Friday, January 27, 2023 @

Chapter 48, Part 1

 Nestled a short distance from the imposing Shiro'oku Castle, a formidable fortress fortified by multiple layers of walls and protected by water and air moats, and built directly on top of the sacred vein, which also serves as the seat of government for the entire northern region.
 A store stood out more than any other on the street, where many wealthy merchants set up their stores and displayed a variety of goods brought from all over the northern region and beyond.
 "Hey... by the way... is that kitschy building your destination?"
 "Are you disappointed?"
 "No... it's not that I'm complaining... but..."
 I chuckle to myself as I observe the boy's conflicted expression, despite his words. Well, in a country where wooden Japanese architecture is the norm, this building is certainly kitschy and probably a bit intimidating... this thought crosses my mind as I take a second look at the structure in front of me.
 The building was made of red bricks with glass windows in the Nanban style, reminiscent of Russian architecture in my previous life... but it was not just for the sake of appearances.
 The red bricks, with their excellent heat insulation and fire resistance, were more suitable for Fusō-kuni, which has many wooden buildings, and especially for the northern region, where the harsh winters and snowstorms can result frequently making fires inside the buildings. Its red color was proof of the high iron content of the bricks, which meant that the bricks were made of earth and sand from the nearby iron mines. It is also relatively easy to purchase firewood for making bricks in the northern part of the country where wood is abundant. So, in a sense, this trading house had a more rationalistic background behind it than expected.
 "Well, we can't stand around here talking forever. Let's go."
 Shirowakamaru has no choice if I say so. Because I was holding the reins of the horse he was riding and then we started heading toward the trading building.
 As we reached the main entrance of the northern region branch of the Tachibana Trading Company, where a guard monitors visitors, we were stopped by a staff member of the trading house. I told him who I was and why I was there, and I was immediately taken to the waiting room.
 "Excuse me, the horse and your escort are going that way. A laborer will escort them to the stables. We will take care of your formal wear."
 The receptionist woman in hakama (traditional Japanese dress) came to greet us and says so. Following her, a laborer puts the load on the horse on a hand-pushed cart (手押し車).
 "Can I take him with me?"
 "With all due respect, we only allowed one messenger the other day..."
 The receptionist replied apologetically. It must have been a sudden decision. So, the receptionist is puzzled and embarrassed.
 However, I realized at this point that this was some sort of prevention against infection. Apparently, the higher-ups were aware of the situation, but it was still a top secret to the lower levels.
 "...I got it. Shirowakamaru, please wait a moment. Can you do it?"
 "Yes! I won't run away. ...I'll die if I run away anyway."
 The boy replies sarcastically to my request. Many servants are under a curse to prevent them from escaping, and he seems to be no different, as his position is unclear. If he were a householder, the curse would probably be lifted, but...
 Without any words to say, I went to the waiting room with the receptionist and the staff...
 "Please wait here for a moment."
 With those words, the thick cedar door was closed. I was left in the waiting room with the gifts carried by the staff.
 "Well, I'm allowed to at least sit down, aren't I?"
 To tell the truth, my legs were quite tired, so I sat down on a sofa in the waiting room. Then I take a glance around the room.
 There was a crackling fire burning in the fireplace. The ceiling was covered with insulated wallpaper, and a chandelier glittered on the ceiling. The walls are decorated with imported oil paintings, and a scarlet carpet spreads underfoot.
 The warm colors of the furnishings and interior decorations were consistent with the Nanban style, but on the other hand, Japanese-style decorations were also seen. On a maki-e[1] folding screen, next to oil paintings, were several swords and folding fans whose sheaths were decorated with lacquer and gold leaf. A black chest beside the staircase was decorated with colorful mother-of-pearl inlays. There was also a water container made of glass, a high-grade white porcelain pot, and a big bird figurine carved out of a large peacock stone.
 "In short, it's very grandiose."
 Although the room was a mixture of Japanese and foreign styles, there was a definite harmony without being chaotic. It could be called a blend of Japanese and Western. I had a strange sensation as if I had come to the Meiji or Taisho Era. Or perhaps the people of that time had the same feeling.
 "I don't know if the things are good or bad, but they must be expensive."
 Of course, that's more than my purchase price. If I sold them, I could buy myself out with the money, couldn't I?
 "If you want it, you can get a couple of them as souvenirs, you know?"
 Suddenly, as I was examining the furnishings, I heard a beautiful, yet young voice like the tinkling of a bell. The voice sounded familiar, smart, and cute.
 I turned my head toward the voice, and then I stood up and bowed my head. It was impolite for me to sit down and greet the person from my position.
 "...it's rude. Please knock on the door before you come in."
 I lifted my head and saw a familiar blonde girl with a mischievous smile on her face.
* * *
 The products of the northern region are furs and wood, iron and gold sand, kelp seaweed, salmon, sardine, and ice. As can be seen, all of them are so-called primary products. They were products with high demand but little added value, and they could be obtained anywhere in the northern lands.
 One of the things that Tachibana Trading Company and Tachibana Kayo have done over the past year or so is to diversify and unify the industry. The former is the increase in the variety of products, and the latter is the development of specialty products.
 Such as carnations, apples, and amber are budding as new products of the northern region. This is the result of Kayo's high cost of bringing in capital and foreign agronomists and geologists to select agricultural products suited to the climate and geology of the Northern region and to search for promising mineral veins. Of course, it is still in its infancy, but at the same time, there are great expectations for it.
 The key to uniqueness was industrialization. Basically, if not completely, the Northern region has been exporting primary products and importing industrial products from the capital and other sources, but it has attempted to become self-sufficient, albeit only partially.
 However, due to the presence of many iron and gold mines, the region has begun to self-sufficient in iron and goldsmithing, and even exporting such products. Although still inferior to capital in terms of quality.., the local demand was steadily increasing due to the low price for the common people. It is much cheaper than transporting iron from the north to the capital, processing it, and importing it back to the north.
 Meanwhile, the textile industry, such as weaving, is more promising. Many people stay at home during the harsh winters in the northern region. Aiming to take advantage of this, they lend looms and raw materials to weavers free of charge and buy the finished products. The attraction of this side job was that they could buy the looms at a low price according to their output and did not need to build a factory. This is what is called a cottage industry.
 Although the effect was still limited for a short period of just over a year, it was undeniable that it had a bright future and brought some benefits to the trading company. Nevertheless, even with the support of the people around her, the fact remains that a girl who is just a little over ten years of age has planned, promoted, and succeeded in this project.
 Therefore, the evaluation of Tachibana Kayo by the people in the northern region branch of the trading company had already changed from "a hard-working and selfish girl who got an important position with the support of her parents" to "a young talented girl who has a remarkable business acumen, even though she has the support of her parents." This means that the merchants working at this branch recognized Kayo to a greater or lesser extent.
 Thus, in a short period of time, she gained profit and power as a candidate for the next chairman of the Tachibana trading company. But...
 "Tomobe-san, what would you like to drink? We have green tea, black tea, and oolong tea. Which one do you prefer?"
 Tachibana Kayo, who is the tea master of the tea ceremony, boasted as she touched the tea utensils on the round table on the Kokutan[2]. She was taller than when I saw her before, perhaps because she was just growing up, and her body was curvy and supple. The mature atmosphere she exudes... it is surprising how much she grows at this age when I take my eyes off of her for a moment.
 Well, anyway...
 "Why the tea ceremony?"
 "Hmm? Do you dislike tea, Tomobe-san? If so, we have coffee..."
 "No, that's not what I meant."
 As if it were a matter of course, I wait for Miss Tachibana who is brewing tea on the round table as if she is used to it.
 "...I don't mean to be presumptuous, but there are certain formalities that are appropriate for guests. It would be insulting for the hostess to brew her own tea for me."
 I reply after checking the maids (女中ら) who are looking at me from under my masks at the end of the room with a less-than-pleasant gaze.
 Whether a wealthy merchant, a lord, a feudal lord, or an exorcist, it means the utmost sincerity when a master personally entertains. It would not be funny if it were done to a superior or an equal, but at least it was not appropriate to do so to a servant, even if they were a Yun-shoku. After all, a servant is a servant, not a hired hand, but a slave.
 "...Everyone, please leave the room."
 "What...!? But, Miss!? That's...!!"
 Kayo, sensing my concern and worry, seems to have given that order almost as a reflex. The maids try to say something to Kayo in a hurry, but Kayo speaks up as if to slap them.
 "This is not a mansion, but a trading house, and it is working hours, and we are in front of our guests. Please call me the deputy head, not Miss."
 Kayo's sharp words, which sounded like an accusation, made the maids feel intimidated. Then Kayo continued the order.
 "Now I will have a secret talk with Kizuki's messenger. To protect confidentiality, outsiders are requested to leave the room."
 "This is not a private request. This is a work order, okay? ...Should I fire the workers who can't listen to the orders of the boss?"
 Kayo declares with a smile, smiling prettily. However, her voice is clearly far from friendly. It was coercion, duress, and intimidation.
 "...!? I-I understand...!!"
 The maids quickly and timidly exit. Kayo and I watch them silently.
 "......Miss, I don't think it's a good idea to intimidate the maids, do you? Don't you have to gather bad feelings from others?"
 "The loyalty of a person who gets upset over something as trivial as that is nothing. Tsuru would have retorted to me without hesitation. So, if they had that kind of spirit, I would have trusted them."
 Kayo looks annoyed and smiles at my admonishment as she watches the situation unfold. ...Since the incident with her relative the other year, this girl seemed to have a distrustful attitude toward people. No, I guess so considering that she was on the verge of being made to be a prostitute by her relatives.
 Nevertheless, for those maids, simply speaking their common sense was like being harassed in a threatening manner. It's a pity that it's so unreasonable, but... well, there are no three rights of labor in this world, so it can't be helped.
 ...Seriously, I feel like self-deprecating my own workplace. It makes me sad.
 "...So where's that trustworthy old Tsuru maid you know and trust?"
 "She'd be a bit of a nag if she were here, so I told her to go shopping before she finds out you're here."
 In this world where life is fifty years old, what a way to treat an old person. I mean, that's a private order, isn't it? Isn't what she said slightly different from what she said before? No, it's power harassment anyway.
 "Geez, I want to make a proper reception for my first date and my benefactor who came to see me. Shouldn't I make you happy? If Tsuru is here, she'll interfere with us and ruin the atmosphere! Or is Tomobe-san okay with that? We're here together now, so please don't be a stranger!"
 Kayo responds to my point with a sultry look on her cheeks. She looks like a child of her age, not a merchant with a keen eye for profit.
 "Aside from my personal feelings, miss... excuse me, the problem is that Kayo is going to be told this and that later, don't you think?"
 I correct Kayo's eye-rolling accusation in mid-sentence but advise her not to. No matter how business-minded she may be, she is still a child, and it is not good for her to put her immediate needs ahead of her own.
 "Tomobe-san is so quick to say so. It is cold and makes me sad."
 "Miss, please don't make fun of me so much. I can tell you're lying even though you're crying."
 I ask her with a sigh, as she makes an obvious imitation of false crying. I could probably tell even through her face that she was stunned.
 "...hehehe, is it obvious?"
 The girl who had been crying in a lie until a moment ago starts to laugh as if she has changed completely. Of course, the girl would have known if she had cried a blatant lie like that.
 (Oh dear, what a pain in the ass...)
 She is a selfish girl after all. However, I can't dislike her, partly because I sympathize with her circumstances, but also perhaps because her childish selfishness and somewhat spoiled behavior remind me of my younger siblings.
 (Though, we both have our positions. We have our own opinions, but it is important to draw a line between us.)
 It's a matter of courtesy even in a close relationship. And my relationship with her is not that deep. I can say for sure that the series of events at the capital was in a sense a rich experience together, but it is also true that it was not a complimentary experience.
 Therefore, I will take this opportunity to play the role of a messenger once again. After sighing, I report to her.
 "Well then, this is a message from my lord, the second princess of Kizuki. She expressed her gratitude for the gift you gave her the other day. She hopes for your continued friendship and this time she is giving you a gift in return as a token of her gratitude."
 Then I took a glance at the load on the hand-pushed cart that had been sitting by our side for a long time. I had been told in advance what was inside.
 There, a silk cloth that is dyed with the juice of the plant's roots from Kizuki Valley Village is traditionally used as a coloring material, in bright purple and red colors. It takes about three sheets of cloth. In addition, there are ten furs of white marten that have been fattened up by eating the young buds of spring in the rich nature, several figurines carved like ivory after the tusks are cut off by youkai who have shot them, and finally, some props such as combs and necklaces made from the scales that the dragons (Hikiyo) that follow Kizuki home shed every ten years when they shed their skins. That is all the goods that Gorilla-sama had put together for Kayo.
 "This is... a very wonderful gift."
 Kayo's words were half flattering and half sincere as she unwrapped the package and presented it to her. Kayo is the daughter of a merchant family that does business in and out of Fusō-kuni. She must have seen more than her fair share of curiosities and masterpieces. The Kizuki family is a wealthy landowner, but at the same time, it is only a powerful family with local roots. Local specialties are a dime a dozen. For her discerning eyes, a dervish fur or a carving would not be unusual.
 Still, dyed goods and dragon-scale props would have appealed to her. Dragons, in particular, are now very few in existence in this country. Among them, there are golden scales that are as bright as tortoiseshell, and each one is so hard that it has the power to ward off evil. Even Kayo was blindsided by the fact that the distribution volume is small because it is molted only once every ten years, and nearly half of them are offered to the Imperial Court, as well as by the difficulty of processing.
 "If you are pleased, the princess will be satisfied. I hope Miss will continue to work with Kizuki and the princess in the future."
 I bow my head reverently to Kayo, who is gazing at the dragon scale comb as if appraising it.
 "Hehehe, you don't have to be so considerate, you know?"
 "No, the kindness of the trading company is very helpful to us. Even at the time of our recent request, the tools from the trading company were of great help to us."
 This is not a compliment, but a statement of fact. The rope and the iron chain with which we captured the Gashadokuro at the time of our request the other day were first-rate goods procured from the capital through the Tachibana Trading Company. If we hadn't prepared them ourselves, I doubt if we would have been able to capture them so well.
 "It may seem an exaggeration, but I am glad that I could be of help to you. ....So, what exactly do you want?"
 After inserting the gift comb into her hair, Kayo puts her hands on her cheeks in a very natural gesture, tilts her head, and smiles mockingly... but then her eyes immediately narrow and she declares to me as if she is trying to probe me. In an instant, her mood changes from an innocent girl to a shrewd merchant...
 "......Well, well, well, you know it very quickly."
 She must have guessed it from the receptionist's response, but still...
 "Information is the most important asset for a merchant. ...Even if it isn't... it's easy to understand in the normal course of business. There are only a few cases that I can think of where the Imperial Court would blockade an entire county."
 Kayo replies to my surprise and exclamation as if she is somewhat proud but at the same time nervous about the magnitude of the situation. She also seemed to understand how troublesome this case was.
 "...I've already received a message from our northern Docho-kan[3]. Kappa, is it? It seems that your side is trying to gather weapons and mercenaries from other merchants as well as the Tachibana Trading Company without any regard for others."
 "If you know that much, then we can talk quickly. Although Kizuki's family sent an order to the trading company... it is a little late for us to order, though no explanation is needed."
 Probably a large order has already been received from the Imperial Court. Perhaps the lords of the northern lands and the exorcists of other places have also placed an order... but how many of those orders can be sent to the Kizuki family is beyond me...
 "Don't worry."
 Kayo said as if reading my inner worry and resignation. With a smile, she answered, as if she was trying to wipe away my impatience and worry. I stared at her face through the mask at her unexpected response.
 "There is nothing to worry about. The second princess of Kizuki has her investment so far. I have no intention of embarrassing Tomobe-san or your lord. Please rest assured that we will take care of your order."
 Then, Kayo smiled with her mouth lifted. Her young face was twisted in a bewitching, glamorous way. And then she tells me meaningfully.
 "So, please tell the princess well and truly. If her wish is fulfilled, please give me a share of the spoils. I beg you...?"
 Kayo took a step closer to me, and her words were childish, adorable, and yet alluring, sweet, and seemed to radiate a magical charm that bewitched all who heard them...
* * *

[1] A traditional Japanese decorative art technique in which designs are created by applying gold or silver powder, called "maki-e," to lacquered surfaces
[2] An altar or platform that is traditionally used for religious ceremonies or rituals.
[3] Government official who was in charge of the construction and maintenance of public works projects, such as roads, bridges, and canals.

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