Chapter 03 - The Challenge
It was not until the early afternoon, that the both of them met the
other residences of the castle. Despite being terribly busy with the final
preparations for the grand ball, the detective girl managed to acquire a
private conversation with each servant individually. The butler, gardener and
chef didn't notice anything amiss, as did none of the twelve maids.
Each time, she asked the same questions in a different way and commanded Len to write down the facts that were continuously confirmed. It resulted in the following tale: The letter was found yesterday in the late afternoon. The three guests of the Master and Lady were already staying over for a week, having arrived on the 2nd of October. The white candles for the ball arrived two days after their arrival. After that delivery, no letters or telegrams had been brought to the castle. No one had visited the castle between October the 4th and October the 9th.
The detective girl's hand clasped over his when he tried to pen down that the daughter, Julie Callisford, had been the one who found the letter in the middle of the ballroom. "There is no way we can confirm that as a fact," she had told him.
They soon met the acquaintances of the Callisford family. The brother of the Master was named Gaillard Callisford, a tall muscular man with a smooth voice and an even smoother way of words. His purple hair was of ridiculous length, tied together with a strip of ribbon and falling down the length of his back. Few men manage to grow hair of such length as it just isn't practical. His hairstyle alone radiated a status of wealth, something the clothes he wore only accentuated. Beads and pearls were sewed on the lines of a perfectly fitted jacket and the rich cotton blouse that was visible underneath it, contrasted nicely with the dark color of the uniform. His eyes were kind as he smiled upon the detective girl, taking her hand between his larger ones and thanked her for coming.
The lady next to him seemed just as proud and refined. Her long cherry blossom-colored hair was braided in a complex French braid, decorated with pearls and fresh flowers. A long beige dress with stuffed up shoulders was tight on the waist, making the skirt fall wide. Her voice was, when she introduced herself as Lucia Callisford-Vincostre, low and mature, yet still very feminine. Her sky blue eyes radiated intelligence and pride.
Lady Millina's personal friend eyed more free-spirited. The lady who introduced herself as Gillium Noverin, was a cheerful one who liked to talk, but did manage to remain her poise and grace as a lady. She didn't interrupt when a man had the word and she formulated her words carefully and very polite.
Her bright orange dress suited her open and prominent presence. A matching hat with a white lotus flower sat upon her short leaf-colored hair. Two longer strands reached her shoulders, while the others didn't go further than the length of her face. She was, something that was unusual for her age and status, unmarried. They learned that she has a betrothed, but on the other side of the Northern Sea.
When they finally met the Master of the castle, Keaton Callisford, the first thing the detective girl noticed was that he was a lot more reserved and distant than his brother. When he shook her hand in politeness, his deep blue eyes lingered a second longer than necessary. They were, like his hair, the color of the sea. Just like the sea he eyed beautiful, but also cold and unpredictable. The coat he wore was made of the finest material and also heavily decorated with sapphires, beads and pearls.
His daughter, Julie, was at her age well-spoken and polite. She was a perky little girl who even managed to make her stiff father smile. Her brown hair was divided in two pigtails, bouncing up and down when she walked. The dress she wore was a bright red color and reached to her ankles. The little girl didn't stay long. When she finished her lunch and the detective girl had asked her the necessary questions, she was immediately taken back to her room by one of the maids.
Len tapped the end of his pen against the notebook. Of course no one had seen anything suspicious. He wasn't allowed to write down any speculations, so he took that moment to take a small break, reaching for a glass of water.
"Well then…" The detective girl raised from her seat, capturing everyone's full attention with just those simple words. Different colored eyes gazed at each adult individually, her lips spreading into a keen smile. "Tonight, as you may have heard, there is the possibility that a serial killer will enter this castle."
Len nearly spat out the water he'd intended to swallow. Didn't she conclude that it was a fake letter this morning?
"The questions I've asked you were just standard procedure," she continued cheerfully. "The task of keeping this party without casualties will be a bit challenging in itself. Having noted that tonight's ball will be a masquerade, it will be harder to keep an eye on anyone suspicious. Therefore I must insist of setting up a few rules and boundaries…"
Lucia raised a skeptical eyebrow."What kind of boundaries?" she voiced.
The detective girl placed her hands behind her back and started circling the dining table, much like a lioness stalking her prey. "A full facial mask is out of the question," she announced."It would be too convenient for our serial killer to sneak in and use such a mask to keep his identity a secret from us. None of you, nor our guests, are allowed to wear one. I need the servants to be strict at the entrance. Anyone entering with a mask that covers their entire face, must turn it in at the entrance en proceed the masquerade without one."
Lady Millina looked hesitant, turning her head to her husband. "Darling, didn't you have that silver mask especially made for…" she trailed, but stopped when he raised his hand to stop her flow or words. Sea-colored eyes focused on the detective girl.
"I will not wear it. I believe I have a mask somewhere that will meet with your conditions, detective," Keaton Callisford told her.
The blonde lifted her chin, the hint of a smile on the edges of her lips. "Even more important is the second rule I wish to bestow on you… I want to know where you are at any given time. I need to know exactly what clothes you are wearing and I forbid you to leave the ballroom unannounced."
Gillium smiled nervously. "…Pardon me and forgive me if I am mistaken… but it sounds like you're accusing one of us to be the culprit… Isn't asking us not to leave without permission, perhaps a little childish?" It was not just the lady that seemed to be concerned about this. One glance around the table was enough to confirm that her thoughts were shared. Gaillard and Lucia exchanged a hesitant glance and Millina worriedly stared at the detective girl.
This only caused the smile on her face to grow. "Oh, not at all…" she chuckled. "While the threat wasn't directed at one particular person, I do share a heavy responsibility of taking care of you. My wish is to keep you alive for tonight, that is all. It's challenging enough without you walking in and out."
The blue eyes of the writer clouded in doubt. Seconds passed in a tense silence, when Millina parted her lips… but then her husband rose from his seat and she fell silent. "I agree to these terms," he announced.
"Perfect. That is settled then," the red-eyed girl detective replied. The owner of the castle has given his approval. Ironically, it didn't matter what the rest of them thought now. This was already a closed deal.
Her steps echoed through the empty ballroom as she wandered off by herself, leaving him to carry the heavy ladder by himself. Of course. He should have expected that when she asked him to retrieve it.
"Right here should be fine," she then told him with a far too innocent-looking smile on her face. Did she really expect him to fall for that?
"It's really heavy, you know," he panted, using every muscle in his body to lift the object a few feet closer. He was almost there… almost.
She placed her hand in the side of her hip. "Then you'd better grow a backbone soon, Len, because we have seven more chandeliers to search," was her helpful advice.
He narrowed his eyes, annoyed with her cold behavior and for a moment, he considered letting her try carrying the heavy object by herself. She needed his help as his 'assistant' just as much as he needed to write this story.
"You lied to them." He moved the ladder in place and unfolded it, relieved to have a break from the labour. "You don't want to keep an eye on them, because they're your responsibility. You want to keep an eye on them, because you're convinced that one of them is the culprit."
The detective girl radiated a certain arrogance in her stance, lifting her chin and folding her arms together. "I have my reasons for suspecting them," she then confirmed.
Len heaved a sigh. "I know that you're thinking that the culprit is among them, but even if you can prove that one of those candles was used to seal the fake letter… The culprit could still be one of the servants."
"Yes, that is true," she admitted. "It would be irresponsible to disregard the servants, especially this early in the investigation." She placed her hand on the rung, looking up to her destination high above. The individual pieces of crystal sparkled brightly, even in the semi-darkness of the room. "I'll keep an eye out. But call it intuition, I guess."
She located her foot on the first step of the ladder.
The firm grip on her arm made her pause. "Hold – wait," he called out, making her turn her head. "It's too high– I don't want you climbing it."
Different colored-eyes stared back at him. "Huh…." She mused. "You're easily worried, aren't you?" she uttered, raising her eyebrow at him. "Either way, you're being childish. Release me at once."
Blue eyes flared in restrained anger. "It's dangerous," he countered. "It's too high and the ladder isn't – You're just not going to climb it. I won't let you."
"Then you tell me how I should investigate this chandelier," she then countered. "I need to reach the ceiling and I don't have wings growing on my back, you know."
"I know," he beamed, nodding solemnly at her statement. "I'll climb it."
This only seemed to irritate the detective girl as she narrowed her eyes at him. "Definitely not," she coldly stated.
"I'm serious!" he exclaimed. "I can do this - "
"So can I," she interrupted. "I'm not helpless, despite of what you might think."
When he parted his lips to counter this, she slapped her hand in front of his mouth. He tensed when she leaned in, her face too close to his. "Listen, if you really want to help out, steady the ladder for me," she told him, before releasing her grip on him.
The writer hesitated and she took that wavering moment to move along. With only five steps, the wooden ladder was already starting to shake. He quickly complied, clutching it tight. He bit the inside of his cheek restlessly when she climbed higher, completely unfazed by the danger. "Why, look at that!" she laughed, once she reached the top. "We might not have to search seven more chandeliers."
"Great," he flatly told her. "Now climb back down."
"Someone doesn't sound very enthusiastic," she commented loudly. She leaned back, glancing down at him. He flinched, feeling the ladder move when she shifted her weight. "You should be delighted, Len! This brings us closer to the culprit."
His frown only deepened. "I mean it," he claimed. "Come down."
To his abhorrence, she merely send him a childlike smirk.
"Wait – what are you doing!?" he shouted. She was stepping onto the second top rung, with only her knees to keep her balance. Her free arms moved towards the chandelier, reaching for the candle at the far back.
"No – stop. Come down right now!" he shouted up.
But she paid him no mind as her right foot reached the top rung. "In a second," she replied. Her hand reached for the candle with only her left ankle to bring support to a wavering stability. Fingers stretched out. He felt his heart drop when she nearly slipped forward that moment, clutching part of the chandelier to keep her balance, accidentally breaking off a piece of crystal that crashed right next to the ladder.
…That was it.
She steadied herself just in time to grasp the candle and the triumphed smirk that framed her face, only lasted for an instant. She managed to take a hold of the top rung with her hand, before she realized that something was amiss. The stability of the ladder disappeared… The sound of wood protesting along with his steps, made her heartbeat accelerate, alarmed by the clear warning signals. "Len, stop acting immature and climb back down right now!" she ordered him, glaring down at his ascending figure.
"No." His voice cut through the air, the determination in his narrowed eyes reaching her even through the broad distance. The ladder shook wilder the higher he climbed and even though he was aware of this, his desire to reach her was stronger than his fear of falling down. "You're coming down right now."
Her eyebrows frowned, looking uneasy as she stared back down at him. She did not attempt to move and the young man grew frustrated. The ladder started to shake more uncontrollably, almost tilting as he climbed faster. He wanted to close the distance between them as quickly as possible.
"Wait – stay there," she called out, feeling the wood shake underneath her.
"Come here," he commanded instead, reaching his hand out to her.
"No," she glared back, locking her grip on the rung. "Climb back down first!"
He gritted his teeth, the frustration reflected into a heated glare. The wood objectively creaked as he took another step. Her eyes flashed when he grabbed hold of her ankle. "Stop being stubborn!"
Angrily, she tried to shake him off. "I'm being stubborn!?" she yelled at him. "You're endangering us both! Get down and hold the darn ladder! It can't take both our w-.."
Her fingers twitched and her breath caught into her throat. In a second that seemed to last for an eternity, she slowly saw his blue eyes widen. She barely had time to part her lips and no words of warnings could be uttered.
The loud crash send a deafening echo through the ballroom.
For a moment, it was as if time stood still. There was only silence and the shock of the painful crash kept them both from moving. Her face was pressed firmly against his chest, his arms were still wrapped around her frame. In the last two seconds, he had managed to catch her and press her close against him. She had fallen on top of him and he had taken most of the hit.
She took a shaky breath, raising her head and staring back at him with two widened eyes. She blinked numerous times, her face pale and her lips parted. She seemed shaken when her eyes met his and for a moment he thought she looked… concerned. But reality quickly showered down on him and when she pulled herself up, the anger and resentment quickly returned in her eyes. The words she muttered weren't a kind 'thank you for catching me' or 'you look hurt, are you alright?' Instead they formed: "It's your own fault."
He shot her a foul look. He'd at least expected a little bit of compassion, but she was as brutal as always. He slowly tried to lift himself up, but the sudden sharp pain in his left shoulder made him wince, his hand instantly clutching it. "You're… welcome," he panted quietly as he sat up straight. The fall had knocked most air out of his lungs.
Two different colored eyes stared down at him, distant and cold. "Can you move it?"
He nodded, responding by moving his shoulder. A fracture was unlikely, but he could be expecting the largest bruise by tomorrow.
"Great," she voiced, monotonously. "We still have to investigate the entire food and drink supply. If you had broken anything, I would only pity your own senseless idiocy. But since you have become my assistant in this investigation, it is an inconvenience that could slow it down."
His teeth clenched together. Damn that hurts. Both physically and mentally. He didn't expect any help, so he was surprised when she held out her hand. Still irritated at her cruel response, he didn't take it. Something flickered in the different-colored eyes that looked down on him. She forcefully grabbed his hand instead and with strength he had never expected from her tender built, she lifted him up.
"Don't you ever do anything as careless as that again," she warned him, before stepping away. He was groaning out of pain and frustration, forced to follow her towards the door.