“Good morning, Odagiri-kun.”
“Good morning, Mayu-san. Though it’s not exactly morning.”
It was past 10:30 when she woke up. Dressed as usual in a black, flamboyant dress, she looked woozy still. Maybe she didn’t get enough sleep. She rubbed her eyes repeatedly and sat down on the sofa. Her back was a little hunched.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. “You look like you didn’t get enough sleep.”
“I got a call on my phone at around 3 a.m. You were sleeping peacefully, so you probably didn’t notice. We talked for quite some time. I wish they’d stop disturbing me in my sleep. I got some interesting intel, though.”
Mayuzumi sipped her hot chocolate—her breakfast, basically. Blinking repeatedly, she swung her legs clothed in knee-high socks. I secretly left out the sugar I usually added, but there was no reaction from her. I didn’t notice she had received a phone call last night. I probably talked to Shirayuki around midnight. What could be the reason for someone to call even later than that? What’s more, I could count the times that someone called Mayuzumi’s phone directly.
Who called? What was it about?
“Mayu-san, did something happen again?”
“It’s been a while. Shall we go outside?”
Putting down the cup, Mayuzumi looked at me. Finally wide awake, her face had that usual feline expression. Her big eyes blinked as if she was trying to tell me something. Shirayuki opened the living room door. She was wearing the dress that I bought for her. When she saw Mayuzumi, she tensed up a little. Mayuzumi glanced at her strained face and looked away. She casually picked up a piece of raw chocolate, as though saying she did not care about her.
“Outside? I thought you said we should stay inside—”
Mayuzumi cast me a sidelong glance. She put up a forefinger in front of her face, and lowered it softly. The motion spoke volumes. I understood what her gaze was saying.
The phone call she received had to do with the Minase clan.
Licking off the cocoa powder from her fingers, Mayuzumi leaped off the sofa and skipped across the living room. She picked up her parasol, twirled it around and rested it on her shoulder. The lace of her hair ornament swayed with her hair.
She turned to me. “Let’s go, Odagiri-kun,” she said with a smile. “Lunch outside should be nice for a change. I want to eat at some cheap place you’d go to.”
Mayuzumi ignored Shirayuki’s gaze and started walking. Adorned in red and black, there was no hesitation in her steps. I nodded at Shirayuki and followed Mayuzumi. I had no idea where she was headed. But one thing was for sure.
Lunch was definitely on me.
“Welcome! Are you dining in?”
“One chocolate shake, and um, one of whatever’s in this combo meal.”
“Excuse me,” I cut in. “One big burger meal, please.”
“Certainly, sir,” the lady said, looking a little confused. I paid and took my tray. When I turned around, Mayuzumi had already gone up the stairs. The clean white interior of the restaurant was bright. I could hear children’s laughter coming from upstairs. When I went up to the second floor, the seats were full, probably because it was lunchtime. There were all sorts of customers—students, parents and their children, office workers. Mothers with their children were laughing in one corner. I looked around and found Mayuzumi by the window. She was standing and talking to someone, unconcerned about all the attention she was drawing.
I have a bad feeling about this.
As I steeled myself and approached her, a familiar face raised their hand.
“Hello! What a coincidence, huh, Odagiri-san?”
I wondered if Saga Yuusuke was some kind of a psychic.
I set down the tray and handed the shake to Mayuzumi.
“Thank you,” she said. She took a sip through the straw and frowned. “Hmm… I guess it’s chocolate?”
“We came all the way downtown for fast food?” I asked.
“Hmm? I thought I should care about your wallet once in a while. I’ve been curious about fast food ever since Yuusuke-kun told me about it. I’ve never actually eaten it until now. And we got to meet Yuusuke-kun again.”
“I’m so glad to see you two,” Yuusuke said. “Oh, can I have one of your fries?”
“No. That’s mine.”
I sighed as I brushed Yuusuke’s hand away. When we got off the downtown station—six stops from Mayuzumi’s place—she just started walking without hesitation. Instead of heading for the underground shopping mall lined with restaurants, she headed for the plaza just outside the station. I was wondering where she wanted to go, when she quickly entered the large two-story fast food restaurant and ordered food without even looking back at me. Her gothic Lolita outfit and parasol drew massive attention, but she didn’t care. She sipped her shake again and frowned. Something about it didn’t feel right, it seemed.
I glanced to my side. Yuusuke was biting into a huge double burger sandwich, gobbling it down. It was probably the new item on the posters inside the restaurant. I turned my gaze away from him, and picked up my own food.
Mayuzumi pulled the straw away from her mouth. The empty shake cup tumbled. Without waiting for me to finish, Mayuzumi started talking.
“All of the Minase clan’s trusted aides had been replaced in the past. It’s partly why they brutally lost. The Minase and Mayuzumi clans are enemies, so I don’t have any information about them. But when the main family found out that I was involved in this case, they called me last night. Directly, on my phone. They waited until it was late, when those two were asleep, and you were back at your place. But of course, you were staying over, and I was going to tell you all about it anyway.”
Mayuzumi chuckled. She pulled out the straw from the cup and spun it around.
“The main family received a testimony about what happened in the Minase clan in the past,” she said softly. “I listened to them for hours, and they were basically just repeating the same thing over and over. Do they not know how to summarize? It’s like they’re too formal when they talk to me. Anyway, it took so long. Goodness. Time is gold, you know.”
Mayuzumi yawned like a cat. She wasn’t quite getting to the point either, so she wasn’t one to talk. I looked to the side and saw Yuusuke, who had finished his burger, eating my fries. More than half of it was already gone. I’m gonna smack him later. With that in mind, I turned my attention back to Mayuzumi.
Her red lips curved into a smile.
As if narrating a fairy tale, Mayuzumi began sharing the story.
“Six years ago, the next head of the Minase clan killed all their close aides.”
White walls were stained red. A man in a crimson-dyed kimono stood in the middle of it all, a brush in his hand. Beside him was a gray tiger. The beast had mangled two people. The other aides were drained of their blood.
A number of red goldfish were swimming in the air.
“They said it was a sudden rampage. He was to become head of the clan soon. But then out of nowhere, he killed all of his close aides. He was then banished by the head of the clan—leading to the current incident. That’s all, basically. Ah, but there was one unusual testimony.”
“He looked like a weeping demon.”
When Mayuzumi finished speaking, she rested her chin in her hand. The empty french fries container rolled across the tray. I pictured the scene. A man of medium height and medium build standing in a room painted red. He was wearing a carved wooden mask just like the night of the attack.
Not a blank, expressionless mask, but that of a demon steeped in rage.
Droplets trickled down its wooden cheeks.
“Incidentally, the testimony was given by Yukihito-kun right after the incident.”
My brows furrowed. “Him?” I said, picturing the boy hanging his head low.
“Out of all the aides, he was the only one who survived. Though I suppose he was more a servant than a close aide. They found him hiding under the floorboards with Shirayuki in his arms. His eyes were wide open and he was shaking the whole time. Apparently, they escaped from the bloody room and hid there. In other words, Shirayuki also witnessed the incident.”
I recalled her appearance last night. What did she see as she stood there? Her eyes, wandering in the darkness, looked on the verge of tears.
As if bemoaning her incomprehensible fate.
“With the next head gone, Shirayuki got the short end of the stick. I once visited the Minase clan shortly after I took the Mayuzumi Azaka name. Back then, she was a lovely young girl who loved to talk. She was very spoiled, probably because there was already a next head in line. She didn’t even say hello to us before she went out to play.”
“Back then, I knew nothing of the responsibility, the pressure, or even the pride of being the head of the clan. I thought that I could live my life detached from any of that, pushing everything onto others. That all I had to do was enjoy the pleasures of life. I’m ashamed to admit that I was a very foolish child.”
Shirayuki’s self-admonishing words rang in my ears. A scene from the past flashed in my mind—a memory I had glimpsed the moment I touched her blood. Adult fingers prying open a child’s mouth. The child, eyes burning, tried desperately to close her mouth, but the adults forced her lips open.
“And her tongue was cut.”
The red tongue that I saw for a moment was gone.
I realized I was crushing the empty plastic cup in my hand. The lid came off and melted chocolate shook inside. I looked to my side to see Yuusuke gulping down my soda. I let go of the crushed cup. I could feel the anger I once felt flaring within me.
I thought about the old man in the goldfish house. He was a man who trampled over human beings for his beloved goldish. But perhaps we weren’t so different at our cores.
Trampling on human dignity for the sake of their supernatural abilities.
I could not comprehend that kind of attitude.
“You don’t understand, Odagiri-kun, and it’s a concept you don’t have to understand. That’s all I got. It’s not like we’ve learned anything. It’s just a silly old story. The main family telling me about it doesn’t really change our situation.”
Mayuzumi spun the straw around on her fingers. She then stopped and flicked it away. Watching it bounce on the tray, she said with a laugh, “We’re still the audience waiting for the curtain to rise.”
She shook her head boredly, like a spectator who had grown tired of waiting. Her boredom would not be alleviated until the curtain rose. As I watched her, I had the feeling that the opening she wanted would soon be upon us.
That voice I heard announcing the time.
It sounded like a bell signaling the beginning of the show.