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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.