“Incompetent fool,” Naomi winced in pain. “How many hours did I waste trying to teach you to use a sword?” It wasn’t the first time Naomi had been stabbed. It wasn’t even the worst she’d ever been stabbed. From the looks of it, the sword had pierced her large intestine but missed her aorta. If she got prompt medical treatment, she would likely survive. If she didn’t, she could look forward to a very slow death. Perhaps that was just as well. It gave her time to put her affairs in order.
To do that, however, she would need to get back to the city. Without realizing it, she had led the swords hundreds of meters further out. Normally, a distance like that wouldn’t phase her, but as she took her first few steps, the sword skewering her abdomen jostled around painfully. There was no way she could walk back without removing the sword, but doing so carried its own risks.
“Naomi-sama,” a voice startled Naomi. Aina was standing a few meters away, and Naomi hadn’t heard her approach, having been focused on her immediate situation. It was a rookie mistake, likely the last she would ever make. Aina, on the other hand, was standing far enough away from Naomi that, under normal circumstances, she would have time to react if Naomi made any sudden movements.
“Mme Aina, you’re late,” Naomi joked. “I expected you to come running the moment I announced my victory.”
“Naze would I do that? To steal it from you? To celebrate with you? To attempt to sabotage you at the last second? I’m sure you had all kinds of countermeasures for that possibility. There was nothing I could do here, and Momo needed medical attention. Speaking of, may I assist you, Naomi-sama?” Reaching her hand into an apron pocket, Aina produced a roll of bandages.
“No, Mme Aina, you may not. Put those away. There’s no use in patching up the condemned, and we have things to discuss.”
“You don’t look that bad,” Aina countered. “With some magical healing—”
“Unless I miss my guess, Akira won’t allow it. I’m a traitor now, and you don’t want to be seen aiding me.”
“And you’re going to let that stop you?” Aina asked, surprised. Nevertheless, she placed the bandages back into her pocket. “I agree you have no future as a meido in this machi, but no one could prevent you from escaping. Even if Akira-sama issues a proclamation that anyone who helps you will be punished, I’m sure you could find someone you could force into healing you.”
“I could,” Naomi admitted, “but what would be the point? Even if I could attain the lever, I was deluding myself into believing I could create a new Paris. It was a horrifying thing, Mme Aina, learning how the citizens of this city truly felt about me.”
“Those swords,” Naomi gestured to the swords littering the field, “were born from their owner’s feelings. When I made contact with them, I felt those feelings as if they were my own. Some of them were from people I knew from before the occupation, people I still considered friends. I knew they were disappointed in me, but I thought they understood why I surrendered to Akira’s grandfather. It was to save them as much as myself. Even so, they held out hope that I would free them, and when I did not, that hope turned into resentment.”
“You’re making a lot of assumptions. How do you know those are truly their feelings?”
“It could be a trick,” Naomi admitted, “but it’s my feelings, not theirs, that matter, and I’m tired of this, Mme Aina. My only pleasure these last fifty years has been torturing my fellow slaves. I didn’t enjoy it very much, but it was all I had. My life truly ended when my name was changed to Naomi, it’s just taken me until now to realize it. I should have died fifty years ago.”
“That’s not true. You’ve made an impact on a lot of peoples’ lives, mine included.”
“And I sent most of them to their deaths, even the promising ones.”
“I never said it was all for the best, but your last go-jyuu years haven’t been meaningless.”
“They haven’t, but they’ve been miserable for me. I lived a long, full life, even before Paris fell, and I was prepared to die today. My time has come.”
“You once told me that the only certainty in life is that once you die, it’s over. You know better than to give up.”
“How like you to throw my own words back at me, Mme Aina. Do you think I wouldn’t have considered my own arguments? I’m old and set in my ways. I cannot conceive of a world where both I and Neo Crystal Tokyo continue to exist, but those of you who have grown up in that city, who know no other life, can still make a future for yourselves. As long as I live, I will be an obstacle to that.”
“That doesn’t make death the logical choice,” Aina said, unable to think of an actual defense. She wanted to argue that choosing to die was never logical, but she knew that self-sacrifice was sometimes the right choice.
“Aina-san is right,” Chikako piped up over the headset, though only Naomi could hear her, as Aina was not wearing one. She didn’t sound sure of herself, and Naomi couldn’t blame her. To Chikako, Naomi was simultaneously a threat, a protector, a rival, and a teacher, and it was unclear to both of them whether Chikako would be better off with Naomi dead.
“That’s sweet of you to say, Mme Chikako,” Naomi responded sarcastically, “but it’s too late to get yourself added to my will.” Removing her headset, Naomi switched it off and tossed it to Aina, who confirmed that it was deactivated. “You, on the other hand, Mme Aina, have some goodies coming your way.” Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out a small, thin notebook and threw it at Aina as if it were a shuriken. Aina snatched it out of the air with one hand and flipped it open. Keeping a skeptical eye on Naomi, she glanced at a random page. “Can you read it?” Naomi asked.
“I can,” Aina confirmed, surprised. The page was nothing but a pile of messy scribbles, and yet, Aina could clearly discern meaning from them.
“Good. I paid a lot of money to ensure that only you could read it. Even so, you should memorize what you need from it and destroy it. It contains secrets I normally wouldn’t risk writing down.”
“Then naze go through all the trouble?”
“Because I knew there was a good chance that my plan would fail.”
“You had go-jyuu years. Couldn’t you have come up with a plan with a better chance of success?”
“It’s harder than you think. I managed to engineer a civil war in the Futarchy, a military rebellion in the Soviet Expedition, and some other things you don’t yet know about. If I had been caught at any point, it would have all been for naught. On top of that, I suffered many setbacks outside of my control.” Naomi’s muscles tightened as her speech got more excited, and she winced in pain as the sword cut into them. “No, you’re right, Mme Aina. This wasn’t so much a plan as it was a desperation move. I simply ran out of time. I have a good record of improvising on the battlefield, and thought I could do it here too.”
“Which lead you to this,” Aina held up the notebook. “Naze give this to me?”
“For a very long time, I believed it was in my best interests to groom a successor. Someone who could keep alive the most dangerous secret techniques in meidou, and someone who could carry on my will after I was gone.”
“And you chose me?”
“Don’t flatter yourself. There were plenty of candidates over the years, but they all disappointed me. Either they weren’t strong enough, or they couldn’t be trusted.”
“Which was I?” Aina asked, sounding disappointed, but Naomi only answered with one of her smiles.
“I only recently realized I had been approaching it all wrong, expecting everything from one person, and so I have left the secrets of meidou with Mme Jin, and I am now leaving these other secrets with you. As you seem immune to magic and newtypes, they will be safer with you than they were with me, but they come with a price. You will carry out my unfinished business after I am gone.”
“I was in this for fukushu,” Aina stated plainly. “I never cared for Paris, and I’m not convinced democracy will work in this time. I won’t carry out your revolution.”
“Nor do I expect you to. After you read that, I suspect you’d follow in my footsteps whether you want to or not. We’re the same kind of monster, Mme Aina.”
“Nani kind of bakemono would that be?”
“The kind of monster who has become so adept at killing, that when faced with a problem, her first instinct is to solve it with murder. The kind of monster that knows there are better solutions, but prefers to kill because it is easy and convenient.”
“I’m not that kind of bakemono,” Aina insisted. “I’m not that far gone.”
“Oh? Then tell me, how did you feel when you killed Mme Mari?”
“Don’t waste what little time I have left with games.”
“Warui. I felt warui.”
“And when you killed Saburo Webb?”
“I didn’t…” Aina started to make the same mistake twice, and corrected herself, “feel anything at all. His life didn’t matter to me.”
“If it didn’t matter, then why kill him?” “He was a risk. If he ever remembered who I was—”
“Then you’d have a problem, but not an insurmountable one. I don’t think Akira would relinquish you to the defense department. Even so, he wasn’t even a problem yet, and you found it more convenient to kill him. Last question—How did you feel when you killed Kesuke?”
“I felt awful, because you had poisoned me,” Aina said, frustrated. “Soshite, I didn’t kill him myself. Demo, I was happy he died. I wished I had taken his life with my own hands.”
“And so you see, we really are the same. As long as we’re baring our hearts to each other, I have a confession of my own to make. I killed Akira’s father and grandfather. I made their deaths look natural. At first, I thought I could be content with taking revenge on the man who enslaved me, but when his son turned out to be almost as bad, I decided to become a plague on the heads of the Wright household, leading them to early deaths. I would have done the same to Akira, in time. For all his faults, he was smarter than his father. He suspected I might have killed his predecessors and was more careful. Once I am gone, I believe he will lower his guard.” She stared at Aina, leaving unsaid what they were both thinking.
“I won’t kill Akira-sama,” Aina said matter-of-factly. “I know he’s done some terrible things, but he’s a ningen. We all make mistakes, and while his mistakes tend to have disastrous consequences, owing to his position of power, that doesn’t mean I can’t forgive him. He’s been good to me.”
“Insofar as any of these weebs are good to their meido, yes, he’s been good to you, but you’re still his slave. Eventually, he’s going to do something you can’t forgive, or you’ll lose his favor through no fault of your own. He’ll put you in a tough situation, and your first instinct will be to kill him. You’ll resist it at first, but I have no doubt you’ll succumb in the end. Once you get a little better at killing without getting caught, you’ll start to see so many opportunities. It will be easier to take his life than to resist doing so. Once I am gone, I suspect it won’t be long before you go after Mme Chikako. If you can off her without drawing suspicion, Akira should be no problem.”
“Chikako-sama and I have had our differences recently, but to accuse me of wanting to kill her is a bit much.”
“Not at all. It’s what I would do in your position. She’s not just a threat to you, she’ll become an obstacle to your goals. Besides, I’ve already seen signs you’re preparing for it.”
“Speaking of Chikako-sama, we had better finish this conversation quickly,” Aina said, gesturing to the Macedonian, which was dropping anchor about 100 meters away from them.
“Let’s make it official then, shall we? I will name you as my successor in my will. You have the strength to fend off any challengers to that title, and Mme Jin does not. I want you to protect her and continue to help her become stronger. Agreed?”
“I can agree to that,” Aina said, putting the notebook in her apron pocket, “but I must know, did you leave the secret to your longevity with me or Jin-chan?”
“I left what I could with Mme Jin, but even if she masters the techniques, she’ll still age slowly, like Mme Yoko has. Truthfully, I do not know why I have not aged in the last fifty years, though I have some theories. Most likely, the reality crack that created the GINZUISHOU was designed to make the world as anime as possible. As a meido and the strongest warrior in the world, I was already very anime, and so my existence was woven into reality itself. Gravity exists, and so do I.”
“Can you even be killed then?”
“We’re about to find out.” Gesturing her hand, Naomi caused the barrier containing Akira to float towards them. It arrived at about the same time Chikako did, and, disappearing with a pop, dropped Akira onto the ground.
“Naomi!” Akira shouted, furious.
“Master,” Naomi returned the greeting. “I’m ready to follow your orders now. Or would you like to finish me off yourself?”
“Don’t be crass,” Akira said coldly. “I shouldn’t need to give you any orders. You’ve failed. Don’t disgrace yourself any further.”
“Even now, you’re still a coward,” Naomi laughed. “You could have ordered me to kill myself at any time, but you couldn’t bring yourself to get your own hands dirty. You could have prevented all of this from happening, but instead you fumbled ineptly in the shadows, planting traps and hiring assassins that had no chance of ever succeeding. If you can’t bring yourself to kill me now, when I’m weak, when I’ve exposed myself as a threat to your very existence, then you’ll be a coward until you die, Akira Wright. You don’t even have to do it yourself. Just command one of them to do it.”
“I’m the goshujin,” Akira huffed. “I don’t take orders from you.”
“Mme Chikako then,” Naomi said, turning to Chikako. “You’re his housekeeper. Go on, protect your master.”
“This is a trick,” Chikako asserted nervously.
“No trick,” Naomi assured her. “Look, I’ve even written a will for this very occasion.” She pulled an envelope from her pocket and handed it to Chikako.
“You can’t leave the doujou to Aina-san,” Chikako said after reading the will. “It’s not yours to give.”
“That doujou has been mine since before this city was called Neo Crystal Tokyo. Even Akira’s grandfather recognized my claim to it.”
“It’s on Akira-sama’s land!” Chikako protested. “It’s his to do with what he pleases.”
“Of course, he could steal it from me if he wished.”
“Goshujin-sama,” Chikako pleaded, “please tell me she’s wrong.”
“If even my ojii-san left it in Naomi’s possession… Don’t look at me like that. How many times do I need to repeat that I am the goshujin here? I don’t take orders from you, Chikako.”
“Go ahead, call him a coward,” Naomi pressed Chikako. “I know you’re thinking it. He’s too timid to punish you for it.”
“You didn’t leave me anything,” Chikako turned her anger on Naomi, “even though I… was such a good tomodachi to you.”
“You’re going to be housekeeper for real,” Naomi pointed out. “Isn’t that enough for you?”
“It would be, if you hadn’t once again denied me complete authority over the house staff. No other housekeeper in the machi has as little power over their hito as I do.”
“On second thought,” Naomi said, smiling, “there is something I would like to leave you: my contempt.” She leaned close to Chikako, taking care not to bump the sword against her, and whispered into her ear, “I hope you succeed in your plan to get out, only to be wed to an ugly, abusive man, and that you die giving birth to his half-American brat.”
Rage briefly flashed on Chikako’s face, but with a deep breath, she let it out. “I’m not going to let you bait me into fighting you. If you really intend to die, you don’t need my help.”
“Fine,” Naomi snapped. “Mme Aina, you do it. You don’t have any compunctions about killing.”
“Careful,” Chikako warned Aina. “Even if this isn’t a trick, if you become known as the meido who killed Naomi, no matter the circumstances, you may face challenges from those who wish to make a name for themselves.”
“I understand the risks,” Aina said confidently. “How do you want to do this, Naomi-sama?”
“Pull this sword from me and stab it through my heart.” Stepping forward, Aina took hold of the sword’s hilt, but hesitated when she felt the air around them shift. Looking around, she noticed Akira and Chikako frozen in place, unnaturally still. Time had been stopped around them. “Before I die, there’s one more thing you need to know, Mme Aina. The one secret too dangerous to write down. There is a group named HIMITSU—Ah, I can see by the look on your face that you’ve heard of them.”
Aina remembered Sena’s warning about HIMITSU. She also remembered Sena’s insistence if Naomi ever tried to tell Aina about HIMITSU, that she should be ready to betray Naomi at the first chance, because they were all in danger. And yet, Aina didn’t think Naomi would kill her now. If Naomi had wanted to kill Aina, she wouldn’t have needed a ruse. Would it really be as dangerous as Sena warned to hear Naomi out, or should she try to catch Naomi by surprise and kill her now?
Time resumed as Aina pulled the sword from Naomi’s abdomen. Naomi barely had time to grunt in pain as Aina shoved it into her chest. Within a few seconds, Naomi fell to the ground, unconscious. A few minutes later, she was dead.