Wednesday, January 18, 2023 @

Volume 4 Epilogue, Part 2

 The girl smiles at her father.
 "I don't know what to say..."
 "If it makes you happy, I'm open to it. If you want, I can introduce you to other houses that leave the capital in the same way."
 "The same goes for me. There is no greater honor than to be offered to the Imperial Court. I would be more than happy to introduce you to the nobles."
 Hibiki was puzzled by Kayo's proposal, while Uemon and Kaichi agreed. It was a win-win situation for both of them, and it would be a small price to pay if they could settle the current disturbance.
 "...Kayo, are you sure about this? You don't have to put up with this for the sake of the family and company..."
 At his father's words, Kayo quietly shook her head.
 "No, father. I'm not holding back. I just think it's the best thing to do."
 "But even so..."
 To Hibiki, who still seems reluctant, Kayo says.
 "Please think about it, father. How will people around us feel if you make such an unreasonable effort for my sake alone? It will only give them more opportunities to take advantage of you."
 Then, after taking a deep breath, Kayo continues.
 "The other day's incident has rather woken me up. Until now, I have been spoiled by my father and mother, but from now on, please treat me not just as a child, but as the heir to the trading company."
 This declaration had an important meaning. That is, it was a request for the future chairman of the Tachibana Trading Company.
 In this country where there is no joint-stock company system, the business of a merchant family is naturally family-run. It is not unusual for a family to divide the goodwill or to adopt a talented person as an adopted son or son-in-law, but the family still holds the actual authority over the business.
 Tachibana Kayo was especially loved and spoiled by his father, and it is reasonable to say that she had little or no education as a merchant until this age. Therefore, it was rumored among the public that the family was going to take a talented young man from the merchants' association as a son-in-law...
 "Kayo, that means..."
 Hibiki's eyes widen in disbelief at her daughter's statement. On the other hand, Kayo, who is sitting upright on the cushion, looks up, straightens her back, and proudly stretches her chest.
 "I understand your concern. But... I still beg you. I don't want to be disregarded any longer by my family or by the trading company. As father's successor, as your daughter, I will do my best."
 "Therefore," Kayo emphasizes.
 "Please, let this be the end of it. This will be the beginning of my path as a merchant."
 Kayo looks his father in the eye and declares. This is the first case that she has ever worked on. From this point on, she will follow in her father's footsteps. She will become the head of the trading company.
 Hibiki is moved by her daughter's words. To see her lovely daughter grow up so well, and to have her follow in his footsteps... though a bit exaggerated, it seemed like the greatest blessing to him.
 "Well, well... it's really a great thing!"
 "Hahaha, I see. Then, we will cooperate with you, even if it is only a little."
 The representative of Kizuki and the head of Oumi joined in the discussion with some bewilderment. In fact, the replacement of a wealthy merchant is an important event. It is not uncommon to see cases of policy changes or estrangement with the change of generations. Paradoxically, it is beneficial to be close to the child of the next head of a wealthy merchant from an early stage.
 That is why the two of them took advantage of it. And Hibiki is also a capable merchant, but more than that, he is not a sensible father, and he is influenced by this scheme.
 Now, once the representative of Kizuki and the head of Oumi promised to cooperate with Kayo as her supporters, the relationship between the three of them improved at an unusually rapid pace. Their conversation becomes more and more lively, and they begin to laugh together. They may have something or other hidden in their hearts, but the atmosphere of the place is becoming less and less serious.
 "Hahaha, what do you think if we have a feast later? How about a small celebration today?"
 "That's a good idea. We can't refuse your kindness."
 "Please go ahead, father. I have a few words with the princess."
 Hibiki agreed to Uemon's proposal, and Kayo told his father and the others who were about to leave.
 "I'll be done soon. I've spoken with the princess before and we've become friends. I'd like to break our manners and have a private chat..."
 "Please go ahead. I'll show the young lady after we've finished our little chat."
 Her father asked Kayo who was still sitting in his seat, and the two girls said with a lively smile.
 "Aoi... although you know that, you should not be so rude..."
 "I know, uncle. There are things girls like to talk about. It's not polite for a man to intrude."
 "Don't worry about it, Lord Uemon. Please, go ahead and have a chat with my father."
 Uemon tries to warn his niece, who is strong-willed, arrogant, and tongue-tied. In response, Aoi and Kayo politely but dismissively responded.
 "Um, umm..."
 If it was only Aoi, it would be a problem, but if even Kayo said so, he could not be too persistent in his attention. So, Uemon went with the head of Oumi to show the chairman of Tachibana to the reception room. The men leave, and the boundary is closed, leaving the two girls alone in the room...
 For a while, the room is silent. The silence, which seemed to be filled with an indescribable heaviness, was broken by Aoi.
 "...well, you said we would meet again, but it was sooner than I expected, huh?"
 Kizuki Aoi laughs at her. Her socially friendly smile disappeared, and she laughed ferociously like a predator. It was a kind of intimidation.
 "...! Because time is money for a merchant family."
 The honey-colored-haired lady is almost overwhelmed by this power, but she rouses herself and answers without hesitation. For better or worse, she has already been through a death-threatening experience, so such a threatening check is not a breeze... and it is not something that frightens her to the point of being at a loss for words. Therefore, Kayo looks directly at Aoi's face.
 "...hehehe, you have a good attitude. At least it's more agreeable than those sweet, sugary candies and their cheeky attitude."
 And Aoi shows her praise for Kayo while humiliating her. Tolerantly, she praises her.
 "And it was a good move. If the conversation had gone on like that, it would have made the relationship between our houses so bad that you wouldn't be able to see him anymore. And we might have had the person in charge commit suicide as part of our apology."
 Aoi whispered amusedly. However, her eyes were cold. Putting the former case aside, in the latter case, she would do her best to stop them. On the other hand, Kayo's white face turned paler at Aoi's words. However, as one would expect from a daughter of a merchant family, she could stand to change her facial expression, but not her bloodlust.
 "...and? You didn't come here to be sarcastic or to pursue me, did you? I know he still needs to rest, but would you like to go visit him? I'll show you around."
 "...no, I'll leave that for another time. I understand the situation. If it is leaked that I visited him now, it will only make his position worse."
 Kayo politely refused Aoi's formal invitation, and Aoi muttered to herself that she had made the right choice.
 "...you know the real reason why I came here today, don't you...?"
 "Well, I wonder? I hope you are what I expect you to be."
 Aoi was boasting to Kayo who had a hard expression on her face. She smiles and opens a fan to cover her mouth.
 "....Aoi-san. Are you in love with him, with Tomobe-san?"
 "I love him, okay? I love him more than everything else, even if I have to give my all."
 It was an immediate answer. She answered in a natural, matter-of-fact, easygoing way.
 At the same time, Kayo bites her tongue. As she bites, she feels a fierce sense of defeat. She herself was nervous just by asking the words she just said, but the fact that the woman in front of her answered with a much heavier word matter-of-factly, but with a clear determination, made her realize the inescapable difference in the two women's status.
 "May I confirm something?"
 "How did he and I get to know each other?"
 "Please don't provoke me. ...I know you love him, but I have some questions."
 Yes, Kayo understands the intensity of the woman's feelings. But... that's why she has her doubts. From what she has gathered, the woman in front of her likes him and keeps him close to her. But at the same time, it is also true that the way she treats him is abusive, and it is hard to believe that she has the same kind of feelings for him that she has just described. What is this discrepancy...?
 "...Hehe, well, you're better than that woman that you can question me directly like this..."
 Yes, better than that woman who sneaks around, eavesdrops and spies on her beloved, and glares at him from afar, but never speaks out her true feelings in front of him.
 "Hehehe, I'm talking about the fact that not only you and I are attracted to the lights."
 Aoi giggles and gives a supplementary explanation to Kayo who tilts her head, not understanding the meaning of the statement. Understanding the meaning of the statement, Kayo's expression becomes tense.
 "Don't be hasty, okay? But first, why don't I tell you what's going on around him? Then you'll understand how serious the situation is."
 Then Aoi speaks. She tells the story of her beloved's situation up to the present day as far as she knows. How she met him, how dangerous his position is, how stupid, abnormal, and dangerous people are stirring around him, paranoid, malicious, and wanting to kill him. And now, the task at hand: to see what is eating away at his body...
 "Oh, no... it can't be... no, it can't be...."
 Kayo's face turns whiter than ever and a look of near despair appears on her face after hearing the approximate situation. From the bizarre gap between the woman in front of her and the way he treated her, from his unexpected transformation that night, she knew there was something out of the ordinary, but... things were much worse than she thought. It was too bad.
 "I'm telling you, don't buy him. I don't care what you do, but you never know what a couple of crazy people with no means will do, do you? Besides, it's hard to keep giving him medicine even in your house, isn't it?"
 Like a demon with a mysterious obsession, there's no telling where it's going to strike back. Like that bloodthirsty, intolerant woman's obsession is horrifying. And that one... The further she gets from him, the more likely she is to kill him. And the medicine... it takes more than the organs in the hearts of these exorcists to keep the blood of the being who calls himself the mother of monsters at bay, and even the organs of these second- and third-rate exorcists are hard to come by regularly.
 "Well, I am responsible for the last part, so please forgive me for that. But remember, as I said before, it was originally your father's idea, wasn't it?"
 By the way, Aoi puts her responsibility on others. No, the story itself is true, but she manipulates the impression cunningly. There was also Aoi's narrow-minded calculation to make the daughter of a merchant family in front of her feel guilty and to make her pay attention to her share of the responsibility.
 "Well, I'm not going to pursue it with you now, and I don't have the right to do so. If you want to blame someone, you can ask him to tell you after all is said and done."
 And so ends Kayo's torment, unilaterally. Aoi was not interested in the self-absorbed self-blame of the girl in front of her. There was something much more important to talk about.
 "More importantly, what do you think? I know you've been thinking about it a lot, but has it changed your mind?"
 "...! T-that's..."
 Without any preamble, Aoi mentions the choice that Kayo had been keeping in her heart. Kayo can't believe that she knows that much.... and is struck by the feeling that she is dancing on the woman in front of her.
 "I'm telling you, stop trying to take advantage of the situation. I don't mean to boast, but unlike me, the others are narrow-minded and possessive, you know?"
 Aoi's strong point makes Kayo shut up. In silence, she agonized, pondered, and then... made a hard decision. She believes it is the most likely way to win the battle.
 Because she knew that she could never win this battle by herself.
 "Princess Aoi... please, I beg you."
 Kayo spun her voice with deep regret. She squeezes her voice as if she is enduring humiliation and pain. And then she offers.
 "That man... Tomobe-san's body will be yours. So... so... I beg you. I will do my best to help you stand by him... instead..."
 Gradually, Kayo's voice sounded tearful. Merchants are calculating creatures, but still, for her, the proposal was a humiliating one that completely shattered her self-esteem. But at the same time, she had no other choice...
 "Please give me... Please give me mercy too... Please!"
 Kayo said somehow, her head almost touching the tatami mats. She says it in a lowly, condescending way as if she were drinking boiling water, as if she were accepting a disgrace. In fact, this was even the reason why she proposed to her father to be her successor. To maximize her own value, her own use value... tears well up in her eyes from the sheer misery of her situation.
 ...what is most frustrating of all is that she still does not regret this choice. So much so that she had already made it clear to herself that she was a loser. That she had been made to understand.
 For a while there was silence... but it seemed like an eternity to Kayo. This moment of silence was terrifying to her to no end. A declaration that would throw away all her pride, but still... Kayo couldn't give up. She did not want to give up. Kayo was already so attached to that man, and she had made her feelings for him so strong.
 In other words, she was an unrequited woman... Kayo thought of herself as such. Even disgusted, she thought.
 Still, she waited, and waited patiently for the woman in front of her, and then...
 "Hey, Miss Tachibana..."
 "...what is it?"
 "What can you do for him?"
 Aoi asks plainly. Kayo was puzzled for a moment about what to answer, but the next moment… she gave her a simple and easy answer.
 "If it's for him, I'll do it."
 There were no specifics, no exceptions, but she somehow knew that the man would put up with it anyway, that he would force himself, that he would never say what he really wanted... so Kayo answered naturally. Not what he said, but what was good for him, everything and anything.
 ...yes, all of it.
 Once again silence pervades the room. But the silence is shorter than the first.
 "Raise your head."
 The words echoed strangely in the room. Kayo took a moment to understand the meaning.
 "Come on. Raise your head."
 At the prompting, Kayo hurriedly raised her head. At the same time, she looked. She saw the cherry princess smiling kindly in front of her. She was so beautiful that it was almost overwhelming. It was the face of a maiden in love.
 Kayo lets out an involuntary sigh. At the same time, she realizes that her plea has been accepted. The peach-colored woman in front of her had an air of friendliness about her. And then she blurts out.
 "Hehehe, Kayo-san. We're going to be good friends, aren't we? ...Let's have a tea party next time."
 Aoi smiled as she walked up to Kayo's side. She laughed with her friends, but with eerie, stagnant eyes. Her smile was obviously filled with lust, desire, obsession, vindictiveness, and mad delight...
* * *
 "I envy her..."
 "...nothing. Just talking to myself."
 Kayo, who is sitting upright in the oxcart, replies to Tsuru, the old maid who is standing right next to the oxcart. Then she is lost in thought again.
 "....I know I can't turn back time now, but... I guess it would have been better if I had never known about this."
 Kayo smiles weakly with an indescribably complex expression on her face. Kayo can't help but mock herself, wondering how she came to have such a complicated and abrasive view of the world.
 Her mother was married in love. Therefore, Kayo longed for love, and her mother also felt sympathy for her daughter. She saw her daughter's pathetic and crippled life.
 Her mother was only a signboard girl. Therefore, she was free to love. Her father also had business acumen, and because he was a man, he was allowed to behave in a certain unrestrained manner. And Kayo? Unfortunately, she is not as free as her parents.
 Of course, she is looked at strangely even though she has Nanban's blood in her veins. But also, what about her future? To become a mistress, bloodline alone is not enough. If she were to live as a mere daughter of a merchant family, regardless of her work, she would naturally have no choice but to enter into a political marriage. Either way, it is certain that it would be quite suffocating. She is the only direct descendant of the Tachibana family. That's as it should be. If only she had an older brother or a younger brother, it would have been better... And that was one of the reasons why her father doted on her and her mother allowed her to have secret encounters with him.
 The mother was trying to accommodate Kayo's wishes to the best of her ability because she felt guilty for not having another child, and Kayo knew that. ...The problem was that it was supposed to be for fun, but she really, really got into him. However, she lost the battle and still remained attached to him, and that's why she made such a secret promise to him on that night.
 "...I really envy her, don't I?"
 Suddenly, Kayo pulls out a drawstring purse she had been carrying in her pocket. She squeezes it tightly with both hands and hugs it to her chest.
 ...ah, yes. I was so, so frustratingly jealous.
 It was the same when that woman took him away from her... and the same when she made that stupid promise to him. When Kayo saw that look on that woman's face, Aoi, she thought with all her heart. How could she be so crazy for love (koi/恋), no, how could she be so crazy for love (ai/愛)? That exorcist's woman must have a sweet, wild, and dark passion in her heart. She must be literally lost in madness, suffering, and drowning.
 As for Kayo, she was jealous of her first love, which was stolen from her as soon as she found out about it, and she envied her, gloriously, frustrated, estranged, and envious. She can't help but feel jealous because Aoi can keep him close to her and touch him for a long time...!
 (I can't help thinking that she is cunning... But I can't win anyway.)
 So all she can do is sell her charms, cooperate, and receive the reward. It's a harsh fact and an inescapable reality, even if it's frustrating.
 And the only thing that can beat that woman is...
 "Miss, I think they're here."
 "Huh...? Don't you mean that?"
 Kayo is stunned for a moment by Tsuru's words, but then she realizes what she means and peeks out of the window in a bit of a panic.
 Through the window, she could see several wagons and ox carts, or horses and laborers, moving in formation along the main street of the capital. They were heading toward the gates of the capital, which were used by the soldiers and exorcists who had been relieved of their duties as guards of the capital and were on their way back to their own lands. If one includes the columns of people who are going to the capital, this kind of scene can be seen almost every day throughout the year in the capital.
 Kayo looks at one of the columns. Judging from the family crest on the oxcart, it is probably the correct one.
 "Go there."
 At Tsuru's words, the ox-cart on which Kayo is riding starts to move forward. Then, the ox-drawn cart starts to run alongside the target's ox-cart.
 "Wh-what!? T -that family crest is..."
 Suddenly, a figure who was waiting by the side of Kizuki's ox-cart with a spear in his hand mutters to himself as a strange ox-cart suddenly runs alongside the cart. At the sound of that voice, Kayo also involuntarily tenses up inside. At the same time, she is also aware of the sensation of her heart beating rapidly. Kayo knew that common, ordinary voice very well, and she had been longing to hear it ever since that incident.
 Of course, she does not express it overtly. ...at least for now.
 "Is that your voice... Tomobe-san?"
 Kayo declares, her face appearing calm and composed through the window. She tries her best to keep her tone as usual and declares.
 "That voice, is it Miss Tachibana...?"
 A figure in black clothes and a mask answers. It was easy to imagine that he probably had an indescribable expression on his face. After all this time, Kayo realizes that she already knows the face beneath the mask. The thought filled her with an indescribable sense of omnipotence and superiority. If anything, the faint smell of body odor wafting through her nostrils sent a little shiver down her spine as she recalled the other day. Though she didn't show it on her face.
 "Yes. It's been a while, hasn't it? Is everything all right?"
 "...Yes. No problem, thanks to you. I appreciate your concern."
 Despite his words, Kayo was aware that the young man in front of him had become more cautious. She felt sorry inwardly that she choose the wrong word. But from Kayo's point of view, she was really just worried about him... yet, there is indeed a reason for him to be cautious.
 "I'm glad to hear that."
 "But more importantly, what can I do for you again? I'm afraid we have to leave the capital today. The line is busy at the moment so I can only stand here talking to you... but if you need me, shall I hurry to speak to the Princess or Lord Uemon?"
 The servant offered. Kayo, however, shakes her head and politely rejects the proposal.
 "No, you need not worry about that. I have already sent a servant to Uemon-sama's house if I need to contact him."
 "That's very good, indeed."
 "Yes. Now, it's a journey of about 20 days from today, please take good care of me, will you?"
 "Yes. I understand. Allow me to... What!?"
 The servant was almost carried away by Kayo's words, and for a moment he moved as if he were being carried along. He stops in a hurry and stiffens on the spot. Then he notices several wagons and dozens of people following Kayo's ox cart. Wordlessly, the servant turns his eyes back to Kayo...
 (I'm sure he looks stunned or stunned under his face...)
 Kayo couldn't help but think of such a cute expression on his face in her mind. Then she continued.
 "Oh? Haven't you heard? I have already sent a letter to your master. I'm going to work at the branch office... as my father's successor. It is only a day or two away from Kizuki's house, so it is very close. That's why I've asked you to escort me there as well!"
 Kayo answered with a smile. She had a big smile on her face. Though it was only she and his master in front of her that knew that the pretense... that even becoming his father's successor was just a means to an end.
 "Oh, yes. When you get there, I'll ask you to make it up to me when you're free, okay? I've never been to the North before. I would be happy if you could show me around!"
 She made her declaration in the most natural manner possible as if she was trying to avoid being scandalized by the oxcart guarded by the servant in front of her. Yes, holding the precious amulet in her hand.
 ...concealing the dark, intense light of emotion that lies deep within those smiling eyes.

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