“We will now hold the election for the position of Chief Executive Officer. That said, there is only one candidate after I, the interim holder of the position, have withdrawn. The motion will be passed once a majority vote is reached. Those in favor of Kazuki Nikaidou succeeding the CEO position of the Nikaidou Group of Companies, please say aye.”
The faces displayed on the large screen almost simultaneously voted affirmative. There was one that did not join the overlapping agreements and remained silent.
It must be hard having to vote for me.
Kazuki observed Saya’s face on the left corner of the screen. It was a blank sheet with no trace of disdain. After a few seconds, she parted her lips and cast her vote.
“The vote is unanimous. Congratulations, you are now the CEO of NGC,” said the man with an air of dignity only fortified by his advanced years.
“Thank you, Makita-san, everyone. Being able to succeed my father and support our company is a great honor. While I am unsure if someone like myself is up to the task, I pledge to give my utmost in serving the interests of our corporation.”
“You do not have to be so humble. It was due to your efforts that the bill for reduced restrictions on cybernetics was passed, Nikaidou-san.”
“Please call me Kazuki like before. I will always be grateful for your support, and I am hoping for your assistance in the future. I have much to learn from from all of you.” His tone was completely sincere as he bowed, his face disappearing from the profile box on the screen.
“I believe I am speaking for most of us here when I say that your achievement is laudable. You managed to follow through despite such a tragedy. To die of illness at such a young age…” said a female member of the board of directors, looking truly distraught.
She must have a thing for Kousuke. That damn gigolo. Well, it was handy so I shouldn’t complain.
“Kousuke’s passing… was a shock to us all. He was not only a brother to me, but a trusted and reliable partner. I was surprised that he kept his heart problem a secret even to me, but it was also typical of him to not want others to worry. It was unfortunate that his latest project did not materialize despite all his hard work. His contacts trusted him alone. It would have gone well if he… were still here. He deserves this position, not I.” Kazuki’s chubby cheeks trembled in grief.
“The bill you helped pass will rake in more profits in the next six months than the Exceed partnership would have yielded in years. I do not know what you did, but convincing that stubborn Kawahara to whip the votes in the lower house was quite a feat. I am sure Kousuke would be glad that it was you who took his place,” said Makita, wrinkles outlining his smile.
“Thank you. I will do my best to live up to your expectations.”
Several more topics relating to Kazuki’s promotion were discussed. The faces on the screen bleeped out one by one as farewells were traded at the end of the meeting. Kazuki finally dropped from the call.
That went better than I thought. I prepared for the possibility that Saionji would make a desperate attempt to denounce my election, but I guess Kaika is too smart to do something that would ruin her reputation among the board. Smart, but naive.
Kaika lost the moment Kureha was killed. Threats only had meaning if they came from the winning side. Kawahara happily took a nice chunk of NGC shares for betraying Kaika. It was a bribe Kazuki, unlike his sister who had to keep fifty-one percent, could afford to dole out after inheriting Kousuke’s shares.
He was satisfied with his victory, but it did not make him overconfident. He had lived most of his life being the underdog, so confidence was something he industriously built. Those luckily gifted with self-assurance tended to overestimate themselves. He was not one of them.
Kazuki was still in hiding and generally conducted business digitally. The board of directors were not aware of his current situation because most matters could be handled without the need for physical presence. Holing up did not hurt his pride like it did for Kousuke. That intrinsic difference was probably why one was on the throne of the NGC empire, while the other in a coffin.
He scanned through several documents he needed to study for a meeting with a business partner this afternoon.
But I didn’t expect her to have enough military power to actually kill Kousuke. Reprogramming Unit 02 to get rid of him was a wasted effort.
He expected both Kaika and Kousuke to fall when they clashed, but his little sister was proving to be more resilient than he predicted.
I’ll make sure that you catch up on the shut eye you missed all these years, sister.
Rin rolled on her bed for the thirty-seventh time tonight. Her long, disheveled hair clung to her face and neck. Her panties and belly button were exposed due to her loose nightie catching between her bolster and the bed. She normally disliked such exposure because she got cold easily, but her mind was too occupied for such trivial worries.
It can’t be…
She recalled what she saw several days ago. She had been hiking with a group of friends but got separated from them. Too embarrassed to call her companions and admit that she was lost, she wandered around alone in the forests of Mount Takao. A surreal sight welcomed her as she approached a clearing. A masked man dressed in black was leaning on a tree. The setting sun illuminated red stains all over his body.
Rin instinctively hid herself behind a tree. She knew that revealing herself to a strange man covered in blood was not the wisest thing to do. She silenced her breathing as her heartbeat drummed loudly in her ears. She continued to watch because she feared losing sight of the mysterious individual.
The man reached for his mask and slowly removed it. He wiped the blood dribbling down his brow and cheek using the back of his hand. His face was clearly visible despite the shade from the trees darkening his features. She wanted to deny it, but she had studied that face far too well to mistake it. She remained still until the bloody young man, her co-worker, friend, and maybe something more, donned his mask again and left.
“Come on. Stop being so stubborn, Ageha-sama. You came all the way here already.”
“Okay, okay. I’m going.”
The butler, walking in front of the chef as she held his hand in hers, pulled him towards their destination. Their mistress was already there, impatiently watching their stop-and-go approach.
“Kureha-Ojousama, I have finally managed to drag your pigheaded Oniisama here.” The two of them lined up next to the first visitor and faced the tombstone.
“Stop openly insulting people like that.”
“It is not an insult if it is true.”
“No, by definition, it doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not. It’s still an insult.”
“So you admit that it is true then.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“…You two,” said Kaika, brows furrowed.
“I apologize, Ojousama.”
“She started it.”
“I’m fine with you flirting, but please choose the time and place. Holding hands in front of Kureha’s grave… I wouldn’t be surprised if she haunted you both.” She shook her head, her eyes shut.
Saya’s hand flew from Ageha’s as if it were a hot pan.
“We were not doing anything of the sort. I only hauled this mulish dolt over to pay respects.”
“Is it just my imagination or have you been verbally abusing me recently? With increasing brutality.”
“It is just your imagination.”
Ageha had not looked at the tombstone directly since entering the Nikaidou family cemetery. It was obvious from his demeanor that guilt still gripped his heart.
“Are you still worried about seeing Kureha before Kazuki is dealt with? Let me tell you, that promise may seem cool to you men, but it’s nothing but a nuisance to women. Put yourself in the shoes of the one who has to wait while you try to sate your pointless pride,” said Kaika. She sounded harsh, but her intentions were less thorny.
You can’t trip up here. We’ve only just started.
Ageha remained silent but directed his gaze to Kureha’s grave. He walked closer and reached out to the tombstone. He gently brushed the top, as if dusting it off.
“It’s just not the same. Even if it’s about the same height, it’s not fluffy at all,” he muttered, a miserable smile soiling his fine features.
The other two remained silent. Saya held her breath, as though suppressing an emotion.
His hand limply returned to his side. Kaika noticed the repaired silver ring on Ageha’s right hand. It was the same hand he used to touch the monument.
I guess it doesn’t matter if there’s no hair to catch on anymore.
Kaika glimpsed the vacuum that had been carved out of Ageha by Kureha’s demise. Wearing the gift on his right hand was likely a constant reminder that Kureha was no more. Whether that would lead him to salvation or carnage, even Kaika did not know. But she knew she could tilt the odds.
At the edge of Kaika’s vision, she saw Saya’s torment as the young woman fixated on Ageha. It was a brief leakage of her naked feelings. It was blinding, beautiful.
“Thank you for bringing me here, Saya.”
“..! I… I just thought that… You are welcome.”
It was a short visit. There was no farewell. All he said was a concise apology. Kaika understood that Ageha held no romantic sentiments about death. What he came here to do was to resolve his feelings, his reality, and his desire.
“You two can go ahead. I want some time alone with her,” said Kaika.
Ageha and Saya both looked surprised but nodded and walked away.
Such a rude pair.
Kaika watched them until they were out of earshot. She turned to Kureha’s gravestone. She wordlessly stared at the intricately engraved name. Her expression gradually darkened.
“I know you won’t forgive me, especially for what I’m doing to Ageha. I deserve every bit of hate you can throw at me…” Her voice started shaking.
“I knew your death was a possibility when I invited that attack. I also knew what it could do to Ageha. But I didn’t know… what I wanted to happen..! I just calculated the odds and rolled the dice without placing a bet..!” She gripped the skirt of her black dress as if trying to tear it. Tears rolled down her cheeks. “I can’t even proudly say I killed you..! I’m so sorry!”
Kaika cursed her own weakness. She should have been willing to sacrifice anything and bear any loss to see her goal realized. Yet she could not even kill her estranged sister. To her, it was the utmost insult to the life that had been used and extinguished. Forestalling her own decision, she had simply let luck decide the outcome.
“I’m sorry the sister you looked up to is such a coward! To top it all off, I lost!!! To that pig!!!”
The sacrifice was further blemished by her failure to see through Kazuki’s facade even though he saw through hers. Mutilated to the point of being unrecognizable, her pride was in tatters.
But that was a minor setback.
Despite being peerless amongst those her age, Kaika’s life was a string of defeats. She was shackled, blindfolded, and gagged. She was helpless and could not change most outcomes. Losing was nothing new, and piecing together her shattered pride was second nature. Gamblers always lost more times than they won. What mattered was when they won.
Kaika soon ceased her outburst and dried her face. Unbinding her twintails, she pulled off her ribbon and placed it on top of Kureha’s offering altar. She took out the pair of crimson clamshell hair ties, which was the one and only present from her sister, and clumsily bundled her hair with untrained fingers. Her head looked more unkempt than ever, but anyone would agree that her current self was her most regal appearance.
“Your death will be redeemed. The perfect condiment I created and you completed will spice up this bland world,” she promised without falsehood for the first time since she could remember.
Kaika and Ageha believed themselves strong because they held nothing important. They were both wrong.
This rusted world will move forward, even if I have to make it crawl on its hands and knees.
Volume One End.