Chapter 7: The Secret of Ikstova
“Are you okay, Lillia?”
“Hm? Yeah, still alive.”
“Are you calm?”
“Yep… The blond ghost is gone. Probably back to blondie-land.”
“That’s good to hear.”
“Where are we? It’s so dark I can’t see a thing. And it’s cold. Is this place safe?”
“We’re in the attic. Or maybe it’s more like a crawlspace. There aren’t any stairs that come up here, so they probably haven’t noticed this place.”
“You know a lot about this building, huh? I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out you built this house.”
“Thanks. But are you okay? It’s pretty dark and cramped in here.”
“Yeah. All that gunfire snapped me out of it. Damn it… I thought I was going to have a heart attack back there! We’re not going to let them get away with this!”
“Yeah. That’s the spirit.”
“But now what do we do?”
“Yeah. What do we do?”
“The radio got hit. It’s gone. Now we can’t contact outside.”
“Then we’ll just have to come up with a new plan. We’ll head to Kunst even if we have to wade through all the snow.”
“I guess that’s our only option… And if we’re going to walk anyway, it might be faster to head for the airport. But…”
“This time, we’re stuck in here.”
“It’s the opposite of what happened before. We can’t leave this place without getting caught.”
“It feels like everything we’ve done so far’s been having the opposite effect. If I’d known this would happen, I would have just dragged myself to the airport to begin with…”
“Get a hold of yourself, Treize. This is no time to be moping around.”
“Don’t lose hope! The queen might be desperately fighting them alone!”
“Er… well… on a psychological level? Yeah?”
“Don’t ask me.”
“…No. Let me call you by name, Claire. Claire Nichto.”
For ten seconds, silence enveloped the room. Fiona and Laurie glared at one another.
Elvar moved first.
“Sit her down.” He ordered Kirk, who stood behind Fiona. Kirk gently lifted the chair and put it down.
Fiona slowly took a seat. As did Laurie.
“Don’t let her provoke you, Leader.” Said Elvar. Laurie gave him a smile.
“I know. I’m in control now.”
Then she turned to Fiona.
“When did you notice, Queen Francesca? Surely not at the very beginning.”
“Just now. When you said so happily that you would raze this building.”
“I see.” Laurie said. “I was going to tell you sooner or later, anyway. Let me introduce myself again. I am Claire Nichto. The daughter of Owen Nichto, who killed your parents and put two bullets into your head.”
Claire Nichto spoke proudly. Then, she angrily raised her voice/
“And! I am the daughter of Owen Nichto, whom you murdered! Queen Francesca and Carr Benedict, Hero of the Mural! How I despised you these eighteen years!”
“I understand. Now I see why you do not like us.” Benedict said in a leisurely tone. Claire suddenly grinned.
“You have no idea how hard it was to hold myself back from tearing out your throats the moment we first met.”
“My goodness.” Benedict said, for a second distracted by Claire’s beautiful smile. But Fiona’s voice quickly brought him back to reality.
“So did your father tell you about the treasure? You were only six years old at the time.”
“Yes and no.” Claire said plainly, showing neither anger nor hatred. “In the end, Father never fulfilled his dreams. He was always a lover of history. And as he learned from our forefathers and the people around him, he vaguely noticed the existence of a treasure. It was hearsay, told by someone who worked at the palace and passed down the family line.”
“So that is when he found this map.” Said Benedict.
“I suppose.” Claire replied. “Eventually, Father became a politician to live out his dream of serving the country. And when he had the once-in-a-lifetime chance to meet the previous queen, he brought it up. That was twenty-nine years ago. The Lestki Island conflict was in full force at the time, and no one would have been surprised if a second Great War had taken place. Though he did not know what the treasure was, Father implored for its revelation to the public for the sake of Roxche and Ikstova, if it would help in the war effort.”
“And what did my mother say?” Asked Fiona. Claire’s expression darkened.
“Your mother, Queen Calensia, denied the treasure’s existence with a laugh and declared that she would pretend she did not hear what my father said. But the treasure does exist. Calensia deemed my father a dangerous element and worked behind the scenes to prevent him from declaring candidacy in the next election. She also canceled his lumber export permit. Left without work, Father was essentially exiled from his beloved Ikstova.”
Fiona was silent.
“Surprised, Queen Francesca? Your mother was an unbelievable woman. Heartbroken, Father managed to survive with the help of the Terreur Foundation in the Capital District. But he could have very well died far from his beloved home. You wouldn’t have known that, though. You were only ten at the time.” Claire said, her tone suddenly taking a turn for the sarcastic.
“But that does not mean it is right to attack the palace with an armed group and kill many people.” Benedict chimed in quickly. Claire did not respond.
“Let me tell you what happened then. When Father attacked the palace to seek revenge, he held Calensia and her husband at gunpoint and demanded to know what the treasure was. But they did not confess. Not even when their own daughter was threatened with death. It must be one incredible treasure if they were willing to go so far. Do you remember that moment, Queen Francesca?”
“No. Luckily, I don’t have any memories of the time.”
“I see… lucky indeed. I do.”
“I remember the moment Father fell. I can still clearly hear the sound of his head breaking against the stone-paved street.”
Fiona’s breath caught in her throat. She then asked,
“You… were there?”
“Yes.” Claire replied immediately. “I was there, eighteen years ago. I was in the crowd. Being a six-year-old, I had to ride on someone’s shoulders to see Father on the balcony.”
“Ah. Yes.” Elvar said from behind Benedict.
Benedict leaned his head back. He saw Elvar’s stern face upside-down.
“Though Father did not accomplish his goals with the attack on the palace, the incompetent Ikstova police never suspected him. And once the fuss had died down, Father used the support of the Terreur Foundation to return to politics in Ikstova. And he dreamed of finding the treasure someday on his own. That was when some foolish politician began to rave about declaring independence from Roxche. Father went out to strike down his arguments. I asked Elvar to sneak me to the rally so I could watch my father. How many times did I regret my decision?” Claire said in one breath, before adding, “Although that’s all in the past now.”
“I see…” Fiona muttered. Claire’s tone became harsh.
“I don’t need your sympathy! The dead don’t come back to life!”
Then, her expression softened.
“But I would like to thank you, Queen Francesca. I’ve wanted to thank you for a very long time.”
“What? You want to thank me?” Fiona repeated, flabbergasted. Claire nodded.
“Yes. Father asked two things of you that day.”
“One was to keep my mother and myself out of the mess. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for so foolishly adhering to that promise. Mother and I were completely oblivious, then. But when you sent us to the Capital District, the lawyer gave us this map and Father’s notes, saying it was his will. There we learned everything. And we despised the royal family. Thank you for giving me this chance at revenge, Queen Francesca.”
Francesca stared silently at Claire. Claire narrowed her eyes and continued.
“But you never did do the second thing Father asked you for. But don’t worry—I’ll make sure to fulfill it in his stead.”
“That’s all for the past.” Laurie said, getting to her feet. She walked around the table and stood by Elvar, who was behind Benedict.
As Benedict and Fiona watched, Claire held out a hand to Elvar.
“The 9mm, Elvar.”
Elvar paused, but he soon pulled out the handgun and, with his fingers around the front, handed it to Claire.
Claire cocked the gun.
And she took aim at the side of Benedict’s head as he sat in the chair.
“…We were planning to take you both. But I suppose it would be fine to just take the queen.”
Benedict looked up and made a point of blinking, his eyes on the muzzle and Claire’s face.
“Hm? It seems like I am in danger.”
“If you didn’t poke your nose into this business, Hero of the Mural, the queen would have lived in obscurity all her life. Then none of us would have gone through this tragedy.”
“Are you going to shoot me? The queen will not tell you the truth then.”
“I can take my time grilling the queen later. We can use truth serum, torture, anything—the possibilities are endless. I’m just doing this to make her suffer. I’ll cover that calm face with your blood. Any last words, Hero of the Mural?” Asked Claire.
“Yes.” Fiona said.
“I wasn’t asking you.”
“But I will tell you, Claire Nichto. I’ll tell you my secret.” Fiona smiled, tilting her head.
“Aha. Yes. I think you can say it now. They will be very surprised. Please say it.” Benedict nodded. Claire made a dubious face.
“…Fine. I’ll listen to this secret of yours. But I want something interesting, or your face won’t look the same again.”
Claire armed the safety on her gun and handed it to Elvar, the barrel pointed upwards. Elvar took it without a word. Claire passed by Benedict and stood before Fiona, who sat in the chair.
Fiona looked up at Claire. Claire looked down at Fiona.
“Then let me tell you something interesting, Claire. I’m sure you’ll enjoy this.” Said Fiona, and smiled. “I know nothing. Absolutely nothing at all.”
And several seconds later, she asked irritatedly,
“What kind of secret is that?”
“A national secret. The biggest in Ikstova.”
“Are you mocking me?”
“No. I don’t know a thing. Not about the treasure of Ikstova, and not much about the royal family, for that matter.”
“This is a waste of time. You’re only extending your husband’s life by a few minutes.”
“It’s true. Do you know why?”
“It’s simple. I am not Francesca.”
Claire gaped. Elvar cast a glance at Fiona. Kirk also looked curiously at her profiled face.
“I am Fiona. Did you hear my husband call me ‘Fi’ earlier?”
“…What does that have to do with anything? Who is Fiona?”
“Francesca’s sister. Her twin sister.”
Claire froze mid-word, her eyes widening. A shadow came over her face.
“My sister, Princess Francesca, narrowly escaped the burning palace and was rescued by Doctor Bain. But she passed away two days later. As you know, the royal family allows the monarch to have only one child. So I was never formally recognized, instead raised as a normal girl in the village. I only realized that your father was the culprit when I found his cufflink in her corpse and when I saw the advertisement for the political rally. Benedict came up with the idea to pass me off as Francesca, while we were on our way to Kunst.”
“What… did you say…?”
“May I continue? I chose to deceive my people. With my sister’s pendant around my neck. Everyone who lived in the village where I grew up was a former member of the royal guard. They were gathered there for my sake. They told me everything I should know if I were to masquerade as Francesca so that I could rebuild the royal family.”
No one reacted. Not Claire, not Elvar, not Kirk. They simply listened, dazed.
Only Benedict seemed to enjoy the astonishment on the back of Laurie’s head and Kirk’s profiled face. He recited a theatrical line in Bezelese.
“‘Alas, the door of truth opens now’.”
“The royal family’s treasure? The secret that’s been passed down the lined for four hundred years? When you first told me about this, I wondered what you were talking about. I followed Benedict’s lead and led you on to get more information, but it looks like you know more about the treasure than I ever did, Claire.”
Claire stammered meaninglessly, stunned. Fiona landed the final blow.
“Thank you for all the information.”
Claire finally mustered the strength for words. She looked down at Fiona in a daze.
“You’re a fake… And… you fooled Father…”
“Yes, that’s right. I’m sorry.”
“And you even fooled me…”
“Ah, I am very sorry. I also feel responsible.” Benedict said cheerfully from behind her, not sounding apologetic in the least.
“I spoke briefly with Francesca before she passed. But she didn’t say a thing about the treasure. She knew she didn’t have much time left, but she said nothing. If my guess is right…” Fiona said, as nonchalant as though she were reflecting on a radio drama. “…the treasure probably doesn’t amount to anything at all.”
Tears fell from Claire’s eyes. They slid down her cheeks and fell droplet by droplet onto the carpet.
Her tears scattered as she finally raised her voice.
At the same time, she punched Fiona in the face.
There was a dull thud as Fiona fell to the right, chair and all. Kirk grabbed her by the shoulders a second before she hit the carpet.
“That wasn’t necessary!”
“…We can’t have her die on us, Leader.” Kirk said, helping Fiona up as she bled from a torn lip. He set the chair back upright and sat Fiona down. she quietly thanked him, but Kirk did not respond.
“Damned witch… damn you…”
Claire’s fists trembled as she stared Fiona down.
Fiona looked up, meeting her gaze. Her left cheek was flushed and swollen, and the blood from her lip left red stains on her blouse.
“Did you find that interesting?” She said. “Ow…”
With her bound hands Fiona rubbed her cheek and lips.
“Is this true?” Elvar demanded, placing a hand on Benedict’s shoulder. Benedict turned and nodded.
“Yes, it mostly is. Are you satisfied now? That is all for your important secret.”
“My word… twins…” Elvar hissed.
“I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you where you stand!” Claire cried, but Elvar turned to her.
“I will tear you to pieces and—”
Claire finally came to her senses at Elvar’s harsh voice and turned.
“You mustn’t kill her, Leader.”
“You must be calm, Leader. Even if you kill the queen and her husband here…”
Fiona continued where Elvar left off.
“…then our child would go after you. That’s all. I’m sure you understand that well.”
“Indeed I do. I know! All! Too! Well!” Claire cried. Elvar, however, remained composed.
“If you kill them, Leader, Princess Meriel will become queen when she returns. And the outpouring of sympathy from the masses will only help her rebuild the royal family, restoring it as if nothing had ever happened. Then our efforts—your father’s efforts—will have all been in vain.”
“Then what do you propose?!”
“We should change our strategy, Leader. Take these two out of Ikstova as we originally planned. And then we’ll announce the queen’s fraudulent status to the world. Tell the people that, though royalty, she was not legally allowed to have a claim to the throne. That she should never have been given the crown. If we cover up the assassinations and play our cards right with the people of Roxche, ending the royal line will only be a matter of time. After all, Iks’s newfound economic success has made it quite a few enemies.”
Elvar remained calculating to the end.
Claire said nothing. Five seconds passed.
“You’re right. …That’s a great idea, Elvar.” She said finally, smiling. “It’s an amusing idea. We’ll destroy every last shred of the royal family.”
“I don’t care if you announce the truth, as long as you don’t take anyone’s life. Can we please end this meaningless violence now?” Asked Fiona.
Claire stopped in her tracks for a moment.
“…No. This isn’t even close to being finished.”
She looked down at Fiona, shaking her head.
“You’re still not broken. War doesn’t end until one side acknowledges defeat or perishes completely.”
* * *
“We can’t just sit around here. We have to think of something.” Treize said in the crawlspace.
“Yeah. Let’s think.” Lillia nodded.
They sat cross-legged in the dark. The flashlight cast a dim red light on them.
“Treize, you don’t think those people are gonna sit on this villa and hold the place for good?”
“No way. People are going to get here by morning, and these people are probably expecting that.”
“Then they’re going to leave after all.”
“Yeah. They’ll leave the villa, and Ikstova. Most likely—actually, definitely—by aeroplane.”
“If they’re taking a car or a bus, they’d have to spend hours on the snowy road from Kunst to Elitesa. There’s no way they’d settle for that with a chase potentially on their hands. And even if they started walking now, they could reach the airport before dawn.”
“I see. Then we can move once they leave. They’ll never expect to find us here, so we have to take them by surprise.”
Treize nodded, though Lillia could barely see.
“Yeah… we’ll do that.” Treize mumbled. And he hung his head, falling silent.
Twenty seconds passed, and just as Lillia was finally about to break the silence, Treize looked up.
“I thought of something.”
“There’s a rifle with a scope in the queen’s husband’s room. It’s the same model as mine. I’ll use that and go after these people. I’ll stand by on the balcony and wait for them to come outside. And once they’re out, I’ll tail them quietly. It won’t be hard to go after them without them knowing because of all the snow.”
“Once they get about 300 meters out onto the lake, where everything’s flat, I’ll take cover in the woods and snipe them in the back from higher ground.”
“Will that really work?”
“I don’t know. But that’s the only way I can put up a fight with all of them. There’s nowhere to take cover on the lake. The trees will keep me sheltered, and if I’m on high ground, I can hit them even if they’re lying flat. They probably don’t have any rifles on them. And even if we get into a shootout, my rifle’s going to have longer range. I can say from deer hunting experience that I can make a 400-meter shot. With a handgun or a submachine gun, you’ll only get accurate shots from 50 meters or less.”
“I see. Then what about the queen? What if they take her with them?” Lillia asked the obvious question. Treize’s tone grew heavy.
“They’ll probably take her along as a hostage… So all I can do is make sure I don’t hit her. I just have to be calm and shoot one person at a time.”
“…So that’s our only option, huh?” Lillia mumbled, then added that she was not opposed to it.
“You stay here, Lillia.”
“We’re splitting up again?”
“You’re only going to get in the way.” Treize said firmly.
“Tch. I guess you’re right.” Lillia said, pushing back her indignation. She then asked Treize what he would do afterwards.
“They might set fire to the building. Actually, I guarantee they will.”
“Why? Oh. They want to get rid of evidence.”
“Yeah. So the moment I go after them, you search the building and help anyone who’s tied up or locked somewhere. And if the fire spreads, try to extinguish as much of it as you can. The fire extinguisher’s in the cabinet under the stairs in the lobby.”
“Right. Then what?”
“If you can’t put out the fire, you just have to run for it. Tell the servants about how Auntie came to find us and tell them that Treize is going after the men. I told them my name when I rented the cottage, so they’ll understand.”
“Got it. Is there anything else?”
Treize thought for a moment before responding.
“That’s all for the strategy meeting.”
Lillia nodded and recited her course of action to herself to internalize the strategy. Treize listened without interrupting her. She had the plan memorized completely.
“Then I’m just going to drop down and grab some things. Help me take them up.”
With that, Treize pushed the plywood aside and climbed down into the closet.
“Yeah. Man, it’s so cold in here.”
Lillia grumbled as she waited for Treize in the dark. She wasn’t scared in the least. It was dead quiet inside, time passing by in stillness.
Soon, Treize returned and quietly called her name. The piece of plywood was pushed aside again and a faint light seeped into the crawlspace.
Lillia grabbed the objects Treize passed her from the closet and placed them on the floor of the crawlspace.
First came a hunting rifle equipped with a scope. It was identical to Treize’s own rifle.
“I managed to find an extra rifle in the locker. The snow’s easing up, too.” Treize said.
Then followed a box of ammunition, a pair of binoculars, a small knapsack, and snow boots, a coat, and a hat to replace the ones they left on the balcony.
“These clothes belong to Princess Meriel, Lillia. You should be about the same size.”
“Can I really wear these? Not my fault if she gets mad.”
“This is an emergency. Just wear them.”
Then Treize brought his own boots and coat from his own room, along with a clean white sheet from his bed.
“Is this a bedsheet?”
“I’ll tell you what it’s for later. And take these. We’ll get some food in our bellies.”
The last things Treize passed along were bottles of water and tins of chocolate.
“Where’d you get these?”
“From the queen’s room.”
“I oughta have you arrested. Let’s eat.”
Lillia received the water and the chocolate. Treize climbed back into the crawlspace. They quenched their thirst and gobbled up the chocolate out of the tins. Then they made preparations.
First, they loaded up the knapsack. Then they cut off the four corners of the bedsheet, folded it in half, and cut a hole through the middle.
“What is this, anyway?” Lillia asked between bites of chocolate, illuminating the sheet to help Treize.
“I’m going to put this on like a poncho. It’ll keep me hidden in the snow.” Treize replied. Lillia nodded.
Treize put on his coat and the knapsack, then covered himself with the bedsheet and tied it around his waist. It was loose enough that his figure was obscured.
Satisfied with the makeshift poncho, Treize took it off.
“We’re ready, then. I’m going to climb back down to the room and keep an eye on them from the balcony. I’ll signal you once they come outside, so you take your time and—”
“Yeah. I’ll follow the plan.” Lillia said, holding out her right hand in a fist.
Confused, Treize cast light on Lillia’s face. In the red light she was solemn and clearly worried.
“Treize. I know we’re in a tough spot and I know we should give it our all. But…”
“Be careful, okay? Who the heck dies on the first day of the year, you know? It’s terrible! Got that?”
Treize also curled his right hand into a fist and bumped it against Lillia’s.
Then he asked, as relaxed as he could be,
“If the plan works out, could you give me a prize?”
Lillia gave him a quizzical look before bursting into laughter.
“C’mon, what am I supposed to give you? This is a really big job; you should be asking the queen for a prize.”
“I guess you’re right. Yeah. I’ll do that.”
Coming to an understanding, he balled up his left hand into a fist and placed it over his chest. A moment later, he unbuttoned his shirt and reached inside.
He pulled out a chain with a golden pendant hanging from it.
“Could you hold on to this for me?”
“Huh? Oh, the pendant. That reminds me, you still haven’t kept the promise from last summer. Where’s mine?”
“Oh, right. I just remembered. I can’t give you mine, but…”
Treize held out the pendant.
“…Take care of it until things calm down. Keep it in your shirt pocket so you won’t lose it.”
“Oh, you’re not giving it to me.”
Though disappointed, Lillia took off her gloves and took it in her right hand.
“If anything happens to me, but the queen is safe, make sure to show this to her.” Said Treize.
“Just do it.”
“Fine, but… don’t sound so ominous.”
“Just in case, you know. Please.”
Treize stared as Lillia pouted.
Even as she put the pendant in her pocket, Treize did not take his eyes off her. Soon, Lillia noticed his gaze.
“I’m actually the pr-” He said in one breath, but stopped.
“Pr…?” Lillia repeated.
“N-no… it’s nothing. Never mind.”
He could not bring himself to finish the sentence.
“Now’s not the time. I’ll tell you later.”
And with that, he climbed back into the closet and held out his hand. Lillia passed him the knapsack, the rifle, his coat, and the makeshift poncho.
Once he was ready to go, Treize looked up and held out a length of string. Lillia took it.
“Three tugs is the signal, right?”
“Yeah. I’ll climb down the gutter from the balcony, so you take the stairs.”
“Yeah. I’m not going to do anything dangerous, so you’d better not be reckless, either. Okay?”
“If you don’t come back, I’m keeping the pendant.”
“That might be a problem.” Treize chuckled, and winked.
Then he headed for the balcony.
* * *
“It looks like the snow is letting up.”
In the interrogation room, Claire peered out the curtains.
The snowflakes were smaller and the clouds were notably thinner. The moonlight in the eastern sky pierced through the clouds and cast beams of light grey on the world.
Fiona and Benedict were wearing winter gear. Wool jackets and pants over their indoor clothes, with coats, hats, gloves, and boots ready for them to wear. Their wrists were now free, but ropes were tied around their waists, each held like a leash by Elvar and Kirk.
“How is the party hall?” Claire asked Elvar, turning away from the window. Elvar, who had an earpiece in one ear, answered.
“They’re finished. The servants are asleep. They won’t be getting up for a long time considering how much of the drugs we used. And they’ll be finished setting up the fire in a few minutes.”
Claire glanced at her wristwatch. It was just past four in the morning.
When she lowered her left arm, she met Fiona’s upward gaze.
Fiona seemed a little tired. Her left cheek was swollen from being struck. But she stared defiantly. Claire did not avert her gaze. Several seconds of silence followed.
Fiona slowly spoke.
“There’s no guarantee you’ll succeed.”
But Claire ignored her and turned to Elvar and Kirk.
“Anyway.” She said. “The Roxchean police are a pack of idiots. We would have bought these weapons anyway, but it was a gamble buying so many.”
Elvar did not say anything.
“Although I think they caught on to the film.” Kirk noted. Benedict’s curiosity was piqued.
“You even bought the film in secret? Why?”
Claire answered with surprising ease.
“Many large productions want to film Ikstova. If we bought the film publicly and they found out, we’d get every nameless production begging to join us.”
“My goodness. How competitive.” Benedict sighed, surprised.
“And they would have even followed us tonight. Nuisances.” Claire spat.
“I would have liked that.” Benedict chimed in. A meaningful smile rose to Claire’s lips. Kirk spoke.
“Even if they noticed something amiss at the Capital District, it’s too late. We’re all going to ‘die’ here.”
Claire nodded firmly.
“Yes. It’s too late.”
* * *
<Kunst air traffic control, do you copy?>
The air traffic controller had finished his cup of tea and was reading all alone in the room when a voice called to him from the radio.
Again, he reacted quickly. He turned off the nightstand, placed his book face-down on the desk, and pulled the microphone to his mouth as he pressed the call button.
<This is Kunst air traffic control. Reception adequate. What can I do for you?>
<We… can’t give you our name, but this is a rented aeroplane.>
“Another strange one.” The air traffic controller groaned, but he continued to do his job.
<All right, then. What do you need?>
<We’re currently flying over the southern pass. We will reach the airport shortly. Requesting permission for landing.>
The air traffic controller opened the curtains by the desk. It was still snowing, but the moonlight clearly lit up the rows of tent hangars and the wind sock, billowing towards the west.
<Airspace and runway are clear. No crafts on standby for takeoff. Wind direction is east, about 3 meters. However, it’s still snowing.>
<We’ll make that. We see the airport. End communications.>
They cut off there without even a word of thanks.
“What’s the rush, I wonder?”
The air traffic controller picked up the telephone and informed the other workers about the landing. Soon, he heard the roar of engines. Picking up a pair of binoculars, he peered out the main window at the runway.
Two lines of orange lights shone on the ice. An aeroplane made landing between them, scattering snow everywhere.
It was a mid-sized twin-engine aircraft with a sleek frame. The model was originally a bomber, but it was also sometimes used to carry passengers.
With a deafening noise the aeroplane slowly descended. It taxied quickly across the ice, pushed itself into a large, recently-cleared ramp, and came to a perfect stop in front of the hangar.
“A little violent, but that was excellent.” The air traffic controller mused as people disembarked from the plane.
People dressed in grey began unloading large pieces of luggage from the back. Two of them walked over to the air traffic control center. One was a man, and the other—from the height and slight build—was a woman.
There was a knock. The air traffic controller opened the door.
A bespectacled man in his mid-thirties and a black-haired woman in her late twenties entered. They were both in grey coats and boots. Even after stepping into the warm room, they only removed their hats, not their coats.
“Welcome to Ikstova. How can I help you? If you need a car to Kunst, I can call someone to come get you. You might even make it in time for the celebrations.” The air traffic controller said politely. Major Travas spoke.
“Thank you. I just wanted to check something here. Did you receive any reports of accidents or incidents in the Kunst area, including on royal property?”
“Pardon?” The air traffic controller’s eyes widened. “No… nothing. The Kunst police force contacts us whenever something happens to make sure criminals on the run don’t take off with an aeroplane. But we didn’t get any word today. Are you from the Confederation’s civil services?”
But just as they prepared to leave—
“W-wait! Wait a second!” The air traffic controller said.
Travas and Axe turned.
“Was it your group that sent the strange message about an hour ago?”
Instead of saying ‘no’, Major Travas asked a question.
“What did the message say?”
“‘The royal villa is un-’ is as far as I heard. But the signal suddenly cut off, and they wouldn’t reply no matter how much I called back. I hope they haven’t crashed or anything. Did you see any flames by any chance?”
Major Travas said that he didn’t, his eyes narrowing.
Then he asked,
“Did you say, ‘royal villa’?”
* * *
Treize whispered, his voice scattering in a puff of white.
He was on the southern balcony on the third floor.
With the bedsheet poncho over him, he lay on his stomach on the coat he had taken off earlier, rifle at the ready. With a corner of the bedsheet wrapped over his head and hat, he peered out at the door through the railings.
He heard a voice from downstairs. It was a woman’s voice.
“All right. Let’s go.”
Male voices responded to hers.
“Eight hostiles… and Mother and Father. That should be ten in total.”
Treize looked down at the doors, where light spilled outside. People exited the villa.
They were all in coats, hats, and boots. First out were two men, guarded as they led the group. They were both armed with submachine guns.
Following after them were two figures, watched by the men behind them.
The two figures were also in coats and hats, but Treize instantly recognized them as his parents. Upon closer inspection, he noticed that they were tethered to the two men behind them.
Then followed a slender figure—the woman.
“So the production company president was a woman, huh. The leader. …That’s seven. Just three more…”
Treize counted the people as they exited. The men who came out first left the beams of light from the doors and began walking east, their feet crunching over the snow in the murky moonlight. They were careful to stay in the middle of the road because there was a steep downward slope on the left side.
The woman said, looking back.
Two more people left the villa and followed after the others.
“Eight… nine… huh?”
Treize froze mid-count.
The two people were pulling a sled. There were ropes tied around their waists, and behind them was a large sled about 2 meters long, supported perhaps by skis or a crate lid. Secured with rope to the top of the sled were two black sacks. Each was the size of a person.
“Are those bodies…?” Treize speculated, watching the sled depart.
According to the servant who came to the cottage, only one of the hostage-takers had died. Treize waited and waited. But no one else emerged after the sled. The two men with the sled also disappeared past the plaza and onto the road, leaving tracks in their wake.
Treize counted to himself again. Including the hostages, nine people were passing by. And two corpses.
“I guess another one ended up dead somehow… then it all adds up. Great!”
Treize stood. And without a sound, he tugged three times on the string that went through the slightly-ajar balcony door, the hallway, his bedroom door, and the closet.
That was the signal.
Shouldering his rifle, Treize moved over to the gutter from the edge of the balcony. He made almost no noise as he expertly made his way down and onto the ground at the doors.
Treize held his rifle in front of him and disarmed the safety.
And bending forward, he began to follow the fresh tracks in the snow. With muffled steps, like he was hunting foxes or rabbits.
The snow had stopped.
The clouds slowly passed by overhead.
The clouds were much thinner now, and even more moonlight was seeping through. A mosaic of black and white passed across the sky.
“It’s so pretty…”
In the crawlspace, Lillia was examining Treize’s pendant. She had it on her left hand, strung from her right.
The chain was gold, as well as the coin. On the coin was an intricate carving of a hawk.
Lillia was just about to put it back in her pocket when it happened.
Treize tugged on the string three times. Lillia shifted suddenly, dropping the pendant onto the plywood floor.
“Oh no… that was close.”
She quickly scooped it up into her hands and brought it to her pocket, but stopped.
“What if I lose it?”
Two seconds of thought later,
“This should be safer.”
With a nod, she undid the clasp and put the pendant around her own neck before tucking it into her shirt.
She placed her left hand in a fist over her chest to check that the pendant was safely under her shirt.
And with a short yell, she stepped down into the closet.
With her hands on the plywood, Lillia slowly and quietly lowered herself into the closet.
The light was on in the room, and the curtains were closed. The door was open by about 20 centimeters to let the string pass through.
The moment Lillia made to step toward the door—
She spotted someone walking from the left to the right—that is, from the stairwell to the balcony.
It was only for a moment, but the figure was a man wearing a coat and carrying a rifle. A second later, Lillia heard the balcony door quietly open.
“Treize?” She whispered, and slowly crossed the room and opened the door. Then she peered out into the hallway in the direction of the balcony.
The man left the door open as he stepped outside. The moment Lillia stuck out her head, his feet disappeared behind the wall.
Lillia went to the balcony.
And she stuck out her head from the doorway.
The figure was not Treize.
Elvar steadied a long, thin rifle from the edge of the balcony as he took aim at someone. The rifle belonged to Benedict.
In his sights was a figure in white, about 50 meters away and walking beside the road.
When Lillia screamed, both Elvar and Treize reacted.
Though rattled by the girl’s sudden appearance not 3 meters beside him, Elvar focused on his task. He turned straight back and peered into the scope.
Lining up the barrel under the lens with the figure in the distance, he immediately pulled the trigger.
Treize looked back at the soft scream in the distance.
He stood upright and turned, still holding his rifle.
He saw the villa. And a flash of light at the very edge of the third floor balcony.
The bullet came faster than the gunshot.
There was a loud noise on the field of snow.
“Eek!” Lillia trembled, shrinking back.
And she saw the figure in the distance fall, blown away.
Snow fell over the figure in white. The pile of snow at the bottom of the slope simultaneously swallowed him and became a small avalanche, disappearing into the woods.
“Who?! Hey! I—”
Lillia’s third word was cut off.
Elvar had approached without a sound and landed a thrust to her solar plexus with the butt of the rifle.
He held the unconscious Lillia in his right arm and leaned the rifle against the railings.
“Wh-who is this? How—?”
Confused, Elvar laid Lillia down on the balcony. He scrutinized her face, completely still as though asleep, and mumbled to himself again.
“Who could this be?”
At that moment,
Something seemed to glint near her neck. Elvar reached over with his right pointer finger, which stuck out through his glove.
The glint belonged to a golden chain. Elvar slowly tugged it. Soon, a golden coin emerged.
His eyes widened in shock.
<Leader, this is Elvar. Please respond.>
<This is Claire. I heard a gunshot in the distance. Was that you? Did you get her?>
<Y-yes. Someone did appear to chase after you. But it doesn’t seem to have been the woman. I shot him with the rifle, square in the chest. I can’t say for certain because he was carried down the northern slope in the snow.>
<Understood. Start the fire and come join us, Elvar. We’re about to descend a slope. The rendezvous point will be 300 meters further. We’ll meet at the lakeshore.>
<Yes, but… Leader. I have something to report.>
<What is it? Tell me.>
<It’s a little difficult to explain over the radio… Could you return here with two or so men? Feel free to get rid of the fake corpse along with the sled.>
<What about the fake queen?>
<Have Palmer lead and take them to the aeroplane first. Please come back with Jake and Wayne, Leader.>
<Is this a change of plans? Has something serious happened?>
<Yes. That’s correct.>
<Understood. I’ll be there shortly. We’ll contact you by radio just before we arrive.>
<Understood, Leader. I will be waiting. End communication.>