The town had only one inn.
“Mountain climbers? We never get those. The slopes are too steep around here; nobody would want to climb even higher unless they had to.”
When they reached the inn and questioned the innkeeper, this was his answer.
The town was practically deserted; even the cobblestone road next to the inn, seemingly the largest street in town, showed few signs of life. A late-model German automobile was parked in front of the inn for some reason, but the gleaming vehicle looked very much out of place with the local scenery.
Inexplicably enough, the body of a wild bird, shot dead with an arrow, dangled upside down from the front door of the ramshackle three-story inn.
As Kazuya stared at it, a strong gust of wind blew past him. The bird’s feathers stood on end from the blowing wind, rustling gruesomely. Deep red blood dripped from the arrow wound, creating a small puddle on the stone-paved entryway.
The roof creaked with the force of the wind. Along with that wind came a whiff of a strange odor, like wet fur, set wafting through the air.
“A storm’s brewing. You’d better not go out tonight.”
Kazuya turned to the innkeeper. “We can’t go outside?”
“Yeah. On nights like these, the wolves come out.”
“The grey wolves.”
Victorique, standing on the creaky floor in front of the reception desk, suddenly looked up. The innkeeper noticed her, and bent down to her level as if to frighten a child.
“Grey wolves have lived deep in these mountains for as long as anyone can remember. On windy nights, they come downhill and kill people. If you don’t want those darling cheeks of yours to get bitten off, little girl, then make sure to stay in your room.”
But Victorique remained thoroughly unfrightened, and the innkeeper had to bow his head in discouragement.
“There’s legends about grey wolves all over Sauvure,” said Kazuya.
“Oh, but in Horowitz, they aren’t just legends. They’re real.” The innkeeper pointed to the door. “We hang dead birds like this so the grey wolves won’t come inside, since people say that they don’t like birds. Now, I don’t know whether that’s true or not. And there are wild wolves in the forests around these parts, so we do have to be careful of those, too. But deep in these mountains is the real village of the grey wolves. We’ve been living in fear of them for the past four hundred years.”
Just as the innkeeper finished speaking, Mildred returned from inspecting her room for the night. She came down the stairs with such loudly stomping footsteps that it was difficult to believe they belonged to a woman. Kazuya thought of the time when he had met her in the flea market. She had presented a rather rustic, unrefined impression of herself back then, too….
After getting off the train in Horowitz, it seemed unlikely that Kazuya and Victorique would be able to secure accommodations by themselves, and so they ended up coming to this inn with Mildred. It could have been the effect of the nun’s habit, but the innkeeper allowed them to check in without asking too many questions.
As he carried their luggage up to the second floor, he continued speaking. “Terrifying werewolves live in that town. They’re mild-mannered by the looks of them, but you must never anger them. They’re exceedingly beautiful, and fearsomely clever, but very mysterious. You must never provoke them with petty things….”
“Um, by werewolves, do you mean … basically, normal humans live there?”
“They’re only normal on the outside.”
They had reached the second floor. The wooden-paneled floor of the shadowy hallway squeaked with their every step. Scattered brown splotches discolored the white plaster walls. The dim light from the lanterns hanging on the walls flickered faintly in time with the shaking of the floor.
The travelers approached the three small rooms that had been set aside for them.
Mountains, submerged in the night, loomed outside of the windows framed by worn beaded curtains.
The innkeeper raised his voice. “They may look human on the outside, but they’re not.”
“…That’s hard to believe.”
“Think about it. The hair and skin of those people, living secretively in the mountains.” He shivered fearfully. “They have flowing blond hair and white skin. Rosy cheeks, and small bodies. And they all look exactly the same. The hair and bodies of Sauvureans come in all sorts of colors and sizes. Dark brown, light brown, red hair. But those people… Oh, yes…”
The innkeeper suddenly noticed his tiniest guest, Victorique, and looked down at her. His face stiffening, he murmured, “Yes, like her… Just like her. The terrifying, silent grey wolves.”
After Kazuya located his own room, he went to peek in on the neighboring room where Victorique was resting.
“Is there anything I can help you with…?” he tried asking.
But when Victorique heard him, she promptly turned her back to him without a word.
“…What’s wrong, Victorique?”
There was no answer.
At his wits’ end, Kazuya shut the door. He walked down the hallway, wondering to himself. What could have gotten into her? That Victorique, she’s been so quiet the whole time, and she even left the school without a single word of explanation, just to come to the middle of nowhere…. If the teachers at school catch wind of this, we’ll be in deep trouble. Same goes for Inspector de Blois finding out…. And Victorique’s family will probably have something to say about this, too….
Kazuya buried his head in his hands.
He remembered the last time Victorique left the school, thanks to the inspector securing “special permission” for her. She had acted as if it was her first time taking a train, arriving at a station, or walking on the street, and was looking around constantly, in awe of her surroundings. Kazuya couldn’t conceive of the reason why, but Victorique was forced to live out her life within the confines of the school.
He thought back to the time when they had escaped from the ship that sank in the Mediterranean Sea, recalling the stricken looks on the faces of the inspector’s two deputies, and how they had cried out, “Thank God! You’re alive!” in such profound relief.
If they found out that Victorique had left the school on her own and taken a train to such a remote location, what would happen?
Victorique, what would possess you to come to a place like this…? What does that classified ad have to do with all this…?
With his head in his hands, he continued to agonize over his thoughts.
But there was no use thinking about it now. Victorique may not have been willing to listen to him, but Kazuya felt compelled to do something, and that meant staying by her side until he could escort her safely back to campus. After all, no matter how clever she was, she still had very little experience in the outside world. He couldn’t imagine what would happen to her if he left her alone.
Kazuya quietly walked down the stairs.
When he spotted the innkeeper, sipping cheap wine and reading a magazine, he timidly called out to him. “Um, excuse me….”
Once Kazuya explained about the classified ad, the innkeeper grimaced. “Heh. So the three of you came for that, too.”
“Yes, well … huh? Did others come, too?”
“Yeah. See that German motor car parked out there?”
Kazuya remembered the expensive car parked in front of the inn, and nodded.
“Three young fellows came riding along in that. They told me the same story you did. They read that classified ad, got curious, and took the trouble to come all the way out here. It seemed like one big game to them, so I gave them a warning. The village of the grey wolves isn’t the type of place you visit on a whim.”
“But they just laughed and mocked me for being superstitious.” The innkeeper lowered his voice and slowly muttered under his breath, “Not my problem if they end up regretting it.”
The flame of the gas lamp hissed and went out for a split second, plunging the innkeeper’s craggy face into the shadows, leaving only the sound of his voice.
“Blood will be shed. The silent grey wolves won’t permit them to satisfy their curiosity.”
The gas lamp regained its light, and the innkeeper’s entire demeanor reversed. In a cheerful voice, he said, “They’re staying on the third floor. Since you’re going to the same place, you should have a chat with them tomorrow morning. They may be idiots, but they’re friendly enough.”
“They were crowing about climbing the mountain in their car. But it’s too steep; they’d never make it. If you’re both going to the same place, then you should ask them about hiring a carriage together.”
“I see…. Also, could you tell me the name of this village?”
“…It doesn’t have one.”
When Kazuya was about to respond, the innkeeper’s face twitched. Lowering his voice, he said, “Even though it’s been there in the mountains for the past four hundred years… It’s never had a name. They didn’t name it. No one knows why. That’s why people fear them…. We’ve never felt safe around them.”
His voice was ghostly….
A sudden chill ran down Kazuya’s spine. He thanked the innkeeper and started to walk away. Then something occurred to him. “By the way, where does Mildred live? Well, I know she’s staying here with us, but….”
The innkeeper looked up at him. “What was that?”
“The nun who came with us. She was raised in this town.”
“This is a small town. Everyone remembers the children who left the nest. Especially if any of them had taken holy orders. The townspeople here are very devout.”
“You must be mistaken. We don’t know any girls like her.”
Kazuya said goodnight to the innkeeper and made his way back to his room.
As he walked down the hall to the staircase, he happened to make eye contact with Mildred, who was at that moment thundering down the stairs. She looked down at Kazuya at the other end of the staircase, then for some reason shuddered.
The pale white lantern cast its weak light on Mildred’s freckled skin and melancholy blue-grey eyes.
“…What are you wandering around for?”
“Go to bed already,” Mildred said gruffly, then walked down the hallway.
Kazuya paused, staring after her. He heard her ask the innkeeper, “Can I borrow your telephone?”
Kazuya couldn’t guess where she was calling. He tried to strain his ears to listen in on her conversation, but then considered to himself that it was wrong to eavesdrop. With this, he turned the other direction and walked back upstairs.
Kazuya slowly walked through the second story hallway. The wooden floor made a shrill squeak each time he took a step. Although the white plaster walls were far enough apart from each other to give one more than enough room to walk between them, they were much narrower than the ceiling was tall, giving him a suffocating feeling.
As he approached his room, he felt his steps quicken.
Creak, creak, creak…
The floor creaked on and on.
Creak, creak, creak, creak…
Each footstep jolted the tarnished hanging glass lanterns evenly spaced along both sides of the hallway. Their shaking was getting more and more pronounced, and Kazuya suddenly felt the urge to take deep breaths to fight the suffocating sensation.
The narrow hallway with its high ceiling felt as if it were rocking, like a ship floating on water. Kazuya realized that thoughts of ships were bringing up unpleasant memories, and he quickly tried to banish them from his mind.
If this were a ship…
He tried to banish them, but the thoughts remained.
If this were a ship, then this movement would be a vast wave. The sign of a storm…
Kazuya hastened his pace, rushing to the door of his room. As he turned a corner, spurring himself on even faster, the sight of a large window at the end of the hallway halted him in his tracks.
Outside the window, sharply jutting mountaintops cut through the dark sky like the teeth of a saw. Beyond them shone the wan glow of the moon.
Kazuya walked toward the window and carefully opened it.
It was getting late at night, and the air was slowly turning cooler.
A cool breeze ruffled his hair.
For the second time, he could smell an unpleasant stink, like wet fur.
In the distance, something howled … perhaps a dog.
This smell must come from the dead bird hanging at the front door…. It has to be. And nothing more…. Kazuya repeated the thought in his mind.
Suddenly, he heard a low thump come from behind him. He jumped. As he looked over his shoulder, a beam of moonlight from the window slanted down across his profile, illuminating his silhouette in pale blue.
“…Oh, it’s you, Victorique.”
The thin door to one of the rooms had opened, and Victorique’s petite form emerged into the hallway, wearing a white muslin nightgown. Underneath the billowing nightgown, layered in three tiers of puffy frills, Kazuya caught a glimpse of fluffy calf-length trousers that to his eyes resembled monpe, women’s work trousers of his native land. The hems were snugly bound by aqua-blue ladder lace, like ocean waves. A smooth satin bonnet sheathed half of her hair.
Victorique was rubbing her eyes with her tiny fingers. “Say, why do you suppose a squirrel would climb out of a hatbox?”
“You should ask the squirrel. In squirrel language.”
“By the way, where are we?”
“Wh-where…” Kazuya gently closed the window, then ran over to Victorique, who had wandered into the hallway. “Victorique? Victorique? Hey. Don’t tell me … you’re talking in your sleep?”
Victorique vigorously rubbed her eyes with her delicate fingers. Her emerald-green eyes, always so wide open and alert, were now half-closed in drowsiness, and her eyelids were fluttering rapidly. “…I am not talking in my sleep. You are a rude man, telling a lady that she is talking in her sleep. Never mind that. Where are we?”
“An inn, in Horowitz.”
“You’re the one who wanted to come here, Victorique.”
There was a long pause.
Victorique’s face reddened slightly.
Then she turned on her heel and started to return to her room. Kazuya hastily blocked her way.
“No, it’s just that… Sorry to bother you when you’re sleepy, but…”
“I’m not sleepy in the least. What do you want?”
“Now that you’re finally talking again, there are some things I wanted to ask you about….”
“…Now that I’m finally talking again?”
Victorique stood in the hallway next to her door, staring mystified up at Kazuya’s serious expression. Their faces were very close to each other. Her soft breath floated up to his jaw, tickling his skin. At last, Victorique’s expression slowly shifted. Her green eyes opened wide, blinking several times, and then a look of chagrin came over her face.
“Why were you being so quiet? Did you have a toothache after all?”
Victorique went back inside her room, fuming. Kazuya followed her, but when he reached her door, cushions, pillows, a hat, and finally shoes came flying out at him.
“Whoa! Wait, Victorique?!”
Peering inside and seeing that she was now struggling to lift a claw foot chair, he yelled, “What are you doing?! Why are you so angry?!”.
“This is a lady’s room. Stay outside!”
“A l-lady’s room… Well, that’s true, but…?”
Victorique panted heavily, sapped of energy. Giving up on trying to lift the chair, she slumped down into it instead. The chair was made out of flimsy wood, and looked light enough for Kazuya to lift and spin around with Victorique still on it.
Filled with bewilderment, Kazuya entered the room, while making sure to politely keep the door half-open.
Victorique glared at him. “Kujou, you’re the one who said I like books better than you, and you’re the one who changes his mind all the time and always forgets things. A man like you is nothing more than…” she started to say, but then lapsed into silence.
A muffled rattle came from the window; the wind was getting stronger. Dark clouds had begun to gather over the mountains outside the window. The dark blue sky was heavy in anticipation of rain, erasing the twinkling stars. Thunder rumbled in the distance.
“I’m trying to ask you, never mind what exactly?”
“If I say never mind, then never mind.”
“What are you talking about! For God’s sake!” Losing his temper, Kazuya punched the wall. His fist smarted, bringing tears to his eyes, and he fell silent.
For a long time, no one said anything. Then Kazuya opened his mouth.
“…Say, Victorique. Why did you come here?”
“It’s because of that ad I showed you… isn’t it? You’ve been acting strange ever since you saw it. You even ran away from school and came all the way over here…. You’re not supposed to leave the school by yourself, right? You said that yourself. You’ve been putting up with it all this time, but as soon you saw that ad, you suddenly took off…. What on earth is going on with you?”
“Victorique, I’m angry with you. This attitude of yours is just like Inspector de Blois … just like your brother’s. The way he ignores you is exactly the same way that you’re turning your back to me right now. For you to treat me like that… Do you really hate me that much? Aren’t we friends?”
“You even told me that yourself. You said you were one of my few friends….” Kazuya’s voice trailed off.
Rain began falling against the outside of the window in a muted hiss. It was drizzling. White mist obscured the view of the mountains. Drops of rain tapped out a soft rhythm on the fogged-up glass as they rolled down the window and disappeared. The room felt slightly cooler.
“I came to prove someone’s innocence.”
“The innocence of Cordelia Gallo.”
Kazuya raised his head and looked at Victorique. She was biting her lower lip, glaring back at him with a stubborn furrow in her brow.
Kazuya glanced in the direction of the hallway, then quietly closed the door so that no one would overhear. He moved closer to Victorique. Since there was only one chair in the room, he chose the small suitcase that she had brought with her, and carefully sat down, looking up at Victorique from below.
Victorique started to move her small hands around the chest of her nightgown, trying to show something to Kazuya. She moved aside the large muslin frills, but there were more frills behind them, and even more frills behind those….
“…What are you doing?”
She was still moving aside frills.
“Wait, wait, wait!”
“…Come on, I’m not a dog.”
Victorique looked up distractedly at Kazuya’s words, a puzzled look on her face.
What finally emerged from her labyrinth of frills was something round, sparkling golden. Kazuya stared at it for some time, then realized that it was a gold coin. A small hole was cut in the middle, and a chain was strung through it, turning it into a pendant. It looked like a toy that a child had made, and appeared jarringly out of place when surrounded by Victorique’s luxurious clothing. It was simply a gold coin on a chain.
Victorique whispered quietly, “Cordelia gave this to me.”
“…That’s the name Inspector de Blois said when he saw you wearing that Indian hat.”
“Cordelia Gallo is my mother.” Her voice was very subdued.
She slowly turned the pendant around to show Kazuya something affixed to the other side. From his position sitting at her feet, he reached out his hand, like a knight accepting a gift from his lady.
A small photograph was attached to the back of the gold coin. A black-and-white picture—of Victorique de Blois.
Her appearance reminded Kazuya of the time she wore the Indian turban that he had given her. Her long hair flowed down her back, and her face wore a thick coat of sensual makeup. The look of her seductively reddened lips seized him with an intense feeling of unfamiliarity. The color was utterly unsuited to Victorique—it was an adult’s color.
“…Is this, um … you?”
“No.” Victorique shook her head. “That’s Cordelia Gallo. My mother.”
Rain began to pelt down from the night sky, striking the window without letup.
Victorique sat motionlessly in the claw footed chair, biting her lower lip.
“My mother was a dancer. She used to appear on stage in exotic costumes and foreign makeup, and seems to have gotten very popular. But wherever she went, all sorts of incidents would follow. They say she was an enigmatic woman.”
Victorique’s voice was calm and even, sounding no different from her usual tone when she was on the top floor of the library, surrounded by trees and books.
Rain continued to fall against the window, bringing a slight chill to the room. Kazuya sat on the small suitcase, hugging his knees, looking up at Victorique.
“My mother eventually entered a relationship with the Marquis de Blois and gave birth to me, but after that, she disappeared. For various reasons, I was raised in isolation in a room at the top of a tower at the family estate. I was told nothing of my birth mother. But one night, she climbed the tower, and handed me this golden pendant. There was my mother, outside the window. She was my spitting image. I knew immediately who she was.”
“Outside the window?! Of a tower?!”
“Cordelia was always very agile…. extremely so…”
Kazuya was silent.
“My mother has always been watching over me.”
“She was born in a village suspected to be the origin of the grey wolf legends that have taken root in Sauvure. The people of that village have been living deep in the mountains since the early sixteenth century, and are said to live a life wholly separated from civilization. They are small, blond-haired, and very clever, but above all, mysterious. It’s very difficult to find them in the cities. For the most part, they don’t leave their village. But the Marquis de Blois wished to incorporate their special abilities into the bloodline of his family. And when he discovered that this famous dancer may have come from this background, he made her his. However, the child she bore was not the boy he had wished for, but me. And after that, he found out the reason that she had been expelled from the village of her birth. My mother worked there as a maid, but one night, she committed a terrible crime, and was banished from the village. She was a criminal. The Marquis regretted bringing her accursed blood into his family. And I, the child he had sired, was also far from ordinary. In his fear, he imprisoned me in the tower where I grew up, giving me only books, and endless time…. My mother escaped, and at last ended up throwing herself into the conflagration of the Great War.”
Victorique paused. She took the pendant from Kazuya’s hands and tied it around her neck. The simple gold coin pendant once again sank into the depths of her ocean of frills.
“I’ve always wanted to learn about the village where my mother was born, where the villagers exiled her.”
“This chain of misfortunes all goes back to that one night. The night my mother committed an unspeakable crime. If not for that, then she wouldn’t have had to leave the village. And I would never have come into existence.”
“…I wouldn’t want that.”
Victorique widened her green eyes in surprise. Then she put her hands to her lips and burst into giggles.
Kazuya blushed. “Wh-what?”
“You are an amusing fellow, Kujou.”
“…Well, pardon me for that.”
Victorique smiled. Then she raised one hand and pointed at the door. “I’m going to bed. Leave at once.”
“…Hmm? F-fine. This is a lady’s room, after all.”
“I’m going to sleep. Any minute now. Come on, get moving!”
“I said fine! Jeez… Goodnight, Victorique.”
Kazuya jumped up in a hurry, about to leave the room. He had already reached the door when he thought he heard her say something from behind him, and he turned around.
Maybe it was just his imagination. Victorique’s mouth was closed. But she was staring at him intently.
“I came to prove my mother’s innocence.”
“Y-yeah…” Kazuya returned her stare, unsure of what she was implying. The face he had grown so used to seeing now looked like the faraway image of a stranger, and it filled him with a sudden trepidation.
Victorique spoke. “This is a battle. Her battle, with the village of the grey wolves.”
“So, until Cordelia Gallo wins, I’m not leaving.”
As Kazuya entered the hallway, he heard the soft sound of a door closing.
He looked up, and saw the door to Mildred’s room quivering faintly.