The dining room on the first floor of the grey manor had a marble mantelpiece, gleaming black panels lining the walls, and glass lamps hanging in each corner. The walls were adorned with paintings that seemed to be based on scenery from the village.
And yet, despite the luxurious furnishings, the atmosphere felt just as oppressive as ever to Kazuya. The ceiling was low, giving him the feeling that if he were to sit very still, it would slowly creep downward until it crushed him. He sighed, and turned his gaze to Inspector de Blois, who was in the chair next to his.
Sergius had brought the two of them to this room without giving them the option to decline. One by one, old men who looked like village elders arrived and took their seats. Kazuya and Inspector de Blois shrank into their seats in the corner.
Harminia entered without making a single sound, holding old, but well-polished silverware. To each person she served tea, brandy, or wine.
Sergius turned to Inspector de Blois and explained to him what had happened just a few hours before, when the papier-mâché figure of the Winter Man had transformed into a human and burned to death. “…In other words, the deceased man, Alain, had been observed walking in a different location immediately prior to the incident. The girls had struck him with chestnuts, and he fled from their sting…. After that, Ambrose set fire to the float that was carrying the figure, but Alain had taken its place without anyone noticing, and he perished in the flames.”
“Hmm.” The inspector listened, while tapping his foot uneasily.
“That the police has now arrived makes matters very convenient for us. We wish for this mystery to not be left unsolved…”
“Hey.” The inspector poked Kazuya in the knee.
“Where is it?”
“If you mean your smart little sister Victorique, then she’s probably in her room.”
“Call her down for me.”
Annoyed, Kazuya whispered to him, “Are you just going to borrow her intelligence and take the credit again? Then you ought to ask for her help yourself. You never do anything the proper way.”
Inspector de Blois stared back at Kazuya with a puzzled expression, which for some reason slowly twisted into a bitter scowl. And then he spat out, “Absolutely not!”
“My asking and your asking are not the same thing. The results would be completely different. Kujou, you may not realize this yourself, but the favors you receive from her are truly unusual and marvelous things, like constantly getting handed wads of cash by a rapacious loan shark, no strings attached.”
“…What are you talking about?”
“Just shut up and call her down! You’re the one who has to do it, Kujou; don’t make me repeat myself.”
But Kazuya did have to admit that he felt very anxious about leaving her by herself. And so he quietly rose from his seat and left the dining room, walking alone through a hallway which, while luxuriously crafted, felt far too suffocating on account of the low ceiling.
Kazuya climbed the grand staircase with its bronze railing, then knocked on Victorique’s door. The door opened right away, and she grouchily peered up at him.
“What do you want?”
“I was feeling worried, so I came to check on you.”
“I’m fine. I’ve had enough of you. Leave me alone.”
“For God’s sake! …Tch, fine. I’ll stop nagging you, then. By the way, your brother is asking for your help in the dining room.”
“For my help?” Victorique blinked her large eyes.
“The villagers are surrounding him and asking him to solve the case of the Winter Man, but he’s just sitting there with a blank expression and no idea what to do, so he pestered me into calling for you. He said I had to be the one to ask you.”
“A foolish man as usual.”
“Unfortunately, this time it’s your brother, not me. So what do you want to do?”
Victorique tilted her head slightly, looking contemplative. Then she nodded. “All right. Let’s go.” She scurried out of the room on her tiny feet.
Kazuya glanced at the doors to the other rooms. “Where’s everyone else?”
“Mildred seems to be in her room. She doesn’t appear to be very interested in the festival. The two men were making a racket in one of their rooms, but now they seem to have gone out. Apparently, instead of grieving their friend’s death, they would rather hold a grudge against the villagers. They seem to think that the villagers killed Alain in such a gruesome way because he insulted them.”
With this, Victorique set off down the hall. Kazuya hastily caught up with her.
As he walked behind her, he gazed absentmindedly at the fringed hem peeking out from her skirts, which billowed over her panniers, as it swayed with every step. Her feet were very small in their lace-up leather shoes, making him wonder if they were in fact made for children. Victorique’s tiny body, swelling with lace, panniers, and velvet, wobbled softly in time with her footsteps.
When the two of them returned to the dining room, for some reason, everyone except Inspector de Blois had stood up from their chairs. The large window was open, making the dark forest outside appear to be creeping into the room. The black tangled branches and densely growing leaves blocked all light from entering the dark forest.
Sergius was holding a shotgun.
Kazuya reacted in surprise. “What are you doing?!”
“Wolves,” Sergius answered curtly.
Kazuya gazed deep into the woods where Sergius was glaring, but he could see nothing. Yesterday, when they had arrived in the village, Sergius had reacted to the slightest sound and shot into the forest, saying that wolves were nearby….
A crackling noise, like the snapping of a branch, echoed from the forest.
“I knew it!” Sergius muttered, and without a moment’s hesitation, he shot into the forest.
The gunshot reverberated through the air.
Next to Kazuya, Victorique gasped, and a faintly murmured “No!” spilled from her lips. When he looked at her, she was gritting her small, pearly teeth. Then she ran toward the window, and interrupted Sergius just as he was about to shoot again. “Stop it!”
At the same time, they heard a groan from outside. Sergius lowered his shotgun. “A direct hit,” he muttered.
“No! That’s a human voice!”
Sergius simply stared at Victorique uncomprehendingly.
“Earlier, those two men … they said they were going for a walk. Toward the forest!” Victorique cried out, then whirled around and dashed out of the dining room. At that moment, Ambrose happened to be in the hallway, and he turned back to shoot a startled look at her.
Kazuya and the rest of the group followed Victorique, rushing through the entrance toward the area of forest that was directly in front of the dining room window.
Victorique pushed through the black branches and into the woods. Her fine dress caught on the branches and became stained with dirt, soon rendering her unrecognizable from the way she looked before.
Kazuya desperately chased her.
From outside of the forest…
They heard a strange, faltering cry.
Ah, ah, ah…
It sounded like a human trying to choke back sobs, or the short whimpers of a wild animal.
Unable to tell where the sound was coming from, Kazuya looked up at the sky. Thin black branches and large, overgrown leaves were rustling eerily in the wind, blocking his view.
Wolves roamed here….
Wild wolves roamed these woods….
“Victorique!” Kazuya clenched his jaw and chased after her.
That low, unsettling cry was coming closer behind him.
At last, Victorique came to a halt.
The cry became louder still, stabbing shrilly all the way into the sky.
At the sound of Kazuya’s voice, Victorique slowly turned around. Her face was anguished. “That’s the second one, Kujou.”
“Raoul has been killed.”
Kazuya ran toward Victorique. And then he looked at the ground where she was pointing.
There he saw Raoul, lying motionless, blood streaming from his chest. His eyes were wide open, staring blankly into space. It only took one look to tell that he was already dead.
The source of the weeping cry was Derek, who had run into the woods after Kazuya and Victorique. He stopped in front of them, sobbing in a strange, high-pitched way. When he saw Raoul on the ground, he cried even louder.
“We were taking a walk. Raoul was curious, so he went deeper into the forest. Then I heard a gunshot…. And Raoul’s voice. Just a brief shout … more like a scream. I knew he’d been shot. But … why? Why is he dead?! Why would someone shoot him?”
“He was mistaken for a wolf.”
Derek’s mouth dropped open, unable to grasp what he had just heard. “…A wolf?”
The villagers arrived. Once they saw the grisly scene, they fell silent.
“You saw the headman shooting into the woods yesterday, didn’t you? He heard a sound come from the forest, and thought it was a wolf,” Ambrose added in a soft voice. “The villagers never go into the forest. So it never occurred to us that it could be a person…”
“What are you talking about? Can’t you see that he’s dead? That you shot and killed him? That could be me lying down there. Don’t you understand that?!” Derek raised his voice in an earsplitting shriek.
The villagers looked at each other, but said nothing.
Victorique suddenly crouched down. Kazuya watched her closely, wondering what she was doing.
She picked something up from the ground. When she noticed his gaze, she motioned with her eyes for him to come look, but he didn’t understand what she meant. She narrowed her eyes and nodded as if there was something only she knew.
What Victorique had picked up was…
…a hard hazelnut.