Chapter 4: Dreams And Reality
“We’ve arrived, Kazumasa-sama.”
My aide, Saeki, wheels me through the open door of the conference room and into the seat at the far side. Father Sakagami’s seat. My seat.
There are a total of ten people in the room, all high-ranking members within the Sakagami Family. From Sakagami, there’s myself and Saeki. From Kuzuha and Tatsumi, there are the senile old heads of each branch family and a smattering of much younger aides and heirs.
The next heir to the head of the Kuzuha Family is absent, of course, thanks to his unsightly loss at the ritual the other day. I can barely hold back the urge to laugh at the thought of him wetting his pants in front of Kagura. Honestly, that girl can go too far at times. As Father Kuzuha is present, however, I smother my chuckle before it can escape my lips.
“Well? What is it? If you don’t have anything interesting to discuss, I’m leaving.”
A few faces assembled take on a dark look, namely the majority of the Kuzuha party. They must have called the meeting, then.
Honestly, where does that dinosaur find the energy to waste on nonsense like this? His ambitions are far grander than he could possibly realize at this late stage in his life. I’d bet anything that today’s meeting will be full of much the same nonsense. Father Kuzuha has the remarkable talent of wasting time and energy as effortlessly as normal people breathe. As to why, well, I’ll leave that question to the philosophers. I don’t know the answer myself, nor could I bring myself to care if I tried.
Father Kuzuha is naturally the first to open his mouth. “What do you mean, ‘what is it’? Are you really so forgetful these days, Kazumasa-dono? There’s only one thing to discuss. Don’t make fools of us.”
Not that he needs my help in that. The old coot has been after me since our days in training together. Evidently intent on wresting control from the Sakagami Family, he’s long been an annoyance and a critic. He should be more concerned with how to decorate his coffin and leave the plotting to his heirs. I resist the urge to sigh discontentedly.
“Talking about Kagura again, are we? If she’s missing, then find her and apprehend her. Wasn’t that clear enough? Don’t tell me you can’t handle it and need me to wipe your sorry little asses?”
“…She’s not in the city. If she is, then she must be hiding out somewhere.”
“Oh, she has a hideout, does she? Do you honestly think she’s been running nonstop all this time? Of course she has a hideout, else she’s recuperating somewhere in the countryside. She’s not an idiot, like some people I know.”
Kagura is still missing, gone as if into thin air. There’s no way this assembly of third-rate incompetents could hope to catch her now. They might have had a ghost of a chance on the first day or so, but that girl is sly as a fox. She wouldn’t slip up this late into the game.
The real problem, however, comes now.
“I hate to bring this up, Kazumasa-dono, but you don’t happen to know where the girl is, do you?”
“Hah, that’s likely. I wouldn’t care to find out where that brat’s hiding at any rate.”
“Oh? What an interesting way to phrase it. She’s the Puppetmaster, and above that your own flesh and blood. At this rate, something… unfortunate might occur that could affect your standing in the Association.”
“Kekeke, you could at least keep your ulterior motives off your face, old man. You’re like a dog in a butcher’s shop.”
Father Kuzuha wouldn’t make such a devilishly gleeful expression at any normal meeting. He must be pretty damn confident he can use this to hurt me. I’ll admit, I’m interested. Just how does this old third-rate intend to make the Puppetmaster dance?
“As I said, she’s a blockhead but not an idiot. She’s like a craven little rabbit at heart, and left to her own devices, she’ll return to the fields and be out of our hair soon enough. I’m sure even you can imagine that… though things might play out differently if a certain someone were to wave a carrot in her face.”
“…Even if there’s only a slim chance she’ll return to give us trouble, isn’t it natural to crush her while we can?”
“Yes, and for the hundredth time, that’s your job. Don’t make me repeat myself. I’m busy.”
“Oh? Counting your coffers again, are you?”
“What else would I be doing? It takes money to keep a bunch of delusional old seniors fed after retirement, since despite what they might believe, they can’t eat on pride and dignity alone. It takes a king’s ransom — not that you’d know anything about retirement, Father Kuzuha.”
All of the dinosaurs assembled around the table scrunch their fat, wormlike eyebrows together. Hah, if looks could kill.
“You wouldn’t be talking about us, would you, Kazumasa-dono?”
“Of course not. I said delusional old seniors — unless you think you fit the bill, of course. You’re not wearing a diaper yet, are you?”
Father Kuzuha stands up, spittle spraying, a large blue vein on his forehead bulging out. He’s rather energetic for his age, I must say. I resist the urge to smirk.
“What’s wrong, suddenly standing up like that mid-meeting? Ah, it must be the bathroom. I suppose you are starting to get on in years, aren’t you?”
I use a strand of Thread to open the door behind him and smile warmly. His face twists up like an ugly red prune, and he glares at me as if he’ll try to kill me here and now. Ah, how delightfully amusing. To think this geezer calls himself a puppeteer, even though it takes only a word to get him dancing in the palm of my hand! Let alone amusing, this is comedic gold.
That being said, I think I’ve seen enough of this fossil. It’s about time for him to be replaced.
“…I feel sick. We’ll excuse ourselves for today, but don’t think we’ll let you do what you please with the Family! Don’t get too cocky!”
“Kekeke! No matter how loud a kitten roars, it could never eat a lion. Why don’t you get some new fangs and a few dozen kilos of muscle mass first? Such empty one-liners are just embarrassing without any chance of realizing them, don’t you think?”
Face still twisted with frustration, Father Kuzuha strides out of the room, evidently trying to retain what little remains of his dignity. His entourage exchange glances before following him moments later. I snort at their backs as they leave before lighting up a cigar.
Now, only the Sakagami and the Tatsumi are left in the conference room. The Tatsumi simply sit there indifferently, evidently intent to aim at power but too cowardly — or perhaps too smart — to make a move. There’s not a single threat remaining, then. I take a deep puff of my cigar.
“Perhaps you provoked them a tad too much?”
“Of course not, Saeki. People are easier to read when they’re angry, and on top of that, it’s the best way to see their true colours. Control their feelings and you control their actions.”
“Is that the mentality of a senior puppeteer?”
“Keke, of course not. Puppetry’s just that, playing with dolls. From the first generation, we Sakagamis have been playing a much bigger game.”
This lanky, sharp-eyed man is Saeki, my closest confidant. He’s quite competent in a fight, but on top of that he has a real knack for administration, and he’s been in my service for longer than I would care to remember. Mind you, I wouldn’t call him a genius puppeteer or anything of the sort, but I’ve come to greatly appreciate his versatility and work ethic. He’s certainly more useful than a one-trick pony like Kagura, and the day he betrays me will be the day I die — he certainly knows enough of my secrets to be the death of me.
“Manipulating people, you mean?”
“No, gods. The beating heart of our art is the god’s theater, kagura. The art of calling a god into flesh and compelling it to move. All it needs is a selfless vessel, and on the part of the manipulator, an iron will. By ‘god’, of course, I’m referring to ‘monsters’ that can exist only through such conviction. Manipulating puppets and even people are just the training programmes, ways of teaching people how to raise those ‘monsters’. Just think, those Tatsumi and Kuzuha codgers don’t even know that! Isn’t that just hilarious?”
“…What about Kagura-sama?”
Father treated Kagura almost as he’d treat his own child. As to why, well, that’s the question indeed, though I feel as though I might run across that answer soon enough.
“Who knows? I can’t imagine what was running through Father’s head when he named that brat Kagura, but looking at her now, I don’t think there’s a more fitting name in the world. He skills aside, her personality, and her obsession with dolls, even… That must be an illness, don’t you think?”
“…You don’t like it, Kazumasa-sama?”
“Don’t like what?”
“That poor girl, and on top of that the name that was given to her. But I fear that true to her name, she might–”
“Nonsense. The very thought is unbecoming of you, Saeki. If that girl’s heart continues to wear at this rate, why, I couldn’t be happier. On the other hand, if she awakens and becomes a real Puppetmaster, that’ll be wonderful in and of itself… not that I expect that to happen at this rate.”
“And why, if I might ask, is that?”
“What we at the height of the craft control is iron-willed conviction, emotions themselves. I wouldn’t expect our block-headed little Pinochhio to become so empathically attuned. That doll may excel in what it does, but a doll can never truly feel.”
Kagura’s skill is in manipulating puppets, not people. Even if she’s a master of the former, she’s abysmal at the latter, and to expect any improvement from her in that respect would be foolhardy. In the end, she’s a flightless bird, forced into this cage of a family by Father. Even with the door wide open for her, she’d never leave, simply sitting there blankly. Clipping her wings is the greatest mercy I can offer her, robbing her of those empty dreams of the outside world and permanently rooting her in the cage she seems so comfortable in.
“Well, boring chit-chat aside… What do you think, Saeki?”
“Of Father Kuzuha?”
“Him and his whole circus. If he’s this confident, he must have a trick left up his sleeve. That’s what I want to know.”
“…You have a point. There must be some reason for his confidence. He’s been rather eager to have a say in all affairs since Kagura-sama became Puppetmaster. Even the Tatsumi seem more aggressive than usual…”
“They’ve got some half-baked ‘master plan’ in progress, I’d bet.”
What work the Kuzuha and Tatsumi can’t finish, the Sakagami take on — that’s the way it’s always been. The less they’re able to handle, the greater our workload becomes, though considering their pointlessly inflated prides, it’s almost never come to that before now. The amount of work they’ve been shovelling off on us lately, however, has been no small amount, and as our schedules rapidly filled, Kagura ended up taking the edge off the burden.
“Most of the assignments lately have been werewolf hunting, right?”
“Yes, if memory serves.”
“And the ones tasked with keeping the werewolves in check were the Kuzuha, right?”
Werewolves are pack hunters, and yet with the number of them in the city, there hasn’t been so much as a single pack as of late. As they’re hardly smarter than the mutts they resemble, they pose no real challenge to us humans, hence their reliance on their comrades and on vampires. These werewolves should be playing by the same rules. For three years, I’ve been listening to the Kuzuha give me excuses about how they can’t find their alpha vampire or some nonsense. Until now I’d always attributed it to their incompetence, but…
“The girl’s last assignment had to do with a stray vampire, didn’t it? One vampire has been controlling the werewolves for years, but I’ve heard nothing of that stray before now.”
“Neither have I. To begin with, said vampire has hardly posed any threat to humans. It is indeed rather suspicious. Wouldn’t someone have to know of said vampire in order to create such an assignment?”
“And this whole ‘hand the stray over to the other vampire’ business… I should’ve been more suspicious.“
“That was also from the Kuzuha, was it not?”
“That, or from our resident bloodsucker herself by way of the Kuzuha. I checked with the local Association heads, and they told me they’ve never seen that assignment before in their lives, that some secretary had submitted it. And wouldn’t you know it, that secretary vanished without a trace not long afterwards. What a ‘coincidence’.”
“A forged assignment, perhaps, likely a trap. The Kuzuha have been letting quite a few assignments slip as of late.”
“Enough that I’ve stopped bothering to read most of them, even.”
“With such a volume, I could hardly blame you, Kazumasa-sama. They’ve been drowning the both of us in work.”
“Keke, to think I’ve been the one dancing in that old coot’s palm… how regrettable. I never suspected that to be his plan all along.”
With a chuckle, I put a cigar between my lips and light it. Lukewarm smoke fills my lungs, only to be hacked out a moment later. I can hardly taste it, to be honest; smoking simply helps calm my nerves.
“If there’s another trick in store, it has to do with that stray, no doubt. What do you think?”
“I’d say the chances are second to none. She likely possesses the capability to influence Kagura’s thoughts, by magic or otherwise. Even a simple enchantment could prove devastating as things stand.”
“Well, it bears looking into. Not that I expect that brat to fall for such an obvious trick… or wait, maybe she will.”
“Any kid’ll feel pity for a stray pup. She is technically a girl, after all.”
Affection, pity, anything would do — all it would take is a slight clouding of the girl’s judgement to have her dancing to their tune. She’s regrettably–
“–Too simple. So simple it makes me retch.”
I stand in front of the bathroom mirror, looking myself squarely in the eye. My silky golden hair perfectly frames my angelic face, as it always has. That’s a simple, objective truth.
“…I am cute.”
I repeat the words to myself. My eyes don’t appear so convinced, however. I narrow them and raise the corners of my mouth, and the ‘me’ past the mirror copies. Bit by bit, my facial muscles are beginning to learn how to smile with my eyes, not just my mouth.
“I love myself.”
How could I hate myself? I’m perfectly free; in motion, in feeling, in my will and desires. I control myself better than anyone else could, and better than I could ever hope to control any puppet. I don’t have a single complaint as to how I look, nor should I. I’m even a genius, objectively speaking. No, there’s not a single reason I should hate myself. That’s the obvious, undeniable, objective truth.
All I want for you, Kagura, is for you to–
Yes, not a thing has changed since then.
I lean into Shiro and rub my cheek against his. Then I gently kiss him on the forehead before turning back to the mirror.
“Kagura-chan, ready to get ready and go?”
I whip around to find Suzune there, a perplexed look on her face.
“Everything okay, Kagura-chan?”
“…Ah, yes, it’s nothing. I was simply entranced by my own beauty is all.”
“I get the feeling that’s not ‘nothing’… Your head must be a pretty weird place to live.”
“Oh, how rude! Anyone could tell at a glance that I’m simply adorable.”
“Can’t argue with that, I guess… Fufu, yeah, you’re totally right.”
I give Shiro a tight squeeze and avert my gaze. I can hear Suzune giggle.
“Fufu, you can say it yourself but you blush as soon as anyone else says it, huh? You brag about your looks often enough it seems like that’s exactly what you’re after.”
“…Enough of that. Just hearing you say it makes me feel like a fool.”
“C’mon, I can tell you’re happy! Honestly, the way you get all embarrassed over weird things like that just makes you even cuter.” Hair swaying gleefully, she takes me by the hand. “Okay, time to get you all dressed up! I spent forever picking your costume for today. Time for the big reveal!”
“You don’t need to drag me, you know. And what precisely do you mean by ‘costume’? It is a proper disguise, isn’t it?”
“Of course! You’ll see soon enough!”
She tugs me by the hand, and after looking up at her I cast a glance back at the mirror. On the other side of the glass, I can see ‘me’ narrow her eyes blissfully.
A full week has passed since my complete recovery. Clad in a black wig and Suzune’s clothes, the two of us head into town.
Looking at myself now, anyone would be hard-pressed to recognize me. While my latent radiance of course cannot be concealed, simply altering my hair and wearing something decidedly not a one-piece dress changes my impression completely.
But. I look down at myself once more and furrow my eyebrows. I can understand not wearing something with a ‘blind spot’ from which to create my Pocket, as our objective for today is reconnaissance and not combat. Even if we were to be attacked, I could create such a space by ripping these clothes, loath as I would be to do so. The far more troubling thing, however, is the fact that I’m wearing shorts. Not a one-piece, nor even a skirt. Shorts.
What a horrid twist of fashion, these things! It feels as though I’m putting my thighs on display for passersby to gawk at. No decent lady should wear such an embarrassing thing. Why, it feels as though I’m walking about in my underwear! I had always assumed that young women these days had a screw or two loose and I’d reprimanded such shorts-wearers from afar with cold looks. Never did I imagine I would have to subject myself to such humiliation. I can feel people looking at me already. What on Earth did I do to deserve such a miserable fate?
“I’ll never wear such a horrid thing!” I had shouted, to which Suzune had replied with “It’s okay, you’re absolutely adorable no matter what you wear!” and “See, they look great on you! I’ve never seen anyone look so cute in shorts!” and other such half-forced ‘encouragement.’ After realizing such a simple ploy wouldn’t work on me, however, she’d said “Oh, you’re embarrassed? I never thought you’d be so sensitive about just changing clothes. Besides, isn’t the best disguise something you’d never normally wear? Isn’t that perfectly logical?” and other such nonsense that I myself could not refute. After three hours of desperate struggle, my will finally broke. I’d heard the word ‘shorts’ repeated so many times that as if being brainwashed, I could feel my very sense of self being ripped away, and the sheer psychological fatigue prompted me to surrender rather than hearing the word so much as one more time. By the time we’d finally left the house, it was past noon.
I shake my head clear of such despairing thoughts. Just how badly did she want me to wear shorts?
I suppose there’s hardly any point in fretting over it now… and yet somehow, the triumphant grin on Suzune’s face is intensely aggravating.
“…Must we link arms?”
“Ah, but Kagura-chan, if we link arms like this then everyone will think that we’re two really good friends going out shopping together. Isn’t that what we want? See, it’s perfectly logical!”
That’s hardly a proper answer as to why simply walking side by side isn’t enough. Does she think that the word ‘logical’ is some sort of geas on me? The most irritating thing, however, is that what she says does in fact make perfect logical sense. Not one of my pursuers would suspect I would be out on the town like this with another woman, and anyone with even a basic understanding of my usual behavior would laugh at the thought of my linking arms with anyone. Even without the disguise, they’d surely doubt their eyes and assume I was someone else. When I look at it in such a manner, I can hardly deny the bounty of merits, but I can hardly relax like this. I feel both incredibly embarrassed and ticklish as if someone were running rampant through my heart with a mass of feathers. Honestly, the very nerve of her!
I feel quite restless, and I groan faintly with the realization that Shiro is, of course, waiting at home. Naturally I wouldn’t be so stupid as to carry him through town after going through the trouble of disguising myself so.
Suzune is utterly oblivious to my plight, however, and she even hums a casual tune as she scans the passing storefronts. Her fiendish aura is nearly perfectly concealed; let alone the average passerby, a fiendslayer would have to study her closely to realize she isn’t human. The fact that she can remain so calm and composed is quite unpleasant indeed, but I refrain from voicing my displeasure.
“Fufu, I’ve always wanted to go out on a date like this. What do you think, Kagura-chan?”
“…I’ve hardly left the house save for work, so I’m hardly knowledgeable about such things.”
“So this is your first date too, huh? I’m getting kinda nervous! I never thought I’d ever be able to date someone so cute~!”
“Date this, date that… You do realize we’re here on serious business, don’t you?”
She doesn’t seem the least bit apprehensive, despite the fact we’re hunting for Azelia’s lair. This is why I’d insisted on going alone, but in the end I’d let myself be convinced of the benefits that bringing her along would provide. I’m most certainly not going out with her by choice, simply necessity.
“I know, I know… Ooh, crepes! Wanna try?”
Already I’ve begun to regret that decision. Sighing, I continue to peer down the alleyways we pass.
Most intelligent fiends, including vampires, can use magic and create lairs for themselves. The doors to these interdimensional spaces are often nearly undetectable, but it’s possible to catch a whiff of magic whenever the door is opened or closed. Before going on the run I had spent nearly all my time trying to pick up on such a scent, and now I find myself in the last place I had thought to look, the heart of the city.
Normally lairs are constructed in places with low foot traffic, just as the door to Suzune’s ‘room’ is located in that abandoned building I had attempted to rest in. The closer to the city’s center, the more fiendslayers are typically found about, and to attempt to build a lair in such a place is madness. For precisely that reason I had never thought to search here, blind even to the fact that this is precisely where the werewolves hunt most frequently. I had assumed they hunted here simply because of the amount of prey, but there was evidently another reason.
“So, which do you want?”
“Ah… I’m afraid I’ve never had one before, so I’m not sure…”
“Got it. Let’s go with…”
She picks two flavours, each with sickeningly-sweet names, and pays from a small purse. I watch the exchange for a moment before voicing my confusion.
“Where exactly do you get your money from, Suzune?”
“Ah, I’m actually pretty rich. I sold off a few accessories and antiques and the like that I’ve had kicking around for forever, and apparently they were worth quite a bit. One of the advantages of long life, I guess.”
“I see. The Meiji Restoration, was it?”
“Yeah, probably about then. There used to be a lot more fiendslayers around, so I’ve only been able to enter big cities recently. Before then, I just kinda travelled from village to village. Every once in a while I’d dig a well for the villagers or something, and they’d give me all kinds of stuff in thanks. I pretended to be a goddess quite a bit.”
In broad daylight like this, I’m sure her powers have lessened significantly, but in exchange she doesn’t seem fiendish in the least. Under such circumstances, and especially in more superstitious rural areas, it would be all too easy to see her as a goddess.
Naturally, I know why she had to present herself as a goddess without even hearing it.
“After a while, though, a fiendslayer caught up to me and I almost died, and I spent a long time sleeping that off, so I haven’t spent a whole lot of time actually doing stuff, y’know? I just woke up recently.”
“Recently. Uh, I think it was…”
She stops mid-sentence and furrows her brow, hand to her chin.
“…When was it again?”
“Don’t tell me you’re forgetful in your old age? I wonder what’ll be next?”
“T-That’s a cruel thing to say…”
She pouts her lips in a way that fits the way she appears, certainly not her true age. How shameless. I sigh quietly as the merchant calls out to Suzune.
She pouts her lips in a way that fits the way she appears, certainly not her true age. How shameless. I sigh quietly as the merchant calls out to Suzune.
“How does it taste?”
“…It’s alright, I suppose.”
Precisely as I’d suspected, this ice-cream-filled crepe is sweet as though it had something to prove. It’s not a bad sort of sickening sweetness, per se, and as such I continue to munch away at it as we walk. In fact, I might even say that the combined texture of chocolate ice cream, cream, and crunchy flakes is rather intriguing and provides an unexpectedly deep flavour. Each vein of sweetness intertwines with the others to produce a complex dance of flavour on my tongue, opening up a new world, no, new universe of flavour that I had never before so much as glimpsed at. I suppose that now I can understand why such confections are so popular with the women of the world. Its simplicity and delicacy is deceptively deep, and not only that but it looks incredibly cute as well. I suppose a beautiful genius foodie such as myself can give such a treat a passing grade, though just a passing grade. It’s really not that great, I think as I take another mouthful, then another, then another.
I notice a certain someone’s gaze, however, and I turn to face her with my eyebrows knit in irritation. A grin is plastered across Suzune’s face.
“Nah, it’s just that you’re eating that ‘alright’ crepe with a whole lot of gusto is all.”
“I suppose so. It’s entirely passable, after all. Not bad.”
“…You’re really not very honest, are you?”
“It’s a treat for women and children, after all. This crepe should consider it the greatest honour to receive even a passing mark from me.”
“I think you fall within that target range, but okay.”
She sighs heavily, a defeated tone in her voice. Honestly, how utterly disrespectful. I gulp down the last of the crepe, then fix her with a stern look.
“Listen here. Just who do you think I–”
“Oh, look, taiyaki! Do you wanna try some? It’s nice and sweet~?”
“…Don’t dodge the question. But I would like to try it.”
“Oh? You would, huh?”
“I may as well while we’re here, though I can’t imagine such common food could possibly satisfy my palate.”
With my eyes, I urge Suzune towards the taiyaki stand with all due haste.
“How does it taste?”
“…It’s alright, I suppose.”
The flavour that spreads through my mouth is deceptively delicious, despite its rather simple appearance. The outer pastry has precisely the right degree of crunch while the inner pastry is smooth and bouncy, encasing delightfully sweet red bean paste. If I were to call the crepe I had the emperess of sweets, then this must be the emperor. As it lacks the sugar-saturated punch of the crepe, one might be inclined to say that its flavour is more tame and lacks the same impact. And yet one would be wrong, for the taiyaki has the weapon of its pastry shell. Yes, the consistency of the pastry is like a storm of arrows, nimbly filling the gaps in the shield wall of its sweetness! While one’s attention is distracted by that phalanx in the front, the true threat lurking emerges to strike! Such a flavour clearly differs from the simplicity of the crepe, itself a sunlight charge of white-horsed cavalry! Yes, the taiyaki is indeed a dual-layered trap.
I would indeed be hard-pressed to choose one as superior to the other. To properly appraise the two in any manner would be difficult at this rate, in fact. I might have to stoop to eating them both again in order to properly assess their respective strengths and weaknesses.
As I pop the last of the taiyaki into my mouth, I once again feel a gaze from beside me. Suzune again.
“You’re eating that ‘alright’ taiyaki with a whole lot of gusto is all.”
“I suppose so. It’s entirely passable, after all. Not bad.”
“…You’re really not honest, are you? That’s the second time you’ve said that, and you look ready to have another one right now.”
“I’m not some starved stray, thank you very much. You’re being more rude than usual.”
“You like it, don’t you? Why don’t you just admit it?”
“Passing grade, I said. It’s a treat for women and children, after all. This taiyaki should consider itself–”
“You’re really not honest, are you?”
“There must be something wrong with your head for always suspecting there to be some sort of mysterious hidden depth to my words. I’m simply voicing my honest feelings.”
“Wait, this is my fault!?”
“Whose else could it be? It surely can’t be mine.”
“…Honestly, where do you get all that confidence? I just don’t get it…”
She sighs, taking a bite of her own taiyaki. She casts me a glance out of the corner of her eyes as she suppresses a smile.
“Yep, it’s alright, I guess.”
She grins at me, then holds her taiyaki out so I can take a bite. Mm, yes, very tasty indeed, I nod in self-satisfaction.
“Kagura-chan, look, look!”
How does she have quite so much energy? At the sound of her overly-enthusiastic voice, I sigh for what must be the millionth time today.
“You don’t need to drag me, I can walk on my own.”
Just what am I doing? I wonder as Suzune drags me into yet another shop. First it was street vendors, then cafes, then clothes boutiques… this one seems to be an accessory shop. She must be awfully curious for her to have quite so much energy to waste on them. Even now, she’s scanning the store with glittering eyes as though she’s looking for the excitement surely hidden within its depths.
“…Didn’t you go shopping like this any number of times before this?”
“This can’t be your first time here, can it? Honestly, why must you be quite so enthusiastic?”
“Isn’t it obvious? I’m excited because this is the first time coming here with you!” She beams at me, then puts her index finger to her temple as if deep in thought. ”They also didn’t have too many shops like this until just recently, y’know. They had a few in shopping streets and department stores and the like, but not nearly as many as now. Just like convenience stores.”
“…Convenience stores became common before I was even born, you know. Precisely how long ago are you talking about?”
“Huh? I was talking about last year…”
Her face is rife with confusion. Honestly, I’m the confused one here.
“Just how far in the boonies were you living, precisely? I’ve heard that there’s been at least one every kilometer or so for four or five years now.”
“N-No, I swear that just a little while ago stores like this were…”
We’re over a decade into the 21st century, and yet her brain seems firmly rooted in the 80s. I furrow my brow, and she pouts her lips at me.
“Seriously, I was just a little off…”
“I hardly think you could call such a difference a ‘little’ anything. There’s surely something wrong with your head.”
I sigh. Suzune takes a step closer to me, a peeved look on her face.
“Why do you have to put it so meanly, though?”
“Y… You’re simply talking about such nonsense that I can hardly stomach it.”
I take a step back, regaining our former distance, and her eyes narrow in amusement.
“Fufu, it’s nothing,” she giggles. Is she making fun of me? “More importantly, what do you think of this store? Pretty nice, huh? I get the feeling you’ll find something you like here.”
For the first time, I turn my attention towards the merchandise. An assortment of cute, pudgy mascot-like characters look back at me. All of it seems to cater to women… or rather, teenage girls at the oldest. Most of the customers seem to be girls my age or perhaps a bit younger, and their eyes are full of glee. Suzune’s making fun of me yet again, isn’t she? I turn to glare at her, but she’s already turned her attention towards a nearby display.
“Find something you like, Kagura-chan?”
For a moment I could’ve sworn she grinned at me like a Cheshire cat, but it must’ve been my imagination. How utterly unsettling.
I turn my gaze towards the merchandise. Most of them seem to be odd fluffy creatures, stuffed animals or keychains with disturbingly large eyes, or other utterly bizarre imaginings. Hmm, yes, they are quite soft, it seems. Quite pleasant. I’d say they deserve a passing grade. Not bad at all, I suppose.
I pause for a moment. I might be overthinking this a tad, but I suppose I should take a look around and attempt to ‘fit in’, so to speak. If Suzune really did take me here because she thought I might enjoy it, it would be all too cruel of me to simply do nothing. Yes, too cruel indeed. Even though I don’t have the slightest interest in such things, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to have a look around.
“…There’s no helping it, after all.”
A rack of fluffy keychains quickly catch my eye. They must be for some therapeutic purpose, as they are quite pleasant to the touch. They seem to come in two colours, black and white, as well as in a range of five expressions, yielding a total of ten variations. Ah, I see, how cunning. The manufacturers intend to stimulate the greed and collector’s instincts of young girls such that they’ll attempt to collect the whole set, despite their only faint differences. A profitable business model, I would imagine. I, however, am far too brilliant for such tricks… and yet how could I pick but one? White and black are both wholly respectable colours, and each of the expressions is charming in its own way. After a long moment’s contemplation, I decide to err on the side of caution, pick up a nearby shopping basket from the stack, and put one each of the ten varieties into it before moving onto the next display. Picking just one would be rather heartless, after all, and I can hardly waste the time needed to pick just one. Not only that, but should I waste time in such a manner, they might be sell out and leave me altogether disadvantaged. Logically, to take any less than all of them would be a grave mistake.
A distant display catches my eye. The rabbit corner, it would seem. Stuffed bunnies, pin badges, hairpins… All designed in just the manner that would stimulate the interest of young girls, I see. How clever. I myself could be classified as such, albeit an extraordinarily beautiful example of one. Not to mention, of course, that they’re also essential for my work. I suppose that if I’m going to continue using stuffed rabbits, it would be beneficial, nay, necessary for me to stay current on recent trends. I certainly wouldn’t buy such infantile products for mere pleasure, but shouldn’t I need a few to use as a sample design? I add only the bare minimum number of design references to my basket, but find it overflowing in moments. I suppose it can’t be helped; I retrieve a second basket.
One prize still eludes me, however. I furrow my brow in consternation at a row of thirty-centimeter-tall stuffed rabbits on the top shelf. No other rabbit in this section has the same design. I put down both my baskets at reach up towards it on tiptoe, and yet my hand doesn’t come close to reaching. How dare they have such an Anti-Kagura display! I should sue their consumer center… but before that, I must overcome the hurdle at hand. I try shifting my stance but again, I cannot reach it.
What now? I think for but a moment before inspiration strikes. I smile. Naturally I can’t use magic in the middle of town like this, but there remains a surefire method. Bending my knees greatly, I leap up at it and lo, my fingertips graze a rabbit’s foot. Bit by bit, I manage to nudge the stuffed animal towards myself. If my first strike fails, then all that remains is to persevere until victory is mine. No matter the fortress before me, nothing can stand before a genius such as myself! Such a slight barrier is akin to none at all. After my seventh jump, the rabbit has begun to lean down towards me. Victory is all but assured! I break out into a grin, but then–
“K-Kagura-chan, w-what are you doing…?”
I freeze. I can feel my blood quite literally run cold.
“…Why do you ask?”
“Y-You’re just hopping like a little bunny–”
“Exercise! I decided to do a little aerobics, as I had the time. I’ve begun to fall out of shape as of late, you know.”
Quickly composing myself, I scoop up both my baskets and turn around. Suzune is looking at me as if she had just witnessed the impossible. Her eyes eventually drop to my bounty.
“T-This is only for reference, you see, not, um, anything else…”
She bursts out laughing.
“O-Okay, fufufufu, I get it, don’t worry– hahahahaha!”
She bends over laughing, unable to even stay standing, shoulders positively heaving in jubilation. She takes a moment to compose herself before standing again, a desperately suppressed grin on her face.
“…Y-You’re buying a lot, huh? It’s okay, don’t cry, just give me a moment to get that bunny for you.”
Her words and actions are inexplicably aggravating. One would think she were talking to a little girl on the verge of a tantrum. My embarrassment is quickly overcome by a growing sense of indignation.
“Lookie here, it’s the bunny rabbit you wanted! Hello, Kagura-chan! Don’t cry, I’m your friend! Smiley-smiley!”
Then, with the rabbit plushie in hand, she has the nerve to clumsily dance it about me, the Puppetmaster, in some pitiful attempt to regain my mood.
My mind goes white with rage.
“I-I’m not crying! Don’t treat me like some child, you… you… Idiot!!”
My temper explodes like a volcano, and I yell in a voice louder than anything I’ve used before in my life.
“You’re not still angry, are you, Kagura-chan…?”
“…Of course not.”
“Y-You still sound really angry…” Suzune leans down a little, peering into my face.
“If I say I’m not angry, then I’m not… Only a fool would hold a grudge over such a farce.”
“Really? Okay then, good to hear that’s all resolved~!”
“…Excellent. If only you could say that in a manner that isn’t quite so infuriating.”
“Fufu, don’t get angry over something like that. I wasn’t making fun of you, really, you were just soooo cute I couldn’t help myself, y’know?”
“How wonderful to see you haven’t changed in that respect.”
Shopping bags in both hands rustling, I turn my attention to the surrounding cityscape.
“…Perhaps we played around a tad too much.”
Hours have passed since we started our search, and I have yet to catch so much as a whiff of magic.
Magic emanates from objects and people equally, travelling like faint ripples through a pond. Magic detection, therefore, is akin to tracing said ripples back to their source. Each ripple, whether caused by fish, wind, or other phenomenon, has a different pattern. Telling which ripple came from magic is the key to such work, and if one can determine the correct ‘ripple’, one can trace it back to its source; even in a disturbed pond, after all, the waves grow wider and thinner as they go, belying both direction and distance.
That being said, such work is markedly harder during the day, if only because our opponents scarcely act then. Time alone is plenty enough to wipe out a ‘ripple’, and considering their main activities take place at night, an early morning search would ultimately prove more fruitful. As fiendlsayers operate on the same schedule, however, we have no choice but to operate at such inopportune times. To search at night would be akin to asking for my own capture.
As I consign myself to a long hunt, Suzune whispers at my side.
“…I’m just in your way now, aren’t I?”
There’s a lonely tone in her voice.
“After all you’ve done to me today, I’m shocked you’re realizing that now.”
“Yeah, guess I’m feeling kinda guilty about that. Night or early morning would be a lot better after all, huh?”
I turn away from her slightly.
“…While our search may be more fruitful then, searching at this time is hardly a bad idea, given our current situation. Not ideal, of course, but nothing about these circumstances is… and I refuse, of course, to take back anything I said. I’ll have you accompany me like this from now on as well.”
As soon as the words escape my lips, however, I regret them. I must seem like a child, to be so inconsistent. I can tell she’ll make fun of me yet again. I take a peek back at her.
On Suzune’s face, however, is a look of genuine surprise.
“Come now, I hardly said anything worth being thanked for.”
“No, I just said it because I felt like it. Don’t worry about it.”
She beams at me, and once again I avert my gaze.
We walk for some time without talking. Not that it’s an awkward silence, of course; it’s rather relaxing. A few pure white clouds dot the blue sky, for once not contrasting with the monochrome cityscape but blending together into a single pleasant sight. It feels so foreign to me, and yet it’s the same city I’ve always known. I must be crazy, I think, but just then Suzune addresses me.
“So we’re looking for a vampire, right?”
“Yes, likely the master of the werewolf that attacked you. The local fiendslayers have been hunting her for several years now to little avail.”
“It’s because of her that I’m being hunted in such a manner. It would seem as though she’s made a deal of sorts with one of the branch families.”
“Branch family…? You’re not actually from one of those big, old, fancy houses, are you?”
“I suppose I am, yes. Heard of the Six Families before?”
“Yeah, but… Wouldn’t that mean…?”
“I’m the daughter of one of the top families of the Fiendslayers’ Association, the organization that all but controls the western half of this country… technically speaking, that is.”
“Wow… wait, what do you mean, ‘technically’?”
“The Sakagami are quite focused on maintaining the ‘purity’ of the lineage.”
I draw a single faint strand of golden hair out from beneath my wig.
“I’m afraid that’s how it is. What a bunch of lunatics, to look at a faelike, picturesque young genius such as myself and call her ‘tainted’ or some such nonsense!”
“Honestly, I’m kinda surprised there are still families like that…”
“Yes, truth can indeed be more cruel than fiction.” After saying so, however, a question I’ve long been mulling over comes to mind. “Speaking of which, what precisely are you?”
“You can’t possibly be an ordinary vampire, even if you clearly fall within that general domain.”
“Ah, that’s what you mean. Yeah, I’m a vampire, but putting it like that is kinda misleading, or, uh…” She pauses for a moment before continuing. “…Ever heard of a honeyblood?”
I furrow my brow in thought. Honeybloods are an altogether unique variety of fiend. Sought after by vampires the world over, valued by mages of all stripes as a sort of Philosopher’s Stone, the term refers to fiends that can produce infinite quantities of mana. Supposedly, not only is their blood very sweet, but drinking it blesses the drinker with a surge of mana. I had assumed such creatures to be nothing more than urban legends.
“…As I said, truth can indeed be stranger than fiction. To think they truly exist…”
“Fufu, I’m pretty much one-of-a-kind, I think. I’ve at least never seen anyone else like me.” Her expression turns a shade more somber. “I’m pretty much just a vampire, only I’m a whole lot more efficient at turning blood into mana.”
“More efficient? By how much?”
“…Nah, I guess that’s misleading. It’s like, I can multiply the amount of mana in the blood I drink by several times at least.”
“That’s… That would mean…”
“Yeah, just by having someone with me, I produce literally infinite mana. I suck their blood, amplify its mana, then they drink my blood, rinse and repeat.”
Isn’t that amazing, she laughs.
“That’s not amazing so much as it’s…”
Generally speaking, there are two distinct types of mana, free and bound. The former is, as its name would imply, naturally flowing through the natural world. By controlling it and making that free mana one’s own, the casting of magic becomes possible, and such is the most common type of mana used in magic. The latter, bound mana, exists naturally within organisms and doesn’t require any specific controlling. That being said, it’s difficult to cast magic on bound mana alone. One can think of it in terms of water; free mana is akin to groundwater, extraordinarily vast in volume but unusable as-is. In drawing such water to the surface in the form of wells or the like, it becomes usable, and in much the same way free mana is controlled and channeled into bound mana for use. Without bound mana, a human mage would be unable to cast magic, while a fiend or spirit would cease to exist, as bound mana is in fact the key component of their bodies. Fiends and spirits cannot, however, convert free mana into bound mana on their own, and as such, they require a specific means of replenishing their bound mana. That’s why vampires, for instance, suck human blood, reappropriating a human’s bound mana as their own.
“…Why would you tell me, of all people, such a secret?”
Considering that, Suzune is both a literal fountain of life for fiends, and a reactor for infinite power. A Philosopher’s Stone indeed.
“Fufufu, I wonder?”
“Really, you mustn’t be so careless. Some people would lock you up for life in a heartbeat if you told them that.”
“But I know you won’t.”
“…Aren’t you trusting me a tad too much? You’ve barely known me a month.”
“I don’t think so. I’m a pretty good judge of character, y’know.”
She giggles as she turns to meet my gaze, putting a little more strength into her arm.
“I believe trust is more than just how long you’ve known a person. It’s not irrelevant, of course, but it’s definitely not the most important or only thing.”
“I got a gut feeling that told me I could trust you, so I told you. I might not trust someone else like that, and I might be wrong. No matter how it plays out, though, I won’t have any regrets. I’ve decided to put my faith in you, after all.”
“…I’m afraid I don’t understand what you’re saying in the slightest.”
“Really? I’m not sure I believe that, since we’re here together now.”
“What makes you say that?”
“In our life together up until now, I could’ve killed you any number of times, or at the very least sucked your blood and made you my mind slave.”
“The thought never even crossed your mind, so that means you trust me, right? Though I guess that sounds a little conceited of me, huh…”
Breaking her gaze, I let out a loud sigh.
“How conceited of you indeed. Very conceited.”
“Eh? That wasn’t the reaction I was expecting…”
“Especially the part where you dare to assume what I’m thinking. How truly, despicably conceited of you.” I fidget slightly with my unoccupied hand. “It’s not as though I trusted you or anything. I simply had no other choice given my circumstances, and if not for those circumstances I wouldn’t be here now. That’s all.”
“Hmm… So you’re that determined to deny it, huh?”
“At the very least, I would never put my life in the hands of a stranger on something so ephemeral as trust. It simply wouldn’t make sense.”
“Ah, I get it. Makes perfect sense…”
“Doesn’t it? …!?”
Suddenly I feel a powerful tug on my arm. My eyes fly open, but it takes a few seconds to realize that I’ve been pulled into an alleyway. Suzune’s face is immediately in front of my own. I swallow hard.
“Nah, you were just so defenseless I couldn’t help myself. I am a vampire, y’know, so going on a date with me like this, hand-in-hand and everything could be fatal.”
The shopping bag falls from my hand as a chill runs down my spine. I quickly avert my gaze, but she grabs both my arms and prevents me from turning away. My pulse quickens, my breathing growing steadily more ragged.
“You’re not usually that careless, so I guess that means you trust me, huh? I’m honoured you think so highly of me.”
“Y-You can be awfully mean-spirited at times.”
“Fufu, don’t worry, I think you’ve still got me beat. Don’t you?”
“……Could you let go of me?”
“Want me to let go?”
“As soon as possible.”
She releases my arms, and with tension leaves my body so suddenly I nearly collapse. Before I hit the ground, however, Suzune catches me. My eyes narrow slightly.
“…Still scared to be touched, huh?”
“I’m not scared, I’m simply not accustomed to it. I told you back when we first met, didn’t I?”
“So you don’t like it?”
“…I didn’t say that.”
“Ah, that’s good to hear.”
She giggles, and wrapping her arms further around me, she pulls me into a tight embrace… too tight, in fact. I can feel the air escape my lungs. It’s only a little unpleasant.
“…What exactly are you after?”
“I just wanted to hug you, y’know? Sometimes you’re really just too cute.”
“…Of course I am. There’s no need to state the obvious, pervert.”
I let out a sigh, but this time I can feel my warm breath deflected ever-so-slightly off her shoulder. This… isn’t so unpleasant, I suppose. It’s quite warm and hard to breath, but at the same time, I feel oddly at ease. I close my eyes for a moment, then take a breath and open my mouth.
“You hardly play fair, do you?”
“…You don’t. Fine, I suppose at this rate I have little choice but to admit it. I take back what I said earlier. I do trust you — in moderation, of course. Are you satisfied?”
“Yep! I wish you’d just be honest next time, though.”
Even if it’s the truth, I could hardly be expected to say something so embarrassing, could I?
“What I said before was also perfectly truthful. I wasn’t lying.”
“The way you said it made it seem like the opposite, though. I think that’s one of your worst habits. You should just accept thanks when someone’s offering it, y’know? I don’t get why you have to purposefully… Wait, you weren’t embarrassed, were you?”
“…That’s none of your concern. And stop trying to probe my thoughts like that, it’s quite unpleasant indeed.”
I sigh, and once again she giggles happily.
“Fufu, I really love the way you act so mature but you’re so clumsy when it comes to stuff like this. You act all high and mighty, like you want nothing to do with anyone, but you’re actually just really pure-hearted. It’s really cute.”
“There you go again, making ridiculous assumptions. You must surely be delusional.”
“I’m not trying to insult you or anything. I do think I’m hitting pretty close to the mark, though. I bet you’re just saying whatever you can so that you don’t have to honestly admit it.”
Suzune nods in an irritatingly self-satisfied way before letting me go. The pressure leaves my lungs, and I begin to regain my composure.
“…You’re toying with me, aren’t you?”
“Fufu, I’ll take that as a compliment! I mean, don’t you think life would be boring if you always look for the worst in people’s words? I believe that conversation is meant to be fun, and that words are meant to be interpreted in the way that suits you best. Don’t you agree?”
Her words positively ooze with confidence.
“How utterly idiotic. What you suggest goes far beyond an extreme interpretation. Reality is reality, and words are words. What matters is the other person’s true intent, not what would suit you best. If you read a person incorrectly in such a matter, you’ll be blissfully ignorant for the moment, perhaps, but past that? I shudder to think.”
“Yeah, you might be right. But happiness is something you can only feel inside yourself, y’know? Besides, sometimes not even the person talking knows what they really mean. So isn’t it better to interpret their words and actions in the way that makes you the happiest? Nobody said happiness and the truth are the same thing, after all.”
That’s nonsense, I want to say, and yet the proper words to deny it elude me. My arguments fade away before I can properly form them.
“Honestly,” Suzune continues, “I don’t know if you’re actually a nice person or not. I’ll probably never know. I’m no mind reader. Fufu, but I am really happy I got to meet some as wonderful as you, and because I believe you’re wonderful, I’ll trust you. That’s what suits me best, and that’s what makes me happiest.”
A smile still on her lips, she takes my hand and plants a kiss on it. I flinch backwards, half out of surprise and half ticklishness.
I feel as though there may in fact be some truth in her words, or at least what she perceives to be the truth. Her words may be dreadfully unpleasant, but not overtly strange, I suppose. I furrow my brow and sigh as I search for the correct words to convey my irritation.
“…I’ve thought this since the day we met, but you truly are a fool.”
“That’s a pretty straight pitch… I get the feeling, though, that I’ve seen the real you.”
“Well, isn’t that marvelous? I would love to have another, equally non-irritating conversation with you again sometime.”
“Really? I’m getting special treatment, am I? I think I’m kinda happy.”
“…You really are an utter fool.”
Honestly, what’s so funny? I turn away, fixing her giggling face with a cool sidelong look.
I let out a heavy sigh, then look to the heavens. Sunset can’t be far, and with it werewolves and fiendslayers alike will emerge. The most dangerous, yet potentially most telling, part of the day. Well, then, what should we do?
I shake my head. The answer is obvious. I can’t possibly do anything that would endanger Suzune. Besides, there’s hardly any point in rushing things this late in the game. Yes, I’ll continue to lay low so as to convince my pursuers that I’ve left the city altogether. It’ll be more effective that way when I do make my move. I have a hideout and company, albeit dull-witted company, and as such I should have little difficulty in passing time — though I’m sure I shouldn’t enjoy it, of course.
Suddenly I feel a gaze, and turning to its source I find Suzune looking at me with a mischievous grin.
“Fufu, I was just trying to imagine what you’re thinking about. You’ve got a huuuge smile on your face… you weren’t thinking about me, were you?”
I unwittingly put a hand to my face, and Suzune’s grin grows even wider. I daresay there’s even an unwholesome shade to it now. I furrow my brow and glare at her. That was a trick, wasn’t it?
“So you were thinking about me.”
“…I won’t stop you from having whatever delusions you like. That’s what makes you happiest, isn’t it?”
“Fufufu, in that case, I’ll think whatever I want about you, and I won’t even tell you about it.”
I sharply look away and cross my arms. Why must that smile of hers be so, so aggravating!? I would love to simply leave her here, and yet I can’t have her thinking I’m some moody little girl. I rack my brains for some smarter way to go about it, but quickly lose interest and let out my displease in the form of an exaggerated sigh. With a shake of my head, I pick up my fallen shopping bag.
“……Hahh. Say what you will, but let’s head home for the night. I can’t relax in an alley like this.”
“What, you’re heart’s going all pitter-pat?”
“You never know when to shut up, do you? Perhaps I should sew your lips shut?”
“Sorry, it’s in my nature.”
I must’ve sighed hundreds of times today, and yet the smile on Suzune’s face makes me feel like sighing yet again. She is honestly and truly the most utterly unpleasant woman I’ve ever met in my life, and yet…
“Hm? What is it?”
I begin to see something else in her face, but I shake my head and turn away from her.
“Nothing. Nothing at all.”
Without turning back again, I stride off.