Thursday, March 16, 2023 @

Chapter 68, Part 1

 Three days had passed since we parted ways with the Tachibana Trading Company near the Sumiya village in Hina county. We crossed the bridge over the Kizugawa River, passed through the Hikawase mountain, climbed the Mimisake Pass, and finally arrived at the entrance to the Kizuki Valley.
 "Okay, we are almost there! After climbing up this pass, we'll be there soon!!"
 I shouted to my subordinates. Unfortunately, it had been raining heavily for three days in a row since we had parted from the Tachibana Trading Company group, and everyone was getting weak considerably. I thought about waiting until the downpour passed somewhere, but unfortunately, there was no place to stay, and there was a limit to how long we could stay out in the rain, which would never end, so we had no choice but to continue on our way. The result was an exhausted group of people.
 "D*mn, it looks like yesterday's rain was a lie. Perhaps I should have stopped the forced march."
 I spit bitterly at the cloudless clear sky. For some personal reasons, I wanted to reach the valley as soon as possible, so I forced the march, but... it was my bad judgment.
 "The shrine should be in sight soon, but..."
 There are three paths into the Kizuki valley, all of which have shrines. The shrine is a kind of boundary point to protect the valley, and it is also the entrance to the valley. In the case of the Mimisake Pass, where one enters the valley from the west, the shrine is placed at the top of the pass.
 Finally, after about half a minute, it came into view. At the top of the Mimisake Pass, a huge birch tree rises, and at the base of the tree is a small hut and a shrine, the entrance to the valley...
 "Hmm? That's..."
 I squinted as I noticed that as I mounted and rebuked the rest of the group. I see a figure by the shrine. A white, small figure. That child figure... looked familiar to me.
 The white fox girl, who also recognized my presence, came running toward me with a childish smile of pure and innocent joy. I also trotted my horse up to her.
 "Shiro!? Did you come to greet me? How can you be alone...? It's dangerous!"
 Sending a half-youkai child to meet me and my subordinate at the boundary between the valley's barrier and the outside world... considering the position of half-youkai in this world, it's unclear what the villagers of the valley might do. It seemed too reckless of an action, not one that Shiro would take. It was also against that princess who would have ordered her to do it.
 "Ah! Uhh... It's all right! Princess has made arrangements for an escort!"
 The white fox hurriedly points to the sky in defense. Then, I look up at the sky. There, a shadow is flying up in the sky. I squint. Despite the distance, I recognize it as a huge hawk. So it's an insurance measure, huh? And looking closer, I see that this white girl has a few things in her hand that look like simple charms. However...
 "Even if so, I'm not particularly touched by it. You don't have to meet me here."
 Gods that are not touched will not bring down a curse, and a wise man does not approach danger... No, in the case of the former, sometimes they will come on their own no matter how careful we are. In any case, there is no need to do anything dangerous on one's own.
 Anyway, it will take at least another hour's walk to get to the residence from this pass. Even with a horse, it would be a little tough. Moreover, it was with a child's legs. If it was my previous life, it would be a case of child abuse at the child guidance center. Besides...
 "Go away. This isn't your prey, is it? Or do you want to be exterminated like the rest of youkai?"
 Ignoring Shiro's puzzled expression, I warn the overgrown sooty field on the mountain pass. This is one of the ten or twenty defense mechanisms the Kizuki family has set up to protect the valley and their residence, and I order the wild beasts that lurk in the field.
 From the bushes they stare at us for a while, growling. Soon, however, their presence recedes like the ebbing of the tide.
 The Kizuki family in the early dawn period deliberately did not exterminate the beasts and allowed them to live on the outer edge of the spiritual vein, in exchange for not attacking people and intercepting intruders, and above all, the beasts made a contract to pledge absolute obedience to the Kizuki family. But to these beasts, who could not strictly be called humans, Shiro's existence, who could not be claimed as one of their kind, was supposed to be very attractive as prey. So, even if youkai understand the reason that they serve the Kizuki family, how long can they be trusted not to suppress their instincts?
 (Or, depending on the route, they may rebel.)
 Depending on the scenario, these beasts will be the small foes at the end of the game, and they are the ones who will be cut into pieces and thrown one after another in front of the main characters who have been strengthened so much, but they are still more than enough threat to me and to Shiro now. Frankly speaking, I was relieved to see them disappear.
 Meanwhile, the white fox girl hides under my feet as if she has just realized that she has been targeted by the monsters. She looks up at me with fear and bows her head when our gazes meet.
 "T-thank you very much... I-I mean, I'm sorry..."
 "I'm not really scolding you or anything. ...Anyway."
 After quieting the depressed Shiro, whose fox ears and tail droop from fear and guilt, I make a decision and get off my horse.
 "Huh? Tomobe-san?"
 "Here, let me give you a ride. I don't imagine you were planning to walk back to the residence? After all, all of us are on horseback, remember?"
 A child's legs would have a hard time following us even if we walked slowly. Besides, even if I tried to put her in a carriage, it would be overcrowded with passengers and baggage.
 "I'm not so weak that a brat like you should be worried about me."
 With that, I extend my hand. In response, Shiro looks at my hand, but then says, "Uh......" and looks as if she is not sure if she will hold on to it or not.
 But after a few moments, she suddenly looks up as if she has a flash of inspiration. She then clutches my hand and opens her mouth.
 "T-then! Why don't we ride together!!"
 She suggests with a smile as if she has just had a brilliant idea. And with a twitch! Her fox ears and her fox tail also stand up proudly.
 "...I don't mind, but are you sure?"
 "Hmm? What do you mean?"
 "...No, it's nothing."
 Shiro tilted her head curiously when I asked her to confirm. Well, it's funny to be more gender conscious than necessary at her age. Anyway, I quickly end the conversation, put my hands around the white fox's sides, pick her up, and put her on the horse. And then I myself get on the horse again.
 "Okay, is this how it's going to be...?"
 Shiro in front of me turns around and answers. My position on the horse is as if I am hugging her from behind. For safety reasons, it was out of the question to let her ride behind me. If she were to fall off, she would fall head first. If anything, the curse of some former Onmyou dormitory head would take effect and I would fall off my horse in a convulsive fit shortly afterward. I don't want to imagine that.
 "I'm gonna slow down a little bit. Can you do me a favor?"
 I don't think there would be a problem since I'm ready to support or even carry her if needed... but just in case she falls off her horse, I'll slow down our pace and proceed cautiously. Therefore, I told the horse about this. The smart blue horse responded to my request with a small neighing sound.
 Now it took just over an hour to arrive at the mansion in the valley. In the meantime, I spend the time chatting with the half-youkai girl in front of me...
 We arrived at the front gate of the imposing and extravagant Kizuki main family mansion, as stern and solemn as ever, around half past two in the afternoon. And...
 "B-big bro! You're back...!!?"
 The horse stopped in front of the gate of the Kizuki family's mansion, and the call echoed from the front yard of the building at the same time. A figure dressed in a white robe approached from the gate with the sound of galloping footsteps. It was a boy... Shirowakamaru with a lovely voice that had not yet changed, long hair, and good looks that could be mistaken for a girl.
 "You're late! Where were you going...?"
 The child who comes running with a smile on his face, however, gradually shows a doubtful expression, followed by a complicated one. I get off my horse and tell him.
 "Shirowakamaru-sama, please don't call me that. I told you before, didn't I?"
 "Uhh...? Oh, I'm sorry..."
 "No need to apologize too."
 The boy who came up to the horse's side was upset at my point and nodded his head while looking away. He seemed to trust me to a certain extent since we had come back alive from the cave of the spider, but it was time to make our position clear.
 After the kappa riot, the boy's position was officially established. As a potential household, Kizuki's Madam Adviser proposed to take the boy in. It was more of a request than a proposal, or perhaps it should be called a deal. ...A deal with Kizuki Aoi, or Gorilla-sama.
 My memory of that time is too hazy to remember, but Shirowakamaru showed me a glimpse of his natural talent in the Tsuchigumo's cave. His talent for rituals and techniques based on dance was discovered by Kizuki Kochou, and he was traded. In exchange, he gets relief from his position.
 In some ways, it made sense. Since I am a Yun-shoku, the servants are considered to be under the influence of Gorilla-sama, the foundation. But the Kizuki family's advisor took advantage of this and obtained this boy in a deal. Although I am Yun-shoku, it is a trade between servant and household. It is a very undeserved deal.
 ...However, from my perspective as someone who knows the original work, the advisor still seemed to have some emotion (or feeling) behind it. Aside from the head-on power, that advisor's political power is quite formidable. She could have used her secret as leverage to not only take away the influence of the Gorilla-sama over the servants but also to break up the Gorilla-sama's faction to some extent. The reason she didn't do that is that she owes Gorilla-sama a debt, and I suppose she thinks that she still has some use for her. As a result, I can no longer sleep comfortably because I'm conscious of that princess's presence and position of authority.
 "So, uh... you're late, aren't you? Are you hurt or something?"
 After glancing at the horse for a moment, the boy asks frightenedly and peekingly. I don't know how much he was aware of it, but his good looks and gestures made me think that I was asked by a beautiful girl. This is why players might abandon you and leave you behind, you know...?
 "Fortunately, neither I nor my subordinates have suffered any damage. But still, how did you come to find us? Were you doing something in the garden?"
 "What? Well... I've just finished my noon training. Just taking a break, and that's all."
 Shirowakamaru answered with a smile when I asked him the opposite. It is as if he is happy to be asked about himself. It was exactly the attitude of a child of his age.
 "Well, thank you very much for your hard work."
 "Y-yes! Ah, there are still some snacks left! Let's go to the other building!? I'll share it with you!"
 Shirowakamaru shouted as if he had just thought of something right after I praised him for his training. He then grabs the sleeve of my clothes with one hand and points with the other hand to the building where the snacks are supposed to be. While pointing, he invites me to join him.
 "No, I still have my duty. ...Shiro, I'm sorry, but you'll have to get off here."
 "Uh... yes!!"
 I offer my hand, and the white fox who has just been watching my conversation with the boy takes my hand and dismounts from the horse. She was not tall enough to get on and off the horse, so she needed assistance.

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