By the time I finished talking, the coffee had gone cold. Stroking his own face, Higasa kept his mouth shut. I wasn’t sure how he would react. Maybe they were just caught in the crossfire. I wouldn’t blame him if he got mad.
But Higasa shook his head wildly and, all of a sudden, stroked my head, ruffling my hair, then let go.
“Whoa! Wh-What was that for?!”
“You did great, lad.”
I’d never heard those words before. Cautiously, I lifted my head.
“You did great,” he repeated with a serious look.
His words were so unexpected that I didn’t know how to respond. Dumbfounded, I replayed what he said in my mind. But no amount of pondering gave me a clue as to what he meant.
I did great?
I had no idea.
“Must’ve been tough,” he said.
That much was true, at least.
I couldn’t say anything back. My throat tightened, and words wouldn’t come out. Higasa said nothing more. He got up, dumped the cold coffee into the sink, refilled my cup, then handed it to me. I take a gulp of the hot liquid. The heat and intense bitterness burned my throat. Finally, I was able to speak.
But nothing more could be said. Higasa did not urge me to speak either. Holding the card between two fingers, he twirled it around, then stopped. I stared at it vacantly.
Did I really do great all this time?
I don’t know.
“I understand your situation now,” Higasa said. “But I doubt we don’t have anything to do with this case. This card was delivered to us. There has to be a reason for that.”
He let go of the card, and with his empty hand, he created the shape of a fox. Its shadow fell on the table.
Moving its head from side to side, he added, “To keep eating is our fate, and carrying beasts in your shadow is a kind of punishment. For devouring something completely to live is avarice.”
The beast’s mouth snapped open. It looked around, moving its mouth.
“Our clan is an awful place. Maybe the bill for running away has finally come due.”
Unraveling his fingers, Higasa let out a sigh. The shadow beast he made did not move on its own.
He didn’t have any supernatural abilities.
“I mentioned that the name Higasa is a pseudonym. It means exactly what it means—parasol. I wanted to protect her from the torment brought by the shadows. Make it so she couldn’t cast a shadow anymore. But to be honest, a parasol is useless,” he spat, scratching his head furiously.
Intense emotions flashed through his face. Higasa gritted his teeth so hard that I feared they might shatter. But then he suddenly relaxed and let out a sigh. Silence filled the room. He cast a soft gaze at the couch, where Akari was sleeping.
“Will you please listen to our story?” He sounded pleading. “It’s a simple, boring story, though.”
I nodded. Higasa bowed slightly and began to speak.
Akari’s clan kept shadows.
Or more accurately, they kept beasts in their shadows.
The beasts were alive and sometimes devoured the esper themselves and those around them.
“So one person with no abilities is assigned to them. They’re called Tributes. When a beast goes out of control, they are the first to either quell it, kill it, or be killed by it.”
Tributes were selected from children with undeveloped minds and raised together with the esper. In the process, they formed a clear master-servant relationship and learned loyalty to the clan.
But Higasa was an exception.
“I was chosen for my robust constitution. The main family summoned me urgently. Akari-sama’s previous Tribute was devoured. Akari was gifted the ability, but she couldn’t control it well. The main family shunned her.”
Higasa made a fox with his fingers again, casting a shadow on the wall. He moved its mouth, running it around and letting it sniff the area.
“I was happy. I think it’s the same with every clan. The powerless harbor deep admiration for espers. I endured harsh training to become Akari-sama’s Tribute. But apparently, I forgot the loyalty to the clan part.”
He smiled faintly. Seeing that weary smile, I realized. The formal register that sometimes slipped into his speech must have been acquired through his training as a Tribute. It was so deeply ingrained in him that he couldn’t get rid of it that easily.
No matter how much he wished he could fix it, he couldn’t.
The shadow on the wall crumbled. With a couple of flourish of his palm, Higasa transformed it into the shape of a pistol. He made a motion of shooting.
“Akari is a black sheep. So the main family had her undergo a much more severe training.”
Higasa stopped, hesitated. Then he scratched his head and went on.
“What they did to her is something you do to animals. Not humans.”
In the Kariya household, there was a prison-like room with light bulbs.
Training for the espers was closer to punishment.
The esper was chained in the middle of the room. To survive, the immobile esper manipulates their shadow to get food and water. In addition, kill small critters to prevent the shadow from going out of control.
They struggled and killed to survive. They even defecated on the spot as they learned to control the beast with their own body. There was no way Akari could endure such a brutal life.
He said she regularly coughed up blood.
“When I saw her driven to the wall, a thought came to me.”
Words I heard in the past came to mind.
Espers can never lead a normal life in this world.
Seeing Akari suffering, Higasa decided that he must help her.
“Espers have no parents or children. I was the only one she could count on. I was the only one by her side when she was hurt, when she fainted, when she threw up all night after leaving that room. I was the only one who could help her when she was weak.”
He clenched his fists tight.
Wearing a grim look, he said, “Do you know how much impact that had on me?”
He closed his eyes, remembering the past. Several emotions flickered across his face.
“The moment I realized that there was one person in the world who would break if I let go of them, it felt like I was hit by a truck. Akari was someone I had to protect, not as a lover or family. There are no words that can describe it perfectly.”
If he let go of her hand, she would die. So he had to protect her.
An emotion similar to love, but somehow different.
One day, Akari reached her limit. When she wouldn’t stop coughing up blood, Higasa finally decided to leave the clan. Fearing the wrath of the clan, they spent their days wandering from place to place. Meanwhile Akari’s beasts grew wilder by the day. In order to find a safe haven, they took any case they could get and asked Mayuzumi, whom they met by chance, to help them obtain a safe house.
“Mayuko is a strange one. I’ve heard rumors about her when I was still in the Kariya household. Mayuzumi Azaka is no ordinary esper. That she’s a demon who can communicate with the spirit world. She’s indeed somewhat bizarre. But she’s not an evil person. She’s fickle, but she can be reasoned with.”
There was currently no sign of the clan closing in on them. But Higasa didn’t know how a clan burdened with beasts thought.
Were they hiding well, or was the clan just letting them be?
“And then there’s this case. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were working with the fox and plotting something. As fellow beasts, they probably hit it off.”
Higasa stood up and left the kitchen. I quickly followed him. As I stepped out of the front door, a cool breeze caressed my cheeks. I looked around the green garden. It felt like I was in a forest. The area was enveloped in darkness, and no stars were visible in the sky. I went around to the backyard after Higasa. There was a bench by the wall, probably installed by him. It was still brand-new.
Akari was sleeping there.
She was curled up, her eyes closed. Her long hair covered her shoulders.
“My princess falls asleep looking at the night sky,” Higasa said softly.
Suddenly he frowned. Even in the darkness, I could clearly see the bandages wrapped around Akari’s arms and legs.
“There’s a lot of old scars underneath the bandages. Akari doesn’t want to hide them, but my eyes can’t bear to see them, so I wrap them in bandages. I know. I’m just doing it for myself. Pathetic, huh?”
He let out a dry, self-mocking laugh. Akari’s back rose and fell.
Staring at her thin limbs, I said, “That’s because you don’t want to see her in her battered state, right?”
Not being able to stand the sight of wounds was a natural emotion.
“I don’t think it’s pathetic.”
Higasa didn’t answer, and instead tapped me on the shoulder. He pulled a cigarette from his chest pocket and offered one to me as well. I took one and borrowed his lighter. Wisps of smoke rose in the darkness. Higasa took a deep breath and exhaled.
“Should we leave Akari behind tomorrow?” he asked.
He didn’t want to bring an esper to the fox’s trap. A reckless idea, but one I agreed to. I watched Akari sleep.
We couldn’t take her with us.
Who knows what would happen to us?
I couldn’t help but pray for her happiness.