Tuesday, December 27, 2022 @

Chapter 37, Part 1

 "...I have some business to attend to, so please excuse me with all due respect..."
 It was an abrupt pronouncement.
 ...If anything, it was not an impolite gesture that could be condemned. Rather, it was extremely refined, with impeccable language and demeanor, in full accordance with the courtly etiquette of the imperial court. Her good looks and taste in clothing were also perfect. Some people would forget to breathe in admiration of her.
 But still, it was inevitable that she would attract the curious, puzzled, and astonished gazes of the guests, especially those who were sitting around her.
 Of course, the emperor is still the emperor even though he is almost completely a puppet, and his authority, though formal, is not something that can be ignored.
 However, what cannot be ignored more than that is the possibility of displeasing the Grand Council of State, which practically controlled the Imperial Court.
 Although it was nominally the emperor's order to host the garden party, it is obvious from his bored attitude that the young child did not propose the event on his own. Still, from their point of view, it would not be so pleasant to have a little girl leave the garden party, which they held to show off their power. It might even draw attention to them in a bad way. Besides, her mannerisms, her manners, and her language... It is impossible that this princess, who is obviously well-educated and reasonably intelligent, does not understand this, and therefore, the Grand Council of State is stunned and puzzled by the sudden outrage.
 Yes, to leave the venue in this situation is too irrational and a foolish choice, no doubt. It is a choice that has approximately no merit at all...
 "Let's go. Follow me."
 "Huh...!? Y-yes!!"
 Still, Kizuki Aoi proudly and naturally, as if there is no problem at all, gives a single smile to the nobleman in front of her who has remained dumbfounded from a while ago, and leaves her seat without the slightest hesitation with half-youkai standing by her side. Following her own order, Shiro, who was upset but obediently obeying Aoi's order, was about to leave the hall of Burakuin Hall, dashing through the crowd... and then a figure stood in front of them.
 "Aoi the second princess of Kizuki's family, isn't it? Please return to your seat."
 "That's right, I don't know what reason you have, but it is impolite to leave without finishing your seat while the Lord is still here. Please, I beg you to understand."
 Two officials of the Ministry of the Imperial Household appeared in front of Aoi and said to her. They expressed to Aoi their anger, or rather their annoyance. It was a kind of sense of obligation to the rules and goodwill toward the ignorant girl from the countryside.
 "I already told you, with all due respect, didn't I? Now move out of the way."
 Aoi smiles and orders with her mouth covered by the sleeve of her kimono. Her polite but coercive attitude, which gives an impression of condescension to the subordinates, however, does not anger the official.
 Requiring a subordinate to do a superior's bidding is not uncommon. The same is true for the high-handed, arrogant attitude. Therefore, the officials are not offended by the attitude of Aoi, who is as old as their daughters or grandchildren. But that does not mean that they can overlook it.
 "Princess, but..."
 Aoi is slightly annoyed at the official who still insists, so much so that only Shiro notices it, and decides to say the excuse that she got from the shameful behavior of her cousin who is not good enough, which she happened to see through the shikigami.
 "...or do you want me to be even more disrespectful to the emperor?"
 "Disrespectful? What does that mean...?"
 Aoi smiles and lifts up her long hakama to the officials who are puzzled for a moment, not knowing the true meaning of her words. The officials are surprised not only by the act but also by the presence they have witnessed, and they take a step back involuntarily. On the underside of her hakama, several red spots were seeping out as if they were dripping. It was still brand new, and they wondered what it meant...
 "You don't expect me to stay here even in this condition, do you? Am I right?"
 Aoi, who had learned the rules and regulations of the palace rituals by heart, declared unashamedly to the officials who were also familiar with the rules and regulations.
* * *
 "Aoi! What is the meaning of this!!? That kind of behavior... are you trying to humiliate me!!?"
 Kizuki Uemon, who was going through the corridor of the palace and was leaving the hallway of the palace from behind Aoi, shaking all her fat, ran after her with shortness of breath and pursued her with his voice. The white fox girl who was standing by was frightened by his voice. Then Aoi took one look at her and asked her uncle.
 "...well, well, if it isn't my respected uncle? Are you sure you don't want me to leave?"
 "You fooled us by going to the washroom! But more importantly, you! What was that all about!!? How dare you do such a thing in a place where so many people are gathered...!"
 "It's not that there's anything funny about it. The court etiquette also stipulates that I may leave the room when there's period."
 Aoi boasted calmly. Of course, it is impolite to be the first to leave before the emperor during a feast, but there are always exceptions. In some circumstances, such as when a chronic illness worsens or a family member is in critical condition, it is permitted to leave the place after bowing.
 Especially, in the case of exorcists' women, they were allowed to leave the place because of the period. No, rather, they are "forced" to leave.
 Although the existence of pathogens and viruses is not yet known in this world, it is known from experience that the blood of others, dead bodies, and unsanitary environments are the causes of diseases. Therefore, the nobles of the imperial court consider them unclean and abhor them. Furthermore, youkai are fond of eating the flesh and blood of those with spiritual power, and even the period's blood is a great source of pleasure for youkai (although there is an idea to use the blood as a trap).
 Thus, it is a matter of common sense that the young emperor and his ministers would order her to leave the garden party as soon as possible if she spilled her period's blood at the party. There is no doubt but... Uemon is not so incompetent a man as to be deceived by such words of Aoi, despite his ugly appearance.
 "Hmph, do you think you can deceive me with such nonsense? Your blood is not like that, is it!?"
 Uemon asks in a low voice, keeping his voice low in the latter half. The wave of spiritual power that gushes out gradually, though it is quiet, is so strong that Shiro, who is standing right in front of him, lets out a small scream. His niece, however, was unperturbed.
 In fact, Uemon's words were right on the mark. Aoi had just before slit her own inner thighs with her own nails, strengthened by her spiritual power, to produce something like period's blood.
 "Oh my, oh my, I've been exposed, aren't I? So, what? What does my respected uncle want? You don't mean to tell me to turn around and go back, do you?"
 She can't just turn around and say it was a lie. Then Aoi asked her uncle in front of her. She understood that this uncle was not a fool who would pursue her emotionally without meaning, without a penny's worth.
 "...Why on earth would you leave? My Lord, you won't do something whimsical and troublesome again, will you?"
 Uemon pointed this out to Aoi as if he was warning her. When she was in Kizuki's house and after she went to the capital (joraku), this niece of his had indeed interfered and meddled in many things whimsically. Although half of them resulted in Kizuki's benefit, at the same time, there were countless cases of troublesome matters coming in.
 The most recent one is the case of the underground water tunnels and the handing over of the witness. Even if there is no legal problem, it is not without benefit to oppose the request of the Imperial Court, especially if it is a servant who can be replaced by another person... although it is not without benefit since the result was to be able to get a thousand ryo vox from Tachibana the Merchant family... it was not necessary completely meet the conditions. At least Uemon thought that he could have satisfied them with alternatives even if the conditions did not fit perfectly.
 ...Besides that, Uemon does not think, nor would he like to think, that Aoi was so stupid that she could not think of the situation. Therefore, Uemon asks his niece what she thinks about it.
 "My Lord, why are you—?"
 "—Have you been contacted by the men you had following him?"
 "Contact? I've ordered them to report back to me regularly. If they find anything suspicious, they will contact me..."
 Aoi's words made Uemon look doubtful for a moment. However, he soon realized that he had an idea of what she was talking about and tried to say it cheerfully. But...
 "...excuse me. Are you Uemon-sama, a member of the Kizuki family?"
 "Uh-huh. Yes, I am. What can I do for you?"
 A court official came running toward them. Uemon tilts his head and asks in a puzzled manner.
 "I have a message from someone who claims to be your subordinate. It seems to be of some urgency..."
 "What? ...No way!?"
 Uemon's eyes widened and his eyes sharpened as he answered. Then Uemon looked in the direction of his niece.
 "Uncle, rest assured. I'll take care of this matter specially. No, I correct myself. I won't forgive you if you lay a hand on the trouble."
 The cold words made the official who had come to report scream and roll on the floor. The fox cub beside her gasps, breaking out in a cold sweat.
 Uemon, who had received the most direct blow, involuntarily backed up. The fact that he was able to get away with it was proof of his skill as an exorcist. Still, with a trembling mouth, Uemon tried to speak.
 "Well then, my respected uncle. I'll leave first."
 Aoi did not find any more value in the conversation with her uncle. So she unilaterally terminated the conversation and started to go down the corridor again. Following behind her is a scared little fox. Now, Shiro glances at her master...
 "Oh, um... Master..."
 "Really, it's a problem, isn't it?"
 Completely ignoring Shiro's call, Aoi opens her mouth. The girl smiles cruelly, brutally, proudly, arrogantly, and cruelly, with the corners of her mouth lifted up.
 "If I take my eyes off him for a moment, bugs will soon be all over him. But, that's okay. Nothing to be ashamed of. I'm not jealous. In fact, it's meaningless if he's not that much..."
 Aoi hides her mouth, or rather her expression, with a fan while declaring so as if making an excuse. Yes, it is meaningless if he's not that much. Though the other b*tches may be a second class, still it is pleasant to see them wagging their tails desperately for her beloved guy, and it is a scene that satisfies Aoi's self-esteem enough to monopolize him, to be with him, to be envied by others and to be jealous of him. It is true.
 ...But now, this is another story. Even if she understands it, she is irritated and angry. And Aoi is a passionate person by nature.
 Therefore, no matter how much she tries to hide her face with a fan, no matter how much she tries to deceive the fierceness of her spiritual power, she can't hide her cold but a deep-seated passion that is boiling like lava.
 "...I thought he would be safe in the Capital. But you really do get yourself into a lot of trouble, don't you?"
 "Oh... uhh..."
 The fox girl was too frightened to speak, though she tried to make small talk. It's not as if the hostility and malice are directed at her.
 "Hehe, however, it's my fault too, isn't it? I've caused him a lot of trouble the other day. I don't mean to atone, but I have to take responsibility. That's why...."
 Aoi, smiling scornfully at the young and incompetent servant. Then, she declares ruthlessly, cruelly, and coldly.
 "...The garbage this time is not so tolerable."
* * *
 I felt like I was drowning in water.
 "Cough... Glub...!!?"
 In the cold, pitch-black darkness that suddenly engulfed me... I was drowning and struggling in a world of darkness and night where I couldn't see anything. I can't breathe. I can't grasp anything. I choke. I'm in pain. Suffering. It's painful...!
 "Glub...!? Glub, glub, glub...!!!"
 When I thought about it, the act of frantically struggling was a pointless act that wasted oxygen... but it was true that I couldn't help but be in a state of panic when I was suddenly hit in the stomach and smothered by the blow.
 "Tsk, I finally found you, you little sh*t!"
 How long had it been, tens of seconds or even minutes? In the pitch-black world, I was suddenly grabbed by the neck from behind and dragged out.
 It is only a moment later that I am released from the agony. The next moment I felt a flash of light in my blurred vision, and I closed my eyes, breathing heavily and coughing again and again... A moment later, I received a hard blow to the abdomen and fell down on my back.
 "Cough! Cough... Gasp... Cough!!?"
 I had no idea what was happening or what the situation was, nor did I have time to think with my brain deprived of oxygen. All I could do was moan from the severe pain in my stomach and continue to take in oxygen by moving my chest up and down like a fish on land.
 "It hurts, you piece of sh*t! Hey, you got anything to stop the blood?"
 "Don't howl at me with that kind of injury. Anyway, get that weapon out of his hand while you still can."
 "I'll do it then. Hold him down while I search him."
 Such voices echoed in my shaky vision... but my oxygen-deprived brain could only make out fragments of what they meant. And the situation was not waiting for me to recover.
 "Ha~a... Ha~a... Ghh!!? Gggg!!!"
 Suddenly I feel pressure on my body. It's probably a knee on top of my lungs. The pressure makes me squirm.
 "Hey Iruka, is this it? The dagger that cut your arm? It's a very good one, isn't it?"
 "Don't look away, Kamui. Look inside the man's cloak and sleeve. He's probably hiding a hidden weapon. Did you get rid of the shikigami that was stuck to him too?"
 "Of course. It was very sophisticated and imposing... but it's all just paper."
 A mocking laugh echoes through the room. With what little reason I had left, I turned my eyes in that direction and caught a glimpse of several shikigami, cut to shreds, lying on the floor convulsively. They were relatively bulky, probably more for combat than surveillance or covert action. They shuddered slightly and then took one look at me, and the next moment they stopped functioning and collapsed into a limp heap.
 (Haha... I don't know which one or who they are... but they've been following me this long, huh? Although I half-knew... but... this is a shocking thing, isn't it?)
 I laugh in my foggy consciousness. I know that these people have their own ideas, and I've seen it once with youkai mother, but it's sickening to see it again.
 What's funny is that I had anticipated it, but I didn't feel any sign of it. I feel so stupid. Perhaps some of them were there purely for escort duty... but I can't say I don't feel relief that the stalking shikigami have been exterminated once and for all.
 (...The problem is that they probably won't just overlook me...)
 While I was thinking about this, one of the men snapped his fingers. At the same time, a blue-white flame burst forth, and the remains of the shikigami were reduced to ashes. It did not seem to be a mere flame. Perhaps they used that flame to "break off ties" the Shikigami (or, more precisely, the remains of the Shikigami) so that it could not be traced.
 "So now we can't be traced. Let's go and inspect your belongings, shall we?"
 And then I was robbed of my belongings like a duck being plucked for its feathers.
 "...Hmm, you're hiding a lot more than I thought. You're very well equipped for the capital, with all these shikigami watching over you."
 The Kizuki family is not so carefree as to make me, their escort, sit by the side of the escort object unarmed in the safety of the capital. ...But those were stripped off one after another before they were put to use. The same goes for so-called charms and talismans to ward off bad luck.
 A total of eleven items, including a dagger (tantō), kunai, poisoned needles, sling, and amulets hidden in various places stripped off... my clothes were also taken from me, and I was forced to stand up naked, and the next moment I was pushed onto a crude chair. Then, I was roughly tied to the chair with a rough rope.
 Then I understood that the rough rope was not only a simple physical restraint but also contained a protection that blocked the flow of spiritual power and sealed it. On top of the rope, a charm is carefully attached.
 (Some kind of thug... or what?)
 I barely gather my thoughts in my chaotic consciousness.
 (Ah... right... I'm sure I was... I was guarding that brat...!)
 I was chasing that little blonde girl in a bookstore and she was kidnapped right in front of me. Then suddenly a hand appeared from the bookshelf, as if it had floated out of the water, and held her. So I tried to help her as soon as I could, but a hand reached out from behind me and covered my mouth...
 (...is that the guy?)
 A moment after she sinks into the wall, I remember that I cut the hand behind me with a gorilla-sama's dagger, though shallowly. Then, now in the hazy vision, I catch a figure with a cloth for stopping bleeding wrapped around his arm. It must be this man.
 "...Have you come to your senses by now, Kizuki's servant?"
 His words are dimly heard, and my unfocused eyes widen. There was a figure looking down at me from the front. The man wearing a plain-colored cloak seemed to be middle-aged from the quality of his voice, around forty or so. His tone was grave.
 "Wh-who are... you guys...?"
 The answer to that question was a blow. A young man in his 20s or so, whom I had slashed on the arm, swung at my cheek and punched me. There was a thud, a sickening sound.
 "Don't say anything other than what you're told, you inferior piece of sh*t!"
 At the same time as the angry voice, I became aware of a pain spreading across my face and the sensation of blood flowing from the edge of my mouth. It was as if my mouth had been cut open.
 "Hey Iruka, stop it! Forgive my men for their misbehavior. But it's because you resisted in vain. You should have stayed quiet..."
 He stops the injured young man, whom he calls Iruka, by solemnly raising his hand, and declares to me. Is he the leader of the group?
 (They're not the original character, are they?)
 There is no reason why I have to meet a character from the original game every time I encounter it. Therefore, there is nothing strange about the fact that I don't know them. That said, the way he just said that...
 "...Ah, I forgot to tell you our position. I'm Ryuuto, a judicial officer belonging to the Danjo-dai (Imperial Prosecuting and Investigating Office)."
 That word... the moment I understood the meaning of it, I was deeply shaken inside.
 "Now, tell me the details of the incident at the underground tunnels the other day, will you?"
 The man who called himself "Ryuuto" said to me with a cold look in his eyes, as if he was looking at something cold.
* * *

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