The study was completely still.
It looked as though no one had gone inside for a very long time. The bookshelves and writing desk were covered in dust, and the sunlight that came in from the half-opened blue velvet curtains had scorched the hardwood floor, bleaching it in patches.
Victorique gently opened the door, and within a few footsteps, even her feet, as small and light as they were, had stirred up clouds of dust from the floor. She coughed softly, then stifled her breath, and carefully examined the room.
The study was cramped. There was a writing desk, a tall bookcase, and a large chair with curved legs. An iron candlestick sat on top of a chest. The desk, the chair, and indeed everything in the study was large and elegantly crafted in comparison to the confines of the room.
A display cabinet lined one of the walls, and arranged on the glass shelves were many antique weapons, the kind that medieval knights would have used. The crowded pile of weapons included a heavy spear made out of iron and a carved oak branch, and a long, thin sword.
Next to the cabinet was an even larger grandfather clock that someone must have been maintaining, as it still kept precise time. The pendulum slowly swayed beneath a dial that was old and nearly illegible, but Victorique somehow managed to make out the numbers.
She halted her gaze, narrowing her eyes at a single point on the floor. Her small lips parted. “This is where the body collapsed.”
Victorique shifted her gaze ever so slightly. “And this is where those gold coins fell.” She closed her eyes. “Why did all those coins fall to the floor? There must be a reason for it. I’m sure of it. This is a fragment. A fragment of chaos. One of the pieces I need for reconstruction; it has to be. I must think. I must think!”
Her green eyes slowly opened.
She looked back at the door and muttered, “And then Cordelia came in. She opened the locked door. There was no one else in the study. It seems to have been twelve o’clock at night, but the exact time is unclear. And then Cordelia found the body. …What about the window?”
Victorique ran to the window, kicking up dust in her wake. As she roughly threw open the window, more dust rose into the air like smoke. She looked outside, then shook her head.
There was nothing out there but a steep cliff, and far below it, the sound of rushing water….
“Not here,” murmured Victorique. “There’s no way to enter or exit from here. The killer must have left through the door. The study looked no different from usual. But a murder occurred here. And…”
Victorique gritted her small, pearly teeth, holding in her emotions.
And then she whispered quietly, “Maman!”
“…What are you doing?”
Suddenly, Victorique heard a soft, meek voice. She gasped and turned around.
Harminia was standing there. She had opened the door without making a sound, and now looked down reproachfully upon the small intruder.
Victorique pursed her lips tightly.
“Master Sergius said that you aren’t allowed to come in here.”
“Why is that?” Victorique snapped back.
“Why…” Harminia stiffly tilted her head in confusion. It was an unnatural position, like a broken doll that was moving on its own.
“Is there something here that I’m not supposed to find?”
“…What do you mean?”
“That there is another truth to that incident, hidden somewhere within this room.”
“Heavens, no!” Harminia laughed. Once she started to laugh, she couldn’t stop. Hee, hee, hee!
Victorique’s authoritative voice interrupted Harminia’s strange laughter. “Sergius is the type of man who doesn’t allow dissenting opinions. After he became the headman, I expect that no one was permitted to express any views contrary to his decision. And his spell is still in effect even now. However … Is the fact that he forbade me to see this room proof that somewhere, deep down, he has doubts about his own conclusion? Perhaps there is something that he doesn’t want me to find out. Am I wrong?”
Harminia’s laughter was getting louder and louder. But then it gradually died down, and an uneasy expression began to appear little by little on her pale, ghostly face. Her eyes were bulging. Their pupils were black holes with nothing reflected in them, and countless red capillaries ran through the exposed scleras. As her head nervously jerked from side to side, she exhaled a great gust of air.
“What’s wrong, Harminia?”
Harminia sucked up another lungful of oxygen. “Actually, there’s something that’s been on my mind all this time. But I’ve never dared breathe a word of it to anyone.”
Victorique watched her intently.
Harminia slowly walked toward her with soundless footsteps, then said in a voice low enough to vibrate the air, “In those days, I too was in this manor. I can still remember how much of an uproar that incident caused that night. But I was only six years old at the time. I lived in fear of the crime that Cordelia committed, and even when I was asked to wait upon her while she was delirious from fever, I refused. I was afraid. When the criminal was driven away with only a handful of belongings, I felt relief. And then I came down with a fever. That’s just how much I feared Cordelia’s—that sinner’s presence.”
Harminia paused. The whites of her eyes again popped out, their pupils rolling around in their centers. With such a queer visage, it was hard to pinpoint where her eyes were looking. She leaned down and brought her face close to Victorique’s cheek.
“And yet, even after Cordelia was exiled, the misfortune she brought to this village never left. The village has been slowly changing over the past twenty years. It has lost its brightness before our eyes, like some dreary, colorless painting. There are much fewer children than before. And as for our newborns… Misfortune has never left our village. And so this dreadful thought went through my mind: what if. What if…”
Harminia let her words dangle in the air.
Victorique finished her words for her. “What if the sinner is still in this village?”
Harminia pressed her lips together tightly, at first saying nothing. “…What Master Sergius says makes perfect sense. For Cordelia to be the killer was the simplest explanation. The door to the study was locked from the inside, and only Master Théodore and Cordelia carried the key. There was no one else inside. Other than Cordelia, who entered the study herself, no one else could have stabbed Master Théodore with the knife. Of course, some things are still unexplained. The gold coins scattered on the floor, or the conflicting accounts of when it happened… Nevertheless, it doesn’t change the fact that Cordelia is the one most likely to be the killer.”
“However…” Then Harminia shouted, rolling her eyes about even more. “When I grew up, I realized something! There was something strange about this story! Master Théodore was stabbed like this … from behind, through his upper back. The dagger plunged into his back all the way to the hilt. But Master Théodore was an adult man, and Cordelia, the exile, was a girl of fifteen. Their heights were different. She would have to do something like this…”
Her face suddenly broke into a sunny smile. She brought her hands together and raised them high, then swung them down from top to bottom as hard as she could. For a single chilling instant, a ray of sunshine from the window glinted off the invisible dagger in her hand, just as it was about to pierce through the specter of a man who had died standing there twenty years before….
“…There’s no other way she could have killed him. But why would Cordelia deliberately go behind Master Théodore’s back to stab him? And if someone petite tried to do this, someone without much strength, then the dagger wouldn’t sink down all the way, would it?”
“If it were me, I would do it this way. Supposing I were to stab an adult man much bigger than me.” Harminia held the phantom dagger in front of her stomach and took a position where she would strike her opponent with her center of gravity. Then, with her eyes spinning and neck leaning all the way to the side, she looked down at Victorique. “Right?”
Harminia suddenly became very quiet.
“So who killed him?”
“I don’t know. I simply found it strange and nothing more.”
That was all Harminia had left to say, and she hurriedly departed the study, almost as if she were running away.
Victorique, now alone, watched Harminia leave.
Then she spoke to herself softly. “A dagger, wielded in a strange way. Gold coins, littered all over the floor. And conflicting times!” She shook her head.
Tiny white specks of dust, set flying by two sets of footsteps, fluttered through the sunlight from the window. The only sound in the room was the steady, solid echo of the pendulum in the grandfather clock.
Then it made a slight click.
And began to chime.
Victorique’s eyes opened wide. Startled, she pricked her ears. A blush spread across her cheeks, brightening her expression. She opened her small lips, about to say something. But at that moment…
Victorique heard the sound of flapping wings from outside the window. She looked up and shot a sharp glare outside, annoyed at her concentration being disturbed. A stream of white pigeons were streaming past the window, their small white bodies soaring through the dark sky.
Her face froze into a doll-like stillness.
She was thinking.
Her emerald green eyes flickered like a burning green flame—brimming with heat, but also with a strange chill….
They carefully narrowed.
She stood motionless for several seconds.
Victorique lifted her head. On her face was a cool expression, filled with determination. “The wellspring of wisdom has spoken. The fragments are now reconstructed!”
She slowly turned to the heavy door of the deserted study. “But…” A shadow suddenly passed over her face. “But how am I to prove it?”