It was the morning of the calligraphy duel. Both Koremitsu and Hikaru were feeling the same.
“Alright, time to get writing!”
“I shall leave it to you, Koremitsu. I will dress up in some costume and cheer you on!”
“Ugh, forget about the tennis outfit, Heian outfit or Greek mythology look.”
“Then, how about I dress up in an ancient, honorable high collar uniform?”
“Just watch with a normal uniform. That’s the best way to cheer me on.”
This exchanged occurred as they walked out of the corridor. And then, they found a pitch black car parked in front of the door.
“That is Asa’s car.”
And Koremitsu got into a defensive posture.
However, it was not Asai who walked out of it, but the chauffeur dressed in a black suit and white gloves.
“Lady Asai has ordered me to welcome you.”
He bent his body politely, in a refined manner, and opened the back passenger door.
“Perhaps Asa changed her mind because of yesterday’s phone call? Koremitsu, you really are manly and cool there. Asa may be very aloof, but there definitely is a maiden called Asa who believed in Santa Claus inside that wall of ice.”
“What are you saying now. A maiden Saiga? Thinking about that gives me goosebumps.”
But leaving aside whether it was a bait dangled in front of him, Koremitsu certainly did feel uneasy about Asai having to fight Kazuaki alone. Certainly, this might be her way of asking him for help. Of course, such a stubborn person would never grovel her head and ask others for help with a teary look.
“Guess I got no choice.”
Koremitsu raised his nose and snorted, looking like a dog that was praised for an outstanding job of fetching a lost item. He then sat inside the car, slumping his back on the soft seat.
This was the second time Koremitsu took this car, the previous time being when he had to rush to Kazuaki’s villa to save Aoi. He could not concentrate on the softness of the seat the last time, but this time, he could enjoy it a little.
However, the vehicle was moving slowly at a speed that would not reach the Gonomiya residence quickly.
“Koremitsu, this seems strange for some reason.”
“Hey, where exactly are we going now?”
“It seems there was a last minute change of venue.”
“Let me off here.”
“We are on the expressway at the moment. Please wait for a moment.”
And such an exchange occurred.
“Please get off now.”
The chauffeur opened the door, and appearing in Koremitsu’s eyes was a lush forest and a wide grassland.
Speechless, he looked around.
“I shall be picking you up once the meeting is over.”
And the vehicle drove off in front of Koremitsu.
“How in the world am I supposed to write at such a place!”
“Hm, Asa is Asa after all.”
“Aren’t you just saying something completely different from what you said before? There can’t possibly be a maiden Asa in that ice wall after all! I’m dumped here now, no!?”
♢ ♢ ♢
At this point, that wild hound who feared nothing would certainly be cussing away somewhere in the hills.
—I’ll definitely go tomorrow!
Asai faltered when Koremitsu said this over the cellphone the previous day.
She had ignored him to such an extent, yet that man remained so annoyingly persistent.
As she found him too annoying, too infuriating, the noise continued to echo not only in her ears, but also in her chest. If she were to continue hearing that voice, she would lose the ability to decide calmly.
And so, she decided that on the next day, she would send him as far away as possible
She just received the news from the chauffeur that he had sent Koremitsu into the hills. It seemed there was no vehicle or human to be seen, so it would be hard for him to hitch a ride.
With that, she would be able to focus on her duel against Kazuaki.
Firmly believing this, she opened the doors to the Gonomiya residence. She sat on the tatami in a seiza, her back straightened as she quietly waited for the showdown to begin. However, her heart was as anxious as ever.
All sorts of thoughts appeared in her mind,
‘I’ll help fulfill your promise with Hikaru!’ whether it was Koremitsu,
‘Leave me alone!’ whether it was Aoi,
‘Since Hikaru is dead, how about living for yourself for a change instead?’ or Tsuyako.
And also, there was a young Hikaru’s face.
—You are so smart, Asa. You know so many difficult words.
There was the cute, innocent, angelic cousin who abruptly appeared in front of Asai one day.
Asai said that she wanted to grow up to be an adventurer, to unravel the mysteries of the world, to exchange messages with UFOs, to travel in space. Hikaru never laughed at her for any of these.
“I too want to look for Tsuchinokos, and try fishing for kappas with cucumbers, try riding on UFOs, and see how Earth is like from space.”
It was the summer vacation when Hikaru was in 3rd grade, and Asai in her 4th.
Both of them had a promise to go on an adventure.
“Keep it a secret from Aoi. She has a frail body. If she gets a bug bite, it will swell; if she sees a snake or a kappa, she will faint. If it is known that both you and I went out to play, Aoi will pout and not listen to us.”
“I understand. I will keep this a secret from Miss Aoi.”
“Then, let us meet here tomorrow morning.”
“Sure! When the Morning Glory blooms, that will be the signal for our adventure!”
However, the initial promise Hikaru and Asai had was never fulfilled.
Hikaru did not return home on the night before that meeting.
The children who bullied Hikaru locked him in the school storage room. When the teaching staff discovered him and rescued him, he was already covered with wounds all over.
They were all scrapes and such, but Asai felt her heart rip apart when she saw Hikaru’s pure white skin littered with such wounds.
Hikaru said that he accidentally walked into the storage room, got locked inside, and could not get out.
Why will you not tell the truth? Asai was raging, but he calmly answered,
“But it is my fault. Mr. Yuuji and the rest said so. They said I am ‘not a child to be born’, and they said that I am not reflecting on my actions because I cannot cry. They would not let me out until I did cry.”
And so, he smiled forlornly.
“But Asa, I…cannot cry.”
The Morning Glory, which was supposed to be the signal for their adventure, had completely wilted.
In place of this promise that was not fulfilled, Asai and Hikaru made a new promise.
“In that case, I shall not cry either.”
That was the final, strongest promise.
She wanted to gain power to protect Hikaru.
She would no longer have the dreams only children would have. She sealed the future she had mapped out.
She decided to look at reality coldly, without letting her guard down, all to protect Hikaru.
A Hikaru who would not cry.
He continued to smile in front of others, acting as if nothing miserable had happened to him—however, I know that this is not the case.
Hikaru will definitely continue to maintain a smile in front of everyone else.
Thus, I shall protect Hikaru.
To prevent his beautiful skin and pure white heart from being hurt again, she would gather power and climb higher.
Ever since then, she received everything in the name of the elders, and never let off anyone who blamed Hikaru in any way.
However, everything changed due to Hikaru’s death.
When she heard of Hikaru’s drowning at the river near the villa on that night, her vision became dark due to despair, ostensibly hearing the sounds of the torrent that gulped Hikaru in.
(I was unable to protect Hikaru’s heart.)
Even after giving up her entire future, she was unable to save that most important existence.
And that was why she had to protect the last thing Hikaru left behind—
But was this really the best way?
Was there really nothing wrong about it?
—You promised to look for Tsuchinokos with Hikaru, right?
Koremitsu’s words appeared in her mind again, her chest seared like a hot poker
Having done everything for Hikaru’s sake, did Asai not make a single mistake?
Was that the reason why Hikaru was in such despair? Such anguish? Did he not die because he was completely hapless?
The reason why she carelessly revealed a smile at Hikaru’s funeral was because she was relieved that Hikaru was finally liberated from the place where he was tightly bound to, and completely helpess.
Why was it that even after becoming such a person, she was unable to bring Hikaru out from that place?
When exactly did she start making mistakes?
Every single night, she would see Hikaru, both young and grown up, appearing in her eyes whenever she was depressed looking back at her silently. They did not plead for help, and they did not shed tears. They were simply looking over in Asai’s direction calmly.
(Did I do something wrong after all? I should have saved you earlier, should I?)
No, perhaps she might get taken advantage of by Kazuaki if she were to deny herself till this point. Even if Hikaru died, the promise that day would still remain in her heart. If she did not fulfill it, it would continue to throb furiously in her heart, and if that was fulfilled, she would not need her future.
Asai’s eyes filled with vigor as she straightened her back.
“Mr. Akagi is not here?”
“He will not be coming.”
Asai answered stiffly, and Kazuaki, waiting for the start in the same room, chimed in,
“Eh? A lover unwilling to help in times of crisis? I never thought Mr. Akagi would be such a ruthless person. Ah, since you are so strong and wise, he definitely believes that you are fine being alone, little Asai. Either that, or he is giving me a handicap.”
He spoke with an amicable expression, but Asai ignored him.
“Is that so…”
Orime however looked on worriedly, before breaking into a tranquil smile.
“Let us begin then. I shall now introduce the judges. Please come in.”
The sliding screen rattled.
Orime slid it aside, and there appeared a tall male with his back straightened, dressed in a fine tailored suit, together with a young, slender lady.
Once she noticed the duo, Asai froze.
The man was Masayuki Tōjō, Shungo’s father, the current head of the Tōjōs. Till this point, he was a reliable partner of Asai’s group—and currently, the leading vanguard of the Rose faction pushing for Kazuaki to be the successor.
(So Tōjō is a judge for the duel between Kazuaki and me?)
Masayuki was a realist, for better or worse. He did not put in too much emotions to his naive, idealistic son, and was a man who could calmly analyze the situation and take action.
That was why he was able to switch over from the Wisteria faction to the Rose faction without hesitation. What prompted him was not emotion or stubborn will, but cold, calculated decision making.
Instead of which word was good or bad, it would be correct of him to choose whose word in this situation, and how it would affect future developments. His decision would affect all the aspects.
Masayuki thought about everything with regards to the decision benefitting Kazuaki.
This was a disadvantage to Asai.
However, the one worrying Asai more than Masayuki Tōjō was the other judge—Fujino Mikado.
(I never thought she would be called in—)
No. Since Masayuki, an overt supporter of Kazuaki, was called in to be a judge, it would be fair to call in Fujino, who was of the opposing faction.
But she—Fujino, had an excessively close relationship with Hikaru, and they had similar appearances.
There was an age difference of more than 20 years between her and her husband, the head of the Mikados, and even though she was young, being in her 20s, one would mistake her elegant figure and transient appearance as being a girl in her teens if he did not pay attention.
Having done that, there was an increasingly striking resemblance to Hikaru.
Hikaru and Fujino were stepson and stepmother, nephew and aunt.
Hikaru’s dead mother was the older half-sister of Fujino, who was conceived from a mistress. And both of them looked alike, the head of the Mikados had high expectations of them. It was natural that Hikaru would resemble her, for he inherited his beautiful mother’s looks completely.
And Fujino, having appeared in front of Asai’s eyes, was like a heavenly girl dressed in a feather coat, dancing as she descended.
Everything seemed so fleeting, so temporal, so clear. She had a feminine grace, extremely refined.
The most beautiful woman in this world—
Who exactly said this about Fujino?
She had fine eyebrows, crystal-clear look, thin lips and snowy white skin. There was also fluffy, silky light brown hair draped from her shoulders to her chest.
If basked under light, that hair would probably be dyed golden—like Hikaru.
Asai’s heart was wincing in agony.
No, I have to calm down no matter what.
She forced herself to look away from Fujino, and re-exerted strength in her back and solar plexus.
Orime in turn explained the rules.
Asai and Kazuaki would take turns writing words, and in the end, the judges would choose the best of them.
“Well, it is nerve-wrecking having to write words while old man Tōjō and Miss Fujino are watching, no?”
Kazuaki spoke with a self-conceited expression.
For Kazuaki, Fujino was the woman who was taken in as the second wife after his mother, Hiroka, left the Mikados. It was to be expected that he did not have good feelings about her, but his ramblings and expressions betrayed no signs of negative emotions regarding Fujino, and he did not falter in the slightest.
Because Kazuaki did not know about that matter…
The calligraphy duel began.
Asai and Kazuaki were seated side by side in the spacious room.
And laid out in front of them was ink, inkstone, and penbrush.
Orime, Masayuki and Fujino were seated at a position by the side, where they could spectate over Asai and Kazuaki.
Amidst that, Orime’s grandson and granddaughter-in-law could be seen.
They were in colludes with Kazuaki. The Gonomiya’s fortunes was tightly managed by Orime herself, and they could not use it freely. It seemed they were involved in some strange investments, resulting in their financial difficulties, and Kazuaki probably said some enticing words to them. They definitely were around to support Kazuaki.
“Now then, please begin, Miss Asai.”
“Please excuse me.”
Asai bowed politely, took the penbrush, and wrote a word on the Japanese paper.
She cautiously lowered the tip of the brush, tensed herself, and wrote an intricate word.
Then, she placed the completed word in her hands, and went to the judges.
“My first word is ‘Secluded(幽邃)’. The room Lady Orime resides in has a tranquil view that shows a serene mood.”
“As expected of you to know of such a difficult term, Miss Asai. The word is pretty too.”
Masayuki sounded very impressed.
“This truly is like you Miss Asai. A clever and neat word.”
And Fujino too expressed her thoughts with a calm, quiet voice.
“Secluded—that is one of the words I like.”
“It is my turn now, I suppose? Please excuse me.”
Kazuaki finished a word easily.
And then, he showed the written word for Orime’s group to read.
“’Green hills(翠巒)— a continual series of green peaks. It is fine to remain leisurely within the house, but it is fine to go out at times and see the green hills, I suppose? I will be willing to accompany you at any time, if you wish.”
He spoke sweetly with a refreshing smile.
“Yes, I suppose. The hills are green and beautiful.”
Orime too had a fine impression of it.
Masayuki looked pleased at Kazuaki’s polished counter.
This duel was not to be settled simply on how good or bad the word was written.
It also involved the words used, the meanings hidden within them, the artistic appraisal, and also the comprehensive and insight abilities for those reading the words.
The second word Asai chose was ‘Blue skies’ (碧落).
“Lady Orime’s heart is so vast and free like this blue sky. Even when she is in the garden of this house, she is able to understand how vast and limitless the sky is.”
She praised Orime, deriding Kazuaki in the process.
But Kazuaki did not fault as he calmly wrote his word,
Youthful rain (瑞雨).
“Lady Orime’s mercy is so vast, like this rain of blessings. Please allow this comfort and elegance to rain upon our hearts.”
And so, the duel continued.
‘Fleeting moment (玉響)’, Morning Calm (朝凪), ‘Purity (清雅逍遥)’, ‘Translucent (玲瓏)’, ‘Greeting the stars (星迎)’, ‘Wander (逍遥)’, ‘alignment (整列)’, There were many words laid on the tatamis like Karutas.
When Asai wrote the word ‘sincerity(至誠)’ and explained her logic, Kazuaki wrote the word ‘Reflux (還流)’, saying that there is only one source of all river flowers, and after going around and around, it would return to the same source. He spoke with a voice similar to Hikaru’s, that as the eldest son, it was logical that he was to take over his father.
The duel was not to be determined just like that. Though she would not lose if this kept up, she wanted to deal a decisive blow to assure victory.
After thinking about it, she wrote,
“Like the magpies that gathered to form a white bridge for Altair and Vega to be together, please allow my wishes to be connected.”
These words were more direct than anything she had said before.
Orime’s name came from Vega of the Weaver Festival, Tanabata. The moniker ‘Asagao Princess’ also referred to Vega. Perhaps there were thoughts or recollecting about Tanabata.
Amongst them, which bird exactly would tug at Orime’s heartstrings?
“Magpie…the beautiful white bird…that helps lovers.”
Orime muttered with strong feelings.
“I really love this bird.”
Those words caused Asai’s heart to throb. If she were to continue writing words related to Tanabata…
“Hm, this is to be expected of you, Asai. In that case, I shall”
Kazuaki again moved his pen fluently.
“Yes, it is done.”
The moment he submitted he submitted his word, Orime’s face froze.
Masayuki and Fujino both looked perturbed.
And Asai frowned when she saw Kazuaki’s word.
He had been giving lavish praises to Orime all this while, writing words that anyone hoping to be the head of the Mikados would write.
One had to wonder, what exactly was Kazuaki planning in writing such a bleak word?
(Has he given up on winning?)
Or was it that he was thinking of showing off a trick?
Orime’s face froze.
“This is the first Morning Glory in this house, am I correct?”
Kazuaki asked, and Orime nodded,
She suddenly became quiet, showing a lovely look.
“This was the name of the blue Morning Glory my deceased husband bought for me at the floral market…”
(I have been had!)
Asai felt like biting her lips at this point.
Orime was blinking her moist eyes.
This was the proof that Kazuaki’s word touched her heart.
And this was the trump card he had.
He used this move at such a moment.
It was perfect.
Masayuki nodded in approval, and Fujino too appeared impressed as she looked over at Kazuaki.
Kazuaki spoke with a sympathetic, tender voice,
“I suppose you must be really depressed that your husband and son departed before you. I do feel the same way, Lady Orime, when I lost my younger brother.”
Asai’s cheeks froze.
He actually talked about Hikaru at such a moment.
Kazuaki actually talked about feeling the same when it was the child of the mistress he despised. There had to be a limit to his obfuscating folly.
“I do regret a lot now that it would have been better if I had become more intimate with Hikaru. He is the only little brother I have on this world after all.”
Kazuaki talked about Hikaru with a voice similar to the latter. Asai’s skin pricked; her body sizzled.
Kazuaki intended to rattle Asai.
She would lose if she were to listen to Kazuaki’s words head on.
However, the pretentious words of mourning, coupled with the voice similar to Hikaru, crept into Asai’s ears, and she felt her chest tighten, ostensibly ripping apart.
“There is a saying that beautiful things would attract misfortune, and perhaps Hikaru was fated not to live so long after all. To an ordinary person like me, he was so languid, so carefree, and I really cannot help but worry…”
That is enough, stop despising Hikaru.
Do not let me hear that voice similar to Hikaru.
“Hey, little Asai, Hikaru did cause you quite a lot of troubles, no? I did receive an anonymous message that you have an illicit affair with Hikaru, though I do believe this is just some baseless rumor after all.”
Did Kazuaki see the exact same slandering message Asai’s cellphone received the previous day?
It was a crude, imaginative message, purporting that Asai killed Hikaru out of love.
But there definitely was no way any romance could occur between them!
—Don’t you want to be Hikaru’s ‘most beloved’?
Such crude words inadvertently echoed deep within her ears, and her heart again was overcome with a tearing sensation.
(That is not the case.)
She never thought about becoming Hikaru’s lover.
She never thought about being one of the many useless flowers who could only be loved by him, not even once—
Upon seeing a speechless Asai bite her lips firmly, Kazuaki turned over to Fujino this time.
“Miss Fujino, you too must have been distressed when Hikaru died.”
Asai’s breathing paused for an instance, her ears fixed on Fujino’s words.
Fujino spoke calmly with a lovely, tranquil voice,
“During these few years…I hardly had any interest with Mr. Hikaru. As you all knew, I was ostracized by him.”
Asai fell into a frenzy when she heard those words.
The swirling heat in her convened at one spot, ostensibly ready to explode immediately as she lashed out,
“DO YOU REALLY THINK THAT WAY!?”
All the people present in the room looked over at Asai, flabbergasted. She however did not stop, the pain and anguish surging in her throat as she vented her fury upon the beautiful woman who resembled Hikaru so much.
“If you were not around, Hikaru—maybe he could have continued living.”
Yes, Love killed Hikaru.
On that day, Hikaru,
His ‘most beloved’.
Orime called out sternly.
The voice, sounding extremely dignified due to age, caused Asai to gather herself again.
“…Pardon me for my verbal gaffe.”
Fujino muttered a few words softly, and turned her head aside again.
“No…if I did not wed over, Hikaru may not have left the house…”
The room became extremely quiet.
Masayuki looked perturbed as he frowned, and Kazuaki looked back and forth at Asai and Fujino, probably thinking about something.
Orime asked Asai concernedly.
“Miss Asai, if it is inconvenient for you, how about a break for today?”
She held the penbrush clumsily.
If she were to stop the match here, the rumors would immediately circulate in the Mikados and between the associates. When that happens, nobody would trust Asai.
There was no way out other than to fight it out against Kazuaki and beat him.
“I will write.”
She hushed her voice as she answered.
However, her hand was trembling, and she was unable to write.
What word do I write now?
What is the correct answer?
I do not want Hikaru to be hurt again. I want to protect him. But he is suffering so much.
I know that, but I am still unable to save him.
Is there still meaning in continuing this battle? Is Hikaru really hoping for this?
The young Hikaru, the 15th year old Hikaru, the thoroughly wounded Hikaru, the tragic looking Hikaru, the Hikaru who got swallowed by the tide, the Hikaru who winced in agony; all of them appeared in her mind one by one, and her vision got blurry, her trembling hands unable to stop.
She did not know anything!
The instant the black ink landed on the white paper.
The siren of the police patrol car could be heard.
And there was a loud commotion approaching them, seemingly stopping in front of the door.
“Did something happen?”
“I shall have a look.”
The moment the granddaughter-in-law stood up, the noises of commotion and shocked servants exclaiming in surprise could be heard. Suddenly, the sliding door opened.
Standing at the spot every person was looking at was a boy with messy red hair, a sharp glare, his hands on the sliding door, his feet spread far apart.
It was Koremitsu Akagi.
He looked at Asai’s face and hands, and shouted,
“Hey, Asa! What can you write with those hands!?”