Part 12: Night of the Storm
At that point, Jessica returned. Her face was still blank, but it looked like she had calmed down a little since she had left.
"...Is Maria still in front of the portrait?"
"Nope. She just came back, and she's sleeping over there on the sofa. It is getting pretty late for her."
Looking at the clock, it was a little past 10:00 PM. Even if we were going to stay up all night, it was about time to head back to our room.
"My mother had a room prepared for us in the mansion for the time being, but... what'll we do?"
"I think I'd rather head back to the guesthouse. Judging by our parents' appearance, I think it would be better if we weren't in the mansion."
"I agree. It feels like they're telling us kids to mind our own business and stay out of their way. Let's do that, like good little boys and girls."
"Aunt Rosa, if you're looking for Maria, she's over there on the sofa."
"Thank you. My, she's out cold. We must move her to a bed."
"If you would like, I'll carry her over to a bed."
"Thank you, that would be wonderful. Will all of you return to the guesthouse? Or will you stay in the room Natsuhi nee-san had prepared?"
"We were just talking about that. We had just decided to head over to the guesthouse."
"Really. Then I wonder if you wouldn't mind taking Maria with you. I think it will be much more comforting if all of the cousins are together."
It seemed that, in the shadow behind those words, there was some regret that the adults, herself included, had deeply hurt Maria's feelings...
"Leave it to us. After all, we do have an expert at comforting Maria with us!"
"A, are you talking about me? I couldn't do it myself. We'll need everyone together."
"That's right. Battler, weren't you the one who hit it off with Maria when you were messing around earlier?"
As we said this, aunt Rosa smiled, looking truly happy.
"Thank you, everyone. It looks like our meeting will last until very late. Therefore, I'm sorry for the burden, but I'll be counting on everyone for Maria's sake."
"She's really out cold. It'd be bad to wake her."
"Right, I'll carry her."
It was raining hard outside, and Aniki couldn't hold an umbrella and carry Maria at the same time. It looked like aunt Rosa would come with us as far as the guesthouse to help out. However, when she heard uncle Krauss's voice call out to her, she had no choice but to return.
"...That's too bad. I have to go back now."
"...Is everyone returning to the guesthouse?"
After we left the hall on the way to the entrance, the door to the servants' room opened and Shannon-chan stepped out.
"It has become very dark, so allow me to guide you."
"That would be great, Shannon-chan. George-kun is going to carry Maria there. Could you hold an umbrella for him?"
Shannon-chan brought umbrellas for each of us and a flashlight to guide the way.
"Aniki, is she too heavy? Want me to carry her?"
"It's alright. I can at least carry Maria-chan."
"...I'm truly grateful. Please take care of Maria."
"Right, we understand. In that case, goodnight."
"Then I will see them over there and return here."
Aunt Rosa saw us off.
"Ahh, if only I'd applied for the position of Maria-carrier! Then I'd have been able to rub Shannon-chan's huge breasts all over with my arm!"
"Ththth, that's not why I did it, it's a misunderstanding...!"
"I, I thought that if I didn't, George-sama would get all wet..."
"C'mon, quit babbling and go in!"
After being nudged by Jessica, Shannon folded up her umbrella and went into the guesthouse.
"Huh? Who had the night shift on today's schedule?"
"I believe there has been a special schedule during the family conference. I think there were a few changes, so I will go and check..."
"Wait, if you have to go all the way back to the mansion to find out, don't force yourself."
"Ah, it's alright. I can find out from the servants' room in the guesthouse. Please excuse me for a short while."
Shannon-chan gave a quick bow and went into the guesthouse servants' room. The rest of us headed for the cousins' room and put Maria in the bed for the time being. Maria was sleeping very deeply, and there was absolutely no sign of her eyes opening...
We got some drinks out of the room's refrigerator, and spent some time playing cards while drinking...
"...Hmm. Gohda-san has been changed to the night shift at the mansion. You and Kanon have the night shift in the guesthouse. Kumasawa-san and I have been ordered to spend the night in the guesthouse... Just now, a phone call came, saying that you are also to remain here."
"Huh...? Th, that's quite a large modification... The shifts at the guesthouse and the mansion have almost been completely reversed, haven't they...?"
Originally, Shannon and Kanon had been given the night shift in the mansion, while the night shift in the guesthouse, where all of the relatives were staying, had been assigned to Gohda, who had an abundance of experience in entertaining. Kumasawa should have been staying at the guesthouse, while Genji should have been staying in the mansion. However, it seemed that Krauss had suddenly ordered that the schedule be modified. The shifts at the guesthouse and the mansion had all been reversed, and Genji was spending the night in the guesthouse.
"...It's probably because of Beatrice-sama's letter."
"When such a mysterious letter appeared, it was only natural that Krauss-sama would suspect one of us. We serve directly under the Master, so Krauss-sama tried as best he could to keep us far away from the family conference."
In reality, Kinzo would seldom let anyone other than them enter his study. You could probably say this sudden shift change clearly expressed the sense of mistrust that caused.
Considering the time Kinzo had left to live, this would definitely be the last family conference before the problem of the inheritance would come up. On top of that, the mysterious letter that claimed to be from Beatrice had dropped in out of the blue. Krauss definitely wanted to keep Kinzo's loyal subjects away from the table of such a delicate and important discussion...
"...If you would excuse me, I will go rest. If anything happens, call me immediately. For the Master, tonight is special..."
""Yes, certainly, Genji-sama.""
Genji nodded back, went behind a screen, took off his jacket, and slowly began to relax after a day's worth of tension...
"Yes, probably... I'm only saying this because Genji-sama isn't around, but I'm a little happy I was sent to the guesthouse... I think..."
"Oh? Why's that? Because you can stay away from Madam and Eva-sama, those bullies? Or do you have another reason?"
"I... it's not like I have... ...another reason...!"
"...I see. Then, let's do our best together with our midnight shift. I'm counting on you, Nee-san."
"Ah, umm... Just now, I was asked to go to the children's room and play with them..."
Shannon hung her head apologetically, gazing at Kanon uncertainly. Kanon didn't try to meet her eyes, and spoke curtly as he sighed. It looked like he didn't plan on indulging his 'sister'.
"...You can't. You were assigned the night shift. And besides that, it is not necessary for furniture like us to respond to an invitation to play. You understand, right?"
"Y... yes, I do understand... Nnnn."
...She had already expected that Kanon, who considered rules to be very important, would probably say something like that, but even so, she was a little discouraged. As Kanon turned over a diary, he spoke without facing Shannon.
"...In that case, the children will be waiting for you. You will have to apologize and tell them that you have the night shift and won't be able to stay with them. Go and come back."
"Huh... ah, yes! I'll go apologize and come back..."
Shannon hurriedly stood from her seat before her brother's mood could change, and flew out of the servants' room after giving a quick bow...
As he watched her back go, Kanon took a single deep breath... Genji's voice came from beyond the screen.
"...No, that's not something that I need to do. Kids who are people may have a need to play, but... we are... only furniture."
"...Is that so."
"...Nee-san is also... furniture. Even if she pretends to be a person, it will only hurt her later. I understand that, so I try not to get too close to people."
Genji did not say anything after that. After a while, he stood up and used a pot of hot water to make powdered cocoa, and served some to Kanon as well.
His voice caused Maria to turn over once, but she soon fell back into a deep sleep... Jessica gave him a jab, and he lowered his voice.
"Still, seriously... now that I've heard about it, they really did have that kind of atmosphere, didn't they... Haa, now I see, that George-aniki..."
George could not be seen anywhere in the room. A short while ago, when Shannon had come into the room, George had suddenly said that he had forgotten something in the mansion and needed to go back and get it. Shannon had said she would guide him, just like she had on the way to the guesthouse, and the two of them had departed together.
"...Yeah, they've really been showing signs for a long time, haven't they? Asking what the other person liked, asking what their hobbies were. And somehow thinking they could pass it off as nothing more than a passing interest!?"
"Come to think of it, I get the feeling that George-aniki has always been overly nice to Shannon-chan... No-w I get it..."
"Hahaha, I already knew that the typhoon would be coming beforehand. Just in case, I made sure that I didn't have any plans for Monday, so it's all right. I may not look like it, but I really am the type who can plan ahead in his schedule."
George puffed out his chest, acting proud. Compared to the normally calm appearance that George always had as the oldest cousin, he now looked amusingly like a little kid. Shannon chuckled at this gap.
"It's no surprise that someone who will soon make his company prosperous is so well prepared."
"...Well, making a company prosperous really is a tough job. Money isn't the only thing that's important. I learned that well by studying from my father. Making a company prosperous is like having a castle and leading your subordinates."
"My dad, Hideyoshi, really loved reading about great leaders during the warring periods of Japan. Much of his philosophy on managing businesses comes from talking about them. Did you know? Takeda Shingen, who was feared as the leader of the strongest cavalry corps in the warring periods, started out with his troops in complete disarray, and didn't have the kind of strong leadership necessary to utilize them well."
"Is that true? That's a little unexpected."
"In order to unite his troops, Shingen utilized several strategies. For example, when a soldier succeeded well in battle, he would immediately honor them with a medal. Normally, that kind of thing was put off until after the war and they were all awarded at once."
"He also worked diligently while on the field of battle, and when he immediately showed his appreciation for his troops' military exploits, he motivated them in an extremely significant fashion. After that, whenever one of his troops was brought down by an illness, he would be the first to rush up to them and care for them, things like that. Takeda Shingen wasn't just the man who led the strongest calvary corps in the warring period. He was the person who cared the most for his troops throughout the warring period."
"...Since he was that kind of person, all of his troops went along with him."
The truth was, Shannon had already heard this story several years ago. But when George started to tie his father in with one of these stories, he would always be beaming, looking like he was having a great time. So Shannon just smiled without interrupting, urging him to continue.
"Of course, in a capitalist world, the power of money can build up a large stone wall. But did you know? You can't build up a castle or succeed in war by yourself. That kind of thing can only be created with the support of many subordinates, by borrowing their strength. After understanding this, when I look at my father's back, I realize how immature I am. I see how much my father has cultivated his character by working hard, and understand well how he was able to build up all that he has until today."
"George-sama, you truly look up to your father... I'm jealous."
"A, ah, sorry... that's not exactly the way I meant to say it."
"I, I am sorry... I also didn't mean it that way..."
The two of them awkwardly looked at their feet.
Servants from the Fukuin House all took names with the character "on" (音) in them while they served. So "Shannon" (紗音) wasn't her real name. The same goes for "Kanon" (嘉音).
All of the graduates from the Fukuin House were orphans. Or you could say that they were all people who, through special circumstances, had been disowned by their parents. Because of this, the graduates had been taught to think of each other as their only family. That's why it seemed so natural to Kanon when he called Shannon his sister. And while only Shannon and Kanon were working today in the mansion, there are other servants who worked in the shift rotation, named Manon (眞音) and Renon (恋音) who also inherited the '音' character in their names.
However, there were not many servants who stayed with the Ushiromiya family for long. It was standard for them to quit after three years, so you could probably say that Shannon, who had been working for over ten years, was an exception to an exception to the rule. Working as a servant for the Ushiromiya family was a heavy burden to bear, but the pay wasn't bad at all. Working for a full three years would earn more than what was needed to enter mainstream society. That was why, even though the graduates from the orphanage realized what a harsh task working for the Ushiromiya family was, they still hoped to be accepted.
Maybe the fact that Shannon had managed to continue for more than ten years shouldn't be viewed as her having more willpower than any of the other servants. Maybe she was made to continue working for ten years because she didn't have the courage to say that she wanted to quit. To Kinzo, who could not even trust his own blood relatives, those 'excellent' servants sent from the Fukuin House were the only ones he could trust. Because of that, Kinzo would sometimes allow them to wear the family crest as servants under his direct control, and have them work close to him...
"Have you continued working to try and meet some target sum?"
"...Y... yes, that's right. I have nowhere to go outside of this mansion. I have been getting along well with Milady and the other servants' children, too... I am sometimes scolded by Madam, but... caring for the rose garden and cleaning the mansion is fun..."
"Even after becoming an adult and a full-fledged member of society, I've been studying and I've learned something. A human's life is not as monotonous or short as we thought when we were kids."
When they are students, everyone has certain fears that they can't shake. Wondering whether they will live the rest of their lives like they were in sleepy classes after a monotonous and boring school day, spending their time in a carefree laziness without anything interesting happening until it was all over...
However, these thoughts will only arise while a person is still an underage student. Compared to a human's life, the time they spend as a student is nothing more than a blink of the eye, a period where they break through the shells of their immaturity. The inside of the shell might be a hot, suffocating and boring world, but the world beyond that shell is vast and filled with limitless possibilities.
"So far, you have been living inside your shell. Aren't you making the mistake of thinking that your life will always continue like this?"
Shannon couldn't deny those words. She hadn't been able to doubt her way of life, and since she never had any hope or goal to change herself, she had continued her life of idleness. And if she were asked whether this life was satisfying, she wouldn't have been able to nod... This might have caused her to avert her eyes from the truth.
As long as she wasn't admonished by George, she would have continued pretending not to notice as her real life slipped away, neglected, bit by bit...
"...George-sama...Should I not... continue living... this way?"
"You must not. Ah, and by the way, didn't you break one of the rules just now?"
George immediately gave a strict answer, and then broke out into a mischievous smile. Shannon already knew what she was being chided for, and it seemed that it embarrassed her, as she hung her head.
"Didn't you promise not to use "sama" when the two of us are alone...?"
"...I couldn't obey that as a promise. But, if it was an order, I would have to obey it... Because I'm... furniture."
"Then it's an order."
"Err, Yes. Certainly... George-san."
As Shannon hung her head, her face red, she said George's name again, this time using san...
"Yes, that's fine, Sayo-chan."
A smile rose to George's face praising Shannon's, no, Sayo's small act of bravery.
"...Th, that's right... I have something I wanted to show you."
"...Wh... what could it be?"
George, who had been speaking eloquently, suddenly started to stutter. Shannon also noticed something about his appearance. George timidly searched through his pocket. Something got caught in the depths of his pocket, and just like the stuttering George, it took a little while to get it out.
Shannon had prepared her heart a little, thinking it must be something like that. But even so, when she actually saw it, she couldn't avoid blushing once more...
George opened the small box, took that thing out... and held it out for Shannon to take it.
"I want you to accept this."
"I... I can't accept something so valuable...!"
"...You can't accept it...?"
"N... no, umm... Something like that... is too good... f, for me..."
"Sayo. This is not a request. It's an order, okay? Accept this ring. Okay?"
"Ha... u... I, I can't... disobey an order..."
"Yes, that's right. Good girl."
That ring wasn't a simple accessory. It was a noble object, which since ancient times was meant to be held with a special meaning and offered to a special woman. Therefore, while George could order her to take it, he could not order anything beyond that. Anything beyond that would depend, not on an order, but on Shannon's, no, Sayo's own will.
"So, from here on it's no longer an order. Sayo. I want you to answer me tomorrow, without using words. Do you understand?"
"...Err... H... how..."
"I won't order you any more, so this isn't an order... But a ring is something you put on your finger. If you like it, you can just put it on any finger that you choose."
Shannon had only pretended not to know. She had already understood what he wanted her to do. But she was standing at a huge crossroads of her life...
"...Look how late it's gotten. Let's call it a day."
George faced away from Shannon, seeming slightly uncomfortable.
"I probably can't order you to wear it on your left hand. You might be timid and dependent enough to actually obey that kind of an order. But I want this last part to be given by Sayo's own will. Understand?"
"So, that's my order. I want you to think about it well tonight and show me your answer tomorrow."
Shannon nodded back.
"...We should be getting back to the guesthouse soon. If we take any longer, we'll make everyone worry about us."
"...Ah, err... I'm sorry, I...! Um, I just remembered something I had to do in the mansion, so, um... I have to go back to the mansion..."
"Something this late? Really?"
George stared into Shannon's face as he laughed mischievously. He definitely saw through Shannon's lie. However, after noticing that feeling, it wasn't as if he couldn't understand that she'd want to be alone.
So because George realized the meaning behind Shannon's lie, he accepted it.
October 4th, 1986, 11:00 PM
A mixture of exaltation and uncertainty gave her a feeling that she couldn't easily describe. It swelled up in her chest until it felt like she was about to burst. After stopping for a second in front of the servants' room to take a deep breath and calm her heart, she opened the door.
Inside, Gohda, who had been ordered to take the midnight shift at the mansion tonight, was absorbed in a crossword puzzle magazine, completely worn out. He looked up for an instant to see whether one of the family had come, but when he realized that it was a fellow servant, he returned to his puzzle as if nothing had happened.
"Ah, really... Thanks a lot. I was just about to go make the rounds and close up the mansion, but there's no way I could leave this place empty. Anyways, Krauss-sama and the others' meeting looks as though it will continue for quite some time. They might order some tea at any time."
"That's true... Then, what shall we do...? Should I watch over-"
"In that case, Shannon-san, sorry, but would you please patrol the inside of the mansion? I will stay here, awaiting the family's orders."
...Shannon was a little surprised. Despite the fact that she had come here to help out as a favor, she was being forced to do the job of the person actually on duty as though it were natural. Furthermore, after one-sidedly forcing that task on her, Gohda had once again gone back to his magazine and had become immersed in his crossword puzzle.
From the dining hall, she began to hear the tumultuous voices of the family's discussion. Someone was speaking at great length, and was then interrupted by someone else. This second person also began to speak in a very long, drawn-out fashion, until yet another person interrupted him. That kept on repeating. It was as though their displeasure was seeping out through their voices.
She had been told to go to the guesthouse, so it would be bad if she was discovered by Krauss. Thinking that, Shannon quick-footedly left from the entrance to the dining hall. Then, inside the mansion controlled by darkness, she began to check that the house was all closed up, following a prearranged route. She walked down the hall, checking that each window was closed.
The metal fixtures on the completely chilled windows were freezing, and every time she went to check one them, one-by-one, it felt like the glow in her heart seemed to cool down.
At that time, she thought she saw something flickering across the hall.
...Flickering? Something like that shouldn't be visible beyond the darkness of the hall...
However, other than the occasional crack of thunder brightening the hallway, she was unable to glimpse any flicker again. It must have been her imagination after all. Maybe because she couldn't calm her heart, she saw something that didn't even exist.
Shannon resumed checking the windows... However, in the back of her mind, a certain unnerving imagination was resurrected. It was that which had been passed down amongst the servants who served the Ushiromiya main family, that ghost story.
The mansion had different Masters of the Day and of the Night. The master of the night, Beatrice, would sometimes fly around the mansion in the form of sparkling butterflies. That was the story.
...Come to think of it, didn't Kanon-kun once say that he had seen it with his own eyes...? Could it possibly... really...?
The roar of the thunder gave no answer...
The clock strikes midnight.