Wednesday, March 15, 2023 @

Chapter 67, Part 1

 Tachibana Trading Company, which trades widely both domestically and abroad in Fusō-kuni, has a store in Kahanuha County, Kashizu Province, located a little outside of the county's central marketplace. The store building, a two-story brick and wood building with a blend of Japanese and Western styles, is a novelty. There were 23 employees, including menial tasks at the bottom. However, currently, the number of personnel has temporarily increased by more than four times.
 "This building is old, so it needs a little repair recently. That's one of the reasons why I visited this city."
 While walking along the corridor of the store, the young lady of the Trading Company explains with a smile. According to her, since last month she has been visiting branches and sales offices in the southern part of the city for sales and inspection purposes, accompanied by her subordinate merchants as escorts and chores. This is the sixteenth store she has visited.
 "Phew... That's a very busy time, isn't it?"
 "Yes. It's really hard work. I don't mind if it's a branch in Shiro'oku, but in a rural area like this, many people take me lightly because I'm a child."
 Kayo's mouth was pouting and she was angry like a child. Shiro'oku, where she usually works with great skill, is the largest trading house of Tachibana Trading Company in the northern region, even though it is a branch office. Well, it should be called a branch office. But the quality of the employees differs even in stores in the same region. In other words, it was like the president's family's branch office executives were showing up at a local police box. And to make matters worse, they were accompanied by a teenage girl. I suppose it is human nature to want them to just quickly brush off the situation and move on to the next store.
 "I just pointed out the flaws in the books and the wastefulness of expenses. I've also told them that if they don't make improvements at the next financial accounting, their salaries will be reduced, so I hope they will all do their best."
 Kayo smiled again, this time with a cute smile. However, it was a little stronger than the previous smile. It was clearly a threat. Power harassment. I doubted that the employee would get away with anything more than a pay cut. Somehow I sensed the spirit of a black company.
 "Geez, I'm telling them that I didn't order them to aim for anything that crazy, okay? I understand at least the quality of the employees in the countryside. So, I told them a reasonable goal. I have also presented an improvement plan, taking into account the local and on-site situations, you know? If it doesn't work, that's my responsibility, so I won't complain."
 Seeing my reaction that I was a bit taken aback, Kayo explained further. It seemed that she was not only presenting the goals and threats but also telling her employees the specific problems and improvement plans. In addition, she seemed to be aware of her responsibility as a supervisor. If anything, it seems that she had been secretly gathering information from many people before the visit. However, even she would not be able to find out the problems and propose improvement plans in just a day or two after arriving at the site. She is a cautious young lady.
 "I shouldn't be presumptuous enough to say this, but please be careful. You never know where grudges and resentments are bought."
 Even if her action is not malicious and is done with good intentions, people's sensitivities vary from one person to another. Some may be offended, and some may resent her. If they are merchants, it is even more so because of the money involved.
 "Hehe, I'm aware of that. After all, that's happened. So, I'm taking precautions to keep myself safe. ...Especially when it comes to matters like what happened at the capital."
 Kayo smiled at my word. She answered in a way that reminded me of her while showing off the comb in her hair and the beads on her wrist, the powerful charm she had bought at the capital that day.
 Yes, she didn't have to say it. In fact, she knew firsthand the malice and hostility of others. I was pointing it out to her, and I guess she knew that, too. But hmm? Wait...?
 "...Is the invitation to this tea party intended for me to serve as an escort?"
 I point out Kayo's intention. But the girl in front of me smiles and says, "We have arrived at the place?". Her smile was different from the previous one. It was more like a sales smile.
 She opened the door, and there was a round table with dishes. At least, it didn't look like a short tea party...
* * *
 "I don't want to be too formal, so you can use the same easygoing tone as before."
 Kayo tells me that the room is soundproofed, and asks me to sit on a chair. I don't answer her and silently glance at the items on the round table.
 I understand that there are various kinds of tea utensils such as green tea, black tea, Mainland tea, coffee, and so on, since this is a tea party. It would not be strange if I consider that the plates of Japanese sweets, dim-sum, and Western-style confections are always available for entertaining guests, ignoring the fact that many of them are fresh confections that do not seem to last long.
 The problem is that many dishes obviously could not have been prepared on the spot.
 Fuso cuisine, Nanban cuisine, Mainland cuisine... in other words, there was a wide variety of Japanese, Western, and Chinese cuisine. They were all crammed onto the table, with a focus on a Mainland-style presentation. On the Mainland, they prepare more dishes than they can eat to entertain their guests. At least, it was clear that this was not just a tea party.
 "You are very well prepared, aren't you?"
 "As a merchant, I am always well prepared for entertaining!"
 The girl smiles at my doubts with a smile as if she has nothing to be ashamed of. She seemed to have no scruples at all. What a thick-skinned merchant she is. I'm almost moved to tears.
 "Did it make you uncomfortable?"
 "...Well, if it's an escort, why don't you make a formal request? It's not a lot of money for the Trading Company, is it?"
 I point out to the girl with the glued-on smile on her face. It's quite a hassle to ask that fat guy to reimburse me for expenses I didn't sign up for, isn't it?
 "I heard you've been busy lately. I heard that our routes coincided on this trip, so I decided to come along... Oh, don't worry, I'll make sure to pay for the expenses at a later date. And I will pay you to double the market price for the trouble I have caused you. So, do you want me to draw up the contract?"
 Kayo spoke with a glued-on smile, beaming with joy. I stare at him silently. For a moment, the room was dominated by silence, filled with an uneasy atmosphere.
 "Uh... I'm sorry about that..."
 "Why are you sorry?"
 I let out a small sigh as the girl in front of me suddenly became awkward and I brazenly pulled out a chair and sat down. I then take off my mask and put it on the table. At this sudden action of mine, Kayo looks at me with a blank expression on her face.
 "Let's eat first. I've been camping out for the past few days, so it's been hard. For drinks, please... Wait, is that why there are no waiters here?"
 "Ah... Y-yes! I'll make it right now!!"
 I picked up a suitable teacup from the tea set placed on the round table and asked, and Kayo hurriedly ran over.
 "Uhh, green tea is fine, right?"
 "I'm not so crude as to brew coffee in a teacup, you know."
 After getting confirmation from me, the merchant young lady pours tea from the teapot into the teacup. By the way, I usually drink only hot and cold water. Tea leaves are expensive, you know.
 "Then, what would you like to drink, Miss Kayo?"
 "Uh, black tea....? Aah!?"
 After confirming her words, I pour a cup of tea from a ceramic teapot, filled to the brim with reddish-brown liquid. It was a very impolite way of brewing tea, without any manners or etiquette.
 "Now I'll consider what happened as your mischief. Is that all right with you? Besides, I think it's a good deal for me..."
 I suggested jokingly. On the other hand, Kayo looks at the teacup in her hand and then looks at me again doubtfully.
 "Is that it?"
 "Is there something else you want?"
 "No, I didn't mean it like that... I was trying to test you, to take advantage of you..."
 The girl shrinks back, her voice getting quieter and quieter. I can't help but laugh at the sight of her.
 "You don't have to be so scared. I'm not angry with you."
 In the first place, I'm not so great that I can get angry.
 "I also have a personal relationship with the mister county governor I've been seeing. I thought I should be on the alert just in case. In that sense, MIss Kayo's invitation was a lucky thing for me."
 Well, the possibility that he would have fought with Kizuki's family without thinking is close to zero, but he might harassing me at least a little. In this sense, Kayo's mischief was a blessing in disguise. The possibility that he would have fought not only with the Kizuki family but also with the Tachibana family for the sake of a single "youkai cursed book" would be astronomical. It is too unrealistic to expect that a person who would commit such a foolish act would be a county governor, even if the educational system is not as well-developed as it was in my previous life.
 Even if it is not so, Tachibana Company has been indebted to us on many occasions, such as the horse and the cooperation in gathering information on the youkai demon book. This kind of mischief is nothing to make a fuss about.
 "Besides, you didn't plan this scheme alone, did you, Miss Kayo?"
 Considering the time lag between when the youkai cursed book case occurred and when her inspection started, it is hard to believe that Kayo alone came up with this act. If that is the case, the suspects are narrowed down.
 (That moody gorilla must have said some random thing without thinking too much, I bet...)
 I sigh, imagining the abusive smile of the real culprit in my mind. I was sure that the princess had made a strange suggestion.
 "I don't mind the escort fee at the market rate. You have your own escort, so it's not a pure escort but rather an accompaniment, isn't it?"
 Considering that renting Tachibana Trading Company's store would save me the cost of lodging, I'm willing to give this young lady a discount.
 "That's true, but..."
 "If you are a merchant, why don't you just be happy that you saved some money?"
 With a wry smile, I sipped at my teacup. The bitterness of the green tea sank into my body. My fatigue seemed to fade away.
 "In short, I don't mind. Anyway, you have prepared such a delicious meal for me. Let's eat it before it gets cold. It's a waste of food."
 As if saying so, I put the dishes into small plates with chopsticks. Oh, this pork stew looks tender and delicious.
 "...are you sure?"
 "Is it not mature of me to get mad at you for this kind of mischief? It's not like I'm losing anything. ...To tell you the truth, I've been camping out a lot and haven't eaten much. So I'm reluctant to throw away this pile of treats."
 And then I throw a soy sauce boiled taro and lotus root into my mouth. Then I continue.
 "I won't ask why you took part in this mischief. I'm sure Miss Kayo has her own reasons. ...So, I decided this as a tea party. And I hear this room is soundproof, right? At least I can listen to your complaints about work, can't I?"
 I suggested, smiling. Even adults sometimes lose their minds at work. She is a child despite her talents, and I'm sure she has plenty to complain about. I wanted to at least give her an outlet for her stress. It would have been a small price to pay for a meal.
 "...Please put in some Mitarashi Dango as well."
 After a moment of silence, I reach out my hand for the small plate that is offered to me. And then, my hand was grabbed by her. Her hand was small and white. Apparently, she had taken off her gloves without me noticing, and I felt her hand was as soft and delicate as a whitefish. I am slightly startled by the sudden touch. Then as I look forward, the girl smiles at me.
 "It's soundproof. So, don't call me Miss, okay?"
 The girl in front of me declared, literally like a child whose prank had succeeded. It was really a carefree, cute laugh.
 "Yes. I have to visit for another month or so. After that, I will visit Yamana and Hina counties."
 "So I and my men can accompany you up to Hina-gun? And after that?"
 The dinner party in the name of a tea party was coming to an end. The topic of conversation shifted from small talk at first, followed by Kayo's complaints and gossipy rumors, and then my work and related topics about various places in the Northern Region, before moving on to Kayo's upcoming trip.
 "It should be in Haruga Province."
 The name of the province made me flinch. But it was only for a moment, and then I opened my mouth.
 "Haruga Province? I have no direct experience of visiting there, but I heard that it is one of the richest areas in the northern region of the country? Are you going to visit the capital?"
 I probe. Haruga Province is a big place. It is not always possible to encounter the right place at the right time.
 "I'm going to go to the capital towards the end of the trip. Basically, I'm going to show my face to people's stores and clients. I also plan to have some business meetings. I'm going to visit Akabane County, Mayama County, and Jōkei County."
 I gasped when I heard the last county name. No, wait. Wait a minute. The county is big enough. There are dozens of villages. And there's the timing. Yes, it's impossible. Only the youngest daughter of the Ako family would have enough of that kind of bad timing.
 "I see. Do you know the exact date?"
 "I don't know. I would like to arrive at Haruga's capital on the 20th of next month, but it would not be surprising if it is delayed for a few days. Recently, there are more and more cases of youkai attacking."
 Kayo declares that the cost of escorting the merchant team is getting too much. I laugh deceptively again. I knew the reason for the recent increase in youkai-related cases. It's because they are starting to get more active.
 "I apologize for our insufficient efforts as exorcists. It may be inadequate coming from a mere servant like me, but please accept my apologies"
 "Hehe, that's fine. If I want to complain, I've already complained to the Onmyo dormitory. It seems that other merchants are also in trouble. My father wrote in his letter. The major merchants are planning to form a league and present it to the court."
 "That's quite... It seems like we'll be mobilized soon as well."
 The court would not mind if a village or two disappeared, but it would be a different story if the big merchants started making a fuss. In any age, for better or worse, merchants and state power are strongly connected.
 "Anyway, there was a mobilization the previous year as well, right? I was surprised at the kappa ruckus. I heard that two counties are destroyed... But Tomobe-san, you were injured, too, right?"
 "...Well, it was a hard time, but it is not something that will leave me with permanent injuries. Besides, it won't be that serious this time. Kayo, you know that the village, or even the city in the countryside, is still safe, don't you?"
 I am a professional in this field, but even though Kizuki is a well-known exorcist organization, the scope of its activities is limited and I am only its servant. In this respect, Kayo, who is a branch manager of a trading company active in the whole area of the northern region, should have a much better understanding of what is going on. And the Youkai in this period did not attack the city even though they ate up villages to weaken the court's interest. Although some cities are destroyed after the middle of the story, the people in the story do not care about them. The situation deteriorates so rapidly that it becomes a cute story in which a city or two perish...
 I remember that much and I worry. About the future. The worries, the pains I've been going through over and over again. I wonder if I will be able to survive in the future. The future is a hell that I can only laugh at, as I have done so many times before. The main character may be capable, but if he is not careful, he will die soon. He is the key to saving this country. I can't let him die. But...
 (Paradoxically, that's stupid. Even if the main character dies, how can I support the main character?)
 I knew this, but as the time approached, I feel uneasiness spreading in my heart. Being in one piece is a luxury, and I doubt if I myself will survive. I doubt it, but... I can't run away. I can't escape. If I end badly, I'll die sooner or later, and I can't escape from the Kizuki family by myself. And if I give up, my family for this life will... that's why I can't run away. So, so...! Huh?
 I was submerged in a sea of thoughts, but the touch brought me back to reality. At the same time, my thoughts stop for a moment because of the current situation. Naturally, while I was pondering, my hands, which were folded on the tabletop, and Kayo's white hands like a white fish, were touching each other as if they were wrapped around me. At the same time, a sweet scent tickled my nostrils. In front of me was a girl with honey-colored hair.
 "Ah, please wait a moment. Before we talk, I'd like to give you this..."
 She took off the beads that were wrapped around her wrist and started to wrap them around my wrist.
 "Wh-What are you...!?"
 "I'm just returning the charm to its original owner, okay?"
 Kayo boasts with an unconcerned smile in response to my upset mouth. Then she looks at me with a worried expression.
 "I'll be fine. I have many guards this time, and I'm not a child like in the past. I'm more worried about Tomobe-san."
 "That's... no, I'm sorry. I was just... thinking about something."
 "Then, I'm here to listen to your concerns."
 "No, that's..."
 "You can't tell me?"

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