Part 4: Guesthouse
"Oh, right. Here. A present for you, Natsuhi nee-san."
"...Thank you very much. I'm always receiving gifts from you. Is this black tea?"
"It's herb tea with peppermint and lemon balm. It's a blend from a well-known store and is supposed to be good for headaches. I thought it might help you too."
Rosa was always a conscientious woman. Probably because she was the youngest of four siblings and much younger than the other three, she managed to grow up without harboring the venomosity of her brothers and sisters.
Her consideration made Natsuhi soften her expression for just a moment, but it wasn't enough to make her let down her guard, which was constructed around her long-held anxiety.
"That reminds me, you were always saying you get those headaches. Pull yourself together. Jessica-chan will have her exams this year, won't she? Isn't that a turning point in her life? Are you that unreliable as a mother? Besides, Natsuhi nee-san, you're three years younger than me. Can't you pull yourself together?"
"...I apologize. I was born with this discomfort."
Eva sometimes fails to choose her words carefully, but even though she hid it with a smile, her comments aimed at Natsuhi contained shards of obvious malice. Of course, that didn't escape Natsuhi. She frantically contained her urge to grimace, and pretended to ignore Eva.
"Our Battler-kun will have his exams this year too, right? Rudolf-san, shouldn't you be a little concerned too? For the sake of your own son, get serious to the point of getting headaches like Natsuhi nee-san."
"If I say anything, he automatically goes against it. So what should I say? Should I say the opposite, that it's okay for him to mess around? That's probably the only thing he'd obediently listen to me say. In your family, Hideyoshi nii-san, didn't George do really well on his exams? Please, teach me the secret to controlling children."
"Hmm, well... Maybe it was 'cause I told him exactly what he should study for! Study, on its own, don't mean nothin'. That's right, studyin's a kind of trainin' where you look up what you don't know yerself, and learn from it! If ya can't do that, you can't be useful to society! I'm not talkin' 'bout math or writin'. It's learning how to study and learn more!"
"...That's splendid. It would be nice if our Jessica could understand that, though. As it is now, she doesn't at all, but as the heiress of the Ushiromiya family,"
"Do you really have to force her into becoming the successor? Women have to find their own happiness. Parents shouldn't be deciding that for their children, right?"
"Hold yer horses, Eva. Each family has its way to raise their children. You shouldn't be pushy."
"I'm sorry. Natsuhi nee-san, don't take it the wrong way."
"Still, this black tea has a really lovely aroma. Let's drink it at once. In Japan, surely you can't buy something like Leopold's black tea anywhere but Ginza, right?"
"Kyrie nee-san, how knowledgeable of you. It really was worth buying."
Kyrie and Rosa stood up from their seats and made as if to prepare the black tea. Natsuhi forstalled them.
"...Thank you, both. Let us save that for later. One of our people will soon be coming to bring some tea, so please relax."
"Leave it for later, you two. Let's enjoy our 'welcome drink'."
Rudolf gave a subtle signal with his eyes for them to sit down again. Kyrie and Rosa understood instantly and obediently returned to their seats. The guests had already been greeted, so it was time for some tea to be prepared for them.
...That tea was late and having the guests talk about making some themselves was an embarrassment for the host. Natsuhi bit her lower lip, frustrated with the ineptitude of the servants who were taking too long to bring the tea. Seeing her face, Eva, without hesitation, started to giggle.
Of course, Shannon had no way of knowing what was taking place in the parlor. She came pushing a dish cart piled with tea cups. For no apparent reason, Natsuhi gave her a pained look, and Shannon couldn't help but flinch without knowing what she had done wrong.
"Oh, Shannon-chan, it's been a while! Ya juss' keep getting purtier and purtier!"
"...Oh... um... thanks..."
"Leave the chatting for after you've set the table. The tea will get cold."
"...I... I apologize, Madam."
She apologized like a small frightened animal, and, bumping against the serving cart, made a jarring racket as she dropped several tea spoons. Her clumsiness made Natsuhi's expression even harsher, which made Shannon in turn quail even more.
"It's alright, Natsuhi nee-san. It's just one kind of greeting, no big deal. We've already been made to wait for so long, the tea must be cold. Heheheh."
"It... it's alright... It's not cold yet..."
"...Shannon, finish setting the table, quickly."
"I, I'm sorry, Madam..."
It was obvious that Natsuhi was getting irritated. The ineptitude that delayed the tea, the clumsiness of the servant, everything pointed to the incompetence of Natsuhi's everyday guidance, making her lose face. As the person in charge of the Ushiromiya head house's kitchen, allowing that clumsiness to be exposed today of all days was surely nothing less than total humiliation.
"Lay off, Natsuhi nee-san. Don't you think it's a little harsh to bully Shannon-chan when she's trying her best?"
"I'm not bullying anyone...!"
"What a nice smell. May I ask you the brand of this tea?"
"...Umm... I'm, I'm terribly sorry... I'll find out for you later..."
"Whaat's this? Shannon-chan, don't you even know what you're pouring us? Come now, you mustn't serve something so suspicious to guests. We'll need a silver spoon at the very least before we can drink this.
"...I, I'm sorry... I'll go get one immediately..."
"Shannon-chan? Do you know what silver spoons are used for? Or why they have to be silver? Do you know why?"
Eva's eyes played over Shannon, who was setting the table, as a catty smile floated onto her face. Eva's expression as she watched was charming in an impish sort of way. However, the words being spun from her lips held within them the keenness of a razor. Shannon tried with all her might to avoid Eva's gaze, which continued to stare at her.
Grasping that Shannon was hard-pressed for an answer, Rosa promptly gave some timely help.
"They say that if silver is touched by poison, it dims. *giggle*, you've learned something, right, Shannon-chan?"
"Haha, Aneki doesn't need any silver cutlery. With just one lick of her poisonous tongue, even a silver plate would go pitch black."
"Wa-hah-hah-ha! Since I get to hear that poison-tongue every day, I must be poison-proof by now! I don't pay it much mind, but poor souls without resistance are in for a stormy ride! Wah-hah-hah-ha!"
"My, how cruel. I only gave Shannon-chan a bit of information about tea, didn't I? *giggle*."
Everyone followed the lead set by Hideyoshi's horselaugh and smiled, though sourly. Only Natsuhi didn't join in, but for the time being, the conversation inside the parlor could now be mistaken for a lively and friendly chat. Kyrie apologized to Shannon in a low voice for not being able to help as she finally finished setting the tea table and tried to leave. Shannon gave a light bow and made a hasty retreat...
Shannon cast her eyes downwards, pushing the cart down the corridor. The pitiful air around her made it obvious that she had borne the brunt of some bullying.
"Madam and Eva-sama can go to hell... But the even worse coward is that guy."
Kanon glared hatefully in the opposite direction of the parlor.
There was no way that a showoff like Gohda would ever hand over a flamboyant job like carting the tea to the guests in the first place. He had ended up wasting time preparing the tea a second time. So, knowing that he wouldn't be able to make it on time, he pushed the task of setting the table on Shannon, who happened to be passing by.
...One could say that cutting corners like this was an especially despicable kind of cowardice.
"...It's alright, Kanon-kun, thank you. I really don't mind..."
Kanon's silence vividly showed that Shannon's words weren't coming from her heart.
"...Thank you. Even if you're the only one who understands, I feel better."
"...You bottle things up too much, Nee-san. You should be less hard on yourself for once."
Suddenly, they both felt someone's presence and whirled around. A middle-aged man stood there. It was Genji, the head servant.
"Y, yes. If you'll excuse me..."
Shannon humbly obeyed and promptly made to push the cart and leave. However, Kanon appealed to Genji in silence, bearing something in his eyes that he could not express in words.
"...What is it? Did something happen...?"
"...Sha... Shannon didn't do anything wrong. But even so, they..."
"Stop it, Kanon-kun... If you'll excuse me. I'll return to work immediately. Kanon-kun, you too, go back to your post. Please."
"...If you say so, Nee-san."
"...If that is all, then go."
"...Yes. If you'll excuse me."
From the shadows in the hallway, an old woman wearing an apron watched over them. It was Kumasawa...
Until Gohda-san was taken in by the Ushiromiya head house, I heard he worked for a fabulous hotel somewhere. I think the manner of work he learned there was quite something. It's just that... Gohda-san is the newest servant here. He must have a lot of pride accumulated from his previous posts.
Because Shannon-san and Kanon-kun are his seniors here at the mansion, and yet are inexperienced and have gone through much less in life than he has, he picks on them at every chance he gets... And also, although it's terrible, they are hated by Madam Natsuhi too...
Of course, in terms of experience, Madam has been in the family much longer. It's only that... they are just not allowed to sympathize with her. The master is also a truly cruel person... He probably did not realize his own trifling whims passed so much of an inferiority complex to his wife... Naturally, Madam's inner thoughts fully acknowledge that there's no reason to treat those two so harshly...
...However, the heart has reasons that reason knows not...
October 4th, 1986, 12:00 PM
BGM: Doorway of Summer
Anyway, there are both girls and guys here. Plus, we've got people over a wide spread of ages: adult, high school, and elementary school. Even though everyone was only telling his or her personal story, the other three were listening attentively.
"I think I'm finally getting used to all this. Jessica and Maria have grown more than I could've imagined in the past six years. To be honest, I was feeling a bit uncomfortable, but talking like this, I guess that on the inside, nothing's really changed since back then."
"I agree. Battler, even after six years you haven't changed a bit. Even though your body's gotten gigantic, you're still a kid inside."
"Uu-! Maria's a kid too! Maria's a kid too!"
"Well, even you aren't gonna be a kid forever, are you Maria? I mean, you're growing from being a kid to a cute young lady, aren'tcha? And when that happens, that flat-as-a-board chest'll be on Jessica's level, huh~? When that happens, let me rub it, OK? Promise!!"
"Uu-! Let you rub it! Promise! Uu-!"
"N-no, Maria-chan! You can't make that kind of promise, that's bad, bad, bad!"
"Uu-? Maria promised, so let him rub it! Maria'll keep her promise! Definitely keep it, uu-!!"
"...Mariaa, you're a really earnest, good girl... The guy you marry's gonna be really lucky."
"Just a... getting back on topic here, you're not gonna be keeping that promise! Maria, that promise never happened! Never!"
"Uu-. Promise is cancelled? Uu-..."
"As I thought, without Battler-kun in our little quartet, it just didn't feel like all the cousins were here. These six years have been kinda lonely."
"...That's true. We weren't able to goof off like this. Still, we did have have some pretty constructive conversations, don'tcha think? Stuff about preparing for our future, exam-taking, or finding jobs."
"Oo~ooh, I'm sorr-rry! Now that I'm here, there's just this stupid babbling~!"
"But, Maria's having fun this year. Uu- uu-!"
"That's true. I agree, this year's the most fun."
Maria's sincere words probably spoke for everyone. When George-aniki stroked Maria's head, she giggled like a happy kitten...
"Shannon, come in! You remember Battler, don'tcha?!"
Jessica stood up from the bed and opened the door. There stood a servant girl who was definitely about our age.
"...Ah...! Jessica had me surprised, but, Shannon-chan! You too, you've gotten to be a completely beautiful woman, haven't you!"
"Y-...your words are too good for me, I'm flattered..."
"Bu~ut, food on this island must be reeeally nutritional, hmmmm? What are you eating, where are you training, to get boobs that big?~!! Let me feel them a bit and see whether yours or Jessica's are bigger, oka~ay?!"
In this kinda scene, where I get closer and closer, there's an eight-or-nine out of ten chance I'll get slapped or clobbered, right? This is a Battler-sama original technique which'll lead to a gag like that and break the ice!
...W-well, that means, with the remaining one-out-of-ten chance, being able to touch'em makes me a pretty lucky guy, eh? Ihihyahyahya, its not like I'm expecting that'll happen, rrrriii~iight?!
At that point, my hands were less than a centimeter away from Shannon-chan's boobs, but... the counterstrike was yet to come. She blushed and lowered her head in embarrassment when she realized what was going on, but with both hands well-manneredly together in front of her, she didn't try to resist violently, or cover her breasts.
...Whoawhoaaa, well this is unexpected!! C-c'mon, you gotta smack me or something, I'm seriously gonna touch'em if this goes oooonnnn?!
"Guaaaah, ooooowww, thank you Jessicaaaaaaa~!!"
"W-w-why the hell are you thanking me?! ???"
"No, no, my bad, Shannon-chan. Looks like I got a little too absorbed in your hypnotic chest... So now we can see that if I get too close I degenerate into a big pervert after all. Seriously, you've got to resist!"
"...P-perhaps, but... you are... an important guest, Battler-sama..."
"Now look here, a pervert's a pervert whether he's a guest or not! Ten centimeters around a girl's chest is like an Air Defense Identification Range. If someone trespasses within two centimeters, that's already an invasion of airspace and you can immediately give me a slap, like a high-alert takeoff!"
"...I-I couldn't do such a thing...! We are... that is, furniture and..."
Of course she didn't want her breasts touched, but... if a guest so desired, she intended to sacrifice her own needs in response anyway. A girl like this needs some urgent protection...!
"...I-in these days, to think that there's a dedicated and virtuous girl like this... Getting... giddy again!... But, no! NooOoo!! I'm coming at her with a perverted face again! Someone trip me!! No~oo, pervert! Without your word, I can't settle down! Please, I beg you, smack me! Like this, smack! Hit meeee~!!"
"I...I cannot obey your request. Because I'm furniture. But... if it's an order, I'll obey you. Because that is my duty."
"Ahaha, then I'll make it an order. The next time Battler-kun tries to touch your breasts, counterattack with a slap. Alright?"
"...Y-yes. I'll do as you wish. From now on, please allow me to do so. Battler-sama, please accept this..."
Shannon-chan announced this while bowing elegantly to me. Her facial expression was radiant. I gave her a thumbs-up to signal that it was OK with me.
"Six years ago, you might've been mistaken for a servant's daughter who lent a hand at your parent's work, but now you're a full-fledged adult servant. How many years has it been?"
"Yes, I've had the pleasure of serving this household for ten years."
Maybe it's like a servant's 'professional name' or something. If so, I can kind of understand why that Kanon-kun's name sounds the way it does. She's a long-term servant who's served here since she was six years old. Since her body had changed radically, she didn't match my memories, but I got acquainted with her six years ago.
It looked like she was just as shy she had been in the past, but I got the feeling that the charm befitting a girl her age came naturally to her. Especially her breasts, her breasts.
"That kid we met earlier, Kanon-kun, is her little brother."
"...He's not exactly my little brother... Still, he loves me like a big sister. He didn't cause you any trouble, did he?"
"Haha! He's the same as always. It's such a shame that he doesn't act just a bit more sociable."
"...It seems Kanon-kun has caused trouble,...I apologize..."
"He didn't cause any trouble at all! As a fellow man, I understand how moody you can get at that age. It's no surprise that he's unsociable!"
"Uu-! Maria gets called that all the time too! Gets called unsociable! Like Kanon! Uu-!"
"*giggle* Maria-sama is not unsociable at all."
"Uu-? It was nice to be like him... Uu-."
"Umm, you said the meal was ready, right?"
"Ah, Yes! I'm sorry! ...The preparations for your meal have been carried out, so I shall be accompanying everyone to the mansion."
Shannon bowed again formally and returned to her "duty mode". We realized that if we made her stick around for any more light conversation, it would actually make it harder for her to do her job. We got up off our butts to avoid interfering with her work any further.
"Then, shall we go to the mansion? Everyone's probably hungry, right?"
"Yeah. I'm really looking forward to Gohda-san's food. That guy, seems he was a chef at this famous hotel, so he's super good at cooking!"
"Ooooh! I'm looking forward to it!! Let's go Maria! We're gonna stuff ourselves like pigs!!"
"Uu-! Stuff ourselves like pigs!"
"No, no! You just can't take everything Battler-kun says seriously, OK? Because it's all jokes. Alright, let's go."
Under Shannon-chan's guidance we headed towards the mansion. Met once again by the magnificent rose garden, we continued onward as it came into view... the intimidating mansion of the Ushiromiya Head Family.
"...Battler-sama, we have not met in a long while."
As our eyes met, he saluted us with a composed voice. He didn't give quite as refined a bow as Gohda's, but even so, and even though it felt rustic, it was a bow that had feeling.
"Genji-san, it really has been a while! You look well."
"Thank you, I have been quite well...Battler-sama, you have become a splendid young man. You have grown to resemble the Master in his youth."
"I'm looking like Grandfather? I guess that means that Grandfather was pretty popular when he was young, Ihihi!"
"...From here on, I shall take Shannon's place and accompany you. Please, come this way."
Shannon-chan bowed deeply and saw us off. Leaving the entrance hall, we headed to the dining room under Genji-san's guidance.
Genji-san, just like Kumasawa-san, stood in stark contrast to us young people who had grown beyond recognition over the last six years. His figure was exactly the same as in my memories of six years ago. It seemed like time had stopped since the last we met.
Genji-san was a silent and diligent person. He was like Grandfather's close aide or caregiver... in fact, you could even go so far as to say he was Grandfather's right-hand man. Actually, it seems that he was by Grandfather's side more than my late Grandmother was. According to Jessica, Grandfather trusted him more than any of his blood relatives.
But I wonder how long he's served. I've never heard the details, but I'm pretty sure he's been here since the beginning, when this mansion was constructed... That is to say, he had dedicated half of his life to serving here. In other words, he's both trustworthy and faithful.
As we cut through the open-ceilinged hall behind Genji-san, I found something I had no memory of from six years ago.
It was an awfully big portrait hung right in front of the stairs that rose to the second floor. Without thinking, I stopped walking, under its spell...
Since I'd suddenly stopped, Maria, who was following behind me, ran into my back.
"...Aah, sorry. Hey, Jessica. Did that picture used to be there?"
I pointed at the big portrait that caught the eye, hanging in the hall. Everyone else stopped too.
"...Aah, Right. When you last came here, that hadn't been hung yet, had it? When was it again..."
"I think, If my memory doesn't fail me, I think it was around the year before last."
"...You are correct. In April of the year before last, as it had been arranged, the Master ordered an artist to paint it and it was put on display over there."
"Grandfather did that? So, he went out of his way to have it drawn..."
The portrait was appropriate for this western style mansion, and that woman wearing an elegant dress gave off a sense of refinement. I couldn't have guessed her age, but judging by her obvious strength of will and the sharpness in her eyes, she radiated youth. It was a different feeling than the composed mood of middle-aged women that are often in famous pictures.
If this woman had normal black hair, I might have thought it was a portrait of my long-deceased Grandmother in her prime. However, the woman in the portrait had beautiful blonde hair and didn't look Japanese at all.
"So... Who is she then, this woman?"
To that naive question, Maria, as though trying to prove that she knew it herself, answered me with authority.
"...Beatrice. She's the witch. Didn't you ever hear about her, long ago?"
"The witch... you mean, of this island?"
The vast and empty forest had no lamplight, phones or people passing through at all. To understand how dangerous it is, you needed to throw off all your street smarts from the city.
Anyway, if by any chance you fell down a hole in the depths of the forest and sprained your ankle, you could cry or scream, but no one would come save you. If it got dark, the forest, where there were no streetlights, was wrapped up in complete darkness. Also, since it didn't have any guideposts, it would be easy to get confused and lost, losing your sense of direction inside the dark forest. Nowadays, most people see a forest as a peaceful place, but to the people of the bygone eras, before the light of civilization drove out the night, forests were as geographically separated from civilization as the ocean. Like an ocean above the ground.
Just like how fishermen who go out into the ocean are threatened despite their technical knowledge... Hunters who go out to the forest have technical knowledge as well, yet are also in danger. If children go play in that dangerous forest, something terrible might happen. Someone's parents must have thought so. .Maybe my Grandmother, or possibly anybody else other than Grandfather might have said that. Or maybe it's been handed down in this island from long, long ago.
There's a terrible witch in the forest, so you must not go in. Thus, Rokkenjima's ghost story was born. That is the legend of the witch of Rokkenjima. That's why, if we say 'witch' in this island, we're referring to the master of the vast and savage forest.
Which reminds me, when I was little and stayed at this mansion, in the eerie nights where the wind and rain struck the windows, I got terrified by a story that the witch of the forest was roaming around searching for a sacrifice...
...When Aniki told me and I searched my memory, I was sure I remembered hearing a name like that when I was little.
"...Right. Still, I completely forgot that the witch of that legend had an elegant name like Beatrice. Since us grandchildren didn't believe Grandfather, he went out of his way to have her depicted in this painting?"
"...It's the witch from Grandfather's delusions. Ever since he had this picture hanged, he's been blurring the line between reality and illusion. To us, it's no more than the witch from his imagination, but... to Grandfather, she's a being that 'exists' on this island. That's why he says he had that picture painted. So that we'd understand. And I'm sorry, but she just doesn't exist."
"...Milady. To the Master, this is an important portrait. I beg of you, do not say such a thing in front of him."
"...I get it. You don't need to beg."
Jessica turned away, after glaring a second at the portrait.
"...Let's go. We're making everyone wait in the dining room."
...Only a small portion of this island was controlled by the Ushiromiya family. All of the wild remainder... was the witch Beatrice's domain.
One could say that she was the being who actually ruled over Rokkenjima. That slightly unsettling feeling of misfortune that I had felt when I learned the Tutelary God's shrine had been struck by lightning on the boat trip revived within me a bit. At that time, Kumasawa-san had tried to tell an ominous story about Rokkenjima and had been stopped by Jessica.
...I didn't know what she had tried to tell us about this island.
"Battler! Uu-, slo-ow!"
When I looked around, everyone was already heading towards the dining room. I hurriedly chased after them...
We walked up to the huge double doors that led to the dining room. Genji-san knocked.
"...I have brought the children. If you will excuse me..."
The door was opened and we were invited inside.