“Masayoshi is dead.”
“What!?” shouted Kousuke, unconsciously rising from his black leather office chair.
“He was run over by a truck on his way to the Excell office,” said Kazuki.
“Is that a joke? What is with that timing!?” Kousuke’s chiseled, clean-shaven face contorted in anger.
Kazuki, the older, shorter, and much rounder of the two, stood a few paces from Kousuke’s desk. He continued his report without taking a seat, as if he were an assistant.
“It was not a coincidence. Most of his guards were found dead in the area. One of them was taken to the hospital but died from blood loss before he could provide any information about what happened. They were killed by a disguised man.”
“Are there any witnesses?” Kousuke sat back down, looking drained.
“Dozens on-site. Thousands if you count those who watched the videos.”
“What do you mean? Where exactly was he killed?”
“He was attacked on the main street of Akihabara. An event was being held in the exhibition hall near where his SUV was found. A bomb threat was delivered to the building administrators, so they had to evacuate all the attendees into the street. Masayoshi was run over a few blocks away.”
“Send someone to investigate that threat. It’s definitely from the same camp that killed him.”
“I can, but do not expect to find anything.” Kazuki looked hesitant.
“I know. I just want the culprit to know we aren’t fools.”
“Would it not be more prudent to pretend ignorance?”
“No, we need a show of power. We are being underestimated.” Kousuke tightened his clenched fist and tapped it on his spacious desk.
“Understood. Do you have any suspects?”
“There are far too many who fit the bill if we consider motive alone. A lot of people don’t want NGC to partner with Excell.” He placed a finger on his temple, eyebrows furrowed in thought. “It’s probably Saionji.”
“Kaika’s aide?” Kazuki raised an eyebrow. His eyes hardly widened because of the flab on his cheeks.
“Yes. She’s probably trying to weaken our influence on the board so she can worm herself in.”
Kousuke knew that Saya was not just a mere butler. Being Kaika’s current legal guardian, she had limited control over Kaika’s assets and represented the heiress during board meetings and deliberations.
“Why suspect her in particular?”
“The surveillance team watching Kaika’s group and the one monitoring Excell ran into each other.”
“Saionji was meeting with someone from Excell?”
“Several times. The pieces fit.” Kousuke nodded to himself, having decided his theory made sense. “She’s probably going for the partnership deal. Engineering my failure and then getting the deal through another channel should be more than enough for her to gain recognition.”
“Under Kaika’s orders?”
“I don’t think that runt is capable of something like this. Saionji is probably using her. Kaika has majority control of the company and could just strong-arm us out if she really wanted to.”
“She would make enemies of the whole board. No one in their right mind would do something like that.”
“I know. That’s probably why Saya is trying to undermine me. She might be aiming for the same thing we are. All of this is circumstantial, but prepare countermeasures anyway.”
“I will.” Kazuki smiled. “Impressive insight, as always.”
“Flattery will get you nowhere.” Kousuke was pleased.
“Which is why you know it is sincere. You may want to watch a video of the incident to get the details on exactly what happened.”
Kazuki briskly left the office in order to carry out his brother’s instructions.
Kousuke accepted the suggestion and searched for the video using the terminal on his desk. He easily found several uploaded versions of the event and selected the most popular one. The video maximized and started playing.
A man clad in a charcoal trenchcoat leapt over a silver grey SUV and zipped through a horde of people. He engaged and defeated a man in a suit and then followed another man into an alley. Then everything froze.
Kaika removed her finger from the button that paused the video on the display.
“…Well? What happened?” Kaika’s white, frilled blouse crumpled beneath her crossed arms. Saya stood silently behind her.
“I already gave you my report,” said Ageha.
“That is not what I mean.”
“What do you mean?.”
“Why did such a simple operation result in you plastering your face all over the net!?” Her striped blue skirt twirled as she whipped her finger to point at the screen.
“It would have been all over the news anyway. Killing people in broad daylight has that side effect.” He was slouched on one of the leather sofas in the drawing room.
“The whole point of the disguise was to make it easier for you to disappear into the crowd, not be the spotlight of it.”
“I was wearing a mask. My identity is safe.”
“Except that they know you are a man with above average height that has ARMS. You practically advertised it with your inhuman stunts.”
“Aren’t those stunts your reason for this partnership?”
“Not when it’s showcased to everyone, including my brothers. The whole point of holding cards is to keep them from view.”
Ageha did not argue back. Logic sided with Kaika.
“A truck driver did a better job than you.”
But she pushed too much.
“It was your lack of information that caused this. He was in the passenger’s seat, and his guard had ARMS. I could have eliminated him easily if you took more time to investigate.”
Saya flinched at Ageha’s accusation.
“He was meeting Chiba today! We had no time to get information on everything. Only his personal guards could know where he sits inside the car.” Kaika skewered Ageha with her glare.
“That’s just you not delivering on your promise. I remember information was part of my compensation.”
“And you were supposed to compensate for minor issues like car seating.”
They threateningly scowled at each other during a short pause in the verbal tussle.
“Besides, how can a geezer like him outrun you? You have cybernetic legs!”
“There were a lot of people that got in the way. Your plan of using the crowd backfired.”
“It was a calculated risk. I wanted to keep your capabilities a secret. It would have succeeded if you had killed Masayoshi in the vehicle then immediately incorporated yourself into the crowd.”
“It was a risk we didn’t need to take. I could have intercepted the vehicle in a less populated area.”
“Why would it even matter? Your physical ability should have allowed you to bypass the obstacles.”
“I took a chance that I would be able to catch Masayoshi without getting others involved. Like you said, a calculated risk.”
“I didn’t think you were so poor at math. You should have just run them-”
“Ojousama,” interjected Saya, “I think we should calm down, cease this bickering, and discuss future-”
“Silence! Don’t speak as if you aren’t involved in this fiasco. You were the one who conducted the investigation on the target.” Kaika’s glare flew to Saya and caused the butler to firmly close her lips.
“But you were the one who decided to continue the operation despite Saionji-san’s warning that we didn’t have enough information on the guard detail,” said Ageha.
“Do you really think strategists laugh in triumph because their plans were proven foolproof? No, the joy comes from winning their gambles. Nothing of worth can be achieved without a corresponding amount of risk.”
“Then you simply lost the gamble this time.”
“Indeed, the one I took when I partnered with you.” Her voice was uncharacteristically low. She turned her head to the side, as if refusing to look at Ageha’s face.
Several tar-like seconds passed.
“I guess that’s it then,” said Ageha. He sighed, stood up, then walked towards the closed doors.
“Shikimi-sama!” Saya called after him.
Ageha did not stop and exited the room. Saya turned to her mistress.
“Kai-Ojousama!” she said in a scolding tone before she followed Ageha outside.
Ageha brusquely walked away from the drawing room.
This was doomed from the start.
“Shikimi-sama! Please wait!”
His sleeve was held back, so he stopped and turned to Saya. Her face showed worry. He was surprised at the amount of emotion on her normally immovable features.
“You heard her. The deal is off.”
“That was just her temper speaking. Please do not let something so insignificant sway your commitment.”
Ageha understood that Saya was trying to appeal to his pride and compel him to take the high road. He conceded despite that knowledge, took a deep breath, and changed gears.
“I admit that I also lost my cool in there. I don’t dislike the current arrangement, but if Kai wants me out, then that’s it. I don’t know what I can do to remedy that.”
“I will talk to her. She merely requires time to calm down. I am sure that she realizes that she overreacted earlier.”
“…Okay. What should I do?”
“Please stay within the mansion. I will speak with Ojousama and find you so that we can resolve this petty conflict and put it behind us.”
“Sorry for being petty.” He put on a wry smile.
“..! I didn’t mean it like that!”
It was the first time he saw the butler flustered.
“You actually dropped formalities.”
Awareness showed on Saya’s face. She attempted to bow.
But Ageha placed an index finger on her forehead before she could complete the action.
“I prefer it that way.”
Saya had to turn her eyes up to look at Ageha because of her half bow. Raising her head, she ceased contact with Ageha’s fingertip.
“I cannot do so given my position.”
“That’s too bad.” Ageha shrugged his shoulders.
“Anyway, please wait inside the mansion while I speak with her.” She spoke rapidly as if she wanted to end the conversation.
Is she embarrassed? Ageha could not ascertain because her facial muscles appeared even more paralyzed than usual.
“Got it. I’ll leave it to you.”
Saya turned around and marched towards the drawing room. Her gait was visibly nervous. Her trepidation showed how arduous a task she was about to undertake. Her hand wrapped around the doorknob, but before she twisted it open, she said, “Thanks for defending me earlier,” in an almost inaudible voice.
Ageha was not sure if he was supposed to hear it so he kept quiet.
After Saya disappeared into the drawing room, Ageha decided to go to the kitchen to wait. He considered the kitchen as his office for this cover job. He paced towards the location but did not get far before he noticed that he was being tailed again.
For someone who likes stalking people so much, she’s horrible at it.
Around the corner behind him was Kureha in pajamas. She quickly hid herself after seeing Ageha turn to face her.
“Come on out. I won’t bite.”
Kureha’s body slowly emerged from her hiding spot.
Ageha walked over to meet her halfway. She looked at him with a hint of caution that was not there when they parted last.
“Did you… have a fight with Oneesama?” She fidgeted nervously.
So that’s it. Maybe I should reevaluate her stalking stat.
“You were listening?”
“I did not mean to. I just heard Oneesama’s voice…”
“It was pretty loud, wasn’t it? Did we scare you? Sorry about that.” Ageha made a guilty expression.
“No, it was not that scary.” Kureha forced a smile.
“Why did you two fight?” she asked after hesitating several times.
“Well, I kind of screwed up on the job.”
“Did Oneesama dislike the taste?”
“…Oh, yes, something like that. I kind of lost my temper too so it ended up like it did.”
Kureha fell silent for a while but then looked up to the much taller Ageha and asked, “…Will you stop coming over?”
Ageha felt a little prick in his chest. He was surprised that he did but attributed it to his obsession with fairness. It would be unfair to Kureha if he suddenly disappeared. She quite liked him.
“I can only depend on Saya now, but it’s ultimately Kai’s decision.”
“I am glad. I thought you wanted to leave…” Kureha’s face, which was on the brink of tears, formed a cute beam. Her smile was perfect for a child her age. It reminded Ageha of Kaika due to the stark contrast.
“I’ll have to if Kai doesn’t reconsider.”
“I do not think you have to worry about that.”
“What do you mean?”
“You call her Kai, right? All of the other servants call her Ojousama. She ordered them not to call her by name, ever.”
Ageha was caught off guard by this bit of trivia and could not respond.
“Also, I rarely see Oneesama get truly angry, but when she does, it is only at Saya.”
“You mean she only gets angry at people she cares about? But if that’s the case, doesn’t she get angry at you too?”
Kureha gazed at the floor and gradually worded her thoughts.
“…I… do not think Oneesama likes me very much. I am afraid of people… and I cannot do anything well. But Oneesama is good at everything. She must think I am pitiful… like Father did. I love her though.”
Ageha did not know much about Kaika’s feelings towards Kureha, so he could only parrot what Saya said before.
“Isn’t she spending more time with you recently?”
“Well, I often go to her room, but she is usually not there. She is always busy.”
Did Saionji-san lie? No, Kai is probably just occupied with her brothers.
“Thanks for the encouragement, Kureha-chan. I guess I’ll just wait for the good news then.”
Ageha placed his hand on Kureha’s head and gently moved his fingers through her hair. Kureha closed her eyes like a purring cat being rubbed on the chin.
Ageha opted to forgo his trip to the kitchen and continued his conversation with Kureha. He sat down on the carpet, and she followed suit. They talked about various subjects, from more serious topics like how Kureha’s mother died giving birth to her, to more mischievous ones like what food Kaika hated the most so Ageha could trick her into eating it. The timid Kureha gradually opened up to Ageha and paused a lot less during their talk.
She probably just needs someone to talk to, like I did back then.
The sound of multiple footsteps wedged into their chat.
Ageha and Kureha directed their attention at the pair walking their way. Saya made eye contact with Ageha and nodded. Kaika followed a few steps behind her aide, but she kept her eyesight focused on the hallway wall and would not look at Ageha. The duo came to a stop when they were close enough for conversation. Ageha and Kureha stood up on cue. The hallway remained silent until Saya chose to break the impasse.
Kaika, prodded into action, looked directly at Ageha and said, “I overreacted. It wasn’t so bad for a first job. Even though it was a truck that actually did it.” The last part was a mumble that could hardly be heard.
“No, I could have handled the situation better. If I had better info.” Ageha did the same but mostly in jest.
“Okay, now let us drop this so we can discuss future steps,” said Saya, closing the book on the issue.
“About that, I think I should come back some other time. It’s already late.”
“No, it isn’t like that. I just think it would be better to start fresh.” He pointed at Kaika, who still looked miffed, with his eyes. Saya seemed to understand his intentions.
“Understood. I shall walk you to the gate.”
His refusal rejected, Ageha left the mansion together with Saya after he exchanged farewells with the sisters.
The two remaining in the hallway started walking towards Kaika’s room.
“So, did you have a good chat with Ageha?”
“Yes, Oneesama. I came to the drawing room like you said I should and then heard your voices. All of a sudden, Ageha-Oniisama came out. I was surprised, so I hid. But I was curious so…”
“I see. You did well.” Kaika placed her hand on her sister’s ivory cheek and fondly caressed it with her thumb. Likely not knowing what exactly pleased her sister, Kureha happily accepted the compliment.
Upon reaching her room, Kaika, saying that she wanted to rest, apologized to Kureha and asked to be left alone for the night.
“‘I am happy I was able to chat with you so it is fine,’ huh?” Kaika spoke the words her sister told her moments ago as she lay prone on her spacious bed.
She disliked Kureha’s innocence. It reminded her of possibilities that she never had. The lack of freedom in her past compelled her to focus on the future instead.
To Kaika, failure was not something one recovers from. It was an opportunity to capitalize on. Emotion was the same.
I don’t even know where genuine starts and where illusion ends.
She remembered the smoldering anger she felt during the argument with Ageha. She questioned if it was true emotion, or just a method for the act, or if she even had true emotions at all.
Was Kureha insurance or propaganda?
Did she fear losing Ageha because of her wrath and placed Kureha there to stop him? Or did she just use Kureha as a mouthpiece to paint an amiable image of herself for Ageha? She herself did not know.
‘She does not even trust herself, Shikimi-sama.’ Saya was right. She felt sorry for her loyal aide who even tried to prevent her from alienating Ageha when she was about to belittle the safety of innocents. Saya was in the dark. Drama was at its best when the actress forgot it was a performance.
It was all for control. The power she wielded was for that purpose alone. A mistress cannot have equals.
“Can it be called solitude if the self isn’t real?” she asked her pillow.
Another long night of such morbid musings awaited her.