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Spice and Wolf, Vol. 9
The Town of Strife II
By Isuna Hasekura
OrbitCopyright © 2013 Isuna Hasekura
All rights reserved.
"We must leave this place," Lawrence said bluntly. "And quickly, too."
He entered the room with long strides. On the table were the coins, the puzzle of which Col had solved, and Lawrence gathered them into his coin purse as though he were making a sandpile on a beach.
The travelers' life was one of casting off needless things.
Everything they needed was already packed in a burlap bag in the room's corner, and if flight was necessary, they could simply cinch the bag up, shoulder it, and run—it was far from rare to be attacked during the night, after all.
Lawrence looked up at the voice.
It was the surprised face of his traveling companion, Holo.
"What's this, then?"
In her hand was a letter written on a single piece of parchment.
Inscribed on it was a statement in curt, undecorated letters, along with a bloodred wax seal in the bottom-right corner.
It was addressed to none other than Lawrence, and the sender was the Rowen Trade Guild. For a traveling merchant like Lawrence, whose livelihood was ever uncertain, the group of comrade merchants was most encouraging.
Its seal was a powerful shield in any town and could be a powerful weapon as well.
And the guild had sent Lawrence a letter at the inn where he stayed on the north side of Kerube.
"'We seek now a brave merchant who fears neither witch nor alchemist. In consideration of both the wealth and progress of the guild, by all means, please ... signed, Lud Kieman.'"
Holo read the letter's contents aloud smoothly and then looked to Lawrence curiously.
Next to Holo, their other travel companion, Col, peered at the document in her hands.
The letter was from Lud Kieman, chief trader of the Kerube branch of the Rowen Trade Guild, and its meaning was clear—there was no doubt that he was trying to get Lawrence's cooperation, just as Eve said he would.
He wanted to deliver the narwhal to Eve and to receive in return the titles for the land on the north side of the river, thereby transforming the balance of power in the town. The narwhal was a creature so valuable that it made such things possible.
But neither Kieman nor Eve could trust the other. Each of them was far too hypocritical to shake hands over a contract. They needed someone to act as a middleman, a go-between. And if possible, someone whom they could each easily control.
In the midst of heated competition over such vast profits, a merchant's life was worth no more than a single grain of wheat.
Lawrence could hear the crunch, crunch of creaking bones.
Col and Holo's lack of concern only further aggravated his nervousness. "Don't you see? This is a summons from my guild," he said by way of explanation, tying the burlap sack tightly closed.
"Your guild?" came Holo's reply, which made Lawrence stand and shake his head.
"The name on the letter, there—that's Lud Kieman, the manager of the local branch of my guild. Even if I don't owe Kieman any favors directly, I owe my allegiance to the Rowen Trade Guild, whose delta house he manages. Do you understand what I'm saying? Kieman is using the reins of my obligation to the guild in order to put me in a terrible position!"
Traders as powerless as traveling merchants can safely move from town to town only because of their guild attachments. Because the guild works tirelessly to acquire various rights and privileges in each town, its merchants could visit those towns and conduct business without worry.
But being able to dine on the fruits plucked by the guild's claws and teeth meant that when a merchant's cooperation was asked, a member could not refuse it.
Because no matter how absurd the request, the many privileges the merchant had so far enjoyed came at the cost of the hard labor of his comrades.
Yet there was a limit to how obligated one could be.
Kieman was scheming in service of his own self-interest and trying to pull Lawrence into those machinations.
He would claim it was in the interests of the guild, and as long as his preparations were thorough, Lawrence would be unable to refuse lest he be branded a traitor by the guild. And there was another reason for Lawrence to be worried—the person with whom he'd only recently conversed in another building.
If Kieman was the head of a great giant composed of an army of merchants, then his enemy was a wolf of equally impressive stature.
And that wolf had unexpectedly asked Lawrence to betray the guild.
Of course, she was waiting with the promise of dizzying profit, and indeed her proposal to Lawrence was just one part of a larger stratagem she had already set in motion.
It was all but a forgone conclusion that a single traveling merchant would easily be swept away in this crimson maelstrom of money and chance.
Between the gears of power and influence, the blood of a single human was generally of no great value.
"We must leave the city. As soon as possible. Before we no longer can."
There was still time.
Lawrence swallowed those words like a prayer. "Both of you, quickly," he added.
"Would you not calm yourself?" came Holo's cool words, pouring over the scalding fires in his mind.
Those words were like water spilling into boiling oil. Lawrence exploded in spite of himself. "I am quite calm!"
Col stood next to Holo, holding a small wine cask, and he recoiled almost audibly at the sound. Beside him, the white down on Holo's ears stirred the merest fraction.
It was blazingly obvious which of the three was the least composed in the room.
Lawrence put down his own load, looked up at the ceiling, then closed his eyes and drew a deep breath.
He remembered that once when he had been on the verge of bankruptcy and ruin, he had slapped Holo's hand away in anger.
He asked himself if he had learned nothing since then.
Inwardly, he cursed himself.
"Well, there's nothing wrong with a pliant male who bends like a green twig, but such a man can hardly be relied upon. A fool is so much the better for his obviousness."
Holo's tail wagged as she stroked Col's head; the boy watched the developments carefully.
"Though possessing two eyes, most creatures can see but a single thing at a time. Do you know why males and females go to such lengths to bond with each other?"
She took the wine cask from Col and pulled its cork free with her teeth. With a light gesture of her chin, she signaled for Col to take the cork from her.
Col did as he was instructed as if well acquainted with the process.
During that time, Holo's eyes remained fixed on Lawrence. "I'm sure your common sense has led you to some sort of clear conclusion."
Lawrence didn't have to ask what Holo would have added to that statement.
The two of them, Holo and Col, sat side by side and regarded him. The pair looked somehow fragile in that moment, which made Lawrence feel like a villain.
"Hmph. From twixt stalks of wheat, I once often witnessed such ill manners in the village."
Lawrence knew what Holo was trying to say.
Col seemed to catch up a bit later, and when he looked away uneasily, Holo elbowed him, as if to say, "Spit it out."
"... My father ... was often like this."
Lawrence had no room to protest that none of this was his fault. "... I am sorry. Still—"
"Save your apologies. I want not answers. What I ask for is an explanation. We are not your followers. We've no obligation to do as you tell us. Do I not speak the truth?"
She admonished him without anger, and her statement was effective because it was correct.
The two were not the innocent, helpless people they appeared to be.
They were each independent beings, perfectly capable of conceiving and carrying out their own plans.
To arbitrarily decide what to do right in front of them was itself a sort of betrayal.
"So then, what happened?" asked Holo, wearing a trace of a smile.
Despite having castigated him for his narrow vision, she seemed to acknowledge that he must have his reasons.
And stubbornness was not a merchant's way.
Lawrence shook his head—not to deny her words, but rather to clear his own mind.
He recalled the exchange in which he had engaged earlier.
"Eve invited me to act as her spy."
"Oh ho," said Holo briefly, putting the wine to her lips. She meant for him to continue.
"And the sender of that letter, Kieman, wants me to act as his spy as well."
"So you're trapped, then."
Lawrence nodded and continued on to the subject that was the root of the trouble.
"The reason for all of this is because the south side has captured a fishing boat from the north. That's all it will take to spark the conflict between the poor north and the wealthy southern sides. The southerners resorted to this because they wanted the valuable catch of the northerner's boat. Eve has been charged with returning the prize to the north, but the one who gave her the order is not doing so out of loyalty to the north, but rather for his own profit. And Eve is merely pretending to go along with this; she plans to betray the north and has asked me to help."
The matter wouldn't be settled with mere hundreds of lumione.
And yet she was perfectly willing to conduct this deal, the value of which extended into thousands of gold coins.
"Quite a female," declared Holo with an irritated smirk. Col seemed to be afraid of making a conversational misstep, so he stared off into space.
"But since Eve declared her intention to betray the north, it's likely she's willing to betray anyone, is it not?"
Theoretically, two negatives equaled a positive, and the enemy of one's enemy was an ally. But only Eve knew whether her betrayal upon betrayal would work to her profit in the end.
"'Tis a bog of doubt, then, aye. When even your own pack is trying to use you to their own ends, I suppose 'tis no surprise your face is white with worry."
Holo took a swig from the wine cask and burped.
That she could say such things and drink wine as she did so was infuriating, but Lawrence only painted on a pained smile.
Besides, as the saying went, knights who survived the battlefield were ever smiling, and merchants were no different.
"Is there any solution that satisfies all parties?"
"Since Eve isn't truly working for the north, it shouldn't matter to her where her profit comes from. Which means she shouldn't mind receiving her share from the Rowen Trade Guild. It's possible that both Eve and the guild could profit. So as long as she doesn't decide to betray both me and the guild in order to take everything for herself, that could work."
"Alternatively, I could act in favor of the guild's profit and try to exclude Eve entirely."
"Mmm ... So we must either throw ourselves on the mercy of a villain or be blindly optimistic, eh?"
Otherwise, Lawrence would not be in this position—such was the logical conclusion.
Lawrence nodded and put his hands on the table.
"But this is all guesswork based on what I've been able to learn. In such a vast operation, there is too much I don't know. If I get involved, I can't help but be a pawn for those above me."
If Lawrence could plumb the depths of these schemes, he could turn them to his profit. But to do that, he had to understand exactly where those depths lay.
"So you're left with discretion being the better part of valor, eh?" said Holo.
"Yes," agreed Lawrence, taking the letter from Holo's hands.
As a lonely wandering merchant, how many times had the seal on that letter come to his aid? It was a magical emblem, both a powerful weapon and a sturdy shield.
He'd never doubted its might.
Which was why—now that its power was turned against him—he could see no alternative but escape.
"So that vixen and your pack are fighting over the same prize, then? What might that be?"
"Huh? Oh yes. It's what you say you saw on the south side."
"Surely not the bones?"
Lawrence and his party had come to the seaside town of Kerube, far from Holo's homelands of Yoitsu, in search of a certain item—the bones of what was said to be a wolf-god worshipped in the mountains of Roef.
Holo had discovered the possibility that the bones would be used in an unforgivable manner by the Church, while Col wanted to learn the truth of his homeland's god.
Holo's tone was thus amused when she asked the question, but her eyes were not smiling.
The object in question was not so very far from the wolf bones as goods went, which was why the powers that be were in such a frenzy to acquire it.
"Something similar. A beast from the northern seas—a magical creature with a single horn. Eating its flesh grants long life, and a tincture of its horn cures disease. It's called a narwhal. Evidently one of the north side's fishing boats hauled one up in its nets."
Holo had been listening to Lawrence speak as though his words were a pleasant side dish to go with her wine, but suddenly her ear twitched.
The lie was so obvious it wasn't even worth laughing at.
"You're certain that all this talk centers around that, aye?"
"In which case, you yet have choices you can make. Isn't that so?" Holo, amused, directed this last question to Col.
While Holo had been listening to Lawrence speak, Col watched the pair's exchange from the outside.
He was the obvious person to identify a third option.
"Er, ah, um ..."
"Come now, be bold!"
Holo slapped his back, and Col finally summoned the courage to speak.
"E-er, couldn't Miss Holo simply ... go and take the narwhal ...?"
"... Huh?" was all Lawrence could manage in the face of Col's words.
The thought simply hadn't occurred to him.
"If there's a fight over some object, then the conflict hinges on the item itself. I'm sure Miss Holo can traverse the river in a single bound, so she should be able to steal it easily."
Col was, after all, from the deep mountains.
He spoke these flattering words with total sincerity, and Holo's ears twitched happily.
It was probably true that stealing the narwhal was in and of itself not a difficult thing for Holo.
No matter how well guarded it might be, in the face of the fangs of Holo's true form, the guards' armor would scarcely be more than the paper armor in which children clad themselves for playacting. Despite all the plotting and planning of Eve, Kieman, and the other monstrous powers at play, it would be no great trouble for her to take the thing and run.
Lawrence scratched his head and spoke. "Look here, even if we do that, the question becomes what to do next. Even if the theft were simple, you would certainly be witnessed. At which point, the idea that anyone would then buy the narwhal from us is completely absurd. That much is—"
"I'm well aware of that. But"—Holo interrupted, her eyes narrowing with her smile and her head cocking to one side—"you must have seen how simple this all truly is. Have you not?"
"You haven't, then? The matter that has you so terrified you can think only of escape, I will tear open with my fangs and claws. To have my companion in such a dither over this is quite a problem. So much more the fool me for choosing you as such, I suppose."
Lawrence looked back at Holo; he was at a loss for words.
He had to admit she was right.
When it came to deception in the service of profit, Holo was capable of brazen cunning that would cause even the most jaded town merchant to grow dizzy.
Suddenly the things Lawrence had been so afraid of seemed very small. He could feel the blood flowing back into his once pale face and was unable to stop the reddening.
"Heh-heh-heh. You see, Col, my boy? This is what comes of letting a tempest in a teacup get the better of one."
Col, of course, looked abashed out of consideration for Lawrence, who would have preferred the boy to simply laugh at him.
Col regarded Lawrence with an almost girlish gaze on his upturned face, which Lawrence smiled at nervously. The boy returned the smile in evident relief.
The blood drained back out of his face, and Lawrence's cramped field of view seemed to expand.
"Always have your weapons at the ready," his master had once told him.
And next to him stood Holo, the Wisewolf of the forest of Yoitsu. There was a certain august dignity to her tail-swishing, wine-swilling form.
"Also, if you escape this current predicament, will it not be easier to find out more about the bones?"
Excerpted from Spice and Wolf, Vol. 9 by Isuna Hasekura. Copyright © 2013 Isuna Hasekura. Excerpted by permission of Orbit.
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