“Thank you very much for accepting my invitation. I am truly glad that Azaka-sama owns a servant like you.”
True, I was Mayuzumi’s subordinate, but I had qualms about being called a servant. She was my boss, not my master.
But there was something else she said that was more concerning.
Riding in a black-lacquered rental car, we headed for a traditional restaurant. After traveling so long a distance that I began wondering if it was really located within Nago City, we arrived at an antiquated establishment. A waitress led us to a back room, where I finally faced the woman. I didn’t even want to think about how much the furnishings adorning the tatami room cost. Wearing a soft smile, the woman kept on making small talk. She had a lot of topics and was a good speaker as well. Most of all, her beauty was captivating, but I couldn’t shake off this uncomfortable feeling sticking to my skin.
What I couldn’t ask her bothered me.
“I apologize for the late introduction,” she said. “My name is Mayuzumi Chihana, the acting head of the Mayuzumi family.”
The woman—Chihana—took out a business card from her pocket and presented it to me with both hands. But I refused to accept it.
“I’m truly sorry, but I can’t accept this. The boss has given me strict orders not to make any connections with her family.”
It was a split-second decision. Maybe I should have asked Mayuzumi first, but I didn’t want any means to contact her family directly. Because that would also mean that they could get in touch with Mayuzumi through me.
I didn’t want a situation where I would be forced to ask her family for help while ignoring her wishes.
Just thinking about it gave me chills.
“I don’t know much about the boss’s family. But I don’t have a business card to give to someone who could give an apartment building to their runaway daughter.” I raised both my hands.
Chihana laughed in response. “Oh, nonsense. I’m just an assistant to the head of the family. Even in the main family, I am nothing but a symbol of the Mayuzumi group. Both I and the head of the family are no better than ornamental dolls. From my perspective, your are more enviable, Odagiri-sama.”
Her gray eyes slowly opened. The instant I saw them, the hair on my back bristled.
“Because you are owned by the god of the Mayuzumi family.”
A clear emotion was simmering in her eyes. As far as I knew, it was the closest thing to what you’d call jealousy.
“I mean it literally. I, Chihana, am envious of you. I love the god of the Mayuzumi family—Mayuzumi Azaka—dearly. I care for her.” Putting her palm to her chest, she whispered, “I worship her.”
The sliding door opened to reveal a waitress. Chihana kept her mouth shut again. She might have instructed both the meal and the saké to be prepared at the same time. When the sliding doors closed again, a thick silence pierced my ears. I felt thirsty, but I couldn’t bring myself to pick up my cup. I opened my mouth again.
Owned. I didn’t feel like confirming the meaning of that word.
What was common sense for her might not be common sense for me.
So this is the Mayuzumi family. This is a Mayuzumi family member.
As soon as that thought crossed my mind, the words rose up my throat.
“I have a question,” I said.
“Please, ask me anything.”
“You’re a member of the Mayuzumi family, aren’t you? You’re one of the people who took care of the boss—Mayuzumi Azaka—and Mayuzumi Asato.”
“Yes, that is correct,” she answered in a soft voice.
In that case, I had a question. Does this woman, who calls Mayuzumi a god, know about it? But then what?
Whatever. In for a penny, in for a pound.
“Then, do you know about me?”
Chihana raised one eyebrow slightly. A smile that looked like it was painted with a brush appeared on her mouth.
I didn’t have to wait for her reply. She knew.
“Yes. I heard you’re carrying a demon inside you.”
My vision burned red. The pit of my stomach stirred. Words from the past rang in my ears.
The cherry blossoms were in full bloom. As I recall, that was after I held her soft, pale hand.
“It was my brother who did this to you. He left the Mayuzumi family. He holds a grudge against me and the family. And no one stopped him. That’s why you ended up like this.” Setting her red parasol on her shoulder, she looked down at me, and added, “Feel free to hate me. I will help you, but I am also partly to blame for your predicament.”
It would’ve been easier to just hate her. Even if I blamed her for everything, she would never complain.
She was that kind of a girl. And it was me who carelessly approached that fox. While she was part of the reason why I ended up conceiving a demon, I couldn’t blame her for everything. I despised her nature and found her creepy. There were so many things wrong about her as a person.
But I didn’t hold a grudge against her. I must not. That would only be escapism.
But this woman wasn’t her.
“Why didn’t you stop Asato?” I couldn’t conceal the anger seeping into my voice.
Chihana tilted her head a little. “I trust you have heard about Asato-sama from Azaka-sama. That man, Azaka-sama’s brother, left our clan, and he is causing a lot of trouble. He has been causing all kinds of bizarre phenomena out of spite against the Mayuzumi family and Azaka-sama, or perhaps for his own amusement. As you said, we are aware of it.”
Then with a terribly serious look in her eyes, she continued, “The only reason why I came to visit was because I heard that Asato-sama had appeared before Azaka-sama, and I feared that something might happen to her. Otherwise, I would never have disobeyed Azaka-sama’s orders to stay away. The only thing that terrifies me about Asato-sama’s actions is the danger he brings to Azaka-sama.”
Her eyes turned dreamy this time. “In short, deaths and births are nothing but noble sacrifices. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Her shocking reasoning made me swallow. Just as I was about to shout, Chihana lowered her head.
“Besides, Asato-sama is not someone who can be stopped so easily. The reason we were able to ascertain his actions this time was because Asato-sama contacted Azaka-sama. Whether a casualty is caused by Asato-sama or simply the result of some other bizarre phenomena, we cannot tell. Humans are helpless creatures. I am certain you understand.”
After interrupting me, Chihana propped both elbows and lowered her head again. I was stunned. While she had a crazed idea of common sense, her words and actions were completely sane.
What kind of a creature was she?
The same emotion was still seething in her eyes.
“May I ask you a question this time?” she said. “You stay by Mayuzumi Azaka-sama’s side without even knowing who she is, and show yourself to a member of the Mayuzumi family. I’m sorry, but I find that very hard to believe.”
Her eyes looked like she wanted to kill me. She was directing all of that hatred at me.
Silence descended. Swallowing all my questions, I stared at Chihana. Her delusional thoughts weighed on my mind. What did her incomprehensible words mean?
Chihana called Mayuzumi a god.
“Would you like to listen to an old story?” Smiling, Chihana tilted the saké cup. The saké spilled out slowly, flowing like threads.
The inside of the cup was red as blood.
“A long time ago, the Mayuzumi family ate a demon,” she began.