chapter three — Cordelia’s daughter
It was like they had gone back in time and arrived in a medieval village.
Light rain continued to fall, pouring thick, milky white fog on the village in the narrow basin, which was ringed by foothills that jutted out at right angles like the teeth of a saw. That fog enshrouded the entire valley floor like an opaque curtain of air.
The travelers made their way very slowly through the fog and into the nameless village, as if pulling aside a heavy, cream-colored curtain that hung at the entrance of a room.
The bridge was very old, and creaked unpleasantly as they walked across. At the bottom of the ravine far below, rapids gushed violently, hurling white foam at the cliff face. An ominous wind was whistling. The six of them began to quicken their pace without quite knowing why, trying to clear the drawbridge as fast as they could.
As soon as they had crossed over, the drawbridge groaningly rose back up. Inside the gate was a stone arch, and above it was a structure that looked like a watchtower. It took several men to pull up the drawbridge. Their long blond hair, tied to the back, swung from side to side with each movement of their arms. Kazuya started to call out to them, but then a strong gust of wind blew, camouflaging their bodies and the horseshoe-shaped arch in an even thicker fog.
Just as the wind-blown fog threatened to blind Kazuya, the air suddenly cleared, and he was able to see unexpectedly far into the distance. The wind’s loud howling blocked his ears. Everyone except Victorique covered their ears and looked around themselves fearfully.
“Hey, look at that!” Alain pointed.
The fog was steadily lifting.
“Oh!” Kazuya exclaimed.
Before them appeared a small village filled with rows of stone, square-shaped houses. They formed a peculiar motif, like mossy grey stones that had been arranged in a geometric pattern according to some mysterious higher-order mathematics, while also appearing randomly scattered about at the same time.
An open wooden door flapped in the wind, hinges squeaking.
There was a large well in the center of the small plaza.
…a plaza that was completely empty.
“Are these … ruins…?” Raoul murmured in awestruck wonder.
Derek nodded, and started to chatter in his high-pitched voice. “It’s a medieval village! Look at that church!” He pointed at a stone tower that seemed to be a church, which was starting to come into view as the fog cleared. “Take a look at those rose windows, and that steeple!”
“It’s like a medieval church right out of an old painting,” Alain said, removing his hat. The three young men gazed at the church with reverent eyes, lapsing into a moment’s silence.
When Kazuya turned to him with a questioning look, Derek began to explain. “We’re attending art school, so we’ve learned a lot about this sort of thing.”
Alain whistled in delight. Mildred hung her head silently, still looking green.
The wind gusted again, and all of a sudden, the rest of the fog lifted with a hiss.
The travelers came to a stop, disoriented.
Unbeknownst to them, up ahead a group of men had gathered, carrying spears and long swords. They stared at the outsiders with expressionless faces.
“…Are those ghosts?” Alain muttered jokingly, scratching his beard.
It was an understandable response. The villagers who stood before them were dressed in what looked like historical costumes. Their appearance matched the ancient state of their village, which could have passed for ruins from the Middle Ages.
The men wore woolen blouses under leather vests, and sharply pointed hats. The women’s skirts were gathered in a large hump at the back, and their hair was pulled back under lace-embroidered bonnets.
Their clothes were like costumes from a Shakespeare play, frozen in time….
And all of them looked very similar. Both men and women wore their long blond hair pinned tightly to the back. Their bodies were petite, and each one of their dainty, well-formed faces was like that of a doll that an artisan had labored over to make just right.
They looked over the travelers with their dull green eyes. Their expressions were hard, and their skin dry, which made them look like a lifeless army of ghosts in spite of their small, delicately proportioned features.
The villagers turned their attention to Victorique.
A stir of voices spread through them.
“…It’s Cordelia’s daughter!”
“Look at that face. She’s the spitting image!”
“It’s a bad omen!”
Their voices were hoarse, like dry, crackling leaves falling to the ground. In a single synchronized movement, the villagers raised their weapons, and the dull clash of metal against metal echoed through the square.
A wizened voice rang out from nowhere.
The villagers lowered their weapons. A path spontaneously formed in the middle of the crowd, and then at last an old man stepped forward.
The man, wearing a battered frock coat, appeared to be in his sixties. His salt-and-pepper hair was more salt than pepper, and extended down his back, tightly bound. His forelocks and beard hung low, and his eyes were half-hooded by loose, wrinkled skin. A large, leathery hand gripped a smooth ebony staff.
The man walked up to Victorique and stood still, clasping his hands together like the statue of a saint. His quiet eyes were filled with a cold, clouded light. He looked down at Victorique.
“…You are Cordelia’s daughter. What is your name?”
“Victorique de Blois,” Victorique answered, her voice low, almost as low as his voice, and husky like an old woman’s.
The man gasped softly. “De Blois…? Then, you are mixed with the blood of this nation’s aristocracy….”
“Do you have a problem with that?”
“No… Your mother… What happened to Cordelia?”
“I see. There is no peace for the wicked.”
Victorique bit down on her lip. “Cordelia is not a criminal.”
“…It is foolish to talk back to your elders. As you were not raised in this village, you have not learnt the humility that a child ought to possess. Even Cordelia never went against my words, and left this place without complaint. …Well, let it be.”
Taking no notice of the rage burning in Victorique’s eyes, the man turned to the villagers.
“The descendant who came after reading our message is this child. Cordelia’s daughter. But this girl bears no sin. There is no need to drive her away. Let us welcome her to celebrate our midsummer festival together.”
The villagers were silent. They exchanged quiet looks with their clouded eyes, but no one said a word.
The man continued. “You must do as I say. Worry not; no calamities shall befall us. Even if this girl’s mother, Cordelia…”
The wind blew, stirring the man’s silvery hair.
“…is a murderer.”
The man was the village headman, and his name was Sergius. He told them that the village had stood in this location for four hundred years, cutting off all contact with the outside world and living as self-sufficient a lifestyle as possible.
Sergius walked them through the village, acting as their guide.
“The midsummer festival is the time when we welcome the summertime return of our ancestors’ spirits, and pray for a good harvest. It starts tomorrow morning when the sun rises, and ends at dusk. I hope you will stay through tomorrow evening.”
“Tomorrow evening…” murmured Victorique.
“Yes. A little more than one day. At daybreak, floats will parade through the town square, accompanied by music; this will signify to the forest that the festival has begun. After that will be a short break, and before noon, the festival will begin anew. Young girls will throw hazelnuts to announce the start of the festival. Then, the young men will don costumes to perform a play in the town square. The Summer Army and the Winter Army do battle, and Summer claims victory, defeating the general of the Winter Army, the Winter Man. We celebrate the victory of summer, then make preparations to welcome the ancestors. It is said that the ancestors pass through the church on their way to the square; therefore, during that time only, no one is allowed into the church. And when night falls, villagers will be chosen to put on masks and perform a dance in the role of the returned ancestors. With this, the festival is complete, and we are ensured one more year of peace and prosperity!” continued Sergius.
But Kazuya was agitated, his shock at hearing the word “murderer” just minutes ago still unabated. In contrast, the three young men were in their own world, whooping and hollering over the sights of the village.
“Look at that well!”
“Stone houses and hearths. And the chimneys, too! Everything’s so damn old!”
Alain began to boast about his shiny, newfangled wristwatch to the young blond man who stood at Sergius’ side, presumably his assistant. The young man, who held a shotgun in one hand, was one of the taller villagers, and even more beautiful than the rest. He glanced briefly at the watch, then began to stare at it in astonishment.
“What, you’ve never seen one?”
“…We never leave the village.”
“Really? Then what do you do all day?”
Alain started talking noisily to the young man, who was close to his own age. After the watch, he next showed off his tortoiseshell glasses, then tugged on Derek’s clothing as he walked next to him and showed off the tailoring….
The headman, Sergius, frowned in disapproval, his long eyebrows twitching.
He guided them to the square in the center of town. Beyond the square, they could see a steep cliff and a small, dark forest. Apparently, the village was shaped like a small circle surrounded by forest on all sides. Only the cliff area around the entrance was enclosed by the fortified walls; there were no walls at the back of the village. But the forest was filled with bluffs, and seemed to be a treacherous place to navigate.
The village was not very large. But Kazuya felt surprised at the fact that such a small village had been able to preserve their way of life for such a long time.
Now Sergius directed his gaze toward the forest.
Tree branches were rustling softly in the wind.
The next moment, Sergius snatched the shotgun from his young assistant and lifted it up, aiming the barrel at the woods.
Alain and Derek were in the middle of a lively conversation and didn’t notice what he was doing.
The young assistant gasped.
The sharp sound of a gunshot rang out.
Alain and his travel companions all jumped at once, turning startled faces to each other. “Wh-wha-what the hell?”
“…Wolves,” Sergius said curtly. “Wolves roam wild in these mountains. They grow large, and are extremely fierce. When we find one, we prevent it from coming near the village by scaring it off. As I just did.”
The young men exchanged looks.
“There are many cliffs hidden in the forest, as well as ferocious wolves, so you mustn’t go near it. The only safe way to enter the village is by crossing the drawbridge.”
Sergius’ young assistant drew his lips into a taut line of fear, but said nothing.
Alain ran his fingers through his beard, and asked Sergius, “But old man, down in Horowitz, they were calling the people who live in this village grey wolves. Basically, they’re pretty suspicious of you people, ya know?” He turned to Raoul, looking for agreement. Raoul nodded, his large body cowering as he stared at the shotgun from the corner of his eye, frightened.
When the young assistant heard the headman being addressed so rudely as “old man”, he gasped, and hesitantly looked from Alain’s face to Sergius, not sure if he should get angry.
Sergius laughed dryly. “That isn’t true! We are ordinary humans. They simply distrust us because we live deep in the mountains and still hold on to our old ways of life.”
“Huh…” Alain nodded, and Derek laughed shrilly. Raoul joined in with a grin of his own.
“…We simply happen to be of a slightly different race. Lowland people—they probably sense our racial difference from our skin color. Because from our perspective, there’s nothing in particular that we’ve ever done,” added Sergius cryptically. And then he began to walk again.
They continued down the dusty cobblestone street. As they passed through the square in the center of town, they gazed at the medieval architecture of the church on the side of the road. Behind the church, they could just barely make out the sight of a graveyard through the fog. Somehow, this gave Kazuya a bad premonition, and he looked away. Beyond the graveyard, the dark forest grew toward them, the spaces between the tree branches filled with thick fog.
The narrow road suddenly widened. Just when it seemed like they would soon be in the woods, Sergius halted.
The broad cobblestone road continued to gently incline upward. Countless layers of mist shrouded the way like gauzy organdy curtains fluttering in the wind. The layers of mist danced, flying higher and higher. Then, further up the road, they spied something huge on the ominously darkened hill slightly above them—a rounded lump, like something squatting with its back arched.
It was grey, and larger than anything they could have imagined. Mildred choked back a scream.
It was an enormous grey animal!
For now, it was crouched on the dark, gloomy hill, but it seemed to be sluggishly stirring to life, about to lift its head in the travelers’ direction and demolish the hill with a kick of its hind legs, in preparation for imminent attack….
The figure of an enormous grey wolf—
Suddenly, in the back of Kazuya’s mind, he remembered the eerie rumor that the innkeeper had told him in Horowitz, and that grim, anxious look he wore on his face.
Grey wolves live there….
You must never anger them….
You must make sure never to annoy them with petty things….
A gust of wind whistled past.
…Huh? Kazuya rubbed his eyes.
He realized that the huge figure was in fact made of stone. A lifeless substance: cold, dry, grey. And then he realized that this too was a trick of the eye.
For it was a manor, large and dark grey.
Stone slabs formed its body, with a tall tower on the left side that resembled an animal’s raised head. Floral rosettes were elegantly carved into the pillars at the entrance, and the roof was also beautifully ornamented. On a clear day, the stone façade would probably gleam like white chalk, but for now it was submerged in a deep, forbidding grey.
It was a peculiar manor—elegant, but in such a bleak color, as if it had been painted all over with a brush dipped only in black ink.
Around the perimeter, narrow flower beds were arranged in a strange pattern, planted with red flowers that Kazuya didn’t recognize. They provided the only source of bright color, but the flower beds looked more like writhing red blood vessels, contributing to the dark and foreboding atmosphere.
Sergius announced gruffly, “This is my home.”
The travelers looked at one another.
“You may stay here until the festival ends,” he continued.
The manor was large and dimly lit.
It was beautifully constructed. Every room had polished mahogany furniture and was shielded by velvet curtains, giving the manor an impression quite separate from that of the rustic stone village.
When they came in through the large entrance, they saw a grand staircase lined with red carpet, and further in, a hall sparkling with chandeliers. They climbed the staircase up to a long corridor lined with heavy curtains. The wall lamps near the ceiling flickered orange.
Portraits of ancestors were hung on the walls of the dim corridor. All of the faces were attractive, and yet stern, and they wore their blond hair long and tied back. The portrait closest to the staircase looked the youngest, seeming to be just past forty.
As the visitors looked up at the portraits, an innocent, childish-sounding voice rang out from the shadows.
“That is Master Théodore, the headman who was murdered.”
Victorique’s shoulders jumped.
Everyone turned in the direction of the voice.
A woman stood there, holding a lamp. She looked around twenty-five or twenty-six years old. Her thick blond hair was plaited into small braids, which were wound one by one into an elaborate hairstyle. She had a comely, fine-featured face, but her expression was flat, like a broken doll. Her head leaned stiffly to one side, looking as if it would twist off and roll onto the floor any second.
Her dull green eyes, the color of jade, glittered brightly in the dim light of the corridor.
Judging by her attire, she was apparently a maid. She wore clothes in the same archaic style that Sergius did. Her skirt was long, and gathered into a large bustle on the back. A corset was fastened at her slender waist, and a white collar covered the skin at her throat.
Sergius turned to the group. “This is Harminia. She works here as a maid.”
Harminia dipped one knee in a light curtsey.
And then she looked down on Victorique with cold eyes.
“You look exactly like Cordelia.”
Her voice, which had previously sounded like a child’s, now sounded like a different person altogether. This time, it was low and deep, like a man’s voice.
As Harminia went on speaking, her voice rose and fell, changing on its own, sounding like a man and then a woman, an adult and then a child.
“I was very young at the time, but I remember it well. Cordelia was exiled exactly twenty years ago. In this house…”
“In Master Théodore’s study, Cordelia scattered gold coins on the floor, and then…”
“She took a dagger and…”
She closed her mouth and smoothly raised her left hand.
With everyone watching, she brought the index finger of her left hand up to her dull jade-colored eye, pulled down the lower eyelid, and rubbed the eyeball with the pad of her finger.
The sight of her rubbing her eye with such violent force caused the onlookers to gasp. They had a clear view of the white below her left eye. Red capillaries were springing to the surface, flooding the white with thin red cracks.
Harminia rubbed and rubbed, exposing the white of her eye.
And then she abruptly withdrew her hand.
The lamplights suddenly seemed to dim slightly.
“The incident occurred in the study. No one uses it anymore. It’s an old room at the back of the first floor.”
The guests sat around a table in the dining room, in front of a light lunch that Harminia had prepared.
In the room was a marble mantelpiece. Rectangular glass lamps hung on the polished black paneled walls, which were also decorated with several paintings. The room was lavishly decorated, and yet it felt somehow suffocating. Kazuya suddenly realized that the cause may have been the low ceiling. Both the rooms and the corridors had low ceilings, and this instilled a feeling of tension, as if they would be crushed at any moment. …Perhaps it was because the people of this village were so short.
Harminia brought out sandwiches, black tea, and pastries, all on matching china, which looked as though they had been polished over and over for generations. They were old, but a thorough burnishing made them gleam dully.
Sergius began to speak. “Master Théodore had secluded himself in his study since the evening. At twelve midnight, the maid, Cordelia—a girl of fifteen at the time—had the duty of refilling his water jug.”
If she was fifteen, Kazuya said to himself. Then she would be the same age as he and Victorique were now.
“At the time, I was Master Théodore’s assistant, and was inside this manor. I passed by with some other men in front of the corridor, just in time to see Cordelia about to enter the study. As usual, she was carrying a crude iron candlestick. She knocked, then tried the doorknob. It was locked, and the door wouldn’t open. That door was normally left unlocked, but during times when Master Théodore wished to avoid interruptions, he occasionally locked it. Cordelia pulled out the key and opened the door. By that time, my companions and I had already passed beyond the front of the corridor. I recall that the time was exactly twelve o’clock; I know this because I looked at my pocket watch. Cordelia was also a highly punctual person. But for some reason, the men whom I was with gave differing testimony about the time, and so at present, I cannot be absolutely sure when it occurred. Leaving that aside…”
As the three young men munched on their breakfast, they complained nonstop about the outmoded choice of ingredients. Whenever Alain loudly stated something, Derek replied in a high-pitched voice. Raoul stayed quiet, but he kept staring at the silverware and tapping it against the table as if there was something unusual about it. None of them seemed to have much interest in Sergius’ story, and paid little attention.
Mildred was silent, her face green as if she still had a hangover. All she could do was pick at her meal.
Victorique listened carefully to what Sergius had to say.
“…Cordelia screamed and fled from the study. The rest of us were startled and ran to see what had happened. We restrained Cordelia, who was hysterical from fright, and went in the room… It was pitch dark inside. We lit up the floor with a candlestick, and saw Master Théodore lying face-down on the floor. He was already dead. A dagger was stuck in his upper back, and the blood-stained tip came all the way out through his chest. And for some reason…”
Sergius paused, then said in a genuinely mystified tone, “There were gold coins scattered all over the floor.”
“Yes. Around twenty of them. But as we don’t use any such coins in our village, I can only assume that Master Théodore was collecting them. The coins were soaked red in his blood.”
“Later that night, Cordelia fell ill with a high fever. In her sleep, she kept murmuring, ’round things, so many round things, so pretty’. I suppose that she was referring to the gold coins. Meanwhile, the rest of us discussed the situation. And ten days later, after we waited for Cordelia’s fever to break and for her to wake up, we … no, I, in my capacity as the new headman, decided to expel her from the village.”
“Expel her…?” asked Kazuya.
“Correct. We sent her away with one suitcase and one gold coin, and raised the drawbridge after her. We never even knew if she made it down the mountain safely after that. Ferocious wolves, steep cliffs, and rapids… It seemed unlikely that this girl, who had never stepped foot outside of the village, would be able to reach the town at the base of the mountain alive. …I remember it even now. That “round thing”… that gold coin in her hand, and the tears that filled her green eyes as she watched the drawbridge rise, sparing her no mercy. Cordelia was an orphan. No one had taught her how to climb down the mountain, and no one gave her winter clothing or food to take. I, the headman’s assistant, was her sole guardian, and allowed this girl with no living relatives to work in the mansion as a maid. And I was the one to sentence her … as a criminal. She was still recovering from her illness when she was sent alone down the mountain, a journey that takes several days, and driven out to the city…. But she must have found some way to survive, for her daughter to be here with us today.”
“But why…?” asked Kazuya. “To exile her, of all things…”
“I couldn’t imagine that anyone but Cordelia could be the murderer. The study was locked from the inside. She confirmed that herself. And no one else was there. There were only two keys to that room. One of them Master Théodore carried on his person, and the other was in Cordelia’s hands the whole time. And she said that when she entered the study, the candlestick in her hands allowed her to see the entire room. There was no one there but Master Théodore and herself. Cordelia said that he was already dead by the time she entered the room, but her story made no sense. I surmised that something must have happened after she entered the study. And Cordelia ended up killing Master Théodore. That would make the fever she subsequently suffered the fruit of a guilty conscience.”
“But just that in itself… That alone isn’t clear proof that she was guilty…”
“There is no flaw in my judgment,” said Sergius in a low voice. “And after Master Théodore died, I became the new headman. Whatever I decided was final.”
“We cannot overlook wrongdoing. That would bring calamity upon the village. It is my duty to protect it.”
“Cordelia is a criminal. There is no other possibility,” Sergius stubbornly repeated.
Victorique, who had been listening silently, suddenly spoke. “I want to visit that room.”
Sergius shook his head. “I won’t allow it.”
“…Letting guests wander wherever they want only leads to trouble,” Sergius said testily, and then fell silent.