Chapter 9: Treize’s Battle
Treize told his parents and Major Travas everything.
That he heard what happened at the villa from the servant who managed to escape. That he came to the villa through the tunnel, alongside Lillia. That they caused a diversion with the bomb. And that he ended up sneaking to the third floor with Lillia.
One of Major Travas’s subordinates went up to Treize’s room to get some clothes for him. Treize was soon given a shirt and a pair of pants similar to what he had been wearing earlier. He quickly pulled them over his underpants and continued to explain.
How he had been interrupted while contacting the airport. How he had tried to tail the hostage-takers, only to be caught in an obvious trap and sniped from the villa.
And how Lillia was likely captured by the man who had shot him, and that Lillia was probably the reason Claire and two of her men returned.
And finally, he explained that the hostage-takers must have confused Lillia for Meriel because he had given her his pendant.
“I see. So that’s how it is.”
Major Travas said nothing.
Fiona shook her head again and again.
She stood face-to-face with her son, who stood at about her own height, and put her hands on his shoulders.
“Treize. What you did was unacceptable. It wasn’t right. What if you’d been caught and killed? And how could you let Lillia get involved? Why did you give her your pendant?”
Treize did not respond. His arms hung limp at his sides as he sadly averted his gaze.
“But if His Highness hadn’t done anything,” said Major Travas, “this villa would be in flames by now. And the servants would be dead. The hostage-takers would have managed to escape to the airport and left with the queen and her husband, while my team floundered.”
Major Travas remained calm and professional, even though his own daughter had been taken hostage.
“True, that. Good going, Treize. And Lillia, too, if she were here to hear me.” Benedict said. But Fiona cast them both a disapproving look.
“Now even the children are involved in their parents’ war.”
“Now it is their war to fight.” Major Travas said.
Treize looked up. He looked the queen straight in the eye.
“I’m fighting for my country, Your Majesty.”
“And you’re safe now, Mother.”
With a soft sigh, Fiona lowered her hands to Treize’s back. And she pulled him into an embrace.
Only Treize could hear the words she whispered into his ear. He returned the embrace, wrapping his arms around his mother.
“He looks just like his mother.” Major Travas remarked. Fiona and Treize were about the same height and had similar hair; when they were embracing, their clothes were about the only way to tell them apart.
“Like twins, eh?” Benedict chuckled. “But you know, if we just tell Claire Nichto that they don’t actually have the princess, do you think she’s just going to give in?”
Major Travas shook his head.
“Right. Sorry you had to get involved, too.”
“In this case, the best option is to keep Claire Nichto in the dark. Let them assume Lillia is the princess. Princess Meriel’s face is not known to the public; no matter how much Lillia claims otherwise, as long as we pretend she is, she will retain value to them as a hostage.”
Benedict sighed, awed and astonished at Major Travas’s utter calm.
“You’re one hell of a guy, you know that?”
“‘The more anxious you are, the less you must be’, I was taught.”
“From the Aikashia school?”
Major Travas nodded.
“You really ought to come stay in Ikstova for good. In case something like this happens again.” Said Benedict.
“I’ll think about it.” Major Travas replied.
Benedict scratched his head and returned to the matter at hand.
“They want the queen to come alone, right?”
“Yes. They’ll likely demand an exchange—the queen for ‘Princess Meriel’—and call the queen out to Lake Ras, where there is nothing to obstruct their vision, and take both women with them. They’ll threaten via radio to kill one of them should we pursue them.”
<How does it feel, Queen?> Claire taunted from the radio.
Fiona kissed Treize on the cheek and let him go. Benedict picked up the radio and handed it to Fiona with a reminder.
“Lillia is Meriel.”
Fiona nodded and took the radio.
And she immediately answered.
<Not very good. Where are you?>
<What is that to you?>
<I’d like to come pick up the hostage.>
<So you finally listen to reason. The princess still sleeps by the bodies of my friends. she’s been sleeping so long I’ve been wondering what to do with her. Is she always this way?>
<I’m afraid so. Give her a warm cup of tea when she wakes up. With lots of honey. Otherwise she’ll be cranky.>
<Hahahaha! I’ll keep that in mind, Queen. Shall we cut to the chase, then?>
<Of course.> Fiona replied.
<Our demands are the same. We do not need the princess. We simply want the woman who deceived the world. You, Fiona.>
<Fine. What shall I do, then?>
<I’m waiting beside my sleeping friends. You will come here alone.>
<The same place as before, then? And on my own?>
<That’s right. It won’t even take an hour on skis. It’s almost daybreak. You will come to us by sunrise. With no one else. If we see anyone around you, we will open fire. The hostage won’t be safe, either.>
Benedict advised Fiona to wait without answering for the moment, and asked Major Travas what they should do. Major Travas narrowed his eyes and fell into thought.
<All right. I’ll be there alone before sunrise.> Fiona said suddenly.
Benedict was taken aback; Major Travas, shocked. Treize watched in silence.
<You will keep your word. We’re waiting, ‘Queen’.>
With that, Claire cut off communications.
“Fi! What are you—” Benedict started, but Fiona cut him off and turned to Travas.
“I heard you explain things earlier. But we can’t rescue Lillia unless I go. Isn’t that right?”
“Perhaps.” Major Travas nodded.
“I’ll go and explain to them. I’ll tell them that Lillia has nothing to do with this.”
“If I were in their shoes, then I would kill the unrelated party to silence her.”
“I won’t let that happen. Even if we’re both taken hostage, we should find a way for both of us to come out alive.”
For a moment, Major Travas said nothing. Several seconds passed in silence. Soon, he opened his mouth again, as calm as ever.
“If we want to resolve this situation, the fewer hostages there are, the better.”
“How could you be so heartless, Wilhelm Schultz?! That girl is your daughter!” Fiona cried, glaring. Major Travas gave a wry chuckle.
“If Allison had heard what I just said, she would have beaten me to a pulp. I’m glad she hasn’t.”
No one laughed.
“Now, if we play by the rules of hostage negotiation—and that’s an if—” Benedict emphasized, “we can’t comply with their demands. Playing by the book, we have to gather skilled soldiers and kill the terrorists before they can relocate to a safer place.”
“Is that possible?” Asked Fiona. Benedict shook his head. Major Travas agreed.
“The lake is too open for a sneak attack. Unless we crawl all the way from the shore, they’ll spot our men from hundreds of meters away and open fire.”
“Then there’s no alternative. If I’m the only one who can make the approach, I’ll do it. That’s the only solution we have.” Fiona declared.
The two men could not argue. Benedict groaned disapprovingly, and a dark look crossed Major Travas’s face.
But Treize, who had been silent all along, raised his voice.
“Yeah! That’s it!”
Fiona turned. Benedict and Major Travas also looked at him.
“What’s with the outburst? Did you think of something?” Asked Benedict.
“You bet!” Treize replied immediately. “We just have to do exactly what the woman said at the end!”
“Hm?” Fiona tilted her head.
“What are you talking about?” Benedict asked, astonished.
Major Travas, who alone understood what Treize was trying to say, decided to confirm his determination.
“It’s a very dangerous idea you’re proposing. Do you understand that, Your Highness?”
Treize nodded, staring back at the bespectacled man.
“This is my war.”
* * *
When Lillia opened her eyes, the first thing she saw was the moonlight and the brightening sky.
A faded indigo sky filled her vision, without a single cloud in sight.
She saw no stars. There was no wind.
“Oh… must’ve fallen asleep.” She mumbled, her eyes half-open.
“So you’re finally awake.” Said a female voice from her left. Lillia sat up at once.
She was in an empty field of snow. The pale blue desert of Lake Ras.
Lillia looked to her left. There stood a smiling woman wearing a coat.
“Er… who are you?” Asked Lillia. Claire replied mockingly,
“One of your mother’s long-suffering victims.”
Claire proudly leered down at Lillia.
“Oh. I see. …I get it. Makes sense.” Lillia replied, still not fully awake.
“Hm? Glad to see you agree.” Claire smirked. Lillia looked apologetic.
“So the blond ghost claims another victim.”
“What do you mean?”
About three minutes later.
“Are you awake now? Do you really understand who we are?”
Lillia was sitting on some extra coats on the snow, which had been trampled to firmness. Around her, snow was piled up to her head-level—waist-level if she stood. She simply sat there in the hole in the snow.
Claire sat across from Lillia, scrutinizing her face.
“Er… you’re the ones who attacked the villa, right?”
“Correct.” Claire smiled.
“A pretty lady like you?”
“What do you mean by that? I’m the one asking questions here.”
“Huh…? Hmm… Wait… Oh! Ohhhhh!” Lillia gesticulated, her head finally back to working state. “Y-y-you captured me!”
Claire nodded briefly, her eyes locked on Lillia.
“I’m afraid we don’t have any tea or honey for you, but try not to make a fuss.”
Confused, Lillia propped herself up and looked around.
At first glance, there was no one on the lake. But upon closer examination she spotted men surrounding her in a triangular formation. They had dug trenches in the snow to conceal themselves.
Lillia pointed at one of the men in particular—who was holding a rifle with a scope—and raised her voice.
Elvar turned when he heard the commotion.
“Yes. He’s the one who captured you.”
But Lillia half-ignored Claire, crunching through the snow to reach Elvar.
“Wh-what happened?! What happened to the person you shot from the balcony?”
Elvar remained seated, silently looking up at Lillia. Claire was bewildered.
“D-do you even understand your position?”
Lillia ignored her again.
“Answer me! What happened to him?!”
“Just answer her so she’ll quiet down.” Claire sighed. Elvar finally broke his silence.
“I shot the person who was going after my allies.”
“And? And then?”
“He rolled down the slope when I shot him. That was all I could see. I didn’t check if he was dead, or if he was injured.” Elvar said.
“My, how kind of you.” Claire said with a shrug.
For the moment, Lillia breathed a sigh of relief.
“I see… Thank you.”
Elvar again turned his gaze to the south, keeping watch on their surroundings. The lake was becoming bluer and brighter now. His gaze was fixed on the south side, where he could see gently-sloping land covered with trees.
“There’s still some time left. Come over here.” Said Claire.
Lillia did as she was told without making a fuss. That was when she spotted men lying in the snow. Four in total.
At first, she assumed that they were asleep. So she looked at them.
Blood had frozen solid on their faces. There were gaping holes in their heads. Lillia fell on her backside, terrified.
“Th-they’re… they’re dead…”
“Yes. They are.” Claire said, walking over to her. “These men were my friends, who left first with the queen in their custody. They were attacked by a mysterious group and none made it back alive.”
Lillia silently looked up at Claire.
Claire looked from the bodies of her men to Lillia and added,
“This is war, little lady.”
Lillia slowly stood and took several steps toward the feet of the bodies. Then she clasped her gloved hands over her chest and slowly closed her eyes. It was her second moment of silence that year.
The men watched her without a word. Elvar, Jake, and Wayne all watched the girl praying for their friends.
“What are you doing?” Claire spat, displeased.
Lillia opened her eyes and lowered her hands. Then the turned to Claire to reply.
“What does it look like I’m doing? Praying for them.”
“They’re my men. They don’t need your prayers.” Claire said uncomfortably. Lillia shook her head.
“Mom once told me that we should show respect to anyone who’s died in battle, even if they’re our enemies.”
“Dead people aren’t enemies anymore.”
For some time, Claire stared coldly at Lillia. And finally, she managed to say,
Lillia complied, sitting in the same places as earlier. Claire also took a seat across from her again.
“Listen up. While you were sleeping, I successfully called the queen to this place.”
Lillia blinked, astonished.
“Wait, what? What does that mean?”
“The queen will soon be here to save you.”
“She must care for you that much.” Claire said sarcastically. But Lillia was simply confused.
“The queen? Care for me? Why?”
“…Ask her yourself. You’ll see each other soon enough.”
“W-wow… er… What? What do I do?!”
Lillia was confused and lost. She could not calm down.
“Hysterical, aren’t we?”
“Well, anyone would be panicking if they heard they were going to meet a queen! I’ve never met someone that important in my life!”
Claire frowned. Something had been wrong in their conversation so far. The men also listened carefully to their exchange, though their eyes were still scanning the lake.
“What are you talking about? Did you hit your head? The queen is your mother.” Claire said. Lillie gaped. Then she tilted her head.
“What are you talking about? My mom’s a normal person. A run-of-the-mill commoner.”
Claire froze. Lillia continued.
“You know, the kind of person who skips back home after getting a discount at the butcher shop a minute before it closes for the day.”
“Wait. Wait!” Claire said. And she gave Lillia an order. “Tell me your name.”
Lillia did not miss a beat.
“Or did you want my official name?”
“Oh. Yes. Tell me your official name.”
“Lillianne Aikashia Corazòn Whittington Schultz.”
A cold breeze blew over the field of snow.
Though the sun had not yet rise, the world was full of light. The snowy lake shone brilliantly, reflecting the glow.
Claire was wearing a pair of lightly-tinted sunglasses, and the men black goggles.
Lillia had her hood pressed over her head as a temporary measure. But once the sun rose, she could easily be blinded by the brightness of the high-altitude snows.
Claire, still sitting across from her, continued to ask questions.
“So you really aren’t Princess Meriel?”
Lillia was growing sick of the interrogation.
“How many times do I have to tell you? I’m Lillianne Aikashi-”
“Never mind. What a ridiculous name!” Claire said condescendingly.
“Hey! Don’t make fun of people’s names!” Lillia snapped back.
“If you’re going to lie to me, try something more plausible! I’m surprised you managed to memorize something that long in the first place!”
“I told you, I’m not lying! I had it down perfectly by the time I was three!”
They were both in a full-on argument now, but Claire did not reach for her revolver, and the men did not interfere. Elvar even smiled at times as he listened to Claire growing flustered at Lillia’s replies.
“Why in the world did you think I was the princess?”
“We still think you are. Your pendant is the key.”
Lillia thought over the word for a moment, then remembered. She reached into her shirt and produced the pendant Treize had given her.
“Yes. Only a member of the royal family could possess a pendant like this. Where did you get your hands on it?” Claire said threateningly.
Lillia didn’t even need to blink.
“Royal family? As if. I borrowed this from a friend.”
“My friend is from Iks. Apparently this pendant’s really important and I shouldn’t lose it.”
“…Would this friend of yours be a girl around your age?”
“A boy around my age.”
Claire was rendered silent. Then,
“I’m getting a headache.” She mumbled.
“Do you know where that boy got his hands on the pendant?” Elvar asked from his position. Lillia turned to him and replied plainly.
Then she added,
“But when I told him I wanted a pendant like this one, he promised me he’d get me one. I’m not sure, but aren’t Iks’s goldsmiths really famous? Maybe they sell these everywhere?”
“Ludicrous!” Claire burst out. Elvar tried to calm her.
“Leader. We can’t completely rule out the possibility that someone created a detailed fake.”
“You mean to say that the royal family and the police would overlook such a thing?!”
“Damn you! What a ridiculous country!”
“Leader, I have something to say.” Wayne said suddenly.
Claire asked him to speak.
“I just recalled, but I’ve seen Princess Meriel’s crest on the newspaper before. It was a flower. I’m not sure exactly what kind, but it was definitely a flower.”
Claire grabbed Lillia by the collar.
“Let me see that!”
With her right hand she grabbed the pendant and scrutinized it front-to-back. Carved on the coin was Treize’s crest, the hawk. Claire was beside herself.
“It’s a bird! There’s no flower on this pendant!”
“My word… so she was telling the truth after all.” Elvar said, despondent.
Claire let go of Lillia and the pendant, swearing yet again. And she fell to her knees in the snow.
“But the queen accepted our demands nonetheless. She agreed to come to us.” Jake noted. Elvar agreed.
“Yes, Leader. We don’t know what the queen is plotting, but things are going according to plan for us, if nothing else.”
“Yes. Yes. You’re right. Once the queen arrives, I will strike this girl in the face and demonstrate my fury!”
“Exactly.” Said Wayne. Lillia tentatively spoke up.
“Er… can I ask you something?”
“What, commoner girl?”
“I’m not the princess, so can I go home now?”
“No.” Claire replied immediately.
“Man… why are you people doing this? Do you hate the royal family that much?”
“None of your business.”
“Why? You’re from Iks, too.” Lillia mumbled.
Stunned, Claire looked Lillia in the eye.
“H-how did you know I was from Ikstova? I never mentioned that.”
“Well, because you call this place ‘Ikstova’. Not many people in the Capital District know this country’s official name. Everyone just calls it ‘Iks’ or the ‘Kingdom of Iks’.”
Claire raised an eyebrow, impressed.
“So you weren’t just an imbecile after all.”
“Is that supposed to be a compliment or an insult? For your information, my dad was so smart that he finished university in two years.”
Claire smiled at the word ‘dad’. She asked Elvar and the others if anyone was approaching yet, and was told that the lake was empty.
“Thirty minutes to dawn.” Elvar added.
“Your name was Lillia, you said. I can’t tell you the details, but I’ll answer your question. My father was murdered by the queen.”
“He was killed because of her selfish actions. I am planning to avenge him. Do you understand now? How would you feel if someone murdered your father?”
“…I don’t know. He’s already gone. Before I even knew my own name.” Lillia replied.
“I see… then you wouldn’t understand. Pretend I didn’t ask, then.”
Jake went up to Elvar, asking, “What has gotten into Miss Claire?”. Elvar replied that he did not know.
Lillia looked at Claire.
“What will you do once the queen gets here? You’re not—”
“No, we won’t kill her. We’re taking her prisoner. We still have unfinished business.”
“That’s a relief to hear. But can’t you solve this peacefully? With words?”
“Probably not.” Claire said firmly.
“Why not?” Asked Lillia.
A light smile rose to Claire’s face.
“Because we’ve already killed too many of each other’s loved ones for that.”
“This is war. It doesn’t end until one side acknowledges defeat or perishes completely. And I have no intention of admitting defeat.”
“That’s all fine and good now, but that might get you killed.” Lillia said, concerned. But Claire did not respond.
“Don’t worry.” Elvar said. Lillia turned. Elvar continued, his back still turned to her.
“I won’t let you die, Miss.”
“How many times do I have to remind you today? Call me ‘Leader’.” Claire said cheerfully. Elvar apologized, and continued.
“We are about to do something quite underhanded—take a girl hostage to capture the queen. All for victory. This is how war is fought. Your name was Lillia, correct? Remember this well.”
“What happens if you lose?” Lillia asked, looking at Elvar, and then to Claire. “What happens if you lose and die?”
“Then it’s over.” Claire said, sounding almost amused.
“But… if you die, you’ll never get to hear the radio again! They’re starting that new season of the drama soon!”
“Oh… I’ve heard about the sequel.”
“Exactly! You can’t just die without listening to it!”
“It doesn’t matter. If all goes well, I’ll be able to listen to it with the queen in the Capital District.” Claire said, slowly rising to look at the bright eastern sky. Then she pulled back her sleeve to check her watch.
“It’s almost dawn. Do you see the queen?”
Jake and Wayne replied that they did not.
“She’s coming into sight, Leader.” Said Elvar, peering through the scope with his rifle at the ready. “Almost due south. She’s alone. All I see is her head at this point, but she’s coming to us. She’s on skis, so she’ll be here soon.”
“Excellent!” Claire clapped her hands together. “Yes! Capture the queen!”
“Understood!” Replied the men, putting a smile on Claire’s face.
Then, she cast a sharp glance down at Lillia.
“Lillia, your name was? Stand. I want to tell you something.”
“Wh-what is it?”
Lillia hesitantly rose to her feet. Claire smiled. Her obscured eyes curved behind her sunglasses.
“Your mother is a good person. Thank you for praying for my men.”
Out of nowhere, Claire shoved Lillia.
Lillia fell back-first on the snow.
“Man, that’s cold…”
“I’m sorry. It’s dangerous, so stay where you are for now. Once this battle ends and we have a chance to catch our breath, I’ll treat you to warm tea and honey!”
“I don’t really like honey…”
Naturally, Lillia’s mumble went completely ignored.
Claire picked up the radio from atop the firm snow and spoke into it.
<Queen! Do you see me?>
* * *
<Yes, I see you. You’re a little far, but I can make you out. I have good eyesight because I grew up in the mountains.> Fiona’s voice said from Claire’s radio.
Claire stood up on the firmly-trodden snow.
In the trench ahead, Elvar held a rifle at the same level as the top of the snow. Jake and Wayne, armed with submachine guns, slowly crawled forward at about 30 meters to either side of Elvar.
“Tell the queen to continue this way, then stop and raise her hands when she’s about 100 meters from us. Jake and Wayne will approach from either side and secure the queen, and I will cover us. Keep giving us orders, Leader, and please keep an eye on our sides and flank, just in case.” Said Elvar.
“Understood.” Claire nodded. And she added, “I have complete faith in your plans, Elvar.”
A black dot appeared on the glowing lake. Slowly but surely, it grew larger and larger in the distance.
<Continue this way, Queen.> Said Claire. she received a reply several seconds later.
<Can you prove to me that the hostage is safe?>
<Come and see for yourself.>
Several more seconds passed before Fiona’s answer.
<Fine. I’d like to give you a slap, too.>
“Hah!” Claire snorted.
Elvar peered through the scope as he reported in.
“I can see her quite clearly now. She’s wearing a black coat and a hat. And goggles as well.”
“Give it here.”
“Don’t shoot her, Leader.”
Claire received the rifle and peered into the scope.
Just before dawn, the snowy lake shone so brightly that it seemed to be glowing.
Through the scope, she could see a person approaching, wearing skis. A pair of ski poles moved busily on her either side.
She was wearing a navy, knee-length women’s coat. On her head was a winter hat with ear flaps, and a pair of slightly tinted goggles were over her eyes. Each time she exhaled, a puff of air escaped her mouth. Claire spotted the red swelling on her left cheek and smiled.
Claire gave Elvar back the rifle and spoke into the radio.
<Tired yet? You’re almost here.>
About five seconds later.
<…I’m doing my best… please don’t talk to me…> Fiona panted, gasping for breath.
Jake and Wayne looked up at points as they continued to crawl through the snow, checking one another’s locations and the queen’s.
What once looked like a dot to the naked eye eventually took on human form. Eventually, they could see the color of her coat and her arms and legs moving busily.
<Can you see the anger in my face, Queen?> Asked Claire.
She received no answer.
<Fine. Come to a stop once you’re 100 meters from where we are. We’ll instruct you again if you’re not certain.>
This time, she received an answer several seconds later.
<I understand… but I don’t see the hostage…?>
<She’s lying in the snow. She’s dying to meet you.>
There were now only 200 meters between Claire and the queen. Jake and Wayne had covered about 50 meters from their starting points as well.
“Enough! Stop there!” Elvar ordered the men. They complied, raising their hands to indicate that they heard him.
“Er…” Lillia said tentatively, still lying in the snow, “my back is freezing. Can I stand now?”
There were 150 meters between the queen and Claire.
<That’s enough. Stop right there.> Claire ordered through the radio.
There was no answer, but the queen stopped. Her shoulders heaved several times as she tried to catch her breath.
Then, she crouched on the snow and began to take off her skis. Two minutes of struggling later, the queen finally managed to get them off and stood on the snow. Her feet sank, instantly lowering her.
“Now!” Elvar commanded.
Jake and Wayne stood. Holding their submachine guns at just below shoulder-height, pointed at the figure standing as still as a statue before them, they slowly approached.
As Claire silently watched the scene, Fiona’s voice came over the radio.
<Claire… I have one last request. Will you listen?>
<What is it?>
<Won’t you surrender? Tell your men to put down their weapons. Let the hostage go and turn yourself in. I promise you that you will not be harmed, and that you will receive a fair trial. I don’t care if you tell the world that I’m a fake.>
Quietly and quickly, Claire replied.
There were about twenty seconds of silence.
Fiona’s voice finally returned to the radio.
<I see. I’m sorry to hear that. …You may begin.>
Claire did not understand.
At that moment, the queen disappeared.
And to Jake and Wayne, the queen really seemed to have vanished.
Like a magic trick involving a massive device, the queen had disappeared in an instant.
Elvar alone, looking through the scope, saw through the trick. He saw the queen quickly cast away her navy coat.
Before the coat fell to the snow, the queen got down in the snow and disappeared from sight.
Jake turned to Wayne, on his right.
“Wh-what’s this? The queen’s gone!”
Wayne replied with a confused look of his own. A moment later, his face—and the head connected to it—was partly blown away.
Jake’s goggles reflected a man falling backward, chunks of red falling from his head. Scattering brain and blood everywhere, the body was buried in the snow.
A long gunshot echoed like a wave across the lake.
“That’s one.” Treize muttered under his breath.
He was dressed from head to toe in white.
Everything on his body was white. He had borrowed a winter-use camouflage combat suit from Major Travas’s team. Even his gloves and shoes were white. A white cloth was wrapped around his head like a turban, and another covered his face.
There were radios covered in white cloth strapped to the utility belt around his waist. One on either side of him. One was to listen in on Claire and Fiona’s conversation, and the other to speak with Fiona.
Treize was holding a white pole. It was about 120 centimeters long, and he had hidden it behind his back inside his coat until just earlier. Like a mummy out of a horror movie, it was wrapped in bandages.
The object wasn’t simply a pole—it was made of metal, and could fire bullets. A rifle. At the end of it was a small hole, black as an abyss.
Treize was crouching. Only piles of snow were round him. And after several kneeling steps forward,
Treize cautiously peered over the snow, exposing both his face and the rifle. Then, he took aim at the man 100 meters away, who was armed with a submachine gun and panicking over his friend’s death.
The rifle roared.
The first gunshot had come out of nowhere. Her friend fell into the snow.
“What’s going on here?”
Claire was completely lost.
That was when the second gunshot hit, and the other man fell on his side.
“Duck!” Elvar cried. Claire tossed aside her gun and fell on her stomach on the ground. Then she leapt into an alcove in the snow.
“That’s not her! That’s not the queen!”
No sooner had Elvar finished speaking than did a sharp noise zoom past over the trenches.
“That’s gunfire! He’s shooting at us!” Elvar warned.
There was another noise overhead. It was the shockwave from the bullet, traveling faster than the speed of sound. The snow muffled the gunshots, but the sound of the bullets were unhindered.
“That’s four…” Elvar muttered under his breath, lying on his stomach. In front of him was a rifle loaded with five rounds. Through wrinkled eyes he checked that the safety was off.
“I’ll take care of this! Cover me, Elvar!” Claire cried. Elvar stopped her immediately.
“No! He’s using a rifle, just like me! Do not stand! He will shoot you the moment you raise your head!”
Claire punched the ground, swearing. And several meters away,
Lillia stammered to herself, looking up at the blue sky. Then she heard Elvar’s voice.
“Yes?” Claire replied. Elvar responded.
“One more shot, and he’ll be out of ammo! Can you crawl over to Kirk?”
“To Kirk?” Claire repeated, but she quickly understood what he meant. “Yes! I can!”
Treize was one with the snow.
The long, thin barrel of his rifle was fixed just several centimeters above the surface of the snow. The tip of the bandages wrapped around it were almost touching the snow.
Covered all in white, Treize remained on one knee as he took aim from his hiding place in the snow.
His gun was pointed at where Claire had been standing until just a moment earlier.
In the world beyond his scope, blown up to four times the usual size, something stirred. A dark object rose from the snow.
Treize immediately adjusted his aim. He saw a head. The head of an older man.
Once he was certain that this was not Lillia, Treize brought the crosshairs over the man’s head.
And he pulled the trigger.
The tiny bullet scattered snow around it as though unfurling layers of white wings, instantly crossing a distance of 150 meters and driving itself into the man’s head.
The top of his head—the scalp, the skull, and the brain—was blown clean away. But that did not kill the man. He was already dead to begin with.
“That’s five!” Elvar cried, raising his rifle.
“I’m sorry.” Claire whispered an apology, letting go of Kirk’s body.
Finally high enough that he had a shot at the enemy lying in the snow, Elvar looked through the scope to first find the navy coat. Thankfully it was not difficult to spot.
He then followed the tracks in the snow to locate the shooter. Again, he was not difficult to spot. About 3 meters to the side was a figure in white, on one knee in the snow.
The figure should have been desperately reloading his rifle.
But he was not.
He was taking aim.
The rifle was wrapped in white cloth and impossible to see distinctly, but the lens on the scope was clear in all its circular glory. In other words—
The enemy had the scope and the barrel pointed precisely in Elvar’s direction.
The figure—Treize—pulled the trigger three times.
Three flashes of light emerged from the muzzle, and three cartridges were ejected through the side.
The first bullet blew away half the flesh and bone from Elvar’s left shoulder. The second pierced his stomach, whipping through his innards to the point that they were beyond healing. The third knocked the rifle out of Elvar’s hands.
Quietly, Elvar fell.
Claire crawled across the snow to reach the trench where Elvar lay. And there she saw—
A bloodied man, trembling weakly on the ground. His lips were blue and his teeth chattered as he shook.
Elvar noticed Claire and feebly opened his mouth.
“Hold on! I’ll stop the bleeding!” Claire cried, sitting to his left and quickly pulling his coat open. She tried to tear open the buttons, but it wasn’t as easy as she expected, forcing her to unbutton them from bottom to top, one by one.
“He’s using… an automatic rifle… I’m sorry.”
Claire opened up the coat and examined Elvar’s stomach.
And for a moment, she was stunned into silence. The body wrapped in combat gear was covered in blood.
She looked to Elvar’s left shoulder, almost as if averting her gaze. The arm was nearly severed, and she could see white bone sticky with red.
“Leader… I know my body better than anyone. I’m finished.”
“You will not die without my permission! You will not!”
“You must survive… use the hostage… negotiate with him…”
“I told you not to speak!”
With gloved hands, she pressed down on Elvar’s bleeding shoulder.
Elvar writhed in pain, but Claire did not stop.
“That’s enough, Leader! …Stop. You must… escape…”
Her gloves stained deep red, Claire continued to press Elvar’s shoulder. Her tears wet the inside of her sunglasses.
“Damn it! Stop! Why won’t it stop?!”
The bleeding did not stop. The moment Claire relaxed her arms, blood spilled again in time with Elvar’s pulse.
Elvar moved his right hand. Weakly, he drew a handgun from his holster and disarmed the safety. Claire did not notice.
Slowly, Elvar brought the gun to his own head.
He raised his voice out of nowhere, pulling his right side upward. Claire fell back in surprise. Elvar’s right hand was stretched out before he eyes. The handgun was pointed at the figure in white, who had appeared without warning.
Treize was faster to pull the trigger.
There was less than 10 meters between them. Elvar’s gun shattered to pieces when the gunshot sounded, and the fingers and wrist holding up the gun were left splayed out in odd directions.
Claire turned at Elvar’s scream and the gunshot, finally noticing the enemy behind her. He was wearing white combat gear, and armed with a white rifle. A white cloth was wrapped over his head and face. The only spot of black, the goggles on his face, looked for all the world like a cavern.
His feet crunching over the snow, Treize slowly approached his foes. The blood-covered man on the ground heaving for breath, and the woman sitting at his side. The barrel of the long rifle Treize had over his shoulder was already trained on the woman’s forehead.
The automatic sniper rifle was one of the weapons brought in by Major Travas’s team. It was a new model that could fire up to ten consecutive shots. The barrel was long and narrow, and the stock was designed to be as thin as possible to reduce the weight. A scope with crosshairs was attached to the rifle.
Treize came to a stop just 2 meters from Claire and Elvar. Underfoot was firm, trodden snow. With the rifle still aimed at Claire, Treize shifted it from his shoulder to his side. There was even less distance now between the gun and the hostage-takers. A gloved index finger touched the trigger.
In a low voice, Treize asked,
“Where is the hostage?”
Claire silently glowered.
“Where is she?!” Treize cried. At that very moment,
“Here!” Lillia cried from the snow.
Treize did not even turn. He kept his rifle trained on Claire as he called back.
“Lillia! Are you okay?”
“Are you hurt?”
“No! Oh, what about you?”
“I’m fine! Just stay there for a second!”
“Why? What’s going on here?”
Treize did not answer.
As he stared at Claire through his goggles, the rifle still pointed at her head, Lillia stood. She dusted the snow off her coat and squinted, scanning the snowy lake.
Then, she spotted Treize—dressed in white—about 10 meters ahead. Lillia strode over the rough snow towards him.
“What? Aren’t you going to shoot?” Claire taunted. At the same time, her right hand—hidden from Treize’s view—slowly moved to her waist. There was a hole in her coat pocket, letting her reach her clothes inside. And the revolver she had holstered.
“L-Leader…” Elvar breathed. Claire had her eyes locked on Treize.
“What is it?”
“Leader… that’s enough. You must surrender… we have lost…”
Claire looked at Elvar, lying before her. His face was deathly pale. She pulled his goggles off his face, and then his hat.
Elvar’s wrinkled face and his eyes were reflected on her sunglasses.
“Surrender, Leader… and… survive…” Elvar said.
Lillia trudged over and stopped behind Treize, to his right.
The moment she spotted the rifle in Treize’s hands, and Elvar, lying on the ground, she gasped softly.
Elvar continued, his eyes on Claire.
“As long as you survive… you have another chance at revenge…”
“Is that… your plan?” Claire asked, calmly and cooly. Tears ran down her face.
“Yes, Miss… it is.”
Gently, Claire nodded. Elvar smiled peacefully.
“Hm? You won’t ask me, to call, you, ‘Leader’? I was, honestly, hoping…”
His lips finally came to a stop, unable to finish.
Elvar died with his eyes wide open. Claire’s hands drew over his face.
The sun emerged from the slopes in the east. It was the first dawn of the year 3306.
The blinding light enveloped the woman crying over the corpse.
To Lillia, whose eyes were not covered, their silhouettes seemed to be melding into their surroundings.
With the rifle still in his right hand, Treize reached with his left and took out a pair of sunglasses wrapped in cloth. He tossed it to Lillia.
Lillia managed to catch it and quickly put it over her eyes.
The two were still there. The dead man and the woman holding his head.
Lillia took a deep breath, ready to say something to Claire.
But she could not bring herself to do it. She exhaled. Her breath rose in a sparkling puff in the morning light.
Treize pulled off the cloth wrapped around his face. And with his makeshift turban and his goggles still on, he spoke to the woman.
“You’re… Claire Nichto?”
Claire did not respond. But Treize continued.
“I am Treize. Treize of Ikstova. And I love my country and its royal family. Queen Francesca has ordered me to subdue you all and rescue the hostage.”
Lillia looked at Treize. Then she looked at Claire, who seemed to be frozen.
“Surrender without resistance, and I will hand you to the queen unharmed.”
Claire slowly raised her head. And she looked to her left. For a second, Lillia and Treize could see the burning hatred in her eyes.
“I…” Claire said, “I will never stop…”
Lillia and Treize silently listened to Claire.
“I will never stop… So long as I breathe, so long as the royal family of Ikstova exists…. I will despise the bloodline and become its enemy. I curse the royal family. The line of demons. And the foolish country that serves the bloodline as its monarch.”
“Is that all?” Treize asked coldly.
Lillia looked at Treize.
“I will never stop!”
And she looked at Claire.
“Stand back, Lillia.” Treize said, slowly bringing his rifle up to his shoulder.
“Hey? What are you doing?” Asked Lillia. Treize decided to answer honestly.
“Nothing good will come of letting her live. It’s best to get rid of her now, for Ikstova’s sake.”
“What— but— No! We’re finished now! Just hand her over to the police!”
With a glance at the flustered Lillia,
Claire stared down into the muzzle.
“I am Treize of Ikstova. Claire Nichto—enemy of the kingdom—you will repent through death!”
Treize put pressure on his trigger finger.
There was a gunshot.
The bullet drove itself deep into the snow.
Treize was stunned.
The moment he pulled the trigger, the rifle was pushed to the left. The bullet meant for Claire hit a mound of snow and sent it sprinkling everywhere.
The cause of the push was clear. Lillia had rushed in and shoulder-tackled the rifle, pushing his aim aside.
For a moment, Treize lost his balance. Claire saw her chance and quickly drew her revolver.
In one smooth motion, she took aim at Treize—
A hard sole struck Claire in the head. Lillia had kicked her on the left temple.
Claire’s sunglasses went flying. She collapsed to her right, losing consciousness over Elvar’s body. The revolver fell out of her hands and lodged itself halfway in the snow.
“What are you—”
Lillia cut Treize off.
“Enough messing around, both of you!” She chastised them.
* * *
It had been about ten minutes since Fiona gave the command to begin the mission, which Treize had planned and carried out with gear from Major Travas.
Fiona was standing still outside the villa doors, holding the radio.
“I told you. Don’t worry.” Benedict said, but Fiona did not respond. Benedict turned to Major Travas beside them and shrugged.
Treize’s voice came over the radio.
<This is Treize. HQ, please respond. Do you copy?>
Fiona closed her eyes and looked up with a sigh. Then she replied,
<Yes… Are both of you safe?>
<Yes. The plan was a success. I’ve taken Claire Nichto into custody.>
Upon hearing the report, Benedict held out a fist at Major Travas. Major Travas held out his own fist and bumped it against Benedict’s.
<Good work… I’m proud of you. We’ll come get you, so could you wait there a little longer?>
<Of course. But—>
Treize paused, then.
<But what? What is it?> Asked Fiona. Several seconds passed before Treize answered.
<Lillia’s mad. She’s very mad.>