“This the place?”
“It is indeed.”
A small, orange hybrid car pulled into a parking spot outside of a facility deep in the mountains.
“’Bout time …… That drive took for freakin’ ever. Whew.”
“I was the one behind the wheel, if you remember.”
Machi Kugui placed the sunglasses she had worn since the beginning of the drive on the dashboard while speaking to her friend in the passenger seat.
“What would you prefer, O-Ryou?”
“I’ll wait in the car. I’d slug her the second I saw her face if I went in,” said Ryou Tsukiyomizaka, bumping her clenched fists together. Then she reached for her breast pocket with routine precision.
Just before closing the car door behind her, Machi leaned back inside and said without a moment’s hesitation, “Do not smoke in my car.”
Ryou snapped her tongue with a frustrated, “Tch,” and pinned her yet unlit cigarette between her nose and upper lip as she flopped back into her seat to take a nap.
“Good grief …… That is an illness she should seek treatment for while we’re here,” remarked Machi with a grimace as she strode up to the building.
Strangely enough, no one paid any attention to her when she went inside.
Machi was not obstructed in any way. That was how it was arranged.
“Let’s see: Room 18 …… Room 18 ………… Ah, that’s the one.”
She took a quick, yet deep breath.
Machi then knocked but went inside without waiting for a response.
“That is quite the how did you find me? look adorning your face.”
The person she had wanted to meet was there inside that room, basking in the sunlight and enjoying the soft breeze coming through the window.
–––Ahhh ………… It has been a while. Same goes for the trembling that accompanies seeing her with my own eyes ……
Machi instantly regretted leaving her sunglasses in the car.
Pretending to look around the room in order to hide the tears building in her eyes, she gave her leery host an explanation for her sudden visit.
“Allow me to say this up front, Keika did not divulge your location. Adults have connections that children would not understand. So long as you remain within this country’s borders, eluding me is simply impossible. May I have a seat?”
She pulled a chair up to the bed without waiting for a response yet again and sat down.
Then, obviously avoiding direct eye contact, Machi flashed a grin and said, “Please, remain at ease. I have come alone. And I shall not reveal anything discussed today without obtaining your consent beforehand …… That includes to Yaichi.”
Two dainty shoulders quivered.
–––Had she always been so slender?
Though Ginko had been thin throughout her life, she looked downright frail wearing a thin white hospital gown.
–––Then, it was a purely competitive spirit that made her appear daunting ……
Machi felt a renewed sense of awe for the girl before her.
The all-powerful presence she possessed at a Shogi board was nowhere to be found.
Machi was at a loss as to how this feeble little girl had made it through the 3-dan division’s hellish landscape.
Even ………… that she managed to survive at all.
“Quite the tranquil hideaway you have found. Perfect for convalescing. The world at large is far too boisterous and dusty. How lovely it would be to dwell here and write for a living …… Though O-Ryou seemed less than impressed and is currently indulging in an afternoon snooze in the passenger seat of my vehicle.”
Machi nonchalantly revealed that Ryou Tsukiyomizaka was in fact on the premises, but there was no tremor in the girl’s shoulders this time around.
So, it was true. Only Yaichi’s name could reach this girl’s heart.
“Now then. I would like to continue the exclusive interview where we left off.”
Up until that precise moment, Machi had been unsure what to ask.
“How much time has transpired since you have been unable to play Shogi, Ginko?”
“You see her?”
The sun had nearly set by the time Machi returned to the car.
Ryou Tsukiyomizaka leaned all the way out of her seat to get answers.
“So, how was she?”
“Had you been so interested, you should have accompanied me to begin with.”
“Hah!! All I care about is when the heck she’s comin’ back! I don’t give a crap about her health!” Ryou grumbled, crossing her arms and sticking her feet up onto the dashboard. “…… So? How’s she lookin’?”
Machi was unsure how to convey what she had just witnessed.
“Undoubtably, she will remain here to recover for some time to come. I did not ascertain any information not already made public by the association.”
“Tch! Then we came all the way out here for nothing! I was gonna pull her out by a chain ’round her neck no matter what the whitecoats had to say about it!!”
“Go through with that, O-Ryou, and you would have been dragged away with chains around your wrists,” said Machi with a forced grin as she started the engine.
Ryou put her feet down and returned her seat back to the upright position.
“I’ll drive us back. Got some shuteye already, so I’m good to go.”
“There’s no need.”
“Why the heck not?! Don’t tell me you’re one of those nobody drives my car but me types? ’Cuz they’re a real pai-”
“Your eyes are quite puffy, O-Ryou. From tears, I presume?”
“……!! Th-There’s just a ton of dust in the car, GOT IT?!”
Ryou snatches Machi’s sunglasses off the dashboard with a start and slips them on to hide her eyes.
The car pulled out of the lot.
A seemingly endless stream of steep mountain scenery passed by the windows as Machi carefully navigated through all the forks in the road. She took breaks when necessary, only to start up once again.
The two didn’t say another word. The only sound accompanying them on their journey was whatever came out of the radio that neither bothered to turn off.
Then, in the middle of a long stretch of tunnel, the radio signal cut out.
“O-Ryou,” Machi said, her eyes on the road. “As I have given her my word, I cannot discuss what we spoke of in the interview.”
“Though, I doubt she would mind if I expressed what I saw.”
The girl she had spoken with but a few hours ago.
And the girl she had met years ago.
The two overlapped in Machi’s mind as she continued.
“She is as she always has been. The very same girl we played against in the Kansai Shogi Association …… Fiery, cheeky, talented to a fault and straightforward …… Still the girl who is infatuated with Shogi and Yaichi alone. Yes, I believe–––.”
Sensing something amiss in the passenger seat, Machi stopped herself midsentence.
Then, in a gentle tone, “O-Ryou.”
“It’s fine. You may smoke.”
A single orange spot glowed from within the dark car passing through the tunnel.
“Glad to hear it ……,” came a quiet yet trembling voice that seemed to be on the verge of tears.
–––My apologies, O-Ryou.
Machi thought to herself.
There was a strong possibility that Ginko would return to professional Shogi. Machi was certain of it. However, that day was still a long way off …… One look at how frail Naniwa’s Snow White had become was enough to confirm that.
–––Her attack has run dry.
Ginko had always been on the offensive, but it had been stretched too thin. The Dragon King was now left vulnerable.
Endure. Endure. Endureendureendureendure. Endure.
In sixth grade, after tasting humiliation at the hands of a girl four years her junior, losing despite her playing two matches at once …… The name of the boy she had sworn to pursue was taken from her.
Even so, Machi bided her time without attacking. She endured from within an anaguma despite the surefire checkmate that had unfolded before her eyes.
Ginko would return …, which meant she had to settle things before then.
–––Charge in for the checkmate with all your might once the opportune moment presents itself. That is the way of the anaguma …… Right, Ginko?
The tunnel exit came into view and Machi sped toward it.
Now it was finally here.
Machi Kugui’s turn.