Language Switcher

Cocytus novel

"Cocytus -Ballerina Under the Moonlight" Episode 1

 

"Cocytus. A river in the underworld of Greek mythology. A frozen hell that spares no traitors."

 

Syunka came to Italy under the direction of her superior, art director Ayaka Ohara.
"The client wants to host an exhibition on Dante's Divine Comedy. To do that, we need to purchase several artworks. Would you go to Italy?"
It started with this single, indisputable command.
"Alone?"
Syunka had traveled abroad several times as Ayaka's assistant. However, her duties had mainly been limited to hotel reservations and interpreting. Never had she selected and purchased artworks alone.
"The pieces you choose are always well received by our clients. Your background in ballet has given you a good aesthetic sense. Moreover, being overly knowledgeable can sometimes distance you from the general public's taste. It's better to have a moderate level of ignorance. And you can speak Italian, right? You can manage without an interpreter."
"But I hardly know anything about Dante's Divine Comedy."
"It's not such a difficult story. It's essentially a journey through hell. Isn't there something similar in Rakugo?"
"… Ah, yes, there is."
Understanding came quickly when she thought of it as a journey through hell. In Rakugo, sinners have their tongues pulled out or are forced to embrace burning pillars. The punishments are all gruesome. However, unlike Rakugo or Buddhism, in Dante's story, the protagonist is saved by his first love, making for a somewhat romantic ending.
"If you emphasize that, it might attract female visitors or couples on dates."
"So, not too hellish…"
"Choose something beautiful and with a sense of salvation."
With a charming smile that exuded mature allure, Ayaka, a woman in her forties, made the request. She herself was a walking piece of art. Dressed in a black pantsuit, adorned with gold necklaces and bracelets, she carried it all without a hint of ostentation. She wore black pointed-toe pumps—extremely slender stiletto heels—without stockings, and her slender yet commanding posture was striking. Most notably, despite her imposing appearance, she had a playful side.
Syunka hurriedly prepared for the suddenly decided trip to Italy.
She had indeed lived in Italy for about three years. It was during her time with a ballet company.
Ayaka had instructed her to show the prospective artworks remotely. Perhaps to save on interpreter costs, but Syunka had no objection.
She had built a respectable career as an art buyer. Her interest in art had deepened as she worked, exposed to various artworks.
Seeing the delighted faces of customers was more rewarding than she had expected.
Thus, in early May, Syunka once again set foot on Italian soil.

Syunka's destination was the old western town of Monte Luce, known for its auction house and as a gathering place for aspiring artists. Surrounded by rugged mountains, the town was overlooked by the "Rocca di Luce," an ancient castle that was more of a sturdy fortress than a romantic structure. The "Fortress of Light," as it was called, evoked a sense of hollow hope, standing isolated and seemingly abandoned by time, gazing down upon the town below.

The town's buildings, all with white walls, reflected the late afternoon sun beautifully, but the sunset quickly gave way to night. As dusk enveloped the town, the sound of the waves added to the pervasive sense of nostalgia. Monte Luce was a hidden gem for niche tourists, art buyers, and artists, drawn by its casinos and auctions. The casino bar "Il Santo della Forza" was particularly popular, often attracting even solo tourists.

Given that Syunka was traveling alone, her accommodation was carefully chosen for safety. She stayed at the apartment hotel "Hotel Paradiso," located close to the sea. Despite its name, which might conjure images of a lively paradise, the Hotel Paradiso, with its white exterior, had a more serene, villa-like atmosphere, perfect for a quiet stay.

The scent of double gardenia flowers, which seemed to have bloomed a bit early in May, warmly greeted Syunka. She loved gardenias so much that she had them embossed in silver on her business cards. The reception was manned by an elderly gentleman with distinguished gray hair, the manager of Hotel Paradiso.

He adjusted his vest with a silver scarf tucked into the breast pocket, impeccably dressed. After confirming Syunka's reservation, he spoke:

"Do you know Il Santo della Forza? It's a casino bar. Businesswomen like you and clueless tourists shouldn't get too close. It's run by Krane Gero..."

"Krane Gero?" Syunka inquired, unfamiliar with the name.

"It means 'ice clan.' A name you wouldn't hear from the underworld stepping into the limelight. It's natural you wouldn't know," he explained.

"They're Mafia. Capo August once used ice to eliminate another clan's capo and rose to power. That's when his clan began being called Gero. Casinos attract all sorts from around the world, but the shadow behind such glamorous places is usually shady."

"Sounds like something out of a movie," Syunka remarked.

"Japan has its own, the Yakuza, right? Similar all over, perhaps. Now, let me show you to your room."

The manager picked up Syunka's luggage, heading towards the third floor.

"It's the farthest room."

With few guests this time of year, they didn't pass anyone. During the tourist season, it was reasonably occupied.

The hallway had white walls with mahogany wainscoting, adorned with paintings and artworks at intervals, resembling a museum itself.

Syunka's room was opened.

Ivory walls with dark wood wainscoting, similar to the hallway but subtly different in design.

"Each room is a little different. We try not to disrupt the overall atmosphere. Do you like it?" the manager asked.

"Yes, very much," Syunka replied.

The manager unlocked the balcony door, letting in a breeze.

Linen curtains fluttered, carrying the scent of the sea.

"Anything too valuable to fit can be stored in the warehouse. Feel free to buy plenty of souvenirs," he offered unexpectedly.

It was a welcome offer. Artworks were bulky, and three-dimensional pieces would undoubtedly clutter the room.

"Thank you. I may take you up on that," Syunka replied.

"Here's the key," handed over an antique key with a pink ribbon.

"Thank you for the month," she said.

Alone in her room, Syunka lay down on the bed.

The bed frame was matte gold, with cream-colored sheets, elegantly feminine. A matching single-seat sofa, upholstered in white leather with a gold frame, complemented the décor.

There was also a large locker with a key, ensuring security was tight.

And a pleasant fragrance lingered.

Glancing around the room, she noticed a shelving unit above the unused fireplace, where double gardenias were arranged.

Their white petals were tightly curled like roses, softer and fresher in appearance, exuding a strong, sweet scent.

It was 9:00, likely 4:00 PM in Japan. Syunka promptly informed Ayaka of her arrival.

"Arrived safely. All good," she messaged.

"The auction's in two days," Ayaka reminded.

"I've been looking over the materials, and there are a few items catching my eye," Syunka replied, attaching image files for Ayaka to review.

"Starting with a portrait of Dante himself, then a grand painting of Paradiso," she explained.

"These should be popular," Ayaka commented.

"There's one more," Syunka added.

"The last one?" Ayaka pondered briefly. "It's a rare piece."

"Yes. It depicts Beatrice, but at first glance, it doesn't seem related to Dante's Divine Comedy... so I'm unsure."

"It's quite bright and powerful, almost like a depiction of Amaterasu in Japanese terms. It's quite striking."

"I've never seen it before. Is it by a newcomer?"

"No, it was discovered about sixty years ago, hidden in a private collection until estate clearing unearthed it," Syunka clarified.

"There are plenty of hidden masterpieces out there. Having a few like this can give an exhibition real meaning. It's intriguing. It might be good, don't you think?"

"Yes!" Syunka agreed enthusiastically.

As she finished the call with Ayaka, Francesca, the local coordinator, called.

"Ciao, Syunka. Sudden, I know, but I have something to show you. Would you like to have lunch?"

 

Francesca had curly black hair and distinctive features, a typical Italian woman. She wore a light coat with a blue floral scarf, matching the atmosphere of the photos sent via email.

She greeted Syunka with a smile at the café.

"Nice to meet you. I thought it might be too early for work," she began.

"I just arrived and was feeling so excited, so I'm glad you took me out. I also want to adjust to the time difference," Syunka replied.

"Thanks for saying that. You were in the ballet company, right? Our boss heard about it and really wants to hear your opinion. Here's something for you," Francesca said, handing over a ticket.

It was a ticket for the Modern Ballet Company, themed around Dante's Divine Comedy.

"Dante..." Syunka murmured.

"Yeah, I thought it would be perfect. The ballet company would love to hear your thoughts. Please! We want to expand our network," Francesca urged.

Syunka looked at the ticket, feeling a slight ache in her left leg.

When Syunka competed in the Lausanne competition at 18, she was scouted by an Italian ballet company and joined for about three years. Those days were emotionally taxing. It wasn't the ballet company's fault; at that time, the glamour seemed out of sync with her reality.

She caught her breath at the sound of a motorcycle starting, lifting her gaze.

Francesca's eyes sparkled as she asked, "Are you tired?"

Her comforting words made Syunka feel vulnerable.

In the end, Syunka realized she was lacking in knowledge about Dante. It would be good to at least grasp the basics, especially since it was related to work. Francesca had gone out of her way to invite her. Refusing wouldn't be wise.

"Yeah... It might be nice to see ballet again after so long," Syunka replied.

"Really? Thank you, Syunka. Please share your thoughts. We were also talking about possibly guiding Japanese tourists to the night show," Francesca said.

"I'm not sure how much help I can be..."

Francesca reached out and took Syunka's hand.

"These are tickets for tomorrow, so it's short notice. Dress comfortably, maybe a dress that suits the hotel lounge and heels will be fine," she said.

"Yeah... Got it," Syunka nodded.

 

The light flashed on suddenly.

She raised her hand in a structured manner, fingers unfolding like petals, extending her arms. Dropping her chest to the floor, she softened her back and lifted her legs—then came the sound of tires screeching.

An unpleasant burnt rubber smell and the sensation of losing sight of gravity.

Sharp pain shot through her left leg.

Gasping, her throat parched, she opened her eyes to find herself in a foreign room with swaying navy curtains.

Syunka pressed her forehead and regulated her breathing.

(Seen it after a long time...)

It was a nightmare she hadn't seen in years... no, a dream reliving the accident.

She rubbed her now-healed left leg and opened the pamphlet for the modern ballet. The face of the lead performer was prominently featured.

Lorenzo, the principal, was a renowned ballet dancer even within Italy's ballet troupe. Formerly a classical ballet dancer, he expanded his repertoire from light comedies to mythological themes to make them more enjoyable for a wider audience a few years ago.

Syunka didn't know him personally, but she knew about him.

He was a living genius.

But behind his glamorous ballet performances was a person who worked hard, almost to the point of shedding blood.

As the appointed time approached, Syunka chose a wine-red dress that Francesca had suggested would be suitable even for the hotel.

Since it was still chilly on the May night, she carried a shawl and got into a taxi.

The theater was situated on top of a hill, and upon getting out of the taxi, Syunka was greeted by posters of Lorenzo as Dante.

From the deep navy that evoked Hell, a gradient flowed gradually into white and gold as if light was filling up.

Dante was reaching out to Beatrice at the top.

This, too, was a form of art. Syunka made a note to inquire if she could have a poster.

Soon, Francesca appeared and rushed over to greet Syunka with enthusiasm.

"I'm glad you came! Actually, Lorenzo wants to meet you. But he prefers to talk after hearing your opinions."

"Lorenzo?"

"Yes! Come on, let's go."

She never expected to be sought out for her opinions by Lorenzo himself.

He was clearly on a higher level. It would be presumptuous to offer opinions to him.

Syunka thought so, but before she knew it, the stage had already begun.

"The troubled Dante wanders into a dark forest. There, he mistakenly enters Hell and is guided by a sage named Virgil," explained Ayaka.

She provided this explanation because Syunka, unfamiliar with the content of the Divine Comedy exhibition, had asked for clarification before departing.

"It's about what kind of punishment awaits sinners when they commit sins. This is Dante's journey through Hell. Virgil imparts wisdom to Dante while observing the sinners. For Dante, Virgil is a revered Roman sage."

"So, Virgil wasn't a Christian?"

"That's right. Hence, it goes like this: non-Christians are burned in the fires of Hell. There are mixed opinions on this concept, but at the very least, respect for art must be maintained."

However, neither of them seemed particularly interested in this.

"It's said Japan has no religion, but that's not true; it's rather open-minded towards religions."

"So, Virgil, being a non-Christian, is explaining this and guiding Dante?"

"That's correct. Dante holds admirable values. It's remarkable how he reveres a figure who isn't a Christian."

"Would it be fair to say that people of that time, even if they were non-Christians, still respected outstanding individuals?"

"I hope so. And if that sentiment still survives today, it's something to promote."

As Ayaka explained, Dante embarked on his journey guided by Virgil.

Lorenzo, with his toned physique, portrayed anguish and gradually regained vitality under Virgil's guidance.

Syunka felt a cold pain in her left leg and unconsciously clenched her teeth.

To the weighty, dissonant sounds incorporating her toes tapped to their own rhythm.

(He's remarkable. Not just his expressive power, but his passion for expressing through ballet.)

Offering an opinion still felt presumptuous.

She exhaled to ease the tightness in her chest and relaxed her tense posture.

Dante crossed the icy Hell with Virgil and eventually reached Heaven.

Beatrice awaited Dante.

The petite ballerina, adorned in a costume layered with light-like wings, danced around him, taking Dante's hand as he showed his final hesitation.

The sound of bells, the play of lights.

They finally entered Paradiso, and the curtain fell—applause resounded.

It was an impeccable performance.

 

 

It seemed Lorenzo had wanted to meet Syunka, but unfortunately, a rush of other visitors had made that impossible. Instead, Francesca bombarded Syunka with questions.

"As a professional ballerina, how did it look from the audience? How did you feel about it as an art professional? Any points for improvement?"

Syunka answered each question carefully. "During the turns, I felt the costume might have been a bit too light. For a depiction of Hell, something slightly heavier might be more appropriate... But the dance itself was flawless. There's nothing to critique."

Francesca summarized these points and headed towards Lorenzo's dressing room. Syunka was left alone.

Italian filled the air around her, with Syunka being the only Japanese person present. She had heard this wasn't a major tourist spot, yet the absence of festivity surprised her. In this era of rich international exchange, one might assume there would be more excitement.

Even in Japan, it was rare to go a day without seeing foreigners on the streets. She felt sporadic gazes from men, likely surprised by her presence.

Lost in these thoughts, she noticed a tall man with a soft smile looking her way.

"Buonasera. I have a question for you," he said unexpectedly in fluent Japanese.

His smile was warm, but his sharp amber eyes left a stronger impression. They were intense, not allowing any distraction, exuding a strength that commanded attention. Yet, there was a delicacy about him, a depth that made one want to gaze into them.

With a well-defined masculine face, slightly tan skin, and dark brown hair swept back, his muscular build gave him the air of a lone wolf, yet he also carried himself like a gentleman in his dress shirt. This imbalance emitted an exquisite charm.

There was something exotic about his features—was he of Asian descent mixed with Western heritage?

"What can I help you with?" Syunka asked.

"Are you intentionally putting them together like that?" His voice was deep, almost resonant, sending a warmth through her body—

 

She collapsed onto the bed and took out a business card.

"Nathan Blackmore."

It was definitely his name written there. As she traced his name with her finger, a tingling sensation spread around her chest. He was not unpleasant—rather, a smart and undeniably charming man.

(Was that a pickup attempt?)

But she didn't sense any ulterior motives. Or was that what a pickup was supposed to be like? Relationships were a field Syunka was unfamiliar with.

It was 10 PM local time, which meant 3 PM in Japan. It shouldn't be inconvenient to contact him now. Syunka impulsively texted her friend.

Her friend replied, saying she was free and suggested they talk on Zoom. Syunka immediately opened her laptop.

"Hey, Syunka! So, you're in Italy? That's amazing! You've really made it big."

"Izumi-chan, I missed you."

Seeing her friend's face on the screen instantly eased Syunka's earlier tension.

Izumi had been Syunka's friend since their student days. She was now married and settled, but back then, she had been quite the fashionista.

"So, how's Italy? Is the food delicious?"

"I haven't had a chance to explore yet. Just been talking with people related to work."

"Oh, wow. I've never done a job like that. Aren't you nervous talking to people from overseas?"

"When you meet them, you realize they're just regular people. They're easygoing."

"That's great! By the way, I'm expecting souvenirs."

"Already? I'm thinking about it. I'll also look for something suitable for the baby."

Izumi was pregnant. Although her due date was still a bit away, it meant she spent a lot of time at home.

"How are you feeling, Izumi-chan?"

"I'm good, actually. I can go out, it's fine. But my husband worries."

"He sounds like a good husband."

"What about you? Have you had any encounters that make you crave gelato?"

"Gelato?"

"Roman Holiday! Haven't you heard of it?"

It was a classic film, but Syunka hadn't heard of it.

"I'm not in Rome, though..."

"No, no. If you're in Italy, it's all about the gelato at the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, and the Mouth of Truth!"

"I see. Oh, Audrey Hepburn, right? Sounds like an interesting movie."

"Yeah, right? Meeting a handsome guy who shows you around."

Thinking of handsome men, Syunka remembered something.

"Hey, what do you think about pickup attempts?"

"Huh?"

"Aren't pickup attempts usually about sex?"

Izumi bluntly stated.

"Sex, huh..."

"Were you approached for a pickup attempt?"

"A stranger approached me, we talked, exchanged contacts. Should I be suspicious?"

As Syunka explained, Izumi smirked.

"What was he like?"

"Well... Oh, yeah, he looked like that actor from the zombie drama. Cyril, right?"

"Japanese?"

"No, overseas. He played Cyril."

Izumi took out her smartphone and started searching. Finding the actor, she raised her eyebrows, impressed.

"He's handsome, isn't he? Quite rugged. How old is he?"

"In his thirties, I think... Older than me. And he seemed quite sophisticated. Said he's a consultant. The dress shirt suited him well."

"You had a good impression? Hmm, Syunka showing interest in a man... That's rare."

"What do you think I should do?"

"If you want to stay in touch, go for it."

Izumi was straightforward. After all, she was a love hunter who never let her prey escape.

"He seems like the type who might rush into sex. Be careful to figure him out."

"Izumi-chan... Can you phrase that a bit more delicately?"

 

Since he was a consultant, it could be part of his networking efforts for work. Yet, he had handwritten contact details on the back of the business card, apart from the office number. Well, consultants do sometimes make such gestures, she reasoned.

Syunka pondered various thoughts, unsure why it intrigued her so.

Despite her curiosity, she headed to the auction.

In the tense atmosphere, buyers, agents, and private clients first examined the items up for auction.

Syunka aimed for the three she had also targeted for Ayaka.

Both Dante and Paradiso were suitable for exhibition.

Indeed, feet halted and people consulted swiftly with their phones or companions.

Syunka, too, discussed the pieces with Ayaka as they looked.

Soon, the auction began, prompting everyone to take their seats.

Syunka sat at the assigned seat number and faced the front.

The items were presented as the auctioneer progressed.

Sharp voices of bidders and the sound of bids being announced filled the air.

The amounts exchanged were staggering.

As expected, the price of Dante's painting soared rapidly.

Syunka raised her hand multiple times, but the quiet venue threatened to swallow her in its intense, blue-flame-like fervor if she let her guard down.

The highest bid was announced again, and some patrons sighed, sinking back into their chairs.

On the other end of her smartphone, Ayaka also remarked, "It's too much now."

The bidding concluded.

It went into the hands of an Italian tycoon.

Next was Paradiso. Its fate was sealed early on.

It was purchased by an Italian art museum.

Finally, Beatrice, painted with gold leaf, made her appearance.

Not simple gold, but with dull hues seeping through, intricate textures meticulously crafted to reveal shadows under the play of light.

Beatrice's captivating eyes drew Syunka in effortlessly.

"Let's begin," the auctioneer announced.

Simultaneously, Syunka raised her hand.

"I'd like you not to send the purchased items right away, I want to take a good look at them first," Ayaka said, so Syunka arranged for them to be sent to "Hotel Paradiso".

"There are also cameos available. Not for auction, but from private collections, lending them would be fine," Syunka added.

"That's wonderful. The posters you sent were great too. Were you able to get them?" Ayaka inquired.

"Yes. I'm recording the stage performances on Blu-ray, so I'll include those too," Syunka replied.

"Good. It's nice to have something to sit down and enjoy occasionally. You did well today. Dante and Paradiso didn't work out, but we still had some good acquisitions here, so I'm satisfied," Ayaka remarked.

"Not 'completely' satisfied, though," Syunka responded.

"Well, presentation matters," Ayaka mused, her mind already filled with ideas for exhibiting at the exhibition.

She mentioned that it's a part of showcasing her skills as a director, enjoyable despite the pressure.

After ending the call, Syunka realized her heart was pounding with excitement. It dawned on her that this was her first time participating in an auction. Although she missed out on two, she successfully acquired Beatrice. She felt quite exhilarated.

It was still early evening, having skipped lunch, her stomach growled. Not knowing any nearby eateries, Syunka decided to check the lobby for a map.

As she headed there, her phone rang. It was an unknown number—or so she thought. Upon checking, it was actually his number.

Taking out his business card, confirming it was indeed his, her heart raced like a church bell.

What should she do—her finger reached out to the button, trembling involuntarily, pressing the answer button against the handrail she didn’t expect to find.

"Oh!" A rather silly voice escaped her. Syunka quickly cleared her throat.

"Hello?"

Her voice came out slightly hoarse.

She could hear him chuckle lightly through the phone.

"Hello. Bad timing?"

"No, um... Do you need something?"

"I thought maybe we could grab coffee. My treat."

At that moment, Syunka's stomach growled loudly.

 

"I actually skipped lunch," Syunka found herself making excuses. It was embarrassing to have her stomach rumbling in front of a professional acquaintance she had just met.

"Was there something going on?" Nathan asked.

"I was at an auction and got caught up..." Syunka admitted.

"Getting excited, were you? And forgot about it?" Nathan chuckled. "Let's drop the formalities. I do the same."

Nathan guided her to a casual restaurant where he nibbled on snacks. Unlike before, he wore a relaxed linen t-shirt and faded jeans, perfect for early summer.

"That suit of yours screams 'businesswoman'," he commented.

Syunka was in a matte black pantsuit with a silk shirt, her go-to for making an impression and not being outdone by her surroundings.

"Looks tough," Nathan remarked.

"Do you have businesswomen among your clients?" Syunka asked.

"I do. They're sophisticated and poised," Nathan replied.

"That's impressive. I wish I had that poise too."

"You seem to have it," Nathan observed.

"Calling you Nathan... It's tricky, isn't it?"

"Nathan-san is more awkward, isn't it?"

"Yeah, maybe..."

They both laughed unintentionally.

As Syunka cut into her omelette-shaped pizza, steam rose, carrying the aroma of meat sauce.

"It looks delicious. I didn't know anything around here."

Despite being told it was meat sauce, the taste was unexpectedly light. It resembled pork cooked in white wine, rich with the sweetness of onions, and a hint of herbs in olive oil that moistened her throat.

"It's delicious," she nodded repeatedly.

"Enjoying it?"

"Very much."

"What did you bid on at the auction?"

"I'm planning a Divine Comedy exhibition. So, I bid on Beatrice's painting. That's all I could get, but my boss said he was 'satisfied'. Not a perfect score, though."

"You didn't hit the 'great' mark?"

"I might try asking if I can borrow it... but chances are slim."

"Sometimes just talking about it might unexpectedly lead to results..."

"Is that networking?"

"Yeah, that's how it works. Offering half the price or a percentage of the exhibition's sales might make them more willing to lend it. If both parties see value in it, there's hope."

"That's impressive. Is there anything else you can offer?"

"There could be various options, but it's about finding common ground on terms and duration."

"Communication is key?"

"Yeah, listening is more effective."

Syunka was leaning forward now, almost wanting to take notes if it weren't for the meal.

"You're enthusiastic. Do you love your job?"

"...Maybe. I find it very rewarding."

"That's good. Many people frown upon their jobs."

"I'm lucky. My boss is wonderful."

"I don't think it's just luck."

"Oh?"

"Yeah. Connections happen. Even if it's a fleeting bond, it may still hold some meaning."

"Why do you think that?"

"Maybe because I've been lucky too."

Nathan deftly evaded deeper discussion with humor.

He had a sense of humor, yet Syunka sensed a wall that made approaching him daunting.

After their late lunch, Nathan drove Syunka back.

There were marks on his arms that peeked out from his long sleeves, resembling scars.

"Syunka, could we meet up occasionally during your stay?"

It was more an invitation than a question.

For a brief moment, Syunka held her breath and looked at him. He remained facing forward, his amber eyes unseen.

"Um... How should I..."

Nathan didn't rush her.

The sun was still on the horizon.

Nathan dropped Syunka off at a nearby bus stop without asking where she was staying.

"Nathan... I'd like to see you again."

"Yeah."

"Oh, here's the lunch money."

Syunka pulled out her wallet, but Nathan showed his teeth as he smiled.

"It's fine. Consider it my thanks for your time."

 

"To be continued"→"Cocytus -Ballerina Under the Moonlight" Episode 2

 

 

 

 

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