37 – A broken promise

Hinamizawa, 5th February 1984

Rika and Hanyuu exited from Mion's bedroom, and they contemplated the panorama appearing out of the window of the corridor. Trees had no leaves, animals were closed inside their warm lairs, nature was asleep, peacefully waiting for spring... but strangely they could hear a noise. What was it? It wasn't an unknown sound. It was the cry of the cicadas. How could they be there, among the plants? It was February, it was too cold for them, and there was nothing to eat for them. Rika concentrated, to hear better. The noise had disappeared, a full silence reigned over the woods and the mountains. Was just their suggestion, then? Why? It was unusual, for them, but both of them had heard it, so they couldn't find a reasonable explanation. Maybe it came from something else, which made a sound similar to the one of that insect. A machine? Two not well-defined objects, rubbing the one on the other? A recorded sound, coming from a TV, turned on by someone in one of the rooms of the Manor? Everything was possible, and they were feeling a bit uneasy due to that unexpected call, but more pressing issues were waiting for them.

As a matter of fact, the two little girls decided to go downstairs again, not asking anything else after having heard that story. Mion wanted to rest, to quietly think about what she'd better do, while Giancarlo preferred to exit the Manor, and to wait for her sister into their car. Then, the most wise choice for them was going to the main hall again, from where no further noises were coming. The council had ended some minute before, and most of his participants had already gone away. Inside the room there were still the other members of the club, together with Akane and Kasai, who were commenting what had happened.

"Finally here you are! We were waiting for you..." exclaimed Keiichi "Where have you gone?"

"Upstairs" Rika answered, abruptly.

"How is Onee?" asked Shion, who had understood where exactly they had been, even if they hadn't told her.

"Hmmm... She's quite fine, in the end. Better than how she was before going to her room, for sure. However, she was really tired, she's going to fall asleep soon, so wait some time before visiting her, if you want to."

"I will wait for dinner, then. I don't think she has had lunch, she's going to be incredibly hungry, tonight. Don't worry, she will turn up." This was what the green-haired girl replied, smiling slightly, while Alice asked: "And Nii-chan? Why isn't he here with you? Where is he, now?"

"He's... outside the Manor, having a breath of fresh air."

"I think I'd better go out and ask him to enter, then. We have major things to discuss, and I'd like..."

"No, I don't think it's a good idea, Ali-chan. Let him alone, at least for now."

"Hmm? Why?"

Rika pointed at her right arm, and Alice immediately realized what had happened. Rika now knew. Then, she just replied "I... I see...", and she looked to the ground, melancholically. Yes, that story had to be painful not only for him, Hanyuu thought. Ali-chan must have felt guilty for what happened to him. They may have talked countless times about it, but that feeling is not something which vanishes that easily. If only Ali-chan had been born normally, her brother's arm would be normal, now... Hanyuu, nevertheless, didn't know if the girl knew about Giancarlo's nightmares. By his words, he looked to have arranged everything alone, that day, without asking for help... But had he told anything about it later, as if he had talked with his confessor? Availing of her past experience, Hanyuu guessed no. Shion had admitted it to her sister in the past, that was true, but that boy seemed the kind of person who prefers not to talk about himself, if not forced. What had happened before was just a desperate reaction to Mion's desperation, in her opinion: he would have always kept the silence about the matter, otherwise, and nobody would have either suspected anything about the thing.

It was better not to add anything to Rika's sign, then. Of course, the others couldn't know its real meaning, so they just stared at her perplexed. However, there was no time to make any question about it, they cared about something else, and once the two liitle girls sat, they quickly changed the subject of the discussion. In fact, as soon as Rika and Hanyuu asked the final result of that meeting, Shion turned very serious, and she answered: "We have a month, an exact month starting from today. On 5th March all the family will be invited here again, and they will discuss another time about the matter. Only the members of the clan will be allowed to be present at the council this time, but every participant will tell his opinion. Luckily Onee's one is going to count more than any else, but if the whole family is against her, she won't be able anything but surrender."

"So the Furudes, the Kimiyoshis and the others won't be invited, next time... But then today's result is... nothing? Nothing came out of this?"

"It's not completely true... Do you know how long can be a month? The ones who oppose Onee will continuously look for new alliances, they will hatch some plot, the ones against the others, and against her of course, in order to get their hands on the power she is actually holding. You see, Oryou is no more here, and the fear she was able to arouse doesn't scare them anymore. Onee will have to get in touch with a lot of people, if she wants to fight... She must search for some trusted friend and ally."

"These are the side effects of power based on fear." commented Keiichi "Nobody ever discuss or remark your decisions, but once the source of fear has gone, there are no reason to obey, anymore."

"However, we can still help her" added Akane "The first thing I want to do is making some exhaustive research about aunt Megumi. I pretend to know as much as possible about her actual situation. We haven't met each other for a very long time, from our point of view she is nearly like a foreigner, now." By hearing her tone of voice, unusually annoyed for the woman, Rena guessed that those words meant also that Akane wished to reject her relative, as if she had nothing to do with her. Megumi had done something she hadn't to, the whole clan would have suffered because of that internal conflict, so there had to be a reason for her behavior, somewhere. A woman who lived far from her relatives, and who suddenly had that idea... It was strange.

"Are you suspecting that some bad companies have led astray her mind, are you?"

"It's not impossible. In this moment it's like talking about an unknown object covered by a red drape... Every description can be the truth, or not. Let's wait for more info, before making some conclusion." Akane's words sounded cold and detached, showing no affection for her relative, and Rena was not surprised of this, she was comprehending the woman's feelings.

So, when they heard Kasai making a heavy hypothesis, nobody reacted. Most of them were thinking about the same thing: "We should check even if Megumi-san is the real mandator of what happened during the Landslide Affair... She could have arranged everything to weaken Mion-sama's position."

"So she would have been the one who contacted Nabiha-san?" exclaimed Shion "It would be possible... Do you remember? Onee once said that only the Sonozaki family could avail of the money necessary for such an operation, nobody else is so wealthy... And indeed the guilty might stay inside the clan... A lot of things could be explained in this way, and she would have the motive, too..."

Fortunately Daijiro-kun is not here, thought Rena. Hearing again what his father has done would have been very sorrowful for him. But then, is this really the truth? We have risked to lose everything, our houses, our village, maybe our life too... just for a power struggle? Is the leadership inside the Sonozaki so important, is it? More important than everyone's happiness? She would have got tons of money and goods, but she would have ruled over an abandoned village. How could she sleep pacifically, during the nights? If she desired more money it was enough to file a lawsuit against the others, it would have been easier. Maybe it wouldn't be fair towards her own family, but it would be a lawful path to follow, and nobody would have harmed. In that way, instead, Hinamizawa, its houses, its Shrine, this Manor too... everything might be about to become a ghost town.

The brown-haired girl looked at the others, and she noticed that Akane was staring at the walls of the hall. Exactly like the rest of the Manor, they were old, but well-kept, as the prestige of the Sonozaki family pretended. Its look was perfect... except for the point scanned by the woman, which was carrying a deep mark, likely provoked by a sword. Apparently it ruined the smoothness of that wooden beams, and furthermore it wasn't present in a hidden corner, so it was easily visible. But neither her nor Oryou had ever made that point be fixed, and they had even asked Mion to do same, because they were greatly attached to that symbol. Finally, that was a room full of happy and sad memories, still alive especially in the green-haired woman's mind. In fact, that had been the place where she had fought Oryou, to be allowed to marry the man she loved, and that mark had been the consequence of their combat. So, for most of the others that was just a flaw, an imperfection on the wall, but for her it was much more than it. A hidden memory of her past. Who had been the author of it? The mother or the daughter? Rena had been told about the story directly by Oryou, who had taken a liking to her a lot of time ago, when she was still alive. But, as well as any other boy and girl inside the hall, Rena couldn't say it, and probably neither Akane could. But it didn't matter. By the way she was looking at it, the girl could conclude that that incision reminded her good and happy memories. Yes, if Mii-chan had to go away from the Manor, even Akane-san would be obliged to follow her, she couldn't live together with Megumi-san... And losing this house forever would be a terrible blow for her.

This was what Rena was thinking, silent. But in that moment she saw Akane while reviving, and turning her head towards the others. She had noticed that Satoko was raising her hand, as to ask to take the floor. And in fact, once she had drawn the others' attention, she remarked that there was something which didn't work in that theory. Akane asked her what it was, and she answered:

"It's simple... If her purpose had been to attack Mion-san together with Nabiha-san, all those landslides would have begun to occur only after her promotion. Instead, there have been so many of them, little but easily noticeable, even before it. Do you remember, Rika? We had run into some of them when we were going back from school to home, and in those same days we were talking about the rites Mion-san had to perform in order to become the ruler, I am pretty sure of it."

"I see..." replied Keiichi "If she wanted to attack her in this way she would plan something coming into action after that day, not before it... Moreover, settling all that deployment to take power... it seems exaggerated, to me. I know we are talking about all the goods belonging to the Sonozaki family, an extremely considerable fortune, but there are much more convenient ways to get them."

"Maybe she already knew about the ceremony." commented Hanyuu "So she might have settled the arrangements before it, to make sure everything was ready, and not to do it in a hurry. You know, that is not something you can finish in few time."

"I don't think so." told Akane "My mother hadn't said it to anybody but me and my husband, and I can ensure that nobody else was aware of it, until the evening of the announcement. Otherwise we would be talking about a severe security leak, and Kasai wouldn't be pleased of it, isn't it true, Kasai?" The middle-aged man didn't answer, immobile as he had been taught during all that time in their service, and just grumbling as sign of confirm.

"But was Mii-chan really her target? Maybe she wanted just to dethrone the ruler of the Sonozaki family, no matter her name was Oryou or Mion. Together with Nabiha-san, she had planned those landslides to harm Onibaba, and then, when she has seen Mii-chan was the new chief, she had aimed at her, but using the same schedule."

"No, Rika-chan, it can't be that. Accusing Sonozaki Oryou to be a dud... It would have never worked, that would have been madness. Of course, she might have changed the words to use, claiming for example that her sister was too old, but was she able to face her? She had already lost once, so I do think it's not so. And she would have had no allies, in that case, everyone was still scared of Batcha, despite her age and her state of health."

"So she could have arranged some modify to their plan, when she had been told about the promotion of the new heiress."

"Huh? What do you mean, Ali-chan?"

"Mine is just a conjecture... But imagine that Megumi was drawing up something against Oryou-san, and that suddenly she's obliged to change it because of the last news... It would take time to think about something suitable... And in fact we have seen her here in the Manor only two months after those facts..."

"Hmmm... Too complicated." replied Satoko, after thinking about that eventuality for a few seconds "If you were right, they would have postponed the whole plan to some time later. Namely, the Landslide Affair itself would have occurred later, like early in the beginning of the new year, for example. Delaying only the second part of the operation is a nonsense, in my humble opinion, you only give to your opponents the chance to get ready and defend themselves."

"Yes, quite so. I'm not good at being entangled inside these twisted plots, I fear. I should leave this task to you, you are much more skilled than me. Maybe Nii-chan would like more this kind of challenge, but I don't mind. I will ask for his opinion at home."

"But at least does anyone know if she was among the crowd, that day at the prefecture? Did anyone see her? By using a post fitting the purpose, it would have been easier for her to check the situation, in that way."

"Yes, but her presence would have been strange. Everybody knows her misanthropy, it's something she has developed as time went by, after she had left the Manor. She couldn't stand all those people, she would have got a panic attack, there... As far as I know, actually she loves staying in her house, or in little rooms, far from the other unfortunate human beings who populate this vale of tears." Shion grinned "She just hates open spaces... how do they call it..."

"Agoraphoby." answered Akane.

Shion turned at her: "Agoraphoby, you say? Good to know, thank you very much Mom. Of course, we can't exclude her implication in all that mess, she could have sent one or two servants of her, you have heard her some minute ago. But since we don't have any evidence, we can't charge her of anything, and then it seems we must proceed cautiously. So, the problem now is thinking about a strategy we can suggest to Onee. What should she do? Probably a lot of relatives will come for advice, to be suggested about what they should do... Yes, probably the ones who are tied to our old traditions are going to be on our side."

"Do you think so, do you?"

"Yes... Willingly or not, she has been declared the ruler of the family with all the official blessings, and driving her away would be something totally new. There are a lot of people who wouldn't accept any distortion, for all the tea in China. You probably know how they reason: they love so much things which go like always, and a sudden change might bring misfortunes, Oyashiro-sama's anger and so on, from their point of view."

"So, this time, we don't have to change a wrong usage." concluded Rika, smiling "On the contrary we have to make sure that nothing changes. Is it what you mean, Shii-chan?" She closed her eyes, and she exclaimed "Nippa!"

"Y-yes, you're right, Rika-chan..."

In the end, it was the opposite of the case when they had to rescue Satoko: that time they had to attack the other people, the Council, the Center, Oryou... Now instead they had to defend themselves and Mion from an external attack. Rika stopped smiling, trying to take the logical conclusions from what she had just heard. They actually weren't able to discover what exactly it was, but there had to be some link between Nabiha and Megumi, even Ouka had said there was someone else behind him, and two frontal attacks in such a short period can't be a coincidence. What had she said, precisely? She endeavored to remember. What she had said, at the Saiguden...

"If so, I would have already lost my war. No, I had... a friendly partnership with another man,

who has guided Nabiha towards that unlucky undertaking."

Another man? She exclaimed to herself. Yes, she had used those words, she didn't refer to a woman, but to a man. So is Megumi innocent? Or is she just like another puppet controlled by someone? Or what else? Maybe I shouldn't trust Ouka's words, in the end she had declared to be our arch-enemy, and she could have spoken to us just to misdirect us, or to make us confused... No, we just need more info. Let's wait for what they are able to gather about that woman, and our deduction will be more precise.

"So we can have already some idea about who is going to fight us, and about who is going to support us... Could you already know who will be on our side, Shion? It would be a very precious help."

"Not precisely, I fear. You should ask Onee for this, she knows the most unconfessable secrets of the clan, Batcha has revealed to her much more things than to anyone else, and probably she could describe exactly most of the branches of the family, their composition, their attitude toward the Mother House, et cetera... On the contrary, I don't know many of them, even if I can say that, for example, Aunt Yono should go with us... However, all in all, there are a lot of them who think highly of her, I suppose it's the majority of the kinsfolk, so let's avoid to become so pessimistic, now. Indeed, she will have to talk with plenty of them, it will be a tiring job, but..."

"I'm sure that Mion can make it." Akane interrupted her abruptly "Rather, there is something else I want to discuss about. Shion, shouldn't you step aside, now? This is not your role."

Her daughter turned at her, once again, but she didn't looked surprised due to that invitation. She already knew the words her mother was about to say: "When you have been accepted here, you had made a promise to your grandmother: you had sworn that you wouldn't have ever meddled with familiar matters. You would have lived in Hinamizawa ignoring this side of the Sonozakis' world, you would have never said or imposed your opinion about any of the issues your sister has to care. And in exchange for this you were allowed to live here with your sister and your family, in spite of all the past traditions which recommended that this house had to be lived by as few people as possible. So, have you forgotten your pledge?"

"No, I haven't" Shion immediately answered "But I had no choice. It has not been the only promise I have done to someone, and in this case I had to choose between two of them. I couldn't avoid breaking one of them."

Akane scanned her, as if she was trying to read the truth in her daughter's eyes. The green-haired girl simply was not able to lie, and her mother knew that. Few seconds were enough to realize she was sincere, and to have an idea about the subject of the other promise.

"What have you said to your sister?" she asked, in fact.

"That I would have never left her alone. As her... younger sister it was my duty to assist her as much as I can do, I've always cared about our traditions less than what I did about Onee. During the period I was having those strange dreams, she had been my priceless personal nurse, she had helped me, she had given me the courage to react... You know, without her help I wouldn't have ever been able to fit in as part of this group, and of this village as well. Otherwise, I would have lived separately, alone in Okinomiya, distrusting all of you, exactly like what aunt Megumi has done. Yes, I may even say I can understand what her feelings are, and what they have been in the past. I don't share them, that's sure, but I can see how she has been able to go that far, and why."

"So you're saying it's not her fault... Do you think your grandmother and I could make more to help her?" There was no anger in Akane's words, only a grain of disappointment and regret. And in fact Shion answered calmly:

"I don't know, I wasn't there to judge you. It's something you should know better than anyone else, Mom. I'm only saying that my destiny would have been the same as Megumi's one, without Onee. Not loved by most of the family, deprived of the others' fondness, isolated, sent to live in another town... Yes, I would have been unhappy, exactly like her. What's more, unhappy and alone... Without Onee's blood Satoshi-kun would be still in that basement, below the ground floor of the Clinic... Yes, I owe her everything, that's why the promise I gave to her is infinitely worthier than any other one I have made, and than any other one I will ever make."

Rika smiled, clearly pleased. It was maybe the first time Shion talked publicly about her sister in such an endearing way. They all knew there was a strong bond between the two twins, but both of them were used to hide it, pretending they spent their time teasing each other. It was an open secret, but they were happy to live together so, so the others didn't mind.

"However" Shion continued, realizing that what she had just said was a bit embarrassing "It's not like my aim is to replace Onee, I am not planning to become the ruler. Both of us do recognize that the choice of the rightful heiress has been taken the day when they drew a tattoo on her back, and we have no regrets about it. I am doing this for a selfless purpose, which is giving a providential hand to that young woman" she grinned again, finally "Who wouldn't be just able to make it alone..."

"Offending her is just like offending yourself." Satoshi dared to reply "Weren't you the same?"

"Satoshi-kun!" she shouted, beet-red, while the others laughed noisily, before discussing the last details.

Smoking a cigar is a pleasant activity, if you can do it alone, sat on your armchair and calm in your living room. And it is even more than that, if you have good news. A letter had been made slip under the door of his house, and, as soon as it had been seen, it was opened, in order to make a short message be read:

Tomorrow after 9:00 PM

141, Kabenochi Road, 4th floor.

Might it be a trap? No, it couldn't be a trap, they would have everything to lose now, with an insensate gesture. They had to react earlier than that, if they wished to. By that moment, they had fallen into a mousetrap they couldn't escape from, and they could do nothing but obeying diligently, in order to survive. So, he would have gone there personally, he didn't trust any other else. Maybe that apartment was about to be empty, and nobody would have welcomed him, but it didn't matter, the most important thing was that he already knew what he was about to find there. Handing the piece of paper to the one next to him and turning off the butt of the cigar, he commented satisfied:

"Have you seen? That little hearth had been very useful... They won't cause us trouble anymore, from now on."

Everything was running fine, and his increased self estimate suggested him to take another cigar, which he did immediately.