The torches in the square blazed brightly and crackled savagely, pitching their flames high into the night sky. The villagers were running to and fro, busily making preparations for restarting the festival, putting on costumes and shouting back and forth to each other.
“…How’s the festival supposed to end again?” asked Mildred, her red curls swinging as she walked up to Kazuya with thundering footsteps.
Kazuya exchanged a look with Victorique. “Well… I think they’re supposed to display their prosperity to the spirits of the ancestors after they pass through the church….”
Harminia heard him say this, and came closer to explain the rest, in a low voice that seemed to rumble all the way from the very bowels of the earth. “The ancestors speak to us in words we don’t understand, in the language of the dead. There’s nothing we can hide from the spirits of the departed.”
“I-is that right…. And Ambrose was so excited about playing the role of a departed ancestor. He made that black mask….” He was carrying that this morning, with the papier-mâché Winter Man, Kazuya added silently to himself.
And then he thought of his own country, where the people also observed the return of the ancestral spirits on a certain day in summer, a custom that Ambrose had thoroughly questioned him about.
Ever since he had gone abroad, he had been standing frozen in front of a door in his heart. He had silently closed it when he left the country of his birth, and was very careful never to reopen it; that would make him feel too sad. But while participating in the midsummer festival of this strange medieval village, he felt himself relaxing little by little, and now the door had unexpectedly creaked open. Taken unawares, Kazuya swallowed, and closed his eyes.
He was back at the scene of a cherished memory.
The cicadas were chirping….
The quiet song of the higurashi intermingled with their piercing cries.
Someone in his family had forgotten a fan on the veranda, and it shone brilliantly under the rays of the summer sun. From somewhere he could hear the soothing sound of water. It was his mother splashing water on the dry garden, the hem of her kimono hiked up demurely and a kerchief wrapped around her head….
He was lying down on the tatami, idly gazing out onto the sunlit garden, when a shadow in his mother’s shape appeared on the floor of the veranda. He could hear her tiny footsteps and gentle laughter. The face of his beloved mother, framed by the intense summer sun, was too bright to see from the dark tatami room.
Oh, my, Kazuya-san. You must hurry up and get changed, or else your father will scold you.
For Kazuya, still very small, those words were enough to make him scramble to his feet. The next moment, the sliding door slammed open, and his father strode inside, neatly attired in haori and hakama. His two older brothers, also clad in ceremonial dress, came in after him. The three of them could have been triplets—they were big-boned, wide-shouldered, broad-chested, and strong, and always brimming with self-confidence.
His father looked down at Kazuya sitting absentmindedly on the tatami, and spoke to him in surprise.
Kazuya, what are you doing? Get ready to leave! Woman, it’s your fault for not looking after him properly….
At his father’s scolding voice, his mother standing on the veranda smiled slightly, and whispered her apologies. Kazuya flinched, knowing that it was his own fault that his mother was getting scolded, and quickly fled into his room to change.
He ran into his older sister in the dark hallway. She was a lovely sight, dressed in her best kimono and holding a chrysanthemum bouquet. Isn’t it marvelous? she said of her bright red kimono. Kazuya’s breath was taken away by the sight of such gorgeous silk, and he mumbled a compliment. Good boy, she said, smiling. Then he heard his father’s voice from the room, and he nervously dashed away to change.
That day, the ancestral spirits would return, and Kazuya’s family would go out to visit the graves.
It was hot outside.
The higurashi sang softly, while the cicadas’ cry was earsplittingly shrill.
With his father taking the lead, the family walked down the road to the temple. His brothers walked behind their father, and as his mother tugged him along by his right hand and his sister held onto his left, he tried desperately to keep up with the adults.
The backs of his father and brothers in front of him loomed all too large.
The grass and leaves of the trees on the side of the road reflected the sun’s light in vivid green. Summers in that country were so very beautiful. Kazuya loved that time of year.
A hot wind gusted through, spinning his mother’s white parasol.
His sister’s glossy black hair fanned out in the wind and flew into Kazuya’s eyes. Startled, he tripped on the stone steps. As he began to cry, his mother and sister laughingly helped him up. A sweet, quiet scent wafted from them. That was a woman’s scent—so gentle, with an all-enveloping tenderness. He couldn’t understand why his father or brothers didn’t smell the same.
When they reached the temple, his father stood in front of the graves and spoke of his ancestors, men who had been prominent generals and statesmen. Accompanied by his deep, sonorous voice, his sister passed the chrysanthemum bouquet into his mother’s pale, breakably thin arms. She laid it down in front of the grave, then filled a ladle with water and let it spill over the tombstone. Her thin arms were always the ones to pour the water, and that beloved sight of her was enough to moisten his own heart….
His father was still speaking, and his brothers listened, their faces full of pride. Their ancestors were fine men, and their father was also a fine man. His brothers were well on their way to joining their father; their futures were assured. Kazuya tried his best to listen to his father’s words, but they droned on so long that it became difficult, and had too many words that were unfamiliar to a child.
Then a summer butterfly came flying toward him. It was a dazzling, wispy golden color, with gossamer wings that filtered light like the sun through the trees. He reached out his hand, and it retreated away from him, only to stop invitingly a short distance away. Kazuya loved the color gold. The tiny butterfly soon flew away, but he thought dreamily of that golden butterfly for a long time afterward, and never told anyone about it.
Cicadas chirped in the distance….
Summers in that country were so very beautiful.
Kazuya opened his eyes.
He was still standing in the town square of the nameless village. None of the others had noticed him staring into space in a private reverie, taking a momentary journey into the land of memories.
It all felt so far away.
Even though it was just a few years before.
Perhaps the distance made it feel so long ago … perhaps because the oceans separated them.
He glanced at his side, and saw the one who was now, to him, his little golden butterfly, Victorique, watching the hustle and bustle of the square with wide eyes. Next to her, Mildred was being unusually quiet, her eyes distant as if she was remembering something. No one said a word. It was a quiet time, an empty space.
They gazed at the lively square in silence, each with their own feelings hidden in their hearts.
Suddenly, Victorique thrust out her hand and yanked on Mildred’s bright red, cotton candy-like curls.
“Ow! Wh-what’s that for, you wee little thing!?”
“How do you know Gréville?”
The color drained visibly from Mildred’s freckled, ruddy cheeks. “Wh-what are you talking about?”
“Did he hire you? Or are you friends?”
Mildred’s shoulders slumped in resignation.
Kazuya looked from one to the other, mystified.
“When did you find out, little one?”
“When you forced yourself onto the train.”
“…From the very beginning?!”
“Hey, what’s going on?” Kazuya broke in.
Victorique grumbled briefly in annoyance, but soon caved into Kazuya’s gaze. “Kujou, are you saying you really did not notice?”
“That Mildred is Gréville’s lackey.”
“A man like you is… Now, listen, Mildred stole the Dresden plate at the bazaar—”
Mildred made a choking sound. “You knew that, too?”
“Of course. However, Gréville let her go. Why is that? He must have entered into a mutual pact with her for various reasons. And when I secretly slipped away from St. Marguerite’s School despite being forbidden to leave, she somehow caught wind of that and came along for the ride, no matter how long it was going to take. She even rode in a wildly swinging carriage despite suffering from a hangover. And then she tried to call someone on the telephone. That was because she had someone that she had to get in touch with.”
“So you’re saying…?”
“She was sent by Gréville to keep watch over me in this village. That’s why, even though he knew that she had stolen the plate, Gréville didn’t arrest her.”
“…I lost a poker game.” Mildred said grudgingly. “I hit on him in a village bar. I mean, he’s a noble. He wears fancy clothes. And he looked harebrained enough. So I thought he’d be an easy mark. But halfway through, my trick cards fell out of my sleeve. He’d been losing miserably until then, so he started whining about how he was going to arrest me. So I said I’d work for him, whatever he wanted. And he’s been treating me like a slave ever since, driving me absolutely crazy!”
“Miss Mildred, you were in the wrong from the very start for cheating.”
“I wanted the money!” For some reason, Mildred started yelling. She stamped the ground vehemently as if she were genuinely angry, jiggling her large bosom. Sensuality thick enough to smell radiated from her fleshy body and dribbled down to the ground like the rich, sweet dew of a flower. “I just love money!”
Kazuya suddenly felt bowled over, and stared at her in confusion. I wonder why she’s only ever this sexy when she’s talking about money…?
“My family was as poor as church mice. Life was hard. We shed tears of bitterness while gnawing on potatoes,” Mildred lamented in an anguished voice, and pulled out a cotton handkerchief to dab away tears. But her face was completely dry. “My papa was an Irish immigrant who spent his days carrying around a whiskey bottle in a drunken stupor, and my mama… um, let’s see… ugh, I can’t quite seem to remember, but anyway…”
“Enough with the stories, please. Your crocodile tears, too.”
“Shut up! Anyway, that’s why whenever I see money, I get so excited that I can’t help drooling. I love, love, love money, so much that I can’t sleep at night! And who’d have thought that this village would be such a treasure trove….”
“You mustn’t steal anything. Sergius will punish you.”
“But I’m so poor,” Mildred stubbornly insisted, biting her lip. “I can steal if I want to!”
The two of them glared at each other for a moment. Kazuya showed no sign of budging.
Finally, Mildred said in defeat, “You’re such a serious fellow.”
“Ugh…” This happened to be a sore point with Kazuya, and he hung his head, deflated.
Mildred suddenly brightened up. “Fine. I’ll just discreetly return the plate to the church. It’s not like I would know where to sell something so expensive anyway. I just wrapped it in a sheet and hid it under my bed. …If I do that, then can you look the other way on this one?”
“…Very well. As long as you return it as soon as possible.”
“You probably want some hush money, right?”
“Not at all.”
“Don’t be so uptight. I’m telling you, I’ll give you some! Such a boring man you are…”
“Wh-what did you—oh!” In the midst of his anger, Kazuya suddenly remembered the colorful wares that she had been selling at the bazaar. Before he had decided to buy the strange Indian-style hat, he had looked over a lot of other items together with his classmate Avril. A sparkling pretty ring, a lace collar, postcards, and also…
“…Um, in that case, there’s this one thing you were selling at the bazaar.”
“What? Which one? Just letting you know ahead of time, but I’m not giving you anything worth too much. You don’t love money, so you don’t have the right to take anything expensive from someone else.”
“What kind of logic is that?!” Kazuya sighed. And then he leaned over to Mildred’s ear and whispered to her.
A very curious expression appeared on Mildred’s face, dotted with freckles like tiny flowers. She gave Kazuya a long, hard look. “…Is that what you really want?”
“For a serious kid, you’re pretty strange.”
“But I don’t dislike you. I definitely like you a lot better than that haughty empty suit of an inspector.” Mildred laughed merrily, her bright red curls bouncing.
Ambrose spotted the three of them from afar, and ran toward them, carrying a torch. He hesitated on where to set it down, then handed it over to Harminia beside him.
The flame crackled and burned. Flecks of orange light scattered into the air.
“The ceremony welcoming the spirits of the ancestors is about to start.”
“Oh!” Kazuya nodded.
Victorique seemed to stir. Kazuya’s eyes searched Ambrose’s. Ambrose’s face was a little stiff, perhaps from nerves.
A night breeze rushed toward them. The wind buffeted the torch that Harminia gripped in her pale, dry hand, and it burned even more strongly. The flames shook from side to side, popping loudly.
The festival would soon reach its climax….