Here's the last update for this volume. I'll post the PDF and epub at the end of the next book.
Chapter 4: Counterattack
“Are you in, Elder Sister?”
“Yes. Come in.”
“Please excuse my intrusion. …Oh my, Elder Sister! That dress looks splendid on you!”
“Thank you, Meriel. Your dress is wonderful, too.”
“Thank you, Elder Sister. I am so happy to hear that. But I’m not certain I will be able to stand wearing this dress all evening.”
“Don’t worry. Everyone changes after the dinner banquet. There’s even time set aside for it.”
“I am relieved to hear that. Will the festivities for the new year’s countdown begin soon?”
“Yes. It’s a beautiful time of hear that enlivens all of Sfrestus. And now I’ll have the chance to greet the new year with a friend near my age for the very first time.”
“I will visit again next year, Elder Sister, if you would kindly invite me. I promised earlier that I would bring Treize, but I shall do my very best and ask Mother if the entire family could visit!”
“That sounds wonderful! Father and Mother have also said that they would like to meet Sir Carr Benedict, Hero of the Mural, again.”
“Then that will be the first thing I ask my family when I return to Ikstova.”
“Thank you, Meriel. Shall we be off now? Perhaps by this time next year, I will be with both you and Treize. I can’t wait.”
“Of course, Elder Sister. But please remember that Treize is a numbskull.”
“Ah! Pardon me, Elder Sister. I’ve used a very crude word. It is Roxchean for ‘fool’.”
“Oh my. ‘Treize the Numbskull’…? That’s a rather funny name.”
“I feel bad for saying this after coining that name myself, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to call him that…”
* * *
As Meriel and her ‘Elder Sister’ chattered in Sfrestus, the capital of Sou Be-Il.
It had been several dozen minutes since the year 3306 began in the kingdom of Iks.
“Man, I’m bored. Are we supposed to sit around like this until morning?” Lillia grumbled from her seat on the carpet in front of the fireplace.
“Apologies, Milady. There’s nothing around here.”
Treize the Numbskull bowed his head from the sofa.
All Lillia had done since the start of the year was drink two cups of tea and tend to the fire in the red-bricked fireplace. She was bored of even that, tossing in pieces of wood when she felt like it.
“As your host tonight, I would like to offer you my sincerest apologies. The snow is just too much…”
“Snow again! I don’t believe this!”
“Of course! I’m very sorry!”
“Man… It’s really coming down, isn’t it?” Lillia sighed, glancing outside. The large window behind Treize was half-covered by the snow on the windowsill.
“Maybe I should tell you about Ikstova?” Asked Treize.
“Sure. Not like we have anything else to do.” Lillia replied. Treize cleared his throat.
“During winter in Ikstova, the weather tends to change rapidly. You’ll get huge snowflakes out of nowhere, then it’ll stop just as suddenly and the sky’ll be full of stars.”
“So it’s dangerous to go outside if you’re not prepared. That’s why everyone here takes necessary equipment when they go out—that way, if they’re caught in a blizzard, they could dig themselves a hole for shelter. Then they could wait out the storm.”
“And we actually have a lot of dangerous animals around, too. Wolves are common in the valleys. They almost never attack humans, but being around livestock can be risky. We also have bears. They usually hibernate over the winter, but the ones who didn’t find enough food to fall asleep or the ones that woke up are extremely dangerous. In the worst case scenario, they can even come into human settlements. Last year, we switched out all the fences around garbage collection zones to metal ones.”
“Oh yeah. Mom used to tell me never to wander into the mountains when I was little.”
“Although… you’d have been safe if you were in that valley.”
“Oh, er… because there’s barbed wire all around the woods there.”
“There are bears in this area, too. So it’s a very bad idea to try and come without a car. That goes for leaving, too.”
“Don’t worry. I don’t ever plan to trek dozens of kilometers on foot to Kunst. But what if a bear attacks the cottage? Those glass windows aren’t gonna last.”
“Things like that happen sometimes. They smell food inside and ransack houses.”
“Then aren’t we in danger here?”
“It’ll be fine. Every residence in Ikstova is bound to have a hunting rifle or two. You can chase off most bears with the sound of gunfire alone.”
The conversation ended less than five minutes after it began.
Treize shut his eyes. He was still for several seconds as though he were asleep.
Then, he opened his eyes and put his left hand—balled into a fist—over the golden pendant on his chest. He tapped it several times, then spoke.
Lillia turned, taken aback. Treize was the picture of gravity.
“What’s with the serious look?”
“I, er… I was thinking about things I haven’t talked about.”
“And I realized I haven’t told you about my family. I thought it was about time I told you.”
Lillia’s curiosity was piqued.
“R-really?” Treize gasped.
“Yeah. I also wanna know how you learned to fly aeroplanes, how you speak Bezelese, and how you met Mom.”
“Huh? Oh, er… I was going to tell you one of these days… or before that, like this summer, but I never got the chance.”
“Is it that heavy? Also, it’s last summer now.”
“R-right. Last summer. I… well, I think this might surprise you. You might not believe me.”
“Now this is getting interesting.”
Lillia turned not just her head, but her entire body. She looked at Treize from in front of the fireplace.
“Okay. I’ll tell you.”
His decision made, Treize placed his hand over his chest again and took a deep breath.
Treize was only a word into his confession before it was buried in Lillia’s scream.
Treize flinched. Lillia’s eyes were the size of dinner plates as she pointed at something behind Treize and a little above him.
“Treize! Behind you! Look!”
He froze. A blood-covered woman was clinging to the large window.
Her mouth was stained red. Her face was partly shredded, the meat exposed to the air. Soaking-wet black hair clung to her cheeks and forehead. Her ragged dress was drenched below the waist and dotted with blood. Her bloodshot eyes were staring straight at Lillia and Treize. The moment she opened her mouth to speak, blood spewed out.
“Eek!” Lillia trembled.
“Wh-what’s going on…?”
Treize stood and took a defensive stance.
The woman shook the window. The glass did not break, but she made a loud racket. The snow on the windowsill fell away.
Treize finally realized that he knew the bloodied woman’s face.
He ran to the window and unlocked it. Then he slightly pushed open the window and yelled.
“Stand back, Auntie!”
The woman staggered backwards. Treize opened the window fully. The woman leaned against the windowsill as though falling, then used the last of her strength to crawl inside. Treize quickly dragged his sofa over to the window.
The woman made a noise—something between a scream and a sigh—and fell onto the sofa. Treize shut the window and turned to her.
“What’s happened, Auntie? What’s going on?”
Lillia finally realized that the stranger was injured; she quickly rose and hesitantly looked over her.
“A-are you all right?”
“Uaaaagh… Hah! Koff…”
Bloodied and drenched, the woman made a horrifying sound as she lay on the sofa and exhaled raggedly. Then—
“Yeah! It’s me! I’m here!” Treize replied loudly, kneeling by the sofa.
“Hey, she looks really bad! I don’t think she should be talking!” Lillia suggested, but Treize ignored her.
“What’s wrong, Auntie? What’s happened?”
The woman spoke.
“Villa… intruders… everyone… hostage…”
“What? Intruders? …You mean the new year’s guests?”
“Yes… we got… one… but they’ll… interrogate… Majesty…”
Treize leaned in close to the woman’s ear so Lillia could not hear.
“Someone took care of one of the intruders, you mean? And the bastards are going to interrogate Mother and Father?”
“Yes… wanted… to know…”
“All right, I get what you’re saying! I’m going to do something about this, I promise! Thank you for coming to tell me, Auntie! Thank you! You’ve done a great job! Thank you!”
“Highness… it was… no-”
Her words cut off. The woman seemed to snort as she exhaled, and with her eyes wide open she stopped moving completely.
“T-T-T-Treize! This isn’t good, she’s not going to make it! We have to get a doctor quick!”
He looked into the woman’s eyes. They did not move. Then he put his fingers onto her bloodied neck and waited.
“…Thank you, Auntie… I mean it.” He mumbled, and with his left hand closed the woman’s eyes.
“It’s no use. She… just passed away.”
“Why? Who did this to her? Was it a bear? That must be it! Maybe she was wandering the woods and a bear attacked her?” Lillia asked, staring at Treize’s back.
“No. It’s safe here. Don’t worry.” He replied. Then,
“Damn it…” He swore quietly.
Treize rose and ran over to the telephone. But the moment he picked up the receiver and reached for the dial, his expression changed.
There was an impact as he slammed the receiver onto the phone.
“What’s wrong, Treize?”
“The line’s been cut!”
The phone line at the villa had been cut, rendering the internal line at the cottage useless.
Treize did not answer Lillia; instead, he turned and opened the living room door and ran toward the front door.
Lillia and the woman’s body were left alone in the living room.
Quietly and hesitantly, Lillia cast a solemn glance at the body. Blood and water were soaking into the sofa.
“Er… I don’t know who you are, but please rest in peace.” She said, clasping her hands over her chest and closing her eyes. She held a long moment of silence.
Then, Lillia opened her eyes.
“Treize, you imbecile… you better not have gone off somewhere by yourself…”
About two minutes of quiet waiting later,
Treize swore as he opened the door and ran back into the living room.
His arms were completely full, and there were things on his back as well.
“Damn it! Don’t screw with me!”
Treize haphazardly laid everything down on the carpet and angrily began to equip them.
He had brought an assortment of outdoor gear for winter use. Long snow boots, snowshoes, a canvas knapsack, a metal water bottle, gloves, a pair of goggles, a mask, a flashlight, and a signal flare.
Then came the combat gear—a bolt-action rifle complete with scope, along with a wooden box of ammunition.
Quickly, Treize prepared himself. He put on his utility belt over his clothes, strapped on his holster, loaded his rifle, switched to snow boots, and put on a jacket and a hat. He stuffed the rest into the knapsack, hung the snowshoes from it, threw on the knapsack, then slung his rifle over his right shoulder.
“All set!” He said, getting to his feet.
“‘All set’, my butt!” Lillia cried indignantly. “Lillia Smash!”
She smacked Treize in the back of the head. His hat flew right off and landed on the carpet.
Treize turned, fully equipped for battle.
“What was that all about?”
“That’s my line! You just listened to this lady by yourself, jumped to conclusions by yourself, and started getting ready by yourself. I want an explanation!”
“Th-there’s no time!”
“So make it quick!” Lillia argued, silencing Treize. “Who is this lady? It looks like someone shot her! You’d better tell my what’s going on and what you’re going to do—all of it!”
Treize was silent.
“…All right, I’ll tell you. I’ll explain. And you should tell someone what happened, too, just in case. In case something happens to me.” Treize said gravely. Lillia hung her head.
“This would’ve sounded like a bad joke if it weren’t for the body…”
Treize took several calming breaths.
Then he thought about how much he should tell Lillia.
“If you head toward the lake from here, over one mountain—no, hill—you’ll reach the royal family’s property and their villa. I think something’s happened there. This lady works in the palace for the royal family—for the queen—and we happen to know each other.”
“This is what she told me before she passed away. The guests for this year’s new year’s eve party have taken the queen, her husband, and the servants hostage. They’re up to something at the villa, where no one is going to go until morning.”
“…That’s…” Lillia gaped for a moment, lost for words. “…That’s terrorism! Against the queen! Isn’t this really bad?!”
“Which is why I’m in such a hurry. Do you understand now?”
“Yeah. Keep explaining.”
“Auntie here managed to escape somehow, and was shot in the process. And she came to this cottage, which is the nearest building to the villa.”
“I see. I get it.” Lillia nodded again and again. Then she looked Treize in the eyes. “So what are you going to do, decked out like a soldier?”
“Obviously I’m going to charge in there and—”
“On your own? You’re out of your mind.” Lillia declared
Treize could not respond. Lillia continued.
“There’s a bunch of hostage-takers, right? And they have guns, right? And you’re still going to bust in there alone and protect the queen and all the hostages so no one gets hurt, while somehow taking care of all the bad guys? It’s impossible. I guarantee it.”
“…Well… I guess…”
“Mom told me something really great once. ‘Only an idiot rushes into a battle he can’t win’.”
“Yeah. …You’re right.”
Treize’s shoulders sagged. The knapsack and the rifle seemed so much heavier now in spite of his earlier energy—he sank into a nearby chair.
Lillia put her hands on her hips and stared down at Treize.
“So let’s think of something more realistic. Okay?”
“Yeah…” Treize replied, hanging his head.
“First, we have to report this! We’ve got to get the word out! The police? Or… wait! Doesn’t the royal family have a personal guard team?”
“Yeah, but we can’t reach them. The phone’s dead. Our only option’s to go on foot. Damn it… those people were prepared. …The royal family always spends the end of the year at the villa, and security is lax. No one’s going to the villa until morning.” Treize said dejectedly. Lillia fell into thought.
“What about the guardhouse we passed on the way? There was a policeman there!”
“Yeah, but it’s way too far. Ten kilometers at the very least. And with this snowfall, it’ll take us at least three hours to get there. More, if we’re unlucky.”
Treize shook his head.
“I see…” Lillia nodded gravely, but she remembered something. “Wait. What were you just about to do, then? Is the villa close? You said it’s over a hill, right?”
Treize looked up.
“The thing is…”
He thought for a moment if he should tell the truth.
“The thing is…”
Eventually, he gave in.
“The villa’s connected to a little hut next to this cottage. The hut looks like a shelter, but it’s actually on royal property. And… there’s a tunnel in the basement that leads to a storehouse right next to the villa.”
“Really?” Treize replied tersely. He looked up and continued weakly like a child admitting to a lie. “There’s a hidden basement under the storehouse by the villa. The basement’s connected to the hut outside. There’s a small railcar there that takes less than ten minutes from one end to the other. Auntie took the railcar here, too.”
“I see. But why did the royal family install something like that?” Lillia wondered pointedly.
“Actually, it’s been around since before the villa was built. It was for transporting lumber supplies.” Treize lied. The tunnel was actually built so the royal family could go between the two buildings even in wintertime, and also to provide them with an escape route in case of an emergency.
Lillia did not doubt Treize.
“But how do you know all this, Treize?” She asked another pointed question.
Treize hesitated, but quickly recalled the skeevy police officer he spoke to the day before.
“I… I actually have a friend in the royal guard! I heard it from him. I want to join someday, too. Doesn’t it sound cool, protecting the queen and stuff?”
She seemed to be convinced.
“—and die of a gunshot wound before you can save anyone. End Book 1.”
Treize could not reply. He sighed.
“Then what do I do? Is there any way to make this into a battle I can win?”
“So call someone. We have to contact someone. There’s nothing else we can do.”
“I told you before, the phone’s—”
“What about at the villa?” Lillia cut him off. “Won’t we find something to contact outside there?”
“Oh! You’re right!”
“I completely forgot. If I can get to the third floor, I can get the radio in my—”
‘I can get the radio in my room’, Treize was about to say, but he caught himself before he could.
“…Okay. So the villa is three stories high. The queen and her husband’s room and their daughter’s room are on the third floor.”
“Yeah. Now, the queen and her husband love aeroplanes, so they have a radio on the third floor. We could use that to contact the air traffic controller at the airport on Lake Ras.”
“Great! That’s a plan! …Wait, how do you know about—”
“This is not the time!” Treize cut her off, reaching the limits of his creativity. “I’m heading to the villa! There’s nothing else we can do! There’s supposed to be eight hostage-takers. The villa’s a big place—they couldn’t possibly keep an eye on all the rooms while watching the hostages. I’m going to sneak in there somehow and get to the room with the radio.”
“All right… no objections.”
Treize stood from his seat and headed to the door.
Then he spotted Lillia coming up behind him with her coat and hat in hand.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m coming too.”
“Two heads are better than one. Especially if it gets you an extra set of eyes.”
“You’re not going to fight. You’re going to sneak in. That means I can help you! If the queen really is in danger, I can’t just sit back and do nothing! I’ll keep an eye on you so you don’t get yourself into a shootout! That is all!”
“No, but…” Treize began, but he trailed off. “…All right.”
“And leave the rifle!”
“What? I can’t—”
“It’ll get in the way! How’re going to sneak through the villa with that thing on your back?”
“What if they catch us?”
“Then you surrender! We went over this, Treize; they’d kill you in a straight fight. You fire off one shot, and they’ll be on you like a pack of wolves.”
“…All right. Then I’ll leave it in the storehouse once we get to the other side.”
“I guess that works. …Let’s go!”
With that, Lillia put on her coat and her hat. Then she headed for the doors to put on her boots. Treize followed after her.
“You know what? Maybe you should stay behind after all—”
“You would have died this summer if I wasn’t there!”
“True… Also, it’s last summer now.”
“I’m not gonna let a guy who can’t swim go off by himself.”
“I practiced a lot after that, you know. I can go a few kilometers—”
They geared up for the weather and stepped outside.
Left alone in the living room was the servant’s corpse.
* * *
“You bastard! You’ve got a lot of nerve to be setting fires on the first day of the new year!”
Officer Piazza was hopping mad.
“Now, now. There’s no need to be raising your voice like that.”
Quietly chiding him was another police officer, this one in his sixties.
In the center of a small white room was a table. The arsonist was handcuffed to a corner of the table, sitting with his head bowed.
Standing behind the arsonist was Officer Piazza, who was holding a truncheon and whose ears were tinged red. Across from the arsonist sat an old, white-haired officer. Because they were inside, he wore a suit instead of a uniform and was not wearing his hat.
They were in a questioning room at the Kunst police department. The table and the chairs were bolted to the floor to prevent them from being used as weapons.
“Won’t you at least tell us your name?” The older policeman asked gently. Over his breast was embroidered the name ‘Warren’.
“C’mon, fess up!” Officer Piazza demanded. “You have any idea who you’re dealing with here? This is Rein Warren, chief of police and a member of the royal guard! He’d never normally deal with a petty criminal like you; you should be honored that everyone else was too busy for the questioning—”
“That’s more than enough, Officer.” Warren ordered.
“Urk! Yes, sir!” Officer Piazza replied, standing up straight. Warren tut-tutted and shook his head before turning to the arsonist once more.
“I can’t exactly speak with you if you won’t give me your name. Even a temporary nickname will do for now. Won’t you tell us?”
The man said nothing. He was not even looking at Warren.
Warren paused, then spoke again.
“Now, about the places you set on fire…”
The man twitched.
“No deaths, and the only injured are members of the fire department. It’s certainly a relief, isn’t it?”
“H-how is that a relief, sir?” Asked Officer Piazza.
“It’s very much a relief.” Warren replied. “Arson causing death is a serious crime. This man could have been sentenced to death if someone had been killed.”
The man said nothing.
“Now, depending on the case, we can overlook charges of assaulting a police officer.”
“Huh? But chief!” Piazza raised his voice. But the man still remained silent.
Warren ignored Piazza’s protests.
“In any case, I suggest you get some rest. Calm down. And feel free to call for me when you decide you’d like to talk. And naturally, you also have the right to remain silent until you’ve consulted a lawyer in the morning.”
Then, Warren stood and opened the door behind him. Outside was the hallway. He thanked the officer who was waiting outside.
“You keep an eye on him, now. Call for me if anything happens.” He said. “Officer Piazza? Come with me.”
“Now, now, Officer. Let’s go greet the brave woman who assisted us.”
“Yes, sir!” Piazza cried with a salute. He gave the guarding officer a nod and followed Warren out, heading down the long hallway. After they passed one or two cells,
“Sir, shouldn’t we have gone a bit tougher on him?”
“No; he’s not like to confess anything at the moment. I was just prodding to see what I could get. Times like this, it’s best to give him some time. I doubt he’ll say a word to the guard. So for the next few hours, he’ll be alone and afraid, not knowing what will happen to him. Then I’ll visit him again and strike up a normal conversation—one that has nothing to do with the case.”
“By that… you mean small talk? Nothing about the fires?”
“Exactly. Even if it doesn’t seem meaningful in the least. The important thing here is to rid the suspect of his reluctance to talk to the investigators. It doesn’t matter what you talk about. And it doesn’t matter if either of you get angry sometimes. As long as you keep a conversation going, like a game of catch, you’ll draw out all the answers you need. The point is to pop the important questions before he can expect it. Then he won’t be able to retreat to silence; that’s when we get the answers.”
“I see… It looks like I still have a long way to go, chief.”
“In any case, Officer Piazza. What is your evaluation of our suspect?”
“Well… I guess he must have wanted to make some noise, considering the day he pulled this stunt. Or maybe he was really lonely because he didn’t have anyone to spend today with.”
Warren nodded dubiously and entered a room labeled ‘reception’.
Two sofas were arranged in the room. Allison sat on one of them, sipping tea. She tried to stand when she saw Warren enter the room, but he stopped her.
“Please, no need to stand.”
Warren and Piazza sat across from her.
“Ms. Schultz, yes? I’m terribly sorry you had to see such a shameful sight while on vacation here.”
Allison grinned, unconcerned.
“Not at all. I was just getting bored since I lost my company. Thanks to you, I even got some exercise.”
“By that, I guess you were here with your… boyfriend? What am I saying, of course a beauty like you has a boyfriend!” Piazza rambled.
“That’s more than enough, Officer.” Warren ordered.
“Urk! Yes, sir!” Piazza replied in a repeat of their earlier exchange.
“No, no. I’m here with my daughter.”
Piazza positively beamed when Allison began, but he hung his head the moment she finished.
“Have you found out anything?” Asked Allison. Warren slowly shook his head.
“Not yet, ma’am. But we’ll know soon. He doesn’t seem to be a local. From the looks of him I’d wager he’s from the countryside, here to make some money. And I don’t suspect his intentions were necessarily to set fire to the city.”
“More likely he was forced to do it for money.”
“Hm? Yes, that was my guess. Why do you suppose so, Ms. Schultz?”
“If he just wanted to burn down Kunst, there would be no point in doing it on the night of a celebration, when the police and the crowds are out in full force. And if he were doing this for entertainment, he would have looked much happier in the act. But he was clearly desperate and calm. It’s likely that he was given a large sum of money to cause these fires tonight.” Allison said without even pausing to think.
“Ah.” Officer Piazza nodded, impressed.
“My assumptions exactly. I’m amazed.” Said Warren. “Ah, it looks like I haven’t introduced myself yet. Police Chief Rein Warren, at your service. I’m the oldest member on the force.”
Allison’s eyes turned to dinner plates.
“No way… Captain Warren?”
“Chief of police, actually. Just under the dire-” Piazza began, but Allison cut him off.
“Oh, excuse me. You were a captain eighteen years ago, right? Stabbed by Nichto on the balcony?”
“Ah!” Warren gasped, surprised in turn. “Yes, that would be me. But how—”
“Heh.” Allison smiled as she dove into her memories. Officer Piazza stared, transfixed.
“At the time…” She began. “…I was a child soldier in the Confederation Air Force. Oh, I’m still in the Air Force, for your information.”
“I see. I remember there was a joint air force training session on the lake at the time. Where the airport stands today.”
In truth, Allison had been flying over Kunst on a fighter plane, but she nodded anyway.
I heard it all over the radio. How Queen Francesca returned from the dead, how the Hero of the Mural saved the day, and how you made that courageous statement. And how the bad guy died. The moment you stepped forward, I yelled out loud: ‘Awesome, Captain! We have a witness!’. I also remember how you were injured in the line of duty.”
“Please. It was a shameful moment.” Warren chuckled bitterly.
Officer Piazza, who happened to be two years old at the time, could not join the conversation.
“I failed to prevent Nichto’s suicide, and I failed to protect Her Majesty’s family… I am ashamed to remember.”
Allison gave him a gentle smile.
“But didn’t queen Francesca choose to turn her attention to governing Iks rather than hunting down the criminals before the statute of limitations expires?” Fiona had told Allison this in person, but Allison decided to emphasize her lack of connection to the queen. “That’s what I heard in passing. Is it true?”
“Well, yes. …But it would be a lie to say I wasn’t frustrated.” Said Warren. “Her Majesty can be too forgiving sometimes. Nichto’s family might have known something, but she kept her promise to the man. After a simple questioning session she sent the family to the Capital District.”
“Did he have parents or children here?” Asked Allison. Warren nodded.
“Yes. A wife and a young daughter—about six years old, I believe. They were living in the Kunst suburbs, but considering their family’s infamy it would have been difficult for them to remain here.”
“I see… do you know where they are now?”
Warren shook his head.
“No. I’m afraid not. …But they are not responsible for Owen Nichto’s crimes. I only hope they are living in peace somewhere.”
* * *
“It’s like this snow is never going to stop. We’re in for a very long night, Queen Francesca.” Luarie smirked, looking out the window.
She looked happy. She looked positively giddy.
The hostage-takers, including Laurie, were dressed from head to toe in tightly woven wool combat gear. Khaki pants and long-sleeved jackets with many pockets—it was a full set of winter gear from the Roxchean Army, which anyone could obtain when the military cleared out old equipment. On the belts were holsters containing handguns and magazines, and small pouches.
There was a revolver in Laurie’s holster as well. She had switched to short winter boots. One of her men was burning the clothes they had been wearing before in a fireplace.
The room was a small one compared to the party hall, but it was still about the size of an average living room. There was a coat hanger on the wall, and a wooden shelf was fixed to the opposite side of the room. There were few windows and only a single door, making it a very poor bedroom. This space was actually used for storage and as a guest waiting room.
The black boxes Laurie’s men had brought were stacked in a corner. They were all empty; all the weapons and gear hidden in their fake filming equipment were now in the hands of the hostage-takers.
In the center of the room was a long table and several chairs.
Fiona sat in one of them, glaring at the back of Laurie’s head from across the table. She wore a light jacket because the room was a little chilly. To her right, two meters away, sat Benedict. His hands were bound together with tape over his lap.
Behind them stood Elvar and the man named Kirk, submachine guns at the ready.
A radio was strapped around Elvar’s waist like a belt for ease of communication. The wires from the radio and the battery were connected to the headphone on his left ear and the microphone near his throat.
“We kept you waiting while we changed and cut the telephone lines.”
Laurie smiled as she turned, taking a seat a short distance from the table. She crossed her legs, now covered by combat gear, and threw Fiona an amused look.
“Now, let’s begin the questioning.”
* * *
“We ride this thing?”
“Yeah.” Treize nodded.
They were inside a basement walled with stone. It was a narrow space scarcely large enough for a dozen people, lit by a yellow lightbulb. A simple staircase led up to a door on the ceiling. It was as cold as a freezer there, and each time they exhaled their breaths rose in puffs of white.
Against the wall was a small shelf littered with things like an oil lamp, gas, tins of machine oil, simple tools, gunpowder and cartridges for rifles, glass jars of all sizes, wires, and thin strings, among other things.
And in the center of the basement was a narrow set of rails less than a meter wide. It began at the buffers on one side of the room and led into a dark, gaping tunnel on the other side of the basement. They could hear a hum from the shadows, like wind was blowing inside.
A railcar stood on the rails.
It was about 3 meters long and 1.5 meters wide. The chassis was flat and wooden, essentially a large piece of plywood. Underneath were three wheels attached to electric motors. On the railcar were four chairs in sets of two, placed back-to-back, along with handrails. There were simple compartments on the front and back for luggage, and large batteries. The railcar seemed to scream ‘handmade’.
Lillia turned on the flashlight she grabbed from the shelf and brought it to the railcar. The seats were stained with blood.
“Oh… let me wipe that.” Treize said and quickly grabbed a piece of cloth to clean off the seats. Then he turned, dejected. “I think you should wait here after all, Lillia.”
Lillia wasted no time in retorting.
“So you want me to fight through the blizzard outside and somehow make it back to the cottage on my own? Or are you asking me to freeze to death here in the basement?”
A sigh left Treize’s mouth in a puff as he placed his gear in the compartment. The rifle was too long to fit, so he put it onto the chassis.
“Let’s get to the other side first. Then we can come up with a plan and do something.” Lillia said.
“All right. Get on.”
Treize pointed Lillia to the left-side seat that faced forward. When she sat down, he turned on his flashlight, extinguished the basement light, and sat beside her.
“W-we just have to stay sitting here, right?” Lillia asked anxiously in the shadows.
“Yeah. But the tunnel’s not that wide, so keep your arms inside. You might hurt yourself if you’re not careful.”
“O-okay. …Dammit…” Lillia swore, clutching the handrail with a gloved hand. She shrank.
Treize relied on his flashlight to find the controller for the railcar. It was shaped like the grip of a gun with a cable protruding from the bottom. The wooden controller, which seemed to be handmade, had a lever for switching between forward and reverse functions, as well as a trigger-shaped acceleration button.
Treize held the controller in his right hand and turned off the flashlight.
“Hey! It’s pitch black in here!”
“Yeah. Let’s go.”
The motors hummed in the darkness as the railcar made its way forward. At walking pace it entered the tunnel. The motors and the wheels suddenly became louder, but not enough to hurt their ears.
The railcar trembled as it continued into the darkness. It thunked loudly for the first few dozen seconds, but that soon quieted down.
About two minutes down the cold tunnel,
“C-can I ask you something?” Lillia asked, a little loudly.
“H-how long do we have to go on this thing?”
“About ten minutes. It’s not that fast—it’d be dangerous if it were.”
“A-and we have to stay in the dark until we get there?”
“All you’re gonna see is the tunnel and the rails anyway. Auntie’s probably turned out the light on the other end.”
“I-I see. …Y’know, I think I just learned something new about myself…”
“Yeah?” Treize asked, surprised. Lillia replied in a trembling voice.
“I-I don’t like d-dark places and narrow places! I-I’m kinda scared!”
“So claustrophobia and nyctophobia.”
“I’m not asking for a diagnosis! How much longer do we have to stay like this?!”
“Are you blowing me off? C-can’t this thing go any faster?”
“No. This is how it normally runs.”
“…Let’s at least turn on a light!”
“No. It’ll just be a waste of batteries.”
“Th-then we won’t even know when the rails end! What if we crash? Turn on that flashlight right now!”
“That’s not an issue, Lillia.”
“Remember how the car shook a lot when we first started? It means we’re close to the end of the line. The rails were built that way on purpose. Once the railcar starts shaking again we can turn on the light and slow down.”
“…Th-that makes sense. But! …Ohhh…”
Lillia could not continue.
“Let’s calm down. Think about something else.” Treize said nonchalantly.
“As if that’s even possible! I was supposed to be having a good time celebrating the new year, but here I am in this pitch-black tunnel. This is all your fault, Treize!”
“…Then may I assume that you finally understand the indescribable emotion I felt when I was pushed into the lake from the seaplane last summer, Milady?” Treize asked. Lillia’s patience evaporated.
“Hey! Are you trying to start an argument here?”
“No, Milady. I simply remembered that moment like it was yesterday, so I thought I should mention it. It really was the most terrifying moment of my life.”
“You would have died if I didn’t push you off!”
“Still, at the time I felt the same way you do now.”
“You can’t blame me for that!”
“Please, Milady. I was simply citing an example.”
“No, Treize! You sit down right there! I am going to lecture you like you wouldn’t—”
“—I’m already sitting, Milady. I happened to be fixing my collar. Terribly sorry you can’t see.”
“You’re asking for it now!”
Including the few moments Lillia spent catching her breath, her yelling and Treize’s halfhearted answering lasted several minutes.
Finally, Treize was cut off by the railcar shaking.
“—Oh. Argument’s over.”
“Why do you always have to— What?”
“We’re almost there.”
Treize turned on the flashlight. He could see the tunnel, lined with plywood, and the rails passing behind them.
“You can calm down now. It feels a little better now, right?”
Lillia was silent.
Treize slowed down the railcar. Soon they saw the exit by the light of the flashlight. Treize slowed the car even more.
They finally came to a stop at a basement just like the one they had departed from.
Treize scanned the room. Like before, there were walls and a shelf full of trinkets.
Checking that no one was there, Treize disembarked and locked the wheels.
“Are we here?” Lillia asked as she stepped off.
Lillia turned on her own flashlight and looked around.
“This looks like the same place. You better not have brought us back.”
Treize turned on the basement light. Orange light filled the room. Then he pulled down his knapsack and his rifle from the railcar.
With the railcar between them, Lillia and Treize stood face-to-face.
“I’m glad no one’s in here. This storeroom’s about a hundred meters from the villa, and it’s hard to see from there because there are so many trees. And you can’t see the basement light from outside.”
“Now what? Are you still dead-set on storming the place alone?” Asked Lillia. Treize replied calmly.
“No. That whole banter in the tunnel helped me clear my head.”
“R-really? That’s great. And?”
“First,” Said Treize, “we’ll take some time to strategize.”
* * *
“We’ll start with your name.” Said Laurie.
On the table between her and Fiona was a magnetic cassette recorder, a very recent invention. Next to it were extra batteries and several more cassette tapes.
“I am very impressed with all your new toys.” Benedict said instead of Fiona.
The recorder was about the size of a book, and was quite handy because the user did not need to manually attach the reels to the device.
“I never asked for your opinion.” Laurie said with an amused grin, and signaled Elvar.
“Excuse me.” Elvar said quietly, and whipped a leather belt across Benedict’s shoulder.
“Ow!” Benedict cried in Bezelese. He twisted in his seat, his hands still bound.
“Stop this!” Fiona yelled as she turned.
“Are you talking to my subordinate? Or your babbling fool of a husband?” Said Laurie.
“Please, excuse me. I will remember how my mother punished me with a bamboo ruler and be quiet.” Benedict said with a smile, sitting upright again. Elvar stood emotionlessly behind him.
Fiona turned and looked back up at Laurie.
“My name is Francesca. Francesca of Ikstova. Currently, as of the year 3306 of the World Calendar, I am the queen of this country.” She said, unafraid.
“All right, Queen Francesca.” Laurie said. “I’ll have you explain this situation in my stead.”
“…May I be honest, then?”
“Be my guest.”
“The guests we invited on the final day of the year 3305—the owner and the employees of Laurie Productions—violently seized control of the royal family’s villa with the weapons they smuggled inside their filming equipment, and have taken myself and about a dozen people hostage. As for why they are doing this and what they are planning next… I have no idea.” Fiona continued mechanically. “Three people have already lost their lives.”
Laurie did not even try to hide her irritation.
“Don’t patronize me. Two were your servants who put up resistance, but one was my dear subordinate.”
“I’m sorely tempted to increase that count. Starting with you.”
“By all means, if you have the courage to jump over this table.”
“I can end it instantly with this revolver.”
“But something’s stopping you.”
“You’re right. You should be celebrating, Queen Francesca. That ‘something’ is keeping you alive.”
Benedict glanced at the man who had whipped him earlier.
“Women are terrifying, no?”
“I can’t say I disagree.” Elvar muttered.
“All right, next. We of Laurie Productions were invited to the royal family’s highly exclusive annual year-end dinner under the pretense of filming the landscape of Ikstova, and are in the process of carrying out our mission. Now, let’s hear a comment from the queen about the catastrophic failings of the royal family’s security team. How do you feel?”
Fiona’s answer was immediate.
“I am ashamed. It saddens me to say that I’ll have to stop inviting guests to our year-end celebrations.”
“Excellent idea. If you’re still around to celebrate the next year, that is.”
“I’m not worried in the least. My successor will manage just fine.”
“Your daughter, Princess Meriel. Word is that she went on vacation to Sou Be-Il last month, no? A subordinate of mine read about it in the papers not too long ago. It’s a shame I never had the chance to meet her.”
“Personally, I’m quite grateful.”
“Lucky in all the wrong ways. I expected nothing less from the queen who rose from the grave.” Laurie snorted.
“Oh? I wasn’t expecting a compliment. Thank you.”
“It’s certainly an honor to behold you, Your Majesty. Oh, am I repeating what I said last year?”
“Yes. You were still a wonderful person in 3305.”
“Thank you. But remember this, Queen Francesca. The me of 3306—that’s the real me.”
Laurie rambled unnecessarily before the tape recorder. Fiona began to speak more and more in turn.
The men behind them did not try to end the conversation that seemed like useless banter.
Loosening up the suspect with small talk and suddenly popping an important question out of nowhere—that was the basic rule of questioning.
“It’s not every day you get to meet a real live queen, so let me ask you a question.”
In the very same mocking tone, Laurie finally asked the question she had been waiting for.
“What is the treasure of Ikstova?”
* * *
In the basement of a storehouse in the snowy woods about a hundred meters from Fiona.
With a white chalk used for mechanical repairs, Treize was drawing a simple floor plan of the villa on the stone floor next to the railcar.
The floor was lined evenly with large stones. Treize drew one floor on each stone, three stones in a row for the entire building. Inside each square was a simple diagram.
He and Lillia squatted next to the first floor and examined the layout.
“So this is the villa.”
“You know a lot about this place for having no reference whatsoever. Did your royal guard buddy tell you this too?”
“Oh, er… yeah. Can I continue?”
“For starters, the queen, her husband, and the servants are locked in the villa. The intruders must be inside, too. They can’t exactly leave the place in this snowstorm.”
“Let me explain the layout. The villa’s basement is inside the foundation. But you can ignore it because it’s just a storage space for food and firewood.”
Treize continued, pointing at the first floor.
“In the center here you have the entrance hall and the lobby.”
Lillia scrutinized the floor plan. The front doors were at the center of the south side of the building. Straight inside was a large, square lobby. The lobby ceiling extended to the second floor.
Across from the lobby and the door were the stairs. It split into two branches in front of the landing wall and connected to the second floor hallway.
“On either side of the lobby you have rooms for the people who work there—the servants. Bedrooms, bathrooms, and laundry rooms segregated by gender. We don’t need to worry about them, either.”
Treize continued. Lillia paid close attention.
“On the north side of the first floor is the kitchen, which is the only place in the villa with a brick wall. There’s also a living room. They’re about the same size. The people in the kitchen must have been moved somewhere else after they were taken hostage, since there are potential weapons like knives in there. The living room’s probably been left alone, too. Let’s move on to the second floor.”
Lillia nodded and turned to the second floor plan.
The lobby area was connected to the first floor, and therefore empty. On either side were hallways and staircases overlooking the entrance hall.
And on the left side of the floor plan—the west side—were three rooms.
“This room on the left is a waiting room for guests. They can change or leave their belongings here. There’s also a guest bathroom. If the intruders are going to interrogate the queen, this is the most likely place.”
Lillia nodded gravely and repeated his words under her breath.
“Next—” Treize pointed at a large room on the north side of the floor plan. “This is the party hall, which takes up half the second floor. They always hold the end-of-year parties here, and this is probably where the incident started. I bet they’re keeping the hostages here, too. I assume they have at least three guards in here in case the hostages decide to fight back together. So we have to steer clear.”
Lillia nodded. “So there’s eight intruders in all, right?”
“Yeah. And if you look on the bottom right here, this storeroom is connected to the party hall. They store tables and chairs and stuff here. And at the end of the hallway are the stairs to the third floor.” Treize explained, tracing a line over the stairs with his fingertip. Then he finally jumped to the third floor.
The bottom right of the floor plan was connected to the stairs. There was a short hallway running vertically down the middle of the plan, with three rooms of different sizes around it. And one much smaller room.
“The big room on the top left is the queen and her husband’s room. It’s got a bathroom and a dressing room inside, like a hotel suite. The second-biggest room here on the right is Princess Meriel’s room. And the third-biggest one on the bottom left is—”
He had been telling the truth until then, but Treize had no choice but to lie about this one. It was his own room, but he said,
“—it’s a recreation room for Sir Benedict’s hobbies.”
“A recreation room?”
“Apparently he likes aeroplanes and fishing, so they keep that kind of stuff in here. The radio we need to call for help is here. It’s inside the built-in closet, so the intruders probably won’t notice unless they looked really hard. The little room by the stairs is another storage room, so we can ignore it.”
“I see… You know so much about this villa, Treize. Maybe they should think about beefing up security?”
Unable to answer, Treize simply agreed quietly.
“But I guess it’s a good thing for them this time. We just have to make it to this room here, right?” Lillia continued, pointing to Treize’s room.
“Yeah. But as you can see, the only way up to the third floor is through the stairs here on the bottom right. And we have to pass this hallway here to get up there, but it’s completely visible to the first and second floor—especially the room they’re probably using as a base. If they have even one guard posted there, we’re finished. Which is probably exactly what they did, since the one guard here prevents anyone from getting to the third floor.”
Lillia nodded. Treize circled the places he expected to find the intruders stationed.
“Let’s see… three in the party hall, one at the entrance, and at least three in the questioning room, since they’ll need one person to conduct the interrogation and two to stand guard. And then one more in front of the room. …That’s how I’d place eight people.”
“I see. …Say, what’s this part?”
Lillia’s finger stopped over an area jutting outside to the north and south of the third floor.
“The balconies. The one on the south side is really narrow. The one on the north side, though… all the space jutting from the building is the balcony, so it’s pretty big. You can see all of Lake Ras from here.”
“Can’t we somehow get to the balcony of the room with the radio from the outside? They probably only have guards posted inside, right?”
Treize thought for a moment.
“There are gutters on the walls. I could probably climb them. But—”
“It’ll squeak like no tomorrow. There’s a lot of resonance because the villa’s made of wood. And there’s a very good chance that the guard at the door will spot me on the way because this balcony is on the same side.”
“Then what about the other side? You could cut across the third floor from the balcony at the queen’s room.”
Lillia’s gloved finger traced a line from the queen’s balcony to the bottom of the diagram.
“Cutting across sounds fine, but getting to the balcony is the problem. I don’t think I could climb up the gutter on the north side without being caught by the guards in the party hall. And this is the lower side of the hill. The balcony here is closer to being on the fourth floor. It’ll take me more time to go, which means I’m more likely to get caught.”
“Hmm… What does the roof look like on this building?” Asked Lillia. Treize drew a sharp peak in the air.
“Like this. Like any other roof. There aren’t any houses nearby, so it’s built to let snow slide off to the east and west. There’s probably a good amount on there now.”
“Can’t we climb from the roof somehow? Climb down to the third floor balcony?”
Treize considered the suggestion.
A few seconds later, he shook his head.
“No… there’s a big tree nearby, but we couldn’t possibly climb up that high, and it’s too dangerous to jump to the roof from there.”
“Can’t we use a rope?”
“We don’t have any. And even if we did, we can’t throw it to the roof, either.”
They hung their heads in silence.
“What can we do?” Treize muttered to himself, desperate for a plan.
“Hey!” Lillia looked up. “What about the electricity? We could cut the power lines or break the control panel!”
Treize shook his head.
“I thought about that, too. I know what the place looks like, so I could move inside even in the dark.”
“Then it’s settled!”
“But we can’t do that. We won’t be able to use the radio without electricity.”
It was just another disappointment in a series of many that night. Treize whispered self-deprecatingly.
“There’s no beating a group armed with guns. You really drove that point home.”
“So if we’re caught, we’re finished. If we’re lucky they’ll take us hostages and put them in an even better position, and if we’re unlucky we’ll die on the spot. We can’t afford to get caught.”
“Yeah.” Lillia nodded firmly.
“We have to stay calm and think, and we’ll figure something out.”
“Yeah. Let’s keep thinking.”
They fell silent in thought.
About fifteen seconds with nothing but puffs of breath later—
“Don’t you have any ideas? Anything?!”
“Calm down, Lillia. I’m just as anxious as you are.” Treize said, having himself recovered from an outburst earlier. But Lillia did not calm down.
“Damn it! Why don’t we just set the place on fire to make them all escape? The intruders won’t want to die, either! Then everyone will scatter, and we could rescue the hostages!”
Treize stared incredulously.
“Lillia… that’s called terrorism.”
“Huh? Wait, that’s not a bad idea.”
“What? What’s not a bad idea?” Asked Lillia.
“I just thought of something. Can I say it?”
Treize put his hands on Lillia’s shoulders and asked nonchalantly, as though asking her out to tea.
“Lillia, how would you like to become a terrorist bomber?”