Thursday, February 9, 2023 @

Chapter 55, Part 1

 "...This is what Princess Hina said."
 Late at night, in a dimly lit hall in one corner of Kizuki's mansion, they were gathered. They sat on cushions in rows on either side of the room, separated by an Andon (a traditional paper lantern) placed in the center of the room, and listened to my words. And when I finished, they sniffed a little. That sound was a grumpy, unpleasant sound.
 "Well, Princess Hina said something like that, huh..."
 "It's pathetic that she doesn't understand her position at all."
 "Is it the blood of her lowly mother? It's a pity for a woman of her talent."
 "Indeed, she's arrogant even though it was our intention to give her a comfortable life since we took her into our house."
 I bow my head and report her current status... Kizuki Hina, and the clan elders whisper in mocking tones to each other.
 In some ways, it was laughable. Sure, they provided food, clothing, and shelter. But that's all. It is natural that she would have distrusted anyone who had treated her as a lowly peasant girl and treated her with coldness, and yet, as soon as she awakened to her unusual abilities, everyone would treat her as if she were a tiger...or, rather, they would feel fear because she is only a child. To ignore this and ridicule Hina's youthful foolishness is an unfair attitude.
 ...Of course, I won't say it out loud even if I think it.
 "But still, it's a blunder on your part. What's the use of being able to light a candle? To be so ignorant of such a gift... is a fool's blunder."
 "You're right. What a fool."
 And then the blame would eventually fall on me. One of the guys gets very frustrated and criticizes me for not keeping a closer eye on her. It was to be expected, and in a way, it wasn't a wild coincidence.
 Yes, I have been misreporting her power to them. I knew her true power, but I didn't report it. But that doesn't mean I've been lying. It is true that until she was awakened by the attack, she had only the power to light a small fire at her fingertips. I only knew it because of the knowledge of my previous life. And the only reason I kept it hidden was ultimately for my own self-preservation.
 Yes, in order to prevent a situation in which a bad intervention might derail the story. ...But it was too late for that.
 "I don't think so. She has not been trained in the spiritual arts as far as I'm concerned. Besides, she had no idea of the merits or demerits of the art. And that was the first time she really awakened. It can't be helped."
 It was such a defense that stopped the sarcastic accusations. The obese man exhaled and drank a cup of cold barley tea with sugar. Looking at the empty tea cup, he calls the maid and orders her to make a fresh pot of tea.
 "In any case, you will continue to serve by Hina-hime's side as before. And keep a closer eye on her from now on."
 "I'll overlook this mistake, but not twice. That's why you, the poor farmer's boy, are kept in this house. Don't forget that, okay?"
 "...As you will. From now on, I will watch and monitor Princess Hina-sama's words and deeds more closely."
 The Kizuki elders command me with threatening words, to which I reply with a nonchalant expression.
 Yes, to them, I am nothing more than that. I am the guardian and watcher of a little girl named Kizuki Hina... and that is the role I have been assigned in this house. The reason why a mere brat from a poor farmer's family is given such undeserved treatment is because I can sense spiritual power and has the patience to take care of a tantrumming child-like Hina... and that's why I'm in the position I'm in now.
 In other words, I've been using Hina as an excuse for taking advantage of them. In that sense, I can hardly blame them.
 "...All right. It's late, you can go now."
 With these words, I bow my head respectfully once more and leave the room as I have been instructed to do.
 I pull back the sliding door to the next waiting room and take a look around. When I confirm that there are no shikigami or any other kind of deities in the room, I exhale deeply. I notice that my forehead is sweating, even after all this time. All of them are covered with much thicker spiritual energy than I am. It was natural for me to be nervous and afraid in front of such pressure.
 No, that's a lie. The real reason I was nervous was not only because of their spiritual power. The real reason was...
 "...I'm lucky they didn't read my memories."
 I muttered to myself out of relief, even though I knew it wasn't going to be that easy because it would be tedious and time-consuming. Anyway, after calming my beating heart, I returned to my assigned room.
 I open the sliding door of the waiting room and go out to the veranda of the residence. On the veranda at night, I could appreciate the full moon and the elegant dry landscape garden at the same time. Unintentionally, I stopped to admire the beauty of the garden, but soon I noticed the sound of footsteps and turned my eyes to the side.
 "Hmm? Oh, you've been summoned by the elders too... at this time of night?"
 When I called out to the figure walking along the veranda at a time when good children are sleeping, the young boy who had been summoned nodded his head anxiously after looking puzzled. His expression was awkward.
 "It's tough to be called at this hour, isn't it? Yawn... I'm so sleepy. Anyway, you're growing up, but you're not getting any taller, are you?"
 I give a big sigh of relief and smile at his upset face. The boy is even more horrified by my attitude. As usual, he can't handle Fukugei (a form of humor or comedy that is performed using physical gestures and expressions). That's why even Hina knows he's a watcher, huh?
 "I've heard about you. It must be hard for you after what your father did to you, huh? Let me do what I can to help. Even so, the higher-ups like me pretty well, you know?"
 Since I have been flattering the elder to get every opportunity to get in their good graces, I was not conceited, but I admitted to myself that I have a broad range of faces among the side people and miscellaneous people. It is thanks to my knowledge of the original story that I know each person's personality, preferences, and landmines.
 "N-no... it's... uh, you're not angry?"
 The boy was still anxious and frightened as he looked at me. I guess he's worried that he sold Hina and me to his father, even though he was threatened.
 But I don't hate him. No anger. ...No, it's not that I can't see that far, nor I don't understand it. After all, he has no choice in the first place.
 It's a terrible thing to ask a child's concubine, in a precarious position, to keep a dangerous secret. Especially when it comes to that hot-tempered, quick-tempered scumbag. ...That's why he tells his father about Hina's power. Just like in the original.
 And now... he's probably been ordered to keep an eye on me and Hina. He said it's a condition of his life. Well, the elders of Kizuki are not afraid of that. I may be a trustworthy person, but I am still a poor farmer's brat from nowhere, and they are the bigwigs of Kizuki. The wall of status is high and thick. Even if they like me, they are not my equals, but pets at best.
 Well, it's enough for ordinary people to live on their own, but... hahaha, it's ironic, isn't it? I know the original story and have incorporated it so well, but because of that, I can't live peacefully as it is now.
 "Well, you know, with Princess Hina..."
 "Shh, don't talk about it so carelessly... you don't know where and who's listening, do you?"
 As I was thinking this, he was about to say it when I couldn't hold back anymore, and I held up my index finger in front of my mouth as if to stop him. I warned him to press down with all his might. I know that this is a world where walls have ears and sliding doors have eyes, and that careless conversation is too dangerous.
 ...well, this behavior is a lie. From my point of view, it would have made more sense to have their shikigami here listening to me.
 "Ah... Uh..."
 "Is that good? If there's a commotion and they hear something, tell them we discussed something else, okay? ...while I escape with Hina through the loophole. And we found it when we were playing hide-and-seek before, through the hidden passageway in the cellar of that warehouse."
 The boy looks me up and down for a moment at my whispered words, and then nods his head. I smile in satisfaction at his reaction.
 It was an act. I don't hate this boy, and I sympathize with him. But I didn't trust him. He would show the others the real way out. And I don't think a child this young can withstand the interrogations of the Kizuki elders.
 "U-uhh... Is it okay?"
 "What's okay?"
 "T-Tell me that kind of thing..."
 I knew right away that he was talking about betraying us, even though he had no choice but to do so, even though he loved us like a little brother to play with us.
 "We all make mistakes. Also, Hina fails all the time, didn't she? Compared to that, you know."
 In fact, it was not unusual for the selfish and tantrumming Hina to play pranks or make mistakes with her stupid ideas. In her case, however, the reason is that the people around her have abandoned her and her clumsy father has kept more distance from her than necessary. Another reason for the child's fussiness is that the child wants to be cared for.
 ...But then again, the whole thing is a lie to begin with, isn't it?
 (I have a bad character too...)
 The "real way out" that I showed him was also a lie. The passage that is truly used to get out of the house is a secret passage that was known to the author in the original story. Hina doesn't know it, the boy in front of me has never seen it, and I've never told anyone about it. No one can know. No one could ever find out. And the important thing was that I was not lying to him, either.
 (If he cooperated with us, he'd probably be punished.)
 So I deceive. I tell this boy a false plan. It's all just me being cunning and devious. So be it. I can take the notoriety alone. No one else is to blame.
 "...I'm sorry."
 "Don't apologize. Now, get on your way to the elders."
 The boy nodded and resumed his steps as I urged him. I took one look at him and was about to go back to my room... But the next moment, I turned around to hear footsteps coming back to me.
 The boy stopped in front of me and looked up at me. Then he muttered a small prayer.
 "Uh... Good luck! Please take care of Princess Hina!"
 "...Yeah, I know."
 I gasped for a moment at his words, but answered immediately. The boy bowed in relief and went to the waiting room. I watched his back for a while.
 "...he is weak and clumsy..."
 I knew from the original story that Kizuki's power, which he inherited because he was a child's concubine of a branch family, was weak, and that he had a habit of bad timing, but he was strangely disciplined. He was a foolish and pathetic boy who ended up destroying not only his childhood friend but also himself. Well, it's not my place to say.
 "...But then, don't be reckless, okay?"
 I whispered to him in a small, wistful voice. I hoped he wouldn't have a strange sense of justice. It would probably make his position worse than in the original story.
 "...I'm the only one they hate enough."
 The spun words disappeared before the night chirps of the bell bugs in the garden.
 Thinking about it, I should have warned him more carefully at that time, which I would later regret very much. In the end, my wish was betrayed. In the worst possible way, with no one being saved, with everyone's good intentions being betrayed in the worst possible way...
* * *
 'Snap, snap, snap!'
 Hundreds of kappa and spiders are waiting for them in the rocky wasteland of the mountains. The swarm of monsters hiding behind rocks in ambush, however, is blown away by countless light bullets from above their heads in the next instant.
 To be more precise, they were explosive arrows filled with spiritual power that mainly hit the spiders, which were effective in spiritual magic. At the same time, even if they missed the spiders, they hit the rocks and blew them apart, and then they cut the kappa with the stones and gravel scattered by the impact of the arrows. In the face of the ferocious attack, the crowd was confused.
 After the arrows and bows had finished their work, the exorcists, who specialize in melee combat, leaped into the fray with their enhanced physical capabilities and closed in on them. Standing in front of them is a large, or rather obese, middle-aged man.
 The obese man landed in the middle of the kappa, and the kappa, hit by his good spiritual power, attacked him at once as if they had forgotten the confusion they had just experienced, before they were all crushed in the head by the man.
 It was a log that did it. A slender log was pulled from a random place with his bare hands, and he scraped it off with his bare hands as well. The log was then swung once. The log itself was nothing special. Just its mass and the force with which it was swung, and the kappa were torn off from the neck up, and their heads were smashed like crushed fruit.
 The kappas, however, pay little heed to the fact that their allies who were the first to attack them have been cruelly killed, and leap at them all at once. The deaths of their comrades meant little to their weak sense of individuality.
 And the man, as if he had expected this reaction, swung the log with his obese body as if he was wielding a stick. With a single swing, he crushes several kappas at once, and when a kappa leaps at him, he twists it head-first into the ground with a single swing of the log. He then swings the log around with his whole body, gaining lift and centrifugal force to glide while spinning, and throws the kappa he catches along the way into the swarm, turning a dozen or more of them into collateral damage. The fat on his body made a fatty sound, which gave a kind of surrealistic impression to the viewers.
 "Wow, how can he be so strong against that many kappas with his physical body? I haven't heard much about his exorcism, but... he's surprisingly good at it."
 The old exorcists of Miyataka, who were standing by the doll god and observing the battle situation as if they were his servants, took one look at the head of the Kizuki exorcism team, who was the spearhead of the battle and said so.
 The old exorcists were aware of the existence of Kizuki Uemon, the Hidden group leader of the Kizuki family, a family of exorcists with a prestigious name in the northern region, and he was aware of his business acumen and political power, but he was surprised to find that he was also an exorcist of this caliber.
 It is said that his father, the former head of Kizuki, treated him coldly for his lack of talent in the spiritual arts, and his brother, the previous head of Kizuki, despised him as a foolish fool... but judging from the way he fights, he seems to have made use of his abundant spiritual power to specialize in strengthening his body. After all, strengthening the body is the easiest way to use spiritual power.
 "And, are you worried about the safety of your relatives?"
 The old exorcist guesses from his reluctant attitude since he joined the raiding party until yesterday and his vigorous fighting attitude in front of him now. Since the adviser, the representative of the raiding party dispatched by Kizuki, was abducted by the spider, Uemon has been kicking the youkai out as if he had undergone a complete transformation. Before that, he had been drinking sugar water in the safety of his tent, refusing to take on even a single young youkai.
 Those youkai who stormed the camp began to retreat as soon as the giant spider, the leader of the group, ran away. Of course, the retreat was not tolerated, and most of the youkai were slaughtered.
 The problem, however, was not with the masses of fish. The remaining one out of the three calamity youkai managed to escape from the Giant Spider, which was even radiating divine energy, and the Giant Spider had captured Kizuki's adviser, so it could not be left alone. The method of the attack pointed out the possibility that the youkai was setting some kind of trap, but at the same time, there were more concerned about the safety of the hostages and the danger of giving them a chance to escape.
 The Kizuki family in particular, which had mobilized a considerable force as well as the Miyataka family, insisted on a close attack, and several exorcists whose relatives had been eaten by the spiders agreed with them.
 After a full day of marching, the raiding party continued to advance toward a mysterious cave they had discovered after eliminating several ambushes. The ambush itself seems to have been well calculated, but the raiding party succeeded in clearing them out with only minor damage. However...
 "It's only bait. They're trying to lure us into their den."
 The old exorcists realized that the youkai who had deployed on the open ground were nothing more than pawns. Perhaps they wanted to wear them down and at the same time catch them off guard. The den is not big, and the forces that can be deployed are limited. Maybe by luring them deep into the den and cutting off their rear through a hidden hole... Something like that? Youkai, true to their instincts, are always clever.
 "Lead the scouting party with the hidden group in the center. Let them clear the way before the main force marches in."
 The old exorcist orders his men in the vicinity. He cannot afford to increase the loss of valuable exorcists. So, he should also make a small check with his discarded pawns.
 "For assurance's sake, I want you to rest and become reinforcements. But you b*stard, you shouldn’t in the front because you're not fit!"

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