Ambrose stood frozen, stunned at what he had just done. The rest of the small, cloudy-eyed youths began to castigate him all at once, surrounding him like the seven dwarfs around Snow White. A moment later, they left their leader’s side, and ran out into the hallway, calling Harminia’s name.
Sergius screamed curses, and raised a trembling fist at Ambrose. “Ambrose … my foolish successor. Catch her quickly. And cut off her head. There is no other way for you to find my forgiveness!”
“No matter what you say to me, Master Sergius, I won’t kill a human being,” Ambrose replied shakily.
“You don’t know what you’ve done. Because you allowed Harminia to escape, she will surely bring calamity upon this village. Perhaps it has already begun. Go, and kill her! All you have to do is trust me and do as I say. Asking how I know or why I give the order is simply foolishness. Young man, engrave that on your very soul!”
Ambrose bowed his head, but no longer nodded sadly as he normally did. He shook his head and silently headed for the door.
At the same time, they heard shouting from the young men down the hallway.
Kazuya and Ambrose exchanged a look, then dashed toward the door.
An enormous writhing animal’s tongue, red and thick, was coming straight toward them.
It was fire.
The heavy blue velvet curtains hanging over the windows of the hallway were aflame, crumbling, shuddering to the floor like the last gasps of a dying creature. The flames spread to the grey carpet, then advanced toward Kazuya and Ambrose with renewed vigor.
“Fire! Harminia started a fire!” cried the young men, running back.
Kazuya cast his eyes beyond the writhing tongues of fire, and saw a woman holding a torch in her hand—it was Harminia, her eyes agape, and her head bent to the side as if about to thud to the floor, like a broken doll….
The youths ran the opposite direction down the hall. “Take the back door! The fire hasn’t spread there yet!”
Kazuya collected himself and ran back inside the study. Mildred and Inspector de Blois had also heard the shouts, and they quickly rushed out. Kazuya pushed against the flow of people to leap inside the study, where he found Victorique standing alone in the middle of the room. He grabbed her hand. “Victorique, there’s a fire! Run!”
Behind him came Ambrose, who jumped back into the study and ran to Sergius. He snatched away the old man’s cane and lifted him onto his back, then followed Kazuya and Victorique as they escaped through the hallway.
White smoke filled the air, stinging their eyes. Kazuya held Victorique close to him. “Close your eyes!” he urged her. Ignoring his own pain, he started to run.
When he happened to look down beside him, Victorique’s eyes were screwed shut and she was running for dear life, just as he had told her to do. She couldn’t run very fast. Ambrose, carrying Sergius on his back, soon overtook them. Nevertheless, she continued running ahead fearlessly, eyes closed, relying only on the grip of Kazuya’s hand. Her hand squeezed his own more and more tightly.
At last, they tumbled out of the modest back entrance. As he coughed from the smoke, Kazuya looked up at the manor.
It was burning.
The fire crackled toward the night sky, spreading higher and higher up.
The manor had looked so much like an enormous grey wolf the first time he saw it, but now it stooped low to the ground, motionless, fully engulfed in flames.
“Harminia!” Kazuya heard Sergius murmur in a bone-chilling voice. He was kneeling down on the hard ground and looking up at the night sky, anger coloring his face dark red. An aura of deep, concentrated wrath emanated from him.
After delivering him to safety, Ambrose vanished from sight, and Sergius was alone.
“Harminia! Killing Master Théodore wasn’t enough for you? You even set fire to the village!”
Victorique opened her eyes and let out a little cry. Kazuya followed her gaze, and then he saw it … the nameless village was burning.
The roofs, the trees, and everything surrounding them were catching ablaze with flickering flames. The stone walls turned an eerie red as they absorbed the heat. The straw of the thatched roofs sputtered embers toward the night sky. Fire topped the houses like fiery headdresses, making the entire village glitter like a gigantic chandelier. Every structure danced in red.
The villagers gathered in the town square. They drew water from the well and threw it onto the flames.
Ambrose was nowhere to be seen.
Then some of the young men started to shout something from the far end of the square. Before long, Ambrose came running from the center of the circle of youths, his long golden hair flying free, streaming over his shoulders. He spotted Kazuya’s group and yelled to them, his face pulled taut with horror. “It’s Harminia, she’s…!”
Kazuya and the others started to run. They left the square behind them and rushed through the cobblestone streets, slipping between filaments of the fiery chandelier, until reaching the entrance of the village, where Ambrose was pointing with his trembling finger.
He was pointing at the drawbridge—the village’s sole link to the outside world.
The drawbridge had been lowered.
Ambrose then turned to point at the top of the stone watchtower, where a young lookout would drop the drawbridge whenever visitors came. It formed a single point of black twilight in the village aglow with flame.
A figure was hidden at the top of the dark tower.
Dark blue, medieval-looking clothing. Blond hair plaited into thin braids. Bulging, deep green eyes.
Kazuya and the others looked up at her, and she slowly lowered her head to look back down on them, eyes open wide.
Harminia lifted up the burning torch in her hand. The fire hissed and crackled. Her other hand gripped a spear. She stood erect, looking surreally like an ancient warrior.
Several seconds passed.
She smiled. The whites of her eyes were bared, and her mouth was open so widely that the corners of her mouth seemed to nearly split. It was the first time that Kazuya had seen her smile like this.
Harminia crouched down low. A moment later, her shrunken, hunched body elongated what seemed like several times longer as she propelled herself into the air with her collected energy. She descended gracefully, landing on top of the cobblestones with a hard slap, then glowered at the onlookers.
Kazuya couldn’t tell where she was looking at with her popping eyes. He positioned Victorique safely behind him.
“You went too far,” Harminia growled, and lifted her spear.
Trembling, Kazuya stood in front of Victorique. Ambrose stared in shock at the three of them.
Kazuya glared at Harminia. “No, she didn’t. Miss Harminia, all Victorique did was clear her mother’s name! Because twenty years ago, you let an innocent person—”
“But I say you went too far,” Harminia repeated. Her head lurched to the side, and she looked down on Victorique with a smile. The smile suddenly disappeared as if sucked into a void. “Cordelia’s daughter … this is the place where you die!”
Kazuya gasped and moved to shield Victorique from Harminia and her spear. But Harminia didn’t attack.
She turned and ran straight for the drawbridge.
Harminia was far away in a flash. Kazuya could see the soles of her shoes—black soles on black leather. A foreboding color.
Ambrose suddenly screamed, apparently realizing what she was trying to do. “Stop it, Harminia!”
“…This way, you won’t catch me!”
After crossing the bridge, Harminia turned around. She slowly lowered the torch in her hand.
More villagers started to arrive. Harminia stood alone at the other end of the bridge. Villagers and visitors alike stared at her speechlessly.
Ambrose cried out, “Harminia … She’s trying to burn down the bridge!”
Harminia threw the torch at the center of the bridge. The flames fluttered, and soon slowly began to spread.
Sergius came closer, propped up by the villagers. Ambrose turned to him and tried to speak, but Sergius stopped him. “Ambrose, your hair is untied.”
“Huh…?” Ambrose stared at him, caught off guard.
Sergius snapped, “How many times do I have to tell you to tie it up properly? Fix your hair this instant.”
“But Master Sergius… the bridge!”
“It makes no difference if we have a bridge or not. All we need is this village. There is no need for us to go outside.”
Ambrose gave a short groan. No more did he hang his head the way he used to whenever Sergius scolded him. He simply returned Sergius’ gaze unflinchingly.
The fire was spreading across the bridge.
The bridge was about wide enough for one carriage to pass. The thick ropes strung along the sides were burning, and the bridge supports were slackening and beginning to sway up and down. Bit by bit, the wooden planks turned a charred black.
Kazuya shouted, “Victorique, hurry! We have to get across!” He tugged onto her hand.
Victorique stared up fearfully into his eyes. “But…”
“If the bridge collapses, we won’t be able to go home!”
“But across the bridge…”
Kazuya spoke to her sternly. “If you’re scared, then close your eyes. Understand?”
Rather than wait for a response, Kazuya began running. Victorique followed along without resistance. He looked down at her, and just as she had when she ran through the hallway of the manor, her eyes were closed as tightly as could be, and her little nose was cutely crumpled.
Seeing this filled Kazuya with relief. He looked over his shoulder and yelled, “Inspector! Miss Mildred!”
Every face was pale in terror.
The trembling visitors began to traverse the burning bridge.
The bridge was swaying.
Crackling and smoldering.
Kazuya glanced down.
In the dark, he couldn’t see the bottom of the distant abyss; all he saw was a deep blackness. He heard something that sounded like water rushing below.
Everyone else was so afraid that their knees were knocking, but somehow, Kazuya managed to calmly walk across. As he looked back at the fear-stricken faces of Inspector de Blois and Mildred, he found the contrast strange at first, but then realized why.
That’s right! I’m used to this sort of thing. I’m always climbing that maze of stairs in St. Marguerite’s Library…. And I do remember that it was pretty scary until I adjusted to it….
When they made it halfway across the bridge, they heard a voice like the howling of a beast up ahead. Victorique shuddered and clung to Kazuya. He felt her small body trembling underneath her layers and layers of frills, and wrapped both arms around her protectively.
He looked up, and saw a sharp metal point rushing at him.
It was Harminia, wielding a spear. She was making a strange shout and running toward him. The drawbridge, on the verge of crumbling, swayed violently with each of her footfalls.
Harminia was heading straight toward Kazuya … no, toward Victorique.
The inspector, escorting Derek and Mildred, swiftly ran past them.
The tip of the spear was ominously darkened. Beyond the approaching speartip, he saw Harminia’s face wearing a deranged smile. Her head rolled wildly from side to side, as if it was about to fly off into the ravine. Kazuya backed away from her, cradling Victorique’s small body. The burning bridge lurched. Flames from the heavy rope next to him licked his cheek.
The spear grazed Kazuya’s right arm. He felt a sensation of heat. When he looked at his arm, a long, shallow cut was on his sleeve, and blood was beginning to seep out. He looked down within his arms; Victorique’s eyes were still tightly shut.
Kazuya suddenly understood just how frightening it was to run with one’s eyes closed. He had told Victorique to close her eyes and follow him, but in a situation where she couldn’t see her surroundings, even walking slowly would be scary enough, much less running.
And yet Victorique did what he had told her and kept her eyes closed, while never letting go of his hand.
Was it because she believed in his strength?
If that were really so, then it would be the first time Kazuya had ever experienced such a thing. Who else besides Victorique? His father and brothers had high hopes for him, his mother and sister doted on him, but until now, no one had ever believed in his strength enough to entrust something important to him.
I have to do whatever it takes to save Victorique, Kazuya told himself fiercely.
Harminia slashed her spear at him.
Each time she did, Kazuya dodged to the right and to the left, keeping Victorique behind himself.
Sergius’ chilling words repeated themselves in his heart.
At that fortune telling…
In the future that Sergius had foretold for him….
Years from now … a wind great enough to shake the world shall blow.
That great wind will separate you.
No matter how strong your desires, they cannot fight the wind.
But your hearts…
…shall never be apart.
Kazuya swallowed heavily. It’s just fortune telling. It can’t possibly come true. These people still live like they’re in the Middle Ages; they wouldn’t have any understanding of the world, or any inkling of a wind that can shake the world… But what if… what if….
Undaunted by Harminia’s gaze, Kazuya glared back at her bulging eyes.
If it really were true, then the time still hasn’t come yet for us to be separated. We’ll go home safely, to St. Marguerite’s School… the place we belong…
The spear lunged straight at Kazuya and Victorique.
Kazuya pushed Victorique away and fell back one step. The spear pierced through empty space. Kazuya gulped, realizing that he and Victorique were now apart.
Harminia also realized it. She stood on top of the burning bridge and grinned. Her eyes were stained red with burst vessels. “You first… I’ll start with you!”
She swung her spear at Kazuya.
The bridge was steadily becoming engulfed in flames.
Harminia anticipated that Kazuya would try to escape, and thrust her spear with all her might toward his left—a safer place for him to move, away from the flames.
But Kazuya immediately moved toward the opposite direction—his right, where Victorique had been left by herself. Harminia turned around and stared uncomprehendingly at Kazuya, standing in front of Victorique. Why is he over there? her expression seemed to ask.
Harminia lost her balance. She had put too much of her body weight into trying to stab Kazuya, and the spear plunged into thin air.
She stumbled, then fell from the bridge, plummeting to the bottom of the abyss.
Kazuya heard a harrowing scream that he was sure he would never forget no matter how many years passed. It faded away, and at last disappeared, swallowed up by the depths.
Night had fallen and it was hard to see, but Kazuya knew there was a raging stream flowing at the distant bottom of the deep ravine. A chill ran down his spine.
A crackling came from the bridge as it threatened to fall. Now there was only a thin path in the middle left for them to walk through. The flames on both sides of the bridge intensified, looming close to Kazuya and Victorique like walls of fire.
Kazuya pushed away his thoughts and tugged on Victorique’s hand to prompt her to run. He sailed through the last ten steps, holding Victorique close to protect her from the flames. Soon there was only one step left.
He felt relieved. He had brought Victorique out of the village to safety, under his own power.
He felt his body sway.
It was because he felt such a great sense of relief, he thought. But that wasn’t it. The bridge was listing to one side.
The last burning remnants of the bridge glowed a brilliant orange and finally crumbled away into the abyss.
Just one last step—
Victorique was first to reach solid earth.
Then Kazuya set foot on the ground after her….
But at that moment, Kazuya’s body tilted to the side with the falling bridge. He saw Victorique turn around and her mouth opening to form a cry, but her face disappeared below his sight. Instead, he saw the sky—the vast night sky, filling his vision with twinkling stars.
For a split-second, the sight was so lovely.
And then his body began to fall off the cliff.
The sky full of stars instantly receded into the distance, and he could see Victorique shouting on top of the cliff, Inspector de Blois staring down at him in horror, and Mildred and Ambrose screaming. Across the cliff behind him, he saw the medieval-looking church and stone arch of the village that was beautiful and yet desperately frozen in time. Smoke was still rising from the flames.
On Victorique’s chest, he saw the pendant she had shown him when they were in the town downhill, that gold coin strung with a chain, dangling toward him. It was emerging from her ocean of frills and coming closer.
The second his body dropped felt longer than he could have ever imagined. He inspected Victorique’s pendant with a detached calmness, then noticed the side of the bridge that Ambrose was on, and wanted to ask why, but the words wouldn’t come out. There was a jolt, and then he was falling.
It felt like everything was rushing away from him.
Suddenly, he wanted to see his family again.
The color of the sky in his homeland, the raging sea that he saw from the ship as he crossed the oceans, the moment he first entered his room at the dormitory in St. Marguerite’s… And that spring day, when Miss Cécile asked him to climb the labyrinthine staircase of the main library for the very first time….
An array of scenery appeared in his mind, and vanished away.
Pride and chagrin, combined with feelings of regret, assailed him for a brief instant.
His thoughts returned to the country of his birth.
And the reason he had left it…
My father, my brothers… I’m sorry, he whispered, growing sad. I never became the son, the brother, you wanted me to be. So I fled. I didn’t really come to this country to study. It was just too painful to stay at home. I felt so pathetic whenever I was with you. But I don’t want to think of myself as even more of a worthless man… I’m sorry. It’s not that I hate you. Far from it. I respected you all so very much!
In his heart, there had always been a labyrinthine staircase. And he had lost his way on it.
I don’t know what to do. I’ve ended up hating myself. I was lost, I was in pain, so I ran away…. I’m such a worthless man. It’s just like Victorique says. I’m nothing but a gifted half-wit, mediocre by anyone’s reckoning. There’s no value in my existence. So … it doesn’t matter … if I fall off this cliff….
He thought he saw a golden butterfly stray past him.
A tiny butterfly, with gossamer wings that filtered light like the sun through the trees….
A butterfly he had seen once before, long ago.
Tears welled up in his eyes.
If someone like me falls… It doesn’t matter….
The golden butterfly…
Just being able to save Victorique is already a wonderful thing. So, please…
Victorique, Mildred, and Ambrose’s faces grew distant.
But one thing didn’t. It was Victorique’s cherished golden pendant. Rather than fade away, it came closer and closer, lifting off her breast. He saw the tarnished chain snap and fall with him toward the bottom of the ravine.
That pendant she loved so much!
She stretched her arm out and yelled something, trying to catch the pendant.
Don’t you fall, too…. It’s fine if I do. But you … you need to take care of yourself!
Just when he thought this, the next moment…
His body swayed.
Kazuya’s mind went blank. He couldn’t think anymore. It was like someone was shaking him roughly, like awakening suddenly from a dream.
He spun, and then all he saw before him was the hard, dark cliff face.
Someone was calling him from above.
He raised his head.
Victorique was above him. She was groaning, wearing a strange look of exertion on her face. Her rosy cheeks were painfully red. Why am I looking up at her when she’s so small, he wondered.
He looked at his hand.
And realized that she was holding onto him.
Kazuya was dangling off the cliff, and Victorique was crouched on the ground, gripping one of his hands tightly.
He saw the cliff in front of him, and smelled the faint scent of earth.
He heard water from far below.
The turbulent sound of rushing rapids.
Victorique was gritting her teeth.
Kazuya looked at her hand. Her small hands were desperately trying to pull Kazuya up. But Victorique was very weak. Even a single small chair was too heavy for her to lift by herself.
“Victorique… You dropped your precious pendant.”
She only continued to grit her teeth, and said nothing. Then Kazuya realized that the reason she reached out wasn’t to catch her pendant, but to grab onto him.
Victorique’s eyes were riveted to her own straining hands. The backs of her tiny hands had turned purple from lack of circulation. Through her small, clenched, pearly white teeth, she yelled, “What are you doing, Kujou?! Climb up! Stupid!”
“But it doesn’t matter…”
“Shut your mouth and climb up, you stupid, half-witted, mediocre, hopeless scoundrel, bad singer, Grim Reaper Kujou!”
“…I’m not a scoundrel… probably.”
Kazuya stared up in wonder at Victorique as she frantically pulled on his hand. Why is she making such an effort? he thought. Then something else occurred to him.
“Don’t your hands hurt?”
“They do, huh?”
“If I say they don’t, then they don’t!”
As she stubbornly repeated herself, Kazuya carefully watched her face. Oh! he suddenly thought. Of course they hurt. Victorique is a big crybaby. Victorique … is telling a lie. It’s the first time I’ve seen her do that. Huh, what a funny face she’s making….
Her cheeks were puffier than ever, and her emerald-green eyes were watery.
“Kujou, hurry! …What are you smiling about! I’m telling you to hurry!”
Kazuya came back to reality. Victorique’s small legs were slipping ever closer to the edge of the cliff. At this rate, they would both end up falling over. Even so, she desperately held onto him.
“We’re going home together. I said that to you before. We’re going home together. I said that to you. I said it.”
“So hurry up, you idiot, scoundrel, tone-deaf Grim Reaper!”
“Sorry, you’re right… Victorique.”
“What was that!?” she roared.
His voice unusually subdued, Kazuya said, “Hey … thanks.”
Kazuya chuckled sheepishly. Then he finally reached out and grabbed onto a tree root that stuck out of the ground. He wrapped his hand around it, and managed to pull himself up bit by bit.
He slowly dragged himself closer to the top. Victorique’s tiny breaths echoed loudly in his ear. From afar he heard the sound of flames spreading. At last, he was able to lift himself up all the way up to the ground, where he caught his breath. He was so exhausted that he thought he might fall asleep right then and there.
Kazuya drew in a deep lungful of air. As he exhaled, he could feel the sorrowful emotions that had seized him only moments ago dissipate from his body.
He fell to his knees and gasped for air.
After a few moments, Kazuya raised his head, and gazed at Victorique, who was hunched over next to him.
Victorique was sitting flat on the ground with her small hands held open. She was peering closely at her palms, a puzzled look on her face.
Kazuya peeked at her hands.
They were red and swollen. Her skin, unused to carrying heavy things, was very delicate, and painfully puffy as if she had burned herself.
Noticing Kazuya’s gaze, Victorique quickly hid her hands behind her back. Then she noticed the blood streaming from the wound on his arm and began to stare at it, her face still puzzled..
Kazuya tried to say something, but Victorique only snorted angrily. She turned her back to him and murmured softly, “I bet you thought it wouldn’t matter if you fell.”
Victorique’s voice sounded very angry. Kazuya scratched his head, unsure of what to say.
She spoke curtly, still sounding angry. “You can’t fall.”
“Stupid,” Victorique murmured, her voice so tiny that he could barely hear it.