The second Cuiaran tumbled uncontrollably down the wooden staircase. Inspector de Blois entered the library and arrested her, then carried her off to the village police station with the help of the two hand-holding deputies.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Kazuya slowly trudged up the stairs. At last, he reached the conservatory at the very top floor, and surveyed the scene before him.
Victorique was sitting in the position that he had become thoroughly used to over the course of the past several days—seated upon the floor and smoking her pipe as she turned the pages of the books that encircled her, radiating out in all directions.
She heard Kazuya approach her, but didn’t bother to raise her gaze from her books. Instead, she simply removed the pipe from her lips and said, “You’re late.”
Her face wore the same cool expression he had beheld the day he first met her, that aloof arrogance universal among this country’s aristocrats. The mere sight of it inflamed the stubbornness in his heart.
But for once, Kazuya didn’t let that bother him. He bent down to sit beside Victorique. “What’s that supposed to mean? That just as usual, you’re the only one who knows everything?”
“Of course, thanks to my wellspring of wisdom.” Victorique sighed wearily, then added grudgingly, “I take fragments of chaos from within this world and toy with them to pass the time. Once they’re collected, I reconstruct those fragments by means of my wellspring of wisdom…. Then a long, maddening tedium comes upon me once again, and I’m left feeling empty inside.”
“…Well, before you get bored again, explain it to me first.”
“So, you want me to articulate it for you.” Victorique yawned heavily. “But it’s such a bother.”
She silently watched Kazuya, who was waiting impatiently. Then she let out a small groan, and reluctantly began to speak again. “Very well. I shall explain, and then perhaps even a mediocre person like you may understand.”
Warm, bright sunlight shone into the conservatory. A spring breeze entered through the skylights, gently ruffling the hair of the two young people sitting in the sun.
Victorique pulled out the postcard that had been sandwiched inside the purple book. The postcard was addressed to Avril from her grandfather Sir Bradley, but had never been mailed.
“Penny Black is the name of a stamp. It’s the oldest stamp in the world. That alone would make it valuable, but there were also a handful with printing errors, and those have even greater value. One of those stamps is affixed to this postcard.”
“Wow…” Kazuya took the postcard and carefully inspected the stamp.
“Collectors would throw away huge sums of money to acquire such a rare item. But the first Cuiaran stole this heirloom, which Sir Bradley had meant to pass down to his granddaughter, and he placed it inside this purple book, which he then brought to this school. And then it accompanied him into his eternal rest inside the crypt.”
“I see. But Victorique, how did you know that the girl I saw in the storehouse was the real Avril, kidnapped by Cuiaran?”
“That girl was likely used by the second Cuiaran as a way for her to infiltrate the school. She imprisoned her inside that storehouse and impersonated her so that she could search for the loot hidden by the first Cuiaran. And the reason she chose the storehouse as Avril’s place of confinement was the same reason that she hid the purple book inside the library.”
Victorique took a drag from her pipe. “Recall how the second Cuiaran hid that book next to the thirteenth step of the library’s staircase. She was taking advantage of the ghost stories that infest this school. ‘An ill fate befalls those who tread on the thirteenth step of the stairs.’ That was why all of the students avoided the thirteenth step, and that was why she hid the book there.”
“The reason she hid the real Avril inside that storehouse was also because of a ghost story, the one about Millie Marle’s ghost haunting the abandoned storehouse. So no one dared go near that building. …But no one ever could have expected that a strange fellow like you would pass by.”
Kazuya nodded, impressed by her deductions.
After this, Victorique proceeded to smoke her pipe and ignore him for a few moments. Then she suddenly looked up at him.
“Here’s a little something extra. I’ll articulate another fact for you.” Her green eyes gleamed with an uncanny light. “About that ghost story which has caused you so much grief, ‘the traveler who comes in spring brings death to the school.’ The ‘reaper’ here was a reference to Maxim. You recall how Maxim, the first Cuiaran, came back to the school every spring? Of course, he came to hide his ill-gotten gains, but he also happened to be a sinister man in general. It’s possible that a dead body appeared each time he returned, and that Millie Marle may not have been the only one. That sinister image of the ‘reaper who comes in spring’ may have been modeled on the first Cuiaran. At least, that’s what I think.”
Kazuya stared at Victorique’s cold face in mute amazement.
He imagined fragments of chaos dancing in the air, then crashing to the ground as she reconstructed them with a mere glance—as if her eyes were focused on some strange magic.
Kazuya made a sound of awe. “Victorique, you’re incredible.”
Her facial expression shifted slightly, looking almost exultant. In that moment of barely perceptible change, her ennui, despair, and the peculiar sort of darkness that had shrouded her face for so long, seemed to finally lift and disappear.
“So that means…” After a few moments of silence, Kazuya spoke again. Victorique raised her eyebrows questioningly.
“I guess you do exist, huh…”
Victorique looked up, peering at him suspiciously. “Not that again. Of course I exist.”
“B-but…” murmured Kazuya. “That second Cuiaran came to the conservatory twice, and said you weren’t here either time. She said it was dark and there was nobody around.”
Victorique was silent for a moment.
A thin white line of smoke rose straight to the ceiling, followed by a clear spring breeze that blew briskly through the conservatory.
“…I didn’t know her,” Victorique whispered suddenly.
“I didn’t know her, so I hid.”
“You hid? Wh-where?”
Exasperation written all over her face, Victorique looked up from her books and pointed at a small chest nearby.
Kazuya stared at the chest in bewilderment.
It was a rectangular box that didn’t appear large enough to admit a person. But if someone as small as Victorique crouched into a ball, she may have been able to fit inside somehow….
Kazuya carefully reached out his hand and opened the door to the chest.
His expression turned to a look of amazement.
Inside the chest was a lamp, some sweets, and some books. The door was designed so that it could be locked from the inside.
“…Were you in here?”
“Do you always hide in here when strangers come by?”
Victorique said nothing.
I wonder if she’s actually extremely shy? Understanding dawned on Kazuya. But then a thought suddenly crossed his mind. Wait a minute. What about when…
As Victorique ignored him, busying herself with her books, he asked, “But when I came up here for the first time, you didn’t know who I was either, right?”
“And yet you were sitting right here reading your books, just as calmly as ever. And you were the one who spoke first, remember? Oh, Victorique, I remember what you said to me. ‘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?’”
“Why didn’t you hide from me?”
Victorique didn’t reply.
Kazuya waited a while, then gave up with a sigh. “Well, not that it matters any…” Then he took a glance at her. Hold on…?
Victorique’s face was cold and expressionless as usual, but for some reason, her ears were bright red.
Oh…? Kazuya cocked his head. “What happened to your ears?”
“…No, they’re not.”
“Yes, they are.”
“…No, they’re not.”
“If I say they’re not red, then they’re not red!”
Victorique lifted up her book and slammed the corner into the side of Kazuya’s head. With this, he decided to stop saying things that would provoke her, even if he didn’t know why exactly she found them so disagreeable.
A gust of springtime air blew between them, delicately rustling Victorique’s blond hair.
What if… Kazuya thought to himself. I thought that I had brought her those exotic snacks, and had climbed that labyrinthine staircase, and had asked for Victorique’s help out of my own free will, but…
The wind blew once more.
What if I was the one chosen by Victorique?
The sky began to darken.
Surely Victorique was calling out to me. And that’s how we became friends…
Kazuya felt somehow greatly honored by this.