LEVEL 1: A Whisper, an Aria, a Prayer, an Awakening
“I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE!”
Ranta slammed his earthenware tankard onto the table .
“Ranta…” Mogzo mumbled . “You’re going to break it . ”
“Shut up! I got it under control!” Ranta yelled . “What ’bout you, huh?! Doesn’t she piss you off?!”
Mogzo muttered something noncommittal .
“Admit it! That girl pisses you off!” Ranta ranted . “What the hell is with that attitude?! It’s been a couple of days now and she’s not even trying to get along with us! Haruhiro!”
“What?” Haruhiro replied .
“Even you think so! Don’t lie! Hey! I’m talking to you! Tell me what you really think!”
“I already told you several times . ” Haruhiro drank from his own beer tankard . “I just put up with it . But I don’t not agree with you . ”
“Quit using hard to understand sentences! You’re just defending her because she’s hot!”
“That’s got nothing to do with it . ”
“You’re too soft on her! You’re soft on all girls! Way too soft!”
“I don’t do it on purpose, but admit it, even you can’t stand up to her . You talk about her like this behind her back, but you don’t say anything to her face . ”
“As if I could!” Ranta flopped forward, face down onto the tabletop . “She scares the hell outta me! Those eyes, that voice, fucking scary! It makes me want to cry! …Is it okay to cry?”
Mogzo patted him gently on the shoulder . “Don’t cry, Ranta…”
“Quit it!” Ranta slapped Mogzo’s hand away . “Don’t try to console a man! A man doesn’t want to be consoled! It’s just too pathetic! I’m a man! A manly man! I’m a… a…”
Haruhiro sighed . “Just leave him be, Mogzo . He’s just being his usual self . There’ll be no end to it if you bother with him every time . ”
Ever since Mary joined the party, Ranta, Mogzo, and Haruhiro had made it a habit to visit Sherry’s after they got back from Damroww’s Old Town . It wasn’t like any of them wanted to drink, or anything, but without the distraction at the end of the day, no one could sleep well and no one wanted to return to working the next day .
Beers were discounted three capas a tankard for contracted Crimson Moon members, but being mere trainees, they paid the full four . Though Haruhiro had only one tankard every time—two tankards at most—he still realized that it was a waste of money .
Their earnings were only half—or actually closer to a third—of what they had been when Manato had been with them . Now, days when everyone would pocket only one silver each weren’t rare . Haruhiro knew he should be saving up his money . He knew, but…
Counting the amount deposited at Yorozu’s, all the money Haruhiro had came to just over seventeen silvers . Crimson Moon contracts cost twenty silvers to purchase, so he needed just a little more before he could become a full member . That’d didn’t necessarily mean that he could purchase one the moment he hit twenty silvers, though . Without having at least thirty silvers on hand, paying twenty in one lump sum wasn’t wise . It would have been nice, though, if Commander Bri let them pay a little at a time .
“Crimson Moon . Reserve force soldiers…” Haruhiro whispered, looking around the tavern .
Everyone in the room was outfitted with better equipment than them . Haruhiro was sure that most wore their precious armor into the tavern to keep it from getting stolen while they drank, and many of them had expensive-looking swords strapped to their belts . Not to mention stylish garments under that armor, too . The difference between them and Haruhiro’s group was overwhelmingly obvious .
“I know . ” Ranta slouched awkwardly forward, until his chin rested on the edge of the table . “No need to tell me, Haruhiro . It’s the contract, right? But it’s not like our goal is to buy Crimson Moon contracts anymore . ‘Becoming a full member or not, I don’t care anymore’ is what you’re thinking . ”
“I don’t know what I think,” Haruhiro said, “about having words put into my mouth by you . ”
“Rude . You asking for a beatdown?”
“I apologize . ”
“Don’t just apologize like that . The argument’s never gonna get anywhere that way . Fight me more, stupid . ”
“Annoying brat . ”
“B-but…” Mogzo heaved a deep sigh . “I get the sense we’ve lost sight of our goal . It wasn’t like this before . ”
“Maybe so, then,” said Ranta . He tilted his head sideways so that one side of his cheek was flat on the table . “Things have changed this much, just because Manato’s gone . ”
Suddenly Haruhiro found himself incensed . Failing to resist, he snapped, “Quit saying ‘just because’ like it’s no big deal . It is a big deal . ”
“Yeah . ” Ranta nodded sideways . “My bad . ”
“…It’s not like you to apologize right away . ”
“Annoying brat . ”
Haruhiro wanted to smack him, but decided that a guy like Ranta wasn’t worth the effort of lifting his fist, of even curling it .
“Goals, huh . ” Haruhiro glanced around the tavern once more . His eyes suddenly locked on one certain person, and there was a sudden tightening in his chest . “Renji…”
While Haruhiro and the others occupied a table in a dimly lit corner of the first floor, Team Renji sat around a nice, brightly lit table near the serving counter . Of course, the table itself wasn’t nice; it was just that Haruhiro’s group could never sit at a spot that made them so conspicuous . Something to do with rank, importance, pecking order…
“Whoa . ” Ranta finally noticed Renji’s party too . “Goddamn show off, that Renji . ”
Mogzo, looking as if he’d been rebuked instead of Renji, craned his neck to look, too . “Wow . ”
Ranta and Mogzo were both justified in their reactions . As if silver hair wasn’t attention-grabbing enough, Renji wore a fur-lined surcoat over his armor . The giant sword leaning against the table was equally impressive, and it made Haruhiro wonder how Renji had managed to acquire it . Had he bought it, he must have paid quite the coin, and if he hadn’t, Haruhiro wondered where in the world he could have found it .
It wasn’t only Renji that was splendidly equipped . Buzz-Cut Ron, sitting next to him, was dressed in magnificent armor, and Glasses-Boy Adachi was in long, black robes that shone with the gleam of a high price tag . Sassa was dressed in a scanty way that reminded Haruhiro of Master Barbara–leading him to guess that she had became a Thief too . Sassa, a beauty from the start, was now seductive to boot .
Sitting at Renji’s feet was Chibi, whose robes marked her as undoubtedly a Priest, but which, unlike what Manato or Mary wore, were made of finer material and finished with embroidery at the edges .
“They’re rookies though… right?” Ranta looked dumbfounded . “They arrived the same time we did, joined Crimson Moon the same time . Why’s there that big a difference between us and them?”
Apparently, it didn’t matter whether someone was a full Crimson Moon member or a trainee; all those who had only recently been with Crimson Moon were considered “rookies” . But no one who saw Team Renji would have considered them amateurs, and any who did would be in for a nasty surprise .
It was nigh impossible to catch up to Team Renji, Haruhiro admitted to himself . If anything, the gap between them would only grow wider; Haruhiro’s party would remain at rock bottom, the small fry of small fries, while Renji climbed further and further up . Soon, everyone would acknowledge Team Renji as the best, and if they happened to meet Haruhiro’s team somewhere in the field, Renji wouldn’t even notice they existed . Haruhiro and the others would be forgotten as all the attention fell on Team Renji .
If Manato hadn’t died, would things have been different? “We’ve really become a good team,” Manato had said, genuinely meaning it . Manato often came to Sherry’s, so he must have known how well Renji’s party was doing . Had Manato ever felt held back? Disappointed? Frustrated? Perhaps Manato had thought, ‘Renji is advancing higher and higher . And what’ve I been doing? If only I had better teammates…’ Manato was only human, after all, so the thought must have occurred to him, even if only in a far corner of his mind .
Why didn’t Renji invite Manato to join him in the beginning? Manato was more than capable of contributing . Had Manato been with Team Renji, they would have been even more formidable . If Manato had been with Team Renji then surely, surely he would still be alive now .
“Hey! Hey!” Ranta was pulling on his arm .
Haruhiro hadn’t even realized that his gaze had been on the floor . When he lifted his head up, a silver haired man was glancing down at him . He almost yelped in surprise .
“I hear Manato’s bitten the dust . ” Low and husky, Renji’s voice was not something easy to forget .
“Th–” Haruhiro started, but stopped, unsure of what he wanted to say . That? This? There? What? Finally, “What’s it to you?”
Expressionless as ever, Renji held out a clenched hand and, unfurling his fingers, dropped something . Haruhiro caught the object without thinking . When he looked, he saw that it was a coin .
Mogzo inhaled so sharply that he nearly fell backwards out of his chair . Ranta’s eyes were so wide they were popping out of their sockets; he looked as if he wanted to say something, but was at a loss for words . Haruhiro’s right hand, the hand that the coin now rested on, started to tremble .
Of course, it wasn’t fake, so this would be the first time any of them had laid eyes on the real thing .
“My condolences . Take it,” Renji said, dismissively, and then turned on his heels to walk away .
“…D-d-don’t mess… don’t…” Haruhiro stood up abruptly, and he felt blood rush to his head .
Haruhiro wanted to chase after Renji, to punch him with all his might . But he didn’t . There wasn’t any way he could . In the end, when he caught up, Haruhiro said, “R-Renji! Wait up! Hold on a sec!”
Renji finally stopped, turning to regard Haruhiro with an expression clearly stating the inconvenience . “What . ”
“It’s… It’s…” Haruhiro swallowed . Renji was damn scary . It wasn’t normal for a person to be so intimidating . “It’s just that… I don’t think I can accept this… It just… feels wrong . ”
“I see . ” Renji stretched out his hand, palm up .
That was it? Haruhiro would have thought that Renji would have more to say . But he didn’t . Maybe it was better that way; Haruhiro breathed a large sigh of relief, so large it felt like a lifetime’s worth, and placed the gold coin back in Renji’s hand .
It was only later that he regretted it . Just a little . It was a gold he had returned . The equivalent of one hundred silvers .
Renji had left after that, saying nothing more after reclaiming the coin . When Haruhiro returned to the table, Ranta immediately assaulted him .
“HARUHIRO, HOW MUCH OF AN IDIOT ARE YOU?!” Ranta railed at him . “Why did you give it back? It would’ve been fine to keep it! We could’ve split it evenly between the three of us, thirty-three for you and Mogzo and thirty-four for me! ARE YOU RETARDED?!”
“Why do you get to so casually keep the extra silver?” Haruhiro remarked .
“Because I’m me! What a fucking waste! We could’ve bought our contracts with that and had plenty left over!”
“But that’s…” Mogzo’s eyebrows were knit tightly together, and the corners of his mouth set in a frown . “I don’t think that’s a good thing . If we bought our contracts using Renji’s money, I don’t think it would have made Manato very proud of us . ”
“Like you would know!” Ranta spat . “He’s not here anymore! We have to look out for ourselves now! GOD DAMN IT . That was a GOLD . And that Renji just handed it out just like it was nothing . How many of those does he have? I only have three silvers left!”
“What? Only three?” Haruhiro stared hard at Ranta and his messy hair . “No way… Why do you have so little? What have you been using your money on?”
“Shut up! This and that okay? This and that! I can use my money however I want!”
“Then you’ll never save up enough to buy your contract . ”
“You don’t have the right to say shit! You ruined my best chance at buying my contract just now!”
“No…” Haruhiro placed both his elbows on the table and planted his face in his palms . “We can’t keep going on like this . It has nothing to do with Manato . It’s our problem . It’s just like you said, Ranta . Manato’s not here anymore . ”
Ranta scoffed . “I’ve been thinking that this whole time . ”
“Doing nothing but thinking it,” Mogzo said, with unusual force . “You can’t just think it . You need to take action and do something about it . ”
“…We’re a mess . ” Haruhiro bit his lower lip . “And it’s not just Mary . Yume and Shihoru have stopped talking to us . It wasn’t like that before . ”
Ranta put his cheeks in his hands and looked off to the side . “Try to fix our relationship with them? Ain’t gonna work . It’s way too late now . ”
Haruhiro didn’t know whether it would work or not . All he knew was that he had to try .