Keeping her attention focused on Mari, Otome slowly backed towards the weapon rack behind her. Just as slowly, Mari advanced. Neither were moving quickly. It was a sign that they both respected each other as an opponent, but to Naomi and a few of the more experienced meido present, it was also a sign that, while they were both capable of moving and fighting at high speeds, neither was confident that she would be able to properly react to her opponent’s movements quickly enough.
As Mari stepped forward, she retrieved a clothesline from her pocket. Although it was against the rules to begin the match with weapons, deception was an important part of meidou, and Naomi did not stop the match. Mari twirled the weight at the end of the rope above her head and released it, sending it flying towards Otome, who easily sidestepped it. Mari yanked back on the rope, pulling to the right, hoping to wrap it around Otome from behind, but before Mari could pull far enough, Otome grabbed the rope with her left hand, engaging Mari in a tug-of-war. Although the rope was very thin, it did not break.
Both combatants dug in. They both briefly considered releasing their hold on the rope, hoping their opponent would lose their balance and fall backwards, but the risks associated with losing control of the weapon were too great. Mari came to a decision first, jumping high into the air, and letting Otome pull her towards her. As she flew towards Otome, she extended her legs, as if to kick Otome in the chest. Otome jumped to the side, keeping hold of the rope, and Mari sailed past, but the kick had been a feint, and Mari landed behind Otome next to the weapon rack. Retrieving a sword, she pulled the rope taut and began cutting through it, causing it to fray and snap.
They simultaneously dropped the rope, and Mari ran towards Otome, sword raised. Rather than retreat towards the opposite weapon rack, Otome stepped forward to intercept Mari, catching her by surprise and grabbing her wrists before she could bring the sword down. In response, Mari bit down on a capsule she had been hiding in her mouth and blew a powder towards Otome’s face. Otome released Mari’s wrists and pivoted to the side, blowing a bit of the powder back in Mari’s diretion. Letting go of the hilt with her left hand, Mari made a grab for Otome’s hair, but she had inhaled some of the powder, causing her eyes to water, and she missed.
Otome elbowed Mari in the side, causing her to double over. She quickly followed up with a kick to Mari’s right hand, hoping to knock the sword away. But Mari kept a tight grip on the sword, and gritting her teeth, slammed her shoulder into Otome’s stomach. It was a reckless move, and a stupid one, and that’s why it caught Otome off guard. She lost her balance and fell backwards, managing to grab hold of Mari as she fell, pulling her down with her and demonstrating exactly why it was a stupid move.
The two rolled in the dirt, each gripping the hilt of the sword with both hands, attempting to pin the other to the ground with their legs. It was about as undignified as a fight to the death could get. Otome gained a temporary advantage, straddling Mari’s stomach, and spit in Mari’s still-watery eyes. As Mari flinched and closed her eyes to avoid the spittle, Otome let go of the hilt with her left hand and began punching Mari in the face. The four goshujin leaned over the railing to get a closer look at the violence.
Aina winced as each blow hit. Otome wasn’t holding back, and without magical healing, the punches were going to leave the right half of Mari’s face swollen and bruised. Aina was surprised to find that the image of Mari’s battered face upset her. She hated Mari, and she had often imagined punching her herself when she was younger, but it had always been a power fantasy where she got the better of Mari and Mari stopped bullying her. It never ended with Mari visibly injured.
Before she could stop herself, Aina took a small step towards the battle, intending to pull Otome off Mari. She froze when the realization hit her: She was physically attracted to Mari. A wave of emotions washed over Aina. Did this mean she didn’t hate Mari after all? No, she still hated Mari, and she still felt bad about it. Did it mean that she wasn’t physically attracted to Fumiko? Not to the same degree. Fumiko was attractive, but Mari was sexy. They both had nice figures and cute faces, but Mari was round in all the right places. If she was being honest with herself, it’s why she had let Mari kiss her so easily.
And it wasn’t just Mari. Momo had noticed it years ago, that Aina had been fascinated by the nekomimi twins’ tails. It hadn’t been sexual desire—she had been too young for that—but it had been desire nonetheless. Worse, she expected if she saw Momo today, she would feel the same kind of attraction she was feeling towards Mari. Yet, she didn’t feel the same way about Mimi. Mimi looked good for a young mother into her third pregnancy, but her hair and fur had lost its lustre, and her pregnant belly was a turn-off.
This whole line of thinking was making Aina feel incredibly shallow. She didn’t like that she was objectifying Momo and Mimi in her mind, and she didn’t like that she couldn’t find it within her to forgive Mari. Maybe if she could, she could feel better about lusting after her, because then she would at least be lusting after someone she liked for more than just her looks. No, she felt bad about lusting after Mari at all when she had Fumiko.
She was grateful for Fumiko. Because she loved Fumiko more than anything, she would never risk hurting her by pursuing a physical relationship with anyone else, and her love for Fumiko proved that she could love someone for deeper reasons. But did that kind of love prove that she wasn’t shallow? Aina suspected it didn’t. Chikako had been right to ask Aina if she would be tempted by anyone else in the mansion.
Mari grunted in pain as a particularly hard punch connected with her face, snapping Aina out of her thoughts. Releasing her hold on the sword, Mari pushed Otome hard in the chest, sending Otome flying up and back. Both were back on their feet in a flash, but this time, Otome had possession of the sword.
“Enough,” Naomi called out, raising the red flag with her right hand. “Mme Otome wins.”
“Nani?” Mari roared. “It’s not over! I can still win!”
“You could,” Naomi agreed, “but so could she. Neither of you is overwhelmingly stronger than the other. If you fought multiple times, you would win some and she would win some. It would come down to the circumstances of the battle. In such cases, it’s impossible to declare one of you as stronger, so we must respect your master’s preference and allow Mme Otome to keep her position. If you want to take it from her, you must gain your master’s favor.”
Murmurs broke out amongst all assembled, including the goshujin. Akira and the Prime Minister seemed satisfied with the result, but the other two men were arguing animatedly. One of the men mimed the repeated punches Otome had delivered to the side of Mari’s head, and the other, with a scowl on his face, pulled out a checkbook and tore a sheet out, passing it to the other man. Aina’s heart sunk further when she realized they had been betting on the fight, and she suspected that the loser was more upset about losing to the other man than he was about losing the money. It was a demoralizing sight, even more so if one of the men was Otome’s former employer. Had he bet on his former employee, or against her?
“Iie, I can’t accept that,” Mari growled.
“Mari-san, it was a good match,” Otome said, walking towards her with a hand outstretched. “You’ve become much stronger. I’m glad to know that if something happens to me, there will be someone to—”
“Shine!” screamed Mari, grabbing Otome’s outstretched hand and yanking hard, hoping to catch her off-guard. Otome half expected this, however, and didn’t allow herself to be pulled off her feet. With her free hand, she swung the sword at Mari, who jumped back, narrowly dodging it, and continued to back up towards the weapon rack.
“Mme Aina, stop them.” Naomi ordered. Aina hesitated for a second, wondering why Naomi wasn’t stopping them herself, then rushed into the fray. Placing herself between the two combatants, she pushed them both in the abdomen, sending them back a few feet. Mari immediately ran forward, but Aina grabbed her with one arm and turned to glare at Otome.
“Drop it,” Aina ordered. “Back off.”
Otome did as she was told, and at the same time, a collective squeal echoed across the courtyard, coming from the younger meido. Aina looked in their direction to find that they were whispering amongst each other and pointing at her. When they noticed her looking, they let out another squeal.
“Nani’s that about?” Aina asked, turning back to Mari, who was still struggling in her arm. She shook Mari, repeating the question, and Mari stopped trying to free herself.
“Someone saw us go into the hotel last night,” Mari said quietly. “There were rumors going around this morning. Gomen.”
“You don’t seem very sorry,” Aina observed, noting the small smile on Mari’s face. “If I let go of you, will you stop attacking Otome-sama?” Aina desperately wanted to let Mari go. She was aware it looked to the younger girls that she was embracing Mari and protecting her from Otome. She was also uncomfortable being in such close physical proximity to Mari.
“Iie,” Mari shook her head. “She’s a bad leader, I need to remove her, minna no—“
“If you persist,” warned Aina, “I will have to hit you, and you’ve taken enough hits today.”
“You’re worried about me,” Mari realized, relaxing further. “You don’t hate me after all.” She swallowed hard, choking back tears of disappointment at losing, and tears of joy at finally getting through to Aina.
“Don’t get the wrong idea,” Aina croaked. “I know this will sound tsundere, but I do hate you. It’s just, you’re an onna. You should take care of your looks. That face of yours is beginning to swell up. It’s going to bruise badly.”
“I don’t care if you hate me,” Mari said, wrapping her arms around Aina and eliciting another squeal from the peanut gallery. “I’m just happy you’re concerned about me.” Her hair brushed against Aina’s cheek, and Aina couldn’t help but imagine how it would feel to run her fingers through it.
“Get off me,” Aina grunted as she shoved Mari away. She turned to face Naomi as she approached the two of them. “You knew about this, didn’t you?” Aina accused Naomi. “That’s why you had me break them up.”
“I could say yes,” Naomi mused, “and it would reinforce my image as all-knowing. But I honestly had no idea.”
“Naomi-sama,” Otome said, kneeling before her, “I request permission to execute Mari-san.” It was a sharp contrast to how she had treated Mari just moments earlier.
“Why?” Naomi asked without emotion.
“You saw what happened. She won’t be satisfied until I’m dead. I can’t do my job if I have to constantly watch my back. I won’t be able to sleep soundly at night with her in the same household.”
“It sounds to me like that will keep you on your toes,” Naomi chuckled, “and I daresay, you could use the motivation. No, I prohibit it. But I also prohibit Mme Mari from killing you. Do you understand Mme Mari? If you lay a hand on her, you’ll have to answer to me.”
“Hai,” said Mari.
“Is that satisfactory, Mme Otome?”
“Domo arigatou gozaimasu, Naomi-sama.” Otome stood, and Aina could see worry in her eyes. Otome wasn’t convinced that Mari would keep her word, but Aina could also see something else in her expression. Something that hadn’t been there before: determination.
Naomi continued past them and walked up to the group of young meido, who were still talking excitedly about Mari and Aina.
“You lot,” Naomi addressed them. “Get your act together. That’s your colleague you’re gossiping about. She will undoubtedly save some of your lives on the battlefield, not that any of you deserve it, frankly.”
“Lay off, obaasan” one of the girls shot back. She was quickly pounced upon by meido from the older group, who restrained her and placed their hands over her mouth.”
“Gomen nasai, Naomi-sama,” One of the meido apologized for her junior. “We will make sure to discipline her, so please forgive her.”
“Let her up,” ordered Naomi. The meido retracted their hands and backed away as quickly as possible. “You are weak,” Naomi told the girl who had mouthed off. “You are all weak. Mme Mari could slaughter you all without difficulty, all because you spend your days engaging in idle gossip instead of strengthening your minds and bodies.”
“We’re not as weak as you think,” the young girl challenged Naomi once more.
“Oh? Show me,” Naomi bade the girl. “I’ll give you one free shot. Anywhere you want.”
“You asked for it,” the girl said, clenching her hand into a fist. She pulled back and punched Naomi’s stomach as hard as she could. Naomi didn’t budge, but the girl pulled her hand back and began shaking it out. “Itai,” she complained.
“Pathetic,” Naomi scoffed, grabbing the top of the girl’s head and sending her spiritual energy into the girl’s body. The girl screamed in pain, and Naomi tossed her nonchalantly to the ground. “I will come back in a few months,” Naomi promised her. “If you haven’t improved to my satisfaction by then, I won’t be as merciful. That goes for all of you.”
“Arigatou gozaimasu, Naomi-sama,” both Mari and Otome chanted, as they bowed to Naomi, Jin, Tsukasa, and Aina. Without a word, the four of them turned and walked away from the Prime Minister’s residence.
“I’m sorry your friend Mme Mari was not victorious, Mme Aina,” Naomi said. “I hope you won’t hold it against me for calling the match as I did.”
“Iie,” Aina assured her. “It was the right call.” She kept a close watch of Naomi’s face, trying to spot the warm expression Mari had claimed to have seen. She didn’t see it, but she did detect a slight frown at the corner of Naomi’s mouth. It was subtle, but it was there. “Is something wrong, Naomi-sama?”
“You two, go on ahead,” Naomi ordered, after casting a glance at Aina. Jin and Tsukasa exchanged a look, and then ran forward, leaving Naomi and Aina alone. “Did you notice it too, Mme Aina? How frightened they all were, even the one who challenged me?”
“I did,” Aina said. “I figured they were all just scared of you.”
“Could be,” Naomi allowed, “but I believe it is because the meidou they have been taught emphasizes victory at any cost. They do not know how to protect themselves, only how to kill. When I first learned meidou, that was not how I felt. It made me feel safe and powerful because it emphasized self-defense. For them, they cannot win without risking their lives, and they know it. It pains me to see it. There used to be thousands of meido in this city who practiced real meidou, and who would teach it to others, even after Paris fell.”
“What happened to them?” Aina asked, not sure she wanted to know the answer.
“I did,” Naomi sighed. “I happened to them.”