After the commotion at daybreak, the villagers returned to their homes, ate a simple breakfast, then reassembled in the town square after noon.
They extinguished the lanterns on the floats, leaving only the brightly colored banners that flapped violently in the wind around the perimeter of the square. The echoes of cracking whips and firing pistols still continued to reverberate.
Ambrose explained that the reenactment of the Summer Army’s victory over the Winter Army, which was meant as a prayer for a bountiful harvest, would soon begin. Kazuya visited Alain and Derek’s rooms to invite them to observe the festivities, but although the three young men appeared to be in, they didn’t bother to respond to his knock; presumably they were still in a surly mood. According to Mildred, the three of them were keeping quiet in their rooms without exchanging any words, seemingly avoiding each other.
“I guess we can just watch from our balconies,” she added in a bored mumble.
Kazuya and Victorique ended up being the only ones to head to the square, walking hand in hand.
They happened to arrive at the same moment that young girls wearing red skirts were running into the square. The girls stood in the center and curtseyed, each with a basket in one hand.
Sergius, the headman, leisurely passed by with Ambrose, who was talking animatedly. Ambrose noticed Kazuya and Victorique observing the square from one of the corners, and he looked back at them. “You’re in a dangerous spot!”
“Well, dangerous might not be the word for it. Let’s just say it might be a little painful.”
Ambrose walked away, giggling mischievously. Kazuya looked down at Victorique; she was scowling. Painful…? Painful…? Oh, no!
Remembering that Victorique was sensitive to pain, Kazuya pulled her hand to move her away. She kept swiveling her head around, trying to get a view of the square and the villagers. As Kazuya tugged on her, she gave him a dubious look.
“Where do you think you’re taking me?”
“Well, I’m not quite sure myself….”
Once they had moved to a different spot, a chorus of excited squeals came from the girls and they put their hands in their baskets. They counted down in unison, then grabbed handfuls of hard hazelnuts and flung them into the air.
Hazelnuts flew in every direction.
The villagers watched with smiles on their faces.
Hazelnuts were piling up in the location where Kazuya and Victorique had been standing only moments ago. Then they saw a young man wearing a beard, glasses, and hat come wandering through.
“There’s Alain,” murmured Kazuya. “And I just invited him, too. Maybe his curiosity got the better of him and he came to watch the festival after all….”
The girls sang prayers for the good harvest in between their excited shrieks, and threw a torrent of hazelnuts at the man. The nuts landed on him with hard, dry thumps, and he fled, jumping in pain. The girls laughed gaily and searched the area for their next passerby to hit. Young men from the village deliberately strayed close, and the girls merrily pelted them with nuts. The men ran away in a hurry. Girlish voices and cries of pain swelled through the square as the cycle repeated itself.
“Ouch! That looks like it hurts!” Kazuya yelped. We dodged that one. I should thank Ambrose later. If we’d stayed in that spot, then Victorique would be in a lot of pain right now, and I’d have a big problem on my hands….
He quietly gazed at her standing next to him.
She was observing the villagers’ every move as intently as ever.
At last, the village maidens had emptied their baskets, and they laughingly dispersed. Then the young men divided themselves into the Winter Army, dressed in brown clothing and riding on horseback, and the Summer Army, wearing blue clothing and brandishing spears, and began to perform the dance that symbolized their battle.
The girls shrieked and cheered on the Summer Army. On the periphery, elderly men shouted hoarsely, while shakily stomping the ground in a dance of their own.
It was a long performance.
The Summer Army finally prevailed, and the Winter Army scattered. A young man standing at the center of the Summer Army announced their victory in a ringing voice.
“Hey, is that…?” Kazuya suddenly realized that this was Ambrose.
Seeing Ambrose like this reminded him of how different he seemed from all of the other youths in the village. The Grey Wolves in the village had cloudy eyes that rejected change, but Ambrose was different—his eyes brimmed with a youthful radiance.
As Ambrose, clad in blue, waved the torch in his hand, he proudly declared the victory of summer and the coming of a good harvest. “O Winter Man, burn to ashes and begone!” he proclaimed, and held his torch above the float in the center of the square.
On top of the float lay the figure of yellow ochre papier-mâché that he had made—the papier-mâché Winter Man. The float and papier-mâché had both been constructed out of flammable materials, and as soon as Ambrose let the torch fall, they were immediately engulfed in flames, burning with a loud roar.
But seconds later…
Something stood up on top of the float.
Ambrose cried out. His face was stricken with dread, and his mouth was open wide, letting out an endless scream.
What stood up was the papier-mâché figure. That life-sized dummy wrapped in a blanket of yellow ochre was standing on top of the float, spinning around in a circle. It kept on turning, with both hands pressed to its head, until it finally toppled forward onto the float.
“Someone’s there!” Ambrose yelled across the flames. “Let me go! That’s … That’s a human!”
Ambrose shook off his friends’ restraining hands and jumped onto the float. His tackle caused the burning float to collapse flatly onto the ground, crashing down so loudly that it echoed through the entire square. The red turnips were shriveling up one by one, releasing purplish red juices that stained the cobblestones of the square.
Someone ran to the well. He came back carrying a bucket full of water, and threw it over the burning figure as it contorted in pain.
While the fire sputtered out, the yellow figure writhed briefly, then slowed down until it was completely still.
“…It’s a person,” Ambrose muttered in a daze. “It’s soft. A human body. Not the papier-mâché I made. It turned … into a human. Into a human!”
The other young men dragged away Ambrose against his shouts, tearing him from the figure’s side. He fell backward onto the cobblestones.
“It’s a human…. It’s a human…. Pull off the blanket. It’s a person!”
Sergius slowly stepped forward. The villagers automatically moved out of his way.
With a trembling hand, he peeled away the yellow blanket clinging to the half-burnt body. The moment he pulled the cloth from the face, a shock wave strong enough to make everyone flinch spread through the square, accompanied by a faint, unspoken murmur of suspicions confirmed.
Lying there lifeless, eyes open, face frozen in a rictus of anguish…
It was Alain.
Kazuya instinctively covered Victorique’s face with both hands so that she wouldn’t see, but she roughly shoved him away.
Surprised and a little offended, Kazuya looked at her.
She was coolly scanning the square.
Kazuya too began to survey their surroundings.
For some reason, the first thing to jump out at him was Harminia’s face. She looked startled enough, but a hint of a smile curled her lips. Ambrose was unsteady on his feet and needed his friends to prop him up. His face was contorted in shock. A grim-faced Sergius examined Alain’s body. As for the villagers, they merely stared down at the corpse wordlessly.
Kazuya heard the sound of someone running from the direction of the manor. Since the footsteps were loud and thudding, he knew that it had to be Mildred. She ran up to them, her red hair bouncing. “I was watching from my balcony, and I thought I saw someone get set on fire…?”
Mildred walked toward the crowd of people, then noticed Alain lying on the ground. “Oh, no. This is awful!” she murmured tremulously.
Derek and Raoul arrived after her. When they saw Alain, both of them gasped. “What happened?” Derek asked, his voice shaking.
“I don’t know,” muttered Sergius.
Raoul was shivering in fear and couldn’t speak, but Derek raised his high-pitched voice in a scream. “Wh-what have you done?! Don’t think you’ll get away with this!”
“It was an accident,” Sergius said, in a tone that implied his words were not up for debate. He glowered at Derek’s face, which was reddened with outrage. “This imbecile changed places with the figure while no one was looking.”
“He must have been trying to disrupt the festival. Perhaps he didn’t know that it would be set on fire in the end.” Sergius looked down on Alain’s body disdainfully. “Foolish visitor!”
“That makes no sense!” Derek shot back, so enraged that he was shaking. His normally squeaky voice turned almost inside out, straining his throat. “That makes no sense! We knew all that! Just this morning, that man…” He pointed at Ambrose. “He told us all about the festival. And I know he mentioned it would be set on fire!”
Sergius shook his head. “He must have planned to jump out before the flames reached him so he could ruin everything.”
“That’s ridiculous!” shouted Derek. He scanned the faces of the villagers, but none of them were willing to meet his gaze. They seemed to wholly believe in Sergius’ words without any trace of doubt. Derek groaned in despair, and fell heavily upon the ground.
Then Ambrose spoke. His face was as white as a sheet, and his breathing was ragged. “Master Sergius… Even if this young fellow had planned it that way, it would be impossible.”
“What did you say?”
“Just a short time ago, when the maidens were throwing hazelnuts, this fellow passed through, then ran away; he seemed startled by the sting of the hazelnuts. He didn’t come back to the square after that, and there were many people watching….”
“What’s your point?”
“It’s impossible for him to have switched places with the figure. That’s why…” Ambrose shut his mouth, cowed by Sergius’ glaring eyes.
Agitation spread through the villagers. Their clouded gazes all turned to Sergius accusingly. Fuming, he fixed Ambrose with a fearsome scowl.
“Speak no more. A loose tongue is the sin of the foolish one. Or have you forgotten that!?”
“…M-my most humble … apologies.” Ambrose shook his head helplessly, then stared at the ground.
“What the hell are you saying?!” Derek yelled.
As if disturbed by his cry, a flock of birds took flight from the square, vanishing into the mist. The violent flapping of their wings faded into the distance.
Silence overcame the square. No one had an answer to Derek’s plea.