Monday, December 19, 2022 @

Chapter 32, Part 2

 "I can't help it, huh? I'm sorry, I don't usually feed them sweet things. Other than fruits, I can only buy dumplings and candies once in a while. Please forgive me."
 With a troubled face, but with a kind expression on her face, Azuma explains her situation to me.
 "Children are like that. I don't make a big deal out of it. Besides, I'm sure Shiro is happy to hear that.”
 "Shiro is fine, but what about you? That sweet-potato yokan, Shiro may have picked it out, but the money is yours, isn't it?"
 "Don't worry about it. I wasted her sweets before. I'm just making up for it. It's nothing to worry about."
 To Azuma's point, however, I tell her that it was not done out of the goodness of my heart. In fact, it was an act of calculation.
 The money for the sweet potato yokan indeed was mine, but it was because I had wasted the kompeito that was supposed to be given to her before. The kompeito that I used to blind Ako in the match with her... it made the ladies of the Oumi family scorn me appropriately. I also owed a debt to Shiro herself, and I needed to make up for it.
 And most of all... this was a decision made out of self-preservation.
 "I see you are not lying. I'm relieved, to be honest. ...After all, she's in that position. I was worried that she might be feeling small, but from the looks of her, she's being taken care of, huh?"
 Azuma looks at Shiro who is chatting with the children at the orphanage with a relieved expression on her face. Since Shiro's original origin was calamity youkai who tried to attack the capital, she seemed to be very concerned about the way she was treated.
 (...But it's a small price to pay if I can earn a good impression with a mere sweet potato yokan...)
 I grumbled my ulterior motive in my mind. Yes, I'm not buying her sweets out of the goodness of my heart either. Shiro is a former heroine of mine in the game, and she is liked by the maids of the house, and most of all, she is worried by Azuma Hibari, the former head of the Onmyou dormitory. That is the reason why I care and pout for the half-youkai. The relationship with her is a plus for my survival, but it is not a minus.
 Well, maybe not so much the friendship, though it would be a bad thing if I gain too much of her liking. No, at worst, I can just pass it off as a hopeful hero who shines in the dark of night. After all, the charm of the original main character, who became a sacrifice to the desires of many crazy heroines, is not given to me. Still, if I can guide Shiro to avoid the bad ending, it will almost certainly go well. Yeah, that's right. That's not a problem. Not a single problem. The issue at hand is rather...
 "...apparently, there's trouble ahead?"
 "...!? What are you talking about?"
 I succeeded in minimizing my agitation and acting out the sudden remark. I should be commended for turning my head quickly and not denying her question outright. A denial would have instantly discredited and discredited me. But...
 "Don't underestimate me, servant. It's true that I'm weak in combat-oriented abilities, but I used to do scouting and distraction for a living during the war. Perception is my specialty. My nose is not bad. You smell that?"
 Like many speeches, the silence was also an affirmation, but I still couldn't say anything. She could detect a lie, and a poor deception would only make things worse.
 "...You can rest assured. I'm not trying to extort you. I am not like youkai. I'm not the kind of human being who would return the favor."
 She says this with a strangely strong emphasis on the "human" part. She indicated that although she was a half-youkai, she was also committed to being a "human being.
 "You don't have to answer me. But I have a rough guess as to your condition. I'm not sure if it's correct."
 After a pause, Azuma continued.
 "If you're expecting something from me, I'm afraid I can't meet your expectations. At least in my time, my fellow who went berserk was supposed to be disposed of on the spot."
 That meant killing half-youkai soldiers as soon as they were about to become youkai. I honestly didn't expect this, but still...
 I close my eyes and stare blindly at her. D*mn, you gotta be kidding me. I had been paying attention to some extent, but I never thought... this would happen!!
 (Was it harsh to deal with 'youkai mother'?)
 Probably only a few drops entered into my body, and even the amount of bodily fluids of most calamity youkai, not to mention great youkai, should not be a problem, but it seems that... was too bad a partner.
 "...don't worry. Even if things get worse, I don't intend to do any harm to you or to Shiro. To some extent, I can handle it by myself."
 I answer Azuma calmly, touching the half of my face that is bathed in the blood of that damned fallen god through my face. The texture is almost the same as that of normal skin, but even I couldn't tell what was beneath the skin. Damn, I thought that being a half-Youkai and a former head of the Onmyou dormitory, she might know something, but am I being too naïve?
 "I'm not worried about that. No, it's just that if push comes to shove the curse I put on you will take effect. I'm sorry, but when there's a great war, I'm a low-ranking officer. Most of those books were forbidden and sealed when I came up. I don't know much about the contents of books from that period. I can't help you on that front."
 Azuma replies apologetically. Then she continues.
 "It would be better if the mutation could be completed only by being turned into a half-youkai, but in the worst case... or in the case of a servant like you, just being turned into a half-youkai would be dangerous."
 Even an ordinary villager could be killed by a secret execution of all the villagers if he or she is mistakenly half-youkai. And if it is a mere servant kept by a family of exorcists, it is frightening just to think of... So, I was lucky that Gorilla-sama was the only one in Kizuki's family who knew about my secret change, and that she kept the secret of my change not with her normal sensibilities but with a sense of fun.
 (Especially when she gives me a sh*tty-tasting secret medicine to prolong my life. It's a relief that it's not the worst of the worst...)
 As a servant, I don't know anything about the ingredients or the manufacturing process. I only know how valuable it is. In the original game, there is an event in which the protagonist kills his friend who is turning into a youkai in tears. It was mentioned that even the medicine to delay youkai-ization is quite expensive. To think that the Kizuki family can give it to a servant regularly...
 "...I don't know how advanced the situation is. But if the time comes, you are welcome to come to me. I can't cure you, but I can at least take care of you in the final stages of your illness."
 Azuma offers with heartfelt pity and regret. These were the words of someone who had seen similar cases many times before. In a world where life is cheap and discrimination is commonplace, the offer was merciful enough. But that didn't solve anything for me.
 I am silent. I could only be silent. Of course, I would have. Nobody wants to die. But with the information I have now, there is no way to cure youkai-ization, and I don't know how long I can get medicine from Gorilla-sama, and even that medicine will only buy me time...
 "Oh, umm...! Tomobe-san!! H-here!"
 ...I was so deep in my thoughts about the future that I didn't realize that Shiro was standing right in front of me until she called out to me. When I look at her, she holds out the bowl in her hand.
 A yellow rectangular object with a toothpick sticking out of it, the aroma of slightly sweet... it was obviously a cut-up sweet-potato yokan.
 "Well, um, I thought I'd bring some for... Tomobe-san. After all, you paid for it, and you also accompanied me... Ah! I also have one for you, Azuma-san!"
 The half-youkai fox girl opens her mouth with embarrassment and shyness, but with a sense of expectation as if a little flustered at the end.
 "Why are you looking at me? It's for you, you can have it. Shiro gave it to you."
 I look at Azuma with some confusion, but she tilts her head in the opposite direction. It is true, if one thinks about it. And the child offered voluntarily. It is not a good idea to disrespect the child's goodwill too much. In other words...
 "...I understand. Thank you very much."
 I shifted my face a little and took the bowl. Shiro smiled with relief.
 ...The sweet potato yokan tasted as gentle and reassuring as its aroma.
* * *
 Even though I was an escort, I couldn't just sit by the edge of the passageway and do nothing. It would be too pathetic.
 I helped with the harvesting of crops in the small garden at the end of the yard with the white half-youkai orphans... although it was a small garden considering the size of the orphanage with a dozen or so orphans. Most of it was cheap, big, filling radishes and cabbage. And some spinach... Every family with a tight budget has the same food.
 Especially radishes were pulled out carefully so as not to break them, and the soil was washed off with water. After that, it was necessary to tidy up the garden in preparation for the snowfall and the sowing of seeds in the spring.
 This is what is called soil preparation. We dug up the soil with a hoe and killed the pests and their eggs lying in the soil with the cold air of winter. I remember once when I lived in a cold village, I did not do this enough and the vegetables I was supposed to harvest in the spring were almost completely destroyed and I almost starved to death (distant memory).
 ...I remember those bad memories, but I didn't dislike working in the field. At least it's much better than risking my life every time I have to kill a monster. Sometimes I got tangled up with children of the orphanage, and they treated me like a toy, carrying me on their shoulders or carrying me on their shoulders for some reason or other, but I thought it was cute when I thought they were just innocent children.
 "Are you going home already? Can I at least prepare dinner?"
 I told the kids, including Shiro, a story based on an anime or movie from my previous life (it was quite popular), and when I looked outside and saw that it was dusk, Azuma asked when I wanted to go home. It was a sincere offer, but I couldn't accept it.
 Even in the capital, it was dangerous to walk in the streets at night. Especially when I accompanied Shiro. Besides, if she treats us to dinner, we won't be able to eat when we get home.
 "I'm sorry. You really wanted to eat with the other kids, didn't you?"
 I asked Shiro as we walked outside the city at dusk. Azuma didn't mind so much, but the kids booed me a lot. The younger kids were sobbing and tugging at Shiro's sleeves to stop her from leaving. Shiro seemed to be having a good time, so it's not hard to imagine that she was dissatisfied with my decision.
 Besides, the Kizuki family's visit to the Capital and their services were about to expire. Then Shiro and I and gorilla-sama would have to go to the main family in the northern part of the country. Unless there was some special reason, it would be three years before we could visit the orphanage again. She must have some regrets.
 "No, it's not, uh, well... I wanted to have dinner with everyone, but I understand why, so I can understand. Besides..."
 The youkai fox girl denies my words in a slightly panicked manner. Then she puts her palms on top of each other as if rubbing them together and looks lost... but after a few seconds, she looks up with a healthy smile on her face.
 "B-besides...! I love to have dinner with the princess and Tomobe-san!"
 ...If that bashful look was an act, I'd probably never trust a child again. It was a carefree, genuine smile.
 "…But then, before leaving, I took a quick peek at the kitchen. I saw fried bean curd and spinach simmering together in soy sauce. There will probably be a side dish of soaked tofu and spinach."
 At my words, Shiro's eyes widen and shine brightly. Drool almost drips from her mouth, and she hurriedly slurps it up. I guess that monster fox likes fried bean curd a little too much.
 "Tomobe-san!! L-let's go back to the house quickly! It's already dark! Right? Right!?"
 Where was her reserved attitude until now? Instead, she grabbed the sleeve of my robes and urged me to hurry back home. Seriously, she's a good girl.
 (...from the other side, we look like a father and a daughter, don't we?)
 I was silent for a moment, thinking about it. I was smiling at my own thoughts. Father and daughter, but father... huh...?
 (It's appalling that I couldn't even fulfill my role as a big brother, much less a father. It's not funny.)
 I don't need to tell about my previous life, but... it doesn't work out well for me, even though I'm blessed in this life only in that aspect.
 "...Tomobe-san? I-Is it ticklish?"
 I rub the head of the white fox in front of me before she can get suspicious. The white fox twitches her ears itchily and smiles annoyedly.
 "Really, I'm hungry. You're right, let's get the hell back to the house."
 With these words, I speed up my steps to the capital's main gate. Suddenly, I feel a warm touch on my cold hand. I looked up to see Shiro holding my hand.
 "Um, you run so fast that I might lose you... oh, and it's cold..."
 As if to deceive me, Shiro replies as if asking me. ...Is this guy really not acting?
 "...I'm holding you tight, but don't let go, okay?"
 ...the girl replies cheerfully to my words.
* * *
 At the capital's great gate, just beyond the gate, it was sitting in the city square. The big four-horse ox cart surrounded by several guards and miscellaneous people was not a nobleman's or an exorcist's family, but it was a luxurious one that must have cost a fortune to the same extent, and it was clear that the person inside was not a commoner of the lowest rank.
 "...don't make eye contact, let's hurry on past."
 I don't know whose oxcart this was, but in a world where there was such strong discrimination between high and low, it was a risk for those of us at the bottom of the social hierarchy not only to speak with our superiors but even to make eye contact with them. It was a rare occurrence, but at worst, we could be spared from being cut down.
 Therefore, we lowered our faces and walked quickly past the oxcart. They would not call out to us in any way. Well, normally.
 "And this time it's not normal..."
 As we were about to pass by a large ox cart that blocked almost a third of the road, several strong servants appeared to block our way. They were not wearing protective gear, but they had a club in their hands for self-defense, and swords hung from their waists... I hid Shiro behind my back as they stared coldly at me.
 "It's okay. I don't think we're going to be executed in public like this. Maybe."
 Some passersby noticed the situation and stopped to watch. These are servants and employees of the Kizuki family, after all. They would not have been injured or killed in such a public place without some justifiable reason. Is it
 (...we have no way out, huh?)
 I'm more cautious when I see two servants blocking our backs again. It's not good for us to attack first. But it is also true that we will be doomed if we don't. What should I do?
 (In the first place, who from where, and what do they want?)
 While I'm thinking like that, the ox cart starts to move slowly. And then it stops right next to us. Then, I finally noticed a family crest engraved on the side of the ox cart.
 "This is...."
 "Oh? What a coincidence, Tomobe-san! Are you all right now?"
 Before I could say anything, the window of the oxcart opened quickly. And the sound of a child's voice echoed through the air. I take advantage of the fact that I am looking through the window and raise my head with a look of utter exasperation on my face. Then, half unconsciously, I muttered in a small voice that no one could hear.
 "...as I thought, brats are troublesome..."
 A pretty merchant girl with foreign charm looks at me through the window of the ox cart. When I glanced at that moody and innocent smile, I thought so from the bottom of my heart...

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