- WARS OF THE ROSES -
A lovely weekend to you, and welcome back to this reimagining of Marimite: an "elseworld" for our favourite Lillian students. Thanks for dropping by for a look, and I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I've enjoyed planning it. :)
The Lillian Kingdom is a mystical continent ruled over by three opulent, royal houses. It's a fantastic land of magic and fairytales, where the aurora borealis can be seen every night. Big and friendly dragons thump their scaly tails on the meadow grass to welcome visitors. But grey clouds are gathering over these splendid isles.
The ancient love between Saints Chinensis, Foetida, and Gigantea is not forgotten, but feudal tensions continue to fester centuries later. Inter-family rivalry threatens to upset the already delicate balance of power between the noble lineages the Rose saints founded, now in the age of High Queen Shiori regnant.
In the middle of the feuding between these brave and beautiful women, one superpower stands poised to reap the spoils – Yuki's Republic of Hanadera, a virulently anti-monarchist, modern nation-state. Fractured and divided, technologically inferior, uncertain of their futures: do the warring dominions stand a chance against their prospective colonists? But what are Yuki's reasons for invading the old continent?
Meanwhile, an enigmatic girl called Yumi has recently been knighted as the Red Baroness's new petite soeur...
- Act III -
- Flower of Valhalla -
Blinking, Yumi stared at the stunning feast before her on the long, wooden table. Smoked salmon. Freshly baked bread, still warm, fluffy and crispy from the fire's hearth. Seasonal fruits like apples and grapes, harvested and kept for only the wealthiest, land-owning castes of noblewomen. Boar roasted on a spit, and venison, cooked and even seasoned with spices from distant lands, where the land was more fertile and arable. All served on large plates carved out of oak. It was a sensory assault, decadence the intended impression. She looked down at her drink, which was contained in an ivory tusk and fastened to the table by two silver holders.
And then she looked at the cross-shaped, gold rosary dangling around her neck. It was the greatest gift, the highest honour, the Red Baroness could ever bestow on her.
"Eat, and eat heartily. You are my new huskarl... no, you are a huskarl of nobility. Your decorum and pride must match such an office. Not to mention your appetite." The Baroness paused, watching Yumi nibble modestly at a loaf of brown bread. She looked quite different, dressed in the winter garb of an aristocrat. Yumi's dark green coat, which had a collar lined with the fur of slain polar bears, hugged her thin body tightly, in contrast to Sachiko's extravagant red cape. Yumi had chosen deep green breeches as well, completed by wolfskin boots. Finally, her hair was done up in two pigtails - no longer did it drape past her shoulders.
She looked more childish, and in a way, less... sensual. It was a relief. Sachiko had explored more of her prize than any other woman in her life, and she was beginning to wonder what lay within the younger girl to elicit such desire.
With Yumi, it was as if Sachiko's heart and hands were mysteriously unbound, and only explosive bliss with her slave-turned-squire remained. And Yumi, ever obedient, eyes clasped shut when not gazing at Sachiko in wonder, moaned and mewled like an indulgent kitten. Those curled toes shattered any pretence of decorum from the Baroness. Emboldened and wild, she demanded, growled, that Yumi chart her burning flesh too. Yumi was shy, but the glimmer in her eyes confessed a mutual erotic longing. Thunderstruck Sachiko felt wanted beyond words, clasped, her night-dark hair pulled, kissed and licked all over and within. The bite marks they left on the other's necks, shoulders and elsewhere still ached. Their animalistic nights seemed to melt the snow outside the palace.
"Well? Have you grown accustomed to life as my soeur yet?"
Yumi shook her head. "I must say, I don't know," she confessed politely, taking an oversized wooden cup of mead. She looked gingerly at the alcoholic stuff, before setting it aside discreetly. "The danger of death in battle is great, if glorious. Yet if we are not side-by-side on the field, we are drowning in luxury, feasting on salmon and venison."
Sachiko shrugged. "Consider it your reward for daring to become my right-hand lady. The war of pedagogic love is a sumptuous and privileged life, to be sure. But it is also dangerous. That is why I haven't sent you into battle yet. One mistake, and your life is forfeit."
She paused, remembering the few sessions of sword drills she had Yumi participate in. The younger lady had picked up the art of the longsword (the most conspicuous weapon for a noblewoman) relatively quickly, but her swordplay was rusty, at times uncertain, and often off-balance. She needed more training. "Not that danger or death are to be feared. Dying in battle should be welcomed. Dishonour and disgrace is what makes us tremble. It would be unthinkable if I were to die a dishonourable death. I hate losing," she added, almost petulantly.
She raised her own drink, a gold-leafed cup brimming with mead. Yumi was half-expecting the Baroness to down the whole lot in one swig, but to her amusement, her grande soeur simply sipped daintily at the brim, hardly drinking any at all. Then she made a disdainful face, putting the cup back down. Obviously, she actually despised the warrior's beverage and would only drink it for show. "I feel like in another life, another world, I would never have wanted to touch this muck," complained the Red bouton. She raised an eyebrow. "Why are you giggling?"
"Nothing," said Yumi, her hand muffling her mirth. "I just don't think alcohol suits your... character, onee-sama."
"What insolence. What honesty," declared Sachiko, almost unaware that she was chuckling quietly along, too. There was no mistaking it. There was something truly magical about her new petite soeur.
They finished dinner (or a fraction of it) and walked out onto the high stone terrace of the palace to watch the stars and night sky. All around the ramparts of Chinensis Palace was snow, a common visitation in the cold Lillian nights. Sachiko held Yumi in silence in the chilly, refreshing air, her arms wrapped around her waist. Few words needed to pass between them, even when they made love. It never bothered Sachiko, for the first time in her life, that this subordinate whose life was in her hands would not even tell her where she came from.
"Someday, we will have to be honest with each other," said Sachiko, with a hint of sullenness in her gentle voice.
"I'm being carried along our tides of delight like a hapless longship amidst a storm. One day, it won't be enough. I will want to know why you let me choose you. Why you seduced me. Even now, I don't know why you demanded my rosary. Why I did I feel compelled to tell you I love you?" Sachiko could swear that Yumi's apologetic eyes reflected the aurora borealis itself, a river of glimmering lights and stars. But just as quickly, that reflection was gone.
"Why can I see the ethereal lights in your sweet eyes?" wondered Sachiko aloud.
Yumi looked up at the Baroness. "Legends say that the Hall of Heroines, the paradise of the brave, lies in the cradle of those stars. And there, the Rose saints drink, fight, and make love to each other," she murmured, skirting her grande soeur's question.
"Why are you suddenly speaking of the afterlife, charming as it sounds?" sniffed Sachiko. "All women in the Lillian Kingdom worship the Virgin now. It was decreed by Her Majesty, Shiori the Pious. As for the old, pagan ways? None of us know what to believe these days."
"Of course," agreed Yumi, smiling. "Who knows where the Rose saints dwell now, anyway."
Sachiko took her new soeur's hand. "You're rambling, silly lass. Are you tired?" whispered the Baroness.
"Yes," admitted Yumi. "The way of soeur courtship is no ordinary venture. And your... wolfish appetite... has taxed me rigorously."
"You shall rest tonight, then," said the blushing Sachiko, sensing that Yumi was indeed tired and not simply jesting. They shared a gentle kiss, one of many they had enjoyed. Soft touch on soft touch. Lips on lips. Sigh on sigh. They closed their eyes, breathing in each other. Magnificent. "Come. A quiet night it shall be," said the Baroness, pulling away and giving a small smile.
Yumi's brown eyes glimmered again, ever so briefly, with the aurora's turquoise and emerald glow.
"Valhalla... cracked and opened..." she whispered, her high voice suddenly a sinister hiss.
"Yumi? Come, now."
"Of course. Sorry, onee-sama."
Yumi's eerie eyes no longer shone. She clutched Sachiko's hand and followed her to her quarters to retire.
Shimazu Yoshino was the model Lady amongst ladies. The most striking of her physical features were her large, feminine brown eyes, and her chestnut braids that were weaved immaculately from her otherwise long hair. All her people revered her, such was her impeccable decorum. But it was also thought that she was weak. Wrapped in Rei's magnificent bouton's mantle, she took a swig of mead from the silver goblet, nodding at her worried grande soeur gratefully. "I'm feeling better, Rei-chan," she said. "All because of you."
Rei nodded nervously, clad in her full plate armour. The inseparable cousins sat together on a bench by the central cloister. The Foetida stronghold was an incredibly large complex, and this courtyard was only one within a cluster of rune-carved galleries. Rei clutched Yoshino's hand. "Are you sure it is wise to start moving around?" she asked. She had worried herself sick over the ambush launched by Princess Shimako. Several weeks ago, Shimako had attacked Yoshino with a division of her elite warriors, and later joined the fray personally. Together, Yoshino and Rei managed to beat a hasty retreat from the powerful apprentice to Tsarina Satou Sei, but Rei was still worried that Yoshino's wounds had not fully recovered. "You only recently just started walking again. Shimako-chan's boyars are formidable fighters, and..."
Yoshino smiled. "I've heard it all before, Rei-chan. I know I'm not the strongest of Foetida warriors. Indeed, I'm no match for Shimako-san at all. It's always you who saves me. But for now, I'll be fine."
Rei nodded guiltily. "You must be thirsty. I'll go get some hot mead for you."
Yoshino nodded thankfully. She closed her deep brown eyes and set down her goblet. "I'm still a bit tired, though. Come back soon, Rei-chan."
Standing up, Rei took one last worried glance at her beloved cousin, and strode away from her presence.
Yoshino slowly opened her eyes, smiling grimly as she sensed Rei's departure. Then she rose too, breaking into a brisk walk in the opposite direction. No longer did she limp, like she did in front of her grande soeur. She strode energetically past the immense pillars of her home, on which were carved various runic inscriptions, approaching the great door to the main hall. She knew who waited behind those doors, and her strong arms pushed against the creaking wood. With an immense groan, they gave way to Yoshino's forceful hands, revealing a yawning but sparse hall with a waiting woman at its centre. Light lilted through the stained glass windows, on which were painted glorious depictions of blonde Saint Foetida and her longsword.
Yoshino's winter shoes slowly began to walk on the cool stone, towards the woman.
Rosa Foetida didn't turn around. "I had wondered when this day would come," said Eriko. "I wondered when you'd make your little move at last." She listened calmly to Yoshino's footsteps, her yellow, flower-embroidered cape motionless behind her. "You're a cruel girl for lying to Rei. You weren't injured that severely at all."
"I'm not that weak," said Yoshino, smiling. "Many unfortunate women have died underestimating me. And Rei-chan, too! She thought I was so frail that she's gone off somewhere to get whatever she thinks is good for me. Leaving me a private moment with you at last. I admire you for not assigning any guards here. But then again, you've always only trusted Rei-chan."
"Then we do have some common ground." Eriko smiled. "Why now, here?"
"Let's just say that the runes are aligned auspiciously today. I will topple you."
"There is nothing that can quench your hatred, is there? So you are adamant on tearing this prestigious house and its traditions apart?"
"Yes," whispered Yoshino, eyes glinting with the hunger of a prowling wolf. "If that means I can tear you apart."
The highest aristocrat of the Foetida empire suddenly drew her dwarven-forged sword, spreading her arms as she turned around. She glared at Yoshino.
"I always wondered why Rei loved a power-hungry, double-crossing little wench like you. Come then, whelp," spat Torii Eriko, tapping the golden diadem hugging her prominent forehead. "Wrest this royal crown from my scalp! Usurp my office and overthrow me!"
Yoshino growled hatefully and revealed her own weapon, lifting her yellow cloak and hoisting up the one-handed mace that hung from the side of her belt. "I'll beat you blind, Rosa Foetida." Eriko licked her lips as Yoshino dashed forward with blinding speed, raising her deadly club as naturally as she would do against a Chinensis or Gigantea foe. No, perhaps that was how Yoshino had thought of Eriko all this time. Down came the mace's fearsome, spiked head, and Eriko slipped aside, letting it smash into the stone of the castle floor. Debris shot past her, and she backed away cautiously from the small crater that Yoshino's mace left. Yoshino let out a sharp cry again and swung again, aiming for Eriko's head. But with an agile twist of her waist, Eriko ducked the blow. With the Dame still recovering from her attack, Eriko's leg shoved roughly, arrogantly, against Yoshino's. Jamming her junior's movements, Rosa Foetida grabbed Yoshino's arm roughly with her free hand. Yoshino tried to wrench herself away, but Eriko's grip was implacable.
"Do you hate me? Surely there are more civil ways to settle our petty jealousies over Rei," pondered the Yellow Rose coolly, staring into Yoshino's shocked face.
Seizing the moment, Rosa Foetida struck Yoshino across the cheek with a contemptuous backhand, before kicking her away with a scornful boot. Nose bruised, Yoshino screamed in frustration as she sprawled along the floor. "Just how many women do you think I've commanded and led? How many men have willingly thrown themselves into my freezing slave pits so they could joylessly breed for our future generations?" said Eriko angrily, walking slowly towards the gasping girl. Yoshino's mace had rolled out of her hand, and Eriko nudged it out of her junior's reach with the tip of her boot. "Just how arrogant must you be to try dethroning me? Has your hatred eclipsed all reason, all sense of self-preservation?"
Her grimace suddenly softened into a frown. "It wasn't meant to be like this, Yoshino-chan. For all our rivalry, I really cared for you, too." Yoshino slowly got up, glaring at Eriko. "Admit defeat," demanded the Yellow Rose, pointing her sovereign's sword at her. "You are no match for a Rose. Swear that you will never try these laughable antics on me again. Then I may spare you an ignoble execution."
"You? Show me mercy?" Yoshino's lip curled as her hand suddenly slipped inside her cloak. "There's no need for that."
Eriko's complacent eyes widened at a deafening sound ringing in her ear. She jumped instinctively. Was it an explosion? Did someone light a torch? Or was it burning oil? No, this was not a sound she had ever heard before. Then what was this stabbing pain? It was no sword cut, nor was it the bite of a spear's tip. But the pain was a piercing one, burying itself inside her flank like a small dagger. So what in the nine worlds was it?
Yoshino smiled triumphantly.
"What – what is this?" moaned Eriko, glancing woozily at her wet left hand. Her fingers and palm were soaked in blood.
Her world was beginning to flicker like a dying candle.
She couldn't see her blurred surroundings clearly. She wasn't so sure what was happening anymore.
"What… what in the Virgin's name is that?" she groaned, staring at the long... was it a metal tube?... that Yoshino was clutching.
"Do you smell your impending death? Are you afraid of this noise that shakes your palace's walls? Do you finally understand?" taunted the Dame, staring hatefully at the stricken Yellow Rose as smoke blew from the deadly barrel.
"This is an invention from a distant land. It's called gunpowder. And things are going to change around here."
"I'm sick of this intergenerational feud," sighed Yoshino, marveling at the craftsmanship of the curved, wood-and-metal pistol. It was ornate, elegant, and looked completely harmless. Only the hole inside this long tube gave any hint that it was meant to actually hurt someone. The would-be usurper raised the barrel near her lips, and she mockingly blew away the lilting smoke.
"How dare you do this. Where did you get such an instrument of witchery?" whispered Eriko woozily, her knees buckling. Her hand still clutched her side, but it did not stem the flow of blood.
"Someone had to make the first move to break this cycle of hatred. You're right. I always despised how you and Rei-chan looked at each other. But it's about more than jealousy. It's about progress. Rei-chan believes in reconciliation, in a bold end to this war. You're an outdated artefact that needs shelving away in our ancient libraries. You were always more interested in keeping Rosa Chinensis and Rosa Gigantea at bay. You three actually really like each other, don't you? I see through your petty bickering at public ceremonies before Her Majesty. Too proud to enter into a renewed alliance, yet too scared to kill each other," rebuked Yoshino scornfully. "Do you want our three houses to keep fighting like this forever?"
"You don't know what it's been like, Yoshino-chan. How could you ever understand the unhappy bonds between us Roses?" cried Eriko, her shaking legs giving way. "Do you think killing women you love is so easy? Rei! Where is my bouton!" barked the manic Yellow Rose with the last of her strength, her face sweating and pale, blood draining away from her clammy cheeks. "You're supposed to be protecting me!"
"Forget it. Rei-chan won't lay a hand on me," declared Yoshino. "Your cry for help is useless. It's time for her to assume your crown, and for me to take her side as the new bouton."
Rei's regretful voice rang out from across the hallway. "I'm sorry. But I will indeed lay a hand on you if you try to hurt onee-sama again."
"So you must have heard the warcry of this new weapon, Rei-chan… Look!" Yoshino turned around and eagerly gestured at her pistol, ignoring Rei's grave expression. "See this? We don't need Eriko-san anymore. Look at what I've imported!" Her eyes glinted as she raised the peculiar… thing in her hand. "This is unlike anything we've seen before! This wonder is called black powder. Hidden within this weapon are balls of lead, fired with incredible velocity. It lets you wage war without even touching the enemy – "
"Say no more. Not another word, young lady," said the Yellow Duchess, who didn't look very surprised by Yoshino's daring rebellion. Much to the Dame's shock, Rei drew her sword and pointed it at her own cousin, the cousin she adored.
"Rei, what - "
"I had tried to turn a blind eye to your treachery. But you just had to force this battle. Worse, you lied to me about your wounds so you could stage this little spectacle. I won't let you become a traitor by killing a Rose. It is a crime comparable to the murder of the High Queen herself."
Yoshino's deflated face fell further. "You… you too, Rei-chan?" asked the young Dame, crushed. "I thought…" She gritted her teeth. "I thought you would praise me! I want you to be Rosa Foetida!" she spat, as despair quickly boiled over into outrage. "Don't you wish to rule over this great empire, with me as your faithful partner? To take on Chinensis and Gigantea with brilliant new firearms like these?"
"Rest assured," growled the Yellow bouton, her resolved words masking her torn feelings. "I'm not going to kill you. I'm not even going to hurt you. But I will disarm you, and I will punish you for daring to lay a hand on our Yellow Rose. And then I'm going to confiscate that toy you're holding." Her eyes widened as she glimpsed the teetering Eriko collapse to the floor. "Onee-sama!"
"Oh, you can rest assured, too," laughed Yoshino darkly. Her manic eyes glinted. "I would never presume to take stupid Rei-chan on."
The loud BLAM of mysterious weapons - this time much louder than Yoshino's - thundered throughout the hall of Foetida Palace. Truly, never before had there resounded a comparable sound. Wide-eyed Rei was the recipient of those weapons, and her plate armour was completely useless in protecting her against the sharp lead pieces that penetrated and lodged themselves in her body. Reeling from the sharp, paralyzing pain, Rei glanced up, coughing blood. The hall's doors had given way to a division of soldiers. And to her and Eriko's astonishment, they were not women, but men. Most were slightly taller, physically bigger, and their shoulders squarer. Cleanly shaved, they were all wearing the same uniform - a grey coat complemented by grey breeches, with tall helmets and black boots. Affixed to their belts were golden scabbards that held light, mobile curved swords...
"Men?" groaned Rei. "Didn't... we lock them all up?" But they couldn't be men of Lillian. They were foreign, uniformed, and evidently warriors, unlike Lillian men. And these soldiers: they were positioned most curiously. There were two lines of them. Four were on one knee, pointing their bizarrely shaped weapons at her. The four comrades standing behind them also clutched long barrels.
"No, wait!" shrieked Yoshino. "She's not the target!"
But it was too late. One of the eager men had already attacked with an instrument similar to the small contraption Yoshino was holding. It was unlike anything Rei had ever experienced. He didn't even run up to her, or move towards her at all. He simply pulled back his bizarre instrument, and accompanying the deflagration was a sharp, blindingly sharp projectile that hurtled straight for the shaking Duchess. "What technology is this?" gurgled Rei incredulously, staggering back like a drunk, just accidentally dodging the horrific, miniscule pellet.
"Not spears, swords, or even bows or crossbows! You incestuous, backwater royals," he crowed triumphantly. The word that next passed the lips of that nameless footsoldier would revolutionize the long history of Lillian's medieval domains forever.
"You… Yoshino… You let these hostile foreigners in here?" moaned Rei, clutching at her new wound. She looked mournfully at the Dame, who suddenly no longer seemed so sure of herself. "How could you do this to us?"
"What folly. What a farce. You will regret this, Yoshino-chan," wheezed Eriko, gripping the floor with a hand to stop herself from fainting. She couldn't quite make out Yoshino or Rei's face or even the men - everything was blurred. "You will rue the day you dealt with people the Foetida neither knows nor trusts. You have signed a treasonous, infernal pact with an external enemy."
"Don't you dare hurt Rei-chan again!" screamed Yoshino suddenly, turning to the men. "We were supposed to be victorious together, Rei-chan and me! This was not part of the deal!"
"Make ready!" came a deep-pitched shout, and the uniformed, perfectly lined soldiers cocked their foreign weapons, preparing them for a new onslaught. "Aaaaand present...!"
"STOP!" shrieked Yoshino, as the men pointed their cold, silver muzzles at Rei's helpless form.
"FIRE!" barked the commander, and eight barrels recoiled together, their lethal pellets pummelling into Rei's already bleeding back. Her plate armour pierced straight through, she screamed in dizzying agony, swaying but refusing to fall. She supported her destroyed body by planting her sword on the ground, its blade digging grimly into the floor. Her blood sloshed and splattered the stone.
"Im… impossible…" she whispered. "Like… like a flash of deathly light and smoke…" Gritting her teeth through the pain - and the pain was truly crippling - she steadied her trembling knees, refusing to give an inch of ground to these devastating, so-called arquebuses. She realized at once. They weren't swords. Swords were personal, noble, respectful. Swords slew people at close range, where the eyes of equals could meet respectfully, even though defeat was always certain for one. But these monstrosities...
Could they kill just with a click of those small levers behind the men's forefingers?
"Cowards," snarled the stunned Yellow Duchess, short hair matted, eyes wide in fury, blood spraying past her teeth. "It's been some time since I even looked upon a man, let alone fought one. But wherever your accursed technology comes from, the Foetida clan won't kneel!" She glared at the male soldiers defiantly. "You will regret assaulting the Foetida House, and trespassing on the territory of Her Majesty the High Queen!"
"Prime and load!" shouted the men's leader, looking slightly disturbed by Rei's persistence. "Finish her!"
Clenching her watering eyes, Rei cried out again, throwing up blood again, her new, unfamiliar wounds overwhelming her senses. Her mind, however, remained as sharp as her blade. She glanced at the panicking Yoshino, and to the latter's astonishment, she still had strength to smile through the agony.
"I love and forgive you, Yoshino."
"Rei-chan?" whispered Yoshino, lip trembling.
"But as you can see, I'm at a slight disadvantage. I'm sorry," gritted the Duchess reluctantly. Without another word, she released her sword, abandoning it, and ran, much to the surprise of the arquebusiers. She staggered past the stunned Yoshino, sprinting straight for the motionless Eriko.
"Prime and load, you fools!" came the urgent men's bellows. "She's getting away! How can she still move in that suit of armour?"
Thinking quickly, Rosa Foetida en bouton managed to bend her waist, scooping up the still Yellow Rose in her arms before charging at one of the stained glass windows. Time seemed to slow in desperation for her. Her punctured armour pouring gore from nine metal orbs lodged inside her flesh and bones, she threw herself at the opening, smashing through the glass and hurling herself past the falling shards.
The division of male soldiers lowered their arquebuses. "We had to climb several flights of stone stairs to get up here. There is no way she can survive such a plummet," declared one of them.
"It would be better to check. Send word to the next available group and see if there's a bleeding woman limping about with a corpse," said another, to callous sniggers and guffaws.
Yoshino whipped around, slightly distressed. She did not expect them to touch her cousin. "That last volley was completely unnecessary," she snarled. "I told you who you were meant to shoot. Try anything funny again, and - "
"Apparently, her loyalty to you was not quite as certain as you promised. If that's the case, we cannot permit her to resist us." The soldiers smirked. The door to the hall slowly groaned and creaked, slowly opening and giving way to a new contingent of uniformed men. Yoshino's heart was beating hard as she stared at the fearsome lines of arquebuses on their shoulders. Now Rosa Foetida was gone, Rei with her. Their fates were completely uncertain. This was unexpected, to say the least. What exactly had she hoped to achieve? Had she made a mistake in moving against Rosa Foetida like this? After all, she never thought Rei would defend Eriko.
"Thank you, Dame Foetida," came the modest, very normal voice of a young boy. "We owe you dearly for this victory. As promised, you will now command the Foetida House. Or not. It's up to you." His eyes were quite non-threatening. "Just let us start building roads for our soldiers. Keeping the noble houses divided and disunited is our top priority. So if you're up for leading the Foetida to defeat Chinensis and Gigantea, then I'd gladly supply you with as many matchlocks and cannons as you need. I can even spare you a ship or two."
Yoshino squinted at the young man emerging from the crowd of arquebusiers. "You're their leader? The one who's been writing all those letters to me?" She frowned. "You don't look like much of a commander. What was your name again?"
The boy with a messy mop of brown hair gave a short nod as he adjusted the buttons on his grey, high-collared coat. Hands stiffly by his side, he gave a respectful bow at the waist, in polite contrast to the dozens of tall, intimidating soldiers behind him. "Sorry, milady." He cleared his throat nervously, completely devoid of any statesmanship or gravitas.
"Ahem. Um. My name's Yuki. Fukuzawa Yuki, of the United States of Hanadera."
Somewhere, far away in the grey-skied territory of the Chinensis family, a naked girl raised her similarly brown-coloured hair from her grande soeur's bare bosom. The Red Baroness was fast asleep, but she was wide awake. Her tresses spilled down her back. Her eyes swam with Valhalla's northern starlight, and her smile was broad. The girl's brown irises momentarily disappeared, eaten up by the aurora's brilliance, but she didn't care, because her mistress couldn't see her. Her mistress didn't know a single thing about the approaching blizzard yet.
Soon, in good time, she would.
"He's here," purred Fukuzawa Yumi, careful not to wake the older girl up. "I'm here too, my brother. And if your armies of gunpowder and men have arrived..."
Her hand gripped her darling's fingers tightly as she sat up on their warm bed.
"So shall our gates creak and spill forth..."
The quietly breathing Sachiko had no idea yet, but two star-crossed siblings would soon unleash a plague on all three houses.
The Hanaderian light cavalry was ready. A division of some seven men hoisted themselves on the whinnying steeds, cocking their long handguns outside the main gates of Foetida Palace. "She can't have gone far," said a lieutenant, adjusting his black helm. "No one has entered since we came, and that Foetida Dame has ordered her forces not to attack us."
"We sighted a horse bursting from the royal stables, heading west," cried one of the scouts. He glanced up at the grey skies, which were beginning to weep. Rain began to dash around and fall on the men, almost immediately soaking into their dull-coloured uniforms and weapons. Their steeds, which notably lacked heavy armour, snorted impatiently. "We must hurry. That woman might use the weather and terrain to her advantage. We're still newcomers to this miserable continent. And we can't use our matchlocks while riding, either."
"Then, gentlemen, we have our prey," called out another sergeant over the deluge. "It can only be her. Prepare our small firearms. We ride!"
Rei tried not to cry as she looked down at her panting mistress in her arms. Here was the perfect, aloof woman who had knighted her because she looked so handsome and interesting. Rei never imagined Eriko could enter Valhalla like this. She let out a louder cry, and the horse understood, galloping forth with all its strength. Already Foetida Palace had disappeared from their sight, and all around them were rainwashed plains, usually sun-dappled Foetida territory.
"Forgive the discomfort, onee-sama," she apologized, spurring the steed onward even as she held the Yellow Rose and steadied her from the horse's galloping.
"Rei," rasped Eriko, her eyes shut tightly. "Don't be so reckless. Losing my castle and life is annoying. But I don't want to lose you, too."
"We're both dying. And if our lives must come to an end together, then I want my last breath to expire on your lips," replied the Duchess, slightly dizzy from the life seeping out of her flesh and past her armour. She spurred on her horse, rainwater from its drenched mane mixing with the two women's blood. "But... even a proud soeur must know when fleeing is better than nothing."
"They're here," whispered Eriko in warning. "Horses."
The Hanaderian riders were catching up with her frantic steed. Rei glanced back, taking in the sight of at least six enemies. "On her!" barked the leader's voice, and his subordinates raised their ornate pistols. More deafening shots rang through the wet shower. Clutching her horse's reins and keeping a tight grip on Eriko, Rei ducked wildly, unsure about the trajectories of those projectiles. But since she couldn't feel any sudden pain, the men seemed to have missed. Still, she had no weapons with her, and had left her sword in the palace. What could she do to shake them off?
"Rei..." Eriko nudged her weakly, and Rei glanced down in surprise. "My dagger..." moaned Rosa Foetida, cloudy eyes gazing up at her petite soeur. "It's all I have."
"Slaying their commander will suffice," snarled Rei in thanks, slipping her hand underneath Eriko's cloak and searching for the blade tucked under her belt. "Onee-sama's wound is deep," she whispered fearfully, as she felt the small hole underneath Eriko's robes.
Eriko smiled sadly, clutching Rei's armour and shirt. "But you have many more."
Slipping Eriko's dagger from her sheath, Rei turned her head slightly, watching the pursuing men carefully. Their leader was at the front, the fastest of the lot and the one with the glittering badges affixed to his left breast. Well, at least they weren't cowards that lurked from the back. She could respect that.
She steered her horse to the right as she saw another Hanaderian point his pistol at her. The shot was loud, but to Rei's relief, her prediction had been accurate and he missed again.
If they can't aim properly, then they can't hurt me. It must be hard to shoot while riding, too.
These new weapons are superior, but imperfect.
That thought encouraged Rei, ever the collected and cool strategist. Licking her lips in concentration, she whipped briefly around and threw Eriko's dagger at where she anticipated their leader would ride. It was too late for the commander's horse to change course. With a loud thuck, the spinning, blindingly fast blade buried itself in his left breast, breaking past his badges and sinking deep into his beating heart. Eyes wide, he gurgled in defeat, dropping his gun and clutching his coat. But it was too late to pull out the dagger as his body tumbled off and sprawled along the begrimed ground. Cries from his subordinates could be heard, and suddenly the hooves of her pursuers' steeds stopped.
"Endure, onee-sama," whispered the relieved Rei, as her horse continued to gallop. "They're trying to retrieve their leader's body now. It was a gamble to assume they would, but we had no choice."
Thanks to Rei's mind-boggling skill, they had bought some time.
She bent down, closing her eyes and kissing Eriko's drenched forehead sorrowfully. Her tender lips ran over the shining diadem of the Foetida family, pressing lovingly on Eriko's wet skin and threads of hair. "I will save you, my beloved onee-sama. This is all my fault. I swear on my rosary to avenge this dishonour. But please forgive Yoshino."
Eriko gripped Rei tighter. "That stupid, stupid girl. She used that... black magic on me. I just wanted to frighten her, but then she had to go so far."
"This gunpowder is anything but witchcraft," whispered Rei. She was slowly, gradually, beginning to understand the cold logic of the weapon called an arquebus. "Any trained warrior can see it's just another instrument of violence, but far more terrifying than even the sharpest sword."
"Where are we going?" whimpered Eriko.
"To Sachiko," said Rei without a second's hesitation. "Chinensis territory."
"This is humiliating, Rei," moaned Eriko, her head pressed against Rei's chest. She closed her eyes, feeling slightly warmer in her petite soeur's protective bosom. "To approach Youko and Sachiko-chan like this..."
"I respectfully disagree, onee-sama," said Rei, her eyes remarkably focused. She held her grande soeur closer, kissing her again. "Perhaps, in some perverse way, this is what the great spirits intended." Rain continued to pour all around them, but despite her weakening body and terror for Eriko's life, she felt that with Yoshino's mutiny, something was truly about to change in the Lillian Kingdom. After today's tragedy, this realm would never be the same.
Yoshino hadn't just inflicted a crushing tactical defeat on them. Nor had she simply staged a royal coup.
This was a revolution.
But out of the ashes of any revolution arose unity. The Yellow Duchess knew unity was the elusive panacea that Lillian so desperately thirsted for. And when she remembered, in happier days before they became boutons, the hands of the Red Baroness cupping her cheeks, crimson lips stroking her nose, those knuckles gently massaging her back, she knew exactly who to turn to. Who better to resist this new army of men than one who despised the male creature?
Rosa Foetida en bouton would be back for her beloved cousin. This she promised.
Sachiko hurried down the winding stone stairs, running round and round in circles as she descended to the ground level. She passed the crackling torches on the wall and pushed open the door. She burst out into the raining courtyard of the castle. All around were women-at-arms and huskarls, shouting animatedly at each other. Scouts at the portcullis, the stables, and the catapults had reported that a lone horsewoman was making for Chinensis Palace. Sachiko already had a good idea of who it was. Did Rei intend to approach her directly to appeal for an alliance? Surely this was not the right time. "What is happening?" she cried to the confused women, blinking away the rain that was now running through her hair. "Tell me why you're in such disarray!"
"Make way! Make way for the Red Rose!" barked a knight's voice behind her. She could hear knees bending, clanswomen genuflecting. Sachiko turned to see her mistress striding over, flanked by two armoured women.
"Something is amiss, onee-sama," said the bouton, as Youko stood beside her.
"The guards have been talking about a Foetida horsewoman approaching our hill fort," agreed Rosa Chinensis. Her face did not look pleased, but concerned. "What's going on?"
Boom. The wooden gate to the courtyard burst open, and three Chinensis guardswomen were sent sprawling onto the muddy ground. Eyes wide, Sachiko and Youko watched as a whinnying horse galloped into sight, bearing the rider and the person she was cradling. "It's Rei!" called out Sachiko, instantly recognizing the tall, thin figure. Caked in mud and rainwater, Rei slid off her exhausted horse and shambled unsteadily towards the two Chinensis nobles, clinging to a shaking, bleeding body. "Why are you here? This is no way for a diplomatic foe to visit – "
She stopped when she peered at Rei's tearstained, desolate face. "This... these are wounds!" Sachiko broke out of her stunned trance and hurried over to the pale and worn Duchess. "You're hurt! Wait. Where is Yoshino-chan? Why isn't she with you" she asked suspiciously, nearing Rei's struggling form.
The cloak on the body Rei was holding fell away, blown aside by the rainy wind. Eyes rolling faintly, head lolling back, the feverish face of the once-mighty Yellow Rose could be seen by all, much to the shock of the Chinensis warriors. Cries arose among the bewildered knights. "It's Rosa Foetida! Who could have defeated her and her mighty bouton like this?" Sachiko and her knights could hardly believe their eyes at the sorry sight, and Youko's grimace turned even darker.
"What manner of wounds have been inflicted upon my Yellow equal?" asked the Red Rose, with a threatening hint to her voice. The rumble of thunder made it all the more menacing. Rain poured past Youko's eyelashes, gleaning out the rage burning behind her dark pupils. "Who dares reduce my Eriko to such a state?"
"What happened, Rei?" whispered Sachiko. Dread dawned on her as she remembered the rumours of Yoshino's rebellion. "What calamity has befallen the House of Foetida?"
"Sanctuary, noble Baroness," howled Rei, hugging Eriko's cold, shivering body. Surrounded by Chinensis women, the distraught Duchess slowly sank to her knees on the muddy ground, surrendering before the horrified Sachiko, pleading for clemency. "Upon my proud honour, I beg of you. Give us sanctuary!"
YUKI'S CONQUEST BEGINS.
LILLIAN'S SHIRES AND CASTLES BURN...
THE BANNERS OF RED AND YELLOW RISE TOGETHER AGAIN!