Thursday, January 26, 2023 @

Chapter 47, Part 1

 In the dimly lit room, illuminated only by the light from the Gomafueki[1] flames, the voices of sutra chanting were echoing endlessly. So long that the boy did not know how many hundreds or thousands of times the sutras had been read, and he did not even have a sense of time anymore.
 The room was filled with the smell of incense and opium that obscured his thoughts... and there was also the smell of alcohol, sweat, and a stench of a man that was so strong that it almost choked him out.
 But how many hours had passed since he had been stripped of his clothes and laid on the bed? He didn't care about that and no longer thought about the sounds of flesh rubbing against the flesh, the sound of running water, and the muffled screams... He simply closed his mind, emotionless, expressionless, waiting for it all to pass.
 For him, this sacred ritual was a lie and the miracle was just a deception. All that existed was a torrent of desire, and he was just a pathetic sacrifice.
 After a while and the deed is done, the lump of flesh that had been covering him retreats. The boy thought he was finally released, but he was wrong, and the next guest arrives as if he had been waiting for him. And the boy cannot refuse them.
 As an incarnation of Buddha, the boy must accept and forgive all the sins and desires of the world in this ritual, and more practically, he has nowhere to return to even if he escapes from this place. No matter how painful it was, he had no choice. He would be doomed to be a beggar or a thief or some other job similar to the one here, and in any case, he would not be able to live for very long. No, in the first place, he may not even make it out of here alive...
 (Ha, what am I thinking. Me...)
 The boy thinks and smiles. He smiles without any effort. He realizes that thinking about trivial things is itself a kind of escape from reality. Normally he would be mindlessly counting stains on the ceiling, but it seems that he has finally lost the ability to do even that.
 ...In other words, he was tired of all the circumstances surrounding him.
 And because of that.
 (Better still....)
 The boy's eyes take on a weird color as the shadows overtaking him howl like beasts, and the reality of his own existence is being smothered by the shadows. The boy thinks somewhat inertially, with a fixed look in his eyes, perhaps intoxicated by the vaporized essence of alcohol.
 It's a life that can't be helped, a helpless life, a life that can't be saved. If there is no saint in this world, there is no paradise and no salvation for the weak who are only being exploited. The world is a harsh place, and the weak are simply exploited like livestock. This is what the boy has come to know to the point of disgust since his parents sent him to this temple as a ransom in exchange for a little money.
 Or is this enlightenment? If so, the boy laughs scornfully at the very funny thing. This is what hell is really like.
 "It's really a funny story."
 Then he has no more regrets for this world. There's no hope for the rest of his life, and it will be nothing but pain and suffering. Then... let's just do it...!
 As he is being devoured, the boy suddenly sees a vajra pestle[2] in his field of vision, which has been... discarded. He squints slightly and slowly reaches for it on the floor. With a suspicious glint in his eyes, his mouth twisted into a miserable smile, he grabs it, and the next moment, he raises it...
 Shirowakamaru woke up with palpitations. His nightclothes is soaked with sweat, and he feels uncomfortable. He had unconsciously flailed about in the heat and humidity and had pulled it open a little. After hurriedly fixing it, the boy realized. He noticed that there was no lingering scent of alcohol, incense, or male odor, which usually stimulated his nostrils when he woke up.
 And then he realized. This place where he woke up was not a room in a temple.
 "Oh? Shirowakamaru-san... have you woken up?"
 The sudden sound of that voice makes his body tremble and he turns his head to look at the source. It was a girl who was a little far away from the futon on which he had been sleeping. A dark-haired girl with closed eyes was sitting on the floor, folding up the futon and putting it away.
 "This place... you're...?"
 "Hmm? Shirowakamaru-san, don't you remember me? You came here yesterday..."
 The boy, who was confused by these words, finally remembered what he had been doing yesterday. He remembers and is about to say something when his stomach rumbles. His stomach rumbles cheerfully, somewhat childishly.
 Because of this, silence reigns for a while. However, a silly chicken "bawk-bawk-bawk" echoes from the window.
 "...Hehe, it's almost 10.45 a.m. You must be hungry. There's plenty of rice left over, so after you get ready, would you like to have some?"
 With these words, the boy finally noticed the smell of freshly cooked rice and miso soup wafting from the kitchen. At the same time, the hunger in his stomach was re-stimulated and his saliva overflowed.
 "Umm... Uhh... Mari... san...?"
 "Only "Mari" is fine. Shirowakamaru-san is our guest, after all."
 The blind girl answers with a smile. Although the boy is a little younger than her, they are at the same time a servant and a guest of the master, and there is a strict hierarchical relationship between them.
 "Or, do you want to call me Sister Mari? I heard from Tomobe-sama and my brother that you are younger than me."
 Shirowakamaru blushed with shame when she teased him a little with a giggle. Not that he enjoys other people's misfortune, but the boy is glad that the woman in front of him is blind.
 "...Are the others awake already?"
 The boy, blushing with embarrassment, grunts and asks deceptively. Apparently, all the other residents of the house had already woken up. He was the only one who overslept.
 "Forgive me. ...Tomobe-sama told me not to wake you up. You must have been tired, because I heard you slept very deeply."
 "N-no... it's not that... it's just, I have work... to do."
 The blind girl replies apologetically and Shirowakamaru is flustered. He was not trying to criticize her. It was just that normally... where he used to be, it was impossible for him to sleep at this hour. He would be punished for such a thing. After all, he had to be up at dawn to do his work, even if he was sleep deprived and tired.
 "Hehe, please don't worry about it. Shirowakamaru-san is our guest. It's true that we might need some help if you stay here for a while, but Tomobe-sama wouldn't suddenly ask a favor from someone who just came here yesterday and you don't know anything about this place, do you?"
 With a look of affection as a big sister, Mari replies. At the same time, the pure trust she has in her employer can be seen. It is also her concern and thoughtfulness to give the boy in front of her a sense of security.
 The boy's response to her words, however, was not so simple. There was a glimpse of disbelief, suspicion, and wariness.
 But because Mari could hardly use her eyesight, her sense of smell and hearing was acute, and she was able to notice it. She noticed that there was a slight feeling of jealousy in his words. But... why jealousy?
 However, there was no time to think deeply about this doubt. After all, a few moments later, Mari's ears caught the sound of footsteps. Each person has a subtle habit of walking, so Mari could distinguish the slight difference, though not completely, from whose footsteps it was. And this walk was probably...
 "Tomobe-sama, good work on your morning training."
 Shirowakamaru was shaken by the appearance of the man with a spear on his back, who appeared from the doorway, and he retreated, partly because his appearance resembled that of a so-called monk-soldier. However, he immediately understood who the man was when he was greeted by Mari's calm voice.
 "You are...."
 "Hmm? You're awake. Then why don't you get ready and eat your breakfast? We'll be out around noon today."
 Shirowakamaru's face was distorted with the smell of sweat and he glared at him sharply. His figure was somewhat like a menacing abandoned cat. Unfortunately, his girlish face did not seem to be so threatening, and the other guy did not change his color even a little. No, wait. It's more like...
 "We're coming out?"
 "Yeah. As an errand boy. I was gonna go alone, but then it turns out you're coming with me. Well, it's not my decision, so bear with it."
 The man who is called Tomobe by Mari, who receives a hand towel from her and returns to the door, boasts. Shirowakamaru frowned more at his somewhat scornful attitude.
 "Tomobe-sama will be out? Isn't this a bit sudden?"
 "Well, but it's just short trip to Shiro'oku. We'll be back in a couple of days so getting ready should be easy."
 When Mari opens her mouth anxiously, the man replies in a lighthearted manner.
 "Then, I'll at least make some rice balls for your lunch. Tomobe-sama, Shirowakamaru-san, do you have any ingredients you want?"
 "Eh? No, well, I'm..."
 The boy is upset and puzzled by the sudden question. The swarthy atmosphere he had been in earlier was gone, and there was only the image of a boy of his age who was embarrassed to be with a woman.
 "Hmm... I think I want pickled plums and bonito-flavored bonito-flavored rice. With more salt, please?"
 "Huh!? No, wait... Hey!?"
 The man who was originally at the entrance quickly walks out of the doorway, though the boy tries to catch up with him.
 "What about you, Shirowakamaru-san?"
 Mari asks with a sober and kind expression on her face.
 "...Daikon radish, please."
 ...because it's hard to refuse, the boy asks in a quiet voice.
 In the middle of the month of Uzuki (April and May), when winter had passed, spring had come and gone, and summer was just about to begin. The Yun-shoku, who had made fun of Shirowakamaru and Mari... or in other words, me. After returning from my morning training session, I gave the boy a slight chill and left the place with a wet hand towel in my hand. Because the boy would have hated the smell of sweat and half-naked men so much that it made him want to vomit.
 Now, after wiping off my sweat and changing my clothes, I first went to the stable.
 I borrowed a horse from the stable of Kizuki's residence. The horse was a chestnut gelding of no particular rarity or pedigree. But it was intended to carry a gift rather than to be ridden by me.
 Still, if a servant is riding a horse, it looks like insolence... So, some of the men working in the stable looked at me silently with reproachful eyes.
 After all, despite being no good, a horse is still a horse. Its value is comparable to that of a car in a previous life. It might be more expensive if considering that it is not a machine, but an animal that will die if not cared for carefully.
 I, however, have a role to play as a messenger. There is no point in getting cocky or bossy. If they want to complain, go to the higher-ups... but since they can't say it, they'll just hit someone below them.
 "Come on, get in the saddle. Put your feet in the stirrups and don't let go of the reins. It may be a bad horse, but if you fall off you'll die, okay?
 "I-I know it...!? But stop touching me so close!! Ouch!! And don't tighten the string so tight!!?"
 I put the boy on the saddle and tighten the string to prevent him from falling off the horse, and the person who is being tightened makes a face of disgust. He seems to dislike not only the tightness itself, but also my touching him. I understand how he feels, but for this time he must endure it.
 "Tsk, it would be easier if I was alone to begin with..."
 When Uemon asked for another messenger to accompany me on my mission, Shisui agreed, and the result was that this boy, who was a child, accompanied me. Shisui said that the boy would know the manners and etiquette, and the decision was made.
 'It's good, isn't it? Isn't it a good decoy to use in case of emergency?'
 The voice whispering in my ear as I grumbled was from a bee. More precisely, it was from a shikigami in the shape of a bee.
 For the information, old man Matsushige and his granddaughter stayed behind from the capital. For them, heading for the remote and exclusionary northern lands would be nothing short of suicidal. Even so, Aoko the Blue Demon, and perhaps a few shikigami were attached to me to keep an eye on me. Maybe these guys doing this to keep me from talking...
 "...Okay, that's about it. Hold on a second. I've got more stuff."
 I say and move away, after tying the boy up carefully so he doesn't fall off his horse. One reason is to retrieve the backpack that I had left at the next hut, and the other reason is to reply to the shikigami.
 "Decoy, huh? Exorcists are still capable of saying terrible things."
 'You already know that exorcists are like that, don't you?'
 "But you know that it is one thing to understand them and another to like them, right?"
 I reply to Shikigami's words, trying to keep my composure as I enter the hut and wrap my pack in my backpack. Exorcists who have grafted, concentrated, and honed their talents and bloodlines are precious, and that is inevitable in a world full of unreasonable people like youkai who are willing to kill a person the first time they see him or her. I understand that. But...
 '....I'm not blaming you for it. I understand that this kind of thinking goes hand in hand with the thinking of youkai and that it's a bloodless act in the world. But, actually, I am relieved. If a sweetie like you had agreed to it without hesitation, I would have judged that even your head had turned into a youkai.'
 The Shikigami says without hesitation, "I am a target to be exterminated as it is." But well, that's just what she's trying to do to me. Still, it's a lot better than that demon, although I don't know where the death flags are.
 "...Well, that's about it. Can you keep a lookout for us along the way?"
 '...I can't always keep an eye on you, so it will be automatic, is that OK?'
 "That would still be very helpful. I don't have the spiritual power to maintain a shikigami all the time."
 With my backpack on my back, I hold up the stick with the spear in it and say thank you. Well, it's a big city road under the jurisdiction of the Imperial Court, so there's no danger of dangerous youkai appearing on it. ...right?
 Anyway, when I leave the hut, I find the boy on horseback surrounded by a group of the miscellaneous laborer. They are arguing with each other, and it is not a peaceful scene in the least.
 (Seriously... a troublesome thing to do before leaving...)
 I was slightly annoyed and angry but quickly calmed down. Then, I walk over to the place where the commotion is going on. And I speak as nonchalantly as I can.
 "Excuse me. What do you want with the boy in my charge? We're about to leave on a mission. If you need something, you'll have to ask me, won't you?"
 At my words, the laborers turn to me with swarthy expressions on their faces, and at the same time, they are dismayed. It was a natural reaction when I was wearing a hannya mask and had just pulled out the spear.
 "No, no, we mean... nothing!"
 After taking one look at me, they turned their eyes away from me and left quickly.
 "Tsk, even though he's a traitor and a disgrace... he's still holding the authority from the tiger."
 "Truly, he's always been good at winning over the others."
 "Being together with a child is a perfect match."
 The laborers mutter and mutter with disdainful glances as they leave. Hey, I can hear you, okay? But, well, there is no denying the first two points, though the last one is a problem...
 I looked at the boy who was riding the horse with self-mockery. The boy's eyes were moist and his body was trembling with humiliation. Combined with the last words of the miscellaneous laborers... it was easy to predict what humiliating words the boy had been told by them. He must have been very frustrated and saddened, and more than anything, it must have been even more painful for him not to be able to refute them because their words were true.
 But, when he noticed my presence, he stared at me with a frightened expression on his face. Unlike the hostility and suspicion he had shown me earlier when I was tying him up, it was the look of fear that the weak give to the strong, or that the herbivore gives to the carnivore.
 ...a timid look from one who has been exploited for a long time.
 "...Ignore the words of those miscellaneous laborers, no matter what they say to you. They're just jealous."
 A child who might become a household member. I didn't know if he'd get blamed for being in my charge.
 "....don't worry about me."
 The boy sniffed and muttered as if to croak. It sounded like he was trying to be tough.
 "I see. Then let's leave that thing alone and get going, shall we? They're not so big that we need to worry about them at all."
 It's been a few days since I've been in charge of him, and we're not close enough to talk about each other. So I affirm the boy's words, grab the horse's leash, and pull. The horse starts to move in response to the tug on its neck.
 The boy panics as he grabs the horse by the neck. But then, Shirowakamaru seems to have noticed my small laugh from under his face and gives me a grumpy attitude.
 "What's the matter? You'll get used to it. But well, it can't be helped if you're scared of this."
 I said teasingly and started to lead the horses away...
 It took us about a day and a half to the destination, Shiro'oku, and the ride was comfortable as the spring and early summer months were just around the corner. The only problem was the occasional low-class "youkai" that appeared on the road.
 "Nevertheless, these are not just small youkai, but young youkai... not worth fearing..."
 I reap the young youkai like a fish swimming aimlessly in the air with my spear. With just a single blow, the young youkai is no more than a small youkai. Even a farmer with a hoe could have killed it. It must have been born a day or two ago.
 "Eek!? Youkai!? Why..."
 "Shirowakamaru! Pull your horse back!!"
 The horse was kept in the exorcist's house, so it was unperturbed, but after I ordered my companion, who was in a state of panic against the oncoming youkai, to do so, I stabbed the man-eating beast that jumped at me with a spear through its mouth. Then I thrust my spear further out and smashed the skull of the monster cat behind it. The spear is so sharp that it is not the same even if it is mass-produced for the Yun-shoku.
 Now it is late afternoon, and we are sitting on the road eating our lunch boxes (rice balls specially made by Magoroku and Mari). When doing so, I kill a swarm of young youkai that have come flying out of the forest like flies.
 'They're coming at you from the right. And... what's that thing circling behind you? This is…'
 "W-whoa...!? It's coming!? Oh, no!? It's climbing up...!!?"
 A voice came from my ear, followed by a scream behind me. I turned around to see Shirowakamaru screaming and a flea the size of a human fist on the leg of the boy, pulling the horse's leash as I had ordered. The youkai was climbing up. It was also biting at his clothes with its clicking jaws, and when it saw that it could not do so, it was climbing up to the boy's face. This youkai seemed to be drawn by the spiritual power within him. Well, it is an instinct of youkai to eat those who have spiritual power and aim for a higher level.
 "But the movement is too slow."
 First, I kicked a spider that jumped into my face with its tongue sticking out from the trees on the right side, like an alien from somewhere, and kicked it back into where it came from. Next, I walked up to my screaming companion and grabbed the big flea, and slammed it to the ground. Then, I crushed it with a spear just to be sure. After that, I buried it in the ground. Or rather, back to the earth.
 "It's twelve, huh? Even though the youkais are small fry, I never expected to encounter such a large number of them on a road not far from the city..."
 'It is odd even including that, though it may be that they were attracted by the spiritual power of the boy there. Perhaps it's....'
 The shikigami who is hiding beside me replies to my small muttering. We both think of the image of an overly troublesome demon in our minds and let out a small sigh at about the same time.
 "......That's about it. We've been here a little too long. After we eat, we're going to go."

[1] Type of ritual or ceremony in which wooden tablets or plaques are burned in order to offer protection or blessings.
[2] A tool that is used in traditional Japanese Buddhism, particularly in the Shingon and Tendai sects, for striking a wooden fish to keep time during chanting.

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