By: Daishi Prime
"Atarsamain? Why are you hiding in here, my love?"
She looked up from the shallow bowl of water as the interruption broke her concentration and the vision faded. Blinking tears from her eyes, and smiled sadly at the man standing in the entrance of her tent. "Come in, Merudach. I did want to speak with you one more time, actually."
He frowned at her,
"What are you speaking so sadly for? It's over, we won! The
Masters are gone! Destroyed by their own weapons! Tonight is a
great victory, a time for celebration. Why are you secreted away in
here? Do you mourn for the dead? Commendable, my wife, and we will
have proper memorials on the morrow, but tonight is for..."
She cut him off with a gentle wave, "No, Merudach, I do not grieve for our lost ones. I grieve for us, and for our children. We have failed them, and nothing we do to atone for that failure will have any effect."
The slightly-drunken good humor with which he had entered their tent vanished completely, replaced with the serious focus that she had always seen on his face since she and Isis rescued him and his brother. "What have you seen?" Gone was her husband, and once more he was First Mage of the Grand Circle.
"I have seen our doom, and that of our children. The Masters are not gone, not destroyed. Their last folly bound them away, where they cannot touch the world again. But I have seen it, Merudach. I have seen how our own folly, our descendant's folly, will set their knowledge loose in the world again. In pursuit of error and fear, our children's children will free the Masters' legacy and destroy our world, and nothing we can do will stop it."
"You keep saying that, Atarsamain, but fatalism is not like you. We have overcome terrible odds before, we and our descendants can do so again."
"We do not face odds created by mortal opposition, my husband, but time and death moving against us in unison. The Masters cursed us, even as they fell. All those who bear their blood will die, within the season, of a wasting sickness I can feel eating at my powers even now. Those conceived but not born before the fall may survive, but there will be so few, and none of us to teach them. Our libraries are gone, destroyed by the Masters years ago. We saw no reason to rebuild them in the face of the Masters hostility, and now there is no time." She looked down at the bowl again, remembering the scenes of horror and devastation she had witnessed within its depths, and felt her tears return. "Nothing of us, of our struggles, our triumphs, and our mistakes, will be remembered. Only myths and legends, and a few descendants trying to preserve traditions they do not understand, do not even fully remember. I have seen it, seen it all. It is all I see, now, when I gaze into our future. My sister sees nothing more than I do. Only Kessenra sees hope, and that but a dim light of possibility, for she cannot see the source of that hope, only the shadows, deceptions, and deaths that surround it."
Merudach settled next to her, wrapping his arms around her, trying to be comforting without fully realizing why he had to be. "We still have time. The turning of the season is weeks away. We can create records, teach the basics..."
Atarsamain shook her head sadly. "Haven't you noticed the quakes, Merudach? They will worsen soon. The world, this union of peoples we have built to oppose the Masters, will crumble under fire, flood, and sickness. Nothing of our works will remain." She wanted to continue, but a twisting pain in her stomach cut her off.
She thought she hid the flinch well, but Merudach's grip tightened. "What is wrong? You are in pain. Why?"
"I... I can't do this anymore," she broke down for true now, wracked by guilt more than pain now, "I have fought them for so long, so many decades. I have given so much, journeyed unto death itself to bring you back, buried too many friends, buried my own first son. I have seen the rest of my children die in my visions, Merudach, I... I cannot stand to see it for true. It is too much." His grip tightened again, and she suddenly felt his tears falling on her cheek. "I'm sorry," she continued, "I am so sorry, but I cannot do it any longer. Please, forgive me?"
"There is nothing to forgive, my love," he whispered, "nothing at all. You have given everything and more for our cause, I could not begrudge you your peace."
"I'm sorry," she repeated softly, "I wish I could stay by you, help you. But I have no more strength. I used it all up to bring us here, and now to see it all for naught, I... I just cannot..."
"Shhh," he told her, "you have nothing to apologize for. You owe nothing to anyone save yourself and the gods, and they will not judge you for this. I will do what I can for our people and our hopes, my love. Sleep, dream. We will be together again soon."
"Sing for me," she whispered, remembering how he had sung at their wedding, "sing me to sleep, my heart, like you used to."
He did not speak, merely held her tighter for a moment, nodding. When he did sing, his resonant voice was thick with sorrow. She faded into darkness, hearing his words, and the pain was nothing, as peace finally came to her tired soul, and the visions of blood and darkness faded into nothing but light, and the sound of his voice...
Cidela found Shamal where she had expected to, in the kitchen working on dinner, an activity the healer seemed to find therapeutic. Cidela had come to realize very quickly that, despite Vita's stories about when they first came to serve Hayate, the more upset Shamal became, the more she cooked, and tonight she was making enough for an army. She did not comment on it now, understanding the reasons, just smiled a little sadly, and asked softly , "Okaa-san? I'm packing my last bag, but I can't find the copy of Luadier's Grimoire Hominus you loaned me. Did you take it back?"
Shamal looked up from the counter, smiled at her briefly, then thought it over. "I don't believe so. That was the white one, with the DaVinci sketch on the cover, ne?"
"No, Okaa-san, the DaVinci sketch was on the old copy of Grey's Anatomy I used for the historical comparison back in July. Luadier's Grimoire is a dark green, and has a skull in profile on it."
"Ah, that one! Yes, I did take it, I'm sorry," Shamal gave her a slightly guilty smile, "I needed to reference it for Rafiq's check-up. I'm afraid I put it back in the Library. I'll fetch it for you tomorrow, all right?"
"No, don't worry about it,Okaa-san, I was finished with it. I just wanted to make sure it got back where it belonged." She turned to return to her room, then noticed Shamal's smile fading into an almost mournful look. "Okaa-san?"
Shamal twitched a little, as if surprised at being addressed, then asked, "Ah... Cid-chan... are you sure you want to move back into the dorms? This is your home now, as well, and..."
Cidela felt a little twinge of pain at Shamal's near-pleading tone, but they had been over this ground several times already in the preceding month, and she knew this was not a real attempt to change her mind, just a last protest. "I'm sure,Okaa-san. I'll just be down the path, in the dorms, but it wouldn't be fair to my classmates to stay here if they're all away from their families."
"They won't object to you staying here, either, Cid-chan, you know that."
"But I would," Cidela answered, moving back into the kitchen and hugging Shamal. "I won't be far away,Okaa-san, just down the path. It isn't that I don't like it here, I just feel like I should be down there during classes. I can help Noriko-chan keep an eye on the new girls, too."
Shamal sighed heavily and returned the hug. "I know, Cid-chan, I know, it's just... you've finally gotten comfortable here, and it feels like you're leaving again. I promise not to hover too much, but you'll forgive me if I worry a little?"
"A little," Cidela allowed. "Don't worry too much, though. This isn't last year. I know everyone, now, and I'm stronger, Rafiq is stronger, I'm sure Noriko and the others are as well. Even if the Circles try something again, we'll be prepared."
"I know, Cid-chan, but I worry anyway, and not just about the Circles. I've never really done this before, so I'm a little nervous about it all. Are you sure you want to live in the dorms? We could have all your things back..."
"Okaa-san!" Cidela pulled back, giving Shamal a mock-frown, "I said no. It wouldn't be fair to my friends, it's part of the learning experience, and all the other arguments I've used already. Besides," she switched to a smile, "it's our second year, and Laura said something about wild parties after lights out. I wouldn't want to miss those."
Cidela giggled at the mental image of herself at a 'wild party', but to her surprise, Shamal's semi-sad smile faded into a true frown. "That girl. I swear, she was trouble from the moment she was born. She's a bad influence, especially if she's talking about parties. I think maybe..."
"Leave my apprentice alone," Signum called from the living room. "She's just fine the way she is."
Shamal blinked, then grinned a little sheepishly. "All right, all right, I'll behave. Go finish packing, Cid-chan. Dinner will be in a couple hours, a little later than usual."
Hughes looked up as the door to his office opened, and Sergeant Maunders stepped in. She cocked her head to one side, asking, "you wanted to see me, sir?"
He leaned back from the file on his desk, and waved at a chair, "Have a seat, Sergeant." She complied easily, and sat for a moment, waiting politely for him to gather his thoughts. "I understand new orders have come through for you."
She nodded, "Yes, sir. About time, too, if I may. I've been here four years, I should have been rotated out last year."
"I needed you here," he explained. "In fact, I still need you here, and I'm curious as to why my request to retain your services was declined."
She grinned at him slightly, "Well, sir, the workings of Personnel are greater arcane mysteries than you or I are equipped to fathom. I would be afraid to hazard a guess, but perhaps they set me to packing because... I've been here too long?"
He frowned at her, but could not put much force behind it. When she continued to just grin at him, he huffed once, and gave up. "Fine, but do you mind explaining why? You know how much I'm relying on you, for both the base and the Circles."
"Yes, sir, I do know," she nodded, and the grin faded, "but I really have been here too long, and I'll be more useful to you somewhere else. The military position is nothing, any sergeant can fill in for me just fine. It's with the Circles that you need the most help, and again, any other mage can do what I've been doing here. Better to have me someplace else keeping an eye on things, making sure the Revenants don't get too uppity, and keeping the other Moderns from going hog-wild. Admittedly, others could do that, but that just means all the reasons for leaving and staying are balanced, leaving only the Army's policy on rotating soldiers through different commands." She shrugged again, "the great benefit of the Circles and the Army, their hierarchical structures allow easy replacement of any individual."
Hughes nodded reluctantly. "You aren't that easily replaced, Maunders, and I really don't want to loose you. But if you're going, you're going. Do you know where you're new assignment is?"
"Well, I was hoping for a stint at Bragg as a drill sergeant, like I bribed this one fellow sergeant for, but instead I get to go to Japan and help the JSDF hold off those dastardly Chinese and North Koreans. Should be boring enough I might actually have the time to learn the language."
Hughes felt a stab of doubt and mistrust, "Japan?"
Maunders smirked at him, "Yup, Japan. Main island, too, playing nursemaid to some planning team outside Tokyo. And before you ask, no, I don't think the Circles are involved. In all honesty, I think it's just the colonel running the show. I was his first squad sergeant when he was a wet-behind-the-ears second lieutenant, and he was a smart puppy, for a second louie. Listened to his sergeant, did what his sergeant told him too... you know, I don't think I even had to wipe his... chin too much."
"You think he's just looking for a familiar face?"
She nodded, "Yeah probably. I checked up on him, and it's the closest thing the bookworm's come to a field position or independent command, and he was just promoted to lieutenant colonel last month. He's an admin type, and I bet he's nervous enough to use those political connections you officers delight in to get someone he trusts. And who's an officer going to trust more than the first sergeant they ever had?"
Hughes nodded, remembering the 'old man' who had run his first squad when he was first commissioned. Hughes had wished for that sort of reliable right hand man ever since, and thought he had one in Maunders. But, if it was not Circle manipulations, just regular bureaucracy... "All right, I'll let you go. But stay in touch, on both subjects. See if you can keep an eye on Hayate, since you're going to be there. Be careful of the locals, they've never liked any of us being in Japan, and may start something. Watch for any kind of turn-about, and stay away from Akira and Takashi..."
She held up a hand and quipped, "I'll even remember to look both ways before crossing the street, Daddy." When he frowned at her, she frowned right back, "Seriously, sir. I'm a big girl, I've been around the block a few times. I'll stay in touch, and I'll stay careful."
"In that case, good luck, Sergeant."
"Thank you, sir."
Yussef straightened slowly from his prayer while the other worshipers filed out, settling back to sit on his heels again, but kept his eyes closed, his breathing steady, waiting. When he heard his brother rise as well, he opened his eyes and looked about, spotting the discrete guards placed about the room, his family's and his hosts', obvious in the crowd due to their stillness. Also obvious for similar reasons, standing in a small door at the rear of the mosque was a nervous looking man, not all that much older than Omar, watching the two of them.
"I think they're ready for us," Omar commented.
"Probably," Yussef agreed, "but the Pillars of Islam come before worldly concerns."
Omar just gave him a dubious look, then asked, "You ready for this? These men are not nearly as polite as those back home."
"The worst they can do is tell me no," Yussef argued, rocking back onto his toes before rising smoothly to his feet.
"They can declare you a heretic, brother-mine. Which would be a problem."
Yussef shrugged as they started walking to the door, "I've already been declared a heretic."
"Ancient conspiracy-nuts and desert-dwelling fanatics don't count. The leading imams of Mecca are a whole 'nother story."
Yussef could only agree with that, but at the same time, he was distinctly unconcerned. The learned men of Qatar had demonstrated that learning to him often enough to earn his and his family's respect, while he had little such personal knowledge of their counterparts here in the Holy City. He certainly understood the implications, especially the political implications for his family, but found he had very little emotional involvement in their decision. "The Circles are more dangerous to me than anyone Mecca's Imams could send after me. I admit to being worried about our family, but Father and I already talked it over. If the worst comes, it would be a simple matter to dissociate me from the family, publicly at least."
"That will not happen," Omar stated firmly, "ever."
Yussef chuckled at little, and shook his head. "And you're supposed to be the adult here. Besides, maybe I actually managed to convince them."
Another dubious look, then Omar grabbed his jaw, turning his head from side-to-side, performing a detailed inspection. "You didn't hit your head on something, did you? You seeing straight?" He held up two fingers, "How many fingers am I holding up? You seeing flashes? Hearing voices?"
Yussef jerked his head out of Omar's grip, shoving his brother back a little to prevent a re-capture, and muttered, "Other than the ones telling me to beat you into the ground? No."
The messenger chose that moment to interrupt, "Ah, Your Highnesses? The Imams wish to speak to you."
"Lead on," Omar ordered, and the small army of security personnel shuffled to follow. As they proceeded along a series of covered walkways, Yussef contemplated that force with more than a little amusement. While the strictures limiting their use of magic away from the controlled environment of the school were more relaxed than they had been in winter, especially in the event of another attack, he had still managed to refine his abilities somewhat over the summer. I wonder if any of these guards realize that, if someone were stupid enough to attack, all they would be doing is watching from behind my barriers?
The walk was not all that long, however, and they were ushered into a spacious room, cooled by a multitude of wide windows covered by softly billowing curtains and slowly turning ceiling fans. Despite that, the gathering of old men seated on low chairs facing them were sweating in the August heat, and Yussef silently thanked Niranjana for the minor spell that held the heat from him. Most of his attention focused on the gathered elders, considering their demeanor and silent attitudes. Most wore flat non-expressions, revealing nothing. A few glared outright, and one looked as though he wanted to spit, but to Yussef's surprise, almost as many looked thoughtful or even respectful.
The man in the center, the eldest present, was among that last group, almost ignoring Omar as the polite formalities were observed to study Yussef. Finally, some twenty minutes after they were shown in, he came to the point. "You have been very candid with us, Princes of Qatar. Your father's offer is, in its intent, in keeping with the teachings of Islam, for safeguarding the Holy City is the duty of all Muslims. But, after much deliberation, we must respectfully decline. The... technology upon which it is based is, to our understanding, untried, by life or by Allah. While the safety of Mecca is important, we must also consider that of the pilgrims, who journey here on Hajj. They are peaceful, non-violent, and we cannot, in good conscience, risk their safety with untried... technology. We commend you for the spirit in which the offer was made, but must decline."
Yussef could feel his brother's anger building, and was more than a little insulted himself. The offer had been incredibly generous, by any standard, including giving the men in this room final veto of every single ward, shield, and alarm. To be rejected so quickly, so simply and on such shaky grounds was aggravating beyond all belief. But the last year had put the finishing touches on controlling his temper, as had several long conversations with his father on various subjects. So instead of exploding, as Omar was preparing to do, he took his brother's hand and whispered, "Omar, not now."
Omar whipped his head around to glare, so Yussef, moved forward slightly, and replied to the old Imam, "Thank you for your time, learned elders, and for your prompt reply. We shall convey your regards to our father, but ask that you remember the offer. It will remain open, should you ever come to share our trust in the new technology's safety." It was only then that he gave in to the anger, rose from the chair he had occupied, and strode out of the room without glancing back, ignoring the ripple of insulted murmurs.
The handler who brought them from the mosque looked like he was about to keel over in shock, but Yussef just brushed past him, as did Omar a step behind. They made their own way back out in silence, Omar still fuming. Once they were on the street, however, he exploded.
"I can't believe them! The hide-bound ignorant old women! 'Learned men' my ass!"
"Omar, calm down," Yussef counseled, "I'm the one who's supposed to loose control. You're the elder brother, supposed to know better."
"Jump off a cliff,
Yussef," Omar growled, "I can't believe you just walked out of
"Strategy, at Father's suggestion. Remember what he said? 'If it looks like they almost agreed, just go. Don't plead or argue, just accept it and come home. Better a partial victory that can be built on.' It's like dealing with Laura. Giving her a little room makes it easier to talk her into behaving when it's important. Same thing here – by leaving now, we can always come back, and it demonstrates to those 'old men' that we're not willful spoiled children, so when we do come back, they'll listen instead of dismissing us."
"It still pisses me off," Omar growled. "What happens if a Circle mage decides to go crazy here? What if some western mage decides to score some points for his religion by damaging Mecca? How can they possibly deal with anything like that?"
"Probably with the Circle mages among them," Yussef shrugged, "it isn't Terran mages I'm worried about, to be honest, it's off-worlders looking for artifacts..." He trailed off when he realized Omar was no longer walking beside him. Looking back, his brother was staring at him in utter shock. "What?"
"There's a mage among the Imams?"
"Yeah, felt like a couple. Shields, just like the ones the Circle mages were using last year. Don't tell me you're surprised?"
"But... but... it's magic!"
"Not to them it isn't," Yussef countered, "and not really to me, either. It's just knowledge, special learning, the same as I argued when we first presented the idea."
He would have explained more, but a chime in his ear threw him off, followed by a phrase in Japanese. 'Yussef, where are you?'
He tried to reach back mentally, but as usual it just did not click. So giving a slight sigh, he shaped the communications spell, "I'm in Mecca, Signum-sensei, on family business. My brother and I were just going to return to the hotel and catch a flight home."
'That would explain why your mother has no idea where you are. I'm at your palace, you were supposed to be here to return to the Academy today. How long until you are back here?'
"Today?!" Yussef could not help looking at his watch, staring at the date. August thirtieth, just as it had been when he got up. "But... I thought tomorrow was new term!"
'It is. You agreed to help show the new kids around, and they show up tomorrow. We need to have you settled in today, so that you're ready.'
Yussef thought furiously for a minute, and almost swore as he realized she was right, and he had completely forgotten that fact. "I'm sorry, sensei, I got the dates confused. Umm... a little more than an hour in the air, half hour to the airport, another half hour from airport to the palace, twenty minutes here to the hotel, maybe half an hour there... I think I can be there in three hours, sensei."
'Good enough, I'll be back then, after picking up Juliet. Remind Zafira to work on your time-keeping skills this semester.'
He terminated the spell as the sense of Signum's presence faded, only to find Omar smirking at him. "You just got yelled at by a skirt, didn't you, bro?"
"Bite me," Yussef shot back. "Let's go, before she decides to come looking for me, and you make a fool of yourself hitting on her."
Omar frowned, "I wouldn't hit on your teacher. Ick, old women may be your thing, but no thanks, man."
Yussefchuckled, "Signum's a couple centuries old, at least, though she's never said how old. You know how women are about admitting their ages. But I'll tell you this, imagine Heather in about five years with purple hair and more willpower. You'd be drooling, brother – drooling, incoherent, and making an absolute fool of yourself."
Four hours later, he was almost proven right. Omar managed not to make a complete fool of himself, or be caught drooling, when Signum met their plane at the airport, with their parents. He was even man enough to admit, in later conversations, that Yussef had been mostly right.
"Tai-yu-san?" The woman who had been Journeywoman Sandoval looked up from her clasped hands, to find a slightly younger man standing in the door of the room. Before she could speak, he added, "It's time. Follow me."
She stood slowly, "Thank you, Admiral Hallaoun." Not for telling her when it was time, but for his honesty. He had never once, since she was captured by Admiral Testarossa, been anything other than brutally honest with her. That was, she was fairly certain, one of the major reasons why she had made it this far, and why she was not, like the rest of those involved in Operation Nimrod, sentenced to decades in an alien prison.
"Don't thank me yet," he told her, turning to head down the gleaming white hallway, "the Court has made its decision, but no one but its members know what that is, yet."
Tai-yu nodded, following him down the hall silently. She was almost accustomed to the armed enforcer following behind them. They progressed through the Bureau's headquarters, but not very far. She had a glimpse through clear panels of a long tree-filled atrium, but they turned away from it, in favor of more corridors.
The finally stopped outside one door, and Admiral Hallaoun paused, turning to face her for a moment. "I'm not supposed to escort you in, only the bailiff here is, but I'll be in the audience. You've done too much to help us clean up this mess, and prevent a recurrence, so you have nothing to worry about. Just relax, stay calm, and whatever happens, we'll see you soon."
She nodded her understanding, and he turned and strode off down the hall. She took advantage of the pause to steel herself, settle a neutral mask firmly in place. A minute later, the bailiff triggered the automatic door, and ushered her in. She found an audience already gathered, and Admiral Hallaoun entering from the rear door. She strode over to the defendant's station without hesitating, turning once she was there to stand at parade rest. She was not and had not been military, but in this military setting, it was natural, and had garnered her a certain respect.
She had to wait a few more minutes, then the three officers of the Court of Inquiry entered, taking their seats behind the high bench at the front of the room. The formalities proceeded with surprising efficiency, as the charges against her were read once more, and very shortly she was called forward to stand at the center of the chamber.
"Tai-yu Sandoval," the Admiral in charge declared, frowning down at her, "Circle Journeywoman, former aide to one Li Quan, you stand before this court accused of the aforementioned crimes. In light of your own statements, verbal and written, as well as evidence presented to this Court, you are hereby found guilty on all counts."
She could not help flinching, but managed to limit the expression to her face. According to what both Admiral Hallaoun and her appointed advocate had told her, the charges against her were more serious than any save those against Doctor Al Huri and those that would have been brought against Li himself, because she had been Li's aide and primary assistant for all of it. Combined, they carried a minimum sentence of over thirty years, and a maximum of life.
The Admiral continued despite her sudden fear, "In light of the administrative nature of your roll in the crimes under consideration, and primarily in light of your cooperation with Bureau personnel in response to those crimes, this court has been requested to grant you leniency. Therefore, you are hereby sentenced to ten years hard labor under guard. In the interests of diplomatic cooperation, and in light of where your crimes took place and against whom they were directed, you are hereby remanded to the custody of Yagami Hayate for the duration of your sentence. This court is adjourned. Bailiff, execute sentence."
For a few seconds, the sheer shock of the last part of her sentence held her immobile. Despite her assistance to the Bureau, she had still never met the woman, and knew little about her other than that Admiral Hallaoun held her in great respect. The fear of spending decades off Earth rapidly faded, to be replaced by near-terror at the prospect of being handed over to the woman who she had helped attack barely six months before.
"Ma'am," the bailiff interrupted her incipient panic, lightly resting a hand on her shoulder to turn her around.
Letting the man turn her around, she found herself face to face with a nondescript young woman. She was about Tai-yu's own height, wearing a plain white dress. Everything about her was plain, in fact – simple brown hair cut short, simple features, a slight smile. It was her eyes that caught Tai-yu's attention, however. They were deep, dark blue, and held a surprisingly serene strength.
"Hello, Tai-yu," the young woman said, "I am Yagami Hayate. I'm sorry we did not meet sooner, or under better circumstances, but I have been unable to make the time to journey back to Headquarters recently, for a variety of reasons."
"Ah... it's all right, Yagami-san," Tai-yu stammered, surprised again, this time by how little hostility she felt from her new jailer.
"We'll take her from here, bailiff," Admiral Hallaoun said, standing at Hayate's shoulder.
"Yes, sir," the man responded, then gave her a squeeze on the shoulder and a friendly smile before turning to leave.
"Relax," Hayate ordered, "and please, call me Hayate. I don't care for formality generally."
"I... I'll try to remember that, ma'am."
Hayate frowned at her slightly, then smiled again and shook her head. "At least it's a step in the right direction. Come, we'll collect your personal effects then head for the teleport bay."
They walked in silence for a time, long enough to complete her paperwork and collect what few personal effects had been brought from Earth when she was captured, then once more ventured into the corridors to head for the nearest teleport bay. That was when Hayate broke the silence, "I'm sure you must have some questions, Sandoval-san."
"Ah, yes, ma'am," she managed, "I... why did you accept the Court's sentence?"
"I didn't accept it," Hayate said, giving her another smile, "I requested it. You have shown a remarkable flexibility of outlook since you were captured, but an equal adherence to certain core values I share, primarily honesty. Also, given how much assistance you have provided the Bureau, you would not be safe amongst the other prisoners taken from Operation Nimrod. Finally, I have a use for you... several uses, actually."
Tai-yu had to think that explanation over for a few minutes, and her two escorts let her have that time in silence. On the one hand, the explanation was the sort of emotionless logic she had always striven for, the ability to make decisions based solely on facts and objectives, rather than on emotion or unreliable 'feelings'. On the other hand, the explanation was almost painfully naive and trusting, and completely lacking in the sort of angry vindictiveness that should have, by rights, been directed at her.
'You don't need to worry about this,' Admiral Hallaoun commented, and Tai-yu actually stumbled as she realized he had not spoken a word. 'Do you remember Nanoha? Admiral Takamichi?'
Tai-yu nodded with a fleeting smile. The energetic and eternally optimistic young woman had been one of the first to question her, and the most confident of those who offered her clemency. Nanoha had not even offered, simply assumed that clemency was an accomplished fact. She had also seemed a little to naive and trusting, until Admiral Hallaoun had explained her track-record one afternoon.
'Nanoha is one of Hayate's oldest and closest friends, he continued at her nod. 'Only the Wolkenritter and Suzuka are older friends, or closer, but Nanoha became her friend during, and saw her through, one of the most traumatic experiences of her life. Hayate has based many of her own attitudes, consciously or not, on Nanoha's. Including the idea of forgiveness. Hayate is not quite as forgiving as Nanoha, she'll only give you so many chances, but she will give you those chances. She also does not hold a grudge. Her familiars, the Lieze twins? They originally tried to manipulate her into destroying herself, yet when the twins' creator died, she took up their service without a second thought, and even before then she never held their actions against them. Relax, don't betray her, and things will be fine.'
'If you say so,' she thought, hoping he would pick it up. Aloud, she asked, "what would you have me do, ma'am?"
"I need more teachers," Hayate said immediately, "and you will provide something no one else I've considered can – an alternate viewpoint. Too many of my students from last year remember the Circles only as the enemy that attacked them. In part, I want you to put a human face on the Circles, especially since some of the new students I have invited this year are the children of Circle mages. Also, your magic is subtly different from that we're teaching the children, the differences will prove a good challenge for the returning students, which will also teach them how to deal with those Circle mages still actively hostile to me, these so-called 'Revenants'. Essentially, Sandoval-san, I want you to teach. Though I must admit to having a question of my own."
The idea of teaching
had never occurred to her. In the Circles, she was nowhere near
strong enough, only a Master and above could teach, and she was
honest enough to admit she would never reach that level. She was not
even sure if she wanted to teach, children never having been
high on her list of interests. But this was supposed to be a
punishment, however light it now seemed, so she supposed she would
have to get used to it. "What question was that, ma'am?"
"Your first name is Chinese, yet your last name is... Spanish, I believe?"
Tai-yu smiled at that, feeling a bit of relieved amusement. "I'm from Hong Kong, ma'am. My great grandfather was Spanish, during the British occupation, but married a Chinese woman, and his branch of the family has been in the city ever since."
"Well, Tai-yu Sandoval, from Hong Kong," Hayate said as they entered a large chamber that resonated with power, "welcome to the Yagami Academy. I look forward to seeing what you can do." Then the chamber vanished in a flash of white.
"Laura, where are you?"
"On my way home, Dad," she said, almost inaudible over a strange roaring sound.
Johnathan pulled the cell-phone away from his ear for a moment to frown at it, then replaced it and asked, "What's that noise?"
"Sorry, Dad," Laura shouted back, "I'm airborne. Like I said, on my way home. I should be there in about twenty minutes."
"One of your teachers is here, Vita."
"Oh," there was a disappointed tone to her voice, that disappeared as she continued, "tell her I'm sorry, please, and that I'll be there as soon as I can?"
"She already knows that," Johnathan said, "she just wanted an ETA, and said she couldn't reach you magically."
"Huh? Why not? Oh,
wait... yeah I still had some shields up. Sorry."
"About time," Vita muttered, and Johnathan glanced over to find her frowning fiercely at nothing.
A moment later, Laura shouted, "Oh, come on, Vita-sensei! I'm out here at sensei's orders! She asked me to check up on the blast in Georgia, so that's what I did!" Vita snorted, but again remained silent, but she was quite apparently in contact with Laura, "Gah! I told you! Sensei asked me to! This morning! I didn't even land! I flew around in circles, scanned the blast site, and got out of there! Come on, Vita-sensei, don't blame me for this!"
Johnathan almost said something, since he had spoken to Signum as well, but then noticed that Vita was showing a slowly widening grin, and shook his head. "Laura?" She continued to rant, so he repeated, "Laura!"
She paused a second, then, "Yeah, Dad?"
"Just get home as quick as you can, Laura," he told her, "and plan to stay through lunch. Your bags may be packed, but if you don't say goodbye to your mother, she's liable to come after you with violence on her mind."
"What, do I look that stupid? Of course I'm going to say goodbye to everyone."
"I won't answer that question," he allowed with a grin of his own, "I'll see you when you get home." He hung up the phone, and gave Vita a questioning look.
She shrugged, still grinning, "I'm good. I'll wait here until she's ready to go, if you don't mind. It's good to see she's arguing again, though."
"Waiting here's fine," he allowed, "want anything to drink? She's had some ups and downs, had us worried for a few days after last term ended, but when all her old friends showed up for her birthday she finally stopped moping completely. She's been more like her old self ever since. Still a bit more serious, but it's hard to tell with her."
"Good, she's one of the only ones that'll argue with me, and it doesn't look like the new kids'll be any better," Vita muttered, following him into the kitchen.
"Didn't think kids were supposed to argue with their teachers," Johnathan commented, though he understood her attitude.
"Tche, shows spine. How're they supposed to learn how to stand up to trouble if they won't do it to us?"
"Well, Laura's got that in spades, these days," Johnathan commented, handing her a soda can. "turning out a might tougher than I expected."
"Yeah, she's that all right. Still got a lot to learn, but she's doing us proud," Vita agreed, smirking now instead of grinning.
Johnathan hesitated a moment, then decided that, politeness or not, he had to ask, "are you anticipating any sort of trouble this year? I've seen too much in the news this summer about the Circles' internal fighting to be entirely comfortable."
Vita's smirk faded, and she shrugged, "Do we expect anything specific? No. There's been no attempts on the school or the students since February. But the Revenants are starting to get their act together, starting to get organized and coherent again. That's the bad news. The good news is, so are the Moderns, and we've got a head-start over both factions The Moderns are afraid of Hayate enough that they'll stop any Revenant operations they find out about, and neither side really has any capacity to operate in Japan, especially not these days. We know a lot more of what's going on now than we did last year, as well. Hayate and Shamal have put together a fairly accurate list of active mages, even Revenants and the weirdos outside the Circles, and we keep a very close eye on any of them that look like they're getting close to Japan. So, we're not expecting anything, and we're better prepared for whatever does happen."
"Which is roughly what Miss Hayate told me last year," he commented sourly.
"Yup. It was true then, and it's true now. Oh, admittedly, the Circles surprised us last year, but they won't do that again. We know about them, now. There's more likely to be trouble in Egypt, where the Bureau's studying how the Circles' clean-up crews work. They're moving slow, and they're in the open, so the whole place is a little vulnerable. But nothing at the school." Vita paused, then frowned at him curiously, "How do you feel about what she was doing this morning? Signum wants Laura to help with keeping an eye on things, and I know she asked you about it, but are you and your wife okay with it?"
Johnathan shook his head a little, "Not completely. But we're not completely okay with Brian's choice of career either. As I told Marie, it's our fault, since we raised them to be responsible and aggressive. We both would prefer it if Laura wasn't so determined to fit herself into Signum's mold, but at the same time, she's living up to the family traditions. So, not okay with it, but we can live with it. Better that than her being some spoiled little brat. We've discussed it with Signum, especially when and where we won't permit her to be involved."
"You're proud of her, aren't you?"
"Yup," Johnathan smiled back at her, "girl's tough, smart, honest, and just plain good. We just wish she'd be a little more serious and cautious once in a while."
The clack of wood on wood resonated through the room, accompanied by heavy breathing and stomping feet on the padded floor. The two figures, one small and lithe, the other only slightly larger, twisted and slid over the floor, exchanging a rapid flurry of blows, counters, and deceitful gestures with the pair of fans in each hand. This continued for a few minutes, until the larger figure called, "Time." The two of them froze, then both stepped back and bowed formally to one another.
"Not bad, Hime-sama," the taller figure said, reaching up to remove his mask, "you still favor your right side too much, but you are improving. Definitely better than when we began in June."
Noriko bowed again, "Thank you, Takahata-sensei, you have taught me well."
Someone coughed outside, and a moment later one of the dojo's shoji panels slid to the side, to reveal Noriko's father, and Hayate-sensei. The two of them moved to stand at the edge of the mats, and her father spoke, "I'm sorry to interrupt, Takahata-san, Noriko, but I thought you might like to greet your teacher."
"It is of no moment, Your Highness," Takahata replied, bowing to the prince, "we were just finishing anyhow."
"Good afternoon, Hayate-sensei," Noriko added.
"You say she favor's her right, Takahata-san," Hayate asked, "How badly?"
Takahata looked at her a little curiously, but explained, "only somewhat. I know of her injury, of course, but I think that is not the cause. She has developed a bit of ambidexterity due to her injury, but still attempts to reserve her right hand and side for her attacks, rather than using both freely. The form of tessenjutsu I have been teaching her relies on balance between the hands more than strength. Ambidexterity to fool an opponent into looking in the wrong place for an attack. The princess has a habit of using her left hand for distraction and defense, while her attacks are almost all from her right hand. A matter of training and experience only, Lady Yagami."
"Thank you, Takahata-sensei," Hayate said, then turned to Noriko. "Speaking of your injury...?"
Noriko wanted to sigh, tired of constantly being asked about that, "I am fine, Hayate-sensei. My therapy course finished last month, and Shamal-sensei cleared me the day before yesterday." She held up her right hand and wiggled the fingers energetically, "See? Full range of motion, full control. I'm back to normal, though I am still doing exercises with both hands, they've helped my dexterity."
"Good to hear," Hayate admitted, with a knowing smile. She had been involved in much of Noriko's therapy, and appraised of what she was not involved in, but it was still nice to have direct confirmation.
Noriko smiled at that in shared memory, then shifted to a frown, mentally checking the time, "I'm sorry I'm not ready yet, Hayate-sensei, but I thought you weren't going to come for me for another few hours..."
"I wasn't, and I'm not," Hayate told her, "but I do need to speak to your father about a few matters, and it would have been rude not to say hello."
"Our session is concluded for the day, anyhow," Takahata reminded Noriko, "though I understand you will be returning for our weekly sessions?"
"Hai, sensei," Noriko told him, "Signum-sensei has agreed to bring me back here, or to your dojo, whichever you would prefer."
"Here will be fine," he told her, "easier to secure, I imagine. In which case, shall we conclude, Hime-sama?"
"I'll pick you up at the scheduled time, Noriko," Hayate told her, then bowed again to Takahata-sensei, before withdrawing with Noriko's father.
"A most impressive young woman," Takahata commented, "she knows herself remarkably well."
'Finishing up' mostly consisted of progressing through a series of progressively softer katas, cooling down from the exertion of the sparring. While they progressed through those, side by side, Takahata-sensei reviewed her progress since their prior lesson in more detail, including instructions on where to focus her practice before their next lesson. She was, in all honesty, surprised at how well she had done, both at tessenjutsu and her recovery. It helped that Shamal and Takahata had, between them, devised a therapy program that incorporated his lessons, and that a lot of what she was doing was relearning, rather than learning new. It was still impressive enough to satisfy even her demanding standards to, in sixth months, have recovered from her injury, learned the foundation of a new style of martial arts, and continued refining her ability with magic. It was almost enough to satisfy her mother, even.
Once she had bid farewell to her sensei, she headed for her room, then for a quick shower. Most of what she was planning to bring back to school was already packed, but she had left out a change of clothes for this eventuality, and once she was clean again, packed away the worn gi and shower supplies. Rather than interrupt her father and teacher, she then spent the next hour or so alternately fidgeting over nothing, and rechecking everywhere in case she had forgotten something.
Finally, Hayate and her father came out of their meeting, and Noriko went to meet them. Saying good bye to her family took longer than she had expected, and despite Hayate's early arrival, they were still very nearly late. Fortunately, the 'trip to school' was merely a matter of teleporting to the overlook. Once there, bags in hand, Noriko breathed a soft sigh of relief.
Hayate chuckled a little, and asked, "Glad to be back?"
"Hai, sensei," Noriko said with a smile, "I was worried Mother would not let me come back, despite Father's assurances to you. She's been acting especially clingy the last week or so. It's rather stressful."
"I can imagine," Hayate replied, a little wistfully, reaching down to heft one of Noriko's bags. "But you're here now, for a second, less dangerous, year."
"Oh, I hope not," Noriko countered, smile shifting to an outright grin "After all, I hope to learn Deva magic this year, Sensei, and you keep saying that's incredibly dangerous."
Hayate shook her head, but she was smiling as well. "You learned that from Laura, didn't you? No, there will be no Deva magic for any of you this year, either. Maybe when you're thirty."
Staring down the path, Noriko frowned, "Drat. Well, in all seriousness, there shouldn't be any trouble this year, and we're better equipped to handle it. To be honest, I'm mostly worried about these new students."
"I thought you would welcome the challenge."
"Oh, that, yes. But... I'm worried about how well they'll fit in here. We established some solid relationships and good working ability last year, but with new personalities, who will now have their own issues... Getting them used to Laura, will take some careful work, and I'm honestly worried how they will take Yussef and I. Even worse that two of them are Circle children."
Hayate blinked at her in surprise, "How did you hear about that?!"
Noriko shrugged, "Vita-sensei babbles when she's annoyed. I don't have a problem with it, but some of the others might, and they could very well have problems with us."
Hayate shook her head, "I don't think they will, at least not because of their origin. They are twins and, from what I gather, mutually self-involved."
"Let me guess," Noriko groaned, "made up their own language, telepathic with each other, cut one the other bleeds..."
"No, they're not that bad. Though, I understand they did both learn Latin so they could have private conversations. They just... are not very well socialized, much like Cid-chan was."
"How is she, by the way? Her e-mails – the few she's sent – seemed happy enough."
"She's doing fine," Hayate smiled again, amused as she remembered Shamal's 'argument' with Cidela. "She and Shamal have had their first mother/daughter fight, though. Shamal did not want her to move back into the dorms."
"And Cid-chan won, right?"
Hayate nodded, "Of course. They were frighteningly nice about it, though. No screaming, no shouting, no shouted declarations of 'because I'm your mother' or 'you don't really love me', just polite, reasoned and loving. I really thought such fights were supposed to be more melodramatic. I'm glad they weren't that bad, mind you, but it is somewhat amusing."
Noriko could well imagine what a 'mother/daughter fight' between the ever-quiet Cid-chan and the ever-placid Shamal would be like. Probably involved a lot of hugs, quietly emotional appeals and painfully logical arguments, she thought. A high-pitched ululating war-cry interrupted her thoughts, and she looked up to see a brilliant white flash go by, well above the trees, Laura making her return known to all and sundry. Laughing up at the sight, Noriko muttered, "Kami-sama, it's good to be back."
"While the official calendar marks Founding Day, Year One as the legal beginning of the Empire, as that was the day the Japanese and American governments formally surrendered their sovereignty to the Emperor, most historians actually place the Empire's beginning somewhat earlier, in the second year of Yagami Hayate's now infamous Academy of Magic. That year was, after all, the first time all the major figures on the rebel side of the Terran Mage-War gathered together in one place, at the Academy. The Black Dragon and his Shadow, the Goddess of Light, the original Wolkenritter, the Quantum Knight, the Desert Knight and his Herald and Myrmidons, the Hengeyokai Queen, the Morrígan, the Reborn, Wrack and Ruin, Mad Maudlin, the Black Dogs... all of the founding mages, finally coming together in common cause.
"Arguments are often made, however, that the Empire truly began the year before, as the events surrounding the Academy in that year, according to those who espouse this theory, resulted inexorably in the events of the second year and following, which brought about the undermining and collapse of traditional Terran nations, and thus paved the way for the Empire's founding. These arguments are compelling, but only in the sense that historical causality is an endless waltz of ever-changing partners. Taken to its logical conclusion, this argument would state that the founding of the Empire is a direct and inevitable result of the original formation of the Circles to defeat the Lords of Light, all of which occurred prior to the rise of recorded civilization, or even further, to the foundation of the Lords of Light and the colonization of the galaxy. No, the events of the first year did not cause the Empire's foundation, though they did play a large part in setting the stage for those events that did cause it to form. It was the second year, especially those horrible days culminating in the awakening of the Goddess, that lead to the Empire's founding. Had those events not occurred, had they resolved in a different manner, the Empire as we know it would not exist, and I shudder to think what that world would be like."
– the Dark Witch, personal historian to the First Emperor, as quoted in a live-broadcast interview on Founding Day, Year Thirty.
Author's Note 01: A lot of you asked for a sequel to Academy Blues, so here's the first part of that sequel. According to my current plan, it's going to be longer than Academy Blues, and somewhat darker, but not depressing/angsty dark... just darker, and a little more violent (though I swear it will not be gratuitous!). I have much more solid information on each of the characters this time (families already determined, interests & goals, devices, etc), though I do not have a full-blown outline as I was trying for. Instead, I've got a general flow w/ target points, and several ideas for side-plots and supporting lines that should mesh together. I've got the first four chapters written, I'll post them at regular intervals, but after that I'm afraid I'll be back to my old whenever-it's-done schedule. Apologies to my fellow Type-As, but I've found that 'forcing' myself to write makes it worse.
Author's Note 02: The lyrics sung by Merudach are to Ghost Love Score, by Nightwish, from the album Once. Writing the lyrics out does not do them justice, but it's the song that most fit the scene in my mind.