Monday, December 19, 2022 @

Chapter 32, Part 1

 I was in a dark, dank room. On a crude chair, my limbs were tightly constrained with rough ropes, and at the same time, numerous charms were tightly attached to my body. It functioned as a kind of boundary, binding me not only physically but also spiritually.
 "Ugh... Ah..."
 I moan, my consciousness clouded by sleepiness and intense pain. How many days have passed since then? It feels like a month or more, but on the other hand, it seems like only a few days or hours have passed. Without a clock, without daylight, without food... or even water, in fact, I had completely lost my sense of time. Maybe I had been bewitched by some kind of sorcery. I could not rely on my perception at all.
 "Hmm, you're pretty tough for a mere servant. Even though I have to take it easy on you... you still won't talk even after all that torture. Maybe I should take a peek into your memory. It's the best way, isn't it?"
 "Idiot, that's worthless as evidence. After all, it's not that hard to plant false memories if it's an expert. Besides... tsk, I don't know who did it. The memories are very meticulously sealed. It's not easy to open them up."
 I could hear two blurry shadows talking to each other. I understood, but my mind could not comprehend what they were saying. I was so weak that the conversation sounded almost like a noise.
 (What is it...? It seems I need to remember... something, yeah, something... important...)
 I try desperately to gather my thoughts that are not coherent. And I hold on to my fading consciousness and think. Yes, I'm forgetting something. Something very important. Something I shouldn't forget. Something, something I have to protect!
 (What... what am I doing? What have I been doing? What... what's going on? Remember. Remember it! I think it was... it was...!)
 And then, in my blurry, shaky vision, I see it. A frightened girl with blond hair. The child, who is looking at me as if she is desperate, comes into view. At the same time, my eyes widen in shock. As soon as I see her, my vague memories come flooding back into my mind.
 (Yes... I'm sure that was...)
 Then, I started to recall the events leading up to this point...
* * *
 The sky was cloudy and snow was falling silently. The small powder snowflakes melted as soon as they fell on the ground, wetting the ground.
 "...It's so cold."
 The first thing I felt was a chill that almost hurt me as I stepped over the gate, the main gate that controls the entrance and exit of the capital, where people and vehicles come and go in and out with great intensity.
 While the inner walls of the capital are kept cool in summer and warm in winter by a vast amount of spiritual power, the outside of the walls is the very harshness of nature itself. It is the month of the New Year, the time when winter is in full swing, and in mountain villages, communication with the outside world is completely cut off by the snowfall.
 In many mountainous or remote island villages, the entire village try to survive the winter by gathering food together, but when the snow melts, it is not uncommon for travelers or peddlers to find that the entire village has been wiped out. Or it could happen that youkai who were starving like human beings attacked them, and all of them ended up in the bellies of the monsters.
 Unfortunately, this was nothing but a common tragedy. A common story in pioneer villages built by the city's starving vagabonds, people with a hidden motive, the second and third sons of poor farmers, and others who "had no problem dying". For the court and the ruling class, it was a good thing if the village succeeded because it would reduce the territory controlled by youkai and increase tax revenues, and it was a good thing if the village was wiped out because it would reduce the number of mouths to feed. It may not be important, but the cold village where I was born was one of such pioneer villages bordering on the youkai's territory.
 "...so, even the outer city is a paradise compared to a mountain village in the countryside..."
 At least the capital and its surrounding areas are not as extremely cold as mountain villages, and with a few exceptions, youkai are not as close. There is food and the day jobs necessary to obtain it. Unlike in the countryside, it was not so easy to starve to death, and it was not so common to freeze to death because of the lack of firewood. So, this is the reason why people flow from rural areas to capital during the recession.
 "Ah, um.... at a time like this, I'm sorry..."
 An anxious and muffled voice echoed beside me. I looked in the direction of the voice through the mask and saw a silver-haired half-youkai with fox ears hidden by a bamboo hat and a straw jacket covering her tail looking up at me with a fearful expression.
 "No, there's nothing to worry about..."
 Shiro looks at my arm apologetically. Needless to say, I don't know what condition my right arm is in after being bandaged and propped up. The arm that was broken by a head butt of youkai sword and pierced from the palm to the shoulder with the flesh shaved off in the process still throbbed and ached.
 "I promised Azuma that I would escort you. I'm just doing my duty. Besides, it's better to have a job. It would be awkward to just eat food."
 I tell her there's nothing to be nervous about. It was true.
 There was only one reason why the half-Youkai Shiro would have exited the city's main gate and come to the outer city. It was a requirement. When I took her in from Azuma, I had a contract with her to periodically take her to her orphanage to make sure she was all right. And I was the designated escort. So it was only natural that I should fulfill it. I mean, I'd be d*mned if I broke the contract...
 Another reason is that I'm in a tight spot. I've spent too much time in this place for too long.
 The incident in the underground tunnels almost a month ago, which nearly killed me, has kept me in bed until today.
 I don't remember the last time I was in the underground tunnels. If anything, my memory has been cut off like a toothless hole in some places. Perhaps my memory was disrupted when I was hit by the illusion or eye technique of the "youkai mother", or perhaps my memory was wiped out by the shock of the battle before and after the attack. At least the last scene I remember is when I was attacked by youkai sword that was out of control by its owner... Ako Murasaki.
 Then, Gorilla-sama, who had probably been following me as a pastime to kill time, confirmed the oversized matter of 'youkai mother' through the shikigami, and went straight to the underground tunnels, where she had no choice but to save me from being reduced to a rag.
 However, even though it was the weakest and the most pathetic, a youkai sword is still a youkai sword. Killing a single servant is nothing. So, if gorilla-sama had found me even a little later, I would have died. And not to mention...
 The voice sounded anxious, and I immediately looked at the owner of the voice. Ahead of me, Shiro was showing a slightly frightened expression. It seems that she was wearing a very swarthy atmosphere. Children are sensitive to such things.
 "Ah, I'm sorry. I've been thinking something."
 According to the description of the original game, Gorilla-sama's decision to shelter me in her room and her subsequent actions were neither merciful nor kind, but merely a way of killing time. From her point of view, I guess I became an amusing toy and an even more interesting curiosity... Otherwise, she wouldn't have said those things to me, and she wouldn't have invested in me.
 Anyway, it's been almost a month since the incident at the underground tunnels, and even though I was seriously injured, it was getting uncomfortable for me to just sit idle at the corner of the building without doing any work in the meantime, with all the eyes of the people in the house on me. In that sense, accompanying Shiro was a great opportunity for me to rehabilitate and refresh myself.
 "Did you bring the souvenir? Don't drop it. You can't replace it, right?"
 I pointed at the package that Shiro was holding with both hands, half in an attempt to divert the conversation and the other half with my sincere intention.
 The package that Shiro held in her arms, wrapped in a crude furoshiki (wrapping cloth), was a souvenir to make Azuma happy on our way to the orphanage. It is also known as a bribe.
 "Ah... Y-yes! I'll hold it properly so I don't drop it!!"
 The fox girl replies to my warning with a nervous look on her face. I give a small smile at her healthy and pure attitude and start to walk away, leading the way. Following me, White hurriedly arrives diagonally next to me at a slightly backward position.
 Compared to the Inner capital, where access to the city is controlled by walls, guards, and boundaries to prevent youkai and criminals from entering, the Outer capital is much more chaotic and disorderly.
 Unlike the Inner capital, the Outer Capital is not well-preserved, since it was originally settled by refugees who came to the capital after the Great War. Since then, migrant farmers from all over the country... not to mention peasants who fled from their manors, poor people, criminals, foreigners, and other people with special circumstances such as the old man Ou came to live in the capital as they pleased. Even the style of the buildings is not standardized.
 Paradoxically, a servant and a young servant walking in such a city that is half-ignored by the public authorities is frankly conspicuous. It was a distraction, but... in this case, it was inevitable. If I proved that I was in the service of exorcists or a noble family, there was little chance that someone would bother me unnecessarily. The advantages far outweighed the disadvantages. I'll give up the stares and the disapproving glances.
 Now, we continue along the main street for another hour or so, through the crowded, dirty, but in a way, lively and bustling outer city. We arrived at our destination when there were fewer buildings and the landscape began to be mixed with fields.
 It was a house. The house was a timber-framed samurai residence surrounded on all sides by clay walls. It was an ostentatious building for an orphanage in a country where people's livelihood and social welfare are not given high priority.
 (Gorilla-sama is cunning, isn't she?)
 Probably, it is also intended to be used as a fortress to defend the capital in case of a rebellion. And she was trying to score points against the court by offering her own money, I guess. Otherwise, gorilla-sama would not have paid more money than necessary to rebuild the orphanage luxuriously, even if it was compensation for buying Shiro.
 "Well, whatever the backstory, it's true that it's much more splendid than the old shabby house, isn't it? Though it does stand out a bit from the surrounding scenery."
 "Is that supposed to be sarcasm?"
 I received a slightly stinging response to my comment from behind me. My shoulders shook and I turned around with a slightly awkward expression on my face.
 "...if it isn't the Director... It's been a while. I'm here to see you as we agreed."
 I slowly straightened my posture so that I was facing forward. As I did so, the reflection in the center of my vision was a strangely aged and intelligent woman with a truly grim expression on her face.
 She was probably on her way home from shopping, carrying a bag full of brown rice on her back and staring at me. I greeted Azuma Hibari, a half-youkai woman with the title of orphanage director, temple school teacher, and former head of the Onmyou dormitory, with more respect than necessary, to cover up my mistake...
* * *
 The sweet-potato yokan (Japanese confection) is similar to, but not the same as, normal yokan (from red bean paste). To be more precise, although sweet potato yokan is a derivative of the normal yokan, its quality as confectionery is far inferior to that of normal yokan.
 If anyone is familiar with historical novels and dramas of the past, it goes without saying that jelly was a highly prized luxury item in pre-modern times.
 This Japanese confectionery, a mass of sugar and red beans, was a coveted sweet in an age when people were starved for sweetness. In the Edo period, especially in the first half of the Edo period, it was an unspoken agreement that even if it was served to guests as tea cakes, the guests were never to eat it, and since it lasted for a long time, it was used over and over again until it was just before it went bad when the owner could finally taste it. Even before and during the war, when the shogunate was replaced by the imperial government and time had progressed further, yokan was the envy of soldiers in the army as the most popular sweet.
 And the substitute for this yokan is sweet-potato yokan. It is said that it started by reusing sweet potatoes, which were a relief crop instead of expensive red beans, and which were classified as discarded sweet potatoes. It is said that not a few common people ate sweet potato yokan instead of red bean yokan because it did not last long and was cheaper than red bean yokan.
 ...By the way, the sweet potatoes of modern Japan of the previous generation are sweet and tasty thanks to improved cultivation, but those of the Edo period and during the war were produced with an emphasis on production volume and the taste was of secondary importance, so do not expect the same taste from the low-quality wastes of those countries. The same applies to vegetables and other grains. This is where the stereotyped images of old people hating potatoes, believing in white rice, and thinking that carrots and green peppers are bitter and tasteless come from. The development of civilization is great, isn't it?
 Well, I have disgraced sweet potato yokan with such a scathing remark, but of course, it is relative. Sweet things are sweet, although they are lower in quality than red bean yokan, and if I did not live in an age when sugar was available everywhere and anytime, even sweet potato yokan would be highly valued enough to be impressed by it. And even more so for those who know sweetness only in the form of fruits. What I am trying to say is...
 "E-everyone! This is a souvenir... Aaaahhhhhh!!!?"
 As soon as Shiro opened the package to show the sweet potato yokan, an avalanche of hungry kids rushed toward her and swallowed her up. Both the older and younger children's eyes lit up, drooling from their mouths as they plunged into the sweet-potato yokan.
 "Hey!? What is this! Hey!?"
 "It smells so good! Shiro, is this sweet potato?"
 "Hey, hey, can I eat this? I mean, I'll eat it now!"
 Hey! Don't be rash! We're all going to share equally...!?"
 The half-youkai children were saying whatever they wanted to say, sniffing the sweet potato yokan and trying to touch them, but were restrained by the other children. But then, their attention was completely focused on the sweet potato yokan. The noise made me think of the crowd of fans surrounding the idol. I see, the sweet potato yokan was an idol.
 "Hey, everyone! It's all right to be excited, but say thank you first!"
 The children who were excited by the sweet potato yokan shrugged their shoulders at the reprimand. They looked at the voice and saw Azuma standing there with her arms folded and a hard expression on her face.
 "Ha~a... first of all, you should at least thank Shiro and this guest for bringing you these souvenirs. You can't take a person's goodwill for granted, can you?"
 After letting out a sigh, Azuma speaks in a soft voice this time. The initially frightened children look at each other, and now they start to line up slowly.
 "Well, um... T-thank you for the souvenir!"
 One of the older children led the group in a bow, and the others followed suit, thanking me and Shiro. They are well-disciplined for children of this age.
 "I'm just an escort. It's not my place to be thanked. Shiro, she's the one who picked out the pastry. So, you'd better thank her."
 I offer and suggest to Shiro, who is looking blankly at Azuma's reprimand and the children's thanks. Shiro, who came back to herself at my words, was a little puzzled, but when I suggested again, she nodded her head a little shyly and answered the children's thanks.
 "Uh, umm... I don't mind! Don't worry so much! I mean, I'm glad everyone seems happy... eh, uh... T-then, let's all eat together, shall we?"
 Shiro answers with a sly grin at the end. Hearing her words, the children turn to Azuma worriedly. Azuma sighs again and smiles helplessly.
 "Everyone gets along and share equally, okay?"
 In a complete change from earlier, the children cheered in unison at Azuma's words. Some of the older children hurriedly brought plates and small knives from the kitchen and began discussing how to cut the yokan into pieces. Younger children observed them intently, or ran up to Shiro and hugged her or talked to her.

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