I don't own these characters; Sunrise does.
8: Smoke and vapors
The subjects of Windbloom had been rioting for three days and nights, still calling for the release Maximilian Straw, as well as the hundreds of people that had been arrested since the chaos began. The amusement park that Mashiro had hoped would lift the spirits of her beleaguered people was now a smoldering, blackened pile of ashes and twisted metal. The smell of fire and melted dreams pierced the city and seemed as if it would be the new scent of the world. The sky had turned to permanent night, onyx clouds bellowing up from various fire pits that were once buildings. The city itself seemed set to implode and explode at the same time, possibly carrying the whole country and maybe even more with it. And, of course, Mashiro had no idea what to do.
The Queen wisely holed up in the palace while the mayhem expanded like an aging star. Froze in her own disbelief, all she could do was order the police and guards to continue working. As for solutions, she was dry, and the two people she trusted most in the world – her Otome and her personal handmaid – were just as mystified as she was.
Chie Hallard went to the palace by the third day, with permission from Natsuki and her own government. She was not looking to involve herself in Windbloom matters, but she needed to check on her girlfriend, the Queen's maid, Aoi Senoh. She just could not take any more of Aoi's assurances that everything was fine when she could see Windbloom burning. Thankfully, her Otome uniform got her easy passage into the royal home, but she had been ready to push her way through if necessary.
"Aoi?" Chie called into the palace. Servants were kind enough to point her in the direction of missing lover.
Aoi was in a small sitting room with a fuming Mashiro and her pacing Otome. Aoi noticed Chie immediately and rushed over to her. The couple embraced tightly and Aoi buried her face in Chie's neck.
"I'm so glad you're all light," Chie sighed in relief, holding her girlfriend tightly around the waist. Part of her never wanted to let go.
"I told you I was. You didn't have to come," Aoi replied, speaking onto Chie's neck while clutching at her shoulders.
"Of course, I had to come. You're fine now, but there's no telling when that mob out there is going to channel it's energy toward the palace," Chie argued.
"They wouldn't!" Mashiro practically roared.
"They have an agenda and eventually they're going to remember it has to do with you, your Highness," Chie informed them all. She made sure to keep her voice respectful, but she wanted to get Aoi away from the palace and away from the Queen as soon as possible.
Arika rushed to the Queen's side and gather the smaller woman up in her strong arms. "I won't let them hurt you."
"You know, Natsuki-sama thinks if you let Maximilian Straw out things might get better," Chie said. She and a few other more reasonable Otome had sat down to pick the principal's brain on the matter and unsurprisingly Natsuki had what seemed like a logical and non-violent solution to the whole ordeal. Of course, no royal would go along with Natsuki's full idea as it meant relinquishing some power.
"Natsuki-sama," the Queen sneered the name and title, letting Chie know that the Second Column had managed to offend yet another person with her rather simple personal philosophy.
Maybe I don't truly get the big deal because I'm from Aries, Chie considered. But, then again, some of the other Otome that seemed fine with Natsuki's ideas were from monarchies, as that was the main form of government on Earl. Natsuki seemed to think that the easiest solution was releasing Maximilian Straw and agree to his Natural Rights Doctrine. Chie could not figure out why it was an issue, but Aries citizens had enjoyed the rights he called for and more for over a century now. Princess Anh had pointed out that her own grandfather had managed to avoid a full on revolution by giving their people basic rights almost seventy years ago. She knew that Zipang had passed a Proclamation of Natural Rights at the urging of the shogun's son. It seemed like the world would be going that way, so Natsuki thought (and Chie agreed) that it would be best if Queen Mashiro just went along with it.
"Natsuki-sama doesn't rule my land! I do and Maximilian Straw isn't going anywhere!" Mashiro roared, pointing to the ground with an authoritative finger that could just as easily end a person's life. And, yet, the Aries Otome did not tread carefully.
"What are you even holding him on, your Highness?" Chie asked curiously.
Mashiro scowled and glared at the foreign Otome. "That's my business, Otome."
Chie shrugged and turned her attention back to her girlfriend. She pulled Aoi away to a corner and just held the maid to her. Aoi cuddled back.
"I can take you to Garderobe if you want. Natsuki-sama has no problem with it and she's fairly certain that this is just going to get worse. I'm fairly certain things are going to get worse," Chie informed her ladylove. She did not tell Aoi what she saw on the way over, but there was no way that the people were going to just forget their fury without some kind of goodwill gesture from Mashiro and that clearly was not in the cards.
Aoi frowned as she focused on her lover. "I can't and won't leave the Queen. You have your duty and I have mine."
Chie chuckled and pecked Aoi on the lips. "I know. I know. But, if this continues to go south, do you really think Arika's going to let the Queen stay here?"
Blue eyes glanced out of a nearby window. "Do you really think this is going to get worse?"
"I don't know the whole story, but listening to Natsuki-sama, Shizuru-sama, and Nao-san, it's bound to. They said the people are hyped up over the New Politics and Maximilian Straw is the leader of the crew. They're not going to let their leader rot in jail without charges put there by a queen they don't have faith in. If you went out there and saw what they were doing, you'd know that this probably just the tip of the iceberg unless the Queen makes a wise move, which I know you don't see happening. You can't keep following the Queen like this, love, and pretend everything's going to be fine. You see what's going on."
"So, I am to abandon my Queen?" Aoi glared at her lover.
Chie had a knack for putting her foot in her mouth when it came to her lover. She could not understand why that was since she was so smooth with other women. She figured it had something to do with the fact that Aoi meant something to her, so everything she felt was sincere and sometimes she panicked when Aoi could get hurt.
"No, but you shouldn't just play to her fantasy that everything's going to be fine," Chie explained, hoping that cleaned up her other words.
Aoi arched an eyebrow. "You want me to tell the Queen she's wrong?"
"Well, maybe she'll only fire you and then you can come live with me. It'll be great. You can turn my bachelor pad into a happy home," Chie declared with a grin to hide the fact that she was serious. She was tired of the long distance relationship with the love of her life and she was tired of Aoi blindly following a spoiled brat.
"Live with you in that pig sty?" Aoi teased, focusing on her girlfriend to avoid the chaos going on outside the palace.
"It needs a woman's touch," the Otome joked.
The maid chuckled and held onto her lover. Chie could feel Aoi trembling. Aoi knew how serious everything was, but she was trying to be strong. Chie smiled; she had always loved that trait about Aoi. She would be strong, too, because the principal left her believing that they had a long road ahead of them, even though the Otome were not involved yet … in Windbloom anyway. And with the way things were going in Cardair and now Windbloom, if the fervor continued to spread, things were certainly just going to get worse.
"Have the weapons arrived yet?" John Smith asked the Marquis of Artai.
Renjiro was lounging on a chaise with the phone to his ear. The room was empty, even though he had some loyal followers. Still, he preferred to trust no one, just in case. He could not risk punishment, not when he was so close.
"The weapons are here and I'm arming my men," Renjiro replied in a low voice.
"When are you going to send them out?"
"Soon. I can't jump the gun here or it'll look like Artai purposely is escalating things and not like our few zealots just wanted to help. I don't want other countries getting involved just yet or things could go south."
"What does it matter? With these weapons you can take down any Otome the countries throw at you," John Smith pointed out.
"Some countries still hold secret armies. This is a delicate matter. I won't rush into this and end up in jail like my brother. What does it matter to you when I use the weapons? What do you get out of this?"
The blond man chuckled. "That's my business. Don't worry. It won't interfere with your plans."
"They better not. I'm not the enemy you want."
There was another chuckle. "I'm so sure. Enjoy my little gifts. Make the most of them."
"As soon as the time is right, I will," Renjiro vowed before disconnecting the call. "I'll strike and then show my brother who the worthless one is. Of course, he might he right about Mashiro. Not that it'll matter soon enough."
Natsuki sat with her close group of friends amongst the Otome, namely her wife, Nao, Mai, Anh, Haruka, and one time classmate Laula, who had gotten over being an ass for the moment. Anh was playing with Shinobu and the child was showing her aunt that she knew her ABCs. Mikoto had come in, not enjoying the fact that Mai had been gone for almost a week. Mai caught Mikoto up as much as she could, not that Mikoto really cared to know as long as she could help Mai.
"Did you try tracking dogs?" Laula asked in regards to the search effort for the First Column.
Natsuki snorted. "It was the first low tech thing I did. Hell, I got a team from fucking Annan. The best fucking trained dogs on the planet. They got to the last place Sara was and circled it for over six hours." Her shoulders slumped and Shizuru wasted no time reaching out to rub her back.
"You're not giving up!" Haruka barked.
"Of course not, but I need time to consider our next course of action. We can't keep spinning our wheels like this. It's a waste of time and man power and damn sure isn't getting Sara back," the Principal pointed out.
Before anyone could respond, a huge explosion echoed outside. Shinobu was in her okaa-san's arms within moments while the others went to the window to see what was going on. There was a pillar of fire reaching for the heavens in Windbloom. They watched for a couple of seconds, silent and pensive.
"There's your New Politics at work," Laula sneered at Natsuki.
"Those are angry, tired people at work. They're tired of being last in line, tired being the hungry ones, tired of being the only ones to make sacrifices, tied of wondering how they'll feed their families, tired of just surviving and wanting desperately to begin living. New Politics didn't make them that way. Old politics did," Natsuki retorted.
"Didn't you tell the Queen how to stop this?" Mai asked with slight concern in her voice. She continued staring out the window, mouth slightly open.
"I offered a suggestion that was apparently not followed. It's been going around a lot lately," Natsuki remarked with a frown.
Nao shrugged. "Makes sense to me."
"We should go out there and do something about this madness!" Laula declared, punching her fist into her palm.
"Like what?" Mai asked with an arched eyebrow. She had not really understood what was going on until sitting in on the conversation between Natsuki and the others, but she had been oddly passive when she was caught up. Natsuki suspected Mai was stunted by inaction because the grand scope of the whole mess and her mind was still more focused on finding Sara than the kingdom's problems. She seemed a little more invested now in the kingdom's problems because she could not believe what she was seeing, but Natsuki was sure that Sara was still at the forefront of the redhead's mind and concern.
"Something! We should just be out there!" Laula argued, motioning to the window.
"Because it worked out so well when Arika went out there. Those people don't want to see Otome right now. Otome are the enemy right with the upper class," Nao pointed out.
"But, it's … it's …" Laula growled and turned away from the window in frustration.
"It's not our problem. Hell, this isn't even your country," Nao stated.
"So, we do nothing?" the teal-haired Otome demanded.
"No, we continue to try and find Sara. You need to keep your focus and remember why I called everyone here in the first place," Natsuki reminded her former classmate.
Laula growled, but she finally stopped speaking. Natsuki was thankful for that. Still, even with the silence, she was not getting any ideas on how to find their missing Otome. She sent a silent prayer to whomever was listening that Sara was alive at the least.
Natsuki turned away from the window, but noticed that her wife was still focused on the insanity in the city. She wrapped her arms around Shizuru's waist and rested her head on the Third Column's shoulder. Shizuru put her hands on Natsuki's hands.
"You want to go check on your family again?" the pale woman asked. Honestly, she was tempted to go check on the in-laws. While they lived in what was technically the countryside, it was still close enough to the city where things might spill out into their area.
"No, I called. Otou-san said things are tense, but no one's rioting there and they're all fine. I want to help you find Sara," Shizuru answered.
Natsuki nodded and that helped her get back on task. She decided to go see Yohko to see if the Chief Medical Officer had any ideas. Yohko was with Miss Maria and her small tech crew. They had several monitors going; a couple of them showing the madness going on right outside of the school gates.
"Have they figured out to storm the jail yet?" Natsuki asked curiously. She figured if the people did not do it in a couple of days, then Mashiro would defeat them because they had clearly lost sight of their goals and let their anger rule the day.
"No. Have you figured how we're going to find Sara Gallagher?" Miss Maria countered.
The principal shook her head. "I was hoping you had ideas. No hits on her nanomachines?"
Yohko sighed. "Nothing. Not even a false ping. It's like she fell off the face of Earl."
"Well, that's disheartening," Natsuki muttered, eyeing the floor briefly. She glanced up in time to see that at least someone might be resoled that day as the subjects of Windbloom were drawing closer to the jail. Unfortunately, they were also drawing closer to the palace. That was also disheartening.
"Has Queen Mashiro requested our assistance yet?" Miss Maria asked curiously.
Natsuki almost laughed out loud. "You're kidding, right? I'm on her shit list, like everyone else with me nowadays, so I doubt that'll be happening."
Miss Maria frowned and narrowed her gaze on the pale woman. "What did you do?"
"Why is it always me? For over thirteen years, it's always been me," Natsuki huffed.
"If the shoe fits. Now, what did you do?"
"I merely suggested one way to end the carnage of the day would be to give the people what they were asking for by freeing Maximilian Straw, which she took as an insult," Natsuki explained.
"You're trying to tell her how to run her country?" Miss Maria demanded.
The principal shrugged and glanced at the monitor. "It's not like she knows how to run it."
"Are the men in place?" Smith asked.
"They are. It'll go fine if everything works," Renjiro stated.
John Smith laughed; a sinister, ominous noise. "We'll see. It should work perfectly. We're been focused on this for years. Just remember to contact me with the results."
"Ladies, we might need to get out of here," Chie noted as she studied the movement outside. The mob was getting closer and she was sure someone had gotten the bright idea to attack the palace.
"We're not leaving," Mashiro proclaimed, earning a frown the Aries Otome.
"The palace is heavily fortified and there's no way they'd be able to get in here. We're safe here," Aoi promised her lover, gazing pleadingly into her eyes.
That did not comfort Chie. "We're sitting ducks here if they get in. This is far from a good battle strategy. Warfare 101 is to not be where your enemy knows and can get you."
"We're got guards," Mashiro pointed out. "And two Otome."
"I'm not fighting ordinary citizens that just three days ago were only asking for a guy to be released from jail, a guy who hasn't even been formally charged," Chie declared. If anything, she was getting Aoi and getting the hell out of Dodge. She knew that would get her in trouble, but if it kept Aoi from harm, she was more than willing to bear it.
The Queen literally reeled back and a heated look took over her eyes. "You will do as I say!"
"I'm not your subject nor am I your Otome. The only reason I'm here is to make sure nothing happens to Aoi. The last time things went down around here, I almost lost her. I will NOT let that happen again," Chie declared, her voice booming. She glared down at the Queen, daring the little dictator to challenge her.
"Chie," Aoi said, stepping to her side. It was not like Chie to lose control, especially raising her voice or trying to intimidate someone. She wrapped her hands around Chie's bicep to help her calm down.
Chie looked down at her girlfriend. "No, don't. I'm not going to risk losing you over something like this. We're supposed to grow old together and I will not have some misinformed malcontent ruin that plan."
Aoi nodded and then turned her attention to the Queen. "Um … your majesty, may I please be excused?"
Mashiro's face actually fell. "You're going leave me?" Her voice was so small and her eyes showed endless fear.
"No. I just want to talk to Chie in private. I'll be back," Aoi vowed and that made her lover frown now.
The Queen had the nerve to dismiss her maid with a wave of her hand. Chie was ready to put the overgrown brat over her knee, but Aoi pulled her away. The brown-haired woman marched Chie down the hallway to another small private room.
"Chie! You can't talk to the Queen like that!" Aoi shouted, stomping her foot and glaring at the Otome.
"She's putting you in mortal danger! I can't just sit by and let that happen, especially not when I'm right here. Did you forget you nearly died?" Chie demanded. She could never forget. Aoi bandaged from hand to toe in a coma haunted her whenever she closed her eyes. Every time she touched a scar on her lover's beautiful body, which there were of now plenty of thanks to that incident, she would remember and she would blame the Queen.
"Of course, I didn't forget, but I still have a duty to my Queen," Aoi argued.
Chie made a fist and dropped her head. "And that comes before your duty to me," she whispered, feeling as if it was a revelation.
"No, never!" Aoi grabbed Chie's hand with both of hers and held on for dear life. "You're the most important person on the planet to me. Most important. Nothing comes before you."
"Then, please, don't put yourself on the line again. I know your job's important to you, but don't let her cloud your better judgment."
"And what would you like me to do? Leave with you?"
"Open yourself up the option."
Aoi was about to reply, but the sound of shattered glass echoed through the palace. They looked at each other before Chie went to the door. Aoi knew to stay put until they knew what was going on. Chie crept into the hall, listening carefully. She could hear shouting, sounds of battle, and more glass breaking. Instead of searching for a window to see what was happening and having her stray far from her girlfriend, Chie contacted Garderobe to see if they could tell her anything.
"Chie, you need get out of there right now," Natsuki informed her. "The people have broken through the gates and they're fighting with the guards. They're armed with various melee objects and some have guns."
"Shit," Chie hissed by accident.
"No shit. Get back here now."
The communication was disconnected and Chie rushed back to Aoi. The noise of the invasion was growing louder by the second. Chie took Aoi by the hand.
"We need to go. The mob is on palace grounds!" the Otome reported.
"I have to make sure the Queen is all right!" Aoi said, which frustrated her girlfriend but did not surprise her.
Chie did not argue and the couple dashed back to where they left the Queen and Arika. The room was empty. Chie took a moment to look out of the window to see the mob in the courtyard. They were armed with simple 2×4's, tools, sports' equipment, and other handy items. Many were hurling stones in the palace's direction. Sheer numbers quickly swallowed any guards that ran into them. It seemed was if the whole city was trying to take the palace apart piece by piece.
"We have to get out of here," Chie said.
"But, the Queen!" Aoi objected.
"Arika is with her! You're my main concern right now, so let's go!" The Otome did not give her girlfriend a chance to object, grabbing the maid by the hand and searching for an exit.
Aoi pointed out a secret passage not too far from them and Chie ducked into it. The passage was a dark labyrinth, but the maid knew her way around there. They were able to make their way off of palace grounds from the corridor and came out in a deserted area. There was a burning miasma that thickened the air and seemed to devour anything that made the city of Windbloom great.
"Let's go back to Garderobe. Hopefully, Arika will go there, too," Chie proposed.
Aoi only nodded, but Chie doubted her girlfriend even heard her. Aoi was focused on anarchy around them. An attacking dragon probably would have been less shocking, and less destructive. Chie put an arm around Aoi and gently pulled her in the direction of Garderobe. Aoi dragged her feet, so she picked up Aoi bridal style. She took off flying as soon as the coast was clear.
"I was wondering when you'd get here," Natsuki said as the couple landed.
"Thankfully, Aoi knew a passage that got us out and far from the palace. I wasn't looking forward to fighting regular people," Chie replied. She saw herself as a soldier and soldiers fought other soldiers as far as she was concerned.
"Is Arika-san here? Did she show up with the Queen?" Aoi inquired with urgency.
Natsuki shook her head. "I haven't seen or heard from Arika or Queen Mashiro."
Aoi's face fell. "Then they're still out there." Her words shook as she looked out into the desolate area that was once a beautiful metropolis. The Queen and her Otome could be in the center of that mess.
Arika was not ready for the pandemonium that greeted her, Mashiro, and a dozen guards as they exited a secret tunnel in the palace. She had worried about leaving Aoi, but she knew that Chie would take care of the handmaid while she had to concentrate on protecting her Master. She had to jump to that because people noticed them immediately.
"It's the Queen!" The mob roared as they charged forward, brandishing their weapons.
"Get her out of here!" Arika ordered the guards as she charged into her Robe. She deflected dozens of stones and other projectiles as the guards hustled their wide-eyed monarch away from the scene.
The Otome made sure to cut off the mob from her Master while trying not to hurt them. Like Chie, Arika had little desire to harm regular people, but she would not allow them to touch Mashiro. Moving quickly, she punched and kicked at whoever strayed too close while continuing to knock away the rocks being tossed at them. But, the mob had numbers on its side and closed the distance between Arika and the fleeing group.
"Arika!" Mashiro called, holding her hand out for her Otome as the guards practically shoved her into the escape passage.
Arika turned to join the group only to be grabbed and yanked by the ravenous horde. She fell back and the people tried to maul her. Growling, she pulled herself back up to see the Queen gone, but there were people trying to figure out how to open the passage way again. The level of madness and thoughts of what they might do if they got to her Master filled her with anxiety and rage.
"Get away from there! Leave Mashiro alone! She only wanted to make things better!" Arika bellowed, pushing people way from her. She charged the people trying to open the hidden corridor, forcing them back.
"She didn't want to do anything, except be a selfish bitch, Otome!" someone screamed.
"She's never made anything better! She's poison!"
"And you're poison for helping keep her in power!"
They closed in on Arika and she defended herself, which seemed only make the mob more bloodthirsty. More people rushed over, some without weapons and they just tried to claw at her. To avoid utterly destroying the murderous crew, Arika retreated to higher ground, out of their reach. She thought that she might be able to fly to Garderobe before making her way back to Mashiro.
"Not so fast, Otome!" Shots were fired.
Arika could not believe they were shooting at her. These same people once loved her, cheered her, and trusted her to protect them, their kingdom, and their Queen. Now, they seemed to want her dead, their Queen dead, and their glorious kingdom in ruins. She put a shield around herself to keep the bullets at bay and then took to the sky.
"It won't be that easy, Otome!" A man aimed a rifle that Arika did not think anything of until after he fired a shot.
The rifle bullet hit her shield and there was a buzz sound. The next thing she knew, her shield was gone and another shot echoed through the din. She grunted as she felt a sting in her shoulder, which instantly began to burn and then it like being struck by lightning. She screamed as the agony blurred her vision and she crashed back down to the ground, nearly unconscious.
Groaning, she tried to move, to pick herself up, to keep fighting, but found it impossible. What the hell did they hit me? She forgot that thought as she heard sounds of people approaching. She feared that she was as good as dead, which meant Mashiro was as good as dead. That thought held zero appeal for her, but still she could not pick herself up.
"I guess these anti-Otome guns work," someone snickered.
She wanted to ask what he meant, but only moans escaped her throat. Anti-Otome guns? What's going on? How did his bullets go through my shields?
"Let's hang her! Fucking Otome keeping that selfish bitch in power, helping keep all of these arrogant pricks in power," another hissed. There were cheers to that suggestion.
"Whoa! People, we are not savages and she is a national hero!" a new voice spoke up. "Besides, she could come in handy." At that, Arika felt herself being lifted up. She doubted they were taking her anywhere good.
Mashiro turned around every few seconds as the guards led her further and further from the palace, going through dark and winding tunnels. She knew in her heart that Arika was right behind them, but each forward step was like a seed of doubt. The seeds sprouted into thorny vines, wrapping around her heart after it felt like they walked for eternity and Arika was still not with her. She had to struggle to keep tears at bay after some time. She had to stay strong for Akira, for herself, and for the country.
"Arika," she whispered into the dark like a prayer.
Next time: Cardair one-ups Windbloom and things get worse for the Otome.