Wednesday, January 18, 2023 @

Volume 4 Epilogue, Part 1

I apologize for the late update. It has been a busy week.
 In the year 1440 of the Imperial Era, or at the end of the first decade of the reign of Emperor Seirei, there were several wagons and oxcarts waiting at Oumi's house, and the laborers were loading up the wagons. It was the preparation for Kizuki's family to leave the capital and return to their territory.
 According to the Imperial Court, the 77 local feudal lords (daimyou) and 183 exorcists families under its jurisdiction were required to perform several duties, one of which was a visit to the capital (joraku) for the defense of the capital, which lasted for about six months every three years.
 The Kizuki family accomplished the task in the summer of this year, in the middle of the Mizunashi month (approx. June). In other words, the members of the Kizuki family are forced to leave the capital except for a few who remain in the capital for the next six months.
 The reason for the forced departure is to prevent exorcists, whose terms had expired from staying in the capital, from rebelling against the court with their numbers, as the game's official setting explains. In fact, there is an episode in a spin-off game in which some of the exorcists, including those of the prestigious families, tried to rebel against the rule of the emperor and the higher lords, who did not have the same spiritual power as the servants. However, the rebellion failed due to the despicable trickery of the Minister of the Right at that time, and the whole family including women and children were beheaded and several families of the exorcists were destroyed. In addition, the story is written in such a way that only the reader can understand that even this was a result of the dark activities of the remnants of Kuuban. Seriously, how many behind-the-scenes activities have these guys been doing..?. They've been laying the groundwork for hundreds of years.
 Well, on this very day, the Kizuki family was about to leave the capital after being released from the guardianship of the capital. But...
 "Is it true? Did you really not see me the other day?"
 "Whatever the truth may be, I have no choice but to deny it."
 The purple-haired girl pursues me impatiently as I load the ox cart (already converted into a stray house) with various goods that the Kizuki family has purchased on their way down to the capital.
 "Are you really, really sure that you don't recognize my appearance at that time!?"
 The youngest sister of the Ako family asks me as if she is trying to get me to bite down. Well, Murasaki shows me the same outfit she wore when we met the other day, but I don't admit it. It's not because I'm mean. It's because that's what I'm ordered to do.
 As for the recent incident, the honor of the Tachibana family and the Kizuki family, and the court's respect, the incident itself was concealed from the public, though in the form of a rumor. Of course, the Tachibana family and the Imperial Court were probably undergoing a storm of cleansing, expulsion, and bribery behind the scenes, just by not disclosing it publicly. ...That is why I was also ordered to keep a tight lid on that case. Therefore, I am not allowed to admit that I was in the bookstore, or that the daughter of the Tachibana family was there, or that the two of us were captured by a bunch of idiots.
 "...why don't you ask Princess Aoi or Lord Uemon about it rather than me? It would be clearer if you ask them."
 I ask her a little bluntly, since I'm getting fed up with being in the way of my work. In fact, it would make the statement more credible. Even if a servant's words are true, it is wrong to take them for granted. I mean, why does she ask me such a question in the first place?
 Murasaki looks embarrassed at my question. Her ahoge hair on her head is shaking in dismay.
 (Come to think of it, there's a rumor about this girl, too. Was it the stray young girl who wanders around the city at night, crying?)
 A girl of obviously good upbringing wandering around the city late at night with tears in her eyes is bound to attract some curiosity. And Ako's family loves this girl more than the girl herself is aware of. The fact that the parents and siblings who could kill a great youkai even with hand-to-hand combat would come to search the city in a murderous rage would be an incontinent nuisance to the good people of the city. In fact, I heard that it was quite a nuisance.
 "I-It's rude to ask my cousin and Lord Uemon about something as trivial as this! And to make your master spend time on a mere servant like you, that's quite a big attitude...!"
 Murasaki spat out in a panicked manner. After she spits out her words, her face turns pale. Apparently, she thought she had said too much. Well, she is a proud girl with a lot of gaffes and bad luck and bad timing, but she is a good and kind girl by nature.
 The problem is that she has a terrible mortality rate because of these flaws. It is said that she is killed by the players as a diversion. I wonder why the officials need to tell the players that she died off-screen even on a route without her own death scene...?
 "U-um... that was... uhh...!"
 "...Well, you don't have to worry about it. You are not mistaken what you say."
 Murasaki tries to explain herself, thinking that she has said too much, but I dare to swallow it and affirm her. What Murasaki said is not wrong in this country, in this world, in part, but also in order to use her conscience. But this is a good girl, so I won't pursue it any further out of a sense of guilt if I say this.
 "Oh... uhh... I don't... understand. But if that's what you want, I'll leave it at that."
 With a bitter look in her eyes, Murasaki finally said so as if she was trying to convince herself. She seemed to be somewhat unsettled, but I guess she thought that further pursuit of the matter would make the atmosphere worse.
 (Well, I would like her to leave this place as soon as possible if she thinks so.)
 Glancing at the Oumi family and the Kizuki family who were gossiping about us, I blurted out in my mind.
 Since she had romantic feelings for the main character of the original story, this Ako's young girl seemed to have at least friendship for a servant like me after our experience in the underground tunnels, but it was also true that she was rather annoying to me. Humans are gossipy creatures. Especially those of a gossipy nature. And in this world where there is not much entertainment... the hate is usually directed toward those who are in a weaker position.
 (Maybe I'll get a sarcastic remark later...)
 And they will think I'm cocky for a servant. Speaking of that, when I was dropped from a commoner to a lowly servant, the abuse was rather severe. The fact that I had gotten into the chicks so badly seemed to have built up a lot of hate without me even realizing it. To others around me, I must have looked like a fox that was taking advantage of the tiger's power. Such is my black history from the days when I was thoughtless.
 "Oh, Tomobe-san! Are you free right now!?"
 These words seemed to be a kind of helping hand. I turned my head in the direction of the voice, and there was a white girl in a white outfit looking at me and Murasaki. She seemed to be looking for a good time to interrupt our conversation.
 "...Shiro. What do you want?"
 "Well, uhh... Princess ordered me to put the luggage on the ox cart, but there are many heavy things... when I told her that it would be difficult for me to do it by myself, she said to ask Tomobe-san to help me..."
 Shiro looks up at me and asks for my help. I look toward the residence and see Gorilla-sama sipping tea happily in a room with a sliding shoji door open. Apparently, she was literally helping me out.
 "...okay. I'll be right there. Since that's the case, Miss Murasaki, I'll leave this conversation."
 "Huh...? B-but..."
 "I'm a servant of the princess, so please understand that my priority is to obey her orders."
 I said so plainly, and left the place with Shiro. I feel a little guilty, but it can't be helped. This girl, who is easily amorous, is a good connection, but at the same time, I don't want to make myself more conspicuous.
 "Oh, um... I'm sorry. Am I interrupting...?"
 Shiro, following behind me, glances at me with an anxious look on her face before asking me.
 "No, I'm glad you're here. I don't want to get into it too deeply. Besides, we really need to finish packing quickly, right? Anyway, how's the orphanage? Have you greeted them yet?"
 It would be a few years before this white fox would see them again since she was going to be taken to the northern region, so it was necessary to say goodbye to them.
 "Y-yes. I did that yesterday. They will write to me regularly!"
 Shiro smiles happily. That's fine. And now...
 "Princess, I'm here. Which of the luggage should I bring?"
 We reach the front porch of the residence and I kneel there. Gorilla-sama, reading behind a shoji (paper sliding door) and fanning herself with a fan, glances off into the distance一probably Murasaki, and declares gracefully.
 "Well, you can help me with that load over there. It's kind of expensive, so be careful, okay?"
 (Gosh, this is...)
 She points with her fan at a mountain of furnishings and sundries. And they were all brand-new.
 "I bought them to make up for your blunder, you know. You should be thankful."
 Gorilla-sama boasted in a pompous and arrogant manner. Apparently, she bought some things to apologize for my blunder in escorting the daughter of the Tachibana family the other day.
 "That's something—"
 "—Well, it doesn't matter anyway, since I buy a lot of things every time I leave the capital, and they are all the latest fads in the capital. Why don't you just carry them out?"
 Aoi orders in a bored tone, and I bow my head and agree. It is true that the capital is far away from Kizuki's house, which is located in a rural area. Therefore, the fashionable goods in the capital are valuable and are bought in bulk at times like this, but when she buys from... one trading company, it's not surprising if she is overcharged... Ah, d*mn it. I feel like I'm getting a pit in my stomach from all the stress.
 "Oh, that cost 15 ryo, so don't get it dirty, okay?"
 "...I understand."
 As soon as I grabbed the mirror stand that I was going to take out first, I was told the price as if I was being bullied. Oh, that's more than double what I paid for it...
 "Oh, by the way..."
 Suddenly, the topic of the price reminded me of my own price. That reminds me that the story has been buried in the end.
 (Well, it can't be helped that it was just a big deal...)
 The image that comes to my mind is that of a witchy but childish girl with honey-colored hair. Well, in all seriousness, there is no way her father would let her play outside again after what had happened, much less with a failed servant as her escort.
 (Even I don't know what kind of face to make...)
 Just after I got dressed up, I got hit, and I was temporarily turned into a monster, though my memory is not so clear. Thanks to Gorilla-sama's action, she didn't seem to say anything about it to people around her... but still, she'll be so creeped out that she won't even want to look at me. And that's okay. In the first place, the whole relationship has been a bit of an anomaly...
 "Tomobe-san!? Please watch your step...!"
 "Huh...? Whoa!? Watch out!?"
 ...I came to my senses when Shiro pointed out that I had stumbled and scratched my foot on a step on the porch of the house.
 "Hehe, you're in such a hurry to carry it. How cute."
 Kizuki Aoi laughs as she looks at her beloved servant who is frantically carrying out the heavy mirror stand with a half-youkai young servant. She laughs in a beautiful voice like the sound of a bell while covering her mouth with a cherry blossom-colored kimono.
 If there were witnesses, perhaps up to four out of five of them would have admired her appearance and It could be a subject of a beauty painting. However, for Aoi herself, such a thing is not important. Favor and admiration from other people than her desired one are not worth a penny to her. Yes, just like the love letters from the people who are piled up beside her, skimming at her hand.
 Despite her being a little too young and her behavior in the inner palace the other day, there is no doubt that Aoi is a good person with her family, fortune, talent, education, and beauty. Therefore, she can win the heart of most of the noblemen with just a smile, and even if she does not, she is a perfect match for the marriage, even if considered from a calculative point of view.
 Therefore, it is not so strange for her to receive love letters with similar contents on the day of her departure from the capital, and more than 30 of them are not too many. Some of them are the most handsome boys in the capital, some of them are born in famous families of warriors (samurais) or exorcists, and some of them are not so prestigious but talented and promising names who will surely flourish in the future. But...
 "It doesn't matter..."
 Aoi throws away the letter at hand on the tatami like it's dust or something. The letter, which was probably spun with careful consideration to every single word, contains rhymes and is beautiful, and if it was a maiden, she would be enchanted by it, but for Aoi, it is nothing but a list of words that does not make her heart dance. It is not because she does not understand the quality of the text, but it is simply because she does not care about the text written by some random guy.
 "If this were his, I would read it over and over again, but... oh, this is..."
 Suddenly, Aoi finds it in the pile of letters. Then she takes a glance at the sender's name.
 "Oh my, it's from that girl. Let's see... Oh, well, here we go again. She does it surprisingly well, doesn't she?"
 While reading the letter, Aoi praises the sender of the letter. Goodness, after what she has done to him, she is really thick-skinned. Moreover, it comes with an excuse so that she can't blatantly respond to the letter. It's a cunning trick.
 "...But well, it's okay. If it's useful for him and me, it's all the better."
 The second princess of Kizuki praises the sender for a certain good spirit. Considering the character of Kizuki Aoi, it was an extraordinary mercy.
 ...yes, she gives her mercy. At least it was trying to be useful to him and to her. At least that thought is a lot more endearing than that annoying, un-self-consciously mocking cousin of hers, who still has a distant, covetous look on her face.
 "Hehe, I see. She really is a cute girl, isn't she?"
 Aoi laughs. She laughs mockingly, pitifully, and lovingly. Somehow it was a cold, lecherous, and seductive smile.
 And the pink princess thought back to the dinner the other day...
* * *
 Late at night, the preparations for the meeting were being made, with only the light from the candleholders as the only source of illumination.
 "What a surprise... to have the chairman of Tachibana Trading visit us in person. I am sorry to say that it is on such short notice that we are unable to offer you sufficient hospitality...."
 "No, no, there is no need to extend such undue hospitality to a mere merchant. Please, don't mind us."
 In the parlor of the Oumi family's residence, the head of the Oumi family, Oumi Yoshikazu, was smiling with a slightly stern smile on his face. On the other hand, the person he is addressing is sitting on a cushion with a discouraged, hard, and stern expression on his face, just waiting for the person he is addressing.
 Yoshikazu is upset by the obviously grumpy attitude of Tachibana Hibiki, one of the wealthiest merchants in Fusō-kuni. For a merchant who never ceases to smile in a socially friendly manner to behave in such a blatant manner, and for a man who is famous for doting on his own child, and whose daughter is also involved in the case, it is easy to understand how angry the other party must be in his heart.
 "Haha, ha... How about your daughter? Isn't it stuffy to stay in a place like this? Shall I arrange for her to kill time in another room? We have snacks and entertainment...."
 Yoshikazu changed his attack. He targeted the girl standing beside the wealthy merchant in front of him. To be more precise, he tried to please and flatter her. But...
 "Thank you for your hospitality to a mere merchant's daughter, respected Head of the Genba-Ryo (The Agency for Buddhists and Foreigners). But please don't trouble yourself over it. I too am a child of a merchant family. Waiting a little longer will not be a problem for me."
 But his clever plan is shattered. The girl, who is known for her moodiness and naughty nature, responded to the temptation of sweets and toys with a smile of social pleasantness, showing no interest in them at all. Yoshikazu had no choice but to respond to her with a bitter smile. Then, he was puzzled inwardly by the subtlety of her mannerisms.
 In Fusō-kuni, where the status system is strictly regulated, court nobles are naturally higher in rank than merchants. But, at the same time, money is the most universal value in society.
 Moreover, Tachibana Trading Company is one of the most powerful merchants in the country, and the Tachibana family itself is a noble family, though it has fallen, and of course, it has personal connections. Above all, the products of Tachibana Trading Company are indispensable for the position that Yoshikazu will assume.
 Well, the Genba-Ryo of the Ministry of Justice was in charge of entertaining foreign envoys and local feasts for local feudal lords and other influential persons. So, in such a situation, it naturally needs imported masterpieces and curiosities, and in this respect, the Genba-Ryo has had many business dealings with the Tachibana Trading Company. If Tachibana Kayo were to fall into disfavor, he might lose his sales channels, and in that case, it would be difficult for him to fully perform his work.
 And now, Tachibana Kayo's call of Genba-Ryo in a formal manner seems to have been a blatant warning. The name is not incorrect, but in most cases, he is called Vice Minister of the Ministry of Civil Affairs (治部大輔), which is his current position. And the head of Oumi is not so stupid that he does not understand the meaning of the name she used.
 To tell the truth, Yoshizuke was beginning to regret his decision to welcome Kizuki into his home. It was a heartless and selfish thing to do since he had been taking advantage of Kizuki's house many times before, but it did not matter to him. After all, the Kizuki family this year... especially the two princesses was just too much trouble.
 "Well, it's taking a long time, isn't it, the Kizuki's who reside here... ah, they are here at last."
 Then, he notices Hibiki's slightly sarcastic tone as he tries to euphemistically criticize the fact that the person who has come for this visit has not shown up by the time. The two shadows move along the veranda through the sliding doors and stop in front of the parlor, bowing and opening the doors.
 "I'm sorry to keep you waiting. It's very urgent. It took me a while to get ready so as not to be rude."
 Kizuki Uemon, a man with maximum affection pasted on his plump face, greets Hibiki. However, anyone who saw him would have been able to tell that there was a hint of fatigue in his appearance.
 "Well, well, you must be from the Tachibana family. Nice to see you."
 A girl with bright and shiny hair reminiscent of cherry blossoms or peaches appears next. Kizuki Aoi holds a fan in her hand and smiles good-naturedly. It is a vacant, heartless smile. And then...
 The two girls' gazes crossed each other. At the same time, Aoi let out a small laugh, and Kayo looked down slightly and bit her back teeth.
 "Well, merchants value their time, don't they? Now, as I made you wait, shall I follow your style here? Let me ask you again. What is your business at this time and place?"
 Sitting gracefully on the cushions, the second princess of Kizuki, though in a position to be pursued, spoke politely, but somewhat irreverently, with a somewhat arrogant tone.
 "......What kind of business is it? I don't think it's necessary to talk about it now."
 At Aoi's words, Tachibana Hibiki sat down with an attitude that revealed his obvious irritation and displeasure. Tachibana Kayo, who was sitting beside Aoi, was silent with a tense look on her face.
 "Of course, it's my own family's fault, too. We cannot make a one-sided accusation. But... still? A thousand ryo. That's a lot of money for just one day's work as an escort in the capital. Am I wrong?"
 Hibiki emphasizes the number of one thousand ryo. But it's true that a thousand ryos is quite a large sum of money. One ryo is enough to feed an average person for a month. But for a thousand ryo in exchange for an escort request of only one day, or practically less than one day. Even if one takes into account the fact that the escort object was the only daughter of one of the wealthiest merchants in the country, the amount of money was still quite astonishing. Therefore, Hibiki was even angrier.
 "Perhaps the exorcists' families have other ideas, but in our merchant world, it is common sense to take responsibility for the money we entrusted. I don't mean to be lax, but I never expected to be treated so irresponsibly!"
 Yes, this is too much. According to the information, which was Hibiki has gathered after the situation was resolved, the hidden group who was following them was incapacitated without even being able to put up a fight, and Kizuki's family only found out about it many hours after the fact.
 "I'm glad it didn't turn out to be a big deal, but with such a lax attitude, I think you'll have to take appropriate measures...!"
 It was a real threat. Hibiki did not seem to hesitate at all in the face of her beloved daughter's treatment, even if she was dealing with a noble or an exorcist. This was probably intended as an example to those who might try to harm her daughter in the same way.
 Even with the gag order in place, the incident that Kayo was involved in the other day was still being whispered around the capital in the form of rumors of unknown origin.
 Of course, as they say, that a rumor lasts for 75 days, it would be forgotten by most of people in time, but still, Hibiki had to take a strong stance even if it was a little reckless for the sake of his face and his daughter's honor. In fact, he had already carried out a severe purge in his Trading Company, and he had even demanded to the Imperial Court that the captured Kurayoshi gang be hanged, rather than decapitated, even though the leader of the gang was a nobleman. Especially those involved...
 "Oh, well, regarding that matter, it's our fault—"
 "—Oh my, oh my, this is strange. I don't think we have any right to be blamed so unilaterally, do we?"
 Uemon tried to calm down the furious chairman of the trading company, but Kizuki's second princess tried to destroy his plans with a harsh word of advice.
 "...! Aoi!"
 "Such language..."
 "Calm down, Uncle. And even the head of the Oumi family... Wouldn't it ruin the name of our family to be so rude to a merchant?"
 Aoi's uncle and the head of Oumi blamed Aoi for breaking the plan to refund the client's money, but Aoi took a glance at the merchant's father and daughter with an air of nonchalance.
 "Besides, the merchant can easily see through such a trick. So, it would be better for us to tell them clearly than to try to deceive them by just appeasing them, wouldn't it?"
 Aoi's words made Hibiki shut up. Uemon and Yoshikazu were in a cold sweat because they were afraid that their partner might be displeased by her sullen appearance, but only Aoi realized that her attitude was because she was trying to listen to them seriously.
 "It's because you couldn't stop your people from running amok in the first place, isn't it? And you know that you owe us a lot of debts. Surely a merchant cannot pretend to be ignorant of their past, can he?"
 The Tachibana family is not completely innocent in the case of rescuing them from the white fox, the case in the underground tunnel the other day, and this case as well, even though they were at fault.
 "You can't blame us for that unilaterally. We don't even work for you. We are on equal footing, aren't we?"
 "Aoi, please don't say more than that..."
 Uemon tried to quiet Aoi as Hibiki remained silent. However, Aoi's sharp glare kicked him out of the room.
 Although it would be a mean-spirited viewpoint to say that Uemon is blowing the wind of cowardice. Uemon is in a position to manage Kizuki's assets, and he has strong connections with court nobles, feudal lords, and merchants, which makes him vulnerable to the influence of the Tachibana Trading Company. He is in a different position from Aoi. In a sense, Aoi's way of talking could be considered as reckless talk without considering the danger.
 "Is that your answer? You just said it was inevitable, and you didn't say a single word of apology to my family or to Kayo?"
 "At least, the job was done. Also, the child was safe, wasn't she? Shouldn't she tolerate a few injuries? Or... do you want to sanction our house in any way? If so, shall I recite that Tachibana's family is a bunch of ungrateful and miserly people? I'm sure that would start some interesting rumors, wouldn't it?"
 Aoi answered clearly without any fear in the face of Hibiki's obviously swarthy attitude. Provoking. Boasting. Even spitting out. And so, a heavy silence prevails. However, what happened next was...
 "...Father, I think that's enough."
 Tachibana Kayo, the victim of this incident, opens her mouth to admonish her father.
 "But, Kayo, I am..."
 "I understand your concern for me, father. However, there is no benefit in making enemies with Kizuki and Oumi here, is there?"
 Even in the aftermath of the scandal in his own family. It can be said that Hibiki was able to avoid being linked to the trading company and the whole family by voluntarily giving a large part of Kurayoshi's hidden wealth, which he had seized, to an important person at the Imperial Court, but he was not unscathed.
 Besides, as a result of the severe cleanups, the trading company was temporarily in disarray. Then, in such a situation, it was not the best idea to act too high-handedly toward Oumi and Kizuki. The nobles and the exorcists are related by blood. It could spread to other families, and other wealthy merchants might take advantage of them.
 "But, Kayo... for your own good..."
 Still, regardless of the circumstances, it was unforgivable for him to have his cute daughter mistreated. This is not a matter of logic. It is a matter of emotion. However, Kayo denies it.
 "That's not like you, father. You are a good merchant, aren't you? My father should be able to put reason before emotion. However, I know that it is a matter of honor for the Tachibana Trading Company. Therefore, Lord Oumi..."
 "What? Wh-what is it?"
 Suddenly Kayo asked him a question, and Yoshikazu responded with a bit of confusion.
 "This is a proposal. Are you still purchasing various products for this year's New Year's feast at the Imperial Court?"
 "That's, well...."
 "How about this? We have a lot of products from the East that we can't find buyers for because of the recent scandal. If you want, I would be happy to provide it to you free of charge."
 "Huh!? T-that's..."
 The owner of Oumi turns his head at Kayo's suggestion. Furs, dried fish, gold sand, lumber, and other goods from East, which Kurayoshi had purchased through legitimate sales channels in addition to his smuggling purchases, had also fallen into a situation where, although they were not seized, there were no takers for them. At this rate, they would have to remain in warehouses for years until the company regains its credibility. However, it is not free to maintain the warehouse, and if a part of the warehouse is left unusable, other businesses will be affected. If this is the case, the Oumi family will give it to them as a way of disposing of their inventory. By letting the warehouse be used for the Imperial Court's feast, they can expect a publicity effect to regain the confidence of the market.
 "Likewise, Lord Uemon. There are several pieces of furniture for feudal lords and noble families that are on the waiting list of buyers because of this matter as well. If you would consider me responsible in any way, I would be happy to sell them to you at a reasonable discount from the market price, would you?"
 Kayo then made a proposal to Uemon. If there were no takers for these expensive furnishings, and if they were to be sold to some merchant to pay a small fee to the craftsmen, Kayo would make the first move. Once a precedent had been set, a poor merchant would take advantage of it again and again. That would make the trading company look bad.
 "Uh, well... that's..."
 "Oh, by the way, we'd appreciate it if you'd place an order with us for the supplies you'll need when you leave the capital. We will ask you to pay the market price. How about it, let's say... and call it a deal. Father?"

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