I was mesmerized by Kuon when I first met him. Although Kurosagi introduced him as his little brother, I was dubious because the two of them shared few similar traits in appearance. While my boyfriend was very handsome in his own right, one of the reasons I had been attracted to him in our initial meeting, standing next to Kuon, he was brought down to average-looking at best. Anyone would be brought down to average standing next to that boy really, regardless of their varied beauty. Kuon was not merely beautiful, he was ethereal: one needed only a swift glance at his face to be lost in a surreal reality.
You probably think my boyfriend would be mad at me for staring at his adolescent brother like a lovesick fool and ignoring him completely. That was inappropriate, even downright rude. I asked him such once Kuon had left us to explore the miniature library in the café on his own, having realized how utterly embarrassing I’d behaved. “No, I wasn’t mad,” he said to me in a serene voice and a peaceful expression. “Kuon has that sort of effect on just about everyone who sees him. His unearthly aura is just overwhelming for us earthly people.”
As if reading my unvoiced question, he explained, “His enigmatic charms do not exclude family, unfortunately, but we’ve learned to adapt to them over time, though. Strangers who see him for the first time, on the other hand, is totally awestruck.”
“Don’t you think it’s a little disturbing,” I asked, “that people stare at him everywhere he goes?”
When I said that I didn’t mean just me; I hadn’t failed to notice random passers-by halting in their track, seemingly forgotten of their purpose. Even now I could see the clerk gazing longingly at the boy’s figure popping in and out of the shelves.
“It can’t be helped,” Kurosagi replied, taking a sip from his mocha. “And it is troublesome, I admit. Someone may try to do him harm. So he doesn’t go out very often, mostly staying in the house where we can best protect him.”
“What about his schooling?”
I wagered Kuon to be around 13 or 14, making him a middle school pupil. He had to be extremely popular at school. I could imagine throngs of girls fighting tooth and nail for his attention, both figuratively and not. Valentine’s Day and White Day would be literal hell. I almost pitied the teachers and other male students.
Kurosagi was quick to put an end to my rampant imagined mayhem.
“Oh, he’s homeschooled. We’ve hired the most brilliant professors to tutor him on every subject.”
Kurosagi’s family was extremely affluent so I didn’t think why it was unaffordable. Still, it unsettled me to think that a boy couldn’t go to school like other children simply because he attracted too much attention. To top it all, it wasn’t something like a switch he could turn on and off at will.
“Don’t worry for him, darling,” Kurosagi continued, “Kuon is fine being homeschooled. He isn’t exactly a sociable child. Being surrounded by too many people is… let’s say, disturbing to him. In fact, he only went out today because he wanted to meet the lovely girl who has captured my heart.”
He punctuated with a hearty chuckle. I smiled despite my uneasiness caused by that piece of detail regarding Kuon’s life. I couldn’t help wondering whether the boy was innately unsociable or he had developed that streak being raised in such… unusual environment. It was incomprehensible, the lifestyle of those possessing wealth and powers, for someone growing up in a family that was barely able to make and meet. I wondered, briefly, what it would be like for both Kuon and us if he had been born to our family instead.
Still, it would be inappropriate of me to dwell too much into Kurosagi’s familial matters when we had been going out for merely a few months. I let the matter of Kuon slip out of my mind for the rest of the date.
When it was time to say goodbye, I was blissfully surprised that Kuon graced with me with a wide, happy and genuine smile. You see, this boy grew up in a rich family, mostly isolated from the outside world, so it was not out of the ordinary that he had greeted me properly but coolly, his chiseled features displaying little emotion beside politeness; we were but strangers meeting for the very first time after all. I didn’t expect him to warm up to me only after a few short hours and some words exchanged.
Yet he did, this time and several times afterwards when I was invited to dinner at the Amamiyas’ mansion. Due to our differences in upbringing, I had initially refused to go out with Kurosagi despite my blatant infatuation with the absurdly attractive upperclassman; nonetheless, his persistence was surprising for a man who was accustomed to pretty girls fawning over him, and before my skepticism had a chance to ruin my chance of romance, I had been won over. Kurosagi had brought me to one surprise after next: while I wasn’t optimistic about the durability of our relationship, he had brought his little brother to make acquaintance with me and now, it was time to meet the rest of his family. Kurosagi and Kuon’s widow mother, a beautiful and elegantly classy lady, whom I had thought would not approve her son’s going out with a girl that wasn’t a good match in terms of family status. The Amamiyas were not simply rich; they were very old money rumored to be in affiliation with the royal family. Thus I had been well prepared, physically and mentally, to receive the full cold shoulder of the lady Amamiya. In contrast with my belief, formed by many soap operas, she had given me nothing but warmth as if I was born an Amamiya or even her own daughter even when she had never met me before. And if you think it was merely her refinement as a proper lady as I had thought, you are wrong. Her warm, cordial treatment did not waver in the next occasion and after. It was overwhelming at first; still lady Amamiya and Kuon had a way to make me believe I was genuinely welcome, not just as a guest but as a soon-to-be family member. I began to feel closer to her family than my own, harboring a wish to be accepted as member of their household.
My wish was realized one afternoon after six months of dating Kurosagi: he took Kuon and I out for a date and at the end, in front of his little brother my boyfriend asked, as politely as an old-fashioned gentleman should, to spend the rest of his life with me. My heart was filled with joy upon his proposal but still I did not miss Kuon’s smile as he gave us our blessing. It was the most heavenly thing I’d ever known.
Our wedding was beyond my most luxurious dream. My in-laws were surprisingly scarce in number, only my mother-in-law, Kuon and a handful of close relatives, so I felt a tad guilty to invite my extended family and all of my friends. My mother-in-law didn’t mind it though. It was wonderful to have those I loved present at the most significant event of my life, she told me.
As expected, all guests, including my family and friends, were rendered speechless the moment their gazes landed on Kuon, my precious little brother-in-law now. Feigning ignorance to their blatant stares, he greeted them one by one, thanking them for their attendance. None of them questioned why a young boy was doing an elder’s job instead of, say, my mother-in-law or Kurosagi’s aunt or some other adult, too mesmerized by his sheer aura. Even I only realized it much later on reflection; back then I had been brimming with happiness to pay attention to that small detail, gliding through the whole ceremony in a blissful hazy trance.
My parents, relatives and friends all took notice on how Kuon bore little resemblance to his mother and brother. That they only told me some time after the wedding.
I was happy with my marriage, of course. It was sheer perfection. My in-laws were nice and understanding, and Kurosagi was better as a husband than a boyfriend. I went to bed every night thanking God for granting me much more than I deserved.
My fairytale dream received a harsh wake-up call one morning: my dear husband had gone to bed in my arms and never opened his eyes again. A sudden heart failure had robbed him from my embrace in the death of the night – a completely natural decease. Completely natural? I screamed to the police officers who delivered the result of autopsy. Kurosagi had been in perfect health: he had never smoked, only drunk socially and paid proper attention to keep his body impeccable state. On top of that he was only 32. My husband was the epitome of youth and health; how could he have died of a middle-aged’s condition? In front of my hysteria, the police officers remained calm and firm on their conclusion. They offered their condolences to the widowed me but refused my request to open a case. There was nothing to investigate, one of the elder policemen said. The men of the Amamiya clan had been plagued with a hereditary heart disease which always resulted in deaths before 35, and my husband was just another link in the long chain of young deaths of that rich and mysterious family. He asked, with a degree of hesitation regarding my painfully bewildered expression, whether I had heard about it when having my last name altered to ‘Amamiya’. The implication was not at all concealed.
I drove home in a stream of recollection, digging into my memory and hoping to gain any hints of the so-called ‘Amamiya curse’ from the many talks with my mother-in-law about the family’s customs and traditions. I realized, with mounting appall, that although I’d heard about Kurosagi’s father’s untimely death, I had never dwelled into its cause, nor had I made any attempt to learn anything about the deaths before his. And as I recalled, among Kurosagi’s relatives, who had attended our wedding were either women or young children, there had been absolutely no sight of male.
Had all the men of the Amamiyas killed by the same mysterious heart failure that had taken Kurosagi out of my life? How come I had never heard of such a bizarre and deadly disease?
My mother-in-law seemed to have been waiting for me when I arrived home, worn down by the sudden, unexpected tides of events. Her face looking serene as the still surface of a surrounded lake, she gestured for me to follow her down the winding staircase that led deep into the bowel of our huge mansion. I had not descended these steps once, both because of her order and my own disinterest. No-one in the house saved her could come down it appeared.
But… Where had my little brother-in-law, my ethereal and mature-beyond-his-age Kuon had disappeared to? I had not spotted his sight since early in the morning; he should have already learned of his brother’s fate, shouldn’t be? Though technically we lived under the same roof, I didn’t see Kuon very often. My husband and I took resident in the east wing while my mother-in-law and Kuon lived in the south wing, where it was significantly quieter than the rest of this mansion. I only met him occasionally, on family gatherings for instance.
I opened my mouth to ask but my mother-in-law, as though possessing a third eye on her back, gestured for me to save my answer.
The stairs were longer than my initial expectation. The strange blue bulbs illuminating our way gave off an aura of mystique as if they were not objects but had a life of their own.
“You must have known that I myself wasn’t originally an Amamiya,” she spoke in her soft, refined tone. The marble walls surrounding us absorbed her voice and produced an echo.
She continued, apparently in no need of my answer to her rhetoric. “Like you, I became a member of this clan by marriage. My husband, same as my son, died before he reached 34. I underwent the same pain you’re having now…”
The mention of her late husband brought a nostalgic look to her otherwise calm expressing. I wondered, but dared not ask, why she appeared unfazed by her son’s demise.
But I soon had my answer.
We were in front of a door. Its material was fine wood and the intricate carvings in the gold-laded knob were befitting of the family’s wealth.
“You should know that everything changes over time, except one: our fortune and influence on this country. This is, of course, not without a price.”
I had a feeling that I grasped what she was saying and even what she had not yet. It wasn’t a coincidence that she took me down here right after my husband’s death.
“My mother-in-law, Kurosagi’s grandmother, led me down the stairs to this particular room shortly after Kurosagi’s father had passed away, the cause of which I presume you’ve known already. She told me what I am about to tell you…”
I inhaled deeply in anxiety.
“The mechanism that has been continuously breeding and nurturing our family’s fortune since the beginning of time requires to be ‘fueled’ from time to time. In order to maintain everything we have, sacrifices need to be made and so, it has been decided that the men of Amamiya lineage will bear the burden…”
“By their deaths?” My voice raised in sync with my emotions.
“By their lifespans,” she corrected. “They are not lost, only transferred.” She took a pause for me to let the information sink in. “If you ask me how, I am not able to explain it. My mother-in-law wasn’t either; none of us ‘outsiders’ could fully understand the Amamiyas’ enigma. And yet… And yet we are allowed to indulge and govern the mass of wealth and power it creates, generation after generation…”
“‘We’? I’m afraid I don’t follow, Okaa-sama*.”
She smiled a smile that stayed on the contours of her lips and did not reach her eyes, two pools of water undisturbed by any force.
“I’m telling it to you as a ritual passed down to me by my mother-in-law. She was the mistress of the Amamiya household and so am I. In the near future it will be you, and after you, you daughter-in-law.”
I shook my head in disbelief. Never before had I had a sliver of thought regarding this position. In my mind it had always been Kurosagi that would become the head, and I was content to be his wife, his devoted supporter. “Why… What good am I to earn such privilege?”
“You remind me of my younger self who asked the same question. I had been ‘chosen’ since the day I was married into this family, she told me. It had not been her choice and neither was this my decision.”
“Whose was it, Okaa-sama?”
“His decision. It’s always his and no one else’s,” she replied, turning the silver key to unlock the door in front of us. Her hand stayed on the key as she said to me, “Ask him anything you need. In the end, swear your loyalty to him, to this family. When you come out, you will be our future mistress.”
“Can I refuse?”
“It is not his principal to impose his will on anyone. Nevertheless, ask yourself whether you want to refuse. Now, come in. He’s been waiting for you.”
She pushed the heavy door but her strength was not enough to fully open it. She turned on her heels and wordlessly ascended the winding staircase. My gaze followed her until her figure vanished as though I was afraid that once I stepped in, she would lock the door and trap me with whatever resided in the depth of this hidden chamber. I didn’t know from where I gained such macabre thought. My heart thumping in my rib cages, I slipped in.
The door remained open until I walked out, my head held high and hope blossoming in place of the previous pain of my husband’s death.
You ask me what I had found in the dark chamber. Darling, much as I wish to, it’s a family secret I will not divulge to an outsider, unless you become one of us. By his decision and no one else’s.
About a decade later, my mother succumbed to the beckon of senility; after her funeral, I assumed my position as the mistress of the clan via a small ceremony held by our small branches – as Okaa-sama had referred to them. We shared with them our prosperity and in return, they existed to serve the core family, which were us. There was hardly any internal conflicts and most of our adversaries came from the outside. No amount of training from my dear late mother couldn’t have prepared me for the varied and complicated issues that I encountered. Fortunately for me I was always well-advised.
By the true head of the house.
My son with Kurosagi, whom had been conceived the night before his father’s depart, was a spitting image of my husband. The mention of him still caused a sting in my heart that I knew would never vanish for my remaining years; nonetheless it wasn’t the new, ripping agony tormenting my younger self. Time healed all pains, he told me, and he was never wrong.
So time flied and before I was aware of how it had altered us, altered me, my Kurosaki had reached adulthood. He had found a young woman he fancied, so it was my duty to carry out the Amamiya long-lasting tradition.
“When you speak to her, you will introduce Kuon-sama as your little brother,” I instructed him. “If she asks, say he is homeschooled since he attracts too much attention and being surrounded by many people is disturbing to him. In fact, he only went out today because he wanted to see the girl who had captured your heart.”
“Hai, Okaa-sama,” he said, bowing deeply.
* -sama is a suffix added to a noun or proper noun to show respect. Okaa-sama is a respected way to say ‘Mother’.