Chapter 14

Jin found herself slammed hard onto the table as Chikako reacted to Naomi’s sudden appearance. She landed facing away from the doorway but quickly squirmed to face the other direction. Yoko and Chikako had swords in their hands, Yoko having taken Otome’s sword before she could react. Jin could feel a tense apprehension coming from Yoko, Chikako, and Otome, but despite the threatening smile on Naomi’s face, Jin could only sense indifference from her.

“Come at me with all you’ve got, or don’t come at all,” Naomi told them.

Otome immediately backed away, but Yoko and Chikako hesitated for a moment before launching themselves at Naomi. Chikako, being closer, feigned an overhead strike, but at the last possible second, she ducked under Naomi’s upraised left arm, hoping to get behind her. That would allow her and Yoko to attack Naomi from two sides, and if the battle started to go badly, as she suspected it would, it would allow her to flee while Naomi’s attention was on Yoko. Naomi, however, brought her knee up towards Chikako’s face, forcing Chikako to quickly back off. She then turned her attention to Yoko, who stabbed her sword forward to skewer Naomi.  But Naomi simply brought her leg back down behind her, turning her body just enough to avoid the blade. She grabbed Yoko’s right wrist and twisted it 180° counterclockwise. In response, Yoko took her left hand off her hilt in order to punch Naomi in the ribs. Before she could land the punch, Naomi wrenched Yoko’s right arm upwards, bringing Yoko in front of her body to use as a shield against Chikako’s next attack. Chikako was once again going for an overhead strike, but this time, she was committing, even if she had to slice through Yoko to get Naomi. With a hard shove, Naomi pushed Yoko into Chikako, whose arms were still upraised, and the two of them tumbled back onto the floor.

“Stay out of my way,” Yoko snapped at Chikako as they rushed to get back to their feet.

Jin started as she felt a blade slip between her sleeves and the ropes that held her hands behind her back. Unable to feel the presence of anyone behind her, she concluded that it must be Aina, and relaxed.

“Look at Naomi-sama go,” Aina whispered in her ear. “This is nothing like her last tatakai with Yoko-sama.” She was right. There was no overwrought drama, no grabbing swords by the blade, no spellcasting, and no exciting flourishes. Naomi simply stood her ground, moving as little as she needed to dodge or grab her opponents. She made no unnecessary movements, and she always moved quickly, with purpose, along the shortest path to achieve her goals. It was quite possibly the most boring fight Aina had ever witnessed. “I knew Naomi-sama was stronger, but she hardly has to do anything, and they can’t touch her. Is she showing off?”

Iie,” Jin corrected her, “it’s the other way around. She’s not so tsuyoi that she doesn’t have to move, she’s tsuyoi because she’s moving so efficiently. Sore wa honmono no meidou.

Now that Jin had mentioned it, Aina was able to see it. Against two opponents unleashing their full physical and spiritual strength against her, Naomi made spare use of her own spiritual energy. It was like a fog had lifted from Aina’s vision, and for the first time, she could see a myriad of flaws in her own meidou. The duster techniques which came naturally, and for which she was often praised, contained so many unnecessary spins and twirls. Sure, they added strength to her blows—or at least they felt like they did—but she didn’t lack for strength, and they delayed and orchestrated her movements. But more than the duster, it extended to all the meidou she had ever been taught. Nearly every technique incorporated overly large movements and exciting poses which left the user vulnerable to the kind of attacks Naomi was making. It was no wonder Naomi often bragged that she couldn’t be defeated by the techniques she taught her students. Still, Aina supposed it could be worse: She could have been taught to yell out the names of her attacks.

Naomi’s fist connected with Chikako’s already-bruised stomach, sending her stumbling backwards before she crumpled to the ground. Yoko was still waging a relentless assault against Naomi. She was now moving almost as efficiently as Naomi, but it seemed she couldn’t resist the briefest of poses, and her swings were just a tad larger than necessary. The fight continued for a few more minutes, during which time Yoko seemed to tighten up her movements, but when she had obviously reached a plateau, Naomi nonchalantly grabbed her arm, and, twisting it clockwise, threw her to the floor.

“You’re not living up to your name, Mathilde,” Naomi jibed, addressing Yoko. “Honestly, what have you been doing these last fifty years? You’ve gotten weaker.”

“You’re the only one in the world who can still fight like that,” Yoko grunted.

“Aina… Jin… Tasukete,” Chikako moaned, using the table to pull herself back to her feet. Both Aina and Jin jerked their heads to look at Chikako, and then, realizing that it was a really bad idea to take their eyes off Naomi, jerked them back. Even though they only got a brief look at her, they could clearly see the panic in Chikako’s eyes.

Naze should I help the hito who was going to let me be tortured?” Aina asked aloud, as much for Naomi’s benefit as for Chikako’s.

“I wasn’t…” Chikako weakly protested. “Iie, it might have happened, but I was trying to get you out of it, remember?”

“Jin-chan can help you if she wants,” Aina offered, freeing the last of Jin’s bonds. “Demo, it’s a waste of effort if you ask me. If Naomi-sama wanted you dead, she already had plenty of chances.”

Jya, naze are you here, Naomi-sama?” Chikako asked shakily.

“And how did you get here?” added Yoko. “I thought you were guarding your master.”

“You’re the only person I need to guard him from, and you’re here,” Naomi explained.

“I’m the only person you need to guard him from that you know of,” Yoko pointed out, “and you don’t take risks.”

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable,” Naomi quoted. “Everyone thinks I don’t take risks, but really, I just know when to.”

“You didn’t even know I was here,” Yoko protested.

“Please, if you can put two and two together, so can I. Mme Chikako was too eager to get Mme Aina out here.”

“I may have been,” admitted Chikako, “but you wouldn’t have followed her out here unless she really did know something you wanted to keep secret. By coming here, you’re admitting—”

“Mme Jin, would you wait for us outside?” Naomi interrupted loudly.

“Iie, I want to hear this,” Jin said, surprising even herself. Jin always did what she was told. That was partly why Aina always called her an “ii ko.”

“Too bad. You’re the only one here I don’t trust,” Naomi informed her.

“You trust her?” Jin pointed to Yoko.

“It doesn’t matter if I trust her, since no one else will,” Naomi smirked. “Everyone thinks she’s master Akira’s enemy and would say anything to slander him.”

Nani about—” Jin started.

“Mme Otome? I trust her most of all. She’s so devoted to me that a single disparaging remark on my part sunk her into a depression so deep that she’s just now beginning to come out of it.”

“It wasn’t just that,” Otome mumbled. “I thought you were strong and noble. I idolized you. It was a dai shokku to find out what kind of person you really were.”

“Seriously?” scoffed Naomi. “You were already in your twenties. You shouldn’t have been that naive. This is why I try to instill cynicism… We’re getting off topic. Mme Jin, this is not—”

“Even if you send her out, she could probably—” Chikako tried to warn Naomi.

“I trust Jin-chan,” Aina spoke up. “I’ve already trusted her with important secrets—nothing that involves you, Naomi-sama—and she hasn’t betrayed me.”

“She hasn’t betrayed you yet,” Naomi corrected. “What guarantees do you have that she won’t?”

“Naze would I betray Aina-senpai when she’s the only one trying to do the right thing?”

Nani gave you that idea? Aina almost said out loud. Chikako, however, did voice the question.

“I meant no offense, Chikako-sama,” Jin rushed to explain. “You just put your career ahead of everything, even… and Naomi-sama, you… Aina-senpai on the other hand, tries to help the people no one else cares about. The gynoids, the nekomimi, and those of us who aren’t very tsuyoi.”

“How foolish,” Naomi chuckled. “She only does that because… You’ll find out eventually. You can stay for now.”

“You’re going to trust her just because of that?” Chikako asked incredulously. “She might be lying.”

“She is lying,” asserted Naomi. “But did you see that look of panic on her face? She wasn’t just afraid of getting kicked out of the room, she was afraid we would deduce the true reason for her loyalty. Besides, I can always decide if I want to keep her quiet later. Now, to answer your accusation, Mme Chikako, I only came here to remind you who’s boss. While it’s true Mme Aina assisted me in one part of my plans, it would not be disastrous if you lot learned about it. By coming here, I’m only confirming what you already knew, that there is a plan.”

“Forgive me, Naomi-sama,” Otome interrupted, “but we are your allies. If you keep us on a need-to-know basis, it makes it more difficult for us to coordinate. We might accidentally interfere with your plans.”

“So far, you are all behaving as I expected you to. Even if you do manage a little interference, it won’t matter in the long run.”

“That’s fine, but I don’t like you giving orders to my staff behind my back,” Yoko said. “If you can trust them with direct orders, you can trust me.”

“I haven’t given orders, or even spoken about my plan, to anyone outside this room,” Naomi said with a sly smile. “Someone, or perhaps it’s more than one person, is taking advantage of the situation to advance their own agenda. I haven’t done anything about it because it seems, at least for now, that our goals align.”

Dare?” Chikako asked.

“Now that’s something I really can’t talk about in Mme Jin’s presence, or Mme Aina’s either. The rest of you should know who I’m talking about.”

It took them a few seconds to figure out who Naomi meant. Otome was the first to speak up. “That’s treason!”

“Treason?” Yoko laughed. “Against her enemy? Still, I didn’t realize that so many of my staff—”

“I suspect it’s only a small number of them,” Naomi said. “They’re either deceiving the rest into thinking they really are carrying out the defense minister’s orders, or using their personal relationships to influence the others. And it’s not treason, Mme Otome, because I’m not working with them. For now, our goals align, and they aren’t getting in my way, so I’m merely not stopping them.”

Sumimasen,” Aina ventured, “Dare—”

“You don’t want to know,” interrupted Chikako. “In fact, you should try to forget you ever heard this.” Her face was stern, and her forcefulness reminded Aina of the warning Sena had given her about a group called HIMITSU, back when she had first been reunited with Mari.

“Now then,” Naomi smiled, “you wanted orders, so I’ll give you some. Mathilde, leave this city. I need the threat of you to keep Akira frightened, but I don’t want you making good on that threat. Make sure no one sees you leave. Go to our old safe house in Strasbourg and wait there for further orders. Mme Otome, are you ready to do what I ask of you?”

“I’ll do anything to be useful to you, Naomi-sama.”

“Good. I want you to increase animosity between the factions within the SDF. I know their leaders are meeting with the prime minister on a regular basis. I don’t care how you do it.”

“I will do my best.”

“Good, now get out of here, both of you. Mathilde, flee like you’ve been injured, but not too seriously. That should cause the troops outside to panic and withdraw. Mme Otome, you can sneak out of the tower once the coast is clear.”

With grave expressions, the two meido made their way out of the room. Naomi sauntered over to the control panel on the wall and brought up a holographic screen so she could watch the scene at the base of the spire. A few minutes later, Yoko dashed out from the front door, clutching the top of her left shoulder with her right hand.

“Yoko-sama,” a few of the soldiers called out to her.

“Run!” she shouted back.

As Naomi predicted, the soldiers quickly withdrew, but despite their panic, their retreat was orderly and disciplined.

“Mme Chikako, I’m going to cut you on a few places,” Naomi informed her. “I won’t cut deep, and I will heal you afterwards. This will help us sell the fight to Akira. Ready?”

“Just keep it away from my abdomen”, Chikako consented. “I already took a few punches there. But before that, I have some questions.”

“Well, you did manage to force me all the way out here. I suppose you deserve some reward for that.”

“Nani are your goals?”

“I’m not telling you that.”

“Nani about the information you trusted to Aina-chan?”

“I’m keeping that on a need-to-know, but I think you would find it uninteresting.”

“Is my death part of your plans?”

“No. I can’t guarantee you’ll survive, but as long as you don’t pull any more stunts like this, you have excellent chances.”

“And Akira-sama?”

“Worried you’ll have to gut yourself if you fail to protect him?”

“It wouldn’t just be me.”

“Indeed, and that’s why I’m not trying to kill him either.”

Jya, I have just one last question: Nani exactly is Aina-san?”