— 1 —
The capital, Lichtel, was the largest city in the Kingdom of Licht that Nekomimineko was set in.
Many people lived in the capital, and many pieces of information gathered there. And of the entire capital, the place where the greatest amount of information gathered, was here.
“Fresh vegetables! Buy them while they’re fresh!”
As you could tell from the voice, it was the produce stand.
It was as you would expect from a fantasy world, selling potatoes that were heavier than elephants and turnips the size of houses… just kidding, it was nothing more than your average produce stand, but the lady there was a bit of a gossiper. If you weren’t careful around her, you’d find yourself listening to stories about her neighbours for two hours straight, but it had also become common sense in Nekomimineko that if you were broke and wanted to find out something in the capital, then you should first ask her.
Surprisingly, this produce shop did quite well, and depending on the time there could be an endless stream of customers making it impossible to gather information, but luckily there was almost nobody right now.
This was my chance. I glanced back at Ringo, and asked in a small voice.
“What’s your favorite fruit or ve–”
It wasn’t just an instant response, she responded before I could even finish my question. With a dry smile, I walked over to the stand. As I stopped in front of it, the lady raised an eyebrow at me.
“Hmm? Haven’t I seen you somewhere…”
Crap. Now that I thought back, I felt like I might have run into this stand and scattered apples everywhere yesterday when running away from Poison-tan…
Whoever moves first wins! Before the lady could remember, I raised my voice and shouted.
“I’d like an apple!”
“That will be 50E!”
Whether due to her nature as a salesperson, or due to the effects of the game program, the lady forgot her suspicions and sold me an apple. Mission success.
To buy something random before asking for information was also standard procedure in the game.
Receiving the apple in exchange for 50E, I turned towards Ringo behind me.
“Here you go.”
I reached my hand out to give her the apple, and froze.
I felt an intense deja vu, at a level that I’d never felt before.
The clamor of the streets. The voice of the produce stand lady promoting her goods. A girl with blue hair and blue eyes looking up at me hesitatingly. And myself, holding an apple towards her.
–I felt like this has happened before.
It felt like I was about to remember something, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. Frustration stirred my chest.
Seeing that I wouldn’t take my hand off the apple no matter how long had passed, the blue haired girl tilted her head. Then, Ringo’s mouth moved.
“…Want to split it in half?”
I’ve definitely see those lip movements before, I’ve definitely heard those words before, I–
“”Shall we split it in half?””
I let out a loud scream that was enough to startle Ringo.
With what I was sure were bloodshot eyes, I scrutinized the girl in front of me from head to toe.
“…Y-You can, have the bigger half.”
She might’ve been scared by my sudden aggressiveness, saying something like that, but thoughts like that didn’t even make it into my mind. Forcing the bright red fruit into her hand, I used my freed hands to tidy up her hair.
After straightening her wild hair in the back, I clasped my hands together and pressed them against her forehead to at least recreate the shape of a tiara.
When I did that, what emerged was…
It was the face of Nekomimineko’s pride, of the super popular character Shelmia.
What decided it was the situation where she received an apple in front of the produce stand.
Of course I had thought that an apple suited her. In the few events involving the princess, there was one, The Princess’s Holiday, which contained a scene where the player presents the princess an apple.
While a single apple hadn’t been enough to draw the connection, by walking around town as just the two of us, going to the produce stand and handing her an apple – by putting together all of these conditions, I finally noticed it.
–Now, everything made sense.
Not knowing how to put on clothes, not caring about being naked, not moving at all if not spoken to, those were not because of a bug, but because of the princess’s special AI setting.
After all, it was an AI that gave her the nickname Puppet Princess, where she wouldn’t move at all outside of events.
If that was faithfully recreated, then it wouldn’t be strange at all for it to end up as something like this.
The reason I felt like I recognized her, but couldn’t tell for sure, was because she wasn’t wearing a dress like usual, and didn’t have the tiara that she always wore on her head.
But there’s no excusing myself from being called a slow-witted Nekomimineko player for not realizing it until now, though in contrast with Princess Shelmia’s popularity, she actually only very rarely appears in-game.
It’s really not my fault for not being able to remember what she looked like, I made an excuse to myself.
Towards Ringo, no, Princess Shelmia, who was silently nibbling away at the apple, I called out.
“I’ve figured out who you are.”
That seemed to have caught her attention, as she raised her head.
“You see, you’re actually, this country’s…”
I started to speak, then stopped.
(Wait, a moment…)
It’s true that I’ve figured out her identity, and that explains her abnormal lack of common sense, but that had no connection at all to why her name was bugged.
In game, Princess Shelmia just didn’t have the thought patterns for everyday life installed in her; she wasn’t bugged.
To begin with, if Ringo were Princess Shelmia, why would she appear in front of me?
There wasn’t any event where the princess would go visit the player.
And in the first place, why wasn’t there any commotion in the city if the princess disappeared from the castle?
(I have a bad feeling…)
That’s right, that wasn’t all.
Princess Shelmia was, after all, a member of the royal family.
While someone like me, who had only played the game, might not have noticed it, there’s no way that the people on the street wouldn’t recognize the princess of their own country.
“S-Sorry! Give me a moment!”
The sense of discomfort and unease continued to build.
For some reason, I felt like I had missed something big.
I hurriedly rushed over to the produce stand, and tried asking the lady about the princess.
“I have a quick question. Have you heard any strange rumors about Princess Shelmia recently?”
Hearing my question, the lady glanced at me with a blank look, and immediately asked back in a threatening voice.
Could it have been rude to suddenly bring up the royal family?
I was feeling an immense pressure on me, but I tried asking again.
“Um, like I said, Princess Shelmia. Have you heard like if she was bedridden or if she hasn’t been showing her face recently or anything like that?”
“Dunno. No idea.”
I tried my best to find something out, but the reply was curt. From the looks of this, it would be difficult to find out anything.
I was about to end the conversation there, but…
“Who’s Shelmia anyways? Was there a princess called that in the countries around here?”
The words that followed caused a shiver to run down my spine.
While it might’ve been possible for someone else, there was no way that a gossiper like her wouldn’t know the princess of her own country.
The ominous premonition within me grew all the more.
No, I shook my head.
There’s definitely some kind of mistake.
Thinking that, I desperately tried to string together words to explain.
“W-Who? You know, the princess of this country. The only daughter of the king…”
But, I was ruthlessly interrupted by her furious shout.
“What are you talking about! There’s only one princess in this country, and her name isn’t anything like Shelmia!”
Impossible words erupted out of her mouth.
That’s right, it was impossible.
There was no way I would misremember something so basic about Nekomimineko, and with this world based on Nekomimineko, there was no reason for there to be such a big difference like the princess’s name being different.
Even then, even then I asked.
“Then, what, just what is the name of this country’s princess?”
After looking at me suspiciously, “You really don’t know?”, she answered.
“–Princess Maki El Licht.”
My head felt like it had been hit by a hammer.
(What did she just say?)
My brain refused to process those words.
There was no character called “Maki” in Nekomimineko.
There shouldn’t have been.
Why did that name sound oddly familiar–
Before I realized it, I was imagining an absurd possibility–
Cold sweat wouldn’t stop dripping down my back.
As if coming to deal the final blow while I was shaken, the lady started speaking to me.
“You seem pretty surprised, and I don’t know why you thought that, but the princess had always been…”
But I involuntarily spoke over her.
“…That’s wrong. She’s not, the princess.”
By that time, I already had what was probably something closer to a crazy thought than a hypothesis in my head.
Caught up in that thought, I unconsciously muttered out loud.
“…Even if you say that, like I said…”
The lady started to say something again, but it wasn’t entering my ears anymore.
A princess, yet not a princess.
Not a Royal Princess, but a Princess.
“In that case…”
When did this happen?
Yesterday, when I was snooping for rumors on the first floor of the inn, I’m certain I had heard the name Princess Shelmia.
In that case, there’s only one possibility.
It must have happened between last night and today, within the span of half a day.
With that, I was almost half certain.
I had no evidence whatsoever.
But, everything lined up too perfectly to call this just a coincidence.
“It probably happened this morning.”
Ringo, aka Shelmia, had said that she had come to my room a few hours before I woke up.
If it were a few hours before I woke up, couldn’t it have actually been at midnight sharp?
No, that must have been when it was.
I had no idea if that was actually going to do anything.
But, it would seem like that had ended up activating when the date changed.
The seventh day of my life in a game.
And, the first day I entered this game, was July 1st in the real world.
In other words, what it means is that, if that’s the case, then today is–
“–Today is, Tanabata!”