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Chapter 12: Decision
The piece of paper I took out of the coffin - the moment I touched it, memories came up at the back of my mind as clearly as if they were happening in front of me. Until partway through, they were my memories... and then once I fell down the stairs, they switched. Perhaps the memories of that person among the seven... the mastermind...
The next page we had been seeking was the scene of my death from reality. Down in the coffin before me was Miku, dressed as the Villager, sleeping peacefully... my own body.
"Hahah... You must be joking..."
They probably couldn't hear me muttering to myself outside the door. It had become completely silent outside. The dream I saw this morning, no, very, very long ago now. That was my memory. It was me who died. The actress who came before me never had anything to do with it. Len twisted it into a story about her being a "ninth person," which had never been the case, so that I wouldn't realize I myself had died. And everyone followed his lead to act according to that ruse.
Certainly, there was a star actress in the company before I came along, who took many lead parts. And she did suddenly disappear one day. So I thought the one they sought to revive by acting out this crazed night wasn't me, a novice, bumbling actress, but their talented friend. But as those seven told an inconceivable number of lies, fooled me and everyone, and had their minds suffer from it, they always believed in an outcome where I could live, and always reached out toward me.
A single person can't make a play. Each person is there for the play, and the play is there for them. A phrase commonly spoken among the troupe. Their hearts were one for me, and for me, they endured an outrageously long time, the same night again and again, going mad, suffering. And yet, I...
"I" was a fake.
And this world, created to save me when I should have died, was a fake world. A world made because everyone wished for it. A world where that night was sealed away. I had to put them into a corner. If I'd not hesitated and just showed them the contents of the letter... If I hadn't given up, and trusted them just a little bit more... If we had met halfway, maybe the future could have had a happy ending.
To start time again in reality, I would kill myself, the false me, so she couldn't be revived anymore. That would end this world by the absence of the lead. That would end the sleep of the real bodies, and all eight of them could return to the moment before my death. If I stayed here forever... I would be able to just keep living in this world. Dying again and again here wouldn't truly kill me. So I had to come to that True enD.
Unable to trust everyone, taken by suspicion, and driven mad... there had been nights when I killed them all by my own hand. It must have been frightening. Painful. To be killed in a play they were putting on for my sake, by the person they were trying to save... how... how sad it must have been.
With the confirmation that I was fated to die in reality, I now knew "I" was a fake. But I was still scared... scared to die. My hand holding the knife trembled. Just when I thought I'd finally made it... Everything I'd thought up to now was a nurturing world of kind lies. I was alone, all alone...
I couldn't keep in the tears anymore. All this time, I'd been kindly, warmly protected by them all...
I had no way of knowing just how much time this world had repeated for. Because I couldn't remember any of it. I stood up and unlocked a nearby coffin.
Miss Meiko... Sleeping with that brilliant smile, how long had she put up without her beloved beer, and all this hardship? I slowly went unlocking the remaining coffins one by one.
Mr. Gack... His face was stern and serious even in sleep. Like he was in the midst of his duties...
Mr. Kaito... He'd now completely assumed the look of the Master. He must not have been able to smile for so long since coming to this world.
Miss Meg... was lying face-down in her coffin... She's even more absurd than I thought... Without thinking, I laughed, now of all times.
Miss Luka... was crying. I wanted to wipe away her tears, but I'd gotten blood on the handkerchief she gave me... I always did want to eat spicy food with her.
Rin... Len... I swept away the tears blocking my vision.
Just wait... I'll return you to your bodies... your world.
My ears slowly regained the lost sound. I thought it had suddenly gone quiet, but evidently I was just very deep in thought. I heard them shouting outside and ramming something against the door. They seemed intent to bust it down.
"I'm sorry," I whispered to my body, resting peacefully in the coffin.
With the hour hand of the clock, I gently cut open my left arm. With a bit of pain, there came fresh blood. Yes, injuring Kaito earlier had made me realize this method... I would use the blood as ink and the minute hand like a pen to write on the blank ending page. The pen fit easily in my hand, and moved smoothly.
So that this play wouldn't repeat again, I wrote a dramatic ending, that would leave a tinge of transience - and take everyone outside this mansion. Unlike my trial with the wine, the thick blood lettering glowed shortly after it was written. I began to see the ceiling and walls twist inward from time to time. Order was leaving the story drawing near its end. It must have been because I'd accepted my death in reality.
I put the finished page at the end of the script, a perfect fit between the back cover and the last written page. The script gave off a pale light.
Thank you for everything, everyone... I'm glad I was able to be your friend in this magnificent night...
My body moved on its own, gripping the hour hand in both hands. I thrust it toward my left chest. Pain shot through me. It hurts... I can't stand the pain...
"Miku! What have you...?!"
With a loud crashing sound, footsteps approached.
"...The script... Er, what does this say...? Oh no! There's going to be a fire starting in the kitchen! We have to take her out of here...!"
Yes, this is best. Now everyone has to do this. They have to go outside. In Bad ∞ End ∞ Night, I had thought it best to forcibly put an end to the play, and killed them all. But still the play didn't end. This time, I would destroy the play itself. Just like the former playwright's mansion vanished into illusion... I'd burn down the whole mansion.
"Miku!! Stay with us!!"
"Dummy! Miku, you big dummyyyyy!!"
I thought I heard Luka and Rin screaming next to me. I'd wanted to at least see this last performance, but my vision started to get misty. Ah, the pain... Had it hurt this much when I died in reality? Or would it be just an instant, with no time for such pain? After I'd finally remembered, I'd just lost it again.
I saw a figure in my mostly-blind vision. Who's that talking there...? It's like I'm looking through a screen of fog. I reached out to try and push the fog away. I squeezed out the last of my energy. But the fog wouldn't clear. My hand fell, lifeless, and was grabbed tight.
"We won't let you die again!! We won't..."
I have to die, or you can't return to reality... I thought that, but I couldn't speak it now.
"Everyone, hurry to the entrance! Hurry!!"
My body was lifted up and swayed slightly. Was I being carried? ...It's hot. There was the sound of fierce flames.
"Is everyone here?!"
"We have to chance it! It's time for the main event..."
"...We've had more than enough practice."
I heard the creaking sound of an old door.
One for all, all for one... Thank you, everyone. If, in the reality we finally return to... if just a moment after that, the final curtain falls on my performance... Even so, I'm glad I was chosen as the lead...
My senses blurred and sank. Ahh... maybe it's been all those sleepless nights. It's been so long. So very... sleepy...
I swiftly threw the roses on top of the dresser. I heard the man outside the thick door, the one referred to as the "gentleman with the roses," walking away with a triumphant gait, and I sighed in annoyance. It was like this each and every day... He had a lot of sway in this industry, an authority so to speak, so I was unable to blatantly refuse his depressing goodwill said to be his "support of me."
Still feeling a bit gloomy, I slumped down on a luxurious leather sofa and saw the crudely-thrown bouquet in the corner of my eye. The bad manners of discarding a bouquet given to me by another would surely get nosy Meiko yelling at me if she saw it, but luckily, no one was in the green room.
The man brought me all varieties of roses, and today, he brought me the same ones as he did that day... a bouquet of marvelous blue roses. He must have decided that he'd only give blue roses for the most important occasions. I didn't want to admit it, but he did have a kind of foresight. The eyes, at least, to see the opportunities of "if not now, then when else?"
Tomorrow would be the final act of The Silence of the Snowy Night - a modern re-imagining of the former Burlet classic. The roses signified his anticipation for a strong performance. If this succeeded, the Burlet Company would be heading for another big turning point.
The success of Crazy ∞ nighT's first showing two years ago made the company a leader in a revival of theater in West End, and our finances recovered bit by bit; our business was now twice the size it was two years ago. With our effective sponsors, we also gained new members.
And, while preserving the historical legacy of theater as it was gradually lost, we also made an effort to add revamped versions of the scripts that better matched modern lifestyles and appealed to the young people of today. This idea soon spread from just our company to all of West End, beginning a cultural revolution dubbed neoclassicism.
Rather than just reminiscing on the past, inheriting the great relics thereof and carrying them to the next generation... A very lofty, ambitious goal, but I saw the members of all theatrical companies no longer looking resigned about their crumbling troupes, but lively and full of hope for this cultural revival. And this, too, all began with the incident that night.
Today marked exactly two years since the first performance of Crazy ∞ nighT. In the hectic days that passed since then, everyone greatly improved their acting and matured. Myself included...
"I'm coming in, Len! I brought your bags! ...Ooh, that costume looks nice! You'll hit the mark with that one, yep! Er... aughaHEM!"
Knock, knock, knock.
After taking a step inside and saying what she wanted to tell me, my sister suddenly remembered, cleared her throat exaggeratedly, and apologetically knocked on the door. I didn't even know where to start.
"...At least you never forget the knock part, Rin."
"Ahh, sorry, sorry! We're together at work and at home... Sometimes I forget which is which! Ahaha..."
Rin didn't look sorry at all, coming inside with her usual cheery smile. She gently put the bags she was carrying on the glass table in front of the sofa, did a big stretch, and sat on the sofa across from me, the table between us.
My sister and I left our parents' home to live together a solid seven years ago now. At home, we didn't mind each other; not bothering to knock every time we came and went, and never found any fault in that. But at work, our relationship was as colleagues. I wish she'd learn a thing or two about restraint. Particularly since she was a girl, even if we were brother and sister, I wish she'd learn a few feminine sensibilities... Yeah... I mean, I wouldn't want them to be too similar, but I wish she'd...
"Be more like Luka, hm...?"
"Ahaha! I can see eeeverything you're thinking, Len! Like, how many years do you think I've been your sister?"
"Sigh... I know. I just wish you'd learn from her example a little."
"Well, but I did ask Luka! And she said, "My, it's too soon for a young girl of sixteen to be thinking about sex appeal! It'll soon come to you naturally, so just stay as darling as you are now, Rin!""
Rin imitated Luka's typical pose - right hand on hip, leaning head back, looking down on me - as well as her way of speaking, if a bit exaggerated.
"As darling as you are now, huh..."
Indeed, her staying just the way she was was the wish of her bodyguards, and something desirable for the troupe as well. It was hard to find talented child actors.
"...But hasn't she been working as a model since she was fifteen?"
"It's important to have skilled child actors... It'd actually be a big relief for the troupe if you stayed the way you are now forever."
"What's THAT supposed to mean?! I'm already a big girl! I'm too old to do child roles! My doll role in Crazy ∞ nighT is the closest I'm getting!"
"Well, you've barely changed at all in two years. I think you can keep it going."
"Urrrrrgh. Len, you dog..."
"Who'd have thought there'd be such a gap between twins... Makes me feel sorry for you. Your brother's gotten a shoulder or more over you... huh, cute little sister?"
"Screeeee! What's with that nonchalant "but I was always ahead in terms of brains" implication?! I'm a late bloomer! This is just the start!"
I grinned and teased my sister as she glared at me bitterly, and she soon turned away with a pout. I thought her acting had improved a lot in these two years, but her young appearance and thoughts were as childish as ever. I'd have to cheer her up soon, or I wouldn't be able to stand it. I noticed she was staring at a certain point, still in the same face-averting pose.
"Hey... Are you really going?"
Her serious soprano echoed, her gaze not leaving the blue roses on the dresser. The gentleman had probably left me them as a farewell gift. With the end of tomorrow's show, I would be quitting as an actor. And my reason wasn't that I had no desire to do plays anymore, or that I came to hate this company, or that I wanted to switch to a different profession.
"I'm leaving in two days. I've already scheduled the train ride."
The event that changed everything for us... The performance of Crazy ∞ nighT, Burlet's lost libretto, completed successfully. It garnered such a reaction that even once the last day of the show was over, there were already fans clamoring for more performances. And it didn't stop with West End; talk of it spread around the world, causing a major movement.
The actors' stunningly believable performances, the set prepared in amazing detail, and the script that could have varying interpretations for different viewers. Reviews raved that all of this together made it seem like you were witnessing another world on the stage, and there was unending applause from all fields.
And yet, during this peak of the Burlet Company, we announced the truth about the forged script, apologized, and repaid the tickets sold in full. This shocking revelation made the media do a 180, and they panned us. Voices scorning our sacrilege of Burlet echoed around the streets outside the theater, and our sponsors, feeling deceived by our true intents, were bewildered and stepped out.
The name of the Burlet Company, just yesterday so renowned, instantly plummeted. On top of our standing debts was added the cost of repaying the tickets, and indemnities to our sponsors. We were in a sudden predicament of needing to gather a massive sum of money overnight.
But then, at the same time... the dominant opinion came to be that it wouldn't be right to let such magnificent amusement end here. Some refused repayment for their tickets, some began donating to the theater, some created and administered support groups. The drive to support the troupe became more passionate by the day, and before we knew it, it was not just about our troupe, but the whole of theater in West End.
All theaters were protected, and again this was regarded a culture of amusement that should survive for future generations, leading to the neoclassical movement. Pushed by the tide of the times, the company got back on its feet financially. Now it had recovered to the point where it would be busy for days in a row, making us all work very hard.
Come clean to the world, earnestly apologize and reflect, and keep showing them your effort, and you'll get a second chance. The future Miku had guided us to... it was now just as she said.
Our sacrilege was a mistake that would never be forgotten. But keeping that mistake in our hearts to reflect upon as we strived to be recognized again proved to be an important asset to us. To err is human; none of us are perfect. That's why we're able to accept and overcome our mistakes. The one who set us straight and persuaded us of that was none other than Miku in her lead role.
"Ahh, all the audience members are gonna be crying... Right as you say you'e going on a trip..."
"Besides, after you've grown so tall, and gotten just a little bit cooler... Oh, those poor girls who wanted to see Len keep maturing! Well, go ahead! Make those girls cry... uh... No, wait. Completely forgot that there's another group who's gonna be crying more... Those people who always give you bouquets, and fancy wristwatches, and villas... And I'm sure that rose gentleman will be sad, too. Alright, go! Make those men -"
"Stop talking, or I'm gonna be seriously pissed..."
With a quick glare, Rin trembled and shut her mouth. She still seemed to be concerned about a time in the past when she'd similarly teased me when I was displeased, and I pretended to be genuinely mad to get back at her. It was kind of adorable how she was fooled into thinking it was real anger, but I didn't really like teasing her in this way. Though, even knowing she was just joking, my spine shivered a little.
"I-I was kidding! Kidding! But, look, suddenly leaving behind the friends you've worked alongside for years now... They're going to be really surprised, and lonely! You've experienced that plenty yourself, right, Len?"
"I was just thinking, "Len makes the third"... Honestly, it makes me wonder who might leave us next..."
I'm the third... More than any other actors in the troupe, the main cast were friends that had worked together for years and deeply trusted one another. One of those friends suddenly leaving was a very painful thing for those left behind. Rin, especially, was more afraid than most about being left behind, about "farewells." The first of those we experienced... It was about three years ago, when the company was at risk of bankruptcy.
Our star actress served as the leader of the rebels who sought change in the company. Speaking her name was still taboo in the troupe... especially in front of us, the main cast. Prior to our extreme financial troubles, she was adored as a leading figure right after Kaito, and even I looked up to her as an actress and as a person. But...
"The Burlet Company's plays are backwards nostalgia." The day it was announced that our audience numbers had hit a record low, that was what she said. And that was when we broke off, in a sense. She proposed a revolution: that we, to keep the troupe alive, discard the Burlet plays we'd protected since their creation, and shift to brand new ones.
But we joined this company to perform Burlet's plays and protect his legacy. If you just wanted to act, you had the option to go to another troupe at any time, or go into movies. She neglected that most of those who joined us joined with that strong resolve - if it weren't the Burlet Company, there would be no point. So it was hard to accept her view.
Starting with our leader Kaito, and those who would later appear in Crazy ∞ nighT - Meiko, Luka, Gack, Meg, Rin, and myself - the main cast unanimously opposed her and fought the revolutionaries as conservatives. Neither party would meet halfway, and many days there were arguments that got nowhere, little more than shouting contests.
The situation favored the rebels. Everyone was gradually swayed by their leader's view, and on top of that, some scorned Burlet who they'd before looked up to as if blaming him for the troupe's troubles. Until finally, there was an incident. One morning, when I came to work as usual, statues, portraits, and other artifacts of Burlet's had been smashed by the entrance to the theater. The moment I saw it, I made up my mind: I had to protect Burlet's works and history, this troupe and everyone in it.
I quickly went to catch Meg, who had only been in the troupe for just over two years then, and asked her to show me the script she was most proud of that she hadn't yet publicized. What she showed me was a fantasy-style mystery about seven odd characters living in an extravagant mansion in an eerie forest, who are one night visited by a village girl; then strange incidents happen around the mansion one by one, and everyone works to uncover the culprit. The story was a bit clunky, but something about it grabbed me, so I soon showed it to Kaito.
Kaito was quite a fan of her "Twilight Night." His approval strengthened my resolve to execute the plan. This script would be falsified as Burlet's lost libretto, Crazy ∞ nighT, and we would announce its sudden chance discovery, gathering the world's attention for a shot at reviving the troupe. All that was known about Crazy ∞ nighT was the title; no information remained about what kind of story it actually was. I actually considered that to be convenient.
When I told Kaito my plan, at first he gave me a look like I'd punched him in the gut, thinking about something. I still remember him telling me "I'm sorry for putting such a burden on someone so young," and "I'll tell everyone it was me who came up with the forgery plan, so don't say anything," apologizing to me on the verge of tears. It annoyed me then how he seemed to be treating me like a child. But now that it had been three years, I think his sincere kindness was very helpful.
After Kaito got started with the plan, all of the conservative members gathered and had discussions. Not knowing if the Burlet Company would have a tomorrow, we readied ourselves with varying worries, and conducted the plan in secret so the rebels wouldn't know.
Following the interview about the discovery of Crazy ∞ nighT, the former rebels were accepted as friends again, and the conflict dissipated. But their leader alone wouldn't be convinced to the bitter end. Kaito extended his hand to her, offering her another chance to be friends; he passionately tried to persuade her. But while she was half-inclined to agree with his persuasions... I told her this.
"It's too late to turn over a new leaf. This company doesn't need you anymore."
Back then, I simply couldn't forgive her for thoughtlessly breaking those relics of Burlet. She never responded to what I said; with a face of despair, she vanished.
"...Don't you think? So really... Hey! Len, are you listening?"
Rin puffed her cheeks with displeasure and glared at me with arms folded.
"Geez. Getting all sentimental and thinking to yourself again? Are you still concerned about that girl? Because I doubt she still cares about you going all "Nobody needs you, go quit, you big old dummy!" Plus I heard she doesn't mind at all the other day."
"Well, sure. 'Cause I've never said such childish slander. Besides, even if she doesn't care anymore, it doesn't mean I can't... ...Wait, WHAT?! Where - how do you know...?!"
"Oh? Right after she left three years ago - heck, I'd call him her replacement - that gentleman with the roses suddenly started coming, remember? So then..."
"Huh...? Why are you mentioning him now...?"
"Hey! Let people finish their sentences! Right, the day after she quit, that gentleman started coming to the theater diligently... And for some reason, he brought Len roses every time. Then with my good intuition... no, as the great detective Rin, I started to talk a good, long look at him... and then I realized! Could those two be... father and daughter?"
"...! N-No way..."
"Right! I had a hunch, so I asked him all secretly. And what do you know, it was just as the great Rin predicted! Then we talked about a bunch of stuff, like, "Is your daughter doing well?", then "I'm sorry Len said such terrible things to her," then "No, no, my daughter's at fault for troubling all of you," then "she's helping me with work at home right now"..."
"...Why the hell did you never tell me about this?"
"Huh? Well, I mean, Len, you completely denied and drove her out when she was all contemplated and ready to make amends! I thought it would be funnier for you to keep thinking, "I hurt someone who had a promising future and made her quit... What a sin I've done! I must atone!""
I couldn't believe I was the only one who knew absolutely nothing about this, completely fooled by them. I thought there had to be something about that gentleman's courteous visiting, but trying to comprehend this unexpected explanation made my brain tired.
"...Are you still in contact with her, then?"
"If you're wondering about that, you should ask the gentleman directly! This time you can ask if his daughter's doing well. Though I guess if you're still mad about what she did, talking at ease is out of the question. But if you wanna meet her anyway, you can tell her the company took the conservative track and overcame their financial woes."
"...I can sort of understand what she was trying to do back then now. But if we had lost, and the Burlet went away from the Burlet Company... Or the other way around, if we had stubbornly adhered to doing perfect Burlet plays... either way, I think the company would have been doomed. The reason it's still going now... is because after she left, Miku joined. It's all thanks to Miku."
"Miku showed us a possibility in the middle, that wasn't revolutionary or conservative. She taught us the importance of meeting halfway. How to compromise between accepting change for the future, and protecting the past... She put some precious things on the line to tackle that essential issue."
"That's right. We all tried to stop her, but Miku was quick to sell that bracelet of Burlet's... it was a memento from her grandma, wasn't it?"
"You can't let go of a memento from your only relative that easily. But Miku took the initiative and pulled us along with her determination... Even though she was just a novice, only here for six months, she believed in and bet so much on us. So we made sure to apologize for our sin, and really noticed what was important, what we should be doing."
"Everyone was pretty desperate... Kaito let go of all his antiques, and went begging for the support of the father he dislikes so much..."
"And you sold almost all of the Burlet stuff you'd collected. You were pretty out of it, temporarily... Everyone just did whatever they could to raise funds for that huge sum. But... in the end, most people didn't come for their refund, so it was kind of a waste. Thinking about all our faces then... I feel so bad, I can't even laugh..."
Rin faced me with sympathetic eyes as she remembered it, smiling bitterly.
"...Stop it. Don't put salt in that wound."
"I mean, everyone looked like it was the end of the world! Especially you and Kaito. Eyes so glazed over, you'd think you were up all night."
"Come to think of it, you and Meg got off pretty easy."
"Ahem! Little Rin here doesn't have anything worth selling to begin with. Meg sold a bunch of rare old books, I think, but she said she could go to the library anytime for books. Said the revised versions were easier reads than the originals anyway, and she felt nice having less books cluttering up the house. And I have to agree."
My sister nodding to herself seemed to be remembering Meg's very unkempt room. I would never want to live in a place like that.
"...Sigh. You two don't have a shred of emotion or romance... You're too practical."
"And that's a bad thing?! It's called having vitality! Anyway, Len, before you set out, you should go to that rose gentleman and his daughter, and..."
"I know. I'm surprised they were related, but... I'll go talk with them before I leave tomorrow."
"Excellent! Make sure your feelings are made clear. Apparently Mr. Gentleman always liked Burlet plays, and that's why his daughter strove to be an actress. So maybe if you forgive her, she might come back?"
"...I'll tell her to look after the new Burlet Company."
Rin smiled and crossed her fingers.
"But gosh... This sure is sudden, without any warning at all. Have you told everyone else yet?"
"...Not yet. But..."
"Well, that's fine! They'll probably be surprised for ten seconds tops, then look like nothing happened and give you a good smile! Then be like, nothing to worry about with Len!"
"They understand. Because you're setting out for yourself, and for the troupe, right? You've always said it. You want to see, hear, and experience the world more. So you can improve your insight and acting ability... You told them that waaaaay long ago. You shouldn't need to say a thing... They're your friends, they know!"
My sister looked down with a bit of sadness, then looked back up with a gentle smile.
"Hey... Actually, a letter came..."
"Yeah. From dad..."
A letter from him... What in the world could it be? And Rin had probably read it already... I looked up at her with worry, but I saw no fear or despair on her face.
"...Don't worry, Len. I can't stay a kid forever. I've changed since that time I just cried and cried that dad didn't care about me. A chick has to leave the nest and live alone eventually, right...?"
"Yeah... So then... What did the letter say?"
"...He wants to meet."
"Wha...! Really?! Not a representative or anything? When..."
"I won't be meeting him."
"...Why not?" My ears doubted the words, so I promptly replied.
"Because I already wrote a reply saying we wouldn't meet him, and sent it."
"You... How could you be -"
"Did you want to see him, Len...?"
My father... It would be a lie to say I didn't want to meet one of the world's best actors. Not as my father, but as an actor I respected, I would jump at a chance to meet him... But I never thought the day would come when he said he wanted to meet. He never had any interest in us, always focused on acting; a man who only loved himself. But when I saw him acting through a screen, his overpowering charisma was, as someone in the same field, impossible for me to deny. All actors aspired to his perfect and flowing performances, and longed to be like him.
"I think I'll meet him once I've matured as a full-blown actress. With my groom!"
Rin smiled peerlessly with a pose even more confident than Luka.
"...You're planning marriage already?"
"Huh? Well, of course! I'll introduce him suddenly and surprise him, and be like, I'm getting married!"
"Getting a little ahead of yourself... You don't even have a boyfriend yet..."
"Wh... Well, look who's talking, Len! Until I do, I need to come up with a perfect plan to deepen bonds with my future groom!"
"...A perfect plan, all in your mind... I worry for mister groom's future."
"Hey... What's that mean?!"
"You already seem enthused about keeping him under your thumb. And you already seem to be planning on him marrying into your family..."
"Yeah, obviously! Discarding the name of Milord is just unthinkable!"
"Sigh... I sympathize for a certain someone's life to come. So is that all you wanted to say? It's almost showtime for me."
I turned my gaze to a wooden box on the glass table between us.
"Oh, I almost forgot! You know the guy who always buys special seats for every show, right? With the silk hat, the face-covering bangs, imitating the portraits of Burlet..."
"The Silk-Hat Baron?"
"Right! He gave us this as congratulations for Crazy ∞ nighT's second anniversary!"
Inside the box was a bottle of red wine. I looked at the label.
"...This is a real antique... Pretty expensive, I bet."
"Yeah, seems like you could build a whole house with that much... Amazing. But it'd be rude to refuse, and he seemed really grateful. And once tonight's show is over, since all the actors from then are together today, we're going to have a party! We can drink this then! Wonder how it tastes..."
Rin's eyes sparkled, and she crossed her arms in front of her chest.
"Huh...? You don't look happy at all!"
"Well, I don't especially like wine or anything. All these rules about how to pour it and giving your thoughts after drinking... It's too annoying. It's not for me."
"Geez! You just have to be modest and put on the right mood, that's all! You may look like a delicate prince, but inside, you're sooo crude, Len. But... well, while he'd usually go with beer at our afterparties... if he were here, I bet he'd enjoy this for sure."
"He"... Yes, he loved wine enough that he'd make it from his own grapes. His eyes would be sparkling at this.
"Well, can you tell everyone the party's all set?"
"Sure. But will everyone really be coming? It's so sudden..."
"It's okay! I already checked earlier! All seven are on standby!"
"Really...? There's one member I'm not so sure about, if it's the cast of Crazy ∞ nighT assembling... I wonder if they'll be extremely late, just like then..."
"Such a worrywart! Meg arrived ages ago. Look, she... I think she's really become self-reliant now. After that day, she's been very sure not to arrive late, even if she's on her own."
"...Er... yeah. She hasn't been late once since then..."
Formerly liable to being very late, as of a certain day, Meg had learned to keep to a schedule. To quote her, "Because there's no longer someone to come pick me up if I'm going to be late..."
"Where do you suppose he is now?"
Memories of the one who was no longer with us crossed my mind. The second major farewell we experienced. Right after the performance of Crazy ∞ nighT, he vanished without warning. All he left was a letter reading "I was satisfied. Thank you for everything." We searched his house and his farm, but no one knew where he was.
Everyone was bewildered by the sudden loss, and was sorrowful about it, but taking the words "I was satisfied" to heart, the remaining seven were determined to move forward. Who knows if it was his absence or what, but... especially after the first night of Crazy ∞ nighT's performance, the actors' bonds seemed much closer.
A knocking on the door brought me back from my thoughts. I opened up.
"Um... Len. It's almost showtime."
"Miku. Aren't you a little too nervous?"
Miku came in. She wore a thick coat with a hood over her head; her attire for the snowy scene to come seemed a little hot for the current season. Miku had been in the troupe for two and a half years now, but still got nervous before a show. She was shaking like she was about to collapse, and her face stiffened.
"Good luck, you two! I already finished my part yesterday, so I'll be watching the epilogue from the audience! Len's... last act!"
"...Not my last. I'll come back... Count on it."
Winking at us and slapping Miku on the back, Rin left the green room. Miku's face stayed all bunched up; did she hit her that hard?
"That take away your nerves? Her methods are the best... I figured she could do it in one shot."
"Yes...! My senses focus on the pain, and the haze in my mind gets blown away!"
I was relieved by the first smile I'd seen from her today. She wasn't in a major role this time, but she'd perform with me, the lead, in a concluding scene in the last act in which the dead were mourned. It was the most demanding scene in the play; one she and I had both always wanted to act, it being our favorite among Burlet's stories. And in this version, changes had been made for newer audiences, like slightly raising the age of the characters. I was as nervous as I was sentimental. But Rin coming along and talking with me eased up most of my nerves.
"Um... Rin said this was your last...?"
I tried to cover it up, but naturally she noticed. There was a time when she would always be too focused on herself to pay attention to people's conversations and the motives for their actions. She'd really matured in less than three years.
"It's nothing. Just think about the show for now."
Briefly uneasy, she trusted me and smiled wide. She could read into other people's feelings and the situation, and as proof of her trust in others, she never asked any more questions than she needed to... She'd gotten much better at reading lines, too. She was fine now. She could get on perfectly well without me around.
Putting on a white coat, I went and checked myself in the mirror one last time. No problems. I looked up at the roses on the dresser, and they glowed in the moonlight coming in the window. Blue roses signify miracles... Whenever I looked at them, somehow, I was always reminded of that single moment on that night.
We and Miku had an argument, and there was discord between us, so Miku ran away, and we gave chase... She turned a knife at us, Kaito was hurt trying to stop her, and as Miku was about to fall down the stairs...
It happened in an instant. Kaito and the other four upstairs quickly noticed and managed to grab Miku's hand in time, so nothing serious happened, but then... All eight of us suddenly started crying without knowing why. Everyone was bewildered as to why, but we just kept crying. We and Miku quickly apologized to each other and talked things out. We apologized for stubbornly denying her opinion, and Miku for believing in a mysterious letter more than she believed in us.
It seemed like in just a moment, strong bonds formed between us. After it happened, I pondered if there was something special about that moment, some magic, but I still don't know what that strange incident was all about.
All of a sudden, I noticed a small piece of paper in the bottom of the box with the wine. Rin didn't seem to notice it, but it looked like a message from the sender. I knew who she was talking about: the man who watched from the special seats nearly every day. Wearing a silk hat and with long bangs that covered his face, he seemed to be imitating Burlet, and certainly resembled the portraits of him in my collection.
He was the first of our passionate visitors, and now we had many more. But even so, fans that have given us their support for so long make me feel more grateful and happy than anything. I picked up the small card with elegant writing and looked it over.
"That's from... the Silk-Hat Baron who Rin was talking about...?"
I guess Miku wanted to read it too; she stood on her tiptoes and peered at it.
"Nope. You can't see it."
"W-What...?! Put your hand lower!"
"All right, all right."
I'd grown a fair bit, and now looked down on her. I held the card low enough for her to see it.
""I found some magnificent wine, so please serve it to everyone. Isn't it grand to go wild with wine on those crazy nights? ...Applause and a word of thanks for that magnificent night. From the Phantom Butler"..."
Taken aback, I carefully read back every word. It couldn't be. But thinking back on it, he would frequently skip practice, be gone when I looked away and then suddenly be back. Was he, the one no longer with us, this Silk-Hat Baron...?
If that were so, then on the days he wasn't performing, did he disguise himself to come see our plays as a guest...? But for what possible purpose?
"Len... This is a message from the Silk-Hat Baron, right...? But, Phantom Butler... and the way he says "magnificent," do you think..."
"Hey, this signature is even the one Burlet used... Isn't it fancy?"
At the bottom of the card was a wax seal. It was exactly like the one I was familiar with. Since I was young, I collected items from the legendary playwright Burlet. Among that collection was a seal he used in place of a signature. This had such impressive quality that even I had to call it "magnificent." The way he could imitate his appearance to the finest detail, too, was magnificent. I could only wonder how he managed to recreate this seal which, a hundred years later, not even collectors had.
"It can't be the real one, can it...? ...No, there's no way... It's been a hundred years."
An absurdly unrealistic theory came to mind, but I immediately dismissed it. Ridiculous. If he were alive, he'd be over a hundred and fifty. Unthinkable. As long as that description commonly used to praise him, "creating overwhelmingly realistic other worlds on the stage," had no special power.
"I wonder if he's doing okay..."
"He should be fine. He's probably making wine in his vineyard."
Our vanished friend was likely watching us from outside the company as a common lover of Burlet's works. And tonight, enjoying the high-quality wine he'd provided for us, we'd talk all about that performance.
Since that day... since that moment, something changed. Everyone had, like me, learned from their past actions and tried to change. Yes, thanks to Miku, our Cinderella, who matured to become a star actress of the company in just two years. As always, she'd still sometimes make blunders on stage, but after serving as the lead of Crazy ∞ nighT, she seemed to gain a lot of confidence in herself, and conspicuously improved her acting. Enough to make me feel like I couldn't just sit around.
"Time to get going..."
"Yeah... Let's do our best!"
Dusk had passed. The sky was dark and cloudless. The wind was strong, blowing against the window, but no rain. A night with a beautiful moon. I took a deep breath, and reached for the heavy green room door that would lead to tonight's play.