Friday, April 14, 2023 @

Chapter 78, Part 1

 To tell the truth, the presence of Iruka, the Ezo bandit, was within Onitsuki Uemon's expectations.
 Even though there was a flaw in the original plan, it was assumed that to infiltrate the village's protective boundary, the youkai would need to be extremely powerful or highly skilled at concealing their presence. Or, it was a half-youkai...
 In many cases, the half-youkai were more intelligent than the pure youkai because of their human blood, making them well-suited for deceiving the protective boundary. And during the period of the Great War, just as the imperial court had deployed troops of half-youkai, Kubou and his companions utilized them as spies. Moreover, considering the recovered wolf fur, a single possibility emerged in Uemon's mind.
 The existence of half-wolf youkai Ezo who infiltrated the capital and escaped during transport. The one, who is still being pursued by the imperial court and the Tachibana Company. The half-youkai that even offered a large bounty by the Tachibana Trading Company.
 It was rumored that the Ezo in question had fled north or east from his native land. And through their own investigation within the village, Uemon and his colleagues discovered the presence of a half-youkai.
 "Lord Uemon, please accept our heartfelt apology regarding this matter. But there are many peasants in this village who fled because they could not bear the tax. It would be cruel to turn such people in."
 Said Hotoya Yoshinori, the owner of the house and the headman of the village, as he apologized and defended himself in his study at the Hotoya house.
 Yoshinori's words were truly sorrowful. In fact, Yoshinori's words and his actions were not unreasonable. It was not uncommon for peasants to abandon their lands to escape from farmer's fees, annual tribute, and taxation. This was especially true in harsh winter lands like the northern region.
 These homeless people either hid in the mountains, went to town, became tenant farmers in another land, or turned to thievery and gangster... Although the court legally ordered that they be taken back to their original land as soon as they were captured, there was still money involved in transporting them. Unless they became thieves, they were often simply overlooked. Ultimately, as long as they could collect taxes, the imperial court was satisfied.
 So, for those who relied on him, Yoshinori could not neglect them because of his virtue, even if there was a wounded half-youkai Ezo among them. Homeless people without any shady pasts are not so numerous.
 And this particular Ezo had not caused any particular problems or suspicions since he arrived in this village. At least it seemed that way to him and those around him. Therefore, it was difficult to reject the plea of the daughters to hide and shelter him.
 ...Of course, this was only within the scope of a "well-intentioned third party".
 "Lord Yoshinori, you can't do this. While I understand your compassion, we cannot simply offer mercy to a half-youkai. No matter how you put it, a monster is a monster. They are cunning and clever. After all, was not your own daughter used for his benefit?"
 Uemon admonished him in an understanding way, and then warned him in a warning way. This was his way of making a defense.
 Even Uemon understood that it was more beneficial to save face and make a favor than to simply criticize here. Even if Yoshinori convicted and expelled him for this, the imperial court and local officials would soon intervene and try to take advantage of the situation. After all, the Fusō-kuni do not want the exorcists to try to take advantage of them. Then there is no need to push too hard here. It would be much better to make a favor.
 "I agree. As a trading company, we cannot imagine that the virtuous and neighborly Lord Yoshinori would engage in such behavior, and we would like to continue our friendship with you. So, I think it would be best to end this matter now."
 The third person sitting in the study smiled cheerfully as she spoke. Her eyes, however, did not show any hint of a smile. To Kayo, the Ezo in question is a bitter enemy.
 But as a merchant, she cannot be moved by emotion. She had no intention of wasting time on something that would not bring in a single coin. It was the same for Uemon. It was more profitable for the trading company to lend money while maintaining the current power structure of the village, rather than causing confusion. She needed money. As much as possible. For her beloved. Then holding back her emotions is easy.
 "However, while I understand that he caused trouble with capital, I never expected him to be connected to youkai..."
 "There is no mistake. In fact, we have collected similar wolf fur with youkai aura at the site of the recent incident. There is no denying it."
 As Yoshinori agonized with his brow furrowed, Uemon presented the evidence.
 Although no body had been found, a travelling merchant was victimized just six days ago. After the night camp, a legionnaire who had come to investigate had retrieved a wolfhair that he believed belonged to the perpetrator. Having retrieved it, Uemon and the others confirmed it with a divination ritual. In the end, the pendulum's needle successfully pointed to the half-youkai in question.
 "It is said that he was known to disappear at times. Even a half-youkai is a monster, and their legs are faster than humans. He probably thought he could get away with attacking people nearby without being noticed. He's truly despicable."
 Uemon guesses that the Ezo in question was probably in the middle of such cannibalism that he encountered a group of youkai led by that youkai boar. He is convinced by his prejudiced perception.
 "And what will be done with him?"
 "For the time being, he will be taken into custody. As the local authorities will struggle to handle him, he will be handed over to the provincial governor. After that it's out of our hands. However, the charges against him will probably result in his beheading at the very least."
 "I see..."
 Yoshinori, though he knew it was coming, closed his eyes and fell silent when he was told clearly once again. It is not that he did not know him, nor that he had never spoken to him before. Besides, it had been decades since a death sentence had been handed down in this village. ...He understood that it was inevitable, but the shock of it all was immeasurable.
 "...We have also dealt with the youkai. So, we plan to depart from the village within the next few days. From your point of view, wouldn't it be better that way?"
 The reason Uemon and the others came to this village was for the sake of youkai, but now that this incident had occurred, it would not be wise to keep the criminal in the village until the Harvest Festival. Therefore, Uemon's proposal was made with both good intentions and calculation.
 "As a trading company, we are already facing significant delays. Naturally, this has caused us to incur heavy expenses. So, we will also leave at the same time as the Onitsuki family leaves. Lord Uemon, would you care to accompany us along the way?"
 "There were monsters roaming the streets the other day. So, it's not a problem. We'll escort you carefully."
 With Kayo's instructions and request, Uemon politely agreed. After that, there was a brief silence in the room.
 "...Well then, I shall take my leave. Staying up late is bad for my skin. I would like to go to bed early if possible."
 Tachibana's daughter smiled and bowed gracefully. Then she got up from the cushions with a graceful manner without making a sound. In other words, the meeting is over.
 "Hmm, then I shall take my leave as well. I'm busy preparing for my departure the day after tomorrow. Besides, one of my subordinates was injured doing miscellaneous tasks, and we are short on manpower."
 Uemon also bowed and asked to leave. Unlike Kayo, Uemon looks genuinely troubled.
 "...I see. That's truly regrettable. I was hoping to at least have a farewell banquet before departing... But there's no help for it. However, if there's anything you need before leaving, please don't hesitate to ask. I will do our best to provide you with everything I can."
 Yoshinori understood the meaning of their words and told them so. Kayo and Uemon thank each other and leave the room, leaving behind a silence.
 "...They were quite cautious, weren't they? Especially the merchant's daughter...She didn't smile the entire time."
 A voice came from behind. It was Katahiko, who had been standing guard in the room. Right now, unlike his usual appearance as a yakuza or a wanderer, he was dressed in a formal attire with a eboshi hat. But his decent appearance did not make his Lord's heart feel any better.
 "It can't be helped. I heard that Miss Kayo was directly harmed by Iruka. I suppose it's understandable when it's her enemy."
 In addition to assisting the imperial court, the Tachibana Trading Company offered rewards of up to one hundred ryō for providing useful information and capturing or killing the perpetrators, which shows the extent of their resentment.
 In fact, Kayo offered to pay the Hotoya family, who should have had some feelings toward him, a reward for keeping a criminal for a long period of time. However, Yoshiro politely declined, given the circumstances...
 "He'll probably be beheaded or tortured before that... and young lady must make a fuss."
 "She's probably not that foolish. She won't do anything rash."
 If anything, he was more worried that his daughter would be depressed. After all, the Harvest Festival was only a few days away...
 "The dance rehearsal for the festival is not going well either. But I've told Suzune to console young lady well and good."
 "I see. I'm sorry. I should have been the one to say it..."
 Although there was nothing he could do about the situation, Yoshinori must the one who cut ties with Iruka. Besides, it was awkward for him to directly order his daughters to do so, especially considering how close they all were.
 "No, Suzune understood as well. In fact, she expressed deep gratitude that she wasn't punished for cooperating without stopping young lady."
 Katahiko thinks back. He sympathized with the miserable face of the maid when she was summoned. She didn't even try to make an excuse at his word, even though she would have normally tried to shift the blame to him. As always, she has a strong sense of responsibility.
 "Don't let my daughter cause any trouble. Like Suzune, haven't you been having a hard time because of her?"
 "Oh no, Miss Tamaki is a good and lively girl. I can't stand her naive and overly kind nature, though. But I'm worried about when she gets married and goes outside."
 When asked by Yoshinori, Katahiko seriously expresses his concern with a wry smile. Tamaki young lady is cheerful and good-natured. But that is both a virtue and a flaw. This place is a greenhouse, and the outside world is not as sweet as this village.
 "My wife and I have spoiled her too much. We should have raised her a little more strictly..."
 Even though he knew this, Yoshinori was unable to say anything else. His late wife was worried about the child until the very end. She must have cared for her daughter that much.
 Even if she was just an abandoned child with no blood ties...
 "...I'll tell her after the festival."
 He knew his daughter would be happier not to know, and if possible, he might as well take it to his grave. But after all this turmoil. Yoshinori, as a person in charge of the village and a protector of its people, had no choice but to tell her. He couldn't let such actions be forgiven over and over again.
 Thinking about his duty as the guardian of the village, Yoshinori sighs deeply...
* * *
 It happened at six o'clock in the evening on a day when the sky was dyed crimson.
 Suzune, or rather, I noticed that we didn't have enough green vegetables for breakfast the next day and went out of the house with a basket to the vegetable garden not far from the village. I didn't bring any guards and went alone.
 I volunteered to do it myself because I had been only comforting my master for the past two days and I thought I should start doing my job properly. Besides, the youkai that had invaded the village had almost been hunted down by the Onitsuki family, so there was almost no danger considering the location. Of course, I still carried a self-defense charm and a dagger (tantō) in my pocket.
 Now, after harvesting the necessary amount of vegetables, I was about to head back when I saw someone familiar on a small hill where I could overlook the countryside.
 For a moment, I was not sure what to do. But eventually I started walking towards him. I didn't have to leave in a hurry anyway, and I didn't want people to see me talking with that man. In that sense, this was a good opportunity.
 As I climbed up the hill, I saw the man's back. He was dressed entirely in black and appeared to be focused on some task, unaware of my approach.
 (What is he doing, working with his hands...?)
 He seemed to be concentrating on some work and did not seem to notice me yet. I call out to him with a doubtful look on my face.
 "How coincidental. Meeting you in a place like this. Is your work going well?"
 "Huh?! ...Suzune-san?"
 The servant jumped at my sudden greeting, but when he saw me, he breathed a small sigh of relief. This attitude makes me feel a little uncomfortable. Did he think he could disrespect me or underestimate me?
 "What's with that attitude? Are you doing something suspicious in a place like this... by yourself?"
 Several possibilities suddenly crossed my mind. I have heard that there must have been some so-called curses that should not have been witnessed. The one using a straw doll is a typical example.
 "N-no. It's nothing, really..."
 "I see. It's nothing, huh?"
 The servant is somewhat hesitant to say something, and now I'm alarmed. Was he really doing something suspicious? I naturally reached for the dagger I had hidden in my pocket.
 "...about 'Kawatsurumi (peeling skin)' earlier."
 "...I know. My apologies."
 Hearing the words of the servant who looked away and muttered these words, I was silent for a while to understand the meaning, and then I was even more silent to sort out the situation. Finally, when I understood everything, I uttered a sincere apology.
 An awkward atmosphere filled the place. This is not good...

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