In Akasaka, the soft sound of the geigi's nails plucking the strings of a shamisen drifted from the Crane Room of the Takabayashi Pavillion. Seated on the tatami floor, several men faced each other: Hamano, Minister of Foreign Affairs and aide to the Liberal Party Chairman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Fujita, and Chief Secretary Ota. The three men appeared to be smiling and chatting amicably, but the fact their chopsticks had barely touched the food in front of them betrayed the heavy tension in the air.
With a twang, the sound of the shamisen stopped.
"Could you leave us alone?" Looking at Hamano, Ota spoke to the geigi. The moment she left the room, he bowed down and spoke again in a dramatic voice.
"Hamano-san, I have a request of you from one man to another. In this autumn's Chair Election, please support my candidacy. Of course, after two years I will turn the reins over to you. I will never ask anything of you again so long as I live. Please grant my request."
"Well, this is a shame. I had been informed that the party wanted me to be elected Prime Minister this autumn, but without your consent things could get messy." Hamano's reply was cold and hardly accommodating.
"So what you're saying is that we'll settle this in the election?" Ota's face clouded with anger.
"Come on, you two, let's not get carried away now," Fujita interrupted the men. "Hamano-san, Ota-san, either of you is perfectly qualified to take power. Well, of course, it is true that my faction would hold a lot of sway as to who gets the chairmanship this autumn..."
Trailing off his attempt at appeasing the men, Fujita removed his glasses and slowly rubbed the bridge of his nose. Full of impatience, Ota and Hamano's sharp glares turned to the composed Chief Cabinet Secretary.
Putting on his glasses, Fujita looked back and forth, comparing the two men.
"However...the Prime Minister has been thinking that he would feel better if Hamano-san won this autumn, and then Ota-san took over the post afterwards. I think it would be better for the party if Ota were to concede for the time being."
Ota's lips started trembling at Fujita's words. He had thought that Shimazaki had somehow managed to persuade these two heavy-hitter politicians.
"Ota-san, don't feel bad. I'm not trying to force you, but the Prime Minister has directly indicated who he'd like to be his successor." As Hamano's mouth continued to spout excuses, he started to get up. His blood boiling with humiliation, Ota stared down at the other man's feet. In his peripheral vision, he saw a white shape dart across the room.
Hamano suddenly cried out and bent over, his face turning purple.
"Hamano-san, are you all right!?"
As Fujita ran over to Hamano, Ota clearly saw a small white snake coil around the Chief Cabinet Secretary's leg. Taken aback, Ota turned around and saw that the room’s sliding door was open a crack. In its shadow, he noticed Shimazaki's psychotically grinning face.
A chill ran down his spine.