As the remaining goshujin left the room, Akira seemed in no hurry to join them. He knew better than to be overconfident, but having Naomi nearby made him feel untouchable. He just couldn’t help it. A group of a dozen or so other goshujin remained with him and the prime minister, talking amongst themselves, and Naomi made her way over to the group. Aina still hadn’t moved from where she stood, and Sena, who had been content to remain still up to that point, took a step towards her, but stopped when Aina sent a small gust of spiritual energy in her direction.
“Daijoubu?” Sena inquired quietly.
“I just saw genjitsu,” Aina whispered without turning to face Sena. “Zenbu.”
The two of them just stood there, unable to say anything further in public. They were saved from their awkwardness when Otome returned from outside the mansion and approached Aina.
“Aina-san, gokigenyou,” she said with a curtsy.
“Gokigenyou, Otome-sama,” Aina returned the greeting.
“Ryuuji-sama is demanding that we release the meido we have in custody. We have no grounds to refuse him, but before we let her go, is there anything you would say to her?”
“I have nothing to say.”
“Sou ka? She tried to frame you for murder, and there is nothing you wish to say to her? No gloating? No shitsumon?”
“The shitsumon have all been answered, and as for gloating… There’s no chance that Ryuuji-sama will allow her to live. Naze waste words on the dead? Rather, I should be apologizing to you, Otome-sama. My association with Mari-san is partially to blame for all this trouble. Gomen nasai.”
“Arigatou, Aina-san, but perhaps you should save your apologies for my goshujin.”
“Would you be so kind as to introduce me?”
The two of them approached the group of goshujin together. A few other meido were milling around the periphery to defend the group. The prime minister noticed Otome approaching and beckoned her over, holding his hand out, palm down, and curling his fingers inward.
“Ryuuji-dono wants his meido back, doesn’t he?” The prime minister asked her. “It’s OK. Release her to him.”
“Hai, goshujin-sama,” Otome replied with a bow.
“Dare’s this?” the prime minister followed up. “Matte, I remember. Akira-dono, this is one of yours, isn’t it?”
“Hai, Tetsuo-sama,” Akira confirmed. “Kochira wa Aina. She’s the one who was acquainted with your Mari-san…” Akira pulled Aina into the group and placed his hands on her shoulders.
“Yoroshiku, Aina-san,” the prime minister nodded to her, giving her permission to speak.
“Yoroshiku onegaishimasu, Tetsuo-sama,” Aina bowed deeply. “Please allow me to convey my sincerest apologies for the trouble I indirectly caused you.”
“That goes for me as well,” Akira chimed in, bowing slightly.
“Arigatou for your concern, but apologies are unnecessary,” the prime minister said.
“Aina, your timing is kanpeki,” Akira complemented, turning her towards a sharply-dressed woman in the group. “Kochira wa—“
“NAOMI!” an enraged voice thundered through the room, interrupting Akira. All heads turned towards its source, a meido with a sword in each hand. Her hair, auburn and tied into a bun, contained three distinct gray stripes that were visible from a distance. As with most older meido, it was difficult to pin an age on her, but she was obviously older than Neo Crystal Tokyo, and although she appeared older than Naomi, it was well-known that Naomi was the oldest living meido.
“Mme Prolux, how good to see you. It’s been years,” Naomi greeted the woman. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” she added, feigning embarrassment. “It’s Mme Yoko these days, isn’t it?”
“Shut it,” Yoko snapped. “I didn’t come here to mince words with a traitor.”
“Look who’s talking,” Naomi retorted. “How are things working for the defense minister?”
“I still have my pride. My staff tell me you embarrassed my master and you insulted me. My master may have turned down a duel of champions, but I’m not afraid of you.”
“How foolish of you. Have you forgotten just how strong I am?”
“A lot can change in fifty years. I’ve become stronger. Have you? En garde!”
Yoko advanced slowly on Naomi, keeping one sword in front of her, and the other to the side. By this time, word of what was happening had made its way to those assembled outside, and meido from many households were pressed around the doors and windows of the mansion, watching the fight.
“Stop this at once,” the prime minister ordered them. “Both of you. If you break the peace right now…”
“Don’t worry, prime minister,” Naomi assured him. “I do not intend to fight.” It was clear, however, that Yoko did not feel the same way, and she took another cautious step towards Naomi. In response, Naomi extended her right hand forward, palm up, and began gathering a vast amount of spiritual energy there. “Anna-gurax ozu-lu-faam izul nax orumudohl,” she intoned, placing her left hand over her right, palm down, to collect the spiritual energy she had just converted into magical energy. Yoko was surprised at this display, but she didn’t let that delay her. She ran towards Naomi just as Naomi raised both her hands above her head. “Ray Freeze!”
Rays of light burst forth from Naomi’s gathered magical energy in all directions. As they lashed against Yoko, she froze in her tracks, unable to move. If Naomi had been an adept spellcaster, the same fate would have befallen everyone else within the mansion, but the conversion of spiritual energy into magical energy was extremely inefficient, and the rays did not have enough power to reach anyone else, diffusing into the ambient light of the mansion after only a few feet.
“That should last until your guests are all safe in their own homes,” Naomi informed the prime minister. “We can continue our fight then, if you still wish it, Mme Yoko.”
“Don’t make me laugh,” Yoko managed to move her mouth just enough to pronounce the words. “A holy spell, coming from you? No wonder it’s so weak.”
Spiritual energy erupted from Yoko’s body, dispelling her paralysis. She lunged at Naomi, who sidestepped her strike and her follow-up.
“You have gotten stronger,” Naomi complemented, continuing to easily dodge Yoko’s strikes. “But you’re not strong enough to beat me.”
Yoko thrust one sword towards Naomi, and at the peak of the thrust, Naomi grabbed the sides of the blade with her fingers and shattered it near the hilt. Yoko tossed the broken sword away and continued to attack Naomi with the remaining sword. After a few more swings, Naomi caught that blade too, but before she could break it, Yoko focused a large amount of spiritual energy in her left hand and punched Naomi with it.
Even Aina was shocked at how much energy Yoko had been able to gather so quickly, and her punch was fast, much faster than her sword swings had been. Yoko had only been trying to lure Naomi into a false sense of security. Naomi barely managed to dodge the blow by dropping Yoko’s sword. With her subterfuge discovered, Yoko stopped holding back and began attacking Naomi with her full force. Naomi continued to dodge the attacks, but many of them came close to connecting, and Naomi appeared to be on the back foot.
“On second thought, prime minister, I may need permission to retaliate,” Naomi said.
“Zettai ni not,” the prime minister huffed. “Yoko-san, cease this at once.”
“Or what, you’ll declare war on my master?” Yoko asked sarcastically. “I don’t take orders from you.”
“Naomi, can you take her out quickly, without lasting injury?” Akira asked.
“There’s a chance I could, but I might fail,” Naomi admitted.
“Could you do it if Aina assisted?”
“No. Stay back, Mme Aina. She’s too much for you.”
“Well, I’m stumped,” Akira mused. “Aina, do you have any ideas?”
“I might be able to end this fight in a way that doesn’t break the peace,” Aina said after a few moments of deliberation. “It will be underhanded, but I don’t think you’ll mind the final result, goshujin-sama.”
“It won’t break the peace?” asked Akira.
“It will not. On a technicality.”
“Do it,” the prime minister ordered.
As quickly as she could, Aina rushed towards the two combatants.
“I told you to stay back,” Naomi warned.
Aina feigned a step towards Yoko, but Yoko didn’t pay her any mind. Naomi dodged Yoko’s next attack, and Aina changed direction, unwilling to engage Yoko directly. She dashed behind Naomi, as if running for cover. Naomi continued dodging attacks, and Aina moved to keep herself close to, but out of the battle. When Naomi dodged a particularly fast attack from Yoko, she found that Aina had already moved herself to where she was attempting to dodge.
Aina’s stabbed her duster towards Naomi’s stomach.
Attacking Naomi wouldn’t break the peace because they were from the same household. Besides, this was the first time she had ever seen Naomi at a disadvantage in a fight, and this was her best chance to kill Naomi. Regardless of her alliance with Naomi against the goshujin, the fact remained that Naomi was a ticking time-bomb, and as soon as she was able to take power for herself, Aina probably would not survive her purge. On top of all that, when Hibiki had glanced nervously at Sena, Naomi had quickly stepped forward to claim credit. At the very least, she knew what had been going on between Sena and Hibiki, and she probably was the instigator. That couldn’t be forgiven.
Naomi was unperturbed by Aina’s attack. She grabbed the duster’s handle before it could reach her and attempted to twist it from Aina’s hands. Aina had, by this point, learned not to hold on to the weapon, lest she be dragged around by it, but as soon as she let go, Naomi kicked her away while holstering the duster in her apron. Aina backed off, allowing Yoko to continue her attempted assault on Naomi, before drawing the blade hidden in the broom strapped to her back and jumping back in.
“Nani are you doing?” Yoko shouted at Aina. “Aren’t you on the same side?”
“Sou yo,” Aina confirmed. “And that means that if I get the kill, the peace is preserved.”
“If you get the kill, I might attack you, and then you’ll have nobody to protect you,” Yoko pointed out.
“It’s a risk,” admitted Aina. “Demo, I’m confident I could deal with that if it happened, and Naomi-sama taught me never to pass up an opportunity like this.”
“Is that what you teach your students these days, to turn against their own teacher?” Yoko asked. “If only you had taught me that… Still, you’re slipping in your old age. You used to teach your students not to get overconfident.”
Without further warning, Yoko aimed a vicious swing at Aina, and Naomi had just enough time to pull Aina out of the way.
“I’ll admit, I’ve been a bit lax on that lesson, at least where this student is concerned.” Naomi said, tossing Aina behind her.
“Enough!” the defense minister’s voice roared from the other side of the room. He had just managed to push past the meido who crowded around the perimeter of the mansion to watch the fight. “Yoko, stop this at once.”
“But Ryuuji-sama, I can beat her,” Yoko protested. “This is our best chance to end things right now.”
“Bakatsura!” Ryuuji swore. “Even I can see you don’t stand a chance. She’s just playing with you.”
That wasn’t accurate, but it had a seed of truth, so it was believable. Yoko definitely came close to Naomi in strength and skill, but only so long as Naomi was unable to retaliate. Yoko, Naomi, and Aina all knew it, but could the goshujin see it, or would they be inclined to believe the defense minister’s—a fellow goshujin’s—interpretation of the fight?
“Do you really think,” the defense minister continued, “that she would let you kill her? The peace will be broken no matter which of you dies. If you push her that far, she won’t choose her own death over yours, orders or no.”
“Why do you insist on embarrassing me in public?” Yoko asked through clenched teeth. “I can beat her.”
“You can,” the defense minister admitted, “under the right circumstances. I think everyone here can see that. Demo, you’d need to take her by surprise, which will be much harder now that you’ve shown your hand. I am done arguing with you, and I’ve suffered enough disobedience today to last me a lifetime. Back off.”
“Ha!” Yoko obeyed, though anger and displeasure showed on her face in equal measure. She sheathed her remaining sword and, turning her back on Naomi, left the mansion with her master.
It had been a clever ruse, Aina had to give them that. If Akira believed half of what the defense minister had said, he would want to keep Naomi by his side at all times, to defend against a surprise attack by Yoko. The prime minister, whose house staff were considerably less powerful, would feel threatened, and might try to pressure Akira to hand over Naomi, driving a wedge between their alliance.
If Akira understood this, he didn’t let it show as he calmly beckoned Aina back to the group.
“As I was saying, Aina, kochira wa Erika-dono.”
“Yoroshiku, Aina-chan,” Erika greeted her. “You were kakkoii out there.”
“Yoroshiku onegaishimasu, Erika-sama,” Aina responded. “That is very kind of you to say, but I failed to accomplish anything of merit.”
“Don’t sell yourself short,” Erika said. “You’re young, and I can see you have a lot of potential.”
“Arigatou gozaimasu, Erika-sama.”
“With the pleasantries out of the way,” Akira cut in, “Aina, would you escort Erika-dono back to her house staff? They appear to be stuck outside the mansion, to the south.”
“Of course,” Aina replied, bowing to Erika-sama. “Please follow me.” The two departed the group. “If you don’t mind me asking, Erika-sama, how do you know Akira-sama?” Normally it was impolite for a meido to speak to a goshujin without being spoken to first, but Erika seemed like a very informal person, and the small talk would distract her from the tenseness of the situation.
“I’m his first cousin, once removed. His father’s cousin,” Erika replied, as though uninterested in the subject. “Sore yori, Aina-chan, I was recently contacted by your Chikako-san, and she made me aware of your situation.”
The conversation paused as they reached the south exit, and the meido assembled there slowly parted to allow Erika to pass undisturbed. They moved carefully, so as not to accidentally bump one another. Two meido, however, stood directly in their path, as if challenging them.
“Oh dear, Aina-chan,” Erika remarked. “Would you do something about this?”
“Certainly, Erika-sama. How would you like to proceed? I can move them out of the way, or I can carry you over them.”
“Carry me over them? Can you fly, Aina-chan?”
“Iie, but I can jump very high.”
“Oh, that sounds fun. Demo, I have a reputation to uphold, and that means I can’t allow a meido to put me off my path. So if you would…”
Aina stepped forward and glared at the Meido blocking them. “Make way for Erika-sama.” She let her spiritual energy flow from her body and gently used it to push the meido. Feeling the weight of Aina’s power, the two meido grudgingly stepped aside.
“Hai, your situation,” Erika continued the conversation as soon as they were away from the crowd. “Perhaps we could call it your religious experience?”
“I still don’t—“
“Then I’ll stop beating around the bush. Aina-chan, would you feel more comfortable serving an onna? If you want, I could offer to buy you from Akira-dono.”
“Oh, that situation,” Aina said. “Arigatou for the offer, Erika-sama, but Akira-sama is like an otousan to me.”
“Soshite, you’re worried that he’ll be disappointed if he learns that you’re a member of our tribe. I understand that, Aina-chan, and that’s why I’m giving you the choice. You don’t have to decide now, but please think about it.”
“Hai. Arigatou gozaimasu. I know this is rude of me to ask, but please don’t tell anyone.”
“Anshin shinaide. I’d never out anyone against their will. Unlike Chikako-san.”
Aina giggled politely as they approached a group of meido milling about the gate, among them a familiar face.
“Ainya!” Momo exclaimed, rushing forward and throwing her arms around Aina.
Aina returned the hug as Momo raked her roughly-textured tongue up Aina’s cheek. “Momo, I—” she was about to tell Momo about seeing the stars, but that would require her to explain what she was doing outside the GINZUISHOU. “Ohisashiburi. You look well.”
Momo did look well. It was unfair to compare her to her twin, Aina knew, because Momo had not suffered the stresses of raising two kittens, with a third on the way, but she looked undeniably more healthy, and more superficially beautiful, than Mimi. The contrast struck Aina in that moment. She now had a choice of whether she wanted to be like Mimi, or like Momo. She could stay with Akira and continue to put herself through the kinds of stressful situations that caused Sena to worry for her mental health, or she could escape it all and live an easier, happier life with Erika and Momo. If Erika owned any gynoids, Sena could secretly trade places with one of them, and only Jin would be the wiser.
But would Naomi let her go like that? No, that wasn’t the most important concern. If she went, she would still be drawn into this war she helped create, but she would be in a bad position to exact her revenge. Naomi did say that Aina still had a part to play, after all. On the other hand, she would be in a better position to protect Momo in the upcoming conflict. Mimi, Jin, and the kittens had Naomi, Diaho, and Chikako to help protect them, but did Momo have anyone like that? If not, was revenge worth risking Momo’s life over?
She hated to admit it, but Aina was leaning towards taking that risk. Risking a single life—unless it was Fumiko’s or Sena’s—to change the world for the better was an acceptable trade for her, as much as she might hate herself for it. Still, the offer was tempting.
Aina was glad she had time to think it over.