Have an update.
Chapter 1: The Many Things That Led Up to That Day
The beginning of the year 3306 of the World Calendar. The royal villa outside the city of Kunst.
“Ah! There you are, Treize! We need to talk!”
“Huh? …Oh, Meriel. When’d you get back from Sou Be-Il?”
“You wouldn’t believe what happened on new year’s day. We’re still cleaning up here.”
“I got the report! And good going, serving your country! But that’s not the issue here. You. Me. My room. Now!”
“What the heck, Meriel? Why do you sound so angry?”
“Good. You’re here. Take a seat, Treize!”
“I’m already sitting. They cleaned up your room really quick, huh? It got off easy compared to mine. There were holes in the radio and everything in my closet—”
“When you turn twenty. Is it true?”
“Answer the question!”
“I, er… I didn’t hear a question.”
“Ugh! I’m talking about that engagement. How you’re marrying into the royal family of Bezel once you turn twenty. Is it true that you’re going to marry Elder Sister—I mean, Princess Matilda, the future queen—and you’re going to have children who succeed to the throne after her?”
“Where’d you hear that? Oh. So she told you in person.”
“It’s true, then? Is it true? …Oh… so it is…”
“Why do you look so disappointed? It’s not set in stone yet.”
“…What did you just say?”
“‘It’s not set in stone yet’.”
“You’re missing something important. I’m not automatically marrying her when I turn twenty. That’s only going to happen if I can’t find someone else to marry before that.”
“That’s the grace period Mother gave for Ikstova’s and my future. I considered both my position and the country’s and accepted those terms. That was two years ago, when we turned fifteen.”
“Is that all? My future’s going to be decided in the next three years. But I guess everyone has to struggle when they’re still young—”
“Marry Elder Sister! You have to, Treize!”
“You might not be smart enough to understand, or even imagine! But you know what? She’s waiting for you! She’s waiting for you, Treize! She’s longing for the day you turn twenty, like the next three years are a thousand!”
“…I don’t know what they told you cross-mountain, but—”
“Marry her! Do it! Marry Elder Sister and make her happy! Are you listening to me, you imbecile? Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?!”
“I’m listening. And I understand that you’re madly in love with Princess Matilda.”
“This is a serious conversation, Treize! What are you waiting for exactly? For someone to marry you? As if anyone would understand your position and pledge her future to you!”
“Is that a guarantee? You never know until you try…”
“Oh? So you’ve got your eye on someone? Wait… no way… are you after that Lillianne Schultz girl?”
“I knew it! It’s not like you know any other girls.”
“None of your business.”
“So that’s how it’s gonna be, eh? Then let me butt in a little further! No girl would ever agree to marry a pessimistic and reserved guy like you! Imagine you’re on the receiving end! ‘I want to escape an arranged marriage by pledging my future to you before I turn twenty. Will you marry me?’. You think anyone on this continent would say yes? And do you think Lillia will treat you the same once she finds out you’re a prince? What’ll you do when your childhood friend suddenly starts calling you ‘Your Highness’?”
“You have nothing good to say about this, do you? Look. I don’t care. I know you’re on Princess Matilda’s side. And maybe you’re right. But I won’t know how Lillia feels until I’ve asked her. I haven’t told her anything yet. There’s still a chance. The new year’s party didn’t work out, but I am going to settle things properly before I turn twenty. So… don’t worry.”
“I’m impressed you’re finally holding your own in an argument, little brother.”
“I’m the older brother! …Anyway, are you all right with this?”
“Say I somehow end up marrying Princess Matilda like you want. Then I’d be the husband of your ‘Elder Sister’. Then you’d have to defer to me. Do you think you will be capable of that, Your Highness?”
“Ugh. Stop talking like that, you dunce!”
“Wow. Is that any way for a princess to be talking?”
“But you know… if you do marry her, I’ll admit you’re the older brother.”
“But… but… in exchange…”
“Make her happy, Treize.”
“…Are you crying?”
“Shut up, you idiot! You go to Sfrestus and see how much is riding on her shoulders! Our cozy little monarchy might as well be a toy compared to theirs! Damn it! If only I were a man! Then I could help her bear that burden!”
“…Hey, Meriel. I—”
“I’ll pray for you!”
“Huh? For what?”
“I’ll pray that things don’t work out with you and the girl you propose to!”
“I think the word you’re looking for is ‘curse’.”
“Shut up. Conversation’s over. Get out of my room!”
“All right. Urgh…”
“I’m gonna ask you one last thing, Treize. Do you really love Lillia?”
* * *
The 4th day of the fourth month of the year 3306.
A thin layer of clouds floated across the sky. Buildings covered the flat land below.
High-rise condos stood in the distance in the Capital District. Laundry fluttered on the roofs of some of the buildings.
In some time, when the winds began to blow in from the west, spring would arrive upon the land in full force.
A girl sat on the budding grass with the stone school building behind her.
She had long brown hair and light brown eyes. She was wearing a grey jacket and a checkered skirt, which were part of her winter uniform. The little badge on her lapel identified her as a fourth-year student at the 4th Capital Secondary School.
Fluidly, she rose to her feet—
And began to dance.
With her hair aflutter, she traced thirty steps in succession to a brisk waltz rhythm.
And she stopped.
“That is great! Just as expected of Lillia!” Someone called from behind.
The brunette called ‘Lillia’ turned, her long hair dancing. A wry grin came over her attractive features.
“But it’s not like I have a partner.”
On the eastern half of the only continent on the planet was the massive Roxcheanuk Confederation, also known as Roxche.
The 4th Capital Secondary school was in Roxche’s capital, the Special Capital District.
The Special Capital District was a circular area about 30 kilometers in diameter, and had been built when Roxche was formed. The city center was home to the presidential residence, the Confederation Assembly Hall, civic offices, and courthouses. Outside the center was a business district crowded with department stores and hotels. Further outside was a residential district full of apartment buildings.
And on the outskirts of the Capital District, in the 9:30 direction, was the 4th Capital Secondary School.
There had been a village there for over three hundred years, since before the founding of Roxche, and when the Capital District began to expand the village became part of it as well. It skirted the very edge of the city.
The campus was surrounded by rows of apartment buildings recently built to keep up with demand from the rapidly-increasing population. Limited to five stories, the apartment buildings made for a cold, grey backdrop.
The campus itself was quite large. It was situated in a 3600-square-meter property gaping like a hole through the apartment complexes.
Because the school was built where the old village’s chapel and assembly hall had been, many old, majestic buildings were preserved on campus. They were being used by the school alongside the newer buildings. That was why the campus layout was complicated and there were many courtyards and lawns.
Though the leaves had fallen, large trees lined the grounds. The grassy field was wide enough for two separate soccer games. But there was no one there now, under the grey sky.
Lillia stood by a three-story school building at the end of the field with a bitter grin.
“But it’s not like I have a partner.”
She looked at a black-haired girl in the same uniform, who had walked out through a sliding door.
“Well… something may happen soon.”
The pigtailed girl said apologetically. She had fair skin and dark eyes, and was slightly taller than Lillia.
“Oh well. …Don’t worry about me, Meg. You make sure to have fun with Seron. You came a long way to get that far.” Lillia said, lightly tapping Meg’s arm. “Is everyone still practicing?”
Meg nodded and turned to the building she had just left. Through the wide-open doors just 5 meters away, they could see the inside of a classroom.
The desks and chairs had been put away to make room for dance practice. About twenty girls were practicing their footwork. Heat seemed to billow outside.
“Everyone’s busy, huh. Since they have dates and all.” Lillia said, defeated. Meg tried to encourage her.
In Lillia’s gaze were her friend and the large notice behind her head. A sign had been posted on the message board next to the door.
The font seemed to glide as it described the spring dance party that was to take place on the 13th of the following month.
The spring dance party was an annual event steeped in tradition in the Capital District area. It went hand-in-hand with a class that helped young people learn ballroom dances in preparation for their future social lives.
Participants had to be in their fourth year or higher. Because the party was hosted by the school, students did not have to worry about their parents as they put on dresses and tuxedos and socialized, ate, and danced late into the night with their friends, boyfriends, and girlfriends.
But written in a hard, merciless font at the bottom of the notice was a message:
‘Students who have not registered with a date by the 3rd of the fourth month may not attend. NO EXCEPTIONS.’
It was an unbreakable rule steeped in tradition.
Lillia had yet to find a male student to go as her date. Meg, on the other hand, had long since found a date.
There was only one month before the deadline.
To make matters worse, spring break began on the 12th and ended on the 1st of the fourth month. The deadline to register was the second day of the new term. It was generally agreed that those who did not find a partner before spring break would not find one in time.
Lillia and Meg sighed in unison.
Afterwards, they sat side-by-side on the grass.
With their gaze on the grey sky and their ears listening to the excited chatter of their classmates, they spoke.
“Spring break. I decided go to a trip on the Casna Coast with my family. And you, Lillia?”
“Well… nothing set in stone so far.” Lillia said in Bezelese for Meg’s convenience.
“‘Nothing set in stone so far’… That’s a new Bezelese phrase for the day.” Meg smiled. Then she looked at Lillia. “What about Iks? Not this time?”
“Nope. I don’t normally go for spring break—it’s a lot of time and money. And there was that big mess at the new year’s party.”
“I see… You know, it would be so nice if your friend Treize was a student here. Just a thought.” Meg said solemnly, trying to sound as natural as possible to hide the fact that she had thought hard before saying this.
“What? Treize? You’re right. I could just drag him along if he were at this school.” Lillia replied nonchalantly. “But that won’t happen. Treize has a lot of love for Iks. He’s patriotic. Anyway, he’s not leaving the place.”
“I see… that’s too bad.” Meg replied, falling into thought. Lillia was entirely, completely oblivious to her intention.
“Don’t worry about it!”
“Meg, you’re considerate of others to the point that you get depressed for them. You have to try and enjoy your own happiness. I bet your primary school teachers wrote that stuff on your report card too, right?” Lillia said, frowning.
“You’re right. I’m sorry, Lillia. I’ll try to fix that. I swear!” Meg replied brightly.
“All right! …Spring break, huh. Mom’s schedule isn’t set yet. So we might end up going someplace in Roxche the moment she gets her schedule. Mom likes traveling too, so she likes going places with work as an excuse. She’s even come home sometimes saying, ‘We’re leaving for this place tomorrow!’.”
“It would be really nice if you got to travel. Bring back some souvenirs.”
“Yeah. You too.”
Staring out at the grassy field, they bumped fists as a symbol of a promise.
“Hey, you two? We’re done practicing.”
A classmate called from behind. Lillia thanked her, then spoke quietly, still sitting on the grass.
“I wish Mom would just go ahead and do it.”
Meg looked at Lillia again. Lillia looked into the sky.
“I wish she’d just marry the major.”
“…The man from the embassy, you mean.”
“Yeah. She went out with him recently, and she sounded so happy when she told me about it. Mom’s always young at heart, but she’s even more lively when she’s talking about the major.”
“Lillia, how would you feel if she remarried? Would it bother you because of your father?”
Lillia shook her head firmly.
“Not at all. It’s always been just me and Mom, as far as I can remember. In primary school, one of the teachers was really nice to me because she assumed I was lonely, but it doesn’t feel strange at all ‘cause he was never around. You know how you have two little brothers, but no older siblings? But that doesn’t make you lonely, right?”
“Yeah… I feel like I could understand, or maybe not.”
“I’m all grown up now—mostly, I guess, but still grown up—so I want Mom to find her own happiness. And you know, I think I could move into the dorms now. It sounds like fun, living with other students.”
“I see.” Meg looked at Lillia’s smiling face, and mumbled softly. Then she quickly rose to her feet and held out her hand.
Lillia took Meg’s hand and pulled her along. It looked like they were dancing toward the doors, but the steps were simply glorified pulling.
* * *
While Lillia danced with Meg,
Lillia’s mother, Allison Whittington Schultz, was taking a phone call in her apartment.
<Hi Allison. It’s Treize. It’s been a while.>
<Oh my. Hello, Treize.>
<Are you all right to talk? I know it’s daytime, but I was hoping you might have a moment.>
<Yes, I’m fine.>
<That’s good to hear. It’s about what we talked about before—Lillia’s spring break—and I’m really sorry to say this, but I don’t think I could see you even if you came to Ikstova.>
<I’m really sorry. We’re having a guest over…>
<Hm. Just out of curiosity, is this guest of yours a VIP? We got word at work yesterday—nothing concrete—but it said, ‘VIP visiting. All flights over the Capital District grounded’.>
<Yes. You’re probably on the right track.>
<That’s too bad. I was just about to make plans. I was thinking about going to Iks this time, too. After the mess that happened this winter…>
<I’m so sorry. I’m an idiot.>
<You got that right. C’mon, Treize! Step up your game!>
<Yes, ma’am! On that note, how about the mouth of the Lutoni River? The North Sea’s famous for prawn and scallops. The crab’s great, too.>
<I’ve never been there myself, but it sounds nice. But can you make it?>
<If I take the train from Elitesa for work—if I do—I’ll disembark at the North Sea. I can’t tell you the details, but after my job’s done we could—>
<I see. You can’t talk about it now. I’ll call you on a safe line at the base later. How about around this time tomorrow? Is that all right with you? I have tomorrow off, but I’ll be at the base.>
<That sounds fine. I’ll be here all day tomorrow.>
<Then give me the details then.>
<Of course. We’ll talk more tomorrow. …Actually, I wanted to ask you something. But I’m not sure it’s all right for me to ask.>
<What is it?>
<Well… I understand the situation, but… what is it like? Being separated from your husband in ‘heaven’?>
<Hm… I don’t think it was the best choice for everyone involved, but it’s not painful.>
<I see. …Isn’t it lonely?>
<No. We stuck together enough for a lifetime back when he was in university. I’m not sure I could talk about it right now, though. It’s a long story. Wanna hear it?>
<No thank you.>
<Right now, he’s doing what he really wants to do. And if living like this is my way of supporting him as his wife, I’m happy.>
<…What is it exactly that he wants to do?>
<I guess you could say… he wants to protect the world.>
<To protect the world...>
<Yeah. Since he made a choice that changed the world, he feels responsible. So he’s doing what he can to guide the world in a better direction. With the power he gained for that goal.>
<I see… I’ve always been wondering what I could do for Ikstova, Allison. Do you think I should cherish that above all?>
<I can’t answer that question, Treize. Nor could he. The answer always depends on the person.>
<I see. I’m sorry.>
<All I can say is… When the person next to you nods with a smile when you make that decision, you’ll be the happiest man in the world. I guarantee it.>
<Don’t worry. You’ve still got three years.>
<Yes. Thank you, Allison.>
<Then I’ll call you tomorrow about ‘spring break’.>
<Yes. Thank you. …Will you speak to Mother and Father, then?>
<Oh, yes please. Give them my regards. See you!>
* * *
The moment Allison put down the receiver, gunfire resounded in a place about 100 kilometers from the Capital District.
It was a very unusual location. Roxche was a flat land famous for its lack of mountains, but in the middle of one barley field common to the East was a deep depression.
The depression was about a square kilometer wide and 2 meters deep. The base was almost completely flat. The edges were lined with sandbags piled up in a 45-degree angle to prevent the pit from collapsing in heavy rain. There was also a 3-meter-high wall of dirt all around the boundary.
It was not a natural formation by any definition—once a reservoir built by human hands about 400 years ago, it had stored water irrigated from a nearby river to use for farming.
But eighty years ago, a new canal was built and the flow of the river was altered. The reservoir lost its source and ended up a dried-out pit.
The Roxchean government considered ways to make use of the reservoir, eventually deciding to make it into a military shooting range. The dirt walls prevented rounds from escaping outside and kept prototype weapons safe from prying eyes.
The pit was divided east and west. The western side was an outdoor range with the ground exposed to the air. Built on the eastern side was a training center lined with portable buildings for indoor practice. There was also a close-range shooting range built under a roof.
Metal guard towers had been erected at the four corners of the pit, and tiny house-like buildings were under each. Beside them were lines upon lines of armories that looked more like barns.
It was cloudy that day. Out in the open air, at the southern end of the outdoor range, stood three men.
A suit-clad man in his late twenties cried in Bezelese, and knelt on the damp ground. He did not mind that his pants got dirty. The man began to switch magazines on his gun.
Gunshots roared from either side of the man. Two men, both in their forties, were about 5 meters to his left and right, shooting at a target ahead. One of the men was tall and well-built. The other was rather slight. Both were dressed like businessmen, and both were wearing small earmuffs.
Two 90-centimeter-long rifles were smoking. They were of identical models, with a long, curving magazine sticking out of the bottom, a stock that looked like a bent lead pipe, and a pistol-like grip.
The rifles had both single-shot and automatic fire functions toggled with a selector. They were called assault rifles and were different from machine guns.
Each of the men fired one bullet at a time, but in rapid succession.
The rounds were driven straight into the human-shaped targets about 40 meters ahead. The targets fell loudly as sparks flew.
By the time the man in the middle was back on the ground, over 30 targets fell one after the other.
The man in his twenties quickly locked the curved magazine into the rifle, operated the lever on the bolt with his left hand to load, and raised his voice.
“Locked and loaded!”
He got down on one knee and took aim. That was when he realized that there wasn’t a single target left.
“Huh? Is it over?” He asked, his tone dropping.
The men on his either side replied in unison. Smoke rose in wisps of white from the heated barrels of their guns, still pointed at the targets.
“Tch. Session complete.”
With no targets to shoot down, the man armed the safety and stood.
About 2 meters behind the three men was a table. It was about 5 meters from the southern edge of the pit.
Benches were on either side of the table, and atop it were many ammunition cases and extra magazines, along with two more assault rifles of the same models with their stocks folded. There were also several water bottles and a small portable radio.
Two men stood behind the table.
They were also wearing suits, unusually for the setting. Both men were in their mid-thirties. One was a sharp-eyed man with the bearing of a hardened veteran, with his hair cropped short. In contrast, the other was a bespectacled man who looked very much like a scholar.
“It looks good, Major.”
The sharp-eyed man spoke to the bespectacled man in Bezelese, holding out a stopwatch.
The man addressed as ‘major’ nodded warmly.
Major Travas of the Royal Army of Sou Be-Il, who worked at the embassy in Roxche, looked at the three men returning with their magazine-less guns slung over their shoulders.
“It’s great. The automatic function is a plus, too.”
“I expected nothing less from Roxche. If nothing else, they’ve got us beat on firearms and cannons.”
Major Travas nodded in agreement as the three men put down their rifles and magazines on the table.
“It’s an excellent model.”
“It’ll come in handy and boost firepower. Although it’s going to take some time for me to get used to working without a magazine catch.”
“I’d almost like to take three or so home as souvenirs. I want to let my cousin have a try—the one who taught me to use guns, you know? Could I get them gift-wrapped?”
Then, the man who spoke last—the youngest of the men—cheerfully asked the major to join them on the range.
Major Travas picked up the radio and brought it to his mouth, then pressed the call button.
<All six of us will be shooting this time. Please raise one hundred targets at random, with maximum distance at 400 meters. I will raise and lower my left hand as a signal. Over.>
About three seconds after the request, which Major Travas made in Roxchean, a male voice replied, <Understood>. Major Travas spoke into the radio again.
<Did you hear that, Axe? Everything 200 and further are yours. Over.>
A second later came the voice of a woman. She spoke Bezelese.
<Yes, sir. Preparations complete on this end. I’m ready anytime. End communication.>
“Good. Get ready.” Major Travas said.
The five men picked up the heavy, loaded magazines and put them into the pockets of their jackets and pants. Each took five magazines in total, then picked up a rifle and unfolded the stock. The men stood shoulder-to-shoulder, then spread about 5 meters apart and walked forward. When they reached a point littered with dark green shell casings, they came to a stop.
The moment Major Travas gave the command, the men loaded the magazines into their guns. They disarmed the safety and operated the lever, loading the first round into the cartridge chamber at the very back of the gun. All that was left was to pull the trigger.
“Leave some for me this time.” Said the man in his twenties.
“Then don’t shoot like an imbecile.” Someone replied.
There was nothing but soggy dirt before them. The empty field stretched on for a kilometer.
“We’re good to go. The targets, please.”
On the southeastern guard tower was a soldier behind a pane of bulletproof glass, watching Major Travas and the others through a pair of binoculars.
He was wearing a green Roxchean uniform. Behind him were four men dressed like him.
Two of the men—who were younger and of lower ranks—were seated and staring at the machine before them. The other two, who were middle-aged officers, watched Major Travas’s team through binoculars.
The two young soldiers reached over to the switches littering the machine before them.
The machine was reminiscent of a piano with a control panel. They were arranged in a 10x10 formation with a hundred switches to each operator. In front of each switch was a small lamp.
When the switches were toggled, the targets on the range stood upright and the green lamps turned on. And once the targets were shot down, the green lights turned red and the operators could count how many targets had been shot down.
It was up to the operators to decide which targets at which distances to raise. The vertical axis corresponded to distance and could go up to 800 meters. The numbers on the left side indicated that the switches were currently calibrated to 20 to 400 meters, as they were instructed.
There was a dial on the upper side of the switchboard, set to 100. It prevented the soldiers from accidentally raising any more targets once they had reached that number.
Ahead of Roxche’s newest target machine, through the round frame of the binoculars, Major Travas slowly raised his left hand.
Someone else was watching through a lens the sight of Major Travas raising his hand.
There was a crosshairs running through the middle of the lens, with three pointy shapes at the center.
It was a telescopic sight. The shooter would line up the target with one of the shapes at the center of the lens, depending on the distance. On the bottom left was a measure for gauging distance according to human height.
The owner of that scope was dozens of meters behind Major Travas and the others, on a landing a little ways up the southern slope.
She was lying on her stomach on a sheet about the size of a double bed, taking aim with a sniper rifle. A woman in her twenties with black hair, who was also wearing a suit.
The long, thin rifle that had in the past roared in the snowscapes of Iks was set securely on a mound of dirt in front of her. The woman’s right eye was pressed hard against the scope. Her left eye, which revealed she had dark irises, was also locked straight ahead.
Next to the rifle was a loaded magazine and a small radio. The cables sticking out of it were connected to her neck and her ears.
The crosshairs lined up on Major Travas’s back. She disarmed the safety with her right thumb, and in one smooth motion she moved her index finger to the trigger. She felt cold metal on her fingertip.
“Don’t forget.” She said under her breath.
Nineteen years ago.
“Be a good girl now, Axe. I’ll be back once I finish a very important mission. Do you remember what I said before?”
“True to your mission to the very end!”
“There’s a good girl! Now, I have a very, very important mission for you to complete.”
“I know what it is! When you come back, I say ‘Welcome home!’ to you with Mom!”
“That’s my darling soldier girl!”
“I’ll be back soon, Axe. By the time you wake up tomorrow, I’ll be flying east on an aeroplane.”
“Come home safe, Daddy.”
“I will, Axe. Sweet dreams.”
“Sweet dreams, Daddy. From tomorrow, I’m gonna say good morning and good night to your picture! Don’t forget!”
“You have no idea how happy I am to hear that, Axe. I can’t carry around any photos of you when I’m on a mission, but don’t worry—I can always remember your beautiful face perfectly. I’ll wish you sweet dreams every night.”
“We regret to announce that Captain Gratz Ansgar passed away in an aeroplane crash while carrying out a mission—”
Five years ago.
<That was no accident.>
<What? Who is this? Answer, or I’m hanging up.>
<Gratz Ansgar’s death was no accident.>
<…Who are you.>
<That is of no importance. But know that Gratz Ansgar was murdered. His death was covered up to conceal the truth.>
<Ask the one who killed him.>
<Travas. He will become your direct superior next month.>
<Beware. And ask yourself—is it always right to be true to your mission to the very end?>
She could see Major Travas lower his hand and quickly pick up his rifle.
“Targets!” The soldier watching the process ordered.
The two operators flicked the toggle switches at random.
Human-shaped plates of metal flipped up from the ground.
The men lined up before them took aim at the targets and mercilessly opened fire.
Gunfire resounded through the pit, followed by the piercing noise of metal being punctured.
Two targets rose almost simultaneously before Major Travas, one 40 meters away and the other 80. He shot down both in half a second.
The two targets went down nearly at once. Major Travas did not spare them a glance as he turned his sights to another target. A tiny black dot rose in the distance, about 400 meters away. It was too far for an assault rifle.
A moment later, the air seemed to tear overhead. Then the dot in the distance fell.
Dozens of meters behind Major Travas, a shell casing leapt into the air from the woman’s sniper rifle. She fired the next shot before the casing fell to the ground. Another target went down.
A target stood just 2 meters in front of the large man in his forties. In the blink of an eye he switched to automatic mode and used the recoil as momentum to open continuous fire from the lower left to the target. The rounds seemed to mow down the target, even breaking the wooden mechanism that raised and lowered it.
There was still one round left in his magazine, but the man quickly removed it and loaded another new one. The men to his either side covered for him, shooting down the targets in his lane as well.
Soon, the man resumed fire. The man in his twenties next to him noted that fact and said flippantly,
“Man, I really wish I could give my cousin a taste.”
Three targets rose in succession in front of him. He shot them down to a waltz rhythm.
In the guard tower, the gunfire was muffled by the bulletproof glass. The lamps on the target machine turned red in quick succession.
“It’s almost disgusting how good they are at this.” One of the Roxchean officers muttered. The two operators flicked switches as quickly as they could, but they had nary a moment to turn green before going red.
“They’re incredible. I’d almost like to ask for lessons.”
Soon, the gunfire ended.
The officer glanced at the target machine.
Every single lamp had turned red.
* * *
“Thank you for your support. If you’ll excuse us.” Major Travas said to the Roxchean officer who called his team monsters, and boarded a small 12-seater bus.
The smaller 40-something man drove the bus out of the pit. The bus moved down a road between the fields, spewing black smoke into the air.
Major Travas and his subordinates were scattered comfortably around the seats.
They took sips from water bottles, chewed gum, or stared out the windows as they relaxed.
“I suppose it’s about time.” Major Travas mumbled, just loud enough that Axe could hear him from two rows behind, and stood. “Everyone, attention please.”
He took hold of a handle and spoke loudly, overpowering the sound of the engine. All eyes were on him. The driver slowed down slightly.
“We’ll be coming up with codenames for this mission.” Major Travas said.
The man in his twenties, who sat at the very back, cheered.
“I’ve been waiting for this!”
When they were on missions, the team made it a rule to address one another by codenames they decided on in advance.
“The usual, then? I’ll assign the names.”
Major Travas nodded and pointed at Axe, who sat nearest to him.
“Sir.” Axe nodded.
Major Travas then pointed at the man in his twenties. He was the one who had announced the return of the Capital Crisp Retrieval Squad the previous winter.
“All right! I’m Yzma now, everyone. Pleased to meet you.”
Then, Major Travas pointed at the sharp-eyed man in his thirties, who had earlier been timing the session.
Then, the large man in his forties who had wielded the shotgun in the mission to rescue Morseau.
Finally, the small man driving the bus, who showed no hint of weakness.
“Yes, sir. Let’s do this, everyone.”
“As usual, I’ll be ‘Leader’. That is all.”
Yzma raised his hand, then.
“Major Leader! I have a question. Where did you get these names?”
Major Travas smiled.
“They were characters in a language textbook I read before. From the vowel pronunciation chapter, I think?”
“I see. So is Yzma the young and handsome one?”
Major Travas looked very serious as he replied,
“The gossipy crone.”
“Perfect.” Ozette and Ed said in unison.
* * *
As the bus traveled leisurely down the field—
Dawn was breaking somewhere in the distant west, in the Allied Kingdoms of Bezel-Iltoa. But strong wind and rain covered the sun. The world was dark and noisy.
A building stood in the storm.
Five long, narrow buildings of dark stone stood in a row, and in the middle stood one large building. Sturdy bars were set in every window. Guard towers stood at every corner of the roof. Watching the area with searchlights were men carrying shotguns and rifles.
The complex was encircled by black, 2-meter-high walls. Beyond that was an endless plain dotted with thin patches of grass, with no artificial light in sight. A large paved road led in a straight line down the plain.
This was a high-security prison somewhere in Sou Be-Il, the location of which was not public knowledge.
Because there was no death penalty in the West, criminals were given lengthier sentences depending on their crimes.
Those with over a hundred years of prison term to their names were brought here to live out their lifespans.
“Prisoner 42. Step outside.”
The door of a solitary confinement cell squeaked open.
Four shotguns were pointed at the cell from beyond the bars since before the door was opened. The prison guards were holding at gunpoint a figure lying on the bed just 2 meters ahead. Their fingers were on the triggers.
The small but powerful lamps attached to the sides of the guns illuminated the stone bed.
There lay a man wrapped in a brown blanket.
He was sleeping quietly, his messy hair covering the side of his face. The bright lights landed over his eyes. Ten seconds passed.
The man narrowed his eyes in the blinding light and covered his face. Though it was an innocuous series of actions, the guards tensed. The muzzles of the guns touched the metal bars, clattering quietly.
“Prisoner 42. Stand.”
The guard opening the door spoke again. Instead of a truncheon, he held a 50-centimeter knife in his hand and was standing at the ready.
Prisoner 42 slowly stood.
“What is it? It shouldn’t be time for breakfast yet.”
The man shielding his eyes was softspoken and polite. He sat on the edge of his bed. He was dressed in a prison uniform with blue and white stripes. Over his right breast was the number 42.
“Transfer. Put these on.”
The guard tossed him a pair of handcuffs. The handcuffs clattered to the floor. They were connected by a chain to a pair of shackles.
“That’s news to me. Although I suppose no one would ever tell me these things anyway.”
Prisoner 42 put up no resistance. He did as he was told in the light of the lamp, putting the shackles—which were just long enough for him to walk—on his ankles and one side of the handcuffs on his left wrist. He did it all with an expert hand.
With his knife at the ready, the guard approached Prisoner 42. His face was stiff and dotted with sweat.
The guard finally secured the other end of the handcuff on Prisoner 42’s right wrist. He made the prisoner hold out his hands, then pulled the chain from the cuffs behind the man’s back and locked it. Only then did the guard sheathe his knife.
The shotguns pulled out of the cell. Prisoner 42 left the cell before the guard. Then he walked down the hall, still held at gunpoint.
“Another psychoanalysis session? I think we’ve all had enough of those.”
“Well, I suppose it’ll help me pass the time.”
“I told you to shut up.”
Clattering, Prisoner 42 walked out the doors and into an indoor parking lot. The guard shoved him into the back of a small prison van.
A chair was secured to the center of the cubical compartment. The guards sat the prisoner in the chair, then secured his fetters to the chair with locks.
The police officers who were handed the prisoner sat in each corner of the compartment, facing him.
The rain battered the van as it left the walls, led and flanked by police cars.
“Where are we going?” Asked Prisoner 42.
None of the police officers answered.
“I’m still a little drowsy.”
This time, he got an answer. As if on cue, the officers each took out something from the sacks under their feet and put them on their face.
Prisoner 42 furrowed his brow. The police officers had put on gas masks with rubber covers and glass windows, with filter canisters near the mouth.
Once all the police officers were ready, one of them took out a large spray can and sprayed it on Prisoner 42.
“Oh… I… recognize this… this smell—”
Prisoner 42’s eyes closed and his head fell limp before he had the chance to say what he had realized.
Several hours later.
“So you’re awake, Prisoner 42.”
“Oh… yes. I had a terrible nightmare. I dreamed that I was taken somewhere and sprayed with bitter sleeping gas.”
“On my orders.”
“Hm? …Ah! I see. So I’m still asleep.”
“No. Get a hold of yourself. I have something to discuss with you.”
“Before that, could you do something about these handcuffs and fetters? They’re awfully painful.”
“The discussion comes first. Look at me.”
“Right. Yes. …Hm? What? This is a surprise. I know you. I’ve never met you, but I do know you.”
“Is that so? I also know you very well, Prisoner 42.”
“I’m sure. But what do you want with me? Why would someone in your position have the police bring me here? Surely not for breakfast?”
“Of course not. It sickens me to merely speak to an insect like you.”
“That’s a little cruel of you. Please don’t worry. I wouldn’t kill you, even if I weren’t bound. The elderly are fated to die soon even if you leave them alone.”
“I have a task for you.”
“I refuse. I am not interested. Please send me back to the comfort of the prison immediately. I would be having a pleasant breakfast by now if you hadn’t brought me here. I am very happy to spend my life there, with the memories of those I loved. I will not do any work. Do you understand? I will not work. Never. I will never work again. Do you understand me?”
“Your task is to kill someone.”
“I suppose I’ll have a listen. As you know, I—”
“I know. That is why I am giving you this task. I need you to kill someone of noble birth.”
“Here. A Photo of your target.”
“…Beautiful… Ah… a work of art…”
“Stop dribbling. Your target is in Roxche. You will infiltrate the East as a tourist. You are free to do as you like once the job is complete. I will not question your methods as long as the target dies in Roxche. You will receive a budget. If you remain undetected by the Roxchean police, you are free to live as you like in the East. I do not care what you do, so long as you never again cross the Lutoni, mother of this earth, and return to our beautiful homeland.”
“All the way in Roxche? This is a surprise. But setting me free and taking me all the way across the border surely could not be easy—”
“I have the power to make that happen.”
“I suppose you do. Someone in your position could do many things. Like bringing me here. You are disgusting. A true villain. It seems like I’m speaking with the devil. I almost want to call the police.”
“Many people would love to take your life, Prisoner 42. I’m almost loath to admit that, in spite of my position, I regret the absence of the death penalty in our land. But now things are different.”
“Very selfish of you.”
“Indeed. Now you must choose. Accept this task, or die here.”
“That’s a pointless question.”
“I suppose it is.”
“Now, what about breakfast? I prefer raspberry jam in my tea and potatoes roasted whole.”
The man called ‘Prisoner 42’ left the extravagant room, surrounded by guards.
When the large, heavy doors closed, the old man was left alone in the room with a butler. It was still raining heavily outside.
The old man gave an order to the butler, who was younger than he was.
Night. The Sou Be-Il embassy in Roxche’s Capital District.
The break room was small, furnished with a single bed. Major Travas, who was asleep in his uniform shirt, opened his eyes to the internal telephone ringing. The call was from Axe, known currently as ‘Ann’.
<Sorry to wake you, sir. We just received word from Headmaster Aikashia. The lady will be moving as scheduled. Her itinerary will be disclosed today and revealed on the morning news.>
<Understood. We’ve got busy days ahead.>
<Yes, sir. But all of us are honored to be taking on this mission.>
<And so am I. We’ll do our best to make sure things go smoothly. I’ll be down shortly.>
Major Travas sat up and reached for his brown uniform jacket.
* * *
The next morning. It was the 5th of the third month, and a holiday. It was cloudy.
A certain piece of news was announced to Roxche, emphasized most heavily in the Capital District.
Princess Matilda of Sou Be-Il would make an official visit to the Capital district from the 15th to the 19th.
This was the first time in twelve years that the king’s family would visit Roxche—the last time was at Natalia Island in the North Sea, where the then-president held the first East-West summit in history—and it was the first time in history that a member of the West’s royal family would visit the Capital District.
Princess Matilda would fly across the continent on a private aeroplane escorted by a unit from the Roxchean Air Force, enjoying the sights of the East. The day after she arrived in the Capital District, she would meet Roxche’s president and visit the presidential residence for dinner.
After that, she was scheduled to take a tour of the modern-day city center and the historical quarter, as well as visit art galleries and watch plays at the Grand Capital Theater. But the specifics of her itinerary were top secret. During her visit, the Capital District would be placed under martial law and travel by rail and road would be restricted.
The princess was scheduled to leave the Capital District on the afternoon of the 19th, taking a special express train to Port Watts in the North Sea; then she would join the joint rescue operation training session on the 20th. Afterwards, she would board the massive Sou Be-Il Navy battleship Ildesta, which would be on standby at the harbor from two days earlier. Finally, the princess would return to Sfrestus via the North Sea Passage, accompanied by an escort fleet.
In an ordinary kitchen in an ordinary apartment labeled ‘Schultz’.
Depending on the weather, Allison could end up being called to work even on holidays. So her daughter Lillia was eating breakfast alone.
There were spots of blue in the sky, but it was mostly cloudy. A gentle westerly wind blew outside.
On the table in the middle of the dining room was a hot sandwich fresh from an electric toaster, with ham and cheese inside. There was also a cup of tea with milk.
Lillia listened to the news on the radio and mumbled absently.
“Huh. So that princess who needs a husband is coming to Roxche…”
She reached for her second sandwich.
In a large, luxurious living room in an expensive apartment labeled ‘Strauski’.
The family’s daughter and second son were going mad in front of the television.
Meg, who had her hair down, practically clung to the black-and-white TV on the shiny, expensive TV stand.
“I can’t believe it! Princess Matilda’s coming to Roxche! Why? Why am I not in the Capital District then?! Why?!”
Next to Meg, her primary school-aged brother, ten years younger than her, was also in a frenzy.
“Wow! The Ildesta! 270 meters long with a max speed of 33 knots! It’s got nine 40-centimeter cannons! It’s the Royal Navy’s newest and fastest and strongest battleship and the flagship of the North Sea fleet! I can’t believe it’s coming to Roxche! Wow! I wanna go see it! Can we please?!”
A plump, middle-aged woman with long dark hair tied up in a bun stared from her seat on the sofa behind them.
“Obsessed with royalty and the military… I’m sorry, Meg. Johan. But we’ll be on the east coast by that point. I heard the halibut meunier’s to die for.”
Brother and sister cried in unison as they turned. Their mother took a leisurely sip of tea.
“We can’t do that. What about the fried dorado? You two were looking forward to it, too.”
“But Mom! Princess Matilda’s going to be in Roxche! This might be the only chance I get to see her before she gets married! We can’t be on a relaxing family vacation now!”
“Yeah! I don’t care about the princess, but the Ildesta’s coming to Roxche! This never happens, you know?”
Meg turned to her brother.
“Who cares about your battleships, Johan?”
“Whaddaya mean ‘who cares’?”
Meg retorted loudly, from her very soul.
“You—you can join the navy later and board the ship whenever you want! They’ll treat you really well since you speak Roxchean! But… I could never go to the palace and make friends with the princess!”
“I’ll never get to help her, and I’ll never get to protect her beautiful smile!”
Slowly, Johan backed away from his sister. She had her hands clasped over her chest, her heart already elsewhere. He went over to the sofa where his mother sat.
Meg dramatically faced west, her hair aflutter.
“Oh, Princess Matilda! I pray your days in Roxche will be peaceful and pleasant! Strauski Megmica shall wish for your happiness in the eastern lands!”
Meg’s mother watched incredulously.
“Honey. I hope you don’t act like that at school.”
The Kingdom of Iks.
In the living room of a house in a snowy valley.
“So they’ve made the announcement.”
“Only the official schedule, though.”
Fiona—who was taking time off from work—and her husband Benedict were sitting on the floor before a small fireplace. They were speaking in Bezelese.
Both were wearing quilted pajamas. Benedict was even wearing a nightcap, which clashed with his beard. A kettle with water for their morning tea was atop the fireplace.
On the mantelpiece was an old radio, which announced Princess Matilda’s itinerary in Roxche. The speaker crackled with age. Next to it was a sparkling-new radio for emergency use, currently turned off.
When the news moved on to another topic, Benedict reached over and turned off the radio.
“Come to think of it, what’s Treize up to? I haven’t seen him in a few days now. Or was it more?” Benedict wondered. He had little interest in his son’s actions.
“He’s at the apartment in Kunst. He said he wanted to practice his marksmanship and combat skills so he can fight off bad guys.” Fiona replied, warming her hands by the fire.
“Hard at work, then.” Benedict mumbled. Still seated, he moved over to Fi and reached out towards the fire. Fiona softly leaned against him.
Two shadows became one in the dark living room. The kettle had yet to whistle. For some time, there was silence.
Benedict finally spoke in Roxchean.
“Anyway, Fi, I have something to say.”
“I see you have bought a new camera.”
Fiona’s expression stiffened. Two seconds of silence later, she blinked several times and sat upright.
“…Er… how? How did you find out?”
“I received a telegram from the department store in Elitesa—not to the royal family, but to ‘Ms. Fiona’—saying, ‘Thank you for your patronage. Your item will be shipped shortly’. Warren’s grandson rushed over with this message late last night.”
“…Oh. …Of all the useless efforts…” Fiona groaned, looking up. Benedict gave her a look.
“N-no, er… yes. It was very good of him to bring it all this way.”
“Hm… so how many cameras does this make?”
“W-wait! Let me explain. This camera is different. It’s so much better than the others!”
“You do not need to explain. My word…” Benedict sighed. Fiona sat up and looked her husband in the eye. Then she said firmly.
“Well, you see! I bought the camera for Treize. Yes!”
“Treize will need one if he’s going to travel. So I bought him one. A half-size .35mm model. It’s perfect for taking pictures on the move!”
“I see. Then when the camera arrives, I will send it directly to Treize.”
“What? …Yes, of course!”
“And he will not need to return it after his trip, yes?”
“…No. He won’t.”
“Very good. We have forgotten to buy him anything recently. We were so busy early this year that we passed his birthday by. This will be the perfect birthday gift.”
“O-of course. It’s perfect. But… could I maybe borrow it from him sometime?”
Benedict looked at Fiona.
Fiona pulled back.
“All right. But remember, Fi. A parent should not take their children’s toys.”
“Right. Understood.” Fiona nodded firmly. Benedict smiled.
“Now that the discussion is done, I have one more thing to say. I always say this, but still.”
“I love you, Fi.”
Without a word, Fiona closed her eyes. The kettle began to whistle as the two kissed.
As Fiona and Benedict exchange passionate kisses—
“Actually… I’m a prince…”
Treize was sleeptalking in Bezelese.
He was in his apartment in Kunst, the capital of Iks.
The tiny room was furnished with a bed, a desk, and a dresser. There was no more room for anything else. There was no bathroom in his apartment—the entire building shared those facilities.
Treize was curled up in his green blankets like a cat.
He squirmed, flipping over, and mumbled again.
This time, in Roxchean.
“Really, I’m serious.”