”…Princess Hina?”


 ”Wha?! No, I'm sorry.
I was reminded of something from the past.
It's nothing.
There's no problem.
…You don't need to kneel.
I want to talk to you while looking into your eyes.”

 While maintaining silence as if her mind was elsewhere, Hina suddenly smiled as if she had returned to her senses at the second call, then let go of my shoulders.
She distanced herself from me and made that request.
To talk while looking into her eyes.
It was the same request she made when I woke up in her room after the incident in Hotoya Village.

 ”Y-yes…”

 ”I see.
Sorry.
I always end up being selfish with you.”

 ”Well…”

 I responded to her proposal, feeling perplexed but having no other choice.
Hina nodded amiably in response.
Her reaction only deepened my confusion.

 That's right.
To be honest, I was confused.
The atmosphere was too strange and incomprehensible.
I didn't understand why she, why Hina, was here.
I didn't even understand why she had such an expression or why she made such a request…

 ”Hehehe.
There's no need to be so afraid.
We used to play together a lot.
Despite our respective positions…
it's fine to be a little more relaxed in an empty place, right?”

 I widened my eyes at Hina's words.
I was dumbfounded.
Fearfully, I looked at her and opened my mouth.

 ”P-Princess Hina? Does that mean…
does your statement mean…?”

 ”Hehe.
That's why there's no need to be afraid…
I understand.
In your position, you can't freely say this or that, right? It doesn't matter.
I have only one thing I want to convey: I don't hold any ill will towards you.
I don't have the slightest grudge against you.
That's all.”

 ”…Yes.”

 I kept my response short and concise to Hina's calm voice.
At the same time, I felt a weight lifted from my chest, and a sense of relief washed over me.

 Yes, it was something I already knew.
Given Hina's personality, it was only natural.
She wasn't the kind of person who would cling to childhood memories forever.
However, even so…

 (It's true, there's a difference when things are said clearly.)

 I sighed softly, feeling relieved.
I felt saved.

 ”Well, why are you here, sneaking around like this in the thicket? Is something wrong?”


 ”Um, well…”

 But my relief turned into a predicament in the face of Hina's observation.
I became visibly flustered.
This was something that Hina, based on her character, would not immediately dispose of or seal away if the truth were spoken…

 ”Um…”

 ”Um?”

 ”So, um…”

 ”So?”

 Hina's gaze, filled with curiosity, pondered.
She…

 ”…uh, well…
I was…
pleasuring myself (か皮つるみ/peeling of my skin).”

 In a split-second decision, a spur-of-the-moment excuse slipped out of my mouth, and I repeated the same mistake once again…

* * *

 Hina and I strolled around, pretending to patrol the area around the guarded territory.

 ”It's quite a rich forest.
It would make good farmland if it were cleared.”

 ”Yes, you're right…”

 While looking out at the dense and abundant forest where human hands rarely reached, I responded mechanically, weakly.
My mind was elsewhere.

 …Hina accepted my blatantly suspicious excuse without hesitation.
She didn't react like my sister, becoming stubborn or shouting in embarrassment.

 ”I see.
Well, it can't be helped.
It's a physiological phenomenon, after all.”

 ”I'll keep this matter within my heart.”

 ”No need to hold back.
We are as we are.”


 With a smooth nod and a refreshing understanding, Hina's attitude only heightened my sense of embarrassment.
It was an embarrassing story, but if possible, I wanted to collapse and groan right there, unable to bear it any longer.

 It was somewhat better with Suzune.
My sister didn't know who I was.
She saw me as a servant, someone leaving as a passing stranger after a few days of acquaintance.
This time was different.
We both knew each other's childhoods well, and if I dare to be conceited, we were childhood friends.
And so, that evasion, that excuse was affirmed as if she deeply understood it.
The mental damage I received from this was immeasurable.

 What was even worse was that I couldn't deny it now…!!

 ”…What's wrong? You've been looking down and lacking energy for a while now.
Are you feeling unwell?”

 ”I-I'm fine.
It's nothing important.”

 ”You can't say there's nothing important with such a weak voice.”

 ”Ugh!?”

 In response to my answer, Hina retorted, taking a step closer.
With a resolute voice, a tense expression, she moved her face closer until our eyes and noses were almost touching.
I instinctively jumped back, retreating in surprise.

 …But she had closed the distance in an instant.

 ”P-Princess Hina? Um…
your face is awfully close, isn't it?”

 ”It's because you averted your gaze.
If you're truly serious and sincere about talking with someone, isn't this natural? Isn't that what you yourself said?”

 ”Well…”

 It was a result of her strict upbringing and education as the daughter of the Onitsuki clan's head, including various lessons and training.
Hina, who had grown up familiar with the life of a rural farmer, naturally rebelled against it, fiercely resisting like a wild beast.
But I had advised her with these words: The other person is also doing their job.
It shows sincerity to at least pretend to listen attentively.

 Hina, who had initially shown dissatisfaction and skepticism, eventually came to appreciate it as her superiors stopped pursuing her and reprimanding her, and the time constraints decreased.
She didn't seem to fully grasp the teachings, though.

 ”I'm telling you, this isn't just a pretense, you know? I'm genuinely concerned about your well-being when I ask.
I want you to understand that.”

 With Hina's earnest and serious tone, there was no other response I could give.
And then, a moment later, I realized something.
If it was my immediate supervisor, I might be ignored, but perhaps with Hina…?

 I glanced at her.
Sensing my gaze, Hina looked straight back at me and nodded.

 ”Do you have something to say?”


 ”If you insist.”

 ”I'm telling you not to hold back, aren't I?”

 Hina quickly responded to my confirmation, without hesitation or wavering.
It was a decisive and resolute answer, truly befitting of her.
I responded to her kindness.

 ”…From my investigation, there is a possibility of a youkai group nearby.”

 Since I couldn't exactly say that a demon had warned me, I conveyed the information to Hina using my familiar, my shikigami.
I informed her about the group of youkai lurking near the lake, and that their leader was a great youkai.
It was dangerous to leave it unattended, and it would be best to take immediate action.

 ”I see…”

 In response to my suggestion, Hina placed a hand on her chin, lost in thought.
She considered it carefully.
After stealing a glance at me, she made her decision.

 ”All right, understood.
…Let's begin the extermination now.”

 ”Yes! …Huh?”

 As I agreed with Hina's declaration, I was taken aback by her immediate response.
It was a lightning-fast decision, an instant judgment.

 ”Come, Kouyo.”

 ”Ah…”

 Frozen in shock, my thoughts came to a halt, but Hina called out, disregarding me.
In the next moment, Kouyo descended straight from the sky.
It appeared before us.

 ”…!?”

 It was only natural to take a step back in fear.

 It exuded a sinister and majestic aura.
The golden-scaled divine dragon coiled around, encircling Hina and me multiple times.

 Kouyo, the sacred dragon that the Onitsuki family had inherited for generations, an incomplete divine dragon owned by the Fusō-kuni under the exorcists' umbrella, was one and the same.
I was overwhelmed by its overwhelming presence.
It was awe-inspiring.


 ”It's the nearby lake.
I'm counting on you.”

 Hina's words were met with a high-pitched cry from the dragon.
It was a response of agreement.
Hina nodded in response to the dragon's attitude as a matter of course, then stepped on the dragon's head and climbed aboard.

 ”What's wrong? Get on quickly.”

 ”Huh!? W-Well…
but…”

 As Hina called me over while turning around, I hesitated to step forward.
The sheer magnitude of the dragon's presence was overwhelming, and its gaze pierced through me directly.
The slight trembling of its throat could be interpreted as a threat.
I even had the impression that if I took a single step forward, it would simply devour me.

 ”Kouyo.”

 'Grrrrr…'

 In response to Hina's call, which sounded almost reproachful, the dragon growled for a moment.
With narrowed eyes, it fell silent.

 ”…He's temperamental.
But it's fine now.
Come.”

 ”…I see.”

 I had no means to refute Hina's call once again.
Fearfully, I stepped on the dragon's snout.
The dragon briefly snorted in a rough manner, but that was the extent of its reaction.
I held my breath, slowly lifted my other foot, and…

 ”Hurry up, time is of the essence.”

 ”Whoa…!?”

 Immediately after, my arm was grabbed and forcefully pulled towards Hina.
As I stumbled, Hina wrapped her arms around my waist and drew me close.
We were in close contact.

 ”He-heh, don't be so scared.
Aren't you a man?”

 ”W-Well, I believe you are a princess, Hina-sama…?”

 I responded with a tense expression to Hina's teasing words.
She seemed slightly miffed.

 ”A princess, huh? That doesn't suit me.
…Then, what do you want to do? Should we take off? Shall I support your body?”

 ”No, what about clinging to one of those horns?”

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