Monday, March 13, 2023 @

Chapter 66, Part 2

 The story begins in the early fall of the 13th year of the reign of Emperor Seiri, in the village of Fusō-kuni's northern region in the Jōkei County, Haruga Province. Although the northern region of Fusō was not extensive, the area was blessed with a rich natural environment thanks to the abundant spiritual veins, making it one of the most prosperous regions in Fusō. For almost a millennium, the people of this land lived without major threats, which led them to live their lives without conflict, and with a broad and rich spirit, as well as a lack of crisis awareness, which some may consider as indolence.
 The main character, Hotaruya Tamaki, is the youngest child of the Hotaruya family, a family of village headmen, and the lords of such a rich land. Surrounded by kind people, he has never known the pain of hunger and has lived his whole life without knowing the bare negative emotions of people's ugly jealousy, hatred, and malice, and he has an unusual degree of trust, compassion, kindness, and a dedicated sense of justice even in this world. ...Well, such brightness of his soul is the reason why he suffers a bad ending, isn't it?
 The tragedy began with the attack of youkai, a calamity youkai, on the village that was not supposed to be there... and he lost many of his loved ones and a place to return to, thus he took shelter with the Kizuki family who came to his village to rescue him. But the reason is that he defeated the calamity youkai single-handedly. And it also means that he is about to find out the secret of his birth.
 ...Well, let's leave it at that for now. The problem is the imminent destruction of the main character's village. How should I deal with this? I don't know what to do.
 The question is not only how I will go to the village, but also what I will do with the village. To be honest, I feel it's too late to deal with calamity youkai... since I've encountered it before... It's suicidal, and I can't imagine how a bad intervention will bring about changes in the original story. The worst case scenario is that the main character dies or does not awaken, then I am at a loss for what to do. And rescuing the villagers is out of the question. Without their deaths, the main character will not awaken to his true power.
 The decision to abandon the villagers... which has already been made in my mind, is not without guilt. But at the same time, I knew it was necessary. I'm not some sort of almighty human cell, and I'm not a saint. Rather, I'm involved in a lot of trouble, and a servant is still a servant, no matter where I end up. I'm not the chosen one. My hands are not that big and my reach is not that great. I'm too busy protecting what's really important. So, to protect my family, the people closest to me, I will abandon them. I have no choice. This world is not easy.
 "...Haha, they will be disappointed..."
 I didn't know who I was talking to when I let those words slip out. And I pull my consciousness back from the future to reality. Whatever it is, it's not important now. I don't even know if I'll be there in the first place. I had more important things to do right now.
 "Finally, arrived."
 I nodded my head as I climbed up the country road through the rolling hills and reached the top of it. About two days by horseback from the village destroyed by Youkai's cursed book, I saw before me the county capital of Fusō-kuni's northern region, Kahanuha county, Kashizu province. Its name is Kahanuha, the same as the name of the county, and its population is about 4,000. This is more than one-third of the population of the county. It is the center of Koka county in both name and reality.
 "All right, everyone, thanks for your hard work. You'll have a hot meal and sleep inside tonight.
 I announced to the men following behind me. It's not easy being out in the field for the past two nights. The youkai, the wind and rain, and the bugs make it hard to get a good night's sleep. The ground is hard. We made a fire, ate hard-preserved food, and slept in shifts. People get sick easily and break down soon. Camping out in the field is very physically exhausting. Even if there are wagons and horses, it is hard work. So, I was trying to help them.
 ...Well, it is much better than the march on foot, which was almost all on foot a long time ago.
 Now, we pass by merchants, footmen, travelers, and peasants who brought goods from neighboring villages, and we arrive at the county gate. It's one of the four gates of the county, surrounded by a log fence.
 "Wait, stop. Where are you from?"
 "From the Kizuki family. I've fulfilled the county official's request and come to report. Let us through."
 A group of horsemen equipped with bows, swords, and spears would be stopped at the gate by the gatekeepers, even though they were not hunters. I show them an Inro (a small seal case) with the Kizuki family crest engraved on it, and announce that I am a member of the Kizuki family. The gatekeepers are slightly surprised, but they immediately go around to the back to consult with their superiors and inspect the situation.
 "Wait, that family crest is... accurate, isn't it? Can we check your belongings?"
 "Yes. But I'll be present because some of it is dangerous."
 I agree, and the guards start going through our baggage and wagonloads. Some of them are startled when they see the guts and blood of the modified youkai that we have collected and bottled.
 "O-okay. That's about it. ...But still, you're using some pretty nice horses, aren't you?"
 The official in charge of the inspection seemed to lose his motivation to inspect further when he saw the bloody cargo and ordered his men to clean it up. The emotions in his eyes were discomfort, suspicion, and jealousy. Perhaps it was not me he was staring at, but the tall, overly black blue-horse I was pulling.
 Across the sea from Fusō-kuni is a continent, and in its northern region, as in my previous life, there is a society mainly composed of nomadic tribes. This area, which is called the "land of the horsemen," is mentioned only mildly in the original story, so I do not know much about it. Rumors say that there is a calamity youkai, like a worm that is as big as a mountain and as long as a river, devouring the earth... It's said that the people of that land stopped farming and started to move from place to place to escape from it, as the youkai has one foot in the realm of the gods.
 Anyway, nomadic horses are naturally much faster, more patient, smarter, and more expensive than those of the agricultural countries. Until now, they have been imported only in small quantities by individuals via the continent. In recent years, a trading company has been importing them on a large scale, and as part of this, 30 of them were donated to the Kizuki family last year, probably for political purposes. The one I am riding and pulling now is one of them. Normally, it would be absurd for a person like me to use this horse in my position, but... it is not a good omen to have a horse with a dark blue coat.... blue stag, because it looks like a mourning dress, and the Kizuki family members and their families do not like it, and they do not want a horse with a blue coat as a stallion to inherit it, Finally, this guy drifted to me.
 I thought that this horse's dark fur would stand out during the mission, but surprisingly, it did not stand out so much at night or in the deep woods, and it was well-trained to understand and follow my instructions, so I had no complaints about it. Black was not very popular among the servants, but most of them agreed when I explained to them that we were dressed in black and black and that we would never be able to ride such a fine horse again if we missed this opportunity. There's not enough time to worry about good luck...
 "It's surplus. It's a blessing in disguise. ...So, may we go to now?"
 "Yeah. Go. ...Anyway, Kizuki has a soft spot for the servant, huh?"
 After checking my permit and other documents, he clicked his chin uncomfortably and asked me to enter. He said more than one word, but this level of sarcasm was cute. I was used to it by now. Anyway, I took my men without care and finally stepped into the county capital.
 We step through the gate. From that point on, it was a completely human world. Wooden buildings line the main street. Most of them are one-story buildings, and a few of them are two or three stories high. Even so, it was the center of the county and was lively with many people. It was as if they did not care about the fact that... one village was destroyed in the same county.
 No, in fact, it was no big deal. Unfortunately, in this world, the destruction of a village or two is not so rare or so important. Human life is light. There is no sympathy, no indifference to others. They don't care who they are... unless they are family or friends. Only the privileged can think like that. Only those who are surrounded by kindness and have a good heart.
 "So no one could understand the main character..."
 "...No, it's nothing."
 I let out a monologue unintentionally. Immediately after that, I point out the building in the distance, trying to fool my subordinate who reacted to it. I pull back the reins, gallop my horse, and weave our way through the waves of people, and after a while, we arrive at the main street.
 The county office, which also serves as the residence of the county governor, is made of wood with a tiled roof and plastered walls painted in red, white, and black. It was much larger than the residence of the village headman that I saw the other day, but it was still inferior to the main residence of the Kizuki family. However, it is not surprising that this place has been turned into a "stray house" and the area has been expanded.
 "You guys stay where you are. I'm on my way to report. I'll tell you what, don't make a commotion, okay?"
 While it's true that Yun-shoku (允職) is a position of authority, a servant is still a servant in the end. Fundamentally, their status is only slightly better than that of a slave, and especially civil officials abhor bloodshed and conflict. Especially if it is the blood of youkai, not a human or domestic animal. They would be even less willing to have it inside the county office or mansion. It's better to avoid being invited there at all, and even as it is, it's still considered a relatively good position.
 In the Nara and Heian periods, the military system was abolished and the national army disappeared due to the disregard for military officers caused by the idea of defilement above all, though there were other practical reasons such as financial difficulties and the release of farmers from excessive burdens. An alternative plan, the Kenji system, was implemented, but the source of its personnel was the children of influential local people, which in effect meant the transfer of military power to the local areas.
 As a result, the local lords and officials became armed and became powerful warlords, and the clashes between local armies over the lack of personnel and interests led to the deterioration of public security and the further arming of local areas, which in turn encouraged the emergence of the warrior class, leading to the collapse of the Ritsuryo system and the establishment of the feudal system.
 In this world, the warrior class was established mainly as a sort of vigilante group in the frontier areas, but the military system of the imperial court was not abolished, and it continues to exist as the largest armed group in the country, working together with the warrior class and the exorcists, but also checking and controlling them. This is a natural consequence of the fact that youkai are beings that cannot be understood even if they talk, while humans can be understood if they talk. Even the exorcists cannot be completely trusted. No wonder the Imperial Court, though it despises the defilement, does not give up its military power.
 Anyway, at the entrance of the government office, I prove my status with an inro in my hand, just as I did at the gate. A few moments later a lower-ranking official asks me to go inside and I do so. I am shown into the county governor's room on the second floor of the government office.
 "What, aren't you a servant? Are you really a member of the Kizuki family?"
 The man who had been waiting for me took one look at me and said bluntly. He was dressed in a low-ranking official's clothes and an eboshi hat, the colors of which indicated that he was a county governor of the Shōhachi-jō rank (the second-lowest rank among the eight lower ranks). The county governor of Kahanuha County, Kashizu Province... was in a blatantly disappointed attitude. He probably thought that a member of the Kizuki family, or even a retainer, had come to visit him. But it was a Yun-shoku, someone who was little better than a servant. He may have felt that he was neglected.
 "My name is Tomobe, a servant yun-shoku entrusted by the Kizuki family to handle this matter. I have finished dealing with the matter and have come to report it to you."
 After introducing myself reverently, I report on the contents of the request. As he listened to my report, the county governor frowned.
 "All of them were wiped out, because of what the village head did? Is that true? Are you sure that you are not just saying that because I am not a specialist?"
 "At least, we could not find any other youkai or their den in the vicinity that could destroy the village. Moreover, the information about the possession of the youkai cursed book came from a very accurate source, and we have also secured the item itself."
 I say so, but I don't make any definitive statements. If I do, I may be held responsible. I will only report the most likely guess based on circumstantial evidence.
 "...Tsk, you won't give a statement, huh? How annoying. Fine, then hand over the youkai cursed book quickly."
 "I'm afraid I can't do that."
 The county governor's expression became even more discomforted by the denial.
 "I pay you for my request. In exchange for accepting the responsibility of disposing of the corpses of the youkai monsters you exterminated, I can do what I want with them. That's the deal. However, I did not give you permission to loot the book, did I?"
 "We consider books as accessories to youkai."
 I reply to the county governor's words without hesitation. It is true that we are ordered not to meddle with village property. In this world, items such as cursed tools are treated as property, so I can't deny his words. However, I insist that the youkai cursed book is not a curse tool, but a part of youkai.
 "You b*stard, how can you do what you want...!!"
 "Our task is to investigate the village, determine the cause of the youkai if there is one, and exterminate it. Since there is a high possibility that the youkai cursed book is the cause of the problem, we cannot simply hand it over. We do not know if all youkai are still out there."
 The county governor is obviously scared by my words. This is a threat, though. Perhaps the book is already empty. The reason why I lied is that I was ordered by the Kizuki family to retrieve the book when the possibility of its being a youkai cursed book surfaced. Well, exorcists would want to recover and study these kinds of evil tools if they can.
 "Of course, we promise to return it to you as soon as we confirm its safety."
 "No, but..."
 The county governor's expression turns difficult as he hears my words. But then, who knows how long it will be before it's returned? In the first place, if this county governor is so concerned about the return of the incomprehensible youkai cursed book, he must not be thinking about anything as far as I'm concerned. Because the same youkai cursed books incident occurred many times in the original work, it is likely that the county magistrate or official who received the book used or resold it every time it was recovered. Or, even if the contents of the book are removed, another "youkai" may be sealed in the book and appear on the black market again, due to the modification power of the original work.
 It would be troublesome if such a youkai cursed book starts causing problems again. This time, I will have to deal with it without knowing what is in it. If that happens, there is no point in taking this mission. In fact, it's getting worse. I have no idea what kind of a first-time kill I will get this time. But it was necessary to collect this book to keep the flag of the youngest daughter of the Ako family completely broken. Alternatively, the Kizuki family could keep the book as it is without giving any reason, or they could make it a mere book with all the curses neutralized, or they could burn it as if it were an accident. In any case, no return should be made here.
 "If you have any complaints, would you like to make a direct appeal to the province governor?"
 "Hey...!!! I understand. Take it, take it!"
 My words were decisive. Unlike the county governors, who are appointed by the local notables, their boss, province governors, is dispatched from the central government. According to the Imperial Court, the county governors and the exorcists could not be allowed to keep the youkai cursed books. So, as soon as they bring a case to the court, the youkai cursed books should be kept by the court for whatever reasons they may have, and if anything, the county governors and the Kizuki family may be warned for trying to fight for its possession. It would be nothing but a loss for the county governor. Therefore, the man in front of me made a profit-and-loss calculation instantly and spit it out in a bitter tone. And I, understanding this, bowed without taking offense. After a word or two of explanation, I respectfully leave the room.
 "...You filthy servant!"
 I did not react in the slightest, nor did I feel any righteous indignation, nor did I feel any repulsion, when he said these words to me as I was about to leave the room. I knew it was a provocation. Maybe he thought he could get me by causing trouble. Unfortunately, if not me, a servant with a thin ego does not react to such words. It seems that the mister county governor doesn't have much awareness of the existence of servants.
 (Well, should I watch out for blackmail?)
 Today, too, I have to have the men take turns keeping watch. Well, it is better than against youkai in a way, and there are not so many soldiers that the county commander can move at once. Above all, I am sure that he is not that stupid. In all probability, it will be a lost cause. Still, let's be sure.
 Now, I turn around in front of the closed door. And as I turn to go back to my men who are waiting for me I hear a voice.
 "Are you Tomobe-san, by any chance?"
 I turned around when I heard my name being called, and saw a small figure in my field of vision.
 ...And I recognize this figure.
 "Oh, what a coincidence! I'm so lucky to meet you in such a place!"
 A cute voice with a hint of childhood echoes again. It was the cute voice of a little girl. But I couldn't help but roll my eyes. I was so shaken up. I had not expected her to be here at all.
 What I saw in front of me was a beautiful girl, just like the sound of her voice. Her hair was honey-colored with a hairpin, her eyes were jade green, and her pale skin, which had not been tanned by the sun, reminded me of foreign blood. She was wearing a combination of Western and Japanese-style dress with a so-called "Bergère hat" that had a wide brim, and a dress with a greenish hue. Wrapped around her slender, white wrists were bracelets, and she wore pure white gloves on her small palms. She carried a small handbag adorably with both hands, and her overall appearance was simply a masterpiece of style. Instantly she was recognizable as the daughter of a wealthy merchant with a taste for Nanban.
 And I knew her. Very well.
 "You are..."
 "Hehe, how nice to see you here. If you don't mind, would you like to have a cup of tea with me, Tomobe-san?"
 Tachibana Kayo, the beloved daughter of the Tachibana family and the deputy manager of the Tachibana Trading Company's northern region branch, tilted her head and asked. She asked in a cute whisper. She smiled like an adorable little animal. It was childish, ladylike, innocent, pure, and carefree behavior.
 ...But somehow, I couldn't help but feel the way her jewel-like eyes narrowed, the way her glossy cherry-red mouth hung and twisted, the way her sweet, sugar-candy-like voice spun like a child's, irresistibly mocking and bewitching with an irresistible, lewd, decadent charm. It reminded me of a predator. A devil. This confused me.
 "...It's a great honor to meet you, Miss?"
 And once again, given my position, I could not even consider the option of refusing her seductive invitation...

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