As the sun slowly set, the quiet darkness of another day’s end began to pervade the nameless village. Beyond the window of Victorique’s room, through the opened curtains, the blazing sun sank onto the tall oak trees until it finally disappeared into the depths of the shadows. Once the sunlight had faded away, the village was dyed pitch black; only a veil of milky white mist swam through the dark, stirred by a feeble wind lingering from the day.
The dark, tangled branches of the oak trees formed an inky black skeleton, like a mass of skulls in the night.
“I’m closing the curtain, Victorique.”
Kazuya stood up and pulled the cord that dangled from the top of the window. The heavy velvet curtain swayed shut.
Victorique had been slumped into the rocking chair for a long time by now, thinking quietly to herself. She had eaten a simple dinner with Sergius and the other guests, then retired to her room and hadn’t moved since. Kazuya tried to speak to her, but regardless of whether she heard him or not, she made no attempt to respond. He sighed and sat back down on his original seat on top of her miniature suitcase.
Suddenly, they heard a knock from the door, and before they had a chance to answer, it slowly opened. Kazuya sat up. Someone came inside the room, accompanied by the soft rustling of fabric.
It was Harminia.
She was holding a large brass basin filled with water. “I’ve brought hot water for your bath. Please mix it with cold water,” she said in a low voice.
Harminia opened the flimsy door to the bathroom at the back of the room, set down the bucket, and left quickly. Kazuya frowned.
Her footsteps made not the slightest sound….
As if no one was walking there at all…
He sensed a strong contrast between her and the red-headed nun, Mildred. Whenever Mildred passed by, she walked with clomping footsteps even louder than a large man. But the sounds Harminia made were so faint, it was hard to tell that she was even there, and that was mysterious enough….
The moment she stepped through the door, Harminia suddenly spun back around. She stared at Kazuya and Victorique so hard that it seemed her eyes would pop out.
Her lips slowly parted.
Those thin, colorless lips.
“…If you need anything else, please ring the bell.”
The door closed.
Now Victorique’s mood suddenly brightened, and she hopped out of the rocking chair and skipped toward the bathroom, almost dancing. Kazuya watched her in curiosity as she started to pour hot water into the cream-colored bathtub with brass claw feet. She bent her small knees down to the black-and-white checkered tile floor and happily peered into the full bathtub.
She looked as if she would start humming a tune at any moment. Mystified, Kazuya asked, “What happened?”
Victorique raised her head, and answered as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “I like baths.”
“Really? Hmm. No wonder. I guess it’s true that you see all sorts of unexpected sides to a person when you travel with them. Victorique, you like pretty things, and also baths, too.”
“And then books and sweets, right? And frills and lace. And then … what? Why are you giving me that threatening look?”
“Stop acting like you know the first thing about me.”
“…Hey, where did that come from?!”
Victorique ignored him and pulled out her bathing toiletries from her luggage, which included a comb of gleaming ivory, rose-scented soap, and a make-up mirror trimmed with gold leaf. Then she looked back at Kazuya and scowled.
“The lady is taking her bath. Leave.”
“Ah! S-s-sorry!” Kazuya stood up and ran to the entrance of the bedroom, then turned around. “I’ll be in the hallway. If anything weird happens, call for me.”
There was no response.
Kazuya went out to the hallway and shut the door. He couldn’t help but sigh.
Now alone in the hallway, he suddenly felt unease surging through him. This village in the mountains and its inhabitants were all too bizarre. He didn’t know much about the other four who came on the trip either. Then there was the radio that broke down all of a sudden, and the eyeball floating in the water pitcher….
The more anxious he felt, the more the hallway seemed to lurch, as if the walls and ceiling were closing in on him from all sides. He shook his head roughly, unwilling to let his anxiety take over.
Victorique isn’t going to change her mind. Somehow I have to make sure nothing dangerous happens….
Behind the door, he heard the faint sound of water inside. The splishes and splashes were very light, enough to make anyone listening think that a small cat had gone in the bathtub rather than a human.
Next, he heard the distant sound of Victorique’s voice coming from the bathroom.
“Ah, ah, ah…”
“Victorique!?” Kazuya whirled around. He opened the door, ran into the room, and strained his ears.
“I love bathti-ime!”
“It warms me u-u-up!”
She’s … singing?
Embarrassed at his panicked reaction, he leaned against the door and deliberately spoke in a less than courteous tone. “Whatcha doin’, Victorique?”
“Well, you’re lousy!”
A wave of anger vibrated the air all the way from the bathroom to where Kazuya was standing.
After a long silence, when Kazuya was about to leave the room again, Victorique spoke in a low, resonant tone.
“Lousy, you say? Then you sing, Kujou.”
“Whaat? N-no way. That’s too embarrassing.”
“Kujou … sing.”
“…Ugh.” Kazuya regretted making fun of Victorique, but he was unable to defy her. He put both hands on his hips, thought of a children’s song that he had often sung in his homeland, and began to sing in a clear voice.
He used to sing this song as a child before his voice changed. Whenever his mother and sister heard his cherubic voice, they would always clap and praise him. “Our Kazuya is so good at singing! Your dear father and brothers can’t sing at all.” However, when his father and brothers heard him, they would scold him for his unmanly behavior. And so Kazuya grew up into the type of man who wouldn’t so much as hum even when alone. But now, finding himself singing for the first time in a long while, he was gradually warming up to it.
As Kazuya threw out his chest and sang in a full voice, he heard an object strike the inside of the bathroom door, followed by, “Shut up!”
“…B-but you’re the one who ordered me to sing!” Tears prickled Kazuya’s eyes, and he stopped singing.
And then he added in a small voice, “I’m good, huh?”
There was no answer.
Hanging his head, Kazuya fell silent.
The room again turned quiet. Other than some faint watery sounds, all he could hear was his own heartbeat and the velvet curtains as they fluttered softly in the wind.
Sometimes, the white mist outside the curtains would wander into the room, but it would quickly dissipate.
All was still.
A wolf howled in the distance.
A bird flapped its wings.
…In the corner of Kazuya’s vision, he saw something move.
He realized something was amiss, and looked up. Something definitely moved; I saw it with my own eyes, he thought to himself. He carefully surveyed the room, but saw nothing unusual.
…There has to be something in here. I’m sure I saw something move just now….
He saw the canopy bed.
The small chest of drawers.
The rocking chair and elegant turntable.
The velvet curtain.
The mirror built into the wall.
Kazuya gave it a hard stare.
Something was moving in the mirror—in the bed, under the fluffy down quilt. It was tucked in tightly enough that no one should have been under it, but for some reason there was a small lump underneath.
Kazuya turned around to look at the bed. But the quilt was neatly tucked in just as he had seen it earlier.
He looked back at the mirror.
In the reflection, the lump under the quilt was slowly expanding.
The lamplight flickered, darkening the room slightly.
The quilt in the mirror was gradually inflating; soon the lump became the size of a person, and was growing even larger….
Kazuya cried out. His first instinct was to run into the hallway … but then he remembered Victorique, and turned back toward the bathroom. He pounded on the thin door.
“Victorique! Victorique! Are you okay?!”
Kazuya thought again of the radio that had shut off with no warning, and the eyeball in the water pitcher.
Something’s wrong…. There’s something wrong! Victorique!
The lamp went out, and without warning, the room was engulfed in darkness.
Kazuya clung to the bathroom door in an effort to protect Victorique. He called out her name over and over, but there was no response.
All of a sudden, the lamp turned back on.
The bulging bed in the mirror’s reflection had also returned to normal.
“…You’re being awfully noisy, you know. What the devil is all the fuss about?”
Victorique didn’t emerge from the bathroom for another ten minutes. She was wearing a billowing nightgown of white frills and aqua-blue ladder lace, and a white satin bonnet. Half of her long blond hair was gathered into her headdress, and the rest of it spilled down her back.
Kazuya was sprawled out in a chair, utterly spent.
Victorique frowned. “That’s my chair.”
Kazuya stood up.
Then he opened his mouth and began a disjointed account of the baffling phenomenon that had just taken place. But for some reason, Victorique merely gave a bored yawn, then went back to carefully putting away her bathing supplies and hunting around the room for her bag of macarons.
“Victorique, let’s go home tomorrow morning, as soon as possible,” said Kazuya anxiously.
Victorique looked up at him, surprised. “Why?”
“I told you, it’s dangerous here. All these strange things are happening…. This whole village is strange. I mean, isn’t it bizarre how the radio just stopped working so suddenly….”
“The radio?” Victorique groaned. Then Kazuya heard her quietly mumble, “What a pain!”
“That was just a trick, you know.”
Victorique yawned widely, then continued, not in the mood to resist him. “Do you remember what else was on top of the chest where the radio was sitting?”
“On top of the chest? Well, there was the radio, and a statue of the Virgin Mary, and a decorative compass….” Kazuya lapsed into thought.
Victorique’s words were interspersed with yawns. “Compasses have magnets. If a device that uses electricity is placed next to a magnet, then it’ll go haywire. Although I don’t know whether it was just a coincidence or if someone put it there on purpose.”
“Victorique, does that mean…” Kazuya frowned. “Are you saying that you knew all along?”
“Then why didn’t you tell me! Everyone was spooked by that, me included!”
“I had other things on my mind.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake….”
Victorique sat down in her rocking chair and watched Kazuya groan. Then she climbed back out and threw her hands up in defeat. “Kujou, you are a selfish man!”
“As if you’re any better!”
“You leave me no choice. I shall articulate it so that even a selfish, half-witted savant such as you, Kujou, may understand.”
“Well, excuse me for that.”
“In exchange, I don’t want to hear any more of your talk about me leaving. I am not leaving.”
Victorique walked out with tiny steps into the hallway. Kazuya tried to follow her, but she said, “You stay here.”
“And close your eyes until I say when. In the meantime, you may reflect on your sins.”
“Reflect on my sins?! What sins?!”
Kazuya reluctantly closed his eyes, just as she had told him.
He heard her leaving the room, and the door closing.
For now, it was quiet.
Then there was a rattling sound somewhere nearby. Kazuya wanted to open his eyes, but he swallowed his impatience and kept hold of himself.
At last, he heard Victorique’s voice, and it sounded very close, even though he was sure that she had left the room.
“That’s enough. Open your eyes.”
Kazuya opened his eyes.
In the mirror hanging on the wall in front of him, at around chest height, something resembling the top of Victorique’s head appeared in the reflection. He caught just a glimpse of her white satin bonnet and glossy blond hair.
He also heard her voice.
“You understand, don’t you, Kujou the half-witted savant?”
“Not in the least. Victorique, where are you?”
Moving closer, he realized that the mirror had been removed, and the space now opened up like an indoor window. Across it, he saw another bedroom that looked like a mirror image of this room, and there was Victorique, straining as hard as she could to stand on her tiptoes and poke her head out of the rectangular hole.
But no matter how much she stretched, she couldn’t quite reach it. She gave up and ran out of view, then returned carrying a small box to use as a step stool. The box seemed light enough, but she had to carry it along very slowly, gritting her teeth as if it were very heavy.
Victorique stepped onto the box, and this finally allowed her to reach the same height as Kazuya. She popped her head through the hole. “See?”
Realizing that Kazuya was still in the dark, Victorique stamped her feet on top of the box. “Basically, someone entered this room and removed the mirror. Kujou, you weren’t looking at a mirror. Someone slipped into the bed on this side and made a lump under the covers to scare you.”
Kazuya locked eyes with Victorique.
Now that she was standing on a step stool, their faces came to the same height for once. He stared deeply into Victorique’s large green eyes.
“You understand now, don’t you?” She widened her eyes and watched him closely, concerned over whether he really understood.
A shadow crossed over Kazuya’s face.
“Wh-what’s wrong, Kujou?” she stammered.
“So, basically, what you’re saying is someone did that deliberately.”
“Yes, that’s right. So there’s nothing to worry about.”
“There’s a lot to worry about!”
Victorique’s eyes widened further, startled by Kazuya’s sudden shout.
Frustrated at having no outlet for his feelings, Kazuya kicked the floor a few times. “I’m fine with it being a ghost. I mean, this place is practically a haunted house. But the one behind all this is a human…. And this isn’t my room, Victorique, it’s yours. Someone did that on purpose to frighten you. Right?”
“Who would do something like that, and why?”
“I don’t know who. It has to be one of the villagers. But I can guess the reason why. It’s because I’m Cordelia’s daughter,” she replied, lowering her voice. Her eyes darkened, and her small face turned expressionless. Kazuya watched her closely.
Victorique’s voice started to tremble. “It could be the act of a villager who believes Cordelia is a criminal who brings misfortune…. Or it could be the act of the real murderer, afraid I’ll discover the truth….”
Memories of the villagers’ dull green eyes flashed through the back of Kazuya’s mind—when they raised their weapons and tried to drive them away, and then Sergius arriving at last, allowing them to enter the village. Harminia and her naked eyeball as she identified Victorique from the group of visitors and denounced Cordelia for her crime. And Ambrose, who had chatted with them so amiably, only to suddenly turn cold when the topic of conversation changed….
And yet Kazuya also felt Sergius’ presence lurking behind all of these events. What if his efforts to protect the village had something to do with the truth that Victorique sought…?
Victorique’s voice was stubborn. “I still refuse to leave!”
“But it’s dangerous!”
Kazuya and Victorique both stamped their feet, their mutual glares split by the wall.
“But Kujou, you’ll…” Victorique’s words trailed off hesitantly. Her face turned solemn. “You’ll protect me, won’t you? …If you even came all the way here without a single piece of luggage.”
“Of course I will!” Kazuya shouted.
They stared into each others’ eyes, glaring at each other with none of their usual friendliness. This was a dangerous gaze, as if they were about to partake in a duel. The two of them continued to stare at each other, saying nothing.
And then suddenly…
The door to Victorique’s room flung open.
Standing there was Mildred, her red hair like a baby doll’s, twisted into curls. By all appearances, she was in a very bad mood.
“Hey, kids! Listen to this!”
She entered the room with lead-footed steps. This reminded Kazuya of how Harminia made no sound at all when she brought hot water earlier, and he again had to marvel at how the two women were poles apart. Mildred strode through the room, then noticed Victorique’s face peeking out of the square hole. Giggling, she pointed at Victorique, and poked the tip of her nose.
Victorique squirmed away from her like a kitten being harassed by a grownup human, and blinked her eyes repeatedly in surprise.
“What are you up to, you wee little thing?”
Victorique’s face changed color. Kazuya was inwardly startled. Could it be that she’s sensitive about her height…?
But Mildred was just getting started, and stomped around the room as she spoke. “They’re a bunch of idiots! Those men … those foolish men! All three of them: that bearded Alain, rich boy Derek, and that silent Raoul. And I even tried to get along with Derek since they said he’s rich.”
“J-just because of that…?”
“I love money!” Mildred roared angrily. “More than fine wine, more than pretty dresses, money is what I love, more than anything!”
Kazuya and Victorique had to give each other a look, remembering the Dresden plate that Mildred had stolen at the flea market.
The moment she started talking about money, there was somehow a complete change in Mildred’s atmosphere, which had previously seemed so coarse and vulgar. Sticky sweet droplets of sensuality burst from her voluptuous body, impregnated with a fragrant, rich scent like floral perfume.
What just happened…? Kazuya stared at her, slightly appalled, as she went on and on about her love of money.
“But wine and dresses are things you buy with money,” Victorique pointed out.
Mildred pretended she didn’t hear that. “Anyway, they’re are acting like they’re sightseeing. It’s the night before the midsummer festival and all the villagers are on edge, but those guys are taking field trips to the church. I heard that the festival is the one time of year the church has to stay empty. They sure seem to have a lot of rules about all this stuff. So I went with them, and what do you think they did? There was this old vase that looked like the villagers really treasured it. So they took this fancy vase and dropped it into a basin of holy water. See, they kept badgering them about wanting to see it, said it might be interesting, and when they got a good look at it, they started laughing at the villagers for hanging onto crummy old stuff like that. The villagers were fuming. Then finally, plop! And not just once, either. All three of them wanted to see what would happen, so they each dropped it in… At least they didn’t break it. For God’s sake… That headman, Sergius, had steam coming out of his ears, he was so mad. Those idiots only see new things as worthwhile; they don’t know what real value is.”
While Mildred was speaking, she picked up the red frosted glass next to the pitcher and gulped it down without looking at the contents. She began to cough violently.
“S-something in the water… Something round… Did I swallow it?”
“…Ah!” The eyeball! Kazuya realized, but he chose to keep that to himself, and said instead that it must have been a piece of candy. She nodded, accepting his explanation.
Mildred tramped out of the room, and silence returned in her place.
Victorique came back through the hallway from the other room.
She and Kazuya said little to each other. He compulsively checked the lock on the door over and over, moved the wardrobe in front of the mirror to make sure no one could enter from the neighboring room, and closed the window securely, sealing the room as best he could.
“Victorique, I’ll stay in this room. I’ll be right by the door, so if anyone tries to come in, I’ll beat him up.”
“Hmm. How manly of you.”
“Come on, be serious! I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but you’re the one who’s in danger!”
Kazuya put the rocking chair in front of the door and sat down heavily, closing his eyes.
…but found himself unable to sleep. As the most sensitive member of his family, even a mere change of pillow would have made it impossible for him to sleep. There was no way he could fall soundly asleep in a rocking chair of all places.
When he softly voiced this complaint, Victorique turned to him gleefully. “Say … Do you happen to remember that splendid cot I had packed inside my luggage?”
“In your luggage?” Kazuya repeated in bewilderment. “You mean … that stupidly huge suitcase with enough room for a whole family to move to the New World?”
“Hmm?! You’re the stupid one. I exhausted my intellectual powers to determine the absolute minimum necessary to take with me…. But no, you had to arrogantly lecture me and leave it behind, so take responsibility and sleep in that rocking chair.”
“…Well, at least I’m pretty sure you didn’t need that vase or that tea set.”
She threw more invective at him, and another macaron came sailing through the air. Kazuya angrily picked up the fallen candy from the floor and returned it to its original spot.
“Victorique…?” He looked up again, but her mind was elsewhere, and she was no longer looking at him. He sighed, and sat back down into the rocking chair.
The night wore on, and the manor grew silent.
Kazuya dimmed the wall lamp and decided to try falling asleep.
Victorique had turned on her side in the large canopy bed. Kazuya could hear her taking soft breaths. He closed his eyes, trying to force himself to sleep in the rocking chair.
Then he took a closer look at Victorique, who had fallen asleep some time ago. He saw the back of her small head. She was lying on her stomach, her face stuffed into the large, fluffy pillow.
“…That’s an interesting sleeping position.”
Her breathing was quiet and rhythmical.
From this angle, Victorique looked so small in the huge bed, like a long-haired white puppy that had gotten tangled in the covers and fallen asleep.
Soon he heard the tolling of a grandfather clock.
One, two, Kazuya began to count. The clock made it to twelve chimes, then stopped. He realized that it was already twelve o’clock at night, and that he should sleep, too.
With worry in his heart, Kazuya slowly closed his eyes.