At that very moment, Avril Bradley—no, the girl who was the second Cuiaran—was running up the labyrinthine staircase in the library, empty suitcase in hand, panting raggedly. But no matter how high she climbed, the top floor felt farther than ever.
At last, she reached the top of the staircase, and leaned against the thin handrail incised with a leaf motif, her shoulders rising and falling as she wheezed for air.
“Wh-where’s that doll…?”
Cuiaran stumbled around the conservatory in search of the gorgeously-clothed porcelain doll that she had hidden behind a small chest. Once she realized that it was nowhere to be found, she gulped.
She set down the suitcase and scanned the vicinity.
And searched some more.
And kept searching…
“…H-how is that possible?!”
Finally, she located the porcelain doll. But it was slumped down in the shade of one of the conservatory’s many lush tropical trees, as if someone had hidden it there. Only its long blond hair peeped out from behind the luxuriant foliage. Cuiaran roughly grabbed the doll by the hair and wrapped her hands around the thin torso.
“I’ll be damned! How did you end up in a place like this? Don’t tell me Kujou moved you? Or … did a doll try to hide from me on its own…? How ridiculous….”
Cuiaran burst out laughing at her own words.
She opened the suitcase and savagely threw the doll inside.
The sound of someone flinging open the door to the library echoed from the world far below. Cuiaran shut the suitcase and walked over to the railing to look down at the first floor.
There she caught sight of Kazuya Kujou rushing inside. Sucking her teeth in annoyance, Cuiaran picked up the suitcase and began to run downstairs.
“…Victorique!?” yelled Kazuya, starting to run up the staircase. He looked up at the distant top of the maze of stairs and saw a girl with a stony look on her face running downward.
He halted, and the girl did the same.
Her eyes were so very cold….
But then the girl smiled, and it was as if she had transformed into an entirely different person. “Well, if it isn’t Ku—”
At the sound of Kazuya’s shout, the girl’s face instantly froze. Then she shifted back to her previous expression, her eyes glinting with a hard light. “…You figured it out, huh?”
“I’ve seen through you. We’ve already rescued the real Avril.”
“Tch!” Avril—no, the second Cuiaran—suddenly began to speak in an entirely different tone of voice, betraying a brash city accent. “That’s right. I’m the second Cuiaran. I was taken in as a child and raised as a thief. But the first Cuiaran disappeared suddenly eight years ago. Rumor had it that he hid his loot somewhere in this school, so I came to take a look. …I don’t suppose you know who the first one was, right?”
“You mean Maxim?” answered Kazuya.
Cuiaran blinked in surprise. “…That’s right. I never expected to see him come tumbling out of the crypt as that mummified knight. But then I found that purple book on the floor. That was one of his treasures that he hid inside this school when he came on his springtime visits. He stole it from that explorer Sir Bradley, who was going to give it to his granddaughter as her inheritance. Once I figured that out, I made sure to hide it somewhere. But then you… Where did you hide it?”
“Wait… So that means you were the one who attacked me from behind and stole that book?”
“Of course it was me. But all you had was the book.”
Kazuya didn’t follow. “Huh?”
“What happened to the Penny Black?”
Cuiaran glared at him. “I couldn’t care less about that book, so I threw it away in the flower garden. What I’m looking for is the Penny Black. Oh, damn you…. You know the postcard inside that book? That was Sir Bradley’s legacy.”
Kazuya shouted in surprise. He remembered the way Victorique suddenly lost interest in the book after they had found it, and had simply vanished into thin air, taking along the postcard that had been used as a bookmark. But at the time, he had no idea why she had done that….
“Then it’s not the book, but the postcard…?”
“That’s right. Where is it?” Cuiaran descended several steps down the stairs.
“If you mean the postcard, Victorique took it with—”
“What are you talking about? There isn’t any girl in the conservatory.”
They stared at one another, each positioned at one end of the staircase. Kazuya looked up at Cuiaran, dumbfounded.
“I went to the top floor twice. But the conservatory was empty both times. You keep insisting there’s a girl there, but there isn’t one,” she snapped.
“It’s dusty and gloomy, and there’s no one there. The conservatory has been empty for a very, very long time. You must have seen a fairy. Didn’t I tell you? ‘A golden fairy inhabits the top of the library.’ You are a foreign student from the Far East who found no classmates willing to be your friend, and so you spend all your time studying out of stubbornness. ‘Fairies make friends with lonely children, then steal their souls.’ …We have that legend in my hometown, too.” Cuiaran stared down at Kazuya. “That girl doesn’t exist!”
Her words deeply wounded him.
There was some truth to what she said. In the past half year since he had arrived, he couldn’t fit in with his aristocratic classmates, and hadn’t made any new friends. For this reason, even though he was duty-bound as the third son of an imperial soldier to suppress any unmanly feelings that welled up inside himself, the truth was that he secretly felt very happy when he met Victorique. She may have been eccentric, and there were times he couldn’t quite understand her, and even felt angry with her. But she was still his dear friend, the first one he had made since coming to Sauvure.
And there was no way she didn’t exist.
Cuiaran sneered at his hurt expression. “Still can’t accept it?”
“Hmph. Then I guess I’ll have to show you who your friend really is.”
With a cold-blooded smile on her face, Cuiaran slowly raised the suitcase. Kazuya stood looking up at her, motionless in shock.
When she opened the lid….
He heard a rustling sound.
Long blond hair spilled out of the suitcase.
The hem of a sumptuous dress peeked out of a corner.
Two frozen glass eyes stared open, unblinking.
Cuiaran violently flung open the suitcase. A small girl tumbled out from it, falling down toward Kazuya. He frantically reached out to catch her, but her dress made of gorgeously-embroidered Gobelins tapestry, and the lace bonnet that adorned her silken blond hair, slipped through his fingers, plummeting to the distant bottom of the atrium below.
Kazuya ran to the side of the staircase and screamed.
At that moment, two deputies, clad in rabbit-skin hunting caps and holding each other’s hands, entered the library in pursuit of Kazuya. Looking up, they found something falling toward them. They hastily raised their linked hands to grab hold of the girl—no, the doll in the form of a girl, and managed to catch it lightly in mid-air.
Kazuya stared down at them in mute shock.
“…Whoa! A doll fell on us! It almost broke. Oh no, the head fell off!” shouted the two deputies.
Kazuya looked up at Cuiaran dazedly. Her face was contorted into a fearsome expression. “Do you get it now? There was never a girl in the conservatory. But I did find that doll. It’s the work of the 19th century German dollmaker Grafenstein. They say he made a deal with the devil so he could give his dolls souls. His creations became monsters possessed by evil spirits, and there are rumors of them wandering around at night. …Now, Kujou.” Cuiaran threw away the suitcase and advanced upon Kazuya.
He was still stunned.
Victorique… doesn’t exist…? That can’t be….
He heard the suitcase shatter upon the ground floor far below him.
It’s not true. Victorique … is real!
Cuiaran grabbed Kazuya by his neck and squeezed with tremendous force. “Come on, where did you really hide it? Where did you hide the Penny Black? Give it back! Give it back!”
“I, I don’t know … where…”
“If you don’t have it, someone else does. Give it back to me!”
Kazuya struggled with Cuiaran in the middle of the labyrinthine staircase. The wooden stairs creaked and swayed unsteadily.
Something small and golden appeared in Kazuya’s line of sight.
He narrowed his eyes, trying to make it out.
Far away, near the distant ceiling, the face of a girl peered out from between slats of railing. Her green eyes shone with an ominous light, and her splendidly long blond hair seemed to ripple and dance in anger, as if it possessed a will of its own.
…It was Victorique.
She parted her cherry-red lips, and said in a low voice, as husky as that of an old woman, “Kujou doesn’t have it … but I do.”
Cuiaran squeaked in surprise. Then, lifting her gaze, she slowly turned around, and saw Victorique standing at the top of the staircase, straining to hold up a heavy stack of books with her small hands.
“Get your hands off Kujou!”
The books fell.
As Cuiaran stared at her with wide eyes, the books collapsed upon her head with a dull thud. She rolled down the staircase, arms akimbo, with the covers of the books still stuck to her face.
Then Victorique went on to say something unforgivable. “For that man is my servant.”
Normally, Kazuya would never have let such a remark pass without raising a firm and lengthy objection in defense of his honor as the third son of an imperial soldier. But this time he didn’t quite catch what she had said, and so his words were brief. “Victorique… I knew you existed!”
“How rude.” Victorique gave a snort of indignation. And then she slowly moved out of sight, her blond hair vanishing a moment later, writhing like the tail of a dinosaur as it trailed behind her body, engulfed in frills and lace.
Only her husky voice lingered in Kazuya’s ears.
“…Of course I exist!”