Edited by CrimsonWolf
After the council, I took the satisfied Taishakutsukige from its reverse harem of black horses and ran through the mountain path without any retainers following me. Each time I glanced at Taishakutsukige, I thought about the person I was about to meet, and my heart throbbed a little.
Continuing through the calm rural areas, I arrived at the area that Kiyotsuna had investigated for me. Even though I hadn’t pulled on the reins, Taishakutsukige came to a halt, almost as if she could read my mind. It was an old farming family, a house located in a town at the foot of Nana Aoyama, southeast of Odani Castle.
Mud walls with cracks where the sun could shine through and a roof made of wooden boards only held down by stone weights. It was a gloomy residence and the smell of the damp earth filled the air. Compared to some of the other houses, it wasn’t that awful, but it was also difficult to call it adequate.
‘This is Hikobe’s house…’
I remembered the face of the man who looked after Taishakutsukige in Odani Castle, the man who received capital punishment from Hisamasa after offering me Ishiwari Kanemitsu .
At the moment, Hisamasa was greatly agitated in Odani Castle. It was because the treasured sword, passed down through the Azai Clan, had been taken by the man taking care of “father’s precious horse” and was still missing. (ED: Father here refers to Sukemasa, Hisama’s father and the original rider of Taishakutsukige.)
Even if it was a retired man… to take the private property of the previous family head, and on top of that, the Azai Clan’s heirloom, and lose it, made Hikobe’s sins quite severe. Hisamasa, not being satisfied with giving him capital punishment, was rumored to be thinking about exterminating his entire “clan” as well. And so, the leader of the Azai Clan’s vassals, Kiyotsuna Akao, was ordered by Hisamasa to “investigate Hikobe’s direct relatives.”
However, Kiyotsuna was delaying his investigation on purpose, passing all the information he managed to obtain to me first.
“Rather than letting the now retired Hisamasa-sama know, I believe it was better to inform the current head of the Clan, Nagamasa-sama…”
Kiyotsuna probably guessed the facts about Hikobe’s deed. Or maybe Naotsune who saw me pulling Ishiwari Kanemitsu out at Sawayama Castle knew about Hisamasa’s instructions and whispered the details to Kiyotsuna silently.
However, regardless of what had happened, thanks to Kiyotsuna, I was able to visit Hikobe’s residence before Hisamasa’s direct subordinates came.
“… Excuse me, is anybody home?”
When I raised my voice towards the humble house…
The one who appeared while lowering her head was a girl around 9 years old. Her nutrition must have been bad as well. Her body was slim, so delicate that it seemed it would break if one were to grasp it too strongly. Her skin was quite tanned by the sun, so I guessed that she must’ve worked outside in the sun a lot.
Having only said that, I was troubled as to how to continue this conversation.
“Hikobe only has one little sister.” I recalled Kiyotsuna’s words inside my head. This girl is probably the little sister of the man who died for my sake…
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When I remembered that, my pulse intensified and I became unable to figure out what to say next. Putting my hand on my forehead as I looked up to the sky, I was unable to face her directly.
As I did that, Taishakutsukige gave me a small poke with her nose. Turning back, I found those light green pupils filled with a strong will, staring at me and my behavior intently.
That was right; there was no longer anyone else for this girl. It was like Taishakutsukige was telling me to “Do things properly.” That was the feeling I got.
I braced myself and started walking through unkempt path towards her. In response, she ran inside the house, her back still slightly bent at the waist.
It was a natural response. In this age, it was an everyday occurrence for a woman to be raped by a man. Not only that, I had close to no connection to her at all. It was obvious for her to be on guard.
“Hikobe has received capital punishment.”
I said it loud enough so she could hear it inside the house where she had run to.
“Your big brother is no longer in this world.”
Her face appeared timidly from a crack in the house. After examining my face fixedly, she became pale and started trembling.
“I want to speak to you. Without anyone listening to us.”
She gave a small nod as her body continued to tremble. I entered the gloomy and humid house, while she stood still in one of the room’s corners. When I beckoned her, after hesitating a little, she sat down on the ground, keeping an adequate distance from me.
“I want to ask you a few questions. Okay?”
After watching her nod deeply, I went on.
“Hikobe, who was taking care of the horses at Odani Castle, is your brother, correct?”
She once again nodded deeply.
“What about your parents? Are you alone in this house?”
The girl nodded.
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“No, that can’t be… there is no way you can be living on your own.”
“The village head has… been holding on to big brother’s property and has been looking after me…”
Well, it wasn’t unreasonable for the eldest son, who had gone to lend his services at the castle, to ask the most influential person in the village to look after their future affairs. That being said, this house’s environment didn’t seem that bad, but…
“Has big brother died…?”
Her face distorted and she began crying where she stood. In the modest and narrow space, the girl’s cries echoed. I rushed to her and softly embraced her thin body. I intended to stay that way until the girl stopped crying.
“Are you okay now?”
While sipping her nose, the girl nodded deeply.
“Has samurai-sama… come to tell me about big brother?”
“That is one of the reasons.”
I struggled for a while with what to say to her, however, saying nothing wouldn’t settle anything, so I spoke to the girl.
“Your big brother… Hikobe, for the sake of another man, did something that… required him to prepare himself for death. That man feels deeply indebted to Hikobe. However… what Hikobe did is something that the world finds unforgivable. It’s a sin that not only Hikobe, but his whole family has to carry.”
“That includes me…?”
“That’s right. At this rate, you will be hanged.”
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“Enma-sama as well?” ((Not really clear on who this is, probably the village chief that took care of her.))
I asked the girl a question as I made her stand up.
“Do you want to die?”
The girl shook her head wildly.
“If that’s the case, come with me.”
“Is that okay…? “
“Well, only if you are not against it.”
The girl squeezed the cuff of my kimono hard.
“Is samurai-san an acquaintance of big brother?”
“Well yes, but…”
“Then it’s okay.”
The girl looked firmly into my eyes.
“If so, then it’s alright.”
Exiting the ruined house with the girl, Taishakutsukige who was waiting to go home, let out a cry. I climbed on to Taishakutsukige and extended my hand to the girl. I was finally able to clearly see the girl’s features.
Her face was pure, not much older than ten years old. It was one of those cute girls that one could find from time to time on summer vacation, when going back to one’s hometown. That was the feeling she gave.
“What’s your name?”
“Hisa… I see. Shall we go then?”
I took the little sister of the man who “literally” threw his life away for my sake, on my lap and ran back at full speed on my way back to Odani Castle. This was the only thing I could do for Hikobe, who was no longer a part of this world. Incidentally, I had already thought about how to deal with the girl.
‘Whether they accept or not is a different problem…’
It probably wouldn’t turn into anything terrible. I had not prepared a meeting, but I was determined to make it work somehow… No, I had to make it work.
I went to the town at Odani Castle and bought a pretty kimono for children. After I made her wear it, I passed through the castle gates. While basking in the curious gazes of the vassals, I pulled the girl’s hand and knocked on the door of the room of the person I was looking for.