono.”
“Well yeah. Though the prez keeps yelling at me not to skip work.”
“Fufu… The wolves no longer have anyone to play with them now that Suzuran is gone. They were surely happy to spend time with thee…”
“Huh, that true? In that case… Ah…….”
Saho spoke to Yukiwarimaru for a moment, but when he turned back around, his breath caught in his throat.
That was because Subaru had stood up and calmly removed her bathrobe with her back to him.
“Is this sufficient?”
The witch princess stood with her naked body illuminated under the setting sun.
Her fine golden hair was now undone and gently clung to her back all the way down to her waist.
Subaru had unexpectedly granted his request.
Saho’s frivolous chatting finally came to a halt as his eyes were fixed upon her completely bare body.
The two of them turned silent, as the soft shifting of the decorative plants placed on the lookout and the ivy creeping along the castle walls filled the air along with the roaring sound of the waterfall outside.
The evening wind caressed their skin. Saho belatedly realized that she had exposed herself to such cold.
Even so, his mouth still refused to function.
After a while, Subaru suddenly spoke up.
She turned to look at Saho over her shoulder.
“…Thou likely find it vexing to gaze at such an ordinary aged body, but no tail will sprout from me no matter how long thou wait.”
Saho finally came to his sense.
“Ah…… Err…… Could you spin around so I can get a better look?”
“I shall kill you—turn away now.”
Even then, Saho was too dumbfounded to break his gaze away, so Yukiwarimaru lifted up her nose to block his view.
“H-Hey, you’re in the way!”
After putting back on her bathrobe, Subaru spoke with her unwavering calmness.
“Truly, it is a shame; ye male members of the Exploration Club would look quite adult and handsome if ye just made thy hair into topknots. I won’t tell thee to shave thy head, but thee seem like a child regardless of how big thy body is.”
“Hah, a topknot? As if I’d ever let myself have one of those,” responded Saho with an insolent attitude.
“I have become a bit cold. Perhaps I shall head to the kitchen after taking another brief soak.”
Subaru reacted to Saho’s attitude with a faint witch-like smile and then gave directions to Yukiwarimaru with a light jerk of her chin.
“Now then, thou may toss him into the basin at the bottom of the waterfall, Yukiwari.”
“Eh, no way, uwaaaaah!”
Just as Saho had been about to head to the bathroom entrance to leave with a discontent expression, Yukiwarimaru picked him up by the scruff of his neck once again and tossed him over the ledge with such speed and force he looked like falling plane.
“Uwah, this place really is cold.”
Homura had just entered the stables after descending the stone staircase down to it with her body stooped over.
She wore a jacket over her pajamas and held a handmade pillow in one arm.
Ameno looked up at this sudden night visitor just as she finished tidying up her Exploration Club equipment and sorting her remaining luggage in the stables.
“Hey, can I sleep here you with tonight, Ame-chan?”
Homura’s breath shone white under the lamp light as she spoke.
“Here? You can’t, Homura-san. You’ll catch a cold.”
“It’s fine, it’s fine.”
Homura proudly patted her stomach.
“My stomach is all full and warm from the stewed pot of pheasants you and the prez caught in the mountains.”
“Everyone stuffed themselves tonight. Here, catch.”
Homura forcefully pushed her pillow onto Ameno.
“Ah, got it—Subaru-hime-san was staring at the remaining rice bins in storage and wondering with a serious face whether she’d last through the winter, though…” said Ameno worriedly.
“That’s the entrance to the stables, right? Can I go take a peek?”
“Ah, that’s a storehouse there. The entrance is in the opposite direction. It’s dark, so watch your step.”
The stables stood annexed to the lowest floor of the castle with an entrance leading outside.
The stables were made out of natural bedrock. At the back of the stables was a warehouse that was half-underground.
With the wooden entrance door closed, virtually no wind blew inside, but the penetrating cold from the frigid air that creeped in chilled the soles of Homura’s feet.
Homura opened the door slightly and stepped outside to look up at the starry night sky.
“I thought it was still the middle of fall when we came here, but now it’s already winter on Nutella.”
“I keep thinking of how the longer I stay here, the more aged I’ll be when I get back…”
“Ahaha, that’s true. But Akado-san’s grandmother said that growing old isn’t all bad.”
“That so? Hmm… I’ll withhold any opinions on that for the time being.”
In front of the stables was a small plaza and beyond that was a grove of trees. It wasn’t possible to see the area surrounding the castle from here.
Even so, the overlapping echoes of the nearby waterfalls came from all four cardinal directions of the valley. They sounded distant during the day, but the roaring of the rushing water was quite distinct at night.
The same went for the night sky above. Breathtaking stars glittered in the heavens, incomparable to the muted sky of Earth’s cities.
As she gazed at the stars, Homura let out a white breath within her palms.
“…It’s a spectacular view no matter how many times I see it… Speaking of which, are there constellations in the sky on Nutella?”
Ameno came out to sit and gaze up at the sky alongside Homura.
“Yeah, there are, from what I’ve heard. But people from various countries have been petitioning to name them, so no constellation names have been officially decided, yet. I don’t know all the constellations either. There’s no network connection here, after all…”
“I see, so people compete even over constellations.”
“More importantly, Homura-san. Wouldn’t Subaru-hime-san know the constellation names and legends passed down by the People of Sagacity who lived on this planet?”
“Ah, yeah, she probably has star charts and the like. There are probably lots of tales regarding the Bagel too.”
Homura crossed her arms and nodded. She wondered what kind of names Himekawa-san and the rabbit-boy Kuwazono-kun from Tomakomai Denpa High gave to the stars they observed with their club’s telescope.
“Speaking of star charts…”
Just as Homura was about to broach another topic, an exasperated voice came from behind her.
“—What are you doing?”
Kanae peeked her head out from the stables’ half-opened door.
She came outside to join Homura and Ameno. Unlike Homura, she was still wearing her exploration outfit.
“Ah, Yuri-san. Good evening,” greeted Ameno.
“Even Ameno’s out here,” said Kanae in surprise.
“Fufu. I thought you’d come!”
Homura’s self-satisfied look made Kanae frown sullenly.
“I’m looking at the stars with Homura-san,” explained Ameno.
Despite her seeming lack of interest, Kanae moved to stand next to Ameno and quietly looked up at the starry sky.
Homura peeked at Kanae’s face from the side. Her dark red eyes reflected the stars above.
“Do you know, Yuri-chan? During the SA, there was a presentation on something called the Geocentric Model hypothesis, I think? Does that have something to do with the constellations here?”
Kanae replied without hiding the irritation she felt upon hearing that term.
“…The Geocentric Model hypothesis is a superstition that some Christian-centric countries in Europe and South America support as a theory on Nutellan space.”
“It’s not yet certain that it’s mere superstition…” said Ameno, but Kanae glared at her.
“Even you, Ameno? The whole idea is ridiculous.”
“So what is it, exactly? Didn’t they mention an Aris-something-or-other System along with it?”
“It’s an irrelevant theory. A superstitious belief like old legends about zodiac signs. That’s all it amounts to.”
“Eh… come on, explain it, Yuri-chan-san-sensei.”
“Don’t call me that.”
Seeing that Kanae had no intention of explaining, Ameno took over instead.
“The most powerful supporter of the Geocentric Model hypothesis is the Vatican in Rome. And because the head of their faith agrees with the hypothesis, many Catholics perceive Nutella that way as well, apparently.”
“Heh~. Yeah, I know of the Vatican. It’s famous as the smallest country in the world. But how exactly do they perceive Nutella?”
“The Aristarchusic system is a branched-off theory of the Geocentric model, which claims that the universe revolves around the sun at its center. Famous people like the astronomer Copernicus and the philosopher Plato apparently believed in that model as well. The Greek astronomer Aristarchus was also one such believer in this model, and so the model came to be called by his name.”
“So that’s it. The name sounded like some brand name, so I thought it had something to do with fashion.”
Perhaps unable to let Homura’s misplaced admiration slide, Kanae finally spoke up again.
“…It isn’t correct to call it a Geocentric model. In the Aristarchusic system, the Earth moves, so it should be called a Heliocentric model. The universe revolves around them in either model, so… the term ‘Geocentric Model hypothesis’ was a name given to this superstition in sarcasm by those who dispute it. It’s similar to how Schrödinger’s Cat was named.”
“I see, I see… Err, so?”
Homura still didn’t see to get it. Kanae gripped Homura’s shoulders and pulled her face close, glaring at her sharply.
“Do you still not understand? The Vatican is saying that Nutella is a planet bestowed upon us by God. They’re proclaiming that this is the Garden of Eden that Adam and Eve were thrown out of as depicted in the Old Testament.”
“…The Garden of Eden!? Really!?” said Homura in surprise.
“If Nutella is the Garden of Eden, does that make Earth a planet of purgatory? It’s completely ridiculous. It’s not even funny as a joke.”
“But it’s true that we’ve yet to find any dinosaur fossils on Nutella…” argued Ameno. “And if you look at the age measurements… there are certified traces of a huge flood having happened in the far past…”
“Not you too, Ameno… Really now.”
Seeing Kanae pout, Ameno cheerfully shrugged and back off.
“If that were true, wouldn’t it be better for us to return to Earth? Wouldn’t God be angry at our presence here?” asked Homura.
“Quit it already. Things are already bad enough with the Catholic fundamentalists getting full of themselves.”
Not really understanding the conversation, Homura apologized in the face of Kanae’s lethal glare. However—
Even if a debunked universal model from the Middle Ages seemed like it might be revived due to the discovery of Nutella, Homura did feel it was strange that the religion and even worldviews of the people who supported it would make a comeback alongside it. Ameno also turned serious and nodded in agreement with Kanae.
“True. In a speech at the New York UN headquarters, Doctor Chandra said that Nutella exists for all people who live on Earth and all the children who will be born in the future. So people should abstain from proclamations that acknowledge only the opinions and claims of people belonging to a specific religion.”
“I see,” said Homura. “Yeah, we investigators have to be especially careful… right?”
Ameno was impressed by Homura’s words which showed her self-awareness as an investigator, but that was only fleeting.
“But, hey, in the Geocentric Model hypothesis, the universe revolves around the Sun, right? But wouldn’t that require crazy amounts of centrifugal force?”
“Even the Vatican isn’t that stupid. They mean something different when they say that the Sun is at the center.”
“Something different…? Ah… Achoo…”
Homura let out a big sneeze. Seeing that, Ameno urged the other two girls to return inside the stables.
—Just as Homura was wistfully looking back up at the starry sky before turning to leave…
“Ah, wait… Something… is flowing from the sky…”
Homura suddenly stood up and stared at the darkness above.
Kanae followed Homura’s gaze. Kanae calmly held out a hand towards the sky, and the light leaking out from the stables reflected slightly against something in the air.
What alighted upon Kanae’s finger was a glittering fragment of the starry sky—
“……Snow…” Kanae murmured.
Homura brought her face close to look at it with her hands over her mouth and smiled.
“…You’re right. Wow…”
Ameno rushed back from the door and just barely managed to see it in time.
Soon after, the little piece of crystallized water melted and vanished atop Kanae’s chilled finger.
Homura and the others returned to the stables.
The three of them slipped into the stray bed there, with Ameno in the middle and Homura and Kanae to either side of her.
“You’re so warm, Ame-chan.”
“Ameno, your body’s thermoregulation is off. Lower your temperature. It’s a waste of power.”
“It’s fine. I’m making sure to leave plenty of battery for our departure tomorrow.”
“L-Let’s huddle a bit closer… I’m on the verge of falling off here,” said Homura.
Kanae had also apparently came to sleep in the stables from the start, as she had brought her sleeping bag to use in place of a bed cover. Even so, Ameno’s small bed was quite a narrow fit with all three of them together.
Kanae wore a displeased face over being forced to lie on the side against the wall, but Ameno actually seemed to enjoy the cramped sleeping arrangement.
“Still, that was amazing… Snow… I guess you could call it the first snow (Hatsuyuki3) of the season.”
“Ah, you’re right. It’s Hatsuyuki-chan.”
More snow had begun to gradually fall after that first snowflake.
It was still too early in the season for a major snowfall. But it made the cold seem even more pronounced, and Homura felt as if she could hear the frost forming outside the door.
“That was probably the first snowflake of the season. The first snowflake to fall on Nutella. Those who see the first snowflake of winter will end up becoming very happy,” Homura declared proudly.
“Is that so?”
“Yes—it’s a very special snowflake. That snowflake landed on you, Yuri-chan. You’ll definitely become happy.”
Kanae rejected Homura’s words with a scornful laugh, seeming as if she wanted to say, ‘Don’t fill Ameno with your stupid superstitions.’
“…Snow is always falling somewhere all year round,” she began to explain. “Besides, the first snowflake isn’t the only one that’s special. Each and every snowflake crystal has a different shape.”
“Hahaha, that’s quite a joke… Eh, you’re serious?”
“Homura-san, what Yuri-san says is true. The shape of every snowflake is slightly different. It’s impossible to find snowflakes that have exactly the same shape in a single season. The number of crystal patterns ranges into ten thousand of quadrillions. Even when people try to make them artificially, they always end up different for some reason. I can’t look up the latest theories on it online right now, though, so I apologize if I’m mistaken,” said Ameno somewhat unreliably.
“Ah, that’s that word again, ‘patterns’… Heh, in that case, all snowflakes that fall are the first snowflakes of the season?”
“I suppose that’s the best way to think of it,” said Ameno with a giggle beneath the cover of the sleeping bag.
Kanae unpleasantly frowned and turned over to face her back to them on the bed.
“You two really are easygoing…”
After saying that in an exasperated tone, Kanae turned silent.
“By the way, you started calling her ‘Yuri-chan at some point…?” Ameno asked Homura in a whisper—though of course, the person in question could still hear her perfectly well.
“It’s because I was jealous of the way you two get along~. I’m guessing Yuri-chan has come here on previous nights, right?” Then Homura lowered her voice to a whisper as well. “Were you guys talking about your little sister Samari-chan?”
Ameno seemed hesitant to answer, perhaps out of consideration for the silent Kanae.
Homura could have sworn she saw a slightly lonely expression on Ameno’s face then in the dimness of the stables.
Roto Samari—That was the anagram name Kanae had given to her. Kanae usually acted like she didn’t care about names and such, but that was probably a lie. She had surely put some meaning and feeling into that name.
To Homura, her younger sister Tsuyu was annoying, but also someone she couldn’t separate from; a close family member, but also someone who had completely different interests and hobbies. That kind of close yet distant existence. However, how did Ameno feel about her own younger sister?
And also, when would Samari be able to participate in missions with the Hiyoshizaka club?
“…Or did you perhaps talk about Hatsuyuki-chan instead? That cub seems to be quite wary and seems to refuse to get close to anyone, but I’m sure we’ll be able to get along with him next time.”
“Yes. It’d really be nice if that happened. And next time we come, Hatsuyuki-chan will be much bigger.”
“Ah… You’re right…”
The wall of time that separated them from Nutella every time they returned to Earth. The ever-increasing distance between Subaru’s heart and her memories. The disappointment of only getting to see Hatsuyuki’s growth in skipped stages.
If God made Nutella, Homura felt like complaining a little about his cruel design of the planet.
A winter mountain, huh… A fox really would be right at home here…
Those were Homura’s last vague thoughts before she fell asleep.
Late at night, Subaru didn’t raise her head from the desk she sat at as a knock came to the door of her private den.
She had already noticed the approaching footsteps earlier.
“Thou may enter—Mayo.”
“…I apologize for disturbing you so late at night.”
Misasagi Mayo entered the den carrying a small lamp. Her undone silver hair had regained its deep color once nighttime arrived.
This was Subaru’s private den at the topmost floor of the castle.
Subaru cast a huge shadow on the wall from the illumination of the lamp set beside her window desk.
A brazier was dimly burning coals in one corner of the room with an iron kettle set atop it.
Even with that, though, the harsh cold permeated the air in the room.
“Please sit down and wait. I shall be finished in a moment. Then I shall pour thee some tea.”
Even as she spoke, Subaru’s hand didn’t rest as she continued to write with a fine brush.
“I apologize for making thee wait. As thou can see, I am writing up the reply letters to thy father and Fujimori-dono.”
“Thank you very much. I apologize for interrupting you.”
“It is fine.”
Mayo quietly sat down as she was told, and Subaru noticed her gaze was directed at particular spot.
“…Is that rare to thee?”
Mayo nodded as her gaze was fixed on the splendid jade art piece placed next to her chair.
There was also a stringed instrument that resembled a Chinese huqin lute displayed on the wall with a wonderful-scented dry flower.
Mayo had visited this room several times with Kamikoma, but this was her first opportunity to visit the room alone and calmly look it over.
“There are so many interesting objects here… That reminds me. Momoyama-kun mentioned how there are even some items in this castle that would have been difficult for you to obtain on your own, Subaru-san.”
Upon hearing that, Subaru put on a cynical smile.
“Momoyama-dono has made me remember something unpleasant.”
“Or perhaps I should say an unpleasant person….” Subaru sighed. “There is a traveling merchant who sometimes visits this castle at irregular intervals… It vexes me to say this, but there are indeed items here that I had to buy from that person. I just could not seem to get along with that merchant. Moreover, he truly showed his disposition as a traveler. When I tried to politely make him welcome, he would always somehow size me up and make me pay high prices for his wares. He was truly an irritating person.”
This was the first time Mayo had ever heard of merchants who traveled across Nutella.
But Mayo could understand the reason for that. There likely didn’t exist a way to properly distinguish such traveling merchants from the dangerous graver robbers that Subaru had spoken of. So, Subaru had likely omitted mentioning it in order to prevent them from making guesses and predictions on insufficient information.
“So that merchant is a man, then?”
“Hoh.” Subaru stared pointedly at Mayo. “…Well, that is correct. However, we’re both old dodgers at this point. He is long withered at this point. I obtained this ink from him at a high price, too. It annoys me just to remember it.”
Subaru grumbled while using her foot to remix the ink with an inkstone.
“Mu, that’s right… That man would probably possess a map of this planet… However, who knows how many years or decades it will be till his next visit…”
“…What is his name?”
Subaru shrugged at Mayo’s question.
“His name? Who knows. He always uses a different name at different places. What were some of them… I think he has called himself ‘Eulenspiegel’, ‘Falstaff’, ‘Arlecchino’4… Regardless, any name will do for him. And just because he happened to have some understanding of the Japanese language, he called himself ‘Puppet Master’ while pouring himself sake before me—All right, I have decided. If ye should happen to encounter him while on one of thy ‘missions’, ye may immediately cut him down without remorse.”
“Wouldn’t that be problematic for you?”
Mayo giggled at Subaru’s point-blank declaration.
“I do not mind. It would make me feel refreshed.”
“Now, now, don’t say that—then, based on the name Puppet Master, does he sell puppets as well?”
“Not puppets themselves, but rather the service of repairing them. He is like a tinkerer who wanders around fixing pots and pans—Hmm, Suzuran probably does not remember, but he visited once while she was still too young to be fully self-aware. He fixed a malfunctioning puppet during that visit.”
“Then… is he the culprit who gave her toys perfect for committing pranks?”
“Indeed.” Subaru chuckled and nodded while gazing down at ink brush.
As she quietly listened to Subaru’s tales, a cool and collected part of Misasagi Mayo was swiftly analyzing the precious information she divulged and trying to coax out further information.
If this Puppet Master was still alive, he was someone who knew the secrets of Nutella like Subaru, and he might even serve as foothold to reveal the full picture of Nutella in an instant.
Right now, she didn’t want to break this irreplaceable moment on a silent night.
Even the noise of each breath, like pauses weaved within a silent music score, seemed like songs that struck her heart.
Finally putting her ink brush aside, Subaru shifted in her chair and turned to face Mayo.
“Mayo. Come here,” she said with a gesture to approach.
Slightly confused, Mayo shook her head.
“I can’t interrupt your writing.”
“I can finish it later. Thou must be freezing with that barely sizzling brazier. Come here.”
Subaru took off the blanket over her legs and patted her lap invitingly.
On the floor was a carpet with a strange design, and on top of it was a small floor cushion, likely originally used by Suzuran and left where it was even after her departure. Perhaps the small Hatsuyuki used it now to nap on.
Mayo timidly kneeled down at Subaru’s feet where the hem of her kimono touched the floor and quietly snuggled up to her.
“So the next time ye shall visit will be in the spring.”
“I see, so it will be some time till we meet again.”
Subaru gestured for her to come close. She gripped Mayo’s fingers and guided them to her lap along with the rest of her upper body.
Feeling something like nostalgia in the smooth silk of Subaru’s kimono and the warmth permeating through it, Mayo obediently followed Subaru’s direction.
Subaru placed the blanket over Mayo’s shoulders, warming her body which had chilled more than she’d thought.
—Now that they had completed the big construction work together, Seiran High’s Exploration Club planned to return here in staggered shifts, split between themselves and the Hiyoshizaka High club.
On their next visit, they would finish the base camp to the point where it could actually be used.
Furthermore, they would have the extremely important duty of establishing the transport coordinates for the brand-new Transport Ring that should be completed by that time. It was a new Transport Ring personally created by Doctor Chandra and authorized by UN headquarters.
“If it is fine with thee, I would not mind helping with your ‘base camp’ a little.”
Mayo looked up in surprise at this unexpected suggestion.
Subaru was saying she would finish the remaining fine bits of construction work on the base camp herself.
“No, I could never ask that of you. We will properly secure the site before we depart tomorrow. I believe it will be able to weather through the snow until we resume work in the spring.”
“Hmm. That is splendid display of dedication, but it would serve as a good way to pass the time for me. If it is not a bother, would you allow me to help?”
How much of a relief would it be to accept her help—?
This base would serve as lodgings for investigators from other schools who would eventually visit. It would also surely be useful as a relay point in the expedition mission Kamikoma and her club were going to undertake.
Unable to say anything, Mayo cast her eyes down and pressed her cheek against Subaru’s lap.
Subaru lovingly placed a hand on her head and kindly admonished her while stroking her hair.
“Mayo, thou brace thyself too much. Some of the younger ones like Homura and Saho-dono are still too childish at heart, but thou should act thy age and relax a bit more.”
After saying that, Subaru’s head drooped despondently.
“It might not be my place to say, though, considering how childish I acted in regards to Ameno. Forgive me.”
“No… I was the one who failed to show proper understanding towards the customs here… I’m sorry.”
“That is precisely what I mean by bracing thyself too much. I said I was in the wrong, so you should raise your head and nose high like a Tengu and be proud of your actions. That is what Suzuran would surely do.”
As Subaru directly felt the breath from Mayo’s giggles on her lap, she continued speaking.
“Mayo. I know that thy mother does not live in the same residence as thee. In his letter, Yoshihiro-dono mentioned how he is something of a widower, and that he has caused much trouble for thee.”
“…My father remarried. My mother is his second wife. She is in good health, but she’s living separately from my father right now. His first wife died without giving birth to any children.”
“So the child was separated from her parent, huh? Should not a daughter be sent to live with her mother?”
“Yes. I lived with her when I was young, but I returned to live with father. My mother likely hasn’t forgiven me for that.”
“…Then, oddly enough, we are actually similar… Yoshihiro-dono must be a busy man. Are thee not lonely?”
“There are plenty of maids and cooks who chat with me at our residence, so I’m not lonely. Besides, I have good friends too. I’ve not once thought… that I’m misfortunate. I have a happy life.”
“I am relieved to hear that.”
Mayo grit her teeth and turned her face away for a moment, as if admonishing herself.
But she couldn’t hold back the urge which stirred within her and turned to look up at Subaru’s eyes once more.
Subaru silently listened without rushing her.
“…Subaru-san, the remaining time I can spend with you is very short and limited. I am in my final year of high school. I will graduate in just half a year. When that happens—”
Mayo’s following words caught in her throat as her shoulder trembled.
Naturally surmising what she meant to say, Subaru picked up where Mayo left off.
“Japanese law states that those who reach the age of nineteen and complete their higher education must retire from their service as Nutellan investigators, I believe.”
“Yes… When that happens, I will no longer be able to visit Nutella. I won’t be able to meet you anymore, Subaru-san! We’ll never, never—meet again.”
“I see… Even if it is a custom ye must obey… It must be hard for thee.”
The club’s institution strictly stated that Nutellan investigators from Japan were limited to those between the ages of fifteen to eighteen and in the corresponding grades in school.
The main reason was that, once they reached the age of nineteen, investigators all had a rapid decline in their transport success rate, regardless of how high their individual IE Responses were.
The time investigators spent on Nutella technically increased their physical age further compared to their age in Earth years, but this actually tended to decrease the decline in the transport success rate. However, that too had a limit.
That limitation was the very reason why the adults on Earth had to entrust the exploration of Nutella to young investigators.
Once they finished their three-year high school curriculum, they had to graduate.
After three years, their club activities came to an abrupt end and they had to move on to a new stage filled with unknown places and unfamiliar people. That was surely natural.
“I, I want to go further. I want to learn more about this planet. I don’t need any map. As long as I can go anywhere with my own two feet…!”
For a brief while, Mayo hung her head and made Subaru’s lap wet with tears.
Eventually, she lifted her face embarrassingly and spoke up.
“—To me, you’re a reward, Subaru-san.”
Subaru tilted her head in puzzlement while fixing Mayo’s frayed hair.
“Meeting a Nutellan princess is a reward for my three years in the club.” Mayo’s expression was filled with joy. “I’m glad I met you.”
Subaru nodded with a warm, affectionate smile that she only showed to those she acknowledged as family.
“Me too. I am sure that my meeting with thee was guided by my deceased father.”
After saying that, Subaru took out a handkerchief from her sleeve and wiped Mayo’s eyes.
“Your expression is finally bit more like a young girl’s now.”
—A gentle, soothing atmosphere filled the room.
Mayo stood up with a bit of embarrassment and snuggled up to Subaru’s back behind her chair. It was then—
Mayo happened to notice a bundle of documents on top of Subaru’s desk.
Unlike Subaru’s other writing materials, this bundle of papers had colorful and comical stickers over them that were clearly made in Japan, so it greatly stood out.
“This? Ah, thou found it. How careless of me.”
Shrugging her shoulders in a somewhat transparent act, Subaru picked up the bundle of stationery paper and print-outs and showed them to Mayo.
“These are all letters?”
“Homura and Touya-dono gave them to me while insisting I keep it secret from thee. They said that these are from other investigators that didn’t come here this time. Oh, how careless of me to have left them in plain sight.”
“Hinooka-san, Touya-kun… Geez, they always act on their own like that…”
“Now, now, do not scold them. Homura and Touya-dono could not say no to a favour for their friends. I still have yet to finish looking over them all. I will not be able to send back replies until thy next visit. By the way, there are some words I do not understand in them, so could I enlist thy aid?”
Still frowning, Mayo chose to listen to Subaru’s questions.
“What exactly are ‘three sizes’? I was asked about this in several of the letters. It seems quite important.”
“And one of them wrote, ‘Please have someone film you riding a broom with a black cat.’ I do not understand this request at all. Does the phrase delivery service that was mentioned in the same letter have something to do with mail couriers5?”
“I really… really apologize for this…”
Mayo seemed to shrink unto herself as her face turned red.
Subaru laughed and made her raise her head.
“There were other questions too, such as those regarding my likes and hobbies. My favorite modern Rakugo is ‘Chivalrous Nagareyama Zoo’. After I read that book of Rakugo stories, I could not stop laughing for two or three days each time I remembered that one. I do not mind if you convey this answer at least back to them first.”
She seemed to be talking about one of the stories in the Rakugo book that Touya had given her during their previous visit.
“In that case, the Rakugo Society might be happy to hear that. The truth is, when we told people that you like Rakugo, a bit of a Rakugo boom started in Japan. There even seem to be some that would like to have you as a star performer.”
“Th… That’s far too august an honor for me…”
It was Subaru’s turn to shrink back. Her exaggerated gesturing from her Rakugo performances naturally came out as she spoke.
“A star performer is a professional master storyteller in Rakugo, correct? Master Rakugo storytellers are the same as gods of entertainment to me. I am far too unworthy of such a title! Truly, I am undeserving of such an honor…”
Subaru actually turned paled as she frantically shook her head.
She then stood up and headed to the brazier to rekindle the fire while beginning preparations to pour tea. Even as she did so, she kept shaking her head.
“It is getting late. Thou should return to thy room. But before that, can I ask thee one favor?”
“What is it?”
Subaru took out a familiar letter from her sleeve and presented it to Mayo.
“The letter from Suzuran…? You still haven’t opened it?”
“……Hmm, well… the truth is… I am slightly… scared…”
Subaru wore a meek expression while holding a steaming teacup in her hands.
“Please, Mayo. Could thou read this letter aloud to me? If not, I feel that I will never open it.”
Subaru confessed that the reason she had entered the bath drunk before was because she had just tried and failed to summon the courage to open this letter beforehand.
Mayo sat down on the nearby couch and wore a composed expression, just like when she scolded Homura.
“This is a letter that Suzuran wrote directly to you, Subaru-hime. I think you should read it yourself. Haven’t you already seen pictures of her? I don’t think there’s anything you need to worry about…”
“For mercy’s sake, please do this one favour for me, Mayo—”
Subaru pleaded with her hands clenched together, and Mayo finally shrugged in resignation.
“You really do have a childish side, Subaru-san… Very well. I’ll read it for you.”
Thus Mayo accepted the small letter.
Leaning her shoulder against the frequently trembling Subaru, Mayo opened the letter and silently began to read it aloud.
Are you doing well?
I’m I am6——’
Chapter 17 END
(1) The Double Bridge is the famous nickname of the main stone bridge to the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. The nickname comes from how its reflection in the water makes it look like two linked bridges.
(2) This is most likely a reference to the comedic and philandering character Yonosuke from the 1692 Japanese novel “The Life of an Amorous Man” by Ihara Saikaku.
(3) This is an obvious pun, since “Hatsuyuki” literally means “first snow”.
(4) This is partly guesswork, but all these names follow a common “rogue/trickster” theme. Eulenspiegel likely comes from Till Eulenspiegel, a trickster/prankster figure in old German folklore. Falstaff comes from Sir John Falstaff, a comedic rogue character in several of Shakespeare’s plays. Arlecchino is the Italian word for harlequin, a classic comic stock character who acts as a kind of clown-like trickster.
(5) Yes, this is a reference to the famous film “Kiki’s Delivery Service”, though I doubt it needs pointing out.
(6) Here, Suzuran starts by writing ‘Ore’, the male ‘I’ pronoun, which she always used as a childish habit, before crossing it out and writing the more formal and gender-neutral ‘I’ pronoun, ‘Watashi’. In the translation, I simply wrote it as her switching from an informal tone to a formal one.