Part 68: The Witch's Written Challenge II
Everyone thought they were being too suspicious, and they hesitated for a long time without speaking, but everyone shared a common opinion. Kyrie, who had been listening the whole time with her eyes closed, spoke to no one in particular.
"...How long has this rumor about Father's mistress been around?"
"As soon as we moved to this island, about 30 years ago. After all, it probably would've been impossible for him to have a hidden mansion built while we were here. People and materials would have to be going in and out. It would've been exposed quickly. So, if it was possible, it happened before we moved here. It probably could've been built along with this mansion when we were still living in Odawara."
"Since Father had to set up a double life with his family and his mistress, it's probably reasonable to assume that he had it all planned from the beginning. And his relationship with that mistress probably went back to the days when we lived in Odawara."
"Probably. If, as Father says, she is the source of the vast amount of gold he used to gain the funds that resurrected the Ushiromiya family, we could probably conclude that they had a close relationship since Odawara. A relationship trusting enough for her to lend him a vast quantity of gold. I can't even imagine how old that relationship must have been."
"...Perhaps Father gave her some kind of valuable advice for succeeding in business. It's natural to think that, out of a sense of gratitude for that, this person gave Father the gold. If you think about it that way, it's obvious that they would have a close relationship after that. Rather than a festering relationship with a mistress, it was probably a relationship of gratitude to the person who saved the Ushiromiya family from its crisis."
"...That way of looking at it might have some sense to it too. But, even in that case, isn't building a hidden mansion and havin' her live in it going a bit too far? Doesn't that mean they felt something a bit more than gratitude?"
"Well, this is all just speculation. In the first place, no one's ever found that hidden mansion. Aniki, you were planning on expanding this island into a resort, right? As you were doing that, you didn't manage to stumble on it by chance, did you? Maybe you even bumped into some gold there, too."
"...Hahahaha. Do you think Rokkenjima is Treasure Island or something?"
"Don't play dumb. We know that, although you say you're opening a resort, you have really been planning to investigate the entire island, right? Judging by all that trouble and confusion we were talking about earlier, you haven't been very successful, have you?"
"I don't know what you're talking about, but it's a misunderstanding. Isn't it perfectly natural that investigating this island would be the first step in turning it into a resort?"
Krauss tried to play dumb, but it was plainly obvious to his siblings, who knew him so well. Krauss was definitely sure of the existence of a hidden mansion. And under the pretense of opening a resort, he had been closely investigating the island, searching for a clue as to the location of the hidden gold. They couldn't tell whether that conviction was just him overthinking things, or whether it was based on some physical proof.
Still, if Krauss, with all his guile, was sure, that was enough proof for the other siblings to be sure too...
"...The story about a witch livin' in a forest is obviously a fairy tale, but the story about some blonde-haired girl livin' secretly in a mansion no one knows about in the middle of the forest... isn't much better."
"That's right. That really would be just like a fairy tale. You like those, don't you, Rosa?"
"When the mansion was built on this island, Father was at the height of his prosperity. With his money, he could probably obtain anything, make any of his wild imaginings real. A mansion in the forest where a witch quietly waits... It sounds like the kind of situation Father would like."
"...Doesn't it? Like something from the occult or a fairy tale. It feels like Dad's kind of hobby."
Even this hastily thrown together theory... might not be completely delusional, considering all of Kinzo's strange habits and his vast wealth...
"...It might not have been impossible for Father to build a hidden mansion to satisfy his dreams. However, let's be realistic. Would it be possible to house his beloved woman in that hidden mansion for decades without it becoming inconvenient...?"
"...Well, if there was love, it could've been doable, right?"
"Think of the facilities needed to let his beloved woman live healthily. And in a way that would satisfy Father. For example, even if it was on a small scale, it would have to be an intricate and pleasant residence."
"And it would probably need to have... electricity, gas, and running water maintained, as well as some people to see to her needs. Even cooking would be quite difficult. She would need clothes and makeup, the daily necessities. The needs of a woman aren't simple. Would it be possible to maintain all of that without any of the family or the servants noticing?"
"...When you say it that way, it sure sounds like a weak point in our theory. But that isn't enough to get rid of my feeling that Dad might've been able to do it anyway. After all, it's Dad we're talking about."
"That's right... It's our Father."
"If Father wanted to succeed in an endeavor, he would succeed no matter what. Saying that something would be difficult for a normal person and therefore impossible... doesn't apply when it comes to Father."
"Indeed. You should never underestimate Father. Father's madness can't be understood by normal people."
As long as you stick to this phrase, a considerable amount of credibility can dwell in any absurd story. However, that didn't cause the importance of what Kyrie had said to waver. This was different from stealthily raising a kitten in a cardboard box and keeping it a secret from your parents. Taking care of a person in secret over a period of 30 years would be an incalculably massive task...
"...After all, Father's Legend of the Gold started before he gained possession of Rokkenjima. That'd mean his relationship with his mistress was over 30 years long... How old would that make her? In the worst case, she could be as old as us or older, right?"
"...By that age, the body starts to break down. I don't care what the mansion's like, I wouldn't use the word 'agreeable' to describe livin' in a place where people's eyes can't reach, almost like she was under house arrest..."
"That's right. If what Father told us about Beatrice is true, then that relationship has lasted for over 30 years. She might've been a charming young woman at the time, but it probably makes sense to assume she's an old bag like us now. I can easily imagine that, given the contents of that letter."
"You should talk. Heheheh."
Krauss laughed as if none of this applied to him. Of course, Eva was offended, but she didn't strike back.
"Quit it, Aniki. So if everything we're thinking's true, then she should be joining in on Dad's inheritance problem with her head held high. After all, there's a good chance their love was mutual, unlike with Mom. Even if she knows she's his mistress, she might also be proud to be his true wife."
"...That is an insult to Mother."
"Yeah, sorry. However, everyone knows that it was a political marriage decided on by the elders among his relatives. Because of that, it definitely wouldn't be strange for Dad to have a mistress."
However, in the beginning, the elder relatives treated Kinzo like a dummy and influenced him powerfully, almost like he was a puppet. He wasn't permitted to decide anything by himself, not even his marriage partner... Ever since he met that Golden Witch Beatrice in those distant days, Kinzo's Legend of the Gold was quickly embellished into something dramatic.
In other words, it could mean... that Kinzo really did find a woman he loved. If she also knew the whole story, even if they weren't marriage partners, it wouldn't have been odd for her to consider herself his true wife inside her heart. And now, the person registered as his true wife was already dead...
"...I see. I'm starting to see the purpose of this letter. The Headship goes to the one who solves the riddle of the epitaph... Is that what it means...?"
"Even if that mistress was added into the family ranking system, she isn't a direct relative of Father, so she'd be inferior even to the children. In other words, she'd be one step below Rosa in rank. That wouldn't be a good position to enter the battle for the Headship from."
"I see, so that's it. If someone can solve the witch's riddle, they'll get the Headship regardless of rank. In other words, it's the most advantageous condition Beatrice could possibly get, since she's got no chance otherwise."
She had built that wealth together with Kinzo, so it was natural that she would think of herself as the one who should inherit it... It would also be natural for her to despise the thought of giving it up to the children of the wife Kinzo never loved.
"H-How could she be so impudent...?! Even if such a mistress actually exists, joining in on the battle for the rights to the Head's inheritance would be a reckless action far above her place! What disregard for her own position...!"
Natsuhi turned red, her fist quivering. She had also come into the Ushiromiya register due to complicated circumstances. Those who knew that understood more or less why she was so angry for the sake of Kinzo's dead wife.
"...Well, thanks to that reckless action of hers, we all have an even chance now, right? Father has even given it his silent approval. Will the person who succeeds the Ushiromiya family be his mistress Beatrice, or one of us, the relatives he doesn't love? Maybe he wants to make us struggle over that to see who's worthy."
As Eva giggled roguishly, Krauss shrugged his shoulders and looked away.
"...However, since she's the one who brought this rule to light in the first place, maybe that means it gives her a significant advantage."
"Th-That's right. In the first place, if Beatrice meant that letter literally, then she's Father's alchemist. In other words, she's the manager of his gold. It wouldn't be strange at all if she knew where it was hidden, would it?!"
"Isn't that harsh? It's like she's giving us a riddle she knows the answer to! She'll probably show up rudely, say 'Hey, here's the answer, I'll take the Headship now', and snatch everything away from us!"
"...That's right. The person who brings up a riddle always knows the answer. There's a good chance that this is all a trap to steal everything from us."
"...If you think about it like that, don't you start to doubt whether she really had any gold in the first place? Why would she tell us about it? All she has to do is keep quiet and embezzle it."
"It really is...strange."
That certainly was the case. If the epitaph showed the way to the hidden gold, why would she challenge them to try and solve it? If they actually did solve it, wouldn't the gold all be stolen from her...? Could it be that this person was trying to stir the siblings up so they'd solve the epitaph, and then planned to steal it away at the last second...? It was an extremely logical possibility.
"Why are you so certain?"
"...Wait, Aneki. Kyrie, please keep talking. Why do you think that?"
"After all, do they really think we'll let go of the Ushiromiya Family Headship... just because someone tells us the answer to the riddle in the witch's epitaph? That we'll be so impressed by their answer... that we'll just give up?"
"...Well, that's true. No way they're so naive that they assumed we'd just give up after being told the answer to a riddle, that we'd just say 'Here you go' and hand it over."
"Of course. The Headship of the Ushiromiya family is not something that can be handed over so easily!"
"That's it exactly. No matter how Beatrice might one-sidedly propose a game like this, even if she were to spectacularly show us the answer, there's no way we'd obediently hand over the Headship. In other words, unless she has a compelling force in the form of challenging us to a game with equal conditions for us all, this won't truly count as a game."
"You're right. Unless the losers have no choice but to give up on the Headship because of a compelling force, this won't really count as a game."
"And what might this compelling force be? Would they bind us in chains and threaten us into handing over the Headship?"
"I-I see, I get it too! In other words, it's a trade?!"
"Huh? Wh-What do you mean...? A trade? Trade what?!"
"The Ushiromiya Family Headship for the hidden gold. Beatrice surely plans to tell us the location of the 10 tons of gold... and use that as a bribe to gain the Ushiromiya Family Headship."
"R-Ridiculous!! They want to trade the Headship of the glorious Ushiromiya family for... m-money?! That's blasphemy!! Blasphemy against the Ushiromiya family!!"
"...Please listen without getting mad. About how much wealth does this glorious Ushiromiya family have right now? Are we really that affluent?"
"Th-The definition of affluence is not dependent on property. It is about heart! Our financial situation has nothing to-"
Krauss interrupted Natsuhi as she started to go on and on emotionally. In this situation, the more she went on like that, the worse it would actually sound.
"...Me aside, I hear your current situations are... quite unfavorable."
"Oh, really? I've heard that your financial situation's really bad too. Offering up more and more as collateral for new money to gamble with. Repeatedly dabbling in new gambles, unable to accept your losses. If we count what's going on behind the scenes, you're in even bigger financial straits than the rest of us."
"Just how much money have you lost, Nii-san? You have no talent!"
"Wh-Who are you saying has no talent?!! And what do you mean, financial straits?!!"
Natsuhi became indignant once more, but Krauss raised his hand again and interrupted her.
"...It seems you are making a small mistake. Business is not something that can be judged based on current progress alone. For someone with a long-term outlook on business such as myself, it may sometimes appear at a glance that I have suffered significant short-term losses."
"Aniki, we've been collecting evidence. Your position right now isn't one to be proud of."
"...As the only person who knows the location of the 10 tons of gold, Beatrice is planning on using it to force us to sell the Headship. About how much is 10 tons of gold worth? At a rough estimate, let's say 2 billion yen? No, 20 billion yen. With that much piled up, we'd be ecstatic to accept her as the Successor."
The scene returned to silence. In fact, the rain and wind felt even noisier now. It was probably the sound of the windstorm racing through the insides of their minds...
"...Th-This isn't funny. To think we'd give up the Headship to some woman of doubtful origin... just because she had a little money stored up..."
"Don't be stupid...! The Headship wasn't even yours in the first place, right...?! We've got nothin' to lose and money to gain. We'll have to calculate our profit and loss, but it's somethin' worth listenin' to...!"
They knew that Krauss had eaten up much of the Ushiromiya family's assets. So, it was dregs that remained of that inheritance, versus 'the cost of being accepted as the Head' that Beatrice would pay. It was a shame, but honestly, the former was less enticing than the latter.
"...Well, it probably wouldn't end up as four equal portions. Since Aniki would be giving up his position of Successor, his portion would have to be larger. Makes me feel kinda jealous, you know?"
"Dear...! The amount of money isn't the problem, right?! Your cowardly younger siblings are trying to sell the glory of the Ushiromiya family for money, don't you see?! Why aren't you displaying your dignity as the oldest son?!"
"...Natsuhi, stay quiet for a while."
"...This is a dizzying proposal. ...We were each planning on getting 250 million yen out of Aniki. If the witch treats us with ten percent of those 10 tons ummm-"
"That's 2 billion."
"...Yeah. That'd mean she's treating us with ten times our original goal. That alone would be more than enough for us. It's not like I've got any attachment to the Ushiromiya name. I'd be happy to sell it off..."
"Even if 10 tons is a slightly optimistic figure... yes, it'd still be a fascinating prospect for us. We were trying to form an alliance among the siblings to kick this outsider called Beatrice out."
"...But, if this is her plan, it'll tear apart the unity between us. Yeah, by this point we can state it clearly... The goal of Beatrice's letter was to disturb our alliance."
BGM: Scar Sound
A moat had been dug all around Krauss. In that case, the negotiations would be one-on-one between her and Krauss. He tried to look strong, but Krauss's financial and political situation was extremely weak. He might bluff in front of his siblings, but on the inside, he was considering entering negotiations, depending on the sum of money involved. In order to bury his losses, Krauss had taken advantage of the fact that Kinzo had shut himself up in his room... and had embezzled Kinzo's personal assets.
Therefore, when Kinzo died and the inheritance was distributed, Krauss's situation would probably be investigated. But if he gave up his seat as the Head to Beatrice, she would also receive rights to the assets, and as a result, the distribution of the inheritance to the siblings would not occur. In other words, Krauss' embezzlement might not have to be made known to the other siblings...
Of course, the siblings were frightened of Kinzo, but it was doubtful whether they still actually respected him as a father. By this time, they each had their own families, their own wealth, and their own lives. If they were paid enough money in exchange for Rokkenjima, the wreckage of Kinzo's dreams, there was a significant likelihood that they'd relinquish the Ushiromiya family name...
Not as the winner of 'Beatrice's game', but as the winner of 'Kinzo's game'. Kinzo once ordered that the epitaph be put on display. And until today, no one had solved it. So, Beatrice 'solved' it. In other words, this is less of a game and more like Beatrice's declaration of victory...
However, Kyrie still thought there might be a catch. If this was a declaration of victory, Beatrice would only have had to display the gold openly and state her intent to buy the inheritance. And yet, she had gone to all of this trouble, telling the siblings to try and solve the epitaph. Why did she set up this 'new game', where she agreed to hand over the all of the gold and the inheritance to the epitaph solver?
Kyrie tried spinning the chessboard around several times. She searched for the sort of ideal strategy Beatrice might be after, something that could lead to this kind of thinking. In the end, she reached a single conclusion.
"...What are you talking about?"
"The witch sent us a letter of challenge, forcing us to try and solve the epitaph. She might be taking us lightly, thinking we could never solve it. However, at the very least, there ought to be an extremely small chance that we do solve it."
"After all, we have here four of Father's children by blood, right? The questioner called together four blood relatives who, if they tried frantically to work together and avoid having those assets stolen from them, might come across the answer of the riddle by chance."
The reason the witch had a superior position in negotiations compared to the siblings... was that only she knew the location of the hidden gold. But if that hiding place was exposed to someone other than her, the witch's advantage would crumble.
"In short, Beatrice gains nothing but risk by writing this witch's letter of challenge. Of course, it might have had the effect of splitting apart the siblings' alliance, but if that was her only goal, why would she take this risk, however slight it might be...? That seems reckless to me."
"...But if we keep in mind a certain type of emotion, that risk becomes comprehensible."
BGM: The Candles Dance
"Yes, that's right. When people have an overwhelming advantage, they tend to get arrogant. And when they do, they want to show off that advantage to the losers, so they sometimes take on small risks. A moderate amount of risk adds a little spice to the joy of victory. It'd be boring to win without any risk."
"...I understand. I like that kind of thing too... Yeah, I understand it well."
"I thought of a few plausible explanations for the true motive behind Beatrice's letter, but I think this really might be the truth. The emotion hidden behind that letter was... arrogance."
"She's trying to throw her weight around, looking down on us, as if there's no way we could figure out such a difficult epitaph. It might even be possible, if surprising, that the epitaph wasn't written by Father, but by her."
"...Sounds great. Solve the riddle of the epitaph, she says?"
...I'll solve it... I'll accept the witch's challenge. As if those other idiot siblings could solve it. I'll solve it by myself, and then I'll prove that I'm the one who's fit to succeed the Ushiromiya family...