I watch as the procession advances through Elphen’s large main street.
There are quite a few bodyguards, but I don’t have any way to guess at their ranks, other than a nebulous feeling telling me that any one of them could crush me with his pinky finger.
Several luxurious carriages – which are probably more solid than they look, considering they made the trip through the Frontline without even scratching their gilding – follow along in the middle of the protective encirclement of these numerous bodyguards, imperial flags flying over each of them.
Even in enemy countries, humans sure don’t lower their heads, do they?
Well, I don’t really care. I have not a shred of pride in my identity as a majin – nor shame, for that matter – so the humans’ arrogance does not offend me. In my book, nationalism and patriotism are little more than mental deficiencies.
But I’m a bit disappointed.
I was hoping to get a look at Milla, to check if she had really come to Elphen, or if I was risking my life here for nothing on the basis of some unreliable pillow talk from a merchant’s daughter, but I unfortunately can’t see inside the carriages at the passengers they carry – which is probably deliberate, as a security measure to prevent targeted attacks.
As the carriages slowly trudge along, their wheels clattering on the cobblestones, I keep an eye on the rooftops, just in case I misjudged the best attack spots where an assassin would take position if they wanted to intercept.
I spent the last few days combing the city, looking for those attack spots, and I should have them firmly in hand, but who knows what might happen? It’s true that I’m intimately familiar with the methods and habits of the Major and her team and should thus be able to predict when and where they’re going to strike, but something might have changed in the year I’ve been out of the game.
If I want to go against the Major, being careful is a must.
I follow along the procession of carriages until it safely arrives in front of the governor’s palace, then I quickly disappear into the watching crowd.
I have preparations to make.
Late at night, the next day.
An old woman, looking like a well-preserved 60-year-old, wearing practical but luxurious clothing, stops in front of her room, deep within the governor’s palace. She waits for her guards to make a sweep and check no threat is waiting for her inside before entering herself.
Her face is marred by a variety of wrinkles, now, but she has the same eyes I remember from all those years ago, glittering with intelligence and warmth. I have no trouble recognizing her.
Once inside her room, Milla unties the clasp holding her cloak in place and, after neatly folding it in her arms, puts it down on the edge of her bed. Then, she takes a few steps away, toward a small desk set against the wall, and sits down into the chair in front of it.
“It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?” she suddenly asks to the empty room, her voice friendly and welcoming. Only silence answers her question, and her lips bend into an amused smile. “How long are you going to pretend you’re not there? You’re not fooling me at all, Sif.”
“Tch.” I click my tongue and deactivate my concealment magic, abruptly appearing, stretched out atop Milla’s bed, my arms crossed languidly beneath my head and my eyes looking into hers. “How did you know? Even your guards didn’t notice me.”
“Huh. It really is you,” Milla says, ignoring my question. She peers at me closely. “You look exactly the same as you did 50 years ago.”
“Immortality does have its perks.”
“I’m sure it does.”
“I’m surprised you still remember me. We were only ever together for a few months, and 50 years is a long time for a human.”
She gives me a warm smile. “Isn’t 50 years a long time for anybody, no matter what their species? But yes, I still remember you. A girl doesn’t forget her first love easily, you see.”
“…Oh, my. I think it’s the first time I receive a confession like this. My heart is all aflutter.”
Milla’s smile deepens. “I very much doubt someone with your looks would have been as unpopular as you claim. But you certainly do tell the truth when you say that your heart is all aflutter. I heard it skip a beat all the way from over here.”
“Amusing. But I…”
“Don’t bother denying it,” Milla says before I can even finish my own sentence. “I was being perfectly literal, when I said that I heard it. My hearing is quite a lot better than you think.”
She starts laughing at me, lifting a hand to hide her mouth like a prim and proper lady. “Hohoho. So, even after all this time, you too still feel something, huh? Sif, the ruthless, fearsome assassin, is more sentimental than I’d heard. Well, I already knew that a long time ago, though.”
“Ahem. Don’t overestimate yourself, little girl. I’m just scared that one of your bodyguards will suddenly discover I snuck in and attack me.”
“Oh, really now? All right, we’ll say it like that, then. But you calling me a little girl doesn’t really fit anymore, does it? Considering I look so much older than you, now, I mean.”
“You only look older than me. But in truth, I’m more than twice your age. So yes, you’re still a little girl, in my eyes.”
“I see. You make a good point, I suppose. Still, I’ve always held that maturity has more to do with how much time one has left to live, rather than how much time one has already lived. While I admit there may very well be exceptions to this rule, you are definitely not one of them.”
“Are you saying I’m childish?”
“I suppose I’d say that you’ve retained a youthful exuberance?”
“Still kind of sounds like an insult to me.”
“Perhaps you’re simply too conscious of your own faults?”
I shake my head and sigh, raising my hands in defeat. “Haaa… Fine, fine. Sheesh. Arguing with you is as difficult as ever. I still can’t win.”
Milla nods, as if gracefully accepting my declaration of defeat as a matter of course. “Thank you. I shall take that as a compliment.”
Wait a minute.
What is this good-humored banter?
After confirming that Milla had indeed come with this human delegation, I spent an entire day wondering how this conversation would go and agonizing over what I should say, but somehow, it’s going in a completely different direction from how I had imagined it. I was supposed to talk about what’s going to happen once the Major decides to act, yet here I am, exchanging meaningless jokes and pleasantries.
…Shouldn’t two people who haven’t met for such a long time be little more than strangers? So how can we even talk so casually, like old friends who know each other intimately?
In any case, I can’t afford to waste any time, when a bodyguard could come bursting through the door at any moment.
“Still,” I say, “I can’t help but wonder if that silver tongue of yours will be enough to get you through the negotiations waiting for you over the next few days.”
At my attempt to steer the conversation back toward the actual subject of my visit, Milla’s eyes cloud a little, and her words take on a more bitter undertone. “Unfortunately, I doubt the negotiations will even take place. I believe my purpose here is something else altogether.”
I frown and my next words come in a harsher tone. “If you were aware of that, why did you even bother coming here? Do you have a death wish or something?”
Milla ruminates on her words for a long time before giving an answer. “No, I do not. But… I’m growing old, Sif. And my attachment to life is waning by the day. Dying here, or dying in my bed at home. In the end, it makes no real difference.”
“So you do have a death wish.”
Milla chuckles quietly. “As I said, I do not. It’s simply that I have lived more than 70 years, already. It has been a plentiful life. I am well satisfied.”
“So you’re not going to let me convince you to leave right away, then? That would really be the simplest way to avoid all the unpleasantness that is most certainly sure to come.”
Milla shakes her head. “I’m sorry to reject your good intentions, but no. I do not intend to flee back to Alsomn with my tail between my legs.”
…What’s wrong with fleeing?
Why do people revile the thought of fleeing so much?
It doesn’t make sense.
Fleeing can be a perfectly rational and justified decision.
And how can one be satisfied with only 70 years of life? That’s much too little time to really enjoy everything there is to enjoy in the universe.
But it’s not my place to tell Milla what to do with her life, even if I find her intention to discard it so easily stupid and wasteful and even if it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. I’m a firm believer in the concepts of freedom and self-determination. Even if I very much would flee, if I were in her situation, it doesn’t mean I can force her to do the same. It would be disrespectful and insulting. She can and should make her own decision.
An uncomfortable silence settles over the room, so I break it with the first retort that comes to my mind. “I don’t think you humans have tails to tuck between your legs when fleeing, actually. You’ll need a rakshasa or a werewolf, for that.”
“Truly? I’m glad you’re here to tell me these things. I don’t know what I would do without you.”
And suddenly, I find myself replying to Milla’s joke before even making the conscious decision to do so. “Apparently, you’d marry some random idiot nobleman, lead a plain and boring life, then die meaninglessly in a foreign country.”
I didn’t mean to say that.
I cringe inwardly at how acerbic and sullen my voice sounds, even to my own ears. I immediately regret my words, but it’s a bit too late to take them back, so I don’t. I shift uneasily atop the bed and resist the impulse to awkwardly clear my throat.
Fortunately, Milla doesn’t seem to have been offended. Laugh lines crease the corners of her eyes, and she tilts her head, as if trying to look at me from another perspective. “I am flattered.”
I blink. “Flattered? You’re flattered by my insults?”
“Yes.” Milla’s warm smile brightens even more. “I was already pretty sure of it, but your bitterness definitely confirms that I’m not just another one of your sexual conquests.” She takes a deep breath before continuing. “You… care about me,” she concludes, speaking slowly, as if tasting each word before speaking them.
“Actually, when I first noticed your presence here, I thought you were here to kill me, for a moment. I’m glad you are not.”
“What? Of course I’m not. Why would I want to kill you?”
Milla’s eyebrows rise up, and she stares at me like I’m an idiot. “Because you are an assassin?”
“Oh, right. I suppose if you need a reason to kill people, this would be a pretty good one. But no, I’m not here to kill you. And I’m not technically an assassin, either. There is a bit of assassination mixed in, sometimes, but my work mostly consists of spying. My old work, I mean. I’m retired.”
“Yes. You went into tailoring, did you? Should I offer you my best wishes for your success in your new career?”
“Well, actually, I think I also retired from tailoring. Right now, I am a jobless, homeless, aimless bum.” I frown for a moment as a thought suddenly hits me. “Wait a minute. How do you even know about my work as a tailor?”
“My father is the one who created and controls the Planar Prison. Digging up basic information on its prisoners isn’t difficult, for me.”
“Did I hear that right? Created? Your father created that whole world?”
“Huh. I know the people inside are all prisoners who came from Caldera – or their descendants – but did your father create the other animals and things, too, in addition to the land itself?”
Milla shakes her head with a small laugh. “I really don’t know, Sif. For questions about magic, you’re asking the wrong person. I’d like to remind you that my rank is even lower than yours.”
“Hmm. I see. Still, I’m impressed. I truly am.”
Gods are even more powerful than I expected.
I wonder if Akasha can create worlds, too? Is that a standard god power? Though, from what I’ve seen of her temperament, she’d likely be more enthusiastic about destroying them…
“So you knew I’d been captured and sent to the Prison?”
Milla shakes her head again. “Not until recently, no. But the sudden loss of more than 5000 apostles in Lamos, a few weeks ago, aroused my curiosity. I was surprised to learn that you were involved. Congratulations on escaping the Prison, by the way. I’m impressed you managed to do it so quickly. Most people who end up in there never leave it, but you stayed for only a year before finding your way out.”
The lack of reproach in Milla’s voice leaves me a bit nonplussed. “Huh, thanks. I guess. You certainly don’t seem to mind your father losing so many of his soldiers.”
“I don’t,” Milla replies, her smile slipping off her lips, letting place to a slightly melancholy look I can’t quite decipher. “In my eyes, the death of these apostles is a mercy, an extrication.”
There seems to be some kind of deep meaning behind Milla’s words, so I mull over them for a minute.
“I’m not sure I really understand what you mean,” I say finally.
“I’m not sure I understand everything, either, so I won’t be shooting my mouth off irresponsibly. I don’t exclude the possibility that I might be wrong and what you committed was a heinous slaughter, instead.”
“Oh, don’t worry. Feel free to be wrong as much as you want. I only killed one apostle, that day, so the guilt will fall at another’s feet, anyway. I am safe and secure in my bastion of moral superiority.”
Milla chuckles a bit at my shameless words, and her warm smiles returns to her face. “I’m glad your conscience is so easy to satisfy.”
I nod proudly. “So am I. But are we really the first to make it out of the Planar Prison, then?”
“No, not the first. But the others only succeeded in their escape because my father let them.”
“Oh? So we escaped despite your father ‘not letting us’?”
“Precisely. My understanding of the situation is somewhat fragmentary, but as I heard it, circumstances made it so that he was quite restricted in the ways he could deal with you. Circumstances, and the strength of the person who accompanied you at the time. And yours, too, of course; I don’t know the exact process of your escape, but I’m sure you played your part.”
…That conclusion really sounded like she was trying to comfort me, even though she was sure I’d been useless. But I’ll let it slide. Right now, another part of her answer interests me more.
“So you know about Akasha too, then?”
“A little, yes.”
“Can you tell me? I happen to be quite curious.”
“I get the feeling I’m repeating myself, but once again, I haven’t seen the entire picture, so I can’t give you much more than scraps of information. And even then, those scraps of information might be erroneous.”
“What’s wrong? Aren’t you the daughter of the God-Emperor? Surely you should be able to know whatever you want to know? You even boasted about how easy it was for you to learn everything about the Planar Prison’s inmates, just earlier.”
“There is nothing particularly secret about the information of one prisoner among millions. But information about the person you call Akasha is only distributed on a strict need-to-know basis. And since I’ve distanced myself from my family’s affairs for most of my adult life, it’s a given that I do not, in fact, need to know.”
“Oh-ho. All this secrecy only tickles my interest even more.”
Milla shows me an indulgent smile. “I’m sure it does. So, do you have a specific question you want answered?”
“Hmm… Well, first of all, where did she come from exactly? When I first met her, she popped out of a teleport formation. Was she already in the Planar Prison or did she come from elsewhere? Was she captured and imprisoned by your father, too?”
“Yes, she was. I doubt she was as strong as she is today, but she was captured, about three hundred years ago. She wasn’t sent to the Planar Prison, but to a different plane.”
“…Just how many worlds did your father create?”
“Oh, that one wasn’t created by my father. He inherited it from his master.”
“Inherited? I’ve heard about coming into money through inheritance, but coming into worlds is something new. Then, do you know why Akasha was sent to a different place than everyone else?”
“I have no idea. I don’t even know what sets apart the place she was sent to from the Planar Prison.”
“I see. All right, then. Second question. What is she, exactly? I don’t mean her rank, or that she’s a god. I mean, is she an apostle? A devil? It’s quite confusing, since she has characteristics of both.”
“Ah, so you know about gods, do you?”
“Yes. Akasha explained – well, she explained vaguely; I had to fill in the blanks myself. Still, it was really quite illuminating. A lot made sense, afterward.”
“Indeed.” Milla peers at me closely for a few seconds before continuing. “I’m sure you’ve realized it already, but it would be very, very wise of you to stay quiet on this subject. Both my father and Lord Yulan are doing their best controlling the spread of this particular secret, so if they find out that you’re in the know – and a potential security risk – both sides will hunt you down and kill you, along with everyone you might have told.”
“Thanks for the warning, but I’m well aware of this. Don’t worry. I’m not some idiotic blabbermouth. As a professional spy, I know when to keep silent. Oh, by the way, a point still confuses me. What do you guys do with free practitioners belonging to neither faction who reach the 9th rank? Do you try to recruit them, or do you just kill them, or do you leave them alone and hope for the best?”
Milla’s smile turns wry. “Do you want to know about Akasha, or do you want to know about gods? If you keep diverting the conversation’s topic, we’ll be here all night. And an old woman like myself needs her sleep.”
“Haha. All right, all right. My apologies. I’m all ears, so go ahead. What is Akasha?”
“Well, as it happens, I’m not sure, either. What I do know, is that she predates both apostles and devils. Neither appeared before she did.”
I think I’m starting to get some kind of idea on how this all went down.
Once upon a time, in a remote part of Caldera lived a species called ‘Apostles’, consisting of half-humanoid, half-animal creatures. This species was unknown to both humans and majin, until an individual of said species, a little girl called Akasha, wandered off from the tribe, or the herd, or the city, or whatever. Humans soon discovered her and, as she was a new, undocumented lifeform, captured her for further study. Eventually, this led to contact between humans and apostles, negotiation, intimidation, bargaining, and all such nonsense, until the creation of some form of alliance, wherein the apostles would provide troops of absolute obedience to humanity in exchange for… some unspecified, mysterious thing the apostles wanted. Which is why they’re currently fighting against the majin in a war that has nothing to do with them. Meanwhile, a splinter group among the apostles opposed that alliance and came to be known as ‘devils’ after they started launching indiscriminate, murderous attacks left and right and generally making themselves into unbearable pests.
That sounds plausible, doesn’t it?
But why did Akasha herself tell me she didn’t know what she was? She clearly hadn’t even heard of apostles and devils before I mentioned their existence to her. Could she have lost her memories? Or did the humans somehow mess with her mind? However, she talked about her family as if she clearly remembered them. A family composed of a human father and an elf sister.
…No, I’m definitely still missing some piece of that puzzle.
“Then, my third question.”
But before I can actually pose it, Milla interrupts me, raising a silencing hand and turning her head toward the room’s door. “I’m afraid the third question will have to wait. Lord Alfons appears to be coming in this direction.”
“Ah. Oh. Hmm. I think I’d better leave, then.”
Quite a famous person for his aggressive, bloodthirsty views on the war and the majin.
Not someone I want to meet, all in all.
I realized that old bastard had come here with Milla, when I was casing the governor’s palace, yesterday. I managed to nicely avoid him during my infiltration, but I’m not sure my concealment magic will work very effectively on someone so much more powerful than I am, if I meet him directly. It might, but I don’t want to take the risk. Prudence is the main reason I’m still alive today after so many years sneaking around my enemies’ strongholds.
I personally can’t tell that Alfons is coming, but if Milla says so, then it must be true. I don’t see why she’d be lying to me.
Which means time has run out.
I sigh and shake my head. “That’s a shame. I wanted to talk some more.”
“Can’t you just come back tomorrow? You didn’t seem to have much difficulty doing so tonight.”
I show a bitter smile to Milla’s question. “I think you severely overestimate my abilities. Since I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare, my infiltration was far from perfect, and I left quite a few traces of my passage. When those traces are discovered, come morning, your guards will be on alert, and I won’t be able to get past them again quite so easily. Which is why I was hoping to resolve everything tonight.”
“I see. I apologize for wasting your efforts.”
“…You really aren’t going to leave majin territory, are you?”
“I am not,” Milla replies, her eyes clear and free of doubt.
I let out a very long, very deep sigh, then get up from the bed and approach the stubborn, foolish girl in front of me.
“Then I guess this is goodbye. I doubt we’ll see each other again.”
I cup Milla’s cheeks in my hands and lean down to kiss her forehead. Then, after a small moment of consideration, I lean down further and kiss her lips.
The kiss doesn’t last long before I draw back.
“Oh, my,” Milla says in a hushed voice. Her breath is a bit shorter than before. “You’re interested in decrepit old women, too? Your tastes are even more indiscriminate than I thought.”
“Heh. What old woman? Didn’t I already say so? In my eyes, you’re still just the same little girl as before.”
Even as I speak, I release her cheeks and slowly step away from her, toward the room’s window. Before opening the curtain covering it, however, I turn back and ask one last question, in as casual a voice as I can muster.
“By the way, who exactly gave the order that sent you here?”
Milla tilts her head and carefully asks, “What are you going to do, after knowing?”
“Well, I am an assassin.”
“Didn’t you say you were only a spy, just earlier?”
“I see.” After a few seconds of hesitation, Milla shakes her head. “But, no. I’m not giving you that information.”
“Doesn’t matter. I’ll just find out on my own.”
The sound of the curtains as I draw them away from the window drowns out Milla’s voice. The window only shows my reflection and that of the room behind me until I open it to the pitch-black night beyond. As it is, I shouldn’t have too much trouble leaving the governor’s palace in one piece.
A cold wind strokes my face. I take a deep breath, and that seems to cool my head a little bit.
“Well,” I say without turning back, the word dry as sand in my mouth. “So long, then.”
I don’t wait to hear Milla’s response before jumping off the window and disappearing back into the night’s darkness.
…Now that I think about it, she might have been my first love, too.