The large black doors of the Sealed Reading Room were already wide open, allowing the sound of a sweet and timorous voice to trickle outside. “Um, uh, excuse me, please listen to what I’m saying. I, I found—”
Miss Cécile stood squarely in the middle of the room, her petite body shaking from side to side. In front of her were two young men wearing rabbit-skin hunting caps, their hands permanently joined in an affectionate clasp. The two men—the deputies of Inspector Gréville de Blois—exchanged a look with each other.
“This room has been locked for years, and all this time no one’s gone inside. When I came in earlier, the floor was covered in dust, and I didn’t see any footprints. But even though it’s been sealed shut, I found this….” Miss Cécile pointed at the wall, her face dissolving into tears.
At that very moment, Avril arrived at the door, still pulling Kazuya along with her. “Lucky us, the door’s already open! I wonder why?”
“Not much of a ‘sealed reading room’ then, is it….”
“Kujou, look! There’s that portrait—huh?” Avril flew into the room, her eyes gleaming with excitement as she eagerly pointed at the wall. And then her eyes widened into saucers when her gaze met that of Miss Cécile, who was standing in the same position as she was, also with her finger pointed at the wall. “What’s this?”
Miss Cécile looked back at Avril with tear-filled eyes.
“Hmm?” Kazuya looked up at the wall. There was only one painting on display. He had expected to find the beautiful and yet sinister portrait of the serial poisoning countess … but instead, he saw…
A clear blue sea and a radiant sun.
It was the picturesque scenery of an island in the South Atlantic.
Kazuya, Avril, Miss Cécile, and the two deputies simultaneously looked at one another in silent shock.
Then Avril began to shriek hysterically and wave around the necklace that was still clutched in her fist. “What happened to Countess Ashenden’s portrait?!”
Miss Cécile clasped her hands together. “It, it disappeared!”
“This morning, when I came to look for an answer key—uh, never mind about that. Anyway, I came here to perform a certain important task, and I found that Countess Ashenden’s portrait was gone, and someone had replaced it with this weird painting of the ocean. But no one’s been in here for ages….”
His mouth open in shock, Kazuya stared up at the so-called “weird painting of the ocean”. With the only reaction of the two deputies being simply to jeer at the painting—“What a weird painting! It looks like something a kid drew!”—he seemed to be the only one with an inkling of what this piece of artwork really was.
Avril’s face abruptly turned serious. “Well… I think it looks marvelous.”
Miss Cécile put her head in her hands. “I wonder what happened?” she murmured. “Why would someone switch the paintings, and how did they do that? It’s not as if that portrait was of any value. Although no one quite knows how long it’s been there either….”
“It’s a curse!” interjected Avril.
“A curse?! That’s scary!”
Avril’s words sent Miss Cécile into a panic, which in turn startled Kazuya. Once he recovered from his start of surprise, he timidly approached the two deputies. “Um, excuse me, sirs…”
At that point, they were already preparing to flee the reading room, and had made a 180-degree turn without letting go of each others’ hands. Evidently, they had no desire whatsoever to investigate the situation. But they hesitated at the sound of Kazuya’s voice, and both turned to face him, inclining their heads at the same time. “What is it?”
“Right before I came here, Inspector de Blois showed me the list of items stolen by Cuiaran, and…” Kazuya pointed at the painting of the ocean. “This was on the list. It was the last work of some famous painter, titled ‘South Atlantic’ if I remember correctly.”
“Well, I wouldn’t have any idea how it ended up here. And this girl found a necklace that was also on the list. A necklace by the name of ‘Poison Flower’….”
The two deputies exchanged a look.
Then they each took a deep breath, and yelled, “Inspecto-o-o-r!”
Holding hands tightly, they ran down the corridor, shouting all the way.
The three people left behind in the reading room stood dumbfounded for a moment.
Then Avril, who was staring at the painting, suddenly whispered forlornly, “So this is a picture of the South Atlantic sea….” The slightest trace of a shadow clouded her normally vivacious blue eyes. She slowly walked out of the reading room into the hallway.
When Kazuya turned to look at her, he detected an unusual loneliness in the line of her slumped shoulders. Starting to feel slightly concerned, he quietly followed her.
Avril left the building and walked through the school gardens in a daze. She wandered to the edge of a fountain, and sat down beside it. When she noticed Kazuya following her with a worried expression, she gave him a wan smile.
“What’s wrong, Avril?”
“Yeah. It’s just that…” She absentmindedly ran her fingers along the ledge. “About that postcard that you returned to me, the last letter from my grandfather, Sir Bradley. He was a famous explorer, you know.”
“I’ve heard of him. There were newspaper articles about him in my country, too.”
Avril’s grandfather, Sir Bradley, had been a famous adventurer. And the reason she had been targeted by the thief Cuiaran was because of the heirloom he had bequeathed to her….
A warm expression lit up Avril’s face. “My grandpa was full of life, always itching for a new adventure. Every boy in the world loved to tell stories about his travels. But the rest of my family treated him as an eccentric. My papa was sickly from birth, the exact opposite of my grandpa. So he was overjoyed when I was born full of life, and always used to tell me I took after grandpa, and always encouraged me to become a fabulous explorer like him when I grew up. But then my grandma would poke me so hard that it felt like she was taking a few years off my life, and say she wanted to turn me into an elegant lady instead.”
“And being able to come study in Sauvure was thanks to my papa, too. He said that he wanted me to broaden my horizons. So now…”
Kazuya nodded solemnly and leaned forward, sensing that Avril was about to get to the point of her story. After all, this was the first time he heard her talk about something unrelated to ghost stories. He had a strong hunch that if he let this opportunity slip by, he would perhaps never get to hear her talk about such things ever again.
A moment later, they heard the sound of quickly approaching footsteps. They looked up, wondering who it was, only to see the two deputies, wearing their rabbit-skin hunting caps and holding hands, headed their way.
The two men let go of each others’ hands, and each grabbed hold of one of Kazuya’s hands, sandwiching him between them.
“Huh?” Kazuya felt his feet lift off the ground. “Wh-what’s going on?”
“Inspector de Blois wants to see you!”
“He said to bring you right away!”
“B-bring me where?”
“To the library!”
As the deputies dragged Kazuya away like a prisoner with both hands bound, he belatedly looked over his shoulder and called out, “See you later, Avril! I’ll be back soo—”
“Ha-ha! Not that soon!”
Kazuya kept looking back as they pulled him along to the library….