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[X] "What do you think it will take for Kisaburou to stop searching the palace?"
"Hm?" the oni responds, looking over at you without breaking his stride.
"What do you think it'll take to get the council head to stop searching the palace?"
"Get him to stop?" Aoki snorts derisively. "He'll stop when he finds what he's lookin' for, and not before. You mighta noticed he's not a real flexible kind of guy."
That was what you were afraid of. "He doesn't know what he's looking for," you say bluntly, "and he doesn't have any proof that there's anything to be found in the first place."
"Eh, don't count on that," Aoki says. "He may be a pain in the ass with all the secrecy, but he's not an idiot. I don't see this goin' more than one or two more searches before we find her hiding place."
"But what if she's not hiding anything?" Of course, you know that's not true even as you ask it, but as far as you know, nobody else knows that particular secret, the council head included. "If he had any proof that she's done anything, he would have shown it by now. Should have shown it by now," you amend; as obvious as that fact seems to you, you have to admit that you really don't quite understand what goes on in the council head's mind at times.
"Proof?" Aoki asks with a hint of incredulity, his pace slowing as he turns toward you a little further. "Lemme put it this way, okay? Out of all the folks down here underground, the oni are the only ones who came of their own free will. Everybody else, all the other youkai? They're down here because people didn't want them--" He jerks his thumb up at the ceiling. "--up there."
"So you're saying... just because she's a youkai, you don't--"
"Not just because she's a youkai, I ain't that petty. But she's not just any youkai, she's the queen, or the president, or whatever she calls herself." Aoki shoots you a smirk. "If you were gonna pick the most honest human out of everyone in your village, would you pick a politician?" You stay silent, and he continues casually. "I'm not saying I know one hundred percent if Komeiji's the one behind the crop destruction, but I know youkai don't end up down here because they're charming and polite, and I know she gets along with 'em well enough to be ruler. The company you keep, right?" He shrugs. "Besides, fact is she is a youkai, too. If she was a good sort, she'd have a palace up where the sun shines."
"Isn't that..." ...racism? "...a little prejudiced?"
Aoki chuckles flatly. "How old're you, Taizou?"
"...I don't see what that has to do with anything."
"20, 30 years old, somewhere around there?" Aoki asks, continuing as though he hadn't heard you. "You don't really mix with youkai back home much, do you?" You don't reply, realizing what direction the conversation is going, and Aoki heaves a mighty sigh, shoulders slumping a little. "Okay, look, I ain't tryin' to tell you what to think, 'cause it ain't my business. This is just friendly advice from somebody with experience: Komeiji isn't the sort of person you just trust. Keep your eyes open."
"Will do," you say a little tersely. Well, if nothing else, this has opened your eyes to what other oni think of youkai. You already knew not everyone was as tolerant as Yuugi, but...
"Just advice!" Catching the look on your face, Aoki throws his hands up in a conciliatory gesture. "Maybe I don't know what I'm talkin' about, I dunno! Just don't want you to get burned, that's all."
"...Well, thanks for that," you say earnestly. Even if you can't quite agree with what he's saying, you can tell that he really is just telling you this to help you out. Besides, however suspect his reasoning is, he's not wrong about the fact that Satori's hiding something. "I guess I am the new guy down here. Anything you wanna tell me is appreciated."
"Hey, we're all on the same side here," he replies with a grin. "'Sides, you probably haven't heard anyone tell it like it is yet, livin' with Yuugi."
"Oh? What does that mean?"
"Don't get me wrong, I'm not tryin' to say anything bad," Aoki says hurriedly, and you wince slightly; that came off a little more accusatory than you intended.
"No, I know, I know, just wondering," you say. "Does she have a reputation or something?"
"You could put it that way. She is pretty loud." He chuckles slightly, pace slowing. "But nah, it's just she's a bit of an odd one down here. S'like I said before, really," he continues, growing more contemplative, "'bout how oni come down here of their own free will and not 'cause someone told 'em to. Everyone who ends up down here has a real good reason they don't wanna be up there."
He drifts off into silence, and you wonder for a moment if you've asked one question too many, but before you can say anything, he speaks again. "Well, I was just a kid when my folks and I ended up down here, so I guess I can't really talk," he says matter-of-factly, "but just about everyone's got a story about why they gave up on the surface world. One too many packs of youkai tried to kill 'em, or some human double-crossed 'em, or they just got tired of sleepin' with one eye open. It's not the sort of thing you talk about with other people, but it's the one thing all of us've got in common. Her too, definitely."
"So folks came down here to get away from all that. And when humans and youkai and whoever else start showing up, they get nervous, 'cause if they start screwin' things up down here like they did up there, there's nowhere else for us to go." Aoki frowns slightly. "Uh, no offense."
"But Yuugi's different," he continues. "Stuck up for you, sticks up for Komeiji from time to time, she's close with... uh, what's her name, the little blonde kid with the poofy dress..."
"Yeah, that's the one, Yamame. Everyone else is worried about keepin' the oni together and pushin' everyone else out, and here she is tryin' to pull everyone together." A light smile flickers past his face for a moment, before being replaced by a flat expression. "So on the one hand, there's folks who like her, 'cause deep down, they think people above ground will change one day, and on the other hand, there's folks who don't, and think she just hasn't learned her lesson about how bad humans really are. Uh, no offense again."
"S'okay," you say with a short laugh. Something about the way he phrased that, though... "So..."
"If you don't mind me asking, where do you stand?"
"Where do I stand?" It's not confusion in his voice as much as it is guardedness; a reluctance to answer the question that makes you just that much more curious about the answer.
"On Yuugi," you say simply, raising an eyebrow. "Are you one of the folks that likes her, or one of the folks that doesn't?"
"...If you really wanna know?" Aoki's footsteps slow to a halt beside you, and as you stop and turn back to look at him, his face carefully set in an expressionless mask, looking more serious than you've ever seen him before. Without moving, he looks you in the eye, and after a moment of silence, you give a short nod for him to continue.
"I... think she has an excellent rack."
Your nervousness turns to shock, then amusement, and Aoki joins you in a long, loud laugh as the two of you continue walking again, the serious mood of a moment ago utterly destroyed. It doesn't take you too long after that to realize that he never actually answered your question, but you decide against asking again; you already have a pretty good idea of how he feels about youkai in general, and the fact that he dodged that question just reinforces that.
Your arrival at the palace a few minutes later is much less exciting than it was last time around; with Satori and the council head not at each other's throats, the rest of the oni are relatively calm as well, and the lot of you enter the palace without any difficulties. Once it's time to begin, it becomes clearer than ever that you're running this show in name only; the council head gives the marching orders and the other oni carry them out, with no more than a few cursory glances in your direction for approval. The preparation for this search is on a whole different level, too; the search party seems to have brought just about any tool you could think of, from a collapsible ladder to a stethoscope to honest-to-god carpentry tools, and makes full use of them in just about every room.
Naturally, the extra attention to detail means that today's search proceeds as an even more agonizingly slow pace as yesterday's, but on the upside, it makes things easier to watch over, and you manage to defuse most disagreements before they can start. Not to say that things are completely calm, though; you have to step in several times to mediate Satori and the council head's disagreements -- that damn picture frame nailed to the wall you encountered on your first trip into the palace takes about an hour to negotiate your way past, and when all is said and done, you end up doing half the work to take it down yourself. (Naturally, there's nothing behind it but an empty wall. You almost wish there had been something there, after all that work.)
Even so, it's still basically a do-nothing job, and by the time you've made your way up to the second floor an hour or so later, you decide that things are going well enough for you to sneak a bathroom break while the search party is still working. If nothing else, it looks like Satori managed to clear out all her pets this time around, you note idly as you walk; you've made it almost halfway through the palace without encountering so much as another soul.
At least, you had until you nearly run into someone on your way out from the bathroom. "Ah, sorry," you say, taking a step back and instinctively giving a small bow to--
---a ghost. A blob of translucent matter hanging in midair, its white, featureless surface so pristine it seems like you could see yourself in it if you got a little closer. About the size of your head, maybe a little bigger, with the wisp of a tail trailing off of its back end the only thing keeping it from being a perfect sphere. As you continue to stare, it makes a circle around you, bobbing and jerking erratically as it flies, and you feel a chill from within as it grazes your midsection.
...You're pretty sure you should be scared, or at least curious, but all you can think of is how utterly stereotypical it is. Maybe your time underground has made you more jaded towards this sort of thing than you realize. Come to think of it, you did see one of these when you first entered that cave... was that really only a few days ago? It seems like it's been yea--
"Augh!" You cry out, reverie broken, as the thing floats up to head level, its chilly body wobbling uncomfortably close to your face. You try to step around it and through the door out into the hall, but the thing maneuvers to keep itself in front of you, bobbing up and down in a way that reminds you of an overexcited puppy.
This thing isn't nearly as endearing, though. "Move!" you shout, and without thinking, you angrily swipe at the thing--
--and your hand goes straight through it, with no effect except making you feel like you just stuck your hand into a pile of snow.
Okay, maybe not your best plan. It does seem to have done something, though; the ghost slowly descends to about knee level, still blocking your path, but low enough that you could just step over it now. You stare at it for a moment, anticipating some kind of trap, but it seems have settled down, and with one last glance, you move past it and--
Wait. What's that right next to it?
The thing bobs up and down (Encouragingly? Who knows?) as you crouch next to it and pick up the thing that caught your eye: a small piece of paper, folded in half multiple times so it's small enough to fit in your palm. As you move to unfold it, you notice the writing on the outside:
For Taizou's eyes only!
Don't open me until after the search is over♡
...Wait, a message for you? Was the ghost... carrying this? How did--
Just as you think to turn your attention back to it, the ghost takes off, sinking back through the ground below you, and all you get is a glimpse of its squiggle of a tail before you're staring at empty floor.
Well, that just confirms it. Somebody sent that ghost to bring you this message.
...Somebody sent a ghost to bring you a message.
Shaking your head at the absurdity of the entire situation, you turn your mind to more practical matters: who? Koishi is the first person that pops into your head, but you can't imagine her going to all this trouble to contact you when she could just walk right up to you any time she wanted without anyone noticing. Satori? It's not impossible, but considering that she wasn't out of your sight for more than five minutes at a time today, orchestrating something like this would be quite a trick. That leaves... Orin? You don't know what she would want with you, but she's the only non-animal (sort of) you've met in the palace. Maybe there are more people living here than--
"Hey, Taizou!" Aoki's voice. "We're movin' on to the next room!"
"Coming!" Tabling those thoughts for later, you slip the note into your pocket and hurry along after the rest of the search party.
With something else to occupy your mind, the tedium of the search becomes significantly more bearable, and you find your thoughts drifting back to the note in your pocket several times. A few odd looks from Satori make it clear that she knows about it, but she doesn't ask any questions and you couldn't answer them even if she did; just as the note writer intended by telling you not to open it until later, you eventually realize. For a while, you consider just disregarding the writer's instructions and showing it to Satori explicitly, but you decide against it in the end; as much as you'd like to be able to trust her that fully, you just can't yet.
Eventually, the group makes it back to where it started, with nothing to show for its efforts except generating another laundry list of reasons for the council head as to why you'll have to come back for another search. As Satori and the council head hammer out the details of that next search with surprising civility, you excuse yourself once more and take your leave from the main foyer back into the twisty hallways of the mansion. Once you're far enough away that you don't think Satori can read your mind, you take out the note again and unfold it, revealing the message within.
I need your help as soon as possible. Sneak out the back onto the veranda. Don't let anyone see you, especially Lady Satori.
Accompanying the single line of writing is a small drawing, which you recognize as a crude drawing of the first floor of the palace. A small line traces a path from the foyer you just left through to a gap which must be a back door out of the palace, with a big X marking what you assume is the point you're supposed to stop at.
...'Suspicious' would be putting it lightly. If somebody really wanted to lure you away and kill you, this would be a textbook example of how. What would Orin need your help for, anyway? For the second time, you consider showing it to Satori, or to someone else, or just throwing the thing away and ignoring it entirely. Besides, even if it is legitimate, aren't you sneaking around enough people's backs already?
"Damn it." Cursing softly to yourself, you shove the paper back into your pocket and set back out into the hallway. The naive hero who falls for all the villain's traps usually wins in the end, right?
...Just as long as this isn't supposed to be a tragedy.
The route to your destination is surprisingly straightforward, compared to previous attempts to navigate the palace; it's nearly a straight shot down the hallway you're in out to the exterior. Pushing open another set of double doors, smaller than the ones in the main entryway, you step out the 'veranda', which, as far as you can tell, means 'porch with delusions of grandeur'. Granted, the mesh screen to keep the bugs out is a nice touch, but a roof? What good does that do underground? It's not as though precipitation is an iss--
The first strike hits you square on top of the head, sending you staggering forward. Reflexively, you bring a hand to the back of your head, but the adrenaline is already kicking in to dull the pain, and you spin in place, still off-balance, to confront your attacker. As soon as you do, you feel something sharp scrape its way down your back, just barely grazing your skin as it loudly tears through your shirt. Wide-eyed, you swing your head around again and throw out a wild punch, hoping to connect with whatever--
...A cat. With two tails. Your heart begins to sink from its position in your throat back into your chest as each new second passes without another attack, and slowly, you begin to piece together what just happened.
"Did you... just jump on my head?" That first strike was a little too soft to be a death blow.
You're not sure if cats are actually capable of facial expressions, but this one looks a little too smug for your liking.
"I'm leaving, Orin."
"Oh, c'moooon!" The moment you turn away, something much more pleasant than cat claws presses into your back, and a pair of arms wrap themselves around you, holding you back. "I was just having fun!"
So it was her. "You're the one who sent that ghost, too?"
"Yep!" Releasing you, she takes a step backwards and strikes a pose, raising one hand into the air palm up, and a second later, a ghost just like the one you saw rises through the floor to circle her outstretched arm. "Cool, right?"
"What do you want?" you reply, pinching the bridge of your nose. You definitely should have ignored that letter.
"Oh, don't be like that! It was funny!"
"Fine, fine, it was hilarious. Now what do you want?"
Orin doesn't respond for a moment, and her smirking grin dims slightly. "I need your help."
"I need you to... talk to someone," she says, twisting one foot against the ground.
Talk to someone? Who? Why you? "...Keep going."
"She's a friend of mine, another one of Lady Satori's pets. She's..." Orin pauses for a moment, biting the tip of her thumb nervously. "A little while ago, something strange happened, and she... changed. She got stronger, but she went weird in the head."
"She's... always angry, even if there's nothing to be angry about. And she used to be really friendly, but now she's all quiet, and she won't talk to me much anymore, and when she does, it's always about how she wants to..." She stops herself midway, turning her head away, and you catch a glint of tears forming in her eyes when she looks back at you to speak. "She's just different, okay?! It's like it's not even her anymore!"
Whatever the deal with this situation is, it clearly means something to her. "What can I do to help?" you ask softly, trying to effect an air of sympathy.
At that, Orin leans closer to you, a bit of the bounce coming back into her voice. "You're good at talking. You kept Lady Satori and that oni from getting into a fight." Another little lean forward, and her face is almost uncomfortably close to yours. "If you can calm her down, everything will be fine. I just need a little more time to..." Again, she trails off into mumbles, then abruptly cuts herself off, looking back at you with a hopeful smile. "So would you?"
...You still don't get it. "Why me? How am I going to do anything talking to someone I don't even know that you can't do talking to a friend?"
"I told you," Orin says glumly, "she doesn't listen to me anymore."
"What about Satori? You said this friend is another... pet, didn't you?"
"And just why did I have to keep this a secret from Satori?"
"That's because..." Orin mumbles, leaning away and beginning to fidget again. "If Lady Satori finds out, it'll be big trouble. Ok-- uh, my friend is a good girl, she's just a little confused! I don't want her to--"
"So why don't I just talk to Satori, instead?" you interrupt, motioning with your hands for Orin to calm down. "I'm sure I can convince her not to--"
"No!" Her fists clench tight by her sides, and she lifts herself up onto the balls of her feet, literally bouncing with frustration. "You can't! That won't... you just can't!"
"So you're saying your friend has done something that Satori won't forgive her for?"
"N-no! She hasn't done anything! It's just... I just can't tell, okay?!" she shouts. "That's why I'm asking you for help! So just..."
...No way. You aren't buying it. "Orin. What aren't you telling me?"
At your question, Orin goes bright red, the cat ears on her head standing straight up as her fidgeting grows even more intense. "Wha-- ah, no! I'm n-not not telling y-- I mean, I'm telling y-- I'm not hiding--" she sputters, trying to deny it a dozen different ways all at once. "I mean..."
"You need to tell me, Orin," you say firmly, trying to piece together just what the actual situation here is. Something she came to you for specifically, rather than Satori, or for that matter, anyone else she knows... "Does this have something to do with everything else that's going on down here?" you ask cautiously.
If her gasp hadn't given it away, the way she tries to hide it by covering her mouth immediately afterward would have. After a moment of stunned silence, she turns her eyes away from yours and bites her thumbnail anxiously again.
"If I tell you, then Lady Satori will find out." She's barely speaking loud enough for you to hear now, and you can hear her voice crack as she says Satori's name. "And if she finds out, then something really bad will happen." And then she looks back at you, no longer trying to hide the tears in her eyes. "So I can't tell you unless you promise to help me, okay? You just have to trust me, okay?"
You swallow once, staring down Orin's teary face with as much composure as you can muster. You want to help her, but the thought of burying yourself any deeper into the web of lies that seems to surround this palace isn't a pleasant one. Still... is this a chance to finally get to the bottom of things around here?
[ ] ...You'll do it. You can't bring yourself to turn Orin down when she's like this.
[ ] ...No. You'll let her keep her secret, but you don't want to be involved.
So, uh, yeah. My bad.