Hopefully the next few updates will be faster. Enjoy.
Chapter 2: Everyone Heads to Iks
The 28th day of the final month.
“Why not fly there yourself, Captain?” Asked the subordinate who drove Allison and Lillia from the airport near the Capital District, which also doubled as a Confederation Air Force base. With that, mother and daughter were off.
Flying through the air was a civilian aeroplane about 20 meters long with a wingspan of 30 meters. There were three engines and propellers on the plane, one on the nose and one on each of the wings. The reinforced rippled outer panels drew lines along the fuselage and the wings at regular intervals. The landing gear was fixed, and large tires were attached under the engines.
The civilian aeroplane traveled at a crawl, but it was lauded for its comfort and was mass-produced, now widely used in Roxche. This model was also famous for popularizing air travel, which had once been a luxury reserved for the highest echelons of society. On the shiny grey fuselage were the words ‘Confederation Airlines’ and a three-digit production code.
The sky that winter morning was a perfectly clear blue. The plains of Roxche were covered in endless clouds, and villages, roads, rivers, and canals drew tiny maps on the ground over a kilometer below.
There was an aisle going down the middle of the passenger cabin; eight rows of seats, with one seat on either side of the aisle. The captain’s right shoulder and the first officer’s left shoulder were visible through the cockpit door at the front of the cabin. The framework and the paneling was painted a light green on the inside.
The seats were full. As the cabin shook with the engines’ roar, most passengers pressed their faces to the windows and watched the world pass by.
And in the right seat at the very back,
Allison was fast asleep. She wore thick brown winter pants and a reddish-brown sweater. A blanket from the plane was over her lap.
In the seat across the aisle,
Lillia was fast asleep. She was also wearing long pants like Allison, and had a dark green half-coat over herself.
The middle-aged man in a suit who sat in front of her glanced back, frowned that she was wasting the view, and turned back to the window disapprovingly.
Due to limitations on the craft’s cruising range, the aeroplane had to make landing at least once every four hours. Each time the passengers would disembark to get some rest or eat. In the meantime, the plane would be refueled and checked before departing again. Passengers headed in a different direction could transfer planes during this time.
On the evening of the 28th, after one landing and another four-hour flight, Allison and Lillia arrived in a village near the very center of Roxche. That was the end of their trip that day. They would need to fly for another whole day to reach Iks.
Thanks to technological developments, aeroplanes could fly through bad weather or the night with the help of instruments. But only the larger cities supported night planes—and even if night planes were available, many people chose rather to spend the nights at hotels for a break from the exhaustion of traveling.
Allison and Lillia also headed to their hotel, which they had booked alongside their plane tickets. They had dinner, showered, and lay down in their beds in their pajamas.
“First day’s travels, complete!”
“Complete! We have an early flight tomorrow, so make sure to get up early, sweetheart.”
“I’m more worried about you, Mom.”
“It’s going to be all right. I can get up early when I have to. Good night.”
* * *
Two men were talking over the telephone. One was in the Roxche police headquarters, and the other was in the Sou Be-Il embassy.
<Yes, this is Major Travas.>
<Good evening to you, foreign aristocrat. Thanks for butting in and helping out with our country’s crimefighting. Things all right with you?>
<Yes. It’s been quite warm these past few days, don’t you agree?>
<At least try to play along with the sarcasm, my man. Or do you not even return fire if you get shot? Don’t tell me you’re actually pacifists. The Dezer executive who just came back from the dead had a better sense of humor than you.>
<My apologies. And I am glad to hear that the executive is well.>
<Hmph. I’ll be taking all the credit for cleaning out the cartel, for your information. Now, let me get to the point. About our loaded film buyer. I nabbed your so-called culprit.>
<That was quick.>
<What’d you expect? …Is what I’d like to say, but their self-proclaimed bookkeeper ratted them out the moment we started the investigation. They covered up their tracks so well I thought we’d be in for a headache, but then he went and confessed.>
<Oh? …What sort of people were they?>
<What else? Filmmakers. Not one of those big weekend shows they advertise in the Capital District. Some documentary about loads of beautiful scenery.>
<I see. So why the secrecy?>
<You have no idea how much I enjoy imagining the ignorant look on your face, Major. Apparently they just wanted to keep the production a secret.>
<That’s what he told me. They don’t want anyone to know they’re shooting a documentary, and they covered their tracks because the Capital District is the only place they can buy the film stock.>
<And you believe him?>
<I’m saying that’s what he told me. I dug up info on the crew and the production team, but there weren’t any records. They’re just normal people.>
<What sort of people are they?>
<I can’t get into that much detail. Gotta protect the privacy of innocent Roxcheans.>
<Anyway, the bookkeeper agreed to the questioning and apologized about his crimes. He’s posted bail, so he’ll be out by tomorrow evening. And he’ll be paying the bank a fine. It’s all cleared up now. On the surface, anyway.>
<Cheer up, Major. You just uncovered a very significant crime. Should I send the thank-you letter to the embassy with all the trimmings, then?>
<No thank you. I’d appreciate it more if you taped it upside-down to the women’s restroom wall at the police headquarters.>
<Heh. That wasn’t too bad. Maybe we should go for drinks sometime.>
<I’m afraid I’ll have to decline. In any case, what was the crew shooting, and where?>
<Scenery. Don’t make me repeat myself.>
<Didn’t get that much into detail. What’s it to you?>
<A film crew— …Never mind. Excuse me. I’m sorry you had to go to so much trouble for such an insignificant case.>
<You should be. Feel free to give me a call next time you want to play games like this.>
Major Travas put down the receiver. Axe, who had been listening to the conversation with the other men around the desk, finished the major’s sentence.
“‘A film crew is a perfect excuse for conducting espionage in broad daylight’.”
“Full marks.” Major Travas said, and turned to the others. “Anyone interested in tailing a man tomorrow? Drinks at a bar, making new friends?”
Hands shot into the air.
* * *
The 29th day of the final month.
“Get up, Mom! We’re gonna be late! We’ll miss our flight!”
“It’s okay… they have washing machines on the island…”
“What the heck are you dreaming about? …Oh no! We’re running out of time, Mom! Wake up!”
Lillia was barely out of bed before she was panicking over her mother.
Narrowly boarding the morning flight, Allison and Lillia cruised on the same craft as the previous day as they continued their leisurely journey across the sky.
The aeroplane’s final destination was the city of Elitesa in the Republic of Raputoa, situated in front of the Kingdom of Iks. There were no regular flights to Iks—they would have to switch to a bus at Elitesa instead.
The aeroplane refueled in the afternoon and took off toward Elitesa. There were six passengers onboard, with Allison and Lillia in the front row. Two rows behind them was a businessman in his thirties, and in the back were three men between their forties and fifties, dressed in suits.
The aeroplane flew under a thick layer of clouds. At times, the fuselage shook.
Lillia was once again asleep. She had no interest in the scenery outside. Allison was reading a magazine featuring articles on politics and society, and brief reviews of films and plays.
Time passed, and Allison was in the midst of turning the page on an article on the new North Sea-style grillhouse that opened in the Capital District.
Something seemed to sputter amidst the roar of the engines. Allison looked up past her sleeping daughter at the left engine and propeller. They were working. She turned to her right.
A thin wisp of black smoke was rising from the engine affixed to the wing outside. It sputtered desperately several more times, then finally stopped with a loud noise. The propeller spun idly several times before stopping as well. The aeroplane tilted slightly to the right.
“I’d better check out this place next time.” Allison noted nonchalantly, folding a corner of the page and placing the magazine at her feet.
“GAH!” The businessman in his thirties cried out. “Hey! The engine’s stopped!”
His voice was loud enough to drown out the remaining engine. Lillia opened her eyes. The men in the back exchanged worried glances.
“What’s going on, Mom?” Asked Lillia. Allison seemed unconcerned.
“The right engine’s gone. But since it’s not flaming and there’s no fuel leakage, the other engine’ll keep us going.”
“Oh. All right.” Lillia replied nonchalantly.
“She’s tilting! We’re done for; this plane’s going to crash!” The panicked businessman cried again. Allison turned anxiously, wondering how she should stop him.
“W-we have parachutes!” Cried another man, who darted out of the cockpit. He was in his early twenties, and was in a black pilot’s uniform.
“G-get back here, you imbecile!” The captain, a man in his thirties, hollered from the cockpit with a glance at the cabin. The hysterical first officer rushed down the aisle and toward the back of the cabin, where the exit was.
“Someone stop him!”
“Stop that idiot!”
The captain and Allison cried at the same time. The three men in the back reacted instantly. In unison they jumped on the first officer, and in the blink of an eye had grabbed him by the limbs and pressed him into an empty seat. When the first officer continued to struggle, one of the men drove his fist into his solar plexus.
The first officer quickly lost consciousness.
“What’s going on? Are we going to crash?” The businessman asked anxiously.
“No. Don’t worry.”
Allison replied calmly, and cast a glance at the three men in the back. With firm nods they silently took charge of the first officer. At that moment, the plane returned to level position. Allison stumbled and grabbed onto the seats because of the sudden movement. Lillia looked up at her.
“What are you going to do, Mom?”
“I’ll be right back.”
With that, Allison entered the cockpit. She sat herself in the first officer’s empty seat and greeted the captain to her right. He looked quite desperate, both hands tight on the yoke. It was clear he was at the end of his rope.
The greenhorn back there’s a bit of a wreck, isn’t he? Is there anything I can help you with?” Allison asked gently, keeping her hands away from the controls.
“O-oh… you do have some flying experience, ma’am?”
“I’m an Air Force captain. A test pilot. Though I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve logged—we never used to do that back in the day.” Allison replied nonchalantly. The captain instantly deferred.
“Please pardon me, Captain. We’re got a problem—we lost the right engine.”
“I noticed. Of all the things to happen. Although it wasn’t all that uncommon before.”
“It’s a flat plain under us right now. I was considering making an emergency landing.”
“That won’t be necessary. There’s no fuel leak, so we can fly all the way to the runway at Elitesa.”
“I-I’m afraid I’ve never had to deal with something like this before.”
“But you did receive gliding training, no?”
“Y-yes. But only once, and under a veteran instructor’s supervision.”
“Then I’ll supervise for you this time.” Allison said, taking out the flight map from next to the seat. Recorded on it was the topography, the altitude of the airport, the flight path, and the estimated landing and takeoff times. Allison checked her watch and glanced outside.
“We’re not far from Elitesa Airport.”
“Let’s prepare for landing.”
“In this situation, ma’am?”
“I suppose I could take over, but would it be all right if I took the cost of my daughter’s ticket and mine out of your pay?” Allison joked.
The pilot was silent for about twenty seconds before he finally burst out,
“Please, just help me!”
He stared straight out the windshield.
About an hour before sunset, the aeroplane made landing at the airport just outside of Elitesa on time, with one propeller out of commission.
The airport at Elitesa had one concrete runway and one passenger lounge—reminiscent of a train station—and two hangars and fuel tanks. It was relatively large for a city in the countryside. There were other aeroplanes there, big and small. Under the distant cloudy sky was the city of Elitesa, and beyond the slopes of the Central Mountain Range.
Passengers disembarked from the plane, which had landed on a parking ramp cleared of snow. The three men in the back were calm in their trench coats, and the businessman seemed somewhat unnerved as he stepped out with his coat on his arm.
“We’re finally here.”
Lillia closed her coat as she stretched, disembarking from the aeroplane. Allison did not emerge. Instead, airline employees rushed into the cabin. Several minutes passed before she came outside, saluted by the captain.
Allison and Lillia picked up their luggage in the passenger lounge. They each carried a leather suitcase.
And just as they reached the doors—
“Excuse us, Captain.”
Someone spoke to them. The three men who had quickly subdued the first officer. In front of them were two carts laden with four large, black boxes. The oldest of the men, with a stern and wrinkled face, spoke to Allison.
“Not at all.” Allison replied. Lillia raised her head a little high, proud.
“Your mother is incredible, young lady.”
“Thank you. You have a lot of luggage on you, I see.”
The men exchanged glances.
“Filming equipment.” The oldest man replied, putting on a smile ill-fitted to his face.
“You’re filming something?” Asked Lillia.
“Yes. We’re documenting the beauty of the Kingdom of Iks throughout its four seasons. Things happened, and before we knew it, it’d already been a year since we began.”
“That’s amazing! Do you have cameras and rolls of film in there, then?”
“That’s correct. We’re going to be shooting the last day of the year this time.”
“Is it just you three, then?”
“The rest of the crew rented an aeroplane and got to Iks ahead of us. We’re the last team. It would have been a disaster if the plane made an emergency landing and delayed us. We’re very grateful.”
“We’re going to Iks, too. By bus tonight. We’ll arrive early tomorrow morning.”
“Our team’s heading off now. We rented a truck ahead of time.”
“I hope we see one another there, then.” Lillia smiled. The man smiled back.
“Yes. I hope so.”
The three men and the two women waved one another goodbye.
Allison and Lillia took a taxi into downtown Elitesa.
After a relaxing dinner at a restaurant downtown, they drank tea and waited for their bus. And around 11 in the evening, they boarded the bus bound for Kunst, the capital of the Kingdom of Iks. The bus was large, equipped with a bathroom, and was filled with tourists and homebound locals.
Allison and Lillia sat side-by-side just behind the driver’s seat. The bus began to move in the darkness.
Lillia shut the curtains on the window.
“Once we go to sleep and wake up, it’ll be morning and we’ll be there. Right?”
“Sure. What else could possibly happen? Treize’ll be waiting for us tomorrow.”
“Heh… heh heh. I’m gonna make him pay us back for freeloading this summer. Good night, Mom.”
“Good night, sweetheart.”
The bus drove out of the city and down the road on a snowy plain. At first to the south, then to the west, it continued with its load of sleeping passengers. There was a long road head, up the harrowing mountains to Iks and past the southern pass into Kunst.
And finally, on the 30th day of the final month. The last day of the year.
When Lillia opened her eyes to the light shining through the front windshield, the bus had stopped moving.
“Are we here?”
Lightly rubbing her eyes, Lillia peered out between the curtains. And as her eyes adjusted to the light, she saw—
Not the bustling bus stop in Kunst, but lines of vehicles stuck on the snowy mountain road. They were still on the mountainside. To the right of the road was an upward ascent, and beyond the guardrails to the left was a snowy—but not too steep—downward slope.
There was another bus in front of Lillia’s. Behind them were trucks, then cars, lined as far as Lillia could see until the curve. The many headlights on the road made it seem as bright as dawn.
The clock by the driver’s seat pointed to 3 in the morning. They had not been traveling long. When the driver noticed Lillia wake, he whispered to her.
“It’s an avalanche, missy. The road’s jammed solid about 50 meters ahead.”
“Again? Why?” Lillia groaned, wondering why everything was happening to her. But the driver assumed she was in disbelief about the avalanche.
“Who knows? We don’t normally get avalanches in this area, especially at this time of year.”
“We have no idea when they’ll send over a bulldozer from Kunst, so everyone’s working together to clear the snow ahead. It’ll be a while yet, so get some sleep.”
It was only then that Lillia realized that the seat next to hers was empty. She looked around in confusion when the driver gave her her answer.
“Your sister’s out there helping out; she said she was a soldier or something.”
“Heh. As if I’m gonna let her show me up.”
Lillia disembarked and put on her hat and gloves. She grabbed a shovel from the bus and approached the people surrounding the mound of snow. They looked almost like ants crawling around piles of spilled sugar. Lillia found Allison in their midst and went to her.
Allison’s feet were covered in snow, and she was sweating slightly; she was surprised to see Lillia.
“Oh? You should get some more sleep, Lillia.”
“I got plenty of rest on the aeroplane today. And it’s uncomfortable in more ways than one, trying to sleep in the bus.”
“We still have a long way to go, sweetheart.”
“Since I’m here, not anymore. Let’s get this over with.” Lillia said energetically.
But there was just too much snow. Eventually dawn came and the sun rose through the clouds, but less than a quarter of the snow had been cleared.
It was around the time everyone was at their limit that a truck carrying a bulldozer arrived. It cleared away the snow far more efficiently than human hands.
The people watched as the road was cleared in half an hour, and realized that their efforts would only get them to town ten minutes faster than if they had stayed in their vehicles. Countless sleepy eyes glared at the bulldozer.
11 in the morning.
The snowy road was white. The slanted roofs designed for snow to slide off were blue. Winter in Kunst consisted of only two colors.
The capital of Iks, a city of ninety thousand, was situated on the southwestern tip of Lake Ras. It was bustling in preparation for the new year’s celebrations. Tin lanterns hung from homes and streets, thick candles waiting inside for sundown. Street vendors were beginning to set up shop; horse-drawn carriages, not yet ousted by motor vehicles, trotted and clunked down the snow-cleared streets.
The streets had been set in zigzag formations to hinder hostile invasions. But in the midst of them was one very large street that ran from the south to the city center. At a major intersection at the end of the street was a bus stop.
Treize was waiting there. He sat on a bench under an awning and stared blankly into the sky, leaning back.
He was dressed in a pair of green winter pants and a jacket, along with a hat—perfectly normal attire for a local. It was below freezing that day, but natives of Iks were used to it enough that it felt warm.
It had been five hours since the scheduled arrival time, but the intersection was empty. Not a single night bus from Elitesa had arrived. The glimpses of blue in the sky had been covered completely after dawn by a thick layer of clouds from the south. The wind was beginning to pick up.
“It looks like there’s going to be a big snowfall. We’re in for some bad weather today.” Treize mumbled to himself.
Countless people were passing by. Not a single person in the kingdom, where only the ruling monarch was revealed to the public, recognized the unofficial prince.
Suddenly, he heard a low roar in the distance. The noise grew louder and louder, until an aeroplane eventually appeared in the east. It was a mid-sized model with two engines.
“More rich folks.”
As the Kingdom of Iks was a famous tourist destination, visitors from all over Roxche—and sometimes Sou Be-Il—came to enjoy its lakes and mountains. There were no other mountain regions to speak of in Roxche, so the people of Iks were proud of their homeland’s views of the majestic Central Mountain Range and Lake Ras. However, the country forbade entry to the dangerous hinterlands of the Central Mountain Range.
Tourists—especially the wealthy ones—tended to avoid the long drive to Iks up the mountain pass, and instead rented the latest aeroplanes for travel.
In the summer, they used mostly seaplanes or amphibious planes, which led to countless temporary piers being set up on the lake along lines of boats. In the winter, they came mostly by aeroplanes and parts of the frozen Lake Ras were cleared of snow to create a runway.
Kunst Airport, located on the lake about 4 kilometers from the capital, was a fully-equipped airport complete with radio guidance systems for night landings and bad weather. However, it was only usable during the winter.
The luxury hotels by the lake were teeming with rich visitors. In the past, such facilities had been built with foreign capital; but local businesses improved dramatically about fifteen years prior. Iks left the ranks of Roxche’s poorer nations, leapt over the median, and was joining the wealthy.
The aeroplane slowly cruised overhead and descended toward Lake Ras.
“There really need to be regular flights here from Elitesa all year round. Then even commoners could vacation here during the short winter holidays. …And once we get proper pressurization devices on every aeroplane, we could even get visitors flying directly over the Central Mountain Range from Cross-Mountain.” Treize muttered to himself, envisioning the future of the tourism industry in Iks. “But there’s not enough land here to build any runways. And the lakeshore’s crowded with hotels… What if we filled in a long strip of the lake? Then people’re going to complain about the scenery being ruined or something.”
“What are you mumbling about, Treize?”
Treize looked down. A police officer about twenty years old was standing there. He wore a dark blue uniform and a hat. Because officers in the Kunst police department did not carry around guns, they were all equipped with oaken truncheons. On the officer’s chest was a name tag that read ‘Piazza’.
“Oh, Officer Piazza. It’s been a while.” Treize said, still sitting on the bench.
Piazza had been a new recruit to the police force who practiced with Treize when the latter visited the Kunst police force shooting range. Being an outgoing man, he had often joked around with Treize, who was the only person younger than him at the range. Naturally, he did not know Treize’s true identity. Treize had always claimed that his parents ran an inn in a small valley.
“You can say that again, kiddo. Come practice at the station again sometime. Are you waiting for someone?”
“Treize, you didn’t know? There was an avalanche along the southern pass. The night buses from Elitesa are going to be really late.”
“I heard. How much longer are they going to take, do you think? And why was there an avalanche there, of all places?”
“You should wait in the cafe on the corner or something. You’ll see the bus when it arrives, anyway. That’s what everyone else is doing.”
“But if I did that, I’d make them wait for me here, even if it’s only for a minute.”
“Look what we have here!” Officer Piazza smirked impishly. “A VIP, then! Is it a girl?”
As Treize gaped silently, Piazza gave him a thumbs-up.
“It is! Hey, introduce me!”
“I… I’m going to have to refuse.”
“What?! …It pains me to say this, Treize, but you’re under arrest.”
“On what charges?”
“Er… I’ll think of that later.”
“I’ve always wondered how you managed to join the police, Officer Piazza.”
“Hey, hey. I’ve got dreams, y’know. Police officer’s just the first step.”
Piazza inflated at Treize’s genuine curiosity.
“I’ll climb the ladder and join the royal guard someday! I’m going to protect Her Majesty the Queen and Her Highness the Princess for as long as I live.”
Silently, Treize dared to wonder if Piazza would achieve his goal.
“Hey, don’t get all serious on me, Treize. I know it’s gonna be tough trying to join the royal guard. But I’ll never get anywhere if I don’t work hard, anyway.”
“…You’re right. Good luck.”
“Thanks. Good luck to you, too.”
“Your bombshell lady. Take good care of her, and remember: put on a cool smile and make interesting conversation. Pick a tasteful inn. Make sure the bedroom is neat and tidy. And who knows? She just might give you a smoldering come-hither look and whisper, ‘Take me to bed. Take me now’! Got all that, kiddo?”
‘What the hell?!’ Treize almost said. He suddenly felt very tired.
“Anyway, I’ll see you later. They’ve called in every officer for security duty today. We’ll be real busy until tomorrow morning.” Piazza snickered, and left with a cheerful wave.
Treize sighed and looked back into the sky. Snow was beginning to fall from the grey clouds.
Suddenly, he heard a loud honk. Treize cast a glance at the road—the bus was finally approaching. He stood from the bench.
Three buses came up in a line and stopped at the intersection. The passengers behind the windows looked exhausted.
The doors opened, and Lillia and Allison were the first to step out of the second bus. Treize quickly went up to them with a smile.
“It’s been a while, Allison. Lillia. Welcome to Ikstova!”
Mother and daughter simultaneously looked at Treize.
Allison was wearing sunglasses, a smile playing at her lips. Meanwhile, Lillia was clearly sleep-deprived and exhausted. Treize flinched upon meeting her gaze and staggered back.
Lillia approached him with a glare. And, speaking to him for the first time in six months, she squeezed out a hellish growl.
“Take me to a bed. Take me right now.”
* * *
The same morning, in Capital Standard time—in other words, while Allison and Lillia were still busy shoveling snow.
Two men returned to Major Travas’s personal office in the Sou Be-Il embassy. The man in his twenties and the man in his forties. They were both wearing suits and carrying briefcases.
Axe greeted them at the entrance. When they asked her where the major was, she pointed them at the office. The men knocked on the door.
Major Travas answered. When Axe and the men stepped inside, Travas—reading a book at his desk—raised his head. Instead of a suit, he was wearing a brown Royal Army uniform. On the coat hanger in the corner was his coat and his hat, and a utility belt that included his holster and his gun.
The woman and the two men stood in front of the desk. They did not salute him. The man in his forties placed his briefcase at his feet and spoke.
“We have our report on the bookkeeper and the organization, sir.”
“Thank you. Let’s hear it.”
The men reported the actions they had taken the previous evening. The men had all gone outside and tailed the bookkeeper, a man in his fifties, who had been released on bail.
After saying goodbye to his lawyer, the bookkeeper had gone into a bar. One of the men posed as a patron and approached the bookkeeper, making small talk over drinks. They had not obtained any useful information by that point. All they found was that the bookkeeper lived alone.
The unsuspecting bookkeeper had accepted the man’s offer to share a taxi back, and disembarked at his apartment first. So the team then knew where he lived.
Late that night, the men easily infiltrated the bookkeeper’s home and searched his room while he slept. The team looked into his background and work records, among many other things, and took photographs of seemingly important documents with a small camera before pulling out, leaving no trace of their presence.
They had returned to the embassy early in the morning to develop the photographs, and returned to the office afterwards.
“Any chance of detection?”
“We looked into it, but it’s unlikely. There’s no movement on the police’s end, either. The bookkeeper’s just a normal accountant, with no criminal records to speak of. No suspicious activity other than this one. And we also got info on this ‘film crew’ from the documents. All the stuff the bastard wouldn’t tell us.”
“It’s a production company. ‘Laurie Productions’. They’re actually making a nature documentary. Or rather, they founded the company for this film. They have no other films completed to date. They’re led by a young woman; Alicia Laurie. She must be quite well-off seeing as she managed to start up a company singlehandedly. She has about ten employees, mostly film crew. They’re a simple small-scale team with nothing strange of note. Other than how they illegally purchased film in secret to keep the project under wraps.”
With that, Major Travas was silent. “Was that a false lead, perhaps?” Axe asked hesitantly.
“We can’t be sure yet.” Major Travas said, leaving room for more possibilities, and turned to the man. “Do you know where they were filming?”
“The Kingdom of Iks?” Major Travas repeated.
“Yes. Apparently they wanted to film the sights of the Central Mountain Range. They did some filming in the Republic of Raputoa at the base of the mountains for a short time, but most of the filming took place in Iks. By cliffsides, the lake, or the mountains.”
“Iks certainly is a beautiful place all year round.” Axe noted. The young man continued where the older left off.
“It’s a popular tourist destination, and it’s not very accessible, so the film might actually hit it big in the Capital District.”
“Of course.” Major Travas said briefly, and fixed his glasses with his left hand.
“We looked through all the documents, but that is all we can confirm.”
“I understand. Thank you. Please get some rest.” Said Major Travas. But the men exchanged glances instead of returning to their desks. Axe cast them a quizzical look.
“Is there anything else?”
“Yes. There’s just one thing we weren’t certain about. We weren’t sure whether to report it or not, but we thought you might ask us to tell you everything anyway.” Said the man, opening his briefcase. He picked out a single photograph from a pile and handed it to Major Travas.
The black-and-white photograph depicted a letter. Written in Roxchean at the very top were the words ‘Shooting Schedule’, underneath which was typed a neat schedule of the summer’s filming. It was a perfectly normal document that disclosed what days the team would be in Iks, what they would be shooting and for how long, and when they would be coming back to the Capital District. On the top right was written the name of the company and its address.
“It’s a simple letter; nothing wrong with it in and of itself, but take a look at the bottom.”
Written, not typed, at the very bottom of the letter were several sentences. They were short phrases written with a fountain pen. From the punctuation it was clear they were meaningful words, but the sentences were not written in Roxchean or any language of Sou Be-Il.
“It looks like a personal postscript the sender added, but we just can’t figure out what language this is written in.” Said the older man. Axe furrowed her brow.
“I can’t tell, either. The characters themselves look closer to Iltoan than Roxchean…”
“We thought you might know, Major, since you’re a walking encyclopedia and all.” The younger man joked.
“This is Ikstovan.” Major Travas said, as nonchalant as though he had been asked for directions in his own hometown. Everyone was quiet.
Eventually, the man in his twenties broke the silence.
“Major… what is ‘Ikstovan’?”
“Exactly what it sounds like—the language of the Kingdom of Iks. It was used before the creation of the Roxchean language.”
“Ah, right. I’d completely forgotten that Roxchean was created when the Confederation was first founded. But Major, can you actually read Ikstovan?”
“Of course not.” Major Travas chuckled. “I’ll have to look up a dictionary.”
“Where would you find one? …A library?”
“Right here.” Major Travas said, as laid-back as ever, and walked over to the bookshelf. He opened a door at the bottom and pulled out a thick old book, then gingerly placed it on his desk.
“This is an Ikstovan-Roxchean dictionary. It was published about a hundred years ago to preserve the language for future generations. But supposedly, there are less than a thousand copies left in the world. I doubt even the National Library has one.”
“Major…” The younger man gaped. “I know a good subordinate doesn’t poke his nose into his superior’s business. That goes double for us spies. But I have to ask… Why do you have this book?”
A very long time ago, when he was still known by a different name, Major Travas had received the book from the new Queen of Iks as a sign of gratitude for his service to the country.
“That’s a secret.” Major Travas replied with a smile.
Then, he got to work on deciphering the text. First, he copied out the characters on the letter onto a piece of paper and looked up the words in the dictionary, one by one. He allowed Axe and the others to go back to the office for some rest, but the three chose to wait and watched in fascination as he decoded the message.
“It’s a difficult language indeed. This should be… ‘An eighteen’? No. ‘The eighteen’… ‘High’, no. in this case, it would be ‘long’.”
But over time, even Major Travas’s enthusiastic mumblings gave way to silence. The men simply exchanged glances, and Axe held her concerned gaze on the major’s profiled face.
“There. I think I have the gist of it.” Major Travas said grimly.
“What does it say?” Asked Axe.
Major Travas said nothing, simply handing her the piece of paper with the Roxchean translation. Axe read it out immediately.
“‘The eighteen years were long. But the nineteenth year will never come. We have already resolved. To do what we must’.”
“What does that mean?”
“Hm… Some sort of resolution.”
The two men speculated. Axe furrowed her brow.
“‘Revenge’? ‘Eighteen years’? Took them long enough—”
But Major Travas cut her off, calling one of the men by name.
“What of the crew? Do you know where they are now?”
“Apparently they’re still shooting. They’ve been in Iks for the past few days.”
It was then that the man realized, to his shock, that Major Travas looked like he had swallowed a bug.
“Is something the matter, Major?”
“Yes, actually.” Major Travas nodded. “Eighteen years… revenge… Eighteen years…”
He repeated the words to himself as Axe and the others looked on. The men turned to Axe as though urging her on. She took up their plea.
“Eighteen years ago would be around the time the Mural of the Beacon was discovered, Major. Did anything happen in Iks at that time? Did something happen?”
The answer made no sense to Axe and the others.
“‘Just one shot’.”
Major Travas picked up the receiver. Then—
“…But what if I’m wrong?”
Putting the receiver back down, he suddenly got to his feet. And as the others recovered from their shock, he made a declaration.
“I’m going on vacation!”
“Axe, I’ll be using up all the vacation time I’ve accumulated.”
“Excellent idea, sir.”
“I’ll be leaving today. I won’t be back for days, at the very least. Likely not for the rest of the year.”
“That’s not a problem, sir.” Replied the man in his forties. “It’s the end of the year; we don’t have much to do. Destination?”
“The Kingdom of Iks.”
The man in his forties spoke again.
“You’re planning to act for Iks, then?”
“I’d like to convince you otherwise, as we have no idea if His Majesty would approve.”
“The responsibility is all mine. In fact, this might turn out to be the better choice for His Majesty in the long run. Although I can’t say why just yet.”
“I understood the first part clearly.” The older man said, backing down. The younger man clapped his hands together.
“Great! I’ll wake up the team. ‘Let’s go, people! The major’s taking us on vacation to the land of snowy mountains!’.”
“I haven’t said a thing about taking everyone else.”
“But you will. Won’t you?”
Major Travas chuckled.
“I won’t need to anymore.”
“Yes! We’re going by aeroplane, yes? I’ll get us the fastest craft in Roxche! Night-capable with a decent pilot, too. He used to do acrobatics, and he’ll do anything for the right price.”
“I’m counting on you, then. …Axe?”
“Sign out weapons from the armory under my name.”
“Yes, sir. How many?”
“Enough for everyone. Also pick up winter combat gear.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll also need an explanation for why we need combat gear while on vacation in Iks. What shall I write?”
Major Travas’s reply was immediate.
“How about ‘in case of wolf attack’?”
“That might be a little weak, sir.”
“Then… snow monsters.” Major Travas said without a hint of humor. Axe grimaced.
“Wolves it is.”
Minutes later, the office was empty.
A Royal Army uniform and a utility belt hung from the coat hanger in Major Travas’s room, but the gun and the holster were gone.
* * *
There was a house in a snowy forest.
Even as snow piled up, about half the stone foundation was still exposed. The building atop it was a log cabin about 20 meters long and wide. All around it were trees and gentle slopes covered in snow, and not a single house in sight.
The house was two stories tall with a half-basement in the foundation. Most of the first floor was a very large living room, with the rest a kitchen and a bathroom. Wooden supports jutted out on half the second floor, which was open to the first floor. The rest was divided into two bedrooms.
On the large rectangular table were silverware, candlesticks, wineglasses, and large plates. However—
Treize was sitting there alone, sighing. He was wearing a checkered woolen shirt and long pants. Silver lids were placed over the some of the dishes, and other dishes were covered by plates for lack of covers. Naturally, the candles were not lit.
A fire burned quietly in the fireplace in the corner. Wood crumbled to ash on occasion. The world outside the thick-framed windows was submerged in grey shadows. Countless snowflakes fluttered to the ground.
Quietly, Treize stood and left the table. He went up to the long sofa arranged in front of the fireplace and, with his knees on the armrest, fell back.
He glanced up at the clock, upside-down from the sofa. It was 4:30 in the afternoon.
“Maybe I should get some sleep too.” He mumbled, and closed his eyes.
A little earlier—that afternoon.
Soon after Lillia and Allison arrived, Treize went up to a black taxi cab by the bus stop with the sign ‘on break’ displayed on the windshield, and spoke to the driver. Treize took the passenger seat, and Lillia and Allison took the back seats.
“Get some sleep on the way, Lillia.”
“No. The next time I close my eyes, it will be on a bed. I’m sick of sleeping on seats.”
The taxi drove along the zigzagging streets.
The man in his early sixties who drove the taxi was actually a member of the royal guard, and the taxi was also a property of the royal family prepared for occasions like this.
As the snow came down harder, the car headed southwest from downtown Kunst.
Just outside Kunst was a hill country, very rare in Iks. The area was owned by the royal family and there were no homes or villages in a 30-kilometer radius. The old palace on the shores of Lake Ras, which was burned down in a terrorist attack decades ago, had been converted into a large park.
The current palace, built in the heart of the park, overlooked the park and the city from a hill. It was a wooden four-story building based on the old palace, and the semicircular hangar by the lake was connected to it through an underground passage.
A road stretched along the southern edge of the premises. The road circled the lake, and it was closed over the winter because of the snow and ice and the lake was used for travel instead. There was a gate and a guardhouse labeled ‘Closed During Winter’ a short distance from Kunst, but the taxi ignored it. The policeman at the guardhouse did not stop the car, either.
Eventually, they reached a fork. The road ahead was snowed in, so the car had to turn right. Hundreds of meters along the narrow road later, they came to a house along the slope of a gentle hill.
“We’re here. This is a rental cottage some of our acquaintances run. It’s good for the summer, but they close it down during the winter because it’s so hard to get to. So I managed to rent the whole thing this time.” Treize explained, reciting a lie. Although the cottage was private property on paper, it was actually owned by the royal family. It was located on the southern tip of the royal family’s property.
“Wow.” Allison said as she stepped out of the car.
“But does it have good beds?” Lillia growled, her eyes half-closed. She disembarked.
Treize took their bags and led them inside. Lillia did not even glance at the food prepared for her and staggered upstairs in search of a bed.
Wooden walls, wooden beds. Clean sheets and warm-looking feather blankets.
“Not bad…” Lillia mumbled with a look at the tidy bedrooms. And, taking off nothing but her boots, she collapsed into one of the beds.
“Oh… a bed… hello, dreamland…”
And she fell right asleep.
Time passed quietly, and it was just past eight in the evening.
Treize woke to a dim light upstairs. When he sat himself up, he caught a glimpse of golden hair fluttering in the kitchen.
“It looks good.” Allison said when she noticed Treize was awake, and picked up some of the cold food. Treize stood and went over to the kitchen.
“Let me warm that up for you.”
“No, it’s all right. Lillia’s still asleep, and I’m going out now.”
“But what about the new year’s party?” Treize asked. Allison grinned and replied in a singsong voice.
“Have fun, you two.”
“I’m asking you as her mother to take care of Lillia. And if you’ll excuse me, the third wheel will get out of the way shortly.”
“I mean, no one can make decisions for others, right?”
“I… I suppose you’re right.” Treize said dubiously. “Where are you going?”
“I’m going to enjoy the party in downtown Kunst. I might come back to sleep tomorrow.”
“I understand. I’ll call the driver.”
“Thank you, Treize.”
Treize picked up the phone on the display case by the wall and called the so-called taxi over. Then he put down the receiver.
“The driver’s at the guardhouse and says he’ll be here shortly.”
“Thank you. By the way, can you make normal calls on that telephone?” Asked Allison. Treize shook his head.
“No. The phone lines here connect only to important places like the villa, the palace, and the police, passing through the villa. You can’t call other places.”
“I see. Make sure to come up with an excuse if Lillia decides she wants to call someone.”
“Or you can tell her everything and take her over to the other end. That’s why you invited us here, right?” Allison asked, quite serious.
Treize was silent for a moment. He balled his left hand into a fist and placed it over his chest.
“‘No one can make decisions for others’, you said.”
Allison nodded. Her hair shimmered as it shook.
“I did. The night’s still young. Plenty of time for a long talk. Good luck, Treize.”
Allison put on her coat, pulled her hair out, and put on her hat. Then she slung her purse over her shoulder and checked for her wallet.
“What are Fi and Benedict doing tonight?” She asked about the queen and her husband.
“A new year’s party at the villa.”
“Oh, right. They do that every year, right? Inviting a group of guests for the night for a home-cooked meal with them.”
“Yes.” Treize nodded.
“I heard you invited the Vice President’s family last year.”
“Yes. Even the children were loud and outgoing.”
“Oh? Did you attend, too?”
“No. I was staying here, but I dropped in because I got bored—and I saw a big mess of drunk people. Then again, we got the northern pass expansion project funded by the Confederation the next spring, so it wasn’t all that bad.”
“Talk about some real talent. That’s Fi for you. What kind of people are coming this year?”
“A film crew, I heard.”
“Making a nature documentary?”
“How did you know? They were shooting in secret, so they even hid cameras in dugouts. Almost no one around here knows. Did Mother tell you?”
“Nope.” Allison replied nonchalantly. “We actually came on the same aeroplane as some of the crew. We heard about it from them in person.”
“I see. They’re close to completing the work, so I suppose it doesn’t have to be kept secret much longer now. They’ve been filming everywhere this past year.”
“I can’t wait to see it.”
“Yeah. Mother and Father are very interested, too. They’re so happy that the documentary can pass on our landscapes to the future. So they accepted the crew when they applied for this year’s dinner. I heard they’re even going to shoot tonight’s festivities—discreetly, of course. …Oh, he’s here.”
The taxi’s headlights blinked in the snow as it stopped in front of the cottage. The driver stepped outside with an umbrella in hand.
“Take care of Lillia.”
With that, Allison crossed her right pointer and middle fingers together and saluted Treize. It was a Sou Be-Il gesture wishing someone luck.
Lightly but solemnly, Treize lowered his head.
The taxi carrying Allison disappeared into the growing snowfall.
“Counting on me, huh.”
And Treize and Lillia were left alone in the cottage.