On the morning of New Year's Day, without any incidents, while the remnants of the celebration lingered, everyone was restless, and I was in my office sorting out the report to submit to my father.
Ronald-san will be here in a few days to inspect and collect the report, so I'm checking to see if there are any flaws in the report before he arrives.
"Sigh..." I sighed.
"Master Neil, your hands have stopped again," said Diana.
"Ah, sorry about that," I replied.
As can be seen, my work was progressing slowly.
The reason was that the words that Larnan-san had said to me during the celebration were still swirling around in my mind.
"Hey, Diana," I said.
"What is it?" she replied.
"I wonder if my father is the contract holder for the slaves' contracts."
"Yes, Lord provided them, so technically he is the contract holder. But in reality their master is Master Neil, so there's nothing to worry about," Diana reassured me.
"But isn't there some inconvenience if the master on paper and the actual master are different?" I asked.
"What kind of inconvenience?" she asked.
"Well, I don't know, but I think it's better to have them match just in case. There's a possibility that it'll be too late to change the contract holder if something happens," I replied.
"What's going on? When I suggested buying a slave before, you strongly objected to becoming their owner," Diana said.
"That was because I was hesitant about adding new slaves, not because I don't want to be their owner," I explained.
Although I said that, as Diana said, I really wanted to refrain from becoming the official master of the slaves.
I know that it is just a matter of mindset, since I am in effect the master of the slave, but I am the kind of person who can't just say, "Well then, it's okay."
I have never said it out loud, but Diana must have sensed it from my attitude.
Well, Diana looked at me suspiciously, but she dared not to mention it and continued the conversation.
"So, would you like to inherit the ownership of the slaves from the Lord then, Master Neil? If you're willing to take responsibility, I'm sure he would gladly hand over the ownership to you," Diana suggested.
"Oh, yes, that's the thing... But instead of inheriting it, I want to buy it," I said.
Diana looked at me with a huge question mark above her head, unable to understand the meaning of my words.
"Why go through all that trouble?" Diana asked.
"Well, my father told me to get everything I need on my own, didn't he? I thought it would be more in line with my father's intentions if I bought it from him instead of getting it from him," I replied.
"I see. And what's the real reason?" Diana pressed.
It seems that everything I just said is completely false for her.
Well, realizing that my facade was transparent, I decided to speak my mind.
"If I buy a right, I can do what I want without worrying about the other party, right?" I asked.
"A 'right' instead of a 'gift,' huh... I had a feeling that was the case. So are you planning to free the 'slaves'?" Diana asked.
At Diana's question, I slowly shake my head.
Seeing me shaking my head slowly, Diana let out an exasperated sigh, as if thinking "here we go again."
"Well... Master Neil, do you understand what I'm trying to say?" she asked.
"What's the point of doing that?" I asked, surprising even myself with my lack of empathy. But this time, I was different.
"I've thought this through. Currently, the only people using the restaurant and the farming tools are a few Sincere Dwarfs who came from outside. If we exclude them, only a handful of us are left as potential customers. Even if we start a new business, we won't make much profit," I explained.
"So you are planning to increase the number of customers by releasing them from slavery, treating them as commoners, and paying them wages?" Diana asked.
"Yes, right now we only have a restaurant and a general store, but if we can increase the number of customers by 30, we can expect enough profit to develop a new business, and as the settlement becomes more convenient, it will be easier to attract more people," I replied.
Yes, this is the method that I have been thinking about all night long. If we cannot protect the enslaved people unless we treat them like slaves, we should free them from their slavery in the first place.
And not just out of sympathy, I've also prepared enough evidence to convince Diana, who will likely voice her opinion first, that this is the right course of action, including the benefits that the return to the settlement could bring.
I thought Diana would have no complaints about this, but her reaction was contrary to my expectation.
"I see...I understand what you're saying, Master Neil. However, may I ask if you can guarantee that the slaves you free will stay in the settlement?" Diana questioned.
"Of course I have considered that possibility. But to be frank, I don't think it'll be easy for those who have once become slaves to reintegrate into society. For them to survive, returning to being commoners and working in the settlement is the easiest path. And if I'm not mistaken, they don't seem as scared of the settlement as they were at the beginning. They've even grown attached to it, so I think it's likely they'll stay," I replied confidently.
"I see. You've thought this through thoroughly and arrived at this conclusion," Diana said with a worried expression on her face.
Diana's expression was filled with various colors such as dismay, pity, and conflict.
I was surprised by her unexpected reaction, and I was disturbed why Diana, who would not hesitate to point out any problem, was so troubled.
"Why? Is there something wrong with it?" I asked, sensing Diana's hesitation.
"It's not that there's anything wrong with it, but..." Diana trailed off, her expression troubled.
"If there's nothing wrong with it, then what is it?" I pressed, growing impatient with Diana's indecisiveness.
Diana's attitude was not quite clear, so I asked her impatiently, and she asked me the opposite question.
"Master Neil, are you talking about this for the sake of the settlements? Or do you speak for them?" Diana suddenly asked.
"Well, it's for the sake of the slaves," I replied, bracing myself for Diana's disapproval.
But her response was, again, unexpected.
"In that case, Master Neil, I oppose freeing the slaves from their position as slaves," Diana said.
"What? Hold on, what do you mean?" I asked, taken aback by Diana's statement.
"I mean that freeing them from slavery won't necessarily benefit them," Diana explained.
Freeing them from slavery won't necessarily benefit them? What does that mean exactly?
As I struggled to comprehend her words, Diana spoke to me.
"They are those who cannot survive on their own in this world and have chosen to live even if it means sacrificing their dignity as human beings. As Master Neil said, even if they are released from slavery, it is unlikely that they will be able to return to society safely," Diana explained.
"No, that's why I want to take care of them in the settlements," I replied.
"That is a big mistake," Diana stated plainly.
Diana clearly tells me that my words are a mistake.
"Does Master Neil intend to take care of all the people who come to the settlement from now on?" she continued.
"Heh? Why would I do that?" I asked.
"Then, is it safe to assume that Master Neil intends to treat them differently from other commoners, especially since they used to be slaves?" Diana asked.
"Treat them differently? Ahh..."
After she said that, I understood what Diana was trying to say.
"Have you understood? Master Neil may have thought that by freeing them from slavery, he was rescuing them from their socially vulnerable status and protecting their dignity, but if he treated them specially, nothing would change in the end. Other commoners will despise them who cannot survive on their own because of Master Neil's special treatment. Considering that they feel the same, if not more, inequality than when they were slaves, the accusation against them will be stronger than when they were slaves. And most importantly, while they are slaves, they are the property of the Counts of Atomiras. Even if they are slaves, few people would be foolish enough to touch the property of the nobles, and even if they do, we can justify it by claiming that we are obligated to protect them based on the slave contract. However..." Diana explained.
"Are you saying that we won't be able to protect them anymore if they are no longer slaves?" I interrupted.
If we try to protect them without that, they will be treated specially again, and that would only make the situation worse for them.
To avoid this, we have to treat everyone equally.
It may not be realistic to care for everyone equally if there are many people living in the settlement in the future.
"We cannot protect all of them at once. What is it that you want to protect, Master Neil?" Diana asked.
"I..." I tried to answer, but I can't.
"I think you should put them on hold until you can answer that question," Diana interrupted.
Diana's words made me realize how shallow I had been.
I thought that if I just freed them from their slavery, everything would be all right.
But reality is not that simple. How can I protect them?
What was it that I was trying to protect? Their lives? Human dignity?
I couldn't find the answer so easily, and I had no choice but to put the matter on hold, as Diana had told me to do.
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