Things are getting busy in real life again, which means slower updates for both Vamp! and Allison. Sorry about that.
Chapter 3: Fiona’s Valley
“Since we’ve got a car, what do you say to going for some tea at one of the villages across the lake? Let’s enjoy the view.”
The car was driving over the frozen lake. Allison, still wearing her sunglasses, addressed Wil, who was wearing his goggles. She was still speaking in Bezelese, perhaps because of their conversation with Benedict just earlier.
“I’d love to, but there’s a bit of a problem. I didn’t get the chance to tell you earlier.” Wil replied, also in Bezelese. The conversation naturally continued in that language.
“What is it?” Allison asked.
“Well… I don’t have a lot of money on me right now.” Wil said apologetically. “I wasn’t planning to go shopping today, so I left the money in the safe. All I have is some loose change to use for telephone calls.”
“I love how thoughtful you are, Wil. Don’t worry about the money—I have enough. The payout from this training session was pretty good.” Allison said, gently tapping her bag.
“You… made money from the training session?” Wil asked curiously.
Allison boldly took her eyes off the road, meeting Wil’s gaze.
“That’s right. Our whole unit teamed up and stuffed our luggage full of canned caviar.”
“Right before this training session, we were on standby at the base by Lure River. The exact location’s a military secret, but what’s the first specialty that comes to mind when you think of Lure River?”
“Exactly. Caviar’s relatively cheap because the base is in the mountains. We bought a load of caviar straight from the producers, and shipped them on our aeroplanes as personal belongings. Then we sold them in Iks. It was a pretty big haul.”
“For your information, our unit went out yesterday and bought a load of gold accessories. We’ll be sneaking them to the capital to sell for a profit. We already looked into a place that’ll give us a really good deal.”
“So… uh… this would be… smuggling.” Wil said hesitantly. Allison shrugged without a care.
“Our unit calls it ‘independent and invaluable experimentation for the research of cargo transport via aeroplane’.”
The mountain winds on the frozen lake slowly grew stronger.
But it was difficult to sense that change from inside a moving car. Soon, the wind had grown strong enough to blow away the snow piled on the ice.
Allison and Wil’s field of vision blanked out instantly. Allison took her foot off the gas pedal and stopped the car, but the roof continued to rattle. At times, the frame of the car itself shook. Furious gusts scattered the snow on the lake, making it impossible to see.
“Urgh…” Allison groaned. “So much for the meteorology team!”
“The area’s prone to quick shifts in the weather. But in any case… this is really something else.”
Wil lowered his goggled slightly and looked out at the blowing snow with wonder.
“What do you want to do, Allison? The wind might let up soon. Should we wait?”
Allison thought for several seconds in the stranded car.
“Let’s do this: instead of waiting for the wind to stop, let’s get to the nearest village we can find, even if we don’t make it across the lake. Unfortunately for us, we can’t trust the heating in this car.”
“But will we be all right, just barging into any old village? I heard that some people in the countryside don’t trust outlanders.”
Allison reacted, surprisingly animated.
“Oh? But Iks is part of Roxche, and I’m part of the military that defends it. And you’re an innocent civilian, Wil. Why wouldn’t it be all right? Let’s head north. Once we reach the shore, we’ll either turn left or right and go into the first village we see.”
Keeping an eye on the compass in the car, Allison slowly drove northward. The lone windshield wiper squeaked from one end of their vision to the other.
At points along their drive, the wind weakened momentarily and cleared their view—seconds later, it began to howl again, blinding them. Snowflakes rushed inside through the gap between the roof and the frame.
“Listen to that wind. If the engine gives out, we’ll be stranded and helpless.” Allison said, sounding rather amused.
“I’d prefer if that didn’t happen.” Wil replied.
Eventually, Allison stepped on the brake pedal and brought the car to a stop. Wil looked ahead. To his shock, he spotted a steep slope covered in coniferous trees through the slightly weakened snowstorm. They were right next to the lakeshore.
“Your eyesight really is amazing.”
The road that ran along the shore was left covered in snow, as it had no use during the winter anyway.
“We’re here. So which way? Left or right? Although it probably won’t make much of a difference either way.”
“It’s up to you. But make sure you go along the shore, so we won’t lose our way.”
Allison agreed, and thought for two seconds.
“It’s decided! We’ll go the opposite direction from the one we went last time.”
She turned the steering wheel.
“Okay.” Wil said.
He then added,
“Wait. ‘Last time’?”
* * *
After seeing off Allison and Wil, Benedict returned to his tent, hung up his hat and coat, and took a seat.
Their empty mugs had already been taken away, and the table had been wiped clean. Benedict filled out his flight log and put it into his bag.
Pieces of furniture set up all over the large tent, and the man sitting aimlessly amidst it all.
Benedict looked down at the watch on his left wrist. Also known as a chronograph, it was a pilot’s wristwatch with a large face, also equipped with a stopwatch function.
He looked up at the ceiling.
“Ahem… today I now have no schedules. I have no work to do. I would have brought my Roxchean textbook.”
He looked at the gaps outside and mumbled to himself.
“Er… should have.”
He looked down and corrected himself.
“I now have no schedules. I lost already, so I think it would have been better to stop trying to show off and be honest, to go to have tea in town with them.”
Benedict stood. He put on his coat, grabbed his hat, and stepped outside. Once he did, he followed regulations and put on his hat.
A female officer happened to be passing by the tent. She was carrying a thermos, probably on her way back from delivering warm drinks to her fellow soldiers.
The instant she spotted Benedict, she saluted him and began to follow at his side. And without even being prompted, she introduced herself in great detail. She did not fail to mention the fact that she was two years his junior. She went on to praise him for the discovery of the mural, thank him for participating in the joint training session, comment boldly yet honestly that he was much more handsome in person, report for no apparent reason that she was still single, explain the personal details of her ideal future in finding a husband in the military, insist that it was not a bad thing to think seriously of meetings brought on by coincidence, and—
“Excuse me.” Benedict said, disappearing into a tent labeled ‘Officers - Men’s room’.
Having lost her prey, the female officer exhaled loudly through her nostrils as though thinking, ‘This isn’t over yet—you’re not getting away from me’. She stalked past the tent two or three times before finally departing.
Lining the interior of the tent were pipes and sprinklers half-buried in the snow.
“It is very easy to shoot down targets that are coming to be shot down. But that is not very fun. That is not my way.”
Major Carr Benedict mumbled to himself in Roxchean in the deserted lavatory.
Wearing a pair of reading glasses, Benedict sat in his tent with a book in hand. On the cover was the title ‘Ideas for Great Baby Names’. He flipped through the pages rapidly, yawning on occasion.
Suddenly, a gust of wind shook the tent. Snow scattered down from the roof. Benedict put down the book and his glasses, and stepped onto his chair. Then, he unknotted and pulled on a string tied to the pole in the middle. A cover came over the gap in the roof. Benedict tied the string again to secure it.
He put on his coat and stepped outside. Powerful winds buffeted the snow, creating complete whiteout conditions. Benedict looked on at the blankness for some time.
“This might be a good opportunity to play hooky…”
Pressing his hat over his head to keep it from flying away, and ignoring the snow piling onto his coat, Benedict inched his way to the next tent over in nearly zero visibility. He then headed to the next tent, carefully making sure of his heading.
When he finally entered another dome-shaped tent, shaking off the snow from his coat, the bespectacled captain who had guided Allison and Wil quickly stood and saluted him.
“Come in, Major!”
A second lieutenant and several first lieutenants, who were drinking tea around the stove, got to their feet as well. On their chests were bird-shaped badges that identified them as pilots.
“At ease, Captain. There was something I wanted to ask you.” Benedict said, saluting back. Everyone but the captain returned to their seats, slightly nervous. They looked at Benedict with a mix of pure admiration and detached wonder—as though he were from another world altogether.
The captain, who was older than Benedict but subordinate in rank, spoke to him with deference.
“I suppose it wasn’t a very fun read after all, sir. Apologies, but that’s the only book I brought this time.”
“It’s not about the book, actually. And it was an interesting read in its own right. Although it’ll probably be a long time before I need all that information.” Benedict said. “Let me get to the point. The wind’s picked up quite a bit.”
“It has, sir. Meteorology’s no help in these parts. We might be in for a snowstorm tonight.”
“There’s nothing we can do about that. It’s not possible to get perfectly accurate forecasts. But back to the point.”
“If I were to leave the camp, would you take care of the rest?”
The captain was confused. Benedict continued.
“I’m afraid my two friends from earlier might have gotten lost in the snowsquall. I’d like to go look for them.”
“They’ll be all right, sir. Since they headed north, they’ll have reached the lakeshore—”
The captain stopped mid-sentence. He remembered how Benedict had come all this way earlier to borrow a book he wasn’t even interested in.
“If you’d keep this quiet from the others, sir. The higher-ranking officers won’t be coming back from the party until tomorrow evening. No one here will make a fuss if you happened to be away, Major.” He whispered.
The Sou Be-Il Air Force Base’s inspection point was being buffeted by the snow.
It was there that a rather unusual vehicle was being prepared.
The frame was one meter in height and three meters in length, and was made of wood. On the left side was a door, and tiny windows were built into the front and either side. On the round hole in the roof was a swivel window for blocking the wind. The vehicle was painted completely white to blend in with the snow, but the roof was a bright orange.
Ski dampers with their springs exposed were fixed to the thick shafts jutting from the front and back of the vehicle. The skis were 2.5 meters in length and 40 centimeters wide. Four of them were supporting the frame, which was suspended above the ground.
There was a shining black engine at the back of the frame. It was an air-cooled engine used in aeroplanes, surrounded by five cylinders. And at the very back were two large propellers, just like an aeroplane’s.
“This is my first time driving an aerosan.” Benedict said, standing next to the vehicle in his coat. He was not wearing his uniform cap, but a fur-lined winter hat. He was also wearing his goggles and gloves.
An aerosan was a propeller-driven sled. It was a vehicle developed for high-speed travel on snow and ice, and boasted a longer history than the snowmobile, which combined the use of skis and caterpillar tracks.
The aerosan in front of Benedict was a small two-seater. Normally, the driver would take the front seat and a soldier would stand in the back seat, where a machine gun was equipped. At this point, of course, the machine gun had been removed for the joint search-and-rescue training. The joint training was also the reason the roof had been painted orange.
On the side of the frame were the perfunctory words ‘Confederation Air Force’. This aerosan was originally made in Roxche, and it was one of three that the Sou Be-Il Air Force had borrowed for the training session.
“It’s much easier than it looks. Think of it as similar to taxiing an aeroplane. I’m sure you’ll get used to it in no time, Major.” Said a middle-aged sergeant first class as he taught Benedict how to operate the aerosan.
Similarly to a car, the aerosan had three pedals and a round steering wheel. The center pedal was the gas pedal—pressing down on it increased the rotation speed of the propellers. The pedals on the right and left were brakes for the front skis and the rear skis respectively. When the steering wheel was turned, the front skis turned in the same direction and the rear skis in the opposite direction.
“Simple, isn’t it? You’ll get used to the rest as you drive, sir. We also have translated manuals in the toolkit in the back, just in case. That is all, Major.”
Benedict thanked the sergeant first class.
“Major Carr. Take this.” Said the captain. The sergeant first class handed Benedict a white case.
It looked like a cushioned case for an instrument, seventy centimeters long and forty centimeters wide. Attached to it was a leather shoulder strap and a handle. Inside was the submachine gun that the soldier was holding until just now.
“Just in case, sir. Roxche has also permitted officers to carry firearms.”
Benedict tried to refuse.
“Sir, we’ve received warnings that bears and wolves that have failed to hibernate roam the region in this season.” The sergeant first class said. In the end, Benedict had no choice. He took up the case and put it in the shelf of the aerosan so it would not fall out.
The captain offered him a map, but Benedict replied that he had the gist of it memorized, and that he did not want to risk losing such valuable documents they borrowed from Roxche.
“And there’s no guarantee that those maps are accurate. We leave intentional errors in the maps for the border areas as well. Marks for villages and marshes that don’t exist, or the other way around.”
“That’s true. We’ve also got some hand-copied maps, if you’d like.”
“Actually, do you have a piece of paper I can take notes on?” Benedict asked.
“Plenty sir. We found some advertisements for a film in town earlier—souvenirs to take back home.”
With an embarrassed look, the sergeant first class took out a twice-folded piece of paper from his pocket. Benedict unfolded it and found a picture of a suit-clad man.
Ignoring the fact that this was not an advertisement for a film, Benedict checked that the back of the poster was blank, thanked the sergeant first class, and tucked it into his pocket.
“I’ll probably be back before sundown.” Benedict said.
“Please be back by tomorrow evening at the latest, sir. Take your time.” The captain replied.
“…You don’t have to be so blunt about it…”
“Take care, Major.”
Shaking the snow off his head and shoulders, Benedict climbed into the aerosan. Sitting in the passenger seat, he called in a loud voice.
“I’m starting the engine! Watch out for the propellers!”
He looked out through the hole on the side. The sergeant first class signaled him with a thumbs-up and a wave. Benedict pressed down on the brake pedals with his feet and pressed the ignition switch.
The aerosan began to rumble. With a roar, the engine came to life. At the same time, the propellers began to spin and scatter snow behind them.
When Benedict took his feet off the brakes, the aerosan slowly began to move.
As the aerosan departed, its engines still warming up, the captain muttered.
“Phew… That’ll take the pressure off the soldiers and pilots. Though I suppose the women won’t be as happy.”
“It’s certainly uncomfortable being around a celebrity, sir. Although I can’t tell how the major thinks of his situation.” The sergeant first class agreed. He then added, “I’d never want to end up that way, personally. It’s a shame for him.”
The captain nodded and wiped the snow from his glasses with a gloved hand.
“There’s no one in the world who doesn’t know his face. He’ll never be able to live a normal life now. It’s a lonesome thing, I’d wager.”
* * *
“This must be the entrance to one of the valleys.” Allison repeated.
“Probably…” Wil answered.
Their car was currently on a concrete ramp, which was used in the summer to lower boats into the lake. About thirty meters ahead of them was the snow-covered road. Although the weather made it difficult to see far ahead, the forests on the mountain ridges on either side were visible—but there was nothing of the sort directly ahead.
“If we keep going in this direction, we’ll find a village. It doesn’t look like the snow is piled up quite as high over there, so we might find some cleared roads up ahead. …Man, that was a lot of effort.”
Wil looked out through the windshield. A narrow valley seemed to lead into an endless world of white, veiled by the snowsquall.
“There’s something eerie about that valley.”
“C’mon, Wil. Don’t worry. You have me!”
Allison energetically started the car, driving up the ramp and into the valley. The wheels occasionally drove into the snow, but the chains were enough to propel the car forward smoothly.
“The wind’s gotten weaker.” Wil commented. Visibility was improving.
“It’s because we’re in the valley now. But it’s dangerous in the air overhead—I can guarantee that there’s some crazy turbulence up there right now.”
Wil nodded. Little by little, their field of vision grew wider.
The valley was tucked in between the snow and the woods. The car slowly drove into the narrow space, a world away from the wide-open lake from before. The road snaked left and right in a gentle upward slope. The only sign that the ground, covered in nothing but fresh snow, was a path, were the tree trunks standing at regular intervals. Round boulders wearing hats of snow lay by the little creek to their right.
The car slowly proceeded forward. Soon, four rectangular ponds appeared between the road and the creek. The artificial ponds, surrounded by wooden fences, were dug deep so they would not freeze. Water from the creek circulated through them. The ponds were a small fish farm, filled with countless squirming fish. Next to them was a small shed, nearly crushed under the weight of fallen snow.
Soon, the howling winds came to a sudden stop.
Allison and Wil exclaimed at once. Blue skies unfolded overhead as the scenery around them came into clear view. They could see a village just ahead of a curve.
At its widest, the valley spanned a distance of about three hundred meters. Inside was a plain wider and flatter than the valley entrance. The land was sloped slightly, ascending towards the far end of the valley, and in the middle flowed a small creek.
The road ran through the center of the valley, parallel to the creek. And before the side roads branching from it stood several houses. Most were similar in construction—rectangular, single-story buildings with chimneys sticking out the middle. Unlike the city, however, the roofs here were painted brown. The edges of the roofs jutted out at length, supported by slanted columns to prevent the weight of snow from damaging the roofs and windows. Next to the houses were enclosures for livestock, sheds for storing firewood, and granaries.
There was a large distance between one house and the next. The homes were scattered, some even dozens of meters from the nearest neighbor. In the midst of it all was one point where several houses were clustered together around the main street. There stood a large stone steeple that overlooked the entire village.
The slopes to either side of the village were covered in trees. They were deep and dense groves, about thirty meters wide. With the village nestled inside, the woods reached all the way into the valley. The woods were there to prevent avalanches, having been left to grow for many years.
The patches of land between the houses were farming fields, all completely covered in snow. Trees grew in straight lines along the boundaries. There were yet more houses further into the valley, and deeper still was a snow-covered pasture. The pasture eventually gave way to a coniferous forest. Beyond rose the magnificent peaks of the Central Mountain Range, against the backdrop of the clear blue sky.
Stopping the car, Allison and Wil opened the roof and stepped outside. They stood on either side of the car. Finally free from the cramped seats, they stretched out as their breaths rose in puffs of white.
“Not bad at all. It’s your quintessential mountain village. I bet it’s really nice during the summer.” Allison said, leaning on the car with a hand on her waist.
Wil took off his goggles and put them around his neck. He then pulled down his hat to cover his ears.
“It’s already quite nice. I’m really glad we came here—I would never have been able to see places like this if I stuck with the class. It’s all thanks to you, Allison. I’m really grateful.” Wil said, looking Allison in the eye. His face was reflected in her sunglasses. A smile spread underneath.
“You don’t need to thank me, Wil. I’ll be dragging you around everywhere from now on.”
“What time is it now?”
Allison looked up at the sky, then down at her wristwatch.
“It’s precisely afternoon teatime. Let’s go!”
They climbed back into the car. Allison enthusiastically started the engine.
They did not even make it twenty meters ahead.
Their right wheel suddenly sank into the snow. The car stopped on the road at a slant.
The nearest house to the valley entrance was just by the roadside. The flimsy wooden door of the firewood shed by the house opened, and a middle-aged woman stepped outside.
She was probably just over forty—plump to put it nicely, and fat to be blunt. She was dressed just like the other women of Iks, with a shawl over her head as well. And because she was busy at work, she was also wearing a slightly dirty apron. She was carrying a wooden pail with a rag draped over the side.
“What the heck was that?!”
“There must have been a hole or a ditch on the roadside. We probably couldn’t see it because of the snow.”
“Ugh! They should keep their roads in better shape.”
“We’re not going to pull the car out of there on our own.”
“I’ve had it! Is someone out to get in our way or something?!”
Allison and Wil trudged through the snow, raising their voices. Wil’s goggles were atop his hat. Allison was wearing her sunglasses, with her bag around her waist. She had tied back her long blond hair and pulled it out of her coat.
The middle-aged woman, who had been watching at them in bemusement, soon put down her pail and waved at the two. They looked at her.
The woman cheerfully trotted over across the snow.
She smiled at Allison and Wil, looking unusually happy, and repeated herself.
“Nice to meet you, ma’am.” Wil said in Roxchean, finally switching over from Bezelese. Allison held back her frustration and greeted the woman as well.
“It’s very nice to meet you. It’s not every day we get visitors in a mountain village like this. Where do you come from? And my goodness! It’s my first time seeing someone with blond hair. That is natural, isn’t it? It’s really very beautiful. And your sunglasses are quite lovely, too. Are you an heiress, by any chance? I’m—”
Wil cut off the woman, who looked energetic enough for a three-day conversation.
“Um… we’re tourists from the lowland. We came from across the lake—from Mushke. Would it be all right, by any chance, to get some rest here and look around the village?”
“Oh my! Of course. You’re welcome to look around. Thank you for coming all this way.”
“Oh… Er, our car is stuck, too.” Wil said, pointing out the car about two hundred meters away.
“My, I’m glad you weren’t hurt. I’ll call the young men later and ask them to help you dig it out.”
Her frustration largely resolved, Allison turned to the woman.
“Is there anywhere here we could sit down for a quiet cup of tea?”
The woman thought for a moment.
“There aren’t any shops here, like in the city. But you should try the village hall—that’s where we go to rest. There should be an old lady there watching the building.”
She pointed them towards the steeple, under which stood the village hall. She also promised that once the village men returned, she would send them to the hall to meet Allison and Wil.
Allison’s anger abated. She and Wil thanked the woman and began to trudge through the snow once more.
The woman saw them off with a smile and a wave. She then picked up her pail and returned to her house without a care in the world.
Once she was inside, the woman put down the pail and sprinted all the way across the room. Snow fell from her shoes and scattered all over the floor. She then rushed down a flight of stairs that led to the stone-walled basement.
The light from a window high up in the basement dimly lit the room.
The woman went to a wooden box on the wall in a corner of the room. Inside was a large brass trumpet, which was connected to the wall and a pipe. The woman took up a small whistle hanging next to the box, and blew it into the trumpet. The sound carried into the pipe. It was a voicepipe, much like the mechanism often used on ships.
The moment she hung up the whistle again, another whistle came screeching through the pipe. Alongside it came—
<What is it? Over.>
It was the tense voice of a middle-aged woman. The first woman looked into the trumpet, clearly rattled.
“Outlanders. Two young people—a girl with blond hair and a boy. The girl is dressed like a soldier, but doesn’t seem to be one. They claim to be tourists from the lowlands. Their car has been caught in the trap at the village entrance. They claimed they wanted to have some tea, so I sent them to the village hall. Over.”
She uttered mechanically into the trumpet as though giving a report. There was a moment of silence.
<I see them. If they really are tourists, find an excuse and send them back. Is there anything I should note? Over.>
In the dark basement, the woman spoke into the trumpet.
“Yes. Both speak fluent Bezelese. Over.”
Another moment of silence. The response sounded even more nervous.
<The chief is out. What should I do? Over.>
“If we wait until something happens, it’ll be too late. We have to keep them here until everyone gets back. Over.”
<Understood. I’ll send word to the mountains. Over.>
“I’ll get back to monitoring the outsiders. I’ll also hide the car and cover up the tire tracks. Send anyone who can help right now. Let everyone know. That is all. Over.”
<I will. Over.>
The woman closed the lid of the box and reached for a rifle leaning haphazardly next to it. She took it in her hands, picked up a box of ammunition, and began to load the rifle at the desk.
There were about ten more rifles arranged neatly in the basement. The crisp sound of ammunition being loaded disturbed the silence of the room.
On the first floor of the village hall was a large room.
The first room they saw when they entered was long and rectangular. Inside was a large table made with thick logs cut lengthwise, as though to match. The legs of the table firmly supported a thick board, which made up a surface so large that over twenty people could sit around it.
At points along the stone walls were little alcoves for lamps. There were wooden shelves on the wall also, showcasing plates adorned with beautiful pictures, some dried flowers, and framed portraits. The light seeping in from the glass windows filled the room with gentle, soft warmth.
“This is beautiful. I like it.” Allison said to Wil, who was next to her on the bench. They were sitting at the edge of the table, next to the window. Allison had taken off her jacket and was wearing just her overalls. Wil had also taken off his jacket and hat.
“I’m surprised they were so kind to us, even though we dropped in without warning like that.”
“I told you we didn’t have to worry.”
A rotating door opened, and an elderly woman stepped in from another room. She was extremely old—her face was all wrinkles, and her back was arched. But her gait was steady and unflinching.
“Here. Have some tea.”
She was carrying a platter, on which were a steaming ceramic pot and two teacups.
“We’re just a little countryside village, so I’m afraid this is all we can do for you. But everyone does love my tea. I made it with the herbs I picked in the mountain during the spring. I hope it’s to your liking.”
The woman smiled, cheerfully pouring tea for the apologetic Wil and Allison.
They thanked her and picked up their cups. Allison checked the temperature before taking a sip. She had no complaints about the flavor.
Wil did not drink.
“I’m not very good with hot drinks.” Wil said, noticing the woman’s anxious gaze. He turned his sights to the ornaments decorating the walls.
“Excuse me, but…” Wil turned to the woman, pointing at a certain direction.
Allison and the woman followed his finger. There was a shelf high up on the wall, upon which were three wooden plates—or small platters—displayed side-by-side. They were in a rather inconspicuous position in the room, and would not have been noticed at a cursory glance.
Ornate designs were carved into each of them. On the plate on the left was a bunch of grapes, each and every fruit plump and appetizing. On the middle plate was a bird with its wings spread majestically. And on the plate on the right was a flower with long petals, its head bowed towards the right.
“Are those the crests of Iks’s royal family?” Wil wondered. The woman’s eyes widened.
“Oh my… I’m surprised you knew.”
Allison continued sipping her tea, looking at Wil as though urging him to continue.
“I did some research about Iks before I came here. I read that, instead of publicizing portraits of members of the Royal Family, each member has a crest with the image of an animal or a plant. And that the people of this country look upon the crests with reverence they would give to the Royal Family. That’s how I concluded that those must be the royal crests.”
“That’s correct. The one on the left belongs to Her Majesty, the one in the middle to His Highness, and the one on the right belongs to their daughter, the princess. Unfortunately, they passed away in a fire ten years ago. Such an awful tragedy.”
Wil began to take sips of his slowly-cooling tea.
“This is delicious. Thank you for your hospitality.” He said, swallowing. The old woman nodded satisfactorily.
“But you see, we still admire and respect the Royal Family. We truly love them. Even today, we consider ourselves their subjects—we could give our lives for them, and do even the most horrible things for their sake.”
Wil and Allison were at a loss for words. The woman smiled.
“Well, I’ll be inside. Take your time and relax.” She said, leaving the room with the platter under her arm.
Wil looked up at the three crests.
“A bunch of grapes, a hawk, and… what is that flower? I’ll have to look into it later.” Wil mumbled, fascinated.
“Right.” Allison sighed, completely uninterested. Wil turned.
“Maybe I’ll write my report on this. The teacher might be surprised.”
“I’ll have to borrow ‘Flora Unique to the Mountain Regions’ from the teacher later. I can’t wait to see what the princess’s crest means.” He said enthusiastically. Allison grinned.
“A crest, huh. So it’s just like me and my eel.”
“I think it’s a little different…”
“Aah, this is great. It’s so relaxing here.” Allison mumbled, sitting in a corner of the empty room with Wil. She picked up her teacup and leaned against the stone wall.
“Yeah?” Wil replied, his gaze fixed ahead.
“What are you going to do after you graduate?”
This time, he turned. Allison was still leaning against the wall, her eyes very slightly turned to Wil on her right.
Wil looked into her blue eyes as he answered.
“I don’t know. I’m sure by this time next year, I’ll have to start a new life. I don’t know if I’ll keep getting a scholarship from Raputoa to go to university there, or if I’ll take the entrance examination to Confederation Capital University—”
“Of course you’re going to Capital U!” Allison declared, getting to her feet. “You said before, didn’t you? Their faculty is talented, they have a big library, and the students are really smart. It’ll be best for you to study under the best conditions possible, right? Anyone would want to.”
“You’re right, but that might be difficult. I can’t graduate until this time next year, which means I’ll have to take the entrance examination afterwards, and I’ll have to start going to classes in the fall term at the earliest. If I want to do that, I’ll have to find a place to live in the Capital District until then. I’ll have to work to pay for rent and living costs, while studying at the same time—” Wil said, stifling a yawn. “It would be great if I made it into Capital U, but if I didn’t… it’d be all over. I’ve been thinking recently that I might as well get a recommendation and go to Raputoa University instead.”
Allison mumbled, disappointed. They were both silent for a time.
The stone-walled room in the valley of snow was so quiet that even the tiniest, softest of noises buzzed in their ears.
Allison broke the silence.
“But still… I wish you could go to the best school there is, Wil. …Say, I’m going to be flying around all the time, but I actually have to live in the Capital District, since that’s where headquarters is. And I could always request to be transferred to a unit in the Capital District, and… And, you know? I thought it might be nice if I could rent an apartment for myself. And if I do that, I think it’ll be best if someone was around to watch the house while I was off on missions. N, not that I’m looking for a housekeeper, but…”
Her head slightly bowed, Allison tightly held her nearly-empty teacup as she gazed into the ripples on the surface.
“So… umm… I’m not saying this just because I think it’ll be convenient, but…”
Ten seconds of silence later,
“After you finish secondary school, do you want to get an apartment together in the Capital District together with me?” Allison finally asked, her eyes still on the ripples. She ended up saying ‘together’ twice.
There was another moment of silence. Allison downed the rest of her tea in one go.
“Wh, what do you say?”
Another moment of silence.
Allison hesitantly turned.
Wil was leaning on the wall.
Wil’s eyes and mouth were closed. his head was bowed slightly, and his shoulders rose and fell at regular intervals. He was asleep.
“Hey! Wil!” Allison cried.
Immediately, she frowned and shook her head. Her long blond hair fluttered. Allison put down her teacup and placed her elbows on the table. She pressed down on the edge of her eye with her right hand as her eyes closed. She quickly opened them again.
“It can’t be… this tea—”
Alison glared at the teacup. Her upper body slowly collapsed against her will over her left arm.
As she fell to the table, her forehead hit the surface. Her golden hair slid down from her left shoulder.
The sound of Allison’s soft snoring filled the room.
* * *
“Oh my! Look, everyone! It’s the hero! Look!”
The aerosan was surrounded by people.
There was a large valley by the lake, under the clear blue sky. Houses were clustered together a little ways in, and in front was a pier lined with boats pulled up from the lake. The aerosan was parked there, and Benedict stood next to it.
And all around him were about twenty residents of this particular valley. The number of shrill-voiced women was only continuing to increase. When someone who didn’t recognize Benedict asked another person, he immediately received an answer: “You’ve got to be kidding me! This is the pilot from Cross-Mountain who found the mural!”.
“Er… Hello.” Benedict said in Roxchean. He was immediately bombarded with questions asking what he was doing here, if it really was him, or if he had a girlfriend.
It might have been a good idea to stay put, but Benedict wavered as he wondered which question to answer first, and without thinking gave the young women a small wave.
“He’s so handsome!”
“He’s looking at me!”
“You should sleep over in the village tonight!”
“Could you give me an aeroplane ride?!”
“Oh! Me too!”
“Please?! Pretty please?!”
“Steal me away!”
A cacophony of voices cried out at once.
“Come to think of it, I heard the military was holding a training session on the lake a while ago.” A forty-something man said to the person next to him.
“Excuse me. I would like to ask a question from you.” Benedict said to the man. He asked if a young man and a young woman happened to come to the village by car during the snowsquall earlier.
“Hey, he wants to know if anyone’s seen a young couple come in by car!” The man said to the other villagers. There was a moment of silence, before everyone began to answer that they did not see anyone matching that description.
“Tough luck. If they’ve come to the village, someone should have spotted them.”
“I understand. Thank you. I am looking for the two people. Can you teach—er, tell me the name of your village?”
The man gave Benedict the name of the village. Benedict took out the poster he brought and wrote down the name of the village, marked its location with an X, and jotted down the directions he had taken to come here. He then tucked it into his pocket.
“What are you going to do now?”
“Before, I went to the village beside the east. This time, I want to go to the village beside the west. There is a possibility that they are there.”
“I see. But I personally doubt that.”
“Why do you say so?”
“See, that village hates outlanders. So nobody around here likes ‘em. I once went over to deliver a message, and this pudgy woman bolted out of her house and interrogated me until my ears fell off. Asked me why I came to the village and all that. So no one goes there, and no one from that village comes outside unless they have to. Some people even say that the village is so shady because they’re so deep in that valley.”
The other villagers nodded, expressing their agreement.
“The entrance might be a bit hard to find, so take care of yourself. But I really doubt your friends’d be having a nice cup of tea there. Probably the village across the lake, I’d wager. It’s a big place—all the locals go there to have some fun, and that’s where the timber from the area goes. They’ve got a pier, lodgings, and restaurants. If they’re a couple, they’re probably there.”
“This must be it. It certainly is difficult to find.”
Benedict’s aerosan slowly traversed the ice, the propellers spinning. From the hole in front of the narrow seat he could see the entrance of the narrow valley at the lakeshore, and the ramp in front of it. The path inside was dark and winding. He could not see a village.
“If I take the aerosan, I won’t be able to turn.” He mumbled. “Should I just walk? Or should I just turn back and call it quits? But what if they really are here? Then again, Allison’d just get angry at me even if I do find them.”
The aerosan went round and round aimlessly on the lake.
Eventually, Benedict steered it towards the valley entrance. Even after he turned off the engine, the aerosan was propelled forward for some time by inertia. Benedict hit the brakes underneath an inconspicuous tree by the entrance, stopping the aerosan.
The aerosan had no keys or security devices. Benedict turned the stopper on the drum-shaped gasoline tank that took up most of the back of the vehicle, cutting off the fuel supply. He also pulled out he battery terminal. He covered the hole in the roof with a white waterproof cloth, then tossed two strong pieces of rope over it. He then nailed down the rope deep into the ice.
“Can’t have anyone stealing this.”
Benedict took out the submachine gun case and slung it over his shoulder.
He then began to walk towards the valley.
There was a continuous trail of footsteps leading into the valley from the entrance on. They spanned a width of about two meters, hardening the path into a walkway and making it quite easy to move along. Benedict nimbly marched into the valley. On either side of the path were deep forests, and the blue sky was beginning to cloud over.
“This place feels great. It’d be wonderful if I could buy myself a house here and live without anyone ever staring at me or asking questions.”
The glare of the sunlight against the snow was quite harsh, but Benedict took in the scenery regardless and cheerfully continued to walk.
Eventually, he spotted four black squares to his right. Artificial ponds used as a fish farm, dug by the creek.
As Benedict passed by the pond without giving it a moment’s thought,
He was stopped by a sharp female voice.
Benedict turned to the direction of the voice, on his right. There was a woman standing in front of a snow-covered shed.
She was quite young, likely in her early twenties. The woman was wearing a thick green dress made up of a mosaic of fabrics, a pair of winter tights, and a pair of boots. Her tall stature and slim figure accentuated the cut of her clothes.
Her black hair was nearly shoulder-length. She had snow-white skin and dark brown eyes.
“You, with the strange clothes! What are you doing here?” She asked distrustfully. She came over to Benedict, stepping along the footprints she had made earlier.
Benedict was stunned by the woman, who approached him with clear suspicion. He could not take his eyes off her, even until she came right up to his face.
The woman looked up slightly and directly into his eyes.
“Er… hello.” Benedict said in Roxchean.
“Who are you?”
Benedict was shocked for a moment, but his surprise quickly gave was to laughter. The woman was clearly not amused.
“What’s so funny?”
“N, nothing is. It was nothing.”
“Answer the question. Who are you? What are you doing at our village? I don’t know who you are, but we don’t want any outlanders here.”
Benedict slowly responded.
“Please let me introduce myself. My name is Carr Benedict. I am from Sou Be-Il, so Carr is my surname. Hello.”
“So you’re from Cross-Mountain…”
The woman looked even more dubious than before. But Benedict continued undeterred.
“Please do not be alarmed. I am from Sou Be-Il, but I received… er… permission from Roxche to work here. I did not do anything bad.”
“Then who gave you permission to come to our village? Please leave now.”
The woman was finished. She turned and headed for the village. Benedict followed her without a moment’s hesitation, keeping pace next to her. Because the woman was taking the middle of the footpath, Benedict had no choice but to struggle through the soft snow.
“I am sorry for making you surprised. Er, would you like to drink tea with me? I am not asking you to drink tea with me because I want to apologize. I will buy tea. I will tell you many things as we drink tea so that you will not be bored. I have many fun stories to tell you.”
“I’m not interested in endlessly listening to your awful Roxchean.”
Benedict desperately tried to continue the conversation, but he eventually shook his head in frustration.
“I am more smooth in my native tongue.”
“Ugh. Please. Everyone knows women hate tenacious men. Don’t follow me any more. This is our village, and we don’t like outlanders.”
The woman’s tone was cold as ice. Benedict slowed down.
“I am sorry. I did it because it has been a long time since I talked a conversation like this. It was very fun.” He said with a smile. The woman glanced dubiously at him. Then, she looked forward again and expertly walked down the snowy road. Benedict did not follow.
Benedict stopped as he made to return to the aerosan, quickly running after the slender woman.
“Please, wait! I have a request. It is a very important one. I forgot the real reason I came to this place.”
“What is it now?” The woman stopped and looked at Benedict unenthusiastically. Benedict repeated the question he asked at the eastern village.
The woman shook her head.
“I haven’t seen them. In fact, I’m looking for the other villagers myself—they’ve all disappeared somewhere. If outlanders really did come to the village, someone would have chased them out by now.”
Benedict nodded and took out the folded poster and a pencil from his pocket.
“I understand. Lastly, please teach me the name of this village.”
“No. Why would you want to know something like that? And what is that paper?”
“It is only a memo—”
Before Benedict could finish, the woman took a step forward and reached for the poster. She snatched it from his hands, but Benedict did not put up any resistance.
The woman stared at the map and legend Benedict had drawn.
“Is it a memo pad. I am looking for my friends. But because I do not know where my friends are, I am finding nearby villages one by one.” Benedict explained. The woman nodded, uninterested, and flipped over the poster. She then held it out to Benedict.
But as Benedict reached for the poster, she quickly drew back her hand. Benedict grabbed nothing but thin air.
“Oho. Are you telling a joke?” Benedict asked, amused.
The woman ignored him. She opened up the poster and closely examined the face of the man in the photograph. She froze. So strong was her gaze on the picture that she was practically drilling a hole through it.
“If this was a film, I could go see it with you. I am very sad.”
Benedict was a man who knew no surrender. The woman did not answer. A gentle wind blew past, shaking the poster and passing between the woman and the embarrassed Benedict.
About twenty seconds passed. Benedict looked at the woman from the side as she stood frozen.
To his shock, she was crying. Each time she blinked, tears streamed down her cheeks again. The woman was holding the poster in one hand, and holding her other hand in a clenched fist over her chest.
Benedict could do nothing but wait. He looked a little happier.
Eventually, the woman wiped her tears on her right sleeve, then took out a white handkerchief and properly wiped her face.
“Are you calmed down now?” Benedict asked with a smile.
With her right hand, the woman grabbed him by the collar and pulled him towards her with all her might.
Benedict’s face was less than twenty centimeters away from hers. He was leaning forward. She met his gaze, her eyes slightly red.
“Wh, what is it? Are you going to kiss me?” Benedict asked, bewildered. The woman stuffed the poster into her pocket and began to violently shake Benedict by the coat with both hands.
“Take me to the capital!”
“What…? Pardon me?”
“Take me to the capital! Take me to the capital! Right now! Do you understand me? Take. Me. To. The. Capital!”
“Er, please wait a moment. I do not understand what you are saying very much.” Benedict replied as the woman continued to shake him.
“You must have come by a vehicle! Take me to the capital on it! Take me to Kunst! Do you understand me? Take me to the capital! To Kunst!”
“I do not un-”
“Take me to Kunst! Right now! I’ll get ready as soon as I can, so now! Do you understand me? As soon as possible! To Kunst!”
“W, wait a moment. Please calm down…” Benedict said in Bezelese. The woman finally stopped shaking him.
“What did you say? Do you mean you understand?”
“No, no. I asked you to calm down. Please tell me the reason. Why you need to go to Kunst. And please let your fingers go of my coat.”
The woman finally released Benedict, her shoulders heaving up and down. She lightly shook her head and looked up at him, her short black hair fluttering in the wind.
“All right. I’ll explain again. I want to go to the capital by today or tomorrow by any means possible. Could you take me—”
A male voice cut in from behind them.
The woman turned, surprised. Benedict also turned. There was a man running over from the direction of the village. He was in his fifties, and sported a beard. There was a rifle slung over his shoulder.
“There you are, Fi!”
The man sounded like he was scolding her. The woman called ‘Fi’ did not answer him.
“You know better than to loiter by the pond in wintertime. What if you ran across wolves or bears?”
“Never mind that, now. Grandmother Jans needs more of her usual medicine. She doesn’t seem to be feeling so well, so hurry on and look after her.”
The woman nodded. The man urged her to quickly return to the village. As she turned, she met Benedict’s gaze. But that was only for a moment, as she quickly walked away. Her small silhouette grew distant.
“Wait… You there.”
Benedict turned to the man. The man suddenly stopped, then thought for a moment.
“I’ve seen you in the papers. Are you by any chance the hero who found the mural?”
“Incredible. So you’re Carr Benedict. I’d heard that there were Sou Be-Il pilots doing some training on the lake, but to think you’d have come along with them… it’s certainly amazing.”
“Did that girl pester you?” The man asked.
“N, no. That young lady and I only spoke. She said that she wants to go to the capital.”
“What? To Kunst? …Well, I suppose that’s only normal for people her age.” The man said, sounding a little astonished. He then asked the hero what he was doing here.
“I… am on vacation and came to tour. That young lady said that this village is not for touring. I was just thinking to go to another village. Please excuse me.”
As Benedict turned,
The man stopped him.
“You did a good thing there, announcing the mural to both sides at the same time. You deserve that nickname.”
Benedict and the man began to walk in opposite directions.
“‘Mr. Hero’, huh? …I’m only a fake, though… but anyway. It’s too bad I couldn’t get on her good side.”
Benedict mumbled to himself in Bezelese as he walked over the footpath.
“Hm. ‘Fi’ is probably a nickname. But she was beautiful. Although I suppose I’ll never see her again. ‘The biggest aeroplane is the one that got away’, they say.”
It had been some time since he had mumbled in his native language.
“Why was she crying? Does she know that man? …Wait! She took the map I was drawing. Ah well. If Allison and Wil aren’t in the next village, I’ll just have to get some tea and sweets there on my own.”
All alone, he talked to himself as he turned the last curve in the valley. He could see the valley entrance, the endlessly large frozen lake, and the nearly-straight road leading there. And the footprints covering the path.
“Right! They came by car, so if there aren’t any tire tracks, it means they haven’t come this way. I should have thought of that earlier. This was a waste of time.” He said, walking along the path with ease.
At that moment,
He froze. Very slowly, Benedict looked down at his feet.
The snow was sunken in the shape of a path, pattered down by countless footprints. The pathway, a little less than two meters wide, was shaped with perfect precision. It was also the width of a car.
Benedict knelt down and examined the footprints. The sizes and shapes of the countless soles were all similar. Upon close examination, he found that(other than his own) there were only three kinds of footprints making up the path. Many identical footprints were stamped on the snow in dense formation, sometimes overlapping. And some footprints were pointing not only forward and backward, but sideways as well. It was as though three people had intentionally patted down the snow with their feet.
Benedict searched for portions that were not stepped on. He felt almost idiotic, crawling in the snow, but Benedict was deadly serious. And soon,
There was a ten-centimeter gap between a pair of footprints. In that gap he spotted several oval shapes. They were marks from snow chains.
“Allison and Wil definitely passed through this way. And they haven’t come back through here.”
Benedict stood. He turned his gaze to the valley.
“And someone—probably the villagers—quickly covered up their tire tracks. So not only are they suspicious of outlanders, they’re also kidnappers and liars? This is one heck of a village.”
Benedict glanced at his wristwatch. The sun set earlier in the mountains than in the plains. There was only about an hour left until dusk. The sky was growing cloudy as well.
“I suppose they won’t welcome me either, but that doesn’t sound too bad for a change.”
With that, he quickly left the road and leapt into the woods next to the ramp.