The next day, although it was just like any other day, the village was bustling with activity.
Harvest season had arrived making autumn the busiest season of the year.
Rice, wheat, grains, vegetables, fruits, and crops all needed to be harvested and preserved before winter arrives.
Afterwards, the harvest had to be sorted to account for taxes and arrangements needed to be made for the surplus to be transported to the capital.
In addition, preparations were required for the harvest festival to pray for a favourable harvest next year.
Furthermore, peddlers dropped by the village more often during autumn.
To survive the winter, the villagers had to stock up on supplies since farming was out of the question and venturing outdoors was incredibly risky.
As one would expect, salt was in high demand thanks to its many uses in preserving food, such as drying and fermenting.
It was the most prosperous time of year for peddlers and in turn, the busiest for the village.
Usually, Rio would go hunting today but priorities required him to help out with the harvest in the morning.
On the other hand, Gon’s party, which arrived the day before, was quietly repairing their cart.
It was almost like yesterday’s scuffle was nothing but a lie.
It was just past noon and Rio was taking a break from his work at home with Yuba when they heard a knock on the door.
「I’ll get the door.」
Allowing Yuba to remain seated, Rio quickly stood up and made his way towards the door.
「Ah, Ume-san. What’s the matter?」
Ume, who acted as the mediator of the group of girls in the village, was standing at the door looking slightly flustered.
「Rio, please inform Yuba-sama that the tax collector, Hayate-sama, has arrived.」
Ume informed him of the situation with a heartwarming smile.
「Fumu, I heard you. Well then, shall we go greet him at once?」
Having overheard their conversation, Yuba stood up and made her way outside.
「Ah, Rio. Can I trouble you to prepare another five portions for tonight’s dinner? A few guests will be joining us for dinner tonight.」
Yuba paused and made a request of Rio before passing through the door.
「Understood. If that’s the case, shall I prepare a slightly more extravagant meal? I will be heading out to hunt some more game this afternoon then.」
Yuba floated a joyous smile at Rio’s proposal.
「Alright, I’ll see you later then.」
「Okay, we’ll be back home for dinner at the usual time. Thanks for your hard work.」
Confirming what needed to be done for the evening, Rio saw Yuba off.
Finishing up his remaining tea and putting the tea set away, he resumed his work.
Since he had already finished his part of helping with the ongoing harvest, Rio decided to head out to hunt for the afternoon.
Making trips to several hunting grounds near the village, he managed a bit more game than usual.
Having achieved favourable results, Rio elected to return early to dismantle his catch.
When Rio returned home, he discovered that neither Yuba nor Ruri had returned yet.
After carefully washing away the smell of sweat and blood, Rio started preparations for dinner.
Following Yuba’s instructions, he prepared dinner for eight people.
Having not made dinner for so many people in a long while, his arms began to ache.
The Renou1 bird he just caught was going to be served as the main dish.
After that would be the rice, miso soup, and pickles.
Reciting the menu in his mind, Rio began to cook.
A short while later, a mouth-watering aroma drifted out from the kitchen.
At that time, Yuba returned home along with several men.
Rio greeted the guests with his best professional smile.
「Mhm, I’m back. It smells really good, doesn’t it?」
Reacting to the room filled with the fragrance of cooking food, Yuba returned his greeting with a beaming smile.
Even the other men’s appetites seemed to be affected by the smell as their expressions were brimming with anticipation.
「It really smells wonderful, Yuba-dono.」
Seeming to have his appetite affected by the smell, a well-dressed young man commented from behind Yuba.
「Hou, it seems there’s an unfamiliar boy here but…」
Following from his previous comment, the young man’s eyes sparkled with interest when he spotted Rio.
「That child’s name is Rio. He’s currently staying in the village for the time being.」
Yuba gave a simple introduction for Rio.
At her words, Rio ceased cooking at once and exited the kitchen.
「It’s a pleasure to meet you. Allow me to introduce myself, I am Rio. Pleased to make your acquaintance.」
Greeting the men, he performed a deep and polite bow.
「Mhm, I see. My name is Saga Hayate. I am the tax collector assigned to this village. My best regards.」
The young man introduced himself with a dignified look.
In Yagumo, it was customary to provide one’s surname before their given name. In this case, Saga was the young man’s family name and Hayate was his given name.
His clothes resembled a monk’s garbs, with an exquisitely designed haori2 draped over his shoulders. Two straight swords hung from his waist.
He appeared to be a few years Rio’s elder.
「Likewise, best regards, Saga-dono.」
Hayate gave a light bow. As he raised his head, Rio could tell solely from his face that he was no ordinary person.
Judging from his conduct, the two straight swords hanging from his waist were not just for show either.
Hayate too, determined Rio to be capable, seeing how he carried himself and his steady center of gravity.
Hayate carried an expression of admiration at Rio’s show of courtesy.
「Now then, although it’s a bit early, shall we have dinner? Rio, can you please go call Ruri back?」
「There’s no need since isn’t she coming soon anyway?」
The sun had already begun to set.
Soon, evening would descend on the village.
It was already time for work to be wrapped up and for everyone to head home.
Just as they were talking about her, Ruri returned home with a cheerful greeting.
「I— Is this not Ruri-dono?」
Hayate suddenly lost all the composure he had shown up until then.
「Ah, Hayate-sama. It’s been awhile.」
Breaking out into an amiable smile, Ruri greeted the startled Hayate.
「Ye— Yeah, it’s been a while. You’re still lively as always.」
「Yup, thank you for your hard work. Greetings everyone.」
Hayate seemed to become restless in the face of Ruri’s cheerful greeting.
Ruri also took the opportunity to give a light greeting to Hayate’s subordinates.
「Now then, I’ll be heading to the kitchen for a bit, okay?」
Having said that, Ruri headed to where Rio was.
「Iyaa~ Come to think of it, I did smell something exceptionally good before coming in. Tonight’s meal seems to be even more impressive than usual.」
Looking at the dishes Rio prepared, Ruri proclaimed happily.
Her expression was no different than that of a hungry puppy eagerly awaiting its meal.
「It’ll be done soon so please wash your hands first.」
「Okay, thanks~ Wasn’t it difficult making so many dishes by yourself? Thank you for your hard work. I’ll help with setting the table.」
Expressing her gratitude, Ruri washed her hands and began helping Rio serve the dishes.
「This is… I’d never have expected to be treated to such a luxurious meal and it isn’t dried meat either. It must’ve taken quite a lot of effort to prepare such a meal… I thank you from the bottom of my heart.」
Hayate spoke in astonishment upon seeing the dishes.
He was able to tell at just a glance that the meat served was fresh and not preserved in any way.
Even though he knew a hunter resided in the village, it was impossible to prepare so much fresh meat in such a short amount time.
「Ahaha, it’s because Rio is an excellent hunter. He probably caught quite a haul today.」
Ruri informed them of how they were able to procure so much fresh meat.
「O~h, so it was Rio-dono who hunted for this meat. If I’m not mistaken, I was told Rio-dono also did the cooking, right? That is quite admirable for a man.」
Hearing her explanation, Hayate praised Rio.
The travelling party which had been unable to enjoy a satisfying meal for a while eyed the feast before them with sparkling eyes.
Everybody took their places around the table.
「I tried recreating a dish I came across during my travels abroad. Please, enjoy.」
With Rio’s words as the cue, dinner started.
「Saga-dono, I would recommend you to start with this dish of Renou bird.」
Rio gave his recommendation to Hayate who sat across from him.
「Hou~ What a splendid aroma, it really stimulates the appetite. Then, I will be trying this first at the chef’s recommendation.」
Following Rio’s suggestion, Hayate extended his chopsticks towards the Renou bird, splitting the meat into smaller pieces.
「I roasted the Renou bird with herbs giving it its unique aroma.」
Hayate’s nose twitched at Rio’s enticing description.
「Fumu, surely… it’s delicious!」
While thoroughly enjoying the appetizing aroma tickling his nose and stimulating his appetite, Hayate brought a slice of meat into his mouth.
At that moment, the juices of the Renou exploded in his mouth. Hayate’s eyes widened in surprised as he exclaimed his impressions.
「Hee~ to actually impress Hayate-sama to such an extent, this…」
While watching from the side, one of Hayate’s adjutants also reached for a piece of the Renou bird.
As he brought the meat towards his mouth in the same way—
He also leaked a sigh of admiration similar to Hayate.
The others were also tempted by the first two’s reaction and began extending their chopsticks towards the Renou bird, soon to be followed by the sounds of smacking lips.
「What kinds of seasonings did you use to produce such a flavour?」
Being deeply intrigued by the dish’s rich flavour, Hayate inquired Rio about his methods.
「I added salt, pepper, a herb by the name of rosemary, olive oil, and a dash of honey to really bring out the flavour」
The original recipe also included garlic but some people disliked how it overpowered the herbs, leading to a decline in taste.
Rio had lined up the dishes in order to bring the most potential out of each dish, but he allowed everybody to choose the dishes to their liking.
「Fumu, I’m not familiar with most of the ingredients besides salt, pepper, and honey. Speaking of pepper, isn’t it the specialty product of Torikonia? I heard it has a tingling sensation, I see now…」
Savouring the taste of the meat, Hayate spoke in a low voice.
「Indeed, it was something I obtained during my travels.」
Blessed with mild weather year round, Torikonia was a country situated towards the southwestern region of Yagumo. However, Rio had never journeyed there before.
In fact, some spices like pepper were successfully cultivated in some countries in Strahl, but Rio received most of his supply of spices from the Seirei no Tami village where large amounts were cultivated.
「I see. To treat us with such valuable spices, allow me to express my sincerest gratitude. Will you be willing to share with me tales of your travels later?」
「Sure, I don’t mind.」
After performing a splendid bow, Hayate resumed his meal.
Rio also began his meal.
Everybody else had already started eating in silence. Thanks to the unparalleled compatibility of the Renou bird and white rice, everybody’s chopsticks continued moving uninterrupted.
The miso soup was also suitably seasoned, prompting further inquiries about its recipe.
Towards such appetizing dishes, Hayate and his adjutants silently devoured their meals as if in a trance.
Afterwards, the village’s specialty sake was served and soon enough, the men slowly became intoxicated.
「You guys, don’t drink too much or else you’ll be hungover tomorrow…」
Hayate gave his subordinates a tired warning when he saw their faces turning red.
「Haha, duly noted, chief.」
His subordinates answered him with wry smiles.
Although their mood slackened somewhat, they could not afford to behave irresponsibly before their superior.
Keeping that in mind, they continued drinking in moderation.
On the other hand, Hayate did not touch the sake at all.
Judging from his appearance, it was not because he could not drink, but rather that he would not drink while on the job, even when resting.
He was a very serious person.
「You won’t drink, Rio-dono? There’s no need to hold back because of me, you know.」
Seeing Rio, who was the youngest at the table, trying to keep him company and refraining from drinking, Hayate worriedly urged him not to mind.
「It’s alright, I still have to clean up afterwards and I can’t be tardy with my daily training.」
Rio gave his reason as to why he also refrained from drinking.
Ever since he started living in the village, he would be caught up with helping out around the village during the day so he made sure to always leave some time at night for training.
Even when he drank, he would do so after training.
「Ah, so you study martial arts. I expected as much judging from your center of gravity and the way you move your feet.」
「Indeed, I do. Well, it’s just at the level of a hobby, though.」
「There’s no need to be so modest. To have journeyed alone at your age is a testament to your capabilities.」
Hayate praised Rio, showing him a kind smile.
Ferocious wild animals, hostile monsters, and bandits, there were various dangers one could encounter during their travels.
One required some degree of skill in martial arts, otherwise, a trip alone would be suicidal.
Usually, travelling was done in groups.
However, in Rio’s case, both his method of movement and speed could not be matched by an average human. Hayate did not know of this fact but still regarded him as a capable person on the basis that he was able to travel alone.
「I said it before but would you mind sharing stories of your journey with me? I’ve travelled from village to village but have yet to travel to another country.」
With eyes radiating with curiousity, Hayate requested to hear about Rio’s travels.
「Sure, if you’re fine with my stories—」
Giving a light nod, Rio recounted stories of his journey while omitting sensitive topics.
「I see. So your parents are Yuba-dono’s old acquaintances and you’re journeying to seek your loved one. As I thought, you’re clearly not your average person.」
Having heard a portion of Rio’s story, Hayate spoke a few words of admiration.
「No, you overestimate me.」
Rio lightly shook his head in embarrassment, though a slight smile could be seen.
From their talk, Rio understood that Hayate was not a person who would needlessly praise others.
Rio was also the type of person who became embarrassed when praised so straightforwardly.
As he continued recounting his stories—
「By the way, was Rio-dono named after the ancient King Ryo?」
Hayate suddenly threw out such a question.
「Ryo? No, I’ve never heard of such a person…」
Although the two names were pronounced identically, Rio showed a puzzled expression because it was not a name familiar to him.
「Fumu, so that’s how it is. Well, it’s the name of a legendary king, though nothing but verbal stories remain of his legend. Even then, not much is known about him.」
Hayate began reciting stories of the legendary king.
It all began over a thousand years ago.
Legend had it that a king ruled over a dynasty that stretched over the lands of what was now the Karasuki Kingdom.
Strong, wise, and compassionate, he was truly an excellent king.
Gaining the love of his people, many gathered around him.
However, he was far too smart.
And far too kind.
As a result, few knew of his true self.
Even so, he was not lonely.
There was one person who truly understood him.
That was why he was able to keep persevering for his people.
However, on one occasion, an unavoidable disaster occurred producing many victims.
Having believed that Ryo was an omnipotent king, the people were infuriated about the victims.
Having their expectations betrayed, his people placed all the blame on him.
When Ryo apologized for his failure, he bore all responsibility and declared a reform for the dynasty.
And thus gave birth to the present Karasuki Kingdom.
Thanks to his efforts, the country was greatly stabilized a short while later. Looking back, if the event did not produce any victims, the country would surely have fallen.
It was then, for the first time, did the people understand Ryo’s greatness.
However, by that time, Ryo’s country was already long gone.
The king of the Karasuki Kingdom at that time was Ryo’s former subordinate. Wanting to show his appreciation to his former king, he ordered for Ryo’s exploits be retold and passed down.
A part of his legend still existed to this very day, having been passed down as per tradition.
「So such a king existed? This is the first time I’ve ever heard about it.」
「Well, it’s doubtful whether he truly existed or not. It’s not a very well-known legend either. When I heard the story from my father for the first time, I pitied the king, but recently I’ve come to have a different opinion. In any case, I think it’s a good name, it suits you really well…」
Hayate revealed a light smile.
He seemed to be fond of the story.
「Hayate-sama, Rio, please have some tea.」
Ruri came over with tea.
「Ah, sorry, Ruri-san. I forgot to clean up.」
Rio apologized to Ruri since she had already put away most of the dishes while he was talking to Hayate.
「Don’t worry about it. Lately, Rio has been preparing dinner for us so this much is nothing. Here you are, Hayate-sama.」
Smiling sweetly, Ruri served Hayate some tea.
「Th— Thank you for the tea!」
Hayate’s movements became evidently stiff.
Rio heartwarmingly watched his awkward behaviour.
He had a childish and clumsy side to him, but Hayate was a sincere and honest person.
Rio had heard that Hayate was just shy of turning eighteen and he came from a distinguished samurai family.
Despite originating from a high ranking family, he did not recklessly abuse his authority.
A certain other noble3 could really take a page or two out of his book.
However, while Hayate usually displayed a dignified personality, when he meets Ruri, he would suddenly show a completely innocent reaction.
It was obvious what kinds of feelings he harboured for Ruri.
「Ahaha. Though, I don’t know whether such humble tea will be to your liking.」
Ruri directed a sweet smile at Hayate.
「Th— That’s not true at all. This tea is brewed by Ruri-dono after all. No other tea is even comparable.」
Before even tasting it, Hayate already started praising Ruri’s tea.
「E~eh? It’s just common village tea, you know. You haven’t even drank yet, geez.」
Having received so much praise, Ruri laughed shyly.
She seemed to have misunderstood his compliments.
（There’s no mistake.）
Hayate’s behaviour only served to further strengthen Rio’s conviction.
That was not mere flattery but rather his true feelings.
Without a doubt, Rio was convinced that Hayate was in love with Ruri.
His feelings could be read like an open book.
Still, it did not come at a surprise.
Ruri was an extremely attractive girl, even from the perspective of a cousin.
Both her appearance and personality were highly desirable; her beauty was like a flower blooming in an open field.
Many of the young men in the village also competed for Ruri’s affection.
As a result, Shin, who acted as the leader of the young men in the village, held a sense of rivalry towards Rio.
It was only natural that they were jealous since there was a man living under the same roof as the one they yearned for.
Of course, the suspicions pertaining to Ruri and Rio’s relationship were false.
Rio already had someone else in his heart and it was a fact that Ruri was privy to.
Perhaps it was because Ruri subconsciously knew that they were cousins that she treated Rio as her own brother.
Or perhaps she saw her deceased younger brother in him.
As such, the young village men’s fears were groundless.
While these feelings did prove troublesome for Rio, it was not like he did not understand where they were coming from.
Therefore, Rio warded off their jealously as if it was just a mild breeze.
However, they found Rio’s attitude unbearable and it only served to further their animosity. Still, they did not intend on causing him any trouble.
Furthermore, they could not overcome the feelings of rooting for Ruri’s love either.
Nevertheless, Rio wanted to somehow support the Hayate before him.
If praying for his cousin’s future stability, rather than being tied down by a man of the village, Hayate had a much better prospect.
However, that was just Rio’s opinion, the outcome would largely depend on Hayate’s character.
Despite having just met, in one way or another, Rio felt that Hayate would surely cherish Ruri all throughout his life.
Still, in the end, it was up to how Ruri felt about him and if there was a problem in regards to the difference in their social statuses.
If Ruri fell in love with somebody from the village, Rio would still support her decision.
However, despite the fact that she would be soon reaching the suitable marriage age, he did not see any signs of interest from the person herself.
He had never heard her talk about any man nor did she seem to recognize any of the village men’s approaches.
Yet, because of how she treated all the members of the opposing sex equally, it only served to further fuel their misunderstandings.
As for the issue regarding the difference in social statuses, Rio had no way of knowing if it would pose a problem since he was not acquainted with this country’s marriage customs in regards to nobility.
Regardless, he was at least certain that Hayate was in love with Ruri.
Seeing that was the case, he would not hesitate to support the man before him.
Rio managed to have Ruri, who brought them tea, join their conversation and allowed the two to converse.
Although he was a bit awkward, Hayate fully enjoyed his conversation with Ruri and occasionally sent a thankful glance towards Rio.
The dreamlike moment for Hayate ended in no time and bedtime arrived all too soon.
「Shall we end it here?」
Without becoming too infatuated in his conversation with Ruri, Hayate knew when it was time to retire.
Rio also felt that it was a suitable time to turn in.
After tidying up after dinner, he led Hayate’s party to their room and Rio performed his daily training in the garden.
He did not use body-strengthening nor did he enhance his physical abilities, rather he just single-mindedly rehearsed his swings.
Occasionally, under the cover of night, a leaf would flutter down from one of the nearby trees and Rio would swing at it.
Slicing through the leaf, Rio would then return to repeatedly practicing his swings.
Working up a sweat, a steam-like white haze rose from his body.
The one-handed mithril sword cut through the air and stopped at eye level.
Rio sheathed his sword and exhaled deeply.
「I guess that should be enough for today.」
Content with the training he did, he muttered in satisfaction and turned around to head back.
At that moment, Rio turned towards the trees having noticed that he was being observed from a distance.
The other party was standing still at quite a distance.
He could not make out the other party’s figure due to the darkness of the night, but he was sure somebody was watching him.
As a result of his intense training, even from afar, the other party should have been able to notice him.
There were no signs that an intruder had infiltrated the village.
In fact, Rio had secretly set up a magic barrier around the village, allowing him to detect any intruders.
That was why Rio would have known immediately if an intruder had entered the village.
However, he did not sense a reaction from the barrier.
Therefore, it had to be somebody from within the village.
Most, if not all, of the villagers, were already asleep by this time, but of course, it did not mean nobody ever went outside in the middle of the night.
Still, it was not unreasonable to be suspicious of somebody moving around at night.
While mulling over the issue, Rio recalled some unpleasant memories but decided to return to the house anyhow.
After washing down his body, Rio took a quick drink and returned to his room, retiring for the night.