Chapter 6: The Puppetmaster’s Show

I have Suzune. If you ever want to see her again, come to the palace alone.

When I wake up, I find that memo left outside the door. The message is simply enough as to leave no doubts as to its meaning. 

Suzune has been abducted, that much is clear — but why? How did they know of her, and why abduct her, of all people? The answer is obvious. From the beginning, Suzune had ties to Azelia. I don’t know how she was manipulated, but it would be fair to assume that she was nothing more than Azelia’s pawn from the very beginning. She can’t have collaborated consciously or of her own will; if she had, she surely would have tried to bite and control me.

N-No, I swear that just a little while ago stores like this were…

Thinking back, there were plenty of points I should’ve been more suspicious of. I had assumed that she honestly had forgotten a number of things, and that she was unfamiliar with convenience stores and the like simply because she spent so much time away from major cities. But if parts of her memory were specifically erased–

“Her making contact with me must have been planned from the very beginning.”

That much is almost certain. In which case, this note is likely… no, not likely. This is definitely a trap.

Somehow, the individual behind this must have been watching us all along. In which case, they must be expecting me to dash to her rescue. If Azelia is waiting there alone, I might stand a chance, but if Kuzuha puppeteers happen to be lying in wait then I would be as good as dead.

I pull out my cellphone and check the call history. The only name that appears there is Kazumasa’s; I’ve never called nor been called by anyone else. My finger hovers above the call button.

Wait. The note said ‘alone,’ didn’t it? I bite my lip and squeeze Shiro, letting the device clatter to the floor. I must be an idiot. This can’t be possible. Utter madness. She’s a fiend, not even a human, and after this whole affair is over and dealt with, I’ll never see her again. It shouldn’t matter to me whether she lives or dies. Haven’t I always lived by my own code, made my own decisions? Where there is reason, obligation is all but irrelevant, and where there is obligation, reason is ignored by necessity. Why should I not pour my all, my everything into serving Sensei’s memory?

“All I want for you, Kagura, is to come to love yourself. You’re not as bad or selfish as you claim to be. You’re considerate, thoughtful, and loveable, but most of all you’re my granddaughter, and I’ll always love you.”

“I’m not considerate, though. Nor am I thoughtful or lovable.”

“I can only imagine how you must feel. Please, hear out my last request. It doesn’t matter if it starts as a lie, but just talking better of yourself and trying to believe you can open up your world in ways you wouldn’t believe.”

“Sensei…”

“Won’t you love yourself, think of your own happiness, and live the way you want to?”

I turn my gaze to the mirror in the corner of my room and study myself for a moment before sighing.

“…My happiness? I haven’t been happy since you left.”

I rub Shiro’s cheek with my own. Happiness is make-believe, an illusion, something that lives in memories and not among the living. No matter how much I love myself or compliment myself, my work doesn’t change. Claiming to love myself is nothing more than changing the way I dance on my strings. Sensei couldn’t have wished such a fate upon me.

“I suppose I’m worthless after all, aren’t I? Shiro is more considerate than I could even be.”

I smile down at Shiro. He twists around to meet my gaze, then pops out of my arms and onto my shoulder.

“Shiro…?”

He can’t respond, naturally. He simply reaches out and gently pats me on the head. Even a puppet takes pity on me — it’s almost too humorous to laugh.

I slowly close my eyes, and Suzune’s smiling face appears.

“What exactly am I to do now? To think I would falter over such a trivial thing… I know full well that I shouldn’t do it.”

Shiro jumps down to the floor and looks up at me. He waves his arm, and with a shuffle, a musketeer rabbit crawls out of my skirt. It aims its weapon at the discarded cell phone, eyes on Shiro as it awaits orders. Shiro, in turn, gives me an expectant look.

My breath catches. It’s very clear what exactly he’s proposing I do. It’s the last thing I should do. Ah, but if Sensei were here, he’d likely tell me the same thing. I chuckle.

“…Be my guest, Shiro. Deep down, that’s precisely what I want.”

A loud blast rings out and shards of plastic scatter across the floor. Shiro folds an arm in front of himself and bows deeply, like a gentleman from an old movie.

“Hehe. You truly seem too human at times, Shiro.”

It’s official, there’s no going back now. I know I’ll be walking into a trap. This likely isn’t the right thing to do, nor is it the most sensible. In fact, it’s simply idiotic. But to begin with, I fight with mere toys, relying on the unexpected and the foolish to bring me victory. I always make the absolute best use of my resources to win even drawn-out battles with relative ease. As I am, I should be able to defeat Azelia alone, but I shouldn’t stand a chance if there were Kuzuha puppeteers present. It comes down to chance, then, and the odds aren’t in my favour. 

I smile, picking up Shiro once again. I was supposed to have lost any attachment to my life I might have had a long time ago. It had been so, so long since my life had so much as a spark of joy. I feigned life and spouted meaningless nonsense, without changing a bit all the while. Only after meeting Suzune had that begun to change.

“Not that I’m at all fond of her, of course. I’ve never met anyone so unpleasant in my life.”

I couldn’t care less, and yet, I can’t seem to make up my mind about her. I suppose that I am at least obliged to save her life. Yes, that would be the most human thing to do, and without doing something different, I can’t expect my life to ever be different. Maybe if I do such things enough, my life will finally fall under my own control?

Won’t you love yourself, think of your own happiness, and live the way you want to?

I stopped being happy when Sensei passed away, at the very least. I still don’t know precisely what he expected of me, but I suppose what I need most now is the courage to throw the dice and take my chances. No matter the result, I will have at least taken the first step to change.

I nod to myself, take a deep breath, and turn my eyes to the front door.

“Well then, Shiro. I believe it’s high time we leave things to Lady Luck.”

I twist my lips into the shape of a smile.

The source of Azelia’s magic signature is the first floor of the multipurpose building, third door from the entrance. Two distinct charms are engraved on the door, one for the interdimensional space within, the other a simple hypnotic charm for compelling anyone who passes it to enter. There’s no lock, magical or otherwise. A simple glance from any fiendslayer could discern such blatant magic. 

I sigh as I open the door. Honestly, to think I, of all people, should be waltzing into such a trap. Azelia is no doubt waiting there with a knife to Suzune’s throat or some such, eager to spin the situation to her advantage. It would take an idiot of legendary proportions to enter unprepared. I of course do have a plan, technically speaking. All I have to do is hope the Kuzuha stay well out of the way. All it would take is the slightest opening to flee and all should go smoothly.

Inside the lair is a massive hall, the sort that would appear in a Western fairy tale. The walls are decorated with all manner of opulent designs while a lush red carpet covers the floor, extending down twin corridors in the far wall. Above is a mezzanine floor, a half-floor sort of gallery. At the far end of the room is a raised platform, on which sits a luxuriously-fashioned chair. Azelia is naturally seated there, chin propped up on her elbow. There’s a somewhat perplexed hue to her languid expression.

“Oh, my. I never expected you to simply walk in the front door like this.”

“Only a thief would take the back door when visiting someone’s home.”

“Yes, but…” Her brows furrow, and she cocks her head to the side quizzically. “Why are you here, exactly? I can’t imagine what you could be after.”

“…? I’ve come for Suzune, naturally.”

“Ah, yes, Suzune. What have you done with the girl, I wonder?”

Now it’s my turn to furrow my brow. Who does she think she’s fooling, after leaving that note? She could be attempting to throw me off my guard… but no, something is definitely off.

“I see,” Azelia smirks, as if it suddenly dawned on her. “It appears we’re being toyed with, the both of us.”

“…So it’d seem. Well, then, it was a pleasure talking with you. I’ll take my leave now.”

I turn around to leave, only to watch the door from whence I’d came swing shut with a soft thud. I let out a small sigh. Of course it couldn’t be so easy.

“Did you think I’d let you simply walk out, hm?”

“I hadn’t, in fact. What a relief to see you’re just as foolish as I’d assumed.”

“Oh, my. You wouldn’t be making fun of me, would you?”

“You can’t tell? The inside of your brain must be a very… simple place to live.”

Azelia lets out a displeased snort of laughter. 

“You’re quite the unpleasant human, aren’t you? You’re quite good at feigning bravado. From what I’d seen through Suzune’s eyes, I’d taken you for a weak-willed little coward.”

“Hehe, I’m quite good at controlling my own mannerisms. Watching through Suzune, where you? I’d suspected you’d put such a charm on her.”

“Hm. I’ll have you know that up until a few hours ago, I was considering how I’d kidnap her myself.”

“Let her slip through your fingers, I see… and you call yourself a vampire.”

“I’m so grateful you were keeping an attentive eye on her I could cry. Assumed that I stole her, did you?”

“I did, in fact. The architect behind this trap must be quite cunning to ensnare a genius such as myself.”

But who could it be? It could well be the Kuzuha, if they intend to dispose of myself and Azelia together. That would make sense — the scandal would be enough to bring down the Sakagami and they would remove any chance of Azelia betraying them in the future. Not a bad plan… not bad, but they can’t be quite so stupid. In exchange for safe hunting grounds, she’s likely putting her werewolves to work as assassins or the like for their sakes. No, she certainly has the skills to be invaluable to them behind the scenes for years to come. Not only that, but a cunning vampiress like Azelia couldn’t be fooled so easily. They must be telling her something about my and Suzune’s positions, and I can’t imagine they’d be competent enough or Azelia negligent enough for Suzune to suddenly ‘disappear’.

That leaves a single suspect, and yet I cannot fathom his aim. If Kazumasa truly is responsible for this, then why kidnap her? Why not simply kill the lot of us? He should have the strength, authority, and knowledge to do so with ease.

“Do you have any thoughts as to who could be the culprit?” I ask. “One of the Kuzuha, perhaps?”

“Ha, as if they could make such a move without my knowing. I have eyes and ears everywhere.”

“I would imagine so. As an aside, might I ask what precisely you have to gain from cooperating with them now? Consider this my last request.”

“You shouldn’t say what you don’t mean, human. Oh well, I’ll tell you. You won’t be dying anytime soon, I can assure you, but I suppose your fate won’t be too different.”

“Oh, how very generous of you. I always knew you were such a wonderful vampire.”

“…You’re so annoying I might just decide to kill you after all.”

“Hehe, you wouldn’t be the first to tell me that. You were saying?”

Azelia glares at me for a moment before letting out a resigned sigh.

“I kept Suzune here for a while… in a lunch-slash-pet way, of course.”

“I had suspected as much.”

“I’m glad you’re quick on the uptake. The problem was, however, that the girl refused to drink so much as a drop of blood. A honeyblood who doesn’t suck blood is practically worthless, you know. I tried all sorts of things to… persuade her while directly implanting her with mana.”

“Persuade her how, exactly?”

“Oh, you know. I’d put a child or a cat in with her and then threaten to kill it or torture it, and from time to time I’d let the werewolves play with her… I also tortured her directly, of course. But no matter what I did, she just kept refusing blood.”

My skin gets goosebumps, and I can feel my blood chill. My heart throbs loudly in my chest.

“She’d fallen into despair, it seemed, and was determined to die. That’s why I decided to try a slightly different tactic. I erased part of her memories, let her get close to someone in the outside world of her own ‘free will’, and I was just about to take that certain someone hostage. I’m referring to you, of course. The Kuzuha have been after your neck for some time now, and I thought it couldn’t hurt to have a strong little pawn like you as my thrall. I could use Suzune as a hostage against you, and you as a hostage against her. I was pretty proud of that plan, too…”

Things have gotten a little out of hand, she remarks with an irritating chuckle. As if she were talking about what she ate for dinner last night. As if she couldn’t bring herself to care if she tried.

Normally, when one is overly repulsed, they feel infuriated or indignant, their disgust manifesting as rage. And yet, I feel perfectly calm, even colder and more rational than usual. My expression doesn’t change a hair as I let out a slow breath and rearrange Shiro in my arms.

“I see. Thanks to you, everything is clear now.”

“I’m glad I could help.”

“Hehehe… I suppose this is another first.”

“What is?”

“Never in my life have I wanted to kill anyone so badly. I’m surprised I even had this emotion.”

I smile, taking several more slow, silent breaths. What I need now is to calmly and coolly analyze how I’m going to wipe her off the face of the earth. Puppeteers don’t need emotions, all they need is to claim the head of their enemy. I need to focus on that.

“Wake up,” I whisper into Shiro’s ear before re-fixing my gaze on Azelia.

“You’re awfully courageous for a human. You think you alone stand a chance against me, with all my werewolves?”

“Of course. You wouldn’t be stupid enough to use a flamethrower to kill a mosquito, would you? All you need are a healthy body and a pair of hands.”

“…You really think I’m that weak, human?”

“Of course not. I know you’re that weak.”

I give her a pitying smile. My body language, my words, everything I possess is a tool to throw her off balance. Calmly, carefully, I tug her thoughts and feelings right where I want them.

“Fine, I’ll play with you. I don’t hate disobedient little things like you. It’s all the more satisfying to break in the defiant ones, after all.”

She’s still composed enough to reply calmly. She’s not angry enough for her emotions to affect her in combat, then.

“‘Break in’, you said? I don’t remember ever becoming your pet.”

Not enough. Just words won’t be enough to push this woman over the brink.

“Of course not, it hasn’t happened yet. That’s something for you to look forward to.”

Azelia snaps her fingers, and as if they were waiting for her signal, werewolves begin streaming into the room from the surrounding doors and back hallways. In total, I count twenty-three of them. Not even I stand much of a chance in a fair fight against such odds. She must know that, of course, hence her composure even now.

“I think I’ll let these wolves play with you first thing after you’re mine. Even that cocky mouth of yours would get pretty tame after a year of reeducation, hm?”

“I daresay you’re getting ahead of yourself. Don’t speak as though you’ve already won… and you think I’d break after only a year? Please.”

If I can’t win a fair fight, then all I have to do is make this an unfair fight. I sweep my gaze over the werewolves; even when their mistress is insulted before their eyes, they don’t seem the slightest bit fazed. They’re tamed dogs in the truest sense, not at all like the werewolf I’d saved Suzune from back then. They have no will, no sense of self-determination, more puppet than puppy — just like the ones that were with Azelia in the alley that night.

“My, you’re confident. You don’t honestly believe you have a fighting chance, do you?”

She must be as good as she says at taming people. In a sense, she herself is a puppeteer —  and precisely because of that, I have a chance.

“Of course. Everything in life has a sort of reason to it; it has a beginning, passes through the middle, and arrives at its final curtain. There is no chance, no luck, only the inevitable march towards the end. If one can simply perceive that flow, all of reality opens, and one can become Laplace’s demon.”

“So you think you know how our fight is going to end, hm?”

“Yes. Meeting me here has only sealed your fate.”

Circumstances are everything, I say with a small smile and a flourish of Thread. Sound suddenly fills the air.

“I’ve found that the outcome of a fight depends entirely on one’s preparation. The fight itself is child’s play.”

Six musketeer rabbits emerge in unison. Six gunshots. Six werewolves fall lifelessly to the ground. Nothing is so classic, so satisfying as a surprise attack. 

“You uppity little runt…!”

“Hehe, don’t think I’m not playing fair, now. An underdog could never win by playing ‘fair’. Strategy is all about how to twist the rules of the game in one’s own favour, and skill is merely a means to that end. To that end, there’s no such thing as a ‘fair’ fight. The sheer number of your war dogs makes it clear you couldn’t care about ‘fairness’ yourself.”

I flick my fingers again, and another six musketeer rabbits pop out of my dress and slay another six werewolves.

“Wh-What are you doing!? Dodge, you imbeciles!”

Azelia finally comes back to her senses, and the werewolves disperse somewhat, now alert to incoming fire.

Just as planned. My musketeers form two lines of six each, and a third line emerges from my skirt to open fire. The werewolves are no longer sitting ducks, and this time only two rabbits slay their marks. With that, only nine werewolves remain. Finally, odds my rabbits can manage.

I call out twenty-seven hatchet rabbits and eighteen shield rabbits, creating a squad of five rabbits per werewolf. Now I simply need to offer general orders and they’ll move as I please. Even if each rabbit is weak and somewhat simple in its fighting style, in groups of five, they prove far greater threats. My head has already begun to hurt from the drain on my mana reserves, but it’s nothing I can’t handle, and nothing that should interfere with this fight.

“In the blink on an eye, the odds have suddenly evened. Hehe, what do you think?”

The first rank of musketeers finishes reloading and takes aim at Azelia. Each rabbit takes twelve seconds from firing to clean and reload. By thus having three lines fire and reload in rotation, it’s possible to have six rabbits fire every four seconds or so. This is not only essential for maintaining the quality of each mana bullet fired, but I also have a little trap incorporated into the pattern — every four seconds, Azelia is presented with an opening.

As soon as Azelia realizes that opening, the fight will be over.

Azelia dodges all six bullets with ease and glares at me.

“…You’re getting ahead of yourself, human. I still have the advantage.”

“Yes, I suppose you could misread the situation like that.”

“You uppity little runt…!”

The second rank fires, and as Azelia dodges she calls out to her dogs.

“Encirclement formation!”

The werewolves begin to move to surround me, even while defending against my rabbits’ attacks. One of them breaks free and leaps at me, claws outstretched, and I leap to the side to dodge. The very sight of the massive gash in the carpet where I had been a split-second before prompts me to break out in a cold sweat. Even if they are rather insignificant opponents on their own, a single strike could be the end. If my rabbits make even the slightest mistake, my life would be forfeit.

I take a deep breath and reassess the situation. Azelia’s order must have been a source of distraction for the wolves, as two more have been slain since then. I have the upper hand, and one look at Azelia’s face tells me she’s rather irritated. My smile deepens as I reposition the rabbits who have already slain their marks. No matter how she might try to regain her calm, once her emotions emerge, all her decisions from here on out will be affected. My surprise attack must have worked as well as I’d hoped. The more desperately she wishes to win against me, the less self-control she has.

Azelia takes some distance, then pulses visibly with mana as she wraps her body in magic. Her blood is likely hardening into armor, and her nails grow into scythelike blades. I can feel the sheer pressure of her physical-enhancement spell from here.

“It’s been forever since I’ve used so much mana at once. Consider this an honour.”

“Hehe. Even if a mosquito becomes a horsefly, it only succeeds in becoming more unpleasant. I couldn’t consider it an honour if I tried.”

If I simply consider this as a sign of her anger towards me, however, I won’t so much as bat an eye.

“…You really are an aggravating little human, aren’t you? I’m so looking forward to what comes next.”

She licks her lips, clearly anticipating her own victory. Then, she nimbly evades the attacks of the third rank of musketeer rabbits as though she knew it was coming

“Fufu, I can see right through your sad little attacks!”

With those words, my victory is all but assured. It looks like she fell for my little trick, hook, line, and sinker. I narrow my eyes slightly.

Anyone with a brain would realize the four-second delay between firing, and naturally, they would time their attack in accordance. Without even realizing it, she’s bound herself to my four-second rule. Now that she’s surrendered even the timing of her attack to me, her defeat is all but assured. The werewolves have likewise dwindled down to only six, and the rabbits have the upper hand. If nothing else, they pose no threat to me now. All I have to do is lie in wait for Azelia’s attack.

“I’m sorry to say that you’ll never have the pleasure of ‘breaking me in’.”

“Act confident while you still can…!”

She’s about fifteen meters away from me, and seven from the first rank of musketeer rabbits. I call out three more hatchet rabbits and two more musketeers, prompting them all to attack immediately. One deft swipe of Azelia’s claws rips all three hatchet rabbits in half, and after dodging the two bullets she sprints towards me. The first rank of musketeers finish loading, take aim, and fire. A few bullets graze her without landing direct hits, and one wild slash causes four rabbits to fade away. Ignoring the remaining two, she keeps running, building more speed. She must have decided the last two were harmless, believing the fight will be over within the next twelve seconds.

My grin widens ever so slightly. She earned herself the time to cut through the second rank, which isn’t incorrect, per se. It simply isn’t correct, either. Two nimble swipes wipe out the second rank, but before she can make it any further, thirteen newly-summoned shield rabbits block her path. How will she react, I wonder? Try to break through, or attempt to avoid them?

“Ah, you’re the cowardly type of vampire, I see.”

She leaps to the side and moves to circle around them altogether.

“I’m not the coward who has to rely on little bunnies to box people in!”

The third rank of musketeers pull their triggers. The distance between her and I is a mere five meters now. Faint scratches from mana bullets cover her head to toe, but in her grin there is no fear.

“You’ve lost, Puppetmaster!”

She snaps her fingers, and the werewolves snap to attention. All at once they ignore the rabbits and leap towards me. Azelia, in concert with their attack, lowers her body as close to the ground as she can manage, further streamlining her body and increasing her speed once more. The last rank of musketeers can’t fire for another two seconds, and armed with that knowledge, she believes herself invincible. There’s not a doubt in her mind that she can reach me before they fire, and faster than I can call out any more rabbits. I widen my eyes and drop my jaw in ‘shock’. He grin twists into a jubilant smirk.

“This is the end!!”

And with that–

“You’re right. This is the end.”

–smile still plastered across her face, two bullets carve holes through Azelia’s gut.

I cast Azelia a sidelong glance as she lies twitching on the ground. Three more musketeer rabbits pop out of my rabbits to clean up the remaining werewolves.

What dealt her that mortal blow was the two surviving rabbits in the first rank and their real bullets.

“Hehe, from beginning to end, all perfectly according to plan. You were awfully easy to read.”

The surprise is now totally gone from my expression as I grin triumphantly at the defeated vampiress.

“My musketeer rabbits usually use mana bullets, and roughly twelve seconds are required to maintain the quality of each bullet, precisely as you had predicted. It can be rather inconvenient, but there are good reasons for not giving them all real bullets.”

I count the reasons off on my fingers.

“One, I don’t have the money for so many bullets. Two, I don’t have an abundance of mana, so to speak, so I can’t afford to have my rabbits fire at random. If I’m not conservative, both my mana reserves and my wallet could become empty overnight. The third reason, however, is that it’s the perfect trick to ensnare ‘clever’ fiends such as yourself.” I chuckle. “I give a few of them real bullets just for those who would aim for such an obvious weak point. It takes but a little effort to add an undetectable firing mechanism for a real bullet, and then to mix such musketeers in with the others.”

The real bullets, of course, aren’t bound by the twelve-second rule. As Azelia hadn’t accounted for that possibility, however, she showed her back to her enemy and lost. She lacks the energy she possessed mere moments before, simply writhing on the ground and hacking up blood. She moans loudly in pain. Naturally, I had used silver bullets; silver is poison to fiends, and a wound left by said metal can’t be healed easily. In other words, the vampiress has finally met her unsightly end.

“This, I believe, is curtains. Hehe, a truly pitiful end for a truly pitiful fiend.”

One last musketeer rabbit emerges from my skirt.

I let out a deep sigh as I watch Azelia’s corpse turn to ash. I’d used entirely too much mana, mainly in having so many musketeers fire in such a short period of time. My limbs feel leaden, but I suppose I shouldn’t expect any less from fighting such a powerful vampire. To be depleted to this extent, however, could only be attributed to my own weak constitution. I suppose I have room for improvement still, I think with a chuckle.

I stand to my feet, my legs quivering slightly, when–

“…I suppose I should’ve expected as much from a fiend. In the end, one should always have a backup plan.”

A sound like a million panes of glass shattering rings out, and in the midst of that cacophony, an aged voice rings out. The mana in the air instantly morphs and shifts, changing from Azelia’s to someone else’s entirely.

I whip around to find an old man standing between me and the exit.

“Father Kuzuha…”

“It’s certainly been a while, hasn’t it, Puppetmaster-dono? You look well.”

Not even a full second passes after the breaking of Azelia’s barrier before Father Kuzuha casts his own over the space. Such barrier encroachment is a basic fiendslayer trick. He’s clad in a black ritual cloak, the type that is reserved for battles with particularly powerful fiends. Clearly, he came prepared for a fight. I suppose there’s plenty enough pretext for such attire, given that this is a vampire’s lair.

“Kuku, no, I suppose I should call you former Puppetmaster. This lair is surrounded by my men. You understand what that means, don’t you?”

“I suppose I should have suspected as much.”

Naturally he should have a fair number of Kuzuha puppeteers in the wings, but regrettably, I’m all but depleted as-is. Entering this lair expecting a trap and having my fate sealed by precisely that trap… I couldn’t meet a more foolish end.

“Your timing is impeccable, Father Kuzuha. You should have taken your time in coming here, stopped to smell the roses perhaps.”

“I may be old, but I’m not senile enough to let my prey escape so easily. I had security cameras installed by the entrance, the perfect trap for ensnaring idiots like you who can only think of magical defense measures.”

“Hehehe. Lesson learned. I’ll note that for future reference.”

It’s too early to give up now. Only death awaits be within the bounds of this lair, but there must be some weak point in this barrier which I can ease open enough to escape. Or no, Kuzuha’s barrier isn’t even finished; if I were to escape, the time would be now. Alternatively, I might still stand a chance through the main entrance. Against one old coot I might be able to force my way out, and with luck I could escape from there. My odds aren’t bad, per se, in either case, but I would have to commit to one method or the other, and if any other puppeteers were to interfere, it would be game over then and there. Well then, which should I choose?

“Kuku, don’t be so confident, child. Really, what a pity that the youngest Puppetmaster in history should meet such an early end!”

I think for a moment before making a critical realization. I narrow my eyes slightly.

“I suppose that one way or another, what you say is true. You’ll never meet another Puppetmaster with genius like mine.”

I see… Honestly, what nonsense. The more I think, the more farce-like this entire situation becomes.

“Assuming, of course, that a man of your age could become head of the family.”

Altogether too foolish, too idiotic, a mockery of an ending.

“Such impudence! You remind me of your uncle in the worst way.”

“Don’t talk like that, dinosaur,” a voice from behind Father Kuzuha says. The owner of said voice wheels himself forwards, a cigar clamped in his teeth. “Putting me together with that brat… What an insult.”

“Y-You… What are you–!?”

Father Kuzuha whips around to face Kazumasa, but he never finishes his sentence.

“You should know why I’m here, you old codger.”

The old man’s head slips from his shoulders and falls to the ground, bouncing slightly. A geyser of blood sprays out from his stump of a neck.

“Hmph. That’s the end of your little game.”

From a third party’s perspective, it must have seemed as though Father Kuzuha’s head simply detached itself. Even I, knowing what would happen and anticipating it, couldn’t follow the action with my eyes. The attacker was the karakuri at Kazumasa’s side. It seems nearly human in appearance, clad in a red kimono with long, black hair. A hannya mask covers its face, and at its side is a glistening silver blade. Kuzuha’s blood splatters against the kimono, dying it an ever-deeper crimson as it stands there, unaffected.

“…Ouka Shouki.”

The hidden treasure and heirloom weapon of the Sakagami Family, a piece of work that stands head and shoulders above all other karakuri. I’ve never laid eyes on it before, but I can still identify it at a glance.

This is no ordinary karakuri.

“…What a pleasant surprise, dearest uncle.”

I suppress my unease. I shan’t give him that satisfaction, at least.

“It’s been what, a month?” he says. “Not that I wanted to ever see you again, girl.”

“What a coincidence. I feel the exact same.”

“Keke, you really are an ungrateful little brat, aren’t you?”

With a flourish of Thread, he flings Father Kuzuha’s remains into a far corner of the room with a wet thud. The sight of the sheer purity and power of those strands is enough to send a small shiver down my spine. Thread is a greatest indicator of a puppeteer’s magic power, and even from that glance I can tell just how strong he is. Even among the Sakagami proper, his skills are monstrous. In a competition of raw strength, I wouldn’t stand a chance.

“So what precisely are you plotting, dearest uncle? Surely there must be a reason for this intricate plot you’ve spun.”

“What, you still can’t tell? This is your ordeal.”

He gestures, and Saeki emerges from behind him. At the lanky man’s side is Suzune, mouth gagged and wrists tied. Regrettably, I had suspected as much.

“I’m disappointed in you, girl. I didn’t think you’d really be stupid enough to come here alone, waltzing right into such a trap. Did playing make-believe with your little friend here make you stupid? If you’ve got some excuse for yourself, then go ahead and peep away like the irritating little chick you are.”

“Unfortunately, I can hardly explain myself. It was rather foolish of me, after all.”

He lets out a disappointed sigh before putting a hand to his forehead and glaring at me. I squeeze Shiro to my chest, but hold firm without breaking his gaze.

“This is where you atone for your mistakes, girl. Prove you’re still a fiendslayer I can trust. I think this irritating little stray has lived long enough, don’t you? That’s your job, isn’t it?”

To nod and agree would be the right thing to do. To shake my head would be a grave mistake. Even a child should know that much, and yet I cannot bring myself to do either, simply standing there blankly.

“…I can’t.”

After a long moment of internal conflict, my feelings emerge. Kazumasa furrows his brow, his look growing sharper still.

“I must’ve misheard you. Maybe it was just the wind. Say that again, why don’t you?”

“…I won’t.”

“You won’t… You won’t, you say!?”

His serious expression instantly fades and he begins to howl with laughter, slapping his knees, clutching his gut, nearly spilling out of his wheelchair.

“–Did you hear that, Saeki? Didn’t I tell you? Kekeke, the girl’s got flowers in her head!”

Saeki says nothing, only letting out a faint sigh.

“This isn’t like you girl!” Kazumasa cackles. “I never thought you’d become one for jokes! It must be a miracle! What’s next, hell freezing over?”

“………”

“You really like this stray mutt, don’t you? Keke, I thought you seemed awfully cold to the boys your age. Didn’t know you swung that way, girl. Father must be rolling over in his grave.”

“You truly are–”

“Kekeke, though I suppose that means you’ve finally begun to act a little more human. What a pleasant development, don’t you think?”

Still smirking, he casts a glance at Suzune. Her shoulders jolt, as if out of fear, and her gaze drops.

“…What precisely are you planning to do to Suzune?”

“What, I can’t worry about my little niece? What decent uncle wouldn’t be worried to hear his kin’s been fraternizing with a fiend? What other excuse could I need?”

“If it weren’t you talking, and if you weren’t addressing me, then I suppose that would be plenty enough reason.”

I glare at him, but he only chuckles mockingly. And yet for some reason, today his attitude feels somewhat…

“Keke, let me rephrase that, then. I’m not generous enough to give away one of my toys for free, even a broken one. And what fiendslayer could forgive a fiend so easily? There, what about that excuse?”

How truly unfortunate that I can’t muster the words to counter him. All I can do is squeeze Shiro and suppress my building anger.

“You think a worthless little toy like you can defy me, do you? Sometimes you really do act human, don’t you? Whose strings are you dancing on now, hm? This stray’s?”

“Mph…!”

Kazumasa grabs a handful of Suzune’s hair and yanks her off her feet. She tries to cry out in pain, the very sound of which is enough for me to reflexively deploy a musketeer rabbit and fire. Before it can reach him, however, Ouka Shouki cuts the mana bullet out of the air. I bit my lip and glare at him.

“Let go of her this instant.”

“…You really have become more human, haven’t you? You’re that fond of her, are you?”

I hesitate.

“Come on, now, speak your mind! Dont think you can fool me, girl.”

“Yes… Yes, I am fond of her.”

“Ah, I see. You’re absolutely infatuated, aren’t you? Finally decided to let go of Father and find someone new to obsess over?” He visibly suppresses his laughter, instead only deepening his smirk. “You realize that means turning your back on the Sakagami and on the fiendslayers, don’t you?”

“That’s…”

“Finally shook Father’s ghost free, I see. You certainly took your time doing it, but I knew this day would come eventually.”

He throws Suzune to the ground, and her face twists with pain. I call out to her, but she only shakes her head, as if warning me not to provoke Kazumasa. He takes a new cigar out of his suit pocket to replace his depleted one and sticks it in his mouth. Saeki lights it wordlessly. Kazumasa inhales through it deeply, then lets out a deep, smoky breath before returning the grin to his face.

“You’re really that happy to be treated decently, are you? You’ve lived up until now simply following others around. You must get a real kick out of saying and doing just what you’re told.”

“N-No. I…”

“Don’t deny it. Since when have you decided anything for yourself? You can barely stand without leaning on someone or other. That’s what you did to Father, isn’t it? You followed him everywhere and did every trick he asked. What’s that difference between how you treated him and your relationship with this stray?”

“I…”

“Can’t deny it, can you? That’s who you are.” Another purplish cloud escapes his lips as he resettles himself in his wheelchair. “Even meeting this stray was a line from someone else’s book… though I suppose you knew that much from the beginning.”

“Father Kuzuha and Azelia’s plot, was it?”

“Precisely. That’s not important, though. What matters is the results.”

“What do you mean, ‘results’?”

“Exactly as it sounds,” he says as he narrows his eyes. “After your ‘fateful encounter’ with this stray, you realized you came from similar circumstances, overcame the species boundary, and threw in your lots together. When I took the stray from you, your pure, maidenly heart was thrown into disarray… or so the story goes. It sounds like some cheap B movie, but the acting was something else, don’t you think?”

I bite my lip even harder.

“Kekeke, you’ve been living a saccharine dream, girl. Don’t be so angry the dream ended.”

“………”

“Oh, how scary. Keke, if only you’d devoted some of that energy to avoiding this whole mess. For the Puppetmaster to dance so easily on someone’s strings brings shame on the entire Sakagami family. Tell me, did you at least have fun?”

“…Whatever could you be finding so funny?”

“Isn’t it funny? There’s no greater fool than the unintentional one… though I suppose I also rather enjoy watching you fling mud on Father’s face.”

“I’m not…”

“Amusing as this is, however, I’m not here only to mock you. I thought I’d teach a certain blockheaded doll why dreams can be so dangerous.”

With that, Kazumasa puts his hands on the wheelchair’s arms and stands up. At his side stands Ouka Shouki, katana in hand. I had heard it was crafted from human beings, and seeing what looks disturbingly like human flesh through the gaps in its robes, those horrid rumours were likely true. Of his fingers, five control the katakuri and the other five seem to be keeping him standing. In other words, this man is claiming that even if he halves his power, he could still beat me with ease. He must be utterly confident in his skill — but at the same time, I can tell his assessment of my ability is regrettably accurate.

“You have no identity, girl — your mother, your grandfather, and that vampire you’re so fond of no doubt know it. You plead for some meaning to your life, clinging onto others like a parasite, living their lives.” He flexes his fingers, as if confirming they still worked properly. “You’re only in your teens, and yet you control an army of over a hundred puppets. Your technique might be superior to mine or Father’s, but that’s all you’ll ever have. Do you know why that is?”

I simply stand there, not a word on my lips nor retort in my mind, simply waiting for his next words. For some reason, Kazumasa’s expression has a slightly melancholy shade to it. Today, for whatever reason, he seems the same as he’s always been yet ever-so-slightly different. I can’t identify the reason for the life of me.

“Wake up, Shiro.”

I shake my head clear of such thoughts. That isn’t the problem at hand now. Today, we’ve met as enemies, and my thoughts should be on how to best him and render him helpless. Yes, other concerns are meaningless now. I shouldn’t even have to concern myself with Suzune; he isn’t the type of man to rely on a hostage. The world has been slimmed down to the two of us.

My body moves as if on pure reflex, deploying rabbit after rabbit and giving life to each with Thread. They move as if alive, but in truth–

“All a puppet can manipulate is another puppet at best. We true puppeteers give human life to the inhuman, and reach still for greater heights. All we need is emotions that border on excess and the rationality to bind them to our will… Kagura.”

I shake my head clear of unnecessary thoughts. I can’t seem to retain my calm, and I clutch Shiro tightly to my chest in an attempt to calm my breathing. Puppetry requires no heart. Puppetry requires the apathy of a puppet. I fidget, trying to expel my unease into my fingers. Don’t listen to him, don’t be led astray, remain emotionless. 

That’s what it means to be a true Puppetmaster.

“That’s what it means to be a Sakagami Puppetmaster.”

Kazumasa sweeps his arm, and in perfect coordination, Ouka Shouki closes the ten-meter gap between us and swings its blade down at me in an overhead cleave. I step backwards to avoid it, but the karakuri effortlessly transitions into a second strike on the backswing. The musketeer rabbits I deploy fire a volley to distract it, while several hatchet rabbits leap in for the attack. In an instant three rabbits are downed, but it can’t be helped. Another five musketeer rabbits, safely out of Ouka Shouki’s immediate reach, leave an instant’s pause before firing at Kazumasa. Regardless of how powerful it is, in the end, Ouka Shouki is but a single karakuri, and no karakuri is truly suited for protecting its master.

This is the end – or so I suspected, but only two rabbits fire, the other three nimbly cut in half by Ouka Shouki. I hadn’t thought it could be so fast, and amidst my surprise I redo my calculations. It can accelerate from rest to top speed virtually instantaneously; at the very least, anything within five meters of it could be cut in an instant.

Kazumasa effortlessly avoids the remaining two bullets, then gives new orders to his karakuri with a short wave of his arm. Ouka Shouki lunges at me once more in the blink of an eye, and only at the last second am I able to block its blade with a shield rabbit. I have a fair degree of confidence in the speed at which my rabbits can act on their orders, but Ouki Shouki surpasses that with ease, threading through the weak points in my defense as if my rabbits truly were nothing but toys.

Well, then, what should I do? Should I close in on Kazumasa, or should I put some distance between us? Only the musketeers could possibly land a hit from this distance, and any other rabbit would be cut down before it could take so much as a single step towards him. Yet to try to end this with musketeers alone hardly seems feasible. If I can distance myself from Kazumasa himself, however, I can focus on disposing of Ouka Shouki itself, at which point Kazumasa would be helpless. I recall from when I had first entered the lair that some distance behind me, past Azelia’s throne, were a pair of corridors. Through there, it might be possible to access the balcony-like mezzanine floor… no, even if there were no stairs there, that would be enough. I’ll retreat to the corridor. No matter how fast Ouka Shouki may be, in a confined space, its advantage is greatly reduced. I’ll lure it there and silence it. Yes, that’s a plan.

I coordinate as orderly a retreat as possible, blocking slash after slash with the shield rabbits as the hatchet rabbits distract it as best as possible. Upon reaching the doorway, I throw myself inside. After a short length of corridor, at the end of which is an enclosed staircase leading upwards. I dash up the stairs, and Ouka Shouki follows – only to come face-to-face with a storm of bullets. In such a claustrophobic space, it naturally proves unable to dodge and is hit by some ten bullets, blood spraying out from its wounds as it collapses.

“…Blood?”

Not oil, blood. I’ve never before heard of a karakuri that bleeds, yet I hardly have the luxury to sit and ponder that mystery. I leap over it as I rush down the stairs and back into this room, this time headed for Kazumasa himself.

He draws a handgun from his coat and fires at me, but a shield rabbit I deploy at the last second deflects the bullet, causing it to only graze my arm. How ironic that no puppeteer I’ve ever met would deign to touch a weapon themselves, and yet Kazumasa doesn’t show so much as a moment’s hesitation. I had half suspected as much, however, and as such I’ve already taken his being armed into account in my plan.

By all rights, this game should end here and now.

“…!?”

As I deploy a hatchet rabbit, however, I notice the grin on his face and throw myself to the side. A razor-sharp blade of wind slashes through the place I stood a half-second before, ripping the rabbit into shreds. I quickly regain my bearings before deploying a handful of musketeer rabbits to fire a volley at Ouka Shouki.

This time, however, the karakuri makes no move to evade. Even after taking another volley of direct hits, it doesn’t so much as flinch, simply closing the distance between us with slow, deliberate steps. As I watch, the holes in its mend themselves. It seems to almost billow as it walks, as though the air between us was being distorted by heat.

“Don’t think Ouka Shouki is some junk-tier karakuri. This is a whole different magnitude of tool from your toys.”

I deploy a pair of hatchet rabbits that lunge at it, but Ouka Shouki again doesn’t dodge. The rabbits cleave both its legs off, but almost instantaneously it regrows them, the lost ones breaking apart as if into ash.

A chill runs down my spine, and I jump backwards to put some distance between us. Never before have I put distance between myself and an enemy out of sheer terror.

“Ouka Shouki is neither human nor puppet. Originally, it was revered as a god, but the Sakagami Family mastered the art of calling it down to Earth, creating the strongest of the karakuri. This is the god’s play, kagura, in its truest form.”

It’s clearly no fetish, but rather a shapeless something forced into a concrete form through extremely high-density mana. Shiro and the other rabbits are the same in many respects, and yet there’s something horrifying about this karakuri that would make any comparison seem like a horrible blasphemy. I haven’t the faintest idea if it’s a spirit, a deity, or some other sort of being entirely, but the single, immutable truth of this horror is…

“Manipulating a god in a human body as though it were a mere toy… Keke, don’t the Sakagami devise the most horrifying things, Kagura?”

This is the Sakagami’s god, worshipped since time immemorial. Within it I can feel limitless mana and endless, endless hatred.

“…W-Why would you, of all people…?”

Puppetry is the art of bending something to one’s whim, a phenomenon born from the puppeteer’s iron will. Controlling something requires an equivalent amount of will, especially when it comes to something like another’s will. Yet gods live only within human hearts – avatars of human desire and ambition. They exist only to fulfill that which cannot be done with human hands, and as such the will of a single human, no matter how strong, could never hope to exert any certain control over it. They exist beyond human reach by definition. Even given Kazumasa’s level of skill, he could never control a god. There must be something more to this.

“…Have you ever wondered about your name? In any other household it might be passed off as simply somewhat strange and old-fashioned, but the art of kagura is still alive and well in the Sakagami Family.”

“………?”

“Let me put it this way – your name doesn’t belong to you alone.”

Ouka Shouki raises a hand to its face, then slowly pulls the hannya mask away. That face – I know I’ve seen it before. I met her shortly after being brought to the Sakagami Family and shortly before she disappeared. Her face…

…is that of Kazumasa’s wife, exactly as I remember it from all those years ago.

“Sakagami men take two wives. The more precious of the two is offered to the gods as a gift, while the other is expected to bear children. Only by sacrificing what he loves most in the world can he gain the power to control Ouka Shouki. I suppose you could call it a fitting price.”

Kazumasa’s wife Kagura – no, Ouka Shouki simply looks down at me with heartless eyes. The sight leaves me speechless, my blood running chill. Kazumasa’s face, on the other hand, is perfectly composed.

“The wives are always chosen from within the clan, of course, so as to not weaken the bloodline. In your case… I suppose if I had a son, you’d be forced to marry him, but at any rate, you should understand the true meaning of your name now.”

“That’s… that can’t…”

The very thought is steeped in madness, a far cry from normalcy. The calmness of his expression is the most bone-chilling aspect of this whole macabre scene.

“That’s life, Kagura. Humans are human because they feel, and controlling the insanity that dwells in the heart of passion is what it means to be a real Puppetmaster, like me. That’s what your beloved grandfather taught me. How does it feel to learn you’ve been living the life of a tool?”

I subconsciously retreat from him; unconsciously, unwittingly, unknowingly, fearing those words.

“Humans are the real fiends, the true terrors of this world. I bet you never even suspected Father was grooming you as a human sacrifice, did you? He always was good at composing himself as a gentle old man. Let me tell you something.” He stops to chuckle before continuing. “There’s no such thing as unconditional kindness in this world – not from your beloved grandfather, and not from this stray, either.”

Upon hearing his words, Suzune’s shoulders jump. She meets my gaze for only a moment before facing the ground.

“Humans are calculating creatures. Their every action is always rooted in what they believe will best benefit themselves, whether it be physical or psychological. Keke, I suppose Father lost went senile in the end, though. His last days were almost that of a real loving grandfather’s. I hope he didn’t expect such a cute little act would absolve him of his sins.”

Before I can even think to attack, my fingers move and deploy a musketeer rabbit to fire at him. Ouka Shouki effortlessly cuts in, using its body as a shield. Kazumasa laughs.

“What do you think you’re doing to my wife, huh? You’re absolutely merciless.”

“…To think you could laugh while using her as a human shield.”

“I’m a puppeteer, after all. I thought you knew that?”

Humorous scorn fills his eyes – but after a moment, I realize his expression isn’t aimed at myself, but rather someone else entirely. I furrow my brow slightly. How many times have I felt this confusion now? For whatever reason, on today of all days, Kazumasa seems somehow different.

“The Sakagami have passed down the art of manipulation for generations, and for that reason our name is immortalized as one of the six great fiendslayer families. Father, you, even I have received that same art from our ancestors.”

His quiet, resounding voice fills the hall. Never before have I heard such a nuanced quality in his voice.

“I manipulate, I’m manipulated, I’m human yet betray my humanity, and because of that I’m a Puppetmaster. All of us have abandoned our humanity, opting instead to serve the name of undying madness to our last breath.”

“I… I’m not…”

“Oh, that’s right, I can hardly count you as one of us. The world’s a flower garden to you, isn’t it? You’ve never been human, Kagura, never been normal. You’ve never ceased to amuse me.”

Don’t betray my expectations now, he cackles, and yet his eyes are utterly humourless.

“As a pinwheel can only spin in the wind, as chimes can only sing in the wind, everything has its own role to fulfill, its own part to play, and only in fulfilling its role can its existence have meaning. Don’t you think so, Kagura?”

For some reason, Sensei’s sorrowful face comes to mind, making the same expression as he had in my dream last night.

“Won’t you love yourself, think of your own happiness, and live the way you want to?”

“The way I want to…?”

“Yes, Kagura. My last wish is for you to find happiness as a human, not as a puppet.”

“As a human…?”

“It’s a much harder life, but don’t give up on it. Keep on living. See countless things, meet countless people, and if possible, find someone you can love with all your heart. You only have one life, Kagura. If you reject every possibility, you’ll never find what makes you truly happy.”

“…You think I’m a failure, Uncle?”

“Ah, so you realize it yourself. Good, good. I didn’t know what I’d do if you didn’t understand such a simple fact.”

“…Is that your will, Sensei?”

“Yes, it is. I’m afraid I’ve always lived my life focused on things that have shape, and I’ve made many mistakes. I’ve sacrificed many things dear to me in the process… many, many dear things. I don’t want you to live that life, Kagura. Don’t accept what others spoon-feed you, find your own path, live your own life.”

“But… But I don’t know how to live any differently! I can’t possibly get it right.”

“That’s okay, Kagura. I don’t believe there are any real mistakes on the road to happiness. Dream big, and dream of your future. Don’t shackle yourself down–”

–You’re not a failure, child. You’re a human being, and you’re yours.

Ever since then, Sensei’s words have lived in my heart. What would he think if he saw me now? What was he thinking when he told me those things? As I ponder, Kazumasa continues, paper-thin smile still plastered across his face. It looks harrowingly similar to the make-believe smiles I’d shown to the mirror time and again.

“That being said, we seem to be bound by fate, Kagura. I’ll give you one last chance to prove you can control, not just be controlled. If you dispose of that filthy stray right here and now–”

What a strange, strange feeling… it’s as though I’ve lived my life wrapped in fog, only to finally witness a brilliant sunrise.

“No. I won’t.”

There’s not a shadow of doubt in my voice. The smile vanishes from Kazumasa’s face. There’s no point in trying to wean the true meaning from that; nobody knows what’s in a person’s heart except that person themselves. The best one can do is guess from what one can see.

“…You really have nothing but flowers in that head of yours.”

“Good. A certain someone taught me that means I’m human.”

I look at Suzune. She looks at me. I smile at her gently, and her eyes open wide with surprise. The meaning behind the words and actions of others is a mystery, one only approachable with a good measure of guessing. Suzune taught me that.

“You’re more pitiful than I thought, if you’re trying to escape reality now.”

I had called her a fool back then.

“I know myself better than anyone else could, and I happen to be all talk without so much as a shred of autonomy. I also happen to have a horribly twisted personality. I know everything, all of it.”

For some reason, my words sound more human to me than any I’ve ever spoken before in my life. It’s enough to make me start loathing myself.

“As you said, I’ve been living my life by the will of others, more a tool or machine than a living being. Even when I grow sick of myself, I’m unable to think my way out of my circumstances, and eventually I refocus on serving my ‘master’. Yes, it’s as you say, all as you say.”

“And this time you’re helping your grandfather atone? That’s a great use of your life, if I ever heard one.”

“Thank you very much. No matter what you might say about him, I loved Sensei, and I don’t regret so much as a single moment I spent with him. As you say, dearest uncle, he likely approached me with nothing but ulterior motives and no doubt tried to use me. All the kindness he showed me was likely part of that scheme.”

I give Kazumasa a challenging glare, then take a deep breath. My unease begins to fade, and my pulse returns to normal.

“So what if he tried to use me? The love and happiness he gave me is real, and nothing you could say can change that.”

“Kekeke, maybe you’re right.”

The smouldering cigar in his mouth simply sits there, slowly burning itself to ash as he all but ignores it.

“But the fact that you’re nothing but a dancing fool doesn’t change, either. I’m surprised you can say that with a straight face.”

“I suppose it can’t be helped. According to you, I’m nothing but a worthless failure.”

I smile thinly and exhale softly. I’ve used so much mana that my head has begun to pound faintly. Ouka Shouki is no doubt immortal, or effectively so; even if I was in perfect condition, I doubt I have the mana to ‘kill’ it. At this rate I’m guaranteed to lose, or at least I stand no real chance of victory – and yet, even that truth seems so pleasant, so wonderful that I can’t stop smiling. Live or die, it doesn’t seem to matter to me anymore. I must have lost my mind, or perhaps there’s something else at work. I suppose ‘both’ is a perfectly acceptable answer, too. At any rate, I’ve never felt so good before in my life.

“I suppose I owe you a thank-you.”

“…What?”

“For the first time, I feel as though I’m truly alive. I’ve never experienced anything like it before!”

I relax my grip on Shiro and close my eyes.

“I’ve decided I want to be with Suzune. From the very bottom of my heart, there’s nothing in this world I’d like more. Rules, traditions, and other musty trappings don’t matter. I’ve decided that I’ll save her and leave this family for good.”

“Oh? And I’m supposed to sit back and let you, am I?”

“No, you probably won’t. Hehe, but that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that this is my choice, mine and mine alone.”

Sensei would probably be happy to hear that. I smile down at Shiro, and then the both of us turn to face Kazumasa.

“This is the first real choice I’ve ever made in my life. If I think about it in such a manner, then what should it matter what the outcome is?”

His eyes widen slightly, then he lets out a heavy sigh.

“…I get it, I get it. I suppose there’s no reclaiming you now that your brain’s rotted through. Focusing on the means, ignoring the end… you’re even thinking like a weakling now. You’re not ever a puppeteer now.”

“That’s fine with me. It’s high time I outgrew dolls anyways. In the end, the result of life is always death. It’s not a matter of changing or producing some manner of ‘results’ that are supposed to surpass that, but rather finding a manner of living that carries meaning. Isn’t that the most human way to live one’s life?”

My shoulders quiver with laughter. Yes, I see it all now. Life is inherently meaningless. It always ends, and nothing changes that. The key is to keep one’s eyes on that goal and try to find a path with meaning, one that leads to an end with meaning. That in and of itself is humanity’s greatest ambition.

“Hah, nonsense. I thought you were supposed to be a genius.”

“Hehehe, words that are for the heart, not the head, can never make total sense. I’d encourage you to mull that over for a while, dearest uncle.”

“You’re the same cocky brat you’ve always been.” Kazumasa throws away his cigar and swings his arm, urging Ouka Shouki forwards. “But it looks like this is the end of you either way. Looks like you were at least happy in the end. I’m sure Father would be overjoyed to see you with that stupid grin on your face. You should be grateful.”

“You could instead consider letting us go unharmed.”

“Like I have a single good reason to do that. You’re a living shame to the whole Sakagami family, and it wouldn’t look good to just let you waltz away like that. I promise I’ll make it quick if you stand still like a good little girl.”

“I suppose resistance is futile, after all… but would you mind at least listening to my last request?”

“What?”

“You can kill me if you must, but let Suzune escape unscathed. This is your lovely niece’s dying wish, after all, and I can’t imagine someone as weak as her could possibly pose a threat to you in the future.”

“I don’t have any obligation to even hear you out, but I suppose I can accept that. Fine, the stray will live.”

“…Thank you very much, dearest uncle. Now I can die without regret.”

Kazumasa’s karakuri, the former Kagura, slowly approaches me, one step at a time. Three steps away, now two, one. The instant it raises its blade to strike, I extend Thread forwards, grab the carpet, and rocket myself forwards, past it and right at Kazumasa.

My only advantage now is that his guard is down. Now, at the last possible second, is my only chance to end this. I honestly don’t even know if I have enough mana left to win now, but there’s nothing wrong with the occasional all-or-nothing gamble. If I die here and now, then all that means is that my time is up. I have nothing to lose either way, after all. As always, I’ll have to steal success from the clutches of the goddess of victory herself.

“–!?”

“Stupid girl. Did you really think I wasn’t expecting as much?”

Ouka Shouki’s presence vanished, as if into thin air, then suddenly reappears immediately behind me. I can’t stop now, let alone counter any attack it might make. It’s too late.

I suppose this is the end, then.

What a pitiful way to die. I close my eyes.

“…Eh?”

What comes next isn’t the cold bite of steel, however, but the sensation of being lifted. I open my eyes.

“Seriously, you two think you can decide everything on your own, leaving me out of the conversation like that…”

“Suzune…?”

I find myself on the balcony, and down below I can spot Ouka Shouki frozen where it would have killed me. I look up at Suzune with wide eyes. She must have teleported me out of the way. Kazumasa glares up at us irritatedly.

“You liar! I thought you said the stray was weak!”

 “I might be weak, but I have a skill or two,” Suzune giggles. “I did kinda want to show off, though, since you were talking about me as if I wasn’t even there.”

“Tch… I thought you were restraining her, Saeki!”

“How should I have known she had such a talent for spatial magic?”

Kazumasa scratches his head in irritation while Saeki shrugs and shakes his head. A faint smile plays on his lips, and his voice is light and casual. He indiscreetly looks up at us, meeting my gaze briefly, a message in his eyes.

Before I can discern his meaning, however, a wet, dripping sound comes from behind my head, and I turn back to face Suzune.

“You’re bleeding…!”

Her left arm is slashed wide open, crimson blood spilling down and onto the carpet. She must’ve received that wound from Ouka Shouki when she saved me.

“A-Ahaha… it’s not as bad as it looks, really. Actually, this is pretty convenient.”

“Convenient…?”

“Yeah.”

She giggles, shoulder shaking slightly as she leans in closer to my face. My eyes wander for a moment, but I manage to meet her gaze.

“You really meant everything you told him, didn’t you? I’m touched. Fufu, you’re gotten pretty silly yourself, huh?”

“…I must’ve caught it from you. It must be like a cold.”

“Ehehe, you say it like it’s a bad thing.”

“Pervert. You really are an idiot, aren’t you?” I sigh before continuing. “…Maybe that’s what attracted me to you.”

“……”

“I’d been living in such discomfort before I met you. I didn’t even know why I was alive, simply working and sleeping an endless cycle. It wasn’t awful, per se, but it was becoming harder and harder, and I didn’t have the faintest notion how I might be free.”

All I could do was keep on living. I lacked even the courage to choose another path.

“The time I spent with you, however short, changed my life. You might be an unpleasant idiot with more than a few screws loose, but still.”

“…Is it just me, or are you getting more insulting the more time we spend together?”

“Hehe, I’m only telling the truth. And yet, perhaps because of that, I’ve had more fun in the last month than perhaps I’ve ever had. Why, I almost don’t want our time together to end.”

“Gee, what an honour.”

“Isn’t it? You should be grateful.”

“……Yeah, I guess I should.”

She nods seriously, and I nearly burst out laughing. She looks as though she’s on the verge of tears despite smiling so broadly, as if she truly did consider it an honour.

“D-Don’t laugh, okay? I’m seriously moved.”

“Isn’t it natural to laugh at such a preposterous face? I happen to have decided to simply laugh when I feel like laughing, get angry when I feel angry, and live altogether more true to my emotions.”

“I get the feeling you’ve barely changed a bit, but okay.” She laughs blissfully for a moment before a more serious expression takes over. “I am a fiend, y’know?”

“Why should that matter? I’ll have you know I love all living things equally.”

“All sorts of people might try to kill you to get their hands on me.”

“I’d love to see what they could do against a genius such as myself. Besides, should worst come to worst, I can always give you up to them.”

“What, that’s horrible! We’re even in a real pinch right now…”

“You have something up your sleeve still, don’t you? I can’t imagine you’d go so far just for a chance to chat with me.”

She nods and smiles, then holds out her still-dripping arm to me.

“You don’t have enough mana, right?”

“…You want me to lick you?”

“Yeah.”

“Good gods, you are a pervert.”

“I don’t think you have any right to throw stones, given what you’re just about to do.”

“…You truly are incredibly unpleasant.”

With that, I extend my tongue and run it across her arm. Her blood tastes somewhat sweet, a mysterious flavour quite unlike my own blood. Strangely enough, I don’t feel any resistance to the act. We scarcely have the time for playful banter, after all, and as I watch Suzune’s expression grows paler, her presence weakening noticeably. I take care to replenish only the mana I need, and as soon as I can feel my headache dissipate somewhat, I nod to her. She nods back, and in the next instant her bleeding stops. I suppose I should’ve expected as much from a blood-related fiend like her. She lets out a hot sigh.

“You seem suspiciously pleased, all things considered. Pervert.”

“That’s mean… though I guess I might’ve thought just a little about how nice it was to have a cute girl like you lick me so much. N-Not in a perverted way, of course. Or at least not a lot, um…”

“…I get the feeling that we’ll need to have a very long and deliberate conversation about this later.”

“Fufu, I bet. I’ll be looking forward to it. You go show that creep who’s boss first.”

I put my hand on the railing and am about to descend to the main floor when I stop, suddenly struck by a rather strange idea. I return to her side and whisper my plan into her ear.

As things stand, our chances aren’t much better, and Kazumasa himself said that it’s the results that matter, which I suppose might be correct in this case. In that case, it only makes sense to implement the best possible plan of attack.

“…That’s just playing dirty, Kagura-chan.”

“I can’t imagine he has any right to complain, given all he’s said.” Precisely because it would be the kind of trick he himself would be likely to use. “You don’t mind, do you? Besides, it’s virtually impossible to beat a stronger opponent without using some manner of trick. If anything, he’s the dirty one for being so strong from the outset.”

“I guess I understand what you’re talking about, but I’m not sure you should be so proud of it. As a human, I mean.”

“Hehe, I’m a saint before a human being, after all. I’ve surpassed humanity altogether.”

“You really like that line, don’t you? Well, good luck.”

“I’ll be back soon.”

With that, I lower myself with Thread over the railing to the floor below. Kazumasa lets out a bored yawn as he meets my gaze from across the room.

“Finally done chatting, are you? You sure took your time.”

“What a relief, dearest uncle, that you had the decency to not interrupt our conversation. Why, I’ve never felt more loved.”

“It was too much of a pain to, that’s all. There’s no escape for you two either way.”

“I’m afraid that’s where you’re mistaken. I believe I stand a fighting chance now.”

“Even at full capacity, you have only a shred of the mana I have.”

“I suppose it might not matter to you, but to me, even a little mana can be game-changing. Things might not be as similar as they seem, dearest uncle.”

“At any rate, you’re no less a fool.”

Ouka Shouki crouches slightly, evidently ready to pounce. I, on the other hand, flex my fingers and weave a wall of Thread. Shiro is on the ground, a little in front of me and to the left but still well out of Ouka Shouki’s reach. All in all, not a bad position to be.

“Fine, then. Come at me with everything you’ve got, Kagura.”

“With pleasure, dearest uncle.”

Instead of replying with words, Ouka Shouki springs forward and unleashes a vicious slash, closing the distance in a heartbeat. The first slash tears the wall I’d made in half, and the second slash is aimed to disembowel me. I suck in my stomach, narrowly avoiding the strike. As I thought, the attack could easily be fatal, but the karakuri didn’t step in enough, making the attack avoidable with any decent degree of attention. Nodding to myself, I resolve to go on the offensive.

Even so, Ouka Shouki is terrifyingly fast, and the advantage of always acting with the upper hand is truly great. Therefore, I should stop trying to move ahead of it or out speed it, as that will never happen, and instead plan one step ahead of it.

I deploy a musketeer rabbit and shoot it in the arm. Regardless of how powerful it might be, it possesses flesh and is thus bound by the limitations of other living beings to some extent. My attack inflicts no actual damage, but I do succeed in slowing it down, and thus dodge its next attack without difficulty. It regenerates and moves to attack once more, but at the last moment I move in even closer and push it to the ground, safely out of the immediate range of its blade now.

Moving quickly, I grab its head and reach five strands of Thread into it, keeping the remainder linked to Shiro. While we may both be using five strands of Thread, there’s not only a difference in personal attachment to the karakuri but also in raw power, making a takeover all but impossible. I have, of course, already taken that into account.

I fire a mana bullet from my hand, aiming this time for the hilt of Ouka Shouki’s katana and sending it flying across the room, landing near Kazumasa’s feet. I then stand and run, headed straight for him. He commands Ouka Shouki to pursue me, but given my interference, its movements have been greatly hindered, and it trips over its own feet as it attempts to stand. While a full takeover is impossible, debilitating it is plenty.

The first musketeer rabbit finishes loading its weapon. At a mere five meters, it couldn’t possibly miss.

“Shiro!”

Shiro waves his little arm, and in coordination three hatchet rabbits emerge from my skirt. As the musket rabbit attacks Ouka Shouki once more, keeping it well occupied, the hatchet rabbits leap at Kazumasa, and one slashes at his arm.

Thread is a surprisingly delicate spell, one that requires a high degree of concentration on one’s fingers. Naturally, he loses his focus, and with it his legs give out beneath him. He makes the split-second decision to cut his connection to Ouka Shouki, opting instead to strengthen himself and maintain his balance. A swift kick crushes two of the rabbits, while the one who had slashed him is disposed of with his handgun.

With that, however, I have a slim opening. Only three meters remain between us, but that still would leave enough time for him to reconnect to Ouka Shouki and cleave me in half. Judging from the composed look on his face, he’s likely full aware of that fact. In the end, no matter how one plays a losing hand, one cannot win. That’s common sense.

“Suzune!”

In that case, I simply need to overcome common sense, utilizing any and every dirty trick at my disposal.

In an instant, Suzune and Ouka Shouki switch places.

Kazumasa’s eyes fly open with shock. He had assumed this fight was one on one, and he had every reason to believe so. The strands of Thread that were connected to his karakuri are suddenly loose in the air, the karakuri itself well out of sight.

My victory is at hand.

“You little brat–!”

Roaring, he tries to take aim at me with his handgun, but I’m ever so slightly faster. I throw my shoulder into him at full speed. I may be small, but I have plenty enough force under the circumstances to knock him to the ground. Without so much as a second’s delay, I mount him, pinning his arms under my knees. A musketeer rabbit emerges from my skirt, pressing the barrel of its gun against his forehead. My face splits into a grin.

“I believe this is checkmate, dearest uncle.”

“…What do you mean, ‘checkmate’?”

“Complain however you wish, it doesn’t change the results. Didn’t you say something about the end justifying the means?”

“Make up your mind, why don’t you. Didn’t you just say the exact opposite not five minutes ago?”

“Well, you can consider me convinced. I must thank you for the life lesson.”

“You really are an annoying little bitch, aren’t you?”

“Oh, come now. You’re only sore you’ve lost.” With a laugh, I command the musketeer rabbit to back down. I stand up, brushing the dust off my clothes. “So? Are you satisfied with the results of your little test?”

“……”

“It seems as though I was right, then.”

I knew he felt off somewhat. Not only did he go to great lengths to anger me, but he revealed secrets of the Sakagami Family that he’d never so much as hinted at before today. If one applies a little optimistic interpretation, there’s only one possible answer.

“What are you talking about? Just what were you right about?”

“Oh, various things. For one, I had been wondering why you’d try to stop me from leaving, after all the encouragement you’ve given me to leave the Family.”

The last thing I would’ve expected – that it might be out of some degree of worry for my well being – might be right after all. True, I had nearly died no small number of times, but not once was there earnest bloodlust in Ouka Shouki’s blade. That’s why I was able to dodge, and eventually turn the tide against him. Of course, I’d only noticed in the last leg of the fight, but if he wanted to kill me from the beginning, Suzune and I would be bleeding out on the carpet now. Every aspect of the fight, his every move, was meant to test me, not kill me. Even Saeki was clearly in on it, and that must have been the meaning his gaze held.

“…In the end, Sensei taught me to love myself and pursue human happiness. I didn’t know what those words meant, however, nor did I dare dream. Before I realized it, I was simply chasing after his legacy in futility. I had thought that was my road to happiness.”

I close my eyes, calling Shiro to me and scooping him up in my arms. I take a long, slow breath before continuing.

“No matter how hard I worked, however, it never became easier, nor did it bring me joy. That being said, I didn’t know any other life, so I condemned myself to that fate. The stress simply built up until this whole incident.”

“Keke, what a pathetic life.”

“Yes, I suppose you’re right. But now, I can even say I’m grateful for that past.”

Without it, I never would have met her.

“Only a month has passed since I began living with Suzune, and yet I couldn’t bear to lose her. Honestly, I’ve surprised myself with how foolish I’ve acted. Hehe, and to think I used to live as an extension of my work. Hard to believe, isn’t it?”

“You think a few years is enough for you to talk nonsense about living your work? Fine. But you really are easy. Would anyone be good enough, so long as they treated you nicely?”

“Say what you will. I can’t say I could deny it.” I take a deep breath and shoot him a dark look. “What is clear, however, is that being with her is genuinely pleasant. I couldn’t give you a concrete reason or anything as simple as that, but just being with her, having her by my side, fills me with something I suspect might just be true happiness.”

“What, you’re into fiends?”

“Why not? I happen to believe all living things are equally deserving of love.”

“First time I’ve heard of it. Since when?”

“Hehe, since about ten minutes ago. Is there some problem?”

Kazumasa gives me a good, long look, as if only truly seeing me now for the first time. Then he laughs, a genuine, hearty laugh, the kind that resounds in one’s heart in an altogether pleasant manner.

“Kakakaka, no, nothing wrong at all! I’d thought your brain ran on nothing but half-baked logic, but it turns out you really do have a sense of humour! I’m sure Father would be beside himself if he were here!”

“You don’t need to go that far…”

I wait a long moment before realizing what he said.

“…Sensei, you mean? Is that why…?”

“Save your clumsy guesses for after you’ve found yourself a boyfriend, girl. Honestly, you couldn’t be more unpleasant.”

“Suzune did teach me to interpret the words of others in the way that suits me best, after all.”

“A dull companion for a dull little girl, eh? Birds of a feather, I suppose.”

“You may be right there. Maybe she’s rubbed off on me… I can scarcely remember if I always used to be this way.” And yet, the thought is warm and pleasant as warm bedsheets in the early morning. “Perhaps this is what Sensei was really referring to, when he told me to find happiness.”

“Keke, how dull.”

“You think so?”

I tilt my head to the side inquisitively, and he bursts out laughing again.

“At any rate, it seems I’ve fallen far. To think I’d lose so easily to someone like you.”

“You were scarcely trying to win, so I don’t think that can be helped. I truly had to use everything at my disposal, you know.”

“Idiot. Who lost to who on purpose? I’ll admit, I was expecting the two of you to escape.”

What a fool I was, he laughs as he digs through his coat pockets.

“In any case, a loss is a loss. I guess I’m not all I cut myself out to be. Hah, to think I sacrificed my wife for strength like this…”

“…Did you truly love her?”

“Of course I did. Otherwise, Ouka Shouki never would’ve been completed. I fulfilled my duty as a Sakagami like Father did, and his father before him, and his before him… or no, I guess in the end, I failed. No way I’d have lost like this if I was like them.”

He chuckles to himself, then looks me in the eye, his pupils dark like the depths of some unknown sea. I daresay that despite becoming a Sakagami puppeteer in the truest sense, he might even seem a little bit happy.

“I’m surprised a brat like you managed to grow up half as decently as you have… or no, I guess you’re still just a brat. Never thought I’d look at you like this, though.”

In his words is a shadow of a warning, or perhaps a regret.

“You make an awful Sakagami, girl. Get out of here, for real this time. The bloodline’ll be ending with me anyways. Take it from me, there’s no happiness down a bloody, inhuman road like this.”

His worder feel heavier now than ever.

“You’re saying you also gave up being human?”

“Otherwise, I never would’ve sacrificed the other Kagura. Fleeing the Sakagami Family like your mother Kyouka did was the more human thing to do. Neither Father nor I have any right to be called ‘human’ now.”

He’s never spoken fondly of my mother before, nor do I know much about her still, but I can sense a tinge of affection in his voice.

“Kyouka and my wife were as close as real sisters. She opposed her sacrifice more than anyone else, and when Kyouka’s pleas fell on deaf ears, she ran away from home. She really was a foolish girl… no, I suppose we were the fools, in the end.”

“And then, Mother…”

“She came crying back to us at the very end, though, so I guess she’s plenty foolish either way. The only reason Father went to that dingy little apartment of yours in the first place is because she started pestering him for cash. He didn’t know you even existed until the second he laid eyes on you. Maybe you’d have been happier if you’d died there after all.”

“…I’m happy now, at least.”

“What?”

“I’ve never seen you look so… happy, uncle. Hehehe, I suppose life truly is full of surprises, just as Sensei said.”

I hadn’t even meant to say anything, but my true feelings emerge nonetheless. Kazumasa looks at me in genuine surprise, a most amusing expression for him. My smile deepens slightly.

“…Stop talking nonsense, girl.”

“It’s true. I’ve been blind and deaf until now. Who knows how many things I’ve overlooked? I was certain you were a cold-blooded demon, never once realizing you had such colourful expressions.”

I’ve ignored no small number of things, at times simply deciding there was nothing there for me to see, convincing myself I was hearing nothing but meaningless noise. I’d shut my mind to the possibilities that existed all around me.

“Life is truly an amusing thing, isn’t it?”

“Don’t talk as though you suddenly know everything, brat. You’re still just a kid. Get cocky and you’ll see a world of hurt.”

“Either way, I’ll have these happy memories to accompany me… especially considering I’ll only make more as I go.”

“Have it your way. From now on, your decisions and your mistakes belong to you and you alone.”

“…Yes. Yes, I think I will have it my way.”

I embrace Shiro and dip my head to him.

“First thing on your list should be to outgrow dolls, girl.”

“Come to think of it, you’ve never complained about this hobby of mine before, have you?”

“It was too much of a pain to, that’s all.”

“If you say so, uncle. I’ll try, but who knows?” I give Shiro an affectionate pat on the head and let out a light sigh. “I’m afraid I might’ve become addicted.”

“Instead of hugging something, find someone to hug instead. You’ll be an adult in no time, trust me.”

I can feel my face grow a little warmer.

“I might almost respect you, if only you’d avoid saying such things.”

“What, all humans are born from it. Nobody talks about it is all.”

He sits up with a chuckle, then stops and looks down at his hand. His thoughts are clearly on something else, something infinitely further away. After a long moment, he opens his mouth once more.

“…Go on, get out of here. I’m sick of seeing your face.”

“Understood. Thank you for everything up until now, dearest uncle.” I turn to leave, but stop after a few steps to face him again and bow briefly. “I’m glad that at the very end, at least, I was able to like you.”

I was more fortunate than I dared hope, I continue with a laugh.

“Kagura, I–”

“It’s alright. Thanks to you, my life was a happy one… but when I think that I’ll never see your smile again, I do feel a little lonely.”

She spoke with a smile and a quiet laugh. She always was the reserved type, but her expressions were always pure and beautiful, like flowers in bloom.

“I’ll still be by your side, Kazumasa-sama. Please don’t look so sad.”

“…Sorry.”

“Fufu, that being said, I’ll never forgive you if you ever look at another woman. You know I’m the jealous type.” She pulled me into a slightly tighter embrace before continuing. “You’ll love me and only me, now and forever. Please, let me be the last.”

“I hate to think what’d happen if I made you mad. I never thought I’d ever be tamed like this.”

“Oh? So you’ll only listen to me because you’re scared of me, is that it?”

“…Because you’re my beloved wife. Does that sound better?”

“Yes, fufu, that’s much better. I love you, too — I always have and I always will.”

Thinking back on it, that was the moment that changed my life forever. That was the moment I made the biggest mistake anyone possibly could. That girl, however, didn’t repeat my mistake. I chose life as a puppeteer, but she had the courage to choose life as a human.

In the end, she wasn’t the bird in the Sakagami’s cage. I was. I, Father, and every generation before us knew the door was hanging open but never took so much as a single step to escape. None of us had that courage. Maybe that’s why, when it came to that girl, Father—

“Keke… no point guessing about it now.”

All anyone can say for certain is, if I had only stood up back then, she would still be by my side. That alone is the truth.

“…Life never goes the way you expect it to.”

“I’m afraid I’m still too young to understand. Were you expecting something more than ‘I suppose you’re correct’?”

“Nobody wanted to hear from you, Saeki. I was talking to myself.”

I take a deep drag on my cigar, then exhale. It doesn’t taste especially good or bad, it simply calms my nerves.

I hand Saeki my handgun and tap the side of my head. I’ve lived long enough. There’s no point in dragging it out any longer, and if I died here and now, I could go with a more-or-less clean slate.

“Make sure you do in it a single shot.”

“…You’re telling me to shoot you?”

“You’re my aide, aren’t you? If you’re really my faithful hound, you’ll do what I say.”

“This is quite the burden on me, you realize, asking this of me again. Filled with regret, now that you have let your young ward leave the nest?”

“Don’t make me kill you, Saeki. I’m tired, that’s all. You should be happy, I’ve written you into my will as my successor.”

Saeki lets out a heavy sigh as he rubs his temples.

“You know full well I hate such troublesome things. Working under you happens to suit me perfectly. It would be quite bothersome to kill you off now, and I cannot believe that anyone in the clan would simply accept me as the next head with only your will and no forewarning.”

“You’ll have the law on your side, so with a little effort I know you can do it. Besides, where do you get off using me like that, anyways?”

“If I had any intention of working hard, I would have backstabbed you long ago. You have a talent for making money, so why should I not just latch onto you like a remora and reap the benefits?”

“How dull. You don’t have an ambitious bone in your body, do you?”

“And yet you were the one who chose me.”

With that, he stashes the gun in his coat and brings the wheelchair closer. I sigh, sitting myself in it and resigning myself to be pushed around once more.

“We had to postpone quite a few meetings to be here. Today looks to be quite busy still.”

“Why don’t you go instead? I’ve arranged for things to run just fine, even without me.”

“Unacceptable. Do you realize how often they complain at me in your place? No, you will go yourself.”

“…You really are hopelessly dull.”

“I happen to have a lovely wife and an adorable daughter. A dull, relaxed life would suit me perfectly well.”

“Boring lives for boring people, I suppose, you and I both.”

“…Should I take that to mean you have resigned yourself to your fate?”

“Fine, whatever. I’m tired of talking. Take me to that meeting or whatever, do your worst.”

“That was my plan. I am your faithful hound, after all.”

“Just shut up already…”

The cloudy sky has already begun to clear, pillars of light beginning to pierce the world below. Honestly, what a hopelessly dull story, I chuckle as I close my eyes.

“…Suzune.”

“What’s up?”

“I know you must be nearing your limit. You’ve used quite a lot of mana, haven’t you?”

We’re well outside the city now, at the foot of a nearby mountain range. Suzune, noticeably pale, nods her head.

“Yeah, I guess… even the mana you gave me back then is pretty much gone.”

Well over a month has passed since then, and she used more teleportation magic a short while ago to put the city well behind us. Even though she can cast it with relative ease, it seems as though it consumes quite a bit of mana – and teleporting Ouka Shouki, a mass of pure mana, must have been especially exhausting. I can hardly feel any mana from her now.

Regrettably, I nearly depleted my own reserves in the fight with Kazumasa. There’s only one way she can replenish herself in short order, and yet she won’t so much as suggest it to me. I let out a sigh.

“Azelia said you hate drinking blood. Is that true?”

“…Yeah.”

“Why is that?”

I look her in the eye, suppressing the urge to avert my gaze. I squeeze Shiro to my chest.

“…Way back when, back before I knew anything about myself, I was taken in by a nice family in a village I visited. They treated me really, really well.”

She begins shivering slightly, dropping her gaze, her words slow and deliberate. Different as she may be from an ordinary vampire, her refusal to drink blood strikes me as more than a little odd. She can gain some mana from food and the like, certainly, but such things could only be a stopgap measure, as they come nowhere close to the level of mana contained in blood. Evidently, that stopgap measure has begun to fail, and should she fail to drink blood soon, she will surely perish. And yet still, she refuses.

“I worked and played like a human might, and as time passed, I began to really enjoy my life there. But… one day, I got into an argument with this girl I was good friends with.”

The reason behind it must be traumatic enough to haunt her even now.

“It was such a stupid argument. Honestly, it was so silly it almost makes me want to laugh, but… at the time I just really, really wanted her to agree with me, and…”

Nobody’s laughing about it now, she laughs self-derisively.

“Ever since then, whenever I try to drink blood, that day comes back to me, and I feel sick to my stomach. I keep talking about how I want a home, how I want to belong, but in the end, I’m a fiend. I’m the worst, and…” She lets out a sad sigh. “…I’m so, so weak. I can’t control myself if I tried. I might be able to drink your blood now without a problem, but when I think that another stupid little argument might cause me to lose control… I’m terrified. I don’t want to ever get used to it.”

Her voice trembles, wrapping her arms around herself as if to shut something out.

“Fufu, sorry, that’s kinda unfair of me… I know exactly what you’ll say now, so…”

Her face scrunches up faintly, tears brimming in her eyes.

I nod, putting Shiro to rest on the ground.

“I don’t mind, really. Actually, if that’s your only reason, that makes things rather simple.”

I couldn’t ask for better timing, in fact. I draw closer to her…

…and wrap my arms tightly around her.

“Kagura… chan…?”

I can feel her warmth, and perhaps out of surprise, her body is rigid as a pole. I chuckle to myself at the thought that our roles have totally reversed now, then strengthen my grip around her. I can feel her relaxing somewhat; if I don’t hold on tight, she might see my face. My cheeks feel red hot, so I can only imagine what I look like now. I take a deep breath in an attempt to calm my racing heart even slightly.

She truly is a pervert. How dare she make me do something so horribly embarrassing? Honestly, how utterly reprehensible. Has she no shame?

“…Mngh…”

Ten seconds pass. Twenty. Thirty. Longer. My face still feels hot, and my heart is still running wild. Even if I wait in this state, it feels as though I’ll never calm down. I can feel my limit fast approaching. I almost wish I were dead. If only I could go back in time and slug myself so I wouldn’t do such an idiotic thing in the first place!

“S-Suzune.”

I maintain my composure best I can, despite having totally reached my limit.

“…A-Ah, okay.”

Hearing her reply, I take a few more deep breaths, preparing myself for the inevitable. All that’s left is for me to steel my will. We can’t stay in such a state forever, of course, so I may as well resign myself sooner rather than later.

I separate my body from hers, looking down for only a moment before finally redirecting my gaze upwards at her. She’s red as a tomato. I furrow my brow incredulously. I’m the one embarrassing myself, and yet she has the nerve to blush like that? When she always acts so calm and composed? Something about this whole situation is incredibly irritating.

“…I’m only going to say this once, so you’d best listen well. Understood?”

There’s no turning back now. I fix her with a piercing glare before continuing.

“I’ve made up my mind. Everything I’m about to say is my own will.”

I take a deep breath, then bury my face in her shoulder. It’s not quite so embarrassing if I don’t have to look at her when I say it.

“I’ve lived my whole life until today as someone else’s plaything. I only belonged in that family under the condition they controlled me, and I saw the world as they wished. I always thought I was content with that.”

Another deep breath. This is the hard part.

“After I met you, however, my world changed. I can finally look in the mirror and see a human being looking back. It would seem all the nonsense you put me through was in fact somewhat fun, a little enjoyable, and just an overall pleasant experience… to the point where I wished to be with you forever. That’s why…”

I squeeze her tightly. She’s incredibly soft and warm, more than I would’ve expected. I must’ve lost my mind at some point, and I clamp onto her even more tightly to release my frustration. Everything, everything is her fault. How else could I feel so unlike myself, so unable to calm my own racing heart, so nervous, so embarrassed, and yet at the same time so horrifically happy?

“…I don’t care what you have to say about it, I’ve decided to offer myself up to you.”

This is all her fault, after all, I sigh. It’s high time I made her take responsibility for what she’s done.

“Every hair on my head, every last drop of blood in my veins, I give to you.”

So long as that’s what you desire.

“But that’s…”

“You still don’t believe me?”

I slowly part from her once again. I grab her hands, then bring them gently to my neck, wrapping them around it. A frigid chill runs down my spine, unpleasant memories flooding back all at once. My brow furrows in consternation.

She said she’s afraid to suck my blood. She’s afraid of making me her own. In that case, all I need to do is give her permission.

“Even if you wish for my death, I’d allow it. If you want to make me yours, then by all means, be my guest. I shan’t deny you or hold it against you.”

“Why would you go so far…?”

I chuckle at her confusion.

“You’re the one who told me to abandon the fiendslayers and go with you. This is all your fault, you know. I don’t have any recorded past, no status, nothing. Now, I am nothing.”

Over all those things, I chose her.

“I’m ready for whatever may come my way. I’ve staked everything I have left on you, so everything is now up to you. My happiness, my unhappiness, it all comes down to you.”

I remove her hands from my neck, and the unpleasant sensation disappears all at once. I let out a faint sigh of relief.

“…You’re trusting me way too much.”

“You’re the one who taught me the ‘correct’ way to interpret others’ intent. That’s why I’ve decided to interpret your words and actions in the way that best suits me and trust you. Is that so wrong?”

“I mean… No, I guess it isn’t. But I don’t think I’m–”

Worthy of your trust, I think she means to say. I cut her short.

“You really are a fool. How about I teach you something now?”

“…?”

“What I think, I mean. Hehe, yes…”

I think back to what she’d told me some time ago.

“I don’t know if you’re truly a good person, nor will I ever know that for as long as I live. However, I would be happiest if you were a good person, and because of that, I’ve chosen to trust you. That’s the most convenient conclusion I can come to, and the one that makes me happiest.”

Suzune’s eyes fly open, then she breaks my gaze, looking down with a thin smile.

“…Y’know what, I think you must be even more of an idiot than me.”

“I must’ve caught it from you. Now’s the time you should take responsibility.”

Tears build in her eyes, and she nods.

“Okay. I think I can do that.”

“Excellent. Well then, it was a rather unpleasant experience having to lick up your blood, so now it’s your turn to do the same to me. Consider it an honour.”

“…Just out of curiosity, are you a tsundere, Kagura-chan?”

“A tsun-what?”

“N-Nah, it’s nothing.”

She giggles as she wipes away her tears. Then, she takes a step back and away from me.

“Thanks,” she whispers.

“It’s nothing worth being thanked over. You scratch my back, etcetera. Give and take, so to speak.”

“Fufu, you should at least accept a thank-you honestly.”

With that, she nears her face to my neck…

…and lips make contact.

3 thoughts on “Chapter 6: The Puppetmaster’s Show

  1. Wow that was unusual. I just wrote an extremely long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t appear.
    Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyhow, just wanted to say wonderful blog!

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