“Hazelnuts don’t grow in this forest, Kujou. That means there shouldn’t be any hazelnuts lying on the ground,” Victorique impatiently whispered as she began to walk out of the forest.
Kazuya jogged to catch up with her. “Then what does it mean?”
“The hazelnut was thrown at Alain.”
“By the way, where is Mildred the Dresden plate thief?”
Her abrupt change in topic caught him off guard. “I, I don’t know…. Isn’t she in her room?”
“Hmm…” Victorique suddenly yawned widely.
Despite the chaos that had taken hold of the village earlier, the villagers were proceeding with the festival. Ambrose spotted the two of them, then sighingly told them how Sergius was insisting that he had shot a wolf, not a person.
Victorique was silent for a while, gazing at Ambrose curiously. Finally, she asked him in a low voice, “What do you think?”
“Me…?” Ambrose opened his mouth, then closed it again, afraid to answer. He hesitated, and just when it seemed he would hold his tongue, the dam of his words broke all at once. “It’s difficult to say. No one saw Raoul die. If I were in Master Sergius’ position, I think I’d be asking myself if I killed someone. Because it’s also a fact that no one saw any wolves. I may strongly feel that there were, but I would still need to provide proof.”
He wavered for a moment, and then, gazing steadily at Victorique, said, “Whether someone’s committed a crime or not, you still need proof.” His words seemed to be aimed not only at Sergius, but also Cordelia Gallo’s crime.
Victorique nodded quietly. “That’s right.”
A mutual sympathy had apparently formed between the two.
“By the way, Ambrose. Do you want the festival to end safely? And do you want to eliminate the source of all these evils?”
“Well, of course…?”
“Right now, this nameless village is mired in chaos. But I hold all the fragments of the cause of that chaos in the palm of my hand. If I reconstruct them, the mystery will be solved. In most cases, I’ll toy with them like this as a way to relieve my boredom, but there are vanishingly few individuals for whom I would ever feel like articulating an explanation of the process. It’s too much of a bother, you see. I liken it to adults being asked by children to explain some problem that’s far too complex for them. That would only be bothersome, so they would almost always choose not to. About the only person who can make me do that every time would be this Kujou right here.”
“…Really?” Kazuya answered, a little surprised.
Victorique turned her face away, ignoring him.
“So you’ll always explain it to me if I ask? But you normally don’t…. Oh!”
“Shut up, Kujou.” Victorique said, her voice low with displeasure.
Kazuya quickly shut his mouth. “S-sorry…”
“Um, so what are you trying to say?” Ambrose hesitantly interjected.
“I know who the culprit is.”
“What!?” Ambrose exclaimed. “Does that mean Master Sergius isn’t the one who…”
“…If I said he isn’t, what would you do?”
“But it’s a fact that he fired his shotgun at that moment….”
“He certainly did, but how do you know that Raoul died from that bullet?”
“W-well…” Ambrose sank into silence, his face suddenly turning expressionless. The look in his eyes was strange; the thoughts behind them unknowable. He glared fiercely at the ground, saying nothing.
“Ambrose, do you want me to articulate the reconstruction of chaos?”
Kazuya offered him an assist. “She’s asking if you want her to tell you who did it.”
“Oh… Yes, of course.” Ambrose’s voice was hard.
“Then I’ll need your cooperation.”
“Cooperation? With what?”
“I’ll find out who killed Alain and Raoul. In exchange, you will aid me in reconstructing the twenty-year-old fragments of chaos that I now hold.”
“By twenty-year-old, do you mean what happened to Master Théodore…?”
“Yes. There is another culprit. But in order to uncover that proof, I’ll need both of you to cooperate with me.”
“…Both of us?” repeated Kazuya, who had been listening absentmindedly.
“Ambrose and Kujou. The both of you.”
Kazuya and Ambrose looked at each other.
Victorique’s eyes were gleaming coldly. In their depths, a green flame blazed. “There have been instances in the past when I’ve performed transactions using the reconstruction of chaos. In return for my solving the mystery, I demand appropriate compensation.”
Kazuya suddenly remembered the first time he had met Victorique. As the price for telling him the truth behind the incident that he had been swept up into, she had demanded that he bring her exotic food. When he mentioned this, Victorique giggled.
“I don’t even consider that compensation. Normally my demands are much larger, more painful sacrifices. That has been my habit since I was very young. I’ve always tried to make my demands as fiendish as possible. Just to relieve my boredom. And that’s why, Kujou,” she said, chuckling in remembrance. Her face looked very jovial. “Gréville may still ask for my help, but he detests having to do so.”
“No wonder.” Kazuya nodded, feeling like he understood a little bit more about their sibling relationship. Then, remembering the strange conversation he had earlier with the inspector, he said, “That reminds me, he mentioned something today about a rapacious loan shark.”
“I can guess that was a reference to me.”
“He looked angry.”
Victorique gave a bored shrug.
The midsummer festival was in full swing that evening, and it was soon time for the villagers’ ancestors to pass through the church on their way back.
The priests and the young watchmen filed out of the church and gathered in the square. With the church vacant, they waited for the ancestors to return from the land of the dead. After they had returned, the festival would enter its climax that night, featuring a display of their bountiful crops.
As the sky darkened, several large torches were placed in the square. They lit up the old cobblestones and the villagers in their medieval clothing even more brightly than the daytime sun.
Victorique, Kazuya, and Ambrose, along with a few youths that he had assembled from the village, hid themselves in the shadows of the petal-strewn pews in the church—during the time when it was supposed to be empty….
Kazuya stifled his breathing and crouched low to the ground next to Victorique and the others.
In the stillness of the church, they could distinctly hear the faraway crackling of the torches in the square. The air was damp and much cooler than the outside. A sickly-sweet scent rose up from the scattered flower petals.
The round beams of light filtering in from the rose windows turned into pale moonlight, making the church, which had been dark even in the daytime, feel increasingly dimmer and drearier. Orange light from the torches in the square penetrated the stained glass and shone faintly on the floor. Their eyes gradually adjusted to the low light, until at last they could make out each others’ faces.
Victorique let out a tiny sneeze. Kazuya felt a sneeze of his own come on, but he choked it back. He whispered to her, “Hey… Why are we hiding here?”
“The killer is coming.”
“What do you mean?”
“There’s always someone inside the church, and they said the only time it’s ever empty is right now, when their ancestors’ spirits are passing through. If that’s the case, then the culprit is sure to choose this time to steal something.”
“Steal?” Ambrose whispered back. “What exactly? There’s nothing worth stealing in this village….”
Victorique spoke stonily. “You may not know this, Ambrose. But some things are valuable precisely because they are old. Humans are peculiar creatures who value objects for their rarity, even as they constantly seek novel stimuli to satisfy their unquenchable desires. Things that were made a long time ago are different from the things made today, and as time goes on, there are fewer and fewer of them. Thus, collectors will pay anything to acquire them. Now, Kujou, you recall the stolen Dresden plate.”
Kazuya nodded. He vividly remembered that plate sitting in the bazaar. It was so old that it seemed it could break at any moment, but it was also unusual in an almost bewitching way. When Mildred the salesgirl said how much it cost, it was shockingly expensive. And then she proudly added that it was because of its age.
“For the right person, this village is a treasure trove, full of old, valuable objects for which collectors would pay a fortune. The old chests in our rooms, the cracked statues of the Virgin Mary, even the old silverware in the dining rooms…. And then—” Victorique made a shushing sound.
The heavy wooden door to the church soundlessly opened, and someone slipped into the darkness. Soft footfalls echoed against the stone-tiled floor.
As the figure walked with hushed steps, its shadow loomed long and thin in the light of the torches in the square, stretching all the way to the ceiling of the stone-walled church. The silhouette, flickering malevolently, inched ever closer.
When it passed the pews where Kazuya and the others lay in wait, segmented rays of moonlight from the rose windows gleamed on the shadow’s face for just an instant.
On that pale face, smiling thinly…
Kazuya squinted, focusing his eyes upon the face of the culprit in the midst of the gloom….
“…It can’t be! Is that who did it?”
“Do you remember, Kujou?” Victorique whispered. “About that old vase that was plunged into the holy water.”
Kazuya thought for a moment, then nodded.
Mildred, blazing with anger, had told them about it the previous night.
The young men had gone into the church, looking for amusements, and for some inexplicable reason, they had taken an old vase cherished by the villagers and dropped it into a basin of holy water. All three of them did this, one after the other, and the villagers were enraged. Mildred said that they did it because they only chased after new things, and didn’t know what true value was….
Victorique shook her head. “It’s the other way around. Those three young men knew what value was more than anyone else. That’s why they shouted and looked so reverent when they first entered this village and saw the church’s old-fashioned steeple and rose windows. They were so enraptured that they practically began to pray. Those were their true feelings. Their boasts afterward about their wristwatches and radio, and insulting the village by calling it old-fashioned—those were all lies. The late Alain and Raoul, and Derek too, knew more about old things than anyone, and in their heart of hearts, trembled at the sight of a medieval midsummer festival still being celebrated in this village.”
“Then why did they behave that way!?” Ambrose whispered harshly.
Instead of answering, Victorique swiftly raised one hand and pointed at the silhouette. “Because they were thieves.”
Kazuya and the others exclaimed softly.
The person behind the shadow was stepping into the chapel at the back of the church. It reached out and cautiously groped for something, then held up an old vase with both hands.
“They dropped that vase into the holy water,” Victorique murmured. “Of course they didn’t do it as a joke; they were as serious as could be. They were searching for genuine antiques. They saw the announcement in the newspaper, and came all the way here, to the hidden village of the legendary grey wolves, anticipating a windfall of valuable antiques. Dunking the vase was a test meant to see whether it would float in water. The real thing would sink to the bottom, but a gilded fake would float. The vase sank. It was the real thing. That’s why….”
Victorique stood up, and called out to the silhouette. “Stop right there … Derek.”
The man’s shoulders twitched.
Derek was clutching the old vase protectively to his chest, breathing raggedly. He glared at the tiny figure who had suddenly emerged from the shadows. His face was an icy mask, unrecognizable from the man who had earlier shed tears of grief over his dead friend.
Derek scowled at Victorique, then started to run. He passed the pews and headed toward the heavy wooden door. Kazuya jumped out, scattering the flower petals into the air, and tackled Derek, who was running headlong in his direction. Derek moved clumsily, trying to shield the vase from harm. He scowled at Kazuya threateningly, shook him off, and tried to run again. But Kazuya grabbed onto his leg and yanked hard. Derek slammed headfirst onto the stone tile floor, and groaned in pain.
Then Ambrose and the other village youths snapped out of their stunned states and jumped on Derek to restrain him, sending colorful flower petals whirling into the air. Several people pinned him down, cutting off all chance of escape. One of them ran off to call the rest of the villagers.
Derek was still clutching the old vase, unwilling to let anyone else take it from him. “This is mine. Mine. I found it. I … I’ll take it downhill to the town, in the car…. I’ll take it with me. Me … not Alain, not Raoul. Me…!” Derek muttered in his high voice, sniffling like a spoiled child.
Kazuya was staring down at him when he heard a soft, dry plop, and noticed that something had rolled off of Derek’s clothing. He crouched down and picked it up.
…It was a hazelnut.
He showed it to Victorique, and she nodded in satisfaction. “Yes. It’s a hazelnut, Kujou. You know what that means, right?”
“…Nope, not in the least.” Kazuya shook his head.