Chapter 5. Will A Snake Come Out?1
Yoimachi, who had been serving the Sasaragi family as a “Kusa” since he was a child, had faced many enemies and was skilled at estimating the general strength of his opponents. It was almost like a sixth sense he had learned through abundant experience. However, in order to bring back information to his master, survival and escape were more important than victory or defeat. Yoimachi’s “intuition” had saved his life many times in the past, and he was proud to say that there was little doubt about its accuracy.
…or there should have been.
The absence of the slightest hint of hesitation, not even in a single word, sent chills down Yoimachi’s spine.
A young, beautiful man sat on a sofa with his long legs crossed, his weight resting comfortably against the backrest. The man, who was said to be the kingdom of Palcemith’s advisor, had a lax smile on his face, but it was contradicted by his jade eyes, which contained no traces of friendliness.
His thin body and intelligent demeanour indicated that he was a civil official who was not good with strenuous exercise. But, no matter how many times he thought about it, Yoimachi could not come up with a plan to physically subdue him. On the contrary, the images that kept popping up in Yoimachi’s mind were of the horrible consequences that awaited him if he tried to harm that man.
The man chuckled throatily at Yoimachi’s behaviour. Unable to run away, Yomachi also couldn’t easily divulge the inner workings of his country and consequently had no choice but to keep his mouth shut.
“You don’t have to reveal everything. Only the things you deem okay to share will suffice.”
In other words, he was saying that even with a small bit of information, he would still be able to strip Yoimachi naked.
The other party’s unfathomable attitude almost had Yoimachi’s hand reaching for the wakizashi2 that was still at his waist; however, the killing intent and sense of intimidation emanating from the guy who was sitting, comfortably, next to that man made Yoimachi’s body stiffen all the way to his fingertips. The hazel eyes glared at him with the very minimum sense of respect, slightly scrutinizing. It was just like the gaze of a beast in front of its prey. Yoimachi found himself automatically, with a strange sort of calmness, resigning himself, wondering, ‘Is this the end?’.
But before his fangs could reach Yoimachi, the beast was easily subdued by a light tap on his head, accompanied by a sigh from the very same person Yoimatchi had just pointed his blade at.
“Stop it, Jolga.”
“Don’t go and think that many people can talk properly after facing your bloodlust. It would be difficult to proceed with our little talk.”
The smiling advisor snorted and patted the Knight Commander, who was seated next to him, somewhat roughly on the chin with his palm. The gesture was not one of affection nor friendship, but rather one of a secret master-servant relationship, as if the master were rebuking a beast that was devoted only to him. The two young knights, on the other hand, had a slightly disturbed look as they silently watched over the other two. It was hard for Yoimachi to grasp the relationships between them.
“Oh, yes, let me introduce myself before you start asking questions. My name is Anderheim Yucht Asbal. Although I often go to the royal palace as an advisor, my current position is that of a freeloader in the House of Oswein.”
“Are you saying that you can’t stand such a freeloader?”
“Fufu…Well, it doesn’t matter. Though I may look like this, I am the former Prime Minister of the Palcemith Kingdom. I’m much older than you might imagine. In fact, I’m about four years older than this Knight Commander here.”
As expected, Yoimachi was stunned speechless.
He knew the Knight Commander’s age beforehand. If Anderheim were four years older than that, his age would be well over forty. But no matter how you looked at him, he appeared to be in his twenties.
“…It’s as if you’ve eaten the flesh of a mermaid.”
A metaphor that had been handed down from generation to generation in Hinoe naturally flowed out of Yoimachi’s mouth. In contrast to the knight commander and the young knights, who tilted their heads in confusion, Anderhiem let out an intrigued sound.
“Is that the story of the Eight-Hundred Year Nun3?”
“Hmm…I wonder if all these various legends are connected. It looks like I really do need to go to Hinoe.”
“Just how knowledgeable are you, sir? Not even Hinoens are that familiar with the anecdote of the Eight-Hundred Year Nun.”
The story of the nun who gained eight hundred years of youth and beauty by eating the flesh of a mermaid was a legend that had never been written in books, but only passed down orally. And yet, someone in such a distant land knew about it.
“Information is the lifeblood of nation’s. Gathering intel is my speciality.”
In addition, from the bits and pieces of info he had obtained, he was able to infer all kinds of facts and draw conclusions about the situation; he must have been a man of uncommon intelligence.
He claimed to be a former Prime Minister, but he had merely retired from the public stage, in fact, he was probably closer to the heart of the nation. This was not someone that a mere Kusa could take on alone, no matter how hard Yoimachi tried.
Then there is only one possible course of action.
Yoimachi got up off the couch, put his hands on the floor again, and bowed deeply to Anderheim.
“…Please forgive my rudeness. I wish to rely on your knowledge, which is as highly polished as a diamond. I desperately want to protect Princess Shirayuki, the only remaining royal child of the true wife.”
It all started ten years ago. As Shirayuki was being born, a major earthquake struck Hinoe, and that was the beginning…
A huge eight-headed serpent with a long, writhing body crawled out of the crevices in the earth created by the earthquake. The giant snake attacked nearby villages at random, wreaking havoc with its overwhelming power. Ordinary swords, bows, and arrows were no match for the steel scales that covered its body, and the numerous traps that had been set up were useless in the face of an intelligence that understood human language.
Eventually, the giant serpent coiled itself around the top of a mountain near the capital of Hinoe and demanded that a young girl, of all things, be sacrificed as an offering.
The first to be sacrificed was a girl who was the sole survivor of her destroyed village and the daughter of its chief. She came forward and offered herself as the first offering to the serpent, hoping to save Hinoe with her own body.
But, as expected, the serpent continued to demand offerings the following year and the year after that.
Repeated attempts were made to defeat it, but all of them ended in failure.
Then, after the number of sacrifices offered exceeded the number of one hand, not wanting the people to sacrifice any more lives, a member of the royal family became the sacrifice for the first time. It was Hifumi, the eldest daughter of Motonari, the head of the Sasaragi family. The following year, the second daughter, Futaba, was sacrificed. It was then decided that Miyuki, the third daughter, would be offered to the serpent as the eighth offering.
The Sasaragi family had planned to defeat the serpent with all they had that year. The day was finally coming when the poison they had been preparing for the giant snake for eight years would work at last. The seven maidens, who had been sacrificed to the serpent so far had swallowed down a package of poison before the serpent devoured them, turning their bodies into poisonous vessels before feeding themselves to the serpent.
It gradually reduced the giant serpent’s strength, and by the eighth year, only one of the eight serpent heads was working properly.
Seizing the opportunity, an elite force was formed under the leadership of Susanoi, the first prince of the Hinoe Kingdom. They hunted down the giant serpent that had been lured out by the sacrifice and succeeded in crushing its seven weakened heads. Then, while they were fighting the last remaining head, a thick fog suddenly rolled over the area.
“I, myself, was on the battlefield at that very moment.”
Because of Yoimachi’s low rank, he did not fight on the front lines as a member of the elite force. As he was busy providing backup from the rear and dealing with the evil spirits of the mountains and rivers that had gathered due to the giant serpent’s malicious influence, Yoimachi was sure that he had seen the shadow of Susanoi. In his foggy, white-washed vision, he watched Susanoi cut off the last head that the serpent had raised.
They thought that this would be the end of their suffering and that peace would return to Hinoe…
“…When the fog lifted, all that was left was Prince Susanoi’s corpse, his stomach brutally torn open.”
The serpent fled to a valley not far from the mountain where it was coiled, and laid its body on the bottom of the deep, tree-covered ravine, cursing the Sasaragi family as it healed its wounds…or so it had seemed.
“…It had seemed, you say?”
When Anderheim asked for an explanation of the indicated hearsay, Yoimachi nodded back.
“Due to my failure to protect Prince Susanoi, I was dismissed from the front line. But I was able to serve as Princess Shirayuki’s guard thanks to His Highness Motonari’s intercession…I have never personally approached the giant serpent since that battle.”
“The next year, and the year after that, I heard that the giant serpent demanded offerings again. So, Princess Shiori, the fourth daughter, and Princess Satsuki, the fifth daughter, became offerings…As a result, all of His Highness Motonari’s daughters became sacrifices.”
Jolga’s face also distorted. The ancient dragon Karis was also a being that demanded sacrifices, but the interval was only once every ten years; moreover, it was a boon that enriched the entire Palcemith Kingdom. Unlike the giant serpent of Hinoe, which was just a pure tyrant.
However, from what Yoimachi told them, this disaster surrounding Hinoe was not so simple.
“…Then, Sir Yoimachi. You have the faintest inkling that those two weren’t extra offerings, correct?”
“As you have guessed, yes.”
Yoimachi lowered his head in confirmation, and Anderheim, the one who had asked the question, closed his eyes with a sigh. The two young knights looked at each other, while the Head Priest, who had been listening silently, crossed his fingers in front of his chest and offered a small prayer for the repose of their souls.
“So you ‘ran away’ from the giant snake lurking in Hinoe. Without even being able to grasp its true form.”
“…I’m deeply ashamed to admit it. His Highness Motonari’s true wife, Lady Hirugao, had four children: Prince Susanoi, Princess Futaba, Princess Satsuki and Prince Shirayuki. But three of them have already been…sacrificed.”4
“I see. His Highness Motonari had ten children, five males and five females. Now that all of his daughters have been sacrificed, and his eldest son, Prince Susanoi, has passed away, only four princes remain.”
“Yes. The second prince, Prince Seiji, and the third prince, Prince Tokiwa, are very fond of their younger brother, Prince Shirayuki, but both are the children of different concubines. We still don’t know how things would unfold if their mothers were involved. There is also the fifth prince, Prince Itsugae, who is three years younger than Prince Shirayuki. Prince Itsugae’s mother is also a concubine, different from the elder brothers.”
“Ha…Such a hassle everywhere.”
Anderheim’s frowned, arms crossed and tapped one of his elbows with his fingertips as he allowed himself a moment to ponder.
“…I have somewhat grasped the breakdown of this family’s feud. First, there was a giant snake with eight heads in Hinoe. The first prince, Prince Susanoi, the legitimate son of Lady Hirugao, the legal wife, defeated it. However, Prince Susanoi was killed by someone who took advantage of the confusion. The serpent that was supposed to have been killed turned out to be alive. On top of that, two more of the Sasaragi family’s princesses had to give their lives in vain as offerings.”
In the beginning, the young girls were indeed noble sacrifices to defeat the giant serpent.
However, the existence of the giant serpent was now but a tool in the struggle for the succession of the throne, which was being led by that “someone” who had assassinated Susanoi. Moreover, there was definitely a woman’s presence behind this. She was reaching out with vindictive, entwining hands, revealing yet hiding the desire of a mother who wanted her child to be the king. The Sasaragi family could not treat concubines who had given birth to boys disrespectfully, making it difficult for them to investigate.
“And then, Princess Shirayuki, the last remaining boy of Lady Hirugao, was chosen as a sacrifice. The enemy is not easy to identify, but their objective is very clear. In order to get away from the clutches of the enemy, even if only for a little while, you purposely took the responsibility of becoming an envoy to the Palcemith Kingdom, which was likely to be an open position…That is how you’d put it, correct?”
“…I’m truly astounded by your insight.”
“Is that so? However, from here, some information needs to be sorted out. Sigurd.”
“List the questions you have about what Sir Yoimachi told us.”
Sigurd muttered, “Let’s see,” and placed his hand lightly on his chin as he looked at Yoimachi.
“Since I am inexperienced, I can’t say much about the family dispute…but what bothered me the most about the slaying of the giant serpent was why it was done on the ‘eighth time.’ I’m sorry to say this, but you were able to reduce the power of up to seven of the eight heads of the serpent. It would indeed have required one more sacrifice, but it would have been better to weaken all eight heads of the serpent before going in to defeat it, to ensure victory.”
“Indeed. That point certainly raises questions. So, Lutora, what do you have?”
At Anderheim’s urging, Lutora, who was standing by the wall, let his gaze wander aimlessly in thought, leaning his back further against the wall.
“Me? I think…something is wrong with the order.”
“Not the order of the sacrificed maidens…no, I guess that has something to do with it, but, er, it’s hard to put into words. The order in which the malignant intentions were delivered seems to be all over the place, hmm.”
Anderheim smiled at Lutora, who groaned as he ruffled his own hair, saying he couldn’t explain it well.
“You’re very perceptive, Lutora. That ‘feeling of discomfort’ is crucial.”
“Unfortunately, the fate of the Sasaragi family is complicated and moreover, difficult to understand and surmise, just like the number of heads of the giant serpent. However, there is still not enough information to prove anything…So, we have to shake things up.”
“Shake things up?”
Anderheim held up three fingers to Yoimachi, who repeated his words.
“If the enemy doesn’t show up, we can flush them out by doing what upsets them, what they don’t like, or what they don’t want to see happen. If we make those things a reality, the enemy will expose themselves at some point. The first thing we need to do is to ask His Majesty to formally accept the request of Hinoe Kingdom. I’m sure they didn’t expect the Palcemith Kingdom to prepare a strike force for a ‘piece of silk.’ In addition, the Head Priest is leading the treatment of Princess Shirayuki. At the same time, a rumour that the Knight Commander of the Palcemith Kingdom is heading to Hinoe to defeat the giant serpent is being spread…Let’s first start here. Sigurd, Lutora, please consult with His Excellency the Prime Minister and his aides as well.”
“And Malacia, I want the results to be as clear and obvious as possible. I’ll leave Princess Shirayuki’s treatment to you.”
“Understood. I’ll begin the treatment as soon as you give permission.”
Then, a few days after the Palcemith Kingdom’s side made their move, one of the heads of the giant serpent was uncovered right before Anderheim and the others who were holding Princess Shirayuki.
In some places, it was believed that the waxing and waning of the moon were caused by a gigantic snake coiling on its surface.