Thursday, January 19, 2023 @

Volume 4 Epilogue, Part 4

Revision: Kou Aki => Hikiyo
 After crossing the Shiraki river, there was a world of snow and ice, as it was called.
 The winters are long, the land is frozen, the mountains are steep, the forests are deep with youkai and beasts, and there is the unfriendly Ezo tribe... Among the central land and its four main lands, the northern land is the most uninhabitable and the most severe in nature.
 Of course, people still live there. They burn the fields, clear the forests, hunt beasts and youkai, defeat Ezo (barbarian), cultivate the land, and build houses. The trees that have grown since ancient times are thick and sturdy, promising as lumber, and the food from the mountains and the sea is also abundant, as they have been untouched by humans for a long time. In the mountains, several iron and gold mines have been exploited. Although the soil is indeed harsh, it is not barren.
 And in this northern region, there is the most prosperous city named Shiro'oku, where the Northern Province office is located under the direct control of the Imperial Court. Its population exceeds 100,000. The city is the center of the northern region both in name and in reality.
 And there was a residence in the valley, a day or two's walk from there. The residence, which stands overlooking the village of about 1,500 peasants, is a house of the family of exorcists who rule this area.
 The name of the exorcist family is Kizuki, the same name as this valley... Kizuki valley, and they are the descendants of those who exterminated monsters, which is the origin of the valley's name. They were as influential as deities at least in the Kizuki valley and the surrounding villages.
 Now, after a day and a half of being separated from the Tachibana Company on the city road that separates from Shiro'oku city, the group finally arrived at the valley in question, overcoming the snow that almost scooped up their feet.
 The snow was still falling and visibility was poor... but not completely white. As soon as we entered the valley, villagers and miscellaneous laborers mobilized under the order of Kizuki's residence and held lanterns in their hands to serve as guideposts. How many hours had they been waiting for us? Anyway, the procession of people returning home from the capital passed through the village by the light of the lanterns of the people, and thus, we arrived at the gate of Kizuki's residence.
 "Hold on! You will be inspected before entering."
 However, we cannot enter immediately. The family exorcists and servants who had been packed into the residence stopped the procession at the gate and began to inspect the men in the procession and their cargo. They are concerned about the presence of cursed objects in the cargo or the fact that some of the men have been substituted by youkai.
 "Lord, they don't look familiar. Are they the ones reported?"
 The exorcists of the family ask with grim looks on their faces when they see Magoroku and his sister on his back. The newcomers brought by the gorilla-sama are especially scrutinized carefully, for they do not know where they come from. The old exorcist has a demon's eye for inspection, and he can easily recognize the clever disguise of youkai if he looks closely enough. But...well, forgive him for not being able to spot the infiltration of Aoko the blue demon. She may be a weird one, but she's the real deal.
 "Well, good. Go on in now."
 Magoroku walks past the inspector, who have a sneer on his face, as he hugs and cares for his sister who is blind.
 "Wait, you... Are you the half-youkai from the message?"
 As Shiro is dismounted from the ox cart, the inspector gives her a hard look and shrugs in fright. If anything, she bit her tongue. With a twitch, she glances up and down at the inspector with an uneasy expression on her face. Perhaps she is afraid she will be eliminated the next moment.
 "...Princess, it is troubling. It's not nice of you to pick up a half-breed like this one, as well as the one you just saw. It would be a loss of prestige to allow people of unknown origin like this into Kizuki's venerable residence one after another."
 "Are you finished? Before you start talking again, why don't you decide quickly whether or not you want to let her in?"
 To the inspector, who was seriously complaining, Gorilla-sama said in a manner that was nothing but a complete provocation.
 "...Half-youkai there, get your ass out of here."
 After a moment of silence, the inspector gave a short order. Meanwhile, Shiro obeys the order and returns to the ox cart with a shive.
 "That's all right... Then, go ahead."
 And then, without hesitation, Gorilla-sama naturally ordered the ox-cart coachman.
 "Wait a moment, Princess. The inspection of the servant there is not yet finished."
 The inspector said so, referring to me who was packed in the oxcart as Aoi's guard. But her reply was a cold stare.
 "What? Are you still going to make me wait?"
 "No, but..."
 In an instant, the surrounding temperature dropped several degrees. A dense torrent of spiritual energy swirled around us. It was so oppressive that if one had no tolerance for it, he or she would have been intoxicated by it alone...
 "No, it's nothing, Princess. You can pass."
 "Giggle, you're welcome."
 The inspector finally had no choice but to yield to the deadly glare in her eyes. But well, it's not a smart thing to offend the whimsical princess in front of him, and thus, he orders the men to bring the oxcart through the gate.
 ...and I'm allowed to pass without inspection.
 "Well, I guess a boundary can be fooled. I don't know what would happen if someone probed me too deeply with their insightful mystic eyes."
 "Hehe, you finally came to this side, didn't you?"
 Aoi boasted in the moving oxcart. Then she leans her body toward me, who is standing by her side, and lightly taps my cheek with a closed fan with narrowed eyes.
 "...Well, if they know what's going on inside me, it's going to be a big problem. I'm sure they'll dissect me into pieces. Maybe they'll use me as experimental material."
 "I won't let that happen."
 It's scary. Even though she boasts with an air of smugness, her gaze reminded me of a vicious, cunning, rabid predator. But
 "Thank you for your generosity and concern, Princess."
 And then I answer. As if in surrender, as if in total submission. For my fate depends on the mood of this girl in front of me.
 "Hehe, don't worry. I won't let you go so easily... Oh, look at that..."
 "That one's coming."
 Aoi, who had been smiling with a lecherous smile, noticed it with a frown on her face.
 The next moment, the oxcart shook violently. At the same time, the viewing window was forcibly opened, and "something" entered the oxcart.
 "This is... Huh!?"
 "Get out of here!"
 I quickly grab my spear and try to fight the intruder, but Gorilla-sama makes a move before I can. The huge shadow approaching me is hit by her fist, which she swings a moment later, and crashes into the wall of the ox-cart. And for the first time, I see the intruder's true identity.
 It was a snake-like creature with a beard and its whole body covered with amber-colored shining scales, which was completely the image of an oriental dragon. A real Zuiryuu (Luck Dragon), one of the few existing Shikigami that the Kizuki clan had subdued more than 500 years ago and served as the main deity, and was now accompanying the First Princess of Kizuki... 'Hikiyo (Yellow Sun)'.
 "Why... something like this...!?"
 "I'm sorry. I was just in the middle of training, but it seem to have lost control and gone berserk. Forgive me, my little sister."
 As I was in a state of shock, a voice sounded from behind me calmly and strangely calmly.
 The gorilla-sama's tongue-lashing voice is small, but I can hear it clearly. As for me, I turn around slowly, a little nervously.
 There she was, Kizuki Hina, the first princess of Kizuki, with glossy black hair, dressed in a man's hakama.
 "Isn't this a rough welcome, my dear sister? It has been a long time since I have seen your face."
 "Aoi, your life in the capital seems to have been very comfortable, hasn't it? Have you grown much fatter in less than half a year?"
 "Well, I wonder..."
 "I hope you die."
 After taking a glance at her sister's body like a chopping board as if she was mocking her, Gorilla-sama crossed her arms while daring to lift her chest. It was completely sarcastic and provocative.
 For a moment, Kizuki Hina frowned expressionlessly. At the same time, 'Kou Aki (Yellow Star)' roared angrily. With a spiritual power that surpasses great youkai and can even clash head-on with calamity youkai, the shikigami even emits divine energy...
 The dragon's threat frightened Shiro, who cowered her shoulders. She falls on her buttocks in fright. And in order not to provoke the dragon, I move in front of Shiro in a very natural movement. Hina glares at the dragon. Then the shikigami stopped threatening and quieted down.
 "...It's a very undisciplined snake, isn't it? Maybe you're not trying hard enough as a pet owner. Feed it something good. But no matter how much you feed it, it won't make it any smaller."
 Aoi is cursing the owner, saying that she should feed herself. On the other hand, the big sister did not care about the provocation.
 "Oh, that? There will be no shortage of food for a while. I've caught some live and fresh bait, okay?"
 "Oh. Didn't you hear it? Around late last year. I was approved by the court for an expedition to the forbidden lands. On there, I killed two monster heads. Now their limbs, the ox-demons, are torn off and I used them as its food."
 The words took my breath away. The words were too shocking to be uttered so matter-of-factly. It is not easy to capture a calamity youkai alive... and it would have been quite a feat to capture a youkai in a place that is forbidden by the Imperial Court.
 "For my services, I will soon receive an official rank from the Imperial Court. The sixth rank. Well, there's no need to mention it."
 Aoi listens silently to the words of Hina who smiles thinly as if she is mocking herself. It was obvious that her words were a provocation. And Hina's words meant that all of Aoi's achievements in the capital were practically meaningless.
 "Ah. I haven't greeted you yet. Welcome back, Aoi."
 "Welcome too, dear sister. I'm back."
 They greeted each other in that way in a frivolous, indifferent, and cruel way. Naturally, I couldn't feel a trace of affection toward their immediate family members. They narrowed their eyes and stared at each other. In the midst of the spiritual tension caused by the presence of the dragons in the room, the first-class exorcists were now facing each other in an overtly hostile manner. The tension in the room reaches an extreme level, and...
 "...I'm sorry to interrupt. I think it's time for me to leave."
 The sense of oppression dissipated as Hina turned on her heel. The dragon also slowly walks out of the window, curled up in a ball.
 "Ugh...!? Hah~... Hah~..."
 I almost fell over and managed to hold myself together. I was so strained that I seemed to have forgotten how to breathe, so I took a deep breath.
 "I'm fine. No problem..."
 "You don't have to be so hard on yourself..."
 Shiro behind me looks at me with concern, but I smile through my face to reassure her. I still had time to put on this kind of air. Yes, still at this point.
 "Oh... I forgot. The other day, the person, who's the leader of the servants died. I couldn't decide who to appoint next... So, Tomobe, I've recommended you for the post because of your experience and ability. You should do your best to serve."
 Hina's words, which sounded like a simple, matter-of-fact report, left me in a state of shock. It was shock and despair at the same time.
 I was not at all happy to hear the news that I had been promoted, and that I was in fact the first of all the servants, excluding the heads and assistants of the Kizuki family and their relatives.
 Also, I was not at all happy to hear the news, because it only proved the seriousness of the current situation of the servants...
* * *
 It was the day after the capital group returned to the residence. I was climbing a mountain about half an hour away from the house and the valley. With a load on my back, I climbed the small mountain through the snow piled up under a snowy sky.
 I thought it was ridiculous to climb such a place right after returning to the residence. But... I knew from the sky on the way back that tomorrow would be a snowstorm of incomparable magnitude to today's. And that it would last for days... If so, it would have been better to go to that place immediately after returning today, even if it was a little too much work. The news the other day was also another reason why I wanted to get up here as quickly as possible. I really wanted to get here before I got the appointment.
 "Hah~... Hah~... Almost there, huh?"
 I stop to take a rest, breathing white breath from the cold, but soon resume climbing the mountain path. I climb the stone steps one by one, and not much time passes before I finally reach the top of the small mountain.
 At the top of the small mountain... there spread out a series of crude gravestones. The graveyard was a place that neither Kizuki's family nor the villagers rarely visited...
 "D*mn! The stairs here are too hard... It's even harder when I'm carrying my baggage on my back."
 I grunt, and I click my tongue. Then I start to do what I have to do without complaining. It's snowing when the sun goes down. If I'm not careful, I could freeze to death from the disaster. Well, first of all...
 "Uhh, Yahiro guy is... Oh, this is it. I'll give you this one."
 When I find Yahiro's (Appeared in ch.1) grave, I put some rice crackers in front of it. I think he liked soy sauce-flavored ones.
 "Heigun (Appeared in ch.4) is kind of cookie, Hei (Appeared in ch.4) is... konpeito, right? It's expensive, so just a little bit, but bear with it, okay?"
 I unload the baggage and offer the favorite foods from among them to the graves of my former subordinates. Especially Hinoe was crazy about konpeito, which he had eaten only once before, and he must have been complaining about wanting to eat it again every time.
 I will leave candy for Yoi, a roasted chestnut for Mizunoto, a soybean flour cake (mochi) for Kanoe's grave, and for some reason, some tasteless dried fish for Renzen, Also Yanagi's favorite food was... dried persimmons, right? I'm sorry if I'm wrong.
 "Well, a lot of them aren't buried under here to begin with, are they?"
 Many of the bodies were never found, or if they were found, they were not brought here but were disposed of on site because they were rotting. I don't know if there is really any meaning to these empty graves... Even if they are not, not all of them were close to me, and many of them died before or soon after I came. In such cases, I offer something appropriate.
 "But they are not well managed. Some of them are buried under snow and crushed."
 In the first place, the graves of the servants are not worth taking care of, and the only monk from the village who visits them occasionally is a dying old man, whom I can't force to do so. In such a situation, I have no choice but to shovel snow.
 I brush away the snow from most of the graves and finally stop by one of the graves. I stopped and crouched down at one of the gravestones that had been set up in a mess.
 "It's been a long time. I hope you've been well... But it's funny to say so, isn't it? After all, you've been dead for a long time."
 I laugh at the thought that it's an incredibly inappropriate thing to say to a dead person. With a wry smile, I start mumbling to report the current situation.
 "Sorry, I'm late. As I told you before I left, I was in the capital.... because the princess wanted me. Well, I'm at a loss. I had a terrible time there. I can't tell you how many times I almost died."
 I say hello to the grave, making excuses for the fact that I usually see him once at the Bon Festival, but not this year. As I greet him, I blabber on about my disastrous experience at the capital. No, seriously, I was prepared for the fox thing and all, but it was way out of the story. I didn't know I was going to end up dying like that?
 "...Well, I've had my share of problems, but I'm still alive and in one piece. I'm very lucky."
 Even this dead senior of mine, who was much stronger than me, was covered with scars and had lost several fingers. Compared to that, how lucky I am to be in good health and not even missing a finger.
 Well, let's put all that aside for now and go to...
 "Well, let's get this for you first."
 I say one-sidedly and take it out from my baggage. It's a cheap sake of poor quality that I got from a store in the capital.
 "But even if it's of poor quality, it's still something that's sold legitimately in the capital, you know. It should be much better than the stuff found in the back alleys of the old village below."
 I defend myself in a light-hearted, joking way. Well, I'm sure she'll ignore what I'm saying and just grab a bottle of sake and drink it anyway. She was a kind of escape from reality in this shitty world... but she really was a woman who was all about the booze.
 "That's why. It's your junior's treat, so don't be a pussy and take it, okay?"
 I put a bottle of sake in front of her grave. There is no answer. I knew that. I didn't expect it. It was just a ritual to convince myself.
 It's just a ritual to cover up my helplessness, my guilt...
 "...Shirato's big brother, who was appointed to the leader of servants personnel, has died. He somehow managed to survive his wounds, but he suffered for 7 days and 7 nights... and it was only a few days ago."
 I report it as if out of a sense of duty. To me, it seemed too obvious to tell the person whose grave I was standing in front of.
 "It's been four years since your death. Most of our seniors are no longer alive. Now, it's not funny if they're going to appoint me to this position."
 I never imagined this when she was here. Back then I had just graduated from being a mere servant and many servants had more experience than me. I can't believe it's like this...
 "At least if you were still alive... But it's too late to say anything now..."
 That's right. If that woman had been here, none of this would have happened. I wouldn't have been offered this position. No, before that, if it weren't for me, nobody would've... Not even that woman...!!
 "...Haha. I bet if she saw me now, she'd break my bones."
 I laugh. I let out a dry laugh with a miserable look on my face. I'm sure she would have hit me over the head and said, "Stop whining. Do your part for everyone."
 In fact, she was the embodiment of those words herself. She struggled desperately in the shitty environment, clawing and fighting so that as many of her friends as possible could survive. No bitterness, no hatred, no envy. She took care of me when I was a servant, when I didn't know what was right and wrong, and she has taken care of me ever since.
 And even such a kind woman could not resist her fate. She got caught up in that d*mned Kizuki Aoi's, Kizuki family's conspiracy together, and finally lost her life because of me, and...
 I frown as a dull pain hits my head.
 "D*mn... it's not something I can just forget about."
 Was it the last time I screwed up? I was so badly injured that my memory of that moment is hazy in places. Thanks to this, the end of that person is also somewhat vague, and it is only a little while later that I realized that the missing piece of my memory was worsened by the experience of having my head blown off and becoming a monster after the incident the other day.
 Although it was horrible to see myself becoming separated from humans and my personality being distorted... this fact was the most frustrating, frightening, and sad.
 "...D*mn it."
 I grumble as I sit down in the graveyard, where white snow is falling. My head was filled with anxiety, fear, guilt, loneliness, and...
 "Uh... uh... uhhhh..."
 ...Unfortunately, I couldn't leave this place for a while.
 It was a month later that I was appointed to the position of servant leader(?) (衆允)...

A translated wiki from the pixiv: here

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