“The chief of the Minase clan has been kidnapped,” Mayuzumi began before I could even mention Shirayuki. “I have no choice but to take action. If Mayuzumi Asato harms Minase Shirayuki, it will end up being the Mayuzumi clan’s problem. Worst case scenario, I’ll be sent back into the cage. I don’t want to be kept in a prison cell for the sole purpose of reproduction.”
She sipped her hot chocolate and shook the white cup. She snorted.
“As you know, Odagiri-kun, Mayuzumi Azaka is chosen from among the girls of the Mayuzumi clan. That’s why many have high hopes for my child, since I’m revered as the second coming of the First. If we cause a problem for the Minase clan, I wouldn’t be surprised if some extremists use it as a pretext to try to limit my freedom. My life is mine alone. I don’t want it dictated by a lump of flesh in my stomach for nine months. You know how difficult it is, no?”
Mayuzumi pointed to my healed stomach. She twirled a finger, the only one that had a ring, round and round. She then let out a sigh and licked her chocolate-flavored lollipop.
Sitting with my fingers interlaced, I watched Mayuzumi as she talked over the mechanical humming of the air conditioner. Bright sunlight was shining on her cheeks.
Outside the window was a clear sky. I shifted my gaze to the heavens, blue as a colored glass.
The colors of summer were intense. Everything looked so dazzling, filled with hues that I could not see in the darkness of the night.
In short, morning had come before I even realized it.
“Mayu-san,” I said. “I remember finding clothes in your room, taking a shower, cutting my hair, and shaving my beard.”
“Hehe. Did you see all the stuff I had in there? Amazing, huh? Although to be honest, I can’t remember why I had men’s clothes.”
“Please don’t forget next time. Anyway. I lay down on the couch so you could close my wound. I remember that much.”
“And? Is there a problem? Your stomach is back to normal.” Mayuzumi shrugged incredulously.
She twirled her fingers around her ribbon tie adorned with roses. Her garter-belted thighs peeked out from under her short skirt.
My wound was closed. The scar had risen even higher, and looked more hideous, but there was no sign of it opening anytime soon. There was no problem whatsoever with that.
The problem was the time.
“I didn’t intend to sleep that long,” I said. “But when I woke up, it was already morning.”
“Correction: It’s already noon.”
Mayuzumi picked up a silver fork. Its pointed tip cut a piece of the chilled ice cream cake. She lifted the plate from the table and brought the slice to her mouth.
The cold, black dessert vanished behind her red lips.
“You know very well we don’t have any time to waste!” I snapped.
The fork moved, stopping just before my eyes. Cat-like eyes blinked.
Cold sweat ran down the back of my neck.
“Calm down,” Mayuzumi said indifferently. “There’s no need to be in such a hurry. The moment you took action, I realized that something had happened to Shirayuki-kun. You were so distressed. If there was one person who could make you move, it would be her. Because Minase Shirayuki was the only person that Odagiri Tsutomu was able to save. That will serve us well. The last spider’s thread that will save the damned.”
Sweet chocolate dripped down the tip of the fork, landing on my nose. Mayuzumi brushed it off with her finger.
“That must also be why Asato turned his attention to her: to drag Mayuzumi Azaka onto the stage. And to stop Odagiri Tsutomu from killing himself. Your dying alone is no fun to him. He wants to witness your death personally.”
She put her pale finger in her mouth without hesitation. The fork moved away from my eyes.
Mayuzumi bit the fork. “And so the fox chose her. She accepted his invitation for your sake and lost. I understand why you’re in such a hurry, but there’s no point. If there’s a time limit to this, the fox will definitely let us know about it. Since we haven’t heard from him, it means he hasn’t flipped the hourglass. There’s no sand falling. It’s all in your mind. So relax.”
Mayuzumi leaned back elegantly on the sofa. She poked the ice cream cake casually. I swallowed back what I was about to say. But the undispellable impatience took over.
“How do you—”
“How do I know that? Simple. If there’s a time limit, you have to tell your opponent. You have to clearly explain the rules, or you can’t ridicule them when they lose the game. And right now, there’s none of that.”
She smiled. The look on her face said everything.
Mayuzumi Azaka was skilled at reading people’s evil intentions.
Just like the fox.
“There’s no time limit. In other words…”
Melted chocolate ice cream pooled on the plate. The fork cut through the raspberry along with the ice cream, spilling red juice.
“She’s either still alive or already dead.”
I thought my heart stopped beating. Keeping the same expression, Mayuzumi brought the cake to her mouth. She wasn’t joking around. She was serious.
“So you’re saying it’s too late to do anything now?”
“No, not exactly. If Asato is keeping her alive, it has to be for some stupid reason. If we were to believe that, then we must find her. If you’d given up on the clan chief, then she would no longer be either dead or alive. Her death will be certain. If we don’t want that, we have to move. Even if there’s a chance that she’s already gone.”
Mayuzumi shrugged and set down the empty plate. She gave me a radiant smile. I remained silent. She then stood up and looked out the window.
“But it would be better to assume that she was already dead. It’s easier to take drastic actions if your goal is taking revenge instead of helping others. Not that I want her to die, of course. That would be bad. Hmm?”
Mayuzumi turned around curiously.
“This is unusual,” she said, bewildered. “You’re not angry.”
“You’re not trying to provoke me. You’re just telling it as it is. Am I right?” I asked for confirmation first.
Mayuzumi nodded softly. “That is correct. I’m not going to spend effort just to piss you off. I did expect you to get angry, though.”
But she didn’t want to hold her tongue.
Slapping my knee, I stood up and fell in beside her. I put my hand on the window and flung it open, letting in the summer heat. Noise filled my ears, and a hot breeze blew against me. The smell of summer slowly permeated the apartment.
I looked at her petite figure. Mayuzumi was regarding me silently.
“I hate that nature of yours, Mayu-san. I will never have respect for your kind of amusement, and how you trample over others without batting an eye. But we share the same goal. Right now, I can’t do anything without your help.”
I bowed deeply at her.
I decided to believe whatever she said.
Shirayuki was definitely alive.
Sharp light stung my neck. Without waiting for Mayuzumi’s reply, I continued on.
“Please save Shirayuki-san. Use me to your heart’s content and throw me away. I and the child in my belly should be able to protect your helpless body.”
Mayuzumi was physically just a fourteen-year-old girl. She needed a shield.
And that was all I was good for.
That was the only thing I could do to save Shirayuki. I was supposed to die anyway. She could use me however she wanted. Utilize me like a tool.
Mayuzumi did not respond. She closed the window, pushing the summer back outside.
She looked up at me with feline eyes. “It’s hot. For the record, you don’t have to tell me all that. I don’t need your permission. If I want to use you as a shield, I will, and when it’s time to throw you away, I will do so without hesitation.”
Mayuzumi snickered. She moved away from the window, picked up a red parasol, and rested it gracefully on her shoulder.
A red flower bloomed.
“Let us go then, Odagiri-kun.”
Nodding, I followed after her.
Into the familiar hot summer.