A single gunshot reverberated in the darkness.
The room already smelled of death. Outside, a cold wind howled.
Smoke was still rising from the boy's handgun. He looked down at the two corpses at his feet coldly and clinically, as if he were scrutinising dead insects.
One of the dead bodies belonged to the girl he had been in love with for five years. The other belonged to a Terran boy whose name he did not know.
The dead boy and girl's hands were close enough to touch. Despite their bloodied bodies and pale faces, their eyes were closed peacefully. It was as if they were sharing a sweet and intimate embrace in a world only they belonged to.
The boy with the handgun fell to his knees and began to prise the two bodies apart. His touch fell on the girl's unresponsive hand; it was still warm.
Up until that moment, the boy had moved slowly and mechanically, his face dry-eyed. But when he touched her hand his breath hitched. He began to cry bitterly.
No one responded. Every choked sob echoed against the walls, as if in answer to himself.
The boy did not know how long he cried. He knew neither night nor day. He held the girl fast against his body, not wanting to let go. It was something he had never dared to do when she was alive. Something he had always longed to do.
But eventually, he did let go, because her body was becoming colder by the minute and he simply could not bear the feel of it against his hand. The tears eventually stopped, replaced by an eerie hollowness in his gut. He felt weightless - like a bird - only his limbs could not move.
Then suddenly the guilt hit him like a tsunami, a terrible, monstrous thing that threatened to swallow him whole. His hands shook violently from the impact. The gun fell from his grasp and hit the floor with a clatter.
The voice rang out, sounding alien to his ears.
With a hoarse sob, Slaine looked over his shoulder, blinking out tears.
Count Saazbaum was reclined against the wall, peering at him through half-closed eyes. He clutched his bloodied sides and smiled grimly.
"Aren't you going to finish me off?"
Slaine's fingers twitched. He looked down at the gun he had dropped.
"What is the point?" he asked plaintively. "What is the point of anything anymore?"
"There's a war going on outside," said the Count matter-of-factly.
"I hate the war," Slaine declared.
His voice was thick with bitterness.
Saazbaum looked into Slaine's face and thought he saw a face he recognised. If Slaine saw his own face at that moment, he would not have recognised it, but Saazbaum knew it for what it was.
He had seen it before in the mirror.
"Slaine Troyard," he spoke up once again, even though his head was dizzy and it was all he could do to remain conscious. "When do wars end? Do you know?"
Slaine looked at the dead princess on the ground before he answered.
"When the people on both sides throw away their hatred and wish for peace."
"No. Wars end when their goals are achieved. Do you understand, Slaine?"
For the briefest of moments, Slaine hesitated. But he could not prevent the understanding from showing on his face. He had realised the truth the moment Saazbaum uttered it.
His princess was dead. He had not felt her pulse when he touched her. All her ideas of peace had died with her. Nothing was more obvious to him at that moment.
"I understand, Count Saazbaum."
"Help me to my feet, Slaine. There is much work to be done."
Slaine walked over to his princess's murderer and silently hoisted his injured body over his shoulder.
"You did well, Slaine," Count Saazbaum said, not for the first time that day.
Slaine was silent, choosing his next words with exacting care.
"I despise you more than anyone," he said finally.
Saazbaum smiled and closed his eyes, too weary to continue the conversation.
Slaine took Count Saazbaum to the closest medical unit outside. The count was in urgent need of attention; he was still bleeding when he reached safety. Afterwards, Slaine went back to retrieve the princess's body. Unable to stand the evidence of his own terrible justice (could it really be called that?), he left the Terran boy's corpse where it was.
For saving the life of Count Saazbaum of the Vers Orbital Knights' thirty-seven clans, Slaine Troyard was promoted to a knight and given the title of "Sir".
The princess was given a royal state funeral back on Vers. Many speeches were held. It was all thanks to those accursed Terrans, said the Emperor. They had destroyed Castle Cruhteo and they had killed the princess. It was time to redouble the war effort.
These events seemed to take place in a world beyond Slaine's caring. He heard the words, but thought nothing of them. He wondered if he should have killed Saazbaum that day, and after that, killed himself. That was the only thought that went through his mind.
In the evenings, Saazbaum invited him for dinner, treating him to rich gourmet dishes imported from Earth. These days, the count walked around with his arm in a sling, though he seemed no less majestic for it. He seemed rather deep in thought, but probably not about the same things that kept Slaine up at night.
It was not too late to kill himself. Whenever Slaine was alone in his quarters, he reached for his gun - the one that had murdered that Terran boy - and he pressed the nozzle against his temple. Sometimes, he put it into his mouth and relished the cold taste of hard steel against his tongue.
But Slaine could never bring himself to pull the trigger. In truth, suicide was an alien thought to him. It was something he felt he ought to do, but it just felt like another wearisome duty. And duties didn't matter anymore now that the princess was dead.
One day, Slaine asked Saazbaum, "Why do you keep me alive?"
"Is there a reason I shouldn't?" the count asked gravely, putting down his fork and looking Slaine in the eyes.
It was slightly unnerving. Slaine looked away quickly. "I mean, I know the truth about the assassination plot," he mumbled.
"You know as well as I do that you would never be believed if you talked."
Saazbaum was right. The only person who had ever listened to or believed Slaine was dead now. If he talked, he would be beaten, possibly even killed. His death would achieve nothing.
"I suppose I should ask you instead," Saazbaum went on. "Why did you keep me alive? Hm?"
"I… I don't… that is…" Not even Slaine knew the answer to that.
"And if you believe that your life is so meaningless, why do you choose not to die?"
Slaine said nothing.
Saazbaum smiled. Normally, his smiles were pompous and knowing, but this time, it seemed slightly wistful.
"I too thought of ending my life when Orlane perished," he said.
Slaine looked up in surprise. He could hardly imagine Saazbaum in such a moment of weakness. But then he remembered that the count had waged interplanetary war for the sake of his dead wife…
"…why didn't you?" he asked quietly.
"Because, like you, I survive," the count said simply.
No grand, hidden motive? Was there nothing that kept him going besides the flames of his anger?
But Saazbaum did not respond to the question Slaine never asked; he merely went on eating in silence. So at length, Slaine went back to awkwardly picking at his food. These days, he felt little appetite. The princess would probably have told him to eat more. "You're supposed to be a growing boy, Slaine!"
Slaine lowered his eyes and smiled, even though the sudden pain that went through his heart was almost more than he could bear.
All of a sudden, Saazbaum spoke up.
"My wife was with child when Heaven's Fall befell us." He had a faraway look in his eyes. "A boy. Come to think of it, he would have been close to your age had he been born."
Slaine looked up and then back down again.
He struggled to find the words to say.
"Eat," the count broke in suddenly, looking at him. "These are the fruits of your home planet. Don't let it go to waste."
"Yes, my lord."
Just as he was commanded, Slaine ate the rest of the food on his plate, taking great care to finish at the same time as Saazbaum.
Once the meal was done, the count called in the servants to take away the plates. After that, he and Slaine were alone together again.
Slaine waited to be dismissed. He did not like to be in this room, although he did not like to be anywhere else either. Instead of dismissing him, Saazbaum looked over his shoulder at him.
"I have a proposal for you, Slaine," he said. "Sit down. This will take some time."
Perhaps Slaine should have refused. Whether it was politeness, duty or plain apathy about his fate that kept him from objecting, he could not say. But perhaps he should have refused.
"Yes, my lord," he said once again, and he sat down to listen to what Count Saazbaum had to say.
There was one more loose end to take care of.
Besides Slaine, the only person outside of Saazbaum's faction who knew of the assassination plot was the princess's handmaiden Eddelrittuo. She had been captured during the assault against the United Earth HQ. She was instantly deemed a traitor, of course, and they - the Orbital Knights - took her in without trial.
Perhaps they could have squeezed more information out of her with force, but Slaine doubted it. Eddelrittuo was not a very observant person; she never had been. And the Orbital Knights were squeamish about torture anyway - at least when it came to young Martian girls.
Unable to forget the welts on his own back, Slaine did everything he could to make the questioning as painless as possible. He asked the guards to serve the girl tea and biscuits and stood in the shadows, watching the entire proceeding with hawk-like eyes.
It all went smoothly enough. Eddelrittuo had no reason not to talk. She might have abetted the Terran forces, but that was for the princess's sake. For a traitor, she was as loyal as they came.
They asked her about the United Earth forces and the sort of strength they possessed. Slaine knew that she was too simple and honest to lie. Her answers only confirmed what the Martians already knew - that the Terran forces were a slapdash mix of professional and child soldiers and that their technology couldn't hold a candle to the Martians. They had managed a few minor victories through cheap tricks and pilfering Vers technology, but that was it. Without the princess, the Aldnoah Drive was useless to them. The Terrans might have succeeded in protecting their home base, but they had lost the strategic upper hand.
The Martians, confident and assured of their own victory, ended their questioning there. Slaine stepped out from the shadows and asked to speak with Eddelrittuo privately.
He had only one question for the maid.
"Was Her Highness happy aboard that ship?"
Eddelrittuo, who had always snubbed her nose at Slaine, answered his question grudgingly. "Yes, she was. She made friends with everyone there, even though I told her it was so improper."
Somehow, Slaine could imagine. "I'm glad," he said with a smile.
Something flickered in Eddelrittuo's eyes. "Why are you glad, Terran? You betrayed your own people…"
No doubt she was speaking so bitterly now because, for the first time since she had been captured, she was talking with someone she recognised. He was not a friend, but perhaps that made it easier for her in a way.
Believe me, more than anyone, I wanted the princess to be safe…
Slaine wanted to say that, but he knew it wouldn't make Eddelrittuo feel any better. So he traced her accusation into his heart, acknowledging its truth.
Then he said, "The pilot of the orange Kataphrakt… what was his name?"
"Orange… Kataphrakt?" Then something seemed to click in Eddelrittuo's mind. "Oh… that Terran boy. Inaho."
"What was his relationship with the princess?"
Slaine knew he was sounding like a total fool, but he simply had to know.
Fortunately for him, Eddelrittuo took the question at face value. "I always thought he was a seedy person, but I have to admit that he helped Her Highness out at every turn… hmph. She liked him a lot."
Slaine did not say anything, just looked at her silently, waiting for her to continue.
"I could never for the life of me figure out why! She trusted him with everything! He was always… always… flirting with her!"
"Flirting?" Slaine could not help himself.
"Well, not really flirting," Eddelrittuo admitted. "He didn't really change his expression or talk much or anything. And I guess it was more like Her Highness took a fancy to him. But still, he was definitely flirting with her! That low-born Terran! What impudence!"
"I see…" said Slaine, looking away awkwardly. He regretted asking.
"I remember…" Eddelrittuo said suddenly, turning pensive. "Her Highness saw the birds with him. I remember thinking I'd never seen her so happy…"
Her Highness got to see the birds… with him…
"I wonder what happened to that Terran boy," Eddelrittuo mumbled idly.
"I killed him," Slaine said flatly.
For a moment, a look of utter non-comprehension came over Eddelrittuo's face.
"What?" she said.
"I killed him," Slaine repeated himself. "He pointed a gun at me so I shot him."
"Oh…" Eddelrittuo's face fell. "I guess that's what happens in a war…"
Hearing the word 'war', Slaine's mouth turned to a grimace. "Please listen to me very carefully, Miss Eddelrittuo."
"What is it, Terran?" Despite the sharpness of her words, Eddelrittuo's expression betrayed her fear and dismay. The shock of hearing about the Terran boy's death must have made a strong impression on her. Perhaps, in her own way, she had been quite fond of him after all.
"As soon as this conversation is over, you will die," Slaine said frankly.
Eddelrittuo's eyes widened. For once in her life, she was utterly speechless.
"You have been branded a traitor. You are more useful dead than alive. Once this conversation is over, you will be quietly disposed of."
"No… that can't be…"
"It's true. You can never be a citizen of Vers again."
Slaine peered at Eddelrittuo. She was rather ashen-faced. It seemed the true reality of war had never quite hit her until this moment. He wondered if this was how his expression had looked when he first thought the princess was dead.
"Listen to me, Miss Eddelrittuo," Slaine said once again. "If you want to stay alive after this, you must escape from this place. I'll take you to an escape pod. Go down to Earth and find that ship you took refuge in - the Deucalion."
Eddelrittuo nodded shakily. Then she asked, not without suspicion, "Why are you helping me, Terran?"
"That boy must have friends and family. I want you to tell them that it was I who killed him."
Now it was Eddelrittuo's turn to peer at Slaine. She saw every inch of the guilt on his face. "It seems I've misjudged you," she said finally, with something almost like respect in her voice.
"No, you never misjudged me." Slaine sighed. Eddelrittuo cocked her head in puzzlement. Slaine took a deep breath. "I could have disarmed him. I didn't have to kill him. But I did."
There. He admitted it.
"I killed him… because I was jealous."
"Jealous… you…? Oh," Eddelrittuo said in a small voice.
Even a fairly dimwitted girl like Eddelrittuo could put two and two together. "So… so that's why…"
"So please," Slaine cut in, clutching Eddelrittuo's hands in his desperation. "Please, tell them that his death was meaningless."
Eddelrittuo whipped her hand away as if Slaine was on fire. "And what about Her Highness?" she demanded sharply. "You're not one of those awful people who plotted her death to spark the war, are you?"
"No. I swear to you that I'm not."
Eddelrittuo pursed her lips and frowned, but she did not seem to disbelieve Slaine. After all, he had just admitted his love for the princess. Eddelrittuo was a romantic. "So why are you staying here, then?"
It was a question Slaine had asked himself many times.
"I can't fight with the Terran forces, not after what I've done. And besides, they will lose the war. In order to create peace, you must fight on the winning side."
It was the best answer he could muster. He thought of his conversation with Saazbaum and of the proposal the count had offered to him.
There was silence for a moment as Eddelrittuo weighed up his response.
"You'll never make Princess Asseylum's dream come true," she said bluntly. "Not someone like you."
"You don't have to tell me that," Slaine said quietly, prompting Eddelrittuo to raise her eyebrows and peer at him quizzically.
She opened her mouth to say something.
At that moment, they heard footsteps pacing down the corridor outside the room. Alarmed, they turned their heads towards the door.
"Quickly, you'd better go," Slaine said, swinging back to Eddelrittuo.
The maid nodded curtly. She raced to the end of the room; a closed door stood there. Having been on the moon base before, she knew that the escape pods lay at the end of the hallway.
As the automatic door opened with a hum, Eddelrittuo looked over her shoulder at Slaine and met his eyes directly.
"I swear upon my honour as a maid that I'll tell them what you said."
Slaine closed his eyes and smiled. He knew that her honour as a maid meant far more than his honour as a knight.
"Thank you," he whispered.
The door shut tight.
Author's note: Lemrina is supposed to be a major character in this story, but for some reason, she's not one of the options on the FFN character list. Poor Lemrina.
Also, I did tweak the canon here and there for later events in this story to work. Orlane being Saazbaum's wife here is one of them. (She was his fiancee in the original.) And I think it's highly debatable whether Slaine shot Inaho primarily out of jealousy, but that explanation suits the themes and purposes of this story.