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The Imperial Chronicle

I stood there, upright in front of the revolving door, scuffing the heels of my boots against the ground. Pulling slightly on the collar of my trench coat, I dropped my chin and gazed at my partial reflection in the curved glass. Aside from my short-cropped hair, I wore a modest-looking, double-breasted leather raincoat and a pair of special order, steel- reinforced boots, both of which at first glance appear to be the most common of common apparel. Yet, they were in fact, much more than the naked eye could detect.

My ordinary, average appearance--It was of just as much importance today as it had been on any other day in times past.

Not far off, the sound of footfalls echoed rhythmically like the steady beat of a pendulum swinging back and forth, as the throngs of those coming and going moved quickly along the cobblestone avenue, enveloped and tinged silver by the morning mist. At times, the calling voice of a street peddler disrupted the steady flow, but as soon as the hawking cry faded away, it would resume its course.

Each morning that I found myself setting foot in the imperial city, I also found my surroundings to be unchanged and stained by the same somber tone of gray. Snatching up a magazine from the underarm of a street vendor, I tossed a few mira into the left hand poised expectantly behind his back.

The Imperial Chronicle; the magazine I read so often that even the ink bleeds were familiar. Roughly flipping open its cover, I scanned the headlines along the top of its monochrome pages. Then suddenly, my breath caught in my throat.

At the very bottom of the local news page, I found those letters, that sequence of characters which I had not heard nor seen since the time of that life-changing incident. My eyes instantly gravitated to the spot, and for a time, remained fixated.

'Ein Selnate.' The very meaning of those letters became lost to my senses as I stood motionless, my gaze fixed on the same line of text, until it all seemed to coalesce into a single blotch of ink. After a few seconds of blank comprehension, my vision settled and I wrenched my eyes to the beginning of the article. As I began to read, my memories verged on a single point in my past, and then slowly started to run in reverse, heading for that fateful event three years prior when this name was first introduced to me.

It was on an afternoon all those years ago, on a day not unlike this one, where the capital was overshadowed by its typical gloomy aura. I was a little younger than now, a twenty-two year old boy who stood silently in front of the boutique door as usual, double checking his appearance before lightly treading over to Micht's Imperial Factory.

It was on this day that it had been arranged for me to receive a new job from Micht, the shop owner, himself. Although he was a drab middle-aged man, I, being the orbment enthusiast I was, had found myself as one of his few regular customers.

I headed down a dank alleyway and after passing through a partially rotted wooden-gate, I could see the soft glow of the flickering orbal light just outside the entrance of the factory whose structure was halfway below street level. I first began receiving jobs from Micht about the time when dissension began to occur in society over the Hundred Days War. It was during this period that relations between the Liberl Kingdom and the Empire were at their worst and the importation of orbments had become almost non-existent. Conspiring with underground elements and planning a smuggling operation, Micht made me out to be his accomplice in crime. For the job which I received by his hand, was none other than that of the courier.

Being nothing more than a commoner in my teens at the time I met him and a juvie devoid of any connections in life besides, I naturally jumped at the opportunity without a moment's hesitation. Yet, even after relations with Liberl had returned to some degree of normalcy, I realized I was in no mood to give up my specialty which focused mainly on the delivery of stolen goods. The reason being: there was no job out there which could bring in the kind of mira this one did.

With an unrefined and inconspicuous appearance, I had countless times before, hidden items of various sorts in my hat and trousers and made my way hither and thither between the borders of these neighboring nations. And though to my delight, my wallet had become increasingly laden with a bounty of monetary rewards, I had routinely changed my alias as a precautionary measure. So much in fact, that these false names had built up into quite a list over the last few years. I had been known as Phil, the frivolous, Rooney, the trickster, and even Kris, the coward. However, Micht had always called me by one name: Toby. This was the identity I had used for my initial job, and the one I liked above all the others.

《帝 国 時 報》《インペリアル・クロニクル》

僕は回転ドアの前に立ち、長靴のかかとをこつこつと鳴らした。コートの襟をひっぱり、あごを引いて、湾曲したガラスに映る自分の姿を眺める。短く切り揃えた頭髪に、どこにでもあるような革のコート、同じく革製のブーツは実のところ鉄板で補強された特注品だけれど、見た目では分からない。

ごくごく平凡な見た目――今も昔も、僕の仕事では それが重要だった。

スズ色に照らし出された朝もやの中からは、大路を 行き交う人々の靴音が、まるで振り子仕掛けのように規則的に響いてくる。時折、物売りの声に流れを断ち 切られるが、それはすぐさま再開される。

帝都にやってくる朝はいつだって灰色だ。僕は売り子の脇から雑誌をかっさらい、後ろ手にミラを投げてやる。インクのにじみまで見慣れた《帝国時報》誌。手荒く表紙を開き、灰色の誌面の上に目を走らせる。 ふと、息が止まった。

社会面の一番下で、その文字を見つけた。僕の目は一瞬で吸い寄せられ、それきり動かなくなった。

「アイン・セルナート」――文字が意味を失い、ただのインクのしみとなるまで、同じ行を繰り返し僕は眺めた。数秒の空白の後、ようやく視線は記事の先へと流れていった。読み進むうち、記憶が過去のある一点に向かって、ゆっくり逆回しに流れ始めた。僕が初めてこの名を聞いた、3年前の数日間の出来事に向かって――   3年前のその日の午後も、今日と変わらず帝都は灰色だったはずだ。今より少し若かった22歳の僕は、いつも通りブティックのドアで身だしなみを確かめると、足取りも軽く《ミヒュト帝国工房》へと向かっていた。店主のミヒュトから、新しい仕事をもらえる手はずになっていたからだ。

ミヒュトは小さな工房を営む冴えない中年男で、導力器いじりが趣味だった僕は、やつの店の数少ない常連だった。

じめじめした路地を抜け、腐りかけた木戸をくぐると、半分地下に潜り込んでいる工房の入口に、ぼんやり導力灯が光って見える。

ミヒュトが僕に「仕事」をくれるようになったのは《百日戦役》で世間がごたごたしていた頃だ。当時リベール王国と帝国の関係は最悪で、導力器の輸入はほとんどストップしている状態だった。素性の怪しいやつらと組んで密輸を企てたミヒュトは、僕にその片棒を担がせた。運び屋の役をくれたのだ。

平民出のコネもない10代のガキだった僕は、当然その話に飛びついた。王国との関係が正常化した後には、もうほとんど盗品専門の運び屋みたいになっていたけど、足を洗う気はさらさらなかった。まともにミラを稼げる仕事なんて、他にはなかったからだ。 垢抜けない、人目につかない格好をした僕は、帽子やパンツの中に品物を隠し、国境を往復し続けた。おかげで僕の財布はどんどん重くなっていったが、用心のため定期的に偽名を変えたせいで、2、3年の内には名前までずいぶん貯まってしまった。僕はお調子者のフィルであり、早業のルーニーであり、そして同時に臆病者のクリスでもあった。だけれどミヒュトのやつはいつだって僕を「トビー」と呼んだ。それは僕らが最初に仕事をしたときに使った偽名で、僕が1番気に入っていた名前でもあった。

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