Chapter 32

Aina flinched, dropping the scrap of paper as if it had burned her through her gloves. “Did you show this to anyone else?” she asked.

“I know this trope,” Koharu joked. “I tell you I haven’t, and then you kill me, right?”

“I’m serious,” Aina said. “Anyone who saw this could be in mortal danger.”

“You’re the first person I showed it to,” Koharu said. As she spoke, she stepped ever so slightly backwards. It was an instinctual and ultimately useless move. Even if she was prepared to teleport away, she wouldn’t be able to react fast enough if Aina attacked her. “I haven’t had time to ask anyone else.”

“You should forget you saw it,” Aina said. “Hypnotize yourself, or use memory modification. Don’t trust anyone else to do it for you. Iie, first, you need to secure your informant. If they get to her before you do, they’ll know to come after you next. The tricky part will be doing it without drawing attention. They may already suspect her.”

Nani is this all about?” Koharu asked.

“Like I said, you don’t want to know,” Aina replied. “I wish I didn’t know.”

“If I’m going to erase my memory anyway, nani’s the harm?” Koharu asked.

“I… have an arrangement with them,” Aina answered hesitantly. “We don’t interfere with each other. I don’t tell anyone about them, and in return, they don’t come after me. Just talking to you about them puts the entire agreement in jeopardy.”

“You’re scared,” Koharu observed. “I haven’t seen you scared since Naomi-sama died.” Aina didn’t say anything in response. She didn’t confirm it, but she didn’t deny it either. After a few moments of silence, Koharu acquiesced. “Can you at least promise me they’re not a danger to the machi or my unit?”

“If you leave them alone, they’ll leave you alone,” Aina said. “But if you start asking questions…”

Wakatta, wakatta,” Koharu sighed. “I’ll trust you on this one.”

June 7th, U.C. o164, 5:20 PM

Aina was just finishing her supper when the hatch on the door to her cell slid open.

“I still have jyuu minutes,” Aina said, pouring herself a little more wine.

“I see they’re treating you well,” came Emi’s voice from behind the door. It was an understatement. Prisoners weren’t typically given real cutlery, let alone home-cooked meals and alcohol.

“Emi-san,” Aina-said, perking up, “please, come in. Would you like some wine?”

“I don’t have the key,” Emi said.

“It’s not locked,” Aina explained. “Besides, even if it was, it couldn’t stop you.” The door creaked as Emi pulled it open and closed it behind her. “I thought you didn’t want to see me again,” Aina said. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“I didn’t want you see you again,” Emi said, crossing her arms and leaning back against the wall, “but when I heard you got arrested…”

“Ah, you wanted to see seigi with your own eyes,” Aina inferred, taking a sip from her glass. “In your worldview, this is where I belong, isn’t it?”

“Iie,” Emi said. “I mean, hai, but that’s not why I came.”

“Come to turn yourself in?” Aina guessed. “After all, we’re accomplices. I wouldn’t mind sharing a cell with you, but we’d only have the ichi bed.”

Emi didn’t respond to Aina’s teasing. It was childish, they both knew, especially after Aina had promised to stop teasing her on their first date, but she didn’t blame Aina for being upset with her.

“I do think you belong in prison,” Emi said, “A maximum security facility, not a room with an unlocked door. Soshite, I did think about turning myself in, but that would mean turning in the keibu as well, and we didn’t know what you were going to do, and—”

“And Élisabeth-san was a satsujin-sha,” Aina cut her off. “If we had just arrested her, she would have been executed anyway. Sure, it’s not right for a keisatsu officer to take seigi into their own te, but the practical reality is that turning us in would only result in negative outcomes.”

“You have me figured out pretty well,” Emi admitted.

“I’m a good listener,” Aina smiled. “Now, naze did you really come here?”

“I saw the evidence they’re holding you on,” Emi said.

“Ah, so you want me in prison, but not for the wrong reasons,” Aina realized.

“I told the keibu this was a personal visit, and she arranged it so that there will be no one around to observe us. I came to sneak you out.”

“Koharu-san won’t be happy that you used her like that,” Aina said.

“She’ll forgive me,” Emi said. “I get the feeling she’s not happy with the situation either.”

“None of us are happy about it,” Aina said, “but I wouldn’t be sitting here if we didn’t both think this was the best alternative.”

“Naze are you here, exactly?” Emi asked. “I wakarimasen why the meirei came down to hold you on flimsy evidence of a crime no one cares about any longer.”

“You’re aware of the worsening situation between the goshujin and the free meido?” Aina asked. “The prime minister is worried I may be working behind the scenes to escalate tensions.”

“Are you?” Emi challenged.

“From jail?” Aina scoffed. “He has no idea if I’m doing anything or not. He’s just trying to control all the variables in a fraught situation. Most of the other goshujin are itching to put the free meido in their place, but only the prime minister seems to fully realize how badly that would end up for them. So if he wants me to sit here for ni-jyuu-san days to prove that I’m not a threat, I’m more than happy to oblige.”

“You might want to be a little less accommodating,” Emi advised. “The prosecutor’s office is looking into what other charges they can drum up against you. They’re even preparing to take this charge to trial. The prevailing feeling is that there’s no risk because you’ve been so cooperative.”

“That would be a mistake on their part,” Aina frowned. “If they bring me to trial, the free meido will be incensed that the prosecutor general would indict me on false evidence after letting Daiki-sama go. Arigatou for the warning. Could I bother you to relay that information to Koharu-san?”

“I suppose I could do that,” Emi shrugged, “since it doesn’t look like you’re going to let me break you out of here.” She casually pushed the door open and made to leave without saying anything more, but Aina called out to her.

“Arigatou for coming to see me,” Aina said. “I’m touched that you were worried about me. Perhaps this means we could see each other again some time?”

Emi hesitated at the door, ultimately pushing it closed before turning back to Aina and answering, “Perhaps. This wasn’t as bad as I expected, your childish teasing aside. Demo, I don’t think I want to go on any more dates. We’re not right for each other. Even so, it’s going to be tough avoiding you for hundreds of years, so perhaps it would be best if we got along amicably.”

“That’s very mature reasoning for someone your age,” Aina complimented. “I have to admit, it was that same kind of long-term thinking that led me to try dating you.”

“Because I wouldn’t grow old like Fumiko-san?”

“Ah, you know about Fumiko,” Aina said, her words tinged with sadness.

Minna knows about you and Fumiko-san,” Emi explained. “It was a common topic of celebrity gossip for decades.”

“There are other reasons I went out with you,” Aina said, “but that was the main one.”

“Hundreds of years is a long time,” Emi mused, “and people change. As far as I know, no one’s ever been together for that long. It might not be possible. Instead of trying to find a mythical perfect relationship that can last forever, perhaps we should content ourselves with good relationships that work in the present.”

“So what you’re saying is I might have another chance with you in a few hundred years?” Aina jabbed.

“What I’m saying is that we shouldn’t worry too much about romance,” Emi said. “There are plenty of other things to worry about.”

June 17th, U.C. 0164, 5:07 PM

Youkosou, Mitsuo-sama,” Jin greeted as she slid open the front door to the prime minister’s residence. “They’re gathering in the main hall. Would you like me to show you the way?”

“No thank you, Jin-san,” Mitsuo said. “I know the way. “Kochira wa Yuuki-kun. He’s here to help out. Please put him to work.”

“Arigatou, Mitsuo-sama,” Jin said, leaning down to inspect Yuuki closely. She placed a firm hand on Yuuki’s shoulder and pointed him down a side hallway. “The kitchen’s just around that corner. Introduce yourself to the gynoid and tell her I sent you.” As Yuuki departed, Jin turned back to Mitsuo. “Ohisashiburi,” she said with a forced smile. “Arigatou for freeing my nakama.”

Donmai,” Mitsuo said. “I was sorry to see them go, but I’m glad that they’re happier now. The same goes for you. You served my kazoku for generations. I’m glad you’re looking well.”

That was a lie. Since the last time Mitsuo had seen her, her skin had cracked and sagged, and the color had completely vanished from her hair. She still had a vitality in her step, but age had finally caught up with Jin.

6:02 PM

“We tried doing it your way,” Hideharu stated, “and look what it got us. The keisatsu said there were nearly go-man protestors, and they marched past all of our homes.”

“They frightened my daughter,” another goshujin cut in. “After they left, she told me she didn’t want to be a goshujin anymore.”

“They’re sending us a message,” Hideharu continued. “They know where we live, and they’re coming for us.”

“That’s not the message they were sending,” Yuuki scoffed as he placed a plate full of food on the table. “They’re trying to gather public support for non-violent government reforms. They’re agitating for change in the only way—”

“Hold your tongue, meido,” A goshujin snapped. “No one asked for your opinion. Is this how you keep your house staff, Mitsuo-dono, by allowing them to walk all over you?”

“I keep my house staff from leaving by valuing them as hito,” Mitsuo replied. “In doing so, I’ve found they often offer valuable insights.”

“Well, how you run your own household is your business,” the goshujin huffed, “but while you’re here, control your meido.”

“Naze should I?” Mitsuo asked nonchalantly. “He’s right. This is an issue of propaganda. We can call ourselves the rulers of this machi all we want, but it’s meaningless if the public ignores us. The heiwa treaty ties our hands. We can’t coerce them through violence, so we have to convince them to stick with us. I’d recommend emphasizing how our leadership kept the machi safe during the sensou, while simultaneously spreading FUD about the free meido. Many of them are dangerous criminals, no one knows what they’ll do if they get control, that sort of thing.”

“There’s no guarantee we’ll win that fight,” another goshujin said. “I don’t like that.”

“If we can’t win that fight, perhaps we don’t have what it takes to rule,” Mitsuo said before Yuuki had a chance to.

“Naive,” Hideharu chided. “They’re meido. They specialize in subterfuge and assassination. If we play by the rules, we’ll lose. Our problem is that they no longer fear us. We need to give them a reason to think twice before they hold another protest.”

“We must not escalate things with the free meido,” the prime minister emphasized.

“They took my son,” Hideharu roared. “We’re justified in taking their children. It’s not an escalation: It’s seigi.”

“Are you baka?” Yuuki laughed. “The only reason you’re still alive is that the free meido haven’t seen fit to sneak into your mansions and slit your throats. Even if you killed most of them, you’d be vulnerable to the few who would seek fukushuu.”

“But they could decide to do that at any time, whether or not we do anything,” Hideharu argued.

“Then you should either make heiwa with them, or come up with a plan to kill them all, without exception,” Yuuki advised.

“Hear hear!” Hideharu cheered.

“Iie!” the prime minister shouted. “They won’t attack us. The heiwa treaty that protects them also protects us. Demo, if we’re the first to break the treaty, we’ll have more than the free meido to worry about.”

“Yuuki-kun meant it as a rhetorical device,” Mitsuo clarified. “We can’t kill them all, so we should make heiwa with them.”

“Can’t we?” Hideharu pressed. “No matter how many of them there are, the two strongest meido are still on our side.”

“Iie,” Mitsuo and the prime minister said in unison.

“Easy for you to say,” Hideharu complained. “Futari tomo are protected by your meido. The rest of us—”

“This is not a productive discussion,” the prime minister cut him off. “I’m willing to entertain suggestions on how to win the PR game against the free meido, but we are not attacking them, and that’s final.”

9:10 PM

Otsukaresama deshita,” Jin told the prime minister after the last guest had left.

“They are an exhausting lot,” the prime minister agreed.

“A foolish lot,” Jin corrected. “For me, this meeting confirmed that you’re the only goshujin worthy of my devotion.”

“They’re not all that bad,” the prime minister said. “Mitsuo-dono is sharper than I expected.”

“Please,” Jin insisted, “he’s young, brash, and worst of all, he’s still in love with her. You don’t need to be diplomatic with me, goshujin-sama. I know how you really feel.”

“So you claim,” the prime minister said dismissively.

“You don’t really care about any of them,” Jin said quietly, “at least not as much as you care about your own life and position.” She let her words hang in the air while the prime minister pretended to not be listening. “I have a plan,” she eventually told him. “It will keep you safely in chikara, but we may have to sacrifice a few of those aho. Just give the meirei, goshujin-sama, and I will get it done.”

June 23rd, U.C. 0164, 10:24 PM

Noriko took up the entire sidewalk as she walked towards the community center. It wasn’t just her massive frame. She was loaded down with hundreds of bento boxes made with the leftover ingredients from the cafe’s food budget for the day. She was making her way to the community center where the younger meido had gathered to plan the next phase of their campaign against the goshujin. Their protests so far had been successful. Not only was public opinion shifting in their direction, but more young people were joining the free meido. Nearly all of them would be at this meeting, which made feeding them all difficult, but all of the cafes were pitching in.

Chobi had really stepped up to help organize the youngsters, and though it was taking energy away from her work at the cafe, Noriko was proud of her kohai. Chobi wouldn’t appreciate any expressions of that pride. In her own mind, Chobi was merely contributing what she could to the movement. She just happened to have more experience than the newer members. Even so, Noriko was determined to support her.

When she rounded the corner, Noriko spotted a dozen ambulances blocking the street outside the community center. Undaunted by the weight of the meals she was hauling, she bounded forward down the block, dread filling her heart.

“Noriko-san,” a gynoid called out, “stay back.” She was the first to spot Noriko’s approach and ran to intercept her. “It is not safe for you. Nekomimi are especially susceptible.”

“Susceptible to what?” Noriko demanded. “Nyani happened?” The gynoid placed her hands on Noriko’s shoulders and tried to push her back, but Noriko wouldn’t budge. She was frozen in place by the sight of gynoids pulling young meido out of the community center. There weren’t enough stretchers, so the gynoids were carrying them out on their backs. The youngsters weren’t moving.

“It is doku gas,” the gynoid explained. “It spread through the facility too quickly for anyone to evacuate. It is not yet completely inert, so you should back away.”

“Doku?” Noriko asked in shock. “Which doku?”

“The same doku that was used to kill Daiki Osborne.”