Chapter 38

Diaho managed to keep his cool just long enough to order the gynoid to administer medical aid to Akira. Then he lunged at Chikako. His immediate goal was to keep her away from Akira while the gynoid performed first aid and, if possible, evacuated him to a safe location. He didn’t know why Chikako had attacked Akira, but that didn’t matter as much as doing everything he could to salvage the situation.

For Chikako’s part, she had the presence of mind to leave the knife embedded in Akira’s chest, rather than pull it out to use for her own defense. She backed up, raising her hands in surrender.

“It wasn’t me,” Chikako said, “It was Aina-san. She set me up.”

Uso,” Aina gasped, getting back to her feet.

“There is nothing I can do for him,” the gynoid announced. Akira had already lost consciousness.

“Chikako-san, naze?” Diaho hissed.

“Ask the gynoid,” Chikako insisted. “They see things we don’t. They see things objectively. She’ll tell you it was Aina-san.”

“I was not present to witness most of it,” the gynoid spoke up, “but from what I saw, Chikako-sama is most likely the murderer. Aina-chan was the one who called for help.”

“She’s lying,” Chikako said, panic creeping into her voice. “That one’s Aina-san’s tomodachi. She’s biased. I would order her to tell the shinjitsu, but Naomi outranked me when it came to the gynoids, and if Aina-san inherited her access, with Akira-sama dead, she controls the gynoids now.”

“Even if I were biased, you are demonstrably stronger than Aina-san,” the gynoid pointed out. “It is unlikely she could have forced you to stab Akira-sama.”

Inbou da,” Chikako claimed. “That’s why you challenged me to a fight, just to let me beat you. You’ve been planning this!”

“That’s far-fetched,” Aina countered. “How could I have possibly known this would happen? Why would I let you break my nose on the chance that I might need to appear weaker than you some day. If I were the murderer, how did I convince you to bring a knife into goshujin-sama’s study?”

“You left it on your nightstand for me to see,” Chikako said weakly.

“Which automatically means I intend for you to bring it here?” Aina shot back. “I never expected you in my heya in the first place.”

“Well…” Chikako trailed off. “Fetch Jin-san. She’ll tell you I’m being honest.”

“OK,” Diaho allowed, “but don’t move from that spot.” He nodded to the gynoid, who left the room to get Jin.

“You’re not really falling for this, are you, Diaho-sama?” Aina asked. “She wants you to let your guard down.” Although she didn’t show it, Aina was worried about what Jin would say. She hadn’t had enough time to consider the various ways she could be caught. Hell, if Chikako seeded enough doubt in his mind, Diaho might try to kill the both of them, just to be sure he avenged Akira. Lesson learned, Aina thought bitterly, If I survive this, plan out mirai murders in advance. Killing on a whim doesn’t give you enough time to assess the risks.

“I’m not,” Diaho answered, “but I’m not letting my guard down when it comes to you, either. I will kill whoever murdered goshujin-sama, and once I do, she won’t be able to answer any lingering questions, so I want to leave no doubts.”

A few minutes later, a visibly shaken Jin stumbled into the room. Her eyes were immediately drawn to Akira’s corpse, but quickly refocused on the tense, three-way standoff between Chikako, Aina, and Diaho.

“Tell them,” Chikako pleaded with Jin, “that I’m innocent.”

Jin looked from Chikako to Aina, who didn’t return her gaze, focusing entirely on Chikako and Diaho. Her face betrayed no emotion, nothing for Jin to read, and more importantly, no sign of any secret communication between the two.

“Chikako-sama, you did it,” Jin’s said quietly. Her voice cracked as she condemned Chikako. She knew that Chikako was innocent, and that there were risks to lying—big risks—but Aina had avenged Tsukasa’s death. For now, she would go along with Aina, even though she worried about all the ways this could go wrong. “You’re trying to convince yourself that you didn’t. Maybe you didn’t mean to. I don’t know. I can feel surprise coming from you, but it can’t hide your guilt.”

“There are also many witnesses who report that Chikako-sama was acting emotional and unstable,” the gynoid added.

A long silence followed before Diaho asked, “Is there anything else you’d like to say, Chikako-san?”

Yahari,” Chikako chuckled. The chuckle grew into laughter, with tears flowing from the corners of her eyes. “Yahari, meido no mei wa unmei no mei. You took everything from me, my best tomodachi, my ticket out, and now, even my life. Soshite, you didn’t even mean to do most of it. It’s your unmei, just as much as mine, that lead us here. If we had never met that day, Karen-san and Akira-sama would still be alive, and I would be the undisputed housekeeper of this mansion.”

Demo, you still wouldn’t have been married off to Eito-sama,” Aina pointed out.

“I still would have been better off,” Chikako snapped, “and you would have been killed in your sleep by the Soviets. Demo saa, death is the unmei we all share. None of us can escape it. I may have delayed yours, but I will rectify that mistake. Kakugo, Aina Dufort.”

The room erupted in a flurry of movement as Chikako lunged at Aina and Diaho stepped out of the way. Aina, whose reflexes were faster than Chikako’s, evaded her strike, but in doing so, cleared a path for Chikako to retrieve her knife from Akira’s corpse. Flecks of his blood shot from the blade and splattered all over the room as she flipped the power switch, causing the blade to vibrate at an extremely high frequency.

“Diaho-sama, tasukete,” Aina begged. “Neither of us can beat her alone, but together—” She was forced to stop talking as Chikako stabbed the blade towards her. She dodged to the side, and Chikako converted the stab into a horizontal slash, just as she had in their previous battle. Aina threw herself backwards onto the ground, barely avoiding the attack. She was already preparing to roll to the side, predicting Chikako to dive at her with the knife, as she had done before.

“Don’t underestimate me,” Chikako said, running forward and kicking Aina as if she were a soccer ball. As Aina shot into the air, Chikako tried to slice into her, but Aina was able to propel herself just beyond Chikako’s reach with her spiritual energy. She continued to sail upwards until she hit the ceiling. The plaster cracked, but Aina bounced off. Chikako could have kicked Aina hard enough to send her through the ceiling and into the room above. She could have kicked Aina so hard that Aina would have broken through all the ceilings and through the mansion’s roof. The force of such a kick would have been sufficient to kill most people, but Chikako knew Aina would shield herself with her spiritual energy, and she didn’t want to knock Aina beyond her reach. Besides, even if Aina could move her body in midair using her spiritual energy, she couldn’t fly.

Aina tried to dig her fingers into the plaster to prevent her fall, but the force of her impact sent her bouncing back down too quickly. The ceilings on the first floor were high, but Chikako was right below her. No matter which way she pushed herself, Chikako would have her before she could hit the ground.

Or she would have, had Diaho not chosen that moment to intervene, having been convinced that Aina really could not have overpowered Chikako. With a speed nearly matching Aina’s, and a strength nearly matching Chikako’s, he quickly maneuvered to Chikako’s right side, feigning a strike to her ribcage, just below her armpit. Chikako instinctively pulled her arm down to shield herself, lowering the knife in the process, and Diaho grabbed her wrist, twisting it so that her palm faced upwards. Chikako was able to bring her left arm up in time to block a kick from Aina, who pushed off from the arm and landed on the other side of the room. Although she disliked turning her back to Diaho, Chikako pivoted away from him for leverage, straightening her arm. She planned to pull Diaho around her body to her front, pulling him off balance in the process, but he let go of her wrist, and she whipped back to face him, turning her wrist over so that the blade of the knife pointed in his direction.

A loud cracking sound caught everyone’s attention as Aina broke the leg off of a nearby chair and wielded it as she would a duster. The prog knife would be able to slice through it easily, of course, but if she could avoid the knife, it would give Aina a little extra range. Diaho remained unarmed, but Chikako could hear commotion outside the room. It wouldn’t be long before backup arrived.

Diaho was blocking the only door out of the room, but Aina was more focused on self-defense. She could have circled around Chikako, so that Chikako could only see one of her opponents at a time, but that would make it more difficult for her to see what Diaho was doing. If they didn’t coordinate, Chikako would have the chance to take them out individually. But, because of their positioning, Chikako had a clear path to the windows.

Taking two steps towards Aina, Chikako raised her arm as if to fling the prog knife towards her. As she expected, Aina dodged in the direction that gave her the greatest chance of avoiding it: towards Diaho. Chikako then leapt towards the closest window, cutting a hole in it using the prog knife. The window was thick and shatterproof, but the knife easily cleaved through it. Aina and Diaho rushed forward to grab her, but this time she did throw the prog knife at them. They dove to avoid it, and it embedded itself in the opposite wall, cutting a line down the wall until it reached the floor.

“Look out!” Jin warned as Aina and Diaho got up to follow Chikako into the night. A flurry of flatware and coasters flew through the window into the study. Thanks to Jin, no one was injured, but it delayed their pursuit of Chikako. “She’s probably set a trap outside the window,” Jin added.

“Put the mansion on lockdown,” Diaho ordered. “Inform the lookouts to be on the watch for Chikako-san. Aina, you’re with me.” He bolted out of the door, towards the mansion’s main entrance, Aina close behind.

Dec. 30th, U.C. 0051, 12:15 AM

A meido stationed in the watchtower reported that Chikako had slipped out of the main gate just before the barrier was activated. Jin had been brought up to confirm that she was telling the truth. Still, not wanting to risk that it might have been a diversion. They had searched the grounds for her. Aina knew that she wasn’t in the doujou, thanks to the copious surveillance cameras and microphones Naomi had installed in it, but she still checked it herself, just to be safe. The last thing she needed was Chikako to attack when her guard was down. It had been a giant mistake to make an enemy of Chikako without a solid plan to kill her.

Nani do we do ima?” Aina asked Diaho when they were confident that Chikako had really escaped.

“The keisatsu have already been notified,” Diaho informed her. “Her face is already being plastered all over nctchan. Half a day from now, nearly everyone in the machi will be on the lookout for her. Our job is done. We can only await our unmei. I’m going to have to confine you to your quarters, at least until it’s clear to the outside world that you didn’t assist Chikako-san. Even so, you failed to protect goshujin-sama. There were extenuating circumstances, and I will put in a good word for you, but there’s a good chance you’ll take the blame for this. If I have to trade your life to save minna else’s, I will.”

“I wakatta,” Aina sighed. This was just another aspect she hadn’t considered in the heat of the moment. “If it comes to that, I won’t resist. I want to mamoru them too. Before I confine myself though, I would like to check in on Jin-chan. That’s the first time she’s seen a dead body up close since Tsukasa-kun, and she could probably use a tomodachi right now.”

“Make it quick,” Diaho said. “I’ll come to check on you shortly.”

After bowing to him, Aina quickly made her way to Jin’s room. Knocking on the door, she called out, “Jin-chan, are you there?” After receiving no answer, she cracked the door open and peeked in. Jin didn’t appear to be in the room, but there was a light coming from her bathroom, the door to which was partially ajar. She stepped into the room, closing the door behind her. “Jin-chan, it’s watashi,”

Without warning, pain shot through Aina’s entire body, stars exploded in Aina’s vision, and she could only see flashing lights against a cloudy yellow background. It took everything she had just to remain conscious. In this state, she was only vaguely aware of a knotted cloth gag being shoved into her mouth.

Gomen, it looks like I overdid it,” she could hear Jin’s voice as she came back to her senses. She still couldn’t see anything, but she tried to move towards Jin and felt another jolt of sharp pain. After recovering, she didn’t try to move again. “It sounds like your breathing has returned to normal,” Jin said quietly. “If I take the gag out, do you promise not to scream again? You’ll just hurt yourself if you do.” Aina nodded, and she could feel the gag being slowly pulled out of her mouth. “I don’t think anyone was close enough to hear you scream,” Jin said, “but I was worried you might bite your tongue. You see this?”

“I can’t see anything,” Aina groaned, wincing with pain on each syllable.

Wao, you really can’t,” Jin marveled, waving her hand in front of Aina’s eyes. “ I suppose it doesn’t matter whether or not you can see right now. Naomi-sama must have underestimated this technique’s effectiveness, if someone as weak as I could cause you this much pain.”

“Nani?” Aina managed. “Jin-chan—”

“Naomi-sama warned me you’d do something like this eventually,” Jin explained, “and that when you did, you’d kill me to keep me quiet.”

“I’m not…” Aina said. She had come to make sure that they both had their stories straight, but in the back of her mind, she knew that leaving Jin alive was a risk, and that if Jin gave her any reason to doubt her, she might have killed Jin.

“How I wish I could believe you. Demo, you just killed the one person you should never kill under any circumstance. Dare knows what you’ll do next? I certainly don’t. I never, ever suspected that you’d kill goshujin-sama. Do you have any idea how fond he was of you? Even as he lay dying, he loved you like he would a daughter.”

A stinging sensation swept across Aina’s cheeks, and Aina realized that Jin was wiping Aina’s tears away. She hadn’t even been aware that she was crying. Was it because of the pain, or had Jin’s words made her feel guilty? She didn’t know. She was, however, quickly coming to her senses. She could feel that her spiritual energy was in disarray, and it was pulling her body apart. It was just like when Naomi had drugged her, but more intense. Had Jin been able to drug her that quickly? It was possible, but she had called it a technique.

Chigau,” Aina said. She was speaking more normally now. “It’s because you’re so weak that you couldn’t control it properly. You could have killed me.”

Sou ka?” Jin asked, surprised. “I suppose it doesn’t matter now. Naomi-sama said this technique would only work on you, and it would only work once, so there’s no point in trying to get better at it.” As she was talking, Aina’s vision cleared and she could make out what Jin was trying to show her before. “Can you see it now?” Jin asked, holding the syringe to Aina’s face. “According to Naomi-sama, there’s enough in here to kill even you. Soshite, there’s enough in this one,” she said, placing another syringe in Aina’s vision, “to give me complete control over you. Naomi-sama called it a chemical lobotomy. I know which I prefer. How about you?”