V7 Story IV – Part 02

“Why are you here?” Mayuzumi asked.

“Correction,” Maihime replied. “You came to where I was. It’s not exactly coincidence, but it’s not exactly inevitable either. Your arrival simply made it inevitable. Isn’t that right, Kugutsu?” she called softly behind her.

I couldn’t quite grasp what she was saying. Kugutsu walked towards us, holding a tray of tea and snacks.

He stopped and regarded us. “The good sir and Lady Mayuzumi… You’re here. Oh, there’s not enough tea.” He whirled around and walked away.

Who cares about the tea? We turned our gaze back to Maihime. What was she doing here?

“We came here on Hishigami Akira’s request,” Mayuzumi said. “But I didn’t know you’d be here. What are you up to? What were you up to?”

“How absurd. You’re mistaken. You’re here for work, and so am I. Being misunderstood is a lot more painful than what I imagined. I might actually be a sensitive person,” Maihime said sweetly, stroking her cheek.

The puppet in front of her was still, its mouth half-open, revealing a smooth mouth with no saliva.

My brows furrowed. Work?

“In that case, would you be so kind as to explain what you meant by coincidence?” Mayuzumi said.

“I’ve been coming to this atelier for a few days for work. And when I casually talked to Mr. Hishigami about you, he said he wanted to meet you. This meeting was both a coincidence, and inevitable in a way. That’s what I meant. I hope that explanation suffices.”

Maihime tilted her head slowly. She raised both of her hands and clapped. The puppet in front of her reacted. Its thin, film-like eyelids opened, its glass eyes reflecting the summer light.

“My work, that is, inspection and repair of puppets,” Maihime said, anticipating the question.

The puppet shook its head as if awakening from a long dream. I couldn’t sense any heat from its skin, and its appearance, though resembling a human, was clearly different.

It was deliberately made to look like a corpse.

“I see,” Mayuzumi said. “I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t agree with it. So where is Hishigami Akira? I wasn’t expecting to meet someone else before the client.”

“When I heard that you were coming, I said I would be the one to welcome you. Yet another inevitability. I will lead the way. Thank you, Kugutsu. I haven’t had a sip, but we have to go.”

Kugutsu bent down in a familiar motion. Maihime sat on his arm, and he stood up.

Maihime straightened herself and smiled. “This way, please. Mr. Hishigami is waiting.”

Kugutsu started walking. Maihime’s gray hair fluttered like a veil.

Looking around the garden, I noticed the source of the brightness. Several lights had been installed on the walls, reproducing a season gone by. I reluctantly followed Mayuzumi.

A cup was left on the delicate chair. Suddenly, a pale hand wrapped around it. Even as we started walking, the puppet remained motionless. She closed her eyes again, slowly, as if in prayer.

Brass, copper, gypsum. Skins made of various materials caught my eye. Sculptures of girls adorned the space.

There was no muscle movement, no fluttering of the hair. Their eyes were either cloudy or closed. They resembled puppets very much. There was no sign of life from the statues.

Even a layman like me could tell that dead girls were used as motifs.

Mayuzumi called the entire house an atelier, but most rooms seemed unrelated to producing art. The furniture alone indicated that the living spaces and workspaces were kept separate. Perhaps ‘atelier’ was just a nickname.

Hishigami was waiting for us in the reception room. A man in a tweed jacket and jeans studied us. His hair was streaked with gray, but he looked to be in his late twenties or early thirties. I was surprised. I heard he was a famous artist, so I imagined an elderly person.

“You must be Mayuzumi-san,” he said. “Nice to meet you. Apologies for asking you to come all the way here. And you are?”

“My name is Tsutomu Odagiri, Mayuzumi Azaka’s assistant.”

“I see. I welcome you both to my atelier. Thank you, Maihime-san. I can take it from here. Please return to the repairs.”

Maihime made a graceful bow. Kugutsu once again carried her.

“Please, have a seat,” Hishigami said.

He sat deeply on a leather chair, a motion that conveyed old age. Deep wrinkles marred his eyes. Despite his youthful appearance, parts of his body seemed to have accumulated fatigue.

“Allow me to apologize again,” he said. “I’m sorry for the sudden request. I really wanted to talk to you.”

“You’ve already taken my time. You’re only making it awkward by apologizing. If you really feel sorry, then tell me what you want. I only came here out of duty. I didn’t say I’d accept the case,” Mayuzumi said in one breath.

Hishigami’s eyes widened a bit, and he stroked his chin. I smelled perfume and cigarettes. Mayuzumi nonchalantly nibbled on chocolate.

“I’m a little surprised,” Hishigami said. “You bear a resemblance to my puppets, except white had turned to black. Your figure is almost inhuman. But when you speak, it’s completely different. A sweet voice dripping with poison. Fascinating.” He turned to me. “Would you like some coffee?”

“Thank you,” I replied.

He already knew that Mayuzumi only drank chocolate. The door opened, and a fair-skinned girl appeared, clad in an aura of death. I initially mistook her for the puppet from earlier, but her braided hair said otherwise. She was pushing a silver cart carrying drinks. She placed a cup of coffee before me, and for Mayuzumi, she poured hot chocolate.

I looked at her hand, and frowned. The skin from her wrist down had a different color.

While the rest of her body was pallid, that part alone was tinged with the color of the living.

“I’d appreciate it if you stopped comparing me with unsettling things,” Mayuzumi said. “I dislike effigies of dead women and strong liquor. Most things that only adults can consume are revolting. They’re poison.”

Mayuzumi lifted her cup and drank the hot chocolate as lightly as a bird would drink water. Hishigami’s breath seized as genuine unease crossed his face.

“How do you know that? Who told you?” he asked.

“No one,” Mayuzumi answered. “One look at the atelier, and I can tell. All the sculptures and those puppets are based on the same thing. A dead girl.”

I felt it too. The atelier was filled with figures of a dead girl.

Every nook and cranny was decorated with the memory of a girl whose name I didn’t even know.

“I see. I missed that one, despite being the one who put them on display. That’s right. The sculptures and the puppets are all based on one girl. This should speed things up. I actually want to ask you for a favor.”

Hishigami laced his fingers together, measuring Mayuzumi. She didn’t show any particular reaction. She remained silent, waiting for his next words. She continued sipping her hot chocolate.

“I want to meet a dead woman,” Hishigami went on. “I want to talk to the person who was the basis for these women.”

“Not a particularly uncommon wish. Humans long to hear the voice of the dead, I suppose. A wish that one could fulfill easily by crossing to the other side themselves. Ah, the trouble.”

“Stop poking fun at me. Her name was Hishigami Hikari, my cousin. She died at the age of 21. Since I declared my retirement, I haven’t had any desire to create anything. I want to talk to her again, just like when we were young. Maihime-san told me that you can bring back the memories of the dead. Can you help me?”

Hishigami’s eyes, dark as a murky swamp, glimmered with intensity as he stared at Mayuzumi.

Mayuzumi tilted her cup, finishing her drink. “Let me ask you something. Do you think she holds a grudge against you?”

Hishigami’s calm face twisted grotesquely. But there was no anger in his eyes. He looked to be on the verge of tears.

“What do you mean? Do I look like someone who’d incur people’s grudges?” he asked, sorrow in his voice.

Mayuzumi shook her head softly. “How can I possibly judge your character?” she said dispassionately. “We’re talking about your case. My ability allows me to deliver the voices of the dead, but only if their thoughts and feelings remain. Resentment, bitterness, hatred—these emotions tend to linger. Anything else, unfortunately, is not beyond the scope of my ability. If you want to chat, you should find someone who specializes in summoning spirits. So, do you think she holds a grudge against you?”

Hishigami stroked his own face. His gaze went to the puppet standing beside him. He opened his hand, inviting the puppet to rest its hand on his rough, thick palm.

He gripped the puppet’s hand tight. “I don’t know. Hmm, I see. I didn’t know I was making such a terrifying request.” His lips twisted into a self-derisive smile.

I pondered the meaning behind his words, and it hit me. He probably genuinely didn’t know whether his cousin hated him or not.

If she hated him, his wish would come true. If she didn’t, it wouldn’t.

The answer was clearer than litmus paper.

“I give up,” he said. “I don’t have the courage to do it. Sorry for wasting your time.”

Hishigami gave a tired smile. His hand was still holding the puppet’s. Then suddenly he let go, tapped his knee, and stood up.

He gently pushed the puppet from behind. “She will show you out. It was an honor to meet the Mayuzumi clan’s god. Thank you.”

The anguish in his voice made it clear that he regretted this meeting.


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