While Iruka and I were having such an exchange, a fox girl in a white servant's clothes came out of the hut and reported to us.
I looked at her.
Inside the open doorframe, above the sunken hearth, a small iron pot is hanging with porridge simmering inside.
It was a mixture of dried rice softened with water, miso and ginger, and wild vegetables.
The savory smell of miso and ginger tickles my nose and stimulates my appetite.
My mouth relaxed uncontrollably.


 ”I see.
Thank you…” I said, nodding at the fox girl.

 ”Oh, food! Food! I was waiting for this! Hahaha, I was so cold and hungry that I thought I was going to die!” Iruka exclaimed, her voice high-pitched with excitement.

 Just after I thanked the white fox, Iruka stands up and rushes towards the pot, passing me by and taking a bowl out in front of the hearth.
I was stunned for a moment, and then I look at the expression on the face of the white fox.

 She had a slightly awkward expression.
I probably had a similar expression on my face.
For a while, we are silent.

 ”Hey! Come on! The food is getting cold! And where's the ladle?” Iruka demanded, her tone impatient.

 Once again, it was Iruka who broke the silence.
She complained and urged us to come over without regard to us.
I let out a deep sigh, then I turn and speak flatly to Iruka.

 ”Aren't your self-control less than a horse's!!?”

* * *

 The decision for Iruka and Shiro to accompany the search for Namahage was not my own.
In fact, I had originally planned to search alone.

 There were several reasons why the two semi-youkai were added to the group when it was supposed to be a solo search.
It was an agreement between multiple members who had their own agendas.


 Murasaki reluctantly agreed to search for Namahage, but only if more people joined the search team.
After all, searching for Namahage was dangerous because it could eat someone if they weren't careful.
Losing a team member without finding anything would be a waste too.
So, Murasaki's condition was added to make sure that if someone is eaten, the others could still report the discovery.

 Tamaki's condition was to bring Iruka with me.
This decision was reached after discussions with Suzune and Iruka following the recent meeting.
Tamaki herself felt responsible and wanted to go, but it was not feasible to go alone.
Of the available options, Iruka was the best choice, given both position and ability.
Although Tamaki initially opposed the idea, she was eventually persuaded by Suzune and Iruka.

 Muja agreed to search for Namahage to gather troublemakers in one place, making monitoring them easier.
After all, it would be troublesome to have separate targets of surveillance.
It is also likely that this hidden group member used a shikigami to secretly follow us.

 Shiro wanted to come along on the expedition and didn't want to stay behind to do chores.
Moreover, Gorilla-sama gave permission, so Murasaki didn't object.
In fact, my position did not allow me to reverse the order.
However, I made sure that they did not do anything like they did at Tsuchigumo turmoil…

 As for the Governor and Army commander, they seemed to agree eagerly.
Did they want the half-youkai to leave their side together?

 And finally, Shirowakamaru, he was the one who started the search team, but then stopped talking.
However, he did not object to adding more members.
Still, I do not understand why he became unhappy halfway through the process.
I tried to find out the reason by thanking him after the meeting was over, but…
unfortunately, he did not provide a clear explanation.

 Well, after all those twists and turns, there were two volunteers, myself and Iruka, plus Shiro as a scullery maid, creating a party of three, plus two horses and assorted gear.
'(.
・`з・) Papa! Aren't you forgetting me!!'…
And ignoring that voice, we departed on the day following the formation of the search party, setting out before sunrise.

 Unfortunately, to this day, we have yet to find any trace of the creature in question.

 ”Haah…” I sighed, the weariness in my voice seeping into the quiet room.

 ”Tomobe-san!? I-is everything okay?” Shiro asked, her voice anxious and concerned.


 ”No, it's nothing,” I reassured her, attempting to mask my frustration.
“It's not the kind of thing you need to worry about.”

 My deep sigh, let out in the middle of sitting around the hearth, makes Shiro look at me anxiously, upset.
I was careless.
She probably thought my frustration was about her cooking, since it was just before dinner time.

 ”I-Is that so…?” she stammered, her voice uncertain.

 ”Yeah, yeah, that's right.
Don't worry about him.
Let's just eat, okay?”

 Iruka joins in, yelling at Shiro who still looks uneasy at my deep sigh.
She then shouts at Shiro, who is also sitting on the hearth, making a fuss, demanding that she be allowed to scoop the porridge rice into her bowl.

 ”…Alright, let's start with Shiro.
Here, I'll scoop it up, give me your bowl.” I reach out my hand, my tone gentle.
Shiro hurriedly takes her bowl from her pocket and hands it to me, her voice full of gratitude.

 ”Y-yes!” she says, her voice relieved.

 ”Seriously?!” Iruka, who can't put it in first from the side, complains, but I ignore her.

 ”Heh, it's a pretty expensive-looking bowl, isn't it?” I observe, my voice light.

 The bowl looks like it has a smooth texture and is coated with lacquer painted red over black, which is known as Negoro-nuri, a traditional Japanese technique.
The bottom of the bowl had the Onitsuki family crest engraved in gold lacquer.
It must have been an old and unneeded item that was forced on her by Gorilla-sama.
However, even if it was secondhand, it was a gem, and I couldn't help but think to myself, '(*゚∀゚) Oh, it’s elegant…' Hey, don't take someone's line without permission.
And don't steal them.
Apologize to Studio Ghibli.
(Note: from Princess Mononoke's bowl scene?)

 I mean, why can you talk directly to my head even though you're inside the cage?


 ”Tomobe-san? Umm…?” Shiro's voice wavered as she hesitated to speak up.

 ”….I'm just saying something stupid,” I sighed as I tense up with a vein pulsing on my forehead.

 Shiro looked puzzled, her brow furrowing in concern.
“…?”

 It seems I'm the only one who can hear the spider…
or maybe not.
I see Iruka chuckling.
Hey, you can hear it too, right?

 ”……”

 For now, I ignore the nonsense ringing in my head and silently ladle rice porridge into the bowl I received.
I pour as much as I can into the slightly smaller bowl.

 Although Shiro is a girl, that's exactly why she's going through her growth period.
We do not live in a world where people can eat enough, and dieting is not a popular word.
So, I fill up a the bowl without hesitation and return it to Shiro.
With sparkling eyes, Shiro looks down at the bowl in her hand.
Her childlike appearance makes me smile.
Then I look at my other companion and open my mouth.

  “Here.
Next is yours.
Give me that.”

 ”Got it.” Iruka's voice was smooth and confident.
“I'll have it in the largest bowl, please?”

 ”You have some nerve.” I reply, my tone laced with sarcasm.


 She stretches out her bandaged arm, its animal hair sticking out, and offers me an unadorned wooden bowl.
I poured the same porridge into the wooden bowl, which was a stark contrast to Shiro.
Knowing that she would not hesitate to ask for more even if I gave her less, I gave her a large serving as she requested.
She thanked me with a “thanks a lot,” but I brushed it off, aware that it's just lip service.
Talk is free, after all.

 Lastly, I take out my own bowl from my pocket.
Like Iruka, it is an old-fashioned, small wooden bowl.
It's my partner during meals, ever since I was incorporated into the ranks of the servant group.

 ”Well then, let's eat.” I say, my stomach growling.

 ”Yes!” Shiro's voice trembled with excitement.

 ”Got it,” Iruka grunted, digging into the porridge with gusto.

 We put our hands together and say the grace (Itadakimasu) as breakfast begins.
Shiro blows on the porridge with a puff and takes a small mouthful of the miso porridge.
Iruka, on the other hand, struggles with the heat and gulps down the porridge as if to pour it down her throat.

 ”… Well, I guess I'll have some too,” I said, picking at the rice porridge with bamboo spoon.
The taste made my mouth relax and I nodded my head.
I chewed well and drank, then chewed some more with the second and third bites.

 Rice porridge was easy to digest and provided the body with easy access to water.
The ginger warms the cold body, and the miso adds salt.
Above all, the hunger I felt made the taste of the porridge stand out even more.

 However, among those who worked in dangerous occupations, including miners, there was a tendency to avoid miso soup with rice, because of reasons such as “miso gives way to graves” or “it looks like a gravestone” or “the rice breaks apart” or other superstitions.
However, this was only in cases where the soup was poured onto the rice.
On the other hand, It was considered acceptable to put rice in the soup or cook them together.
Therefore, this rice porridge was not a problem in terms of such superstitions…
It's a tough world where one cannot mock the unscientific as mere good luck or jinx…

 ”After we finish this, we'll head down this mountain.
We'll arrive at the devastated village for search by noon.
After that we will continue north.
I hope we can make it to Mount Hiyake before the sun goes down,” I said, informing the two of today's plans while eating my breakfast.

 The hut we are using now is a kind of safety house set up by nearby loggers and hunters for work and emergencies, with pots, firewood, and fur inside, and a low-level youkai-dispelling boundary set up around it.
There was no problem about us using it, as we had received a warrant from the county governor.
In fact, in the snowfall of midwinter, camping in the Northern region could be just as good as dying, so there was nothing else we could do.

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