The meido were moved through the crystallized structure of the GINZUISHOU as though it were a liquid. It pressed in on them from all sides, preventing them from moving their limbs, but despite this, they had no trouble breathing. Before long, it deposited Jin into a room within the spire, but kept a hold of Yoko and Chikako, allowing only their heads to stick out of the wall.
“Is this the Crystal Palace?” Chikako inquired, once she took in her surroundings.
“Obviously not,” Yoko sneered. “We’re only about halfway up the tower. You, girl, how can you control the GINZUISHOU?”
“Sore yori naze did you trap me too?” asked Chikako.
“I’m not controlling it,” Jin explained. “I merely… communicated a desire for heiwa. The GINZUISHOU brought us here on its own.”
“You’re ascribing a higher level of intelligence to the GINZUISHOU than our nation’s top scientists do,” Chikako said evenly. “Are you sure you didn’t somehow give it commands?”
“I thought it was obvious that the GINZUISHOU was intelligent,” Jin said, taken aback. “After all, it created the GINZUISHOU no kodomo.”
“Naomi did always say it was smart,” Yoko added, “smart enough to fear her. I thought she was saying that as an excuse to not tell us how she punched holes in it. Fifty years later, I still haven’t been able to figure that one out.”
“It was thought that the GINZUISHOU no kodomo are created because the GINZUISHOU does not fully understand the sekai or the commands given to it,” Chikako said. “Matte, Naomi-sama can punch holes into it?”
“It’s how she was able to conduct raids into the city,” Yoko explained.
“That’s frightening,” Chikako frowned. “No known weapon can pierce the GINZUISHOU. If… Iie, ima is not the jikan. Would you be so kind as to communicate a desire to set me free?” she directed the question to Jin. “We still have a job to do.”
Akira was waiting impatiently in his study to hear back from Chikako and Jin. They were ten minutes past their scheduled check-in, but he had begun to doubt his orders the moment they left. He had a lot of confidence in Chikako, but maybe Naomi and Aina were right. By being too cautious, he might be doing exactly what the defense minister expected. Or maybe he hadn’t been cautious enough. After all, he owned the strongest meido in the city and had the strongest meido program of any goshujin. It was easy to get overconfident. It may have been hubris on his part to think Chikako could take on Yoko, who was widely regarded as the second-strongest meido. Of course, he had just sent Chikako to scout, but if she had been ambushed…
He jerked as his phone rang.
“Moshi moshi,” he picked up the phone before it could ring a second time.
“Moshi moshi,” came Chikako’s voice. “Gomen for the late check-in. We managed to secure the Crystal Palace, but there’s still a large SDF presence at the base of the spire.”
“Nani about the youkai threat?”
“Neutralized. We can’t confirm it from here, but we believe the youkai no longer exist, and no more will be created.”
“Ii. I’ll put in some calls and try to convince the SDF that the Crystal Palace is too important to be used in this sensou. If I’m successful, you’ll have to cede the palace to a neutral faction. Can you hold out until then? Do you have enough provisions?”
“We have enough food for san days, but we could use some more forces, in case they try to take back the spire. Whoever you send has to be able to push past hyaku SDF soldiers.”
“I’ll send Aina. That way she can confirm that there are no youkai left in the machi. Do you need anything else?”
“Iie, arigatou gozaimasu, goshujin-sama.”
From the roof of the same building that Chikako had used to hide from Yoko, Aina surveyed the contingent of soldiers milling around the base of the spire. She did not fear them, but neither did she want to engage in any unnecessary combat. Holding tightly to the sack full of rations she had brought along with her, she leapt towards the spire, trusting that it would open to admit her as the outer walls of the GINZUISHOU had. If it didn’t, she would smack into the wall near the top, and be forced to engage the soldiers below. It would be embarrassing, but not fatal.
Luckily for her, her intuition was correct. A hole opened in the tower as she drew near, creating a short slide in the thick walls which dropped her on a floor near the middle of the tower. Her next worry, that the floors of the tower would also part, sending her tumbling to the ground, was unfounded. The floor supported her weight and was surprisingly grippy for being made of crystal. She was now in a hallway a few floors lower than she had expected, but there was a staircase leading upward nearby.
As she approached the stairs however, she found her path blocked by a group of concentric orange hexagons, suspended in midair within the doorway to the staircase. The closer she got, the brighter they grew. She tentatively poked the space between two of the hexagons with one finger and found it to be quite solid.
“Masaka,” she muttered under her breath. It was either an A.T. Field or it looked like one. If it was the real thing, it was a greater potential threat than the youkai had been. In fact, the only greater threats she could think of were those, like nuclear warfare, which could completely destroy the world. Still, that was only if the A.T. Field was real. Placing her rations on the ground, Aina turned her palms outward and brought the backs of her hands together, preparing to see if she could rip it apart.
“Is that you?” Chikako’s voice called from a nearby room.
Having learned to not trust voices when she couldn’t see the speaker, Aina quietly approached the room with one hand on her duster. Peeking in, she saw Chikako sitting at a large wooden table, sipping from a teacup. Jin sat in a chair next to her, tied and gagged.
“Dou iu koto—” Aina stormed into the room, but as she entered, she was grabbed by two meido who were hiding next to the doorway, one of whom pressed a blade to her throat.
“Youkoso,”Chikako greeted, placing her teacup down on the table. “Won’t you join us? Don’t bother trying to bind her,” she advised the other meido. “We don’t have anything strong enough.”
“In that case,” Yoko said, taking one hand off of Aina’s shoulder and tapping some buttons on a panel embedded in the wall behind her, “I’ll just seal us in.” The doorway disappeared as it was swallowed by crystal. “Sit,” she ordered Aina.
“Dou iu koto ga?” Aina repeated the question she had tried to ask earlier.
“That’s what we want to ask you,” retorted Otome, as she withdrew her sword so that Aina could walk to the empty chair Chikako had offered.
“Wakarimasen what you mean,” Aina insisted, looking Chikako directly in the eyes. Both Yoko and Otome took seats next to Aina.
“Nani’s Naomi-sama planning?” clarified Chikako.
“How should I know?” huffed Aina. “You all know her better than I do. I didn’t even know she was planning anything.”
“Cut the crap,” Yoko growled. “There’s no one listening. Not the goshujin, not Naomi. It’s just the five of us, and we’re not stupid. We know you killed the prime minister’s maid, but you couldn’t have convinced the defense minister’s maid to take the blame. Naomi did that. What we don’t understand is why she left you alive. It’s much safer to kill you too, so you can’t testify against her. Only reason she wouldn’t is if you were in on it.”
“I didn’t kill Mari-san,” asserted Aina.
“We’re not angry at you Aina-san,” Otome added. “I’ll admit, you did fool me at Mari-san’s funeral. Even after Toki-san’s obviously false confession, I couldn’t believe it was you. But I’m not mad that you deceived me.”
“If you thought Toki-san’s confession was fake, naze didn’t you inform the prime minister?” Aina asked.
“He wouldn’t have listened,” Otome replied. “Besides, I’m on Naomi’s side. If she has a use for me, I want to be useful to her, but that’s very difficult when I don’t know the keikaku.”
“Matte,” Aina said, trying to change the subject, “did you plan all this just to get me out here on the assumption that I know what Naomi-sama is thinking? You created who knows how many youkai, only to destroy them hours later, on the mistaken premise that I’m privy to her plans?”
“There’s no mistake,” Yoko said, malice in her voice. “To anyone not spending all their time holed up in a mansion, this war is an obvious farce, designed to make it appear to the goshujin that it’s unsafe to leave their homes. All of the activity is clustered around their properties. The most damaging attacks occur when one of them occasionally sneaks out, but miraculously, they always survive, not much worse for the wear, but frightened to leave again. The media reports on skirmishes that never occurred, and the coverage all seems targeted towards the goshujin. For the rest of the city, life continues mostly unchanged.”
“If that’s true,” Aina mused, “The defense minister, being out in the city, could document it and send it to the other goshujin. He could get the sensou called off and make Akira-sama and the prime minister look like co-conspirators.”
“He could if he were here,” Yoko sighed. “He’s not stupid either. He saw Naomi’s hand behind all this and didn’t want anything to do with it. He slipped out of the city immediately after the meeting at the prime minister’s residence. As far as I can tell, he didn’t inform anyone, not even his wife, that he had left until he was safely away.”
“So you’ve been running his side of the sensou in his stead?” inferred Aina.
“That’s the most frustrating thing,” Yoko groaned. “I haven’t. I’m the housekeeper, but my staff is acting on their own. Not all of them, but enough of them. Their actions have Naomi’s signature all over them, but the orders are coming through enough intermediaries that they can’t be traced back to her. It’s an impressive feat of cloak-and-daggery, but it’s so damn unnecessary. We were on the same side once. If she’s sticking it to these weebs, I’m all in, and I’m in a better position to help than anyone, but she won’t tell me anything.”
“Maybe it’s because you tried to kill her at the prime minister’s place,” suggested Aina.
“It was an act, and she knew it. I was trying to show her that I would go along with her plans.”
“And you feel the same way, Chikako-sama?” Aina asked.
“I just want to make sure Naomi-sama’s plans don’t include my death,” Chikako shrugged.
Aina didn’t know what to say to that, and so a lull formed in the conversation.
“Talk,” Yoko repeated her demand. “What’s Naomi planning?”
“I haven’t the faintest,” Aina replied. “Maybe you should ask her yourself.”
“I’ve had enough of this,” Yoko declared, grabbing Aina by the hair and, finding her so light, tossing her towards the wall behind them. Aina bounced off the wall, and Yoko caught her in midair, shoving her back against the wall with one hand. Pressing some buttons on the same panel she used to seal the doorway, she caused the wall to deform, encasing Aina’s arms and legs in crystal.
“It doesn’t have to be like this,” Chikako told Aina. “How about a trade? You tell us what we want to know, and I’ll tell you where your little koibito is hiding.”
“Baka!” Aina spat, and before they could react, slammed the back of her head towards the wall. Just before it made contact with the crystal, a large hole opened in the wall, and Aina fell backward through it, into the hallway. As Yoko made to grab her, the hole quickly closed, causing Yoko to withdraw her arm. The sound of Aina’s laughter reverberated through the room, echoing off the walls, ceiling, and floor.
Taking advantage of the distraction Aina caused, Jin threw herself from her chair, hoping to press the skin of her cheek against the GINZUISHOU in order to communicate with it again, but Chikako caught her before she got very far.
“Shit,” Yoko swore, tapping some buttons to re-open the doorway. The crystal slid back quickly, revealing the tall figure of Naomi on the other side.