I stood up, speechless, as the Curse-tool's Yun-shoku slammed his winning hands on the table.
As I stood up and stared dumbfounded at the winning combinations on the table, I couldn't believe it.
Wait, this just happened!? And it happened at the very last moment!?

 ”Well, shall we start tallying up the scores? …Although, there's no need to state the obvious.
I'll be the next dealer.”

 As I and the other player calculate our scores, Kuga Sarujirou starts preparing for the next game.

 ”This is getting tough…
I never expected it to go this far.”

 ”D*mn, even though it's definitely cheating, I can't tell what the tiles are…”

 Onitsuki Kurou, now known as Hayama, chuckles with a pained expression, and I spit out my frustrations.
Well, even though we're all cheating.

 By the way, the three of us, including the Curse-tool's Yunshoku, were gathered in Sarujirou's workplace, indulging in a gambling-like flower matching game.
Of course, on the surface, we were meeting under the pretext of discussing the Joraku (visiting capital) to the capital and various other plans…
A bitter excuse, I suppose, for our predicament.

 ”Hey, hey, I'm out of sake! Pass it over.”

 ”You've had too much to drink.
Alright, fine.”

 Reluctantly, I pour sake from the sake bottle into the cup offered to me.
By the way, this is part of the servant's portion that was presented to Tachibana Shōkai as a New Year's gift, and furthermore, it's Yun-shoku (允職)'s share from within that.

 ”Are you okay? You still have work afterward, right? Don't cause an accident, okay?”

 ”Don't worry about me, Hayama boy.
Well, my skills are not so bad that I would make a big mistake over something like this.”

 ”But didn't you get drunk once and hurt your finger with a hammer?”

 ”You're so noisy, Yun-shoku (允職).”

 Sarujirou casually brushes off Kurou's concerns and takes a sip from his cup with a sharp response to my remark.
This familiar craftsman is skilled but also stubborn and full of himself.

 ”Anyway, Hayama boy.
How are your preparations going?”

 ”Well, to be honest…
I'm not sure what's good anymore.
Ayaka and the others have taken care of most of it.”

 In response to Sarujirou's question while dealing the cards, Kurou answers with a wry smile.

 Contrary to expectations, the head of the clan readily accepts the revival of the Onitsuki Clan of Hayama, which had once been destroyed.
Perhaps it's because it was a revival as a landlord and village leader rather than as an exorcist family? It may also be due to Kurou leaving the Hidden Group and the main house of the Onitsuki clan.

 Although it's a small area with a population of less than five hundred, being the village leader still means being the village leader.
While planning to reuse the previous mansion, he still need to prepare furnishings, clothes, and other things.
After all, if he appears too shabby, combined with Kurou's age, the villagers might not take him seriously.
However, Kurou doesn't have much money…

 But then, Madam Advisor helped Kurou financially, and Ayaka helped him with procurement.
Ayaka was particularly proactive and even used her own assets to help Kurou get ready.

 In total, it seemed like she poured nearly a hundred ryō into it.
Just the other day, I saw Kurou being turned into a dress-up doll by Ayaka and Kikyō.
Each outfit was clearly an expensive item.

 ”I know I'm in no position to say this since I'm receiving their money and goods, but…
being turned into a doll for half a day is exhausting.”

 It's probably referring to the scene I witnessed.
Kurou weakly smiles.

 ”Haah, you say such extravagant things.
To us, no matter how small, you're like a feudal lord.
I envy you from the bottom of my hired-self…
Right, Yun-shoku?”

 ”Please don't go overboard just because you don't have to worry about our superior gaze.
Your health is at risk.”

 ”Please stop, both of you…!!”

 While Sarujirou and I exchange jokes, Kurou is completely flustered.
He remains the same serious and earnest young lad.

 ”Don't sulk, don't sulk.
You're such an obedient guy, Hayama boy.
What about you? You don't have to pay attention to the words of lowly commoners like us, right?”

 ”I can't think of you two as lowly commoners…

 Although Kurou's words, spoken with his head down, weren't particularly loud, they were filled with a deep determination.


 Both Sarujirou and I fall silent at Kurou's sight, then we exchange glances.
It was an awkward situation.

 Before I became a servant, or rather, when Hina was still in a position closer to that of a young girl without the discovery of her exorcism talents, the three of us, along with Hina, used to have a lot of fun.

 An illegitimate child of the main family and the mistress of a branch family, a talkative commoner kid, and a mischievous apprentice of curse-tool masters…
We must have made quite a matching group from the outside perspective.
Sarujirou and Hina would cause a ruckus, and I would cover it up here and there, while Kurou, who was less assertive, would follow along like a puppy…
Those were tales from a long time ago.

 Everything has changed since then.
One cannot remain a child forever.
People change.
For better or worse.

It would be perfect if Hina was here.
It's a shame we couldn't gather old acquaintances properly.”

 ”Hina-sama is already an adult.
She wouldn't participate in such foolish gatherings.”

 As Sarujirou mumbles while holding the cup to his lips, I calmly point out.
Regardless of gender, back when we were fooling around without worrying about it, she was more like a lively and spirited lady of the esteemed Onitsuki family.
She followed the path of self-discipline and righteousness, a senior-type heroine.
But Kurou, well, aside from him, it would be inappropriate for someone like me in a lowly position or Sarujirou with his vulgar nature to be too friendly with her.

 ”Hey hey, that's harsh.
Even if Hina was here, I would just ask about the color of her underwear, nothing more.”

 ”Do you want your head chopped off?”

 If her Yandere psycho father were here, it might not end with just that.
It could lead to torture or being drawn by a saw.
Seriously, how could this guy managed to survive in the original work…
or perhaps he didn't have much interaction in the original work?

 ”Hahaha, Hina-sama has indeed become quite impressive.”

 Kurou lets out a small laugh and shows a complex expression.
Since the commotion from back then, it seems that Kurou hasn't had a frank conversation with Hina, even after returning to the Onitsuki clan.

 ”Is there still a grudges? I do talk to her a bit during her sword training.
After that commotion, I subtly defended you a few times, but…”

 It's understandable that Sarujirou's words become hesitant towards the end.
Since that commotion, Hina's position has changed significantly.
Although Sarujirou's position didn't change like mine and Kurou's, he probably couldn't casually meet with Hina anymore.
They must have been forcibly estranged.
Even if they occasionally bumped into each other, they couldn't have deep conversations.

 ”No, it's fine.
It's inevitable for me to be resented by her.
…I suppose even if it angered her and got me burned to ashes, it wouldn't make a difference.”

 ”Absolutely not.
Hina-sama wouldn't do something like that…
She wouldn't be so devastated, right? I'm sure Hina-sama would forgive you.”


 Kurou silently gazes at me.
It's a look that seems to imply he's thinking something.
Sarujirou alternates his gaze between me and Kurou.
What's going on here?

 ”…Enough of this gloomy talk.
Let's stop it.
We gathered together for a reason, and the atmosphere shouldn't turn dark! Alright, let's move on to the next game.
Yun-shoku, how much of that sweet sake is left?”

 ”About two or three cups' worth, I guess?”

 However, both Kurou and I have only had a few cups.
Most of it disappeared into Sarujirou's belly.
We brought the low-alcohol, sweet sake as a souvenir since it's daytime…
but it's as good as the same thing.

For the next game, whoever has the lowest score will prepare the next round of drinks.
By the way, all I have is cheap sake!”

 ”I don't even have any in my room to begin with…”

 ”Don't worry, Hayama boy.
Yun-shoku there has quite a stockpile.
After all, he seems to have made a good impression on the wealthy merchant's daughter.
His room's cellar is overflowing with imported high-quality liquor.
…We'll work together to drain it.”

 ”Hey, it's two against one!?”

 It was a sudden declaration of war.
And without mercy, the next round of the game begins.
From the start, all three of us have been cheating.
Moreover, I'm no match for Sarujirou when it comes to cheating, and being targeted by two against one ensures the outcome is already decided.

 …Well, that's how it goes.
I think it was quite a pathetic way to lose.

 ”So, we'll have your good stuff, right?”

 ”D*mn it! Ah, d*mn it! Fine, I get it!”

 With a click of the tongue, I put my mask and leave the workplace of the Curse-Tool Yunshoku.
Not as an escape but to secure the requested item.
…It's not what I wanted, but the truth is I've been heavily reliant on Sarujirou when it comes to tools.
I can't disregard the debt of gratitude and I didn't want to engage in an ugly conflict in front of Kurou either.

 ”After all, this may be our final farewell.”

 With an uncertain lifespan, I didn't want to part ways with regrets…

 ”I understand your sentiment, but I can't accept the current situation, Hayama boy.”

 As Yun-shoku (允職), his old friend, left the room, Kuga Sarujirou, munching on pickled vegetables, offered a cautionary remark.
Onitsuki Kurou nodded with a lowered gaze.

 ”Although I heard about it from the esteemed advisor, it seems to be true.
Our memories are being manipulated.”

 The exact details remain unknown, and the reason behind it is unclear.
However, this is simply too appalling and cruel, isn't it?

 ”What does Hina-sama think about this?”

 ”Who knows? She refuses to discuss it, even in the slightest.
Perhaps her memories have been twisted differently from ours?”

 ”That can't be…
Our Lord, manipulating Hina-sama's memories?”

 Onitsuki Yuusei, the current head of the Onitsuki family, is well-known for his excessive doting on the first princess.
Although he now conceals it, his favoritism before he became a vegetable was truly extraordinary.
It was marked by an intense and fanatical obsession.
That is why it is unimaginable that he would do something to Hina.

 ”…But let me tell you, don't say it out loud.
If there's even a chance our memories are being manipulated, it could drive us insane.”

 If one were to suspect memory manipulation, it could lead to a lack of trust in everything.
People might fall into a state of paranoia, doubting even their closest relationships.
It would be unimaginable if someone were to go mad and take their own life.

 ”Well, there's a possibility that our memories have been tampered with…
but that seems unlikely.”

 Manipulating and altering memories is not a foolproof technique.
Brainwashing dozens of individuals is not an easy task.
Even if brainwashing were possible, complex manipulations would be difficult to achieve.
There are numerous ways to gather evidence.
In that regard, Sarujirou had great confidence in his own memories.

 ”…But why would something like this happen?”

 Kurou muttered with a grave expression.
If it was just about punishing the servant's fall, it would have been more than sufficient.
No, it would have been better to go as far as maximum punishment.
No need to go through the trouble of falsifying memories and then depraving the servant…
it's just troublesome.

 ”Stop, stop.
Don't get too involved.
Especially you, it's not your place to get deeply involved.”

 Sarujirou warned Kurou.
The Hayama clan of Onitsuki clan were settled with the head clan's deaths.
However, it does not seem that Kurou has relaxed the vigilance of the head of the family and his faction.
Rather, it should be seen as strengthened due to the awakening of the Onitsuki clan's head, who had been in a coma for many years.

 ”Are you going to throw away the position you worked so hard to attain? Besides, you'll also take care of the Renge (Hasuka) princess, won't you?”


 The inheritance of the Renge (Hasuka) family, devastated by the kappa incident, is still in dispute.

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