I had never been to Mayuzumi’s home, which was located in Nagano. I didn’t even want to imagine what it looked like. The land of a clan caught in a demon’s spell, with Mayuzumi Azaka at the top. The imposing Japanese-style houses made it seem as if time had frozen only in this place. Grand gates seemed to swallow those who entered. My gut feeling was probably accurate. Stepping into even a corner of the Mayuzumi home was like stepping into a different world. It was the place that gave birth to Kugutsu, a man who called himself a dog, and fostered Chihana’s delusions. And above all, it was the home of Mayuzumi Asato and Mayuzumi Azaka.
To me, it was synonymous with a haunted mansion.
“I know what you’re thinking, but there’s no need to be afraid,” Mayuzumi said. “Most of the current members of the Mayuzumi family are normal people. There were some exceptions, of course.”
Mayuzumi twirled her parasol around. Cherry trees lined the vast garden, and cherry blossoms were blooming in the sky. It was still some time before they bloomed fully, but in a short while you would be able to see a gorgeous scenery. Gorgeously hideous, I was sure.
“Are there dead bodies buried under the trees?” Mayuzumi muttered, reading my thoughts. She looked at the white petals. “The answer is no, Odagiri-kun. As proof, the flowers here are white. Truly unfortunate.”
Without answering her, I looked around. I spotted a servant in a kimono in the distance, their eyes warily scanning the area.
Several hours passed. I had to wait in some room while Mayuzumi went to see the head of the family. They probably talked about Chihana’s treachery, which was also probably why the servants stayed far away, complying with Mayuzumi’s orders. Everyone who saw Mayuzumi silently gave deep bows.
Every adult had sworn allegiance to a very young girl.
It was bizarre. Everything was wrong, yet no one found it weird.
“I’ve told you before, Odagiri-kun. They still believe that the Mayuzumi family would be nothing without Mayuzumi Azaka. Without me and my mysterious powers, the family will be destroyed. We live and die being unreasonably worshiped.”
Mayuzumi reached out into the empty air. She crushed the petal that fell onto her palm.
“Whenever an Azaka dies, they gather all the girls of the clan and elect a new Azaka. I hear it’s a spectacular sight. All the young children have this desperate look in their eyes. A woman who can’t be an Azaka is not worthy of being born. Fascinating, wouldn’t you say? The family is still haunted by this outdated delusion. Those who weren’t chosen as the new Azaka would focus solely on giving birth to one. And when an Azaka is born, they rejoice, as if they gave birth to a god.”
Not how you should measure a child’s worth, but apparently that kind of thinking does not apply here. After talking about their twisted customs, Mayuzumi spun her parasol. The garden was quiet. Standing there made it feel like time itself had stopped.
“And the girl chosen to be the next Azaka is taken in and raised by the main family to be a monster. They change the child so she never becomes human again.”
She chuckled. There was no sadness in her tone. It was dry, as if she were making small talk. But I swallowed. Maybe it was the stillness of the garden.
Or perhaps because she looked ephemeral as she stood there.
“Mayu-san, why are you telling me this?”
“Because I’ve never told you before. You’ve come to my home. It’s good for you to know a little about me. You don’t know me as well as you think you do. Sometimes I know more about you than you know yourself. I’m only talking about information in general, of course. I don’t know you inside and out, or what goes in your mind. There’s no way I could.”
She turned around, heading back to her room.
I followed her. “Weren’t you sad when you were separated from your parents?”
There was no point in asking. This girl would not have those kinds of emotions. Still, I couldn’t help but ask. When she was still a child, before she became the Azaka I know now, she might have just been an ordinary girl.
She cried and laughed. She understood other people’s pain.
“Ah, you seem to be misunderstanding something, Odagiri-kun,” Mayuzumi replied. “I’m not like my mother or my grandmother. I am Mayuzumi Azaka. I’m the only ‘true-born Azaka’ after the First.”
Shouldering her parasol, she smiled. “I had a different name, though. I was next in line as soon as I was born. How could I be sad about anything?”
Her smile made me feel a little disappointed. She always wore the same smile. She probably had the same twisted smile on her face since she was a child. And she must have laughed at people’s deaths and reveled in their pain and despair.
“It’s still early, but let’s return to our room,” she said. “I want to talk about future plans.” Stepping on the sand, she added, “My belly won’t heal if it’s ripped open.”
The photos popped into my mind. I saw Mayuzumi as the motionless corpse. Crucified, she had her eyes closed, a red parasol lying by her side as an offering.
It was like a solemn painting.
Mayuzumi said she would have dinner brought to our room, and sure enough, a lavish meal was laid on the table.
Only in front of me, though.
I stared at the fruits, sponge cakes, and marshmallows lined up in front of Mayuzumi. In the middle of it all sat a pot of smooth, black liquid.
It was chocolate fondue.
There were also other pastries such as sachertorte and petit gâteau. A thick, sweet smeel wafted through the air. I wondered if the Mayuzumi family employed a pastry chef. I couldn’t even bring the bowl of tilefish to my mouth because of the heartburn.
Having all these delicious-looking food in front of me was torture in a way.
“Mayu-san, I know it’s none of my business, but this family is raising kids wrong.”
“Now that’s just rude. I’m Mayuzumi Azaka, which means no one in this house is in a position to scold me. It’s not their way of upbringing that’s wrong, it’s my preferences.”
Yeah, and that’s something to be ashamed of. Stop acting so proud about it.
Though nothing I could say would change anything. I stopped eating and put down my chopsticks.
“I’m surprised you actually grew with that diet of yours.”
She severely lacked the necessary nutrients. She might die before her growth spurt came.
“What are you talking about, Odagiri-kun? I used to eat normal food. Adults wouldn’t possibly allow a young child to be a picky eater.”
My eyes widened in shock. Mayuzumi eating anything other than chocolate was no more possible than a lion eating vegetables.
“I was raised fairly strictly. It wasn’t until I took over the Azaka name that I was able to eat nothing but chocolate. It was all worth it.”
Mayuzumi happily continued with her meal. I sipped on a cup of hot green tea. It was supposed to have a rich aroma, but the sweet smell overpowered it. If I had a sweet tooth, this would be paradise, but unfortunately this place was practically hell.
“Apparently, family members have started their own investigation,” she said. “They really don’t want me to get killed. There are guards on standby in the next room. I told them to stay out of my sight because they’re annoying. They’re only human anyway. Useless. Such a pity. A few dozen ants are not enough to stop a beast.”