Chapter 1: The Sudden Laughter of Those in Power
There was once a girl named Niki in a city in Italy.
Everyone called her ‘Niki’. She had no family name. Perhaps she had one, at one point in the past. But she did not know what it had been, nor would she ever be able to know.
She had been sold to a certain city as a slave, and was once almost murdered by its inhabitants.
She had no idea what lay in store for her future. She fumbled through the darkness without even a glimmer of hope.
But as she lived on, so very close to the abyss, she found salvation.
First, a killer known as the Mask Maker offered her the hope of death.
Second, a womanizing governor offered her human goodwill.
Third, a group of young alchemists offered her a new way of life, less than righteous though it was.
From the second offer in particular on, she spent her days in what she considered nothing short of a series of miracles.
Before that day, life was nothing but an endless cycle of inescapable pain. But her wish to be freed from it all through death at the Mask Maker’s hands had been granted so easily (for the amount of time and turmoil involved) in other words, her world had been turned upside-down.
Had this change brought light into her life?
Or had it brought her yet another step closer to hell?
Even she did not know the answer yet.
Niki was now working as a servant for a group of alchemists.
Compared to her life as a slave, it was practically paradise. But what she desired above all was not a wholesome life.
She was seeking for a place to die.
Before the great changes had swept through Lotto Valentino, countless slave children around her died off one by one.
She had only been spared by a stroke of good fortune.
How was she to live now, she wondered to herself. That was when one boy answered her.
“You could live on, looking for a place to die. And once you find that place, you’ll be able to die with a smile, right?”
“That’ll make me happy too, you know.”
Such incredibly selfish words.
But the selfishness of his response convinced Niki that the boy was being completely honest. And following the words of the boy, who was one of her rescuers, she lived cautiously in search of a place where she could die with a smile.
Time passed, and news came to her.
She received word that one of the young alchemists who had rescued her from darkness and given her a reason to live had died. But even then, Niki did not despair.
The death of her rescuer, whom she had always considered more worthy of life than herself, left her even more lost as to where her place to die really was.
In other words, this was all she felt.
She was ashamed of herself for being unable to cry loudly for her rescuer’s death--even though no one blamed her, she continued to despise herself in her heart.
Time continued to pass in peace.
And the girl who had not yet found a place to die was being left behind in its wake.
1711. The city of Lotto Valentino, on the Italian Peninsula.
“Looks like it’s just up ahead, old man.”
The plains were covered in grey clouds, just about ready to pour rain upon the earth.
Two horses slowly trotted along the road. On either side, tall grass swayed in the wind.
“I’m looking forward to seeing what’s gonna happen to us.”
A man approaching thirty grinned at the old man riding beside him to his left.
The old man’s grimace did not so much as budge.
“There will be no problems. After all, this was how it had been arranged for us from the beginning, is it not?”
“I wonder ‘bout that. I hear our destination’s a pretty unusual place, in a lot of ways.”
The younger man continued excitedly.
“Lotto Valentino. Officially, the city’s under the jurisdiction of the Viceroy of Naples, but it’s actually completely cut off from everywhere else. No glory from the Church, no war at its gates--even though it’s a ready-made trading port, with enough room to moor a few gigantic warships. Incredible, isn’t it?”
“...I do not need you to tell me what I already know. Or do you place so little trust in your memory that you need me to confirm this for you?”
“Don’t be like that. It just means I have a lot of interest in the place. Like an overexcited kid looking forward to seeing new places.”
The younger man lowered his voice and snickered.
“Besides, how could anyone not get excited, going to a creepy town full of serial killers, drugs, and counterfeit gold? Don’t you think so too, Szilard?”
The old man called Szilard, still frowning, shook his head.
“I’ve told you once, before we departed. We are here to work, Victor. I suggest you do not let your curiosity hinder our mission.”
“You’ve got no dreams, do you, old man?”
The man called Victor tried to shrug, but it was difficult to do so while grasping the reins.
“Clinging to immaterial ideas like dreams will leave you nothing but an ignorant child of an alchemist, Victor. And a third-rate messenger of House Dormentaire, at best.”
Victor clicked his tongue at the mention of the name ‘Dormentaire’.
Victor and Szilard were alchemists being funded by House Dormentaire, a powerful noble family from Spain. There seemed to be something about the family’s whims that came to Victor like an epiphany just now, but he smiled as he did before and addressed Szilard again.
“Sure, I guess a greenhorn like me’ll always look like a third-rate alchemist to you. But I don’t think we’ll get anything good out of underestimating a city we’ve never seen before. At least, I’m not letting my guard down. Whatever kind of organization those ‘Mask Makers’ are, and whatever secrets this city is hiding, I’ll see for myself. And then I’ll make sure to expose it all for the world to see.” He said confidently, despite the fact that they were soon to enter a city in unrest. Szilard sneered.
“You underestimate House Dormentaire.”
“There it is.”
As they climbed over a small hill, they caught sight of the port city before them.
Lotto Valentino, a small city of about fifty thousand.
Stone buildings looked over the sea from their hilly foundations. The streets were laid in such a way that they did not look out of place in the landscape around it.
The Tyrrhenian Sea--a part of the Mediterranean--sparkled a clear blue, turning every view of the city into a beautiful work of art.
Or at least, that was how things had once been.
Victor grimaced at the element that destroyed the picturesque landscape.
In front of each and every building, especially the more important-seeming shops and workshops, and more prominently in front of every aristocratic manor, hung flags and signs bearing the same crest.
The designs of the flags were not what concerned Victor.
But the crest, bearing the motif of the yellow hourglass, was greatly familiar to him. It was also reason enough for him to abandon all fantasies about the city.
“Did I not warn you? There is no need for useless curiosity.” The old man said, looking down at the streets overrun with the crest.
“Anything and everything will fall under the possession of House Dormentaire.”
Lotto Valentino was already under the control of the Dormentaires.
Instead of stating the truth implied by the scenery, Szilard belittled his younger companion.
“Do you still wonder why you are called a foolish dreamer?”
At the same time, the special archives of the Third Library, Lotto Valentino.
“You’ll have no regrets, then, Maiza?”
An elderly man asked slowly, under the lamplight.
“The Advenna Avis is due to make port this month. It was procured at a great debt to the Mars Family, but it should be free from the influence of House Dormentaire. Until it sets sail, at any rate.”
“Thank you. That will be more than enough.”
“In other words, once you set sail... You will not be able to return to this city. For years, if you are lucky. Decades, if things go badly. You must already understand this, Maiza. You will naturally lose your aristocratic status. You will not even be able to watch over your father’s death and funeral.”
Though it was still daytime, the room was dim. Without the lamplight it would be impossible to recognize anyone. The young man called Maiza pensively considered the old man’s question, and nodded.
“I am ready. I have no attachment to the aristocracy, and even should something happen to Father, I trust that my brother and cousins will take care of matters. I have never had any intention of reconciling with Father in the first place.”
“You are being rather talkative. Clearly you’ve still some regrets about your family.”
The old man said, provoking the bespectacled man.
“...I’m still human, after all. I can’t separate myself from these sentiments so easily.”
Acknowledging the old man, Maiza smiled somewhat sadly.
On the door of the room in which they were conversing was a sign that read ‘Special Archives’.
Just as the name implied, the archive was filled with fossils, ancient tools, original or rare copies of old books, plants that did not exist in this country, and all sorts of objects that lent the room an exotic air.
In the middle of the room was a chair set up for a guest, and in a corner was an extravagant wooden desk. From the looks of the man sitting there, the room looked less like an archive than the office of the manager of a museum.
The old man was, in fact, a manager of sorts. But this room itself had nothing to do with the functions of the library. It was a place where he could show himself as something other than a simple library manager.
He was Dalton Strauss, an alchemist.
His wooden right arm creaked as he looked directly into the face of the younger man with eyes that might have belonged to an all-seeing mage.
“Because you are human, you say? And once you’ve achieved your goal, would you still be able to call yourself as such, I wonder?”
It would take some effort to come up with a response to Dalton’s question. Maiza went silent.
“It seems you’ve yet to arrive at an answer.”
With a faint smile, Dalton got up and picked up a fossilized clam as he continued.
“But that is nothing to be concerned about. Even if I were to be asked to describe the thoughts of this clam, I would be unable to do so. If this fossilized creature could still possess consciousness, what would it feel? I would have no way of understanding. In other words, the transfiguration you face may be even more jarring than that of a man turning into a fossilized sea creature. You must understand this, Maiza.”
Dalton looked straight into his student’s eyes in confirmation.
“That... is what it means to become immortal.”
It was a word straight out of ancient myth, but it was a familiar term to those who studied alchemy.
Many alchemists considered immortality or the creation of life to be a benchmark, or even the ultimate goal, of the art.
Maiza also knew that Dalton was once one such man--a man who pursued immortality.
And one who had attained it in the flesh.
“But seeing you, Professor Dalton, I can’t see it as such a fruitless goal as you claim.”
“I wonder. Yet you have no way of knowing if I am actually a monster who speaks in an approximation of human tongue.”
“That’s quite funny, Professor.”
“I’m being quite serious. Would a truly ‘normal’ human being allow himself to disclose the path to immortality? Any sane man would come to the conclusion that ‘there is little of merit in immortality’ after a hundred years of life, and seal away that knowledge forever. And he would strive to hide his immortality for fear of discovery by prying eyes.”
Dalton sighed and took a seat, still holding the fossil.
“And yet I do not make any efforts to hide my immortality, and I found myself revealing its secrets to you.”
“Curiosity. I have prioritized my interests as a researcher--no, as an immortal--over human morality.”
Dalton revealed everything to Maiza, intending to hide nothing.
“There is a good chance that immortality will bring you nothing but misfortune. I believe I have repeated myself many times now, but my mind is so irreparably broken that I cannot tell you to cease your pursuit of eternal life. I’ve even lost any sort of greed that would have compelled me to sell my knowledge to the rich for money. ...But I do wish, as an alchemist, that talented men like yourself would be able to live for a very long time.”
“You overestimate me, Professor.”
“That is not for you to judge.” Dalton turned down Maiza’s show of humility. He languidly looked upon the fossil.
“I am always regretful.”
“Yes. To be long-lived is to live with a proportionate amount of guilt from the mistakes of one’s past. And more recently, one regret of mine was that I did not confer immortality to someone before it was too late.”
Dalton, who had once slit his own throat before Maiza in a display of his own immortality, looked into the air.
“I’m sure you know of Elmer, Huey, and Monica.”
The three names Dalton mentioned belonged to three young people who had been learning alchemy under his instruction at this library.
The young man named Elmer spoke often with Maiza. As for the others, Maiza knew little more than their names.
Dalton often mentioned Huey Laforet and referred to him as a genius, so the name naturally stuck with Maiza. He was not one to be jealous of others, so he never really paid his fellow student any mind.
And as for Monica Campanella--
He had heard that she died in a so-called accident in relation to House Dormentaire last year.
Of course, Maiza knew that it could not have been an accident. But he never delved into the specifics, merely worrying for the hometown that the incident had begun to change.
“It’s already been a year now...”
“Yes. If only I had conferred immortality to Monica... no, all three of them, we would never have lost that vast potential and talent known as Huey Laforet.”
It was an awkward way to put things, but Dalton’s sentiments were clear. This was because Maiza also knew something else about the three students.
Not long after Monica’s death, Huey Laforet had disappeared without a trace.
Some time after he went missing, the alchemy students at the library began to speculate that perhaps Huey had followed Monica in death. Even Maiza was beginning to have doubts about Huey’s survival.
“There’s no doubt that Lotto Valentino turned itself against House Dormentaire that day. I’ve been reasonably certain that the three of them were also somehow involved with the incident, but...”
“You will not hear the truth from me. It would be best to ask Elmer yourself.”
“I have no intention of inquiring unnecessarily. It must be a difficult memory to relive, even for Elmer.”
With that, Maiza returned to the topic at hand.
“In any event, I’m certain that I will not miss this city.”
“You mean to say that Lotto Valentino has no future?”
“It will have a future, even under the control of House Dormentaire. And in that sense, the lives of the people will improve--they will become better than the time when slaves were forced to concoct drugs. But...”
“You mean to say that you are not interested?” Dalton taunted.
Maiza neither acknowledged nor denied Dalton’s observation. He put on a smile filled with mixed emotion.
“...Should I succeed in attaining immortality on this journey, I will return someday.”
“Unlike Father, my brother Gretto is an upstanding human being. He can be fainthearted sometimes, but I have faith that he will be able to change the air of this city. And if I could quietly visit the new city he has created one day and take in its changed winds, that will be enough for me.”
With that, Maiza left the room.
Dalton spent some moments in silence, dusting the clam fossil.
Then, he sighed and mumbled to himself.
“A difficult memory to relive, even for Elmer, you say?”
His thoughts were not with the topic of Maiza’s determination or the future, but of the brief tangent they had gone off on earlier.
“I see he still has much to learn about that eccentric of a man.”
With his left hand he picked up a piece of parchment from his desk.
“Now... how many more will board the ship?”
Dalton glanced at his prosthetic right arm and remembered the past.
He recalled the words that only those who took hold of the Elixir of Immortality in the same way would know.
“I hope at least one of them will be able to entertain that devil.”
At the same time, the Avaro manor.
“Cease this foolishness, Gretto! Do you intend to bring shame to our family?!”
A man with a short beard roared at a nervous, somewhat baby-faced young man.
“That’s not what I’m trying to do, Father.”
They were inside a certain room in an aristocrat’s manor.
It was the office of the family head, filled with opulent furniture.
The shelves were lined with an assortment of imported curios, all clearly of the highest quality. The ornaments, which were almost bordering on decadence, made it seem as though the family head was trying too hard to display his majesty.
The aristocrat, his stature befitting the atmosphere of the room, began to apply pressure to the young man.
The head of the Avaro Family, looking less like a strict parent than an outraged master, raised his voice at his second son, Gretto Avaro.
“What you intend means nothing if it will lead to the same conclusion! I am already occupied with House Dormentaire’s threat to seize this city. You would give them an even greater excuse to impose their control over us?!”
Currently, Lotto Valentino was under the control of House Dormentaire, an aristocratic family from Spain.
Their power had soaked into every last corner of the city, exercising influence over its economy as it pleased by means both legal and criminal.
Because Lotto Valentino was not a very religious city, it had not attempted to use the Church to take over it. But House Dormentaire used money instead of faith to hold sway over everything from small businesses to the pockets of some of the aristocrats.
The reason for this show of power was the incident in which one of their delegations had been assaulted by the Mask Makers, a criminal organization with its roots in Lotto Valentino.
The term ‘Mask Maker’ originally referred to a mysterious serial killer who had thrown the city into confusion some time ago, but over time it came to be used as a name for the criminal organization itself.
They set fire to House Dormentaire’s headquarters in the city, and their ship that was moored in the harbor. Not only that, the Mask Makers had also looted their supplies and attacked a certain ‘criminal’ who was being held on their ship.
It was said that the criminal was killed during the attack, but the Avaro head did not know the details. Assuming that the criminal had been silenced by her allies, he passed over the matter.
What bothered him, however, was the possibility that House Dormentaire, a formidable force in all of Europe, would use the Mask Makers’ attack as an excuse to retaliate against the city.
His fears soon came true with shocking accuracy.
Although House Dormentaire did not bombard the city with cannon fire, they had dispatched shiploads of men under the pretext of investigating the Mask Makers. At this point, it was difficult to tell who the majority was in Lotto Valentino--its citizens, or the Dormentaire associates.
The aristocrats trembled at the changes that swept across the city in the span of a single year. But they could do little but spend their days shaking in fear.
Averting his eyes from one such aristocrat, Gretto responded,
“Turning down one or two arranged marriages isn’t going to disgrace your name, Father. And I don’t think House Dormentaire will care, either.”
“No. No, they would not. But what bothers me is your reason for turning them down.”
“I... I am sorry for turning them down, but I didn’t think it would work out. And it wasn’t as though those marriages would have strengthened our family very much, right?”
Gretto was looking away awkwardly.
His father snorted and rejected his explanation.
“You ‘didn’t think it would work out’? Laughable. You never had any interest in their families or appearances or characters in the first place!”
“What are you talking about, Father?”
“Did you think that I would know nothing about you?”
A flash of doubt passed by Gretto’s eyes. His father was wearing a sneer equal parts anger and condescension.
“Gretto. Did you honestly believe that I would not know? About your witless fascination with a seductress of a maid?!”
It was not as though he was lying when he told his father that he turned down the marriage proposals because he was not interested in those women. This was because his heart had already been entranced by another.
In fact, it would be most accurate to say that they were already in mutual love.
However, the problem lay in the fact that his beloved was not the daughter of a nobleman or merchant--she was a simple maid working at the Avaro manor. Some aristocrats in Lotto Valentino were like Gretto in that they did not concern themselves with the matter of class differences. The Avaro head, however, despite the fact that Gretto was only his second son, was of the opinion that the boy should never be allowed to be joined with someone of such low standing.
Gretto knew this about his father well. This was why he had kept his love for the maid a secret. He was shocked at the revelation that his father knew of this, but he made one objection.
“Don’t call her a seductress, Father. I’m the one who fell in love with her. I’m the one who talked to her first!”
‘Maybe he still doesn’t know which one of the maids she is.’
With that hope in mind, Gretto made a point of neglecting to mention her name. However--
“You can do nothing for Sylvie Lumière now, Gretto.”
His hopes were dashed by his father’s statement.
“In your youthful wanderings you were tempted by the whisperings of a maid. Whatever you might say, this is the truth that I have decided upon. I could even claim that she had you take that drug so you would lose your mind.”
“What... are you saying...?”
The drug his father spoke of was a narcotic that the latter had commissioned from an alchemist some time ago.
Gretto had long been disillusioned with his father, who had exerted power over the city with this product. But unlike his brother Maiza, he did not have the courage to openly rebel against their father. He had been left with no clear solution, spending his days merely in love with a girl named Sylvie Lumière.
Gretto had known from the start that the only family member who would give him and Sylvie their blessings was his older brother.
Perhaps things would have been different if his father’s parents--flexible and open-minded by aristocrat standards--were still alive. But they had passed away long ago. His mother’s parents were still alive, but they had no say in his father’s affairs. The former Avaro head’s liberal practices were what weakened the family in the first place, so Gretto had to remind himself that his father was doing everything he could to go against his predecessor for the ultimate goal of bringing honor and glory back to the family.
In the end, all Gretto ever did was wait.
‘Maybe Father’s character will change overnight.
‘Maybe things will change, little by little, as Sylvie and I keep our relationship secret.
‘Maybe Maiza will convince Father.
‘Maybe Father will pass away of illness.
‘If Father passes away, I might be able to persuade Mother somehow.
‘If Maiza succeeds Father as the head, I could leave this place.
‘Maybe there will be a revolution, and nobility will come to mean nothing.
‘Maybe, all of a sudden, this world will belong to me and Sylvie.
‘Maybe these ideas I think are absurd will one day become a reality.
‘If I keep waiting, something wil happen.
‘So I have to bide my time.
‘Until something, anything changes.
‘But... what if nothing does?
‘No, that can’t be.
‘So many things have changed already.
‘The drugs disappeared from the streets.
‘The people of the city stopped dealing in slaves.
‘Maiza started to speak politely.
‘That’s right. Things are going to change.
‘It’s all right. As long as I keep waiting... Something is bound to change!’
Thoughts like these filled Gretto’s mind.
So he remained stationary. He was using the excuse of biding his time to instead flee from his problems.
The first step he had ever taken for himself had gotten him Sylvie’s love.
Despite knowing that their relationship could never be, he truly came to love the maid. Perhaps this was the only step he had ever taken forward in his life.
His courage at the time was only possible because he had nothing to lose.
But now, faced with the fear of losing Sylvie, Gretto was frozen in horror.
His trysts with Sylvie were, perhaps, as addictive as the drugs that had been circulating the streets.
And now that it had all been exposed by his father, Gretto could do nothing but hold his breath in fear of what was to come.
Gretto’s reaction gave the Avaro head not a sense of condescension, but one of satisfaction. Letting some of his rage subside, he smiled.
“Hah. You will never see Sylvie again. Even if you wished to meet her, you would find it a rather difficult task.”
“Didn’t you think it strange, Gretto, that you did not see her all morning?”
Realizing what his father was driving at, Gretto raised his voice.
“Father! What have you done with Sylvie?!”
“I sold her to another aristocrat. One who cannot be swayed by any noble’s influence.”
“You don’t mean... That philanderer on the hilltop?!”
“How insolent, Gretto. No matter his character, he is still the governor of this city.”
The mention of the word ‘governor’ was enough to make Gretto’s vision grow hazy.
He was an aristocrat upon whom was bestowed the title of ‘count’, who ruled this small city as its governor. Lotto Valentino was officially under the jurisdiction of the Viceroy of Naples, but special circumstances had left this city under the count’s authority.
His peculiar manner of dress made him the butt of many jokes among the aristocrats and earned him the nickname ‘The Clown Count’. But more than that, he was the object of scorn in the city for his love of women.
There were almost no men in his employ at the Boroñal manor, and it was said that his many maids also served as a harem for him. Even Maiza had always called Esperanza a skirt-chaser, so Gretto naturally grew up praising the count on the outside, and thinking of him as a despicable man who would buy women with money on the inside.
The thought of Sylvie being sold into that man’s employ left Gretto terrified and outraged. Just the idea that she might be taken advantage of by that clown of a man made him nauseous.
“How could you...? How could you be so cruel, Father?!”
“‘Cruel’? ‘Cruel’?! You are out of your mind, Gretto! I have shown that vixen mercy she did not deserve! Be thankful that I spared her life! But if you continue to defy me, I will see to it that she loses even that. All I would have to do is have her taken care of on the way to the governor’s estate and blame it on the Mask Maker.”
“You wouldn’t! There’s no way you could... You wouldn’t do something like this to Maiza because you’re too scared, so why me?!”
Gretto had brought up his brother because he saw no other way or retaliating against his father. He despaired at his own cowardice, but that was overshadowed by his fury at what his father had done to Sylvie.
But his father, incensed by the mention of the name, slammed his hands on his desk and shouted back.
“Silence! Do not speak of Maiza! Just when I thought he had put his barbaric behaviour behind him, he goes and spends his days worthlessly pursuing alchemy... Do you not understand?! It was because I intended for you to inherit my estate that I washed my hands of that fool!”
“How could you say that when you’re the one who destroyed this city with those drugs from the alchemists?!”
“Hold your tongue! Alchemists are tools! A man of the Avaro family, becoming one of them? Preposterous! I will not waste my time with pointless arguments! You are forbidden from leaving this manor. Do not think of taking a single step outside!”
“Wait, Father! I love Sylvie! This isn’t some passing infatuation!”
“Your feelings matter nothing! My answer will be the same, you half-wit of a boy!”
With that, the Avaro head called in his servants and had them drag the struggling Gretto out of the room.
‘Gretto. Still a child who calls for love when he can’t even differentiate between satisfying his lust and entering a marriage.’
The Avaro head vented his fury by jabbing the desktop with the back of his pen.
‘For one who despises me, Maiza underestimates the wall between aristocrats and common rabble, just like Father once did. I can’t hand over this family to someone like him.
‘But Gretto is only mad with lust. As long as I set him straight now, our name will remain unsullied... But what if Maiza intervenes?
‘Maiza... he may be my own son, but he is a nuisance.’
Eventually ceasing his abuse of the desk, the Avaro head mumbled to himself, very much unlike a parent:
“If only he’d leave this place and never return.”
“My god, what is all this?”
Victor’s face twisted in the sea breeze. The scene before him was beyond incredible, pushing the limits of rationality.
“Nothing deserving shock.” Szilard replied nonchalantly. “You already know that our employers are more than meticulous enough to do something like this.”
“Old man, this isn’t just incredible. It’s completely mad.”
“Anything in excess can at first bear the appearance of insanity.”
The cause of their disagreement stood before them.
Gigantic vessels that were, in a word, warships.
That in itself was nothing to be surprised at, but the problem was with their formation.
The biggest ships in all of Spain were gathered by the dozen, occupying over half the harbor and all of Victor’s line of sight.
Not only that, yet more ships were moored directly behind the ones moored on the piers. They filled the bay area, each specially made vessel connected to the other. On this foundation made of ships, a new structure entirely had been erected.
Many years later, Victor would look back on this sight:
[Something like the Kowloon Walled City, I guess. What do you call it, well... It was like one annex built after another after another. No, it wasn’t that messy. Surprisingly orderly. I’d call it something like an unthinkably huge ship, or some sort of seaborne fortress. Well, the Kowloon Walled City was just a fortress, but...]
Naturally, at this point in time Victor could not make such a comparison. All he could do was stand in awe at the indescribable sight.
“Wait a second, that’s, uh... water, right? What about all the waves?!”
Upon closer inspection he found that there were indeed waves rolling under the ships. However, the ships themselves were unaffected. But the entirety of the fortress looked rather like it was swaying slowly, so Victor had to call the sight something like a single colossal ship comprised of dozens more.
But before he could voice that final conclusion, Victor quickly shook his head.
“Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. This doesn’t make sense! How does something that massive stay afloat?! What about the tides? Wouldn’t a storm scatter all of this? I’ve got too many objections to this brand of logic here!”
The structure before him looked like a house of cards that could topple over at the slightest touch, becoming nothing but flotsam and jetsam in the sea. For a moment, he thought that he might prefer it to break apart now for the sake of his mental health, when a woman suddenly addressed him.
“My apologies, Mr. Talbot. Even we, who occupy this structure, have no idea of its mechanical workings.”
The owner of the voice was a woman who could easily be mistaken for a man. This was not because of her physical appearance, but her short hair and masculine clothing.
Her name was Carla Alvarez Santonia. She was the leader of the delegation dispatched by House Dormentaire, a powerful noble family from Spain. She was currently in charge of all Dormentaire personnel in Lotto Valentino, and was also acquainted with Victor and Szilard.
“Right. So you don’t know either, Carla? Anyway, who the hell designed this crazy fortress in the first place?”
Victor already knew that Carla was a woman, and was thus unaffected by her manner of dress. However, bitter memories of having been humiliated after snorting at her at their first meeting left him somewhat awkward in Carla’s presence.
“An engineer from the Strassburg family, I’ve been told. We were ordered to follow his plans to the letter, but not even the local workmen we hired for the construction could understand its workings completely.”
“Oh, I remember. The machinist living in that island up north. I’ve heard his name before.”
Victor shrugged at the mention of the man, who worked in a field somewhat different from alchemy, and turned his gaze back to the colossus.
“He must be even crazier than the rumors make him out to be, creating something like this. What do you think, old guy?”
“Nothing in particular. More than the engineer’s talent, I believe we should be in awe of House Dormentaire for bringing those plans to life.” Szilard said, tapping his cane against the ground. He turned to Carla.
“And what of these ‘Mask Makers’? Have you not yet arrested them?”
“...We’ve captured several men we believe may be affiliated with the organization, but they were nothing but thugs; they knew nothing of the identity of their leaders.”
“...Thugs, you say. You mean to say that someone who employs such worthless creatures could create something like this?”
Szilard took out a gold piece from his pocket.
To be specific, it was a counterfeit made of an alloy extremely similar to gold.
The Mask Makers, an organization lurking in the shadows of Lotto Valentino; Szilard and Victor would decipher the means by which one in the group’s midst had created his counterfeit gold, and claim it for House Dormentaire.
“Yes, we are absolutely certain. The drugs were originally commissioned to local alchemists by some of the aristocrats, and it is essentially no longer being circulated. The influx of counterfeit gold has been decreasing since last year, as well.”
Victor shrugged at Carla’s report.
“In other words, the alchemist behind the counterfeits is either dead, or he’s skipped town.”
“Or perhaps he is merely in hiding. In any event, we cannot act until you and your men find clues for us to decipher. I shall take matters into my own hands for now.”
With that, Szilard left Victor and stepped onto the ship.
“Sure, but it’s not like things’re any different in this town, with all the Dormentaire flags hanging up left and right.”
Looking around, Victor noticed men dressed in anachronistic suits of full metal armor among the Dormentaire personnel keeping watch in the harbor.
“It’s like this whole area’s gone back in time a couple hundred years. What is this, a stage play?”
“...Your assessment may not be all that inaccurate, Mr. Talbot.”
“Theatre is just about the only source of entertainment in this city.” Carla said grimly, as though the word brought back unpleasant memories.
Victor decided not to pursue this line of thought. He grimaced slightly and threw out a question.
“Anyway, I’m gonna take a look around this place. Anything I should keep an eye out for? I don’t wanna make trouble if I can help it.”
“There seem to be some matters with which residents do not wish to involve us, but from our perspective, there is really only one thing that may trouble our operations. And it should be of little concern to you, Mr. Talbot.”
Carla paused for a moment, then spoke with eyes averted.
“One must not look down on women while in the presence of the governor. That is all.”
Lotto Valentino. Boroñal manor.
The elevation of Lotto Valentino rose dramatically as the land grew further form the shores.
The aristocratic quarter of the city was situated in one particularly elevated ares. The elite flaunted their riches over the city, looking down upon the land from their grand estates.
Of course, things had changed in the past year.
In recent days, it looked more and more as though they were trembling in fear of the power of House Dormentaire, which was rapidly immersing Lotto Valentino.
However, there was one manor in particular that seemed to be refusing to bow to their show of strength. It was the home of Governor Esperanza Boroñal.
The manor was primarily white in color, and was surrounded by a garden that harmoniously blended in with the sights of the city. Inside was a space that could have almost plausibly been inhabited by fey creatures.
But working themselves to the bone inside the manor were not fairies or elves, but the employees that had been entrusted to care for the building. Despite the expression, the employees were mostly female, and even the sight of their ernest work became part of the beautiful atmosphere of the manor.
In stark contrast to the image of the manor interior, a girl stood outside it with a look as grim as death.
From her manner of dress she was clearly not one to belong in the aristocratic quarter, but she wore a clearly expensive pair of spectacles over her eyes.
The girl’s name was Sylvie Lumière.
Until yesterday, she was a maid working in the far-off Avaro manor.
Today, she would start working here as a live-in maid.
Normally, one would be happy to find oneself employed in an even more eminent workplace.
But swirling through Sylvie’s heart was a whirlpool of terror and trepidation.
Half of it was her fear at facing the master of this estate, known by all to be a philanderer beyond cure.
The other half was her fear for the position in which she had left Gretto Avaro.
Sylvie and Gretto were not merely a young master and a maid--they were inextricably linked by great affection. To be specific, they were lovers.
It was a love beyond her station.
Perhaps that guilt for transcending the boundaries of class had given birth to a sense of unease between them both. In any case, they had bonded so deeply that they were now practically co-dependent.
But Gretto’s father had severed that connection so easily.
Once he discovered their relationship, the Avaro head placed all of the blame on Sylvie and used his connections to sell her to the Boroñal manor.
It was essentially an act of human trafficking, but it was nothing anyone would make a fuss over. It was not a matter of the age, but the location--until just a few years ago in Lotto Valentino, the slave trade was a fact of life even amongst the commoners. No one would be incensed over the fact that a hired hand was sold from one aristocrat to another.
Being a servant, she could not bring herself to argue with her master. And once he roared, “What do you think you can do for Gretto?! You will only serve to eat away at him and inconvenience him!”, she could no longer even reply.
Sylvie herself had wondered on occasion--wasn’t she just getting in Gretto’s way?
He had always told her, “We just have to keep waiting, and we’ll find a way”. But Sylvie was not so optimistic a person, nor was she the type to indulge in the moment while knowing that they could never be together.
This was an opportunity, she told herself.
Gretto had addressed her with gentleness, despite her low standing.
From that point on, life had been like a wonderful but excruciating dream.
Sylvie was terrified that Gretto would be punished by his father. That fear still remained like shards of her dreams, but there was no way to know for sure now.
And even if there was a way to know, she would have no way to help him.
Once more, Sylvie looked up at the manor nervously.
Behind her was a horse-drawn carriage from the Avaro manor, and several rugged servants. They were here to make sure that she did not escape.
Although Sylvie was not physically restrained, one of the servants had said, “Apparently we can do whatever we want with her if she tries to run off. Let’s hope she’s up for a little chase.” with a disturbing grin. Sylvie, ever fearful and timid, found herself restrained psychologically.
The Boroñal manor, where it was said that the governor housed countless mistresses and lovers.
Its high walls and sturdy door, though meant to keep strangers out, looked to Sylvie almost like the exterior of a prison.
Soon, someone would step outside and open the door.
And once she walked in, she would no longer be able to leave as she pleased.
‘And even if I could leave, I... I won’t be able to meet Gretto again...’
Perhaps meeting Gretto again would only complicate the situation further.
Wouldn’t such a reckless meeting only worsen his position?
All kinds of thoughts passed through her mind and vanished.
‘It was all a dream. I’ll pretend I was having a wonderful dream.’ Sylvie tried to tell herself, frozen before the doors.
Now that she thought about it again, the fact that someone like Gretto had treated her as an equal was unrealistic to begin with.
She would forget everything. She would start life again. There had never been any hope for their relationship in the first place.
Things like that were easier said than done.
The moment Sylvie tried to put her resolve into action, or tried to believe in what she was telling herself, her memories of Gretto stopped her.
Just as she tried to empty her heart, yet another wave of regrets flooded in.
‘I... I still haven’t...
‘I still haven’t even said goodbye to Gretto...’
If she were to see him again, her pain would probably only worsen.
Though her mind understood this fact, her body would not stop trembling.
As she stood shaking with her head bowed, the servants spoke to her.
“You already know this, but don’t even think about running away, you hear?”
“You’re not the only one who’s going to be punished. Who knows what the Master might do to Young Master Gretto?”
“...I, I know...”
Even her voice was shaking. She couldn’t pronounce anything clearly.
She attempted to force a smile onto her face so no one would think of her as strange, but her throat tightened. The dull pain prevented her from making any other face.
‘I’m so sorry. I... I...’
‘I can’t do a thing for you...’
Forget it all.
‘No. I could never.’
Forgetting everything will be best for Gretto, too.
She must forget. She told herself countless times to forget. But the impulse of denial pressured her each time, leaving Sylvie rooted to the spot as though she had been chained.
The friction between the two conflicting feelings slowly strangled her heart.
Feeling her heart go numb, Sylvie found tears welling in her eyes and her composure breaking.
It seemed that the sight of her choking down sobs was clearly visible to the Avaro servants. One of the men watching her spoke to her, though not in a tone that indicated any sort of sympathy.
“Hey, cut that out. You know how much trouble there might be if anyone finds out we sold a girl to the governor against her will? And what if the governor gets angry? Can’t even imagine what the Master might do to Young Master Gretto if anything like that happened.” The man said, leaning against the carriage with a self-deprecating grin.
His words gave birth to a new emotion in Sylvie.
It was nothing so fiery as anger, but something dark and thorny, like directionless hatred.
Why had Gretto’s father sold her to the governor? It could not have been simply for the purpose of splitting them apart physically. Kicking her out of the manor might not have deterred Gretto or Sylvie.
But what if a man of an even higher standing than the Avaro Family--a governor, for instance--were to take advantage of her?
When Sylvie realized that this was a plot to split them apart not only physically, but also psychologically, ripples of silent fury disturbed her heart. At this point, she could not even figure out a potential target for her hatred.
Not even herself, unable to defy her fate and left standing in self-loathing and despair.
“Hey, look over here a second.”
Another voice suddenly addressed her.
‘Stop it. Stop breaking my heart.’
“C’mon, look at me.”
In the midst of her silent screaming, Sylvie realized that the voice that was talking to her did not belong to any of the Avaro servants.
Perhaps he was one of the governor’s servants, she thought, and turned around without even thinking to wipe her tears.
She found herself looking at a young man who was slightly older than herself.
“That face doesn’t suit you at all. Here, try showing me a smile.”
Sylvie stared blankly at the man, shocked at the sudden request.
The young man was entirely nondescript, neither handsome nor ugly. But his smile, even in the face of her attempts at choking back her sobs, left Sylvie feeling somewhat disturbed by him.
Instead of Sylvie, who remained frozen, one of the Avaro servants addressed the young man.
“Hey, are you affiliated with this manor?”
“I guess you could say that. I was called here by Spera--I mean, the governor today, too.”
“Perfect. Take this servant into the manor. She’s the new maid that’s just starting work here today.”
“Oh, I see. The governor loves women, so I’m sure he’ll be happy.”
His cruel words, accompanied by his smile, cut Sylvie to the bone. The Avaro servants boarded the carriage with a look of relief.
And once they took note of the smiling man opening the door--
“We’ll leave this to you.”
And with that, the carriage departed.
‘I haven’t even gone inside yet.’
Shocked at the servants leaving her with a man whose name they did not even know, Sylvie mused that this might be her final chance.
‘Maybe I could fool this man somehow and escape. And... and... and then...?’
But in the end, she could only reach the same conclusion. She came to the realization that, no matter what opportunity appeared before her, she would never be able to take it.
As Sylvie remained rooted to the ground, the young man addressed her.
“What’s wrong? Don’t you want to go inside?”
The directness of his question left her dumbstruck.
“Oh, I... um... I...”
“Right, I haven’t introduced myself yet. I guess it really must be suspicious for someone like me to be at some nobleman’s house. It’s no wonder you’re doubting me.”
“N-not at all!”
Cutting off Sylvie’s hurried denial, the man introduced himself.
“The name’s Elmer. Elmer C. Albatross. It’s nice to meet you.”
His sincere smile compelled Sylvie to answer without even thinking.
“M-my name is... Sylvie Lumière.” She squeaked. The young man’s grin widened.
“That’s a great name you have there! So, now what?”
‘What does he mean by that?’
Sylvie’s sobs stopped for the moment at the unusual question.
“Well, first I’d like to start by asking why you were looking so down, but I won’t ask if you don’t feel up to answering. But I think I might at least be able to help you with what you’re planning to do now.”
Although her mind had been filled with grief, regret, and hatred up until a split second ago, they had been replaced with confusion. Elmer’s suggestion had come out of nowhere, and Sylvie could not keep up with his line of thinking.
“Um... What does that mean?”
“What does what mean?”
“No, well... Um... we’ve never... met before, have we?”
“We haven’t, right? But that doesn’t really matter now, does it? Let’s start with the basics, then. Do you want to work at this manor or not?” He asked, and waited for Sylvie’s reply.
“I... don’t want to work here.”
Sylvie had been lost for answers, but she found herself speaking for her true intentions without even thinking.
“...Oh! I... I don’t mean that I dislike this manor. It’s just that there’s someone I won’t be able to see again once I start working-”
Sylvie cut herself off.
Although she was well aware that mentioning Gretto would bring him nothing but trouble, Sylvie also knew that her personality would not let her worm her way out of inquiring conversations so easily. But as the tears began welling in her eyes again, Elmer grinned and addressed her.
“All right, then. Let’s go.”
The young man had taken her hand all of a sudden, and Sylvie caught herself on the verge of trying to shake him off.
“You want to see this person, right? Don’t worry! I’ll make up a good excuse for Speran later, and I won’t tell a soul about whoever it is you’re going to meet.”
Elmer looked around and suddenly called towards a maid working in the front yard.
“Excuse me! Hello! I just wanted to let you know, I’ll be borrowing the new maid for a bit!”
The maid turned towards Elmer with a snicker and shouted back.
“It’s so nice being young, isn’t it? I’ll make sure to tell the governor for you, so go on and have fun!”
Waving at the maid, Elmer turned back to Sylvie and grinned.
“Problem solved! It’s my fault that you’re going outside now, okay?”
Sylvie could not follow the fast-advancing series of events, able to do nothing but blink rapidly. Elmer’s nonchalant decisiveness and strength made her realize that he was an entirely different type of person from Gretto. She found herself staring at him curiously.
But she would never go so far as to think along the lines of, ‘So this man will be my soulmate in Gretto’s place’. That was because, just like the smile he first showed her, his decisiveness felt somehow inhuman and eerie.
“So who is this person you wanted to see, anyway? Oh, if you don’t wanna tell me, I can just help you get to the right place.” Elmer said. Sylvie didn’t feel very much inclined to reveal Gretto’s name to such an unusual man--nor did she have the courage to ask him to leave her alone. So she decided to go about things in an indirect fashion.
“Um... Do you know where the Avaro manor is? I was employed there until just yesterday...”
Sylvie frantically searched for a cover story to finish off her sentence. But--
“Oh, Maiza’s place! ‘Course I know where that is.” Elmer answered plainly.
“You know Master Maiza?!”
Maiza Avaro was the elder brother of her beloved Gretto. Just the mention of the name was enough to rattle Sylvie further.
Elmer was dressed like an ordinary commoner, but perhaps he was actually an aristocrat wandering incognito, Sylvie mused. But the mysterious man continued innocently, despite her clear surprise.
“I guess you could say we know each other. ...Huh? Is Maiza the person you’re looking for?”
Elmer spoke of Maiza as though they were close friends. Sylvie could practically feel a ray of light from the heavens coming down upon herself. Of course, the unease she felt at Elmer’s attitude did not allow her to drop her guard for even a moment.
“N-no... Not Master Maiza, but... His brother Gretto.” Sylvie whispered hesitantly. She stiffened when she found herself mentioning Gretto by name, but there was no turning back now. Sylvie steeled her heart.
“I owe so much to Gretto... I wanted to express my thanks and say goodbye to him properly.”
‘But that’s not true at all. I don’t want to say goodbye. I’m not interested in farewells.
‘I just want to escape somewhere, by his side.’
Sylvie was considering an even more drastic course of action than Gretto.
‘No! I don’t care about running away, or worrying about the future. I... I just want to see him again. I just want to see Gretto!’
Although she could not bring herself to voice her thoughts, Sylvie let her emotions show clearly in her tone.
“I want to see him, no matter what it takes. Please, if only once before I begin working for the governor. I beg of you!”
Elmer turned the matter over in his thoughts for a moment.
“Just once is enough for you?”
“Is that going to be enough to make you satisfied? To make you smile? Oh, sorry. I know you might be thinking, ‘That’s none of your business’, or ‘Stop being so nosy’. But how do I put this? Well, it’s an important question that’s going to decide how much I’ll be motivated.”
Sylvie tilted her head at Elmer’s unusual question.
“I... I don’t think I could say for sure until I’ve seen him again. I’m sorry.” She apologized, despite having nothing to be sorry for.
“Ah! Sorry. You’re right. You wouldn’t know until you’ve seen him, would you? Then I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure that it’s the greatest rendezvous in history! So cheer up now. Smile!”
Elmer laughed, pulling Sylvie along by hand. He stopped at a slight distance from the manor gates and thought for a moment with his eyes on the road.
“Let’s see, now. Maiza looks like he’s busy doing something with Headmaster Dalton these days, so... Of course! I think I know someone who can go in and out of Maiza’s house!”
Elmer jovially ran along, dragging Sylvie along through the unfamiliar streets.
There was something rather comical about their gait, so out of place in the city ruled by House Dormentaire.
But the most important thing for Lotto Valentino now was the fact that these two people had encountered one another.
The moment the name of their mutual acquaintance, Maiza Avaro, was mentioned, their cogs met and fit together, spinning to a start.
This was the first meeting of Elmer C. Albatross and Sylvie Lumière.
But it was only the first of many more encounters that took place on this day.
No one could tell if these meetings and reunions would bring about fortune or misfortune, but with this moment as the starting point, Lotto Valentino slowly began to stir.
Continued in the Interlude.
Continued in the Interlude.