Part 8: Witch of Miracles
October 4th, 1986, 7:00 PM
Since Kinzo's seat at the high end of the table was empty, if you turned the whole thing around, it sort of looked like Erika was the host of this dinner...
After Gohda's announcement, dinner began with the almost customary applause. It was finally the beginning of the dinner orchestra conducted by Toshiro Gohda. Except for Krauss's household, sitting at such a majestic dinner table was no everyday thing for these people by any means. However, they were all used to it and acted as though this was completely normal.
...Again, if anyone was to be surprised, it should have been Erika. And yet, she showed no surprise at this dinner and acted with composure, blending in with everyone else. There wasn't even a sliver of the fear one might expect from someone who had wandered here like a lost puppy.
"...She's a strange child. She doesn't seem the least bit flustered over the Ushiromiya family's grandest dinner of the year."
"Kids these days have nerves of steel. Definitely not something I dislike."
"Is Furudo-san used to meals such as this one...? She seems to be quite composed."
"No kiddin'. She seems very experienced. Heck, I still get confused about which fork I'm supposed to use next. Yeah... was it this one, or this one...? Wahahahahaha!"
Without showing any confusion over the line of utensils in front of her, Erika gracefully ate her hors d'oeuvres. Hideyoshi had started joking around with her, gripping a fork in each hand. Of course, the president of a company in the food service industry like Hideyoshi would obviously know his table manners. However, thinking that Erika must be nervous over this dinner, he had intentionally spoken with a comic tone of voice.
As soon as she began talking about chopsticks, her eyes started glittering. The smile she now showed for the first time was far different from the dignity she had shown before and more like something you'd expect from someone her age.
"*giggle*. But you would use a spoon for curry and rice, wouldn't you?"
"Just make it as donburi. Is there anyone who eats gyuudon with a spoon? Of course not. For the Japanese, it's absolutely, positively, totally chopsticks! So, Gohda-san. Would you mind bringing me some chopsticks? I want to show everyone how a true Japanese person should eat, without any shame!"
"...By the way, what are we eating next?"
"Unfortunately, that would be soup."
As she pretended to shrug, Erika winked at everyone.
Of course, no one was laughing at her. She obviously knew that soup came after hors d'oeuvres in a full course meal. Furthermore, Erika had even noticed that she'd been performing too perfectly and creating a sense of tension... and that this was why Hideyoshi had tried to break the ice. That's why she'd started behaving a little childish and light-hearted, acting out the part of a guest enjoying a harmonious dinner...
Pretty soon, not only Kyrie, but everyone else also caught on. Even though she was an uninvited guest, she was apparently worthy of participating in an Ushiromiya family dinner.
"Smart kid. Did she really just come here by coincidence? Don't tell me you secretly called your illegitimate child to today's family conference, Nii-san?"
"It seems she's not only smart, but knows how to brighten the mood too. And her manners are simply wonderful. It wouldn't be bad at all to have this girl as a daughter."
"Hihihihi. That's pretty cruel. Where does that leave Jessica-chan?"
"*giggle*. That's mean, Rudolf nii-san."
"What's wrong, Jessica-chan? Headache?"
"Uuuu... I get the feeling my reputation's taking a dip..."
"Well, as the daughter of the head family, I doubt you're any worse. Try using those table manners and dignity Aunt Natsuhi's always training you with, and fight back!"
"Wanna see, wanna see! Wanna see table manners! Uu-!"
"Hey, jumping around is bad manners. Come on, Jessica-chan. Show us how it's done."
"...S, sure, of course..."
Jessica straightened up so much it looked like someone had poked her back with a pole. She had good posture, but it somehow lacked elegance.
She sat at attention with her gaze fixed straight ahead, tried to bring her food to her mouth despite this, and failed miserably. Dad, who was sitting next to her, suddenly realized that something was up.
"Hm? What is it, Jessica-chan? Your stomach hurt??"
Jessica turned bright red. Ah, sorry, I can't help myself... We laughed our heads off. Jessica protested, still bright red. Aunt Natsuhi scolded us for being too improper. Well, no matter how much we try to smooth it over, we are who we are. We couldn't act like we were anything else.
Still, that laugh really did help us to relax. We were so concerned about the guest getting nervous that we had grown even more nervous ourselves. Our chatter from the center of this long table spread to both ends, and ultimately, the dinner went even more smoothly than usual...
Gohda won unanimous acclaim and was praised for his skill by all present...
After a short period of harmony following the meal, it was decided that we would return to the guesthouse. Normally, dinner tended to have a very dark atmosphere about it, and the adults would often move right on to the family conference with the same dark atmosphere. However, perhaps because this year's dinner had been oddly peaceful, everyone decided to take a break, the adults included. After eating, taking a bath, and relaxing while watching TV, I wonder if they'll gather again in the mansion in the middle of all this rain and resume their high-tension family conference... I'd rather not think about that.
Apparently, Aunt Eva got very worked up trying to convince the rest to start the family conference right away, but it didn't look like many people agreed with her. The meeting had probably come to a close for the night. Since they had guesthouse duty, Gohda-san and Kumasawa-san were chosen to guide us to the guesthouse. It must be tough for Gohda-san. Even after making and cleaning up such an extravagant dinner, he also has the midnight shift at the guesthouse. I heard that Kumasawa-san, old as she was, would be going to sleep soon. It seems she was assigned a spare room in the guesthouse.
"...Thank you very much."
"Why not rest a bit? Are you sure you feel alright?"
"...That's right. I'd totally forgotten, but you nearly drowned and floated here, didn't you, Erika-chan? It's probably best if you take it easy today and get to bed early."
"...I'm perfectly fine. On the contrary, I'm so nervous and excited that I doubt I could get to sleep."
"Uu-uu-!! Then let's play, let's all play together! Play cards!"
Maria latched on to her, giggling. This lack of restraint particular to youth was very much like Maria. However, we really should be worrying about Erika's physical condition now.
"Maria, why don't you play cards with us. Erika onee-chan is tired."
"...I like cards. Please let me join you after I've had a short break."
"Uu-uu-uu-!! All right!!"
"...Oh, that is the Golden Witch, Beatrice-sama."
"...The Golden... Witch."
"What're you doing, brats? Head off back to the guesthouse right away."
Dad, Kyrie-san, Aunt Eva, Uncle Hideyoshi, and Aunt Rosa all came over. The guesthouse party had all gathered. However, Erika's gaze was captured by the portrait of the witch, and she simply stared at it for a while...
Perhaps because it was too early for them all to disperse into their individual rooms, the relatives who had returned to the guesthouse all gathered on the first floor, continuing their chat. The topic... was the witch's epitaph, which Erika had taken an interest in.
"...It really is a fascinating riddle. He stuck it out in a place where anyone could see it, challenging our intelligence. I love that kind of challenge."
"Whoa. You seem surprisingly interested, Erika-chan. Do you like solving riddles or something?"
When she said that, the adults stopped moving, and slowly turned to face Erika...
"Why, do you think that...?"
Aunt Eva spoke with a coaxing voice. Though there had been whisperings between the relatives every now and then that the person who solved the epitaph's riddle might be given the family inheritance, that had been nothing more than wishful thinking, since such a thing had never been specifically stated. And yet, though she had only read it once... this outsider had already reached that conclusion. How had she come to it?
No, that's not the problem. 'If you solve the epitaph, you can become the next head'. She wasn't trying to make it sound like wishful thinking... but an outright fact. So they closed in around Erika, asking why she was so sure.
BGM: Smile-less Soiree
"But displayed it in his mansion. That means the riddle is directed at the people in this mansion."
"You're right... Since it's inside the mansion, there's no way for someone who can't enter the mansion to solve it. So, that means Grandfather has been challenging the people in this mansion."
"...<Good>. Well thought. Just by the simple fact that the epitaph is inside the mansion, it's possible to figure out that much."
At first, this Furudo Erika girl had seemed to be the fairly silent type, but apparently, that wasn't the case. When she grew excited about being challenged to a game of wits, she became much more talkative than I had imagined.
"I, I see... Well, it does make sense that an epitaph inside a mansion would be there so the people in that mansion could read it..."
"But... can you really be so sure that the one who solves it will be given the headship too?"
"...If the treasure gained by solving the riddle were something small, I wouldn't even have considered that."
"That's right. The hidden gold is worth 20 billion. You could consider it the wealth of the Ushiromiya family itself."
...The idea that the person who solved the epitaph would be chosen as the next head was something that had been floating around between a few of the relatives for a while now. However, since that had never been stated specifically, it had been nothing more than an optimistic dream. Thinking this, they had decided to abandon all consideration of this point until it could be made clear. Erika had clearly declared that this uncertain part was, in fact, true. If one of the relatives had said it, people would have thought it to be merely an optimistic dream.
However, when Furudo Erika, a complete outsider, declared this, her words seemed more credible than they otherwise would have... Everyone remained silent for a while, slowly considering what those words implied...
"...S, sorry to butt in, but my father is the successor to the head. It doesn't matter who finds the gold, because just finding it doesn't make someone the head, right?"
Jessica thought the treasure-hunting part of the epitaph was really fun. However, she couldn't help but let her expression grow bitter once they started talking about undermining her father's position...
"...By using deductive reasoning based upon my theory, it seems likely that Kinzo-san doesn't want the successor to the head, Krauss-san, to inherit that position very smoothly."
"Wh, why's that?!!"
"...Becoming the head of the Ushiromiya family, with all of the vast wealth it entails, would mean gaining a great deal of influence in a political sense. In that case, the succession must be overseen vigorously, without letting any element of chance creep into the equation."
"Th, that's right. It happens a lot in those stories about Sengoku period military commanders that my husband loves. When there are multiple candidates for the successor, it usually results in an internal squabble..."
"...That's right... That's why it's important to clearly specify a successor, so that you can avoid any trouble. Sometimes, there's even a purge of all the competing successors."
Even the Sengoku commander Hideyoshi admired, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, made his son-in-law Hidetsugu commit seppuku, but it was rumored that he might have done this to make Hideyori, who was his real son and born after Hidetsugu, his true heir. In other words, naming a successor was a way to make it generally known that a single, unique person would be acknowledged by everyone as the successor, and a way to remove any chance of another person becoming an opposing candidate.
"In other words, if Kinzo-san wanted Krauss-san to become the head smoothly, he would have no reason to go out of his way and display something so dangerous for all to see."
"That's right. If you turn the chessboard over, you certainly could say that. It would be odd if he handed over the position of the head normally, but didn't hand over the 20 billion yen in gold except to the person who solves the riddle."
Kinzo would give up the title of head, but he would only give up the 20 billion yen in gold to the person who solved the epitaph. You really couldn't call this passing on the headship in the truest sense.
"...That's how it is. By this theory, we are able to doubt whether Kinzo-san truly acknowledged Krauss-san as his successor."
"...Simply by the existence of the epitaph in that place, this level of reasoning is possible for Furudo Erika. What do you think, Jessica-san?"
"Wh, what the hell's that?!! How do you call that reasoning?! That's bullshit!! It's screwed up!!"
Jessica let her emotions lay bare and glared at Erika. Erika, on the other hand, looked exceedingly calm with an expression that said 'Well, that's just the truth, right?'
It seems she really is like the family, even in ways that it would've been better if she wasn't...
"Well, t, take it easy, Jessica... And Erika, let's leave it at that for now."
"Well, umm, we can put all this about the successor to the side for now. In any event, there's no doubt that it's Father's big question for us."
"...Wahahaha! It's 20 billion yen! Maria-chan, what would you use it for if you found it? Wahahahahahahaha!"
"...Uu-. The Golden Land isn't just gold. It's a sacred place!"
Uncle Hideyoshi kept trying to force himself to chuckle and thereby force the mood to improve. Everyone else tried to go along with that, but Jessica's mood didn't get any better.
"Ha, hahahaha. So, Erika-chan, would you like to have a go at the epitaph's riddle?"
"...Yes. My little gray cells are itching to get started. So I'd like to start solving as soon as possible."
George-aniki skillfully turned the conversation around. Just like the time she had made everyone laugh in the dining hall, Erika looked about with gleeful eyes and jumped at the chance.
"*giggle*giggle*. I like it. Well, since Erika seems so interested, let's all try and solve it together, just like last year."
"I'll make some coffee. Raise your hand if you want some."
" Not for you, Maria! You won't be able to sleep...!"
"Uu-uu-!! Wanna drink black coffee!!"
"...Don't they get you excited? Riddles like this. I love them."
Erika said that and smiled... Even though she must have known that she'd ticked Jessica off and made the atmosphere sour, she just smiled nonchalantly...
BGM: Melody (instrumental)
"...I've tried to solve it many times myself. But-"
"...But you didn't have a clue, so you gave up and stopped thinking. Right?"
It pissed me off, but I didn't have a good counter for that. After all, I don't get the epitaph at all. I don't even know what the beloved hometown means, much less the parts about the sweetfish river and the key... Thinking that a few more hints would show up if I waited, I kept on waiting, and just stopped thinking...