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Chapter 5: The Stolen Page
All the cast besides Kaito and myself had already gathered in the living room. I sipped on tea which Meg poured me.
As I slowly inspected everyone one by one... I had a sudden flash of déjà vu. In act one of the play, the Villager entered the mansion in the woods and looked over each of the mansion's residents; this scene felt exactly the same, with people who emanated a very similar mood. A giant crystal chandelier hung from the center of the semi-cylindrical ceiling, and indeed, less than half of its candles were lit, giving the room an unsettling gloom. The cast and the set... Wherever I turned my gaze, I saw a perfect recreation of the world in the play's script.
The Mistress, Meiko, elegantly sipping tea, put her teacup down in her saucer with a serious look.
"To think that the next page would be gone..."
"Oh, what should we do? The play can't go on like this. Heehee... That's kind of exciting, though!"
"My word, such a serious problem... Time appears to have stopped."
Meg and Gack... I watched their interaction out of the corner of my eye. The Maid, whose mouth claimed she was worried, but so deeply enjoyed trouble and incidents, and the Butler, who wouldn't stop polishing silverware even when everyone else was concerned - no situation would dissuade him from diligently attending to his work. There were resemblances to the way they usually were, but I could see some major differences.
Meg was one to often get caught up in things, but she would never joke around about matters which clearly concerned the others. And when Meg's mischief did cross the line, Gack would always lightly rebuke her. I didn't feel that comfortable sense of stability between them now. But... Just maybe, they only happened to be acting that way right now. I had to properly ask them, not just make guesses.
"Um... Miss Meg... and Mr. Gack?", I said to them. But they didn't even turn my way.
"What is it, miss Villager?"
Rather than the two I was trying to talk to, Meiko sitting beside me spoke with concern, her face still gloomy.
"E-Er...! I want to talk to Miss Meg and Mr. Gack..."
I turned to look at Meg, and made eye contact with her. She gazed at me like she was looking at something truly strange. Gack, too, kept a grave face and showed no reaction to me saying his name.
"Miss Villager, are you all right?"
Villager... That was my name in the play. Since the Villager didn't want to give her name, the others also refused to tell her anything about themselves... And the plot went on like that.
It couldn't be... So calling them by their real names wouldn't get through to them at all? I thought back on when I was talking to Kaito in the hallway. I said "Rin," "Len," even Kaito's own name, but his response to them all was the same mystified look, and he only referred to Rin and Len as the Doll Twins.
I tried calling Kaito by name again. But no one showed any reaction to it. Naturally, even Kaito himself seemed totally unconscious of being Kaito, and just sat there shooting me a suspicious glare. Sweat ran down my cheeks, and my heart beat fast.
"Have you... Have you all forgotten? Listen to me! Have you forgotten about yourselves, about the real world?! This clearly isn't reality! I-It's a strange world... the world of the play! Miss Luka... Miss Meiko?!"
Unable to stand their bizarre reactions, I stood up out my chair, shouting and pleading. But Luka and Meiko seemed to remember nothing, and just silently blinked at me.
"...R... Rin! Len! Please!!"
I cried the names of those two who had turned so small. The same ones who had not long ago told me I didn't have to be so formal with their names - but they only widened their round eyes. Not a single person responded to their own name. I shouted desperately to try and wake them up, make them see that this world was bizarre, a fake.
Meiko turned to me and spoke, her eyes tinged with doubt.
"C-Come, now... miss Villager? Calm down for a moment. Are you, ah... all right? I mean, it's quite obvious that this is the world of the play... But what of it?"
Everyone tilted their heads at me, looking at me like I was mad. They seemed slightly afraid and kept their distance. To them... to the people in the play, the part of the uninvited guest had just suddenly started asking these questions, changing completely after staying the night, talking about things they didn't understand... Of course they would think she was mad. But no, it was exactly the opposite.
They knew that this world was a play. They spoke about the "script," and were fully aware they were acting according to it. Yet at the same time, they thought of this fake world as real without a hint of doubt. As if the fake play had been exchanged for reality, just like that. In this world, the real world - their real existences, their real memories - was completely gone.
"I'm sure the Villager is just shaken by the next page being gone... Isn't that right? Without the next part of the script, we don't know how to act. It's perfectly reasonable. Everyone here is a bit unnerved, myself included," Kaito said anxiously.
The next part of the script... Act one of Crazy ∞ nighT was over, so that would be act two. But I couldn't remember what happened in it at all. There'd been such a strange, sudden string of occurrences, I didn't even realize that until now. My memories of what happened after I picked up the letter on the stage, and the events of act two and three in this play's script. As if my thoughts were covered in fog, I could remember neither.
All of a sudden, I noticed a book on the glass table in the center, labeled Crazy ∞ nighT. I gasped and picked it up. This was the script they were talking about... I restlessly flipped through it, and found a page was torn out in the middle. I tried to look ahead of it... but the words, while they certainly did exist, couldn't be processed by my eyes. I kept flipping ahead to make sure, but all the words I saw were unintelligible in my mind.
All I knew was act one, which had already ended... Just like the rest of them, I couldn't read the script for act two onward. What in the world did that mean? My vision went dark, and trying not to reveal how much I wanted to scream, I gently put the script back on the table. I put my shaking left hand in my pocket and gripped the handkerchief.
The awful possibility that had been in the corner of my mind since morning... I kept denying that it could even be possible, but while I pushed it out of my thoughts, it now seemed impossible to refuse any longer.
They were saying that because the next page of the script was gone, time had stopped, and they couldn't go to the next scene. And no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't remember that next scene. And there was this strange script which my mind couldn't comprehend if I tried to skip past that page. It must have meant, without a doubt, that I had already become the lead role of this play world, and was subject to its order.
And I alone knew that this wasn't the real world...
It seemed everyone had really become the play's characters. Many times I asked them things about reality, but they showed no reaction. Not only had Rin and Len turned into little dolls, no one even remarked upon it or harbored any doubts. These were the eccentric inhabitants of the mansion from Crazy ∞ nighT who I saw in act one. They weren't the real people I knew, only fakes created by this bizarre world.
Where had the real ones gone...? Or perhaps the others were still doing just fine in reality, and only I had been taken away and trapped in this world? Was this "inside" the play? What could possibly be done to return to reality?
I liked to act, and I liked plays. The worlds in plays took away all the uncouth, excess, uninteresting scenes that made up the majority of everyday life, trimming it down to only the beautiful and dramatic scenes, inviting watchers to a fantastical dream world. So it was true that ever since I was young, I was possessed by the childish aspiration of someday slipping into one of those fictional worlds and living there instead. That's why with this play, I fully assumed the role of the Villager, and immersed myself in the fantasy world she lived in.
But now that my dream had been made reality, I felt no satisfaction, only a bottomless dread for this world of lies.
I couldn't look anyone in the eye, so I just stared at the white lilies on the glass table in front of me. Such pretty flowers... I slowly reached out for them to calm myself with their aroma. But the flowers I thought were real were one solid piece, the vase included. The water in the vase didn't budge, and the flowers wouldn't come out.
Meg came over with tea for Kaito and I. I thanked her, and shakily picked up the cup from the saucer. Ah... My hand came just a little short, and dropped it. The beautiful teacup fell on the glass table and shattered with a loud sound -
My fingers trembled, but I safely brought the cup to my mouth. The refined Bergamot aroma and the slightly sweet smell of milk tickled my nose, and I let out a sigh. Meg stood before me grinning, perhaps having watched the series of movements.
I thought for sure that I dropped it, so why...? Déjà vu... Like it had happened before... I had a clear picture in my head of the cup being cleanly cracked in two. Maybe I've been told "Miku, you're so clumsy" so much that I've come to imagine plausible clumsy acts in advance? Which meant I might be at least a little less clumsy than I imagined myself to be... My hands grasped the teacup, with such a design that it seemed quite difficult to hold, as if I'd handled it many times before.
"Our maid's tea is truly superb. It just calms your heart, doesn't it? Oh my, did I already say that line? Heehee..."
Meiko spoke an exact line from act one, with the exact same inflection. It did have a calming taste. Meg had made delicious tea for us in the green room many times... That was one of her fortes.
I had my first drink of her royal milk tea just after joining the troupe. I'd broken a prop for the play they were doing at the time, the prop manager scolded me, and everyone advised me on my lack of awareness, so I was pretty depressed. I holed up in the prop room after the show, and while struggling to see if I could fix the prop somehow, Meg suddenly appeared with tea, and left without really saying anything. With just one sip of the milk tea she put for me, the tears I'd been holding in burst out, and somehow, I felt so much better.
Ultimately, I couldn't fix the prop, but I apologized profusely to the manager the next day and was forgiven. And when I went to thank Meg for her tea, she just smiled and said, "It's best to lift your spirits with tea when you're sad!"
I imagined the real her against the Maid in front of me, and a pain resembling grief welled up in me. She was so close, yet so far...
Once I was done drinking the tea, I neatly put the cup back on the saucer. The whole time I was busy thinking to myself, the others seemed to still be discussing the missing next page. From time to time, someone would raise their voice angrily. The mood had gotten a little more tense than before.
"The page is torn out... Which must someone among us stole it, yes? Now who would that be?"
The Lady lifted her eyebrows slightly and inspected everyone suspiciously.
"Madam, forgive me, but it may be a bit too soon to declare that someone stole it..."
"Too soon...? My, it seems our butler's eyes are going already... Rather useless, isn't he! It's clear here that something's been torn out, so open up those eyes and take a look! You can see it, can't you?! This rough tearing obviously speaks to a frantic theft!"
The Butler's face clouded from the Lady calling him "useless," finding it all too cruel.
"AhaHAHA! SOMEone STOLE it!"
"It MUST be! It's OBvious! YahaHAHA! But WHO?"
"The script was in the oldest desk in the hall the whole time. Aren't you two always playing there? Did anyone see the culprit?"
"NO one saw ANYthing..."
"No, NO one SAW!"
"Hm, the way the paper is torn... It certainly looks like it was ripped quite roughly! I don't suppose that could speak to the personality of the one who ripped it...? And the torn page was nowhere near the script. So then surely..."
The Master, who had silently been watching this unfold, spoke in a dignified voice.
"One of us tore out the page and hid it... Who?"
The tension in the room surmounted, but no one would so much as touch the string.
No one spoke up. Everyone stared down everyone else with dubious looks.
"No ONE will adMIT it? YahaHA..."
"Indeed. If, hypothetically, one of us did steal it, then of course..."
"But who would steal it...? And for what, hm?"
"To BOTHer us! THAT's for SURE!"
"My... perhaps they didn't want the next scene to come?"
"NO doubt, they WANT to deSTROY THIS play! YaHAHA, what FUN!"
"But wouldn't the thief be just as troubled? The play can't advance, after all."
I finally cut in after being silent the whole time. Everyone turned to me simultaneously.
"...If the page being lost stopped the play... is there something bad about that? I mean, um... You're all free to talk as you like right now, and..."
If this world were a play, then the cast that lived in it could only act according to script. But what if the next scene for them to act were taken away? Then they'd have nothing to do, like right now. But was it bad for things to remain in this stopped state?
The Master spoke with a slight wrinkle between his eyebrows.
"Actors exist because there is a script. Our existence is based in the world of that script. But what happens if the script goes away? Then our existence written within vanishes with it. Wouldn't you think?"
"Truly... It's terrifying to even imagine."
"A world without a script... It's really quite inconceivable."
The Master continued his explanation with a look of despair.
"If the play does not conclude according to script... Then the world within cannot exist. We, and this play, will all cease to exist. This world exists because of the script. For that script to be damaged means nothing less than the complete loss of order in this play."
"EveRYONE will GO aWAY! We'll ALL die... NO! This WORLD will have neVER exisTED in the FIRST place! But as LONG as we all GO togeTHER, maybe THAT's not TOO scary, RIGHT? AhahaHA!"
"We'll have NEver been BORN! Isn't THAT scary! Yes, get MORE and MORE scared! YAhaHAha!"
"W-What...?! These dolls are just TOO unsettling! Father! Can't we throw these things out already?! I'm feeling sick..."
"They are going a bit far, aren't they? People are going to suspect that you two are the thieves, you realize?"
The Lady stood up with resentment toward the Doll Twins' teasing, and the Mistress quietly rebuked them in an attempt to stop it.
"You're MEAN! And WRONG! PbbBBT!"
"It WASn't US! PBBbbt!"
"Then who else would steal it, hm?! Who? If you fess up now, I might not be quite so mad!", the Lady demanded, the flames of rage faintly burning in her eyes.
"Madam, you look very angry as it is! Actually, with how much you're suspecting everyone... and the rash tearing, fit for someone prone to anger... Could it be that you...!"
"Please, don't be ridiculous! Why would I ever do something so absurd?! To tear up the script... I can only imagine someone who's out of their mind! What about you, you meddlesome maid? Willing to make an incident out of everything, so bored with this mansion that you decided to just make your own incident, didn't you?"
"Oh, how cruel! I'm just diligently serving this mansion and its residents, aren't I? And if you're going to doubt anyone, the butler is more suspicious than me, no doubt!"
"...Why would you suspect me? I wish for tranquility in this mansion more than anyone..."
"OHH? But there's THE highest CHANCE that the BUTler DID it! Because HE stays up the LATest in this HOUSE! AhaHAHA!"
"That's RIGHT! And he's UP the earliEST, too! YahaHAHA!"
"...If you're going to try that tack, then what about you dolls? You don't need sleep, so you're awake all night and day. There's much more potential for you two than me, is there not?"
"...AH, right YOU are!"
"You ARE right! HeeHEEhee..."
"Hmm, isn't there also the potential for an accomplice? The butler and maid are always busy around the mansion together... No one would suspect them, wherever they were! Because that's their job, yes?"
"Come to THINK of it, MIStress, you've BEEN looking GLOOmy this WHOLE time... Did SOMEthing hapPEN?"
"...! N-No, nothing."
"Tell me, mother, do you know something?"
I knew that these people couldn't be the real ones I knew. Even so, "they," who had the same appearances as people who always helped one another as friends, were quarreling, doubting and blaming each other. Watching this foolish scene unfold before me pained my heart.
"In any event, this situation is not a good one to be in. Such sacrilege as this - the play not going to script, it coming to a halt - can't be allowed to continue. Karma will come around, and we will pay for it. It's only a matter of time before our existences... before this play vanishes."
Sacrilege...?! It couldn't be!
That scene in act one. Was it because I made a mistake? The play didn't proceed properly, and Crazy ∞ nighT was profaned. And my punishment... Was it a curse brought about by Burlet, by his Crazy ∞ nighT, that trapped me in the world of the play? If my actions had angered Mr. Burlet, the man said to make new worlds with his plays...
If that was it... then what about the others? What if they were held accountable as well, were trapped in the play with me, and made into a part of it...? Realizing that terrifying possibility, my whole body started trembling.
"Well, look, everyone! Just calm down, okay? This is just what the thief wants us to do, I'll bet. Calm yourselves with some tea for now! Miss Villager, how about a refill of milk tea?"
Milk tea for the heart - how did I not notice it before?! That flavor before was exactly the same as the usual tea Meg made, and yet it was here... So they really were the same people, taken by this world! Their memories were lost, and they were made part of the set...!
It was me who had done this to them all. I was the culprit who profaned the play, and this was my punishment for ruining the production of Burlet's lost libretto. To be trapped in this fictional world as the only one who knew the truth, dragging everyone else in, and being made to redo the play all alone. Those who profaned a Burlet play were cursed, soon vanished from the stage, and died; indeed, that long-standing legend wasn't merely an embellishment, exaggerated over many years and blindly believed.
I was taken by the worst regret and self-loathing of my life. My pulse quickened, I clenched my teeth, and my hands shook.
"I want to go home..."
To reality. To the world where everyone was just normal... I soon found my vision growing misty, and tears fell. Everyone stared at me as I suddenly broke into tears.
"Miss Villager, are you all right...? Do you wish to return home that badly?"
"Don't worry. You'll be able to go home once the play ends and the night dawns, yes?"
So I couldn't go home because the play was stopped, yet if the story could proceed, the Villager would be able to leave the mansion. But would I really go back if the play ended properly? To where? If I were lucky, perhaps "once the play ends, you can return" would mean returning to reality? If I could perform the play as Burlet wanted it done... follow the script, and get to the ending...
"Don't cry, miss Villager. I'm certain we'll find the next page and reach the ending."
The Mistress gently stroked my head. Her neatly-painted red nails... This was her hand, without a doubt. Once again, I saw Meiko in her, and the tears kept falling. If I'd really brought everyone into this situation... Everyone was highly suspicious of each other, claiming one of them had "messed up the play." But in truth, it was this world that was messed up. This wasn't the world they really lived in.
"How about we put the culprit aside for now... We just have to find the page and continue the play."
"Okay! We may not know who stole it, but there's only so many places to hide it! It's a biiig mansion, but it has to be here somewhere! Let's search!"
Possibly spurred by my shameful tears, the tension in the room seemed to ease up. Even the belligerent Lady and Maid seemed to temporarily make peace, though still kept their guard. I wiped away my tears and swung up my head.
"Even if one of us did steal the page... There's no point in suspecting one another without any proof. We'll just search for the page while staying aware that the culprit is among us."
"But what IF, the CULprit really ISN'T among US? AhaHAHA!"
"You mean, SOMEone besides US is lurkING in the manSION...? YAhaHAha!"
"All the doors and windows are locked. We all helped lock them before the party, didn't we? No one could get in."
"BAH! Then SOMEone here is LYing to us!"
"But doubting each other won't get us anywhere right now. We should split up and search."
Despite saying this, the Butler glanced toward the Master. Waiting for orders, most likely.
"Then we'll all split up and search the mansion. Time is short. Even if we find it, if there isn't time left to perform, it's all for naught."
Upon the Master's orders, the Butler prepared a top-down map of the mansion and laid it out on the glass table. Everyone began to decide where they would search. I couldn't just be sobbing here alone, either; I had dragged them all into this. One of the people here knew something about the truth. I had to stay focused. And I had to get them back to normal... and back to the real world.
Chapter 6: Search
The Master issued orders to everyone, and we all split up to search our assigned areas. The mansion was too large and we too short on time to search all together, so it was divided up among the seven. The divisions were made to overlook as little of the mansion's roughly thirty rooms, halls, stairs, and hallways as possible. The Master, Lady, and Doll Boy took the second floor, while the Mistress, Butler, Maid, and Doll Girl took floor one. And the Villager, who was not a resident and knew nothing of the mansion, was told to accompany and help any one of the seven.
The Master's assignment was the area to the right after going up the stairs, the south side of the second floor. The southeast storeroom, the forbidden room beside it, the Master and Mistress's room, the southwest study, the antique collection room, and guest room #8 - a total of six rooms, and their surrounding hallways.
On the north wall of the forbidden room on the second floor was a large painting of a girl dancing alone in a forest, large enough to cover the entire wall. The sheer size of it made me stop in awe. The girl in the center was painted life-size, almost exactly as large as me. The Master told me that there was a similar painting and forbidden room in the same place downstairs as well.
As for what the "forbidden rooms" were, they had apparently been locked for many years and were never used. They were already locked when the Master inherited the mansion from his grandfather; since even his grandfather didn't have the keys, entering would require busting down the door. Yet that had never seemed necessary, so those rooms were never opened. We checked just to be sure, but there was no sign of the door having been forced open, so we deemed it impossible for anyone to intrude and focused on thoroughly searching the other five rooms.
First, we went to the storeroom in the southeast corner. The moment the door opened, the Master's eyes widened with surprise. Trying to keep in my hasty feeling that we might have found the page so soon, I entered the room behind the briskly-walking Master. He picked up a broom lying on the floor and held it in silent thought for a while.
"Um... Is there something about that broom?"
"...Well. No one typically comes in this storeroom. I was just curious why this one broom had fallen over, rather than leaning with the others."
"Fell over? Maybe someone used it and didn't put it back properly..."
"Despite appearances, the maid is an absolute stickler for orderliness. There's simply no chance she would handle a cleaning implement so roughly. But if someone entered this room, then perhaps..."
"...Oh! So you think the person who stole the page might have hidden it somewhere no one usually went? Right?"
I searched the room, my chest bursting with hope that we'd find it right away. The room was full of unused furniture and fixtures, as well as cleaning implements, and everything had collected a lot of dust. We gave a full search of every nook and cranny, but found nothing small like a piece of paper. The Master, just in case, moved around all the large furniture to carefully check the gaps between the furniture and the floor. But this was also in vain.
The once-orderly storeroom became a mess, and most everything came to be assembled near the entrance to the large room. Next time someone opened up the storeroom, the pile of things would topple over and block entry... No, not likely. But when I tried to put the furniture back where it was, the Master stopped me. There was too much else to search, he said, and no time to be putting things back.
Not even taking a moment to be despondent, we hurried to the nearby bedroom used by the Master and Mistress. I felt a bit tense stepping into the room, decorated in a uniform refreshing blue. It didn't matter that it was just scripted character backstory; it was still a high-class married couple's bedroom.
A gorgeous chandelier with crystals liberally embedded in it, a huge canopy bed like a king might sleep in, a closet containing an astounding number of dresses and tuxedos - and beautiful display shelves, tables, and chairs that one could tell at a glance were all finely-crafted to the smallest details. We searched everywhere in the room with eyes like saucers, but found nothing here either.
Drawing a close to our exploration of the master bedroom, we went to the Master's study, which could have the highest possibility of hiding the page. But the luxurious aged desk there had only an unworking fountain pen on its surface, and nothing showed up after much opening and closing of drawers. The Master searched the bookshelves, taking each and every book with an elegant motion, flipping through the pages with his slender fingers as if toying with them, and putting it back... again and again, until the last book was checked, and he let out a quiet sigh.
We'd already searched half the rooms and still hadn't even found a clue. My shoulders slumped a little. Either the Master wasn't as concerned as I was... or it was literally in his character to always be a calm, composed, and rigid gentleman. Either way, I sensed no disappointment in him.
The real Kaito was big-hearted, mild, had a weakness for women, and smiled often. But I'd still yet to see the Master here soften his expression at all. His personality was the complete opposite of Kaito's real nature. Yet I did happen to know that Kaito really was the son of a wealthy family, and watching his practiced actions acquired from that noble upbringing did allow me the nostalgic sensation that this man was Kaito.
I certainly found it strange to think "nostalgically" of people who I'd seen just a few hours ago, but for whatever reason, that was the way I felt. Perhaps while searching for the page, I could obtain some clue by simultaneously observing these "people in the play." I wasn't suspicious of any particular person. But if the page thief was among them, I had to at least gather some clues.
Leaving the study, we then tried the Master's collection room. Before the door was even open all the way, a "Wow..." of awe fell out of my mouth. Just one step into the room brought me to a dead end, and my eyes were drawn to the collection sprawling before me. A packed arrangement of bronze statues, sculptures, weapons, ornaments, jewelry - all gorgeous, certainly very old, wondrous, and somewhat odd things I'd never seen the likes of before.
"Surprised? It's a collection of curios that have been passed down in my family. Most of this, I inherited from my grandfather, but I've gathered some of these things myself."
The Master proceeded into the room with a light gait. One wall was decorated with artifacts from all times, places, and cultures, and it seemed no two things had the same shape. One looked something like a vampire, one like a king of beasts, and yet another like a goddess of ancient mythology.
"Wow... What a long nose this mask has..."
"Ah, that's known as a tengu. A god spoken of in a small country to the east."
"It's God? ...He's kind of scary."
"The eastern lands have a variety of religious customs somewhat different from ours. In particular, one country still has a unique long-held tradition of polytheism. This mask, for instance, would be called a god in some places, but in others feared as a "youkai," a kind of monster."
"Huh... You sure know a lot."
"...It is my only hobby, yes."
Come to think of it, while the Master and the real Kaito's personalities were totally different, both had a hobby of collecting things. And Meg's love of classical mysteries overlapped with the bothersome Maid's love of incidents. I again thought, in a new light, how there were these similarities between the characters of Crazy ∞ nighT and their actors.
In reality, I'd broken the clock that Kaito went through so much effort to get his hands on during the show, and had been on my way to ask him how to fix it... So as I watched the Master search this collection room being very careful with everything, the fact that I'd left the clock broken started to make me feel really guilty.
"That reminds me... Kai... er, I know someone who has a hobby of collecting things too. He seems to collect a lot of stuff... but I broke an important clock of his once. I'm still sort of in the middle of fixing it, and I don't even know if it can be fixed yet. And I haven't even gotten to apologize, either... I hope I can do both soon..."
Why did I have to come to this world? But no, that was all my fault too.
"All things with form... will rot away with time. It's an unavoidable fact so long as time exists. You need not worry about breaking it."
"Even the most fantastic creations will decay when left alone. Is that not why people feel a desire to protect them?"
"Do you want to protect the relics of your great ancestors?"
Relics of my ancestors? I turned to look around at all the antiques. These were relics he had inherited from his ancestors, protected over generations. But my "relics" could be none other than Burlet's works and company. Of course I wanted to protect them. I even joined the troupe out of a desire to carry them on to future generations.
"Yes! I want to carry the treasures of the past into the future... Even if times change, and even if their form changes, I want them to remain, adopting the qualities of those times."
"Even if their form changes, hm...? But things will change greatly from their past form over long ages... Some may say it's something entirely different by then."
The Master, with a face indeterminately happy or sad, gazed at a doll which had surely once been adorned with beautiful jewelry, with a vividly-colored dress. But the deep crimsons of the dress had faded to a yellowish brown, and most of the gold leaf had peeled off her crown.
Would you actually call this something "entirely different" from the once-beautiful doll, claim that it wasn't that doll anymore? Even if a long time ago, it had been called the world's most beautiful doll, made by the most skilled dollmaker, could you still think of this dreadful, half-rotten figure as beautiful? What if repairing her with modern technology made you unable to say it was still her...?
I carefully took the doll and checked to be sure the page wasn't hidden inside it. But there was nothing there but frayed cotton stuffing.
I took a look at each mask, statue, and sculpture along the wall. The statues and sculptures were up on pedestals, ominously staring down from up high. My eyes fell on a large statue enshrined above my head. It was a woman riding a horse, holding two long swords up toward the sky, with mouth open wide in a war cry. She looked like she could attack at any second, yet that moment was frozen in time. The swords she was holding appeared to be real.
"Fond of it? She's a valkyrie, a goddess from Norse mythology. The sword in her left hand is one my grandfather used as a retainer to the king, on the battlefield and in protection of His Majesty. Centuries since, it's now a family heirloom. Under her protection, you see."
"Yes. She's one of the goddesses of war. The name comes from old Norse, a mixture of words meaning "those slain in battle" and "choice" - thus, it means "chooser of the slain.""
"One of...? Are there other goddesses?"
"Yes. There are... nine valkyries, it's usually said."
"Well, the number can vary depending on the tradition."
"So, does that mean she has friends?"
As I turned around to look for other goddesses like her, I bumped into a suit of armor nearby. In that instant -
The Master standing in front of me forcefully pulled my hands, and a loud clatter echoed around me. I looked back in surprise.
A longsword lay on the ground where I had been standing. I slowly moved my gaze upward, timidly looking at her.
There I saw the goddess, holding empty space in her left hand. When I knocked over the armor positioned near her, the impact shook the statue and made one of the swords slip out of her hand.
"That was close... It's good it was nothing serious. Are you hurt?"
"Thank you... I'm fine. But anyway... I'm so sorry! Is the sword... okay...? Don't tell me I broke it..."
"You need not worry. However, I must heed my grandfather's advice not to anger the goddess. Wait there a moment; I'll bring a stepladder."
The Master picked up the sword fallen to his feet and left to get a stepladder from the storeroom. No doubt he needed to put the sword back in the goddess's hand.
The moment I was alone, I slumped to the floor with relief. If the timing had been just a little off, things could have gone very terribly. The sword was real... imagining it falling from at least a meter's height and plunging into me made me shiver.
The well-polished wood floor was cool and comforting. My head could slowly cool down after blood had rushed up to it in fear. This might have been the most dangerous experience in my life. My heart was still pounding a little... I had to quickly calm down and get a hold of myself. I put my hands and feet down on the cold floor to let off the body heat.
As my hand ran along the floor, it felt something rough. What was that? I lowered my gaze, and saw a scratch in the floor that had likely been made by the sword.
"I... scratched it..."
Even if it was inside a play, it still made my heart ache to damage such a beautiful and harmonious mansion. I stood up to inspect the severity of the cut.
"Huh? Is this blood...?"
When I checked the scratch on the floor again, I noticed something red seeped in. Slowly looking around, I noticed several other scratches. I hadn't seen the moment the sword fell. Did the blade hit the floor and scratch it once, then bounce and scratch elsewhere...? No, no. Straining my eyes and looking closely, all the scattered scratches were the same size, a few centimeters. The scratch from the first impact and a scratch after bouncing off couldn't possibly be the same size. That meant these other scratches couldn't have been made just now.
And what was this red stain on one of them? I ran my finger on it. I felt a chill all over my body. Maybe it was someone's blood. It was completely dried by now, such that I had no idea what had caused this or when. I don't suppose someone else had that sword fall down on them from above, like I just had...?
I timidly looked up again as if to make sure she was still there. The goddess of war, though holding nothing in her left hand, was still galloping on air in a heroic pose. I heard footsteps from the door; the Master finally returned with a footstool.
"I'll handle the rest of this myself. Would you go help out on the first floor? The rooms there are larger and contain more items, so I think they could use the help. No one's come to contact us yet, so I doubt anyone's found it. We must hurry... while there's still time to perform."
"Time to perform...?"
I'd heard them using that phrase earlier when everyone was gathered together.
"There's limited time in which to perform the play. We still have a good deal, but we need to find the page quickly and move on to the next scene. Already..."
The Master paused and closed his eyes to focus on something.
"...About a third of that time has passed."
He reopened his eyes and re-established his neutral expression of strictness with a hint of grief.
"Um, this "time to perform"... How can you know how much is left? Is there a clock anywhere?"
"The only clock in the mansion is the one in the hall. And it's stopped at the moment."
"Well then, how...?"
"We have a sense of the play in our bodies. If you too want to know how much time we have, just ask your body directly."
I imitated what he just did, closing my eyes and focusing. Then, oddly enough, I could feel how much time was left in the play, a sense of its progression.
Indeed, there was no denying now that I really had become part of this play... As I recognized that, the dread of being an actor performing in it budded in me. If the next page was never found, and time ran out... would everyone, this world, and even myself just vanish into thin air...?
I left the Master and went down the hallway, feeling my hand along the wall. He told me the kitchen and living room downstairs had the most things in them, so he wanted me to help the Maid and Mistress in searching them.
While searching for the page, there were essential tasks that only I could do... To look into a way to return to reality, and to investigate the mysteries of this world. At the moment, I couldn't know whether finding the next page and following the script to reach the play's finale would truly bring us back to the real world.
Everyone seemed to be more scared of than their world vanishing as a result of the damage to the script than anything else. But what if, by some chance, this world disappearing would automatically send us back to reality...? If that were the case, then sorry, but my choice would have to be destroying this world as quickly as possible to bring back the real actors. Because I was the only one with memories of the real world.
I also had to think about who would have stolen the page. What objective could someone have to do such a thing? Was it as the Lady said, and the next scene was an unwanted one, one which they absolutely didn't want to act out? But then, could they even harbor the feeling of "not wanting to act" in this play world where the script was law? If they could only act as the script dictated, then wouldn't it be impossible for them to tear out a page from it?
But potentially, the order of the script wasn't that strongly upheld. What if it were like real life, and scripts were only "enforced" as much as the stage managers and playwrights could manage...? It could be possible, in such an unnaturally realistic play as this. Real people had simply been brought into a fictional world and adapted to it.
Reality has "scenes" which can't be omitted. Yet, my real body and mind had been directly transplanted into this world. Which meant that even here, scenes like me just walking around, going to wash my hands, ignoring other people's conversations, things that would absolutely be omitted in a play, would still take place.
As humans, there are things we don't like and don't want to do. And there are quite a few actors who are... to be blunt, selfishly fickle. If having to follow the script didn't mean your body moving on its own, saying lines word for word out of an absolute compulsion, then the people here must have been doing it as a raison d'etre - out of a sense of duty to themselves and their world.
So, if they moved with their own free will, they would in fact be capable of stealing the page. After all, hadn't they just been quarreling and doubting each other about who stole it? Yet wouldn't that mean the culprit not only wanted to erase this world, but also themselves? Or maybe the destruction of this world wasn't their aim. Maybe even if the play didn't reach the correct ending, nothing would actually disappear...
It was all unclear conjecture; I knew absolutely nothing for certain. I had too little information to go on. If only there were Rin or Len with their genius intellect, Meg proficient at logical reasoning regardless of her outrageous thoughts, sensible Kaito with plenty of experience, Gack with his kind advice that always hit the mark, sharp-eyed Meiko who saw all, or Luka with her one-of-a-kind intuition that always brought success.
How reassuring it would be if I could talk with them... I knew I needed to stay strong and focused so I could save them, yet instantly, I was overcome with unbearable loneliness, and as always, found myself dependent on them.
"Why did this have to happen? Why did..."
...we get trapped in this world? It was my fault, wasn't it? For sacrilege against him, against Burlet... I gripped the memento of my grandmother, still on my left hand.
"Why...? Well, isn't it because the page was stolen?"
I turned around mid-walk in surprise and found the Lady standing right behind me. When in the world had she...?
"Ahh, hold on! Ahead! Stop!"
The Lady grabbed my hood and forcefully pulled me back, and I landed bottom-first on the floor. Counting this morning, that was the second time today. As I rubbed my bottom, insults rained down on me from above.
"Ahem?! Don't you know anything of danger?! Where were you even looking?! ...You were about to fall down the stairs before I grabbed you! You nearly died!"
"...It's no laughing matter. And... You shouldn't be so frightened by my voice! How overdramatic! I merely deigned to answer when you asked a question. You make it seem like I'm to blame for you nearly slipping and falling!"
I really hadn't expected someone to be up so close. From her point of view, she probably just happened to be passing through and suddenly heard me ask a question. I guess I accidentally started thinking out loud. I was just slowly walking down the hallway in thought, but apparently I'd made to the stairs without noticing. Even in a play, I'd done it again.
It was a bad habit of mine to get so deeply focused that I went into my own world, and lost sight of everything else. I just kept walking, looking straight ahead, probably at nothing in particular, and nearly tumbled down the stairs. I looked down at them - long and steep. Certainly, if I had tripped, I would have fallen all the way to the bottom. It was truly a good thing the Lady was nearby. If not, I'd be... well, I didn't want to think about that.
For an instant, I remembered my eerie dream from this morning of someone falling down stairs to their death and shivered. I took a sidelong glance at the Lady; she was still complaining at me.
My question... Obviously, I hadn't been asking the Lady specifically, but in my mind, her reply completely missed the mark. "Reality" for her and I was different, and the very thought of there being a real world separate from this one was something that wouldn't get through to these people. So it was all up to me. I didn't have much confidence, but just like when musing over the fictional world while watching a play, I had to consider every idea I thought of as a possibility, and find a thread to follow toward the truth. Yet...
"I wonder, maybe my imagination is going wild, and I'm having a really realistic dream...? Or maybe I'm already in the afterlife... Hmm, no, that's too much of a leap. But it's..."
My half-monologue thoughts were interrupted by a hysteric shout from the Lady. She stared at me with face warped in terror, like she'd seen a monster.
"T-This isn't the afterlife! What are you saying?! Wrong or not, please don't say such ill-omened things! U-Understood?!"
The Lady's vigor made me take a step back on impulse.
"Ah, I-I'm sorry...! I was just having some wild ideas... I didn't really mean anything of it. Did I upset you...?"
"Eh?! ...I-I see. It's nothing. I just, ah..."
Her gaze timidly wavered left and right, the words seeming to be caught in her throat. This was a habit of Luka's when she was deeply worried; I'd seen it only once before. The Lady's current behavior reminded me of Luka's flustered face when she forgot about an agreement with an important sponsor, and my heart ached again.
"...I just thought I saw something... shining behind you. It scared me, slightly. Perhaps it was just me..."
I turned around and saw a large portrait on the wall. But nothing else. Was it the ghost the Master claimed haunted the mansion? Surely not... I carefully inspected my surroundings and found nothing. So maybe she'd thought the portrait was a ghost... I took a careful look at the person in it. I felt like I'd seen this person before, but...
"The man in this portrait..."
He had bangs that went down to his eyes, wore a black hood, and posed with a slightly-lowered head, a finger to his lips, and a fearless grin.
"Hmm... Father tells me it's been here since he inherited the mansion from his grandfather. I believe he calls it a "portrait of the Silk-Hat Baron"? But what a strange name for someone wearing no such thing..."
The Silk-Hat Baron - was this the writer of Crazy ∞ nighT, Mr. Burlet himself?! Even the local Burlet museum only had a few remaining artifacts related to his largely-enigmatic life. Among them were a few portraits, and one of them depicted him with a woman thought to be his daughter. The pose in the one I was seeing here was different, but those portraits would always have him with bangs covering his eyes, wearing a low silk hat, so people at the theater affectionately called him the Silk-Hat Baron... or, well, close enough.
If there was a portrait of him here, was this his mansion...? No, I thought someone told me the mansion in Crazy ∞ nighT's script was merely modeled after his own mansion. I'd been so focused on this play world and the actors losing their memories that I forgot all about the playwright.
The playwright who lived with everything about him kept secret, and passed away still shrouded in mystery. If all this were punishment for sacrilege against him, did we have to grant the wish he had for this play? Surely what he wanted was for us to act out his reality just as he created it, and complete his supreme play... In that case, then no doubt he was in this world somewhere. A mastermind watching over us even as we spoke.
But did Burlet, who was thought to have died so long ago, still live? Or was there someone else angered over Burlet's lost play being profaned? Just before I was sucked into this world, when I picked up the letter, I clearly heard the buzzer and someone clapping in the distance. Maybe that was the person behind this world... And if that marked the start of it, then perhaps we had to puzzle out the objective of the mastermind who sealed us here and fulfill it for them.
So far, I knew only a few things for certain. Because of the missing page, the play's progression was stopped, but the time originally given to perform this play still ticked on. And there had to be a mastermind - the person who sealed us in this world for our sacrilege against Burlet's play.
"Sorry to disturb your train of thought, but... If you're going downstairs, ask the maid if she's still working on "the tea thing, please?"
The Lady looked me over with a scrupulous gaze, but said nothing else and returned to the long gallery in front of the stairwell.
When I took the stairs back down to the hall, I saw the Doll Girl squatting by the clock again. I still wasn't used to her as a doll, but she was originally Rin. I was surely only scared because she'd become a doll, I mentally told myself, and quietly approached. She spun her head around 180 degrees to face me, and I screamed. I reflexively backed away from the owl-like motion, but for a moment, I saw something resembling tears faintly sparkle in her eyes.
"What DO you WANT, miss VILLAger? YaHAH!"
That "yahaha" laugh was a habit of the Doll Girl which Rin played, but to be honest, hearing it from the actual doll before me was scary. Rin would often call me to the empty green room in the dead of night and have me stare at her as she assumed her doll part and didn't move a muscle... an eerie kind of practice. Her acting then certainly emanated a rather ghastly terror, but thinking of it again as I looked at this doll here, I could see there was a clear difference between humans and dolls.
"Err... I guess I was just wondering if you'd finished searching this area."
"I'm ALmost DONE with my AREA! Didn't find ANYthing! So BORing!"
"Hey, LET's play HIDE and SEEK!"
"I'll be THE seekER! I'll count TO twenTY, so HIDE, miss VilLAGER! OOONE, twooo..."
"Hey, wait, um... I was asked to help people who hadn't finished searching yet, so I can't play right now."
"S-Sorry... Once we find the page..."
"...WILL we REALly find IT?"
The Doll Girl forcibly invited me to play hide and seek, but I had to refuse. There was no time to play; time was still slowly progressing as we spoke. The Master said earlier that even if the play was stopped, the performance time would advance.
I looked at the grandfather clock in front of me. In act one, the clock was stopped as a result of my unprecedented accident, but Rin and Len's assistance kept the play itself from stopping. But this clock... It, too, was stopped a little bit before midnight.
"Come to think of it... I wonder if there's any way to make time move for that clock...?"
I muttered an idea that came to mind, and the Doll Girl looked at me in surprise.
"Like the hands, you know. If I tried advancing the time manually... I wonder if it wouldn't move the scenes of the play, too?"
"...You SHOULDn't do THAT. You can't FORCE it."
The tone of the generally-cheery doll's voice suddenly deepened. I was sure the energetic Doll Girl would reply "Let's GIVE it a TRY!" without a second thought...
"Err... But can I at least move it a little to see...?"
I went up to grab the hands on the face of the clock, but the Doll Girl's little hands reached to grab my right arm.
"NO... BAD things will HAPpen..."
"Hey, is there something about this clock? Some kind of secret...?"
"...SomeONE will DIE..."
Someone will die...? What in the world did she mean by that? If I moved this stopped clock, would something bad happen... would a scene occur where someone died? I stared the Doll Girl in the eyes to incite her to say more, but she only stared back with firm resolution. She wouldn't answer me, and wouldn't let me touch the clock hands... So her eyes seemed to say.
A thought crossed my mind. She and the Doll Boy were often here; was it because were they guarding the clock? And if moving the hands would really cause someone to die, were they trying to prevent someone's death by protecting the hands?
I slowly turned away from her, and instead toward the hands of the stopped clock. The gold hands glinted from the light of the large chandelier hanging from the high ceiling. With a close look, I saw that it was exactly the same as the prop used on stage.
That clock was an antique Kaito had obtained after searching all around for the perfect prop. However, it was no exaggeration to say that this clock was like new, with not a scratch on it. And the hands? I couldn't tell just looking at it, but if this hour hand were also a knife, just like the prop clock...
"Don't YOU dare..."
The Doll Girl's low, oppressive, emphatic voice echoed ominously against the ceiling of the hall. The glint in her eyes was so strong, and carried such imperativeness, that I shuddered and nodded my head. Satisfied with this, the Doll Girl bent her head back slightly up at me, and gave a soundless, creepy grin.
I opened the door to the living room, immediately in front of me upon entering the hallway behind the stairs. No one was inside, and only the crackling of the fireplace echoed through the otherwise silent room.
On the first floor, the Doll Girl was assigned the west side of the mansion: the entrance hall and the two reception rooms on either side. The Mistress took the east side: the dining room, living room, and guest rooms #2 and #3. The Maid handled rooms to the north: the restroom, kitchen, her own room, the washing room, and the billiards room. Lastly, the Butler searched the south: the cellar and neighboring forbidden room, guest rooms #1 and #4, his own room, and a wine cellar underneath the stairs.
I suppose the living room had already been searched. I opened up the door to the dining room beside it and looked all around, but no one was there either. However, the door to the kitchen beyond that was slightly ajar, and I heard voices as I approached. Peeking inside, I found the Mistress and Maid having a seemingly-serious discussion. I listened in, looking for the right time to intervene.
"Well then, who did it? Is there any evidence?!"
"The evidence has been destroyed! As far back as anyone remembers, there's not a piece of physical evidence left..."
"...So, everyone being in one place... In other words, everyone being under the same conditions, that's what gets things going. You're made to think that everyone is a possibility, and anyone could have done it... Yes, it should be only one person, but you're made to think it's everyone... impossible... establish a motive..."
What were they talking about? Motive...? They moved further away, making it hard to hear, but from what I could make out... Could they have reasoned out who the page thief was?
"Well... I don't know if I fully understand, but I think I get the gist of it. Still, I'm thirsty. Could we have a break for tea? I'd really prefer to drink wine, but the butler would be furious with me."
"You only just had some! Sheesh!"
The Mistress requested tea, and while the Maid sounded reluctant, I knew she'd follow her orders anyway. She opened a cupboard and took out a bottle of tea from within. The mood eased up a little... Should I speak up now? Or...
"So... The wine was poisoned, was it?"
Poisoned...?! My hand came to a halt at the doorknob.
"Since there's so many people at a party like that, it's easy to sneak in poison."
"Yes, but it wouldn't do if there weren't that many people, would it?"
"Yeah... The culprit's aim must... at least..."
Alas, I couldn't catch anything past that. Maybe it was the stone walls and floors of the kitchen, absorbing most of the sound and not echoing much. I had to get just a little closer. But if I wasn't careful, I could be found...
As I hesitated, a kettle let out the shrill noise of boiling water. The Maid retrieved teacups for two from the cupboards. With a quiet gasp, I quietly retreated back to the living room. Then, sure enough, the Mistress and Maid moved from the kitchen to the dining room and sat at the table. The door between the dining room and living room was just a little bit open, but they didn't seem to notice me. I wanted to keep hiding behind it and listen to the rest of their conversation. The Maid poured tea with an experienced motion.
"...My, this isn't milk tea."
"Sorry... I just thought you might be getting tired of it. Besides, mistress, you don't like milk tea that much, do you...?"
"...You do have a point."
What was this about? The Mistress drank so much milk tea that the Maid thought she'd be tired of it... was that actually a part of her character? Her liking beer of every kind, having a slight alcohol addiction, was one thing I remembered for certain. But liking beer and tea, especially milk tea, I was a little less sure about...
"Incidentally, by that reasoning... Who would the culprit be?"
Culprit? So they must have been talking about the person who stole the page.
"In this case, the one who looks most suspicious at a glance is the culprit."
"...Why? Isn't the most suspicious person the one you suspect first?"
"That's what the culprit wants you to think. First they give you the impression that since everyone is in the same place in the same conditions, in all likelihood anyone could have done it. Then as everyone goes back through their memories, they find the servants the most suspicious. But at the same time, they approach the fact that there were many chances for people besides the servants to put poison in her glass. Then in the next step, when unnatural proof comes forth to say a servant did it, a young detective says someone plotted to frame them..."
"I see. And?"
"Actually, then comes the shocking twist that the poison wasn't put in the wine."
"What?! That's much too sudden. Is the truth somewhere completely different?"
"Yes, exactly right... The truth is somewhere else entirely. For the truth to be at work elsewhere... that's the crowning jewel of mysteries! Everyone was so certain about the whole poison in the wine thing, but it was all wrong. Right before the party... Everyone had tea in the living room, see? The culprit used arsenic. The really popular stuff for murder. And the poison was made to take effect right as the toast was made at the party.
"Not to mention, she hadn't been in good condition recently... She had a cold and lacked sleep, so she was very fatigued. Thus, a bit of sweating and staggering wouldn't make people notice it was poison at work. Only when the poison in the tea began to reach around her whole body..."
"Which was right as everyone began to drink wine. Then there's only one person who could have done it... The culprit is..."
"Exactly. So you understand now?"
"But mistress, the case doesn't end there."
"Why do you think the deceased was in such poor condition to begin with?"
"...You don't mean to tell me that...?!"
"That's exactly what I'm telling you. It was no mere cold that was affecting her bodily health. A tiny amount of arsenic was put in every cup of milk tea she drank. By carefully adjusting the amount, the symptoms could be freely adjusted as well. The poison was tuned to make her feel only slightly strange each time. Having no taste nor smell, she never suspected it was in her tea."
"For that day alone... the maid engineered the ultimate royal milk tea, and made her drink it for every little occasion. Making excuses to give it to her was, in fact, the hardest part. The victim preferred to stay at home, to say the least, and hated to socialize with people, so she would only go out on rare occasions. But as she was repeatedly given that first-rate tea, she changed. To the extent that she'd make her own excuses to visit the neighboring mansion, she became a slave to its flavor..."
My heart beat fast as I listened intently to the Mistress and Maid's conversation in the dining room. What in the world was this...? The royal milk tea the Maid poured earlier was very tasty. I would be willing to call it first-rate. I had no fever, or breathlessness, or dizziness... and my pulse was normal... I think. Yet I couldn't pass their conversation off as just idle chat.
I wanted to shake away my panic somehow, but I kept calling forth bad premonitions instead. I'd have to get away from here and find somewhere to calm down. Right as I silently moved away from the door...
"What are you doing?"
I turned around and met the Butler. I was petrified with fear and didn't make a peep, but heard the two in the dining room preparing to stand up from their chairs. The Butler took initiative, grabbing the half-open door and entering the dining room.
Finally getting away from the shock of him showing up, I timidly followed behind him with a slight delay. The Mistress and Maid looked surprised, but the former quickly put a smile back on. The Maid went around to the kitchen and brought the remaining water from the kettle.
"My, my... This isn't the time to be sitting down to tea, you two."
"Oh? A little break is fine, surely. Less haste, more speed, as they say."
"They also say to strike while the iron is hot... It's an issue of values. You two will idle whenever you see the chance, after all. That's no good."
"Gosh! Mr. Butler, you're just too strict. We've absolutely been searching all over, not idling! Right, mistress?"
"Erm?! W-Why, yes...? We've already done the living room, dining room, kitchen, and billiards room. Yes, I believe that was it, right?"
"...Pardon me, then. However, I have been instructed by the master to ensure that you two are doing your assigned parts. So with the other half as well, I implore you to not cut any corners and do the task correctly. You must also exercise moderation in your breaks to sit down and chat... Understood?"
"Yeees," the Mistress replied very disinterestedly, not seeming to be listening to the Butler.
"Well, Mr. Butler, what seems like idle chatting at a glance might just contain an tremendous hint, hmm? And the mistress here can't drink beer at the moment, so she's none too pleased. So as a desperate measure, I'm giving her tea loaded with caffeine instead. Come on, won't you join us too?"
"Sigh... I worry for what lies ahead. I merely reached a halting point, and came to check on you before beginning on the remaining rooms. I'll be returning shortly."
"My, so cold-hearted. I'd like to finish this up quickly and drink wine to some billiards or whatnot."
"Well, I'm just so tired. Say, what about you, miss Villager? Come take a short break. How does milk tea sound? Our maid's tea is truly superb. It just calms your heart, doesn't it? Ah... How many times have I said that line now? But I can't help it, it really is delicious."
As I silently stood there having trouble butting into the three's conversation, the Mistress again recommended me tea using the same word-for-word line. I hesitated and couldn't reply right away, but the Maid took that as confirmation and began preparing it. I was curious about that earlier conversation. Could I ask them the details somehow?
"Um... About what you two were talking about a moment ago..."
"Ah, did you hear it?"
"U-Uh... I was going to speak up, but I couldn't find a good time... It kind of ended up being like eavesdropping. Sorry."
"Not a problem at all. It was just a bit of idle gossip. She loves mystery novels, you see. So from time to time, she tells me about all these tricks and perfect crimes in them. Honestly, though, I don't understand a word of it."
"Ahem! Searching at random just seemed boring, so I was trying to reason out the details of this incident. After all, having some idea of who might have hidden it and where has to be more effective, right?"
"Well, in such a large house, finding a single sheet of paper is quite a task. She's been going on about it being "A major incident! A harbinger of something huge! Something bad will happen for sure!"... so I got caught up in it myself. I mean, surely it is a major incident, but..."
"Just think about it, mistress! This is clearly a theft, a criminal act! So I will find the culprit, without a doubt!"
The conversation wasn't really getting anywhere like this, so I spontaneously interrupted.
"So, um... What was all that about poisoning...?"
"Oh, that! Well, we were talking about how the culprit could possibly steal the script and be seen by no one... no, not even the doll twins who were always in the hall! Er, and then it switched to how someone could do it without anyone else realizing... Huh?"
"Yes. She said it was an impossible crime... And to explain how it came to exist, she started using a murder mystery as an example. I swear, she's always jumping around between this and that. We were talking about a theft, and all of a sudden it's as if there's been a murder. She gets much too caught up in it all!"
"Well, I mean, when I get talking, I just keep heating up... No, I start boiling over...!"
"...So, as you can see. Please don't concern yourself about it. There was no particularly deep meaning to our conversation, all right...?"
The Mistress smiled to try and clear my concerns. Then the Maid finished up and set down cups for myself and the Butler. Warm steam rose up from the delicious-looking royal milk tea. I'd carefully watched the Maid's movements while everyone was talking, but saw nothing unnatural about them... like sneaking in poison.
First-class royal milk tea which a maid repeatedly laced with arsenic to kill a woman living nearby. After hearing a story like that... They could tell me it was unrelated, but it wouldn't make me any more willing to drink the tea in front of me. The Butler had hesitated about stopping to take a break here, but once tea was prepared for him, he sighed, decided he might as well, and took a seat. His long fingers covered by white gloves reached for the cup without hesitation. Come to think of it, how long had he been there behind me? Maybe he hadn't heard the conversation.
"From the looks of things, I assume no one's found so much as a clue yet?"
"Indeed. I'm sure that the moment something is found, it will be shouted all around the mansion..."
The Butler took a sip and returned the cup to its saucer. His face was slightly more gentle than before, which spoke to how truly delicious the Maid's tea was.
"Right, right. If it was stolen and hidden, it probably won't be found just like that. I'd expect a much more surprising method of concealing it! How about you, miss Villager?"
"...I helped a little with the study and the collection room upstairs... but we didn't find anything there."
While the conversation went on, I still couldn't bring myself to touch the teacup. Somehow, I could feel the Maid glancing at me the longer I left it there. The Mistress claimed it was just idle talk, but... I was caught up on it. I stole a glance at her, sitting diagonally across from me. Her smile gave the impression that it was very tasty, as she held the tea... the milk tea in her mouth.
But I was still hung up on what the Maid said earlier. "Besides, mistress, you don't like milk tea that much, do you...?" To which the Miistress replied, "You do have a point." What did she mean by that? There was something strange about it. Why, at a time when it would make sense to simply say "You're right," did she say "You do have a point" after a long pause to think...?
Maybe the Mistress, upon the Maid pointing it out, realized that she doesn't like milk tea that much - but drinking it all the time and having it recommended to her by others convinced her those were her own thoughts... That could be the implication. It was just a little niggling thing, but I couldn't shake it off.
The two of them kept recommending the delicious milk tea... That made me come to suspect there was a particular reason why they wanted people to drink it. And the case of the poison they had just been talking about fit in perfectly. Offering a guest tea would be unnatural if the maid were doing it arbitrarily. So the one who invited her couldn't have been the maid, but someone else at the mansion where she worked... Yes, most likely the mistress. She would praise the maid's tea and treat the visitor to it. Wasn't that the most natural flow of things? That the maid had an accomplice...
"Well, miss Villager, where will you search next? We've still about half of the first floor rooms to check. The most packed rooms are already done, so the rest will go quickly. After a bit more of a break... Did the master tell you to help anyone on the first floor?"
"No, he didn't specify anyone... Ah!"
That's right; I'd completely forgotten about the Lady's message.
"The Lady told me to ask the maid if she's "still working on the tea thing"..."
The moment I said it, the Maid's face stiffened. Her mild, chipper smile was never interrupted except when she was earnestly talking about mysteries, but now she took on a sour, visibly displeased look. The Mistress let out a sigh, and the Butler looked down at his cup and drank from it as if not hearing anything.
"Still working on the tea," I could understand, but why "Still working on the tea thing"? I'd felt something wrong about the Mistress's actions, and now felt that again about this unusual silence. I felt that hidden underneath it was something which only the residents of the mansion knew, and that weighed heavy on my mind. Even if they had been completely transformed into denizens of this play's world, I felt a tinge of sadness from any case of being left out of the group.
"I think that's enough of a break. Now, miss Villager, would you help me search the rooms I was assigned?"
The Butler finished his tea and stood up, bid farewell to the Mistress and Maid, and left. I thanked them for the tea and hurried after him. The Maid's head hung down, staring at the milk tea, and I couldn't see her expression.
Chapter 7: The Library
The Butler and I returned to the living room and went out into the hallway. Opening the door in front of us on the backside of the grand stairs and heading down a short stairwell, we entered the semi-underground wine cellar.
Three sides of the small, chilly room had wine bottles lined up with hardly any space between. When I took one out, something strange happened: the liquid in the bottle didn't move at all. While I was at a loss for words, the Butler explained.
"This world is just a play, strictly speaking. Plays contain many things which have no purpose beyond being mere background elements, and they remain so here... They need not fulfill any greater purpose than that."
That made me suddenly recall something. When I was searching the study with the Master, I casually tested the fountain pen on the desk, and despite there clearly being ink on the tip, it didn't put any ink on my hands. I thought that just meant it didn't work anymore and didn't dwell on it.
But in truth, it didn't function at all because it was just scenery for the play... If I'd tried to write something with it on a piece of paper, it wouldn't have fulfilled its normal purpose as a pen. In fact, if the paper also only existed as scenery, maybe neither of them would fulfill their usual purposes.
Yet there were definitely items like tea and pots that worked as expected... I asked what the difference was, and the Butler said there were objects which could only be used by those who would "naturally" use them, as well as inaccessible rooms. This wine cellar, for instance, could normally only be entered by the Butler, and not by anyone else without good reason.
So the characters did have certain principles acting on them to preserve order in the play. And perhaps I too, as the lead role, had limits on my thoughts and actions that I couldn't even perceive. Though for right now, it seemed like I could help the others out and move around freely, moreso than they could...
I looked to the Butler beside me and saw him carrying a single one of the many bottles, with only about a single glass's worth of wine left in it. I noticed the liquid in it was moving.
"Oh, that wine..."
"This is the remainder from last night's party. There's a bit extra, but I know the mistress would be angry if I threw it out... It is quite a fine age. What do you think? Do you like wine?"
"I've never actually had wine before... But the people who like it really seem to love it."
"Yes... That's true."
Naturally, there was a limited amount of wine to be used in the play. Wine to be used specifically for the party in act one. So they did have actual, functional wine, like the bottle he was holding now.
We searched carefully through all the little holes the wine bottles existing only as props were put in, but of course found nothing. The play's time was still passing as we worked. I'd started to neglect it while focusing on helping in the search for the page, but I had to think about Burlet's... the person who sealed us in here's objective at the same time.
While I tried to keep that in my head, at times I found myself momentarily forgetting that I was Miku. Maybe it was because everyone had slipped so naturally into this artificial world. Maybe with my tendency to daydream, I lacked a clear distinction between reality and fiction. Besides, it was easy to go along with the surrounding atmosphere. Even with the knowledge that this world was fake, I went along with everything as if it were reality.
For no particular reason, I looked at the mostly-empty wine bottle the Butler was carefully holding. The label was very faded, and that alone told me it was rather old.
"Has something caught your eye? This wine is quite vintage. It may be rare, as well. In fact, everything in this cellar is very old and high-quality."
"I know wine has a reputation of being more valuable the older it is, but is wine that's been left to ferment for decades really tastier...? I mean... than the newer stuff...?" I aired my naïve doubts to the Butler.
"Who can say? People's tastes will differ. There are a wealth of kinds, with different flavors, dryness and sweetness, even smell and kick. But, I suppose that's not much of an answer. Well... Many will say that wine fermented for longer has that much more of a depth to its taste... The same as with people. With the passing of time, life experience will show on their character, and as if not satisfied with "plain"... they will form habits, like a hidden taste. Whether they're desirable or not, though, is a matter of preference.
"And not to mention, time is always moving forward. Wine can be made with the greatest technology of its time and then fermented for decades, but once it comes time to open... Often times, in that advanced future, it will be easier to make more delicious wine than that without spending any time for it to ferment."
The explanation reminded me of my conversation with the Master in the collection room. He said he dedicated himself to protecting the wonderful relics left by great ancestors of the past.
"...Mr. Butler, which do you prefer?"
"Wine made with the diligent effort of past masters, ripened to the ultimate vintage over long years of fermentation... Or wine that can be easily be made in no time at all with future advancements, but is still perfectly tasty...?"
"...That's a rather difficult question."
The Butler fell into silent thought, putting his hand to his mouth. The cramped stone wine cellar was filled with fermenting bottles of wine, awaiting the day they would be opened. Though they couldn't speak, I could imagine them anticipating a sommelier's judgement. After a while, the Butler breathed out and spoke.
"At times, people will say even the most well-aged wine is too fermented for their tastes. Just too old for them. Indeed, the majority will say it shouldn't ferment for too long. And also..."
"Ages pass, people grow old, and values are ever-changing. What was regarded as supreme in the past will not necessarily merit the same opinion in the present. It is for those who live in the current age to pass that judgement. To become so seized with protecting past relics that you forgo living in the present is but nonsense... So some think."
"Yes. However, I... look gladly upon that nonsense. If those great people of the past knew that I did so, would it not please them tremendously? Of course, it can go too far... If their descendents live for their ancestors, and sacrifice their own lives for it, that would surely be a sad thing for them both."
A sad thing for them both... Somehow, I felt like he was talking directly to me. We, the company, were all big fans of Burlet, and felt it our mission to carry his legacy to future generations. But what would Burlet say if he saw the struggling troupe of the present? Would he say thank you for finding his lost play, and performing it as he always desired?
It was no exaggeration to say that the huge amount of publicity that came from the discovery of Crazy ∞ nighT allowed the troupe to temporarily evade bankruptcy. The support from our longtime sponsor company, Kaito's dad, and the gentleman who was a fan of Len were allowing us to endure through our many debts, as Ia had told me. But in a changing era with a booming new entertainment industry, even if Crazy ∞ nighT were a runaway success, it was unclear if we could continue performing only Burlet's works without any changes.
I believed the reason we were trapped in this world now was because I'd messed up his perfect play, was cursed for it, and he wanted me to redo the performance of his ultimate script. No mistake in acting out his scripts would be tolerated, and the acting and sets had to be perfect, or Burlet would never forgive it; so went the anecdote passed down in the troupe.
Thus, I came under the impression that Burlet himself was a very strict and unrelenting man. But I wonder, was that really true? I began to question my conjecture a little.
"When great relics of the past are brought to the present, and extended into the future... Does that really make the creators of those things happy? If something seems ready to crumble at any moment, but you want to protect it at any cost..."
I grabbed the bracelet on my left wrist - a relic from that legendary playwright passed on via my grandmother. Though the Butler likely didn't understand what in the world I... what the Villager was asking, he still heard me out. He stared down at my wrist and quietly waited for the next words to come.
"Someone told me that all things with a form will eventually decay. But, what if what you want to protect is formless... like a story, or a play? Even things that don't have a form to begin with can easily be changed from their original forms. But maybe, because of these changes... Even as the times and people change, if the work changes along with them, it can survive without decaying..."
"...You have some rather interesting thoughts... I think that's magnificent. There are so many different kinds of people in the world that there's also an infinite variety of people who create such great works. Whether they would unconditionally be pleased or not... I can't answer with any certainty. However, speaking for myself, in a sense... I would likely give my applause, and a heartful word of praise."
The Butler kindly smiled at me.
Finishing with the wine cellar, we proceeded to do the guest rooms on the south side. The Butler had already checked his own room and guest room #4 by himself, so we went to guest room #1.
"Huh...? Was I here before...?"
My hand stopped before opening the door to the guest room. Finding this to be a familiar sight, I took a look around, and noticed the layout was just like the south side of the second floor which I explored with the Master. Both floors had the exact same carpets, walls, and even ceiling ornaments in their hallways, so I was briefly uncertain which floor I was on.
"Ah, so you were searching upstairs with the master. Yes, this is right underneath. The layout of the first and second floors is largely identical. We often do get lost. Certainly, a visitor who only just arrived would... But yes, even we do quite often."
He was right, the layout was so similar that I couldn't immediately answer whether this was the first or second floor. While looking around, my eyes stopped on a certain point, and my legs brought me over. Though I'd seen it on the second floor, too... A "forbidden room," next to guest room #1. And on the north side of it was a huge, wall-covering painting. A painting of a girl dancing alone in a dimly-lit forest... Was this the exact same as the one hanging outside the forbidden room up above? As I stared closely at it, the Butler came over to me.
"This painting also hangs in the hall outside the second floor's forbidden room, as well."
"Exactly the same one...?"
"No, technically they are different. The painting on the second floor depicts dusk... the time just before sunset. And this painting shows dawn; a scene set just before sunrise. The two of them together are considered one work. The title is Twilight ∞ nighT."
"Twilight ∞ nighT... Dusk and dawn...?"
"Let's say you were blindfolded and taken to witness the two scenes depicted in these paintings. Which one is dusk, and which is dawn...? Do you think you would know?"
"Myself, I don't think anyone would know the difference. And from what my former master told me about this painting... in truth, no one knew. It illustrates how we have no way to determine whether the reality we see before us is real... or just a fake."
Reality...?! Was the Butler aware that this world was a fake, and that his real self existed in a separate one? Though when I called everyone's names in the living room earlier, no one showed any reaction at all...
"The world is made by our awareness. And that is a highly fragile and ambiguous thing. The thought of being makes the world aware of your existence. The existence of something other than you is what allows you to be aware of yourself. To be cognizant of the past, there is the present and future. You think you are alive, so you live... Thus, people can only live in the world they recognize. Because "living" can be said to be when you recognize your existence here and now. If you deny that, it's the same as death..."
"The same as death...?"
So did that mean everyone, having forgotten their true selves, was effectively dead? Their memories lost, living in the play's world. Their pasts and the lives they led all died... Was that it? And I alone was just barely living still...?
"So tell me, which twilight do you prefer?"
I took a close look at the painting here.
"I... can't really tell the difference at all yet. I guess I like both...?"
"The artist painted the girl within almost exactly the same way... But if you take repeated close looks at the colors, you'll start to notice slight differences."
"Dusk and dawn... They look similar, but they're completely different. One's about to get darker, and one's about to get lighter... Their following scenes are complete opposites. Is the similar layout of the two floors meant to say that similar-looking things can be completely different, too...?"
"Oh, um...! I just had that hunch. I imagined the person who built this house having that kind of aim..."
"...That may be so. Similar-looking, but very different in actuality. Perhaps nothing exists in this world that is exactly the same. Even the word "same" is little more than a concept created by people..."
"So it's used more as a measure...?"
"Yes, precisely. Language is no more than a tool to communicate ideas. Well, at least that was how it originated. At times, we mistakenly think that language came first. We believe that, behind the words a person speaks, we can see every aspect of their true intent expressed in those words."
"That's also the epitome of theater."
"Depending on the performers, the same script can create entirely different worlds. And even with the same people performing, the conditions, mental states, and bodies of the actors will always differ. So plays can be enjoyed again and again. Some fans call that the epitome of theater."
"That's very true..."
Indeed, some customers would repeatedly buy special seats for long-running plays by the Burlet Company. Like the Butler said, they could watch the same story repeated over and over, and enjoy them as new worlds brought about by slight differences in the performance.
"Now then... I've gone on rather long. We should return to our search of guest room #1."
We carefully searched all of guest room #1, but didn't find the page. I put my hand to my chest and checked the time. Half our performance time had already passed. I knew we couldn't hurry, but it certainly made me feel hasty imagining it running out on us. All this searching, and still nothing... not even a clue.
The Butler told me there were probably people having more trouble than he was, so I left guest room #1 to help someone else. The hallways were just like the second floor ones, and similar paintings, though different if I looked closely, hung on the walls. For instance, a painting of thick and lively roses in a vase on the second floor was matched by one with withered petals on the first floor. The same composition, but at different times... It seemed as if all of the paintings were like that.
As I reached the hall, I heard a beautiful melody. The Doll Girl was playing piano. That's right; she did play piano in a scene in act one.
Rin and Len were geniuses who could do just about anything. In addition to the lute Len played in act one, he was also skilled with string instruments like guitar and violin. I think it was Meiko who told me both of them had professional-level piano and violin skills, and often had sessions at home. However, Rin herself told me she didn't like piano very much anymore. She'd only play it to soothe herself when something sad or painful happened... So when she learned she had to play it as the Doll Girl in act one, she let it slip that she didn't really want to.
Just what song was this...? The piano was somewhat out of tune; it seemed a little too low. As a result, the slow waltz in major key sounded like it was minor key, giving it a sorrowful tone. I forgot myself and listened to the odd mix of sadness and cheerfulness for a while.
"OH...? Miss VILlager. How LONG have YOU been there?"
The Doll Girl noticed me and stopped playing to face me.
"Um... It was such a wonderful song, I got engrossed in listening..."
"Well, THANK you."
"Er... What is it called? The song you were just playing."
"...THIS is Dolly's DREAMing and AwaKENING. The PERfect song for ME, right?"
"...SAY, Miss VillaGER, do you DREAM?"
I flashed back to the dream I'd had this morning. A woman... Maybe an actress, dying at a theater.
"I do, sometimes..."
"HMM. Dolls DON'T dream. Do you KNOW why?"
"BeCAUSE, dolls don't SLEEP!"
"Funny, ISN'T it! YahahaHA! Hey... Do you WANT to hear MORE? I'll PLAY lots for YOU."
As she said this, the Doll Girl's eyes seemed to turn a bit lonely.
"Umm... But I still need to help everyone look for the page..."
"It's FINE, just for a LITtle while!"
Out of the blue, she hugged me. It was too sudden for me to make a sound. As much as I understood that she was formerly Rin, I couldn't get rid of the fear I had of these dolls.
"I'm sorry! But I really need to help the others. I mean, if we don't find the page..."
"But you CAN just STAY here..."
"It's oKAY. ToDAY will go ON, so..."
"Today will go on...?"
What did that mean? If the performance ran out of time without the page being found, wouldn't this world disappear? In what way would "today go on"...?
"This SONG goes ON, too... In fact, THIS is the MAIN part... The SLOWly turnING waltz turns inTO fierce four-FOUR time. Yes, it's DOLly's awakenING..."
She grinned creepily, looking up at me from around my waist. I jumped back in terror, and in doing so, something flew out onto the floor. It was an envelope; I picked it up.
"Oh, this is..."
Wasn't it the letter I'd had in my pocket? The one I used in act one... It was addressed to "Miss Miku." This wasn't the play prop. It was the letter I picked up on stage before being sucked into this world. I fearfully turned it over, and found written on the back: "Until the End roLL has lost its color... ∞"
I slowly opened it up. But inside, there was only a blank sheet of paper folded in two. The Doll Girl had come up near my feet again. I supposed I dropped the letter while leaping away from her.
"Hey, what's THAT letTER...?"
"...Well, I don't know either..."
I was so certain this was the letter I picked up then, but nothing was written on it. I definitely remembered reading that letter. It was just the important part - what it said - that I couldn't remember anything about. I had definitely read an actual message then.
So what was this letter, then? It must have been the prop I used in act one, wasn't it? So it had a use sometime after the start of act two. But currently, the next page of the script was missing, so everyone forgot everything from the next scene on. Unfortunately, I'd completely forgotten what this letter had written on it, and what role it played.
This letter was a prop that would later be essential in the play. But was it lacking its contents because of the missing next page...? I looked closely at the neatly-folded paper, and it was just paper. The color was greatly faded from it.
"AH! This is ABOUT the same SIZE as the SCRIPT!"
"But THERE's no TEAR on it... Too BAD!"
I'd have to check to be sure, but my rough judgement was that yes, it was the same size as the script pages. But also the paper was perfectly clean, no signs of any tearing.
"UnTIL the End roLL has LOST its coLOR... ∞?"
Perhaps this was the "End roLL" - in other words, the ending - the last page of the script. If that were the case, then I could understand why this would be blank. The removal of the next page made the story unable to progress. So the conclusion was undecided, thus a blank page; that seemed plausible.
If the missing page and the following scenes remained unfound... would it be possible to skip right past them to the ending using this page, I wonder? If that were doable, then we could make the story end. But right now, it was still just a blank page. I threw around all sorts of ideas and suppositions to myself, but I couldn't get my thoughts in order. They were all nothing more than predictions. No point in going in circles with myself; I would discuss it with the others.
"I think I'll show this letter to everyone later, and ask their opinion..."
"...I SEE! That SOUNDS good!"
The Doll Girl seemed to agree. If she'd been wise Rin, I probably would have discussed it with her right away. But as much as this doll looked like Rin, she was just a doll. I felt a little bit of relief having finally found one thing that could be a relevant clue.
But at the same time, I realized something that I couldn't believe I'd been overlooking. If someone stole the page, shouldn't the first thing to do have been conduct a body search of everyone? If one of the seven had stolen the page, then just like I found this letter in my own pocket, it was highly likely they were hiding the next page in their pockets, clothes, or possessions. Absolutely, doing a search of everyone should have come first. Since we hadn't found it in any of the rooms yet, the probability of that seemed greater still.
Now that I'd noticed it, I couldn't linger around. I headed for the second floor to let the Master know and have him gather everyone.
The corridor going up the second floor stairs. On a high-reaching wall extending up to the ceiling of the surrounding hallways was a large painting, depicting many angels flying in front of a gate to heaven. As I hurried up the stairs one step at a time, I became entranced by the austere mood given off by the painting, and soon noticed the backside of the Doll Boy. Right as I climbed up the final step, he grinned and approached with his stiff gait.
"I've BEEN waitING, miss VILLager."
Without waiting for a reply from me, he took my hand and led me in the opposite direction of where I wanted to go, to the north side of the second floor. He stopped in front of a door, then turned around to face me.
"Do YOU know where THIS is?"
The door was shut fast, so I didn't know what kind of room was inside. I told him that I didn't know, and he replied that he'd show me and took me in. The power relationship was just the same as in reality; once again, he had me in his hands. Even though I had to hurry to the Master and tell him about this letter... I heard the Doll Boy shut the door behind me.
It was a library filled to the brim with books. With an exception made only for the door, every wall had bookshelves along it reaching up to the ceiling. Four small chandeliers hung from the ceiling, bathing the room in light. Around the middle of the room were three tables, and beside them were sofas and armchairs of varying size. It was an orderly, refined, and peaceful room which readers would surely love.
However, for some reason, large teddy bears sat in the chairs, and there was a toy teaset on the table, as if put there for the bears. It was made to look like they were relaxing while reading books. Whose hobby was this, I wonder? Though a bizarre sight, the fancy stuffed animals helped add a bit of relief to the crushing feeling from the sheer amount of books.
"Wow... There are so many books..."
I didn't necessarily like reading that much, but I loved calm and quiet places like libraries. I'd often go to the library on my days off to bask in that mood ideal for thinking, open up a favorite script, and imagine the play in my head.
"Do you LIKE it? These SHELVES are the BEST part, right?"
"Y-Yes... It's a very wonderful room."
But, yes... I couldn't be here. The Doll Boy had suddenly dragged me here, but I had to go talk to the Master. As far as I could see, it was unlikely the boy had found the next page.
"If you READ the BOOKS here, you NEver KNOW what you MIGHT find..."
The books here...? I glanced over the shelves. There were too many to know where to start. And checking all the shelves now would no doubt use up all the remaining performance time.
"Don't you WANT to KNOW? The SEcrets of THIS world?"
"Then READing the BOOKS here will BE fastEST, I think..."
Secrets of this world? Maybe such things as the reason we had been trapped here, and a way to get out, were written in these books? But the Doll Boy had forgotten his past of "being Len" and became a doll here, hadn't he? And he was a cruel, prank-loving doll. Maybe he had simply seen me hurrying in the corridor and decided to stop me to play a prank.
For the time being, I decided I'd pretend to pick out a random book and read it, and watch for my chance to get out of here. As I reached for a book on the nearest shelf, he said "Not THAT; the FIRST shelf is HERE," indicating the top-left book of the bookcase to the left upon entering. It was high up toward the ceiling... I couldn't even tell how many of myself would need to be stacked to go that high, and I couldn't reach it no matter what I did. Then the Doll Boy, demonstrating unexpected strength, brought over a long, worn stepladder from the corner.
"SurPRISED? If you THOUGHT I was WEAK because I'm a DOLL, you're VERY wrong! AhaHAHA!"
With a cocky laugh and boast, he grinned. I'd underestimated his small doll body. But now I was shown how if he put his mind to it... no, without really even having to do that, he had strength on part with a human. The doll laughing in front of me without budging an eyebrow was scarier than ever.
"I'll HOLD it from BELOW... Be CAREful, it's HIGH!"
He claimed he'd hold the stepladder, but I felt unsure considering his size. And this was quite long looking at it up close... About five meters, at least... Leaning it against the shelf, I slowly went up step by step. It creaked with each step, making me anxious about its age.
Finally, I reached for the dusty book in the top-left. Just as I did, I saw the book give off a pale light. Surprised, my right foot went a step back, and my weight shifted to one side. The wood under my feet creaked.
I threw my right foot back forward to re-establish my balance and placed it down on the step. A moment later, I heard a cracking sound, and my footing lowered. Oh no - I felt myself slowly falling back. Bracing for an impact, I closed my eyes.
Bfft - the impact was much softer than I expected, and didn't hurt at all.
"...Are you oKAY?"
The Doll Boy spoke. But where did he go? He said he would hold up the stepladder, but all of a sudden hadn't been there. Splintered wood fragments laid around the floor. It had looked worn-out, surely, but I hadn't expected it to break now...
I heard the voice from right under me, beneath something soft. I looked down and saw a large teddy bear... and the Doll Boy crushed underneath?! I quickly pulled the bear away, and the fallen Doll Boy crawled out. So I'd used the teddy bear and him to break my fall...
"I-I'm sorry! Are you all right?!"
"...I'm FINE. Dolls ARE STURdier than HUmans. You're JUST kind of HEAVY..."
I was a little hurt by that, but I was glad he was okay. The little silk hat he wore had fallen off, so I handed it to him, and he awkwardly put it back on his pretty blond hair.
Still, when did he move the teddy bear? The bear was a little bigger than the boy, and was doing just fine in spite of me falling on it. If the Doll Boy hadn't put this soft friend here... The ceiling was high enough that I had to stretch from the top of the stepladder to reach it. So I nearly fell backward about five meters... Not to mention...
The library had high-quality Persian carpet, but for some reason, it was absent in front of this bookcase alone, revealing the marble floor underneath. If I'd landed in just the wrong place, then...
"You ALmost DIED there! CAREful, careFUL!"
The Doll Boy lifted up his hands slightly and shook his head exasperatedly. Yes... I had come close to dying, again. I was always very clumsy and mistake-prone, but since coming to this bizarre world, there'd already been three dangerous occasions where one wrong step would have spelled doom. Were these all coincidental accidents, or...?
"Looks LIKE you got THE book, THOUGH!"
"Oh, you're right..."
The book I'd risked my life to get lay near my feet. There was no title on the binding. I picked it up and looked at the cover; there was something written on it, but thick dust covered it, so I couldn't make it out.
"How incredibly dusty... Is this a rather old book?"
I blew on the cover and the dust flew up. So much dust scattered that it got in my nose and throat. I started coughing, and the Doll Boy sighed with disgust.
The moment I spoke the title that finally appeared from behind all the dust, I felt a strange unease coming up from my feet, like an unknown darkness enveloping me. You shouldn't read this book - a warning from another self seemed to echo in the back of my subconscious. My hands, prepared to open the book, froze in place. Was this intuition...? Or was it the odd causality of this strange world acting on me? There was no doubt that something important was written in this book.
A worst-case scenario crossed my mind. What if this book said that once we were trapped in the world of Crazy ∞ nighT's script, we would never be able to leave for all eternity...? Just imagining it made me sweat. But on the other hand, what if it had a hint to solving the mysteries of this world...? Maybe it could guide us to a way back to reality. Equal parts hope and unease began to swirl around in my head.
If only, when presented with a strict two choices, I had the chance to try again if I messed up; then I'd be able to advance without hesitation... But I was always unable to actively advance with such decisions. I'd immediately start thinking about what if it was the wrong one, cowardly refusing to muster up any courage. Even the reason I left the village, and the circumstances of joining the troupe... When faced with important choices, I had to have someone pushing me ahead to move forward.
Suddenly, a small right hand touched my left, frozen on the book's cover. I looked down and to my left in surrpise. I only saw the back of his head wearing a little silk hat; he wasn't looking at me. What kind of expression did he have? His doll hands were cold as ceramic. But in that cold warmth, I thought I found the awkward kindness of the real him, Len. I had to return him to normal - and I wasn't alone here, so I wasn't scared.
I took a deep breath to calm myself. Feeling slowly returned to my left hand. Like opening an iron door, I lifted open the heavy cover, and put my hand on the first page.
[End of Volume 1.]