What could possibly cause a teacher to ignore a talented, elite student, who had come all the way from the Far East, in favor of praising a perpetual truant as a genius?
Kazuya pondered this as he walked along the campus road.
The sulky expression on his face notwithstanding, his conscientious nature compelled him to carry out his task of delivering the notes to the library. He walked through school grounds which were lavishly arrayed in the form of a French garden. A lush, inviting lawn spread out in between fountains, flower beds, and streams that were placed here and there. Kazuya trudged down a path lined with white gravel that ran beside the lawn.
He arrived at a substantially built structure that was hidden behind the main campus buildings.
This was St. Marguerite’s Library.
Huge bookshelves lined every wall in a square, hollow building. Looking up from the central atrium, he saw a sublime piece of religious art painted on the ceiling far above. Below it was a narrow wooden staircase that twined itself from bookshelf to bookshelf, twisting precariously upward like an enormous labyrinth.
According to legend, the early seventeenth century king who founded the school deliberately constructed this library in the form of a maze in order to hide a room at the very top that he used to rendezvous with his lover.
But now this library was shrouded in silence. The tangible scent of dust, mildew, and knowledge hung in the air.
Kazuya lifted his gaze, overcome by a feeling of reverence. And then…
Near the ceiling, he saw something that resembled a golden belt dangling in the air.
…What could that be?
For a moment, he cocked his head in puzzlement. Then he began to ascend the labyrinthine stairs.
They stretched from wall to wall. Taking careful steps, he slowly ascended closer and closer to the ceiling. It was like walking a tightrope. He trembled as he climbed the narrow stairs, taking care not to look down.
Growing more exhausted by the minute, he grumbled to himself indignantly, Why do I have to come all the way over here for the sake of some truant failure of a student…. But before he knew it, he found the dangling golden belt right before his eyes.
He saw a thin white column of smoke drift to the ceiling.
Kazuya hesitantly took the final step.
And found himself in a garden.
Surprisingly enough, the very top of the library was in fact a conservatory thick with vegetation. A soothing glow emanated from skylights, illuminating the plants as they swayed in a gentle breeze. Contrary to the legend of the king’s secret rendezvous, here there was merely a sunlit, and empty, room.
Someone had placed a large porcelain doll on the landing of the stairs to the conservatory, as if abandoning it there.
It was a marvelous doll, close to life-sized at around one hundred and forty centimeters. It wore a black dress with plush velvet frills billowing out from waist to hem in countless layers, like a small, unearthly flower blooming at dusk. From underneath a white headdress, embroidered with roses and lace ribbons, flowed long, splendid blond hair, spilling down to the floor as if it were a velvet turban come undone.
The profile of her face revealed a cold sort of beauty, ambiguous in whether it belonged to an adult or a child.
This exquisite doll strewn on the landing of the stairs was coolly, languidly, smoking a pipe.
…A doll smoking a pipe?!
Suddenly, the doll … no, the girl, slowly opened her mouth. “So, it wasn’t enough that you were late to class, but on top of that, you’ve decided to come play truant in the library? Of course, you may do as you wish, but at least go somewhere else so that you aren’t in my way.”
She closed her mouth just as slowly.
Kazuya gasped, startled at the unexpected sound of a husky voice, akin to that of an old woman. There was an astonishing disparity between her appearance and her voice. Her delicate body, which was enveloped in frills and lace as gorgeous as anyone could dream of, was so tiny that one couldn’t imagine that it had been born into this world more than a few years ago. But her voice sounded as mature as someone who had already lived for decades….
The girl paid no heed to Kazuya, who stood staring dazedly at her cold and beautiful form, so perfect that she could easily be mistaken for a doll. She returned to silently smoking her pipe, saying nothing more.
At last, Kazuya recovered his composure. “Huh? … Might you be Victorique, by any chance?”
There was no answer. He continued hesitantly, “If you are, then, I’m supposed to give these these notes to you….”
The girl—Victorique—wordlessly extended her hand.
Kazuya took a few steps forward, and held out the stack of notes to her. In the still atmosphere, his footsteps sounded startlingly loud, causing him to wince instinctively. Feeling like a oafish intruder into a tranquil paradise, he blushed despite himself.
And he quietly observed her.
…So that delinquent turned out to be a girl. And an incredible beauty at that. I even thought she was a doll at first. But she somehow seems like … no, she definitely is … a very strange kid.
Still puffing away on her pipe, she stretched out her unoccupied hand to receive the notes. Then this peculiar girl abruptly parted her small, cherry-red lips. “By the way, who the devil are you?”
“Huh?” Kazuya shrank back, then blushed again without knowing why. “I’m … Kujou. I’m in the same class as you. Although we’ve never met before.”
“So you’re an Oriental.”
At this, the girl inexplicably smirked. The sudden transformation of her chilly facial expression seemed positively maniacal. The effect made Kazuya shudder.
She gleefully continued in a husky murmur. “I see. I suppose this makes you the ‘reaper who comes in spring,’ then.”
“…Huh?” Kazuya stumbled at the unfamiliar phrase.
The girl grinned. “Oh, you didn’t know? It’s something to do with this decrepit, superstitious school. One of its many inane ghost stories. ‘The traveler who comes in spring brings death to the school.’ Don’t ask me why, but the students here love their ghost stories. And you make eminently suitable material for one. At any rate, the end result is that everyone is afraid of you and no one would dare approach you.”
Kazuya stood rooted to the ground, momentarily dumbstruck.
He felt the sensation of a gaping hole forming in his heart.
In his mind’s eye, he could visualize himself sitting in the classroom alone, the young aristocrats keeping their distance from him as they whispered amongst themselves. He thought of the way the boy sitting in the seat next to him always found an excuse to leave whenever Kazuya tried to talk to him, as if he were trying to escape… These scenes and more flashed through his mind.
For the past half year, no matter how much he agonized over the fact that he couldn’t make any friends, he never could have imagined that the cause would be some superstition like this.
Kazuya felt his mood souring. “But, but that makes no sense. I mean, it was months ago that I came here. It was in autumn. See, how do you explain that?”
The girl’s profile warped into a sneer. “Hmm, is that so?”
“Well, as far as they’re concerned, it doesn’t matter either way. After all, a black-haired Oriental of few words is an ideal fit for the image of the Grim Reaper.”
Kazuya froze in shock. But the girl didn’t bother to make the slightest glance in his direction. Her face revealed nothing more than her usual coldness.
For a minute, he glared at her. Her expression was dispassionate and unyielding, on the verge of defiance, the sort of face he had grown thoroughly sick of in the months since he had come to Sauvure. In her countenance, he recognized the haughty attitude peculiar to the aristocracy.
Kazuya suddenly felt a combination of unease and resentment. His negative feelings against the upper-class society that he had worked so hard to fit into began to bubble up and seethe in his chest.
He turned back toward the labyrinthine staircase.
His feet had already descended a few steps when something occurred to him.
Kazuya stopped and looked back at the girl, then addressed her in a low voice. “Say … um, Victorique.”
“…What do you want?” she responded, as if it were hugely bothersome for her to do so.
Undeterred, Kazuya asked, “How did you know I was late for class?”
The girl sneered. “Hmph. It’s very simple. An overflowing wellspring of wisdom told it to me.”
“And what does that mean…?”
“It happened something like this,” Victorique said, raising her husky voice triumphantly. “Kujou, I have determined that you are a methodical, damnably earnest, bore of a man.”
“And yet, what has happened to your necktie? It ought to be neatly in place around your neck, but one can see that it has been shoved into your pocket instead. For this reason, I have deduced that you likely had to leave your dormitory in a rush.”
Kazuya instinctively touched his hand to his neck. True to her words, the tie that should have been neatly in place was missing. Instead, it was stuffed into his pocket, still untied.
“And then, there’s that smell,” Victorique continued.
“Huh? What smell?”
“Yes, the savory smell of bread. Why would you be carrying bread around with you when lunch is still hours away? In other words, if we look in your other pocket…”
Kazuya put his hand into the pocket that did not contain the necktie, and pulled out the sandwich that the housemother had shoved inside when he left the dormitory. It had been mostly squashed, but still smelled good.
“The breakfast you should have already eaten is still in your pocket. From this, we can tell that you were running late. That is all. Do you understand now?”
Seemingly tired of talking, Victorique stretched, and opened her mouth widely in a weary yawn. Her small body elongated to a surprising span, the movement reminiscent of a stretching kitten. The slightest trace of teardrops collected in the corners of her eyes. Following this, she began to lazily smoke her pipe once more.
Then she noticed Kazuya staring at her curiously, much the way one would stare at some unidentifiable object. She shrugged her shoulders helplessly. “Hey! This is quite bothersome … but I shall explain it to you in greater detail.”
“I am honing my senses.”
“And so, using this ‘wellspring of wisdom’ of mine, I take fragments that I have collected from the chaos of the world and amuse myself with them to pass the time.”
“Chaos…? Fragments? Wellspring of wisdom?”
“Correct. Would it be easier for you to understand if I were to say that I reconstruct them?”
“Occasionally, when I’m in the mood, I may even articulate the process so that a mediocre person like you may also understand.”
“Oh, how bothersome it is to explain such things. Well … do you understand now?”
Still completely bewildered, Kazuya couldn’t think of anything to say in response.
But he did feel a little put out.
What’s with this attitude of hers. And I don’t quite understand what she’s talking about…. Well, at least it’s true that her deduction was correct. As much as I’m reluctant to admit it, this “wellspring of wisdom” or whatever it is seems to be pretty effective. But still, why does she have to be so…
Kazuya was growing steadily more exasperated. Victorique’s aloof, disdainful manner was on the verge of becoming completely unbearable, especially coming from a failing student who wouldn’t even bother to come to class.
Thoroughly irritated, Kazuya began his rebuttal. “But what about you? Aren’t you late for class and here to play truant, too? And you dare make fun of me for that? That’s completely unfair!”
“Hmph.” Victorique snickered scornfully. “I’m not like you.”
“And how are you different?”
“I’m not late. I’ve been here all day.”
Kazuya frowned. “What does that mean? What on earth have you been doing here all by yourself?”
Kazuya took one step up the stairs.
Only now did he notice the curious sight surrounding Victorique as she sat flat on the ground of the conservatory.
Countless open books were placed on the floor, radiating around her in all directions. Books in Latin, books of advanced mathematics, classical literature, biology… Any one of them on its own would have been fearsomely difficult to decipher. Kazuya gasped.
This girl… Don’t tell me she’s reading all of those simultaneously? Now that I think of it, during this whole time that she’s been smoking her pipe and talking to me, I saw her stretch out her hand from time to time. That must’ve been her turning the pages. And as she was reading, at the same time she was still able to make deductions based on my behavior!
Kazuya felt a sudden chill race down his spine as Miss Cécile’s mellifluous voice replayed in his head. Actually, that child is a genius, you know….
For a moment, he gazed at her in awe. She continued skimming through the esoteric-looking books, a remarkably listless and disinterested expression on her face.
Without quite understanding why, Kazuya was beginning to feel increasingly combative toward this strange, brilliant girl and her surly disdain. He decided that he would try to throw her off guard.
“But I’m sure you could never guess the reason I was late, could you?”
There was a beat of silence.
Then, for the first time, Victorique lifted her head to face him directly.
And Kazuya felt his heart skip a beat.
Large, shining-green eyes gazed at him. Like some mystical jewel, they sparkled with an otherworldly glow, bathing her corner of the empty garden with shimmering light. Their contrast with her long, vibrantly lustrous blond hair pierced him through his chest.
And that indescribable visage filled with a profound sadness, as if she were an old woman who had lived for far too long…
Unexpectedly, Kazuya felt his heart shaken to its core. For reasons that were unclear even to himself, he found the sensation infuriating.
Struggling to regain his senses, he took a deep breath. “Actually, it’s because of a murder case.”
He heard a soft plopping sound.
The pipe fell from Victorique’s mouth.
It had fallen on top of her sumptuously frilly dress. Kazuya hastily retrieved it, brushing off her lap with his other hand, checking to make sure no ash had spilled out. Victorique parted her thin lips, jutting them out as if asking him to place the pipe in its original position. He gently inserted the pipe back inside. In reaction to Kazuya’s instinctive gesture of gentlemanly assistance, she paused, frowning at him suspiciously.
Finally, she removed the pipe from her mouth and said, “Huh!”
Kazuya grimaced. Without realizing it, he had calmed down enough to sit on the floor next to her. “And that’s all you have to say?!” he grumbled.
“…Would you rather I say something like, ‘no less from the Grim Reaper’?”
For a moment, Kazuya felt abashed. Then he collected himself, and said, “Now you listen here! You ought to know that I was in serious trouble this morning. I was a witness to a murder case, and treated like a criminal by some police inspector with a weird hairstyle!”
“Mmm? An inspector with a weird hairstyle?” An odd expression crossed Victorique’s face, but by that time Kazuya was too agitated to notice.
“…What if I end up actually getting convicted as a murderer. I don’t want to be hanged to death in a foreign land. Or what if I get deported back to my home country? … Oh, why did this have to happen, when I’ve done nothing but study as diligently as possible these past few months…. This is just terrible!”
“…A police inspector with a weird hairstyle, you said?”
Puzzled, Kazuya looked up at her and nodded. “Yes. Why do you ask?”
Victorique’s lips curled in a fiendish smile. As she smirked, she took a vigorous puff on her pipe, then exhaled audibly.
A line of white smoke floated toward the ceiling.
In a split-second, her entire demeanor changed as if something had suddenly piqued her interest, and she turned around to face Kazuya. “Tell me what happened. I will reconstruct the chaos for you.”
Victorique snapped back impatiently, “I am telling you that I am going to use my wellspring of wisdom to help you.”
“…Why?” Baffled by the sudden smirk that appeared on Victorique’s face, he gave the tiny, beautiful girl a skeptical glance.
Victorique replied in a clear and distinct voice, with no trace of hesitation. “To relieve my boredom, of course.”
Victorique dragged a summary of the day’s events out of Kazuya, despite his reluctance to tell her. His agitation from earlier had evaporated from his body, and now he was left hanging his head in utter dejection. It was all thanks to what Victorique had said.
“Tell me not only what you saw, but also what you were thinking at the time. Describe everything in detail, down to the hole in your ass.”
“N-no way. I can’t tell you everything I was thinking. A gentleman should be allowed a few playful secrets….”
“If you’re a gentleman, then I’m a goddess. Enough with your pointless, idiotic excuses. Now, speak!”
Startled by Victorique’s sharp tongue, Kazuya’s mind froze, and he was unable to resist her. He had never been spoken to by a woman in such a intimidating way. In the country where he had grown up, he was used to women being much more reserved and obedient creatures.
And thus he found himself giving her every intimate detail about his daydream that he had sworn to never reveal to anyone, about an “ideal encounter” with “his very own girl.” Naturally, this was the first time in his fifteen years of existence that he had ever told anyone about this kind of fantasy. As he spoke, he sank further and further down into the deepest depths of shame. To borrow an expression that his father would often use, it felt as if the ball containing his soul had been stolen. He clasped his arms around his knees and bowed his head.
“…So that’s how it is. I get the idea now.” Victorique smoked her pipe and nodded as if thoroughly satisfied. She showed no indication of acknowledging Kazuya’s despair.
And then she uttered something particularly cruel.
“What that inspector with the weird hairstyle said makes plenty of sense now.”
Kazuya recovered his senses with a jolt. He thought he could feel a little bit of his soul reenter his body. “How can you say such a thing?! I absolutely did not—”
“Think about it. First of all, it’s impossible to jump on a motorbike while it’s in motion and cut someone’s head off. It would have likewise been impossible for someone to have quickly jumped off the bike after committing the crime. That’s because, when you encountered the bike right after it had crashed into the wall, there was no one else but you at the scene of the crime.”
Kazuya nodded. “Yeah, that’s right. It’s true that nobody else was there.”
“So, when could the crime have been committed?”
“Probably after the bike had come to a stop. And the only one there was you, Kujou. Which means…”
Kazuya was starting to get a bad feeling about this. It reminded him of how he felt in that gloomy room with the globe and the medieval weapons when Inspector de Blois had suddenly pointed his finger at him.
And now suddenly, just as the inspector had done, Victorique pointed her pipe at Kazuya, and said, “You are the killer!”
Kazuya, now on the verge of tears, could not manage a response.
With a hint of a devilish smile on her lips, Victorique gave him a cool stare. “…And wouldn’t that be amusing!”
“Are you making fun of me?!” Kazuya jumped up to his feet in rage.
Victorique’s face abruptly turned solemn. She looked up at him and said in her husky voice, “But you know, when the inspector was suspecting you of being the killer, he was probably basing his inference on the same thought process. In other words, unless we find the real killer and clear you of suspicion, you will most likely be deported, and in the worst case scenario, this country will put you to death by hanging. How dreadful for you!”
Kazuya’s face drained of all color. He sat down heavily and clutched his head. Scenes from his hometown, first of his parents, then the faces of his family and friends that he had left behind, once again began to whirl through his mind.
Victorique gave him a sidelong glance. Then she turned back to her books, flipping the pages as if nothing had happened.
After a few moments, she yawned. “Well, at least I know the truth,” she muttered under her breath, then took another drag on her pipe.
From the skylights, rays of warm springtime sunshine illuminated the conservatory. A gentle breeze occasionally wafted through the air, ruffling the leaves of the palm trees, large red flowers, and Victorique’s blond hair.
Several seconds elapsed.
Then Kazuya slowly raised his head. “…Did you just say that you knew the truth?”
Victorique said nothing. Kazuya peered into her face, but she was busily immersing herself into her books as if she had forgotten he was there. She turned the pages with remarkable speed.
Victorique looked up at him, seemingly returning from her reverie. She nodded listlessly. “Oh, of course I know. The words ‘I don’t know’ aren’t written in my dictionary. I know everything…. What about it?”
Kazuya stamped his feet in impatience. “’What about it?’ … Then tell me!”
“Hmm?” A look of bafflement crossed Victorique’s face. In a deeply mystified tone, she asked, “Why?”
—And then, for countless minutes afterward, Kazuya attempted to persuade Victorique, mustering up every argument he could possibly think of, shedding tears of anger all the while.
In the meantime, Victorique continued to avidly read her books, coolly pretending not to listen. At last, when he had succeeded in beating down her resistance, she lifted her head to him. “By the way.”
“I consider tedium to be my greatest enemy.”
“…Okay?” Kazuya didn’t quite catch her meaning.
Victorique continued in an oddly exultant tone. “It’s the same when it comes to food. Rather than eat something banal, I think it’s better to go hungry. Isn’t this the very point of possessing intelligence?”
Growing impatient with Kazuya’s lack of understanding, Victorique swiftly pushed her face close to his. “Tomorrow you will bring me some food from the country of your birth.”
“Why? Will that help you think?”
“Of course not. It’s just food.” Victorique snorted. “So, this is how it’s going to work. If the food you bring is unusual, tasty, and suits my fancy, then perhaps I might feel like rescuing you.”
“What?!” Kazuya cried out in dismay. “Don’t you… Don’t you have any sense of compassion?!” he asked falteringly.
“Compassion?” Victorique repeated mockingly. “Oh, that. That sort of thing is where intelligence goes to die.”
Laughing scornfully, she shooed Kazuya away with a wave of her tiny hand.
Kazuya stumbled out of the library in a state of utter shock. A leather-covered door arrayed with round metal tacks closed behind him with a heavy thud.
As he stood on the lawn in a daze, two men wearing rabbit-skin hunting caps approached, skipping in tandem, from beyond the campus road. They were the deputies of the inspector Gréville de Blois, and they were holding hands despite both being men. The two of them passed in front of Kazuya, then nimbly skipped back to him as if he had caught their attention.
“Oh, it’s Kujou! Are you perhaps not feeling well?”
“No, I’m not feeling well,” answered Kazuya flatly. The two deputies looked at each other, then for some reason burst into laughter.
“Um… Am I really going to be arrested?”
“Yeah, probably tomorrow!” they said, cheerfully and without any hesitation.
Kazuya held his head in his hands.
“I mean, there weren’t any suspicious people there except you, Kujou!”
“Besides, we could never disobey Inspector de Blois!”
“…What do you mean by that?”
The two men exchanged a look. “Yeah… Well, the truth is, he never actually attended the police academy. He’s just the son of some aristocrat. For some reason, he wanted to work for the police, so he was granted a position in the village police station.”
“That’s why we’re here to keep an eye on him. But sometimes he can get a bit carried away with himself.”
“The whims of the nobility can sure put you in a right pickle!”
Seeing Kazuya’s look of surprise, they added, “But you know what, that inspector, sometimes he spots the culprit straightaway. He may say some strange things at first, but then the next day, he’s so sharp, he’s practically a different person!”
“I know! It’s almost like he’s some kind of genius!”
“Ha, ha, ha!”
Laughing gaily, the two men took their leave, skipping all the way. Kazuya watched them depart, his mouth hanging open in shock. Then, feeling the weight of the dire situation he found himself in, he sighed heavily.
Oh, I’ve had enough. You aristocrats and you geniuses can all just go to hell…!
Now in a bitterly foul mood, he started to walk again. The sky was darkening, and a cold wind began to chill his skin. The road back to the dormitory was utterly quiet, making Kazuya feel as if he were the only person left in the school.
Once he returned to his room, he would have to ransack the packages his family had sent from home, and find some food that would suit the fancy of that eccentric young lady…