Thursday, May 18, 2023 @

Chapter 88, Part 1

 [Part 1/4] 

 Fusō-kuni is built on the belief in human superiority, rejecting the existence of evil and monsters. Yet, humans are often weaker than those they cannot understand, so they use cunning tactics to maintain an advantage in the Far East. This balance is precarious and could be lost if vigilance is not upheld.
 And this Namahage is an embodiment of this perspective in Fusō-kuni. Originally a youkai from the Northern region, Namahage terrorized children and was seen as a deity. Despite how youkai are sometimes misrepresented in history and folklore, Namahage in this world is a sentient, conscious being aware of these theories.
 In the game 'Firefly of the Dark Night (Yamiyo no Hotaru)', Namahage is a semi-divine calamity youkai that appears in certain parts of the northern region of Fusō-kuni and has been allowed to continue unchecked by the imperial court due to its characteristics.
 Like the original story, it was set up as a deity whose origin is rooted in the northern land, and did not participate in the "Great Human Youkai War" even after being debased as a youkai. After all, this youkai did not care about such things.
 This particular youkai follows a set path for a period of time and showcases its abilities in the villages it passes through. However, there is a marked difference in maturity between these youkai and both humans and deities; in fact, it is akin to the difference between adults and children. This disparity is largely due to the influence that human beliefs and fears have on these supernatural beings, and it causes their values and thought processes to differ greatly from those of humans.
 Not to mention the example of Greek mythology or any other mythology, it's known that in polytheistic religions, particularly in myths, the deities may test themselves and easily bring calamity to people if they are neglected. In the same way, Namahage is honored as a deity in the villages it visits, and those who don't offer sacrifices are punished as 'bad children' for their wrongdoings. If sacrifices aren't made, villagers are devoured one by one.
 As Fusō-kuni is a land where even the gods are used as fertilizer for the land, it is impossible to respect and worship Namahage and to authorize any actions that increase its power, which is out of the question since sacrifices are required in the first place.
 Moreover, if villagers are devoured, Namahage transforms into a powerful youkai presence, and the court couldn't allow such a presence.
 The court repeatedly issued an edict for exorcist families to eliminate Namahage, not once but several times, but they all failed. After repeated unsuccessful attempts and significant casualties, the court eventually compromised. Only one option left.
 The court believed in the superiority of humans, but was also practical enough to make temporary compromises with non-human monsters when needed. However, this approach eventually backfired, leading to the establishment of numerous forbidden zones within and outside the court's jurisdiction.
 To prepare for potential future defeats, the court carefully monitored the powers of the calamity youkai residing in these forbidden zones and reduced their numbers to a certain level. This was not a compromise with the youkai, but rather a strategic move to ensure future victory. Although the court's policy was an excuse, it was at the same time a realistic one.
 And now, to keep track of Namahage's movements, which occur in regular cycles, the court ordered exorcists to monitor them using shikigami or visual confirmations from a distance, and temporarily evacuate the residents before Namahage approaches.
 This is to prevent the youkai to encounter human beings so that they will have neither faith nor awe. After that, wait and see if Namahage is weakened. This is the current policy of the Imperial Court toward Namahage, and it has remained unchanged for more than two hundred years since the last attempt to defeat Namahage failed and the emperor of the time, Emperor Kōkō (陽煌帝), bitterly stamped his seal on the letter from the Onmyou dormitory.
 "Well, your first mission was the surveillance task on Namahage, huh? To be honest, it was not as dangerous as expected."
 About the reality of Namahage's monitoring mission, Onitsuki Kurou, the boy who was once called Hayama from Hidden Group, replied without any pressure. It meant that the task was not so difficult for him.
 According to the description, Namahage roams only in the winter, and only on days when it snows. Its path stretches thousands of miles and repeats its route cycle every three to four years on average. There are sixteen northern exorcist families assigned, and each household/retainer actively monitors Namahage as it passes through their respective territories.
 Their procedure are: based on the speed of Namahage's movement, evacuate people in surrounding villages to prevent encounters with Namahage. Once Namahage has passed, allow residents to return to their villages. Continuously monitor the situation until Namahage has left the jurisdiction, and report its movements to the next household (retainer). Finally, submit a report to the court in the morning.
 As I thinking this...
 "I understand your concern, Miss Tamaki, but you need not be so anxious. This mission has been carried out many times before, and there have been no direct deaths caused by Namahage."
 The former member of the hidden group reassured Tamaki, who was listening to the conversation next to me. This is the 43rd time the Onitsuki family has been on this surveillance mission, and while there have been a few deaths due to accidents and encounters with other youkai, none have been caused by Namahage, the most important of all.
 "I-I see... Yes, I understand. Thank you for telling me."
 After hearing the story from Kurou, Tamaki's expression was still nervous, but she expressed her gratitude with a slight smile.
 On the last day of the thirteenth frost month (Shougetsu) of Emperor Seiri's reign, Hotoya Tamaki, who was assigned to her first mission as an Onitsuki family member, was seen tense and stiff-faced. I introduced her to Kurou, who had previously been on that mission, to relieve her anxiety.
 "If I had to say, you should be careful about the cold. You can monitor it with shikigami, but it's a harsh winter anyway, so it's quite cold when escorting residents during evacuation. In fact, I had a hard time when I was there. My fingers got frostbite."
 Kurou tells his failure story with a wry smile, and Tamaki smiled back, drinking her warm tea (Sencha).
 (Well, it's supposed to be an easy mission after all...)
 And I took a glance at them and had a serious expression on my face. Everything Kurou said is true. It was not strange for the Onitsuki family to bring up this case with minimal danger for Tamaki's first mission. It was reasonable and even sensible. Yes, it should have been...
 As my thoughts sank into darkness, the voice of a young girl interrupted me. I turned my gaze to see a little girl peeking in from behind the shoji screens. I remembered her name to be Princess Kikyou (Kikyou-hime).
 The girl, protected by Onitsuki as a survivor of the bloodline of the Renge (Hasuka) family, a family of exorcists destroyed by the Tsuchigumo and Kappa youkai turmoil, has longer hair than the bob-cut I had seen before, in what is commonly called a princess cut. She was holding a handball in each hand and staring at Kurou expressionlessly.
 As I looked at Kurou, he also made eye contact with me with a troubled face. I bowed respectfully understanding the meaning behind the situation, and Kurou gave me an apologetic look before beckoning to the girl. She immediately rushed to Kurou and climbed onto his lap, still expressionless.
 "Uh, umm..." Tamaki is surprised by the girl's sudden intrusion.
 "I'm sorry, Miss Tamaki. She's a bit of a spoiled child..." Kurou apologizes with a helpless look on his face.
 As if to offer a helping hand, I also talk in Tamaki's ear about Princess Kikyo's situation. "She's the surviving member of the exorcist retainer that was destroyed. Since she has no family, Onitsuki has taken care of her."
 "I see, I understand. It's okay, I know how she feels," Tamaki replied with a complicated smile. Apparently, she felt sympathy for Kikyo because of her situation. For the protagonist, Kikyo's fate could have been her own.
 "Hayama, It's the time we promised to play kaiawase (shell matching game)." Kikyo reminds Kurou, who seems to be getting impatient.
 "Even if you say that, I'm in the middle of explaining the situation to Miss Tamaki right now, you know? Really, I may as well be Ayaka's servant..." Kurou complains with a hint of irritation in his voice.
 Meanwhile, Kikyo remains expressionless, sitting silently on his lap. She seems to be oblivious to Kurou's mood.
 "Oh, sorry for veering off-topic. If there is anything else to note about Namahage's mission..." Kurou say to Tamaki, trying to get the conversation back on track and end his complaint.
 "Oh, no. That'll be fine. Let's call it a day for today. I'll come visit when I have time." Tamaki says cheerfully, eager to end the meeting and asking to leave.
 Kurou said with a hint of hesitation in his voice. "But..." Tamaki interjected, "Rather than that, I hope you'll accompany the child. Not to say anything bad, but at that age, playing is her job. And I think it's you who made the appointment this time, right?" She gave me a pleading look. Well, It was me who mediated this meeting between the three of us. I looked at each of their faces, then made my decision and bowed my head to Kurou.
 "Thank you very much for accepting my invitation to make this sudden meeting today. Please accept my apologies, but we have other matters to attend to, so we would like to leave now."
 Kurou looked troubled when I said this, and he gave a glance towards the child sitting on his lap. Then he looks at me again and resigned himself.
 "If that's the case, it can't be helped. I understand. ...tomorrow around dusk should be free for me. Shall we meet again then?"
 The last words were addressed to Kikyo. The princess nodded. Tamaki and I bowed to them and got up from our seats.
 "We will at least see them out, Kikyo," Kurou whispers to Kikyo as she sits on his lap. She looked slightly dissatisfied, but the girl left obediently.
 "I'm sorry for troubling you like this," Kurou apologized as we walked towards the exit, feeling apologetic. "You have asked me for a favor, but I can't help..."
 "No, don't worry about it Kurou-dono," I reassured him, grateful for his time. "I'm the one who's causing the inconvenience."
 I wasn't being modest. If I was talking about the time when Kurou was just a member of the hidden group known, it would be a different story. However, he was now part of the Onitsuki family, a prestigious name even if he is not exorcists. As a mere caretaker of the house, he would inherit a village somewhere within the next few years. His position was different from that of the servant Yun-shoku.
 "That may be so, but... Well then, I will take my leave here."

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