A wide expanse of fields ravaged by winter lay beneath the gray sky. It was a desolate scene, but every now and then, white birds swooped down into the swamps dotting the withered fields, breathing a fleeting moment of life back into the area.
The undersides of the white wings were a fiery red that looked like scattered sparks as they flapped their wings.
“…definitely aren’t birds you could miss.”
Makokan exposited when he heard Hossal’s muttering, “Those are Fireclapper ducks. They’re migratory birds you can often see in the winter.”
Apparently displeased with how Makokan was moving, the horse shook its head and snorted, its breath a stream of white steam.
There was little snow, but the wind was freezing. Hossal pulled the cloak over his nose.
“This place is completely deserted. Nakiri was quite the bustling town, but I suppose roads haven’t been built out here yet.”
Makokan shook his head when he heard Hossal’s murmur.
“This is the true scenery of the Yukata Plains. Nakiri is something of a facade.”
Hossal lifted an eyebrow, “You say some interesting things. Facade? Why do you think so?”
Gazing at the birds flitting through the reed bed, Makokan answered, “You may not be able to understand, Master Hossal, since you’ve never seen what the town used to look like, but in my childhood my father often let me come along to visit the <City of Fire Horses>, and I could barely believe my own eyes when we visited the town yesterday.”
“Has it changed so much?”
Makokan spat, “That can’t be described as mere change anymore. It’s so completely different that for a moment I thought that they might have flattened the old town, prepared the soil anew, and built everything from scratch.”
When he had seen the town’s new, endless carpet of unfamiliar, Ziol-styled roofs with black tiles, he had felt a rage well up inside him, like something precious had been trampled down without a care. That rage resurfaced now, and Makokan chewed on his lip.
“Yuccalum was a nice town with personality. It wasn’t that big, but then again, since it’s main trade was fire horses, it always felt a little deserted in the intervals between fire horse markets.”
Hossal smiled wryly, “…So that’s the reason why you kept complaining and pouting the entire time we were there.”
Makokan glanced down at Hossal.
“Master Hossal, I wasn’t the only one pouting, right? You ignored me quite a few times when I spoke to you, didn’t you?”
Hossal snorted, “I was sent all the way out here to do some silly investigation. It’s only natural for me to feel irritated, don’t you think?”
Makokan raised an eyebrow, “It’s not really silly, is it? It’s something that affects people’s lives.”
Hossal laughed in an ill-natured manner.
“Are you an idiot? Look, if I’m at the hospital, I can save the lives of many people every day.”
“I guess that’s not wrong.”
Ignoring Makokan’s mumbling, Hossal stared out at the marshland crowded with migratory birds, and spat out, “I’m being forced to expose my relative’s secret in such a lonely, desolated place. At least let me complain to my heart’s content.”
Makokan’s face froze and he felt a chill in his heart.
As he asked himself this, Hossal turned around and looked up at Makokan. He stared at Makokan’s face, like he was searching for something but before long, he abruptly averted his eyes.
“So you realized as well, as expected.”
Makokan looked down at his young master while staying silent. Hossal turned his face in the direction of the withered field again.
“Lady Chihana has a nasty way of doing things. As might be expected of someone who controls the Inner, her character sure is twisted. I might have come here of my own accord even without her expressly making me indict my brother-in-law.”
Hossal held up a hand before Makokan could continue.
“I know. This is also one way that granny expresses her kindness, right? After all, I can find out the truth and find a way out for him before it all comes to light.” Hossal was expressionless, but his eyes held a darkness.
This man is…is really thinking about his brother-in-law. But wait, is it his brother-in-law, or rather, his half-sister?
“It is not yet certain if this has anything to do with your brother-in-law.”
Hossal shrugged at Makokan’s comment, “No, I think he’s involved in this. At the very least he’s covering the criminal. It would be really great if he wasn’t the principal offender in all this.”
The map of Ziolian migrations that Chihana had laid out, and the medical case distribution map Tomasol had drawn; once those two were put together, it became very obvious what Tomasol had avoided mentioning to the very end. By talking about Kinma’s gift, he had tried to explain that the Fire Horse People had nothing to do with this chain of events, even if they might seem suspicious, but Tomasol didn’t mention one important fact that should have been mentioned after his explanation.
The first outbreak of Black Wolf Fever occurred here, in the immigrant village of the Yukata Plains, but it wasn’t just here. ──The settlement in the northwestern district, the location of the second outbreak, had accepted many displaced Fire Horse People.
Of course, Tomasol could have retorted with “So what of it?”, if pressed about this, and even add that, “Assuming this was a scheme by the Fire Horse People, they wouldn’t deliberately target places where they’d be the number one suspects, right?”
However, that only proved that this wasn’t intentional at first. Tomasol had tried to skilfully lead the discussion back there, probably aiming to be officially appointed as investigator for the Black Wolf Fever. If he had succeeded in getting this post, he’d have been capable of informing the Fire Horse People how much the sacred land and Ziol knew. It’d also have given him more flexibility.
But, Chihana, leader of the <Inner>, wasn’t so naive that she’d fall for Tomasol’s plan. She noticed that some kind of subtle strategy was at work during the discussion.
──But Hossal was irritated now, since he had ended up being Chihana’s trump card as a result.
“…Me too.” Makokan muttered. “I was kind of bothered that Sir Tomasol didn’t talk about the dog tamers even though he mentioned Kinma’s dog.”
Hossal turned around. There was an unexpectedly strong spark of curiosity in his eyes.
“Dog tamers? What’s that about?”
Makokan looked down at his young master, surprise written all over his face.
“Huh? You didn’t know, young master?”
“No, no clue.”
Makokan suddenly recalled the meaningful gaze Chihana had directed at him.
I suppose that’s where my usefulness comes into play. The behaviors and actions of the Fire Horse People that I’m familiar with as someone born and raised in the Yukata Mountainous District that these plains surround might help the young master in his investigations.
Hearing a dog howling behind him just when he was about to talk about the dog tamers, Makokan quickly placed a hand on the hilt of his sword and looked back.
A dog was running their way along a narrow path between reeds that were as tall as the dog. A person riding a horse could be seen behind the dog.
“Totta, roh, haii!” The man was wearing the garb of a low-ranking official, and called the dog back in Ziolian.
He was quietly relieved when he saw Hossal.
“Are you Master Hossal? Since you weren’t at the inn, I thought that I might have missed you, but I’m glad to see that you’re still in this area.”
Hossal lifted his hand lightly and nodded.
Before coming here, he had sent a letter to Yotal, Lord Ouhan’s son, and asked to be allowed to speak with a government official familiar with this area, and apparently that had been arranged.
As he greeted the rather good natured-looking middle-aged man, Makokan quietly thought to himself that Yotal really was a useful man.
After getting off his horse, the official looked at Hossal with eyes full of uncontainable curiosity while introducing himself, “My name is Taya. I serve as the village official in this area.”
Hossal smiled, and said, “Nice to meet you,” with a light bow.
The gloom that had dominated his face until a little while ago was now completely gone.
Under Taya’s guidance, they arrived on a farm surrounded by wheat fields and pastures for sheep. The rye, whose seeds were sown in late autumn, thrived even in this cold. When the wind changed direction, the scent of sheep drifted their way with it, causing Makokan to grimace.
The house in front of him confirmed all the often heard ridicule the Akafans had about Ziolian farmers building their homes out of mud. A heavy-looking thatch roof had been placed on mud walls composed of a mix of mud and straw. Entering the garden through a wooden door, the chickens, which had been allowed to run free, scurried away to hide behind the house while noisily clucking and flapping their wings.
Taya called out as they entered the garden, but there was no reply.
“How strange. It’s hard to imagine that no one is here.”
While muttering that, he got off his horse and tied it to a tree. As Makokan got off his own horse and helped Hossal dismount, he felt a little pang of uneasiness in his chest. He could definitely feel the presence of people inside the house, even though there was no reply.
When Makokan called out to him, Hossal glanced at him, and nodded as if telling him that he knew.
“Heeey! Makan, Tome, are you there?” Calling out those names, Taya opened the door and stepped in, only to yelp in surprise.
Makokan heard a voice ask worriedly, “What’s wrong?”
Holding back Hossal, who tried to enter the house after Taya, Makokan passed through the door ahead of his young master, stepping onto the dirt floor. It was gloomy inside the house, and the pungent scents l of compost and smoke assaulted his nose.
As his eyes adjusted to the low light, Makokan spotted someone laying on a straw mattress by the fire, in a room with a raised wooden floor. It appeared to be a young boy. A fairly young woman, who seemed to be his mother, was sitting on her knees at the child’s side, pressing a hand to his forehead and looking worried.
“What’s wrong? Did he catch a cold?”
Hearing Taya’s words as he stepped up onto the wooden floor, the woman finally lifted her face, and looked at Taya with exhausted eyes.
“…His fever hasn’t gone down since yesterday.”
A sound came from further inside the room, catching Makokan’s attention. An old woman sat in semi-darkness. Her head hanging low, she mumbled quietly as she turned something in her hand. It looked like some ritual tool.
After taking a look at the situation inside the house, Hossal called out to Taya, “Let me examine that child.”
Taya turned around, and bowed, replying with, “Ah, please, I would appreciate it a lot.” And then he started to explain to the woman, who was looking quizzically at them, “This man is a famous doctor. He came here because there’s something he wants to ask you.”
In the meantime, Hossal also stepped onto the wooden floor, and sat down next to the child. After asking the woman to step back, he peered at the child’s face while taking his pulse, forced open his eyelids to check his eyes, and assessed the condition of the tongue and throat. Afterwards, he bared the child’s chest, and pressed his ear against the child’s naked skin, listening for a while.
The child limply allowed all this, never so much as reacting.
“It’s a little swollen.” Hossal muttered, and after feeling behind the child’s ears, he looked back at the mother.
“It doesn’t seem like he’s coughing or that his nose is congested, was there anything before the fever appeared? Did he get injured or something?”
The mother frowned, looking troubled.
“…got no clue, don’t think he’s hurt ‘imself or anythin’. Been in a real strop since ‘bout midday yesterday. Cried a good while ‘fore he finally nodded off, but he started breathin’ real hard and got all red, so I figured he musta caught a cold.”
Apparently she was one to talk endlessly once she started. She continued, telling Hossal, “My man’s out in town, but I figured I’d get ‘im ta dig up some frogs when he got back so I could boil ‘em for ma boy.”
Replying noncommittally to keep her talking, Hossal removed the boy’s clothes, and examined him properly. His eyes stopped at the child’s right calf, and he gently touched it. At once, the child writhed, and started to cry.
Touching the child’s groin for confirmation, Hossal muttered, “…It appears to be Beehivitis,” and lifted his head. “Go and fetch my medicine bag.”
Since he had expected this, Makokan had already brought the box with the medical tools and the medicine bag out of the basket, and placed them on the wooden floor.
“Toksarol?” Makokan asked as he opened the medicine bag, amusing Hossal.
“Hee, you’ve gotten quite good at this, haven’t you?”
Makokan shrugged his shoulders, “I’ve watched you treat Beehivitis on many occasions.”
Hossal sighed lightly as he accepted the medicine being held out to him.
“I see. Beehivitis is fairly common after all.”
After removing the moisture repellent wrap and taking out a small pill, Hossal looked up to the mother.
“When playing outside, small scratches are not unusual. But bad things can enter from there. Please have him take this pill with plenty of water. This small bag here contains enough pills for seven days, so make sure he takes one every day.” Wrapping a clean cloth, which Makokan had handed him, around the child’s calf, Hossal continued, “This illness can be dragged out for an unexpectedly long time if one isn’t careful. Lay out something beneath his foot, make sure the foot is lifted a bit, and please allow him to rest well.”
The mother, however, didn’t accept the medicine, uncomfortably looking up at Taya instead.
“Umm…we don’t have much money left right now. The price for the medicine is…”
“It doesn’t cost you anything. Now, please have him take this as soon as possible.”
The mother still wavered, looking at Hossal’s face, but eventually she accepted the medicine, holding it reverently over her head, and gave it to her child.
T/N: Next chapter will be released on December the 2nd.