chapter four — the hares and the hound
The five of them quietly walked down the hallway. Victorique and Kazuya kept pace at the back of the group. In front of them was Julie Guile, carrying the hem of her red dress, her long black hair bouncing from side to side with each step. Ned Baxter took the lead. Maurice strode along quickly, a few paces removed from the rest of the group.
The red carpet was fluffy, softly enveloping their feet as they trod upon it. It was luxurious, but hard to walk on. The lamps that shone brightly down on them were also much too gaudy and elaborate.
Ned came to an abrupt stop. “Wh-what’s this?” he stuttered.
Everyone halted, and looked up. What stopped them in their tracks as they headed toward the bow of the ship was a black wall blocking their way. All of the hallways on that floor were blocked by that wall, and they could advance no further.
Maurice clicked his tongue. “It’s the same as ten years ago….”
When Ned and Julie stepped toward him questioningly, Maurice began to explain, a dark look in his eyes. “Letting the hares go straight to the radio room would be far too dull. It was necessary for us to thin the herd first by letting them die in the traps, or having them find weapons so they could injure each other.”
After a beat of silence, Julie asked, “Why?”
Maurice gave no answer. He was quiet for a minute, then sighed. “We’ll have to go down three more floors. The next one down and the one below that should be cut off by the same wall. If this ship is the same as the Queen Berry, that is.”
The five of them went back down the hallway in search of the stairwell.
Kazuya looked over at Victorique walking next to him. She hadn’t said a word the whole time, but he could hear the faint sound of her breathing. Starting to feel worried, he peered down at her. Droplets of sweat were collecting on the pale brow of her small, doll-like face.
“…Victorique, are you tired?”
She said nothing.
“Do your feet hurt? Are you hungry? Oh, that bag must be heavy. Let me carry it.”
“Trying to grin and bear it? Don’t do that, okay? It’s not like you.”
“…Kujou, whenever you try to control me….” Victorique looked up at him, her cheeks puffed out like those of a sullen child. Her own intent was probably quite different, but the impression she gave was of an adorable squirrel that had stuffed its cheeks full of nuts. “…It really makes my blood boil!”
“Huh?! Who’s trying to control you?! I’m just worried about you. You’re too pigheaded and proud for your own good!”
“You’re the pigheaded one!”
“No, you are!” yelled Kazuya. And with this, he wrested away her bag, grabbed her small hand with his unoccupied one, and started walking again.
Julie stared at them, startled. Ned pretended not to notice them.
As they walked, Kazuya started talking again to Victorique. His head was filled with questions, and he hadn’t had the chance to ask anyone until now. “Say, Victorique. What do you think is going on here?”
There was no answer.
He looked at her profile, and saw that she seemed to be listening to him, at least for now. Feeling reassured, he kept talking. “What happened ten years ago on the original Queen Berry? Why would they put children our age on this ship? And what on earth happened while they were on board? And I wonder why, ten years later, someone would build such an elaborate replica to recreate those events?”
Victorique didn’t reply. She simply kept on walking at Kazuya’s side, moving along with tiny footsteps.
“Who could be doing this, and why…?” Kazuya remembered the dinner they had in that dining room—how gloomy that room was.
And he remembered the guide who fled the ship in a lifeboat, and the way his orange lamp flickered, then vanished into the sea.
And then there were the eleven guests seated in the dining room. Someone put sedatives into their food and moved them to the lounge. After that, the group increased by one.
Someone who hadn’t been seated at the table slipped into the crowd. Would that person be the mastermind of this blood-drenched re-enactment?
“…Well, I know that Ned was definitely there,” Kazuya continued.
Victorique finally spoke. “Because you were sitting on his lap.”
“Y-yeah… So that would mean either Julie or Maurice is the twelfth guest. If we just consider their ages, then Julie is the more suspicious one, since she’s young. I mean, ten years ago, she would’ve been in her mid-teens, the same age as those kids who were put on this ship.”
Kazuya thought to himself for a moment. “But in that case, why would Ned be sent an invitation, too? Maurice is apparently one of the people who were involved in putting them on this ship, and that’s how he ended up getting invited here, and nearly dying here. But what about Ned? He would’ve been a teenager ten years ago, too. I guess that means … he could have been one of the victims.”
“Kujou, why do you keep rambling on and on about such obvious things?” Victorique said, sounding infinitely weary.
“But still,” Kazuya glumly objected. “There’s so many things I don’t understand about all this.”
“Oh, now that I think of it, Ned could be the culprit, too. He could’ve planned this together with Julie…. No, probably not, or else they could have just killed Maurice themselves without having to go through such roundabout methods….”
“Uh-huh. There you go again, stating the obvious.”
“E-easy for you to say…. Oh, I just thought of that fortune-teller Roxane, who was murdered before we got on the ship. Roxane was one of the people invited here, and the maid who probably killed her escaped….”
“Your chaos is truly tedious,” muttered Victorique in abject disinterest.
Kazuya fell into a sulk, and returned to leading Victorique by the hand in silence.
They finally arrived at the stairwell, which was lined with gleaming white tile. But for some reason, it was very dark inside, as if a cloak of inky blackness had fallen.
Next to it was the elevator, where incandescent lamps shone glaringly bright in contrast to the dim stairwell. The inside of the iron cage was also fully lit, making it look much safer in comparison. But when Kazuya pointed to the elevator and suggested they take it, Ned inexplicably turned pale and shook his head.
“Let’s take the stairs. It’s safer that way … probably.”
Kazuya and Victorique exchanged a look. Victorique shrugged. “If he says so.”
The five of them entered the dark stairwell and carefully climbed down. They descended slowly, step by step, and after they had traveled some ways, all of a sudden…
They heard a brief thud.
Maurice uttered a strangled yelp.
The other four jumped, their hearts skipping a beat.
“Wh-what’s wrong, mister?” yelled Julie.
“Y-y-you…!” Maurice pointed a trembling finger into the darkness, and everyone turned to look.
An arrow had embedded itself into the wall, narrowly missing his face. When the others examined the vicinity, they found a button inconspicuously hidden in the tile flooring. Maurice had presumably stepped on it accidentally.
He slowly narrowed his eyes, giving the arrow a hard stare. “H-how dare you threaten me?!” he hissed, glaring at Victorique and the others balefully.
“Mister, are you okay?” asked Ned.
This only enraged Maurice further. “’Am I okay?’ One of you is a hare who set that trap for me, isn’t that right? Or maybe you’re all in on it, all of you trying to kill me!”
“Stop it, mister!” Julie frowned, fingering her heart-shaped pendant. “If that were true, then I wouldn’t have tried to stop you from getting in that lifeboat. Enough with the false accusations.”
They glared at each other.
In that tension-filled silence, Kazuya’s voice suddenly rang out, calmly addressing Victorique beside him. “Victorique, don’t forget to watch out for traps. Of course, I’ll be looking out for you, too….”
When she heard his gentle, serious tone, Julie’s stern expression softened. But her face turned suspicious again when she heard Victorique’s response.
Victorique replied in a voice full of confidence, “I have nothing to be worried about.”
Kazuya stared at her, momentarily taken aback.
The three adults sensed something unspoken in her words, and turned to look in her direction. Ned walked up to her, a threatening expression on his face. “Hey! What’s that supposed to mean?”
His voice and bearing were intimidating, but Victorique showed no signs of flinching. As coolly as ever, she replied, “This ship was made to kill adults. So I’ll be fine.”
“How can you be so sure? The traps don’t care who falls into them. If you open the wrong door, or step on something, or touch something, then, little girl, even you won’t be safe.”
Victorique skeptically tilted her head to one side, and smiled at him angelically. “All of the traps were set according to the heights of adults like you, so that they can pierce through a human brain on someone around one hundred and seventy to one hundred eighty centimeters tall.”
“Oh!” Kazuya cried out. She had a point. Both the arrow that had killed that man at the beginning, along with the one that shot out just a few minutes ago, flew through the air at around that height. This meant that even if Victorique were to trigger one of the traps, at her own height of one hundred and forty centimeters tall, it would sail far above her head.
As Kazuya gazed at her speechlessly, Victorique spoke to him in the innocent tone of a child reciting a fact that she had learnt. “Kujou, you’d better stoop down a bit, too. If not, your brain might be safe, but you might get a little shave off the top.”
“A little sh-shave… Eek!” Kazuya started walking again, this time slouching as he led Victorique by the hand. He squeezed her hand even more tightly than before, and kept an eye on her face for signs of fatigue.
Julie walked behind them, watching them closely.
The stairwell was as dark as ever. Since they had to stay on the lookout for traps, they could only make very slow progress, and the stairs seemed to drag on without end.
“Hey,” Julie called out to Kazuya from behind. “You’re awfully kind, aren’t you, kid?”
Kazuya looked up at her. What is she talking about? he wondered in bewilderment.
Julie glanced at Victorique beside him. “You defended that girl with all your heart.”
At the sound of her teasing tone, Kazuya went red in the face. “N-not really… And all she does is complain.”
“She depends on you,” Julie said casually.
Kazuya was thrown for a loop. “She does?!”
“She’s still a girl like any other. I can tell that she trusts you, even if she’s cold to you. She lets you carry her bag, and see? She never lets go of your hand.”
Kazuya concentrated on the sensation in his hand. It was true that Victorique had been holding his hand tightly, even as she spouted complaints at him. Maybe she really did trust him a little bit. Or maybe this was just her way of reacting to a stressful situation. She didn’t seem to be remotely anxious if her attitude or words were any indication, but Kazuya thought he could feel her emotions flowing through their linked hands. He instinctively squeezed her hand back.
“…You know, kid, that type of girl would never let just anyone handle their stuff, not unless it’s someone they trust a lot. You can bet on it.”
“But before we went on our trip, I went through her luggage without permission, and even removed some of her things and lectured her about it….”
“Well, if you were anyone else, she’d never let you do that to her, not for love or money. If someone else felt like pulling that, she wouldn’t bother traveling at all. She’d just turn around and go right back home.”
“Hmm…” Kazuya thought to himself. When he noticed Julie watching him with an appreciative look on her face, he protested bashfully, “But I just … I just feel some responsibility about all this.”
“Oh, are you the killer?”
“Please don’t joke about that. That’s not what I meant….” Kazuya’s face clouded over.
In fact, he had been the one to bring Victorique on this trip. As far as he knew, she always spent her time in the conservatory of the school library. It was a relaxing space, illuminated by skylights at the top floor, and said to have been built for a king to rendezvous with his lover. There Victorique would read through her books and occasionally listen to cases from the outside world, which she would then solve in a flash. Her existence was mysterious, like a tiny god, a spirit haunting St. Marguerite’s School. Kazuya imagined her spending her days in peace, surrounded by wonder and intrigue.
But then he had to be the one to invite her out on a weekend trip, and wind up bringing her to such a dangerous place. If anything were to happen to Victorique, it would be his fault.
Her mind was all she possessed. But her body was so small and so fragile. Even if he was no more than a powerless child himself, he had to protect her at the very least.
This was what Kazuya believed, and it was this aspect of his character that led people to call him too solemn and rigid. But it stemmed from what his father, who was always so strict on himself and on others, and adult brothers would repeatedly tell him: You must protect those weaker than yourself. Even if you yourself are weak, you must go beyond your limits and protect others.
But if he had to be honest with himself, there was no way he was capable of such things, and he was far from being such a fine example of a human being. Going beyond his limits could only be beyond his limits in the end. But now, as he faced Julie, he found himself unwilling to admit to such weakness. He had his pride, too….
He couldn’t tell if Julie suspected the truth or not when she replied teasingly, “Oh, my, what a fine lad you are.”
“Not at all… You see, it’s just because I’m the third son of an imperial soldier.”
“But you’re first and foremost a boy.” Julie giggled.
Julie’s laughter made Kazuya blush, but she went on playfully. “I love boys like you. Let’s get through this and go home together.”
Although her words were said innocently, Kazuya still felt embarrassed by them. He didn’t know how to answer, and mumbled something noncommittal.
They finally arrived at their intended floor. Ned called out from ahead in a reassuring tone, “We’re here!”
Kazuya breathed a sigh of relief and turned to Victorique. “Just a little longer now.”
But the next moment…
Maurice arrived right behind Ned, and cried out in despair.
Kazuya and Julie shot each other an apprehensive glance, but continued their descent. As they walked down the last two steps, they heard splashing sounds, and through their shoes they felt the sensation of stepping through water. Up ahead they could see the reflections of the pale lamplight.
Before them was seawater.
This floor was already thoroughly flooded, filled with murky water up to their knees.
The level containing the cargo hold and the engine room looked dramatically different from the floors above. This hallway was dreary and filthy, like the inside of a giant sewer pipe, and dirty water sloshed all around them in small waves. It made for a hopeless sight.
Ned and Maurice looked at each other, stunned.
Maurice was the first one to start yelling. “What the hell is this?! Now how are we going to get there?!”
Ned put his face in his hands and groaned softly.
Julie was the next one to reach the bottom of the staircase, and she started down the hallway, splashing through water up to her knees. The two men stared after her, making no attempt to follow. She looked back and shouted at Kazuya, “What are you doing? Hurry up! If we’re quick, we can still make it!”
“Uh … yes, ma’am!” Kazuya hesitated for a moment, then nodded firmly. He crouched down in front of Victorique and said, “Get on!”
For a second, Victorique made a face like a pigeon that had just been shot in mid-air.
Julie shouted in the distance, “Come on!”
“Hurry, hurry! There’s not much time!”
“Ugh…” Victorique moaned, then reluctantly climbed onto Kazuya’s back.
She felt much too light to be a human, making Kazuya feel more like he was carrying a dog or a cat. Despite her seeming unwillingness to climb onto him, once she was in place, she wrapped her slender arms around his neck and squeezed very tightly.
“Ouch, Victorique, you’re choking me.”
“…That’s a cross you’ll have to bear.”
“No, you’ll kill me!”
Kazuya kicked up sprays of water as he waded through the hallway. From behind, he heard Maurice and Ned also start moving.
Finally, Julie’s cheerful voice came from ahead. “Hooray! The hallway on this floor isn’t blocked off! We can get to the other side! Let’s hurry to the stairs!”
Once he heard her shout, Kazuya quickened his pace. Victorique started swinging her little legs against his back, craning her body—perhaps she was in a better mood now, too. When she nearly slid into the water, Kazuya tightened his grip on her. Whether or not she knew just how much he strained to keep her from falling, she kept on happily flailing nonetheless.
Once they reached the forward staircase, they again began to slowly climb, while making sure to avoid traps.
Maurice grumbled, “Why did this have to happen? The hare is somewhere close by. I can’t be too careful.” Then he suddenly shouted, “Oh!” and ran out to the hallway on the next floor up.
That hallway was still on one of the lower levels, and consequently the lighting was no brighter than before, and the carpet was again frayed and worn. It had once been scarlet, but the color was darker now, and starting to thin out in the center where many feet had worn a path. The lamps were minimally ornamented and had been selected merely for function’s sake, and the walls were constructed with heavily knotted wood.
Maurice ran through the hallway, throwing open every door in his path. These were the third-class cabins, which were tightly crammed with bunk beds all the way up to the ceiling. Apparently in search of something, he systematically opened door after door, but the cabins only stretched on endlessly.
Ned called out to him in surprise. “Mister, what are you doing?”
“If this ship is a copy of the original box, then it should be around here. Yes … Here it is!” Maurice’s face twisted in an expression of triumph.
Ned approached him, but then cried out and stopped suddenly.
Maurice turned around, gripping a pistol. Held aloft by his shaking hands, it shimmered as black as the night.
Ned yelled, “Whoa!” and ran to hide behind Victorique and Kazuya.
Maurice grinned and pointed the muzzle in their direction. “There are countless weapons hidden all over this ship. Everywhere, in drawers, flower pots, under the carpet… And this is one of them.”
“Why…?” Julie’s voice came from behind them. She gazed at Maurice sadly, her hands trembling, tears forming in her eyes.
Maurice’s face looking back at her was impassive. “To have us kill each other,” he proclaimed haughtily, as if he were stating a fact that should have been obvious to all.
“What are you talking about?”
Maurice shrugged. “Some of them died in the traps. Others found weapons, and used them to kill each other. That was our plan. If too many survived, there would be no point.”
“What the hell kind of plan is that!?”
“There’s no need for you to know why. Besides…” Maurice smirked. “We also had a hound.”
“That’s right.” Maurice was silent. Then he slowly cocked the gun. The bullets slid into the magazine with a ghastly clink. “…Die, you hares!”
Kazuya realized that Maurice was aiming the gun directly at Victorique, and cried out in shock, “Stop! Monsieur Maurice, why are you doing this? You said yourself that Victorique comes from a noble family, and couldn’t possibly be behind this!”
“But now that it’s come to this, I can’t be sure of anything anymore. Fortunately, I have six bullets. I’ll kill all of you, and escape from this ship by myself!”
“This ship will sink soon enough. Any evidence will go with it to the bottom of the sea. Just like ten years ago!”
Kazuya moved to stand before Victorique, directly in front of the muzzle. Sweat dripped down his back, and soon enough, his knees started to knock. He grit his teeth and continued to stand in place.
Then Victorique gave him a nonchalant poke in the back. “Kujou… What are you doing?”
“Wh-wh-what am I d-doing? I, I’m protecting you from the th-threatening bullets!”
“Even if it means you die?”
“I, I might. But then you’ll l-live.”
“Well, you’ve got a point there.”
“I, I’m the one who invited you. I have to make sure you go home safely. It’s my duty as the third son of an imperial soldier.”
A scene played back in Kazuya’s mind—of his father, always so stern, with his head held up high, and his two older brothers who were just like their father. It was a warm and sunny afternoon at the neighborhood dojo they used to attend, and an adult had just flung him to the ground. Kazuya didn’t have the nerve to face him, and simply crawled on all fours on the white tatami, on the verge of tears, even though he knew that boys weren’t supposed to cry. He felt humiliated, and sad, and pathetic…. He remembered the faces of his brothers looking down on him with such disappointment.
He’s spoiled because he’s the youngest…. someone in the dojo muttered, probably one of the adults looking on. That casual remark had left an unhealed wound within his heart.
“So, V-Victorique…” Kazuya looked down at her, his expression grave.
And she was staring back at him, her large, emerald-green eyes wide open.
Kazuya realized that this was the first time he had ever seen Victorique truly shocked. Up until now, whenever he had reported to her about various strange cases, she would joyfully gobble up those mysteries—or as she called them, “chaos”. He remembered the look of mild surprise she seemed to wear during those times.
But the expression on her face at this moment was completely different. She was genuinely shocked, as if she had discovered something very unusual and wanted to keenly observe it.
And then she murmured very thoughtfully, “Kujou, are you in fact … a good person?”
“What’s that for? …Are you praising me?”
“Are you trying to make fun of me?”
“…What’s wrong with you? It’s a simple statement of fact. Why do you have to get so worked up about it?”
“Ugh…” Just when Kazuya was about to get angry…
He heard the sound of a gunshot.
He pulled the trigger…!?
Kazuya automatically crouched down and threw his arms around Victorique to shield her. He shut his eyes tightly, a wordless scream catching in his throat.
Scenes from his life—watching his successful brothers grow up, while all he could do was spend every moment of his childhood studying. Making the decision to study abroad, and leaving the country. His days spent at St. Marguerite’s School, and his first meeting with Victorique, which could be called fateful, or perhaps irreversible, but was at the very least stunning—all of these ran through his mind like a kaleidoscope, and then faded to black.
Kazuya was not dead.
He hesitantly opened his eyes, and found Victorique squirming to get away from him.
“…You’re hurting me. Are you trying to kill me?”
“Hey!” What kind of thing is that to say to the person who just saved your life, Kazuya wanted to yell angrily at her as he released his hands from Victorique’s thin body.
Maurice was lying on the floor, a black hole in the middle of his forehead. He had died with a very surprised look on his face.
Kazuya turned around and saw Julie down on one knee, holding a small pistol. She had lifted the hem of her red dress, giving a peek of her blindingly white legs.
Julie lowered the gun and stood up, her face expressionless. “I found one, too. It was hidden behind one of the lamps on the wall. I didn’t know why it was there, so I didn’t want to say anything.” She sounded like she was giving an excuse.
Ned approached Maurice’s corpse, a menacing look in his eyes. He picked up the gun still gripped in Maurice’s lifeless hand, and threw it down the stairwell into the rising waters. The gun sank down with an ominous bubbling.
Ned turned to Julie. “Throw yours away, too.”
“I don’t want us to end up suspecting one another. If that happens, we’ll end up killing each other. I threw that gun away, so you do the same with yours.”
“Or is there some reason that you want to carry a weapon?”
Julie sucked her teeth in frustration. She threw the pistol down the stairs, sending it splashing. Then she sucked her teeth again. “Let’s go to the radio room.”
As she started to climb the stairs again, her handbag slipped from her arm. Victorique caught it.
Kazuya raised his eyebrows at this. He hadn’t expected that Victorique would be considerate enough to pick up something that someone else had dropped.
But she apparently had no intention of returning it courteously, and simply threw it at Julie. The bag fluttered through the air into Julie’s waiting hands. Once she had it back safely, she went back to climbing the stairs. The three others followed behind her.