Thursday, December 29, 2022 @

Chapter 38, Part 2

 Tachibana Kurayoshi, who was born into a branch of the Tachibana family, which was the founding family, and one of the executives of the Trading Company, supervising the trade between the North, East, and Central regions of the country, was neither incompetent nor lacking in foresight.
 His nephew, Tachibana Hibiki's purge of the executives to revitalize the trading company naturally extended to his own family members, and this 71-year-old experienced and accomplished old merchant, who survived the purge and has been entrusted with full authority over the business in the vast areas of North and East region, has never incurred any losses within his jurisdiction since he assumed his position. In particular, he has brought enormous profits to the trading company in the import of animal hair, salmon, cod, kelp, and other marine products from the north, as well as gold sand and lumber from the east.
 Yes, it is true that he was a competent... an excellent merchant. However, there was no guarantee that he would be a man of high character or that he would be able to understand other merchants.
 After all, this old merchant would join hands with Hokuti (Northern barbarians) and Toi (barbarians from the East), who were strictly banned by the Imperial Court, to acquire their specialties as well as other souvenirs. In exchange, he sold weapons and other goods to them and gained vast wealth from the sales on the back books.
 Furthermore, in order to keep out of sight of the Imperial Court, he fed the youkai captured in these remote areas, had them raid pioneer villages, and even traded their fattened flesh and blood behind the scenes. On top of that, he was selling weapons to the frontier villages and the imperial court and was also making a profit by arranging bouncers.
 The old merchant, however, did not feel any sense of guilt for these activities, even though he was aware of the risks involved. He believed himself to be far more virtuous than the expelled executives who were indulging in extravagance by misappropriating the money and goods of the trading company for their personal use. After all, for a merchant, money is what they should believe in, contracts are what they should honor, and everything else is dust.
 Therefore, when Tachibana Hibiki became aware of his activities and tried to secretly expel himself and withdraw from the backroom business, the old man's disappointment and anger were unimaginable, and at the same time, when he realized the danger of his own position, his defensive instincts were relentless, even against his own relatives.
 Following that, he consults with a high-ranking official of the court with whom he shared a common interest, and borrowed an underling from the Toi (Eastern barbarians), who was just then causing trouble with the court, and started a plan for the downfall of Tachibana Hibiki. Although the security was usually very strict, it was not without a gap. Kurayoshi knew that he rarely went out to the common people's city on his own, and he also knew that the security would inevitably be thin on those occasions.
 Nevertheless, although the man is brilliant, he is a man who is not good when it comes to his beloved daughter. So once he had his daughter as a hostage, he could boil him or roast him as he wished. He is well organized, and he has a huge amount of assets accumulated behind the scenes. It's also fortunate that there was troublesome trouble in the underground tunnels the other day. Now is a good time for Tachibana Hibiki to focus his attention on the recovery of the situation, and he may be able to bury the whole thing in the dark and occupy the chair of the chairman from him.
 Yes, everything was fine, everything was supposed to be fine. But then...
 "Are you sure there is no problem? Don't involve the exorcists in this matter..."
 The Danjo-dai Shohitsu, an official with whom the old man shared the benefits of the affair in a corner of the imperial palace, is asked by Kurayoshi. The surface of the red tea poured into a foreign-made Nanban tea kettle, which was presented to the old man to entertain his guest, trembled. The reflection of his own image in the cup was filled with anxiety like never before.
 "This is unusual. The executive, who has been involved in many deals involving an extreme case in the past, seems to have a very strange way of saying this."
 After taking a glance at the inner palace spread out from the window of his office, a three-story wooden building, the man gently stroked the head of a bird kept in a birdcage hanging by his side and said so.
 Maybe he is around 30 years old? He is intelligent, neat, and mild-mannered, dressed in the attire of a high-ranking official of the imperial court.
 In Fusō-kuni, where corruption had long since begun along with a semblance of stability, the position of head of each ministry was becoming a prestigious honorary position, a position that would be a source of prestige for a prestigious family. Under such circumstances, the officials below the rank of vice-minister were the ones who actually held practical and real authority and conducted political affairs with the ministers and other officials. And the third rank, in effect the second highest rank of Danjo-dai (Imperial Prosecuting and Investigating Office), is Danjo-dai Shohitsu. Therefore, his office is surrounded by a soundproof protection boundary to maintain confidentiality, and the contents of the conversations cannot be heard even if they are being held through the window. This is why such dangerous conversations are possible...
 "Can you please not talk too much on the windowsill? Sure, I can't hear your voice, but it's not like you can't move your mouth...?"
 Kurayoshi asks pleadingly. It was true that he could not hear the voice, but there was a possibility that he could discover what he was saying to some extent by lip-reading from a distance. The old merchant was fearless but not reckless. It is because of this precaution that he has been able to cross the dangerous bridge to this day.
 "I beg your pardon, but it is true that today was the perfect day to kidnap his daughter, isn't it? And how could we leave the kidnappers alone, let alone delay the discovery of the situation?"
 "That's true, but even so... there's no point in keeping that servant alive, is there? The last two people, who had been killed, don't have anything on them."
 The hidden group that had been secretly accompanying them had already been killed. However, Kurayoshi could not understand why Kizuki's servant who was escorting the girl should still be captured alive.
 No, no, no, Kizuki is a famous exorcist family in northern regions of Japan. That is why Hibiki is approaching the Kizuki family at this time. It is normal to think that something is going on... then it must be investigated carefully, yes, carefully.
 While stroking the head of the bird that was still chirping with his fingers, Shohitsu said with a cold smile. The old merchant could not deny this. The fox monster that was wriggling in the capital and the youkai commotion in the underground tunnels, both of them were related to the Tachibana Trading Company, and above all, they were events that could have led to the downfall of Tachibana Kageki. Kurayoshi knows that it was the Kizuki family that averted the downfall of Tachibana Hibiki and that it is also involved in the Kizuki family. And the northern part is his territory.
 "According to the information I have obtained, the daughter's guard is a servant who was mobilized on those two occasions. I also hear that he is a pawn under the direct control of Kizuki's second princess. If that's the case, wouldn't there be a question or two before we get rid of him?"
 He can't deny it. It is impossible to deny it, so... Kurayoshi could only reply in a very terse manner.
 Silence reigned around them for a while. The old merchant, his usual fearless and composed appearance went, shook his head restlessly, and his eyes wandered around. Then, he halfway forcibly made up a topic of conversation and opened his mouth.
 "That bird, you have been taking good care of it since a while ago, haven't you? I didn't see it when I came here before..."
 "Yes. A certain lady gave it to me as a gift for my child. It's rare, isn't it?"
 Kurayoshi takes that as a kind of bribe. Though not so corrupt as to be openly so, bribes of various kinds and with different words were prevalent in the government of this country. In particular, when a member of a family, be it a noble, a feudal lord, or an exorcist family, obtained a position in the imperial court, his family members would send "meager gifts" of various kinds to their superiors, colleagues, and even subordinates to extract 'hidden favors.'
 "It looks like... a foreign Parrot, perhaps? I've never seen such a brightly colored bird before. I'm sure it would fetch 50 ryo if sold for its rarity. Hahaha, it's really rare, after all... Haha—"
 Kurayoshi says with a dry laugh. However, his laugh was weak and empty, and it was obvious at a glance that he was straining himself. And soon the laughter faded away quietly... and silence fell once again.
 "...I understand your feelings, Kurayoshi-dono. There's no need to be in such a hurry. We have made arrangements for pursuit and there is no way they can escape. For a barbarian, the quality of the men you've sent is very good, and I've sent one of my own just in case. What is there to fear?"
 In a half-sympathetic tone, Shohitsu spoke to Kurayoshi reassuringly. And, as a matter of fact, these words are not just irresponsible consolations without any support.
 After all, this official had hired several people to work for the court in response to requests from barbarians and other underhanded people. In this case, in particular, he had sent spies from the eastern barbarians who had infiltrated Danjo-dai (Imperial Prosecuting and Investigating Office) to join the two underlings who had infiltrated the capital as a reinforcement force. The servant was no match for them. There is nothing to fear.
 "Or perhaps... you're wondering about your great niece?"
 Kurayoshi responded to the official's words with a sharp look in his eyes. His eyes were filled with anger, but at the same time, they also contained a sense of agitation, confirming the official's words.
 "I heard that your great niece herself has appointed the servant as her escort and that she's very much attached to him..."
 "I don't have time for this!! I'm going home now...!!"
 "Very well, I'll see you out. Please be careful."
 Kurayoshi shouts in a grumpy voice when he hears a rumor he knows nothing about. The official replies in a brusque manner. His calm and composed manner made him even more nervous.
 "...Don't betray me, you hear? Do you think I haven't taken any measures?"
 At worst, Kurayoshi is prepared to take him out socially and legally. Otherwise, he will not join him in this plot. The old merchant was cautious and cunning.
 "If you do not trust me, please feel free to insure me to your heart's content. I would be happy if it would bring you peace of mind."
 With a snort of displeasure, the old merchant leaves the guest room with a vexed look on his face. The official looks away with a lively smile. The door is closed with a bang. Silence comes to the room...
 "...It seems it's true that men's jealousy is an ugly thing..."
 Danjo-dai (Imperial Prosecuting and Investigating Office)'s Shohitsu did not change his expression but declared in a somewhat inorganic tone. He is a cool-headed and calm person when it comes to business... but it seems that even such a person cannot remain calm when it comes to this kind of topic.
 "Emotions are indeed a terrible thing. Whether human or youkai, right?"
 "It's irredeemable! It's irredeemable!"
 The caged parrot cries as if it were ruminating. The way it spoke was somewhat mocking. No, in fact, the animal was laughing.
 "...Good grief, could you please not get too excited? Your mouth is split open, you know?"
 The official pointed out as if he were an adult scolding a child. ...Then, the parrot's mouth was split open into four pieces. From the back of its throat, a small but definitely eyeless baby-like face peeked out, revealing its blade-like fangs in its jaws and its hideous features.
 Truly a problem, it was a pain in the ass to keep the old man down while he was in this room. If he is not smart, he may not understand that old man's intention or even his intimidation. Keeping him in check so that he doesn't do anything on his own is also a challenge.
 "Listen to me. Do what I say or you won't get your dinner."
 The words spoken with a smile were chilling advice and a warning.
 The deceptive creature glanced at the official with an eyeless face. A few seconds later, it closes its mouth, drooling. The official blinks, and the next thing he knows, there it is, nothing more than a cute little parrot.
 "...Good grief, I wish she'd send something a little more intelligent. Not this bird head."
 He sighed in annoyance at his old friend, the youkai demon mother who loved all living creatures. How many hundreds of years has it been since they last wrote to each other?
 "It's been a long time since she has contacted me, but I can't believe how bad things have turned out... She seems to have given birth in such a hurry."
 Although it depends on the quality of the materials, this little youkai, whose intelligence, shape, and abilities can be manipulated to some extent in its own body, is a four-step short of failure as a messenger.
 It was obviously a hastily made product... and the content of the message was 80% bragging about her new son, 10% joking around with her child, and 10% abandoning the plan in the underground tunnels and what she would do in the future. There are many things to say, but he thinks the most remarkable story is the one about the person who was so favored by her...
 Loving all life equally... that is, she is a being, who is able to love a winged insect and a human being on the same level... So, it is surprising that the youkai mother is so clearly conscious, desperate to talk about, and so strongly attached to a mere human being, especially after having known her for so long.
 "Cute boy! Prideful child! Even if you are dirty, I don't mind! I want to eat!"
 The parrot messenger shouted these words over and over again in one voice, as her mother had taught it. It must have been said patiently until it learned it, but unfortunately, the bird-headed one does not understand the meaning of the words, let alone the pronunciation. The man shrugs at this.
 "Goodness... how can you be so proud of your child?"
 He didn't expect much from her, as she's notoriously difficult to deal with, but it's a thick nerve of hers that she barely apologizes for the fact that the plan... has been exposed and she's had to leave the capital's basement.
 "...But well, I can't speak for others either, can I?"
 With this declaration, the man takes out a bag from his pocket and takes out its contents. Out of the bag comes a finger. A human finger severed at the first joint.
 "Well, I was beginning to get suspicious of my appearance. It's a good time to rummage around as much as I can anyway. Just in the meantime, right?"
 The caged monster flaps its wings excitedly and begs for "food". But the man is poking a finger at the monster emotionlessly.
 It has been more than a century since he infiltrated inside the boundaries and into the upper echelons of this country.
 Since then, he has continued to fulfill his role following his former orders. He has disguised himself as many people as he could, substituting, and making up stories to corrupt the very backbone of this country, little by little, without being noticed. Many of these people have been killed on purpose, and his latest role of him is going to end up that way as well.
 In that sense, it was lucky. The plot of this time, if exposed, would be more likely to cause unrest in this country. And it's not a bad idea to mess with the "boy" whom she's obsessed with. Besides...
 "It's already happened twice, our plans have been thwarted. And this is the third time, let's give him a little pain, shall we?"
 The man smiles a friendly smile as he says this. The shadow extending from his body was strangely large, illicit, and obviously not human, but there was no one here who saw it except the parrot in front of him...

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