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Episode 1. Legend of the Golden Witch

"............Again.  ...You certainly enjoy your liquor, don't you?"
The elderly physician lets out a sigh as he removes the stethoscope.

In the gloomy study where dust and a sickly-sweet stench mingle, two elderly men can be seen.
In the corner of this vast room, called a study, there is an expensive-looking bed, a man undergoing a medical examination, and the physician conducting it.  And there appears to be a servant watching over this scene.
"Liquor is my friend.  It is no less of a friend than you, and it has been by my side even longer than you have."

So said the man who had bared his chest for the stethoscope as he tidied his clothes with a calm grace.

"............Kinzo-san.  ...The reason your body appears to be doing well is due to the medicine's effects.  However, if you keep drinking such strong spirits, the medicine will become meaningless.  ...Trust my judgement.  Refrain from drinking."

"I thank you, though only for the sentiment.  My friend.  .........Genji.  Another glass.  Water it down slightly.  That way Nanjo can save face."
".........Are you quite sure?"
After eyeing both the master who demanded the alcohol and the attending physician who forbade it, Genji, the old butler, silently gives a slight nod and obeys his master's orders faithfully.
The attending physician, Nanjo, once more lets out a deep sigh as he watches the butler busy himself alongside the liquor cabinet...
A smell fills the inside of the room.

...That sweet, poisonous aroma that melts the heart, and inexorably, the soul...is the aroma of that venomous green liquor the master loves and won't stop drinking.
"......Nanjo.  You are my close friend, and I've known you for quite a long time.  I am deeply grateful that you have helped me to live a long life until today."

"I have done nothing.  ......After all, you never listen to my advice as your physician."
"Hahahaha...  Just like how you never listen when I warn you about a mistaken chess move you're about to make.  It seems we are even."
"......Master."

"Thank you.  ......I wouldn't die if I ran out of your medicine, but I would die if I ran out of this."

Disregarding Nanjo, who has his face set in a resigned expression, Kinzo takes the glass Genji is presenting to him.

...There are probably very few people who would associate the venomous color, which filled the glass, with alcohol.
".........Nanjo.  Be honest with me.  How much time do I have left?"
"Well now...  I wonder how short I must make it for you to refrain from drinking."
Nanjo once again lets out a sigh of resignation.

Then, he finally speaks, gazing at Kinzo swirling the glass.
".........You don't have much time."
"...What precisely do you mean by that?"
"......Let us illustrate it with the chess game here.  You have very nearly achieved checkmate...but you have not yet cornered my king."
Before Nanjo's gaze, there is a side table with a massive chess set upon it.

Judging by the positioning of the pieces, the game seems to be entering its final stage.
The black rook and bishop are cutting deeply into the enemy lines.

The white king has already been castled and cornered, and even an amateur could see that the match will be decided before much longer.
Both of them made a few moves every time Nanjo came to give a medical examination.

With that in mind, Nanjo was claiming that Kinzo would probably fall into his eternal sleep before this game could be concluded.

...These words are less the words of a physician's than they are the words of an old friend.
"............Were you a normal patient, I would recommend that you write a will at this point."

"......And what is a will, Nanjo?  Handwritten instructions to the vultures on how to devour and scatter my corpse?"
"No, not at all.  ......A will is something where you leave your intentions behind.  It does not only exist to split up the inheritance."

"Hoh.  ......What would I write about apart from the division of the inheritance?"
"............Your regrets.  Your unfinished matters.  What you want to be passed down, ......what you want to convey.  ......Anything is fine."
"...Hmph.  .........What I want them to inherit, what I want to convey?  What drivel.  I, Ushiromiya Kinzo, have not one thing I want to tell or leave behind!!  I was born with nothing.  And I will die with nothing!  I don't want to leave anything to my foolish children!!  Even if I were to die today, even if I were to die now!  I fear nothing, so why shouldn't I accept this fate?!!  I built everything.  My fortune!  My prestige!  Everything!!  Those were built together with me, and will be gone with me.  I will leave nothing behind!!  Nothing!!
I give not a damn about what happens after that!  I want no tomb, no coffin!!  That's the contract between the witch and me!  When I die, I will part with everything!  It's the promise I made in the beginning, and that's why nothing can be left.  I cannot leave a thing!!"
After ranting up until that point, Kinzo suddenly lets his shoulders fall.

...His face is feeble, as though something that possessed him has left.
"............But still, I am reluctant.  I will leave nothing, but there is one single thing I cannot leave as I die..."
".........You would do well to write it down.  Of course, it would be good if you could finish it as you still live.  However, if that fails to come about, the ones you leave behind will take over.  If it were me, I am certain that I would leave something so that those regrets can be settled.  ......That would be a will."
As Nanjo tries to gently pat Kinzo's shoulder, a suddenly enraged Kinzo bats away his hand.
"It's useless, useless, useless!!  It must be while I live, because if I die, my soul will be instantly devoured by the demon of the contract, will be erased, will disappear, for all time!  I won't have peace in the world beyond death!  That's why everything must be done while I'm alive!!  That's why I have no need for a will or any such thing!!  If I had time to write such things......, if I had time!!
...I want to see it.  I want to see it one more time!  I want to see Beatrice's smiling face one more time!!  Oh, Beatrice, why have you rejected me like this up until now!?  Right now, I'll give back everything you gave me, I'll part with everything!!  So, just once more, show me your smile...
Beatrice, I beg of you, for the love of God, you must be listening, you're that kind of woman!  I beg of you, show yourself to me!!  You're here, aren't you?!  You're listening, invisible, and even now you're mocking me from somewhere in this room, aren't you?!  Please, appear before me one more time, and smile at me!!  You can scold me if you wish, you can snatch away my life with your hands!!  I don't want to die alone like this!!  Until I see your smile once more with my own eyes, I absolutely cannot die!!  Aah, Beatrice, Beatrice!!  I offer you this life of mine, I offer it up to you!!  For the love of God, Beatriiiiiiiiiiiice!!!"
"Wow...  Things sure move with the times...  It's freaky how we can get there in only twenty minutes..."
I'm the only one scratching my head, marveling at progress.

Before, it was by boat.
In the past, we'd been forced to sway and rock the whole half-day trip to reach Niijima.
Times sure have gotten handier.
However, I've never gotten on such a tiny plane.
I've already flown in a huge jumbo jet, but it's my first experience in such a small one.
...I wonder if it'll shake.

They say that smaller boats shake more, so I guess it's probably the same for an airplane.
...Aaah, just spare me.

"Haahahaha, it's alright, Battler-kun.  Compared to a boat, it'll shake much less."
"Owaa, G, George-aniki, is that you?!  Heheh, don't scare me like that, you just shaved three years off my life.  Wait, what do you mean shake?  Ihihihi, I never really wondered or even dreamed about whether a plane'll shake, or whether it'll crash, y'know?"

"Sorry, sorry.  It's not like when you were small.  It's been six years since then.  You're not a kid anymore.  Hahahahahah."
"Tch, so you can smoke and drink?  No interest in smoking, but I'd like to try booze, heeheehee!  If you got your Dad's genes, you should be able to drink like a fish, huh?"

"In my case, I mostly have to drink for my job, rather than drinking because I like it.  Doing business in Japan without drinking is difficult work."
"Ihihihi!  That's right!  That's why I usually don't skip out on practicing for the futu~re!"

"Tha, that's not good, Battler-kun, aren't you still a minor?  Drinking carries the possibility of having a bad effect on the growth of minors..., um, never mind."
"If this is as tall as I get, I'd say that's eno~ugh!  Actually, if I shortened a bit instead, it'd be easier to find clothes!"
I puff my chest out.
Until I got my growth spurt, my height was just above average for my class.
But, faster than you could say it, I got even bigger, and now I'm over 1m 80cm (5ft 11in).

I guess that's also thanks to the nonstop muscle training I did, and the suspicious drugs for reinforcing muscle strength I ordered.
I shot 10cm over George-aniki, and I never dreamed that someday I'd be able look down at people.
.......Aah, I guess my relatives are all gonna go "Battler-chan, you got so big!"
...Ergh, it's so freakin' embarrassing, I just want everyone to let go of it already.

In any case, my name is Battler, ...which is a pretty, um, incredible name.
I've got big doubts about my parents' taste.
No one can read it right the first time.

Most people read it "Sento-kun".
Western Names

The names of many characters in this game sound very foreign. Normally, foreign words are written in katakana (phonetic characters) instead of the more common kanji.

However, several members of the Ushiromiya family have foreign-sounding names written in kanji (characters that have a meaning, but may be pronounced in several different ways), which is very strange in Japan, though not unheard of.

Battler's name is pronounced 'Batora' but the characters it is written with would usually be pronounced like Sento or something similar.
Too bad, you lose!
My name is 右代宮 戦人.

Can you read it?  My last name is 'Ushiromiya'.  That part's alright.
The problem is my first name.
.........戦人 is read as "Battler"
右代宮戦人 (Ushiromiya Battler).

Incredible.  Also incredible are the parents who stuck that name on me, and the public official who accepted it.  ...They are all at the top of my must-kill list.
Anyway, this is one of my cousins.
His name is 右代宮 譲治 - Ushiromiya George.
He's five years older than me, so he's probably turning 23 this year.
Since the Ushiromiya cousins consist of two boys and two girls, he was always Aniki when we played together.

And because of those memories, I still call him that today.

"But seriously, Battler-kun, ya grew real big, dincha.  You know how they say 'Leave a boy fer three days and expect an interestin' change'!"
"It must be in his blood, I suppose.  Rudolf wasn't that tall until around his high school years, no?  Perhaps you grow taller in the end if your growth spurt is late."
"Nah, nothing like that.  For a man, the body goes with the guts!"

"Thass right!  Battler-kun's got it!  Men compete with their guts!  Ya must never forget yer constant discipline.  And, if ya wait vigilantly fer yer chance, ya'll make it blossom with a bang!  Me, I never imagin'd that I'd've been able ter become the company president I am today...  Yep, to think that I started out penniless and ruined...!"
This old guy with an apparently well-built body and a bit of fat is George-aniki's dad, Hideyoshi (秀吉) oji-san.

He's my Dad's older sister's husband.
In other words, we're not blood-related.

He's very sociable and nice to kids, and since he even gives me some allowance, he's the best uncle ever.
Is that flashy and suspicious Kansai dialect real?  Because he's actually from Kanto.

But anyhow, in the business world, impressions are super important, and with different people he speaks differently, as if acting to impress 'em.......And of course, in front of real Kansai people he gets all embarrassed and switches back to standard Japanese.

...I don't really get it, but he sure is an interesting character.

"His only flaw is that he's quick to brag.  You can stop it now.  I'm sure Battler's getting tired of it.  Right-?"
"That's not true, hihihi!  But isn't it nice, though?  I think that as a man, having tales of valor to tell is awesome.  Because someone like me doesn't have anything like that to tell."

"Oh, reeaally?  Someone like Battler-kun, whose looks could most likely make loads of girls cry...I'd think you have some, riight?"
"I, I, I, you, you, you're joking, right!  There's no way any weird stories like that have happened!  Actually, I kinda want to be introduced to some instead~!"

"Oh, but you must have some stories.  ...*giggle*, you must tell them to your aunt later.  Because George has absolutely none of those kind of stories.  Heheheh..."
This is my aunt and George-aniki's mother, Eva (絵羽) oba-san.

She's my Dad's older sister.
She and Hideyoshi oji-san are a funny couple, and they always used to tease me.

Because of that, when I was small, they were kinda hard to deal with.

...No, I'm confirming that even now, they ARE hard to deal with.
Ah well, George-aniki's family's interesting and fun, and they seem to get along fine, after all.

......Damn, big difference from my family.

"Battler-kun, have you seen Rudolf-san?"
"Huh?  I think I saw him going to the restroom just now.  He's not back yet?  Hey, maybe he dropped dead, namunamunamu."
Namunamunamu

Derived from "Namu Amida Butsu", a buddhist prayer, literally "I believe in the Amida Buddha".
Recited to get into Amida's paradise.

In other words. Battler simply says something like "Rest in peace, old bastard".

"You shouldn't talk like that about your own father.  Still, this isn't the first time he's taken forever in the bathroom."
"Yeah, the guy's always been that way.  I wish he'd stop going to the can with a magazine.  I wonder what magazines he takes and what he does with them!  Ihihi!"

"Oh, you don't need to worry about that at all.  Since we've been together, I haven't let him do that sort of thing by himself."
"Hihihi!  Oooh, I'll have to hear all about that later~!  Sounds like Dad has his balls in an iron grip."

"You know what happens if you don't get a proper grip, right?"
"Hell no.  You're the only one who can hold the reigns on that old bastard, Kyrie-san.  Even as his son, I'll give them over gladly."
"Heh, leave it to me.  Isn't it my speciality?"

This woman is my father's wife.
Her name is Ushiromiya Kyrie (霧江).

Hearing a bit of our banter, you can understand she's not my real mother.
She's what you'd call a stepmother.

My real mom died six years ago.
After her passing, my father remarried with Kyrie-san.

It's understandable for someone my age.
Even now, I can't call his second wife 'Mom'.

And, I guess she doesn't want to call this massive, unrelated stepson 'son'.

We don't act like brats to each other.
We wouldn't gain anything by fighting.

So for the same reason, we just don't play at being family either.

That being the case, she's more like an older girl from the neighborhood to me, and by comparison, I guess we've gotten pretty close.

Instead of feeling bad about it by forcing ourselves, we gain a degree of comfort from treating each other in a simpler way.

Since Kyrie-san's also an unusually frank person, we make it work well somehow.
And, when I started badmouthing Dad, who'd already left the can, the man himself came back, drying his hands with a handkerchief.

"Hmm~?  Battler."
"Whaddya want, Dad?  ...Owowowowww!  Don't pinch my ear, my ear!"

"You're badmouthing your mother and me again, aren't you.  Why are you so unenthusiastic about the respect you owe your fathe~r?"
"Oooooooooooow, oooooooooow!  Dammit, that hurts, ya old bastard!  You can stretch my ear all you want, I'm not gonna be able to fly ya know, it huuuuuurts~~!!"

"C'mon now.  Up up, down down, left right, left right.  Now try saying 'Father, please excuse me for saying such disrespectful things'."
"Are you kidding, go have someone from a host club say it to you, if you want it that badly!  Oooow, leeet meee goooo!!"

......This old bastard is my Dad.
I think I'm tall enough, but Dad's about the same height.

Eva oba-san, seeing my height, seems to agree that I get it from my Dad.
By the way, I didn't get just my height from him.  My terrible name too.
Dad's name is 右代宮留弗夫.

......Can you read it?
It's 留弗夫, 留弗夫!
Like this, you read it as 'Rudolf'.

Ahaha..., I'm sure he resents Grandfather pretty strongly for giving him that name.

But that's no reason to slap me with that bizarre naming tradition.

After the old bastard finished having his fun pinching and pulling my ear, Eva oba-san grabbed his.

"Hey, Rudooolf?  Isn't that child abuse?"
"Ouch, that hurts, Aneki..."

This scene is a perfect example of how a mischievous younger brother always gets punished by his older sister, no matter how hulking he is.

"Eva nee-san, please leave it at that.  I'll pull the opposite ear the same way afterwards and stretch it out."
"My, I'm sorry.  I should leave you a piece to pull on.  Rudolf?  Be sure to get lots and lots of punishment afterwards from Kyrie-san, alright?"
"You're one to talk, Aneki, after abusing your little brother.  Hideyoshi nii-san, I'd like to thank you very much for picking her up.  If it wasn't for your leniency, she'd still be unsold in the store.  As her younger brother, I apologize."

"...Hmm~?!  Who's 'unsold'?"

After taking 2...3 steps to close the gap between them, Eva unleashes a high reverse roundhouse kick, still looking as charming as ever, and stopping a centimeter away from Dad's nose.

She started out with Tai-chi-chuan, maybe for her figure, and then got interested in the Chinese martial arts.  After that, she went through karate, tae kwon do, capoeira, ...and what is it she's learning now, again?

...Well anyway, they say a woman's weapons are in her lower body, and that's literally true for Eva.

"Ru-do-lf~?  Did you know that a direct blow to the side of the head would knock you out in one hit?  Not so long ago, my partner messed up during an exhibition and started blowing bubbles, you see?"
"...Haaa, no, that's alright.  I'm also sorry about her funny walk."
Dad, not batting an eyelid, shrugs and smiles bitterly at Hideyoshi oji-san.

"Wahahaha, I ain't got brothers and sisters.  So when I sees Eva and Rudolf-kun bickerin' with each other, my heart gets to be all warm-like.  Siblings n' family sure are good stuff."
"My my, are you saying you'll soon make a brother for George-kun?  George-kun is already a fine adult, and soon he'll leave home, so it might be nice to have another child."

"Wait a sec, Kyrie, you've got to think about the troubles the new kid would have.  I'm surprised Geroge-kun grew up so well after being born from this evil sister of mine.  What an awesome kid.  Share some of that with my dumbass son, would you."
"It's nothing of the sort.  There was nothing wrong with the way Eva nee-san raised George-kun, so he turned out as a good and gentle kid.  Isn't that right, Nee-san."

"My my, I wonder, ufufufu, I do wonder...!  Our George is still undependable.  Ah, but more importantly, how's your little Ange-chan?  I heard she was vomiting?"
"Yah, thass right!  I was expectin' I could see her face, after so long.  Is she alright?"

"She always catches a cold when the seasons change.  She's very frail...  The truth is that I wanted to bring her, but my family will take care of her this time."
"A wise move, isn't it?  She'll get better faster by not bathing in the rotten air at the head house.  A child's sickness is more important than an adult's convenience, right?"
"I know of some great medicine fer vomitin' colds!  When we get back home, I'll send some to you right away, so use it!"
"Thank you very much, Hideyoshi nii-san.  I'm always in your debt..."
...After the conversation suddenly turned in that direction, there was no way we kids would get to jump in.

For now, I'm just happy that Eva oba-san properly avenged me on Dad's pinching my ear.
"Are we still waiting for the weather?"

George-aniki points at the counter.
The unchanging 'checking weather' sign is stuck next to the departure times for the flight we're scheduled to board.
According to Aniki, it seems like a smaller plane is more subject to the winds and the weather, and depending on that, it looks like it's really common for the flight's departure to be influenced big-time.

......Wait a sec, it isn't really gonna shake, right...?
I mean from down here, you just see the cloudy weather and you can't feel the wind.
...Well, maybe it'll be different once the plane is in the sky.
"The weather's a bit uncertain today."
Eva oba-san is watching the TV in the lounge.

The weather forecast is being broadcast, informing us that a typhoon is approaching the Kanto region.

"A typhoon again?  ......It's inevitable, with the yearly family conference in October.  I wish he'd choose a better season."
"I agree.  I've always hoped it could be done during the Obon festival.  In fact, Rudolf, shouldn't we try proposing that to Father and Nii-san at this family conference?"

"...You're kidding.  You do it, Aneki.  Aniki won't listen to me no matter what I say."

"Oh no.  It doesn't really bother me that much in October.  What if you propose it, since you say you can't stand typhoons, Rudolf?  I'm just saying..."
"I only said that typhoons always come around this time of year.  You're the one who wanted it during Obon, no?"
"Well, you said so last year, Rudolf!  That if it were around Obon it'd be easier to fit in your schedule!"

"Oh no I didn't."
"Oh yes you did.  I wouldn't forget you saying that!"
"No I didn't, Aneki, you're the one saying that all the time!"
"Didn't you know?  Stopping a strike a hair's breadth away is a very high class technique."
"Sheesh, women your age shouldn't spread their legs like that!"
When I see Dad and Eva oba-san arguing, all I can see is a brat's quarrel...

"Even though they normally behave like fathers and mothers, in these family conferences, when they meet their old siblings, they turn into children again."
"And on the other hand, you can analyze it all calmly and look like the grown-up.  ......When I grow up, I don't want to become like the old bastard.  In this case, I want to become an intellectual like Aniki."

"Like me?  Oh, I still have a long way to go.  I still lack social experience, as well as sociability, and courage.  ...I think that you already have quite a lot of those.  And so, when you become an adult, I'm sure you'll outstrip me fast enough."
George-aniki scratched his head laughing, as if to hide his embarrassment.

Of course, he's just being humble.

Aniki entered a university and Hideyoshi oji-san's company as an apprentice at the same time, and studied both academics and how to become a business emperor in parallel.

Then, right after graduating, he got into Hideyoshi oji-san's company as an aide, and as he devoted himself zealously to his work, he piled up lots of social experience.
He even has a great dream of eventually becoming independent and making his own castle.

Aniki is a real paragon of a man, sparing no effort as he strives towards that.  It's no exaggeration to say that I really respect him.
But that's as far as I go.  There's a world of difference between me and Aniki.

I'm living my happy-go-lucky, idle high school life to the max.
I've got no dreams for the future!
I wanna rake in money in a cool and fun, all-smiles way, but it's not like that kind of thing happens.

...When Aniki was my age, he was already carrying a fine objective and studying to get there, so I guess I can't compare at all.
The old bastard says stuff like: "You're coming over as an apprentice in my company?  Then you start by cleaning the toilets."
Dammit, I'm not gonna be taken care of by the old bastard.

I'll clear my life's path myself!

..........If only willpower could make you an adult.
Maybe I should go on one of those self-searching journey things that are all the rage now?
......Well, it's not like I could mooch off my parents for that kind of money...
Right then, Hideyoshi oji-san shouted really loudly.

Oji-san is basically a really nice person, but his big problem is controlling the volume of his voice.
He's greeting Rosa oba-san who came late.

"Ohoooooooooh!!!  S'Rosa!  Maria-chan, long time no see!!"
"Long time no see-!  Uu-!"

"Maria!  Shouldn't that be 'It's good to see you again'?  Say it, would you?"
"Uu-.  It's...good to see you again..."
"Thass right! Ya said it durn good!  I'll give you a sweet as a reward!  ......Oh, huh?  Where'd I put 'em..."
"Rosa-san, it's good to see you again.  It's good to see you too, Maria-chan."

"It's been too long, Kyrie nee-san, Hideyoshi nii-san.  ...And, ......oh my, Battler-kun?!  You're so big now...!"
"Naah~, hahahaa...  It's embarrassing hearing that every time I meet someone today...!"
"Oh, Rosa.  You're late.  If the plane was following the timetable, you'd have barely been on time, you know...?"

"I'm sorry.  The trains weren't running well.  What's this, we're waiting on the weather again?"
"Oh, don't complain.  Compared to being shaken around for six hours on a boat, I'd rather have only thirty minutes on a plane.  Even if we're kept waiting an hour, it's still much faster."

"Maria-chan's also gotten biiig!!  So, how tall's Maria-chan now?"
"Uu-!  So, how tall's Maria-chan no~ow!"
Maria-chan parrots Hideyoshi oji-san's question to her mother.

I guess she doesn't even remember her own height.
She's probably right in the middle of her growth, so her height must change every month.
In another few years, she'll look like a lady at the first glance, most likely.

"Well, let me see..., how much did we measure you at the other day?  In any case, you're growing little by little.  Aren't you now?"
"Uu-!"

"She grew much more than last year, in my opinion.  Let's see, she turned nine years old this year, didn't she?"
"Nine years old.  Uu-."
"That's right, you're nine years old.  Looks like you're high spirits too, Maria-chan!  Ups-a-daisy, ...ack, you've gotten a bit too heavy to play airplane with..."

"Ouch, George-aniki, what a rude thing to say to a lady.  Here, I'll do it, up ya gooo~."
"......Uu-."

When I went to lift her up instead of Aniki, Maria stiffened her body as if to reject it, staring suspiciously at my face.

...Ah, that's right.  When I met Maria before, it was six years ago and she was only three.
There's no reason for her to remember my face.

"Maria-chan, don't you remember?  It's Battler-kun.  You played together, remember?"
".........Uu-."

"I guess it's no use.  The last time she met Battler, she was only three.  You don't keep memories at that age."

Apart from me, she must know everyone's face because she meets them every year, but I haven't had contact with the Ushiromiya family for about six years now.
So, it's kinda normal that I'm not in the memories of this nine year old girl.

Even I just barely remember her being a three year old crybaby.
"Maria.  He's Battler onii-chan.  Rudolf nii-san's son.  ...Understand?"

"............Nii-san's son is?  Nii-san is son.  ............??  ......Uuuu---!!"

She probably uses that 'uu-' sound to fill in the blanks when she can't understand a complicated explanation.
But that explanation had been a bit confusing.

"Maria-chan.  This is Battler-kun.  He's your cousin, like me."
"......Like George onii-chan? ...........................Battler?  Cousin?  ......Uu-."
"That's right.  You got it."

This kind of thing makes me think that Aniki's really awesome, or that he's a real grown-up.
For someone who isn't married, he's just too perfect at dealing with kids.  I'm sure that he'll be an indulgent father in the future.
"...Battler onii-chan?"
Maria looks straight at me, her expression asking if it's OK to call me that way.

"Yep, that's me, Battler.  Nice to meet you, Maria!"
"Uu-!  Battler!"
"Hey, Maria!  You shouldn't call him like that, call him Battler onii-chan...!"
"That's alright, Rosa oba-san.  I don't sweat the small stuff.  Hey, Maria!  We don't need honorifics, right?!"

"Battler Battler Battleeerrr!  Uu-uu-!"
"That's right, Maria Maria Mariaaa!  Uu-uu-!!"
We horsed around for a while to make up for the six year blank.

To her, I'm probably still nothing more than a huge Nii-chan she's meeting for the first time, but that should be fine if we slowly get used to each other.
But I'm surprised.  She's the same as my memories of her from six years ago.
Yeah, people just don't change so much.  I'm sorta happy she's a pure girl like I imagined.
Her name is Ushiromiya 真里亞.
...Can you read "真里亞"?  It's read "Maria".
The character "A" (亞) looks like a cross, which feels very classy.

Since she doesn't show her feelings much, it's difficult to know just what she's thinking, but that's just when it comes to her facial expressions.
On the inside, she's no different from a sweet and normal girl.
Then there's Maria's mother, 楼座 oba-san.  She's my Dad's younger sister.

楼座 is read as "Rosa".  ...This is SO foreign.
It's kinda rude to say so, but it's exactly the same kind of unbelievable name as my Dad's "Rudolf"...  In spite of that, Oba-san is great, and not completely twisted like Dad.
...Actually, when you think about it, all the names in my family have a touch of foreign-ness.
You gotta wonder what Grandfather's tastes are, exactly.

Because of him, even us grandchildren get screwed.
Is that habit of his 'cause he was pissed with his normal, Japanese-ish name?
Anyway, there's one thing about Rosa oba-san that's a relief compared to the other family members.

The old bastard and Eva oba-san have this weird streak that makes them tease and mock people, but even though she's got the same blood, Rosa oba-san doesn't do that.

Between all her siblings, she's the one with the most common sense.
Like Hideyoshi oji-san, she's a kind aunt who'll always be on the kids' side.

......On the other hand, perhaps because she has a strict way of raising kids, she's not as generous as Hideyoshi oji-san with her allowance.
All right.  The whole family's here to board the plane.
As though it was waiting to see us off, there's a broadcast in the lobby.
"Our apologies for the wait.  Boarding will now commence for flight 201 to Niijima.  We ask that the passengers please form two lines in front of the counter, behind the white line."

"Rosa, you still haven't gone through boarding procedures, so hurry up."
"Uh oh...!  Maria, come on!"
"Uu-!"
We'll undergo a metal inspection before going to the runway.

It doesn't have the grandness of the planes that make international flights, but while it is a small machine, it's still a plane.
We are body-checked by a staff member holding a metal detector.
When everybody lined up is checked to be clear, we leave to the runway guided by the staff member.
Looking onto the procession...oh, what's this?  There's no one except the Ushiromiya family.
This way, it's almost like a reserved charter flight, isn't it?
The procession stops in front of the entrance to the airplane.
The staff employee who guided us turns around and speaks while looking at the list.
"Very well, boarding will now commence.  I shall call out the names on the list, so please occupy the seats in order, from the front row on the right, then the left, then the next row on the right, then the left, and so on and so forth.  With that, I shall proceed to read the names out loud.  Ushiromiya Hideyoshi-sama!"
"I'm first!  Right here!  ...Oh, Eva, d'you have a candy?  I've been lookin' all over for some, but I can't find any."
"Ushiromiya Eva-sama."

"They're in the handbag.  I'll get one once we're inside the plane."
I've heard that candies are a good way to protect the ears from hurting because of variations in atmospheric pressure when landing or taking off.
That's probably what they're talking about.

"...It'd be nice if I got a window seat!"
"Hahaha, don't worry.  There aren't any other kinds of seats."

Like George-aniki says, it looks there're only two lines of seats.

As could be expected in a small plane... .........I wonder if it really won't shake....?
"Ushiromiya George-sama."
"Here.  Don't worry, Battler-kun.  It won't shake too much."
"Ushiromiya Battler-sama."
"A-Aniki, how much is 'not too much'?!  Even if I fall from a boat, I'm fine, I can swim, but if I fall from a frickin' plane, it's the end!  But of course, there's a parachute in the seat, right?  Wait, there isn't?!"
"Ushiromiya Rudolf-sama."

"Come on, Battler, quit being a wuss and get in."
"Ow!  Dad!  Don't push me!  There's no parachute!"
"Ushiromiya Kyrie-sama."

"Alright, stop this nonsense.  Let's move along, now."
"Ouch! Kyrie!  Stop pushing!  This dumbass isn't moving!"
"Ushiromiya Maria-sama."
"Uu-!  Move move!"
"Ushiromiya Rosa-sama."
"Hey, Maria!  Be quiet, now..."
"This is Kawabata, the pilot.  We sincerely thank you for taking New Tokyo Aviation's flight 201 today.  We estimate a 20 minute flight to Niijima airport.  We are receiving reports of atmospheric turbulence.  Since there might be some shaking of the aircraft, we ask you not to unfasten your seat belts after take-off."
"A-aniki, what's this shaking that means we can't unfasten our seat belts?!  If it was a Jumbo we could definitely unfasten 'em!  So it's gonna shake so much we can't take 'em off~?!  Dammit, you tricked me, the hell it's not gonna shake!  Where's the parachute?!  I knew it, I should've taken the boooooaaaaat!!"

Arrival at Niijima Airport

Sat, Oct 4 1986 8:00AM
".........Should've taken the boat..., ......the boat......"

"Faaalll!  Faaalll!  Uu-uu-uu-uu-!!"
"Maria, that's enough!  ......But what a surprise, though.  And I thought there was nothing that could scare Battler-kun."

"I don't know why, but this guy hates any vehicle. He always babbles that it's going to crash or sink.  You're a disgrace of a man, you are."
"......Shaddup.  It's only to be expected, with all that shaking...  It was my first time on a small plane like that, so I just got a little stressed, that's all..."

"You call that uproar 'a little stressed'?  Ufufufu, if I ever travel overseas with you, things will surely be quite lively.  Would you like to go to Egypt with your aunt?  I'm sure you could handle 14 hours on a plane, right?"
"Ah-hahaha!  That's a good plan.  Battler-kun, go get some training from Eva nee-san.  Still, it is strange, isn't it!  Ah-hahahaha!"

"Wah-hahaha, now now, everyone's got their strong and their weak points.  It's bad to laugh at 'em.  Wah-hahaha...!"
"D, Dad, you're laughing too.  Hey, Maria-chan, stop laughing already."
"Stop laughing already?  Uu-!"

Dammit, dammit!  Is being scared of planes really so bad?
I completely get that everyone's thinking I'm a great big oaf...  Tch!
We split up and took separate taxis from the airport, and arrived at the harbor.
From here on, we'll go to the island by boat.
Since it's a neighboring island, it's not that great a distance.
By boat, it's a leisurely 30 minutes to the island.
After going to the pier where the boat to the island is anchored, we saw a silhouette waving its hand.
"George nii-saaan!  It's been so frickin' long!!"

"Ah, Jessica-chan, it's been a year since I saw you!  You've gotten taller again, haven't you?"
"Kyah-haha, don't gimme that, it's embarrassing when you say that every year!"

"......H-hey, Aniki, you've gotta be kidding me.  That's really Jessica?!"
"Wait a sec, George nii-san...  This big guy, ...is Battler?!"

We look at each other up and down, all serious.

...I don't remember that kind of figure on her, but I definitely remember her crazy way of talking.
Jessica's Speech

In Japanese, men and women speak slightly differently. This difference is much larger than what you find in English.

Simply put, Jessica speaks like a guy, which makes her sound bolder and ruder than you'd expect from a girl of her age, regardless of what she's actually saying.

This doesn't translate too well in all situations, so bear in mind that Jessica's speech is almost always casual and not particularly polite.

"Yo, Jessica!  What's this now!  You're kidding me, you look like a woman now!  What're these, boobs?  Even you managed to get a chest!  Ihihi, let me rub 'em, let me~!"
"Don't screw around with me, I'm a blushing flower of 18!  Just like hair grows out, so'll other stuff!  You think I got boobs just so you can go and rub 'em, loser!?  And what about you, Battler?  You got all ridiculously big only physically!!  Did you get a little stronger?"
"Don't screw with me, I'll show you how much training I've piled up since back then!!"
"You're pissing me off!!  I'll beat you at your own game!"
This headstrong gal is Ushiromiya 朱志香.

......She was born under the same unlucky star as me, and is my pitiful companion in terms of having a weird name.
Anyway, 朱志香 is read as "Jessica".
She's Dad's older brother's daughter.

That older brother is in fact the oldest son of the Ushiromiya family, so for now, it means Jessica is the direct heir of the Ushiromiya family.
Because I'm the same age as her, and because we've always had boy-girl squabbles, since long ago, when we got together at the family conferences, we brawled together while still keeping a playful relationship.
Jessica grew quickly, and the truth is, in terms of size and physical strength, I always lost to her.
So, when we scuffled as a contest of strength, it usually went Jessica's way.

So even though I clearly understand that I'm bigger now, I still feel like I can't win against Jessica with my strength.
".........Woh...ah...!  What the, wha, you're getting serious...! Owowow..."
"Hey hey hey, this is nothin'!  Jessica, you've gotten weak."
"Sh-shaddup.  I'm a woman, so there's no way I could beat a man with physical strength forever, right?!"
"Weeelll, that's certainly true!  The meat I put on my arms all went to your che~st.  It looks like it'd be a pretty even test of strength between my arms and your boobs, don't you thi~nk?!"
"I told you, my boobs aren't for you to feel up!!  Besides, how 'bout you?  Did your cute lil' elephant-san get a bit bigger to go with the rest of you?!"
"Shut the hell up, ah, stop it, perv-girl, no one's gonna want to marry yooouuu, don't touch my crooo~tch~!!"
"D, don't say stuff people are gonna misinterpret!!"
Honestly, I was so surprised at how feminine Jessica has become that I had to seriously horse around to hide it.

......That's right, considering what a bossy brat she was six years ago, anyone would be surprised.
And I guess it's even more true for Jessica.
She sure didn't think she'd lose to me.

Because she lost so easily, she must be shocked at all the growth I've had these six years past.

......Six years, was it?  Once more, I realize the blank that all this time means.

"Crap..., total defeat.  It's like I'm no match for you anymore."
"That's not true.  Even Battler-kun must have his weaknesses.  Right, Maria-chan?"
"Uu-!  Faaall, faaall!!"
"Shh, cut it out Maria~, let's keep that a secret, okay?"

"Fa-ll?  What the hell's that?"
"Heheh!  Sorry, but there's no chance Jessica'll be able to see that weakness of mine now!  After all, the nightmare plane trip is already over and done with!  Only thing left is the nice, quiet splashing of the boat trip.  I never thought I'd start loving that piece-a-junk boat this much.  Ihihi!"

"Hu-h????  George nii-san, is there something wrong with his head?"
"You'll understand soon.  Very soon."

At the time, I didn't understand what Aniki meant by that big smile...
"What have we here..., oooh!  Battler-san, how big you've grown...!"
Who's it this time?  It's an old lady with an apron.

.........Oh, oh yeah, that takes me back, I remember now!

"Battler-kun, you remember?  Look, it's Kumasawa-san, the servant."
"How could I forget Kumasawa baa-chan!  Anyway, you haven't aged a bit in these past six years.  Wait, you haven't gotten younger, have you~?"

"Hoh-hoh-ho!  Lately, my skin has been getting all bouncy~!  And look, hasn't my chest gotten even bigger as well?  ...Want to try rubbing it?"
"Y, you're kiddinnng!  The only thing I want to rub is some bouncy Nee-chan's chest!"
"Even I had some bouncy ones in my youth, you know~?  Now, now, I humbly ask that you rub them!"
"Hyoo, gimme a break!  It's only gonna be young, young Nee-chans for me!  Not Kumasawa baa-chan!"

The prank I'd pulled on Jessica was turning completely against me.  Come to think of it, Kumasawa has always been the type to make fun of people.

"Kumasawa-san, stop that now.  People with one foot in the coffin shouldn't jump around."
"To sport with the young is the best rejuvenation medicine.  Hoh-hoh-ho!"

"It's rare for Kumasawa-san to come pick us up.  Now, I do wonder why?  Whenever you're entrusted with something to do, your lumbago always kicks in.  *snicker*."
"Hoh-hoh-ho, Eva-sama, you are harsh as usual.  I found myself with some urgent purchases to make, and while I was at it, I thought I would come welcome you all.  Although, it does give a bad impression if the one waiting to greet you is a decrepit old woman.  Hoh-hoh-ho...!"

Eva oba-san was sarcastic, but Kumasawa baa-chan's years of experience are nothing to sneeze at.
She showed that she was capable of smoothly and coolly letting that comment slide.

Well, it feels weird to say it, but as a servant, old Kumawasawa-chan may be past her prime.
She might behave as if she's doing well, but between the headache and the lumbago, her body is falling apart.  To tell the truth, the very fact that she's still working is already impressive.

...How old is she this year again?

She must be pushing eighty at least.
And with all that, she's behaving so energetically it's almost scary.

"You just seem to get more and more lively.  Oh, that's right, here you are.  It's the tea I told you about before.  Look, I bought you some.  Please do try it later on."
Rosa oba-san takes the bag with the present in it out from her suitcase.

To think that she remembered the promise that she had apparently made last year and faithfully bought it.  ...This kind of conscientiousness is just like Rosa oba-san.
She's the kind of person who won't forget or break a promise.

Whether or not Kumasawa baa-chan remembered the promise, she seemed deeply touched by the fact that someone would bring a gift to a simple servant like her.

This woman is Kumasawa Chiyo-san (熊沢 チヨ).

She's a senior servant who's been working for the Ushiromiya head house for many years.
As you could expect from someone her age, she isn't that good at manual labor, but from kitchen work to cleaning and laundry, she's a kind of super servant who can handle just about anything.

It seems like her only flaw is a tendency to slack off.

I hear she tries to get away from heavy or troublesome work by playing up her chronic diseases.
......In Kumasawa baa-chan's case, maybe we should call that a laid back craftiness rather than a tendency to slack off.

...Though it probably doesn't help her in the eyes of those paying her salary.

Ah well, even if she's pretty flaky when it comes to work, I don't dislike her.
I guess that's probably because of her cheerfulness and her constant smile.

"Haaa, seein' ya lookin' lively as always is the best!  How's yur back doin' then?"
"Even with the medicine, it's not getting one whit better.  According to the doctor, nothing can be done for this one.  It's what's called an incurable disease, hoh-hoh-ho!"

"At any rate, Jessica-chan's only gotten prettier.  Good thing she looks like Natsuhi nee-san."
"R, really...?  Personally, I don't think we look alike at all...  I mean, I don't even want to look like my parents.  'Cause I got zero respect for 'em."
"Now, you shouldn't say such things.  *giggle*, even though there are quite a few people who don't want to look like their parents in our family."
"Ah, that's me!"

"You idiot, don't you start looking like me.  Your nose looking like mine already pisses me off."
"What are you talking about?  You're surprisingly alike, you and your father."
"Come on, you can't be serious...  Just how am I like Dad?"

"You're his copy in arrogance and self-importance.  Father's blood is especially strong in you and Nii-san.  Wouldn't you say, Rosa?"
"Oh, absolutely.  Krauss nii-san and Rudolf nii-san are almost unbelievably like Dad."

"Alright, alright already, why am I the only one under fire from the girls?  Hideyoshi nii-san, please help me out."
"My my, Rudolf-kun, yer always popular with the ladies.  I'm jealous!  Wah-hah-hah-ha!"

"Hoh-hoh-ho!  As usual, you're popular enough to make me jealous.  Well then, everyone, shall we head over to the boat?  Come now, Maria-chan, let's get on the boat together, alright?
"Get on the boat together.  Uu-!  Everyone gets on together.  Uu-!"
"Hell yeah, this time around I'm not gonna be scared.  I'm used to being shaken by the waves.  With that piece-a-junk fishing boat, I'm less afraid of the shaking than the engine breaking down and the boat drifting off."
"Oh yes, Battler-kun, I forgot to tell you.  ...That fishing boat was completely decrepit so it was taken out of use a few years back.  Now we get taken to the island in another boat."

"Ohhh, right.  It's Battler's first time in the new boat!  It's super comfy!  And frickin' fast!  It can go at crazy high speeds!"
"Ohhh...  That means less trip time, right?  That sounds great!  Anyway, even if it's only a bit better than an airplane, as long as we get just a little less time exposed to the danger of sinking, that's really just awesomely great~."

"...Uu-.  Is Battler going to faaall faaall again?"
"That's only on airplanes.  Everything's fine now!"

"Anyway, it's the captain's pride and joy, and it's a kinda modded high-speed boat.  Seems he tinkers with big parts of it.  He was bragging about how he attached four-base high efficiency propellers to it so that he could break 40 knots or something like that.  I just remember how he's always bragging."

"Me too, I remember since we're told about it every year.  The captain says that since he lost a speed contest with a foreign fishing boat a long time ago, he became obsessed with modding.  He says that at the time, even though it was only in a fishing boat, his opponent could go at over 30 knots."
"To fulfill his thirst for a revenge match, he created an awesome whole new super high-speed modded boat.  I'm sure you'll just love it, Battler."

...S, super high speed modded boat...?

...I first thought it would be better than that piece-a-junk boat we thought could sink any second, and I was welcoming the new thing, but...... Somehow, I've got a bad feeling about it.........Yeah right.
"Hey, Battler, maybe you should swim to the island, huh?"

"Battler-kun, you shouldn't lean over the railing too much.  You might fall."
"Uu- Uu-!!  Faaall, faaall!!"
"Daaaaammiiiiit..., so this is why you were all grinning before!"

So this is the super high-speed boat that the captain started modding, oh yeah, it just can't be compared with the other piece-a-junk boat.
"Whooooooooa, it's shaking it's shaking it's shaking!!  Fall fall faaall!!"
"Uu-uu-uu-!!  Fall fall faaall!!"
"If I fall I'm in the ocean, I'll drown...a parachute...no, wait, where's the buoy?!  Gimme a life jackeeeet!!"
"Waah-hah-hah-hah-ha!  What's up, Battler, what's with that kinda attitude, waah-hah-hah-hah-ha!"
"Jessica-chan, Maria-chan, it's not nice to tease.  Battler-kun, if you're scared, then just don't come out on the deck.  I think that if you stay inside the boat, you'll be a bit less afraid."
"Heheh, that's a no thank-you, Aniki!  Shipwreck victims are always the ones inside the boat.  The survivors are usually those on the deck during the accident.  That's why I'm here!!  But, it's shaking!!  I'm gonna faaall!!  Whooooaaaaaahhh!!"
"Shake faaall!!  Uu-uu-uu-!!"
"Maria, I told you to behave yourself!  ......But Battler-kun, it looks like you really can't handle it...  I'll go tell the captain to slow down for you."
"Whooooa, Rosa oba-san, thank yooooouuuuu!  I confirm that safe, slow driving is the thing, even on the seaaaaa!!"
"*cackle*!  Don't do that, Rosa.  Ordeals are necessary to the young.  Right, Battler-kun?  If it's only this, you can easily conquer it, right?  Otherwise, you won't be able to go to Egypt with your aunt!"
"Whooooa, Eva oba-san, you're meeeeeeeeaaaan!  Ooh noooo, I'm gonna faaaaaall!!  Life jackeeeet, parachuuuute?!!  Whoooooooaaaaaaahh......!!!  N-no, okay, turn it over and think that way!!  What's the enemy aiming for?!  He wants to make me afraid like this?!  If that's what he's aiming for, he's soft, I'm not gonna be scaaaaaaaared!!  But stooopp iiit, I'm gonna faaaaaaall!!!"
...So in the end, after making that huge uproar, they slowed down to a somewhat better speed for me, since Rosa oba-san was kind enough to talk to the captain...
"............Haa...  This speed is a bit better............earlier, I didn't even feel alive......"
The max speed I can tolerate seems to be considerably slow.

...But that earlier was abnormal...
The whole boat was shaking!  Sliding and leaping on the ocean's surface!
Instead of a boat, I felt like I was riding on a flying fish...
Jessica was still guffawing at me as I leaned against the railing, tired and disheartened.

"I lost in that strength contest earlier, but I'm glad to know I'm no worse off where it really counts.  But seriously, hahahahahah!"
"Dammit..., go ahead and laugh.  One of these days, I'm gonna find your weakness and I'll get back at you, and then your boobs will be mine to squish......"
"Ahahaha, well, we'll see about that if you ever do find it, okay?!  Waah-hah-hah-ha!"

"Uu-.  Battler, all weak."
"Yeah, Battler, all weak...  I want to die on land, not in the ocean or the sky..."

Maria was patting my back, so I tapped her head in return.
...Her expression is blank as usual, but I understand that she wants to console me.

"Battler-kun, the captain is throwing in drinks to make up for this.  Won't you have just one? To calm yourself down."

George-aniki and Kumasawa baa-chan brought us all glasses with floating ice cubes and canned drinks.

Judging from Kumasawa-san's big grin, our parents inside the boat are probably right in the middle of yucking it up over my big fuss.
Dammit, I'm so embarrassed I don't want to face any of them...

If I don't start on some other topic, I get the feeling I'm gonna be the butt of jokes for who knows how long, so let's pick a nice, safe topic of conversation.
"...Hey, Jessica.  How are Krauss oji-san and Natsuhi oba-san doing?"
"My old man and my mom?  Unfortunately, they're fine.  Though every other word out of their mouths is 'study, study', which pisses me off.  I'm so jealous, since it doesn't look like Hideyoshi oji-san or Rudolf oji-san say those kind of things."

"Hahaha, oh no.  When I was slacking off during exams, I was always getting told 'exams, exams'.  I thought it was annoying, but now I'm grateful."
"Hah, I knew it, George-aniki can be human too...  By the way, my family is tight-fisted about praises.  Haven't gotten a single one!  Oh well, even if I got one I wouldn't listen, hihihi!"
"Battler-san, you still cannot return to your home?"
"...Well, I kinda go back now and then.  I'm still leaving lots of clothes and stuff at the previous house."

"......Uu-?  Battler has two houses?"
"Hm, .........hmmm.  ......Something like that."
"Why?  Why two houses?  Uu-?  Uu-?"

Only Maria, who can't really grasp the situation, voices her naive doubts.
But even though they know, everyone glances at me and doesn't answer.

"Maria!  Look, you can see the harbor now...!  Look, over there!  Can you see it?!"
"Uu-!  Saw the harbor, saw the harbor!"
It seems Jessica intends to gently redirect the situation.
......Sheesh.  It's not something I'd like to say, but being strangely trod around as a taboo makes me feel bad.

......I don't mind that much myself anymore.
I'm an Ushiromiya family member, but the truth is that these six years, I've been living with my grandparents from my late mother's side, and I've been using her family name.

Those grandparents passed away one after the other, so I had no other choice than to go back to the old bastard's place.
Don't get me wrong, it's not like I ran away from home.
The pig-headed one at fault is my dad.

......I don't mind that much about Kyrie-san.
It's a big deal that she holds the old bastard's reins and that she can ride him out well.
...But just the betrayal that the old bastard inflicted on my Mom, ......sorry, but I'm still scrambled up about it inside.
"*Ahem*.  We'll be getting there soon."
George-aniki is trying to divert the conversation by clearing his throat.

"......Please forgive my indiscretion.  It seems this old woman has said too much already.  If I have hurt your feelings-"
"Heheh!  I don't mind it and no one's feelings are hurt.  Don't worry, Kumasawa baa-chan."

After Kumasawa-san said those tactless words she looked like she was regretful, but I stood up and tried to pass it off lightly so that I didn't have anyone trying to console me in some weird way.
After that, I have a taste of some soda and go over to Maria and Jessica, who are gazing at the silhouette of the island.

"Uu-!  Battler, saw the island, saw the island!  There there there!  Uu-uu-uu-!"
"Where is it...oh, I see it now.  Even after six years, the island hasn't changed a bit."
At the bow, the silhouette of the small island is getting a good deal closer.
The island's name is Rokkenjima.

Included in the Izu archipelago, it's a small island about 10km around.
Just because it's called "The Izu Seven", lots of people misunderstand it as there being seven islands, but that's not true.

There are actually more than seven.
Rokkenjima is also one of the meager islands that couldn't even get included among the seven main ones.
That notwithstanding, there are probably very few people who know about this island.
Because only the people of the Ushiromiya family come to this island.

In other words, it has no ties whatsoever to outsiders or tourists.
Therefore, you're never gonna find this island's name in a travel brochure.
Because Rokkenjima is in its entirety an estate possessed by the Ushiromiya head house.

So, only the Ushiromiya family lives there, and only people connected to the Ushiromiya family come and go.
There's only a harbor and a mansion.
The island is for the greater part left as uncultivated forest.

Such a waste, when it could be made into a nice golf course.
But, when one considers that the shore in its entirety is a private beach, I guess that makes it pretty luxurious.
To put it plainly now, ......well, the Ushiromiya family is rolling in dough.

It seems the head house possesses a vast fortune. Dad and the rest in the branch families are also stockpiling a considerable amount of assets, and each are succeeding in their businesses.
I was living a commoner's life at my grandparents' home these six years, so I had completely forgotten, ...but the old bastard's house sure is awesome, and I think it feels like every single thing there is a gaudy display of wealthy tastes.

Come to think of it, George-aniki, Jessica, Maria, and of course I, sorta turn into wealthy, high-class gentlemen and ladies.
Needless to say, none of us feel that way at all.

I don't see myself as being rich, and George-aniki, who is quite spartan, doesn't depend on anyone.

Jessica doesn't need money, so she's always grumbling about how she wants to move to the city, and Maria's still a kid who has no interest whatsoever in money.
...Is that still gaudiness?
Looking at it from the perspective of people in poverty who can't pay the bills, we must seem like we've been blessed with a lot.

Explaining more here would be too much, so I'll stop.
Well, it's the same as not being able to choose the parents you're born from.
I didn't ask to be born in a rich family.
And I guess it's also a mistake to envy that.

Whatever you do isn't estimated at its proper value, and people talk all the time and are sour because you're rich, so it's a lot to put up with...
While I was immersed in this kind of sentimentalism, Maria started to make noise while leaning over the railing.

"............Uu-.  ......Gone."
"What's wrong, Maria?  Did you drop something?"

"Uu-uu-!  Gone gone!  Uu-uu-uu-uu-!!"
Maria is clamoring 'gone, gone'.

Solely from her words, you'd think she dropped something, but as she goes 'gone, gone' over and over, she points over the ocean.

"What's wrong?  What's gone?  I'll look for it too if you want.  What is it?  ............?"
If she'd lost something she'd be looking at the floor, but Maria is pointing over the ocean.

Since she's pointing over the ocean you'd think something has to be there, but Maria only says 'gone, gone'.  .........Let's see.
But, since my last memory of the scenery is from six years ago, I managed to notice before Aniki, who comes here every year.
"............Huh...?  ......If I remember correctly, wasn't there a Torii or something on top of a small crag around here?  ...That's right, it was definitely there.  I remember it well, since as we get closer to the island, it's the first thing to greet us, like a landmark."
"Wow, you're amazing, Battler.  Even though it's been six years, you remembered."
"It was here, wasn't it...! I remember too. The tutelary God's shrine and that Torii-like thing had been built all alone on that crag.
Toriis and Tutelary Gods

A torii is a ceremonial entry gate to a Shinto shrine, painted red.

The word 'tutelary god' was originally 鎮守様, which means the god of a region or a place.
......And now that you mention it, they are gone, aren't they.  They definitely were there last year, I think."
"Gone.  Gone.  Uu-uu-uu-!"

"Maybe they were washed away by the waves or something?  It was a small crag, it probably got brittle because of its exposure."
"I think so too.  It probably disappeared during the summer.  Whatever."
"Or perhaps a huge lightning bolt fell one evening and smashed the shrine...  ......The fisherman whisper that having a thunderbolt fall upon our honored tutelary God would be a certain sign of misfortune.  ...Lightning begone, lightning begone..."
Kumasawa-san impishly smiles as if teasing us, and makes a gesture rubbing both hands, mocking the Shinto gesture for prayer.

But, Maria seems to be believing it, and screwing her face up seriously, she stares fixedly over the ocean to where the crag can be thought to be, where the tutelary God is enshrined.
"............A sign...of misfortune.  ............Uu-."

"Enough, Kumasawa-san.  Maria isn't old enough to understand this kind of joke."
"It's alright, Maria-chan.  It's just a coincidence.  Nothing scary's gonna happen."
George-aniki puts a hand on Maria's shoulder to calm her down, but Maria's sharp-eyed expression doesn't budge.
"............Misfortune.  ............Misfortune."
Maria repeats that word feverishly.
Apparently, repeating a single word over and over is a habit that Maria's had for a long time.

However, since the word she's saying is literally 'misfortune', it's kinda creepy.

"Hey now, Maria.  If you say it over and over like that, misfortune will really end up happening, you know?"
I tap Maria's other shoulder.

And then, Maria whips her head around, stares at my face, and unblinking speaks.

"Uu-.  .........Misfortune, coming."
"Heeh?  Where are you sayin' it's coming from?"

Thinking to relieve the tension in the air, I answer light-heartedly.
...And then, Maria stabs her finger upwards, arm raised high, ...and points to the heavens.

Looking up, the sky was cloudy as usual, but it had gotten a great deal more leaden than in the morning.
I see, she was saying a typhoon's drawing near.

...We're gonna have to spend a night on the island, but if during that time things don't go well, I'm not gonna be able to go to school on Monday.  Well, I guess that's a perfect excuse to be absent.
".....................Uu-..."
...It looks like she's sensing some kind of misfortune in this cloudy sky.
She's been muttering that non-stop for a while now.
Maria's at an age where girls tend to be very sensitive.
Supposedly, girls who have a strong sense for the supernatural or who would make good mediums often start to kick up at just around Maria's age.

...For all we know, this could be her child-like sensitivity.

"It's alright, Maria-chan.  The weather might get worse around tonight, but tomorrow it'll clear up and become a pretty blue sky."
"Uu-.  Pretty blue sky.........  .........Uu-..."

"That's right, by tomorrow it'll be a pretty blue sky.  There's no rain that doesn't end, no clouds that don't clear."
"Uu-...  .........Rain that doesn't end.  ...Clouds that don't clear.  ..................Uu-........."
"I know the typhoon's coming, but soon it'll go away!  It's alright, Maria."
"...............Uu-.  ...Uu-!!  Uu-uu-uu-!!  Uu-uu-uu-!!"

Maria starts yelling her 'Uu-uu-'.
...It looks like she's losing her temper since what she wants to say to us isn't getting communicated at all.

What in the world is Maria trying so desperately to warn us about?
We don't understand, and we can't help but feel a vague sense of misfortune...

......I hear that everyone can feel the supernatural, but that it weakens with age.

In that case, Maria, being the most juvenile of us all, still possesses that perception of something that we lost because we got older.

...I wonder if that something is giving her a warning.
Then, Kumasawa-san quietly opens her mouth.

".........Rumor has it that, ...long ago, Rokkenjima was-"
"Kumasawa-san.  Let's do without that story."

Just as Kumasawa-san tried to begin some story, Jessica flatly interrupted her.
Even from Jessica, it was extremely blunt.

Out of simple curiosity I wanted to press her to continue, but judging by Jessica's look when she interrupted the story, it's easy to imagine that its contents would stir up Maria's anxiety even more.

...Even if I insisted, I'm sure it wouldn't be a story to make the heart all bright and cheery.

"......Hoh hoh hoh, I do apologize about that...  ...The wind here is hard to bear for the elderly, so if you would excuse me for now..."
When those that like to gossip are told not to talk, there's no reason for them to be in that place.

When Kumasawa-san finally realized that she'd poked her nose in too far, she went back inside the boat.

In her place, Hideyoshi oji-san comes along.

Since Oji-san, who'd came in the middle of things, couldn't grasp the complex atmosphere here, refreshingly and unwittingly, he broke the mood on the deck.

As a result of that unwittingness, the mood softened.

"It looks like we're gettin' there!  Right, just a li'l more!  Since today we went all leisure-like, it took summat more time.  Ya know whose fault that is!  Wah hah hah hah ha!"
"Aww, Hideyoshi oji-san, gimme a break already~...hahaha~!"

"Ahaha, please, say more to him.  Honestly, because of Battler, it's takin' forever~!"
".........Uu-."
Maria probably doesn't think anyone's gonna hear her out.
She's looking down with a fretful face.

As she does, George-aniki crouches down to meet her eyes, and kindly speaks.

"Maria-chan.  There's nothing to be afraid of.  Because we're all together.  There's nothing to be afraid of if we're together.  Go ahead and say it."
"............Uu-.  ...There's nothing to be afraid of...if we're together..."

"Yes. There's nothing to be afraid of if we're together."
"............Uu-."

"That's right, exa~actly what George-aniki said.  If we're all together, there'll absolutely never be anything at all to be afraid of.  Right, Jessica?"
"Yeah, no doubt about that.  What George nii-san said will always be true, Maria."
"......Uu-.  George onii-chan always true."

"Yes.  I don't lie.  So trust me.  There's nothing to be afraid of if we're all together."
"Uu-.  ......George onii-chan doesn't lie.  I trust you.  There's nothing to be afraid of if we're all together.  .........Uu-, not afraid!"
Maria jumps into George-aniki's arms and clings to him tightly.

As soon as Aniki caresses her, she jumps away.

Her facial expression, in a 180 degree change, has gone back to normal.
She'd turned back into the Maria from before.

"Uu-.  There's nothing to be afraid anymore, because we're together.  ...Uu-uu-."
"Yeah, that's it.  ...You look all better now.  You're strong, that's awesome!"
"......Uu-!  Maria, awesome!"

"Whass up, what happened?  Maria-chan, didja get seasick?  Hm?"
"Hahaha, well, something like that.  We'll be arriving soon."

The harbor was already drawing near.

Arrival at Rokkenjima

Sat, Oct 4 1986 10:30AM
The boat gave a big shudder.
It looked like we'd accosted in the harbor.
The boat's staff came out and jumped to the pier while holding the mooring rope.
There was a largely built man in a tuxedo greeting us with a warm smiling face.

......I didn't know his face, but judging by his clothes, I guessed that he was a servant of the Ushiromiya family head house.
"Milady, I welcome you home.  You were quite late, and I began to worry."

"Aw, that's sweet of you!  Mr. Useless here got all scared.  Then we had to slow down.  It was seriously annoying!"
"S, shaddup..., someday, when the shoe's on the other foot, you'll remember this, ...pff."
At this rate, the word would get spread around the entire family and I was gonna be the big conversation piece at tonight's dinner.

Even under normal circumstances it'd be easy for me to be on everyone's lips because it's been six years, but now I'd given 'em an even juicier topic...!
Dammit, why does the Ushiromiya head house have to live on this isolated island!
In the meantime, the boat finished its mooring.
A small plank was lowered to get off the boat.

One by one, our parents came out.

"You must all be quite tired from your long trip.  Madam, please, allow me to assist you."
"Thank you.  It's been a while, Gohda-san.  How are you?"
"Thank you for asking.  Thankfully, I am quite well and ready to serve you every day."

"Battler-kun, isn't this your first time meeting Gohda-san?  If I'm not mistaken, you weren't working here six years ago, right?"
"Indeed.  Therefore, I shall present myself to him.  I am pleased to meet you, Battler-sama."

"......I'm pretty secure about my height, but you're huge.  ...This is definitely our first meeting.  If I'd ever met a big guy like you, I'd never forget it...!  It's a pleasure.  I'm Battler."

"I do apologize for the wait.  I have been working for the Ushiromiya head house since the year before last.  I am Gohda (郷田), your servant.  It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.  If there is anything you can think to request, please ask me anytime."

"Gohda-san, it's been some time."
"George-sama, it has been a while that we have not seen each other.  Please, allow me to assist you."

"As usual, ya're a reception pro...  If ya ever get bothered with this job, call me anytime, 'kay?  I'd hire ya anytime!"
"You do me too much honor.  Please allow me to assist you, Hideyoshi-sama."
Gohda-san then helped with everyone's disembarkment and greeted them.

His behaviour and presentation were polished and, how could you say it, just like a professional.
Completely breaking with his tough-looking outside, he was very graceful.
Since he possessed that overbearing quality common in large men, I'd thought he'd be a scary person, but he was surprisingly polite the whole time.
He said that he had worked on the island for two years, but there was no doubt that he had worked in the same kind of job before.
After everybody disembarked, the mooring rope was untied and the boat started to steer away from the harbor.
It was probably returning to its home port of Niijima.

The captain waved his hand in farewell.
Maria conscientiously waved her hand back.
"............Hmmm, now that I think about it, I've been feeling all weird for a while, and it must be that.  I can't hear the cries of the seagulls."

"Seagulls?  The birds?"
It's true that whenever I come to this island, the seagulls always meet us with their lively 'nyaa nyaa' cries.

And because of that, whenever I hear the cries of the seagulls in any other place, I get the feeling that I'm coming to a family conference.
Rokkenjima, except for the small part where those of the Ushiromiya head house live, had apparently been turning into a wild bird's paradise after being left untouched.

The whole wharf looked like it was turning into a huge seagull colony, and this island always was full of seagulls.

Since those seagulls didn't come to greet us, I felt a bit lonely.

"What's wrong, Battler-kun?"
"Oh, Rosa oba-san.  ...Nah, it's nothing really, I was just sayin' that since I can't hear the seagulls, it feels a bit lonely."

"My, now that you say so, it's true.  Even though they're always so lively, today there isn't one to be seen."
"......Uu-?  Why no seagulls?"
"Hmmm, maybe it's because the seagulls are having a gathering somewhere too?  Maria, did you want to see the seagulls?"
"Uu-, wanted to."

"What happened for them to all disappear?  Maybe Jessica made aaall of 'em into yakitori and ate 'em!"
Yakitori

A Japanese skewered chicken dish. Literally means 'grilled bird'.
"......Uu-?!"

"The hell, don't say disturbing stuff like that!  You'll get Maria all confused!!"
"Uu-uu-uu-!  Jessica onee-chan made them into yakitori, made them into yakitori!  Uu-!!"
"I did not, I did not!  Why the hell would I do something like that?!"

"That's right, that's right~, Jessica made 'em into yakitori!  Skin n' meatballs, liver 'n onio~on!"
"Swim in meat dolls!  Liver n' oniooon!!  Uu-uu-uu-!  Ahaha, ahaha!  Kyakkya, kyakkya!"

As I made fun of Jessica, Maria tagged along looking like she was having fun.

Ooh, so she's a person who goes with other people's moods!
Alrighty then, from today on I'll make you my number one follower!

As I smiled at her, she beamed, looking overjoyed and possibly happy with my modest solidarity.

"That's not it, Maria-chan.  It seems that wild birds are attuned to changes in the weather and atmospheric pressure.  It looks like the weather will get worse around tonight.  It's possible they hurried back to their nests."
"............Uu-.  Not yakitori?  Jessica onee-chan didn't make them into yakitori?"

"I did not, I did not!!  I said, I wouldn't do stuff like that!  Alright, Battler, you admit right now that you lied!"
"Battler-kun.  Maria-chan is a naive girl, so she takes even jokes seriously.  You should choose your jokes more carefully."
...George-aniki gently scolded me.

...Even though I outstripped Aniki in height, Aniki was of course Aniki.  There was no choice but to obediently apologize.

"H-hey, my bad, my bad...  Maria, that just now was a joke.  It's just today the seagulls are all quiet in their nests."
"......Battler lie?  George onii-chan true?"

Despite her having all that fun, she really was tricked...?
Her pure eyes seemed to blame me.
......Maybe I went a little overboard with her after all.

"Yeeaah, that's right, that's right.  What George-aniki said is true.  The weather is bad so they probably went home for today.  It doesn't mean they're gone, does it?  Right, Oba-san!"

"That's right.  Tomorrow, when the weather gets better, I'm sure they'll come back and let us hear their 'Myaa myaa' cries."
"Uu-.  They're waiting for the weather to get better to come back.  Waiting for tomorrow.  Waiting for the weather to get better.  Uu-uu-!"

Maria was in a lighter mood, and was looking forward to tomorrow when the seagulls would come back and fill the skies.
Still, George-aniki really was amazing at taking care of kids.

...I think I remember Aniki taking good care of me as well when I was a brat six years ago.
......Aniki, that's probably your gift.

"George-kun is amazing at taking care of kids.  And you're not working in child-care?"
"Yeah, George nii-san, looks like it's what you were born to do.  Personally, I see you doing that rather than doing business in some company president's office."
"Oh, no.  Child-care is a fine job.  But it's not a job where merely liking children is enough."

"You're truly modest, George-kun.  But Battler-kun is also quite good with children!  Earlier, even if it was just for a time, Maria seemed to be having a lot of fun.  Keep on playing with her like you did just now.  Just choose the jokes carefully though, alright?  *giggle*."

Rosa oba-san winked at me, giggling a little.
A real mother, I thought to myself, who's happy that Maria looks like she's having fun.
"Come ON, Rosa.  And you brats too, what the hell're you doing.  Let's go now!"
"Alright, alright, we're coming."

The old bastard was waving his hand for us to hurry up.
But yeah, we needed to get moving.
It's not like it'd be too late to have the same discussion after we got our luggage in our rooms.
"Now then everyone, I shall lead you towards the guesthouse where you will be staying.  Please, this way."
Gohda-san called to everyone and started leading us.
Kumasawa-san brought up the rear.
A serpentine, twisting path led into a dim forest.  It ran a bit uphill.
I'd guess the path was made twisting so that the slope wouldn't be felt too much, but personally, I'd have been happier if they'd had the guts to make some stairs in a straight line.

......No doubt they made the path twisting on purpose, to put on airs of distance and importance...
Before long, we saw garden-style stone steps.

...Aaah, from here on, I have some memories.
Go up these, and...
At the top of the stone steps, we saw a beautiful guesthouse.
Its facade was of course lovely, but even more so, ......we couldn't enter its doors without having our hearts stolen away by the splendor of that beautiful rose garden that spread before it.
"Haaa~!  This year too, as always, it's a beaut'...  's a real delight for the eyes..."
After climbing the stone steps, the people welcomed in by the rose garden gave voice to their impressions one by one.

"Aren't the flowers less lively this year?  It must be because the summer wasn't warm enough."
"I also believe that is so.  When one compares with last year's blooming, it is a pity that this year's is a bit inferior."
Even so, it was a delightful rose garden.
I remembered that every year before six years previously, huge amounts of roses had greeted me.
...This rose garden was the first thing that greeted the people who came to Rokkenjima.  Even our parents, who came every year, couldn't help but let their wonder slip out.

And moreover, it looked like a 'powered-up' version of the garden from six years ago that was in my memories.

"It's amazing whenever you see it.  It would be truly wonderful to have such a rose garden in one's home."
"Oh no you don't, who'd take care of it?  With roses, between the bugs and diseases, it'd be hell!"

"That's right.  Kyrie nee-san seems the type who'll take care of a rose each and every day so that no insect'll come near, right?"
"Huh?  I don't have a clue what you're talking about."

"That's right.  In this case, the rose goes after the insects like some nasty carnivorous plant."
"...Oh, so that's what you mean.  Honestly, Rosa, gimme a break with that today, wouldn't you?  I've completely done away that sort of thing, right?"

"I do wonder.  Rudolf nii-san is a womanizer on the genetic level...!"
"That's alright, Rosa-san.  If a rose gives me too much trouble, I'll snip it right at the root."

"Hoh-hoh-hoh-ho..., such frightening talk this is."
"Pop'lar men always go side by side with risk.  I too'd love ta be born a beaut' in my next life~!"

"Hideyoshi nii-san, I keep telling you, it's not like I'm popular with the ladies.  ...And you, Kyrie, cut it out with the weird talk.  Hasn't my rose withered already?"

"Hey, Maria-chan, come see here.  The roses here are especially magnificent."
"...Roses are magnificent.  ...Uu-!"

"Hmmm~~, smells pretty sweet.  Elegant, exactly like me~e."
"Hey, cut it out!  Maria's gonna imitate you and get hurt with the thorns!"
She yelled at me as I leaned in to smell the rose's scent with an exaggerated gesture.

...'No way' I thought, but when I turned around Maria was imitating my every gesture, making George-aniki smile broadly.

"Hey now, Maria-chan, be careful.  Rose thorns can hurt."
"......Uu-?  ............George onii-chan.  Only this rose is strange.  Uu-."
"Strange?  What's wrong?"
Maria pointed to one rose.
I immediately understood her uneasiness.

In the midst of those magnificent roses, only that one was withering.
It's not like there was a specific reason.
If there are healthy roses, then there will be withering roses.

That's all there was to it, but even though all the rest were healthy, one wasn't, and that seemed to greatly preoccupy Maria.

...It was probably feeling lonely and apart from its companions.

"Only this rose isn't healthy, how sad huh...?"
"......Uu-.  The others are all healthy, only this one's sad."
"Well, that's because they all bloom and wither.  Rather than withering one step ahead, I guess you could say that it blossomed faster than all the other roses!"
"Yeah, that's right.  I think that it just bloomed to its max, fulfilled its duty and just went to rest.  You shouldn't get so worked up about it."
".........Uu-."
It seemed that Maria's pure sensitivity was making her feel some emotional pain for the rose that withered alone.

Even though she understood the logic of it, her sadness seemed indelible.

"Then, Maria-chan, why don't we look after this rose until we leave?"
"Uu-?"

George-aniki straightened up and felt around in his pocket.
What he took out was the wrapping paper of the candy that Maria had eaten in the plane.

He twisted it into a thin string, and gently tied it to that rose as a sort of marker.

"Heeey, that's pretty cute!"
"This is a marker for this rose here.  Afterwards, come give it some water.  I think Mr. Rose is sure to be happy."

"......Uu-!  Come to give it water!"

"After all this trouble, it'd be nice if we gave Mr. Rose here a name.  If we do, I think Mr. Rose'll be happy, and Maria-chan's mind'll surely be soothed."

"Name...?  Name.........Uu-...uu-..."
Maria started wracking her brains with her arms crossed, though still wearing her usual sullen face.

At least she appeared to have been completely pulled out of her sorrow.  Just as can be expected from Aniki.

"George nii-san, ever since I can remember, you've always been really understanding.  Can't help but respect you."
"Yeah.  I guess he was just born that way.  We gotta start picking up tips!"
"Now this garden, was it just as mag-nificent when y'all were kids?"

"From the time I left the House onwards, it started to really become something.  Before that, the garden was simpler, but I'm still attached to that one though.  Nii-san fiddled with it too much, with his slightly bad taste.  It was better the way it was before."
"Eva, ya gotta think positive!  Let the past go, ya hafta admire the prettiness of this garden now.  That way, your heart'll be at peace."
"I didn't mean it like that...  I was just saying that I wanted you to see this garden the way it was before too."
"Now then, everyone, if you please.  I shall be guiding you to the rooms now."
Gohda-san called to everyone to ask if we were ready, but our hearts had been completely stolen away by the rose garden after a year of absence, and we didn't lend him an ear.
Since we weren't a travel group, it wasn't like we had a strict schedule to follow.
Besides, since our parents were visiting their old home, full of nostalgia, it wasn't like they had to let themselves be urged on by anyone or anything.

Understanding the situation, Gohda-san continued to wait, smiling widely, until our parents got tired of the roses and told him to guide us to the rooms...
"My...!  Heeey!  If it ain't Kanon-kun!  It's been so long, how ya doin'?!"
Hideyoshi oji-san suddenly shouted.
In the direction he was waving at, .........there was a slender boy.
Meeting him right after a huge man like Gohda probably emphasized his small stature.

The boy was in the middle of transporting piled-up gardening tools and the like in a wheelbarrow.
When he realized he was being called to stop, he set down the wheelbarrow, took his hat off and bowed his head.
"...........................Good afternoon."
...I figured he was probably younger than me.
I realized by the general atmosphere surrounding him that he was a servant too.
He answered Hideyoshi oji-san's greeting, but he seemed unsociable deep down.
It was a greeting that lacked feeling.
When Gohda-san noticed that our interest had shifted towards him, he went to the boy's side and introduced him to us.

"Battler-sama, I shall introduce you.  He is one of the servants who serve the Ushiromiya head house.  ...Kanon-san, greet our guest."
"..................I'm pleased to meet you.  I am the servant............, Kanon (嘉音)."

Yep, my first impression wasn't wrong, he gave the feeling that he was unsociable, and a bit of a poor speaker.

Compared to Gohda-san, who was extraordinarily polished as a servant, no matter what he did, he gave off a feeling of inexperience typical of his age.

When Gohda-san urged him in a whisper to give a bit more of an introduction, the boy named Kanon only cast his eyes downwards.

"Kanon-san.  Could you perhaps give them a little more as a greeting...?"
"............No.  ............Because we, ......are furniture."

It seemed that he wasn't refusing to greet us out of spite, but rather, he gave the impression that he had no choice but stay silent, not knowing what to add to his greeting.

"Ah, uh, Kanon-kun's shy, he's the kind that doesn't talk much.  He might not be that sociable, but deep down he's really a good person!  Don't get him wrong...!  You've been working here for three years, was it?  So yeah, you've been here a year longer than Gohda-san, right Kanon-kun?"
Even though it's not like he made a super bad impression, Jessica hurriedly backed him up.

...I see, apparently him being unsociable works against him all the time.

"Ok then, nice to meet you.  I'm Battler!  I'm 18, how old are you?"
"..........................."
A silence, as if appraising whether it was a question that must be answered or not.  ...But here again, Jessica plowed ahead.
"Um, uhh...!  If I remember correctly, he's two years younger than us so,...sixteen, right?"
"............Yes, ...that is correct."

It looked like if given a choice, he would have preferred not to tell us his age.

Him not wanting to tell his age was probably because he thought he would be looked down upon for it.
...I remember that when I was around his age, I hated being asked how old I was by adults.

...I see, sixteen huh?

That's gotta be a delicate time.
...In that case, I asked something I shouldn't have.

"Heh he~, I'm glad you're about our age!  Just be cool and call me Battler!  And I'll call you Kanon!"
".........Thank you very much.  But just the sentiment is sufficient, ...Battler-sama."

Jessica looked all downcast for some reason.
She seemed to think that my impression of Kanon was worsening because of his rejection.

Well, that girl Jessica probably couldn't understand the fretful male heart at this age.
As his elder, even by just two years, who would lead him into adolescence, I took it upon myself to understand that.

"Kanon-san, could you perhaps be a little more courteous?  A smiling face is also the duty of a servant."
"...............I apologize.  ...I shall make an effort."

"Hoh-hoh-ho...  Gohda-san, Kanon-kun is trying his best, isn't he?"
It looked like he had already been well warned about his discourtesy.
And apparently he hadn't improved a bit.

Gohda-san kept his business-smile, but let a small sigh of resignation escape.
"......Well then, I still have work to do.  .........If you'll excuse me."
It looked like Kanon himself was uncomfortable with remaining silent here any longer.
After another perfunctory bow, he turned on his heels and started pushing the wheelbarrow again.
Just then, suddenly, the wheelbarrow wobbled and fell, scattering the load.
I guess the wheelbarrow with its single wheel caught on a pebble and lost its balance.
"What have you done..., now now, quickly clean it up...!"

Since Gohda-san was one to harp on the fact that presenting a clumsy appearance in front of guests is a servant's shame, he urged him along in a low voice.
Kanon-kun, who probably understood quite well without being told, wordlessly reloaded the wheelbarrow with the fallen objects.

He seemed to be fine with the light-looking gardening tools, shovels and such, but he looked like he was having trouble getting his arms around and lifting up some sacks of fertilizer.

"Are you alright?  You're so careless.  Here."
"Milady, you will dirty your garments.  Please, leave it to us."
Gohda-san took the shovel that Jessica had picked up with an elegant gesture.

At his back was the figure of Kanon-kun having trouble with the sacks of fertilizer.

"......Uu-.  You'll dirty your garments?"
"Don't worry, the ones I'm wearing aren't that elegant.  Besides, I hate guys who make the waitress pick up the fork they dropped at a restaurant."
I lifted up the other bags that had fallen.

Of course, they weren't light, but for me it was a piece of cake.

Kanon-kun turned his surprised eyes towards me.
It was the face of one who would never have thought to receive help from a guest.

"............B-Battler-sama...  That's sufficient..., I'll take care of everything, so..."
"Don't you worry!  I may not look it, but I've got it where it counts!  Heheh!"

Since Kanon-kun looked like he hadn't yet gone through his growth spurt, he was stuck with a sorta weak body.
I guessed that this kind of weight was too much for him.

"It's quite heavy, isn't it.  It's natural that it would be difficult for you.  Kanon-kun, don't worry about it."
"Ok, my time to shine.  This makes up for the boat part from before, right?"

"Ha!  As if your antics earlier could be written off just by this!  Ah-hah-hah-ha!  Later, I'm gonna tell Kanon-kun too just how funny you were, Battler!"
"Faaall faaall!!  Uu-uu-uu-!!!"
As they did this, I piled all the stuff back into the wheelbarrow.

"............For letting you see such unsightliness, I beg your forgiveness."
"Very well, enough now.  Please, go."

Letting such a disgraceful thing be seen by the guests who were supposed to be made welcome...must have been hideously embarrassing as a servant.
Pressed by Gohda to hurry up and exit, Kanon-kun left.

"You're too harsh on him, Gohda-san.  Wouldn't it have been better if you'd helped him, instead of being a bully?"
"...That had not occurred to me.  I deeply, deeply implore your forgiveness."
Without even a twitch in his smile, Gohda-san apologized elegantly.

"Kanon-kun has a ton a things he's good at too.  It's just that bein' young works against him all the time.  It's a cryin' shame."
"It's a prickly age.  You be nice to him.  Close-mouthed servants are just fine.  Right, Kumasawa-san?"

"Hoh-hoh-hoh-ho, Rudolf-sama, you truly are harsh!  There is no servant as silent as I, of course!"

Everyone smiled wryly at that shameless lie.
Even she herself didn't believe that, not in her wildest dreams.
She said that to loosen us all up.

Yeah, that's the kind of character Kumasawa baa-chan used to be.

The mood that had stiffened a little was cleared up in a twinkling, thanks to Kumasawa-san's cheerful smile.

"I'd like to put down the luggage soon.  Gohda-san, how are we to split up for our rooms?"
"It shall be the same as the previous year.  I shall guide you.  Please, this way."

We headed towards a trim, elegantly simple guesthouse.
This was gonna be our temporary quarters for a night.
".........................................."

Kanon watched over a hedge as the guests all entered the guesthouse.
Then, he let his eyes fall on those heavy sacks of fertilizer, piled up in the wheelbarrow.
In his mind, he kept going over his previous mistake.

Battler, big and strong, had picked up the sacks in front of him, the sacks he couldn't lift himself, as if they were feathers.
It was extremely difficult for an outside observer to guess what emotions that favor had stirred up in Kanon.
But as far as you could tell by watching him hang his head from behind, there was something that he just couldn't let go.
...Muttered words escaped his lips.

But those words he murmured were so soft that they didn't reach even his own ears.
"...............Even I, ..........................."
Kanon hung his head, slightly biting his lower lip...
"I remember the rose garden, but...  I don't remember this guesthouse at all.  Was it built like recently?"

'Toraian' (Visitor's Retreat) was written on a gatepost-like thing, but since everyone called it the guesthouse, I followed their lead.
The brand-new western-style guesthouse that stood overlooking the rose garden had a magnificent design carefully done in harmony with the garden.

"Correct!  It was built the year before last.  And after that, they made us sleep over here.
"Hehe, this place's more fun than that junky old mansion you knew.  I wish my room was over here!"
"Uu-!  Maria wants one too!  Waaant!"

...I guess you could say my house was also upper-class, but I thought it was completely ordinary compared to the head house.

The display of wealth was shocking, as was the fact that they would build this kind of awesome guesthouse for guests who come over like once a year.
"Eva-sama, Hideyoshi-sama.  Please, do make use of this room.  Rudolf-sama, Kyrie-sama, please make use of this room here."

"Ah yes, it's pleasant how pretty and elegant this place is.  Western style truly is wonderful."
"If it's juss two or three days, western-style's fine I reckon, but if it's for a longer stay, then it's gotta be Japanese-style for sure!  Japanese people juss relax best on tatami."

"...Haha, they've been fighting over making our new house Japanese-style or western-style.  Mom still holds a grudge about Dad having the construction started as Japanese-style, and they bicker all the time about it."
"I'm really jealous, George nii-san.  Your parents get along well, don't they?  Mine are so frosty.  But even so, they're right with each other when it comes to my grades."
All the rooms seemed to be two-person.
I was grateful, because since things turned out like this, I wasn't gonna be forced to share the same room with the old bastard, under the pretext that we were family.

I figure those two wouldn't be able to enjoy themselves with someone like me around, ihihi.

"What's that creepy smile all about?  You're thinking about something dirty, aren't you."
"Ihihihi~!  Something diiirrrty?  Of cooouuurse not!  Do please...enjoy your staaay~!  Ow, owowowow!  That hurts, you old bastard!"
Once again, Dad pulled my ears from behind.

"Cut the crap.  I'm getting a stomachache, and I'm not in the mood for this.  You're the guest of honor this time around.  You play as nice as possible with Dad and Aniki and the rest.  ......At the very least, pay attention to what you say in front of Dad, got it?  Because wisecracks don't go too well with him.  ......Jessica-chan, what's the head of our family's mood been lately?"
"...Hmm......,Same as last year, I guess.  ......Considering they say he's got three months left, he's as stubborn, grumpy, and irritable as ever."

"Meaning, this year he's in his usual bad mood.  ......And as usual, the only one who's able to take care of him is Genji-san?"
"It seems that the Master will only open his heart to Genji-san.  Lately, us small people cannot even get an audience..."

"He's shut himself up in his study again, probably doing nothing but that weird black magic of his.  What he does for a hobby is his own damn business, but when he starts stinking up the house, it really gets on my nerves.  ...And I wish he'd never come out of that study again.  Heheheh!"

"You shouldn't talk like that about the elderly.  We're all indebted to him, since he rebuilt the Ushiromiya Family, and a little gratitude wouldn't hurt."
"Hm, ...well...  ......Sorry."

After being rebuked by George-aniki, Jessica had no choice but to take back her thoughtless remark.
The Ushiromiya family was wealthy beyond belief, but that, of course, meant that all its members were weird people who cut themselves off from the world entirely.

The Head of the Family, standing at its peak - in other words, our Grandfather - seemed to be a particularly weird and terrifying person, even for our family.
Dad had said he was getting a stomachache earlier..., but I guess that was what all the adults who came here today were actually feeling.

No doubt they were jealous of us, the grandchildren, just playing and laughing without a care.
From the stories Dad told me, the Head of the Family was a violent man who rained blows on his sons with his own fists and even beat his daughters mercilessly with a wooden sword.

If he was such a hard-ass with his kids, why wasn't he the same with their names?
Because of that, it's a pain even for us grandkids.
......Well, I'm not the least unsettled by his terrifying image.

I don't have many memories of meeting him over the years, but I remember Grandpa, his face always full of menacing thunder-clouds, always making his surroundings shrink away with a sharp look.
I remember that the room's atmosphere got so tense whenever he was around, you couldn't even breathe.

What my dad said right now about me being the guest of honor now carries a little more oomph for me.
".........Six years ago I was in grade school, but, as one would expect, I'm a high-schooler now.  If I act up, things'll probably get serious.  ...Ooo, scary."
"He does look frightening, but he's not completely terrifying.  He's definitely never unfair.  He's just very direct and not a pretty talker, that's all."

"But George nii-san, you've been the family darling since like forever because of your awesome grades, right?  Grandfather treats us completely different!  Like me, I've gotten slapped with a wooden sword.  On my ass, my ass!  On my maidenly, innocent ass!"

"Well, you're the heiress of the head house, Jessica-chan.  Grandfather is giving you special attention.  You have to realize that his strictness shows how much he's expecting of you."
"Oh, come on. ...Seriously, I could just turn the succession over to you, George nii-san.  It's a bit of a heavy burden for me to carry."

I think I already said it before, but Jessica was the daughter who would inherit the head house.
As cousins of a branch of the family, the pressure on our shoulders was probably different.

".........Uu-?  Jessica onee-chan, heavy?  If Maria holds it, will it get lighter?"
"Hm?  Ahahahaha, thanks.  It's alright, it's not gonna get pushed on you, Maria.  ......I'm gonna bear that cross until my grave.  ...Don't worry."

She was grateful for Maria's innocent consideration, but it seemed that anxiety for the future she couldn't clear away remained on Jessica's face.

...Were we the same?  If it was a high-schooler near an examination, nobody'd be able to hide their anxiety for the future.

"Maria, come here.  Mom and Maria will be in this room."
"Battler-kun, you will be with me in this room here."
"Oh?  This is a surprise!  It's bigger than our parents' room, wo~w!"
"Anyway, being cousins, I think we'll gather together.  I went and told them in order to get a bigger room."

"Uu-!  Maria likes here best too!  Here is better than being together with Mom!  Uu-uu-!"

"Okay, you like it here better too, Maria!  Alright, this room is George's and mine, but we'll specially allow you to come in and out!  Keep it a secret from your mom, right?"
"Uu-!  Secret!"

Her mother, Rosa oba-san, was right behind us, but Maria still answered, striking the air with her fists clenched tight.
After our parents put the luggage in the rooms, they gathered again in the corridor.
"Hey brats, what'll you do?  Are you cousins just gonna stay here and chat?"
It seemed they were heading to the mansion to announce their arrival.

...Normally, we would have had to follow them and greet everyone together, but if that had been the case, Dad would just have said 'You guys come!' and finished it.

He was telling us that it was alright if we didn't come, so what'll we do?
"Anyhoo, it's gonna be high noon soon.  Better the kiddys unwind here.  'sides, if worse comes t' worst, this might be the last chance they get to play 'n the outdoors."

"Uu-!  Maria will go too!"
"Maria, you house-sit for Mommy, okay?  You behave yourself and wait here."
"......Uu-."
Telling Maria to take house-sit was a pretty lame excuse for leaving her behind.
George-aniki soon realized it and gave a clear reply for all of us.

"Well, we'll accept your offer and house-sit.  We have lots of stories to tell each other, after a year."
"That's nice.  And Battler-kun has six years' worth, doesn't he?"
"Yeah, yeah.  I'll take care of the house like a good boy."

"Kumasawa-san, I'm gonna stay here too!  We'll leave the rest to the adults and us kids'll break rank, hehehe!"
"That's nice, hoh-hoh-ho.  I'll report it to Madam..."
"Then, everyone, I will be guiding you to the mansion.  Please, this way."

"...Since George isn't a child anymore, and is getting to be an adult, wouldn't it be better if he came with us?"
"If we make 'im come, only poor George will be outta place.  Interactin' with his cousins is also important.  'kay, bye then!"
The adults left one after the other.

Like the time he had guided us from the harbor, Gohda-san went ahead, with Kumasawa-san at the rear.
As we gathered in the cousins' room assigned to us, George-aniki asked us to excuse him for a second.  He rushed over to Kumasawa-san, who was following behind the disappearing adults, and seemed to be asking her something.
He soon finished his business and came back.

"What's up, Aniki?"
"Ah, nothing.  I just wanted to ask something."
"Uu-!  Tell Maria too!  Tell Maria too!"

"......Hm~?  Hmhuhuhuhu.  What could it be that George nii-san asks Kumasawa-san and doesn't ask me, I wonder~?  Ah, I don't have a clue~!"

"No, it's a misunderstanding...!  I'm not sure what Jessica-chan is misunderstanding but...!"

Aniki was getting pretty tongue-tied.

It's almost as though he had a guilty conscience and he was putty in Jessica's hands.
...Why?  Something only Jessica knows and I don't is no fun at all!

"Well, Maria, it seems only us two are out of the loop, right~?  What is this all about, now?  I want to know, hmm~?!"
"Uu-!  Battler and Maria want to know too!  Battler and Maria want to know too!"

""Uu-uu-uu-uu-!!!""

I fooled around while "Uu~"ing together with Maria.

"No, I'm telling you... it's no big deal, ahahaha..."
"Li~ar!  You suck at lying, now confess!  Maria, you tickle his right side, I'll tickle his left!"
"Uu-!  Maria right side, Battler left!  Uu-!"
"Wait a second!!  Wait you two...!!  Ahahaha, stop, ahahahahahaha!!"Maria and I played around, chasing George-aniki, who ran away, rolling on the bed.
I think that when you're a high-schooler you try not to act like a kitten anymore, but in spite of that, I missed this kind of fun.

A warm kind of fun.
"Haahahahaha, George nii-san, what were you asking Kumasawa-san?  Hmm~?  Well, I've got a good guess.  It's been a year since you last came to the head house.  During that time, some servants retired while new ones came over...and you wanted to say hi, right?"

"......Uu-?  Greet, Maria will greet too!"
"What the hell, that's not anything to feel guilty about, Aniki.  ......Hmm~~m?  That's not it??  Maria, don't be fooled, what are you hiding, Aniki?  More torture!!  Uworyaaa!!"
"S-stop it, seriously!  Aahahahahaha!  Maria-chan, you too, stop already!!"
"Aahahahahaha, aahahahahaha!  Kyakkya, Kyakkya!!"

"They're probably busy with cleaning or lunch arrangements.  It's alright, we'll go and greet them properly afterwards.  Shannon's reception will sure be better than Gohda's nosy one, right?  Heehehe!"

"Shannon?  ......Shannon.  ......Aaaaaaaaahh...  I remember, that girl!  She's still a servant now?  Such spirit!"

"By the by, Natsuhi nee-san.  How's your headache lately?  Looked pretty straining at the time."
"...Thank you.  Lately, my condition has been fine.  Thank you for your concern."

"Oh, right.  Here.  A present for you, Natsuhi nee-san."
"......Thank you very much.  I'm always receiving gifts from you.  ...Is this black tea?"
"It's herb tea with peppermint and lemon balm.  It's a blend from a well-known store and is supposed to be good for headaches.  I thought it might help you too."

Rosa was always a conscientious woman.

...Probably because she was the youngest of four siblings and much younger than the other three, she managed to grow up without harboring the venomosity of her brothers and sisters.

Her consideration made Natsuhi soften her expression for just a moment, but it wasn't enough to make her let down her guard, which was constructed around her long-held anxiety.
"That reminds me, you were always saying you get those headaches.  Pull yourself together.  Jessica-chan will have her exams this year, won't she?  Isn't that a turning point in her life?  Are you that unreliable as a mother?  Besides, Natsuhi nee-san, you're three years younger than me.  Can't you pull yourself together?"

".....................I apologize.  I was born with this discomfort."

Eva sometimes fails to choose her words carefully, but even though she hid it with a smile, her comments aimed at Natsuhi contained shards of obvious malice.

Of course, that didn't escape Natsuhi.

She frantically contained her urge to grimace, and pretended to ignore Eva.
"Our Battler-kun will have his exams this year too, right?  Rudolf-san, shouldn't you be a little concerned too?  For the sake of your own son, get serious to the point of getting headaches like Natsuhi nee-san."

"If I say anything, he automatically goes against it.  So what should I say?  Should I say the opposite, that it's okay for him to mess around?  That's probably the only thing he'd obediently listen to me say.  In your family, Hideyoshi nii-san, didn't George do really well on his exams?  Please, teach me the secret to controlling children."
"Hmm, well...  Maybe it was 'cause I told him juss' exactly what he should study for!  Study, on its own, don't mean nuthin'.  That's right, studyin's a kind of trainin' where you look up what you don't know yerself, and learn from it!  If ya can't do that, you can't be useful to society!  I'm not talkin' 'bout math or writin'.  It's learning how to study and learn more!"

"...That's splendid.  It would be nice if our Jessica could understand that, though.  As it is now, she doesn't at all, but as the heiress of the Ushiromiya family,"
"Do you really have to force her into becoming the successor?  Women have to find their own happiness.  Parents shouldn't be deciding that for their children, right?"

"Hold yer horses, Eva.  Each family has its way to raise their children.  You shouldn't be pushy."
"I'm sorry.  Natsuhi nee-san, don't take it the wrong way."

"..........................."
Though the light shining in through the window was quite warm despite the cloudy weather, there was a dark mood about the room, ...which probably caused headaches for other people besides Natsuhi.

As if to brush away that mood, Kyrie brightly made a suggestion to all present.

"Still, this black tea has a really lovely aroma.  Let's drink it at once.  In Japan, surely you can't buy something like Leopold's black tea anywhere but Ginza, right?"
"Kyrie nee-san, how knowledgeable of you.  It really was worth buying."

Kyrie and Rosa stood up from their seats and made as if to prepare the black tea.  Natsuhi forstalled them.
"......Thank you, both.  Let us save that for later.  One of our people will soon be coming to bring some tea, so please relax."

"Leave it for later, you two.  Let's enjoy our 'welcome drink'."

Rudolf gave a subtle signal with his eyes for them to sit down again.
...Kyrie and Rosa understood instantly and obediently returned to their seats.
The guests had already been greeted, so it was time for some tea to be prepared for them.

...That tea was late and having the guests talk about making some themselves was an embarrassment for the host.
Natsuhi bit her lower lip, frustrated with the ineptitude of the servants who were taking too long to bring the tea.

...Seeing her face, Eva, without hesitation, started to giggle.
......Of course, Shannon had no way of knowing what was taking place in the parlor.

She came pushing a dish cart piled with tea cups.  For no apparent reason, Natsuhi gave her a pained look, and Shannon couldn't help but flinch without knowing what she had done wrong.
"......E, excuse me.  The tea is prepared."

"Oh, Shannon-chan, it's been a while!  Ya juss' keep getting purtier and purtier!"

".........Oh, ...um, .........thanks...,"
"Leave the chatting for after you've set the table.  The tea will get cold."
"......I,...I apologize, Madam."

She apologized like a small frightened animal, and, bumping against the serving cart, made a jarring racket as she dropped several tea spoons.

Her clumsiness made Natsuhi's expression even harsher, which made Shannon in turn quail even more.
"It's alright, Natsuhi nee-san.  It's just one kind of greeting, no big deal.  We've already been made to wait for so long, the tea must be cold.  Heheheh."

"It, ...it's alright...  It's not cold yet..."
".........Shannon, finish setting the table, quickly."
"I, I'm sorry, Madam......"

It was obvious that Natsuhi was getting irritated.

...The ineptitude that delayed the tea, the clumsiness of the servant, everything pointed to the incompetence of Natsuhi's everyday guidance, making her lose face.

As the person in charge of the Ushiromiya head house's kitchen, allowing that clumsiness to be exposed today of all days was surely nothing less than total humiliation.

"Lay off, Natsuhi nee-san.  Don't you think it's a little harsh to bully Shannon-chan when she's trying her best?"
"I'm not bullying anyone...!"

"What a nice smell.  May I ask you the brand of this tea?"
"............Umm..., ......I'm, ...I'm terribly sorry...  I'll find out for you later..."

Kyrie wanted to cut through the tense mood, planning to be nice to her.

...However, instead, Shannon had shown a disgraceful display, darkening Natsuhi's face and the room's mood.

By this point, Eva was audibly giggling.

"Whaat's this?  Shannon-chan, don't you even know what you're pouring us?  Come now, you mustn't serve something so suspicious to guests.  We'll need a silver spoon at the very least before we can drink this.
".........I, ...I'm sorry......  I'll go get one immediately..."

"Shannon-chan?  Do you know what silver spoons are used for?  Or why they have to be silver?  Do you know why?"
"...............No..., .........umm......"

Eva's eyes played over Shannon, who was setting the table, as a catty smile floated onto her face.

...Eva's expression as she watched was charming in an impish sort of way.

However, the words being spun from her lips held within them the keenness of a razor.

Shannon tried with all her might to avoid Eva's gaze, which continued to stare at her.

Grasping that Shannon was hard-pressed for an answer, Rosa promptly gave some timely help.

"They say that if silver is touched by poison, it dims.  ...*giggle*, you've learned something, right, Shannon-chan?"
If the tea hasn't been tested for poison, it can't be drunk.

In Natsuhi's eyes, this was an insult to both the tea...and herself for serving it.

Rudolf, laughing flippantly, patted Eva's shoulder.
"Haha, Aneki doesn't need any silver cutlery.  With just one lick of her poisonous tongue, even a silver plate would go pitch black."

"Wa-hah-hah-ha!  Since I get to hear that poison-tongue every day, I must be poison-proof by now!  I don't pay it much mind, but poor souls without resistance are in fer a stormy ride!  Wah-hah-hah-ha!"
"My, how cruel.  I only gave Shannon-chan a bit of information about tea, didn't I?  *giggle*."

Everyone followed the lead set by Hideyoshi's horselaugh and smiled, though sourly.

Only Natsuhi didn't join in, but for the time being, the conversation inside the parlor could now be mistaken for a lively and friendly chat.

Kyrie apologized to Shannon in a low voice for not being able to help as she finally finished setting the tea table and tried to leave.
...Shannon gave a light bow and made a hasty retreat......
Shannon cast her eyes downwards, pushing the cart down the corridor...

The pitiful air around her made it obvious that she had borne the brunt of some bullying.

"......Don't be sad.  You didn't do anything wrong, Nee-san."
"...............You were watching."
"That is my duty."
"........................"

"Madam and Eva-sama can go to hell.  ......But the even worse coward is that guy."

Kanon glared hatefully in the opposite direction of the parlor.
The preparations for the tea had been delayed by some trifling problem in the kitchen.

These problems were not Shannon's fault.
The truth is that it had been Gohda's mistake.
There was no way that a showoff like Gohda would ever hand over a flamboyant job like carting the tea to the guests in the first place.
He had ended up wasting time preparing the tea a second time.

So, knowing that he wouldn't be able to make it on time, he pushed the task of setting the table on Shannon, who happened to be passing by.

......One could say that cutting corners like this was an especially despicable kind of cowardice.

"......It's alright, Kanon-kun, thank you.  ...I really don't mind..."
"................................."
Kanon's silence vividly showed that Shannon's words weren't coming from her heart.

"............Thank you.  Even if you're the only one who understands, I feel better."
"......You bottle things up too much, Nee-san.  ......You should be less hard on yourself for once."
"Yeah.  ......Thanks."
Suddenly, they both felt someone's presence and whirled around.
A middle-aged man stood there.
It was Genji, the head servant.
"..................What are you doing here?  ...Shannon, hurry back to the kitchen."

"Y, yes.  ......If you'll excuse me......"
"................................."

Shannon humbly obeyed and promptly made to push the cart and leave.
However, Kanon appealed to Genji in silence, bearing something in his eyes that he could not express in words.

"...............What is it?  Did something happen...?"

"...Sha, ......Shannon didn't do anything wrong.  But even so, they..."
"Stop it, Kanon-kun.........If you'll excuse me.  I'll return to work immediately.  Kanon-kun, you too, go back to your post.  ......Please."
"............If you say so, Nee-san."

".....................If that is all, then go."

"......Yes.  ......If you'll excuse me."
From the shadows in the hallway, an old woman wearing an apron watched over them.  It was Kumasawa...
......I feel so sorry for them, Shannon-san, Kanon-san...
There's no reason for those two to be picked on.

...But, it cannot be denied that they are disliked by Gohda-san...
Until Gohda-san was taken in by the Ushiromiya head house, I heard he worked for a fabulous hotel somewhere.

I think the manner of work he learned there was quite something.
It's just that...Gohda-san is the newest servant here.
...He must have a lot of pride accumulated from his previous posts.

Because Shannon-san and Kanon-kun are his seniors here at the mansion, and yet are inexperienced and have gone through much less in life than he has, he picks on them at every chance he gets...
And also, ...although it's terrible, they are hated by Madam Natsuhi too...

Of course, in terms of experience, Madam has been in the family much longer.
It's only that, .........they are just not allowed to sympathize with her.
...The master is also a truly cruel person...

He probably did not realize his own trifling whims passed so much of an inferiority complex to his wife...
......Naturally, Madam's inner thoughts fully acknowledge that there's no reason to treat those two so harshly...

...However, the heart has reasons that reason knows not...
Aah, I feel so sorry for them...

I can't do anything but watch over them from the shadows......

Guesthouse

Sat, Oct 4 1986 12:00PM
The four of us cousins were enjoying our stories, just shooting the breeze.
Anyway, there are both girls and guys here.  Plus, we've got people over a wide spread of ages: adult, high school, and elementary school.

Even though everyone was only telling his or her personal story, the other three were listening attentively.
"I think I'm finally getting used to all this.  Jessica and Maria have grown more than I could've imagined in the past six years.  To be honest, I was feeling a bit uncomfortable, but talking like this, I guess that on the inside, nothing's really changed since back then."

"I agree.  Battler, even after six years you haven't changed a bit.  Even though your body's gotten gigantic, you're still a kid inside."

"Uu-!  Maria's a kid too!  Maria's a kid too!"

"Well, even you aren't gonna be a kid forever, are you Maria?  I mean, you're growing from being a kid to a cute young lady, aren'tcha?  And when that happens, that flat-as-a-board chest'll be on Jessica's level, huh~?  When that happens, let me rub it, OK?  Promise!!"
"Uu-!  Let you rub it!  Promise!  Uu-!"

"N-no, Maria-chan!  You can't make that kind of promise, that's bad, bad, bad!"
"Uu-?  Maria promised, so let him rub it!  Maria'll keep her promise!  Definitely keep it, uu-!!"

"...Mariaa, you're a really earnest, good girl...  The guy you marry's gonna be really lucky."

"Just a..., getting back on topic here, you're not gonna be keeping that promise!  Maria, that promise never happened!  Never!"
"Uu-.  Promise is cancelled?  Uu-......"
"As I thought, without Battler-kun in our little quartet, it just didn't feel like all the cousins were here.  These six years have been kinda lonely."

"...That's true.  We weren't able to goof off like this.  Still, we did have have some pretty constructive conversations, don'tcha think?  Stuff about preparing for our future, exam-taking, or finding jobs."

"Oo~ooh, I'm sorr-rry!  Now that I'm here, there's just this stupid babbling~!"
"But, Maria's having fun this year.  Uu- uu-!"
"That's true.  I agree, this year's the most fun."

Maria's sincere words probably spoke for everyone.

When George-aniki stroked Maria's head, she giggled like a happy kitten...
"......Pardon me.  Your meal is prepared."
A timid knocking sound and an equally timid young woman's voice came through the door.

Jessica answered brightly.

"Shannon, come in!  You remember Battler, don'tcha?!"
Jessica stood up from the bed and opened the door.

There stood a servant girl who was definitely about our age.
"I-it's been quite some time since we last met, Battler-sama.  It's nice to see you after six years.  I'm Shannon."

Trembling a little, she acknowledged me and bowed deeply.

"...Ah...!  Jessica had me surprised, but, Shannon-chan!  You too, you've gotten to be a completely beautiful woman, haven't you!"
"Y-...your words are too good for me, I'm flattered..."

"Bu~ut, food on this island must be reeeally nutritional, hmmmm?  What are you eating, where are you training, to get boobs that big?~!!  Let me feel them a bit and see whether yours or Jessica's are bigger, oka~ay?!"
With both hands poised and saliva dribbling from my mouth, I closed in, quivering with excitement!

....I need to put aside my honor and sense of justice, but really, it's not like if I don't rub boobs it'll cause that weird condition where the lymph nodes in the neck get all itchy and stuff, right?
It's just my Battler-style way of communicating.
In this kinda scene, where I get closer and closer, there's an eight-or-nine out of ten chance I'll get slapped or clobbered, right?

It's an original, Battler-sama playful technique to get acquainted!
.........W-well, that means, with the remaining one-out-of-ten chance, being able to touch'em makes me a pretty lucky guy, eh?

Ihihyahyahya, its not like I'm expecting that'll happen, rrrriii~iight?!
At that point, my hands were less than a centimeter away from Shannon-chan's boobs, but,......the counterstrike was yet to come.

She blushed and lowered her head in embarrassment when she realized what was going on, but with both hands well-manneredly together in front of her, she didn't try to resist violently, or cover her breasts.
...Whoawhoaaa, well this is unexpected!!
C-c'mon, you gotta smack me or something, I'm seriously gonna touch'em if this goes oooonnnn?!
...which is why I was glad that Jessica chose that time to drive her elbow into the back of my head.
"Guaaaah, ooooowww, thank you Jessicaaaaaaa~!!"
"W-w-why the hell are you thanking me?!  ???"
"No, no, my bad, Shannon-chan.  Looks like I got a little too absorbed in your hypnotic chest...  So now we can see that if I get too close I degenerate into a big pervert after all.  Seriously, you've got to resist!"

".........P-perhaps, but, .........you are, ...an important guest, Battler-sama......"

"Now look here, a pervert's a pervert whether he's a guest or not!  Ten centimeters around a girl's chest is like an Air Defense Identification Range.  If someone trespasses within two centimeters, that's already an invasion of airspace and you can immediately give me a slap, like a high-alert takeoff!"

"............I-I couldn't do such a thing...!  We are......, ...that is, furniture and..."

Of course she didn't want her breasts touched, but..., if a guest so desired, she intended to sacrifice her own needs in response anyway.

...A girl like this needs some urgent protection...!

"...I-in these days, to think that there's a dedicated and virtuous girl like this...  Getting... giddy again!...  ......But, no!  NooOoo!!  I'm coming at her with a perverted face again!  Someone trip me!!  No~oo, pervert!  Without your word, I can't settle down!  Please, I beg you, smack me!  Like this, smack!  Hit meeee~!!"

"I............I cannot obey your request.  Because I'm furniture.  ......But, ............if it's an order, I'll obey you.  ...Because that is my duty."
"Ahaha, then I'll make it an order.  The next time Battler-kun tries to touch your breasts, counterattack with a slap.  Alright?"

"......Y-yes.  I'll do as you wish.  From now on, please allow me to do so.  Battler-sama, please accept this..."

Shannon-chan announced this while bowing elegantly to me.

Her facial expression was radiant.
I gave her a thumbs-up to signal that it was OK with me.

"Six years ago, you might've been mistaken for a servant's daughter who lent a hand at your parent's work, ......but now you're a full-fledged adult servant.  How many years has it been?"

"Yes, I've had the pleasure of serving this household for ten years."
She's 紗音.  ......The kanji for her name are read as "Shannon".
This is another far from typical name for a Japanese person.

Being a kid back in those days, I had taken in her name without paying it much attention, but despite the fact that she is not a member of the Ushiromiya family, she still has this unusual name.
...Maybe it's like a servant's 'professional name' or something.

...If so, I can kind of understand why that Kanon-kun's name sounds the way it does.
She's a long-term servant who's served here since she was six years old.
Since her body had changed radically, she didn't match my memories, but I got acquainted with her six years ago.

It looked like she was just as shy she had been in the past, but I got the feeling that the charm befitting a girl her age came naturally to her.

Especially her breasts, her breasts.

"That kid we met earlier, Kanon-kun, is her little brother."
"...He's not exactly my little brother...  Still, he loves me like a big sister.  ...He didn't cause you any trouble, did he?"

"Haha!  He's the same as always.  It's such a shame that he doesn't act just a bit more sociable."

"...It seems Kanon-kun has caused trouble,...I apologize......"
"He didn't cause any trouble at all!  As a fellow man, I understand how moody you can get at that age.  It's no surprise that he's unsociable!"

"Uu-!  Maria gets called that all the time too! Gets called unsociable!  Like Kanon!  Uu-!"
"*giggle*,......Maria-sama is not unsociable at all."
"Uu-?  It was nice to be like him...  Uu-."

"Umm, you said the meal was ready, right?"
"Ah, ......Yes!  I'm sorry!  ...The preparations for your meal have been carried out, so I shall be accompanying everyone to the mansion."

Shannon bowed again formally and returned to her "duty mode".

We realized that if we made her stick around for any more light conversation, it would actually make it harder for her to do her job.  We got up off our butts to avoid interfering with her work any further.

"Then, shall we go to the mansion?  Everyone's probably hungry, right?"
"Yeah.  I'm really looking forward to Gohda-san's food.  That guy, seems he was a chef at this famous hotel, so he's super good at cooking!"

"Ooooh!  I'm looking forward to it!!  Let's go Maria!  We're gonna stuff ourselves like pigs!!"
"Uu-!  Stuff ourselves like pigs!"

"No, no!  You just can't take everything Battler-kun says seriously, OK?  Because it's all jokes.  Alright, let's go."
Under Shannon-chan's guidance we headed towards the mansion.
Met once again by the magnificent rose garden, we continued onward as it came into view...the intimidating mansion of the Ushiromiya Head Family.
It had apparently been built shortly after the war, so you could feel the dignity of almost a half century hanging about it.

On the surface, the building was gorgeous, but being as old as it was, the equipment such as the AC seemed quite frail.
According to Jessica, midwinter was especially tough, what with all the drafts.

...It's not like they couldn't just take the kotatsu out.
Kotatsu

A table frame covered by either a futon or a blanket, which is itself covered by a table top, and has a heat source beneath that is often built into the table itself.
Kotatsu is a reliable way to keep yourself warm, since heat is expensive in Japan due the poor insulation of housing in general.

The heat source and the blanket/futon can be removed, so the kotatsu can be used like a regular table.
As we entered the entrance hall, an aged servant greeted us.
Now him I remembered.

As the most senior member of the staff, Genji-san (源次) served as the head of the servants.
"............Battler-sama, we have not met in a long while."
As our eyes met, he saluted us with a composed voice.

He didn't give quite as refined a bow as Gohda's, but even so, and even though it felt rustic, it was a bow that had feeling.
"Genji-san, it really has been a while!  You look well."
"Thank you, I have been quite well.........Battler-sama, you have become a splendid young man.  .........You have grown to resemble the Master in his youth."
"I'm looking like Grandfather?  I guess that means that Grandfather was pretty popular when he was young, Ihihi!"
".........From here on, I shall take Shannon's place and accompany you.  Please, come this way."
Shannon-chan bowed deeply and saw us off.

Leaving the entrance hall, we headed to the dining room under Genji-san's guidance.
Genji-san, just like Kumasawa-san, stood in stark contrast to us young people who had grown beyond recognition over the last six years.

His figure was exactly the same as in my memories of six years ago.
It seemed like time had stopped since the last we met.
Genji-san was a silent and diligent person.

He was like Grandfather's close aide or caregiver, ......in fact, you could even go so far as to say he was Grandfather's right-hand man.
Actually, it seems that he was by Grandfather's side more than my late Grandmother was.

According to Jessica, Grandfather trusted him more than any of his blood relatives.
But I wonder how long he's served.

I've never heard the details, but I'm pretty sure he's been here since the beginning, when this mansion was constructed.

...That is to say, he had dedicated half of his life to serving here.  ...In other words, he's both trustworthy and faithful.
As we cut through the open-ceilinged hall behind Genji-san,

......I found something I had no memory of from six years ago.
It was an awfully big portrait hung right in front of the stairs that rose to the second floor.
Without thinking, I stopped walking, under its spell...

Since I'd suddenly stopped, Maria, who was following behind me, ran into my back.

"Uu-?"
"......Aah, sorry.  ...Hey, Jessica.  Did that picture used to be there?"

I pointed at the big portrait that caught the eye, hanging in the hall.  Everyone else stopped too.

"...Aah, ...Right.  When you last came here, that hadn't been hung yet, had it?  When was it again..."
"I think, ......If my memory doesn't fail me, I think it was around the year before last."

"............You are correct.  In April of the year before last, as it had been arranged, the Master ordered an artist to paint it and it was put on display over there."

"Grandfather did that?  So, he went out of his way to have it drawn..."
The portrait was appropriate for this western style mansion, and that woman wearing an elegant dress gave off a sense of refinement.
.........I couldn't have guessed her age, but judging by her obvious strength of will and the sharpness in her eyes, she radiated youth.

It was a different feeling than the composed mood of middle-aged women that are often in famous pictures.
If this woman had normal black hair, I might have thought it was a portrait of my long-deceased Grandmother in her prime.

However, the woman in the portrait had beautiful blonde hair and didn't look Japanese at all.
"So.  ......Who is she then, this woman?"

To that naive question, Maria, as though trying to prove that she knew it herself, answered me with authority.
"Uu-!  Maria knows.  She's Beatrice!"
"Bea,......what?"

"......Beatrice.  She's the witch.  Didn't you ever hear about her, long ago?"
"The witch.  ...you mean, ............of this island?"
...I think I already said this, but Rokkenjima is a small island that only spans about ten kilometers.
However, considering that only the Ushiromiya family lives here, that's quite large.

So, only a harbor and the site around the mansion were set up to be lived in.  Beyond that, the island remained as untouched as it was when it was still uninhabited.
The vast and empty forest had no lamplight, phones or people passing through at all.  To understand how dangerous it is, you needed to throw off all your street smarts from the city.

Anyway, if by any chance you fell down a hole in the depths of the forest and sprained your ankle, you could cry or scream, but no one would come save you.
If it got dark, the forest, where there were no streetlights, was wrapped up in complete darkness.

And also, since it didn't have any guideposts, it would be easy to get confused and lost, losing your sense of direction inside the dark forest.
Nowadays, most people see a forest as a peaceful place, but to the people of the bygone eras, before the light of civilization drove out the night, forests were as geographically separated from civilization as the ocean.  Like an ocean above the ground.

Just like how fishermen who go out into the ocean are threatened despite their technical knowledge...

Hunters who go out to the forest have technical knowledge as well, yet are also in danger.
...If children go play in that dangerous forest, something terrible might happen.

Someone's parents must have thought so.  ...Maybe my Grandmother, or possibly anybody else other than Grandfather might have said that.

Or maybe it's been handed down in this island from long, long ago.
.........There's a terrible witch in the forest, so you must not go in.
Thus, Rokkenjima's ghost story was born.
That is the legend of the witch of Rokkenjima.
That's why, if we say 'witch' in this island, we're referring to the master of the vast and savage forest.

Which reminds me, when I was little and stayed at this mansion, in the eerie nights where the wind and rain struck the windows, I got terrified by a story that the witch of the forest was roaming around searching for a sacrifice...
Beatrice, was it?
.........When Aniki told me and I searched my memory, I was sure I remembered hearing a name like that when I was little.
"...Right.  Still, I completely forgot that the witch of that legend had an elegant name like Beatrice.  ......Since us grandchildren didn't believe Grandfather, he went out of his way to have her depicted in this painting?"

"......It's the witch from Grandfather's delusions.  ...Ever since he had this picture hanged, he's been blurring the line between reality and illusion.  ......To us, it's no more than the witch from his imagination, but ...to Grandfather, she's a being that 'exists' on this island.  ......'Exists'.  That's why he says he had that picture painted.   So that we'd understand.  .........And I'm sorry, but she just doesn't exist."

"........................Milady.  ...To the Master, this is an important portrait.  ......I beg of you, do not say such a thing in front of him."

".........I get it.  You don't need to beg."
Jessica turned away, after glaring a second at the portrait.

"...Let's go.  We're making everyone wait in the dining room."
"Uu-!  Hungry!"
......Only a small portion of this island was controlled by the Ushiromiya family.

All of the wild remainder...was the witch Beatrice's domain.

......One could say that she was the being who actually ruled over Rokkenjima.
That slightly unsettling feeling of misfortune that I had felt when I learned the Tutelary God's shrine had been struck by lightning on the boat trip revived within me a bit.
At that time, Kumasawa-san had tried to tell an ominous story about Rokkenjima and had been stopped by Jessica.

.........I didn't know what she had tried to tell us about this island.
But, there was one thing I did know.
...Rokkenjima's ruler was not the Ushiromiya family.

It was the witch, Beatrice.

Yes.  ......Because this was the witch's island.
"Battler!  Uu-, slo-ow!"

When I looked around, everyone was already heading towards the dining room.
I hurriedly chased after them...
We walked up to the huge double doors that led to the dining room.
Genji-san knocked.
"......I have brought the children.  If you will excuse me..."
The door was opened and we were invited inside.
The dining room, everything in the room looking clearly expensive, was set up with a super-long table which was obviously positioned with no other purpose than to make the guests conscious of their rank.  Our parents were already sitting in accordance to that ordering.
"You're late, brats.  Hurry up and take a seat."
The old bastard pressed us to sit.

Only the places where we would sit were empty at the long table, which only made us feel our tardiness all the more.
The seat at the head of the table, called the Incipient's Chair, was for the most highly ranked, reserved for Grandfather.

It was still empty.
...He was probably planning to come in last to ham it up.
The seating order, looking at the Incipient's Chair at the head of the table, went from left to right with the lower ranking seats progressing in rows of two further away from it.

So, on the left-hand side of the first row, closest to the Incipient's Chair, was where Krauss oji-san, ranked at number two, should have sat.
.........It looked like Oji-san hadn't arrived yet, so that seat was empty.
And then to his opposite, on the right side of the first row sat the eldest daughter of the family, Eva oba-san, ranked at number three.

The left-hand side of the second row was for number four.
There sat my old bastard, Rudolf, as one of the three siblings already present.

Opposite him sat number five, the youngest sibling, Rosa oba-san.

Going like this, you might think that the next ones to come would be their husbands and wives, but... It's weird, but the next left-hand seat in the third row, meaning number six, was Jessica's seat.

Opposite her was George-aniki.
Then, next to Jessica, was me,  And opposite me was Maria.

Then, finally, next to me on the left-hand side of the fifth row was number ten, Natsuhi oba-san.

...Opposite her was Hideyoshi oji-san.  Next to Natsuhi oba-san, in the sixth row and in the final seat on the left-hand side, was Kyrie-san.
The seat opposite to Kyrie-san was empty even though everything had been set out.
According to this ranking system, that spot was the seat where Rosa oba-san's husband should be sitting.

......Even though he wasn't supposed to be coming, his place was made up.
These kind of ranking orders usually recognize the status of the spouse, but the Ushiromiya family had an original kind of ranking.

......Maybe it's a leftover of male chauvinism.
If the system is predicated on the idea that a woman's womb is just a borrowed thing, then the children of direct descent would have a much higher ranking, and the grandchildren would come next.

Meaning that the spouses, with no blood ties, are considered the last in line.
......It's terrible, but according to that ranking order, Grandmother, when she was alive, would have been in a position even lower than mine.

In their youth they obey their father; after they get married, their husband; after aging, their children.

There's the old saying, 'Women, whether in their past, present, or future, have no home'.
Long ago, when I was still incapable of figuring all this out, I'd thought it was so great that we could all chat, with the adult siblings in their group and us cousins in ours.  However, now that I can reexamine the seating order after growing up a bit, it stirs up some very complicated feelings in me...
Natsuhi oba-san, married to the eldest son of the family and number two in managing the house, sat to my right, ...which meant that she was two steps lower than me in the ranking order.

...It was difficult to guess what was going inside Oba-san's head.

That's why I made a small apologetic gesture before sitting down.

"How nice to see you, Battler-kun.  You've grown quite tall, haven't you?"
"Huhh, ah, yeah!  I ate and ate and ate meals and before I knew it I got this tall."

"Boys will be boys, no?  How tall are you?"
"I guess about 180 cm?  Ah, Oba-san, please, whenever you feel like it, feel free to say 'Stop stuffing yourself!'"

"Huh?  ......Aah, *giggle*, I'm sorry."

Oba-san, after a moment, gave a small laugh, but it seemed she couldn't quite figure out what she was supposed to be laughing at.

This woman is Natsuhi (夏妃) oba-san.

She's the wife of the eldest son of the family, meaning she is my father's older brother's wife.
Is it easier to get it if I call her Jessica's mother?

...It feels bad to say it like this, but, not that I hated her, I didn't particularly like her.

She never got into our kids' circle, and she always looked difficult to get along with.  And it didn't help that she gave the impression that she was at odds with the other parents.

...The fact is that having barely ever exchanged words, I hesitated a lot about how to approach her.
...And I ended up empty-handed.
The silverware had been tidily set up on the table, but the meal itself hadn't been brought in.
In essence, until the man at the head of the table had taken his seat, the meal wouldn't start.

So, as long as Grandfather, the highest ranked, didn't come, lunch would be indefinitely on hold.
Not even the appetizers would come.
So, while our parents withstood their hunger, the silence of the dining room would still wait for Grandfather to come.
It's just that the Grandfather I remembered, when we ate together like this, always showed up at the right time.

...He was supposed to be the kind of person that would never be so late that he'd keep everyone waiting, even though they were all present.
"Grandfather's pretty late.  ......As far as I can remember, he was always strict about staying on time.

"Well, that might've been true six years ago, ...but it hasn't been that way lately.  Seriously, he's off in his own little world so often that he doesn't even show up at family meals.  ...Even so, I figured that he'd at least stick around for today's meal.  ...Still, I feel more relaxed and happier without him."

"...Jessica!"

After being scolded by her mother, Jessica faced the other way, sticking her tongue out.

......No way around it.
Nothing to do but wait for the host to arrive.

When I glanced at the clock, I saw that it was almost 12:20...
The old master of the Ushiromiya head house, Ushiromiya Kinzo (金蔵).

His shape in his study.
The clock showed noon, but he didn't even attempt to get up.

Putting his spectacles on, he piled up one by one beside him old-fashioned books with elaborately designed bindings, and immersed himself in their reading.
It definitely didn't look like it was for his leisure; on the contrary, he exuded impatience, crisis, as though every minute, every second were precious.
The inside of the sealed room, where dense dust danced, stagnated, steeped in the suspicious stench of smelly medicine.

...Somehow, sweet, heavy.

For anyone with an good nose, the first thing they'd do after entering would be to open a window and ventilate the room.
The knocking against the study door had been going on for a while.
A voice calling 'Father' sometimes mingled with the knocks.
As Kinzo heaved a deep sigh, he snapped the old book he had in his hands shut and slammed it on the table.
Then, he yelled at Krauss who was still knocking on the door.
"Silence!!  Will you not stop that noise, fool!!!  Who told you the door would open if you knocked!?  I'll crucify the imbecile!!  Do you wish to be as well!!??"
"......Father.  Isn't today the annual family conference?  Everyone's gathered down there.  Please come out."
Krauss called out to his father through the door.
...Kinzo always shut himself up in the study and hated it when even his family entered the room.

For that reason, Krauss had no choice but to call out thus from the corridor...
"They do not care about me!!  What manner of men is everyone then, trying to drag me out of here!!??  Very well, kill them!  Dismember them, make them into firewood, feed them to the witch's hearth!!  Put a pot in that hearth and boil wormwood!  Force the imbeciles who dare try to lure me out of here to drink the broth of the Apocalypse!  I will soak their dregs in liquor!  Aah, Genji, where are you!?  Call for Genji!!  Have my demonic absinthe prepared!  The whispering of the green fairy reaches me no longer!!  Aah, Genji, where are you?! Call for GenjiiIii!!!"
...Before the door, Krauss, Nanjo and Genji kept waiting for the master of the house, who would not come out.
"Hmph.........Looks like he hates me to his core.  My voice doesn't reach him anymore."
Krauss shrugged as though saying 'It's no use' and smiled bitterly.
...He himself hadn't really believed his father would answer his calls.
However, as it was the duty of the eldest son, he had formally made the request.

"......Kinzo-san.  Aren't your sons and daughters and your grandchildren coming to see you...?  How about you show your face, just a little...?"
"Shut up, be silent!!!  Do you admonish me, Nanjo?!!  I do not call for you lot, I said to call for Genji!!  Now call for him immediately!  Time is short, the apostles are already readying their trumpets! Why do you not understand, you foolish sheep!!"
Kinzo slammed the old, heavy book on the table over and over.
The racket obviously indicated his highest displeasure.
Kinzo put his spectacles down and flew up from his chair.
He spread his arms wide open, as if to sing to a packed opera house, as if appealing to someone, and yelled.
"Why?!  Why is there always something in my way?!  I would throw it all away, I would offer up everything, and there is only one thing I ask in repayment!!
Ooh, Beatrice, if I could see your smile but one more time, I would plunder the smiles of the Earth and offer them all up to you!!  Oooh, commanders of the locust legions, reap the smiles of the Earth, *coughcough*, *COUGH* *kofkof*!!!  Aah, all is filthy, all is irksome!!
Why must I suffer this impediment on this most precious of days!?!?  *cough* *cough* *cough* *cough*!!  *cough* *cough*!!!  Call for GenjiiIii!!!  *cough* *cough* *cough*!!"
"......I have no idea what he's yelling.  I guess he's finally gone nuts."

"Krauss-san...  Isn't that a bit harsh, to your birth father..."
"My father is already dead.  ......All that's here is a phantom of what Father once was.  At any rate, as long as he has no intention of coming out, there's nothing we can do."

".....................Kinzo-san."
Choking coughs continued to pour from the study...

"I'm going back downstairs.  ......It would be a waste to let that lunch Gohda's so proud of get any colder.  It's one of the few things we can look forward to...in this family.  ...Hmph."
Krauss spun on his heels.

He looked at his wristwatch, mumbling and acting as though he had wasted time doing something he knew would be in vain.

"Genji-san.  ......Father is calling for you.  Keep him company."
".........Certainly."

"Doctor Nanjo.  Let's go eat.  ......If we stay here any longer, even our sense of taste will go insane from this sweet smell."
Without waiting for Nanjo, Krauss went downstairs.
Genji urged Nanjo to go and eat.

...Nanjo looked first to Krauss's back as he disappeared down the stairs, then to the study door, and he let out a deep sigh.

"......Sorry, Genji-san.  Please."
"Yes, ......Please leave it to me."
"If possible, don't give him alcohol.  ......It's too powerful a habit."

"Is Genji not here yet?!!!  Who dares keep Genji from coming?!!  Aah, Genji, where are you, call for Genji!!!"

"Now, ......please leave it to me."
"...*nods*.  .........Sorry."
Nanjo gave a small duck of his head and descended the stairs...
Genji saw him off, and knocked at the study door.
".........Master.  It is Genji."
"Genji?!!  Why must you make me wait so long?!!  There is no one there, I trust?!"
"Yes.  I am alone."
Kinzo returned to his seat in the study and pressed an old-style switch on the table.
...After a small delay, the heavy sound of the door unlocking could be heard.
Kinzo believed that his family might try to break in his study.

Perhaps someone once opened the window for some air and scattered important documents and other stuff?  Is that what made him so nasty?
...Now, Kinzo had placed a secure lock in his own room, making it so that without his permission nobody could enter, and locking himself in the dungeon he'd created.
Genji, who he trusted the most, was relatively free to enter the room, but that was also not absolute.
If Kinzo was in a bad mood, even he wouldn't be able to enter.
.........Anyone else would be limited to holding a conversation through the door, not even seeing his face.

And most of the time, they wouldn't even get a real conversation.
However, that didn't become a big problem for the family.

Because going to the trouble of speaking to the aged Head, who was impossible to please, completely immersed in his odd research, and always locked up in his hideaway, just wasn't worth the effort.
......They were happy that he didn't come out of his study and, putting him in the hands of the servants, they themselves also tried to avoid him.

"Genji, my usual.  I'm busy."
"......Yes."
Genji headed to a corner of the study.
There, a suspicious-looking bottle boasting a venomous color was displayed.

...It was actually liquor, but, considering that it was placed in this suspicious-looking room, one begins to doubt whether it isn't actually some kind of ghastly poison.
Inside the study, the mysterious collection of books that Kinzo had gathered had grown into a mountain.

They were bizarre ancient or banned books, all of them either forbidden, cursed, or sealed.
But then, if one were to call them old books, Kinzo would fly into a rage and say something like this:

"Call them Grimoires!"
There were many mysterious objects, like a candle suspiciously melted and molded into a strange shape, which probably had something to do with black magic.

The constellations drawn on a certain celestial globe contained quite a few dots that a person who knows the night sky well would tilt their head at.
The illustrations inscribed in old, casually opened books were all full of religious, or possibly demonic, grotesque arcana, as well as the weird shapes of various magical circles.

And above all, the sweet, poisonous smell that filled the room profoundly assaulted those who entered for the first time in their sense of sight and smell, then all their senses, making them lose their grip on reality ...
Inside that study, Genji, with his well trained hand, prepared Kinzo's usual drink.

If you didn't know that the ominous dark green liquid that filled the complexly designed bottle was liquor, you really wouldn't want to put it in your mouth.
......He poured a small quantity of the spirits into the glass.  After placing a cube of sugar in a strangely shaped spoon, he then poured water from a pitcher over it.
Strangely, when the transparent water was poured, the dark green liquid turned a cloudy white.

...It was a strange optical illusion, as though the water had caused a chemical reaction and made the drink become even more unrecognizable as liquor.

It improved the original flavor Kinzo liked and adjusted the taste.
...There was no recipe.
Its success was measured only by Kinzo's mood swing when he drank it, and he had learned how to make it only after many decades.
Genji placed the glass in the tray, and faced Kinzo.
Kinzo was now gazing out the window.

".........Here, Master."
"Thank you..."

Kinzo, now unrecognizable as the man who was shouting, screaming and yelling just before, regained his composure.

In that man's back dwelt a dignity and intelligence made plain simply by how he tilted his glass and gazed down at the scenery beyond the window.

Genji, in order to allow Kinzo to set down his glass any time, motionlessly waited behind and to Kinzo's left, as though he were a living sideboard.

Thereupon, while Kinzo looked out the window, he stuck out only the glass.

There was just a mouthful remaining.

It was not a gesture intended to set it upon the tray, as Genji expected, but was an motion to hand the glass over to Genji.

"......Drink it.  ...My friend."
".....................That is more than I deserve."
"No need for ceremony between us.  ......Drink it.  My friend."

"...............Thank you."

Genji respectfully received the glass and inclined it a little to taste its contents.
After that, he agitated it.

"I attempted to imitate your concoction, but no matter how I try I cannot replicate the taste.  ......The way you make it is pure relish."

".........Thank you very much.  It is the fruit of your guidance, Master."
"Hmph..."
Kinzo smiled at his loyal subject who refused to put aside rank even when asked to.

However, he was not making fun of him; it was relaxed, like a smile at a close friend's unriddable bad habit.

".........We have grown old together.  I forgot my age a long time ago."
"Being allowed to live here until now has all been thanks to you, Master."

Kinzo gave a thin smile, as if to say he didn't need compliments.

".........Until now, you have served me exceedingly well.  ......My sons call me eccentric.  The servants that were once many, all of them, retired in their growing fear of me.  ......Only you, even now, serve me."
"...That is more than I deserve."

".........I do not have much time left to live.  ......My sons are vultures, lazily waiting for my inheritance to fall into their hands."
"........................"

"That fool Krauss squanders money like water, throws away two gold coins to obtain one.  With that, he deludes himself in saying he earned money!!  Eva is a slave to money, thinking of me as a hen or whatnot!!  As if when I die, she'll even use my carcass to make broth!!

That dunce Rudolf just wants to fool around with women!!  Rosa bore the baby of a nobody!!  Jessica is incompetent and illiterate!!  George has none of what it takes to be a man!  Battler is a fool who threw away the honor of the Ushiromiya family!!  And Maria is obscene to the eye!!

Why, why is the Ushiromiya blood so incompetent!?!?  Is there anyone worthy to inherit the glory I built?!  Aah, of course, I know, this is also Beatrice's curse, I know it!!  ...Aah, Golden Witch, is this the revenge you planned for me?
If you want to hate me, you can hate me!  If you want to run away, you can run away!!  I won't let you go, I won't let you go won't let you go won't let you go!!  You're mine!!  You cannot be anywhere but in my arms!  For all my life!  You'll continue to whisper for all eternity in my bird cage to me, only to me!!  Beatrice......  Why, ...won't you give me back your smile...  OOOoooooh, OOOooOOOoooh...!!  BeatriceeeEEEeeee!!  OOOoooOOOOoohh......"
After howling, Kinzo choked once again.
Genji set the tray and the glass down and patted his master's back...

Genji's facial expression did not change.
.........It was always like this.

"............*cough*...  Hmhm.  ............Thank you, my friend."
"........................"

The outburst, like his previous agitation, had calmed, and Kinzo regained his composure again.

...His change of stance was like seeing two different people, a wild Kinzo and a composed Kinzo, living together inside one body.
"Therefore.  ......I have decided.  .....................I cannot stand spending my dimmed, remaining years procrastinating thus.  In this body, if I have a coin to bet in the end, it seems I'll entrust it to the roulette of the demons.  ......The power of magic is always settled with a gamble.  Like visiting a shrine at the Hour of the Ox in ancient Japanese sorcery, to nail a curse doll to a tree.  The magic power dwells in incurring the risk that it will be seen within the seven days the curse takes.  The more dangerous the risk created, the stronger the magic power created will be.
Many miracles that happened in myth can be said to be the crystallization of a shocking magic power, that had a low probability of happening and an astronomical risk!  That Moses parted the waters of the sea was not a miracle of God - the risk of that desperate situation, cornered by soldiers on the Red Sea's shores, weighed upon the scales of slaughter, gave birth to the miraculous magic power.  Even if the same thing occurs again, on same scope, the sea will no doubt not part.
That is because Moses, instead of betting on incalculable odds in the Roulette of those with power, managed to spectacularly draw to himself the single miracle carved within the eyes of many.  That power that can triumph over astronomical odds!!  Yes, magical power is that fortune through which miracles are grasped!!  To obtain this mighty magic power, one must face the risk of despair!!  Those who possess no magical power call that desperation rather than a bet!
However, people who truly have magic power grab that miracle and fulfill the mystery!!  And if that power exists within me...!  I'll seize that miracle and I'll be able to make the wish I devoted my life towards come true!!"
Kinzo looked up to the sky outside the window.
He spread his arms as if appealing to someone up in the skies.
"If only!!!  If only I were capable of gaining that miracle!!  .........Oooh..., Beatrice..., Beatrice...  Show me your lovely smile once more...  No matter how much time passes, your face does not vanish...  I just want to see your smile..., that is all...!  I'll return everything you granted me!  I'll return all the glory I've gained since that day!  I don't need fortune, prestige, gold!!  I'll return everything you granted me!!  I just want to see your smile!!  For goodness' sake, Beatrice!!  OOOoooooOooh...oOoOOoh...ooh...!!"
......His nonsensical yells segued into a scream...and then into a wail.
Kinzo folded over onto the bed, and tore it with both hands.

Genji had no choice but to wordlessly watch over his master's lament...
"Well, ladies and gentlemen.  ......The Head of the family is not in his best shape.  All of you who have come back together for this long awaited yearly meeting, it is a great shame that he won't be able to partake in lunch with us.  ......Gohda, let the lunch begin."
"Certainly.  I shall begin today's luncheon."

"......Doctor Nanjo, is Father's condition that bad?  It would have been nice if he at least showed his face, right?"
"Rather than his physical condition, it's his mood...  And for that, there is no medicine I can prescribe."

"Hey hey, 'mood', you say?  Not that again.  We come to see how he's doing, making time in our schedules in this damn busy season of autumn.  And now that-"
"Hmph..., don't complain, Rudolf.  I managed to see how he's doing.  ......Do you want to take my place, and try to persuade our ill-humored Father to come join us?"

"............Are you kidding?"
Rudolf shrugged.

Apparently, even though Rudolf seemed to resent the way his father did whatever he pleased...he'd rather avoid seeing his father's face if he could help it.

"Does it seem like his mood will improve before dinner?  Krauss nii-san?"
"I have no idea.  You can try and ask Father directly.  ...Although, I think his mood will improve faster if we don't bother him."
"The only one who can get Grandfather better is Genji-san.  It sucks though, making the servants deal with your own parent's bad mood."

"Jessica.  Don't speak out of turn."

She'd planned for her complaint to be heard only by her cousins, but it had reached even Krauss's ears.

Scolded, Jessica scowled and turned away, sulking.
"......His disease can't be that bad, can it, with that kinda temper?  I mean, if he's not healthy, and his mood is bad, at least it's proof he's still hanging on."

"It's because Grandfather has especially strong willpower.  ...But, it doesn't mean that his body will always follow that.  Since last year, they keep saying that he has three months left.  ...If the initial diagnosis was correct, Grandfather has been prolonging his life by willpower alone.  ......It should be a cause for concern."
Lunch started with the family head's seat still empty.

...The man who should be sitting there was already old, and the brilliant glory which had rebuilt the Ushiromiya family in a single lifetime was being forgotten.

Nobody seemed to feel uncomfortable when the meal began with that seat still empty...

Dining Room

Sat, Oct 4 1986 1:30PM
The Ushiromiya family conference was held once every year.
It took place on the first weekend of October.

If a normal family were to use a pretentious name like 'family conference', you'd expect it to be nothing more than a reunion of rarely seen relatives who greet each other surrounded by buckets of sushi.
However, because the sons and siblings had been lent a great fortune, in the Ushiromiya family, which considers only those that achieve success in business adults, it literally was a conference.
How much of the fortune was invested?  What kind of business was conducted?  How much was earned?
As a result, how much of the fortune borrowed from the main family can be repaid?
Or, possibly, how much will be borrowed for future business ventures?
What lessons have they learned, and what could they learn from their mistakes?

It seems that topics like these had been discussed very seriously in the past.
My dad called it a bed of nails.

Apparently, it used to be a very serious family meeting, bathed in harsh and angry voices.  Even on a good year, it was common for someone to get slapped.
However, that had become a thing of the past.

Now, with everyone pursuing their own business ventures and achieving success, it was a normal yearly get-together.
Even so, hearing about Grandfather's condition caused a significant amount of stress, so while to us grandchildren it was nothing more than a simple meeting, to our parents it was still a real stomachache.
I guess that since the ringleader was absent for various reasons, today's lunch was even more delicious.

The phrase 'while the demon is not around, everyone can relax' comes to mind.
Well then, let's introduce Jessica's father, whose face I hadn't seen for six years.
The man sitting to my father's left was his older brother and the father of Jessica, 蔵臼 oji-san.
......This name sure is easy to read.

Krauss (蔵臼).

Since everyone had these weird names, our naming sense was pretty twisted, so Krauss actually didn't seem that bad.  I'd even started to think it was pretty cool.
Just like with Natsuhi oba-san, I didn't have many memories of speaking with Krauss oji-san.

He had never been one to talk to children, and I felt like he was always talking with the adults, just like Natsuhi oba-san.
From my father's gossip, it seems that he was a pretty spiteful and unreasonable person.

If what my father said is true, he used to be very domineering as the oldest sibling, and was hated by Eva oba-san, Rosa oba-san, and the rest of the family.

Huh?  It looks like he's having a friendly chat with the rest of the family, doesn't it?

Oh, well.  Even if their relationship was bad when they were children, sometimes when people grow up and go their separate ways, their relationship changes.
That's probably what this was.

After all, they all had children of about the same age.

By sharing the same family environment, they probably profited by exchanging opinions.

Maybe because of that, a short while ago the circle of parents began to discuss the exams Jessica and I were taking.

Jessica, in order to escape the discussion of exams with my father sitting on her left, purposefully faced right while firing off a rapid series of comments, so as not to show any weaknesses.

Moving on, let's look at the end opposite from Krauss and the others.

In the very last seat at the table, an old gentleman with a sturdy physique sat facing Kyrie-san.  This was my first time meeting him.

I had only just been introduced to him, but it seems that he was Grandfather's head physician, a doctor called Nanjo (南條).

I had heard that he used to own a huge clinic on the nearby Niijima island, but he turned it over to his son and then began living a life of leisure in his old age.

He had known Grandfather since the very beginning when the mansion was first constructed on this island, and had built up a relationship over several decades.
I thought that he might be Grandfather's companion in his suspicious hobbies, but, surprisingly, it seems that he is Grandfather's chess partner.

......I see.  That kind of hobby seems very like our Grandfather with his love of western style.

You could probably say that he was the only person who could enter Rokkenjima and was neither a family member nor a servant.

He gave an impression of a calm old gentleman as he listened to Kyrie and the other women's conversation.

After staying by our short-tempered Grandfather's side for so long, his big heart was nothing to laugh at.
...Still, even if he was the head physician, having anyone outside the Ushiromiya family attend the family conference was a little odd.

I imagined that because Grandfather's condition had grown much worse, it may have become one of the major topics of discussion.
George was just saying it, too.

Reports that Grandfather's remaining life was very short had been appearing continuously since around a year ago.
It was a nasty story, but Grandfather was an extremely rich man.

At the time of his death, his wealth would suddenly be released, along with our parents' stomach acid, and would probably lead to ulcers.
With this kind of thing, the greater the share, the more trouble would be caused.

This would probably also be included in the family conference.  Oh well, it's not like it had anything to do with us children.
......Finally, even though he was absent, let me introduce our Grandfather.
The person who should be sitting in that 'Incipient's Chair' was Ushiromiya Kinzo.

...It really sucks.  Everyone else in the family has these weird names, but he himself took this perfectly normal name.

If only his name were written Kinzo(金蔵), but he let us call him 'Goldsmith' or something, that'd be totally awesome.
As you can probably guess from the topics that have been raised, he was a frightening person with an extremely short temper.

Because I was one of the grandchildren and hadn't met the family since elementary school, I had no memory of being beaten, but it seems that our parents were raised with an iron fist.
That earlier conversation between my father and Krauss oji-san about who should go try to convince Grandfather to come out seems oddly funny if we take this into account.
In order to tell Grandfather's story, you have to first go back and recount that episode that occurred before the Showa era (1926-1989).
Until the Meiji (1868-1912) and Taishou (1912-1926) eras, the Ushiromiya family was great and prosperous.

They owned several spinning mills, so while they just laughed heartily every day, the money kept rolling in, making them very wealthy.
Incidentally, Grandfather, as a member of the branch family, essentially had nothing to do with the main family.

Distantly separated from the head's inheritance, his relationship with the head house was also very distant, apparently.
Even so, during the Great Kanto earthquake in the year Taisho 12 (1923), the mansion owned by the Ushiromiya family in Odawara was flattened.

The spinning mills in Tokyo were all burned down in a huge fire, and the Ushiromiya family lost most of its wealth and family members in an instant.
It then became a matter of who in the main family would become the heir, and it seemed as though no one except the branch family, which included Kinzo, was left.

Kinzo himself later said that it was such good luck, it was as though fate itself had been turned upside-down.
With that, Grandfather's normal life did a 180.
He was entrusted with reviving the wealth that the dying Ushiromiya family had almost completely lost.

Naturally, just because he had been entrusted with this task didn't mean he could accomplish it.
It seems that the surrounding people weren't really expecting much.
However, from this point on, Grandfather began displaying his extraordinary talent and good luck.

Grandfather used all of the family funds and everything from the hair on his head to his toenails as collateral to borrow a massive amount of money, created a gigantic supply of funds and soon revived the family's business.
It was like tumbling down a hill on a bike without any brakes.

And then, jumping onto a neighboring bike, and then another one!  Just like some crazy street performance.  Probably, anyone would have thought that Grandfather had no business ability.
Even so, with an unbelievable amount of good luck and miracles, with coincidences piling up and every chance taken advantage of, before anyone knew it, he began to make connections with the occupying forces.
At that time, McArthur and the GHQ were in charge.

Grandfather, in a twinkle of the eye, began succeeding in business under the protection of the occupying forces, quickly becoming very rich.
At this point, it was no longer luck but information that won the day.
He must have made some seriously thick connections with the occupying forces.
......Grandfather knew beforehand about emergency demands that would be made for the Korean War.

No, on the contrary, he must have foreseen these special procurements from the very beginning and started eating into his businesses.
As we read in the history books, all of Japan made a large profit off of the emergency demands for the Korean War, but in actuality that didn't happen.
Only a very limited number of the super rich played the money game and made an easy profit.

Most of the citizens remained poor.

In other words, Grandfather was an extremely lucky member of this group of winners.
This all happened...during the year Showa 25 (1950), I think.
And, since the year following the Great Kanto Earthquake was Taisho 13 (1924)...

......That means Grandfather was able to revive the near-dead Ushiromiya family in only about 20 years to a level even higher than it had been before.
With that, you'd think that he would revive the main family in Odawara, but for some reason, he went and did something as crazy as buying an entire small island in the Izu archipelago.
Buying an entire island is not something that you can ordinarily do today.

However, Grandfather was clever.
He contacted the GHQ and applied for the establishment of a marine resource base.

He acquired this island as a business property, and then threw that away and claimed it as his own plot of land.
After the war there were prevention measures against food shortages, and, furthermore, having the sponsorship of the GHQ meant that nobody could oppose him.
It seems that Tokyo Metropolis had almost no money at the time and offered this land.
Later, Tokyo made difficulties by telling Kinzo to return the land, but the pushy GHQ intervened.

Anyway, it seems as though under the table bribes worked perfectly.
In the end, the city gave up in frustration.
Grandfather, with considerable skill and blessed with good luck, managed to weather the stormy seas of that period, obtaining a vast fortune and his own island.

Of course, it wasn't all luck.
He was skilled with English, and this was cultivated by his western obsession.
Using this as a weapon, he was able to take a bite out of the GHQ.
A mansion was immediately built on the island.  That would be this mansion.

Grandfather, with his western style, made this once uninhabited island, Rokkenjima, a canvas upon which he could realize his dreams to his heart's content.
...with the western mansion that he had always imagined, overflowing with emotion, to the beautiful garden where various roses had been planted.

And a private beach where nobody other than himself would ever be permitted to leave a footprint.

......If a boy could have this much, it would be a dream come true.
After that, making good use of his huge fortune, he became a large stock holder in the extremely stable iron and steel industry and was able to live an easy and comfortable life just using the dividends.
Well, he's just that incredible.

This kind of person usually has the ability to foresee and predict the future, or at least that is how they are portrayed.  Grandfather denies all of that, repeatedly saying that he was simply blessed with extraordinary luck...
......Anyway, even a lord like that, with all of his dreams made real, can't help but grow increasingly odd when locked up alone on an island.
Everyone had known for a long time of his western obsession, but none of our parents really knows when his bizarre black magic hobby began.
Did his love of black magic begin way back when he became fascinated with everything western, or, possibly, did his miraculous stretch of good luck which allowed him to revive the family cause him to feel a mysterious power in himself?
At some point, Grandfather began to make the research of black magic his life's work.  He filled his study up with suspicious books, chemicals, and magical items as he became increasingly bizarre.
I heard that, as a successful man, he had the right to decide how he wanted to live the rest of his life, and those surrounding him warmly watched over him, but...

That's definitely a lie.
They probably were just driven away, thinking 'that's disgusting, I don't want to get involved.'
Well, ...that agitated period was like a big gamble, with both opportunities and risks.
Let's say Grandfather was born in this time period.

He would've had no opportunities and would probably have advanced like a chess piece from mandatory education to college at a leisurely pace, never becoming more than an average salary man.
If that happened, he'd probably have sat somewhere, happily talking behind his boss's back.
No, no.  Not in a mansion's dining hall.  More like a table at some bar.

If that were the case, I'm sure that this would be a more comfortable family conference.
Alright, that's enough of the old geezer's story.
More importantly, let's talk about this incre~dible lunch!!
"I'm already convinced by the sashimi salad!  Gohda-san is an excellent chef!  Plus, these fish were caught in the adjacent seas, weren't they?!  They're totally different from sashimi you get at the supermarket!"

"Hey, quit it Battler.  Your upbringing will be exposed."
Everyone let out a big laugh.

Damn it, you say that even though you love those cheap pubs.
"Hahahaha.  Depending on the situation with my job, I also have eaten at many odd places, but compared to all of those, this is an excellent dish.  Gohda-san probably also learned a lot that way."

"Well, I don't know too much about it.  At the famous hotel where he used to work, employee politics got pretty complicated and everyone split into factions.  In the middle of all that, he was apparently forced to retire.  Then, by chance, Mom sent out job offers for a servant."
Gohda lowered the empty plate and, without losing his smile, began to recount his own uneven past.
"The world is a difficult place.  However, it is thanks to this that I was given a chance to display my skills as a chef once again, this time for the Ushiromiya family.  Although I also enjoy the smiles of a larger number of people, being able to make only those who have hired me happy while performing such a delicate job is extremely entertaining for me.  All of this is thanks to the opportunity given to me by Madam."
Gohda-san respectfully bowed his head towards Natsuhi oba-san.

"That is because among all of the applicants, you were the most talented.  The decision was not based on personal feelings, but purely objective, so there is no need to thank me."

...Oh man, why does Natsuhi oba-san always have to speak so frankly.
If only she spoke more gently, she might give off a different impression.

Shannon-chan and Kumasawa-san entered from the hallway with a serving cart.

"Please excuse us."
"Now then, let us move on to today's dessert."
Gohda-san and the others laid out the beautifully adorned dessert.
I guess it's true when they say you have another stomach for dessert.

I'd thought that being fed all that delicious food had totally filled me up, but as soon as I laid eyes on the dessert, my stomach started yelling 'More!'
I don't know much about desserts, but this looked really good.
A white pudding-like substance was garnished with two shades of red sauce, and elegant rose petals adorned the dish.

With such magnificent food distributed in front of everybody, it was time for the chef to extol the virtues of his creation.  
However, Maria, who was completely indifferent to this strict rule, got excited by this beautiful and delicious looking dessert and jumped into the fray as soon as it was placed before her.

Rosa oba-san scolded her, calling it bad manners, but George responded by saying 'Now, now, it's alright.'
"Uu-?!  This part's sour!  This part's sour!  Battler, this one's no good!  Uu-!"
Maria exclaimed as she sampled the two colored sauces.
"What, some are good and some bad?  Alright, I'll give it a go~!  Mmmmm?!"
Apparently the sauce was a blend of sweet and sour.
Despite it being bad manners, I also stuck my little finger in and licked it.

Whoa, half of it was sour enough to make you pucker up.
If it were yellow, I'd have suspected lemon, but I couldn't guess what kind of sourness would be red.
I decided to ask Shannon, who was putting away the serving cart behind us.

"Shannon-chan, what kind of sauce is this sour stuff?"
"......Umm......, ............Err..., ......u..., "
Shannon-chan hesitated to speak.

Maybe she was just setting the table and doesn't really know.
Man, she's at a total loss.......did I ask something wrong?
Or did they use something that we'd be better off not knowing about?

While Natsuhi oba-san acted as though she had a headache, Kumasawa-san, who was setting the table at the opposite seat, began to laugh with a 'Hoh-hoh-ho'.

"What ingredients do you think we made it out of? Hoh-hoh-ho, it'll shock you..."
"Huh?  I, I don't have a clue.  Wait a sec, Kumasawa baa-san, that laugh's pretty creepy.  So, what is it?!"

"Don't tell anyone, alright?  Let me borrow your ears."

Kumasawa-san leaned across from the other side of the table.
I leaned forward too when she asked me to listen.
Their interest caught, Jessica, George-aniki, and, of course, Maria also put their ears closer.

"Uu-.  What?  Wha-t?  Quickly-!  Quickly-!"

"The sour part is, well, ......Actually, it's squeezed juice from a mackerel, Hoh-hoh-ho!"

"""HAAAaaahh, mackerel?!?!"""
"That's crazy," we all thought, horrified.
Only Maria accepted it, nodding with an 'uh-huh'.

"Uu-?  Mackerels are sour?  If you squeeze them, this comes out!"
""...ha, Wahahahahaha...!""
When Maria started clamoring that mackerel were sour, the adults were unable to contain their laughter.

Only Rosa oba-san, her face red, told Maria that mackerel is sour only once prepared, in a small voice.
Ahh--, now I remember it perfectly.  Kumasawa-san was always this kind of a character, wasn't she?
I think she must have tricked me too in various ways when I was young!

Amongst all of them, the most lethal must have been that one!  That flimsy black thing in the Chinese dish!  It was a kikurage mushroom!
Kikurage

Literally "tree-jellyfish", this mushroom is also known as "Auricularia auricula-judae", or the Judas' ear fungus.

This species is often used in Asian cooking.
 She told me it was penguin meat and I went all around school like a smartass telling everyone, didn't I?!

"Kumasawa baa-chan, you sure haven't changed...!  You know Maria's gonna believe now, right?"
"Hoh-hoh-ho, it's just a joke, right?  Now, Gohda will tell us what the sauce's true nature is, won't he?"

Gohda looked a little put off about his masterpiece being laughed at in such a strange way, but after clearing his throat once, he introduced the dessert to us.
"Well then, allow me to introduce tonight's dessert.  Based on the rose garden that everyone seemed to enjoy so much today, I finished this panna cotta in a rose garden style.  The rose petals scattered across were selected just now from that rose garden. The sauce is a combination of two reds, strawberry and rose hips.  Please enjoy this mixture of the strawberry's sweetness and the rose hip's sourness.  Furthermore, the rose petals are merely decoration, so please avoid them while you eat.  With that said, please, enjoy."
......Ha--......Man, I almost want to applaud before eating.
Just like with medicine, reading the instructions seems to work better than just drinking it.

As Gohda-san elaborated on the details of this dessert, it started to feel even more appetizing.
Seriously, should you call him subtle or just talented?  The dessert was probably planned from the beginning, but taking the hint when we all stopped in front of the rose garden earlier today, he displayed an incredible and timely awareness by just adding a few rose petals from that garden.
This combination of sweet and sour was also exquisite.
If it was just sweet, you'd just get used to it and bored halfway through.

But if you reached the sour sauce at that point, you'd get a really vivid taste.  And then, once you returned to the sweet sauce, all of the sourness in your mouth would be replaced with an enjoyable sweetness.
I'm sure everyone else felt the same way.

Every time Gohda-san passed by one of the seats, someone praised the taste and his creation.

"How is it, Madam?"
"Splendid, as always.  It is worthy of entertaining our guests."

"I am most grateful for your words.  ......Madam, did you know?  I have heard that rose hip has the ability to cure headaches.  I thought that Madam especially would appreciate it, so I had it specially prepared."
"Is that so?  Thank you."

"See, didn't I tell you, Natsuhi nee-san?  Rose hip works on headaches."
"So it seems.  ...At least it would be nice if that were the case."
"Haa-!  Gohda-san, I love ya!  Hey, later, why don'tcha tell me how they're treating ya! If ya got any problems with it, just lift a finger and I'll give ya whatever salary ya want!  If yer talent is monopolized by this small island, 's like sacrilege to humanity's cookin' culture!  Wouldn't ya be willin' to display yer talent to all of the guests at my company?"

"Hahaha, Hideyoshi-san.  Are you trying to recruit our Gohda?  how troubling.  We better start treating Gohda better or he'll get snatched away."
"*giggle* Yes, you really should.  If you don't, he'll be lured away and you'll be stuck with three meals a day of Kumasawa-style mackerel cooking, won't you?"
"Hoh-hoh-ho, that's harsh.  It seems someone's holding a grudge against me."
"""Wahahahahaha!!!"""
Everyone let out a huge laugh.

According to Jessica, Kumasawa-san's mackerel was often the material of a running gag, and our parents had long since gotten used to it.
Kumasawa-san often claimed that mackerel had a precious nutritional value that could do things such as prevent aging and make people smarter.

...It seemed that while it couldn't stop the outward signs of aging, it helped prevent aging on the inside.
Since she was still healthy enough to tell these kinds of jokes at her age, that benefit must be the real thing.
"Hoh-hoh-ho...  In that case, if you'll excuse me...  Prepare yourself for tonight's dinner!  I'll be cooking plenty of mackerel dishes for you to eat, so look forward to it!"

"Wahahaha, we sure will.  I want to get all dressed up for tonight's mackerel!"
"That sounds wonderful.  I wonder if any delicious Japanese sake will be included."
"Really, is that so?  How about some of our famous Rokkenjima mackerel liquor..."

"""Wahahahahahaha!!!"""

Kumasawa-san, together with Shannon-chan, bowed and pushed the serving cart away.

Amusingly, Gohda-san, who looked just as though his stock had been stolen from him, explained very seriously that tonight's dinner would actually be calf steak.
"......Umm............Kumasawa-san, ...Thank you for doing that back there..."
As she pushed the serving cart, Shannon bowed her head very deeply.

"Hoh-hoh-ho, I haven't done a~nything that requires thanks."
Kumasawa may have played dumb, but she had obviously understood and saved Shannon in the nick of time.

Back when Battler had asked for the details of the dessert, Shannon had unfortunately hesitated.

There may have been several ways to dodge the question, but all of them would have been tricky.

Shannon, who hesitated when hard pressed for a response, was always suffering because of this small weakness.

If only Shannon, like Gohda, had a little of the craftiness needed to skillfully shake off a mistake, her days would be a little more comfortable.

As far being able to flawlessly handle her work, this weakness was especially unfortunate.

Naturally, those whose knew of Shannon's meek nature and her inability to gloss over a mistake and deceive people would understand this.

Therefore, Kumasawa came to her aid without hesitation.

"I just heard from Genji-san that there was a change in the afternoon shifts.  I believe Shannon-san was given a break until this evening.  Hoh-hoh-ho, I'm jealous."
"Huh, ...ah, I'm sorry.  I haven't checked the list of shifts yet."

"Ah, yes.  I was thinking I might start cooking some mackerel in the oven.  If you don't mind, I would be happy if you would help out a bit before your break."
"Ah, yes...!  I would be delighted to help."

To Shannon, Kumasawa was like a mother among the servants.
The dining hall needed to be cleaned up, so we were chased out.
Instead, tea was being served in the parlor.

It seems that they had prepared the black tea that Rosa oba-san had bought for Natsuhi oba-san.
Maria insisted that she also wanted to drink the black tea, but was rejected by the old bastard, who told the children to go play outside.

"Battler-kun, why don't we all go for a walk outside?"
"'s alright if ya just go to look at the roses.  But keep a clos' eye on the weather.  The sky's still clear, but the weather report kept sayin' 'Rain! Rain!'"

"Uu-!  Maria wants the beach, wants the beach!!"
"Aw, isn't that great?  Playing on a sandy beach isn't something that you get to do often, is it?"
"Really?  Alright, let's all go to the sandy beach then!"

"Uu-!  Let's go, let's go!"
"Maria, be careful not to get your clothes wet.  Your shoes, too."
"Uu-!  Won't get wet!"

"*giggle*, that obedience is so cu~te.  Battler-kun, make sure you keep an eye out for Maria-chan, okay?"
"Great, leave it to me!"

"Haaah, isn't your obedience to Kyrie's request just as cute?  ...Why don't you also listen to me obediently for a change?"
"Heh!  Hell no!  Let's go everyone, c'mon!"

The children flew out of the parlor.
They were replaced by Genji, who pushed a serving cart in and prepared the black tea.
The parlor was filled with a sublime aroma which entertained everyone while they waited to appease their thirst...

"Hahahahah, ha...  Rudolf's family sure seems close, doesn't it.  That's nice."
"Quit it.  Aniki's family beats ours."

"That's true~.  Jessica-chan really has been raised to be cute. hasn't she?  This is also the fruit of your training, isn't it, Natsuhi nee-san?"
".........Thank you."
Natsuhi answered coldly.

With that, the conversation halted, and the parlor became silent.

Possibly because he couldn't stand it anymore, Hideyoshi broke the silence with an exaggerated gesture.

"Still, they sure do grow fast.  ...I've always thought of 'em as children, but they've been gettin' huge right before my eyes and, before I knew it, they've joined the group of adults.  Battler-kun, fer example, is beyond recognition!"
"His body has gotten much bigger, but he is still a child.  Well, my husband is also still a child."

"I wonder where the border between child and adult is.  I still don't feel as though I've grown up."
"Hmph, isn't that pitiful.  That's not something the mother of a child should say."

"That's right.  We're not children anymore.  We are all adults.  So I want to stop this sentimental talk and move on to a more intellectual discussion."

When Eva smiled with sharp sarcasm, everything seemed to get more tense.
...It felt like the smell of the tea that had been prepared so carefully just flew out the window.

"We have all intended to have an intellectual discussion for some time now, haven't we?  ......It seems that your sarcasm is poorly timed.  Just as it used to be."

"...'Just as it used to be,' is it?  My, my.  I wish I could wrap those words up and send them to this room a few decades ago.  Right, Rosa?"

"................"
Rosa smiled with an uncertain face.
Whether she agreed or disagreed, she knew that she would earn the displeasure of her brother or her sister.

It was a bit of worldly wisdom she had needed to learn as the youngest sibling.
"Quit it, Aneki.  We should enter into the main topic while the brats aren't around, right?  Let us make that our intellectual discussion."

As Rudolf glanced over the faces of all present, some let out a slight sigh and some let a small look of resignation cross their face.

......This was the unavoidable true agenda.

"Last year, his life expectancy was estimated at about three months.  Which means that you could say that it's already minus nine months now, couldn't you?  I guess this means that it could come at any time now."
"The family head is still in good health.  Raising such an inappropriate topic while the sun is still bright...I can't help but doubt your true intentions, Rudolf-san."

"Still, Natsuhi-san.  If we don't discuss this until somethin' happens, it'll be too late.  He's still healthy now, so we must figure out something while we still have some time left over.  It's the same as financial etiquette."
"It seems as though everyone is concerned about Father.  ...Doctor Nanjo.  Could we hear the details from you?  It seems as though they are also hoping for that."

"......................*cough*."

Nanjo, standing by the window and staring out at the rose garden, let out a single cough when he realized that he was being called.

"...Doctor Nanjo.  ...How is Father's condition?"
"Well, first off...  Because my estimate last year that he had only three months to live has not borne out, allow me to start with that revision."
"No need to explain.  You're saying that measuring remaining life is only a prediction, not a promise, right?"
"...That is correct.  Because of that, while I will accept everyone's repeated questions, I can by no means confirm when he will pass away.  A human's life is supported by their body and their mind.  ...If the body is weak, the situation becomes more dangerous, but if the mind is strong enough to compensate for that weakness, the lull in one's condition can be preserved."

"So you're saying that even if his body is weak, his mind is still firm and spirited."
".........Kyrie, sorry, but please stay quiet for a while."
"......Sorry."

"That is correct.  Kinzo-san's body is being overwhelmed by the demon of ill health.  Furthermore, to continue having a taste for that kind of strong liquor is very, very..."
"So drinking is reason why he's teetering on the edge.  Is his long life also the liquor's fault?  Sounds like Father, the heavy drinker."
"Well then, Doctor, I know you can't give anything more than a prediction.........but what do you think about Father's chances of living until this day next year...?"

"That's quite a rude question to ask about the head."
Natsuhi jumped on Eva, unable to hide her astonished expression.

In response, Eva returned a daring glance, but Hideyoshi, realizing what was going on, tried to smooth things over with a bitter smile.

"Ah, Natsuhi-san, forgive her!  Eva, couldn't ya also choose yer words a little more carefully?"
"I'm sorry.  I was just so concerned over Father's condition.  *giggle*."

"Is that so?  I hadn't realized."
"Doctor Nanjo, please tell us.  For the sake of the beautiful family love of a daughter worried about her father's lifespan."
Krauss laughed sarcastically, and Eva, smiling sweetly, returned an identical chuckle.
"...You ask whether he will still be healthy next year, ......but as a doctor, it is very hard to say.  Because while I do think this lull in his condition will continue for a while, if he suffers some kind of fit, there may be nothing we can do.  ......Anyways, Rokkenjima is a solitary island.  It is not as though an ambulance can quickly jump in to save him.  Normally, I would want to have him hospitalized in a large hospital on the mainland, but..."

"Father stated that he does not want his noble research interrupted.  ......It seems he holds a grudge over the way we tried to force him out last year.  Apparently, he strongly suspects that he'll be shut away in some hospital if he goes outside.  And that's how things are now."

"Has Doctor Nanjo been examining him?"
"Father trusts Doctor Nanjo. ...It seems he can be examined when in a good mood..."

"I can examine his condition, but if I try to recommend medicine or hospitalization, he refuses to listen.  ......I've really only been able to look."
"It's true that there are people that hate doctors...  Still, what a hassle!"
Nanjo sighed deeply.
The purpose of an examination was to determine what medical treatment was appropriate.

Receiving an examination and then not following the advice given made the whole thing pointless...

"Then, in summary, his expected life is still three months.  There's no way to guess how long he will continue to live while still on the verge of death."
"......Rudolf-san.  Couldn't you be more discreet with your words?"
"Ah, sorry.  I've always talked this way.  Give me a break."

"I understand Doctor Nanjo's opinion.  ...What do you think, Krauss nii-san?"
"......Hmph.  To be perfectly honest, I have to disagree with Doctor Nanjo.  I find it truly difficult think of Father as a person so sick that he has only three months to live.  His yell is as healthy as ever, and I still get the chills at the thought of his fists raining down on me.  ......Pushing the care of your father solely on the shoulders of the eldest sibling is far from fair."

"Hahhaha.  In the next world, get born after me..........Alright, let's return to our discussion.  In that case, according to the impartial and neutral doctor's opinion, it wouldn't be odd for him to go any time.  Sorry, Aniki, but I'd rather trust the opinion of a specialist.  With that, I believe the discussion of Father's fortune is no longer a premature topic."

"Father's personal funds probably reach as far as several ten billion yen, right?  But, it's not as though all of that is neatly gathered as ready cash.  It's not as simple as neatly cutting a birthday cake with a knife."

"...Aneki's metaphor is interesting, isn't it?  That's right, sometimes strawberries or chocolates are placed on top of the cake, making it hard to cleanly divide it into equal parts.  Taking that into consideration, I think it's important to first discuss how best to stick the knife in, don't you...?"
"I truly don't understand everyone.  Even while the head is still alive, you're discussing the matter in loud voices as though he were already dead."

"Come now, don't you see how important this is?  After all, when the time comes, the inheritance of his fortune must be carried out immediately, right?  Moreover, the glorious Ushiromiya house's wealth is vast. Don't you understand that a careful discussion is necessary beforehand?  Because there's a huge difference between this family's resources and your family's wealth."

"......How rude.  The family I was born to has nothing to do with this."
As Natsuhi resentfully responded in a low voice, the already dark atmosphere grew even more hostile...

"Give it a rest, Eva...  Natsuhi-san, forgive us!  Pardon her rudeness."

Hideyoshi, tried to smooth things over by glancing at both with a forced smile, but it only resulted in making the hostility between Eva and Natsuhi even more intense...
"............Staying any longer would make me a hindrance.  Please excuse me."
Nanjo rose from his seat and exited the parlor.

...To an outsider it may have seemed like a normal act of courtesy, but his back was watched by several glances envious of his ability to escape.
After the doctor had exited and his footsteps had disappeared into the distance, Krauss recrossed his legs.
"In other words, what you all have to say is something like this.  ...Father's remaining life is short.  You want to quickly enter into a practical conference concerning the distribution of the inheritance.  ......Why are you so eager, I wonder?  Certainly, as you say, estimating and distributing the Ushiromiya family's wealth is no simple task.  In that case, shouldn't we carefully and deliberately calculate?  It seems to me that you are all impatient to split up the cake tonight.  That's true, isn't it Rosa?  Is something making you impatient?"

"............We are not impatient.  ...However, a decision between the siblings is essential.  It doesn't matter when, but if the day when Father's condition worsens is approaching, discussing the matter beforehand isn't what I would call impatience..."

Rosa shot a glance at Eva and Rudolf.
...As the youngest daughter in the family, being cross-examined by the eldest was harsh.

"......Oh?  Is that your true opinion?  I didn't expect that the most honest and pure-hearted of the siblings would say something like that.  I wonder if those two told you to say that...?"
"........................"
"Quit it, Aniki.  Rosa is also our sibling.  She has a fair right to Father's inheritance.  It's obvious she would be interested, right?  ...After all, Father will definitely die, and that's not something that'll happen in the distant future.  ......On the contrary, Aniki, you are far too relaxed.  It seems almost as though you would like nothing better than to turn the discussion away from the distribution of the inheritance."

".........What do you mean by that?  Are you trying to accuse my husband of something?"
"C, calm down Natsuhi-san.  Listen to what we have to say..."
"Nii-san, I hear these are very good times nowadays.  That's right, on the one hand, since last year the rise of the yen has led to an unprecedented boom in prosperity.  It seems that it's no longer a dream that the dollar will reach 100 yen.  Also, the ruling party says that it will establish health resort maintenance law by next year.  At this moment, resort development companies across Japan are running about trying to gather as much capital as they can."
"You sure are knowledgeable.  Soon, Japan will see an unprecedented boom.  Just like when Father revived the Ushiromiya family.  Another case like the Korean war demands.  ...The people of Japan have gotten into in a frenzy trying to realize vast economic growth and become the most prosperous people in the world, glorifying the spring of our society.  Private spending has increased, and institutions that can profit from that can make easy money in this era.  The people's needs are not three kinds of electrical appliances.  Places to ski, to golf, public pools.  Resort hotels and theme parks!
Have you gone to Delsney Land, which opened just a few years ago?  Isn't that an excellent theme park!  In that place, even an adult can be a kid and have fun with his family.  The old era where only selflessly devoting yourself while failing to consider your family was considered a virtue is ending.  Now, as the most prosperous people in the world, we can finally accept that."

"Krauss-san, your readin' ain't bad.  ...When I heard that several years earlier, I thought it was ridiculous.  ...However, when I heard about the G5 nations' Plaza Accord, that changed.  The yen became increasingly strong, and the price of land will soon skyrocket, I believe.  The day that Japan becomes the economic center of the world isn't far off.  ......You have a very forward looking view.  At least there can be no debate about that."

"I feel the same as Hideyoshi-san.  Aniki, you can read into the next decade of history.  That keen sense surely came from Father.  It's incredible.......However, unlike Father, there have been cases where the timing of your predictions have been mistaken, haven't there?"

"Nii-san, believing that Japan will definitely face an economic boom, you have been planning resorts everywhere.  And almost all of them continue to fail.  ...While I'm sure that the era you predicted is arriving, it seems that you misread the timing of that boom.

...You were too early.  And then you hurriedly tried to sell everything off, and as a result opened the wound even further.  ...If your nose was really so reliable and you predicted the coming of a boom, then there should be no reason for you to sell off your property.  Is this proof that you don't trust your own ability?"
"......How rude!  Are you trying to insult my husband?"
Natsuhi's forehead creased as she rose from the sofa.

Eva, paying this no heed, stared at Krauss with a confident smile.
...Krauss, who also maintained his confident appearance, told Natsuhi to sit down.

"Please stop, Natsuhi.  My little sister has always talked that way.  ...Calm yourself a little.  Your headache will get worse."
"Proof that you have no talent is also right here.  ............After all, Nii-san, weren't you all excited about turning this island into a resort?  Building a wonderful resort hotel, beautifully maintaining the garden.  I'm just an amateur and don't pretend to understand, but you must have used a significant amount of money, right?"

"Then, what are you trying to say!  My husband's business has nothing to do with you!"

"Actually, that's not true, Natsuhi-san.  Rokkenjima is not Aniki's.  It is Father's.  Of course, the hotel that was constructed is Aniki's, right?  If you like, you can charge us lodging fees tonight.  Right, Rosa?"
"............Well, hmm.  If what I have on hand will suffice."
"If I can make it into a resort, this island's financial worth will rise.  It is true that expenses have piled up, but we can hope to have a large harvest in the future.  When that happens, it should prove to be beneficial to all of you as well."

"I understand that.  If the value of this island rises, that will increase our shares when we distribute the inheritance.  Of course, I won't ask you to divide the island and the mansion into four equal parts.  But that's only if the matter can be settled by calculating its financial worth."
"If you understand that much, what about my business makes you so dissatisfied?"

"We aren't dissatisfied, we're uneasy.  In the first place, Aniki, when do you plan to open that hotel?  Left this way, you won't get anything out of it except our grubby hand prints, right?"
"That's right.  It's an important tool for your business, isn't it?  Surely you can't keep it locked up until the moment you open it for business, right?  Buildings go bad if you don't use them and air them out every once in a while.  Even so, it's a bit extravagant for a guesthouse that we only use once a year.  Right, Rosa?"

"..................That's right.  If it is that wonderful, I'm sure that it will become quite popular once you open it."

"Oh............The hotel that you mentioned earlier is actually the guesthouse, isn't it..."
"It's splendid.  Just as Rosa said, if you were to open it, I'm sure it would become popular."

The lodging they had been guided to had not been constructed with the intent of building a guesthouse.

...It was originally constructed as a resort hotel.
However, even though it was constructed two years before, there was absolutely no prospect of it opening.

"Nii-san, it's just like all of your enterprises.  Your attention and planning are both fabulous.  Then, it always becomes unable to maintain itself partway, and ends without being able to collect any profit."

"It was brilliant of Aniki to spot that this island, when used only as a place to live, was a waste.  I think that turning it into a resort which could use things like marine sports, fishing, or honeymoons to attract customers was a pretty good plan.  If I were the oldest son, I'm sure I would be puzzling over what kind of profit I could get out of this island."

"But, two full years have passed since you finished building, right?  After two years, you still haven't had the opportunity to open it?  Where is the managing company you entrusted it to?"
"......Impertinence!  That is not my husband's fault!  There has just been some trouble with the company that my husband contracted with.  No matter how you look at it, we are victims here!"
"And yet...  This company that Krauss-san hired..., I haven't heard many good rumors about it."

"Just spit it out.  ...Did you think that rumors about nonpayment, embezzlement, and projects that disintegrated mid-way wouldn't reach my ears?  I've been collecting evidence."
"I don't know what kind of evidence you found, but it's all baseless!  As new members in the sightseeing business, it is necessary to lay the groundwork with various people.  It is also important to discuss how trustworthy the other party is.  This is nothing more than taking some time to meet that end!"

"......I'll accept that, in my rashness, the hotel was completed too early.  However, we are not paying maintenance costs.  It's a slow and vital strategic arrangement."
"Liar.  I'll bet you want to sell it but can't.  There's no reason for anyone to buy such an extravagant hotel on an isolated island without any established sightseeing routes.  What happened to the financing that you collected for this project?"

"Even if you aren't incurring maintenance costs, the borrowed money that you can't return is steadily swelling.  ...Sorry, Krauss nii-san.  I investigated the development plan for this island a little.  ...Honestly, I have also heard nothing good."
"Hideyoshi-san.  I'm sure that only looking at the current financial condition could lead you to that impression.  However, that is a prior investment.  I have no choice but to admit that my prediction was mistaken, and that up until now, several liabilities have been created.
However, the times have finally caught up with me.  I will soon regain everything that I have lost up to this point.  No, actually, all of the investments I have made until now will finally return to my possession.  That's right, just like throwing away a small fry which then becomes a salmon, they will come back even bigger than before."

"I'll accept that.  Starting soon, the resort business will probably see an unprecedented boom...  Whether it'll be enough to bury all of your liabilities is...

.........However, Krauss nii-san.  After all your miserable and repeated failures in the past, who in the world would supply you with funds?  It would have to be a massive amount of funds.  Enough funds to cover your massive debt, right?"

"......What are you trying to say, Hideyoshi-san?"

"Ahh, Natsuhi-san, please don't get angry!  We also investigated that.  We investigated to see if anyone loaned Krauss nii-san, who has continued to lose so much, a large enough investment to support him recently."
"...And the result, there is none.  There is no backer.  Turning things around during a time of weakness is the iron rule of the money roulette.  Aniki's was a well known time of weakness in this neighborhood.  Surely this era seems set to welcome an economic boom, but when we asked who, with respect to Aniki's failures, would find him worthy of funding, there was no one."

"Then what...?  Where did you raise that money from?  ...That's the question, now."

".........Ho.  Isn't this an interesting story.  And?"
"D, dear!  How long do you plan to ignore these abusive remarks!!"
"Sit down, Natsuhi-san.  Let me say it directly.  Aniki has been diverting Father's private funds for his own business.  There is almost no doubt.  If we made some mistake, please, feel free to explain it for us."

"Rudolf, this isn't diverting funds.  This is embezzlement, isn't it?  This is a huge crime that can be criminally prosecuted."
"Th-, this is rudeness in the extreme!!  How can you even face the successor to the Ushiromiya head house and level these abusive accusations!!"

"They aren't abusive, they're right on the mark, aren't they?  I'm sure he'd like to make his business succeed so that he can recover his losses, but his debt is actually growing!  He's just trying to cover up the failure of one gamble by making an even bigger one.  If he had funds close at hand, it's only logical that he'd try to use them!  Let me say it clearly.  Nii-san, what you are doing is embezzlement.  You're betraying our father.  You know that we'll the the courts settle it after this is all over, right?  Do you think that kind of person has any right to assume the position as successor to the Ushiromiya head house?"
"Y-, you can't say that...s, saying that he's betraying the head isn't something that can be easily overlooked!!  You have no right to straddle the threshold of the glorious Ushiromiya family!!  Leave this place immediately!!  All right?! Get out!!"
Natsuhi, who had already reached the limits of her anger, shouted at Eva in a rage.
She then pointed alternately at Eva and the hallway, indicating that she should leave.
Eva took out a folding fan and fanned herself with it, glaring maliciously at Natsuhi as though silently daring her to repeat what she'd said.

However, her mouth was still smiling, curved in the shape of a crescent moon.
...In that unpleasant silence, Rosa gulped.
"Hey, ...Natsuhi nee-san?  Who do you think you are speaking to?"
"I'm speaking to the extremely impolite sister of my husband!!  As the person in charge of the main family's kitchen, I cannot overlook any more of this!!"

"In charge of the kitchen?  Huhuhu, hahahaha, ahhahahahaha!!  Shut up, you maid servant!"
Eva folded the fan with a snap and rose powerfully.

Compared to the elegance and playful behavior she had shown until just now, she was unimaginably aggressive.
"How foolish.  Bow down!!  Before Eva of the Ushiromiya family!
I'm telling you to bow down before the third ranked in the Ushiromiya family hierarchy, who is allowed to stand at the left shoulder of the head!!  Know your place!!  And then look in a mirror at your shabby figure!!  Where on your clothes is the wing?  Where are you permitted to wear the One-winged Eagle?  Aren't you nothing more than a borrowed womb to house the next successor to the Ushiromiya family!!  Understand your place, you lowly maidservant!!"
While Eva's face grimaced unattractively, her words cut into Natsuhi's heart, as though pierced by claws, and painfully twisted in.
"........................!!!"
There were a hundred ways Natsuhi wanted to respond.
However, her anger and sorrow crushed her throat, and not one of them managed to make it to her mouth.

The anger which had lost any place to go became a single hot tear which slowly dripped down...
"Whaaat?  If you have something to say, please, say it now.  Come on."
Eva faced her with a provocative gaze.

......However, Natsuhi's fist was shaking; she trembled all over, unable to do anything...
Krauss quietly broke that powder-keg tension.

"Natsuhi.  Leave your seat.  You should cool off your head."
"Wha, ...!!"
Natsuhi, resenting the fact that her husband had not come to her aid, shifted the focus of her attack.

"D, dear, don't you understand what they're saying about you?!  These people are baselessly calling you a traitor to Father!!  They are making light of the fact that we protect the glory of the Ushiromiya family and in order to receive that glory from Father, we have been purely spending our days expending every effort.  They trample all of that underfoot; what a painful rambling!!!  You are you.  Why don't you talk back!  Since you won't talk back, I have, but for a while you have been relying completely on me!!  Are you telling me to go cool my head and come back?!  It's a-lways me!!
Even though I have always seriously considered this family's affairs, you've...!!  WhaaaAAaaAaaaa, whaaaaaAAAAAAA!!!"
Natsuhi was already unable to hide her tears.
She flew from the room in that state.

After that, all that remained was an somewhat embarrassed mood about the parlor...
When the sound of footsteps grew distant and silence returned, Krauss shrugged his shoulders slightly.

"...I apologize for my wife.  She has always been bad at controlling her emotions.  It's hard even for me right now."
"If she's been managed like that, it must worry Nii-san to no end, huh?  *giggle*giggle*...!"
"Whaaa.  WHAAAAaaaaaAAAAaAAAA!!!"
"...Ma, ......Madam......"
"It's nothing...!  Leave me be...!!"
Natsuhi flew into her room and bent over the bed, lamenting...
Those heartwrenching sobs reached Kumasawa in the hallway...
......Poor Madam Natsuhi...
There is a deep enmity between her and and Eva-sama.

Explaining their relationship would be very tiresome for a woman such as myself...
The Ushiromiya family held blood in high regard, but if someone married outside the family, they were normally removed from the family hierarchy.

...Thus, under normal circumstances, Eva-sama should have been removed when she married Hideyoshi-sama.
However......this was not anyone's fault.
Madam definitely bore no guilt.
There's no way to say it other than calling it a whim of god.

...Krauss-sama and Natsuhi-sama were not blessed with children for some time.
Anyways, this was the male dominant Ushiromiya family.
A wife was just a tool to create a heir.

......If that wife could not fulfill her only duty, she would not be treated as a human.

It is painful to remember how much the Master tortured Madam during that time...
During that time, Eva-sama and Hideyoshi-sama's wedding was discussed.

Eva-sama was sly.
...Taking advantage of Madam's inability to become pregnant, she gained the favor of the Master.
She inspired him to allow her to marry and give birth to a successor herself, making sure to avoid transferring her name out of the Ushiromiya register.
There was a vast difference in the Ushiromiya hierarchy between Madam, who married into the Ushiromiya family and was treated like an outsider, and Eva-sama, who was related to the family by blood and whose husband took on the Ushiromiya name.

And beyond that, Eva-sama was the first to give birth to a boy...

As for how much weaker Madam's position was compared to Eva-sama, I believe you could see for yourself...
...I'm sure Madam is tormented by the thought that if only she had gotten pregnant earlier, the Master wouldn't have accepted Eva-sama's request to keep her last name after marriage, and Eva-sama wouldn't have been permitted to act as arrogantly as she had today...
However..., that was not Madam's fault......

All of the blame lies with god's whims and the stork that delivered Jessica late......
Even so, Madam won't allow herself to see things this way...

......She probably can't help but cry bitter tears at her inability to carry out the duties expected of a wife...
Ahh, how sad...
I cannot do anything except watch over her from the shadows......

Epitaph on the Portrait

Sat, Oct 4 1986 1:30PM
We crossed the hall again on our way to the entrance.
As we did, we once again saw that witch's portrait.
However, the word 'saw' is probably not the best word to describe that experience.
......It was more like our eyes were drawn to it.

That woman's eyes, with their sage-like glamor, definitely had the power to make those who viewed it stand rooted to the spot.

"............So this is the witch, Beatrice.  ......Is it true?"
"Uu-?  Battler doesn't believe..?"

Back when he had asked what this picture was, the first person to tell him it was Beatrice had been Maria.

Therefore, when Battler showed signs of doubt, Maria must have felt that Battler didn't have faith in her.

...Of course, that's not what Battler meant.

Maria ran up to the portrait and began banging on a plate hanging below it.
Maybe the title of the portrait was written there.

Maria, trying to prove that she wasn't lying, obstinately continued to hit the plate.

"Ah-, sorry 'bout that, it's not like I doubt anything you said, Maria."
"Uu-!  Battler believe it!  Uu-!"

When he patted Maria's head and apologized, she seemed to accept it, sticking out her chest and proudly uu-uu-ing.
".........What's this?  'My most beloved witch Beatrice'.  .........My beloved hometown, ......what's with this weird, long epitaph?"
The plate did have the title of the portrait written on it, but it was much too big to contain only that.

Beneath the title, what looked like an long epitaph was also written.

If you just skimmed over it, several unnerving words would jump out at you.

"Incredible, isn't it?  Grandfather had that written.  ...Pretty deep, huh?"
"Uu-!  Maria knows!  The place where the gold is hidden!"

"......Wait, is it that story about the Ushiromiya family's hidden gold?  There's another thing that I remember from long ago......Wait, Aniki, ...is that for real?"
"Grandfather had this written, but he never said anything about this picture or the epitaph.  ......Even so, amongst the family, it is often whispered that it points to the location of Grandfather's hidden gold, and that he will relinquish the inheritance and the gold to the person who solves the riddle."

"Uu-!  Maria heard that too, Maria heard that too!  Lots and lots of gold!"
"...Well, something like that.  Something like 10 tons of gold bars.  I think it's a fake, though."
"Still, if you read this all the way through, it almost seems real."
......I think I already explained Grandfather's upbringing, but let me also mention the Ushiromiya family's 'Legend of the Gold'.
Grandfather succeeded the Ushiromiya family after it had been destroyed in the Great Kanto earthquake and, by successfully riding the stormy seas after the war, managed to accumulate great wealth.

...That much of the story everyone knows.
However, from here on, the strange part of the story begins.
...Part of it is closely tied to Grandfather's black magic hobby, so its credibility is extremely low, but......
......Well, wait until the end before you doubt or make fun of it.
After the war, Grandfather correctly predicted what the future would hold and won in a huge gamble, accumulating a vast store of wealth, ......but there is a mysterious legend about how he gained the funds in the first place.
Grandfather came from the branch family and had no connections in the business world or the financial world.  Even though he later built connections with the occupying forces, in the beginning he was supposedly a nameless person who had not yet gained anyone's trust.
Money can only be gathered based on trust.
There's no way anyone would lend money to an untrustworthy person.

......How did Grandfather, whose trustworthiness was zero, manage to obtain the large amount of funds in the first place?

It is said that, when asked that question, Grandfather answered like this...
'On a certain day, I encountered the Golden Witch Beatrice.'
Grandfather then went on and on about how he continued to research alchemy and techniques for summoning demons in order to become a great magician.

...And the entity summoned as the result of the demon-calling ceremony was the Golden Witch Beatrice.
He then said that he made a contract where, in exchange for his own soul, he would receive fortune and honor.
The witch then granted Grandfather 10 tons of gold.
Grandfather used this gold as collateral to prepare a vast quantity of funds, and then used that to multiply his wealth by several times and revive the Ushiromiya family...
It seems that this story was so old that our parents had already been told it when they were still children.

Therefore, while our parents were still young, they explored this island in various ways, believing that the gold that Grandfather had received from the witch might be hidden somewhere.
However, since there was the danger of them getting lost in the abandoned forest, Grandmother began to spread the story that the witch lived in the forest and that approaching it was forbidden.
"...I remember that old story.  When we were little, our parents told us about it and we went all over the island searching for treasure.  ......Didn't we get lost in the forest and start crying until some of the servants found us?  Our parents were so mad at us.  ...How nostalgic."

"We sure were idiots, weren't we?  After all, Grandfather used that to build up the funds that he finally bought this island with, right?  That means he must have had the gold before coming to this island.  There's no reason the gold itself should be on the island."

"That's not necessarily so.  Maybe the gold was hidden on the island from the beginning and he bought the whole island just to make sure it was all his.  There was a whole 10 tons of it, right?  It seems more realistic that he would try to secure the place where it was hidden rather than try to move it all."
"This epitaph was written two years ago.  And since Grandfather wrote it himself.........I see, this does make the Legend of the Gold more believable.  The funds that revived the Ushiromiya family which he calls the witch's gold weighed 10 tons.  ......And that's sleeping somewhere, ready to be turned over to whoever can solve Grandfather's riddle.  Maybe that's why he did it?  ......Haa, I guess that sounds like Grandfather's style or something......  Ihihi!  If it's true, that's pretty incredible."
The epitaph carved into the plate was very mysterious, with something like a poem or a song written on it.

That paragraph was incredibly disturbing, filled with the signs of Grandfather's black magic hobby, and its contents were in bad taste, but it could definitely be viewed as a puzzle which, if solved, could lead to the place where the gold was hidden.
"Whether that's what he intended or not, I can't even imagine what his true motive was.  ......All I can say is, this shady epitaph was displayed here so that everyone in the family could see it.  By doing so, he could hint at the existence of the gold while still avoiding telling where the hiding place is.  ......That caused our parents' imagination to run wild and call it equal to Grandfather's level of genius..."

"...Sounds just like my dad, so greedy that he takes something like this so seriously.  Even though he laughs at Grandfather's black magic hobby, he'll still believe this story about the hidden gold.  It just sounds so good."

"......Well, it's certainly not a realistic story.  At that time, when Grandfather was still nameless without any connections, there was no way anyone would just lend him a massive quantity of gold bars for free.  ......Because of that, it's not unthinkable that Grandfather would call his sponsor a witch."

"Yeah, but, it's 10 tons.  10 tons!  If you traded that for money, how much would that come to?  Anyway, it'd have to be a ridiculous amount, right?!"

"......It would be a ridiculous amount.  They say that the total amount of gold mined by humankind since the dawn of history is at most 100,000 tons.  That 1/10,000 of all of the gold humankind has obtained throughout history should belong to just one person is just insane.  ...And that all of that was collected in one place and that there was a witch who could just 'poof' lend it to Grandfather.  That would be no ordinary person."

"As for me, I think that that number '10 tons' sounds totally fake.  In the first place, has anyone other than Grandfather ever even seen it?  And even if some generous witch lent him some actual gold, couldn't that 10 be right but actually be mistaken from 10 kilograms?  Even 10 kilograms would be a pretty incredible sum, right?"
"Uu-.  ...10 kilograms of gold is how much?"

Maria, who wasn't following the story and felt like she was being spoken to in riddles, finally found a place where she could ask us a question.

A question which I also wanted to know right then.

Whether I hear 10 kilograms or 10 tons, I know that it's an incredible amount, but I couldn't guess exactly how incredible each one is.

George-aniki folded his arms and tried to remember the market price of gold.
"......Well.  Gold is also affected by speculation.  Its price can also change depending on its purity and the trustworthiness of the foundry.  You would also need to pay a commission to turn it into money.  Still, it is definitely a precious metal, and some people estimate that if gold mining continues at its current rate, within half of a century, humankind will have mined all of it.............Just guessing haphazardly, ......For one kilogram, I think maybe a price of 2 million yen."

"WHAAaa.........I know I just randomly said that 10 kilograms would be a humble amount......but even that would be worth 20 million yen, wouldn't it!?"

"Uu-?  Maria weighs 28 kilograms."
".........Which means that if we had Maria-chan's weight in gold, we could estimate its worth at over 50 million yen."
"That's just unbelievable...  How much would 10 tons be then?  10 kilograms is 20,000,000 times 1000, so......umm..........That's it!  20 billion yen?!  What the hell!"
How much is 20 billion yen actually worth?  ......We can only measure it relative to our own pocketbooks.
Anyways, let's say that wages over a lifetime are about 200 million yen.

...You grow up and work like crazy, sacrificing your life for your company, and as you approach old age are finally freed.  Everything including retirement money could be about 200 million yen.

...In other words, that is the amount of money for a human's life.  You could even call it the price of a life.
...So 100 times this sum is an unbelievable amount of money.

......If you work from age 20 to age 60, that's 40 years of work, ......so it's equal to 4000 years of work wages.

It's like you worked every day starting from the Jomon period and finally accumulated this much money.

"...Uu-.  Is 20 billion yen huge...?"

"Yeah, it's huge.  Maria, you could buy more of that shortcake you love than you could eat in a lifetime."
"......However, while that might be possible with 20 billion yen in cash, I don't think it would be very realistic to have that much in gold bars all in one place.  Just as I said, gold is extremely heavy, and it is not very convenient for purchasing assets.  With highly valued stocks and bonds or really expensive precious gems, it wouldn't be unthinkable though.  ...You often hear of people who, in the period of confusion during the war, often traded their wealth for precious gems so that they could carry it around with them.  ......But you don't usually hear stories of people exchanging their wealth for gold."

"Of course it's heavy, but internationally it's the most trusted and stable.  Doesn't that mean something?  With bonds, for example, if the country is destroyed they're just scraps of paper."

"You can also look at it that way....but even one 10 kilogram ingot is pretty heavy to carry around.  Haven't you heard?  A 50 kilogram person can't carry a 50 kilogram bag over their shoulder.  With that many gold bars, the amount of labor and risk for one person would be hard to calculate."

"So what you're saying is, while a stack of banknotes worth 20 billion yen would be annoying, 20 billion yen in gold would be such a big mountain that practically it would be kinda pointless."
"That's right.  ...Although the Legend of the Gold does have a pretty interesting ring to it, just the part about the 10 tons of gold makes it pretty much impossible..."

"If you think about it logically like that, it sounds obviously fake.  Haha, kind of brings you back down to reality."
"Anyways, that's Grandfather for you.  Spreading exaggerated rumors about financing from some kind rich person by calling it 10 tons of gold received from a witch, probably figuratively.  Even the number '10 tons' feels pretty symbolic."

"You mean like his gratitude for the money he borrowed was worth 10 tons of gold, or something?"

"Hehehe, maybe some rich man's leisured wife generously granted it to Grandfather.  And maybe then he started calling this person a witch?"
I see.  Jessica's example isn't bad.

...Someone who would generously lend a huge sum of money to Grandfather when his trustworthiness was still zero could be called a witch.
......Furthermore, Grandfather later used that money to build a vast amount of wealth.

...Someone with such a great ability to judge people might also fittingly be called a witch.
Also, since she went to the trouble of lending all that money, she might also have enthusiastically guided how it was spent.

The decision to unexpectedly get involved with the occupying forces and profit from the Korean War demands might have been inspired in Grandfather by the witch.

If you put those together, saying that he received wealth and honor from the witch might actually make sense.
"I see.  .........So, in other words, this witch granted the funds necessary to revive the Ushiromiya family and Grandfather owed her big time.  ...If that's the case, Grandfather, with his feelings of gratitude, had that huge painting drawn and displayed... I get it.  It's not that strange a story."

"What if this person looked like an old witch-like granny?  If that's true, I can definitely understand why Grandfather tried to pretty her up when he had the painting drawn.  Hahahahaha, I'll bet if we ever did meet this person, she wouldn't be nearly this pretty!"

"Hahahaha, that's possible.  The name Beatrice sounds pretty western, and if you think about how everyone in our family has western-style names, maybe even the name Beatrice is the result of Grandfather trying to rearrange some Japanese person's name to make it sound western."

"I get it, I get it.  That means that this pretty girl doesn't exist outside the picture.  Guess that means I won't be able to rub those elegant breasts~, ihihi!  In the first place, isn't a witch a little weird?  Like you could find something like that anywhere on earth."

As I made fun of the witch, laughing, I was trying to separate myself from the kid I was six years ago who was afraid of the witch of the forest.  At that time, Maria tugged on my sleeve.

...The strength with which she did was filled with a little unhappiness.

"Hmm?  What is it, Maria?"
"Uu-! Uu-!!  Beatrice e-xi-sts!"

Maria stared up at me.
She had on her usual sour look, but I could tell she was angry because of the color of her eyes.

"Witches exist!  Witches exist!  Uu-uu-uu-!!!"
"Well sure, they do exist...if you turn the TV on and watch anime or something."
"Exi-st!!  Witches exi-st!! Uu-uu-uu-!!!"
I started getting impatient, not knowing why Maria was jumping on me like this.

Then, Jessica tapped me on the shoulder and told me in a small voice.

"Dumbass, you're smashing a kid's dream.  Maria really believes that things like witches and Beatrice exist."
"Come to think of it, Maria-chan, in social studies at your school, when you were asked to write what you wanted to be when you grew up, you wrote 'a witch', didn't you?"
Maria nodded seriously.
Tears started to run from the corners of her eyes.

.........I see.  To a girl who wants to become a witch in the future, the existence of Beatrice was proof that witches do exist in this world, and was therefore an image that she yearned after and admired.

"Exi-st!  Exi-st!  Witches exi-st!!  But Battler still doesn't believe!  Uu-uu-uu-!!!"
"It's alright.  They exist, witches.  Onii-chan believes it."
George-aniki kneeled down and held Maria's head.
...Watching this, Jessica poked my side.

...So that's what it is.

It's like, on Christmas Eve, shouting that Santa Claus couldn't exist in front of a child who believes in him.

...I'm not the kind of guy who likes to shatter kids' dreams.

"......Oh, I'm sorry.  I wasn't trying to make fun of your dreams.  I apologize.  Beatrice does exist.  Even now she's living in the forest, and comes every night to the mansion to peek in and see what everyone's doing.  ......So you shouldn't go into the forest.  At night, you mustn't stare into the dark forest.  You might be seen by the witch of the forest, Beatrice.  .........After all, Grandmother said so."

"Uu-......  Really?  Battler really believes?"
"Yep.  I believe.  Sorry for doubting it.  ...C'mon, let's make up."

I stuck out my hand and Maria grabbed it with her tiny hand, and we made up.
Maria didn't grumble any more than that, so George-aniki and Jessica were relieved.
"...Oh.  So this is where all of you were.  I was sure you had just left to go to the beach."
Shannon-chan, carrying a basket, was surprised to find us all gathered in front of the portrait.

"Ah, Shannon.  Well, this is the first time Battler has seen Beatrice's portrait.  He was just fascinated by it."
"That's right, it is fascinating.  ...Beatrice-sama is truly beautiful.  I am sure that she captivated the Master."

"Ahahahaha.  In addition to the patron theory, there's also a theory that she was Grandfather's first love.  ...Either way, although it's been several decades since he met her, even now she holds a special place in his heart.  ...Which must mean that he is still captivated by her."

"Sheesh. That must have made Grandmother pretty jealous, right?"
"I'm not really sure, but that might actually be true.  Apparently Grandmother believed that he was cheating on her with some blonde-haired person."

"......Uu-?  Good smell!  Good smell coming from Shannon!"
Maria, sniffing, approached the basket Shannon-chan was holding with interest.

After hearing that, I noticed a fragrant scent with the essence of vanilla.

"Ah, I apologize.  I was told by Kumasawa-san to bring them to everyone."

"What is it, I wonder?  ......Ooh, excellent!  Cookies."
"Uu-!  Want to eat cookies!  Want to eat cookies!  Uu-!"
"Please, eat as much as you would like.  ...But, umm..."
After all, it's not like you can just serve cookies in a place like this, in front of the portrait.  Shannon-chan sent us a glance which seemed to ask what we wanted to do about it.

...Well, normally that would be considered impolite.

"Maria, why don't we eat someplace other than here?  Let's put the cookies in a bento and have a picnic."
"Uu-!  Have a picnic, have a picnic!!  If we can eat cookies, let's go!"

"That's right, let's go get some fresh air.  We shouldn't grab food right in front of the witch."
"That's right, didn't we say that we wanted to go down to the beach in the first place?  Let's go, let's go."

"Shannon-chan.  Sorry, but could I ask you to get us a blanket to sit on and some flasks of tea."
"Right...!  Certainly."
Shannon-chan received her instructions and gracefully bowed before retracing her steps.
We headed for the beach on our own.
Everyone headed for the entrance in a group.
...Feeling as though that witch was staring down at our backs, I turned around once more.
"...Uu-.  ...Battler, you still don't believe...?"

"Nope, I believe.  ...That way is more imaginative!  The golden witch Beatrice gave Grandfather 10 tons of gold!  And that gold might be sleeping around somewhere.  And besides, didn't Grandfather write that strange epitaph as though challenging us to find it if we can?  I think that kind of romantic story is way better."

"20 billion yen worth of go-ld!  Hehe, even if we split it up between the four of us, that's still a ridiculous amount of money!"
"5 billion yen for each of us......Incredible!  With that kind of money, any business would prosper.  No wait, we could live our whole lives fabulously without working at all."
"Uu-uu-!  Not 5 billion yen, cookie, cookie!!"
"Wahahaha, Maria would take cookies over money.  Still, 5 billion yen, that's like a dream!"
"Ridiculous.  ......Is it possible that you all truly believe in Father's Legend of the Gold?"
".........The story about a witch who gave him the gold and so forth, we obviously don't believe.  However, there's no mistake about the gold."

"The fact that Father obtained gold bars from an unknown source can be confirmed in several ways.  We heard that, before the president of the Marusoo company died, Father showed him a large amount of gold somewhere.  Father used that claim to prove that that there were 10 tons worth."

"That's just the nonsense of a senile old man.  Along with Father, he was just fabricating a story.  You can't take it seriously."

"If that gold didn't exist, he wouldn't have been able to gather so much funding...!  Before the president died, he was a person with such a sincere personality that he gathered the respect from many in the business world.  He couldn't have become a partner in such a fraud...!"
"Aniki, the president of Marusoo definitely saw it.  10 tons of it, clearly with his own eyes.  Even more, Father let the president take one ingot at random and have it examined.  The results of the examination showed that the 10 kilogram ingot was 99.99 percent pure.  He said that the Ushiromiya family crest, the One-winged Eagle, was carved into it."

"Almost instantly, the Ushiromiya Legend of the Gold spread amongst the fixers of the business world.  Gold from an unknown foundry has a poor rate of conversion into money.  Thinking that it was a chance for decisive profits, they accepted it as collateral, and as a result Father was able to receive a giant loan..."
"Isn't there a limit to how ridiculous you can get?  ...How old are you people?  Are you still taking that nursery tale you heard as a kid seriously?  Where is the proof that this 10 tons worth of gold even exists?  Isn't it just the lies of Father and those who were closest to him?"

"......Of course it's just a story.  But still, Aniki.  The amount of money that Father raised required a suitable quantity of collateral.  Even if the gold was just a rumor, that he must have shown them a treasure of comparable worth is an unmistakable truth."

"It was just an illusion of money created by our penniless father.  He made it seem that non-existent gold actually existed and fooled his sponsors.  It was probably the gamble of a lifetime.  ...Fortunately, his use of those funds proved successful.  If the Korean war demands hadn't come and the Ushiromiya family had not been restored, Father would probably have been hounded after as the crook of the century."
"In that case, are you saying that the gold never existed, and that Father made it all up?"
"Of course.  Therefore, after he was sufficiently successful, the illusion of gold became inconvenient.  So Father made up that absurd story about the witch and black magic and made the whole thing seem less believable.  In other words, he revealed that the illusion of gold was fabricated.  If he says that he received the gold from a witch, no one would believe that it exists at all, right?
He possibly said it for all of your sakes.  Nevertheless, some stupid offspring wanting to divide up this non-existent gold with the rest of the inheritance have appeared.  ......Rosa, don't tell me that even you believe this kind of a fabrication...?"
"...............I can't prove whether or not Father really has the gold.  However, as one of father's four children, I just want to claim my rightful share."

"Ho...  It looks like even Rosa's started to say it.  All right, maybe this is what you all want to say: that I am trying to keep all of the gold to myself..."
"Nii-san, the fact is that you've obtained a massive amount of funding.  If we rule out the possibility that you have been embezzling Father's personal funds, then there's only one possibility left, right?"

"Aniki, maybe you have already found the 10 tons of gold bars.  It sure looks that way to us."

"Ridiculous.  Something like that never existed in the first place."
"Then explain yourself.  Embezzlement of Father's assets or Father's hidden gold.  How could you have gathered so much funding if you didn't use one of these?"

"I also have many friends in the political world and the financial world.  I have done nothing more than gain their assistance.  ......And as to that, I have no responsibility to explain it to you.  You understand, don't you?  There are some topics that can't be talked about."

"......If you insist on it, that's all right.  But Aniki, Father doesn't have long.  Nobody can ensure that he will live to see this day next year.  When Father dies, the inheritance will be passed on.  We will all set up impartial lawyers and accountants to inspect Father's financial and political status."
"If, at that time, the fact that our brother has unjustly interfered with Father's money comes to light.........you understand, right?"

"I don't have a clue what you're talking about.  You're starting to make me feel as indignant as my wife was."
"...Father's gold is definitely one of Father's assets!  I understand that it's money that you can't reveal openly, but the four siblings should have an equal right to it."
"In short, even though you are our brother, we will have your financial situation investigated to determine whether or not you are hoarding the gold."

"Isn't this a good opportunity.  Prove the existence of this backup from friends and acquaintances that you mentioned.  That way we can sportingly apologize for foolishly doubting you.  Right, Rosa?"

"......That's right.  Krauss nii-san, you are the one who's avoiding the topic.  If you were guiltless, you could just prove that you were in the right.  Yet you aren't even trying to respond."

"However, Aniki, we still have to consider your position here.  As Father's representative, you're probably bearing a larger share of the burden than we are.  It wouldn't be fair for the rest of us, who have been living terribly relaxed lives until now, were to complain without taking that into account."
".........Ho.  Until just now I've been busy being spoken ill of and being flattered.  Please get to the point."

"In short, ......randomly investigating nit-picky aspects of Father's wealth seems a fairly inefficient way to do it.  As you said, Krauss nii-san, there may also be movements of money that are difficult to explain.  Upon understanding that, we have come to consult with you.  ...A mutually beneficial consultation."

"Consultation?  Ho."
"......When the inheritance is distributed, you will be rewarded for your years of hard work taking care of Dad by an agreement that is generous in your favor."

"Don't misunderstand us, Nii-san.  It's not like we are saying that we will abandon our rights.  It's just that when we claim what we deserve, it wouldn't be bad if we allow a generous understanding from your position.  That's what we mean."

"In other words, if you'll accept our conditions, at the time of the division of the inheritance, we won't mind leaving the investigation of Father's financial status to you, Krauss nii-san."
All of the siblings from Eva downward suspected that Krauss was trying to steal their father's wealth.

In that situation, letting Krauss report on the state of their father's wealth by himself was extremely contradictory and a huge concession.
If, as they claimed, Krauss was actually embezzling money, Krauss would be able to hide that fact.
Besides that, it would also be possible for him to control the distribution of the inheritance in a manner favorable to himself.

Krauss, also realizing that this sounded to good to be true, couldn't help but feel doubt...
He had to worry about what kind of collateral they had to make this kind of a compromise...
"...Hoh.  After mistrusting me completely, you now say that you're willing to restore your confidence in me as the eldest sibling?  And what are you asking for?"
"Just what we deserve as siblings.  ......You aren't the kind of person who would steal Father's property.  However, there is no patron financing you.  ...Considering all that, there is a certain explanation that would satisfy the rest of us."

"......Nii-san, you found 10 tons of gold and used that as collateral to gather some funding.  ...Yes, just like Father did in the past, right?"
"If that's the case, there won't be any funny bits in Father's finances.  You've always been a good son, lookin' after Father.  Why would we mistrust a person like that?"
".........You're being so roundabout I can barely understand you.  Say it more clearly and practically."

"Our first condition: Aniki, you must admit that you have found Father's gold."
"...Are you asking me to admit that I possess gold that does not exist?"

"Our second condition: Regarding the gold, take each sibling's portion and pay it to us."
"How foolish.  With the non-existant 20 billion yen of gold, that would be 5 billion yen per person.  Are you telling me to pay a total of 15 billion yen?  ......Ridiculous!"

"Keep listening 'til the end!  We know that much money can't just appear.  We're not asking you to make an impossible deal!  Of course, regardin' the portions of the gold, we plan to reward you sufficiently for your hard work until now in our calculations."

"Our third condition: The portion of the gold to the one bearing the title of successor to the Ushiromiya main family will be 50%.  The remainder will be split fairly between the siblings.  Of course, this also includes you, Krauss nii-san."
"Of the 20 billion, 12.5 billion will go to Aniki, 2.5 billion will go to Eva nee-san, 2.5 billion will go to me, and 2.5 will go to Rosa."

".........That portion makes me so grateful I could cry.  So you're saying, for the sake of the gold that doesn't exist, I must pay you 7.5 billion."
"What's wrong?  Nii-san, your share is five times the size of ours.  That's such a good condition, I'd be jumping for joy.  Uhuhuhuhuhu..."
"Our fourth condition: The divided gold will be included when the inheritance is distributed at the time of Father's death.  However, as a deposit, 10% of our portions will be paid to us promptly.  The payment must be made before March of next year."
"......What do you think, Krauss nii-san?  This is an ideal chance for you to restore the trust you need to run Father's assets, isn't it?!  Of course, it might be impossible to get a whole 7.5 billion before Father dies.  However, you can't say that you couldn't manage a deposit of 750 million, right?"
"Paying 700 million in half a year might be slightly bothersome, but Aniki, who has many friends in the political and business spheres, should be able to manage it."
"Normally, I'd hope to receive the 7.5 billion right now, all at once.  But out of concern for you, I'll show my sincerity by asking for only 1/10 of that for the time being.  It's alright to let the remaining 9/10 carry over until the distribution of the inheritance.  ...Right?  With 1/10 to show sincerity, even you would notice it."
"............So my right to investigate the status of Father's assets is being sold to me for 750 million.  .........Fu, fufufu.  Isn't that great?  You all sure have grown.  I never thought you all would become capable of offering a deal to me."
"Nii-san, If you accept these, the rest of us siblings will leave the investigation of Father's assets to you.  However, the results of that invesigation will be subject to protest....It's only natural, right?  We'd be sad if you adjusted our portion of 7.5 billion downwards."

"As a general rule, we wouldn't complain.  As long as you do it neatly, it's fine.  ...As long as you don't do anything significantly obvious, we don't plan to aggravate anything.  We just want the inheritance quickly.  We don't want it to get all drawn out and led astray."
"......In the case of a complaint, who would do the second investigation?"

"............It's alright if it is you.  This will probably be the first and last opportunity for the siblings to discuss this.  ...I believe that it won't come to that."
"Fufufu, *cackle*cackle*!  Rosa really can talk sometimes."
That Krauss was completely not trusted as the oldest sibling is so obvious at this point that there's no need to explain it.

The formerly tyrannical oldest brother would always abuse his privileges and violate the other siblings' shares.

...Compared to that, the other three, who had become adults, were only now striking back at him for the first time, and only by working together...
"I'm sorry, but the conditions still continue.  Our fifth condition: This decision must take precedence over Father's will.  .........Later on, we don't want some will to appear and make this decision completely useless."

".........You are quite scrupulous.  ...Then let me ask, if the gold really were found, what would you do?"

"As long as you settle this matter with the corresponding payment, the rest of us 'really' don't care whether the gold appears or not.  ...You can think of our share as an advance payment."

"*giggle*, it's alright to dream.  You plan to turn this island into a resort, right?  During construction, you might stumble upon the gold by chance."
Eva let out a high-pitched laugh.
Krauss watched without even flinching.

"......Let me add a 7th condition before I accept.  In the situation that any sibling other than myself finds the gold, they will immediately turn it over to me."
"Yes, yes.  Of course, we'll hold onto it for you.  *giggle*!"
It was a play on words.
The others, who were forcing Krauss to pay money for some nonexistent gold, would of course not ensure Krauss's portion if they actually found the gold.

From the beginning, this deal had been nothing more than a threat directed at Krauss.
While the truth might be different, the possibility that Krauss was embezzling his father's assets was extremely high.

When at last Kinzo faced death and the inheritance would be distributed, surely some unpleasant facts would be established.

That situation would likely be a fatal wound to Krauss.
They had snatched up that weak point and, under the veil of compromise, were threatening their brother to try and wring out a huge sum of money.
......However, they had let one thing slip.

The three of them had forgotten that their oldest sibling, who they couldn't defeat unless they banded together, was very crafty and had a swiftly spinning brain.
Krauss, noticing that Eva, sure of her victory, could not hide her smile, relaxedly let out a gloating laugh as he spoke.
"Hahaha.  Isn't that a great story?  ...I also have felt a deep pain in my heart at my estrangement from the rest of you.  If by accepting these conditions, the relationship between the siblings could once again become friendly, I would be quite pleased.  I'll join in on this with pleasure.  ......Be happy, Rosa.  The deal is concluded."
".................."

Rosa's expression dimmed.
......When her brother started talking like this, the conversation would never change for the better.
...Eva was also sensitive enough to realize this.
Therefore, even though Krauss had obediently accepted the deal, she was unable to wipe away her feeling of insecurity.

"...My, how obedient.  That's not like you, Nii-san."
"That's harsh.  You think I have an ulterior motive?  Of course there isn't one.  Just the same as all of you."

'Just the same as all of you'.

It felt as though only that part was emphasized.
The color of Rudolf's face darkened.

He heard it as 'I have an idea at the same level as yours'.
That gave him a sense of urgency.  Trying to bring this near-finished discussion to a conclusion, he rushed to wrap it up.
"......Then we are good.  ...So, Aniki.  Would you mind signing here?  This is a written contract containing the discussion we have been having.  There's one for each person.  Everyone will sign for the same contents."
Rudolf took four written contracts out of his breast pocket that had the details of their deal written on them.

"The seventh condition that Krauss nii-san proposed will, of course, be added from now on.  Don't worry."
"Aniki, will you use a pen?"
Rudolf took a fountain pen out of his breast pocket and offered it to Krauss.

Krauss made as if to accept it, but then, with a small laugh, drew back his hand without taking it and spoke.
"............Actually, in order to make sure this agreement is definitely effective, I would like to propose a single amendment."
When Krauss said that one sentence...
...All of the siblings felt as though something annoying was creeping up their backs at the same time.
"...Tha-, that won't do.  We've already decided, haven't we?  Quietly sign it."

"Eva, why are you so impatient.  Of course I will sign.  I'll promise that your share of the gold will be 7.5 billion yen.  I also promise that, when Father's inheritance is distributed, I will cleanly and neatly liquidate it.  .........However, in one part, there is a point that I cannot compromise on no matter what."
".........What are you talking about.  What point don't you like...?"

"The part about promptly paying 1/10 of each portion, 750 million yen.  As you pointed out, my political and financial status is not prosperous.  While I can ensure that I will definitely collect on various future investments, at this time I have no choice but to admit that I am very poor.

In short, I have absolutely no money that I can move around right now.  I am incompetent, and my business skills and senses are dull.  Since I am as weak as you all have said, I have no power to move 750 million in just half of a year."

"Tha-, that can't be true.  Are you trying to deceive us with such a careless trick?"
"At the time of the division of the inheritance, I will liquidate everything at once.  Remove the condition that I quickly pay you 1/10.  ...That is the only condition under which I will sign."
"......Krauss nii-san, no matter what, that 1/10 is a number to measure your sincerity, isn't it?  In that case, there's no spare margin in the deal.  If you would at least grudgingly accept that for the time being, then at least 1/10 good faith can be spread around as a huge service to everyone.  After having that explained, to reject it would cause our mutual trusting relationship to fall into the shadows, wouldn't it...?"
Hideyoshi had a humble expression on his face and was rubbing his hands together, but his eyes were not calm at all.

......Krauss had already seen through the shadow in the depths of those eyes.

".........Hmph.  Why are you all so hurried?  Or are you possibly afraid of something?  ........Rosa, won't you tell at least me?  ...Secretly, without telling the rest of the siblings."
"............It, it's not like I......"

"Quit it, Aniki.  All we're asking is whether you're going to sign or not.  Just forget about making any strange deals or anything suspicious."
"......Hoh?  So I have no margin for negotiation.  ...Do you claim that my position is so weak that we are not in an even relationship...?"
Shivers began to crawl up Rudolf's back...

He began to feel himself getting sucked in by the height of his brother's completely insurmountable wall and that long shadow which had existed since they were children...
"Shouldn't this deal be made on an even footing?  To me, this deal will restore the long lost trust of my younger brother and sisters and deepen the love between us siblings.  And there has been an uneasiness in my heart to have this resolved quickly.  I would be very happy if it could be resolved today.  .........But you too would be very happy if this deal were quickly resolved, wouldn't you...?"
Krauss stared at each of the siblings.
...They avoided his gaze with animal-like instinct.

Only Hideyoshi was slow avoiding it.  ...So he was caught in Krauss's gaze.
"Hideyoshi-san.  I hear that your company has been going extremely well recently, hasn't it?  With a swift rhythm it has become listed as a stock, and both its performance and stock prices have soared.  I am truly jealous."
"...M-, my husband's situation surely has nothing to do with this."

"However, it is unfortunate that you have neglected your stockholders.  It's also horrible that you were unable to solidify your base when you became stock-listed.  ...Before you realized it, some bad-natured colleagues of yours had bought up a huge share of your company's stock, didn't they?"
".........H-, ......how could you know something like that..."

"The same way as Hideyoshi-san.  If you can collect evidence proving that no one would offer a loan to me, then I can collect evidence on Hideyoshi-san.  Hahaha, is it really that strange of a thing?"

Krauss grinned broadly.
...In contrast, Hideyoshi's face was turning obviously pale......
Hideyoshi's company was a fast food chain management company that he had started from nothing.

Through Hideyoshi's management efforts, performance of the business repeatedly rose and magnified, and recently a petition to make it a stock-listed company succeeded.
The greatest advantage of being in the stock-holding system was that, by selling stock certificates, a large amount of financing could be gained.

That amount was far greater than the actual profits from the business.
This made it an extremely effective way to gather the massive funds needed to grow his company even further.
However, in exchange for financing the company, the stockholders had certain rights.

That was, in order to give the company that they had financed even greater profit, they had the right to observe and control it.
......That right was guaranteed to all stockholders, and they would sometimes use it to dismiss ineffectual management.

It was the 'right' to prevent the money they had spent financing the company from going to waste by watching the management of the company.
However, if they use this right forcibly, they can eject the former management and take over the company.
...Because the general body of all shareholders has the power to dismiss the management and nominate new management.

That power is determined based on the majority decision of the stockholders.
And people who hold more stock get to cast more votes.
In other words, if some person or group holds a majority of the stock, they can freely chase out the old management and make the president anyone they would like.

If they want, it is also possible for them to make themselves president.
In many companies, their stock gets bought up by malicious people and, in order to prevent their position from being threatened, they make their own employees or people close to them buy a lot of stock certificates.  To prevent hostile action from being taken by the majority, they try to take some kind of defensive measures.
However, since Hideyoshi's company had only recently become stock-listed, he hadn't had the time to strengthen those defensive measures.

No, maybe Hideyoshi himself was so engrossed in the management of his company that he couldn't realize the dangers of being stock-listed.

It's hard to say whether he should be viewed as a kind-hearted and skilled manager immersed in management, or a foolish manager who had his feet swept out from under him...
...There were people out there who would not let him get away with that naivety unscathed.
They began repeatedly buying up Hideyoshi's company's stock and suddenly gained such strength that they couldn't be ignored.
They then sent anonymous documents to the shareholders and began to capture the majority.

The documents read: 'The current management continues to make pointless investments and is ignoring the needs of the stockholders.  Let us force the current management to retire, cut the current wasted investments, and let this company be born again as one that gives more back to the stockholders.'
It is very difficult to make the actual state of a company's management known.

...The success created by Hideyoshi's tiny amount of sleep and his constant concern for his company was cruelly twisted, and he lost the trust of his stockholders.
Their efforts had almost collected a majority of the stock in the company.
...At that point, even Hideyoshi noticed and started to buy back the stock, but the stock holders, who realized that the company was undergoing an acquisition maneuver, demanded a ridiculous price for the shares that Hideyoshi was trying to buy back.

They continually tortured Hideyoshi, who had no leeway in the negotiation of the price.
One of the certainties of capitalism is that value will rise when both parties vie for the same thing.
And one of the certainties of democracy is that the majority controls everything.

So in the end, whoever manages to buy up the most stock wins.

...So whoever has the most money wins.
If Hideyoshi could obtain a large sum of money at this critical time, he would be able to avoid losing all of that which he had built up...

THEREFORE, MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE, HE WANTED A LOT OF MONEY RIGHT NOW...!

He couldn't wait for the division of Kinzo's inheritance, which could happen at any time.
"And you, Rudolf, you've been in a lot of trouble lately, haven't you?  They say it's scary overseas, but it seems that's really true.  American trials are settled quite emotionally.  They won't give a generous judgement to a foreigner.  ......Weren't you advised by your lawyer that making a settlement with the other party would be more economical in the end?"

"............What are you talking about...?"
"......Well, it's some trouble from work.  It's no big deal.  It'll be settled with money..."

Kyrie quickly recognized what Rudolf's complicated expression meant.

......Her husband had gotten wrapped up in some kind of trouble without her knowledge, and had been suffering alone.
"That's right.  In this world, anything can be settled with money.  After all, it can even buy back the broken bonds between siblings!  America is very fussy about the violation of rights.  But with money, anything can be settled.  Long live capitalism.  ...Although it's rumored that the settlement money can reach several million dollars, isn't it?"
Rudolf had been building a large amount of wealth with a certain type of niche market.

...However, a niche is a niche.
It's definitely not a sunny job.
An American corporate giant was trying to accuse Rudolf's company of violating their rights.

For various reasons, it was thought that winning the trial was extremely unlikely, and Rudolf went for an all-out surrender.
...But even that was a path resolved with money.
If he could only pay that money, though it might be painful, he could still pick himself back up.
...But if he didn't pay, he'd lose everything.

THEREFORE, MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE, HE WANTED A LOT OF MONEY RIGHT NOW...!
".........Rosa, you're a good and noble little sister.  You wouldn't even touch a dangerous money game.  ...However, your softhearted nature was your ruin, wasn't it...?  I wouldn't think one should agree to become a co-signer so lightly."

"Nn, ...umm, ...Th-, that has nothing to do with you, Krauss nii-san!!"

Rosa uncharacteristically lay bare her emotions and yelled.
...There's no way he could know.
As Krauss watched, he let slip a muffled laugh...
......Without exception.

Every one of them, MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE, WANTED A LOT OF MONEY RIGHT NOW...!
In other words, the situation had been reversed.

Because only Krauss, who they were threatening, had no urgent need for a large sum of money.
Compared to that, the three who were threatening him wanted money quickly, no matter what the cost.

So Krauss was able to control this deal however he liked.
Krauss was very sly.
He had known of their Achilles heel from the beginning.
Even so, he had not been certain.

Therefore, he had hidden that until the very end, and, upon closely and completely examining their attitude, he had struck back.
"If I could, I would love to raise some money for my cute brother and sisters in their time of need.  ...But unfortunately, I have nothing on hand.......If you have any sponsors in mind that can raise a whole 750 million, I suggest you try there first."
Krauss's elated words were horribly blunt.
The other siblings could do nothing more than listen, grinding their teeth.

.........If they could think of a sponsor that convenient, they wouldn't have kept up this charade.  They had entered this huge battle specifically because they had exhausted all other options.
"...If you're still set on relying on your older brother, you can use my influence to find a sponsor.  .........Oh wait, you already said that I have no influence.  Well then, I can't do anything, can I?  ......Fuffufufufufufufufu!"
Krauss's low, gloating laugh began to fill the parlor.

The younger siblings who had, until now, been driving the oldest brother into a corner, could do nothing more than grimace and grind their teeth...

"............E-, Eva......"
"......Don't make me laugh...  As if I could borrow from you...!  Don't make me laugh, ...Don't make me laugh......!"

"............If,......if we relied on you, how would you help us..."
"I told you, didn't I.  All I can do is find other sponsors for you.  Of course, I will negotiate for the largest interest rate possible.  Fufufufufu, *cackle*cackle*cackle*cackle*!!"

"......Damn you...,taking advantage of us............"
".........Honey.  Please calm down."
"I am calm.  I'm extremely cool..................You bastard...!"

Kyrie grabbed her husband's hand.

But that action made him feel even more pitiful, so Rudolf shook it off.
...Krauss laughed as though seeing that made him extremely happy.
"In times like these, it sure would be nice to find Father's hidden gold.  If you did, you could split it up into 2.5 billion yen portions right now.  How sad, how sad.  How very sad!  How extremely totally truly hopelessly sad!
............Tonight, as all the siblings drink together, let us solve the riddle of Beatrice's epitaph and discover the location of Father's hidden gold.  If we combine four friendly siblings, there is surely no puzzle that can't be solved.  ...Hahhahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!!"
"............Hmph.  They're doing something interesting.  Well then, what are the conditions that they attached?"
"......Yes.  Whether or not Krauss-sama actually discovered the gold, he would pay Eva-sama, Rudolf-sama and Rosa-sama a total of 7.5 billion yen for their shares.  However, 1/10 of that would be paid  before March."
"Fu, hah-hah-hah-hah-hah-ha...  Krauss, you dunce.  That he would have his feet swept out from under him by his younger siblings...  Isn't that truly pleasant.......But it seems their trap was naive?"

".........Yes.  Krauss-sama exposed that Eva-sama and the younger siblings all had an urgent need to get money."
"Hmph.  Can you really call something of that level exposing?  That incomplete, incompetent man.  .........What are they doing now?"

"......That conversation has been interrupted for now.  Now, Beatrice-sama's epitaph is being discussed."
"So, they are trying to solve the riddle and find out where my gold is hidden?"
"............Yes."
Kinzo set down his glasses and snorted.
".........Will the miracle be fulfilled first, or will those fools expose the gold first?  ...What a sight.  ...If those fools solve my puzzle, at that time I will be completely defeated.  They can suck my corpse down to the last fragment of bone.  Great magic can house a miracle from the fools' greed.  ...And yet!!  If the fulfillment of the miracle comes first...If it comes first!  Beatrice will be resurrected again!!  That smile which I have been chasing half my life will be restored...!
Oooooohhh, Beatrice!!  The sacred night when the miracle is wagered will come, and the devils' game will begin...!  I will definitely win, and will definitely remain alive!!  I'll give up the other people's lives!  I don't need wealth or honor or assets or gold or anything!  I only want to see your smile one more time!!  *Coughcoughcough*!!"
Kinzo choked, apparently in great pain.

Kanon got closer and tried to pat his master's back, but Kinzo signaled that he didn't need to.

"............Do you know why I went to the trouble of exposing the hidden location of the gold so that everyone could see it?"
"......No."

"It is because magical power is decided by risk.  If the number of people who try to discover Beatrice's gold is great, and the danger of that happening is great as well, then assuming that the bet is successful despite those long odds, the magical power will bring about a grand miracle..........In other words, magic is a game.  It is not true that the most superior person will become the winner.  The winner is superior because he is granted magic.  Do you understand?  The miracle of life can be granted only after winning against the divine odds of several hundred million to one.  ............Is this a little difficult for you to understand?"

".........My apologies."
"That's fine.  It all comes down to this.  To the one that solves the mystery of Beatrice's epitaph, I will give all of that which I have built up.  Wealth, honor, gold, and the inheritance of the Ushiromiya family.  Everything that I have established!  Since tackling the riddle is the only condition, it is not limited to my children.  For example, if you succeeded in solving it, that would make you qualified to gain everything."
".........Yes.  However,......I couldn't possibly understand such a difficult riddle."
"Of course.  I made it difficult.  ...But you must also challenge it.  That will become the seed with which the miracle of my magic will be summoned.  If everyone challenges it, and everyone fails, that will be that.  However, if the miracles are gathered and the magical power is born, it will happen then!  Beatrice will revive.  Therefore you too must challenge it.  Everyone must challenge it.  And in doing so, they must give strength to my magic!!  Do you understand?!"
"............Yes.  ...I will try."
For a long while, Kinzo repeatedly muttered to himself, agitated and grabbing onto his head.

Kanon stayed where he was, alert and unmoving, until he was given the next order from his master.

...Kinzo finally realized this.

"It's all right, leave me.  ......There is a bag of sweets on the liquor cabinet.  You can take some with you as a reward."
"......I'm fine.  Because I'm  .........furniture."

"............Hmmm.  ......So furniture doesn't eat things like sweets?  ...Indeed.  In that case, leave me."
"Yes.  ......Excuse me."
Kanon bowed and left the study.
As the door was closed, a heavy locking noise resounded.
But that was not the sound of Kanon locking the door.
It was the door locking automatically.

No one could enter without Kinzo's permission, and once they left, they could not enter again.
......It was a mechanism that Kinzo, unable to trust his blood relatives, had created to lock himself up in his own study and isolate himself from the outside world.
He was already unable to trust anyone excepting, not the sons who shared his blood, but those servants who called themselves furniture...

"............Nanjo-sama, how are you feeling."
"...Ah, Genji-san.  Oh, it's just that there is no place for me to be anymore."
With a bitter laugh, Nanjo turned to face the door to the parlor.

...It seemed that because of that motion, Genji understood what Nanjo wanted to say.

For the most part, Genji also understood the family's situation.

...It must have made him want to frown, knowing that right now in the lounge, the master he served was being discussed so disrespectfully.

But it would have been very difficult to gather that from his indifferent expression.

".........But, ...I don't understand.  ...Why did Kinzo-san have something so provocative written, I wonder."

Nanjo looked at the portrait of Beatrice.
......No, he actually directed his gaze beneath the portrait, at the plate with the epitaph.
"............I don't presume to understand the Master's thoughts.  However, I have realized that those thoughts are very deep."

"Since long ago, when Kinzo-san played chess, he would always prepare his moves according to some far-reaching judgement.  Yes, sometimes even to make moves I couldn't understand.  ......For an average person like me, it was impossible to see through to whatever it was he was planning..."

"Sometimes I wonder whether this is not some kind of will from the Master.  .........Would he entrust his assets and inheritance to whoever could solve this riddle?"

"......Then maybe he hoped to force the four siblings to work together and solve the riddle before some outsider like myself solved it.  It might be something like that.  Kinzo-san might rudely abuse his children, but he may also hope that the siblings repair their relationship."
"..............."
If, as Nanjo said, this epitaph had been written to repair the relationship between the siblings, that would be extremely pleasant.
...However, both Nanjo and Genji realized that at least that much was definitely impossible.

As those who held the longest relationship with Kinzo, even though they were more trusted than his blood relatives, they could not guess at Kinzo's true motive...
"......The Master is always saying that it doesn't matter whether they're a member of the family as long as they have the qualification of solving the riddle.  ......What about you, Doctor Nanjo?"

"No, no......It's a little too hard to understand for this senile old man.  ......Actually, I wrote this epitaph down on my notebook at one point in time.  Night after night, I would try to solve it before going to sleep,  ......but, hahaha, it really is hard.  It looks like there might be some free time to relax and consider it before someone comes to get us.  What do you say, Genji-san?"

".........I am nothing more than furniture that serves the Master.  Gold and assets are useless to me."
"My, my, you are a humble person.  ...That's probably why Kinzo-san trusts you so much."
"If so, I am honored..."
As Nanjo lightly laughed in response, he once again looked at the epitaph.
"......My beloved hometown, the sweetfish river running through it.  You who seek the Golden Land, follow its path downstream and seek the key..."

That which is written on the epitaph of the portrait of my most beloved witch Beatrice is as follows:

My beloved hometown, the sweetfish river running through it.
You who seek the Golden Land, follow its path downstream and seek the key.

If you follow the river downstream, you will find a village.
In the village, look for the shore the two will tell you of.
There sleeps the key to the Golden Land.

He who lays hand upon the key shall travel under the rules below.

At the first twilight, you shall lift up as sacrifice the six chosen by the key.
At the second twilight, those who remain shall tear apart the two who are close.
At the third twilight, those who remain shall praise my honorable name on high.
At the fourth twilight, gouge the head and kill.
At the fifth twilight, gouge the chest and kill.
At the sixth twilight, gouge the stomach and kill.
At the seventh twilight, gouge the knee and kill.

At the eighth twilight, gouge the leg and kill.
At the ninth twilight, the witch shall be revived and none shall be left alive.
At the tenth twilight, the journey shall end and you should reach the village of gold.

The witch will praise the wise, and should bestow four treasures.

One shall be, all the gold from the Golden Land.
One shall be, the resurrection of the souls of all the dead.
One shall be, even the resurrection of the lost love.
One shall be, to put the witch to sleep for all time.

Sleep peacefully, my most beloved witch, Beatrice.

Sandy Beach

Sat, Oct 4 1986 3:00PM

"So...at the tenth twilight, the journey shall end, and you should reach the Golden Land.  You really are diligent, Maria.  You did a good job taking notes on all of this."
"Uu-!  Maria forgets a lot so wrote it exactly!  Mama told me so wrote it exactly!"

There was a notebook inside the handbag Maria was always carrying around, and Beatrice's epitaph was copied onto it.

Thanks to that, we were all able to challenge the puzzle of the epitaph while walking down this beach.

Jessica and the rest had already tried to solve it several times, and had already gotten bored with it.

However, since this was a first for me, I was so excited that I couldn't stop.  It really tickled my man's sense of romance!

"Let's start with the first line.  My beloved hometown, the sweetfish river running through it.  Where was Grandfather's hometown again?"
"I heard that, before the war, the Ushiromiya family had a mansion near Odawara.  So, that said, anyone would want to know about the sweetfish river that flows through Odawara, right?"

"Because that river would be the starting place.  Anyone searching for the golden land would head down that and search for the key.  What's the name of the river in Odawara? Does it have sweetfish swimming in it?"

"For sweetfish in Odawara, it'd be Hayakawa.  It's famous for its mountain stream fishing."
"Uu-. Maria hates fi-sh."

"Ihihi, Maria, you'll understand when you get o~lder!  Licklicklick salty roasted sweetfish!  Yummy~!  Even though we just ate, I'm getting hungry again."
"...Umm, shall I bring you a biscuit?"

"Huh? Oh, sorry.  That's not what I meant, don't mind it!"

Shannon-chan, since she didn't have any afternoon chores for a while, was faithfully keeping us company.

I would have thought that, as a servant, accompanying us would force her to take care of us and tire her out, but it seemed that it wasn't so in her case.

...To the contrary, it seemed she was having fun joining in on the conversation with people of a similar age.

When I asked, I heard that she was a live-in worker.
So normally, the only person close in age to her was Jessica.

I get it, that must be pretty wearisome.

"All right, so I get that the sweetfish-filled river near Odawara is Hayakawa.  In that case, we have to go down it!  Don't you find anything if you head down Hayakawa river?"
"Ummm, ............if you follow it downstream, you'll arrive in the ocean."

"Of course, you'd reach the mouth of the river!  And then the third line of the epitaph was 'If you follow the river downstream, you will find a village.'  By the way, since long ago, the mouths of rivers have been key points in transportation, and large cities tend to be built there.  That would be the next checkpoint."
"Hmmmmmm.  That's a pretty good theory.  Just like you imagined, in ancient times, there was a very prosperous old city there.  That's where Odawara castle is."

"Ah, I think I might have gone to Odawara castle on a field trip once.  It really was a wonderful castle."
"Yes, I also went to Odawara castle.  Even though I live in a western-style house, it sure is true that Japanese people feel calmer with Japanese style!"
"Uu-.  To Maria, castle is bo-ring.  Amusement parks are better.  Uu-!"
"I see, I see.  Alright, alright!  If we find the gold, the great Battler-sama will generously reserve a whole theme park for a day and let you play in it~!.........Still, Odawara castle.  The hidden gold of Odawara castle...  Oho?!  That sounds pretty good, doesn't it?!"

"Hahahahaha!  Well, two years ago, we figured out that much.  The village down the river where the sweetfish swim in Odawara.  We figured that it was probably somewhere near Odawara castle.  The problem is the next line.  Alright, let's see where Battler's strange reasoning can take him."

Jessica grinned broadly.
It was like she was saying that, if the puzzle could be solved so easily, she would have found it long ago.

...Damn it, I'll definitely find it and keep it all for myself!

"The fourth line.  ...In the village, look for the shore the two will tell you of.  .........I don't know what it means by 'the two', but anyways, the shore.  .........What does it mean by the shore?!  No, wait, ...Is there any place near there with 'shore' in its name?"
"Ummm, ......I have heard that there is a place called Sogakishi in Odawara."
Sogakishi

The word shore is composed of one kanjl, 岸(kishi).
This kanji aslo used as a suffix for place names near the shore, such as Sogakishi (曽我岸).

"Huh?!  Wow, you sure know a lot!  So~, what does that mean?  Shannon-chan, are you also after the gold, and trying to solve the riddle~?  That makes us rivals!"

"I, it's not like I'm interested in gold...  It's just that...George-sama told me about it before..."
"That's because we reached the same conclusion two years ago.  We even went to the trouble of laying out a map and looking it up!"

"It was about five kilometers to the north of Odawara.  We definitely found a place called Sogakishi there.......However, after that, we don't know.  The fifth line doesn't say where the key is hidden in that place.  Maria-chan, could you read it for us?"
"...Uu-.  ......There sleeps the ...key to the Golden Land.  Uu-!  I could read it!"

"Sogakishi is probably large, and there wasn't ever any house built there by the Ushiromiya family.  There are no hints as to where the key is hidden in this huge area, so this is where we give up."
"You're right.  ...And without the key, we can't advance to the next line.  George-aniki, what kind of place is Sogakishi?"

"Let's see...  I've never been there, so I don't really know, but according to the map, it's in the mountains.  I'm pretty sure it was at the base of Asama mountain."
"......Hmmmm.  That's a little annoying.  Couldn't a puzzle for the hiding place of a treasure be a little more exact?  Anyways, I get the feeling that Sogakishi is definitely the right place."

"Well, I doubt it's Sogakishi.  It could be talking about some house that Grandfather lived in when he was a kid that we don't know about.  After all, the first line mentioned his beloved hometown.  ...Shannon, you've fed a lot of sake to Grandfather, haven't you?  Hasn't he ever told you about his hometown?"
"...The Master almost never speaks of his past.  ...However, he speaks of the Great Kanto earthquake as though it was someone else's story, so he may have been living far away from the Kanto area."

"The Ushiromiya family may have been living in Odawara, but the branch family was not limited to that.  Grandfather often called himself part of a branch of the branch family, the least connected to the successor."
"So that's what you mean!  The beloved hometown might not even be Odawara at all..."

"I've never even asked about Grandfather's hometown.  I doubt that I'd get an honest answer if I did."

"If the so-called beloved hometown isn't referring to the Ushiromiya family's roots, then the Odawara theory is wrong from the beginning.  Of course, this doesn't remove any possibility that it was Sogakishi.  For example, he could have lived in Odawara when he was very young, but then moved far away later."
"Uu-...  I don't get what you're talking about.  Uu-."
Maria had been completly left out of the conversation, and she now sat puffing out her cheeks in boredom.

"Right, so in short, if we can't decide upon the starting place for the gold's dice game, we can't even begin to play.............But wait?  In the first five lines the thing we're searching for is a key?  Even without a key, we should be able to bust right through any door.  Can't we just throw away the first five lines and start figuring out the rest?"

"Ooh...  I hadn't thought of that.  Oh well, we're just wasting time anyway.  Let's hear the rest of Battler's reasoning!"

"......But in the next part it quickly becomes disturbing..."
Shannon-chan frowned slightly.

After looking back at Maria's notebook to recall what was written there, ...alright, I agree.
"At the first twilight, you shall lift up as sacrifice the six chosen by the key...  It sure does get horrible quickly."
"At the second twilight, it says to tear apart the two who are close.  Does that mean to make them break off their loving relationship?  Or does it mean to literally tear them apart?  I don't know, but either way, it's pretty disgusting."

"Even if we ignore the meaning of that second line, at the first twilight it's six people, and at the fourth through eighth twilights it's five people, so at least 11 people must become sacrifices."
"Uu-.  Sacrifices to revive Beatrice!"

"...I see, sacrifices to restore the witch...  That's what it would mean.  As a result, the witch will be revived at the ninth twilight.........That last part is guaranteed."
"............At the ninth twilight, the witch shall be revived and none shall be left alive.  ......So everyone will die in the end."

"And with that, the following tenth night becomes the goal.  If everyone's dead, it'd be pretty hard to reach the Golden Land."
"...I'm not sure whether or not the traveler who holds the key would be included in the 'none shall be left to live' part."
"But at the end, something pretty interesting is written.  The lines about how, after reaching the goal, the four treasures will be given by the witch.  One shall be all the gold.  The problem is the next one.  It says the resurrection of the souls of all the dead, right?  Doesn't it seem like this refers to everyone that died in the earlier lines?"

".........If you put it like that, the next one, the resurrection of the lost love part might be referring to the pair torn apart at the second twilight."

"That's right.  And the fourth one refers to the ninth twilight. The fourth treasure is putting the witch, revived at the ninth twilight, to sleep."
"If we interpret that favorably, it'll be hectic with people dying and breaking up, but it will all be made well in the end.  The awakened witch will once again sleep, and all that will be left is plenty of left-over gold."

"The witch must be busy killing, reviving, breaking up, and reuniting people."
"Not to mention waking up and sleeping.  Hahahahaha."
"Oh well, just when the tale of the hidden gold was getting interesting, as soon as the witch's story is tied in, it quickly gets pretty shady."
"Too true.  Ahahahahahaha!"
I laughed along with Jessica.
After all, a witch was just ridiculous.

...Of course, once we started laughing like that, Maria, who believed in the witch, got angry.
"Uu-!  The witch is awesome!  She can do anything with magic!  Even kill.  Even bring back to life.  Even give love, even take it.Can fly in the sky, can become invisible, can even make gold and bread out of nothing!  Uu-!  Uu-!  Uu-uu-uu-!!"

"Erk, oh no...  My bad...it's just a joke!"
Jessica apologized, sticking out her tongue, but Maria didn't accept it.

She grabbed her notebook back out of my hands and, opening to the other pages, tried to prove that the witch existed.
Those pages had colored illustrations of witches drawn on them, and conveyed the fantastical image Maria had of witches well.
It was not the normal sinister image of a crooked-nose hag flying around on a broom, but a dreamlike person with unnatural powers that could do anything and wore a beautiful dress.  It was just what you would expect from an imaginative young girl.
Dancing in the sky, crossing a rainbow, dancing around all night with a teacup and a teapot that would never get empty no matter how much you poured out of it.

With a flourish of her staff, the stars in the sky would become candy and pour down, and flowers that produced sweets would bud by the roadside.
......To Maria, a witch was a unique concept, an embodiment of the magical dream that so captivated her.

As she grew up, this was the last thing that gave richness to her dull and plain everyday life.

That is why Maria believed in witches.
She didn't want that dream to be insulted.
And, she didn't want the epitaph, which affirmed the existence of the witch, to be insulted.

Because the witch Beatrice is Maria's dream...

"To Maria-chan, this is not something that points to the hiding place of the gold, but magic to revive the witch."

So it was the single link between Maria and the witch.

Maria was very angry and clung onto George-aniki.

Jessica and I scratched our heads and apologized.

...It might not be possible to smooth things over again like the time she got mad in front of the portrait.

Maria didn't want to be easily consoled.
Unlike Jessica and I, who hung our heads wondering what we had done, Shannon-chan timidly opened her mouth.

"Umm,  .........Maria-sama, did you know...?  There is a ghost story about Beatrice that has been passed down amongst the servants."
"......Uu-?"

"A, ah, yeah, that's right!  Shannon, tell us about it.  I don't really know, but it's apparently pretty famous amongst the servants."
"What is this?  A ghost story?"
"Yes.  It seems it's a story from before we were born.  I also heard it from my mother."
"...Yes.  It has been passed down since the mansion was built on this island.  ...The servants of that time whispered that the mansion had two Masters, one of the Day and one of the Night."
The tale that Shannon told was just like a typical campfire ghost story.
If there was a forest with a witch living inside it, ...then there's no reason the witch couldn't pay the mansion a visit.

At some point, this ghost story naturally sprouted up between the servants.
"When they did the rounds one last time to check supposedly closed doors, windows and locks, some of those would be open.  Lights that were supposed to be off were turned on, and lights that were supposed to be on went out.  Things left lying around would disappear, and things would appear when no one had any memory of putting them there.  When any of these things happened, the old servants would say that the witch had visited the mansion, invisible, and was playing pranks."

"Uu-!  See, she exists!  Beatrice exists!!"
"Yeah, she exists.  I remember often being unable to find my shoes before heading to school..."
Maria puffed out her chest with an 'uu-uu-' as though this was the final proof that the witch existed.

If I opened my mouth, Maria would probably be hurt again, so I didn't.
...I mean, you hear that kind of story everywhere.

Depending on the place, it might be blamed on a dwarf or an elf.
It's just that, on this island, they call it the witch.
Of course, you would expect that walking around a vast, elegant mansion at night would be a little unsettling.

It's an island devoid of people.
Since the mansion is so drafty, walking around on the night of a thunderstorm would certainly be eerie.
"In addition, some servants have also seen will‐o'‐the‐wisps and glittering butterflies dancing around.  Kanon-kun also saw something like that when he went patrolling one night.  And recently, the servants have been talking about strange footsteps inside the mansion near midnight.  We have whispered together that the Beatrice-sama from the portrait sometimes makes herself invisible and walks through the mansion.  ...It happened a long time ago, but I have also heard those kinds of footsteps while patrolling at night."

"......Whew.  That's scary..."
"Ah, ...but, there's nothing to be afraid of, right?  Beatrice-sama is another ruler of this mansion separate from the Master.  Therefore, don't be strangely afraid.  If you respect her, she won't do anything bad."

"However, it would be dreadful if you didn't respect her, right?"

"...Yes.  I heard that, just before I began working, someone who spoke badly about Beatrice-sama fell down the stairs and quit after receiving a large injury to their back.  Because of that, there was a rumor between the servants that Beatrice-sama's anger had been brought down upon this person..."

"Uu-...  Anger will definitely be brought down on Battler and Jessica...  Uu-..."
"I, I, I'm sorry!  I don't want her anger brought down upon me!  I apologize, Maria.  Of course, I also apologize to the witch.  I'm sorry, Beatrice-sama.  Please forgive an outsider's nonsense."

"I'll apologize as well.  I'm sorry, Beatrice-sama.  .........Will the witch be able to forgive us now?"
"...Uu-.  Don't know.  The witch is fickle, so she forgives when she forgives, and doesn't forgive when she doesn't forgive.  Uu-!"
"That's no good...Maria-chan, isn't there some kind of good luck charm that could prevent Battler-kun and Jessica-chan from having Beatrice-sama's anger brought down upon them?  Some kind of amulet or something?"
By relying on Maria, who was proud at knowing the most about witches, George was able to revive her self-esteem.

...I was once again forced to admire his ability to comfort children.
Maria, seriously pondering and crossing her arms, began flipping through the pages of her handbook as if there were obviously some charm capable of protecting Jessica and myself from the witch's wrath.
I had thought it was just a simple scribbled diary, ......but it turned out that there were also several pages that looked like they had come from a book on black magic.

In the midst of those, several of what looked like magical circles had been copied and seriously compared to each other.

.........In any case, it looks like that black magic hobby wasn't limited to Grandfather alone.
When she finally found what she was looking for, she vigorously closed the notebook with a snap and threw it into her handbag.  She then began fishing through that bag's contents.

It seemed that various jumbled up things were in there.
After a while, she took out various pieces of junk - although they were probably important magical items to Maria - and repeatedly threw them back in, saying they were wrong.

It was all a little humorous, just like when Dora○mon took out the wrong tool.
Finally, it seemed that she had discovered what she was looking for.

With a face unimaginably clearer than the difficult expression she had worn until now, she stuck 'them' out to Jessica and me.
"Uu-!"
As I reached out to grab it, I noticed that it was a very cheap-looking charm.

It looked like a bracelet made from a plastic rosary, with a scorpion motif medal attached.
I mean, you often find cheap accessories that correspond to the constellations.
It felt like a gift that you might win in the crane game at an arcade.

It really looked like something like that.
There were two.
Probably one for me and one for Jessica.

......However, considering the odd fact that there were two of them, they looked like cheap manufactured goods, and it was quite hard to think of them as magical items.

"You're giving these to me and Battler?"
"Uu-!  With these charms, even Beatrice is no problem!  Because the scorpion has the power to block magic!"
"Huh, really?  Didn't know scorpions could do that."
"Uu-, Battler doesn't believe!  Uu-uu-uu-!"

I had inflamed Maria again because I said too much...

Maria took out her notebook again, and while pointing out various pages, went on and on about how the scorpion had holy power, and that it had been drawn in magic-repelling magical circles since ancient times.

"......Ah, I've heard about that from some of the other young servants.  Something about how the scorpion is drawn as a magic repelling symbol in sorcery..."
"Huh, really...!"

"Uu-!  The scorpion protects against bad magic and misfortune.  And emerald brings peace to the heart.  Therefore, the effect is double!  Uu-!"
"It's true.  The scorpion wraps around the emerald and protects it.  I see, that seems very useful."

I really wanted to make fun of this worthless looking charm, but as I watched Maria explaining the charm with all of her heart, and realized that she had prepared them out of consideration for us, it felt as though, even if it were just a prize from a game center, it would still be beneficial.

The material quality of the charm wasn't important.

The strength of her feelings was.
Even I wouldn't plan on ruining everything by making fun of it.

"Okay, thank you.  I apologized to Beatrice-sama, but, even in the worst case where I'm cursed, I'll be safe now thanks to Maria's charm.  Right, Jessica?"
"Ah, that's right!  Thank you, Maria."

"Uu-!  Wear it on your arm when you want a peaceful heart.  If you put it in your wallet, your money won't decrease!  If you hang it from a doorknob, bad things can't get in!  It's a really convenient charm!"
"What an incredible effect.  If Maria-sama is confident in this charm and recommends it, I am sure it will be reliable."

As Shannon-chan clapped her hands together, Maria stuck out her chest.

She was completely vigorous again.

If it would keep her in this good of a mood, it would probably be worth it to let Maria lead the discussion for a while longer.
When you think about it, she hadn't shared in our excitement when we talked about the gold's hidden location, so I think she had gotten a little bored.
While eating the cookies Kumasawa-san had baked, Jessica and I asked Maria this and that about black magic.

Maria happily chatted away in response to our questions.

For each one, George-aniki and Shannon-chan would act surprised and agree with everything she said.
The color of the clouds in the sky grew progressively heavier, but the cousins really enjoyed communicating freely after one year of separation...

"...Nn.  Did I just feel a drop on my forehead?"
"Huh?  What's up?"
As George-aniki rubbed his forehead, he looked up at the sky.

Considering the color of the sky and the dampness of the air, it wouldn't have been odd for a raindrop to fall down.
It also seemed like the wind had gotten a little stronger.

"Uu-?  Maria didn't feel a drop.  Only Maria didn't.  Uu-!"
"Calm down, neither did I.  Anyways I'm sure that it'll rain so much tonight that everyone will get the same amount of raindrops."
"That's right.  Maybe we should head back soon...?"

Shannon-chan looked down at her watch.  It was already well into the evening.

"Is it already time for you to return to your work?"
"Yes.  ...For allowing me to enjoy some time together with everyone, thank you very much."
"Tell Kumasawa-san thanks for the cookies.  Alright everyone, help out with the cleanup."

Shannon-chan declined our help, saying that this was a servant's job, but picking up a dropped fork before the waitress has to is like my purpose in life.
We folded up the blanket, gathered up the trash, and helped clean everything up.

"Uu-!  The trash is getting awa-y!  Uu-uu-!!"
"I won't let it get away.  I'll take it before Maria does!"
"Uu-!!  Maria will pick it up!  Uu-uu-uu-!"

"Maria-!  Don't get your shoes wet, you'll get in trouble-!"
To Maria, chasing after some trash that the strong winds had sent flying was just like another game.
When we finished cleaning up, the wind had started blowing very strongly.
It looked like a good chance to head back.

"Everyone really helped me out.  Thank you very much."
"...It really looks like you're out of time.  It's alright if you head back first."
George-aniki perceived from her hurried appearance that very little of her free time was left.

"Genji-san is very rigorous about time.  If you aren't at the right place at the right time, he can be very strict."
"We'll see you later.  Do your best with your work."
"Ye, yes!  ......Then if you will excuse me."
After making a respectful bow, Shannon-chan ran over towards the rose garden.

"Okay, let's head back to the guesthouse.  We can watch television or something and relax a little."
"Uu-!  Watch TV!  Watch TV, uu-!"
"Then it's decided.  Let's head back and everyone can watch television together."
Maria, who hadn't had enough fun yet, agreed when she thought about watching television.

We climbed up the gentle stairs and returned to the rose garden.
The wind had become very strong, and roses shook throughout the garden like ripples on the water.

This might be our last chance to see these beautiful roses...
Tonight's typhoon was sure to ruin them...

"These roses might be done in by tonight's winds."
"You're right.  Don't you think the roses were lucky?  After all, they got to welcome all of you before the typhoon."

"A flower will always lose its petals at some point.  However, because of that, we can admire them even more when they are in bloom."
"That's right.  ...Maria, burn this image into your eyes.  At this moment, they are the best roses of the year."
"Uu-.  Burned into eyes."

Right then, Maria suddenly clapped her hands.
It looked like she had remembered something.

"......Maria's rose...  The typhoon will send it flying.  ......Uu-!"
"Oh, that unhealthy rose that George-aniki marked with a ribbon?"

It seemed that Maria remembered where the rose was.

She ran at full speed.
The rest of us followed her.

"............Uu-?  Uu-."
"Where was that again...?  I'm sure it was somewhere around here."
We searched everywhere around that area, but, after all, it was only a single flower amongst all of these roses.
Even though we knew it was somewhere close by, we weren't able to find it.

The winds that made up the front lines of the typhoon were making the roses throughout the garden undulate.  It was almost like it was teasing us by making the location of Maria's rose impossible to find...

"Maybe it wasn't here...  Let's try spreading out a bit in our search."
"Sounds good.  Let's go for strength in numbers.  .........Hm?  What's up Maria."
As we made to split up and search, Maria tugged on my jacket with an unhappy face.

......It felt like her intention was to stop us from going to another place.

"What is it, what happened?"
"......Uu-.  Maria's rose is here.  It's here...!"

"But it's actually not, is it...?  Maybe it was on the other side of the flower bed.  If we all look, we'll find it fast, right?"

"Uu-!!  It's here!  Maria's rose is here!!  Look for it!  Look--for--it!!  Uuu--!!"
Maria stomped her feet in irritation.
...She had pointed out this spot and said it was definitely here, but it actually wasn't.
Having said that, Maria got mad when we went to go search elsewhere.

...We couldn't help but be puzzled.
For a while, we would have to stay with Maria, and pretend to search through this rose thicket.
"......Uu-.  Uu-...!  Not here.  ......Not here!  Not here!  Uuu--!!"Maybe she's saying that it should be here but isn't.
Maria became increasingly ill-tempered...

"...Oh man, Maria is really losing her temper."
"Maria sometimes starts to really care about really pointless things.  If she gets what she wants, that's alright, but..."
"You can't find something that isn't there...  That's not good..."

Just when we were at a loss as to what was going on, Maria raised a loud voice.
"Mama-!!  Uu-uu-!!"
In the direction she was waving her hand, Rosa oba-san's figure was visible.
Maybe she wanted to look at the garden one more time before the typhoon came, or maybe she had some business at the guesthouse.

Rosa oba-san was coming from the mansion.
She quickly noticed her daughter's voice and came over.

"My, my, what happened, everyone?  Are you looking for something?"
"Loook!  Mama, you look for Maria's rose too!  Uu-uu-uu-!!"
"Maria's rose?"
"We found an unhealthy rose around here and marked it."

"We wrapped a candy wrapper around it.  ...But Maria, if I remember correctly, it was growing  right in front and really stood out, didn't it?  Unless it grew legs and ran off somewhere, it must have been somewhere else.  Did Maria remember it wrong?"
"Uu-!!  It is here!!  It--is--here!!  Battler doesn't believe!  Uu-uu-!!"

"How many times do I have to tell you to stop saying 'uu-uu-' before you will understand!  Mama will look for it, so stay quiet!!"
I was a little surprised to see Rosa oba-san, who I had only ever seen as gentle, get angry.
Rosa oba-san began searching as well, so we went along with her for the time being, but we were already more than sure that it wasn't around here.

...Therefore, Rosa oba-san also soon realized that it wasn't here.

"The rose isn't here.  Did you mistake this place for somewhere else?  There are so many roses around,"
"Uu-!!  Uuuu---!!!  That's wrong!!  It is here!!  Mama doesn't believe!  Uu-uu-uu-!!!"

"Didn't I believe you and look hard for it?!  But it isn't here!"
"Uu-uu-!!  But it is here!!  It is here but it isn't!!  Uu-uu-uu-!!"

"Then someone must have pulled it out!  Anyways, stop saying that 'uu-uu'!!"
"Uu-uu-uu-!!  Who pulled out Maria's rose, who did!!  Give it back, give it back!!  Uu-uu-!!  Uu-uu-uu-uu-!!!"
"How should I know!!  Stop it, stop saying 'uu-uu-'!!"
Rosa oba-san slapped Maria's left cheek with her palm.
In that instant, Maria was shocked into silence.

Of course, it was only for an instant.
When Maria realized that her wish was being rejected before it could be fulfilled, she started yelling with an increasingly louder voice.

"Uu-uu-!!  Uu-uu-uu-!!  Maria's rose!  Maria's rose!!  Uu-uu-uu-uu-uu-uu-uu-!!!"
"Didn't I tell you to stop that weird habit!!  That's why all of the kids in your class make fun of you!!  Cut it out!!"
Once again, her palm slapped Maria's cheek.

This time she didn't go silent.
She choked as she started crying, and began to bawl in an increasingly louder voice...

Rosa oba-san was clearly irritated, and lifted her hand once more to try and shut her daughter up...

"Ro, Rosa oba-san...  Now, now...She's just a little kid.  There's no reason to get so serious...ihihi."

I tried to cut in with a bitter smile, rubbing my hands together, ...but Rosa oba-san threatened me with a serious face which told me not to butt in.

"I'm sorry, would Battler-kun and the rest of you return to your room?  Oba-san needs to have a little talk with Maria."

"Uu-uu-uu-!!  Nobody believes in Maria's rose!!  Even though it was here!!  Uu-uu-!!  Look for it!!  Look--for--it!!  Here, it was here!!  Uu-uu-uu-uu-!!!"
"But it's not here!!  Then did you confuse it with somewhere else?!"

"Uu-uu-uu-uu-!!  It is here!!  It is definitely here!!  Uu-uu-uu-!!"

"Then it has disappeared!!  Give it up!!"
"Why?!  Why did it disappear?  Why, why?!  Uu-uu-uu-!!!"
"I don't know that!!  So stop saying 'uu-uu-'!!
Rosa oba-san once again raised her hand and, overrun by emotions, slapped Maria's cheek.
It was so strong, it knocked Maria over.

"H, hey...Rosa oba-san, even if she is your daughter, you shouldn't be violent like that..."
I stepped between them to protect Maria, who was still on the ground, crying 'uu-uu-'.

......I knew that problems between parent and child were none of my business as an outsider.
But I wasn't brought up to just silently observe something like this...

"Don't you think it's weird, Battler-kun?  Do you have any girls at your school that mutter 'uu-uu-'?"

"Well, I am in high school...  But for an elementary schooler, I think saying 'uu-uu-' is pretty cute..."
"Cute?  Saying 'uu-uu-' is cute?  Cute?!"

It seemed that my reckless words had brought Rosa oba-san's wrath down upon me.
Oba-san grabbed my collar with a terrifying expression...
"Don't say such nonsense!!  Do you know how old Maria is?  She's nine!  That she's a fourth grader?!  That she's not a kindergartner?!  And even so, she still says 'uu-uu-' during class!!  Do you understand?!  This kid, do you know what they say about her when they bully her?!  That, thanks to that weird habit, she still hasn't made even a single friend?!  Don't turn your eyes from reality and recklessly call Maria cute!!  Think more seriously about this kid's future!!!"
"Uu-uu-uu-uu-uu-!!!  Uu-uu-uu-uu-uu-uu-!!!"
"I told you, stop saying 'uu-uu-'!!!  Didn't I tell you to stop it!!"
Rosa oba-san struck Maria's quivering head from which an increasingly unsatisfied voice was rising.
I tried to stop it, but Oba-san thrust me away...
My back hit George-aniki.

"......A long time ago, Rosa-san also thought of it as nothing more than one of Maria-chan's baby words...but she is now midway through elementary school, and the fact that it hasn't been fixed has bothered her a lot recently..."
"It's not like it matters what kind of words she uses..."

"You can't grow up to be like that.  ...Therefore, even though it's not a pleasant scene to watch, ......this is a problem between parent and child."
".........Well, I also often get in trouble from my mother about how I speak."

If you look at it that way, maybe an outsider shouldn't interfere with this even though it's painful to watch...

"Battler-kun, didn't you ever have any bad habits as a kid that you couldn't fix and got you in trouble?"
"......Well, one or two.  On Parent's Day, I always got in trouble in front of everyone, and it was so embarrassing, I couldn't stand it."

"Well then, you can understand Maria-chan's feelings right now.  ......I'm sure she doesn't want us to be here now.  ......Do you understand as well, Jessica-chan?"
".........I don't think anyone likes to be seen when they're being punished."

"Let's go.  Let's return to the guesthouse.  Then, after Maria-chan comes back, let's welcome her as if nothing happened.  That's probably for the best, isn't it?"
Because we thought that George-aniki's point was probably correct, ...we were fine with using that correct-sounding reason to justify retreating as long as it would ease the pain in our chests.

Jessica and I nodded at George-aniki, and we all left.
We called towards Maria that we were going to head to the guesthouse, but since it didn't seem to reach her ears, we also had shamelessly guilty consciences...

"In that case, look by yourself as much as you want!  Mama doesn't care!!"
"Uu-!!!  Look for it!  Maria will look for it by herself!!  Will look for it even if Mama doesn't care!  Uu-uu-uu-uu-uu-!!"
"Have it your way!!"
After blasting her with those last few words, Rosa spun on her heels and quickly returned to the mansion.
Maria probably viewed that as a cold gesture meant to injure.
But from Rosa's perspective, that was not her intention.
...It was because the hand which she had so emotionally struck Maria's cheek with was still numb.

It was because, if she stayed there screaming, she might again be taken over by her emotions and continue slapping her daughter's cheek over and over.
After Rosa left, only Maria was left alone in the rose garden.
The wind began to blow stronger and stronger, and every once in a while, a raindrop would fall on her forehead.

...However, Maria couldn't leave that place.

Not until she found that poor, withering rose.
It had definitely been there.

......Even so, it wasn't.

Even though she knew the place and even though it had been there,it wasn't.
Maria, while bitterly staring at the place it was supposed to be, thought frantically.
Maybe the angle I'm looking from is wrong.
Maybe the height I'm looking from is wrong.

......While gazing at a single point, Maria repeatedly stood up, changed her position and continued to stare.
The wind was getting increasingly stronger......

But Maria kept on looking for that rose in front of the flower bed...
.........Kinzo noticed the sound of the raindrops beating on the window.
It seemed to be pouring down thickly.
It had begun to rain later than the weather report had predicted.
Kinzo, as if being summoned by the sound of the rain, approached the window.
The sound of the rain is a sound of silence.

That sound feels quieter than any silence and makes humans remember that, in the end, they are alone from when they are born to when they die.
"......You're late, Beatrice."

Were those words directed at the rainy sky...?
No one could be seen in the direction of Kinzo's gaze.
"......So, shall we start?  Let us begin banquet of miracles of ours.  ......Even now this island has been cut off from the world.  Now there is no one who can interrupt my ceremony.  There are many fitting sacrifices for you.  Four of my children.  Three of their companions.  Four of my grandchildren.  Me and my guests and my servants!  You may eat up as many as you please.  The key of fate will obey the roulette of demons and choose the sacrifices.  If that roulette chooses me, even I will become your sacrifice.  ...However, because of that...  because I will bet on that madness,......I will definitely create a grand miracle.
...Come, devour as much as you wish..!!  I will overcome that roulette.  Yes, I'll put everything on the line.  First, I'll return the inheritance of the Ushiromiya family.  Accept it!!"
As Kinzo violently opened the window, he ripped off a golden ring stuck to his finger and forcefully threw it away.
......At that time, thunder resounded, giving the illusion that the lightning had accepted the ring.
"And with that........., when you are resurrected, I will be there.  I will live until the end and watch over you as you awaken.  .........So, come Beatrice...  Welcome to my banquet...!  In exchange for all that I have created, show me another miracle just this one time.  ......Oooooohh,...Beatriceeeeeee........."

Letter and Umbrella

Sat, Oct 4 1986 6:00PM
A news ticker popped up on top of the TV program we were watching.
The disaster report told how municipalities all over were continually sending out rain, flood, and wave warnings.

Of course, the harshly beating raindrops on the window were much more convincing.

"......This rain's incredible.  Still, when it's raining this hard, it feels like it's going to stop soon."
"You wish!  They said the typhoon's moving slow, so in the worst case it'll be like this all day tomorrow.  Even a little weather'd be enough to stop the boats."

"It looks like we won't be able to head out on Sunday after all.  ...Just in case, I cleared any business I had with the outside world from my Monday schedule.  I'm glad I did."

"I guess this means, ihihi, it looks like we'll be skipping school Monday~.  Living on an island's starting to look pretty good!  ......Come to think of it, Jessica, do you have to take a boat to school every day?  What do you do when the boats are closed down?  Do you stay home when it rains and show up late when the wind's blowing, like King Kamehameha?"

"If the boats don't come, I stay home.  Still, it's not as good as it sounds.  Usually, I'm ordered to study by myself, and it's not that fun with someone standing right behind you watching everything you do."
"During the rainy season, does the weather ever stay bad for a long time and make you miss a bunch of days in a row?"

"That also happens.  Still, every single day, my homeroom teacher would call and sourly guide me on how I should teach myself and what I had to turn in."
"She can't just easily skip the way you are thinking of, Battler-kun.  She has to follow the rules for people that travel to school by boat and get a good amount of studying done."

"It'd actually be easier to just go to school.  In my own room, I get distracted and can't concentrate.  After being made to do nothing but workbooks for several days straight, it's pretty hard to handle all that mental stress.  ......When I get into college, I really just wanna go to some dorm and quickly say goodbye to this inconvenient island."

"Huh...  So, by the way, what do you do when the weather's good in the morning, but then gets so bad on your way home that the boats are closed?  Do you spend the night at school?"
"That actually happens a lot.  Because of that, they've built some lodgings there for people who can't get back to the island.  I stay over there.  Sometimes, when gets bad, I can't get back home for a few days at a time."
"If you look at it from the perspective of those people who have to go to school every day on a train packed to twice its capacity, going to school on a boat might seem pretty interesting and fun.  Or at least they might irresponsibly think that.  I guess different people have different kinds of difficulties."

"Thick-skinned tourists say that kind of thing all the time.  I've had enough of island life.  I really want to quickly graduate high school and say goodbye to this island."
"Even for high school, there should be places where the students live in dormitories.  Why did you go to all of the trouble of choosing the school on Niijima?"

"I've wanted to go to one of those from the beginning!!  Still, Mom's always going on about how I need to learn manners and discipline as the successor to the head.  ...In the end, I got stuck with a high school close to home.  Man, I hate this island.  I just want to go live in a city.  I don't care if rain or even spears fall from the sky, as long as I can move to a city where I can wear casual clothes and sandals and can get to a convenience store in less than five minutes..."

"Hahahaha.  Hold out just a little longer.  It's only a short while until you graduate high school, right?"
"I can't wait a little longer.  Aaaaaah..."
Jessica stretched out and reclined in the sofa.

Maybe because now was a bad time slot, there weren't any interesting programs on, and we had nothing to do but languidly kill time until we were called for dinner.
Maria had so far not returned to the cousins' room.

She had probably been brought back to the mansion by Rosa oba-san.

It had to be pretty boring for Maria, all by herself while the adults are having a confusing conversation.
......We thought we might head over to the mansion to see her, but after all, there was this lousy weather, and there wasn't much time until dinner, so we stayed where we were.
At that time, we heard the sound of a humble knock.
Jessica answered.
"Ye-s!"
".........The preparations for dinner are complete.  Please come to the mansion."
It was Kanon-kun's voice.
Had he gone to all the trouble of coming from the mansion in this rain just to call us over?
Couldn't he have just called us on the telephone?

......Oh well, maybe sometimes part of a servant's duty is to go against common sense.
"Just when I was getting hungry.  Let's go."
George-aniki turned off the television and stood up.

"My stomach's been growling for a while!  I've always been a huge fan of the main family's dinners!  And didn't Gohda-san say it was calf steak or something?  Oohh, I can't wai~t!!"
"It's even more fabulous on the day of the family conference.  Even I'm looking forward to it!  Let's go, let's go."
As we left the room, Kanon-kun bowed silently and respectfully.

"Alright, let's go.  Is the rain nasty out there?"
"......Yes.  Take care not to get your garments wet."
After seeing the three of us out, Kanon-kun peered into the empty room.

".........Wasn't Maria-sama with you...?"
"No she isn't.  Wasn't she with Rosa oba-san?"
Rosa, lying on a sofa in the empty parlor, had fallen asleep at some point.

...She was bearing a burden on her shoulders that a child could never even imagine.
Therefore, when she let herself relax, that exhaustion quickly led Rosa into the world of sleep.
Realizing this, Genji brought a blanket over to her.
When he tried to spread it over her, her eyes snapped open as though she had been shocked with electricity.

"...............th,..................Thank you, Genji-san."
When she realized that the thing that had touched her was just a blanket, and that Genji had been considerately giving it to her, she let out a sigh of relief.

"......Did I wake you?  My sincere apologies."
"No, it's all right.  I hadn't planned on sleeping in the first place.  ...What time is it now?"
When he was asked for the time, Genji checked a pocket watch that he took out of his chest pocket.

".........It is slightly after 6:00."

Rosa gave her head a little shake as she realized that, even though it had felt like she had slept for a long time, not much time had actually passed.
...Even though she didn't feel rested at all, the drowsiness that wrapped around her felt very deep.

"Thank you, I'll be fine without the blanket...  I mustn't sleep at such a strange time.  My sense of time has been completely thrown off.  ...............The rain, it really is pouring."
Rosa finally realized that the peaceful sound that had put her to sleep was actually the rain that had started falling.
"The wind is also blowing hard.  ...I wonder if it's finally the typhoon?"
"......The television has said that is the case.  Because the typhoon is slow, they said that it would be like this all day tomorrow."
"Really...?  .........That wonderful rose garden, that must have been my last chance to see it."

From the window, what she could see of the rose garden was completely blurred by the wind and the rain.
"...Maria.........That's right, Maria?!"
"............I have not seen her.  Did she not return to the guesthouse?"
Rosa knew her daughter's nature well.
She had always known.
Maria was stubbornly honest, ......and if she was ordered to find something that didn't exist, she would look forever and ever.

......Even if rain was pouring down...!!
"......That's wrong.  The cousins left earlier, so Maria was alone...!  Unless someone told her to stop, she would stay there even if spears fell down from the skies!  Without even opening an umbrella!!  .........AAaah, what have I done, losing control of my emotions!!"

Even though she had known about that simple honesty better than anyone, she had once again lost control of her emotions and done such a horrible thing!!
"Mariaaaaaaa!!"Rosa pushed Genji away and ran down the hallway.
The outside really looked like a typhoon, and was pouring down magnificently.
Maybe because of some figure of the terrain, the winds were not as strong as a typhoon, so an umbrella wouldn't be torn out of one's hands.

Even so, it sure was a windy rain.
There was no time to admire the roses being soaked by the rain.

"Anyways, I'm getting pretty worried about Maria.  .........You don't think that she's still rebelliously searching for that rose alone, do you?"
"...I wonder.  After all, in this rain,......well I wish I could say differently, but Maria-chan is sometimes really stubborn and too honest."
We hadn't worried much, thinking that Rosa oba-san had taken her back to the mansion.

...However, when Kanon-kun had come from the mansion to call us and thought that Maria was here, we got a little worried.

".........I did not see her in the mansion, so I was sure that she was here.  Since Rosa-sama was taking a nap..."
"You didn't see her on your way over here?"
".........My apologies.  I opened my umbrella and ran as fast as I could, so I did not pay much attention."

If he had cut through the rose garden on the shortest line between the mansion and the guesthouse, then he would have missed the place where Maria had been looking for her rose by a little.

And it was raining this hard, too.
There was a good chance that Kanon-kun had failed to notice her.

"Enough arguing around here, it'd be faster to just check it out directly.......Aniki, why don't we race over there?"
"Do you plan on beating me now that you've been growing for six years?  Alright, let's see who wins.............Let's go!!"
George-aniki and I flew out into the rain.
Jessica and Kanon-kun followed us.

"Mariaaa-!!  If you're there, answer me!!  Maria--!!"
"It's Rosa oba-san.  Oba-san!!"
When George-aniki called back, Rosa oba-san jumped as though someone had grabbed her.

"Where is Maria?!  Isn't she with you?!"
"No, we didn't meet with Maria-chan after that."

"Mariaaaaa!!!"
............Six years ago, Maria had been three years old.
She had been a cute and pure kid who would just accept whatever anyone said.
...But six years had passed since then!
She was nine now, and going through both good and bad experiences should have rubbed off on her.

......And still, you're just as innocent and pure as you were...?!
"Mariaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!"
As I circled the rose bed, something white unexpectedly turned to face me.
......It was a white umbrella.

Maria, holding a white umbrella, was crouching, still searching for that rose...
"............Uu-."
Her face, which had turned bright red from her crying her eyes out, was dirtied with water and mud.  It was a truly pitiful sight.

"You idiot,......are you still looking?!"
"......Uu-......  Can't find it...  Maria's rose,......Can't find it.........Uu-......"

Maria had probably been here since the rain had started pouring down.
It looked like her shoulders were freezing.

She looked tired to the bone, but fortunately, since she was holding an umbrella, she was not completely soaked.

...It was probably an umbrella from the handbag that Maria was always walking around with.
......Thank goodness.  Seriously, thank goodness.

"Battler-kun!  Thank goodness, you found her!"
"Mariaaaaaaaaa!!  I'm sorry, I'm so sorry...!!"
Rosa oba-san threw her umbrella away and hugged Maria.

"......Uu-.........  It's not here.  ...Maria's rose isn't here...
......Uu-......"
"Mama will look for it with you later...  Okay?  So just let it go for today.  ...Okay?"
".........Uu-...  Let it go for today......"

It looked like Maria still wasn't able to accept it, but she no longer had enough energy left to resist.

Jessica and Kanon-kun caught up with us.

"......I'll have a towel ready in the mansion immediately."
"Maria......  Were you here the whole time......?"
"I'm sorry......  I'm sorry for being such a bad mother........."
"......Rosa oba-san, why don't we head back to the mansion for the time being.  Maria will catch a cold like this."

".........You're right.  Maria, let's go.  If we don't get you cleaned up, Grandfather will get mad at you."
"Uu-...  I'm hungry."
"It's already time to eat.  Maria did a good job holding out.  Once the weather gets better, we'll all go search together."
We couldn't stay in the rain forever.
We took Maria with us as we headed back to the mansion.
Maria apparently wasn't as weak as I had thought.

When she remembered that dinner was calf steak, she started chanting "I'm hungry, I'm hungry, uu-uu-!", and returned to her usual healthy self.

......Rosa oba-san didn't chide Maria on her 'uu-uu-'.

"Really?  She had an umbrella?  Maria sure is good at packing the right stuff."
"......Uu-.  Maria didn't bring an umbrella.  Uu-."

"What?  Then how did you get that white umbrella you're holding?"
"Uu-!  Borrowed it!"

It seemed that some caring person had somehow brought her an umbrella.
A normal girl would look for shelter once it started raining, but there was no way that stubborn Maria would lose heart and do something like that.

...So maybe that person gave up recommending that she find shelter, and at least had her take an umbrella.

"That's right.  I will have to thank that person.  Who was it?"
"Uu-!  Beatrice!"

The name that Maria mentioned very happily was that of the island's witch.

Rosa took a deep breath and asked again while trying to avoid hurting Maria's feelings now that she was happy.

"Really?  That's nice.  So, who was it?  The person who brought you that umbrella?"
"Uu-.  Beat, ri-ce-!  Uu-uu-!"

Maria, who quickly picked up that her mother didn't believe her, made an angry face once again.

So Rosa stopped pursuing the subject.
It looked like it would be faster to ask the person who had lent Maria the umbrella during dinner rather than ask Maria herself...
"Father.  Please at least join us for dinner.  It won't be a family conference like this."
Along with a dull pounding on the door, the sound of Krauss's entreaty could be heard.
However, that voice seemed to be giving up since its sound wasn't reaching its intended ears.

".........Kinzo-san.  Won't you at least come out for dinner?  Haven't all of your sons gathered here to see your face?"
"Silence, Nanjo.  ............So the bishop won't work.  ...............One move too short......"
Apparently, Kinzo was completely focused on the final battle of his long-lasting chess match with Nanjo.
Kinzo's brow was wrinkled as he continued to glare at the game board through his spectacles.  Krauss's voice didn't reach his ears.

".........Kinzo-san.  I am also hungry.  Won't you come down and eat?"
"In that case, you can go by yourself.  Let me consider this next move for a little longer.  ...We are going to finish it tonight.............Otherwise, it looks like we won't resolve it until the world ends."
Nanjo stood from his seat, hoping this would prompt Kinzo do the same, but Kinzo's eyes never left the chessboard.

He knew well that Kinzo always displayed a blind concentration when it came to chess, but he had never seen Kinzo as concentrated as he was now.
...It was almost as though, as Kinzo had said, if the game wasn't finished tonight, there would never be another chance for them to continue their contest, or something like that...

It looked like even if he called out obstinately, it wouldn't reach Kinzo's heart.
Nanjo gave up and headed to the door that Krauss was still banging on...

The door to the study opened.

Krauss was taken aback, thinking that maybe Kinzo was actually coming out.
"......Doctor Nanjo.  Is Father..."
"............I am sorry I couldn't be of service......Right now, Kinzo-san's world is nothing but this room."

Nanjo crooked his neck with a completely defeated expression.
Krauss raised his fist once more and banged on the door, shouting.

"......Father, can you hear me?!  We are heading down now, but any time you feel like it, please join us.  All of your children are waiting for you...!"
The voice was very loud, and the door was being noisily pounded on.
There was no way that it wouldn't reach Kinzo's ears.
............It was reaching him.
However, he ignored it anyways.

However, unlike the time he was being called down for lunch, he did not get into a rage.
......Kinzo was now simply calm at heart, ...it was almost as though he had gained a far-sightedness by turning himself over to fate.
"I'm not interested even in dinner, even in my sons' faces.  ............I will only leave here when Beatrice is resurrected or when I am chosen as a sacrifice for the key.  The roulette of demons has already started spinning.  What meaning does dinner have at this point........."
Acting as though the painfully loud banging on the door completely failed to enter his hearing...
...and still in his philosophic state, Kinzo silently thought about his next chess move...
Just as always, Kinzo's figure could not be seen anywhere in the dining hall.
Krauss, wearing a bitter smile, returned with Nanjo.
"Just as always, Father is not feeling well.  He truly regrets missing this once-a-year opportunity to sit together with his gathered relatives."
Eva and Rudolf sniggered.

Judging by Kinzo's character, he didn't regret it at all.  ...and none of his relatives regretted that he hadn't appeared either.

"Then why don't we start dinner.  Gohda, begin."
"Certainly.  Well then, let me begin."

When Gohda was told to begin the family conference dinner, his highlight scene for the whole year, he nodded, grinning broadly.
"......Umm, I was wondering, who was it that lent Maria an umbrella?"
When Rosa timidly cut through the silence of the dining hall, everyone in the dining hall noticed.

"...Umbrella?  What's going on?"
"Umm......  A short while back, when Maria was in the rose garden and it started raining... it seems she borrowed a white umbrella from someone, and I wanted to thank them..."

"It wasn't one of us.  After Rosa went out, we moved over to our room and were having a 'friendly' chat the whole time."
"Haha, ...that's right.  After that, the siblings had a real friendly chat."

The word friendly fell awkwardly from Hideyoshi's lips, so that even those that hadn't been there realized that it hadn't been a pleasant conversation.

"At the very least, it certainly couldn't have been me, Eva, Rudolf, or even Hideyoshi-san or Kyrie-san."
"We were together the whole time, even after Natsuhi nee-san and Rosa nee-san left.  The whole time until the meal started."

"Nii-san went up to the study with Genji-san to call Father.  At that time, the rest of us went straight to the dining hall.  So it wasn't one of us.  ...Couldn't it have been a servant kind enough to lend an umbrella?"
"So, Gohda-san?"

"...I have been in the kitchen the whole time preparing.  My sincere apologies..."

Gohda looked like he slightly regretted that he could have looked so cool if it had been him.
At that time, Shannon and Kumasawa appeared, pushing a serving cart loaded with hors d'oeuvres.

"Then what about Kumasawa-san or Shannon-chan?"
"...Yes?  Have I made some mistake...?"
Shannon shrunk, having come in part way and mistakenly thinking that she was being accused of making some error.

"No you haven't.  When Maria-chan was alone in the rose garden, it started to rain.  Someone gave her an umbrella.  Rosa oba-san said that she wanted to thank that person."

"......Uu-.  ......Beatrice..."
Maria, her mouth a thin line, said the witch's name in a small voice.
Rosa oba-san explained the situation one more time.
As she did, Kumasawa-san cackled.

"Hoh-hoh-ho.  It wasn't us.  Shannon-san and I were preparing the rooms together, so we did not go outside."
"...Yes.  ......I apologize for not being able to help......"

"Preparing the rooms?  What do you mean by that?"
"...............Because of this rain, we thought that it would be difficult for all of the guests to return to the guesthouse, so the servants were ordered to prepare the guest rooms inside the mansion."

"...Re-ally?  How thoughtful.  That's right, it would be rude to chase us outside in the middle of this rain."
"Could ya' give it a rest..."
"Yes.  We received the order from Madam, and I, Kumasawa-san, and Kanon-kun were preparing the rooms.  ...Then it became time for dinner, and since he was ordered by Genji-sama to go to the guesthouse and call the kids, Kanon-kun left."

"Yes.  In that case, did Kanon-san find Maria on the way to the guesthouse and hand her the umbrella?"
"......Uu-.  W-ro-ng--!!"
The person who had actually received the umbrella denied it.
Rosa was troubled.

All she wanted to do was give a word of thanks to the person who had lent the umbrella, but she couldn't find them.
And she had thought that asking like this with everyone gathered for dinner would work immediately...

"...Then, Natsuhi nee-san?"
"I'm sorry.  After everyone's 'friendly' chat, my headache was so bad that I have been resting in my room.  Therefore, I did not go outside."

".........Then who?  George-kun and the kids?  ......That can't be right."
"No, it wasn't us.  We were watching television in the guesthouse the whole time."
"Actually, we thought that Maria had just gone back to the mansion with Oba-san..."

"Then Kanon-kun came, and he asked whether Maria was with us.  That was when we first realized that she wasn't in the mansion.  In the first place, if it were me, before lending her an umbrella, I'd have grabbed her hand and pulled her under a roof."
Rosa was completely baffled.
One by one, the relatives and the servants were claiming that it wasn't them.
...Even though it really wasn't something anyone would need to hide.

With that, by process of elimination, the number of people it could have been wasn't large.

"Of course, it wasn't me.  Right after it began raining, I visited Kinzo-san's room, and was playing chess with him until just now."
"......Which means that it also wasn't Grandfather."
"Wait a sec...  Isn't this starting to get a bit weird?  Who's left?"
"Then, ... who?  ...Genji-san?  Huh?  Um, wait a second, don't get me wrong.  It's not like I'm searching for some culprit or anything.  All I want to do is, as a mother, thank that person who gave Maria an umbrella in the middle of the rain......!"
...Giving an umbrella to a girl loitering in the rain was something to be praised, not hidden.

...Despite that, no one raised their hand.
......Why?

Everyone started whispering about how strange this had gotten...

"......Calm down, Rosa.  Why don't we just ask the person who was lent the umbrella?"

That's what everyone had been thinking since the beginning.
They were all scratching their heads at why she didn't just ask Maria, who had been given the umbrella.

However, Rosa bit her lower lip.
After all, she already knew how Maria would answer if asked.
"Thass right!  Just like Rudolf-kun said.  Maria-chan, tell yer uncle!  Who lent ya the umbrella?"
"Beatrice!"

The dining hall was wrapped in silence for an instant, but that soon broke and it was wrapped in laughter.

"Hahahaha.  I see, Beatrice, the witch of the forest, felt pity and lent her an umbrella.  What a nice story.  Rosa, there you go."
"......Nn,............Nnnn."

Rosa couldn't believe it.
...Even though she just wanted to say thanks for the umbrella, why did everything have to be so clouded in smoke...

"Uu-!  Just like Krauss oji-san said.  Beatrice lent it to me!  Uu-uu-!"
"Hahahahaha...  Isn't that great?  I'm really jealous of such purity.  What do you think, everyone?  Hahahaha..."

Krauss was laughing with a face that was clearly mocking her, but Maria, apparently feeling that her claim was being believed, was overjoyed.
"......How did that work?  Does that mean a witch really appeared and lent her an umbrella?"
Jessica asked me in a small voice that wouldn't carry over to Maria, who was sitting across from me.

"Has Maria ever been the type to joke?"

If we had heard that kind of story pop out of that old bastard's mouth, we'd have just taken it as another joke.

......However, it was hard to explain it that way when Maria said it.  This was getting pretty unnerving...

"No way.  She's always been frank and serious.  Hasn't she always just swallowed up jokes that were supposed to be obvious lies?  I've never even heard of her cracking a joke."

Rosa oba-san probably knew that better than anyone.
It appeared that because of this weird situation, she had no idea what was going on anymore.

"So, if Maria says that she borrowed an umbrella from Beatrice, that definitely was Beatrice?"
".........We're talking about Maria here, so I can't think of it as some kind of metaphor or joke.  ...It might be best to take what she says at face value."

"Then what's going on?  Are you saying that Genji-san or someone put on that fancy dress from the portrait and gave Maria the umbrella?"
"...I'm not sure about that...  Actually, that's what I want to know."

Jessica shrugged jokingly, but her expression wasn't completely joking.
Once the hors d'oeuvres were set out and Gohda showed off his vast store of knowledge, the meal began.

A couple casual chats broke out here and there, but they seemed somehow distant.  In this silence, the sound of the rain snuck into the dining hall.
Kumasawa and Shannon, pushing the serving cart, ran into Genji and Kanon on their way to the kitchen.

"...Oh, it's Genji-san.  Did you lend Maria-san an umbrella?"
".........Umbrella?  What are you talking about?"

"Right.  ......I heard that when it started raining, Maria-sama was alone in the rose garden.  ...And it seems that she borrowed an umbrella from someone there, but we don't know who it was."

"It wasn't me.  After all, I thought that Maria-sama was in the guesthouse.  When Battler-sama first found her, she was already holding a white umbrella."
"My apologies, but it was not me either..."
".........Then, you don't think,......the Master,possibly?"

Everyone in both the dining hall and the place where they were standing had stated that it wasn't them.

Which meant that only Kinzo was left, but...

"Maybe he went walking down the corridor for some reason, when, by coincidence, he saw Maria-sama in the rose garden without even an umbrella..."
"............The Master does not particularly like Maria-sama."

"I feel the same.  ............I can't imagine that he would, for Maria-sama's sake, go to all of the trouble of going down the stairs to carry an umbrella to her."
"Oh, my......how troublesome.  So that means that the one who lent Maria-sama an umbrella really was Beatrice-sama?  Hoh-hoh-hoh-ho..."

Kumasawa laughed, just like the relatives in the dining hall had laughed it off.
......She couldn't think of any other way to break through the smoke veiling the current situation.

Just then, the dry sound of hands clapping twice rung through the hallway.
They all turned around at once to see that it was Gohda, who was coming out of the dining hall.
"Alright, everyone.  When serving a dinner, proper timing in setting the table is essential.  Please immediately see to setting out the soup.  Genji-san, the women are in the middle of an important job, so please don't get in their way."
"....................."

Kanon glared at Gohda for being rude to Genji, a person Kanon respected.

Genji, realizing this, patted Kanon once on the shoulder as if to warn him.
Kanon reluctantly turned away, and returned his expression to normal.

"......Obey Gohda's order.  Let us now hurry to prepare the dinner table."
"Come on, we have no time.  Don't just dawdle around!  Hurry...!"
Gohda stole the serving cart from Shannon and steadily pushed it forwards towards the kitchen.

"...Then please allow us to return to the kitchen.  ...After all, Gohda-san's temper is very short, ...hoh-hoh-ho."
"P, please excuse me as well..."
Kumasawa and Shannon left.
Only Genji and Kanon remained.
Through the window, the darkness of the rainy night could be seen, along with the occasional thunderbolt.

"............Genji-sama.  Did Beatrice-sama really,.........return?"
".....................I don't know."
"......I will inform the Master."

"That is not necessary.  .........If she has truly returned, she will eventually appear before the Master of her own accord.  .........Furthermore, she is a fickle person.  It would be pointless to report to the Master only to find that she does not appear..."

"...............I wonder if this means that the Master's ceremony has already begun."

"...Probably.  However, that has nothing to do with furniture like us.  ......We must return the favor that we received from the Master...until our final moments."
".........Yes.  ...That is furniture's...............duty."
The thunder crashed once more.
Except for that instant when the lightning lit up the sky, all that could be seen out of the window was the darkness of night.

Just as humans rule when the sun is up, the time when the sun is down is ruled by those that are not human.
The darkness of night that now surrounded Rokkenjima was ruled, not by the Ushiromiya family, but by another master.

Did this Master take pity on Maria when she was alone and pummeled by the rain in the rose garden, and lend her an umbrella...?
Kanon looked at the rose garden's lights, dimly visible beyond the window.
The dim lights were not enough to illuminate the surrounding area.
Looking at those lights felt like making eye contact with the witch, and Kanon uselessly averted his gaze.

...If he didn't, it felt like his eyes would be absorbed by that light......
Can the weather change how people act?
You often hear stories about how things like atmospheric pressure can influence people's moods and physical health.

For some time now, everyone had been struggling to clear the gloomy atmosphere, but any conversation was quickly cut off, and in the end the dining hall was simply buried by the sound of the rain.
Dessert was some kind of chocolate cake accompanied by pear sherbet.
Gohda-san enthusiastically explained the recipe as soon as this final dish was presented, but I quickly forgot the details.
The guest of honor, Grandfather, was absent, the weather was horrible, and the person who had lent Maria the umbrella was still a mystery.

When dinner ended, no one felt even one bit refreshed.
...It was too late now, but we realized painfully that taste wasn't the only important part of a meal.  The whole atmosphere was also critical.

Gohda-san, the supposed conductor of this musical piece called dinner, did his best to enliven the place, dropping little jokes left and right, but apparently not one of them succeeded.
After taking orders for after-dinner coffee, tea, and orange juice, he left for the kitchen.
As soon as he disappeared, Krauss oji-san spoke.

"......My, my.  How truly irksome that this dinner, which Gohda worked so hard to create, has been so poorly received."
".........Yes, seriously.  It feels like nothing would taste good today.  It's just that kind of mood."

"Ho.  I want to know why you feel that way.  Sometime later, allow me, as your older brother, to help cheer you up."

Eva oba-san grimaced slightly.
...I had already heard that she was not on good terms with Krauss oji-san, but now I could clearly feel it.
When I looked around, I noticed that my father and Rosa oba-san were also grimacing.

Anyhow, it looked like there was something besides the weather that was troubling all of them.

"......Both Eva oba-san and my father,...they aren't looking too happy."
"Really?  I don't think so."

I asked Natsuhi oba-san, who was sitting on my right, ...but it looked like she was also in a bad mood.
She snapped back as though she was absolutely not interested.

"Well, our adult conversation got a little complicated.  's not somethin' that kids like you need to worry about, Battler-kun.  Hahahahaha, Right?  Natsuhi-san?  Kyrie-san?"

Hideyoshi oji-san laughed as he spoke, but without his usual brightness, so I could vaguely imagine just how complicated their adult conversation had actually become.

On top of that, even Natsuhi oba-san and Kyrie-san, the people he had directed his comment to, ignored him as though they hadn't heard anything.
...I didn't know what kind of conversation they had been having while the kids were away, but it reminded me of how Father had said he had stomach cramps when we had arrived at the mansion.

The family conference might have been a playful reunion to us kids, but it was definitely different for the adults...
When Hideyoshi oji-san was ignored by the other adults and an awkward silence fell over the room, Kyrie-san spoke up.
"......We were talking about how the kids' careers would turn out.  What would you do in the future?  Just drift on to college?  Wouldn't that be a little disheartening as a starting line for the long race of life?"

"Hey! Wait a sec...  Kyrie-san, if you start talking about something like that in the middle of a meal, it won't digest well and we'll all get constipated, ri~ght?"
"Wahahaha! Thass it, thass it!  We were talking about Battler-kun and Jessica-chan's careers!  Ya can't take the future too seriously!  Wahahaha..."

Hideyoshi heartily agreed as if they really had been talking about that, but that was probably wrong.

Kyrie-san had been obviously trying to avoid talking about something.
However, if Kyrie-san had determined that this was the best course of action for now, then she was probably right.

Taking this into account, I'll cast aside my suspicions as to the cause behind Eva oba-san and Dad's bad moods...
At long last, the serving cart returned, filled with coffee and tea.
Kumasawa-san and Shannon-chan served it to everyone.
Gohda-san then explained that, with this, tonight's dinner was over.
If I had been able to eat in a more cheerful mood, it might have been the best dinner in my life.
It was a shame that this best dinner couldn't have been had under the best conditions.

"Uu-!  George onii-chan, is dinner over now?  Over?"
"Yes.  With this, dinner is finished."
"That's not ladylike.  Stay in your seat, and calmly drink up."
"...Uu-."

Maria looked like she was really excited about the occasionally crashing thunder.
Maybe she wanted to quickly finish eating and run over to the window.
She had been fidgeting for a while, waiting for the meal to end.

......Some people are afraid of thunder, while others find it interesting, and Maria was apparently one of the latter.

Therefore, when she heard from George-aniki that dinner was over, a huge smile broke across her face.
She then stood from her seat, took out her hand bag - which she had set under her seat, never having left it even while she was eating - and began fishing around inside of it.
No one seemed particularly concerned with this behavior...

".........What's this?  This, where did you get it?"
George was the first to notice it.
As he spoke, Battler also noticed.
When they looked, they noticed that Maria was now holding a beautiful western-style envelope.
On the front of the envelope, the Ushiromiya family crest - the One-winged Eagle - was done in gold leaf.

Furthermore, the fact that it was sealed with dark-red wax made it clear that this was not something that Maria could have brought as a prank.
"......Maria-chan, what is that?"
It seemed that Natsuhi had also noticed the strangeness of the envelope that Maria was holding.  Because her voice sounded too serious to be admonishing a small child, the other relatives around her finally noticed.

"What happened, Natsuhi nee-san?"
"............What is, that?"
"Maria...where did you pick that up...?"
"That envelope has,......Kinzo-san's......"
As Nanjo muttered that, even us kids could understand why everyone seemed to be frozen solid.

The envelope that Maria held was one of the Ushiromiya family head's custom-made envelopes for private use.
......In other words, it could only mean one thing.
This envelope contained a message from Kinzo.

"Ho............What is an envelope like that doing here...?"
"......It, ......it looks like something interesting has jumped out at us."
"......Ju, just show it to me...!"
"Uu-!!  No way, Maria will read it!  Maria was told to read it to everyone!!"
Hideyoshi oji-san tried to snatch the envelope out from Maria's hands, but she protected it as though hugging it, and didn't let go.
"Hideyoshi-san, you can't use all of your strength against a child..........Maria-chan, where did you get this envelope?"

"Uu-!  I got it from Beatrice when she gave me the umbrella.  She told Maria to read it to everyone after the meal was over!  Maria is the witch's me, me..., 'Messenger'!  Uu-!"

"Messenger...?  Ihihihi, the witch of the island sure likes to mess around."
Battler tried to joke about it, but no one went along with him.

"...............I, I wonder what's written inside of it.  Maria-chan...?"
"Uu-.  Read it!  Uu-!"
Maria casually opened the envelope.

...It was sealed only with wax, so she just had to remove the sealing wax to open it.
...That sealing wax fell onto the desk.
Hideyoshi hastily picked it up and stared fixedly at it.

He then set it in the center of the table, where Natsuhi, Kyrie, and Nanjo glared at it.
In the sealing wax, the Ushiromiya family crest - which was also Kinzo's personal crest - the One-winged Eagle was imprinted.

".........This is the family head's personal crest..."
".........I know because I have received letters from Kinzo-san before.  Without a doubt, this is Kinzo-san's wax seal."
"But, in this mansion, couldn't there be several identical seals?  For example, if there was some kind of stamp for wax seals, couldn't someone other that Kinzo-san have sealed it?"

"No, Kinzo-san would always use a ring on his finger, his "Proof of the Head of the Ushiromiya family", when he sealed the wax.  This shape and complex design is definitely Kinzo-san's seal..."
"That is not necessarily so.  Anyone in the family must have received a letter from Father at least once.  We can't eliminate the possibility that someone, using that wax as a model, created a fake seal to pass themselves off as Father."

"I agree with Aniki.  No matter how the seal resembles Father's, we can't prove that it is the real thing.  Therefore, it doesn't prove that this envelope came from Father."
"I feel the same way.  I cannot approve of arbitrarily deciding that this is Father's letter only by the seal in the wax.  Doctor Nanjo, couldn't you use more discretion with your vague words...?!"

"............I apologize...  I said too much..."
One after another, all of the siblings, from Krauss on downwards, rejected Nanjo's statement, saying that the envelope that Maria was holding had not necessarily been sent by Kinzo.

They were afraid.

Kinzo's intentions were written in there, and they feared from the bottoms of their hearts that it might be some decidedly unfavorable announcement regarding the inheritance.

"...Maria... The person who gave you that envelope was the same person who lent you that umbrella, right...?"
"Uu-!"
"I don't know what 'uu-' means!  Is it true?!"
"Uu-.........Yes.  Uu-."

"So, in other words, ...the witch, Beatrice, gave Maria-chan that envelope along with the umbrella...?"
"Uu-!"
Maria nodded forcefully.

"...I, I agree with my husband.  It's a dubious letter handed over by some suspicious person.  It's not even worth reading."
"There's nothing wrong with just reading it, right?"
Battler said it to Jessica in a small voice, trying to act tough, but Natsuhi heard him clearly and glared at him with threatening eyes.

"A, and then, err, ...Beatrice told you to read it after the meal was over, right Maria?"
"Uu-!"
".........It's alright, everyone.  This isn't Grandfather's envelope, it's Beatrice's.  Who cares who wrote it, why can't we just hear what's inside before we decide?"

"Th, ...that's right.  Even if Father didn't necessarily write it, I'm still concerned about its contents.  ......Maria-chan, I'm sorry I tried to take it from you by force earlier!  I apologize, so will you read it aloud in front of everyone?"

"............Maria.  Read it."
"Uu-."
As all of the relatives stared fiercely at Maria, she spread the letter open with a rustle...

"......Do you think it really is Father's letter?"
"Impossible.  Whenever Father has announced something to us in the past, if he didn't do it directly, he would always send Genji, right?  ...I can't believe that he would use such a joke-like approach."

"That's right.  Maria, a messenger?  That's seriously not one of his hobbies...  Rosa, could this be Maria-chan trying to surprise us with some kind of hidden talent...?"
"..................Well, Maria's not really a kid who is capable of something so clever."
"Read it.  Uu-."

The words came out of Maria's mouth, but for some reason it felt like her voice was different than usual.
Everyone went suddenly silent...
"I welcome you to Rokkenjima, members of the Ushiromiya family.  I am serving Kinzo-sama as the Alchemy counsellor for this house, and my name is Beatrice."

".........How silly...!"
"Shut up!"
"I have been serving him as stipulated by a long-lasting contract; but this very day, that contract has been pronounced terminated by Kinzo-sama.  In consequence, from this day on, please acknowledge my resignation as Alchemy counsellor for this house."

"......How foolish, what nonsense...!"
"I, I can't stand to listen to it...!"
"And now, there is one part of the contract that I cannot let go on unexplained to you all.  I, Beatrice, did lend a vast amount of gold to Kinzo-sama, under certain terms.  Those terms are, that by the termination of the contract, all the gold will be returned to me.  And also, that I am entitled to receive everything of the Ushiromiya family as interest."
"R, ridiculous!!"
"...I, it's been ridiculous from the very beginning..."

"That must be the main point, right?  Doesn't it sound just like one of those contracts with the devil?  Like, when the contract is ended, it comes back to collect interest.  Is she trying to grab some retirement money for her old age or something?  What a cheeky witch."
"Battler-kun, you shouldn't make fun of it now..."

Battler made a face as if to ask, "If I can't make fun of this, what can I make fun of?"
At the same time, some of the adults' faces were pale, while others looked completely shocked.
"Upon hearing this, you will most likely lament at how ruthless Kinzo-sama could have been.  However, Kinzo-sama did nevertheless add a special clause in order to give you a chance to preserve your wealth and honor.  From the second that clause is fulfilled, I shall lose the right to recover the gold, and interest, for all time."

"......A special clause...?"
"Wh, what is it...?!"
"Special clause.  When the contract is terminated, Beatrice is within her rights to recover the gold and interest accumulated.  However, should someone discover the aforementioned gold, Beatrice shall renounce all rights to its recovery for all time.  From now on, the collecting of interest shall take place; however, if but a single person fulfills the special clause, I will give back even the interest that I already took.  Furthermore, as the first step of the collecting, I have taken possession of the symbol of the inheritance, the Ring of the Head of the Ushiromiya Family.  I ask you to please confirm this by the wax seal."
".........Does it really say that...?!  That Father would relinquish his ring is unthinkable...!"
Krauss was staring at the sealing wax as though he was trying to burn a hole through it.
Eva and Rudolf were doing the same over his shoulder!

"I, I'm sure I had the odd feeling that something was missing from Kinzo's finger when we were playing chess........."
"Doctor Nanjo!  Don't say something so careless just because of a vague memory!"

"We can't prove its authenticity here.  We can only determine whether Father has really handed over his ring and whether this letter tells the truth by asking him directly."
"Th, that's right.  It's just as Kyrie-san says..."

".........Do you really think......that Kinzo-san will tell you...?  After all, that person's thoughts are sometimes impossible to predict using common sense..."
"No matter what happens, it's still nonsense...!  In the first place, the illusion of gold itself is a fake.  If you want to talk about nonexistent gold, leave me out of it!"

"But, this is the witch speaking, right?  About how the inheritance and all of the assets would be handed over to the one who finds the gold, right?  So, could this mean that Beatrice-sama is Father's legal advisor, or maybe in charge of his funds...?"

"W, we can't possibly trust some strange person who entrusts such a suspicious paper to a child!"
"Aniki..., let's be frank.  Is it possible that someone you don't know is actually handling Father's assets?!"

"N, no, that's impossible!  As the agent to the head, I am in control over all of Father's assets!  There shouldn't be anyone who can freely do that without me knowing it!"
"So, in other words, there are some assets that you are not in control of, Krauss nii-san?"
"How foolish, there's no way something like that exists!"

"...............It does exist.  Some of Father's property that Nii-san doesn't control."
"There is no way that something like that exists!!"
"No, it does.  ............That'd be Father's, no, Beatrice's hidden gold!!"
"Let me make it simple.  In short, Father has some trusted confidante that Aniki doesn't even know about.  Furthermore, this person has always been in charge of watching and managing the gold.  It's possible that this person is a dilettante of a very rich family who provided his financing in the first place under the guise of a devil's contract."

".........Could it be that this confidante called Beatrice is trying to test which of the sons and daughters is most fitting to be financed by her gold?"

What Kyrie said was something that all of the siblings wanted to be made clear.

Upon reflection, they realized that Kinzo's strange epitaph had always hung in the hall beneath the portrait of the witch, and while it had long been whispered that the one who solved the puzzle would receive everything, ......no one had ever clearly stated it.

It was just something that everyone had hoped might be true.
That had, right here, right now, been clearly expressed by Beatrice's letter!

It clearly specified that everything of the Ushiromiya family would be given to the one who found the gold.
"As for the cache of the gold, Kinzo-sama has already edicted it in the epitaph beneath my portrait.  Those who are able to read the epitaph shall be equal before me.  If you manage to find the gold, I will most certainly give everything back to you.  With that, please enjoy to the fullest your battle of wits with Kinzo-sama.  I pray from the bottom of my heart that tonight turns out to be an intellectual, and yet elegant, night.――Beatrice the Golden."
"......Father, I know you can hear me!  Please respond!"
The door to Kinzo's study was being violently, violently beaten against over and over again like a percussion instrument.
The screams coming from the other side were Krauss's, Rudolf's, and sometimes Eva's voices.

It was the siblings, who were trying to intrude upon Kinzo's study to question him about the truth behind that mysterious letter.
Kinzo was eating.

An elegant tablecloth was set over the desk, and the fabulous dinner that had colored the table down in the dining hall was once again laid out.
Kinzo continued his meal in silence.
...Shannon, taking away an empty plate, looked uncomfortably between the door being beaten on and Kinzo's face.

"............Everyone is calling for you, but......but what should I do...?"
"...Leave it.  God and I value silence during dinner."
"Should I silence them?"
"There's no need.  It does not even reach my ears."
Kinzo coolly tasted his food.
Genji quietly lowered his head and took a single step back.
...As he did, Kanon, who stood in reserve like a shadow behind and to the side of Genji, opened his mouth.
".........Since Maria-sama received a letter from Beatrice-sama, I wonder whether they want to test its authenticity."
"...Hahahaha............Those fools, did they start already?............Come, Beatrice.  There's nothing lacking in the coins that have been wagered.  Shall we enjoy this night to the fullest?  ......I don't feel like losing.  Your smile is mine for all eternity.  If I could see it one more time, I wouldn't regret losing my wealth, my honor, or even my life.
.........Alright, the roulette has begun to spin.  Which pocket will the ball fall into?  Noir?  Rouge?  Or house takes everything?  Come, you may begin, Beatrice.  Show me once again what I call the power of your miracle...!"

Legend of the Gold

Sat, Oct 4 1986 10:00PM
The strange letter that the witch had entrusted Maria with had wiped all memories of dinner from our minds.
Maria was repeatedly barraged with questions by Rosa oba-san and the other parents and became increasingly ill-tempered when they refused to believe her.

If I tried to raise my voice in this kind of situation, I would just be ignored.
Our parents were all stirred up, firing back and forth about the distribution of the assets, and completely forgetting that we children were even there.

...Even though I'd already figured that they had been talking like this in the shadows, I hadn't thought they would be so blunt.  It gave all of us kids a considerable shock.
...From what we could overhear, all of the parents wanted more money as soon as possible.
Back and forth about Grandfather's inheritance.
Back and forth about the distribution of the gold if it was found.
About advance payments and cash.

......It was so despicable, I couldn't bear to watch, even though one of them was my father.
...It looked like Jessica felt the same way.
Since no one particularly needed us, we left our seats and went to hang out somewhere apart from the parents...
".........I see.  Now I really understand why Grandfather didn't want to show his face during meals.  I am so disillusioned with our parents now!  The money, the inheritance!  How could they act like that right out in the open!"

"Well I'm already completely disillusioned with that old bastard.  There's no way I could think any worse of him.  Ihihi!"
"Th, that's exactly the same as me!  However......, that freakin' shocked me.  Shocked me to the bottom of my heart..."

Jessica looked down at the floor, irritated.

...She was always talking about how bad her parents were, but maybe she hadn't really felt that way deep inside.
I could realize that from the depths of Jessica's shock.

"......You are all minors and were brought up by your parents, so you might not understand, ......but getting money is neither a simple nor a pretty thing.  Since you are minors now, I won't try to force you to understand.  ......But still, I want you to realize that your parents are just doing their best in their own way."
".........Oh great, George-aniki's gotten all mature."

"I know that George nii-san has become a full-fledged member of society and is working hard, ......but does that mean that once you start talking about money and assets, you turn into an shameless, greedy vulture...?"

"............If you're talking about me, no, I wouldn't want to do that.  However, when your family and your employees, your subordinates and their families are all counting on you, ...there are some times when you must fight."
".........I hate that kind of fight.  That back and forth about Grandfather's inheritance, it just makes me wanna puke."

Jessica pretended to spit violently.
...That harsh reaction made the depths of her pain very clear.

"...Let's stop talking about this.  All of this about Grandfather's hidden gold, about property and inheritance is our parents' problem, not ours."
"I agree.  ......At the very least, I think that being considerate and staying out of the parents' way when they're talking is the duty of their children."
"......Heh.  ...Sounds pretty boring..."
Everyone knows the phrase "Adults are filthy", ...but we had now seen that for ourselves, and that really did give us a shock.

George-aniki was now pretty much an adult, and I had already been disillusioned with my dad in the first place, so the shock wasn't that big for us, ......but it looked like it was different for Jessica.
It looked like the shock that Jessica had received was even bigger than I had thought.

.........This girl, she was always talking badly about her parents, but it looked like she hadn't changed at all on the inside since long ago.
...Even now, she was still a pure-hearted and delicate person who couldn't doubt others.

I'm sure she respected her parents as much as anyone else did.
......And then her parents started raging about, going 'Money money inheritance inheritance, my money!' right in front of all of the other parents and the children.  It was no surprise that the shock of hearing that was so big...

"...Jessica-chan.  Please don't start hating your mother and father.  ......I won't ask you to understand them, but at least don't hate them."
"I get it, just leave me alone a bit...!!"

Six years ago, I would have further taunted the dejected Jessica, ......I guess I really have grown over six years.

I realized that it would be better to leave Jessica as she was right now...
Jessica suddenly looked away sulkily and left the parlor.

...She probably wanted to be left alone for now.
I could do nothing but wordlessly watch her back as she left...

"......Come to think of it, I wonder where Maria-chan went."
"She's probably around the portrait hiding in a corner."

Maria, who truly looked up to witches, had expected that coming in direct contact with Beatrice and receiving the letter as proof would be an event that would surprise everyone and make them happy.

However, the adults had doubted its authenticity, and without swallowing Maria's story, had thoroughly bombarded her with questions.
It was hard for me to imagine how much that must have hurt Maria.

I couldn't speak to Maria or Jessica.
...In the end, George-aniki and I just abandoned ourselves to the sound of the falling rain in the dark night...

"I wonder what's happening with that typhoon.  ...Maybe there's some news."
George-aniki started walking over to the corner of the parlor where the television was.

He hadn't called me over, and I really couldn't have cared less where the typhoon was on the sea now.  So without going over to the television, I loitered around the window.

"......The wind hasn't picked up that much here, but I wonder if it's horrible over the sea.  I did hear from the weather report that there was a severe storm warning."
"Ah, Kyrie-san.  ...How's the adult's conversation been piling up."
It looked like she caught the sarcasm.
Kyrie-san shrugged.

"...That stomachache of a discussion could continue all night.  It will get nasty."
"Well then, please enjoy playing vultures to Grandfather's property as much as you'd like.  ...It's disgusting."

"I'll agree with you on that.  If I could just slip away like you, I would do it.  ...Unfortunately, I can't.  Even if I'm not allowed to speak.  My partner needs me, right?"
Kyrie-san took a deep breath, smiling bitterly.

That's right.
They probably wouldn't let Kyrie-san, who married into the family, speak.

Still, as Dad's partner, she had no choice but to stay by his side and support him.
......She must have had to bear the full brunt of this mental pressure, much more than I did.

I wasn't going to apologize, but, realizing that I had spoken too harshly, I cut the sarcasm for the time being...

"So how does it look?  Are they still stuck on the topic of the mysterious witch, Beatrice?"

"...More or less.  Those four siblings are always piling up secret agreements when they come together to discuss the distribution of Grandfather's inheritance after his death.  ...They're saying that some unknown fifth person has appeared and is trying to make things even more complicated, and there's no way that'll make for a peaceful conversation.  Just when you think they're snarling at each other, they'll set up a common front.  ......Natsuhi nee-san's not the only one getting headaches."

On the one hand, they all want a larger portion than the other siblings, so they are all rivals, but on the other hand, they don't want one yen to be snatched up by anyone other than the siblings, so they are also all allies.

I haven't been told the details, but they argue on and on about their ceasefire agreement and rules to prevent anyone from getting ahead, under which their portions are protected, and which can, in the worst case scenario, even become grounds for legal action.

......That they would go this far to preserve their shares was more than shocking...

"So, basically, Beatrice is like an assassin sent by Grandfather.  ...He probably wanted to scare the hell out of his children for just talking about the distribution of the inheritance without him.  Ihihi!"

"Who is this Beatrice, I wonder?  If she is who she says she is, then she's a mystery that no one knew about until today, and she also knew about the existence of Grandfather's hidden gold.  Furthermore, she was even entrusted with the head's ring.  ...She must truly have been trusted by him."

"Well, obviously I don't think she's a witch riding around on a broom.  ......But she was surely a mysterious person who rated being called a witch."

"If only Maria-chan would go into more detail about that.  ......Even though she's just a little girl, everyone has been just chewing her up over this.  They really scared her, and some things that they might have asked now can't be asked.  I wonder if those people have ever even read 'The North Wind and the Sun'."

"What is for certain is that Maria received a letter from a person who took the name Beatrice.  ......Entrusting Maria with a letter and hiding away even now, when she could have just appeared and talked to us directly...she sure is shy for a mystery person.  Hahahahaha..."

"......Hey, Battler-kun.  Do you think that someone called Beatrice actually exists?"
"Who knows?  Doesn't it really seem like a false name?  Like she's Grandfather's representative, so she was permitted to take the name of the witch from his delusions?"

"No, that's not what I meant.  Right now, there are a total of 18 people here on Rokkenjima.  ......Do you think that there is a 19th person?"

Are there really 18 people on this island?
Wondering about that, I began counting on my fingers, and it really did come out to 18 people.

"Do I think that a 19th person exists, you say.  ......What exactly do you mean?"
"Just what I said.  ......It looks like the person who lent Maria that umbrella was not one of us 18.  Therefore, isn't it valid to think that a 19th person exists, and that this was the person who lent Maria the umbrella?"
"............Well, ......that does make sense."

"Then, where exactly is this person now?  At the very least, she must have been on this island when it started raining.  And since that time, the weather has become progressively worse, so taking a boat out would be pretty much impossible.  In that case, that person must still be on the island hiding from the rain somewhere.  ......And without being spotted by any of us?"

".........Certainly, all of us have been randomly prowling around all over the mansion and the guesthouse, but no one has bumped into a 19th person....Even so, this island is huge.  There might be other places to hide from the rain outside the mansion and the guesthouse."
At about this time, I began to realize what direction Kyrie-san's doubts were taking us in.

Kyrie-san was denying that a 19th person existed.
......Beatrice was one of us 18.

...In other words, she thought that someone we knew well was tricking us.
"If Beatrice was really her name, this person would definitely be the most honored of guests.  The most honored of confidants, trusted by Grandfather.  ...There's no way that Grandfather wouldn't give that kind of person a warm reception.  She would surely have been ushered into the mansion.  However, we haven't seen anyone."

"Wait a second, isn't this line of reasoning a little too hasty?  Yes, no one spotted them, but that doesn't mean that you can deny the possibility that a 19th person exists, right?

Maybe, for some reason, they landed on the island stealthily and have been hiding ever since.  ......It's what they call the Devil's Proof.  It's easy to prove that something exists.  If this Beatrice appears in front of us all and says hi, then everything is resolved.  However, it's impossible to prove that there is no 19th person."

"......Yes.  Battler-kun, your way of reasoning isn't bad.  In the current situation, there's not enough information to either accept that a 19th person exists or deny it.  ......But if you turn the chessboard over and think of it that way, we can be nearly sure that the existence of a 19th person is impossible."

'Turn the chessboard over' was one of Kyrie-san's favorite phrases.
...I had also been influenced by those words, and used them myself from time to time.

When you got stuck trying to find a move in chess or Shogi, by turning the board over and looking at everything from your opponent's standpoint, you could often see a strategy that would give you the upper hand.

It meant turning things around and putting yourself in your opponent's shoes.

"......You see?  Let's say that that a 19th person called Beatrice actually exists.  That person must have managed, without being seen by anyone, to stealthily arrive on this island and remain hidden since then.  Maybe they had some reason, okay?  In that case, why did they go to all of the trouble of appearing before Maria and handing her the letter?"

It really was a contradiction.

If they had some reason for hiding themselves, then they should have stayed hidden the whole time.  But even so, they had appeared openly in front of Maria.

"Then.........wait, Maria even said it.  Didn't she say that she had been made a messenger?  Since Maria was the youngest and looked the most innocent..."

"Why would they need a messenger?  If they just wanted a letter delivered to the family conference, they could have mailed it.  If they mailed it to each of the four siblings, they would be unable to ignore it.  There was no need for them to carry it themselves and secretly hand it over."
"..................That really.........does sound pretty weird."

"In the first place, if Beatrice existed, and she wanted to make her presence known to everyone, then she could have just openly presented herself to all of us.  Despite that, she chose the vague method of appearing through a little girl called Maria-chan, and only gave us an indistinct impression of who she was.  Contradiction.  Let's go a little deeper, shall we?

............She appeared in front of Maria, trying to give us the impression that a 19th person existed, and yet, she still hasn't appeared before us and is hiding somewhere at this very moment.  These are contradictions.  ......By keeping these in mind, you turn the chessboard over.

In short, there is some scheme by someone who wants to give the impression that there is a 19th person called Beatrice."

"......If this person wanted to hide, then they wouldn't have made their presence known.  And if they wanted to show themselves, they wouldn't have used the roundabout approach of entrusting someone with a letter.  ......Which means...?"

"It's simple.  Beatrice is one of the 18 people.  Which means that they want to create the illusion that there is someone outside of the 18 people.  ...The 19th person was revealed so spectacularly.  The only person who could profit from this would not be some 19th person in hiding.  It would be one of the original 18 people.  ......Of course, this reasoning is full of holes.  If you turn over even a few of its premises, it will simply fall apart.  But I think it is almost certainly correct."
This quickly became an pretty creepy topic.

Someone had lent Maria the umbrella and handed her the letter.
This couldn't have been one of the 18.
And yet, Beatrice was hidden amongst those 18.

What was that person planning, hiding their true form and pretending to be Beatrice...?

"I had suspected that it might have been Maria-chan playacting, but the contents of the message were extremely complicated, so it's hard to think that Maria-chan prepared it herself.  ......However, I can't deny the possibility that Maria-chan is working together with someone."
"W, wait, a sec..., Maria's a nine year old kid, right?!  What could she possibly be planning, and with who?!  And what about her serious, too honest, and obedient character?!"

"Yes, I also understand what kind of a person Maria-chan is.  ......But I think that's exactly why it's possible.  That girl's a dreamer who can't help but look up to and blindly accept the existence of witches.  So if a person appeared in front of her and said they were the witch Beatrice, Maria-chan would be so happy that she would just swallow it up, I think."

".........So you're saying that if someone disguised themselves by wearing that fancy dress from the portrait, tricking Maria wouldn't be that hard?"

"Of course, with that reasoning, all of us women would become the primary suspects.  ......Anyways, did Maria-chan encounter someone?  Learning the details of that question would be the best key to solving this riddle.

...But this key is being obstinately closed up inside her heart.  Everyone denied the existence of the witch without listening to her, and barraged her too much with questions about who Beatrice actually was.  ......Maria-chan probably won't open her heart to the adults now."
In the dim hall, in front of the portrait of Beatrice, ......Maria was sobbing.
"......Uu-...  Uu-.  ...No one believes Maria met with Beatrice!  ......Uu-......, Uu-......  Even though I showed them the letter Beatrice gave, they still don't believe...!  .........Uu-......u, ...u, ......hic..., hic!"

"Anyways, Maria-chan's holding the key.  The key to whether Beatrice is one of the 18 people or a 19th person."
"...Maria is stubborn, right?  That girl, when she gets angry, it's pretty hard to make her feel better."

"Battler-kun, I think that a kid like you would be better at cheering her up than an adult like me.  ...After she's feeling better, try asking.......I know you don't care about all this back and forth on the distribution of the inheritance, but don't you think this rich western mansion mystery situation is exciting?  Who in the world is this person who gave Maria-chan the letter?  ...It makes your intellectual curiosity ache."

"Even though it's connected to that boring money problem, it's pretty exciting and a really tough problem...  Adults can be pretty horrible."

I shrugged, surprised.
...But she had noticed it.

She had noticed the dejection I had felt because I had overheard our parents' turbulent discussion, and was probably trying to turn my mood around.

...She had at least managed make me feel good enough to hurl abuse.

......She wasn't my real mother, so I never felt like calling her Mom.
...But it did make me think 'she's a real adult'.

"Hey, brats, so this is where you were?  Kyrie, you really took your time fixing your makeup, didn't you?  From now on, I'll start wearing it too."
"I'm sorry.  A woman's makeup takes a long time.  ............So?  How has the discussion been without me?"
"Hehehe, I'm sure everything was all peaceful and harmonious."
Kyrie-san poked the weak spot under my arm with her elbow.
"...We decided to take a break to cool our heads a little.  It looks like it'll last all night.  Makes me want to cry."
His way of talking hadn't changed, but he couldn't completely hide his fatigue.
...I couldn't say I was sympathetic, but he looked pitiful compared to his normal, energetic self.

"Still, that rain's just awful.  I really don't want to go back to the guesthouse.  It looks like Natsuhi nee-san made preparations for us to spend the night here in the mansion.  What'll we do?"
"......We don't need to think of it until you're done, right?  If you run out of enough energy to head back to our room, then we can let them take care of us."

"That's right.  We can think about it later.  ......What about you, Battler?"
"If I stayed, I'd just get in the way.  I'll be nice and go back over there."
".........Is that so?  Will you go back soon?"
"I dunno.  It'd be lonely to head back by myself.  I'll gather all of the kids and we'll head out."

"Alright.  That'd be good.  ............So, Battler.  You won't just be going to sleep that easily, right?"
"Yeah, I'll probably be up talking with the cousins.  Sound like we'll be up all night, doesn't it?  We'll have to do something about that."

"......Really?  If, when the adults' discussion is over, you are still awake, I want to have a little talk as a family."
"...A what?  That doesn't sound like you."

Apparently, Kyrie-san was thinking the same thing.
'What are you talking about?'  She asked him in a small voice.

...Anyhow, it looked like Kyrie-san also didn't have a clue what Dad was talking about.

"......I also want to talk to Kyrie about it.  ......I'll tell you later, so don't ask now.  Please."
"..................?"

I don't think there's anyone who ignores their family as much as this old bastard.
...And this was the guy that was asking us to have a talk as a family.
......Both Kyrie-san and I couldn't help but get wide-eyed.

"Don't make that scared looking face.  I'm the one that should be scared.  ............Anyways, ......"
At that point, he swallowed his words for an instant.

...Even though putting on airs of importance wasn't much like my dad.

"...You're freaking me out, Dad.  Everyone in the family's gathered here now, right?  Don't make a big deal out of it and spit it out."
"..................Tonight, .........I will probably, be killed."

There was a huge crash of thunder.

It must have been really close.
Dad's expression, brightly illuminated by the lightning, was burned into my eyes.
Dad face, which always looked so sure of itself and which always wore a taunting expression, ......was for some reason that I couldn't explain, strangely frail.

It was so worn out that he looked like a different person.

"Wh, what...?!  ...What are you talking about, that doesn't sound like you!"
"*giggle*.  I agree.  What happened?  You look so timid all of a sudden.  It's not like you."
".........I'm going to go fix my makeup.  Don't follow me."
Dad turned away, weakly.
After that, only Kyrie and I were left, still wide-eyed.

"What did he say.........?  Tonight, he'll be killed?  You don't think that mysterious letter scared him?  Hasn't he been watching too many serial murder movies?"
"...............Hmmmmmmmm."

Kyrie-san didn't answer my lighthearted words, and continued to stare at my dad's disappearing back...

"......Battler-kun, when you told Rudolf-san to say something, he left without telling us anything.  Even though he said that he had something to say to everyone, he didn't answer you.  Why?  ......Turn the chessboard over.  ............And when you do?"
"There's the contradiction that he said he wanted to talk but then couldn't.  ...What, can you see anything by looking from Dad's perspective?"

"......*giggle*.  Yes, I can see something.  He wants to talk about something.  However, he doesn't have the courage to bring it up.  So he actually means 'In that case, chase after me and talk to me, and ask me about it yourself'.  By saying 'Don't follow me', he actually means the opposite.  He actually means "Follow me and force me to answer."  ......Seriously, what a spoiled brat."
"Whaaaa-?!  Can you really reason it out like that?!  Th, that's ridiculous."

"Fufufu, can great detectives deduce the emotions and feelings between men and women?  They can't, right?  Figuring out the feelings of the opposite sex is an even more advanced art than exposing the tricks in difficult crime cases.  If you ask me, romance novels have much deeper mysteries than masterpiece mystery novels."
"I, ...I see.  Is that how it is......"

"I stand alongside that spoiled brat.  ......He normally loves to bluff, but tonight he's completely tired out from that heated discussion.  He probably wants someone to lean on at the moment.  And responding to that need is the duty of his partner."

"Ha--.  Sounds passionate.  Then I'll leave that old bastard in your hands."
"Yes, leave it to me."
I called out to Kyrie-san's departing back.

"......Huh?  What?"
"Um, I wanted to say thanks.  Thanks to you, my gloomy mood has cleared up a lot."
"That's good.  Communication is important."
After answering with a wink, Kyrie-san followed after Dad...
Natsuhi could be found in the dimly lit hallway.
Now and then, the thunder would crash, but this had no effect on Natsuhi's expression.
......Her expression was completely worn out.
The discussion that had just taken place between the relatives in the dining hall was repeating itself inside Natsuhi's mind...
Beatrice had proclaimed that in addition to the gold, all of the inheritance and property of the Ushiromiya family would be given to the person who could solve the riddle.
...In other words, she planned to undermine the absolute guarantee that Krauss, as the oldest brother, had to succeed the family head.
Originally, the other siblings had absolutely no chance to succeed the head.

To them, this 'proposal' by Beatrice was extremely desirable.
It was obvious that they would accept Beatrice's proposal.
...There was no need to play that clumsy detective game.  She knew that this so called 19th person, Beatrice, couldn't exist.
Naturally, Beatrice was nothing more than a fictional character used to pass a message that Kinzo had written himself.

The proof was that Kinzo remained stubbornly neutral as to that letter's authenticity.
......He was completely ignoring these reckless claims that he shouldn't be able to ignore: that he had given up the head's ring.

............In short, Kinzo had wordlessly admitted that the letter held his own message.
Most likely, one of the servants had given Maria the letter.
Kinzo had probably worked out an elaborate plan where the dress from the portrait would be prepared, ......and someone, probably Shannon, would be made to wear it and deliver the letter and the umbrella.

By doing that, he could make it seem like the witch from the portrait actually existed.
...No, if anything, from that alone you could conclude that Kinzo was behind all of this.
In that case, ......it was the same as Kinzo trying to butt in on the siblings' private discussion.

Then Kinzo, by announcing that he would give everything to the person who could solve the riddle, could weaken Krauss's overwhelming advantage.
.........Now it was certain.
Kinzo had listened in on the siblings' discussion in the parlor earlier that day.

So he had known how Krauss had staved off the attack by the other three, and to make the scales of the battle go back into balance, he had sent out this strange letter which benefited the other three.
He was trying to push this crazy theory so that Rosa, who had a weak position among the siblings because of her age, and Eva and Rudolf could join together, and with three against one, could overwhelm Krauss yet again.

......And by doing that, he gave them the power to resettle what had once been a nearly decided conflict.  They had now started repeatedly pressing Krauss to pay them a large amount of money...
Using the condition that all of the siblings would guarantee Krauss the succession to the family head, talk about the advance payment which had once been denied was being brought up again.
Of course, even without the story about the hidden gold, the Ushiromiya family's store of wealth was vast.

Just that store was worth more than enough by itself.
Even if the hidden gold was buried forever along with Kinzo's death, there would be more than enough to satisfy.
Therefore, even if they weren't that interested in the gold itself, Kinzo had managed to instill the lifelong fear that, on the off-chance that someone found the gold, that person would be granted the position of family head.
And this kind of Achilles' heel would definitely be taken advantage of by someone sooner or later.

The only person with this fatal weakness was the successor to the head, Krauss.
......The other siblings had found, ...no, they had been told by Kinzo about something that only Krauss could lose, and they had thoroughly taken advantage of that.
...Natsuhi, as Krauss's only ally in his painful position, and as his wife, wanted to fight alongside him.

She kept trying to explain to him that the existence of the gold itself was a farce and that there was no need for him to compromise.
Krauss had always told Natsuhi.
He had told all of the siblings.
He always, always said that the hidden gold was nothing more than an illusion created by Kinzo.

Therefore, Natsuhi had believed that as his wife, and on that foundation had supported her husband.
Even so, Natsuhi's words didn't reach Krauss.
...Even though Natsuhi had fought so hard and had lent all of her strength, he continued to fight by himself, and was trying to compromise with the other three siblings...

Natsuhi sadly and weakly wondered why she could not be of use to him, and started getting angry.
It had happened when everyone decided to take a short break to cool their heads.
Natsuhi had flared up against Krauss.
Enraged, she had asked why she could not be useful to him.

......He had then told her that he wanted to talk about something, and invited her into a room that she was normally not allowed to enter.

That room had been sealed with a heavy-looking padlock, and just looking at it had given her an uncomfortable feeling...
"There's no reason for you to worry about what those three or even this suspicious person who calls themselves Beatrice says!!  After all, the gold is just a ruse created by Father.  There's no way something like that could be found!!  You will definitely be the successor to the family.  What are you afraid of?!"
Krauss removed the padlock on the door.
He then motioned for Natsuhi to enter.

"Enter."
"Wha, ......what is this?"
"There's something I want to show you.  ......This is the first time I've shown it to anyone."
Natsuhi timidly opened the door with a dubious expression on her face...
It was pitch black.
She searched for a switch to turn on the lights, but since this was her first time in the room, she didn't know where it was.
Krauss entered behind her, pushing her in, and when he closed the door before turning on the lights, the two were swallowed up by the darkness.

Only the sound of Krauss locking the door rang out through the dark.
"Wh, what are you doing...?  Th, the lights..."
"I am turning them on now.  Wait."
Just as he said, when Krauss pushed a switch on the wall, a flickering light turned on and lit up the room.
"...............Th, that is......?"
Natsuhi had her breath taken away.
The room had no windows, and at a glance, it appeared to be empty.

In the middle of the room, a small, round table had been set, and the lights brightened only that table, as if it were the leading part in a play.
On top of the table, a red tablecloth of elaborate design had been set out, covered with dust, ......and on top of that, 'something' about the size of a grown man's arm had been set down.

......That something took Natsuhi's breath away.
"It's a gold ingot of incredible purity.  Without this, no one would have believed in the Legend of the Gold."
It was a ingot of solid gold.

Even in the faint light, it sparkled with a noble and dignified gold glint...
"This is not a proper ingot.  I don't even know whether it was cast inside or outside the country."
It took a high level of skill to make the purest of solid gold ingots.
And in order to verify that purity, it was standard to have the original foundry and the name of the bank that guaranteed it imprinted on the gold.

...However, this ingot did not have that kind of seal.  .........This mysterious gold bar had come from an unknown foundry.
"Look here.  ............There's nothing to be afraid of.  It's just a bar of gold."
Natsuhi, following Krauss's words, timidly approached the ingot...
"Right there."
Krauss pointed at the surface of the ingot.
...Natsuhi concentrated on that section...
"...............!!"

Right there was the thin imprint of the One-winged Eagle crest!  Natsuhi's breath was taken away once again.
"That's right.  This is the legendary ingot that Father said he received from the witch, that the president of Marusoo witnessed and was allowed to select at random to take back with him, that gained the trust of the fixers in the business world.  I had to use all possible means to find it.  ......I found it before the other siblings could."
".........How could..................Then, .........the legend of Father's gold is........."
"It actually exists.  ......The gold that Ushiromiya Kinzo received from Beatrice actually exists."
"How could............!  H, ......how could it really exist........."
Natsuhi was shocked......

Krauss had always said that Kinzo's gold was just a fabrication.
So she had believed it as his wife.
However, the reality was different.
Since he held definite proof, he had been more certain than any of the other siblings that the Legend of the Gold was true.

Because of this, Krauss was deeply frightened at the possibility that someone other than himself would find the gold that he had failed to find, costing him everything.
......But to Natsuhi, this truth was more than enough to split open her heart.
She had thought that, as Krauss's wife, she should be his closest confidant, which was why she had been selflessly supporting him.

...And yet, he had hid this fact from her until today.  .........Why?
"......Ha, .........have I been, ............so undeserving of your trust............?"
".........I didn't mean it like that.  It was only that there was no need to mention it."
"I, ......is that all a, ............a wife means to you............?!"
"Calm down...  Becoming passionate easily is one of your bad habits."
"You're the one who's making me like that, aren't you!!!  I have been supporting you as a wife ever since I married into this family...!  For your sake, I threw away the family I was born into, I've been offering up my heart and my body to serve you...!!  And in return, .........what is this.........!!?  How could...... ............How could you............!!"
Krauss grimaced, looking annoyed...
His expression effectively communicated how much he disliked this part of Natsuhi...

"......It doesn't look like........., I will be of any use to you anymore............"
"Hmmm, that's fine.  .........I can resolve the troubles with the siblings by myself.  I don't need your help."

"That's wrong!!  This is the Ushiromiya family's problem!  It's true that I am not permitted to have the family crest imprinted on my body!  But I am still your wife!!  Even so, .....are you saying I'm not capable of helping you...?!  Are you.........!!!?"

"...............I especially wouldn't want to risk getting you involved.  It would probably make your headaches even worse than they are now.  Take a rest for today.  The siblings will deal with the siblings' problems.  It has nothing to do with you.  That is all."
A dull headache tormented Natsuhi...
No matter what medicine she took, no matter what scents she burned, it wouldn't heal.

......On the other hand, by standing here alone in a dimly lit corridor, her head filled with the sound of the rain, she felt like the pain had softened a little...
.........Even if I am Natsuhi, ...I am not Ushiromiya Natsuhi.

As a borrowed womb, I am despised, ...and abused for not even being able to take care of that, .........even so, I have tried to properly perform the duties of a wife, ......but have been rejected even by my husband.
I did my best as though raising my daughter was the last job left to me...
...However, my anger and sadness, having no place to go, caused me to subconsciously strain that relationship too...

Because I have been excessively strict in Jessica's education, I am thoroughly disliked by her.
Jessica despises me for not being interested in anything but grades.
......There is no longer, .........anything I can do for the Ushiromiya family.........

No, ......that's no good.
Even so, I must help my husband dislodge the schemes of the other greedy siblings.
The head won't be around much longer.
Eventually, Krauss will succeed the head.
And the next successor will be Jessica.
.........Strictly speaking, the man who enters the family by marrying Jessica will become the next head, but it all comes to the same thing.

......I have to make Jessica an excellent successor who everyone will accept as worthy to take over the Ushiromiya family.
In the days to come, that greedy Ushiromiya Eva will probably be plotting to find some fault with the main family, so that if all goes as she plans, Jessica will be dragged down from the succession, with George in her place.

......It is regrettable, but George is a man, and even more, has matured as a person.
...Compared to Jessica, who is right in the middle of her rebellious period and whose grades are slightly below average, it can be seen at a glance who is more fit to succeed the head.
So in order to secure Jessica's position, I need to turn her into an excellent person.
After doing that, .........I want to find her an excellent husband worthy of the excellent person she will have become.

.........A wonderful man who will truly accept Jessica, and stay with her through all of life's joys and sorrows.
Was that............Natsuhi trying to entrust her daughter with fulfilling some desire of her own?

Natsuhi thought back to the days when she'd had no choice but to marry into the Ushiromiya family, because of that unavoidable fate.
She had tried to block that from her memory.

.........She had consciously forgotten that, and had actively attended to the life she had been given as Ushiromiya Natsuhi...
And had built up a new life.

.........But, ...it felt like, ......just now, all of that had been casually rejected.
"..................How should I think as I live my life? .............I don't know."
Natsuhi helplessly rested her head against the glass of the window...

The glass, which was cool thanks to the raindrops beating against it, was somehow refreshing.  Even though it should have been emotionless, ...right then it seemed to be the only thing that could understand Natsuhi...
At that point, even if someone had appeared, Natsuhi probably wouldn't have cared in the state she was in.

.........But she did care.
.........Because it was her beloved daughter.
".........O, ......oh, it's you, Mom.  What are you doing here?  I thought you were a ghost..."
Just like always, her words were rough and not at all like a girl's.

...Instinctively, words of rebuke rose to Natsuhi's throat.
.........However, their strength gave out and they didn't escape her lips.

"..................Jessica.  I'm sorry, Mom's headache is awful.  Please leave me be."

"...............Really......"
Jessica was slightly disconcerted when she first spotted her mother's feebleness.

Until just now, she had been filled with contempt for all of the parents, including her mother.

...But now, only a tiny bit of those feelings remained.
......All of it had been wiped out by her mother's completely exhausted face.
In its place, the words that George had told her floated back up in her mind.

The parents are doing their best in their own way.

...And since they were supporting their family, they couldn't afford to keep everything pleasant, and had a heavy responsibility to fight.
......Couldn't her mother have been standing around in this dimly lit hallway because no one had tried to understand that...?
Jessica didn't like her mother.
......So it would be hard to give her mother words of kindness even if she looked a little frail...

Therefore, when she tried to talk to her mother kindly anyways, she had to gather up the words from deep in her heart, both fists clenched.

"I, .........it looks like you really have your hands full with that discussion..."
"...............It has nothing to do with you.  Please go somewhere else."
".........Is your headache bad?  Sh, should I go get some medicine...?"
"............You don't have to trouble yourself.  ...I'm asking, so please leave me by myself."

Natsuhi was not being unsociable.
...She just wanted her daughter to go far away so that she didn't have to bump into Natsuhi's own short temper.
......But there was no chance that her intentions would reach Jessica.

"...............Y, ......yes."
Jessica hung her head, looking sad.

...Looking at that expression, Natsuhi realized that Jessica was trying to muster up the strength to be kind to her mother.
She gave her head a small shake to drive away her own unkind feelings...

"Then I'll, ......leave.  ......I'll be with the other cousins so I don't get in the way of the adults.  ............See you later..."
".........Wait there."
She called Jessica, who was trying to leave and looked lonely, to a stop.

"......What...?"
".........Thank you for being considerate.  .........It isn't good of me to go to sleep and leave you alone."
"D, don't talk like that, you'll bring bad luck..."
"...You were worried about me.  I'm alright now.  .........I will go."
'If I stay here any longer, my feeble expression would actually make my daughter feel more uncomfortable.'
...Thinking this, Natsuhi left Jessica with words of gratitude and made to depart.
......This time, Jessica called out to her mother's back.
Natsuhi stopped and turned around, asking what business Jessica had with her.
But Jessica herself didn't know why she had stopped her mother, ...and for a while, she smiled wryly、muttering to herself as she hesitated over what to say.
She was poking around in her pocket when her hand touched something, and she took it out.
"Um, hey, Mom!  I, uh, was given a charm today.  What was it, a charm against magic?  Umm, err......, I'm pretty sure that,  you were supposed to hang it from your doorknob, was it?  Ahahaha..., I forget...  There's no reason for me to have it, so......I'm giving it to you."
It was the scorpion charm that Maria had given her by the beach that day.

Although she had heard of its various effects from Maria, right now, Jessica's mind was blank, and she was just barely able to say even that much.
Jessica, thinking that her mother probably wouldn't accept it anyway, immediately drew back the hand she had stuck out, grasping the charm.

......So when Natsuhi came back to take it, she was extremely shocked...

"...............What is this?  Some kind of giveaway...?"
"W, well it's, I think it's something like that...  You couldn't really expect a charm that looks like a toy to be effective......"
But her mother grasped that hand and accepted the scorpion charm.

"Thank you.  I'll take good care of it.  ............Sometime soon, in exchange, why don't I give you a charm that was important to me when I was a child?"
"...I, it's not like that's why I gave it to you.  ......But, well, ......if you really say so..."

"Then I will rest for now.  My headache is awful.  .........Try not to stay up too late."
"Sure..."
Natsuhi put the charm in her pocket and turned away.
......She then disappeared into the dark hall...

"...It looks like the weather will be like this all day tomorrow after all."
"Oh well, it sounded like a lie earlier today."
George-aniki and I were killing time in front of the parlor television.
At that point, Jessica returned.
Her face was still blank, but it looked like she had calmed down a little since she had left.

"......Is Maria still in front of the portrait?"
"Nope.  She just came back, and she's sleeping over there on the sofa.  It is getting pretty late for her."
Looking at the clock, it was a little past 10:00 PM.
...Even if we were going to stay up all night, it was about time to head back to our room.

"My mother had a room prepared for us in the mansion for the time being, but... ......what'll we do?"
"I think I'd rather head back to the guesthouse.  ......Judging by our parents' appearance, I think it would be better if we weren't in the mansion."
"I agree.  It feels like they're telling us kids to mind our own business and stay out of their way.  Let's do that, like good little boys and girls."
After we discussed that, Rosa oba-san came into the parlor.
She was looking all over restlessly, probably trying to find Maria.

"Rosa oba-san, if you're looking for Maria, she's over there on the sofa."
"Thank you.  My, she's out cold.  ......We must move her to a bed."
"If you would like, I'll carry her over to a bed."

"Thank you, that would be wonderful.  .........Will all of you return to the guesthouse?  Or will you stay in the room Natsuhi nee-san had prepared?"
"We were just talking about that.  We had just decided to head over to the guesthouse."

"Really.  Then I wonder if you wouldn't mind taking Maria with you.  ...I think it will be much more comforting if all of the cousins are together."

It seemed that, in the shadow behind those words, there was some regret that the adults, herself included, had deeply hurt Maria's feelings...

"Leave it to us, Oba-san.  After all, we do have an expert at comforting Maria with us!"
"A, are you talking about me?  I couldn't do it myself.  We'll need everyone together."
"That's right.  Battler, weren't you the one who hit it off with Maria when you were messing around earlier?"

As we said this, Rosa oba-san smiled, looking truly happy.

"Thank you, everyone.  ......It looks like our meeting will last until very late.  Therefore, I'm sorry for the burden, but I'll be counting on everyone for Maria's sake."
"Hey, Maria, did you have a good sleep...?  We're going back to the guesthouse~."
Maria muttered something indistinct and fell back asleep.
......It looked like she was sleeping deeply.

"She's really out cold.  It'd be bad to wake her."
"Right, I'll carry her."
Maria's body was much lighter than it looked.
George-aniki picked her up and pulled her over his back.
It was raining hard outside, and Aniki couldn't hold an umbrella and carry Maria at the same time.
It looked like Rosa oba-san would come with us as far as the guesthouse to help out.

However, when she heard Krauss oji-san's voice call out to her, she had no choice but to return.
"......That's too bad.  I have to go back now."
".........Is everyone returning to the guesthouse?"
After we left the hall on the way to the entrance, the door to the servants' room opened and Shannon-chan stepped out.

"It has become very dark, so allow me to guide you."
"That would be great, Shannon-chan.  George-kun is going to carry Maria there.  Could you hold an umbrella for him?"
"Yes, certainly."

Shannon-chan brought umbrellas for each of us and a flashlight to guide the way.
As we opened the front door, the downpour was quite terrific.
It looked like we wouldn't have any spare time to take a pleasant walk and enjoy the nighttime rose garden...

"Aniki, is she too heavy?  Want me to carry her?"
"It's alright.  I can at least carry Maria-chan."
"......I'm truly grateful.  Please take care of Maria."
"Right, we understand.  In that case, goodnight, Oba-san."
"Then I will see them over there and return here."
"Yes, please..."
Rosa oba-san saw us off.
".........Maria.......I'm sorry for everything..."

Rosa's mumbling voice didn't reach the person in question, nor anyone else, but disappeared beneath the sound of the rain......
After cutting through the rainy rose garden, we arrived at the guesthouse.

"Ahh, if only I'd applied for the position of Maria-carrier!  Then I'd have been able to rub Shannon-chan's huge breasts all over with my arm!"
"Ththth, that's not why I did it, it's a misunderstanding...!"
"I, I thought that if I didn't, George-sama would get all wet........."

"C'mon, quit babbling and go in!"
After being nudged by Jessica, Shannon folded up her umbrella and went into the guesthouse.

"Has anyone gotten their garments wet?  I prepared a towel..."
"You don't need to worry about us that much.  Thank you, Shannon-chan."
"That's right.  We were saying earlier that we would play some cards, do you want to stay with us for a while?"

"Huh?  Who had the night shift on today's schedule?"
"I believe there has been a special schedule during the family conference.  I think there were a few changes, so I will go and check......"
"Wait, if you have to go all the way back to the mansion to find out, don't force yourself."

"Ah, it's alright.  I can find out from the servants' room in the guesthouse.  ...Please excuse me for a short while."
Shannon-chan gave a quick bow and went into the guesthouse servants' room.
The rest of us headed for the cousins' room and put Maria in the bed for the time being.

Maria was sleeping very deeply, and there was absolutely no sign of her eyes opening...
We got some drinks out of the room's refrigerator, and spent some time playing cards while drinking...

"......Oh?  Kanon-kun?  Even Genji-sama is here.  ...What has happened with tonight's shift...?"
"............Krauss-sama has given an order.  There have been modifications made to most of the schedule."

"......Hmm.  Gohda-san has been changed to the night shift at the mansion.  You and Kanon have the night shift in the guesthouse.  Kumasawa-san and I have been ordered to spend the night in the guesthouse...  Just now, a phone call came, saying that you are also to remain here."
"Huh...?  Th, that's quite a large modification...  The shifts at the guesthouse and the mansion have almost been completely reversed, haven't they...?"
Originally, Shannon and Kanon had been given the night shift in the mansion, while the night shift in the guesthouse, where all of the relatives were staying, had been assigned to Gohda, who had an abundance of experience in entertaining.

Kumasawa should have been staying at the guesthouse, while Genji should have been staying in the mansion.
However, it seemed that Krauss had suddenly ordered that the schedule be modified.

......The shifts at the guesthouse and the mansion had all been reversed, and Genji was spending the night in the guesthouse.

"............It's probably because of Beatrice-sama's letter."
"...Why probably?"
"When such a mysterious letter appeared, it was only natural that Krauss-sama would suspect one of us.  .........We serve directly under the Master, so Krauss-sama tried as best he could to keep us far away from the family conference."
Genji, Shannon, and Kanon were all permitted to wear the Ushiromiya family crest, the 'One-winged Eagle', as the servants who served directly under Kinzo.

Of course, since they were working for the Ushiromiya family, they had to obey anyone's orders, but their only boss was Kinzo.
Since only Kinzo held the right to employ them, even Krauss could not have them dismissed of his own accord.

Because of this, they were often viewed by Krauss and the others as Kinzo's underlings and shunned.
In reality, Kinzo would seldom let anyone other than them enter his study.
You could probably say this sudden shift change clearly expressed the sense of mistrust that caused.

Considering the time Kinzo had left to live, this would definitely be the last family conference before the problem of the inheritance would come up.
On top of that, the mysterious letter that claimed to be from Beatrice had dropped in out of the blue.

Krauss definitely wanted to keep Kinzo's loyal subjects away from the table of such a delicate and important discussion...
"......If you would excuse me, I will go rest.  ...If anything happens, call me immediately.

For the Master, tonight is special・・・."

""Yes, certainly, Genji-sama.""

Genji nodded back, went behind a screen, took off his jacket, and slowly began to relax after a day's worth of tension...

".........The ones who just returned now, were they the children...?"
"Yes.  The other relatives are having a conference in the mansion.  It looked like it would drag on until much later..."
"......That would be comfortable.  It's already this late, and there's this weather.  Probably, the rest of the relatives will spend the night in their rooms in the mansion."

"Yes, probably...  I'm only saying this because Genji-sama isn't around, but I'm a little happy I was sent to the guesthouse......I think..."

"Oh...?  Why's that?  Because you can stay away from Madam and Eva-sama, those bullies?  ...Or do you have another reason?"
"I, ......it's not like I have..., ...a, another reason...!"

".........I see.  Then, let's do our best together with our midnight shift.  I'm counting on you, Nee-san."
"Ah, ......umm.........  Just now, I was asked to go to the children's room and play with them..."

Shannon hung her head apologetically, ...gazing at Kanon uncertainly.
Kanon didn't try to meet her eyes, and spoke curtly as he sighed.
It looked like he didn't plan on indulging his 'sister'.

"............You can't.  You were assigned the night shift.  ...And besides that, it is not necessary for furniture like us to respond to an invitation to play.  ...You understand, right?"
"Y, ...yes, I do understand.  ...............Nnnn."
...She had already expected that Kanon, who considered rules to be very important, would probably say something like that, but even so, she was a little discouraged.

As Kanon turned over a diary, he spoke without facing Shannon.
"............In that case, the children will be waiting for you.  You will have to apologize and tell them that you have the night shift and won't be able to stay with them.  ......Go and come back."
"Huh, .........ah, yes!  I'll go apologize and come back..."
Shannon hurriedly stood from her seat before her brother's mood could change, and flew out of the servants' room after giving a quick bow......
As he watched her back go, Kanon took a single deep breath...
Genji's voice came from beyond the screen.
"......Kanon.  ......I will be here, so you can go too."
"Genji-sama.........Shannon was the only one called.  It's not like I was invited..."
"That is only because you were not there at the time.  If you had been, you would have been invited as well.  ......It is good to play as a child from time to time."
"..............................No, that's not something that I need to do.  ......Kids who are people may have a need to play, but  ......we are......only furniture."
"...............Is that so."
"............Nee-san is also, ...furniture.  .........Even if she pretends to be a person, ...it will only hurt her later.  ...I understand that, so I try not to get too close to people."
Genji did not say anything after that.

......After a while, he stood up and used a pot of hot water to make powdered cocoa, and served some to Kanon as well.

"Is that for real?!?!  I didn't know that...!!"
"Dumbass, you're too loud!  You'll wake Maria up!"
Battler was so surprised that he yelled obnoxiously and scattered his cards everywhere.

His voice caused Maria to turn over once, but she soon fell back into a deep sleep...

Jessica gave him a jab, and he lowered his voice.

"Still, seriously..., now that I've heard about it, they really did have that kind of atmosphere, didn't they.........Haa, now I see, that George-aniki..."
George could not be seen anywhere in the room.
A short while ago, when Shannon had come into the room, George had suddenly said that he had forgotten something in the mansion and needed to go back and get it.

Shannon had said she would guide him, just like she had on the way to the guesthouse, and the two of them had departed together.

"......Yeah, they've really been showing signs for a long time, haven't they?  Asking what the other person liked, asking what their hobbies were.  And somehow thinking they could pass it off as nothing more than a passing interest!?"
"Come to think of it, I get the feeling that George-aniki has always been overly nice to Shannon-chan......  No-w I get it..."

"According to the weather report, it looks like it will be at its worst tonight.  It also seems that it won't stop tomorrow, but it should get a little better."
"...Really?  Then, maybe, the boat won't arrive until the day after tomorrow.........I've been worried that might interfere with your work on Monday..."

"Hahaha, I already knew that the typhoon would be coming beforehand.  Just in case, I made sure that I didn't have any plans for Monday, so it's all right.  ...I may not look like it, but I really am the type who can plan ahead in his schedule."

George puffed out his chest, acting proud.

Compared to the normally calm appearance that George always had as the oldest cousin, he now looked amusingly like a little kid.

Shannon chuckled at this gap.

"It's no surprise that someone who will soon make his company prosperous is so well prepared."
"...Well, making a company prosperous really is a tough job.  Money isn't the only thing that's important.  I learned that well by studying from my father.  Making a company prosperous is like having a castle and leading your subordinates.
My dad, Hideyoshi, really loved reading about great leaders during the warring periods of Japan.  Much of his philosophy on managing businesses comes from talking about them.  ...Did you know?  Takeda Shingen, who was feared as the leader of the strongest cavalry corps in the warring periods, started out with his troops in complete disarray, and didn't have the kind of strong leadership necessary to utilize them well."
"Is that true?  That's a little unexpected."

"In order to unite his troops, Shingen utilized several strategies.  For example, when a soldier succeeded well in battle, he would immediately honor them with a medal.  Normally, that kind of thing was put off until after the war and they were all awarded at once.

He also worked diligently while on the field of battle, and when he immediately showed his appreciation for his troops' military exploits, he motivated them in an extremely significant fashion.  After that, whenever one of his troops was brought down by an illness, he would be the first to rush up to them and care for them, things like that.  ...Takeda Shingen wasn't just the man who led the strongest calvary corps in the warring period.  He was the person who cared the most for his troops throughout the warring period."

"......Since he was that kind of person, all of his troops went along with him."

The truth was, Shannon had already heard this story several years ago.
...But when George started to tie his father in with one of these stories, he would always be beaming, looking like he was having a great time.

So Shannon just smiled without interrupting, urging him to continue.

"Of course, in a capitalist world, the power of money can build up a large stone wall.  But did you know?  You can't build up a castle or succeed in war by yourself.  That kind of thing can only be created with the support of many subordinates, by borrowing their strength.  ......After understanding this, when I look at my father's back, I realize how immature I am.  I see how much my father has cultivated his character by working hard, and understand well how he was able to build up all that he has until today."

"George-sama, you truly look up to your father...  I'm jealous."

"A, ah, sorry..., that's not exactly the way I meant to say it."
"I, I am sorry..., I also didn't mean it that way......"
The two of them awkwardly looked at their feet.
Shannon had no parents.
She had been brought up in an orphanage owned by Kinzo called the Fukuin (福音) House.

Under the guidance of the honorary director, Kinzo, the orphanage offered excellent graduates a chance to live a life of service.
If they were accepted, they would be able to leave the orphanage and work as servants for the Ushiromiya family.

...This was considered to be the highest honor for a graduate.
Servants from the Fukuin House all took names with the character "on" (音) in them while they served.
So "Shannon" (紗音) wasn't her real name.
The same goes for "Kanon" (嘉音).

All of the graduates from the Fukuin House were orphans.
Or you could say that they were all people who, through special circumstances, had been disowned by their parents.

......Because of this, the graduates had been taught to think of each other as their only family.
That's why it seemed so natural to Kanon when he called Shannon his sister.
And while only Shannon and Kanon were working today in the mansion, there are other servants who worked in the shift rotation, named Manon (眞音) and Renon (恋音) who also inherited the '音' character in their names.
...However, there were not many servants who stayed with the Ushiromiya family for long.
It was standard for them to quit after three years.

So you could probably say that Shannon, who had been working for over ten years, was an exception to an exception to the rule.
Working as a servant for the Ushiromiya family was a heavy burden to bear, but the pay wasn't bad at all.

Working for a full three years would earn more than what was needed to enter mainstream society.

That was why, even though the graduates from the orphanage realized what a harsh task working for the Ushiromiya family was, they still hoped to be accepted.
Maybe the fact that Shannon had managed to continue for more than ten years shouldn't be viewed as her having more willpower than any of the other servants.

Maybe she was made to continue working for ten years because she didn't have the courage to say that she wanted to quit.
To Kinzo, who could not even trust his own blood relatives, those 'excellent' servants sent from the Fukuin House were the only ones he could trust.

Because of that, Kinzo would sometimes allow them to wear the family crest as servants under his direct control, and have them work close to him...

"......Err, ......um, you've already been working here about ten years, was it?  You must have saved up a lot of money by now, right?"
"I wonder...  It's not like there's anything in particular I'd like to buy...  I think about a few million yen, which isn't enough to live off of for the rest of my life..."

"Have you continued working to try and meet some target sum?"
".........Y, ...yes, that's right.  ......I have nowhere to go outside of this mansion.  ......I have been getting along well with Milady and the other servants' children, too.........I am sometimes scolded by Madam, but, ......caring for the rose garden and cleaning the mansion is fun..."

"But, that isn't Shannon-chan's, ......no, Sayo(紗代)-chan's life."
".........Umm..."
Shannon cast her eyes downwards when she heard her real name...
She understood what George was trying to say and closed her mouth.

"Even after becoming an adult and a full-fledged member of society, I've been studying and I've learned something.  ......A human's life is not as monotonous or short as we thought when we were kids."

When they are students, everyone has certain fears that they can't shake.

......Wondering whether they will live the rest of their lives like they were in sleepy classes after a monotonous and boring school day, spending their time in a carefree laziness without anything interesting happening until it was all over...

However, these thoughts will only arise while a person is still an underage student.

Compared to a human's life, the time they spend as a student is nothing more than a blink of the eye, a period where they break through the shells of their immaturity.

The inside of the shell might be a hot, suffocating and boring world, but the world beyond that shell is vast and filled with limitless possibilities.

"So far, you have been living inside your shell.  Aren't you making the mistake of thinking that your life will always continue like this?"
"That is......, .................."

Shannon couldn't deny those words.

...She hadn't been able to doubt her way of life, and since she never had any hope or goal to change herself, she had continued her life of idleness.

...And if she were asked whether this life was satisfying, ...she wouldn't have been able to nod......

This might have caused her to avert her eyes from the truth.

...As long as she wasn't admonished by George, she would have continued pretending not to notice as her real life slipped away, neglected, bit by bit...

"......George-sama.............Should I not, ......continue living, ...this way?"
"You must not.  Ah, and by the way, didn't you break one of the rules just now?"
George immediately gave a strict answer, and then broke out into a mischievous smile.

Shannon already knew what she was being chided for, ...and it seemed that it embarrassed her, as she hung her head.

"Didn't you promise not to use "sama" when the two of us are alone...?"
".........I couldn't obey that as a promise.  .........But, if it was an order, I would have to obey it...  Because I'm, ............furniture."

"Then it's an order."
"Err, ...............Yes.  ...Certainly, ...George-san."
As Shannon hung her head, her face red, she said George's name again, this time using san...

"Yes, that's fine, Sayo-chan."
A smile rose to George's face praising Shannon's, no, Sayo's small act of bravery.
Just watching this conversation would give anyone a feeling of how close their relationship was...

For a long while, the two talked as if the weather raging around them didn't even enter their consciousness.  They talked about the many memories they'd built during their relationship that no one else knew about.

Every once in a while, a flash of lightning would slice through the rain, but this could sully neither the roses nor the time they spent blushing at each other...

"............Th, that's right.  ...I have something I wanted to show you."
"......Wh, ......what could it be?"

George, who had been speaking eloquently, suddenly started to stutter.
Shannon also noticed something about his appearance.

George timidly searched through his pocket.
Something got caught in the depths of his pocket, and just like the stuttering George, it took a little while to get it out.
It was a very small box.  A small box covered in a deep blue velvet.
...That peculiar shape was enough to make anyone realize what was resting inside.

Shannon had prepared her heart a little, thinking it must be something like that.
But even so, when she actually saw it, she couldn't avoid blushing once more...

George opened the small box, took that thing out..., and held it out for Shannon to take it.

"I want you to accept this."
"I, .........I can't accept something so valuable...!"
"...You can't accept it...?"
"N, ...no, umm..., .........Something like that, ......is too good, .........f, for me........."

"Sayo.  This is not a request.  ......It's an order, okay?  Accept this ring.  ...Okay?"
"Ha, ......u...  I, ......I can't, .........disobey an order..."
"Yes, that's right.  ...Good girl."
Shannon, not wanting to show her bright red face, timidly accepted the ring from George's hand while still staring at the ground...
That ring wasn't a simple accessory.
......It was a noble object, which since ancient times was meant to be held with a special meaning and offered to a special woman.
...Therefore, while George could order her to take it, he could not order anything beyond that.

Anything beyond that would depend, not on an order, but on Shannon's, no, Sayo's own will.
"So, from here on it's no longer an order.  .........Sayo.  I want you to answer me tomorrow, without using words.  ............Do you understand?"

"...Err, ............H, ...how........."
"I won't order you any more, so this isn't an order.  ......But a ring is something you put on your finger.  ......If you like it, you can just put it on any finger that you choose."

Shannon had only pretended not to know.
She had already understood what he wanted her to do.

...But she was standing at a huge crossroads of her life...

"......Look how late it's gotten.  Let's call it a day."
George faced away from Shannon, seeming slightly uncomfortable.

"I probably can't order you to wear it on your left hand.  You might be timid and dependent enough to actually obey that kind of an order.  ......But I want this last part to be given by Sayo's own will.  ...Understand?"

"............Y, .........yes."
"So, ...that's my order.  .........I want you to think about it well tonight and show me your answer tomorrow."
"..............."
Shannon nodded back.

...Today was the culmination of their long relationship.
...This moment had not come as any surprise to Shannon...

".........We should be getting back to the guesthouse soon.  If we take any longer, we'll make everyone worry about us."
"......Ah, ......err..., ...I'm sorry, I...!  Um, I just remembered something I had to do in the mansion, so, ...um, ......I have to go back to the mansion..."
"Something this late?  .........Really?"
George stared into Shannon's face as he laughed mischievously.
He definitely saw through Shannon's lie.

......However, after noticing that feeling, it wasn't as if he couldn't understand that she might be so embarrassed that she'd want to be alone.

So because George realized the meaning behind Shannon's lie, he accepted it.

Night of the Storm

Sat, Oct 4 1986 -------
Shannon entered the entrance hall to the mansion with a tottering gait.
A mixture of exaltation and uncertainty gave her a feeling that she couldn't easily describe.  It swelled up in her chest until it felt like she was about to burst.

After stopping for a second in front of the servants' room to take a deep breath and calm her heart, she opened the door.
Inside, Gohda, who had been ordered to take the midnight shift at the mansion tonight, was absorbed in a crossword puzzle magazine, completely worn out.

He looked up for an instant to see whether one of the family had come, but when he realized that it was a fellow servant, he returned to his puzzle as if nothing had happened.
"......Umm, ...I was told by Genji-sama to help Gohda-san and came over."

"Ah, really...  Thanks a lot.  I was just about to go make the rounds and close up the mansion, but there's no way I could leave this place empty.  Anyways, Krauss-sama and the others' meeting looks as though it will continue for quite some time.  They might order some tea at any time."

"That's true...  Then, what shall we do...?  Should I watch over-"
"In that case, Shannon-san, sorry, but would you please patrol the inside of the mansion?  I will stay here, awaiting the family's orders."
"Ye, ......yes..."

...Shannon was a little surprised.

Despite the fact that she had come here to help out as a favor, she was being forced to do the job of the person actually on duty as though it were natural.

Furthermore, after one-sidedly forcing that task on her, Gohda had once again gone back to his magazine and had become immersed in his crossword puzzle.
For the time being, as a sign of respect for her elder, Shannon bowed her head, and she left the room to patrol the mansion.
Because it had come fairly suddenly, the airy sensation that she had felt a little while ago had lessened a bit.

And she couldn't show this kind of face to Genji-sama and Kanon-kun.
Until her heart was able to calm down, she wanted a little time to herself, and maybe going on patrol wasn't such a bad way to do that...
From the dining hall, she began to hear the tumultuous voices of the family's discussion.
Someone was speaking at great length, and was then interrupted by someone else.  This second person also began to speak in a very long, drawn-out fashion, until yet another person interrupted him.

That kept on repeating.
It was as though their displeasure was seeping out through their voices.
She had been told to go to the guesthouse, so it would be bad if she was discovered by Krauss.
Thinking that, Shannon quick-footedly left from the entrance to the dining hall.
Then, inside the mansion controlled by darkness, she began to check that the house was all closed up, following a prearranged route.
She walked down the hall, checking that each window was closed.
On Rokkenjima, there were no humans other than the family, so in actuality, closing up wasn't that terribly meaningful of a task.

Until Natsuhi had scolded them that this attitude was careless, closing up had not been customary in the Ushiromiya family.
The metal fixtures on the completely chilled windows were freezing, and every time she went to check one them, one-by-one, it felt like the glow in her heart seemed to cool down.
"..................?"
At that time, she thought she saw something flickering across the hall.

......Flickering?
Something like that shouldn't be visible beyond the darkness of the hall...
At first, she thought she had made some mistake, but after a while, she killed her breathing.  Grasping a curtain, she fearfully gazed into the center of the hall......
However, other than the occasional crack of thunder brightening the hallway, she was unable to glimpse any flicker again.
...It must have been her imagination after all.
Maybe because she couldn't calm her heart, she saw something that didn't even exist.
Shannon resumed checking the windows...
However, in the back of her mind, a certain unnerving imagination was resurrected.
...It was that which had been passed down amongst the servants who served the Ushiromiya main family, that ghost story.

The mansion had different Masters of the Day and of the Night.  ...The master of the night Beatrice would sometimes fly around the mansion in the form of sparkling butterflies.  That was the story.
...Come to think of it, didn't Kanon-kun once say that he had seen it with his own eyes......?

.........Could it possibly... really............?
The roar of the thunder gave no answer...

The Six Chosen by the Key

Sun, Oct 5 1986 6:00AM
Genji once again tightened his bow tie, and looked outside through a crack in the curtains.
Maybe the rain had died down a tiny bit since the previous night.
...But it didn't look like the thick rain-clouds were planning to let any trace of the morning sun get by.

The morning was dim, and far from refreshing.

".........As expected, it doesn't seem that it will stop today."
"Sorry for keeping you waiting, Genji-sama."

Kanon finished checking his appearance, and exited the washroom.
In a normal schedule, it was rare for anyone to have to suffer going straight from a midnight shift to a morning shift.
There was a special system for the two days of the family conference.

But then, as long as the typhoon didn't leave today, the relatives' stay on this island would last until tomorrow.
Kanon thought that it was best to be prepared for the special schedule to be extended one more day.
The two of them left the guesthouse, opening their umbrellas.
The rose garden had been devastated by the wind and rain last night.
Even though they had spent several days making it beautiful to welcome the guests, it had only taken one stormy night to ruin it.

Kanon sighed.
The two headed for the mansion.
They were supposed to meet up with Gohda and prepare breakfast.

Gohda was such a perfectionist that he had probably already woken up, and was probably already preparing a breakfast both exquisite and as elegant as glasswork.
They reached the overhang by the entrance to the mansion, and folded up their umbrellas.
Genji took from his pocket a bundle of several keys, and used it to unlock the front door.
There was nothing on Rokkenjima outside the Ushiromiya family mansion, so, in the past, they hadn't been in the habit of locking up.
However, Natsuhi had ordered that the mansion would be locked up from midnight to early morning.
After that, unlocking the door in the early morning had become part of the servants' morning shift.

This task had been given to Genji and Kanon so that Gohda could begin the preparations for breakfast as soon as he woke up.
Silence had fallen in the mansion, giving the impression that the mansion itself was asleep.

".........Well then, let us begin the morning chores."
"Yes."
The two of them split up and began opening the curtains throughout the mansion.

...If the curtains remained closed, the inside of the mansion would still be dim, as if it hadn't managed to escape the previous night, and they wouldn't be able to clean.
Kanon, in a well rehearsed procedure, went around the mansion opening one window after another without having to retrace his steps once.

Even with this horrible weather, by opening the curtains, it began to feel just a little bit like morning.
While doing that, he passed in front of the kitchen.

...Even though he knew that he wouldn't be able to smell it yet, his stomach started aching for some of Gohda's much bragged about cooking.
".........Good morning.  ...............?"
He tried to greet Gohda, who he had thought would be preparing the meal inside the kitchen, but Gohda was nowhere to be seen.
The kitchen was darkly lit, and there was no fan for ventilation, much less curtains to be opened.
Since it was still cold without a hint of a fire, it was obvious that no preparations for breakfast were taking place.
...Even though it wouldn't be permitted, maybe Gohda had overslept.
Even servants are human.
They can sometimes be late when they are unable to wake up.

...In the rare case when that happened, clamoring to hide the unsightly scene, casually smoothing it over, and making sure that the presence of such a mistake was never noticed by the master were just some of a servant's virtues.
Kanon took the receiver of the phone that had been fitted to the wall and dialed the number for the extension line to the room where the servants slept.
"..................?"
......He couldn't hear that characteristic sound of a dial tone.
Kanon tried picking up the receiver again, but even so, he couldn't hear the usual dial tone.

He tried dialing again, but it had no apparent effect.
......Could it be that the lightning last night had done something to one of the machines and broken the extension phone?
The equipment in this mansion was all worn out.
Kanon fully understood that even the smallest thing could have caused it to break down.

Kanon gave up trying to wake him with the phone, and dashed over to the room where the servants slept.
...How long had she slept until?  How long had it been since she had awoken and started lazily staring up at the ceiling?
......That vague sense of awakening was Natsuhi's usual morning experience.
Her sleep was always light, and she wouldn't even have been able to sleep at all without medicine.
...To Natsuhi, sleeping was definitely not a happy thing.
When she looked outside, she saw that it was still pouring.
If she hadn't sensed a tiny amount of light, she might have mistakenly thought that it was still last night.
...She herself was one of the hosts, so she mustn't wake up later than her guests.

Urging herself on, she raised up her body, which still hadn't completely recovered from yesterday's weariness.
While she was inside this room, no one would torment her.
Her headache wouldn't get any worse than it already was.
......This room was her only peaceful space.

So when she left, it meant returning to the world of her husbands' siblings probing each others' minds.
...Then wouldn't it be better to just stay locked up in this room forever...?
Natsuhi smiled bitterly at this delusion.
...She was starting to sound like Kinzo.
...Even though most of the time she would carelessly call Kinzo names for staying locked up in his own room, the truth was that she actually longed to do so herself.

......Natsuhi gave her head a small shake, and her fantasy was replaced by the reawakening of her usual headache.
When she reached for the doorknob, trying to leave the room, her hand touched the scorpion charm that she had hung from it before going to sleep the previous night.

......It was Maria's charm, that Jessica had given Natsuhi.
Surely, Jessica had said something about it having the power to repel magic, and that she should hang it from her doorknob.

...Maybe it was thanks to the charm that at least this room had been protected from her husband's siblings' malice.
......As she thought this, her mood began to get a little more cheerful.
"............I wonder if it was thanks to Jessica, ...that I was able to get a little peaceful sleep..."
Then Natsuhi remembered.
That's right, last night, I promised Jessica that I would give her a charm of my own in exchange for this one, didn't I?
Natsuhi opened a drawer on her dresser, and she took out an antique accessory case that she had treasured when she was a child.
Inside, there were many small objects that Natsuhi had thought were valuable at the time.

From amidst those, she pulled out a red pouch.
...Inside was a small, round mirror about 10cm across.
It looked quite old, but the design on the back of the mirror was very ornate, and it felt like something with historical value.

At the very least, it looked much more effective when compared to the other charm, which looked like a plastic scorpion key-holder.
She had heard that this mirror was a spiritual mirror to ward off evil spirits, and she had been given it specially by her Grandmother when her grandfather's mementos had been distributed.
It had been believed since long ago that a strange power slept in that mirror.
It was believed that, in the same way it reflected light, it also deflected misfortune and malice.
Natsuhi returned the mirror to its pouch.
...It would probably be a fitting object to hand over to Jessica.
Just as she was placing it in her pocket, the sound of someone knocking on the door suddenly echoed throughout the room.
".........Yes?"
"Good morning, Madam, it is Genji.  My apologies for waking you so early."
"...I am coming now.  What is it?"
No servant had ever come to her this early in the morning, nor had they come to her directly.
Maybe something bad had happened.

For example, maybe some fatal oversight had been made during the preparations for breakfast and the household had been put to shame in front of the guests, or something.

...Natsuhi took a deep breath in anticipation for whatever troubles she was about to be told of...
When she opened the door, Genji once again said a morning greeting to her while bowing deeply.
Natsuhi tentatively responded.

".........Good morning.  Did something happen?"
"My apologies.  .........It seems that the telephones have broken down because of last night's lightning.  ...The extension telephone has been interrupted, so please forgive my coming to see you directly."

"The extension telephone has been interrupted?  That will be troublesome.  Will it be possible to repair it?"
"......I am afraid that we don't know the location of the damage.  I would like to call an expert and have him repair it."

"Does that mean that we will be unable to repair it until the typhoon has passed?  ...Which means that the guests will be unreachable for the duration of their stay.  ...Will there be any problem for our guests?"
"............We will do all we can to make sure there is none."
"That is fine.  ...I will be counting on you to make sure that there are no blunders."
Natsuhi let out a small sigh of relief.
She had been prepared for the worst, but damage to the telephones wasn't the kind of trouble she was worried about.

...But then, even this would probably be enough to spark sarcasm from Eva.
Natsuhi gave her head a light shake.

"Are the preparations for breakfast proceeding well?"
"......About that, ...we haven't been able to find Gohda.  The arrangements for breakfast have yet to be carried out..."
"What did you say?"

Natsuhi was indignant.

To her, this was a much bigger problem than the phones not working.

And despite that, this piece of information was the part that had been postponed.

Why did everything go well most of the time, and then come to something like this when the relatives were visiting...
Natsuhi smacked her head with her hand and nodded distractedly.
"I guess everyone oversleeps sometimes.  Anyway, it doesn't matter who, just hurry with the breakfast's preparation.  ...............Wha-"
Natsuhi exited into the hall and turned around for a second to close the door to her room.
The unpleasant "thing" that she saw there silenced her completely.
...There was a dark red liquid stuck to her fingers and some unpleasant marks around the doorknob that looked as though something had been tearing at it.

It was as though someone had soaked both of their hands in blood and groped at the door and the knob..., like someone had wanted to stage something like that and left this mark as an awful prank.

"Wh, ......what kind of prank is this.........?  How awful...!"
".........I also just noticed it as I came to call you.  I will clean it later."
"...P, ...perhaps, a vulgar joke by one of the guests.  Disgusting, truly disgusting...!"

Who in the world would pull such a childish and disgusting prank!

Natsuhi had a pretty good idea, but of course there was no proof, so even if she pushed the issue, it would just seem as though she was making a fuss about nothing.

On the contrary, after having such a prank played on her, it would definitely be better if she didn't notice it.
Natsuhi gave the order to have it cleaned, and headed off to the parlor with a squeak of her heels.

When Natsuhi and Genji arrived in the parlor, Eva and Hideyoshi were already there.

".........Good morning, everyone."
"Mornin', Natsuhi-san.  Gohda-san was makin' breakfast too, ain't he?  My stomach's been gettin' all excited since I woke up.  Wahahaha."
"It looks like food is the best you can look forward to in the main house, right?  *giggle* *giggle*."
".........You too, Eva-san, I'm pleased to hear that you are well this morning."

Natsuhi returned Eva's gaze, which was fiercely competitive even though it was early in the morning, with a weary expression.
Then Kanon jogged in.

After bowing in apology to the relatives for running inside the mansion, he noticed Genji and told him something in a small voice.

"......Kanon.  Have you still not found Gohda?"
".........My apologies, Madam.  I went all over the inside of the mansion and the guesthouse, ...but I still haven't..."
"Where in the world has he gone?  ......For now, breakfast is a higher priority than finding Gohda.  Quickly, take care of it."
".........Yes."
Kanon glanced at Genji.
...It looked like he had something else to report, but that he was asking Genji whether he should say it himself.

...Genji nodded, and he decided to give the report himself.

"............Madam.  It is not only Gohda.  ...Your husband is also nowhere to be found."
"My husband?"

"Yes.  I thought I would report to him before Madam about the lack of preparation for breakfast, and visited his room, but I did not find him there.  Furthermore, it was not only he who was missing.  ......Rudolf-sama and his wife, as well as Rosa-sama are nowhere to be found."

"Not even in the guesthouse?  Not in the mansion?"
".........Yes.  They are also not in their rooms in the guesthouse."
When she had heard that Gohda alone was missing, she had thought that he might have slept in or was loafing around somewhere, but once she heard that several of the relatives were also missing, her optimistic way of thinking began to change.
Could last night's family conference have continued all night and still be going on?

It was also imaginable that they had wanted to cool off their heads after being in that stuffy room, and had all gone off on their own walks through the rain.
...The part about 'cooling off their heads' really sounded like something Krauss would like to say.
Probably, Gohda had been called to go with them to aid them with something.
Gohda was not a man who lost track of time.
He had to have understood that, if he did not return, the preparations for breakfast would be hindered.

Even so, there had been that inescapable atmosphere, so maybe that conference had continued to this very moment.
......I see, thought Natsuhi.  To her, this was an extremely persuasive theory.
Natsuhi remembered the illusion that she had felt that morning of being sucked into a continuation of the previous night.  ...When she learned that the feeling wasn't just an illusion, she once again took a deep, weary breath.

Because that banquet of filthy vultures circling around Kinzo's property was still continuing.

"......Perhaps they are still repeating that same discussion about the inheritance somewhere in the garden, or maybe the beach.  ...Anyway, if we don't call Gohda back, we'll never be able to begin preparations for breakfast."
"So what're ya sayin'?  ...Nii-san and the rest are still continuin' their discussion...?!"

She had planned to say it in a small voice, but Hideyoshi overheard Natsuhi, and managed to grasp the situation.

"Nii-san and Rudolf sure are tough.  Maybe it's just youth in Rosa's case?  ......The two of us were so tired that we had to go back to bed just after midnight.  I do remember that Nii-san and the rest were still having a heated discussion at that point.  ......Men sure are nasty when they get excited."
Natsuhi snorted, her face still blank.

"Kanon, search outside.  If you find Gohda, tell him to return immediately and begin preparations for breakfast."
"......Certainly."
"Natsuhi nee-san, they aren't necessarily outside, right?  Couldn't they also be inside Father's study?"

"...I see, that wouldn't be impossible to consider.  I dunno what they've been discussin', but there's also a decent chance that they've moved to Father's study and included him in the discussion."

"......I can't imagine that Father would be so pleased at that detestable topic that he would invite them into his study."

"You really think so?  Well, then there's nothing we can do.  I'm sorry Genji-san, Kanon-kun, but could you search outside?  I'm sure it wouldn't be odd for Nii-san to propose that they go outside for a walk to cool their heads.  Even in this weather.  I will go to Father's study.  Maybe there's still some chance they'll be there, isn't there?"

"...............Eva-san, a guest such as you mustn't trouble herself.  I will go.  I can also tell him good morning."
"Really, then I'm counting on you, alright?  But I somehow doubt whether he will return your greeting.  Natsuhi nee-san, have you always been on such good terms with Father?"

".........I don't know whether it could be called good terms, but I am sure that I have gained his trust as the wife of the successor to the Ushiromiya family."

"Then I'm sure that he will at least answer you, right?  I want to at least eat breakfast with Father.  I wonder if you could convince him to come down and join us?  ......It seems that he thoroughly despises the rest of us, but I'm sure if his trusted Natsuhi asks, he will surely listen.

...If you can't convince father after speaking to me so sharply, and have to come down by yourself........., I'm sure you will never again be able to say that you're trusted by him, right...?  *giggle* *giggle* *giggle*!"

"............I am not confident, but I will try."
Natsuhi responded, discouraged.
However, knowing Kinzo's temperament, she had absolutely no confidence in her ability to bring him out.

Eva herself was making light of the fact that this couldn't be done.
But even so, Natsuhi would lose face if she gave up, saying it was impossible, and let Eva go instead...

Eva's mean-spirited and unreasonable demand made Natsuhi clench her fists slightly.

...When Genji realized this, he softly spoke to her over her shoulder.

"......Madam.  If you would, please take this."
"This is...?"

Genji handed Natsuhi a sparkling gold key of ornate design.
It was the key to Kinzo's study.

The study would always lock itself, and couldn't be unlocked as long as Kinzo forbade entrance.
However, since Genji was especially trusted by Kinzo, he was allowed to carry a key to that door...

"But, if this key is used, won't you also receive the blame...?"
"......When the master is sleeping deeply, simple knocking on the door will not reach his ears.  ...And when persuading the master to leave his room, it would be more difficult if you must talk through the door.  Please use it..."
"......Genji..."
Until now, Natsuhi had thought of Genji as a cold servant who, since he worked directly under Kinzo, would not do anything for her.
But it looked like she would have to alter her understanding of him...

She wanted to communicate her feelings of thanks, but by then, Genji had already turned his back on her, and was walking down the corridor with Kanon.

...The words that reached Natsuhi from behind her as she watched them go were sneering.

"Then, you must bring Father with you, right?  After all, it's his son's cute wife who's asking.  I'm sure he'll listen to you.  *giggle* *giggle* *giggle*.  We are guests, so let us leisurely relax here."
"Quit it, Eva, ya're talkin' too much.  Sorry, but Natsuhi nee-san?  We're counting on you about Father..."

Natsuhi, without answering, forcefully spun around on her heels and quickly left that place.
After all that excitement the previous night, there was no way anyone was going to wake up soon.
George-aniki, Jessica and I were snoring loudly on the bed in the cousins' room.

But Maria, who didn't join in, and who had gone straight to bed the previous night, suddenly and completely opened her eyes.
"....................."
As she rubbed her sleepy eyes and looked around, the loud snoring coming from the three cousins continued.

...For a while, Maria had to think about what had happened.
After that, she realized that her mother was not with her and quickly got lonely.
Maria left the cousins' room, trying to head to the room that had been arranged for her and her mother.
Paying no heed to the three who were sleeping soundly, she made a loud banging sound.

In response, Battler mumbled and rolled over in his sleep, but it wasn't enough to wake him up.
After a while, Maria returned, once again opening the door with a lively bang.
"..................Uu-."
When she had left the room, her face had been sleepy, but after returning, she now looked discontent.

After that, she climbed up on Battler's bed, which happened to be the closest, and started yelling and jumping on it like it was a trampoline.
"Uu-uu-uu-!!  Wa-ke u-p!!  Uu-uu-uu-!!""Waaa, what, what?!  Is it a raid?!  Surround the--m!!"
After making sure that I was awake, Maria moved over to George-aniki's bed and started jumping on that too.
...In that manner, the three of us were all greeted with an extremely pleasant awakening.
"Thanks, Maria-chan, for waking us up.  You stopped us from sleeping in after that late night...  ...But maybe it would be better if you could be a little more gentle..."

"...George nii-san, you really are an adult, I respect that..."
"It'll be 7:00 soon...  Well, it's not really a bad time to wake up.  *yaaawn*."

"Uu-!  Mama's not he-re!  Uu-uu-uu-!"
"Rosa oba-san?  She wasn't in her room?  I wonder if she has already woken up and gone to the mansion."

"No-t he-re!!  Uu-uu-!  Uu-!  Ma-ma-!  Uu-uu-uu-!!"

Maria kept groaning 'uu-uu-' and looking unhappy.
It seemed like she wasn't simply lonely because she couldn't find her mother, but actually unhappy because her mother wasn't in the place Maria thought she was and this made her feel like she'd been tricked.

She might have been satisfied just to hear where her mother was, but unfortunately, as long as Rosa oba-san wasn't here, we had no way of knowing where she was.

"Anyway, it's time to go to breakfast, so let's head over to the mansion."
"That's right.  Maria, will you go to the mansion with us?  I'm sure Rosa oba-san will also be there."
"Uu-?  Mama's in the mansion?  Then I'll go.  Uu-."
"That's right, let's go to the mansion.  Our parents have probably already gone there."

Maria, as though her earlier temper had been a lie, regained her usual composure.
We got dressed, left the room, and headed for the mansion.
The door to the study was once again knocked upon.  But there was no answer.  
...He was still sleeping, and she couldn't wake him.  ...If she said something like that and returned downstairs, Eva would be very amused and triumphant.

And even if she didn't tell Eva, there was the problem that, during this once a year family conference, he had stayed locked up all day yesterday, and had still not come out to greet the guests.
...Even though he was the head--no, especially because he was the head, he couldn't fail to make an appearance.

...I wonder if I can convince him myself?
Natsuhi readied herself, and, using the key that she had borrowed from Genji, opened the door...
Even though she was prepared for the sweet stench that seemed to eat into her brain after pouring out through the small crack in the door, she couldn't help but grimace.

Thinking that he might still be sleeping, Natsuhi entered the room quietly...
When she did, Kinzo, already awake, was looking down out of the window.
"S, ......so you're awake...  Good morning..."
"...............How did you get in?"
Kinzo spoke with his back still facing her.
His voice was not harsh, but calm, and Natsuhi was slightly reassured.

...However, even though he had been awake, he was at least in a bad enough mood that he had ignored the sound of all of that knocking.

Natsuhi wasn't able to break the tension.

"......My sincere apologies.  I asked Genji-san, and he allowed me to borrow the key to the study..."
"Ho...  Genji did?  .........If my friend thought it was that important, then I have no choice but to listen.  Tell me, ...what business do you have?"

"Y, yes............Breakfast will soon be prepared, and I would greatly appreciate it if you would join us..."
"I will eat here.  Have it brought here like always."
"But Father...  This is the annual family conference.  Please, at least let them see your face."
".........Go back downstairs.  Are you asking me to join in on the discussion of how they chew my inheritance to bits after I die?  How foolish.  .........They can keep talking about that kind of thing as much as they like without me.  And if that's what you call a family conference, it's nothing so important that I should leave my room for it.  I am busy.  Do not bother me."
With his last words came the threat that any further questions would be useless.

...Natsuhi realized that adding any further pleas would finally bring his wrath down upon her.
It would be annoying to hear Eva sarcastically say that she hadn't been able to convince him after all, but there was nothing more Natsuhi could do...
".........Is that so......?  ...Understood......  I am sure that everyone will be sorry to hear it, but I will tell them."

Natsuhi decided to give up.
Bowing silently, she tried to leave the room before Kinzo's spasmodic temper could fire up.
As she did, Kinzo spoke to Natsuhi.

......Compared to the usual Kinzo, this voice was calm and gentle, like it came from another person.
"......Natsuhi.  ...It has been quite some time since you married into the Ushiromiya family."
"Y, ......yes.  ...It had been a while since I was permitted to bear the name Ushiromiya."
"......Do you sometimes long for your previous family?"
"...............No.  ...Marriage means throwing away your parents' family.  I am Ushiromiya Natsuhi.  The family I return to and the family I am fond of, both are the Ushiromiya family."
It was definitely not an exaggeration.
Natsuhi had been that determined when she had taken the name Ushiromiya.

......That was why she was so sorrowful that, despite all of her fruitless effort, she was not even accepted by her husband.
".........If Krauss were a woman, ...and you were his husband............No, ...I won't say that."

"Wh, ......what do you mean by that, ...Father?"

Natsuhi was shocked.
......If Kinzo's words just now had been meant literally...

.........To Natsuhi right now, those words would be more than enough to make up for all she had suffered up to that point.

"............Forget it.  It's just the nonsense of an old man."
Kinzo once again faced away from her.
...He had told her to forget it, but Natsuhi couldn't help feeling a warmth in her heart...
"...Father.  ............Even though I, Natsuhi, am not connected to you by blood, I am still your daughter.  .........The honor and glory of the Ushiromiya family, ...and everything that you have left, ......I, Natsuhi, will definitely show you that I can protect it......!"
"...............You do not have the qualifications to wear the One-winged Eagle.  ...However, the One-winged Eagle is surely engraved in your heart.  .........In that case, you are definitely my blood relative, a person who will inherit the glory of the Ushiromiya family.  ............Some will sneer that there is no eagle on your clothes.  However, that is nothing to lend an ear to.  ...Only those who hold the eagle in their hearts are my true blood relatives.  ............I now believe that it was an honor that you were welcomed into the Ushiromiya family..."
Without saying anything more, Kinzo remained with his back to Natsuhi.
However, Natsuhi couldn't help but feel something warm well up inside her that she hadn't felt since long ago, when she had been just a child...

Natsuhi bowed silently to his back and left the room...
"...Ah, good timing.  How is Father?  You were taking so long, I came to check, you see?"
When Natsuhi left the study, she saw Eva climbing the stairs and their eyes met.

Eva, thinking that Natsuhi would leave drudgingly after failing to convince Kinzo, was smirking unpleasantly.
However, the way Natsuhi was now, such a frivolous laugh would not disturb her.

......She was not permitted to wear the family crest on her clothing.
.........But she was permitted to wear it in her heart.
So she spoke calmly, clearly, ...and confidently with the dignity of the one who would protect the glory of the Ushiromiya family.

"Father said that he would not join in on the family conference.  He says that he has no interest in such an obscene topic."
"...I'm sure he said something like that.  If you weren't able to persuade Father, say so frankly."

"......How pitiful.  I'm beginning to understand Father's feelings of regret."
"Wha, ......what do you mean by that..."
Natsuhi did not answer.

Just as Kinzo had done earlier, she showed Eva her back as she headed down the stairs.
Eva finally realized that she was being made fun of, and that something had happened to quickly bolster Natsuhi's confidence.

Even so, she didn't have the courage to risk Kinzo's wrath.
Unable to even knock on the door, she could only scratch at the air in front of it, cluck her tongue, and follow after Natsuhi.
"S, so, were Nii-san and the rest there?  Did Father tell you about them?"

"......I didn't get the chance to ask, but they were not inside the study.  ...It is impossible that Father would let them into the room for such a lowly conversation, so there was no way for him to know where they went.  Let us go downstairs and wait for the servants to return from their search.  ...Breakfast may be late, but how about some tea, Eva-san?"
"......Th, ...that would be fine."

Eva couldn't hide her confusion over the complete difference in Natsuhi's appearance.

...She was acting so boldly, and while Eva hated to admit it, she even had a sense of dignity about her.
Unable to find fault with anything, she could only follow Natsuhi back to the parlor.
When the two of them returned to the parlor, not only Hideyoshi, but the four children and Nanjo as well had gathered there.
Genji, who had been talking with Hideyoshi, reported the current situation when he noticed that Natsuhi had returned.

"You still have not found my husband and the rest?"
"......Yes, my apologies.  ......Also, Kumasawa has begun the preparations for breakfast.  She said that she will need just a little longer."

The clock read a little past 8:00.

8:00 should have been the time to start breakfast.
Normally, going over that time limit was a disgrace to the host.

"......Kanon is now searching outside.  ...Furthermore, no one has seen Shannon."
"Even Shannon?  .........Seriously, how many people does my husband have to order to go with him when he wants to go for a walk?"
How many people couldn't be found?

After the number of people had grown so large, it was starting to feel truly unpleasant, as though they were the only ones being left out on something interesting.
At the very least it looked like the children, no, Maria especially felt the same way.

She was indignant, her stomach grumbling, almost as though her mother and the others had left her alone to go off and eat something delicious without her.
Trying to fix her bad mood, the other children were flipping through the channels on the television, trying to find a program that might interest Maria.

Nanjo was sitting in the sofa, gazing blissfully at the children while reading a book.
It must have been a book about chess.
The sound of footsteps came rushing towards them with a pitter-patter.
There was only one set, so they realized before they saw the source that it was not Krauss and the rest, but probably Kanon.

"............Madam, excuse me."
"Judging by your appearance, you still haven't been able to find them."
"...My apologies.  I still haven't..."
"That will be enough.  You've worked hard."

She didn't know where they were, but they had to be somewhere on this island.
They hadn't put anything in their mouths since last night, so their stomachs must be growling about now.
They would surely saunter in any time now.

...Natsuhi was already dumbfounded, and she had begun to think that there was no urgent need to find them right then.

"I will go to the kitchen to prepare some tea for all of the guests.  Thanks to both of you for all of your hard work so early in the morning."
Natsuhi, acting as though the release in tension had caused a new surge in her headache, left the parlor.

...Kanon tried to call to her back, but Natsuhi left swiftly.

"............What is it?  Was there something else?"
".........Yes.  ...I was unable to find her husband or anyone else, but, .........ummm."

Kanon sounded evasive.
He still didn't know where they were, but maybe he had found something with some relation to that.

When Eva and Hideyoshi noticed this exchange of words, they came over.
Maybe Kanon had noticed something that looked strange.

"What's goin' on, Kanon-kun?  Did ya find Krauss nii-san and everyone else?"
"......Actually...  Something looked odd about the rose garden storehouse."
"............Something looked odd, ...what do you mean by that?"
"......It was, um, .........how should I explain it..."

Kanon once again hesitated.
...He wasn't speaking anything like you'd expect from the usually fearless Kanon.

Eva and Hideyoshi looked slightly doubtful at his appearance...

"What do you mean?  They aren't inside the storehouse, are they?"
"No, ...I am going to inspect the inside now.  I was just returning to bring the key, but.........umm..."

"I don't really get it, but it sounds like everythin' will be fine if we just investigate inside it.  Where's the key to that storehouse?"
".........It is in the servants' room.  I will go check the storehouse immediately."
Kanon dashed off to the servants' room and returned with the key.

Genji left the parlor, saying that he would go check, but Eva and Hideyoshi also followed.
...What was this 'something odd about the storehouse' that had caused the usually fearless Kanon to hesitate?

It was still pouring outside, but their curiosity over this 'something' that Kanon couldn't talk about won out.

While the children made a big fuss watching television, Kanon and the rest dashed over to the entrance...
The rose garden storehouse was a place that housed various tools used to manage the garden.
It was definitely not a pretty building.
Because of its appearance, it had been built hidden in a corner of the rose garden.
Kanon, Genji, Eva, and Hideyoshi came cutting across the rose garden holding umbrellas.
They entered a small path just off the rose garden, which was normally off limits for those appreciating the garden and only used by those maintaining the garden.

As they dashed along that as well, the front of the storehouse came into view.
It was a very old shed of a storehouse, and compared to the flawlessly perfect beauty of the rose garden, it was pretty seedy-looking.  It was easy to understand why it had been built in a hard to see place.
Eva and Hideyoshi arrived at the storehouse long after Kanon and Genji.

"Ha..., ha...  Ya two sure are fast...!  I thought my heart was gonna explode..."
"I guess they did build a storehouse over here.  .........bu, ...wha, ......what is that...?"
When Eva looked at where Kanon was pointing, she was at a loss for words.
Noticing this, Hideyoshi also followed Kanon's finger and was likewise too shocked to speak.

The entrance to the storehouse was a kind of shutter.  ......And there, .........
......Everyone there suddenly realized why Kanon had been unable to find words that could describe what they now saw.
On the shutter, which was completely filthy from being exposed to wind and rain for so long, stuck right on it...
......There was something that looked like a strange dark-red..., liquid?  Mucus?  Or maybe it was some sticky paint......An indescribably eerie shape was drawn on the shutter with some kind of ghastly substance.

The rain had caused it to drip down like fresh blood leaking from an open wound...
There were no words that could describe it.

Some kind of mark was drawn, ...with a ghastly substance meant to look like blood, ...in a shape meant to suggest something ominous.
...Two circles were drawn there, and inside them was a design that looked like a cross.

The four ends of the cross were widely exaggerated, and it looked like some kind of crest from somewhere around Europe.

And in the cracks between these shapes, written closely packed together, were some unfamiliar characters, or possibly symbols......
".........What a vulgar scribble.........Could this be...one of those?  One of those magic circles used in demonic ceremonies?!"
It was only natural that Hideyoshi would say that about the ghastly shape, drawn with a deep-red, dripping substance.

"When was this written...?!"
"......Last night, I came here before it started raining, but there was nothing drawn here at that time."

"............We must do something before anyone else sees this.  If they laid eyes upon it, it would cause them great discomfort......"
"That's right...  Even though it's just a shed, I don't want to leave such an unpleasant scribble alone for even one second."

"There is some paint inside the storehouse.  Let us paint over it temporarily as an emergency measure, than repaint it again someday when the weather is good.  ................."
Genji remembered that he had just recently seen another scribble, and that it too had been made with a strange, dark-red substance of the same color as this...

.........That must have been..., .........that's right, he had seen it on the door to Natsuhi's room...

"Kanon-kun.  Let's remove this scribble quickly and return, alright?  Even though it's just a storehouse, it's really irritating to have graffiti around the home I was brought up in."
"......Yes.  I will take care of it immediately..."
Kanon squatted in front of the shutter and unlocked it.
He then lifted it up with all of his strength.
A boisterous noise resounded, and the eerie shape drawn on the shutter began to get sucked in through the top as the shutter was raised.

...At least for the time being, that sign of misfortune disappeared from their direct gaze, and they all breathed a sigh of relief...
Thanks to a kids' program that they had come across, Maria was feeling much better.

Battler and Jessica were making fun of the kids' program at every turn, cackling.
George was enjoying the program along with Maria.
Nanjo sat on a sofa by himself, passing the time by reading quietly.
They heard hurried footsteps coming from the hallway.
They were footsteps from a single person.

...Did that mean that it wasn't the group of four that had just left?
Genji was the one who had returned.

It was very rare for Genji, who considered being out of breath a violation of a servant's virtues, to be gasping for air.
He had probably come dashing back from outside the mansion.
His shoulders were soaking wet, and he didn't have his usual smart appearance.

When Genji noticed Nanjo looking at him, he gave a small, silent bow and quickly approached him.

".........Doctor Nanjo, my apologies.  Please, come with me, quickly."
"Wh, .........what has happened?"

As Genji whispered something into Nanjo's ear, Nanjo's face changed color.

He stood from the sofa, trying not to be noticed by the children who were still engrossed by the TV, and the two of them rapidly left the parlor, muffling their footsteps.
Just when they were about to leave the parlor, they came across Natsuhi, who was pushing a serving cart loaded with a tea set.

Genji whispered something into Natsuhi's ear, and Natsuhi's face too changed color, shocked.

...Then, leaving the serving cart where it was, the three of them started dashing towards the entrance...
George noticed them running down the rose garden through the window.

"......What is that?  Genji-san and Doctor Nanjo and, ......and that's Natsuhi oba-san, isn't it?"
"What's up, Aniki?"

".........Maybe something has happened.  They looked horribly flustered."
Jessica and Maria also realized that something had happened from the fact that Eva, Hideyoshi and Nanjo were no longer in their seats, and because the serving cart had been abandoned in the entrance to the parlor.

"Could there have been some kind of accident...?"
"...Let's go check it out.  It's no fun if we're the only ones left out, right?  Ihihi!"

For some reason, what Battler said sounded extremely indiscreet.

...But they couldn't deny that they were a little insecure and concerned after seeing the adults run off into the rain regardless of appearance.

"......Let's check it out, alright?  I'm worried something might have happened..."
Jessica's insecure words spoke for all of them.

"Hey Maria, are you coming too?  Or will you watch TV?"
"Uu-!  Maria wants TV!  Uuu--."

"Then only the rest of us will go.  Maria-chan, we'll be back soon.  Stay here watching TV."
"Uu-!"
By the time the kids went outside, they had lost sight of the adults, who had left earlier.
But it looked like Jessica had a pretty good idea of where they had gone from the direction they had been running.

Following Jessica, we ran through the rain-soaked rose garden...
It felt like the wind suddenly got stronger.
...The malicious sound of thunder began to ring out like it had the previous night.
It felt like an eerie something had surrounded the island, and was trying to stop us from moving forward.

"Jessica, is there something over this way?!"
"I'm pretty sure there's a storehouse for gardening tools or something."
"What in the world could there be in a place like that..."
Just as Jessica had said, they began to see a storehouse in front of them.
They could also see the adults there.
The shutter to the storehouse was open, and several adults looked as though they were searching for something.
For some reason, only Natsuhi was outside the storehouse.  Without even holding an umbrella, she looked like she was hanging her head, and her back was facing them...

Genji, Nanjo, and Natsuhi, who had just left.

Since Kanon, Eva, and Hideyoshi, who had left earlier, were also there, it appeared as though there was a large gathering of people, but there was absolutely no bustle of activity.

When Natsuhi realized that the children had come, a terrible expression rose to her face, and she ran at them with her arms spread wide.
"Don't come over here!!!  Go back to the mansion!!!"

......However, ...no, because of that, the kids saw that scene which Natsuhi was trying to keep them away from.
Inside the storehouse with the shutter wide open, a flickering fluorescent light shone down.  And over there, ......,
"KyaaaaaAAAAAAaaaaaAAaa!!!"
Jessica's piercing shriek rang out.

...But that was just because Jessica's scream was the loudest.  ...The same thing spilled out of Battler and George's mouths as well...

Eva, just like Natsuhi, spread her arms, and with a terrible expression roared at the kids.

"George, take everyone and return to the mansion!!!  Quickly!!  Right now!!"

When Natsuhi had spread her arms, I had thought that she was trying to prevent us from advancing any further.
...However, right now, that wasn't why Eva was spreading her arms.

...She was trying to hide that terrible scene from the kids.

It was her mother's heart, trying to protect the eyes and hearts of us children by attempting to block our view of that terrible scene by at least the width of one of her arms!
"......Is this some kind of joke?  Is it...?!"
...I had seen this kind of cheap scene all too often.
In manga, TV, anime, and movies, I had seen it over and over again...
This was just...just seeing something appear in real life that I had seen plenty of times before in some of those more sensational movies, wasn't it!!?  That alone shouldn't, ...aaaaah, but that...that suit, ...it's that old bastard's, isn't it...?  I get it, then that's Krauss oji-san...  And Kyrie-san, and Rosa-san, UwooOOOOOOoooooOOo!!!

"Dad, DAD!!!"
"You mustn't, Jessica!!  You mustn't go in!!  You mustn't look!!!"

"Dad, Dad!!  HyyaaaaaAAAAAAa!!!"
".........Rigor mortis has set in across the entire body.........Probably, at least six hours have passed since death...  As far as I can tell by looking at the damaged area, there is a high probability that they were damaged after their deaths.........No, I must watch what I say...!  I'm a general practitioner, an autopsy is outside my area of expertise...!"

"......So what does that mean?  Just killin' 'em wasn't enough, ...they went on to do somethin' like this!!  The devil, this here's the work of the devil!!"
Natsuhi oba-san caught Jessica in her arms and Eva oba-san caught George-aniki, ......so I was the only one who could approach the entrance to the storehouse.
............Aah, ...if only there had been someone there to catch me too, I wouldn't have needed to have this horrible, evil scene burned into my eyes...
......No, that's not it.

...It isn't that there's no one here to catch me...

The people who should catch me, ・・・・・・・・・・・・・・

they're right there, aren't they!!・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・
...Just as Jessica had said, it did look like a storehouse used to keep gardening tools.
A lawn mower with extra blades, a grass sickle and a hammer, a saw and some construction tools...
Piled up potted plants and bags of fertilizer.

And treated just the same, the corpses of several people had been laid to rest there.  No, had been thrown in there!
I could tell them by their clothes.
......That old bastard and Kyrie-san.  ...Krauss oji-san and Rosa oba-san.  ......Beyond that, ...Gohda-san and, ...there's still more of them?  How many people died.........You're fucking kidding me!  I can't even count them on one hand!  Damn iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit!!!I didn't know whether it had been one of these gardening tools, which if used for something other than their intended purpose could definitely be wielded with a naked brutality, or whether some horrible tool had been brought in here specifically for this.
......Anyways, .........the bodies which had been tumbled into here, each of them had been given an atrocious makeup.

...It wasn't makeup, ...it was more like..., "their faces had been plowed"...!
Their faces were smashed, forced into an expression that a normal person couldn't make even after death.  ...I couldn't tell where the eyes or the noses were, but I could find their mouths...because they were gaping wide, the ridges of their teeth exposed!  But their front teeth were missing, and even the cheek that should have covered that was all torn up and exposed!  Even as a man, the stylish makeup that I thoughtlessly worried about was all useless...!!
"...UwooooOOOOoooooooohh!!!  Daaaaaaaaaaad!!  I always thought you were going to hell?!  But still, not like this, right?  You weren't such a son of bitch that you should have to suffer so brutally!!  And even Kyrie-san, ......didn't I tell you to stop going out with this guy......even you, ......there was no reason for even you to go through this, was there......
...There's no face..., there's no face...  Damn it damn it damn it damn it, hiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!!"

"......Battler-san, you mustn't look any more...  There's no way that your mother and father would want you to see them like this...!  For your mother and your father's sakes, ...you mustn't look any more!!"
"Dead people are supposed to have faces that look like they're sleeping peacefully, right?!  There's no face, my dad and Kyrie-san have no faces!!  I don't even know what kind of faces they were wearing when they died!!  What's wrong with me!!  Will I have to see these faces, smashed up like they're monsters, every time I remember Dad and the rest?!  That's just great, I don't even want to remember that old bastard's smug face, just great, just great!!
But you know, why even Kyrie-san's face...?  Kyrie-san wasn't a bastard............I sometimes got a little sick of her, but..., she was a little cool, just like a big sister to me............and then..., and then this......!!  At least Krauss oji-san's better, ain't he!!?  It's not his whole face, just the side!!  He at least has half of his face left, doesn't he!!  That's still better, that's still better!!"
"NooooooooooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOooooooooooooooooooOOOOOooooo!!!"
Trying to shut out my reckless words, Jessica tried to fill her ears with the sound of her own screaming.
"...Stop it, Battler-kun...!  Just stop it...just stop it......!"
"Aniki, Aniki!!  UoooOoooOOOooooooooo!!!"

Disregarding age and appearance, ......I fell to my knees, clinging to Aniki's waist and sobbing.
It was as if I was crying on behalf of everyone there...
Representing the feelings of everyone there, I screamed over and over......
"............Father............the ones dea-, .........lying over there are Krauss oji-san, Rudolf oji-san, Kyrie oba-san and, Rosa oba-san, Gohda-san, ...............five people...?"

"............No.  ......There are six people.  ......There's, ...one more person..."

The body that Hideyoshi was looking down on now was hidden in the shadow of a mountain of random objects, in a blind spot to George, who stood by the entrance.
...So George couldn't tell , ...whose body it was......

...Therefore, .........George cursed himself.
He cursed himself for always imagining the worst...!

"...So, ......the one lying at Father's feet is, ............Sha, ...Shannon, isn't it.........?"

".........Yes.  ......It's Shannon-chan.""......................"

George was completely silent.
......He shook slightly, his lower lip trembling...
He wanted to run up to his beloved, screaming and crying.
...But, ......before rashly running up to her, ......he mustered up all of his strength, and asked his father.

"......Is Shannon also, .........the same as, ............Krauss oji-san and the others?"
"........................"

Hideyoshi deeply understood the meaning of those words.
...So he couldn't give George an answer.
......No, ......he thought that, to George right now, that was the only possible sincere and loving response.

When George had asked whether she was the same, ...he had meant to ask whether her body was the same as the others.

......Since Hideyoshi hadn't denied it, it meant that the body was just as horrible.

"............Can I, ......look at Shannon.........?"
".....................No, .........you can't."

"......Why...?  After all, ......I won't be able to see Shannon's face again, right...?  So, ......why can't I see, ......her last face......?"
"......The last time you met Shannon-chan was yesterday?"
".........Yes."
"I see............when you left her, what kind of face was she showin' you...?"
"................................., it was a wonderful smile."

After receiving the ring, ......she was bewildered even though her heart should have been decided, bashful, ...and running away because she was too shy to show him that face.  ...That expression was revived in George's mind...
"............I see.  ...Then, Shannon-chan must also have wished to leave you with that smile."
...Hideyoshi looked down upon Shannon's body lying at his feet.
.........Just like the other bodies, it was in such a horrible state that it would make anyone want to cover their eyes.
......Half of the face had been smashed off, and no more than half of her expression remained.

.........If the remaining half, soaked red with blood, had been wiped clean, that graceful smiling face might have peeked out.  .........Only half of it......
Without thinking, Hideyoshi slapped his hand over his eyes.

......How cruel...
Even though it was smashed, if only all of it had been crushed, he might have been able to deceive George's heart for a while by saying that it was just someone else wearing Shannon's clothes.
Even so, half of the face was left...!

It caused the body so much humiliation, ......and also made it clear that this body wasn't someone other than Shannon!  How inhuman, how unjust...
Trying his best to burn the image of the remaining half of Shannon's expression into his eyes, was Kanon.
Kanon was not crying.
...Tears had risen to his eyes, but they did not drip down.
But that didn't mean that he wasn't feeling as much sadness as everyone else.

......Losing Shannon, who had lived with him in the same orphanage, who he had loved as a sister, must have been just the same as losing a blood relative...
"............George.  ......I'm sure Shannon-chan, would say thank you......if you didn't look at her in such a pitiful state.  .........I'm sure, ......she would thank you for stayin' strong..."
"...I understand.  .........I understand, Father, ......I understand......"
George leaned against the outside wall of the storehouse, ...sinking down powerlessly.
".........Father.  ......I have a request."
"What......?"
"......I want you to look for me.  On Shannon's finger, .........is there a ring...?"
"...A ring...?  ......Let me see..."
Hideyoshi crouched down.
...As he did, Kanon silently pointed to one of Shannon's hands.
"............Yeah, ......there is.  It's a diamond ring.  With a valuable diamond.  ...This would fetch a pretty good price..."
"And, ...............which hand, which finger is it on?"
"......Hmm, the ring finger of her left hand.  ...I see, ...was Shannon-chan, ...engaged...?"
"............George.........You, it couldn't be-"

"Eva!!  Right now that doesn't matter!!  A man made a lifelong promise to Shannon-chan...!  A man promised her happiness for life...  Who could possibly be in the wrong here!?
Being told that by a man..., it's a woman's dream, isn't it...?  ...I don't know when she received this ring.  I also don't know who gave it to her!  However, .........even so, Shannon-chan took this ring.  Then, ...she accepted it, and put it on her left ring finger.  ...I'm sure the man who gave it to her, ...was also happy."
To most of the people there, Hideyoshi was simply disturbed by this extraordinary situation and was blurting out strange things.

.........But, ......to those who knew the truth about George and Shannon's relationship, ......everything he said made sense.
"............I see.  .........Thank you, ............Father."
George stood up.
The traces of tears still streaked his face, but his expression had returned to its usual calm...

"......Let's go.  Battler-kun, Jessica-chan.  ......If we stay here any longer, we'll get in the way of the adults."
"............Sniff.  .........You're right..."

Jessica sniffled once, and showed her mother, who had been holding her the whole time, her face, trying to say that she was alright.
...When she faced George again, she once again had on her usual face.
......Although she still couldn't smile.

"......Battler...don't lose heart........."

Battler kept on crouching in front of his parents' bodies......
".....................I'm sorry.  ...I'll calm down once I've cried my share...  You bastard, Dad, ...I bet you're laughing at me, always talking shit about you, then crying like a baby just 'cause you died.  ......I give up..., I guess I just got passed the gene that makes you cry when your parents are dead...!"
Battler's face was still bright red from the tears, but even if it was a bitter smile, he had at least recovered enough to fake a smile.
"......Kanon.  ...You too mustn't remain here any longer.  Take the children and return to the mansion."

Natsuhi, unable to take a step into the storehouse, had been standing under the rain the whole time.  ...Maybe she had her own way of grieving, different from Battler's.
She realized that she had to take on a sense of responsibility now that her husband was dead, ...so she gave Kanon those orders.

"...............Yes.  Madam."

Kanon rose silently, and turned to face her.

His face was pure white, almost as though his own heart had died along with Shannon, ......there was no life in his expression.

On an ordinary day, if he had been told to guide the children through the rose garden, Kanon would have led the way and guided them.

......But now, there was no distinction between Kanon and the children.
...They were now just kids of about the same age..., with the wounds of having lost someone close to them.
Natsuhi ordered Genji to see that the children returned.

".........Genji.  ...Contact the police immediately.  They probably won't be able to come until the typhoon passes, but they should be able to tell us what to do next."
"...Understood.  There is an emergency radio, so I will use that to contact them."

When she heard that, Natsuhi remembered.
That's right, the telephones were out today, weren't they...?

However, since it had been assumed that there could be trouble with the phones on this isolated island, a radio had been installed.
......Anyways, let's contact the police and receive their instructions.  ...Everything else can wait.

".........Doctor Nanjo.  .........Is there anything you can do here anymore?"
"Unfortunately............I cannot do anything........."

"............Understood.  ...Genji, could you at least cover their faces with something?  Exposing them like this is humiliating to them as well..."
".........Yes."

Genji picked up several dried up towels from inside the storehouse, when Eva stopped him in a shrill voice.

"Wait a second!  Stop.  This is the scene of the crime, isn't it?  Then we can't disturb it.  In our confusion, we've tracked muddy footprints all over the scene, but surely that will get in the way of the police's investigation, right?"
"....................."

Natsuhi glared at Eva, offended.
......Objectively speaking, Eva was right.

Even so, she glared at Eva as though accusing her of refusing to do those tragic corpses, which had been humiliated even after death, the simple kindness of covering their faces.

......However, Eva had spoken both calmly and correctly.

This horrible state was definitely not an accident.

It was a crime.  ......Someone had killed them.  It was a murder case.

In that case, they should be careful not to further disturb the site.

They had to aid the police at least this much, so that they might hand over a clue that could be used to find the detestable culprit.

"............I agree with Eva-san.  ...Until the police come, we should leave everything be..."
"......What do you say, Madam?"

"............You're right.  ...Understood.  Close it up.  ...And, just in case, we should put a different lock on it."
"......A different lock?"

"Yes.  ......When we came here, the shutter was locked.  ...That means that the culprit used the key to the shutter to lock it."
"Th, ......that makes sense.  Then, does that mean that the key which opens this shutter will have the culprit's fingerprints?!"

"......I am sure it will be worthwhile to submit it to the police as evidence, but Kanon-kun usually has it, and uses it to open this.  It will probably also have Kanon's fingerprints on it.  Also, that key was handed to Genji just now, and he took it with his bare hands.  ...It doesn't look like it will be very useful as evidence."

".........That was careless of me.  ...My apologies..."
"Genji-san.  Are there other keys to this storehouse?"
"......No.  Only this one."

"Which means that the culprit walked out of the servants' room with that key, and then conscientiously returned the key to where they found it, right......?"
Hideyoshi's theory sounded plausible, but was actually very strange if you thought about it.

Why would they go to all the trouble of returning a key they stole.
......No, if you think about it even more deeply, there are some even more bizarre points.

Usually, when a criminal hides a body, they are trying to delay the point at which it will be found and use that time to escape.
The actual place where the six were killed wasn't necessarily here, but it was normal to think that they had been killed somewhere on this island, carried to this storehouse, and hidden to delay the discovery of the crime.
......But that graffiti drawn on the shutter that looked like an eerie magic circle had eloquently indicated that the corpses were hidden here.

......It didn't specifically say that they were here, but after six people had gone missing, by making such an obvious scribble and even returning the key to open it, it seemed almost as though someone had wanted the corpses to be discovered here.

"......Anyways, we can't trust only a lock that the culprit has opened once before.  If we want to protect this place from the culprit's hand, I think we should put a new lock on."
"I think that is a good plan...  I agree."
Genji fished around inside the storehouse, and unsealed a brand-new padlock which had been inside a small box.

"What should I do with the key...?"
"......I will take it.  I will take responsibility and hand it over to the police."
Natsuhi took the key to the padlock from Genji's hand.
After that, they all exited and lowered the shutter.

......Because of that, the corpses were once again sealed behind that shutter, covered with that gruesome magic circle.
Genji crouched down in front of the shutter to fasten the new padlock.

...In addition to the main lock on the shutter, there is sometimes a place where you can attach your own lock in front of it.  This was one of those types.
In the midst of the roar of thunder and the pouring rain, the storehouse stood there, ominously...
With its closed shutter still covered in a blood-like, creepy substance, it swallowed up the bodies of the six.
......To Natsuhi, putting the new lock on wasn't mainly to preserve the scene for the police, ......she might have felt like she wanted to shut that mouth for all eternity, to prevent the victims from being swallowed any more by that eerie demon......

"......Come on, let's go, everyone.  ...Doctor Nanjo, thank you very much for your work.  ...Genji, quickly, contact the police."
"I will contact them as soon as I return..."
The adults left the storehouse.
...The ghastly magic circle drawn on the shutter, still swallowing the six bodies, loomed eerily, occasionally lit up by the lightning......

Curtain-rise on Tragedy

Sun, Oct 5 1986 8:45AM
All that could be heard was the sound of the rain, the voices from the kids' television program that Maria was watching, and the engrossed Maria's cackling voice.
In other words, what greeted them as they returned dumbfounded from that horrible, bizarre scene was the voice of Maria as she rolled around laughing at the television...
Without knowing how explain to Maria that her mother, Rosa, was dead, those who returned to the room couldn't manage any more than a suffocating silence.

At first, Maria returned their stares with a dubious look, but when she realized that they weren't trying to blame her for anything, she ignored them and again immersed herself in the television program...

The children wordlessly sat down on the sofa...
Their minds were probably blank from their state of shock.

Everyone had already cried and mourned so much...but now they just vaguely sat there, their faces expressionless...
Only Kanon had returned to his usual calm expression.
However, that probably didn't mean he had been able to wipe out the shock.

Nothing was reflected in his eyes as he stared into the emptiness...

Hideyoshi, fidgeting as he remembered that horrible scene, kept muttering, 'Unbelievable.  That can't be somethin' of this world, it's the work of the devil.'

Every once in a while, he tried to ask a question and bumped into Nanjo, but Nanjo, in a calm doctor-like manner, kept repeating that nothing could be understood by only glancing at the scene, and that until the police arrived, he wouldn't know anything.

However, Nanjo only appeared calm next to Hideyoshi, who was agitated and fearful to the utmost.
Maybe it was because of their attitudes that Natsuhi tried to rise to the challenge and take control.

Natsuhi was apparently unchanged from her normal attitude.
And she briskly gave directions.

"......I will head to Father's place.  Genji, quickly contact the police."
"Certainly..."

"I wonder if you would allow me to tag along, Natsuhi nee-san?  ......Since Krauss nii-san is now gone, the task of aiding Father has been left to me.  It would be improper of me to relax here while relying entirely on Natsuhi nee-san."

Natsuhi was struck speechless by Eva's aggressive actions in a situation like this.

It seemed that she was claiming that, with Krauss dead, the one to take responsibility should not be his wife, but herself, the next highly ranked in the family.
...Possibly, she had not been happy at all when Natsuhi had ignored her in this extreme situation.

Naturally, Eva's mind had been blank from the shock until just now.
...She only returned to herself after Natsuhi started giving orders.

".....................Just do as you like."
Natsuhi, without saying anything more, walked out.
Eva followed behind her.
...As they did, Kumasawa ran into the parlor.

Since she normally wasn't the kind of person to run around, anyone would guess that something had happened, ...but since everyone had been stricken by that earlier shock, this level of a disturbance didn't overly trouble them.
"......U, umm, ...Madam, ...Madam.........!"

"If ya're lookin' for Natsuhi nee-san, she went to see Father.  She'll probably be back soon.  ...What happened, Kumasawa-san?"

"Th, that is, .........in the dining hall, ......blood..., ......blood......!"

Everyone in the parlor turned to listen.

Everyone thought the same thing.
'I hope I misheard that.'

......Just like how any container has a limit to how much you can put in it, ...no one felt like they could accept any more tragedies beyond what had already happened.

So they all thought it.  I hope I misheard that......

"Wh, ......what happened,......in the dining hall...?"
"When I went to the dining hall..., to set up for breakfast..., ......Awawawawawa... wawa..."
George ran straight for it.
His harsh footsteps jogged Hideyoshi and Nanjo to their senses, and they chased after him.  Battler and the others followed.
They flew into the dining hall one after another, but they didn't find any change that would have caused Kumasawa to go pale.

...To those who had viewed that gruesome scene in the storehouse, it was a bit of an anticlimax.
However, Kumasawa, who had followed them, pointed it out.
......There really were some traces of blood remaining on the floor.
...Compared to that terrible scene, it was not very impressive.
...However, if you calmly thought about it, this definitely indicated the loss of a lot of blood.
"............Blood has also gathered here.  ............What in the world......"

"......It appears that a great deal of time has passed...  Probably, last night......it might be appropriate to view this as the place they were killed..."
"I, it would seem to mean that......We'd been talkin' together in the dinin' hall until late into the night...  After that, someone must've broken in..."

"Dad, when did all of you finish their meeting and go to sleep......?"
"...Hmm...  It was a little past midnight.........Therefore, ...sometime after that, ...is probably when it happened..."
".........Seriously............gimme a break........."

"Milady, ......get a hold of yourself......"
"...Hehehehe......After seeing that hell on earth in the storehouse, I think I can handle this much..."
"......Really?  Great for you...  I feel like my head's gonna explode.........This is the dining hall, right?  This is where every day I would eat, complain about school, complain about homework, ......talk to my parents about my grades, ......that's what this place is to me......"

"............Milady.  It wouldn't be good to remain here any longer.  ...Let's return to the parlor."

"I agree............Hideyoshi oji-san!  I think this room will be really important to the police.  Don't you think it would be bad if we trampled all over it?"

Battler proposed this in a slightly powerful voice as, along with Kanon, he grabbed the pale and shaking Jessica's shoulders.
".........Everything is just as Battler-san has said.  There is nothing more to be gained from remaining in this room."
Nanjo spoke while looking at everyone's pale faces.
......Even though that horrible scene in the storehouse had felt like something not of this world, at least then we had been able to leave, to cut ourselves off from that place and run away.  Everyone had shared in that feeling.
......However, this dining hall was different.

It was in the main wing of the mansion, ...and as Jessica had said, the inside of the mansion was supposed to be the one place where we could feel secure.  It was the same place that all of the relatives had eaten lunch and dinner yesterday.
......The shock of seeing this place smeared with blood reminded us of that horrible spectacle in the storehouse, and forced us to accept that we really hadn't been able to run away from the scene of that tragedy......
"...Hmm.  I also agree...  The culprit might have left traces in this room!
Amateurs like us shouldn't stir the place up.  ...Let's leave quickly.  Quickly, quickly!"
Hideyoshi also understood the meaning of what Battler had said, and pushed everyone to hurry out of the dining hall.

...The way we were then, looking at that blood any longer would have been too harsh.
Nobody went against his words.
Everyone raced each other out of the dining hall.
............It was almost as though the last person in the room would be trapped in there, all alone.
Once in the hallway, we helped Kumasawa, who was still trembling and leaning against the wall, and we all headed back to the parlor together.
...Then, Genji returned.

"......Oh, Genji-san.  Were you able to contact the police?"
"............About that, my sincerest apologies. ...I don't know if it was a failure of the radio or something else that caused it, but..."
"What..., you didn't contact the police...!!  You tried the phone and the radio and both failed!?"

"...My apologies.  A boat will be arriving on Monday morning, and I believe we will be able to borrow their communications equipment."
"Isn't there a boat on this island?!  Can't we just take a little trip out to the Niijima Police Department?!"
"...Hideyoshi-san, that would be impossible with this weather...  At the very least, we can't do anything until the typhoon passes by us."

"Krauss-sama's boat is being repaired and is not on the island...  Therefore, we must wait for the boat coming on Monday......"
"H, how could this happen...?!  Six people are dead!!  The phones and radio aren't working, and there's no boat!  Until the typhoon passes and the boat comes..., in other words until tomorrow morning, will we just have to stay here on this island without being able to contact the police?!"
".........Which means that.........not just us, ...but the criminal who killed everyone is also confined to this island..."
"......That certainly follows.  ......The culprit who killed everyone is still here on the island."

"S, ......so the bastard who killed Dad and the others, without being able to escape the island, must still be hiding somewhere.........Damn it, damnitdamnitdamnit!!!  I'll find that bastard, no way I'll hand him over to the police!!  I'll slice him into bits myself...!!!  Whaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!"
"....................."
Maria had finally realized that something was odd in the parlor.

...Rather than noticing something odd, it was probably better to say that she felt unhappy and neglected since everyone was getting so excited about something only she didn't know about.
".........Uu-.  ...Jessica onee-chan.  Who died?"

The way she spoke was completely calm.
...Just as though she was talking about someone who had appeared on a television drama, as though it was someone else's problem.
...Jessica probably didn't like that.

......As though trying to say 'Can't you tell just by looking at me, overwhelmed with grief!', she flared up against Maria.

"They all died, everyone, everyone!!  My dad and Battler's parents!!  Gohda-san and Shannon!!  And even your mother, too!!"
"Stop it, Jessica-chan...!!  You aren't the only one who's sad...!"
"...Maria-san...  I know this will come as a shock, but please listen.  ......Your mother has.........died."

"............Mama is dead?  ......Uu-...?"
"......Yes, someone killed her.  ...I know it's sad, but stay strong..."

"...............How many people, died?"
"Six people!!  Six people!  ......Dammitdammitdammit!  How could you do something so cruel!!  There's a limit to how cruel you can be, if you're a human...!  I don't know who it is, but the culprit isn't human!!  There's no way their blood is red!!"
"............Uu-.  The culprit isn't human.  ...It's just the **** chosen by the ****."
"Huh?  ............Hey, Maria, did you say something just now?"
Maria had just said something, but since the words were so remotely separated from the flow and context of the conversation, for a second, I couldn't understand them.
When I tried to ask her to repeat it again, I was shocked by the sudden sound of Natsuhi oba-san's loud voice coming from the entrance to the parlor.

It looked like Natsuhi oba-san and Eva oba-san had returned from their trip to see Grandfather.

"You can't contact them with the radio?!  .........If we can't use it at a time like this, why do we even have an emergency radio!"
"............My apologies.  It was supposed to have a maintenance inspection every year..."

"Wait, don't you have one of those boat signaling devices that makes a flashing light?  Couldn't you use that to contact the next island?"
"......We do not have such equipment......My apologies..."

Just then, Kumasawa came pushing a serving cart loaded with breakfast.
......Since there was no way we would be able to eat in the dining hall, Hideyoshi ordered her to take it to the parlor.
"Why are we eating breakfast here?"

"......Aaaahhh, Natsuhi-san..., I'll tell you later.  More importantly, Eva, how was Father?"
"Judging by the fact that he is not with you, .........he won't even leave his room for a situation like this..."

"He isn't there.  ......The room was empty.""What the...  Where could he have gone at a time like this...!"
"............Did you say that the Master has left his study...?"
"...That's right.  I am also surprised...  I wonder when he left his room......  Do any of you have an idea?"
Natsuhi looked at Genji and Kanon as she said this.
Maybe she was trying to ask whether the servants who served directly under the One-winged Eagle would know of a place he might go.

.........However, it was probably the other way around.
Their faces made it clear that those who knew Kinzo best realized even more than the rest how impossible it was for him to leave his room.

".........Even we have no idea."
"...As you all know, within that study, the Master had everything set up from a place to sleep to a bathroom.  I couldn't imagine him leaving that room except for a significant reason."

"............In that case, what?  Isn't it natural to think that one of those 'significant reasons' came up...!?"
"We still don't know whether that is the case!  Anyways, he is a fickle person, so it's possible that he went for a walk by himself without knowing the current situation.  ......If that is the case, we have to tell him what has happened and ask for instructions as fast as we can."

"......That's right.  .........Although I don't want to think about it, ...it's possible that something has happened to him, isn't it...?"
"I don't even want to think about something that ominous...!"
No one had seen Kinzo since the six horrible corpses had been found.
On top of that, the phones were broken, the radio wouldn't reach anyone, and there was no way to contact the police.

...It looked like the typhoon would leave tomorrow and a boat would come, ......until then, no one could rely on anyone outside the island, nor could they escape the island.
Everyone had lost their composure at the extremely sudden tragedy.
...Everyone felt a heavy silence.  Everyone was impatient.
...Even though they needed to do something, they couldn't think of anything, so some of them held their heads in their arms while others got irritated.

.........Right now, no one could explain what was occurring on this island, Rokkenjima......
After that, we ate the breakfast that Kumasawa-san had made.  It felt dry and tasteless.
Of course, this was right after something like that had happened.
No one felt particularly hungry.

However, we realized that not eating would weaken our bodies.
It would also be rude to Kumasawa-san, who had made the breakfast.

Kumasawa-san had taken the tasteful western vegetables, ones that Gohda-san had probably ordered to make the meals feel more elaborate, and cooked them in a Japanese style, making them turn an unpleasant color.
As to what Gohda-san had been planning to cook with those ingredients...right then I couldn't even imagine it.
If I did think about it, I would be reminded of the way Gohda-san had died, and the inside of my mouth would be filled with a sour taste...

For the time being, everyone pretended to eat, but no one was actually going to move their chopsticks.
Then everyone began thinking about the current situation.

First off, ......Krauss oji-san, my dad, Kyrie-san, Rosa oba-san, Gohda-san and Shannon-chan: six people whose cruelly mutilated corpses had been found in the rose garden storehouse.
And despite that, without being able to use phones or radio, we still couldn't contact the police.
......So until the typhoon passed, there was nothing we could do.
Furthermore, Grandfather, who we had hoped might be able to show a little leadership in this kind of a situation, had disappeared some time ago.

......Gohda-san hadn't made breakfast, so Grandfather's stomach must have been empty, and if he had just been taking a casual walk, we should have been able to hear him whining about how hungry he was about now.
And despite that, he hadn't appeared.

......There was more than a small chance that he had become caught up in the earlier crime.

Natsuhi oba-san and Eva oba-san had said that, on their return trip from going to see Kinzo, they had called out to him on every floor, looking for him, but were not able to find him.

...If you think about the timing of it all, it was probably best to think that he had been caught up in the crime.
If the culprit had taken the trouble to move the corpses of Dad and the rest, who we figured had been killed in the dining hall, all the way to the storehouse, maybe they had already killed Grandfather, moved his corpse to some strange location, and we had simply not found it yet.  No one actually said it, but this theory seemed extremely convincing...

"We will go check that all of the windows and doors are closed.  We must also carefully search for Father.  So that the children stay in this room...Eva-san and Hideyoshi-san, I'm sorry, but please stay here with the children.  Doctor Nanjo as well."
"...I understand.  I will wait here......"
Natsuhi oba-san followed the servants, Genji-san, Kumasawa-san, and Kanon-kun, out of the parlor.

All that was left was Eva oba-san, Hideyoshi oji-san, Doctor Nanjo, and the four of us children for a total of seven people.
"Let's all stick together, maybe watch some television while we wait.  Unfortunately, I don't think that there'll be any good shows on during the middle of the day on Sunday."
Hideyoshi oji-san tried to stir up this gloomy atmosphere, acting cheerfully.

"Uu-. Good show, watch it, watch it.  Uu-uu-!"
"Oh, really?  Will Maria-chan watch television?  Then, come and watch it with Oji-san."
Maria was the only one who played along.

...Even though Maria had been told of her mother's death, she didn't show the slightest flicker in her emotions.
Maybe it was because Maria was only nine years old, and was still too young......

Everyone else's mood failed to improve, and they each sank absentmindedly into their sofas...

"............Aniki.  Can I ask you something?"
"...What is it?"

"......Just now in the storehouse.  You said something about Shannon-chan and a ring.  ......Did you give that to her?"

George-aniki didn't answer, but he hung his head and closed both of his eyes.  ......There could be no clearer response.

"Quit it, Battler.  ......Figure it out yourself."
"......You're right.  I shouldn't have asked that."
"............That's right.  It was me.  .........Last night, I proposed to her.  ...That was when I gave her the ring.  ......I told her that tomorrow, she should put it on whatever finger she wanted, as her answer.  ...Haha, I sound so full of myself."

......And that ring had been, ......on the ring finger of Shannon-chan's left hand.

"...............Well, I......several years ago, I had a talk with Shannon.  ...About you, George nii-san."
"......I wonder what she could have said."

"............Shannon was always really bad at lying.  Once she started talking about you, it was instantly obvious.  ............She asked whether it would be okay if she herself, ...with only the status of a servant, could get close to you.  ......She asked about stuff like what kind of things do boys like, and what kind of clothes should she wear would make them happy, lots of stuff like that.  ...............How should I say it?  Well, I was jealous of her."
"......So I handed her the engagement ring, and then, ......it was all over."
"......A sense of value varies with the person.  ......But being proposed to by a man, .........can, in a way, be the high point of a girl's life.  ...So I'm sure.  Last night, I think Shannon was,
from the bottom of her heart, ......no, more than she ever had been since she was born, truly happy..."
"........................"

...George-aniki, without raising his head, sighed deeply...
......Or maybe tears had risen to his eyes.
"............It seems that Shannon was on duty in the guesthouse last night.  ......But, ...because she was too embarrassed to go back to the guesthouse with me, ......she went over to the mansion."

"......Think about Shannon's feelings.  ...She had received an engagement ring, and no matter how much she had been prepared for it beforehand, it was perfectly normal that she got so excited that her mind went blank.  ......Her being embarrassed was only natural."
"......And then, Shannon, ............even though she hadn't been on duty there, she went to the mansion, ...and helped Gohda-san with his job, ...............and got caught up in this case.........  If only I hadn't, on that day, in that place, given her that ring......, Shannon wouldn't have, ......Sayo wouldn't have, ......been caught up in that case...!  ...Whaaaaaaaaa!!"
"Aniki.  That's wrong.  That's definitely wrong.  ......So don't cry any more."
"...............Aaaahaaaaaa..."
"Battler-kun.  Leave him alone."
After Eva oba-san spoke to me, I stopped talking to him.
...Misplaced words of comfort might actually hurt him.
Jessica sat down next to Aniki, and put an arm around him.
Maybe only Jessica, who had known about Aniki and Shannon's love since the beginning, and who had discussed that relationship with Shannon, ...could comfort Aniki now.
I went over to Eva oba-san and sat down in the opposite sofa...

"Battler-kun, you really are strong...  It looks like you have kept a good hold on yourself."
"...Umm, well, look, the depth of the love becomes the depth of the wound, right?  After all, it's not like how that old bastard died has anything to do with me.  ...I feel bad about Kyrie-san, but...well, she wasn't actually my parent."

"My, my.  But on the other hand, you were crying a lot back then, right?"
"Well, I did think that at least that much crying was due as gratitude to the parent who raised me...  Hehehe..."

".........The speed of that changeover and that dry tone must have come from Rudolf.  ...That kid would always get violently happy, sad, and angry, but he would always regain his cool immediately afterwards."

"......It's nothing like that.  I haven't really been able to get over the shock yet.  ...I think it's just that the emotions that rose up in me were different from everybody else's."
"What do you mean?"
I had been acting much calmer than George-aniki and Jessica had been.

That wasn't because my sadness was any less intense, or because I had already sprung back to normal.
It was just because my sadness was gradually replacing a different emotion.
"............Rather than sadness, .........it's more like I'm irritated.  What bastard did this and where?  ...It's kinda been eating at me that I didn't get a chance to smack him upside the face."
That was what I really wanted to do.
It was like I couldn't allow myself to just sit here, overwhelmed with sadness and hugging my knees.
"......Since the time Dad and everyone else were killed, this island has remained covered by the typhoon.  ......In short, that means that the bastard responsible for all of this is still somewhere on this island."
"It sure does mean that.  .......I wonder if they're hiding themselves somewhere in that dark forest even now?"
.........I felt like I'd had a very similar conversation with Kyrie-san the night before.

That's right.  After the letter from the person who claimed to be Beatrice appeared at the dinner table last night, ......we had talked about whether or not a 19th person actually exists.
"Eva oba-san.  .........This murder, ...do you think it has anything to do with the letter from Beatrice last night?"

"...Aah, that one?  ............Well, I wonder.  All of the siblings were in agreement that the mysterious letter had been sent to further complicate the problem of Father's inheritance.  .........As to whether that and the case this morning are related, it's impossible to tell at this stage..."

"Was that letter really given to Maria by some witch called Beatrice?"

"How could it be?  All of it was a farce devised by Father, wasn't it?  He made someone like Shannon-chan wear the dress from the portrait and deceive Maria-chan, right?  Isn't that just like the kind of intricate prank Father would pull?"
".........Last night, I talked with Kyrie-san about whether Beatrice actually exists, and Kyrie-san also said that Beatrice was probably one of the 18 of us."
"Isn't that obvious?  There's no one else on this island besides us, right?  Then there must be someone amongst us who is pretending to be Beatrice."
"There's no one else but us on this island, you think...?"
"Obviously, right?  Are you saying there could be someone else here other than us?  No one is on this island except us.  There are only 18 people.  So the one pretending to be Beatrice has to be one of those 18."
Kyrie-san had denied that there was a 19th person by 'turning over the chessboard'.

Even though Eva oba-san hadn't constructed an argument that complicated, her opinion at least was the same.
...Except, if that were the case, our situation would start to look very ugly......
At the time of Beatrice's letter, the matter could be easily settled since it hadn't seemed to be anything more than a prank.

...However, now the matter couldn't be settled by simply denying the existence of a 19th person.

.........In other words,

"If there is no 19th person, then the culprit who killed Dad and the others is also one of the 18, right?  .........So, in other words, that would mean that someone in this very mansion is the one who killed them...!"

"....................."
Eva oba-san smiled meaningfully.

...It looked like Oba-san thought that this conclusion should have been obvious from the very beginning.

"The culprit carried the bodies of those six into the storehouse.  But they sure did a good job getting into that storehouse, didn't they?  That shutter is always closed and locked, right?  In other words, in order to carry them into the storehouse, the culprit would need to unlock the shutter.  ...Understand?"

"......Is there any possibility that the shutter was left open by mistake that day?"
"The servants said that it is always shut.  In other words, unless they brought the keys out of the servants' room, they definitely couldn't have opened the storehouse."
"Is the only key the one in the servants' room...?"

"Genji-san said that was the case.  Which means that the culprit knew where that single key was stored and took it out.  Just now, I saw Kanon-kun return the key to the servants' room.  The wall was packed with keys, and I don't think that a novice would know where and to what those keys went to.  The culprit was magnificently able to select the key to the storehouse from all of those.

Furthermore, even though the key didn't have a tag or anything sticking to it, they knew it was the key to the storehouse behind the rose garden.  ...And that means that they also knew where the storehouse was.  .........I'll say it even clearer.  The culprit knew the inside of the servants' room well."
Her argument was extremely plain and clear.

......If the bodies had been found thrown somewhere in the bushes of the rose garden, there wouldn't have been much to go on.
However, if there was only one key to the storehouse in the servants' room, and it was stored with such a large group of keys, a novice would not be able to tell them apart.

This meant that the culprit was someone who could normally enter the servants' room, and knew where the key was well.
...The family didn't normally go into the servants' room.
......Which meant that............
".........Which means that, .........one of the servants is, ......the culprit........."
"I'm sorry, but even Oba-san can't say any more than that.  ......However, I'll tell you one thing."
"......What's that?"
"The culprit, ......no, culprits in the plural, would have more than enough weapons in their arsenal if that were the case.  You see it, don't you?  They had to assault the four in the dining hall and kill them, drag a total of six bodies all the way to the storehouse beyond the rose garden, and scribble that disgusting makeup on their faces.  ......There's no way that a single culprit could carry all of this out on their own, right?"
It was impossible.  It might not have been if a single person had enough time, but that would have taken ages.

It was probably best to think that a significant number of people had been part of it.
"............Erk.  So what Eva oba-san means is, ......, maybe all of the servants were in cahoots."

"Please keep it quiet, okay?  It's still just a guess, so it would be bad to say it.  ......And if it really is true, what would you do?  They might not let us return alive.  This is an opponent who had no trouble killing Nii-san and the three others.  Right now, the only people I can count on to fight with me are the three people in my family and maybe Battler-kun, as well, which comes to a total of four people, right?  The situation is no different than it was last night.  ......In short, it would be easy for the culprit to massacre the rest of us."
I had been playing detective with Eva oba-san, trying to expose the person who had killed Dad and the rest before the police did.
...If only I could skillfully penetrate the culprit's identity, I wanted to stick proof that it was them in their face.
......I had been so sure that, just like in one of those detective movies, the culprit would then give up and surrender.

However, the culprit would only surrender if there was no way for them to fight back.
The culprits behind these cases on the island were far from helpless, and might even be able to massacre all of the remaining people on the island.

...And on top of that, this island was like a giant locked room, cut off from the outside world by the typhoon, so they had a full day, until tomorrow, to kill, scheme and camouflage themselves......
In short, it wasn't a safe atmosphere where we could get very far by playing detective...

To the contrary, we were at a stage where we had to be scared stiff, since playing detective might displease the culprits, and cause them to repeat another mass murder......
"...Well, no matter what, it's only a possibility, right?  ......But I can no longer trust the servants.  And that doesn't mean that I only doubt the servants.  Don't you think there could be yet another person behind all of this?"

"Someone behind all of this?  Hmm..., why?"

"It's just a feeling.  ......Think about what the word servant literally means.  It means someone who serves as someone else's arms and legs, right?  Everyone who was killed had some relation to the Ushiromiya family.  So naturally, it was someone who had some interest in that result."

This was also plain and clear...

It all went straight to the discussion that had been taking place in the Ushiromiya family about how to distribute the inheritance when Grandfather died.

If this case followed the standard form of any classic mystery novel, it was definitely a crime by someone with ties to the Ushiromiya family and who was entangled in the inheritance problem...

Oba-san had probably also read a few books in that genre.

......Eva oba-san's argument had a few one-sided conclusions to it, and it was probably a shortcut that anyone could have reached.

I think anyone would have doubted the servants, even if their logic was different.

Especially the story about the key to the shutter.  That was enough to make it easy to suspect that one of the servants was involved in the case...

"...............That's why, ...I don't like it for some reason."
"What do you mean, you don't like it?"
"Nah, just talking to myself.  Ihihi!"

I tried to trick her by joking, but I couldn't wipe out the sense of unease I felt inside me.
......Because it was an easy guess to reach.

A guess that anyone could reach・・・・・・・・.

...And I just couldn't accept that.

...If I tried 'turning the chessboard over' like I had learned from Kyrie-san, that was exactly why it was impossible for a servant to be the culprit.
If the servants really had been the culprits, they wouldn't hide the bodies in a place that was tied to themselves.
There were other places besides the rose garden storehouse, whose key they themselves controlled.
The police would probably immediately pursue whoever had been in control of the key.

That would create a danger for exposure.
......If we were to assume that they were the culprits, they had no reason to carry the bodies into the storehouse.

...If you twist that around, why did they purposefully put them in the storehouse?
No, that definitely didn't make sense.
When the police come and inspect the site, several things will probably become clear.
No matter how deeply careful the culprits were in carrying out murder, some kind of traces will definitely be found.

So, in summary, they had everything to lose and nothing to gain.
If you think about it this way, and look at the game from the culprit's side, it would seem pointless for them to let the corpses be found.

If the bodies were found, a report would be sent to the police, the remaining people would become even more cautious, and they could start looking for the culprit, ...anyways, none of these things would make the culprit feel any more comfortable.
...Just like the words of the main character's mother in a novel I read recently called "Higurashi no naku koro ni".

A mystery story had four parts: introduction, development, turn and conclusion.  Eliminating the first part was essential for the perfect crime.
......Right now, no one knew where Grandfather was.

We didn't know whether he had already become a victim, or if he was one of the culprits, .........but this state of confusion had to be beneficial to the culprit.
By showing us the bodies that obviously, and making us all realize there is a murder case going on, the culprit had absolutely nothing to gain.
Right, that was where we could 'turn the chessboard over'.
So the culprit's goal was to clearly show us the bodies.

......So, at the very least, to the culprit,

the appearance of the corpses there meant・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・

more than the deaths themselves・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・.
In other words, the culprit wanted to display this murder.
To who?
......To us.
It was a message from them.
The culprit was trying to shove something in our faces.

...I didn't know what that could be.
At the current time, none of us could grasp anything from this vulgar mass murder except malice.

......Malice towards, everyone, ...perhaps.
Each one of the survivors had some kind of connection to one of the six who had been killed.
Krauss oji-san's death brought Jessica the grief of losing one of her family.

The deaths of Dad and Kyrie-san brought me sorrow, while Rosa oba-san's death brought Maria sorrow.

......Gohda-san's death probably influenced his fellow servants, and Shannon-chan's death brought grief to George-aniki, who had proposed to her, and Kanon-kun, who had loved her like an older sister.
......Everyone now on this island had received an equal amount of sadness.

Eva oba-san had claimed that the servants were definitely in cahoots, ......but then how could you explain the deaths of Gohda-san and Shannon-chan?

......And by this argument, the grief・・・・・

caused by the six deaths hit everyone・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・

but Eva oba-san and Hideyoshi oji-san・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・.
It was very possible to doubt Eva oba-san herself, who was acting like she was outside the net of suspicion, and who might have been trying to point that suspicion at the servants.
......In the first place, she had managed to avoid suspicion and place it on the servants with that argument about the key to the shutter, ......but if you looked at it from a perspective of motive, about who would gain something from the murders, ............Eva oba-san's name floated to the top of the list.

"......Battler-kun, Oba-san knows what you are thinking about, okay?"
"Huh?  Ihihi, oh no, please don't tell anyone, about how my head's so full of obscene stuff."

"I'm the one who would gain the most from these murders.  ......Since I'm going to be suspected anyways, I might as well get it out in the open myself."

I had tried to trick her by joking around, but it looked like it hadn't worked.

"The inheritance will be divided between the siblings.  But right now, the four siblings are just me.  All of the assets of the Ushiromiya family will become mine.  ......Ufufufufufu."
"If Hideyoshi oji-san heard you, he'd say 'Could you give it a rest, it's not a joke'..."

"I'm sorry?  No matter how I try to smooth it over, I'll just be suspected anyways, so I was just fooling around.  ......So I've been thinking, from my point of view, this murder might have been planned to cast suspicion on me.  ......Unfortunately, my alibi for last night is weak."
"Could you tell me about it?  About last night?"
"As you know, the discussion between the siblings of how to slice up and eat the inheritance continued until late in the night.  But I don't know how late it lasted.  My husband and I had woken up early that morning.  We were so sleepy, and a little past midnight, they let us go.  We then returned to the guesthouse and rested there."
"......Can anyone other than Hideyoshi oji-san prove that?  No, wait Eva oba-san, it's not like I'm suspecting you or anything, ri~ght?  Hihihi!"

"My, what do you mean?  *giggle*.  I don't know if it counts as proof, but when we returned to the guesthouse, we were greeted by Genji-san and asked if we needed a towel.  I think that should be enough to prove that we had returned to the guesthouse a little after midnight.  ......Of course, if my theory was correct, the servants would all be in cahoots, and that wouldn't actually make for an alibi, would it?"

"Is that really true?  That'd mean that, right now, I'm playing detective with the real culprit, right?  Ihihi!"

"However, let me say this for my honor's sake: if my goal was the inheritance, I wouldn't have needed to commit this weird kind of murder, right?  After all, if I just wanted to make them forfeit their rights to the inheritance, the method of their deaths wouldn't have mattered.  On the contrary, you'd expect that I would try to make their deaths look like an accident, wouldn't I?  If I had roped in the servants, and carefully planned everything out, I would be even more capable of doing that."

"You're right about that...  If you were killing someone to make a profit, you definitely shouldn't make it look like a murder."
"That's it, right?  So from here on, Oba-san is in a very blue mood.  ......I'll probably be treated as the person behind this by the police, and harshly investigated.  Oh no, oh no..."

Eva oba-san shrugged with a bitter smile.

......Just like it was easy to think of the servants as suspicious, it was also very easy to think of Eva oba-san as suspicious.
So if we 'turn the chessboard over', ......did that mean it was impossible for the culprit to be the easily doubtable Eva oba-san...?

However, if we used that method with impunity, then motive wouldn't count for anything.
No, that can't be right...
Knowing the motive should be a big clue towards knowing the culprit.

...That was why murderers from all time periods tried to skillfully put on airs to the contrary, and disguise the case in various ways......
.........I don't know, ...I don't know...
Every time I turn the chessboard over, it keeps flipping from front to back and back to front...

...Were my thoughts closing in on the truth?
.....Or were they.........
Eva oba-san didn't want to talk any more than that, so I headed to the window, folding my arms, so that I could cool my head a little.
As I looked over the parlor, I saw George-aniki and the others gathered, talking.
...It looked like they were talking about the magic circle that had been painted onto the shutter.
As Hideyoshi oji-san thought back to that time, he started drawing the shape in the margins of Maria's notebook.

......I see, since Maria was second only to Grandfather in knowledge of the occult, she might understand what it meant.
"Hmmm, I think it was probably somethin' like that!  There was a mark arranged in the shape of a cross.  And then, surroundin' the circle all 'round the perimeter were these closely packed strange letters, on all four sides of the cross, and in the four corners, there was somethin' written.  It didn't look like the alphabet or nothin'.  It was what they call ancient characters."

"......After that, around the top of the circumference, there was a small mark.  ...Five small circles arranged in a + sign, and straight lines connecting them..."
"Ah, yes, there definitely was somethin' like that drawn there...  Yep, there's no mistakin' the shape.  I don't understand the thin characters, but the arrangement was nearly the same."
Everyone was staring down at the shape, so I stared down at it too.
...From what I had heard, this had been painted on the shutter to the storehouse with some material that looked like blood.

......I see, this sure is unsettling.
"...The only person who would want to draw something this confusing is probably Grandfather.  ......Seriously, where did he go?!  I wanna grab him and ask what the hell this is supposed to mean!!"
Jessica's voice contained impatience and anger.

She hadn't gone so far as to say that Grandfather was the culprit, but it looked as though she thought that Grandfather definitely knew the culprit's background.
......Of course, if you were searching for the link that bound the Ushiromiya family and the occult together, our Grandfather's name would probably come up.

......And, to a person who knew nothing of the occult, this strange mark would have no meaning.
Which meant that, ........., this might have been, ...something addressed to Grandfather......
That's right, and the reason the crime had been shown off to the survivors was so that they would find this.

In that case, where had Grandfather, as the essential recipient of this message, disappeared off to......?
"Does this shape ring any bells...?"

"...........................Uu-."
Maria looked at the shape with a serious face.

...Maybe she was enthusiastic since this was her area of expertise.

...However, her appearance was that of someone separated from the events at hand, ...as though this thing hadn't been drawn on the shutter closed around her mother's corpse...

"...My first impression was that the design resembled a German swastika..."
"Aah...  It certainly does have that kind of design.  Does that mean it has somethin' to do with Germany?"
"The swastika was originally a crest from a religious order of knights and was supposed to protect pilgrims traveling to sacred places..."

"......So in other words, this magic circle might have some religious meaning...?  This is starting to sound like gibberish......"
When I looked over at all of them, preparing to jump into the discussion, ......something shocked me.

Maria was laughing, an eerie and incomprehensible expression on her face.
...It was almost as if she was making fun of everyone's ignorance, and laughing at us.  ......It was an expression that I couldn't have dreamed I would ever see on Maria's face...
And, ......she laughed.
That eerie, jarring laugh, ...even though I was looking at it right in front of my eyes, I really didn't want to accept it.
"Kihihihihihihihihihihihihihihihihi.  That's completely wrong, everyone. Kihhihihihihihihihihihihihihihihihihihihihihihihihihihihihihihihihihi...  Can't you tell just by looking?  Kihhihihihihihihihihi."
While everyone was scared out of their wits, Maria, alone, kept on cackling happily...
After a while, that laugh was suddenly and abruptly cut off.
But her expression was still like someone completely different from Maria.

"This is the seventh magic circle of the sun.  ...The characters are written in Hebrew.  Could you let me borrow it?"
"Ah, ......yes."
Maria stole the writing materials from the stunned Hideyoshi's hand.
She then started drawing another magic circle with a rustle, right next to the one that Hideyoshi had drawn...

"......See?  Was it this kind of shape?"
"u......, Hmmm...  It was..."
"...Ma, Maria, incredible...  You really do know a lot..."

Jessica tried to smooth things over by praising Maria.
Maybe she wanted to make sure that this was still the Maria who everyone knew so well.
...But Maria didn't answer her in any way in particular.
With a rustle, Maria began writing characters that seemed familiar to her in the corner of the shape.

...When Hideyoshi oji-san and Doctor Nanjo saw them, their eyes immediately began to open wide...
"Written on the top and bottom and left and right are the names of the angels who preside over wind, fire, earth and water.  Chasan, Arel, Phorlakh, and Taliahad.
And in the four corners are the names of the four great kings.  Ariel., Seraph, Tharshis, and Cherub.
 ...Do they match?"
Even if they hadn't been able to correctly write what they had seen..., when they were once again shown something identical, it wasn't difficult for them to realize that the two were the same.

When Maria asked them whether it matched, Hideyoshi oji-san and Doctor Nanjo nodded over and over again.

"There's no mistake, that's it.  I'm sure that those kinds of characters were written there...!  How can you write something like that......?"
"Th, ...there were also characters written around the circumference......"
"I know.  .....................Like this, right?"
With another rustle, Maria began to surround the circumference with more Hebrew writing...
"It's from Psalms of the Old Testament, the 16th and 17th verses of the 116th Psalm.  ......You must have at least read the Bible.  Kihihihihihihihi......"
Acting as though knowing this was only common sense, Maria laughed.
For a while, everyone, including me, was at a loss for words.
...A little later, George-aniki returned to his senses, and slowly managed to speak.
"......That's incredible, I'm surprised......So, what meaning does this magic circle have?"

"It's a magic circle to borrow the power of the sun.  ......He who wears it as a talisman drawn in gold shall be able to break free from the bonds of any prison, and receive the power to gain freedom."

"...Break free from the bonds, ......gain freedom...?  It sounds deep..."
"The word 'bonds' is not limited in its interpretation to some kind of physical object.  ...Therefore it does not only hold meaning for people locked up in an actual jail.  It can also refer to the release from mental bonds such as ties of obligation and inescapable fate."

"......Ties of obligation and, inescapable fate, ......you say?  ...That's also pretty deep."
"But I really don't understand...  What does this have to do with those six bodies?  ...Far from bein' released, they were killed and stuffed in a storehouse, weren't they?!"

"It's not like the magic circle was drawn for their sakes.  The six of them were there for the sake of the magic circle.  It is truly pitiable.  ...Kihihihihihihihihihihihihihihihihi."
"What do you mean...?  What in the world do you mean when you say the six of them were there for the sake of the magic circle?"

Maria lifted up her pointer finger and waggled it as if she were making fun of us.
"That's written around the circumference.  Can't you read it?  Psalms, chapter 116, verses 16 and 17.  ......I'll read it for you.  'The Lord has freed me from my chains.  I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and will call on the name of the Lord'  ......See?"

"See, you say..., .........I have no idea what you're saying."
"............You're saying that, .....they're sacrifices?"
If the part that Maria had just read aloud was the vital part of the magic circle, ......then it was saying that the benefit of this magic circle required sacrifices to be offered in exchange.

...So inside the storehouse, where the magic circle had been drawn, the sacrifices had been offered.........
It looked like everyone had slowly arrived at the same conclusion.

...Some people were shocked, others spat something out furiously as they punched their knees...
......This was starting to become a seriously disturbing story.
...And since we couldn't accept it, we couldn't understand it.

......I don't care what kind of magic circles or curses other people believe in, I won't pick a fight with them.
...But did they really kill Dad and the rest as sacrifices for crap like that......?!
I just couldn't stand that feeling.

......After this, I'd rather still be disgusted over that theory about fighting over the inheritance...!
As I started getting pissed off with a feeling between anger and sadness, I broke from the circle everyone was in and returned once again to the window.
......Something had gone insane since yesterday.
That letter from the witch, Beatrice, that Maria had read aloud at last night's dinner.

...After that point, it felt like we had, ...no, like this whole mansion and this whole island had started to become shut up in some kind of mysterious world...
That's right.  When I think back on it, that letter was an invitation from the witch.
The ruler of the nighttime island had invited us inhabitants of the day into another world.

The phone and the radio had been interrupted, the island was shut off by the typhoon, you could now call it another world cut off from the real one.
......That's right, right now, on this island, now that the witch has sent her letter, having sacrifices offered for a magic circle is perfectly natural.

.........So what will happen next?
Will some weird people wearing goat masks start doing the Bon Festival dance or something...?!
...Aah, it's hopeless, it's hopeless, I don't get it...
The inside of my head's all screwed up, and I don't even know what to think...

Anger, sadness.  The opposing emotions all swirled up together, and they started to suck me in.
Unable to resist, ...I could do nothing but cover my eyes with my hands and trust to my mind and body as I started getting sucked in.........
.........As I started losing heart, I began to recall a memory from when I was small.
It was from when I was very small.

I had unfortunately seen a scary occult movie on TV, and for a while, I hadn't even been able to go to the bathroom by myself.
...That old bastard had given an exaggerated laugh and said this:
......Hey, Battler.
Why do you think they go to all of the trouble to make movies like this about demons and the occult and such?
It's because they don't exist.  ...Something that ridiculous can't be found anywhere on the planet.
Because they don't exist, people want to see them and go to a lot of effort making them.
That's why those occult movies just make me laugh.

If I were forced to choose, I'd say, rather than demons and monsters, this year's earnings call and angry wives are 100 million times scarier.
I'll go further, alright?  If you force me to.
What you're scared of is something made to entertain people who have too much time on their hands and too much empty space in their minds.

They have so much free time, they don't know what to do with it, so in order to play around with their unusual emotions, they created a culture of demons and monsters and stuff.
........................
......Seriously, why have I been acting so damn thickheaded.
I was totally taken in.
.........Don't try to mess with me, this is the human world.
I don't even care about witches, demons, magic circles and sacrifices.

The human who killed Dad and everyone else is still on this island.
That's all there is, right...?!
The next thing that started speaking to my heart was Kyrie-san.
You're talking about chess and Shogi, right?
In the last part of the last part of the game, when you proceed to the final stage and everything becomes more and more closed in, the best possible moves start to become limited.

......Therefore, if you're backing someone against the wall, or someone is doing the same to you, both players' moves become infinitely easier to read.
In other words, when you are completely cornered and you think you have no moves left, that is the moment when it is easiest to read your opponent.

......However, when a person is forced into a defensive position, they can't help but lose their ability to think clearly, so they aren't able to get their minds around their opponent's moves.
......That's when you 'turn the chessboard over'.
With all of my strength, I slapped my face with both hands.
.........Now, my eyes were truly open.

When you don't understand anything, and you are completely cornered just like I was then, isn't that the perfect time to 'turn the chessboard over'...!
With us put on the defensive, we couldn't even guess at the culprit's scheme.

...If you turned it over and looked at it that way, just how far could you see?
......First off, at the time the murders were committed by the culprit, they knew that the island was cut off by the typhoon.
Therefore, they should have understood that even if they carried out the murders, they wouldn't be able to get away until the next morning.

In short, the culprit had begun without securing a way to escape.
Furthermore, that bastard had tossed the corpses in the storehouse, almost like they were politely telling us 'They are here' with that weird scribble.

In other words, since we would probably find the corpses sooner or later, they 'wanted to show us them'.
......If we had all been dim and hadn't noticed the storage shed, the culprit's goal 'would not have been achieved', would it?
Hehe, if you think about it this way, that bastard of a culprit...
Since this morning, he must have been watching our every move with bated breath.

After all, if we hadn't been so kind as to discover what was on the storehouse, all of that hard work and preparation that they had done last night would have just gone 'poof'.
What did the culprit want to make us feel by showing us the corpses in the storehouse?

All six of the bodies had had their faces noticeably destroyed.
...A grudge?  A warning?
The defacement of the bodies had occurred after death.
So it hadn't been the means by which the culprit had murdered.  It didn't mean anything to those who had been killed.
...It 'did have meaning to those who found the bodies'.

The culprit wanted to make it appear that they had been killed so brutally.
Ha!  After thinking this way, I really want to tell that bastard to stop taking me so lightly.
Who would just dance to that tune?  If you're told 'Please be scared', you can't just say 'Really? Sure thing!'

...When someone tells the great Ushiromiya Battler 'the entrance is right here', I'm the kind of guy who'll start wanting to sneak in through the window!
The next thing that had me concerned was the shape of the magic circle on the shutter.

As Maria, who had shown that her knowledge of the occult rivaled Grandfather's, had recognized, that magic circle was genuine.
They must have drawn that thing in pitch-black darkness, taking a lot of time and holding an umbrella in one hand.  Isn't that amount of hard work and perfectionism impressive?
What purpose would have been worth all of that effort?

...If we were looking for a fan of the occult in this mansion, most likely, all of us would naturally doubt Grandfather.

Did they want to 'make us think Grandfather was involved?'
But if that was all they wanted, they could have just drawn any old scribble that looked like a magic circle.
It wasn't like any of us amateurs could be able to tell the difference between genuine and fake.
...However, this magic circle was genuine, and furthermore, it had even been written in Hebrew.

.........So this magic circle had a message 'that could only be understood by someone with knowledge of the occult'.
This message was a form of communication.
......By sending it, they were hoping for a reaction.
...Reaction?

.........For some reason, we couldn't find Grandfather now.
I couldn't know how Grandfather might have seen the magic circle on the shutter, but had he chosen to hide himself in reaction to that sign...?

No, was it a trap to make us suspect that Grandfather had participated?
...You could read it either way, damn that's annoying.
......What kind of reaction was the culprit hoping to get out of us by showing this imitation of the occult...?
Somehow, that felt like the culprit's weak point...
The letter from Beatrice that Maria had read aloud during last night's dinner sprang back into my mind.

......This person was satisfied with playing a battle of wits.
Isn't that interesting?
This is a battle of wits between us and the witch.
Will we be sucked up by her occult game first?
Or will we pull off her fake skin first?

......There's a whole day until the typhoon passes.
Why not enjoy ourselves...?!
I finally noticed that the inside of the parlor had gone quiet again.
Everyone had sunk into their favorite sofas, some deep in thought, some irritated, some acting depressed.
Maria was once again enjoying the television as if she had never left it.

It looked like she found the commercials more fun than the boring program, and was happily yelling 'uu-uu-kya-kya-.'
I stared at each person's appearance in turn.
If there wasn't a 19th person, .........the culprit must be in this room.
...Right now, Natsuhi oba-san was searching the mansion with the servants though, wasn't she?
......Then it shouldn't be 'in this room.'
......'In this mansion,' is what we should say.

...After all, there was also the possibility that Natsuhi oba-san was behind this, ...and we still couldn't deny that one of the servants could be the killer..........Anyone could be the bad guy.
Still, Natsuhi oba-san and the rest sure are slow...

Of course, it's not a small mansion, but isn't this taking a little too long just to walk around, checking the windows and doors...?
Just as I thought that, Natsuhi oba-san and the rest returned.
Not one of them was missing.
......But our relief was short-lived.
Everyone looked at Natsuhi oba-san, shocked...
......The story I had been told by Eva oba-san started to creep back into my mind.

The possibility that the culprits had enough in numbers or weapons to kill all of those six at once.
".........Sorry if I've startled you.  I brought this to be prepared for the worst."
Because that thing in Natsuhi oba-san's hand was a rifle.
At a glance, its silhouette looked a lot like a hunting gun, but it was unusually short, and kinda looked like a kid-sized gun.

However, it had a thickness to it which revealed that this was definitely not some kid's toy.

"...Is that Kinzo-san's gun...?"
"Did you know about it?  That's right.  I remembered that it was in Father's old collection, and I managed to find it."

"Whoa!  Awesome...  Natsuhi-san, is that thing real?"
"Yes, it's real.  It can fire live ammunition.  Long ago, Father used it to chase wild birds."

"......Ah, I remember.  Where could that have come from...  No matter how much I asked him to let me touch it, he never let me lay even one finger on it."
"Oh...  Grandfather had one of these...?  I didn't know."

"Long ago, Grandfather was really addicted to cowboy films.  That generation really liked this kind of rifle."
"Is that a Winchester?  But I've never seen something that short before."

"Ah--!  I remember, that gun!  That really takes me back.  That's the one Steam McQueen fired off in Wanted: Alive or Dead!!  Father sure has good tastes...!"
".........Long ago, the Master had that brought over specially from America.  ...As you can see, it is a real gun, so please don't tell anyone about this..."

"He was quite fond of it right after he managed to acquire it.  It seems the workings that ejected the cartridges were more interesting to him than shooting it, and he played around with it back in the forest all the time.  Hoh-hoh-hoh-ho..."

"......Still, it's the real thing.  Are you sure you should be dragging this out?"
"This is preparing for the worst.  .........There's probably more than one of them.  Furthermore, they are horrible people who killed six of us, including my husband.  ......I have the responsibility to protect everyone until tomorrow in my husband's place."
As Natsuhi-san said this, she slumped down into one of the sofas and took a deep breath.
She had been trying to find Grandfather as well as check the doors and windows.

Since Grandfather was not with her, apparently his whereabouts were still unknown.

"...I carefully checked all of the doors and windows throughout the mansion.  However, we must be prepared for anything.  Everyone, I think it would be best if we all remained here."
"Don't you?  If everyone is gathered here, then we can all feel more secure by keeping an eye on each other."
".........What do you mean by that, Eva-san?"
"Nothing really.  I'm just agreeing with your opinion, aren't I?"

There was a dangerous atmosphere between the two of them...
If you think about who was the most suspicious from the inheritance problem standpoint, Eva oba-san was the obvious answer.

...However, there was no proof that Natsuhi oba-san was innocent.

......No, if you view Beatrice's letter as Grandfather's complicated prank, and think of this case as just an extension of that, there was more than enough evidence to doubt even Grandfather.

So Natsuhi oba-san thought that the criminal was on the outside.
...But Eva oba-san thought the criminal was on the inside.
In short, it was the question of whether or not a 19th person exists.

.........It was the doubt that had been repeated endlessly since last night's dinner, with the letter from the witch who called herself Beatrice.
......So was the culprit among us, or not.
And did Beatrice exist, or not.
If you assume that something as stupid as a witch couldn't exist, it was the same as saying that one of the these relatives here, who shared a common bloodline, was the culprit.

If you didn't like that, it would be much more comfortable to simply accept the fairy tale about the witch.
............And the witch?
Did she draw that weird magic circle and sacrifice those people?

If I accepted that rubbish, ...I would be able to completely trust everyone in this room.
However, damn common sense got in the way.
......It kept repeating that witches don't exist.

......In that case, ............the culprit was among us...

In the middle of the seemingly endless rain, none of us could break our silence...

Occult

Sun, Oct 5 1986 1:00PM
Lunch ended, and the servants removed the tableware and went to the kitchen.
The wind and rain neither weakened nor strengthened, and the island remained cut off from the outside world.
It seemed that, at first, Natsuhi had planned not to let anyone set one foot outside the room, but when it came time to prepare lunch, she finally realized that this was impossible.

However, in order to avoid having anyone alone in the kitchen, she told the three servants to go together.
Because of that, the servants were the first ones given the right to leave the stuffy parlor, which had been packed with eleven people.

......Since breakfast had immediately followed that terrible incident, and many of them hadn't eaten much, everyone tore into their lunches in silence.
"I will wash the dishes, so you can rest a while, Kanon-kun, Genji-san.  ...Do you want something to drink?"

".........I don't need anything.  Kanon?"
"......I don't need anything either."
"You two must have been so busy, and so early in the morning...  It's no wonder you're worn out..."
The only sound was that of Kumasawa washing the dishes, which resounded throughout the kitchen.
Genji and Kanon sat in some chairs a short distance away, their eyes lightly closed.
Just as Kumasawa had said, those two had probably built up a great deal of fatigue.
But that didn't mean they could let it show in front of the relatives.
...Avoiding that was one of their virtues.
After the silence had continued for some time, .........Kanon opened his mouth and muttered.
"...............Shannon...............Why..., did she have to die in such a horrible way...?"

"......Forget about how she died.  .........It was nothing more than...bad luck."
".........You're right.  ...It was nothing more than bad luck."
They both fell silent once again.  ...Kanon's expression was filled with grief.
"To think that Shannon-chan's actually dead...  I still can't believe it.  ......Poor, poor Shannon-chan.........Not being able to meet her again feels like a lie...  I just wanted to see that girl's smiling face one more time..."

Kumasawa spoke with her back facing them.
...After all, Kumasawa hadn't seen Shannon's corpse, so she had no trouble mentioning Shannon's face.

...When Kanon heard those words, it reminded him again of how only half of Shannon's face had been left, and his grieving expression twisted even further...
".........Why did Beatrice do that to Shannon...?  ......If she wanted a sacrifice, there were plenty of others to choose from.........Why..., ......why...?!"

".........It was nothing more than bad luck.  ...If we were less lucky, one of us could have been lying out there.  And it could have been anyone else.  ......Everything is left to fate."

"Genji-sama.  .........You said that the door to Madam's room was stained with traces of something like blood, right...?  The same substance that was painted on the shutter?"
"......Hmmm.  ...It was the trace of something unpleasant.  Almost as though someone with blood-stained fingers had been trying to pull out the doorknob, ...no, scratch through the door......That sort of unpleasant mark."

"So does this mean that...Beatrice-sama came to visit Madam's room, ......and tried to open the door, but couldn't...?"
Genji thought back to the time he had seen those traces of blood on the door to Natsuhi's room...

With the substance sticking to the door around the doorknob, and the marks of something scratching against the door...it had definitely appeared as though someone had tried to open the door, but couldn't...
"...Why, .........was Madam not chosen as a sacrifice...?  If only she had been chosen, ......Shannon wouldn't, ......Shannon wouldn't have had to die..."
Just then, a loud, sharp noise came in from the hall.  Both of them turned around, surprised.
"..................It sounds like you're having a pretty interesting discussion.  Let me join in too."
Before any of the servants had realized it, Battler was standing in the doorway to the kitchen.

"......Battler-sama.  Please, excuse me..."

Genji-san and Kanon-kun stood up, surprised, and hastily bowed.

...But I didn't care about stuff like that.
I was more concerned with continuing their discussion.

"I told them I was going to the bathroom, so they let me go.  I thought I'd suffocate if I was locked up in that room any longer....When I was about to come ask you for some water, I overheard something pretty interesting.  ......You don't need to bow your heads or anything.  Please, let me hear the rest."

"............That just now, ......wasn't really......"

"I've been listening to you for a while.  Don't try to hide it now.............So I'll ask directly.  ...Who is this Beatrice?  She's supposed to be a witch from a kid's story, but it doesn't look that way now."

"....................."

Kanon-kun averted his gaze.
...It was obvious that he didn't want to talk about this, ...which only made me want to ask even more.

While making an effort to smile, I grabbed the collar of his shirt.
"......If it were last night, this'd be none of my business  But after this morning, everything's changed.  Now that Dad and the rest have been killed, this is totally my business.  .........I have the right to listen to this suspicious story, don't I...?"
Even so, I glared into Kanon's eyes as he kept trying to look away in apparent pain.
Since there was a big difference in our heights, Kanon had to stand on his toes and it looked like it hurt a bit.

"............Battler-san......please let go of him...  It's not like Kanon-san is really hiding anything..."
"Then you won't have any problem talking about it, right?  It's lonely being out of the loop, get it?"

When I tried to further twist up his collar, Genji-san cut between us and spoke.
...There was a slight sense of resignation on his face.

......It looked like he didn't plan on hiding anything.

".........I can talk about it.  ......Kanon only hesitated because you might have taken it badly, Battler-sama..."
"Hesitating isn't very manly, is it?  Keeping it a secret's even more unpleasant.  ......Tell me about it.  It's not like we have anything better to do before tomorrow comes.  A slightly shady story might be the best way to stave off boredom."

After Genji-san and Kanon-kun looked at each other, they nodded as though they had decided to talk...
"......Understood.  Please ask us anything.  ............We will talk."

"Right.  Then I'll ask.  ......Who in the world is Beatrice?  ...All I know is that she's a witch who lives in the forest of Rokkenjima.  ...I've heard that it's a story that Grandmother or someone invented to keep people out of the dangerous forest.......Is that wrong?"

"............No, ...it isn't wrong.  It's as you say.  Beatrice is a witch who dwells in the forest of Rokkenjima."
"......Battler-sama.  .........I don't expect you to believe this all of a sudden, but...Beatrice-sama exists.  ...She is a real person, the one who gave the Master a vast amount of gold and who has worked by his side for many years."
"Huh...?  Ah, come on...  Is Grandfather paying you to repeat everything he says...?"

I laughed like it was a joke, but neither Genji-san nor Kanon-kun laughed, ......not even Kumasawa baa-chan, who was avoiding my eyes, flustered, as she started washing the utensils.

So unfortunately, I was the only one laughing.  ...Painfully, bitterly.
"......I see, that's why Genji-san refused to mention it.  ...If you really mean it, of course I'd take it badly.  .............So you're saying that a person named Beatrice actually exists?"

"......Yes.  She was working for the Master since before the mansion was built on this island.  ...She has most likely been working for him even longer than I have."

"What do you know, Kyrie-san's theory was off.........Grandfather really did have a confidante called Beatrice.  ......Is that person on the island now...?"

"...............Yes.  I believe that she is here."
"...That's a vague way to say it.  I guess that means you haven't seen her face today or yesterday."

"......Yes.  ............It is extremely difficult to say, but..., ...umm..."

Kanon-kun once again dropped his gaze, avoiding my eyes.

"...Come on, don't just stop there.  That's like freezing an inch before the blow, right?"
I urged him on jokingly.

...However, it looked like Kanon was still confused as to whether he should speak or not.

.........Then, Kumasawa baa-chan whispered.
"...Hoh-hoh-hoh...  You cannot see her face, .........because Beatrice-sama has no form..."
"............She has no, .........what did you say?"

"Beatrice-sama has no body.  ...Therefore, unless Beatrice-sama wishes it, common people like us are not able to see her form."
"I have heard that the portrait shows what Beatrice-sama looked like back when she had a human form.........It seems he yearned for that figure so much, he would often stand in front of that portrait......Hoh-hoh-hoh..."

"Beatrice-sama sometimes changes her form into glittering butterflies and shows herself.  ......On the rare occasion that you spot them somewhere in the mansion, there is a rule that you absolutely mustn't chase after them.  It is whispered that you will meet with disaster if you follow them.  ...In fact, there was a servant who broke that rule and quit because of a great injury."
"......Wait a sec, are you kidding me?  Are you all serious about this......?"

"...Battler-sama, Beatrice-sama has already arrived.  Such language may be unwise."
"Beatrice-sama does not like it when she is profaned.  ......If you doubt her existence, you will surely meet with disaster."

"Battler-san..., you probably find this story unpleasant.  But you know what?  Beatrice does 'exist', okay?"
"......She 'exists'.  Beatrice-sama hates people who doubt that."

"............Don't you understand, Battler-sama?  ......Beatrice-sama has already arrived here..."
"...Come on, quit it.  You know I'm weak against that stuff...  You're freaking me out..."
However, there was no trace of a joke in the eyes of the three servants.

On the surface, I laughed and tried to look unconcerned, but I was quickly starting to sober up.
...Their eyes were also sobering up fast.

"......Battler-san..., I beg that you stop profaning Beatrice-sama.  Please trust me..."

Kumasawa baa-chan, who was usually cheerful and would always tease people, ......now spoke with a totally straight face.

".........W, ......well...  Sure you say she exists...but I don't see anything...  Are you trying to say that she's standing right next to me or something?  Quit joking around..."
"Kihihihihihihihihihihihihihihihihi......"
Just then, that unnerving laugh suddenly filled the kitchen...
...When I turned around, Maria was standing there by the entrance.
...But her expression and the feeling about her, her presence...felt exactly the same as the servants.
"...Whether your wavelength matches or not is determined at birth.  Battler, you were born with a mismatched wavelength.  That's why you can't see her.  That's why you can't meet with her, and that's why you can't talk to her.  ...Kihihihihihihihihihihihihihihihi.  You're the type Beatrice hates the most."
Maria's laugh almost sounded insane, ...and it was extremely eerie.

......It was almost like she was laughing at me because I alone didn't understand.
"Do you want to know about Beatrice?  ............Beatrice is a thousand year old witch.  ......With all of the demons at her command, she can harness the power of alchemy to create the philosopher's stone and a vast quantity of gold.  Grandfather built up all of the vast wealth of the Ushiromiya family by making a contract with her.
......Yesterday, I read Beatrice's letter, didn't I?  That was real.  ...Well, I guess it's pointless for me to try and force you to believe.  ...After all, it looks like you were born without a trace of the sixth sense.  Kihihihihihihihihihihihihihihihihi...!"

"......What are you talking about?  Witches, demons?  Who told you about that...?"
"Kihihihihihihihihi.  I heard it from Beatrice herself.  Kihihihihihihihihihihi!"

Maria kept doing that unpleasant laugh.
...However, the servants who watched over this didn't even blink.

She heard it from...that witch in the portrait adorning the entrance hall.

Maria kept on laughing in a weird voice, as though this was nothing more or less than the truth...

"...Maria, it might be rude to ask, but I'll ask one more time, okay...?  Who gave you that letter yesterday?"

"I got it from Beatrice.  How many times must I tell you before you understand?  ......You don't get it, do you?  You can't see it.  You can't believe it, can you?  ...Kihihihihihihihihihihihihihihihi."
Just then, Maria's laughter suddenly stopped.

".........Battler.  You still don't understand?  Beatrice-sama 'exists'."
"She 'exists', you say.........but where?"
"Like I said, Beatrice-sama 'exists' here."

......That's right.
Now that I think about it, I've been feeling for some time now that the others haven't been looking in quite the right direction.

...I'd figured that everyone had just been gazing into the distance, but......that wasn't the case.

The four here, Genji-san, Kanon-kun, Kumasawa-san, and Maria, ......everyone except me, .........were looking at a spot right behind me......
Holding my breath tightly, I slowly looked over my shoulder.
...Of course, there wasn't anyone there.
I've known that the whole time!

.........However, everyone in the room except me was focusing on that point as if there was someone there.
"Beatrice is a great witch of gold who has lived for one thousand years.  ......But since she can't show her form to humans of the wrong wavelength, she can't talk to them.  ...And you know what?  That's really sad.  ...It means that she truly despises it when people like you, who were born without a fragment of the ability needed to sense magic, deny that she exists...!
.........You're lucky, Battler.  Good thing that I gave you that charm yesterday, right?  Don't you realize what kind of curse Beatrice would have put on you by now if you hadn't been carrying it around?  ...You really are lucky, Battler.  Kihihihihihihihihihihihihihihihihihihi...!"
".........Right, that scorpion keyholder.  I'd thought that was just some cheap gift or something, but are you saying that really had some benefit?"

"Kihihihihihihihi.  If it weren't for that, you'd be lying in that storehouse as a sacrifice with your face crushed by now.  Kihihihihihihihihi, you're so lucky, Battler...!  Kihhihihihihihihihihihihihihihihihi!"
"......I see.  So if it weren't for that, I'd have been killed by now......"

"Battler, why don't you believe in Beatrice...?  Even though she 'exists'.  Right now, over there, look.  Kihihihihihihihi!  Hey, I'll bet you want to believe it now.  Believe it.  And thank me for giving you that charm...!  If it weren't for that, you'd be in the storehouse right now.  But then, maybe you would have saved someone else in exchange, right?  Kihhihihihihihihihihihi!"
*pop*.
......Right then, I burst into laughter.

Playing witches had been pretty fun up until a second ago, but unfortunately, that last one seemed to be too much for me to gloss over.
"Hahahahahahah.  ......Then it's all useless, isn't it, Maria?  If that's true, then I'm sorry, but it's all useless."
When Maria saw me suddenly start laughing, she stopped.

Even though she didn't understand what I was laughing at, she realized it wouldn't be pleasant for her.

".................."

"I thought it might hurt you, so I didn't say it earlier, but......Although I thought I'd put that charm you gave me in my pocket, I must have dropped it somewhere, you see?

......That means the charm can't be the only reason I'm alive now, and even though I should have been cursed by the witch, I'm perfectly fine.  ......Sorry, but I don't believe in things I don't see with my own eyes.

Sixth sense?  Wavelengths?  Magic sensitivity?  Sorry, but I don't believe in fake stuff like that.  When I hear the girls in class start talking about how good or bad their ability to sense the supernatural is, it pisses me off!  ...I don't know how much Grandfather is paying you, but if you're trying to talk me into joining some cult, believe me, you won't be able to do it that easily."
"............Battler-sama..."

"...You guys are free to believe whatever you want.  However, when it comes to the things I believe, I am always the one who decides!  Sorry, but I can't believe in something as shady as Beatrice until I've seen her with my own eyes...!!"

I spoke forcefully and sharply...
When I did, Maria started cackling again.
"Kihhihihihihihihihihihihi...!  Well that's just fine, isn't it...?  Eventually, even people like you with totally mismatched wavelengths will be able to see Beatrice.
.........Very soon, she will revive.  Beatrice will revive.  ......Once that happens, she's promised to talk with me and play with me a lot.  ...There's absolutely no need to doubt or to force you to believe.  ......She will appear, very soon.  Kihihihihihihihihihi...!"
While some people want to go to the bathroom after a meal, some people like to take a short rest.
It seemed that several people had left the parlor, just like I had gone to the kitchen to drink some water.
In the end, Natsuhi's order to keep everyone packed together in the parlor, that no one be left alone and that no one leave the parlor, had to be withdrawn, however reluctantly.
In any case, if eleven people are shut up in the same room starting early in the morning, the air will start to get stagnate.

...And after a little time had passed, everyone had started to recover from the shock of that morning.  Maybe their sense of danger was weakening over time.
......However, it was a certain fact that six people had been killed inside this mansion, so no one was completely negligent.

So when they went out into the hallway for a breath of fresh air, trying to act tough, ......they would quickly get scared of standing there, isolated, and would eventually return to the parlor.
...I guess it's like 'The North Wind and the Sun'.
If you force someone to stay shut in, they'll resist, but if you tell them to do whatever they want, they'll come back, obediently.

People sure are hypocrites.

.........When the servants finished cleaning up from the meal, they returned obediently to the parlor just as Natsuhi oba-san had told them to, and sat in a sofa near the entrance, patiently awaiting orders.

Maria, almost as though she had suddenly finished playing witches, had returned to the pure Maria I knew well, saying 'uu-uu-'.
...What in the world was that back there?
.........I hadn't felt even an atom of the presence of this person called Beatrice, supposedly standing behind me, invisible.

...However, it felt like, inside Maria, I could catch a glimpse of a little of that presence...

"You're right.  When Maria starts talking about witches, she changes.  ...Battler-kun, you also saw it down by the beach yesterday, right?"
"You mean that scorpion keyholder?  ...No, I don't mean like when her feelings were hurt, I'm talking about when she looked like she had a dual personality."

"Aah, that happens sometimes.  ......Just like when Maria started talking about the magic circle, that just happens sometimes.  It's freaky though."

According to Jessica, it seems that she's spotted the 'Kihihihihihi' laughing Maria a few times.

This was just bad timing, and furthermore, it was the first time I'd seen it so it really shocked me...

"So what is that?  Does Maria have a dual personality or something?  Or are you saying that her spiritual sense really is that strong, and she's being possessed by it?"
"...No, I don't think it's that.  Haven't you ever experienced it?  When you were small, did you have someone other than yourself who you wanted to be?"
Right when humans are born, no one has any individuality,
Even so, when they reach their growth period, their sense of self starts to be born, and they start to gain a sense of individuality.
They want to be different from other people.

...But that doesn't mean that they will find that they're different from the others in their class, since they are learning the same thing in school and forced into the same lifestyle.
When they realize that, they start off by breaking the rules, in what's called the rebellious age.
Since everyone follows the rules, they want to show off their individuality by breaking them.

...Even people who call this behavior childish and make fun of it, will realize that it's just a cute kid searching for themselves when they look at it this way.
......Well, I'm lecturing about all this like I'm so smart, but I actually got it second hand from George-aniki.

I myself was one of those embarrassing guys who thought it was cool to act like a little bastard...
Well, that was when I was the age where you try standing out for the opposite sex.

"The whole point of the growing period is that people try to separate themselves from being a kid.  It's the same impulse as a chick trying to crack the shell of their egg.  Do you know what the difference between a child and an adult is?"
"Age?  Or is it the condition of their body?"

"No, it's experience.  Adults can look down on children because children have very little life experience.  The reason they snort and look down on children whenever they say anything is because children don't know anything about the world."

"Yeah, I understand that.  When you're a kid, you try to say things like you've got life all figured out, and try to act like an adult.  ...No matter what a kid says, adults will just snort at them because they're too naive or because they'd 'understand once they grew up' or something.  ...Well, it's probably true, but to a kid, it's just annoying, like they're being looked down upon."

"......I get it.  It's about whether they have knowledge and experience.  ...Of course, age isn't something to respect if a person's just wasted their lives."
"Therefore, during the period when they try to separate themselves from other children, they also try to take on personalities different from those around them.  if what separates kids and adults is knowledge and experience, then...?"

"............I get it, if they know something that no one else knows, it becomes part of their identity."

"You know, when I was in elementary school, I'd learn things no one else knew, get things no one else had, and wear things no one else wore, and became a bit of a hero for it.  I'll bet you have done the same thing, Battler."
"Yeah, yeah.  There was definitely an age when I wanted to excel in something.  ...I see, that was because I was trying to separate myself from being a child, my growing period."
"If you look at it in a good way, the growing period, by forcing you to separate yourself from others, pushes you to gain skills and knowledge that no one else has.  ...This is also interesting from a sociological standpoint.  Because people hate being like everyone else, they try to learn skills that other people don't know.  In this way, society can acquire the broad range of skills it needs to survive.  ...The quality of the gods' programming is truly surprising."
"Well, individual personalities can also be negative, right?  Like when everyone in the class is studying hard, and I'm just slacking off, it sticks out."
...I actually had been like that.

Only recently, I'd finally been able to thank that middle school teacher who had slapped me after school.
"But, well, I'd try to jump over things that no one else could, sprint as fast as I could, trying to lap those guys with good grades when we did a marathon.  I just felt like doing it.  ...It was in my nature that, if I couldn't study well, then at least I could get back at them by exercising.  ......I get it, I really went all out during my growing period."

"After all, boys do tend to focus more on physical things.  But you know?  Girls of the same age tend to focus more on emotional things.  ......I'll bet there were groups of girls in your classes that were really interested in fortune telling and their spiritual senses."

"Yeah, yeah!  There was, there was!  They'd come over, asking me for my sign and my blood type!  And then they'd laugh 'Aah, I thought so, *giggle* *giggle*!'  It really got on my nerves.  No matter which class you go to, girls like fortune telling.  Deciding whether your spirit sense was strong or weak, what your sensitivity was, whether you could see things that couldn't be seen.  That kind of thing definitely happened."
"That's because fortune telling and spiritual senses are things that aren't taught in school.  To girls, who unlike guys are more introverted, that's a genre which is easy to build an identity upon, and one that they find very interesting."

"Just like when boys enter their growing period, and start acting tough and rebel against adults, when girls enter their growing period, they start getting interested in that kind of thing.  ......Well, I didn't though!"
"......So Maria having so much interest in the occult isn't that rare among girls her age?"
...Even if you accept that, ...I wonder if it explains that creepy dual personality thing...

............Well, I think I can accept it vaguely.
"As you just said, becoming an adult means gaining knowledge and experience.  We have to teach kids various things so that they can gain knowledge and truly awaken.  ...A child's world, both now and in the past, grows rapidly, and there are some delusions which are convenient during that time.  Do you understand?"

"You see it all the time in manga and anime right?  It's kinda like that.  Like memories from antiquity are revived.  Like someone's possessed by the soul of the great something, or whatever."
"Ah, and also like a sleeping gene gets awakened, or maybe a sealed power or memory returns.  There's a lot of that.  For some reason, those kinds of things are really popular at that age.  ...Why's that?"

"All of those examples you've just mentioned are illusions that children can add to their knowledge and experience immediately.  If a nine year old girl says that she has a thousand year old witch possessing her, it's because by saying that, she gains a 1009 year old identity."
"So what you're saying is that studying is annoying.  But to people who want to learn different skills from everyone else and brag about it, and get attention from it, it's a convenient delusion."

So she could brag about something without having to work hard or study.
......I see, isn't that a kid's greatest dream?
"Furthermore, in their desire to separate themselves from being kids, they always project an image of their ideal imagination, and it's not rare for the image of their desire to become an alternate personality.  Even you, Battler-kun, I'm sure your character is a little different at home and at school, right?  It would probably be embarrassing if anyone at school saw how you were at home.  At school, you try to project yourself as you want to be, but home is where you are your true self."
".........So, in other words, I'm changing my character for different situations.  ......Are you trying to say that having multiple personalities is actually really common?"

"A girl who is a fan of the occult might say that she's being possessed and then reawakened.  Honestly, there are some kids who can suddenly change their personalities.  ......Even some boys, right?  Guys who just blow their top and suddenly become violent.  I'll bet they think it's pretty cool, but it's painful to watch."

"So let's sum this all up.  ...Girls of about Maria's age, even if they show a creepy second personality like she did a minute ago, you're saying that's not such a rare thing...?"

"If you bring it all together simply, that's what it means.  ...Identity is an important thing used to build up one's sense of self.  If you make fun of that, it could actually cause children to go back into their shell.  So it's important to go along with them to some degree.  ...Although whether that is accepted is determined by the broad-mindedness of the parent."

"......Aniki, I can't believe you aren't married...  You sound like you've already raised kids through middle school.  .........So, I wonder if Rosa oba-san also knew much about Maria's dual personality."
"She knew about it.  .........Just between us, Rosa oba-san really hated it.  She said it was unpleasant, and that Maria was becoming increasingly isolated from the rest of the class.  So any time Maria started talking about the occult or laughing like a witch, she would slap her.  ...And it looks like Maria stopped talking that way in front of her."
.........Maybe it was just a little game, from a girl facing her growing period, ...that thing that had happened back there.
Just a girl trying to show that she was different and independent by holding interest in witches and the occult.

...And since she wanted to be different from herself, young as she was, she was switching between her normal personality and the personality of her ideal, a witch.

.........In the beginning, I had found that very disturbing, but after being lectured to by George-aniki, it felt like this was a path that everyone walked down at one time or another.
......I haven't told anyone, but when I was in kindergarten, I joined up with a little gang of kids trying to form a Earth Defense Force, saying we'd help protect peace on earth.

My face turns red when I remember how, during what we called battle practice, we would chant EDF!EDF!...
Just like usual, Maria was acting nonchalantly, immersed in the TV and laughing 'uu-uu- kya kya' just like any girl her age.

......But on the inside, another personality, that of the ideal witch that she respected and blindly accepted, was sleeping.

But that wasn't anything extraordinary.  It was perfectly natural for a girl of her age...
............I calmed down a little.
I had started to recover from that mysterious shock I had received in the kitchen.

If I hadn't talked to Aniki and Jessica, I might still be frightened by the idea that an invisible witch was standing right behind me.
...However, ......can I really accept that as an explanation of what happened back there?
If it had just been Maria, I could have explained it as the fickle delusions of a growing girl.

But Genji-san, Kanon-kun, and Kumawasa baa-chan had also been there.
None of them had denied what Maria said.

.........They had silently accepted that Beatrice 'exists'.
I was starting to feel a little uneasy...
Eva oba-san had claimed that no 19th person exists, saying that someone within the family's messy quarrel had committed the crime.

On the other hand, Natsuhi oba-san had claimed that the culprit was hiding somewhere outside the mansion.
That meant that she was denying that the crime had been committed by one of us, and accepting that a 19th person exists.
And in the kitchen, Maria and the servants had agreed that a 19th person exists.

But according to them, this 19th person isn't human.
......They had said that it was an invisible witch, plotting something mysterious.
Was there a 19th person, or not?
And was the culprit a human, or a witch?

For some reason, I couldn't just laugh it off.
...Even the most ridiculous story about the witch.
"......Jessica, all I know about the story of the witch is that it was a story made by the adults to keep the kids too scared to enter the forest, but......is it different here in the mansion...?"

"............Hmmm...  I have the same view as you, okay?  I think it was just a stupid ghost story made by the parents so that their kids would listen to them.  ......But I can't deny that the atmosphere inside the mansion makes it a little hard to say it out loud..."

"......Because Grandfather has proclaimed that Beatrice does exist.  And because of their position, the servants can't doubt that.  Even Krauss oji-san doesn't want to get into a fight with him, so on the surface, they go along with it.  ......So you could probably say that, inside this mansion, doubting the existence of Beatrice is taboo.  Unlike the rest of us, who only come here once a year.  ......Is that right?"

Jessica took a deep breath in admiration...
It looked like Aniki had guessed right.

"......It's just like you say.  No one really believes it on the inside.  ...But on the outside, they accept that she exists.  See, it's just like the way some people are about gods.  Even though they know god doesn't exist, they feel like it would be uncouth if they actually said that out loud..."
"......How do you think the servants feel about it amongst themselves?  Is it true that, since their employer says she 'exists', they have to go along with it...?"

"Well...  I don't really know the details, ......but between the servants, the story about Beatrice has been treated a little like a ghost story.  ...Remember yesterday?  When Shannon was talking to us down by the beach?  That story about how one night, when she was doing the rounds in the mansion, she saw something unsettling."

She had said something like that, hadn't she...

Back then, I had thought she was just being really nice to help improve Maria's mood, ...but it had felt like she was serious when she said it.
......That's right, she definitely said it.

...She definitely said the same kind of thing that Genji and the rest had all unanimously declared back in the kitchen...
"In addition, some servants have also seen will‐o'‐the‐wisps and glittering butterflies dancing around.  Kanon-kun also saw something like that when he went patrolling one night.  And recently, the servants have been talking about strange footsteps inside the mansion near midnight.  We have whispered together that the Beatrice-sama from the portrait sometimes makes herself invisible and walks through the mansion.  ...It happened a long time ago, but I have also heard those kinds of footsteps while patrolling at night."
......That's right, she definitely said that.
Exactly the same thing that I had been told just now.

"Ah, ...but, there's nothing to be afraid of, right?  Beatrice-sama is another ruler of this mansion separate from the Master.  Therefore, don't be strangely afraid.  If you respect her, she won't do anything bad."
"However, it would be dreadful if you didn't respect her, right?"

"...Yes.  I heard that, just before I began working, someone who spoke badly about Beatrice-sama fell down the stairs and quit after receiving a large injury to their back.  Because of that, there was a rumor between the servants that Beatrice-sama's anger had been brought down upon this person..."
"......If you don't respect her, her anger will be brought down upon you and you will be injured.  ...So, to the servants, Beatrice's existence is just as credible as the story that, if you pull pranks on Inari-san, you will receive Kitsune-sama's curse."
Inari Shrines and Kitsune-sama

Inari (稲荷) is the shinto god of fertility, rice and foxes and one of the most revered Shinto gods in Japan. This is made apparent by the sheer amount of shrines dedicated to her, along with torii and many statues of kitsune (foxes).

The kitsune are white foxes that are her benevolent messengers. However, they can be malicious and generate grave disasters.
Of course, even though everyone accepts that curses and the like don't exist in the modern era, ...people are still afraid and still have a little respect for them.
You often see it when, in a residential area, someone is building a house, and they call a Shinto priest for a ceremony to honor the god of that plot of land.

...You might think that was just a big waste of time and money, but it is said that if the workers don't do that, a big accident will occur, so they never neglect to do it.
You also hear about how, if an Inari shrine is carelessly removed during a town replanning, there would be a curse by Kitsune-sama.
I think I might have read somewhere that when the occupying forces were trying to expand an airport, and had to remove a Inari-san that was in the way, all of the workers were suddenly taken out by some mysterious fever.

Even in modern cities like Tokyo, it wasn't rare to see modern buildings packed all around an old Inari shrine, leaving the shrine itself untouched.
And this wasn't limited to Japan.
It's probably similar to how people baptize babies.

Of course, by the Christian doctrine, if unbaptized souls have even the slightest amount of sin, they will still go to hell.
Putting water on a child's forehead doesn't do anything but make them cry.

But if by doing just that, parents can prevent their children from going to hell, they will happily go through with that ceremony.
......In short, even in this modern society of reason, we were still unable to throw away every trace of belief and fear.

...You could say that it was a passive acceptance of the supernatural.
Maybe the only difference on this island was that Beatrice was the name that was respected here...
"...So, in other words, if anything happens that doesn't seem explainable in human terms, it's called the work of Beatrice.  .........I think Shannon-chan said it.  Windows and doors and locks that were tightly shut would be open the next time you went to check them.  Lights that should have been on went out, and lights that should have been out were turned on.

......And after all, like Jessica was joking about, sometimes when she went to leave in the morning, she couldn't find her shoes.  That was also the work of Beatrice, right?"
"I remember it well.  ...Normally, you'd say some little imps took them, but on this island, it's Beatrice.  Man, what a stupid story."

"This mansion has been standing for about thirty years by now, hasn't it?  It's natural for things that old to get their fair share of ghost and occult stories.  Like the seven mysteries at a school."

"............So is that where we 'turn the chessboard over'...?"
"Huh?"
".........In other words, on this island, there's a rule that Beatrice is blamed for anything that couldn't have been done by humans.  Things that humans can't do.  ......How many humans are there?  There's 18.  ............So the culprit, knowing about this rule, wanted to make it appear that this crime was the work of the witch.  If that were the case, we would have to accept that a 19th person was responsible.

............I don't like it・・・・・・・.  I really don't like it."
"What don't you like...?"

"Just assume that an invisible 19th person existed, and that this person wanted to make it known that they existed.  If it were me, I could do it with even more perfect timing."
"......What do you mean by perfect timing?"

"...Well.  After all, the crime probably took place after midnight while it was still dark, right?  Until midnight, people were talking together, some people had the night shift, and some people had returned to their rooms and were sleeping.  ...Everyone's alibi is really vague, and there's plenty of room to suspect that the crime was committed by one of us.   George-aniki, Eva oba-san probably told you too, right?  That there's a good chance that one of us is the culprit?"

"...n, ......yes.  ...I guess."
"......In other words, if the 19th person really existed and wanted to show themselves, this first crime was a complete failure.  ...No, in the first place, it was a mistake in the timing.  If this invisible 19th person really wanted to show themselves, they had to make sure that the crime took place

under conditions which proved that the・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・

remaining twelve people were all innocent・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・.
Unless there are no suspicious humans, they can't prove that they exist.  So by killing them in the middle of the night, when everyone's alibis were at their most ambiguous, whether or not this 19th person exists was also at its most ambiguous.  Even so, they chose that time to commit the crime."
"......By committing the crime then, it's obvious that one of the 18 would be suspected.  ...Even so, everyone has denied that they were the one who took the name of the witch and handed Maria the letter."

"In other words, ......you're trying to say that one of the 18 is trying to make it look like a 19th person called Beatrice exists...?  That's pretty crazy.........I think that my mom's theory that someone is hiding outside the mansion is a little more credible......Battler, do you actually suspect that someone in this room is the culprit...?"
"Yeah.  ...Someone trying to force us to accept that Beatrice exists.  ......That's right, the letter last night is when this whole thing started.  ...I don't have any basis or proof, but...  ......With the chessboard upside-down, this is my best guess."

"......Seriously, that's too crazy...  Haven't you been reading too many weird detective novels...?"
"But it's a viewpoint that we can't ignore.  ......Whether there's a 19th person or not, the culprit is definitely planning something involving that rule about this island.  ......Just now, listening to Battler-kun talk, I've remembered something that's a little disturbing."
"Something disturbing...?"
"Yes.  ......Do you remember?  Beatrice's letter.  ......It said that Beatrice was going to collect interest.  And by interest, it mentioned everything of the Ushiromiya family."

Jessica and I thought back on what Maria had read aloud the previous night...
"...It said that.  It definitely said that.  That the collecting of the interest would now take place, but if the riddle of the gold could be solved, she would lose that right."
"...Grandfather was granted the gold, and the Ushiromiya house prospered.  In other words, Beatrice is talking about the interest on all of the gold that was created.  ......In other words..."
".........That's pretty scary for a joke, Aniki.........You don't mean, everything of the Ushiromiya family, ...in other words, everything that Grandfather gave birth to, ......in other words, everyone with Grandfather's blood flowing through their veins...!?"
"If you read the letter that way, ...these murders are just Beatrice legitimately collecting interest.  ...If that's the case, these crimes will continue.  ...Because the collection of interest is still only halfway completed."
George turned around, looking over the parlor.
......There were still many people who held the name Ushiromiya.

And we knew that, since Gohda-san and Shannon-chan had been killed, not even the servants, who didn't bear the name Ushiromiya, would be spared...
"A, ...are you, .........saying that we're all gonna be killed...?  ...But that's weird, George nii-san!  In that case, why only six people?  They should have killed a lot more.  In the worst case, it should have been possible for them to assault everyone while they were sleeping and kill them.  Why didn't they do that?!"

"............The special clause.  ...If someone managed to solve the riddle of the gold, the right to the interest would be lost.  ......And the very last part of the letter is tied in with this, right?  ...It said to try and solve the riddle of Grandfather's gold."
"Jesus...!  ......It looks like we're finally getting close to understanding the culprit's message...  In other words, the culprit is telling us to try and solve the riddle on that epitaph Grandfather had made.

......Furthermore, they're saying that if we  ・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・

just sit around, they'll keep collecting・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・

the interest・・・・・・..."
I realized that this was all based on several crazy guesses.
......But not everything that happens in this world fits together in a perfect line.

...Most of the events that we don't know about yet are only individual points.
......By fitting them into a straight line, I was beginning to understand.
The closer the points are to the line, the easier it is, intellectually, to understand them.
...And the farther away they are from the line, the more fragmented everything becomes.
Therefore, as far the distance between these guesses was concerned, we should call this theory crazy.

...However, if the distance is narrow between the points, you could call the idea limited.
Would that idea be any different from reasoning?
Was I just trying to force everything that I knew about the case to fit my simple imagination?
No, that's not it.
When you're searching around with your hands in the dark, that search is imagination.

Only imagination can find points that fit with each other.
...Reasoning is nothing more than tying those lines together.
If you can't imagine, you can't reason.
......What I was doing might have been crazy, ...but it also wasn't a mistake.
Only the power of imagination could pull out a clue from the darkness.
......And the power of reasoning could tie those clues together.

...It was a lot like the process of searching out an enemy's weak spot and striking.
It's alright if it's crazy.
Find the weak point first.
Then we can think about how to strike!

Now was the time to find the points that we could tie together later...!
For the time being, I put aside whether a 19th person exists, and announced the theory that the goal of the culprit might have been to make us solve the riddle of the epitaph.
Hideyoshi oji-san looked like he was really interested, but Natsuhi oba-san thought it was ridiculous.

"Of course.  If you think about it that way, even that letter from yesterday makes sense.  That motive seems to fit pretty well with the facts...!  Settin' aside whoever it was that gave Maria-chan the letter."
"Uu-!  Beatrice exists!!  Uu-."

Even though she was puffing up her cheeks in that cute way she had been doing since yesterday, ...I couldn't think of it as cute.
...If I took it lightly, it might suddenly transform into a creepy laugh...
"The hidden gold doesn't exist.  However, the culprit, who foolishly believes that it does, wants Father's gold.  If their motive is to make us solve the riddle and then steal the gold from us, then I will agree that it makes sense.
However, in that case, why did they kill those most highly ranked in the Ushiromiya family first?"

".........That makes sense.  If they wanted to make us solve the riddle, killing those closest to Kinzo-san doesn't sound like a good plan to me."

"Really...?  But if we follow that argument, wouldn't it have been quicker if they had threatened Father in the first place?  You'd think it would be faster to just ask the person who wrote it, rather than try to force us to solve it."
"That's also a good point.  ...However, I don't think that Father would let it slip because of any ordinary threat."

"Anyone who knows Kinzo-san well would probably realize that he won't bow to ordinary threats..."
"......He is a man who bears the burden of all the Ushiromiya family's wealth.  He's been exposed to many threats and attacks in the past.  It is because he was able to overcome them that the family prospers today."

"That's freakin' right.  I can't even imagine that our Grandfather would obey if someone threatened him!"
"...Jessica, watch your language."
"............u, ......Yes."
"In that case, .........what about this idea?  ...No wait, is that too crazy...?"
...I couldn't hesitate!
A crazy idea was like a bow and arrow.

...It might be hard to hit with, but if you could strike the enemy on the other side, it was a great weapon.
......They say that most people who have died in battles were killed by wounds from arrows.
......In a battle you couldn't just shoot off one arrow.

You shoot off a whole bunch of arrows at once, and attack the enemy soldiers with a wall of them.  ......So shoot them, over and over!

'Attack with a wall of truth...!'
"If the culprit is after the hidden gold, it would be very ineffective for them to force us to solve the riddle.  Asking the person who made it in the first place would be much quicker and easier.  .........In that case, the question is, ...is this all a message directed at Grandfather?"
In other words, this murder was a threat directed at Grandfather.

......If he didn't tell the culprit where the gold was, his family members would be killed off one by one.

What if we weren't the only ones being forced to solve this riddle......what if Grandfather was too?!
If you think about it that way, it explained Grandfather's mysterious disappearance.

If the culprit had attacked Grandfather, then judging by the state the six corpses were left in, he should have been displayed somewhere with that horrible makeup added.
But despite that, we still hadn't found him.

......Did that mean that Grandfather was kidnapped, and had been taken somewhere?!
".........How could............You aren't saying, how could......!"

"*giggle* *giggle*.  That sounds interesting.  ...So Grandfather is being confined somewhere, and being threatened that if he doesn't tell them the location of the gold, we will be killed off one by one?"
"It pains me to think about how you find that interesting...!"
Natsuhi oba-san threatened her, but Eva oba-san just smiled calmly.

"......Since we still haven't seen him after all this time, I think that it's almost certain that Grandfather has gotten caught up in the crime.  If you think about it, you can't just ignore Battler-kun's theory, right...?"
"Stay quiet George.  ......When did Father disappear in the first place?"
"...Who was the last person to see Father?"

".........It was probably me.  This morning, when we were worried that we didn't know where my husband and the rest were, we were talking about how they might be in Father's study, and I went to check his room and greeted him.  .........Come to think of it, I've been holding the key to his study the whole time, haven't I.  Genji, let me return this to you."
Natsuhi oba-san pulled out the gold key and handed it to Genji...
Looking at the key, Eva oba-san giggled...

"...Hey, Genji-san.  I'm sure the police will inspect Father's room thoroughly anyways.  ...If there's anything hidden there, it will just be exposed anyways.  ......So maybe it would be better if you just told us about it right here, right now."
"............What are you talking about?"

"It's simple.  .........Father's study is a closed room, with no way in or out except for that key, right?  I want to verify whether that's true.  There is one entrance to Father's study.  What about the window?  Any other entrances or exits?"
"............There are none.  There is no way to get in except the entrance."

"You're sure about that?  There isn't some secret hidden door or anything?  ......Since Father isn't here, I am the highest ranked member of the Ushiromiya family.  I am asking you as a representative of the Ushiromiya family head.  Understand that and answer me.  Are there any ways in or out of that room other than the main entrance?  ......As Father's closest aide, I'm sure you know."

Natsuhi oba-san looked a little offended at the part about the 'highest ranked family member', but she kept her mouth closed for the time being, and waited for Genji's answer.

......I couldn't help but feel a little uncomfortable.
Why was she going on and on about hidden doors...??
"You, too, Kanon-kun, Kumasawa-san.  If you know, won't you tell me?  If there is one, it would be better if you said it.  ...If there isn't, then someone might be driven into a corner in a second.  ......If we assume that there is a hidden door, then my argument comes to nothing."

Eva oba-san didn't specify which person was about to be driven into a corner, ...but following the flow of the conversation, I had to feel that she was referring to Natsuhi oba-san.
"......Mother, what are you talking about?"

"George, stay quiet for a while.  .........What do you say?  Genji-san?  Kanon-kun?  Or Kumasawa-san?  Is there a hidden door?  Is there not one?  Genji-san, when you remodeled Father's study, you must have overseen the construction.  I won't let you say that you don't know."

"............There is nothing like that in the Master's study."
"You're sure?  What about Kanon-kun, trusted by the One-winged Eagle?"

"......Yes.  I'm sure.  ......There is nothing like a hidden door in the Master's study."
"Kumasawa-san?"
"N, ......no, I haven't heard of such a thing..."

"What about Doctor Nanjo, who had a close relationship with Father?"
"......I, I have never heard of something like that..."

"Great!  Then are you ready?  Let me begin.  It's really simple."
Everyone tilted their head doubtfully, wondering what Eva oba-san was so proudly starting to talk about.

...Eva oba-san laughed triumphantly, as though she were about to reveal a secret that only she knew.
"Natsuhi nee-san was the last person to spot Father, right?  ...I forget the exact time, but I think it was a little before 9:00 in the morning.  ......Nee-san, do you remember?  I ran into you just as you were coming out of Father's study, right?"

"......Yes, I remember.  What does that have to do with anything?"

"And the next time Nee-san went to visit Father's study?  That was after we had found the bodies of Nii-san and the rest, right?  Together with me, you went up to the study to report that, and we discovered that he wasn't there.  .........By the way, Nee-san.  At that time, when you went to enter Father's study, did you notice anything?"

".........Notice anything?  ...What are you talking about?"
"Come on.  You threw away some trash, right?  A folded receipt."
".....I do seem to remember throwing away some trash.  What does that have to do with...?"

"I got that receipt when I bought some candy at a store in the airport."
Eva oba-san pulled a small bag of candy out of her handbag.

"...Aah, the receipt from when you bought that candy?  ...But Mother, what does that receipt have to do with anything...?"
"George, stay quiet and listen for just a little longer..."

Hideyoshi oji-san's expression was a little strict.

...Somehow, it seemed that he understood what Eva oba-san was getting at.
"It was really just on a whim, you see?  Maybe I had a little foresight, but I definitely wasn't planning on setting a trap for Natsuhi nee-san or anything.  ......Actually, this receipt - you remember, Nee-san, that just after you met Father and left, you met me right?  At that time, I stuck this into the door to the study."
"......So, what does that mean?  Does it meant that, until Natsuhi oba-san picked up that receipt, no one opened the door...?"

"W, wait a second, Eva oba-san...!  Sticking a receipt in would be obvious!  It's possible that, when Grandfather opened the door, he noticed it and, finding it interesting, stuck it back in the door..."
Jessica hurriedly argued back.

...She still didn't really know what it meant, but she realized that, whatever it was, it would raise doubts about her own mother.
"Of course, I folded the receipt up very small so that no one would notice it.  But even if you assume that he saw it fall, he would have no way of knowing how high up the door it had been stuck, right?  I checked it while Natsuhi nee-san was taking the key out.  The receipt was still stuck not one millimeter away from where I had put it...!"

"I, ......I can't understand why you would pull such a childish prank!  I, I'll bet you were the one who did that prank on the door to my room, too!"

"......The door to Natsuhi-san's room?"

"...It was unpleasant to talk about, so I didn't, but this morning, when I woke up, there were the signs of some prank on the outside of my door, with what was probably the same red paint that was scribbled across the shutter.  There were some unpleasant marks, as though someone had been tearing at the door..."

"Wait, what is this!  Why have you been silent about this until now...!!?"

"My apologies.  Since so many horrible things have occurred since then, I had completely forgotten about it until just now."
"I don't know anything about that.  What I did wasn't to your door, but the door to Father's room, right?  After you checked that he was in his room, and until we made sure that he wasn't, that door wasn't opened even once.  How did Father get out if he didn't use the door?"

".........I, ...I don't know that...!  That's what I want to know!!!"
"Natsuhi nee-san, other than you, who else checked to see whether Father was in his room?"

"Last night, the last time I met Kinzo-san was when we were playing chess......so I was with him until just before dinner......"
"Who saw him after that?"

"...............I did.  I gave him his dinner last night."
"......Yes.  Shannon and I were with him."

"So at that time, Father was still definitely in his room.  ...However, Natsuhi nee-san.  When you found out that he wasn't there, I hear that all ways in or out of the study were closed, right? ......But even so, you said that she met with him this morning."

"......I, ......I don't understand why everyone has become so gloomy.  Could someone explain it to me...?"
"F, ......Father and Mother are you.........saying that what Natsuhi says about meeting Grandfather this morning ......is a lie?"

"How could she tell a lie?  Mom's innocent!!  Why would she lie!!"
"Jessica!  I keep telling you to watch your language!"
All at once, everything became confused...

Eva oba-san and Natsuhi oba-san confronted each other across the parlor table, with George confronting Jessica.........What in the world...!!
"Many people spotted him last night, right?  But since this morning, the only one who claims that they saw Father is Natsuhi nee-san.  ......And then there's that strange fact we learned from the receipt.  ...So, how can we connect these points together...?"
Eva oba-san urged everyone to imagine it...

......Sure, that receipt could become an important point.
...But I didn't know what kind of line could be drawn through that point...!
The answer Eva oba-san was hoping for, .........was that Natsuhi oba-san had lied about seeing Grandfather in that room this morning.

Had Eva oba-san's whim exposed that......??
"I don't get it at all!!  Why would Mom have to lie!!?  She had no reason to, right!!?"

"......That's what I want to know.  But Jessica-chan.  You can't say that there was no reason for her to lie and say that Grandfather was in the room, right?  You see it every once in a while in mystery novels, don't you?  That trick of confusing the time of death to create an alibi."
"Wh, what are you talking about?!  I've never heard of that!!"

"...We still haven't found him yet, but if you think about it normally, it would be natural to assume that he has already been killed.  In that case, we would expect to find his corpse soon.  ...If, at that point, the time of death could be faked, Natsuhi nee-san would be able to create an alibi.  ......Do you understand?  Everyone?"
...This morning, when Natsuhi oba-san went to check that Grandfather was there, she lied, ...and he was already dead at that time?
...And then, she moved the body to some location, and disguised it to make it seem like he had just been killed there.

......And then she could stay with everyone else to prepare an alibi.

......And then, she could say 'I heard someone screaming!' or something and dash over there, and become the first to find the body along with everyone else..., is that what Eva oba-san's saying......?
"Ridiculous.  After all, detective novels are just entertainment novels!  You can only think of such an indiscreet idea because you read them all the time!"

"That's right!!  Even if she tried to fake the time of death a little, all of that would be blown away in an instant once the police did their autopsy!!  It might been effective in the past, but do you really think that kind of trick would work in modern Japan?!  Are you insane?!"
"......You think so?  This morning, when Doctor Nanjo looked at the corpses, he was only able to give a vague estimate of the time of death, right?  It would be very easy to influence the results of the autopsy by messing around with the corpses' surroundings.  It's a very relative estimate with an uncertainty of several hours.  And, unfortunately, the police's scientific investigation will have to wait until tomorrow.  Measuring the correct time of death after that, even in modern Japan like you said, wouldn't be that easy, right?  Right, Doctor Nanjo...?"

"............An autopsy requires both experience and instinct, and is an extremely difficult task...  I have heard that there is a high chance of a wrong diagnosis...  It's definitely possible that, in many cases, a misreading of a few hours can occur..."

"...However, for an alibi, that's more than enough!  It's an old trick!  It's a trick that works well enough!  ......Natsuhi nee-san.  It's not like we want to suspect you, alright?  We just want you to prove your innocence so we don't have to suspect you."
"What is this innocence you want me to prove!!?  This morning, I definitely met with Father!!  And he told me to keep the One-winged Eagle engraved in my heart.........Are you denying that he said that, too!!?  I will definitely not permit that!!  I won't permit you to deny that Father said those words!!"

"......Maybe Father's body won't appear somewhere?  Normally, a person has to be missing for seven years before they're officially dead.  Wouldn't that be a clever way to extend Father's nearly finished life another seven years and keep all of his wealth for yourself!"
"I, I can't let you get away with saying that!!  I can't let you get away with saying any more!!  I am Ushiromiya Natsuhi!!  Although I do not have the right to wear the One-winged Eagle on my body, it is certainly engraved on my heart!!  What do you think you're saying to the wife of Krauss, successor to the head, and the person who will act as such in his place!!!"

"What's this?  Are you going to shoot me with that gun?  Go ahead.  And if you shoot?!  You're just desperate because you can't think of a way out, right?!  Do it, just try to obscure the truth with violence...!!"
"Y......, you!!!!"
It wasn't like Natsuhi oba-san had been actually holding that gun at the ready and threatening anyone.
But after she was told to by Eva oba-san, she did hold it at the ready!

...Unsurprisingly, once things got to this stage, Jessica and Genji-san tried to stop her.

"...Madam, please, calm yourself......!"
"Mom, you aren't lying!  So there's no reason for you to listen to this!!"

"......Calm down, Natsuhi-san.  Wouldn't everything be fine it you just swear that Father was definitely in that room?  Why are you getting so distracted over that...?"
"...Th, ...that's right.  Natsuhi-san isn't lying.  Isn't that the end of it...?"

"Then I want you to explain.  How did Father manage to disappear from the room?  ...The window was closed tight from the inside.  The same was true for the door, right?  ......This morning, if you really met with Father, ...then you must explain how Father disappeared from this 'unopened door' closed room scenario.  If you don't, that would mean that you are lying after all, right?"
"How far do you plan to mock me......!!!?"

"If you want to argue back, go ahead!!  That's right, try explaining it right here, right now.  After that, I can apologize to you for doubting you.  How did Father manage to get out from that closed room!!?"