Chapter 2: The Question
The 19th day of the first month.
Including the weekend, it had been three days since the start of the new term.
It was past three in the afternoon.
It was windy and overcast. Dark, low-hanging clouds covered the sky.
The heavy snowfall from the end of 3305 and beginning of 3306 continued to blanket the grounds of the 4th Capital Secondary School. Pathways had been cleared, but the field was rendered unusable.
Hundreds of students in winter coats moved in a line towards the gates.
It was an after-school traffic jam, a common sight at the school. Hapless first-years were swept up by the crowds and pushed in every direction.
Things had only been made worse by the unusually heavy snowfall and the ice left on the roads. Too often students found their feet buried in snowdrifts or lost their footing and fell.
Far from that commotion stood a certain building.
It was one of the more remote classroom buildings that went unused after school and was therefore nearly empty.
“Man, it’s cold,” Larry Hepburn shivered, unlocking the door of a certain room on the first floor.
Larry had been Seron’s best friend since first year, and was responsible for Seron’s joining the newspaper club.
He had blue eyes, which were common in the Capital District, and a head of short blond hair. And though short, he was very muscular. His face was slightly tanned in spite of the season.
He entered the newspaper club’s office. It was about half the size of a regular classroom.
Expensive sofas and a coffee table were set in the middle, with work desks and chairs lined up on the side and long lockers against one of the walls.
On another wall was a kitchenette complete with sink and hot plate, and there was even a telephone—a luxury that most households could afford no more than one of. Further down the wall was a darkroom. The newspaper club likely had the most luxurious office in the entire school.
“Brr…” Larry hung up his coat next to the door and opened the windows with a spring in his step.
Having been locked for 20 days, the office air was stagnant. The smell from the darkroom had seeped into the office as well.
The wind howled in through the window, sweeping away last year’s air. Larry quickly grabbed a notepad on the desk just as it was about to fly off.
A few minutes later, he shut the windows and turned on the heater.
Hot-water heaters were installed in the building. They were usually turned on all day, but had been shut off for the break.
Larry turned on the large tap on the wall. The hot water from the boiler room flowed into the radiator. Larry checked it carefully—sometimes hot water would leak from the pipes when the heating was turned on.
Because it took time for the system to heat up the room, Larry also turned on the kerosene stove in the middle of the office. He filled it up with spare oil from the locker and lit it with a match.
Larry was constantly moving.
Next, he put the kettle on the hot plate in the kitchenette. He prepared the teapot and tea leaves, and wiped the coffee table.
His body and the office had warmed up. But no one else arrived.
So Larry reached up to the cabinet to take out the teacups, when—
“Good afternoon. Ah, is no one else here yet, Larry?”
A male student stepped inside.
“Been a while, Nick! You’re the first club member I’ve seen all year,” Larry chuckled, grabbing a second teacup.
Nicholas Browning—also known as Nick—was slender with fair skin, emerald-green eyes, and back-length hair.
If he were not dressed in a boy’s uniform and wearing a jacket with buttons on the right side, he could have easily passed for a girl.
“Thank you for heating up the office,” Nick said with a smile, hanging up his jacket and his coat on the wall.
“Take a seat. I’ll get you some tea.”
“I am in your debt.”
Nick sat down.
Larry—the best tea-brewer in the club—expertly prepared two cups of tea and served them before taking a seat himself.
“Happy new year, Nick.”
“Happy new year, Larry.”
They raised their teacups and raised the first toast of the new year.
They discussed their respective winter breaks between lazy sips of tea.
Because there was no homework over the break, Larry spent most of it doing voluntary military training.
He had gone winter camping and marching with a friend from his military sciences classes and others from a different school. They had marched dozens of kilometers every day on the massive military training grounds with tents, sleeping bags, cooking gear, and food on their backs.
“It must have been exhausting,” Nick commented.
“Nah, but I almost died!” Larry laughed.
The first half of the march had gone smoothly, but things had taken a sudden downturn at the start of the new year with the onset of the unprecedented cold snap.
Larry’s team had been beset by heavy snowfall and cold. They slowed down and could not sleep at night because of the temperatures. Their wet leather shoes almost froze their feet.
“Which means I’m more coldproof than any other year,” Larry said. Even as they cursed the weather, his team had kept their spirits up and finished the training with an optimistic mindset.
They had considered giving up when things had gotten truly perilous, but everyone had persisted even more than they knew they were capable of and made it safely back to the base.
When they returned, the base had been in a state of emergency.
A different team, composed of soldiers from the Confederation Army, had been stranded. The men had inadequate camping gear and their truck had been stopped by snow, and they almost lost their lives. Though soldiers tended to be wary of autumn rainstorms, such an uncommon weather event took them completely off-guard.
“So I didn’t get to participate in the new year’s artillery corps training. Nobody died, but there was a big hubbub because it was a show of lax discipline. Man, if only it hadn’t snowed, I’d have learned to use a 150mm howitzer.”
That was all Larry had to say about his break. It was Nick’s turn next.
“I visited the Casna Coast with my family and feasted on the local food—but that’s not the important thing!” Nick exclaimed, sounding unusually excited. “The Ikstova Pass! Surely you must have heard of it on the news, Larry?”
“Oh, yeah! Definitely!” Larry replied, leaning forward.
The Ikstova Pass was a passage announced by the Kingdom of Iks—a country situated on the Central Mountain Range—at the new year. The Central Mountain Range had always been thought impassable, but it turned out that the Ikstova Pass led straight from the Kingdom of Iks to Sou Be-Il, the former enemy of Roxche.
“The royal family of Iks kept it under wraps for 400 years, didn’t they?” Larry confirmed. “Cause if the pass was announced, the East would use it to invade the West, and vice-versa later down the line. Makes sense they would hide it.”
“Some soldiers I know say it was treason against Roxche to hide the passage, but I think it was the right decision. The conflict between the two sides is what allowed both sides to form peaceful unions, and both sides prospered after unification because they didn’t go to war. Although my ancestors might get mad if they could hear me right now.”
Nick, who had been nodding over his cup of tea, spoke.
“I agree with you, Larry. But what excites me most about the Ikstova Pass is something quite different.”
“Yeah? Like what?” Larry asked, refilling Nick’s teacup.
“The first thing that came to mind when I heard the news was this: that the royal family may not have concealed the existence of the pass.”
Nick’s eyes narrowed, twinkling.
“I hypothesize that it is the very opposite. That the royal family was created for the very purpose of hiding the existence of the pass. Perhaps the pass was not discovered by the royal family. Rather, the person who discovered it became king.”
“I see…” Larry fell into thought. Nick waited. “The Kingdom of Iks was established 400 years ago, right?”
At the time, the East had been stricken by civil war. But because the West had formed a union and invaded, they agreed to a ceasefire and fought back. This resulted in a long, tiresome war that lasted over 100 years.
“At the time, Iks was the kingdom at the western edge of the East. It had some relations with countries near what is now the Republic of Raputoa, but did not participate in the war. Which is understandable, as battles between the sides mostly raged near the mouth of the Lutoni,” Nick explained.
“Maybe whoever found the pass didn’t want to get involved in the war. So he became king to hide the existence of the pass. That takes a lot of guts,” Larry said, looking off into the distance.
“Actually,” Nick said with a smile, “I had a different hypothesis.”
“This is, of course, a theory. But I propose that Iks’s royal family were actually Westerners who had crossed to the East via the pass.”
Larry’s eyes flew open. He fell into thought, and eventually nodded.
“Hm…you’re right. That might be possible. I only considered Easterners crossing to the other side, but the opposite is possible too.”
“So maybe the people who crossed over were the advance guard of a Western invasion force? And the Kingdom of Iks was a sort of bridgehead to make the invasion easier?”
A bridgehead was a base built on enemy territory to facilitate an invasion. Larry’s considerations were focused mostly on the military aspects of the crossing.
“Perhaps, perhaps not,” Nick said, “but seeing as no other groups crossed the pass afterwards, and considering the fact that not even the royal family of Iltoa knew of its existence, I speculate that those who crossed over were those who had no choice but to flee into the mountains.”
“Nomads, huh. So you’re saying they tried to live deep in the mountains where no one would find them.”
“They must have risked death to enter the mountain range, and stumbled by chance upon the pass. When they traversed it, they found themselves in what is now the Kingdom of Iks. They may not even have realized that they arrived in the East, simply assuming that there was a community of people living in the Central Mountain Range. And these nomads may have unified the locals into the current kingdom.”
“Prior to the founding of the kingdom, the people of Iks lived in small tribes around Lake Ras. Local legends speak of an ancient kingdom, but there is no clear record of this ancient bloodline. The bloodline of the current royal family of Iks, on the other hand, is well-recorded. Perhaps the ancient kingdom—which I suppose could have been no more than a line of chieftains—clashed with the people from across the mountain…” Nick theorized, almost as though telling a compelling story.
“…And were conquered by the people from beyond the mountains,” Larry finished off darkly.
“The new royal family could have altered historical records and made it seem as though the previous kingdom had never existed. They could easily erase evidence or allow evidence to disappear,” Nick added enthusiastically.
“Scary stuff,” Larry said with a shrug.
“Indeed. But of course, this is simply a hypothesis. Perhaps the royal family of Iks truly did spring from its current seat and discover the pass by chance 400 years ago. If one were to divide the world into East and West, they might have been categorized as Easterners.”
“That would be nice. Either way, we’re all from the same roots. The people who left the Mural of the Beacon might have been rolling in their graves if they saw what happened after they died.”
“If we could someday develop a method to determine one’s origins by studying the human body, I’m sure we could figure out a solution to this mystery. Perhaps the blood of Ikstovans and Iltoans share similar characteristics?”
“Maybe one day we’ll find out,” Larry said, getting to his feet with the empty teapot in hand.
Larry was just crossing past the door to the kitchenette when—
“I’m first to the office this year!”
The door slammed open, almost hitting him in the process.
“Oh. You’re here, Larry?” Asked the girl stepping inside.
“Watch it, Lia!”
“Is your new year’s resolution to not greet anyone anymore?”
Natalia Steinbeck was tall for a girl, with her long brown hair tied up in a ponytail. She wore black-rimmed glasses and a pair of stockings under her skirt.
Her parents were both world-famous musicians, and Natalia followed in their footsteps by taking part in the school’s orchestra club.
Natalia and Larry had been next-door neighbors and childhood friends, though Larry had forgotten the fact by the time they were reunited the previous summer. He alone called her ‘Lia’.
“Didn’t hear a greeting from you, Lia. Happy new year.”
“There’s a good boy. Hey there, Nick. As pretty as ever, I see.”
“Good afternoon, Nat. Happy new year.”
“Happy new year!” Natalia called back, hanging up her coat. “Two sugars, Larry. I need something sweet on a cold day like this.”
“That’s what you usually get,” Larry retorted, though he reached for the sugar anyway.
Natalia took a seat. Nick turned.
“Perhaps that was a little harsh of you, Nat. The door was clearly unlocked, and the first thing you say is ‘I’m first to the office’ and ‘you’re here, Larry’?”
“You got me, Nick! Ever the detective. While you’re at it, I need you to dig up why Larry’s such an idiot in the first place.”
“My, my. Larry seems more than intelligent enough,” Nick pointed out. Natalia gave a dramatic gasp.
“WHAT?! How much did he pay you to say that, Nick?”
“You’ve fallen far, Lia. It’s not like people act only for money,” Larry said, putting Natalia’s usual teacup on the table.
“But it’s either money or love, and you don’t have either.”
“That would be you, Lia. You’ve never had any love to begin with.”
“Then that just means I’ll have to bring some in person next time to show you! Just you wait, I’ll fill up this office with the scent of my love. Don’t step on it.”
“Yeah, just make sure to take off the price tag before showing it off.”
“Sure, sure. You think the department store by the station’s got some in stock?”
Nick smiled as Larry and Natalia bantered like an old married couple.
“I’d love to take a look at this love of yours next time as well, Nat.”
Larry, Nick, and Natalia had just started on the second pot of tea when the door opened again.
“You’re early. Well, at least the office is nice and toasty.”
Jenny Jones stepped inside.
She had a petite build with short red hair and large brown eyes, and had a large leather bag slung over her shoulder.
Jenny was the heiress to Jones Motors, Roxche’s foremost automaker, and was the one responsible for the luxurious furnishings of the office.
“Hey chief! Happy new year,” said Natalia.
“Good afternoon, Jenny. Happy new year,” said Nick.
“Happy new year, Jenfie,” said Larry. He was the only one who sometimes called her by her childhood nickname of ‘Jenfie’.
“Hi guys. Looks like Seron and Megmica haven’t shown up yet,” Jenny said, putting down her bag and sitting on the sofa.
Larry looked up in the midst of preparing her tea. “Almost forgot. Seron’s an RA starting this year,” he said to the others, “he’ll be busy helping the first-years, so sometimes he’ll be late to club or might not show at all.”
“All right,” Jenny replied. Larry poured her tea and toasted yet again.
Jenny seemed to enjoy the tea, but she grumbled.
“I’m so sick and tired of attending parties. It’s so nice to be back at school.”
“Something happen?” Asked Natalia.
“Yeah. A bunch of good things.”
“First, we’ve officially announced our new factory location—and guess what? It’s going to be in Sou Be-Il! So far we’ve only been exporting high-end models, but now we’ll be producing affordable cars for locals.”
Larry was the first to react. “That…is incredible! Jones Motors cars made in the West, that sounds so cool!”
“So,” Jenny continued, “Jones Motors shares went through the roof in the new year.”
“How lovely,” Nick said with a chuckle, “if I’d known ahead of time, I’d have bought as many shares as I could afford.”
“Isn’t that insider trading?” Natalia pointed out. Nick replied that he was simply joking.
“And we had another cause for celebration. I guess this is even better news,” Jenny said with an embarrassed smile, “my cousin and my sister are parents now. She just had a baby girl.”
“WOW! Congrats!” Natalia exclaimed loudly, burying Jenny in a hug.
“Urk.” Jenny groaned, strangled in Natalia’s embrace.
“Congratulations, Jenny. That is indeed wonderful news!” Nick chimed in, being also privy to Jenny’s past. His and Natalia’s congratulations were directed not at Jenny’s cousin and sister, but at her, for announcing the news in front of the others.
Larry, however, simply thought that Jenny was announcing the happy news of a relative’s birth. “That’s great! Good for them!”
“You’re crushing me, Nat,” Jenny strained, disentangling herself from Natalia’s arms. “Thanks, guys. So our family’s been busy both publicly and privately for the past few weeks. So many more people have been coming to visit, and we’ve been attending parties one after another. We were so busy we had to cancel our annual family trip, but that turned out to be a good thing because of all the snow,” Jenny said, and changed the subject, “that’s enough about my family. Let’s talk about the club.”
She took out a stack of envelopes from her bag and tossed them haphazardly on the table.
There were over 10 envelopes of varying sizes and colors. All had been opened with a letter opener.
“What’s this, chief?” Natalia asked.
“I found these in my locker when I opened it this morning. Seeing as none of them show signs of having reproduced out of nowhere, we can safely assume that people have been leaving these there.”
“Are they love letters?”
“They’re addressed to the newspaper club. Have a read.”
The others each picked up an envelope and took out the letters inside.
“Let’s see here,” said Larry, “‘hello newspaper club, I’m a second-year hotshot and I have a crush on this girl in my class. Please investigate her and see if she likes me too! She probably does. Feel free to write an article about us if we end up getting together!’”
Then it was Natalia’s turn. “‘The stray cat that used to live in my neighborhood’s disappeared. Please find the cat’.”
Then, Nick. “This is quite the interesting message. ‘I’m a sixth-year student. Please tell me how to get rich without going to university. What would be the right career for me? What if I became a stock trader? I have a bit of seed money for investing’.”
“What are all these?” Larry wondered, pursing his lips.
“Requests for the newspaper club.”
“And they’re all like this?”
“Uh-huh. After the last couple of issues, it looks like people have started thinking of us as detectives or private investigators.”
Natalia flung the letter she was holding. “What are we, their personal servants? …Some of them are pretty interesting though.”
“Who knows? Maybe I’ll take on a couple of these,” Jenny said, “more tea please, Larry.”
Larry got up and began pouring Jenny some tea, when—
“Sorry I’m late.”
Seron Maxwell entered the office.
Instead of a school bag, Seron was carrying a large paper bag. He greeted the others one by one and was greeted in turn. Then he hung up his coat and sat on the sofa.
The club toasted yet again with tea.
“I was busy helping out the first-years at the dorms. …I thought I’d be the last one here,” Seron said blankly, discreetly noting that the person he wanted to see most was absent.
“Strauski’s coming to club today,” Natalia said. Seron nodded.
He set the topic of Megmica aside for the moment and asked the others about their break. Then he explained what he did over the holidays.
That he spent time with this family, and was dragged out shopping by his sister. That his sister would start attending secondary school in Weld.
Then he briefly detailed how his train to the Capital District had been delayed by snow, and how he narrowly made it back to the dorms on time.
Finally, he confessed that taking care of first-years as an RA was harder than he had expected, and that quite a few first-years were still learning the ropes.
“I might not be at the office as often as last year,” he said, “I’m sure I won’t be as busy once the first-years start getting used to living on campus, but I can’t say when that’ll be. We have mandatory meetings after class for a while so I definitely won’t be able to come to the newspaper club then.”
“You’re always so good at explaining things, Seron,” Natalia said, “see, Larry? This is what it means to—”
“To be smart, right? You could learn a thing or two, Lia.”
“Tch! You win this round, Hepburn.”
Seron took out a large case from the paper bag and placed it at the center of the coffee table. It was packaged in colorful wrapping paper.
“These cookies have been really popular lately in Weld. I thought they’d complement the tea here.”
“FOOD!” Natalia screamed, her eyes glinting. She was excited enough to eat the case of cookies whole, wrapping paper and all.
“Whoa there, Lia.” Larry reached out and carefully unwrapped the case.
Under the wrapping paper was a large tin with a picture of a beautiful mansion. Packed inside were over a hundred assorted cookies. Cookies with sugar on top or jam in the center, chocolate cookies, and even ones shaped like ovals or different animals.
“They look wonderful.” “Thanks for the snack.” “Not bad, buddy. They’ll definitely go well with the tea.” Nick, Jenny, and Larry commented. Natalia, however, shook her head gravely.
“This is great and all, but what’s the rest of you gonna eat?”
“Sorry, Nat. This one tin is for all of us. I can get you some more next time if you like it,” Seron replied, also completely serious. Larry sighed.
“Just buy her an extra tin next time, Seron. One big enough to be a suitcase.”
“Sometimes you say smart things, Larry,” Natalia said, fixing her glasses.
“And fill the tin with sand and gravel. She’d eat it anyway.”
“I take that back!” Natalia fumed, “Larry, you’re a failure when it comes to women. Siddown over there.”
“I’ve been sitting for a while now.”
Jenny ignored the banter and picked up a cookie. “Thanks, Seron.”
Nick also reached for a cookie. “It seems nothing has changed over the break.”
The cookies had been reduced to a fifth of their original number, largely thanks to Natalia. The door opened again.
“Good afternoon, everyone.”
The last member entered.
“Hey there, Megmica! Pigtails again, eh?” “Happy new year!” “Happy new year.” “Happy new year, Megmica. C’mon in.”
Natalia, Larry, Nick, and Jenny greeted her in turn. Megmica responded to them all with smiles, but—
“It’s been a while. Happy new year.”
To Seron alone, she gave a rigid look.
Larry and Jenny responded to Meg’s unusual attitude, but Natalia interrupted.
“Take a seat! We got cookies!”
A smile returned to Meg’s face. She hung up her coat, and even her jacket because the office was so warm. She put her jacket and bag aside and took her usual seat on the sofa.
“Maybe it was just my imagination,” Larry said to himself, brewing more tea.
Natalia wasted no time in asking Meg about her break. Meg replied just as quickly as the questions came.
She explained that the aeroplane did not crash on the way to her hometown and back, that the engines never failed, and that her hometown—though she had missed it dearly—was so different from Roxche that she experienced culture shock.
After the first round of questions and answers, Jenny spoke up.
“Anyway, I’m glad to see you all here today.”
“Giving us a new year’s speech, chief?” Asked Natalia.
“Yep. So listen up.”
Jenny put her teacup on the table and stood with her head held high.
“Before this! I have a question I wish to ask!”
The voice behind the sudden interruption belonged to Meg.
“Huh?” Jenny intoned, sounding unusually taken aback.
The others were all stunned into silence by Meg’s sharp voice—though Natalia continued to reach for another cookie.
“Oh, I spoke in a loud voice. I have surprised everyone. I am sorry,” Meg said. Jenny shook her head.
“Don’t worry about it. Keep going.”
“I am sorry. But…I wish to solve this matter quickly. So I will ask now.”
“Yeah, no sense in putting off something urgent.”
“Yes. In Sou Be-Il a saying is ‘if you pick up an egg, break it now’.”
“Yeah, you can’t exactly make an omelette out of a chick. And considering the temperature in here a chick would hatch pretty quickly. So what’s on your mind, Megmica?” Jenny asked, falling into the sofa. All eyes fell on Meg.
Seron’s blank gaze was directed at Meg, as usual. Grateful for the fact that he could speak with her and see her in person every day at school, he reminded himself that he would lend an ear no matter what problems plagued her.
“Does anyone think that Seron is in love with me?”