Read an Excerpt
Kieli, Vol. 4 (novel)Long Night Beside a Deep Pool
Yen PressISBN: 9780759529328
“ONCE UPON A TIME, A WITCH WAS IN A TOWN.”
Internally she heaved long, deep sighs, and quelled the periodic pounding of her heart. She mustn’t let anything show on her face. This was that sort of game.
“Nobody’s folding, are they?” asked the dealer, and she and the rest of the people surrounding the table shook their heads in silent agreement. “All right, let’s see them, then.”
Following the dealer’s command, they showed their hands one by one. Everyone else seemed fairly confident, yet not quite calm. She quickly surveyed their cards. A federation army flush, three of a kind (weapons dealers), two pairs (bishop’s staff and exile), and four of a kind (snipers). Sighs of dismay and victorious whistles filled the room.
“What about you, little lady?” asked the man to her right, the one who held four of a kind. If she held something worth less than four of a kind, he would win this hand.
She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye without betraying any expression on her face and then finally allowed herself to crack a small smile. As her opponents looked on doubtfully, she spread her own cards on the table.
One shepherd, then two… three… four…
Their eyes widened in shock as they stared at the cards. “Impossible,” breathed one of them. “Is she crazy?” breathed another.
The shepherd card was the weakest one in the deck, nothing better than a pain in the butt that weakened your hand further the more of them you had. However, when you collected five of them, it spelled revolution, and neatly flipped the value of all the cards in the game.
“I’ll be taking this, then.”
As she collected the money tossed in the center of the table, this time her internal sigh was one of relief.
Leaving the gambling parlor behind her, Kieli cut her way quickly through the crowd on the dark nighttime street without once looking back. When she turned at the first corner and entered a quiet little alley, she came to an abrupt stop. She took a big, slow breath and finally let herself sigh out loud without restraint, leaning against a cold concrete wall.
“I did it…”
She’d been nervous, imagining that maybe nobody would play with her because they’d all think she was just a kid, or that if she won, a bunch of scary-looking people would block her from going home, but fortunately, she’d managed to escape with her life and a decent amount of money.
Kieli heard an impressed male voice coming from below her chin. “Wow, you sure surprised me. I never guessed you had a talent for cards.” When she looked down, the same little old radio as always was hanging from its cord around her neck.
“I’ve got a ways to go yet.”
She wasn’t being modest or anything; the person who’d greatly influenced Kieli in the realm of cards was much better at it, and had a much more perfect poker face… though every once in a very long while, he also chose the strangest moments to make silly mistakes.
… I did it, she told herself again, a little proudly. But then she almost immediately felt empty.
“Okay, let’s meet up with Beatrix.” Kieli forcibly shook off the mood and lightly pushed herself off the wall.
“Where is that woman, anyway?”
“She said she had some kind of ‘preparations,’ ” the girl replied, heading back to the large street from which she’d come.
“Oh, there you are,” came a voice from the corner, around which someone’s face was peeking out.
Kieli gulped and stood still, wondering if he’d overheard her conversation with the radio.
“Ah, I’m glad I caught up with you.”
She dimly remembered the face of the man casually walking into the alley toward her. He was young, apparently a traveler, and had been at the same table as her in the gambling parlor.
“I mean, I’d been wanting to talk to you, but you left so fast.”
“Did you want something…?” she asked, looking up at him with her head down and taking half a step back. The man raised both arms above his head in a dramatic gesture of surrender.
“Hey, now, you don’t have to look so scared. I just wondered if you’d go to dinner with me, that’s—” Suddenly he broke off, eyes widening in surprise. “Wait, are you by any chance really young? How old are you?”
“… I’m sixteen,” Kieli answered stiffly. Boy, this guy’s cheeky.
“Sixteen?!” he screeched. “Hmm, sixteen… that’s kind of borderline…” He covered his mouth with one hand and started mumbling to himself with a conflicted look on his face. “She looked a little older to me before, though… maybe because she made a strong impression…”
“Um, if you don’t want anything with me, would you mind letting me through?” Kieli glared up at him, frowning (What does he mean by “borderline”?), and stepped forward again as if to chase him out of the alley. He took a step back, looking intimidated, so she was inwardly relieved; but then the very next moment hands grabbed her shoulders and held her in place.
“Wait, now. We might as well at least have dinner.”
“Please let me go—”
“Lay off, jerk!” an angry voice cut in abruptly, and at the same time Kieli felt the air around the radio swelling up.
“No, Corporal, don’t!” she shouted at once. He broke off his shock-wave attack at the last moment, and a little leftover burst of air leaked from the speaker.
Oh no… She quickly hugged the radio to her chest and shot a glance at the man in front of her.
He was looking around for the owner of the voice, one hand still on her shoulder. “What? Who was that?”
Stupid Corporal, you’ve got such a short temper, she grumbled inwardly. Just as she braced her foot against the asphalt and prepared to launch herself at the man, knock him aside, and run away, they both heard something rolling up to them from behind the man with a great clattering noise.
The man looked back over his shoulder and immediately let out a yelp, turning back toward her as if he was about to start running at her, so Kieli reflexively leapt aside to flatten herself against the wall of the nearest building. Just then, a giant rectangular object struck the man in the back right before her eyes, and he fell forward theatrically, planting his face square into the asphalt.
The thing that had come rolling toward them was a large trunk attached to a wheeled cart, and when it sent the man flying, it changed trajectory, listed violently, and then toppled over onto his back as if to finish him off.
Oh dear. Back still flattened to the wall, Kieli looked down on the man at her feet not unsympathetically.
“Ouch! What the hell…?” He crawled unsteadily out from under the trunk, holding a hand to his scraped face. With a hateful expression, he turned around and opened his mouth to say “You bastard! What are you—”
However, he cut off his complaint midsentence and stood gaping in shock.
Kieli raised her head and followed the direction of the man’s gaze, then instinctively cowered back a little with equal shock.
The figure of a person stood haughtily between the tall concrete walls that formed the entrance to the alley, hands on hips. The streetlights on the main drag backlit the figure so that it stood out against the sky as a looming shadow, and in the middle of its face a pair of perfectly circular, opaque glasses gleamed grotesquely like the compound eyes of a huge insect.
“Haven’t you ever heard that famous saying from the mother-planet philosopher that goes, ‘Women hate obstinate men’?” came a woman’s crisp voice from the spectacled shadow. “You can tell she’s not into you. Hurry up and get lost.”
“Hey, it’s got nothing to do with you. You show up in that weird getup and—”
“What, couldn’t you hear me?”
The spectacled figure advanced a step, the heel of her boot echoing loudly against the pavement, and the man swallowed his protest, intimidated.
“Can you understand the national language? Are your ears properly connected to your brain? If you want, I can crack open that thin-looking skull of yours and connect them for you. I’ve always wanted to try performing a surgery.”
The shadow took another step forward, and the man scooted backward with an audible gulp, still sitting on his rear.
“I’ll tell you one more time, since you obviously need me to. If you still can’t hear me, I really will have to open up your head…” The low tones of the woman’s voice echoed dangerously in the dim alley, and light reflected harshly off her opaque glasses.
“Hurry. Up. And. Get—”
“Shit!” Before she could finish, the man sprang to his feet and made a break for the exit on the other side of the alley before he had even fully regained his feet.
“Oh, you’re done, just like that? If you’re going to hit on someone, have more guts about it!” Her blatantly bored-sounding taunt chased after the man as he disappeared between the concrete buildings.
“What a wimp. All I did was threaten him a little.” She snorted, her glasses directed toward the spot he’d just vacated.
The radio retorted in an exasperated voice, “I got the feeling he actually ran away because of your outfit.”
Privately agreeing, Kieli left the shelter of the wall and took a second look at the outfit of the woman before her. Her trademark long blond hair was completely hidden away under the scarf on her head, the collar of her detective-style trench coat reached her jawline, and to top it all off, half her face was obscured by round glasses thick as the bottoms of two milk bottles—no matter how you looked at it, this person was definitely suspicious. If Kieli didn’t already know her, even she would want to have as little to do with her as possible.
“What’s with that outfit?”
“Isn’t it perfect?” the woman replied, for some reason puffing out her chest proudly.
“I’m not sure that’s how I’d put it…”
This costume must have been what she’d meant by “preparations.” Kieli could understand that it must be for hiding her face on the streets of the city, and in that sense it might really be perfect, but in another sense Kieli was not without doubts.
Unable to decide how to respond, she merely stared back blankly. Beatrix seemed to lose interest, and summarily ended the conversation with, “Well, whatever. Anyway, more importantly, I hope you made money.”
“Yeah, I made some.” Enough for them to pay for the inn tonight and the train fare to their destination, plus a little extra to live on. She’d left the gambling parlor after earning the absolute minimum needed to get them by for the time being. Her cardmaster (not that he’d ever concretely taught her anything) believed that there was no need to make a show of yourself by winning too much, but apparently the spectacled woman was completely unimpressed with this philosophy.
Pouting with displeasure, she said, “Why did you stop at ‘some’? Win all you can! Honestly, you’re so useless.” She picked up her fallen trunk as she made this unreasonable complaint, and just as Kieli thought she was about to start walking with it, she pushed it over to Kieli as if that were only right. Kieli unthinkingly took the handle of the cart, and then sighed with mixed feelings. Her only luggage was a medium-sized sports bag that had been stuck onto the cart as an afterthought, and this trunk—which, large as it was to begin with, was bulging alarmingly on both sides and seemed as if its fastenings would pop off any second—was filled entirely with Beatrix’s things (mostly clothes).
Thanks to Beatrix’s copious impulse buying at the shopping district they’d stopped by in Westerbury, their travel money had run out before their destination. The last of it had been spent on this sorry trunk, and as a result they’d been kicked off the train at a station they’d had no intention of stopping at when the conductor discovered they had no paid tickets, and as a result of that Kieli had been forced to gamble in order for them to quickly escape their current state of such destitution that they couldn’t even afford a place to sleep for the night.
“Let’s go. We have to find a hotel right away, hole up in a room, and get the hell out of this town first thing in the morning. Honestly, this outfit is so annoying! This is why I said this town was the last place I ever wanted to stop! Why did we have to get kicked off the train here, of all places?!”
Still wailing, she took off walking at a brisk pace, and Kieli hurried after her dragging the cart. Maybe the phrase “you reap what you sow” doesn’t exist in Beatrix’s vocabulary?
“What does that woman think gives her the right to act so high and mighty all the time?”
“Sheesh, why is it that all Undyings have these uncorrectable personality flaws? I think there was some kind of basic problem with the reanimation technology.”
Kieli didn’t dare respond. Instead, she let her eyes play about the town’s nighttime scenery as she dragged the clattering cart behind her.
It was a remote town far from the center of Westerbury parish, but its atmosphere was still heavily influenced by the commercial city of Westerbury, and it was open and friendly, and fairly lively even at night. For a city of its age, it had been rezoned in thoroughly modern style. All the buildings lining the streets were comparatively new, but the bell tower standing in the city square, which she could see in the distance on the other side of the houses’ roofs, stood out as the sole aged oddity. Its outline blended against the blue-gray sky, faintly lit up by the city lights.
Perhaps Beatrix had aired all of her grievances to her satisfaction, because when Kieli glanced at the profile of the woman walking diagonally in front of her, she had fallen silent. She was staring fixedly at the top of the bell tower, with a meaningful expression that Kieli couldn’t interpret in her blue eyes shielded by the thick glasses.
They were in the outlying Westerbury parish town of Toulouse.
People said that an Undying woman had once lived here, in this town famous for a minor historical incident called the Witch Hunt or the Great Fire of Toulouse.
And today, decades later, she had unwillingly come back here for the first time.
At the entrance to the city square, bustling with the noise of the people illuminated by its twinkling decorative lights, Kieli and Beatrix stood dumbfounded for several moments.
Lit diagonally from below, the bell tower rose pallidly into the sky directly in front of them, and rows of souvenir shops stood on both sides of the path leading up to it, their signs displaying reliefs of what must have been scenes from the Witch Hunt. They had everything from textiles and jars with the same Witch Hunt designs, to witch pies and witch candies, to people performing readings of the witch’s legend on the roadside with exaggerated gestures.
They’d just found a room at an inn near the station. Since it was still early, the innkeeper had recommended that they take a look at the bell tower while they were out having dinner. Beatrix hadn’t seemed too thrilled at the idea, but Kieli had pointed out that they might as well since they were here, and so they had come back out into town. (After all, whatever Beatrix might say, Kieli could tell she had the bell tower on her mind.)
And now this was the sight that greeted them.
The church that had burned down in the Great Fire of Toulouse had been rebuilt in a different location, so this place didn’t serve as a house of worship anymore. But rumor had spread that the witch’s vengeful ghost haunted the bell tower that had miraculously escaped the fire, and opportunistic peddlers had gathered here to take advantage of this by opening sketchy businesses around it. Apparently this square was now developing into a tourist destination for those traveling between Westerbury and North-hairo.
This town might be remote, but it was still more or less a part of the Westerbury region. Perhaps this just meant the Westerbury entrepreneurial spirit had taken root even here.
“It’s hard to believe a witch hunt could’ve happened in such a cheerful town, huh?”
As they began to walk through the clamor created by the shouted solicitations of vendors, the sonorous voices of actors, and the buzzing of the crowd, Kieli must have let herself be swayed by the rosy atmosphere, because she’d let that slip without thinking. Immediately regretting it, she turned to gauge Beatrix’s reaction.
“True,” the spectacled woman next to her said, nodding. As her expressionless gaze roamed the area, she at least gave no outward sign that Kieli had hurt her feelings. Looking nowhere in particular, she continued in a flat voice, “Negative emotions like fear and suspicion can spread impressively fast. Sometimes a whole town can transform overnight, like they’re under mass hypnosis.”
“Beatrix…,” Kieli began, trying to gloss over her mistake, but in the end she couldn’t think of anything to finish that sentence with, and she sank into an uncomfortable silence.
She wasn’t sure why she hadn’t drawn the connection before, but now she remembered that she’d once been treated like a witch, too, back at the boarding school in Easterbury. She didn’t know who’d started it. What began as childish teasing grew oddly concrete as it spread and developed into something that almost seemed real, and so in the first month of the new semester, Kieli’s isolation from the other girls at her school became complete.
Now that she considered it, she hadn’t thought of those times at all lately. It seemed like something so far in the past it might as well have been before she was born. And yet it had been only two years since she’d been taken away from there. No, perhaps she should say it had been two years already…
“Hey, hey, I just thought of something,” Beatrix suddenly piped up next to her.
Kieli dragged her attention out of the internal world she’d begun sinking into and returned it to the outside. “Hmm? What?” she asked, a little anxiously.
Looking up at the vendors’ signs through those opaque glasses, Beatrix answered, “Don’t you think they ought to give me a cut of these profits?”
This ridiculous question was posed so seriously that Kieli’s voice slipped into a falsetto squeak. “Huh?!”
“I mean, it’s all thanks to the witch that these guys are making money. In other words, thanks to me. And yet I live such a life of poverty that it’s a struggle paying for one night’s lodging! What’s with that? I should definitely have the right to bleed them for a cut of it.”
Beatrix was actually clenching her fists as she insisted on her point. Our life of poverty is because of her wasteful spending, and I’m the one who struggled to pay for the night’s lodging, not her… Kieli glared at her profile with narrowed eyes, and then looked away with a sigh, unable to summon the energy to respond. Maybe it was stupid to worry about her feelings.
Absently, she looked up at the bell tower in front of them.
Rising into the night sky lit diagonally from below with three interplaying lights, it seemed dreamlike, but from a certain point of view sort of eerie, too…
Kieli thought she saw a person at the top of the tower, and was momentarily struck with terror.
She strained her eyes to look harder, but the only thing showing through the arched belfry window was the giant old bell hanging from its rope that would never be pulled again, and she didn’t see anything particularly strange. Maybe the lights had cast the shadow of a pillar or something onto the bell.
She shrugged it off and turned to Beatrix, who was muttering to herself, undiscouraged, about the best way to bleed the vendors for a cut of their profits. “Beatrix, I’m hungry. I’m going to go buy something.”
But just then, a voice suddenly cried out “It’s a witch!” and something grabbed Kieli from behind. To a casual observer, Beatrix may have looked defenseless as she prattled on, but she immediately closed her mouth and assumed a ready stance. A moment later Kieli turned around as well, but all she saw behind her were the waves of tourists walking by—
“It’s a witch!”
She heard the voice pipe up again from somewhere below her jaw, and looked down. A small boy was holding fast to the hem of her duffle coat. “Um…” Not sure how to respond, Kieli froze up. The boy looked up at her with shining eyes.
“You’re a witch, right? Yay, Monica, I caught a witch!”
“Stop that, Il!” A second, strict voice sounded above the boy’s excited one. A girl a little older than he was came running up to them from the other side of the crowd. She yanked the boy’s hand away from Kieli’s coat while Kieli stood there dumbfounded, and the girl forced his head down into a bow, bowing apologetically herself. “I-I’m so sorry my brother was so awfully rude!”
“But she looks exactly like a witch! I’ve seen ’em in pictures!”
“You dummy, I’ve told you before that you shouldn’t use such terrible words lightly!”
Thus scolded, the boy fell silent. Kieli didn’t think what he’d done to her was bad enough to be called awfully rude, so now she herself felt at a loss. “Um, no, that’s—” She turned to Beatrix for help, but for some reason Beatrix’s lips were pursed in displeasure as she readjusted the round glasses that had begun to slip down her nose.
“This just doesn’t sit right with me somehow,” Beatrix cut in. “Why are you the witch? Isn’t the Witch of Toulouse supposed to be exquisitely beautiful? And she had a bigger chest than yours, too.”
“… You don’t have to rub it in.” That didn’t exactly sit right with Kieli. She glared at her strange, spectacled traveling companion. Beatrix seemed completely unruffled by this, uttering an exaggerated sigh and proclaiming, “Honestly, now I’m just tired. Doing this tourist stuff is starting to feel ridiculous, too. I’m going to head back. You can just grab yourself something to eat and come along when you’re ready.”
“Sheesh, Beatrix…” Watching the woman’s back disappear into the crowd after this one-sided dismissal, Kieli saw her old roommate in the completely self-centered attitude and the blond hair that peeked out from under her headscarf. Oh well, she thought, and sighed resignedly.
She turned back to the still apologetically cringing girl and her brother, and stooped a little until she was level with them. “Um, you’re kind of putting me on the spot… it’s okay now, just please stop bowing.”
“Okay!” said the boy, immediately brightening.
His sister chided him in a whisper, but finally raised her own head as well. Even so, with her eyes still downcast she apologized again. “Really, I’m very sorry.” She cast a sidelong glare at her brother. “He saw how you were dressed, and so he…”
Kieli looked down at herself and let out a little cry of understanding. Long black hair and a black coat. In a corner of her mind, she called up the memory of the witch-ghost rumors the innkeeper had told them about as they’d left.
From what they’d heard, there were apparently multiple witnesses with accounts that corroborated each other. It was a woman with long black hair and a gruesome burn on her face, dressed all in black. From the top of the tower, she spread her arms wide and bitterly called out in a spine-chilling voice, “It’s hot… it hurts… I hate them… I must avenge myself on the humans… forget not the follies of the past…” The description was way too specific, and the witch’s dialogue was melodramatic and just unbelievable. But doubters who’d decided the “witch” must be a setup to attract customers had investigated the bell tower and found no tricks there, and apparently many found the explanation that it had been a real vengeful ghost after all most convincing.
To Kieli, who knew the Witch of Toulouse—in fact, not only knew her, but was traveling with her—it was naturally unthinkable that she had become a vengeful ghost, and moreover the “all in black” description didn’t fit her at all. Just what was this “ghost of the witch”…?
“Il, if I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times. There’s no witch anymore. She was burned to death a long time ago.”
“But her ghost is here! Everyone says they’ve seen it.”
“The people here are just exaggerating to get customers. Even though the witch was an evil being, God in His infinite mercy forgave her and brought her to heaven. Remember how we heard that story in church about how even the servant of the Devil was forgiven when he mended his ways?”
Maybe the girl had noticed Kieli’s unconscious frown at her lecture to her brother, because she looked up at her, puzzled. Kieli schooled her expression. “Okay then, I’ll be going now,” she said, and left the young siblings. She found herself automatically walking quickly, and afraid they would notice, she didn’t look back.
She bought a slice of “witch pie,” then made her way to the corner of a square removed from the bustling crowd of sightseers and sat down at the side of the road. When she put the radio next to her and turned it on, there was a brief burst of static, and then scratchy, fast-paced music began to quietly fill the air. It was a forbidden type of music she couldn’t listen to in front of other people, but a little noise here should be fine.
“Corporal?” she asked, and after a pause a man’s voice answered through the distorted sound of stringed instruments.
She’d left his power off since entering the busy square earlier, because he’d said he didn’t like the clamor. Come to think of it, the atmosphere of the crowd rife with noise and excited emotion was similar to the Colonization Days carnival she’d visited in Easterbury.
It was almost Colonization Days season again this year. It’s that time again, huh, she thought to herself as she gazed at the streetlamps dotting the square and munched her pie. (Who knew what made it “witch pie”; it was a totally commonplace pie with onions and meat filling.)
It was now autumn, and the night breeze had started to feel chilly. Kieli hunched her shoulders a little inside her coat, pushing away the hair that had fallen annoyingly in her face. “Corporal, you’ve gotten kind of quiet lately, huh?”
“… Huh? I have?”
“Yeah. You don’t complain much anymore.”
“I haven’t really changed, I don’t think… it’s probably just that the person I usually complain about is gone.”
“Oh, right.” Kieli’s response was strangely hollow.
After that they both fell quiet. The silence was uncomfortable, so Kieli tried to think of some other topic of conversation. “Anyway,” the radio eventually piped up in a somewhat forced tone, perhaps thinking the same thing she was, “I hope we find out something about your mother.”
She gave a flustered nod, startled to hear him broach the subject she’d just hit upon in her mind before she could voice it. “Oh, uh, yeah. I never guessed that Beatrix was secretly checking into her for me.”
“… Well,” began the radio, and then paused. “She’s definitely not very open about her feelings.”
It was a year and a half ago now since she’d lived in the town where she’d first met Beatrix—the mining town in West South-hairo with its view of the spaceship ruins. After a certain incident had made them leave, they’d lived bouncing between the towns of East South-hairo together. Beatrix said that even though the South-hairo continent housed a belligerent group called the Watch, the fact that it was not only a huge place but also had few Church Soldiers overall made it the second most convenient place for an Undying to hide, after the metropolis of Westerbury.
Maybe Beatrix had busily dragged Kieli around from place to place on purpose to keep her from getting depressed… but it was probably just that the woman got bored easily.
Their second spring living on the South-hairo continent had passed, and they were entering its comparatively long summer when their life in East South-hairo came to an abrupt end. Beatrix, who’d shown no sign whatsoever that she was investigating any such thing, told Kieli out of the blue one day that she’d gotten a lead on Kieli’s mother through her information network.
The place they needed to go was a town on the parish border between North-hairo and Westerbury. To get from East South-hairo to the North-hairo parish, you had to return to the main continent on a sand ship, then switch to the railroad and go north through Westerbury—even if you powered through the trip with the least amount of time loss by the shortest route, it took close to a month. On a normal journey with breaks incorporated, it could take two or three months.
Beatrix had left the decision to Kieli (though she’d seemed to be in kind of a bad mood for some reason): “Do you want to go? We don’t have to if you’re not interested. North-hairo is a long ways away.” After a bit of hesitation, she’d opted to go. The truth was that at this point, she wasn’t really dead set on finding out about her mother or her birth. But all the same, even though she’d adapted to their fairly uneventful daily life, she also felt a constant sense of unnaturalness about it. Plus, more importantly than anything else, their destination was North-hairo parish, which people called the domain of the capital, and Kieli thought that was probably her main reason for wanting to do this.
Spring a year and a half ago, the man who’d taught Kieli cards had left South-hairo for the capital. Or at least, she thought he had. That’s what she’d been told.
She hadn’t heard anything from him since.
A year and a half. Summer and fall and winter and spring and summer had passed, and now fall was half over again.
Before she knew it, her birthday had come around again and she’d turned sixteen, and the hair she hadn’t cut had grown halfway down her back. She was two years older and somewhat taller than the fourteen-year-old girl she’d been the winter she left boarding school in Easterbury, but she thought that in some indefinable way she might’ve reverted to the girl she’d been then.
Also, she was back to wearing a black duffle coat just as she had then (though she still sure didn’t feel like wearing a skirt, so now she was in shorts and boots). One day she’d just looked down and noticed that she’d started dressing this way for some reason.
Maybe she was hoping against hope. Maybe she was thinking that just like that day at the end of her fourteenth autumn when she’d run into him at the Easterbury train station, he might…
… I’m an idiot.
Deciding not to dwell on it anymore, Kieli stuffed the rest of the pie in her mouth, picked up the radio, and stood up, opening her mouth to say “Let’s go” in a pointlessly flustered voice, as if trying to talk her way out of something. However, it came out in a muffled “Lessngo” sort of a way.
As she brushed off the hem of her coat, she looked at her all-black outfit that seemed to wish to sink into the darkness of the surrounding night, and she remembered the siblings from earlier. She felt guilty for having run away from them like that, exasperated at herself for still being such a child.
But she was sure God had no intention of gently calling the souls of the Undying to heaven. Plus, if it were true that the souls of all those who believed in God were promptly carried off to heaven, then why were there ghosts bound to this earth even after their deaths, suffering?
Kieli quickly gulped down the food in her mouth. “What’s wrong, Corporal?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, just now, you—” Kieli began, then broke off and cast darting eyes around the area. There was some kind of commotion in the crowd on the street leading up to the tower. They’d been noisy for a while, of course, but now the commotion had become feverish and agitated.
When she jogged back there and stuck her head out into the street from between two souvenir stalls, it looked as if some kind of argument had broken out; there was a mass of people thronging in one corner of the road.
“Just now there was a black-haired woman in the tower, and she was glaring at me!” The man’s insistent voice and the jeers of those who said “There’s nothing there!” whizzed back and forth through the air.
Kieli came to a stop behind the ring of curious onlookers, watching the fight from a distance. Some of them were peering into the belfry, searching for something, and Kieli looked up at the top of the tower, too, over the heads of the crowd, but as one might expect, she saw no one there.
She saw no one, but…
“Corporal, there’s someone in that tower, isn’t there?” she murmured without taking her eyes off it.
“Kieli,” he warned her in a soft whisper.
Kieli frowned lightly. “I know. I won’t poke my nose in,” she replied, a little peevishly, and tore her eyes away from the tower. She wouldn’t go poking her nose into things that might be dangerous just out of curiosity; the Corporal had admonished her about it very strictly—no, that wasn’t the reason, it was because she wasn’t a child anymore. Yes, that was it.
She turned her back on both the distant bell tower and the nearby crowd, but before she left, she half-turned toward them one more time.
She still didn’t see a person in the belfry, but she was aware of someone’s unwavering gaze piercing her in silent appeal. Its owner must have known that Kieli could see things.
Even after she’d spun around and started walking, she could still feel that gaze on her back. But its owner just observed her without trying to say anything.
… I won’t stick my nose in, Kieli whispered in her heart. It was less a rejection of the being in the tower and more a perverse obstinacy directed at herself.
But if they have some business with me, they can just come to me.
She no longer had a sense of heat or a sense of pain; it was just uncomfortable how tight the skin of her cheek was, so she rubbed it, and the burned-raw skin peeled off and stuck to her palms.
The area was wreathed in flame and smoke and the night’s darkness, and through the roaring of the wind fanning the fire, she could hear the people’s screams and cries. Smoke filled her throat and she couldn’t breathe, so she couldn’t even call for help.
Somehow the feelings of suffering and fear seemed far away now, too.
Her consciousness fading, the girl looked down at the flame that leapt onto the hem of her black maid’s uniform as if it had nothing to do with her, and began to think in tones of self-ridicule, Why did things turn out this way?
“The woman who’s been living at Mr. Haller’s estate is an Undying”—though she’d been the one to spark that rumor, she’d meant no harm at all; in fact, she’d actually been itching to brag, and ended up confessing everything to a friend in town even as she warned that it must be kept absolutely secret. “The lady I’m serving is actually a witch. So she’ll stay that young and beautiful forever, without ever aging a day.”
After that, things happened astonishingly quickly. The rumor spread in no time, as if the entire town had been infected in a mass outbreak of some bacteria, and the witch at Mr. Haller’s estate was captured and thrown into a dungeon underneath the bell tower, sentenced to burn at the stake. But after the fire took the witch’s beautiful golden hair, it spread with the same speed as the rumors, raging viciously all over the town.
I don’t want to die yet…
She tried to stand up, but she no longer had the strength left even to lift her own head. The arms that she’d managed to move just moments ago wouldn’t cooperate anymore either.
There was one last thing she absolutely had to do, but it looked as if that was going to be impossible. As she watched the fire spread over her skirt, a blurred darkness steadily encroached on her vision.
She wanted to at least say it here and now, so she summoned up what strength she had left to squeeze sound out of her throat, but she wasn’t sure whether she’d managed to get out the whole sentence.
With her cheek on her pillow, Kieli lay in bed with her eyes open and stared at a fixed point in the dim blue-gray darkness of the room.
She was in a hotel bedroom. On the other side of the closed curtains was the night sky, a shade darker than the dimness of this room. A strong wind beat against the windowpane.
In front of the window stood an unmoving human form. Rather than blending into the night, the black maid-style apron dress she wore strangely emitted a hazy, dark light. Everything from her neck up disappeared into the darkness, so Kieli couldn’t see her face, but she could tell the girl was staring right back at her.
Kieli spoke to her silently. Well, look at that. You really did come to me.
The form drew closer. Her footsteps made no sound, but for some reason there was a clear sense of something dragging across the floor.
“Hey! Kieli—” The radio’s voice broke in from somewhere outside Kieli’s field of vision. “Kieli, run!”
Lying unmoving on the bed as the girl’s form approached, Kieli steadily returned the gaze she couldn’t see in the darkness. Perhaps she actually couldn’t move, but she hadn’t tried to, so she didn’t know.
“Kieli, come on! What are you doing?!”
She heard the Corporal’s shock wave shoot off in the wrong direction and hit the wall. She remembered leaving the radio on the side table, but which way had it been facing? I might have left it facing in a weird direction.
The girl in the maid uniform was right in front of her now. She didn’t stop walking, but she didn’t bump into Kieli either; she slipped into a position overlapping Kieli’s body, and then disappeared—
It felt as if her field of vision went mushy for an instant.
A few seconds later, Kieli slowly sat up in bed. The radio was still annoyingly crying out all kinds of things like “No, hey, stop, snap out of it,” but she ignored it as she picked up her coat and left the room.
“I know it was somewhere around here… ah, here we go.”
Her murmured voice bounced off the walls of the spiral staircase, filling the air with unfamiliar echoes. Her fingertips had found a lamp as she trailed them along the wall; she lit it now, feeling impressed that it was even still there. A yellow light gradually flickered on, illuminating the old stone wall and a small area around itself.
She touched her hand to the cold stone and confirmed by touch the places here and there that had been burned.
The bell tower was closed to the public and could be viewed only from the outside. She’d waited until midnight to sneak in so that there would be no one around. It had miraculously survived the Great Fire, but that was all that could be said for it; it had become quite crumbly, and the building itself was old anyway, so it was pretty dangerous to be inside. She cautiously held onto the wall as she looked around her. Her vision was horribly distorted, and she realized that she was still wearing her soda-bottle glasses even though there was no danger of anyone seeing her in a place like this.
“… Well, excuse me. I’m not wearing this lame getup for the fun of it, you know,” she grumbled to no one in particular, sliding the glasses off and putting them in the breast pocket of her trench coat. She left her scarf on, since it also protected her from the cold, and looked around once again.
It was a cramped, claustrophobic space. The only things there were the stone walls, a low ceiling, small doors with barred observation windows, marks showing where keys had once hung on the walls, and a narrow spiral staircase that vanished into the darkness of the floor above.
The concept of an underground dungeon beneath a church bell tower was a disquieting one, but as she understood it, these spaces had originally been not prison cells, but chambers where the devout had sequestered themselves to offer up deep prayers.
I feel surprisingly blasé about this…
She’d wondered how she’d feel when she returned here—would she feel nostalgic, or would her hatred deepen?—but to her relief, her conclusion was that no particular emotion welled up within her at the sight.
Taking the lamp from its slot on the wall, she tried holding it up to one of the barred windows so that she could look into the cell. Other than the simple washstand she could see in one corner of the small room, there was nothing left there, and the floor was covered in a thick layer of dust and ash. She was pretty sure that at the time there had also been a paltry little bed.
The sight of that hard, small, simple bed without the slightest bit of comfort to it, and of herself lying sulkily in it all those years ago, appeared hazily before her eyes like a lamp lit in the darkness. That other Beatrix grumbled and cursed at the wall (“And here I’d finally found a place where I didn’t have to work, I could wear nice clothes, and I could live a good life… damn it, I want a bath, and a smoke…”). Then she flipped over in bed with a sigh, feeling empty-hearted. She raised her head when she sensed a presence approaching, and saw someone peeking in at her through the observation window in the door.
It was a raven-haired girl in a black maid’s uniform. Beatrix felt as if she’d seen her before, but she was a plain girl, and there were lots of servants at Haller’s estate, so frankly she’d never taken any notice of her as an individual.
“What do you want?” she spat curtly.
The girl ducked her head in surprise, and said, “Um, I brought you food…” She disappeared momentarily from the window, and then slid a tray of bread and stew under the door.
“… Who told you to bring this?” Who would bring food to someone about to be executed, anyway?
Beatrix furrowed her brows at that. “No one?”
“That’s right… um…” When her face appeared in the observation window again, she was cowering in such fear it was unnatural. “I… I…” The girl seemed to want to say something, but every time she started to, she just clammed right back up again, which had Beatrix irritated in no time. She no longer had the patience or the reason to be an adult about how she dealt with people in this town.
“I don’t want it. And I would hate to find poison in it or anything. Just take it and go home.”
“Listen, my mood is shot to hell right now. Would you please leave?”
Beatrix didn’t suppose she’d die just from a little poison (she didn’t really know since she’d never been poisoned; it might make her feel bad enough to wish she were dead); she simply used this as an excuse to chase the girl off. When she flipped over in the narrow bed and turned her back to her visitor, she could sense the tray on the floor being withdrawn after a short pause, and then hesitant footsteps echoed off the walls, disappearing up the stairs.
After that, there were no more visitors until the group of dopey-looking townsmen came to cart her off to the stake in the square.
The sight of herself sulking in bed facing the wall melted gradually into the darkness, and the scene returned to that of an empty cell with nothing but a broken washstand covered in ash and dust.
It wasn’t as if this was a memory she was particularly attached to; she simply remembered that yes, she’d had a conversation like that in this cell toward the end. Yet when she thought about it, it was true that out of all the villagers who’d completely reversed their attitudes and started treating her like a monster as soon as they found out she was an Undying, that servant girl was the only one who’d come and spoken to her like a normal person at the end. (It was totally not normal to bring an Undying food! Was she stupid?) And that was after even the head of the Haller family, who’d sheltered her until then, had given up reasoning with all the townspeople lost to mass hysteria; when they pressed him, he’d turned her over without a fight.
After the Great Fire of Toulouse, he’d died in an epidemic or some such thing, and the Haller family no longer existed in this town. Half of Beatrix thought it served him right. The other half sympathetically thought that he’d been a very unlucky man. As for what had happened to the servants, she assumed that some had been caught up in the fire and that some were still living in the area, but either way she didn’t have any particular memory of them.
She’d deliberately avoided Toulouse up until now, not just because her face was known here, but even more importantly because she’d been afraid that it would bring back painful memories. But as it turned out, the incident was no more to this place now than a piece of history to be used as a consumer attraction, and it felt no more significant to her either. To her surprise, the old wounds she’d thought would bring her fresh pain were completely healed over.
I have to admit, this is a letdown. I suppose I’m not the type to obsess over the past…
The face of a certain someone she wished would take a page from her book in that department floated into her mind. Thanks to his troublesome personality, she’d been forced to take on the baggage called “Kieli”… but, well, looking back on their time together now, it didn’t seem too bad.
Having someone around who didn’t reject her existence might actually be kind of nice.
Not that I’ll ever tell her that.
Mentally sticking out her tongue, Beatrix broke off that train of thought and left the dungeon with its faint burnt smell and slight patina of memories.
She climbed the spiral staircase narrowly enclosed by stone walls, her footsteps echoing quietly. When she brandished her lamp at the top of the stairs, the iron door leading to the surface came into view framed by two gently curving walls. It was open just a sliver. A fierce wind raging on the other side made the heavy iron door tremble.
The moment she pushed the door open and stuck her head outside, the wind caught her scarf and set it flapping. “Whoa!”
In Toulouse, the winds were strong at night. Because an intricate network of high rock ledges stood to the west of the town, winds from the west beat against each other on their way through the cliffs and whipped themselves into fierce whirlwinds before they came into town. On the flipside, when morning came, gentle breezes blew in from the flat eastern wilderness to caress the roofs of the houses.
The Great Fire had happened on a night just like this one.
Fumbling a little in the wind and darkness, Beatrix snapped the bolt back into place. It wasn’t as if she’d come here to do anything in particular, but as she stepped away from the door she felt as if the end result had been that she’d wasted time and effort on something pointless.
After a few steps she paused and looked up at the tower jutting up against the night sky, holding her scarf to keep it from blowing away.
Still, she did feel that coming here had made her feel better about things somehow. I suppose it would be praising Kieli too much to say this is thanks to her. But then again, if I weren’t traveling with her like this, I probably never would have come here again.
“Time to go back,” she murmured to herself, and pivoted lightly on her heel; then she paused questioningly.
There in the central square wrapped in the black of night, she saw a small figure flitting around. Quickly she blew out the lamp, hiding herself against the wall and relying on the faint light of the streetlamps as she peered into the darkness. First the figure crouched down and scrambled around the tower’s front gate, and then it suddenly began to circle around to the back, still half stooped over and looking as if it was dragging something.
Because the black hair and black coat blended so seamlessly into the darkness, the whiteness of the person’s skin stood out starkly, and Beatrix identified her immediately.
That’s Kieli! What in the world is she doing…?
She’d gone to bed quickly after returning to the hotel, without talking much, and she’d seemed sound asleep when Beatrix had sneaked out of the room at midnight (the radio had annoyed her with questions about where she was going, so she’d turned it to face the wall, from which position it had bad-mouthed her with increasing vehemence).
“Ki—” Beatrix readily began to call out to her, but at that exact moment the girl lifted her head as if to look around. When Beatrix saw the face peeking out from between strands of that tousled black hair, she instinctively fell silent, flattened herself against the wall, and stilled her breath.
The girl looked back down again without incident and disappeared behind the tower, still stooping as she dragged something behind her.
Plastered against the wall, Beatrix followed her with her eyes and grimaced. Blech. What’s that?
Who knew what trouble Kieli had gotten herself into now, but overlapping the girl’s white face, she’d seen the slightly off-center face of someone else.
The face of a corpse charred almost beyond all recognition, its hideously burned skin half melted off.
Dragging the large tin can she’d punched a hole in with both hands, she walked around the wall from the front of the bell tower to the back. The side of the can made a harsh noise as it scraped against the ground, and a black liquid leaked out. The nauseating smell of stale oil filled the air.
The can was empty by the time she’d gone halfway around the tower, and when she casually let it go, it rolled along the ground at her feet with a cheap clatter. The remaining dregs of oil spilled out and spattered their stains across the ash-black ground.
She stood by the wall and took a lighter out of the pocket of the duffle coat, bringing it close to the end of the torch she’d wrapped with cloth. With a crackle, its flame flared up for an instant before her eyes, then immediately jumped to the cloth she’d stained with oil. The torch began to blaze with an amber glow in the dark square, and heat and tiny sparks rained down on the face of the girl as she looked on in silence.
Burn her to death!
She could hear someone’s voice sounding in her ears. Hurry and burn her to death! Burn her very bones to ash! Or else she’ll come back to life! Accompanying the provocative, half-crazed cries, she saw the scene of that day unfolding within the torch’s flame. There were the townspeople surrounding the stake constructed in the central square, brandishing their fists and looking possessed. But the next moment, cries of distress rose up not from the person bound to the stake, but from the townsfolk. Fanned by the strong winds, the fire they had stoked to burn harder and fiercer leapt through the square, attacking the crowd in the blink of an eye and devouring them with tongues of flame.
She could see herself, too, darting this way and that, stuck smack-dab in the middle of the crowd frantically running about. Walls enveloped in black smoke crumbled in front of their eyes, blocking their escape, and flame jumped to the hem of her maid’s uniform. She hurriedly tried to put it out, but beating it with her hands had no effect, and her arms and legs glowed bright red like heated iron; her skin peeled off; her bones melted—
The girl snapped back to her senses with a gasp and surveyed her body.
The duffle coat wasn’t burning. Neither were the arms inside it, or the legs below it. Lively sparks popped up from the tip of the torch she still held, but that was all.
She sighed and lifted her eyes to gaze at the torch’s flame again. It was still just a little fire now, but when she dropped it to the ground, it would be fanned by the wind and blaze throughout the town in no time, and then whirling tongues of flame would engulf everything.
Just like they did that day.
Tonight, she would recreate the Great Fire with her own hands. All these people who’d forgotten the tragedy their own foolishness had wrought back then, who actually used it to make merry in front of the tower… Since simple threats hadn’t sufficed, she needed to teach them a lesson with a real nightmare.
The hand that held the torch was trembling slightly. Her heartbeat quickened.
It’s okay. You have to do this. The girl rallied her quailing emotions, forcibly reminding herself that she hadn’t had hands or a heart in a very long time; this trembling and pounding belonged to the owner of this body, not to her.
She returned the lighter she’d been gripping to the pocket of the jacket and gripped the torch in both hands. Slowly, she lowered it to the oil-stained ground. When she let go, everything would begin, and then everything would very rapidly end—
“What are you doing?”
She whirled around, startled at the voice interrupting her thoughts. A person appeared out of the shadow of the bell tower.
“Who are you…?”
The girl stiffened, partly at the suspicious look of this woman wearing a scarf low over her eyes in the pitch-darkness, but mostly intimidated by her sharp air. Still, she thrust the torch in front of her and threatened for all she was worth. “D-Don’t come any closer!”
“Get out of her body right now,” the woman ordered menacingly, taking a step toward her. Still holding the torch high, the girl took an equal step backward.
“If you come near me, I’ll light the fire for real! Th-This girl will get caught up in it and die, too. So stay away from—”
“Kieli.” The woman raised her eyebrows crossly and called the other girl’s name. “I know you can hear me.”
“Wh-What are you—”
“You’re still conscious, aren’t you, Kieli?”
“What?” the girl squeaked, utterly surprised. “Y-You’re lying!” Reflexively she raised the torch above her head and began to bring it down toward the ground, as if she were driving off something within her, but then someone else’s will took over her muscles and stopped her arms. “No! Why…?” How can she interfere with me?! In her confusion, she swooped the torch around randomly but the other person’s will got in her way and she could manage only stiff, awkward movements. “No! Don’t come out!”
She resisted with all her might, and a spark flew from the torch she brandished to the cuff of her coat. A sensation that by rights she should have lost long ago shot along the back of her hand. “Hot!”
That instant, in the back of her mind she saw the skin of that hand peel off and the arm begin to melt, dripping like candy.
“No!” The girl waved her arms about wildly, though even she didn’t know whether she was trying to put out the fire or shoo away the illusion. However, the burnt smell only spread, and her efforts failed to extinguish the flames.
“Idiot! What are you doing?”
“Stay away from me!” Seeing the woman run toward her and sensing she was about to be overpowered, her panic increased; when she struck the woman’s face with the torch, she was appalled at her own actions. Her aggressor’s scarf was consumed in seconds!
Unfazed, the woman merely ripped off the scarf and threw it onto a patch of ground unstained by oil. Then she grabbed the girl’s sleeve and, with total disregard for her own burning palms, beat out the fire there bare-handed.
As the woman ended her performance by putting out the torch with the heel of her boot, the girl numbly collapsed to the ground. Sitting on her backside in a daze, she looked up at the woman standing before her.
The abandoned scarf revealed a pale profile that was beyond lovely despite the minor burns. Lit by the remaining flames at her feet, her hip-length golden hair shone with a burning radiance as it streamed in the winds of Toulouse.
There was no comparison between this woman and herself, who had played a fake. Hers were the very features of the Witch of Toulouse—
Sighing aloud, the girl cursed her own foolishness. Why didn’t I notice until now? I admired her so much; I can’t believe I didn’t realize she’d come back.
“Kieli.” Done extinguishing the fire, the witch cast her a harsh look from the corner of her eye. “Chase her out. I’m fully aware you can do it, Kieli.”
At this, the girl’s shoulders jumped. She tensed her whole body, refusing to turn it over. I don’t want to give it up yet. Please, just a little longer…
Maybe the body’s owner had heeded her wish; this time, she didn’t interfere.
“What are you thinking, you idiot?” The witch’s expression turned sharply severe, and she stepped forward with her boot as if to put pressure on her. “If you’re not going to do it, I’ll drive her out of there, by force if I have to.”
“W-Wait, please, I…,” the girl broke in, but then she hesitated and trailed off midsentence. No, I have to say this now, since I’ve been given the time. Since I couldn’t say it to her directly back then.
Her mind made up, the girl threw herself to the ground before the witch’s boots.
“It was my fault! It was me who told the townspeople about you! And because of that, horrible things…”
“What are you talking about?” came the witch’s dubious voice from above her head. The girl continued, kneeling with her forehead practically touching the ground where the ashes of the scarf lay. “I’ve always wanted to apologize. They did such cruel things to you because of me… I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry…” Guilt, and yet also relief that she’d finally been able to say it, filled her heart. Her sobbing echoed in the darkness. The tears steaming down her cheeks stained the ground in countless places with smaller, more transparent marks than the oil had made.
After a while the witch, who had been standing there silently, crouched down with the toes of her boots pointing toward the girl. “… I see, so you’re the one who came to my cell that day.”
The girl nodded wordlessly, blubbering.
“Did you burn to death in the fire?”
There were a few seconds’ pause before she heard the witch’s voice again. “… What are you, stupid? Have you been unable to pass on this whole time because of that? Of course I knew one of the servants had let the secret slip. Even if you hadn’t said anything, someone would have leaked it eventually. Where do you get off acting like some tragic heroine all by yourself?”
The girl looked up, somewhat embarrassed by this ruthless speech, only to find the witch squatting and hugging her knees like a child, peering into her face—wearing a characteristic slightly mischievous smile, like when she’d come to the estate for the first time, like when the girl had first seen her and thought she was adorable.
“As you can see, I’m doing fine. You had a much harder time of it. You died suffering, all burned like that, right?”
She cast her eyes downward and shook her head. “I… I don’t mind! This is my punishment…!”
“I’m telling you, that’s what’s stupid,” the witch replied bluntly. “Come on, it doesn’t matter now. I’m not bothered by a little thing like that anymore. It’s actually more of a burden to have you forever worrying about it… honestly, I don’t know why so many of the people around me have such troublesome personalities.”
There was an exasperated sigh, and a soft, gentle hand stroked her head.
A voice echoed in her mind.
It’s all right now, isn’t it? You suffered for a long time. I’m sure you must be tired… It’s all right now…
She felt her consciousness slowly melting away, as if she were being enveloped in a soft light and purified.
Whispering her thanks to the other consciousness that spoke to her from within her mind, the girl returned the body to its rightful owner, as was only right.
The scenery filling the train window was an endless, boring, sand-colored sky and a gently sloping wilderness that carried the soft eastern winds to Toulouse. The train sped along the wilderness tracks, spouting a long stream of smoke the same color as the sky and painting the scenery an even more monotonous hue.
Once they exited the city of Toulouse, the tracks bent north-northeast and headed at last for the border between the Westerbury and North-hairo parishes.
“You’re unbelievable—you’re unbelievable—you’re unbelievable—you’re unbelievable—”
That same line was still being repeated over and over again. Kieli had already heard it thousands of times since this morning. She slouched in her seat and seriously wondered why human ears had no lids. Rebukes continued to pour from the speaker of the radio she’d placed by the window, which had no way of knowing how she was feeling. It seemed the radio had been raging around in its own radio way and fallen off the side table, because when she’d awoken in the morning it had been lying facedown on the floor spewing curses and static.
Apparently it’d been purely Kieli’s imagination that he’d grown quiet lately.
“Why would you do something so reckless?!”
“I got this feeling it’d work out okay somehow…”
“Oh, I see, ‘okay somehow’… It’s not okay at all!”
At his loud cry of anger, Kieli hastily reached over to turn the volume down, but apparently the radio had realized its error, and it broke off in a fit of coughing. Kieli thought the lecture was over, but this naive expectation was promptly dispelled as it merely continued in a somewhat modulated voice.
“You’d better never do that again. Got that? Swear it to me.”
“What, you’re not going to tell me you have some kind of problem with that?”
“Listen, we’re lucky that this time it just happened to be a ghost who meekly left by herself; if she’d been a normal spirit there’s no TELLING what could’ve happened. Dead people want to drag others along with them. It’s their nature. It doesn’t matter whether the spirit wishes for that consciously or not; it’s just the way things work…”
She’d heard that hundreds of times already today, too.
Kieli did feel a certain guilt for having worried him, but even she was sick of this tirade, which seemed likely to go on until the next station if she was unlucky. She let it flow in one ear and out the other, glancing at the seat across from her own.
Beatrix was glaring unhappily at the scenery with one elbow propped against the window. Apparently the reason she’d been scowling as if she hated the whole world since this morning was not the burns on her face and hands, which had healed to the point where you’d notice them only if you looked for them, but rather the fact that a lock of her precious hair was burnt. The right cuff of Kieli’s coat was rather charred, too, and there was a large adhesive bandage on the back of her hand that covered a slight burn.
“How could you tell?”
Without moving from her position, cheek leaning against her hand, Beatrix glanced her way and responded with a question. “Tell what?”
“That I was conscious.”
Maybe the ghost’s ego had been weak; though everything had been hazy as a dream, Kieli had technically been conscious even while possessed. The moment she’d been released she’d fainted, and when she’d opened her eyes, she’d been lying on her hotel bed and her burn had been treated.
“ ‘How’? I can’t believe you…” Beatrix said with a sigh, thoroughly disgruntled. “Because you put the lighter back in your pocket instead of tossing it away.”
“Oh…!” Kieli found this convincing. She felt for the lighter through her coat. It was important to her, so after the girl had lit the torch, her will had automatically exerted itself to put it back in her pocket, and that had been how she’d noticed that she could interfere with the girl’s ghost.
“Honestly, everybody just gives me trouble,” Beatrix spat irritably, and returned her gaze to the scenery. Watching her face with its faint traces of the burns, Kieli abruptly realized something. She’d never once shown the lighter to Beatrix, and it had never come up in conversation—how long had Beatrix known?
She remembered the sensation of Beatrix’s hand at the end, felt through the ghost of the girl. Maybe that hand clumsily stroking her hair even as the woman complained that she must be an idiot hadn’t been meant just for the other girl, but also for her. It was just a “maybe,” though.
The conversation died, and Kieli propped her own elbow against the window, casually directing her eyes outside.
The scenery barely changed at all even though they were going quite fast. On the other side of the long stream of sand-colored gas, the sky and the earth came together to form the hazy horizon line. Although they were still just faint, low shadows beyond the horizon at this point, at the far north end of the continent the contours of the rocky mountain range that sprawled from one end of the world to the other like a rampart were coming into view.
Again feeling a small but heartfelt guilt for worrying them, Kieli murmured “Sorry…” in a voice that both Beatrix and the radio could hear, but that didn’t sound intended for either of them.
Excerpted from Kieli, Vol. 4 (novel) by Excerpted by permission.
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