“You’re kidding, right?”
“Now hold it, Asley – you’ve never been with a woman all your life? Being a virgin for 5,000 years is a bit…”
“But I am.”
“Are you for real, man!?”
I’ve made no advances on Lina despite how charming she had become, yet Bruce still thought until moments ago that I’ve had that kind of experience?
Ngh – Now look at how he’s looking at me. It’s as if he’s looking at an endangered species. Why does that hurt me so much?
“Keh… heh heh heh, don’t worry, my man. It’s times like this that I’ll pitch in and help ya out!”
“Ohh, then I’ll leave it to you! I’ve been wanting to do research on human skin for a while now.”
“What the hell! You can be so bizarre at times, you know that!? A person would die if you took their skin off! I’m saying I’ll help you graduate from your virginity, man!”
Bah, and here I was, expecting him to help me with my forbidden research methods. Still, even if we were already quite far from the Guild, he sure has been saying the word ‘virgin’ too much.
“Well, then I’m good. I’ve long decided to dedicate my first to the ideal woman I’ll surely meet someday.”
“The ideal woman, you say… I guess that wouldn’t be impossible for you, seeing how time’s not an issue. But while we’re on the topic, how ’bout you tell me all about your preferences, eh?”
“What, aren’t you being awfully outward today?”
“Well, I mean, The Silver is a great team and all, but I’m just glad to find someone to talk about these kinda things for once. Blazer’s way too serious, and Betty’s a nice girl, but she’s my li’l sis, so it’s not like I can talk with her like that. I’ll be going there either way, but it’s always nice to talk about some nonsense on the way. Might as well have some fun while I’m at it, such and such.”
Huh, why did that sound odd? He was going there either way… did that mean he had some other businesses there? Still, my preferences huh… It usually would be too awkward a topic to discuss, but in a way, the one asking was more experienced in life than I was. It would be boorish of me to refuse him an answer.
“Let’s see… first of all, I’d like her to be a mage or an alchemist, at least.”
“Aha, so it’s that? Working together on the same projects and stuff?”
“Well, yes. And if she’d take care of Pochi–“
“To me, it looks more like you’ll the one being taken care of, though.”
Now that was wholly unexpected. Was it because the thing Pochi had said at one point about how I was ‘taking care of her as if she was the one taking care of me’?
“So, anything else?”
“A hard worker would be nice. And beautiful, if I were to be a bit greedy.”
“What, that’s all?”
“Eh — I think that’s already quite a lot to ask for, though? Especially the hard-working part.”
“Right… you’ve been doing R&D for 5,000 years, so your definition of ‘hard-working’ would be hard to achieve… But point is, your ideal girl would have to be a mage or an alchemist who’s cute, has a nice personality, doesn’t give up easily, and is a hard worker, right?”
Yup, all nicely summarized. If she had a nice personality, she probably would take care of Pochi, too.
“…Doesn’t sound all that hard to find, really.”
Bruce said as he walked on with his hands rested on the back of his head. It seemed like he was thinking of someone from his past, but I couldn’t possibly know who the person in question could be.
Hmm, this part of town seems to have more flashy lights than the usual. Could this be–
“Uh, a Red-Light District?”
“Agh – talkin’ like you’re from the last century, man. Nowadays it’s called a ‘Colorful Food District,’ just so you know.”
I see, so they’ve named it so for being a particularly colorful district, those who worked in the area, and the high number of eating establishments.
Vividly colored storefronts, with old couples managing their establishments in the front. Dudes swarming around caged windows. And inside them were eye-popping beautiful women.
White face-masked women in traditional eastern ‘kimono’ clothing and the ‘yoko-hyogo’ bun hairstyle. Women in elegant dresses oozing with class. Even women in simple, not at all showy clothing but with a charm of modesty. So much fashion variety.
The customers were also varied: those who bought women’s services to keep them company for a meal outside, those who entered the establishments with ear-to-ear grins, and those who constantly counted the contents of their money bags.
A district illuminated with wondrous, eye-flickering lights of all colors and shades. Lights in pink, orange, purple, and other uncommon colors. Such was the Colorful Food District.
“You’re giving yourself away as a total hick, Asley! Get your act together, man!”
With a slap on my buttocks, I instantly snapped back to my senses. But again and again, my eyes wandered to the myriad of things I’d never been used to seeing.
Bruce seemed to be quite exasperated as he walked behind me, laughing with a hint on a tired sigh.
But while I feasted my eyes with this spectacle, I instead thought of Faltown. In spite of the existence of such a gaudy community, that town was tormented by the forces of darkness to this very day. That didn’t mean this city didn’t have its share, of course, but as I thought about it at length, I couldn’t help but feel it to be ridiculous and frustrating.
“He’s our place. Let’s go.”
“Eh, w-wait–!? We’re really going in?”
With the strength befitting of an A-ranked warrior, Bruce pulled me inside by my arm. It didn’t hurt, per se, but it did feel like I was being swung around so effortlessly.
I dug in my heels and voiced my refusal, but then Bruce turned around to me with an expression that suggested serious business.
“Look, it’s not like I’m gonna have you graduate here if you don’t want to. I’ve got some important stuff to discuss inside.”
Which reminds me, he did say that he was going to come here ‘either way’. Could this be a confidential matter? Wait, no — if it was, he wouldn’t need to come all the way here.
Which would mean it was something he couldn’t talk about anywhere but here.
My arm finally let go, I walked right behind Bruce and entered the store. The interior had a similar ambience to Shinra Banshou, the oriental restaurant I had recently dined at with Irene, Gaston, and Billy. It would be safe to assume that this was another product of cultural exchange with the eastern nations.
The establishment was called Kachou Fuugetsu. Located in one end of the Colorful Food District, it provided a wide range of services and was an establishment of high class.
With how formal it all seemed, this place certainly wasn’t meant for the common folk. It may not be that much to manage for Bruce, with him being A-ranked but I wouldn’t expect him to be a regular either.
Bruce and I passed through a ‘fusuma’ sliding door and was welcomed by what seemed to be a reception room. Our guide, a middle-aged lady, inquired us of our business and Bruce told her that we wished to dine here. The guide lady then called for ‘Haruhana’, and then left us to wait, headed into the establishment by herself.
After a while, another lady came to guide us to a room with a prominent red motif, and sat us down on the room’s seats of honor.
“Normally they wouldn’t let someone ‘your age’ in, you know, Asley?”
As I cast my eyes over the gaudy interior, Bruce brought up the topic of my officially acknowledged age with his offhand remark.
In truth, I was far past the legal age, after all.
“How was this appointment arranged?”
“I’m somewhat of an acquaintance with this place’s host, you see. Just said we won’t be playing around and have a meal.”
“What? I thought you were going to pitch in and help me.”
“I said all that just to hear you speak anyway. Listen – you can’t buy a woman, you gotta persuade her.”
Bruce’s gotta be Bruce with his fixated topics, huh.
“Were you expecting something, after all?”
“If it was anything different from now, I would’ve lost my nerve and ran off.”
“Hah, no doubt. That’s definitely something you would do.”
“And by the way, what did you need me to come all the way here for?”
“Now, no need to rush. We’ll talk after Haruhana is here.”
Aha, so the ‘Haruhana’ I’d heard earlier was a person’s name. I believe she would be what they called a courtesan, a staff member to keep us company while we dined and discussed our business.
“Oh, there she is.”
“All right, then.”
I could feel approaching presences from the other side of the shut sliding doors. One, two… three?
“Excuse our interruption.”
I heard the voice of one among them, from a slightly higher point, as I was sitting on a cushion on the floor. It was a clear voice, if not a tad bit quiet and immature-sounding, and the first person to enter my field of vision was a girl not much taller than my eye level. She wore a red ‘kimono’ dress with white trimmings and a yellow sash. If I were to make an estimate, she should be around ten years old.
“Hey there, Haruhana.”
With the door now fully slid open, Bruce turned to greet the young woman sitting on her knees in the centre of the hallway. The girl in the red ‘kimono’ dress was to her left, and another girl, in an indigo ‘kimono’ dress with a white sash, was to her right; both were bowing down.
Without a doubt, the two girls were still children but they seemed to be the establishment’s attendants. The girl on the right should also be around ten… for a girl this age to work such a job, it seemed that a complicated force of darkness had also rooted itself deep in this town.
“It has been a while, Lord Bruce.”
The young woman in the centre said as she raised her head. Her accessories were glittering under the interior lighting. She had the same voice as the one I’d heard from the other side of the door. Her face had been applied with white cosmetic powder, and she smiled a bright smile I wouldn’t have expected in such a serious-business environment. From what I could see from where I was, she should be around Lina’s age. Her features were well-ordered, albeit not quite as well as Trace’s, and her sharp yet tender gaze had an inviting charm, albeit in a different manner from Dinéya’s. My eyes were particularly attracted by her collarbones – the default spots I would see as I looked straight ahead. Perhaps this habit of mine was what showed that I was truly growing old.
She did look more mature than Lina, perhaps due to experience. But a line of work in which girls her age sold their bodies for a living was not quite what I was used to seeing.
“This guy here’s Asley. Well, treat him kindly, all right?”
“Pleased to meet you, Lord Asley. I am called Haruhana.”
“Ah, pleased to make your acquaintance…”
“I am called Onatsu~~”
“And I am called Ofuyu.”
Onatsu was the girl in the red dress… she was quiet, but had an energetic air going around her. The girl who had introduced herself as Ofuyu was the girl in the indigo dress… she seemed level-headed, and had quite the handsome face. They were both adorable, but as children, I wouldn’t want them in this line of work.
“These two are called the ‘kamuro’… Well, something like Haruhana’s attendants.”
“‘Kamuro’? What does that mean?”
“Well, it’s spelled and pronounced… like so. In that language, it means a person at the age where their head is balding.”
“These two will soon be at the appropriate age to attend to customers of their own, my lord.”
“Wha–! A-aren’t they still too young for that!?”
I was eye-popping surprised. And Haruhana had the same reaction as I had, but for different reasons.
“Your kindness is wholly appreciated, my lord.”
When she was done being surprised, Haruhana chuckled as she replied to my brief outburst. Her smile had a slight feeling of emptiness, and for that, I couldn’t look at her straight in her eyes.
“…And that’s that, man.”
“That’s way too simplified. Please explain that to me again, in full detail.”
Having calmed myself down by the time the table was all set with food and drinks, Bruce proceeded to speak with an expression that suggested a weighted mind.
“So, to start with the basics, this Colorful Food District was created and maintained to satisfy men’s desires. But the girls who keep them company were either separated from or sold off by their parents, and even some were of unknown origins. There are those who worked here wilfully, of course, but they’re the vast minority. Girls even less than ten years old have to work day in, day out and ones as young as twelve and thirteen are being sold off to men. Well, no, according to this place, even girls around the age of Onatsu and Ofuyu here, too. It may be an old custom but that doesn’t mean it’ll always be acceptable.”
Onatsu and Ofuyu, hearing all that, clenched their fists.
It seemed that they understood how all this business worked just from being constantly close to it. And indeed… I couldn’t accept this. Bruce hadn’t cut any corners in his words, and that struck deeply and painfully in my conscience.
“And you’re saying you want to do something about it?”
“I wanna borrow some of your wisdom. Got any ideas?”
Hmm, right, I would like to do something about this as well.