Once they arrived at St. Marguerite’s Library, that sanctuary of knowledge and silence, its ash-grey stone walls weathered by the passage of hundreds of years….
The two deputies kicked open the library’s leather-covered swing door and unceremoniously threw Kazuya inside the atrium. “I have to climb this staircase again?!” he yelled in protest. “Once in a day is quite enough as far as I’m concerned. Hey, are you listening to me?”
“Ha, ha, ha!”
“Now climb it!”
Kazuya sighed, then steeled himself and looked up at the distant top of the atrium. The interior of the library was held together not by walls, but by giant bookshelves crammed full of leather-bound books. Kazuya felt as if they were looking down and groaning at the sight of him, sick of him coming time after time.
A narrow wooden staircase zigzagged nearly all the way to the ceiling, which featured a solemn religious fresco. The intricate labyrinth of dry wood resembled an enormous dinosaur bone that someone had unearthed.
Kazuya took one step up the stairs.
Then another step, and another.
I guess I have no choice…. Well, it’s not like Inspector de Blois will be the only one up there; Victorique should be there, too….
When the thought of Victorique entered his mind, somehow the pace of his footsteps began to gradually quicken.
Still, that Victorique… That funny, moody, mean, strange little girl… Jeez, she’s such an unpleasant person, and her attitude toward me is completely unacceptable….
As he continued to think about her, Kazuya’s climbing became more and more energetic, and soon enough he was running up the staircase.
At the very top of the maze of stairs…
When Kazuya reached the conservatory overgrown with tropical trees, gently illuminated by skylights, he was once again met by the sight of a man with a golden drill on top of his head. Inspector Gréville de Blois had been waiting impatiently, whiling away the time by restlessly pulling on leaves. The moment he spotted Kazuya, he struck one of his poses, and called out to him loudly.
“Kujou! The worthless portrait of that murderous Countess Ashenden disappeared from the Sealed Reading Room, and was replaced underneath our noses with a famous painting, the ‘South Atlantic’!”
“Um, I know that already. I was there when it was discovered,” said Kazuya, trying to catch his breath.
“And the necklace that belonged to that countess, the ‘Poison Flower,’ was found hidden underneath some floorboards! What the devil is going on here?”
Kazuya grimaced at the inspector’s earsplitting shout. He promptly brushed past him and entered the gardens, searching for Victorique’s small form.
He found her sitting down in the same position he had seen her in last time, hunched over into a ball and busily gardening.
“Victorique… Oh no, you’ve gotten all muddy again! For goodness’ sake, why do you have to keep doing this? Ruining your pretty dress like that…”
While grumbling disapprovingly, Kazuya once again filled a bucket of water, grabbed Victorique’s small hands, and forcefully washed the dirt from them. Her face twisted into a child’s petulant scowl, but she nevertheless obediently allowed him to wash her.
The inspector raised his voice in annoyance from behind Kazuya, who was continuing to mumble complaints under his breath. “K-Kujou, won’t you listen to what I have to say…?”
“Huh? About what?”
Kazuya and Victorique both raised their faces from the bucket to look up at him.
The inspector’s drill glinted golden among the colorful foliage of tropical flowers.
Victorique stared at him for a moment, her mouth hanging open. Then she slowly parted her glossy, cherry-red lips and uttered a single, unexpected word.
“Huh? Oh, I get it. You’re right, it kind of looks like that from a certain angle. You’re pretty sharp, aren’t you, Victorique! Hey, wait… Inspector, why is your face so red? Don’t tell me you’re angry?”
Inspector de Blois glared at Victorique, his lips trembling and his cheeks a deep scarlet. Kazuya looked back and forth between the two of them, wondering what had gotten the inspector so angry.
“…For you of all people to say that, when you’re the one who designed it in the first place!” Inspector de Blois said softly.
“What did you say, inspector?”
Taking advantage of Kazuya’s distraction, Victorique again turned back to her gardening, dirtying her hands anew despite the effort it took to scrub them clean. Sensing Kazuya about to yell at her admonishingly, she murmured in her husky voice, perhaps in an effort to change the subject, “Kujou, aren’t you going to write a reply to that letter?”
Kazuya, on the verge of an angry shout, closed his mouth, and stared dumbly at Victorique. “L-letter?” Then he connected the dots in his mind, and clapped his hands together. “That’s right. I forgot that I received a letter from my second eldest brother yesterday. But Victorique… How did you know that?”
Looking thoroughly bored, Victorique opened her mouth in a huge yawn, her red currant-colored chiffon dress rustling in time with her movement. She raised a small, muddy hand to cover her mouth, leaving a smear of mud on her rosy cheek. Kazuya quickly took out his handkerchief to wipe her face. Victorique tried to slap his handkerchief away with both of her hands, as if batting away a noisy fly.
“That sort of thing is nothing at all. It’s too simple to even require the use of my overflowing wellspring of wisdom. I just happened to see your letter peeking out of your breast pocket.”
Kazuya immediately looked down at his pocket. Sure enough, he had placed the letter inside when he left his dormitory room this morning.
“You deliberately took the letter with you because you planned to read it, or perhaps were hesitating on what to write in reply. I have reconstructed the fragments of chaos thusly. In other words, Kujou, the contents of that letter were bothering you in some way.”
Kazuya whistled in admiration. “Victorique, you may be weird, but you’re awfully smart!”
“It’s just like you said. You know what, to tell you the truth, this letter from my brother has been tormenting me ever since I received it last night. I can’t seem to get it out of my mind….”
“No more hemming and hawing, just let me see it.”
Kazuya pulled the letter from his breast pocket.
A voice of objection came from the golden drill peeking at them from under the shade of the palm trees. “Hey, I was here first! That’s not fair!”
“…The unicorn is angry,” said Kazuya.
“Let him be. Now hurry up and open it.”
Kazuya opened the envelope and handed it to Victorique. She accepted it with an inquisitive grunt, then began to read it.
The letter was written in slightly broken English. Kazuya’s second eldest brother spent his free time engaged in his hobby of creating inventions, but was also employed in a government-related job, and was highly respected in the community. He had apparently challenged himself to practice writing letters in English. The contents consisted of a simple report of recent events: the family was doing well, a tree in the garden had died, this year’s winter had been quite a harsh one, and other such innocuous topics.
He ended the letter with a clumsily drawn picture of what looked like a rose, and beneath it, another picture of a woman. Next to the drawing, he had written “It’s a secret!” in small print.
Kazuya peered closely into Victorique’s small face, thinking to himself that even she, for all of her smarts, would never be able to figure out the meaning of this picture and the message. But as soon as this thought had crossed his mind, she abruptly giggled.
Kazuya was so shocked that he jumped into the air. Victorique, who always had an insult at the ready and whose expression never showed an ounce of warmth, had suddenly smiled. Her face was startlingly adorable, and Kazuya felt his heartbeat quicken at the sight of it.
“Mmm? Oh, just that your second eldest brother or whoever he is amused me a little.”
“Was there something funny?” Kazuya examined the letter, reading it over several times. Finally, he shook his head, still stumped. “Hey, what do you mean? Is it the picture that made you laugh? I couldn’t get what it means at all. What the heck is this ‘secret’ he’s talking about?”
Victorique pursed her smooth, cherry-red lips, then moved close to Kazuya’s ear, as if about to share something private with him. He blushed slightly at the sensation of her cool breath tickling his ear. But Victorique paid no mind to his reaction, and whispered to him in a low, husky voice.
“Your brother has a secret lover.”
“What?! A lover!?” screeched Kazuya.
“Right. And the only one he wanted to tell was his little brother, who lives far away.”
“My big brother has a lover?! I don’t believe it! But he wears glasses, and spends all his time with his inventions! That is, when he isn’t eating!”
Kazuya grabbed the letter and brought it close to his face, then held it out at arms’ length, reading it over and over many times. But he still saw nothing remotely related to what she had said.
Giving up, he looked over at Victorique and quietly waited for her explanation.
A breeze flowed in from the skylights, audibly stirring the palm fronds.
Victorique had turned herself completely over to gardening, seeming to have forgotten about Kazuya. After some time had passed, she at last appeared to feel satisfied with her work, and plunged her small hands into the bucket to wash them. When her hands were clean, she looked up at Kazuya. “Give me your handkerchief.”
“…Okay, but I want you to give me an explanation, Victorique.”
“An explanation?” Victorique gave him a mystified look. As she wiped her small hands with Kazuya’s proffered handkerchief, she asked wonderingly, “Of what?”
“That secret lover!”
“Oh… So you still don’t understand. You really are a slow one. Every day must be a struggle for you.”
“Leave me out of this! Hurry up and explain it!”
Victorique sighed heavily in exasperation. “Do I have to?”
She resignedly began to explain. “Ugh… First of all, that letter was written in English. And a woman’s picture was drawn underneath the rose. Incidentally, in English the phrase ‘sub rosa’—’under the rose’— is used to mean ‘in secret’.”
“That’s right. So, from this we can assume that your brother has a secret girlfriend, and that this is to be kept strictly confidential. I suppose it would be embarrassing to him. …Do you finally understand now?”
Kazuya nodded admiringly. “I got it. But Victorique… You sure figured that one out in no time, huh?”
Kazuya had only meant to praise her, but for some reason Victorique suddenly scowled as if he had just said something very rude, and began to fiercely object. “K-Kujou. Who on earth do you think you’re talking to here? There is nothing I don’t know. This sort of puzzle doesn’t even deserve to be called a mystery.”
“Oh…?” Kazuya stared dumbfounded at Victorique, who had suddenly become incensed, staining her rosy cheeks scarlet. Then he added offhandedly, “That reminds me: my brother always loved solving puzzles. Well, he may be very bashful around women, and would even fall into a faint whenever his little sister—I mean my big sister—gave him a hug. But he’s still very smart. At university, he was so brilliant at math that he won the respect of his professors. And his hobby is inventing things. I remember how he used to boast that if it weren’t for his job, he could defeat anyone in the world when it came to solving puzzles. Ha-ha!”
“…What did you say?” Victorique’s finely shaped eyebrows shot upwards upon hearing his innocently uttered words.
Kazuya was taken aback. “V-Victorique…? Hey, what’s wrong?”
“How dare the brother of the likes of you claim to be the best in the world at anything!”
“It’s not like I have anything to do with it! Hey…?!”
Victorique shook her fists violently. Then she suddenly uttered a strange cry, sounding somewhat like a cross between a snort and a sneeze, and rolled on the ground out of the conservatory. Her frilly petticoats and billowing drawers fluttered before Kazuya’s astonished gaze for an instant.
“Wh-where did you go…? Oh, never mind. You’re back already.”
The ball of redcurrant-colored chiffon again rolled back to Kazuya’s feet. During her brief moment out of his sight, she had somehow managed to gather up writing paper, a quill pen, and an ink bottle without him noticing it.
Kazuya watched over her carefully, wondering what on earth she was up to this time. Then Victorique, her face completely flushed, spread the writing paper out on the floor and began to draw a white horse.
“…Are you doodling?”
Victorique ignored him.
“Jeez. You’re always so impulsive. What’s that? Drawing a horsey? Ha-ha, you’re doing a lousy job of it… Ouch! Don’t pinch me! Ack, that’s going to leave a mark!”
“I am not doodling. I am issuing a challenge to that stupid Kujou sibling across the seas.”
“He isn’t stupid. I might be, but he definitely isn’t. …Huh, a challenge?” Kazuya blinked in surprise.
And then he took a closer look at Victorique’s drawing.
She had drawn a white horse running along a hilly landscape. The scene looked familiar. Kazuya recalled reading about a famous tourist attraction in the county of Berkshire in England of an enormous figure of a white horse that had been carved into a hill in prehistoric times.
“Hmm… And what about this one?” He turned to look at another picture that Victorique had drawn. It was a comical drawing of a donkey, albeit a very unskillfully drawn one. “What’s this one for? Huh? Are you writing something on it, too?”
“Shut up. Don’t bother me.”
“C-come on, I wasn’t bothering you!”
But Victorique was fully engrossed in her work, and offered no reaction to Kazuya’s denials. Beneath her sketches, she was composing a message in elegantly handwritten English.
Kazuya read it aloud. “Let’s see…. ‘Rearrange this poorly-drawn donkey so that it turns into this beautiful white horse. Do it in under five minutes. This is an order. From Victorique.’ …Really, is this supposed to be a puzzle? Well, okay, but if you write ‘from Victorique,’ he isn’t going to know who you are. …What, why are you glaring at me like that? Tch… Fine, fine.”
Kazuya quickly gave in. He took the paper from Victorique and wrote a message in the corner. There’s nothing new to report on my end, thanks for informing me about the “sub rosa” matter, and also, I made friends with a little girl, and that girl is very smart and for some reason wants to give you a quiz, and I don’t really get it myself, but I’m forwarding it to you anyway, etc….
Victorique nodded in satisfaction, her mood finally seeming to have improved.
Kazuya thought privately to himself: She’s awfully childish. I guess she really hates to lose…. and sighed in dismay.
Victorique, now completely calmed down, sat down gracefully, looking for all like a noblewoman despite her tiny size. With slow and deliberate movements, she lifted up her white ceramic pipe, lit the fire, and brought it to her small lips to take a puff.
Then she suddenly spoke. “So, about that portrait of Countess Ashenden.”
“You remembered!” shouted Inspector de Blois, poking his drill in their direction.
The sunlight that illuminated the conservatory had grown brighter, shining radiantly upon the lush vegetation. A springtime breeze gently seeped in from the skylights, rustling through tree leaves and flower petals alike.
A thin white tendril of smoke weaved its way up toward the ceiling from the ceramic pipe hanging out of Victorique’s mouth.
Kazuya stood amiably beside the inspector, awaiting Victorique’s next words with bated breath.
“Kujou, do you know Latin?”
Inspector de Blois also grimaced and shook his drill in negation.
“’Pentimento’ is a word in Latin that, literally translated, means ‘to regret’. Of course, Latin is no longer a language used for everyday conversation. And it’s rare that this word is ever used in the sense of its original meaning. Even so, words can live on indefinitely by taking on new meanings. I suppose that even if roses themselves happened to disappear from the face of the earth for whatever reason, the expression ‘sub rosa’ may still survive. You could think of it as a descendant of the rose. And so the same is true in this case.”
“…Wh-what do you mean?”
“The Latin word ‘pentimento’ lives on today as a specialized term used in the fine arts. It refers to the action a painter takes when he regrets something he has painted. You see, a painter may feel like creating a new painting atop the canvas of the original one, in case that one was a failure. Or in case he wants to hide the original.”
Victorique removed the pipe from her lips, then slowly, languidly, turned to Kazuya.
Like one entranced, Kazuya stared into her light green eyes, which were hazy with a deep weariness, the likes of which he had never encountered before meeting her. Her eyes were devoid of emotion, as if they belonged to a completely different person from the one whose face had earlier been flushed with childish anger. Those motionless green eyes could have been mistaken for the glass eyes of some extinct animal stuffed and put on display. They possessed a negative charge, powerful enough to send shivers down the spine of anyone who looked at them. And yet Kazuya could not tear his eyes away from them. He felt as if he was being stared down by some huge, ferocious animal.
Victorique went on with her explanation. “After many years, the colors of the work that the artist painted on top fade and disappear. And then, one day, the original painting is revealed. This phenomenon is called ‘pentimento‘.”
Kazuya exchanged surprised looks with the inspector. “So then, what you’re saying is…?”
“The painting that hung on the wall of the Sealed Reading Room was never switched out. Long ago, someone tried to hide ‘South Atlantic,’ and painted an amateurish portrait on top of it. But when the paint faded, the original masterpiece once again became visible.”
“Wh-who did that?”
Victorique shot Kazuya a withering look. Then she snorted through her small, shapely nose, and continued in her usual unbearably haughty manner.
“…Shouldn’t it be obvious by now that it was Cuiaran who did it? The same Cuiaran who stole the ‘South Atlantic’ and Countess Ashenden’s ‘Poison Flower.’ When he came here to hide the painting, he thought of painting something else on top of it. And then he remembered the original owner of the necklace that he had also come to hide, and ended up drawing that portrait of her. And that is the secret of who hung that portrait in the reading room, and when it was placed there.”
Silence fell upon the conservatory.
Intense rays of sunlight blazed through the skylights as a mellow springtime breeze lightly ruffled through palm fronds.
A thin white trail of smoke rose from Victorique’s ceramic pipe and swayed lazily in midair.
For several moments, no one said a word. Kazuya could do nothing but gaze speechlessly at Victorique’s small and lovely face while she sat in impassive silence.
Inspector de Blois, who was the most shocked out of anyone in the room, at last collected his wits together. “Well, now. I guess I should be going.” He slowly turned away from the conservatory and walked to the hydraulic elevator with such brisk steps that he might as well have been trying to flee the scene.
Kazuya jolted back to awareness, and shouted after him reproachfully. “Inspector! Are you going to use Victorique for her intelligence yet again, then just ignore her and leave? You should take this opportunity to thank her. Inspector, inspector!”
“…What are you talking about? I merely came here to have a chat with you, Kujou,” said the inspector, mumbling an excuse that Kazuya had already heard him use before. He jumped into the iron cage of the elevator and shut the black metal doors.
“…Gréville.” Victorique suddenly uttered his name aloud in her husky voice.
The inspector’s shoulders twitched, and he looked up to the ceiling while taking peeks at her from the corner of his eye. “Wh-what do you want? I’m busy here. I have to go search for all of the loot that Cuiaran hid inside this school. Well, then, I must be off.”
“You may search as much as you like, but unfortunately for you, this is one thing you’re never going to find, Gréville.”
Victorique produced a small bag out of nowhere and threw it at the inspector, swinging her arm dramatically. But the bag refused to fly more than a meter away from where she was standing, and instead fell limply to the ground. Kazuya dutifully retrieved it, and walked over to hand it to the inspector.
It was a small bag embroidered with a floral pattern. The inspector stared at it blankly for a moment, then suddenly gave a shout. He pulled out the list of items stolen by Cuiaran and scanned it, looking back and forth between the list and the bag. Kazuya also leaned in for a peek.
On the list was a drawing of a cloth bag that looked exactly like the one that Victorique had just thrown to him. It contained the seed of a rare flower that a famous botanist had discovered in the rainforests of South America.
The inspector hastily opened the bag and peered inside. Then he turned it upside down and shook it.
But nothing came out.
“It’s empty!” he shrieked.
Then he turned to the enigmatic, beautiful young girl who was still standing in the center of the conservatory, gazing at him fixedly with her green eyes.
“What happened to the seed?!”
“…I ate it.”
“Y-y-y-you ate it!? Are you a squirrel?! Tell me you’re lying!”
“It’s the truth. It was quite delicious, too. As you know, my greatest enemy is tedium. From time to time I like to surprise myself with new and unusual things to eat.”
Victorique said no more. She gave a nod of satisfaction, then promptly turned her back to him. The white strand of smoke from her pipe swayed almost imperceptibly, as if she were suppressing laughter….
The iron cage of the elevator descended with a harsh metallic clang.
Kazuya had been nervously looking back and forth between Victorique and the inspector during their exchange. Now, as the iron cage dropped below the floor, he thought he saw the inspector’s face contort in frustration, right before disappearing from view.
Kazuya scrambled back to the conservatory. “Did you really eat it? Something as valuable as that? And it didn’t give you a stomachache?”
Victorique chose not to look at him, merely acknowledging him with a snort through her dainty nose.
Kazuya, still taken aback by what he had just seen, was briefly silent, then finally burst out laughing. “You should’ve seen the look on his face!”
“Kujou… You like pretty flowers, don’t you?”
“Flowers?” Kazuya repeated, nonplussed. Then he thought for a moment. “Yeah, I do. In my home country, my mother used to tend our garden. Different kinds of flowers would bloom depending on the time of year, and they looked really pretty. But the ones in this conservatory are nice, too. How about you?”
Victorique’s only response was another snort.
Kazuya gave her a perplexed look, uncertain of where this sudden turn of conversation was headed. Then he fell silent, and began worrying whether his presence was bothering Victorique. If the case has been solved, then I guess there’s no more reason for me to keep coming here….
Victorique continued to ignore him, and returned to reading her books. She flipped through the pages of the many books she was reading simultaneously with tremendous speed.
Although he could not quite understand why, Kazuya felt loath to part from this peculiar little girl. It’s not like I have any reason to keep climbing that ghastly staircase every day. I may never see this strange girl ever again…. The thought of it makes me feel kind of lonely. But…
Victorique, by all appearances engrossed in her books, spoke without moving her gaze from them. “Kujou. In around ten days. It might happen then.”
“Okay? …Hey, what’s wrong? Your face is a little red.”
“N-n-no, it isn’t! It might happen in ten days!”
“It is, though…. What might happen in ten days?”
“Well… You can come back then.”
Kazuya was momentarily stunned. Then his face brightened in a flash. “Can I really?!”
“…You can come in ten days, and then go look over there.”
“Over there?” Kazuya stared curiously in the direction she was pointing–around the area where she had been digging in the dirt all morning.
Victorique took a drag from her pipe. “In around ten days, a rare tropical flower will bloom in that spot. You can come see it.”
“…Oh, so that’s what it was! Victorique, you were planting it, weren’t you!”
“Well, you see, I hadn’t realized. When the seed fell out of the bag, I planted it. And then I found out it was on that list….”
Victorique blushed, then flapped her small, outstretched hands. Kazuya stared in astonishment at the sight of her fumbling for excuses, lost in a self-imposed panic. At last she fell silent, and placed her palms on her red cheeks.
A gentle wind blew, vibrating the palm fronds and causing the line of smoke from Victorique’s pipe to flicker.
Kazuya felt delight begin to well up inside of him. “Then it’s okay if I come back here? I’m not going to be too noisy and bother you?”
Victorique gave no reply aside from a snort. Then, through the corner of her eye, she looked at Kazuya, whose grin was growing ever bigger. She frowned in irritation, and opened her mouth as if she had something to say.
But for some reason, the usual stinging insults that she uttered in her husky voice did not come forth from her glossy, cherry-red lips. She closed her mouth, and gave another snort.
A breeze from the skylights lingered upon Victorique’s lustrous blond hair, which draped down her back like a velvet turban come undone. The palm fronds murmured softly.
Kazuya turned away from her, preparing to leave the conservatory. He placed his hand on the ivy-etched railing of the labyrinthine staircase, then looked back once more. For a moment, a scene flashed before his eyes as if in a daydream.
The library tower, shrouded in grey. One day, in that marvelous conservatory on the very top floor, the seed of an exotic foreign plant would bud and bloom into a luminous flower. As the flower swayed in the breeze from the skylights, the enigmatic little girl Victorique, herself like a marvelous foreign flower, would admire it. And Kazuya would sit nestled by her side….
Like a secret gardener watching over an unusual flower, Kazuya simply watched Victorique, who sat amidst her sumptuous frills, like colorful scattered petals. Up until now, she had been sitting in the conservatory, stubbornly ignoring him. But as Kazuya continued to stare at her in a daze, transfixed by a moment’s vision, Victorique lifted up her head slightly. Their eyes met.
Kazuya held his breath, and merely gazed at her with heat in his eyes. Victorique stared back at him wonderingly. The two of them stayed silent for what felt like an eternity, until finally Victorique whispered in a voice as husky as that of an old woman, mixed with a sigh of unbearable tedium.
“I will always be right here. If ever you have something to say, then just climb up that labyrinth of stairs and tell me!”