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Here's the first update of Allison II. Expect lots of exposition and novel-exclusive info.
Wilhelm Schultz: 17 years old. A fifth-year student at Lowe Sneum Memorial Secondary School in the Republic of Raputoa on the east side of the river. Wil is a laid-back student with an excellent academic record, who was abandoned at an orphanage at the age of three. Since the age of eight, he has been Allison’s friend, underling, trustworthy subordinate, and maybe even her—
Allison Whittington: 17 years old. A staff sergeant in the Roxcheanuk Confederation Air Force. She is part of the aircraft transportation unit. Allison has blond hair and blue eyes, and is extremely athletic. However, she is not a morning person. Allison often acts without thinking. She lost her father in battle when she was eight years old, at which point she was brought to the orphanage where she met Wil.
Carr Benedict: 24 years old. The youngest major in the history of the Allied Kingdoms of Bezel-Iltoa. He is known as a hero who made a historic discovery. Benedict is extremely popular with women, but he is less than pleased with his newfound stardom. ‘Carr’ is his family name.
When the great shadow passed over the sky,
Day returned to night.
Light returned to the room.
I met me.
‘I’ looked so very sad.
‘I’ looked so very kind.
‘I’ knew everything.
‘I’ left everything to me.
All this time, I did not understand.
All this time, it was a mystery.
I was a child.
I grew into an adult.
But all this time, I did not understand.
All this time, it was a mystery.
Until one day,
When a man known as a hero came to us.
I had no interest in heroes.
But that man
Brought with him the final piece of the puzzle.
Who am I?
Where did I come from?
Where must I go now?
All alone, I…
Chapter 1: Letters and Conversations
Dear Mr. Wilhelm Schultz,
How are you, Wil? It has been a long time since I last wrote to you.
It has gotten much colder recently. Are you healthy? I always worry that you might kick away your blankets in your sleep and end up catching cold. As usual, there is no need for you to worry about my health, at the very least. Mostly thanks to my sleeping bag.
I am currently writing this letter from a certain base in a certain country in the Roxcheanuk Confederation. As usual, the precise location is a military secret and cannot be revealed. I am not trying to hide anything—after all, I just wrote that I am keeping this secret.
You might think this is strange, Wil, but as usual, I am writing to you in a very formal way. I remember you asked me about it once, so I will explain. In the past, Grandmother Mut would often tell me that I spoke too coarsely, and that I should take care when writing because letters can remain forever. This is a sort of habit of mine, or a personal rule I try to keep.
Also, I always try to do everything Grandmother told me to do (do you have a very dubious look on your face as you read this, I wonder?).
In any event, the biggest news is, naturally, the signing of the peace treaty. The war between the Roxcheanuk Confederation and the Allied Kingdoms of Bezel-Iltoa is finally officially over.
I am writing this to you today, on the day after the signing of the treaty. All flights were grounded yesterday, and every soldier was forced to listen to the radio broadcast of the ceremony. The hangar was packed like a tin of sardines. I was very glad it was autumn.
The ceremony itself, which took place on the Lutoni River, was boring. Neither our president nor their king or prime minister took part—it was just one long speech after another from the ambassadors and generals. There were some people on the base (mostly from the army) who fought in the Great War when they were young, and they were glaring daggers at the speakers to the end. So I could not bring myself to doze off during the broadcast.
After the ceremony, everyone on the base had a moment of silence for those who died in battle(including my beloved father… although I do not even remember his face at this point) before being dismissed.
Yesterday must have been a historic day, but to be perfectly honest it did not move me very much. Although I do acknowledge that it is not a bad thing for the two nations to finally make up and move on past their past hostilities.
Last night, I heard someone from the army ask, ‘I wonder what’s going to happen to us now?’. I wanted to ask that question myself. It is inevitable that the defense budget will be slashed starting from the year after next, but rumors say that the biggest cuts will happen to the air force, which was only founded six year ago and is(considered by many to be) the biggest strain on the military’s resources. I do not want to think about it, but the members of my unit and myself may soon face unemployment. Although I cannot be certain until the time comes… I suppose this might be a bit depressing to read when the war has just ended.
Oh, I heard an interesting story from an elderly army sergeant. Apparently members of the special forces are placing bets on the animals on their tags. They claim that the one I have now is an eel. Although I cannot be sure if that is correct.
I hope school is going well for you, Wil. Although I am not worried in the least. Please use your grades to crush those uppity heirs and heiresses who fill the secondary school.
I will end this letter here. I will write to you again soon. Because of my responsibilities in transporting aeroplanes, I do not know where I will be next time. Please send your next letter to my unit without an address, as usual.
Staff Sergeant Allison Whittington
P.S. This might be a late question, but have you decided on how you will spend your winter break? I am not sure how my schedule will be at that time…
* * *
I’m doing just fine. I haven’t caught a cold or anything. Things have gotten chilly here in Raputoa, too. They’ve started to serve stew at the cafeteria more often now. Sometimes during the winter, they’ll serve it every day. Although I don’t really mind, since I love stew.
They might start heating the dormitories soon. Everyone’s placing bets on the date—it’s practically an annual tradition here.
What do we wager? The apples we get with dinner. The people who win can eat their own apple, then take the rest to their room to eat as a midnight snack. There’s even a rumor that so many people tossed apple cores out the windows that we once had an apple tree sprouting on the flower bed, and that the matron got so angry that she chopped it down.
Anyway, I finally understand why your letters are always so formal. For your information, I didn’t make a dubious face when I read what you wrote.
Do you know what Grandma told me to do? ‘Don’t ever take your eyes off Allison, Wil. And if you ever spot her blue eyes sparkling excitably, you must call one of the adults’. Although I never really had the opportunity to do that…
We had a day off from classes on the day of the peace treaty. They didn’t force us to, but I went to school anyway and listened to the radio broadcast in the auditorium with the teachers.
It definitely was a historic day. It’s like a line dividing one era from the next. Neither side won or lost. The border’s still the same as before. But it definitely was an important moment in history.
One of our teachers fought on the Lutoni River thirty-five years ago. He told us that the ship he was on was sunk, and that he nearly drowned. He said he lost many friends in that sinking. He told us, ‘the world is better off without war. You’ll be happier from now on’. I understand what he means. I don’t think anyone would want to find themselves having to choose between life and death, or killing and being killed.
At the same time, I felt sort of strange. The war between Roxche and Sou Be-Il ruined so many lives and killed so many people. But at the same time, the war was the reason Grandma crossed over to Roxche for her beliefs. And it was thanks to her and the people who helped her found the Future House that I received her care.
I’m here—going to school, having met you, Allison, and having gone through those three amazing days—thanks to all that.
The war ruined so many lives, but people like me ended up better off thanks to the war. I just don’t know. What makes the world happy and what makes the world unhappy?
This might sound kind of contrary, but it’s definitely a good thing that the chances of war have been reduced to nearly zero (the teacher I just wrote about says that the chances are never completely zero, and that we should always be cautious). I want to be happy about it without having reservations.
And about the mural that changed everything—I bought a photograph of it at the store recently. It’s really beautiful, no matter how many times I look at it. I’ll never forget the person who protected it—and the fact that I’ve seen it, so to speak.
I understand why soldiers like you must be worried about your careers. On the news four days ago, they were talking about ending Roxche’s conscription laws. Some of the teachers here were worried—without conscription, fewer students will go to university to delay their military service, which might make students lazier.
But anyway, they’ve stopped teaching us that Cross-River is evil now. They’ve even blacked out inappropriate parts of the textbooks. The younger students are completely befuddled.
I’m sure many things will change even faster now. I really don’t know what will happen to us from this point on.
But still, I’m very happy to be alive like this, here and now.
Also, I noticed in the newspaper—Major Carr Benedict, the hero who found the murals, attended the ceremony, too. He was wearing this heavy dress uniform and a really annoyed face, sitting in between all the important people. I hope he doesn’t blame whoever put him in that seat.
About winter break—I’m probably going to stay at the dorms this year. I’ll stay for the new year, too—Raputoa doesn’t celebrate it, you know. The new batch of first-years are going to arrive at the dorms on the fourth of the first month, and then we’ll all be busy running orientation meetings and welcoming parties. The new school term starts on the eighth. I’ll finally start my final year.
I’m staying behind this year because my friend who usually invites me to his place during the breaks is going on a study trip. They do this every year—about twenty students(and some teachers acting as chaperones) tour historic cities for several days. It sounds great, but it’s actually a makeup course for students who don’t have enough credits.
If you hand in a research paper after coming back from the trip, they give you a credit. But it’s pretty expensive, since you have to pay for the course on top of the fees for the trip itself.
My friend decided to go on the trip(actually, he sounded so relaxed even though his credits weren’t looking good that I had to tell him to go), so I’m just going to stay behind.
Apparently they’re going to the Kingdom of Iks this year. It’s the first time our school’s going there. You know where it is, right? The country on the Central Mountain Range, southwest of the Republic of Raputoa. When I first heard they were going to Iks, I really wanted to go along. But my scholarship won’t cover the travel expenses. It’s a little disappointing, but I’ve decided to wait for next year.
Write back once you have your schedule, Allison. You can probably stay at the dorms. Although I’ pretty sure the matron remembers you, so she might give you a bit of a scolding.
I’ll write again.
* * *
What is the itinerary for the trip to Iks? Please give me as many details as you can. And the names of the cities they will be visiting, if possible. Please reply as soon as you can. And for your information, I am sending this postcard from a completely different place from where I bought it.
P.S. You are one of those people too, Wil! Before you forget, be proud of yourself!
* * *
Did you buy the postcard near the Casna Coast? It’s beautiful—I stuck it onto my desk. I’d like to visit it sometime. I’ve always wanted to see the lands they reclaimed from the sea.
Anyway, your unit is really flying all over Roxche, isn’t it? I guess this is obvious, but I’m really amazed. And a little jealous.
This is the itinerary for the study trip. They don’t have all the details hammered out yet, but they have the cities all lined up.
Days leading up to the trip: Orientation and shopping for supplies.
The 19th: Depart from dorms in the morning and take a train to the city of Elitesa at the southernmost tip of Raputoa. Spend the night in Elitesa.
The 20th: Enter the Kingdom of Iks by bus and head to the town of Mushke in the north side of the country.
The 21st: Tour Mushke.
The 22nd: Tour Mushke.
The 23rd: Head to the capital city of Kunst.
The 24th: Tour Kunst.
The 25th: Take a bus to Elitesa from Kunst. Spend the night at Elitesa.
The 26th: Dismissal at Elitesa. Students who live nearby can go directly back to their homes.
Classes end on the 10th. Then we have a goodbye party and a graduation ceremony for the sixth-years. On the 15th we have a end-of-year cleaning day, and afterwards the dorms will be completely empty. You’ll be able to stay at the visitors’ rooms anytime after that. But Raputoa can be pretty cold, too—bundle up before you come. Are you going to arrive by aeroplane this time too?
* * *
Dear Mr. Wilhelm Schultz,
you might be confused because this letter began with a one-word command, but go! Go on that study trip! You have to participate, Wil! Make sure you do!
My schedule is completely packed during your winter break, so I cannot come visit you at the school. Then you would be left all alone in the dorms! So I think it will be much better for you to go on the study trip with your friend to a country you have always wanted to visit.
Your only problem is money, right? Since the credit cost is covered by your scholarship, you only have to worry about the travel costs. I’ll cover it. So please, go!
Please do not get the wrong idea. This is not charity, Wil. I am only lending you this money. You can pay me back once you finish university and find a job. You are going to graduate next year, Wil. This is your one and only chance to go on this trip.
I do not mean to brag, but I have quite a bit of money saved up from working in the air force. It is only that I have no time to spend it, as I am constantly flying from one place to another.
Is it not too late? If you can, sign up for the trip now. And please send me a telegram with the amount of money you need. You can send the telegram to the Air Force Command Center in the capital, addressed to my name, rank (still a staff sergeant, for your information), and unit name. Please just send me the number of the amount. I will send you a postal order by express delivery. And please do not hold back! I can also cover any other fees, like spending money you might need or money for books and travel supplies.
Go! Act now! I will be waiting for your response.
P.S. Is the itinerary set in stone at this point? If there are any changes, please let me know immediately.
* * *
First off, thank you so much.
The postal order came in this morning. I took it straight to the school office and paid for the trip. I’m officially part of the study trip now.
Actually, the registration deadline was about three days ago. But luckily enough, one of the fourth-years had to cancel on the trip, so the teachers were happy to have me join. My friend was ecstatic too, since he won’t have to share a room with the teacher. Although I haven’t told him anything about the money.
Again, thank you so much, Allison. It can’t have been an easy decision to lend me so much money. I hope you won’t be strapped for cash because you helped me out this time.
I’ll never forget what you did for me. I promise I’ll pay you back, no matter what. So please wait until I start earning money.
“Allison? C’mon, it’s chow time. Allison? Allis? Hello? Alli-ling?”
“There you are. Ah, you’re reading a letter from your boyfriend. Sorry to bother you, Allison.”
“What? I really like this new nickname. ‘Alli-ling’ sounds so cute. Anyway, FYI. The cooks worked so hard that we’re gonna get to eat early. Hurry on over or there won’t be anything left. That is all. Take your time reading!”
And the itinerary hasn’t changed. We’ll be departing on schedule. There’s less than two months left now. I’m already looking forward to it.
I’ll write back again.
* * *
Dear Mr. Wilhelm Schultz,
It has gotten cold recently, hasn’t it? Have they started heating the dormitories yet? Have you won any apples?
I am glad that you made it in time for the registration. And please do not worry about me. I have no time at all to spend my money, what with work and all. And if I really need help, I can always borrow money from a co-worker.
And please do not rush; take your time paying me back. And do not go looking for a job straight out of secondary school just to pay me back. You have to go to a university, Wil. I am sure that is what Grandma would want as well.
Times like this always remind me that it is better to have money than not. If the ‘treasure’ we found that day was actually gold and silver, I think I would have used it all to put you through school. Then you would have finished secondary school and taken the entrance exam for Confederation Capital University many times over by now. And you could have found yourself an apartment there, too. What we found was a treasure in and of itself, but sometimes I still wonder.
“Wil! Zoning out again? C’mon, it’s dinnertime. They’re serving stew again.”
“Ah. Reading a letter, huh. From that cool pilot?”
“All right, all right. I’ll save you a seat and grab your dinner too, so take your time reading.”
If you ever hear a similar rumor again, let’s go search together! Leave the aeroplane acquisition to me.
Anyway, your trip is only a month away. Please take care of yourself. I hope you do not get so excited that you end up waking up on the day of the trip with a fever.
P.S. I received a pay raise last month, just as scheduled! I was afraid I wouldn’t get one this year, you see. I am very happy. Please do not worry about me.
* * *
The 20th day of the final month of the year 3287 of the World Calendar.
“I get it. So that’s how you ended up joining last-minute.”
“I don’t know how I’m going to thank Allison for all this.”
They were inside a moving bus.
It was a rather large bus, with the engine sticking out from the front of the vehicle like a snout. There were eight rows of seats behind the driver’s seat, with an aisle in the middle dividing each pair of seats. At the very back was an area reserved for luggage and other cargo.
The rightmost seat at the very back of the bus was empty. In the seat next to it sat Wilhelm Schultz. He was a seventeen-year-old with light brown hair and brown eyes.
Across the aisle from him sat his friend, who was from the same year. There was no one else in the seat next to him, either.
The two students were wearing identical outfits.
They wore thick, short boots, dark grey wool pants, light green turtleneck sweaters, and fur-lined leather coats that cut off just above the knee. Over the left breast were their name tags, and embroidered on their right arms were the crest of Raputoa’s Ministry of Education—a book lying on a small boat.
The bus was driving along a snowy mountain road.
The steep slope was covered in snow. The trees they saw on occasion were also coated in white. The road snaked up and down, and though it was paved and wide, it was extremely slippery.
The bus spewed black smoke as it struggled up the mountain. There were no other vehicles in front of of behind it. There was nothing but snow-white mountains all around. On the other side of the U-shaped valley they saw yet more razor-sharp mountain peaks. The sky was blue. The morning sun shone blindingly.
“It’s beautiful… I’m glad I came on the trip. I’m glad I got this chance.” Wil said, staring out the window.
“Yeah. It’s all good save for the cold.” His friend replied, fixing his collar with a gloved hand.
The interior of the bus was freezing. Every window had been opened, allowing the cold mountain air to sweep inside.
The interior of the bus was a sad sight, for yet another reason.
In the first row sat three teachers from Lowe Sneum Memorial Secondary School. Sprawled out haphazardly behind them were eighteen fourth-and fifth-year students, all looking quite pale. Each student was huddled over a bag made of wax paper.
Because the bus shook violently along the snowy mountain road, the students were all suffering from motion sickness. And because the heating made their sickness worse, the driver shut off the heater and the windows were opened to let fresh air inside.
“I mean, I grew up motorboating and horseback riding, so I’m perfectly fine. But I’m surprised you’re all right, Wil.” Wil’s friend said, looking ahead at the sorry scene before him.
Wil thought for a moment, and responded.
“I’ve been on something worse, so this doesn’t feel too bad in comparison. It’s been a long haul, so I’m not surprised everyone is sick. But I think the others pushed themselves too hard, staying up so late. And they ate too much, too.”
The teachers and students had left the dorms in the village of Makkaniu the previous morning.
They spent half the day on a train, comfortably heading to the city of Elitesa at the southernmost tip of Raputoa. It was a city affectionately known as the ‘Knee of the Central Mountain Range’. They were scheduled to arrive in the evening; then they would get some rest for the difficult trip awaiting them the next day.
But the train was delayed over and over again. Wil noted that it might be best to get some sleep on the train while they could, so he and his friend napped in their seats. But the other students chattered excitably, eventually being scolded by the teachers and the other passengers.
The train finally made it to Elitesa late that night. It was midnight by the time the students got to bed, having had to skip dinner. They forced themselves out of bed early the next morning, then had breakfast. It was a simple meal, much like the one they had when they left the dorms.
“Since we’re taking the bus, we’ll be better off eating light.” Wil said. His friend followed his advice. But most of the other students, too hungry to think, stuffed themselves.
They departed from Elitesa while it was still quite dark. The road soon grew rough, curving everywhere. They had to spend a long time on the shaking bus, with precious few stops at gas stations along the way. They were scheduled to arrive in Iks sometime in the afternoon.
The bus shook violently as it continued along the snowy mountain. Yet another student leaned over his bag and vomited.
“I can practically hear what he’s thinking. ‘I should have studied harder’, I bet. But it’s not like he’s gonna die from this.” Wil’s friend said casually, and reached into his luggage behind him. He groped through a pocket on the side of the bag and fished out a bag of dried apricots. Taking out two pieces, he tossed one into his mouth and held out the other to Wil. Wil took it with a word of thanks.
Wil’s friend chewed on the apricot for a while, then swallowed.
“What kind of a country are we headed for?”
Wil turned. His friend was serious.
“Sorry, man. Back at orientation, I was sitting at the back of the class, sleeping with my eyes open. So I don’t remember a thing. All I know is the name of the place.”
Wil chuckled, amused.
“All right. It’ll be no fun if you go in there without knowing a thing. Let me explain.”
“Sweet. That apricot just now was your payment. Deal?”
The Kingdom of Iks, or ‘Iks’ for short.
This was what the country was called in the Roxchean language. In Iks, however, the country was officially called ‘Ikstova’.
The potato-shaped continent was the only landmass on the planet. The Roxcheanuk Confederation was on the eastern side of the continent, and was composed of fourteen countries of varying size, the Capital District, and the Economic District. The Kingdom of Iks was part of Roxche, on the easternmost tip of the Central Mountain Range that vertically bisected the continent. It was one of the westernmost countries in Roxche, and the only mountainous country in the Confederation, which consisted largely of flat plains.
The Central Mountain Range was the longest and largest mountain range in the world, with several peaks that stood over ten thousand meters tall. On the eastern part of the mountain range was a hollow, on the inside of which was the massive Lake Ras. The lake stretched vertically from north to south for about 100 kilometers. At its widest, the lake was approximately forty kilometers in width. It was about 1500 meters above sea level. The lake and the valleys surrounding it were all created by glaciers during the ice age.
Human settlements were scattered around the lake. Of them, only two were large enough to be called ‘cities’. One was Kunst, the capital city located on a plain southwest of Lake Ras. The other was the bus’s current destination—Mushke, northeast of the lake. Both cities had populations numbering at tens of thousands.
There were villages nestled within the deep valleys surrounding the lake. Because there were steep slopes just a stone’s throw from the lakeshore, there was nowhere else in particular where people could settle. There was one village per one of hundreds of valleys. The individual villages were extremely small, with populations numbering from hundreds to two or three thousand. Many tiny communities were scattered everywhere.
“So that Lake something-or-other…”
“Right. So is the area around Lake Ras the only place people live? Nobody else lives any higher up?”
“They couldn’t, even if they wanted to. A little further from the lake, the mountain climbs at a sharp angle. And the snow never melts, even in the summer. Also, the western border of the Kingdom of Iks is also part of the border between Roxche and the Allied Kingdoms of Bezel-Iltoa. But Iks’s western border isn’t clearly defined. That’s why neither Roxche nor Sou Be-Il know exactly how big the Kingdom of Iks actually is.”
“I get it. What else?”
Historically, the Kingdom of Iks had little contact with the countries on the plains.
For certain reasons, people came to settle the lake area in the distant past. Eventually, a small kingdom emerged around Lake Ras.
Time passed, and the Middle Ages began. That was when a kingdom on the western edge—in other words, a kingdom that existed near present-day Raputoa—invaded Ikstova to conquer it. But the kingdom’s prized mounted forces were rendered powerless by the mountains, and they were driven back by Ikstova’s army, which had been lying in wait in the mountain passes.
Now and then, the only ways to enter the country were through one of two mountain passes. One was the northern pass, along which the bus was currently moving. The other was the southern pass, which connected Kunst to the lowlands. The northern pass, which was located at an extremely high altitude, would soon be blocked by snowfall.
This was the reason why Ikstova was one of the few countries that participated little in the conflict between East and West. Of course, it had no contact with the West, which was across the mountain range.
In the year 3122 of the World Calendar, the Roxcheanuk Confederation was formed peacefully for the united purpose of defeating Sou Be-Il. Ikstova resisted membership to the end.
“Apparently, the biggest reason was the Roxchean language. The Roxchean we speak now is an artificial language based on the words and script used in what is now the Capital District. It’s completely different from the language of Ikstova. That’s why they were more reluctant to use Roxchean or teach it in their schools than other countries. They eventually joined the Confederation, but they continued to teach classes in Ikstovan for a long time.”
“Right. …But we’ll be able to talk to the people there, right?”
“Don’t worry. Everyone this side of the river can speak Roxchean now. You know how almost no one speaks Raputoan anymore, right?”
“Gran used to swear in Raputoan sometimes before she passed away. Nobody understood what she was saying, but she always chuckled to herself. But Wil, why’d they have to make everyone speak the same language?”
“It makes things a lot more efficient. But the biggest reason is because of the military. It was to make sure that, even if a large war broke out against Sou Be-Il, all soldiers under the Confederation’s banner could communicate with one another.”
“I get it.”
“Let’s get back on track.”
The Royal Family of Iks had an unusual custom.
It was mandated that the monarch have only one child, who would eventually take the throne. This tradition was supposedly created to prevent feuds between family. But it was nearly a miracle that the royal line remained unbroken for four hundred years.
Another unusual tradition of the Royal Family was their incredible secrecy. Members of the family other than the king(or queen) did not so much as come out in public, let alone allow themselves to be revealed on canvas or photograph. Not even their names were revealed prior to their deaths. This was why most civilians knew very little about them.
There is an interesting anecdote about this custom. There was once a music teacher who was extremely strict on a boy who came to learn the violin. The boy was a hard worker and an obedient student, but he would adamantly refuse to take off the pendant around his neck, even though it got in the way of his playing the violin. Several years after he finished his lessons, the music teacher was called to the royal palace, only to find out that the boy was actually the prince of Iks. The little golden coin on his pendant was proof of his royal lineage. The boy eventually succeeded the throne and became a beloved king who greatly supported the development of music in the kingdom.
After joining the Roxcheanuk Confederation, Iks slowly transitioned into a constitutional monarchy, like other kingdoms. The monarch had even fewer opportunities to appear in public.
However, the kings and queens of Iks remained very popular. The people of Iks, quite simple and trusting, loved the Royal Family. And their steadfast nature in the face of the deadly climate was enough to give the people a slow, peaceful life.
“That’s pretty amazing. Completely different from the Royal Family of Raputoa and all their backstabbing. Although Raputoa’s not a kingdom anymore.”
“Iks doesn’t have a monarch anymore, either.”
“There was an unfortunate incident about ten years ago. A fire broke out in the royal palace in the middle of the night, and everything went up in smoke. The queen, her husband, and their young daughter all went missing. They probably died—the investigators found a lot of burnt corpses in the rubble. And they only figured this out later, but some of the bodies showed signs of having been shot.”
“So it was a coup d’état? Or terrorism?”
“The thing is, no one benefitted from the royal family’s death. No one claimed responsibility for it, either. No one knows what really happened, and the perpetrators are still at large. There’s even rumors that soldiers from the West crossed over the mountains and assassinated them.”
“Is that even possible?”
“Probably not. How could anyone climb over mountains ten thousand meters high, in the middle of winter? It’s probably just a rumor. Although some people still believe it.”
“Huh. You said that was ten years ago, right? I never heard about any of this. Didn’t it make the news or anything?”
“According to the guidebook, it did. They had a picture of the newspaper from the day, with the queen’s portrait published and everything. But that happened to be at the peak of the Lestki Island conflict. The entire world was on the verge of a second Great War.”
“Right. I remember that part. My entire family was just about to skip town to head further east. Leaving all the employees behind.”
“Awful, ain’t it? Anyway, I think I’m getting the picture. Keep going.”
Afterwards, Iks came to be known as a kingdom without a king. Although there was no one on the throne, laws regarding the monarch remained steadfast within the country’s constitution.
A park was built on the land where the royal palace once stood. They were scheduled to visit the park during their stay at the capital. The park was famous for the ceremonial changing of the guard, which still took place today.
As of today, Iks was neither particularly rich in resources nor particularly developed. But it was peaceful and beautiful.
Its major industries were dairy farming, forestry, and fishing in Lake Ras. Iks exported dairy products, high-quality lumber, and traditional handicrafts to the lowlands.
Of particular note was the kingdom’s historic gold mines. Intricately crafted gold accessories from Iks were famous in Roxche, and sold for a hefty price. So refined was Iks’s metalworking technique that elaborate family crests could be carved into something as small as a button.
There were rumors that the kingdom strictly regulated the emigration of artisans to prevent their techniques from being leaked to the outside. But in reality, even the common villager was capable of such intricate work, which probably meant that the rumor was only a rumor.
During the summer, Iks made a great deal of money from visitors who came to escape the heat, tour the country, or go mountain climbing.
The most notable of Iks’s imports was automobiles and other machinery. There was not a single factory capable of creating automobiles or engines in all of Iks. Their main mode of transportation was still horse-drawn carriages or sleds, which did not need expensive gasoline.
A strange fact about Iks was that transportation is easier and more active during the cold winter months. The transportation of produce and lumber from the villages to the cities always took place during the winter.
“Why do you think that is?”
“What is this, a pop quiz? C’mon, Wil. Give me a hint.”
“You said before you’ve been horseback riding, motorboating, and skating before, right?”
“Ah! I’ve got it. The lake. The, uh…”
“That. It’s because the lake freezes over, right? In the summer, you’d have to go around it or take a boat, but in the winter, you can just take a sled over it.”
“Yeah. That’s why there’s a clock tower that works as a lighthouse at the entrance of every village and city. They light the area with a bonfire or a gas lamp. On clear days, people use the towers as beacons and cross the lake in a straight line with nothing but a compass.”
“Uh huh. …Hey, we’re pretty high up. I wonder if we’re near the pass yet?”
“I hope we are. Before we get there, I’ll tell you a couple of things you should know.”
The city of Mushke was on the northeastern tip of Lake Ras.
A little ways up the mountains northeast of Mushke was a massive valley.
The valley was a path carved by a gigantic glacier in the distant past. It spanned a distance five kilometers wide, leading endlessly into the heart of the Central Mountain Range. The drop was a whopping eight hundred meters at an angle perfectly perpendicular to the ground. ‘Terrifying’ was an understatement.
If the land northeast of Mushke had been a little lower—in other words, if the Lake Ras glacier, connected to the gigantic glacier, had dug in a little deeper, the water from Lake Ras would have flowed into the valley, leaving the land desolate.
The cliff carved by the glacier was called ‘Slankalans’ in Ikstovan, and it was the highest known cliff in Roxche. It was currently a famous tourist destination—there was a viewpoint on the edge of the cliffs, just a little way up from Mushke. The students were scheduled to visit this spot tomorrow.
“That sounds fantastic! I’m so glad I joined this trip!”
“I guess you really did sleep through classes. We learned about Slankalans back in second year geography.”
“Not to brag or anything, but I dozed off then, too. But this is amazing. An 800 meter-high cliff, huh. Amazing. I don’t think I’d like to climb that, but it’d feel nice to jump off it, I think.”
“Whoa, I’m not jumping off until after I’ve figured out a way to survive. Can you think of anything?”
“They didn’t teach us in class.”
“Heh. That was pretty funny, Wil.”
“Ah. About the name ‘Slankalans’.”
“It means ‘not even the soul returns’. If you fall, I mean. In the old days, people didn’t even come close to the cliffs. And today, it’s a popular suicide destination.”
“Still thinking of jumping?”
“Not for a while. So what was the other thing you wanted to tell me?”
“This doesn’t really matter to us, just to warn you. It’s about politics.”
“Politics? Forget it. Just give me the summary.”
In two days—the 22nd—there would be a referendum taking place in Iks.
A small political party was pushing for Ikstova’s withdrawal from the Confederation. In other words, they intended for Ikstova to exist as an independent nation as it was in the past. The party wanted the citizens’ opinions, making speeches in the city square in Kunst every day. Ikstova was probably going to be quite busy today and tomorrow, with the referendum drawing near.
Even if Ikstova pulled out of the Confederation now, it could not go back to isolation like before. It would also stop receiving an annual budget from the government of Roxche. Because of these reasons, and many others, it was likely that very few people would agree with the proposal for independence.
But it was indeed true that a referendum like this was a first in Roxche’s history. Now that the chances of another war had been greatly diminished, the glue holding the Confederation together was slowly beginning to crumble.
“That last part I read in a newspaper. The referendum’s why we’re starting with the north and leaving Kunst for later—to avoid the hustle and bustle.”
“Man… politics. Nothing to do with me. But thanks for the lectures. I think I’ll be better off now, Wil. I really owe you. …By the way, have you decided on a topic for your research paper?”
“What? No, not yet. I wonder what I should do. The teacher gave me a few ideas. I might use one of those.”
“‘Transportation in Iks, where automobiles and carriages are both in use’. ‘The history of Iks in relation to Roxche’. ‘A discussion on the isolation of Iks’. ‘Flora unique to the mountain regions’… And titles from some reference books. I think one of the teachers might have brought them.”
“Tell me once you’ve decided on a topic. I’ll use the second-best one. Apricot?”
* * *
“We’ve arrived at the northern pass. Let’s take a short rest. There are restrooms outside if anyone would like to use them.” Said the bus driver. Sighs of tired relief flooded the seats.
The bus soon drove down a slope and entered a parking lot by the pass.
The northern pass was once a small fortress. The corner of the flat piece of land was reinforced with a stone wall. The stone building with a watch station on its roof was still intact, used as a viewpoint and a rest area to this day.
They were above the tree line; not a single leaf was in sight.
Three trucks loaded with lumber were parked side-by-side in the parking lot. The bus parked next to them.
Teachers and students alike stumbled out of the bus, scrambling for the restroom. A couple of people slipped and fell on the frozen paving stones.
“Looks like there’s going to be a line. Let’s wait a bit.” Said Wil’s friend, stepping off the bus and putting on a wool hat. He raised his arms and stretched, taking a deep breath.
A gust blew in from the valley, buffeting them with icy wind. Wil also pulled on his hat. He exhaled, his breath rising in a long, white puff.
Wil and his friend walked over to the edge of the parking lot and stood behind the stone railings. Before them were the slopes and road they had just climbed by bus; beyond were peaks rising high into the air, so brilliant they had to squint to look at them.
They spent some time in silence, lost in the atmosphere. Wil eventually spoke up.
“Let’s have a look at the other side.”
They cautiously crossed the parking lot on the other side of the building, passing by a snowplow and making it to the opposite edge. They stopped.
“This side is awesome, too… Well… it’s just awesome.”
First, they saw the Central Mountain Range rising before them like an insurmountable wall. The slopes were a pure white, and the peaks rose into the clouds and disappeared.
Underneath was a great hollow, and they could see part of the frozen Lake Ras. The white of the frozen lake was slightly different from the white of the forest around it, making clear the contours of the lake. But so great was the landscape before them that they could not get a grip on the scale of the sight.
It almost felt like looking down at an intricate scale model in a museum. As though a tiny Lake Ras was within arm’s reach.
“That’s Mushke over there.” Wil said, pointing at a blue clump small enough to hide behind his fist. It was next to Lake Ras, on the lower right from their perspective.
“It looks tiny from here, but it’s actually a pretty big city. It looks blue because roofs in Iks are blue.”
“Man… this is so huge I don’t know what to say. …And speaking of which, I don’t see the cliff from here.”
“It’s on the other side of the ridge to the right. Apparently you can’t see it from the pass or the road.”
“Anyway, this is great. Good thing you came along, eh, Wil?” Wil’s friend laughed, heartily punching him in the shoulder.
“Yeah. Definitely.” Wil replied, and added to himself, “Thanks to Allison.”
In the building at the northern pass was a room used by the building manager. Desks lined the walls, and wood was burning in the fireplace. A middle-aged man began to make a phone call. He was alone in the room.
The man soon spoke into the receiver.
“Hello? Yes. This is the manager of the northern pass. Would you be the soldier from earlier? Yes, yes. It’s about that bus. It’s just departed safely. Yes. Just about on schedule.”
He could hear the voice from the other end. It was the voice of a somewhat cold-sounding man.
<Understood. You have our thanks. Your work is done.>
The middle-aged man was dubious.
“Is… is this really all? I expected more, considering what you gave me…”
<That is none of your business. Your work is done. Thank you for your cooperation.>
“Anyway, about that bus… is there someone important going incognito on it?” The middle-aged man asked, a little excited.
<Your pay includes hush money.> Replied the cold voice.
“Ah, excuse me… Of course. I won’t ask any more questions. I’m very sorry, sir. Of course.”
The middle-aged man apologized.
* * *
Putting down the phone was a man in his thirties.
He turned to his friend, who was waiting behind him.
“The prince has arrived on schedule. Commence the operation.”