A conspicuous group approached the frontier town at the edge of the kingdom. At first glance they appeared to be an innocent enough group of peddlers, travelers, and adventurers, but as they came close to town, instead of heading to the front gate where guards would be posted on the city wall, they made a quick detour and proceeded through the woods.
The city’s outer wall was partially cut off by the nearby forest. It’s not like the town lacked the budget to cut down a portion of the forest and complete the wall, but there was a good reason why they hadn’t done so.
Most of the trees that make up the forest are a type of epiphyte, and their roots cover not just the soil but rocks and nearby houses as well. Even if they were to build an outer wall, the roots would extend from the ground and tighten around the stones that make up the wall. The whole thing would deteriorate in the blink of an eye. Logging plans had been raised before of course, but the trees had an abnormally high vitality and were capable of growing back from even the tiniest amount of leftover roots. Complete eradication would be required to do away with the trees for good, but that would cause havoc on the environment and completely kill the surrounding soil.
And besides, the trees didn’t only cause harm. They produce a natural odor that monsters hate thus making them the perfect deterrent for any errant monsters causally coming upon the town. That’s why the forest is teeming with an abundance of game and wildlife.
So it was decided that the forest would constitute as its own part of the city’s wall, and once a year, the people in town would execute a mass pruning of any advancing roots and branches and have that work as a substitute for a wall. Back when the town was first being built this type of wall extended around the entire town because with how monster-filled the neighboring plains are, the immigrating villagers could not wait for the full wall to be built.
The city’s children now recognize it as a forest of mystery where monsters never appear despite it being connected to the outside world. That is why so many of them treat it as an oversized playground. Knowing all of this, the visiting men passed through the forest while in the guise of ordinary people.
“…..confirm arrival at the inn where the targets live.”
“…..according to the informant, it should be currently open for business.”
The men peered into the first floor window while saying some disturbing things. There were three of them there in total. At first glance, there wasn’t anything too suspicious about them yet.
“……according to the data, our opponent this time is a troublesome one.”
“……it doesn’t matter. Everything……..”
As the men were about to move, they sensed someone approaching and immediately fell silent. They fell back and hid themselves in the shade of the forest to observe the situation and soon found a middle-aged woman who looked to be the hostess of the inn carrying a broom with her.
“The branches have grown a lot. I’ll have to ask them to start the pruning early this year.”
After observing the length of the forest’s tree branches the proprietress began sweeping up the fallen leaves with her broom.
“…..having to silence any witnesses would prove to be detrimental to the assignment. We’ll detour around her and proceed forward.”
As two of his comrades moved without making a sound as to circumvent the woman and enter the city from another point in the forest, the third man remained in place.
“…..according to our intel, that woman should have a close relationship with our targets. If true, she could prove to have a high utility value.”
The heated sports meet slowly continued forward through its program, and after numerous victories from both the red and white teams, it was finally time to break for lunch. Shirley pulled out the bentos she made from her Hero’s Toolbox, but she was looking unusually weary considering the occasion.
“Here you are……good work out there this morning.”
“Mm. You look really tired.”
Shirley had pushed her body to the utter limits in order to compete against Canary (during a children’s sports meet). It was taxing physically, but what had really worn her down was the mental fatigue from having to spend the day in the cheerleader outfit. She was lacking her usual energy and looked like a single parent who had just gotten off from a long day at work, but instead of taking a nap like she wanted, had to attend her children’s school event.
“…….well, a lot of things have happened today.”
There really were a lot of things……..even though the only event she had participated in herself so far was the scavenger hunt.
“It was my first time ever seeing Mom dance.”
“And it was a smooth dance that made you stand out from everyone else! Everyone was praising you Mama!”
The war dance was performed in front of everyone with her current clothing serving as a uniform. Moreover, Shirley had no idea what country this dance originated from…….all she had to go on was that it belonged to the hometown of Canary’s late husband, so she hadn’t been able to fully prepare herself for all the jumping and high leg kicks she was forced to show off. Her spirit had suffered much more damage than her body ever could.
“It wasn’t even an event that gave any points…….so this is what misery feels like……..”
“Mm. Cheer up”
Shirley felt like digging herself into a hole. Of course there were many of her co-workers (other adventurers) who had mocked her for her performance, but after all of those men were slapped down and tossed into a pile, everyone else thought it best not to add on to her stress and had fallen silent.
“W-Well anyways. Everyone’s tired and hungry at this point. How about we all eat together?”
Shirley’s mind was in disarray, but she knew she couldn’t keep showing such a weakened state to not just her daughters, but their friends and the other young adventurers. After taking a deep sigh, she managed to regain enough of her composure to take a seat between Sophie and Tio. A ring of bento boxes sat on a thin blanket with them, Kyle, Cudd, Leia, Chelsea, Mira, and Lisa all sitting around them.
Including the basket of cut sandwiches Shirley had brought with her, the set out bento boxes made it look like they were having a feast. Everyone was gathered together, exchanging lively conversation and trading food with each other during what could only be seen as a bright, warm family dinner.
“……everyone except those adventurers.”
“Even during a day like this they’re in work mode.”
A short distance away from the happy picnic were the adventurers who were taking this competition seriously because of the prizes. They were eagerly collecting information about the following events, planning out who would participate when, and devouring the mobile rations they usually save for when they’re out in the field. They were scaring some of the children, so it would be greatly appreciated if they toned it down some.
“Well, they don’t bother me so much as her.”
Cudd and Leia’s eyes turned towards Canary who had brought her own culinary chef to the event. She currently had a knife and fork in hand and was bringing up a slice of grilled steak to her mouth while sitting at a fancy table covered by a parasol. There was a girl who might’ve been a relative sitting there as well, but she looked pretty uncomfortable herself. What was really making them angry though was the gaze Canary kept turning their way that just reeked of her superiority complex.
“Tio. You have some sauce on your cheek.”
“Mm…….did I get it?”
“No, the other cheek. Here, don’t move.”
Sophie sighed at her hopeless sister who would try and wipe her mouth with the back of her hand as Shirley pulled out a handkerchief from her Hero’s Toolbox and wiped Tio’s face.
“Geez, Tio. You forgot your handkerchief again? You’re a messy eater, so can’t you care a little more about your appearance? We’re already ten.”
“Then there’s no problem……we’re still kids, so it’s okay.”
“And Sophie, you have something around your mouth too.”
“Eh!? No way!?”
“The other side, here.”
Seeing Shirley gently wipe Sophie’s mouth as she had done for Tio, and how red Sophie turned as she did, Mira whispered her thoughts aloud.
“They’re always so close.”
“Our guardians are always so busy they can never come to these things, but Shirley always makes sure to attend.”
“Yeah~, I get that. My mom and dad are always busy with work too.”
“Eh? R-Really? Mama always comes visit us, but is it different for everyone else?”
“Well, unless you’re an adventurer, the days you have to work are always fixed in place.”
Most adventurers are free agents who get to decide their own hours. It’s not so easy taking time off from a normal job just to attend a school event.
“Thinking about it, the school has a lot of students from orphanages, but even the priests or nuns can’t come here to cheer on a single child. They couldn’t come even though Chelsea is the only second year from her orphanage.”
As an aside, the town actually had multiple orphanages, all funded by Canary, but managed by different people. So while Chelsea and Marco are both orphans, they come from different facilities.
“Well yeah. The sisters who do come are usually here for the first year students’ sake, but I have Big Bro Kyle here to support me instead. He made my bento too.”
“Did he really?”
“Cool~. Chelsea’s brother, this is delicious.”
Kyle scratched the back of his head as everyone’s attention suddenly fell on him, but he began blushing when he realized Shirley was currently eating something he had made.
“That……how does it taste? It’s just something I whipped together.”
“It is delicious, Kyle. You are very good at cooking. I’m still in the middle of learning myself, so I am a bit jealous.”
Kyle desperately tried hiding just how happy her words made him. Doing such a poor job of it however made Chelsea’s already narrowed gaze narrow all the more.
“…….what’s with that reaction? You’ve never turned that shade of red or acted that shy when me or any of the sisters praised your cooking before.”
“Heh!? No, I was just thinking…….”
Absolutely dreadful at lying, Kyle could do little more than sit there with his eyes swimming in their sockets. Chelsea on the other hand had an acute woman’s intuition despite being so young and immediately found the answer.
“Oh! So the senior adventurer woman you like who has been taking care of you and who you wanted to ask out on a date was Shi–––––”
Kyle, Sophie, and Tio dove forward to block Chelsea’s mouth before she could say anything unnecessary.
“Shh! Shhhh! We can’t let Mama find out about that!”
“…….it seems like it would be trouble if it gets out, so keep it a secret.”
“Don’t go bothering Shirley by saying something strange okay!?”
Sophie and Tio wanted their mother to themselves. Meanwhile Kyle wasn’t prepared to have his true feelings exposed just yet. Finally released from three different pairs of hands after she nodded her agreement to not say anything, Chelsea turned towards her brother with a serious glint in her eye.
“But Big Bro. You haven’t been hiding this that long, and considering what you’re like, who knows how long it’ll be like this? You okay with that?”
“…….yeah, it’s not like I really want anything to change.”
That was surprising to hear. Even Sophie and Tio were a little taken aback. They hadn’t expected him to have the same feelings as them. Seeing that, Kyle smiled as if he knew what they were thinking.
“You two are most definitely the most important people to her right now. She’s working so hard every day that she has little time for anything else, so I would rather not force myself into the equation and make things harder for her. People should spend their days in a way that makes them the most happy.”
To be honest, the girls were a little impressed with him. Fifteen years old…….he was still only a boy who could only be technically considered a man starting this year, but despite being at an age where he should be prioritizing his own being over anything else, he is taking great thought into how Shirley felt. He was only five years older than them, yet to Sophie and Tio, he looked terribly mature.
“U-Um…….what’s gotten in to the three of you? I know I taught you two it’s rude to jump at someone when they’re eating……..oh no!? A-Are you entering your rebellious phases……..!? W-What am I going to do……..!?”
“No, you’re wrong, it’s nothing of the sort. You can relax Shirley.”
Leia quickly got to work calming Shirley down as her imagination carried her off in a weird and misguided direction. Mira and Lisa had an indescribable look on their faces, and Cudd was staring off towards the day after tomorrow.
“Big Bro…….is Shirley perhaps…….”
“Don’t say it my little sister. It’s not something that needs to be addressed right now.”
“Uwaa…….seriously. Even though his feelings are so obvious, Chelsea’s brother is definitely going to have a hard time…….”
On this day, it was revealed to all her daughters’ friends that Shirley’s womanly intuition was less developed than a ten year old girl’s.