Chapter 7: From the Culprit, With Love
<Attention, team.> Major Travas said through the radio. <I’ve reasoned out the mastermind’s true target.>
Major Travas was standing next to the cars, facing the train Hilda was on. Uno was wiping the blood off the seats and the steering wheel.
Their sniper was still on guard, keeping an eye on the area from the roof of the train.
Ed and Ozette were heading to the tracks to get the truck out of the way.
<The mastermind’s target is not the lady. He is after Prince Treize. I repeat. His target has been Prince Treize from the very beginning. Every obstacle he set for us has been easy to overcome. It was all designed for us to overcome. The mastermind was plotting to send us ahead to separate us from Prince Treize.>
All ears were on the radio.
Yzma, who was in the VIP cabin, blurted without thinking—
“Aha! So he was after him!”
Hilda had taken off her helmet and bulletproof vests and was fixing her hair, when she heard Yzma’s exclamation.
Her emerald-green eyes narrowed and she glared at him, more intensely than ever before. But Yzma did not notice.
<The mastermind is from Sou Be-Il. And he remains respectful of the royal family. He planned for the lady to be unharmed. But the mastermind is adamant that Roxchean blood does not enter Sfrestus.>
<Makes sense. So what now, Major?> Asked Yzma. Through the window he could see two people returning to the train by car.
<We abandon the train. We’ll switch to the truck and the car. We head to the town of Azay to report to the authorities before we cross the Lutoni as planned.>
<I see. So we can leave the rest to Roxche’s poliiiiiii— Ack! Ow! Whoa! Wait! Please! Stop! No!>
Yzma’s screams filled the radio, then cut off. The reason soon became clear.
<Major Travas, can you hear me? Do you hear my voice?>
Hilda’s voice came over the radio.
Major Travas ordered Uno to stop the car. He replied over the radio as he walked the 10 or so meters left to the train.
<Yes, I hear you loud and clear. What is it?>
Hilda’s reply was immediate.
<I’m not the target, am I? It’s Treize.>
Ed and Ozette were searching the truck for traps or explosives. That was when they heard Hilda’s voice.
“Yzma, that imbecile…”
“That’s an aristocrat for you. Full of openings.”
Yzma, meanwhile, was standing embarrassedly beside Hilda.
His earpiece and the microphone he had strapped to his neck were now in Hilda’s possession. Major Travas’s voice escaped the radio strapped to his waist.
<That’s correct, Miss.> Travas paused. <Yes. The mastermind’s target is Prince Treize. The threats against you were all a ploy to distract us and separate us from him. We are no longer in any danger.>
<I understand. What course of action do you propose, Major?>
This time, Travas answered without missing a beat.
<We have a car and a truck in our possession. We will head directly to Azay before crossing the Lutoni.>
<I take it that you do not plan to go back for Treize and the passengers on the other train? We have no idea who is hiding among them, or what he will do.> Hilda asked angrily.
<That’s correct, Miss. That is not part of our mission.> Major Travas said calmly.
<Let me ask again. Do you have no intention of going back to protect Treize or Lillianne? Do you mean to say that you cannot take on that task?>
<Yes. That is not part of our mission.>
Hilda seemed become calm, then.
<I understand. Your sole mission is to protect me. You spend tax money and sometimes even take human lives to ensure my well-being. That’s perfectly natural. I understand. I understand very clearly.>
Hilda’s voice grew smaller and smaller until it seemed to fade away at the end. Yzma stared awkwardly.
Hilda smiled and met Yzma’s gaze. He was taken aback.
<Can you drive?> She asked, holding down the call button.
As Major Travas and the team cringed in unison, Yzma responded—quiet in volume but clearly audible.
<Y-yes, of course. But—>
<Then I shall name you my personal driver.>
<P-personal driver? I’m not sure I understand, Miss.>
<I shall now set out to rescue the passengers on the other train. This shouldn’t be a problem so long as I am not the target, correct?>
Yzma gaped for several seconds before bursting into laughter.
With his laughter in the background, Hilda spoke into the microphone.
<Did you hear that, everyone?>
<Miss—I mean, Your Highness. Please listen to me. Even if the mastermind is not targeting you—>
The heir to the throne of Bezel cut off the major with a solemn voice.
<O Knight of House Travas—blood of the courageous heroes at the head of battle—you shall accompany the princess wherever she goes if you wish to carry out your mission. But you are free to turn tail and run.>
Major Travas stopped before the train, stunned into silence.
“You lose, Major.” Uno snickered, giving him a pat on the shoulder as he passed by.
Next to the train was a truck and a car.
The men transported their suitcases from the train to the truck with practiced ease. The train was emptied in the blink of an eye.
Major Travas sat in the passenger seat of the car, and Uno in the driver’s seat. In the back was Ann, holding the sniper rifle and scope.
Ed sat in the bed of the truck with an assault rifle in hand. Ozette was in the driver’s seat, and Yzma sat in the passenger seat with Hilda sitting in between them.
Hilda, equipped with a spare radio, pressed the call button.
<Matilda of Bezel shall now depart to rescue Treize of Ikstova and everyone on the train, save for the culprit. My protectors—>
Hilda paused, then.
“Yes, ma’am?” Ozette asked quietly.
The truck and the car began traveling south at almost the limits of their speed.
Inside the truck, which was by no means comfortable—
“I’m terribly sorry about earlier.” Hilda said, looking over the scratches on Yzma’s face and neck.
“Not at all, Your Highness. It’s practically a mark of honor! It’ll be the talk of the family for generations.” Yzma snickered.
“Your great-aunt, Madam Berstein, is my flower-arranging instructor. Next time we have tea together, I’ll tell her that I made her nephew scream.” Hilda smiled.
Yzma’s jaw dropped.
“Wait, did I—did I tell you? The major would never have… Did you know about me, Your Highness?”
“No. But I can see it in your eyes. The Berstein blood is quite clear in your appearance.”
“…Incredible! I suppose I should’ve expected no less from a princess.” Yzma said with a grin, as though he were chatting with a friend.
The man in the driver’s seat chimed in gravely.
“If I may, Miss. This might be the perfect opportunity to give this fearless young aristocrat a lesson in real etiquette.”
* * *
A little earlier.
“I see. Excuse me. I suppose I must’ve gotten my Roxchean mixed up.”
With that, the long-haired man winked and came back into the car.
Allison glanced up at him, then looked back.
The man walked down the aisle, between the weary passengers. He went out the door on the opposite end and went into the bathroom.
As he stepped out after washing his hands, he nearly ran into the man once called ‘Prisoner 42’. Both men managed to step back before impact.
“Ah, excuse me.”
“Pardon me. …I’m terribly sorry, but could you lend me a hand?” ‘Prisoner 42’ said in Roxchean. He quickly switched to Bezelese.
“Excuse me. You’re from Sou Be-Il, yes? If it’s not too much trouble, I’d like some help. I’m looking for something—would you come with me?”
The long-haired man was taken aback.
“Hm… I’m surprised to see so many Bezelese speakers in Roxche. What are you looking for?”
“My pet weasel. The pesky little thing ran off on me.”
“…I understand. Let’s go.”
The men headed into the last car of the train.
They walked quickly past the second of the second class cars—which was completely empty—and entered the conductor’s cabin at the end of the train.
Once they were both in the cabin, which was furnished with a small desk and a bed, Prisoner 42 locked the door.
The long-haired man produced a note from his pocket and addressed him.
“So it was you. …What should I call you?”
Written in Bezelese on the note were the words, ‘Check to see if the brunette is the target’s girlfriend’. Prisoner 42 thought for a moment before responding.
“Well, I suppose you could call me ‘Weasel’.”
“Weasel, then. What’s my next job? Just say the word.”
Weasel smiled and reached over to the shelf over the bed. He pulled down a basket.
“Take care of this.”
When the long-haired man looked inside, he found a sleeping baby.
“Wait, didn’t the woman toss her?”
“That was the plan, but things didn’t quite turn out the way I expected. I managed to tell the woman to hide her instead of throwing her away.”
“Why? Was there a problem?” Asked the man. Weasel replied abashedly.
“I spent a lot of money adopting her from a facility in Raputoa, but I didn’t have a lot of time to spare. So she was the only one I could get.”
“It’s a girl. Her name’s Esther.”
“…Oh. I see. So the rumors were true. …Then what about the woman on the roof?”
“Nothing to do with this.”
“Hah hah hah. I see. I’ll take her, then. Once the job’s done, I’ll pretend I found her by chance and hand her to the police.”
“Yeah. She’ll be sleeping like, well, a baby. So, what about the task I gave you?” Weasel asked.
“Ah, right. That Lillia girl doesn’t seem to be his girlfriend, but it doesn’t look completely platonic, either. It looked like the guy was trying to protect her. And the girl isn’t just cute—she also speaks Bezelese. Proper as a textbook.”
“Even better. I don’t know who she is, but I’ll be asking her for help. This is getting interesting.”
“What do you want me to do now?” The long-haired man asked expectantly. Weasel replied without a moment’s hesitation.
“Your job’s done.”
“Whoa, wait a second. I’ve come this far helping you out—I might as well go all the way. You got me out of jail and even put up my poor mother in a decent hospital. I can’t—”
“You’re done. I needed your help and I hired you for that, that’s all. Don’t feel obliged—that’s just going to get in my way. Don’t do anything else now. Keep traveling. The money’s under the baby, so take a look at that. Half the money’s yours. The other half’s the baby’s.”
“You’ll do as I say. If not—”
Weasel pulled the sheets off the bed.
The long-haired man went silent.
Cohen lay dead on the bed, his eyes wide open. In his mouth was a note written in Roxchean—‘Good work. Here’s the rest of your pay’.
By his head were four bundles of cash. Each bundle was about a year’s worth of a conductor’s salary.
“All right… I’m done.” The long-haired man said.
Weasel pulled the blanket over the bed again. Then he pulled out another note from his inside pocket. It had been folded in half and folded in the corner again.
“One last note. It’s not an order—think of it as an extra. Once I disappear from the train and the suits come back, read the note. If they never come back, don’t read it—burn it.”
The man received the note.
“All right. You’re full of surprises, so I’m expecting nothing less from this note.”
“I won’t let you down. Just you wait—all the answers are in there.”
Once Weasel left the conductor’s cabin alone, the man stroked the sleeping baby’s face.
“You should thank the gods you were born a girl. …That man is a terrifying monster.”
The baby seemed to be smiling in her sleep. The man smiled, looking into her face.
“I hope you live a long, happy life, Esther.”
Weasel passed through the second class cars.
Among the tired passengers was Lillia, who was staring blankly out the window. Across the aisle was Treize, who had been stealing sidelong glances at Lillia until he noticed Weasel’s presence.
Weasel wordlessly passed between them and stepped out into the doorway. He glanced at his wristwatch before entering the sleeper car ahead.
He passed through one empty car and entered the one where the old man and the secretary remained.
Once he was at the cabin, he knocked on the door.
“…Who is it?” The secretary asked suspiciously. Weasel responded in Roxchean.
“I was told the elder in this cabin was feeling unwell. I thought I should check up on him.”
“He’s just fine, thank you. Please leave us.”
Weasel spoke again in front of the locked door.
“I see. I’ll return to the passenger car, then. —Also, Miss Cathy is safe and sound.”
This time, the door opened. Loudly.
And there stood a red-haired woman, glaring daggers at Weasel with tears in her eyes.
Weasel easily pushed her aside and entered the cabin. He closed and securely locked the door behind him.
The old man sat facing the back of the train. The secretary took a seat across from him.
The white-haired old man slowly looked up at Weasel.
“So it was you. You’re the bastard who took my granddaughter hostage. You’re the mastermind behind this foolish commotion.”
Weasel lightly bowed his head.
“Yes. It’s a pleasure to meet you—I am the culprit.”
The old man glared.
“If anything happens to my granddaughter, my men will tear you to pieces and feed you to the dogs. Mark my words.”
“Hah. How terrifying. That is exactly why I didn’t touch a hair on Cathy’s head.”
With that, Weasel pulled out a photograph from his inside pocket and held it out to the old man. Though the old man was still, the secretary received the photo.
Her expression changed. She handed the photo to the old man.
Finally, the old man’s eyes widened. Then they narrowed again.
In the color photograph were two people. One was the man who had given them the photograph. The other was an eight-year-old girl, the old man’s only grandchild.
The man and the girl were sitting on a bench, beaming at the camera like they were having the time of their lives.
The adorably freckled girl named Cathy held a balloon twisted into the shape of a poodle in her hand, and was wearing a toy crown. In the hazy background was a carousel.
“This was at the Elitesa fair three days ago. We had a wonderful time. Cathy and I tired ourselves out playing all day. I felt like I was a little boy again.”
A vein bulged on the old man’s head. Weasel continued as though chastising him.
“Your subordinates were hopeless. The moment they heard she was abducted, they rushed straight for the hotels, airports, and highways. Cathy and I were right there, enjoying our day in the sun. It was almost sad to watch. Aren’t you ashamed, as their boss?”
“Where is my granddaughter?”
“Ignoring my question? All right. I suppose Cathy must be back at your villa in the Capital District, where her parents are worried sick.”
“I sent her away on a long-distance train for the Capital District two days ago. I saw her off at the platform myself.”
“You sent her alone?”
“Of course not. I hired a woman from a civilian security company. I told her that we had our reasons, and assigned her to protect Cathy. I covered the hefty costs and their train tickets. Don’t worry—I instructed the bodyguard to escort Cathy safely to the villa. Cathy thinks she’s on a secret trip to surprise her family, so she probably hasn’t done anything to stand out. I was so happy to see how clever she was.”
The old man and the secretary gaped. Weasel shrugged.
“When I saw her off, she said, ‘Thanks for playing with me, mister’. And she gave me a kiss on the cheek.”
Then, he glanced at his wristwatch.
“Have they exterminated them by now?” He wondered excitably.
The old man breathed a tired sigh.
“Enough… there’s something wrong with your head. You’re insane…”
“I’m not sure I want to hear something like that from a mob boss who killed countless rivals to reach his current standing. I heard your kills were quite messy. What a villain.”
“Enough of this. I brought the package, just as you demanded. —Here.”
The secretary nodded and pulled out a large suitcase from under her seat. She struggled to lift it onto the seat, before pulling out another suitcase from under the old man’s feet and doing the same.
“Please, open them.” She said to Weasel. Weasel opened the suitcases and pulled off the cloth covers.
Inside each trunk were three plain cardboard boxes labeled ‘MILITARY-GRADE EXPLOSIVES, HANDLE WITH CARE’. Each box was the size of a dictionary.
“Excellent. Not many people can get their hands on things like this. I owe you so much. Thank you—both of you. I couldn’t have done it without your cooperation. If anything should happen—”
“Shut your mouth, you miserable dog. What are you planning next?” The old man growled.
“I’m afraid I can’t say. Please don’t get in my way.”
“I could reveal your identity right here and now. I could even murder you myself.”
“You can’t do that. You wouldn’t want the police on your heels, would you? And you have no way of confirming that Cathy really is alive and well. Although you’ll know once you reach Azay and make a phone call. She’s safe and sound.”
“I’d like you to go to the second class passenger car and kill time with the other passengers. Act like one of the poor bystanders who were inconvenienced by the delays. If you take an aeroplane tomorrow, you’ll see your darling Cathy again in three or four days. As a matter of fact, I have your tickets right here.”
Weasel reached into his inside pocket again and drew an airline envelope. This time, the old man took it without a second thought. When he looked inside, he found two tickets from Azay to the Capital District.
The old man pocketed the envelope.
“That’s all for business. Are you feeling better now, sir? I’m going to have you vacate the cabin now. Quickly, please.” Weasel said, clapping his hands.
“Go to hell.” The old man hissed as he and his secretary left.
“Oh, wait.” Weasel stopped the secretary. “Not you. I need you to do something for me.”
After the old man passed by her, looking exhausted—
Lillia, who sat in the aisle-side seat, spotted the red-haired secretary quietly gesturing to her.
The secretary looked devastated as she waved Lillia over from behind the half-open door. Lillia furrowed her brow and got up, approaching the door to the doorway.
“What’s wrong?” Treize asked, getting up and following her.
Lillia and Treize stepped out into the doorway. The woman made a troubled face when she saw Treize, and whispered something into Lillia’s ear.
“Oh… okay.” Lillia nodded easily.
Treize asked her what was happening.
“I’m just gonna go to the sleeper car with her for a bit. We need to grab something.”
“What? I’ll go with—”
“It’s fine! We’ll be back.”
Treize was taken aback by Lillia’s glare and the woman’s apologetic expression.
“I’m really sorry to bother you. Thank you.”
“Not at all. It’s only right to help people in need.”
Lillia and the secretary chatted as they crossed the coupling and disappeared into the next car.
Treize wondered if he should follow her, or if he should do as Lillia said.
And in the end, he returned to the second class passenger car.
Allison, who was sitting alone on the left-side seat, spoke to him.
“Oh. Lillia went to help the secretary get something from her cabin. …Should I go after them?”
“Nah, she’s not going alone.” Allison said.
The brakes kicked in. The wheels screeched as the car lurched forward.
Treize quickly grabbed the back of a seat.
The train slowed to half its original speed, then swung to the right.
The passengers began to murmur. Treize desperately tried not to lose his balance. Allison’s head lightly hit the window frame.
“We passed through a junction.” Allison said, pointing at the window on the right side of the train. They could see the tracks heading due north. That was the line they were supposed to be taking. It grew smaller and smaller in the distance.
“We just turned left at the junction.”
“What? That means—”
The brakes continued screaming all the while. The train slowed more and more.
“D’you think the driver’s noticed?” Asked Treize. Allison nodded.
Soon the train came to a complete stop. In the distance, they could still see the tracks they were originally supposed to take.
“Thank goodness we stopped. But what is this line? I don’t think there was a junction on the Lor line.”
Allison soon answered Treize’s question. It was almost the exact reply Wilhelm Schultz had given Treize’s mother in the past.
“This is a military-exclusive line. Almost all the rails that go west from the main north-south line are for military use. Although you won’t find them on the map.”
“There’s a Confederation Air Force base nearby, and ahead of that is a whole mess of junctions branching off all the way to the border. They were built to transport personnel and supplies or railroad guns. Although they’re barely in use these days.”
“So we ended up on one of those branches by mistake.”
“The operations office might have confused us for a military train because we’re running late. Or maybe it’s just a silly mistake. Either way, it’s the operations office’s fault. Looks like it’s just one delay after another.”
All the passengers, save for the long-haired man who remained in the conductor’s cabin, were furious.
“I’ve had it up to here with Confederation Rail!”
“Hurry up and move this train!”
“I want to see the conductor!”
There was nothing surprising about their anger.
The door at the back of the car opened, and the long-haired man returned as if nothing had ever happened.
He noticed the old man—who had not been there earlier—sitting alone in a partitioned seat.
The old man’s hands were clenched together. He was holding back his rage.
“Poor guy.” The long-haired man mumbled in Bezelese.
A little earlier.
Around the time the train passed the junction, Lillia was collapsed in the corridor of the second class sleeper car.
Her long hair covered her face. Standing over her was Weasel.
The secretary was trembling before him.
“Good work.” He said, putting something resembling an oxygen mask over her mouth.
In three seconds, the secretary fell unconscious. With his left arm Weasel held her up, and tossed the mask he had used out the window.
With the secretary in his arms, Weasel stepped into the doorway. He waited for the train to stop before opening the door and stepping onto the tracks.
There were nothing but flat plains on either side of the straight military-use line. He quickly laid the woman on the grass-spotted dirt.
“One last message.”
He drew an envelope out of his pocket and placed it on the secretary’s chest, before folding her hands over the envelope.
“It finally begins. Please let this work…”
Weasel leapt back into the doorway and broke into a run. He sprinted at full speed through the empty second class sleeper car and all the way to the coupling at the very back.
Then he expertly began to decouple the cars.
He peeled off the connecting cover around the coupling and pulled back the footboard. Then he separated the electric cables and the pneumatic tubes. Finally, he unscrewed the connector and unhooked the ring.
By the time he was finished, Weasel was sweating, his hands covered in grease.
He jumped back into the doorway and reached for the garbage bin installed there. With his grease-covered hands he pulled out a radio, one similar to the model Major Travas’s team used.
<Start the locomotive.> He said quickly.
<Right.> Someone replied. Several seconds later, the car began to shake.
The locomotive linked only to the dining car and the two second class sleeper cars slowly began moving down the military-use line.
When the cars came uncoupled, there was a large clatter. That was followed by the sound of the train moving.
The sound carried to the stopped passenger car.
“Huh?” Treize frowned.
Allison leapt to her feet. She shoved Treize aside as he tried to stand and rushed into the doorway.
Treize quickly regained his footing and hurried after her. Once he was in the doorway, he stared at the same direction Allison was staring at.
Beyond Allison’s head of golden hair Treize could see the train disappearing into the distance.
Treize finally understood.
Allison jumped onto the tracks. Treize followed. The train was already too far. They had no hope of catching up on foot.
“He got us…” Allison breathed, he voice mingling with the sound of the train departing.
The sky was as spotless as ever. The sun had set further, now halfway between noon and dusk. It shone upon the four abandoned cars and the two people standing ahead of them.
“How? What in the world is going on here?” Treize wondered.
Allison thought in silence, her hand on her chin and her eyes narrowed.
“Hey! What… what just happened here?!” A man cried from behind them.
It was the suit-clad man. He jumped onto the ground. He was followed by the soldier and the saleswoman.
Treize turned to the passengers.
“The locomotive, the dining car, and the two sleeper cars have gone without us.”
“I’m not sure.”
“Mechanical failure and driver error, along with my daughter being called to the other side. It’s an unfortunate accident—if this really is a coincidence.”
“What’s going on, ma’am? What happened here? If there’s anything I can do—” The soldier began, stepping forward, but Allison raised an arm to stop him.
“Hey! What’s that over there! By the tracks! It’s a person!”
The voice belonged to the long-haired man, who was late to step into the doorway. Because he was speaking Bezelese, only Allison and Treize responded.
They spotted the fallen secretary simultaneously.
“That’s the woman who called Lillia away!” Treize said, just as Allison broke into a run.
When the passengers asked what was happening, Treize briefly explained the situation in Roxchean and followed Allison.
The soldier and the suit-clad man joined him.
“Hey! Can you hear me?” Allison cried, looking at the secretary.
There was no answer. Allison slapped her several times, but she did not move. Allison put her fingers on the secretary’s neck and over her mouth to check her pulse and breathing.
“How is she?” Asked Treize, running over. Allison turned.
“I think someone knocked her out with some sort of drug.”
“Thank goodness she’s still alive. What about Lillia?”
Allison shook her head.
Treize glared at the tracks the train had departed down and gritted his teeth.
“So it wasn’t an accident after all…”
The rest of the passengers followed, asking Treize what was happening. Treize had no idea how to respond.
At that point, Allison noticed the envelope on the woman’s chest. When she picked it up, she saw the words on the envelope. One simple line in Roxchean. ‘To the noble of Ikstova’.
Allison quickly slipped the envelope into her pocket. Then she turned to the passengers.
“I need some men to carry her into the cars!” She ordered.
Several men nodded and lifted the secretary off the ground. For a few seconds there was a small argument about who got to lift her slender legs.
Watching the men carry away the secretary, Allison checked to see that no one was around and went to Treize. She showed him the envelope.
“This was on the secretary. It’s for the prince.”
Treize took the envelope without a word. When he saw the words on the envelope, his expression became grave. Treize checked that the envelope was unsealed and opened it. Inside was a letter. He unfolded it.
The letter was written in Bezelse, with excellent handwriting to boot. Treize read the letter aloud.
“To the young, noble, and beautiful prince of Ikstova,
“By the time you read this letter, the brunette will be with me. Are you surprised? I suppose that’s only natural.
“If you wish to take back the girl you cherish, come after me by car. Follow the tracks. Make sure to bring a radio with you—I’ve included the frequency below.
“There’s no need to rush. The train is cruising slowly, so you’ll catch up in no time.
“I’m waiting with bated breath.
“From the culprit, with love.”
“What the heck?” Treize gaped.
As the men carried the secretary into the train, the soldier suddenly wondered,
“Hm? Where’d the doctor go?”