Part 106: Tea Party
...When I came to, all was silent. The lights were dim. And yet... the room felt large. Where on Earth... is this...?
I was sitting in what seemed to be a very short sofa. It was very constricting, and there seemed to be several more of them off to each side of me... Once I noticed that, I realized that I was in a theater.
I don't know how long I've been here. And, more importantly, I don't know where this is. Beatrice's funeral ended, everyone went back to the mansion, and... And after that, my memory gets fuzzy, and I can't recall anything else.
Then, I was surprised to notice the presence of another person. Apparently, I wasn't the only one sitting in the audience seating of this vast theater. The sound had come from a seat to the side of mine.
When I looked, I saw a girl sitting several seats off to my left. It was a face I had never seen before. Who is she? She looked like a high-schooler or a college student, about the same age as I was.
She groaned. Apparently, she had just woken up... I didn't want to scare her, so I decided to introduce myself first...
Apparently, she was equally surprised to find someone other than herself here. She jumped when she heard my greeting.
"...Who the hell are you?"
"I feel the same way. It seems that neither of us is here of our own accord."
"...Is that... the One-Winged Crest...?"
"Huh? Do you recognize this crest?"
She looked suspiciously at the One-Winged Crest emblazoned on my collar. Her stare, which was unmoving but not openly hostile, wasn't exactly pleasant for me.
"Allow me to introduce myself first. I am Ushiromiya Lion."
"Ushiromiya, huh? What?"
"Lion. Written as '理御', but pronounced 'Lee-on'. Pretty strange name, don't you think?"
"...No stranger than mine. But I'll have to apologize. I don't know who you are."
"That's hardly surprising, since I don't know you either."
"That's not what I meant. Who are you? There's no one like you in the Ushiromiya family."
"And why are you so sure? Do you have something to do with my family?"
"I'm a member of the Ushiromiya family."
She showed me her left sleeve... and the crest of the One-Winged Eagle emblazoned upon it.
"...I regret having to ask the same question, but who are you? I've never seen you in the Ushiromiya family."
She spat out those words and seemed to be complaining about something.
"Ange. I'm Ushiromiya Ange. Rudolf and Kyrie's daughter."
"What?! A, Ange-chan...?! But you're supposed to be six years old..."
"...I was six during the year of the final family conference on Rokkenjima. Now I get it. So, you're a person from the year 1986. I'm 18 years old. And I'm from the year 1998."
"I, in other words, you're the Ange-chan... of 12 years in the future...?"
"I'm glad you believe it. But, unfortunately, I don't have a clue who you are. Who are you? Who are your parents?"
"My father is Krauss. Natsuhi is my mother."
"That would make you Jessica onee-chan."
"Jessica is my little sister."
"...What's going on? Wasn't Jessica onee-chan an only child...?"
By this point, I was starting to figure out the situation this Ange had come from. She's probably from the world where I awakened as a witch... the world where Lion doesn't exist.
"...Are you... a witch...?"
"Sorry to disappoint you, but I'm just an ordinary human. What I just told you is something I heard from the witch called Bernkastel-san."
"...Bernkastel? That one with the long, blue hair and the gloomy face...?"
"Y, yes. That probably describes her, I think..."
"...In other words, I've been forced to play along with another witch's farce. Just where is this place?"
"I only woke up a second ago myself. I wonder where this is."
"It looks like a theater. Are we supposed to watch a play, or something?"
"...I'm really not in the mood now. Let's look for an exit."
"...You haven't noticed yet? Look."
"Huh? Ah, these are..."
I finally noticed. Both of my wrists and ankles had chains attached to them. As long as I sat here, I had enough slack that I could move about a little, but it looked like there wouldn't be nearly enough for me to get out of this place.
"...When did... Who would do something like this...?"
"...Once a witch has made you her piece, you'll be their plaything forever. There's no way to escape."
Ange crossed her legs, making the chains clank together. She realized that no amount of struggling could have broken those chains. Getting panicky wouldn't accomplish anything. She must have had nerves of steel.
"What do you mean, a witch's piece?"
"...It's like being their slave. I made a deal, once. I said I wanted to see my family, to bring them back from that day. In exchange for making that a possibility, that witch turned me into a witch's piece. At least the witch kept her promise. I was able to see Onii-chan again."
"...You mean Battler-kun...?"
"Well, I wasn't even able to tell him who I was. And, in exchange for that short bit of time, I'm now trapped inside the witches' toy box for all eternity. Looks like you are too. Did you make some sort of contract?"
"N, nothing of the sort..."
"Did you ever ask a witch to grant a wish for you?"
"Never. She taught me what a miracle my existence is. That's all."
"...Either way, neither of us is getting out of here. Okay, witches! What kind of show do you have for us this time?! Have we moved from reading aloud to theatergoing? Am I supposed to watch someone else read aloud this time, or what?! If that's it, then start it up. I'm bored enough as it is!"
Ange yelled this to the pitch-black stage. Her voice reverberated throughout the theater, but no one gave an answer...
...No, someone did. And that was also in a voice that rang out across the theater. However, that voice sounded theatrical, as though someone was announcing the start of a play.
"...Whose voice was that...?"
"That old hag. It was Aunt Eva's voice."
"What does she mean by 'what happened on that day'?"
"...She's talking about the 4th and 5th of October in the year 1986. The day of the final family conference on Rokkenjima."
"In other words, today."
As a prelude to the family conference, Beatrice's funeral was held...
"That's a surprise. So, you've come here from October 4th, 1986? Tell me. What happened during those two days...?!"
The answer she seeks is inside the cat box. All I can tell her about is my close call with a sad life. However, I doubt that explanation would satisfy her.
Then, a pillar of bright light pierced the stage.
Of course, Ange didn't recognize her. She looked suspicious, apparently wondering who in the world this was. However, even I felt as though something was wrong. Didn't she settle all of her regrets in that funeral a short while ago, before being sent off into the next world...?
She stood all alone in the narrow beam of light in the center of the stage, and the expression on her face was lifeless. The light began to grow brighter and brighter. It shone more and more fiercely on her, until it became blinding just to look at her. The world was enveloped by a light so bright that we couldn't open our eyes, enveloped by a sound like wind or television static... and our minds began to go blank...
BGM: Doorway of Summer
"It must be a pain to take care of all these. Pretty easy for us though, just looking at 'em."
"*giggle*. I agree. We've got to thank the people who take care of them for us."
"But it is a bit lacking in grace. I prefer the way it used to be, before Nii-san decided to pile so much on."
"I did like the way the old ones looked."
"Uu-! I love roses! I'd like them even more if they didn't have thorns! Uu-!"
"It has been a long time for you. Both you and this garden have changed so much."
"Ah, let me introduce you! This is Kanon-kun, one of our servants! This is the first time you've met Battler, right?"
"...Pleased to meet you."
"You can just call me Battler! Nice to meet you!"
"Shannon's here too, today. Remember when we used to play together?"
"Ah... Shannon-chan! I'd totally forgotten... That really takes me back! How's she been doing?!"
"She keeps getting more and more beautiful. You should say hi to her later on."
"Shannon and George onii-chan are really good friends! Uu-!"
"Maria, shhh! That's a secret!"
"If you would, everyone, allow me to guide you to the guesthouse."
After enjoying the lovely welcome provided by the roses, the relatives followed Gohda in the direction of the guesthouse...
BGM: Witch in Gold (cembalo)
Rokkenjima. A world without Lion. The day of the Ushiromiya family's family conference. The mysterious letter that Maria read aloud after dinner, just as she had been told to. The writer of the letter claimed to be the Golden Witch Beatrice and challenged the family. Try and solve the riddle of the epitaph. Otherwise, I will take everything. It was Beatrice's announcement of the game's start, the same as the usual game's.
Had an unknown person appeared, related to the problem of the inheritance's distribution? Where was the 20 billion yen worth of gold hidden? What was the purpose of this letter? For what goal had it been written? Who on Earth is this Beatrice? It was the usual dinner on October 4th, where several bits of suspicion and paranoia intertwined.
"...Shannon. Take the children to the guesthouse. We will move straight on to the family conference."
"Y, yes. As you wish..."
"Beatrice, the Golden Witch... What a fascinating letter you've sent us..."
"She's telling us to solve the epitaph...? Ridiculous. That gold belongs to us. Why would we ever give it up to some outsider...?!"
"...If we could just find that gold, we'd all be happy. No one'd have to lose anything."
"Let's go, everyone. Looks like it'll be adult time from here on out..."
"...Give me a break. Sounds complicated."
"Come on, Maria... Let's go..."
"Beato's ceremony has begun... Kihihihihihihi..."
"Okay, everyone, I shall guide you to the guesthouse..."
"Probably a replay of one of the old games, or else an entirely new game. In all the games, October 4th happens in pretty much the same way."
"...A new game? You mean, a tale that hasn't appeared in any of the Fragments so far?"
"There's no way they'd go to the trouble of chaining us down if they just wanted to show us a game we already know. It's probably a new game. That means there should be a Game Master. Who is it? That witch? Bernkastel...?"
"I... can't imagine so. Clair should have vanished already. There should be no need to spin up a new tale..."
"Beato's game board was hijacked by those evil witches long ago. Even Beato is nothing more than a piece in their games."
"...Just who is behind this... and what are they after? What do they want to show us...?"
Before this tale began, Clair definitely appeared on the stage.
However, didn't she entrust everything to Will, who solved all of the riddles? There should be no need for her to make new riddles...
...In that case, is Bernkastel using this tale to test me...? Along with Will, I have at least touched the deepest depths of this tale... and understood the culprit's heart. So, even if an entirely new tale presents itself, I should be able to see through the riddles. Is that... what my role is...? Is my role to teach Ange about the truth of this tale...?
"I have several theories. Still, none of those can give a conclusive answer. The truth is always inside the cat box. I can't say anything for sure."
In this world, Ange is absent on this day. So, it's only natural that she doesn't know what happened. However, at the very least, I do know who the culprit is... and what they were trying to do...
"...Yes. I think I've finally understood my role in this."
"What do you mean?"
"Apparently, you're here as a theatergoer, and I'm here to explain things."
"And what are you supposed to be explaining?"
"I know... who's behind the crime that's about to occur."
"What did you say...?"
BGM: Golden Sneer
"I agree. If they'd already solved it, they could just take it. There'd be no need to challenge us to solve the riddle."
"It's a prank by one of the servants. They're hoping to pick up the scraps from the celebration if the gold is found."
"I cannot imagine that any of our servants would do such a thing..."
"...Or, maybe one of us sent the letter, pretending to be a servant."
"If that's it, you're the most suspicious one. You schooled Maria-chan on her part and made her read the letter, didn't you?"
"I, I wouldn't do that...!"
"Give that a rest, Eva. We can't jump to conclusions. Isn't this the time for us all to stick together?"
"That's right. The aim of this strange letter is probably to disrupt our unity. The more we let it affect us, the more things go the way of this 'Beatrice' who sent it."
"Kyrie-san's right. Wouldn't it be best to simply ignore a letter like that from the start?"
"That is what I have been saying the whole time. This sort of prank is not worth considering!"
"Yes, that's it exactly. If a couple improbable claims for damages get ya flustered, you'll never be able to sell anythin'!"
"My husband's right. This is a child's prank, and taking it seriously is just a waste of time. If someone really wanted to shake up the inheritance issue, they'd come forward boldly instead of using something this roundabout."
"You've got it right there. Someone probably wants to make us think there's another person trying to make demands about the inheritance, when their real goal is just to pick up the scraps."
"...I wonder if they'll ask for some hush money in exchange for staying out of the inheritance issue."
"If that's the case, they should have written it into the letter already."
"And the letter is just a challenge, telling us to try solving the epitaph or else hand over everything."
"The culprit is tryin' to make us solve the epitaph's riddle! Nothin' more, nothin' less."
"So, it's simple. If we let this letter scare us, we lose."
"Yes, I agree. After that big mysterious show, like something out of a mystery novel, we've all gotten a bit too interested in this. Hahahaha. It seems we're all taking this too seriously."
"But who did it? Such an aggravating thing to do."
"If it wasn't a servant, then one of us must have written it. I'm not naming names, of course."
"St, stop it. I really know nothing about this...!"
"Settle down. Anyway, what this letter says does make a bit of sense. All of us need money. And, if possible, we need it right away. No one here has any objections to that, right...?"
"...Of course not. Who'd object to money or love?"
"We don't know when Father's inheritance will come to us. However, the gold of the epitaph is different. If we find it, we could just split it then and there."
"In a sense, it's even closer to us now than the inheritance is."
"Assuming we can solve the epitaph..."
"...Everyone here has tried solving it on their own, yes?"
Kyrie asked the room at large, and everyone wordlessly nodded back.
"...True. We've all been greedy and tried to go it alone. However. We've already reached a decision about how we'll split the gold up if it's found. And about acknowledging Aniki as the successor."
"Though you demanded quite a lot in exchange."
"...I wonder if we can solve that epitaph... if we pool our efforts and work together..."
"Two heads are better than one. And here, we have seven."
"Today, we reached a general agreement about the inheritance problem. Why not take a shot at the epitaph for a bit of fun on the side?"
"Nice idea. Let's give it a try and call it a break."
"...Ridiculous. There is no..."
"Take it easy. Just think of it as a game. Let's have Gohda-san bring us something cool to drink. We can take a break and all play with riddles as a big, happy bunch of siblings for once."
"Hmmm. Well, the night is long. It would be, at least, more productive than pointless inquiries regarding Father's health."
"I'll ring up Gohda-san. He can bring us something."
"Let's have tea and sweets. Oh, and a map of Taiwan."
"I swear to love you all my life. Not just while we're young. I swear to love you and keep you happy until we get old and go to our graves."
"...Are there any lies in your words?"
"Nope, none. I'm confident in my resolve to love you and build a happy household together with you."
"And what would this happy household be like?"
"Well, it will be full of happiness. We'll have a house, with a car and a garden. And one dog. The garden will be a vegetable garden. The kids will run around, and we'll smile down on them from the balcony. That's what our typical future Sunday will look like."
"That... would be wonderful..."
"Shhh! Why are you so damn loud?! Maria'll wake up...!"
"I, I see. So that's it... Now that you mention it, they seemed to have a pretty good mood going on there. That's right, we're about the age where you fall in love."
"We've changed a lot in the last six years. George nii-san used to be a bit unreliable, but he isn't anymore."
"That's what I thought. George-aniki's got one of those 'air of dignity' things around him."
...But still, Shannon-chan and George-aniki. That's a bit unexpected. They played together often enough six years ago, but I didn't think they were that close.
"...Well, six years is a long time."
"These six years have been huge for all of us."
"Yep. A lot has happened to me these six years, and to be honest, I've forgotten almost everything about Rokkenjima."
"And I'd forgotten almost everything about you too."
"Now that really hurts, ihihi~!"
Talking together like this, it felt as though we'd been teleported six years into the past. Those six long years, so long that I forgot almost everything. And yet, it's coming back to me, bit by bit. Shannon-chan. Six years ago, you were part of our group, and we played together a lot, didn't we...
Back then, I think I might've... liked Shannon-chan. That was the age when we were all overly self-conscious, in love with love. Bittersweet memories of jokes involving melodramatic, flippant words.
"...That takes me back. I think I remember saying all kinds of stuff that I'd be way too embarrassed to say now. Gyaaah, just remembering it is making my face go red!"
"Hihihi. Shannon might be a scatterbrain, but her memory's incredible. Guess I'll just have to ask her all about your dark, embarrassing history."
"Qu, quit it. That was six years ago, so give me a break...!"
...I see. So, Shannon-chan is going out with George-aniki. What am I thinking? Could this be... jealousy? I didn't really think about it until now, but that thing Shannon-chan and I had back then... that was probably my first love. Well, it's not like I have any right to be jealous, after forgetting the whole thing until we met again.
BGM: Witch in Gold (cembalo)
"Father still chews areca nuts from time to time in memory of Taiwan. Apparently, he got hooked on that instead of smoking when he was young."
"...But there are probably several rivers there with sweetfish swimming in them."
"There are several mountain streams which are famous sweetfish fishing spots. It seems sweetfish will live anywhere as long as the water's clean. We're completely stuck."
"Could it be some nearby creek that Father used to play in as a kid? He said sweetfish, but maybe we're looking for somethin' more like carp."
"...Or, it could be some sort of metaphor. The river isn't necessarily a river with water flowing through it."
"What do you mean by that...?"
"Well now... Who knows?"
"Kyrie has a point there. Isn't it a bit too early to be sure that Taiwan is this homeland, or that this sweetfish river is a river with water flowing down it?"
"If we look at it that way, we're just stuck again. The more you think about this riddle, the harder it seems."
"...That's it. This is just a riddle. Kyrie-san is right. We need to be flexible in our thinking..."
"If we're looking for a river near Taishou, that would have to be Danshui River..."
"Are you even listening?! We just said that it might not be the kind of river with water flowing down it! Is there any proof that that river is a sweetfish river?!"
"Y, you're right... I, I'm sorry..."
"...Well, it probably did have sweetfish in it. After all, 'danshui' does mean freshwater. Makes sense that a freshwater fish like sweetfish would be swimming in it."
"Sweetfish are freshwater fish. So, a sweetfish river would be a freshwater river. Is that how we get Danshui River? Hahahaha, quite the word game."
"Now that's an interesting theory. Let's advance our reasoning a bit further. As you travel down the river, you will see a village. What's the name of the town at the mouth of Danshui River?"
"...It says 'Danshui' here."
"I went sightseeing in Danshui. It was a calm and gentle harbor town. Beautiful sunsets."
"Did you find 'the shore the two will tell you of'?"
"...Not really. It doesn't ring any bells."
"I guess the beloved hometown wasn't in Taiwan. It might have been Odawara after all."
"If we can't discount any possibilities, then we won't get anywhere. We can't even get past the first line of the epitaph."
"Quiet, you're distracting me! ...It has to be Taiwan. Father wouldn't describe any other place as 'beloved'!"
"...That is one thing we can agree upon. To this very day, Taiwan is the homeland of Father's heart."
"It's probably best if we don't spend too much time on the first line. I'm going to take a look at the other lines. Just a quick peek, starting at the first twilight."
"...Me too. I'll leave the sweetfish river to you, Aneki, and have a go at the second half."
"On the first twilight, offer the six chosen by the key as sacrifices... How mysterious."
Eva suddenly muttered. All of the others spun around to look at her. Eva was flipping through the pages about Taiwan with incredible force, then found the page she was looking for and slammed the book open so hard that it almost tore. The whole time, they had opened to the page with place names. As far as the overall mass of information went, this seemed the most useful page to start from. However, the page Eva opened to was very limited in the scope of its information. It was... a map of railway lines.
"...As you travel down the river, there's a village... a village. !! There it is, the village!"
"Wh, what are you talking about, Eva? Explain yourself."
"Quiet!! There's a shore too, and a mouth...! I'm not sure what it means by 'the two', but there definitely is a village and a shore and a mouth...!! This is it... This is definitely the village where the key to the gold sleeps...!!"
"C, calm down...! Explain it so we can understand too!"
"...The Danshui Line? I see. So, the sweetfish river was actually a railroad called the Danshui Line?"
"Well, I doubt there are any sweetfish swimming there..."
"Sh, she's right...! There's a village, mouth, and shore...!!"
"...As you travel down the river, you will see a village. True, that's the only station on the Danshui Line that has the character for village in its name."
"I see, it's like a code pointing towards this station's name..."
"This has to be it! There's no doubt...!! We just need to look a bit further, then we'll definitely find out what 'the two who speak' means...!! L, look!! This is it! This is it!"
"The town near the station with the same name has a mouth in the second character. That makes a total of two mouths in Kirigan. Are those 'the two who speak'?"
"I, incredible, Nee-san. This has to be it..."
"Does this mean that the key is hidden somewhere in this town of Kirigan...?"
"I wonder. The whole riddle so far has been a word game. If so, isn't it likely that the sleeping key is also a word game?"
"I agree. On the first twilight, the key selects six sacrifices, right? So, it's hard to imagine that it's actually something key-shaped...!"
"...Whoo. This is getting... damn interesting..."
"Offer up the six chosen by the key. Let's think of a key that's somehow related to this! And let's break down this name, 'Kirigan'! I'm absolutely sure that this is a word game! It has to be...!! Think, everyone!!"
"...It's about time for us to head back. I'm keeping Kanon-kun waiting."
"You're right. And I've probably kept Jessica-chan and Battler-kun waiting."
"It brings back good memories. Remember when the four of us used to play together? It was a lot of fun back then too."
"To me, it's a lot more fun now. Because I get you all to myself."
"*giggle*. Oh, George-sama."
They laughed at George's melodramatic line. However, George's laugh seemed just slightly forced.
"Like Uncle Rudolf, he's lively, interesting, and just full of energy. He's much more attractive than I am. I can tell how much he outshines me when we're together."
"That's not true. You're very accomplished and attractive. You aren't worse than Battler-sama in any way."
"The truth is... When I first heard that Battler-kun would be coming back this year, I felt bad about it."
"Is that how it was...? Wasn't it just Battler-sama making fun of me one-sidedly..."
"...Of course you looked good together. There's no doubt about it. I was sure that you two were going out."
"That never happened. You're thinking too much..."
"...I really am pathetic. I was afraid that I'd hand you this ring and you'd refuse."
"Why is that? Why should I refuse your ring, George-san?"
"Because... Battler-kun came back. I was afraid that you might still like Battler-kun... and that, now that he was here, you wouldn't have any use for me."
"...You're right. Sorry. What's got me so shaken, I wonder. I'm probably still jealous of him, now that he's gotten even cooler these past six years. How pathetic."
"No, it's okay. Those feelings are a sign that your love for me is so strong, you don't want to give me up to anyone. If you're worried about my feelings switching to Battler-sama, just love me all the stronger so that such a thing would be ridiculous. Love me so much that I don't have time to think about other men."
"I'm scared too. I'm sure you'll meet many women in the future who are much more attractive than I am. Or, I might not meet your expectations, and you might tire of me. It scares me to think that I might not be able to grasp hold of your feelings for the rest of my life."
"There's no need for you to be scared of that. I swear to love you all my life."
"But even though I swore the same thing, you're having trouble believing it just because Battler-sama came back."
As Shannon giggled, George finally realized that his own lack of confidence had hurt her...
"...I've fallen for a wonderful man named Ushiromiya George-san. And this is a man who has sworn to love me all his life, and who has given me a ring as a sign of this oath. With this ring here on my ring finger, I can give an honest confession."
"Yes, as you said, I did like Battler-sama six years ago. I think I probably liked him more than you then."
"However, that was six years ago. Now, things are different. In these six years, I've sorted out my feelings for Battler-sama, and cut myself off from them along with the memories of the past. Now, I exist only to love you."
Shannon spoke clearly and strongly... George gave a single, uncertain laugh. It was probably the same sort the George of six years ago had made.