Chapter 21: The Wedding
About an hour’s drive from the Capital District was a great plain surrounded by fields.
The plain was part of the village of Parukho, a town in the Republic of Daurade—one of the Confederation member states situated to the north of the capital.
The village was tiny, its industry focused largely on agriculture. But it was famous for a different reason—Parukho was home to an old stone plaza and chapel, a renowned wedding venue. A rich local had commissioned the structure about two centuries ago, supposedly instructed in his dreams by the gods.
The stone-paved plaza was the size of a baseball diamond. Next to it was a small stage and a humble chapel.
The plaza was surrounded on all sides by fields of barley that stretched all the way to the horizon. The only way there was a single road that led through the fields.
The rich man who commissioned the plaza and the chapel eventually went bankrupt and disappeared from history, but the people of the village pooled their funds together to maintain the structure. They cleaned the paving stones and fixed up the building when it was struck by lightning.
For over a century, the building had only been used for small village festivals. But things changed 40 years ago.
A famous actor was married at the chapel.
Parukho was close to the Capital District, and completely isolated at the same time. The actor liked that it was far from prying eyes. It was the perfect location to avoid reporters on the lookout for gossip.
“It was the perfect place,” the actor went on to say. “If I ever get married again, I’m going back to Parukho Village.”
The actor went on to mention the venue multiple times afterwards, and people began to dream of having their weddings there, just like the actor.
The village capitalized on the opportunity and began to market the chapel and its plaza as a wedding venue.
Anyone could hold a wedding there, regardless of religious belief or denomination.
The venue was booked for the 9th of the sixth month by Euphemia Epstein, the president of a famous apparel company. She had paid a handsome fee to rent out the chapel all day.
“It’s going to be a spectacular one.” “With lots of guests, too. About 500 or so, you think? More? Are they going to set a new record?” “The street’s going to turn into a parking lot of black cars.” The villagers theorized. But on the day of the ceremony, they were all floored.
Fewer than 50 guests showed up.
* * *
The 9th of the sixth month.
The sun was blazing that day, announcing the arrival of summer. The sky was clear.
And contrary to the villagers’ expectations, the road leading to the chapel was not lined with cars.
Early morning had come and gone before vehicles began trickling into the parking lot in the plaza, one car every 10 minutes or so.
The first vehicle to arrive was a mid-sized truck. It was designed for moving produce, equipped with a freezer in the back. It joined a van painted with the words ‘Parukho Village’ in the lot, parking at the very edge to keep out of the way.
A man and a woman in their thirties, wearing black suits and hats labeled ‘Parukho Village Chapel Management Committee’, rushed out of the chapel to greet the truck.
From the truck emerged a middle-aged couple dressed impeccably in black formalwear.
They were the Ikstovan royal guards who had sent Treize his sniper rifle and neatly disposed of the bodies of two hitmen.
After exchanging greetings, the group of four began to discuss the proceedings for the day.
The next guests arrived at 9:30 in a small car.
The car was a common model from a Capital District rental company. The company logo was splashed on the side of the car.
In the driver’s seat was a woman about 30 years of age. She was slender and tall with medium-length black hair, and was wearing a navy jacket and skirt.
“We’re here! All right, you now have permission to unbuckle yourself and step out of the car!” the woman commanded, opening the right-side passenger door.
“Ugh, finally. I was getting so cramped in there.”
A girl stepped out of the car.
She had red hair that she must have recently started growing out. The girl was about old enough to be finishing primary school, and had sharp eyes and boyish features.
“I hate this outfit. Why’s it gotta be all floofy?”
She talked like a boy as well, but the girl was wearing a light pink dress that made her look like a doll with white frills hanging from the sleeves and hem. However, she wore brown canvas shoes that were easy to walk in.
“No complaining, kid. You should be grateful that I decided to let you wear my old dress. It’s only proper to attend a wedding in formalwear. Showing up in whatever you woke up in is barbaric. This is all training for growing into a proper adult!” the woman shot back, just as callous as her ward.
“Sure, sure. Where is everybody, anyway? This place is totally empty. Admit it, Miss Angela, you got lost. Some grown-up you are.”
“The way here was too easy to get lost. Although maybe I didn’t really think too much about how quickly we would get here.”
“What the heck? Then what was all that rushing in the morning for? I wanted to play around more in the Capital District!” the girl complained, arms in the air. But the woman was unfazed.
“We don’t have the money to play around here.”
Soon, the woman of the two royal guards came up to them. “Welcome. Your invitations, please?”
“Here you are,” said Miss Angela. “This here is Ca- er, Carlo, with an invitation from Miss Lillia Schultz,” she said, taking out an envelope from her jacket pocket. The guard did not seem to be concerned that Carlo was a boy’s name.
“Hi there,” Carlo said energetically, punching the air. Her attitude clashed with her frilly dress.
Lillia and Treize had gone on vacation to the city of Lartika the previous summer, where they ran into the orphaned Carlo. Afterwards, they were embroiled in an incident with a seaplane, where Lillia and Treize saved the lives of Carlo and many other children.
“And I’m Angela, a primary school teacher. I’m here as Carlo’s chaperone. We’re sorry for being here so early—it wasn’t easy to precisely time everything because we came by night train and car,” Miss Angela said, sounding more ladylike than before.
The guards ushered the first two wedding guests to the tables. They suggested that Carlo and Miss Angela have some tea and juice with cookies while they waited.
Five round tables, each big enough to seat 10, had been set up in front of the stage.
Carlo and Miss Angela took the furthest table to the left, from the stage’s perspective.
“Hey lady! Cookies are good and all, but are there any of those really strong-smelling crisps here they only sell in the Capital District?” Carlo asked, eyes sparkling.
“Of course,” the guard replied. “It wouldn’t be proper to invite guests from other states otherwise. We have crisps by the boxload!”
“Yessss!” Carlo cheered, leaping into the air. She finally landed with her dress aflutter. “You’re pretty good, lady!”
The royal guard, skilled at everything from snack shopping to corpse disposal, smiled. “It’s an honor.”
“This is so good!”
“Don’t stuff yourself. They’ve probably got a fancy lunch buffet waiting after the ceremony.”
“Aw, c’mon! You try some too, Miss Angela.”
“Maybe just a taste. …Hey, this is good! Pass me some more.”
“Whoa! Kids get first dibs on this stuff!”
“Your brain’s gonna shrivel if you eat too much.”
“That’s what you grown-ups always say. So you think it’s okay for your brain to shrivel up?”
“We’re all finished growing, so our brains are fine no matter how much we eat.”
“You’ll understand once you’re an adult.”
As Carlo and Miss Angela argued over crisps at their table, the next car arrived.
It was a Jones Motors limousine.
“Wow, that’s one heck of a long car!” Carlo exclaimed.
“Whoever’s in there must be loaded. They’ve got nothing to do with poor people like us,” Miss Angela remarked as the limo pulled into the parking lot.
Two bodyguards and six secondary school students stepped out of the limo. Kurtz and Litner, and the members of the 4th Capital Secondary School’s newspaper club.
The two adults were in their usual suits. The suits were lighter than the previous month to match the season, but the bodyguards were mandated to wear their jackets because they had to carry around their guns.
The newspaper club members were in student formalwear—in other words, their school uniforms.
They had switched to their summer uniforms at the beginning of the month—short-sleeved shirts with the school crest emblazoned over the right breast, and a matching tie. The uniform also included a vest, cardigan, and jacket for cooler weather.
“Welcome. Your invitations, please,” the guards said, greeting the newest group of guests.
“Yes! Here is mine!” Meg chirped, taking out the invitation she had gotten from Lillia.
“Well, you know. Nothing could possibly surprise me anymore. Hah. Hah. If I collapse, you guys have to catch me, okay? Hah hah hah hah…”
To Meg’s great concern, Lillia’s face had been stiff as she handed her the invitation at school.
“We still have some time left before the ceremony. Please be seated at a table of your choosing.”
The party took a seat around a table not too close to the stage, leaving room for guests who knew the happy couple better. They did not sit too close to Carlo and Miss Angela either, as they did not know one another.
Kurtz and Litner, being bodyguards and not guests, returned to the limousine to remain on standby.
The royal guards took the newspaper club’s orders. Everyone asked for tea.
And soon enough, a pile of crisps was placed at their table.
“Bling!” Natalia cried, eyes glinting.
“What was that supposed to be, Lia?”
“The sound of my eyes glinting. Look! We’ve got good weather, good scenery, and delicious crisps! It’s like a textbook wedding!”
“How does that make it a textbook wedding? And by the way, leave some crisps for the rest of us,” Larry said. Natalia was already digging in, and his comment was not enough to stop her. In the blink of an eye she emptied an entire plate and asked for seconds.
“It’s so good to see you’ve got a healthy appetite,” said the royal guard. “It was certainly worth getting all these crisps for today,” she chuckled, serving them more.
Nick sipped his tea elegantly, looking around at the fields. “It certainly is a lovely venue.” He had already given the others a perfect lecture on the history of the village during the hour-long drive to the chapel.
“Hm. I like the tea,” Jenny remarked, drinking tea and chewing on the crisps with composure.
“I’m surprised you’re not taking more photos, Jenfie,” said Larry. “You’re really trying to be a good wedding guest, huh?”
“Figures. So what’s that mean?”
“If I spot any interesting guests, I’m going to snap photos like nobody’s business. Until then, I’m giving myself a break. I’ve been here eight times already—I’m sick of the scenery.”
And as for the two members who might be able to use the ceremony as a reference—Seron and Meg—
“This place might not be so bad. We could come here to start off our life together.” “That sounds perfect, Honey.” “Heh, it’s kind of early to start calling me that. Everyone’s listening.” “I don’t mind at all, Honey.” “Hah hah, you’re such a tease.”
—This was not the conversation they were having.
“You don’t know who Schultz’s mother is marrying?”
“No, she did not tell me. She told me that he will be announced at the day of the wedding ceremonies.”
Their conversation was as dry as it could be.
“The invitations didn’t give his name, either. Although I suppose if Schultz herself told you not to worry, there’s nothing to be concerned about.”
“That is true.”
“Us worrying for them won’t solve anything. …Let’s eat.”
“I will eat as well.”
They began munching on some crisps.
The third car to arrive was a large luxury limousine.
It was a model produced not by Jones Motors, but their biggest rival.
“Whoa! Look at that, Jenfie!”
“It’s got nothing to do with me.”
“But it’s from your family’s rival company!”
“Then take a good look at it while you still can.”
As Larry and Jenny bantered, the limousine slowly pulled into the parking lot.
“It’s just one team of rich folks after another. Who the heck is Schultz’s mother marrying?” Natalia wondered.
“I look forward to exchanging greetings,” Nick remarked.
“With who? The bride and groom, or the guests?”
“Good to see you’re honest as ever.”
“We’re finally here! This place is great!”
The limousine door opened, and the first person to step out was a man in a dark grey suit and a red tie— Matthew Silas Epstein. His hair was cut clean and slicked back, perhaps thanks to a visit to a hairdresser. His messy beard was gone as well.
He was followed by a beautiful woman with long brown hair. She was in her early thirties, wearing a lavender dress that was neither too extravagant nor humble. Summer flowers decorated her perfectly-styled hair.
“Hm? Are we early?”
“Better early than late, Eumie.”
It was Silas’s sister, Euphemia Epstein.
She was the new president of the Epstein apparel company. Once a young girl who was turned down by Wil and kicked her brother into a lake in retaliation, Euphemia had grown into a beautiful woman who still possessed that same spirited energy.
Euphemia was the one who rented the venue for the ceremony, but she was simply allowing the wedding party to use her name. She was now married, but her husband stayed home because he did not know the circumstances.
The siblings were followed by a couple in their sixties—the former president and her husband. Both were now retired, supporting their daughter from behind the scenes. Silas had told them everything.
“Who knew after all these years that we would see Wil again? It really is worth living into old age,” said the former president with a smile on her face. Silas shrugged.
“C’mon, Mother. You’re not that old.”
“I suppose not. But it really is fantastic to see him again. And…”
“And?” Silas repeated.
“And it will be wonderful to meet his lovely golden-haired friend again, too.”
The royal guards thanked Eumie profusely for allowing them to use her name to book the venue. Then they led the Epsteins inside.
Because the other guests had to be kept in the dark about Wil for the time being, the Epsteins sat far apart from them.
“So who’re those people, Nick? You know most of the rich folks in the capital and every big-name president, right?” asked Larry.
“I cannot be certain,” Nick replied. “But I believe the two women are the former and current presidents of Epstein. The company has been traditionally passed down through the female line.”
Natalia, who was consuming about 60 percent of the crisps on the table, chimed in. “That’s where SC Arthur’s sister works, ain’t it?”
“It is indeed, Nat. Impressive memory.”
“I become a genius whenever I eat. Go on. Ask me anything.”
“Then I shall. How shall we eradicate world poverty?” Nick asked. Natalia answered without a moment’s hesitation.
“Everyone walks off a cliff.”
The next vehicle to arrive was not a car, but a motorcycle.
It was painted black and off white—an off-road model with a boxer engine, with both rear wheels powered. Treize was on the motorcycle, wearing a black jacket and a helmet and goggles a pilot might use. In the sidecar was Lillia, wearing a cotton jacket. She also wore a helmet and goggles. Both wore their school uniforms.
Seron recognized them first. “Oh, it’s Treize.”
Meg, who had seen the motorcycle the previous summer when Treize came to visit, recognized them as well. “When you say it, you are right. It is Lillia sitting beside.”
“So that’s Treize’s bike, huh?” Larry remarked enviously. “Nice. That’s a civilian version of a military motorcycle. It’s not cheap, let me tell you.”
“The plot thickens. Perhaps it is not too late to resume our investigation, hm?” Nick suggested.
“Still at it? You should just go up to the guy and ask,” said Natalia.
“That’ll definitely make things quick. Let’s interview him,” Jenny agreed.
Soon, the motorcycle reached the plaza and stopped at the very edge of the parking lot.
Treize and Lillia disembarked. They took off their jackets and helmets and put them on the seat of the sidecar.
Seron raised an eyebrow. “Something’s strange. Why isn’t Schultz coming with her mother and stepfather?”
“You’re right,” Jenny said with a nod. It was very unusual in Roxche for someone to come to a family member’s wedding separately from the family.
Seron noticed Meg’s stiff expression. “They must have their reasons,” he said to reassure her. “I’m sure they’ll tell us later.”
Ending the conversation there, he watched carefully and noted that the middle-aged usher did not ask Treize to show his invitation.
Lillia and Treize made the rounds, beginning with Meg and Seron’s table.
“Hey there, newspaper club. Thanks for coming out today. The weather’s great and—ow!”
Lillia bit her tongue before she could even finish her halfhearted greeting.
“A-are you okay, Lillia?” Meg asked, expression darkening with concern.
Lillia did not seem any more cheerful than before. She was downright troubled, completely contrary to the beautiful weather.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Anyway…”
Without taking a seat, Lillia introduced herself and Treize to the club.
“Hey guys. I don’t think I’ve really met some of you before, but anyway. I’m Lillia Schultz. Thanks for coming to my mom’s really weird wedding. This here is Treize Bain—an old friend of mine who transferred in this spring. He’s from Ikstova.”
“Hey guys. Like Lillia said, I’m Treize. Seron’s been helping me out a lot back at the dorms. He’s told me a bit about you, too. Nice to meet you.”
The newspaper club members exchanged glances, not knowing who should speak first.
“You’re up, Chief.” Natalia said. Jenny stood. She offered seats to Lillia and Treize and began introducing the club from one end to the other.
“It’s nice to meet you. I’m Jenny, the president of the newspaper club. Four-eyes here is Natalia the bottomless pit. The pretty boy is Nick. He’s actually a guy, FYI. Larry here’s a military hopeful. And this is Meg, the Westerner.”
Having introduced everyone but Seron, Jenny got ready to have tea—
“Pardon me!” Nick interjected. “I actually have a few questions for you, Treize Bain!”
‘You’re really gonna ask?!’ Larry thought, almost moved by Nick’s dogged passion for knowledge, but he did not say anything.
“Huh? About what? Er…I guess I could answer a few questions about Ikstova,” Treize replied hesitantly, warned by Seron ahead of time about Nick’s endless curiosity.
That was when they were interrupted.
A tiny figure came barreling into the table.
Lillia turned. To her right was a little girl in a frilly dress.
“It’s been a while!”
“Er…who are you?” uttered a confused Lillia. Carlo clenched her fists.
“YES! I WIIIIIIIIIIIIIN!” she declared.
“Huh? Who…hm…wait a sec…C-Carlo?!”
“You got it! It’s been so long, big sis! How’ve you been? I’m totally fine!”
Lillia’s jaw dropped. From behind her, Treize gave a light wave.
“Hey there, Carlo! Good to see you doing all right. By the way, that dress looks great on you.”
“You look good in your uniform too, big bro! Like a real prince!”
Carlo was making an inside joke, but Lillia was completely out of the loop.
“Ah! I get it now!” she cried, jumping to her feet. “I’m in a bizarro-world!” Her chair fell backwards. The newspaper club members flinched.
Lillia spread her arms wide and looked up at the bright blue sky.
“This must be a bizarro-world! Carlo is a girl, and she knows everything! And the dead are coming back to life! Yes, this is definitely a dream! So wake up, Lillia!”
Jenny did not miss her chance to photograph the moment.
Lillia’s cry also reached the Epsteins’ table.
“Oh my. Is the screaming girl over there Wil’s daughter?” wondered the former president.
“I think so. She fits the description perfectly,” replied Euphemia.
“She’s going to be so surprised.” “She’s going to be so surprised.”
“What has Carlo gone and said this time?” Miss Angela wondered from her table, biting into a crisp.
“Calm down, Lillia!” Meg cried, going around behind her to set the chair back on its feet. She sat Lillia down.
“Yeah, big sis! Sorry I scared you!” Carlo said, the calmest person at the entire table.
Lillia was still staring like she had seen a ghost.
“Big sis, I’m actually a girl! Always been one! I just didn’t tell you last year!”
Carlo finally got through to the dazed Lillia, who blinked several times.
“Huh? Really? So…that’s what you actually look like?”
“Yeah, you gotta believe me! I’m a girl! You want proof? I can take off my panties if you want!” Carlo cried and began reaching under her dress. But she was quickly stopped.
“That’s enough, Carlo. I can vouch for you,” said Treize.
“What?!” Lillia gasped, falling victim to another misunderstanding. “Treize…you mean…”
Treize noticed immediately. “N-no! No! She just told me, back on the Kurz Sea!”
‘They’re practically a comedy team,” Larry thought, but he did not say anything.
Completely oblivious, Carlo joined the conversation.
“Big bro found out about me when we were saying bye at the end. But I asked him not to tell you so I could surprise you later.”
“O-oh. Oh. Okay…okay.” Lillia sighed, her shoulders finally drooping.
“Guess that was a big surprise, huh? I mean, you gotta be either a guy or a girl, so is it really that shocking?” Carlo wondered to herself, then turned to the newspaper club. “Hey everyone! The name’s Carlo. Nice to meetcha!” she said, raising her hand.
Jenny took another photo.
“Anyway, this here is Carlo. She’s from Tolcasia,” Lillia explained. “But what’s your real name, Carlo?”
“Who cares? Just call me Carlo, everyone!”
“So she says.”
Carlo scanned the table, looking at the members of the newspaper club. “Say, are you guys all rich? What do rich people in the capital eat?” she asked.
“This!” Natalia grinned and grabbed a crisp.
“Cool!” Carlo grinned back, and grabbed a crisp as well.
“Can’t call yourself rich around here unless you down a thousand of these every day!”
“A thousand! Darn it! Darn you rich people!”
“Even two thousand is nothing for a glasses beauty like me.”
“What’s glasses got to do with anything?”
“Nothing at all, kiddo!”
Carlo and Natalia had become fast friends. Treize glanced in their direction and breathed a sigh of relief at the fact that Nick was now too distracted to question him.
Meg went over to Lillia. Treize quickly gave her his seat.
“Thank you, Treize,” she said, taking the seat without declining. Then she turned to Lillia and switched to Bezelese. “Don’t worry, Lillia. Your life isn’t going to change so easily. Calm down, okay?”
“Ohhh…Meg…” Lillia whimpered. Meg gave her a gentle pat on the head.
“There, there. It’s okay, Lillia. I’ll be your big sister for today and take care of you! I’ll be your shield, no matter what comes your way! Anyone who wants to reach you is going to have to go through me!”
“Thank you, Meg. I’m so glad you’re here for me!”
Meg and Lillia embraced. Jenny took another photo.
Natalia and Carlo continued to feast away.
“See, Carlo? Girls’ friendships ain’t a myth!”
“Huh. What’re they talking about? What’re they saying?”
Meanwhile, Treize took a seat next to Seron.
“Sorry. Looks like Lillia’s going to be borrowing Strauski for a bit.”
“I don’t mind. There’s no need to apologize.”
“Still, we’re kind of interrupting you guys. Anyway, I’m glad Strauski’s so outgoing. Lillia needed a bit of that energy.”
Larry, who had nothing in particular to do, zoned out.
And he was the first to spot the next set of arrivals in the distant fields.
This time, it was a convoy of three expensive black cars. The two at the front and back were ordinary sedans, and the one in the middle was a limousine.
Soon the cars pulled into the parking lot and stopped in a line, taking up a great deal of space.
Out of the first and last cars came four men. All were clad in suits and wore earpieces and microphones. They scanned the area with practiced expertise.
‘Not like anyone’s around, though. Nothing short of a cannon’s gonna get to whoever they’re guarding,’ Larry thought.
Two of the men seemed to be in their forties, one in his thirties, and one in his twenties.
One of the older men was very tall and well-built.
‘He’d be a gunner, if he was in the military,’ Larry thought.
The other was much smaller in comparison, but was agile and showed not a hint of weakness.
‘A scout, probably,’ Larry thought.
The man in his thirties had a sharper eye than the others and was clearly intimidating.
‘A hand-to-hand combatant, or maybe a knife specialist,’ Larry thought.
The man in his late twenties carried himself in a completely different way from the others. He was very handsome, slender, and exuded elegance.
‘Pretty sophisticated. He’d be the perfect bodyguard for a rich lady,’ Larry thought.
A beat. And finally, a woman stepped out of the limousine. She was also in her late twenties, with short hair and a sharp but beautiful face. She wore a flattering black skirt.
‘Female bodyguards all feel kind of similar. But this one’s scarier than Litner. Probably killed a man before,’ Larry thought.
Though he had no way of knowing, Larry was right on all counts.
As soon as the larger of the 40-something men—the one once known as ‘Ed’—stepped out of the car, he gave the surroundings a one-over.
The chapel was surrounded on all sides by fields. All he could see was green barley. But the team took into account the possibility of snipers hiding in the bush and scanned the fields with binoculars.
The other man in his forties—‘Ozette’—got to work checking the plaza and the guests who had already arrived. He had received a guest list ahead of time, along with details about what the guests looked like, which he used to see if anyone uninvited was on the scene. Thus far he found no discrepancies.
The man in his thirties—‘Uno’—checked the cars that were already parked. He spoke to the drivers to check their identities, and found nothing out of the ordinary.
The youngest of the men—‘Yzma’, whose real name was Berstein Kane—looked back at the road they had come down through a pair or binoculars to make sure they were not being followed.
Once the men had given the all-clear, the limousine door finally opened.
That was when ‘Ann’—Gratz Axentine—stepped out of the car and held the door open for her principal.
She was followed by a man in his sixties.
The man was of slender build, and wore a dark grey suit. He was blond and balding with soft blue eyes.
He was followed by a young woman.
She was about 20 years of age. Her long blond hair was tied up in a bun, with her fair skin and emerald-green eyes striking a beautiful contrast against her long pink dress.
Larry, who was watching the group past Lillia and Meg, turned to Nick. “Hey, do you recognize those people?”
“I do not, I fear,” Nick replied, shaking his head. “The older gentleman does not seem to be Roxchean, and I believe I may have seen the young lady on the news, perhaps…”
The old gentleman and the young woman approached the chapel with their bodyguards. They looked at the newspaper club’s table, and the woman suddenly gave a light wave to someone.
Larry and Nick looked around. Who was she greeting? They quickly realized that it was Treize.
“A friend of mine. Let me go say hi,” Treize said to Seron, excusing himself and going up to the new arrivals.
Treize reached them about 20 meters away from the newspaper club’s table. He spoke quietly with the duo, then led them to the table.
“All right, club! Let’s play ‘guess who these guests are’,” Larry said. Seron, who had figured out the answer, said nothing.
“What a mysterious pair,” Nick remarked. “If they are close with Treize, perhaps they are nobility from Iks. Perhaps the woman is Princess Meriel?”
Natalia, who was still competing with Carlo over snacks, shot down the hypothesis. “Nope. Princess Meriel’s got black hair. I’ve been to Iks, you know!”
“Ah, pity. What do you suppose, Jenny?” Nick asked, turning.
“I’m a little busy right now,” Jenny snapped. She was discreetly photographing the duo with her favorite rangefinder, holding it low beside her chair with her bag as a shield as she pressed the shutter again and again.
“Who could it be?” Larry wondered.
“Maybe you’d know if you watched the news once in a while,” Jenny hissed.
The old gentleman and the young woman drew closer.
“Meg…my dearest friend…I’m so glad you’re here for me. Please let me borrow you, just for today…”
Lillia was in the midst of being consoled by Meg.
“Don’t worry, Lillia! Allison can be a strange person, but I’m sure she’ll explain!”
Meg was busy trying to cheer up Lillia in Bezelese.
So naturally, neither of the girls noticed the newcomers being guided to their table by Treize.
The Allied Kingdoms of Bezel-Iltoa had multiple royal families. Of them, the most prominent was the royal family of Bezel, the most powerful of the kingdoms when the alliance was forged.
The current king of Bezel had many siblings, but only one child of his own—Princess Matilda.
The Bezelese royal family practiced absolute primogeniture, which meant that Princess Matilda was first in line to the throne. She was the future queen, a VIP among VIPs.
And now, she was in the Roxchean countryside with very few—but trusted—bodyguards.
She had departed Sfrestus two days earlier on the royal aeroplane and landed in the Capital District. There she went incognito and spent the night at a luxury hotel, then came to the wedding venue in the morning.
The old gentleman accompanying her was Major General Aikashia Cross, whom the king trusted deeply.
Aikashia had a completely forged background. Only Allison and the others knew that he had once lived in Roxche under the identity of Major Oscar Whittington.
The bodyguards were members of an elite team that once worked with Major Travas.
Matilda first greeted Treize and asked, “Where might I find Lillia?”
“Lillia! It’s been far too long,” Matilda said in perfect Roxchean, tapping Lillia on the shoulder.
Lillia turned. Meg looked up.
“Ah!” Lillia cried.
“AAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!” Meg screamed. Lillia flinched, catching her fainting friend.
Several chairs were brought together by the newspaper club to form a makeshift bed for Meg. Natalia and Seron covered her with their jackets.
Meanwhile, Carlo went up to the apologetic Matilda and showered her with questions.
“Who are you, lady? Are you friends with big sis?”
“I am, but I’m afraid I’ve scared her friend,” Matilda replied.
“Don’t worry ‘bout it, I bet she’ll be awake again in no time.”
Lillia simply stared, not knowing where to even begin.
“Sorry I didn’t tell you, Lillia,” Treize whispered. “They said I couldn’t say anything.”
Major General Aikashia had completely lost his chance to speak. He waited in his chair, glancing at his granddaughter—whom he was meeting for the second time in his life.
The first time was when Lillia was still a baby, when Allison made the trip all the way across the Lutoni just to show her to him.
About a minute passed after Meg had passed out.
She found Seron squatting next to her, concern clear in his eyes.
“Oh, Seron…” Meg breathed a sigh of relief.
“How are you feeling?” Seron asked. Meg smiled.
“I am all right. And, I saw an amazing dream.”
“Oh? What was it about?”
“It was a dream that Princess Matilda of my homeland appeared here. It was very surprising,” Meg replied, sitting up and grabbing the jackets before they could fall. Seron took the jackets and responded apologetically.
“Er…that wasn’t a dream, Meg.”
Lillia held Meg from behind in case she fainted again.
“It is unbelievable… Princess Matilda is in front of my eyes… It is the princess in her person, er, her royal person. It is incredible… it must be a dream…” Meg whispered, her pigtails swishing as she shook her head. It was a surreal sight to behold.
Matilda introduced herself to the newspaper club and Carlo.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, everyone. I am Matilda of Bezel.”
Her identity was no longer a secret at this point; Matilda revealed her identity with a smile.
“Huh? Wait a second… What?” Larry stammered, looking around at the rest of the club. “You mean…this lady’s the princess of Bezel?”
“Is there another Matilda of Bezel? No,” Natalia replied, equally surprised.
“Hm…what in the world is happening here? I am witnessing history in the making, it seems. And this mystery surrounding Treize has deepened even more,” Nick mumbled.
Jenny said nothing. She sat with one hand in her bag and waited for a chance to take another photo without showing disrespect.
Even Seron, who had recognized the princess from her face, was lost for words.
Only one person was completely unfazed by the revelation.
“That’s a cool name, lady! The name’s Carlo, nice to meetcha! Here, want some crisps?”
Major General Aikashia finally went over to the newspaper club and stood beside the princess. “It’s a pleasure, everyone,” he said in fluent Roxchean. “I am Major General Aikashia Cross of the Royal Army. It is wonderful to spend time in the company of such fine young people.”
The newspaper club was surprised again, but the shock of Matilda’s presence dampened the impact.
‘A major general! He’s a real big shot!’ Larry thought to himself, the only one more surprised by the second introduction. He almost leapt to his feet and saluted Aikashia.
“I am here to escort the princess today,” Aikashia said.
“I must be dreaming…” Meg gasped, swaying in a daze. Lillia supported her and listened to the man with one of her middle names, not knowing in her wildest dreams that he was her own grandfather. And she finally spoke.
“Er, can I ask something?”
“Of course,” Aikashia replied. Matilda nodded.
“Sorry if this is a rude question to ask,” said Lillia. “But there’s something I don’t get. Why are you at my mother’s wedding? I mean, Mom and I’ve met Your Highness before, but still.”
“Yes, during my official visit,” Matilda said. The newspaper club now knew why Matilda had recognized Lillia. But that did not answer Lillia’s question. So Aikashia did instead.
“I’m sure this has all been quite surprising for you, but your mother will tell you everything herself. It’s something you should hear from her.”
“I see… I understand,” Lillia replied, accepting the answer. “I’ll let her explain in person. Thank you.”
“You sure you’re all right?” Natalia asked.
“Yeah,” Lillia replied. “Everything about my mom’s been a mystery for the past few weeks. What’s another couple more? But I’ll make sure she spills the beans on everything later!”
“That’s the spirit.”
This time, Treize acquainted the newspaper club and Carlo to the Western guests. The newspaper club members stood to introduce themselves.
“I’m Jenny Jones, the president of the newspaper club. It is an honor to stand in your presence, Your Highness. My father is the head of Jones Motors. We are planning a factory in Sou Be-Il this year as well. I pray relations between our country will grow deeper in the future.”
“My, how lovely! Thank you very much.”
“Natalia Steinbeck, Your Highness. The most beautiful member of the newspaper club, although not quite as beautiful as you. My parents are musicians—they performed for Your Highness and His Majesty two years ago.”
“I remember, yes. They gave a splendid performance!”
“My name is Nicholas Browning, Your Highness. My parents are both scholars. Their research has nothing to do with Sou Be-Il, I’m afraid, but it is nevertheless a pleasure to meet you.”
“The pleasure is all mine.”
“Ma’am! Larry Hepburn, at your service! The Hepburn family has served in the Roxchean military for generations! I sincerely hope for continued peace between our lands! It’s an honor!”
“It’s wonderful to meet you.”
A shadow came over Aikashia’s eyes when he heard the Hepburn name, which he was familiar with from his time in the Roxchean military, but no one noticed.
“I’m Seron Maxwell, Your Highness. My mother manages a frozen foodstuffs company. She tells me that she would love to expand operations to the West someday. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
“Ah, the frozen meals in the red packaging. I tried some the other day; it was delicious.”
Meg, who was being supported by Lillia, leapt to her feet.
“S-S-S-S-Strauski… M-M-M-M-Megmica—” she began in Bezelese, but tripped over her own name.
“Hey Megmica? Mind speaking in Roxchean for our sake?” asked Natalia.
“But my Roxchean speaking is—”
Matilda stepped up to encourage Meg in her fluent Roxchean.
“I would love to hear your Roxchean, Miss Strauski.”
“Yes, Your Highness!” Meg cried, eyes glinting. “Strauski Megmica! Born and raised healthily in the land of Bezel! From three years ago, I lived in Roxche with my family!” she said, excited.
“And? Don’t you have anything else to say?” Natalia prodded. Meg gave her a glance.
“What else do I say?”
“You know, about your fiancé.”
“Oh!” Meg looked Matilda in the eye. “This here is Seron Maxwell my fiancé! Recently, we have promised our future together!”
Matilda beamed. A slightly embarrassed Seron looked into the distance.
Meg continued excitably. “But! If Princess Matilda uses me as her maid, I will quit marriage!”
About five years later, the newspaper club would look back fondly on the day’s events.
“I’d never seen that look on Seron’s face before. It was a valuable experience,” Larry Hepburn would say.
“I’d never seen that look on Megmica’s face before. It was a valuable experience,” Natalia Steinbeck would say.
“I had never expected such an awkward look on the face of such a distinguished person. It was a valuable experience,” Nicholas Browning would say.
“And I didn’t get a single photo of their faces. It was the biggest missed opportunity of my life!” Jenny Jones would say.
“The barley fields were sparkling so beautifully that early summer day,” Seron Maxwell would say.
“I was telling the truth, in a way,” Megmica Strauski Maxwell would say.
After Meg’s shocking declaration—
“Pffft! Aha hah hah hah!” Lillia, who had been moping all day, burst out laughing. “Hah hah hah! Meg! You can’t say that in front of your fiancé! Hah hah hah hah!”
“Oh! But Lillia, it is not a lie!”
“But still! You can tell the princess quietly in secret later! Hah hah hah!”
“Is it so? Then Princess Matilda! Please secretly make me your maid later!”
“No, no! That’s not what I mean! Hah hah hah!”
Then, Meg burst out laughing as well. The rest of the table followed suit.
They chuckled, snickered, or even howled. Even Seron, who was almost left at the altar, gave a rare laugh.
“I don’t know what you’re all laughing about, but I’m not gonna lose! Hah hah hah hah!” Carlo joined in, completely oblivious.
Major General Aikashia, Matilda, and Meg, and everyone else was laughing.
Eleven sets of laughter echoed across the field.
“Did Carlo spike their drinks with something?” Miss Angela wondered from her table.
The Epsteins, meanwhile, looked on with amusement.
“Looks like they’re having fun.”
“It’s good to be young. Maybe you should join them, Silas.”
“What? You’re younger than I am, Eumie.”
“Are you picking a fight?”
“What if I am?”
Matilda’s bodyguards were the most surprised by the commotion.
“Wh-what just happened over there? I’ve never seen Her Highness that way before,” Yzma mumbled.
* * *
“The place is already packed!”
“It certainly is, sir.”
Two wedding guests were decidedly not amused.
A lone car drove down the road to the plaza. Two men in uniform sat in the back.
One was Major Kinski.
The other was the colonel who served as a military attaché at the Sou Be-Il embassy.
Both men were in dress uniform, complete with hats and belts. The uniform included a sheathed ceremonial knife on the left side of the belt, and an automatic handgun holstered on the right.
Major Kinski, who sat on the left-side seat, checked his watch.
“Strange. We’re supposed to be an entire hour early for the ceremony.”
The princess’s bodyguards stood outside the chapel. They were familiar to Kinski and the colonel.
That meant that the princess was already at the venue. The colonel scowled.
“Damn it. Did they lie to us about the time?”
“For what purpose, sir? The information comes directly from the Royal Army’s intelligence agency headquarters,” Kinski replied.
“The world is full of surprises, Major. Things you would never believe might be happening again and again right under your nose. It’s important to have clear eyes, to only trust facts you can confirm,” the colonel said calmly.
* * *
“I see, so Treize was acting as a guide.”
Back at the newspaper club’s table, Treize and Lillia were explaining their connection to Princess Matilda.
Because they could not reveal Treize’s identity, those in the know—Treize, Lillia, Matilda, and Aikashia—had to claim that Matilda had made an unofficial visit to Ikstova, Roxche’s only kingdom and the home of the hero Carr Benedict. And that Treize was selected to be her guide because he was around her age.
Lillia had gone from being in the dark to keeping others in the dark. She looked at Meg’s profiled face with an uncomfortable expression.
“I see now,” Meg replied obliviously. Lillia kept the truth to herself, a little sad.
That was when the final car pulled into the lot.
Major Kinski and the colonel disembarked. Several people were watching them through binoculars.
“Good. All the guests are here,” said a man wearing a hat labeled ‘Parukho Village Wedding Chapel Committee’.
“Commence the operation,” said a woman in a matching hat.
Major Kinski and the colonel stepped out of the car.
“We’ve been waiting for you.”
They were greeted with a salute by Ann, one of Matilda’s bodyguards. The colonel saluted back with a scowl.
“Is this some sort of joke? From the looks of things, our invitations were marked an hour late. Were Major Kinski and I not scheduled to arrive much earlier than Her Highness?” he growled, but his round face made him look comical rather than intimidating.
“We’re not sure what happened, sir. We are currently moving on the major general’s orders,” Ann replied blankly with an icy expression.
“Well, I suppose there’s no helping it, then. Not much an outranked man can say here,” the colonel sighed, waving his hand. He fixed his hat, which he had donned as he stepped out of the car, and turned to Kinski. “The major general aside, I expect you to be on perfect behavior in Her Highness’s presence, Major Kinski.”
“I may be a lowly commoner, sir, but I will make sure to cause her no displeasure!”
“That’s exactly the kind of thing I don’t want you to say.”
The men stepped into the party to meet two people who far outstripped them in rank.
The colonel approached Lillia’s table and greeted the other guests on behalf of himself and Kinski with a salute.
“Pardon the intrusion, and apologies for being so late,” he said, and introduced himself. Kinski did the same. They made sure to speak in Roxchean.
The guests at the table showed varying responses. Matilda and Aikashia, naturally, already knew or knew of the men.
“It’s been a long time, Colonel. And it’s lovely to meet you, Major Kinski.” “Wonderful to see you men here. And don’t worry about the time—we’re the ones who arrived far too early,” replied the princess and the major general respectively.
Of the secondary school students, three recognized the colonel.
“Oh my goodness! Colonel!” Meg cried, rising from her seat.
“Ah, if it isn’t the young lady from the Strauski family! What an amazing coincidence!” the colonel responded, eyes turning to dinner plates.
Meg turned to Matilda. “I have met this colonel some times at the Westerners’ gatherings in the Roxchean Capital District!”
“That’s lovely,” Matilda replied with a nod.
The other two who recognized the colonel were Seron and Larry. “It’s been a long time, sir.” “It’s been a long time, sir,” they greeted him in unison.
“And you two boys! I remember you!” the colonel chuckled. Everyone else at the table save for Meg and Major Kinski were confused. When had Seron and Larry met the colonel?
The colonel explained briefly.
“These two boys helped bring a lost Westerner to the embassy last year. I went out to meet them in person so I could give them my sincerest thanks. Really, what an astounding coincidence.”
The rest of the newspaper club finally understood. The colonel was referring to the case of Mark and Burt Murdoch from the previous summer. It was the case that led to the formation of the club, and—in a more roundabout way—Meg and Seron’s engagement.
If not for the club’s intervention, Hartnett would have solved the case and the story would not have had a happy ending. But Seron’s quick thinking and Meg’s connections allowed them to bring Burt Murdoch to the Sou Be-Il embassy for protection. The colonel had been the one who assisted their efforts.
That very colonel was now questioning Aikashia to clear up his concerns.
“It seems I’ve interrupted a lively conversation, sir. What was all the commotion about, if I may ask?”
“Her Highness and I were just surprising the young people here with her presence.”
“Ah, how marvelous!”
Major Kinski and the colonel understood Aikashia’s implication that Princess Matilda’s identity was not a secret at the table. Aikashia continued.
“That’s enough of business for today, Colonel. My apologies for calling you all the way here out of the blue.”
“Not at all, sir. It’s an honor to be here! But I must wonder…”
“Of course. No one told you whose wedding this was supposed to be.”
“I’m afraid not, sir.”
“My apologies—the bride and groom preferred to keep things as low-profile as possible. You’ll know soon enough.”
“I’m looking forward to the surprise.”
“In any case, it looks like there may not be enough chairs around this table for us, colonel. What do you say to relocating? Us old folks should stick together,” Major General Aikashia said, rising from his seat and taking the two military men to another table. As he departed, however, he whispered one last thing to Matilda.
“Thank you for your cooperation, Your Highness.”
<The headmaster is at the center table with the colonel and the major,> Uno reported over the radio.
Major Travas’s former subordinates were all in position, on standby for orders. Axe was in the parking lot, with the rest patrolling the premises in pairs.
Once they confirmed that the vicinity was clear of threats, they resumed reporting over the radio, keeping an eye out for any disturbances.
Kane was the first to break the ice, as relaxed as ever. <Can’t blame the colonel for being confused. Who’d have guessed that the lady would attend a Roxchean civilian’s wedding? He’s probably upset he had to miss his golf appointment.>
<We want to know as much as the colonel, though,> Ed, who was walking next to him, voiced a question for once. <Who in the world is this ‘Wil’?>
Kane shrugged. From a different location, Ozette pressed the talk button.
<What bothers me is the bride. Ex-Captain Allison Schultz of the Confederation Air Force. She wasn’t just an Easterner friend, she was also Major Travas’s girlfriend, no?>
“Lucky him.” “Maybe.” “Hm.” The men each commented.
Ozette turned to the one person who might know the truth. <What do you think, Axe?>
Axe put a finger on the switch at her neck. <Maybe, or maybe not. But what does that matter now?> she replied cooly.
“Stone-cold.” “A real iron maiden.” The men muttered, off the radio. Kane changed the subject.
<And Major Travas is still MIA too. Probably gonna go down as KIA soon. But does anyone actually believe that? Is he really dead?>
The others responded one after another.
<Maybe. But would he really have faked his death in an aeroplane crash? He’d have made it cleaner, taken care of the job without hurting anyone,> Ozette said plainly.
<An aeroplane crash can happen to anyone, my friend,> Uno added. Like Ozette, he did not utter a word of sadness or grief. It was not the sentiment of a civilian.
Ed made a surprisingly spiritual comment. <I’m sure he’s still alive somewhere. The world still needs him.>
Axe—who had once resented Major Travas for the death of her father—was the last to speak. <I don’t believe that he’s been killed. Sooner or later the major will surprise us out of the blue.>
<You’ll know soon enough,> a mysterious woman said on the radio.
As the bodyguards furrowed their brows, the woman who had barged onto the secure frequency continued. <You are hereby relieved of security duties. Return to the main venue. This is an order. Code Raspberry.>
In the end, only four tables were occupied.
One, by the four members of the Epstein family.
Another, by Miss Angela alone. She waited for Carlo and helped herself to tea and snacks.
The third, by Major General Aikashia, the colonel, and Major Kinski. It was a table of men.
The fourth—and the loudest—was occupied by eight students from the 4th Capital Secondary School, a princess, and an orphan girl.
One man watched it all from off-stage, muttering to himself. “Not every day you see a gathering like this. It’s a real once-in-a-lifetime sight.”
He was a beardless man in a suit, wearing a cap labeled ‘Parukho Village Wedding Chapel Committee’.
“Oh? Not if another pair gets married here in the future someday,” said a woman in a matching hat.
“Hah hah! You’re right,” the man laughed with a flash of pearly-white teeth.
Soon, four men and a woman—all clad in suits—joined the other guests before the stage.
The bodyguards looked around in confusion and walked into view of the stage, following the orders on the radio.
They stopped next to Major General Aikashia’s table.