“Mom! Please stop crying! You’re making Yurichi and Satsu cry, too, and I can’t deal with the noise this morning!” Yumisa screamed above the wailing of her younger brother and sister, who were sitting with their mother in Yumisa’s room. Yumisa and her handmaidens were running around, getting her things ready to take to Vadora. They were going to have to dress her on the way to the ceremony so her wedding dress did not get ruined on the way to the transport.
“My Lady, we’re almost ready,” Chiharu told her sympathetically. “Take the time to say goodbye to them. They’re going to miss you so much.”
“They’re going to miss tugging my ears,” Yumisa growled softly. She knelt on the floor and held her arms open. “Come here, you rugrats—let me hug you.”
Her brother and sister flew into her arms and started crying into Yumisa’s shoulders.
“Don’t go, Yumisa!” Satsu cried. “Please don’t leave us again!”
“We’ll miss you so much!” Yurichi bawled. “We love you!”
“I love you, too,” Yumisa said, hugging then both gently, their bodies so small in her arms. “And we’ll see each other a lot. I’ll call you every night!”
“You promise?” Satsu asked, the questions muffled by Yumisa’s shoulder.
“I promise—every night,” she said. “And you’ll be coming to Vadora for my wedding in a couple of months—which I don’t know why it can’t be sooner,” she said, looking at her mother.
Empress Wakuni held her hands up. “That was a decision by the men,” she said innocently. “They’re the morons who felt we needed time to write up a formal treaty, have the Councils to both rulers look it over, and then have a formal signing. Don’t look at me. If I had been in charge, we’d take care of your wedding and the signing today.”
“Ow,” Yumisa said as Satsu pulled gently on her ear. “Stop that!”
“But it’s so soft!” Satsu cried. “And I won’t be able to pet you anymore!”
Yumisa sighed. “You can pet me whenever you see me,” she promised. “Just don’t be so rough!”
“I still don’t understand why you’re leaving us!” Yurichi said, gripping her tightly. “Don’t you love us anymore? I promise I won’t pull your ears anymore if you stay!”
“Oh, sweetie, I’m not leaving because I want to,” Yumisa told him, hugging him tightly. “I’m leaving because I’m getting married. That means one day soon, you’ll have a little niece or nephew to play with! And you’ll have a new big brother who you can annoy! This is something I have to do to help bring peace to the world, but it has nothing to do with either of you. I love you both so much! I’d stay with you forever if I could!”
“But you’re taking Chiharu with you?” Satsu asked. “Who will play with us when we bother you too much?”
“I need to take all of them with me because I’m going to be living in a strange land with people I don’t know—I need to have someone there that’s familiar, and my handmaidens are all my friends!”
“Can we go with you?” Yurichi asked.
“Oh, sweetie, I’d love for you to, but…” She leaned in and whispered, “I need you two to stay here and keep an eye on mom and dad, make sure they’re going to be okay without me around. You need to bother them as much as you can and show them all the love that you can, got it?”
They both nodded solemnly.
Yumisa stroked each of their faces and wiped their tears with her thumbs. “Now, go be with mom while we finish getting ready. You can come with me to the transport, but then I’ll have to go, all right?”
They both stepped away and wiped their eyes with their pajama sleeves, but they nodded and went to sit with their mother, who had been watching the exchange with tear-filled eyes. She hugged her younger children.
“Are you sure this idea you have is a good one?” Yumisa asked Chiharu. “It seems… childish.”
“Your Highness, it is a good plan—the rumor that you were a member of ZOO has been spreading across the internet for years. We’re just using that rumor to our advantage to see if Prince Kiminobu can accept you as you are. If he cannot, then we leave without him ever knowing what a bright, caring, and beautiful woman you are, and he will have to live with that for the rest of his life.”
“As the war continues. It still seems childish.”
“You are only eighteen, Your Highness—you are technically a child still.”
Yumisa stuck out her tongue. “Thanks, Chiharu.”
“Your Majesty,” Chiharu told Wakuni, “we’ve done all we can, and time is growing short. Everything the Princess wants to take has been packed and marked for delivery to Vadora. The same is true for the things we, her handmaidens, wish to take.” She looked at her watch. “We will need to leave very soon to make the rendezvous with the Prince and his escort.” She looked at Yumisa. “You’d had better say goodbye. I’ll go find the others.”
Wakuni stood up and hugged her daughter tightly. “I am so sorry this is happening to you, my precious child. Your father and I were hoping you could have a life away from the court. It’s why we let you form your band, why we let you travel. If I could send you away right now, I would!”
“No, Mom, it’s okay,” Yumisa told her. “I know Prince Kiminobu is a good man. Our intelligence reports say he’s a perfect gentleman who cares a lot for the people who are close to him. I’m not marrying a monster. In fact, I probably couldn’t find a better man—even if he’s a little overweight. But that can be fixed!” she said in a chipper voice. “If he can accept me, I can accept him. My biggest fear is—“
She looked at her brother and sister, who were standing nearby.
“—seeing him tonight when we….” She sighed. “I hope he doesn’t look as bad as reports say.”
“He had third-degree burns over eighty-five percent of his body when he was fifteen,” Wakuni reminded her. “He won’t be pretty—he probably won’t be close to pretty.”
“I know, but I can’t even begin to imagine what he must look like… or how he feels.”
“I don’t know if he can,” Wakuni told her. “With that much skin scarring… it’s possible he can’t feel anything.”
“Oh no!” Yumisa gasped. Then her eyes went wide. “But what if he can’t… have children?” she asked quietly.
“That is a bridge we’ll cross when we come to it,” the Empress said.
There came a knock on the door, and Yumisa went to answer it. “Daddy!” she cried happily when she saw her father.
“I finished my business for the morning and was hoping to be done before you left,” he said, giving her a hug. “Are you all packed?”
“All packed,” she said, turning to look at her room. “It’s going to be strange not sleeping here tonight. It’s going to be more strange not sleeping alone anymore.” She sighed despondently. “I fought so hard to get away from here, to be out on my own, and now… now I don’t want to do anything but stay.”
Emperor Sunada touched her shoulder. “That’s the way of things, Daughter,” he told her. “I didn’t want to become Emperor… especially when the Empire began revolting against us. Now I’m joining forces with a man I called an enemy for so long. Life is nothing if not strange.” He hugged her. “I’m just sorry you have to be the sacrificial lamb for this peace. I’m sure if we asked someone else, they’d gladly do it.”
“No, Father, I have to be the one,” Yumisa said. “Imagine the outrage should Vadora ever find out we tricked hem. No, I don’t mind doing this. I’m scared, don’t get me wrong, but I’ll do this for you and mom. I just hope—I really hope he likes me.”
“I have to get going,” she said, giving her room one last look. “Come on, rugrats—you, mom, and dad can walk me to the troop carrier.”
“Yay!” her sibling cried happily.
“Just watch the ears and tail,” she told them. “I don’t want them mangled before my wedding!”
“You’re twenty-three years old and don’t know how to tie a tie?” Asa Ikehara asked Prince Kiminobu that morning. “Fine, turn around and I’ll try not to strangle you.”
Asa took the tie from his hand and turned him to face the mirror. She stood up on a small stool so she would be at the right height to help him. There were times she forgot how tall her Prince was.
Prince Kiminobu watched her in the mirror, trying—for the hundredth time—to remember how she did this so expertly. As her hands worked, he knew her body was pressing against his, but like usual, he felt nothing but a sense of her weight. He shook slightly as he looked at himself in the mirror, realizing how exposed he was, realizing how little clothes he was wearing. Yes, he was in a full tuxedo jacket, vest, shirt, pants, gloves, and shoes, but he looked different. He looked thinner because he was wearing less shirts underneath. He felt vulnerable.
“Hey, calm down,” she told him, and she stopped messing with the tie to lay her hands on his shoulders. “Your Highness, there’s nothing to be nervous about. You may not know which one she is, but you know she’s beautiful.”
“They were all beautiful,” he told her. “I’m just afraid she’s going to betray me.”
Asa came around in front of him and looked up into his black eyes. “What makes you think she would?” she asked seriously. “Your Highness, royal adultery is an offense punishable by death!”
“No it’s not,” he said, looking at her strangely.
“Believe me, if she betrays you, you have five royal guards who will string her up by her toe nails,” Asa told him. “And after what you did for Shiori the other night, she’ll probably feed everything she got from ZOO down Princess Yumisa’s throat if she even thinks about it!”
“You haven’t seen me, Asa,” he said, looking down at himself. “If I had a choice, I’d betray me, too.”
“Your Highness, no one has seen you since you were fifteen,” she told him. “Except maybe the tailor, and he won’t talk. You’re a healthy young man who just… has a skin condition. If she can’t accept that, you don’t need her.” Asa finished fixing his tie. “There… perfect.”
Kiminobu swallowed hard and pulled at the tie, but Asa swatted his hand and readjusted the tie again.
“It’s more than a skin condition,” he said. “I can’t even look at myself. How can I expect someone else to?”
“This may not be my place to ask, Your Highness, but… you will be able to… be with her, right? I mean, this treaty does depend on a child.”
Kiminobu growled and said, “Yes, I can… be with her,” he said, keeping his voice low. “Thankfully that part wasn’t burned in the fire—probably because I pissed myself when the fire began. You can’t tell anyone I said that,” he warned, pointing a finger at her.
“Not a word,” Asa said, locking her lips and throwing the key away. “And I’m sorry, but… I had to ask. Considering you’ve had five beautiful women sleeping with you each night for the past few years, you’ve never tried anything. We were all beginning to worry—well, except Kii, who probably doesn’t care because she loves her mech more than people. That girl has issues.”
“You know I’d never try anything with my royal guards,” Kiminobu told her, looking at himself in the mirror. “You’re my friends.”
“You definitely wanted more than that when we were younger,” Asa reminded him. “I almost had to fight you off with a stick.”
“I was a hormonal teenager who saw love that wasn’t there,” he told her. “I grew out of it.”
“After a year in a regeneration bath,” she said.
“Good job that did me,” he said bitterly. “Probably would have been better off dying.”
Asa snarled at him. “How dare you say that!” she spat angrily. “You didn’t see the nights your mother sat by your bed, crying, begging for the doctors to find some way to help you! You didn’t see the number of times everyone—including me—came to see you, to talk to you, to read to you, to do anything we could to help you! How dare you say that after all the love we’ve shown you! You’re not just our charge, Your Highness, you’re our friend!”
Kiminobu lowered his head at her words. “You’re right—I’m sorry I said that,” he told her. He took her arm and pulled her close to hug her. Asa stiffened in his arms for a moment before she let herself relax. It was the first time he had allowed himself to really open up to her. “I wouldn’t have made it without you and the others. You’re more than just my bodyguards—you’re family.”
Asa swallowed nervously as the embrace lingered. But he finally released her and stepped back.
“Sorry, but… I’ve been wanting to do that for a long time,” he told her.
“It’s… all right, Your Highness—I’m glad you finally felt like you could let yourself do it.”
Kiminobu cleared his throat, swallowing the pity he felt for himself lodging there. He couldn’t tell Asa that he hadn’t felt her.
He looked at himself in the mirror again.
“So, what are the chances I can fly The Kingfisher as a show of force?”
King Nakamoto walked with his wife through the halls of the castle toward the hangar as they waited for their son. Harukichi did not seem nearly as distracted as he might have thought, considering their only child was going to meet his unseen wife for the first time. She seemed… cheerful.
“What makes you so happy today?” Nakamoto asked her.
“Can’t a woman be happy that her child is going to marry?” she asked her husband. “He’s been so unhappy since his accident, this might be good for him. At least, I hope it is. And it will be nice to have a daughter to lavish love on.”
“Our doctors have much they need to learn,” Nakamoto said sadly.
She touched his right hand lovingly. “The problem is mine, not yours, Nakamoto—but at least we had a son—and I could not have wished for a better son than Kiminobu. I just hope Princess Yumisa lives up to him.”
“So do I,” Nakamoto told her. “It worries me that no one has ever seen her or taken a picture of her.”
“Yes, that is strange,” Harukichi said. “Oh, I can’t keep this a secret from you—Lieutenant Seno got a letter from ZOO last night saying that one of their members was the Princess, so Kiminobu met her the other night, and she’s very beautiful!”
“She’s… a member of a rock band?” Nakamoto asked in confusion.
“Apparently, so at least she has musical talent.”
“And Kiminobu actually mether?”
“Well, she was there, but he doesn’t know which member she is since they all use stage names. Still, he met her!” Harukichi clapped her hands happily.
“And unless I miss my guess, I know who she is!”
“How?” Nakamoto asked her.
Harukichi tapped her nose then took his hand and led him down the hall. “A woman never reveals her secrets, my love.”
They entered the hangar a few minutes later to find the five Nexus Suits ready for flight. The Kareneth delegation may have asked that Vadora send only one escort, but Nakamoto wanted a show of force. Besides, after the attack the other night, he was not going to take a chance that the Unbound Uprising weren’t going to try again.
As they entered, the head mechanic, Pops, approached with a pad. “I know you’re busy, Your Majesty, but I’ve been trying for weeks to get you to sign off on maintenance for The Kingfisher. It’s going to be a pain in the butt, but it has to be done.”
“You know that machine pitches a fit whenever anyone gets near it,” the King said.
“Only since you can’t pilot it anymore,” Pops said. “It wants a pilot, not to sit here unused.”
“You talk as if it’s a pet wanting to be let out of the house,” Harukichi said.
“It’s an attack dog being treated like a lap dog, Majesty,” Pops said. “It’s ticked off and growing more so.”
“It’s not alive!”
“I’m not so sure about that.”
“You know that machine is going to scream loud enough to deafen everything within a mile,” Nakamoto told him.
“Only for half an hour,” Pops said. “We’ll warn the population like we always do.”
King Nakamoto sighed. “Today of all days,” he said.
“We wanted to do it last week and you said no,” Pops reminded him. “At least we’ll be finished before the Prince and Princess return.”
“Let me try one more time and see if I can’t open it without setting off any alarms,” the King suggested.
“You remember what happened last time,” Pops told him.
“He’s right,” Harukichi said. “And it might be best to do it now, so we can warn Princess Yumisa about it later.”
“Fine. You can start after Kiminobu leaves.”
King Nakamoto approached The Kingfisher. It was a large machine, standing taller than the other Nexus Suits, with a barrel chest and thin arms and legs. It was white with black and gold trim, a head that looked like a raptor’s with a gold crown on top, and a royal blue cape that hung from both shoulders between it’s white wings. It looked like a machine built for a King. It looked like an angel of death.
Nakamoto reached out to touch The Kingfisher, remembering the day he had first brought it home—the day his son had been seriously injured. He had only been in this mech a few times before he had lost his arm, and with it the ability to use The Kingfisher in combat. Since then, the mech had sat here, unused, waiting for its pilot.
An alarm started to blare, echoing through the hanger, sending everyone there to their knees with the keening sound. Everyone clapped their hands over their ears to block the noise, but the sound was too overpowering. It was far worse than it had ever been in the past.
Pops rushed over to the King and Queen with noise-cancelling headphones and put them on, and the resulting silence was almost deafening. Pops touched the side of his headset, indicating a button, and the Queen pressed hers then turned on her husband’s since it was on the wrong side.
“It’s worse than it’s ever been,” Pops said, and they could hear his voice clearly. “We didn’t expect it to react to you like that. If the population of the city didn’t know we were going to work on it, they do now.”
“What is going on?” Prince Kiminobu asked as he and Asa came rushing forward, also wearing a pair of headsets a maintenance worker had given them upon entering.
“The Kingfisher is acting up,” his father said. “Get out of here—you have a wedding ceremony! It will be cleared up by the time you return!”
“Good luck, Nobu,” his mother told him. “I want to meet Yumisa the second you return!”
“Of course, Mom,” Kiminobu said. “Are you sure things will be okay here?” he asked.
“You know the sound only affects a small area,” Pops told him. “We’ll do a quick fix and get it right as rain again. It’s just feeling neglected. Now get going!”
Kiminobu hugged his mom and dad and then rushed off to the troop transport that was assigned to him for the trip to the Wall, where they were going to meet the Kareneth delegation. As the transport took off, the Nexus Suits filed out behind it and then took protective formation around it, even though the shield was active and would protect them all.
“Let’s get working!” Pops told his maintenance crew. “The sooner we fix that thing, the sooner it quiets down. You’d better go, Your Majesties,” he told the King and Queen. “Everyone in the castle should have their headphones on, but I’ll send a few people around to see if anyone has lost theirs.”
The King and Queen left the hangar bay.
The Unbound Uprising Command Carrier Dawn of Crimson Light cut through the sky on a path that would take them through a narrow passage from their lands to Vadora on a course close to Kareneth but not where the Kareneth defenses would be able to track them. After almost a millennium of conquest, Kareneth had developed quite the military technology. How a small nation like Vadora had managed to hold them at a stalemate for over two hundred years was amazing… and also gave rise to the Uprising, who turned against their masters when they saw there was hope.
Captain Braunleaux Lorren watched the clouds pass beneath his command deck like a god looking down on the world below. He imagined the people of Kareneth and Vadora, going about their days, not knowing that Death was stalking them from above. Dawn of Crimson Light was the most powerful of the Uprising’s carriers, and inside its belly it held the finest force of mobile suits the world had ever seen, including a squadron of the new REAPER-Class Suits that would see battle for the first time today. And with them, the Vadoran shield and wall would fall, and the Prince of Vadora and the Princess of Kareneth would finally be theirs. With their capture, the world would belong to the Uprising.
“Captain Lorren, we’ve detected the Kareneth transport heading for Vadora,” a woman soldier told him from her seat. “We will not reach them in time to stop them from entering the Wall.”
“That’s all right,” Lorenn said with a grin. “What’s the fun of having a powerful toy if you can’t play with it? The Prince and Princess will be ours, no matter what.” He turned. “I’ll be in my office. Inform me ten minutes before we arrive.”
Lorren went to the back of the bridge where his office was and entered to find Dietang Arnea waiting for him. The left side of his lips pulled down as he went to the other side of his desk and took a seat. “Captain,” he said, not acknowledging the other soldier with a salute. The Uprising might have had a military, but they were rather lax. Also, Lorrenn did not like Arnea.
“Our REAPERS will be ready when we reach Vadora,” Captain Arnea said.
“Ah, yes, the mysterious REAPERS I saw being loaded last night,” Lorrenn said. “Will they live up to their promise?”
“Yes, they will,” Arnea said with assurance. “I’ve piloted one myself the past couple of days. I’ve never seen anything move as quickly as they do.”
“I’m sure the pilots of the mobile suits you were in charge of the other day said the same thing about their mechs,” Lorrenn said. “Only battle will tell the truth.”
“The question is, will this ship be able to take down the Vadoran shield as promised?” Arnea asked, turning the question back on the Captain.
Lorrenn smirked. “Don’t worry, we’ll do our job. Just make sure you do yours.”
“I have an excellent group of pilots. We won’t fail.”
Captain Arnea saluted Captain Lorrenn, and Captain Lorrenn stood up and saluted him back.
“Failure is not an option.”