Chapter 17: The Plot
The 19th day of the fifth month.
It was a cloudy day. A car was making its way down the autobahn on the outskirts of Roxche’s Capital District.
This branch of the autobahn encircled the Capital District and was nearly empty, finally clear of the hustle and bustle of the morning rush hour. The car in question was moving at a leisurely pace, allowing the other vehicles to pass it by.
It was a highly ordinary car produced by Jones Motors. It was the same model as practically every other car in the East.
Hartnett sat in the driver’s seat.
Confederation Police officers generally worked in plainclothes to keep a low profile. Indeed, Harnett was in jeans with a cotton T-shirt and jacket, and a pair of sunglasses.
In the passenger seat was the Capital District Police Force’s inspector, the one who had spoken to Hartnett at Bemarte Park earlier. He was in his usual grey suit.
“Two men going out for a drive. Sad,” the inspector said.
“This is the best way to avoid attention and questions,” Hartnett replied. They were not meeting officially in a collaboration between the two police forces, but as two friends going for a drive.
“How is the Travas investigation going?” asked the inspector.
“We’re digging up some fishy stuff. It’s very incriminating,” said Hartnett. “I have to say, it’s really a veritable flood of evidence.”
One by one, Hartnett went over the list of evidence that incriminated Major Travas as a party to the drug trafficking operation in the Capital District.
The new drug cartels operating out of the capital had grown in size thanks to their dealings with Sou Be-Il—which was apparent in the fact that the Blue Rose was now being dealt in the West.
Evidence suggested that Major Travas had been in constant contact with these cartels since he was first posted to the embassy. He had all kinds of substances legally shipped to the West—but never allowed the packages to be opened or examined closely.
The inspector listened quietly to the end before breaking his silence.
“Hah! Figures,” he muttered. His tone was difficult to read.
“Do you have something in mind, Inspector?” asked Hartnett.
“So that’s your evidence? You didn’t find anything suspicious about all this?”
“What do you mean?” Hartnett asked, turning.
“Eyes on the road, Hartnett. Now listen up. It’s our job as the police to be suspicious of things. Then it makes sense for us to suspect this sudden torrent of evidence piling up against Travas. This is basic police academy stuff.”
“In other words, someone is planting fake evidence to implicate him?”
“What else could it be?”
“But…” Hartnett fell into thought for a moment before looking at the inspector again. “Inspector, am I right in supposing that you personally knew Major Travas before this incident began? Is there something you’re not telling us?”
“Eyes on the road, Hartnett. I’m not planning on dying with you today.”
“I don’t know how you might know him, Inspector, but I can’t let you protect a criminal.”
“I’m not trying to protect him. I hate the man. Call me a bigot who hates all Westerners.”
“Now I’m even more confused.”
“The Sou Be-Il embassy’s the one that said he died in an aeroplane crash, right?”
“Yes. Is that a problem? He was from cross-river, and the craft belonged to cross-river forces.”
“So this man is suddenly found guilty of a whole chain of serious crimes, and he immediately dies in an accident in the middle of nowhere with no witnesses? What about this does not look suspicious to you?”
“I’m afraid I can’t follow your line of thinking, Inspector.”
“You don’t have to, so just do your job. Figure out if Major Travas really is involved with the cartels, with your own eyes and ears. Don’t trust all the info they spoon-feed you.”
“That’s a given, Inspector,” Hartnett growled. “What about on your end?”
“They posted a new attaché to take over for him. I’m going to have a word with the man soon.”
“But you can’t access the embassy, Inspector. And even if you tailed him, he would notice quickly.”
“Which is why this calls for a stakeout.”
“Where? Do you know where you might find him?” Hartnett asked dubiously. The inspector grimaced.
“Capital District crisps are irresistible bait for visiting Westerners.”
* * *
The morning of the 19th arrived in Ikstova hours after the Capital District.
Two men ran into each other in the palace bathroom.
“Morning, Silas. Sleep well?”
“Nope. Didn’t get a wink.”
“Why not? The beds were comfortable, no?”
“I’m a commoner, man. Asking me sleep over in a royal guest bedroom just because it’s getting late? Too stressful for me…”
“Says the son of the third richest family in Raputoa.”
“Second richest now. And anyway…”
“Which one are you today? Wil? Or the major?”
“S-sorry. Don’t give me that look.”
“Don’t apologize. But once you’ve done your job, you’d better come back. All right, dead guy?”
The royal guard drove Silas back to Kunst.
It was a blindingly clear day. The remaining piles of snow were shining brightly.
Silas met his bodyguards at the lobby of the hotel they had stayed in.
“All right, men! We’re off to Raputoa again. Sorry to drag you all the way here. You’re almost out of the woods. I’ll make sure to have Eumie give you a hefty bonus.”
“Wonderful, sir. And your friend?” asked one of the drivers.
Silas turned away, gazing dramatically into the distance.
“Yeah. Him. He, or ‘they’, I should say. They’re still fighting out there.”
Silas’s dramatic gaze was pointed in a completely different direction from the palace.
* * *
“Thank you for contacting my family,” Major Travas said over breakfast with the royals.
Carr Benedict had given Travas Ladia a telephone call in Bezelese to let her know of the situation. Naturally, he could not outright tell her that her son was alive, but having met her multiple times since the discovery of the Mural, Benedict managed to communicate the facts in terms that would not catch the attention of any potential wiretappers.
“She was happy to hear the news,” Benedict said, digging into his hot cheese gratin. “I don’t think she believed the military to begin with, anyway.”
Cheese was one of Ikstova’s most prized exports. It was in practically every local dish.
The wooden table was set with Benedict’s favorite—cheese gratin—and cheese fondue with vegetables, stir-fried hash browns with bacon and cheese, and piping-hot ham and cheese sandwiches. Breakfast also included oranges and the usual tea.
“I spoke to Allison last night,” said Fiona. “You’re both amazing. You know, Allison didn’t believe a word of what the embassy told her about you. She was very casual about it. ‘Presumed alive until declared dead by self’ is a family motto, she says.”
Major Travas put down his fork and bowed his head.
“You’ve been a great help, Your Majesty. Thank you.”
“Please, raise your head. Now what do you have in mind? You must be planning something.”
Major Travas nodded. “Yes. I wish to go back to the crash site.”
“You’re going to pick up something?” Benedict reasoned, immediately realizing what Major Travas was going to do.
“Yes. The embassy ordered me to take some documents back to the motherland, and I was transporting them during the crash. I don’t know what the documents detail, and I didn’t bring them out of the aeroplane with me in case I lost them on the way. I did not destroy them, either. If the search crews haven’t found the aeroplane yet, they should still be where I left them.”
“I see. Then it’ll be best to grab them.”
Benedict understood Major Travas’s intent, but Fiona was still confused. So Benedict explained the situation. Major Travas continued his meal in the meantime.
“So that’s how it is, Fi. —Let’s go over this again. From what we heard yesterday, Major Travas was almost assassinated.”
“They probably had a few reasons to make the crash happen in the Iltoa Mountain Range. First, it’s deserted. That’s more to prevent leaving witnesses than to prevent civilian casualties. Second, it’s almost impossible to land there. And crashing in that area practically guarantees that everyone onboard dies.”
“I see. We heard all this yesterday.”
“And there’s another reason. Because it’s a major strategic outpost, occupied heavily by the Royal Army and Air Force. Remember the depas we saw on the transcontinental express?”
“Yes, where we separated the trains.”
“Yeah. It’s easy to mobilize search crews in the Iltoa Mountain Range. So this is what the mastermind is planning: the military searches for the crash site from overhead, and sends in a search crew once they find the wreck. They find the crew and the major’s bodies. Then they find the papers or microfilm—probably microfilm, it’s fire-resistant—in the major’s belongings.”
“Then what happens?” Fiona asked, her series of nods stopping.
“Then this happens. ‘Oh gods! We found evidence that Major Travas was actually a terrible villain committing treason against the motherland!’”
“I see!” Fiona exclaimed. “They weren’t simply trying to kill him; they were trying to foist blame for other things onto him as well.”
“That’s the most likely scenario.”
“So the plan is to get to the documents before the military does, and trace them back to the mastermind.”
Major Travas wiped his mouth on a napkin and rejoined the conversation. “That is the only option we have.”
“And they’re probably looking for the wreckage on their end right now. They know that the aeroplane didn’t crash in the mountains, so they likely moved on to the Lutoni’s west bank. It’s the east bank next.”
Major Travas nodded. “The military must have mobilized by now. Or mercenaries, possibly. Either way, we have to hope that they haven’t found the wreckage yet.”
“Right. Then the sooner we start, the better! I’ll be doing the flying, if the amateur pilot here doesn’t mind. We’re taking off this afternoon, spending the night at Leonhart International, and beginning the search tomorrow if the weather allows.”
“Thank you. I can’t thank you enough for all your cooperation, really.”
“Don’t sweat it. It’s the least we can do after the help you gave us at the new year’s party! And FYI, I knew something like this might happen, so I had a lovely new amphibious craft waiting in the wings!” Benedict said proudly.
“The camera hasn’t arrived yet, though,” his wife added with a wry smile.
* * *
Major Travas and Benedict began preparations after breakfast. Their first stop was one of the rooms in the palace, which was set aside for Benedict’s hobbies.
“You’re gonna need one of these, eh?” he asked, holding out the latest assault rifle used by the Confederation military.
The assault rifle had a metal folding stock and used curved 30-round magazines, and had both semi-automatic and automatic capabilities. It took 7.62 caliber rounds. This was the very same model Major Travas wielded on a certain train two months earlier, with the exception of the stock. Benedict’s model had a simpler stock made of metal framing that folded to the right side.
“Ikstova’s finally gotten a few dozen of these. You can take one for the trip. Let’s take ‘em out for a test run later,” Benedict said, taking out a 200-round ammunition case and six spare magazines.
“Thank you. I’ll take good care of it,” Major Travas replied.
Down the slope from the royal palace was Lake Ras. And on the lakeshore was a large, semicircular building. It was the royal hangar, which doubled as a garage for Benedict.
Because the facility was close to the lake, it could house seaplanes as well as aeroplanes. In the winter, the frozen lake could be used as a runway.
Major Travas was led by Benedict into the hangar. There he came face-to-face with Benedict’s latest toy.
It was an amphibious biplane, measuring at 11 meters from nose to tail with a wingspan of 12 meters. Because it had not been painted, its silvery surface was completely exposed.
Most seaplanes were aeroplanes with floats attached horizontally to the base of the fuselage. However, this craft’s fuselage was unique in that that it was nearly one with the floats.
The lower wing also had one float under each side for balance.
The craft was a two-seater, with one cockpit and a passenger seat, but there was enough room for two more between the fuselage and the floats—and windows to allow for such boarding configurations. These extra seats could be used for transportation or rescue operations.
An amphibious craft differed from a seaplane in that it was equipped with wheels on its stowed landing gear. In other words, it could also function as an aeroplane.
“Can’t arm it, though, since it’s officially a civilian craft,” Benedict said, giving the plane a gentle tap.
The royal mechanics resumed their work on the plane.
Leaving the mechanics to do maintenance, Major Travas and Benedict began loading the magazines laid out on the table.
That was when a girl rushed into the hangar.
She had long, black, back-length hair, and was a mirror image of Treize. The girl was dressed in comfortable jeans and a cream-colored sweater.
“Princess Meriel! It’s been too long, Your Highness. Are you well?” Major Travas asked, rising from his seat.
“Stop! You don’t have to get up for me!” Princess Meriel of Ikstova commanded.
Meriel was the twin sister of Treize, although it was not known which of the twins was the elder.
“Hey there, Meriel.”
Meriel ignored her father and went straight to Major Travas.
“How are your injuries, Major? I heard you went through a terrible ordeal!”
“I’m feeling much better, Your Highness. I’m just waiting for my left ankle to heal.”
Benedict joined the conversation as he continued loading the magazines, saying that Meriel had been staying in the valley. She had left the royal family’s protected hideaway by car early that morning to rush to Major Travas’s side.
“Please stop throwing yourself into these awful situations! …But I suppose you would have stopped long ago if pleading were enough to convince you. I shall pray for your safety,” Meriel said, clasping her hands together.
“Show some of that concern for your dear old dad sometimes,” Benedict mumbled from behind.
Gunshots resonated across the lake.
Major Travas did marksmanship practice from the shore, his target a block of wood floating on the water about 50 meters away.
He stood on the concrete ramp that led into Lake Ras from the hangar.
With both crutches under his arms, Major Travas unfolded the stock and took aim. He fired. In spite of his unusual position, he was able to easily take the recoil from semi-automatic fire.
Each time he pulled the trigger, splinters flew into the air.
The block of wood was about 50 centimeters in diameter. But because it was floating, only about half the surface area was a valid target. And yet every bullet found its mark. Major Travas never left a splash in the water.
Benedict spoke up from behind, ready to catch him if he lost his balance. “Looks like you don’t need my help after all. I can’t believe you managed all that while standing on one leg.”
Some guns had something called a bolt, which moved back and forth whenever a bullet was chambered. In such models, the bolt stopping at the lowered position indicated that the magazine was empty and the gun needed to be reloaded.
But this assault rifle had no such function.
Thirty shots later, there was a loud click. The empty magazine rotated with a hollow noise, signaling the need for a new one.
With his left hand, Major Travas gripped the magazine. With his thumb he pushed the magazine catch, and the magazine dislodged itself.
After pulling the lever with his right hand, he checked thoroughly to make sure that no rounds had been left inside.
Finally, Major Travas pulled the trigger without a loaded bullet to arm the safety.
Benedict received the gun from him. “I’ll give you suspenders for it later. You’ll need a bag for the extra magazines, too. Not that I want to let you get into a shootout alone. Just think of this as a good luck charm.”
“I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen. But—”
“This is a fight that involves me and me alone. If the need arises, I will take action on my own.”
They took off their earmuffs and returned to the hangar. There, Meriel had put on coveralls and joined the mechanics in checking and fueling the craft.
* * *
Benedict and Major Travas were in identical aviator jackets and padded aviator hats with built-in headsets.
Both were sitting in the amphibious craft. The nose propeller and the wheels under the floats began spinning, slowly moving the plane down the concrete ramp.
“Be careful!” Meriel cried, seeing them off with the mechanics. The queen also stood with them, watching silently.
The floats reached the water amidst the hum of the engine. The amphibious craft was now acting as a seaplane. The rudder on the back of the vertical stabilizer moved from side to side as the craft zigzagged across the surface of the lake.
Once Benedict found their heading and the engine was warmed up, the hum crescendoed into a deafening roar as the engine propelled the plane across the water.
The floats pulled away from the lake, leaving a massive splash in the wake of the wing propellers.
The amphibious craft took to the sky from the lake in the mountains.
<And we have liftoff. She controls really well, this one,> Benedict said.
<Ikstova is beautiful whatever the season, it seems,> Major Travas commented, enjoying the view.
Benedict immediately set course for the north and pulled the craft into ascent. <Nothing fazes you, eh? Most people who’ve been in crashes or crash-landings develop phobias. Freeze up at the sound of the engine. Some professional pilots go through it too. A few of them never fly again.>
Though Benedict could not see, Major Travas was staring at the watch on his left wrist.
It was noon. But the time was not what concerned Major Travas.
<I’ll have time to be afraid later.>
Benedict’s amphibious craft flew over the crystal-clear Lake Ras and Ikstova’s second-largest city, Mushke. Their destination was Leonhart International Airport in Raputoa City.
* * *
Across the Lutoni from the Republic of Raputoa, just past the Western buffer zone, stood what was once the Teruto Royal Army Base.
The base was originally intended to serve as a headquarters for an invasion on the East, which is why it had been manned by high-ranking officials unusual for the size of the base.
But military budget cuts left the base abandoned, with no officers or soldiers manning it now. The large property in the forest was reduced to a storehouse for surplus weapons.
The base also had hangars for aeroplanes and seaplanes.
Aeroplanes would be used to transport the surplus supplies to the base, and the crafts would be left there—either in the hangar or outside it.
The crafts left behind were those the military had been unable to scrap, because they had been granted budgets for a few more years than they could be stored.
The planes inside the hangar might have avoided wear and tear, but the ones exposed to the weather were unlikely to ever see use again. They were beginning to rust over, dying alongside the base.
In spite of this, the Teruto Royal Army Base was still nominally a base, and had reserves of aeroplane fuel. This was why troops were sent in from the nearest base—from a platoon of about 30—on a rotation shift to guard it.
The guards were posted for several days at a time to do little but watch the sun rise and fall.
But no one had been posted in the past few days. Orders from above, an absolute in the world of the military, had forced all military personnel to clear out the previous evening.
The soldiers posted on the base chattered as they left in the back of a truck.
“So they’re finally gonna can the place. Leave it to rot, eh?”
“The canals are still usable, so I’m betting they’re gonna use the base for some special training. Maybe for demolition work.”
“Nah. They’re gonna say there was a fire and tear down the place. Nobody’s gonna question a fire, I mean.”
The soldiers hypothesized one after another, but in the end, they were happy as long as they were freed from the mind-numbing guard duty at the base.
And so, the former castle-turned-command center was left to sleep in the forest, its rusted hangars and aeroplanes becoming overgrown with weeds.
Just as Benedict and Major Travas took off for Raputoa City, another amphibious craft flew into the deserted former Teruto Base.
This model had a body that doubled as a hull, with the landing gear attached to the base.
The craft was on the large side, measuring at 20 meters from nose to tail with a wingspan of 30 meters. It had one long wing with one engine on each side.
The amphibious plane crossed the base from overhead, then circled back and made a clean landing in the canal. Then it climbed up the ramp.
The engines only stopped once the plane was fully inside the hangar. The side hatch opened and seven men rushed outside.
They ranged in age from around 30 to 40, and were clearly a fearless—if not outright ruthless—bunch. They were wearing a variety of clothes, from flying suits to work wear.
“Line up! I said, line up, you maggots!”
The command came from a tall man about 40 years of age with clean, sharp features. He had short black hair.
The man was dressed in camouflage gear, but the pattern was completely different from the one used by the Sou Be-Il military. It was composed of splotches of greens, browns, and blacks, with thick straps around the arms near the shoulders. The straps could be pulled in case of injury to stop the bleeding.
“We’re not here on vacation, you maggots! I said, LINE UP!”
The other men glared back, but eventually arranged themselves as ordered.
“Look, ex-First Lieutenant Cornelius. We might be shit left over from the military cuts, but we don’t gotta hear that crap from you. You’re the one who tried to kill people from your own unit with a bomb. Folks like us coulda never pulled that off,” one of them said with a snicker.
“Of course not.”
The former First Lieutenant Cornelius pulled an automatic handgun from his belt holster and shot the man in the right eye.
The target was 10 meters away, yet Cornelius had not paused a moment to take aim, even as he fired with only one hand.
One golden shell casing fell to the ground. As did one dead body.
Cornelius holstered his gun and turned to the five surviving men in line.
“Listen up! We are here to work, maggots! Any man with second thoughts or hesitation, speak up now and my gun will answer you!”
No one spoke.
“Good! Now listen up, maggots!” Cornelius demanded, grinning. “Ah, yes. I may be as mad and bomb-crazy as they say! I don’t deny it! After this job, I’m back off to the military prison to finish off my century-plus sentence! But not you boys. Not you! You have stacks of cash waiting for you to finish this mission! And to the survivors go the spoils. And out of the generosity of my heart, I have just raised your individual shares!”
The men broke out smiling.
Having tamed five men with just one bullet, Cornelius clapped his hands.
“Let’s get to work, boys! Off to the hangar and take one plane per man! Refuel! Haul out the ammo from the plane and reload those crafts! Tomorrow morning, we leave for Roxche!”
* * *
It was night. The stars were twinkling high up in the moonless sky.
“We’re gonna have clear weather tomorrow. Perfect for flying.”
Benedict was looking up at the sky from the balcony of a hotel near Leonhart International Airport, where he had landed in the evening.
Inside, Major Travas was sitting on the carpet with his left leg outstretched, scrutinizing a map in front of him.
The map detailed roads and settlements in the Republic of Raputoa. Now that the cold war had ended, more accurate maps were available to the public.
However, the buffer zone still remained blank. Everything in a 30-kilometer strip to the Lutoni was undocumented.
Major Travas marked out the village of Stern in Reed County, north of Raputoa City. If he was found in Stern, the aeroplane must have crashed in the area, he reasoned. Major Travas traced his finger from the village to the river. There were no identifying markers along the Lutoni.
Benedict came in from checking the weather and took a seat next to him. “All right. If the crash was around here, your flight must have been bound over the Iltoa Mountain Range and headed for Lillianne. I wish we had the full flight plan with us,” Benedict said, going over the route.
“I’m not certain where exactly I was found,” Major Travas replied. “I did travel east from the crash site, but I can’t guarantee I was headed in the right direction by the end. I was drifting in and out of consciousness.”
“Well, we know to start on the east bank. We’ll find it quickly,” Benedict said, steering the conversation in a different direction. “Anyway, are you sure you don’t want to tell Allison about the search tomorrow?”
Major Travas looked Benedict in the eye and shook his head. “She’ll do something rash if she found out.”
“You make a good point.”
“Last time, she had the excuse of wanting to rescue her daughter. But not now.”
“What, rushing over to rescue you isn’t good enough of a reason?”
“There’s no guarantee that I will be found innocent. A written apology won’t cut it this time.”
“All right, all right. I won’t tell Allison. Now get some sleep—we have an early morning tomorrow. We’re taking off as soon as the airport opens,” Benedict said, helping Major Travas up.
Then they went to their own rooms.
Benedict lay in bed, stroking his beard.
“I said I wouldn’t tell Allison, but I can’t guarantee that my wife hasn’t. Oh well.”
* * *
Early the next morning.
It was a clear spring morning, without a spot of fog to be seen.
Multiple engines roared to life.
The amphibious craft carrying Benedict and Major Travas at Leonhart International Airport.
The pretext for their flight was practice for an aircraft belonging to the royal family of Ikstova. The plan they submitted had the craft flying along the train tracks to make sure they did not stray into the buffer zone.
The multiple aeroplanes carrying Cornelius and his men at the former Teruto Base.
The purpose of their flight was to cross the Lutoni and invade foreign airspace in search of a downed craft and its contents. All resistance was to be met with violent elimination.
And another aircraft took to the skies—