“That’s why you called me, isn’t it? To fight fire with fire. If you want to catch a creature created by an esper, it’s best to leave it to an esper.”
“Yes, you are absolutely right. The reason I asked you was to obtain that mysterious goldfish. That goldfish, in particular, has only been sighted in your part of town. I thought that you or some other esper was involved. I’ve heard about you and the Minase as well…”
The old man gulped. He shifted his gaze to the slender silhouette standing behind Mayuzumi. Shirayuki lifted her head high, undaunted.
“Is that Minase clan’s… No, that can’t be right. A Minase would never dress like that. Or perhaps…”
The old man’s eyes slowly widened. Shirayuki was wearing the knit dress I bought her. Did I make a horrible choice? Shirayuki remained silent. She didn’t want to respond, it seemed.
“It doesn’t matter who she is,” Mayuzumi said to the confused old man. “Let’s talk about the goldfish instead. That goldfish drinks blood, I’m sure. If you want to catch it, it would be easiest to prepare bait. It doesn’t matter who created it. It’s still just a fish. It’s not intelligent. It can’t resist the urge to eat.”
The old man nodded readily.
I frowned. Drinks blood?
“Mayu-san, does the goldfish have something to do with the bloodless corpse?” I asked.
“In short, yes. If I’m right about this, Odagiri-kun, things are going to get a lot worse. Unpleasant, to be sure. Far from entertaining.” She didn’t say any more.
Then, she turned to the old man. “So there you have it. I want some bait prepared to lure it. The more the better. Can you handle that?”
“I’m not sure. I don’t have any fish that can be slaughtered at the moment. This a tough one.”
Is a fish that can be slaughtered really a fish? Some of the birdcages were unusually large, but I doubt you could get a lot of blood from fish.
What did he mean by fish that can be slaughtered, then?
“What about your blood?” the old man said. “Even a little drop of it would be effective, no? The blood of someone revered as a god by her clan. I’m sure there are people who want it desperately.” He flashed a wicked smile.
God’s blood is more precious than human blood.
If the goldfish was attracted to blood, then Mayuzumi’s blood should be quite the treat.
“I can’t deny that, but I’ll have to say no,” Mayuzumi said flatly. “If this was my fault, I might consider it, but I’m not going to spill my own blood because of someone else. Not with a knife or a syringe.” Her tone was assertive.
Hearing her words reminded me of the necklace she once gave to me. Inside the hard glass ball was Mayuzumi’s blood. She said that she couldn’t make a lot of it. Was that her way of showing me her utmost concern?
For dragging me into her fate—a fate that ends with her killed.
“You’re putting me in a bind here,” the old man said.
A white hand went up. It was Shirayuki, raising her hand. When all eyes were on her, she opened her fan and began to write. The old man’s eyes widened.
Now he knew who she really was.
“I will offer my blood. Unlike Lady Mayuzumi, I am not considered a living god, but I am also an esper. My blood is more precious than a normal human being’s.”
She rolled up her sleeves, showing her fair, unblemished skin.
“Do not tell me you have had enough of the blood of Minase.”
What did she just say? I couldn’t voice my question.
The old man glanced at the girl in the red kimono, and she stood up. She approached the wall and pressed a switch. One of the bird cages creaked as it lowered. There was no goldfish in it. She lifted up a plate placed under the empty glass ball.
It was a deep silver plate, probably placed there to prevent water from spilling out. The girl set it down in front of Shirayuki.
Shirayuki pressed the open fan against her arm. Paper touched soft flesh. There was a sharp sound, and blood splattered instantaneously, tracing an arc on the brown floor. She thrust her arm, blood dripping down, onto the silver plate. Crimson spilled out, the color terribly vivid against her white skin.
Shirayuki’s expression remain unchanged. Blood trickled onto the plate. When a sufficient amount had accumulated, I grabbed her arm, held it tight, and took out a handkerchief to stop the bleeding. Shirayuki looked up in surprise. She went too far with the cut.
Right when I was about to bind the base of her arm, my fingertips touched the dripping red.
A different image overlaid her face.
A young child was crying, her eyes wide open. She closed her lips tight and shook her head vehemently. Tears spilled down her round cheeks. Suddenly, several adults reached for her face. Rugged fingers dug into the young girl’s lips. Hands tried to pry her mouth open. Unable to resist, her lips slowly parted.
Inside was a red tongue.
The sequence of images ended. The next thing I knew, Mayuzumi was bandaging Shirayuki’s arms. Once I saw that she was done and the bleeding had been stopped, I quickly let go of Shirayuki’s hand.
“That was a very sharp cut,” Mayuzumi said. “It should heal without leaving a mark. You know, rather than drawing on your fan, how about using it directly as a weapon instead?”
Shirayuki did not respond to Mayuzumi’s joke. She just stared at the bloody bandage. The silver plate was tucked away in a large, intricate bronze birdcage. On its side was a relief carving of a goldfish. Crimson liquid shimmered under the glass ball.
“Is that it?” I blurted out.
“Yes, that’s it,” Mayuzumi replied. “This birdcage was specially made by an esper not from either the Mayuzumi or the Minase clan. Once inside, the door will drop. It’s a simple trap, but an incredibly robust one. No matter how bizarre the goldfish is, getting out won’t be easy.”
A chain raised the birdcage up in the air. It creaked slightly, then stopped moving.
“And if the goldfish is what I think it is, it will come,” she added. “That thing is nearby.”
Mayuzumi’s eyes gleamed in the darkness. I looked around, but there was no red shadow anywhere. Only Shirayuki’s blood on the floor and Mayuzumi’s parasol assailed my vision.
“That should be it for now,” Mayuzumi concluded. “Sorry to bother you, but can we stay for the night?”
“Of course,” the old man said. “This house isn’t much, but I can accommodate you. Please, make yourself at home.”
The old man bent over his fat belly slightly. Perhaps he was thanking her. The girls in red and black took that as their cue to jump off the couch, and started walking. They stepped on the spiral staircase. Apparently, they were going to lead us to the guest room. Footsteps clattered as they climbed up. Following close behind, I looked down at the bottom of the staircase. A closer inspection revealed the floor to be a dull red, not brown.
A huge goldfish was painted on it.
The girls stopped at the third landing of the spiral staircase and quietly pulled open the door. Much to my surprise, inside was a neat and tidy guest room, just like a hotel. Shirayuki and Mayuzumi stayed in the same room, while I, Yuusuke, and Yukihito stayed in the room above it. Yukihito looked dejected, but Shirayuki entered their room, not noticing. We reached the next landing. Yuusuke turned to the girls and grabbed their hands.
“Thanks for leading the way,” he said. “Since you’re here, let’s have some fun. Come on.”
“…What?” I was shocked.
Casting me a sidelong glance, Yuusuke dragged the unresisting girls into the room. The door slammed shut. Yukihito looked over his shoulder before anxiously following Yuusuke inside.
Yuusuke’s gonna have some fun? I felt a little worried.
Since I knew where our room was located, I turned back. Yuusuke used to take good care of his sister-in-law. He would never do anything to hurt young children.
Because that would mean doing what his father did.
I couldn’t settle down in our room just yet. I wanted to ask Mayuzumi something.