A new chapter. Enjoy.
Chapter 3: Festival Fire
Deeper within the premises of the new royal palace was a separate building Treize called a villa. It stood on a hill hundreds of meters from the lake, about ten kilometers from the heavily guarded gate by the main palace.
The villa was three stories high and had a basement. Its foundations and outer wall were made of grey stone. The interior and the roof were wooden. A single chimney rose from the roof, which was tilted to let snow slide off.
From overhead the villa was almost perfectly square. Each side was about 30 meters long. There was a wide parking area south of the building, in which direction the main doors faced. On the northern side, where the hill sloped down, the first and second floors were connected. The interior of the foundation served as the basement.
It was a humble building at first glance; little different from a mountain lodge. When the palace and the villa were built sixteen years prior, the recently-crowned Queen Francesca had commanded that as little money be spent on the construction as possible and that the buildings be simple. After all, the infamously secretive royal family had no reason to make a show of splendor with buildings that no civilian would ever see.
Gentle hills surrounded the area. And naturally, there were no other houses in sight. From the northern side of the house the 100 kilometer-long Lake Ras was visible at a glance. And on clear days, even the majestic peaks of the mountain range around the water were clear from the windows.
The queen, her husband, and Princess Meriel usually spent their days in the royal palace under the constant supervision of guards. When they were free, and whenever possible, they relaxed in the villa to spend time together as family.
Entry to the villa area was restricted. No uniformed guards were in sight. Only some of the residents of the queen’s former home—the village in the valley—worked there as servants.
And on the last day of the year, just before nine in the evening.
“Fiona—I mean, Your Majesty, are you in?”
A plump, middle-aged woman in an apron over her dress knocked on the door. She was one of the servants, who looked like any other woman her age.
A woman’s voice spoke from inside. The middle-aged woman excused herself and opened the door. Beyond was a walk-in closet about the size of a small room. Staring into the closet filled with completely ordinary clothing, the woman sighed.
“Fi… what are you doing?”
The queen of Ikstova and her husband were making out.
The youngest queen in the world was not yet forty. She was slender and had fair skin and short black hair. And as usual, she wore a maroon skirt and a white blouse like any common woman would.
As queen, her name was Francesca. But the few who knew her well called her Fiona, or ‘Fi’ for short.
Wrapping his hands firmly around her waist and showering her with passionate kisses in spite of the time and place was her husband the Hero of the Mural, Carr Benedict.
He was about a head taller than his wife, and had a rugged build. His messy brown hair was tied back in a ponytail and a beard covered his face. In his green cargo pants and grey wool jacket he was dressed just as comfortably—if not even more so—as his wife.
They continued to lock lips for about four seconds before finally turning.
“All right. Are preparations finished?” Fiona asked as though nothing was wrong. The middle-aged woman replied that they were ready for quite some time. Then,
“The guests will be arriving shortly, but… Your Majesty, I am happy to see that you and your husband are still very much in love, but you two aren’t young people anymore.”
The woman sounded like she was scolding a young lady in the neighborhood and not a queen, but no one working in this building cared for formalities.
Benedict replied in fluent Roxchean.
“Then shall we go enjoy a lively night?”
“I suppose. Although sometimes I wish we could have a cozier start to the new year.”
The middle-aged woman held open the door for them.
“Please don’t do that in front of the film cameras.”
The queen and her husband smiled at each other.
“Then…” Fiona began. Benedict nodded. “…one more time.”
They locked lips once again.
The middle-aged woman sighed, incredulous.
It was just past nine in the evening.
Light shone from the villa windows and faintly lit the dark, snowy world outside. The snow was coming down harder and endlessly covered the land and the roof.
A pair of headlights shook and crashed toward the villa. Eventually, a mid-sized bus and its chain-equipped tires appeared, crushing the snow underneath.
A light on the second floor wall came on. Two male servants in their fifties stepped out of the south doors to greet the guests. The bus stopped at the small, illuminated square before the doors.
The bus’s door opened and a middle-aged man in a coat disembarked.
“Please, watch your step.” He said, waiting for the next person. He was also a royal servant, and the one following him was one of the guests for that evening.
First outside was a woman in her mid-twenties. She was beautiful with cold, attractive features. Her long black hair was pinned at the back, and she wore an expensive-looking fur coat.
She took several steps forward to let the others off the bus.
Then she silently looked up at the villa.
In all, one woman and eight men stepped off the bus.
The men were all wearing similar suits in dark blue or black. Two were in their forties, and the rest were somewhere between their fifties to their sixties. Among them were the three men who took the same aeroplane as Lillia. The men began to unload large black boxes from the luggage compartment of the bus.
“Let’s go, Miss.” Said a man in his sixties, who had a shock of white hair. He met the woman’s eyes.
The beautiful woman glared.
“Call me ‘Leader’.” She said in a clear soprano voice and walked to the door, where a smiling middle-aged couple in aprons waited.
“Excuse me. Let’s go, Leader.” The man replied, sounding strangely happy, and followed.
Ten in the evening. The villa.
“This is pretty good. It’s really good.”
Lillia was eating. The food on the table was all warmed up in their large plates.
“Gimme some of that next. And pass the vinegar.”
And she was treating the apron-clad Treize like a servant. There was a cutesy pair of waterfowl embroidered on the cream-colored apron.
Treize put some more food onto Lillia’s plate. She devoured it.
“This is good, too. Tea, please.”
It was just Lillia and Treize in the cottage. The kettle over the fireplace began to whistle. It was still snowing heavily outside.
“It’s all delicious. Even the water’s good, which even makes the tea taste better.”
“I am honored, Milady.” Treize said with a courteous bow. Lillia nodded.
“Good work, servant. You may now seat yourself and partake in this meal.” She said with exaggerated self-importance.
Treize took off his apron, rolled it up, and placed it next to his seat. Then he sat down across from Lillia.
Several dishes were atop the long, narrow table. Small fish deep-fried and marinated in vinegar. Steamed pork. Boiled vegetable salad. Venison pie. Fried pumpkin filled with minced meat. Several kinds of bread and cheese. Cinnamon-baked apples. There were multiple kinds of tea separated by the kind of leaf and the presence of milk. Each pot was covered with an Ikstova-style patchwork tea cozy.
“This is amazing. Don’t tell me you made all this yourself.”
“No, a lady I know helped me out. Sorry there’s no chicken this year, though—it doesn’t really feel like an end-of-the-year party without one.” Treize said, bringing some food onto his plate. “All right.”
And, using his fork like a shovel, he wolfed down his food.
“Where’re your table manners, Treize?”
“Oh. Excuse me.”
At Lillia’s scolding, Treize began to eat as elegantly as he did at the hotel restaurant, using both a fork and a knife.
“You must’ve been hungry.”
“Starving.” He replied. Rather than risk her wrath by waking her up, Treize had waited for Lillia to open her eyes. Then he had to wait until she was finished showering and was busy heating up all the food. But strangely enough, he was adamant about using utensils to eat all his food. “Someone kept me waiting.”
“You don’t have to put it that way.” Lillia said, waving off the answer to her own question. “What was Mom thinking, anyway?”
“…I’m not sure.” Treize lied. Lillia didn’t seem to care.
“Oh well. Let’s eat.”
“Yeah. It’s our last meal.”
“Whoa, let’s not get too ominous.”
“What…? Oh. I meant ‘last meal of the year’.”
“Really? All right, then.”
Though their dinner began with a conversation—
Eventually both Lillia and Treize focused all their energy into eating.
Just as Lillia and Treize enjoyed their last meal of the year—
There was a room in the royal villa that took up half the second floor.
It was a large and rectangular hall about the size of a classroom. There was no balcony on the north-facing wall—instead there were large windows that reached from waist-level to the ceiling. There was a roaring fire in the fireplace on either side of the room. Sofas were placed in front of the walls, and there was a table at the center of the room. Atop it were dishes similar to those Lillia and Treize were enjoying, along with alcoholic beverages.
In the hall were the guests for the evening and the servants in charge of greeting them. They were all waiting for the hostess and host of the party, Queen Francesca and her husband.
The servants chosen to wait on the guests were all older, being from the village in the valley. Most were middle-aged at the very least, and some even looked like grandparents—in total, there were fifteen servants present. They were in charge of bringing in food and drinks. All of them wore comfortable clothes they might wear at home, making the aprons over them even more eye-catching.
Eight men and a woman were the guests that evening—the employees and owner of Laurie Productions, which had been shooting a documentary in Iks for over a year now.
Like before, the men were dressed impeccably in suits with ties. They all wore name cards that also served as identification. There was no filming equipment in sight.
The woman standing in their midst wore a white blouse and black formal pants. The name ‘Laurie’ was written on her name card. She and the men had all changed out of the boots they had on for the walk through the snow and into low-heeled shoes.
“Thank you for waiting. Announcing Her Majesty Queen Francesca and her husband, Sir Benedict.” An elderly woman declared in all formality, but she lacked the pomp of a royal guard in ceremonial uniform. All eyes turned to the large double doors. The old woman and another woman about her age opened one each.
Fiona—playing the role of Queen Francesca—and her husband Benedict entered together. Like before, they were dressed in comfortable clothing.
At that moment, the men applauded.
Laurie’s beautiful eyes narrowed. She was not smiling—it was clearly a hostile glare.
“Smile, Leader.” The man next to her whispered, and the hostility was gone in a flash. Laurie smiled as though she were a different person and joined the applause.
A name card labeled ‘Elvar’ was on the breast of the man who spoke to Laurie. He was the one she had scolded at the doors about calling her ‘Leader’.
Fiona’s eyes landed on the men and the woman, and she slowly approached them with a smile. Fiona stopped in front of the woman and offered a handshake.
“So we finally meet, Ms. Laurie. I am Francesca. Welcome to Iks.”
The fake smile was still on Laurie’s face when she stopped clapping and bowed her head. Then she accepted the handshake.
“It is an honor to behold you, Your Majesty. I am Alicia Laurie of Laurie Productions.”
“No, the honor is all mine. I’ve seen some of the footage, and it’s marvelous. It’s like looking at Ikstova today with my own two eyes. I can’t wait to see it completed.” Fiona confessed. Laurie curtly thanked her.
Afterwards, Fiona introduced Laurie to Benedict, and Laurie introduced Fiona to her employees. And everyone invited to the dinner was given a mug of beer for the toast.
It was the queen’s role to propose the toast. She thanked the film crew, the subjects who supported her, and the kingdom, and briefly mentioned her hopes for the new year.
“Let’s have a wonderful time tonight. Cheers!”
The sound of clinking mugs filled the villa hall. But back at the cottage—
“I can’t move an inch.”
Lillia and Treize were sprawled out in the living room.
Lillia was lying on the sofa with her legs over the armrest, just as Treize had done earlier.
Treize was sitting back in a dining chair with his feet on another chair, his gaze on the ceiling.
Two of the eight plates on the table were covered with silver lids. The rest were clean.
“If you lie down right after you eat…”
“I don’t care.”
They reclined lazily without and talked. There wasn’t a hint of romance in the air.
“Oh well. I’m going to take a break…”
“Yeah. Let’s rest until we digest some of this food…”
Their cozy new year’s eve passed meaninglessly. Wood crackled in the fireplace sometimes and crumbled to ash.
While Lillia and Treize explored the limits of laziness in the cottage, the party at the villa was in full swing.
After dinner, the table at the center was moved to the wall and laden with drinks and snacks. The guests were sitting on the sofas. The film crew, Benedict, and the other men—the ones who lived in the village in the valley—were chuckling about entertaining production stories. The film crew, however, stopped drinking partway and declined any more drink, no matter how much the hosts and servants offered.
Laurie, the guest of honor, spoke little as she sat off to the side with a teacup in hand. She had acted no differently during the meal. Even when Fiona spoke to her, she would simply answer “Yes”, “No”, or “I see”. Eventually, the film crew had to step in.
“She must be so nervous to see Your Majesty in person.” One of them said.
After the meal, Laurie simple sat and listened. She made no conversation with the queen or Benedict.
But the party was mostly a friendly affair. The clock on the wall continued to mark even time toward the new year.
The cottage. Just before midnight.
Treize turned to Lillia on the sofa, while still lounging on his chair.
“It’s almost the new year.”
“I see.” Lillia replied indifferently.
Treize was silent for a moment before speaking again.
“Hey… wanna eat some more?”
“What, are you planning to fatten me up and roast me like a pig?”
The conversation did not continue.
The villa. Just before midnight.
“Thank you for the permission. We’ll make sure to show you the footage before we use it.” One of the crew members said to Fiona and Benedict. He was the camera operator, a man just shy of fifty with his thinning hair cropped short. The name card on his chest read, ‘Mores’.
“We’ll be right back with the equipment.” He said. Two other men stood to assist him. Fiona asked a middle-aged woman nearby to guide them to the room where they kept the guests’ belongings. The women led the three men out of the hall.
Laurie glanced at the watch under her left sleeve. It was a men’s wristwatch with a large face and a leather strap. Fiona noticed it.
“I see you’re wearing a men’s watch, Ms. Laurie.”
Surprisingly, Laurie beamed as though her frigid face had been a mask.
“Yes. It’s a memento of my father.”
Fiona was taken aback at the word ‘memento’. Benedict cast her a concerned look. Elvar, who had been near Laurie the entire time, also gave Luarie a concerned glance.
“Don’t worry, ma’am. He passed away when I was still young. He left us an inheritance, and I had an affluent upbringing. It’s thanks to him that I can make films almost on a whim like this. I’m always very grateful to him. Even more so when I look at this watch.”
Laurie was being more talkative than ever. She showed no reservations about revealing her past.
“I see. I also—”
The moment Fiona began,
“Sorry to keep you waiting.”
The doors opened, and the men returned with their equipment—a film camera, a tripod, a battery for the camera, and a microphone, among others. The camera was about the size of a small suitcase, and rolls of film were fixed to the front and back like a pair of large ears.
The men set up the tripod near the middle of the hall, expertly secured the camera atop it, then placed the hefty battery box next to it. The camera was positioned to capture about half of the room.
Laurie watched as Fiona and Benedict looked on, then glanced at her watch. There were still about ten minutes until midnight. Elvar approached from behind without a sound.
“I think we’re ready, Leader.”
“Five minutes to go!”
“Five more minutes!”
The crowd shouted in Kunst.
The city was alight with energy in spite of the falling snow. Stalls lined every street, and children and adults alike went to and fro with a layer of snow over them. Loud music played everywhere from records and live bands.
“I wonder how our little prince is doing?”
Allison was sitting alone on at a table by the street, wearing her hat and coat. There was a parasol over the round table, and steam rose from the cup of tea in front of her. The other tables were also filled with guests, but most were couples or families. Allison was the only one alone.
Elegantly, she picked up her cup and took a relaxed sip before placing it back on the table.
“Maybe I’ll eat him alive if he doesn’t make it this time.”
At the same time, someone shouted,
“Four minutes left!”
Treize snapped out of his doze with a shiver, sitting up and shaking his head with a sigh.
“What’s wrong?” Asked Lillia. Treize looked at her. The clock on the wall beyond her and the sofa indicated that the end of the year was nigh.
“Nothing. I just felt a chill…”
“Maybe you caught a cold?”
“I don’t think I did… Anyway, it’s almost the new year.”
“Yeah…” Lillia also glanced at the clock, but did not get up. “Man, what is Mom thinking?” She grumbled.
“In Ikstova, we do a countdown starting a few minutes before the new year. And the moment the new year starts, we scatter confetti and hug our friends and family or jump into the air.” Treize said. Then he added, his tone dropping, “Then again, it’s just the two of us here.”
“Hm… Maybe we should sing a song or something? Bring some cheer to this place?”
“If you want to.”
“One more minute!”
The countdown continued in the party hall on the second floor. Everyone in the building gathered inside. Even the servants washing dishes in the kitchen and the servants standing watch at the doors. Everyone was holding paper bags filled with confetti. The film crew gathered by the camera in the center of the room, preparing to shoot. They stood with their backs to the wall and occupied the entire east side of the room, waiting to film the servants and Benedict greet the new year.
“Forty seconds. Let’s try not to make any mistakes.” Said one of the servants.
“Not to worry. There aren’t any clocks in the shot, so we can do as many retakes as we need.” Mores replied with his eye pressed against the viewfinder. Everyone burst out laughing.
The men around the camera exchanged glances, nodding discreetly.
The men moved. One squatted by the battery box at his feet and opened the metallic lid. Another opened the film magazine as the camera began rolling. Another man reached over and unlocked, then opened the camera itself.
“Five seconds.” Someone said.
The men pulled out submachine guns.
They were smaller models about 30 centimeters in length. They were affixed with foldable wire stocks, which were currently folded. In front of the grip and the trigger were magazines that held twenty rounds. Each man held the grip with his right hand and pulled the part jutting from either side of the gun to load the first round.
Fiona, among a large majority of the others in the room, watched the entire process. But no one could react immediately to the sight of the men taking out one submachine gun after another from their camera.
“Three… two… one…” Someone who had yet to notice continued to count down. “Happy new year!”
The voice was quickly drowned out by gunfire.
“Oh. It’s the new year.”
“Yeah. Happy new year!”
“Happy new year, Lillia. Hope we get along this year too.”
“…Don’t you have anything else to say?”
“It’s 3306! Happy new year, everyone!”
As confetti filled the air, people hugged one another, jumped into the air, and shouted out loud. Fireworks launched from the lakeside drew bright patterns on the clouds.
“Another year.” Allison said, raising her teacup toward the glowing sky.
The men opened fire.
Each held firmly onto the grip with his right hand and the magazine with his left, pointing the gun at the ceiling before shooting on automatic. Gunfire filled the room. The bullets carved holes through the roof and the walls. Splinters danced in the air and empty cartridges scattered to the floor.
Only four of the eight men had opened fire, but a total of eighty rounds had been used in the span of three seconds. And just as suddenly as it had begun, the warning barrage came to an end.
Elvar threatened, submachine gun in hand. The men stood with the camera at the center and pointed their guns at every direction. The four who opened fire quickly switched magazines.
Fiona was on the floor; the women near her had pushed her down the moment the barrage began. She glared incredulously at the men.
Benedict was crouched with the people around him. He swore and dropped his bag of confetti to the floor.
Nine people in the center of the room, and seventeen around them. It seemed time had frozen around them, but at that moment the servant nearest to the camera—an old man well over seventy—stood without a sound and charged. His target was the camera operator who was distracted receiving a submachine gun from his friend. Mores, who had just made the last joke of the previous year.
“Mores! Look out!”
One of the men shouted, but it was too late. The old man rammed into Mores’s side.
With a distorted scream his body bent.
The man who was handing the gun to Mores punched the old man. The small old man flew almost a meter backwards. At that moment, the men realized that the old man was holding a fruit knife. And that it was stained red.
“…Damn… he got me…” Mores muttered feebly and leaned against the tripod. His side was stained a dark red.
“We told you to freeze.”
A short, fat man whose name card read ‘Kirk’ took aim at the old man with one hand and pulled the trigger.
Four clear shots. Blood spewed from the old man’s belly as he made to stand. The fruit knife fell to the floor.
The old man exhaled blood and air before he collapsed. When the gunfire ended, empty cartridges clinked against the camera on their way to the floor.
“Argh… that hurts, damn it…” Mores groaned.
“It’s gonna be fine. Get a hold of yourself—we’ll stop the bleeding. Hey, someone get the morphine—”
The man supporting the wounded Mores.
And the old man with four gunshot wounds. He raised his head, blood spilling from his stomach.
“How, dare, you—”
The gunshot swallowed his voice partway. Fiona, Benedict, and the servants—all huddled down—looked at the source of the gunshot.
Laurie’s soprano voice filled the room. She held a small revolver in her right hand and stood before the camera. A thin wisp of smoke rose from the muzzle. It pointed at a corpse bleeding from its wrinkled forehead.
“Who’s next?” Laurie threatened, shifting her gaze along with her aim. From Benedict in the rightmost corner to Fiona in the left near her, she looked at everyone in the room.
Several seconds of silence passed.
“That’s enough.” Fiona finally said, getting to her feet. The women around her tried to stop her, but she batted their hands aside.
“So Her Majesty is unharmed.”
Laurie angrily faced—and took aim at—Fiona. She bared her white teeth and grimaced as she glared.
Fiona took a sharp breath, but she refused to falter as she quickly replied.
“Everyone, that’s enough futile resistance. Stay where you are.”
“Ha! I expected nothing less from Her Majesty.”
Laurie snorted and walked up to Fiona. With a frigid glare she held out her right hand. The muzzle of her gun stopped only a few dozen centimeters from Fiona’s face.
“But you think that’s going to save you? Didn’t you consider that we might be after your life?” Laurie smirked. Fiona narrowed her eyes, afraid. But she quickly put on an elegant smile.
“No. If that were your aim, you would have killed me already.”
“Hmph. I’ll be sure to kill you over and over again once we’re through with our business.”
Laurie swung her gun downward, gesturing Fiona to sit. Fiona took two steps back and sat among the servants.
Someone called to Laurie. She turned. Among the men standing in a circle with submachine guns at the ready was Mores. He was gasping on the floor. A pool of blood was spreading under him.
Laurie quickly walked over to him.
“Leader… I’m sorry… I let my guard down…” He said, his empty eyes grasping for her. He seemed to be in no pain thanks to the morphine shots. Laurie knelt at his left side and smiled. She looked nothing like the woman who threatened Fiona.
“Not to worry. This is just a mark of honor—an injury. I’ve taken care of the bastard who did this to you.”
Then, she glanced at the man sitting on Mores’s right. He was a slender man in his mid-fifties with a name card that read, ‘Jake’. He quietly shook his head. Mores was not going to make it.
For a moment, Laurie looked like she was on the verge of wailing. She glared at Jake. But he did not try to correct himself.
One of the men turned to Mores and spoke nonchalantly, as though pointing out Mores had dropped something of little value.
“Hey Mores, don’t worry Leader too much, you hear?”
“Hah hah… I’m sorry… Leader…”
“I told you it’s all right.”
With her free hand she took Mores’s bloodied left hand.
“Leader… you’ll get your hand dirty…”
Several seconds later, Mores closed his eyes. Jake put his fingers to Mores’s neck.
The hostage-takers each took half a second to mourn in turns.
“Damn it… Damn it…”
Protected by the men, holding the hand of the dead, Laurie began to sob without a care for who was watching.
Lillia pouted, putting a log into the fireplace.
Treize agreed from the single-seater sofa.
Lillia turned with a log in hand.
“Not like you’ve got any right to say that. You’re the one who picked— …sorry. It’s ‘cause the bus was late, wasn’t it?” Lillia’s tone dropped. “We were supposed to go see the festival at night after dinner.”
“Why don’t we head out now? We can still enjoy the celebrations. Although we might not find Allison in the crowd.” Treize suggested.
Lillia thought for a moment, then tossed the log aside.
“Sure. That sounds good.”
Treize rolled back and climbed off the sofa. Then he went over to the phone and picked up the receiver.
“Hello? Yes, happy new year. Actually, we wanted to go out to Kunst for the— huh? Oh. Okay, I see… No, no. There’s nothing you could do about that. Yeah. Don’t worry about it. Thank you. All right.”
The call ended.
Treize put down the receiver and turned. Lillia was cringing in front of the fire.
“I can take a guess… but let me hear it.” She said. Treize responded.
“Yeah, it’s about the car. They said there’s too much snow… the snowplows always come early in the morning, you know…”
“I knew it! First the avalanche, then this! It looks like the snow really hates me.”
She flopped onto the carpet angrily, but hit her head on the edge of the sofa.
Laurie hung her head and sobbed for about three minutes.
Fiona, Benedict, and the servants looked on.
They quietly watched the young woman weep, clinging to her friend’s body beside the body of the man she killed. Her cries were punctuated by fireworks from Kunst popping in the distance.
As Laurie’s sobs came to an end,
“I’m sure Mores will be happy.” Elvar said gently on behalf of the other men.
“The dead can’t feel happiness.” Laurie hissed.
“You’re right. And the living must do what only the living cam do, Miss.”
Wiping her tears with her sleeve, Laurie looked up. Her swollen red eyes met Elvar’s gaze.
“Call me ‘Leader’.”
“Excuse me, Leader. Let’s begin.” Elvar said with a smile.
“All right. You can take the new year’s greeting.”
“Understood.” Elvar said, and stood. “Everyone.” His voice resounded in the quiet hall. “This building is under our control. We will kill anyone who attempts to resist. We also wish to avoid any unnecessary deaths, so please obey the queen’s order from earlier.”
Elvar remained as polite as ever even when he threatened the hostages. That only made him sound more dangerous. No one tried to retort.
“If everyone would gather in that corner, please.”
Two of the men moved at Elvar’s command with their submachine guns held at waist-level. In the meantime, the rest of the men followed Laurie’s instructions and moved their friend’s body to another corner, clasping his hands in front of his chest and putting a handkerchief over his face. They then placed the fake camera where they had stored the guns next to him.
Fiona and the others did as they were told, and moved to a corner far from the door and sat down. Along the way, one servant placed a cloth over the face of the dead old man.
The servants did not even try to hide their hostility, even faced with the guns, but they followed orders and quietly sat on the floor.
“My, my. Did that give you a scare, sweetheart?” Benedict asked in Bezelese as he walked over to Fiona and patted her head.
“No.” Fiona replied bitterly. Benedict shrugged when his joke fell flat.
“Anyway, excellent choice telling everyone not to resist.” He whispered. Then he turned to the three men holding everyone hostage and the rest of the attackers who were whispering behind them, and spoke in Roxchean.
Elvar turned in the midst of talking to another man.
“Yes, Mr. Carr?”
His attitude was unchanged from before.
“So you’re used to this work, old man.” Benedict muttered in Bezelese and shrugged. Fiona stared at him, surprised.
Benedict made a point of raising his voice, then.
“We may be hostages, but you will take questions, yes?”
“It would be a bother if everyone spoke at once, but we are willing to answer questions from you or the queen.”
“Thank you. I’ve been wondering—”
Benedict slowly put his hand into a fallen paper bag. Then he tossed a handful of confetti into the air.
“—is the shoot finished?”
Elvar did not smile.
“Yes. We’ve got more important things to do.”
“I see. I would be happy if you would do them somewhere else.”
“I’m afraid that’s not possible. We need the queen’s cooperation for this little venture of ours.” Then, Elvar turned to the men. “Go.”
Three men took up submachine guns, stuffed extra magazines into their suit pockets, and left the hall.
“Everyone in the villa should be in this room and we doubt anyone will be coming until morning, but we will be searching the building just in case. Your understanding, please.”
“Even if you find someone, I won’t tolerate any attacks on people who don’t resist.” Fiona said firmly from beside Benedict.
“Believe me, Queen Francesca. It’ll be better for us as well if no one resists.” Elvar replied and handed his submachine gun to the man behind him. Then he took up a 9mm automatic handgun and expertly loaded it. He cocked the gun, armed the safety, and stuck it in his belt.
“Anyway, this is a very large-scale operation for you to take the queen hostage and take over the villa with your numbers. You are all right for now, but won’t there be a big commotion soon?” Asked Benedict.
“Not to worry.” Elvar replied.
“I’m bored.” Allison grumbled as she finished off yet another cup of tea in the open-air cafe.
After the fireworks display at the very beginning of the year, which had filled the sky but was mostly hidden by the snow, the city was still bustling with excitement.
The snow seemed endless. There was a thick layer atop the parasol. Sometimes snow quietly slid off the edges and onto the ground.
Allison handed a coin to a waiter who came over—a waiter who did not look like one thanks to a full winter getup—and ordered the same tea as before.
“Why can’t it be morning soon? Or why can’t something interesting happen?”
As if on cue, a siren began to wail in the distance. It grew louder and closer in time, and people turned before noticing the bright red light and making way.
Soon, a small fire truck passed by Allison and disappeared further down the street.
“Nothing to do with me…” Allison mumbled, sipping her new cup of tea. But at that moment,
Someone cried from behind her.
Allison turned to see black smoke rising from behind the cafe. The waiters shouted as they fumbled through the snow.
“It’s the back alley! Someone call the fire department!”
“A truck just passed by!”
“Someone call them!”
“Hey, where’s the nearest telephone?!”
Some began to wonder if they should evacuate the customers or wait to see how bad the fire was.
As Allison took another lazy sip of tea, she spotted someone.
The man was in his thirties and dressed in local clothing. There was a rucksack on his back.
The man stepped out of the back alley and was walking in the opposite direction as the murmuring crowds. His head was slightly bowed and his hat was pressed over his head.
Allison stood, leaving more than half her tea unfinished, and followed the man. Onlookers were rushing to the scene but the man alone was leaving it.
After following the man about 20 meters, Allison ran into a young police officer rushing to the scene of the fire. And she did not miss the man turning his head when the officer passed by.
Allison spread her arms to stop the officer.
“It’s dangerous, Miss. Please let me pass—”
“Never mind. Come with me.”
She grabbed him by the collar and began to walk. The nametag on his chest—‘Piazza’—was on the verge of tearing. The truncheon at his side swung back and forth.
“What are you doing? Are you drunk? I’ll have you arrested for assaulting a police officer!” Officer Piazza threatened as he was dragged away.
“I’m not drunk, FYI. Just follow me. You might have to arrest that man if my hunch is right.”
Allison stopped for a moment, giving Piazza the chance to behold her face. His tone changed in an instant.
And he put on the most dashing look he could think of—which ended up being closer to a gape.
“What is it? How can I help—”
“Be quiet and follow me.”
Allison and Officer Piazza followed the man a further ten meters.
As they watched, the man stepped into another alley. Allison quickly went over and poked her head inside, watching the man disappear. Officer Piazza did the same.
“So… who is that man?”
“He’s suspicious. I saw him practically running away from the fire without so much as looking back.”
They heard another siren wailing in the distance. The man turned right into another alleyway. Allison quickly ran after him, treading over the snow, and to the corner.
“What?” Officer Piazza asked as he came after her.
“Hey! What’s he doing?”
10 meters ahead of them stood the man in a deserted stretch of the alley. There was a grim look on his face as he poured out the contents of a bottle onto several crates stacked under a roof.
The man emptied two small bottles before putting them back into his rucksack. Then he stepped back and took out a pack of matches.
“Stop! Arsonist!” Allison shouted as she stepped into the alley.
The man flinched almost comically as he dropped his half-open pack of matches. Countless matches scattered over the snow.
“Hey! You’re under arrest for attempted arson!”
And the moment a police officer appeared, the man’s terror peaked.
He quickly turned and fled further down the alley. But the moment Officer Piazza stepped forward, the man slipped on the snow and fell.
Before he could stand Officer Piazza climbed onto his back. Pressing the man against the ground, Piazza took one hand off him to reach for a pair of heavy handcuffs.
But the restrained man flailed like a child and ended up poking Officer Piazza in the eye.
Officer Piazza flinched reflexively. The man took his chance and grabbed the lid of a wooden crate.
His desperate swing hit Officer Piazza square in the side of the head. His hat went flying.
Officer Piazza screamed again, holding his head in his hands.
“Oh dear.” Allison mumbled. The man had stood and was running off. But only then did he notice Allison standing in his way.
Allison stepped aside without a word.
The man smirked and continued. But the moment he passed by Allison—
With that, she stuck out her right foot and placed her left hand on her right fist. Then she stuck out her right shoulder and right elbow. Her long golden hair danced.
The elbow hit the distracted man in the forehead.
The man howled as he fell back. He flew into the air for half a second before landing back-first on the paved, snow-covered ground and hitting his head. Then resounded something between a ‘thud’ and a ‘bang’.
“Oh? It actually worked.” Allison mumbled to herself.
Then she walked over to the snow-covered man writhing on the ground.
“Damn this guy…”
Officer Piazza came over with watery eyes and bent the man’s arms backwards, finally snapping handcuffs on him.
“And I’ll be adding an obstruction of justice charge on top of that!”
Allison muttered quietly as she watched.
“Looks like I managed to kill some time.”
“Not to worry.” Elvar said.
Laurie came up from behind him, wiping her face with a handkerchief.
“You should be worrying about yourselves.”
Fiona stared straight up at Laurie. Laurie met her gaze.
“Of course. And now you have ruined our party. What do you plan to do next?” Benedict said snidely. Laurie did not smile.
“I have questions for the queen. We’ll be taking you two to a different room.”
Fiona stood. Then she looked at Laurie, who was just about her own height.
“You’re in no position to negotiate.”
“—I’ll never forgive you if you harm the people here.”
“I don’t need your forgiveness.”
As the women glared daggers at one another, Benedict slowly got to his feet.
“Anyway, it seems we must do as we are told.”
Elvar spoke from behind Laurie.
“We will not kill anyone who does not resist.”
“…I understand.” Fiona replied, and turned. “But first, let my subject’s body rest somewhere else.”
Laurie did not answer. Elvar spoke instead.
“We’ll let two of the women move him.”
Laurie snorted, but she did not stop him.
“Thank you.” Fiona replied, and walked over to the servants. “We need two people. Please.”
Four of the servants gathered at the back of the room hesitantly stood. For a minute each woman tried to yield to another, but in the end two middle-aged women came forward to take the body.
The women exchanged glances and nodded, then went to the corpse.
Elvar gave orders to watch the two women. Kirk held his submachine gun at waist-level and kept his eyes on them from a distance.
Once the women were beside the bloodied old man, Benedict spoke.
“Please use the curtain.”
The women detached a beige-colored curtain from the window. They spread it over the floor, carried the body onto it, and then rolled it up. The old man had bled out completely—blood did not smear the curtain.
It was just then, as everyone waited for the women to move the body.
One of the two—a plump woman wearing a green apron—suddenly lifted the body on her own. The moment the other woman opened her mouth in shock, the plump woman shouted.
“You! That’s right; you foolish young lady!”
Kirk was flabbergasted; Fiona and Benedict gaped.
“…Are you talking to me?” Laurie turned with a frigid glare.
“Who else would I be talking to?” The woman taunted, holding the body in her arms. “I don’t know what these men are thinking, working for a little girl like you, but let me tell you—I’ve never once seen an idiot’s plan work out! And I’ve never seen a worse idiot than you!”
“Leader. Don’t let her provoke you.” Elvar advised. But Laurie ignored him and slowly walked over to Kirk.
“You’ve got guts, I’ll give you that.” She said and held out her hand toward Kirk. “Give it here.”
Kirk paused for a moment, but armed the safety and handed her the submachine gun.
“It’s loaded, Leader.”
As soon as Laurie received the submachine gun she disarmed the safety and set the gun to ‘single shot’. With her left hand she gripped the magazine and raised it in front of her face, taking aim precisely at the woman 3 meters in front of her.
“Wh-what are you doing?”
The woman flinched, reflexively backing away. But she had only taken four steps before her back hit the window. The other middle-aged woman moved aside in fear.
“And you’ve got quite the mouth on you.”
“Nothing wrong with calling an idiot and idiot, I assure you!”
“Defiant to the end.”
Laurie pulled the trigger. An empty cartridge leapt out of the gun. The bullet hit the wooden frame about 30 centimeters from the woman’s face.
“Enough!” Fiona cried. Benedict grabbed her so she would not bolt toward the servant.
The plump woman glared at Laurie.
“I’ll let you live if you beg for your life. I don’t want to waste any bullets.”
“Don’t be absurd! I would never stoop to begging a foolish villain like you! I’d like to see the face of the brainless parents who raised you!” The woman cried.
Laurie’s eyes narrowed. She set the gun from ‘single shot’ to ‘safety’ to ‘continuous fire’.
“I’m afraid that’s not possible. Die.”
She pulled the trigger, fighting the recoil with one hand. The bullets drove themselves into the woman’s body as she clutched the corpse.
The crisp sound of gunfire was practically one with the woman’s scream. The sound of shattering glass resounded in the hall.
Blood spewing from every part of her body, the woman and the body she held fell out the window. At the same time, the submachine gun ran out of ammo and went silent.
The scream outside the window stopped with a thud.
Silence returned to the room. The snow and the icy wind blasted the room. What little was left of the glass fell from the frame and broke against the floor.
“Hmph. She had it coming.”
Laurie lowered her gun.
“It’s out of ammo.”
She handed it to Kirk with one hand. Kirk took the gun without a word, switched magazines, and checked outside with a flashlight.
The villa was positioned atop a hill. In other words, the second floor in the villa was about as high up as the third floor of a normal building. It was almost 10 meters from the snow-covered ground. Below were two figures, one atop the other, staining the snow red. Snow was piling on top of them.
With snow on his head Kirk pulled himself back inside. And he turned to Laurie, shaking his head.
Laurie looked at Fiona.
And she put on a friendly smile as she faced the queen’s glare.
“What’s wrong, Queen Francesca? Anything you’d like to say?”
“I thought I said I wouldn’t kill anyone who didn’t resist. I don’t think your servants are as disciplined as you think they are. Now we’ve taken care of all the corpses; sorry we had to break your window, too. I’ll make sure to cover the costs sometime.”
“Do people’s lives mean nothing to you?”
Laurie cast a glance at the body of her friend in the corner of the room.
“It depends on who!” She cried, cutting off Fiona. “That woman’s life must have been important to you! But it was nothing to me! Just like the lives of my men mean nothing to you! Am I wrong?! You are selfish people, just like me! And that’s fine; what really disgusts me is your holier-than-thou attitude! It’s sickening!” Laurie cried in a single breath.
The men did not try to stop her. They did not even encourage her. The men in black simply stood there like backdrop.
“This is war, Queen Francesca. War! Ahaha! That’s right! A wonderful time when we murder one another’s loved ones; a time when the precious lives of those around us become cheaper than month-old vegetables!”
Fiona’s shoulders trembled in rage. Benedict pulled her back.
He caught her just before she fell, and sat her down on the floor. Fiona stared.
“Why did you do that?”
“Please, wait.” Benedict replied, and looked up at Laurie as she calmed herself.
“Er… may I say something?”
“What? Say it.”
“Thank you. We do not want any more people to die. We will scold the servants so they will not fight back, so please finish your business quickly.”
“Agreed.” Laurie said snidely.
“Also, if we leave the broken windows as they are, this room will soon become cold and snow will come inside. It would be good to at least block it. Should I?”
“We’ll be taking care of that.”
Laurie went to the men at the center of the room and ordered them to block the window with another curtain. The men moved quickly to get their job done.
They stuck the curtain to the walls with the adhesive tape they used to pack their equipment. It was a new product from the big city, which Benedict noted.
“I see you have something very useful.”
“We’ll give you a demonstration later on your hands and feet. We don’t have much in the way of rope, you see.” Elvar replied. Benedict shrugged.
“Was that in the manual?”
Elvar shook his head.
“No. But I guarantee you it’ll become standard use in the future. The police might come knocking at your door just for buying a roll.”
At that moment,
Two of the men who had been sent to search the villa returned, announcing themselves loudly to avoid being mistaken for hostiles. They turned to Elvar.
“We’ve checked all the rooms, but found no one. Wayne’s watching the doors.”
Elvar thanked them and replied to their questions about the gunfire they heard.
“The Leader killed a resisting servant that is all.”
Laurie returned to Benedict and Fiona, a glass of water in hand. She drained it.
“Now, Queen Francesca and Hero of the Mural. It’s questioning time. Follow me.”
Then she added,
“The senior citizens can stay here.”
She then cast aside the glass without even looking where it went.
The glass hit one of the wooden plates decorating the walls in a line—the one depicting a hawk with its wings spread—and shattered.
Fiona stood without a word. And she gently let go of the hand of an elderly woman who tried to hold on to the last moment.
“Please don’t worry about us. Just watch over the others. I don’t want any more people to die.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.” The woman nodded firmly. Fiona turned to Laurie.
“Where shall we go, then? I could brew you some tea if you’d prefer my room.”
“I don’t need any of your poisoned tea. Let’s go.”
Fiona and Benedict began walking, side-by-side.
And they left the room surrounded by men in submachine guns, looking almost like they were being protected.
* * *
Next to the villa foundation. On a gentle slope covered with snow.
Two people were buried in the snow.
One was wrapped in a large piece of beige cloth stained with droplets of dark red blood.
The other was lying on top of him. A plump, middle-aged woman wearing a green apron. Her clothes were also stained with blood. Her graying black hair, once tied in a neat bun, was completely disheveled.
Snow came down endlessly, covering the bloodcurdling sight.
Several minutes later, when a beige-colored curtain firmly covered the broken window from which the two people had fallen, the two bodies were completely covered and impossible to find in the snow.
The mound of snow moved.
The mound covering the two people, bulging just a little higher than the others, slowly stirred.
Something squirmed under the snow. It seemed to be trying to get away from the building, quietly but steadily crawling away from the light seeping out the windows. The snow over it seemed to ripple like water.
Eventually, by the time the shape reached the base of a large tree and was swallowed by darkness—
—A human face emerged from the snow.
It was the middle-aged woman who had fallen from the window. Her hair was drenched, sticking all over her face. A thin stream of blood ran down her right earlobe. Her left cheek was torn apart, exposing the flesh.
Her arms were also bloodied, and the fingers of her left hand were splayed in odd directions. Blood also spilled from her thighs and left knee, soaking her clothing.
The moment she exhaled, she coughed up massive amounts of blood.
The blood melted the snow under it and dyed the ground red. But there was a glint of life in the woman’s eyes.
“Don’t make me laugh, little girl… Master Treize will set things right…”
The woman muttered to herself as she slowly moved through the pitch-black darkness.
The snow came up to her waist. She swung her arms back and forth, wading her way through.