Sunday, April 16, 2023 @

Chapter 79, Part 1

 A line of people was advancing along a mountain path that led from Hotoya village to the outside world.
 "This is as far as we go. With all due respect, I offer my prayers for everyone's safe journey," said the southern warrior who had led the group so far, as he pulled on the reins of his horse and came to a stop. The group was leaving the village behind. In response, the line of Onitsuki's strike team and the Tachibana Trading Company's caravan passed through the torii gate, which marked the boundary between the village and other lands. Beyond this point lay the territory outside the Hotoya family's jurisdiction, and it was not possible for hired guards to cross without permission.
 "Hey, Yun-shoku!" someone called out to me just as I was passing by Katahiko and the others.
 I look at my men and then pull up my black horse to answer the person who had called out.
 "Katahiko-dono? What can I do for you?"
 "Oh, nothing. I just wanted to say goodbye and talk a bit. Come with me."
 With that, the Southern warrior moved his horse a few steps forward and came closer to me.
 "How is the prisoner?"
 "I heard he's being treated as befits the criminals he's accused of being."
 "I see..." My answer seemed to darken Katahiko's expression slightly. I did not see it myself, but the Ezo criminal was under the control of Uemon's men, that is, the Hidden Group. However, I have heard some stories from the people.
 Let me say before that in this world, the concept of human rights was thin, and there was little consideration for criminals. And their actions towards Iruka fell within the standard treatment. If this had been in the wild, he would have been buried and stoned by now. So, hanging or beheading him after his transportation would have been more humane. But...
 "No, it's nothing. Young lady is deeply concerned. If he's being treated as a normal person... I can still come up with excuses. ...After all, she's a sheltered girl who can be fooled."
 It must be hard for the TS main character to imagine what it's like to be treated... normally as a criminal. After all, she had been too pampered by her surroundings and lacked both the understanding and the resistance to malice. If it's said that he's not being treated too badly, she can be at ease... without ever realizing the truth.
 "Well, that's probably for the best. She's been very depressed, and there's no reason to add insult to injury," I said.
 " I agree," Katahiko replied.
 I don't want to make good people who won't have anything to do with the original work suffer needlessly. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.
 "...thanks for your help. Was he someone you had a grudge against?" Katahiko asked, trying to gauge my reaction. He must have found out about my connection to Iruka from somewhere.
 "No, it was business. You should be more concerned about your business partner. I hear they are your clients," I said, brushing off the question.
 Even though I am a yun-shoku, a servant is still a servant, and even if the hidden group who were killed by Iruka and the others in the capital are more privileged than the servants, they are still tools. They are only meant to be used up. The real issue at hand was Kayo's kidnapping and attempted harm towards her.
 "That's my boss's business. This conversation is just between us. You helped us out too, so I owe you one. I'm grateful to you for protecting young lady," Katahiko said.
 "It wasn't really me. It was Lord Uemon and his group who took care of the youkai," I replied.
 I was just trying to buy some time, and I can't say I did a very good job of it. If Uemon and the others had come a little later, there's a good chance that the main character and the others would have died.
 "But you fought to protect the princess and the others until help arrived, didn't you? I've heard that from young lady and my men. Thanks to you, I was able to save face. It would be a shame to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) if young lady had been killed without my knowledge," Katahiko said with a half-joking tone.
 While Katahiko's words had a humorous tone, I knew that he wasn't entirely joking. After all, many Sourthern Warriors were known for their unwavering resolve and readiness to commit seppuku.
 "...Well then, I should go. I'll be left behind if I don't catch up with the line."
 I say, feeling a little embarrassed. The Onitsuki family had already passed the line, and only the wagons of the Tachibana Trading Company were passing by their side. I can't be a good escort like this.
 "Jeez, you're so serious. ...Take care. Let's meet again sometime."
 Without a word, I bowed to Katahiko's farewell. I didn't affirm it. I had no intention of dying, but there was no guarantee that I would be alive tomorrow. Katahiko understood this, so he didn't say anything.
 Now, I turned my horse's heel and jogged away, being careful not to run over anyone. I had strayed too far from the ox cart. I have to catch up quickly.
 As I let the horse go, I look back at the village for a moment, with a sense of longing. I will probably never visit this village again. And Suzune... no, Yukine either.
 But, that's for the best. Because if she sees me again, it'll be in a very bad situation. She should just live a peaceful life in this safe village. So, that's...good.
 "...Take care."
 I whisper a small, really small word, and I continue on my horse...
 The traveling party, which set out from Hotoya village early in the morning, arrived at the city after three rest stops along the way. The city was located between Hotoya village and the capital, slightly closer to the village, but it was a bustling place as it intersected with other four cities' roads.
 However, it was not easy to accommodate both the Onitsuki family's suppression squad and the Tachibana Trading Company's personnel. After all, there were nearly 100 guests, and even with a prior reservation, it was quite precarious. By the time everyone had settled into their accommodations in the evening, it was already half-past six in the evening.
 "Just in case, let's take turns guarding the place," I instructed my subordinates after checking the luggage, horses, and personnel.
 The city is a large town, so the army soldiers are stationed there, and there are guards hired by the city and the inn, but we should guard the inn just in case.
 After giving orders to my men, I go outside the inn. The outdoor atmosphere of the city was lively, with lights still shining in many shops and inns, despite the winter approaching. On the main street, which can be seen from a distance, food stalls and souvenir shops are crowded with customers. At taverns, merchants and travelers were engaged in business talks and exchanging information over drinks. Meanwhile, street performers, geishas, and brothels all tried to attract passersby.
 This liveliness was unique to a city like this. If this were a village in the countryside, everyone would have gone to bed long ago because of the waste of oil and firewood. The city was surrounded by walls, and entry and exit were prohibited after curfew. For people who come to the city from all directions, and for the residents of the city, night is the best time to make money.
 Well, as a servant, it didn't concern me much...
 "I wish you would at least behave yourself so as not to make a scene..." I say as as I turned around in a narrow alleyway. In front of me was a blue demon with a handful of yakitori in one hand and a tokkuri (Sake set) hanging from the other, clearly drunk with a red face and boozy breath.
 "Oh come on, don't you trust me? I've managed to keep a low profile all this time. It's frustrating to still be doubted," the blue demon lamented.
 "I've heard that there have been multiple brawls with injuries happening in various cities. It's a concern," I countered calmly, not buying into the demon's words. It seems that in the villages where people don't come and go as often as they do, thefts seem to be minimum, but as soon as I get to a larger city, reports of fights and dine-and-dash incidents at taverns were easily heard. Once or twice, but every time, it is easy to imagine the culprit.
 Of course, from the demon's perspective, they may have been holding back quite a bit, but they were still a nuisance and a threat.
 "So? What do you want? I'm not as idle as you are," I asked dismissively, expecting a poor response. And indeed, I'm not going to get a satisfactory answer anyway... but it was even worse than I had anticipated.
 "You're saying cruel things. But I came here to warn you with good intentions, you know? You don't want any regrets, do you? ...After all, you're someone who cares about your family."
 "...what does that mean?" I looked at the demon with a puzzled expression as she spoke cryptically. I couldn't understand what this creature was trying to say, and I was confused. Wait, why did this feel familiar? Do I know this scene? What is this... no, wait. Haven't I had this conversation somewhere before...?
 The demon takes one look at my bewildered and agitated state, and her mouth goes upturned, clearly enjoying my confusion. Then she swallowed the whole yakitori without a care and continued arrogantly and gleefully, , as if revealing the secrets of a magic trick.
 "Hehehe, never mind that. You can ask that dog for the details. ...Well, the question is whether you can make it in time to prevent the tragedy, right?"
 "What...? What are you talking about...!? No way!!?"
 At the demon's words, I tilted my head in confusion for a moment, but then I suddenly realized the horrible possibility that she was alluding to. It's a possibility I don't even want to imagine, but in this cruel world, there's nothing strange about the worst possibility...!
 I couldn't help but panic as I looked at the demon again. Our gazes meet, unintentionally. At the same time, I was struck by the creature's otherworldly beauty as she smirked and sneered. It sent shivers down my spine. It was a premonition. My instincts sensed the impending despair before my rational mind could. The feeling of hopelessness. The innocent but brutal malice of a young girl...!
 And then... immediately after that, the demon leaps as if dancing. In an instant, she had closed the distance of twenty steps. The creature stood before me, with my frightened and panicked figure reflected in her blue eyes... The next moment, the demon's beautiful face breaks with malice, and she declared:
 "Well, I've prepared the stage for you. So... enjoy yourself to your heart's content."
 I widen my eyes at the demon's words, which are uttered with a nauseating alcohol content. Because I knew that phrase. This is exactly the same conversation and the same dialogue that the demon used in the original story when the demon set up a cruel event for the main character.
 And in this situation, the target was probably...!!
 "You b*stard...!!"
 With my face grimacing with black anger and murderous intent, I turned my back on the demon without hesitation. There was no time to waste on the creature or on anything else. None at all. Zero.
 So, with a desperate look on my face, I left. I knew where I had to go. It was to the stable on the outskirts of the city. Or more precisely, the place where the half-youkai prisoner was being held...!!
 "I'm expecting you, okay? My hero candidate?"
 The demon's voice, faintly heard from behind, was the most hateful thing to me above all else...
* * *
 "In any case, it's a poor luck. We should just have a servant do the night watch," one of the members of the hidden group boasted as he sat down on a mat laid out in the stable and while throwing dice. A lantern beside them dimly lit up the dark stable.
 "Don't say that. We're watching a wanted criminal of the court. It's a heavy burden for even a servant," The other man sitting across from him tried to placate his colleague. He then turns his gaze toward the back of the stable. At the far end of the stable, on a pile of straw, was the man. His hands and feet were bound with rough ropes, and if anything, his whole body was bound in tortoiseshell, especially his grotesque one-arm, so that his joints were immobilized as much as possible. In addition, he was also blindfolded and gagged, unable to speak. His clothes were wet from the repeated splashes of cold water and showed bruises from beatings and kicks.
 The criminal was an Ezo Tribe wanted by the Imperial Court, and was the target of surveillance and transfer of the two hidden group men who had been assigned to the Eastern Strike Team.
 "D*mn, we have to spend the whole night in this cold stable thanks to you! I can't do this. Hey, are you listening to...!? This is your fault!?"
 One of the hiding group men hiding shouted angrily at the criminal. He got up, walked over and kicked Iruka in the stomach. Not once, but two or three times, and then he poured a bucket of water from the nearby horse trough on his head.
 On one hand, it was a form of anger against being assigned to the night watch, and on the other hand, it was their genuine 'job'. The other party was a criminal, and they couldn't know when the criminals would attempt to escape, so they had to regularly weaken him with violence. They also planned to break his spirits beforehand to make it easier for the authorities to interrogate him.
 Above all, the Onitsuki family had lost two members of the hidden group in the riot at the capital. So, they had no intention of showing mercy or sympathy towards Iruka, who was suspected of killing their colleague. Therefore, the torture is relentless, and no one was there to condemn it.
 Of course, they couldn't kill the criminal.
 "Hey, stop that. What if his insides burst open?"
 "No problem. He's half a monster. He won't die from this."
 With that, one of the hidden group man, who were inflicting the torture while considering the worst-case scenario, left the criminal alone and returned to his night watch duties. And like before, he passed the time gambling with dice...
 "Who's there?"
 Th hidden group men jumped up as soon as they heard a presence approaching from the other side of the doorway. They pulled out their hidden weapons and prepared to defend themselves. Despite their seemingly carefree demeanor, they too have been in the line of death many times against monsters. They had even searched the lairs of youkai dozens of times, and their sharpened senses had detected the approaching presence.
 "It's Yun-shoku. I'm here on official business. Lower your weapons."
 The hidden group men looked at each other in silence for a moment... before opening the door.
 There it was, right in front of them. He wore a Hannya mask and clothing that resembled the typical garb of a servant. ...But what caught their eyes more than anything else was the basket in his hand.
 "Yun-shoku? Business? What do you want?"
 The servant with the Hannya mask with a skeptical look and a grimacing expression shrugged his shoulders at the hidden group men.
 "Don't be so cautious. I'm here by order too. Here, it's cold out, isn't it? Drink this, but don't get too drunk," said Yun-shoku, holding out a gourd. Inside the gourd was a mixture of alcohol and a faint steam.

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