Chapter 4, Part 2
Like always, she made her way out to the courtyard to go meet the ephemeral girl bathed in the moonlight.
Her quiet smile, tinged with a hint of shyness.
In the rain. In the wind. At noon. At night.
Time had already stopped for this girl. Five years ago on that day, her future had been put on permanent hold. All that was left of her was, literally, an afterimage.
But even so, the one she left behind still clung to the olden days.
Not wishing for those memories to fade—the woman dragged them along with her instead, kept all of the girl’s portraits and articles, and replayed those memories in her head over and over again.
She didn’t regret doing so.
This was a human thing to do.
This was what humans ought to do.
“Why?” Dominica asked not taking her eyes off the false Lucie Scoda. “Our battle is tomorrow at noon. Or were you thinking you could get me in my sleep?”
“I would if I thought that it would actually work,” the young man—the saboteur Tohru—said. “Y’see, there are a lot of things that don’t make sense here.”
“…Don’t make sense?”
At last, Dominica moved her gaze off the false image and onto the two standing behind her.
Next to Tohru was the silver-haired girl—Chaika, the one that resembled Lucie in appearance. Dominica didn’t see Tohru’s sister Akari anywhere, so perhaps she was planning a surprise attack, or setting something up.
“You were part of the special forces that were said to have directly toppled Emperor Gaz and his empire, correct?”
“Correct, and?” She made a puzzled expression.
Why would he be asking something like that now?
“You don’t remember her, then?” Tohru indicated Chaika beside him.
“Remember? What do you mean?”
Dominica narrowed her eyes as she stared at Chaika.
And simultaneously, Tohru narrowed his eyes at Dominica.
His were the eyes of someone making allowance, searching for something.
Tohru nodded, like he had understood something.
“Well? Anything else? Satisfied now?” Dominica asked.
“Yeah. More or less.”
He walked up to Dominica’s side.
His pair of shortswords hung on his waist, but he made no attempt to reach for them. There was no trace of intent to fight, or kill. It seemed that he really hadn’t come to attack her and break their agreement about tomorrow’s duel.
“Hey, you’re a dragoon cavalier, right?” Tohru asked as he looked around the area. “Is it really okay for you to fight without a dragoon?”
“Would you prefer I summon it? That would snuff out your one-in-a-million-chance of victory, you know?”
“You’ve got a point, but…”
Tohru walked right past Dominica and over to the Lucie hologram.
By the time Dominica’s voice reached him, he was already side-by-side with Lucie.
“Don’t get close to my sister. Don’t touch her.”
“This isn’t your sister. It’s just a fake,” Tohru said indifferently.
He wasn’t taking pity on her, nor was he scorning her. He just told it like it was.
A fake. An afterimage. Of course she knew that.
“The dead will never die again. The dead will never hurt again. They just fade away into oblivion.”
“Just like this.”
Suddenly—Tohru threw something with his right hand.
There was a light whistling noise.
Like an arrow being loosed on the battlefield—
In the next instant, there was a thunk, and her sister’s hologram vanished.
And then, there was nothing left. Truly—nothing.
“What did you do!?”
Dominica strode over to Tohru and grabbed his collar.
He had probably thrown something—and broken the projecting device.
“What’s the matter? You get unstable when your sister’s not by your side?”
Tohru returned Dominica’s glare, blazing with rage, with leveled eyes.
“Are your feelings toward your sister really so pathetic?”
“What did you say?”
“It’s not like you’re the only one who’s ever lost someone special, you know. Even I have,” Tohru said, in a voice meant to throw down the gauntlet.
Just as Tohru said, countless friends and family members had perished in the long war. So there was no need for him to communicate it to her again so haughtily.
“It’s been seared into me.”
“Even if I wanted to forget, there’s no way I could. About her. When I close my eyes, she’s there. Whether I want her to be or not. No matter how many times I reject it, or refuse it, my memories of her keep coming back. I can’t even think about anything else.”
“…My…” Dominica moaned.
“Wouldn’t you say, then, that your feelings towards your sister are kinda weak in comparison?”
Tohru stared right at Dominica, his expression icy.
“You kept her portraits. You even saved her stuff. Anyone would do that. But having an afterimage of your sister smack dab in the middle of the courtyard where you can see her from any room in the mansion, even in rain and wind, during both noon and night, what the hell sort of purpose do you think that serves?”
Dominica had no words.
Because somewhere in her heart, she knew there was a part of Tohru’s words that she couldn’t refute.
She hadn’t even thought about it. It was just what a human would do—what humans ought to do, she had thought. And she had kept telling herself that. It was probably more out of duty than some actual desire.
“Hey you…you’re not actually that sad, are you?”
“What did you just say to me!?” She gripped Tohru’s collar even tighter. His toes were just barely touching the ground. But the saboteur did not back down. He narrowed his eyes, and spoke as if he was seeing through Dominica’s very core.
“Even though you lost your precious sister, you’re not that sad at all. You’re just forcing yourself, going along with the motions of sadness, aren’t you?”
“…Bastard…are you making a fool of me?”
Why would he be saying something like that?
Even if, say, it was true, what was his aim in intentionally pointing that out to her and riling her up? How did that benefit him? Surely he didn’t think she’d be overjoyed and grateful at having been told this?
“…Are you mad?” Tohru asked, as if probing around for something.
So making her angry had indeed been the goal? True, if he aimed to get her angry enough to lose herself he might be able to make an opening. And neither dragoons nor dragoon cavaliers were actually immortal. If an opening revealed itself and she were to suffer a killing blow, that would be the end of her.
Dominica—let out a sigh, and released Tohru’s collar.
“We’ve got things to do early tomorrow. I will have calmed down after a night’s sleep.”
“Is that so?” Tohru nodded, fixing his collar.
He didn’t seem particularly bitter about it. So the goal wasn’t to make her mad, then?
A voice cut in between Tohru and Dominica without warning.
When Dominica turned her head to face the voice, the vestiges of anger probably still remained in her eyes. As a result, Chaika flinched for a second, but then continued on as though she had found her resolve.
“Will fix. Apologize.”
The silver-haired girl seemed to be genuinely sorry.
Or perhaps even though they were together, Chaika had not been informed of what Tohru was planning beforehand. Maybe all of Tohru’s actions tonight had been on a whim, purely circumstantial.
“Device repair, quite skilled.”
After Dominica thought it over a bit, she nodded.
“Suit yourself. But don’t think for a second that you can get me to hand over the remains in exchange for the repair.”
Both the projection device and Lucie’s hologram were precious, but it wasn’t like they were irreplaceable.
“Of course. Repair. Tomorrow. Before noon—before battle, will give back.”
Chaika nodded her head enthusiastically. She took that to mean that she had no intention of playing dirty and using Lucie’s hologram as a bargaining chip.
“You said you wanted a fight, and we’re gonna give it to you,” said Tohru next to her, straightening his posture.
But her opponents were saboteurs. How much of those words she could trust, she didn’t know.
“If so, I’d like that.”
“With that parting remark, Dominica turned on her heel.
Lucie’s hologram was gone, so Dominica had no further business here.
Although, to Dominica as she was now, it made no difference whether she was in a room or by the roadside. Any space where she could continue existing was fine with her. She had lost her real home, so it wasn’t an exaggeration to say the concept of “place” was a mere trifle.
Tohru’s words just now resounded in her mind.
Hey you…you’re not actually that sad, are you?
“Preposterous,” Dominica told herself. “I’m devastated. I’m filled with regret. But—”
Tohru had been wrong.
But had he been completely wrong…?
Dominica exited the courtyard, muttering to herself.
* * *
After leaving the courtyard, Tohru’s next destination was the Svetrana.
Though Akari had already fully investigated the rooms they had been given,Tohru had determined that the final preparations had to be taken care of outside the mansion, just in case.
“Tohru.” As they exited the foyer, Chaika, following half a step behind him, spoke up. “Why…?”
The projection device she had retrieved from the premises was small enough for her to cradle in her arms. One of Tohru’s throwing daggers was sticking out from the side of it. A small rock probably could have done the job just fine, except breaking it hadn’t been the end goal. In order for it to be easy to repair afterwards he was aiming for pinpoint accuracy, so he had chosen to use a weapon he was familiar with.
However, Tohru had not informed Chaika of the particulars beforehand.
Sure, that might have been a bad thing to do, but Chaika was a girl that let all her emotions show on her face right away, so informing her would have most likely been a hindrance.
“Huh? What do you mean ‘why..?’”
“Something, cruel, like that.”
Tohru scrunched up his face.
It seemed like Chaika had a bone to pick with him about his acrimonious treatment of Dominica, including how he ruined her projection device. Sure, from a spectator’s perspective it probably looked like he was just being evil.
“I wanted to confirm something. I wanted to see if Dominica would actually get angry when I said that stuff,” Tohru explained, recalling Dominica’s face.
She had indeed been angry. She’d been angry, but—
Tohru, now beside the Svetrana, turned to look at her.
He could feel himself hesitating for a second, but he went on and asked anyway.
“What if I had said those things to you about your father? How would you feel about it?”
“Father? About? Eh?”
Chaika just stood there, clearly confused.
It seemed she didn’t understand Tohru’s question at all.
“Like for instance, what if I told you, ‘you’re not really that sad about your father’s death at all, are you?’”
Chaika’s brows formed a crease.
Right. That’s how it is, Tohru muttered in his heart.
Sadness only diffuses inside people. It’s not something you can just forget. But the mind learns to bear it and move onward. Whether or not you are sad—is normally pushed back to the subconscious.
It was the same for pain.
If left alone, the pain from a wound that has yet to heal doesn’t last forever. In most cases, the pain is most severe the instant the wound is received. Assuming the wound doesn’t reopen, the pain only dulls from then on and you become accustomed to it—the wound hasn’t healed and the pain hasn’t vanished, but you’re not as aware of it. .
And that’s why if someone were to say to Tohru that he wasn’t really that torn up over Jasmine’s death, he wouldn’t get angry. He might be confused, but just by looking inside himself and finding that sadness remaining in his heart he could easily deny their words.
For someone to get angry after having that said to you—wouldn’t that be the same as confirming that they were right?
He got the feeling that the more you insist on being sad, the more you end up actually negating your own efforts.
“Crying and wailing, done. No more. But—truly sad.”
“I’m sure,” Tohru nodded.
“But you wouldn’t be mad.”
“Mm.” Chaika nodded. “But. Father, death. Didn’t see.”
“Same as Dominica, then.”
Yes, there were those out there who had experienced the death of a loved one without being able to witness it themselves. However, would they actually get angry at having it pointed out to them?
However he looked at it, Dominica’s words and behavior were strange.
And what’s more—
Her having a piece of the remains confirms that she was one of those who directly finished off the Taboo Emperor.
The count at Del Solant had also belonged to that group.
“R-ridiculous! You’re supposed to be dead!”
Roberto Abarth had definitely said that.
Though he had no way to confirm it, he was sure that those words weren’t directed at him or Akari. And the only people present in the room at the time had been Tohru, Akari, Roberto…and Chaika.
Therefore, the person who was “supposed to be dead” according to Roberto had to be Chaika.
To be honest, before he’d met Chaika—no, even up until he’d heard about her background from Gillette Corps, Tohru had no idea that Emperor Gaz even had a daughter.
He didn’t know much about Emperor Gaz in the first place…or rather, it was said that no one save for a small fraction of his close aides knew anything about his personal life.
But the world’s leaders, emperors, kings, and sovereigns alike, were men of the public. If one of them had a family, it would be known throughout all the land. Even if you did try to hide it, you couldn’t do so half-heartedly.
And yet…never mind the existence of a daughter, there was absolutely no information on any possible wives he may have had, legal or otherwise. Most likely, even his subjects had had no idea.
Only so many people have seen Chaika’s face.
This held even truer for those outside the Empire.
And…those words, “you’re supposed to be dead…”
From that logic, couldn’t that mean that Roberto Abarth saw Chaika’s face during the attack on the Empire’s capital?
Like when he’d broken into Emperor Gaz’s living quarters, for instance.
With the castle under siege, it certainly made sense that Emperor Gaz would have wanted his closest retainers and family with him while formulating an escape plan. In that sense, it was possible that Chaika had been by Arthur Gaz’s side during the battle. In that case, it wasn’t strange at all for Roberto Abarth to have seen Chaika’s face while the special forces unit was apprehending the emperor.
If you thought about Chaika’s memory loss as the result of some sort of shock or trauma from witnessing that scene, then everything fit.
But…if that was true…
Dominica should be one of those same heroes, so she should have seen Chaika’s face as well.
Yet she didn’t recognize her. Chaika being as unique and beautiful as she was, there was no way Dominica couldn’t have recognized her as soon as she saw her.
What on earth did that mean, then?
Perhaps the special forces unit didn’t always operate as a whole?
Of course, depending on the details, it was more than possible that Dominica had just never seen Chaika’s face, but—
It was also possible that Dominica wasn’t there when Emperor Gaz had fallen.
In other words…
“Quite the conundrum,” Tohru said as he lowered a wicker basket off of the Svetrana’s luggage rack. In it were a number of tools and assorted pieces of equipment that they had taken from the Acura village at the time of their departure. The raid on Abarth’s mansion had primarily been a stealth mission, so in that case they had prioritized agility and not used the tools. However, they were facing a dragoon cavalier head-on. This mission would have a heavy emphasis on combat.
“Ugh, I just feel like something’s off.”
“I provoked her just so I could figure out what, but…”
Chaika’s head tilt showed him that naturally, she didn’t get it at all.
“I’ll explain later,” Tohru said as he looked over the contents of the basket.
Chaika stood there by his side, staring at him intently, but then—
She spoke, her expression slightly troubled for some reason.
“In case…life in danger…recommend…running away.”
Tohru put the lid back on the basket and focused his attention on her.
When he glanced at her face from the front, she averted her gaze and tried to turn her head, like she was embarrassed by something. But Tohru reached out both hands, placed them on the left and right sides of her face, and stopped that action.
“Now listen here,” Tohru said, clearly and emphatically. “I don’t need that kind of concern.”
Chaika’s eyes went wide.
Staring into her violet eyes, into their depths, Tohru continued.
“I’m a saboteur. Whether it’s our own or other people’s, making light of life is our trade.”
Mind, body, techniques, even life itself, were mere tools to accomplish the mission.
That was a saboteur’s creed…and their pride.
Chaika looked like she was on the verge of tears.
It really seemed like Chaika hadn’t given any thought to how her mission, the gathering of the remains, would affect others around her, or if she had, she hadn’t fully realized the implications.
Being despised. Being hated. And…losing something as a result.
Like the life of a comrade, for instance.
But the girl wasn’t trying to collect just any old remains. These were the remains of the Taboo Emperor. Even after death, his influence was much too large—an existence that affected a great number of people’s fates. Of course they would have to risk their lives to retrieve remains of that caliber.
Even Chaika was probably prepared to put her own life on the line.
But using the lives of others as collateral to fulfill one’s own selfish ambitions required a different type of resolve.
However, asking Chaika to harbor this resolve when her ultimate goal was merely to give her father a proper burial was admittedly harsh.
Because to her, it would be the same as telling her allies to die for her own ambitions.
“Please.” Tohru’s face relaxed, and he showed her a wry smile. “Think of your own desires before anything else.”
“At the very least, don’t toss away your own goal out of consideration for either of us. Otherwise, all our effort will be for nothing, Master.”
Chaika blinked her eyes rapidly again and again, almost like she was scared, in fact.
Now, after all this time, she probably finally realized what it meant to employ a saboteur.
“I said it before, didn’t I? My objective is making sure you see your objective through to the end. So when my master is on the fence and unsure, it makes my job difficult.”
Chaika was at a loss for words, like she couldn’t choke them out.
In the next instant, Tohru pushed Chaika away and reflexively leapt backwards.
A black something shot past right between them.
It struck the exterior of the Svetrana and spun through the air, having glanced off.
“…Wait a minute…”
Tohru stretched out his hand and grabbed it.
It was a throwing dagger, specifically painted black so as to prevent light reflecting off of it. It might have looked different, but it was a staple item of which multiple would be found in any saboteur’s bag.
In other words…
Tohru turned around to see his sister walking towards him from Dominica’s mansion with a glare.
“Hey, what’s the big idea!?”
“Nii-sama,” Akari said with half-lidded eyes. “That was a dangerous situation.”
“You’re the one that’s dangerous!” Tohru said, lightly tossing the dagger back to her. “Throwing that out of the blue—”
“Trying to steal a kiss under the cover of the night…but really, that’s just like you, Nii-sama.
“What do you mean!?”
Though, he did more or less realize what Akari was getting at.
Earlier when Tohru grabbed Chaika’s face to prevent her from averting her eyes towards him, it must have looked like he was trying to forcibly take her lips for his own. To put it bluntly, her deduction skills were the absolute worst…but well, telling her so was pointless.
“I mean, you tried to kiss her.”
“Did not! Besides, you threw a dagger at me for a tiny little thing like that!?”
“I did. I did indeed.”
“Don’t sound so proud of it!”
“Anyway, it’s much too soon for you to be having children.”
Tohru scrunched up his face, completely lost.
“…What do you mean by that?”
“Nii-sama, do you not know?”
Akari stated her next words in a meaningful tone, like she was imparting some grand wisdom upon him.
“Kissing is how babies are made.”
“…Your knowledge is twisted in all sorts of ways.”
Feeling a pointless exhaustion bearing down on him, he lowered his shoulders.
He breathed a heavy sigh—and switching gears, posed a question.
“So…how’d it go?”
“Pretty much exactly as you thought. I checked the whole mansion, but”—she returned the throwing dagger to her bag—”even the supposed room that Dominica stays in showed almost no signs of use.”
Basically, that was what Akari had been up to in the meantime. While Tohru and Akari were in the courtyard occupying Dominica’s attention, Akari was combing the mansion thoroughly, even the rooms that they hadn’t previously been able to check like Dominica’s own room. If she was to come across the remains during the search, it was simple—they would just take them and run, though honestly Tohru hadn’t expected as much.
“Ever since we made dinner, it’s been bugging me.”
The kitchen that was left largely untouched.
No matter how attuned to the battlefield you were, there was no point to going out of your way to cook outdoors when you had a perfectly good kitchen. The stove was so neglected it had become a spider’s’ nest. At least, it was clear that a fire hadn’t been lit even once in the kitchen in the past year, or maybe longer.
“Even the bed was untouched. The floor was coated in dust.”
In other words, the exact same as the room Tohru and Akari had been given.
“In actuality, Dominica Scoda’s room did show some slight signs of use. However, it certainly wasn’t recent. That room hasn’t been used in over a year.”
“Dammit. In this case I would’ve preferred to have my expectations betrayed…” He sighed.
Chaika next to him looked back and forth between Tohru and Akari with a puzzled expression.
She likely didn’t understand the meaning of their conversation, and how it related to the conclusion that Tohru had ultimately reached.
“So what’s the plan, Nii-sama?”
Akari took down a basket from the luggage rack with her own tools crammed in it. Her basket was different from Tohru’s in that aside from her weapons and armor, it also had chemistry equipment and assorted drugs ranging from salves and internally-taken medication to poisons and incendiaries. The sound of the items coming into contact with a porcelain vase resounded through the room, as a container was needed to keep them all in one place.
“In a fair fight against our opponent, I don’t think we could win.”
“And that’s why this won’t be a fair fight, of course.”
“All right, once we’re in the vehicle I’ll tell you the plan I’ve cooked up. Then I want you to tell me what you both think.”