Miyamizu Shizu, the assistant of the Onitsuki's head servant, was constantly tense.
She maintained a silent and rigid posture, striving to remain calm, composed, and undisrupted by any agitation.
In anticipation of any possible situation, she remained vigilant and ready.

 This was because the figure before her was an unfathomable presence, and she could not let her guard down in any way.

this is quite good tea.
Indeed, the home of tea leaves is the continent.
They have a different quality,” remarked Onitsuki Yuusei, the current head of the family, sitting on the traditional Japanese chair with a cushion that Shizu laid out for him.

 He calmly observed his teacup for a moment before taking a sip and returning it to the tea rest on his knee.

 Shizu was acutely alert to every one of Yuusei's movements.
This was not an excessive action on her part, but rather an inevitable consequence, considering Yuusei's position as the lord and Shizu's master as his subordinate.

 ”I completely agree.
Tachibana Trading has a good business indeed,” replied Shizu's master with a smile…
but upon closer observation, his facial expression is as frivolous as a Noh mask.

 Shizu's master (Shisui) had come to visit Yuusei, his clansman and the Onitsuki family head, in his private chambers about half an hour ago.
Since then, they have been enjoying continental tea and tea cakes, admiring the garden, and in the silence, they intermittently exchange brief, pulseless, and not very exciting conversations as the silent Shizu and another retainer stood respectfully by their sides…

 ”I hope I am not distracting you, MiyamizuMiyamizu-san.
Are you bored?” said Yuusei suddenly.


 Shizu was taken aback by the sweet and elongated phrasing for a moment.
She gasps and shivers, and realized the gravity of what had just been announced to her.
It was akin to being told that she had died, and she felt a shiver run down her spine.

 ”Hehehe. My dear husbandDanna-sama, I shall pour you another cup of tea.”

 ”…Mm, thanks.”

 In response to her husband Yuusei's nod, the woman who had been by his side all the while with her burdock in hand—Onitsuki Sumire, wife of the head of the Onitsuki family—merrily pours tea from the teapot into his teacup.
The tea has cooled down considerably, but steam rises faintly from the teacup that has been filled with lukewarm tea.

 ”Would you like some more tea, Master ShisuiShisui-dono?”

 ”…Yes, I'll accept your kind offer.”

 Shisui also replies to Sumire's smiling question in a lively manner.
But apart from that conversation, there is no further exchange between them as they pour tea.

 (What on earth is going on here…!!)

 Quietly, but all the while continuing to occupy this strange, yet oppressive space, Shizu’s nerves become increasingly frayed.
This time, which she doesn't even know the meaning of, just keeps pressing on her spirit.

 Shizu understood that there is an underlying conflict between the current head of the Onitsuki family, to whom she owes her loyalty, and the lord to whom she owes her allegiance.
In the past, because of the fragile position of one of them, the relationship had never been exposed, since the other had become a cripple….

 ”What do you think? How about Hina and Aoi? I had been out of my mind for a long time as well.
I don't know how they've grown.
Are they doing well?”

 The head of the family, who had been staring blankly at the carp swimming in the pond in front of the garden, suddenly speaks these words.
Shizu involuntarily tenses up from his words, reading too much into his words, on alert and above all else, irritated.

 ”The princesses have grown up healthy.
Both possess exorcism skills and their achievements are beyond reproach.
At present, no one regards them lightly,” conveyed Shisui, who was sipping from his teacup with his back straightened, whether knowingly or not.
It was a list of facts and unreserved praise.

 Onitsuki Hina and Onitsuki Aoi, both inheriting a powerful spiritual energy and possessing exceptional abilities, were extraordinary princesses who, despite their youth, were among the top in Onitsuki family for their skills and were also decorated with splendid honors due to their recognized merits.

 It was hard to determine who was more suitable as the next head of Onitsuki family since both had a lot of merits and some flaws.
That was why the dispute over the next head of the Onitsuki family had long continued.
However, to some extent, it was also a luxurious problem for outsiders.

 …Although for Shizu, this fact was exceedingly unpleasant.

 ”I see.
That's reassuring…
However, it is a fact that both are still inexperienced.
It would be helpful if the servant head would support them as their predecessors.
Unfortunately, I myself am not yet in perfect condition and it is quite a struggle to do the work,” said Yuusei, showing off his withered-looking, thin arms and smiling.
The statement was quite natural, but to Shizu, who was standing by his side, it sounded as if he was harassing her master.
Words rich in diplomatic and impressionable expressions in the language of the Fuso country, and particularly those from the Northern region.


 Shizu involuntarily gritted her back teeth.
She trembles with rage inside.

 To think that she had to cover the butts of those selfish brats and rally them together, especially to direct that towards her master! The statement of the head of the house, which was tantamount to shame and disgrace…
How could he say such a shameless thing.
It was her master who had punished the most evil spirits in the four directions just the other day.
In contrast, wasn't the eldest daughter the sort of person who left without permission even when on duty!?

 ”I appreciate your efforts.
Please take good care of yourself.
And as an Onitsuki auxiliary representative, I will do my best.”

 Compared to Shizu's stormy inner feelings, her lord'sShukun statement was calm and moderate.
His words were not at all agitated, and he spun them out smoothly.
The head of the family nodded in response to Shisui's words.
They both sipped from their teacups.
Another moment of silence enveloped the space…

 Next, it was Sumire who broke the silence.
Or to be more precise, she was standing next to her husband and directed a slight aura of killing intent towards the garden, scattering it.
After a moment's delay, the remaining people's gazes turned to the garden at the same time, and the intruder appeared.

 A shikigami in the form of a crow, used as a secret messenger, flew down towards Shisui

 ”…I beg your pardon.”

 Stopping on his outstretched arm, Shisui extracted the letter wrapped around its leg, before announcing one word to the head of the family.
Then he opened it, furrowed his eyebrows slightly.

 ”This is…”

 ”What happened, head of the servant group?”

 At Shisui's reaction, Sumire inquired.
Wordlessly, Shisui reads the letter once and twice, and shows it to Shizu, who is standing behind him.
After reverently bowing to the head of the family, he showed the letter to him as well.
Upon understanding its contents, he was a little surprised.

 ”My lordO tōshu-sama, the ones we sent out have apparently encountered some problems…
It seems there's no avoiding it.
We should think about how to deal with it as soon as possible,” Shisui said anxiously, wringing his hands.

 Then, he presented the letter in his hand to the head of the family.

* * *

 After a night of heavy snow in Hieda County, the blizzard subsided and the dazzling light of the sun pierced through the snowy mountain range, creating a blanket of white.

 Outside the hut nestled in the rugged Northern region, I gazed out at the grand and pure white expanse.

 ”…Well, it's not gonna be that easy to find, huh?” I sighed, contemplating the landscape before me.

 Although Hieda County was a remote and uncultivated area, sparsely populated and underdeveloped in the eyes of the imperial court, it was overwhelming for an individual.

 Two days ago, I had set off from the county capital, after my proposal to search for the Namahage was accepted by the people.
Now, as I said myself, it was going to be quite a challenge to find the wandering monster in this vast land.

 ”Hmm, alright, alright.
Are you hungry? Don't get too excited.
I'll give you a proper meal.” I addressed the horses in the stable, which had been whinnying and wriggling in anticipation.
Inside the stables are two horses.
One is a chestnut and the other a dark blue, both with empty stomachs.
The dark blue was particularly restless, constantly sniffling and nudging me.
I handed them some hay, which they hungrily devoured.

 Then I put it in a tub under their feet and let them eat it on their own.
This was not a sightseeing trip, and we couldn't keep looking after the horses.

 ”We'll resume the search after we've eaten, too…
Hey Iruka, anything unusual?” I asked the half-wolf who had been listening to the snowfall in silence since a while.

 Then she twitched her wolf ears and answers.

As far as I can tell, the best I can perceive is the sound of footsteps.
It doesn't seem like any particularly strange scents are mixed in.”

 Iruka's words were an insurance.
The opponent was capable of concealing their presence to a degree that is enough to evade the tracking of Shikigami.
If so, it cannot be denied that it is impossible for the sharp senses of a half-yokai to be deceived.
In fact, in the original scenario, the Hidden Group's skillful members were caught unawares and attacked from the back.
Even if not, snow absorbs sound.
Now, how much can a half-yokai's hearing make up for…

breakfast is ready!”

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