epilogue — friends
On a cloudless afternoon…
Sunshine blazed down on the parched dirt road—soon, summer would arrive. The ivies entwined around the wood-framed houses and the red geraniums dangling from the second story windows shone under the sun’s rays.
It was a calm and comfortable noontime.
The door to a small post office on a village street corner slowly opened, and a slight Asian boy wearing the uniform of St. Marguerite’s School came out. He carefully adjusted his hat, then straightened his posture and started walking.
In his hand was a small, square package affixed with international postage.
Across the street from the post office, a tall, slim girl wearing the uniform of the same school bolted out of a small flower shop. She had short blond hair and eyes that sparkled with vitality.
When the girl saw the boy—Kazuya Kujou—her face immediately lit up. “Kujou!”
Kazuya heard someone call his name, then saw the girl—Avril Bradley—and smiled. “Hi, Avril.”
“What are you up to? Oh, looks like you got another package this week. Did that come from home?”
“Yeah. My brother finally sent the book I’ve been asking—whoa, whoa, Avril!?”
“Is it money? Is it money? Huh, is that all?” Avril snatched the package from Kazuya’s hands and opened the seal, but when she saw that all it contained was an old book written in an Asian language, she didn’t bother to conceal her disappointment.
“…Like I said, it’s just a book. A while back, I wrote to my oldest brother and asked him to send it to me. Now it finally arrived.” He walked along, then muttered softly, “Although his timing was a little off…”
“Hmm? So what kind of book is it?”
“It’s, well… No, never mind. It’s not important.” Kazuya suddenly blushed, and grabbed the green book out of Avril’s hands.
Avril pouted in displeasure, and took the book back. She turned it all around and examined it from every angle, but the Far Eastern script remained impenetrable, and she reluctantly handed it back to Kazuya.
They walked down the main street through air that felt slightly smoky from dust particles drifting through the sunlight. An old horse with long tufts of fur on its legs slowly pulled a wagon beside them. A warm, bittersweet smell wafted from the mountains of hay piled up on the wagon, a smell that could only mean summer was about to begin.
As they approached the school, the road grew more and more deserted, and there were fewer houses. From this point onward, gentle slopes meandered up into the mountains.
“…That reminds me, Avril,” Kazuya said loudly, trying to change the subject away from the book. “You know, a lot of things happened to me last week. It would take too long to explain, so I’ll just leave it at that … But do you remember that nun we met at the bazaar in the flea market?”
“Well, her name is Mildred, and we got to know each other. She said she would let me have one of the things she had for sale at the bazaar, so … this is for you.”
Kazuya opened his book bag and started to rummage around inside. The moment he said “for you,” Avril’s face burst into a smile, and she happily peeked inside his bag.
“Yes. I thought I’d give it to you, since you seemed to like it so much.”
Inside his bag, a golden object was gleaming ominously.
The smile disappeared from Avril’s face like a wisp of smoke. Kazuya wrapped his hand around the golden object, looked up, and found her pursing her lips in an expression that could only be described as extremely angry.
“You kept insisting that you wanted it, so I decided to … give … Avril, what’s wrong? What is it? Why are you making that face?”
Kazuya’s eyes met Avril’s, as the object—a fist-sized golden skull—rested stupidly on top of his head.
Avril gave him a long, sharp glare. For some reason, tears were beginning to collect at the corners of her clear blue eyes. Kazuya stammered, taken aback. His head bobbed, and the golden skull fell off, rolling down the sloping road, sending puffs of dust into the air as it tumbled.
Kazuya hastily ran after the skull, and from behind, he heard Avril’s voice.
“Kujou, you are so stuuupid!”
Kazuya finally managed to pick up the skull, and just as he looked up, Avril was running down the street as gracefully as a gazelle. Startled, he ran after her, but Avril was fast, and he barely managed to shorten the distance between them. When they reached the front of the school, he saw the hem of her skirt disappear into the campus through a certain hidden passage—the one she had sawed through the hedge.
“Wait, Avril! Why are you so angry? Hey!” Kazuya dashed through the passageway, getting himself scratched by thin branches and tangled up in leaves. And when he emerged onto the school grounds…
“Av … ril… Oh, Miss Cécile. Um, hello…”
Avril was nowhere to be found, apparently successful in her escape. Instead, Kazuya found himself eye to large, bespectacled eye with his teacher Cécile, who was crouched over the lawn, tending to her violets.
He nervously brushed away the leaves and broken twigs from his body. Cécile stared up at him in bewilderment, and then gasped, turning her stare on the hedge, finally putting the pieces together.
She had seen something that should not have been there—a small hole around the right size for someone to slip through.
“So the one who trampled all over my violets…”
“I’m sorry; it was me….”
“So that’s how it happened. When Miss Victorique sneaked away from school, was it through this hole? You both insisted that the front gate was open, and I took your word for it… But did you actually go through here? K-Kujou!?”
“I-I’m sorry….” Kazuya bowed his head and apologized over and over again. Cécile was quite clearly incensed, and subjected him to an endless scolding over the violets, the lawn, and Victorique.
The gardener would have to be called in to repair the hedge immediately. Just as Kazuya silently wondered if Avril would be disappointed, he glimpsed a flash of blond hair behind a tree trunk.
It was Avril.
Although she had returned to campus before he did, perhaps she realized that he had been caught by Cécile, and came back to check on him.
In the end, Cécile sentenced Kazuya to a month of cleaning the restrooms and no nighttime outings for a week, and then took her leave.
Kazuya started to walk away with downcast eyes, but next he felt something thud against his head. Rubbing his head, he turned around in time to see Avril’s slim figure running away. At his feet lay a crumpled piece of paper. Was this what had hit him…?
He picked it up, opened it, and sure enough, he had guessed correctly. In Avril’s delicate, rounded handwriting, the following was written:
Thanks for not telling the teacher that I’m the one who made the secret passage.
…But I don’t want that skull. You’re definitely still stuuupid!
Kazuya smoothed out the crumpled piece of paper, folded it into a tidy square, and put it in his breast pocket.
…He just didn’t get it.
“Maybe not knowing why I’m being called stuuupid is what makes me stuuupid?” he muttered.
Suddenly, a strong gust of wind rushed toward him, stirring his black hair and the hem of his uniform.
When the wind stilled, warm air surrounded him.
Summer was fast approaching.
“…Well, at least realizing that much is better than not knowing at all, right, Kujou the idiot?”
St. Marguerite’s Library was an old and stately building that had witnessed over three hundred years of history. After surviving the devastation of the Great War, it had become increasingly famous throughout Europe for its repository of books.
However, because of a policy of secrecy that limited entry to students and those connected to the school, there were few who knew of its existence. The library was always deserted, filled only with the scent of dust, mildew, and knowledge.
A wooden labyrinth of stairs led to the dizzyingly high reaches of the library. Just as he did every day, Kazuya took several minutes out of his afternoon to climb up the stairs by himself, making his way up to his friend at the very top.
The top floor held a conservatory, lush with tropical vegetation and flowers, bathed in dazzling sunlight that streamed in from the skylights. And there he would find a beautiful, albeit very small girl who looked exactly like a porcelain doll. That day would be no different. It never seemed to change.
The girl—Victorique de Blois—sat hidden among piles of books, her demeanor so poised that the ordeals of the previous week’s journey might as well have never happened. They hadn’t yet received any word from her half-brother, Gréville de Blois. Kazuya doubted that any punishment would befall her, but still … a twinge of anxiety remained.
A thin strand of white smoke floated up to the skylights from the ceramic pipe held in Victorique’s small mouth. Kazuya followed the smoke until he found her petite body inside the mound of books, then sat down next to her.
“…Don’t call me an idiot. I’ve had women getting angry at me all day, and it’s really getting me down.”
“I may not know all the details, but whatever it is, I’m sure you brought it on yourself.”
“Tch!” Kazuya’s mood instantly soured.
But Victorique continued, indifferent to his plight. “Because all you do is act as if you know the first thing about others when you don’t understand them at all, and lose your temper and break off friendships over the most ridiculous things. For heaven’s sake, you are a senseless fellow.”
“Hmph! Look into your own heart for the answer!”
“Sheesh, what do you want from me. Oh, well. Victorique, do you want this? I don’t really know what it’s for myself, so I can’t exactly tell you what to do with it.”
Victorique was ardently smoking her pipe, her head buried deeply between the pages of a large and heavy book. But when she heard Kazuya, she irritably looked up and glanced at the object he was offering her. And just as she was about to thrust her head back into her books…
“…What the hell is that!?”
Kazuya abashedly drew back his hand, which held the golden skull. “I wonder. A paperweight, maybe?”
“Kujou, by and large you are a dull and mediocre individual.”
“But once in a while, you’ll do something that I just can’t figure out.”
“That’s not a … compliment … is it?”
“Is this one of those mysteries of the Orient? Or are you just odd all by yourself?”
Victorique’s harsh tongue was beginning to sting a little too much, and he didn’t have it in him to retort. “I’ll just leave this here,” he said in a small voice, and set the golden skull down on the floor.
Then he noticed something else that was on the floor.
It was the strange Indian-style hat that he had given to Victorique. Apparently, she had no interest in it as a hat. Instead, she had placed it on the ground upside down, and crammed it full of whiskey bonbons and macarons.
Victorique, by means of her all-discerning wellspring of wisdom, had chosen to reincarnate the hat as a candy holder.
Kazuya plopped the skull down next to the hat—they really did look strange next to each other. “Speaking of mysteries of the Orient, Victorique.”
“What about them, Kujou the foolish reaper from across the seas?”
“…You always have to have the last word, don’t you?” His spirits flagging, Kazuya took a certain object out from his bag.
It was the book he had received in the mail that day, sent by his eldest brother.
Victorique raised her head, a look of boredom on her face. But when she saw that the object was a book, she tore it out of his hands with an unexpected intensity and started to flip through the pages. Realizing that it was in an unfamiliar language, she frowned, tiny wrinkles forming on her brow as she perused the book, grunting to herself.
The book featured illustration after illustration of two men grappling with each other.
“…Just what the devil is this book?”
“It’s about Oriental martial arts. My father and brothers know a lot about it, but it’s Greek to me. So I asked my eldest brother to send me this book.”
“A book of martial arts…?” Victorique murmured thoughtfully, lifting her face.
Kazuya avoided her eyes. He reddened slightly.
During their first journey together aboard a terrifying ship, they had narrowly escaped with their lives, and afterward Kazuya couldn’t help feeling some regret. He had never been interested in the fighting techniques that his father and brother had taught him, and didn’t think it mattered if he learned them well or not. But on that boat, alone with tiny Victorique and lacking any hope of rescue, Kazuya felt remorseful from the bottom of his heart for not having applied himself more.
With this in mind, Kazuya wrote a letter to his eldest brother. In between reporting his school performance and relaying his observations of the country, he also asked if he could send him a book on hand-to-hand combat techniques.
But not only was his brother’s timing a little off; the book hadn’t arrived until after Kazuya had experienced his second adventure and was already back at school.
Come to think of it, he’s always been this way…. He never gave me snacks until after a meal, and never helped me study until after the exam was over. He’s a good person, but then again, he’s always done things like this….
For that reason, despite being intelligent and good-looking, his eldest brother had had his heart broken time after time. Once, he had spent all night writing a love letter, but by the time he delivered it to the home of the object of his affections, she was already in the middle of celebrating her wedding to another man. Apparently his brother had gotten over his grief with the help of a fierce rubdown with a towel….
“…Looks like a letter came with it, too.”
Victorique handed the letter to Kazuya. The writing was large and scrawling—this was his eldest brother’s handwriting. Kazuya opened it and began to read.
What led to the sudden change of heart? Kazuya, you’ve never wanted to read this kind of book before. Your brother and I have been scratching our heads. But this is a good sign. We’ve recently had some serious discussions with father about you becoming manlier and growing up tall….
When Kazuya read up to this point, his heart sank like a stone.
…By the way, our father is very pleased with your excellent grades. Your brother and I are also proud of you. It appears to have been the right decision for you to leave the country and study in the outside world. But your mother and sister are terribly lonely even though your brother and I are still here. They seem to find it very dull without you. I consider that favoritism.
A ghost of a smile appeared on Kazuya’s face.
However, there are things a man must do. I’ve made it very clear to your mother and sister that you are on a great journey into becoming a man, and women and children should stay out of the way. Kazuya, you must become an adult and come back as soon as possible. Become successful in your own life, so that you may serve your country. I sincerely hope that you won’t ever turn into the type of man who lives a worthless life instead of living for the well-being of his nation. Be someone great. As we await your return, we too shall continue devoting ourselves wholeheartedly to our country.
Kazuya folded the letter, and sighed.
His eyes grew distant.
When he suddenly became quiet, Victorique looked up at him. A slight hint of worry appeared on her face. But the unusual book from the Far East once again recaptured her attention, and she went back to burying her head in it.
But a few moments later…
She quietly lifted her head from the book and looked at Kazuya.
He was still sighing.
Victorique peered at him curiously, then seemed to lose interest, and turned her gaze away.
Nii-san… Wallowing in dejection, Kazuya sat between the staircase and the conservatory, his head bent low. I’ll never be that great man … I’ll never be what he wants me to be. And is a person really only worthwhile if he lives for his country? I wonder… Oh, I don’t understand these things at—
Suddenly, he felt a dull pain in the back of his head. He started to turn around, but lost his balance. With a shriek, he tumbled down several steps of the labyrinthine staircase.
Kazuya had rolled off to the side, mere centimeters away from falling into the deep abyss below. Clinging to the side of the staircase, he managed to pull himself back up. Then he saw Victorique staring down at him in surprise, her hand thrust forward in a fist.
“Oh, you’re still here?”
“Was that … you, just now…?”
Victorique opened her mouth in a wide yawn and set the book down.
Kazuya quickly crawled up the staircase. “Victori-ique!?”
“Oh, I just thought I’d stick my hand out how it says in the illustrations of this book. You just happened to be in the way.”
“Liar! You did that on purpose. Just to amuse yourself … right?”
“Hmph. So what if I did?”
“If, God forbid, I were to die, then what would you do?!”
“…I wouldn’t do anything.”
Kazuya again took his seat beside Victorique, and turned away from her, hugging his knees. He took a macaron from the candy holder, unwrapped it, and put it in his mouth. Victorique watched him with disapproval, but didn’t complain.
Finally, Kazuya whispered, “That’s not true.”
“Not true? What’s not true?”
“That you wouldn’t do anything. Victorique, you’d be unhappy if I disappeared, wouldn’t you?”
She didn’t answer.
Kazuya murmured silently in his heart. You cried a little bit back there, when you heard your fortune.
The thought alone troubled him, and so he added, and you saved me. You gave everything you could to save me. Isn’t that right, Victorique?
But he didn’t let the words escape his lips.
The inside of the library slowly darkened underneath the setting sun. Even the sunshine streaming in from the skylights began to shine a little lonelier and quieter than before.
Victorique sat in her usual spot, immersed in her reading.
Kazuya was sitting very still beside her, leaning against a stack of books. With her face still buried in a book, Victorique suddenly pricked her ears.
She heard him breathing softly—he had fallen asleep. Grimacing in exasperation, she went back to her book, ignoring him.
A few minutes later…
She lifted her head from her book.
“Kujou, did you fall asleep?”
Instead of a response, all she heard were his gentle exhalations.
“Are you asleep?”
Another soft sigh.
“You’re asleep, huh,” she repeated.
A mild gust of air came in through the skylights, accompanying the warm sunshine. The gaudily-colored flowers in full bloom and the fronds of the tall palm trees swayed lightly.
“Friends mean more to me than books,” Victorique abruptly said.
Kazuya bolted upright from his sleep. Victorique’s shoulders jumped.
The wind blew again, fluttering their hair, gold and black alike.
Kazuya giggled happily.
For a brief moment, Victorique’s rosy cheeks flushed ever so slightly red.