Two men moved, slinking through the crowd of people as they approached their target.
“Excuse me, miss. Can we talk with you for a moment?”
In a dark alleyway with no sign of anyone else, one of the men called at her. Can’t get any more suspicious than this, he wryly thought to himself. But the girl, formerly a denizen of a peaceful world, showed neither caution nor surprise as she turned around.
“How may I help you, misters?” She said, tilting her head, a blank look on her face.
The men unwittingly gulped.
They had heard that she was one year younger than the students who had done the summoning, being barely fourteen years of age. But the girl in front of them was displaying a kind of exotic allure that belied her years, that had perhaps come from her mixed heritage.
…no wonder the young master was obsessed with her, they thought.
The two men had taken a request from a count whose child had been one of the student summoners. They had been asked to persuade the girl to become the count’s son’s Partner.
The results of the summoning this time had been rather unusual: human youngsters. Furthermore, they were extremely close in age to the academy students, and all of them were quite good-looking.
Though the degree of interest might vary, both the male and female students had been exuberant for the newcomers. But the sweet, still-somewhat-childishly cute girls among the summoned hadn’t attracted the count’s son’s attention; he was instead infatuated by the beauty of this particular girl only, and rather than trying to win her over by himself, he had called for his father’s help.
“My name is Christo, and I work for a noble’s house. My lord was deeply impressed by your beauty, and so I am here on his behalf to extend to you a cordial invitation to a dinner meal.”
“My, is that so…”
The girl wearing a maid uniform gave a faint smile that reached her wine-red eyes.
“But I am my lady’s maid, and my duty is to take care of her. I shall have to decline…”
“No no no, please wait for a minute. You’re still not an official Partner yet, right? You shouldn’t be. Why not allow my lord a chance?”
“My apologies.” The maid girl refused the offer without a second thought. Christo was flustered.
From what he’d heard, this girl had become the Partner candidate of a marquis’ daughter. However, the noble girl had been the daughter of the previous wife who was a lowborn, and the child was shunned by her family. Subsequently, she had not received a complete education in her younger years, which had resulted in her current lack of skill in magic control and low grades.
The count had said with absolute certainty that after the orientation today, the maid girl would have known that the other students were much better choices and thus, would be swayed by the dinner invitation.
Barely any time had passed since the summoning. What had happened between the marquis’ daughter and this girl?
Why was she so fixated on her?
“…I suppose that’s it, then.” Christo said after a few moments of silence.
“Thank you for your understanding.”
“But you know… I don’t plan on returning empty-handed.”
Christo himself was the third son of a baronet house that hadn’t been particularly wealthy. Upon becoming an adult, he was kicked out of the house without any support.
Until then, as poor as his family had been, Christo had still been living as a noble. He couldn’t bear to work under commoners. It hadn’t taken long for him to fall in with the criminal crowd, yet even in the underworld, Christo still found himself without any particularly notable achievements.
And then, from a contact he had among the nobles, a job dropped into his lap. A job that required him to leverage his status of being an alumnus of the magic academy in order to infiltrate the place.
He couldn’t afford to fail this job. The count had told him to use as light a touch as he could, but the man had lived among criminals for far too long. He turned to the plan reserved only for when negotiations had broken down.
“That marquis’ daughter? I heard she’d gone downtown by herself to buy some supplies to prepare for you.”
The girl’s lidded eyes opened a fraction wider.
“The miss is being quite careless, I must say. Shops for nobles would be much safer, though considering her reputation, they wouldn’t be an option. No, she could only go to the shopping district that serves commoners… and well, that means—”
Mid-way through his gloating, Christo abruptly stopped himself.
The girl in front of him was still smiling as she always did. Yet Christo felt a faint chill running down his spine, his foot taking an unwitting step back.
“…get her.” Christo gave the signal to his partner.
Something was wrong, he felt, even if he didn’t know what it was. As it was, he might as well kidnap both this girl and the marquis’ daughter, then let the count sort them out. So went his simplistic thoughts.
The other man moved toward the girl, quickly and without hesitation, his experience in criminal work apparent.
But the man suddenly stopped, a croaking noise slipping from his mouth.
“What’s going on?” Christo said, but no reply was forthcoming. The other man was rooted to the spot as though paralyzed. The girl poked her head halfway out from behind him, her smile unchanging, her dark gaze pointing at Christo.
He gulped, reeling backward from the fear that struck his very instincts. But he was stopped by a wall that hadn’t been there before.
The wall behind him looked as though it was made from pure, concentrated darkness. He struck it, to no avail. The same solid blackness had extended to completely surround him.
“Where are you going…?”
A voice came from behind him. He shrieked.
He turned around from pounding the wall. He saw the girl standing there with her perpetual smile, and near her was his partner… but the man’s arms and legs were twisted, his limbs jerking every which way as though he was a marionette being made to follow an eerie dance.
Christo squeaked, his legs giving out.
The girl walked closer, closer, and her hand brushed against him. His gaze was stolen by the sight of her lustrous lips as they slowly parted to reveal a gaping maw of darkness. Inside, he saw an innumerable swarm of something crawling, skittering.
He screamed in mad terror.
Still wearing her uniform, Sharon arrived at the shopping district that mainly catered to commoners.
“E-excuse me, I’d like that cup and that toothbrush…”
“‘Ere ya go! Thanks for yer business, lassie!”
People nearby were thinking her to be a girl from a well-to-do family as they looked at her magic academy school uniform, but none thought her to be an actual noble. She was being much too shy.
Any other day, and Sharon might have been more arrogant — perhaps too arrogant, even — as she acted the part of a proud noble. But as elated as she was, her status was the furthest thing from her mind at the moment.
The girl called Fleurety summoned from another world had decided to become her Partner, even if things weren’t official yet.
She had chosen Sharon.
Her father was much too meek. Her stepmother didn’t want her. Her little brother was rebelling against her. The maids and butlers scorned her. Ever since her mother was gone, Sharon couldn’t recall herself having a meal with the family even once.
It was why Sharon had clung to her status as the daughter of a marquis house more than she needed to, why she had begun acting as proud as she had.
Her decision had borne fruit, perhaps, considering that she had become the third fiancée candidate for the second prince. Yet it had also resulted in her becoming the target of jealousy from the other girls, and there was no one she could call as friends.
Then Fleurety appeared.
Admittedly, Sharon felt like the girl was… indecipherable, at times, but on the other hand, the maids at her home didn’t even consider her as anything. More than being her maid, the possibility that Fleurety could be her friend was what had set her heart dancing.
“Buying the things needed for your Partner is a noble’s duty too, right? Mmm, it is, yes.” Sharon mumbled to herself.
The young lady continued with her shopping, her mood still buoyant. Then she realized she hadn’t bought clothes for Fleurety, and she took a look at her diminished wallet.
Moving out of her home and into the dorm had relieved her of a lot of stress, but due to her stepmother, her allowance had also been reduced to the bare minimum. The dorm’s dining hall did serve food, although it was closer to being a commoner’s fare. When nobles came to the dining hall, it was only to make conversation with commoner students — no noble would ever eat in the dining hall alone by themselves when they had servants to make food for them.
Considering her future expenses, Sharon decided to leave enough for food. For the rest, she would have to bow her head to her little brother from another mother, Yohanne, and ask him to lend her some money. Even as uncomfortable as she was of the idea, she had no other choice.
The family sent Yohanne as much money as he wanted. He even brought along a personal maid.
Yohanne would likely lend her the money if she bowed to him, but she was certain that he and his maid would be making snide remarks and unpleasant comments toward Sharon for quite a long time afterward. Just thinking about it was already making her feel depressed.
“Hey, young lady. We’ve just opened up a new clothing store. Wanna take a look?”
Sharon turned to look in the voice’s direction. She saw a woman in her late twenties, wearing some very revealing clothes.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m talking to you. So setting up the store’s all fine and good, but our place’s a bit far away from the main streets, which is why I’m here advertising. Do us a favor, please? Just come take a look.”
Maybe just a look is fine, Sharon thought, though she would be far too embarrassed to wear something that showed as much as what the woman had on.
“Aaah, I see… Don’t worry, we sell decent clothes too. Besides…”
The woman moved to whisper in Sharon’s ear, sounding sickly sweet.
“…we also have some classy stuff that would still get the gentlemen’s horses running, if you know what I’m saying. As lovely as you are, young lady, surely you have one or two guys you’re pining after, right?”
Her words brought to Sharon’s mind the faces of the boys at the summoning, and her own instantly felt hot.
“And even if that’s not the case, our stuff’s cheap, too. Just a look, okay?”
“…I guess just a look won’t hurt.”
Well, clothes to meet with boys aside, the store might have something on the cheaper side that would look nice on Fleurety, Sharon thought, without a hint of wariness. The woman guided her into a dark alleyway.
The distinctively rotten smell of back alleys assaulted Sharon’s nose. She gulped down her nausea, her hand reflexively shooting up to cover her mouth.
“Sorry about that,” the woman chuckled, “should have picked another path. Anyway, the store’s over there. We’ll get through quick.”
The woman was practically pushing Sharon in. Deeper and deeper they went, walking through gloomy alleys that didn’t even have a single soul, much less a shop. Sharon’s apprehension mounted with every step.
After a while, Sharon was deep enough in that she no longer heard the hustle and bustle of the main street. Some time after she walked past a shadowy side path that looked just like any other, five men appeared from within. They began to follow behind her.
“Is that the noble girl?”
“How about that, she’s quite the bombshell… can’t wait to have a taste.”
“Dude, she’s for selling to another noble. Damaged merchandise won’t sell as much.”
“Come on, it’s just gonna be a stripshow. That’s okay, right?” The fourth man said, looking behind him for agreement.
The fifth man wasn’t there.
“H-hey, where’d he go?”
“Did somebody leave? Who was it?”
The third man turned toward his colleague walking by his side. There was nobody there.
“W-what?! Where’d he go?!”
“He’s gone too!”
“What the hell… what the fuck is going on?!”
Their colleagues were vanishing into thin air one by one, and nobody knew when it had happened. The alley was getting darker and darker as though they were stepping into some other dimension. The remaining men huddled together in fear.
“H-hey, look at that…”
One said, his voice quivering. The rest looked in the direction he was pointing to, into the depths of the alleyway that had abruptly turned midnight-dark. They could see the silhouettes of four people walking toward them in lurching, twitchy steps, like puppets on strings.
Somebody let loose a raspy whisper as they noticed their missing teammates, as well as another familiar face. Christo had been the one to have hired them for this job, and right now he was supposed to be negotiating with the main target.
But was he really Christo? Were they really their teammates?
Their skins were the color of dead men, and there was no life to be seen in their eyes. They looked like zombies.
Zombies were monsters created when low-ranked spirits possessed corpses that had accumulated enough of the ground’s mana. But that sort of low-ranked spirits should have been completely eradicated from the city, and besides, zombies didn’t even have enough intelligence to speak in the first place. And yet right now, the remaining men were hearing groaning voices of anguish coming from Christo and their shambling teammates.
Faced with a sight that wouldn’t be out of place in the most hellish of nightmares, the remaining men were paralyzed with terror. And then from behind the four shambling dolls, a girl appeared, like a beautiful flower to slice apart the darkness.
Clad in a high-quality set of maid uniform, the girl pinched the hem of her skirt to give a bow as elegant as any noble lady, her lips twitching in a faint smile. Then she violently plunged her arm into Christo’s back, her hand wetly going through his organs to grab his jaw from the inside to move it like a ventriloquist’s puppet. From his lips came the voice of a young girl.
“Greetings. My name is Fleurety.”
A warm wetness spread in the pants of the three remaining men as their knees buckled, their expressions nothing but despair.
They had thought the earlier sight of their shambling teammates had been the most terrible moment of their lives. They were wrong.
Hearing the whisper, the lovely girl’s lips stretched to her ears in a grin.