With each step Kazuya, Julie, and Ned took up the stairs, water dripped from their soaked clothing. Victorique was the only one still dry, but her elegant lace and frills, along with the silk socks that peeked out from underneath, were blackened with dirt.
When Kazuya happened to glance over and see this, he felt unspeakably remorseful and ashamed. Victorique should have been in her usual spot in the gardens of the library, reading her books in peace. That he should drag this girl to this squalid, sinking ship, when she ought to be exalted like a sacred being that no one dare disturb….
He gave her hand a tight squeeze. Victorique looked up at him with a dumbfounded expression. “…There’s something I’ve been wondering about.”
“Kujou, you were yelling something about being the third son of an imperial soldier.”
“Is there some meaning attached to being the third son?”
Kazuya choked in rage, and angrily flung off her hand.
When Victorique saw that Kazuya was genuinely upset, she stuttered in surprise, “Wh-what are you so angry about?”
“You know what, you keep needling me with this ‘good person’ this and ‘third son’ that. Are you trying to pick a fight with me, Victorique?”
“N-no, I’m not. It’s a simple statement of fact. I’m just acknowledging it as another fragment of chaos.”
“Let me make this perfectly clear: I may be the third son, but my grades in school have been exceptional, better than anyone else in my family!”
Somehow, the two of them had ended up talking at cross purposes.
“…Are the most successful third sons in your country promoted to the status of first-born sons?”
“Of course not! …It’s just for the sake of my pride. My older brothers always get preferential treatment, so I thought I would compete with them by throwing myself into my studies.”
Even so, on that day when he had been thrown to the ground of that neighborhood dojo, Kazuya felt like all of his effort had gone up in smoke. And so he jumped at the opportunity to leave his military academy to go study abroad in Sauvure. He’d gone through the application process, packed his bags, and boarded the ship before his loving mother or sister or anyone else in his family could stop him, as if escaping from his country, his family, and from himself….
And now he found himself here.
“Hmm…?” Victorique nodded. After a few moments of silence, she said in her calm and mellifluous voice, “It’s the same with the ruling class of this country. The inheritance always goes to the first-born son.”
Her expression again turned curious. She stared up at Kazuya, as if carefully regarding something extraordinary. “Pride, huh?”
“Kujou, you’re not only a good person, you’re humble.”
“The fact that you can admit to your pride shows that your soul is simple and beautiful.”
“Are you complimenting me? Or just insulting me in a roundabout way?” Kazuya snapped.
Victorique stared at him, puzzled. Then she wordlessly turned away from him. When Kazuya took a peek at her face, she was sulking, puffing up her cheeks like a squirrel storing away nuts. This was the expression she always wore when she was feeling put out.
He guessed that the conversation they had been having was probably Victorique’s way of praising him, maybe with the intention of thanking him for using his own body as a shield to protect her. Maybe she was trying to express her feelings of friendship toward him….
As Kazuya continued to grumble to himself, Victorique said sullenly, “You’re being ridiculous. It was just a simple statement of fact. I was merely articulating the reconstruction of chaos.”
And with this, she said no more.
But Kazuya now felt flummoxed, wondering why Victorique seemed to be so upset with him all of a sudden.
The four of them silently climbed the staircase.
Ned, walking in front, was nimbly playing catch with his tennis ball as always, not stopping for a moment even in the dark. He rounded a landing of the dim stairwell, his form slowly falling out of view.
The next moment, the others heard a dull thud, followed by what sounded like a short scream.
Kazuya and Julie shared a look.
“Ned?” Julie hesitantly called out.
There was no answer.
Kazuya added, “What happened?”
All was quiet inside the stairwell. Kazuya and Julie locked eyes again.
Then they both broke into a run up the stairs. Once they arrived at the darkened landing, a startling sight awaited them.
Ned, lying face down on the floor, dead.
Kazuya cried out and ran up to him.
Ned’s legs pointed in Kazuya’s direction, and his right hand was hidden underneath his body. His left arm was stretched out, with the palm placed on his hip as if he had been standing at attention.
Kazuya took his left hand and checked for a pulse.
But there was none.
How?! How…?! What could’ve happened? A trap? Was there some trap laid around here? Why is he dead?
“Kujou!” Victorique hissed at Kazuya, her husky voice curt. When he turned around, he saw that she was looking down at him with an uncharacteristically worried expression.
“Come here, Kujou.”
“Wait a minute. This man is dead. I have to check if there are any traps around here—”
“Never mind that. Get over here, Kujou,” Victorique repeated stubbornly.
Kazuya felt irritation bubble up at the sound of her tone. “Victorique, I’ve had just about enough of your attitude—”
“I’m scared. Please, don’t leave my side…. I’m begging you, Kujou.”
Kazuya was struck speechless. As he crouched down on one knee, he took a closer look at Victorique’s face. She was staring back at him with her usual expression that brooked no dissent. Come on, stand up, she seemed to be trying to tell him. What she said just now… I’m scared; don’t leave my side, was something totally unlike what the Victorique he knew would say.
For a moment, Kazuya thought to himself, perplexed. Then he realized that Victorique had to be lying. She isn’t scared. And she would never beg me for anything. He gulped. That’s it! Victorique is trying to goad me into action. She wants to move me away from Ned’s body!
Kazuya stood up and cautiously made his way over to Victorique, while glancing at Julie next to her. Julie was motionless, covering her mouth with both hands, opening her eyes wide as if she had just seen something unbelievable.
“Oh no, oh no,” she whispered. “It’s the same. It’s the same. It’s the same as back then! But how?”
What’s going on with her? Kazuya wondered. He whispered to Victorique, “What’s wrong?”
“Listen carefully, Kujou.” Her voice was tense. “The three of us are going to exit the staircase on the next floor up and find a hiding place. And we’d better look for some weapons. They seem to be everywhere.”
Then she muttered some more enigmatic words, her face grim. “There’s three of us and one of them. But I’m very unsure whether two children and a woman can defeat an adult man. Oh, it was a mistake to let her throw away her gun…. But it’s too late to regret that now.”
Julie whispered back, “What happened? What’s going on?”
Victorique looked up. Her emerald-green eyes were wide open and filled with anxiety. She parted her thin, colorless lips, and spoke flatly. “We’re going to be killed.”
“What?!” Kazuya started to speak, but then closed his mouth, considering to himself that it was probably a good idea to do as she said. He tugged on Julie, who was standing in a stupor, and together they gingerly stepped over Ned’s body toward the stairs.
Victorique called out in a low voice, “Run!”
Kazuya held onto Victorique’s hand tightly.
Since this floor was much closer to the top of the ship, the hallway was once again lined with luxuriously fluffy carpet and aglow with extravagant-looking lamps. They dashed inside the nearest room, which happened to be a spacious reading room for the first-class passengers. Chandeliers sparkled from the ceiling, and finely-carved bookshelves stretched along the walls. The three of them searched the room from top to bottom, on top of shelves, inside drawers, and under the carpet, while keeping an eye out for traps.
Kazuya found a small pair of brass knuckles inside a drawer and put them on both hands. Then he turned around to look at Julie, who was gripping a large paper knife, her shoulders heaving with every breath she took. Their gazes met. Julie raised her index finger and held it to her lips. Kazuya nodded in reply.
The room was perfectly still. Kazuya could feel the thump of his heartbeat in his chest, and it was getting louder. His temples throbbed with pain.
They sat there like that for several minutes.
…But nothing happened.
As Kazuya and Julie stared at each other, their expressions turned unsure. Kazuya turned to Victorique, whom he shielded behind himself, and started to ask her what was about to happen, but before he could finish his question….
The door quietly opened.
Standing there was Ned Baxter, who should have been dead.
Ned was clenching an enormous axe in his right hand. His perfectly expressionless face was unrecognizable, entirely unlike the Ned they knew before. The temperature in the room suddenly seemed to drop several degrees.
Ned shook his head from side to side, and caught sight of Julie standing against the wall, glaring at him. He slowly walked up to her and lifted his axe into the air.
Julie preemptively slashed her knife in his direction, while shouting at Kazuya and Victorique, “What are you doing? Get out of here! Go to the radio room, and call for help!”
When Ned heard her, he languidly turned around, and saw Kazuya, with Victorique hidden behind him. Ned’s eyes were dark and empty, as if two holes had been opened in his head. They gazed at Victorique, and a burning fire ignited inside of them.
“A girl. You’re a hare!”
“I have to hunt the hares, because I’m the hound!”
Ned raised up his axe, and with a kick of his heels, leapt into the air, aiming directly at Victorique. Kazuya pushed her down to the floor. When Ned landed in front of him, Kazuya punched the side of his head as hard as he could. He was physically much smaller than Ned, but thanks to the brass knuckles he wore on his hands, he was able to inject a surprising amount of force into his punch. Once Kazuya’s fist made impact on Ned’s face, Ned was thrown flat on his back.
Julie ran up, and briskly ruffled Kazuya’s hair. “Well done. You’re a fine boy!”
“Well, I am the third son of—”
“Yes, yes, third son of an imperial soldier. Now let’s get out of here!”
Julie picked up the fallen axe. Once the three of them left the room, together they pushed a large cabinet that had been in the hallway in front of the door to block it from opening.
After they started running up the stairs, they heard the sound of Ned waking up again and slamming his body against the door.
As they climbed toward the deck, the first hints of sunlight gradually began to illuminate the stairwell.
Kazuya ran, Victorique’s small body in his arms. She stared intently at the brass knuckles on Kazuya’s hands, sticky with Ned’s blood, as if looking upon something wholly unexpected to her.
Julie hurried up the stairs after them, her axe gripped in both hands. With an anguished look on her face, she turned, not to Kazuya, but to Victorique, and asked, “How did you know he wasn’t dead?”
“Now isn’t that time to be discussing that sort of thing,” began Kazuya, but when he noticed her pale, desperate expression, he stopped himself.
Victorique frowned slightly, then spoke in her usual tone of voice, sounding utterly relaxed in comparison to the dire situation they found themselves in. “It’s really quite simple. An overflowing wellspring of wisdom told it to me.”
“Please, Victorique, in plain language.”
“Ugh…” she groaned, and nodded reluctantly. “It’s very simple. Didn’t the way Ned collapsed look very unnatural to you? He was lying face down and hiding his right hand under his body, as if he didn’t want anyone to touch it. And then his left hand was pointing towards us in the opposite position, almost like a command for us to take his pulse.”
“Well, now that you mention it….”
“Is that the way someone would collapse when they fall blindly into a trap? A more natural posture would have both arms reaching forward. The strange position he was in should’ve immediately grabbed your attention.”
“But he had no pulse. I’m sure of it,” said Kazuya.
“He’s right,” murmured Julie softly. Her face was as pallid as a corpse, and her lips were quivering almost imperceptibly. And then she whispered, as if talking to herself, “It’s the same as back then. He had no pulse; I was sure of it….”
“N-no, nothing. Do go on, little detective.”
To be addressed in such a way caused Victorique to sniff in displeasure. “It is possible to stop one’s pulse temporarily.”
“By holding something in your armpit. …For example, a tennis ball.”
Kazuya and Julie cried out and looked at each other, blinking in surprise.
“No wonder…” Kazuya remembered how Ned had been constantly playing with a tennis ball. If he held that ball under his arm, and squeezed it tightly enough….
“He was able to stop his pulse temporarily so that he could trick the person who checked it into believing he was dead. I called you over, Kujou, once I realized that.”
“When you said you were scared and wanted him by your side, you mean?” Julie asked teasingly.
Victorique blushed suddenly, then scowled. “I wasn’t really scared. I just had to say something like that to get this third son of an imperial soldier to move.”
“Stop calling me that.”
“Oh, then would you rather I call you the exceptional third son of an imperial soldier?”
“…Ugh! You’re annoying me, seriously annoying me!”
As Julie watched the two of them stay close to each other, and no matter how much they bickered, never pulling apart, a lonesome look entered her eyes….