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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.

"Mr. Kaito!"

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."
"Um..."

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?"

"Huh...?"
"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?"
"Ah..."

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...!

"Did... I...?"

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
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