It was just after dusk when our ride rolled silently in through the gates of the Castle. Tiffany had called in a Rube driver to take us to the restaurant. It was one of the fancy black cars that cost like twice as much, to boot. I would have preferred to pay for myself, but Tiffany had lots of money and an equal amount of willingness to show it off.
The sleek, opulent car pulled up at the now-lonely registration point outside; the Castle’s event staff and the industry talent scouts had cleared out hours ago. They would inevitably come back for the next few days in which the other waves of magical girls travelling from greater distances would be dropped off for the rest of this week, but right now the campus grounds were eerily quiet as we got in the car together. The Asphalt Castle was located in the middle of South-Central Los Cosmopilas, but that first night after Orientation always stood out in my memory like a weird kind of camping experience. Those thoughts stewed as we rode across the main lane leading from the campus grounds.
“Hey Tiffany, if you tried to break out of the Asphalt Castle, how would you do it?”
“Break out!? Like a prison!? Why would you want to break out?”
“No, I was just meaning, like, hypothetically. Just remembering the first night a decade ago and how new it all felt, I remember almost kind of thinking about how a sort of prison break from the Castle would go if any of the girls would ever try it. Not that I ever actually wanted to.”
“The ways out from the dorm would usually require the girls crossing through the Grand Foyer, which is one of the most camera-laden rooms in the entire Castle. I don’t think any girl would be breaking out anytime soon. Why would they want to, anyway? It’s a literal castle.”
“No, I just—I just thought it’d be fun to think about. And princesses being trapped in castle towers is a fairy tale trope, locked up by witches or dragons or something, right?”
“Well it’s not that kind of castle. It’s a good kind of castle, isn’t it, Ellery?”
“Yeah. I just thought it would be funny to think about. Sorry if it sounded weird.”
Tiffany spent her time concerned with practical, real-world things rather than hypothetical fancies. At the very least she was able to impress me with her knowledge about the layout and security of the Castle; she clearly had more insider info about it than just an alum like me. The place can be nothing short of a sprawling maze to the uninitiated; who knows how many secret passages, rooms, and gods know what else she was clued in on.
That thought was bookended by Tiffany’s asking our chauffeur to turn on the radio, which prompted a light and upbeat fare of City Pop to guide us as we drove past the sprawling South-Central homeless camps that were now too dark to see. This music continued until ultimately arriving at the hibachi place in Highland Hills. The place looked classy as tits, and the maître-d welcomed Tiffany by name, sat us down at an expensive, red velvet booth, and asked what we wanted to drink. She ordered the most ridiculous cocktail I’d ever heard of—a blue gin martini with a twist of purple sugar apple. (I remember thinking, ‘what even is sugar apple?’ I still don’t know.) I just got a soda with whiskey before looking through the menu. It was the sort of place where the miso soup was twelve dollars and the edamame was twenty; the kind of place where you instinctively consider just getting an appetizer as your entire meal. But I didn’t need to worry about that instinct; my guest was happy to be paying, even if it made me a little uncomfortable.
“My family and I came here often when I was a little girl. This was actually where my mom Karen got taken on a lot of dates by my dad when they were dating,” Tiffany smiled, sentimentally.
“Well, I’m sure you’ll start coming here with a cute boyfriend one day too, Tiffany!”
Tiffany burst out in a giggle, kind of looking down at her menu.
“Hahaha…yeah, I bet I will one day.”
She tapped her fingers on the candlelit table, then sighed and looked at me with a more serious tone. I was barely paying attention, engrossed in reading about $40 sushi rolls.
“Anyway…Starvocal and some of the other agencies recently launched their own independent investigation about what happened with Bailey. Not all of the details are public just yet, but do you want me to tell you how we think it went down?” Tiffany asked, noticeably more solemn.
“I read the articles about it last weekend, but I don’t know a lot of the specifics of the situation. Some people in the area thought it was apparently the yakuza or something?”
“Yeah, the details of what we kind of know now are crazy. Everything about it is crazy.”
She began telling me the account of Bailey’s attack, what little was known about it and how sudden it happened. Just hearing the details was making me uncomfortable; if this kind of attack could just suddenly happen to Bailey, it could happen to any magical girl for any reason. Bailey was always the cheeriest girl anyone could ask for; why would someone do this to her? Was there something about her influencer career I didn’t get that would enable this? I didn’t like how many questions there were and how few answers. The suspected yakuza were still at large.