Stage 15 - Good Intentions All Around
Greater Tokyo Area, Area 11
April 2, 2016 a.t.b.
With traffic and the usual detour around the ghettos, the drive from Ashford Academy to Kokubunji took approximately ninety minutes. There were a number of things Marrybell could – and probably should – be doing, but she admitted to a certain curiosity about the girl in the seat across from her independent of the girl’s research.
If there were ever a proper argument for Britannian supremacy, Nina Einstein could be its poster child. She was one of those rare prodigies who learnt calculus by ten and delved into the strange realm of non-Newtonian physics at twelve. In all other things, however, she appeared to be a relatively normal, if somewhat asocial, girl. She did have that quiet, bashful intellectual look going for her, though, so there was that; Marrybell knew there were people into that sort of thing.
Hmm… I wonder how well Nina can weather politics. Lelouch, Euphemia, and I can shelter her, of course, but spiriting her away to some fantasy laboratory filled with…I don’t know, knife switches and Erlenmeyer flasks, could result in a ruinous backlash against us. Hiding a woman with the theoretical knowledge to build a better bomb just screams coup in the making.
“Nina,” Marrybell began, “how long have you been on the student council?”
“Hmm? Oh, almost two years now.”
“And what do you do for it? It worries me somewhat that Milly needs a Secretary for Science.”
Nina proved unable to resist a soft giggle. “Not much, honestly. Milly gave me lab space to work in the clubhouse. In exchange, I’m responsible for anything technology related that arises. Usually that’s just lighting and wiring for school festivals and basic computer work, but I’m an adequate enough engineer for Prez’s more…um, eccentric ideas.”
Marrybell pinched the bridge of her nose. “Are you the one who created the handheld knick–”
With a fierce blush, Nina said, “I am. Milly made me do it, and I would very much like to consider that chapter of my life closed, Your Highness.”
“Fair enough.” Into the friendly blackmail bin it goes. “Do you do anything else? Perhaps meet with students? Lead assemblies? Organise events? That sort of thing.”
Nina shook her head. “Milly and Euphie handle all the administrative work. Er, well, the public aspects, at least. Rivalz is the secretary, and Shirley is the official treasurer. Sometimes Prez overworks her badly enough that we all have to help balance our budget, though.”
“I see…” So Nina has almost zero experience dealing with people. Marrybell sighed inwardly. I suppose I can appreciate a challenge. “How is your history?”
“My history?” After Marrybell nodded, Nina said, “Well enough to get perfect marks, but I don’t spend time dissecting the subject the way Euphie does. Why do you ask?”
“Do you remember how I mentioned that Earl Asplund suffers Society for his research?”
Nina nodded. Judging by the uneasy expression on her face, she no doubt suspected what Marrybell intended to discuss.
“You’re going to find yourself in a similar position. Like him, you will, before too long, be elevated to the peerage. Probably as a countess. Perhaps a viscountess.” Marrybell thought it over for a moment before shrugging it off as irrelevant. Then seeing the objection poised on Nina’s lips, she added, “Regardless, to refuse would be…most unwise.”
Still, Nina protested in a mumbled, “But I don’t deserve that.”
“I can name hundreds of nobles who deserve their title less than you,” Marrybell said, “but that’s not really the point. This is something you will need to prepare yourself for. You’re not going to get away from it. It’s not a reward. It’s a gilded cage meant to keep you in check. You really do need to understand that. The earl gets considerable leeway in his…eccentricities because he’s very productive and we don’t want him to wonder if there are green pastures across the pond. You won’t. You fall into the worst possible category. You have something incredibly dangerous that you can unleash alone which no one will ever get to use” unless I really bollocks this up. “That means tonnes of scrutiny with none of the perks.”
“What? But – but why would that matter when everything is done? What harm could I do?”
“Well, that is the question, is it not? What harm could you do? Better to fetter you to responsibility than let you be a free agent. Besides, it’s good PR with the commoners to elevate the exceptional from amongst their ranks. The illusion of social mobility helps keep you lot in your place.”
Despite her frown, Nina didn’t look too offended at that last little remark. Even so, Marrybell silently cursed herself for letting some of her bitterness show. Dammit, Clovis. This had been happening far too often since she’d uncovered the Code R project.
Marrybell faked a cough and pressed on. “Now what Euphemia and I are asking you to do is illegal, but we have no good alternative. What do you know of The Hague Accords?”
Nina scrunched up her brow and, after a moment, recited, “The Hague Accords were the result of the convention by the same name which occurred almost immediately after the end of The Great War. They dealt mainly with how future wars are to be conducted. There have been several similar treaties since and before, but none as successful or as significant in establishing the ‘laws of war’.
“As is relevant to this conversation, I believe, the accords regulated the use, production, and possession of most chemical and biological weapons suited for warfare and established an obligation to report and regulate new ‘weapons which might potentially destroy civilisation as we know it’. Today, this includes the known and theorised fission and fusion weapons. I…I don't know if my research is novel enough to require individual attention.”
Nina, from what very little I understand of it, it sounds like you annihilate matter to create energy as a by product of a lesser fission reaction. That's science fiction nonsense intruding into reality. It probably even makes a pretty pink sphere or something equally absurd. You can quibble about fundamental operating principles all you want, but you really shouldn't need me to tell you “it is.”
Nina gnawed on her lip for a moment, her gaze firmly in her lap. Soon enough, she nodded in acceptance and continued. “Violations of the accords require universal retaliation against the offending party, although it’s not specified exactly what that means. Historically, minor infractions have only produced middling responses. Poland, however, no longer exists as a distinct polity as a direct result of a major breach.”
And whatever Clovis is up to is bad enough to hide behind bringing the entire world down upon Britannia. They all want a crack at us; they just need a unifying force to bring them together. Not that Schneizel would ever let it come to that. He'd sack all of Japan first just to prove Britannia as a whole had no part in the affair. Marrybell shook her head and banished the stray thoughts from her mind before she became distracted.
“The initial signatories were the member states of the reforged EU,” Nina continued. “However, surprising everyone, the otherwise uninvolved Britannia set aside its differences with the EU and voluntarily stepped forward to sign the accords. This resulted in an almost magical response from the rest of the world as nearly every other nation rushed to add their name to the treaty of their own volition.”
‘Almost magical’, eh? Well, that’s one way to put it.
With her miniature lecture winding down, Nina lastly added, “Um, personally, I’ve always considered it one of history’s most beautiful moments.”
Marrybell sighed to herself. She just had to add that last part. “Yes, I’m certain that The Hague Accords have inspired many a speech about the essential goodness of man. The world agreed to set aside its most terrifying weapons both present and future in the wake of the greatest, most devastating war to which it had ever borne witness. Thus humanity celebrated their wise and noble rulers even as the treaty ensured another century of continued warfare that plagues us still to this very day.”
“It sounds bad, doesn’t it? Destroying civilisation. To be honest, I’m not sure if I would wish to live in a world where the push of a button could set humanity back ten-thousand years. However, there’s a remarkably pacifying effect in mutually assured destruction. Something no one wanted.”
After a few moments to let Nina play with the idea in her head, Marrybell continued. “The EU, perhaps, had good intentions at heart in the beginning. I couldn’t say. It was before we’d discovered anything truly dangerous, even if we knew such threats were on the horizon.”
Marrybell chuckled. “I almost wish it were a literal magical moment in history. It’s a pleasant notion. Imagine if there were a cabal of magicians who so abhor the atrocities we mere humans would think to commit upon each other that they dedicate their lives to preventing the worst of it through sorcery. It would be a lovely safety net for civilisation. To be honest, it would even make more sense than it has any right to; how well enforced the treaty is always surprises me.
“But it’s not magic. There's no man behind the curtain. The Illuminati are not secretly solving our problems before the world can even take notice. Nor is it the result of lofty ideals. The inherent value of life is the purview of the hoi polloi, not the state. No, it’s realpolitik. It’s the opportunity to continue the great game.
“This–” Marrybell hesitated. To do the explanation justice, she would have to lecture for hours. She promptly decided against such a course of action. “–is a complex issue. You can ask Euphemia to teach you politics some other time if you want.”
Judging by the look on Nina’s face, that would never happen.
“Very oversimplified,” Marrybell began, “Britannia has run on conquest since the Humiliation. We’re able to continually grant new titles and lands from the territory we acquire, which is a significant part of how the emperor makes his social Darwinism run.
“The EU is a more muddled case. To quote Aesop” or my favourite failed republic “united they stand, divided they fall. You see, despite its waning preeminence, the EU is a convoluted web of great empires who oftentimes simply do not get along. It makes them vulnerable in ways Britannia and the Chinese Federation are not. For example, imagine if Ireland were the recipient of a generous donation of a dozen nuclear missiles. Assuming it played its hand wisely, there’s not much England could do at that point to stop it from declaring its independence, and oh does it want to. There are many similar sentiments just on the continent alone.
“The Chinese Federation is our ideological opposite. They want us to bleed. Like us, however, they’re expansionists. To be perfectly honest, they need the spoils of war even more than us. They have…problems.
“The two semi-major players left on the field exist solely because they can wage war. Frankly, they could better achieve their stated aims in a world at peace, but I won’t torture you with my cynicism. The African League’s founding premise is reclaiming the continent from foreign powers. The Middle Eastern Federation operates under a similar principle.
“Lastly, when all the major powers want war, what can the independents do but allow it? Japan tried to act above its station, and look where that got them.”
Marrybell paused a moment to breathe and let Nina absorb everything she’d said.
“Of course,” Marrybell then continued, “if you earnestly believe you can fight the entire world and win quickly, then there’s no reason to hold to The Hague Accords. That’s the trouble we have with you.”
Nina’s estimates on the yield of a sakuradite bomb were frankly disgusting. To give the number proper context, Marrybell had privately taken the time to obtain a compass and a physical map. As presented, a single warhead could destroy all of Pendragon, and the capital was a gargantuan, sprawling behemoth of a city.
Of course, there were usually significant differences between starry-eyed estimates and final products. Even at her young age, Marrybell was well used to being promised the moon and then given a meteorite in turn. Still, even if Nina’s rough numbers were off by an order of magnitude or two, such a weapon was the very definition of overkill.
There was also another problem. According to Nina, the sakuradite reaction was trivial to set off so long as there was nothing nearby that anyone would miss.
“I don't trust either Schneizel or the emperor with your research. I wouldn't trust either with the theory behind fission weaponry, either, except they came to power too late for that to really matter.”
The technology that went into knightmares and repurposed into fighters and VTOL transports was very good at shooting down missiles. A fission based device required complex machinery to work, something that a slash harken could easily break. The sakuradite bomb, however, did not. Shooting one down would not necessarily stop it from dealing massive – if reduced – amounts of damage.
“If either were made aware of your research before a countermeasure were developed, I think you can imagine what they would do with it.”
Nina gave a solemn nod.
“That's why I want one ready to go before we bring this to the world stage. It’s a breach of the treaty to delay. We have an obligation to share what we know in an expeditious manner. But it's for all the right reasons. I do not want our culture to be the only one left when the dust settles.” I’d sooner burn father’s entire bloody empire to the ground than let it be all that remains. “Insular cultures generally don’t thrive, and that's not even addressing all the other problems it would create. Britannia is nowhere near ready to transform from expansion to maintenance. The massive sudden influx of cheap labour would destroy the economy. All the infrastructure we'd have to build or rebuild would be staggering. It'd be a struggle just to feed everyone.”
It was times like these that Marrybell was glad she had a minibar in her limousine. Muttering more problems with her father's penchant for rapid expansion, she poured some water for herself and then downed the whole glass. That had been a lot of continuous lecturing.
When Marrybell turned her attention back to Nina, the disappointed look the girl wore almost made her flinch.
“Oh, and let's save the world. I thought that would go without saying.”
In a surprising show of backbone, Nina merely stated, “No lofty ideals.”
Marrybell heaved a slow sigh. She then offered a wistful smile in response. “It’s realpolitik. If I’d led you to believe I’m a good person, I apologise.” Which was not to say she didn’t care about being a good person. She did. She tried. But ethics were something she had to consciously stop herself to consider if she remembered at all.
Nina adopted a thoughtful look for a time before her expression softened and she let the matter drop.
But speaking of personal concerns, Marrybell added, “By the way, if there’s so little as a semi-reliable hard counter to the sakuradite bomb available to the world, the emperor and Schneizel should have little interest in personally conscripting you into service.”
“That’s good. I’d rather not move back to the homeland and be locked up in a secret lab in some underground bunker.”
“Would you rather Euphemia and I do so to you here?” Marrybell asked in jest.
“Then you’re going to have to prepare yourself for ennoblement.” Marrybell chuckled to herself when she saw Nina slump forward a little and sigh at the reminder. “Although that does bring a question to mind. Why did you relocate to Japan? I know you’re interested in sakuradite, but you don’t need to be here for it.”
After a bit of an awkward pause, the shy, insecure girl who never knew what to say returned in full force and fidgeted in her seat. Unfortunate, yes, but there was clearly hope for her yet. She spoke with confidence when passionate. It would take time and effort, but Marrybell felt sure she could bring out the best in Nina without putting her through anything too…character defining.
Finally finding words, if perhaps not the right ones, Nina admitted, “I’m not actually sure. I have friends here now at Ashford. Where I board all year. But, well, my parents had a business opportunity, but I don’t really know… I mean, I do maths. Sometimes I tinker a little. And, well, that’s about it.”
“Fair enough.” Marrybell had enough tact not to press on the subject of absentee parents. “I can appreciate dedication. I spend most of my time studying everything I need to rule while keeping tabs on the area’s politics and military myself. I’d probably have worked myself to death at some point if I didn’t have Suzaku to occasionally remind me that there’s more to life than public service and problems to bang my head against trying to fix.”
With a sympathetic smile, Nina said, “Euphie does the same for me. I, uh, I may have forgotten to eat for a few days one time.”
Marrybell snorted, amused. “I don’t recall that I’ve ever gotten that bad. Although…I do confess I may have faked one or two lapses to get Suzaku to do what I want.”
“You didn’t!” Nina said in a faux outrage.
“Are you going to tell me you’ve never done anything to get Euphemia’s attention?”
“Speaking of.” Marrybell was usually wary of the subject, but Nina was a nobody with no power to make trouble for her, and there was no mistake. “You fancy my sister, don't you?”
Nina paled in an instant, and it took her a few seconds longer to recover and start stammering denials.
“Relax. I’m not going to out you. Or blame you. Euphemia is a lot of things I wish I could be. If I didn’t have the incest cringe factor, I’d probably moon over her with you. I mean, with a face like that…” Marrybell chuckled. She and Euphemia might not be twins, but if they dyed their hair the same colour, one would be hard pressed to tell them apart.
“Besides,” Marrybell continued, “it would be hypocritical of me to scorn you.”
The trembling in Nina’s frame abated as her eyes widened, but she only managed a weak, questioning, “You…”
Marrybell quirked an eyebrow.
Nina fidgeted, and shook, and stammered, and ultimately got nothing more out.
With a quiet sigh, Marrybell put it very bluntly. “I’m sexually attracted to women, yes.” A fact that no one else but Suzaku knew, and oh how that little revelation had left her floundering until he got his act together a week later and hugged her. She could do some good here for someone obviously insecure about their own sexuality – among other things – and perhaps even gain someone to gossip with out of the deal. For whatever reason – and it honestly did not surprise her – Suzaku felt uncomfortable discussing women with her despite demonstrating that she could and would be as crude and offensive to her own gender as a boy.
Seeing Nina still struggling to find words but now lightly flushed instead of pale, Marrybell went for the kill. “So what is it about Euphemia that makes you need to change your knickers?”
And that was it for poor Nina. A remarkable shade of red spread across her face and down her neck.
All too easy.
After what felt like a minute of looking on in amusement, Nina eventually calmed herself down enough to mumble out a reply. “She’s nice. A-and confident. And – and patient with me. And easy to talk to. And supportive. And–” Her blush intensified. “–and beautiful.”
And a thousand other things, I’m sure. Marrybell resisted the urge to tease Nina by expressing her gratitude for the implied compliment on her own appearance. She did want to have an actual conversation, after all.
“But I, uh, well, I try not to dwell on it. Euphie isn’t… She’s not…”
“She’s not interested in the soft caress of a more gentle lover?”
“Urgh. Tell me about it. All the good women are into men.”
Nina covered her mouth with a hand, but the giggle still came through. “Who?” she dared to ask.
“Well, I wouldn’t mind a few rounds with Kallen before she and Lelouch tie the knot–”
“They’re engaged?” Nina exclaimed in surprise.
Marrybell rolled her eyes. Were all of their friends blind? “No, but they might as well be. Not really the point, though. Do you know who Oldrin Zevon is?”
Nina shook her head.
“She’s a childhood friend of mine. And–” Marrybell whistled. “–she grew up gorgeous. She’s partial to revealing clothing, too, which is such wonderful torture.” She sighed theatrically. “Alas, her cruel uncle shackles her to the homeland. Many moons yet shall pass before the stars align and the Fates bestow upon this adrift admirer a moment of daring to entice her into my boudoir. So here I languish in unbroken longing, a slave to unspoken love beyond my reach. Such is my plight, and thus is my sorrow.”
“I… Hmm… Um… A-age – age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety. Other women cloy the appetites they feed, but she makes hungry where she satisfies.”
Marrybell quirked an eyebrow. One of The Bard’s plays, eh? Dickens, then. “I loved her against reason, against promise, against peace, against hope, against happiness, against all discouragement that could be.”
“There is nothing so–” Nina blushed and took a moment to compose herself. “–so mortifying as to fall in love with someone who does not share one’s sentiments.”
Heyer. Marrybell’s smile grew eager. How about a little Byron. “Thus much and more; and yet thou lov’st me not, and never wilt! Love dwells not in our will. Nor can I blame thee, though it be my lot to strongly, wrongly, vainly love thee still.”
Not missing a beat, Nina quoted, “With women who do not love us, as with the dear departed, the knowledge that there is no hope left does not prevent us from continuing to wait.”
Damn! Proust. Very nice. Let’s see… Ah, I know. “Misery doth befall the fool who calls love master, for mine own master do I love. Everything, I have given freely, yet my faith and my heart never to be returned is the only reward due to one such as I. Too late now the fool realises her master shall never love her, for cruelest love hath her within its unyielding grasp. This the fool knows and yet revels still within her twisted service, waiting for that which shall never come.”
Nina frowned. Her eyebrows furrowed. She pursed her lip. And then, at last, she conceded. “What is that from?”
“The Tragedy of Dame Eleanor, spoken by the eponymous dame herself. I’m surprised you haven’t read it.”
“I, uh – um…” Flushed and clearly embarrassed, Nina admitted, “I could never get past chapter twelve.”
Marrybell winced. “Yes, I can understand that. There are no words to describe Eleanor’s prince. That chapter left me bawling and depressed for a week before I finally powered through it, and it only grew worse thereafter. It certainly doesn’t help when you have a few brothers and sisters who you suspect are guilty of equal abuse.”
Nina opened her mouth and then paused a moment. She considered what she’d been about to say, shook her head, and finally said, “If you don’t mind me saying so, you’re very different than I thought, and I'm still not sure what to make of you.”
“No offence taken,” Marrybell said. “I could say the very same of you. You have a hidden passion for romance, don’t you?”
“I do,” Nina quietly admitted as though she just confessed a secret capable of toppling empires. She then immediately turned the accusation around. “As do you.”
Marrybell smiled and shrugged away the observation. In all honesty, she hoped she did still have that one tiny little sliver of innocence left in her. She spent so much time wearing the mask, pretending not to be a surly, bitter woman, that it was sometimes hard to tell.
After a few seconds, Marrybell said, “Yes?”
“Well, you're a princess. It's just, aren't you expected to, well, you know.”
Marrybell quirked an eyebrow.
Blushing, Nina made a rather crude gesture with her hands, and Marrybell laughed uproariously. She'd not thought the girl had it in her.
“No, thankfully,” Marrybell eventually said. “My line is well and truly dead. No self-preserving man would marry me without a gun to his head. Not after everything. Were I so inclined, the best I could hope for would be a couple asking me to be their ‘cover’ and maybe occasionally joining them in bed.”
That was one of those embarrassing moments in history. Ricardo von Britannia, the eighty-ninth emperor and Marrybell’s distant ancestor, began the colossal effort of stripping Britannia of unwelcome continental influences after the passing of the previous empress, his lover, Elizabeth the Third. His eldest son, as the ninetieth emperor, continued the trend and eradicated every trace of institutionalised religion within the state. No Britannian sovereign had ever acceded that the legitimacy of their reign descended from divine right, merely implied it when convenient, and the monarchy was just done with the whole concept at that point.
And then came Annwn va Britannia, the ninety-first empress of Britannia. The turmoil following the Humiliation had settled. Britannia was more in touch with its cultural heritage than it had been in centuries. And so, naturally, when it had rather pointedly and repeatedly been explained to her that being openly entangled in a ménage à trois made Britannia – and her in particular – the subject of ridicule and scorn amongst the other great powers of the world, Annwn decided that this silly continental notion of monogamy had run its course. She dusted off the ancient laws governing polygamy, had her husband marry their mutual lover, and then vanished for a week to celebrate her husband’s taking of a second wife in a manner appropriate to the occasion.
And thus, in the middle of the nineteenth century, Britannia became the first modern nation to – at least implicitly – endorse same-sex marriage. The often paper-thin veneer of heterosexuality, of course, had to be maintained in public. Even Annwn had not dared to push that far at the time, and no sovereign since had cared to bother. Certainly, dear old dad and his beloved social Darwinism would not break the pattern despite how easy it would be in the present day. Even so, it drove the very liberal EU absolutely bonkers when brought up in conversation.
A quiet growl caught Marrybell’s attention. Her eyes fell to Nina’s stomach, who placed her hands over it and only made herself more conspicuous.
“I haven’t eaten today,” Nina admitted.
“So it would seem. We’ll stop somewhere in Kokubunji to get an early lunch. Knowing the earl, you’re going to be preoccupied at least until dinner.”
Kokubunji, Area 11
April 2, 2016 a.t.b.
Marrybell frowned at the street map displayed on her phone. She glanced up from it at the girl on the other side of the booth. Nina was struggling almost comically with a slice of pizza. A gooey yet obstinate string of cheese refused to break, and the more she pulled it into her cheeks, the more it pulled the remaining cheese on the slice with it.
“Are you sure you don’t want a ride?”
Nina shook her head and swallowed. “It’s only a twenty minute walk to the Camelot lab.”
While true, the route would take Nina far closer to the Code R site than Marrybell liked.
“Besides,” Nina added, “I could use some light exercise after Pizza Hut.”
Marrybell was tempted to insist with or without giving an explanation. But with the security surrounding Code R, if someone noticed her taking a rather conspicuous, circuitous route through Kokubunji, that could tip her hand and turn ugly very quickly. Perhaps this was for the best.
“Very well,” Marrybell said. “Do you have the ID I gave you?”
The loud crashing sound of falling tableware came from the kitchen. A muffled shout soon followed it.
A grunt, a sharp cry, the flump of a body hitting the floor, and the skittering of shattered glass.
“Get your addicted arse out of here, and don’t come back!”
Marrybell closed her eyes and quietly sighed. When she next opened them, she noticed Nina visibly wrestling with the decision to go help or stay seated.
“Don’t,” Marrybell said.
“But – but didn’t you hear that? That man could be hurt.”
“He probably is, but I’ve survived worse.”
“But – but…”
After another sigh, Marrybell asked, “What would you have me do?”
Nina faltered for a moment at the question with a seemingly obvious answer. “Call an ambulance? Take him to a hospital? Perform first aid?”
“That last one I could help with if I had the necessary supplies, but from context, I assume the man is an honourary Britannian. He probably won’t want our help. Not right now, at least. Especially not mine. If we went to help, we’d probably just make things worse.”
“What? But you’re–”
“Nina,” Marrybell interrupted, “I like the Japanese. I try to help them. But I’m a very thorny subject for them. I am, ostensibly, the reason they lost their sovereignty, after all.
“As for medical care, from what we heard, the man has a Refrain addiction. The tremors the drug induces are probably what caused the accident. If we take him to a hospital, if he has insurance, if they treat him properly, at the end of the day, he’s under arrest. A Britannian would go to rehab. He’ll go to prison and labour for twenty years without pay. Then when he gets out, he can only hope someone who cares for him is still alive, because he won’t be getting a job. Not even as cannon fodder in the military. If not, he’ll turn to less legal means of survival, and thus the cycle repeats.”
“But that’s terrible!”
“By design. Regardless of what rhetoric you use, empires exist to enrich their homeland at the expense of their colonies.”
“Nina, you’re a brilliant girl. Don’t close your eyes to reality.”
Of all people, Marrybell would know how the system worked, and Nina had to know that. While the latter stared pensively down at the table, Marrybell helped herself to another breadstick.
“It shouldn’t be like that.”
“No, it shouldn’t. But it is.” After a moment to weigh the idea in her mind, Marrybell decided to lightly probe Nina’s ethics again. “You're not alone, of course. Euphemia, for example, is interesting in that she sees everyone as her people and all Britannian territory as our homeland. She has this baffling instinct to care for everyone which I can only simulate on a good day. If she were otherwise fit for the position, she would make an excellent empress.”
“She could do it if you gave her a chance,” Nina said with unexpected force.
That was not the response Marrybell had anticipated, but it would certainly do. “I admit we could make it work,” she said, “but she doesn’t have the temperament to rule in her own right.”
“I think she would surprise you,” Nina insisted.
Marrybell quirked an eyebrow, half-tempted to reveal she intended to make Euphemia Area Eleven’s viceroy. As amusing as that would be, however, she instead said, “Perhaps, but I think we can agree that she doesn’t want to be empress.”
After a moment, Nina conceded a simple, “I suppose.”
“Anyway, I’m going to go pay for us and get out of here before someone recognises me.” Dressed down in jeans and a light jacket, she doubted anyone would. It was barely a disguise, but the typical commoner – Britannian or otherwise – tended to believe royalty somehow could not function without silks and furs. They usually dismissed her when not so clothed as a lookalike or after being politely informed of their mistake. “I’m not really in the mood to deal with that anymore. Are you sure you don’t want a ride?”
“I’ll be fine.”
“Alright. Text me when you’re done, and I’ll come to the Camelot lab to pick you up.”
After exchanging goodbyes, Marrybell gave the cashier twenty quid and left. On her way out, she grabbed a napkin and a pen. She wrote, ‘Kōzuki Naoto, Nakano,’ and signed it simply ‘MmB’. From there, she tracked down the man from before with little difficulty; his injuries made him memorable to passersby. She rudely brushed past him, deftly slipping the note and roughly a thousand pounds in small bills into his pocket as she did, and then vanished around a corner while he groaned and cursed her under his breath.
There were a dozen reasons Marrybell could give to rationalise what she’d just done, most rather petty and childish, but when it came down to it, she simply trusted Kallen’s brother to give those she sent his way a fair shake. He seemed decent enough, and Kallen and Lelouch had, after all, left him to his own devices.
A short while later, Marrybell arrived at her base of operations in Kokubunji. She'd leased an empty building roughly two kilometres away from the Code R lab – not under her own name, of course – and set up camp. As it happened, Nina's request could not have come at a better time. She’d needed a reason to be in Kokubunji so close to her brother’s dirty secret, after all…
Government Borough, Area 11
March 29, 2016 a.t.b.
“Clovis!” Marrybell called out. “Are you around?”
“I’m on the terrace!” returned a faint voice.
Marrybell made her way through Clovis’s private quarters atop the Viceroy’s Palace and emerged onto the terrace overlooking the settlement. The entire city could be seen from this vantage point. The sprawling grounds of Ashford Academy were easy to spot. The shattered remains of the Tokyo Tower stuck out almost painfully so against the surrounding Britannian architecture. On the horizon, the ghettos ringed the settlement proper.
Gazing out over it all, Clovis stood with palette and brush in hand. His canvas stood within arms reach. From what was done, he appeared to be painting the settlement from an unusual angle. The finished portions looked superb as usual so far. Whatever else could be said about him, no one could deny that Clovis had artistic talent to spare.
“You’re looking radiant as always, dear sister,” Clovis casually observed.
Marrybell smiled and grit her teeth. “Thank you. I see you’re enjoying the weather.”
“Indeed! I’ve managed to delegate enough today to make time to finish my latest masterpiece.” Clovis heaved a yearning sigh. “I don’t suppose Father would allow me to pass the viceroyalty onto you this June, would he?”
Marrybell paused a moment at the question but soon found her voice. “I thank you for the consideration, but my age has no bearing on my standing in his eyes,” she bit out. Nor your affability in mine. “He will make use of me in whatever manner he deems fit, which clearly will not be as your replacement. I give thanks only to my unsuitability as a whore.”
“I believe the term you were looking for is ‘wife’,” Clovis commented. The sincere sympathy in his voice made Marrybell want to wring his neck all the more for his betrayal of everything for which she’d once thought he stood.
“If it looks like a duck.”
Clovis chuckled. Somehow, he always found Marrybell’s negativity ‘endearing’ – his words, not hers. “What brings you here, Marrybell? Or are you just after the pleasure of my company?”
Not anymore. “I just wanted to let you know I’ll be in and out of town for a while. If you need me to get anything done, now would be the time to tell me.”
“Nothing comes to mind,” Clovis said thoughtfully. He shrugged. “Where will you be going, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“A physicist friend of mine needs some assistance with her research. She asked me to procure Earl Asplund’s aid over at his lab in Kokubunji. You know how he is. If I leave now, I imagine I’ll be done enduring him next year.”
“Ha! I wish you good luck. That man tries even my patience sometimes.”
Is that it? He’s just going to wish me luck and send me on my way? Marrybell shook her head. She'd be careful to watch for anyone following her. “’Tis his revenge for Society trying his, I believe. But in all honesty, I expect he’ll be far less tedious when discussing science.”
“True. Do try to enjoy yourself either way.”
“If I can. I’ll see you later, then.”
Marrybell paused at the sliding door leading back inside. Regret was not a feeling that sat well with her, especially not when mixed with anger. It roiled within her and prevented her departure. Where her outrage demanded blood, it offered excuses and clemency.
Marrybell’s grip on the door tightened until her knuckles turned white. She swore under her breath and forced herself to let go.
For everything that her brother had done for her, for everything that he meant to her, Marrybell would give him one small chance, as much as she could afford without putting her own life at the mercy of her brother’s dark side. She owed him at least that much. If nothing else, Euphemia would want her to do it.
With ease, Marrybell spun her story. “I was speaking with Suzaku yesterday. I…said something I really shouldn’t have about his father.”
“I don’t believe I need to tell you to apologise,” Clovis said.
“No, I will. I just… That there, what you just did. It was very… What I said, it forced me to think about…things. I… I mean…” Dammit. Marrybell roughly rubbed a tear from one eye and then the other. They weren’t part of the act, and she hated herself for it.
“Have I ever thanked you for supporting my friendship with Suzaku?”
Visibly poring through his memory, Clovis slowly said, “I don't believe so.”
“Then thank you. When I eventually got over myself, I realised that the harassment I suffered because of that was really very mild. I know you had something to do with it.”
“‘Got over yourself’?” Clovis said with a fond smile and a chuckle. “Dear Marrybell, you still have an ego larger than Father’s.”
Marrybell's eye twitched, and for a moment she considered simply leaving, but she ultimately let the comment pass.
“Perhaps,” Marrybell allowed. “But I know I was a nightmare when I first got here.”
“Considering what you went through, no one could blame you. Certainly, I much preferred it to the sycophantic little girl eager to please with a dagger behind her back.”
Hmph. Marrybell had quickly discovered the concept of prior probability after the war. No one had bought her act, so instead she'd carefully let her contempt show and slowly let it fade. Clovis had seen through her, of course, but she'd accepted that – welcomed it, even.
“It was when the anger later turned to tears that I grew terrified.”
“Yes…” At the time, Clovis had truly had no idea what to do with a crying girl, or more specifically, a crying little sister. Even back then, the incorrigible flirt had known exactly what to say to a woman in tears.
“Clovis, do you remember how I first came to you?”
Indeed, he did. The look of Clovis's face revealed everything. He made no light attempt at humour here. “I could never forget the sight. A little Britannian girl covered in mud wearing blood-soaked rags. She carried an Eleven boy with a gunshot wound on her back and looked as though she’d not eaten in weeks. I couldn't even recognise you.”
“Neither could anyone else.” That had almost gotten both Marrybell and Suzaku killed. Even when she'd shouted her identity for all to hear, nothing had been expected of him. Many of her other siblings would have simply disposed of her as an ‘impostor’ and been done with it, not take on an unruly burden like her. After all, what was one less potential rival for the throne?
“You… Clovis, I'm…damaged. That was obvious, and yet you took me in anyway. I needed you in my life more than I can possibly say. I can’t thank you enough for being there for me. I can’t even express how lucky I feel despite everything. Out of a family of monsters, I somehow got you. I… I look up to you as the good person I can never be.”
Marrybell gave Clovis a watery smile. “More than my brother, you’ve been a father to me. Certainly far more than the emperor ever has.”
“Marrybell, I…” Clovis looked as utterly unprepared to deal with Marrybell’s confession as he sounded. “I don’t know what to say.”
Marrybell wet her parched lips and swallowed. “You don’t need to say anything. Please just keep being you.”
Clovis set aside his painting supplies and stepped toward Marrybell, but she turned and fled before another word could be said. She’d stepped too far outside her comfort zone already. If she went any further, she’d not trust herself not to do something terminally foolish again with her most recent father figure.
Clovis… Marrybell pushed aside and buried feelings that never should have been unearthed. You have until I get my hands on the skeletons in your cupboard to fix everything. Disappoint me, and I’ll destroy you.
Code R Infiltration Team HQ
Kokubunji, Area 11
April 2, 2016 a.t.b.
Amidst the general clutter of headquarters sat two men and a woman. When Marrybell said, “Shinozaki-sa…” all three heads looked up from their work. “Shizue-san,” she tried instead, and the two men went back to whatever task they had at hand.
“Good afternoon, Marrybell-sama.”
“Good afternoon. How goes the infiltration?”
Shizue rolled a hand back and forth in a so-so gesture. “Whoever designed the security for this place is a complete novice at tradecraft, but the physical security is more paranoid than the protections Lelouch-sama placed around Ashford Academy.”
A snicker escaped Marrybell at the description.
“We’ve managed to fully map the outer security,” Shizue continued, “but it’ll be days – weeks, perhaps – before we manage to get in and out with evidence without raising alarm.”
Marrybell frowned as her thoughts turned toward the other major obstacle to the operation. “Has Naoto-san sent anymore scouts into the area?”
“No. There have been less, actually.”
“Well, that’s good. I don’t want – wait, what?”
With a shrug, Shizue said, “There’s only two or three observing right now. We’re not sure yet what to make of it as we’re relatively blind to his group’s activities at the moment. It’s too big and too well-organised; there’s just too much to keep track of from a distance. Still, there’s no possible way they’re prepared for an assault. Not without magic, at least.”
“What about the mystery person with Naoto-san? The one who took out your agent.”
“We still don’t know who he or she is nor where Shigeru-kun disappeared to, but no one involved with the Code R project has been in or in contact with someone from Nakano to the best of our knowledge. Nor would any of them recognise Shigeru-kun.”
So Naoto shouldn’t have access to any information we do not. Strange. I doubt he’s foolish enough to plan a raid blind nor callous enough not to concern himself with the destruction such a gamble would result in. But then what is he up to? I suppose he could just be moving cautiously…
After a moment, Marrybell shrugged. Whatever. The slower he proceeds, the more time we have to get this over and done with. As Lelouch preferred for Naoto to remain blissfully unaware of the shinobi watching over him, she intended to step in and tell him to back down only if it became obvious he was involving himself in this mess.
“Well, I’m not going to curse the rare good fortune in my life,” Marrybell finally concluded. “Am I pushing my luck in asking if we’ve caught anyone new and significant involved in Code R?”
“Oh?” Some small part of Marrybell whispered that something terrible had to be hanging over her head. Life never went this well for her. Sure, Clovis had turned out not to be the benevolent older brother she’d thought him, but that certainly opened up opportunities. Euphemia was unexpectedly willing and eager to cooperate. Nina and the girl’s research just fell into her lap. Naoto was not making as big of a nuisance of himself as he could. Now this. “Who?”
“The Duke of Tokyo!” said a shocked Marrybell. Things kept getting better and better as one of the major obstacles to ruling the colony lined itself up to be knocked down. Aloud, she mused, “Just how many people are entangled in Code R?”
“Hmm… What’s the expression you Brits use? Everyone and their mum?”
Marrybell snorted. “I certainly hope not.”
Another of the Shinozaki present spoke up, a man known as Shiro in keeping with the Shinozaki tradition of all code names beginning with shi for the double meaning. “Speaking of, we have a new face.” He spun his monitor around to show them a picture. “Shino-san spotted this one arriving on foot. I’m searching for a match, but in the meantime, anyone happen to know who this is?”
Marrybell studied the image presented to her. It was a blonde woman with short hair that curled into large spirals. She wore a lab coat, wore small, fashionable glasses, and had a cylindrical case about the length of a bastard sword strung from her shoulder. Her features were distinctly Britannian, of course.
“No idea,” Marrybell said. After the other two had concurred, she asked the one question that was really bothering her. “Why is she wearing a maid cap?”
“No idea,” Shiro echoed.
Shizue snickered. When Marrybell sent her a questioning glance, she said, “It’s nothing. Just remembering something silly about a cousin of mine.”
Before anything more could be said, the last Shinozaki in the room muttered something under his breath.
“Gunfire inside the lab.”
“What!” Marrybell said in concert with similar exclamations from Shizue and Shiro. “Who’s responsible?” Unless she had seriously underestimated Naoto, he had no one on the inside. It couldn’t be him.
Shizue, who had immediately returned to her computer, glanced through the camera feeds they had watching the Code R lab for an elusive glimpse of an answer. She shook her head. “I have nothing definitive. Shiro? Shinji?”
Both shook their heads. Shinji added, “The maid girl is the only new factor we’re aware of. Could be her. Not that we know who she is.”
Marrybell frowned. Could it be the OSI? I didn’t think they were aware of this. They certainly showed no signs of it, at least. Her thoughts briefly drifted toward the shadowy organisation Pluton. Oldrin occasionally heard about it in vague whispers from her uncle. Allegedly, assuming it actually existed, it did the emperor's bidding when whatever task he'd set was too dirty for the OSI.
“Marrybell-sama,” Shizue said. “The gunfire isn’t ceasing. If you want, we could slip in during the chaos.”
At the expense of subtlety. Not that that will necessarily be an option after whatever this is passes. If it’s the OSI, getting involved would be a very bad idea, but if it’s not…
Before Marrybell could reach a decision, the matter was taken out of her hands.
“There are several transports ignoring traffic lights a few minutes away from the site.”
“Knightmare carrying?” Marrybell asked.
Of course they are. “Alright, we’re done. I want no part of this debacle whether it’s the OSI, Naoto-san, the JLF, or the Flash herself back from the dead. Pull everyone out.”
“As you command.”
Marrybell sighed. It seemed life had been going too well for her and had decided to make things difficult. But that was fine. She was used to it. She just had to alter her plans. A missed opportunity was simply that. It wasn’t as though there were anything else at stake.
A moment passed.
Oh, fuck me up the arse! Marrybell snapped out her phone and started typing. “Shizue, I need you to track a phone.”
Kokubunji, Area 11
April 2, 2016 a.t.b.
This was a bad idea. Nina knew that. Marrybell had even spelt out to her exactly why. But despite that, it felt like something Euphie would insist they do. And by her own admission, Marrybell did wish she were more like her sister. Besides, maybe if more people did the right thing it would stop being the wrong choice.
Let’s see… Who would have been here when, um…Mr Salika, I think? When he walked by?
Nina scanned the small crowd of people before her, most of whom were probably going to or from lunch. None of them really seemed like they had been here long or intended to stay long. But then she noticed a bus stop a bit further along the pavement. There were two people sitting there waiting. With any luck, they could tell her which way to go.
“Um, hello. Have either of you seen an injured man walk by?”
Despite the strange looks she received, the pair nonetheless pointed Nina in the right direction. After first expressing her gratitude, she hurried along at a light jog. She thus traversed the streets stopping to ask pedestrians waiting for buses, dining outside, or otherwise loitering for directions. She had to be catching up. Salika had a ten or fifteen minute head start, true, but a man with a limp could only move so fast and so far. He’d also not yet boarded a bus or train.
Not too far away, Nina heard a popping, explosive sound. Soon came another and then another in irregular, staccato beats.
Fireworks? Is today a holiday? A quick search on the Internet revealed that it was not, or at least not one that anyone paid attention to. Nina turned toward the direction of the noise and glanced up at the sky. When she saw nothing, she took a moment to find a clearer view through the buildings.
Nothing? Hmm… It must be an experiment at one of the labs nearby.
With a shrug, Nina pressed on. It wasn't long before she finally found the person she assumed she was looking for in an alley. He was Japanese, small tears littered his clothing, he moved with a limp, and he had a developing bruise on his cheek.
“Um… Excuse me,” Nina said as she approached Salika. She received no response and tried again, this time both nearer and clearer. “Excuse me. Do you need help?”
“Help?” Salika said. “Well, if you’re bored, you could do me a small favour.”
“Huh? A favour?”
“I need a piece of red mahogany to resurface an antique wardrobe.”
Nina had no idea what to say to that. It was then that she noticed an injection device on the ground nearby. She recalled what Marrybell had said with a gasp.
He’s on Refrain! Oh, this is bad. What do I do? How do I help?
With no idea how to handle this situation, Nina pulled out her phone and searched for an answer. She clicked on the first link and read through the site.
I’m not going to call the police.
The next link was even less useful.
I’m certainly not going to ‘fuck him up’!
Frowning, Nina refined her search to obtain medical answers. As she parsed through generally unhelpful information suggesting she simply let the patient ride out the drug, the situation suddenly grew worse. An emergency alert popped up on her phone informing her of a terrorist attack. In Kokubunji. Less than a kilometre away.
Nina paled as realisation struck her.
Oh, no. Oh, no, no, no! Those were gunshots I heard before! I need to get out of here!
After but three steps of panicked sprinting, Nina slowed to a stop as she remembered why she was in the alley to begin with. She turned back toward Salika with indecision written on her face. If she left now, she would be fine. The military was probably already here and escorting civilians to safety. She could escape.
But Nina would have to leave Salika behind to very possibly die. With Refrain running through his system, he’d be unable to defend himself. She could protect and guide him, but if she did so, then she would have to avoid the military entirely. Now that she knew what she was looking at, Salika was obviously on Refrain. If she took him through a military checkpoint, he’d be briefly detained for being an honourary Britannian at the scene and then be arrested but moments later.
Nina recognised the choice before her: safety or integrity. Her frantic mind scrambled for a decision. She knew the sane course of action. She wasn’t a tactical genius like Lelouch nor the physical incarnation of a warrior goddess like Kallen. She had no business being on a battlefield or sneaking around in the shadows. And yet she also knew exactly what decision Euphie, someone equally out of place, would reach without hesitation.
“Come with me,” Nina said as she grasped Salika’s hand. She ignored his babbling which had long since descended into Japanese. He put up no protest, but getting him to move at more than a slow walk without falling over was a challenge all of its own.
In the main streets, people still fled en masse, the great crowd clogging the pavements and the streets. Unfortunately, as Nina had expected, the military had already moved in and was directing the flow of traffic. From this distance, she could even see the occasional honourary Britannian be pulled aside for questioning.
Thus with the option to slip away before anyone could stop them gone, Nina pulled Salika down another alley perpendicular to safety. She had a plan. It was a bad one, and she knew that, but she had a plan. That was enough to keep her focused with courage enough to follow through.
The nearest railway station was all but abandoned. Everyone knew that terrorists used the old metro tunnels on the island to move about unnoticed. This was not one of them, of course, but only a few people had stayed to catch the last train out of Kokubunji during the crisis nonetheless.
Instead of proceeding to the train and almost certainly getting caught, Nina pulled Salika toward a service access door. She withdrew her school identification from a pocket and slid it through the door’s card reader with fingers crossed.
The lock clicked, and Nina pushed the door open in relief. Few people knew just how deeply the Ashfords were involved in the reconstruction efforts after the war, but she did. She also knew that Ruben Ashford let his granddaughter get away with just about anything, which included granting the student council privileges that they really didn’t need and honestly shouldn’t have.
Nina gave breath to a promise to thank Milly for her abuse of power and silently shut the door behind her and Salika.
Emergency lights lit the service tunnel well enough to see by, but Nina pulled out her phone and turned the torch on. Looking around, she found B5 painted in huge letters on the wall beside the door she’d entered through. A sign directed her to B4 to the left, B6 to the right, and A1 forward.
Right… I have no idea where I’m going. Do I have signal… No. No GPS, then. In that case, north is… Nina reoriented herself to face a landmark she remembered the relative position of. That way. Everyone was fleeing to the east, so that means I need to go toward – her face darkened – the door behind me.
Nina pursed her lips in frustration.
Fine. I guess I’ll head south for now.
Code R Infiltration Team HQ
Kokubunji, Area 11
April 2, 2016 a.t.b.
With arms crossed, Marrybell tapped her index finger impatiently.
“The train arrived.”
While Shizue attempted to trace Nina’s phone once more and Shiro accessed the station's camera feed, Marrybell tried the direct method and called Nina. As before, it never connected. She tried a second time only to meet another failure.
“Nina-san’s last known location is still at the original metro entrance,” Shizue said.
Shiro added, “I'm not seeing her disembark, either.”
So she never boarded the train, and there’s not another one coming. She should have left the station, so where is she? I swear, if she just misplaced her phone…
“Keep trying,” Marrybell said. It was possible Nina’s phone was having difficulty finding signal, and the security surveillance on the platform itself was only a token measure, not comprehensive.
“We could go investigate ourselves,” Shiro suggested. “The others are halfway out of the city as ordered, but we’re not that far away.”
“Possibly…” Marrybell mused. The actual fighting was in the other direction and departing. They should be able to slip in and out without danger. The only soldiers around should be Britannian, something Marrybell could easily deal with. In the absolute worst case scenario, she might fall responsible for the deaths of a few terrorists or Code R thugs. Neither was something she would lose sleep over.
Her decision reached, Marrybell said, “Shizue-san, let’s head out. Shiro-san, Shinji-san, stay here and let us know if you find something.”
“Your Highness? You’re coming with?”
Marrybell nodded as she gathered everything she needed for a potential combat situation. “We’ve no time for subtlety. Euphemia would kill me if I let something happen to her friend just because I wasn’t willing to get off my arse.”
“And if she’s not there?”
“Then we’ll check the other stations.”
Kokubunji, Area 11
April 2, 2016 a.t.b.
Time dragged on with scenery no more stimulating than an empty, concrete tunnel without twists or bends. Nina pressed forward while dragging Salika behind her by the hand. The few doors she came upon only led out into the metro tunnel, which she opted not to take for obvious reasons. After a while, she considered that it might be best to keep walking south when she finally found an intersection. She’d gone far enough in that direction that she might reach safety faster if she kept at it.
Eventually, Nina did come across a split in the tunnel. With it came a B6 painted on the wall alongside directions to other unhelpfully named destinations. Next to them resided a heavy door. Presumably, it concealed another railway station behind it.
Well, now seems like a good time to figure out where I am. I just need to get above ground. Nina turned to Salika and said, “Wait here.” Not that she expected him to understand her, but on the off chance he did, then fantastic. At any rate, he seemed not to wander much when left to his own devices, so she wasn’t worried.
Nina stepped out through the door onto another station as expected and quickly found a sign directing her to the exit. As she approached the stairs leading up, she heard the faint murmur of conversation echoing from the distance. The source was too far away to distinguish between English and Japanese just yet, so she proceeded cautiously.
“–être celui qui le tue.”
The words were French, oddly enough. It was a better sign than Japanese, but the subject matter worried Nina. Her French was poor at best, but she was reasonably confident the voice mentioned wanting to kill someone. As quietly as possible, Nina crept closer.
“Si les occasions le permettent, C.C., ça ira.”
Something about…opportunity allowing?
“Bien. Sommes-nous prêts à partir?”
Nina understood that one perfectly. From the sound of it, the two voices were about to leave. Urgency pushed her cautious advance faster, but when the next words came, she froze midstep. They were spoken in Japanese; she was sure of it! A few new voices responded to the original two.
The – they’re the t-terrorist! Nina’s heart pounded in her ears the instant she put words to what she’d already known. Her knees trembled and threatened to give out on her, but she endured. With shuddering breath, inch by inch, she crept back in the direction she’d come from. As she did, the original voices returned to using French. She could barely hear the conversation over her own heart, but she did catch the occasional word or two.
I don’t… Why are they talking about making pizza? A really big pizza?
Nina briefly recalled Euphie mentioning that Milly wanted to make a giant pizza but just as quickly shoved the intrusive thought to the back of her mind.
Turning around a corner, Nina came face to back with a terrorist. He’d not noticed her. All she had to do to stay safe was step back, wait, and not make a sound.
Nina took a half-step back.
The terrorist shouted something to the others.
Nina shrieked, and wasn’t that just the worst idea she’d ever had?
The terrorist spun toward Nina with wide eyes, and she fled before he could get a good look at her. Shouting broke out behind her as she descended the stairs back down to the station proper. She could hear the pounding of footsteps gaining on her.
Nina fumbled with her ID. With shaking hands, she attempted to insert it into the card reader. She swore with increasing dismay the first, second, and third try before she actually managed it. She could hear the terrorists approaching still but more slowly now, cautiously, like she was a threat.
As soon as she was through the door, Nina slammed it behind her. She looked down each path she could take to run away, but all three were long, narrow corridors they could easily run her down in if they didn’t just shoot her in the back.
The door will hold. The door has to hold. It has to. Please, please, hold, please.
Despite her plea, the worst sound in the world met Nina’s ears: the door unlocked. The terrorists had a keycard.
I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m dead. I don’t want to die. Please, I don’t want to die.
Out of the corner of her eye, the sight of Salika reminded Nina that she was not alone. An idea crossed her mind. She almost berated herself for acting like a five-year-old, but it was really all she had. She quickly hid behind the Japanese man with the impossible hope of going unnoticed behind him.
The door burst open, and a pair of terrorists ran into the room with guns held aloft and ready to fire. One turned to check the left hall and the other the right. A third came immediately after them with a rifle aimed at Salika and Nina behind him. Another pair waited outside the service hallway looking in.
The middle terrorist in the hallway barked what sounded like an order. Salika, of course, was no help whatsoever and continued on in his own little world.
The terrorist yelled again, and when nothing productive happened, he fired a warning shot. Nina flinched and tried to shrink in on herself into a ball while still on her feet but somehow managed not to descend into hysterics.
Another of terrorists spoke this time. Nina recognised the word ‘Refrain’, although it was horribly pronounced.
The middle terrorist spoke again. This time, Nina heard the word ‘Brit’, which could only refer to her.
Eventually, one of the terrorists spoke in broken English that, for the life of her, Nina could not understand with her heart hammering in her head.
A terrorist stepped forward and physically grabbed Nina. She screamed and struggled to pull herself away, but his grip was far too strong for her to break. She begged, but he paid her pleas no heed and dragged her out of the service hallway onto the platform by the arm. Once out in the open, the terrorist tossed Nina roughly to the ground where she collapsed in tears. The four others with him surrounded her at the base of the stairwell leading up. One of them kept watch on the service door while the other three pointed their guns at her.
After a short conversation between the terrorists in Japanese, one of them spoke in much less painful English than before.
“Who are you?”
With a great deal of stammering and blubbering, Nina eventually managed, “Nina Einstein.”
“What are you doing here?”
“T-t-tr-trying t-t-to l-leave.”
“Don’t lie!” the terrorist demanded with an accompanying sharp kick to the gut.
Despite the pain, Nina pled, “I’m not! I’m not! I swear, I’m not!”
The terrorist abruptly fell into a gurgle as blood seeped from a long gash on his neck. He coughed up more as he fell to his knees. The shock had no time to work its way through the other terrorists before everything changed, and Nina found herself perfectly positioned to witness it.
Marrybell fell from above, an arming sword in her right hand and a pistol in her left. She moved in silence with pure rage on her face, fire in her eyes, and a demonic smile to fuel nightmares. In that moment, hers was a visage forever burnt into Nina’s mind. She was terrifying. She was beautiful. She was savage. She was graceful. She was the worst kind of saviour and the greatest of demons.
Before anyone could react, Marrybell landed behind a terrorist and ran him through with her sword. She used his body as a human shield, positioning it by use of its new handle, and levelled her pistol on another terrorist. She fired, and that was the third to fall.
As this happened, another figure dropped onto a terrorist feet first on the opposite side of the ring. She sent the man tumbling to the ground as she leapt off his shoulders and flew into a backflip overhead the remaining terrorist. She flung a kunai, and then only the terrorist groaning on the floor remained alive. Without a moment’s delay, she tossed another projectile, and the last terrorist let out a weak cry before falling limp. He yet breathed, but he was down.
It was over.
Stunned silent, Nina watched Marrybell pry her sword from her first victim. She paused a moment to give it a considering look before replacing it within its scabbard. The pistol, too, she holstered, and then finally turned her attention to Nina.
“Are there any others?”
Nina shook her head frantically. “N-not down here.”
“Good. Then let’s leave before we’re overrun.” Marrybell extended a bloodstained hand.
“I… I… I-I-I-I…” Unable to help herself and unable to form words, Nina descended into tears of relief. She was alive. It was impossible, but she was alive.
Marrybell sighed as she watched Nina break down. This was really not the time. They needed to leave as quickly as possible. Despite that, she remembered when she’d once been in Nina’s position. This was not an easy experience to go through.
Crouching down, Marrybell gathered Nina into her arms and whispered soft, reassuring words of little actual substance. Slowly, far too slowly, Nina’s tears waned into mere sniffles with the occasional sob.
“Are you ready to go?” Marrybell asked patiently.
“Alright.” Marrybell slipped her hands into Nina’s. She said, “Let’s get you up, then,” and pulled Nina to her feet.
“Thank you.” Nina’s voice came out as a ghost of a whisper, but Marrybell still caught it.
“You're welcome.” Marrybell gestured with her head toward Shizue. Nina got the hint right away.
“And thank yo…y-you…you…”
Marrybell took a step to the side to observe the girl, and what she saw was not good. Nina visibly shook. Her pupils dilated, and she’d long since stopped blinking. Her breaths came in more and more ragged gasps.
Oh, fuck, she’s having a panic attack. Why now? Half a second after she posed the question, Marrybell made the connection and swore under her breath. She spun Nina in place and buried the girl’s head in her shoulder. “Shizue, would you please secure our escape route. And take him.” She nodded toward the sole living terrorist.
“Of course, Your Highness,” Shizue said with a bow. “For what it’s worth, Miss Einstein, I take no offence. I’ll wait to accept your gratitude until you’re ready to give it.”
Long after they were alone, Nina finally managed to mumble, “I’m sorry.”
“Hey, no, none of that. I understand. Shizue understands. It’s fine.”
Marrybell sighed inwardly. “Apology accepted. I’m sorry, too. Any other time I wouldn’t do this, but we really need to move. Just…hold my hand, and we’ll get out of here. Can you do that?”
Nina nodded, and they departed.