They had to wait a little while for an elevator to arrive at the Elevator Pillar.
They rode it down.
The silence within enveloped them, creating a floating sensation as it descended.
“By the way, why were you on the stairs a little while ago?”
“…Is it strange for me to take the stairs?”
“No. My acquaintance and I climbed the stairs to the 30th floor, so I guess it’s not that strange.”
“Do you think your acquaintance is strange?”
“Eh? Well, maybe.”
Alice averted her eyes. “…It’s because I’ve gotten used to being alone,” she muttered. It was like she was talking to herself. Since her expression never changed, it was hard to tell what she was thinking.
“Is there something troubling you?”
She looked surprised.
“…What, is there nothing that bothers you? There are people without worries, right?”
“No, that’s not why I asked.”
Now that he thought about it, though, Masaki wasn’t worried about being alone. It was something that perplexed him, but since things had gotten so hectic lately, it felt more like he had no time to be worried.
“Well, since you’re having a conversation with me, who you only just met, you’re probably not worried about being alone.”
Instead of answering, Masaki decided to put on the bracelet the teacher had given him. He opened the clasp, then closed it around his wrist. It was easy. A window appeared above the bracelet, displaying “Welcome to Ring Gear!”
Masaki noticed a small hole on a flat side of the bracelet.
“What is this hole used for?”
“…You’ll find out eventually.”
“Haha, everyone keeps saying that.”
“It’s something that can’t be expressed in words. Telling you about it is useless if you haven’t experienced it yourself.”
“I guess that’s true.”
A soft ding rang out. The elevator had arrived at the first floor.
They stepped out of the elevator. Since class was still in session, there was no one in the vast hallway. It was somewhat eerie.
“…I’ll show you around the school.”
“This is the entrance to Alrescha.”
“And just outside is a nice café. Now it’s time for tea.”
With that, they went outside.
It was still really hot.
Alice waved her left hand and a translucent white parasol appeared. The hologram provided her with a bit of shade.
“We drink tea a lot in my country.”
Surely, the entrance couldn’t be the only part of the academy she intended to show him. Maybe she wanted to show him around the city since it was all part of the academy. But did she have a plan in mind?
“After you, then.” Masaki was interested in Academy City’s cafés more than anything else. He had seen several after he left the station but he hadn’t had a chance to go inside them.
They left the school building and, after walking down the road lined with apartment blocks for a few minutes, they arrived at Alice’s favourite café. Masaki would have missed it without Alice, since it was hidden by the roadside trees.
It was an imitation of an English café, with dark green walls and a brown roof. A Union Jack flag was displayed beside the entrance. It was an all-around small shop.
He opened the wooden door.
The manager was polishing a teacup behind the counter. He nodded and smiled at them when they entered. Alice exchanged a look with the manager, then went over to a table deep within the shop as if it were her own house.
She stopped at the last table in the back of the shop. It was poorly lit and had no windows nearby.
Was that her favourite seat?
She motioned him to sit in the chair, then sat down on the opposite side.
Real wooden chairs were rare, as were tables. They must have cost a fortune.
“Phew… I can finally relax.”
He ought to have been accustomed to plastic tables and chairs, but wood was much better for drinking black tea. It had some warmth.
Alice’s expression changed a little at Masaki’s words.
Her eyes, which had seemed to be staring into the distance the whole time, finally focused on Masaki.
“…This is Canaan’s worst fault… Since there are lots of students, almost all the shops are cheap and only use plastic teacups.”
“Does it bother you that much?”
“Completely. The teacup has to be ceramic.”
“Right! And it must be just the right weight. Plastic is too light and the shape is usually poor. My favorites are the cups with thin rims.”
Alice nodded in agreement. This might have been the first time that she showed her feelings so clearly.
“I feel dejected when I have to drink from a bulky, toy-like cup. And when it’s a shop that says it’s a specialist tea shop, I’m shocked into silence.”
“I hate it when they just dump the teabag into the pot. Why do they do that? It completely ruins the flavor of the tea.”
“That’s right, it ruins the tea.”
Masaki shrugged his shoulders and Alice touched her lip with a finger.
Perhaps that was her way of laughing.
“I wouldn’t expect you to be so particular about tea.”
“Hahaha, I don’t fit the image, do I? I like coffee shops and restaurants. I like to relax while taking in the atmosphere, and if the food is delicious, it makes me happy. I enjoy checking out various shops in my spare time.”
“Is that right?”
“…You really don’t fit the image.”
“Really? Even so, I’m also a good cook. ”
“…What is your forte?”
“I make a mean crème brûlée.”
“Ah… That’s a very elegant dish. Are you from a high-class family?”
“No, that has nothing to do with it…”
It was difficult for him to explain his hobby. He didn’t have a special story about how he got started.
“…When I was a child, I made pudding. I mixed the flour with water according to the recipe. It was too hard and it came out too sweet, but a friend ate it and said that it was delicious. After that, I started trying out other recipes and started to wonder what pudding sold in shops tasted like. What was the shop’s style? Eventually I became interested in the shops’ atmosphere and tableware.”
“However, it would be a stretch to say that I live to eat.”
Masaki laughed as if he had made a joke. However, Alice slowly shook her head.
“It isn’t a stretch… Teatime is the color of life and is life itself.”
“If we say that, is a life without color no different from death?”
“Ah… are you into poetry as well?”
“No, I’m no good with literature. I get a headache from trying to read long words. Deep meanings just fly over my head – the only things I like to read are menus full of delicious food.”
Alice fell silent.
Masaki tilted his head in confusion. He didn’t intend to say something offensive.
“…Kusunoki-kun doesn’t read, right?”
“Long words? That doesn’t mean I don’t read at all.”
“But the atmosphere…”
“What a weird thing to say, Clockheart-san. You can’t read things like air that you can’t see.”
“…What was that? You’re starting to annoy me. ”
The tea arrived just as Alice’s mouth rose into a pout. She hadn’t placed an order, so it seemed she was a regular customer.
An intricate green pattern was etched into the teacup and saucer placed before Masaki. He treated the cup delicately as he raised it to his lips. The strong aroma filled his nostrils, hinting at the tea’s quality. He could feel his excitement rising as he tilted the cup for a taste.
The flavor didn’t betray his expectations – it exceeded them. It touched his heart.
“Ah, this… this is amazing…”
“…Do you like it?”
“Of course! The taste is just as amazing as its container.”
“It’s a Wedgwood teacup. It seemed to match your tastes.”
“It’s been a long time since I’ve used something so beautiful.”
“Feel free to buy it if you like it. That goes for both the tea set and the tea leaves.”
“Oh, so they sell those, too?”
“I’m sure the price isn’t a big deal for you, but… the set costs about 60,000 JD.”
Her tone was casual despite the high price.
Masaki nearly dropped the teacup in surprise. He didn’t know the market prices in Academy City, but the average salary for a daily part-time job was about 10,000 JD (1).
“Hey, that’s more than my living costs!”
“You must be exaggerating… Kusunoki-kun, the tea that you’re drinking now costs 4,000 JD.”
He couldn’t believe his ears.
The tea was delicious, but that price couldn’t be right.
He was about to cry.
Alice lowered her voice. “…Could it be… does it cost too much for you?”
He nodded, speechless.
She silently sipped from her teacup, exhaled, and, for the first time, her emotionless mask was replaced with an expression that could be easily understood: a smile of delight.
“Ehehe… the best tea fetches the highest price.”
(1) – Japan dollar