We find Nikita’s guest sitting on a high stool beside a window overlooking the city. On the table in front of her are a variety of sweets, prepared by Nikita’s servants. Cookies, chocolates, cupcakes and cakes are displayed on white porcelain saucers and trays. The girl sips a swirl of wine from a champagne flute, glancing at us as we enter.
Dressed in a high-collared black jacket, form-fitting pants of the same color, and high-heeled shoes, Nikita’s visitor carries herself with a look of rich sophistication.
The girl possesses an oriental beauty not unlike Nikita’s. Her black hair curves and curls, reaching a little past her waist. Behind spectacles are the ocean-blue pools of her eyes— sharp, somber, and critical.
Despite her beauty and poise, my attention is instead drawn to the black, curved sword hanging around her waist.
Noble sorcerers, because of the nature of our magic, rarely need to so openly wield our weapons.
We of high birth instead rely on summoning our swords and staffs from a different dimension— a magical vault that keeps all of our prized artifacts and weapons safe from curious hands.
A sorceress openly wielding a weapon in a guest’s halls can easily be interpreted as an act of hostility.
Nikita approaches the girl, her chest out and her chin held high. The girl stands in response, mirroring Nikita’s proud noblewoman’s bearing.
“Your Graces of Takahashi and Maxwell.” Sonis says, standing between the three of us. “I introduce to you Her Grace, Yui Isvell Inoue of the Sovereign Kingdom of Genevede.”
Nikita raises an eyebrow at the mention of the kingdom’s name. Her guest bows before shaking her hand, smiling a simple smile.
“It’s an honor to meet you, Your Grace.” Nikita says. “Had I known that a person of your stature was to visit today, I would’ve better prepared my office. Things are a little messy right now, as you can see.”
Yui glances around the room, her lips curved into a smile. Everything is in place, not a binder or folder or piece of furniture is out of line. The office room looks untouched for a hundred years, gleaming white and sparkling.
Nikita’s office is so large that she decided to divide it into two sections. One half of the room is occupied by a large desk, with all the usual components expected out of an administrator’s office. While the other half is something of an extension of the waiting room, featuring a couch, high stools and tables, a wine rack and a cooler for refreshments and food.
Seeing that this looks like a casual visit, Nikita moves for the three of us to sit by the windows, far from where she conducts her work.
The two girls start conversing, smiling as they talk. I glance at Sonis as she boots up Nikita’s computer from the other side of the room.
Our eyes meet. The blonde secretary smiles, leans forward and mouths “royal guard.” before returning her attention to the computer screen.
Ah, yes. Yui Isvell Inoue. The name does ring a bell.
The Inoue Nobility is after all, a family much like my own. They are a family of knights— proud, strong, and ancient. But while we are the second most powerful noble house, they are the first. While we are soldiers known for fighting on the front lines, they are a family of royal guards.
Royal guards are among the most dangerous things on earth.
Nikita wasn’t kidding when she said she was honored by this visit. Royal guards are often almost as proud as the kings they serve. And like their kings, they rarely pay attention to those of lesser standing. And as sad as it is, the definition of a ‘lesser standing magus’ extends to even nobles like us.
“The King of Genevede asked me to personally seek you out.” Yui says.
“Ah, I hope it wasn’t too much trouble for you, Your Grace. Genevede is so far away, after all.” Nikita replies.
“Huh.” I say. “King of Genevede. That’s like, a really formal way to address your boyfriend.”
“Chaos!” Nikita throws me a poisonous glare. “You— I’m so sorry,” she turns to Inoue. “Please excuse His Grace’s rudeness; he didn’t meant to phrase it like that.”
Inoue covers her mouth as she laughs. “It’s quite alright. His Grace of Maxwell speaks the truth, after all.”
“Seeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.” I say to Niki. “And can you two stop being so formal, it’s weirding me out. Conversations don’t get anywhere if both parties are trying too hard to sound sophisticated. Too many words said, too little thoughts exchanged.”
Inoue smiles. “You make a good point. I guess speaking formally with fellow nobles is just something I developed out of habit.”
“I think it’s something we’ve all developed out of habit.” Nikita sighs. “If it’s okay with you, Your Grace, why don’t we just forego formalities and instead speak a little more… casually?”
“Sure. I have no problem with that.” Inoue says, smiling.
I glance at Nikita before taking the reins in the conversation. “So, Miss Inoue, what brings you to our city?”
The girl drums her fingers on the table and gazes outside. “Kria is beautiful, isn’t she? Lustrous towers that reach the sky, snow-peaked smoky mountains beside a clear blue sea. This city is as romantic as romantic can be. Truth be told, I’m here with Ardrian and my sister. If you’ve heard the news, then you know that we’re here for an escape, to enjoy ourselves, to relieve our shoulders from the stress of running a kingdom day to day.”
“A king leaving his kingdom behind to take a vacation with his girlfriend?” I chuckle. “That sounds like Ardrian, alright.”
“You know her king?” Nikita turns to me, frowning.
“And you don’t?”
“I mean, I know who he is.” Nikita huffs. “But I don’t know him personally. You sound like you’re talking about an old friend.”
“He’s an old acquaintance from high school. He’s always been a bit eccentric. Made him stand out.”
He’s also proud and overly ambitious. King Ardrian Knightstein has the tendency of shooting first and morally questioning his actions later. He’s probably not considering the implications of his visit here. His people may have sent him off with floats and parades, cheering him on at the top of their lungs. But for all I know, his citizens must be loathing him for his selfishness.
Kings aren’t supposed to take breaks.
Kings don’t leave their thrones to play at the beach with beautiful women.
Inoue sips her wine. “Ardrian’s actually been getting a lot of flack because of our visit here. Newspapers and news sites are showering him with harshness, calling him names like The Most Irresponsible King to Ever Walk this Earth or King Playboy.”
“King playboy?” that’s new. I never heard that one before. Probably because it sounds like ass. What an uncreative nickname for someone.
Nikita flares her nose, obviously proud that she knows something that I don’t.
“Get with the times, Maxwell!” she says. “The King of Genevede got the nickname months ago when he announced to the world that he was dating both Yui here and her twin sister Risa!”
“Oh yeah, yeah! How could I forget?” I rub the back of my head, bowing apologetically. “I’m sorry, Niki. I’m sorry.”
I can’t believe I forgot about that. I can’t believe I forgot about the fact that my old friend has achieved the most sacred of man’s dreams.
Two beautiful women, born into the most powerful noble family, all for himself.
I’m envious of his life, to be honest. But only just a bit. Born into royalty, born into kingship, Ardrian Knightstein seems to have it all. But for all his kingly charisma, the world seems to think that he’s far from actually a capable ruler. His totally unnecessary ‘I’m totally dating twins, guys!’ announcement a few months ago is indirect proof of that.
“Well I do hope the King of Polygamy is enjoying his stay.” I say. “We have plenty of tourist attractions from crypts and catacombs, to caves and underwater freshwater rivers. If you want, I can help arrange for tours of our greatest castles and keeps, though I can’t imagine these places holding a candle to your own Castle Avalon.”
“The Scaffold Waterfalls are particularly romantic, Your Grace.” Nikita adds, reaching for a bar of chocolate. “I’d love to meet your sister, by the way. I’ve used her research in a few of my own. I wish I could share a flute of wine with her, if she has the time.”
“And I’m sure she’d love to meet you too.” Inoue tilts her head. “She has a fondness for beautiful girls after all.”
“Anyway, thank you for your suggestions.” Inoue bows. “But we’ll be leaving in a few days. It’s a shame, but we probably won’t be able to visit the majority of the spots you suggested. The truth is, we came here to meet with the both of you.”
“Us?” Nikita glances at me, furrowing her eyebrows. “I’m honored that a king wants to meet with me, Your Grace. I am available at His Majesty’s discretion, as is Chaos here. But what does he need of us exactly?”
Inoue leans forward, reaching out for a small bar of chocolate. She bites into it, letting it melt in her mouth. “A war is brewing. And we need soldiers.”
Nikita’s grace briefly fades, her face turning still.
“Two years ago a god, a Reaper, fell from the sky,” Inoue says. “She hung her gaze above an audience of young magi, glancing at man and woman as if they were nothing but ants.”
Then, without warning, she moved through our ranks, slaying magus after magus.
People prayed. People fought. People died.
In that orange-skied afternoon, after watching my friends burn, I was taken by my own madness. I wanted retribution.
With swords in hand, I charged forth, through the snow and the mists of blood that lingered in the air. I was prepared to die, driven by the rage pumping through me.
But Nikita held me back.
She tripped me with her spear, brought me down into the snow. She yelled at everyone, ordering a rapid retreat.
But there was nowhere to run.
Half of the division was lost to fear, the other half lost to bloodlust. A wall of earth and fire was surging toward us.
Arrows were launched from bows, bullets from rifles, spears from hands, falling upon the enemy like steel-tipped rain.
But the red woman endured.
Spells were cast, bolts of lightning and jets of fire exploded from spell circles, setting the forest ablaze.
But the red woman endured.
The Reaper stood untouched amidst the falling snow, a blood-red candle on the eve of twilight.
She grinned, moving her hand effortlessly through the air.
Hundreds of magi died in an instant, consumed by the ring of fire from her fingertips.
Nikita and I survived, protected by our armor and noble blood.
But the rest of our division perished.
A thousand magi lost to fire, a thousand souls extinguished from the glance of a god.
Nikita and I sat huddled together in the snow, silent for what felt like forever.
Tears streamed from Nikita’s face, like clear-blue waterfalls on porcelain stone.
She blamed herself for everything.
“I brought them here.” she said. “This was my mistake and they paid for it.”
I held her then. Our capes seared, our armor dirtied and grimed.
“I killed them all.” she told herself, wailing.
I held her tight and close, burying my face in her hair. I felt nothing then.
I was no one in that snow-filled forest. Not her lieutenant. Not her friend. Not her lover.
Our friends lost their lives to a hurricane. They lost their lives to an accident of nature.
My words were ice.
“We will kill them all.”
I declared to the forest, to the snow, to the dead magi around us.
For the next year, we lived our lives in sorrow and in guilt.
Our king proclaimed that everyone who died that day died so with honor.
That they died as heroes.
But Nikita and I knew.
There was no honor then.
There were no heroes then.
Nor will there ever be.
Two years ago, a god attacked mankind.
But they are beyond our laws, and justice will never be served.
“I can see it in your eyes.” Yui says, her red lips curling upward. “Two years have passed but the memory is still fresh.”
“There are some things that stay with you forever.” I say.
“You’re not the first to come to us, asking about that day.” Nikita gazes toward the city. “Before you came droves of journalists, people who wanted to know everything about us, about everything we saw. Of course, before we could talk to them, we had to first sit down with Kria’s Admirals, to debrief them on what exactly transpired.”
“I apologize for being so blunt about this.” Yui says.
Nikita smiles courteously. “It’s nothing. Everything’s in the past now.”
“After the media, the flashing lights, and everything in between, came our families’ many associates.” I add, crossing my arms over my chest. “At first, it was mostly just some random magi from New Francisco. But then other noble families, from the Midswords, to the Nakashima, began offering what I like to think was emotional support.”
Yui Isvell Inoue tilts her head and smiles.
“And I’m sure you didn’t need their sympathy, seeing that you had each other.”
“They were welcome gestures, nonetheless.” I say. “Support from the other families helped quell whatever flack our houses were receiving.”
“I’m sure.” Yui says. “So many magi lost their lives that day. Whenever something terrible happens, people often look for someone to blame.”
“We were sent to investigate a missing party.” Nikita says, her eyes fixed on the table. “But then we were ambushed, or rather, we were too awestruck to attempt retaliation or escape.”
Your magic was also being nullified. But I’m not going to point that out since you chose to skip that particular detail.
“The Reaper who attacked you that day, do you know who she is?”
“Arus Concero.” I spit out the name with a scoff. “The Twelfth Reaper, the Divinus look up to her as the Reaper of Discord.”
“Her intention that day was clear.” Nikita says. “She wanted to spark a war. A part of me believes that she let us live because she wanted us to be the catalysts of that war.”
“Our division had three other nobles with us, not including the two that were a part of the missing party we investigated. Normally, so many highborn deaths would be the perfect reason for Kria to take up arms. But we were attacked by a Reaper. Half of Kria’s population worships them. There were… complications to consider.”
“The majority of the world is simply inclined to forgive and forget. The Reapers are gods, after all.” the sound of distaste is clear in Nikita’s words. “What right do we have to interpret their actions as nothing less but divine? Everyone seems to believe that no more attacks will happen, that the attack two years ago was nothing but an isolated incident. People believe that war will never come to fruition.”
“Do you genuinely believe that?” Inoue tilts her head again, but her face is devoid of a smile.
“I don’t.” I take out my phone, pushing it to the center of the table. “A war is inevitable. While most of the people on earth are praying for peace, kingdoms everywhere are building their armies and reinforcing their defenses. No doubt Genevede is one of them, Kria, eh, not so much. We seem content just sitting around, dawdling our fingers and praying that nothing terrible is ever going to happen.”
Yui nods in understanding and points at my phone. “You were going to show me something, weren’t you?”
My eyes meet with Nikita, waiting for her go-ahead. She nods after a moment, though not without hesitation.
I tap a button on my phone and flick my finger upward, projecting holograms into the air between the three of us. Photographs, screenshots of news sites, and videos clips are displayed, showing images of white-robed and white-armored magi going about their businesses, walking through streets, standing at podiums, or marching through formation.
“I’m impressed, Maxwell. I never knew you were this obsessed.”
“I’m not obsessed. Just curious.” I shrug. “Over the past year, the Divinus have been mobilizing their forces, recruiting more and more magi into their ranks. Scores of White Knights are being blessed each day, while more and more Prophetters are earning their robes.”
“While I may not be a fan of their faith,” Nikita says. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with what they’re doing. Two years ago, the world cried in outrage because of what one of their gods did. The Divinus suffered. Services were raided, schools they set up were destroyed, Prophetters kidnapped and hurt. Mob mentality took over. People saw the Divinus as the bad guys. It’s just like you said, Your Grace, people wanted someone to blame. I’ve told this to Chaos before, but it looks like they’re just building up their security to avoid any future incidents.”
“Two years have passed. The demonstrations have died down. This is not a security detail, Niki.” with a flick of my finger I enlarge a screen, showing a satellite image of scores of white knights standing in perfect formation.
Nikita stares at the photo, her lips pursed.
“Why are you talking to us about this, Your Grace?” she asks Yui, her green eyes staring straight into the girl’s own blue orbs. “We’re no longer in the military. After serving our mandatory years, our parents forbid us from renewing our ranks. If there’s a war to be fought, then we’re probably not going to be a part of it.”
“That never really stopped anyone. You’re both nobles, your families have tens of thousands of magi in your command.” Inoue points at me. “Hell, your family even manufactures weapons for a living.”
“We usually just settle with making armor these days. Just saying. You know, in case you need some HARNES suits for your troops in Genevede.”
Nikita sighs, palming her face. “Are you kidding me, Chaos?”
“I had to try. She comes from a family of knights like me. We share mutual interest when it comes to these things.”
Inoue coughs loudly, “The point is, you both have the resources. You have the skills, the experience, the forethought to wage a war. These images before us now are proof of that. For the past two years, the world’s eyes have fallen on you, watching your every movement. The people are waiting for the dragon of House Maxwell and the scholar of House Takahashi to do something.”
Nikita’s lowers her head, softening her voice. “So basically, you’re here to ask us to wage a war against the Reapers?”
Yui frowns, “Oh. You almost sound like you don’t want to.”
“I don’t want a war. I want justice. I want that Reaper to answer for her crimes.”
“And how do you pursue this justice?” Inoue’s voice is filled with venom and spite. “The Thirteen Reapers are beyond our laws. What happened in that forest sparked the anger of a thousand souls, all calling for justice. But if the accused can never be touched, then what’s the point? No amount of prayer from no number of Divinus can convince the Twelfth Reaper to answer for what happened.”
“Do you know why the Divinus choose to hold their ceremonies in giant towers instead of small churches, Your Grace?” I reach out and turn off my phone, shoving it back into my pocket. “They believe that their towers are bridges that connect the heavens with the earth. Burn enough of these bridges and someone will surely notice.”
“I hate dealing with you knights!” Nikita lets out a long, loud sigh. “You people all think the same way. It’s always violence this, violence that. What’s your goal, anyway? Is Genevede planning to wage a war on the Divinus?” she smacks the table, sighing again. “I know what you’re thinking: antagonize the faith enough and their gods should answer, right? We reached a point in our lives where we thought the same thing. But eventually we decided that innocent lives shouldn’t pay for the actions of one overzealous deity.”
“You’re not the first to come to us with this offer. We’re not interested in forming any alliances, nor are we driven enough to raise our banners for a cause against the Divinus. If you have information, I’ll gladly take it. If you have a weapon or a spell that you think will be effective against the Reapers, I want to know about it. But for now Nikita and I have chosen to stay our blades.”
Yui Inoue closes her eyes and nods in seeming understanding. “Of course. I should have been clearer with my intentions. There was no way I was going to sway you both to my side through words alone.”
She points at the ceiling and twirls her finger in a slow circle. Magical energy gathers at her fingertip, condensing, forming into a golden ring no larger than a dinner plate. A knife, long and made of black steel, materializes from the ring, landing on her lap.
“My sister forged this dagger.” Inoue smiles proudly. “It’s specifically designed to kill a god.”