Tuesday, May 9, 2023 @

Volume 6 Epilogue, Part 1

 Hotoya Tamaki walked along the veranda of the house, feeling gloomy and melancholy.
 It would have been inevitable, but confirming it was terrifying beyond words. Tamaki was afraid that everything she had known up until now would crumble beneath her.
 So she hesitated to open the sliding doors that stood at the end of the corridor. Her feet do not move, and she stands there in a daze.
 "Miss..." The younger maid by her side called out to her, her voice laced with concern.
 Tamaki tries to act strong, but it is in vain. It was futile, because a fearful thought came into her mind.
 If all her doubts were true, would this friend really stay by her side? Tamaki couldn't shake off that fear, even though she understood that it was a rude question to ask.
 So there was an awkward silence as they avoided each other's gazes...
 "Ah!" Tamaki let out a sudden gasp as she felt a warm hand on hers.
 Fearfully, she turns her gaze to her friend. There she was, looking straight at her with a strong-willed gaze that born from her strong will.
 "Don't worry. I am on your side, Miss ," her friend said reassuringly, her words as comforting as her unwavering gaze.
 With just those words, Tamaki felt her heart lighten. She felt a gentle yet strong push on her back.
 "...Then. I'm off." The young lady of Hotoya's face, once shadowed with doubt and fear, now beamed with confidence.
 She walked along the corridor and stepped into the room beyond the sliding doors, her footsteps echoing down the hall…
 Tamaki entered her father's study, which was neat and tidy. It was not a small place, but it was not wasteful, and the furnishings were well-arranged.
 Tamaki looked around the room, which was well-harmonized and showed that her father had an eye for aesthetics. She had been in this room many times since she was a child and remembered it vividly.
 But from now on, she would probably never be able to see it again.
 "...I'm sorry to keep you waiting, Tamaki. I had a document that needed to be finished," her father said, putting down his brush and turning to apologize to his daughter.
 "No, it's okay. I know you're busy, Father," Tamaki replied, shaking her head. She knew her father and brother were busy because of the recent turmoil, and she was partly to blame.
 Recalling everything that had happened made Tamaki feel dizzy with guilt. There were too many problems to solve, such as finding a replacement for the shrine maiden role in the Harvest Festival, sealing off the secret passage, sweeping up their remaining forces, mourning the dead exorcists, negotiating with the Tachibana Trading Company, the Onitsuki family, and the higher-up (governor)... Most of these issues would have to be resolved by borrowing help from other families, meaning the Hotoya family's position would be greatly weakened.
 "I see... Don't worry about it," Tamaki's father muttered, trying to hide his fatigue. And then the room is silent for a while. A heavy silence...
 Tamaki stiffened and braced herself in silence as the story was about to begin. At the same time, she couldn't help but think, "I wish nothing would start and we could stay like this forever." She then chuckled at her own escapism, knowing it was an escape from reality.
 "I found you on a snowy night when the snow was falling heavily," her father broke the silence.
 Tamaki gasped in surprise. It took her a long time to understand that single, not very long word. She had to chew, read, comprehend, and recognize the words over and over again until she finally exhaled with a shiver.
 And slowly she looks into her father's eyes and silently asked him to continue.
 Yoshinori nods gently, acknowledging his daughter's response, before slowly explaining, "My wife, or your mother, had a difficult delivery. She had given birth to all our children with ease until the last one, wouldn't come out. And then the baby died on the day it was born. It was the first time for us and we were very sad."
 Yoshinori remembers holding the remains of his child in his arms and sobbing for many hours. However, he could not let the baby stay in his arms forever, so he took the child from his grieving wife, who was being comforted by servants, and respectfully gave it a proper burial.
 "I was at a loss and completely dazed. It was a pathetic situation. I was also shaken since it was my first time dealing with this kind of situation. I didn't know what to do," he continued.
 And at one time, he found Tamaki in front of their gate, crying. She was wrapped in a white cloth and had been abandoned in the snow. He quickly picked her up and looked around, but there was no one in sight. He couldn't even find any footprints in the snow. Tamaki had scars on her fingers, and he didn't know how long she had been left there...
 Abandoned children are not a rare sight. In the face of unwanted births and poverty, it's common to cull the offspring like one would an abortion. In this case, however, they were still relatively kind. Instead of killing the child, they wrapped it in cloth and left it at the doorstep of a wealthy man's house. If the baby was lucky, they might have been taken in and saved. And Yoshinori was not a heartless man who would have left an abandoned baby to die.
 "To tell you the truth... this might be presumptuous, but I felt something like fate. The dead baby was a girl. I thought this might be some kind of connection," Yoshinori mutters nostalgically. Tamaki was unsure of how to respond to her father's words, so she ended up remaining silent. And the father, thinking of his daughter's feelings, finally got to the heart of the matter. He voiced the words that would feel like a death sentence to her.
 "...It seems like you've awakened your spiritual power, haven't you?"
 Though her father's words weren't spoken with anger, to Tamaki, it felt like a death sentence. Tamaki is not so stupid that she does not know what it means to have spiritual power and how it might affect the safety of their village.
 So, before her father could say anything, she made a request. She bowed deeply with her hands on the tatami mat behind her and pleaded humbly.
 "As of today, I, Hotoya Tamaki, will leave the family. Please forgive me."
 Her tone was calm and detached, thanks to the many times she had practiced beforehand. Nevertheless, turmoil, sadness, and loneliness still swirled inside her.
 The repeated attacks by youkai on the village...even if there was a separate reason behind it, it was a problem for the villagers. The suspicion could lead to distrust towards the village leader. It was necessary to put out the fire. And for that, a scapegoat was needed.
 Tamaki, who had shown that she possessed spiritual power and even stayed in the village with Iruka, but then left on her own accord while taking on the role of the harvest festival's shrine maiden, had committed an act that was by no means acceptable. She was a suitable sacrifice. Rather, it was strange that she was not expelled from the village.
 That is why Tamaki herself wished to be expelled from the village. She had received such advice from the messenger of Onitsuki who had visited recently. She had offered herself before being disowned by her family. It was for Tamaki's honor and for her heart. It was also painful for her to be ordered to leave by her beloved father, even though they were not related by blood.
 The room fell silent once again. The quietness was like a death sentence for Tamaki. What would she be told? Would she be scolded? Would she be ridiculed? Would she be accused of repaying kindness with betrayal? These fears tormented her.
 "...I have to prepare your luggage," said her father, his words overflowing with kindness and unexpected from Tamaki's expectations.
 Tamaki's eyes widened in surprise as she heard her father's unexpected kindness. "Ah..."
 "I also have to send you money. We rely on the exorcism family to take care of you, and we cannot burden them too much."
 Yoshinori's voice was gentle, yet tinged with a hint of sadness. "Father...?" Tamaki spoke, her voice trembling with emotion.
 "Tamaki, I don't know what you think of me. " Yoshinori's voice was calm and reassuring as he continued. "Maybe you're angry that you have been deceived until now. But I, and of course my wife and your brother, have never thought of you as a nuisance, nor have we ever thought of you as a stranger. I can assert with confidence that you are undoubtedly the daughter of this family."
 Yoshinori's eyes were full of love and affection as he spoke to his daughter. Tamaki's heart swelled with emotion, and she could feel tears welling up in her eyes.
 "You have given me, my wife, my sons, and everyone wonderful days." Yoshinori reminisced, his voice filled with nostalgia. "At the same time, you have caused a lot of trouble for me. Hahaha, children are said to be free-spirited, but as a girl, you were too energetic. "
 Yoshinori laughed merrily. And he remembered the days with the child in front of him.
 She was a child who cried often at night. A picky eater from an early age. She was a child who often clung to her mother, but would get dirty outside in no time. Conversely, she was not good at arts and crafts. She was a lively child who often competed with her brothers with a wooden sword. She had compassion and often massaged her father's shoulders. She was loved by everyone.
 These were indeed precious days for him. They were precious family memories. Even if they were not biologically related, that would not change. He would not let anyone deny it.
 "B-but...! Father... I have been causing trouble all the time!" Tamaki's voice was filled with self-doubt and insecurity.

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