thes, I first went to the stable.


 I borrowed a horse from the stable of Kizuki's residence.
The horse was a chestnut gelding of no particular rarity or pedigree.
But it was intended to carry a gift rather than to be ridden by me.


 Still, if a servant is riding a horse, it looks like insolence…
So, some of the men working in the stable looked at me silently with reproachful eyes.


 After all, despite being no good, a horse is still a horse.
Its value is comparable to that of a car in a previous life.
It might be more expensive if considering that it is not a machine, but an animal that will die if not cared for carefully.


 I, however, have a role to play as a messenger.
There is no point in getting cocky or bossy.
If they want to complain, go to the higher-ups…
but since they can't say it, they'll just hit someone below them.


 ”Come on, get in the saddle.
Put your feet in the stirrups and don't let go of the reins.
It may be a bad horse, but if you fall off you'll die, okay?

 ”I-I know it…!? But stop touching me so close!! Ouch!! And don't tighten the string so tight!!?”


 I put the boy on the saddle and tighten the string to prevent him from falling off the horse, and the person who is being tightened makes a face of disgust.
He seems to dislike not only the tightness itself, but also my touching him.
I understand how he feels, but for this time he must endure it.


 ”Tsk, it would be easier if I was alone to begin with…”


 When Uemon asked for another messenger to accompany me on my mission, Shisui agreed, and the result was that this boy, who was a child, accompanied me.
Shisui said that the boy would know the manners and etiquette, and the decision was made.


 'It's good, isn't it? Isn't it a good decoy to use in case of emergency?'


 The voice whispering in my ear as I grumbled was from a bee.
More precisely, it was from a shikigami in the shape of a bee.


 For the information, old man Matsushige and his granddaughter stayed behind from the capital.
For them, heading for the remote and exclusionary northern lands would be nothing short of suicidal.
Even so, Aoko the Blue Demon, and perhaps a few shikigami were attached to me to keep an eye on me.
Maybe these guys doing this to keep me from talking…


 ”…Okay, that's about it.
Hold on a second.
I've got more stuff.”


 I say and move away, after tying the boy up carefully so he doesn't fall off his horse.
One reason is to retrieve the backpack that I had left at the next hut, and the other reason is to reply to the shikigami.


 ”Decoy, huh? Exorcists are still capable of saying terrible things.”

 'You already know that exorcists are like that, don't you?'

 ”But you know that it is one thing to understand them and another to like them, right?”


 I reply to Shikigami's words, trying to keep my composure as I enter the hut and wrap my pack in my backpack.
Exorcists who have grafted, concentrated, and honed their talents and bloodlines are precious, and that is inevitable in a world full of unreasonable people like youkai who are willing to kill a person the first time they see him or her.
I understand that.


 '….I'm not blaming you for it.
I understand that this kind of thinking goes hand in hand with the thinking of youkai and that it's a bloodless act in the world.
But, actually, I am relieved.
If a sweetie like you had agreed to it without hesitation, I would have judged that even your head had turned into a youkai.'


 The Shikigami says without hesitation, “I am a target to be exterminated as it is.” But well, that's just what she's trying to do to me.
Still, it's a lot better than that demon, although I don't know where the death flags are.


 ”…Well, that's about it.
Can you keep a lookout for us along the way?”

 '…I can't always keep an eye on you, so it will be automatic, is that OK?'

 ”That would still be very helpful.
I don't have the spiritual power to maintain a shikigami all the time.”


 With my backpack on my back, I hold up the stick with the spear in it and say thank you.
Well, it's a big city road under the jurisdiction of the Imperial Court, so there's no danger of dangerous youkai appearing on it.


 Anyway, when I leave the hut, I find the boy on horseback surrounded by a group of the miscellaneous laborer.
They are arguing with each other, and it is not a peaceful scene in the least.


a troublesome thing to do before leaving…)


 I was slightly annoyed and angry but quickly calmed down.
Then, I walk over to the place where the commotion is going on.
And I speak as nonchalantly as I can.


 ”Excuse me.
What do you want with the boy in my charge? We're about to leave on a mission.
If you need something, you'll have to ask me, won't you?”


 At my words, the laborers turn to me with swarthy expressions on their faces, and at the same time, they are dismayed.
It was a natural reaction when I was wearing a hannya mask and had just pulled out the spear.


 ”No, no, we mean…


 After taking one look at me, they turned their eyes away from me and left quickly.


 ”Tsk, even though he's a traitor and a disgrace…
he's still holding the authority from the tiger.”

 ”Truly, he's always been good at winning over the others.”

 ”Being together with a child is a perfect match.”


 The laborers mutter and mutter with disdainful glances as they leave.
Hey, I can hear you, okay? But, well, there is no denying the first two points, though the last one is a problem…




 I looked at the boy who was riding the horse with self-mockery.
The boy's eyes were moist and his body was trembling with humiliation.
Combined with the last words of the miscellaneous laborers…
it was easy to predict what humiliating words the boy had been told by them.
He must have been very frustrated and saddened, and more than anything, it must have been even more painful for him not to be able to refute them because their words were true.




 But, when he noticed my presence, he stared at me with a frightened expression on his face.
Unlike the hostility and suspicion he had shown me earlier when I was tying him up, it was the look of fear that the weak give to the strong, or that the herbivore gives to the carnivore.


 …a timid look from one who has been exploited for a long time.


 ”…Ignore the words of those miscellaneous laborers, no matter what they say to you.
They're just jealous.”


 A child who might become a household member.
I didn't know if he'd get blamed for being in my charge.


 ”….don't worry about me.”


 The boy sniffed and muttered as if to croak.
It sounded like he was trying to be tough.


 ”I see.
Then let's leave that thing alone and get going, shall we? They're not so big that we need to worry about them at all.”


 It's been a few days since I've been in charge of him, and we're not close enough to talk about each other.
So I affirm the boy's words, grab the horse's leash, and pull.
The horse starts to move in response to the tug on its neck.




 The boy panics as he grabs the horse by the neck.
But then, Shirowakamaru seems to have noticed my small laugh from under his face and gives me a grumpy attitude.


 ”What's the matter? You'll get used to it.
But well, it can't be helped if you're scared of this.”


 I said teasingly and started to lead the horses away…






 It took us about a day and a half to the destination, Shiro'oku, and the ride was comfortable as the spring and early summer months were just around the corner.
The only problem was the occasional low-class “youkai” that appeared on the road.


 ”Nevertheless, these are not just small youkai, but young youkai…
not worth fearing…”


 I reap the young youkai like a fish swimming aimlessly in the air with my spear.
With just a single blow, the young youkai is no more than a small youkai.
Even a farmer with a hoe could have killed it.
It must have been born a day or two ago.


 ”Eek!? Youkai!? Why…”

 ”Shirowakamaru! Pull your horse back!!”


 The horse was kept in the exorcist's house, so it was unperturbed, but after I ordered my companion, who was in a state of panic against the oncoming youkai, to do so, I stabbed the man-eating beast that jumped at me with a spear through its mouth.
Then I thrust my spear further out and smashed the skull of the monster cat behind it.
The spear is so sharp that it is not the same even if it is mass-produced for the Yun-shoku.


 Now it is late afternoon, and we are sitting on the road eating our lunch boxes (rice balls specially made by Magoroku and Mari).
When doing so, I kill a swarm of young youkai that have come flying out of the forest like flies.


 'They're coming at you from the right.
what's that thing circling behind you? This is…'

 ”W-whoa…!? It's coming!? Oh, no!? It's climbing up…!!?”


 A voice came from my ear, followed by a scream behind me.
I turned around to see Shirowakamaru screaming and a flea the size of a human fist on the leg of the boy, pulling the horse's leash as I had ordered.
The youkai was climbing up.
It was also biting at his clothes with its clicking jaws, and when it saw that it could not do so, it was climbing up to the boy's face.
This youkai seemed to be drawn by the spiritual power within him.
Well, it is an instinct of youkai to eat those who have spiritual power and aim for a higher level.


 ”But the movement is too slow.”


 First, I kicked a spider that jumped into my face with its tongue sticking out from the trees on the right side, like an alien from somewhere, and kicked it back into where it came from.
Next, I walked up to my screaming companion and grabbed the big flea, and slammed it to the ground.
Then, I crushed it with a spear just to be sure.
After that, I buried it in the ground.
Or rather, back to the earth.


 ”It's twelve, huh? Even though the youkais are small fry, I never expected to encounter such a large number of them on a road not far from the city…”

 'It is odd even including that, though it may be that they were attracted by the spiritual power of the boy there.
Perhaps it's….'


 The shikigami who is hiding beside me replies to my small muttering.
We both think of the image of an overly troublesome demon in our minds and let out a small sigh at about the same time.


 ”……That's about it.
We've been here a little too long.
After we eat, we're going to go.”

[1] Type of ritual or ceremony in which wooden tablets or plaques are burned in order to offer protection or blessings.

[2] A tool that is used in traditional Japanese Buddhism, particularly in the Shingon and Tendai sects, for striking a wooden fish to keep time during chanting.

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