Author's Note: It was a short arc, this time around, mainly intended to set things up for later. Still, I hope that you've enjoyed it. The next arc should take awhile because I'm going to focus on my other stories for the time being.
A Reluctant Master
A Reluctant First Date (End)
Fun and games are good and all, but they can't go on forever.
The next day.
"Are you sure about it, Tenjou?"
I pressed the phone against my ear. The person on the other end was none other than Tenjou Mikado. It seemed as though he had yet to wrap up his business with Rei, and I thus could not meet him personally. I could only confirm my queries with him using the phone like this. I could have checked with my father instead, but I really did not wish to talk with that whimsical old man if I could help it. I guess even I was not immune to the impulses that one experiences during the rebellious teenage years.
"Yeah. If the kid himself confirms it, then there's no mistake. Also, do you still have to call me by my last name? Mikado's fine."
I paused for a moment. Come to think of it, I've never had any real male friends since the age of seven. Calling another guy by his first name like this was an experience that I had not encountered for quite some time now.
"You call me Kurogami, too." I replied. "We're even. Guys don't need to refer to each other by their first name anyway."
Tenjou chuckled. "Going for that kind of edgy, written-as-rival-but-read-as-friend kind of feeling? Sure, I'm cool with that then."
Also, this was something that I didn't mention to him, but it just felt plain weird referring to someone as 'Mikado'.
"So Haitani Koutarou told you himself, did he? That there was an Artifact in that place."
Almost everyone knows that the government, or to be more precise, the Anti-Artifact Agency, had a database of recorded Artifacts. I myself had used that same database several times in the past. And thus it had always struck me as strange that nobody should wonder how exactly those Artifacts were identified. After all, we were able to determine every last characteristic of an Artifact, which should really have been impossible considering their varied and unpredictable nature. Similarly, I had received information from the Agency that there was an Artifact present in the café , Maid Riddle, but how did they, in turn, discover that?
The details themselves might have been too complicated to explain fully, but the basic answer was quite simple. Haitani Koutarou's Artifact, 'The Head of Mimir', was 'an Artifact that identifies other Artifacts'. Of course, there were several restrictions on the knowledge granted by the Head of Mimir - there would be no need for me to solve Artifact incidents otherwise - but the importance of that Artifact could not really be understated.
"Yep," replied Tenjou. "Straight from the horse's mouth."
As for who Haitani Koutarou himself was - there were quite a few different ways to describe him, but the most common impression that he gave off was that of a precocious, mature thirteen year-old kid. There were some people who said that the Artifact reflects the owner's true nature - and Haitani was quite possibly the perfect example of that. Either way, due to the abilities of his Artifact, he had been roped into aiding the Agency in the same way that I had, but his position was much higher than mine, of course.
"I see. Thank you for your help, then."
"Don't worry about it. I had to get help from the old man myself, anyway. Things aren't exactly going well on our end, either."
"I see. Good luck. Tell me about it when you get back."
I would have offered to help him, but it seemed as though the Agency was anxious to make sure that I was not at all involved in the incident on Tenjou's end, and I was hardly going to place my friend in an awkward situation by doing so.
Tenjou snorted on the other end. "Actually, I'm not supposed to tell you anything, but I'm sure Harada-san will tell you all about it. They don't have her on a leash."
As usual, there was no one who could really stand up to Rei's unique combination of power.
"How are you getting along with her, by the way?"
"Well...She still doesn't like me. But she's at least willing to talk to me now."
That might not seem like much, but it was actually a huge improvement on Tenjou's part. I wonder how exactly he had managed to get Rei to warm up to him?
Well, that could wait. Both of us had more important issues to deal with right now.
"That's good to hear," I said. "Let's talk more when you get back."
"Sure. See ya."
I said my own farewells and hung up.
Alright, there's just one person that I have to handle before the main event, then.
"I'm heading out, Alice."
"Okay. Have fun!"
I stifled a sigh and closed the door. Taking a step to the right, I turned around and observed the door, waiting.
It took but a few minutes.
The door opened and a certain girl with long black hair strode through the doorway with a happy smile on her face.
This smile twisted into a puzzled expression.
"Hm? What are you doing here, Shinya? Hurry to the maid café so I can follow you, already."
This was a new level of brazenness. And it was definitely a new level of stalking. There was, admittedly, something refreshing about a person who was being so open and above-board about it.
"Don't follow me."
"You know that's out of the question."
Out of the question? Tell that to the police!
I decided against filing a restraining order against my flatmate and said, "I'm not heading to the café to have fun, Alice. It's work."
Her expression softened a little, but there was no way I was getting out of this that easily.
"Again? How suspicious, Shinya. Even if you're heading there for work and not to enjoy yourself on a date with a certain maid...There is no reason why I can't come along. After all, I accompanied you yesterday as well."
I'd say that it's quite a stretch to say that you 'accompanied' me. That's far too tame a verb.
"It's a little different this time. We weren't able to find an Artifact there, were we? This time, I'm just following a hunch I have. Or perhaps it's nothing more than my own stubbornness. Either way, there is every chance that I could be completely wrong," I said, neglecting to mention that Tenjou had actually confirmed the presence of an Artifact there.
"And you don't want me around when you realize that you've been completely wrong?"
"Of course. I have my pride, you know."
Alice shook her head. "No kidding. Well, I can understand your point of view, BUT! I'm not getting anything out of this, Shinya."
I raised an eyebrow. "So what do you want from me?"
"You have to go on another date with me. That's the condition. Don't you think that's fair in exchange?"
Of course, if I could have somehow avoided it, I would have done so. But in actual fact, what Alice had just proposed was probably the best deal that I was going to get from her. I really could not afford to have her tag along this time. If what I had in mind was correct, the situation would be precarious enough without her around to further complicate matters.
"Okay. Don't tell me that I have to plan the date or something, though."
"Nope! Don't worry about that. I'll handle everything."
That was a scary phrase in its own right, but I had bigger things to deal with. I could worry about Alice's date later.
"I'll look forward to it, then."
The café itself was no different from yesterday. The same maids were running the shop, and the customers, even if they weren't the exact same people, ran true to the type of people that frequented such shops. There was no reason why it should have been any different. And yet, for no discernible reason, it felt as though the atmosphere within the café had changed subtly.
Unnatural. That was the word for it. It was just a feeling, but something, somewhere, was out of place.
But was that really the case? I doubted that I could say for sure. After all, Tenjou had told me that there was definitely an Artifact here. It was quite possible that I was simply projecting my own thoughts and premonitions based on that. Was I truly sensing something off, or was it my imagination?
The real answer, of course, was that the answer didn't matter at all. I knew that an Artifact was in fact present. I didn't need to think about anything else.
Let's head straight to the source.
I handed my ticket to the maid who had came hurrying over, and she understood what I had come for after a quick glance at it, whispering for me to wait a moment while she looked for her colleague.
It took almost no time at all for her to return with the maid in question. She was sporting red locks today, and her hair was done up in a ponytail instead of the ringlet curl style. It was a style that quite strongly resembled Alice's.
"Hello there, Master. I've been waiting for you~"
Well, it was obvious that she, at the very least, was not speaking in the same way as yesterday. The overly excited tone in her voice was completely absent. I guess she didn't need to keep up that kind of persona when talking to me alone.
She led me past the usual arrangement of tables and into a room at the back, closing the door behind her smoothly. The room was decorated in the same style of decor, with question marks emblazoned sporadically on the wallpaper. A fairly large table with two chairs placed on opposite ends stood in the centre, whilst a trolley was positioned near a corner. Judging from the teapot, cups, biscuits, and various other types of snacks and beverages that the trolley held, it was safe to say that the staff had wanted to equip this room for a one-on-one session with the maid with as little outside help needed as possible.
"Are you sure that this is safe? Even if we're inside the café , it's just the two of us in this room, you know," I said as I took a seat.
"Not to worry, Master. There is a security camera in this room."
Bingo. As I expected.
"Does the camera transmit sound as well?"
"No, we're free to speak privately, of course. What would you like to drink?"
That made things much easier. I squinted at the trolley with deep suspicion. "This doesn't come free, does it?"
I should have expected as much on that count as well. It was just as unlikely that I would be allowed to get away without ordering anything, and so...
"How about some English tea?" I suggested. I might as well order something that has more value, if the price is going to be marked-up anyway. That's how percentages work!
"Certainly, Master. What kind would you like?"
"Anything's fine," I answered hastily.
The maid nodded and prepared two cups of tea accordingly, placing one in front of herself as she sat down.
"What shall we talk about, Master?" She interlaced her fingers and rested her chin on them, tilting her head. Her gestures were starting to resemble Alice's far too much for me feel comfortable around her.
"For starters, what's your name? I'm allowed to ask that much, aren't I?"
It would be rather inconvenient to continue this conversation without at least knowing her name.
I nodded and continued, "Well then, Himeno-san - "
She wasted no time in cutting in. "Aya is fine."
"It's okay. There's no need for us to get too intimate with each other, Himeno-san."
It is never a good sign whenever a woman asks me to address her by her first name. They always want something.
"Of course, if that's what you prefer." She shrugged her shoulders magnanimously.
"If I had to get straight to the point - I'm not usually a person who frequents maid café s. Not that I have anything against them, but I just have no particular interest in them."
She grinned at me with her head still poised in that tilted manner. "Of course, but you are here now, aren't you?"
"Exactly. I'm here for only one reason really, Himeno-san. I believe that there is an Artifact in this place, and I want to find it."
"My. How shocking. Hmm...I suppose I should be sporting as well. Besides, it'd be bad for business if our customer walked out like this, wouldn't it? Let's say there is an Artifact here. I'll give you one guess. If you can tell me where or what it is, I'll definitely tell the truth and confirm it. Of course, by now you can probably guess that the Artifact has something to do with me."
I was inclined to think that she was mocking me with that grin of hers, but perhaps that was just me overthinking things. Was she simply amused and enjoying herself, or was she actually taunting me?
And again, the same answer. It did not matter. I should focus on making sure I got my answer right.
I closed my eyes, going over what I knew about this particular incident, which was almost nothing at all. I wasn't worried about getting my guess wrong - the conditions that she had set were arbitrary anyway.
But, and this must be said again, I did have my pride.
I pointed at her. "The Artifact is here. You're the Artifact."
Her eyes narrowed as she stood up. She spread her hands out and spun around, settling down into a curtsey.
"Ding-ding! That's exactly right. How did you know? Or rather, I should applaud you for even considering that an Artifact could appear in human form."
I took a sip of tea mechanically. The girl looked human enough in every aspect of her appearance. In the first place, authentic humans were themselves quite different compared to each other. To be frank, it would impossible for anyone to determine that she was an Artifact based on appearance alone.
"This isn't the first time I've seen a humanoid Artifact - or something close to humanoid, anyway."
"I see, I see. But that alone shouldn't have been enough for you to figure it out," she objected.
"Just to make this clear - I didn't know. Just like you said, I had one guess. And it was a guess. I didn't have nearly enough information to work with to be sure at all."
"But you were still able to make the right guess."
"Well, there were some clues. The farce that you played yesterday seemed rather directed at me. The drink, and the 'murder'. Everything was set up such that I could and would participate as much as possible. Was it a coincidence? It could have been, but the odds weren't exactly in favor of it. Besides, you're probably not aware of this, but I know for a fact that there is an Artifact in this café . Now, an Artifact is something that causes a disturbance, that warps events out of their natural order. Like you said, the Artifact is almost certainly related to you, but this incident is a special case. The cause of the disturbance is you, yourself. As far as I can tell, there doesn't seem to be any suspicious item on your person either. From there, there's only one possible identity for the Artifact."
Himeno Aya shook her head. "'From there', he says...I've heard it said that 'when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth', but what you've just done hardly counts as elimination. It's more like supernaturally homing in on the solution. But there's no way that you know what kind of Artifact I am, do you?"
A lack of information. There's no way I could say for sure.
It was not a common fairy tale at all, but Das Rätsel - or 'The Riddle' - was still a story that belonged to Grimm's Fairy Tales in its own right. A story of poisoning, royalty, and a happy ending with a prince and a wedded princess. On its own, it very much ran true to form as a fairy tale. But the events of yesterday had actually not coincided well with the story depicted as Das Rätsel.
Her smile vanished in an instant. "You are a monster," the Artifact breathed. She slipped back down into her seat and took a gulp of tea.
"How rude. You might not know this, but this is the second time I've been called that. Besides, I don't want to hear that from you."
An Artifact in human form was no different from a wolf in sheep's clothing.
"But still, to realize that I had used the story of 'The Riddle', that just shouldn't have been possible."
"That was a guess too. Perhaps I shouldn't even call it a guess. It was just a shot in the dark. The poisoning and the spilled drink were conceivably motifs from the story, but that was so slipshod and vague that they were hardly indicative. Nothing else from the story seemed to have been used. The name of the café was probably a bigger hint. By the way, since you said that you used the story of 'The Riddle', I guess it's safe to say that that story is not your true identity as an Artifact, is it?"
"My, my. I'm starting to feel that I've made a serious mistake with this scheme of mine," she said in response. Himeno was smiling again, but there was no real trace of humour within her expression.
"Very well. You are right. My identity goes beyond that. I wouldn't want to be shocked by you guessing every last thing about me, so allow me to gracefully reveal my identity. I would still prefer if you addressed me as 'Himeno Aya', but my true name is none other than 'Grimm's Grimoire'.
She fixed a watchful look over me. "Did you know that as well?"
"I did not know," I insisted. "But I did suspect."
"That is more than terrifying enough, thank you very much."
"So even a 'Grimoire' can take human form? That was something that I didn't know."
"It's not as simple as that. The usual rules simply don't apply to me," she replied.
"Because you're 'Grimm's Grimoire', huh...Just what kind of Artifact are you?"
She shrugged. "Can I make a statement like that so easily? Well, if I had to give an answer that I think would satisfy you, you can think of me as 'an Artifact that begets other Artifacts'. But I'm sure you've already considered that."
"Perhaps," I admitted. "In other words, you create all of the Artifacts that draw their source from 'Grimm's Fairy Tales'."
But of course, not all Artifacts were grouped in such a manner. Rei and Tenjou's Artifacts were prime examples of that.
"Yes, that is it. And as for why I've suddenly appeared before you like this - "
"Aschenputtel. 'Cinderella's Story'."
I had been right to make sure that Alice did not come along.
"Mm. That was the first time that an Artifact of mine had been dealt with in such a manner. In fact, 'Cinderella's Story' is still affecting you, isn't it? And yet you show no outward sign of that. This isn't something as simple as removing or destroying an Artifact. To reject an Artifact even when it's properly acting on you goes beyond that."
"I had no choice. Allowing it to affect me was the only method possible."
Her bottom lip creased as she stared at me.
"And you wonder why you're considered a monster? To be in love and yet not love...Well, never mind that. Surely you understand that Artifacts are defined by their function. Due to your actions, you were able to fulfil the Artifact's conditions, and yet you were also able to prevent it from actually working. That is not normal in the least. You have created a contradiction that the Artifact cannot resolve."
"What do you mean?"
"I simply mean that even I, the creator of 'Cinderella's Story' have no idea how the Artifact will act from here on. You might have removed it, and in fact I had thought that the Artifact was simply gone, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Don't get me wrong. From the information that I was able to gather from 'Cinderella's Story', you're a person who hates Artifacts very much. In other words, there should be nothing more displeasing to you than the existence of an Artifact such as I, and you're probably thinking of me as an enemy right this instant. On the other hand, I have nothing against you. In fact, I would say that it's wrong to think of you as an enemy, from my perspective. I am here to observe how 'Cinderella's Story' plans to resolve its conflict against you. That is all."
I paused for a moment to fully absorb what she had said.
"Even though you're the 'creator', you can't influence the Artifact?" I asked.
"I am but a grimoire. Stories are written upon me, and I may know what lies within these stories, but I have no control over them."
I had to admit that It was a logical explanation in its own way. In other words, she was simply an existence that provided the framework for the other Artifacts.
"So you're actually here to warn me?"
"No, that was not my intention, either. I am only here to observe. It is true that I have warned you now, but that was completely outside of my expectations."
"So, do you still plan to take action against me?"
"I am offended that you assume so confidently that I was planning to do anything to you." I did not mention that she was, in fact, correct.
"That relieves some of my worries, at least."
"The Anti-Artifact Agency knows that there's an Artifact here, though, and I have no reason to cover for you," I stated.
"That's fine. I am ready for that much, at least."
I drained my cup of tea and replaced it lightly on the table, thinking all the while.
"Leaving already?" she asked as I stood up.
"I've accomplished what I came for."
"Well, there is one more thing that I'd like to know, actually."
"And what might that be?"
I rolled my eyes. "What was the point of that entire act yesterday? You accomplished nothing with that little game. If you had wanted to cause an incident, you should have used a proper story and Artifact for it."
"On the contrary - my entire intention was not to be found out by you. If I could, I would have avoided it completely, but I can't go against my nature as an Artifact. It is necessary for me to exist in the form of one. With that in mind, I picked the story of Das Rätsel and tried to conceal it as much as possible. Frankly speaking, if it were not for the name of the café , I probably would not have been able to hold my existence together in this place." She sighed as she got to her feet as well.
So there were complicated circumstances like that as well.
Himeno crossed the room, opening the door before me. "Well, it's been nice talking with you, Master. I hope you have a nice day. Be careful on your way home!"
I replied seriously.
"Don't worry, I will."