Chapter 23

Dec. 25th, U.C. 0051, 12:55 PM

Meri kurisumasu, Chikako-sama,” Aina tried to sound as cheerful as possible while greeting Chikako. She didn’t expect a reply. For the past month, Chikako had only spoken to Aina when her job required it.

Meri kuri,” Chikako chuckled, choking up at the end. It was how Karin had always greeted people on Christmas, even Akira. The memory made Aina feel bad, which was probably why Chikako had spoken to her at all, but she knew it had made Chikako feel even worse.

“Was that funny?” Sena asked as she walked alongside Aina. The two of them continued walking down the hallway, in the opposite direction from Chikako. “I would expect the reference to Karin-sama to elicit sadness.”

“You’re right, it wasn’t funny,” Aina confirmed. And then, not wanting to dwell on it, changed the subject. “You know, I’m finally starting to wakaru why some people hate kurisumasu.”

“Were you lonely last night?” asked Sena. There was no sarcasm or judgement in the question, merely a request for facts.

Chotto,” Aina admitted. “Diaho-sama and Mimi are the only koibito in the mansion, so it’s not like I was surrounded by couples reminding me that I’m alone, but it’s hard to forget that kurisumasu eve is a romantic holiday. Maybe I should ask some of my senpai how they deal with it.”

“Many of the meido older than you have himitsu no koibito, and they were frustrated that they could not sneak past the kekkai this year. If you are not careful, you might ask an insensitive question.”

Hontou? Dare?”

“I won’t name namae. If you pay attention, it should be obvious.”

“Obvious to a gynoid, maybe. Does Chikako-sama?”

Iie, are you looking to add her to your harem?”

“Not funny, and don’t let goshujin-sama hear you say that. He was more offended by the harem jokes than I was.”

Shitte iru. Since it’s kurisumasu, have you thought about sending Fumiko-chan a present? Although it won’t bring you together, it may help alleviate your loneliness.”

“I wouldn’t know where to send it,” Aina pouted. “Demo, I’m not too lonely. It’s just, I’ve been thinking lately about whether I really love Fumiko-chan or if it’s only sexual attraction. I’m having a hard time distinguishing between them.”

“That is not unusual for teenagers. Those feelings are new to you. You should consider—There is an emergency situation.”

As soon as Sena finished speaking, Aina’s phone buzzed. It was a text message from Akira.

Come to my study at once.

Chikako arrived outside the study just before Aina. Naomi was waiting for them both.

Nani’s happening?” demanded Chikako.

“The Grand Futarch has passed away,” Naomi informed them, “and there is some disagreement over the succession.” She opened the door and ushered the two of them into the study. As Aina passed her, Naomi grabbed Aina’s shoulder and whispered into her ear, “If he starts to make any mistakes, do not stop him.”

Aina gave the faintest of nods before walking into the room. Diaho stood near the opposite wall, watching the door. Akira was pacing in a circle, talking to the intercom built into the room. “Iie, it’s not that simple. Although we’re referring to them as the eastern and western factions, it’s not a longitudinal split. More southern duchies are aligned with the western faction, and more northern duchies, including Champagne, are aligned with the eastern faction. We border both factions.”

Wakarimasen,” a voice Aina didn’t recognize sounded over the intercom. “Neither of the successors appear to be related to the deceased futarch.”

“Titles in the Futarchy aren’t strictly inherited,” another unrecognized voice answered. “Like all important decisions in the Futarchy, they’re awarded by prediction markets. That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, the dukes and duchesses control most of the nation’s wealth, and so can sway the markets to choose their own heirs. There usually isn’t even much disagreement on the Grand Futarch. We’re witnessing the biggest market split in the Futarchy in centuries.”

“It’s certainly unprecedented,” yet another unknown voice agreed, “but perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising. Recently, many of the duchesses in the east have advocated taking a less adversarial stance towards the Soviet Expedition. It’s an idea that hasn’t done very well in the market, but it created a division between east and west.”

Just how many hito are on this call? Aina found herself wondering. She would later learn that she was listening in on a full cabinet meeting.

Soshite, it appears that there was foul play in the Grand Futarch’s death, so naturally, both sides are suspicious of the other.” This time, Aina recognized the voice as the prime minister’s. “Hold on, I’m getting a call from the ‘Murican ambassador. I’ll patch him in.”

“Howdy, y’all. Quite a pickle, ain’t it?”

“Indeed,” the prime minister agreed. “Nani can we do for you, ambassador?”

“My God and country wishes to inform you that an armored division of the damned Soviets has crossed into the Futarchy and is quickly making its way towards us. We don’t know for sure what their target is, but the Futarchy ain’t stoppin’ ‘em, so they’re most likely after Neo Crystal Tokyo.”

Arigatou, ambassador. Please convey our appreciation to your government,” the prime minister said tersely.

“Any time,” the ambassador said amicably before hanging up.

“They must be crazy,” one of the unrecognized voices scoffed.

“Or they have a way to bypass the GINZUISHOU,” Akira muttered.

Bakana,” multiple voices said.

Naze else would they take this action?” The prime minister asked.

“Perhaps it’s a feint?” one of the voices suggested. “Maybe they have formed an alliance with the eastern duchies to invade the west.”

“Per-capita, the Futarchy is one of the most militarized nations in the world,” Akira reminded them. “A single Soviet division wouldn’t tip the scales in a civil sensou. It would, however, be large enough to lay siege to the machi.”

 “We should put Dai-jyuu Kohei Daitai on alert,” one of the voices asserted. “If the Soviets plan to bring the GINZUISHOU down from the inside, they’ll attack the Crystal Palace.”

“On it,” another voice confirmed.

“This is bigger than any of our current disagreements,” Akira asserted. Aina opened her mouth to advise Akira not to do anything unnecessary, but Naomi gripped her shoulder. “Soshite,” he continued, “the SDF can’t fight the Soviets effectively unless they can trust each other. I propose we call a temporary ceasefire.”

“I couldn’t agree more, Akira-dono,” the defense minister’s voice boomed from the intercom. Akira froze. He hadn’t expected the defense minister to be on the call. “I’ll relay a recording of your message to our troops. In the meantime, I’d advise withdrawing into the center of the machi. It appears the Soviets will be attacking from the northeast, and if they do manage to break through the GINZUISHOU, your mansion will be in the crossfire.”

“We can’t allow them to get that close, even if we do have the GINZUISHOU,” Akira countered. “Our guntai no buki isn’t designed to defend a city, it’s designed to conquer one. If we fight here, the damage will be too great. We have to fight them in the Futarchy, where we can be on the attack.”

“We have the defender’s advantage here,” the defense minister argued. “If we move out, we may be flanked by Futarchy forces. It may be a trap, and at the very least, the Futarchy won’t take kindly to our movements.”

“If I retreat, you’ll kill me and blame it on the chaos of sensou,” Akira said plainly.

“Hey now,” the defense minister said, feigning shock, “I wouldn’t do that. We agreed to a ceasefire.”

“Even if you hold to that, fighting them at full strength in the machi will result in too many casualties. You might be hoping I’m one of them. With our offensive weaponry, we should practice defense in depth and—”

Akira was cut off by a chorus of surprised grunts and cries of pain. Akira covered his ears with both hands and fell to his knees, screwing his eyes shut. Chikako and Diaho did much the same, leaning backwards against the wall instead of falling forward. Naomi wore a strained expression on her face, but kept her ears and eyes open. Aina didn’t understand what was happening to them.

Watashi waKoharu-shousa of Dai-ichi Mahou Chutai,” Chikako groaned. Many of the voices on the call were mumbling the same words, but too quietly to make out.

“The central spire… has been seized by a group of powerful mahou shoujo… working for the Soviet Expedition,” Akira continued the message. “They have completely sealed the spire…”

“… calling all powerful enough… to fight mahou shoujo… and join the battle to reclaim the spire,” Chikako finished, and then gasped as she was released from the pain.

“Fuck me, that was some spell,” Akira exclaimed. The voices on the intercom broke into a disorganized chatter, each participant racing to come up with a solution.

“Naomi,” Akira said slowly. “Is there any truth to the rumor that you can punch through the GINZUISHOU?”

“There is,” Naomi confirmed.

Nandato?!” almost every cabinet minister shouted. Akira walked over to the intercom controls on the wall and muted the call so that they wouldn’t hear what he would say next.

“How quickly can you get to the central spire and back? I don’t trust the defense minister. Shortly, this mansion will come under attack from the Soviets in the front and his forces in the rear. I will need you here to protect me. At the same time, if the central spire remains in Soviet control, we’re done for anyway.”

“In that case, you should send Mme Aina,” Naomi suggested. “She also knows the technique.”

Akira spun on his heels to face Aina. “Hontou?” he asked. Before she finished nodding her head, he gave her the order. “Ike.” As Aina ran out of the room, he took a deep breath and announced, “We won’t retreat. Chikako, I’m putting you in command of the Macedonian. Naomi, give orders for the Gundam to be prepped, and rally the staff. Diaho, get Mimi and the kittens to one of my safe rooms and then join the rest of us.”

“This might be a trap,” Chikako pointed out. “Perhaps the defense minister suggested that we retreat to goad you into doing the opposite.”

Kankeinai,” Akira countered. “If I back down now, I will look weak, and I’ll be giving the defense minister the chance to become the hero who defended the machi. My political aspirations will end.”

“Goshujin-sama,” Diaho protested. “Mimi’s still pregnant. They’ll be defenseless. They should come with us, or—”

“I’m calling in some backup,” Akira cut him off before he could say anything insubordinate. “They’ll be safe, but I need you on the front lines with me. I’m going to try to rally what SDF troops I can to join in our offensive, and I need to appear strong. I need to appear to have the confidence of my butler. Wakatta?

“Hai, goshujin-sama,” Diaho forced himself to say.

“Master, who will pilot the Gundam?” Naomi asked.

“I will,” Akira said proudly. “It will be the symbol to which my troops will flock.”

“That’s illogical, you have a much more capable pilot,” Naomi pointed out.

“I can’t risk her chip rendering her unconscious,” Akira snapped.

“Then disable it,” Naomi said.

“She could reawaken to her full powers,” Akira pressed.

“I should hope so,” Naomi said. “She’ll be a more effective pilot that way.”

“That would mean the end of her career,” Akira said. “Depending on what she knows, I might have to—”

“If we lose this battle, she’ll die anyway,” Naomi pointed out.

“OK,” Akira said after a brief hesitation. “Summon Jin-chan. I’ll disable her chip.” He then unmuted the call. “Shokun, I’m going to take the fight to the Soviets. Dare’s brave enough to join me?”