Chapter 8: Major Travas’s Battle
“Unbelievable… this is Princess Meriel?”
“Look at her pendant, Leader.”
“It’s true… only a member of the royal family could have a pendant like this.”
In the lobby, Elvar and Claire—the latter still in her coat—looked down from either side of Lillia under the gravely wrong impression.
Lillia was in her coat, lying on another coat. Treize’s pendant shone on her chest.
Next to the door, and in the second floor hallway, Jake and Wayne stood on guard with machine guns at the ready.
In a corner of the lobby was a wooden crate. Inside it was oil-soaked cloth, and rolled up next to it was a particularly long fuse. It was not yet lit.
The other fuse sticking out of the crate ran up the stairs to the second floor, into the party hall where the servants slept.
Claire was outraged.
“That sly fox! She hid Meriel right under our noses all this time! Not bad… not bad at all!”
“We didn’t see her when we were searching the third floor earlier… I’m very sorry, Leader.”
“Not to worry, Elvar. It’s thanks to your contingency plan against the servant woman that we managed to get a hold of Meriel. It’s a marvelous accomplishment! Don’t you agree? Now we have the entire royal family in our custody!”
“Then will we be taking the princess?” Asked Elvar. When Claire replied, ‘Of course’, he seemed relieved. Claire did not miss that flash of emotion.
“Worry not. I don’t intend to kill a girl this young. We’re simply going to use her to threaten the queen.”
Elvar made a hesitant face. Claire gave him a gentle pat on the arm.
“All right. You carry the girl.” Claire said, smiling.
“Understood. I injected her not long ago, so she shouldn’t wake up for a while yet.”
“Excellent. We can’t have her making a fuss while we’re transporting her. Princesses are often loud and self-centered.” Claire said, amused. She then left to speak to Jake, who was standing guard.
“Thank you, Miss.”
Elvar thanked Claire once she was gone, and squatted on the floor. He gingerly wrapped Lillia in the coat that was under her. Then he put a hat on her head and made sure to cover her ears to prevent frostbite. After that, he gently picked her up and carried her on his large back.
Finally, Elvar tied her arms and legs in front of him so she wouldn’t slide off, and stood.
Casting a glance at Lillia’s face beside his own, Elvar whispered under his breath.
“Children don’t have to join their parents’ wars…”
Lillia said nothing.
“We’re leaving! Start the fire!” Claire ordered. Wayne came down the stairs and lit the fuse with a match.
Slowly, little by little, the long fuse began to burn.
Jake and Wayne walked out the door.
“We finally say goodbye! May the royal family rot and turn to ash!”
With that, Claire left the villa, her coat swirling.
The fuse slowly burned in the silent villa.
* * *
The snow had stopped completely.
They could see the sky between the flowing clouds. The moon in the eastern sky was only about thirty percent the size of the full moon, but it gave off enough light to see.
Six people were walking across Lake Ras, frozen solid and covered in snow.
It was a wide, snowy plain. There was nothing in sight. It was like a flat white desert.
North of the group were tiny clusters of countless lights, just above the horizon. It was the airport at Kunst. To the northeast was the city of Kunst. And to the east was the last of the peaks that dropped down to the plains of Roxche, standing in a large black mass.
Behind them, the lakeshore seemed to reach into the sky like a gigantic shadow.
The group was walking in a straight line. The man at the head of the group was pushing aside, collapsing, and patting down the waist-high snow underfoot as he walked.
“Could you please do a better job?”
3 meters behind him walked Benedict, patting down the snow even more firmly. 2 meters behind him was the man holding the rope wrapped around Benedict’s waist, carrying a submachine gun in the other hand.
Behind that man walked Fiona and the man holding her rope, about 5 meters behind the others on the relatively steady path.
The last of the men was also holding a submachine gun, walking with the occasional backwards glance. Tied to his waist was a length of rope connected to the sled carrying their dead friend.
The wind was calm, and the air quiet.
“Things would be much easier if we went by skis.”
Benedict’s grumbling sounded unusually loud in the stillness.
“Shut up.” Said the man at the front. He was wearing a name card that read ‘Mike’. He was the youngest of the hostage-takers, around the same age as Benedict.
Benedict was not cowed in the least.
“You, sir, in the front. If you are tired, why not switch with someone behind you?”
“Yeah… I almost want to trade jobs with you.”
“That sounds very good. I am used to this work. But I will be changing our destination to the Kunst police department.”
Burress, the fifty-something man holding Benedict’s rope, muttered bitterly.
“Expected no less from a hero, joking around at a time like this. If we didn’t need you to be walking, I’d give you a little taste of pain.”
“Thank you for your restraint.” Benedict said, and glanced backwards. “Fi, are you following us?”
“Yes.” Her voice said. “I’m fine.”
The one behind Fiona was Kirk, who had been standing behind her even in the interrogation room. He was silently keeping an eye on the queen.
Palmer, who was walking at the very back, said plainly to the hostages,
He was the oldest of the group, well over the age of sixty from his looks.
“Once we get to the airport, we’ll shut you up by force if necessary.”
“That makes sense.” Benedict said. “There would be a very big commotion if people found out you were holding the queen hostage.”
“And a fake, too… Owen’s not gonna rest in peace…” Palmer said bitterly.
Fiona continued to walk without saying a word. But Benedict chattered in her stead.
“Except for the young person at the front, are you all from the old Terreur Foundation, Mr. Palmer?”
“That’s right, Hero of the Mural.”
“I see. Of course.”
“What do you want to know that for?” Asked Palmer. The other men turned their attention to Benedict curiously.
“If we are safely rescued and you escape, we will need information to go after you. I thought I should collect intelligence while I could.”
“Ha!” Palmer barked. “We’ve got an optimist here, I see. No wonder you came out and announced the treasure like that.”
“It was a wonderful treasure, don’t you agree?”
“People lost jobs because of you.”
“Like you. You are all older people because you were in the Roxchean military at the time, correct?”
Palmer nodded. The group pressed on, all ears on him.
“I took up the gun to protect my countrymen and kill you Westerners. But look at me now. You’re standing right there, and I can’t even shoot you.”
“But now you will not be shot by Westerners, either.”
“Hmph. Just say the word and I can cross the river and go wild. For my dead comrades.”
“You must value your life more. You do not want to see your friends die again, do you?”
Palmer did not answer.
For a time, there was silence. Six people walked through the snow, their footsteps breaking the stillness. It was like a funeral march.
Eventually, Palmer spoke again.
“That’s what war is.”
It was only a moment later—
Thud. They heard someone fall onto the snow from the very back, near where Palmer’s voice had come from.
Kirk turned, not slowing his pace.
He saw a moonlit field of snow, and a narrow path. And no people.
He looked down and found Palmer on the ground. Kirk quickly raised his voice.
As three people stopped and watched, Kirk went up to Palmer. Fiona had to follow because she was still tethered to him.
“Hey. Palmer. Everything all right?” He asked. Palmer was crouched forward on the snow. “Get a hold of yourself. Did you wear yourself out?”
Kirk grabbed Palmer by the shoulder and slowly flipped him over, keeping his head raised.
His thoughts came grinding to a halt.
Before his eyes was Palmer’s face, unmoving and covered in dark red blood.
Kirk reeled and fell onto the snow.
Fiona behind him also glimpsed the bloodied corpse.
“What’s going on?” Asked Mike, running over from the front. “Move!”
He passed by Benedict and Burress, shoving Fiona aside and approaching the body.
Mike, having fought the snow to reach Palmer, got down and examined his friend’s face.
He was stunned into silence. Burress asked him what was wrong.
“H-he’s dead! Mr. Palmer’s—”
But Mike could not finish responding. His voice cut off unnaturally and his body leaned backwards. Kirk and Fiona, who were right next to him, clearly saw the blood spouting in a red fountain from his forehead.
Mike fell to the snow, leaving a man-shaped hole in the plain.
“It’s a sniper! Get down!” Kirk cried, cutting off Burress.
Burress and Kirk ducked simultaneously. The rope around Benedict was pulled taut.
Benedict fell to the ground face-first. He tasted snow.
Fiona, who failed to react, was left standing alone on the lake. And she was completely ignored.
“Where’d that come from? I didn’t hear any shots!”
“I don’t know! Damn it!”
Burress and Kirk shouted from the ground.
Lost, Fiona scanned the lake.
And she spotted a white figure.
Only 20 meters away stood a man in white. It was as though he had risen out of the ground. He was dressed from head to toe in white, with goggles over his eyes, a white mask over his face, and something resembling a sawed-off rifle in his hands.
He slowly raised his left hand and held up his pointer finger over his mouth. It was a universal gesture calling for silence.
As Fiona stared, still standing, the man slowly walked forward. With the rifle in hand he quickly crossed the snow.
“Shit! Run!” Burress cried, still crouching on the snow.
“Right! We’ll drag the hostages if we have to—” Kirk said, looking up at Fiona beside him. With his right arm he reached up to pull her over, and a hole was blown through it.
A bullet passed through his elbow, scattering blood in its wake.
There was no gunshot this time, either. Kirk cradled his arm as he curled up.
“What’s wrong?” Asked Burress, crawling over.
“Damn it… got shot…”
Burress’s face twisted in shock. When he looked up, he saw Fiona staring blankly at them.
“Damn you! You were hiding a gun?!”
He took aim with his submachine gun.
“Hands in the air!”
At that moment.
Like a wind-up toy coming to a stop, Burress froze. The gun fell from his hands. And he fell face-first into the snow, never to move again.
As Kirk writhed in pain, Burress died with blood spilling from his head. His hat was stained a bright red and steam rose faintly from the blood.
Fiona realized that the man in white was standing behind her now. He was tall and well-built. All she could see of his face were the stern eyes under his goggles.
The man operated the bolt on his gun. A cartridge too small to be used in a rifle was expelled from it.
The gun was a modified bolt-action rifle, which used 45mm handgun rounds. It was an assassination-use gun with an integral suppressor. The man was opening fire in time with someone’s voice.
Kirk raised his head, swearing.
The man quickly ran over and swung the butt of the rifle at Kirk’s temple.
Kirk lost consciousness and fell into the snow. The man who hit him looked at Fiona and asked tersely in Roxchean,
“Are you hurt?”
Fiona shook her head.
About 10 meters behind the man, Fiona saw another figure in white. And two more next to that. She looked around. There was another one behind her. They were all gliding on skis toward her.
Benedict raised his snow-covered head and sat up.
“Hm? What is this? Who are you?” He asked the white figure who stood next to his wife.
But the figure in white answered with another question.
“Queen Francesca and Sir Benedict?”
“Oh. That’s correct.”
“Yes. We are.”
The man in white nodded satisfactorily.
And as though ignoring them, he walked over to the unconscious Kirk and dragged him by the feet for about 3 meters.
Benedict rose to his feet and shook off the snow, then went to Fiona’s side. His eyes widened when he saw the five figures in white approaching them.
The five people stopped just 2 meters from Fiona and Benedict. They were all wearing white winter combat coats. Their hats and gloves were white, and around their waists were white belts and pieces of gear, white pouches, and holstered guns. There were even large sheathed knives.
“Allies, you think?” Benedict asked Fiona in Bezelese.
“I hope so… but who?” Fiona replied, also in Bezelese.
Then, one of the five people responded to Fiona’s question in Bezelese.
“It’s a little embarrassing to say, but please call me the magician in white.”
With that, the man pulled off his mask and hat.
When they saw the face underneath, Fiona and Benedict raised their voices in unison.
“It’s been a while.” Said Wilhelm Schultz, introducing himself. “Do you remember me? Major Travas of the Royal Army.”
It took about a minute for Fiona and Benedict to finally calm down.
“We’ve been investigating Laurie Productions for some time.”
Major Travas gave them a brief rundown of the situation. He explained that, when he found out about a revenge plot in Iks for something that occurred eighteen years ago, he supposed it might have something to do with Owen Nichto. That he had visited the airport earlier and heard that something might have happened at the villa, and that he and his team were on their way when they ran into the group.
“I’m not sure… the servant?”
“The air traffic controller says it was a young man’s voice.”
“Who could it be?”
Setting aside a mystery they could never solve at this point, Major Travas continued his explanation.
They had spotted the group walking from quite a distance, and had planned to ignore them—until they heard Benedict talking and realized that something was amiss.
“All that yammering wasn’t a waste of time after all. We really owe you. Thank you.” Benedict said in Bezelese. And he explained what had happened—and what was happening—to Major Travas. Because Axe was also with them, he neglected to mention Fiona’s true identity and claimed that the royal family had no idea what the hostage-takers meant by a treasure.
In the meantime, the other four men had scattered. Equipped with a modified bolt-action rifle, a shotgun, an automatic rifle, and a rifle covered in white cloth that obscured its form, and surveyed the area.
“We were just going down the slope from the road when Nichto took two of her men and went back to the villa. I don’t know why. She got a surprising message on the radio before she left, but I’m not sure what it was.” Said Benedict.
“Then we’ll ask one of her men.”
On Major Travas’s orders, the unconscious Kirk was dragged over. His arm was tightly bound to stop the bleeding and his wrists were tied together.
After a few slaps and some snow to the face, Kirk regained consciousness.
A modified rifle and Axe’s revolver were aimed at Kirk, who sat on the snow. Major Travas spoke.
“Why did your leader return to the villa?”
A hint of a smile rose to Kirk’s snow-covered face.
“I can’t say.”
Without missing a beat, Major Travas spoke again.
“Hm. So you don’t know the contents of the transmission after all.”
Kirk’s smile faded.
“…What makes you think that?”
“Because I saw relief flooding your face the moment you heard my question. You must have thought that you could withstand any interrogation because you didn’t know the answer to begin with. That you could at least buy time for your friends.”
Kirk was silent. Major Travas ignored him and turned to Benedict and Fiona, speaking in Bezelese.
“He doesn’t know a thing. We’ll head to the villa.”
“What will you do with him?” Fiona asked, making a point of speaking in Roxchean. The captured man flinched.
“He’ll only get in the way if we take him…” Major Travas trailed off.
Fiona shook her head. And she looked Major Travas in the eye, her swollen face prominent.
“Arrest him. We’ll punish him by Ikstovan law.”
Slowly, Major Travas raised his right hand in a salute.
Fiona paused gravely and nodded.
Kirk, however, raised his voice.
“You’re not taking me that easily!”
With his hands still bound, he drew a thin knife from his boot.
“This is for my friends!”
He leapt in the blink of an eye and charged at Fiona, who stood 3 meters away.
The man with the rifle quickly pulled the trigger. The bullet landed square in Kirk’s side. But he did not slow.
Major Travas moved in front of Fiona. Axe quickly took aim at Kirk.
But she did not pull the trigger. She had a single second—enough time to shoot him—but the revolver never roared.
Kirk passed by the line of fire and leapt toward Major Travas.
Major Travas reached out and grabbed Kirk’s shoulder. But that only slowed him for a moment. Travas fell backwards, unable to stand the force. As Kirk fell forward, he headbutted Major Travas in the chest.
And in the second Major Travas loosened his grip, Kirk used his weight to push the knife into his gut. The blade pierced Travas’s white combat uniform and slowly drove itself into his skin.
“Die!” Kirk cried.
Major Travas landed a sucker punch on his nose.
When Kirk reeled for a split second, Major Travas drew a 9mm automatic handgun. He pushed the muzzle into Kirk’s gut, disarmed the safety, and pulled the trigger. Two muffled gunshots sounded between them.
Kirk’s upper body was thrown backwards. Major Travas pushed him aside with his left hand. Blood gushed from Kirk’s stomach as he lay on the floor, and stained his coat.
Axe and a male subordinate cried in unison.
“I’m all right…”
Major Travas rose, holding his left hand over his stomach. He winced painfully and moved his hand up to his chest. And he pointed the gun in his right hand at Kirk.
“Kill me!” Kirk spat, vomiting blood.
“Yes. I’ll end your pain.”
Major Travas pulled the trigger. One shot to the chest, and another. This time, the gunshots resounded into the air. Fiona flinched at each shot.
Two cartridges flew into the air and fell into the snow.
With a sigh, Major Travas fell to his knees.
“Are you all right, Major?” Asked the male subordinate, looking at Travas’s face. The latter replied, his face covered in sweat.
“It hurts a bit. Not so much the wound as my conscience.”
“Should we have a look at the wound?”
“No, we can do that later. We should move.”
The man nodded and looked up. Then.
He turned to the young woman standing in a daze, holding a revolver and staring in his direction.
“Axe! You could have gotten that shot! Why did you hesitate?!”
“I-I… I’m… sorry…”
Her voice shook. Her one visible eye trembled unsteadily.
“Never mind. You can put away the revolver, Axe.” Major Travas said nonchalantly, slowly getting up. He was steady on his feet. “Hm. Yes. I’m fine.” He added, smiling at the male subordinate.
“Axe has never shot a person before.” He explained. “The first kill is tough for everyone.”
“But that could have hindered—”
“This takes priority. Everyone, prepare to move.”
“…Yes, sir.” The man replied, and went over to convey the orders to the others.
“You all right, Major?” Benedict asked, coming up from behind. Major Travas turned.
“Yes. This is nothing.”
“Thank you for protecting my wife.”
Fiona expressed her gratitude as well.
“Thank you. Make sure to get that injury looked at. Promise us.”
Major Travas nodded, smiling.
“My apologies, Major…”
He turned to the subordinate who stood hanging her head beside him.
“Forget about it, Axe. We’re moving out.”
Axe forwent the salute and walked off with a firm nod.
Wading through the snow, she headed to get her skis, and whispered under her breath.
“The first kill is tough for everyone… The first… first kill…”
And she exhaled angrily.
Her eyes burned with outrage, locked on the deserted snowscape.
“And yet! You killed my father without a second thought!”
No one heard the words out of Gratz Axentine’s mouth.
Watching the group in white prepare to move, Benedict spoke with Major Travas.
“The villa, eh? I’m coming with you.” He said, collecting the submachine guns and extra magazines from the bodies.
“I’d prefer it if you were to head straight to the airport… but I suppose I can’t convince you otherwise.” Major Travas said. Benedict grinned.
“‘Course I’m going. It’s my house.”
“I’m coming too.” Fiona chimed in. “It’s just Claire Nichto and three men left now. I’m going after them and having them arrested before they can leave the country.”
“Great! Can we halt all bus service and flights out of the country?”
“Wait a moment, please. That might not be a good idea.” Major Travas cut in.
Fiona and Benedict asked. Major Travas explained himself.
First, he told them that the team’s priority was Fiona, Benedict, and the villa’s well-being.
Then he explained that, even if the remaining hostage-takers were to escape the country, their announcement of Fiona’s deception would carry no weight without Fiona herself in their custody. That they could cause no harm for the moment.
“Even if they announce their discovery, it will obviously be taken as just another conspiracy theory like the snow monsters of Iks. They’ll assume the recording is a detailed fake.”
“I suppose you’re right. …I’m about as believable as snow monsters to the public.”
“Ah, my apologies. And also—”
Major Travas finally added that the identities of Claire Nichto and her team were clearly known, and that there was no hurry to go after them because the Confederation police would catch them eventually.
“I see… so our priority’s to get to the villa without running into them.” Said Benedict. Major Travas nodded.
“Was there regular communication from the villa?”
“Then we should keep this situation a secret until we receive word. We have an extra pair of skis, Benedict, if you’ll do the honors.”
Benedict chuckled and nodded.
“Right. I’ll carry Fi on my back. There’s a faster route to the villa than the one these people took. Looks like they had no idea you could go around the back. Let’s go.”
* * *
In the woods covered in moon-cast snow, the shadows of the branches shone in dark mosaics. It was still and silent.
Half-buried next to a tree was a person.
The tree was bent under the weight of snow on the steep 40-degree incline, its roots hanging down. And a person was caught sideways in the roots as though in their embrace.
More than half of his right side was buried, and there was a faint sprinkle of snow on his face. His uncovered left side and arms did not even twitch.
A clump of snow fell from the branches. It instantly covered the left side and arms of the person lying beside the tree.
There were no more human figures in the woods.
Silence filled the forest again. Three seconds passed.
The person sat upright with a loud cry. He quickly dusted the snow off his upper body and rolled from the roots and down the slope.
Scattering snow everywhere, he rolled 10 meters downhill.
With an incomprehensible cry,
the person spat snow out of his mouth and coughed several times.
“Hah! Ah! Hah!”
And he yelled three or so times.
He pulled off his hat. A head of drenched black hair emerged. He shook his head to get rid of the snow on his face. It was Treize.
“DAMN IT!” He roared. There was a vertical 3-centimeter cut on his forehead. Blood ran down the side of his nose and by his mouth.
Treize licked it off. He tasted the blood between ragged breaths.
“Take that, damn it…”
Glaring at the deserted snowscape, he raised a cry.
“I’m still alive!”
Treize began to climb up the slope.
The backpack and the makeshift poncho had disappeared somewhere when he rolled down the hill. He stripped off his coat because it was weighed down by clumps of snow. Wearing only woolen pants and a jacket, and without even a hat, he scrambled up the hill.
The snow gave away countless times and Treize was pushed back each time. He constantly looked for a decent tree to crawl to and use as a foundation to find the next.
He was covered in sweat. A bead of sweat even ran down his cheek.
It was below freezing outside. If his body cooled now, his sweat would freeze and kill him. So Treize did not stop for a moment as he worked up the hill. The blood from his cut stopped after he shut his eyes and wiped it off a few times.
For over twenty minutes he crawled, until he finally reached the point where he fell—the path in the snow. He had come back to the place where he had been shot.
He looked to the left, then the right. He saw no one. About 50 meters to the right he saw a building.
Shoulders heaving, Treize panted. And he slowly headed for the villa.
Crunch. He felt something hard underfoot.
Treize reached into the snow and grabbed it.
It was the rifle he had brought. Near the very center, where the rounds were neatly loaded, was a large hole. He could see the rounds and the metallic parts through the split wooden cover.
“I get it. The bullet hit this thing.”
He finally understood.
At the time, Treize had turned without thinking at Lillia’s cry. At the same time, he saw a flash of light coming from the villa’s balcony. Then he was seized by an impact near his head, and as his consciousness faded he heard a gunshot.
Then he spun violently like he was thrown into a shaker, tossed more roughly than in any aerobatic maneuver, and finally lost consciousness.
When Treize turned with the rifle still in front of his face, the bullet had hit the rifle and the butt of the rifle had struck him square on the forehead.
“You took the shot for me… thank you.”
Picking up his gun, Treize resumed walking. He was struck by a chill as his sweat began to cool. He sneezed again and again. His head spun and the world seemed to twist and turn.
Treize broke into a run. He scattered snow in his wake as he sprinted down the path.
Several bouts of curses and expletives later, he was finally at the plaza. Once he was standing under the light, a sigh escaped his lips.
At that moment—
“Freeze! Lower your weapon!”
He heard a man’s voice form next to him.
Irritated, he turned. A man in white emerged from behind the corner. He was holding a shotgun at Treize. Another man came out after him, holding a modified rifle.
The broken rifle fell from Treize’s hands.
“Hands in the air.”
Another order. Drenched in sweat, Treize raised his hands into the air, took a deep breath, and—
“DAMN IT! WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE?!”
He shouted more loudly than he had ever that day. Then his head began to shake.
And he fell in the middle of the plaza.
“Treize! Wake up! Hey! Get up! Treize!”
Someone was loudly calling his name. When Treize squinted, he saw the face of a bearded man.
He had no idea what was going on.
“Ten more minutes…”
“Get up, you dolt!”
When he realized that he was looking at his father, Treize sat up without warning. Benedict pulled away a second before Treize’s head hit his chin.
They were in the party hall in the second floor. Treize was lying right beside the fireplace, which was stuffed with firewood and filling the room with warmth.
Treize had been stripped out of his wet clothes, left in just his underpants and layers of fluffy towels. When he touched his finger to his forehead, he felt ointment on his cut.
He turned. The servants were lying in a row on the other side of the room, covered in blankets. Watching over them were two or so people in white combat gear.
“You’re finally awake.” Said the man beside him. Treize looked at him properly.
Then he surveyed his surroundings.
“What about Mother?”
“Your mother’s fine. She’s in the lobby right now. Water?”
Benedict held out a bottle of water. Treize snatched it without a word and gulped down its contents.
“What were you doing, anyway? Breaking my rifle, walking around in spring clothes and drenched in sweat, and shouting like a drunk at our front door?”
Treize finally took his mouth away from the bottle and wiped his mouth.
“Who cares? It doesn’t really matter at this point.”
“What do you mean it doesn’t matter?”
“It doesn’t okay? Never mind!”
“Is that any way to talk to your father? Give back that water!”
“It’s mine now!”
“Where are your manners? Who taught you to behave?!”
“Go look in the mirror! And shave that beard, while you’re at it!”
As Treize and his father’s argument escalated,
Claire Nichto was looking down at her men’s bodies.
They had followed the clear footprints in the snow and gone out into the lake when they found the four men in the moonlight. They had all been shot and were lying in piles of red snow. All four bodies were cold like meat in a freezer.
The bodies all had their hands folded over their chests. Someone must have done that to them. Next to the four men was Mores’s body, still in the sack.
Through gritted teeth Claire seethed. She stood for some time in silence.
Jake and Wayne scanned the area with submachine guns at the ready.
Elvar, who was standing behind Claire, slowly lowered his rifle and the sleeping Lillia to the ground. There were signs that people had walked around the area. As he examined the footprints, Elvar found several cartridges. 45mm rounds and 9mm rounds.
He picked them up and scrutinized them.
Then Elvar clenched his fists. The sound of metal on metal punctuated the stillness.
“What in the world happened here…? What in the world?!” Laurie cried. Elvar went up to show her the cartridges.
“They must have been attacked. And not by normal people, like the Kunst police force. Look at these, Leader.”
Elvar deposited the empty cartridges onto Claire’s open hand.
“We didn’t use rounds this size. And look at the bottom of the cartridges. There’s nothing there. No manufacturer initials, no size indicators, nothing. Civilians and police couldn’t get their hands on equipment like this.”
“Then who?” Claire demanded, throwing aside the empty cartridges. Elvar shook his head.
“I’m not sure, Leader. But they’re clearly a formidable and experienced group. No run-of-the-mill team could have taken out Palmer and the other before they could resist.”
“Damn it…” Claire swore, gritting her teeth. A second later—
“Leader! I see ski tracks! There are six… Seven of them.”
Jake called out to them, having gone to scout the direction of the airport. Elvar acknowledged his discovery and asked,
“Are they headed to the airport, then?”
“Well… it’s strange, but they’ve switched directions slightly and are pointing back to the villa.”
Elvar thought for a moment before speaking.
“They must have rescued Benedict and the queen and gone back to the villa.”
Claire pulled out her revolver. And she went up to Lillia, whom Elvar had laid down in the snow.
“Stop this, Leader. She’s a valuable hostage.”
Claire shot Elvar a glare.
“Her leg! One little hole in her leg!”
“She could still die of blood loss.”
“But those bastards! Those bastards came out of nowhere and killed my men! Four of my men!”
“Yes. They did. And we will make sure to pay them back. Which is why our hostage is all the more valuable. You must be calm, Leader. In war, you must never lose your cool.”
“…Damn it! Yes! Yes, you’re right! But what do we do now? We’ve lost the queen!”
“We still have the princess. We still have a way.”
“Then tell me!”
“Of course. When the queen and her rescuers left this place, they surely must have decided to let us escape Iks rather than chase us down.”
“If they wanted to capture us, they would have been lying in wait somewhere on the path here. They could have easily killed us, considering how our men died without putting up any resistance. But they didn’t. Because they determined that they would lose nothing by letting us escape.”
“They think we’re fools. But we have the queen’s voice on tape, confessing to her deception.”
“They must be planning to hide the fact of our attack and claim that the tape was fabricated. Then they would use the Confederation police force to arrest us.”
Claire finally understood the scope of Elvar’s explanation. She was apoplectic.
“That vixen! Clever in all the worst ways!”
Elvar remained calm, however, as he continued to advise her.
“But the queen doesn’t realize that we have Princess Meriel in our custody. We can still negotiate.”
Claire turned to the girl lying in the snow. She grinned belligerently.
“Excellent. Then… this war is not over yet.”
* * *
The villa lobby.
Major Travas’s men had taken apart the incendiary mechanism and were transporting the parts out the door.
“I’m so sorry. I have no idea what Treize could be doing here.”
“It’s quite all right. We’ll ask him once he’s awake.”
Fiona was speaking with Major Travas. Axe and the other subordinates were standing guard outside the front doors and behind the building.
“You should also get some rest, Fi.” Major Travas had just said, when a voice spoke from below.
<Do you hear me, Queen?>
It was Claire’s voice.
Fiona and Major Travas slowly looked down. They knew what was there. They had collected the radios from the dead men, and because the headsets were unplugged the voice was coming from the tiny radio speakers.
Fiona slowly sat on the floor and picked up the radio, which looked like a large telephone receiver.
<You are listening, aren’t you?>
Claire’s voice again. Major Travas pointed Fiona to the call button.
Fiona pressed firmly on the button and spoke with her mouth by the microphone.
<Yes, I can hear you. Do you have any more business with me?>
She took her finger off the switch.
Several seconds passed in silence.
<I’m glad to hear you’re well, Queen. Are you at the villa now? Nice and toasty inside?>
<Yes, and no. I’m in the villa, but not by the fire. It’s quite chilly here in the lobby. But we’ve dismantled the dangerous device you left here.>
<Oh? So much for our token of kindness.>
<Benedict and I are safe now. There are watchful eyes on us.>
Yet more time passed silently.
<Did those people… kill my men?>
Fiona said, and waited for Claire to respond. But there was silence yet again. So she pressed the call button.
<You’ll be leaving Ikstova now, correct?>
This time, she got an answer.
<No. Not yet. We can’t just leave you behind.>
Benedict hurried down the stairs, having heard the voice from the radio. Claire continued.
<You will come to us alone, Queen.>
<And if I refuse?>
<Confident as ever. Have you figured it out yet? If you refuse to comply, you forfeit the hostage’s life.>
“Hostage?” Fiona whispered. Benedict came up to her then, so she asked him how many servants were present. He replied immediately.
“Everyone’s here, then.”
Fiona returned to her conversation with Claire.
<Who exactly do you have with you?>
<Let me be gracious and answer that obvious question. Your daughter. I have Princess Meriel.>
The three people listening to Claire’s voice were left utterly baffled.
Fiona exchanged glances with Major Travas and Benedict, all shaking their heads, and asked the question on all their minds.
<Wh-what are you talking about?>
<Your complacency never ceases to amuse me. I captured your daughter when I returned to the villa. And now she sleeps beside the bodies of my men. If you don’t want her sleep to be just as eternal, you’ll do as I say.>
Fiona paused, not knowing what to say.
<Think carefully, Queen. I’ll contact you again once you’ve gotten a hold of yourself.>
Claire cut off the conversation there. Fiona tried to call her back several times, to no reply.
Fiona handed the heavy radio to Benedict and frowned.
“Meriel? But she should be in Sou Be-Il right now. In Sfrestus. What’s happening here?”
Benedict tapped his temple and replied.
“What is going on? Did the lady hit her head, you think?”
A moment later.
Someone yelled from the top of the staircase.
Three sets of eyes flew upwards. Standing on the landing was Treize, a sorry sight in just his underpants. He looked like he had just stepped out of a sauna.
Rushing down to the lobby, he yelled as loudly as he could.
“Lillia! She’s talking about Lillia!”