Chapter 2

Before Aina could recover, Voskoboynikov reached into a pocket with his free hand and extracted a hypodermic needle. Before he could inject Aina with the tranquilizer, however, a gloved hand grabbed his wrist, and at the same time, a drink coaster flew through the air and knocked the syringe from his hand. Voskoboynikov turned around and found two meido standing behind him, brooms strapped to their backs.

Gokigenyou sir,” the one on his right greeted him as they curtseyed in unison. “That komusume you’re holding is going to be late for class. Would you be so kind as to return her to the gakkou? You can pick her up after classes have ended for the day.”

Voskoboynikov quickly plunged his left hand into his coat and pulled out a pistol, but before he could fire, one of the meido smacked it from his hand with her broom. At the same time, the other meido unsheathed a blade concealed in her broom handle and stabbed it into his armpit, which had been exposed when he raised the gun. The blade pierced his trapezius muscle, exiting just behind his collarbone. Howling in pain, Voskoboynikov reflexively dropped Aina to the ground and reached for the blade’s hilt with his right hand, but the meido had already withdrawn her sword and backed just out of his reach.

He charged forward, grabbing at the closest meido, but she dodged, pivoting around to his left side. He tried to strike her with his left arm, but was unable to move it quickly due to his injury. The second meido ran towards him, thrusting her sword at his throat. He quickly reversed direction and leaned back to avoid the attack, at which point the first meido swept his feet out from under him with her broom. He hit the ground hard and rolled backwards over his right shoulder, coming to a kneeling position.

Before he could stand, Aina pressed the barrel of her mother’s pistol to his left temple and pulled the trigger. Voskoboynikov sunk to the ground and he did not move again.

Once she was satisfied that he was dead, Aina set down the weapon and ran over to her mother, who still lay unconscious on the sidewalk, followed closely by one of the meido.

“Help me turn her onto her back,” the meido ordered. “Gently now.”

“Is she going to be daijobu?” Aina asked when they were finished. She was on the verge of tears. Without saying anything, the meido fished a bottle of smelling salts from an apron pocket and placed it under Jeanne’s nose. After a few seconds, Jeanne’s eyes fluttered open.

“Voskoboynikov?” she immediately inquired.

Shindeiru. Don’t move,” the meido commanded, placing her hands firmly on Jeanne’s shoulders, preventing her from sitting up. “You hit your head pretty hard.” Jeanne relaxed and took a few deep breaths. Aina threw her arms around her mother and began sobbing. Jeanne embraced her daughter, but kept her attention focused on the meido.

“Mama, I was scared,” Aina choked. “I thought he killed you, and he was gonna take me away, and… and…” she started bawling once more.

“It’s OK now, Aina. I’m OK,” Jeanne reassured her. “Come now, let me up.”

“Ma’am, you really shouldn’t move until medical help arrives,” the meido insisted.

“Arigatou, but I’m fine,” Jeanne replied, slowly sitting up. “Meido ka?” she mused, taking in her surroundings. “Arigatou gozaimasu for protecting my daughter.” She bowed her head slightly and looked down at Aina, who was wiping the tears from her eyes.

“To be honest, she didn’t need much help from us,” the other meido said as she approached the group. “Hey, jo-chan, you shouldn’t leave these things lying around.” She tossed Jeanne’s pistol to Aina. “They’re dangerous, you know? And they’re not exactly legal, either.”

“Neither are swords,” Aina pointed out with a big smile on her face.

“Well, you got us there,” the meido replied, smiling just as much.

“Give me that,” Jeanne demanded, holding her hand out. Aina returned the gun to her mother, who sheathed it in her concealed shoulder holster.

“Forgive me for asking, but naze are you here? Naze did you help us?” Jeanne inquired of the meido.

“Ah, well, Ms.…” the meido kneeling beside her started.

“Oh, how rude of me. I’m Jeanne. Jeanne Dufort.”

“Dufort-san then,” the meido confirmed, reverting to the family name in the absence of a Japanese given name. “I’m Yasuko.”

Masa desu,” the other meido introduced herself.

Yoroshiku onegaishimasu,” the two chanted in unison.

“Yoroshiku,” Jeanne returned the greeting.

“To answer your question, Dufort-san,” Yasuko began, “we were at the gakkou on business and witnessed that hito chasing your daughter.”

“What possible business could meido have at an elementary school?” Jeanne blurted out. “Business” for a meido typically meant one of three things: cooking, cleaning, or killing, and the school didn’t need any help with cooking or cleaning.

“Don’t worry,” Yasuko reassured her. “We work for the Minister of Education. We were just there to make sure the school was implementing… certain policies.”

“Isn’t that normally a job for civil servants?”

“Normally…” Yasuko trailed off.

“You don’t have to explain,” Jeanne held up a hand. “I know how stubborn that principal can be.”

“I’m sure you do,” Yasuko said, looking over at Aina.

Hai, well,” Jeanne said, trying to change the subject, “arigatou for intervening. We owe you our lives.” She tried to move into a position where she could genuflect before the meido, but Yasuko held her in place.

Donmai, donmai,” Masa said, waving her hand before her face. “Besides, it’s not like we did it out of the kindness of our murderous little kokoro.”

“Masa-san,” Yasuko hissed, “surely that can wait until after we take Dufort-san to the byouin.”

“I don’t need to go to the byouin,” Jeanne insisted. “I’m fine. Masa-san, Yasuko-san, you saved our lives. There’s no need to be reserved. If you’re after a reward, please, name it.”

“Aina-chan,” Masa said, bending down to come face to face with the child, “I want you.” Aina quickly hid her face in her hands and turned away.

“I… I’m… not ready for that kind of thing yet,” Aina stammered. “Maybe in a few years…” Masa let out a boisterous laugh.

“You’ve got a sharp wit to match your fighting skills! That’s good, Aina-chan. You’ll make a good meido.”

“Dufort-san,” Yasuko said, “what Masa-san means to say is that we hope you’ll consider selling Aina-san to our goshujin-sama. We won’t take her from you, but we think she would make an excellent meido.”

Jeanne regretted promising a reward to the meido, and was considering how to best get out of this situation without losing face.

“I’m sorry, but Aina is my daughter. I can’t part with her, even if you did save my life.”

“We understand completely,” Yasuko reassured her. “All we’re asking is that you hear us out. We think this would be beneficial for minna, especially Aina-san.”

“Beneficial for Aina?!” Incredulity leaked from Jeanne’s voice. “You want to turn her into a killer! That’s—”

“She’s already a killer”, Masa said, gesturing to the dead body lying a few meters away. “And I’d wager this wasn’t her first kill.”

Jeanne shuddered as she remembered the two other Soviets. Three years ago, Aina’s first kill had been messy. Zakharchenko had suffered a lot of pain before Aina finally managed to kill him, but that was nothing compared to what she had done to Kharmats. She had made him suffer on purpose. She broke him, and continued to torture him as he begged for death. The gruesome scene had haunted Jeanne’s nightmares ever since.

“All my husband and I want is for Aina to live a peaceful life.”

“That’s what any good parent wants,” Yasuko said, “but not everyone is so lucky. I don’t want to pry, Dufort-san, but this might not be the last Soviet to come after your daughter.”

“It won’t be,” Jeanne admitted. “My husband and I work on classified weapons research. The Soviets have wanted to place a mole in our organization for years, and they think they can turn us if they kidnap our daughter.”

“Can they?” Yasuko asked seriously.

“It doesn’t matter. We’ll never let them get their hands on her.”

“That’s some big talk for someone who just got creamed,” Masa chided. “Face it, we can protect your daughter much better than you can.”

“We’ll do better. We won’t be so careless ever again,” Jeanne insisted forcefully.

“Well that’s great and all,” Masa countered, “but even if you manage to elude the Soviets, the kid’s got a knack for fighting. She’ll be drafted and sent to the front lines. Being a meido’s no picnic, that’s for sure, but it beats the hell outta being a soldier.”

“Our mortality rate is much better too,” Yasuko added. Jeanne stayed silent. Though it stung at her heart, she couldn’t refute their logic, but she also couldn’t bring herself to voice her agreement.

Masa-onee-san, if I become a Meido, will I make tomodachi?” Aina asked, breaking the silence. The two meido cast quick glances at each other, each trying to determine if they should admit their friendship to a stranger.

Iie,” Masa replied, “but you will make nakama.” Aina considered this compromise for a few moments.

“Mom, I want to be a meido,” she exclaimed excitedly.

“We’ll… have to talk to your father about this.” Jeanne slowly stood up. She could hear sirens approaching, and wanted to appear in control when the police arrived. “Gomen for being rude a second time, but let’s keep this unofficial.” Jeanne held out her mobile phone instead of her business card. Yasuko took the phone, entered her contact information, and handed it back. She did not offer her phone to Jeanne, nor did Jeanne request it.

The meido left before the police got there. The first officers to arrive on the scene questioned Jeanne for a few minutes, but after confirming her identity, let her and Aina go.

Jeanne was hesitant to leave Voskoboynikov’s corpse in police custody. Although he was the third Soviet monstrosity Aina had killed, his body was the first piece of forensic evidence they’d ever left behind. It was far from illegal for Aina to kill an enemy soldier in self-defense, but Jeanne feared that if the Soviets learned of it, they wouldn’t just come to take Aina, they’d come for revenge.

There had been enough time to vaporize the body before the police arrived, but Jeanne couldn’t bring herself to do it. Studying and dissecting a genuine Soviet monstrosity would advance their research considerably, and she thought it was worth the risk. But that would come later, after all the political deals and paperwork required to transfer the corpse from police custody, and, of course, after she took Aina home.

Aina never again set foot in Daiichi Elementary. The faculty, staff, and students were all relieved to see her go, and forgot about her entirely within a few months. All of them, that is, except for Mari, who was crestfallen when Aina didn’t return.