GosickS I – Prelude 8

[8]

With the start of the long summer break, the sights and sounds of the students vanished as if they had never existed in the first place, leaving St. Marguerite’s School bathed in stillness and the radiant light of the summer sun. But there was a subtle change to this yearly routine, and it was not solely due to the presence of the Grey Wolf Victorique.

When morning came, Victorique groggily gathered up her frills and lace and walked out of the small gingerbread house, passing through the deserted gardens. Her destination was St. Marguerite’s Library, one of the greatest repositories of books in all of Europe, stored in a square, hollow building, submerged in the color of ash. Victorique was the only student granted special permission to use the library’s hydraulic elevator, which had been installed only a few years before. From morning until evening, she spent all of her time reading books in a curious alcove at the very top of the labyrinthine staircase, built for a king of Sauvure to indulge himself in his rendezvous with a secret lover.

The summer flew past uneventfully, and soon enough, it was autumn.

A traveler had arrived.

*****

That morning, Cécile sat at her desk in a staff room on the first floor of the U-shaped main building, staring flummoxed at the stack of papers in front of her. She held her head in her hands and groaned to herself.

“Hmm… So this time, it’s an Oriental boy….” She adjusted her crooked eyeglasses. “What’ll I do if it’s another strange one? What will I have to bring him this time, and where will I have to bring it? And just when I thought the pain in my back went away…. Hmm….”

As Cécile sighed to herself, she reflected on her mental images of what people from the Far East were like. Harakiri, inscrutable hairstyles, gorgeously-patterned clothing, dog stew….

“Right. I have to hide the dogs! He’s almost here!”

When she rose from her chair, her elbow accidentally knocked over the textbooks, exam papers, and assorted heavy books that were stacked up on her side of the desk. “Ack! …Huh?”

Hidden behind the din of papers crashing to the floor, she thought she heard someone say something in a quiet, muffled voice.

Startled, Cécile looked beyond the jumble of books and handouts, and saw that someone had entered the staff room unnoticed. Standing before her was a diminutive young boy, his skin a color she had never seen before. His hair was jet-black and glossy, and his smooth skin was tinged with yellow. He had hastily reached out to catch some of the falling books, then put them back on the desk and began silently picking up the papers scattered on the ground.

Cécile stared at the boy in amazement.

…To the young aristocrats that populated the student body, the teachers were merely another category of servant. If Cécile ever dropped something, there would be not a single student willing to pick it up for her. As she looked down at him, bewilderment written all over her face, the boy swiftly picked up everything that had fallen and placed it back on the desk. Then he dusted off his knees and stood up.

He was small in stature and fine-boned, but held himself tall like an adult man. The boy stared intently at Cécile with a serious, inflexible expression, looking much like a young soldier.

His jet-black eyes drew her into their gaze. They were sparkling and moist, the same color as his hair.

Cécile scrambled back to her desk to review the documents she had laid out in advance. This boy had been sent abroad to study on the recommendation of his country, a certain nation in the Orient. His father was a soldier, and his two older brothers were already successfully employed in their respective careers. He was an honors student, the pride of his country, and had earned excellent grades at his military academy….

Cécile turned away from the dossier to the small boy standing before her. “…Kazuya Kujou, right?”

Oui.” Perhaps still unused to the sounds of French, he stumbled for a moment, a frown forming between his brows. Then he steeled himself, and stood up even straighter. “I am Kazuya Kujou. Mademoiselle, I am pleased to make your acquaintance!”

“Do you eat dogs?”

Kazuya’s upbeat expression suddenly deflated sadly. “Non. We do not eat dogs.”

“Great. The classroom is this way, Kujou.”

Cécile picked up her textbooks and began to walk away, with Kazuya hurriedly following behind her. His black leather shoes made a firm clack each time they hit the floor of the hallway, startling her with their precisely-regulated pace, as if he were holding a one-man march.

While walking down the hallway with her textbooks and Kazuya’s dossier in hand, Cécile compared the attached photograph with the boy marching beside her. The picture featured a stern-looking father in military garb, two large-framed elder brothers, and a slight woman, who appeared to be his mother, standing directly in the middle of the frame. Kazuya himself was ducking shamefacedly in the corner. Next to him, a vaguely flirtatious-looking girl with lustrous black hair and moist cat-like eyes was hanging from Kazuya’s neck, pressing her cheek to his. This was presumably his older sister.

The more Cécile compared the solemn expression on the boy walking next to her to the face in the photograph, with his dismayed look as his sister clung to him, the funnier she found it, and she burst out laughing.

“What is it, mademoiselle?” Kazuya asked, sounding puzzled.

“Oh, nothing…. Good luck with your classes, Kujou.”

“Of course, mademoiselle,” he replied, nodding with a stiff expression on his face. “I came to study with the intention of upholding the dignity of my nation. I am compelled to excel in my schoolwork and return as a distinguished adult who can serve my country. My father and brothers have all made this very clear to me.”

“What about your maman and your big sister?”

As soon as he heard those words, Kazuya’s gaze dropped to the ground, and for an instant, his face looked like that of a child.

“Hmm?”

“My mother and sister … wept and pleaded with me not to go….” Kazuya looked as if he were about to cry. But he bit his lip and stood up ever straighter instead.

“I-is that right,” Cécile responded politely.

They reached the classroom.

Cécile opened the door, stood Kazuya in front of the classroom, and introduced the new foreign student to the rest of the pupils. The blond-haired and blue-eyed boys and girls seated in the classroom—the children of powerful families in Sauvure’s aristocracy—stared at their new classmate with uniformly chilly and aloof faces.

*****

Kazuya Kujou would end up encountering many difficulties in his day to day life.

Asians were a rare sight in Europe in the first place, and the sheltered students were extremely resistant to the idea of befriending one at school. Kazuya’s serious personality did him no favors, and he was unable to make close friends, only narrowly managing to be recognized by others for his excellent grades.

Kazuya’s French, halting at first, gradually improved until he had no problems dealing with either conversation or schoolwork. He stubbornly devoted every waking moment to his studies.

From time to time, Cécile would remind him, “Don’t push yourself so hard. It’s okay to relax and enjoy yourself sometimes, too.”

But Kazuya would merely respond with a “yes, ma’am.”

And so the seasons slowly turned.

*****

One morning, on her way to the main building after leaving the dormitory early, Cécile encountered Kazuya standing with ramrod straight posture in front of one of the flower gardens. “Good morning!” she greeted him.

Kazuya turned around, startled by the sound of her voice. He squinted his jet-black eyes against the bright morning sun and said, “Miss Cécile, good morning.”

“You’re up early. What have you been doing?”

Most of the other students were used to sleeping in until the very last minute before lessons started. When Cécile was a student, she was no exception. But she had a feeling that in Kujou’s case, waking up early in the morning and taking a walk was probably something very typical of him.

Kazuya abruptly pointed at something, his serious expression as rigid as ever.

“Hmm?” said Cécile.

He was pointing at a small golden flower blooming luminously in a corner of the garden.

“A flower?” Cécile asked.

Kazuya nodded in the affirmative.

“Do you like that flower?”

“Yes.”

“Ooh… You noticed it right away, even though it’s so small, and surrounded by a bunch of bigger flowers.”

“Yes.” Kazuya nodded. Then he suddenly looked embarrassed, and cast his eyes down. He softly murmured, “I’ll be off, then,” and turned away from Cécile, walking to the main building with brisk footsteps.

How strange… Is it so embarrassing to admire flowers…? Cécile thought bemusedly.

An autumn’s breeze, imbued with a cool dampness, lightly rustled through her hair as she stood in front of the garden.

*****

“Who was that?”

Around the end of the following week.

In the midst of delivering a shipment of new dresses and sweets to Victorique’s villa, Cécile paused. Victorique de Blois, who had said nothing for weeks on end, and resembled nothing more than a doll with an unchanging expression, had suddenly spoken.

“Huh?” Cécile blurted out, nonplussed.

Victorique snorted brusquely. “That yellowish fellow who came to the library today.”

“Yellowish fellow?!” Cécile thought to herself for a moment, a doubtful look on her face.

Victorique, on the other hand, apparently had no desire to explain herself further, and went back to silently smoking her pipe and flipping through her books at an impressive speed. She read through ten pages of a bulky tome of philosophy written in complex Latin in what seemed like an eye-blink.

Finally, with an air of impatience, Victorique raised her head slightly, and reluctantly added to her description. “His movements were rather stiff.”

“…Kujou?!” Cécile understood at last.

And then she remembered how that evening, she had asked Kazuya to find a book in St. Marguerite’s Library. Kazuya had gone through considerable pains to locate the book, wandering up and down the library’s maze of stairs over and over until finally finding it and bringing it back to Cécile. She thought he seemed to be a bit out of breath…

And at the same time, Victorique had been at the very top of that maze of stairs, in that lush conservatory, by herself as always, reading her books and smoking her pipe…

Cécile nodded. “That’s Kujou, one of the foreign students. He’s from a small country in the Far East, and he arrived last month to enroll as a student here.”

Victorique did not respond. She immersed herself once more in the quiet world of books, with the sound of turning pages and the smoke that drifted from her pipe its only other inhabitants.

i wonder what’s gotten into her. I never thought I’d ever see her express interest in anything other than books….

As she pondered this, Cécile left the villa.

*****

The autumn headed into another winter. The bleak sky was cold and dry, saturating the vast gardens of St. Marguerite’s School in a dreary grey. The plants had lost their green leaves, and now resembled nothing more than a forest of tangled branches, or perhaps the bones of a black skull. Bare rose bushes spread throughout the gardens like a baleful spider’s web.

Sometimes Cécile would find Kazuya lingering in front of the same flower garden where she saw him that day. While passing by on her way to the classrooms early in the morning, she would glance to the side and see Kazuya gazing at that desolate flower garden, with a soft, strangely tender look in his eyes. It was a look that he never showed to anyone, whether during lessons, or when she sent him on errands to the library.

A golden flower had quietly bloomed there until the end of autumn. But now it was hidden amongst thin, dry branches, intertwining like spider’s silk, left behind in a lonesome garden….

Kazuya would sometimes stand perfectly still, and simply gaze silently at the withered plants.

Kujou must be…

One morning, a thought arose in Cécile’s mind.

I have the feeling that he must be waiting for spring. He’s patiently waiting for that lovely shining flower to bloom again. Even though he always seems so stern, maybe he’s actually a romantic gentleman at heart….

The grey sky of a European winter shrouded the campus like a dark taffeta blanket….

*****

“How old is Kujou?”

Cécile rushed to the garden maze one morning to deliver breakfast to the villa, sneaking in a peek at Kazuya along the way. When Victorique’s husky voice reached her ears, she jumped and nearly spilled the silver tray carrying fruit, rye bread, and lingonberry jam.

“What was that?”

“…Never mind,” muttered Victorique grumpily, turning away from Cécile.

A white strand of smoke floated aimlessly from her pipe. The little girl, enveloped in black velvet and white silken frills, paged through her books and puffed on her pipe. From time to time, she would shake her thin neck as if waking from a dream, and stretch out a hand to pluck a morsel from her mountain of sweets. Then she would pop it in her glossy, cherry-red mouth and munch on it.

“…Eat too much candy and you won’t have room for breakfast.”

“….”

“And Kujou is the same age as you. Both of you are in the same class for now. Although, you won’t get to meet him if you don’t show up for lessons.”

“…Oh,” Victorique answered curtly, in the same quiet, husky voice that Cécile had grown accustomed to hearing. But she thought she heard a subtle twinge of something else in that voice, like a drop of rosewater that had spilled into a lake.

The smallest drop of sweet water had dripped into a huge, murky pool, and it awakened a disquiet in Cécile’s heart.

Cécile concentrated on Victorique’s aloof expression while she looked down at her books. She again had the distinct feeling that something she had never seen before had flickered across Victorique’s face for a split second. The sight of it made her feel uneasy. Cécile nervously adjusted her large glasses so that she could get a better look at her, but that aura of slight warmth that she was sure she had sensed had already passed from Victorique’s small face, as cold as porcelain, vanishing to some hidden place inside of her.

What was that just now…?

The afterimage nagged at Cécile, but Victorique merely ignored her and said no more. At last, Cécile picked up her tray of breakfast and left the villa.

A cold gust of wind blew past her, and she quickly fumbled to close the front of her brown overcoat. She made her way through the winding path of the garden maze until finally emerging from it after some time.

The sprawling campus on the outside of the garden maze felt even colder in the European winter, which was imbued with a foreboding sense of darkness. Cécile quickened her steps toward the dormitory. Somewhere out of sight, she heard the dry crackle of dead leaves.

*****

The weather gradually grew colder.

Kazuya Kujou, unused to the winters of Europe, caught the flu on one occasion. One day, he was so ill that he could not get out of bed, and so Cécile visited his room in the boys’ dormitory to deliver the assignments that he had missed.

The room was so precisely organized that it felt lonely just to look at it. Furnished with elegant oaken furniture for the use of the noble-born children, it contained a large writing desk, bookshelves, and elaborately-ornamented cabinets. Kazuya, his face flushed, was lying on the bed in the corner, his sleeping body held perfectly straight under the covers.

The redheaded housemother anxiously paced the hallway, fretting over the foreign child who had collapsed. When Cécile placed the palm of her hand on Kazuya’s hot forehead to check his temperature, Kazuya murmured something she didn’t understand, in what she assumed was his native language.

He must be calling out to someone, thought Cécile. She heard him say two syllables over and over again—ru, ri. While she contemplated this for a moment, Kazuya opened his unfocused eyes. They were deep black, the color of the night, and felt as if they consumed all that they gazed upon. At first, Kazuya stared at her in a daze. Then, when he realized that the person sitting beside him was his homeroom teacher, he bolted up in bed.

“Try to get some more sleep,” said Cécile, trying to soothe him.

Kazuya resisted for a moment, then obligingly laid back down. After this, he said bashfully, “I thought you were someone else. I apologize, Miss Cécile.”

“Who did you think it was?”

“I felt the presence of a female, so I thought it may have been my sister.” Kazuya burrowed under the covers, sounding profoundly embarrassed. He continued, his voice muffled by the blankets. “I thought you were Ruri. Because when I was in my country, we were always together. Miss Cécile, her name in my language carries the meaning of a precious stone. And even though she cried and begged so much for me not to go, I left her behind anyway. Now I worry about her.”

“I’m sure she must worry about you, too.”

“Yes, I’m sure,” murmured Kazuya. His head peeked out of the comforter.

Cécile called an old physician from the village to examine Kazuya. Even when the doctor gave him an injection with a large syringe, Kazuya’s face betrayed no fear, nor the slightest trace of pain. His expression stony, he gritted his teeth, keeping as silent and stoic as possible.

Right before Cécile escorted the doctor out, something occurred to her. “Kujou, you like shiny, pretty things, don’t you? Like the names of jewels, and…” A faraway look entered her eyes. “I remember how much you loved to look at that golden flower in the garden. It was so small, but lovely. When it’s springtime again, you’ll see it bloom. Right?”

Hearing no reply, she turned around to look at him. Then she saw that Kazuya’s face was fully flushed all the way to his ears, to an extent that could not be solely blamed on his fever. He squirmed silently, then finally said in a faint voice, “I really love the color gold.”

Why is that so embarrassing to him? wondered Cécile curiously.

Kazuya continued, “For a man to admit to such a frivolous thing, if my father and brothers found out, they would strip me naked, tie me up, and hang me out of the second-story window. And my brothers’ favorite magazine to read is something called ‘Monthly He-Men’. But as for me, I’m just…”

His voice trailed off forlornly.

“I’m just this plain, inconspicuous, dull man you see before you.”

“Th-that’s not true.”

“It’s okay. So whenever I see beautiful colors or flowers, it’s like I suddenly fall under a spell. I feel my heart being stolen away from me. Really, it only happens once in a while. But I keep it a secret from those around me.”

“….”

“Miss Cécile, I think the color gold is a truly lovely, marvelous color. There are no flowers of that color in my country. So when I saw that golden flower, I felt very touched by it. But it’s a secret… so please … don’t tell…”

In the middle of Kazuya’s feverish murmuring, the injection finally seemed to take effect. His black eyes closed, and his breathing fell into the soft rhythm of sleep. Cécile sighed in dismay at the sight of him lying down rigidly straight, even on his sickbed. Then she gently rearranged the disheveled comforter and lightly patted him on top of the covers, imagining to herself that this would be what his sister would do for him had she been there.

“A golden flower…!”

As Cécile left the dormitory and made her way through the darkened gardens outside, a single image rose in her mind. That girl, like a small golden rose. And those striking, silent eyes that stared straight at her, lost within the blossoming flower petals that took on the form of frills and lace….

Victorique de Blois…!

Cécile walked through the garden paths, thinking of the girl who could be called a living golden flower. The winter would not end for a while yet.

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