Wednesday, March 8, 2023 @

Volume 5 Epilogue, Part 7

 The Minister of the Left recalled the glimpse of the Minister of the Right. At first glance, those on either side of him appeared to be mere attendants or secretaries. However, a casual observer would have known that they were exorcists and quite skilled ones at that. It is not surprising that he was so cautious in the inner court, which is generally considered one of the safest places in Fusō-kuni... This may be due to his family lineage of the Minister of the Right, but it is not the only reason. In the past few years, there have been some troublesome incidents involving youkai.
 "Indeed, there are a lot of noisy matters these days. I have been visiting... and I wonder if this is another of your attempts? Oh, respected Sugami Yoritsugu (Nue)?"
 The Minister of the Left asked in the dimly lit oxcart. He turned to the outside of the room and asked. His voice reverberated inside the oxcart, which was guaranteed to be soundproofed by the technique. Then came a voice that should not be there.
 "...Well, I was hiding to surprise you. Have I been exposed?"
 The hideous creature had appeared, hanging from the ceiling of the oxcart. Tentacles undulated around its head, and countless fangs spread out and grazed the Minister directly across his face. But the minister was not disturbed by it at all. It was a usual occurrence that this person, a monster with a hundred appearances, used a non-human-shaped medium without hesitation, and had even appeared with a more horrifying medium. The Minister of the Left was used to this.
 "You are a bad person. Weren't you hated in the dormitory because of such a character?"
 It is a well-known story that even before the first head of the Onmyou dormitory was discovered to be a traitor, even when he was a pure person, he was disliked by those around him. No wonder, since he used his disciples and subordinates as experimental subjects for medicine and art without their permission, and his jokes were always unfashionable and dangerous.
 "I'm sorry to hear that. I've been taking 'reasonable' precautions to ensure safety."
 The monster twists its head in embarrassment. It was difficult to tell whether he was aware of his actions or not. This former head of the Onmyou dormitory is said to have been an intelligent and gentlemanly man since he was a pure human being, but his sensibility was off, and the Minister of Left can understand this fact.
 "...Well, I was surprised that you came to contact me right after the commotion in the northern region. I have read the report from the northern region's dochō-kan. It seems that the result was not so good, was it?"
 The Minister of the Left asks. He has known this former human deformity for a long time. Given his character and his past experience, it was a surprise to see him so soon.
 "It is a mistake to expect success in anything. It is also important to recognize this as a failure. But, for me personally, it was not without its rewards. I met some interesting people."
 "Hmm, I'm surprised that you have such an interest in people."
 The Minister of Left sighed and expressed his amazement. It was not often that a former human named Sugami Yoritsugu, the god of possession, paid that much attention to an individual.
 "Well. Not so much in terms of his bare strength, but... well, I wonder if I can get in touch again somehow? Ah, yes. Was there anything about me that you could tell me?"
 It was a question to warn him because it was obvious that he would have a hard time moving in the future if measures against the existence of 鵺. But...
 "No, there is nothing in the report from the northern region's dochō-kan. People are rather suspicious of the involvement of the people from the Onmyou dormitory who fled during the recent disturbance."
 "...Hmm. Well, I guess that's natural. Tsuchigumo and I, we have too many stories to tell."
 Tsuchigumo, moreover, was much weaker than in the legends. It has deteriorated so much that even Rikyushu (Researcher group), who examined its corpse, concluded that it was probably just a random spider youkai monster. The former deity has fallen.
 "Oh, but let me defend her. She has a good cause, okay? She seems to have substituted herself at the last moment with her own divine energy."
 "Well, well, well... I certainly can't judge her if that's the case."
 It is the corpse of a monster without a shred of divinity. It would be quite difficult to determine that it was once the feared God.
 "Then, only Kizuki's house knows of my existence. And they have made a wise decision since they will treat me as a wild boy if I make a big fuss."
 "Is there any connection between Kizuki's movements in the past few days? According to the reports that have been transmitted to us, they seem to be very active."
 In fact, two large groups of youkai have already been eradicated within a short period since the kappa disturbance ended. The Minister of the Left also heard the news that the youkai dens that had been formed in the spiritual veins of steep mountains, which Fusō-kuni had not yet conquered, and which were not suitable for sending a large army, were thoroughly burned to the ground since the spiritual veins themselves were small and the effort to defeat them was too great and the payoff was too small.
 The exorcists were not eating the haze, nor were they sparing their lives. Who would conquer such a place where they could not expect any return from the Imperial Court, and moreover, where they would not be able to return the profits to their own families? Yet, one of the candidates for the next head of the Kizuki family has done it all by herself. She did it without any inevitability, without any warning, without any after-the-fact report.
 "...No, that's probably something else. She was involved with the other potential head of the family. If anything, it was more to do with the internal struggle for succession."
 "You should give these people a proper reward. It's convenient if they're willing to give priority to their own internal struggles. After all, those who were killed were people who had nothing to do with it."
 Perhaps the Imperial Court could make a big announcement and encourage other houses to join in. Together with the exorcists they can divert their attention from him, and it would not surprise if they can trap some of them and kill them in the confusion. It would be a good way to wear them down.
 "Very well, I understand. I will propose that at the next public meeting. ...and what do you have in mind? Are there any changes?"
 After bowing, the Minister of the Left asked in a calm tone, but with a hint of impatience.
 "...No, everything is within your expectation, Head Minister. Neither the Earth Mother Goddess nor Tsuchigumo-dono had such high expectations."
 The former human with a hundred faces answered calmly and with ease. It is true that in the past few years, some of the tricks set up by them have disappeared for nothing. But they are only those with low expectations. The thoughtful great youkai had made two or three layers of preparations. There was never any worry about the main plan.
 "That's good to hear. If this plan were to go down the drain, all my hard work over the years would have been in vain."
 The Minister of the Left let out a sigh of relief at the words of his comrade and mentor, a former exorcist. Yes, if this plan fails, it would be meaningless to wait for 500 years.
 "You are also very single-minded, huh? You've gone to such lengths for her."
 Sugami Yoritsugu knew him well, having been born into one of the most prestigious families in Fusō-kuni. Thoughtful, talented, good-looking, rich in lineage and wealth, and blessed with everything he could ever desire, this young man's destiny was derailed by a single girl. In order to get back the priestess (Miko) who was sacrificed to seal off the youkai monster followed by a hundred calamity youkai, this young man betrayed his country, betrayed his people, and betrayed his family. He asked Sugami Yoritsugu to teach him and learned the forbidden art that deceives reincarnation. For 500 years since then, he has continued to reincarnate in his family, infiltrate the heart of this country, and continue to cooperate behind the scenes with the 'Youkai Salvation'.
 "I thank you for that time. It was your response to my wishes at that time that made me what I am today."
 "No, no, I had a debt of gratitude to the founder of your family. Besides, I thought I was done for when you discovered my true identity. And now you're doing me a favor like this. I wouldn't have to teach you how to deceive the reincarnation."
 In the first place, the forbidden technique to deceive reincarnation is not so easy to learn, and even if it could be learned, the cost would be great. Sugami Yoritsugu had expected him to die in the middle of his training, or even go insane after the first few reincarnations, but... he was honestly surprised as well. In that sense, he was as interested in this man as that servant.
 "Of course. For her, for that, I would give up everything. For her, I would..."
 Then he closes his eyes and mutters deliriously. He recalls the memory of a person who has been in the depths of his memory for a long time. A saintess, a saintly person would be like that. She was always merciful, always loving, and always pure in her heart. In this unreasonable, ugly, cruel world, she was the only one who shone. He worshipped her. He adored her. And above all...
 "I cannot forgive them. I cannot forgive what this country has done to her. I cannot allow her to be treated in such a way, or to continue to be treated in such a way."
 The Minister of the Left confesses as if spewing out his words. As if he were trying to squeeze out, he monologues. Then he looks again at the monster in front of him.
 "I am almost there. So close to achieving my long-cherished desire. ...I will commit sin after sin to achieve it. I will go to hell. I'll pay for my sins later. So... until then, please help me."
 The Minister of the Left bows reverently and makes a plea to the monster who is his comrade and mentor. He spoke in a perfectly civilized and gentle tone... but Sugami Yoritsugu did not point out that deep in his eyes were clouded by an indescribable, viscous passion...
* * *
 She reaches out her hand. She reaches out desperately, crying. She pleads for it. Holding back. Because that's all she could do.
 And that should have been enough. That person always came when she cried. That person was always there. That person held her and comforted her. That's why she cried this time. She sobbed. She cried, cried, and cried.
 But it was naive. That person who is being taken away just looks back at the sound of her voice. That person's face is vague, grainy, and indistinct. It was too moist to see because of the tears. And the only thing she could make out was that that person looked distressed. It was the same kind of helpless look that always been shown when she asks for help... only this time that person didn't come running to her, and didn't comfort her.
 The adult beside him says something to that person, and just nods a few times, and walks away. Moves out of her reach. She is shocked, astonished, and terrified at this sight and...
 "Don't leave me!!"
 She pleads like a writhing, screaming beast. But her hand does not reach. Forever, they won't. That person is gone. So far away that she cannot reach it. And then, and then...
 "...A bad dream, huh?"
 That's the first thing she says when she wakes up from a nightmare she doesn't want to remember. She lets out a sigh and catches her breath. Her sleepwear is drenched with sweat. The discomfort slowly pulls her consciousness back from the past to reality. The reality, the reality that hits her.
 "...Still, I have to wake up."
 As if to shake off her regrets about the past, the girl gets up, moving her heavy head, which still feels sleepy. She is off duty today, and although the house's owners would be willing to let her sleep in a little, she is not so lazy as to take advantage of it.
 She pours the cold water she had stored in the water bottle the day before into a bowl and washes her face. After gargling and cleaning her teeth, she brushes her hair with a comb, checking it with a hand mirror which she got from the madam of the house on the occasion of her birthday the previous year. Finally, she puts her clothes in order. She takes off her sleepwear and puts on a simple, practical kimono that used to hang on the wall for the maids' use. After checking for wrinkles, there is no problem.
 "Good morning."
 "Hello, Suzune. Good morning."
 When she slides out of the sliding door, she runs into a lady's maid who is also getting ready for the day. She bowed her head and greeted her, and so did her. Greetings are important, especially when it comes from a woman. Especially for a low-ranking servant like her who must bow first. If she was rude, her lord's family and colleagues might speak ill of her behind her back and speak ill of her.
 ...Although she did not like to be called by the name she had been given at the house.
 "The Lord sent me to tell you to hurry up because breakfast will be ready soon. I know you're off duty today, but I'm busy... I'm sorry, but could you please go and get Miss Tamaki for me?"
 The request is made apologetically, but there is no way she can refuse it. She understood that it was out of the question for her to refuse. There is no need to cause the discomfort of her seniors and colleagues with a mere call. She politely accepts.
 "But, where is Miss Tamaki?"
 "I have asked another servant. According to them, Miss Tamaki went to the new rice field on the west side."
 "....I don't suppose Miss Tamaki was with 'that guy'?"
 "Yes. The Lord said he didn't think it was wise to go alone, so that guy accompanied Miss Tamaki."
 "I see..."
 Isn't it more careless of him? Still, she bowed and left, suppressing her inner doubt. Her destination is the residence of the Lord's child she should be taking care of...
 After leaving the residence, she walked along the road, taking in the view of the countryside. The banks were covered with lush fields of rice, which had been bathed in the summer sun and were now growing to the sky. If nothing else, this autumn would be a bountiful harvest. And perhaps that was the half-guaranteed fate for this land.
 This land is really rich, the girl thought. It is a small mountainous territory that could be traversed on foot in a day, but even with that, she is convinced that it is indeed a rich land.
 This was thanks to the spiritual veins that, although small in scale, were among the finest in the northern region of the country. In the frozen land of the north, it would be suicide to live in a land without the benefit of spiritual veins, but this land is exceptional among them. Even though it is a small area... perhaps that is why the blessings of the spiritual veins are concentrated here?
 At any rate, she was amazed at the fact that in the more than 1,000 years since this village has been cultivated, it has never suffered from a bad harvest, and in fact, there have been good harvests in other villages. The topography of the area makes it difficult for bandits to invade, and the boundaries that famous exorcists put in place long ago still function as powerful protection against evil. The village is truly peaceful and prosperous, thanks in part to the hard work of the village headman, who has not been arrogant about the blessed environment of the land, but has cultivated a variety of crops, built wells and water wheels, and diversified the industry, albeit on a small scale. It is so peaceful that it makes her feel uneasy.
 "I wonder if it's just a case of peace and quiet..."
 Since she came to the village five years ago to work for the village headman, she has been continuously puzzled and astonished by the difference between her own common sense and the common sense of the village. She was first of all surprised that a maid from a poor farmer's family like herself was served three meals a day, which consisted of one soup and one dish of white rice. She was happy to learn not only the language, but also the letters and arithmetic, and above all, to be paid, albeit a small amount.
 In the village where she was born, it was different. She ate two meals a day of thin porridge made of cereals and bulky with water and wild vegetables, and her linen clothes were not very pretty. As a young child, although she did not work as a laborer or in the fields, she remembers that her family was forced to do unprofitable work every day.
 Above all, the presence of youkai was a threat to the village. If it was a young youkai, it was found once a week, and the villagers worked together to find it and kill it. Once a month, a small youkai would appear in the neighborhood, and once every six months, a youkai would eat a limb or two, or worse, even kill a person. No, it might be better to be eaten alive. If they lived, they would be a burden to the family. Some of them were left to die.

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