Saya reached the bottom of the mansion’s main stairwell and was greeted by the front door’s creaking, which echoed in the empty hall. A male attendant pushed the double doors open and revealed Ageha. His formal suit hardly creasing, the attendant made a polite, practiced bow, as if prompting Ageha to enter. The attendant remained outside and closed the doors after Ageha walked in.
“It feels odd using this door to come in here.”
“People normally enter through the front door, Shikimi-sama.”
“I didn’t have a choice back then.”
“Please do so from now on. People will not find it suspicious for Ojousama’s personal chef to visit the mansion regularly.”
“Even if it’s almost ten in the evening?”
“The estate attendants are aware of Ojousama’s odd sleeping habits. Speaking of which, I must apologize.” Saya mimicked the attendant’s bow earlier.
Perplexed at the unforeseen apology, Ageha cocked his head.
“I know that it was Ojousama who called for you at such an hour, but I am afraid she has fallen asleep.”
Ageha’s brow twitched.
“Then go wake her up. This part-time chef cover was her idea. I still have a job that I need to wake up early for.”
Saya kept her head lowered.
“I understand your displeasure, but I would like to request a favor. Please do not make me disturb her sleep. I am perfectly able to provide you the information in her stead.”
“…I don’t understand. What’s the big deal? She can just go back to bed after.”
“She has… sleeping problems. She rarely sleeps more than two hours a day.”
“Insomnia? Can’t she take pills for that? Anyway, raise your head. You’re making me uncomfortable.”
Saya straightened her posture. Her movements and form were always efficient and perfect, in combat or otherwise. She was unembellished yet enthralling, like a honed blade.
“Her case is a little… special. Her father wanted her to become his successor, so to maximize her time preparing for that, her sleep periods have been reduced since she was very young through drugs and conditioning.”
Ageha’s eyes narrowed as he pondered how young exactly.
“Due to the drugs’ influence, and probably because she has lived like that for most of her life, all of the treatments we have tried were ineffective. Well, it is possible that she is not actively seeking a remedy anyway.”
“Why wouldn’t she?”
“I cannot speak for her, but I think she wants the extra time for-” Saya caught herself. She realized that she must not reveal certain details to Ageha, lest he grow suspicious of Kaika’s true objective. She searched for an alternative. She noticed a family portrait depicting Karasuma and his two daughters behind Ageha.
“-her sister.” She lied.
“Are they close?”
“Not particularly. They hardly spoke with each other. That is probably why she wants to make up for lost time.”
Saya only gave out information that Ageha already had. She knew that he had investigated the Nikaidou family and would know its members at the very least.
“I see. Alright. I guess I can let her snore a bit longer.”
“Thank you very much. Also, please keep this request a secret from her.”
Ageha raised an eyebrow.
“She would want me to wake her so she can meet you personally. She fell asleep while waiting due to fatigue. Her schedule has been very busy recently, as you might imagine. Moreover, she would not want anyone to pity her.”
“I don’t pity her at all. I’m just granting your request.”
“Thank you. Well then, let us go to the drawing room so I can brief you on the details of our first endeavor.”
She started walking. Ageha naturally followed several paces behind. When they rounded the second corner in the eastern wing of the mansion, he seemed to notice something.
“Is that Kaika’s sister?”
“Yes. It seems she has been following us. You should have pretended not to notice, Shikimi-sama.”
“A gentleman should not ruin a lady’s honest efforts.”
“I don’t see anything honest in stalking.”
The two smiled at each other and then looked behind them.
A little girl in pajamas peeked at them from around the corner. A black bob cut wrapped her tiny head. Her puppy-like eyes were staring at the unfamiliar man in her house. She looked like a fourth or fifth grader and appeared a little younger than Kaika’s facade.
“Kureha-Ojousama, please come closer and introduce yourself to Kai-Ojousama’s new chef.” Saya made an inviting smile as she beckoned for Kureha to come closer.
Kureha hid herself behind the corner. She then popped her head out again. She seemed to be deep in thought.
If only Kai-Ojousama had a little of this innocence, she would be even cuter.
Kureha, her face exuding determination, slowly walked over to Saya and then tucked herself behind her. She peeked from Saya’s side and looked up at Ageha. Ageha smiled like he usually did when he met diners at Sapore. It seemed to be effective at assuaging Kureha’s fear, and she stepped away from her butler bunker.
“Hello. My name is Kureha Nikaidou. It is a pleasure to meet you,” she said. Her bow was very quick, as if she feared losing sight of the man.
“I’m Ageha Shikimi. I’m employed by your sister part-time as a cook.” Ageha knelt down to Kureha’s eye level. “I’ll be coming here to prepare meals from time to time. Is there any food that you don’t like, Kureha-chan?”
He is surprisingly good at dealing with children.
“Um, I don’t like carrots… and broccoli.”
“Understood. I’ll make chinese stir fried vegetables then.”
Or he is expectedly cruel to them.
Kureha’s endearing face withered. Ageha placed a hand on her head and said, “Just kidding. Tell me more about what you like to eat and I’ll make them for you when I can, okay?” He made a winning smile as he ruffled her bob cut.
He can be so hard to read. I wonder how Kai-Ojousama does it… Saya felt drained having flip flopped mentally in such a short time.
Saya quietly watched the two as Kureha gradually started smiling while she described her favorite dishes. Ageha laughed softly as he agreed to some of her favorites and promised to cook them for her. Saya also chipped in, telling Kureha how Kaika was enamored by Ageha’s carbonara and decided to hire him.
Judging that they should move on to their main business, Saya prompted Ageha with her eyes.
“Saionji-san and I have to discuss something so we have to go. You should also go to bed. Staying up late is bad for your growth. It was great meeting you, Kureha-chan.”
Saya wondered if Ageha had already deduced the reason behind Kaika’s childlike figure.
“It was nice meeting you too, Ageha-Oniisama.”
Ageha reflexively jerked at the address.
“It sounds better than Shikimi-Oniisama.” Saya stifled a laugh.
“Stop saying things that make me cringe, Saionji-san.”
“…I can’t call you Ageha-Oniisama, Ageha-Oniisama?” asked Kureha nervously. Her pleading face made it difficult for anyone to refuse.
Ageha sighed in resignation. “It’s okay if it’s only you.”
Kureha beamed with a faint blush on her cheeks. “Thank you!” She turned and trotted away.
The remaining two resumed their trek towards the drawing room.
“That was unexpected,” said Saya.
“That you like children.”
“I don’t particularly like them. Some are better than others.”
“Did someone specific come to mind?”
“I would not consider her a child. I also suggest that you refrain from calling her Kaika.”
“It’s her name, isn’t it?”
“She does not like being called that. Kai is her preferred term of address.”
“That’s odd. If she disliked it so much, why would she use part of it as her nickname?”
“I am afraid I cannot answer that. Please ask her directly if you wish to know.”
Ageha shrugged at the comment but quickly appeared to have lost interest.
Saya knew that Ageha was not asking these questions for no reason. He was trying to find out how much he could trust his employer, or maybe he was even trying to obtain enough information to put Kaika at a disadvantage.
They arrived at their destination after a few more minutes.
“This place is unnecessarily huge.”
“I completely agree.” Saya giggled.
She pushed open the door to the drawing room and held the door with her right hand. Ageha looked uncomfortable as he walked inside.
Saya speculated and asked, “Are you not used to having a female open doors for you?”
“It would be odd for a guy to be used to something like that, don’t you think?”
“I am flattered that you think of me as a woman despite my usual attire and manner.” She approached a terminal while conversing.
“I could tell you were a woman when I first saw you across that large main hall, despite your attire and manner.”
“Is that a compliment, Shikimi-sama?”
“I am grateful for the praise.” She pressed a button that caused a large paper thin display in front of them to glow to life.
“You don’t look like you are, though.” He laughed and took a seat at the closest sofa.
Saya did not respond. She tried to resolve the boyish charm of Ageha’s carefree laugh with the cold mercury pulsing underneath it. The combination had a complex appeal.
The face of a man in his fifties was displayed on the screen. He had grey hair, a wrinkled forehead, and a large nose.
“This man is Tsutomu Masayoshi. He is the target for this mission.”
“Who? I thought we were aiming for Kaika-, Kai’s brothers?”
“I am glad that you are such a quick study. She would be pleased if you called her that.”
“Please answer the question.”
“It would be impossible even for you to slip through the security of those two. The success rate of that plan is too low for Ojousama to seriously consider it as a valid option. I agree with her.”
“I managed to reach Karasuma.”
“Please do not be offended. She and I highly value your abilities. You were able to kill Nikaidou-sama because he was not on guard. Now that a masked killer murdered their father, Kousuke and Kazuki have reinforced their security teams. They have also become more careful about their movements.”
“I still think we can manage, with proper risk mitigation.”
“Security is not the only reason. The brothers are very close. If you eliminate one of them, there is no telling what the other will do. A desperate counterattack is not unlikely.”
“Then we can just get rid of them together.”
“That will be even harder. It is already hard to predict the movements of one target. Finding out when they will meet is much more difficult. Moreover, security will be doubled when they are together. This is also not an option.”
“Understood.” He nodded with no dissatisfaction.
Pride that easily loses to logic. A formidable quality.
“Tsutomu Masayoshi is a trusted adviser of Nozomu Chiba, the CEO of Excell Corporation.”
“Excell… The battery company?”
“The electrochemical research company, yes. Apparently, Masayoshi and Chiba have been acquainted since high school. Ojousama’s older brother, Kousuke, recently bribed Masayoshi to convince Chiba to go through with a proposed partnership with NGC.”
Information on Excell flitted across the display.
“I see. If Masayoshi is removed, then the deal goes up in smoke.”
“This deal is significantly beneficial to NGC because the contract stipulates that NGC will gain sole rights to any Artificial Musculature and Skeleton related technology that Excell has. Excell has little reason to take the deal, save for the chance that having a powerful ally like NGC will pay off in the future. This is likely the angle that Masayoshi is using to persuade Chiba. Chiba holds great influence over the board, so the partnership will surely happen with his approval.”
“Has Nikaidou-, Kousuke promised this to the NGC directors?”
“No, but he is the one heading the effort.”
“Based on the information, Masayoshi meets my conditions. But will weakening Kousuke’s standing really lead to Kai’s safety?”
“With less influence, he will have less room to maneuver. Also, this is only the first step in Ojousama’s plan. However, even I am not privy to the details of that.”
“I find that hard to believe. Doesn’t she trust you?”
“She does not even trust herself, Shikimi-sama.”
“That’s not true.” A high-pitched melodious voice invaded the room as the door swung open.
Both Ageha and Saya turned towards the sound.
“I trust both of you,” said Kaika, who was wearing only a large white shirt as pajamas. She looked Saya in the eye.
Saya reflexively bowed, removing her hands from the terminal and placing them snugly on her sides.
“I apologize for saying such presumptuous words.”
Saya realized that she should not be speaking of Kaika that way to Ageha. It would endanger Kaika’s control over him.
“No need for that. So, how’s it coming along?”
“We just finished going through the target rationale. Next is the details of the operation.”
“Perfect. Time for a break. Ageha, cook breakfast.” Her wavy, unbound hair, which reached her hips, swayed gently as she placed her arms akimbo.
“…What?” Ageha could not resist looking at the clock on the far wall. Only thirty minutes had passed since he arrived.
“I want something Japanese.”
“It’s 10:30 p.m.”
“So? I just woke up.”
“I’m a chef at an italian ristorante.”
“You’re also Japanese.”
Ageha did not even try to hide his stupefaction at her absolutely self-centered demand.
“I’m paying you as a chef, too. Make something worth my money.”
She was right. Ageha was being paid properly as a chef even though it was only an excuse for him to commute to the Nikaidou estate without arousing suspicion.
“Kureha is also looking forward to it. I bumped into her on the way here.” The elder sister wore a tender smile.
Ageha paused in thought for a while. His shoulders dropped, and he sighed. “Okay, okay. Japanese breakfast for two?”
“Five. Two portions for Saya.”
“Kai-Ojousama,” warned the butler.
“Four it is.” The chef seemed to understand that he was invited to the meal.
“How picky, just like your sister.”
After the parting shot, Ageha left the drawing room and headed to the mansion’s well-equipped kitchen.
Saya closed the door after ensuring that the corridor was deserted.
“Be more careful about what you say to him.” There was no anger in the mistress’s voice, only a hint of concern.
“I understand. I apologize for earlier.”
“Well, getting along with him is also in our interests… Was he so charming that you let your tongue slip?”
“He has potential as a child molester and a ladies’ man, but that had nothing to do with my mistake. I was just careless. It shall not happen again.”
“That composure is why you aren’t fun to tease.” The girl pouted childishly.
“Speak for yourself.”
“Right, let’s go to the kitchen and prank someone more worthwhile. Get Kureha on the way. She should be in my room.”
Saya wished that Kaika would at least find solace in peaceful times like these despite fully understanding how improbable that was.
This world can be so unfair.