The three of them emerged onto the deck. Dawn was breaking, and the pale morning sun was starting to shine on the damp wooden planks of the deck. The rain that had poured down so heavily at night had turned to drizzle, but still showed no signs of stopping. Waves towered ominously in the dark sea.
The radio room beckoned them like a lonely chalet in the mountains. Victorique slipped every few steps on the slick wooden planks, throwing Kazuya into a panic each time she fell.
Just as the two of them had reached the door of the radio room, they heard Julie, running after them, let out a high-pitched scream.
Kazuya spun around in time to glimpse a man’s muscular arm reach out from behind Julie and grab her long black hair.
…It was Ned Baxter.
“Nooo!” Julie screamed again.
Ned Baxter’s face, with eyes blood-shot and mouth wide open, had warped into the visage of a malevolent beast in a child’s nightmare. He wrapped his hands around Julie’s neck, and she let out an agonized scream that reverberated around the deck. The axe in her hand tumbled to the ground.
Ned threw Julie’s limp body across the deck and strode toward Kazuya and Victorique.
“V-Victorique, over here!” Kazuya yanked on Victorique, who was rooted to the deck in terror, and dragged her to the radio room, losing their footing on the slippery planks over and over along the way. He opened the door, pushed her in, then tried to close it after her. But Victorique’s small hand snaked out and tugged on Kazuya.
“Victorique, you stay in here! Call for help on the radio!”
“Kujou, what about you…?”
“I have to stop him. He’ll kill you!”
“I’m the one…” Kazuya began haltingly, his whole body trembling at the sight of Ned, the “hound,” slowly approaching. “I’m the one who brought you here. It’s my responsibility to get you home safely.”
“No!” Victorique cried out, her voice quivering, her eyes filled with anguish. She had so many things she wanted to say, but didn’t have the words to express them…. Confronted with her own inadequacy for the first time, she opened her mouth over and over in search of the right words, only to close it again helplessly when she came up empty.
At last, after much effort, she recovered her ability to speak. “Kujou… I wanted to come here. I found the invitation, and made you—”
“No! It’s my fault.”
“Be rational about this. Who really bears the responsibility?”
“Th-that has nothing to do with it!” Kazuya stamped the floor in frustration. Victorique gave the floor some repeated stamps of her own as if in imitation.
Finally, Kazuya said, “Listen, it’s my duty to save you, as the third son of an imperial soldier…” Those words suddenly began to feel like a curse. He knew that there was no way they could be enough to express his true feelings to Victorique. They would only end up talking across each other, just like before.
“…No, that’s not it. That’s not what I want to say.” Kazuya gathered up his courage and spoke from his heart. “I just want to save you.”
Victorique’s face crumpled. She parted her lips sorrowfully, preparing to speak.
Kazuya started to force the door closed.
Victorique no longer wore the cool, cynical, aloof expression that marked her as an aristocrat—the only face she ever allowed others to see. She had lost the invisible veil that separated her from the world. What was left was only the face of the young girl that she truly was, overcome with insecurity.
…Kazuya set his weight against the door, pushing even harder.
The last glimpse he caught of her was of those green eyes, fearful like a lost puppy.
“K-Kujou…” Her voice was so soft that he could barely hear it. “Kujou, I’m begging you…. Don’t leave me. Let’s go home together. I don’t want to be alone! Oh, Kujou!”
Kazuya closed his eyes, and slammed the door shut.
The very next moment, the hound rushed at him.
Kazuya clenched his fists with their brass knuckles, readying himself. He mentally reviewed the hand-to-hand fighting techniques that his older brothers had taught him from time to time when he lived on that far eastern island. They had taught him very enthusiastically, and Kazuya was confident in his ability to remember what he had learned. That was how he had done so well in school.
Kazuya drew back his fist, and punched Ned’s nose with all his strength. The punch made contact with Ned’s face, causing him to stagger slightly. Ned rubbed his palm from top to bottom over his face. Once he dropped his hand, his lips curled into a peculiar smile. Kazuya shuddered at the sight of it, and punched Ned again with even more ferocity, as if trying to drive away something terrifying. His fists landed with a dull thump. Blood streamed from Ned’s nose, and he again wiped his hand over his face, smearing his palm with the sticky redness.
The second Ned saw the blood on his hand, one of his eyebrows began to twitch. He was angry.
Suddenly, Ned jumped off the ground, lunging toward Kazuya. Ned landed on top of him, slamming him against the deck, then straddled him and began to punch his face over and over again. Kazuya’s vision grew blurry.
It’s the same as before, he thought to himself—that time when he was forced to grovel, trembling, on the tatami of that dojo.
Even so… back then, Kazuya’s brothers were the ones waiting for him, and they were much older and stronger than he was. But this time was different. He was in a foreign country far away from home, alone in a distant land with a little girl who had become his friend. If Kazuya lost, two lives would disappear so easily from the face of the earth, leaving nothing behind but a dispassionate end-title.
Kazuya gritted his teeth, struggling to stay conscious. He waited for a gap between Ned’s blows, and then shot his fist into the air, managing to strike Ned’s face several times.
Strangely enough, he didn’t feel out of breath. For a moment, he wondered why, then suddenly stumbled on the reason: lately he had been going up and down that labyrinthine staircase at St. Marguerite’s Library on a daily basis. Victorique had mocked him for it, saying that he needed the exercise… but perhaps he had in fact slightly increased his level of physical strength without realizing it.
Ned’s head flew backwards with each one of Kazuya’s punches. But no matter how many times his head bobbed back, it always stubbornly returned. Ned’s face was covered in blood, looking less like a human than a ghastly red lump.
Kazuya kept on punching him over and over again. Then Ned wrapped his arm around his neck and applied pressure. Kazuya started to feel faint. I can’t lose…. I won’t lose!
But Ned had the strength of an adult man, and as he tightened his grip around his throat, Kazuya’s body began to grow slack.
Victo … rique…!
Kazuya opened his eyes. All he could see was white. He clenched his teeth and punched Ned’s temple as hard as he could. Ned’s grip around his neck instantly loosened. Kazuya opened his eyes again and began to take ragged breaths, his vision gradually returning to him. He stood up and stumbled back a few paces to lean against the deck railing. Ned also stood up, staggering toward Kazuya, his face bloody.
A shadow appeared behind Ned. Kazuya rubbed his eyes at the sight.
…It was Julie. She had regained consciousness, and was stealthily inching their way. Clutching the axe with one hand, she locked eyes with Kazuya, motioning him to be silent with a finger to her lips. Kazuya gave a slight nod.
Ned raised his fist again, and started to swing it down on Kazuya’s head.
But that same second…
Kazuya crouched down and dipped between Ned’s legs, smoothly slipping behind him. Ned stumbled forward, unable to stop the momentum of his punch once his target had suddenly disappeared. Julie lifted the axe and drove it into his back with all her might. The axe sank into Ned’s back at an angle. He howled like an injured animal. Julie released her shaking hands from the axe handle.
Before Ned could turn around, Kazuya wrapped his arms around his legs and lifted them up high. Ned screamed as his body was flipped over. With the axe still embedded into his back, he fell head first over the railing into the sea.
Kazuya ran up to the railing and looked down into the water.
Ned’s body hit the water with a loud splash, and tall waves soon came to claim him. Billows of white foam bubbled to the surface. After two or three waves cascaded past, Ned was already gone, vanished to the bottom of the sea.
Julie walked up to the railing, her shoulders heaving. “Thanks, kid.”
“No, I should be the one thanking you.”
“Good job.” Julie smiled weakly.
White waves ebbed and flowed around the ship. The ocean at daybreak was quiet. Kazuya and Julie stood against the railing silently, staring down at where the dark sea had devoured Ned.
Victorique was in the radio room, transmitting an SOS to the coast guard. Her small body sitting in front of the large square machine looked more like a doll that someone had placed there as a joke. Only her pallid face and the quick movements of her hands belied her doll-like impression.
The door opened. Victorique’s shoulders jumped.
Once she saw that it was Kazuya who entered the room, she looked so relieved that she could cry … at least for an moment. It didn’t take long for her to assume the calm and slightly acerbic look she always wore as an aristocrat. “…It appears that you’re safe.”
But when Julie was next to come inside, for some reason Victorique’s expression turned wary.
This went unnoticed by Julie, who cheerfully asked her, “Did you call for help?”
“Of course I did. They should be coming soon. By the way…” Victorique shrugged, scowling. “We don’t seem to have traveled very far from the harbor. They found it strange that we could have gotten stranded so close to land. It was rather difficult to explain this to them on the radio.”
Then Victorique stood up, and with dainty steps, walked up to Kazuya, who was removing the brass knuckles from his hands. She looked like a tiny, exquisite doll that had suddenly started to walk on its own. But as proof that this was no doll, there was an indescribable expression on her face, akin to relief, worry, and a kind of transparent emotion.
Victorique silently took Kazuya’s hands in her own, and squeezed them tightly.