The stone-hewn walls of St. Marguerite’s Library, draped with entwining grey ivies, stood in silence, observing the endless passage of time. On this Sunday morning, that four-sided tower, containing a huge book repository renowned throughout Europe, continued in relentless cultivation of a unique state of knowledge, time, and tranquility, just as it had for centuries.
Kazuya opened the leather-covered swing door, hammered through with round brass tacks. The moment he stepped into the atrium, he was seized by the distinct feeling that every wall, completely occupied by bookshelves crammed full with antique books, had groaned in exasperation all at once, tired of his repeated visits. A thin, maze-like wooden staircase zigzagged across the atrium, underneath a solemn religious fresco that gazed down from the distant ceiling.
“Not this staircase again… I guess I’m not used to it yet….” Kazuya grumbled softly. He straightened his posture and gave himself a determined nod, then began to ascend the labyrinth of stairs, taking steady and methodical footsteps one by one.
This was the seventh time Kazuya had climbed this strange staircase. The very first time was when his teacher Miss Cécile had asked him to deliver notes to a classmate at the top floor of the library. And then the fifth time… The fifth time…
“Now why did I come here that day?” Kazuya bent his head quizzically as he climbed the stairs. Then his face tightened in a barely perceptible frown. The thought had only just occurred to him that somewhere along the way, without even realizing it, he had fallen into the daily habit of climbing this maze of stairs over and over again in order to visit that girl.
“Well, a lot of things have happened lately, and I needed her help….” he whispered to himself in excuse. “It’s not like I actually want to see Victorique….”
After a few minutes, he finally reached the expansive floor at the very top, and from there entered the conservatory.
The gentle rays of the morning sun shone through skylights, alighting upon the large tropical plants and garish flowers that bloomed in this greenhouse. The strange, enigmatic princess that he expected to find half-sprawled upon the floor, surrounded by books to fill her tedium—was today nowhere to be found. In her place, he found only a peculiar-looking young man, sullenly squatting down in a corner next to the elevator.
He was wearing a finely-tailored three-piece suit with gleaming silver cufflinks. But contrary to his immaculate fashion sense, there was one thing off about him—his bizarre hairstyle, with his blond hair piled forward and twisted into a shape that suggested a drill. This man—Gréville de Blois—was hugging his knees, appearing to be mumbling something under his breath. “Two hundred and one, two hundred and two, two hundred and three…”
His suspicions piqued, Kazuya gingerly crept forward to take a closer look. He found the inspector counting the white tiles on the floor of the elevator landing one by one. As Kazuya shrank back in uneasiness, the inspector caught sight of him. “You’re late, Kujou,” he said reproachfully, albeit not without a hint of delight.
“…What did you want to see me about? And more importantly, what are you doing?”
“There was nobody here, so I got bored.”
“Nobody here…?” Kazuya scanned the conservatory. Thinking he spotted Victorique somewhere in the distance, he moved closer, and confirmed that it was indeed her.
Victorique, perhaps trying to avoid the inspector, was hidden deep amongst the plants. And for some reason, she was sitting in the same position that Kazuya had seen the inspector take earlier: crouched down, busily doing something that he couldn’t quite make out. He looked at her daintily flowing chiffon dress, dyed the color of redcurrant, her chic lace-up shoes, and her long, magnificent blond hair, draped across her back like a turban come undone—and noticed that all of them were caked in dirt.
He saw her shoulders twitch. Then she turned around to look at him, a startled expression on her face. “Oh, you again. You’re that odd Oriental by the name of, um, Kujou, if I recall correctly.”
“…That’s right. Although the ‘odd’ bit was a little unnecessary. …Whoa, you’re covered in dirt! What have you been doing?”
Kazuya rushed over to Victorique’s side and began to wipe off her hair, the hem of her chiffon dress, and her small hands. She had apparently been doing some gardening, and the pearly white fingernails of her small hands were now stained brown with dirt.
Kazuya quickly drew a pail of water and returned to wash Victorique’s hands, despite her attempts to pull away. From afar he heard Inspector de Blois, still counting tiles, call out to him, “So, Kujou. Let’s get on with the reason I called you here today.”
“What was it? Although I’ve kind of got my hands full at the moment…”
The inspector grudgingly walked over and held out a sheaf of papers. Kazuya gave them a quick glance, but Victorique ignored them, instead plunging her face into a tuft of large red flowers.
“So what we have here is a list of all the valuables that Cuiaran stole all over Europe, then stored in various hiding places around St. Marguerite’s School. The only item that has been recovered so far is the oldest stamp in the world, the Penny Black, which was safely delivered to its owner Miss Bradley the other day. But we otherwise don’t know where the rest of the items were hidden. That means my next task is to go treasure-hunting for Cuiaran’s loot.”
Kazuya looked back up at him. As he had suspected, the inspector was for once directing his words not to him, but to Victorique, who continued to ignore him, burying her face in the flowers.
Each time he was confronted with a criminal case, Inspector de Blois would rely on the intelligence of the gifted and mysterious Victorique to solve it, and would then proceed to pass off her achievement as his own. But on the other hand, Victorique and this inspector seemed to despise each other, and refused to speak to one another. Whenever the inspector wanted to talk to her about the particulars of some case, he had the bad habit of sitting Kazuya down and stubbornly pretending to talk to him instead….
Returning to his usual angle facing Kazuya, the inspector said, “Take a look at this. At the top of the list is this painting entitled ‘South Atlantic.’ This is the last work of a talented painter who called it quits with the European art scene and moved to an island in the southern Atlantic. It was stolen from a certain royal residence around twenty years ago. And then there’s this necklace that belonged to Countess Ashenden, nicknamed ‘The Poison Flower.’ This one was stolen from the Sauvure National Museum. And then…”
Each item on the inspector’s list was accompanied by a picture, including one that seemed to be a reproduction of the aforementioned painting, and another of a garish necklace adorned with glittering purple jewels. He went on to describe the rest of the items without pausing for breath.
Kazuya continued to scrub Victorique’s fingers vigorously. “Never mind that… Victorique, how long have you been digging in the dirt like this? You’ve gotten your dress and your fingernails so dirty. When you were little, didn’t your mama ever scold you for playing in the mud? Ugh, I still can’t seem to clean it off….”
“Mm?” Victorique finally withdrew her face from the flowers, drawing her brows together in an irritated frown. “Now we have two noisy people.”
“…My apologies. Still, at least it’s not boring for you, right?”
“Didn’t I tell you that commotion is my second greatest enemy?”
“Oh, did you now?”
The inspector silently kept a close ear on their conversation.
Then Victorique raised her head. “By the way, Kujou.”
“What? …Look, I’ve finally gotten your nails clean.”
“Are you interested in the rest of Cuiaran’s loot? Do you want me to look for it?”
Kazuya gave Victorique’s small, startlingly well-sculpted face a bewildered stare. Then he cocked his head bemusedly. “…No, not really?”
“Hmm.” Victorique nodded. “Me neither.”
“That’s what I thought. Whoa, inspector?! Why are you trying to choke me? If I’m not interested, then I’m just not interested. And why would you even want to call someone out on a Sunday morning for something like that, when locating stolen property is your job as a policeman! That’s what I’d like to know! I strongly object! Uh, wait, Victorique…!”
As he struggled to free himself from the inspector’s tight grip around his neck, Victorique slunk away from him, her hair swaying like a long, golden tail attached to some ancient, languorous creature. When she returned to squatting on the ground in the garden, Kazuya raised his voice in protest. “Hey! It took a long time to get you clean, you know!”
Victorique looked over her shoulder and snorted at him dismissively. Then she once again began to dig in the dirt, heedless of Kazuya’s complaints.
“You shouldn’t play in the mud! V-Victorique!?”