The bandit’s hideout was an underground cave with a wide entrance in the grasslands. Despite being a cave, it had a decent living room along with properly set up candles illuminating it. It looked too good for being hurriedly made by bandits, so most likely this must have been some historical ruins which they appropriated for their own use.
In the deepest parts of the cave. There was a sealed off with iron bars and a guard holding a machete room, where their goods were held — that is, the cell inside which they held the caught humans.
“L-lady Rēko, just ahead is the cell. Please do as you like.” The terrified bandit’s boss was leading the way.
“Okay, from here forward it’ll only be me and the Evil Dragon Lord. You guys obediently wait here.”
“Yes, of course. That’s why, please. Please just hand us over to the nearest guard. I beg you, anything but purging us with blood, please——”
“If even one of you runs away, I won’t let you off.”
“N-naturally! Hey, you all got it, didn’t you?! Don’t even try to run! If you do, the Evil Dragon Lord will curse your very soul and leave you wishing for death! In comparison to that, living in jail is much better!”
After the bandits simultaneously nodded in agreement, they returned to the spacious room and each and every one of them sat down seiza-style, waiting. Not to speak of running, nobody even flinched a little.
“Those guys, they’re not even worth killing. Is that right, Evil Dragon Lord?”
In the comfort of the underground cave I half-heartedly gave a response, while recalling the peacefulness of the mountain cavern I once lived in.
Advancing with Rēko along the passage we were led to, we came right before the cell.
Looking inside, the prisoners differed from young-looking novice adventurers, to merchants with their whole families. Everyone had a haggard appearance and was looking over here with fear in their eyes.
I didn’t really know how to interpret the expression Rēko showed at that time.
It felt like a gourmet that satiated his hunger, was looking at an inferior food cart while laughing and ridiculing “Don’t tell me you’re calling THIS food”. As if saying “One can’t call those things genuine slaves”. For the time being, from that expression one could tell that there was no one among them possessing the necessary slave qualities Rēko was looking for.
Well, duh. If even one more person like that existed in this world, I’d have cried.
“I had some expectations, yet after all they’re like this? It seems a person possessing these top-notch qualities won’t be found that easily. All of them can be at best third-rate slaves. No, they’re not even qualified for that.”
Everyone from inside the cell was looking anxiously at the lamenting Rēko. They’ve probably misunderstood that a slave trader came to evaluate the goods. After all, finding a fault to lower the price of the goods was the basics of haggling. In Rēko’s case, she wasn’t looking for a fault, but was genuinely disappointed.
Rēko effortlessly, with a push, spread the iron bars apart. ‘Wouldn’t it have been better to get a key just now?’ I thought silently.
“I pronounce you disqualified. You’re not worthy to be slaves, to say nothing of being Evil Dragon Lord’s kin. You can go somewhere else.”
A commotion went through the cell. They probably had no idea what she was saying. Even I usually couldn’t understand more than half of what she was saying.
“Umm… Are you a merchant?” A woman holding a baby in her arms timidly asked Rēko.
“No. I’m the Evil Dragon Lord’s kin. Now go.”
Was that supposed to suffice as an explanation?
Without any other choice, I walked in front of Rēko and clarified.
“Erm, well. Rēko here is a bit of an oddball, but she’s a skilled adventurer. She has subjugated the bandits here and came to rescue you.”
“Is that true?!”
The prisoners stood up all at once and tried to draw near me, but Rēko pulled out her dagger to obstruct them and emitted a terrifying amount of spirit.
“Don’t you dare make a racket before the Evil Dragon Lord’s countenance, filthy swines. You better clearly understand who he is. He is an existence living since time immemorial, the ancient Evil Dragon. Proprietor of the strength excelling even the Demon King’s — his fame also…”
“Hey, time out. Don’t complicate it. I’m just a good-for-nothing dragon used as a pack horse. So please, just stick to the setting we agreed on from the start. You really should stop spreading my bad name with every chance you get.”
I was standing on my two hind legs and shaking both of Rēko’s shoulders, trying to soothe her.
“… I see, those are some grand considerations indeed. I understand.”
However, instead of stopping, paradoxically she continued.
“But if you speak with them too casually, I believe everyone will get moved by the Evil Dragon Lord’s open-minded heart and will come wishing to become this journey’s follower. Due to their incompetency they’ll become nothing more than a burden. I beg you to consider that aspect.”
“Except you, I don’t think any other oddball like that exists.”
I answered frankly. Looking objectively at the current me, I was nothing more than a slightly unusual animal that was able to speak. There was no way for anyone to get inspired by me.
I was intending on voicing out that extremely obvious reasoning, but for some reason Rēko was staring wide-eyed in puzzlement.
“Ah, not in a particularly bad sense. I think that being peculiar — erm, rather, having a strong sense of individuality is a good thing. But you just need to look at your surroundings with a bit more composure.”
But it seemed like my excuse wasn’t really reaching Rēko’s ears. Flashing an eerie grin, “fufufu”, she started stifling her laugh, which sounded like someone’s incoherent muttering, while trying to not let it escape her mouth.
She was glad, somehow.
Seizing the opportunity while Rēko was busy, I quietly addressed the hostages.
“What do you want to do? Its fine to run away now, but you’ve got to be fairly tired, right? Going out and coming across a monster now would be terrible, so I was thinking of calling the nearby town’s soldiers and getting them to protect you.”
One of the hostages, a young male adventurer who seemed to have guessed something, answered whispering so that Rēko wouldn’t hear.
“Yes, please do. There are also here attacked civilians along with their pack horses. Even if we leave the cave, there’s no telling if everyone will make it to the town. By the way…”
The adventurer lowered his voice even more.
“Mister Dragon, you’re not running? From what I can tell, it seems like you’ve been caught by that terrifying girl…”
“… Really, I’d like to do just that.”
Since the adventurer’s words hit the bull’s-eye, I nearly started crying. However, when I thought how Rēko was going to purge the adventurer if I cried awkwardly, I just barely managed to endure it.